“I know what you’re going to say,” Astrid mumbled, her voice slurred. “You’re going to tell me I should have asked for help.”
Jarl rolled his eyes. “Not exactly the words I would have used.” He had pulled her blanket from the bed down in front of the fire and put several logs in the hearth. Her shoulder was wrapped in fresh bandages, and a compress of honey wine and various herbs Apsu had insisted would help was pressed against both sides of the wound.
What had surprised Jarl the most was that her shoulder did not look as bad as he had expected it would. The wound was a little red and still healing, but nowhere near as bad as he had assumed it would be. In a way that worried him even more. Astrid was completely exhausted and every word she tried to say was spoken in barely a whisper.
“When does the caravan leave?” Astrid muttered. Both her eyes were closed.
“In a week,” Jarl lied. “Enough time for you to get better.”
There was a quiet knock outside the door and Apsu walked in with a large bowl of soup in his hands. “How is she?”
“I’m just tired,” Astrid mumbled.
“She needs to eat.” Apsu crouched down next to them and passed the bowl to Jarl. Its size was too small for humans but perfect for them. “I don’t have a spoon small enough, I’m afraid,” Apsu explained. “She’ll have to drink it from the side.”
“Thank you,” Jarl said, before Apsu could leave the room. He just shrugged his shoulders at him.
“She’s my friend. A short friend, but still a friend.”
Apsu left the room and quietly closed the door behind him before yelling at someone down the hall.
“Can you sit up?” Jarl asked. Astrid nodded and tried to sit up without his help but could barely lift her head from the floor, her head spinning. Gently, Jarl helped her and propped her back against him for support. With his arms around her and the bowl of soup in his hands, he carefully held it to her lips.
“When is the caravan really leaving?” she asked between sips.
“It’s leaving tomorrow,” Jarl admitted, and Astrid swore under her breath.
“I’ll be fine, I just need to have a good sleep and we can leave tomorrow,” she reassured him.
“You’re not going anywhere!” Jarl told her firmly. “You’re not leaving this room until you’re better.”
“I’ll be better by morning,” Astrid insisted.
“No you won’t. You need to sleep.”
Astrid took another sip and a long breath. “Then you should leave without me.”
“No” Jarl replied flatly. “I’m staying ‘til you get better.”
“What about your city?”
“They can wait a day or two.” Jarl replied. “Besides, maybe I’m wrong about it all.”
“No you’re not. You know you’re not,” Astrid mumbled back. Her eyes started to close. The drowsiness was impossible to fight.
Jarl helped her back up onto the bed and pulled the blankets over her before he dragged a chair up next to the bed. Before she fell asleep, Astrid reached for his hand and held it as tightly as she could. Jarl waited till she had fallen asleep before he leaned forward and gently kissed the back of her hand.
“I’m not leaving without you.”
Astrid stared at the tall gangly goblin in front of the yurt. Both of them shocked to see each other.
“Hello?” the goblin smiled. His jagged teeth frightened her. Two of them were slightly longer than the rest, like a dog’s teeth. His skin was a pale green that made Astrid think of a frog. Several hoops pierced through his long pointed ears.
“What’s your name?”
“Astrid, I’m Ragi, you’re Dag’s little girl?”
Astrid nodded, both her hands pressed together nervously. Dag had told her about the goblin who lived nearby, but she had never expected to see him since Dag had warned her that he preferred his own company. Ragi smiled as her stomach made a loud groan. The little girl was clearly underfed.
“Dag hasn’t been feeding you, has he?”
Astrid shook her head.
“Not that you’d want to eat his cooking. Foul stuff, I wouldn’t even give it to a valdyr. Come on.” He walked to the curtain door in front of his yurt and motioned at her to follow him. When Astrid refused to move he sighed and walked inside on his own. A few minutes later he returned with a bowl of what looked like soup.
“Here.” He passed it to her along with a small wooden spoon. “It’s not my best, but I think you’ll like it.” He smiled.
Whatever reservations Astrid had dissapeared at the smell of the soup. It was all Ragi could do to get her to drink it slowly.
“Calm down! You’re going to make yourself sick drinking it like that.”
Astrid ignored him completely. She was cold, tired, and hungry. The last few weeks with Dag had been far worse than the long trek to the Red Mountains. At least the journey from the Aldwood had been a distraction from her nightmares. But inside Dag’s large dusty house there was no escaping the horrible feeling that she was utterly alone in the world.
With a stab of pain from her shoulder the memory changed again.
She was with Ragi in his yurt, helping him cook with the acorn flour he had made that morning.
“Very good!” Ragi smiled at her. “It’s going to taste delicious!”
