Much to Naudrek’s annoyance, Einarr insisted on taking the midnight watch that night. “This is your quest, Einarr. You owe it to yourself to be fresh for it in the morning.”

“You’re right. This is my quest. But I deeply mislike the situation I’ve brought you all into, and of all of us there are three who are best equipped to deal with the minions of Hel. Me, Hrug, and Eydri. And I’m the only one who can keep my own watch.”

“But—” Naudrek tried to protest again.

“But what? Don’t tell me you’re worried I’ll try to handle too much alone?”

The other man clapped his mouth shut. Einarr shook his head, chuckling. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you first if anything happens. There will be nights enough when I’m the one sleeping the whole night.”

“…As you say.”

Now Einarr sat by the fire, polishing Sinmora’s blade while he waited to see what, if anything, the denizens of this place were going to throw at them this night. When he had relieved Troa’s watch, the man had seen nothing – which under ordinary circumstances meant there was nothing to see, and so far, neither had he.

A wisp of mist floated past outside the door of the chamber where they had made camp, glowing white. Einarr followed it with one eye: it was interesting, but after dealing with the Althane’s court he was not about to go wandering off after ghost light if he didn’t have to, alone or not.

From the other direction, a rattling noise caught his attention, but when he turned to look there was nothing there. That might bear investigating. Einarr stood, keeping hold of Sinmora’s hilt in a loose grip, and stepped softly over to the door. When he got there, though, there was nothing to see. With a sigh, he returned to his spot on the wall and polishing his sword.

Either someone – or something – is watching us, or they’re trying to lure me out. Well, they can watch us sleep if they must, but I won’t be lured. Einarr snorted, and kept a frequent eye turned in either direction.

When Finn, on the dawn watch, woke everyone come morning he reported with some puzzlement that he had seen nothing unusual. Einarr pressed his lips together and knitted his brow, then sighed. “So that means someone was after me, specifically, last night.”

Eydri perked up. “Why? What did you see?”

“Not much. The occasional wisp of ghost light, and once or twice I heard bones rattling. The sorts of things you might do if you deliberately wanted to draw someone out alone.”

Now it was Eydri’s turn to knit her brow. “And if they wanted to draw you out, specifically, was it fair or foul?”

Einarr shrugged. “Don’t know. Doesn’t matter, really. When we’re searching today, though, everyone stays in pairs. I don’t care if you’re just going out to shit, you take someone to watch your back.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now. As soon as we’re all ready, we need to start searching this place, top to bottom. There’s got to be some record of where Grandfather buried Ragnar. We need to stay focused here.” And not get wrapped up in some curse that doesn’t truly have anything to do with you. Get the sword and get home, don’t get wrapped up trying to fix whatever happened here a hundred years ago. The last time he’d done that was on the Althane’s island, and he’d cost the lives of far too many of Father’s crew.

Finn started pulling wooden truncheons from his pack, and it was only then that Einarr realized the other man had spent a good portion of his watch cooking breakfast. He chuckled. “Three cheers for Finn! What have you boiled for us?”

Not long after, with the fire thoroughly doused, they split into three teams. Naudrek and Hrug went southeast, Finn and Odvir went west, and Einarr took Eydri and Troa to the northeast. “Eyes open, blades limber. Good hunting,” he told them all in the courtyard as they parted ways.

“Good hunting,” came the murmured response.

For hours the three of them combed through forgotten guest chambers, store rooms and workshops. Occasionally they would find a bound scroll of birch bark, or a carved slate, but these all appeared to be inventories of what had once been stored within.

The sky overhead was still a flat, overcast grey, such that nothing seemed to cast its shadow. Einarr tried not to focus on it as he searched: it sent shivers down his spine. Anyone could be hiding in a place like this: hiding, and watching, as someone clearly had been the night before. He was, he could admit to himself, just as glad to have a third person along – even if he had argued with Naudrek that morning that the scouts were the ones in most danger.

With a sigh, he blew dust off the top of a moss-covered wooden box that sat, still unopened, in the corner of the current store room. A large tuft of dead moss tumbled down to the ground, revealing the remains of a carving on the lid. He raised an eyebrow: curious, Einarr started brushing away the moss.

The central image was simple enough: it was a longship – not, so far as he could tell, Hel’s – with a dragon’s head on the prow. He’d seen more than one like it already, and all of them had been worthless to him. This one, however, showed the remnants of runework around the edges of the box. Unfortunately, between the light and the age of the work, he couldn’t make it out. “Eydri? What do you make of this?”

The Singer, much smudged by the grime of ages, gave him a frustrated look. “Just another recipe box, isn’t it?”

“Who protects their recipes with rune wards?”

She furrowed her brow and stood to come look. That, however, was when they heard desperate shouts from the west. Einarr and Troa shared a look and a nod, and took off at a dead run towards the commotion.

