Auna left them in the meeting hall under heavy guard after giving Runa the lines she would have to inscribe. She, then, wandered off into a corner of the room, muttering under her breath. From the cadence, it sounded as though she were practicing. There had been nothing to write the spell in, after all, save perhaps the dirt of the floor – and under the circumstances that would be dangerous.

Irding let out a long, heavy sigh and lay back on one of the benches in the room, his hands folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Erik folded his legs under him where he stood and pulled out his axe and whetstone. The blade was still dulled from the fight against the stenjätte, but he had ceased to grumble about it more than a week ago. Jorir likewise sat, but he began with a careful inspection of the chains of his maille. Einarr knew he should do the same, but restlessness seized his legs. He paced.

Occasionally he would catch one of the others looking at him, but there was no point explaining himself. He wasn’t even sure he understood why he could not sit still. After a while, when there was still a little light filtering in from around the door, Runa followed a scowl (for distracting her) by beckoning him over. The sound of his boots scraping against the dirt paused long enough for her to pat the ground next to where she sat.

Einarr folded his legs under him to sit next to his beloved. “What can I help with?”

“That is actually exactly what I was about to ask you. You’ve been worrying over something for ages now. Talk to me?”

“I-” he started to deny it, but stopped himself. He couldn’t do that – not with Runa. He laughed a little at the realization. “This has been the longest summer ever.”

“It will be over soon enough.”

“Maybe too soon. We need to get you back to Kjell before the ice sets in.”

Runa hummed. “Ideally. But I think the Matrons might have a way of getting a message back if we can’t.”

Einarr stared at her then. “Song can do that?”

Runa shook her head. “No, not song. I don’t really understand it, myself – I’m still technically an apprentice, after all. But I also don’t think that’s really what’s been worrying you.”

Now it was Einarr’s turn to shake his head. “It is and it isn’t. It seems like ever since the Oracle named me a Cursebreaker, things have gone… strange. Maybe even before, I guess. That Valkyrie ship was awfully far north. And it’s been all we can do to make it through to the next fireball.”

“That’s because you’re a Cursebreaker.” Runa’s voice was soft as she stared off into the distance of the far wall.

“And Cursebreakers always end badly. The ones we remember go out in a blaze of glory… but if I’m honest I’d rather find my own glory.”

Runa nodded, slowly.

“Somehow, though, the way the Oracle was talking I thought the calling might come with some sort of ability to actually do it.”

Runa’s laugh was rueful. “If only. They might live a little longer then. No, to be named Cursebreaker is almost a curse in and of itself. You’ve already survived longer than most.”

He groaned. The Oracle had taken his firstborn in payment. Would she have accepted that if she thought he wouldn’t survive to have a child? That wasn’t worth dwelling on right now, though. “Right. And immediately after we left Attilsund, we had to deal with an island full of ghosts. And then was your rescue. And now there are two ships’ worth of people waiting for us to get back with the cure to whatever the cultists did to us, and I get us cast away here.”

“Doing well so far.”

Einarr harrumphed. Before he knew what he really wanted to ask her, the sound of fighting filled the break in their conversation. He paused, listening. “We’re in no danger. But the hulder will want us to hurry once they let us out of here.”

Erik hummed in agreement. “Sounds vicious out there. I’ll be glad of a sharp blade and solid maille when we leave.”

“Subtle. Real subtle.” Irding still stared at the ceiling.

“He doesn’t need to be,” Einarr said. “He’s right. We’d do well to check our things.” Suiting action to words, Einarr joined the older men in inspection and repair.

***

When morning came, all was once again quiet in the forest. Einarr had slept, albeit restlessly. He suspected no-one else had done better, though. To sleep when the battle raged outside went against the grain – but this once, that was not their role. They were all ready and waiting when the door once again opened to admit the unsmiling figure of Auna.

“Are you prepared?”

Einarr met her gaze levelly. “As ready as we can be. How will we know when we near the Woodsman’s lair?”

“The darkness will grow lighter, and what once tripped you will draw back into open space. Within this clearing there will be a cave, and it is around the mouth of this cave where you must inscribe the spell. Once the Woodsman realizes you are there, what you are doing, you will be in great danger.”

“I would expect no less,” Runa said, lifting her chin in defiance – not of Auna, certainly, but perhaps the odds.

“Then fortune favor you. Should you succeed where we have failed, we will count you a friend to our people.”

Einarr inclined his head respectfully towards the elder huldra. “We will be off, then. Good fortune to you, as well.”

Auna stepped out of the doorway, and Einarr led the others back out into the forest.

The previous night’s battle had encroached on unscarred land. Einarr frowned and picked up the pace: as reluctant as he was to re-enter the Woodsman’s territory, he was more reluctant to allow the creature its victory by inches over the hulder. Ahead, the wood grew dark.


