“Nothing?” Eydri repeated, aghast.
“Nothing,” Einarr answered. “That gem isn’t magical, and these people aren’t cursed. Now, Hrug, I don’t think the purification circle will need to be very complex. A simple fire rune started the process.”
Hrug nodded. Even with the issues they had with magic here on the island, they should be able to manage that much this evening.
“First thing in the morning we head back to town and the Heidrun. I’d rather not spend another night in harbor, but I expect we’ll have to, and then we can wash the dust of this island from our boots.”
Odvir gave him a quizzical look. “If the island’s not cursed, and you’ve dealt with the draugr, then why—?”
“I’ve dealt with the only draugr I had business with: Ragnar’s, and those who’ve attacked us. This is still Hel’s domain, and likely will be for some time to come.” He handed his empty bowl over to Finn for another scoop of soup, which he drank swiftly. “Come on. There are still things to be done tonight, and we need an early start in the morning.”
When Einarr and Naudrek were awakened for the last watch, it was to the knowledge that the draugr had, once again, mostly ignored their home camp. They had not been out after dark – if barely – they had not taken out the Fehugim, and the most powerful of the creatures was slain. Einarr took this as a good sign even as he wished for more sleep.
As dawn was breaking, Einarr stirred some crumbled bread into the remains of last night’s soup. It wasn’t much, but it should take them to the Heidrun at least, where they could have a proper dinner. Once they had eaten, Einarr took the newly-purified sword of Ragnar — looking much less ominous, now that the corruption had been burned out of the steel — in hand and they set off across the forest for the town of Thorndjupr.
The scouts proved their worth once more as they hiked the return journey to the town of unlife: their blazes were still visible, marking the path they had taken inland in the first place. While this did not speed their journey as much as one might expect, it did mean it was once again noon when the ghastly standing stones hove into view.
Someone was waiting for them there. Or, rather, several someones: Einarr took the lead as they approached, motioning for his companions to get behind him.
Up ahead, in the circle of standing stones, despite the fact that it was the middle of the day, stood seven fleshy draugr – none of whom, thankfully, was half so large as Ragnar. Not that that would save Einarr’s crew, if it came to blows.
“What do you want,” he demanded without preamble.
One of their number, a wasted-looking figure, his skin black as death and clinging to his bones, with stringy white hair falling to his shoulders under a dark iron helm, twitched his head to the side. A rasping voice came from the direction of the draugr, although none of them appeared to speak. “You have the Fehugim,” it rasped.
“What of it?”
The voice was decidedly feminine. The heads of several of the draugr twitched this time. “It is mine. You will leave it here, in this circle, or you will die.”
Einarr frowned. He had intended to leave it with the old herb-witch when he spoke with her, but he hardly suspected the owner of the voice to appreciate that argument. “We will leave the Fehugim with the elders of the town. Will that suffice?”
The voice hissed at him, like some horrific serpent, and repeated “It is mine.”
“It is Wotan’s, is it not? Stolen from him generations ago and lost in the ruins of this island. I mean to see it returned to its rightful place.”
The forest seemed to echo with dry, raspy laughter. “Stolen? Do you truly believe old One-Eye to be so foolish as to allow a mortal to rob him?” The laughter pealed again, and a shiver ran down Einarr’s spine. “That gem is mine, and marks this island as mine. If you do not wish to also be mine, you will leave the gem and be off.”
Still, Einarr hesitated.
“You and your crew would make for fine specimens within my army…”
Einarr exhaled loudly, reminding himself he had no obligation to help these people. Indeed, by the laws of the Thing, he was forbidden to do so. He turned to Hrug. “The gem.”
“You don’t seriously intend to—” Eydri spluttered.
“Yes, I do, Eydri. In fact, I have no choice.” He met her eyes and continued, more quietly. “I’ll explain later.”
She quieted, but that was an angry look he had only ever seen before on Runa’s face. Hrug handed him the rune-worked box. Einarr opened the lid: inside rested the brilliant red Fehugim with it’s light-inscribed rune within.
“Here it is. I’m going to step forward now to leave the gem where you want it.”
“A wise decision.”
“Have your puppets move back.”
She chuckled, the sound very like Ragnar’s. “So untrusting. Very well, young Cursebreaker.”
As one, the draugr walked backwards to the far edge of the stone circle and waited as Einarr moved cautiously forward. When he was just outside the stone circle, he placed the box on the ground and slid it forward. “I have done as you demanded. Now we will continue on our journey.”
“Will you, now? I wonder. What if I’ve decided I want you for my army after all?”
“That was not the agreement. Or would you be named Oathbreaker?”
Silence stretched out long in the forest. Einarr and his companions made a defensive circle around Eydri and Hrug. If Hel decided she would take them, she could certainly try, but they would make her pay for the privilege.
A sound like the snapping of a tree trunk rang through the forest.The draugr that stood guard within the stone circle clattered to the ground, once more the scattered remains they had seen on their way in.
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