Behind them lay the sandy beach they had just climbed. Ahead of them, on the other side of a good-sized meadow, lay the blackest forest Einarr had ever seen – darker and more imposing by far than the giant wood on Svartlauf. The trees were all of the ordinary size, but packed so densely it would be impossible for sun to reach the forest floor, with needles darker than the darkest fir. In that spot, a strange reluctance seized their feet and all of them paused, staring at the wood ahead of them and the cliffs beyond it.
“Something in there ought to do for a mast, anyway.” Jorir broke the silence that had fallen as they contemplated the steps ahead. “I mislike the look of that wood, though.”
Einarr and Erik both hummed in agreement, and Einarr was reasonably certain their hesitation had nothing to do with the old fisherman they had left to his nets on the beach. Einarr took a deep breath then and stepped forward. “Well, nothing for it.”
As he stepped into the grass, the ground squelched under Einarr’s boot. Well, perhaps not surprising, given the storm the night before. With a sigh, he pressed on, and the others followed. The ground grew wetter with every step, and soon the mud sucked at his boots, trying to pull them from his feet.
Runa had the worst of it: the hem of her skirt soon grew sodden as she slogged through the meadow-marsh, kicking it ahead of her with every step so it would not tangle in her legs. To her credit, she did not complain, although before long Einarr wondered if she simply did not have the breath to speak. Without a word he let the others pass him and dropped to a knee in the mud.
For just a moment, he thought she would take him to task for foolishness, but evidently she thought better of it. With a breathless nod, she pinned her skirts up to her knees against Einarr’s back and wrapped her arms about his neck. As he rose he staggered a bit before he found his balance again. Now it was doubly hard to keep his boots, and every step came with the spectre of a slip that would spill both of them in the mud.
“My thanks, dear one” she had murmured in his ear as he rose. It would have been worthwhile even if she hadn’t, but the intimate words brought a smile to his face even as he trudged forward to overtake Jorir once more.
Finally, though, the land began to rise a little as they neared the forest’s edge, and dry a little as it did. They began passing the rotted stumps of deadfalls, and sometimes the gray wood itself, and soon they neared the shadow of the wood. Here they stopped again, by a stump that was merely grayed by time and not yet rotted. Runa got down, and the others all took a moment to catch their breath.
“So this is a thoroughly miserable little island,” Erik said eventually.
Irding agreed. “My thoughts exactly. I’m not sure if I hope there’s a village here or not.”
“I expect there is,” Runa mused. “But I suspect if we find it we’ll wish we hadn’t.”
“Because of what the old man said?” Einarr wasn’t sure the old man wasn’t crazy, but as the Oracle had made abundantly clear there were some definite gaps in his education.
“Don’t take this amiss, Lady Runa,” Irding said. “But… I always thought the Isle of the Forgotten was just a bedtime story.”
Jorir actually laughed. “Can’t blame that’un on the Cap’n, milady.”
“Everything you’ve seen,” she grumbled, “and I still hear protests of just a story. Just! Have the Singers kept the lore for nothing?”
“Not nothing, surely.” This was going to blow up fast if Einarr didn’t calm her down. “But since not one of us seems to know what we’re in for…?”
“Bah. Fine.” Runa looked a little mollified, at least. “Basically, the Isle of the Forgotten is the opposite of Valhalla, only apparently you don’t have to die to get there.”
Erik scratched his head. “I thought that was Hel…”
Now it was Runa’s turn to laugh. “Hardly. Those who are taken by Hel can still be remembered, even if not well thought of. The Isle of the Forgotten? That’s where nobodies go. Those who waste their lives, with no deeds at all to speak of – or those who run afoul of certain powerful entities.”
Einarr rolled his eyes. “Yes, I understand that this is my fault. Can we drop it and move on with getting out of here?”
“If we can.” Runa met his eyes there, and the look did nothing to soften her words. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no way off the Isle.”
For the second time that morning time seemed to freeze for Einarr as another’s words hung in the air before him. Could he really have brought such a terrible fate on their heads? Not just theirs, but everyone waiting for them, as well?
Jorir cleared his throat and the spell was broken.
“If landing here is a curse, then plainly I must find a way to break it. That is, apparently, what I do.”
“Let us hope so.”
Only at this point did he break eye contact with his betrothed, when the contest of wills had been agreed a draw. “Now then. I think we’ve sat around talking long enough, don’t you?”
Murmurs of agreement spread around the other sailors, and they once again turned to face the forest. Somehow it felt just as black up close as it had from across the marsh. The difference was, from here they could see scars on trees and earth alike, as though some great battle had taken place here, and recently.
“Let’s find what we need and get out of here,” Jorir grumbled. “I’d rather beg the old man for another night’s lodging than stay in there if I don’t have to.”
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