It was only now that they could see the Haltija pass in front of them that Jarl and Knud could appreciate the enormity of the Riddari mountain range. On their journey from Einn along the small roads and paths which ran alongside it they had not realised just how much the landscape rose up to meet the mountains. Now, as they stood at the foot of the Haltija pass, they could see the break in the mountains as though an enormous trench had been dug through them, while the peaks on either side were completely hidden in clouds. The strip of wasteland which passed through the Haltija was barren of any kind of trees or bushes. Long, wiry, dark green grass which spread down from the plains on the other side of the Riddari grew everywhere. There were no trees, just the grass and the wind which cut through them like dozens of little needles. The air was noticeably colder.
“Is that Castra?” Jarl pointed what looked like a large stone fortress in the distance.
“Yes. Once we get there, we’ll have to wait for a caravan to leave. I don’t know how long that’ll be. At this time of year there’s normally one every three or five days. We shouldn’t have to wait long, hopefully.”
“Why can’t you take us?” Knud asked.
“I’ll still take you, but it’s not safe for us to go alone. We’re safer in a larger group.”
Jarl kept a tight hand on Knud’s reigns as they rode ahead. Something about the pass made him nervous, and it wasn’t just him who felt this way. Astrid carried her hammer ax in her hand for the first time since Einn and had pulled her hair back from her ears so that she could hear as well as possible.
“Just a feeling,” Astrid whispered back. “Pass me my wolf skin.” Jarl did as she asked him and pulled her wolf skin off Knud’s shoulders. “And Knud should ride with you, just in case.”
She took the skin from him and pulled the wolf’s head tightly over her own. The closer they got to Castra the more she felt the hairs at the back of her neck stand on end. Something was very, very wrong.
For once Knud didn’t ask any questions. Jarl kept one arm around Knud’s waist and the other tightly on the reigns. The wind was so much colder than it had been along the Riddari.
Jarl pulled the reigns back and watched Astrid. Her eyes were narrowed on Castra.
“I can’t hear anything from Castra, there’s nobody inside the town.”
“Maybe they’re all asleep?” Knud suggested.
Astrid shook her head nervously. “Maybe.”
* * *
By the time they reached the walls it clear that something was very wrong. Broken arrows dotted in the thick grass everywhere. Astrid pulled her veil over her nose. The smell of blood overwhelmed her acute sense of smell.
“What is it?”
“Blood, I can smell blood everywhere.”
When they reached the gates Astrid’s face fell.
“What is that?” Knud asked. Painted over the gate in what looked like blood was an enormous symbol he didn’t recognise.
Astrid looked around them, a worried expression on her face.
“What’s wrong?” Jarl asked.
“Moldof, that’s his mark. We need to leave.” Astrid looked around for several moments and then eventually back at Jarl. “If you want to get to Lǫgberg we’re going to have to run for it. If Moldof took Castra then he’s probably patrolling the pass, nobody will be sending caravans through the pass now.”
Jarl looked down at Knud and back at Astrid. “How long will it take us to reach Waidu?”
“Three or five days before we reach the Waidu pass, but I think Moldof will be watching the pass if he’s attacked Castra. I’ll take you through the Three Sisters pass. The goblins wouldn’t dare to go near it.”
“Why won’t they go near it?”
“Frǫoðleikr, you know the leshy by the river? Well, any leshy in the Three Sisters pass will be the dangerous kind. You’ll need to stay close to me and be ready to run at any moment. If we’re lucky the leshy will be the only frǫoðleikr there. I can’t lie, it’ll be very dangerous. Going to Isca would be safer.”
“That’s a human town, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s in the human lands, towards the gold coast.”
Jarl hand his hands through his hair and tried to think as calmly as he could.
“No, we need to get to Lǫgberg.”
Astrid’s face dropped, but she still nodded her head. “Alright. Everything that isn’t absolutely necessary we need to leave here. Keep Knud’s pony, but you need to be ready to leave it behind. We might need the distraction.”
“Leave my pony?” Knud’s lower lip trembled. “But what if they hurt it?”
“They won’t hurt it,” Astrid lied. “Now hurry, we need to leave as soon as possible.”
While Astrid watched the plains Knud and Jarl pulled everything from their bags that they did not need and tossed it onto the ground. Astrid pulled her wolf skin a little closer and ran through the route they would take in her mind.
She knew that Moldof had tried to attack Castra in the past, but she would never have believed that he could actually do it. The only thing that eased her mind what that the smell of blood was not fresh. The battle would have taken place at least five days ago. Still, the faster they left the safer she would feel.
“Can you ride without the saddle?” Astrid asked as she looked back at them. Jarl nodded. “Good, then you should leave that behind too, Knud, help me take this all inside.”
Careful not to step too close to the ponies Astrid picked up the two saddles Jarl had untied. Knud waited behind her.
