As agreed, Einarr rose with the sun the next morning and was promptly set to work gathering eggs and drawing water. When that was done there were goats to milk, and Mira quite cheerfully set him to building up the hearth fire while she prepared breakfast for the three of them. Einarr did the work gladly: as he had thought the night before, it was very like being back at Afi’s freehold. Not that Afi would have approved of Einarr learning runes any more than his father did.
After breakfast, Einarr expected Melja to sit him down in a room somewhere with quill and ink and birch bark. Instead, he was led to the stream outside the village and there given a lecture on all the properties of water.
It was nearly midday before Melja determined Einarr was ‘ready’ for the form of the rune for smaller bodies of water. There was, evidently, a different rune used when dealing with the sea.
After lunch, Einarr was put to work on more chores. This time, however, he was instructed to find as many opportunities to use that one rune as he could. The goal was to have it mastered by dinner.
“Well, Einarr? Do you think you understand the Rune of Flowing now?”
Einarr shook his head. “I feel like I know it, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing here. I could tell you all of its meanings, and at least a dozen ways to use it, but I don’t think that’s really what you’re asking here.”
Mira cackled. “This one is clever, he is. Clever, and wiser than he looks.”
“Thanks,” he drawled, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
Melja laughed now. “Of course he’s wiser than you expect, Mira. He’s been raiding half his life, I wager, and wasn’t too proud to ask for help. If you hadn’t been named Cursebreaker, that alone could save your skin.”
Einarr chuckled, not a little bitterly. “Of that I am all too aware. Part of me wonders if all our answers together were worth the Oracle naming me.”
Melja and Mira both shook their heads.
“A burden, it’s true,” Mira started.
“But if you hadn’t been Called by the Oracle, you’d have learned of it by circumstance.” Melja’s voice was solemn, brooking no opposition, as though he were lecturing again. Einarr shuddered at the thought of facing the cultists without knowing that the world was out to kill him.
“It’s been a long first day, and you did well with ûr. Tomorrow we will study ár.”
For two weeks, Einarr’s studies continued in this manner. He learned the runes of water and ice, of earth, and of protection but, strangely, not of fire. Some of them, such as the dancing rune, seemed obscure and were tricky, to say the least, to practice in the course of afternoon labor. In the evening, at the end of those two weeks, Einarr asked about it.
“The rune of fire is a fell thing,” Melja intoned. “You will learn it, true, but last. It is more often laid to cause destruction than to prevent it, and never in daily life.”
“Whyever not? Surely the will of the worker determines the use of the tool?”
“Ordinarily, yes, but it is also a rune of sickness and death. Used incautiously, it brings calamity.”
“Are you saying that fire is inherently corrupting?” Einarr furrowed his brow. That made no sense: the dead were burned, after all.
“No, not inherently. It is still a rune that requires careful intention to use and…” he trailed off.
“And we require our students have a little more experience before we teach it.” These words came out in a rush: Einarr suspected they were not what Melja had begun to say.
Still, for now, it was an answer he could afford to accept. Something, though, was definitely strange about this elven village on a Midgardr isle. “I take it, then, that the reason the village is here is also… more advanced knowledge?”
“Yes, exactly!” That, too, sounded less than honest, though Einarr could not put a finger on why. There was not, however, any good way to press the man on the question at this moment.
He caught a hint of the answer just two days later.
Over the course of studying the sun rune, during the afternoon labors, Einarr grew too hasty and made a careless mistake: he failed to properly connect two legs of the figure. It was the sort of mistake any apprentice might make, particularly one engrossed in the throes of experimentation. The reaction, however, was dramatic.
He had been set to weeding one of the vegetable patches. The first test, he used the rune to improve the light for the cabbages and onions. The second, he used another aspect of the rune, intending to smite only the weeds with lightning. (As for why the sun and lightning were tied to the same rune, he had no guesses.) Rather than a small puff of smoke and the smell of oncoming rain, however, the particular weed in front of him began to smoke. Soon, fire was licking at the stems and threatening the vegetables around it.
Melja was already sprinting across the patch. Hastily, Einarr drew water and protection runes, hoping to mitigate the damage. Fire, after all, should kill the interloper just as well as lightning. Something was wrong, though: his ward, that based on the nature of the two runes should have worked, did nothing to quench or even slow the fire.
“What happened?” Melja bellowed in Einarr’s ear as he ran up.
“I don’t know! Every time before, it’s been a tiny lightning bolt. Why isn’t the water protection stopping it?”
Hardly bothering to look at Einarr’s attempts, Melja traced his own sequence of runes, almost identical to Einarr’s, and the fire went out. Standing before them was a very blackened, mostly dead weed.