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Behind them lay the sandy beach they had just climbed. Ahead of them, on the other side of a good-sized meadow, lay the blackest forest Einarr had ever seen – darker and more imposing by far than the giant wood on Svartlauf. The trees were all of the ordinary size, but packed so densely it would be impossible for sun to reach the forest floor, with needles darker than the darkest fir. In that spot, a strange reluctance seized their feet and all of them paused, staring at the wood ahead of them and the cliffs beyond it.

“Something in there ought to do for a mast, anyway.” Jorir broke the silence that had fallen as they contemplated the steps ahead. “I mislike the look of that wood, though.”

Einarr and Erik both hummed in agreement, and Einarr was reasonably certain their hesitation had nothing to do with the old fisherman they had left to his nets on the beach. Einarr took a deep breath then and stepped forward. “Well, nothing for it.”

As he stepped into the grass, the ground squelched under Einarr’s boot. Well, perhaps not surprising, given the storm the night before. With a sigh, he pressed on, and the others followed. The ground grew wetter with every step, and soon the mud sucked at his boots, trying to pull them from his feet.

Runa had the worst of it: the hem of her skirt soon grew sodden as she slogged through the meadow-marsh, kicking it ahead of her with every step so it would not tangle in her legs. To her credit, she did not complain, although before long Einarr wondered if she simply did not have the breath to speak. Without a word he let the others pass him and dropped to a knee in the mud.

“My lady.”

For just a moment, he thought she would take him to task for foolishness, but evidently she thought better of it. With a breathless nod, she pinned her skirts up to her knees against Einarr’s back and wrapped her arms about his neck. As he rose he staggered a bit before he found his balance again. Now it was doubly hard to keep his boots, and every step came with the spectre of a slip that would spill both of them in the mud.

“My thanks, dear one” she had murmured in his ear as he rose. It would have been worthwhile even if she hadn’t, but the intimate words brought a smile to his face even as he trudged forward to overtake Jorir once more.

Finally, though, the land began to rise a little as they neared the forest’s edge, and dry a little as it did. They began passing the rotted stumps of deadfalls, and sometimes the gray wood itself, and soon they neared the shadow of the wood. Here they stopped again, by a stump that was merely grayed by time and not yet rotted. Runa got down, and the others all took a moment to catch their breath.

“So this is a thoroughly miserable little island,” Erik said eventually.

Irding agreed. “My thoughts exactly. I’m not sure if I hope there’s a village here or not.”

“I expect there is,” Runa mused. “But I suspect if we find it we’ll wish we hadn’t.”

“Because of what the old man said?” Einarr wasn’t sure the old man wasn’t crazy, but as the Oracle had made abundantly clear there were some definite gaps in his education.

“Quite right.”

“Don’t take this amiss, Lady Runa,” Irding said. “But… I always thought the Isle of the Forgotten was just a bedtime story.”

Jorir actually laughed. “Can’t blame that’un on the Cap’n, milady.”

“Everything you’ve seen,” she grumbled, “and I still hear protests of just a story. Just! Have the Singers kept the lore for nothing?”

“Not nothing, surely.” This was going to blow up fast if Einarr didn’t calm her down. “But since not one of us seems to know what we’re in for…?”

“Bah. Fine.” Runa looked a little mollified, at least. “Basically, the Isle of the Forgotten is the opposite of Valhalla, only apparently you don’t have to die to get there.”

Erik scratched his head. “I thought that was Hel…”

Now it was Runa’s turn to laugh. “Hardly. Those who are taken by Hel can still be remembered, even if not well thought of. The Isle of the Forgotten? That’s where nobodies go. Those who waste their lives, with no deeds at all to speak of – or those who run afoul of certain powerful entities.”

Einarr rolled his eyes. “Yes, I understand that this is my fault. Can we drop it and move on with getting out of here?”

“If we can.” Runa met his eyes there, and the look did nothing to soften her words. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no way off the Isle.”

For the second time that morning time seemed to freeze for Einarr as another’s words hung in the air before him. Could he really have brought such a terrible fate on their heads? Not just theirs, but everyone waiting for them, as well?

Jorir cleared his throat and the spell was broken.

“If landing here is a curse, then plainly I must find a way to break it. That is, apparently, what I do.”

“Let us hope so.”

Only at this point did he break eye contact with his betrothed, when the contest of wills had been agreed a draw. “Now then. I think we’ve sat around talking long enough, don’t you?”

Murmurs of agreement spread around the other sailors, and they once again turned to face the forest. Somehow it felt just as black up close as it had from across the marsh. The difference was, from here they could see scars on trees and earth alike, as though some great battle had taken place here, and recently.

“Let’s find what we need and get out of here,” Jorir grumbled. “I’d rather beg the old man for another night’s lodging than stay in there if I don’t have to.”


