“Knud. Knud wake up. We have to start walking.”
Jarl shook him gently. His eyes snapped open and darted about in panic for a moment. As soon as he saw the sun had barely risen and they were in no danger, he closed them again and slumped back onto the ground.
“Can I sleep just a little more?” he groaned, hiding under the wolf skin.
Jarl shook his head and wrestled the wolf skin from him before he could fall into another slumber. Knud shivered. It had gotten a lot colder overnight. The early morning light was warm but the air in the pass was as cold as ice. Jarl, however, felt colder than the others and was completely exhausted, just as Astrid had warned him he would feel. It had not helped that he had slept very badly. He had had nightmare after nightmare about Knud being in danger. The image of Knud’s leg caught in the trap had replayed a hundred times in his head with Knute’s shadowy figure nearby every time, watching, disappointed in him. To add to the strangeness, Astrid had entered his dream, trapped in the wolf skin and trying desperately to claw her way out of it.
“Why is it so cold?” Knud groaned.
“It’s autumn, it’ll be winter soon,” Astrid replied. “It’s only going to get colder.”
“When are we going to get there?”
“Tomorrow, probably. Faster if I carry you,” Astrid suggested.
“I can walk though!” Knud said. He let go of Jarl’s arm for a moment and tried to stand on his one remaining foot, but he was barely able to keep his balance.
“Let me see your leg,” Astrid said gently.
Although he didn’t want to admit it, his amputated leg still hurt quite a lot. He had managed to hide his discomfort from Jarl, but he knew Astrid could sense his pain. The sensation that his foot was still there was occasionally blocked by an unbearable itchiness, as if ants had managed to creep under the bandages and were crawling over his skin. It was all he could do not to scratch at it with all his might when neither Jarl or Astrid were looking, but after the previous night he was determined to bear it.
He could not decide whether the pain was worse, or the pitying looks Jarl and Astrid gave him, which only reminded him that he was damaged. He looked down at his stump and tried not to cry as Astrid unwrapped the bandages.
The end of Knud’s leg was bright red, the cut skin folded over the stump and fused together, the bulge of the broken bone visible beneath it.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked.
Knud nodded. He was not as if he could lie to her. The minute she touched his skin she would know anyway, as she was able to sense every twinge of his pain. With her eyes open, Astrid’s hands glowed blue and she gently moved her fingers over the stump. Knud breathed deeply as she absorbed the pain. The cold wash of relief was instant.
“Thank you,” Knud smiled.
“Will you let me carry you now?” she asked, as Jarl wrapped a fresh piece of Knute’s torn cloak around Knud’s leg.
Knud got to his feet and scrambled up onto Astrid’s back as soon as she had transformed under her wolf skin. The large hump of her bag on her human body was like a furry pillow, perfect for him to lean forward and rest his head against.
* * *
None of them spoke for the next few hours. The pass stretched on, mile after mile. The sides of the mountain rose like two walls on either side of them. Jarl thought it strange that they were so smooth, with no natural faults. In fact, everything about the pass gave him the distinct impression that at some point, a being other than nature had been involved in its formation.
“How far now to the Aldwood?”
Astrid shook her head. A tiny smile formed at the corner of her mouth. “I thought Knud would be the one asking that question all day,” she chuckled. “It won’t be long now until we reach the crossroads, I think. I’ve never gone through this part. Last time we went over the mountains.”
“With Loba and Bugul.”
Jarl wanted to press her for more of what he suspected was a very long story, but decided against it. If it was a story she was ready to talk about she would tell him in her own time.
“What is that?” Knud’s voice croaked, still half asleep.
They all looked up and saw a cluster of trees ahead. The sight was strange and jarring. The circle of enormous pines, with a stunted oak at the centre, erupted from the stony earth, while nothing grew around it, neither weeds, nor bushes, nor even gorse. Beyond the trees, a little further on, they could clearly see a fork in the path. One side led off to the Aldwood, the other headed off through the mountains towards Waidu. Jarl looked down at Astrid and saw all the fur along her neck and shoulders was on end. Her teeth were bared.
