The man’s arm came through the entrance pushing a torch in front of him. Thorgaut dashed over to stop him. But the massive rock over the opening crashed down before he could get there.
It crushed the man’s arm. Thorgaut heard his screams on the other side of the boulder. Thorgaut looked in shock at Svart who was still holding the rope he had used to pull the support out from under it.
“I have to say, that’s pretty impressive boy. Quick thinking, if I should say so myself,” he said trying to reassure the lad.
He reached down and pried the torch from the fingers of the mangled hand that was sticking out from under the rock. Thorgaut put out the flames and looked around in the darkness. Suddenly, the realization of what he was doing struck him.
“Why were they using a torch. We’ve been in the darkness of the cave the entire time, but I can see everything normally.”
“You got bit by the NightWalker,” Svart said bluntly as if it was the most obvious observation in the world.
Thorgaut reached up and touched the side of his neck. It was still sore and tender to the touch. He remembered stumbling into the black-eyed man in the dark and being grabbed by him. But after that everything went dark. He didn’t remember anything until waking up in the yard earlier.
“What happens after getting bit by a NightWalker?” Thorgaut asked.
The boy looked at him like he was crazy for not knowing. “You become a NightWalker of course. If they don’t kill you, they take you off and transform you into one of themselves like they did my mother and sister.”
“So, I can see in the dark because I’m a NightWalker?” he asked. “What about you?”
The boy gleamed with pride. “I can see in the dark like my father. Momma said he was half dwarf on his mother’s side. Besides, I’d never want to be a NightWalker.”
“That’s why these men came after me,” Thorgaut said. “They think I’m a NightWalker too.”
Svart nodded. Thorgaut walked back over to the bags of dried food and sat down on top of them.
“How do I stop being a NightWalker?” he asked. “Can I become normal again?”
The boy didn’t answer. He walked over and sat down beside Thorgaut. They sat in silence for several minutes. Thorgaut was in shock trying to process the fact.
“There’s something wrong with you,” the boy finally said. “The NightWalkers didn’t take you with them like Runa thought they would. I didn’t hear everything they were saying, but it sounded like some thought you were going to be their king. The others didn’t agree for some reason. They ended up throwing you out in the sun to die.”
Thorgaut didn’t know whether to feel sad he wasn’t the king or relieved they hadn’t taken him away.
“C’mon,” Svart said. “Let’s go down to the river and drink some water. Then we’ll look for a way out of here.”
“Can’t you ask the dwarves for help?” Thorgaut asked as they walked. “Ask them to show you the way out of here.”
Svart shook his head as he led the way deeper into the tunnel. “I don’t know any, nor how to find them. I was three years old when Papa died. Momma never had contact with them after that. They were scared to come around because of Arnulfr and his brother. Momma said they caught one soon after pappa was gone. They tortured it to find out where the gold was. After that, the dwarves never came around anymore.”
Thorgaut and Svart rounded a bend in the tunnel. They entered a massive underground chamber. The cave was so spacious that Thorgaut couldn’t see the other side. There was a broad stream flowing through the center of it
He walked over to the water and knelt down at the edge of the shoreline. He scooped up a handful of the cold refreshing liquid and took a sip. It tasted great and soothed his chapped lips. It felt like it had been ages since he had drunk anything.
Thorgaut splashed water on his face and scrubbed his cheeks and forehead. He remembered now that he still hadn’t had that bath he wanted when the men showed up. Svart had walked down the river away, so Thorgaut slipped off his shirt and pants. He waded out into the water and squatted down into the water. He splashed water up on his shoulders and back.
The water was colder out here. Thorgaut shivered a bit and finished scrubbing himself down as well as he could with his hands. He stood up and walked back towards the shore where he shook the excess water off his body. Then pulled his clothes back still shivering.
Svart wasn’t anywhere in sight. So, Thorgaut started walking in the direction he had last seen him headed. He still didn’t see the boy after walking for a minute or so. So, he picked up his pace. The ground sloped down, and there were rocks everywhere, so he had to watch his step.
There was one section though that was unusually slippery. Thorgaut felt his right foot slide out from under him, and his body start to go down. The other foot got stuck between some rocks and couldn’t keep his balance.
Thorgaut heard his leg snap and roared in pain. The rest of his body hit the ground immediately after. The fall knocked the breath out of his lungs. He lay there for a minute to recuperate and then sat up. He looked at his foot dangling uselessly in front of him.
“Great,” he muttered. “Now, how am I gonna get out of here.”
Svart came running up behind him. “What happened?” he asked breathlessly.
Thorgaut pointed to his broken foot. The boy reached down to straighten it before Thorgaut could stop him. Thorgaut gritted his teeth and grimaced in pain.
“Don’t move it. You’ll be fine in a minute.” the boy said. Thorgaut scowled at him incredulously.
“It’s one of the benefits of being a NightWalker,” the boy said with a smirk. “You heal fast. If you are a NightWalker, that is.”
Thorgaut reached down and poked at his foot, but he no longer felt any pain. He wiggled his toes and moved his foot in a slow circle. His foot worked fine as if nothing had ever happened.
“That’s crazy,” he whispered in amazement. He stood up and pressed down on his foot. It felt great. He pressed down on all the places he had been bitten before by the wolves, but they felt healthy as well. No wonder they hadn’t been bothering him any longer.
“How do you know about this if you aren’t a NightWalker?” Thorgaut asked Svart suspiciously.
“Runa told me,” the boy replied without looking at him. “C’mon. We have a long way to go before we find the lake of fire and the dwarves that Arnulfr mentioned. I’m sure they’ll help us find our way out of here once they know that I’m Fridmun’s son and of dwarf descent.”
“I hope we don’t run into the trolls or dragons before we get there,” Thorgaut muttered.
“You’re a NightWalker,” Svart said with a snicker. “You can handle them.”
“What?” Thorgaut asked. “I just bite them, and they’ll be transformed too?”
“I don’t think it works quite like that,” the boy replied. “Runa tried to explain things to me, but it didn’t make much sense. She didn’t know a whole lot at the time either. You’ll have to wait till you find your kind and ask them how to transform others. But promise me that you won’t bite me.”
“No worries there, buddy.” Thorgaut laughed. “I don’t plan on running around biting people. I still prefer to do my killing the old-fashioned way with my sword.”
They walked in silence for a bit. Suddenly, a voice called out from the darkness.
“Can I help you, gentlemen? You seem to be a bit lost.”
Thorgaut and Svart whirled around to face her.
Thorgaut tried to keep his breathing quiet so the men wouldn’t hear him when they entered the house. He felt around in the closet for anything he could use as a weapon to defend himself. There was nothing but dresses and a couple of rag dolls.
He wanted to kick himself for not having taken one of Arnulfr’s swords with him on his way out to bathe. But everything had been so calm and peaceful out here in the middle of the woods; he hadn’t even considered it.
Thorgaut thought about running into the kitchen to grab a knife but heard the front door squeak open. He pressed his back up against the wall in the darkness. He rearranged the dresses hanging in front of him to block their view if they opened the door to his hiding place.
He heard the men banging around in the kitchen close to the wall he had his back pressed up against. Runa’s closet was just on the other side of the kitchen close to the stove, so it was a warm, comfortable position to be in.
There were several loud knocks on the wall a little off to the side.
“What were these guys looking for,” Thorgaut wondered. “They must be gathering the food in the kitchen.”
He hoped they would take what they needed and leave soon. But the banging got closer to his position, so he shifted his body away from the wall and back towards the door.
The tapping stopped for a minute, but then picked up again around the area he had been just a moment ago. There were two final loud thuds and then silence.
Thorgaut realized the two men weren’t looking for food. The pantry was on the opposite wall. “There was no reason for them to be tapping on the wall where he was hiding unless…”
Suddenly, he realized that the men were looking for him. Their little black object must be directing them towards him for some reason. But why?
Thorgaut stepped across the closet to the other side. The tapping started up again, moving back in his direction.
“Schmack!” he realized. They were looking for him. He was a sitting duck if he stayed in here. They probably had him surrounded. One of the men was tapping to shoo him out the door. The other was most likely waiting outside the door with a weapon to take Thorgaut down.
He crouched in the corner considering his options while trying not to panic. He didn’t even realize why. He was a Viking warrior and should be facing his enemies with a sword in hand. Here he was hiding in the dark like a little girl.
