Jarl ate his food as silently as he could, intensely aware that every single eye in the room deliberately avoided him and Knud. Everyone sat cross-legged on thick, round cushions, but neither Knud or Jarl had been offered one. Their food had been shoved towards them and then they were promptly ignored. To make matters worse, Jarl was sure the vârcolac were deliberately speaking in a language neither of them could understand.
Knud, though, did not seem to notice their offensive treatment and instead was fascinated by the room. It was much larger than the one they had left Astrid sleeping in. A cluster of luminescent mushrooms hung from the highest part of the domed ceiling. Some emitted a cold, pale blue light, but most glowed with a warm orange radiance, like that of a fire.
At least twenty families had congregated in the room. Most had four or more children. Some had small animal skins slung over their backs, but most did not, and wore clothes made of flax, wool or fur. Squirrel was the fur of choice, though Knud did spot one or two fox coats dotted about.
The food was the only thing that did not interest him. He could see a few pots in the centre of the room filled with some kind of cooked meat, but none of it had been offered to him or Jarl. Instead, a large clump of what looked like cooked grasshoppers stared up at him with their dead black eyes. Knud put down his bowl of food as soon as he thought none of the vârcolac would notice.
Jarl did not appreciate the food either, but he did not show it and ate it nonetheless. His mind was a million miles away, worried about what he would do, now that he had met Loba and the vârcolac.
He had learned not to make assumptions where Astrid was concerned, but he did not like the vârcolac any more than they seemed to like him. With Astrid injured he knew it could be a while before they were able to leave.
As he finished his food, Jarl ran his hands through his hair, and pressed his brows together in a tight arch, unsure what to do. He glanced over at Knud and inwardly cursed himself as his eyes fell on the stump that remained of Knud’s foot. He wished it had occurred to him to have left Knud with Halvard and the monks in the Salt Monasteries. Knud would still have his foot and he would still have had Halvard as a friend.
“Don’t you like the food?”
Knud looked up and howled in shock at the ugly man who stood in front of him, a wide toothy grin on his face. His skin was not a golden brown like the other vârcolac, but a sickly shade of almost transparent white with tinges of blue. The colour reminded Knud of a maggot. He was a small man, barely taller than Knud, and he walked with a distinct hunch in his back. The skin of his face looked like a melted candle, folding over itself like wax drips. His eyes were the only remotely pleasant things about him. Their warm brown tint reminded Knud of a young dog or pup.
“Hehe, I know I’m not much to look at,” the man laughed. “My name is Bugul.”
Knud just stared, horrified. Jarl, embarrassed at Knud’s reaction, introduced himself and ordered Knud to do the same.
“My name is Knud,” Knud stuttered.
“Just Knud?” Bugual asked with a chuckle. “Your family can’t have been very imaginative if they just called you Knud.”
“Well, Knud, Jarl, I see you’ve met my wife, Loba.”
Knud’s jaw dropped and Loba scowled at his reaction.
“Knud!” Jarl snapped at him, embarrassed again.
“It’s alright, I don’t expect dwarfs to have manners,” Loba sneered.
Bugul smiled awkwardly. “Don’t say that, they are our guests.”
Loba shook her head and strolled to the far side of the room, where Jarl noticed for the first time that two small girls had joined her. Their skin colour was a mixture of that of Bugul and Loba. Fortunately for them, they had inherited more of their mother’s than their father’s.
“I’ve made a room for you to stay in near the herb room. I think you’ll like it there.” Bugul smiled. His teeth were like a crooked line of ivory. Each of them had a different colour and shape except for his two front teeth, which were much larger than their counterparts. Knud could not help but liken Bugul’s appearance to a crazed rabbit, especially when he smiled.
“I’m sure we will. Thank you,” Jarl said.
“When will you be leaving?” Loba asked abruptly.
“As soon as Astrid is better.”
“Sorry, my wife does not have fond memories of dwarfs,” Bugal explained quietly. His face flushed with embarrassment, and his large bulbous nose turned bright red along with the tips of his bat-like ears.
