For the eighth time, the bells in the communal dorms echoed up to her room. Astrid groaned and buried her head under the blanket, trying to drown out the sound. She was still exhausted. While it was easy for her to survive on very little sleep for days, even weeks at a time, she always had to make up for it in the end. She had slept through the first two days easily, but now her stomach demanded to be fed, and no amount of exhaustion would allow her to ignore it.
She slowly sat up and, bleary-eyed, looked around the small stone room. Her bed was not much more than a rectangular hollow carved into the wall. Her bag remained at the end of the room where she had dropped it. Her boots were still by the doorway, except now they were polished clean, with not so much as a speck of mud on then. She waited another few minutes before she stepped out of the bed and stumbled outside to look at the salt crystal on the wall outside. The salt crystals glowed with light which reflected from outside, down dozens of tiny shafts, all over the monastery. A pale light came from this one, so it was either dawn or sunset. The monks always claimed they could tell the difference, but she never could.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
Brother Iulius stood up from the chair at the end of the hallway and smiled at her. “The abbot wanted me to ask, you would like to eat with us?”
“Of course. Are you eating now?”
“No, it’s only just sunset.”
The bright daylight blinded her for a moment and Astrid winced, as Brother Iulius pushed aside the thick curtain aside to walk out onto the balcony. The air outside was freezing. She could never understand how the sky could be so bright blue and cloudless but cold as ice. It always seemed so strange after spending so long in the warm human lands. Below her she could see the entire monastary, four levels down to the courtyard. A few dwarfs and elves were speckled among the humans below.
“You look happier than last time,” Brother Iulius remarked, “tired, but happy.”
“I’ve slept for two days. That would make anyone happy,” Astrid laughed.
“I’m surprised you’re not hungry.”
“Do you want to go to the kitchens? I’m sure I can find something for you to eat now.”
“No, I need to find the dwarfs I travelled with.”
“What were their names?”
“Jarl Vǫrn and Knud Villieldr.”
“Ah, the dwarf with the little red-haired boy?”
“I think they’re in one of the dwarf dorms on the first floor. Do you want me to find them?”
“No, thank you, I’ll find them myself.”
“I don’t mind,” Brother Iulius insisted, but Astrid shook her head.
“I need to move, I feel like my bones have turned to stone.”
Astrid slowly limped down the wooden staircase which wound its way like a snake down each of the floors until she reached the ground. She shivered as her bare feet touched the cold tiles but ignored the cold.
As an elf passed by Astrid suddenly remembered that she had left her veil in her room. They can see my ears. Quickly she pulled her hair over them and looked around. There were too many elves around and it was making her nervous. So far, they had not noticed her. They didn’t tend to pay much attention to people smaller than them, but she didn’t want to take any chances either. Even if they did not notice her ears, or rather the one which had not been cut in half, they would definitely notice her eyes.
She quickly made her way to the dwarf dorms, her eyes cast down towards the ground as much as possible, and walked through all of them one by one. Rows and rows of bed hollows were carved into the wall like a rectangular honey comb. A few dwarfs had rolled under their blankets and tossed their boots and dirty clothes onto the floor. Astrid wrinkled her nose in disgust and wished her sense of smell was less acute.
After some time, she noticed Jarl’s bag next to Knud’s by one of the empty bed hollows. Her wolf skin was draped across what Astrid assumed was Knud’s bed. They must have gone to the kitchens, she thought. As she walked out of the dorm and turned the corner she bumped into a small group of elves. All of them carried the heavy smell of jasmine oil.
“Sorry,” Astrid muttered and quickly walked past them, head bowed.
“Astrid?” She flinched as Jarl leant his hand on her shoulder and roughly shrugged his hand away.
“In the kitchens. He was cold, so I went to get the wolf skin you left with him. I went to look for you to give it back yesterday, but I couldn’t find you. The monks all said they didn’t know you.”
“They know me as Erin here,” Astrid replied as she walked back with him to his dorm. She waited by the doorway for Jarl as he picked up the wolf skin. The elves she had bumped into were still inching their way towards the dormitory doors.
“You’re not allowed in here,” Astrid said suddenly and turned to face them. “These rooms are for dwarfs.”