Thorgaut heard a whisper in the dark that set his hair on edge. Something reached out and brushed against his leg. He stifled a yell and stood up to back away from it.
“Shhh, Thorgaut Kabbisson. Come with me.”
He peered down at the floor and saw the faint outline of a head. That was freaky. He considered kicking it, but a tiny head didn’t seem as dangerous as the warriors outside.
Thorgaut crouched back down to take a closer look. There was a trap door leading down into the ground. The head belonged to a young boy.
“Svart?” he whispered. The boy put a finger to his lips and tugged his hand to pull him down through the trap door. The banging kept getting louder. Then the head of an ax crashed through the wall above his head letting in a little light.
From the angle he was at, he could see someone’s feet outside the door. They were definitely trying to flush him out. He felt relieved at not having tried to flee. The man would have put him down before he could even have gotten the door completely open.
Thorgaut sighed with relief at his latest brush with death and pulled the trap door down behind him. He followed Svart down the ladder and into a chilly, dank open area.
Thorgaut squinted in the darkness waiting for his eyes to adjust. They were in a small, dark cave-like area. There seemed to be several branches going off in different directions. They heard the men crashing through the door. They jabbered loudly when they didn’t find what they expected.
It wouldn’t take them long to find the trap door, so Thorgaut motioned with his head for the boy to move along. He shrugged as if asking the boy which direction to go.
Svart pointed in the direction of a large tunnel, and the walked towards it. But the boy didn’t go through the tunnel though. He laid down and pulled himself through a hole in the wall. It looked barely large enough for Thorguat to pass through.
He shrugged though and started walking in that direction. It was just as well because it would make it harder for the men to pass through with their weapons. They would have to remove their swords and bows before squeezing through the hole.
Thorgaut had to duck down and squirm his way through a tight hole to make it through the first short section. After that though, the tunnel widened considerably into another small open area.
Thorgaut pulled his upper body out and sat up. After drawing his feet through, he stood up and dusted himself off. He bent over to look back to see if their pursuers were coming. He couldn’t see anything, but they were carrying on a heated discussion off in the distance.
Svart pushed him out of the way and pointed to a rope. Thorgaut looked up and saw it was tied to a pole that was holding up a large rock over the opening. It looked like a sophisticated trap Arnulfr set up to block attacking NightWalkers. Unfortunately hadn’t done him any good when they finally did attack the night before.
The boy grabbed onto one end of the rope and gave it a light tug. He motioned with his head for Thoragut to help him pull it. Thorgaut shook his head and frowned.
“It will make a loud noise, and they will know where we are,” he whispered. “Right now, they still don’t know which way we went, and they’ll probably go down that other larger tunnel.”
Thorgaut stood off to the side. The warriors were probably trying to use their little black object to hone in on his location. He didn’t know if it would work underground or through the cave walls, but there was only one way to find out.
“Crawl out just a little and watch what the men do when I walk that way and then back over this way,” Thorgaut told the boy. Svart looked at him like he was off his rocker, but went ahead and did it anyway.
Thorgaut walked over in the direction of the main tunnel and waited. After a minute the boy came back with a grin on his face.
“They are pretty confused right now. The men keep watching this little thing in their hands that seem to know where you are. They think you went down the big tunnel and headed that way.”
“Where does it lead?” Thorgaut asked.
“It comes out in a small cave down by the lake,” Svart replied. “We can go back out through the house, or we can follow that smaller tunnel out into the woods.”
“Neither of those options is very good,” Thorgaut said. “They’ll be able to track us wherever we come back out. What about this cave back here?” he asked. “Where does it lead.”
The boy shook his head. “I don’t know. Arnulfr never found a way out. He said he came to a river, but it went down and down and down into the center of the earth.”
“The center of the earth. Huh?” Thorgaut said. “Why did he say that?”
Svart shrugged. “Arnulfr always made stories up for us. So, I don’t know if it was true, but he claimed to have found a lake of fire. He told us that there were dragons and trolls down there. And lots of gold.”
“Gold,” Thorgaut prompted. “Did you ever see any of this gold.”
“No. Arnulfr claimed he lost it when they chased him out. He came down here almost every day looking for the gold again, but he never found the lake of fire again. He thinks the trolls put a spell down here to confuse him so he couldn’t find his way back.”
Thorguat pointed to the rock still hanging over the entrance. “How were we going to get out of here if we had pulled the rope? Is there another way out?”
Svart grinned foolishly and shrugged. “We’d have to find another way out of here. Or else continue down to till we found this lake of fire.”
“Um, what would we eat?” Thorgaut asked. “Seems kind of silly to lock ourselves in here without having a way out.”
“I think he had a way to move the rock or else a tool to break through it after he thought it was safe to come out again,” Svart said.
He walked over to the other side of the cave and pointed to several bags stashed in the corner. Thorgaut opened one and ran his hands through it.
“Oatmeal?” he asked.
The boy nodded. “Arnulfr left dried food down here in case he ever had to use it. He said it was enough to live in here for several weeks. There’s a small underground river to drink from down that way.
“Why don’t you call him Uncle like your sister?” Thorgaut asked. “And how do you know all this.”
Thorgaut sat down and leaned back onto bags. He felt tired and had so many unanswered questions. He wanted a moment to process everything that was going on.
“This farm belonged to my father. Several years ago, Arnulfr and his brother came here. They said they were hunters. So, my father let them spend the night. They asked my father to take them out into the woods. And he never came back.”
“What?” Thorgaut exclaimed. “They just came back without him?”
“They said that the NightWalkers had taken him. We knew that wasn’t true, but momma didn’t want to fight them. I was too little to stop them from living here. They made momma, Runa, and I do all their work around here.”
“And they looked for gold down here in the caves.” Thorgaut finished.
“Father knew where there was gold. He traded with the dwarves and brought supplies for them.”
“Wait! Say what?” Thorgaut demanded. “Where did these dwarves come from?”
Svart smiled at Thorgaut as if the answer was obvious.
“So, your father traded things for gold in the city, and these greedy jerks came here to find out how he got it.” Thorgaut continued.
The boy nodded. “These caves go deep underground and cover the entire land. Father said you could travel underground to any city in NorthWorld if you knew the way.”
“And the dwarves showed him the way to Sjoland so he could trade for them?” Thorgaut asked.
Svart shrugged. “I don’t know the name of the town, but the dwarves did show him the way. I always stayed here with mother. But they would all go together and bring back carts full of stuff. Then they would pay father and go back down towards the dragons and the lakes of fire.”
Thorgaut shook his head at all this mindboggling information.
“No wonder you hated your dear, old Uncle Arnulfr,” he said ironically. “I would have hated him too.”
They sat in silence for a few moments. Svart pulled some dried fruit out of a bag and offered some to Thorgaut. He wasn’t hungry though and declined the food.
“So, where do the NightWalkers fit into the story?” Thorgaut finally asked. “I mean, why did they attack the brothers.”
“Arnulfr and Ingolf didn’t come for the gold. They were hunters like those two men out there now.”
“You mean monster and demon hunters?” Thorgaut interjected. “Like the famous Grimm brothers?”
Svart nodded. “I don’t think they ever hunted monsters before though. They had a little black object they called their NightWalker compass. They wanted to kill one and take it back to town.”
“They learned about the gold and decided not to hunt monsters anymore,” Thorgaut said. Then he spat angrily, “That’s messed up. Those turkeys deserved everything they got and then some. I’m sorry about your family.”
The boy shrugged and took another bite of whatever dried fruit he had pulled out of the bags.
“So, why didn’t you go with Runa and your mother last night?” Thorgaut asked.
“I don’t want to become a NightWalker,” Svart retorted. “I don’t want to be a living dead person. I doubt the NightWalkers would have accepted me though. Momma and Runa have special abilities. So, the NightWalkers wanted them to come on down.”
“What do you mean, come on down?” Thorgaut asked nervously. He knew he wasn’t going to like the answer. “Do they live down here in these caves?”
Svart shook his head vigorously. “No. They live out near the Black Raven Mountain Range. But they do use the caves to get around during the day. They can’t be in the sun because it irritates their skin and kills them if they are exposed too long.”
“That’s why they’re called NightWalkers. Huh?” Thorgaut mused.
They were interrupted by the sound of people talking. It was getting louder. Thorgaut put out his hand to cover the boy’s mouth. He pointed to the small hole they had come through. The men must have followed the cave out to the lake and come back looking for them.
