The deck of the dromon and the rolling waves and the salt sea air faded gradually from Einarr’s consciousness to be replaced by the sound of wind through the trees and the rustling of grass in the mountain meadows surrounding them. He looked about to get his bearings: he was several paces farther forward than he had been before the vision, but still on the path. If he judged right, Jorir and Sivid’s hard looks meant they were fighting off the vestiges of anger, and he did not think he’d ever seen Arring look sad before.

He nearly did a double-take when he saw his father, however, leaning against a nearby tree looking, of all things, wistful. Stigander had none of the post-vision fogginess about his gaze, though: perhaps he had woken first?

Einarr opened his mouth to ask, but shut it again. Jorir had said the Oracle disliked it when petitioners spoke of their trials, and he was disinclined to get on the Oracle’s bad side before they even arrived.

Sivid blinked awake, followed by the other two, and Einarr suddenly realized that beneath the unease lingering from the visions, hunger gnawed at his belly. He glanced up: the sun had passed its zenith some time ago, although it had still been morning when the second trial began.

Sivid snorted. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ravenous. You’ve been here before, dwarf, do we have time to stop and eat?”

Jorir’s eyes narrowed at the mousey man. “We can stop and sup and still make it by sundown, human, if the final trial is a short one. If the final trials run long, we might still be climbing under the moon.”

Einarr shook his head, looking down to hide his amused half-smile from Jorir. “Careful about teasing my liege-man, Sivid. He hasn’t spent the last fifteen years watching your eternal jests.”

Sivid laughed. “Sorry, sorry. No harm meant.”

Jorir harrumphed, but before he could say more Stigander cleared his throat.

“I think it’s worth the risk to break for lunch. I think I see a decent spot just over that way.” Their captain pointed off to the side of the trail, where several flat rocks were just visible above the grass.

Einarr knit his brows. “It almost looks like someone arranged that.”

“Someone may well have.” Jorir grumbled, but Einarr did not think he had taken too much offense at Sivid’s rudeness. The dwarf resettled his pack on his shoulders and took a step toward the spot Stigander had mentioned, followed shortly by the rest of the group.

The rocks did not quite form a perfect ring, and there were more rocks than people by a few, but though the rocks were half-buried it still looked as though the stones had been placed deliberately. Well, the Oracle here is supposedly an elf. Aren’t they effectively immortal?

Einarr slung his pack down next to one of the rocks and reached into one of the pockets for a handful of pine nuts and filberts. “So what can you tell us about the Weaver’s Palace?”

“Unless it’s been rebuilt recently, it’s more like a small temple than any sort of a palace. The Oracle lived in a hermitage off a little ways from the rotunda where she met petitioners – I could just see it between the pillars. Her loom, though…” Jorir shook his head and did not continue.

Arring sat forward. “Her loom?”

“Like nothing I’ve seen before or since. You’ll have to see it to understand.”

“So what did you ask, the last time you were here?” The question had been burning at the back of Einarr’s mind for a while now.

“Ah.” Jorir glanced warily at Stigander, then sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to tell ye eventually. Yer da’s not the only one with a curse to break, y’see.”

Now Einarr sat forward, his eyebrows raised. The hand that was seeking a dried fish stopped.

“My smithing… technically, it’s some of the best… but it will never produce magic, so long as I am bound by that witch’s curse.”

Einarr winced, even as Stigander nodded in understanding. A Singer’s magic was ephemeral. Should it fail, there would be no memorial of the failure. For a smith, though… And worse for a dvergr, whose metalworking was their pride.

Jorir wasn’t quite done. He rolled the tafl king between his hands in silence for a pair of breaths. “And now you’ll be wanting to know the answer she gave me. She told me the Cursebreaker would be the one who gifted me the means of my own defeat.”

Einarr stared as Jorir held the king between thumb and forefinger, lifted for all to see.

“You defeated me at tafl, with a king gifted by the one who will be your queen. That you then gifted it to me in return for my oath binds me to both of you. I still do not understand the impulse that prompted me to swear to you. Perhaps the Oracle’s weaving binds fate just as much as any other Weaver’s does. But you are the Cursebreaker, and I would not be surprised if that is part of the answer your lord Father receives as well.”

Father was staring, too, but not at the dwarf. His eyes were glued firmly on his son’s shocked face. Einarr felt the weight of the stare, but his mind was still processing the implications of what Jorir had said.

“We stopped to eat, though. We should eat and go, or we’ll not make it before nightfall.”

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A week and a half from Apalvik, the craggy green fjord of Attilsund rose into view beneath a steel-grey sky. Stigander ordered the sail furled and the oars deployed as they nosed the Vidofnir into the narrow channel. The ship passed into the shadow of the cliffs to either side.

Einarr shivered and wished he had an excuse to join the rowers. Nearly summer, and still he saw ice on the rock near the water line. He didn’t bother looking up: the sky would be little more than a line between the tree-limned rock faces. He would be with the group going ashore, however, and Father had made sure the landing party would be fresh by keeping them off the oars. And if Father wanted them fresh, that meant he anticipated trouble ashore.