“We have a friend in there,” they snickered and tried to push their way past her.
“No!” Astrid quickly stood in their way to block them. Jarl stood behind her, his hand on his sword. “You can’t. It’s not allowed.”
“Get out of the way, korro.”
“Ehy! What do you think you’re doing!” The elves scattered as one of the monks walked up behind them towards Astrid “What happened?” He asked her.
“They were trying to get into the dorm.”
“Second time today,” the monk grumbled and sat down on the stone chair by the doorway. “If I catch them doing that one more time I swear, I’ll have them thrown out.”
“Korro, what does that mean?” Jarl asked as they walked back down the hallway, the wolf skin draped over one shoulder.
“It means stunted.”
“How…original,” Jarl laughed. “You’d think they’d have better insults for dwarfs by now.”
Like brojóta burðr or Goðgá? Astrid thought derisively.
“One of the traders in the market heard that you were here this morning. He didn’t seem very happy. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say saying anything unfavourable about you.”
“He didn’t say his name. He said he had traveled with you to the Azure Oasis.”
Astrid looked down at her feet, her face as emotionless a stone, but Jarl could feel the static of magic in the air and an intense feeling of sadness all around her that reminded him of the leshy. When Astrid finally replied her voice was barely just a whisper.
“I lost a little boy in the oasis, Nedwin.”
“So that’s why you agreed to take us,” Jarl said out loud to himself.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you clearly hate dwarfs.”
“I don’t hate dwarfs, I just don’t trust them.”
“But is that why you agreed to take us?”
Astrid eventually nodded. “Yes, I owe it to Nedwin. I can’t lose another child again.”
“And the elves?”
“What about them?”
“Do you hate them too?”
Astrid reached to her right ear and pulled her hair away from across it to expose her severed ear. “Courtesy of the elves,” she mumbled.
Astrid bowed her head quickly as several more elves walked past her, afraid for a moment that they might have noticed her ears and eyes. They both looked up as a loud metallic gong sounded from the top of the monastery. A line of monks made their way from the courtyard, where they were still pressing the daru wine, up the winding wooden stairs, to the top floor.
“I need to go. The abbot asked me to join them for dinner.”
“When should we leave tomorrow?” Jarl asked quickly before she could go.
“Dawn. Meet me by the gates, and try and pack as much died food as you can. You’ll need it.”
Jarl watched her as she walked up the stairs with the monks. The monks were so much taller than her that Astrid barely past their elbows. She cut a strange dark figure amongst all the monks in their white robes.
“Are you a friend of Erin’s?”
Jarl turned to see a monk next to him. The monk’s white hair struck a remarkable contrast against his dark skin.
“She’s our guide.”
“Oh, well in that case, would you like to join us?”
“I think she’d prefer to be alone. Besides, I need to find my son before he eats himself sick.”
“I doubt she’d mind, and the food is very good, much better than what they have in the kitchens.”
Jarl’s stomach grumbled loudly and the monk laughed. “Go find your son. I’ll wait for you here.”
Jarl left and returned a few minutes later with a rather petulant and grumpy looking Knud. The monk led them up the winding stairs until they reached a large hall lined with dozens of beautiful red pillars. The walls were painted bright white except for a vivid fresco which ran down the middle of the wall all the way around the room. Knud’s mouth dropped at the sight of the dozens of bowls of varying sizes filled with nuts, fruits, vegetables and meat, which covered every inch of the low tables. Before they walked into the room Jarl undid his baldric and left his sword against the wall by the door. While he wasn’t sure what customs the humans had, in the dwarf culture it was considered extremely rude to sit at a guests table with weapons.
At the end of the room the abbot motioned at them to sit next to Astrid who looked more than a little irritated. Knud instantly tried to move so that Jarl sat between him and Astrid, but Jarl angrily moved him back.
“Enough, Knud,” he whispered angrily. “Don’t be a child.”
Knud pouted, his arms crossed. That was until one of the monks pushed a stone bowl filled with food towards him and he completely forgot his anger with Astrid as soon as he tasted the meal.
Jarl looked nervously at Astrid who stared blankly back at him.