Their loud jabbering annoyed Thorgaut. He was starting to get tired of their loud voices and strange language. He looked around the bags of food for any weapons but didn’t find anything useful though.
He looked back at the hole and saw the soft glow coming their way as one of the warriors tried to squeeze through.
Thorgaut came to and opened his eyes slowly to look around. Sunlight blazed into his eyeballs blinding him momentarily. He squeezed them tightly shut and rolled over face down while shielding his eyes with his arms.
His head throbbed. He tried to remember where he was or what was going on. The last thing he recalled was attempting to kiss Halldora.
Halldora! Beautiful Halldora. The love of his life. He was going to marry her and make her his queen. Wait, who was Halldora again?
Suddenly, he remembered who she was and his memories of the last few days came rushing back.
Halldora! That crazy nutjob who lived alone in the woods with her walking dead people. What is the world was he thinking when trying to kiss her. The last thing he needed right now was getting involved with these crazy people up here in these woods.
He needed to get home and leave this place behind. What was it with all these witches and wolves and walkers? He needed to get out of here, and it was best not to come back.
Thorgaut rolled back over and sat up. He kept his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sun and opened them a crack to look around. He was lying in a small open area surrounded by the woods on all sides.
There was a house a stone’s throw away from him. Arnulfr and Runa’s house he figured. It was smaller than Halldora’s place, and a lot simpler looking.
He noticed a small tree nearby full of fruit. His stomach growled hungrily, so he stood up and walked over to it. It was full of dark, juicy plums. Thorgaut smacked his lips. He loved plums. They were his favorite fruit growing up.
Well, besides bananas that he had eaten once or twice. They were pretty rare though, so they didn’t count. So, that made plums his favorite fruit that he could get in abundance.
Thorgaut grabbed several of the largest off the tree. They were plump and juicy. The skins were practically splitting open to release their tantalizing sweetness. He bit into the first one, and the juice squirted up into his face. It ran down his chin and dripped onto his shirt.
He moaned with delight and gobbled down several more. The sun was getting hotter by the moment and irritating his skin. He moved around to the side of the tree that had shade and continued stuffing his face with plums.
After satisfying his hunger, Thorgaut hobbled up to the house. He walked slowly because his leg was still swollen and sore to the touch where the wolf had bitten him.
The home was simple but charming. It was a solid, wooden cabin built on a strong stone foundation. The dark gray wood of the walls contrasted pleasantly with the green turf growing on the roof. Thorgaut could imagine living in a place like this.
He saw several cows grazing beyond the house. And out beyond them a calm, placid lake. He wanted to go straight there to bathe and rinse off. He could tell by his own smell that it had been several days since he had had a bath. Obviously, Arnulfr wouldn’t have tried to drag him off for a wash in his previous condition.
Thorgaut entered the house and looked around. There was a table in the kitchen that looked familiar. But Thorgaut wasn’t sure this was Arnulfr’s house. Nothing looked out of place. At least it didn’t seem like a house that had been under attack by NightWalkers.
He walked over to the iron stove and poked around in the pans. He found some leftover food that still looked edible. He opened up the cabinets and pulled out some bread and cakes. He stoked the fire to heat up the food. There was plenty here for a couple of weeks if he needed to stay and recuperate longer.
Thorgaut wanted to get a move on it. He needed to find his friends. Arnulfr said it wasn’t far, but he had no idea in which direction. And even if he did know which direction to go, Halldora’s cloaking spells might get him lost again.
Once the food was ready, he served himself a huge plate. He tore into it and scarfed it down quickly along with almost a whole loaf of bread. It tasted so good that he ate until his stomach hurt. He finished licking the plate clean and pushed it back to the center of the table.
Thorgaut stood up and eyed the last piece of bread. He felt too full to eat it but hated to see good food go to waste. So, he grabbed it to munch on it while he poked around the rest of the house.
He walked into each of the rooms. In the second one, he found the bed he had been on the night before. So, yes, this was Arnulfr’s house, but where had everyone gone.
Runa and her brother had must have been taken by their mother. “But where was Arnulfr,” Thorgaut wondered? There was no sign of life anywhere around the house.
Thorgaut could see the room he had been in now that there was light to see. The mattress was half burned and the ceiling blackened from the smoke and flames. It was a good thing those black-eyed creatures had put out the fire. Otherwise, the whole house would have burned down.
Thorgaut continued walking around the house poking into things. He didn’t imagine that Arnulfr would ever be back to complain about it. He found some of Arnulfr’s clothes that looked like it would fit him. He needed a bath before changing into them, so he laid them on a chair. He headed for the door to go down to the lake.
As he got to the door though, he heard the sound of people talking. He crept to the window to listen in on what they were saying. They were both tall and had long, blond hair that came down to the middle of their backs. They were looking around while carrying on a heated discussion.
Thorgaut could hear them clearly, although he had no idea what they were saying. They spoke in a strange language he couldn’t understand.
The men wore matching green shirts and brown pants. Thorgaut noticed that they were armed to the teeth with bows, quivers, knives, swords, spears, and shields. They didn’t look like the kind of people he wanted to mess with, nor that he wished to have messing around with him.
He debated whether to go out and greet them. Maybe they could tell him which way to go, but then he realized they might not even understand him. And who knew what they really wanted.
One of the men pulled a small, black object out of his pocket and held it in front of him. He seemed happy and started babbling away excitedly. His friend came running back over to watch it with him. They turned around slowly and then pointed in his direction.
The other guy pulled out his sword, and they both started walking towards the house. Thorgaut ducked away from the window. He crawled towards the bedroom looking for a place to hide. He tried to slide under a bed, but it was too low. So, he jumped in a closet that looked like it had belonged to Runa and pulled the door shut behind him.
Thorgaut started sawing as quickly as he could without making a whole lot of noise. He could hear Arnulfr stomping around the house. He was muttering on about all the trouble Runa brought into his life.
Thorgaut had almost completed cutting through the bedpost when he heard Arnulfr coming back into the house. He shoved the saw under his pillow and laid back down.
Arulfr stuck his head back through the doorway. “Did that little brat come back in here?” he asked.
Thorgaut shook his head, but not fast enough to convince him. Arnulfr stomped into the room and straight the to bed. He reached under it and pulled Runa out kicking and screaming by the hair. As she came closer, he twisted her hair up around his fist until she was standing on the tip of her toes.
“Let’s go,” he hissed. “I’m gonna tie you to the tree and leave you there for the NightWalkers.”
As he turned to leave, the torch passed close to the bedpost they had been cutting. Arnulfr’s eyes landed on the cut and the sawdust left behind.
“What?” he yelled at Thorgaut. “This little witch cast a spell on you, and you were gonna betray me too.”
His free hand still twisted up in Runa’s hair, Arnulfr felt around on the mattress for the saw with the end of the torch. He pushed the pillow back and found the tool underneath. He grabbed awkwardly at the saw and shook it in Thorgaut’s face.
In his excitement, the torch slipped out of his hand and onto the mattress. He yanked his hand out of Runa’s hair causing her to scream out in pain. Arnulfr shoved her roughly against the wall so she couldn’t get away, and grabbed the torch back off the bed.
The damage was already done though. The sheets had caught fire and started to spread rapidly across the bed. Thorgaut leaped off to the side and tried to pull himself free from the chain.
Arnulfr kicked him from behind and sent Thorgaut flying back onto the mattress. Arnulfr burst out laughing as Thorgaut tried to roll away from the heat and flames.
“This went better than I imagined,” Arnulfr gloated. “You deserve it you undead animal.”
He grabbed Runa’s by the hair again and backed up slowly toward the door. He watched while Thorgaut struggled to pull himself away from the flames.
Thorgaut threw his whole body off to the side as far as he could, but his arm was still chained to the post. The hot flames blazed up singing the hair on his arm that he couldn’t pull away from the bed.
He turned to Arnulfr who was waiting at the door to watch the flames burn him up. Thorgaut screamed at him and threw part of a burning sheet in his direction.
Arnulfr laughed and dodged it. He yanked Runa into the burning path of the sheet causing it to land on her feet. She screamed and jumped away.
“Momma, help me,” she screamed. “Where are you? Aren’t you coming?”