Dag had left again for the human lands. She did not mind at all. When Dag was away, Astrid stayed with Ragi in his yurt. The yurt was always warm and food was always ready. In the mornings, they would forage and hunt in the forest for the food they would cook that evening. Their days were entirely preocupied with food, something the old warlock did not seem to need. Astrid had finally regained some weight and she had even grown a little taller, but mostly she was happy to spend time with the kind old goblin.
Astrid nodded enthusiastically and rolled up her tattered sleeves.
“Wait.” Ragi stood up and opened a large wooden chest he had at the end of his bed and pulled out a long black sash from inside it. “Here.” he passed it to her and showed her how to wear it the way he wore his own sash. First, he wrapped it a few times around his waist, once across his chest and finally he draped it around his shoulders where it could be pulled up to act as a veil or a hood.
“It’ll keep you warmer than those rags Dag lets you wear, at least until I can make you something else.”
Astrid ran her hands over the light but remakably warm fabric.
“It’s beautiful!” she whispered and threw her arms up around Ragi’s shoulders to hug him. She was barely tall enough to reach, even though Ragi was knelt next to her.
“Come on, let’s see if I can get some fat on you. You’re still far too skinny.”
The memory changed again.
Astrid was outside, angrily crying on the highest branch of one of the trees outside Dag’s house. She was taller. The dress she had worn as a child was now so short it had to be used as a tunic. Under it, she wore a loose pair of trousers that Ragi had made her the year before. When he saw her in the branches, Ragi climbed up into the tree. His old bones were too tired to climb it as nimbly as she could.
“You’ve got to stop climbing trees Astrid. I’m too old for this,” he laughed. When Astrid did not laugh back he asked her why she was upset, even though he had no doubt that it was yet another row with Dag.
“He got angry when he saw me using magic, again.”
Ragi spat angrily. “What does he expect you to do? You’re half elven, it’s normal to for you to be able to move energy.”
“I wasn’t using Jakkito magic,” Astrid whispered.
“Astrid, even I know that’s a bad idea,” Ragi rebuked gently. “Elf magic isn’t like warlock magic.”
“Why?” Astrid replied angrily. “What’s the difference? Magic is magic!”
“No, it isn’t Astrid, trust me.” Ragi replied, a serious look on his face. “The elf magic isn’t the same as the warlock magic. The elves give their own energy. It’s not really magic as you understand it. Warlock magic is taken from the spirit world. Many times it’s the Velnias who give it, and that always ends badly. Always.”
The rain continued to pour. Astrid looked at Ragi and noticed the sad look in his eyes.
“How do you know that?”
Ragi smiled sadly. “In the northen tribes some of the goblins there thought that we could learn to use magic to fight the dwarfs. Some of the goblins had a gift for it, and they started to teach themselves, but the learning was so slow, they got impatient. Then some fool had the idea of finding a Velnias to train them.”
“What is a Velnias?”
“Evil.” Ragi whispered. “And I don’t use that word lightly, the Velnias are the only pure evil in this world, and they have magic, and it’s never, ever a gift.”
“What happened to the goblins?”
Ragi sighed. “They became very powerful, but something changed about them. They were using Velnias magic, so they became like the Velnias.”
“I wouldn’t become like them,” Astrid reassured him. “I would be good.”
“I’m sure you would try to be Goldheart.” Ragi smiled at her and brushed her damp hair away from her eyes. “But would you want to risk it?”
“I just want to be able to protect people, Ragi. I don’t want to be weak.”
“You’re not weak Astrid. You’re strong. And what makes you think you can’t do it without warlock magic?”
“Elf magic isn’t enough, I need more.”
Ragi’s face dropped. “That’s what they all said before they went to the Velnias, Astrid. I’m begging you, don’t chase magic. If you want I’ll teach you to fight, but please, don’t think that magic is the only way. It’s not.”
Suddenly she saw a place she did not recognise. Rubble surrounded her. The air was thick with dust and she was pinned in from all sides and trapped in the small space. The panic set in immediately. Frantic, she kicked at the wall above her and managed to knock free a few of the bricks. Coughing violently, she clawed her way out of the rubble up to the surface. Astrid looked around at the ruined building and recognised the familiar architecture of the gold coast.
Again the image changed and she saw a raised platform. A woman knelt in the middle of it. Astrid did not think she had ever seen such a beautiful woman. She was beautiful despite her hysterical cries. Astrid looked down and noticed that the woman’s hands were tied to a post and behind her a large man with his face covered held a large sword. Slowly he raised the sword. The woman pleaded. The sword came down.
In her sleep, Astrid screamed in horror and woke Jarl with a start.
