More than a little unnerved, Einarr and his companions stepped up their pace. Not one of them wanted to be anywhere other than the deck of the Heidrun when the sun set that evening. The only thing that stopped any of them from thinking of sailing that very night was the memory of the fishing boat caught out in the harbor.

Einarr breathed a small sigh of relief when they stepped into the village proper and saw the sun sitting still a good hour above the horizon.

As they hurried through the town towards the docks and the safety of their ship, they drew quite a crowd of the villagers: those who, before, had averted their eyes from strangers venturing into the woods now followed with some strange mixture of curiosity, hope, and expectancy. Perhaps the herb-witch had spread the word that Einarr was a Cursebreaker. Not one of them said anything, though, until they were all aboard ship, and all continuing to ignore them.

The herb-witch opened a path to the front with her cane. “You live. All of you.”

“We do.”

“And?”

“I have acquired and purified my wedding sword. We will sail with the morning tide.” There were matters to attend to before any boat could sail, even on a return journey.

“And what of the island?”

“What of it?”

“The Singer said you were the Cursebreaker. Are we…”

“Free? Not hardly.”

“But…”

Einarr sighed noisily. “It is not a curse that holds you in thrall to Hel, lady.” He gave a hard stare at the crowd gathered on the docks. What he had to say would through them into chaos: would they try to storm his boat, if he announced it to the crowd? It wasn’t worth the risk. “You, and only you, may come aboard in return for the information you provided us when we landed.”

“The evening grows long, Cursebreaker.”

Einarr just looked at her. Finally, she sighed.

“Very well. The rest of you, get home.”

A sense of sullen disappointment hung in the air as, with a low mumble, the villagers dispersed up the pier toward the roads of the town. Even as they did so, the old herb-witch’s boots clunked as she climbed the gangplank.

Einarr turned to face her and crossed his arms, waiting until she stood on the deck before him.

“So just how bad is it?” she asked, weary resignation depressing her voice more than they had heard before.

“Bad. Have you any Singers at all on the island?”

She shook her head. “As the island slipped into Hel’s clutches, those who did not flee took sick and died.”

Einarr grunted: he had expected as much. “I’ll be blunt, then. So far as we can tell, Ragnar failed one of Wotan’s tests of hospitality rather spectacularly. It was plain, from the records we found, that the people of the village were complicit in the robberies, and so the gods simply… left. It is not just that this is Hel’s domain, it’s that none of the other gods will lift a finger for Thorndjupr.”

She blinked in surprise. “But none of us were a part of what went on then. Even I was just a girl…”

“And yet, you would have benefited. Nevertheless, I believe that Thorndjupr and its people have been made Outlaw by the gods themselves. What you choose to do about that is on you, of course. Perhaps when the last of your generation dies, the rest will be free… but I’m not certain I would bank your children’s future on that.”

The old woman looked pale now.

“In your shoes, I might send some intrepid youths out to contact a priest. Perhaps, with sufficient rites and sacrifices, the gods will have mercy.”

She nodded, but even that nod seemed to carry despair. “When we drove out the prince, your grandfather, he said something about a gem. I don’t suppose?”

“The Fehugim? That, I’m afraid, is in the hands of the Lady of the island again. We left it with her sentries in the standing stones, but I don’t recommend trying to get it back. You’ll have to look elsewhere for your sacrifices.”

“I see.” The old herb-witch’s voice was quiet and dark. “I hope you’ll pardon me, but I can’t quite bring myself to thank you for all that you’ve told me.”

Just as well. Einarr shrugged. “Make of it what you will. Can you make it back to your house before dark?”

The herb-witch glanced up at the sky and nodded even as she gripped a small pendant Einarr had not before realized she wore. “I will manage. Safe journey to you, then.”

She turned and clumped slowly back down the gangplank and up the pier towards the town. Einarr watched her go, his lips pressed into a tight line.

“Bah!” He muttered once she was out of earshot. “I probably told her too much.”

Eydri, looking thoughtful, shook her head. “I don’t think so. We come away owing outlaws nothing, and being owed nothing by them.”

“Maybe.” But, done was done, and there was work still ahead before they could sail free and brush the dust of this land from their boots. “Naudrek! The charts. We can’t resupply here.”

“Yes, sir!”

He followed his Mate over to where the charts were stored and the fell to planning. He had very little slack in their course, but the men couldn’t sail without water, either.

All of that evening, Einarr felt as though he were being watched. When he looked back over the land he saw nothing. He turned, once, to look out over the harbor.

There, just under the surface of the water, he saw hundreds of pairs of flashing red eyes. The cruel Queen of the Damned was watching them, although he did not sense any bloodlust coming from beneath the waves.

Einarr set a triple watch that night. Once the sky lightened, the Heidrun set sail with the dawn tide.


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Einarr could hear the sound of the draugr wriggling, trying to work Sinmora loose, over the crackle of flames that burned slowly, like wet logs.

It smelled an awful lot like wet, rotting wood in here, too, now that his focus was slightly removed from the abomination that wanted nothing so much as to devour him. Ragnar’s sword. It has to be close.

The number of weapons in the barrow was significant. It seemed like everywhere Einarr turned he saw spears – in some cases, just spearheads – axes, bows and arrowheads. Nowhere did he see a sword. He moved further in, taking advantage of the light to find the actual bier on which Ragnar had been lain. It would be there, if it was anywhere.

Now he heard the characteristic dry, rustling laugh of the creature. It must be nearly free by now. Then a truly horrific thought occurred to Einarr: if it got free, it would have Sinmora. Where is it… ah!

The light of the fire burning on the draugr glinted off a piece of well-polished metal, straight and beveled. He lunghed forward and found himself standing before a half-rotted wooden bier. That was not usual, but perhaps under the circumstances of Raen’s flight the best he could manage. There, resting across the top of the bier, was the blade of a sword remarkably untouched by time. Einarr grabbed its hilt.

He froze. A wave of nausea passed through him as his hand closed on the grip of the sword, very similar to the corruption he had felt from the black-blooded beasts of the Svartalfr cultists.

“Hello. Of course you’re cursed. Not sure why I expected anything different,” Einarr muttered to himself. He quashed the sense of sickness that radiated from the sword, turned on his heel, and sprinted back across the barrow.

