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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