The first was Kjartan, who went up the mountain and faced the Tree of Knowledge.
The second was Bjarni, who brought the runestaves through mountain passes. He came to a fork in the path and was faced with a difficult choice.
The third was Einar, elder brother of Kjartan, who came to a pass which was blocked and had to find a way through the wall of rock.
The fourth was Herjolf, elder brother of Bjarni, who passed into the foothills and there passed by a barrow.
The fifth was Arnkel, father of Bjarni, whose path out of the foothill was blocked by a bear who had questions for him.
The sixth was Astrid, who met a wolf who brought her through the woods.
The seventh was Asgerd, who crossed the stream beyond the wood with a troublesome passenger on her back.
The eighth was Thjohild, who cleared the pass through the cliffs beyond the river.
The ninth was Alfdis, who took the dark path through the cliffs to the plains beyond, where she was shown the future.
The tenth was Maushop, who was offered three choices for who to aid him on his path across the plains, and chose none of them.
The eleventh was Poul, who was to carry the staves the distance for both him and his son. He failed, but was helped... for a price.
Everyone finds themselves gathered in a clearing on a mountainside, naked as they left but with the axes that they had used to chop holes in the ice. (These are ordinary axes, not Poul's prophesized ones.) They are approached by a horse, which speaks to them and defines their task as a group. They are to collectively carry a burden in a sort of relay race from the mountain, across the hills and plains, and through the strait to another land -- which must reach there by the end of the day. Each of the eleven will bear the burden for one leg of the journey, and any delay or failure must be borne by the others. Those not bearing will be transported to the next point. During each leg, the person will be tested with "whatever would be the most difficult". They are also warned that they must stay on the path which is marked for them, clearly visible lines of white stones.
As originator, Kjartan is the first to go and must retrieve the burden from the top of the mountain. He is warned that there will be dangers, and takes one of the axes. While going, he is followed by a wolf which shadows him but stays off the path. In time it talks to him, suggesting that he could quit this test and instead take the wolf as a clan totem (the same totem as their Mohican ally Rowtag). He notes how the test is degrading and menial, matching the herd animal intelligence of horses. Kjartan answers that horses are not easy prey for the wolf, and that they are smart. The wolf responds that they are easier than moose.
The path leads to a clearing where there is a great and ancient tree: the Tree of Knowledge. It speaks in a whispery voice, telling Kjartan that his burden is a bundle of rune-staves that are hidden within a hollow of the tree. Kjartan tries to reach them, but he cannot. The tree then offers to help: it says that he can reach them if he grows. It says that in the spirit world he will grow in size if he learns, and it suggests that he take a few weeks to drink from its pools and be taught its knowledge. Kjartan says that he doesn't have time, but the tree says that is the only way. He is stymied for a time, then suddenly realizes with horror that he must oppose the Tree and harm it to get the rune-staves from it in time. Over its protests, he decides to cut two branches to fashion a hook to pull the rune-staves out. One is the branch of knowledge of Stein the Cruel, while another is unspecified. Feeling horrible, he cuts himself and bleeds his own blood on the wounds he has made on the Tree. He then leaves with the rune-staves.
Kjartan arrives at a clearing where the others are, with his axe
bloody. The next to be tested is Bjarni, who asks Kjartan what
Bjarni: I see your axe is bloody. What did you have to fight: a wolf or a bear?
Kjartan: A beast more terrible, one that you could not imagine...
Bjarni: Well... whatever it is I'll fight it.
Kjartan: I wouldn't really call it fighting.
Bjarni: Well, slaughtering then!
Kjartan: Remember, losing is sometimes winning.
Bjarni: Hmm, I don't understand that but I do know that winning is winning. I think I'll stick to that.
Bjarni again goes down a similar path, which is winding its way through the foothills of the mountain. He also is accosted by a wolf, who says that it will only attack when he doesn't see it coming. A bit later down the path, he sees a horse being stalked by the wolves and calls out a warning. However, it simply runs into a trap and is soon surrounded. Bjarni is uncertain since it is off the path which he was told he must stay on. He decides to leave the horse to its fate and run on.
He then comes to a fork in the path, which was unexpected. One fork leads over the next hill, while the other leads a long way around. Deciding to do what is hardest, he goes over the hill path. At the top of the hill, he can see the others of his family in a clearing below -- but he can also see a dozen wolves sneaking up on them from the woods. He shouts and run down the path to try to save them. The wolves attack and grievously wound Poul while Kjartan struggles to defend both himself and Thjohild. Just as Bjarni is reaching the clearing, though, the path comes to a dead-end. He must decide whether to leave the path and try to save his relatives, or turn around and go the long way back to the other fork. He is caught in agony but decides to stick to the rules that honor dictates, and goes the long way around. Upon following the other branch, he finds the real family unharmed and indeed unaware of what his test had been.
