It took some hours before Einarr was able to stop raging at the sheer, petty irresponsibility of the Lady’s missive, but eventually he was able to sleep that night.

In the quiet hour before dawn, Einarr was awakened by a small, insistent nagging feeling. He lay still, staring through the darkness at the ceiling, trying to figure out what it was he had missed. Then it came again, louder this time. The wards!

Einarr was up, buckling on Sinmora, within the span of two heartbeats. His eyes were already adjusted to the darkness of the hall, and he slipped quietly between sleeping forms toward the High Seat, where he had seen the Shroud draped in Melja’s divination.

The sound of lowered voices caught his attention from the small servant’s closet behind the Seat. It was far earlier than he expected even kitchen thralls to be up and about, so who… or perhaps a better question would be why? Einarr continued past the chair, where he had intended to stand to face the Shroud, to see a light on in the closet.

As he approached, the voices became distinctly feminine, and then distinctly familiar. Einarr knit his brows and continued to move silently towards the closet: why would Lady Hridi and Eifidi be conversing in there, at this hour, of all things?

“I recognize that he’s unhappy about it, but will he do it?” Eifidi asked, her voice both low and sharp.

“Hard to say.” Hridi’s answer sounded almost deferential: Einarr could not quite credit that it was the same person he had spoken with earlier in the day. He paused outside the door, listening. “He seems quite caught up his ‘responsibility’ for dealing with the thing.”

Eifidi made an exasperated noise. “Men can be so stubborn sometimes.”

“Now be fair, my lady. He has gone out of his way not to interfere with us, and does not know your brother’s court.”

Wait, what? Einarr stepped forward, pushing the door open so that he could look at the conspiring women. He stared at them, and as he spoke his voice was cool. “My ladies, a magical artifact has just tripped the wards and is headed towards the hall.”

“Thank you, sir. I trust you will deal with it.” The dismissal, from the woman dressed as Lady Hridi, was plain.

“What is going on here?”

“I thought you said you had no interest in meddling in Clan affairs.”

“So I did. But I feel as though I am being made a dupe, and I do not appreciate it.”

“It truly has nothing to do with you. Follow the letter of my missive, and you shall fulfill your duty admirably.”

Looking at them together, conspiring like this, suddenly it dawned on him what he had missed. “I understand. Lady Hridi, Eifidi. Stick together for the moment, if you would. Maybe pay a visit to the boy. I have an artifact to find.”

Two more wards had gone off as he spoke with the Lady Regent and her body-double. They were right: this was some sort of elaborate game they played, and it was not him they intended to dupe but some or all of those who played at politics in the late Jarl’s court. He wanted to spit: when he finally became Thane (and may he be old when that day finally came), he would forbid such underhanded dealing. Those who could not be discouraged would be disgraced – somehow.

As they left the room past him, he was struck by a troubling thought. “Is there another lamp at hand? I shall want some light to ensure I don’t miss the Shroud.”

“In the back of the closet,” Eifidi answered, her voice as sweet as he was accustomed to hearing it. “I would thank you to behave around us exactly as you have been the past several days.”

“Of course.” That shouldn’t be difficult: he hadn’t interacted much at all with ‘Eifidi,’ and he still disliked ‘Hridi,’ although for very different reasons now.

“You have our thanks.”

Einarr hummed, and the women slipped off into the night and their own sleeping area.

Candle lamp in hand, Einarr returned to the main room. The artifact had not yet breached the Hall, he was sure: he had finished that ward well before dinner, and it had not triggered. Even so, he very carefully patrolled the Hall. There had been no mistaking its location in the vision, after all. As expected, the Shroud was not yet inside.

That was when a horse’s scream shattered the night.

Einarr, still clutching the lamp, raced for the door, droplets of oil flinging about him as he moved. Something had attacked the stables, and Einarr had one guess as to what it was.

A blazing inferno lit up the night: the last time Einarr had seen a blaze even half so hot, it was the one he lit for the Althane’s burial rites. Swearing, he dropped the lamp now and poured on more speed. The alfs’ dray was in there. She wasn’t much of a horse, but he intended to return her – alive – if at all possible.

Some small part of him had expected charging into a burning building to be, yes, dangerously hot, but brightly lit. If it was, he could not tell. As soon as he crossed the threshold, one arm held up to shield his face, the smoke stung his eyes so that he felt half-blind and choked his lungs. The heat bore down on him like nothing he’d ever felt before – this was a physical suppression, but even more it was a spiritual one.

Come on, Einarr. All you have to do is make sure the horses can get out. He drew Sinmora: this was a simple stable on a half-rural island. If he could find the ropes, he could free all the horses with two quick cuts and be out of there.

Now all he had to do was find the ropes through the smoke and the heat.

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