Astrid had barely spoken for the past few days. Her face was fixed in an almost permanent frown. Jarl had tried to speak to her, but no matter what he said she would let the conversation dwindle until there was only silence. Since their conversation Astrid had struggled to sleep. Her eyes were rimmed with dark circles and Jarl had more than one bruise on his side from where Astrid had inadvertently lashed out in her dreams. More than once he had heard her whisper in Axtī and, worried about the questions it would raise if one of the elves on the wall heard her, he had been forced to wake her. Dwarves were not known for their love of languages, let alone for the elf common tongue.
Fortunately, none of the elves who watched them seemed particularly interested in them as they trailed behind the caravan, and with each day that passed, fewer elves lined the wall. Eventually the walkway that ran alongside it was all but deserted. Ahead of them, Astrid could see the wide-open gate that led out of the forest with only a handful of elves on the walkway above it.
“I can see it!” a voice called out from the front of the caravan. “Lǫgberg!”
Jarl rode the pony a little faster and Astrid strained her neck to look over his shoulder. A large knot formed in her stomach at her eagerness to see the city. With her half elf eyes, she was able to see a lot further than Jarl could. The mouth of the city appeared to him as a mere blur on the side of the mountain. The entrance was enormous. In true dwarf form, it had been built to be as imposing as possible. It was curved, as if a great giant had taken a bite out of the mountain side. The stone pillar that stood in front of it had the likeness of a dwarf king carved into the front. At least that was what Astrid had thought until she saw the obvious breasts on the figure.
“That pillar is of Ása Amma, the Mountain Breaker,” Jarl explained to her. “Legend says she lived for one thousand years, the longest any dwarf has ever lived. Her body was buried in the pinnacle in front of the Great Gate. The dwarfs of Lǫgberg think that so long as her body remains there the city can never be taken. Not that anyone has tried,” Jarl laughed. “Even the elves would not try to attack the city. Lǫgberg has the strongest army in all of Ammasteinn.”
“Maybe the strongest, but not the largest. King Titus has eighy thousand men just on his own. The others have twice that number,” Astrid said quietly.
“That many?” Jarl asked, surprised, and Astrid nodded.
“I don’t know much about the human world,” Jarl admitted. Astrid grinned to herself. “That’s all right. They don’t know much about our world either.” Jarl turned in the saddle
to smile at her. “What?” she asked, confused by his expression. “Nothing.”
“What?” she insisted.
“You said our world.”
“I meant my father’s world,” she replied quietly.
As they rode down the hill, she could not help but imagine another dwarf walking beside
them. A dwarf with grey eyes and copper hair. His face was blurred in her memory but the warm aura around him was as strong as ever and she heard the ghostly echo of Arnbjörg’s deep laughter in her ears. I wonder if he would ever have brought me here if he had lived? She quickly changed her train of thought and looked up at the city to distract herself.
She could not deny the city was magnificent. The mountain above it was so high she could not see the peaks that were half hidden in the clouds. The gigantic gate, made of black
granite, stretched from either side of the pinnacle to the sides of the mountain. The doorway had the shape of an upright hammer. With no hinges to hold the sides to the walls, it was held up by a series of pulleys that hung over the gate like a row of teeth, ready to plummet the moment the pulleys were loosened.
“Breathe,” Jarl whispered to her over his shoulder as her grip around his waist tightened. “It’ll be all right.”
Behind them, the gate that led out of the forest closed with a loud rumble. Astrid turned in the saddle to look and realised that the forest was lined entirely by tree walls – a wall of green that stopped abruptly at the edges of the yellow fields, which lay between them and Lǫgberg. She breathed slowly and leaned her head against the back of Jarl’s neck.
“Are you all right?” he asked and drew the pony to a halt.
Astrid nodded. “I’m just being stupid.”
Jarl jumped down from the pony and reached up for her, his hand around her waist as he
lifted her off the saddle. “We can walk from here.”
Astrid looked around at the fields as they passed them. Some were empty except for the
animals which grazed on them, while large groups of farmers with scythes in their hands worked in others. The corn they cut was picked up by the children who walked behind them.
Jarl looked down at Astrid who looked like she was about to run at any second. “Would it help if I told you I’m frightened too?” Jarl said.
Astrid closed her eyes and leaned her head against him.
They walked on down the road in silence for the next hour. The distance between the forest edge and the city was deceptively far. As they walked down the road, Astrid noticed a huge stone mound, whose bare surface shot up from the earth in the middle of the fields.
“What is that?” she asked.
“I think that’s the Kāsni Krouka,” Astrid was surprised to hear him say the distinctly elven words.
“Why has it got an Axtī name?”
“I’m not sure,” Jarl shrugged his shoulders. “I could be wrong about it, I just know that it used to be a middle ground between Lǫgberg and Kentutrebā for settling disputes. I don’t think it has been used since the Rojóða.”
Astrid glanced back and noticed it had the destroyed remains of several buildings scattered around it. Marks in the mound implied they had once been on top of it but had long since been knocked down. “I wish Dag would have told me more about Ammasteinn before the Rojóða,” she murmured.
“There are books in Bjargtre you could read.”
“I can’t read Mál.”
“Dag didn’t teach you?” Jarl asked, surprised.
“I knew it when I was younger, not any more,” Astrid said regretfully.
