The divination ritual was to be held in the selfsame temple that had housed the Shroud for so long, down in the very vault that had imprisoned it until Sinmora had eaten the magic out of nowhere. I wonder what Vali would have to say about that?

Einarr shook his head, casting off the idle thought. Something about returning to the vault had his stomach doing somersaults, and his mind was just as unsettled. Vali, of course, was half a world away (so far as Einarr knew), on a ship whose adventures should be far tamer and more profitable for Einarr’s absence.

Meanwhile, he had an all-consuming burial cloth floating about the island, seemingly at random – provided it hadn’t yet found a way off the island. That it would was taken as a given by the alfs, although with its tattered end Einarr hoped that would be more difficult than otherwise.

He blinked, refocusing on the trail ahead of him. Melja and Mira led Einarr and a handful of villagers to the temple. The weather, as it always seemed to be, was fair. Are we in Imperial waters, or just near them? Another idle thought flitted up, trying to distract him from the task at hand. Knowing he was nervous didn’t help, though, nor did the knowledge that there was nothing to be nervous about at this stage. All that would happen here is a runic divination to locate the Shroud. After that, it was up to him. Melja had made that perfectly clear.

Finally, the air ahead lightened and he saw the broad clearing and the high wooden walls of the temple. His stomach flopped once more, and then Einarr felt his composure returning. This would be no harder than any other challenge he had faced this summer, and possibly easier than some. He wasn’t going up against creatures with corrupted blood this time, after all. Just a piece of cloth animated by some strange, malignant will.

The vault appeared exactly as it had the last time Einarr had descended those steps, save only that the icy blue glow of the ward runes had been replaced by a new rune matrix. This one was not yet active, his eyes told him even if his rudimentary training had not. They all entered the vault and spread out to stand where Melja and his wife directed.

Once they were all spread about the room, Melja stepped carefully into the center of the matrix and placed the scrap of cloth at his feet. He then moved to take his place between Mira and Einarr in their seven fixed points on the outer circle.

Einarr had seen, once or twice when he was new to the Vidofnir, the casting of the runes by street corner fortune-tellers. The patron (or mark, as Father always called them) asked his question, and the fortune teller (charlatan) would cast sticks or dice down before him and read the answer from those.

What Melja performed in that vault was similar only in that both involved the use of runes. He spoke a word in what Einarr thought was the high elven tongue, and as one the runes began to glow with a pale golden light.

Everyone grew still, although he would not have said they moved before. Melja continued to speak in the strange incomprehensible tongue of the ljosalfs, and while Einarr could not understand the words he felt he did not need to. Indeed, he felt rather curiously detached, as though he were watching the ritual as an outside observer.

A mist seemed to rise up in the center of the room, in a column about the scrap of cloth, and in that mist an image appeared.

A chieftan’s seat in his hall appeared, empty. A thick bearskin rug was spread across the floor, and the cloth spread over the chair was crimson. Einarr’s throat clenched: it had already gotten the chieftan: was it going for the boy, now, too?

No. Skirts drifted into view, and the smiling face of a middle-aged woman and Einarr’s throat cleared. But I thought the boy’s mother was on the hunting trip with them?

The image faded, only to be replaced. No lord’s hall here: instead, it was a public hall like those Sivid favored. Einarr could almost smell the salt in the air, and feel the pounding of feet in the hallingdanse, though once again he saw no-one in the image itself. One of the rugs on the ground, though soiled, was the diaphanous crimson of the Shroud. The sound of a golden bell rang out, and then that image too faded from view.

The mist grew darker and blue, and in that blueness appeared the black of a boat at night. Despite the lighting, though, Einarr could see two things about the boat: its crimson sail, and the bear’s head carved on its prow. The image faded, and the mist dispersed.

Einarr and the elves in the circle looked about at each other, blinking in the sudden return to the present. Melja looked up and met Einarr’s eyes.

“Three chances you will have. The Shroud’s next target is the young Armad’s aunt, the regent Hridi in their Hall outside Eskiborg. She is power-hungry and often vicious, but the boy will likely take her death hard at this time. Especially if she, too, falls to the Shroud.”

Einarr nodded slowly. He, too, would much rather not let it take anyone else. Still, though, the port was a not insignificant distance. How long did he have?

“If you fail there,” Melja continued. “It will then make its way into Eskiborg. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with the city to know which public hall that was, but I suspect the golden bell we heard to be a clue… If it makes it to the city…”

That was Einarr’s concern, as well. “You all assume it is looking for a way off the island. But if it’s in the city, will it still kill until it takes a boat?”

“Likely yes. I could not tell you if its target at the hall will be for death or for passage, but your final chance will be on that boat.”