Miraculously, Sinmora still held the draugr pinned to the ground – mostly. It currently lay propped on one elbow, scrabbling at the hilt of Einarr’s blade with its long claws but seemingly unable to get a grip. It seemed Sinmora’s magic-eating ability was having some sort of effect on the creature: the flesh around the wound seemed somehow shriveled, and more charred, than the rest of it, and every time its claws started to close around the hilt they fell open again.

“Ragnar!” Einarr boomed.

Startled, the draugr turned to look at his great-grandson.

Einarr held the blade in a two-handed grip over one shoulder. “You were honorless in life. Your place is with the dishonored dead. I swear to you, you will torment the people you were meant to rule no longer!”

There was very little credit Einarr was willing to extend to this creature, but there was this: it did not flinch from its impending doom. Instead he heard the dry-leaves rustle of its laughter one last time. “It is not I who torments the descendants of those who willingly aided me.”

Einarr took one more stride towards the creature and brought its blade down in a powerful arc. As the fire of Einarr’s rune licked the blade the steel itself began to smoke.

The cut was clean. The draugr’s head, still alight with the purifying essence of flame, tumbled to the floor. Its flesh began to shrivel, and as Einarr yanked Sinmora free of its chest it turned to ash, leaving only blackened bones where the deadly creature had once lain.

Before the flames from his runes could go out, Einarr held the blade of Ragnar’s sword in them. As before, the steel began to smoke. And, it could have been his imagination, but it seemed as though the color of the steel grew lighter.

Finally the flames flickered out of existence, having consumed everything save the old thane’s bones, and Einarr rose. He put the sword back in its sheath and stumbled for the door, the fatigue of his fight suddenly weighing heavily on his legs and his back.

Outside, Naudrek waited anxiously under the same wan grey sky that he had left. After so long inside the barrow, it seemed almost painfully bright.

“There you are! Are you hurt?”

Einarr shook his head, blinking to let his eyes adjust to the light. “How long was I in there?”

“The afternoon wanes. We’d left by this point yesterday.”

“Pah. Water.”

Wordlessly, Naudrek thrust a waterskin into Einarr’s hand.

Einarr took a long drink, capped the skin, and thrust it back at his friend. “Then let’s go.”

Sure that Naudrek was only awaiting the word, he set off at a lope towards the ruined hold and the rest of their companions. He only hoped Finn would have something good cooking when they got back.


It was far darker than either of them was comfortable with when the light of Finn’s cookfire finally illuminated a doorway ahead of them, but for whatever reason the draugr had been quiet so far this evening. Possibly, he thought, there was enough of Ragnar’s essence still in the old sword that the draugr could not sense them. Einarr did not know, and did not care to guess.

Once inside, Einarr rested Ragnar’s blade against one of the walls and sat down heavily in front of the fire. “Evening.”

Eydri arched an eyebrow at him. “Welcome back. How did it go?”

“I’m alive, aren’t I? And I have the sword.”

“Wonderful. But I sense there’s more?”

He nodded. “Before we sleep tonight, I want to set up a purification circle for the blade. I think ending its former master broke the curse itself, but it still feels corrupted a little, I think.”

“And what about the island?”

Einarr shook his head: he’d had nothing to eat since the jerky that morning. “Food first. Eat, then talk. I’m famished.”

Midway through his first bowl, Einarr looked up. “Just exactly what we thought. Wotan’s test of hospitality. Never heard of someone failing that badly, though.”

“So what are we going to do about it?” Eydri asked.

“Nothing.” The surprised look on her face was a rare treat.


 

 

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The creature laughed again, this time with what sounded like real mirth. “A Cursebreaker? In my line? Oh ho, that’s rich.” The sound of feet scraping against the stone signaled that he’d turned again, even though Einarr couldn’t see his eyes. “Very well then, Cursebreaker. Face me. It’s the only way to get the sword.”

“How did I know that’s what you were going to say?” Einarr sighed and settled into a wrestler’s crouch. “Before we begin,I don’t suppose you could be persuaded to tell me what happened?”

“Ah-ah-ah. That, too, you’ll only get out of me if you defeat me. If you win, you get the sword and my head, and you can demand information then. If I win… I get a meal.” Einarr could practically hear it grin.

“So be it, then. We may begin whenever.”

A low growl, as of a wolf or a mountain cat, reverberated out of the darkness. Einarr closed his eyes, listening for the approaching scrape of feet or claws against the floor of the barrow.

At the last moment he pivoted, catching the huge, muscular hands with their wickedly sharp claws as the draugr attempted to drop on him from the ceiling. Einarr wouldn’t have thought a creature so large could move so nimbly, and yet it had almost got past his guard. Because of that, he now strained against the weight of the beast. He didn’t dare let Ragnar force him to the floor, and so he shifted to the side.

The massive form of the draugr stumbled past Einarr. The knife-like claws dug in to the back of his wrists, and the pair went spinning through the darkness, neither willing to release his grip on the other.

“Not bad, for meat,” the draugr hissed in his ear, and laughed. “But you’ll have to do better than that.”

Einarr felt the creature tense, and even still it was all he could do to jump out of the way of the kick that flew for his knees. Its toes were as sharp as its hands, and the claws sliced across the flesh of his thighs: the wounds felt like fire.

At the top of his jump, Einarr swung his own feet forward into an aerial kick. They connected, and the shock of the impact rattled his bones, but the draugr hardly moved. He landed, dodging another brutal kick. He was going to be at a disadvantage until he could get the thing flat on the ground.

“You may as well just lie down. I’m far too strong.”

He had the beast by the forearms, barely keeping its claws from him as it pressed ever closer. “You have the strength of the grave, nothing more.”

“More than enough for a boy like you.”

The light from outside seemed to be fading: he didn’t know if that was because he was so deep in the barrow or because time was passing too fast, but he didn’t have space to ponder the question. It lunged.

At the last second, Einarr dodged to the left, still without letting go of its arms. Off-balance, the creature stumbled, and Einarr swept its legs out from under it.

It worked – sort of. Ragnar’s corpse turned its fall into a roll and grabbed at Einarr’s waist. Not even its claws, however, were sharp enough to pierce the Brokkrsteel maille Einarr wore. Thank you, Jorir.

