Tag: huldrekall

6.17 -Heavy Fire

For the first time since they’d landed here in the middle of that terrible storm, Einarr could see the night sky. He had thought, of course, that by seeing the stars they would be able to guess where in the sea they had been taken. It was not to be.

In other circumstances, he would have loved being able to show this sky to Runa. The moon was a brilliant silver orb, and all around it shone more stars than any man could hope to count, so brightly that the sky itself seemed a shimmery blue rather than black. But the sight that was so beautifully vibrant above also proved that they were in no place Einarr could even guess at. He could not see a single constellation that might help point their way home.

He shared his watch with Jorir, but while the dwarf knew herb-craft better than Einarr expected any man of the clans to he had made plain he was no navigator. The stars were beyond his ken. Still, however, for the best that Runa watched with Erik. He was the best fighter of the four of them, but also the most reckless. Einarr heaved a sigh: that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“What’s on yer mind?” Jorir asked from his perch at the top of the rise.

“Where are we?”

“The Isle of the Forgotten, we’ve been told. I think the Lady might be better equipped to tell you that than I.” Jorir did him the courtesy of not feigning ignorance of the question, at least.

“You’ve never seen a sky like this before either, then.”

“Never. Although…” As his voice trailed off, Einarr heard the sound of a body sliding down a grassy slope, and then the dwarf’s footsteps approached. “If we’re tryin’ ta avoid the attention of a troll, now might not be the moment to talk about this.”

Einarr nodded. “You’re right, of course. My turn on the rise?”

“If you would.”

Off in the distance, further along the trail they had been following, there was a great crash of stone cracking against stone. Einarr cracked a wry smile, knowing nobody else would see it. “It seems I was right.”

“Quite. It also seems as though your troll is hunting elsewhere.”

“For now. Perhaps.” With a nod to himself, Einarr bent over and half-crawled up the slope of the hill. At the top, he stretched out on his stomach to make a less obvious target for anyone who happened to be looking. Or throwing.

Another crash, this one from the way they had come. What was it doing? Einarr knit his brow: the only answers that occurred to him were ones he definitely did not like – ones that suggested this troll was far more clever than ordinary. He would move them if he thought they were in danger of being hit by a flying rock, or if it seemed like the creature was otherwise close to finding them, but he’d meant what he told Runa. If it came down to it, the four of them could probably defeat the troll, or at least drive it off. But there would be a price, and probably a heavy one, and he needed them all in good health to get out of here.

Over the course of the rest of his watch, Einarr listened as the stones narrowed gradually in on their location. While they came nearer, he still didn’t think the troll knew where they were. He sat up to begin scooting down the slope.

A blast of earth and rocks pelted him from behind, throwing him forward into a tumble down the hill. A curse escaped his lips as he somersaulted down the slope: “Shit!”

Erik and Runa were already up by the time he regained his feet, and Jorir was tossing his pack over a shoulder. It hardly seemed necessary, but Einarr gave his order anyway. “Run!”

No-one tried to argue. Erik threw his baldric over a shoulder and took off. Runa and Jorir were right behind. Was this proof that the troll knew where they were, and would soon be on top of them? No, and it was also possible that by running they had given themselves away, much like a grouse in the woods. It was also possible, probable even, that the next stone would have landed in the middle of their camp.

The rocky trail shone silver in the starlight. They raced for it, stones exploding from the ground around them as they went. Einarr took the lead. They would be more visible on the path. He turned alongside it, hoping the others would follow suit.

The ground beneath his feet was rough and stone-pocked, and would have been even without the troll’s attentions. Einarr was forced to slow after the third time his ankle turned under him and threatened to send him crashing to the ground.

The trail was leading them closer to the ridge. Einarr paled but did not slow as he realized the trap they were in – how the troll hunted. They could not leave the path, as they had no other way to find the village. But the path was no safe haven, not here. Auna had warned them, but he had not understood. He set his jaw and ran faster.

Ahead of him, the ground shook, although it was not the sound of stone on stone that assaulted Einarr’s ears this time. He raised his head and pulled up out of his headlong run to stop. They could run no farther, for there, on the trail ahead of them, stood a man the size of a bear that made the huldrekall look handsome. Its skin appeared dark grey in the starlight, and its broad, drooping nose obscured the rotted mouth from which fetid breath blew. Long shanks of lank black hair hung from its head and blended with the black skin it had draped itself with.

The troll had found them.


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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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6.5 – 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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