There had been no small amount of discussion among the Singers for how to best slip past their guard on this second night’s search. Thank the Gods, Runa had not even alluded to Tuning again, although Reki thought that was more because of Bea’s presence than out of any insight on her part. In the end, they decided they had to chance the lullaby again. Only this time it was Svana who Sang, since her voice was the highest and softest of everyone’s.
“Why are you a battle-chanter?” Reki asked, her curiosity getting the better of her, as they hurried to the hold’s lone tower.
The plump woman offered a small smile. “Family matters, I’m afraid.”
“Ah.” That explained precisely nothing, and yet everything it needed to. They hurried on.
The tower was built overlooking the cliff face that led down to Breidelstein town and served as over watch as well as dungeon. They were perhaps halfway across the courtyard in the middle of the ring fort when they heard their first patrol.
Reki ducked between the nearest two long houses, the others close on her heels. As the last of their number disappeared under the deeper shadows of the buildings, a pair of guards with wooden wolf’s-head brooches holding their cloaks closed swaggered by. Reki frowned: ordinarily, the most emotion you saw on the face of a patrolling guard was boredom. These men were scowling. What that meant, she could not begin to guess, but she was sure it would be important. Had they been discovered already?
She shook her head. If that was the case, why hadn’t they sounded an alarm? The pretense that they were not prisoners here was thinner than a poor man’s bedclothes, and just as tattered. No matter: they would learn, and one way or another it would be soon enough.
The men did not speak between themselves as they passed. Bea crept forward toward the end of the alley to peer after them: eventually, she nodded. Reki headed on down the alleyway, rather than back out to the main street. There was no sense courting danger by moving so openly.
Despite their caution, they narrowly missed three more patrols as they inched their way across the hold. Last night there had been none. It was almost as though Ulfr – or, more likely, his seneschal – had been put on alert. Had Kaldr lied when he said he would not expose them?
Whether he lied or not, they still had a job to do. After what felt like half the night, the six of them crouched in the shadows of a longhouse. Ahead of them stood a broad open yard and the entrance to the tower.
A man stood on either side of the door. One of the two stood straight and alert, one hand resting on top of the axe at his hip. The other leaned casually against the wall, his arms crossed and one foot planted against the stone behind him. Moonlight glinted in his eyes, though, and Reki judged him to be the more dangerous of the two.
Bea hummed. “Let me scout around the perimeter,” she whispered. “Maybe there’s a better way in.”
Reki nodded. That was all the permission she needed: the Imperial Princess vanished into the night. They could not even hear gravel under her soft-soled boots.
Runa raised her chin after the girl, as though she were glad to see Bea gone. After another minute passed, and without a word to any of the rest of them, Runa stepped forward to stand between Reki and Eydri. A low hum emanated from her throat – low, and oddly soothing.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Reki raised her hand and clapped Runa on one side of her head, even as Eydri did the same on the other side.
“Ow!” Runa exclaimed, then clapped her hands over her mouth.
The more alert-looking of the guards had not moved, but the lounging man’s eyes now scanned the yard. After what felt like forever, he relaxed again. A sigh of relief rippled over the waiting women.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Reki hissed. “That is taboo!”
“We overlooked it with those men who ‘helped’ you escape,” Eydri muttered. “Do not expect us to be so lenient in the future.”
“I fail to see what the problem is,” Runa said, thankfully remembering to keep her voice down this time – although it may have been haughtier for it. “A tiny tuning adjustment would have them just let us in, with no need to sneak across the wide, brightly lit yard. Father is over there, and who knows what else we might find. Wouldn’t it be better to have allies at our back?”
Reki stared at the Apprentice, speechless, for a long moment. Finally, the words she managed to splutter were “Are you an idiot?”
“Has your father taught you no sense?” Eydri muttered at the same time.
“Do you know why Tuning is taboo, Apprentice? You should.”
Runa’s brow knit in confusion.
“It can be argued that it is we Singers who rule the northern seas, not the petty jarls and thanes. Do you know why? Because we have their ears. We know the stories and the songs, the histories, and because of this we are valuable as advisors. But what happens if Tuning becomes as widely known as Curse Weaving?”
The apprentice blinked in apparent confusion – or perhaps startlement at the older women’s vehemence.
Eydri picked up here. “You think Kaldr mad? Good, because that is how the Matrons wish it. But if the taboo becomes known? Not just you, but all Singers, become pariahs. Because Kaldr’s wariness is vindicated.”
Runa blanched, even under the moonlight, but Reki wasn’t done. “Your beloved Einarr already knows. The Oracle spilled the beans. You want to know what question he all but begged me to answer? Whether or not you’d done it to him. Think about that.”
“Whether she’d done what to Einarr?” The question came from Bea, approaching from back up the alley way she’d left earlier.
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