“Is he asleep yet?” Jarl yawned, one of his arms around Knud who sat in front of him, and the other on the pony’s reins. Halvard leaned forward from his own pony to look at Knud and nodded.
“I should take him,” Halvard suggested, but Jarl shook his head.
“I don’t want to wake him up. Besides, we’re close.”
He nodded at a large upright stone beside the rough road. There were human and dwarf symbols scratched into its surface and the stone was higher than both of them. Halvard said nothing for several minutes as they continued down the road. They were all tired. The last few days had been more arduous than either of them expected, especially since Knud had a habit of wandering off. To make matters worse neither of them had been able to sleep well at night. Both were keenly aware that just because they had left the city behind, the threat of goblins on the road was no less likely, a threat that Knud continued to be blissfully unaware of.
“When we get there, I’m locking Knud in a room till I’ve slept enough,” Halvard grumbled. “The next time he wanders off like that I might just strangle him.”
“He’s just being a boy.”
“He’s just going to get himself killed.”
Jarl’s jaw clenched. “We should be there soon.”
“It’ll be nice to sleep without keeping one eye open.”
“Yes!” Jarl agreed emphatically. “I don’t think the ponies can handle much more.”
“You should stop being so paranoid too.”
For a brief moment, Jarl’s eyes narrowed to dagger points, before his usual calm mask descended. “I’m not being paranoid. The first thing the goblins will do when they do attack is cut off the road to Einn.”
“You see so much as a bird move and you think it’s the goblins.”
Jarl his held the reins tighter. Knud’s head bobbed from side to side as they rode ahead. Halvard did not bother keeping up with him. He would not apologise to Jarl and he was too tired to consider anything he said before he said it. If there was one thing he hated more than goblins it was riding ponies, and after four days of sore thighs and barely any sleep, his temper was a hair’s breadth away from breaking.
They rode in silence for the next hour. Despite his complete disregard for Jarl’s caution, Halvard could not help but keep his hand on the hilt of his sword. The night had been particularly cold for the end of summer, and mist obscured most of their surroundings. Every tree trunk and bush was so distorted, that from the corner of his eyes they looked like dark figures.
There was a loud crunch in the fog behind him and Jarl felt the skin at the back of his neck prickle. He turned sharply in his saddle to look at the trees behind him, and his grip on Knud tightened so much that he woke him. Halvard sighed loudly and rolled his eyes.
“There’s nothing there, Jarl! Can we just ride in peace for a few hours?!”
The look on Jarl’s face stopped him mid-sentence. They both peered at the road behind them. The fog was too thick to see very far.
“Jarl. There’s nothing there!” Halvard hissed.
Still, Jarl stared at the fog behind him. He was sure he had seen something. The outline of a large beast with a small figure crouched on top of it. Now all he could see was the fog. The minutes crawled by and they plodded on, but the cold feeling at the back of his neck was still there.
This time both Halvard and Jarl turned in their saddles, their eyes on the road behind him. Whatever it was that had caused that noise, it had not been a small creature.
Just behind the fog they heard a high-pitched whistle. It almost sounded like the wind, except for the way it played in a controlled intentional pattern. Instantly there was a loud rumble as dozens of hooves pounded the ground towards them. The outline of a large horned beast with a small crouched body on its humped shoulders was only just visible.
Knud clung onto Jarl’s arm as tightly as he could. Not that he needed to be afraid of falling from the pony. Jarl grip around him was so tight that he could barely breathe. He screamed in terror as an arrow whistled past them.
“Hold on, Knud! Don’t let go of my arm!” Jarl shouted.
He turned in his saddle for a moment to look behind him. He could not count exactly how many there were, but there were at least four of them. Every single goblin was mounted on a massive bison which stood more than three heads higher than any of the ponies. Their goblin riders crouched over their enormous humps like frogs clinging to a stone.
Jarl turned his head and ducked as low as he could as their leader, a wiry female goblin with hair shorter than Knud, raised her bow and fired towards them. He heard her arrow whistle past his ear before another one followed, this one a little closer. When he turned again, the smile on the goblin’s face told him that she had not missed, her aim had been deliberate. She was toying with them.
“Ride! Ride! Ride!” Jarl bellowed.
They charged down the path. Halvard was now beside him, and the goblin stampede was at their heels. Neither of them could hear a word above the thunder of hooves and the loud yips from the goblins. More arrows shot past them. The goblins were so close they could feel the heat from the bison, but not a single arrow touched them.