“Erin?” The abbot asked from the end the room. “Do you like the food?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then why aren’t you eating?”
“If I eat it too quickly I won’t be able to enjoy it,” Astrid grinned sheepishly.
“And you?” The monk looked over at Knud, who had already managed to cram so much food into his mouth that it threatened to spill back out into the bowl.
“I think he likes it,” Jarl replied for him. Astrid couldn’t help but smile at Jarl’s embarrassed face. Knud was completely oblivious to it all.
“Have there been many traders from Castra?” Astrid asked.
“Not many. There were a few in the spring and summer, but none this month.”
Astrid frowned. “None?”
“What about from the Gold Coast?”
“Oh, many, and from the Azure, Bienra, even Utet.”
“Utet?” Astrid laughed as she took another bite of her food. “And not Zet and Ua too?”
The monks all laughed loudly, even the abbot.
“What did they trade for?”
“The usual, silks, spices.”
“What, no sand? How will they make bigger beaches?”
The monks laughed again, but the joke escaped Jarl completely.
“Utet is one of the largest south islands,” The monk next to Jarl leaned towards him to explain. “It declared itself free from Sepat’s rule years ago, and ever since then the two smaller islands next to it, Zet and Ua, have been threatening to break free from Utet, but they’re so small nobody listens to them.”
Jarl nodded and pretended to laugh. He still didn’t understand why it was so funny.
For the rest of the meal Jarl sat quietly and listened to the monks and Astrid speak back and forth. The monks were all excited to know where she had been for the last decade. Jarl had never seen her speak so much. She seemed happy around them. He noticed she did not pause after every question and give a short, calculated answer as she did with him.
She talked about the Gold Coast and how she had traveled with merchants to the Narcissus Isles, a place Jarl had never heard of. He listened, fascinated by the stories of strange places he had never seen, where the sun was so hot it was impossible to walk with bare feet on the ground during the day, and there were deserted islands covered in ruins and pirates.
“Have you seen the Mists?” One of the monks asked excitedly.
“No,” Astrid shook her head quickly and laughed. “Even if I did, nobody would be crazy enough to take me there.”
Suddenly Kund burped loudly. Jarl turned, ready to scold him again, until he noticed the odd smile on Knud’s face.
Knud burped loudly again and grinned at Jarl as he swayed in his seat. “I only had a little,” he grinned.
Astrid reached over to Knud’s cup and saw that every last drop of the Daru wine had been drunk. She had not even noticed the monks filling everyone’s glasses, she was so excited to tell them about her travels.
“What is it?”
Astrid winced sheepishly at Jarl. “Daru wine,” she explained as she turned the cup upside down and a few red drops dripped down from it.
With a groan Knud slumped against Astrid who quickly pushed him upright, afraid that he was about to throw up at any moment. Jarl picked Knud up in his arms and hurriedly made his apologies before he left.
“I should go with them,” Astrid said and stood up.
“He’ll be fine,” one of the monks laughed, “just a little bit of a headache in the morning, that’s all.”
“Only if Jarl doesn’t kill him first,” Astrid smiled back. She bowed and pulled the thick doorways curtain shut before she left the room. Knud had already fallen fast asleep in Jarl’s arms. His head bobbed from side to side as Jarl walked down the stairs.
“Please don’t be angry with him,” Astrid asked once she reached them. “The monks serve wine with every meal. He wouldn’t have known.”
“He would have known it wasn’t water,” Jarl replied gruffly. “I should have been paying attention.”
“He’ll just have a headache tomorrow. If you’re lucky he’ll feel so sick he’ll never drink again.”
Just as she said that Knud leaned away from Jarl and threw up onto the floor.
“I hate wine!” Knud groaned and threw up till there was nothing left in his stomach. Jarl knelt down next to him and held his hair away from his face. Astrid stood behind them uncomfortably.
Finally, Knud stood up, his skin a funny grey colour and burst into tears.
“Here,” Astrid stepped forward and held her hand towards him, blue sparks of magic around her fingertips. “Take my hand.”
Too ill to remember why he was angry at her Knud did as he was told.
From behind them, voices shouted at Astrid in a language neither Jarl or Knud could understand. Astrid span around, then backed away as the elves ran at her.
