With some reluctance, the Matrons of the Conclave invited in the alfr calling himself ‘friend’ to sit in their hall and discuss the matter. They were very specific as to the terms of the invitation – so much so that Einarr questioned Saetild’s assertion that he was merely a good-natured pest.

There was a comfortable rug spread on the floor near the hearth, where on cold winter evenings Einarr could imagine the old Matrons gathering to work their nalbinding and discuss business. Only one of these was happening that afternoon, with the golden-haired alfr standing in the middle of the plush fur and addressing the rest of them.

“Some time ago, I visited a village on an isle far to the west of here. I’ll not bore you with all the gory details of my trip, but I learned while I was there that many of the best elven rune-smiths had learned their craft there. It would be intensive training, but they might just be able to get you a basic working knowledge by the end of the summer.”

Einarr drew his brows down. “That takes me away from the Vidofnir for longer than I like…”

Some of the Matrons snorted, as though repressing laughter.

“My dear boy, some of the most brilliant alfish minds have taken years—”

Einarr held up a hand and shook his head. “I know, I know. The cost of learning is time.”

“On the subject of costs,” broke in the Matron who always reminded Einarr of an oak tree. “What price do they demand?”

“Hard labor, for the term of Einarr’s stay in the Shrouded Village.”

The oaken Matron drew down her brows now. “And what price do you ask?”

Ystävä smiled beatifically. “Oh, I am only too happy to help. You see, the favor he owes me requires the recovery of the Örlögnir, but will be greatly aided by a working knowledge of runes.”

To a woman the Matrons looked skeptical.

Ystävä went on, blithely unconcerned. “Besides, in this case the village elder will be paying me a finder’s fee. They have fewer pupils now than they’re used to.”

Einarr’s laugh came out like a bark. He was surprised to hear Saetild’s musical laugh join in.

“Perhaps you aren’t the mercenary I took you for after all,” she chuckled.

“I am exactly as I have always called myself.” The alfr didn’t quite manage to look offended, although he put on a good show of it.

“Be that as it may,” Einarr said, breaking in. “I’ve no objection to working for my supper, and on the whole this sounds like my best option. Only… how am I supposed to find this place, with only the name of a village to go by? And how do I rejoin my ship again at the end of it?”

“Well that, my boy, is the easy part. I am presuming, however, that you have arrangements to make before I whisk you off into parts unknown for the next few months.”

***

Two days later, at dawn, all was in readiness. Stigander, Jorir, and Runa hiked out to the edge of the Whispering Wood with Einarr to see him off. It was a cool morning, and streaks of cloud scudded across the lightening sky as they neared the waypoint.

“You’re sure I can’t convince you to keep on with us?” Stigander’s voice said he knew the answer to that question, but his pride required him to ask one more time anyway.

“You know I have to do this, Father. So many times since we left Attilsund, where the Oracle herself lamented my ignorance, I’ve run up against issues I needed runelore to solve. I’m not always going to have Reki or Runa to save me, after all. Besides, what the Vidofnir needs is to rebuild her crew and get some nice, healthy hauls, not be dragged into whatever weirdness my Calling manages to find next. I’ll meet up with you in the fall, at Kjell.”

Stigander nodded and clapped his son on the shoulder. They stood there a moment before Stigander threw reserve to the wind and embraced his son. “Be careful out there.”

“I will, Father. I’m looking forward to meeting the new crew when I come back.” He took a step back as Stigander’s arms loosened about his shoulders and turned his attention to Jorir.

“Are ye sure ye’d rather not have me along?”

Einarr laughed. “Would that I could. Even if Ystävä could take us both, though, and he was adamant he couldn’t, there’s something I need you to do for me.”

“Is it about that lad Arkja?”

Einarr nodded. “I’d planned on taking the summer to test his mettle, but obviously I can’t now. So I need you, and Vali if he doesn’t suddenly appear under my feet again, to make sure he’s someone I can take into my service without worry.”

“I would even if you hadn’t asked.”

“Thank you.” He thrust out his hand to the dwarf, who clasped it in a hearty handshake.

That only left Runa, who stood back a little from the others, looking half worried and half proud. He smiled at her. “Runa. Of all the faces I shall miss, yours looms largest.”

She nodded, then rushed forward to fling herself into his arms, and he held her close, inhaling her scent. “This is a wonderful thing you do,” she said into his chest. “Only, return to me safe when the season is over.”

“I will,” he murmured. “I will.” They’d had this exact conversation the night before, truth be told, but Einarr would not begrudge Runa another minute, or the one after that.

A throat cleared from behind him, towards the edge of the Wood. “This is all very touching,” Ystävä said. “But I’m afraid we must be going.”

Reluctantly Einarr lowered his arms, and reluctantly Runa stepped away from him. He shouldered his sack of belongings and turned to face the alfr. “I am ready.”


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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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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.