If the Royal Palace in Bjargtre made Jarl feel nervous, the palace in Lǫgberg made him feel utterly insignificant. Each pillar was covered in murals and vivid blues, reds and greens in thousands of tiny mosaics adorned the walls. The floor was black polished granite with silver veins running through it and the domed ceiling was covered in gold. Jarl did his best not to look up and stare in wonder. He was aware that every eye in the hall was on him.
With his family plaque in his hands it had not taken long for him to convince the guards to allow him to wait outside the throne room. He did his best to not show how nervous and impatient he felt, but could not shake the worry that at any moment he would see a wolf with grey and green eyes approach him followed closely by the palace guards. Finally, the doors to the throne room were opened and he was ushered in.
It was painfully silent. The clunk of his boots echoed on the cold stone floor. Jarl’s hands trembled and his palms were covered with cold sweat. As shaken as he was, Jarl did not show it. He held his head high and fixed his eyes on Vígdís on the other side of the throne room. He ignored the dwarfs in the court as they tittered amongst themselves at his worn clothes and his tattered cloak, which was still ripped at the ends from when he had torn strips from it to bind Knud’s leg.
Vígdís stood in front of the throne. Her hair, tied in a thick and complicated braid, was impossibly long for a dwarf of her relatively young age. The ends of the braid reached almost down to her feet. Pearls and diamonds were sewn into the bright blue ribbon that was woven into it and tied in a thick sash at the bottom. Her dress was the same bright, royal blue colour, and the tops of her ivory shoulders were exposed. A white cloak was draped around her, held up by two large brooches on either side, each with her family crest, a purple thistle, embossed into it. She wore several heavy gold rings on her fingers, each of which had a different seal. But the most striking thing about her was her face. Sharp grey eyes lined with a dark blue pigment only served to make her eyes appear paler. Her strong jaw line looked as if it had never lowered itself in its entire life. She looked proud, and beautiful.
Jarl wondered if she had known Arnbjörg. What if it she had given the order? She would have been young, he thought. Why could she not have just left them alone? They were in the Aldwood, they were never going to come back. Why did she have to destroy Astrid’s life? As he came to a halt in front of the throne, Jarl did his best not to let his thoughts show on his face, or his anger that in all likelihood he was asking for the help of a woman who had tried to murder Astrid and had succeeded in murdering her parents.
The guard walked away from Jarl as they reached the bottom of the steps and took his place by the throne. There were two raised platforms between him and the queen and he glanced at the throne, covered with heavy gold plates to conceal its unusually plain structure.
Her tone was low and strong. Years of public speaking had left her with a voice that could carry a great distance without the need to shout.
“Jarl Vǫrn,” he replied. His voice was just as audible as hers, though considerably deeper. “Vǫrn? Your family is from Bjargtre?”
Jarl nodded. “I am.”
“Well then, I hope that whatever you have to say was important enough to cross all of
Ammasteinn.” She smiled pleasantly and reclined on the throne.
“My Queen…” Jarl paused for a moment to take a deep breath. “Bjargtre has not had the Hætta for many years now since the city was infected with a goblin plague. Because of this the goblins have become powerful. I believe they are a threat to the city.”
Around him, the other dwarfs in the court murmured between themselves. The queen looked deeply unimpressed.
“Why didn’t you resume the Hætta after the city had recovered?”
“A third of the city died, My Queen,” Jarl replied. “We were afraid to bring the Red Plague into the city again.”
The entire court was in silence as they waited for Vígdís to reply. Jarl was sure he could have heard a fly rub its wings together; the silence was deafening.
Vígdís pressed her fingers together, her gold rings tapping against one another. “How strong are the goblin numbers?”
“Enough to destroy the route to Einn.”
Jarl saw her eyes dim and she looked away. A few members of the court went so far as to laugh out loud. She was bored. To her mind, the threat he described was barely worth mentioning, trouble his city had brought upon themselves by abandoning the spring tradition of the Hætta.
“And they have an Agrokū,” Jarl said quickly.
“An Agrokū?” Vígdís’s eyes lit up and she sat up in the throne, alert. “How do you know?”
