Thorgaut and Svart walked back up the tunnel towards the hole that led back into the main cave. The little spiders surrounded them in front and behind. There were hatchlings on the ground, on the walls, and even running along the roof over their head.
Well, the spiders weren’t exactly little, but just small in comparison to their mother. He would hate to have to fight even one of these little spiders as babies. Imagine trying to fight off one of their mothers. He had no idea what he would do if they did run across Abyss Snarer. He had no weapons to defend himself with.
He could pick up a rock just about anywhere here in this cave to throw at an angry spider. But he doubted that it would do much good. And the speed Happy Feet and Abyss Snarer jumped at meant he wouldn’t even have time to pick a stone up.
The image of being attacked and bitten by a spider was almost too much for his mind to handle in that state. He pushed the thoughts out of his head. He tried to think of something more pleasant, like getting out of this cave and into the rays of the bright, warm sun.
By this time, Thorgaut and his little entourage had reached the small hole back out. He peered into the cavern but didn’t see Abyss Snarer.
“Do you see mommy?” a small spider thought pushed into his mind.
His heart sank as he realized they wouldn’t ever see or get to know their mother. And deep down he felt guilty for their loss. He felt like in some way it was his fault because she had died to defend them. She could have let Abyss Snarer take them away and stayed behind with her babies.
“No,” he replied.
One of the little spiders scampered up the wall and scramble through the hole. The lead hatchling pushed her head out and looked around. Thorgaut picked up on the fact that she was sending back visual signals to the rest of the cluster of spiders. He tuned into the image stream to watch what she was doing.
It was like she was scanning the area and then uploading it for the rest of the group to access from their location. That way the whole group could stay in the loop. And it wasn’t just visual images either. There was a whole gamut of senses that she included as well.
Thorgaut could hear auditory cues as subtle as bat radars pinging. There were smells in the drafts coming down through the cave. He could pick up physical sensations like changes in temperature of the outer cavern.
There were even other senses that Thorgaut didn’t quite recognize. They seemed to be something like intuition. A sixth sense of sorts that spiders could hone in on. It was amazing to be a part of the collective mind and be able to pick up those extra sensations.
The little spider pulled herself out further and continued scanning the cave. The little hatchling kept pinging Thorgaut for clues about Abyss Snarer. He realized she was pulling more than just visual clues from his head. She was pulling out subtle details like her smell and sounds she made. Bits of information that he hadn’t even paid attention to when he was near the giant, evil spider. It was amazing to watch the way these creatures worked.
Eventually, she gave the all clear signal and several other spiders followed her out. They each continued scanning the area which helped create an even more detailed map of the area. Each of the new spiders that went out seemed to focus all their attention on one specific sensation. As they added it back into the feed, it harmonized with the original spider’s scan.
Thorgaut was amazed at the level of detail in the things that they picked up even over vast distances. He could sense subtle tremors in the ground that they picked up through the hairs on their feet. He was able to access all that information as they transferred it into the collective feed.
At first, he had thought he should be the one to go out first to make sure everything was okay for the little spiders. Now, he realized that there wasn’t much he could do for them that they couldn’t do for themselves much better. So, he held back and let the little spiders continue to pour out of the exit until they were all through.
He finally indicated to Svart that the opening was clear so he could crawl through. Just as Svart bent over to squeeze through, three more little spiders came tearing up the tunnel. They scampered right on past Svart almost pushing him out of the way.
Thorgaut scanned their minds as they squeezed past. They were already thoroughly in tune with the rest of the cluster. He could tell that they were accessing the collective knowledge of the group and knew what to do. It was amazing to realize that these spiders had hatched in the last few minutes. They had the advantage of instantly tapping into the knowledge of the other spiders.
Thorgaut snickered at the surprised look on Svart’s face. “They must have hatched after we left,” he said with a shrug.
Svart pushed his way through the hole, and Thorgaut followed close behind. He had to squeeze and twist a little to pull himself free. Svart gave him a hand as well so he could stabilize himself as he came through.
Most of the spiders had scattered their way out across the cave. Thorgaut realized why the web of uploaded sensations was getting stronger. He had thought it was because he was becoming more familiar with spider sensations. But now he realized that there was a very physical reason as well. He wondered how far out the spiders could spread before losing their connection.
Thorgaut heard some noise and looked over his shoulder. Several more spiders come scampering out of the opening in the crevice. He saw that other spiders had already started spinning webs around the cave walls at strategic points. Thorgaut wondered what they expected to catch. He assumed the cave was teaming with life in an ecosystem that he wasn’t even aware existed yet. He was curious to learn what they were.
