Jarl stared up at the ceiling of his room and once again traced one of the hundreds of knotted patterns which had been carved into it. The night seemed to have lasted for an eternity, but now that the gong had sounded through the city, he wished that it could last a little longer. His packed bag was at the foot of his bed. The clothes, dried food and fé he thought he would need for the journey were bundled tightly inside it with military precision.
He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair, as he tried without success to shake off the worry that twisted through his face.
“Am I doing the right thing, Knute?” He asked out loud. “If I’m wrong this will end badly for all of us. Knute, he’s so stubborn. He never listens, just like Lína, and you. He could get himself killed out there.”
Jarl took a deep shaky breath and stood up to pace the room. The fire on the hearth was barely more than a pile of ash. He reached for his bag, pulled it over his shoulder and looked around the room one last time before he closed the door behind him. As he walked down the hallway outside he paused beside one of the closed doors and rested his hand on the latch that held it shut. He had not been inside that room for seven years.
Dust fell off the latch in a thick clump as he raised it to open the heavy oak door. The hinges were so rusty he had to put his entire weight against the door to force it open with a loud creak until the torchlight from the hall dimly lit the room. The room could have remained pitch black and he would still have remembered where every bed and table was. He walked in and felt his throat tighten around the lump at the back of it.
This room had once been a guest room of Vǫrn hall, but when the red plague had struck, they had been moved in here, one by one. First it had been his father Jókell, then his elder brothers Jóð, and Jón, and finally, himself. He remembered the terror when, while on patrol outside one of the many cordons which isolated the sick sections of the city, he began to feel a heaviness on his chest. He didn’t even remember passing out. The other soldiers had been too afraid to touch him and had left him for dead on the ground outside the cordon. Knute had been the only one brave enough to carry him back home. By the time they reached Vǫrn hall the plague warts covered his chest and back. Even now, there was not much he could remember of what happened next. He would see flashes of his mother’s determined face, followed by the pockmarked face of the human woman beside her. He still did not know how his mother had managed to smuggle her into the city. Even Holmvé did not know. His clearest memory, still painfully vivid, was the heat of the glass goblets the human healer placed on his bare back, one by one, to pull the fever from his lungs. Despite his feverish weakness, it had taken Holmvé, Elif, Knute and his mother to hold him down. The agony had been overwhelming.
When Jarl had finally awoken, the room had been silent. Tears burned his eyes as he remembered the expression on Holmvé’s face and the knot in his stomach. In that moment he had already known what she had to tell him. His father, his mother, and both his brothers had already been buried. He was the last Vǫrn. He was alone.
Jarl walked out the door and firmly closed it behind him.
Jarl scraped at his eyes with his sleeve before he turned to look at Holmvé,
“What are you doing in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“You shouldn’t go there, it won’t help.”
“I want that room burned when I get back.” Jarl growled. “All of it. The furniture, the beds, all of it.”
“What about their things? They’re still in there.”
“Those too. We have enough ghosts in this hall.”
Holmvé leaned her wrinkled hand on his shoulder and then walked towards the stairs down to the hall. Jarl took a few moments before he pushed open the door to Knud’s room. Knud lay sprawled across his bed like a drunk cat, his blanket half over him and half off the bed.
“Knud? Knud, wake up.”
Knud groaned loudly and rolled over in his sleep. With a long-suffering sigh, Jarl shook him gently, then more firmly. Then when Knud still would not move he picked him up, along with his blanket, and threw him over his shoulders.
“Knud, wake up, we need to leave.”
“I thought we were going tomorrow?” Knud groaned, still half asleep.
“It is tomorrow. Wake up, you need to eat before we go, and say goodbye to Holmvé and Elin.”
As Jarl carried him out of the room over one shoulder, he used his free hand to pick up Knud’s packed bag, which was almost as big as Knud, and walked down the stairs to where Halvard, Holmvé and Elin waited for him.
“Knud, wake up!” Halvard took Knud from Jarl’s shoulders and held him upside down by his feet in an attempt to try and wake him. Knud just pulled the blanket around his head and hung there like a bat until Halvard was forced to put him down on the ground.
“Knud, there’s lamb soup waiting for you,” Holmvé shouted over from the table.
“Lamb soup!” Knud’s head popped out from the blanket like a mole. Wide awake he kicked the blanket away and ran over to the table to sit down in front of the bowl Holmvé had prepared for him.
“Incredible that!” Halvard grumbled. “Sleeps like the dead until there’s food.”
Holmvé just smiled at Knud as he shovelled the food into his mouth. She began to brush his tangled red hair back as he ate. It was not quite long enough to tie back into a braid yet, another five years, maybe ten and he might finally start to grow a beard.
“There’s no point, Holmvé.” Jarl said to her, as he helped Halvard pack the dried food. “He’ll just let it go wild.”
They all ate their food in silence. Knud was the only one blissfully unaware of the tension in the room.
While they ate Holmvé carefully wrapped, then re-wrapped all the dried food she had spent the entire night preparing. All the while Knud tapped his foot impatiently against the table.
“Will you take Skad’s offer to help?” Holmvé finally asked, unable to stand the silence.
“No. I don’t trust him, if he’s offering to help then he has something he wants.”
“What are you going to do then? You can’t travel on your own, you don’t know the route.”
“There will be plenty of guides in Einn,” Jarl replied confidently.
“What about that human guide you were talking about? Eir, I think she was called?”
“Eir?” Halvard paused for a moment, his spoon half way to his mouth. “Like the warlock?”
“That’s what I asked. Some of them said she is his daughter.”
Halvard put his spoon down and stared at Jarl. “You really think traveling with the book burner’s daughter is the best idea?”
“Halvard, I want you to promise me something. While you’re away, listen to Jarl. I don’t care how much you disagree with him. He is in charge.” Halvard opened his mouth to argue, but Holmvé silenced him with a wave of her wrinkled hand. “No, no arguments! You can’t be fighting like this once you leave or somebody will get hurt, or worse. I want all of you to come back in one piece. So you’re going to promise me or I won’t let you leave the hall. Promise?”
Havard scowled into his soup for several moments before he nodded his head in agreement.
While Halvard helped himself to a second serving of the soup, Holmvé tried to resist the urge to ask Jarl more. She had spent the night wide awake, doing her best not to worry about them, though she knew she had every reason to worry about the people she knew as her family. There were so many miles between the high city of Lǫgberg and Bjargtre, and in those miles there were all manner of creatures and beings which could hurt them, providing Halvard’s temper and Knud’s constant disobedience did not put them in danger first.
Jarl did not look back as they walked away from Vorn hall, where Holmvé and Eilíf stood in the doorway.
“Why is Holmvé crying?” Knud asked.
“She’s just missing us already,” Jarl smiled down at him and ruffled his hair.
“Why? We’ll be back in a few months.”
Jarl could not help but smile at Knud’s naive optimism, and he wasn’t about to tell him otherwise. He exchanged a worried look with Halvard, but neither of them said anything.
“So, what’s the plan?”
“Reach Einn, find a guide and get to the high city as fast as possible.”
“And after that?”
“Once we reach Waidu I’ll leave Knud with you till I come back.”
“We’re not going to the High City?” Knud interrupted.
“No, you are not.”
“But I want to,” Knud replied.
“And I want a beard as long as my arm. Doesn’t mean I get it,” Halvard grumbled.