“What’s wrong?” Jarl asked. His hand moved to the hilt of his sword, but he did not draw it, remembering what Astrid had warned him about the Frǫðleikr.
“Frǫðleikr,” Astrid replied.
“How do you know?”
“I can feel them.”
“Are they going to hurt us?” Knud asked. His hands gripped around Astrid’s shoulders a little tighter. She said nothing but looked up at Jarl, her eyes narrowed. His fingertips were on the hilt of his sword.
“Don’t. Just in case,” she warned, and Jarl nodded.
“Can we go around it?” Knud asked.
There was no way around. The circle of trees grew all the way up to the walls of the pass. Astrid looked down to the base of the pines, surprised to see there were no roots. The massive trunks stood out from the ground like living pillars. The rock at their bases was cracked with dozens of hairline fractures. The tops of the pines curled inwards towards the oak tree and knotted together to cast a shadow directly over it.
“We’re going to have to go through,” Astrid whispered. “Knud, get down for a moment.”
Jarl helped him down and Astrid dropped the wolf skin to the ground along with her bag and visible weapons.
“Wait here,” she ordered, and cautiously made her way towards the trees, her hands held out at her sides as if she were walking a tightrope. With her fingers spread apart she could feel the magic in the air like waves.
“Astrid!” Jarl moved to walk after her but stopped himself. He knew he should not follow her. She knew the Frǫðleikr and understood magic far better than he did. All he could do was watch and pray that it would be alright. “Be careful.”
She nodded and turned back to the trees. Her relaxed and confident expression vanished the moment they could not see her face. Her eyes were suddenly wide and wary. Something was wrong. What exactly was wrong, she could not say. The trees were Frǫðleikr, she was sure of that. The oak tree was not, yet she could feel a magic that emanated from inside it like heat from a furnace. Its branches curled in on each other in horrible, contorted positions. They reminded her of fingers that had been broken repeatedly, only to grow back malformed and stunted.
She stepped inside the tree circle and held her breath, both hands raised to the level of her shoulders. The pines were completely still. She walked forward a little more into the shadow the pine branches cast over the oak and felt the air grow colder instantly. Still nothing moved.
Now she was closer to the oak she could see the burns that covered it. The unnatural marks were unlike any she had seen before. Distinct vein-like patterns spiraled around the centre of the tree and there was an old tear down the middle that had healed badly, the edges of which were knotted and covered in mushroom-like bumps.
Whatever had happened to the tree was not natural, of that she was sure. It was clear that at some point the oak had been violently split open with a great amount of force, only to be closed again. Even stranger were the large nodules that covered the repaired split like infected bubbles. The tree had fought to die, but somehow it was still alive.
Knud and Jarl watched with baited breath as she turned to face the trees and spoke in a series of words neither of them understood.
“What’s she saying?” Knud asked worriedly.
“I don’t know. I think she’s speaking in Axtī.”
“Why would she speak in elvish?”
“Because she can’t speak tree,” Jarl replied sarcastically.
Astrid was just about to usher them into the circle when she heard a voice behind her, faint and soft, followed by the sound of knocking. She turned to look at the oak. Again, there was a knock from inside the tree.
“Astrid?” Knud called over to her.
“It’s alright, Knud,” she called back, her eyes still on the tree.
It’s not alright! Both voices screamed inside her head. Leave! You can find another way into the Aldwood!
“I can’t!” Astrid hissed back at them. “The Frǫðleikr won’t let me pass over the mountains with Jarl and Knud. We have to go this way!”
She stepped back from the oak and began to walk around it to the other side. Instantly, the knocks became more frequent, mingled with a muffled voice from deep inside the tree, the words high pitched and frantic. Astrid ignored it, every instinct telling her to stay out of its way.
She motioned to Jarl and Knud to join her in the circle.
“Is it safe?” Knud said, as Jarl slung Astrid’s belongings and wolf skin over his shoulder.
“I hope so,” Jarl muttered, and reached for Knud’s hand. Warily, they stepped into the circle. Astrid had not moved. Her feet were apart as though she was ready to run at a moment’s notice and both her eyes were on the oak.