“The one with the bear’s head. I wish I could have seen it in better light, but I know what to look for.”

“Good. Then go. And gods be with you.”

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Einarr accepted the old crone’s porridge somewhat cautiously. Last night she had spoken of ‘questions,’ and made it sound like more than a few. He wasn’t sure he looked forward to answering them, although he would as honestly as he could.

The porridge, at least, was good. It had a pleasant woodsiness to it that Mira’s did not, and even as he ate he felt his strength returning to him. To Geiti’s apparent amusement, he found himself shoveling the thick grain stew ravenously into his mouth. She, too, ate, though far more sedately.

“I am glad to see your strength returned to you, young Cursebreaker.”

He nodded, buying time to swallow a mouthful. “Thank you for taking care of me. I’ll be sure to pass along your message when I return to the village. For now, though, I must return to my hunt.”

Geiti shook her head, chuckling. Stringy white hair fell forward into her face. “I’d a feeling you were going to say that. You know they have means of tracking it, right? Divining with the runes is more than just fortune-teller’s tricks.”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “I don’t like neglecting my training this way, it’s true… but I am a warrior, not a scholar, and until the Shroud is dealt with it is scholarship they must focus on.”

Geiti snorted. “After all this time, and still those elves don’t understand people. And this time, they’ve sent out a half-literate Cursebreaker to get themselves out of a bind, assuming he doesn’t get himself killed first.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow to hear the woman’s muttering, but said nothing. He wasn’t certain he would put it so uncharitably, but she also wasn’t necessarily wrong. There was, in fact, nothing he could say that would satisfy both hospitality and honesty.

“Don’t you worry yourself over trifles, boy. You go on about your hunt. Maybe, by some stroke of luck, you’ll manage to stop the Shroud before they can. Maybe you’ll even live through it – you look like a scrappy one. Meanwhile, this old woman has work to do.”

Einarr paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth, and stared at her. There was something just a little off about old Geiti. “Who… are you?”

She smirked. “What, do you expect me to throw off my cloak and reveal myself to be Wotan? Frigg? While I may be the Wise Old Woman in the Woods, I am mortal like yourself. I’ve just learned in my years as the highest-ranking Singer on this island something of what to expect of the ljosalfs here. I have something of an understanding with them, you see, although it appears to be past time I paid them another visit.”

“I… see.” Part of him, he was surprised to discover, was a little disappointed that she was not a god in disguise. Most of him, however, was just as glad not to come face to face with either of the Aesir he had robbed earlier this summer.

Now she cackled again. “Be about your hunt, child. You have some idea how to follow the thing?”

“Some, vaguely. I think it might be torn.”

She nodded. “In that case, look for the ends of branches and twigs that have been singed. And if you must make more runestones for yourself, no more than four, and never more than one at a time. At least not until you have a chance to speak with Melja about it. I don’t doubt a stone of two runes would kill you all by itself.”

“Thank you, grandmother. I will remember.”

It took Einarr less than two hours to find his way back to the Chief’s favored campsite where, some four days before, they had found the knife and the trail to the little boy. The new chief, in all likelihood. He pitied the child, but only for a moment. More important by far was finding the Shroud that had in all likelihood orphaned him, and his best chance of doing that was to find the mark his father’s knife had left in the dirt.

He had not, yet, carved himself fresh runestones. The old woman had said four: well, he would keep three about himself, at least for now, but he needed to consider carefully which three.

Einarr stood in the center of the campsite, on the stones of the fire ring, and stared about him. There was the path the children had taken in their mad flight. Unfortunately, that told him little. He allowed himself an exasperated sigh. Calm down. Remember what Afi taught you.

Einarr took a step off to the side and squatted down near the fire ring, closing his eyes. The smell of wet ash still permeated the clearing, somehow, and strongest from the ring in front of him. But that wasn’t the only source.

He pivoted, one knee dropping to the ground, and walked on his knees over to the edge of the clearing. Yes, this was it: this was where Onnir had found the knife stabbed into the ground. Strange that it should have been like that…

…unless someone had been trying to fight off the Shroud. He could see how pinning a thing that was a blindingly fast, flying scarf might be an effective attack. Based on the little boy’s story, it seemed likely that was the case.

The slit was still there, half-hidden by brush. That was probably the only reason it still existed at all. And his nose told him there was a source of char here. He bent down so that his nose was practically touching the ground and dirt got in his whiskers. Nothing on the surface, but that meant little after so long. He combed his fingers over the dirt.

Something tickled his palm. When he moved his hand, in a space that had previously been covered by dust and pebbles, he saw a small patch of diaphanous crimson cloth.

