Jarl was fast asleep, with his arm draped protectively across Knud’s chest. Astrid glanced at them one more time before she looked at the forest and the mountains on her right. The moonlight was still not bright enough to see under the dark canopy. The roots of the trees stretched out into the plains far further than their branches. Some of them were trees, but she could also sense the Frǫðleikr nestled among them and their attention on the two dwarfs sleeping so close to them.
They had traveled for most of the day as close to the forest as they dared, thankfully without another valdyr or goblin in sight. She shivered and resisted the urge to take back her wolf skin from Knud. It was cold, but she wasn’t sure how much of that was physical or mental. Besides, she thought, they won’t be as afraid of me if they have the wolf skin, and I won’t be able to feel her in it.
Astrid tried to shake the guilt as she recalled the way the goblin had shuddered as she had felt her life force being violently pulled from her. Astrid had had no choice. She knew that. It was not murder, but self defence. The female goblin had been on her back, with her arms wrapped around Astrid’s throat. She had barely been able to breath and without thinking had touched the first part of exposed skin on the goblin’s arm and sucked every last piece of energy from her. Unlike the relatively simple motion of a dagger or a sword imposing death on another being, death by Jakkito was far more involved. She had not just taken her life, she had absorbed every piece of energy in her body. In the split second that her skin had touched hers she had been able to feel every emotion that had rippled through her. She had experienced the fear, the confusion, and even small flashes of her thoughts. She had seen the faces of her loved ones back at her camp. A small goblin boy with thick curly black hair and large eyes had been the last thing in her mind before her body had crumbled to dust.
It had been self defence, but it had felt like murder.
Astrid got to her feet and searched around for any kind of plant she could draw energy from that was not the Frǫðleikr roots. She spotted a small patch of moss not far away, the cluster no bigger than the size of a small rabbit. It would barely be enough to heal a bruise, but any energy she could absorb without a being’s life attached to it would be enough. Without Jarl or Knud awake to watch her, she did not bother to hide her obvious limp. A large bruise right behind her knee was swelling uncomfortably. The goblin’s energy had been sufficient to heal just one body and, while in her wolf form, the skin had absorbed the majority of it, with only a tiny remainder left to transfer to her real body beneath.
She crouched down and hovered her hand over the plant for a few moments. She closed her eyes and splayed her fingers out to feel for magic. Relieved that she felt only plant life, she opened her eyes and watched as the moss shriveled and turned to ash.
A hand touched her shoulder and Astrid jumped with fright.
“Jarl! Don’t sneak up on me like that!” she hissed, her hands blue with magic.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” Astrid stood up to face him. “I just needed a little bit of energy.”
“I’m always hurt,” Astrid joked.
Without warning Knud suddenly screamed in his sleep and reached down towards his crippled leg in a panic. Astrid and Jarl ran towards him and tried to stop him from screaming, afraid that something else other than the trees or mountains would hear them.
“My leg! My leg!” Knud screamed.
Jarl yanked Knud’s hands away from his leg before he could scratch away the bandages over the stump. “Knud, Knud stop! What’s wrong?”
“My leg! It hurts! Make it stop! Astrid, please make it stop!” Knud looked up at her, his eyes so wide he reminded her of a terrified rabbit caught in a trap.
“Hold him,” Astrid ordered, her hand over Knud’s leg so that he couldn’t pull at the bandages. “Ghost pain,” she explained to Jarl, and her hands began to glow blue. “This will help.”
“No!” Jarl knocked her hand away.
“He’s in pain, Jarl.”
“Then take it from me and give it to him! You need it, I don’t!”
“If I take your energy—”
“Take it now!” Jarl shouted at her while Knud writhed and kicked. He pressed Knud’s head into his chest to muffle the screams.
Astrid took hold of Jarl’s hand and placed the other on Knud’s face.
Instantly, Knud’s body relaxed, but just as quickly Jarl gasped with the pain that transferred from Knud to himself. His leg felt as if it had been severed just above the ankle, the bone snapped through, the muscles torn, and the skin sliced apart. He gripped Astrid’s hand with all his might and bit down on his tongue so that he would not howl in pain. Nothing could have prepared him for the agony. He inhaled sharply and bit down on the insides of his cheeks.
“Just a bit longer,” Astrid reassured him. “There.” Astrid let go of Knud and Jarl nodded, but didn’t move.