“Your ears? Show me your ears little mewa, don’t try to hide them!” they jeered.
Astrid retreated back into the courtyard and pushed away their hands each time they time they tried to move her hair away from her ears. Jarl and Knud still stood at the foot of the stairs.
“Come on mewa, we just want to see.”
“Leave me alone.”
The elves only laughed at her rusty Axtī accent.
“You speak like a dwarf.”
“Who taught you to speak Axtī? Your whore mother?”
Jarl turned to make sure that Knud was leaned against the rails before he walked up behind one of the elves and kicked in the back of his knee as hard as he could. The elf fell to the ground clutching his knee in agony. The other two elves turned to face him, only for Jarl to punch both of them as hard as he could in quick succession. Distracted, the elves turned their backs to Astrid who reached out and griped hold of the nearest elf’s wrist.
The elf screamed and dropped to his knees, Astrid’s eyes inches from his, a milky blue film over them that blurred the colour of her eyes. Strangely, he felt no pain, just an intense coldness which left him unable to move. As soon as she let go of him the elf collapsed, shivering, his skin wrinkled and red as though it had been burned where Astrid had touched it.
The last elf turned on Jarl, though Jarl was slightly disappointed at how poorly the elf could fight. Even when the elf finally landed a blow, the force was barely enough to leave a decent bruise. Furious that he was being bested by a dwarf, the elf drew his sword. Jarl reached for his own sword. The smile on his face froze when he felt only his belt. I left it by the table. The elf charged at Jarl, sword raised, sure that he had the upper hand.
Instead he fell to his knees, his mouth wide open in agony. Jarl stared at him, confused, until he saw Astrid’s hands pressed against each side of the elf’s neck. The white thorn tattoos around her fingers were even more noticeable in the moonlight.
She walked around the elf, her hand still on his neck, his eyes only just at the level of hers.
“My Mātīr wasn’t a whore!” she hissed, both eyes narrowed.
The elf whimpered. The pain in his head was so intense that he felt as though his skull might explode from the pressure. With her free hand, Astrid pulled the sword out of his hands and threw it as far away from them as she could. It landed loudly on the stone tiles and rattled to a halt. The sound echoed all the way up the stairway. Then she reached up to her right ear and slowly pushed her hair away to expose it.
“Is this what you wanted to see?”
The elf whimpered like a dog. Astrid reached under the part of her veil which wrapped around her waist and pulled out a long thin dagger.
“I like your ears though,” she smiled. “They’re so pretty.”
“Please! Please!” the elf begged as Astrid pressed the edge of her dagger against his ear. “Please!”
“What’s going on?” A voice shouted from above them.
Quickly she stepped back and pulled the dagger back away. The elf screamed and clutched at his ear in terror.
“She cut my ear! She cut my ear off! It’s gone!” he screamed as the monks surrounded them. Astrid with her head bowed quietly, the dagger already hidden back in her veil.
“Let me see” One of the monks insisted and pulled away the elf’s hands. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing.”
The elf looked at Astrid confused, the smallest twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth. “She attacked us!” he insisted.
“I doubt that,” the monk replied. “I saw you trying to sneak into the dwarf dorms earlier. Get out of here!”
“Now! Or you can all leave tonight,” the monk shouted angrily. “You know the rules, no fighting.” The monk looked back at Astrid and leaned a hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?”
“Yes. I’m fine,” Astrid replied calmly. The monks waited with them until the elves had hobbled away. A few monks accompanied them to make sure they reached the elf dorms without any detours.
“We’ll keep someone watching them tonight,” one of the monks said to Jarl. “They won’t have another chance to cause trouble.”
Jarl nodded and walked back over to Knud who hand his mouth hanging wide open in amazement.
“That was so—”
“Don’t think you’re not in trouble!” Jarl interrupted. “You knew that was wine, and you drank it anyway.”
Knud nodded sheepishly and followed him back to the dorms. Before Astrid was out of sight he turned around and saw her stoop down to pick up something small on the floor. The tiny piece of a severed ear tip. She held it in her hands, a small smirk at the corner of her mouth, before it crumbled into dust between her glowing fingers.