For as nervous as Einarr had been about the answer to his father’s question, he felt no trepidation at all on the matter of his own.
The Oracle, too, seemed less reluctant before his question than she had before Stigander’s, spending less time than she had for anyone save Arring reviewing her materials. She turned to look expectantly at him.
“My lady Oracle, how might I best win over the father of my beloved without betraying my own family?”
She nodded: it was, more or less, the question he was sure she’d expected. With a graceful efficiency the Oracle turned to her loom and began to spin.
As the hours passed, he found he was just as perplexed as to the meaning of his weaving as to Stigander’s, though for entirely different reasons. Images abounded, but while they all connected to him they did not seem to connect to one another. One small consolation, they all appeared to require him to show his mettle and his virtue… although that may not have been as much of a consolation as it seemed.
Before he quite realized she was done, the rhythmic clacking of the shuttles quieted, and instead he heard a single muted clunk of wood on stone.
In expectation of her next demand, he said “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“No, of course not. You are yet young, even among humans.” The Oracle sighed quietly.
“There are no shortcuts, Cursebreaker.” She paused a long moment here. “Your princess’ father must be convinced that you are not the feckless wandering youth your past would suggest. Prove yourself reliable, virtuous, and valiant, and for the sake of your Father’s friendship and his daughter’s devotion he will agree.”
“Do not make the mistake of believing this easy, for life is often less clear-cut than the tests of virtue you underwent to reach this place.” She turned around to face him and stepped forward. In the next moment, she had taken his hands in hers as though she were his mother. “Truth be told, your father could have told you the same with near as much conviction. He would lack only the certainty that his friend’s opposition was neither fated nor everlasting.”
“Apologies, my lady. I did not mean to waste your time.”
“Not a waste, Cursebreaker. Your reading, and your father’s, have allowed you to see the limits of your perception, and that in itself is valuable training. Your calling has already placed a pair of tasks in front of you, both of which will wait a time. Go. Learn. Gather men to impress your princess’ father. When the time comes, you will see what you must do.”
“Thank you, Oracle.”
“That’s better. Now we should rejoin the others.”
If the table that night was any less lavishly appointed than the one when they arrived three days previous, it was only because the dinner guests were less hungry for mead and meat when well-rested and no mushrooms had stewed in the mead. As the evening wore on the Oracle took each of them aside separately to speak of payments.
Einarr gave a sympathetic half-smile when it was Arring’s turn. The man grew visibly tense when she called him aside, and stood a half-step farther away from her than looked quite natural. The Oracle had meant well when she declared the man should remarry… but under the circumstances it had been the exact wrong thing to say.
The apprentices moved around the table but kept quiet, leaving the Vidofnings’ conversation to flow naturally wherever it would. Tonight that was to the laying of plans, for tomorrow or the day after they would set sail once more. Sivid was going on at length about how what was needed now was men, first and foremost, when a slender elven hand fell lightly on Einarr’s shoulder.
“We must yet discuss your fee.”
“Of course, milady.”
She led him away from the table and the fire, and in the moonlight she seemed to glow. “Your request was, in truth, but a small thing. Your education, however rushed, is another matter.”
“Do you? Truth be told, I would rather keep you here, perhaps for a year and a day, to serve as my apprentices do and receive proper instruction. However, I fear time is too short for that, and the Eagle would never agree. You have seen one of the demon ships?”
“Yes.” There was no better word to describe the ship that had stolen Astrid away from his father.
“If they ply the waves already, then experience shall have to teach you. I have at least set you on the path. Thus, this I will demand of you: when your firstborn child passes eight winters, you will send them to me for a year and a day, and they shall pay your debt and gain a proper education in the process.”
Einarr swallowed. “And should my firstborn not reach eight winters?”
“Then you shall send the eldest who reaches that age, although I doubt any such substitution will occur. Do you consent?”
He gave it as a credit that he only had to consider for a moment. An apprenticeship under an Elven oracle was not a chance lightly passed over. “I do.”
“Good. Oh, and do yourself a favor. Learn the runes. Contrary to your father’s opinion, they do come in handy.”
“I shall look into it, milady.”
The Oracle nodded crisply and motioned toward the table where it sounded like Sivid and Arring were arguing over whether coin or crew was most important just now. Einarr had reached the table before he realized she was no longer behind him.