Chapter 2: Jarl Vǫrn

Chapter Two - Jarl
The line of dwarfs outside the palace had doubled in length since his arrival in the early hours of the morning and now stretched along the entire wall of the stone hall. Some dwarfs were more richly dressed than him, but the prevalence of rough, woolen, dark blue and black cloaks, and tattered black, mud worn trousers showed that most of the petitioners were soldiers or miners. Their anxious faces looked like they had been freshly cleaned, and the small copper cuffs wound into their braided beards had been polished for the occasion.

Jarl’s appearance was hardly more impressive. His long cloak, once the fierce burgundy of an áðr, the third rank of the dwarf army, had faded to a rusty brown, and the hem was patched, lumpy and frayed from his attempts to repair the damage it had endured over the years. With so much work for her to do already, Jarl could never bring himself to ask Hólmve to mend it, so instead he did his best with it himself.

The way that he carried himself, though, set him apart. He stood proudly, his feet planted and his head held high, with an air of command, while the dwarfs in the line on either side fidgeted and yawned. The determined and confident look in his eyes made most people look away. The dwarf beside him projected a far less formidable air. He stood nervously beside Jarl with a look on his face that resembled a dog expecting to be punished.

As the usher approached, the dwarfs at the front of the line lurched forward, pushed ahead by the dwarfs at the back. They knew the king would not last much longer before he would retire for the day. He normally barely made it to midday, and the midday bell had already rung over an hour past. The next few audiences would be the last. Before the waiting dwarfs could crowd around the approaching usher, the guards stepped forwards and loudly ordered that they remain where they stood. As the guards walked down along the line all the dwarfs reached into their pouches and pockets and pulled out long thin tablets, which they held out as far as they could for the guards to see. The tablets were made of bronze, some iron, and a select few made of silver. That was until Jarl reached into his pocket and produced a solid gold tablet. Its weight was so heavy that he had to hold it up with two hands. The dwarfs in the line around him groaned and instantly withdrew their own tablets. More than one resentful scowl flashed in his direction.

“You,” the guard motioned at Jarl, his tone a little more respectful than his previous bark, “You, can go.”

Jarl nodded, replaced the gold tablet in his pocket, and stepped out of the line. Halvard half-heartedly followed, but the guard instantly pushed him back.

“Your plaque?”

Halvard remained silent, a stony expression on his face, both fists clenched.

“He’s with me.” Jarl replied for him, but the guard just shook his head.

“Not if he doesn’t have a plaque.” Jarl tried to protest but the guard became irritated and threatened to pick out another dwarf from the line. On hearing the guard’s threat, those dwarfs who were closest, eagerly reached back into their pockets.

“I’ll wait outside,” Halvard muttered under his breath. “I told you this would happen.”

Jarl eventually nodded and turned to follow the guard, silently seething. He knew there was nothing he could do, but it still angered him each time Halvard was treated as though he were nothing more than a common úti.

As he walked deeper into the palace through the grid of corridors, the ceiling grew higher and higher into the roof of the mountain, until all Jarl could see of it was the distant glint of hundreds of small gold mosaic tiles which studded it and the occasional flash of a sapphire or ruby. At the same time the floor changed. The perfectly square black marble tiles were replaced here and there by a solid gold tile. Then the tiles were replaced by larger blocks, until eventually Jarl was walking over solid black marble floors flecked with veins of gold and silver. As he approached the throne room, the corridor was lined on either side with colossal, dark blue marble pillars heavily decorated with carvings depicting the history of the city. He wondered how many centuries it must have taken to embellish every pillar and ceiling with so many gems. He thought about the countless artisans who would each have spent decades of their life creating such imposing beauty. Finally, the usher stopped before a large gold door and turned to face him.

“Is this your first time before the king?”

Jarl’s mouth pressed into a tight line. No, it is not the first time.

“Yes, yes it is.”

“Bow once when the door opens, and once more when you reach the steps to the throne. Don’t stand until you hear him speak to you. Your family plaque please?”

Jarl nodded and passed the gold plaque to him. He took a deep breath as the large gold doors creaked apart. He waited until they were fully opened before he bowed and started down the long walk towards the throne itself. In the low torchlight every ruby, diamond and gold tile flickered like a flame, alighting the roof adorned with mosaics of the great queens and kings of Bjargtre.

He did his best not to look at the crowd on either side of him. His pulse throbbed so loudly in his head that it muffled the whispers on either side of him. Breath, breath, remember what you had to say. Remember, bow, bow, kneel. Wait till he speaks, then you stand.