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The passage ahead looked much as it had before: a long stretch of rough stone. In the dim light given off by his glowing sword, he could not tell for how much longer it continued straight. There was nothing to learn there – not yet.

Instead, he turned a weighing eye on Troa. He’d managed to avoid working directly with the man for almost the whole year. It was stupid, and he knew it was stupid, but the scout had interfered in his duel.

It was stupid, because the Althane had not fought fairly from the beginning, but that niggling annoyance that he’d tried to put away at the time still crouched in the back of his brain like some mangy cur. Einarr pursed his lips.

“Look, Einarr, I know —”

“The Althane was an honorless dog. We should have been better.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“So long as you understand that, come along.”

Jorir looked up at Runa. They had worked well together at the Tower of Ravens last year, and then in getting off that gods-forsaken island. On the other hand, based on what he’d seen this spring, he wasn’t entirely certain she’d learned anything from that. He harrumphed. “Looks like we’re working together again.”

“I should think you’d be used to me by now.” Runa spared him a glance, but turned back to studying the space around them even as she spoke.

“No place to go but forward, milady. Every breath we stand here, the crone gets farther away.”

“You’re right. Lead on: I’ll be right behind with the light.”

They had gone no more than another ten paces when they were brought up short by a high rough wall blocking the passage.

“A dead-end?” Runa whined. “We can’t climb that.”

Jorir stood staring at it for a long moment, thinking. The wall was, if his estimation was correct, a good seven feet high, but her lamp illuminated a deeper darkness above. “We can, and we have to, I think. There’s a ledge, about seven feet up. I’ll wager that’s our way forward.”

“Seven feet? And how do you propose we reach that?”

“I make more than half that distance just by myself. If you can hold me steady on your shoulders, I can climb up there and pull you after.”

Runa looked at him long and hard, blinking once or twice. In the flickering light from her lamp, she looked like a fish. Jorir had to work not to chuckle.

“Fine. All I have to do is brace myself while you stand on my shoulders, right?”

“Right.” He pursed his lips, thinking. “Crouch down. I’ll climb on your shoulders directly. Your legs’re plenty strong, right?”

“Strong enough.”

I hope so. He wasn’t entirely certain how he’d explain to Einarr the necessity of climbing his betrothed like a tree otherwise. Dwarves were stockier than humans in general, though, and Jorir was not only a warrior but a blacksmith. If the girl wasn’t stronger than she looked, they might have to think up another way.

Runa crouched down low to the ground, and Jorir clambered up to sit on her shoulders before resting his hands on the wall before them.

“By the gods, man,” she complained once his weight had settled.

“Can you stand?”

In answer, Runa slowly began to rise. Jorir could feel the strain in her back as she struggled to lift both of them. But, at last, she stood. The ledge was only a little out of reach from where he sat.

“Doin’ well so far.”

She grunted in answer. “Hurry.”

Carefully, Jorir rose to standing on her shoulders.

“How can someone so short be so heavy?” she complained as he sought for handholds on top of the ledge.

“Y’ever paid attention to how much a cat weighs, compared to a chicken?”

“I can’t… say I have.”

Jorir finally got both arms braced on the ledge above and gave a tiny jump, just enough to pull himself up. “Muscles. Dwarves have lots of muscles. Hand me the lamp.”

She held it up towards his outstretched hand. It would have been much easier to grab had this not been a standard bedroom lamp, but as it was he had to stretch to catch the handle. “If I’d known you were so heavy, I’d have gone up first.”

“Oh? And then pulled me after?”

He regretted, a little, that he could not see her face in the silence that followed. The wall had evidently only been the first part of the trap. Shaking his head, he set the lamp down near the wall of the passage and stretched out on the ground, his hands held out for Runa to grab.

Once she had a firm grip, she pressed her boots against the rough surface of the wall and climbed that way until she could rest her torso against the upper floor. Then she saw it, too.

They now stood on a narrow ledge, just wide enough for Jorir to lay flat across like he had been. On the other side of that ledge was a pit, the bottom of which was staked with vicious-looking pikes. She could not see an opposite edge in the poor light.

“Now what?”

“D’ye see that lighter patch, right there?” Jorir pointed.


“Unless I’m mistaken, that’s another ledge.”

“How does that help us? It’s far too far to jump.”

Jorir harrumphed again. “Maybe for you. It’s also our only way forward, as near as I can tell.”

Runa rolled her eyes. “Great. So what am I supposed to do, wait here? I can’t make that jump.”

Before she had quite finished speaking, Jorir had grabbed her by the shoulders. Then he kicked her feet out from under her and began to spin. Once, twice, and on the third time he released, like throwing a discus.

Runa sailed across the gap with a squawk of fury. Jorir shook his head, knowing he would pay for this, and leapt after.

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They finished their lunch in silence. For his part, Einarr kept turning over in his head Jorir’s revelation – the one he plainly did not wish to speak more of. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of his father’s new scrutiny, either. That ‘cursebreaker’ had the ring of a title about it. I’m not entirely certain I like the sound of that.