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The passing of the storm took with it the ever-present gray of the sky of the ships’ graveyard. If there was one advantage they had on the trip out that they had lacked on the way in, it was the lack of fog – at least for the moment. If there was a second, it was the knowledge that there were no more kalalintu on the island. Still, these were small mercies at best, and the sharpest eyes on the crew had one task: spotting. Everyone else took their turn at the oars, shoving off of submerged sand bars to the calls of the spotters.

Einarr was not among those set to spotting. The foresight spoken of by the Oracle and the foresight required for that task were very different things and so he, too, was among those whose prime task was “hurry up and wait.”

Not that this was without its upside: the sun, now that it had emerged, shone off the water brightly enough to make him squint when he looked over the side. The spotters would be seeing spots for hours after they got through this. He gripped his oar and stared out towards the horizon.

The Vidofnir, her sail furled against errant gusts of frigid wind, crept forward through the shallows with a caution belied by the crowing rooster’s head on her prow. The oars extended out like a hundred hands to push off the shallows by the calls of those within. Seemingly at random, the lumbering longship would veer quite suddenly, the sandbar ahead undetected until the last moment by those within.

Once, as her halting forward progress seemed to become more sure of itself, the Vidofnir shuddered to a halt on a bar the spotters had missed. Then men swarmed from within, carrying what tools they had to dig at the submerged sand until she could start forward again. One of these men, shorter than the rest, grumbled about the lack of powder kegs aboard, but it seemed the rest ignored his complaints.

Once Vidofnir floated free again the men swarmed back onto her broad back and stomped their feet to warm them, hoping their trouser legs would dry before they froze in the wind, and then the sea-steed continued on again, her caution renewed.

For hours this halting, tremulous progress continued, until finally the sand bars fell away and a large rock, more truly an island than the one they had just left, reared up out of the sea ahead of them. The sea had worn away a narrow canyon that split the rock, and were it not for the tide through that canyon even it would be impassable.

Stillness fell over the Vidofnir as she entered the canyon, as of a collective holding of breath. She paused there a long moment, the ship’s eyes blinking away the glare of the sun so they could focus on the shadowed water below and the known danger it hid. Her hold was full to bursting now, and it was a weighty wealth indeed.

On deck, gripping his oar tight enough to whiten his knuckles, Einarr forcibly expelled a breath he knew he could not hold long enough to pass through the chute. The troublesome rock had been nearer this end of the canyon than the other – much nearer. Jorir still grumbled about the lack of explosives on board, and just this once Einarr thought the dwarf might be on to something. However, it was typically only Imperials who packed gunpowder on their boats, and then it was to power the machines that launched sea fire.

Einarr closed his eyes for a moment and exhaled again. Eira preserve us. For a split-second, he wished he still had the Isinntog. He didn’t know how to make it work, of course, but Reki might. He shook his head, banishing the wishful thinking.

“Hold!” The call came from the prow. Almost as one the rowers reversed for one stroke. Sufficient, at their current speed.

“You’ve spotted the hangup?” Stigander asked from his place amidships.

“Nay, sir. Not the hangup.”

“Then why have we stopped?”

“You’d best come see, sir.” The spotter’s voice was uncertain, flustered.

The thunk of Stigander’s boots against the deck boards was loud as he tromped up to have a look at what the spotter did not wish to say. He leaned over the prow to look down into the water and a groan escaped his lips.

“Pick up the pace, gentlemen,” was all he said.

Einarr stopped his father with a look as he passed by, an eyebrow raised.

Stigander leaned over in response to the unspoken query and whispered: “Sea serpent.”

Einarr blinked a few times and nodded. Svarek, next to him, began muttering what sounded like a prayer to Eira, but it seemed he was the only other person to hear. Probably a sea serpent would leave them alone. Something about a longship failed to trigger their predatory instincts the way a dromon could. But every once in a while…

“Oars in!” Stigander ordered, and it was the second shock in as many minutes for most of the crew. The urgency in his voice brooked no delay.

“Brace for a swell!”

The oarsmen planted their feet even as the spotters ducked behind the prow just as a massive swell lifted the Vidofnir’s stern and thrust her forward, carrying her far past the place they all thought they remembered the hangup being. Water sloshed over the deck, cresting the stern and breaching the oar ports.

Silence reigned on the deck for a few moments before Einarr could find voice to give the question that now floated in his brain.

“Was that the serpent’s wake that carried us?”

Stigander’s jaw dropped. When he picked it back up, a chuckle welled up from his chest. “It may well have been!”

Now the laughter spread around the crew, a sound of relief at least as much as merriment. As it died down the rowers went back to their rows and the spotters resumed their positions in the prow.

“Let’s get out of here.”


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The only difference Einarr could see in the barrow cave this morning from when they had left was the lack of shades hovering ominously between himself and the Allthane’s would-be barrow. “Where do you want us?”

