Astrid rolled over in her sleep and opened her eyes to see Jarl sat against the wall of the room. He scowled as his mind wandered back to the scene by the jasmine and the red thistle.
“Jarl? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Jarl started and then smiled down at her. “How’s your shoulder?”
Astrid flexed her hand with a strained expression on her face. Her fingers shook. “I still can’t move it.”
Jarl shuffled closer to her and took her hand in his. As usual Astrid flinched at his touch, but she did not let go. “You’ll get better. You’re strong.”
Astrid nodded, but he could tell that she did not believe him.
“Astrid, I have to ask you something.” Jarl took a deep breath and looked behind him to make sure that Knud was still fast asleep. “I don’t want to risk taking Knud to Waidu, not with his leg like this. Could Moldof attack Waidu, like he attacked Castra?”
Astrid sat up and thought for several moments before she replied. “I guess he could. It’s independent from Kentutrebā, the human kingdoms and Lǫgberg. He wouldn’t be directly fighting the elves or the dwarfs.” Jarl noticed that as she spoke, she reached up to her shoulder and ran her fingers against where the edge of the scars reached. “If he attacked Castra, Waidu could be in danger…are you saying you want to leave Knud here?”
“I don’t think I have a choice. Your arm is damaged, and his leg won’t be fully healed for months, I can’t put his life in danger. Bugul already offered to take care of him.”
“He did?” Astrid said, surprised.
“I haven’t asked Loba yet. I’m worried she’d refuse.”
“She said he could stay,” Astrid blurted out. “She offered to take care of him yesterday, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t think you’d want to leave him here.”
“I don’t want to leave him here,” Jarl replied. “Especially with them. They hate us. I’m afraid they’ll treat him badly.”
“They won’t if Loba and Bugul offered to let him stay.” Astrid replied confidently. “And you would only be gone two, maybe three weeks.”
“No!” From across the room Knud stood up angrily and hobbled over to them, his hand against the wall. “Please! Take me with you! I don’t want to stay here.”
Afraid that he would wake the others, Astrid gently whispered at him to be quiet, but Knud turned on her furiously and screamed at her that it was all her fault.
“I hate you! I hate you!” Knud screamed and lashed out at her. Even though his tiny hand was too weak to really hurt her, Astrid reacted as though she had been stabbed again. She gasped and shrank back against the wall, her knees against her chest and stared at him like a wounded animal. Even Jarl was too stunned to speak for a moment, but when he did his voice was filled with genuine anger.
“Knud, say you’re sorry.”
Knud glared back at him, his lower lip quivering. “No!”
Astrid stood up and left the room quickly. Her shoulders shook as she retreated.
“Astrid!” Jarl glared back at Knud.
“I’m not sorry!” Knud muttered, his eyes on the floor, unable to look Jarl in the eye.
“You should be! I didn’t raise you to behave like this!”
“But I want to stay with you!” Knud wailed.
“I can’t protect you and Astrid if we run into goblins again, Knud.”
“Then Astrid can stay here.”
“Don’t be stupid Knud, I don’t know the way to Waidu.”
“I don’t want to stay here!”
Jarl took a long, restrained breath. “We don’t get to do what we want Knud. We have to do what’s right. And it’s better that you stay here until I get back.”
Knud began to cry, but when Jarl tried to hug him, he was pushed away angrily. Jarl stood in front of him quietly for a few moments and when he saw that Knud would not let him get near, he turned to leave the room. When he could not find Astrid in the tunnels outside, he made his way to the oak stairs and climbed them to the surface. Outside the oak there was no soul in sight. The fake village was completely abandoned. He heard a sound above him and looked up to see Astrid huddled on one of the lower branches. Her knees were drawn up against her chest and her head was buried against them.
Astrid looked down at him and quickly wiped the tears away from her reddened eyes.
“He hates me.”
“He doesn’t hate you,” Jarl reassured her. “He scared, so he’s lashing out. You were just the easy target.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of being an easy target.”