“Where’s mommy?” the thought came squeezing its way into his mind.
He started to point in the direction they had last seen her. Before he even raised his finger, ten spiders were already racing off in that direction. Thorgaut was amazed at how they could do that. At the same time though, it was a bit scary how they could pull information out of his head so fast.
Thorgaut walked after them with Svart following close behind. He could sense the baby spiders sending out probes for their mother. He couldn’t get a direct lock on Happy Feet. But there did seem to be a familiar presence as he got closer to the tunnel that led up to the cave where they had left her.
By this time, most of the other hatchlings had caught on to where the cluster was going. The rest of the little spiders all came running along behind them trying to catch up with their siblings. Thorgaut had almost reached the entrance to the tunnel when he picked up a horrible vibe.
“Danger!” the collective thought of the cluster screamed into his mind.
He leaped out of the way pulling Svart with him. It was instinctual and automatic. He reacted without even thinking about it. He rolled over and pulled himself up.
Thorgaut realized what it was that he had been sensing down here all this time. That familiar feeling in his probes were other mind-reading spiders like Happy Feet. But why would Happy Feet leave her eggs down here with other spiders who would eat them? That didn’t make any sense.
Had they entered the wrong entrance? It wasn’t likely since there weren’t even any other openings for them to choose.
His curiosity piqued, Thorgaut continued walking forward down the cave. Svart grabbed his arm and pulled him back. But he was no match for Thorgaut who shook him off. The fearless Viking kept pushing on deeper into the tunnel.
Thorgaut probed ahead with his mind, pushing gently against their presence. He realized why he hadn’t recognized the spiders even though the feeling was familiar. There were so many spiders in the group that he had trouble distinguishing them individually.
He felt like every single spider was pushing thoughts out at him the same time. He had to push back to keep them from overpowering his mind. He didn’t know who these spiders were or what they wanted. So he pushed out thoughts of Happy Feet and himself walking together through the cave. Hopefully, they would recognize him as a friend when they saw him.
He came around a bend in the tunnel and saw them. He paused for a second and held his breath. There were dozens of little spiders that looked like Happy Feet. Well, little compared to Happy Feet that is because they were still pretty big. Compared to the spiders he had grown up with, these were giants. Each one was about the size of a small puppy.
They all paused and turned to face him as soon as he came into the chamber. The pressure on his mind increased immensely as they all tried to communicate with him. The pain in his head started up again. It wasn’t anything like the pain he felt under Abyss Snarer, but it still hurt.
He pulled back around the bend and out of sight seeking relief. He closed his eyes and put his hands to his head. He kept pushing out against their thoughts.
“What is it?” Svart asked. “Are you okay?”
Thorgaut nodded and looked up. “Yeah,” he replied. “These little guys are intense.”
He peeked back around the corner of the cave and saw that they were pushing in together towards him.
“Get back,” he ordered them. They all scamped back and ran towards the rear part of the cave. Thorgaut realized it was a dead end. The tunnel stopped here, so they would eventually have to head back out the way they had come. Hopefully, Abyss Snarer would be gone by then.
He focused on the little spiders and tried to count them. It was a little more manageable now that they were all together. He still had trouble keeping track of them though as they crawled around and circled each other. He counted about fifty of them before losing track of which ones he had already counted and which ones he hadn’t. It also looked like two-thirds of the eggs hadn’t even hatched yet.
“Oh, boy,” he muttered out loud.
Thorgaut probed out towards the little spiders with his mind, and they pressed back. He tried to feel them out individually to pick out where one ended and another started. It took him a minute or so until he was able to pick out and identify the most energetic little thinkers of the bunch.
He pushed images of Happy Feet at them and noticed how pleased it made them.
“Mommy?” one of them probed back.
“Yes,” Thorgaut affirmed.
A twitter of excitement rushed through the little pack. The small hatchlings started tapping their two front feet in excitement as Happy Feet had earlier. Thorgaut chuckled at their enthusiasm and looked at Svart. The boy had no clue about what was going on. He stared back at Thorgaut with a blank look on his face.
Thorgaut tried to explain that he was showing them their mother. But he soon realized that Svart didn’t understand what he was doing. So, he gave up trying to explain and turned his attention back to the little spiders.
“Are you mommy?” one of the spiders fired out at him.
