Jarl was exhausted. He paused for a moment to lean against a tree. Strands of his long hair stuck to the side of his face and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. The Aldwood was not like the barren pass. Wild plants, trees and bushes were everywhere, together with long grass that caught in his feet as he ran. His knees were scratched from the number of times he had tripped and fallen. Knud and Astrid’s added weight made it all the more painful. Knud was not much better off. His red, curly hair limp and dirty. He had done his best to keep up with Jarl but could not match his long strides. Jarl’s entire right side was strained from Knud’s weight pulling him down with each hobble.
“Can we stop for a moment?” Knud panted. Jarl shook his head. The skin on Astrid’s face against the side of his neck felt cold and damp.
“No! We have to keep moving!”
Knud began to cry, exhausted. “Please! I can’t run anymore!”
“Knud, I can’t leave you here and I can’t heal Astrid. She needs help, we need to keep moving!”
Knud slumped onto the floor and began to wail. “Please! Please Jarl! I can’t! My leg!”
“Knud! Get up!” Jarl bellowed. He reached down and pulled him up to his feet. “Stand!” he ordered.
Knud continued to cry, but he pulled himself upright, and stumbled on beside Jarl. Jarl’s held his arm firmly. They both trudged along with slow heavy steps. The sun was long gone. The stars and moon provided the only light. Every dark tree made a shadow more frightening than a goblin’s. Jarl could not shake the thought that they should stop, light a fire, and sleep, but each time he would look down at Astrid’s face. Her skin looked more ashen each time and he would push the thought away again.
Loba, I have to find Loba!
* * *
Jarl had called out into the forest several times, but nobody had replied. He would have been surprised if anyone had. When they had stepped out of the pass, the path down had been on a small rise from which he could see most of the Aldwood. The forest stretched on for miles and miles and not so much as a puff of smoke had been in sight, let alone the flicker of firelight.
Jarl looked around him and shouted out the only name he could remember from his earlier conversation with Astrid. “Loba! Loba!”
“Jarl?” Astrid croaked.
Instantly, Jarl dropped to his knees and pulled Astrid off his back as gently as he could. His hand cupped the back of her neck to support her head as it fell back. “You’re awake!” He stroked her hair from her face, relief washing over him.
“Awake…not quite how I would describe it,” Astrid muttered, her lips barely moving. She did not open her eyes. “Where are we?”
Astrid opened her eyes, both of them alert for a few seconds. “Don’t move! Nobody move! Not till morning!”
“Thank you!” Knud muttered, and dropped to the ground in a huddle.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Vârcolac…the vârcolac.” Astrid’s voice began to trail off. “Light a fire, don’t leave the fire!”
“I thought you said they were your friends?” Jarl asked. Astrid tried to reply, but instead her eyes began to close. “No, no, no! You stay awake!” Jarl shook her head firmly and her eyes opened a little before they partly closed again. “You stay awake!”
“Alright. Stop shaking me.” Astrid muttered.
Jarl took her hand and reached for Knud. “Hold her hand and don’t let her fall asleep,” he ordered.
“But what if she does?”
“Don’t let her! Slap her if you have to!”
Jarl got to his feet and glanced around. There were plenty of fallen branches and twigs on the ground and he barely had to move from where he was standing to collect a smile pile of kindling. “Astrid! Keep talking. Tell me anything you want. Just stay awake!”
He quickly cleared the ground of anything that could set alight and dug a small pit for the fire. Before long, his fingers were caked in mud and dirt had worked its way under his nails. He stacked up the firewood in a pyramid, with the smaller more flammable twigs and leaves in the centre and the thicker branches on the outside. Astrid mumbled but did not say anything coherent. Her head rolled to the side.
“Knud!” Jarl reached for the fire stones in his pocket. “Keep her awake!”
“Astrid. Astrid wake up.” Knud took her head in his hands and shook her face firmly.
“Agh! Don’t do that!” Astrid snapped.
