Jarl had barely spoken since Halvard had left, and it was starting to make Astrid nervous. While she normally appreciated any silence on the road, this silence made her feel on edge. She could almost hear the cogs turn in Jarl’s head as he mulled what had happened over and over again.
Knud had tried to speak to him, but he had just told him to run ahead, or worse, to talk to her. By the time nightfall arrived and they began to set up camp Astrid felt as though the nerves at the back of her neck had turned into ants, crawling their way up and down her back.
“How far ‘til the Salt Monasteries?” Jarl asked as he untied their bags from his pony, his back to Astrid.
“Another three, maybe four days. We might make it in three if we walk this fast tomorrow,” Astrid replied.
“Knud,” Jarl passed Knud the reins. “Take the pony to the river, I want to talk to Astrid, alone.”
For once, Knud did what he was told without complaint.
“Will he be safe on his own here?” Jarl asked.
“Yes, I can still hear him,” Astrid replied. “I’ll know if anything is wrong.”
Jarl nodded and sat down, motioning for her to do the same. Astrid did not move from where she stood. This is it – the dark voice whispered in her head – he’s going to turn back. While she had had many humans refuse her services in the past, it surprised her how much the idea of rejection from another dwarf hurt.
“Astrid, is that your real name?”
In her head the dark voice prickled angrily and hissed at her that he had no right to demand anything, especially after she had just saved Knud’s life.
“Nobody calls me Astrid. Why does it matter?”
“How can I trust you if I don’t know your real name?”
Again the dark voice hissed at her to say nothing. “What do you want to know?” Astrid asked.
“Your magic, can you control it?”
“Yes, why would you ask that?”
“Your hands. They were shaking.”
“I can control it when I need to.”
“And were you born with it?”
Jarl nodded, satisfied with her answer, stood up and began to unpack his bag calmly as though nothing had happened.
“Why does that matter, that I was born with it?” Astrid asked, surprised that just a few simple answers had been enough for him.
“I was always told to beware magic which wasn’t born magic, especially Velnias magic.”
Astrid tilted her head at his reply. She had also heard the same thing said of magic by the humans, but she had never realised that the dwarfs also thought the same.
Jarl smiled to himself as he unpacked Knud’s blanket from his bag.
“When I was small my mother would tell me a story of a human enchantress, Rasa the Great.”
Astrid nodded. “The humans, they have the same story. Especially in the south near the Narcissus Isles, but there they hate her. They said she made a deal with the Velnias. They burn statues of her there.”
“Have you ever met one?”
“No, and I wouldn’t want too.”
“Erin!” Knud ran up to Astrid, an excited look on his face, the pony nowhere to be seen.
“Knud? Where’s the pony?” Jarl asked.
“He’s by the river, but, I think I saw the tree move!”
Jarl instantly drew his sword, but Astrid held her hand out and motioned at him to lower it. “It won’t hurt anyone,” she reassured him and followed Knud down to the river.
At first Jarl could not see the tree Knud had spoken of. They all looked normal to him. Old withered ash and oak trees grew all around, their roots spread across the ground in every direction. Then he saw two black eyes peering down sadly from the tree trunk. His hand slowly moved towards the hilt of his sword.
“No,” Astrid flinched as she reached over and held his hand firmly. “It won’t hurt you.”
She held her hand up towards him as she walked to the tree and crouched down in front of it. She bowed her head down before it and gently touched the knot of roots at its base. Around them the tree branches slowly rose up until the tree no longer sat hunched over the river bank.
“It’s alright,” Astrid beckoned at Knud. “It won’t hurt you, it’s just afraid.”
Jarl walked over with Knud, one arm protectively across his shoulders.
“Look, don’t be afraid. Here,” Astrid took hold of Knud’s hand and pressed it against the tree. Knud winced as he felt a strange energy shiver around his fingertips and a low hum rumbled from inside the tree.
“What are those?” Knud pointed up at dozens of gashes across and around the tree’s eyes.
“Someone must have attacked it once. That’s why it’s scared,” Astrid replied. “Leshy won’t attack you unless you hurt them.”
“We won’t hurt you!” Knud shouted up at the leshy. “I promise.”
Astrid smiled at Knud and Jarl thought to himself that it was the first time he had seen her smile properly, even though it looked quite painful with the scar down her lips.
Suddenly Knud jumped back and stared down at his hand in wonder. “Did you see that?!” He shouted excitedly.
“Shussh! Don’t shout,” Astrid whispered, “You’ll startle it.”
The tree shivered and pulled its branches towards its trunk like a frightened child.
“What did you see?” Jarl asked, worried.
“A battle! I saw a battle!”
Astrid looked up at the tree, then closed her eyes and held her hands towards the trunk again. At first she felt nothing. Then, like bolt of lightning her mind was filled with hundreds of memories. Overwhelmed, she winced in pain. She saw thousands of leshy burning, and several great battles, in which the faces of the soldiers were blurred. Every faded image was tinted red. She saw warlocks and enchantresses, with hands raised and bright flashes of magic around them. Some of them were old and worn and some of them impossibly beautiful. For some reason it was the beautiful ones which scared her. The look in their eyes made Astrid think of honey root addicts, but without the horrible glaze. There was another flash of white and Astrid found herself standing in the ruins of a city. Every stone was burned white, and there was ash everywhere. Every green thing for miles had burned to dust. She saw the miles and miles of wasteland the leshy had walked till it had finally stopped by the river centuries ago, the same river they stood by now, when it had finally been too tired to walk any further. Whatever had happened, the leshy had been alone for a very long time. The weight of sadness in the memory was so heavy she felt as though she might drown in it.
“We should go,” Astrid whispered when she finally opened her eyes. “It wants to be alone.”
Astrid stood up and walked away. Knud followed behind her. Jarl stayed behind for a moment, too curious about what Astrid and Knud had seen to leave. Slowly he reached for the tree’s trunk.
“Please don’t kill me,” he whispered.
The leshy’s black eyes fixed on him like a curious animal, before it raised its branches and hummed. Astrid watched Jarl’s eyes glaze as his mind filled with the memories. To her surprise he did not let go till the leshy had shown him all it wanted to.
“That must have been Rojóða wars,” Jarl whispered. “How old is this tree?”
“It’s not a tree, it’s a leshy,” Astrid corrected. “It must be thousands of years old. Look at the roots,” Astrid pointed. “It can’t move now, it’s been still for too long. If it moves now it’ll die.”
“Do other leshy move?”
“Yes. In the Riddari Kviðr mountains they do. But there they are dangerous. The ones here just want to be left alone.”
Jarl stood up. “How did it do that? Show me those things if I don’t have magic?”
“They’re frǫoðleikr” Astrid explained. “That is the way most of them speak.”
“But it didn’t tell me anything.”
“It did,” Astrid replied, a sad expression on her face. “It told you that it’s in pain.”