It only took a few hours for lack of sleep to take its toll. Astrid watched as she ran alongside the pony. Jarl’s eyes were half closed. She said nothing until they stopped for midday to allow the pony to rest. Jarl dismounted, sore and tired, and sat down heavily on the grass. She had pretended not to notice that during the last few days they had spent in the Aldwood, Jarl had been unable to sleep well. He was worried about Knud, worried that Loba would fall back on her promise, but most of all worried about what lay ahead. Astrid’s sleep had not been much better although being numb with exhaustion was not so alien to her. After countless years of guiding traders and travellers across Ammasteinn, the numbness from lack of sleep was not as much of a hindrance as it was for Jarl.
Astrid unpacked some of the food Loba had given them: more grasshopper pies, dried fruits and only a few pieces of cured meat. Jarl did not even look at the food as he ate it. He was so hungry that the taste of it did not kick in for a few moments. Then he grimaced at the taste of grasshopper pie but did not throw it away.
“I guess I’ll be eating that in future,” Astrid laughed. “Grasshopper cakes.”
“Not my favourite,” Jarl admitted. “Is there any meat?”
“Some.” Astrid unwrapped some tightly packed cured meat. She pulled out her knife and
smoothly cut away a small chunk and passed it to him.
“Now this, this I do like.” Jarl smiled and chewed on it happily as he lay back on the
grass. As soon as he had finished it he closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Astrid watched him and counted down the seconds before she was sure he would fall asleep. She could already hear his heartbeat begin to slow. The wind was still bitterly cold but the clouds had begun to pass a little and, as weak as it was, the midday sun did provide a little warmth.
Astrid stood up and pulled the blanket off the pony at arm’s length so she did not risk touching it. The pony shuffled a little, agitated by her obvious animosity towards it, but otherwise did not cause trouble. Jarl was too tired to notice as Astrid draped the blanket over him. Behind her in the distance, Astrid heard a deep rumble and turned to see several dark clouds on the horizon moving towards them.
“Oh no,” she muttered.
For a few moments, she watched as the clouds rolled towards them, hopeful that the storm would change course. The storms on the plain were notoriously unpredictable, able to change direction within seconds, and the last thing she wanted to do was wake Jarl. As the first few flecks of rain hit her cheek, Astrid admitted defeat. The storm would be on them in a matter of minutes. Reluctantly she woke him.
“There’s a storm,” she explained apologetically. “Where?”
Astrid pointed to the clouds and Jarl’s face dropped. In Bjargtre, no matter how severe the storms were, they were never really felt so far under the ground. And the winter storms were quite different to the clouds that rolled towards them like a black wave.
“We’ll have to weather it out. It’s dangerous to walk through a storm like this,” Astrid explained.
The wind had picked up speed. The storm clouds were now less than a half a mile away,
and already they could see the massive stream of water that poured down beneath it like a grey curtain.
“They live under the ground and come up when it rains. They’ll attack anything that moves.”
Jarl looked down at his feet nervously and Astrid laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve only seen them a few times before. They probably won’t bother us, most of them are further out in the plains.”
The rain didn’t arrive with a patter but with a roar. Within seconds they were drenched through. They huddled together near the pony that had sat down on the ground as soon as it had felt the storm approach. The rain beat down like hundreds of little stones, and even with his cloak held over his head for protection, the rain still dripped through it and a stream of water ran down Jarl’s arm and neck. Next to him, Astrid had taken her wolf skin form to protect herself and her clothes from the downpour.
“How long do these usually last?” Jarl yelled over the sound of the rain.
“It could be an hour, it could be five minutes,” Astrid yelled back in her deep wolf voice. She looked up at the clouds and then to the horizon, but there was nothing to imply it would be over soon. “I don’t think this will pass quickly.”
Jarl didn’t think he had ever felt so cold before. The rain was freezing, but paired with the wind he felt as though his ribs might break at any moment from shivering. Astrid lay on the ground next to him, her wolf ears flat against her head. The entire plain was under two inches of water. The only warmth came from Astrid beside him and the pony behind him, its side against his back. Even Astrid did not seem to mind the pony being so close. The need for warmth was greater than her repulsion.
“Now I’m glad I didn’t let Knud come!” Jarl laughed, a shiver in his voice.
Astrid suddenly sat upright, both ears raised, her eyes wide and alert. At first Jarl couldn’t see what had caught her attention. The rain was so heavy it was like a mist. Then he saw a mound of earth rising from the ground. The shape similar to that of an enormous molehill, except what emerged from it was very far from being a mole.
Remembering their earlier conversation, Jarl did not move but fixed his eyes on the snake-like creature as it slithered out of the hole. For a few seconds it remained motionless at the bottom of the mound. Its mouth opened towards the sky to catch the rain as it fell and its eyes were closed and covered with a semi-transparent film. An enormous head with two lizard-like arms next to it was attached to a long tail. Its claws were long, thick and dangerously sharp.