“Of course she’s not coming, you delusional child,” Arnulfr yelled at her. “She can’t come back from the dead. But don’t worry because I’m going to send you on over to her as soon as I make sure Thorgaut can’t come back to bother us.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a huge dark figure appeared behind him in the doorway. Thorgaut stopped struggling to stare at the long, dark face and the flowing black hair. But what caught his attention the most were the unblinking, jet-black eyes.
Arnulfr noticed that Thorgaut wasn’t struggling to get away from the flame any longer. He stopped laughing and turned to see what Thorgaut was staring at behind him Arnulfr jumped back while shoving Runa in front of himself to use her as a shield. He held the torch out like a sword.
A woman came walking out from behind the tall, dark man and entered the room. She looked like a regular woman, except she had the same jet-black eyes that the man did.
“Momma,” Runa cried holding out her arms in the woman’s direction. “You made it. I’m so glad to see you.”
Thorgaut could see a slight resemblance between Runa and the woman.
“It’s okay, my love,” the woman said in a low, ominous tone. “Just hold still while momma takes care of your dear, old Uncle Arn. I’m gonna teach him a lesson and make sure he never, ever hurts either of you again.”
“I took good care of the children,” Arnulfr whined. “I treated them as if they were my own.”
“Most people take better care of their dogs than you did my children,” she shrieked. It came out as a loud, shrill scream that almost split Thorgaut’s eardrums. “You made them your own personal little slaves. Now, I’m gonna make you mine.”
Arnulfr swung the torch into her face, but she didn’t even blink with those eerie, black eyes. She stuck out her hand extremely fast and blocked the blow with her open palm. Immediately, the flame of the torch snuffed out. The fire on the bed went out at the same time, and the room was once again cloaked in pitch-black darkness.
Thorgaut couldn’t see what was going on, but he heard lots of banging and Arnulfr screaming for mercy. The creatures dragged him off still kicking and screaming. His loud screams faded off into the distance and then stopped suddenly.
Thorgaut crouched down as small as possible while tugging on the chain, but it was no use. It was still attached to the bedpost. He felt around on the floor and managed to find the saw once again. He placed it in the groove he had been cutting early and started sawing as fast as he could.
Thorgaut felt the bedpost moving around and giving away. He tried jerking the chain out, but it still wasn’t loose enough. He heard noises and banging around the house. It sounded like they were looking for Runa’s brother. He had to hurry.
He put the saw back in the groove and pushed on it, but it got stuck. His hand kept moving while the tool got caught in the wood. His hand slipped into the blade and cut his palm. The saw fell out and bounced off on the floor in the darkness.
Thorgaut crouched down again and felt around wildly. His fingers brushed against it, but in his rush he pushed it out farther away from him. He groaned in anguish. Thorgaut reached out into the darkness a little more carefully this time. The tips of his fingers brushed against it, but it was almost too far out of reach for him to grab.
He pulled harder on the chain and the bed gave way a little. It was just enough for Thorgaut to grab the saw once again. He quickly got to work and managed to cut the rest of the way through the bedpost.
Thorgaut tried pulling on the chain, but it was stuck. He needed to separate the two, but the weight of the bed was still pressing down on the lower part of the post. Thorgaut lifted the bed and pulled on the chain. It was heavy, and he couldn’t get it high enough to pull out the part of the post he had sawed through.
He gave it another heave and kicked at the post. This time it gave way and popped out from under the bed. That left all the weight on his arms, and he was still weak from the previous several days of not eating. The bed fell with a crash, and he landed on top of it.
Thorgaut lay in the dark for a minute but didn’t hear anything. He stood up slowly and tested the chain. It was loose, and he was a free man. He wanted to do a little jig right there but decided against it for the time being. For now, he needed to get out of here before those black-eyed creatures came back for him.
He turned and took a step toward the door in the darkness, and ran right into something. Or rather someone.
Thorgaut reached out to feel it and by the size realized it was the first man he had seen in the doorway.
“Oops! Sorry,” he said. He let go of the man’s arm and backed away.
The man reached out and grabbed him by the throat. Thorgaut felt like a puppet in this man’s hands. They were both about the same size, but this guy was much stronger than Thorgaut. The man lifted him straight up off the floor.
Thorgaut struggled against him, but it was no use. The man placed both hands around his neck and pulled him forward.
“Sheesh! Are you gonna try and kiss me?” he asked.
Thorgaut could feel the breath being squeezed out him. The last thing he remembered before passing out was the man biting into his neck like a wolf.
Was he dreaming? Was he still in a coma? Had he fallen and the wolves eaten him? Maybe he was dead already, and this was the afterlife.
Thorgaut laughed out loud. “Well, let’s not count our chickens. I’m not a king yet, and my brothers are already making plans to keep that from happening.”
“Don’t worry,” Runa said. “I’ve already seen you as the king.”
“What? Don’t be silly,” he said. “That’s impossible.”
“No, really!” she replied. “I see things and know things before they happen just like my momma. She says that it’s a gift that we have. But we can’t tell anyone about it because they would burn us at the stake for being witches.”
“Well, are you a witch?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she retorted. “Witches are evil, and we aren’t evil. We only do good.”
“So, why are you telling me all this?” he asked. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll try to burn you at the stake.”
She laughed out loud. “You’re chained to the bed. You couldn’t hurt me even if you wanted to.”
Arnulfr stuck his head through the door. “What’s so funny,” he growled.
Runa had her back to the door. She didn’t bother to turn around. She just looked at Thorgaut and pressed her finger to her lips.
“Nothing much,” Thorgaut said. “We’re talking about the future and better days to come.”
Arnulfr grunted, “C’mon Runa. It’s time to get to bed.”
He turned around and walked back out leaving the door open.
Runa leaned forward and whispered, “They’re almost here. Don’t fall asleep. After Uncle Arn falls asleep, I’ll come to unlock the chains for you. Get ready.”
Thorgaunt grunted in reply. He didn’t know how to take her. A kid her age talking like that was flat-out crazy due to the trauma she had suffered. But still, he wasn’t about to complain if she was going to let him go. He didn’t trust Arnulfr. The man would just as soon kill him as look at him.
He laid back in the darkness and pondered what she had said of his future. It made sense and lined up with the things his mother had told him. He would be king of all of NorthWorld and not just Jorundarfell. His mother had assured him that he would one day lead the people to safety and freedom.
He had never given it much thought really, but freedom from what was the first question that came to his mind. NorthWorld didn’t have any major enemies. Maybe they were projecting their need for purpose onto him.
Thorgaut never worried about that kind of stuff. He sincerely tried to enjoy life and live each moment to the fullest. He knew he would be king someday, but wasn’t in any hurry to take on that responsibility any time soon.
Sleep soon overcame him even though he tried to stay awake in case Runa came for him. He awoke with a start. There was complete silence in the house. Nor was there any more light coming in from under the door.
It was too silent. The calm before a storm kind of silent. An eerie dread fell over Thorgaut. He almost got the impression that someone was watching him. He looked around trying to peer into the darkness, but he couldn’t see anything. He squeezed his eyes tightly and buried his face in the pillow.
The wind picked back up and whistled in through the rafters. Thorgaut felt the crisp, chill draft blowing over him. He could smell the stew wafting through the house, and his stomach growled. He should have asked for more. That had been barely enough to fill him on a typical day, much less when he hadn’t eaten for several days.
He thought he heard something and lifted his head.
“Runa,” he whispered. “Are you there?”
“What do you want with Runa?” a loud voice boomed out from the darkness.
Thorgaut jumped at the sound of Arnulfr’s voice.
“Sheesh, Arnulfr!” he practically shouted. “You sure know how to scare someone. What are you doing in here?”
“I’m keeping an eye on you, of course,” Arnulfr growled. “But you haven’t answered my question.”
“I thought I heard her and was going to ask for some more of that soup she made,” he replied. “I guess I was dreaming.
He chuckled to brush it off, but Arnulfr didn’t reply.
“I just ate, and I’m already hungry again. I guess this is what a bear must feel like after waking up from hibernation,” Thorgaut said out loud as if muttering to himself.
He lay there in silence for a bit. Arnulfr hadn’t said anything more, so Thorgaut assumed he had gone back to sleep. At least he hoped so. Runa would be in so much trouble if she came in and tried to free him with Arnulfr that close by.
It wasn’t long before Thorgaut heard the door opening. He debated what to do. Should he pretend to be asleep or greet her loudly asking for soup? But she was beside his bed already and if Arnulfr woke up would know that something was going on.
