The serving boy – who, if Einarr guessed aright, couldn’t be more than 12, hugged his tray against himself and backed away from Einarr and his party.

“Now, now. We’re not angry about anything.” Although some would be about biting down on a rock, especially with as uninspired as the broth was.

“D-d-d- Da!” He shouted over his shoulder, in the direction of the kitchen. Einarr sighed. He hated dealing with insular islands. They always made things harder than they needed to be.

A little later, after Einarr, Eydri, and Naudrek had sipped silently at their thin soup for a while, a middle-aged man came blustering out behind the serving boy. He was broad-shouldered: in any other land, he would have been large. Here, the shoulders looked outsized on his too-thin chest. His greasy black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and anger roiled on his sallow brow like an uncertain thunderstorm.

“What is the meaning of this?” the man spluttered. “My boy has done nothing to cause offense.”

“Never said he had,” Einarr answered smoothly. “Although you might want to speak to your miller. I nearly broke a tooth on that bread.”

The man drew himself up straighter. “Made from the finest flour on island.”

Einarr quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sorry to hear that. But I stopped your boy to ask some questions: we just landed, you see, and we don’t know our way around.”

The man immediately slumped back down. “If you’ve just landed, then the only thing you need to know is when the tide will turn so you can leave. There’s nothing here for you.”

Einarr shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I have reason to believe my great-grandfather’s barrow is somewhere on this island. I am to be married soon, and since my father and my grandfather still live I require his sword.”

The man shook his head. “It’s not worth it. Probably already rusted away, anyhow.”

“You don’t even know who’s grave I’m looking for.”

“No, but you said it was your great-grandfather. That means his blade has been in the ground for at least fifty years. You’re better off having one forged.”

“I’m afraid there is no time after making this trip. Please. I am Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, son of Ragnar. Do you know anything? Or know anyone who might?”

“Ragnar?” The anger was back on the man’s brow again, and he peered piercingly down his aquiline nose at the three strangers in his hall. Then he spat on the floor by Einarr’s foot. “Get out of here, the lot of you. The sons of Ragnar aren’t welcome here.”

“But…”

“Out!”

Surprised by the man’s fury, the three Heidrunings allowed themselves to be run out of the hall. Out in the street, Einarr turned to Eydri.

“Well that was unexpected. I don’t suppose you know of any Singers on the island?”

She shook her head. “Not that are part of the Matrons’ circle. There’s sure to be a wise woman or a priest or a monk somewhere around, though.”

Naudrek wasn’t much happier about that than Einarr. With a grumbling round of sighs, though, they set out across the town in search of whoever served as the town lore-keeper. Once or twice Einarr was compelled to identify himself, and each time he mentioned Ragnar the locals grew hostile.

“I’d really like to know what happened back then,” Eydri muttered.

“You and me both,” Einarr agreed.

“I think we might find out soon. There’s the signboard for the old herb-witch.”

“Oh, thank goodness.” Einarr and Eydri both strode past where Naudrek stood pointing, and he took up his place flanking the Singer.

Eydri knocked at the door frame, and an old woman’s voice invited them in.

Inside, the herb-witch’s hut was close but clean-smelling. An old woman, at least as old as Grandfather Raen, stood at a table pouring hot water into a tea pot. “Not very often strangers come here. How can this old woman help you?”

Einarr took a deep breath. “I seek the barrow of Ragnar.”

The old woman turned half-blind eyes their direction and raised an eyebrow. “And what would you want with that?”

“I am to wed soon, but I require my ancestor’s sword for the ceremony.”

The old woman hummed thoughtfully. “Everyone on this island knows the location of Ragnar’s hold. Not one of them will go within a mile of it. You are here, I presume, because no-one would tell you?”

“That is correct.”

“I am not so kind as the townsfolk. I will tell you where it is.”

“Th—”

“Don’t thank me, boy. This island has devoured warriors a thousand times stronger than you. If you value your lives, you will turn around and leave before nightfall. This island belongs to Hel.”

Eydri took a deep breath. “Grandmother… what happened here?”

“If you live to reach the hold, you will learn.”

“This man—” she gestured at Einarr. “Is the Cursebreaker.”

“Tcheh. Poor fool.”

“He was named Cursebreaker two years ago, and yet he still lives.”

“Eydri.” Einarr put a hand on her shoulder. He was well aware that he tempted fate with every journey. “That doesn’t help.”

The old woman looked at him shrewdly and nodded, but did not explain. “Do not attempt to take your whole crew. Those who remain behind will not be welcomed, but it will ensure you have the men to leave again. Ragnar’s hold is far north of here, deep within the forest. You will know you are close by the standing stones. Touch them not: they belong to Hel herself…”

Einarr swallowed and nodded, committing the old woman’s directions to memory. A small, cowardly corner of his mind wondered if it was too late to send a pigeon to Jorir, instructing him to forge a blade.


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