Dawn came far too quickly for Einarr’s liking. He almost wished he hadn’t bothered to sleep. And yet, he and Hrug had come up against a blank wall. There simply didn’t seem to be anything else to learn from the ruby. So far as either of them could tell, the only magic about it was the rune that glowed in its center, promising misfortune to whoever saw it.
He sat up with a groan and looked about their camp: Finn had sat up for the watch after the battle the night before. He looked haggard, but there was no reason he couldn’t sleep later that morning. Naudrek, on the other hand, had been sensible. When it was plain there would be no further attack by the accursed dead, he had curled up to catch what sleep he could. He, too, sat up from his blanket near the fire, looking somewhat more alert than Einarr felt.
“Morning,” Einarr yawned.
“Morning. Ready to face your great-grandfather?”
“Do I have a choice? Anyone know if draugr sleep during the day, or do they just lurk?”
No-one answered. Eydri and Hrug were still asleep. Troa, who seemed to know more about them than some of the others, shrugged.
“Right. So, we’d best get moving. Troa, I want you to stay here and help protect the seithir. Naudrek and I should be more than enough to get the door open, and I have to go in alone anyway.”
Today, at least, he didn’t argue. The attack last night must worry him, too. “Yes, sir.”
Einarr and Naudrek shared out some jerky and set out on the same path they had followed the morning before. When they arrived, all was as it had been when they left, save that the soil above the doorpost had been freshly churned. For a long moment, Einarr stared at the stone which sealed the entrance to Ragnar’s barrow. Finally he took a long breath.
“Ready?” Naudrek asked.
“Would I be this nervous if I wasn’t the Cursebreaker?”
“On this island? More, or you’d be a fool.”
Einarr gave his friend a wan smile. “Thanks. I’m as ready as I can be, I think.”
They crouched and put their shoulders to the massive marker stone. With a heave and a groan they pushed, and the entryway slowly inched open. Finally, when both men were winded and sweat dripped down their brows in the cool morning, the door stood open into darkness like a gaping maw.
“Good luck. I will watch out here.”
Einarr clapped his shoulder. “My thanks.”
He gave himself no further time to deliberate. Einarr pivoted on the balls of his feet and stepped across the threshold into the darkness of the barrow.
The difference was absolute. The – admittedly wan – morning light of Thorndjupr penetrated as though through a thick curtain. Einarr paused a moment, blinking, and slowly his eyes adjusted to the gloom.
To his right and his left, he saw what looked like piles of armor resting against the wall. Just past that were urns with staves sticking out like bristles – likely spear shafts, actually. Einarr took another step forward, and then another. The hall of treasure went on far further than Einarr had thought possible, based on the size of the mound.
Up ahead, something shifted. A metallic clinking, as of coins sliding across each other, followed the movement. Einarr froze and squinted, trying to make out forms deeper in the darkness.
“So, finally you come.” The voice was dry and raspy as sand.
“It took me a great deal of trouble to find you.”
“So what business does the get of my worthless son have in my home? Come to finish the job?”
“Raen Ragnarsson is a hero to our clan. Is, note: your son still lives, in spite of everything.”
A sound like rustling leaves carried through the darkness, and it took Einarr a moment to realize the creature was laughing. “Hero. Bah. That sounds just like him. Heroism doesn’t keep the coffers full.”
“And yet. Here I stand, your great-grandson, to claim your sword as a bridegift as the tradition requires. If I must fight you for it, I have prepared.”
The creature that had been Ragnar stood and walked forward. Its eyes seemed to shine in the darkness, far higher than the eyes of any man should be. The deeper darkness that was its body was massive, its broad shoulders half again as tall as Einarr, with thick-sinewed legs to match. “Have you, now, my boy? Have you really?”
The creature stopped just in front of Einarr. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but it seemed as though its flesh were actually black. Even still, Einarr met its gaze unflinchingly.
“Your bride would not thank you for the gift of that sword, get of Raen, nor would your own get when he grew to claim it. Mind you, I am not over-fond of the thing either after all these years.”
Einarr let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “If you tell me it is cursed, I will tell you I expected that as well.”
The creature laughed again. “And why, praytell, would you expect such a thing?”
“I have met the people of the town, and seen the state of your island, and read the records in your hold. I am still not entirely clear what happened to cause Raen to be driven off, but I know you were a faithless host.”
The creature snorted and turned around. “I did nothing out of the ordinary. But even if that were the case, what did you expect to do about such a curse?”
“For nearly three years now, I have been known as the Cursebreaker. Either I will cleanse the blade, or I will die.”
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