Tag: huldra

6.16 – Through the Hills

One of the younger huldra showed them to a trail that, she said, would lead eventually to the human village on the north shore of the island. Then, without another word, she vanished as though she had never existed. Einarr stood blinking, surprised that the person he had been about to thank could be there when he opened his mouth and gone before any sound left it.

“The hulder are hidden ones,” Runa said softly by way of explanation.

Einarr shook his head, disbelieving, and started down the trail. It bothered him, a little, how baldly ignorant he was about these matters. Would any of them have made it this far if he hadn’t given in to Runa? If she were not his intended bride, this would be utterly intolerable.

The trail the huldra set them on meandered like a deer track, although it was too wide and well-established to be only that. Best of all, it led away from the battlefield between the hulder and the leshy, and probably out of the territory controlled by either group. “Good riddance,” he muttered as he hiked. “If I’m ever attacked by grass again, it will be too soon.”

Erik, in the rear, managed to hear him and laughed. “And it’ll take a lot of beer to get me raspberry picking for a while.”

Now all of them laughed, Runa’s musical notes rising above the earthy rumble of the men’s chortling.

“So let’s hurry up so we can get off this rock, shall we?” Without waiting for an answer, Einarr picked up the pace.

***

The sun approached its zenith as Einarr followed the trail out of the heart of the wood and into the sparsely treed hills beyond. As he crested a hill at the outer edge of the wood, he stopped. All around them stretched rocky meadows where elsewhere he might have expected to see goats foraging. Elsewhere, because they had been warned this was a treacherous area to travel in, although Einarr could see no sign as to why. Off to his left, a ridge rose above the hills in the same pale stone as below, and beyond it the mountain that would anchor this island in any normal sea.

The path continued on, of course, although the packed, loamy dirt of the forest had given way to lighter, rockier ground – almost gravel. It almost looked like someone maintained the trail. Well, there was really nothing for it. With half a shrug, Einarr started down the slope ahead of him, towards where they were told they would find people.

The further they went on, however, the stronger Einarr’s feeling grew that they were being watched. He could not keep himself from glancing up at the sky, gauging how much daylight they had left to get past here and to the town. He had done this several times already when movement from atop the ridge caught his eye.

He stopped. “Did anyone else see that?”

“See what?” Runa, for all that they still had miles to go before sunset, looked winded in a way that she had not in the forest.

“Up there.” He pointed towards the top of the ridge. “I thought I saw a creature.”

“From all the way out here?” She sounded skeptical. “It would have to be as large as a bear, wouldn’t it?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t?” Jorir asked.

“A bear wouldn’t be watching us as we cross its territory, and I’m certain something has been.”

Runa opened her mouth again, but Erik cut her off. “No, I’ve felt it too. Like the hairs on the back of my neck prickling.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” Einarr said, shrugging again. “Let’s just hurry on, so whatever it was doesn’t decide to come ‘investigate’ while we sleep.”

He walked faster now, the gravel crunching under his feet, but the sense of being watched only grew stronger – and hungry. Whatever that was, the creature on the ridge or something else, Einarr hoped the island was small enough they would not have to spend the night in the land it claimed. When the sun was setting, however, they were still traipsing through the same rocky, hilly meadows. Here and there they passed jagged boulders along the path – some of which appeared to have once blocked the trail. For once, Einarr thought he might know what claimed this land, although he could not bring himself to be happy in this knowledge.

“We’ll have to camp,” he said finally. “Let’s put our backs to a rise between us and the ridge. Double watch, no fire.”

“Einarr?” Runa seemed perplexed.

“My old afi taught me some bushcraft. We only ever went out tracking deer, but he taught me the signs for some more dangerous creatures, as well. And there’s been troll-sign all over these hills.”

Jorir cursed. Erik smacked himself in the forehead, as though realizing what he’d missed. Runa, though, moved from perplexed to skeptical.

“You said something was watching us all afternoon, though. Trolls can’t go in sunlight.”

“Not direct sunlight, no. But you see that thick line of trees on top of the ridge? An especially canny troll could move about under there during the day without too much trouble, I expect.”

Runa did not look convinced. When she opened her mouth to protest again, Einarr held up a placating hand. “Just, humor me? I could have been wrong about being watched. I’m certain about the troll sign. And if I’m wrong, all we’ll have given up is one night’s fire.”