“No, we don’t!” another of the vârcolac chimed in. “The sooner you leave the better! You’re not welcome!”
“That’s enough!” Bugul shouted, and Knud jumped with fright in his chair. “Loba?”
Loba shook her head and muttered a stream of words in a language neither Jarl or Knud could understand before she strode out of the room along with a large majority of the other vârcolac. Bugul looked at Jarl and Knud helplessly.
“I’m so sorry. We don’t have many guests here, I’m afraid.”
“Especially not dwarfs, I gather,” Jarl joked, but his eyes were as cold as steel.
The Aldwood was not at all what he had expected.
* * *
Astrid opened her eyes and gasped out loud. Loba had been right about the pain. The coldness in her arm was gone. Instead it felt like someone had placed a burning coal inside her shoulder. She felt hot, irritated and oddly lightheaded, an effect she was sure was the result of the honey-root mixture on her arm. Her head was so warm she could feel the heat radiate from her cheeks and bounce back against her pillow.
She turned onto her side and saw Knud’s face propped up on the edge of the bed. His brown eyes were wide open and fixed on her like an owl’s, dark with tired circles around them.
“You awake?” he whispered. Astrid grinned and nodded.
Knud motioned with his head to the foot of the bed and Astrid winced as she sat up to look. Jarl was fast asleep on the chair he had pulled alongside her. His head rested on top of his folded arms on the side of the bed.
“Jarl? Jarl wake up.” Astrid whispered, and gently prodded him with her foot. Jarl did not move.
“I’ll do it!” Knud grinned and poked Jarl’s nose as hard as he could. Jarl woke with a start.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“You can’t sleep like that,” Astrid insisted. Jarl looked up at her groggily and straightened his stiff neck.
“It’s fine, it’s the best sleep I’ve had in weeks.” He looked over at Knud who grinned cheekily at him. “Don’t wake me up like that again, Knud,” he grumbled and stood up. “They put down some blankets for us in the next room, I’ll bring them in here.”
As soon as Jarl opened the door and walked out, Knud scrambled up onto the bed and curled up next to Astrid. “I don’t want to sleep alone,” he whispered. “I keep having nightmares about the goblins.”
Astrid nodded. “Alright.”
Knud breathed a sigh of relief and dropped his head onto the pillow. He was asleep within seconds with Astrid’s good arm laid across him. She turned to look at Jarl as he walked back into the room with two pitifully thin blankets tucked under his arms.
“He’s fast asleep.” She smiled and motioned at Knud.
Jarl rolled his eyes and moved to wake him, but Astrid stopped him.
“It’s alright. I don’t mind.”
“You’re the one that needs that bed. Not him.”
“Jarl, I said it was fine,” Astrid repeated.
Jarl shook his head, too tired to argue with her and Astrid smiled, running her fingers through Knud’s red curly hair.
Jarl draped one of the blankets over them both and pulled the last one around himself. Then he pulled the chair to the head of the bed so that he could sit next to Astrid.
“Can you feel your arm now?”
“Yes, a little bit too much,” Astrid admitted. “I don’t like honey root, but right now I’d do anything for a strong honey root tea, just to make this horrible itching go away.”
“Can you move your fingers?”
Astrid nodded and wiggled them a little under the sling to prove it. Several stabs of pain shot down her arm as she did so. “It’s strange,” she murmured.
“Not being able to heal myself.”
“I thought you liked scars,” Jarl jibed.
Astrid smiled briefly but worry soon flooded her face. “We can stay for a few days and then leave. I just need to rest a little while longer,” she said, wiggling her fingers again and feeling the pain shoot through her arm.
“No. We’re not leaving until you can use your arm. If you don’t take care of it now it’ll hurt for the rest of your life.”
Astrid shook her head. Her eyes so heavy she could barely keep them open. She was exhausted but was enjoying the quiet conversation with Jarl too much to allow herself to fall asleep quite yet. “Where is Loba?”