Einar Swiftsteel then took up the staves and continued the descent from the mountains. Einar is the eldest son of Odd -- a strong and skilled warrior, with an accustomed arrogance of being the eldest son of the eldest son. He had married to Asgerd, daughter of Eystein the Innocent of Brygjafael. He had some condescension but also jealousy of his younger brother Kjartan, whose idea this ceremony was. He began intent on proving his worth against whatever test could be devised.
He follows the path which continued to descend from the mountains. The path leads to a rocky ravine, but halfway through it, he comes upon a sheer wall of rocks which apparently had fallen to block the pass. So without a pause he tries to climb the rocks, but he tries three times, and each time he slips and falls to the bottom without getting even close to the top. He then tries to shift the rocks at the bottom to collapse it, but strain as he might with his muscles, he can't budge even one of the rocks.
At this point he hears a low chuckle in the air before him. "Who's there?" he calls out. "Well, duh. It's me. The wall." the voice replies, "Not very bright, are you?" While taunted further by the wall, Einar tries even harder to get through or past it, but each time he failed. He blunts his axe blade, and breaks the shaft trying to use it as a lever. Battered from falls and aching from exertion, he calls out "This is no test. It is impossible." The wall replies, "I am a test, but no, I'm not fair. That's life."
Einar sits for several minutes. Then he slowly says, "I am sorry, wall. I cannot pass you. Is there anything I can do?" The wall chuckles again and replies, "Say please."
When Einar finished, the next is Herjolf, the elder son of Helga the Peaceful and the late Olaf the Brave. His father had died when he was eight, and he then grew up with his stepfather Arnkel. Herjolf is more taciturn and less proud than his cousin Einar, but still has responsibility as an eldest son.
He took the runestaves from Einar and headed into the foothills, silently noting Einar's exhaustion and bruises. The path wound through the foothills, and at one point it passed by a barrow mound, with a short branch of the path leading to the entrance which lay open. There he could see his father, Olaf the Brave, seated in a chair facing the entrace. Suddenly Olaf's eyes opened, and he very slowly began to speak. Herjolf walked to the entrance at first watching, and then instinctively he grabbed the entrance stone and closed the barrow. He then continued on and soon met up with the others.
Arnkel the Quiet is next: father of Bjarni and Astrid, and step-father of Herjolf. He had married the widow Helga 21 years ago, who came to be known as Helga the Peaceful after her husband Olaf died in battle. Arnkel has the reputation of rarely speaking, but when he does it is always something important.
Arnkel takes the runestaves and follow the path, which wind through the foothills. However, along the path there is a giant bear. Arnkel quickly realizes that he was not to fight in, and he asks it to move aside. It says simply, "Why?" Arnkel replies, "So I can complete my test." The bear chuckles and asks him again.
It soon becomes clear that the bear isn't simply trying to force him to talk, but forcing him to question why he is doing this in the first place. The bear indirectly questions his devotion to family, since he married Helga rather than being a descendent of Aud. It is untraditional for him to be a part of Brygjafael in the first place. In the end he denies tradition or even responsibility but says that he feels it is the right thing to do.
Next was Astrid, the daughter of Arnkel and younger sister of Bjarni. Astrid was only 16, but had bravely taken her mother Helga's place in this ceremony. She had clashed with 14-year old Maushop in the early stages of the ceremony. She took the runestaves at the end of the foothills, and started out West from there.
She approached a deep wood, and just before the edge of the wood, the path branched in five directions -- and each way in turn branched out five ways as it entered the wood. While standing in indecision, she sees a wolf slipping towards her through the edge of the woods. It goes out of sight for a moment, and then suddenly she is surprised by a man who appears at her side. He is a tall man with dark hair, a half-breed by appearance, and dressed in Lagakin clothes.
The man offers to lead her through the woods. She is uncertain but doesn't know what else to do. As she follows him, she notices that he avoids ever going onto the path -- taking her on the leftmost branch. After they enter the forest, it gets darker and darker. Finally she cannot see the stones at all. The man's voice calls to her, telling her to follow the sound of his voice. She is frightened and realizes his voice sounds different, lower to the ground. Steeling herself, though, she follows, and the wolf guides her the rest of the way.
Next is Asgerd, daughter of Eystein the Innocent of Raudarbank and wife of Kjartan's brother Einar. She is a strong-willed woman, who is proud of her father and heritage. She sees herself as a realist, accepting that the system isn't perfect and admiring those who put it to good use rather than being pawns of it. She considers her husband Einar a good match, and shares a certain amount of his arrogance and ambition.
Taking the runestaves from Astrid, she goes some distance when she comes to a stream. It seems deep and swift. She prepares to swim it, when an old woman hails her. The crone offers to guide her across along a ford point, but only if Asgerd carries her across on her back. Realizing this as a test, Asgerd agrees and carries her across. Once across, though, the crone refuses to get off. Asgerd throws herself about, but the crone is frighteningly strong and tough. Finally, she gives up and keeps going along the path with the crone on her back.
