“Is she here yet?”
“No, Knud, can you please stop jumping around!” Jarl muttered tiredly.
The day before had been long and hard. It had barely been possible to find the supplies they would need for the road ahead, as the markets and inns were down to their last scraps. More than one of the merchants and innkeepers he had bartered with had criticized him for trying to travel the Riddari road so late in the year, and Halvard’s relentless questions about their guide were almost as exhausting as Knud’s.
“What did she look like?” Knud asked as Jarl tried to braid his hair.
“You’ll see when she gets here.”
“Is she tall like the other humans?”
‘No, now stop jumping.”
“When will she get here?”
“KNUD!” Jarl and Halvard yelled at him in unison. Knud stopped, but only for a few minutes.
“I don’t like these ponies,” Halvard said to Jarl. “They’re too wiry. They look they were starved as foals, and why do we only have two? What about her?”
“I’d imagine she’d bring her own pony.”
“Knud will ride with me. I don’t trust him on a pony of his own, he wanders off enough as it is.”
“I won’t wander off,” Knud replied indignantly. “I’ll be good, I promise.”
“You’re not getting a pony Knud,” Jarl replied firmly.
Knud’s face dropped into a pout and he looked around them again to see if he could spot their new guide before anyone else. Dawn had only just arrived and, for the most part, all of Einn was still fast asleep. A blanket of fog smothered every street.
“How much did she ask for?” Halvard asked.
“I thought the same.”
Halvard shook his head. “Something isn’t right about that. Skad would ask for fifty gold back in his day.”
“I know. I asked some of the other guides at the inn what they would ask for.”
“They all said that they would ask for a hundred silver just to get to Waidu.”
“Then why in hell didn’t you go with the other guide?”
“Because when I told them who was taking us they all said I would be a fool not to hire her. They all said she is the best guide in all of Ammasteinn.”
“If she really is that good then she would charge more. Something’s not right about this.”
“Halvard, all the guides said the same, as well as Skad, and you know Skad never speaks highly of anyone. If they’re all saying she is the best than I think I’d be a fool to ignore them.”
Halvard grudgingly nodded.
“Jarl! Is that her?!”
Knud stared at the woman who walked towards them, completely fascinated by her strange appearance. She was dressed almost entirely in black, or at least colours which had once been black, most of them faded to variations of dark grey and a bluish green. Strangest of all was the large black wolf skin she wore. Its front paws with claws still attached, draped across her shoulders, and its head nestled over hers as a hood so that its teeth hovered just over her eyebrows.
Then he saw the scars.
Astrid looked up. Halvard recoiled when he saw her different-coloured eyes.
“She’s a witch!” Halvard hissed under his breath to Jarl before she reached them. “We should leave now. It’s not natural to have eyes like that!”
“Do you have all the supplies you need?” Astrid asked, as though she had not heard what Halvard had said.
“Yes, the ponies and the supplies.”
“Where is your pony?” Havard asked, with no attempt to hide his distrust. Halvard stepped back as she looked at him.
“I don’t have one. I prefer to run.”
“Yes, run, and no,” she turned to look at Halvard, “I’m not a witch. Do you have the fé?”
Jarl reached into the bag which was tied to the back of his pony’s saddle and pulled out a small leather bag, a nervous expression on his face as Astrid took it from him. With her eyes still on him Astrid shook the bag slightly in her hand, reached in and handed him back three fé.
“The price was fifty silver, not fifty three.”
A look of relief crossed Jarl’s face, and he smiled as he took the fé back from her. “I must have miscounted.”
“Yes, you must. Are your bags all tied down?”
“Then we should leave.”
Astrid walked ahead of them before they had time to mount their ponies, holding her head deliberately high as she passed Knud and avoiding his eye. Jarl mounted his pony first, before pulling Knud onto the saddle in front of him.
“How did you manage to miscount the money?” Halvard whispered to Jarl, surprised. Jarl was usually so careful when it came to money. It was not like him to miscount a single fé, let alone three.
“I didn’t. The guides at the inn told me they had heard stories of people who would scar themselves to look like her, so they could trick travellers. They said the best way to know she was the real Erin Eir was to hide a couple of extra fé in the bag.”
“I still think there’s something strange about her. I’ve never seen a human who was the same height as a dwarf.”
Jarl rubbed his hand across his forehead and groaned. “Halvard, please, can you just trust me.”
“I do trust you,” Halvard grumbled back, his eyes on the dwarf hammer axe Astrid carried tide to the side of her bag. “It’s her I don’t trust.”
Jarl had given up trying to guess when Erin would finally tire. Ever since they left she had managed to maintain her steady run ahead of them and somehow, the wolf skin had stayed still on her shoulders the whole time.
Each day they would wake up shortly after dawn. Knud would grumble that he was tired. Halvard would curse the ponies. They would eat, ride, stop briefly at midday, and then ride again until the evening. Erin, throughout all of this, was never too far away, but she never sat down with them to eat either. In fact she didn’t even seem to sleep. Despite her reassurances that she could keep watch each night, both Halvard and Jarl would alternate every few hours on their own watch. Each time Halvard woke him for his watch he would see Erin nearby, wide awake and on her feet. If she did ever sleep, it was never in their company. Halvard had suggested that perhaps she slept when she left them in the evenings to hunt for food, but the mere half hour she was away was not nearly sufficient to make up for several nights on watch. Neither of them could understand it. And Knud’s constant questions about Erin had started to wear on his patience.
