Astrid took a deep breath as she walked back towards Jarl and Knud. She could see condensation forming from her breath in the cold night. Before she said a word, she piled the wood she had collected onto the fire and sat down on the rocks. Her face was exposed for the first time that day.
“Three questions, you get three questions.”
“Do I get three questions?” Knud asked excitedly.
Despite how nervous she was Astrid nodded at him, a small sad smile on her face. “Yes, you get three questions too.”
What are you doing? They don’t need to know anything! The voice whispered behind her, but Astrid only twitched her head to the side and ignored it.
“Knud can go first,” Jarl replied, and for some reason that only made the knot in Astrid’s stomach worse. What does he want to know?
“How many scars do you have?” Knud asked quickly, his hands under his chin.
“I’m not sure, hundreds. You?”
“One!” Knud smiled proudly and pulled up the leg of his trousers to show a small red mark on his knee.
“How did you get that?”
“I fell down the stairs” Knud grinned. He continued to grin until finally Astrid pulled back her right sleeve all the way up to her elbow to show some of her own scars. Knud crawled around the fireplace to stare at the dozens of scars with were hollowed into her skin. The tattoos under them had shredded along with her skin.
“Valdyr,” Astrid explained. “It’s not a good idea to get between them and their food.”
Astrid looked up to Jarl, expecting him to ask his first question.
“The tattoos, what are they for? Are they magic?” Knud asked and poked at her hand.
“I keep them as memories. If lose someone, I have them tattooed here, so I don’t forget them.”
“Who was that for?” Knud pointed at one of the larger black roses which had been tattooed over the valdyr scars on her forearm.
“Is that your last questions?” Astrid asked. Knud looked at her dismayed and shook his head. “No, but can’t you just tell me anyway?”
“Sylbil,” Jarl said suddenly, his blue eyes narrowed at her. “Sylbil Jīkkā.”
It was as though the air in Astrid’s lungs had turned to ice, freezing her from the inside.
“What about her?” Astrid’s voice was so small, he could barely hear her over the crackle of the fireplace.
“Was she your mother?”
It took Astrid a while before she could breathe enough to reply. “Yes.”
“Who’s Sylbil Jukka?” Knud asked.
“Jīkkā,” Astrid corrected him. She kept her eyes fixed on Jarl.
If he had had any reaction to her reply, he did not show it, and that was what unsettled Astrid the most. His ability to hide his emotions behind a mask was even better than hers.
“I have my last question!” Knud exclaimed, frustrated that neither of them would answer him “Who is Sylbil Jīkkā?”
“She was the menwo mindi of Kentutrebā,” Jarl replied for Astrid, whose expression was like a frightened, angry animal. She looked as though she was ready to run from them at any moment.
“It means ‘little crown,” Jarl explained quickly. “Knud, just be quiet for a moment will you.” He looked back at Astrid. “Who knows you’re alive?”
“Nobody. The humans always called me outsider. They don’t have a word for someone like me, so none of the elves or dwarfs I ever passed on the road suspected anything.”
Jarl thought long and hard before he finally asked his last question.
“Do you want revenge?”
“What makes you think I want revenge?” Astrid asked, defensively. The voice in her ear was screaming so much it was all she could do not to turn and shout out loud at it, to leave her alone.
“You said your father was dead, and if Sylbil Jīkkā was still alive someone would have heard of her.”
Yes, I want them dead! the dark voice screamed. I want all of them dead! I want their world to crumble around them! I want—
“I try not to want it,” Astrid replied quietly.
“So that’s why you agreed to take us only to Waidu.”
“That’s four questions.”
“Oh, just answer the damn question, Astrid,” Jarl replied, frustrated.
“Yes. I don’t want to go near Kentutrebā, or Lǫgberg.”
“Or Vígdís?” Jarl finished.
How does he know that?! the dark voice whispered, horrified.
“How do you know that?” Astrid asked out loud.
Knud looked from Astrid to Jarl and back to Astrid again, more and more confused by the second.
“Hvass was a noble. She couldn’t have publicly kill—” Jarl quickly corrected himself, “done, anything. And Sylbil…that would have been impossible to do publicly. It would have had to have been Vígdis, or Tyr.”
“It’s not true, you know, what people say about her. My mother wasn’t mad.”
“The Mad Queen Sylbil?” Knud asked innocently, unsure where he had heard that name before.
“Knud!” Jarl shouted at him. “That’s enough! Go get your blanket and go to sleep!”
His face almost as red as his hair Knud did as he was told and turned his back to them in protest. They were both well aware that he would be listening to every word.
“She wasn’t mad,” Astrid whispered. “That’s a lie, and I’m not mad either.”
“I never thought that,” Jarl replied quickly.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did. Everyone knows the story, or at least a version of it.”
Astrid looked up, confused and surprised by his reply.
“Thank you for telling me. Can I ask one more question?”
Don’t! Don’t! If you say a word more I swear on their graves I’ll—
“What is it?” Astrid replied before the dark voice could finish.
“Does each eye see differently?”
His question was so far from what she had expected that Astrid laughed in surprise. The start of a sob still stuck at the back of her throat, made it painful to laugh. “No, I see the same from both of them.”
“The green one doesn’t see further?”
“No, I’m not short sighted like dwarfs.”
“I’m not short sighted,” Jarl replied defensively. “I can see just fine.”