Most of the pack came rushing over in his direction and surrounded him before he could even answer. They started tapping on his feet and legs. Thorgaut realized that they were feeling him and trying to figure out who he was. It seemed like most of the cluster of spiders were connected mentally. They all seemed to think together.
The few minds he picked up earlier seemed to be the firstborn batch of spiders. The rest of the little critters passively flowed along mentally with the group thoughts. These appeared to be the most recent to hatch. Thorgaut figured hey would develop their own thinking as they grew up and headed off on their own.
“No,” Thorgaut said and pushed back a strong mental image of Happy Feet at them once again.
“Who are you?” they asked.
“I am Thorgaut. That is Svart. We are friends. Your mother told us to come here to check on you.”
“Where is mommy?” they pushed back insistently.
Thorgaut didn’t know how to answer that. He honestly didn’t know what had happened to her, and he didn’t want to scare them. Something must have happened. If Happy Feet had beaten Abyss Snarer, she would have made it down her by now.
He decided against trying to explain everything that was going on. Besides, he didn’t know how much they would understand anyway. How much could newly-hatched, baby spiders comprehend about the life and death struggle that they had been born into and was taking place around them?
“Is mommy dead?” one of them asked.
The question caught Thorgaut by surprise. These little boogers were sharp. He realized they were probably playing off his mind. They were naturally translating words they pulled out of his head as Happy Feet had done. But still, it was pretty impressive coming from critters that were only a few hours old at most.
“Enemy,” Thorgaut said as he pushed a menacing image of Abyss Snarer at their thoughts. The entire little pack of spiders took a step back and hissed in anger and fear. Svart didn’t know what was going on and jumped back. He lost his footing and tripped over on the floor on the other side of Thorgaut.
The entire pack of little spiders broke into fits of giggles and peals of laughter. Thorgaut chuckled along with them. He laughed more at their musical, little laughs than at Svart tripping. He reached down and helped Svart stand back up. Svart accepted his offer and brushed himself off sheepishly.
“What’s so funny,” he demanded.
“I don’t suppose spiders trip much. You wouldn’t either if you had eight legs.” Thorgaut replied.
Svart didn’t say anything to that. He stomped his feet angrily and slapped his thighs for good measure.
“Find mommy,” the little spiders pushed back at Thorgaut. They scattered the thought among themselves. They started scampering out and around Thorgaut and Svart. Some heading up the walls and across the roof.
“Wait,” Thorgaut yelled out mentally. “What about the others that haven’t hatched yet?”
“They’ll follow us,” they replied. “We’ll show the other spiders the way.”
Thorgaut head the spiders hissing and screaming at each other back in the cavern as he ran down the tunnel. He came out in the other cavern and ran towards the ledge Happy Feet had pointed out to him earlier.
His initial thought was to run past the area and then double back on his trail. That way, if Abyss Snarer ended up following their scent, he wouldn’t realize where it had ended. He didn’t know how good the spider’s senses were or how much of an area Happy Feet had muted out.
But before he and Svart even got to the opening, the sound of the spiders fighting had ceased altogether. Thorgaut stopped running when they arrived at the ledge. He paused to catch his breath and look for the opening where Happy Feet had hidden her eggs.
Total silence had descended throughout the cavern. Sounds Thorgaut hadn’t paid attention to or even noticed earlier had ceased entirely. The sound of spiders fighting struck complete and utter terror throughout the cave. It sounded like every living thing had taken cover to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Thorgaut expected the Abyss Snarer to come around the bend and enter the cavern at any moment. Then he remembered the open connection that allowed him to peek into her mind at any time. Thorgaut probed out feeling for her presence but didn’t pick anything up. He couldn’t sense her at all.
He was excited at first thinking she might be dead already. Maybe Happy Feet’s attack had worked, and she had killed him. He probed out for Happy Feet’s mind, but he couldn’t sense anything from her either. Were they both dead? Could they have killed each other?
Thorgaut discarded the idea. That was pretty unlikely. He was probably too far away from them for his newly-discovered, mind-reading skills to work. He kept walking around the ledge looking for the opening.
“What are you doing?” Svart asked in an anguished tone. “Let’s keep moving before Abyss Snarer comes around looking for us.”
Thorgaut hushed him by motioning with a finger to his lips.
“Keep it down. Happy Feet told me there was an opening around here where she hid her eggs. She said we would be safe if we hid here.”
“When did she tell you all that? I was with you the whole time and never heard her say anything like that.” Svart whispered back. He followed close behind Thorgaut almost under his feet which got on his nerves.