“He was seen in the mountains by a friend of mine, Knute Villieldr.”
“And why is this Knute Villieldr not here to tell me this?”
“Because he died from his wounds after he fought with the Agrokū,” Jarl replied
“Why did the king only send you?” Vígdís asked suspiciously, her eyes narrowed. Inside
his chest, Jarl’s heart stopped for a second before it pounded faster than before. This is it. “Because King Hábrók did not believe that the Agrokū was a threat. I came to Lǫgberg
on my own to ask that you send help to my city.”
There was a loud gasp from the court and an excited murmur. They knew what Jarl’s
admission meant. Vígdís had quite a different reaction. She stood up and walked slowly down the steps towards him until she was only a few feet away. Her stone grey fixed eyes on his blue ones.
“You know the law?”
Jarl nodded. “Yes.”
“And you came regardless?”
Again Jarl nodded. “I would not have travelled so far if I was not sure. I know the law,
but I won’t stand by and watch my city burn for the sake of my name.”
Vígdís looked curiously at the dwarf in front of her. As queen, she knew every noble
family name, and she knew the Vǫrns were a noble family famous for their service to the royalty of Bjargtre. To disobey King Hábrók would not have been a decision to take lightly. She was sure of only two things: the dwarf before her was either desperate or reckless, and he did not strike her as the reckless type. He was too calm and composed, his did not turn away from her as she looked at his face, instead he held her gaze, completely resolute.
“I will send birds to Bjargtre.”
Jarl visibly breathed a sigh of relief.
“And I’m sure you know what the law requires for disobeying the orders of your king?”
Vígdís added quietly.
Jarl closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. This is it. He nodded, resigned to what was about to happen. Vígdís turned and walked back up to the throne, the small beads and pearls sewn into her robe clinking together as she did so.
All this way and now it’s over in a couple of minutes, Jarl thought.
From the throne, Vígdís nodded at the two guards who stood by the steps. Jarl knelt on the floor, his hands by his sides and clenched into tight fists.
The guards did not bother to hold his arms behind him. It was clear Jarl was not about to struggle. The first guard grabbed the side of his head and dragged a sharp knife through the long hair. The court fell silent. All eyes on him as the abrasive sound of the knife’s edge cutting through his hair drifted through the room.
Behind him, the second guard took a large handful of his hair and ran the blade up against the back of Jarl’s neck. He winced as he felt it nip the skin but he did not say a word. While the second guard hacked away at his hair the first drew his dagger and began to cut away at Jarl’s beard. The edge was sharp enough to cut away most of it, though it still left uneven patches. The skin was partly exposed for the first time in over ninety-five years.
Images flashed through Jarl’s mind: the first day his father, Jókell, had noticed that Jarl had stubble on his face and how proud he had felt that his father had noticed; how his brothers Jóð and Jón had argued with him about who had grown their beard the earliest. Jarl smiled a little as he remembered his mother, Elin, had been the one to confirm that Jarl was indeed the youngest of his siblings to start growing a beard. Jóð and Jón were furious at her verdict.
Jarl opened his eyes as he heard the blade slice through the last few strands. The hair was crudely cut and dishevelled, some strands as long as his smallest finger and others so short he could feel the air brush against the bare skin of his head. Suddenly, the guard behind him grabbed his arms and held them tightly behind his back as the other guard strode up to the steps and lifted one of the burning torches. As he realised what was about to happen, Jarl closed his eyes and bit down on the insides of his cheeks with all his might. He inhaled sharply in pain as the torch was held so close to his face that what remained of his beard was set alight. It was over in seconds. The hair along his jaw and chin had mostly been cut away and the flames were little more than a brief flash of heat, followed by a smarting pain.
As the guard behind him let go of his arms, Jarl took a deep breath and stood up, the hair that had collected falling in a large clump to the floor. Even Vígdís seemed impressed with how calm he was. He stood tall, his head held high, and refused to let his humiliation show on his face. Vígdís studied him silently for a moment before she spoke again. She was impressed by his calm acceptance of her verdict. It was not unusual for dwarfs to scream, plead or even threaten when faced with the loss of their family name and the public humiliation of an ósómi. But he had not made a sound, he had barely flinched. Even now as he stood before her, his face bare and burnt, the skin red, and his once long thick hair gone, he stood tall and to attention. Every bit a soldier and a noble as he had been before.