The two rolled across the floor until they finally came to rest with Einarr sitting on his chest even as the corpse continued to prod at Einarr’s armor with its talons. It was pinned, but it was not done yet.

“Oh, dear, whatever shall I do,” the creature mocked. “There’s an insect on my chest, who thinks he has me pinned.”

Einarr frowned, staring down at the cold flesh beneath him. He didn’t know if it would work, but maybe it would at least get the thing to stop talking: he punched, with all his weight and all force of his superior height, at the draugr’s throat.

For a wonder, it seemed the undead still needed to breathe. It choked on the impact.

Einarr punched it again. Already it was struggling to rise under his weight. He drew Sinmora and plunged it between the creature’s ribs, pinning it to the floor.

That wasn’t going to hold it for long. Einarr drew his knife, then. Leaning into Sinmora, he stabbed down into the breastbone. Once and twice before he had to duck a swinging claw, then two more times. He poured his will into the sigil he had just drawn – more will than a single rune had ever before called for.

There was a small fwoosh as the dead flesh caught and illuminated the fire rune he had inscribed there. Einarr sprang back before the flames could catch him, as well.

The creature chuckled, utterly unperturbed by the fire that now spread rapidly over its body. “You thought to stop me with flames of this level?”

Einarr ignored the taunt. He was already searching for Ragnar’s sword – the very blade he had come in search of.

“You’ve lost, Ragnar. Why don’t you go ahead and tell me what killed you?”

“Lost? Hardly. You didn’t overpower me, you merely pinned me to the ground like a bug and set a rather pleasant fire. Can’t tell you how long it’s been since I’ve been warm. …Well, I suppose that’s worth something. Fine.” It chuckled again. Einarr was growing truly sick of that sound.

“I’m afraid Wotan had some rather strong feelings about my hospitality. As consideration, he left me quite a wondrous gem. You can have it, if you want.”

Einarr glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, the draugr was wriggling on the floor, slowly working Sinmora out of the earth. Once he was free, Einarr would be faced with an unbent, powerful, flaming draugr. I have to find that sword.


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Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

The skeletal draugr milled about outside their door, in numbers like they had seen during their panicked flight the night before – only this time, their interest had been caught by the people in the room.

“Do you they want the gem?”

“Almost certainly.” Eydri’s voice echoed Troa’s just a heartbeat behind.

“They were just milling about, like we’ve seen before, until right after you opened that box,” Troa explained.

“The only thing draugr seek more than wealth is flesh,” Eydri added. “Even if I hadn’t named the thing, one of them could have seen it.”

They were starting to press at the door, now. Further back, Einarr thought he saw the large, fleshy bodies of stronger draugr. “Fine. This still doesn’t fit with their behavior last night.”

“This is Hel’s domain.” Eydri’s voice was low and flat. “Care to lay odds that she wants it?”

“Or us?” Troa asked, his face grim. He stood ready not to strike but to grapple with the creatures.

Einarr drew his blade and frowned. “No bet. So what does it actually do?”

“I’m not sure. You’ll have to work on that with Hrug.”

The other seithir grunted, and bones rattled from the far door.

A somewhat fleshier draugr came within reach of Einarr and he kicked out with one foot, sending it reeling back. “Little busy now.”

Behind the first ranks of the largely skeletal draugr – the men who looked like they may have starved to death, given what Einarr had seen of the island, or who were starved in death – he could see the shadowy shambling forms of larger, fleshier abominations. Did that mean they were stronger, or just more recently dead?

Troa had one by the shoulders now, and Einarr thought it would soon be pinned. He caved in the skull of another that pressed in towards them and the bones clattered to the ground. It would reform soon enough, though.

“Einarr!” Troa grunted as he forced the abomination slowly to its knees. “Take its head.”

“Huh?”

The scout gave an exasperated shout. “It’s the only way to kill them! Didn’t you pay attention to the stories?”

Einarr only hesitated a moment, as a memory of his duel against the reventant of the Althane flashed in his mind. Then he raised Sinmora and swung. “Duck!”

Troa ducked, and Sinmora slashed through the air where his head had been and severed the skeletal neck of the draugr. It clattered to the ground and the bones lay still.

Troa, panting a little from the grapple, set himself to face the next one. “We have to destroy them, or we will all fall.”

He was right, of course. “So we just have to take their heads?”

Troa shook his head even as he entered the clutch with the next one in line – the one whos head Einarr had caved in. “You have to wrestle… them… into submission first. There’s a… reason glíma… is so important.”

The broken skull didn’t seem to be slowing that one down, at any rate. But if that was what it took… Einarr kicked out at the draugr’s knees. Troa saw what he was doing and followed up with a sweep that took the creature down. When Troa had it pinned, Einarr took its head.

They had a moment’s respite. Einarr sheathed Sinmora. “Draw. I’ll get the next one.”

Troa rose mutely and nodded. A moment later, his sword hissed from its scabbard.

“This is what you were thinking of when we fought the Althane, wasn’t it?” Einarr didn’t look at his comrade as he sized up the apparent next target. Suddenly he was very glad that so many of the draugr on this island were weirdly emaciated.

“Yeah.”

The draugr came within reach. Einarr gave it no time to prepare itself: as soon as it was within arm’s reach, he swept his arm around the back of its head and pulled it off balance. It stumbled forward, and he followed up with a vicious kick to the kneecap.

The full moon climbed over the horizon, and slowly the press of draugr slackened, until finally the seven stood catching their breaths and scanning the darkness outside for further threats.

Einarr looked around at his crewmen. Finn clutched at a shoulder. “Is anyone hurt?”

“Not seriously,” the young scout answered. Einarr frowned.

“Eydri, will you see what you can do?”

As she moved to tend to the man, he went on. “Seems like we have yet another reason for me to deal with my great-grandfather tomorrow. The way things are going, I’m not sure I trust our camp to be safe for a third night.”

There were murmurs of agreement all around.

“Now. Without opening the box or naming the thing, what do we know about it?”

“It’s deceptively named,” Finn started. His shoulder did not appear to be bleeding, at least.

“It belongs—or at least belonged—to Wotan.” Odvir added, seated near his door.

“The draugr, or perhaps their mistress, want it.” Troa still watched out the door he had defended.

