More than a little unnerved, Einarr and his companions stepped up their pace. Not one of them wanted to be anywhere other than the deck of the Heidrun when the sun set that evening. The only thing that stopped any of them from thinking of sailing that very night was the memory of the fishing boat caught out in the harbor.
Einarr breathed a small sigh of relief when they stepped into the village proper and saw the sun sitting still a good hour above the horizon.
As they hurried through the town towards the docks and the safety of their ship, they drew quite a crowd of the villagers: those who, before, had averted their eyes from strangers venturing into the woods now followed with some strange mixture of curiosity, hope, and expectancy. Perhaps the herb-witch had spread the word that Einarr was a Cursebreaker. Not one of them said anything, though, until they were all aboard ship, and all continued to ignore the townspeople.
The herb-witch opened a path to the front with her cane. “You live. All of you.”
“I have acquired and purified my wedding sword. We will sail with the morning tide.” There were matters to attend to before any boat could sail, even on a return journey.
“And what of the island?”
“What of it?”
“The Singer said you were the Cursebreaker. Are we…”
“Free? Not hardly.”
Einarr sighed noisily. “It is not a curse that holds you in thrall to Hel, lady.” He gave a hard stare at the crowd gathered on the docks. What he had to say would throw them into chaos: would they try to storm his boat, if he announced it to the crowd? It wasn’t worth the risk. “You, and only you, may come aboard in return for the information you provided us when we landed.”
“The evening grows long, Cursebreaker.”
Einarr just looked at her. Finally, she sighed.
“Very well. The rest of you, get home.”
A sense of sullen disappointment hung in the air as, with a low mumble, the villagers dispersed up the pier toward the roads of the town. Even as they did so, the old herb-witch’s boots clunked as she climbed the gangplank.
Einarr turned to face her and crossed his arms, waiting until she stood on the deck before him.
“So just how bad is it?” she asked, weary resignation depressing her voice more than they had heard before.
“Bad. Have you any Singers at all on the island?”
She shook her head. “As the island slipped into Hel’s clutches, those who did not flee took sick and died.”
Einarr grunted: he had expected as much. “I’ll be blunt, then. So far as we can tell, Ragnar failed one of Wotan’s tests of hospitality rather spectacularly. It was plain, from the records we found, that the people of the village were complicit in the robberies, and so the gods simply… left. It is not just that this is Hel’s domain, it’s that none of the other gods will lift a finger for Thorndjupr.”
She blinked in surprise. “But none of us were a part of what went on then. Even I was just a girl…”
“And yet, you would have benefited. Nevertheless, I believe that Thorndjupr and its people have been made Outlaw by the gods themselves. What you choose to do about that is on you, of course. Perhaps when the last of your generation dies, the rest will be free… but I’m not certain I would bank your children’s future on that.”
The old woman looked pale now.
“In your shoes, I might send some intrepid youths out to contact a priest. Perhaps, with sufficient rites and sacrifices, the gods will have mercy.”
She nodded, but even that nod seemed to carry despair. “When we drove out the prince, your grandfather, he said something about a gem. I don’t suppose?”
“The Fehugim? That, I’m afraid, is in the hands of the Lady of the island again. We left it with her sentries in the standing stones, but I don’t recommend trying to get it back. You’ll have to look elsewhere for your sacrifices.”
“I see.” The old herb-witch’s voice was quiet and dark. “I hope you’ll pardon me, but I can’t quite bring myself to thank you for all that you’ve told me.”
Just as well. Einarr shrugged. “Make of it what you will. Can you make it back to your house before dark?”
The herb-witch glanced up at the sky and nodded even as she gripped a small pendant Einarr had not before realized she wore. “I will manage. Safe journey to you, then.”
She turned and clumped slowly back down the gangplank and up the pier towards the town. Einarr watched her go, his lips pressed into a tight line.
“Bah!” He muttered once she was out of earshot. “I probably told her too much.”
Eydri, looking thoughtful, shook her head. “I don’t think so. We come away owing outlaws nothing, and being owed nothing by them.”
“Maybe.” But, done was done, and there was work still ahead before they could sail free and brush the dust of this land from their boots. “Naudrek! The charts. We can’t resupply here.”
He followed his Mate over to where the charts were stored and they fell to planning. He had very little slack in their course, but the men couldn’t sail without water, either.
All of that evening, Einarr felt as though he were being watched. When he looked back over the land he saw nothing. He turned, once, to look out over the harbor.
There, just under the surface of the water, he saw hundreds of pairs of flashing red eyes. The cruel Queen of the Damned was watching them, although he did not sense any bloodlust coming from beneath the waves.
Einarr set a triple watch that night. Once the sky lightened, the Heidrun set sail with the dawn tide.
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