Jarl’s jaw clenched at the mention of her name and his eyes narrowed. “Asleep, I think.”
“What happened at dinner?”
“Not much, but none of them want us here.”
Astrid groaned and rubbed at her forehead. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just rest,” Jarl reassured her. He took her good hand in his, both of their arms across Knud who had started to snore loudly.
Astrid nestled her head into the pillow, aware that Jarl’s eyes were still on her. She pretended not to notice and waited until he fell asleep with his head against the side of the bed. She leaned her head back down on the pillow and let her mind drift. The pain from her shoulder was too strong to allow her to sleep. Absentmindedly she stroked Knud’s hair, and her mind wandered back to the pass.
Her hand still burned from the energy she had sucked from the Frǫðleikr tree when the dagger had pierced her shoulder. It had not been intentional, and even though she knew she would have died within seconds had her hand not been pressed against the tree, she could not shake the feeling of guilt. The Frǫðleikr tree, while not as mobile as its Leshy cousin, had still been very much alive. She had felt its bark crack and shrivel under her hand as it was sucked dry of life. Now the enormous amount of energy was trapped in her own body but completely unable to heal her.
Astrid was frustrated, in more pain than she would admit and, although she would not mention it, more than a little afraid. There had been no way to fight the mysterious woman. Her magic had been so strong that Astrid’s own undeveloped magic had felt powerless, no, worse than powerless. She had felt completely and utterly insignificant. In all her years wandering Ammasteinn she had never met anyone, except for Dag, who had possessed such an extraordinary amount of magic. Even then, Dag’s magic was like an old withered book against the sheer power of the woman in the tree.
Not for the first time, Astrid felt angry at Dag and his insistence that she never learn to use her magic. “You should have taught me,” she whispered. “If I’d just been stronger this wouldn’t have happened.”
* * *
Astrid was still awake when Loba walked into the room several hours later.
“You filthy little runt,” Loba growled as she saw Knud on the bed, curled up in Astrid’s arms, her blanket over him.
“You need to rest, not them” Loba argued back, her voice only just a whisper.
Slowly, Astrid got up from the raised bed, careful to not pull the blanket away from Knud or wake Jarl.
“What are you doing? Go back to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” Astrid replied. She arched her back and stood up, stiff, cold and sore.
Loba took her arm, worried at how pale Astrid’s skin was. “You’re mad. You need to lie down.”
“You already knew I was mad,” Astrid smiled. “I need to move, I can’t stay lying down any more.”
Loba led her out of the room into a much larger room with a low table in the middle and various rugs and colourful cushions thrown about the place. A large loom stood in the corner of the room.
“Sit there and don’t move.” She pressed the palm of her hand against Astrid’s forehead. The skin was hot and dry. “You’re an idiot, Astrid.”
“I know.” Astrid smiled again, her grin infectious. Loba shook her head and suddenly reached out and hugged her tightly, although she was careful not to touch Astrid’s bad shoulder.
“It’s good to see you,” she admitted. “You should have come back sooner.”
“I was busy.”
“You mean you just didn’t want to see the forest again.”
Astrid shrugged her shoulders. “That too.”
“Sit. I’ll make you some honey root.”
Astrid grumbled but could not refuse Loba’s offer. As much as she hated the light-headedness the tea gave her, she needed the pain in her shoulder to stop before it built to the point where she’d be unable to hide it.
Loba left the room for a few minutes and returned with a small cauldron of hot water. A strong, sickly-sweet aroma filled the room and Astrid’s headache eased slightly just from the smell.
“Does it hurt?” Loba dipped a large drinking horn into the cauldron and passed it to her.
“Just a bit,” Astrid lied. She peered into the drinking horn, sipped at the tea. then smiled in relief as the pain began to dim.
“You would never drink that before.” Loba shook her head. “Even last time.”
Astrid held the horn tightly against her chest to warm her cold hands. “Last time I was stupid. I should have asked for help.”