“But we do not know what it does, if it does anything, or how it came to be in one of the storerooms here.” Einarr finished. It had not felt magical, the way some things did, when he touched it – but neither did Sinmora. “Join me by the fire, Hrug, and let’s see if we can work out anything regarding its nature.”

By the time the moon set and the light failed them, they were fairly certain of only one thing: the Fehugim was not, in itself, magical save for the internally glowing rune. With a sigh, Einarr rubbed his brow and pulled his cloak over himself like a blanket and lay down. Dawn would come all too soon, and he needed at least a little rest before he dared the grave of Ragnar’s draugr.


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Eydri’s eyes grew wide and she raised her hands to cover her mouth. “Oh, my.”

That got Finn’s attention. He came to look over their shoulders. “What is it?”

“Oh, no. Oh, my,” she said again. Finn looked at her for a long moment before she answered. “Unless I’m very much mistaken… Hrug, that rune is a Merkstave Fehu, yes?”

Hrug nodded.

Eydri swallowed. “That means… this is the Fehugim.”

“That… doesn’t sound bad, though? Fehu is prosperity, right?”

“No. No it definitely is bad. All the lore claims the gem is in the treasure vault of Wotan, though.” She closed the lid, gently.

Hrug tapped a finger loudly on the bound tablet sitting on the floor by his knee.

“The guests who uniformly attacked their hosts? Hm. You could have a point.”

“Would someone mind explaining this to the man in the room?”

Hrug leapt halfway to his feet, his one hand pulled back to punch the scout, who backpedaled.

“Sorry. Sorry. Old habits, and all.”

Hrug, looking not at all mollified, snorted and sat back down, still glaring at Finn.

Eydri, too, gave him a cold look before she spoke. “Mind your tongue, and remember that your own prince is no slouch with the runes.”

“Yes, my lady.”

Now that Finn appeared suitable cowed, Eydri answered. “Wotan, in his wanderings, will sometimes decide to test the hospitality of some homesteader here in the islands. Surely you’ve heard the stories.”

The newly chastened scout nodded. “Oh, that. But this seems a little extreme even for Wotan, don’t you think?”

Eydri shook her head. “Maybe not. Think about it: when some poor soul gets made an example of in the tales, it’s usually because he turned the traveller away or was rude. But if Ragnar was more bandit than Thane…”

“Then… Oh.”

“Right.”

 

 

Einarr stood at the standing stones blocking the mouth of a hastily constructed barrow. The soil above, on the mound, looked like it had recently been disturbed. He raised his hand to run his fingers over the runic inscription over the door. Who carved that, I wonder? Given what little he knew of the circumstances, he doubted there would be many willing to at the time. Perhaps one of Grandfather Raen’s retainers? There must have been a few men who went with him, or he wouldn’t have had a crew to leave.

Naudrek and Troa stood behind him to either side, flanking what would soon be a door.

“This looks like the one,” Einarr said. “How much daylight do we have left?”

“An hour, maybe two.”

Einarr sighed. Probably, he could get the sword back today. But then he would be leaving an open barrow behind them as they trekked across draugr-infested lands at night. They would be pushing it to get back before sunset as it was. “Fine. First thing in the morning. Troa, find me a long stick. Let’s stick a flag by the door so we can find it quickly.”

Not long after, a lonely scrap of cloth fluttered fitfully in front of the barrow that they were reasonably sure belonged to Ragnar, Raen’s father. Einarr let out a deep breath: it would have to do. “Let’s go. Daylight’s wasting.”

The draugr they had faced the night before had been feeble, wasted things, and even with all of them fighting through to their base camp had been exhausting. Einarr set a hard pace, jogging where they could. That he would have to face what remained of his great-grandfather was a given at this point and Einarr preferred to save his strength for that.

A fire was already burning brightly in the room they had taken for their camp when Einarr and his companions returned, glowing brightly into the dim twilight. They heard the rattle of bones behind them as they crossed the threshold: that had been far too close for comfort.

“Welcome back,” Eydri said as they stood, catching their breaths.

“My thanks,” Einarr answered. “Any luck on your search?”

Eydri and Hrug shared a look, then Eydri turned the question around on him. “Some. What of yours?”

“Oh, I found the one. Looks like something digs through the top at intervals, too. We’ll try to put the stone back over the entrance when I’m done, but…”

“I understand.”

“Now. What was it you found?”

Eydri lifted a box off their makeshift table in the back of the room and straightened. Her movements were both strangely slow and strangely jerky, as though she couldn’t quite convince herself of something. Then she thrust the box across at Einarr.

He recognized it instantly. “From the store-room. The rune-sealed ‘recipe box.’”

She nodded. “I remembered it this morning. Hrug and I worked together on it. You should see what’s inside.”

Einarr raised an eyebrow, but lifted the lid of the box. Inside, a fist-sized ruby rested on a silken pillow. A glowing ᚠ seemed to hang suspended inside.

Behind him, Naudrek whistled. “That’s a mighty valuable gem there. No wonder it was sealed away.”

Einarr wrinkled is brow. “It’s more than that, Naudrek. That rune… the branches usually stick out to the right. It’s backwards.” He shook his head. “But I don’t remember all the divination meanings of the sticks. Sorry, Eydri. You’re going to have to explain a bit more.”

“What if I told you it’s the Fehugim, and its last known location was in the treasure hall of Wotan.”

“More of Wotan’s treasure? I had nothing to do with this one.”

Eydri laughed. Troa, over by the door, cleared his throat. “You might want to close that box.”

Einarr let the box lid fall with a clack as he asked “What’s going on?”

“Whatever it is, it’s drawing attention.”

Einarr scowled. “Guard the doors, everyone. Eydri, keep talking.”

“Yes, sir.” She took the box from him even as he moved to take up a place next to Naudrek. From outside the doors, they could hear groaning and the shuffling of feet.


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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 Draft2Digital, 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.

Reki swallowed hard as Beatrix helped the battered Jarl to sit on a nearby rock before limbering her sword. The others fanned out behind Reki, ready to follow her lead. Soon she could hear the gentle swish of the oars through the water.

Soon after, hushed voices carried to her ear. Familiar ones. She blinked.

“Is that… Jorir?”

“Jorir is the dwarf, right?” Bea asked, not taking her eyes from the approaching boat. “It may well be. I’m certain the other is -”

“Einarr!” Runa started forward, half running to the bank and peering ahead. Reki could hardly blame her, under the circumstances.