“Oh, very well.”

He smiled at her, then, and clapped her on the shoulder. “Thank you. I’d rather not have to fight off a troll at all, but if I must, better to do it now than when we’re loaded down with supplies.”

“I wasn’t aware there was a special way one needed to fight trolls.”

“There isn’t. They just don’t go down, not without a terrible fight.”


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6.15 – The Test

The five spent a second night in the windowless meeting hall, although while the door was still guarded this time they were not alone. The hulder had moved their wounded to biers lain about the hall. Some of the huldrakall were up and about, looking as restless as Einarr felt. Wanting, he expected, to be out defending their village again that night, but not healthy enough to be of use.

Irding sat against the wooden wall, one of a handful with broken bones who could do little other than laugh ruefully and accept their position. Jorir had been conscripted to help tend to the wounded. Runa, sitting on a large rock in the center of the hall, sang a peaceful melody. Einarr didn’t think there was any magic in it, but it served its purpose of soothing nerves. Mostly.

Einarr and Erik tried not to join the most restless of the warriors in their pacing. A niggling little voice in the back of Einarr’s mind suggested that, if it had failed, it would be his fault. They had been told, after all, not to fight the Woodsman, and he had gone and bashed its head in. If that had actually been a head, of course. So, instead of pacing, Einarr allowed himself to chew his lower lip.

After a time, the sound of fighting drifted through the walls. It sounded… less fierce, somehow, than the other night, although from their windowless cage it was impossible to tell how the battle actually went. Now he did pace, a growl emanating from low in his throat. Were those cries animal puppets of the Woodsman, or were they hulder? He could not tell.

As gradually as it arose, the sound of fighting faded away. Einarr froze in his tracks. The battle was over he was sure, but to what result? He stared at the door, as though he could see the result of the spell in the grain of the wood.

A hand reached out to touch his arm and he started.

“Come and sit down, love,” Runa murmured softly. “Rest. We will learn in the morning.”

“Who can rest?” Despite his words, he allowed himself to be led over towards the center of the hall.

“The exhausted and the wounded. Sit, and I will sing again.”

“Your voice?”

“Just fine, thank you. Their herb-witches have brewed something restorative in the water.”

Einarr settled himself on the ground beside her, knowing she was right but intending to maintain vigilance through the night anyway. He could sleep once he knew he hadn’t accidentally destroyed the hulder. Runa’s song held no more than the common magic tonight, after all – that known to soothe the nerves of man and beast alike.

***

When Einarr awoke, the door stood open and daylight poured in. Runa smiled down at him, looking as though she had not moved since she lulled him to sleep. That, surely, was nonsense, though: she could not have failed to take her own advice, could she?

“Did we win?” That was not quite what he’d intended to ask, but close enough.

“You can ask Elder Auna yourself. She’s waiting on us.”

Einarr scrambled hastily to his feet. “And you didn’t wake me?”

“Of course she didn’t. You deserved your rest. Huld knows you’ve got your work cut out for you, from what your dwarf says.”

“I see.” Einarr offered the elder huldra a respectful bow, then hesitated. “The fisherman we met on the shore called this place accursed, the Isle of the Forgotten. Is that true?”

“I’m afraid so. This village used to care for a forest on Kem. The humans began to pay us less and less mind, and fewer and fewer sought our blessings. Then, one day, we realized we had not seen a man in over a year, and the forest had changed around us. We were no longer on Kem, but here.”

Runa gave a small shudder. “It’s terrible, when you think about it. I’m given to understand that the Woodsman is even older than Auna.”

“More primal, rather. But that is hardly important. You came in search of a mast, and we will gladly allow you to cut a suitable tree.”

“We did it, then? The leshy is contained?”

“I… believe so. Certainly its puppets seemed aimless last night. This has happened before, of course, when the leshy has taken significant damage and had to reform, but even if that were the case you say you were still fighting when the spell took effect. I judge you to have kept your end of the bargain, and therefore I shall keep mine.”

“You have our thanks. Tell me, are there more people here on the island? Thus far we’ve met you and the fisherman who took us in out of the storm…”

“There is a human town on the far side of the forest, although I cannot promise you will like the inhabitants. If you wish to go there, you must pass by the foothills, and that is a treacherous path.”

