Einarr set his jaw. Cursing himself for a fool, and glad he hadn’t moved his feet just there, he turned himself exactly around. He was a decent tracker, even if he’d never been able to do a lot of hunting: with a little luck he’d be able to retrace his own steps.

Behind him, though, the path soon disappeared into an impenetrable bramble of thorns into which his boot prints disappeared. He attempted to follow around the outside of the thicket, but there, too, the thorns grew – so quickly they seemed to sprout and curl before his eyes. Whatever else this trickster spirit is, it certainly is persistent. Frowning harder now, he turned back around and marched further in.

“I don’t know who you are or what you want, but I will have you return me to my friends,” he announced to the forest around him. No answer came, save the trilling of bird song. At least it’s not cawing. Of the many hazards of stealing the Őrlögnir, one that he had not until this moment contemplated was that he would be going against Wotan’s personal spies. He cursed aloud.

“Oh, there’s no cause for that now.” The voice was light and airy, although still masculine, and seemed to come out of thin air.

Einarr stopped, his hand traveling to Sinmora’s hilt. “Who are you?”

The slender, almost effeminate form of a male alfr separated itself from a tree just ahead of him on the path. “Does it matter?”

Einarr would swear the elf had not been there before: his clothes were the color of tree bark, true, but his hair was as golden as the Oracle’s, and his skin fairer than Runa’s. Einarr stared openly at the creature, waiting for an answer.

“You may call me Ystävä.”

Well, that name couldn’t be more obviously fake. “I shall choose my own friends, thank you. What do you want?”

“Let us say that I, too, have an interest in your success on this quest. I have something which may aid you…”

“I see. And what would the price of this aid be?” Everyone knew that alfr “gifts” came at a heavy price.

The elf smirked. “Are you, perhaps, not so stupid as you first appear?”

Einarr bristled, but was not given a chance to retort.

“But I am not here to play games with you. As pleasant as that can be, I must mind your mortal time if this is to work. There is a small task I will ask you to perform with Frigg’s distaff once you acquire it – nothing major, and you will alleviate a great deal of suffering by doing so.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Refuse?” The alfr laughed, the notes as musical as any Singer’s. “Perhaps you are entirely stupid. You allowed yourself to be drawn into my domain, and in my domain you will stay until I decide otherwise. You have my word, on the font of Art itself and by the hand of Tyr, that my request will not violate your conscience or your father’s.”

Einarr glared at the elf. “I mistrust this mysterious task of yours, but you make it plain I have no choice. Very well; give it here and I will be on my way.”

“Wonderful!” The alfr smiled, and a chill ran down Einarr’s spine when it did not touch his eyes.

“Why all this subterfuge, if what you want is so harmless?”

“Well, you see, I am known to the Circle of Singers…”

“And they don’t trust you either?”

“You wound me! What possible reason have I given you to distrust me?”

Einarr did not dignify that with a response even as the elf pouted at him.

“Very well. Spoil my fun. Here. Once you get to the tower, you’ll know what to do with it.” The elf shoved a wooden brooch into Einarr’s hand. When he opened his palm to look, it was in the shape of a raven and covered in runes.

“What -” But when he looked up from the brooch, the elf was already gone. A low growl escaped his throat.

The lush greenery almost seemed to grow back into the earth, it faded so quickly back into the oak wood he had been walking through just this morning.

A thread of song filtered through the trees from off to his right: Runa. How long had they been searching for him? Einarr set off at a jog in search of the voice.

It was not long before he could see his companions stopped on the road: they looked tired, and Reki in particular looked very annoyed by the way she held her shoulders under her cloak.

“Sorry,” he said as he approached the road, before any of them could begin to scold him. “Some ass of an alfr decided he was going to help us whether we wanted it or no.”

Reki scowled at him from under her hood. “Tell me what happened. In detail.”

Einarr sighed. And, as expected, she was even less happy with this turn of events than Einarr had been after hearing the tale.

“I take it this ‘Ystävä’ is known to you?”

“Unfortunately. And while I’m glad he returned you to us with only minimal delay…”

“You also mistrust the ‘task’ he wishes to ask of me. How long since I disappeared?”

“Half a day,” Trabbi grumbled.

Einarr bit off a curse. “Then let us discuss this further once we’re out of his little playground… whoever he actually is.”

Now Reki was not the only one setting a brisk pace: if they wanted to reach East Port before dark, speed was of the essence. Even so it was late afternoon before they emerged from the shadow of the forest, and deep into twilight before they arrived at the outskirts of the town. Einarr flared his nostrils: from here everything appeared normal, at least. There were no screams of tentacled horrors that came to his ears – or any screams at all – which had to be a good sign. He shared a glance with Reki. “Let’s go.”


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Three paces outside the door of the hall his tune trailed off and he stopped, now seeing what was in store for them.