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In the middle of the night, Einarr was awakened by an idea. The keepers of the lodge might not think too highly of him for learning the runes, but Einarr had known very few who would refuse magical aid outright. Besides, he hadn’t practiced since he left the village.

Quietly, although he thought it unlikely he would wake the stupefied men at arms, Einarr made his way from the Lodge into the garden they kept. He had done this as practice some weeks ago in Mira’s garden, and while tedious he thought it would be some measure to repaying their aid and hospitality.

Einarr let himself into the vegetable patch and made his way carefully to the far corner. There, in the dirt around a pumpkin mound, he traced the ᛃ and willed it active, strengthening the plant and encouraging the fruit to grow. He went on, repeating this process as he went. About halfway through the garden, an idea occurred to him: he knew he could use one rune to affect multiple plants, although at somewhat reduced effect. He also knew that one could power more than one rune at a time, else how would inscriptions of multiple runes work? Thus, could he inscribe the rune multiple times, once for each plot, and then activate them all together?

He might have preferred to test this in Mira’s garden, but based on what they had taught him it should work – and let him finish before dawn. He went to work.

The sky was just beginning to lighten as Einarr traced the rune in the dirt by the cabbages. With a deep breath, he looked out over the garden and nodded. He focused his will and activated each of the runes he had just laboriously traced.

A moment’s lightheadedness came over him and he blinked, but then he saw the leaves of the garden vegetables grow lusher and straighter, just as if he had done each plant one at a time, and smiled. On that note, before any of the men of the Lodge were awake, Einarr took his leave.

The morning wore on as Einarr retraced their steps from the previous day, and as he walked it began to grate on him that he was neglecting the training he was brought out here for. Inscribing a rune, though, took little enough concentration that he thought he could at least get practice with the forms as he walked. There would be no trail to pick up until he reached the old campsite anyway.

Einarr picked up a long stick he found by the side of the trail, and would periodically pause to inscribe a rune in the ground – something that would either benefit what was nearby, or at least do no harm. He would inscribe a rune, with one of its characteristics firmly in mind, and activate it, and move on.

Eventually, though, he ran out of runes he could practice in this way, so instead he found himself a strip of birch bark and charred the end of his stick – with his flint, not the rune – in order to write things out as he traveled. Now then. He hadn’t wanted to practice hagall – scrawling in the dirt with a stick. The rune was far too finicky for that, and even on his birch bark with a shorter implement he found he needed to stop and concentrate on what he was doing.

As he finished the last stroke and examined his work for flaws, the rune glowed faintly sky blue and a chill breeze began to eddy around him. The breeze was oddly constant as he took a few steps, and then a few more. He looked again at the bark in his hands: the rune still glowed, faintly, although Einarr was not aware of powering it. Was this how the wards on the shroud had worked? He laughed, pleased at the discovery, and tried willing the wind rune on the page to stop.

He was more than a little surprised when it did. How convenient. With a grin, Einarr paused at a large rock by the side of the path and used his knife to cut free the section of bark that could call the wind. This he put in the pouch at his belt before moving on.

Next he drew the rune of wisdom – – and cut it free, as well. If there was one thing he had often wished for over the course of the past year, it was wisdom beyond his years. This he followed with the rune of self – ᛗ – and the shield rune – ᛉ.

Fatigue settled over Einarr’s limbs as he walked, although it was not yet noon. That’s what I get for rising in the middle of the night, I suppose. Einarr shrugged. He would stop and rest for a little once he found a promising spot on the trail. He wasn’t far from the campsite, though, even with how this had slowed his pace, and so he pressed on.

There was still birch bark left. On a lark, he made a chip for the generous rune (ᚷ) and one for the ocean rune (ᛚ). After all, if he could make these in advance and then use them at need, there was no reason not to.

His feet felt like lead now, inexplicably. Had he truly grown so soft during his time with the alfs? He shook his head. There was enough bark left for one more, and then he would stop to focus on his hunt. The rune of journeys, I think. With a nod, he began to inscribe the ᚱ on the birch bark. As he finished the last stroke, he felt his awareness begin to swim. A powerful feeling of vertigo swept over him, and the forest faded to black.

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The same qualities that made the woods about the Shrouded Village pleasant to live in – their brightness, their openness – also made them accursedly easy to get lost in. Within half a day Einarr learned to set his blazes within sight of each other to avoid walking in circles.

The hunting lodge he sought sat in a clearing much like the one that held the elven temple. Had he not wasted time getting turned around, Einarr thought he should have found it by midafternoon. As it happened, though, he stepped into the clearing to the smell of wood smoke and the sound of chopping wood just as the golden afternoon began to dim into grey twilight.

