Knud had fallen asleep again. His cheek rested against the back of Jarl’s shoulder and his mouth was wide open and dribbling as usual. After two days trapped underground, Jarl had been desperate to walk in the fresh air, despite Knud’s complaints that it was too cold. It was a relief to be able to look up and see the sky instead of rock, and better yet, no vârcolac. The only creature he had seen so far was one very startled rabbit.
Knud can’t travel like this, Jarl thought.
So far, they had been lucky since Castra. Had the goblins been a larger group, or even if they had had more valdyr, Jarl highly doubted they would have reached the Aldwood alive.
Out of nowhere, Bugul walked up beside them. “Nice day for a walk, isn’t it?”
Jarl nodded, irritated that he had company when all he wanted was time alone with Knud and his own thoughts.
“How’s the boy?”
“And the leg?”
Jarl deliberately kept his replied curt and to the point, in the hope that Bugul would sense that he was not wanted. The little old man walked along, completely oblivious, a small, contented smile on his face.
“How long have you lived here?”
“I’m not sure, a few years now. You stop counting when you get to my age.”
“How old are you?” Knud mumbled, still half asleep on Jarl’s shoulder.
“Oh, I’m not sure. A few hundred years.”
“Wow!” Knud sat up in Jarl’s arms. “You’re really old.”
“Knud!” Jarl groaned.
“It’s alright,” Bugul chuckled. “He’s right, I am old, but at least I still have my looks.”
Before Knud could finish his sentence, Jarl knocked him roughly, afraid Knud would say the first thing that crossed his mind.
“How did you meet Astrid?” Jarl interrupted.
“I didn’t really meet her,” Bugul laughed.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she fell through my roof. Scared me half way to death, almost as much as I scared her.” When Jarl looked at him confused Bugul laughed again. “I used to live at the start of the Riddari Leggr mountains. I don’t know if you know, but the Riddari Kviðr are full of frǫoðleikr.”
“Are you a frǫoðleikr?” Knud asked before Jarl could stop him.
Bugul tilted his head to the side like an owl. “I guess I am, yes.”
“No, not really.”
“But she can turn into a wolf! Isn’t that magic?” Knud asked.
“No, not really. Frǫoðleikr live for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Loba will only live for eighty, maybe ninety.” For the first time since they had arrived in the Aldwood, Bugul’s face wobbled into a sad frown. He looked up at Jarl and managed a half-hearted smile. “Frǫoðleikr are ancient creatures, most of them are all that’s left from the Rojóða.”
“You lived during the Rojóða wars?” Knud sat up again, excited.
“Knud, stop wiggling! I can’t hold you up if you wiggle like that,” Jarl grumbled. “How does Astrid know Loba?” He interrupted.
“She saved her life,” Bugul explained, a genuine smile back on his face. “One of the vârcolac escaped Moldof and found Astrid in the Waidu path. Astrid offered to help and followed Una back to Moldof’s camp. That vârcolac fur Astrid wears, Una gave that to her to help them.”
A small smile spread across Knud’s face as he thought back to one of the vârcolac children who had teased him earlier that morning for only having one foot and remembered the beautiful boar skin she had worn over her shoulders.
“Don’t even think about it,” Bugul chuckled when he saw the cheeky gleam in Knud’s face. “The vârcolac skins don’t work like that. You can’t just take someone’s skin and wear it. If you’re not a vârcolac it’s just a skin.”
“But Astrid’s not a vârcolac.”
“No, but one of the vârcolac, Una, I can’t remember if I told you about her. She was dying when Astrid found her. She wouldn’t have been able to make it to the Aldwood, so she gave Astrid her skin and the last of her energy so that Astrid could save the rest of the vârcolac. Her energy allowed Astrid to wear the wolf skin.”
“How did Astrid get those scars on her back?”
“Oh, those, that was Moldof,” Bugual replied nonchalantly before he stopped and looked up, a startled expression on his face. Jarl looked up and saw the remains of what looked like a cottage nestled under a large oak. Ivy and small while flowers covered the few beams that remained upright. An enormous overgrowth of red thistle bushes grew directly in front of the cottage.
“We should go,” Bugul whispered. He bowed his head towards the cottage respectfully.
“Why?” Knud asked as Jarl set him down on the ground.
“This is Astrid’s home.”
Jarl looked back at the cottage with a new found burst of interest.
“She was born here?”