“Your family plaque, you have it with you?”
Jarl nodded and reached into his tunic. Before he passed it to the guards he looked down
at it one last time with a numbness in his chest as he gave it up.
“Five hours in the pillory, and you will wait in the city until the crows return from
Bjargtre. If you are right, you will keep your title.”
Jarl could not hide the shock on his face as he heard her sentence. Four hours! It was at
least an hour since he had told Astrid to wait for him. Astrid…if Astrid found him… Jarl felt his blood run cold at the thought.
Both guards took hold of his arms and firmly marched him back through the throne room. Not a single person, who waited in line to see the queen, avoided looking at him as he passed.
Some appeared amused, others horrified, but most seemed curious about what had earned him such a punishment. Jarl wracked his brains to think of a way out of the situation, even though he knew there was none. If he tried to run the punishment would be more severe. His only option was to pray that Astrid would not find him.
It took several minutes for them to walk out of the palace and back into the plaza. They marched him up onto the platform, this time holding his arms roughly behind him, unwilling to take the risk that he might try to run. Jarl could feel everyone’s eyes on him as a loud murmur built up in the crowd. He looked ahead and felt his heart jump into his throat, sure for a moment that he had seen the back of Astrid’s head. In front of him the guards marched up to the centre pillory and unlocked it. The dwarf who had been held there quickly scrambled away, but his legs were stiff, and in his desperation to leave as quickly as possible, he fell down the stairs.
Jarl stepped forward and did his best to ignore the crowd but several loud bursts of laughter rang in his ears. It had been a while since there had been a noble in the stocks. The guard grabbed him by the little hair that remained and roughly pushed his head down into the open neck brace. The pillory brace snapped down around his neck and Jarl winced as the edge nipped his skin. His hands were locked into cuffs that hung just beneath the neck brace. The two guards behind him laughed as they kicked his feet out from under him and locked them into the foot stocks a little behind the pillory so that he could not stand properly. Jarl gasped. His neck pressed down in the brace and he was unable to breathe for a moment. The pillory had been deliberately built so that he had to stoop a little. Only his arms and back were able to stop his own weight from pressing down on his throat.
He tried to look up but found he could not, the brace too thick for his head to lean back. Nothing has burst into flames yet…she can’t be here, he thought, relieved. A loud shout rose from the crowd amid the laughter and jeers. Jarl closed his eyes again and braced himself.
The light from the Ríkr Gluggr had changed from a warm yellow to a cold blue tinged with white as the many tunnels above him reflected first the sunset and, eventually, the moonlight outside. It would be another hour at least before he would be released from the pillory, an hour too late. Time was crawling by at an agonisingly slow pace. She would be looking for him already. He was not sure what would be worse: for her to see him like this, or what she might do when she did.
His neck felt like it had been grated repeatedly with sand. The pillory around his neck was too tight and the edges were rough and rusted. His wrists felt the same and had been scratched red and raw. His clothes were covered in mud and what he hoped was just rotten fruit. But most of all he felt cold. His beard was gone and only a thick, scraggy layer of hair was left on his head.
A large group of dwarfs had waited until most of the crowds had dispersed before mixing stones with the rotten fruit and tossing them as hard as they could at Jarl from the edge of the platform. The guards did nothing to stop them until they saw a trickle of blood run down his bruised face and a deep gash above his eye.
Once they had been chased away by the guards, the silence set in. Jarl prayed under his breath as the minutes crawled by. Each second that passed seemed longer than the one before as every small sound magnified in his ears. From across the Great Hall he heard a large object clatter to the ground. He tried to look up but the pillory did not allow him to. His heart was in his mouth. Astrid…please, please don’t do anything stupid!
The guards laughed. “Got it! That’s ten fé for me!”
Jarl breathed a sigh of relief. It had been them, not Astrid.
The guards suddenly stood to attention and Jarl heard light footsteps approach, with the unmistakable swish of heavy, embroidered robes. Vígdís’s long braided hair and the blue silk cords wound into it came into view. She stood a few feet away from him.