“Hallo there!” He called from the tree line. Einarr approached openly, making a point to keep his hands visible and empty. He had no intention of being mistaken for a bandit.

Einarr had crossed about half the distance when two men appeared. They wore simple tunics and trousers, and one of them had an axe slipped through his belt.

“Evening, stranger,” said the one with the axe, wary.

“Good evening.” Einarr stood with his open empty palms facing the two men. “Is the Lord of the Hall in?”

It was, evidently, the wrong question. Both men tensed, and the woodcutter reached for his axe.

Einarr raised his hands defensively, open palms out. “I have come from the alfr village near here. I just want to talk.”

“But you’re a human,” said the apparently unarmed one.

“I came to learn how to read the runes.”

The woodcutter did a poor job of smothering a sneer. “So what brings a sorcerer’s apprentice here?”

“There’s trouble afoot. Have either of you seen anything unusual in the last few days?”

They didn’t relax, exactly, but they lowered their guard. “Trouble, you say,” said the woodcutter. “Perhaps you had better come inside.”

The chief’s hunting lodge was well-kept: Einarr suspected it served as a secondary court or perhaps as a summer entertainment for his men-at-arms. The usual trophies were on display: reindeer antlers, animal skin rugs, the teeth and claws of various predators.

The two guardians gestured at the long table as they led Einarr inside. “Sit,” said the unarmed one. “Speak. Supper will be on soon.”

Einarr swung a leg over one of the benches at the long table, glad to be off his feet. “Two days ago, a stranger showed up in the alfr village, after the artifact that they guard.”

“The Muspel Shroud. Everyone on the island knows of it.” The woodcutter sounded grim.

Einarr inclined his head. “Then I think you know where this is headed.”

“Aye, as soon as you said trouble, although I wish I’d been wrong. I suppose it got the young fool?”

“Yes, we believe so – him and his horse. They’re working on a way to deal with the thing again. Meanwhile, I’m trying to find it.”

The unarmed man, over at the soup pot, could not quite control the tremor in his hands as he dished up three bowls. “Eat up,” he said, bringing the bowls to the table. “It’s not much of a last meal, but at least it’s hot.”

Einarr half-smiled, but when the implication hit he half stood, pushing back from the table. “Last meal?”

“Relax,” the woodcutter said. “We’re not such cowards that we’d take our own lives without even an enemy in sight. Just if the Shroud is loose, that means any meal could be your last. Best to enjoy what life you have left.”

“…Ah.” Einarr sat back down slowly, and smelled of the soup very carefully before taking a sip. “Why do you know about the Shroud?”

“Because the alfs wanted to avoid witch hunts and panic should the thing ever get loose. They’re big on their secrets, the alfs are, but that’s not one of them. Unfortunately…”

“Unfortunately, that probably means our Lord is lost, as well. He sent word that he would be coming out, but he should have arrived yesterday.”

Einarr sat up. “While I hope that is not the case, would you tell me the route he usually travels to come here? And what sort of remains I might be looking for, should the Shroud have consumed him.”

The woodcutter laughed. It was not a happy sound. “You think the Shroud leaves remains? If you’re lucky, you might find some ash.”

Einarr took another sip of the soup, pondering that. Back at the temple, had he smelled burned flesh? Had there been too much dust in the air as he climbed out of the cellar? He nodded, slowly. “I see. That has been extraordinarily helpful.”

The other man shrugged. “Not a one of us wants that thing loose. Stay here tonight. In the morning, I’ll trace the path with you.”

“You have my thanks.”

“Just find the thing so that the Runemasters can deal with it.”

“That is my intention.” And if I’m lucky, Mira and Melja will get an answer to me before I find it.

A fine misting rain fell when the three rose the next morning. It would be gone by midday – it always was, on this island – but it meant the morning’s travel would be damp and cold. Einarr shrugged and buckled his cloak about his neck: maybe the rain would help if they encountered the artifact. Not likely, but a man can dream, can’t he?

Onnir – the man who had been unarmed yesterday – today carried a scramasax and a hunting bow, and was dressed for hunting. He was checking over his bowstring as Einarr left the hall. “Are we ready?”

“To find a trail? Absolutely. Lead on, friend. How are you with that blade?”

He shrugged. “Passable. Better with the bow.”

“I’ll trust you with my back, then. Shall we go?”

Onnir grunted and started off down the path in an odd, almost bouncing gait. Einarr followed close on his heels.

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The thief’s fiery sword, flaming no longer, fell to the floor with a clatter as the man backed towards the cellar ladder. The man’s eyes were wide, and it was like he couldn’t tell what was most horrifying.