“Don’t look back!” Jarl pulled Knud into his chest as he tried to lean out to look behind them. Knud screamed as Jarl was forced to veer the pony sharply of out the way of a large fallen tree which lay across the road and they both nearly toppled from the saddle.
Behind them the noise suddenly stopped, but neither Jarl or Halvard turned to look behind. They kept riding furiously until they saw the gates of Einn ahead of them through the fog. The enormous stone slabs that formed the walls stood half buried in the ground.
“Open the gates! Open the gate!”
Just as they were about to pull the ponies sharply to a halt, the gates slowly cracked open, though only just wide enough for them to pass through. Jarl felt the edge of his cloak whip against the doors as he charged through with Halvard close behind him. The ponies did not wait for Jarl or Halvard to pull back on the reins. They ploughed to a stop and stood trembling in the enclosure, tired and frightened, their small legs shivering.
Jarl held onto Knud even more tightly as they were surrounded by the guards waiting for them on the other side. The guards’ hands rested on their hilts, ready to draw their weapons if the dwarfs should prove troublesome.
“Where did you travel from?” One of the humans asked them loudly. His Mál accent was so slurred and soft he had to repeat himself twice for Jarl and Halvard to understand him.
“We’re dwarfs!” Halvard wheezed at them, his heart still stuck at the back of his throat.
“We can see that!” one of the humans replied. “Why were you riding so hard?”
“Why? Oh, I just like the exertion,” Halvard replied. “We were chased you simpletons!”
“Chased by what?”
“My dead grandmother!”
Jarl interrupted, afraid that they might be thrown out. “Goblins! We were chased by goblins.”
“Not again!” One of humans whispered. “You’re the third ones in less than a week.”
“Oh, and there I was thinking I was special. My dreams are crushed,” Halvard coughed as he tried to catch his breath.
Knud stifled a giggle and Jarl’s mouth twisted into a knot as he also tried to hide a smirk. For all his grumpy tendencies, Halvard’s poorly thought replies did amuse them when they themselves weren’t the recipients of his irritation.
“Where’s the inn?” Halvard asked as he shakily dismounted his pony. “I need to piss and I need to drink. A lot.”
Neither of the humans replied, very few of them able to understand Mál. Eventually one pointed down the street, not quite confident enough in the language to attempt pronouncing the coarse, brisk dwarf words. Jarl slowly stepped out of his saddle and stood silently on the ground for a few seconds until he felt that he could move without his legs giving way. His heart was still beating like a drum.
Knud reached for Jarl to help him down from the saddle. He had never seen Jarl like this before. Anger he had seen, even rage, but fear was not something he had previously imagined his stepfather was even capable of. It frightened him.
“I’m fine,” Jarl reassured. “Come on, jump down.”
Knud slid out of the saddle and held onto Jarl’s cloak as Jarl untied their packs from the pony’s saddle.
“I can’t believe they missed us!” Halvard laughed and pulled his pack over his shoulder. “I thought for sure that I’d have a lovely new scar on my back.”
They didn’t miss, Jarl thought to himself silently.
* * *
Halvard collapsed on the bed like a felled tree, face down into the pillow. He sighed loudly and kicked his boots off lazily onto the floor. Mud splattered everywhere.
“That’s it, I’m not moving!” he groaned happily.
“The innkeeper said we’d have to go down soon if we wanted food,” Jarl warned him.
Jarl shrugged and dropped his bag next to his bed. The inn room was small and there were an extra two beds by the door, but the innkeeper had reassured them that there would be no new guest that night who would claim it. When Jarl had asked him why, the innkeeper had replied that it had been quiet since the goblins had started to cause trouble on the road to Einn.
Jarl sat down on the edge of his bed and took a long breath, his knuckles and fingers stiff from how tightly he had held onto the reins earlier that morning. He looked across the room at Knud, who had already begun to snore, and smiled at the tousled mop of bright red curls which poked out from under the blanket. That was until Jarl noticed that there were no boots on the floor by his bed, and saw one muddy boot only poking out from under the blanket.
“Knud!” Jarl groaned.
“What’s he done now?” Halvard’s voice was muffled through his pillow.
“He didn’t take his boots off.”
“Haha! Good lad,” Halvard laughed and rolled his blanket around himself like a cocoon as he turned over to face the wall. “Wake me up when it’s morning.”
Barely a few seconds had passed before Halvard’s loud, rumbling snores joined Knud’s. Jarl remained sat on the edge of his bed and looked down at his pack.