“Astrid? Astrid, what’s wrong?”
She opened her eyes and stared up at him, still half asleep and disorientated. “I don’t want to die. Jarl, I don’t want to die!”
Jarl sat down next to her and stroked her face gently. “Astrid, you’re not going to die, don’t say that.”
This seemed to calm her and she closed her eyes again.
There was a knock on the door outside and the door opened, Apsu walked in with a with a surprisingly small human with him. It took Jarl a moment to realise that he was a young boy, fifteen, maybe eigteen years at most. A baby as far as Jarl was concearned.
“This is my nephew, he’s studying to be a healer, I think he can help.” Apsu explained.
Jarl nodded and stood aside to let the boy look at Astrid. As carefully as he could he unwound the bandages around her shoulder and leaned forward to take a closer look. The wound scabbed over but bright red and hot around the edges.
As the boy turned Astrid over onto her front he noticed her ears as her hair fell away from them.
“She’s an elf?” the boy exclaimed and Apsu’s mouth fell open, just as surprised as the boy was.
Jarl decided not to elaborate on the boy’s assumption and nodded.
“That’s not right. She shouldn’t be like this if she’s an elf. They heal fast or die quickly.” Jarl’s breath caught in his throat at the boys words. “What was she like in the plains?”
“How do you know we were in the plains?” Jarl asked suspiciously.
“You’re a dwarf, I doubt you came from the forest. Was she like this on the plains?”
“No, she was fine at first, but her arm started giving her more trouble the closer we got to Waidu.”
“Well that I’m not surprised by. With an injury like this it’ll be a long time before she can use her arm properly again. But this…” he unwrapped the bandages that covered the back of Astrid’s shoulder, “this doesn’t make sense.”
For a few seconds he prodded the skin around the wound and Astrid flinched. Her arm shuddered with each prod.
“Do you have to do that?” Jarl snapped.
“Be quiet little man! My nephew knows what he’s doing,” Apsu replied.
Suddenly a large smile crossed the boys face. “It rained, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did,” Jarl confirmed, confused as to how the boy could have known.
“Do you have a knife?”
“Can I have it?”
Jarl hesitantly passed it over and the boy took a deep breath, an excited look on his face. “Hold her arms. I’ve never done this before so I might not be able to do it quickly.”
Jarl knelt down on the bed next to Astrid and held her arms. The boy poised the knife poised above Astrid’s left shoulder. He prodded some more until suddenly the skin just under the inflamed edges shuddered and a small bump protruded.
“Got it!” With his fingers pressed down on either side of the bump, he sliced firmly into her skin in a long clean line. A trickle of blood ran down Astrids’s back. Astrid woke with a start and howled into the blanket.
“It’s alright! It’s alright! It’ll be over soon, I promise,” Jarl said, as she struggled weakly.
From the corner of his eye, Jarl saw the boy press down around the cut and dig something out from under her skin. His fingers were soon covered in bright red blood.
“I’ve got it!” the boy laughed excitedly.
Jarl stared, horrified, as the boy pulled a long, thin, white worm out of the cut he had made. Its body was fat with Astrid’s blood. The worm’s head was nothing more than a set of teeth that pulsated between the boy’s fingers.
“A kelic worm,” the boy explained, as it squirmed between his fingers. “Normally harmless, except if you have an open wound and it’s rained. The nasty little things can smell blood a mile away.”
“But Astrid had her shoulder covered the whole time,” Jarl said, confused.
“If she tried to change the bandages it would have had enough time to crawl into the wound,” the boy replied confidently. “They can be surprisingly fast.”
He tossed the worm into the fire with a flamboyant flick of his wrist and pressed around the incision he had made. A trickle of bright red blood speckled with small black grains of kelic worm venom oozed out from her skin. Astrid bit down onto the blanket beneath her so that she would not scream out loud again. He kept pushing until the blood ran bright red and clear.
The boy stood up and smiled triumphantly before he walked to the other side of the room and cleaned the blood off his hands in the basin.
“She should heal quickly now. They can only really cause trouble while they’re under the skin.” Apsu cleaned away the blood that dripped from the fresh cut. With her eyes half open, she muttered under her breath in a garbled mix of Axtī and Mál.
“Thank you!” Jarl said quickly, then looked over at the boy. “I didn’t ask your name?”
“Ishum,” the boy replied.
The door closed behind them and Jarl sat down next to Astrid, his face in his hands, exhausted. The bandages Apsu had used to clean away the blood on Astrid’s shoulder were still on the floor.
“You need to stop doing this to me,” Jarl laughed dryly. “You’re going to give me grey hair.”