“I think so. She doesn’t talk much about it, not even to Loba. I just know that they’re buried here.”
Jarl ignored Knud as he pulled at his arm to try to follow Bugul back to the village.
“Jarl, come on! He’s going back to the village.”
“I can take him back,” Bugul offered. When Knud did not protest at the suggestion, Jarl nodded. He waited until they were both out of sight before he walked towards the cottage. Before he reached the charred doorway, he felt the familiar crackle of magic in the air, although it did not seem to come from the house. He walked inside the cottage and looked around at what was left of it. The remains of a stairway coiled around the trunk of the oak tree and the stone walls had long since crumbled down to a pitiful pile of rocks. He thought back to his own home and wondered how a family could have lived in such a small house. It was little more than a thatched single room.
Now that he stood inside the ruin, he could see that the small white flowers were thousands of jasmine tendrils which had spread from a single source just outside the doorway. He followed them to a small mound of earth with a large red thistle bush growing alongside the jasmine. He could feel the magic radiating from it.
Red thistle, the house of Hvass.
As he knelt down in front of the mound, he noticed something glisten through the thistle branches not far from where he knelt. He looked around to make sure he was alone before he reached down and felt metal touch his fingers. It felt cold and the edge was still razor-sharp.
Before he had time to realise that he had cut his hand open on the sharp edge, the world around him washed away like ink in water. Where the ruins had been, a cottage stood in its place. Above him in the treetops nestled a much larger house. Even though Jarl still felt the early morning cold, the surrounding forest looked yellow with warm midday sunlight. Jarl did not move. The mirage around him shimmered in the same way as the memories the leshy had shown him.
Behind him a dwarf with grey eyes, not much taller than himself, walked out of the cottage. He walked across the clearing towards a small girl with one grey eye and one green eye.
“Astrid!” Jarl whispered to himself.
The little elf girl giggled and ran away from the dwarf, who Jarl could only assume was her father. When the dwarf followed her, she darted up into one of the trees and laughed as he tried in vain to climb up with her.
“No, Faðir,” she laughed. “You have to jump.”
“Well, I can’t jump as high as you sváss,” the dwarf laughed back at her. “Now come on, jump, we have to go help your mother.”
Without a second thought the little girl dropped from the branch down towards him. The dwarf caught her and walked back towards the cottage with her in his arms. The little girl smiled and pulled at the dwarf’s beard. Her face was completely unmarked by the scars Jarl was so used to seeing. She looked happy.
Suddenly the dwarf turned around to face the forest and his arms tightened around Astrid protectively. It took Jarl a little longer to hear what had startled the dwarf, but finally he heard the low howl of dwarf horns, mixed with a high-pitched sound that he did not recognise.
“Faðir? Faðir, what’s wrong?”
“Sylbil!” the dwarf shouted and ran back towards the house, past Jarl, almost through him. “Sylbil! They found us!”
From inside the cottage a tall elf woman stepped out. Her straight black hair was so long it reached all the way to the back of her knees. Her resemblance to Astrid was startling, but her eyes painted a very different soul, proud and angry, so different to the quiet broken look he saw in Astrid’s eyes each day. Then he noticed a red scar burned into the skin around her neck, as though someone had tried to garotte her with a thick rough chord.
“Kridjo, go inside!” Sylbil grabbed hold of Astrid from the dwarf and pushed her inside the small house. “You know the little cellar we showed you under the stairs? I need you to hide there until we call you. Can you do that moi kridjo?”
“Mātīr, what’s wrong?” Astrid began to cry, afraid.
“Moi kridjo, please! hide!”
Astrid nodded and ran inside. Sylbil’s lower lip quivered, but just as quickly she grabbed hold of the bow and quiver which hung by the door and hooked them over her shoulder. Her face hardened with a determined scowl. The dwarf reached for his hammer axe, the same hammer axe Jarl was so used to seeing Astrid carry.
“Moi kridjo?” Before she walked back into the house Sylbil knelt down in front of the dwarf so that she was at the same head height and wrapped her arms around his neck to kiss him.
“Moi kridjo,” the dwarf repeated and kissed her one last time. “It’ll be alright, Sylbil, it’ll be alright.”