Einarr, though, was too stunned to pursue. Sinmora still shone with the magic it had stolen… from… the wards!

Einarr spun on his heel even as the thief screamed. A red blur whipped past Einarr to the sound of feet racing up the rungs of the ladder. The glow of runes from within the vault was gone. The cellar was now lit only by the icy cold light emanating from Sinmora. The vault was empty.

Einarr now raced up the ladder, Sinmora’s hilt still clutched in his hand. At that moment, two thoughts warred for dominance in his head: where is the Shroud and what just happened?

At the top of the ladder Einarr stopped, trying to spot the thief. He shouldn’t have been that far ahead, but Einarr could neither see nor hear any trace of him.

Frowning, Einarr ran for the exit. He didn’t know where the thief had gone, but it didn’t much matter now. The Muspel Shroud was loose, and if even half what Melja had told him was accurate they were in trouble.

The bay was gone. Einarr had no way of knowing if it was being run into the ground or if it had fallen victim to the Shroud. He sheathed his sword and ran for the village.

Einarr arrived on the outskirts of the village, red-faced and winded, an hour later. Melja demanded, before he had caught his breath, “Did you stop him?”

Einarr shook his head. “I mean, yes, but it didn’t matter. My sword -”

He was interrupted by a long wail from his teacher. “What do you mean, it didn’t matter?”

“My sword… it’s never done anything like this before! My sword ate the wards, and then used that to put out his sword!” He drew Sinmora to show them the blade, still unnaturally cold and glowing faintly even in daylight.

“So the Shroud is free, for the first time in generations,” Melja moaned again, but then seemed to really see the blade held out before him. “What did you say?”

“Sinmora. Always before, she wasn’t magical at all. Then today, fighting that thief, it was like she sucked in all the power from the wards. It put out his sword, but…”

“But it cost us the ward.” The man sighed, then cursed. “You plainly didn’t expect your sword to start pulling power. There’s no point in casting stones. Let’s just… find the thing and lock it back down.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Einarr paused, trying to recall what all he’d been told. “Um, how was it caught the first time?”

“My great-great grandfather set a trap for it.” Melja sighed again. “But, so far as we can tell, he never told anyone how he trapped it. My grandfather said he thought something about the trap was shameful.”

Einarr grimaced. That gave him an unfortunate idea of what might have been involved. “Let’s see if we can’t come up with a cleaner method, then. Surely, as its guardians for so long, there are records of what it can do?”

Melja nodded, suddenly looking very tired. “This way.”

No-one ever saw the thief – or his horse – again. Within the village, it was assumed they fell to the Shroud.

Einarr, closeted away with the dusty scrolls of the Runemasters, quickly grew frustrated. Always before he could consult a Singer, and even if they did not know they could extrapolate. Here, it seemed that the records were all either far too precise or hopelessly vague.

By noon on the second day after the attack, he was fed up. “This is not where I belong here. I’m going to go out and look for the thing, so that hopefully once you have an answer we can just use it.”

Melja looked up from his scroll from under his brows. “That impatience will be the death of you one day, if you’re not careful.”

Einarr snorted. “But not, I think, today. I am not a scholar, Melja, and all my progress with the runes isn’t going to change that. But I am a decent hunter.”

“Suit yourself.”

With a nod of thanks, Einarr excused himself. The clean air outside refreshed his mood immediately, and the clear sky and bright sun made it hard to remember that there was an intelligent piece of cloth on the island, looking for its next prey. What in the name of all the gods am I doing with my life?

He shook his head, shaking off the wry impression that had been haunting him all summer, it seemed. The Shroud had either kept to the forest thus far, or bypassed the village that had for so long been set to watch over its prison. The port, however, was an equally poor place to try to pick up its track: too far away, and likely too large.

Luckily, the local chief maintained a hunting lodge not far from the Shrouded village that he was known to frequent, and when he was not there personally there were some few hired hands who lived there to maintain it. If anyone would have noticed something amiss, it would be a professional hunter. With a spring in his step and his good elven cloak over his shoulders, Einarr set out across the forest.

Now all that was necessary was for Melja or Mira to find something – anything – that could help them defeat the damnable thing.

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

Einarr blinked back to consciousness with the faces of Melja and Mira staring down at him and a strange tingling on his forehead and shield arm. He knit his brow. “What happened?”

“The fool has gone to free the Shroud!” Melja’s voice was husky, as though from shouting. “Our runes had no effect. At this rate…”

Einarr nodded, pushing himself to his feet. “I’ll not lose a second time,” he swore.

With Sinmora back in her sheath, and a new shield on his arm, Einarr set off at a jog for the temple.

