Astrid breathed a loud sigh of relief as she saw the tall red walls of Waidu ahead of them and the miles upon miles of rich, vibrant green plains around it. Under her clothes she could feel the heat radiating from her infected shoulder and an unbearable itchiness under her skin. The tremors in her hand were becoming more and more difficult to hide from Jarl.
“We need to hurry. They won’t open the gate past sunset.”
Jarl nodded and rode the pony faster. Waidu was not much more than a large cluster in the distance, where the red walls stood out in contrast with the grass green surroundings.
They reached the walls just as the horns sounded to warn that the gate would soon be closed. Now that they were upon it, Jarl could see that they were not red as they had appeared in the distance, but were for the most part stone grey. At the tops of the walls, the stone had been replaced with clay red bricks, which over time had dripped onto the stone below them, and stained the stone like trickles of blood.
They both dismounted and joined the long line of people. Astrid was quick to cover her face with her veil. Before they reached the guards, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small gold coin from one of the side pockets. The coin had an image of a hawk stamped upon it. Jarl noticed her left hand was trembling slightly and she had an obvious limpness in three of her fingers.
“What’s that?” Jarl asked.
“A trader’s coin. It should help with any problems,” she explained.
The two dwarfs at the gate stopped them as soon as they saw Astrid. Her green and grey
eyes were completely out of place among the crowd.
“Trader’s coin,” Astrid reassured them, her voice muffled through her veil, and passed the
small gold coin to one of them.
“Wow, I haven’t seen one of these in a while!” the first dwarf laughed. The large belly
that bulged over the top of his belt shook. “Alright, in you go.”
Jarl followed, but a firm, grubby hand stopped him. “I didn’t see a coin from you, and I
haven’t seen you before.”
“He’s with me,” Astrid said to the second guard.
“He doesn’t have a coin though, and he doesn’t look like a trader. Not with that hair. Far
too pretty to be a trader.”
Jarl smiled coldly at the guard and reached inside his tunic, his eyes narrowed. “Would
At first the guard did not recognise the crest on the round silver and gold plaque, but after
a quick nudge from his fellow guard he looked back down at it and quickly passed it back to Jarl. “Alright, go in,” he said, his eyes on the ground.
Behind them, the gates closed with a loud thud and three wooden beams were lowered across it into metal slots. Up on the walls, one of the guards passed a torch along to the other soldiers and, one by one, the beacons that lined the walls were lit.
“You’d think they were preparing for war,” Jarl muttered to himself.
“They should be,” Astrid replied.
With her veil drawn tightly around her face, Astrid led Jarl through the busy city streets.
Traders on either side of them were packing away their goods, which had been displayed along the street throughout the day. Shutter after shutter closed as baskets full of goods were taken inside.
It did not take them long to reach the nearest inn. It was a tall building, two floors taller than the ones surrounding it and much, much uglier. Astrid strolled to where a group of humans were gathered outside.
“Astrid? Where are you going?” Jarl asked.
“To the inn,” Astrid pointed at it before she realised what he had meant. “I’ve never stayed anywhere else before,” she explained. “It’s not safe for me.”
Jarl nodded, looking up at the ugly building. “You stay there?”
Astrid nodded. “You should stay in the dwarf inn,” she said and pointed across the street. “You’ll need to find out which caravans are leaving soon for the Kaito Passage.”
“See you tomorrow then?”
Astrid nodded and turned to go. Both her cheeks turned red as a few of the humans made several crude remarks that she clearly understood. They watched in surprise as she strode into the human inn confidently and commented to each other that she obviously couldn’t read the sign, completely unaware that she understood them.
The inside of the inn was packed full. Unlike Jarl, Astrid did not find the height difference between herself and the humans intimidating, though she did not appreciate having to forcefully push her way through the packed inn until she reached the innkeeper, who stood behind the counter at the edge of the room.
The innkeeper put down the dirty flask he held and looked around, confused when he could not see the face the voice came from.
“Alright! Which one of you bastards asked for me?” he yelled.
