When Einarr left the village this time, it was on the back of a plowhorse – an even-tempered and quick-footed beast with the roughest gait Einarr had ever had the misfortune to encounter. It took him less than a hundred yards down the road to determine his first destination: the late Jarl’s hunting lodge.
On horseback, knowing his destination, it took Einarr less than half a day to ride what had taken him a whole day to reach half-lost on foot. He could have gone back in time to that first day he had approached the hall, save only for the presence of the horse. Hidir was again chopping logs for firewood, and at the sound of approaching hoofbeats Onnir hurried up, dirt still clinging to his hands and knees.
The two attendants greeted Einarr with a mix of warmth and concern. They knew, after all, the object of his quest. Onnir, wiping the dirt from his hands with a bit of old cloth, spoke first. “What brings you back out here? I thought you’d gone to find the trail.”
“I had, and I have. I need to get to the Hall outside Eskiborg, as quickly as I can.”
Hidir knit his brows. “What? Why?”
“According to the alfs’ divination, the boy’s aunt is next.”
Onnir spat. “Hridi? Good riddance. We can tell you the fastest way, sure, but sister of my Lord or not I’m not sure she’s worth saving.”
“The boy loves her,” Hidir countered.
“She’ll make him into a puppet! You know all she wants is the throne.”
“Whatever she may or may not do in the future, she’s my first and best chance to stop the Shroud. Now please – I can’t imagine I have much time.”
The two exchanged a look, then Hidir hurried off toward the stalls.
“Wait here,” Onnir said, turning towards the hall. “I’ll get Armad.”
“Is he well enough to travel?”
“He’s recovering well, yes. And he’d never forgive us if we left him behind.”
Einarr nodded his assent and the man-at-arms dashed off.
Within a quarter hour, Einarr’s dray had been joined by three other, much finer, horses, with Onnir, Hidir, and Armad on their backs. Then they were off, the two men at arms taking both fore and rear as they protected their new charge. Armad, for his part, was still a little pale, but carried himself admirably.
Even on horseback they were not able to reach their destination in one day – not even had they started from the lodge early in the morning. Camp that night was tense, especially after Armad heard from Einarr what they were about, and in the morning they rode with dogged determination.
It was noon on that second day when they rode up to Armad’s hall, their horses breathing heavily and lathered with sweat. Armad took the lead: “Where is Aunt Hridi?”
A kindly-looking middle-aged woman pushed her way forward in the crowd – not the woman from the divination, but one very like her. “Young Master! I’m so glad to see you. Is there trouble?”
Armad swung down off his horse and ran toward her. “Eifidi!”
The older woman laid her hand on his head. “When the ljosalfr messenger reached us with news of the Shroud, we were worried.”
The boy buried his face in the woman’s skirts to try to hide how he immediately teared up. Einarr could not fault him: to distract the crowd from their new Jarl’s display of emotion, he stepped forward. “If you’ve had a message about the Shroud, then you know why I am here.”
A look of horror passed over the woman’s – Eifidi’s – face. “Surely not here?”
Einarr nodded. “I believe its next target to be the lady Regent of Eskiborg. Where is she?”
“Inside. Please, this way.”
The woman called Eifidi and the late Jarl’s sister Hridi were alike enough Einarr would have thought them sisters, were Eifidi not apparently a nursemaid to the boy. But where Eifidi’s warmth was genuine, Hridi’s appeared as a mask to Einarr. He thought it easy to see why she was not well-liked, but Einarr was not here to meddle in the affairs of the clan.
“Lady Hridi. I have reason to believe that you are the Shroud’s next target.”
The lady paled a moment, but recovered herself swiftly. “I see. Is there something you intend to do to stop it, or do you tell me only so I may make peace with the gods?”
“I was too late to save the Jarl or his family. Armad survived by his own perserverance. I do not intend to allow it to kill again, whether I have to destroy or capture the thing.”
She nodded once, curtly. “I understand. The alfs sent you, and so I will trust in the alfs of the village, given to the care of this Shroud for centuries. Have I a part to play in your plan on my life?”
“I intend to play for your life, my lady, not assume it is forfeit already. If you go about your day as usual, it should be sufficient. I would ask, however, that everyone be cautious of red cloths.”
“I assure you, we already have been.”
Einarr took that for a dismissal and showed himself out with a slight bow. As he strode away, he found he could not quite reconcile the woman in the vision with the one he had just spoken to. That Hridi would not be well-liked as no surprise: the woman was naked ambition, or near enough. But Melja had been certain it was her, and Melja had sounded as certain as the Oracle when he pronounced who the victim was. Even Jarl Hroaldr has a tender side. You just can only see it with Runa. Melja’s vision was the surest thing he had to go on: he would have to trust it, at least for now.
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