“Knud! Keep doing that! If she falls asleep keep doing that!” Jarl ordered. He struck the fire stones repeatedly until a burst of sparks finally caught on the dry grass. The sparks spread, a small flame took hold and began to lick its way up the twigs surrounding it. Jarl fed it with dry leaves until the first few large flames emerged. “Knud. Keep an eye on the fire. Don’t let it go out.”
They switched places. Knud tended the fire while Jarl held Astrid in his arms. He pulled her close to him to keep her warm. As her head lay against his chest, he could feel very raspy breath she took. “Stay awake, Astrid.” He tapped her face firmly and she opened her eyes. “You have to stay awake. Here.” He took her hand in his. “You can take energy from me. You need it.”
For a moment she looked as if she was about to argue with him.
In her head the harsh voice suddenly laughed. Looks like you don’t want to die after all? Who would have thought it.
Resigned, she reached for his hand and Jarl braced himself, but nothing happened. “Astrid?”
She looked up at him, at first confused and then frightened. “I can’t!”
“What’s wrong?” Knud asked, scared by the tone in Astrid’s voice.
Jarl held both her hands in his tightly. “It’s alright, Astrid, just stay awake. You just need to stay awake.”
“Why? I don’t understand!” Astrid panicked.
“You don’t need it,” Jarl reassured her. “We have the fire. You just need to stay awake for a few more hours. Here—” He reached into his bag and pulled out some of the dried food he still had wrapped tightly between his other belongings. “Eat. You need it.”
“We don’t have much left. You should keep it.”
Jarl growled, irritated. “Just for once, can you not argue with me? You need this.” He tore off a small piece of bread, barely the size of a pebble, and placed it against her mouth. Astrid chewed slowly, too tired to grind the tiny morsels between her teeth.
“Good, and another.”
“I don’t understand,” Astrid muttered. “I’ve always been able to take energry. Why can’t I—”
A small sob escaped from the back of her throat and she began to cry, her face hidden against Jarl’s chest, shaking like a leaf. Knud looked away and poked at the fire with a stick, embarrassed and not sure where to look, as Jarl rocked Astrid in his arms.
* * *
Exhausted from crying and from the loss of blood, Astrid finally slept. Every so often Jarl leant down to listen for her breathing, afraid that at any moment her lungs would stop. Each breath was heavy and slow.
The sky had turned a beautiful mixture of red and purple and the stars grew fainter by the second as the dawn’s light began to drown them out. The sun had not yet risen above the mountains of the Riddari Kviðr, which surrounded the Aldwood.
Knud was also asleep, curled up beside Jarl like a small puppy and using Astrid’s leg for a pillow. Jarl leaned back against the tree behind him and took a deep breath. He was tired, and the early morning air nipped at his skin.
As carefully as he could, he reached for the fire and tossed a few more branches into the red embers. A plume of smoke rose from the branches before they finally caught. He leaned back against the tree again and looked down at Astrid’s face.
Her skin was still cold, but a little of the colour had returned to her lips and scars. He looked at the scar that ran down the side of her face. The skin was a series of small knots and furrows. The lower lid of her right eye pulled down ever so slightly from the puckered scar tissue. He wondered how many people had looked at those scars and visibly recoiled from her. Even though he had not shown it at the time, he remembered his internal reaction when he had first seen her. Years of maintaining a constant stoic expression had left him with a pretty adept stone face, but internally he had been shocked at the marks, even slightly repulsed. Now he realised he barely even noticed them.
Jarl felt something cold against the nape of his neck and his breath caught in his throat.
“What are you doing in the Aldwood?” a woman’s voice asked.
“My friend, she’s wounded,” Jarl replied as calmly as he could.
The knife against Jarl’s neck moved instantly, and a tall skinny woman walked around from behind him. She was not the only one near. Several large animals surrounded them. Most of them were wolves but a few wild boar, bears, and one huge black fox stood among them. When they saw Astrid, all the animal skins fell to the floor like curtains, revealing the people beneath them.
“Loba,” Astrid said, and managed a tired half smile.