“I did,” Astrid said, her head barely over the edge of the counter.
Apsu stared at her before he burst out laughing. “Erin!” He reached over the counter to
pull her into a bear hug. Astrid inhaled sharply as he pressed down on her shoulder. The brief pain was so acute that her vision momentarily blurred. “I was wondering when I’d see your short face around. Are you alright? You look…wrong.”
“I missed you too.” Astrid smiled back at him. “Do you have a room for me?”
“You know we don’t have any beds for children,” he joked, and Astrid raised her eyebrows at him. “A normal bed will do, Apsu.”
He grinned at her and passed her a key from the wall behind him. “Need help opening the door?” he teased. “You might not be able to reach.”
“No. I’ll be just fine, thank you.” She jumped down from the counter. “The fifth door?” Apsu nodded.
The other humans in the room watched curiously as she walked up the stairs. When she
reached her door, she stood on the tips of her toes to turn the key in the rusty lock. As soon as she was inside, she closed the door and locked it. Within seconds she had torn off her tunic and stared down at the angry, red wound on her shoulder, the heat from it so strong she could feel it bounce against her cheek. She reached into her bag, pulled out what remained of the honey wine and held it over her shoulder.
The wine ran down over her shoulder and everything went black.
* * *
Jarl could not have enjoyed his food more if it had been covered in butter, honey and fat. The plain bread and lean beef slices were like the finest meal after the food Loba had provided
them with. He bit into the meat and slowly chewed it, a contented smile on his face. When the innkeeper brought him a large flask of mead, Jarl eventually swallowed the food he had in his mouth to ask when the next caravan would leave for the Kano Passage.
“Kano? You mean the Kaito Passage, right?” he asked, and Jarl nodded. “One is leaving tomorrow at midday. After that you’ll have to wait another week, unless you want to pay for passage.”
Jarl nodded his thanks and finished the rest of his food in silence. Part of him wanted to leave as soon as possible, but the tremor he had seen in Astrid’s arm worried him. It had been too soon for her to travel, and he was sure that to embark on another trek so soon would only invite trouble. But he also wanted to delay his audience with the queen for as long as possible. He ran his hands through his hair and wondered for the hundredth time what he would feel when he would inevitably lose it, though the shame of it was not his worst fear. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the plaque to look at it.
He remembered the day his father had taken him to the palace to have his own plaque made and how excited he had been. Jóð and Jón had been given their plaques years before and they teased him about how long it had taken for him to get his. He remembered how thrilled he had been when he had seen his name carved onto the back bellow those of his ancestors, but now the cold piece of metal in his hand was all he had left of that part of his life. Jarl put the plaque back into his tunic and reached for the mead. The flask was halfway to his mouth when he saw a face he did not expect to see.
With his clothes filthy and the large fur coat he wore covered in mud, Gull looked as content as a wet cat. Jarl’s stomach dropped, a small convoy of dwarfs behind Gull, the insignia of the royal family of Bjargtre on their cloaks.
Jarl got up, clutched his bag in his hand, and left his full flask of mead on the table. He walked to the opposite side of the room and hid behind one of the wooden pillars, close enough to be able to hear Gull as he ordered the finest room. When the innkeeper laughed at him and said all the rooms were the same, Gull flamboyantly reached into his tunic and tossed his family plaque onto the counter. The innkeeper just laughed at him as Gull stared incredulously at his reaction.
“You can flash that around all you want. This isn’t Lǫgberg; you get the same room as everyone else. Here,” he pulled two keys down from the wall behind him. “These should have been cleaned today. It’s the best you’re going to get.”
Jarl pulled his hood over his face and walked out of the inn.
Behind him a voice laughed loudly. “Is the brojóta burðr still with you?”
He turned and saw Skad behind him. Skad leaned against the wall of the inn, a splint over
his broken leg and the same old scowl on his face.
“No, she isn’t” Jarl replied coldly.
Skad looked at him, both eyes narrowed, unsure if Jarl was telling the truth. “I thought
you liked that blanda blóð?”