“I understand. Thank you, Elder Auna.”

She swayed, like a tree in the wind, in answer. “Good fortune to you. Remember that you have made yourselves a friend to us, and do not hesitate to call on that friendship should you require it.”

“We will.”

Auna turned then and left the meeting hall. When she had vanished from sight, Einarr turned on his heel and walked stiffly over towards where Irding lay recuperating, beckoning the others to follow.

He crouched beside Irding, who once again lay back against the wall, his eyes half-lidded as though he had been drugged. Likely he had been.

“All right. We’ve secured ourselves a mast, or at least the ability to make one. Hopefully any other lumber we need to fix the boat, as well. That still leaves food and water, and charts if there are any to be had here. Auna says there’s an actual town on the island: that’s probably our best chance to resupply before we try to escape. And we still don’t know how one escapes this place. I say we chance it.”

“Count me in,” Irding mumbled. Whatever they had given him, it was much stronger than willow bark.

“Sorry, Irding. I’m not taking you deeper into this forest until your ribs are recovered.”

Irding managed to look offended by that even through the haze of the hulder medicine, but all that escaped his lips was a sound akin to a squawk before Erik backed Einarr up.

“He’s right. You need time to mend before we go back to rowing for our lives. Rest up: we’ll handle this.”

Irding grumbled, but there was nothing he could have said just then to convince them to take a wounded man along. “On one condition,” he finally conceded. “You have to tell me anything interesting that happens. Anything.”


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6.14 – Aftermath

Einarr awoke after fitful sleep as the world around them grew lighter with the daybreak. True to his word, Jorir still stood near the embers of last night’s fire, looking fresher than any man had right to after the day they’d had yesterday: something to be said for dwarven constitution, Einarr thought.

“Morning,” he said with a groan as he sat up.

Jorir hummed, poking the ashes of their fire with a stick.

Einarr yawned and stretched, missing his bed roll from the Vidofnir. “You up for another long day’s slog?”

“It’s not me you should worry about.” Jorir stabbed down at the ashes with particular vigor, revealing a bit of still-glowing charcoal. “It’s the boy and your lady.”

Einarr chuckled. ‘The boy’ could only be Irding, who had to be within a handful of years of Einarr’s own age – but with as long as dwarves lived, would any of them be more than children? “Runa’s hardier than you give her credit for, I think. Or stubborn enough as to make no difference. And if our invalid needs a rest, we’ve more than one pair of shoulders big enough to carry a load.”

“Who’re you calling invalid?” Irding did not sit up as he spoke.

Einarr smirked. “You,” he called over his shoulder.

“Well, okay then. Fair enough.” There was a long pause, filled with some pained grunting, as Irding pushed himself to sit. When he spoke again, he was a little breathless. “I really wish I could deny that right now.”

“We’ll get back to Auna’s village, and unless I miss my guess she’ll have some way of actually healing that.”

“You think?” Irding seemed to be in good humor, even if his side did obviously pain him. Out of the corner of his eye, Einarr saw Runa sit up and rub at her eyes.

Einarr could only shrug. “Maybe? I don’t rightly know what the Art of the hulder can do. But there’s only one way to find out.”

Runa stood, moving over to stand near the remnants of the fire as though looking for warmth. “I doubt they’ll have actual healing magic that surpasses the song seithir, although I could be wrong. Likely, however, they’ll have herb lore we don’t.”

Jorir harrumphed.

“No-one disputes your skill,” she continued. “But you are a blacksmith by trade, not an herb-witch or Imperial apothecary, and even herb-witches speak of long-lost formulae.”

“As fascinating as this is,” Erik rumbled from behind Einarr. “I’d rather not be here when the Woodsman’s thralls return.”

Einarr nodded. “Oh, good, you’re up. I agree, we should be off. Irding? You up for walking right off the bat?”

“Depends. Is the alternative getting flung around like a sack of turnips? Because I could really do without that again.”

***

The group of five moved through the Woodsman’s forest without more than the usual entanglements that day. They were attacked by neither beast nor bird, and the creeping vines that had reached out to tangle their feet the day before seemed once more to be ordinary vines.