Loba snorted in agreement. “Yes, you should have.” She sat down next to Astrid as she drank the tea and her face dropped from a smile to a frown. “How can you be friends with a dwarf?” She finally asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be? My father was a dwarf,” Astrid replied, irritated. She put the drinking horn down, annoyed at herself for having drunk it so fast. While it had made the pain go away it also made it a lot harder for her to stop her thoughts from slipping out of her mouth before she had time remove any she might regret.
“I just don’t understand,” Loba said.
“I know, and I’m sorry you had to meet them like this.”
“It doesn’t matter how I’d have met them, I will always hate dwarfs,” Loba muttered.
“I thought that too, once.”
Loba let out an irritated growl. “It’s not the same, Astrid!”
“How is it not the same?”
“We lost everything, you only—” Loba stopped herself quickly, but the damage had been done. Astrid’s eyes flashed. Her mouth pressed into a thin line.
“I only lost my family?” Astrid finished.
Loba clenched her fists together and held her ground. “It was harder for us.”
There was silence for a few seconds.
Oh, I see! The harsh voice sneered in Astrid’s head. You only lost your parents, you only had to leave the Aldwood to live with a warlock, who wouldn’t even bury Ragi when he died! Let alone teach you how to use magic so you could protect yourself! You nearly died to save her and now she is trying to make you feel ashamed of them!
If the honey root tea had not impaired her thought process, Astrid would have questioned why the harsh voice was suddenly on the side of Knud and Jarl. But between the numb pain in her shoulder and the lightness in her head she did not pause to question the voice’s motives.
“No! I lost everything! Every time I look into a mirror I have to remember that! You still had your family, your friends! I have nothing!”
“Astrid. What’s wrong?” Jarl asked as he walked into the room, his eyes still drowsy from sleep. Loba bared her teeth at him.
“Get out, dwarf!”
Jarl did not move. “Astrid?”
Astrid’s hands were bright blue, the crackle of magic in the air. She glared at Loba.
Jarl walked up to Astrid and held her wrists, afraid to hold her hands while they glowed with magic. Astrid’s eyes were unfocused and her head rang with the angry words she wanted to scream at Loba.
“Let’s go outside,” Jarl suggested gently, and Astrid nodded.
Loba watched silently as they left the room, surprised and even a little amazed at how Astrid’s face had softened when he had spoken to her. She had never seen her eyes light up the way they just had. The guarded blank had expression gone, like a mask he had managed to lift away.
Nobody followed them up from the tunnels and Jarl did not ask what had happened to make Astrid so angry. He tried to look at her face as they climbed the steps, but she turned away from him, so he would not see the angry tears in her eyes.
As soon as they were out in the fresh air, Astrid walked away from him with her head bowed as the first few tears escaped. She held her hand firmly over her mouth to muffle the sound of her sobs, but she could not stop her shoulders from shaking.
You know you are feeling this way just because you’re in the Aldwood, the soft voice whispered in her head, barely able to finish its sentence before the harsh voice interrupted.
Oh, poor pathetic little you! It sneered. You’re so predictable; just a few silly little words and you’re crying like a baby. It’s laughable.
Jarl watched her for a few moments as she kept her back to him and cried silently into her hands. He knew she hated for anyone to see her crying, but he could not bear to just stand by and watch.
Astrid flinched as he came up behind her and rested his hand on her uninjured shoulder, afraid he would try to make her turn to look at him. Instead, his arm moved around her, and he held her gently against his chest, his chin against the side of her head. She took a deep breath. Both her eyes were swollen and red from crying.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be sorry.”
Astrid took another deep breath and brushed her hair away from her face. “I didn’t think Loba would be like this.” She turned to look up at him. “I didn’t mean to get you into this mess.”
Oh look at you! The harsh voice whispered. Worried you’ve disappointed him? Worried he’ll leave because everything didn’t go as planned? You’re pathetic! Stop groveling!
“It’s alright,” Jarl reassured her, recognising the tell-tale flinches her face made when the two voices battled in her head. “You don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”