Thorgaut tried to think of a simple way to explain everything that had transpired. He started to describe how Abyss Snarer had ripped his mind opened. But it seemed too long and complicated of an explanation for right now, so he gave the boy a straight answer.
“The spiders are telepathic and read minds. Happy Feet talked to me directly through her thoughts.”
He paused to look at the boy. Svart had an incredulous look on his face.
“I am a kid, and Runa says I’m kind of naive,” Svart said. “But you can’t seriously believe that I’m dumb enough to believe that. Do you?”
“It’s the honest truth, kid,” Thorgaut said. “I’m not pulling your leg here.”
Thorgaut found an opening down into a small crevice between a group of stalactites.
“I think this is it,” Thorgaut whispered. “Since you’re smaller than me, see if you can wiggle down in there and check it out.”
“So, some venomous cave creature can bite me first or rip my head off,” Svart complained.
He complied though and bent over to crawl down into it. He grumbled and fussed the entire time though.
Svart seemed to be pretty good at it. Thorgaut figured this was something he did with his sister and mother to get them to feel sorry for him. It probably worked in getting him out of having to do things he didn’t like.
Thorgaut snickered as he remembered his youngest brother. Svart and his brother had the same air about them. Little brats that got away with murder around their parents.
Savart’s body was about halfway in. He twisted around to pull his legs through after him. Thorgaut wondered if he was going to be able to squeeze himself in there. It looked pretty tight.
“How is it in there?” Thorgaut asked into the hole. “What do you see?”
There was no answer from the yawning, black opening. Thorgaut probed into the darkness with his mind for Svart. He didn’t feel the boy there which didn’t surprise him. He did sense something else though. He couldn’t quite place his finger on what it was exactly. It felt familiar somehow, yet still different at the same time.
Thorgaut stood up to shrug off his coat. It wasn’t very thick, but he wanted to make himself as small as possible to be able to squirm his way into this opening. No telling what the tunnel was like further down, and if he did get stuck, no one would be around to pull him back through.
He stuck his head through the opening and immediately felt relief. The small tunnel was roomier than it looked from the outside. He wouldn’t be able to stand up, but at least there wasn’t any worry of him getting stuck in here.
Thorgaut pushed his coat out in front of him, and then pulled himself into the small tunnel. It sloped downward at a gentle angle. He kept pushing his jacket forward and dragging his body along. After a minute or so he reached the bottom. The tunnel opened up enough so that he was able to stand up. He brushed himself off and put his jacket back on.
“Svart,” he called out softly. “You there?”
Thorgaut walked down the tunnel with his left hand trailing along the wall. He remembered hearing stories in his father’s hall as a child. He particularly enjoyed listening to the miners telling their tall tales. They usually involved getting lost in underground caves and finding great treasures.
One particularly horrible story was of a miner who had gotten lost in a labyrinth. One by one, his companions perished or disappeared. This particular miner claimed that he survived because he kept his left hand on the wall and never let go. Even when he hit a dead end and had to double back, he ran one finger along the wall. He claimed to eventually find his way out of the cave after days of stumbling through the darkness.
Thorgaut wondered at the time just how accurate the story was. He suspected that the old geezer had killed his companions and kept the treasure for himself. He sensed that the miner made up the story about being stuck in the mine to get away with his crime. But everyone else hailed the man a hero and drank to his health. So, Thorgaut had kept quiet even though he didn’t toast them man himself.
The idea of trailing his hand along the cave wall though had captured his imagination. It filled him with morbid fascination and intrigued him for days. He had drawn maps of his own labyrinths to see if the idea would hold true. He tried to find a situation in which the man could have gotten stuck in a loop, but none came up.
Thorgaut even went into random buildings around the town. He placed his hand in various locations on different walls to see if they would always lead him to an exit point. Not that the walls of the buildings counted though. They were so straight and logical. He knew they weren’t the same as being in a cave tunnel. But it was what he had to work with, so he made the most of it.
He had even visited the king’s home once in Gnóttknǫttr. His whole family had gone during the annual celebrations in preparation for winter. They didn’t usually go because it was so far away. And there was always the possibility of getting caught in a blizzard along the way at that time of the year.
His father had insisted on going that particular year though. The king had promised to give him one of the seats of honor at the feast tables. It was supposed to be a great honor. But it hadn’t happened though.
His father hadn’t even received a seat with the other Jarls at the tables near the king’s throne. In the end, old Kabbi had been relegated to sitting at the communal tables in the hall among the warriors and mages.