Catching up with the man before he found the temple was a lost cause, Einarr was sure. That meant he would be facing the thief at the temple – hopefully before he found the vault, but Einarr would not hold his breath for that.

As Einarr jogged the trail, glad it was clearly marked, he replayed their earlier fight. It had been, he thought, like going up against Erik, except that so far as Erik was concerned, sparring was play. But even outmassed and out-reached as Einarr was, even with that magic sword, Einarr knew there had to be a way to fight the thief. He just hoped he had enough time to discover what that was.

As Einarr entered the open field surrounding the temple, he saw the thief’s horse grazing hungrily. The thief was nowhere in sight. Einarr sighed and picked up his pace: time was running out.

It was easy, unfortunately, to track the thief’s progress through the temple by the scorch marks he left on walls and floor alike. Einarr could think of no reason for those, or for the sword to be drawn in the first place. Had he been expecting guards? That seemed unlikely. The man’s wanton destruction did suggest a means under his skin, however. Those most willing to show off their swords, after all, were also said to be lacking in manhood – if not perhaps in quite the same way as those who turn to magic. Provoking the man would never be Einarr’s first choice of tactics, but under the circumstances it might be the best available.

The door to the cellar stood open. Einarr slid down the ladder, the smell of blood and burned flesh already assaulting his nose. Anger began to bubble in his stomach, and harder when he saw the body of the guard. That had been no fight: that was butchery.

Behind the body, the door to the vault also stood open. Inside, the brash man with the fiery sword strode straight towards the crimson fabric, his prize, at the center of the wards. The Shroud now snapped and cracked like a banner in high wind.

Einarr planted his feet at the threshold and drew Sinmora. He leveled his blade at the burly man. “That’s far enough.”

The thief stopped in his tracks. Then, slowly, ostentatiously casually, he rotated on one foot to face the door. He wore a smug grin like a mask. “Well. Look who’s back for more.”

“I can’t let you break that seal.”

“Like you can stop me?” He spat to the side and leered at Einarr. “You might as well just bend over and take your beating.”

“You’ll not find me so easy the second time. Now step out of that room and answer for yourself, you pig-sticker.”


“Tell me, on those cold winter nights, is it pigs or goats you turn to for comfort?”

“Say that again.”

“Did I mumble? You don’t like it, come out here and fight me properly.” The enclosed space of the cellar would level the playing field between them, at least. And with the other man hopefully not thinking clearly…

The black-haired man charged at Einarr, barrelling forward fast enough that Einarr had to skip backward to get out of the way. A quick sidestep took him out of the man’s path and left an opening. Sinmora slashed, and the man howled.

The thief gathered himself and took his sword in both hands, his eyes never leaving Einarr’s. “You’ll regret that.”

“Will I? Your swordplay makes me wonder if I wasn’t right. Has a woman ever graced your bed?”

With a wordless scream, the thief charged for Einarr yet again, his fiery blade unavoidable this time.

Einarr brought Sinmora and his shield up to guard. Sinmora seemed to pulse with power, but Einarr had no time to question that. He turned the blade aside with his shield boss, narrowly, and scrambled back around behind his opponent.

Which is why he saw the runes in the vault begin to glow with an eldritch blue light. Hel. That can’t be good. I need to finish this quickly

Sinmora pulsed a second time as Einarr brought her up to guard against the incoming blow. Last time, it was at about this point in the fight that the man battered down Einarr’s guard.

In the instant before their blades met, Einarr saw a flash of cold blue light from inside the vault. A whirlpool of energy formed with Sinmora at the center, drawing it in, and then it was the blade itself glowing with the cold energy of the runes.

Steel clashed against steel, and ice crystals formed all up and down the length of Sinmora’s blade. Einarr nearly dropped it from cold and surprise. That white, icy energy suddenly infusing Sinmora attacked the flames running along the length of the other blade. Extinguishing them.

A heartbeat later, it was over. The thief’s blade clattered to the floor, now evidently just an ordinary long sword, as its owner stared at it in disbelief.

Einarr stared at the blade in his hand, dumbfounded. That had never happened before. There would have been stories if it had.

The thief, no longer paying any attention to his prize in the vault, also stared dumbly at the weapons. With a strangled scream, he scrambled back towards the cellar entrance.

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As agreed, Einarr rose with the sun the next morning and was promptly set to work gathering eggs and drawing water. When that was done there were goats to milk, and Mira quite cheerfully set him to building up the hearth fire while she prepared breakfast for the three of them. Einarr did the work gladly: as he had thought the night before, it was very like being back at Afi’s freehold. Not that Afi would have approved of Einarr learning runes any more than his father did.