Einarr tried not to be suspicious at how easy their task had apparently been, and to take heart in the hope of aid once they returned. Nothing had actually been promised, he reminded himself, save the friendship of the hulder. Surely, though, that must be worth some healing, some food, and the freedom to cut a new mast?

Irding chewed yet more willow bark, even as he rode on his father’s back. He had finally accepted the aid around midday – and for the best, as he was moving slowly enough the others were making ready to insist.

Even without the delays of a clinging wood the afternoon grew long before they reached the battle lines. The ground appeared even more torn up than usual, as though the fighting between leshy and hulder had been especially fierce while Runa carved their inscription for them.

When they had left the morning before, the torn up ground of the battlefield stopped a good distance yet from the hulder village, and so on their return they expected to return to virgin forest before they saw any sign of the spirits. When the huts suddenly became visible from just beyond the edge of the torn-up ground, then, Einarr stopped in his tracks.

The village itself had been spared, it appeared, but signs of the fighting were visible in its paths in the form of wounded warriors and those who tended to them. With a sigh, Einarr shook his head and continued on. Irding lifted his head to see why they had paused. A low whistle escaped him.

The five of them made it perhaps a hundred yards into the village before the familiar, wizened figure of Auna appeared in front of them, seemingly out of nowhere. “Have you succeeded, then?”

Runa stepped forward to stand even with Einarr. “The spell activated late last night, with the leshy in the clearing with us.”

“And you all survived?” Auna’s shock was visible.

Einarr glanced over his shoulder toward Erik and Irding. “It was a near thing, I’m afraid. Did it work?”

“I… not so well as I hoped, if that’s the case. The battle was fierce last night.”

“So it seems,” Jorir grumbled. “Perhaps tomorrow night will be the proof.”

“Let us hope so. You did not try to fight it?”

Einarr shrugged. “Didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. It showed up before Runa had finished the inscription. But I think we all felt the spell go off before I coshed it on the head.”

She brought slender wooden fingers up to her mouth, then shook her head. It worried her, plainly, but all she said was “Come. You have done us the service we asked. We will see to your injuries, and tonight we shall see if you bought us some reprieve.”

“You have my thanks, Elder Auna,” Einarr said with a respectful bow before following her deeper into the village.


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6.8 – Infiltration

The difference between the Woodsman’s territory and that the hulder still clung to was stark and immediate. It was more than the absence of signs of fighting: in the area around the hulder village, the wood was open, like a well-tended garden. It looked as though man and beast alike would have been able to gain what they needed from the forest. Where the leshy controlled, however, was a riot of plant life and swarming bugs, so thick that anything larger than a rabbit would need to pick their way carefully through the underbrush in places.

Einarr frowned, wishing not for the first time that putting Erik and Jorir in the lead to cut their way through wouldn’t draw the leshy’s attention. Unfortunately, however, he was even more certain now than he had been before that the spirit was a stone-fisted tyrant who kept a careful watch over his demesne. This had been reinforced as they stepped across the battle-lines to see months’ worth of growth over land that had been fought over within the last few nights.

The bramble that spread before him presented no easy answer, of course. The thorny vines climbed not only the nearby trees but each other, weaving together in a chest-high mat that may as well have been a wall. It was the third such blockage they had run across, on three separate attempts to penetrate past a ledge they could just see on the other side.

“Is it just me, or are these vines following us?”

“Based on what we’ve already seen?” Jorir’s answer sounded mildly winded, and just as annoyed as Einarr felt. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Does that mean the creature already knows we’re coming, though?”

Erik grunted. “If he does, he doesn’t know what we intend. Otherwise we’d be fighting our way through.”

The sound of breaking branches and tearing vines signaled Irding’s less-than-graceful descent from a nearby tree. “The ledge curves around toward us just further on. I think we might be able to get through the vines there.”

Einarr took a deep breath, nodding. There was no point getting upset about the noise, not at this point. Not since he was pretty sure the Woodsman had known they were coming for hours now. “Worth a shot, then.”

Back through the brush they went, and once again Einarr would swear the plants were moving to impede their progress. He was not – yet – irritated enough to begin hacking his way through, but his fingers twitched.

Irding led the way this time, since he had the most recent lay of the land, and while there was much grumbling and cursing about the underbrush Einarr could not argue that his more direct route was slower than picking their way through easier paths. Or less effective: the vines, by the time they reached the ledge, did climb up and over it. However, where they went over the ledge, the vines were much lower to the ground, allowing just enough space for the five of them to hurry across.