“I received a swallow from Bjargtre. Several in fact, from the new young King Haddr. He writes to say that Bjargtre is under attack.” Jarl’s heart jumped into his mouth. “Over one hundred thousand goblins led by one named Ulf. He asks that we come to his aid as quickly as possible.”
There was silence for a moment. Vígdís did not move. Only her eyes made the slightest motion. She looked at him with an expression that could almost have been confused for respect. Jarl tried to look up again and noticed that the family plaque she had taken from him earlier was in her hands. She crouched down and set it down on the floor in front of him before she turned to the guards. “Hold him for another hour and then let him go.”
He breathed a loud sigh of relief. The army would leave and soon Bjargtre would have the dwarfs they needed to fight the goblins. His city would be saved.
Vígdís’s footsteps had barely faded away when he heard someone else approaching, their footsteps slow and heavy. He could hear someone speak with the guards followed by the loud clink of coins but he was sure it was not Astrid. She would not have talked to the guards.
Jarl swore under his breath as the unmistakable gilded hem of Áfastr Gull came into sight. Without a word, Gull slammed his knee into Jarl’s stomach as hard as he could. Jarl gasped in pain, unable to breathe and desperate for air. Another blow. He couldn’t gasp this time, only inhale in a frenzy, deep breaths that were cut short each time. Something wet and slimy hit his face and Áfastr Gull spat at him several more times before he stopped. Jarl was unable to wipe it away.
“You should have stayed in the city!” Gull hissed at him. “This was my moment! And you took it from me! Months on the road sleeping on the ground and all the queen could say when I arrived is how she is going to reward you!”
Unable to defend himself in any other way, Jarl suddenly spat back at him and Gull stumbled back, revolted. “You’re cheap, Gull! I only had to pay the innkeeper a few fé and he managed to get you to tell him everything! Half the inn heard the news before Vígdís did, and you’re stupid enough to expect to be rewar—”
Gull’s foot slammed into his abdomen with a fury and Jarl’s neck pressed down on the pillory so hard that he nearly choked.
“Stop!” one of the guards warned Gull. Jarl’s whole body heaved for breath and his hands clenched together as he tried desperately to resist the urge to curl up to protect himself from further blows. His throat was on fire; the pillory had grated across it so much he could feel small shreds of skin and blood on it. He wasn’t sure if he could take another blow. The pressure on his neck was almost unbearable.
Gull’s hands clamped around his neck and he began to squeeze down with all his might. Quickly, the guards pulled him away. Gull kicked and screamed at them to let go but they did not. Instead, they dragged him off the platform and tossed him down the stairs. Jarl could taste blood in his mouth as the side of Gull’s boot clipped him on the jaw as they dragged him away.
Gull tried to push past the guards and climb back onto the platform but they pushed him back. He swore loudly and offered them more money to be allowed back onto the platform but they refused. He re-adjusted his cloak and brushed off the dirt that had stuck to it. “It was my moment! The queen was meant to notice me!”
“Get lost!” the guards yelled. “You had your fun, now leave!”
Few a few seconds, Gull considered trying to force his way back onto the platform, but one look at the physique of the guards had him changing his mind. As he walked away towards one of the nearby streets, he smiled as he heard Jarl still gasping for air. No sooner had he turned the corner out of the plaza, a hand snapped like a viper around his neck and pulled him further down the street. The torches that lined the walls flickered and faded in a puff of pale blue smoke.
“They said…stop!” a voice hissed. Two eyes, one green and one grey, glared at him out of the darkness.
Gull yelped and tried to claw at Astrid’s grip around his neck, but he found he could not move. His arms dropped down by his sides like limp, wet rope as the hand that suspended him in the air began to glow blue. A terrible pain spread from his neck as if it was pressed against a hot poker. He tried to scream, but he could only rasp a horrible constricted whimper.