“She’s was good guide,” Jarl replied convincingly.
Skad snorted loudly. “I’m sure that’s not all she’s good at if you liked her.” Jarl scowled
at him, his fists clenched into a tight ball. “You really fell for that goðgá, didn’t you? How did you think it would end falling for her? That girl is a witch’s fé.”
“And yet, you’re the one who had to turn back. Not so great anymore, are you Skad?”
Skad glared at him. “It’s a good thing for her she didn’t decide to go with you to Lǫgberg. I might have trained her but I also trained Vígdís. It would have been easy to make her disappear.”
Jarl stepped back as a thought ocoured to him and the scowl on his face dropped into a shocked glare.
Skad laughed. “Do you honestly think there weren’t other people who could have taken you? Astrid isn’t special. There would have been plenty of humans who would have taken you, and they wouldn’t flirt with death as much as she does. The sooner she disappears from the face of Ammasteinn the sooner I can forget I ever trained a blanda blóð.”
Jarl saw red. His fist raised, so angry he could feel his heart pound in his chest like a drum, Jarl punched Skad so hard in the stomach that the old dwarf’s head almost hit his knees. Just as quickly Skad retaliated, and Jarl stumbled to his side.
Around them a small crowd of humans gathered as they fought. None of the humans were interested in separating them. Finally Jarl struck Skad so hard across his face that the old dwarf was knocked off balance and, with one firm sweep of his leg, Jarl knocked him to the ground. He landed heavily on his back, winded and Jarl towered over him. A revolted sneer covered his face, while a large bruise surfaced on his cheek and both his knuckles ached.
“I have met many dishonourable dwarfs, but you are the worst of them!”
“Fighting for your whore now?” Skad laughed through a mouthful of blood. “Your family would be so proud!”
Jarl spat in Skad’s face and walked away down the street. Still severely winded, Jarl limped slowly down the streets to the human inn. He pressed his hand over his ribs where Skad had kicked him repeatedly and ignored the strange looks and the muttering as he walking into the inn and made his way towards the the innkeeper.
“Who?” Apsu asked, amused by the dark-haired dwarf’s persistence. “Look, I know your kind like to drink and you probably think it’s funny, but you’re wasting my time. I don’t know anyone called Astrid here.”
“Erin. Do you have a dwarf called Erin here?” Jarl asked as he remembered that was the name most of the humans knew her by. Apsu’s face twitched slightly but otherwise his face was unreadable.
“She’s about my height—”
“All your kind are your height!” Apsu scoffed.
“She has one grey eye and one green eye,” Jarl said. He paid no mind to the laughs
behind him. “She has a scar down her lips and three on the side of her face.” “Ok, so you know who Erin is. What do you want with her?”
“I’m her friend.”
“Friend? She never has anything to do with the dwarfs.”
Jarl gritted his teeth and tried not to get irritated with the innkeeper who was as at least twice as tall as him. Certainly not the kind of human he wanted to get into a fight with after having fought Skad. “She made an exception.”
“Look, if you want to see her you can wait, until then—”
“She hasn’t left?” Jarl said, relieved, and Apsu nodded.
“No, not yet. But she could have slipped past me. Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Can you ask her to come down? It’s important.”
With a loud sigh, Apsu trudged out from behind the counter towards the stairs. “Who
should I say is asking?” “Jarl.”
“And your second name?”
As slowly as he could, Apsu climbed the stairs and Jarl waited impatiently by the counter.
Apsu had barely been gone more than a minute when he ran back down and shouted at him to
follow him. They ran up the stairs and down the hallway to an open door to one of the rooms at the very end.
Astrid looked up at him weakly. Her back was against the wall and the empty bottle of honeyroot wine lay the floor beside her. The bandages that had covered her left shoulder had been completely unwound and the whole of her left arm was exposed and the wound completely visible. The angry, open sore was clearly infected. Astrid looked at Jarl. Her skin was a sickly shade of grey and both her eyes were rimmed red.
“Jarl, I think I’m sick.”