The vines began to coil, snake-like, as Einarr half-leaped across. Erik followed next and the mat grew visibly taller. Jorir followed hot on his heels, and then Einarr offered a steadying hand for Runa. Even as she made the leap a vine reached up and thorns tore at her skirt.

Irding was the only one left, and now the vines were knee-high and still climbing visibly. The tall young man took a step and a half backwards before running forward to vault over the climbing hedge.

Irding stumbled a little at the landing and winced as he straightened himself.

“You all right?” Einarr asked.

The other man nodded perfunctorily. “Just a scratch. Nothing to worry about.”

“We should keep going, then.” Einarr started off again, deeper into the woods and away from the creeping hedge. The others followed close behind, Runa muttering under her breath the entire time as she ran through the instructions she’d been given.

The light that filtered through the canopy was dim now, the leaf cover above so thick the sky was not even visible in slivers. They pressed on through this until their thighs burned from the exertion of pressing through underbrush.

Einarr stopped and held up a hand for silence. Erik nearly collided with him, but no more than another heartbeat passed before Jorir quieted Runa.

The birdcalls had stopped. Up until that moment, the birds had not seemed to care that they existed, but now the forest stood in silence. Einarr strained his ears for the disturbance and came up empty, although his hackles stood on end. It felt as though something were watching them. Whatever it was, it felt hungry.

Something growled from off in the underbrush, something that was neither wolf nor bear nor lynx, and then the presence faded.

Einarr shrugged off the feeling of a lingering presence. “I think the Woodsman wants us to know he’s watching.”

“So it seems.” Jorir sounded just as unnerved as Einarr felt, for which Einarr was grateful.

“We’ve done nothing to his forest,” Erik reminded them. “He should have no reason to attack us.”

“Nothing except venture into his territory. That sounded like ‘go away’ to me.”

“You’re not wrong, milord.” Jorir’s eyes still scanned the forest around them, but the threat had passed. “Under other circumstances, I’d be inclined to oblige.”

“Under other circumstances, I’d agree. Let’s go.” Einarr heeded his own suggestion and started moving again, wading between a pair of shrubs that reached to his hip because there was no other route.

They had not gone much farther on when they spotted what passed for a clearing in the Woodsman’s territory. In the interest of a moment’s respite, and the vain hope that it might be the clearing they sought, Einarr steered his companions towards it. This clearing, however, contained no cave. Instead, its lone inhabitant was a massive brown bear. A bear, it should be noted, with stag’s antlers and red eyes.


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6.6 – Guardians of the Forest

Einarr stumbled a little as their captors shoved him into what looked like a duelling arena, or perhaps a Thinghall – although, as with the camp fire, Einarr was puzzled what possible use forest spirits could have for such a thing. The floor was ringed with log benches polished more from use than craft, and other than the open door at his back there was only a single, guttering torch for light. In the center of the open, packed-dirt stage in the middle of the room, Jorir, Erik and Irding were just turning to look at who the newcomer might be.

“Ah, there y’are!” Jorir exclaimed.

Runa stepped up beside him, and the door behind them closed, leaving the five with only the flickering light of the nearly dead torch, and no sign of this “Auna.”

“We’re all in one place, at least.” Smiling a little, Einarr scanned the faces of his companions and saw no sign of injury there. “How did they get you three? And why were you separated from Runa?”

“Ah, well, you see…” Erik started, and even in the poor light Runa looked sheepish.

Irding picked up what Erik was plainly reluctant to say, sounding mostly annoyed. “We got out of those blasted tangle-vines, whatever they were, and started trying to follow after you. Then the Lady here spotted a second of the naked women, only this one seemed to be beckoning us on. Led us on a merry little chase – or, rather, led her on a merry chase, with us following. Only Runa kept getting farther and farther ahead, no matter how we tried to hurry, until we couldn’t see her anymore. We couldn’t exactly leave the little princess alone like that, so we started searching. Only instead of your fair lady, we found the bottom of a pit.”

Runa cleared her throat. “In my defense, I thought I heard you all behind me the entire time. Right until I ended up surrounded by huldrekall with spears.”