He reached the steps of the throne, bowed and knelt, with his knee against the lowest step. Next to him the usher waited for Jarl to kneel before he walked up the throne steps and passed Jarl’s golden plaque to one of the two small boys who sat next to the king. Surprised by the weight of the plaque the first little boy nearly dropped it and was quickly assisted by the other who appeared to be older.

Breath, stay calm and breath. The silence was so complete that he could hear his own heartbeat loud as drums behind his ears. He remembered the last time he had knelt before the throne, and he tried hard not to let his anger show. Most of that memory had been lost, or at least hazed by his fever. Now that he was kneeling here again, he could see it so much more clearly. He had barely been able to stand back then and had been held up by one of the two guards stationed at the foot of the throne steps. He wondered if the king’s voice would sound that same as it had then, and for a moment he relived the disgusted, aloof tone, which had had no pity or understanding for the sick dwarf in front of him.

“Jarl Vǫrn?”

It did sound the same. The timbre carried the weight of more years and a note of pain, a detail that pleased him more than he was proud to admit, but it was the same voice.

“Yes, my king.”

“I must say, it’s been a while since I had a lord before me who looked like an úti.”

If the king’s remark had been intended as a light-hearted joke, it was not received that way. On either side of him the court snickered loudly. Some even laughed, and Jarl felt his ears turn red. Remain calm, remember why you are here. Think of Knud.

He refused to let his embarrassment show and stood up, head held high. He even managed a small smile at the king’s quip.

“I apologise for my tattered appearance, my king, but I felt it necessary.”

“You felt it necessary to dress in such a fashion?” The king’s reply was no longer amused. “You felt the need to dress so, disrespectfully?”

“I assure you, no disrespect was intended. This cloak was once worn by a friend of mine, Knute Villieldr, an áðr like me. He was killed four years ago on the plains by a goblin named Ulf. At the time this goblin seemed to be no more than a chief.” The king’s eyes began to droop, already bored of the conversation, so Jarl spoke louder. “I believe that this goblin has become an agrokū.”

The crowd were the first to react to Jarl’s claim. A ripple of amazed whispers stirred among the dwarfs and a loud scoff echoed in the throne room. However, the king barely looked up, so Jarl continued. “The skirmishes with the goblins have become more and more frequent. Barely a week passes now where we don’t lose another soldier to their attacks. In the last few months I’ve noticed that they have become more organised, and they all carry the same cuff.”

Jarl reached into his pocket, pulled out a large, heavy copper ring and held it up. In the firelight from the braziers on either side of the throne, the cuff looked more like stone than copper, covered in mud and dried flecks of blood from its deceased goblin owner. The round cuff was plain and uninteresting until it reached the copper wolf head which hung from it. The snarling jaw with bared teeth clamped around the cuff ferociously. The narrowed eyes were the only part of it which had been polished. A few strands of black goblin hair were still caught between the teeth.

The king sighed and motioned at a figure in the crowd to come forward. “Gull, I believe you have spoken to me of Vǫrn before?”

A weight descended on Jarl’s chest and crushed any small fragment of hope he had fostered there. It would not matter what he said now. Gull would never agree with him and the king would never listen to him if Gull did not agree. Gull walked forward till he stood a little in front of Jarl, just close enough to be irritating.

“Yes, my king. Vǫrn has expressed…doubts to me before, to myself and his lágr hilmir, regarding the…efficacy of the army—”

“I did no such thing!” Jarl interrupted. Gull turned to glare at him, but Jarl could tell from the small smirk at the corner of his mouth that he was pleased Jarl had broken protocol. He waited a few seconds before he continued to speak, determined to make Jarl’s interruption as awkward as possible.

“He has expressed… fears, that the goblins are becoming too strong for the dwarfs to contain. I believe these fears to be, while well intentioned, misguided. The loss of his friend, Knute Villieldr, is well known to have affected his judgement.”

Jarl did not attempt to hide his anger. His hands clenched into tight balls, and the expression on his face made Gull more than a little nervous. “I wouldn’t expect a dwarf who has never fought in his life to understand what it means to lose a soldier and a friend in battle!”

“I fought in the Hættas before they were ceased. I have killed many goblins Master Vǫrn,” Gull replied calmly, an infuriating smirk on his face.