After breakfast, Einarr expected Melja to sit him down in a room somewhere with quill and ink and birch bark. Instead, he was led to the stream outside the village and there given a lecture on all the properties of water.

It was nearly midday before Melja determined Einarr was ‘ready’ for the form of the rune for smaller bodies of water. There was, evidently, a different rune used when dealing with the sea.

After lunch, Einarr was put to work on more chores. This time, however, he was instructed to find as many opportunities to use that one rune as he could. The goal was to have it mastered by dinner.

“Well, Einarr? Do you think you understand the Rune of Flowing now?”

Einarr shook his head. “I feel like I know it, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing here. I could tell you all of its meanings, and at least a dozen ways to use it, but I don’t think that’s really what you’re asking here.”

Mira cackled. “This one is clever, he is. Clever, and wiser than he looks.”

“Thanks,” he drawled, sarcasm heavy in his voice.

Melja laughed now. “Of course he’s wiser than you expect, Mira. He’s been raiding half his life, I wager, and wasn’t too proud to ask for help. If you hadn’t been named Cursebreaker, that alone could save your skin.”

Einarr chuckled, not a little bitterly. “Of that I am all too aware. Part of me wonders if all our answers together were worth the Oracle naming me.”

Melja and Mira both shook their heads.

“A burden, it’s true,” Mira started.

“But if you hadn’t been Called by the Oracle, you’d have learned of it by circumstance.” Melja’s voice was solemn, brooking no opposition, as though he were lecturing again. Einarr shuddered at the thought of facing the cultists without knowing that the world was out to kill him.

“It’s been a long first day, and you did well with ûr. Tomorrow we will study ár.”

For two weeks, Einarr’s studies continued in this manner. He learned the runes of water and ice, of earth, and of protection but, strangely, not of fire. Some of them, such as the dancing rune, seemed obscure and were tricky, to say the least, to practice in the course of afternoon labor. In the evening, at the end of those two weeks, Einarr asked about it.

“The rune of fire is a fell thing,” Melja intoned. “You will learn it, true, but last. It is more often laid to cause destruction than to prevent it, and never in daily life.”

“Whyever not? Surely the will of the worker determines the use of the tool?”

“Ordinarily, yes, but it is also a rune of sickness and death. Used incautiously, it brings calamity.”

“Are you saying that fire is inherently corrupting?” Einarr furrowed his brow. That made no sense: the dead were burned, after all.

“No, not inherently. It is still a rune that requires careful intention to use and…” he trailed off.


“And we require our students have a little more experience before we teach it.” These words came out in a rush: Einarr suspected they were not what Melja had begun to say.

Still, for now, it was an answer he could afford to accept. Something, though, was definitely strange about this elven village on a Midgardr isle. “I take it, then, that the reason the village is here is also… more advanced knowledge?”

“Yes, exactly!” That, too, sounded less than honest, though Einarr could not put a finger on why. There was not, however, any good way to press the man on the question at this moment.

He caught a hint of the answer just two days later.

Over the course of studying the sun rune, during the afternoon labors, Einarr grew too hasty and made a careless mistake: he failed to properly connect two legs of the figure. It was the sort of mistake any apprentice might make, particularly one engrossed in the throes of experimentation. The reaction, however, was dramatic.

He had been set to weeding one of the vegetable patches. The first test, he used the rune to improve the light for the cabbages and onions. The second, he used another aspect of the rune, intending to smite only the weeds with lightning. (As for why the sun and lightning were tied to the same rune, he had no guesses.) Rather than a small puff of smoke and the smell of oncoming rain, however, the particular weed in front of him began to smoke. Soon, fire was licking at the stems and threatening the vegetables around it.

Melja was already sprinting across the patch. Hastily, Einarr drew water and protection runes, hoping to mitigate the damage. Fire, after all, should kill the interloper just as well as lightning. Something was wrong, though: his ward, that based on the nature of the two runes should have worked, did nothing to quench or even slow the fire.

“What happened?” Melja bellowed in Einarr’s ear as he ran up.

“I don’t know! Every time before, it’s been a tiny lightning bolt. Why isn’t the water protection stopping it?”

Hardly bothering to look at Einarr’s attempts, Melja traced his own sequence of runes, almost identical to Einarr’s, and the fire went out. Standing before them was a very blackened, mostly dead weed.

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The light had dimmed from its lustrous gold by the time Ystävä led Einarr out of the trackless wood and onto a broad path – broad enough that a wagon could be driven down it at need, if barely. The sky had turned the white of early dusk, and from the trees about them he could hear the calls of birds settling in for the night.