Einarr shook his head at the ground, stifling the growl that tried to build in his throat. “Well. We’re all here now, and I think if they wanted us dead we’ve played the fool enough we already would be. So. Did any of you manage to find out who this Woodsman is?”

Jorir nodded. “He’s the one they’re fighting for control of the forest. And based on what I’ve seen, it’s’ not going well.”

“But is he a person? Another spirit? Some sort of monster?”

The others could only shrug, and now Einarr did growl in frustration.

“If you are truly not spies for our enemy, perhaps you would be willing to prove it?” A tall woman sauntered out from the darkness, slender as an elf, her hips swaying with every step although the hair on her head was the yellow of old needles and her face was craggy like bark. The old huldra’s voice made Reki’s seem common.

Einarr elbowed Irding, who was staring. Even with Runa there, Einarr found it difficult to keep his eyes on her weathered face. “You are Auna, then? If it is within our power,” he answered. “Should we help you, however, there is certain assistance we would require.”

The old huldra raised an eyebrow at him. “Oh? How very mercenary of you. How did you come to be on this island?”

Einarr outlined the last two days in short, staccato phrases, wholly unsuited for storytelling. Then again, this was not a fireside, and he did not care to regale his captor.

As he finished, Auna laughed. “At least you do not expect me to call you poor unfortunates. You’ll need more than a new mast if you want even to try to break free of this place, but I wonder if you have the stomach even for that much.”

Einarr bristled, but she allowed no opening for any of them to object.

“My people are locked in a battle for control over this forest with a dark spirit known to some as a leshy. The Woodsman, we call him, though he is no man.”

Runa shook her head when Einarr glanced her way: not a creature she was familiar with, then.

“This is a battle we are losing. Should the rå be driven from this wood, so will everyone other than the Woodsman and his dark minions – his puppets, really, as they seem to be not so much creatures as extensions of his will. My people seek harmony with the others on the island, but the Woodsman is always red in tooth and claw.”

Her… people. So the hulder were just as much flesh and blood as the elves, then? Einarr supposed that made sense, given the surprises he’d seen thus far. “So what would you have us do?”

“A spell is known to us that will impede the Woodsman’s power so long as it is in place. We would have you go into the center of it’s domain and inscribe it.”

Erik scratched at his beard. “A… spell, you say? Like, some special song?”

“I suppose one might call it a poem.” Auna trailed off then, as though hesitating. “You do all know the runes, of course?”

The men all shook their heads as Runa opened her mouth. “Only I, I fear. Is that insufficient?”

Auna shrugged. “So long as the task is done, I find I care little how you accomplish it. But the lines must be inscribed in the stone at the entrance to the Woodsman’s lair and incanted while he is absent, and I no longer have the numbers to send one of my own with you. Once that is done, though, my people can handle the rest.”

The leader of the huldra grinned, then, and it was a look that set Einarr’s hackles on end. He swallowed. “Give us the spell, then. One way or another, we’ll see it done.”


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Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.

6.5 – Capture

“Wait!” Einarr called out even as he took half a step back. He lifted a knee high up to his chest and stepped over the bramble that had ensnared him, and even then it nearly knocked his back leg out from under him. The fleeing woman did not even glance back over her shoulder. Hair the color of pine needles streamed behind her as she ran, miraculously not snagging in anything.

“Go.” Runa jerked her chin toward the girl. “The huldra may be able to help us.”

Einarr did not hesitate: he ducked his chin down in a nod and kept it there as he dashed after the forest spirit. Why did she flee? And why was she letting him see her while she fled? Something was very wrong in this forest. He tried again: “We’re not your enemies!”

The huldra (if that’s what Runa said she was, that’s what she was) didn’t even slow when she cut to the right. Einarr followed, hurdling a bush. Almost immediately he had to duck a low branch, and then jump another bramble. At least none of those reached out to grab him.

She led him a merry chase in this way. A third time he tried – “We just want to talk!” – and a third time he was ignored.

Or so it appeared. Her trail led him into a small clearing, one where sunlight actually reached the forest floor. Just past the far side of the clearing, she stopped and turned to face him, one hand raised toward her face as though she were still frightened. Einarr thundered to a stop in the middle of the clearing, his breath coming heavy after the unexpected race. He opened his mouth to thank her, but the words would not come.

