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