It was nearly impossible to tell the passage of time in the twilight gloom of that forest canopy. Here and there they would pass near a spot where a tree had fallen, but even in those brief clearings the only sky they saw was a dull, dead grey. It was their stomachs told them it must be nearly noon, and just as they resolved to break on the road for their midday meal Troa spotted the standing stones off to the left, deeper into the forest.
Einarr sighed. “Nothing is ever easy, is it. All right, gents. Chew some jerky, then Troa, Odvir, and Finn, I need you to look for a track going off in that direction. Would have been a road when Grandfather was a boy, but she said it hadn’t been used since. Everyone else needs to limber up… and under no circumstances is anyone to lay a finger on those standing stones. The herb witch said they belonged to Hel, and I’m not inclined to think that was a figure of speech.”
There were rumbles of assent from his companions, and they set about their tasks. The three scouts hadn’t been searching long before Finn called out. He sounded troubled, though. “I think I’ve found it.”
Einarr, still chewing on his jerky, came over to have a look. There, winding off into the forest, was what appeared to be not much more than a pair of deer tracks moving oddly parallel to each other. To Einarr, too, that looked like what they sought. Disturbingly, though, the end of the track was strewn about with sun-bleached bones. Human bones, unless he missed his guess. He cleared his throat. “I think so too. Good work.”
Why couldn’t Grandfather have just been a young hothead, out for adventure and a name for himself? Einarr sighed. With what they’d heard, and what they saw in the harbor… “Looks like it’s not just the bay,” is what he said. “Let’s move. We need to be encamped in the ruins before sunset.”
“Yes, sir!” everyone answered – even Eydri, who was not exactly under his command.
The track wound through the center of the standing stones. As they passed through, Einarr saw twisted, deformed figures of people carved on the stones and, dividing them, what had to be Naglfar. He shivered: were those carved intentionally? He couldn’t imagine who could be persuaded to make such a thing: even the demon cultists were sane enough to shun the grave if they could. “What are we looking at here, Eydri?”
“A bad sign,” she answered, and clapped her mouth shut. A moment later, she sighed. “We need to hurry on to the ruins. The longer we linger, the more danger there is.”
Reluctantly, Einarr nodded and frowned. “Should we prepare torches?”
She frowned now, but it looked like thinking. “No. Not yet, anyway. Based on the bones, I suspect steel will suffice.”
“You heard her. Let’s move. Daylight’s wasting.”
Some distance past the standing stones, the track faded into oblivion. Under the forest canopy, one direction looked much the same as any other. The only guide post that remained constant was the single spike of mountain in the center of the island, and in order to check that they had to send someone up a tree.
The forest twilight took on the color of late afternoon before one of them spotted the tumble-down stones of what used to be an outer wall of the hold and Einarr felt himself relaxing, if only a little. That the safety of the old hold was only relative was never in doubt. Still, though, it was bound to be more defensible than the forest. They picked up the pace.
The forest had, somehow, still not grown up into the courtyard of the old hold. As they crossed the open land that would once have served as a killing field, the setting sun tinged the crumbling stone walls red.
Inside, grass grew up between the flagstones, and moss fuzzed the walls. Most of the roof was gone, and the walls cast long shadows beneath their feet. Einarr pressed onward and inward, searching for a room that was still mostly enclosed. He wasn’t taking any chances here, not after what they saw at the circle of standing stones.
They finally came to a chamber, with four mostly solid walls and only two exits for anyone who couldn’t fly, as the sky overhead shaded from the sullen red of sunset into the deep blue-grey of twilight. “This will have to do,” Einarr said, still looking around. His eyes lingered in the deeper shadows of corners, trying to determine if anything already lurked. “Troa, Finn, make sure the walls aren’t hiding anything. Odvir, we need wood. We’re making camp here, everyone.”
Eydri slung her pack down on the ground with a groan. “I haven’t walked that far in a day in a very long time.”
Naudrek snorted. “It’s not the distance. It’s the ownership.”
Hrug grunted his agreement as he sat by the Singer. He started rummaging around in his pack, and soon pulled out his rune sticks.
Einarr stood near the center of the room and bounced on his toes. As much as it had been a long march today, still he itched to begin his explorations – even though the light had nearly failed, and even though they knew they trespassed in Hel’s dominion. He shook his head and knelt on the ground, a few feet from the seithir. He gathered up bits of moss and dead grass that came readily to hand and began to kindle a fire.
By the time Odvir arrived with his first armload of firewood, the kindling had started, and as the sky darkened into a starless black their fire lent the room a cheery warmth to press against the night.
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