Thorgaut reached up in the dark and put his hand over her mouth before she could say anything. He pulled her close and whispered, “Uncle Arn is in the room.”
He could feel her body tense up with fear. It confirmed his suspicions. She was afraid of him, and it wasn’t only because of his earlier slap. Thorgaut wasn’t so sure it was a random, first-time incident. Uncle Arn probably beat the kids on a regular basis.
Thorgaut let go of her mouth. She moved to the foot of the bed and unlocked the chain around his feet.
Runa was exceptionally quiet. Thorgaut wouldn’t have even known the chains were undone except she tapped his legs once she was done. He pulled his feet up and no longer felt their resistance.
She came around the side of the bed and touched his arm to remove the cuff around his wrist. Thorgaut was impressed at how swiftly and quietly she moved around in the darkness. It was almost as if she could see in the dark.
Thorgaut twisted his body towards her, and his feet bumped the chain at the foot of the bed.
“What’s going on over there,” Arnulfr bellowed. “Are you trying to sleep or dance?”
“Sorry,” Thorgaut said. “I’m having trouble falling asleep.”
“Well, keep it down,” Arnulfr grumbled.
Thorgaut couldn’t feel or sense Runa in the darkness. She must have ducked down behind the bed when Arnulfr starting complaining. He waited for her to come back.
She finally did after a minute or so. Thorgaut couldn’t see what was going on, but it felt like she was having trouble getting the lock undone. Thorgaut felt up his arm to figure out what was going on. Runa tried all the keys one after another, but none of them were working. She cycled through them all twice.
“It’s no use, Runa,” Arnulfr’s voice boomed out of the darkness once again. “I took one of the keys off on purpose. I knew you’d feel sorry for this loser and would try to set him free. You’d rather see us all dead then protect the family.”
“You’re not family.” she spat out. “You killed my dad so your stupid brother could marry my mother. He got what he deserved. I’m glad you had to cut his head off.”
She laughed hysterically. Meantime, Arnulfr had lit up a torch from the back where he was sitting against the wall in the opposite corner. He had been waiting there watching them the entire time.
Arnulfr stood up and walked in their direction while shielding the torch so it wouldn’t go out.
“I’ve had it with you, you little witch. You think I didn’t see through your little ploy. I knew all along that you were faking that traumatized victim role. I let you get away with it because I felt bad for your mother. But now, you’re gonna wish you had died along with my brother.”
Thorgaut realized things were about to get ugly.
“Wait!” Thorgaut shouted and held up his hand toward Arnulfr. “Both of you. Wait, right there. Let’s talk this out like civilized folks. I’m sure this is all a big misunderstanding.”
“Shut up, Thorgaut.” Arnulfr spat. “I’ll be back to deal with you after I teach this little brat a lesson.”
Arnulfr had spun in Thorgaut’s direction a little too fast, and the torch went out. He stopped to light it again and waited for the flame to blaze back up. When he looked back at Runa, she was gone.
“Why you sneaky little witch child. Don’t think I won’t find you. I’m gonna string you up outside and let the NightWalkers have you. Let them take you to your momma.”
He turned slowly holding out the torch to light up the corners of the room, but Runa wasn’t there.
Arnulfr growled in displeasure. “You know she can see in the dark?” he said. “Just like the devil’s child. That’s where she came from, and I’m gonna send her back. Yes, siree. And you too, Mr. Wolfman. I’m gonna send you right along with her before you get a chance to turn me too, Thorgaut of Kabbisson.”
He turned and stormed out of the room leaving Thorgaut in the pitch black room.
Runa snuck back in through the door and stood by his bed.
“Here, take this,” Runa said placing something in his hands.
“What is this?” Thorgaut asked as he felt it.
“A saw to cut through the bedpost. The chain is on right here,” Runa said as she guided his hand with the saw in the right direction. “Be quick about it before he gets back.”
Thorgaut shook his head and chuckled. “So for the past two days, I’ve just been walking in one big circle. No wonder I thought I was going crazy.”
“Well, technically that was last week,” Arnulfr said. “But yes, you did spend two days walking around my home. But don’t worry, I’ll go there tomorrow and locate your friends.”
“Great! We can leave first thing in the morning.” Thorgaut said excitedly.
Arnulfr shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not letting you out of those chains, my friend. You’ll only be a danger to yourself and your friends and my family.”
Thorgaut scowled darkly. He tried to read Arnulfr’s expression, but the shadows hid most of his face still. When he turned towards the door, Thorgaut cringed. It was the first time Thorgaut had gotten a decent look at him.
Arnulfr’s face was a mass of scars. Three long gashes from nasty cuts from his cheeks down to his neck. One of his eyes looked like it had been gouged out and the area around it sealed shut with terrible burns. They seemed fairly recent.
“Your brother did that to you?” Thorgaut asked softly.
“No,” Arnulfr replied. “I killed him before he had time to turn. But then I went after the NightWalkers who did this to him.”
He paused thoughtfully. Thorgaut could see that he was struggling to keep his emotions under control. Rage and fury boiled just under Arnulfr’s emotional surface waiting to explode. The ravages of his battle with the NightWalkers had deeply affected Arnulfr at his core.
“I’m sorry,” Thorgaut started to say.
“Stop right there,” Arnulfr cut him off. “I don’t need your pity. I did what needed to be done, and most of the NightWalkers are dead. That’s all that matters.”
“But I don’t understand why you’re so angry at the wolves and me because of the these NightWalker things.”
“I am not angry,” Arnulfr roared. The young girl who had brought Thorgaut his supper screamed in terror. Arnulfr lowered his voice sheepishly and walked over to her quickly.
“It’s okay, child. It’s okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Shhhh!” he said as he hugged her tightly.”
“They’re coming, Uncle Arn,” she said with a whimper. “That man with the long black hair. I told you that they’re coming for us.”
“No, they’re not, child. I already told you that I took care of them and burned their bodies. The man who killed your mommy and daddy is dead.”
The girl looked at Thorgaut and said, “They’re coming for you. They’ll kill us all, but they want you alive.”
Thorgaut watched her sob. Her disheveled, yellowish-blond hair sticking out in all directions. It was eerie and looked like something straight out of one of his mother’s witch stories he had heard growing up.
“Stop it, Runa!” Arnulfr shouted. “You’re scaring the poor man.”
She kept sobbing as she stared at Thorgaut. Then she looked up at her uncle and cocked her head to the side. “They will be here tonight,” she said in a low whisper that Thorgaut could barely hear.
“Shut up!” Arnulfr yelled. He backhanded her across the face with a fierce blow that sent her crashing to the floor. He bent over the girl lying on the ground.
Thorgaut lunged forward to stop him and protect the girl, but he had forgotten about the chains. They jerked back on his feet, so only the upper half of his body fell forward out of bed. And even then, he only fell as far as the chain on his hand permitted.
In the end, Thorgaut lay in the air halfway between the bed and the floor in a very awkward position. It took him a minute to push himself back up onto the bed.
By that time, Arnulfr had composed himself and pulled the girl to her feet. She wouldn’t stop crying, so he shoved her roughly in the chair.
“Stay here until you compose yourself, Runa,” Arnulfr screamed. He was livid. He spun around on the ball of his foot and walked out the door. He slammed it shut and locked it behind him.
Thorgaut lay quietly in the dark. He couldn’t see Runa, but he could hear her sobbing softly. Eventually, she stopped, but he remained quiet. He didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to get her started again.
They sat in silence for several minutes. Runa was so quiet, Thorgaut started to worry that she had passed out.
“Are you okay?” he asked into the dark after several minutes of silence. His voice boomed out louder than he intended. He heard Runa jump with a start on the chair.
“Sorry,” he apologized in a softer tone.
She didn’t answer. So, Thorgaut lay there for a bit longer.
“It’s okay,” she finally answered. Her voice sounded composed and perfectly normal as if nothing had ever happened.
“Did you make that soup?” he asked trying to change the topic. “It was pretty good if I don’t say so myself.”
“Of course it was,” she giggled. “You hadn’t eaten for almost a week.”
Thorgaut smiled into the darkness. “Yeah, that’s true. I suppose just about anything would have tasted good tonight. But still, I liked the way you flavored it.”
“It was my momma’s recipe,” Runa replied. “A special mix of forest plants and herbs that she taught me how to cook.”
“Well then, she must have been a pretty good cook. Huh?”