Reki strode deeper into the cave without looking back? “You? With me. The rest of you should guard the entryway to the room with the ship for now.”

“Against things coming out or things getting in?” Irding sounded sheepish, but it was a good question.

“Yes. And remember you’re basically on your own against anything that does try to stop me. We’ve no guarantee all of the revenants fell last night.”

Nervous chuckling came from behind Einarr before Troa answered for the group. “Understood.”

Reki may have nodded in response. “Now. Einarr. As I understand it, my predecessor was your stepmother? You were involved in her funeral?”

“Mm.”

“Good. I need you to lash a raft and find the Allthane’s remains. There should be bones, at least. Then get a few things from the old barrow to go down with him.”

“Ah… of course. And you need me to do all of this…”

“You have an hour.”

Einarr frowned. He turned around to face the others in the group. “Irding, Troa. Sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle the raft. Jorir and I will come help if we locate everything else we need in time.”

The three he named looked rather more pleased than offended to be taken off guard duty when the most likely opponent would be insubstantial. The rest of the team took their positions in the entryway, to a man their mouths set in a grim line. Einarr had no desire to fight the shades again, solid forms or not, so he could hardly blame them. “The rest of you… good luck. We’re counting on you.”

Even with the help of his three friends, Einarr passed a tense hour searching the cave for the Allthane’s remains. The grave ship, piled high with gold, contained no bones. Neither did the floor around it. Finally, though, his search carried him over to where the ghostly feast had been set up. Where before there had been nothing, it seemed here were the bones of every man who had fallen to the cannibals.

“How does one tell the bones of a king from the bones of a sailor?” Einarr muttered as he lifted another skull. Handling them sent shivers up and down his spine, and he found himself wanting to wipe his hands every time he rejected one.

“Is it too much to ask that they leave his crown on his pate?” Jorir’s grumblings were of a kind with Einarr’s own.

Einarr growled. “Jorir, I’ll get this, you go pick out some fitting grave goods for the revenant of a thane.”

“You sure?”

“No. But the Oracle seemed to think highly of my perception… maybe that will help? All else fails, we pile the raft high with skulls.”

“As plans go, not the worst I’ve heard.”

“Mm. Go. At least one of us can get away from the charnel miasma.”

Jorir stopped mid-step. “Miasma?”

“Haven’t you felt it?”

“Nay. Just the usual darkness of an old battlefield. …Methinks your superior vision is serving you well already, milord. Find the source of the miasma -”

“And find the body of the Allthane.”

***

Einarr and Reki stood on the shore of the deep water pool that dominated the main cavern, the others arrayed around them to bear witness. At every man’s feet was a torch, and in every man’s hand an arrow, its head wrapped in oil-soaked cloth. Ahead of them floated a crude raft patched together out of boards cut from the Allthane’s rotting grave ship. Some of the ends were already charred, from the abortive funeral three centuries earlier.

The song Reki sang over the ancient royal bones was not what she had sung for the sailors who fell against the Valkyrie, sending them on to Valhalla. Nor did it bear any resemblance to the song Runa had sung at Astrid’s funeral. No. This song was one Einarr had rarely heard, for it was the song of those who were destined for Hel’s dank domain. There was no joy in it – not for a peasant, and less for a fallen king. Little wonder the Allthane had resisted.

A faint green glow arose from the center of the raft, reflecting off the gold Jorir had so carefully selected.

Einarr’s shoulders tensed. He nocked his arrow but did not yet touch it to the torch at his feet. Other witnesses stirred around him. Are we too late? Reki had said by mid-morning, but it was impossible to get a sense of time down here.

The tempo of the Song remained steady, either because it must or because Reki did not see. Einarr swallowed. The cue was soon. With luck, it would be soon enough.

A pair of burning green embers formed in the air above the raft. Then, above them, a ghostly crown faded into existence, less substantial than the fog that had hemmed Einarr’s group in on the beach.

There was the first cue in the music. All around him, arrows blazed to life. Einarr, too, lit his arrow. The crackle of fire was soon followed by the stretching sound of drawing bows.

The outline of a face came into being, now, below the crown and around the eyes. It was the Allthane, not as he imagined himself to be but as he had appeared after Einarr shattered the illusion of the feast. The hair on Einarr’s arms stood on end.

A clawed, ghostly hand stretched out towards the observers.

The song shifted, now, and the minor key grew strident.

Einarr loosed. The whistling of arrows filled the cavern. The first of them – Einarr’s own arrow, he thought – pierced the half-formed face of the Allthane’s shade and the ghost dissipated. Even as the arrow sank beneath the ocean with a plunk this was oddly satisfying. The corners of Einarr’s mouth pulled up into a grim smile as the planks of the raft caught and the gold once again looked like gold.


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