Astrid turned and pointed at the path behind them. “Can you count the branches on that tree?”
“No, but I can see the branches.”
“Humm, not as short sighted as I thought,” Astrid murmured.
“I heard that, I’m not deaf either.” Jarl smiled, keen to turn the conversation to happier themes. The tense static of magic still in the air. “Dwarves aren’t moles, and our cities aren’t dark damp tunnels.”
“What are they like?”
It had never occurred to Jarl that Astrid would never have seen the inside of a dwarf city.
“They’re tall, we don’t like low ceilings, so everything is made bigger than we need it.”
“Clearly not self-conscious about your height then?” Astrid smiled. The lump at the back of her throat slowly receded.
“Hey, you’re shorter than me,” Jarl smiled back. “You are in no position to mock me.”
“What does the city smell like?”
“Spices, herbs, stone?”
“I never really thought about it, I guess it smells of coal.”
“Coal? It doesn’t smell of gold?”
“Gold doesn’t have a smell.”
“Yes, it does,” Astrid replied confidently.
“Alright then, what does it smell like?”
“Like…I don’t know how to describe it, gold. It just smells like gold.”
“Well, unlike what that the humans say, not every dwarf city has gold in it. We mostly trade coal, iron and metalwork to Einn.”
“I’m sure I heard traders in Bienr speak about gold from Bjargtre before. They showed some to me once, it looked redder than most gold I’d seen.”
“We mined the last vein a few years ago, not long after the Red Plague destroyed the city.”
Even with the normal contented look he normally wore on his face Astrid noticed how his eyes seemed to turn darker at the mention of the Red plague. His mind dragged back to the city.
Jarl looked at fire and glared at the embers as he spoke. “Thousands died. They said that a third of the city was killed by it before they managed to push it back into the cordons. My whole family caught it. Knud’s mother Lína did too.”
Astrid didn’t have to ask what had happened to them, the expression on Jarl’s told her that none of them had survived.
“How did you survive?”
“My mother smuggled a human healer from Einn into the city through the cordon. She had time to heal me but not the others. Another family saw my mother smuggled her into Vǫrn hall and they told her that unless my mother gave her up to help them they would tell the guards. I was dying so my mother refused. If we’d just had one more hour we all would have survived.”
“Why are you trying to save them? The dwarfs?” Jarl looked up at Astrid’s and confused expression. “Knud told me that you went to the king and he refused to send for help. Are the goblins in the plains that bad?”
Jarl leaned over to make sure Knud was fast asleep before he spoke.
“Knute, Knud’s father was killed by a goblin called Ulf. I assume you know about the goblins and their cuffs?” When Astrid nodded Jarl continued. “I found Knute before he died, and he said this goblin was young with dozens of cuffs in his hair. That hasn’t been done by a goblin in centuries.”
“But you live in a stone fortress.”
“If you’re smart enough to control that many tribes then you’re smart enough to take the city. They have more than enough reasons to hate us, at least, that’s what I would do, if I was him.”
Astrid could not disagree. Ragi had not spoken much of his life before he had lived in the Red Mountains. The one time he had, he spoke of the Hætta from Bjargtre and that been the only time she had seen the sinewy old goblin cry.
“You said that you gave your title to a friend. Why did you do that?”
“How much do you know about dwarf laws?”
“Not much,” Astrid admitted. “I know that the death penalty is forbidden, well, publically at least,” she muttered dryly, “but otherwise not much.”
Jarl took a long breath. Now that he was speaking about it out loud he realised just how afraid he was. “Because I’ll be disobeying the orders of my king. It’s considered petty treason. I’ll lose my title, my home, and the law says I can’t raise a noble’s son if I’m an ósómi. It’ll force Vígdís to listen to me, but if I’m right it’s still up to her to decide if I deserve my title back.”
“Don’t they?” Astrid ran her hand across her jaw to motion cutting away a beard.
“They cut your beard and hair off, yes. I couldn’t give my name to Halvard because only a royal decree can give him his name back, and Knud has his own name and title, so I gave everything to my maid Holmvé. Including the right to care for Knud. That way if I do lose everything I can still raise him. Otherwise he would be taken as a ward of the King.”
“Halvard is a neinn nefna? How?”
Jarl cleared his throat. It was always considered extremely bad manners to speak of another family’s shame, but he did not feel like he could refuse Astrid’s questions after she had answered so many of his own.
“His father murdered himself and the rest of his family. He was ashamed that he was about to lose Byström hall because of his debts, so he killed his wife and tried to kill Halvard too. Halvard only survived because he locked himself in his room and wouldn’t open the door.”
“And they took his name for that?!” Astrid sounded horrified. “That’s—”
“Cruel? I know.” Jarl finished for her.
Astrid tossed another branch into the red-hot embers. Now Halvard’s constant sullen expression made sense to her. In fact, she could not blame him. She could easily imagine the rage and frustration he must have felt every single day since then.
“You know you’re brave for doing this, don’t you?” Astrid said suddenly.
Jarl shrugged his shoulders awkwardly, unsure of how to respond. “I have to do it. If you had a chance to save Lǫgberg, wouldn’t you?”
She looked back at him with a cold expression in her eyes.
“No.” Sparks of blue shimmered in the air around her with her response. “If I had the chance to save Lǫgberg, I would let it burn.”