Before long, they could all see the occupants of the boat. Einarr and Jorir looked just as tense as the women all felt, even as they went over their own plans between themselves. Perhaps, Reki corrected, because of what those plans were.

Einarr gave a visible start when his eyes passed over their group, and his face brightened. “Runa! …Jorir, quickly now! It’s the Singers.”

Bea frowned at that description, but said nothing as the nearly-empty boat came aground in front of them.

Einarr hardly waited for the hull to scrape to a halt before he vaulted over the bulwark. His boots splashed in the shallow water, and half a moment later he embraced his betrothed. Reki allowed herself a wry half-smile.

“It seems the Norns really do smile upon our work,” she said.

Einarr pulled back from his embrace to grin at Runa, his hands still on her shoulders. “Sivid likes to say that they always correct their weave.”

Eydri nodded. “Based on what we’ve seen, Urdr is overdue for a ‘correction.’ Even still, how did you get through?”

“A hope and a prayer, Eydri. A hope and a prayer.”

What is that supposed to mean? “More importantly, why are you here? You can’t have known we were in need of a boat.”

Einarr shrugged. “I thought to work some sabotage… but it looks like you may have done more already than we could.” His eyes lit on Jarl Hroaldr. “I’m glad to see you’re safe. Father will be, as well.”

The old man nodded from his perch on a rock. “It’s good to see the sun again.”

Before the greetings could draw out any further, Reki broke in. “Did you bring the Örlögnir?”

Einarr blinked, then shook his head. “Truth be told, I’m a little afraid to touch it. What if I only get to use it once?”

“It’s a chance we’re going to have to take. One of these cloths is something she called a Weaving of Inevitable Victory.”

Einarr cursed. “So that’s why we’ve been having so much trouble.”

“Exactly. It’s protected somehow, or we’d have wrecked it ourselves.”

Jorir grumbled. “So what happens if Wotan shows up to claim the bloody thing after we undo this Certain Victory rug?”

“Then we hope that’s what it was needed for, and our dear Cursebreaker can find a different means of breaking the binding itself. What else can we do? The Vidofnir will never break through with this thing in effect.”

Aema cleared her throat. “Even so, we should be going. I don’t know how long that fire will serve to keep them from looking for us.”

A look of worry flashed over Einarr’s face, but he shook it off. “You’re right. Climb aboard, and let’s all get back to the ships.”


Einarr was dismayed to see that the ships were still – or, perhaps, again – locked in combat with Ulfr’s wolf fleet. Einarr could not be certain which, not least because each and every one of the ships was marked the same way.

With great care, the boat carrying all nine of them circled wide around the pack of wolves that beset the Vidofnir, the Heidrun, and the Eikthyrnir, looking for a gap in the line. Their only hope was to slip unnoticed past the attackers, just as they had on their way out.

This time, though, they had the Singers and an additional sword hand, should things come to fighting.

Einarr whispered a prayer that things not come to fighting. There was almost no room to maneuver on their deck with so many aboard, especially with the condition the Jarl was in.

Einarr directed them closer in. Their allies were not circled: that suggested that they were not truly surrounded. If that was the case…

“Jorir, do you see what I see?”

“I believe I do, Lord.”

“Bring us closer. We’ve got to get to the Heidrun.”

The dwarf harrumphed as though that were obvious, but he and Beatrix both put their backs into the oars and turned the boat.

The sounds of pitched battle from the decks of their ships soon drowned out the noise of their oars in the water, even for them; they rowed faster. Before long, the hull of their landing skiff bumped against the hull of the Heidrun.

“Oy!” Einarr called up, cupping a hand by his mouth. “Someone throw us a rope!”

He had to repeat this call twice, and was about to a third time, before a knotted rope twisted through the air to fall within reach. Einarr paused a moment, surveying his crew, trying to decide who to send up first.

“Just go,” Bea said. “They need you and your dwarf friend first. I can carry a few stragglers if I need to.”

“Thanks, Bea.”

Without another moment’s hesitation, Einarr started up the rope hand-over-hand, Jorir right behind him.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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 Draft2Digital, 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.

The Shroud, Melja said, was stored in an inner chamber of the village’s temple to the gods. The morning, like most mornings on the island, was bright and clear even under the fluttering canopy of birch and ash as Melja led Einarr down an unfamiliar path.

The path sloped gently upward here, and the ground became less marshy as they went. Between the warm morning sun and the birdsong floating through the branches, Einarr was momentarily tempted to forget the serious errand they were on. With a sigh and a question he brought himself back to reality: “So why is the Shroud here, anyway?”

Melja did not answer for the space of a few strides. “It is imprisoned here, under the watchful gazes of god and runemaster alike.”

“But it’s an item?”

“Aye, so it is. And?”

“How do you imprison an item? It’s not like they go anywhere on their own.”

“Ordinarily, I would agree. But the Shroud seems to operate under its own set of rules. It took the finest runemasters of its day to catch the thing, and no few Art Practictioners besides, so if it starts to stir we reinforce its cage.”

Einarr made a noise like understanding and fell quiet. Melja had known he was a Cursebreaker before he ever agreed to teach Einarr, and was taking him out here anyway: perhaps Einarr was just being paranoid.

The path continued to rise in elevation, if slowly, and soon Einarr began to see oaks in among the ash and birch and beech. Around midmorning a clearing opened before them, broad as a field. At the far side, with the forest nestled comfortably behind it, stood an unassuming, whitewashed building with a pair of towers rising from its roof. The two men paused for a moment at the edge of this clearing.

Einarr, suddenly curious, asked “Who lives here?”

“This is Wotan’s temple, in the main, but also Tyr and Eira.”

“Eira, truly?” The Vidofnings tended to worship her, when they worshipped. Perhaps it was a good sign?

“Wotan is not the only god skilled at runecraft.”

“I suppose not.” Still, the pit in his stomach seemed to grow larger by another stone. He did not often offer up prayers to Eira, but as they neared the unassuming temple one passed his lips.

“Is something the matter?” One of Melja’s upswept eyebrows was raised even higher than usual.

Einarr shook his head. “Just – it’s been a long summer. Some of what I’ve been through already has me jumping at shadows, is all.”