He found that he had little appetite left. None of the others seemed terribly interested in more food, either: another handful or two of nuts, or a dried fish, and all five of them were on their feet again.

“Well,” Einarr said. His voice felt unnaturally loud after the long silence. “Lead the way.”

Jorir nodded and quick-stepped back toward the path. I should have a word with him about that… but not in front of everyone. Maybe if he could learn what the Oracle had actually told his liege-man it would clear matters up.

Einarr didn’t mind the idea of having a calling, per se. But for that calling to be cursebreaking… that was troubling. Urdr was supposed to be the exception among Weavers, after all, not the rule.

The trail entered a series of steep switchbacks up a nearly sheer granite face.

“Watch your step,” Jorir warned.

Einarr shuddered at the idea of the last vision hitting when a single misstep could send any of them plummeting to their doom. With every step he half expected the sound of bells to ring on the wind, heralding the final test… but with each step all he saw was the trail and the granite face beside him.

The air burned in Einarr’s lungs by the time the trail opened back out into a meadow once more. There were no trees now, and the grasses and shrubs grew low to the ground. He stepped to the side to stand in the grass and catch his breath while Stigander and Arring completed their climb and the sound of bells rang in his ears.

He blinked, and the mountainside was replaced by a large, dimly recognized room. The tapestries hanging on the stone walls were warm and properly abstract, suggesting rather than showing animals and plants, and a large and detailed sea chart was spread out on the table dominating the center of the room.

Standing with him around the table was a white-haired version of his father, Reki, Erik, Jorir… and Runa, also looking older but no less lovely for the matronly cast to her face. I can win her.

“Every last Clan of the north has suffered at the hands of the Order of the Valkyrie. Why will none of the other thanes see that together we have a chance?” Einarr heard the words coming from his own mouth, saw his own fist bang against the table. Oh. So that’s what the situation is.

“Oh, they see it,” Stigander rumbled. “But someone would have to be chosen to lead the navies. They worry more about what that someone might do with command of so many ships and warriors once the threat is eliminated than they do about the Order or the Empire.”

“They’re worried I’ll decide to name myself Althane? Are they crazy?”

“It’s been tried before,” said Jorir. “By rulers older and supposedly wiser than you.”

“Bah. We’ve only just got Breidelsteinn back under control.”

“And not quite that.” Erik crossed his arms. “A couple of the more westerly Jarls are just biding their time, methinks. A lot of trust was lost while we were all out at sea.”

“That was none of our doing, but you all see my point.”

“There’s not many outside our waters who know that, though, son, and if they did it wouldn’t necessarily help us. There’s not a lot within the Allthing with quite the experience we’ve had, and they all have their own priorities to consider as well.”

“You’re right, of course, Father.” Einarr looked back down at the map and snorted. “So. I guess that means the first question is how I convince them, first, to trust me and, second, that doing away with the Valkyries is in their best interest.”

“Start with a story, my lord.” Reki’s low voice had not lost its purr in the years since she joined the Vidofnir. Einarr turned his attention to the Singer’s red eyes and waited. “Tell them, over drinks at the hall perhaps, how the Hunters nearly wiped us out while we still wandered. Tell them of the battle that lead you to swear vengeance. That alone might win you a few.”

“Many of them have already heard the story.”

“Have they? The times I’ve overheard you speaking of it, you’ve said nothing of the actual battle.”

“’At’s a good idea, Reki. Why don’t you let me handle that part: I’ve a fair bit of experience spinning yarns over drinks.”

“Thanks, Erik. I never quite know where to begin.”

The big man laughed. “That is because you didn’t do nearly enough stupid shit while we were roaming.”

Einarr and Stigander both shook their heads, each laughing under their breath.

“All right, so that’s a good place to start. What else might help?”

Jorir glared up at him like he was being stupid. “You’ve got an actual plan in place for winning this, don’t ye? Give them some inkling what it is. Ye’ll be relying on independent action in a buncha different places anyway – why not let them know that. Put their minds at ease a bit.”

“Those independent forces are still going to have to coordinate together, but if they’re not fully under the command of the central force… Father? Do you think that would actually make a difference?”

“For some, maybe. Don’t expect it to allay everyone’s suspicions, though.”

“Of course.” Einarr looked across the table: Runa was biting her lip, as though she were weighing something. “Well, my love? Do you have an idea.”

“Um. Well, there is something I could do to help. I’m not sure it’s a good idea, though.” Runa glanced over at Reki, and suddenly her expression seemed less weighing and more nervous.

Reki’s attention was turned toward the map, and she didn’t seem to catch the look.

“There could be a Tune that might convince them.” Runa emphasized the word tune strangely. Reki’s head snapped up: daggers of ice seemed to shoot across the table at the other Singer.

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