Astrid couched over the river and covered her mouth as another cough brought her down to her knees. Jarl watched her, worried, and waited for her to come back. He kept his arms around Knud.
They had not seen the goblins from Castra for the last two days, but now that they were so far into the Haltija pass, it made no sense for them to turn back. Jarl looked down at Knud and absent-mindedly brushed his hair away from his face as he tried not to remember the expression on Knud’s face when he had finally woken and seen the stump that remained of his foot. Jarl had expected him to cry or scream, but instead he had said nothing. In fact, he had not said a word since, and in many ways, that was far worse than any other reaction he could have had. What worried him just as much though was Astrid. Whenever they would stop, she would crumple to the ground. Her breath rattled, and she muttered to herself when she thought he was not listening. Her skin had not regained any of its colour, and he had noticed that her hands had not stopped shaking since Castra.
“Jarl, can you keep watch? I’m sorry, I need to rest.”
Jarl nodded and lowered himself from his pony, taking care not to disturb Knud, who was still in his arms. He laid Knud gently down on the ground next to Astrid and walked down to the river to drink and refill his water skin. When he returned Astrid was slumped next to Knud. She had draped her wolfskin over him.
Jarl sat down next to her and pulled off his own tattered cloak.
“What are you doing?” Astrid flinched as he tried to lay it over her.
“No, you’re not. Just take it, you’re no good to us dead.”
Astrid begrudgingly took it from him and pulled it tightly around her shivering body. It smelled strange to her, but she did not take it off.
Jarl kept his eyes on the plains around him for the next few hours until the sun started to set and the cold began to creep into his bones. Next to him Astrid began to shiver violently, and Jarl noticed for the first time just how thin she looked. Her cheeks were completely hollowed.
“Astrid?” Even though he shook her shoulder gently Astrid shuddered violently. One hand clasped the handle of her hammer ax before she had even opened her eyes. “It’s almost dark.”
Astrid groaned with exhaustion and tried to stand up. “One more day and we should be at the Three Sisters pass,” she mumbled. “Just a few more hours, just a few…”
Jarl looked at her with concern. Her many layers of clothes were much looser than he remembered.
“Would it be safe to sleep tonight instead?”
“It’s never safe on the plains, but we should be alright. I’ll wake you at dawn, we should leave then.”
“I meant for you,” Jarl replied.
Astrid looked as though she couldn’t decide whether to cry from exhaustion or be angry that he would suggest such a thing. “I’ve slept enough.”
“You look like you’re about to sleep forever.”
“I need to keep him safe,” Astrid whispered, too tired to argue with any kind of conviction in her voice.
“You can’t keep him safe if you can’t walk.”
No! — The dark voice hissed in her head — you’re a guide! You’ve gone without sleep before, you can do it again. You can’t sleep now. What if the goblin’s come back
“I can’t protect Knud if I can’t stand,” Astrid replied out loud.
“No, you can’t” Jarl replied, even though he wasn’t sure that she had actually been talking to him.
Astrid needed no more convincing. She collapsed back down on the floor and pulled her knees tightly to her chest for warmth, and wrapped Jarl’s cloak more tightly around her.
She’s going to freeze to death, Jarl thought.
Astrid looked up at him and Jarl motioned at her to sit next to him. “You need to stay warm. That cloak isn’t thick enough.”
Too tired to listen to the condescending reply from the voice in her head, Astrid sat down next to him, desperate for warmth. Still, as soon as he laid his arm across her shoulders she shivered violently as though his touch had burned her. It was intensely uncomfortable, but the warmth was enough to compensate for it. She breathed a sigh of relief and leaned her head against her knees. She was asleep in seconds. Jarl pulled her a little closer and placed her head against his shoulder. He could feel her shoulder bones dig into his arm. Even while she was asleep he could feel every muscle in her body was tensed, even her face, and when he looked down at her hands he noticed the glint of a dagger tucked up her sleeve.
“Not one for trusting people, are you?” Jarl remarked to himself. He could not blame her. He looked over at Knud and then back at the plains. The moon had not risen quite high enough for him to see clearly, and the wind had already picked up. There was something very different about the cold on the plains. He was used to the cold in the mountains, but on the plains it seemed to cut through him down to his bones.
The moon rose enough for him to see further than a few feet in front of him and washed everything in a cold silver light. Ahead he could see the mountains to the right, the plains to the left and miles and miles of wiry, long grass. These mountains felt different to the Riddari Hǫfuð. While still connected to the Riddari range, the edge of the Riddari Kviðr felt strange. The tree line was so thick that it looked like a black blanket draped over the slopes.
Suddenly a dart of movement in the distance caught his attention. He sat up slowly, careful not to wake Astrid, eyes narrowed. Just as he was about to sit back, he noticed another blur of movement. Several upright black ear tips peaked just above the grass. Jarl’s blood ran cold. valdyr!