Sylbil nodded, stood up, and closed the door. Jarl heard the beam lock close behind it and turned as a large troop of elves and dwarfs rode into the clearing. Jarl’s heart dropped as he recognised the emblem of the house of Kron on the breastplate of the dwarf woman at the head of the troupe. Gold foiled ram horns on either side of her helmet partly obscured her face and her long blond hair, plaited into two thick braids, hung down over her armour.
Astrid’s father twirled his hammer axe in his hand as the dwarfs approached. Both his knees were bent and his back was to the house.
The dwarf woman dismounted. “Arnbjörg, put your weapon down,” she ordered coldly. “If you want to die with dignity, you’ll put your weapon down.”
“Am I not good enough for the Gróf?!” Arnbjörg shouted back at her. “We didn’t kill them! Sylbil would never have done that! I would never have done that!”
“Don’t lie!” A voice bellowed from the group of elves behind the dwarfs. “I saw her! I saw her kill them!”
“Put down your weapon,” the woman repeated.
Arnbjörg shook his head and tightened his grip. “No!”
“Very well. Arnbjörg Hvass, you are charged with treason, sedition, the regicide of Fane and Ena Jīkkā, and of the attempted regicide of Vígdís Kron!”
Two of the dwarfs on either side of the woman charged towards Arnbjörg. From the treetops above the cottage two arrows shot down and struck them in the center of their foreheads. They were dead before they even hit the ground.
The elf who had shouted at Arnbjörg before, looked up at the trees and scowled.
“Sylbil! Sylbil come down! You coward!”
There was silence for several seconds before Sylbil responded. “And I never knew you to think me capable of murder! You know me! I would never have—”
The elf screamed in anger, reached for his own bow and fired several arrows up into the canopy. In the same moment Arnbjörg dived towards the dwarfs in front of him, his axe raised. Jarl watched as Arnbjörg was surrounded. Somehow he was able to fight his way out. Three of the dwarfs lay dead on thee ground, one with his head split wide open along with his helmet. Several more arrows shot down from the tree above the house and Jarl looked up to see Sylbil crouched on one of the lower branches, a fresh cut on the edge of her neck where the elf’s arrow had only just missed.
They’re going to die, Jarl thought, and he had no doubt that Sylbil and Arnbjörg knew that too.
Sylbil was finally forced to jump down from the treetops as the elves began to fire back at her, their aim just as accurate as hers. She screamed as three more arrows nipped past her. Then she stood on the ground next to Arnbjörg. They were completely surrounded.
“Mātīr! Mātīr!” Inside the house, Astrid frantically pounded her tiny hands against the locked door, terrified by the screams outside. “Mātīr!”
Somehow Astrid managed to lift up the heavy beam lock from behind the door and threw it open. The entire glade went silent. The elves and dwarfs looked at her in horror, too shocked to react. Astrid looked back at them. Her hands knotted together nervously.
“Have you no shame!” The dwarf woman hissed through the gap in her helmet. “A blanda blóð child?” She raised her sword and pointed it at Astrid. “Kill it!”
Sylbil and Arnbjörg ran towards Astrid. The first elf who tried to stand between them screamed as Sylbil grabbed hold of his arm and sucked as much energy from him as she could without killing him. Arnbjörg was less careful. He smashed his hammer axe into the last dwarf between him and his daughter with such force that the dwarf was all but decapitated by the blow.
“Brother! Brother please!” Sylbil knelt on the ground with her arm around Astrid. Arnbjörg stood at her side. Sylbil extended her free hand to the black haired elf who approached them. His bow was drawn and pointed at her. “I didn’t kill them! I swear to you! I swear it! Don’t hurt Astrid! Don’t hurt your niece.”
“You named her Astrid!” For some reason this seemed to enrage the elf even more. “How dare you!”
“Tyr, I swear to you on my life! I did not kill them! I would rather die than kill them.”
“I know what I saw, Silbil! I know what I saw!”
Jarl watched the elf’s face, his heart in his throat. From where he knelt he could see every flit of expression on his and Sylbil’s face. Confusion, rage, heartbreak. He could also see Astrid’s face as she stood huddled behind her father. Arnbjörg with one arm protectively around her.
“I wasn’t even in the room, Tyr! Tyr, listen to me! Please!”
“The guards saw you! I saw you! You killed them, for him!”
Tyr released his arrow, his eyes on Arnbjörg.
Sylbil’s reaction was faster. She stretched out her hand, grabbed hold of the shaft as it passed her and notched it to her bow. Tyr’s own arrow now pointed at him.