The king had apologized profusely for not having a place for him. It wasn’t actually his fault though. He pointed out the fact that Kabbi hadn’t confirmed his presence that year. And since he had never come to any of the previous feasts no one had expected him to come.
King Mar did promise to save him a seat of honor the following year, but the damage had been done. Old Kabbi nursed his grudge and never returned.
Thorgaut hadn’t realized what was going on at the time. He only heard about it after they got home. That was because he had spent every possible moment playing in the living mazes in the king’s garden.
King Mar had created verticle walls of hanging plants and flowers to maximize space. And he had organized different sections of the labyrinth based on color. Yellow flowers on one side, orange flowers on the other, red on another, and so on.
At least that’s what Thorgaut had been told. He hadn’t actually seen the colors himself. The first frost had already fallen by the time they arrived that year and killed off the flowers. Everything was dead and brown while he was there. But that didn’t keep him from spending his days running up and down the corridors of the labyrinth. He trailed his fingers along every single one of those walls.
He had tested every variation and possible starting point in the maze. No matter where he placed his hand, it always brought him back to the exit. He couldn’t get enough of the labyrinth.
It had started snowing soon after they arrived, so his mother kept making him come in to warm up. But every time she turned around, Thorgaut was back out in the garden. She would look out a window and see Thorgaut running up and down the maze with his fingers trailing the walls.
His time in the maze ended abruptly on the third day. It had stopped snowing, and his father decided they had spent enough time there. He packed everything up, and they returned immediately despite his mother’s protests.
It wasn’t until they got home, that Thorgaut heard the full story. Even then it wasn’t very clear. Something about his father being ornery and picking a fight with a drunk that was sitting in his place.
This particular drunk happened to be Fastulf Ansson. He ended up being one of the king’s best warriors and top guards. And because of old Kabbi’s insults, Fastulf challenged him to a duel. So, to keep peace and prevent a catastrophe, wise King Mar had sent the knight off on an ‘urgent’ mission. He recommended old Kabbi cut his visit short and head on home before the warrior got back.
Kabbi, of course, had protested that he wasn’t afraid of any drunk warrior. But it seemed to be pretty much given amongst everyone there that Kabbi didn’t stand much of a chance. This particular warrior was a maniac killing machine. Fastulf had defended and protected the king’s life in countless battles. He had proved his worth time and time again. There was no way, the king was going to defend old Kabbi against his prized warrior even if he was a Jarl.
Thorgaut was disappointed that he didn’t get to stay longer. He still had a few hypothesis and theories about mazes that he wanted to test. He could have spent another week playing in the garden maze. But even now, after all those years, that experience was still etched in his memory. It was compelling enough for Thorgaut to keep his fingers trailing along the wall of this cave.
He realized now that he had been doing it ever since they had first entered the tunnels. Way back under Svart’s house, he had already started trailing the cave walls. He had been doing it mentally because he was too far from the actual cavern walls to touch them. But he had been keeping track of which wall he was following. And even now, he could have drawn a map of what the caves looked like if needed from memory.
His thoughts were interrupted when he bumped into Svart. The boy had come tearing back up the tunnel in his direction.
“What is it, boy?” he asked. “You looked like you saw a ghost.”
“Spiders,” Svart panted and gasped. “Hundreds of them. Run!”
“How do you know that?” Happy Feet asked directly in his thoughts.
“Because I can feel everything she’s thinking,” Thorgaut pushed back. “She doesn’t seem to know what I’m doing yet.”
“She opened a direct connection when she rammed into your head back there,” Happy Feet said. “She locked it open so she could sift through your thoughts without expending a lot of her own energy. She didn’t assume you would be able to use the connection yourself. She won’t catch on as long as you don’t try to push anything at her.”
Thorgaut made small talk with Svart and Happy Feet as they continued walking. He could sense Abyss Snarer getting ready to attack. So, he kept on streaming the impressions he was getting from her directly to Happy Feet.
He didn’t know if what he was doing was working on her. But he tried his best to keep Happy Feet in the loop. Her spider senses were probably more in tune with Abyss Snarer than his. Thorgaut hoped Happy Feet understood the impressions and could interpret them.
“I’m not going to lead her to my nest,” Happy Feet informed him. “I don’t trust her. If she kills me, she’ll eat my eggs out of pure spite. Do you see that ledge over there?”
Thorgaut started to nod and answer out loud but caught himself quickly. He pretended to be remembering a song his mother had taught him as a child. He started humming and snapping his fingers.
