Einarr accepted the old crone’s porridge somewhat cautiously. Last night she had spoken of ‘questions,’ and made it sound like more than a few. He wasn’t sure he looked forward to answering them, although he would as honestly as he could.
The porridge, at least, was good. It had a pleasant woodsiness to it that Mira’s did not, and even as he ate he felt his strength returning to him. To Geiti’s apparent amusement, he found himself shoveling the thick grain stew ravenously into his mouth. She, too, ate, though far more sedately.
“I am glad to see your strength returned to you, young Cursebreaker.”
He nodded, buying time to swallow a mouthful. “Thank you for taking care of me. I’ll be sure to pass along your message when I return to the village. For now, though, I must return to my hunt.”
Geiti shook her head, chuckling. Stringy white hair fell forward into her face. “I’d a feeling you were going to say that. You know they have means of tracking it, right? Divining with the runes is more than just fortune-teller’s tricks.”
Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “I don’t like neglecting my training this way, it’s true… but I am a warrior, not a scholar, and until the Shroud is dealt with it is scholarship they must focus on.”
Geiti snorted. “After all this time, and still those elves don’t understand people. And this time, they’ve sent out a half-literate Cursebreaker to get themselves out of a bind, assuming he doesn’t get himself killed first.”
Einarr raised an eyebrow to hear the woman’s muttering, but said nothing. He wasn’t certain he would put it so uncharitably, but she also wasn’t necessarily wrong. There was, in fact, nothing he could say that would satisfy both hospitality and honesty.
“Don’t you worry yourself over trifles, boy. You go on about your hunt. Maybe, by some stroke of luck, you’ll manage to stop the Shroud before they can. Maybe you’ll even live through it – you look like a scrappy one. Meanwhile, this old woman has work to do.”
Einarr paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth, and stared at her. There was something just a little off about old Geiti. “Who… are you?”
She smirked. “What, do you expect me to throw off my cloak and reveal myself to be Wotan? Frigg? While I may be the Wise Old Woman in the Woods, I am mortal like yourself. I’ve just learned in my years as the highest-ranking Singer on this island something of what to expect of the ljosalfs here. I have something of an understanding with them, you see, although it appears to be past time I paid them another visit.”
“I… see.” Part of him, he was surprised to discover, was a little disappointed that she was not a god in disguise. Most of him, however, was just as glad not to come face to face with either of the Aesir he had robbed earlier this summer.
Now she cackled again. “Be about your hunt, child. You have some idea how to follow the thing?”
“Some, vaguely. I think it might be torn.”
She nodded. “In that case, look for the ends of branches and twigs that have been singed. And if you must make more runestones for yourself, no more than four, and never more than one at a time. At least not until you have a chance to speak with Melja about it. I don’t doubt a stone of two runes would kill you all by itself.”
“Thank you, grandmother. I will remember.”
It took Einarr less than two hours to find his way back to the Chief’s favored campsite where, some four days before, they had found the knife and the trail to the little boy. The new chief, in all likelihood. He pitied the child, but only for a moment. More important by far was finding the Shroud that had in all likelihood orphaned him, and his best chance of doing that was to find the mark his father’s knife had left in the dirt.
He had not, yet, carved himself fresh runestones. The old woman had said four: well, he would keep three about himself, at least for now, but he needed to consider carefully which three.
Einarr stood in the center of the campsite, on the stones of the fire ring, and stared about him. There was the path the children had taken in their mad flight. Unfortunately, that told him little. He allowed himself an exasperated sigh. Calm down. Remember what Afi taught you.
Einarr took a step off to the side and squatted down near the fire ring, closing his eyes. The smell of wet ash still permeated the clearing, somehow, and strongest from the ring in front of him. But that wasn’t the only source.
He pivoted, one knee dropping to the ground, and walked on his knees over to the edge of the clearing. Yes, this was it: this was where Onnir had found the knife stabbed into the ground. Strange that it should have been like that…
…unless someone had been trying to fight off the Shroud. He could see how pinning a thing that was a blindingly fast, flying scarf might be an effective attack. Based on the little boy’s story, it seemed likely that was the case.
The slit was still there, half-hidden by brush. That was probably the only reason it still existed at all. And his nose told him there was a source of char here. He bent down so that his nose was practically touching the ground and dirt got in his whiskers. Nothing on the surface, but that meant little after so long. He combed his fingers over the dirt.
Something tickled his palm. When he moved his hand, in a space that had previously been covered by dust and pebbles, he saw a small patch of diaphanous crimson cloth.
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