“Don’t wander off,” Astrid warned him as she pushed the gate open enough to walk through.
Jarl walked behind Knud with Knud’s empty bag in his hand. Everything important which had been inside it was bundled into his own bag. Knud stared at the charred buildings. The few upright blackened beams inside the walls were all that remained of Castra. Ash covered everything and layered the ground so thickly that Knud’s boots sank into it like light snow.
Astrid hid the saddles behind a large charred beam and motioned at Knud to do the same.
“Has this ever happened before?” Jarl asked as he hid Knud’s bag with the saddled.
“They’ve attacked before, they’ve never won before.”
While their backs were turned to him Knud suddenly noticed a large blackened pile in the middle of the village, what looked like several white branches protruding through it. He looked back at Jarl and Astrid before he slowly made his way towards it, curious to see what they were.
“It looks like the goblins aren’t just getting stronger in Bjargtre,” Astrid said quietly to Jarl, her back to Knud. “They must have convinced the—”
“KNUD!” Jarl suddenly bellowed as he noticed Knud had walked away from them. He marched up to Knud, ready to drag him back outside the walls and shout at him till he could no longer hear, but Astrid suddenly leapt forward and pulled Jarl back. Her eyes on the ground where Knud stood.
“Knud! Knud, don’t move. For the love of Nida, don’t move!”
Jarl’s face went ashen as he noticed a circular outline in the mud next to Knud’s right foot, the faint glint of steel teeth poking through the ash it was buried under.
“Am I in trouble?” Knud whispered.
“No, no you’re not in trouble,” Jarl lied and forced a relaxed smile. “Just don’t move.”
“I just wanted to see what the white sticks were.”
“What white sticks?”
Without thinking Knud took one step away from them, as his hand pointed towards the pile.
Even buried under the mud, the iron trap snapped its jaws shut with the force of a battering ram. Knud felt his whole body shudder. He fell, and looked down at his feet, confused as to why he had fallen. The trap had closed with his ankle pinned between the teeth. Then he saw the blood and the pain hit him like bolt of lightning. Astrid and Jarl skidded to a stop on their knees next to him and tried to prise the trap open with their bare hands. Knud screamed and flailed as they slowly spread the jaws apart. His calf had been torn completely open, exposing the muscles and bones.
“No, no, no!” Astrid begged and quickly lifted Knud’s leg out of the trap while Jarl held it open. With a whimper Knud passed out from the pain and slumped against Astrid’s shoulder. Knud’s blood ran all over her hands. Jarl pulled his cloak off his shoulders and frantically began to tear it into long strips to wrap them tightly around Knud’s leg.
“I can’t heal him,” Astrid whispered. Her hands gripped tightly around his leg and the blood trickled through her fingers. “There’s too much damage, the bone—”
You should have been watching him, why weren’t you watching him! The harsh voice screamed at her This is your fault! You know what he’s like! How could you let his happen to him!
Jarl looked as though his whole world had burned down around him. He swore, reached for his sword and held it tightly in his hands. Knud’s foot splayed out at an odd angle. The bone was severed in half. Only a few muscles and ligaments kept Knud’s foot connected to his leg.
“You can’t heal it?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
Astrid’s lower lip trembled, her eyes on Jarl’s sword. She knew what it was he would have to do.
Jarl nodded and took a deep slow breath. Astrid flinched as he cut through the break in Knud’s foot in one clean swipe and cut it completely from his leg. Without a word Astrid held the stump that remained and closed her eyes. Blue sparks rippled up her hands in little waves. Under her fingers the torn flesh shivered and slowly spread itself over the exposed bone to create a thin layer of skin and flesh. The blood clotted, scabbed and then fell off within seconds.
Then Jarl noticed Astrid’s face. Her skin had taken on the hue of a dead corpse. The colour had completely drained from her lips.
“Astrid!” Jarl pulled her hand away from Knud’s leg and suddenly felt an enormous rush of pain burn every nerve in his body. He was able to feel the same pain Astrid felt for brief moment.
“I’m sorry,” Astrid whispered while Jarl shakily wrapped the torn strips of his cloak around Knud’s leg.
“We should go to Isca,” Jarl replied and lifted Knud’s unconscious body in his arms. “Lǫgberg can wait.”
Astrid nodded in agreement and tried to stand up, only for her legs to buckle.
“I’m alright,” Astrid wheezed and stood up. Her legs visibly shook. “We need to leave.”
Jarl passed Knud to her. He pulled his bag onto his back and mounted his pony. As Astrid passed Knud back up to him she suddenly noticed black shapes in the distance between them and the direction of Isca. Five horses galloped towards them. Their riders carried long spears which curved at the ends like sythes.
Jarl turned in his saddle to see what had grabbed her attention. “Is that—”
“Ride!” Astrid urged and pointed at the pass. “Goblins!”