“That’s where I hid and cloaked my eggs,” she continued unphased. You and Svart should run and hide there while she and I are fighting. As long as she doesn’t see you go behind the rocks, you should be safe. There’s a small opening where I hid the eggs. Hide in there till it’s safe. I made sure to mute the scent around that area before I left earlier. So, it should keep Abyss Snarer from sniffing you out.”
Thorgaut added some extra lines to his mother’s song so Happy Feet would know he had understood her.
“I’m gonna listen to my Momma. Run to safety from the Nokken.”
“What’s a Nockken?” Svart asked.
Thorgaut chuckled and shook his head. “It’s the evilest creature in the world. It hides in lakes and rivers waiting to grab little children who don’t come when called. My mother terrified me with stories of it as a child.”
By this time, they had gone up a hill and around a curve. The rocky ledge Happy Feet had mentioned was no longer visible behind them. Thorgaut sensed that it was almost showtime.
He reached out to try and connect with Svart once more so he could warn the boy to prepare for what was about to happen. He projected his thoughts at Svart but didn’t sense the boy was aware of what he was doing.
They came out of a tunnel and into a large cavernous chamber. Happy Feet stopped and jumped into the air spinning around midair to face Abyss Snarer.
“Well, here we are,” she chuckled nervously and pointed to the side with one of her feet. “Why don’t you boys go sit over there while I climb up and check on my eggs.”
Thorgaut was only too happy to oblige. He wanted to get out from between the spiders. Happy Feet’s jump seemed to have thrown off Abyss Snarer’s plan.
Happy Feet ran over to the side of the cave climbed up the wall to the roof. The spider scurried across to the other side and stopped behind some stalactites as if checking on her eggs.
Abyss Spider positioned herself for attack when Happy Feet came back down the cave wall. Thorgaut fired off a warning thought to keep Happy Feet from coming back that way. She turned to the side at the last minute and came down on the other side of the tunnel entrance. She approached warily keeping a careful eye on Abyss Snarer.
“Well, let’s get a move on it. Time’s a wasting. I gotta get you to your friends and then get back to my babies.”
“Why don’t you let me take these two to their friends,” Abyss Snarer said. “You stay here and take care of your babies. Surely, they’re more important than these two humans who would just as soon kill your babies as look at them.”
Happy Feet tapped her feet rapidly while shifting her weight back and forth in place. “Well, thank you Abyss Snarer for your very generous offer. But you and I both know that you won’t let them leave.”
“What do you care?” Abyss Snarer hissed. “There just humans. You know what they do to our kind.”
“Maybe it’s time to change things?” she replied. “One good deed begets another. We can start a chain of events that will change our future relationships.”
“Bah! You don’t believe that malarkey. Do you?” Abyss Snarer spat out. “Are you willing to die for them.”
“Yes, and I do believe it,” Happy Feet replied. “You know about my visions. I’ve seen the path they tread. They both play a key role in coming events that will affect us all. You’ve heard the whispers and rumors of the undead activity.”
Abyss Snarer snickered, “Of course I hear them. I’m not deaf. Although, unlike you, I prefer to use my rationality and sense of better judgment. I choose not to believe everything I hear.”
“It’s best to prepare yourself,” Happy Feet said. “I’ve seen the future, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”
Abyss Snarer rolled all eight of her eyes. “Oh, please. Don’t be so melodramatic. We live in a cave. Let the humans and dwarves and elves fight it out. ”
“For the sake of my offspring, I wish we were safe in the caves.” Happy replied glumly. “But we’ll be the first race affected. The undead use these tunnels to move around. We’ll be the first species that they will transform. They’ll use our skills and abilities to fight their battles.”
“We can build webs to keep them out,” Abyss Snarer said.
Happy Feet shook her head with a look of despair. “Spiders will take the brunt of the blame for the attacks on humans. Men will flood these tunnels seeking revenge and to end the threat. They will come with fire and burn us out. No spider is safe.”
“All the more reason to kill this one. The NightWalkers have already bitten this human on the neck.” Abyss Spider said pointing a hairy leg in Thorgaut’s direction. “Or we can at least wrap him up in a web so he can’t cause us trouble.”
Thorgaut stood off to the side watching their interaction. The showdown between the spiders was tense. Both were nervous and upset. The new Viking telepath didn’t feel he should connect with their minds. Any interference on his part could set them off.
“Things are about to get ugly,” Thorgaut leaned over and muttered to Svart. “Stay alert and get ready to run. Happy Feet already told me where to go. So, just follow my lead when the time comes.”
