“I take it back. The ponies are useful,” Halvard wheezed as he led his pony on the narrow path. Ahead of him Jarl burst out laughing, his laugher echoing loudly around the canyon.
“Why do we have to walk?” Halvard shouted up at Astrid who walked ahead of them, Knud right behind her, followed by Jarl, and lastly, by Halvard.
“Until we get down to the canyon floor the path is unstable. If we put too much weight on it some parts might collapse. I’ve seen it happen before. It’s better you walk.”
“The path looks fine to me,” Halvard grumbled and kicked a stone off the path and over the side. It clattered down the stone precipice until finally it bounced onto the canyon floor. It had taken them most of the day to walk down the winding paths which clung to the canyon walls. The paths were so thin that the bags tied down on each side of the ponies jutted out over the edge. One of the ponies carried as much dried wood as they had been able to find, at Astrid’s insistence. When Astrid had asked them that morning which of the two routes they preferred, Halvard had been glad to take the shorter route. Now though, he wasn’t so sure. The hard ground was much less forgiving on his feet than the grass around the canyon. They still had a few more hours before the path would reach the canyon floor, and Halvard doubted his feet would last that long.
“When will we reach the canyon floor?” Halvard shouted.
“Not till nightfall,” Astrid shouted back. “We should keep walking until we’re out of the canyon, but if you need to rest you need to stay near the fire.”
“Why?” Knud asked.
Astrid pointed at the large perfectly round holes which speckled the walls of the canyons, some parts so punctured with them they looked the walls of a bee hive. “Do you have earth worms in Bjargtre?”
“Yes. We eat them,” Knud replied.
Astrid laughed and turned to smile at Knud. “These would feed whole families for a month. This nest is much older than any you would find in Bjargtre. They’re much bigger.”
“How much bigger?” Knud asked, excited by the idea of seeing a large worm, when the largest he had ever seen was barely bigger than his hand.
“Big enough so that they eat you.”
Knud’s smile dropped and he stepped back to hold Jarl’s hand as they passed a particularly large hole.
“Why do we have to stay near the fire?”
“Light hurts them. So long as you stay by the fire you will be safe.”
* * *
“If I ever complain about the ponies again, hit me,” Halvard moaned as he slowly undid his boots and shuffled his bright red feet closer to the fire. “My feet are dead.”
“I’ll make sure I remember that,” Jarl laughed and passed a small piece of bread to Knud.
“Isn’t there any more?” Knud asked.
“There is when you’ve finished that, and don’t wolf it down. Eat it slowly.”
On the other side of the fire Astrid looked down at her knees and smirked at Knud, who nodded and forced the whole piece of bread into his mouth.
“Imm gonna eaat it swowly,” Knud mumbled through the bread.
“You’re not having any more now,” Jarl replied.
Halvard groaned in disgust as Knud spat the bread out into his hand and began to break the half-chewed clumps it up into pieces with his finger. “That’s disgusting!”
“What? Jarl said to eat it slowly.”
“Not like—ugh — I’m not going to say anything!” Halvard reached for his blanket and turned his back to the rest of them. “I’m too tired for this. Goodnight!”
Knud looked up, a small piece of bread half in his mouth, as they all heard a hollow howl from the canyon above them.
“Is that the angu?”
“No, that’s the wind,” Astrid replied with a small smile. She had lowered her veil to reveal her face for the first time that day. “When it blows past the tunnels it makes that sound. The angu don’t make that sound.”
“What sound to they make?”
“Have you ever heard a rattle snake?”
“It sounds like that, just deeper.”
“Have you ever killed one?”
“No, I’ve never had to. I’ve seen them before, but they don’t come after people mostly. They eat rock, not us.”
“Then why do we have to stay by the fire if they’re not dangerous?”
“They aggressive, especially if they have young.”
“Here,” Jarl passed Knud another piece of bread. “You can eat this when you’re finished.”
Knud’s face instantly lit up again and he quickly shoved everything that remained of the first piece of bread into his mouth. Jarl shook his head and stood up to pass Astrid a piece of bread over the fire.
Astrid looked surprised. “Why are you giving me that?”
“You need to eat, don’t you? Or don’t you eat either?”
“Thank you, but I’m not hungry.”
With his back still to them, Halvard snorted loudly. “Next you’ll be saying you don’t drink either.”
“If you thought I was a witch then why did you come?” Astrid asked quietly.
“I don’t think you’re—” Jarl began but Halvard sat up and interrupted.
“You don’t eat, I’ve never seen you sleep, you don’t even seem to get tired.”