Set up in the Hall yard were two large wooden tubs on a platform over a bonfire. Steam rose up into the midsummer morning, and the air smelled strongly of peppermint and lavender. It was true that Einarr had wanted a bath for weeks now. For all that these were washing tubs, however, this looked more like a scalding pot.

The plump Matron looked up from her nalbinding and hailed him with a smile. “Good morning!”

“I think that my companions and I should make a poor meal, honored Amma.”

To her credit, and Einarr’s relief, she laughed. “You’ll not be cooked unless you stay in too long. ‘Tis a bath, but for the herbs to work it must be hot.”

“More purification?”

“As much as we can do. The corruption has had long to work on your men: we must drive it back as hard and as fast as we can if you are to succeed in your quest.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow. This was the first any such quest had been mentioned to him, although that there would be one did not surprise him.

“Well, up you go. There are baskets above for your things.”

When he stepped over the side of the tub, it was as though someone had brewed medicinal tea in a hot spring. The fragrance filled his nose and threatened to make him cough, it was so strong. Still, he thought he would prefer not to grow tentacles, and so he breathed shallowly until he could grow used to the odor. His feet turned pink almost immediately, but too hot or not he intended to take full advantage.

Barri and Sivid emerged from the hall as he was scrubbing his arms. By the thunderstruck look on both their faces, he knew exactly what they were thinking. “Good morrow! Come on in, the water’s fine.”

“Are you sure we’re not being softened up for a pudding?” Sivid asked as he climbed the platform.

Einarr belly laughed. “Would you eat something that smelled like this?”

Barri coughed. As eloquent a response as Einarr could hope for, he laughed again.

***

All nine of their party had been steeped and scrubbed before the sun had crested the forest canopy, and with Runa returned to them they fell to the morning’s porridge with berries and cream. That was when the oaken crone took her seat at the head of the table – although Einarr noted that she was not eating. For a time, she merely sat in silence.

Impatient, Einarr broke her reverie between bites. “I understand there’s some sort of quest you require of us?”

She pressed her lips into a thin line and looked flatly at Einarr. “Yes. I suppose Saetild said something this morning?”

“Is that her name? The cheerful, plump one? We haven’t actually been introduced to any of you.”

The oaken crone sighed, the sound like rustling leaves. “Quite.”

“So? What sort of horrific danger do I have to face in order to save us all from the corrupted blood of the cult that kidnapped Runa?”

Now it was the crone’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Rather cynical for one so young.”

“Honored Amma. My year began with the issuance of a purportedly impossible quest by Jarl Hroaldr after our ill-conceived attempt to elope, during which I had to not only avoid the giant’s notice, but also fight his dog and his dwarf. We both know I’m going to have to take the quest, so let’s not mince words about what I’m getting myself into.”

She lowered her head and pinched the bridge of her nose. “There is an order to these things, but since it has already been breached…”

She took a deep breath before continuing. “Some ways to the east of here, a tower sits upon a solitary rock jutting up out of the sea. From the water, you cannot see the top of this tower, but birds constantly flock about it, for it is the Tower of Ravens. It is said that Huginn and Muninn make their homes there when their master does not have need of them.”

Einarr looked at her as he continued to eat. So far, this didn’t sound too terrible.

“At the top of the tower, under the protection of Huginn, Muninn, and their guards, is a distaff made of hazel wood and inlaid with ivory: the Őrlögnir.”

Einarr nearly choked on his porridge while the other Vidofnings failed to suppress a laugh. “I need a magical what now?”

“A distaff – you know, like your Mamma used to keep fibre untangled while she spun?”

“Yes, I know what a distaff is. How is that supposed to help us here, with the cult or the corruption or anything?”

The oaken crone had the pained look of someone forced to explain matters to a particularly dull child. “What did I say it was made of?”

“Hazel and ivory.”

“Very good. And what are the properties of hazel and ivory?”

“I’m supposed to know that, how?”

“Gah!” She threw a hand up above her head. “Do they teach our warriors nothing? Hazel for wisdom and purification, ivory for purity. Applied correctly, the Őrlögnir can break any curse or purify any corruption. Now do you see?”

“…I think I’m beginning to.”

“Good. I recommend you prepare yourself. The sooner you leave to seek the Tower, the more of your crewmen you can save.”

More questions rushed to Einarr’s lips, but the oaken crone was already striding stiffly out of the room. He turned to Reki, his eyebrows raised questioningly.

“Ask me this afternoon. I must go before the Conclave with Sivid now, to haggle.”

Einarr suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. “Of course. Good luck.”

Reki nodded, her mind already on what she might say to persuade the crones, as Einarr tried to get an answer out of Runa – only to discover that she, too, had left the room at some point over breakfast. Einarr sighed in exasperation and shoved another spoonful of porridge in his mouth.


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

Table of Contents

Hi, everyone! Thanks for stopping by!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have  other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available. I just reworked my reward tiers, so I hope you’ll give it another look.