The image of Astrid as a child, her lip cut open, crouched over the bodies of her parents flashed through Jarl’s head, but he said nothing. “Come down.”
He reached his hand up towards her and to his surprise she took his hand and let him help her down.
“I can’t use it properly, I can’t even pick up my axe, but Loba say’s it’s healing normally.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never healed normally. I’ve healed faster or been able to use magic to heal myself. I have all this energy inside me, itching to get out, and I can’t use it to help myself. It’s so…strange. Frustrating.”
“I’m going to leave him here, with Loba and Bugul,” Jarl said, eager to distract the thoughts he could see going around and around behind her eyes. “And he doesn’t hate you, I promise.”
Astrid nodded, but he could tell she did not believe him. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. In her head, the dark voice laughed hysterically. At least this time you won’t have killed another little boy.
Jarl watched her face. Her eyes twitching slightly from side to side, although her expression was blank as a stone. He held his arms open to Astrid, sure again that she would refuse, but instead she leant his head against him. She held her hands pulled defensively up against her chest as though she expected a fight at any moment, but she still allowed him to wrap his arms around her.
“I didn’t think you’d let me do that,” Jarl laughed.
“I trust you,” Astrid replied.
Oh, you stupid, stupid little girl, the dark voice hissed.
* * *
Astrid kept her head bowed and her eyes on her food, fully aware that Knud was still glaring at her from across the room. Jarl looked from Astrid to Knud and then back to Astrid again. The tension in the air was enough to even make the vârcolac children sit still.
“So, how long do you think it’ll take to get back?” Loba asked, the silence making her skin itch.
“Astrid said it would take two, maybe three weeks,” Jarl replied.
“We’ll be back as fast as we can.” Astrid added. Knud was silent. He bit down on his food angrily.
“You should eat, Astrid,” Bugul urged and passed her another plate of dried grasshoppers.
“I’ve eaten enough.”
“No, you haven’t. Eat.” Loba reached over and scooped a handful of the grasshoppers into Astrid’s hand. “I know you don’t like them, but you need them.”
They finished the rest of their meal in silence, and one by one the vârcolac left the room until Knud, Astrid and Jarl were the only ones left. Once Astrid had finished, she moved to stand up, and Jarl stood up to help her. Knud stared at them as though they had just slapped him. The horrible idea that maybe Jarl would prefer to be around Astrid than him crept into the back of his mind.
“Come on,” Jarl reached for Knud’s hand and helped him up. “Let’s go.”
Astrid walked behind them as they made their way though the tunnels towards the surface. Outside there was already a pony ready with Jarl’s bag tied to the back of the saddle.
“She’s fast,” Bugul explained as he passed the rope reigns to Jarl. “Much faster than any of those goblin horses.”
Knud watched while Jarl tied Astrid’s bag and wolf skin to the saddle as well and tried to ignore the growing sense of panic in his chest. He looked around at the vârcolac, all of them so much taller than him, all of them complete strangers.
“Knud?” He turned around to face Astrid. She held out her hammer axe in her hands. “Knud, I want you to take care of this for me.”
Knud took it from her but would still not look her in the eyes.
“It’s all I have left of my father,” Astrid explained, “and I wouldn’t ever leave it behind and not return as quickly as I could. We’ll be back before you know it.”
Knud stepped back as she crouched down in front of him and tried to hug him.
Astrid stood back up, deeply hurt, and walked away.
Jarl tried not to look angry as he crouched down in front of Knud. With his arm draped over a crude crutch he looked so pitiful, but Astrid had a look on her face that he could not stand to see.
“Knud, I love you but when I come back, you’re going to say you’re sorry to Astrid.”
“I don’t want to.”
“And I don’t want to leave, but I have to!” Jarl snapped when Knud also refused to hug him. “We’ll be back soon, I promise,” he said with a gentler tone.
Knud sniffed loudly as Jarl walked away and deliberately dropped Astrid’s axe onto the ground in a last attempt to try to get their attention. None of the vârcolac noticed. All of them watched Astrid, though all the children stayed away. To them she was still a stranger and, as ugly as Bugul was, they had grown up with him and were used to the sight of his face, whereas Astrid’s scars frightened them. Even Loba’s daughters looked at her suspiciously.
