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 continuing to ignore them.

The herb-witch opened a path to the front with her cane. “You live. All of you.”

“We do.”

“And?”

“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.”

“But…”

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 through 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.”

“Yes, sir!”

He followed his Mate over to where the charts were stored and the 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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As afternoon faded into evening the last stragglers made it back to the Heidrun. Svarek had managed to acquire some cabbages and fresh fish ashore and was currently boiling them into one of his marvelous soups. Everyone looked discouraged. Everyone, that is, except for Einarr’s team and Hrug. They were merely resigned.

“I’m afraid I gave you some bad advice earlier. Had I known how poorly thought of Ragnar was when Grandfather left, I’d have come up with some other way of asking around.”

He heard a few scattered grumblings, but no-one interrupted.

“The bad news is, the only public hall in town is not a place you can – or should, I think – stay. Anyone who doesn’t come with me will have to stay on the ship.”

Svarek snorted. “Bread’s full of rocks, anyway.”

“Oh, you too?” Einarr chuckled, then sighed. “The good news is, between the herb-witch and the rune sticks I know both where to go and who to bring with me. Hrug and I will ward the ship before we leave—”

The sorcerer held up his hand in mute protest.

“Don’t be so surprised, old man. We talked about this. If we do these wards properly they won’t need you here, and I very well might. I mislike what that old woman said about ‘Hel’s domain.’ I hope she’s just being macabre, but…”

“But we all follow the Cursebreaker,” Eydri finished.

“Yes, that. So I’m only taking a handful of people with me, and the rest of you get to stay put and guard the ship.” Against what, he could not guess, but he wasn’t about to put them off their guard that way. “Now. Coming with me – and no arguments, now, we all talked this over very carefully among ourselves. Hrug, Naudrek, Eydri, Troa, Finn, and Odvir. Ready yourselves for the expedition. Everyone else, you know what to do.”

The sky was shading from pale grey to dark grey. Out over the water, movement caught Einarr’s eye. A lone fishing boat sped across the surface of the water, its oars creating their own wakes in the still surface of the water. Despite the strange, desperate speed of the rowers, however, the boat seemed to be slowing – and sinking. The closer to shore it drew, the lower in the water it sat.

“Hey, that fisher needs help!” Odvir exclaimed.

“…Yeah, you’re right.” Einarr was about to order his men to oars, but then Eydri held out a forestalling arm.

“No, don’t.”

“What?”

“We can’t help.” Eydri looked pale.

The water around the hull of the boat seemed to be writhing, as though grey tendrils reached up and roiled around its sides. They could hear the shouts and pounding of the fishermen aboard as they tried to fight off whatever it was that had now stopped them in the water.

Then a crack like thunder echoed over the surface of the water and the boat broke in two. Now the voices of the fishermen turned to cries of fear as skinny black bodies dragged the capsized boat and all its occupants beneath the surface.

“What did we just watch?” Naudrek asked, his voice hollow with sickened wonder.

“I had wondered,” Eydri started. “What the old herb witch meant when she called this island Hel’s domain. I think… I think we know, now.”

Einarr grunted agreement, his eyes glued to the place where the water still roiled from the death-struggles of the fishermen. “Be on your guard, everyone. Hrug, let’s get started.”


The ward Einarr and Hrug laid over the ship was surprisingly similar to the one Elder Melja had maintained over the Crimson Shroud, except that it was set to keep things out rather than in – in this case, things that were not alive. It would draw its power from the entirety of the crew, which would distribute its need to the point that no one should be unduly inconvenienced. This was in place before the midnight watch began.

At dawn, Einarr and his team shouldered their packs and tramped across to the dock. Svarek would take command while they were gone: the young wanderer had proven himself steady and reliable over the course of the last year. And with that, Einarr led the others back through the town.

Even dawn could not bring cheer or color to the streets of this town. Einarr noted with interest, however, that now it was the women who were out and about, sweeping yards and doing the ordinary, day-to-day tasks that keep a town from squalor. Still, though, he saw no children. Perhaps, given what they knew about the island, this was rational on the part of the people. It did not make it less unnerving, however.

The townsfolk, for their part, shied away from the travelers as they passed, and it was plain they did not intend to speak to the strangers. Thus it was that Einarr and his companions passed through the town in silence.

The forest pressed hard against the edge of the town to the north and fell into the gloom of twilight. Eydri and Finn lit torches.

The forest was not, in fact, black pine – or at least not entirely – but a mix of hard and soft wood. But, like everything else on the island, the colors were dulled and greyed, only reinforcing the feeling of death and decay that seemed to hang over everything.

“According to the herb witch,” Einarr reminded them. “We need to follow the old road north until we reach the standing stones. After that things get trickier.”

“Tricky – how?” Odvir asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“Ghost-light, lost in the mist tricky, I’m afraid. That’s why you and Troa are with me, frankly.” They were two of the only ones on board who had faced the Althane two years ago.

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Troa groaned.