Jarl looked at the woman apprehensively. If it had not been for the large wolf skin draped over her shoulders, he would have assumed she was human. Her skin was a pale brown with long curly copper black hair that fell just past her shoulders. Her eyes though, were distinctly unusual, as were the eyes of all the people around him. The outer irises were a dark brown that merged into a vibrant shade of hazel. The colour was so vivid that it gave the impression that their eyes glowed like those of a cat in the low, early morning light.
Loba crouched down on her knees and reached for Astrid, ready to pull her out of Jarl’s arms. His grip around her instantly tightened.
“Put her down, dwarf!” Loba ordered. Jarl refused.
“Jarl, she’s my friend,” Astrid whispered. Jarl begrudgingly set her down gently on the grass but did not let go of her hands.
Crouched next to her, Loba undid Astrid’s veil bandage and winced when she saw her shoulder. She looked up at Jarl for a moment, having clearly placed the blame on him, and re-wrapped the bandage.
“It’s not far, I can help better there,” she reassured Astrid, and smiled at her. Jarl noticing that two pairs of teeth on either side of her mouth were slightly longer and more pointed than the rest.
“I’ll take her!” he insisted.
All the vârcolac snarled and their skins instantly slid back up their bodies as if lifted by invisible strings.
“Stop it!” Astrid shouted, pain in her voice. “Loba, stop it! They are my friends!”
Before Jarl could block her, Loba stooped down and picked Astrid up in her arms. She towered over Jarl and held Astrid as if she were nothing but a small child. Jarl was intensely aware of how much shorter he was than the fierce wolf woman.
“This way,” she ordered.
“Wait! Knud! He needs help!” Astrid motioned weakly towards him.
Knud’s face turned a bright red. He had wanted to at least try to walk on his own, but before he had even had a chance she had outed him as a cripple. “I can walk on my own!” he protested.
Irritated, Loba glared at Jarl. “Will you pick him up so we can stop wasting time? Let’s go!”
* * *
Knud looked around, fascinated at the incredible maze of tunnels and domed rooms they had walked into. When they had reached the village he had been surprised at how quiet it was. It had taken him a few minutes to realise that the round stone houses with weeds and moss between the cracks were all abandoned, the wooden doors on several of them stood half open. The interior of the buildings housed nothing more than dried leaves and grass.
In the middle of the village grew a large oak that looked as if it had once been two trees, which over time had fused together. One side was decidedly dead. Stumps remained where its long branches would once have grown.
Loba studied Jarl and Knud warily as they approached and spoke to the vârcolac. Astrid, barely conscious, spoke back to Loba in the same language.
Loba stopped and the entire group crowded around the tree. She reached for a dead branch, slightly above the height of her head. With a faint creak, the entire side of the dead tree pulled away to reveal a tunnel that led down into the earth. The steps were carved from stone, though as they descended Jarl could not see any sign of masonry. The formation appeared natural. Not so much as a single man-made chip marred its surface.
Astrid shivered. “I can’t feel my arm,” she whispered.
Loba walked as fast as she could down one of the multiple hallways at the bottom of the steps and led them into a small domed room. The walls from floor to ceiling held wooden shelves. Each shelf held clay pots, some marked with a strange script that neither Jarl or Knud could read. Other pots had images of the plants they contained drawn onto them with meticulous detail.
As gently as she could, Loba set Astrid down on a raised bed, which was little more than bedding on a table in the middle of the room.
“Out!” Loba ordered Jarl and Knud as they hovered close to the bed.
“No!” Astrid said, and tried to reach for Jarl’s hand with her injured arm. A sharp twang of pain shot through it and it dropped down to her side, limp. “He stays. And Knud.” she insisted. Loba did not argue.
“Stay out of my way!” she snarled at them.
The other vârcolac crowded around the entrance outside, curious and worried for Astrid.
“Will she be alright?” one of the older women in the group asked.
“Prepare a room and some food for her,” Loba said, evading the question.
“And the others?”
“I really don’t care. The hallway should be good enough,” Loba muttered under her breath. Perched on the edge of the bed, Loba carefully unwrapped the bandages. Astrid did not flinch, even as Loba gently pressed her long slender fingers on the side of the wound. The skin was red and inflamed.