Svart looked up at him with fear in his eyes. Thorgaut felt sorry for him and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Okay, you win.” Abyss Snarer said lowering her front legs and abdomen. “I’ll take your word for it. We’ll let these two tasty morsels go and hope for the best in the future. What do you see in my future?”
“Death,” Happy Feet screamed as she leaped into the air straight at the other spider. Abyss Snarer was quick on her feet in spite of her large size. She jumped and twisted her body mid-air. She defended the attack and grappled Happy Feet with her own swift counterattack.
The spiders fell to the ground hissing and fighting. Happy Feet was on top due to the force of her leap. But Abyss Snarer immediately flipped her over.
Thorgaut didn’t stick around to see who would win. He grabbed Svart by the forearm and gave a firm tug. He ran back down the tunnel towards the rocky ledge that Happy Feet had pointed out to him earlier.
“Abyss Snarer,” Happy said. “How wonderful to see you, dear. Come along with us. We’re going up to check on my babies. Then we are off for a little walk.”
The other spider didn’t reply in a way Thorgaut and Svar could understand. Her front two legs started tapping the ground rapidly in front of her. She puffed up her abdomen at an angle. It looked like they were communicating in spider language whatever that was.
Thorgaut was standing between the two spiders, so he moved off to the side. Abyss Snarer was the exact opposite of Happy Feet. Her head was almost as large as her abdomen. And she had a lot more hair on her body and legs.
The markings seemed to move and undulate rapidly. At first, Thorgaut thought it was a trick of his eyes in the darkness. But as he watched he noticed it happen several more times.
He started to say something, but then decided against it. He didn’t know what might trigger this spider into attacking. The spiders he had observed as a child were extremely fast. They could pounce on their prey from long distances of up to fifty times the length of their body. There was no way he could outrun it.
Anyss Snarer finally stopped drumming and lowered her abdomen. Happy Feet chuckled nervously. “Well, come along, boys. I need to make sure my babies are okay.”
Thorgaut and Svart looked at each other. Svart shook his head slightly. Thorgaut understood what he meant. He didn’t need to be a mind reader to surmise that the boy didn’t trust the spiders either. He sure didn’t want to end up becoming spider snack for the day.
“Well, look, ladies,” Thorgaut spoke up. “I hate to be rude and run off on you like this after just having met and all. It’s getting late though, and I need to find my friends before they get worried about me.”
Thorgaut felt the familiar warm pressure of a mind reader in his head. Only this time it came on suddenly and sharply. He grabbed his head and doubled over to the ground in extreme pain. He could feel the spider roughly sifting through this memories and thoughts. He vomited at her feet, and she let up on his mind to pull back her feet in disgust.
“Get up,” she hissed. “You’re not going anywhere. That was a warning. The next time, I’ll remove your memories permanently.”
“But my friends,” he moaned while still lying on the ground with his head between his hands. “They’re looking for me by now.”
“Oh, get over yourself and your puffed-up ego,” she replied. “It’s been a week since you last saw them. They’re long gone by now on that little ship you came in.”
Thorgaut rolled over and sat up. Svart helped him get up. His legs felt wobbly, and he stood unsteadily. He held onto Svar for support as he took a few shaky steps forward.
They followed Happy Feet back up the tunnel with Abyss Snarer following close behind.
Thorgaut sensed Abyss snarer’s mind but wasn’t sure if his impressions were correct. He got the feeling though that he could tell what she was thinking. It was as if the mind-reading force she used on him had unlocked something in his head. There seemed to be an open connection between their minds.
He sensed that she was impressed by something she had seen his memories. If he had to guess, he would have said that it had to do with the NightWalker biting him. Although he didn’t know why that would impress her so much.
Thorgaut hoped he might be starting to learn how to mind read now. He reached out with his senses towards Svart. He could sense the boy walking beside and slightly behind him. It wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to read the boy’s thoughts though.
He turned his senses towards the other spider. Happy Feet tensed up when Thorgaut probed into her mind. The spider relaxed as soon as she realized what was going on though.
“What are you doing, Thorgaut,” she probed back. Thorgaut could sense her thoughts in his mind even though he knew she wasn’t speaking out loud. It wasn’t as if he was reading her mind. It was more like she was pushing her thoughts into his head.
“I’m not sure,” he replied honestly. “After Abyss Snarer ripped my head open, I feel like I can sense her mind. I was testing how it worked with you and Svart.”