“Yeah. Momma sure was. I can’t wait to see her again.”
Thorgaut wasn’t sure what to say to that. He didn’t want to burst her bubble, but he didn’t think it would be right to give her false hope.
“What do you mean?” he asked cautiously.
“Promise you won’t tell, Uncle Arn?” she asked in a whisper.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he answered.
“Careful,” she whispered in an eerie lilting tone that sent chills down his spine. “You just might get what you wish for.”
“Never mind then. Forget I said that.” Thorgaut whispered back. “So, what’s the big secret.”
“Momma’s coming back for Svart and me tonight,” she giggled.
“Svart is the other little boy out there?” Thorgaut asked. “He’s your brother?”
“Yes,” she replied. “She’s gonna take us to live with her, but Uncle Arn doesn’t believe she is coming for us.”
“Where is your mother?” Thorgaut asked.
“I don’t know yet,” but she says its a nice place, and we are going to love it.”
“Why did she leave you?”
“She was sick, just like you were these days. But now she is better, and she is coming to take us home.”
The way she said that last line set Thorgaut’s nerves on edge. He hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it did.
“Is your mother an undead NightWalker?” Thorgaut questioned her.
“Undead. NightWalker,” the girl giggled eerily in the darkness again. Thorgaut wished she would stop doing that. “That’s just a name Uncle Arn made up for something he doesn’t understand. They are called Kyhm. They’re not undead, they just don’t die. We’re all gonna live forever.”
“How do you talk to your mother?”
“We’ve always been able to communicate with her from far away. But usually, it’s in my dreams.”
Thorgaut sighed in relief. So, this was just a delusional child’s way of coping with the loss of her parents. He lay in silence for a few minutes until she spoke again.
“You know they want you to join them?” she asked casually. “Asbeel is waiting for you.”
“Who is Asbeel? Does he talk to you in your dreams too?”
“Nope. Mother’s never seen him either, but apparently, you are pretty popular with the Kyhm. They are all waiting for you to be their king and lead them to freedom. Are you a king?”
Thorgaut was speechless. He didn’t know what to make of that bit of revelation. He hummed and hawed for a bit while trying to think up an appropriate response.
“No, I’m not,” he finally said. “Well, at least not yet anyway.”
“Well, don’t worry. Momma says you’re gonna be a great king. You’re gonna rule over all the land of NorthWorld. We’re gonna take over the entire world.”
“What?” Thorgaut asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Which of those wolves bit you?” Arnulfr asked without bothering to answer his question. “The one I shot, or the one that was already dead when I arrived?”
The man stared at him so intensely that Thorgaut didn’t answer. Arnulfr looked like the kind of guy who could tell if he was lying.
Thorgaut didn’t know why that question was so pertinent, or what it had to do with him being chained up. But he could tell that the answer was critical to Arnulfr. The eerie look on his face worried Thorgaut.
“Everything happened so fast. It’s all fuzzy in my head still.” Thorgaut finally answered.
That part was true. Thorgaut purposely worded his answer that way to avoid having to commit to a response.
Although he did remember being bit by both wolves, he sure didn’t want to admit it to Arnulfr. He hoped to buy some time to figure out what the man wanted to know.
“But why would it make a difference if I got bit by one or the other?” he finally got up the courage to ask.
“We’ve been having a bit of a problem recently in these parts of the woods,” Arnulfr said emotionally. He chose his words carefully to keep his feelings under control.
“What kind of a problem?” Thorgaut asked.
“The undead kind,” Arnulfr spat out. “Undead wolves, walking corpses, and NightWalkers just to name a few.”
“Like the shufflers?” Thorgaut asked
“I haven’t heard them called that name, but they do walk funny,” Arnulfr said. “What do you know about them?”
“Not much,” Thorgaut said realizing that he had almost given himself away. He scrambled to think of a cover story. “My mother used to tell me about them in my bedtime stories. Where do they come from?”
“I’ve heard that there’s an old witch in these woods that rules over the undead. I’ve been trying to trap her. That’s why I set up that snare.”
Thorgaut cocked his head to the side wondering if he was referring to Halldora.
“And what was wrong with the wolves?” Thorgaut asked.
“The one you killed. It was already transforming into one of the undead creatures. If that’s the one that bit you, you’ll probably turn too.”
“Hence the chains,” Thorgaut mused.
Arnulfr nodded. “Don’t take it personally. I can handle you if that happens, but I’m looking out for the children. After what they went through with their parents and all.”
“You had to put them down,” Thorgaut said shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”
Arnulfr nodded and shrugged.
“My brother and his wife. The NightWalkers attacked them one night. My brother hid the kids in the basement. He killed one of those critters, but still got bit. I never found his wife’s body.”
Thorgaut waited in silence for Arnulfr to compose himself.
“I had to cut off my own brothers head. I thought the kids had been taken with their mother, but they were hiding. They saw the whole thing. They hated me and wouldn’t talk to me for weeks. But I’ve done my best to take care of the poor things.”
“And now, you’re hoping I turn into one of them, so the kids see why you had to kill their father?” Thorgaut asked. “To prove you’re the good guy.”
Arnulfr shrugged. “I don’t want to kill you of course. But I suppose it might help the kids understand what happened. But don’t worry, I’ll let you go if nothing happens in a couple of days. Your week is almost up.”
“A week?” Thorgaut asked. “How long have I been here?”
“Tomorrow will be five days since I brought you in,” Arnulfr said. “I didn’t chain you up right away, but when the fever started, you became delirious. I thought you were transforming and almost killed you.”
“But the kids didn’t let you, or else you wanted the transformation to be complete.” Thorgaut finished the sentence for him and shook his head. “Lucky me. I guess I owe these kids my life.”
Arnulfr didn’t say anything but smiled wryly.
Thorgaut mulled everything over in his mind. Something was bothering him, but he wasn’t sure what it was yet. There was something that didn’t add up here.
“This witch?” Thorgaut finally asked. “What do you know about her? Do you know where to find her?”
“My brother went down to trade our furs for food in the town. He heard rumors. The men down there said this witch had moved into the area a while back with an army of walking corpses.”
“They attacked and killed most of her undead minions. But somehow she escaped.” Thorgaut said.
“Yeah, she just vanished into the woods. And they never saw her again.” Arnulfr nodded vigorously.
“Wait. How did you know all that?” Arnulfr asked suspiciously.
“Oh, I heard about out when we docked our ship a few days ago,” Thorgaut said in a blatant lie this time. He didn’t want to tell Arnulfr what he and his men had done to the town.
Arnulfr didn’t say anything for a minute. He just kept looking at Thorgaut. It made him uncomfortable.
“And yet, you still came out her foolishly all by yourself knowing all that?” Arnulfr finally asked incredulously.
“Well, I was with my friends,” Thorgaut retorted defensively. “I wasn’t alone. I just went out hunting and got lost. Then I couldn’t find my way back.”
Arnulfr got a distant look in his eye like he had made a sudden realization. “Now, that you mention it, I’ve noticed that happening a lot recently. There’s a section of the woods that even I’ve gotten lost in a few times recently, and I’ve lived here all my life. That must be the area where the old witch is hiding.”
Thorgaut realized that made sense and slapped himself on the forehead. Halldora must have cloaked a section of the forest to keep people from finding her hiding place. “No wonder I had gotten lost so many times over the last few days,” he thought. Thorgaut chuckled in relief when he realized that he wasn’t going crazy like he had thought.
“What’s so funny?” Arnulfr asked.
Thorgaut looked at him with a grin. “No use lying,” he thought to himself.
“I thought I was going crazy out there in those woods. Running around in circles like that. I came up one way and then backtracked the exact same way up the exact same trail. Yet everything had changed completely, and I didn’t recognize a thing.”
“I hear you,” Arnulfr said. “It’s happened to me, and I know these woods like the back of my hand. But what were you looking for?”
“We left our ship anchored in the harbor at Sandvik,” Thorgaut said. He left out the part about raiding the town, killing the citizens, and burning everything to the ground. He didn’t think Arnulfr would take kindly to that bit of news.
“Then we came up the river by foot on a three-day trip. We arrived at the edge of the plain and set up camp there in front of a range of black mountains.”
“Raven’s Range,” Arnulfr interjected. “Dangerous place.”
Thorgaut filed that bit of information away for later. He needed to know more about that place. He had felt it pulling on him, and had already been planning to explore them on a future trip when he had more time.