“Let’s keep going, though. The sooner we get to the ruins of the old hold, the better.”


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The serving boy – who, if Einarr guessed aright, couldn’t be more than 12, hugged his tray against himself and backed away from Einarr and his party.

“Now, now. We’re not angry about anything.” Although some would be about biting down on a rock, especially with as uninspired as the broth was.

“D-d-d- Da!” He shouted over his shoulder, in the direction of the kitchen. Einarr sighed. He hated dealing with insular islands. They always made things harder than they needed to be.

A little later, after Einarr, Eydri, and Naudrek had sipped silently at their thin soup for a while, a middle-aged man came blustering out behind the serving boy. He was broad-shouldered: in any other land, he would have been large. Here, the shoulders looked outsized on his too-thin chest. His greasy black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and anger roiled on his sallow brow like an uncertain thunderstorm.

“What is the meaning of this?” the man spluttered. “My boy has done nothing to cause offense.”

“Never said he had,” Einarr answered smoothly. “Although you might want to speak to your miller. I nearly broke a tooth on that bread.”

The man drew himself up straighter. “Made from the finest flour on island.”

Einarr quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sorry to hear that. But I stopped your boy to ask some questions: we just landed, you see, and we don’t know our way around.”

The man immediately slumped back down. “If you’ve just landed, then the only thing you need to know is when the tide will turn so you can leave. There’s nothing here for you.”

Einarr shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I have reason to believe my great-grandfather’s barrow is somewhere on this island. I am to be married soon, and since my father and my grandfather still live I require his sword.”

The man shook his head. “It’s not worth it. Probably already rusted away, anyhow.”

“You don’t even know who’s grave I’m looking for.”

“No, but you said it was your great-grandfather. That means his blade has been in the ground for at least fifty years. You’re better off having one forged.”

“I’m afraid there is no time after making this trip. Please. I am Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, son of Ragnar. Do you know anything? Or know anyone who might?”

“Ragnar?” The anger was back on the man’s brow again, and he peered piercingly down his aquiline nose at the three strangers in his hall. Then he spat on the floor by Einarr’s foot. “Get out of here, the lot of you. The sons of Ragnar aren’t welcome here.”

“But…”

“Out!”

Surprised by the man’s fury, the three Heidrunings allowed themselves to be run out of the hall. Out in the street, Einarr turned to Eydri.

“Well that was unexpected. I don’t suppose you know of any Singers on the island?”

She shook her head. “Not that are part of the Matrons’ circle. There’s sure to be a wise woman or a priest or a monk somewhere around, though.”

Naudrek wasn’t much happier about that than Einarr. With a grumbling round of sighs, though, they set out across the town in search of whoever served as the town lore-keeper. Once or twice Einarr was compelled to identify himself, and each time he mentioned Ragnar the locals grew hostile.

“I’d really like to know what happened back then,” Eydri muttered.

“You and me both,” Einarr agreed.

“I think we might find out soon. There’s the signboard for the old herb-witch.”

“Oh, thank goodness.” Einarr and Eydri both strode past where Naudrek stood pointing, and he took up his place flanking the Singer.

Eydri knocked at the door frame, and an old woman’s voice invited them in.

Inside, the herb-witch’s hut was close but clean-smelling. An old woman, at least as old as Grandfather Raen, stood at a table pouring hot water into a tea pot. “Not very often strangers come here. How can this old woman help you?”

Einarr took a deep breath. “I seek the barrow of Ragnar.”

The old woman turned half-blind eyes their direction and raised an eyebrow. “And what would you want with that?”

“I am to wed soon, but I require my ancestor’s sword for the ceremony.”

The old woman hummed thoughtfully. “Everyone on this island knows the location of Ragnar’s hold. Not one of them will go within a mile of it. You are here, I presume, because no-one would tell you?”

“That is correct.”

“I am not so kind as the townsfolk. I will tell you where it is.”

“Th—”

“Don’t thank me, boy. This island has devoured warriors a thousand times stronger than you. If you value your lives, you will turn around and leave before nightfall. This island belongs to Hel.”

Eydri took a deep breath. “Grandmother… what happened here?”

“If you live to reach the hold, you will learn.”

“This man—” she gestured at Einarr. “Is the Cursebreaker.”

“Tcheh. Poor fool.”

“He was named Cursebreaker two years ago, and yet he still lives.”

“Eydri.” Einarr put a hand on her shoulder. He was well aware that he tempted fate with every journey. “That doesn’t help.”

The old woman looked at him shrewdly and nodded, but did not explain. “Do not attempt to take your whole crew. Those who remain behind will not be welcomed, but it will ensure you have the men to leave again. Ragnar’s hold is far north of here, deep within the forest. You will know you are close by the standing stones. Touch them not: they belong to Hel herself…”

Einarr swallowed and nodded, committing the old woman’s directions to memory. A small, cowardly corner of his mind wondered if it was too late to send a pigeon to Jorir, instructing him to forge a blade.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Draft2Digital, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.