Jarl lifted his head slowly from the side of the bed and winced as his neck creaked in protest. The fire had completely burned out. Just a few embers were alive in the ash, and outside the sky was completely black. Other than the whistle of a few birds that darted around the rooftops of Waidu in anticipation of the sunrise only a few hours away, there was silence. He groaned and straightened his back as he stood up from the chair he had pulled next to the bed. Astrid was still fast asleep under the human blanket which was large enough to fold in half and lay over her like a normal sized dwarf blanket.
“We missed the caravan, didn’t we?” Astrid looked over at him from her bed, disappointment on her face. Jarl nodded.
“Don’t worry about it. There’s another one in three days.”
Astrid nodded, still slightly groggy, but the shine in her eyes had come back, the dull film over them gone. “Three days? They only have a caravan every week.”
“You’ve been asleep for a while.”
“Four days, almost five.”
Astrid turned in the bed and reached for her shoulder with her good arm to undo the bandages. She was relieved when she saw that the dagger wound had all but completely healed and the skin had knotted together with the remains of a large scab still in the middle. She twisted her head around to see the neat little scar left on the entry wound on the back of her shoulder, where Ishum had cut into it. It hardly stood out much compared to the patchwork of whip marks that could be seen peeking out from her tunic.
“Pretty enough to add to your collection?” Jarl joked, as he stepped from the chair onto the bed beside her. “Can you move your arm?”
Astrid looked down at her left hand and tried to lift it, but before she had even managed to lift it more than an inch from the bed, her arm began to shake and she was forced to let it drop back down.
“Can you close your hand?”
Astrid winced with frustration as her fingers trembled, only just able to curl her fingers into the palm of her hand.
“Ishum did say that would happen for a while,” Jarl tried to reassure her.
“The boy who helped you.”
“I can’t remember much,” Astrid admitted. “I just remember you holding me and then the pain in my shoulder.”
“Does it hurt anymore?” Jarl asked as he re-wrapped the bandages.
“No. The pain is gone.”
“Can you walk?”
Astrid sat up, glad that the horrible light-headedness had gone. She nerviously took Jarl’s hand and stepped down from the bed. The human bed was so big that her feet did not reach the ground when she sat on the side. Her legs were stiff. Every muscle in her body felt heavy and weak. Jarl smiled at her before a concerned frown crossed his face.
“Skad is here.”
“What?” Astrid stared at him.
“He arrived a few days ago with Áfastr Gull.”
“Skad’s leg was broken, he couldn’t have made it here on his own.”
“He didn’t. Gull had a royal escort with him.”
“Áfastr Gull? I can’t remember if you ever told me about him,” Astrid said, as she tried to remember back to her first conversations with Jarl. “Who is he?”
Jarl laughed dryly. “No. He’s nothing like me.”
“Why would he come to Waidu?”
“The king is dead.”
“What? How do you know that? Did he tell you?”
“I bribed the innkeeper. Gull doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut. He’s been telling everyone at the inn about it.”
Astrid reached for his face, careful to be as gentle as she could, and turned it towards her. He winced as she touched the large bruise on his cheek. The skin was already a faint shade of dark blue and his left eye was partly closed by the swelling.
Jarl nodded, a proud expression on his face. “I’m all right.” Jarl gripped her wrists quickly to stop her touching his skin. Her fingertips glowed blue.
“This won’t hurt me. I have more than enough energy for this,” she reassured him. “I can’t use the frǫoðleikr for myself and it won’t hurt me to use it for you.”
Jarl let go of her hands and his shoulders relaxed a little as her cold fingers touched his skin. He breathed a loud sigh of relief as the pain from his bruises disappeared as if they were being washed away.
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he laughed.
“Hit Skad,” he smiled. “And it feels just as good as I thought it would!” His face dropped as he remembered what Skad had said to him and he turned to face Astrid. “Skad told me he was going to have you killed in Lǫgberg.”
Astrid looked back at him blankly, almost bored, and shrugged her shoulders.
“You knew?” Jarl asked.
“No, but I’m not surprised. I knew he hated me,” she replied calmly. “He only put up with me because he couldn’t say no to Dag.”
“He’s an idiot if he thought he could get away with killing a warlock’s daughter.”
“No, it makes sense. Lǫgberg is far away enough from the Red Mountains. It would take months or even years for Dag to hear anything about it.”
“Skad wouldn’t risk it. He would have to be mad! Dag would kill him.”
Astrid rolled her eyes and shook her head, the animosity heavy in her voice. “Dag wouldn’t do anything. He would just say that it’s not his place to fix the world, like he always does. He would be sad for a while and then he would never talk about it again. He doesn’t get attached to people, he’s a warlock. Besides, Ragi raised me more than Dag did.”