“So anyway, I woke up early while everyone was still sleeping. I wanted to stretch my legs to get some early morning thinking in while I hunted some fresh grub for breakfast. And it was the morning after when you found me.”
“This place where you camped. Was it on a U-shaped bend in the river? Where it turns curves back around in the opposite direction?”
“Yes,” Thorgaut exclaimed. “Do you know where it is?”
“Sure,” Arnulfr replied. “It’s not that far actually. The plains start just over the hill and around that bend. I go there often when I want to fish myself.”
Thorgaut came to little by little with his senses returning one by one. The first thing he noticed was the smell of meat cooking. He realized how hungry he was. He could almost taste the food and his mouth watered. He heard the sounds of pots and pans getting banged around by the person cooking.
Suddenly, the memories of everything that happened came rushing back. His thoughts were flooded with images of strange shufflers and ferocious wolves attacking him.
Thorgaut focused his attention on each of the places he had been wounded. His shoulder, thigh, and heel.
He moved each one to feel how sore they were. He reached up gingerly and touched his shoulder. It was bandaged an hurt when he pressed against it.
Thorgaut still couldn’t see anything though. He closed his eyes and opened them again, but everything remained dark. He realized something was covering his eyes. So, he reached up to pull off a cloth that had been covering his face.
Everything was still dark though. Had he gone blind? He waved his hand in front of his face and could see a glimpse of a shadow, but not much else. He lifted his head and saw a glimmer of light under the door. He breathed a sigh of relief. It must be night time, and he was in a dark room.
“Hello,” he tried to say, but his voice didn’t come out as much more than a raspy whisper. Whoever was in the other room must not have heard him or else was ignoring him.
Thorgaut sat up and stretched. But his left arm only came up halfway. Something was immobilizing it, but he couldn’t see what it was in the dark. He twisted his body to swing his legs over the edge of the bed, but his legs were immobilized as well.
He reached out in the dark to feel around and realized his left arm and leg were chained to the bed. He pulled against them a few times but realized they were too tight for him to break free.
Thorgaut gave them a final strong pull with a loud grunt for good measure.
“Hey!” he yelled. “What’s going on here? Who’s out there? Let me go!”
He heard a chair scoot back as its legs scraped against the floor. A pattering of tiny footsteps running across the room. A door creaked opened and then slammed shut. Then there was silence.
After a bit, he heard the door open again and more footsteps. Someone else with a louder, heavier step clumping hollowly along the wooden floorboards.
The door to his room opened, and light from the other side flooded the room. Thorgaut squinted and raised his arm to shield his eyes. It took a minute for them to adjust to this sudden new level of brightness.
“Good!” a loud voice boomed from the doorway. “You’re awake finally. We were starting to think that you weren’t going to pull through.”
Thorgaut lowered his hand from in front of his eyes. He squinted at the dark figure framed against the light blazing through the doorway. The man took a few steps forward into the room. He moved around to the side of the bed where Thorgaut lay.
The Viking looked through the doorway. He saw a table and a few chairs. Beyond that a large iron stove. He noticed two young faces peeking at him from the sides of the door. They watched him and whispered quietly to each other.
Thorgaut backed away from the edge of the bed as the figure came closer. The man leaned over and scrutinized him before speaking again.
“Well, you look okay. That’s a good sign. Although I sure don’t understand it.”
“Understand what?” Thorgaut asked. His throat was dry, and his voice cracked. He swallowed before continuing. “What’s going on? And why am I chained to the bed.” He yanked on the chain for good measure.
The man jumped back when he saw Thorgaut trying to pull free.
“Calm down, young man. Take it easy.”
“Take it easy? That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one chained to a bed in a strange place.”
He rattled the chains some more for good measure.
The man pulled away and walked back to the door.
“Let me go!” Thorgaut demanded. “Do you know who I am? I’m Thorgaut Kabbisson of the clan of Ulfverger. My father is the Jarl, and I am the rightful heir to the throne of Journdarfell.”
“Well, that’s nice Thorgaut Kabbisson of the clan of Ulfverger, but I don’t care who you are. I’m not letting you go until I know it’s completely safe and you aren’t a threat to my family and me.”
The man turned around and started to close the door behind himself.
“Wait, please,” Thorgaut begged. “I’m sorry for being rude. I’m not normally like this.”
The man paused and looked at him.
“Well, that could just be part of the effect taking over you. We’ll soon find out. Won’t we?”
He closed the door and darkness enveloped Thorgaut in the room once again. He heard chairs scooting and spoons clinking against bowls as they ate.
Thorgaut gritted his teeth and growled in anger. He twisted and turned several times trying to find a comfortable position. But he was antsy. He wanted to be up and about. He needed to get out of here. He needed to find Halldora, and then his friends.
And he was still hungry. The food smelled good. Hearing people eat only made him want to join them even more.
“What did the man mean about his rudeness being part of the effect?” he wondered.
He didn’t have to wait long though. The door soon opened, and the man walked back into the room with a large bowl.
“Hungry?” he asked as he held the bowl out to Thorgaut.
“Yes,” Thorgaut shot up and grabbed it before he could change his mind. He didn’t wait for the man to finish pulling up a chair beside the bed to help him. He started eating on his own.
It was a little uncomfortable because of his position. He had to hold the bowl with his hand that was chained up and use the spoon with the other.
He started spooning the tasty, warm broth into his mouth on his own. Large chunks of venison seasoned richly with onions and garlic. There were bits of buttery, smooth summer squash with generous chunks of potatoes. It was delicious.
The man sat quietly watching Thorgaut smacking his lips and slurping greedily until the bowl was emptied.
“Would you like more?” the man asked pleasantly.
Thorgaut nodded enthusiastically as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
The man signaled to the doorway. A young child of about ten years old scampered over with a second bowl filled to the brim. She handed the bowl to Thorgaut and took the empty one from the man.
“Your daughter?” Thorgaut asked politely before putting the spoon in his mouth.
The man shook his head. “My granddaughter,” he replied. “I’ve been raising her and her brother ever since…”
Thorgaut waited expectantly after the man’s voice trailed off, but he didn’t say anything else. Thorgaut continued eating. He chewed his food a little more thoroughly now that he wasn’t so hungry.
It took him longer to finish off the second bowl. Thorgaut could tell the man was anxious to interrogate him. But he was considerate enough to wait patiently for him to finish eating.
“More?” the man asked pleasantly.
“No, thanks. I’m good.” Thorgaut replied.
He sat still and waited for the man to say something.
“How are you feeling?” the man finally asked.
“Pretty good, all things considering,” Thorgaut said. “I feel alright, although it’s a little disconcerting to be chained up like this.”
“Yes.” the man answered. “Well, I suppose it couldn’t be helped after you getting bitten by those wolves and all.”
“Right. Right. The wolves” Thorgaut said. “I do want to thank you for saving me from those ferocious animals. I don’t mean to come across as ungrateful for or anything. I supposed I would be dead by now if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”
The man grunted but didn’t say anything. Thorgaut had a million and one questions flying through his head. He wanted to pump the man for answers but decided to be polite. He didn’t want a repeat of his earlier experience of getting locked back up in the room for being rude.
“I’m sorry. I told you my name earlier when I was rude. I had just come too and was still a bit woozy. But I didn’t catch yours. What did you say your name was again?”
“Arnulfr Fridgeirsson,” he replied. “And you’re welcome for whatever it’s worth. I’m afraid you may not thank me later. It may have been better just to let the wolf kill you and get it over with.”
The wolf leaped. Launching itself into the air.
Thorgaut braced himself for the coming impact.
The tree trembled as its branches snapped back into place.
A long, sharp pointed arrow flew through the air.
It found its target in the gray wolf’s side right behind its left leg. The tip of the arrow piercing its lung. Then burying itself in the wolf’s heart. Snuffing its life midleap while it was still in the air.
The wolf continued its trajectory in the air, but it was already dead by the time its body slammed into Thorgaut.
The weight of the massive gray creature slammed into his body. The branch below his feet snapped under their combined weight.
The one in his left hand also broke. He also couldn’t hang on with his right in its weakened condition since he had wounded it in his previous fight.
Thorgaut’s body fell to the ground again for the second time that day. His arms and legs flailing wildly. Trying to find something to grab. Trying to push the wolf’s body away from his. All in the split second it took for him to hit the ground.