“Halvard,” Jarl repeated. Again, Halvard ignored him.
“I get tired. Just not as easily as you.”
“That’s because you’re a witch.”
“Enough!” Jarl shouted, his voice so loud it echoed up the walls of the canyon. “That’s enough!”
Halvard kicked his blanket off and stood up to face Jarl who remained seated. “Who are you to tell me what’s enough! Knud is my ward too! Knute wanted both of us to take care of him! He only left him to you because I’m nameless! He was left to both of us, and I want to keep him safe!”
“I’m not a witch,” Astrid whispered.
“Then why are your eyes different colours?!”
“They’ve always been like that.”
“You’re lying! Nobody is born with eyes like that.”
As Astrid stood up to face him, the fire suddenly crackled loudly and a series of blue sparks shivered up the flames. They all felt the air tense around them, every hair on end.
Halvard jumped back and pointed at the flames. “Look! You saw that! She’s a witch!”
“Stop it! Stop it!” Knud shouted as loudly as he could. They all turned to face him and suddenly noticed that he had stepped well beyond the fire’s glow. “Stop it or I’ll walk away!”
“Knud, get back over here.” Jarl walked out after him.
“No! No! I want you to stop fighting, I—”
They all heard a soft squelch followed by a crack as Knud took another step back. Everyone froze as Knud raised his foot, and something chalk-white and oozy squirmed in the dirt. It looked like a snake, just far fatter, and instead of orderly smooth scales it was covered with thick crusty ridges. Blood, the colour of puss, seeped from it.
Knud looked up at Astrid’s horrified face. While there was little she had managed to learn about the angu larvae during her years as a guide, there were two things she knew for certain. The young angu were not as sensitive to light as their adult counterparts, and wherever a larva was, a much larger and aggressively protective parent would be close by.
“Am I in trouble?” Knud whispered.
The ground beneath his feet crumbled to dust as a large angu, enraged by the smell of its larva’s blood, smashed through the underground tunnels, up towards him. Stunned briefly by the moonlight as it emerged into the open air, the angu swerved just enough to knock Knud over and down into the open pit it had created.
He tried to hold his hands out against the tunnel walls to stop himself falling further down into the dark, but the walls were too smooth. With a thud he hit solid ground and scrambled to stand up. The maze of tunnels was completely black. Above him the angu rattled angrily and turned back down towards him. Its enormous body blocked out the last rays of faint moonlight.
Knud ran, his hands held out in front of him to try and feel his way through the tunnels. Where exactly they led, he did not care. His only thought was to try to escape the enraged angu he could hear smashing its way through the tunnels behind him. The angu’s mind was completely focused on killing the dwarf which had crushed its larva.
He screamed as his head clipped the edge of one of the tunnels and he felt a small trickle of blood run down his head.
Suddenly a pair of arms where wrapped around him and a hand clamped down over his mouth. Knud howled and instinctively bit down as he tried to wrestle away, but it did not let go.
“Don’t make a sound!” Astrid whispered behind him.
“Erin?” Knud mumbled behind her hand, the sound loud enough to echo in the darkness.
To his shock Astrid suddenly slapped him. “Didn’t you listen to me! Not a sound!”
“I’m scared!” Knud whispered back.
Astrid’s grip on him softened a little, but only a little. “So am I, but you have to listen to me or we’re going to die. You need to climb onto my back, keep your head down and don’t let go. I don’t care what you hear or how scared you are. Don’t let go!” She reached for his hands and pulled him onto her back. “Don’t let go and don’t make a sound.”
Knud nodded and buried his head against Astrid’s shoulder, his eyes closed as tightly as he could. Astrid closed her own eyes and rested both her hands on the sides of the tunnels. The darkness was irrelevant. Every small movement the angu made above them told her what she needed to know: how deep the tunnels were, where they were, and more importantly, where the angu was.
She stepped forward and slowly walked along one of the many tunnels which fed into the chamber. The tunnel began to curve up higher and higher, until finally she had to climb. The ridges in the rock wall protruded only just enough to pull herself higher, her feet against the wall on either side of her in case her grip should fail. Knud still kept his eyes tightly closed. The air was full of dust and a smell that made him think of the dusty locked rooms in Vǫrn hall. Astrid kept climbing and turned down several more tunnels, some smaller and some much larger. One was so small she was forced to crawl on her stomach so that Knud’s head would not hit the edges.
“It’s alright. We’re almost there,” she whispered to reassure him. “Look, light, see?”