Sensing that they had been spotted, the valdyr shot towards them like sharks in a sea of long grass. Without time to think, Jarl pushed Astrid away and drew his sword. The first valdyr impaled itself on his blade as it sprang out of the grass towards him.
Astrid’s eyes snapped open. Bright blue flames engulfed her hands. Knud screamed in terror behind her as one of the valdyr ran at him. It’s long snake like fangs extended and revealed rows and rows of needle-thin teeth.
The snarl that came from Astrid scared him far more than the high-pitched yelps the valdyr made. She leapt forward like an animal, crouched down on all fours, her teeth bared, and clasped both hands around the valdyr’s neck. It did not even have time to turn on her. Like fire on a dry leaf, the blue ripples on Astrid’s hands spread to the valdyr and consumed it. Astrid landed heavily on her side in a cloud of dust. Nothing remained of the valdyr but ash. In the distance she could hear the hooves of horses and the yelps of more valdyr. She reached for her wolf skin and roughly pulled it off Knud and onto her shoulders. Before she pulled the wolf’s head over her own she took one last look at Knud. They won’t accept you after this, the dark voice whispered. Even the humans fear you for this.
“I don’t care,” Astrid whispered back.
Knud froze as the wolf skin flexed, curled and spread over her. The fur came alive. An enormous wolf, a monstrous creature of fur, sinew, muscles and claws, stood right next to him. The monster’s head turned to look at him, and instead of the hollow sockets he was used to seeing, Astrid’s green and grey eyes looked at him.
The last surviving valdyr never had a chance. She struck it from behind, and when she snapped its neck, she not so much severed it as tore it completely apart.
Jarl looked at the wolf in horror. Sword raised, his face and arms covered in scratches from the dead valdyrs, he ran at the wolf.
The wolf reared up onto its hind legs and the wolf skin dropped away to reveal Astrid beneath it. Jarl stopped in his tracks. His sword was so close to Astrid’s face that a drop of the valdyr blood on it dripped down onto her nose.
“What in Hel’s—”
“Take Knud and run!”
When Jarl didn’t move instantly, Astrid pulled the wolf skin back over herself and reassumed the dreadful form of the monstrous wolf faster than he could blink. She seized Knud in her jaws and dragged him towards Jarl. Knud was too terrified to move. “Now!” She roared at Jarl. Her inhuman voice grated and shredded the sound.
Jarl grabbed Knud and scrambled onto his pony. Without another word he bolted out into the plains. He barely needed to urge it to run. The animal was completely terrified by the appearance of the wolf, but had experienced enough of the strange creatures of the trade routes not to bolt.
Behind them they heard a shriek and Knud’s pony was hit in the barrage of goblin arrows. They heard a high-pitched howl then a series of screams which were definitely not Astrid’s.
“She killed them!” Knud screamed in his ear. “She killed them all!”
“Don’t look! Don’t look, Knud.”
Beside them, a black shadow ran on all fours. Unable to reach for his sword with Knud in his arms he turned Knud away from the creature, only to see the wolf’s grey and green eyes. It looked back at him. The expression on its face could only be described as fear.
Despite the pony’s protests, Jarl pulled back on the reigns hard until they ground to a stop. The wolf stopped with them and crouched down in the grass, it’s head lowered. Jarl was unsure if it was about to pounce at them or cower in fear. Once again, it stood up on its hind legs before the skin fell away.
The difference on Astrid’s face was remarkable. The colour had returned to it and her eyes were no longer surrounded by hollow black circles. She looked almost as healthy as the day they had left Einn.
Before he could ask any questions, Astrid burst into her explanation while the dark voice cackled. They hate you now.
“I know Moldof’s mark because he nearly killed me once. I heard of a tribe of vârcolac, which he had taken for their skins. They have the ability to take the skin of an animal, like what you just saw. One of the vârcolac gave me their skin before she died. I’m not cursed and I’m not a witch.”
“Vârcolac, the shape shifters from the Dreyrugr wastelands?” Astrid nodded “I thought they were all dead.”
“There aren’t many left, but they’re still alive.”
Astrid’s eyes looked down for a moment, and Jarl realised that his hand was on the hilt of his sword. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked gently.
Astrid shrugged her shoulders nervously. “You would have thought I was cursed.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Jarl replied, complete conviction in his voice.
Astrid raised her head to face him. “Very well. I’m not cursed. This skin was a gift. It can be used by me and only me. It has no life of its own and I’m asking you to trust that I am not dangerous to you, or Knud.”
For Astrid, the three seconds that it took him to reply seemed like hours. His eyes fixed intently on her. Then Jarl pushed his sword back into its scabbard with a firm click and stepped down from his pony.
“That’s all I needed to know.”
He’s lying! Don’t trust him! The harsh voice whispered. Astrid just stared at him open-mouthed.
“You trust me?”
“Yes. Why? Shouldn’t I?”
“Thank you,” Astrid replied.