“You killed young goblins. Not hardened, trained warriors like I have. Like my unit have had to do more often these past few years.” Jarl turned his attention back to the king. “I have a pride of my city, of my people. I have seen, and felt, the damage the goblins have caused this city more than most. In the past their attacks have been unguided and wild. But they are no longer aimless. A single goblin has united them and against this goblin I am afraid that, unless we prepare ourselves, a great many more of our people will die.”

“Where is your pride Vǫrn?” Gull retorted. “We are dwarfs! Not some grœnn naðr!” More than one of the court crowd nodded in approval at his reply.

“My pride would be of little use to me if my city should burn for it!”

From up on the throne the king raised a wrinkled hand for silence.

“What do you suggest Vǫrn?” He asked, voice barely more than an uninterested rasp. “Double the patrols on the plains? Re-instate the Hætta?”

At the mention of the Hætta the entire court rustled and looked to Jarl eagerly. Jarl took a deep breath before he replied, careful to choose his words precisely, so that his meaning could not be twisted by Gull or the King.

“I would request that we ask for the High Queen Vígdís to send her armies.”

As the King looked down at him in shock and the court fell into stunned silence, Jarl raised his voice and continued before the other dwarfs could start shouting.

“We need an army to push them back and ours will no longer suffice.”

The king slowly stood up. His outrage was powerful enough to overcome the weariness of his many years, and his face twisted with anger.

“Have you no shame, Vǫrn? No pride in your city? Perhaps you would prefer that our ancestors had never left Lǫgberg? We have stood apart from Lǫgberg for a thousand years. Never have we requested aid, and never will we!”

“Then we will fall!” Jarl replied instantly, his head held high despite the tension in the air. “Pride is useless to the dead!”

The king’s face flushed and he shook in fury. When he regained his composure and his breath, his reply was more of a hiss than an intelligible voice.

“Were it not for the Vǫrn name I would have you made an ósómi. Leave before I decide against mercy for sedition!”

 

*   *   *

 

Halvard kicked open the door. The old oak door was already dented at its base from the force of his heavy boot, where he had kicked it open many times over the years that he had lived at Vǫrn Hall. He stomped into the main hall and grimaced when he saw that only the hearth between the hall and cooking room contained embers from the fire lit that morning. It had been too long since the other two fireplaces had housed warming flames. With a grunt, he tossed his cloak across the long wooden table in the centre of the room, then turned towards the meagre warmth and stretched out his hands towards the glowing embers.

An old dwarf woman darted out from behind the fireplace. The look on her face could have curdled milk and she held a dead partly-plucked pheasant in her hands.

“Halvard! How many times have I told you to use your hands and not your feet to open doors! If you have to behave like an animal, you can stay outside with the dogs.”

“Well, that’s where Jarl will have us, Holmvé, if you can’t talk some sense into him!”

Holmvé’s face relaxed and she put the pheasant down on the table. Several downy feathers were stuck to her brown apron and a few of them were caught in the two long braids of white hair, which hung all the way down to her waist. She shuffled over to him and motioned to the long bench which ran down the table.

“Sit. Tell me what happened.”

Halvard paced the hall for a few moments before he did as he was told. Holmvé waited, a patient, long-suffering look on her wrinkled face.

“Holmvé, what do you want me to—” a second, much younger dwarf walked into the hall, but stopped when she saw Holmvé wave her away.

“Go! Not now, Eilíf.”

Eilíf scuttled away and Holmvé turned her attention back to Halvard. She moved closer to him and took his large hand in hers.

“Tell me what happened.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s doing, Holmvé. He’s not wrong about the goblins. They are too powerful, and I have no doubt that they will attack, eventually. But, Holmvé, he’s going to lose us everything! Even Knud if he’s not careful. You have to talk to him!”

Holmvé sat down and leaned in towards Halvard. Her old blue eyes narrowed.

“The king didn’t listen?”

“No, Jarl told me that he threatened to make him an ósómi right there.”

“You weren’t…oh, of course, they wouldn’t let you go with him.”

“At least you’re not the only one who forgets I’m nameless,” Halvard muttered bitterly.

Holmvé let go of his hand. “Egh? Don’t behave like that with me, Halvard Byström!” Her fingers rapped the table sharply and her tone was that of an angry mother.

“They might have taken your family name from you but I still remember it!”

Halvard winced at the mention of his family name and sat dejectedly in silence. He knew he had pushed too far. Of everyone in the Vǫrn household, Holmvé had always been the kindest to him.

“I’m sorry Holmvé. But you need to speak to him.”

Holmvé shook her head and pulled the pheasant back into her lap where she began to puck the feathers free in handfuls.

