At first glance, the Shrouded Village appeared exactly as it had the day the alfr from Breidhaugr delivered him. Surely, though, that could not be the case. Melja had said they would continue their research while he hunted it. Einarr had no reason to doubt that, save for an offhand comment by a cynical old woman he met in the woods. He walked – determinedly, yes, perhaps even doggedly, but still well short of stalking – into the village, to the house where the scrolls were kept.
On the way, Einarr could not help but note that the villagers were going about their daily lives more or less as normal, if perhaps more nervously than before. Was research truly the only preparation they had to make? Did everything fall to Melja and his wife, truly? Einarr shook his head and pressed on, pushing the door to the scroll house open without announcing himself.
Melja, at least, was where Einarr had expected to find him: at the work table inside, half-buried in texts, all of which appeared to concern the Shroud.
“Good day,” Einarr said, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
“Ah, Einarr. You’re back. Wonderful. Take a seat, I think I’m finally on the right track.” Melja sounded utterly unconcerned, at the very least.
Einarr felt the anger that had been beginning to burn in his belly recede. Not all the way, not with Melja left to do everything himself, but Geiti’s seed of doubt had been diminished. He joined his teacher at the table.
An hour later, to judge by the light, Melja leaned back and pressed his hands to his eyes. “Please, for the love of all the gods, tell me you found something.”
Einarr, too, sat back, but not to rub his eyes. He studied his teacher as he spoke. “A dead Jarl’s son, a burned village, an old woman and a scrap of cloth.” The piece of the Shroud Einarr lay on the table in front of his teacher. “Also, more than a few questions.”
Melja opened his eyes and stared at the cloth, fingering it in silence for a long moment. “The old woman – Geiti?”
Einarr nodded, although he wasn’t sure the alfr saw him.
“What did old Geiti have to say? She didn’t pour poison in your ear, did she?”
“Not as such.” Einarr smirked. “She was too busy calling me an idiot. Although she may be paying you a visit soon. Said I should tell you to stop hiding dangerous information if you didn’t want to lose more students.”
Melja snorted. “And why, praytell, did she say that?”
Einarr shrugged, a little uncomfortably. “Because she found me unconscious, with more than a few runestones on me. I stumbled on the technique practicing on the road.”
Now his master snorted again. “And, since I’d not mentioned them, you didn’t know your limit. All right, I can tolerate the old witch long enough to admit fault there. How many had you made before you blacked out?”
“Seven, I think.” He hadn’t been paying too much attention, at the time, but he saw no reason to mention that.
“Not bad, for a human novice. Keep yourself to no more than four, for now, and you should be fine. You may eventually be able to maintain more, but for the time being that should be a safe upper limit.”
Einarr nodded, glad to have it confirmed.
“You haven’t made any more since then?”
“Just one. The Óss.”
Melja tilted his head to the side. “An interesting choice. Most of our students pick something a little more… offensive for their first runestone.”
Einarr shrugged. He was and always would be a warrior first and foremost, even if he couldn’t rely on brute strength to carry him through. He supposed it might be too much to ask someone like Melja to really understand that, in some ways, he had more in common with the thief than he did with the rest of the village.
“Don’t take that the wrong way,” Melja added, perhaps reading something on Einarr’s face he had not intended to show. “I approve. The Wisdom Rune is one I often wish a student would choose. Only, think carefully on the answers you receive from it. They are not always, or even usually, straightforward.”
“But. You had questions. Ask, and I will endeavor to answer. Remember that, for all that we have been guarding it for generations, there is still much we do not know about the Shroud.”
Einarr nodded once. “I’ll start smaller, then. Why are you the only one in the village who is working on this?”
Melja blinked at him blankly a few times, then smiled as realization dawned. “My dear boy, their work is done. The divination ritual is only waiting this scrap of cloth you’ve brought us.”
“I- you- … How did you know I would find it?”
“This in particular? We didn’t. This is both the best and the worst possible talisman you could have found for the ritual. But that you would come back, with something we could use as a focus? Almost inevitable.”
Einarr leaned his elbows forward on the heavy wooden table. “So what if I hadn’t gone?”
Melja shook his head. “Were you an alfr, or perhaps even a dvergr, that might have been a question, but you are human, and, as you yourself have said, a warrior. That you would go eventually was never a question. Honestly, you stuck around longer than anyone other than Mira expected.”
Einarr stared at Melja for a long moment, his shock at the revelation slowly giving way to annoyance. Gods, but the alfs could be infuriating sometimes. Finally he took a long, slow breath and let it out. “All right. So since everything I’ve done so far has been according to plan, how do we end this?”
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