At first light the next day, Einarr set off for the barrow field with Naudrek and Troa, leaving the others to continue their search for answers in the ruins. As they stepped out of the crumbling stone walls, Einarr saw movement off towards the horizon: one of the draugr, shambling into the forest to rest – if the abominations truly rested – for the day.
Half-starved wolves. Draugr, attacking relentlessly any foolish enough to be out after dark. Surely they had already devoured all the game animals and the livestock. The plants all seemed as sickly grey as the sky. What amazed Einarr under these circumstances was that anyone still lived here at all. “Everything about this island seems strange,” he said aloud.
Naudrek snorted. “You’re not wrong. But why do you say it now?”
“Just thinking. Everything we’ve seen here leads almost inevitably to this place being part of Hel’s domain. But she is the keeper of the dishonored dead. So then why is there anyone living here at all? And how are they still alive?”
“Fish,” Troa answered. “And even sickly vegetables are better than none at all. Cabbage grows everywhere.”
Einarr grunted. “Okay. So there’s how. But still, it’s been more than two generations since they ran Grandfather out, and there are children.”
Naudrek frowned. “What was it you and Hrug thought was so interesting the other night?”
“Ragnar… was not a good Thane.”
“The townspeople made that eminently clear.”
“I don’t mean to his people. He was, so far as we could tell, very generous with other peoples’ things.”
“The tablet Hrug brought out was a basic accounting of stores. Every once in a while, a traveler would stop by Thorndjupr and be granted hospitality at the Hold. And every one of them would turn around and attack the men of the Hold at some point during their stay.”
“Ragnar had that many enemies?”
Einarr shook his head. “Possible, I suppose, but there was only one thing in common among the incidents, and that was Ragnar. And not long after each of them, the leaders of the town would all receive generous gifts from the Thane.” He gave Naudrek a moment for that to sink in. “I think my great-grandfather was a faithless host. And even if he is not draugr himself, I expect his haugbui labors under a curse.”
Silence ruled over their hike for quite a while following that. Around noon, they crested a small rise and found themselves facing gentle, rolling hills and new-growth forest, although the trees looked stunted.
“I think this is it,” Troa said, his mouth curling wryly.
“Wishing you’d brought Eydri yet?”
Einarr snorted. “Only a little. Come on: nothing for it but to start searching. No reason to expect the inscription’s worn away.”
Eydri raised her head from the scroll she was skimming and blew some stray hairs out of her face. It looked like it was about noon, and it felt distinctly like they were getting nowhere here. Inexplicably, she thought again of the rune-covered box Einarr had found the other morning. Did she remember where that store room was?
It was the runes, of course. Einarr was right: no-one sealed their recipe box with runes, and precious few would inscribe them on a jewelry box. She frowned: Finn and Odvir had tried to help, earlier on, but now sat a sullen guard at the doorway. Then she nodded: that was the ticket. These records were getting her nowhere. “Finn. Come with me a minute, will you? I’ve just remembered something important.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The scout stood up eagerly. Hrug glanced up from his tablet and grunted before returning to his reading.
Eydri led the young man through the old ruined hold saying little, trying to remember just which store room they had been in when Finn and Odvir had been attacked the other morning.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are we looking for?”
She spared him a glance and a half-smile. “Einarr found a rune-worked box the other morning, right before you two were attacked by the wolves. It could be important… but I have to find it again, first.”
Finn nodded, his reddish hair flopping over his ears. “You three had the northeast, right? So I think we need to bear more to the right.”
“Ah, of course. Thank you.”
Working together with the almost comically eager to please Finn, Eydri finally found herself back in the storeroom they had raced out of so quickly the other day. The room looked as though it had been ransacked, and not by them: boxes that Eydri remembered setting carefully back on the shelf were overturned and thrown about the room, as though the stymied draugr had taken out their wrath here.
They had not destroyed the rune box, however. Eydri finally found it cast into a corner – likely where Einarr had dropped it as he raced to the rescue – and half-buried by other forlorn “treasures.” She blew off the surface of the box: in spite of everything, dust flew into the air. There was still moss stuck to the surface in places, as well. Carefully, Eydri lifted the box in both hands. “I’ve found it. We can go back now.”
“Yes’m.” If Finn was perplexed that she did not open the box immediately, he did not show it. Part of her wanted to, but she was too well versed in things of magic. She needed light, and a place to examine the box first.
When they returned to the records room, Hrug came over to examine the box as well. The runic inscription was greatly weathered and hard to decipher, but between the two of them they managed to decipher a vague message relating to fortune and fate. Eydri looked at Hrug, who nodded. There was nothing more to do but to open it.
Carefully, Eydri opened the lid of the box with both thumbs. Inside, on a fine silken pillow, lay an exquisite – and gigantic – ruby. Within the ruby glowed a single rune.
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