“Jarl?” Astrid held both of Jarl’s hands tightly in hers.
He nodded to reassure her, but he kept his head bowed. His long hair hid his expression from Astrid and Knud. He breathed deeply and tried to think of anything other than the ghost pain in his leg. Looking down at Knud, guilt washed over him again. He had done this. He had promised his best friend he would care for his only son, and instead he had crippled him.
He wondered how Astrid could bear to absorb pain so regularly. The thought disturbed him. How many times, he wondered, had Astrid let the pain she absorbed build up inside until she could feel nothing but a constant dull burn?
Slowly, the pain began to ebb away and he was able to lift his head. “The pain, is it all gone?” he asked, and Knud nodded. “Good, you should go back to sleep.”
Exhausted, Knud, pulled the wolf skin back over his shoulders and both Jarl and Astrid sat alongside him until they heard his gentle snores. Astrid watched Jarl. His face was still clenched into a controlled blank expression. He was still in pain, she was sure of it.
“Do you still feel it?” Astrid whispered.
“Yes, but it’s bearable. Better me than him.”
“I can take it away.” Astrid reached for his hand, but Jarl moved it away.
“No!” He said firmly. “You need it, I saw you limping before.”
“I didn’t think you’d noticed.”
“Of course I noticed,” he scoffed. “You might be able to see further with those half-elf eyes of yours but I can see what is in front of me without a problem.”
Astrid shuffled uncomfortably for a moment and sat back against Jarl so that they sat back to back. The sky was still dark, but the stars had become less visible as the faint, golden light on the horizon began to block them out. Knud woke briefly, and managed to eat a few bites of food before he drifted back to sleep. After a few hours they had decided to move on. The roots were too close for comfort and Astrid was uneasy with the Frǫðleikr so close. They took turns to carry Knud. Astrid was so tired, that she needed to take the form of a wolf to bear his weight.
You failed him, you failed him, the voice whispered. Little lame Knud, courtesy for Erin Eir, the outsider of Ammasteinn.
“Tell me about your home in Bjargtre,” Astrid said suddenly, determined to drown out the voice with conversation, no matter how forced the topic was.
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything. What is it like? The people, the houses, the food.”
“The food? Well, that’s just going to make me hungry!” Jarl laughed. “We like meat, lots and lots of meat. Drowned in butter, of course. Rabbit is my favourite.”
“I hate rabbit,” Knud muttered, half asleep.
“Yes, I know you do. But you should still stop throwing it under the table.” Knud didn’t answer. His eyes had closed again, his mouth was open, and he was already snoring loudly. “Tell me when he starts drooling,” Jarl half-joked, and readjusted his grip on the pony’s reigns. “He’s always slept like a drunk cat.”
Astrid smiled as she tried to imagine what a drunk cat would look like. She had never understood the strange expressions the dwarfs had. “The humans say the dwarfs just eat meat. Is that true?”
“No,” Jarl replied. “King Hastein used to do that though. That’s probably how that rumour spread, but no, we don’t just eat meat.”
“King Hastein? Was that King Hábrók’s father?” Astrid asked, and Jarl nodded.
“He thought that just eating meat would make him stronger.”
“Why? Was he weak?”
“All the royal family are.”
“I thought all dwarfs were strong,” she said, surprised.
“King Hábrók married his first cousin,” Jarl went on, lowering his voice. “The royal family has always married cousins since the Rojóða wars. I think they’re afraid that if they marry outsiders it will cause another great war.”
“Like the Rojóða?”
“The king, what is he like?”
“He is…” Jarl paused as he thought for a moment. His dwarf sense of loyalty urged him to say something respectful, but he could not. “He a fool! He thinks if be buries his head in the mud the danger will pass, he’s too weak-willed to stand up to men like Gull and he thinks the goblins will just leave the city if we bury ourselves deep enough in the mountain.”
“Is that what he said to you?” Astrid asked, her voice hushed. They were back to the topic of goblins again and she did not want to get into another argument.
“Yes. I tried to tell him. But Áfastr Gull—”
“Áfastr Gull?” Astrid interrupted.
Jarl growled at the back of his throat. The sound startled Knud, but he quickly went back to sleep. His mouth still hung wide open.
“A hlaupa noble!” Jarl spat.