“Do you think she’s seen the sunken city?
“Don’t ask me, ask her,” Jarl snapped.
“But what if she’s dangerous?” Knud whispered back.
“Why would you say that?”
“Everyone at home said that humans are dangerous.”
“That’s a lie, Knud, you know that, I told you about the human who saved my life.”
“Yes, but she doesn’t look like a human, she’s too short.”
Even Jarl couldn’t argue with his observation, but he was not about to share his suspicions with Knud, or Halvard. It would only excite Knud more and possibly anger Halvard.
When they stopped for the night, Halvard swore profusely, as he always did after a day’s ride, and waddled into the trees to find some firewood and relieve himself. Knud sat hunched over on the ground, his head rocking from side to side, as Jarl untied their bags from the ponies.
“Knud, come on, I need you to help.”
“But I’m tired!” Knud groaned.
“Knud. We’re all tired, now get up and help.”
Still pouting, Knud stood up and began to unsaddle the ponies.
“When are we going to get there?” he asked.
“A few weeks still, I think.”
“A few weeks!” Knud exclaimed and leant his head dramatically against the pony as, though he was about to collapse.
“Knud, just take the saddle off, and then you can sleep.”
“But I’m tired!”
“Knud,” Jarl took a deep breath “we’re all tired. Please, just do it.”
“Here,” Erin walked up behind Knud and passed him what looked like a withered rope of dried meat. “Have some of this.”
Knud took it from her and eyed the food distrustfully. To Jarl’s surprise he tried a piece without any complaints and smiled up at Astrid.
“Umm! What is it?”
“Lamb,” Astrid lied. Most dwarfs were unused to the rare human delicacy of dried and salted horse brain, and Knud did not strike her as the kind of child who liked to experiment.
“Knud, thank you?” Jarl chided him.
“Thank you,” Knud said quickly, a sheepish look on his face.
“Go on, finish that and go to sleep,” Jarl added. After the long day he would rather take on the extra work than have to re-do every chore done halfheartedly by Knud. With a sudden burst of energy, Knud skipped away and sat down next to Halvard, who had begun to set up the fire. Erin watched Knud while Jarl finished unsaddling the ponies. Jarl, in turn, watched her. Suddenly she turned around her eyes on the trees behind him. Both eyes narrowed at something in the distance.
“Did you see something?”
Astrid nodded. “He’s been following us since Einn.”
Jarl dropped the bag in his hands to the ground and turned to face the trees, a scowl on his face.
“Where is he?” he growled.
“About half a mile away back down the road.” Astrid looked at Jarl suspiciously. “Did you ask him to follow you?”
“No!” Jarl exclaimed. “I want nothing to do with him.”
“Then why is he following us?
“I don’t know.”
Astrid looked back at the trees and shuffled her grip on her hammer ax. She stood there, motionless for several moments until Jarl felt obliged to break the silence.
“Skad said he trained you?”
“And back in Einn, he called you Astrid?”
“That is one of my names,” Astrid replied, her back to them.
The pony between them shuffled nervously and tried to move away from her, but Jarl held it still. He was more comfortable with the idea of a barrier between them, not to mention he got the sense that the ponies frightened her. He had noticed over the last few days that she would never stand near them, and if one of them moved closer she would step back, her whole demeanour suddenly defensive. It seemed so ridiculous that a woman who wore a wolf skin for a cloak could be afraid of such harmless creatures.
“How many do you have?” Jarl tried to joke.
“Many. Astrid, Erin, Outsider. His favourite was brojóta burðr.”
Jarl blinked in shock before he had time to hide his reaction. Brojóta burðr was not a word he had heard in a long time, rape child.
“His favourite for me was Vagr. Vǫrn Vagr he would call me.”
Astrid tilted her head to the side and looked at him strangely. “What does that mean? I don’t know that word?”
Astrid’s mouth twitched with a smile. “Only? I would expect worse from him.”
“He had other ones, slápr, goðgá.”
“Goðgá,” Astrid laughed dryly “He is fond of that one. So he trained you too?”
“Yes, and Halvard too, for a while.”
“Why do you trust humans?” Astrid asked abruptly. Jarl had the impression that dependent on his reply, they would either be with or without a guide by morning.
“A human healer saved my life once. I had the Red plague. My mother had heard of a human healer in the mountains by Einn so she smuggled her into the city.”
Of all the possible answers he could have given his reply was not one that Astrid had expected.
“You had the red plague?”
“Yes, you know of it?”
“It’s common in the Haltija pass.”
Astrid knelt down in the mud and drew a crude map of Ammasteinn in the dirt. She drew the Riddari, the link of mountains which roughly took the shape of a horse across the center of Ammasteinn, and pointed at a small gap in the neck of the mountains.
“This is the haltija pass. Most of the human villages there have struggled with it.”
“Is that the route we’ll be taking?”
“Yes. Unless you want to spend the better part of a year sailing around Ammasteinn and travel down from the north.”
“How many times have you traveled to Waidu?”
“Many times. Most of the humans’ caravans travel to Waidu in the spring. The goblins are too busy hunting for food then.”
“During late summer they’re a lot more dangerous, not as dangerous as in the winter, but still dangerous. We should reach Castra in time to travel with one of the last summer caravans.”
“And if we don’t?”
Astrid stood up and looked him squarely in the eye. “If we don’t then you will have to find a new guide. I cannot promise your safety in the pass without the caravans, I won’t risk your son’s life.”
Jarl nodded. “Good, neither will I.”