Melja chuckled, not unkindly. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss those instincts: they could save your life one day. I have, however, taken extra precautions already this morning. Watch your step, do nothing in haste, and we’ll make it back to the village in one piece.”

“Of… of course.” Einarr knew Melja was probably right, but that did little to soothe his nerves as the big elf pulled open the temple doors.

Light slanted into the somewhat dusty chamber from behind them. At the far side of the room, a carving of Wotan in his sorceror’s robes, a raven perched on either shoulder, stood flanked by one-handed Tyr, the just, and merciful Eira, the healer.

Melja strode across the room, his eyes passing with long familiarity over the rows of benches, the statuary, and the pools of light beneath the windows. Einarr had no doubt the alfr would have seen instantly had something been amiss, and that thought was the one that finally allowed him to relax a little.

Melja led them past the priestly purification chamber and down a narrow, but well-made, wooden ladder into the cellar. Someone mortal evidently lived here: the cellar was filled with roots and aging mead. Einarr blinked a few times, and then realized they were not alone in the cellar.

Standing by the far wall was an alfr nearly as burly as Melja, a woodcutter’s axe at his hip and a scroll in hand. He greeted them in the tongue of the light elves.

Melja and Einarr returned the greeting – Einarr by rote, as one of the few phrases he had memorized since arriving at the Shrouded Village.

“Has anything changed?” Melja asked, his voice low.

“Not a thing. It seems restless in there, but not fully awake.”

“Good. The boy will be assisting me as part of his training. I need you to provide backup.”

“With pleasure.”

The guard stepped aside, and Melja traced a complex series of runes Einarr could not track in front of the door. It swung open.

Inside, in the center of the room, a diaphanous crimson cloth lay tumbled over a table. Every now and then, as though a breeze tugged at it, the cloth would twitch. If he had not been prepared, Einarr would have thought it odd for a cloth to be stored in such a way and seen nothing else out of the ordinary. After a month’s training with Melja, however, his vision was more acute.

Concentric circles were inscribed on the floor about the table, and every one of them ringed with runes. The walls and ceiling, too. Einarr recognized the individual runes, of course, and could even work out what some of the combinations would do – but as he stared about the room he felt his jaw drop. This ward work was so far beyond anything Melja had even hinted at.

“The work of generations,” Melja volunteered. “Don’t let this intimidate you: reinforcing the wards is fairly straightforward.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. What do you need me to do?”

“First, focus. Close your eyes and breathe deeply with me.”

It was an exercise Melja had him do frequently, particularly when he judged a task more complicated than usual. This time, Melja joined him at it. With a long exhale, the alfr opened his eyes.

“Now we inspect what came before. The Shroud is forever testing its bonds, and while there are a few places more likely to show wear, we cannot take that for granted.”


Vote for Vikings on Top Web Fiction!

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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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 Draft2Digital, 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.

Their farewells said, with a smile and a wave Einarr turned away from his family to face Ystävä and the Whispering Wood and they started off down the trail.

The alfr offered no conversation, but Einarr was content to enjoy the cool summer morning in quiet. They passed into the shade of the forest, and then from the well-trod path to the Conclave into a thicker, less tame portion of the wood.

Ystävä’s voice shattered the silence. “Be very careful to stick with me, now. The High Roads are treacherous for alfs, let alone men, and if you beome lost it will be nigh impossible to find you again.”

“I understand.”

Satisfied, the alfr spoke some words in a lilting language that Einarr could not place and made a parting motion with his hands. He did not slacken his pace, though, and as Einarr followed him the forest took on an otherworldly feel. The colors grew brighter, and the shadows deeper.

“This is where you trapped me when you gave me that weird broach!”

“Runestone.”

“Whatever.”

“Yes, sort of. We were… I guess you would say halfway between the realms at that point. It was the easiest way to ensure you didn’t fall out of Midgardr’s time.”

“Ah.” Then it hit him. “Wait, those little broaches were runestones?”

“They were. Fairly simple and prosaic ones, to be sure, but runestones nonetheless. What else would Wotan use as a key?”

Einarr grunted. It was a fair point, although he felt somewhat cheated that he had held something imbued with the essence of the gods and not even known it.

“Watch your step now.”

The warning was well-taken. As Einarr followed after his guide, the underbrush seemed to reach out, grasping for his leg even as the earth itself shifted under his forewrad leg. Even with the warning he was nearly knocked flat on his face. “There are no leshen in these parts, are there?”

“Leshen? I’m afraid I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Probably not, then. By way of conversation, he told the alfr of the one they’d fought on the Isle.

At the end of the tale, Ystävä gave a small shudder. “That, I think, is a creature that we may be better off forgetting.”

“Certainly I would rather not encounter another. …For how long will we be on foot? Should we not be coming to a shore before long?”

The alfr laughed. “My dear boy! I told you, did I not, that we travel on one of the High Roads of Ljosalfheimr? We need nothing so crude as a ship. We ahve already crossed several shores, with no more difficulty than stepping over a stream.”

Startled, Einarr looked down at his feet, then behind him. Sure enough, the path that stretched unnaturally straight behind him was crossed by a handful of streams, and probably by more that had fallen out of sight. He turned his attention forward again and found he had to run to catch up.

“Please don’t fall behind. My intention is to deliver you by nightfall, but I cannot do that if you fall from the path.”

“Er, of course… fall from the path?”

“Traveling the High Roads is an exercise of will and focus. That’s why its so dangerous for Midgardians.”

“I… see,” Einarr said, reasonably sure that he did as he hurried after the suspiciously helpful alfr.


The sun was setting when Ystävä once more warned Einarr to watch his step. This time it was as though his back foot were caught in a fast current, even as his front foot stopped cold. He still couldn’t see any difference in the path they walked – anything that might distinguish where the High Road began or ended. Einarr suppposed it didn’t matter: convenient as it was, he was unlikely to travel this way more than once more in his life, and that to return to Kjell in the fall.

Now that they had paused, though, he had a moment to actually take in his surroundings. The deep golden light of sunset illumined the fluttering leaves of the beech and ash that surrounded them so that they seemed to glow, and even the underbrush seemed strangely vibrant in the fading light. Einarr blinked, staring, as Ystävä stretched tired muscles.

“We’re not still in Ljosalfheimr, are we?”

“Absolutely not. Keeping a mortal on the High Road at night may as well be asking him to disappear.”