I shouldn’t have brought him here, we haven’t even left Einn and he’s already in danger, he thought. Well, it’s too late to turn back now.
As quietly as he could, he walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. The joint snores of Halvard and Knud were loud enough to be heard in the hallway. Despite the number of deserted rooms above the inn, the lower floor was crowded with people, most of them human, though Jarl did spot one or two dwarfs who were obviously traders among them. Over the fire a large pot of stew bubbled away and the smell of it made Jarl’s mouth water. He passed a small copper fé to the cook who passed him back a large bowl of the broth.
“You from coast?” the cook asked, her Einn accent so thick it took Jarl a moment to understand what she had said. He could never understand the soft, mellifluous human accents. While he could agree that Mal was not the easiest of languages, he preferred the strong, forceful sound of his native language.
“Bjargtre? You going back there soon, are you?”
“No,” Jarl laughed dryly and winced as he took a sip from the broth. It was hot, too hot.
Jarl winced a smile back at her and looked around for a table, when he spotted a dwarf at the far end of the room with long white braided hair, and a sour expression on his face.
Hearing his name, Skad looked up, and his scowl turned even more bitter. Jarl noticed he had a large fresh bruise on the side of his face. His left eye was so swollen it had almost been folded shut. Skad stood up and walked over slowly, his face tensed in pain.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to help you. That guide you were talking about, Erin, she’s here.”
Jarl looked at him, confused and Skad repeated himself.
“I heard you the first time.” Jarl snapped “Why are you here? And how did you get here before us?”
“I left before you, obviously, and you should be grateful I’m trying to help you boy.”
“Grateful? For what? I never asked you to help me.”
Skad sneered at him. “You’re an insolent vagr, Vǫrn. You need my help and you know it.”
Jarl took a long slow slurp of his broth before he replied, his eyes on Skad the whole time. While he did not want to accept any help from Skad, he knew that he could not turn down his offer for help. It would be safer for all of them, Knud especially, if they could travel with her and not an unknown, possibly inexperienced guide.
“If you want to help you can tell me where to find her.”
“The inksmiths, it’s three streets away by the west wall. I’ll take you there.”
Jarl was too tired to argue and too confused to try to figure out what kind of ulterior motive Skad could possibly have. He laid down the bowl of broth on the nearby windowsill and followed Skad out of the inn. The sun was not far from setting and the air outside was already much colder than when they had first entered the town. The braziers along the walls had been lit.
“What happened to your face?” Jarl asked as they walked.
“Something in the forest startled the pony. The damn creature threw me off.”
Jarl smiled and thought to himself that maybe later in the evening he would go to the inn stable and pay for extra feed for Skad’s pony.
“I thought you might have run into goblins.”
Skad laughed dryly as they turned down one of the many small, maze-like streets, each new building more haphazardly assembled than the last.
“You would have liked that, wouldn’t you? It would take more than some grœnn naðr to kill me! So you can stop hoping.”
They stopped by a large human symbol Jarl did not recognise painted in white and black on the door of one of the better constructed buildings on the street.
“This is it. Let me do the talking Vǫrn. You don’t know her like I do.” Skad took a deep breath and knocked loudly on the door. When it was not answered he knocked again, until they heard the patter of feet approach. The door opened and they both looked up at a very tall and very pregnant human woman. She rapped her fingers against her belly.
“Can’t you see the smith is closed?!” she asked, first in her own language and then in Mál when she saw how short the visitors were. She pointed at an extinguished lamp which hung outside the door. “Why do dwarfs always think they can wake people up at any time?!”
“We’re here to see Erin.” Skad grumbled back, his grasp of the human common language a lot more proficient than Jarl had expected.
“How do you know Erin? She doesn’t know any dwarfs.” The woman reached one hand for the door, ready to slam it shut. Skad glanced at Jarl before he breathed heavily, a resigned expression on his face. “Tell her Skad is here, she’ll know who I am.” When the woman still appeared unconvinced he added one final sentence. “I trained her when she was younger.”
The woman eventually nodded and ushered them both inside. Jarl could not hide his shock, while Skad looked sourer that ever.
“Wait here,” the woman instructed. “I’ll go get her, and you’d better not be lying!”
“Do you think I would lie about something like that?” Skad snapped back as the woman walked up the stairs. “I trained queens and kings before I trained that vagr!” He whispered under his breath.