“Nearly there,” Ystävä muttered as he strode off south along the trail. Needlessly, Einarr thought. Within a hundred paces he could smell the tang of wood smoke and hear the sounds of village life. Not many paces further on, Einarr caught sight of buildings.

It was, somehow, not in the slightest what Einarr expected and exactly what it had to be. There were no spiraling towers, or even any true stone. The village reminded him a bit of the freehold where he stayed with Grimhildr’s parents as a youth. Walls of treated timber, rooved with thatch or shakes or, if the inhabitant was truly well-off, tile. Inside, the floors would be covered in fresh, or at least fresh-ish, rushes.

Einarr smiled. He remembered those few summers, before he was given Sinmora, fondly. If this was that sort of place, he thought he would do well.

His guide was already striding deeper into the village – heading, it appeared, to the largest of the buildings with a tile roof. Einarr hurried to once more close the gap between them.

Those few people he still saw out and about looked more like farmers than rune masters, but with the appearance of the village that fit. Still, though, he wondered. “If these alfs are all rune masters,” he murmured when he caught up to Ystävä. “Why does there not seem to be any magic in the village?”

Why they were on Midgardr and not Alfheim was another question, but not one he wanted to ask just then.

Ystävä smiled cryptically. “You’ll see.”

Then they stopped, the tile-roofed home before them, light spilling out from under the shutters. Ystävä rapped lightly on the door and stood back.

The deep baritone that sounded from within was unmistakably annoyed. “Whoever you are,” he said. “You’d best have an excellent reason for interrupting my supper!”

Ystävä smiled, amused (although Einarr was not certain what could be amusing). “How about a new student, Elder Melja?”

The door burst open before them. Filling the open doorway, framed by the welcoming glow of candlelight, stood an alfr man with the golden hair and upswept features one expects of his race. If it were not for those, Einarr might have thought he was looking at a particularly well-formed human man: he towered over the two of them, broad-shouldered and clean-shaven.

“There you are, you old dog! I’d begun to think the human had gotten cold feet!”

“No, no. You know how chancy the High Road can be, though.”

The village elder laughed. “Too true. Come in, come in. You’ll be resting the night, I trust?”

As they followed Melja into the warmly lit room, Ystävä bowed his head as though to demure. “I’d hate to impose.”

“Nonsense! Stay, rest, visit your mysterious lady in the morning. The High Road is no place to be at night.”

Ystävä gave that small, amused smile again and said “If you insist.”

Inside, the home was as simple as Einarr expected, and as welcoming. A woman, as slight as the Elder was large, ladled the night’s meal into a pair of bowls. The smell of fresh bread tickled his nose, and he felt his cheeks color in embarrassment when his stomach had the audacity to rumble loudly.

The Elder laughed, not unkindly. “I imagine you’ve not eaten all day, have you?”

Einarr shook his head: they had not stopped more than a moment during the day’s travel.

“I beg your pardon,” Ystävä said. “Allow me to introduce Einarr, son of Stigander, son of Raen, scion of Breidelstein and Cursebreaker, so named by the Oracle at Attilsund.”

“Welcome, young Cursebreaker. Sit, eat, and we will speak once the edge has come off your hunger. Are their places set, my love?”

“Aye, ready and cooling while you lot flap your jaws. Sit! Eat! Be welcome in our home.” The woman’s voice was pleasant, if aged in a way her husband’s was not.

Einarr’s family was half an ocean, give or take, away, and yet this first meal in an unknown village was one of the most pleasant he had experienced in recent memory. No doom-seeking axe now hung over his neck. Melja, with Mira his wife, welcomed him into their home as though he were a long-lost son, and over the course of their conversation he learned that he was neither the first nor the fifth human they had instructed in the course of their long alfish lives. They made him so comfortable, in this short stretch of time, that the question he had not wanted to ask earlier came unbidden to his lips.

“So why is the Shrouded Village on Midgardr?”

Melja paused a long moment, looking more sober than Einarr had yet seen him. “That is a long story, which will be better explained over the course of your training. You are road-weary tonight: there will be plenty of time to explore these mysteries later.”

Einarr inclined his head, not entirely satisfied. Still, a promise of more to come would do, for now.

Since the topic had turned, however obliquely, to training, Melja explained how the next several weeks were going to go. Einarr would rise with the sun and assist with chores in the mundane way. There was always wood to be chopped and chickens to be fed, after all. Then, after breakfast, he would learn the form and reading and nuance of a single rune, and in the afternoon put that rune to practical use. What was meant, exactly, by practical use Melja did not explain, but Einarr was satisfied. That night he slept soundly under the roof of his new tutors.

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