Einarr gave a low whistle. “This island, then… wherever we are, it’s amazing.”

“Elder Melja will be glad to hear that.”

“So, we’ve made it, then?”

“We’re in the vicinity. Travel by the High Roads is not a precise art. Come on, then. With a little luck, I’ll have you there by nightfall as I promised.”

For all Ystävä’s claim that he wasn’t sure exactly where the village lay in relation to them, he set out with a quick confidence through the beech grove to the west, where he could now and then glimpse the darker green of conifers. Thin, soft grasses waved gently in the breeze at Einarr’s feet, and he could see no sign of a marsh other than the grove itself. As pleasant as it was to walk through, this must have been a dry summer on the island. Occasionally a hare would dart across their path, or he would spot a deer farther back from what resolved into a path grazing unconcernedly on the rich grass.

This had to be the most peaceful place Einarr had ever visited. The Rune masters in the village must have something to do with it, for it felt carefully tended, almost garden-like, rather than merely wild. Despite the long day’s walk, Einarr felt a spring coming back into his step. Here, he would learn. And here, the island itself seemed to promise, he, too, would gain a respite from the demands of his unwanted Calling.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading! 

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 Draft2Digital, 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’ll catch up by the time you reach the apothecary room.” Einarr flashed a cocky grin at his liege-man before he dashed back into the room, toward the fireplace. Had the familiars left their feathers on purpose, like the Valkyrie had? He couldn’t say, but they were sure to be just as magical.

Einarr bent to scoop up the two feathers without slowing down, then skidded around the giant perch.

The doorway stood empty. Good. Now to fulfill his end of the promise. Einarr tucked the feathers, black as night, into the pouch at his belt and poured on the speed. The distaff was like a goad against his back, and he was glad it wasn’t any longer. Perhaps another foot of length and he’d have had to worry about it tangling in his legs.

He shot through the doorway and cornered hard on the landing to take the stairs two at a time. The rumbling beneath his feet was rougher now, although somehow he felt certain the tower was not breaking apart.

That might actually be worse. Something whizzed past his face and a warm line stung his cheek. Was something firing arrows up at him? He took the stairs at full tilt, two and sometimes three at a time. Another arrow flew, and this one trimmed his sleeve. Were these warning shots?

By the time he reached the floor below he saw Jorir’s boot disappearing down the opposite stairwell. So he hadn’t been quite as quick as he thought he would be: the important part was that he was right behind.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and Einarr froze just before the threshold of the stairway leading down. Not a step too soon: the axe that dropped from above trimmed the ends of his beard already. He risked a quick glance around: just a trap.

Then he heard Runa’s shriek echoing up the stair. Einarr leapt forward, the back of the blade scraping against the bottom of his boots, and all but flew down the steps. He counted and ignored not one but three slices into his legs in his haste to reach them.

Erik stood, his feet planted and one hand braced against the wall, the other extended and holding Runa by her delicate wrist. Runa herself hung from that arm, scrabbling for purchase with her fine boots against what had suddenly become a smooth ramp instead of stairs. She gasped as though in pain, and only in that moment did Einarr realize he, too, was gasping for air. She’s fine. Calm down.

Jorir shot him a poisonous look, which he ignored as he slipped up to stand next to Erik. “Runa. Reach up your other hand for me.

She looked up at him from panic-ringed eyes and her breathing slowed. She managed a nod and slowly stretched her other arm out. Einarr’s hand closed around hers.

“Okay. Now we’re going to pull you back up, all right?”

“Please.” She still sounded like she was in pain: perhaps the jolt of her rescue had dislocated a shoulder?

“Ready? One, two, and … heave.”

Runa was not heavy, especially not for two men who had their balance back, and so a handful of heartbeats later Runa stood a step above them, dusting herself off and making a show of testing her shoulder and rubbing at the wrist Erik had grabbed.

“Right. Well. On we go. Watch your step.” He felt bad about the floor dropping out from under Runa: these traps were almost certainly his fault, after all – but not so bad that he was willing to drop the prize. Instead, he stepped forward onto the ramp and pushed off with his back foot, so that he was able to slide down the stone much as he had slid down a mound of coins early in the spring.

The ramp went all the way down to the landing for the next floor, and Einarr was not the only one who could not quite contain a laugh as they skied down. He was certain he heard Irding, and quite possibly Erik, as he half-ran, half-stumbled off the ramp and into the third floor challenge room. The door on the other side stood open. Feeling jaunty, Einarr sauntered forward.

The smell of ozone was his only warning. Einarr froze.

Lightning cracked down in the center of the room.

Seconds later, as the others skidded up behind him, lightning struck again. In the exact same spot. Einarr frowned, counting.

Five seconds before the third strike. He could make it. The Vidofnings could make it. Could Runa? Much as he loved her, she was more than a little pampered.

Well, nothing for it. Five seconds after the third strike came the fourth. The light had not fully faded from his eyes before Einarr was moving again, dashing for the far door with every ounce of speed he could muster.

The next time lightning struck, the hair on his head crackled with static – but he was clear. Einarr stopped to wait at the door for his friends to run the gauntlet.

Irding came next. It looked like he was trying to beat Einarr’s time. Einarr shook his head, smiling at the other young man as he crossed the finish line into the stair. Einarr’s hair had merely stood on end: Irding’s smelled of smoke.

Erik and Jorir made it with little issue, despite their twin and opposite problems of size. That only left Runa, who stood staring across at Einarr with indecision. He nodded encouragement to her, beckoning her on, and she set her jaw. That’s my Runa.

The lightning sizzled down again, and then Runa made her break across the floor, her dress trailing behind her. Einarr caught her hands as another flash appeared.

She was smoking. Or, rather, her skirt was. Runa herself seemed to be fine.

“Turn around.” When she obliged, Einarr beat out the flames licking her skirt at the edges of where the lightning had struck.

Nothing else in the tower slowed them more than a moment. There were more arrows and knives, and even another ramp, but as the sun sank below the horizon and seemed to light the sea on fire they stood in the Gestrisni catching their breath.

“See, Jorir? Not a problem at all.” Einarr could not quite repress a smile. In spite of everything, that had almost been fun.

“Are ye sure about that, lad?” Jorir’s voice was oddly flat, but Einarr still heard the edge in it.