“Come on! Quickly!”
The knocks had turned to scratches, frantic and angry like a wild animal trapped in a cage. Knud hobbled alongside Jarl as quickly as he could but he could not move fast enough. Jarl reached down and lifted him up, their bags on one arm and Knud on the other. As quickly as he could, he walked straight through the circle and out onto the other side.
“Astrid!” Knud called back to her. “Come on!”
Jarl quickly slapped his hand across Knud’s mouth, but it was too late. At the sound of Knud’s voice, the trees in the circle shuddered. Astrid’s knees bent and her back arched. She side-stepped towards them, the tingle at the back of her neck rapidly increasing. The voices in her head were panicked, screaming at her to run.
“You can’t outrun Frǫðleikr!” she hissed to herself. “Slowly, just move slowly. You don’t want to hurt them, you just want to pass through,” she whispered, more to the trees than to herself.
Frǫðleikr were unpredictable. The few she had crossed in the past were calm and could be reasoned with, provided they did not feel threatened, but the Frǫðleikr by the Aldwood had always been different. She had felt their anger and hostility the last time she had passed over the Riddari Kviðr and she felt it now, only worse, so much worse. There was a heavy tension in the air and every hair on Astrid’s neck stood upright.
From the middle of the oak she saw the bark beginning to shake and move. The scream grew a little louder as something inside the tree tried to force itself out.
A great burst of blue light exploded behind her and an odd sensation ran over her. Her muscles became heavy and stiff as if they were turning to stone. Suddenly, she was catapulted back to one of childhood nightmares, in which she ran desperately from the red-eyed horses, while her parents called and reached their arms out to her. No matter how hard she tried, her legs would not move fast enough, half frozen in time, while the horses behind her ran unimpeded, so close to her she could feel their hot breath on her neck.
Just as she reached the edge of the tree circle and grasped one of the pines, she heard a high-pitched whistle. Instantly, an intense coldness stabbed into her shoulder. Knud screamed as she dropped to her knees. A long, double ended dagger had torn through her shoulder. The long blade protruded out of the other side and the tip was red with her own blood.
With a horrifying roar, the oak fractured. Energy and light blasted out from it. Jarl and Knud were thrown to the floor, blinded by its force.
“Astrid!” Jarl let go of Knud and stumbled towards her. The back of his eyes burned as though the light had stabbed them. He could not see colour. Everything was a black and white blur. Frantically, he reached out. “Astrid!”
His fingers fumbled across something that felt like flesh. He had found Astrid’s hand and held it tightly as he could, then reached up to her shoulder. Her arm was cold, but her shoulder was warm and wet. The distinct coppery smell of blood filled the air.
Behind them, Knud’s jaw dropped as the oak split wide open with a loud crack. The sound echoed like thunder against the pass walls. Two hands emerged and gripped the edges of the split tree, followed by a long slender leg. The woman inside shook as she pulled herself out of the shattered stump and breathed long and deeply. Her clothes, or what remained of them, were in tatters.
She was beautiful. Knud had never seen anyone as beautiful as her. Her skin was flawless pure black ebony. She was tall and moved more like an elf than a human. Her long, thick hair curled so tightly it circled her face in ringlets, and was flecked with what looked like gold. She drew in a long gasp of air, opened her eyes and looked at him. Her eyes were not blue, grey or even green. They were golden, the colour of honey or sunlight on a gold coin, and yet, they made him feel afraid. She stumbled forward and nearly fell to her knees.
Jarl’s eyesight had returned a little, but he had not noticed the woman. His arms were around Astrid as he tried to help her stand. She was almost completely limp. Her hand still pressed against the pine tree beside her.
“Jarl! Jarl!” Knud screamed, and pointed to the woman as she slowly stood up, her movements stiff and pained. She turned to look at him, both eyes half narrowed, and smiled.