“You trained a human?” Jarl whispered, sure that there must be another explanation. It seemed too out of character for Skad to train a human when he had such an open hatred for everything non-dwarven.
“I didn’t have a choice! I owed Dagmar Eir a debt.”
“How did you end up owing a warlock a debt?”
“The damn goblins.”
From upstairs they suddenly heard a loud scuffle and the muffled voices of a man and a woman. Jarl felt a strange sensation on his skin and looked down at his arm, every hair of which stood on end. Again they heard voices upstairs and a much taller human man walked down the stairs towards them.
“You should leave. Erin does not want to see you.”
Skad’s face turned bright red and he stepped forward as though he was about to charge up the stairs. Before he could, Jarl stepped forward.
“My name is Jarl Vǫrn! I need a guide who can take us to the high city. I’m happy to pay whatever she asks. Please.”
“Erin does not travel with dwarfs,” the man replied flatly.
“How could I forget.” Skad sneered and looked up at the ceiling. “Maybe if we were goblins she would help, wouldn’t you, Erin?” he shouted.
There was a shiver in the air and a woman walked down the stairs towards them. Her waist-length, pitch black hair partly obscured her face. It took Jarl a moment before he realised that she was considerably shorter than most humans. He knew that the humans sometimes did not grow to their full height, and that some of them could be even smaller than dwarfs, but this woman did not look human. She dressed like a human, with lightly made leather boots and clothes that reminded him of the few traders he had seen from the Gold Coast, but the sash wrapped tightly around her waist was out of place. The garment made him think more of goblins than humans.
Then he saw her eyes, one stone grey and the other a vivid green. The contrast was so surprising that he did not immediately notice the multiple scars all over her face.
“I do not travel with dwarfs, especially you, Skad,” Erin repeated. Her accent was strikingly different to the inksmith and his wife’s. Whatever it was, it was definitely not human. “He’s not asking for himself,” Jarl replied before Skad could.
Erin’s eyes flicked towards him. “Who are you? I don’t know you.”
“My name is Jarl Vǫrn. I’m trying to travel to the High City with my friend and my young son.”
Erin’s eyes twitched for a brief moment. “You’re traveling with your son? Don’t you realise how dangerous that is? Especially now that the end of summer is near. If you wanted to travel along the Riddari you should have done it in the spring.”
“I don’t have a choice. I’ve heard many of the human traders in Bjargtre speak of you, and if I can I would rather travel with a guide I’ve heard people speak highly of than a complete stranger.”
“A dwarf who speaks to humans? You don’t look like an úti.”
“Give him time, he’ll get there,” Skad cackled.
Jarl flashed Sakd a withering look, but when he looked back at Erin her expression had changed to one of curiosity.
“Why do you have to go to Lǫgberg?”
“I need to petition the High Queen.”
They watched her silently as a series of emotions washed through her eyes in quick succession.
“I will take you, but not to Lǫgberg. Waidu is as far as I go. But you,” she looked at Skad who had actually begun to smile at her response, “I won’t take you. You can wait till spring when the caravans will be traveling the Riddari road.”
Jarl waited for the outpouring of rage he was sure Skad was about to unleash on her, but instead a small smile twitched at the sides of his mouth, both eyes narrowed.
“Very well, Astrid.”
With a smirk Skad turned around and closed the door behind him. Aaren turned to Astrid.
“Is he —” he began, but Astrid cut him off.
“Yes, yes he is.” She looked back at Jarl and took a deep breath. “Three of you will be traveling? Your son and a friend?”
“You will need ponies. Not the Bjargtre ponies, they’re too slow. I think most of the Inns still have some sand ponies left, you should buy those. Exchange them with your own if you have to. They’re faster and they can manage without food and water for longer.”
“How much is your fee?”
“Fifty silver feoh, half now, half when we get there.”
“I only have fé.”
Astrid paused for a moment before she replied. “I will take fé. We should leave as soon as possible. One day to arrange for supplies, then we leave.”
Jarl nodded in agreement.
“Wait,” Astrid called after him before he could walk out the door. “Skad, how do you know him?”
Jarl’s mouth tensed. “He used to train me. When I told him I’d heard of a trader called Erin he wanted to come with us. I didn’t want him to come but he came anyway, he’s no friend of mine if that is what you wanted to know.”
“Good,” Astrid nodded resolutely. “Tomorrow to collect supplies, then I’ll meet you at dawn by the south gate. I’ll expect my first payment then.”