Stepping out of the shadows of the trees were more figures, their skin also the color of bark, and their hair of leaves, but where the huldra was buxom and nude, these were to a one long-nosed, hideous, and male, with loincloths tied about their waists below their sunken chests and stooping shoulders. Each and every one of them in the circle had a spear lowered at Einarr’s breast. An ambush, then? But these were hulder, and according to Afi they were spirits that could be reasoned with – even, under the right circumstances, friendly.

He raised open hands to his shoulders. “We mean you no harm.”

One of the huldrekall stepped forward, his spear still ready should Einarr make a false move. It spoke, its voice nasal and sneering. “So you claim. We watched as you were welcomed into The Woodsman’s territory.”

Einarr knit his brow. The Woodsman? “I’m afraid I don’t know -”

“We’ll be the judge of that.” The creature jabbed at Einarr, plainly not intending to hit. “You’re coming with us.”

“What about -”

“You’re coming. With. Us.”

Einarr scowled at the creature, his hands lowering as his anger mounted. “Not without my friends. I’ll not leave them-”

The huldrekall shoved its nose into Einarr’s face. “Oh, rest assured,” it spat. “Your ‘friends’ are being dealt with. We’ll not let even one of the Woodsman’s spies loose in the land where Lady Huld still holds sway.”

Einarr was even more confused now. Lady Huld, as in the goddess? Why would a goddess take interest in anything that happened to the ‘forgotten’? He was not given the opportunity to ask any questions, however, as the spear-wielding spirits began poking and prodding him to follow the very woman who had baited him into their ambush.

***

After a good twenty minutes’ march, the circle that had captured Einarr met up with a similar circle, this one with Runa bound and gagged even as she walked, just as upright and proud as ever. Einarr’s vision turned red around the edges: had there been so much as a scratch on her that hadn’t been there before, he might have let the rage come. As it was, he kept it at bay until their two circles had joined.

Einarr pitched his voice low, sure that their captors would hear him anyway. “You are well?”

The glare she shot him was as sour as a green apple, but she nodded agreement anyway.

“The others?”

Runa shrugged before making noises muffled by her gag.

“You’re telling me to stop asking questions when you can’t answer?”

The noise this time was definitely affirmative.

A mischievous mood tugged at him, in spite – or perhaps because – of their situation. “I don’t know. This seems like a rare chance.”

If the look she’d given him before had been sour, this one was positively poisonous.

“Oh, fine. But I don’t think we’re in any immediate danger here.”

As if to underscore her point, one of their guards jabbed at his leg as though to hurry him along.

“Will someone at least tell me who this Woodsman is supposed to be?” Einarr spoke more loudly this time, the question directed at his captors more than his betrothed.

“We will be asking the questions, spy.” This from the same one who had spoken to him earlier. “Soon enough we will know why you are really here.”

“I can tell you that right now, although if you were really watching us earlier you’d have heard. Our mast was struck by lightning in the storm last night. We need a new one before we can set sail again.”

“Pah! Now we know you are lying. Auna will wrest the truth from you.”

Einarr didn’t bother asking who Auna was: even if their captors had been a little more reasonable, he would find out soon anyway. He could smell wood smoke from up ahead – although why forest spirits would make use of camp fires, he could not begin to guess. Now that they were drawing closer, he could make out round wooden huts, their roofs thatched with evergreen boughs, and a small plume of white smoke from the center of the formation. Around the outside of the hidden village sentries sharpened spear points and made arrowheads even as they kept a wary eye out for their enemies – whoever or whatever they may be.

Their guard did not lead them into the village. Their path veered off to the left, where stood a much larger, much darker hut than what Einarr had seen of the village. That, then, must be where Auna waited.


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Hi everyone. Thanks for reading!

If you like what you read, it would really mean a lot to me if you clicked through to Top Web Fiction and voted for Einarr there. It’s a visibility boost in the ever-growing genre of web fiction, and that helps me out a lot. There’s no sign-up, and votes refresh every 7 days.

If you’re all caught up and looking for something a little longer to read, I also have other works available on Amazon.Or, if you happen to not like Amazon you can also get the Einarr ebook through Smashwords, B&N, Apple, Kobo… you get the idea. Direct links are available here.

Lastly, if you really like what I’m doing, I also have a Patreon account running with some fun bonuses available.