Astrid’s face was as hard as stone. The edge of her mouth curled into a revolted sneer. The wolf skin was so low over her head that both of her eyes seemed to glow in the shadow it cast on her face. Gull’s skin turned a sickly shade of grey and began to shrivel. Every fibre of his body – muscles, flesh, even his bones – felt dry. Within seconds his beard had turned grey and then bone white. His face, his arms and his hands shuddered as the skin twitched and convulsed before it began to sag like drips down the side of a candle. Astrid let go of him and he fell to the ground, a crumpled heap in the dirt. His clothes, which had fitted him perfectly before, were suddenly loose and ill-fitting. Underneath them his body was thin and scrawny.
“Who are you?” he wheezed. He clutched at this throat, horrified as he heard the sound of his own voice.
Astrid stooped down towards him, her face inches from his, a crazed look in her eyes. Gull, terrified, tried to crawl away from her but she stood on the edge of his gilded robe and held him back. Gull was too weak to pull it out from under her and he spluttered, staring down at his hands as he tried to pull his robe from under her foot. His eyes widened as he saw how wrinkled they had become. The hair on the back of his arms and knuckles was pure white. He tried to scream but found he could not. His lungs were too shrivelled to make the sound.
“Can’t scream?” Astrid mocked, and leant down so that her head was at his height. “Here, let me do it for you!”
From the Great Hall the guards heard a blood curdling shriek. The sound was so loud it cut at their ears like shards of glass. Everyone froze, their blood running cold, Jarl’s especially.
The guards raced out of the plaza and towards the noise, leaving Jarl alone on the platform.
“Help him! I saw…there was a wolf! I think he’s bleeding! Please! Please help him!” Astrid shrieked, huddled on the ground not far from Gull, her veil wrapped to cover half her face. The wolf skin lay crumpled on the ground, the head hidden underneath the rest of the fur. Gull was unable to make a sound. He gasped like a fish out of water on the dirty ground. His now claw-like hands flexed like dying spiders, shuddering and twitching.
“We’ll take care of him,” one of the guards reassured her, his hand on her shoulder. Astrid winced at his touch and pulled away from him instantly. “Which way did the wolf go?”
“Um…I…I think that way!” Astrid trembled and pointed down the tunnel. “Please be careful!” she whispered, her hand over her face. “The wolf, it was huge!”
“Don’t worry! We’ll find it.”
The guards picked Gull up from the ground as another rushed down the tunnel, weapons drawn. They carried him away, all the while asking if he had been bitten, surprised by the lack of blood. Astrid got to her feet. Gull’s eyes were fixed on her as they carted him off. She laughed
dryly under her breath, waving slowly at Gull as he disappeared around the corner. Her expression was cold, angry and vengeful.
In the plaza, Jarl had managed to stop his lungs from fighting against him as he tried to breathe. He waited to see who the high-pitched scream had belonged to. He was terrified that at any moment he would see Astrid’s body tossed onto the platform in front of him. He heard someone running towards him through the deserted plaza, and instantly recognised Astrid’s quick, light steps. His heart jumped into his throat. He was painfully aware of how he looked. Leaving his injuries aside, his hair was so short he thought even Knud would have laughed at him. What if she laughs at me?
Her hands slammed against the pillory on either side of his face as she threw herself towards him. There was a flash of blinding blue light and a burst of heat surrounded him before he fell towards the floor in a sheet of black smoke. The entire pillory and most of the platform around them disappeared in a burst of blue fire ripples, hundreds of sparks of blue magic in the air around them. Astrid caught him before he hit the floor. Even with her arms around him he could not bear to look at her, afraid that he would see her look back at him with disgust or even revulsion.
Her hand moved to his chin and she lifted it so she could look at his face. “I waited three hours,” she whispered, her forehead against his, unfazed that he was covered in spit, muck and more than a little blood. Astrid smiled, her hands warm against the side of his face. Jarl ignored how uncomfortable it felt, the skin where his beard used to be was burnt sore and red.
Astrid took a long shaky breath, afraid and excited about the words she was about to say. “I love you.”
His hands cradled the sides of her neck as pain, relief and joy washed over him, all rolled into one. Astrid gently wiped the muck on his face and leaned down to kiss him, and for the first time she moved her arms around him, and held him as tightly as she could, as if she were afraid that at any moment someone stronger than her would force her to let go.
“Let’s go home.”