“It’s not too bad, is it?” Astrid smiled. The colour had gone from her lips again.
“Not as bad as last time,” Loba replied, and reached for a bottle on the top shelf. “You!” She looked up at Jarl. “Take her hand. This will hurt.”
Astrid inhaled sharply and squeezed Jarl’s hand as tightly as she could as Loba poured the clear alcohol onto her shoulder.
“Astrid, move your arm,” Loba asked.
Astrid turned her head and looked down as she tried to lift it. Her whole arm shook from side to side as she raised it no more than a couple of centimetres from the bed before it dropped back down.
“Will she be all right?” Knud asked, his back to the wall and crouched on the floor.
“I don’t know,” Loba replied, irritated. “Stop asking me stupid questions.”
“It wasn’t a stupid question,” Jarl snapped. “He’s just frightened.”
“Well, the world is a frightening place. He’d better get used to it.”
“Loba.” Astrid whispered, her voice pained and barely audible. “Stop it.”
“What were you thinking, bringing them here?” Loba snapped. “This is not their home! None of us want dwarfs here!”
“You’re right, it’s my home.” Astrid tried to say more but found she could not. She was too tired to utter the angry tirade that came to mind.
Loba was silent as she cut away the arm of Astrid’s tunic then turned her onto her side, so she could pour the alcohol onto the entry wound. Astrid’s face drained of yet more colour and she bit down onto the side of her hand to stop herself from screaming.
The cut Loba had made to Astrid’s sleeve exposed the side of her back. Even from the doorway, Knud could see the edge of the massive patchwork of scars that covered Astrid’s back. Jarl was able to see them much better. The marks were like thin tree roots, with hundreds of fine veins dotted across them.
Knud stood up, his arm against the wall for support, and opened his mouth to speak. Jarl shook his head at him and motioned at him to be quiet.
“What was it?” Loba asked. “An arrow?”
When Jarl did not reply, mesmerised by the scars on Astrid’s back, she repeated the question and pointed at Astrid’s shoulder.
“It was a knife,” Jarl replied.
“A really long knife! It had two ends and it looked like it was made of glass,” Knud added.
“Well, that would explain it.”
“Explain what?” Astrid asked, confused.
Loba walked over to the shelves and pulled out one of the several wicker baskets that sat there. She moved a mortar and pestle aside and held up a small, double edged dagger, no longer than her hand. “Did it look like this?”
Jarl nodded. “Yes.”
“Why would that explain it?” Astrid groaned. More colour drained from her skin each second.
“You can’t heal a wound caused by a healing dagger without using the dagger that caused the wound,” Loba explained. Jarl and Knud looked at her, even more confused. They had never heard of a healing dagger. The very concept of a dagger that healed seemed quite contradictory to them.
Loba rolled her eyes and tossed the dagger back into the wicker basket. “Of course, dwarfs wouldn’t know about that.”
Jarl’s grip on Astrid’s hand tightened. This time he did not even try to hide his irritation.
None of them spoke for the next few minutes while Loba ground up several herbs into honey and smeared the paste over both sides of the dagger wound.
“What is that?” Astrid asked. The smell of the mixture was nauseatingly strong.
“Honey, honey root and garlic, for the most part.” Loba smiled a little. “The honey root will help the pain, but you might be a little disoriented for a while.”
“There isn’t any pain,” Astrid muttered, as Loba wrapped her shoulder with thick brown bandages and laid her arm across her chest. “My arm just feels cold.”
While Loba wrapped the bandages, Astrid could feel the paste start to work. A warm comforting feeling spread across her arm and shoulder. Her eyes grew heavier by the second. Before her eyes could close the grabbed hold of Loba’s arm.
“Take care of them Loba, just till I wake up. Take care of them.”
Loba grudingly nodded. Confused, almost shocked when Astrid let go of her arm and reached for Jarl’s hand again before she drifted away.
“Will she be alright?” Jarl asked as Astrid’s eyes slowly closed.
“I hope so.”