“You need to trust him Halvard. He’s not a stupid dwarf. Whatever he does, he’ll make the best decision for all of us.”

“No, no he won’t!” Halvard stood up and Holmvé kept her eyes on the pheasant the whole time as he spoke. “I’ve tried to talk him out of going to see the king for months, and now that he’s seen him he still wants to find a way to bring Vígdís’s army to Bjargtre.”

“But he can’t, not now the king has refused to send birds, can he?”

“He could try to go to Lǫgberg, but he would lose everything if he did. Not to mention the journey would be dangerous. We would have to go around the Riddari. The Hár road is too dangerous now with the goblins. He’s never been to the human lands. He barely speaks their common tongue. A few words at most. And what about Knud? He can’t leave him to you or me.”

“You need to stop using Knud as a weapon against Jarl.”

“What?” Halvard stared at her incredulously.

“You heard me.” Holmvé looked up at him with her stubborn blue eyes.

Halvard opened his mouth to argue with her but quickly decided against it. He looked at the hearth.

“I’m just trying to keep him safe. Knute was my friend too.”

“Yes, he was, but he wouldn’t appreciate you fighting over his son like he’s some prize to be won. Out of the three of you Jarl was always the most sensible. You’re going to have to trust him.” As she ripped the next handful of feathers, Holmvé looked up at the door, her face scrunched up into a confused frown. “Where is Knud?”

“Jarl said he would get him from the Academy today.”

“That’s good, he’d want that today.”

“Today?” Halvard looked confused for a few moments. “Oh.”

“Why do you think Jarl was so quiet this morning?”

“He’s always quiet.”

Holmvé waited quietly as Halvard stood by the fireplace in gloomy silence. Abruptly, he turned and stomped off towards his room. Then she deplumed the rest of the pheasant until it lay completely pink and naked in her lap. She sighed loudly and leaned her head into her hand, both eyes closed. She had been dreading this day for months. Every year was the same. Halvard would forget the day Knute had died and Jarl would walk around like a man who had just been stabbed in the chest. Though four years had passed, time had not yet eased the loss of his friend. As much as Holmvé did her best to fill the emptiness Knute’s death had left behind, she knew she was a poor replacement.

Shaking her head sadly, she stood up and walked into the cooking room nestled behind the fireplace. She glanced around at the long stone tables pushed up against the walls, and the firewood stacked next to the cooking fire, all the way up to the low ceiling. Chips of wood, straw and food peels were littered all over the floor. Eilíf looked up from a large pot of water hung over the fire, and waited patiently for Holmvé to speak.

“The usual,” Holmvé grumbled and tossed the pheasant next to a pile of peeled turnips on one of the stone tables. “I’m too old to be playing their mother.”

“Halvard should remember his place,” Eilíf muttered under her breath as she began to scoop up the large pile of sliced vegetables and meat in her lap into the pot.

“Don’t say that!” Holmvé snapped at her. “Halvard is as much part of this family as Knud is! Jókell and Elin always treated him as though he were one of the Vǫrn’s, I won’t be the one to change that.”

“But he’s not one of their sons, he’s just a neinn nefna. He was lucky the Vǫrn were kind enough to take him in.”

Holmvé turned and gave Eilíf such a withering look that Eilíf recoiled.

“Shame on you!”

“I’m not ashamed. That is what he is, and I seem to be the only one in this household who sees that he has no gratitude.”

“So he should be grateful that a noble family thought to show a little kindness?”

“You know what I mean Holmvé,” Eilíf whimpered, more than a little afraid of the old dwarf who now loomed over her. Holmvé glared at Eilíf, then tilted her head back and spat in Eilíf’s face.

“Get out!”

Elin fled the room, spilling the food that remained on her lap across the floor. Holmvé waited till she had left before she stooped down to pick up the morsels of food, brushed off the dirt and threw them into the pot. She knew she would have to apologise to Eilíf, but she had never been able to stand her attitude towards the descendants of dwarfs unlucky enough to have their name and titles stripped from them. And as the years had progressed any tolerance for Eilíf’s unkind disposition towards Halvard had been chipped away. It had been hard enough for her to see the Vǫrn family diminish in members and reputation, and she could no longer stand to see a guest of their household insulted by a maid one hundred and eighty years younger than her.