Astrid screamed in agony as the woman raised her hands, and she felt the dagger draw the life out of her. Instinctively, Astrid pulled energy from the nearest source that could support such a terrible power. The pine under her hand creaked and cracked beneath her fingers. Further up the tree, branches quivered and began to twist in a contorted spiral. Flakes of ash floated down towards Jarl and Astrid as the hundreds of small sparks that rippled up Astrid’s hand consumed the bark on the branches above them.
The woman turned to face the oak, raised her hands and clenched her fingers. In front of her, the gash in the tree shrunk and closed. Splinters flew in all directions as the old wood was forced to buckle in on itself. The pass filled with the sound of fragmenting timber, which cracked like bones.
Jarl reached for the dagger in Astrid’s shoulder and, against his better judgment, tried to pull it out of her. The shock that spread up his arm the moment he touched the hilt of the dagger knocked him to the ground. He gripped his chest in pain. The pressure around his heart was so severe he thought he might die. It was not like when he had given Astrid his energy. As painful as that had been, his body had not fought it, since he had willingly given his energy. This time his energy was ripped from him without permission. The sensation was unbearable.
The woman turned back to Astrid and sneered. She raised her hand and, like an arrow from a bow, the dagger was ripped back out of Astrid’s shoulder. Astrid’s spine arched and her mouth fell open in a silent scream. Jarl pushed himself to his feet and hauled Astrid’s limp body up into his arms. The tree was nothing but a hollow, charred shell. Jarl ran back to Knud with Astrid half in his arms. Her feet dragged on the ground as he pulled her back from the tree circle. The woman did not even bother to look in their direction. She held the dagger in her hand, Astrid’s blood still on the blades, and slowly raised her hands to the level of her shoulders. Blue sparks circled around her.
Jarl did not wait to see what was about to happen. He held onto Astrid tightly, grabbed Knud’s arm, and ran as fast as he could down the nearest path. The pony had long since gone. It had faced goblins, valdyr and even Astrid’s wolf skin, but the beautiful terrible woman had been too much. Its instinct for survival had been far stronger than it’s training. Behind them, they heard the crackle of fire consume the trees, but none of them looked back.
Knud held onto Jarl’s arm as firmly as he could and was half dragged along as he tried to keep up. Astrid was utterly limp and lay like a dead weight across Jarl’s shoulder.
There was another deafening noise behind them, followed by a wave of heat that ripped down the pass. Then terrible, deep, inhuman screams shook the ground. Jarl ran. The pain in his chest was not enough to hinder him. He ran until he could look behind him and not see the trees. When he finally stopped and turned around, he saw a dense blackness rising up to the clouds. The sky was thick with the acrid smoke.
The blood from Astrid’s shoulder had spread down her arm and seeped through his tunics. His shoulder and back were saturated with it. He glanced back down the pass one more time to make sure they had not been followed by the woman before he set Astrid down on the ground.
She was as cold as ice. Her eyes were open but blank, and cold sweat covered her face. Half of her arm was drenched in the blood that oozed from her shoulder.
“Astrid, please wake up!” Knud begged, crawling towards her.
“Knud, stay there! Don’t touch her!” Jarl ordered.
He quickly unwrapped Astrid’s long veil from around her neck and waist. She had not moved since he had carried her away from the tree circle. He leaned his head down over her mouth, relieved when he heard her breathing, though the sound was faint, barely more than a whisper of air.
Frantically, he pulled off his over tunic, folded it over her shoulder, and pressed it tightly on either side of her wound. Then he wrapped Astrid’s veil around the shoulder and secured her arm in a crude sling across her chest. She still did not move.
“Astrid! Please look at me!” Jarl begged. He took her face in his hands and shook her gently. Nothing. He squeezed her hand and begged her to draw energy from him. Still she did not move. “Astrid! Come on! I know you! You’re too stubborn to let something like this kil—” his voice faltered, “hurt, hurt you!” he finished.
Astrid shuddered. Her eyelids flickered, but she did not open her eyes. Jarl looked around him, almost as if he expected to see someone nearby who could help.
“The Aldwood,” he said, and got to his feet. “We have to get her to the Aldwood!”