Knud slowly looked up and flinched at the moonlight which shone through the cracks in the tunnel roof above them. Astrid slowly stepped forward, feeling a tingle at the back of her ears that she had learned never to ignore. Something was watching her. At last they reached a crack in the tunnel which was large enough to crawl through. Astrid pushed Knud up through it and then followed through herself. Slightly blinded by the moonlight Knud looked up and saw Halvard and Jarl crouched over the edge, both of them frantic.
“Jarl! Jarl! I’m down here!” Knud suddenly screamed.
The angu burst out from one of the tunnels in front of them and struck Astrid with its head. Knud was knocked back with her, then Astrid’s arm was suddenly behind him, placing her arm between his head and the wall. Knud felt Astrid’s bone break with a horrible crack.
The angu charged towards them. Flakes of stony skin peeled off its back in small charred flakes, as the moonlight worked on it like acid. Its head was flat and eyeless. A row of curved serrated talons showed under what appeared to be its chin. Knud felt himself lifted up and tossed like a rag doll as Astrid threw him away from her. The angu hit the wall, where Knud had been moments before, and crashed through it into the tunnels behind. Astrid scrambled away and ducked as its tail lashed back around and missed her head by inches.
Above them, Jarl ran back to the fire and snatched the unburnt end of some of firewood. He ran back to the edge of the pit and hurled the firebrand towards the angu, to force it back into the tunnels. It shivered and pounded its tail in agony against the ground as the torch hit it. The light from the fire was much more painful to it than the moonlight. As quickly as it could, the angu forced itself into the much smaller tunnels until it was out of the firelight.
“Halvard, hold onto my legs!” Jarl shouted behind him.
Halvard barely had time to realise what Jarl had just said before he all but dived over the edge of the pit to reach down to Knud.
“Knud! Climb!” Jarl shouted down at Knud who seemed to be dazed. “Knud!”
Astrid ran over to Knud and pushed him up the wall toward Jarl.
“I can’t reach him!”
“Knud, jump!” Astrid screamed, genuine fear in her voice. She could hear the angu in the rock, and it was making its way back towards them. “Knud! Jump! Jump!”
Knud scrambled onto Astrid’s shoulders and jumped as high as he could towards Jarl’s outstretched hands.
“I’ve got him!”
Halvard pulled Jarl back over the edge by his boots and prayed that Jarl had tied them firmly that morning. As soon as Knud was over the edge Jarl looked back over to see Astrid step back from the wall.
“What are you doing? Climb up!”
Astrid shook her head, her eyes on the walls. “I can’t go near the walls. It’s waiting for me.”
Jarl and Halvard stood up quickly and stepped back from the edge, afraid that the angu would turn its attention to them. “It doesn’t want you, it wants me now,” Astrid called up.
Behind them they heard a loud voice and turned to see Skad toss a coil of rope, the other end of which was tied to his ponie’s saddle, down into the pit. “Take the rope!”
Astrid did nothing.
“Don’t be stupid, girl! Take the rope!”
Don’t trust him! The voice in Astrid’s head hissed. You can’t trust him, why would he want to help you?
“I don’t have a choice,” Astrid whispered under her breath back to the voice.
“Vǫrn! Tell me when she’s taken the rope!” Skad shouted and ran back to his pony, tying the end of the coil to its saddle. “If that thing is in the walls we need to be quick.”
Jarl looked back down into the pit as Astrid took several steps back and looked up at him. The wall was too high for her to climb quickly, she could not hold the rope while it hung against the wall and the moment Skad pulled her up she would have less than a second to grab hold of it before it was pulled out of reach. She took a deep breath and ran.
“Now!” Jarl shouted.
Skad’s pony lurched forward, Skad in the saddle, his hand on the knot which held the end of the rope in place.
The angu tore through the rock just as Astrid leapt up the side of the wall and grabbed the end of the rope. Its mouth came so close to her feet she felt it brush against her toes. The angu crashed onto the floor of the pit, fully exposed to the moonlight and writhed violently.
Just as Astrid’s fingertips touched the edge of the pit, the rope suddenly shuddered and slacked. Astrid’s breath caught in her throat as she fell back. Jarl lurched forward and grabbed hold of the rope as it slid past him and pulled back with all his strength until he saw Astrid’s hands reach up over the edge of the pit. He reached forward, grabbed hold of her hand and hauled her over the edge. Astrid knelt on the floor, her heart still in her throat. Her right arm was at an alarming angle where the bone had broken.
“Back to the fire! Get back to the fire!” she panted. None of them had to be told twice. Halvard was the first to pick up brands from the fire and litter one after another in a burning circle around them.