Sylbil stared at him, her breathing frantic. Slowly, she lowered the bow onto the grass and held out her hand towards her brother.
Jarl jumped in shock as Tyr drew his sword and slashed it through Sylbil’s wrist. The sword was so sharp that there was barely any resistance from the tissue, bone and muscle. Sylbil did not move. She just knelt silently in front of him, a shocked expression on her face as she stared at her severed hand on the grass.
Arnbjörg raised his axe, charged towards Tyr with a blood-curdling scream, and swiped at Tyr’s legs. Jarl was surprised when the edge of the hammer axe struck the edge of Tyr’s leg. The elf reacted much more slowly than he had expected. Tyr howled in pain and fell to the ground as his thigh bone shattered like glass under the powerful blow. Arnbjörg circled his hammer ax back around and sliced through the face of the elf who tried to stand between him and Sylbil.
Jarl watched as Sylbil reached down the side of her boot and pulled out a small double ended dagger from it. The strange weapon appeared to be from glass and steel twisted around each other into a blade.
Arnbjörg looked around desperately at the elves and dwarfs closing in around him.
“Arnbjörg?” Sylbil repeated, her voice so weak it was more of a whisper.
From where Astrid stood it looked to her as though her father suddenly embraced her mother. Both of them inhaled sharply and Sylbil’s head dropped gently onto Arnbjörg’s shoulder.
“Faðir?” Astrid whispered.
Arnbjörg smiled at her, his skin a strange colour. “It’s alright sváss, it’s alright.”
Astrid ran towards them as they both toppled to the ground.
“Astrid! No!” Jarl screamed.
The dwarf woman shrieked as she swiped her sword down towards the little girl. Astrid screamed and tumbled to the ground. She pressed her hands pressed over her mouth. Blood was visible between her fingers.
“Astrid!” Sylbil whispered and tried to reach for her daughter. Astrid stared at them, her back to the dwarf woman. Now that she was so close she could see the glint of the double ended dagger between her father and mother. Dark red blood soaked down through their clothes.
“Astrid!” Sylbil’s arm went limp and there was a terrible silence.
The elf who had cut off Sylbil’s hand began to wail in agony and held his hands over his face as he saw Sylbil’s body go still. The other elves reacted in the same way. All bowed their heads and some even looked ashamed.
The dwarfs had no such reaction.
“Astrid! Astrid run!” Jarl screamed.
Suddenly Jarl sensed the crackle of magic in the air. He felt as though his whole body was being stabbed with thousands of tiny needles. The power was beyond any he had ever known. Astrid’s magic was as nothing next to this and even the magic of the woman in the tree could not compare to it. This magic shook him down to his very bones.
Around the bodies of Sylbil and Arnbjörg a snake-like plume of black dust darted towards the dwarf nearest Astrid. His sword was so close to the back of Astrid’s head that Astrid winced as it was knocked aside and the tip brushed against her hair.
She turned to see the cloud knock the dwarf to the ground and twist around him. Each plume was like a frenzied ravenous animal. Around Astrid’s bare feet, more of the dust slithered towards the original cloud until the dwarf was completely engulfed by it. The dwarf’s screams were muffled by a roar that sounded like a million blades scraping against each other until dull.
Astrid flinched as flecks of blood hit her face. She reached up and rubbed her hands agains her cheek. Her own blood mixed with the dwarf’s. She stood up in a daze and looked back at her parents. It was only now that she was facing him that Jarl could see that her lips had been split open, and blood trickled down her chin and neck.
Jarl looked down at where he knew that the thistle and the jasmine now grew, and realised that Sylbil and Arnbjörg’s bodies lay right beside him. I’m kneeling on their graves.
He let go of what he now realised was the double ended dagger Sylbil had carried and stood up quickly. Around him the forest was peaceful. A few birds sang despite the cold, but he could still feel the magic on his skin.
He looked around, almost as if he expected to see the elves and the dwarfs still there. Anger flushed his face and his hand gripped the hilt of his sword without realising it.
“You bastards!” He shouted angrily. “She was a child! A child!”
It was Vígdís, Jarl thought, and he felt the pit of his stomach squirm in disgust. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Her famous white blond hair and the crest of the Kron family on her armour were unmistakable. It was certain that it had been the high queen in the Aldwood that day. She murdered them, she tried to murder Astrid and I have to beg her to save Bjargtre.