Astrid looked at him, confused. Hlaupa was not a word she was familiar with. Her Mál merely at a conversational level, and she was not accustomed to the more complex and descriptive words.
“Social climber,” Jarl explained. “He’s arrogant and greedy. He managed to get the king to trust him and take his advice. If he had tried the same thing with King Hastein he would have been made an ósómi. He’d rather make me look like a fool than realise the city is in danger.” Jarl’s face had taken on the strange mixture of a snarl and a frown and the usual kindness in his blue eyes had gone. It was not an expression Astrid liked to see.
“Why does Gull hate you?”
“I don’t know. I never asked and he never explained.”
“Look.” Astrid pointed. “We’re here.”
On their right, a massive break was visible in the Riddari Kviðr mountain line. It broke through the steep rock face like a massive doorway. The deep cut gouged in the stone, as if a giant had struck its way through, looked unnatural. The boulders that littered the entrance almost confirmed that the pass had been made by some kind of enormous being. The entrance to the pass was far stranger. Four soaring stones, three times the height of any man, stood guard at the entrance of the pass with a stone lintel on top of them, that was disproportionately large in comparison.
“This is Pillars pass,” Astrid whispered as they walked under the enormous stones.
“Why are you whispering?”
“There are still Frǫðleikr here, we need to be quiet. Don’t touch your sword and don’t raise your voice.”
As soon as they had passed through the stone doorway Jarl noticed an instant change in the air. It was like they had entered a room which had not been opened for many many years, even though the pass was completely open to the sky above it. Jarl looked at Astrid and noticed that she looked nervous. That made him anxious in turn.
“We can rest here.”
Jarl steped down from his pony and lowered Knud gently onto the ground. Knud’s mouth was still wide open and now he was drooling. A trail of slobber covered Jarl’s left shoulder and Astrid chuckled at the disgusted expression on Jarl’s face as he wiped it away.
“He has got to stop doing that,” Jarl muttered, as he took the wolf skin from Astrid and placed it over Knud’s shoulders.
As soon as the wolf skin was gone Astrid shuffled where she stood. The side of her face twitched as if agitated by a mosquito.
“Are you alright?”
Astrid nodded, still twitching, and looked down at the barren rock pass in front of them. Not a single tree was in sight. Jarl raised an eyebrow, sure she was lying. He could tell that something was bothering her. While they had been talking, she had been agitated. Every so often, she had turned to looked behind her, then suddenly shaken her head, scrunched her eyes together in a pained expression and tapped her knuckles against her forehead. It was as though she was trying to knock something out of it.
Jarl sat down next to Knud and reached up for her hand. “Come here,” he motioned at the spot next to him.
For a few moments Astrid didn’t move. Her eyes stared at the ground next to him while the voices in her head battled for a decision.
Why would you sit next to him? You’re his guide! Not some silly lovestick girl. You can tell him to—
Astrid quickly sat down next to him, pulled her knees to her chest, and resisted the urge to get up and run. Jarl could see every single muscle in her shoulders tense. She forced a smile and scrunched her eyes together as the voices grew louder. She needed to talk or, better still, for him to talk to make them go away. It was always much harder for them to torment her when he spoke.
“We should be there within a day or two. Bugul might have a pony he can lend you. We would get to Lǫgberg a lot faster,” Astrid said quickly.
Jarl watched her. The struggle between her dual personalities was plain to see on her face. Her expression flitted from terror to stoic calm within seconds.
“Didn’t I tell you about him?”
“You don’t tend to tell me much,” Jarl smiled.
Astrid leaned forward and drew out the Riddari in the mud. “Inside the Riddari Kviðr there’s a valley called the Aldwood. Bugul lives there with the vârcolac I told you about. I don’t think we should wait till we reach Waidu. Knud needs to rest. He can do that in the Aldwood.”
“I thought the Aldwood had Frǫðleikr?”
“Just along the mountains. The ones in the valley aren’t the angry kind. We can rest for a few days and then travel to Waidu.”
Jarl took a moment to think before he replied. While he trusted Astrid, he didn’t like the idea of being trapped in a valley surrounded by Frǫðleikr.
“Your friends? I’m assuming they’re not fond of dwarfs?”
“No, they’re not,” Astrid admitted, “but they are my friends. They’ll take you if I ask them.”