 

*   *   *

 

Jarl watched from the back of the amphitheatre as Knud hurled himself recklessly at a slightly younger, though considerably more patient dwarf boy. Each time Knud lashed his wooden sword at his opponent, the boy waited until Knud was as close as possible before he dodged under Knud’s raised, flailing arms and whacked him across the stomach. Jarl looked away as Knud had the wind knocked out of him for the dozenth time and resisted the urge to yell down at the training grounds that he should use his head. He knew there was no point. Today there would be no words of wisdom able to calm Knud’s insatiable rage. Today all Knud could see was the ghost of his dead father and the goblins that had killed him. His capacity for reason and patience had been consumed by anger and grief.

Jarl shook his head and looked away as Knud stumbled to his feet, with barely enough wind in his lungs to breathe, and brushed his shoulder length, bright red hair from his face to glare at his opponent. He paused for a moment, both his brown eyes narrowed, then dropped his shield, clenched both hands around the handle of his sword, and charged at his opponent. This time, the boy ducked behind his own shield and used Knud’s momentum to lift him over his shoulders and throw him down on the ground behind him. Jarl did not have to look to know what had happened; he heard Knud’s bellow, and a loud thud. He looked up as Knud stood, his face covered in mud, his upper lip split from when his head had hit the floor.

“He’ll never learn, just like you.”

Jarl turned as a much older dwarf sat down next to him, leaned back against the stone seat, and spread his arm across the step behind him to take as much room as possible. The dwarf’s smile was chilling, and his blue eyes as ice-cold as they had ever been. His long white hair was held back from his face by a small plait on each side of his head, his unusually short beard for a dwarf of his age also plaited into a thick braid below his chin. Jarl instantly shifted away from him.

“Skad.”

“That’s Master Löfgren still to you, Vǫrn.”

Skad grunted when Jarl did not reply and looked down at a large roll of parchment in Jarl’s hands. “You’ve been to the records hall? I heard that you went to the palace this morning and got humiliated, again. Is this what you do when you get bored, Vǫrn?”

“Knud!” Jarl stood up and shouted down at the ring. “Slow down and keep your shield up!”

“Not even four years with you, and he’s already learning to lose his battles.”
Jarl’s own anger flared and he span to face Skad, but the fire in his eyes seemed only to amuse the callous old dwarf.

“Are you going to try to fight me boy?” Skad goaded. “Wouldn’t that be the perfect example for your adopted son. Does he know?”

“Know what?!”

“Know that you’re planning to leave him and try to travel half way across Ammasteinn to Lǫgberg. I can tell you how it will end. With you nameless and him living in the palace with all the other wards of the King.”

Jarl did not reply, but his half guilty, half annoyed flinch confirmed what Skad had hoped. “So you are leaving? I thought that Lady Gull was just exaggerating as usual. She has that habit when it comes to you. Well, I would offer my services as a guide—”

“I will be looking for a human guide in Einn,” Jarl interrupted.

“A human guide?!”

“A human guide for the human lands, besides, you were only a guide along the Austr Road, and thanks to the goblins none of the traders take that road any more. But why should that worry me? I’m just a paranoid dwarf looking for revenge.”

“Are you determined to be made an ósómi? If they don’t cut your beard off for disobeying the king’s orders they’ll at least shun you for traveling with humans.”

“What is it to you?”

Skad stood up angrily. “My reputation! I will not have it said that the greatest swordsman in Ammasteinn trained a shamed noble!”

“Well, suddenly I feel all the more inclined to disappoint you.” Jarl scowled and stood up to face him.“Skad Löfgren, the great warrior who trained the High Queen, Vígdís Kron, and a lowly ósómi!”

“You’ll never make it Lǫgberg, not with some human guide.”

Suppressing the urge to strike Skad, Jarl blurted the only name he could think of, a name he had heard many of the human traders who passed into Logburg mention.

“Erin Eir will be our guide.”

Despite his intent to shock Skad, Jarl was surprised at the speed with which the colour drained from his face. Tired of Skad, Jarl pushed past him and trod wearily down the amphitheatre steps towards the training ground. From where he sat, Skad’s eyes followed him. His glacial composure had for once been replaced by panic, mingled with anger.

“Knud!”

Knud stopped mid-charge and looked up at him confused, sure that there was at least another hour left for training.

“Put your sword and shield back. We’re going home.”

 

*   *   *

 

“I’m going to Lǫgberg!” Knud shrieked excitedly before Jarl had even had time to close the door. Jarl winced and slowly turned to face Halvard, Holmvé and Eilíf who were sat at the end of the table.

“I’m going to Lǫgberg!”

“What!” Halvard snapped and dropped his wooden spoon loudly into his bowl of stew.