Directly in front of the gates a market sprawled for the larger part of half a mile, with a
few crudely constructed wooden inns dotted in-between the tents. Humans, dwarfs and even a few elves bartered their goods. The noise was incredible, and Astrid was able to pick out snippets of Axtī from the elves they passed. More than one trader tried to stop them and sell them their goods and Astrid smiled as she recognised some of the colourful silks from the gold coast and the beautifully carved palm wood boxes. Now that they were out of the forest Astrid took a little more time to look at the elves they passed and, without realising it, she began to look for her own features in them.
You’re not like them, Astrid, stop looking! the harsh voice whispered. Don’t forget what they did to your ear! They don’t want you, you’re just a Mewa to them.
Astrid shook her head and ignored the voice. Her grip on Jarl’s hand tightened. Nervous, she made sure her veil was held in place and looked over at her bag to check her hammer ax was still covered by her tunic. She kept her head slightly bowed and huddled close to Jarl as they approached the wall gate, sure that they would be stopped, but the guards did not even look in their direction, too interested in the heated conversation two dwarfs were having with a human trader who insisted on being allowed to enter the city.
As soon as they had passed, Astrid looked up at the mountain and the city entrance. Her jaw dropped in amazement at the incredible architecture. The statues of the kings and queens of Lǫgberg were carved into the mountain by the Great Gate. All of them were enormous and each held a spear, axe, or large sword.
Astrid shivered, her heart in her chest, as the mountain blocked out the sunlight, but the moment they passed the Great Gate a warm breeze, which carried the smell of copper and stone, drifted towards them from the inside of the mountain. Her mouth dropped open as she saw the city before her. A huge cavern in the mountain had been hollowed out to house it. Some of the houses had been built inside the gigantic stalactites that hung down from the ceiling, and thousands of little yellow lights twinkled in the darkness.
The far end of the city was far from dark, illuminated by a bright beam of light that shone down from the mountain top onto the exterior of the palace. The palace walls were covered in white marble and gold, and the palace gleamed as brightly as snow. Two enormous statues were erected outside it, which looked so life-like that Astrid wondered for a moment if there were indeed two giants sat there.
“That light…what is it?” Astrid asked.
“That’s the Ríkr Gluggr.”
“Is there a hole in the mountain?”
Jarl shook his head. “They have hundreds of small tunnels, and mirrors on the mountain
top to reflect the light down into the city.” “It’s beautiful!”
As they crossed the drawbridge that led from the Great Gate, Astrid peered down over the edge at the city below. The buildings were so far beneath them that they looked like houses children would make in the mud.
He lived here, the soft voice whispered in her head. He gave this up for the Aldwood. He must have loved us so much.
Instantly, Astrid felt ashamed that she even needed to consider the idea that Arnbjörg had not loved them, and the feeling was quickly replaced by an enormous sense of pride in her father.
He was so brave, to give this all up.
“Are you going to the palace now?” Astrid asked Jarl as they walked down the long steps from the drawbridge and into the city. Jarl took a deep breath and nodded.
“The faster it’s over…I just want it to be over.”
“I want to come with you.”
“No!” Jarl replied quickly. “No, you have got to stay away.”
“Why?” Astrid snapped. “I want to be with you!”
“And if Vígdís recognises you?”
“Why would she?” Astrid said, pretending not to know what he meant.
“Your father was nobility. We both know where the order probably came from.” Astrid’s face dropped. “What if she kills you? I know you said the queen can’t kill a
dwarf, but she managed it before!” Her hands gripped his as though she would never let go.
“Your father was in the Aldwood. She probably thought nobody would find out what happened. She can’t do that to me, not here, and not as long as she doesn’t know about you. She wouldn’t have any reason to try to hurt me.”
Astrid dragged her hands down her face and groaned frustratedly. She knew he was right but she was afraid. It was a nagging thought that had always been at the back of her mind but one she had deliberately avoided and never spoken about.
“Astrid, if you care about me, I need you to stay away.”
She glared at him. “That’s not fair!”
“I know,” he said, smiling.
She looked down at the ground for a few moments before she looked back up at him, a
scowl on her face. “Promise me they can’t hurt you?” “I promise.”
As she walked through the city, Astrid was overwhelmed by the busy sounds, sights and smells. The houses were all made of stone. There was hardly a wooden beam in sight. The stone was a peppered mixture of black granite and limestone.
As they neared the palace, Astrid noticed Jarl was walking a little slower and eventually he stopped completely. His heart pounded in his chest. He turned to Astrid and leaned his head against hers. “Just wait here.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. Just promise you won’t try and follow me into the palace.”
“I’ll wait three hours, then I’m going to come and find you.”
Jarl nodded and held her in his arms, his heart beating so quickly that Astrid could feel it
against her hands like a drum. She reached up and brushed his hair from his face. His blue eyes were more than a little afraid. Astrid clenched her fists. She had never seen him scared like this and more than anything she wanted to protect him as she had for the past few months.
“If you’re not back in three hours I will find you,” she warned him. “I’ll take the wolf skin if I have to, but I will—”
Jarl suddenly leaned down and kissed her gently on the forehead.
“I love you,” he whispered.
Astrid stared back at him in shock. “You don’t have to say it back,” Jarl said quickly.
“But I wanted you to know.”
“Three hours,” Astrid whispered. “Three hours and I’m coming to find you.” You’re going to lose him, the dark voice whispered.