“Why, what do you —” He turned his head to look at his man-at-arms and suddenly he knew what the problem was. The Gestrisni now sat in the open ocean, not a rock to be seen. All around them, the water was perfectly still, and there wasn’t so much as a breeze to stir a lock of hair among them. He had to let that sink in a moment before he found anything to say. “I hope we’re all ready to row.”

Jorir grunted. “I’m decent at navigating by the stars, as well. At least we won’t be striking out blindly.”

Erik snorted. “You let me an’ Irding worry about the oars, Einarr. You and your lady should keep watch.”

To that, Einarr nodded easy agreement. “My thanks. In that case, oh fearless navigator, let’s have a look at the charts.”


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So ends Book 5 of Einarr’s adventures. Book 6 will pick up right where we left off, with our heroes lost in the middle of the ocean, on November 13. By then, I should be comfortably ensconced in my new home in Pago Pago. If you’d like to read about our adventures abroad (with an infant!), I will be starting a separate blog for just that purpose.

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.

A fireplace dominated one wall of the long, rectangular room, and in front of that fireplace stood a thick pine pole. A pair of posts extended out from either side of the pole, and once the feathers settled down Einarr faced the impassive stares of two enormous ravens. He swallowed.

Unsure how one addresses the beings one intends to steal from, he took a step further into the room. “I am Einarr, son of Stigander, of Raenshold. I believe you know why we are here.”

One of the ravens cocked its head to the side and croaked “Cursebreaker.”

The other one dipped as though to grab a morsel of food from thin air. “First accursed.”

“I’m… going to take that as a yes.” Einarr stepped further into the room, never taking his eyes from Wotan’s familiars.

The one who had dipped its head lifted it again with a jerk to stare past Einarr. Runa stepped into the hall, all grace and beauty and self-assurance.

“I hope you will forgive our intrusion, noble birds,” she crooned.

The first raven lifted its open beak in the air and seemed to laugh at her pretense. No-one called ravens noble, even if they were a god’s familiars. “Wily,” it cawed.

“Broken Breaker,” the other began. “Unsnarl the web you hang in.”

“Frigg permits.”

“Wotan reclaims.”

“Be quick!”

Einarr started toward where he could just make out a ladder into what would ordinarily be a loft.

“Touch nothing.”

He stopped at the last command. “Which is it?”

Both birds spoke together now. “Be quick! Touch nothing. Cursebreaker must break his own curse.”

“Hand of Hel grows strong.”

“Frigg permits. Wotan reclaims.”

Confused, Einarr looked with a furrowed brow to first Runa, who shrugged, and then Jorir, still outside the door.

“The Örlögnir,” Jorir mouthed. “Just don’t take anything else.”

Ah. Right. He nodded gratefully at his liege-man and hurried for the dimly glimpsed ladder.

The hall grew smoky as Einarr neared the loft, and his steps seemed to echo in his own ears, but he could still hear the clipped phrases of Huginn and Muninn as Runa attempted to speak with them. It seemed to him that they were teasing her, the thought of which amused him more than he would admit – to her.

Up the ladder he went, the side rails clattering against the wall with every step. The smoke above was thick enough to make his eyes and throat burn: he hoped he could recognize the Örlögnir for what it was: it had been a good long time since he had seen Grimhildr spinning, and he didn’t remember much about hers other than it was a long rod with a pointed end.

The loft was filled with chests, stacked haphazardly, many of them half-open. Inside some of them glinted gold or jewels to tempt a saint. Einarr paused before the fourth of these before shaking his head. They had plenty of wealth after the Allthane’s hoard, or at least they should, but they had no other way of quelling the black blood that tainted both their crews.

“Going to have to try harder than that to throw me off,” he muttered as he continued back, his eyes scanning for the half-remembered shape.

One of the ravens below laughed. The raucous caw grated on Einarr’s nerves.

Then, finally, he spotted a shelf running along the side of the loft. An arrow slit in the wall allowed a thin beam of light to slant down along its length. On it lay a series of rods.

“They said it was… ivory inlaid,” he muttered, trying to remember exactly how the wise women had described it. Five of the rods before him, however, had ivory inlays of various designs. That narrowed it down a little, anyway. But what was the type of wood?

Holly? Hazel? Birch? It was something pale, he felt certain. That narrowed it down to four, at least. …There was someone else along who would know. Runa had been there when the quest was handed down, and was a Singer besides. With a nod, he fixed the place in his mind and went back to the ladder to call across the room. “Runa?”

A raven cackled, as though it knew why he called.

“What is it?” She sounded exasperated.

“Can you leave the others to converse with our hosts? I could use a hand.”

“Go, Lady,” Jorir rumbled, audible all the way across the hall.

Runa exchanged a few words with the dwarf, too low for Einarr to hear, and then nodded. She picked up her skirts and headed back toward the loft.

“I’d hardly call it conversing,” she muttered as she dusted off her hands. “Blasted birds just love being cryptic.”

“Aren’t you the one who was excited to match wits with them?”

Runa hummed. “So what was it you wanted me for?”

“There are a lot of distaffs up here, assuming I remember aright what one looks like. I’ve got it down to four. I’m hoping you can help me narrow it down.”

She smiled at him, and his heart skipped a beat again just like it had every time last winter. “Let’s have a look.”

Einarr led her back toward the shelf. “I don’t suppose you managed to figure out what happens if we get the wrong one?”

She shook her head. “Best case? We get back and find out the Matron’s ritual doesn’t work. Worst case, we bring the tower down on our heads and the ritual fails.”

“I was afraid of that. Well. Let’s figure this out right, then.”

The rods all lay on the shelf exactly where Einarr had found them. He had not dared move them around as he sorted, just in case the ravens’ “touch nothing” had been a little more literal than Jorir seemed to think.

“That one,” he pointed to one that looked like birch with ivory knotwork. “Or one of these three.” The last set, all near to each other, was one holly and two hazel, if his woodcraft did not fail him.

Runa pursed her lips. “Hazel and ivory, they said, for purification. …Which I think means it’s one of these two?”

Einarr groaned. He’d been afraid of that, as the only sample there were two of. If he could touch them… but no. All of them were sure to be magical in some way or another. Nothing for it but to go over the lore. “What else do we know of the distaff?”


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