“Knud, go wait in your room. I need to talk to them alone,” Jarl said sharply, not flinching under the incandescent heat of Halvard’s glare.

“You’re not going to change your mind are you?” Knud asked, his voice uncharacteristically quiet.

“Go to your room,” Jarl repeated, and waited till Knud had left.

“Close the door!” Jarl shouted, well aware of Knud’s habit of eavesdropping. “I want to hear the latch click!”

Knud groaned loudly from behind the door and pushed it shut. Jarl took a deep breath and looked into the faces of the other three dwarfs. Holmvé and Eilíf had confused expressions and Halvard was still furiously glaring at him.

“What have you done!”

Jarl walked over to them, opened the parchment he had carried in with him and laid it out on the table in front of them. Holmvé and Eilíf did not bother to lean forward to read it, neither of them could read, but as Halvard’s eyes ran down it his anger turned to outrage.

“You’re giving her your title?”

“Her? Who?” Holmvé asked.

“You! He’s legally given Vǫrn hall, Knud and the Vǫrn name, to you.”

“What!” Holmvé leapt to her feet and pulled the parchment towards her. Two large wax seals at the bottom of it, one the seal of the Vǫrn house, and the other one she vaguely recognised as the house of records seal. “Jarl, why would you do that?”

“If I leave it all to you now they cannot take it from me later. I can’t lose Vǫrn or Knud. I need you to take care of them for me.”

As Holmvé protested, Halvard fumed, more and more enraged the longer he looked at the wealth and family name which had been handed so easily to the old maid. Before he had time to think about what he wanted to say, the words had already left his mouth.

“So you’d sign everything over to Holmvé? And what am I? A goblin?”

“Halvard?!” Holmvé gasped, hurt by how indignant he sounded.

“I assumed, as my friend, you would go with me?”

His reply caught Halvard off guard and his face contorted with a confusion of emotions.

Halvard looked again at the parchment in Holmvé’s hand and back to Jarl. “To Lǫgberg?”

“I can’t take Knud with me into the city in case…the worst should happen.”

“Why can’t he stay here with me, where it’s safe?” Holmvé asked timidly, still overwhelmed by what had just happened.

“I don’t think it will be safe here either. Holmvé, Eilíf, I think you should come with us to Einn for a few months until we return. I don’t think the city—”

“No!” Holmvé replied adamantly. “I’m not leaving Vǫrn hall or this city!”

“Holmvé, I don’t think—”

“Jarl, no. I’m not leaving. This is my home, your home. I won’t leave it.”

“Eilíf, do you want to stay?”

Eilíf looked from Jarl to Holmvé and back to Jarl again. “I’ll stay here, I don’t want to leave either.”

“And I think Knud should stay with me.” Holmvé continued “It would be safer for him to stay here with me and Elin.”

“No!” Knud yelled and poked his head out of his room. “I want to go!”

“Knud!” They all shouted simultaneously.

“I want him with me,” Jarl said firmly and from upstairs they all heard a loud sigh of relief. “I promised Knute I would take care of him.”

“But it’ll be dangerous,” Holmvé protested.

“Not as dangerous as the city will be if the goblins aren’t stopped.”

Holmvé’s face dropped, and for a moment Jarl though he saw a tinge of fear cross it. “If you want to leave—”

“No. I’m staying,” she repeated, with tears in her eyes.

“Holmvé?”

“This is too much Jarl,” the old dwarf sniffed and roughly tried to wipe the tears away. “This is your home—”

Holmvé jumped as there was a loud knock on front door. Jarl walked over, undid the large steel bolt and pulled it open.

“Skad?”

“Vǫrn.” Skad nodded. He shuffled his feet and motioned at Jarl to let him pass but Jarl deliberately blocked his way, a scowl on his face.

“What do you want?”

“I thought you knew that it was rude to leave a guest outside.”

“What do you want!”

Skad glared at him a little longer before he looked around behind him to ensure nobody could overhear him. “The human you mentioned, Erin Eir. I know her.”

“What of it?”

“I can convince her to take you, but you’ll have to take the boy with you.”

“Knud? Why?”

“She has a soft spot for children. She’ll never take you otherwise, she hates dwarfs.”

“If she knows you, then I can’t blame her.” Jarl stepped backwards to close the door but Skad jammed his foot between the door and the frame. He gulped before he spoke again, the words he knew he had to say like ashes in his mouth as he said them.

“She is the best guide you will find, and if you want to come back alive you’d do well to find her and convince her to take you.”


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