Jarl looked at Astrid’s eyes, glazed and distant as they always were when she did not want a strong emotion to show in them. Her jaw clenched. “Ragi would have come to Lǫgberg, he would have—” She quickly cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Will Gull give the news to the Queen?”
Jarl nodded. He doesn’t want to go, Astrid thought.
“Then maybe you don’t have to go to Lǫgberg?”
“No, I have to. I would have heard something from the innkeeper if Bjargtre had been attacked, they still think they’re safe.”
“Can’t you send a messenger to Lǫgberg to ask for help instead?”
“They would never take it seriously. All the dwarfs see the goblins as a nuisance, not a threat. Besides, even a message against the king’s orders would be considered enough to make me an ósómi. I need to do this myself.”
“So you have to lose everything for them to take it seriously?” Astrid snapped.
“Then I’m coming with you”
He looked at Astrid. Her hands were clenched tightly into fists and a slight glow outlined them. He took them in his and the glow faded instantly. “If Skad is in Lǫgberg it will be even more dangerous for you. If he sees you he will try to kill you.”
Astrid snorted loudly. “It’s always dangerous for me. I’m going with you. We’ll just take one of the human caravans before Skad and Gull can leave and get there before him.”
“And if Skad sees you?” Jarl said, slightly annoyed at how lightly Astrid took Skad’s threat.
“He’ll try. I could beat him when I was fourteen years old. He’d have better luck trying to kill a Leshy. I can always hide, pretend to be a wolf. It’s worked before, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work now.”
Jarl was silent for a few moments as he looked at the determined frown on Astrid’s face. He knew that she would not stay behind and, if truth be told, he did not want her to. She smiled as he nodded and leaned her head against him. She curled her hands defensively against her chest. Jarl closed his eyes, relived and troubled at the same time, and put his arms around her.
* * *
Apsu stared at Jarl. “I could have sworn your face was a bit more…broken, when you came in?” he said as he cleaned the flask in his hand with a rag which looked dirtier than the flask. Jarl shrugged his shoulders. His expression was completely unreadable.
“It looked worse than it was.”
“Doesn’t the human convoy leave before the dwarfs do? They did last time,” Astrid asked, worried that Jarl’s miraculous recovery would prompt more awkward questions.
“Yes it does. They only take humans though.”
“Not even for a few Feoh?” Jarl asked, one eyebrow raised. Apsu laughed.
“If there’s Feoh on offer, then of course! But you should go now or you might miss them. They leave today, just before the gates close for the night.”
Jarl exchanged a quick look with Astrid and walked back upstairs to retrieve their bags. His own bag was the only one which was unpacked. Astrid’s was already by the door with her wolf skin.
Astrid turned back to Apsu and reached into her pocket. “Thank you…” she placed several Feoh onto the counter, “for letting me stay after…”
“What, did you think I would throw you out just because of those?” He motioned towards her covered ears and Astrid nervously looked around, but everyone was far too preoccupied with their food and conversations to notice them. “You brought me and my sister here alive. That’s all that matters.” Apsu shrugged his shoulders. “But is there anything else I should know?” he joked. Astrid laughed nervously and shook her head as Jarl came down the stairs with their bags.
“No, nothing else.”
* * *
They reached the human caravan just as it was about to leave Waidu. The gates were already half closed as they rode through them.
Astrid was surprised at how quickly she had grown accustomed to the pony. Even the voices in her head had stopped panicking when she rode it, and the pony would no longer snort at her when she approached it, though she wondered how much of that was down to Jarl more than her newfound trust of the animal.
As they approached the caravan, Astrid jumped down from the pony and ran up to the two guards flanking it. Jarl watched as she spoke in a language he could not understand to the tall slender woman whom the guards had called over. At first it looked as though the woman would refuse them passage. She shook her head firmly and Astrid pleaded, pointing towards the gates. Again, the woman shook her head. Finally, Astrid reached into her pocket and passed the woman what Jarl assumed was several fé. The woman smiled and nodded.
Astrid walked back to Jarl and he pulled her back up onto the pony.
“She’ll let us stay?”
She nodded, mounted the pony, and held onto Jarl’s waist as they rode ahead.
“Did she say how long it would take to get there?”
“No. I know it takes three days to reach the Kaito Passage, but after that I’m not sure. It’s a long way through the forest.”
Jar’s face dropped as he realised the only food he had with him was what Loba had given them. His stomach groaned at the thought of the grasshopper pies that he would inevitably have to eat.
“And Gull won’t catch up with us?”
Astrid shook her head. “Not unless he organises his own caravan. We should reach Lǫgberg long before them.”