Jarl had never seen such a wall. They both stared up at it in wonder. The wall was made entirely from living trees, and Astrid felt a pang in her chest as she wondered if her mother had ever walked through the Kaito Passage as she was about to.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” Jarl asked her, impressed by the sheer height of the living walls.
“As tall, yes. Like that? No,” Astrid replied, more impressed by the magic that radiated from the forest than the height of the wall.
The sun had only just set and they were both anxious to sleep for the night, though Shaala, the guide leading the caravan, had insisted they pass through the gates first. Astrid squirmed uncomfortably in the saddle behind Jarl as Shaala spoke with the elves at the gate. Astrid saw two of them start to walk down the caravan line to inspect the goods. Jarl felt her grip around his waist tighten as she watched them. She could not look away from their long, black hair black, pulled back into braids, and their bright green eyes. She suddenly remembered the questions her own bright green eye could raise and quickly unwound her veil from around her neck.
“What are you doing?” Jarl asked as he felt her fumble behind him. He turned in the saddle and saw she had wrapped the veil so that it covered half her face but mostly covered her right green eye. She considered covering the lower half of her face too, as she usually did, but decided against it, worried that it would raise too many questions.
“Tell them I’m blind in one eye if they ask,” Astrid replied.
As one of the elves approached them, Astrid could not help but stare at him. Jarl let go of the reins and held her hands, both of them wrapped tightly around his stomach.
“You’re dwarfs?” the elf asked, surprised, at first only interested in Jarl. Astrid huddled behind him, her face buried into his shoulder. “Why did you come with the Keiwo?”
“The humans.” The elf explained, irritated by Jarl’s ignorance of the elven common language.
“We’re going to Lǫgberg.”
The elf’s eyes turned to Astrid, shocked as he saw the deep scar running down the centre
of her lips, which were still slightly visible from under the edge of her veil.
“She’s blind in that eye,” Jarl said quickly. “Goblins.”
The elf nodded, to tired to care about a lone female dwarf, and waved them on.
Jarl rode the pony quickly after the caravan until he was right behind the last cart. Astrid
looked up at the massive gates as they went through. Their hinges were built into the trees on each side of them. With a loud rumble the gates began to close behind them and they followed the caravan down the passage.
As if the tree wall around the forest was not enough, the road on either side of them was also lined by a tree wall, only this one was just half the height at most of the outer wall. On top of the wall at hundred yard intervals stood armed elven guards.
In front of them the caravan drew to a halt.
“We have an early rise tomorrow,” Shaala’s voice carried over from the front of the caravan. “So sleep while you can.”
Astrid gingerly slid down from the pony, relieved to feel her feet on the ground. “Sore?” Jarl laughed and Astrid nodded.
“I thought riding was meant to be comfortable.”
“It isn’t if you’re not used to it.” He smiled at her proudly and she looked back at him with a puzzled expression.
“Did you ever think you would ride a pony?”
Astrid laughed. “No, never!” She froze as the guards by the wall looked down at her and
she pulled her veil a little further across her face. A strange sensation washed over her and for a moment she panicked. The feeling of being trapped was all she could think about. Inside her chest she could feel the frǫðleikr energy pulse through her nerves. By the gate, two of the guards looked up, able to feel a surge of magic in the air but unable to explain where it came from.
They’ll find you! The harsh voice whispered. Your magic can’t save you here! They’ll kill you, and him, just for knowing you! Get out, get out now while you still can!
Astrid clenched her hands together and tried to breathe slowly as she fought down the tingle of magic in her fingertips that was desperate to escape and engulf her hands in a blue glow.
You should have stayed in Waidu! Mātīr left this place and she was fully elven. What makes you think you can come back? It’s not your home, nobody wants you here!
“Astrid?” Jarl laid down the blanket he had unpacked from his bag and walked up to her, concerned by the frantic look in her eye.
Without a word, Astrid buried her head against his chest and let him hold her until the panic had passed. The harsh voice was unable to speak while she was in his arms. Jarl did not ask her what was wrong. He could guess well enough. He sat down next to the pony with Astrid in his arms and pulled his blanket around them.
“It’s all right,” he whispered.
Astrid closed her eyes and her breathing began to slow, the panic ebbing away. Out of the corner of his eye Jarl looked up at the elves who watched them from the walls, his arms tightening around her protectively.
“You’re safe with me.”
Jarl ran his hand across the back of Astrid’s hand as she slept beside him. She had wrapped her right arm through his as though she was afraid he would disappear in the middle of the night. With half her face covered and the edge of the deep scar down across her lips only just visible, he could almost picture what her face would look like without the large scars on the right side of it. He lay back down on the ground and stared up at the sky, confused as he realised that he recognised none of the stars. The constellations were completely different to those he knew. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the plaque to look at it. The silver and gold glinted in the little light that shone down from the guards’ torches high up on the wall. The moon was mostly hidden by a large cloud.
Astrid sat up and propped her chin on his shoulder completely wide awake.
“The queen, she can’t hurt you can she?” she asked worriedly. “I know it’s not easy to lose your family name, but she wouldn’t… imprison you, would she?”
Jarl put the plaque back inside his tunic and held her hand tightly. “Don’t worry about me. The worst that can happen is I end up with a little less hair on my head. It’s against the law for a dwarf to be executed.” Astrid looked relieved at first and then confused. “It’s an old law,” Jarl explained. “I was told that after the Rojóða, so many dwarfs died that the king decided to make it a crime for a dwarf to be executed by another dwarf.”
“But what if a dwarf kills another dwarf or murders someone? Wouldn’t they punish them?” Astrid asked, surprised by the seemingly harsh judgment Jarl expected for simply disobeying orders compared to what she considered punishable offences.
“That’s what the Gróf is for,” Jarl replied without thinking.
“Doesn’t matter,” Jarl quickly said, as he realised it would only make her more worried if
she knew. Astrid clenched her jaw stubbornly.
“What is the Gróf?” she insisted.
“It’s a prison in the Black Basin.”
“The Black Basin? Why would the dwarfs have a prison there?” “They don’t want it near Lǫgberg,” Jarl said.
“It’s run by Ope; demons and trolls.”
Astrid’s eyes opened wide, horrified at the idea.
“Astrid, it’s all right. I’ll be all right.” Jarl reassured her. “The Gróf is for murderers and
traitors, they won’t send me there.”