Jarl was fast asleep, wrapped in the wolf skin. Astrid unwound her veil from around her neck so she could push aside her tunic and look at the wound on her shoulder. She shivered as she lifted the side of her tunic and undid the bandages that were tightly wrapped across her chest, shoulder and upper arm. An angry red sore glared up at her. The skin around the large scab was a bright, irritated pink and flecked with streaks of red from where the scab had been scratched away. She swore under her breath and pulled her tunic back down over her shoulder. Quietly, she crept back over to Jarl and rummaged through her bag, searching for a small clay flask of honey wine at the bottom. Before she poured it over her shoulder, she walked far away enough so that Jarl would not hear her if she cursed.
She bit down on her lip hard as she poured some of the honey wine over the wound. Her left hand shook violently, but she did not scream. For a moment, she paused to breathe and then she reached over her shoulder and poured the wine over the wound at the back.
“Breathe! It doesn’t hurt!” Astrid whispered to herself.
Before she wrapped her shoulder in the bandages again, she drenched them in the honey wine. With her head spinning slightly, Astrid did not notice the little black worm that had managed to crawl up onto the bandages while they were propped on her knee. It took her a few minutes before she could stand and be sure that the dizziness in her head would not make her drop back to the ground. The wind cooled her shoulder slightly by as it blew on the wet bandages, but the wound still felt hot.
With the half empty flask still in her hand, Astrid crept back to Jarl and curled up next to him under the wolf skin. His beard prickled against the back of her neck.
“Is it time to leave yet?” Jarl mumbled, half asleep.
“No, not yet.”
“Good,” he said, his eyes still closed, and moved his arm across her back. Astrid flinched
as he touched her shoulder and Jarl opened his eyes.
“Astrid, why is your shoulder wet?”
Jarl would have ignored her obvious lie if it had not been for the strong smell of honey
wine that surrounded her. “Don’t lie to me,” he snapped, too tired to restrain his annoyance. He sat up and noticed Astrid’s arm was shaking.
“It’s just hurting a little. I put some honey wine on it. It’s fine, I promise.”
Jarl’s face relaxed a little and he looked down at the flask. “Any of that left?” he joked, and Astrid passed it over.
“I thought you might need it.”
Jarl smiled and took a small sip, the wine so strong his heart jolted a little before the blood rushed around his body at a frantic pace, leaving a burning sensation in his chest.
“Don’t you want more?” Astrid asked, surprised. “I remember you liked the Daru wine quite a lot.”
Jarl grinned. “We should probably keep the rest, I’m sure they’ll have wine in Waidu.” “They do, but it’s foul,” Astrid warned him, and Jarl’s face dropped.
“Well, one more sip won’t hurt,” Jarl replied, and took one last mouthful before returning
the flask to Astrid. “I can take the watch now, you need to sleep.”
“I’ll be fine, once we reach Waidu, then I can rest.”
“Astrid, you’re exhausted. You should ride the pony for a while,” Jarl suggested. “You’re
Astrid laughed dryly. “No,” she said flatly. “I’m not riding that thing.”
Jarl stood up, mounted the pony and reached down for her hand, his jaw set in a determined frown.
“Get on or I’m not going anywhere.”
Astrid smiled, until she realised that he hadn’t been joking.
“Astrid, get on.”
For a few moments they glared at each other. Jarl held his hand outstretched towards her,
but Astrid refused to budge. At first she walked ahead, only to turn and see he had not moved. He frowned at her with his lips pressed together.
“Jarl, I’m not riding that thing!”
“It’s a pony, Astrid, not a dragon. Get on.”
Astrid glared at him and then glanced around as if she were looking for someone else to
agree with her. Finally, when she realised he would not back down, she stepped forward and took his hand hesitantly. Jarl pulled her up onto the pony in front of him, one hand on the reins and the other around her waist. Astrid took a deep breath. Her whole body was tense. Jarl’s grip around her waist firm enough to stop her from jumping down.
“I hate you,” Astrid whispered half-heartedly.
Jarl shook his head. “That’s not true.” Slowly, he urged the pony into a slow canter and Astrid closed her eyes. Both the voices in her head were terrified and screamed at her to get down. “It’s alright!” Jarl reassured her, the side of his face against hers. “It’s not going to hurt you.”
Astrid held his hands as tightly as she could. Her grip on him was slightly painful, but Jarl bore it and did not complain, aware of just how hard it was for Astrid not to jump down and run. The voices in her head screamed at her and her shoulders shook, but after a few minutes she relaxed a little, though her grip on Jarl’s hand was just as firm and her eyes remained closed.
In her head, a series of memories flashed in quick succession. She relived the thunderous sound of the horses’ hooves as they had come into the glade, and their monstrous size when she had run out of the cottage. There was no clear image of how they looked. The only thing clear to her was the fear that gripped her heart each time she remembered. Her head flinched a little as they rode and Jarl urged her to open her eyes a little, aware that the voices in her head were fighting against him.
“Astrid, open your eyes. Please? Trust me.”
Astrid shuddered and opened her eyes slowly. Her terror was visible on her face. She was not prepared for the rush of excitement as Jarl rode the pony into a fast canter. The wind carressed her face. It felt a little like flying.
Jarl smiled as he felt her shoulders relax. “See? It’s alright.”
With her left hand still holding Jarl’s arm around her waist, Astrid reached down with her right hand and knotted her fingers into the pony’s mane. Her fingers began to glow blue with magic. She closed her eyes, and for a brief moment she could feel every muscle in the animal’s body as it ran. It wasn’t a monster; it had no malice towards her. Try as she might, she could not see it as one of the terrible creatures of her nightmares as it carried her.
“Can I try?” Astrid reached for the reins and Jarl passed them to her.
“Don’t pull on them,” he instructed, his hands lightly over hers to guide her. “If you pull back you’ll hurt him and he’ll stop.”
Astrid nodded, but as she readjusted her grip on the reins her left hand began to tremble. The nerves in her arm were on fire. She quickly passed the reins back to Jarl and made an excuse. “I don’t know what I’m doing, you should do it.”
“I can teach you,” Jarl suggested.
Astrid leaned back against him, her head against his shoulder. “Maybe one day.”