Skad was the last to make it back to the fire, a disappointed expression on his face.
As soon as he had dismounted his pony, Astrid turned and kicked the side of his knee as hard as she could. They all heard the bone crack and Skad fell howling to his knees, his hands clutched over his broken leg.
“What happened to the rope?!” Astrid shouted at him, her strange accent even thicker than usual.
“I just saved your life, you damned blanda blóð bitch!”
“You almost killed me! Why did the rope break?”
“Jarl? Look!” Knud whispered and pointed at Astrid’s hands. Small blue flames flickered around her fingertips. For a few short seconds nobody said a word, stunned into silence, except for Skad. Halvard drew his sword.
“I knew it! She’s a witch!”
“Put your sword down!” Jarl ordered angrily. He placed one hand on Knud’s shoulder and the other on Halvard’s sword. Astrid looked down at her hands in apparent confusion, before she closed her hands and the flames disappeared in a wisp of small blue sparks. She did not even seem to notice the end of Halvard’s sword against her neck.
“I’m not a witch,” she whispered, as Jarl pushed Halvard’s sword away.
“Your hands were on fire! Blue fire!” Halvard shouted back. “Of course you’re a witch!” Halvard’s face was flushed red with anger. He turned and pointed his sword at Skad. “You let us travel with a witch!”
“She’s not a witch,” Skad replied, his face scrunched into a painful grimace. “She’s a blanda blóð.”
Skad laughed loudly. “She doesn’t have a drop of human blood in her, despite how much she likes to pretend she does,” Skad sneered. “She’s a half elf. A bastard dwarf father and a whore elf mother.”
Astrid’s didn’t say a word.
“You trained her?” Halvard exclaimed, his face red with anger. “You would not train me because I was a neinn nefna, but you trained her?!”
“You did not owe a warlock a life debt!” Skad shouted back. “I had no choice! I didn’t realise what she was. Dagmar was good at hiding her ears.”
“Her ears? Look at her eyes! You must have known something was strange about her!”
Astrid walked over to her bag which still lay by the fire and reached into it for the money Jarl had given her in Einn. She almost tore the canvas in her hurry. This – the voice in her head whispered – this is why you should have listened to me! How did you think this would end?
“Here! If you can’t travel with a Blanda blóð, take your money. I won’t lead people who won’t trust me, someone will get killed.”
Halvard stepped forward to take the money from her but Jarl knocked his hand out of the way.
“We can’t go back, not now. We’ll never get to the high city before the winter if we go back.”
“Forget the high city!” Halvard groaned, exasperated. “She is going to get us killed!”
“She just saved Knud’s life!”
“She just saved Knud to get you to trust her.”
“Don’t be stupid Halvard!” Jarl snapped back.
Halvard hands curled into a tight fist. “Jarl, she is going to get us killed. We should go back to Einn, find another guide—”
“We can’t waste any more time! If we don’t get through the Haltija pass before the snow we’ll never make it to Lǫgberg.”
“Jarl…She is dangerous! Look at her!” Halvard bellowed at the top of his lungs. “I won’t travel with a witch!”
Jarl looked back at him in silence for a moment before he replied, “We don’t have a choice now.”
“Well I do!” Halvard walked over to pick up his bag and furiously pulled it onto his shoulders. “I’m going back! Knud, pick up your things!”
Knud shook his head and shrank behind Jarl.
“He’s staying with me,” Jarl replied, his voice dangerously calm. There was an expression on his face that Astrid would never have imagined the calm, quiet dwarf was capable of, and it looked quite a lot like rage.
Without a snarl Halvard swung his fist at Jarl with the full weight of his body. Jarl took the blow, only landing his own punch squarely in the middle of Halvard’s stomach in retaliation. The wind knocked from Halvard completely.
“You…bastard!” Halvard wheezed from the floor, doubled over. “You’re going… to get him… killed.”
“No, I won’t. Bjargtre isn’t safe, he’s staying with me!” Jarl replied, his voice slurred from the blood in his mouth. His lower lip was badly cut where Halvard had struck him.
It took Halvard a few moments to regain his breath and stand up. When he finally did, he did not say a word, but stumbled toward his pony and mounted it. Nobody spoke as Halvard rode away.
“I would leave with him, Skad,” Astrid warned quietly. “If I see you behind us again, I’ll break your other leg.”
Skad whimpered as he pulled himself onto his pony’s saddle, unable to get his broken leg to do much more than dangle uselessly. Astrid dropped her hand to the the handle of her hammer axe and watched him until he was no longer in sight.