“You don’t understand!” the elf exclaimed as they walked past the elf dorms to leave. “She cut off my ear.”
“Last night there was nothing wrong with your ear,” the harassed monk replied.
Astrid’s face was utterly emotionless as they walked away. Her calm expression was so convincing that Jarl almost believed her, despite what Knud had told him. By the gate, several of the monks, including the abbot, were already waiting for them. Astrid hugged them all one by one, a sad expression on her face.
“Don’t take so long to come back again,” the abbot smiled. “We don’t live as long as you, remember?”
“I’ll be back for the winter,” Astrid promised.
“You won’t be going back to the red mountains?”
“No,” Astrid replied firmly.
The abbot shook his head. “I can’t say I’m surprised. You can tell me all about it when you come back?”
“Yes,” Astrid nodded and hugged the abbot one last time. Her face scrunched into his shoulder as she relished the smell of daru wine on his habit.
“Oh, and Erin,” the abbot called after her before she could walk out the gate. “Next time try not to cut any elf’s ears. I might be a human Erin, but I do still recognise Jakkito magic when I see it.” Astrid’s face turned red and she nodded.
As soon as they were out of the gate Knud slumped over in his saddle with a groan. The gentle rocking motion made him feel even worse.
“Are you alright?” Astrid asked. He looked utterly miserable.
“Humm,” Knud nodded and leant his head against his pony’s neck.
“I can help him,” Astrid suggested to Jarl, a flicker of blue around her hand. Jarl shook his head.
“If he feels sick for a little longer at least he’ll think twice about drinking again.”
Astrid nodded and looked back to the monastery one last time before they closed the enormous wooden gates behind them. It always struck her how beautiful it looked every time she left, and just how much she knew she would miss it. Out of all the human places in Ammasteinn, other than Bienra, this was her favourite.
She looked away, determined not to look back again.
Ahead of her, Jarl stepped down from his pony so that he could walk beside her. Knud’s pony was tethered alongside his.
“How did you do that?”
“Do what?” Astrid replied innocently.
“That elf’s ear.”
At first Astrid did not look like she would reply, but when she finally did she kept her eyes on the ground and refused to look him in the eyes.
“How much do you know about the elf magic?”
“Not much. I’ve been told it’s different to the old magic, but that’s all I know. That elf’s ear?”
“It isn’t like the old magic,” Astrid replied. “Dag’s magic is different to the elves. I was told that elf magic was given as a gift to the elves to thank them for their devotion to Nida. They call it Jakkito. It means healing. That’s what it’s meant for. You give your strength in exchange for healing. I don’t know how to describe it well.” Astrid stammered, unsure how to explain just how different the two were. “Jakkito feels like a gift. You give your strength to heal others, or you carry their pain for them, but…you can twist it, and take energy instead. It never feels right, but you can do it. That’s what I did.” She sounded ashamed. “He thought I had cut off his right ear, but that was because he couldn’t feel the other one.”
“You took the pain until the monks were gone,” Jarl replied out loud to himself.
“He called my mother a whore,” Astrid said quickly, eager to change the subject. “He deserved what he got!”
Knud sat up in his saddle, his skin a little less green than before. “How did you lose your ear?”
“Knud,” Jarl groaned. “I told you—”
“The elves cut it off,” Astrid replied. “They saw my bow and thought I had stolen it.”
“What bow?” Knud asked, sure that the only weapon he had ever seen her carry was her hammer ax and her daggers.
“I don’t carry it around with me anymore. I gave it to a friend.”
“Knud, you can ride ahead a little if you want,” Jarl said suddenly, “Just stay on the path where I can see you.”
Instantly Knud stat upright in the saddle, a large grin on his face.
“Oh look, he’s been cured.” Jarl shook his head as Knud cantered ahead of them. He waited till Knud was out of earshot before he asked the question that had been burning at the back of his mind. It was only the previous night that it had occurred to him where he had seen the emblem on Astrid’s hammer ax before. A thistle carved into the side of it.
Astrid froze and made a sound as though she had been stabbed. “What?”
“Hvass, the symbol on your hammer ax.” Jarl pointed to it on the hammer ax tied against the side of her backpack. “I’ve seen it before, the house of Hvass.”
Astrid had gone completely ashen. “Where, where did you see it?”
“Before I left Bjargtre I gave my family name to a friend. I had to go to the house of records to have a witness confirm and seal it. They have a book there with a copy of all the great family seals. I saw that seal in there, it said the house of Hvass.”
Suddenly, Astrid’s face crumpled and she held her hands over her face to hide her expression. The start of a sob stuck at the back of her throat.
What are you doing? The harsh voice hissed at her. Stop this! Don’t you dare cry! But there was nothing Astrid could do. It was as though an old wound in her chest had been ripped wide open for the whole world to see. She felt exposed, like a raw nerve in the wind. Before Jarl could stay anything else, Astrid reached for her veil which hung draped around her neck and pulled it up to cover her face. As she rushed past Knud she pulled her wolf skin off the back of his pony, flinching slightly as her arm brushed against it.
For the rest of the day she kept her back to Jarl and Knud, angry at Jarl, but mostly angry at herself for falling apart so easily. It all seemed so pathetic. Over the years she had heard the worst of words to describe herself and her parents, and for the most part, those words no longer hurt her. But that one word, Hvass, had been enough.
Oh look at you! Arnbjörg Hvass, Astrid, say it, Arnbjörg Hvass. It’s just a name! Stop being so, utterly, pathetic!
“I miss them,” Astrid whispered.
Well, maybe if you’re lucky this time you’ll finally get to see them soon. The Haltija pass should be dangerous enough for you now.
“No,” Astrid replied to the dark voice. “I can’t. I have to protect them till I reach Waidu.”
There’s always the way back.
So are you.
“I hate you.”
The dark voice laughed. I know.