“A guardian? What do you mean?” Kaldr’s brows lowered.
“Just that.” Runa sighed. “The High Roads of Ljosalfheim require magical knowledge particular to the alfs to even find, let alone enter. The dvergr will be no more keen to allow mortals into their realms: if the entrance to the paths is a physical place, it stands to reason that there would be gates or guardians or such, if only to keep treasure-hunters at bay.”
Einarr hummed. “Given that Ystava took me along the High Roads, the dwarves – especially the svartdvergr – may well be less welcoming of outsiders.”
Kaldr nodded. “Then we must be even more on our guard.”
“Agreed. Vali, we’ll be counting on your sharp eyes.”
“I haven’t got any eyes, though?”
Einarr rolled his own. “However it works for you, then. We couldn’t have got past that kraken without you.”
The ghost smirked even as he started up into the air. “Sure couldn’t.”
As Vali rose up to hover, almost invisible, in the air above the deck, Kaldr cleared his throat. “I was actually hoping you could give us some idea what else we might be facing.”
She offered a chuckle, but looked as though she regretted it immediately. “I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest… Einarr, be a dear and get the waterproof satchel from my things? There should be some peppermint in there.”
“To settle my stomach.”
Einarr was halfway across the deck to their awning when Vali called down. “You’re all looking for a barren island, right?”
“I found one. Bearing northeast from here, just past the horizon.”
The island Vali found was massive – easily as large as the stories told of some of the larger Imperial lands. As they approached, it became plain what the next gate to pass was: they had to find the entrance first. There may have been some mosses and lichens that called the island home, but from the sea this was land that appeared to support nothing. Dry, reddish-brown dirt spread over its entire surface, broken only by the rocks that lay strewn across the plain. They had to sail for an hour just to find a beach where the Villgås could land.
Around them, everything was eerily quiet. There did not even appear to be shore birds, which put Einarr on edge. He could think of two reasons, now, why the island would be uninhabited: the kraken, and whatever it was that kept the birds away. When he vaulted over the bulwark to help beach their boat, the splash of their boots in the water and the gentle rushing of the waves were the only noises he heard.
Even the scraping of the gangplank as Thjofgrir slid it into place seemed unnaturally loud. Einarr gave Runa his hand as she descended the plank, but his attention was on the land around them.
Vali was already ashore. Naudrek carried his jar: if they didn’t intend to leave the ghost behind, they would need it.
“Did you see anything when you were up above?” Einarr asked him, but Vali shook his head.
“Afraid not. Nothing but rock and dirt and glacier.”
Einarr grunted. While it was entirely possible that there was magic keeping creatures away from this place, it still stood his hair on end. He looked up, checking the path of the sun through the sky. Mid-afternoon. Fine. “All right, everyone. Unload everything – and I do mean everything – off the Villgås and make camp. I’m going to set up a ward. It should mean nothing bothers the boat while we’re exploring, but it’ll keep us out too in the interim. And be cautious. This place could just be warded, or it could be that something nasty lives here we just haven’t seen yet.” He hummed, considering. “Vali, I’m going to be relying on you again. While we’re setting up here, scout around. Make sure there’s nothing hiding nearby that will try to sneak out and bite us in our sleep.”
The ghost smirked. “What, and miss all the fun of unloading water casks? How will I ever bear up?”
“You mean miss the chance to taunt the rest of us, don’t you?” Einarr half-chuckled at the thought of Vali popping up out of the lid of one of the casks, then shook his head. Vali was a joker, which was good, but losing precious supplies to a joke would not be. “There’ll be time enough for your japes once we’re settled in for the night.”
“Aye, sir.” Vali’s amused chortle carried back over the empty ground as he floated off on his mission.
Once he was safely out of earshot,Kaldr leveled a flat look at Einarr. “You make the most interesting friends, my lord.”
“Indeed. A cursed blacksmith, a ghost in a jar, a magic-hating strategist… makes life more fun, doesn’t it?”
Kaldr’s only reaction to hearing himself included on that list was a slight widening of the eyes before his normally calm expression returned. “Indeed.”
Runa took Vali’s jar from Naudrek and placed it firmly on the ground while the other four climbed back aboard the ship and began unloading. Einarr, meanwhile, took a sharp-edged rock from the ground and used it to begin drawing a ward very similar to the one he had used on the Heidrun at Thorndjupr. While he worked, he was dimly aware of the tramp of boots up and down the gangplank. After a while, as he was nearly finished, he heard Runa’s sweet voice begin to sing – nothing in particular, that he could tell, although the cheerful tune still lifted his spirits.
He would give them the afternoon and evening to rest and recover from their narrow escape the day before. Tomorrow would bring hard travel of a different sort, and unknown dangers besides. For tonight they could be merry, and he could finally celebrate Runa’s good news.
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