“You’d better hurry back,” Loba warned Astrid and she held her hands tightly. “I’ve packed enough food on the pony for you to get there and back.”
Astrid smiled and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you. And thank you for lending us the pony.”
“Just bring it back alive,” Loba joked. “I’ll need him for the harvest.”
Astrid turned to Bugul, crouching down so that she was at his height. “Take care of him,” she whispered, so that Knud could not hear. “Don’t let him do anything stupid.”
“If he’s been around you then it is really not my fault if he does,” Bugual laughed back at her.
Jarl mounted the pony and, used to much taller and heavier riders, the animal shook its head as though it were surprised, though it quickly realised its new rider would not allow it to misbehave. Jarl’s grip on the reins was firm.
Astrid stood in front of Knud for a moment before they left, hopeful that Knud would at least look at her, but he did not. Both his eyes were on the ground.
As Jarl and Astrid left, Loba approached Knud who looked up at her suspiciously. “You should say goodbye, it’s bad luck not to,” she warned.
Knud ignored her and hobbled back down into the tunnel. Astrid’s axe remained on the ground behind him.
* * *
Neither of them spoke as they journeyed out of the Aldwood. Their minds were still back with Knud and Loba. Astrid took the form of her wolf skin and ran as fast as her injured arm allowed, though after a few minutes she was forced to admit defeat and run in her human form. The pony, quite used to the vârcolac and their various animal transformations, was completely unfazed by her transformation and easily kept up with her.
They reached the pass out of the Aldwood within a few hours, just as the sun had risen over the mountains. Despite Loba’s reassurances that the woman was not in the pass, Astrid could not help but feel apprehensive as they walked through it, but nothing could prepare her for the sight of what remained of the frǫðleikr trees. Even Jarl was shocked as he saw their charred remains. The pines had been burned to a cinder, the branches consumed, and only the lower part of the stump was left. Astrid shivered. The magic in the air was so strong she could feel it tingle between the ends of her fingertips.
“What’s wrong?” Jarl asked when he saw her eyes widen with fear.
“I’ve never felt magic like this before,” Astrid explained. “We should go.” Jarl did not argue with her suggestion.
Their journey through the rest of the pass was uneventful. The frǫðleikr trees on either side of the pass shifted a little as they walked through, and Jarl could have sworn he saw one or two of them slowly turn, watching them like sentinels.
They reached the end of the pass close to nightfall and made camp between the thin tree-line and the plains. Astrid had warned Jarl about the the plains past the Riddari Kviðr, but he had not been prepared to see such a stark and barren wasteland. The few trees past the mountain pass were battered by the cold winds that ripped at the mountainside.
“Well, at least the pony won’t go hungry,” Jarl joked, looking out over miles upon miles of long grass. He dismounted and undid the reins. “Is it safe to start a fire?”
Astrid glanced around. “The trees here aren’t frǫðleikr…but it’s probably safer if we don’t. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves.”
“How can you tell?” Jarl asked.
“I can feel it. You know that feeling you get at the back of your neck when someone is watching you?” Jarl nodded. “I get that, but at the ends of my fingers.”
Jarl led the pony out into the plains to allow it to eat. Astrid was alongside him, her eyes like a hawk’s. She could not see anything for miles other than the wind blowing ripples through the grass, but she knew that did not always mean there was nothing out there.
Jarl eventually dismounted the pony and held Astrid’s hand as they walked. Even now she would not walk close to the pony and flinched each time it came too close to her. She held his hand tightly, a worried frown on her face.
“He didn’t mean it, you know,” Jarl said eventually. “He’s just afraid. He did the same thing with Knute when his mother died.”
“What, he said he hated him?” Astrid replied.
“He blamed Knute for it, then he blamed me. Eventually he stopped blaming anyone.”
Astrid nodded but the frown did not leave her face.