The five spent a second night in the windowless meeting hall, although while the door was still guarded this time they were not alone. The hulder had moved their wounded to biers lain about the hall. Some of the huldrakall were up and about, looking as restless as Einarr felt. Wanting, he expected, to be out defending their village again that night, but not healthy enough to be of use.
Irding sat against the wooden wall, one of a handful with broken bones who could do little other than laugh ruefully and accept their position. Jorir had been conscripted to help tend to the wounded. Runa, sitting on a large rock in the center of the hall, sang a peaceful melody. Einarr didn’t think there was any magic in it, but it served its purpose of soothing nerves. Mostly.
Einarr and Erik tried not to join the most restless of the warriors in their pacing. A niggling little voice in the back of Einarr’s mind suggested that, if it had failed, it would be his fault. They had been told, after all, not to fight the Woodsman, and he had gone and bashed its head in. If that had actually been a head, of course. So, instead of pacing, Einarr allowed himself to chew his lower lip.
After a time, the sound of fighting drifted through the walls. It sounded… less fierce, somehow, than the other night, although from their windowless cage it was impossible to tell how the battle actually went. Now he did pace, a growl emanating from low in his throat. Were those cries animal puppets of the Woodsman, or were they hulder? He could not tell.
As gradually as it arose, the sound of fighting faded away. Einarr froze in his tracks. The battle was over he was sure, but to what result? He stared at the door, as though he could see the result of the spell in the grain of the wood.
A hand reached out to touch his arm and he started.
“Come and sit down, love,” Runa murmured softly. “Rest. We will learn in the morning.”
“Who can rest?” Despite his words, he allowed himself to be led over towards the center of the hall.
“The exhausted and the wounded. Sit, and I will sing again.”
“Just fine, thank you. Their herb-witches have brewed something restorative in the water.”
Einarr settled himself on the ground beside her, knowing she was right but intending to maintain vigilance through the night anyway. He could sleep once he knew he hadn’t accidentally destroyed the hulder. Runa’s song held no more than the common magic tonight, after all – that known to soothe the nerves of man and beast alike.
When Einarr awoke, the door stood open and daylight poured in. Runa smiled down at him, looking as though she had not moved since she lulled him to sleep. That, surely, was nonsense, though: she could not have failed to take her own advice, could she?
“Did we win?” That was not quite what he’d intended to ask, but close enough.
“You can ask Elder Auna yourself. She’s waiting on us.”
Einarr scrambled hastily to his feet. “And you didn’t wake me?”
“Of course she didn’t. You deserved your rest. Huld knows you’ve got your work cut out for you, from what your dwarf says.”
“I see.” Einarr offered the elder huldra a respectful bow, then hesitated. “The fisherman we met on the shore called this place accursed, the Isle of the Forgotten. Is that true?”
“I’m afraid so. This village used to care for a forest on Kem. The humans began to pay us less and less mind, and fewer and fewer sought our blessings. Then, one day, we realized we had not seen a man in over a year, and the forest had changed around us. We were no longer on Kem, but here.”
Runa gave a small shudder. “It’s terrible, when you think about it. I’m given to understand that the Woodsman is even older than Auna.”
“More primal, rather. But that is hardly important. You came in search of a mast, and we will gladly allow you to cut a suitable tree.”
“We did it, then? The leshy is contained?”
“I… believe so. Certainly its puppets seemed aimless last night. This has happened before, of course, when the leshy has taken significant damage and had to reform, but even if that were the case you say you were still fighting when the spell took effect. I judge you to have kept your end of the bargain, and therefore I shall keep mine.”
“You have our thanks. Tell me, are there more people here on the island? Thus far we’ve met you and the fisherman who took us in out of the storm…”
“There is a human town on the far side of the forest, although I cannot promise you will like the inhabitants. If you wish to go there, you must pass by the foothills, and that is a treacherous path.”
“I understand. Thank you, Elder Auna.”
She swayed, like a tree in the wind, in answer. “Good fortune to you. Remember that you have made yourselves a friend to us, and do not hesitate to call on that friendship should you require it.”
Auna turned then and left the meeting hall. When she had vanished from sight, Einarr turned on his heel and walked stiffly over towards where Irding lay recuperating, beckoning the others to follow.
He crouched beside Irding, who once again lay back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded as though he had been drugged. Likely he had been.
“All right. We’ve secured ourselves a mast, or at least the ability to make one. Hopefully any other lumber we need to fix the boat, as well. That still leaves food and water, and charts if there are any to be had here. Auna says there’s an actual town on the island: that’s probably our best chance to resupply before we try to escape. And we still don’t know how one escapes this place. I say we chance it.”
“Count me in,” Irding mumbled. Whatever they had given him, it was much stronger than willow bark.
“Sorry, Irding. I’m not taking you deeper into this forest until your ribs are recovered.”
Irding managed to look offended by that even through the haze of the hulder medicine, but all that escaped his lips was a sound akin to a squawk before Erik backed Einarr up.
“He’s right. You need time to mend before we go back to rowing for our lives. Rest up: we’ll handle this.”
Irding grumbled, but there was nothing he could have said just then to convince them to take a wounded man along. “On one condition,” he finally conceded. “You have to tell me anything interesting that happens. Anything.”
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