Astrid sat down at the edge of the hot spring pool and began to untie her boots. Her left arm was still useless and was strapped across her chest in a sling. She grumbled under her breath. The knot was almost impossible to untie with just one hand. As soon as she had managed it, she kicked off her boots, desperate to clean off the filth from the road. Her long hair, unwashed since the Salt Monasteries, was thick with dirt.
It took her more than a few minutes to remove the several layers she wore. Her improvised veil bandage was one of the first things to fall onto the floor, to expose her open wound. With a contented sigh she stepped into the water, perched on the steps that had been cut into the rock around the pool, and held her shoulders just above the surface of the water. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and listened to the sound of running water that echoed around the large underground room.
Every few seconds the steam that collected on the ceiling pooled together and a cold drip of water dropped back down to the ground. When one of the drops splashed on Astrid’s shoulder she looked up. Dozens of stalactites hung down from the ceiling like little daggers. They provided a constant rain-like cool drizzle throughout the hot spring cave.
Astrid turned to look at Loba, who carried a spare change of clothes draped over her arm and wore an apologetic expression. “I brought you these,” she said. “I don’t think you can wear those filthy things again until they’re cleaned.” She pointed at Astrid’s dirty clothes, which lay where they had been dropped by the poolside.
Astrid nodded but turned her back, still angry, but not angry enough to refuse Loba’s peace offering. Loba sat down next to her on the steps and was silent for a few moments until she felt Astrid’s shoulders relax a little and the tension in the air unwind.
With her feet in the water, Loba pulled a long lock of Astrid’s hair into her lap and retrieved a bone comb from her pocket. “I don’t know how you could let your hair get like this. It’s filthy,” she grumbled, as she scooped water from the pool onto the end of it and began to brush the dirt out. “You’re worse than my daughters.”
Astrid said nothing. She tucked her knees against her chest with her arms folded around them and stared blankly at the wall opposite.
From where she sat, Loba could see the hundreds of scars that marked Astrid’s back. Line after line was layered over another in a horrible patchwork of twisted skin. “I haven’t forgotten, you know, what you did for us,” Loba finally said. “I know if you hadn’t come we would all be dead, and my children wouldn’t be alive today.”
“It’s not a debt, Loba.” Astrid turned her head but would not look her in the eye. “I’m not asking you to repay me. I’m just asking for help.”
Loba brushed through Astrid’s hair a little less carefully as she replied. “Don’t ask me to help dwarfs. What if I asked you to help elves? What would you do?”
“I would help them,” Astrid said. “If you asked me and they were your friends, I would help.”
“You know what your problem is? You like trouble!” Loba argued back.
Astrid grinned. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wasn’t in trouble.”
By the time Loba had reached the middle of Astrid’s hair a small cloud of dirty water had gathered in the pool around them. The gentle current was too slow to wash it away. She took a deep breath. “You need them to stay here, don’t you?”
“No, they’re coming with me to Waidu.”
“You can’t honestly expect the little dwarf to walk all the way to Waidu, not with his leg like that.”
“We would carry him.”
“Oh, would you? And what if you get stuck in a storm, or run into goblins? You shouldn’t even be leaving. One sick person is a risk, two sick people is stupidity.”
“Jarl wouldn’t want to leave him here.”
“I guess I wasn’t the most welcoming host in all of Ammasteinn, was I?”
“No. No you weren’t.” Astrid laughed half-heartedly before her face returned to her usual, distant expression. “Moldof destroyed Casta, Loba. He killed everyone. That’s how Knud lost his foot. He stepped in one of the traps they’d left for the goblins.”
Loba stiffened at the words. “Moldof is back in the Haltija Pass?” She stepped out of the pool and paced the edges, nervous and agitated, her wolf skin half over her so that her hands had taken on the shape of wolf’s paws. The claws flexed in and out as she thought. “They can’t make it over the mountains, can they?”
“No. Not with the Frǫðleikr there.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Loba mumbled, and bit at her fingers nervously. “But what if they try?”
“Then they’ll die,” Astrid replied without a second’s hesitation. “Even Titus wouldn’t be able to cross over the Riddari Kviðr. The Frǫðleikr would destroy him.”
“Who is Titus?”
“One of the human kings.”
Astrid took the comb from Loba and tried to brush out the dirt from the roots of her hair, but as soon as she raised her arm higher than her waist it began to shake violently, and the comb fell into the water.
“You shouldn’t move your arm.” Loba reached into the pool and plucked the comb from the steps, despite Astrid’s protests. “Here, I’ll do it.”
“I can do it myself.”
“Well I want to do it. Stop arguing.” She glanced at Astrid’s arm, which was still shaking slightly. “You know, you really should just cut your hair. It’s really impractical having it this long.”
“No. I like it long.”
“Why? It just takes up time and energy to keep it clean. You don’t have to cut much, just enough so you can’t sit on it.”
Astrid sighed. “I like it long, Loba.”
“Like I said, you like trouble.”
“Speaking of which, the pass, the woman Jarl saw?”
“We looked, Bugul and the others. We couldn’t find her.”
“Are you sure?”
“She’s gone. You’re safe here.”
Loba put the comb down with a firm‘clink’ on the side of the pool and took a deep breath. “Alright, I think the boy should stay. You go to Waidu with the dwarf, and the boy can stay and recover with us.” Astrid turned to look at her, one eyebrow raised disbelievingly. “Don’t look at me like that, Astrid! I’m trying to help.”
“You sound like you’d rather kill him than let him stay.”
“Well, I won’t say it didn’t cross my mind,” Loba growled. “But they are your friends, I can’t say no to that. Besides, how much trouble can a little boy cause?”
“You’d be surprised,” Astrid replied.