As it drank the rain that filled its large basin-like mouth, Astrid reached behind them for the pony. While she was sure that Jarl would not move she could not say the same of the pony, and as much as she hated the animal she knew that without it their journey to Lǫgberg would take at least twice as long. She had promised Knud that they would return as quickly as possible and it was not a promise she intended to break, let alone the fact that it would be a great inconvenience to the vârcolac who needed as many ponies as possible to help with the harvest.
She could not risk the pony bolting. The pony did not have time to react as she sucked most of its energy from it. It barely made a sound as it slumped to its side in a deep sleep.
With a snarl, the kelic opened its enormous orange and green eyes and turned to face them, then bared its thin, razor-sharp teeth.
Jarl didn’t move, and neither did Astrid. The kelic was unable to see them as long as they remained utterly still. Its nostrils flared as it sensed a presence nearby. From the grass behind the first kelic, a second, much smaller one crawled up. Its front legs dragged through the water and the mud as it half swam and half slithered. With its eyes fixed on Jarl and Astrid, the first kelic did not notice the second, and before it had time to react, the second kelic leapt onto its back and buried its fangs into its neck.
Even with the fatal poison in its bloodstream, the first kelic fought desperately. It writhed and kicked, desperate to throw its attacker off, the kelic’s claws embedded in its back like meat hooks. With a shudder, the first kelic dropped to the floor, and submerged beneath the pool of water that covered the plains. With a snarl, the victorious kelic began to slice it up into pieces with its claws.
Jarl watched, fascinated and horrified, as the first kelic was cut up and ingested by the victor. The process lasted barely more than twenty seconds. With a contented snort, the kelic slithered off slowly into the grass, its belly full and heavy, but it was another few minutes before either Astrid or Jarl allowed themselves to move.
“A kelic?” Jarl asked, even though he already knew the answer. “Yes,” Astrid nodded.
* * *
Almost as quickly as the rain had arrived, it left, and within minutes the puddle of water that covered the plains was absorbed by the earth. Astrid looked worriedly at Jarl. His lips were slightly blue from the cold and he was drenched through completely. He breathed a sigh of relief as the sun shone down. The tiny bit of warmth it provided was enough to stop him shivering so violently.
“We’ll move when you’re warm,” Astrid insisted, and shook off her wolf skin and handed it to him. Jarl wrapped it around himself gratefully. “Sit down next to the pony and wrap your arms around your chest,” Astrid ordered.
Jarl did as she had asked and, between the warmth that the pony emanated and the wolf- skin, he began to shiver a little less.
“The Gold Coast,” he said. “I suddenly really want to be there! You said it was warm?”
“Sometimes it’s a little too warm,” Astrid admitted. She sat down facing him and rubbed her hands down his arms to get the blood flowing.
“Too warm sounds good,” Jarl joked. “Snow I don’t mind, but this? This is miserable.”
Astrid laughed out loud. “You won’t be saying that when it’s so hot you can’t step outside during the day.”
Jarl tried to imagine what she described but could not. The idea of a place where the sun burned the ground to sand was utterly strange to him.
“But the water is always warm,” Astrid added, her eyes lighting up, “and there are so many ships there. The ports are always busy with traders from Bienra, or the desert oases and from the Narcissus Isles.”
Jarl smiled at her excited expression. “Are there many dwarfs there?”
Astrid shook her head. “No, none. Everywhere I went people looked at me. At first they thought I was a child and then they saw my skin and thought I was a witch or that I had some
kind of disease because I was pale.” As she spoke, Astrid carried on rubbing his arms and slowly the colour returned to his face.
“How old were you when you left the Red Mountains?” Jarl asked.
Astrid squinted a little as she thought. “I can’t remember. Fifteen, I think.”
“You don’t have to sound so surprised. I’m only half dwarf. I don’t mature as slowly as
you do.” Jarl raised an eyebrow and pretended to be offended. “Besides, I couldn’t spend any more time with Dag after what he did to Ragi,” she said, clenching her jaw as she always did when she was angry.
“What happened to him?”
Astrid looked down at her hands for a moment. “There was a storm, and a tree fell and crushed him in his yurt. I wanted to bury him next to his friends, but Dag wouldn’t help me.”
“He never explained, and then I wondered, if I ever died, would he just leave me out in the forest to rot away, and I really thought he would, so I left.”
“Have you seen him since then?”
“A few times, but not much. I used his name at first so that people would trust me, but I wish I could have used Ragi’s.”
Jarl said nothing for a moment and then shuffled to his feet. “Shouldn’t we start walking?”
“You need to get warm.”
“I’m warmer now,” he reassured her. “I’ll dry faster if we’re moving.”
Astrid nodded and reached over to the pony. As soon as her hand touched its hide, the
pony leapt onto its feet with a snort. The energy Astrid had taken from it returned the moment she touched it. Astrid shook her head at it and pulled her bag over her shoulders.
“Are you sure those things won’t come out of the ground again?” Jarl asked. “Yes, I’m sure. They only come out with the rain.”