The steady swish of the oars through water and the groaning of the Vidofnir were the only sounds they heard until the forbidding walls of the fjord relaxed into gentler slopes and the diffuse light of a cloudy day found its way to the water’s surface. Then the breeze could be heard rattling the branches of the pines, punctuated by larksong and the occasional cry of a gyrfalcon.

Here and there Einarr spotted the tell-tale signs of a freehold – the bleating of sheep, a plume of smoke, even once a red-painted roof peeking through the trees as the fjord became a river winding through the countryside.

Finally, after Einarr began to wonder if there was actually a village on this island rather than just a scattering of freeholds, the forest fell back to reveal a fistful of huts clustered behind a single wooden pier jutting out from the sandy shore. He cast a dubious glance to his left: his father’s brows were furrowed, perhaps in concern that the Vidofnir would have room to dock. Jorir, on his right, looked unconcerned.

“More than a century, and the place hasn’t changed a whit,” the dwarf muttered. “Expect we’ll be camped on the village green tonight.”

Now Sivid furrowed his brow. “Why wouldn’t we just go search out the oracle straightaway?”

“Are you daft? There’s an order to these things. We bypass the village, we’ll never make it to her temple.”

Stigander nodded. “No oracle, especially one of the elven mystics, is going to take all comers. I expect we will be tested on the way. Think of speaking with the village headman as the first test.”

Sivid grunted. “Fine.” He opened his mouth to say something more, but stopped with the sound of sand grinding against the bottom of the hull. “I guess it’s time we introduced ourselves, then.”

Villagers peered curiously down at the banks from where they were at their labors. Some took a few steps toward the river before stopping to watch their unexpected guests openly. Many of them had a grace unknown to men and the delicately pointed ears of an elf: many others appeared to be not quite elves. Some of these last looked almost human. Now that’s unusual. I didn’t think elves bred with humans.

Bardr lowered the gangplank, and Stigander led their small boarding party down to the riverbank. Other than the sons of Raen and Jorir, they took only Sivid and Arring – a man whose chief distinction from the other warriors was the deep red scar running from brow to chin across his face. That scar had been acquired in the escape from Raenshold, however, and he was among the men who had family trapped there.

Einarr scanned the people gathering in front of the pier, but his father spotted the likely face before he did. After only a moment the rest of the group followed Stigander as he approached a grizzled, withered old elven man.

“Greetings, honored sir.” Stigander dipped in a half-bow as he greeted the elder. “We come in peace, and carry goods for trade. I am Stigander Raenson, Thane of Raenshold and Captain of the Vidofnir.”

“Greetings, son of Raen. Our village is unaccustomed so such prestigious visitors.” The elf stressed prestigious oddly, as though he were unimpressed with the idea of clan rulers. As well he might be, I suppose.

“Tell me. What brings the sons of Raen to these shores?” He also sounded like he knew exactly what the answer would be, for the simple reason that it was always the answer.

Stigander spoke it anyway. “We seek the oracle who is said to reside nearby.”

The elder sighed, confirming Einarr’s suspicions. “Very well. Come with me. This evening I will warn you of the path, and in the morning you will proceed in spite of my warnings.”

The old elf led them up the riverbank to the largest of the huts in the village. It was not cramped, but only because it had the look of a meeting-hall for the residents. The floor was strewn with hides, and the wooden chairs padded with woolen cushions – stuffed with feathers, unless Einarr missed his guess. The headman’s wife had plainly devoted some time to ensuring the hall was comfortable.

“Please, sit,” he invited as the last of their troupe stepped into the hall. “My name is Hlothrama, and I am headman of the village of Attilsund.”

“My thanks for your welcome,” Stigander replied. “This is my son, Einarr, the dwarf is his man Jorir, and these are Sivid and Arring.”

Jorir inclined his head particularly deeply to the elder. “Elder Hlothrama, it has been a long time.”

The elven elder drew his eyebrows together in confusion.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, give or take, I sought the Oracle’s guidance. Now I have returned with her payment.”

“Returned… leading other querents?”

“It was a fortunate coincidence of needs.”

“Hm. Then perhaps that shall speed your way to the Weaver’s Palace.”

Jorir cocked an eyebrow but said nothing.

Hlothrama continued. “The Weaver’s Palace is carved from the living rock high on the mountainside to the west of us. Each of you will be given three tests on your way. They may not all be the same tests, and it is entirely possible for you to become separated should any of the tests be failed. Be very cautious: there are those who have failed one of the Oracle’s tests and wandered the mountain forever.”

Sivid opened his mouth, but Hlothrama did not give him a chance to speak.

“You are about to ask if I know what the tests are. I do not: I believe they are different each time, although I have gathered that the Oracle forbids querents to speak of them.”

An unobservant man might have wondered if the elder had some form of clairvoyance. Einarr was reasonably certain he had merely performed this task often enough to see the melodies behind it.

“You and your men may camp in the Green tonight, and I am certain there will be those who wish to trade with you on the morrow. It would be most unwise to commence the trek before dawn, and perhaps wisest not to leave much after it. I will pray you fare well in your quests.”

Now Hlothrama stood and walked stiffly from the room through the back.

“Friendly fellow,” Einarr drawled.

“Quite. We should go see to our men and prepare for the morning.”

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