She tells the crone, "Fine. You'll have to get off at some point." The crone, who had been taunting her, replies "No, my dear. I will always be here. I have always been here. You just didn't notice me, but as the years pass you'll notice me even more on late nights." Running even harder and crying a bit, Asgerd reaches the others and finds that the crone isn't there any more, at least that she or others can see.
Thjohild is next: daughter of Ketil the Stout, granddaughter of Vigfus the Proud, and new bride of Kjartan. She is an urbane young woman with a dry wit and a winning smile. She speaks quickly and acts impulsively, but always with good intentions. She had been inspired by the battlefield romance of Thorgerd and Arnor, and accepted Kjartan's proposal with a knowing comment later that "there'll be time enough to get to know each other after we are married".
Thjohild finds herself on the far side of the stream when she takes the runestaves, and soon she is headed off down the path for the bluffs somewhat uphill from there. The path is clearly marked for her, but as she gets to the break in the bluffs where the path lead, the way is completely overgrown by trees and brush. She had an axe with her, and starts to swing it to clear a way.
When it cuts through, though, there is a scream and blood-like sap drips from the branch. She is shocked, but soon steels herself and chops some more. The same thing happens. Soon she notices that the trees and brush had the subtle shapes of faces on them, distinctly Lagakin faces. Most are men, warriors -- but there are also women and children. She is shocked and crying and disillusioned by the time she has made a path for herself.
Next is Alfdis, daughter of Ivar the Black, ex-wife of Steingest the Handsome (whom she divorced), and wife of Poul. She has been struggling with relations with Maushop, and has also had her mother come to live with her as well. She has put up with it all as best she can, though, and has been satisfied with her match with Poul.
She takes the runestaves from Thjohild just at the break in the bluffs. From there, the path leads down into a cave. She passes into it, and in a largish cavern she is stopped by a voice. A pool of water is in that cave, and the voice tells her to look. It says that these are images of what the future will be, should she finish her quest.
The first image is a wolf ripping the forearm off of Poul. The next shows the top of Brygjafael adorned by carved horse heads -- which are consumed by flames licking up around them, with hordes of skraeling warriors visible beyond. The last is her stepson Maushop standing before a skraeling chief. And then the images stop. After a long pause, Alfdis takes the runestaves up out of the cave, trying to tell herself it isn't true -- but it is with grave doubts and a heavy heart.
Next was Maushop, whose test was brief but severe. He was shown three paths before him which lead by different ways to the sea straights: and at each stood a figure. The high road goes, and he can see his former foster-father Hiawatha standing on it. The middle road has his father Poul at the end. The low road has his dead Lagakin mother Amagansa on it.
A horse stands at the crossroads, and tells him that he must choose which path to take. But whichever path he takes, he will never again see the figures represented by the other two paths. At first Maushop screams in frustration, then after a minute sits down and says that he refuses to make that choice. He then finds himself back among the family.
The last is Poul. After Maushop's test, the family unexpectedly find themselves back at the same clearing they last left. The horse informs that Maushop failed his test, and that now Poul must carry the rune-staves over both his son's distance and his own in the time remaining.
So Poul must now sprint the distance across the wetlands and through the low-tide strait to reach the end before sundown. It seems impossible, especially with Poul being a 45-year old smith and not much into running. As he exhausts himself trying, a wolf accosts him like the others -- noting that he is cannot do the task, being human and old. He says that he will sacrifice his life and body to it for if it will help him. The wolf seems interested, and then Poul attempts to bargain that it carry him to the end with the staves. It immediately balks, saying that it can't carry him -- and says that it will have to give it the staves, along with some food (meaning his flesh). It says it isn't especially hungry, so a limb would do.
Suddenly Poul is hit with the dilemma of trust. He really has no reason to trust the wolf, yet he will clearly fail without it. In a moment of clarity, he holds out his cursed right hand with the rune-staves grasped, and the wolf calmly walks up and bites him at the elbow, then twisting to tear off his forearm. It then faces him with his forearm in its mouth, the fingers still locked around the rune-staves. It fumblingly thanks him with its mouth full, and he tells it to give a message to his son that he forgives him. The wolf then heads off.
The others find themselves waiting at a shore beside a strait of land between two shores exposed during low tide. As the sun dips into the horizon, the wolf comes flashing across the strait and gives them Poul's forearm and the staves. It tells them what happened, then slips off to eat the forearm as its payment. The mustang tells them that they passed the test, but they are distracted with concern for Poul as the sun sets and the tide rolls into the strait. Kjartan says they must find him. The mustang agrees -- and they all come out of their trances in the sauna exhausted and weak from the experience. Poul finds that he cannot move his right hand or forearm at all, as though from a stroke or similar ailment from the exposure and stress. However, they all feel deep down a link to the mustang spirit.