The old man led the five castaways up the beach, offering no conversation over the howling storm. The building they stopped at was a fisherman’s shack that, even in the darkness, looked nearly as weathered and beaten as the man they followed. A gust of wind caught the door as their host pulled, yanking the cord from his hands and striking the wall with a solid thump.
Inside, three more lanterns like the one the old man carried hung from hooks on the wall so that the inside of the shack was a blaze of light and warmth. An iron stew pot bubbled over a pit fire, and Einarr’s stomach was not the only one that could be heard rumbling.
“Make yerselves at home, such as it is,” their host grumbled. He tossed his oilcloth cloak over a hook without looking and moved slowly over toward his seat by the fire. Even with the cloak, Einarr noted that the ragged cuffs of his pants still dripped.
“Thank you, again.” Einarr tried to mask his wariness from the man, if not from his companions even as they stepped in out of the weather. Here again was a man who went through the forms of hospitality without any love for them.
The old man hummed as he wrung water from his long, gray beard. “I wonder if ye’ll still be sayin’ that in the morning. No matter. Grab yerselves a bowl and warm up. Most I can do fer ye now.”
Einarr kept one eye on the old man even as he filled one of the wooden bowls indicated. The stew smelled of fresh fish and onions, and in the broth floated chunks of parsnip and cabbage. Einarr thought it might have been good even were they not half-starved and frozen. The five companions fell to with a will.
In the morning, when they awoke, the old man was not in the shack. Einarr looked about himself, blinking, for a good minute to ensure he had his bearings.
“Right. Now we’ve found land, I guess it’s time to find out where we are and fix the boat.”
Jorir snorted. “He told us where we are. It just doesn’t help us.”
Erik shook his head. “The Isle of the Forgotten? What is that even supposed to mean?”
“Don’t scoff. If Stigander paid proper heed to the tales, you’d all know what that meant.” Runa’s voice had a hard edge to it, but Einarr was certain she hated to say it. Rather than let the tensions from the ship boil over onto land, though, he broke in.
“Wherever we are, we can’t get back to the Vidofnir and the Skudbrun until we fix our mast. Let’s focus on that, first.”
The old fisherman looked no less weathered and no less gruff for the bright light of midmorning, and Einarr had been becalmed too long to be glad of the deep blue, cloudless sky that greeted them that morning. Their host sat on the beach beneath the shade of a large rock mending a net.
“Good morning!” Einarr raised a hand in greeting as he approached the place where their host worked.
“Is it? I wonder.” The old man did not look up from his work, and Einarr rolled his eyes.
“You have our thanks for last night’s meal and the roof over our heads. If we’re ever going to get home, though, we need to fix our ship. Is there a forest on the island?”
“Oh, aye, there’s a wood. I wouldn’t recommend it, though. You’re here, now. May as well settle in and accept it.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that.”
“Ye’ll go mad, then.” Those words hung in the air before Einarr while the old fisherman turned back to his task. What felt like an age later, the man spoke again without looking up. “Head straight up the beach. You’ll see the wood. ‘Tis a foul place, though – dangerous, and fit for neither man nor beast.”
Einarr set his jaw and turned to face his friends. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could Runa cut him off.
“No. If we are where he says we are, you need someone who knows the lore.”
“The lady is right, milord,” Jorir rumbled. “I’ve heard of the place, but not much, and not in a long time.”
“Besides.” Runa lowered her voice until it was almost as deep as Reki’s, her mouth curling in a sardonic smile. “Do you really want to leave me alone with a strange old man?”
Einarr rolled his eyes again. For all that their host had offered them no harm, it was true that he couldn’t quite bring himself to trust the man. “Fine. How’s your throat this morning?”
“It’ll do in a pinch, but let’s not count on any great feats of song, shall we?”
Einarr harrumphed, but rather than responding he turned to face up the beach.
“Good luck, I suppose.” The old man still did not look up from his netting. The ground beneath their feet had grown stable before the man’s next words reached them: “You’re going to need it.”
“Good riddance to that guy,” Irding muttered.
Einarr nodded in agreement.“Could he have been any gloomier?”
“Before casting aspersions on a helpful old soul, perhaps consider his circumstances?” For all that Runa had insisted on coming, she was coming to the man’s defense rather sharply. “And ours, I’m afraid.”
“If this is the Isle of the Forgotten, those blasted feathers you grabbed had a high price.”
Wonderful. Jorir had managed to rub Einarr’s face in that – again – while somehow agreeing with Runa. As glad as Einarr was that they seemed to be getting along better since the tower, he could wish they would be less harsh about it.
“Maybe so.” He could not let them fall to fighting now. Not if they ever wanted to get back. “Think we can find a new mast in there?”
Spread before them, on the other side of a meadow of perhaps three acres, was a thick forest of dark evergreens. It was time to get to work.
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