The body of the great grey wolf crashed down on top of him. Crushing him. Smothering him.
And then everything went dark. The blackness of non-awareness engulfing Thorgaut as he succumbed. To the fall. To the pain. To the struggle.
But only for a moment.
Thorgaut came to unable to breathe. Gray fur in his face. Preventing him from getting the precious air he so desperately needed.
He struggled against the crushing weight on top of him. He finally pushed it off and sat up inhaling deep gasping breaths. He looked around wildly to understand what had happened.
Thorgaut looked down and saw part of the arrow protruding from the wolf’s ribs. It had broken in the fall and lay at an angle. It was a long arrow. Longer than Thorgaut’s arrows. And much longer than the arrows regular warriors used in battle.
He looked up in the direction that the arrow had come from. He couldn’t see anything between the trees of the forest that explained where it had come from.
The black and white wolves were off to the side unsure of what to do. Thorgaut pulled the arrow to get it out so he could use it as a weapon if needed. But the tip of its barbed point was stuck deep in the wolves body between its ribs, and he couldn’t get it out.
The remaining wolves circled Thorgaut trying to make sense of what had happened to their fallen comrade. The black wolf took a step in Thorgaut’s direction.
A second arrow came flying out of the woods and sank into its shoulder. The wolf yelped and buckled under the pain, but it didn’t stay down. It immediately scrambled to its feet and hightailed it into the woods. The white wolf close behind.
Part of the gray wolf still lay across his legs. Thorgaut pushed it off to pull them free. He tried to stand up, but everything started to spin. The forest and trees seemed to be swimming before his eyes. His knees buckled, and he fell forward on top of the gray wolf.
And then he saw a pair of large, black boots walking in his direction as he passed out.
Thorgaut pushed himself up and tried to scramble to his feet. He stood unsteadily. His head felt light from hanging upside down for so long. His feet tingled as the circulation started to flow back into them again after having been cut off by the rope.
He looked around for his weapons. They were still on the ground where they had fallen on the other side of the wolves.
The pack continued to press forward in his direction. The black and white wolf both held back a bit and advanced cautiously with their heads down. The gray wolf though came at him aggressively with its head held high.
“Right!” Thorgaut said. “You want to avenge your buddy. Huh?”
Thorgaut spotted some branches and rocks on the ground. He considered using them as weapons. He knew though that they wouldn’t do much good against one wolf, let alone all three of them. It would only make them angrier.
He looked up at the tree beside him. It was still small, and the branches looked like they would barely hold his weight. But it was his only option. He leaped up into the lower limbs and hoped he could pull himself up high enough to keep out of the wolves reach.
Thorgaut grabbed on to a branch and threw his foot up against the trunk for extra leverage. He threw his other arm up to grab onto a second branch. He was still pulling himself up when the gray wolf leaped at him.
He was still sore and weak from his earlier efforts. He was unable to pull himself up fast enough. The large gray animal latched onto the heel of his foot that was still hanging down off the branch. The weight of the wolf almost pulled him back out of the tree, but Thorgaut managed to hang on.
The wolf didn’t have a tight enough grip on his foot, and its teeth slipped off leaving a deep gash. The wound ran deep enough that Thorgaut could see the white of the bone across a part of his foot.
The rabid grey animal fell back to the ground and immediately leaped back up again with a snarl. But by that time Thorgaut had managed to pull his foot higher to safety. He sighed with relief and looked around for a higher branch that could support his weight. He tugged on a few to test them, but they were still young and green. None were strong enough to support his weight.
Meantime, the black and white wolves had arrived at the tree and now sat waiting patiently below. The grey wolf though continued to his assault on the tree. He jumped tirelessly time after time, trying to get a hold of Thorgaut’s feet.
Thorgaut leaned back against the trunk of the tree. He shifted his weight around from time to time when the wolves jaws snapped perilously close to his feet.
The gray wolf finally paused to take a break. The three wolves gathered around each other for another one of their little meetings. Thorgaut watched expectantly. He couldn’t get over how much they seemed to communicate to each other through their growls, snarls, and whimpers.
He wished he could understand what they were up too. They were way too smart for ordinary wolves and seemed to be planning something. They didn’t seem to be up to any good when they looked up in his direction.
After a few minutes, the gray wolf broke off from the pack and backed off a short distance away. The white wolf came closer to the small tree and stood at its base almost directly below Thorgaut. The gray wolf took a running start in the direction of the tree.
Thorgaut couldn’t believe it. Were they going to do what he thought they were? He held his breath.
The gray wolf jumped onto the white wolf’s back. It didn’t have a solid footing and almost slipped. But it didn’t and from there leaped up towards the branch. It managed to grab on and pull itself the rest of the way up until it stood on the limb in front of him.
Thorgaut should have kicked out while it was still getting its balance. He froze momentarily in shock though. He couldn’t believe it. And by the time he gathered his wits about him, the wolf had a solid footing and was ready to attack.
Thorgaut did kick out at its feet to see if he could knock it off anyway, but by then it was too late. The wolf snapped at his feet, and he pulled back. He tried to get around the trunk to another branch.
He grabbed on to a branch with one hand to stabilize himself. Then he threw his foot out on a limb to pull his body around. At the same time, he also grabbed another branch with his free hand. He tested the bough he was standing on by lowering his weight carefully with both feet.
As expected, the branch wasn’t as stable as the previous. It started to bend under Thorgaut’s weight. He pulled his weight back up on his hands so it wouldn’t break. He realized that his hands were flush with the trunk. The branches were the thickest and sturdiest there. He had been placing his feet though, farther out on the limb where it wasn’t as strong.
Thorgaut pulled his feet in closer to the trunk and let up on his arms to test his weight again. This time the branch seemed firmer and didn’t bend as much. But he didn’t like being this position because his body was closer to the wolf. There was no way he could get out farther on the branch to move away from it.
The trunk of the sapling was too thin to be much of an obstacle for the wolf. It found another branch to put one of its paws on to stabilize itself. Then it reached around the trunk with its neck and tried to bite into his thigh right above the knee.
Thorgaut jerked his leg back just as its jaws snapped shut. So, it didn’t get much flesh even though its teeth did rip into his pants. Thorgaut pulled back on his leg to get it farther away, but the wolf had a solid hold. It tugged back against him.
Neither had much leverage since they were above the ground on weak branches. Each of them locked into place without being able to go forward or backward.
Thorgaut had a bit of an advantage because he was able to use his hands to help keep his balance. After a few moments, he pulled back as hard as he could with his leg. Then he shoved his knee up and forward into the wolf’s face and nose.
His tactic worked. The effect of his knee connecting with the wolf’s face caused it to let go of his leg. Also, the fact that Thorgaut was no longer resisting its pull threw it off balance.
The great gray wolf threw its paw forward to regain its footing. It overcompensated though and threw its leg too far over. It almost fell but managed to catch itself with the upper part of its leg. It took a moment to get itself back up.
Thorgaut pulled back with his leg and let loose with a wild kick. His foot connected with the wolf’s head. Since he was using his left leg though, he didn’t have as much power behind it as he had hoped. Being off balance while hanging in a tree didn’t help much either. So, in the end, his kick didn’t do as much damage as he had hoped.
The wolf had pulled back though which gave him a moment to recompose himself. It snarled furiously with its ears laid back. Thorgaut jerked his body around like he was going to kick at it again. The wolf ducked its head to the side. When it realized what he had done, it barked angrily and sharply at him.
Thorgaut noticed when he faked the wolf out that it was easy to shake the whole tree because of its small size. He grabbed onto the branches and shook the tree as hard as he could just like he was trying to knock ripe fruit to the ground.
The wolf crouched down as it tried to keep its balance. It didn’t have fingers or hands to grasp on and tighten its hold. Thorgaut hoped he could knock the wolf out of the tree if he shook hard enough.
Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain. He couldn’t shake the tree violently enough to knock the wolf out. Thorgaut tried several times until he didn’t have the strength to continue any longer. He paused to catch his breath.
When the wolf realized he wasn’t going to shake the tree again, it started to press forward. Thorgaut pulled his legs back as far as he dared to try and keep them away from the wolf’s jaws. But the wolf didn’t try to bite him.
Instead, it lowered back on its haunches like it was going to leap at Thorgaut to knock him out of the tree. Thorgaut prepared for the worst, but there wasn’t much he could do except tighten his grip on the branches and prepare for the worst.