“You’re a fast learner,” she giggled. “She may have opened your mind to some interesting possibilities. At any rate, you’ll have an easier time of learning to read minds if you decided to develop these skills.”
“Why would she be interested in the fact that a NightWalker bit me recently?” he queried.
He felt her tense up at that information. It was fast and subtle though. He wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t been concentrating all his attention on her at that very moment.
“I didn’t realize you had been bitten by a NightWalker, but then I didn’t raid your mind like she did. That is an interesting fact though.”
They all walked in silence for a bit. Thorgaut continued to shift his attention between the two spiders. It was easy for him to connect with Abyss Snarer. There seemed to be an open connection between them that had been opened. It allowed him direct access into her head without alerting her to his presence.
He continued having difficulty connecting with Happy Feet’s mind though. It took him several attempts each time and always felt a bit clumsy. He felt like he was poking around in the dark trying to get into Happy Feet’s head. But it was the exact opposite with the other spider. He knew where Abyss Snarer was at all times without even having to turn around to look at her.
Svart continued to prove to be a tougher challenge. He never could actually break through into the boy’s head or read his thoughts. He concluded that it was because Svart wasn’t a mind reader like the spiders were. So, it would naturally prove laborious for him to connect with the boy.
The whole idea of connecting with other minds and learning to read thoughts was exciting. It would prove to be an invaluable ability if Thorgaut could develop it further. Especially if he could push scary thoughts into the mind of enemies that he faced on the battlefield. He could shove horrid visions directly into their head to scare them. He could terrorize them before the fighting even began.
Thorgaut snickered at the thought of them fleeing before the battle even started. The look on his friends’ faces would be priceless. His reputation as Thorgaut the Dreadful would grow.
“Thorgaut’s enemies flee before he ever even draws his sword,” they would shout.
“What’s so funny?” Svart asked when he noticed the grin on Thorgaut’s face. He tried to push the images in his mind into the boy’s head, but it still felt like a clumsy attempt.
“He can’t sense minds connecting with him like you can,” Happy Feet replied in his head. “He never felt me probing through his thoughts like you did. You seem to be somewhat of a natural at the mind games. You already had an open mind.”
“You could be right! I have to admit that my mind is a little more open to strange things now than it was a week ago.” he fired back.
“It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve fought shufflers, undead wolves, and crazy people with black eyes these past few days.” he shot at her with a tone of irony.
“And now I’m carrying on a conversation in my head with a giant underground spider that wants to feed me to her babies.”
Happy Feet giggled and looked back at him. “Oh, c’mon. I wouldn’t do that to poor Svart. On second thought, I could do that to you though, since you pose a mind-reading threat to my kind.”
“And here I thought you had a thing for me,” Thorgaut groaned and rolled his eyes in mock despair at her betrayal of him. “I’m jealous and will have to find a way to throw him to Abyss Snarer when the time comes.”
“Don’t say that,” she hushed him. “It may come to that. She doesn’t seem to have the best of intentions.
“What’s going on? What are you talking about?” Abyss Snarer demanded to know after hearing their giggles and groans.
“Nothing,” Thorgaut said. “I stepped on a rock with my sore foot.”
He felt Abyss Snarer reach out to probe his mind and read his thoughts. Thorgaut immediately pulled back and shoved some random memories of the wolf attack.
The spider recoiled and pulled back in disgust at the images of the wolf leaping and tearing at him.
Thorgaut probed right back into her mind and picked up some images of her thoughts. He reeled with shock at the realization of what Abyss Snarer was planning to do.
He immediately reached out to Happy Feet. It took him a few attempts to get the spider’s attention and connect with her mind. He pushed the images from Abyss Snarer’s head into hers.
“Be careful,” Thorgaut alerted her. “Abyss Snarer is going to jump you as soon we get to your eggs, and then kill Svart and me.”
Thorgaut peered into the darkness of the cave around him, but they couldn’t see who was speaking. He saw the walls on both sides and the cave stretching back into the distance behind them. But there was no one nearby.
“That’s creepy,” Savart said pressing close to Thorgaut for protection. “I must be hearing things.”
“I heard it too,” Thorgaut said.
They turned back in the direction they had been going, but there was nothing there either. Thorgaut did a complete 360-degree turn looking carefully in all directions. But he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“Guess there must be talking rocks around here,” Thorgaut declared loudly.
There was a soft giggle. There it was again. The same voice Thorgaut had heard earlier. The echo bouncing around off the cave walls made it difficult to pinpoint its exact location.
“Where are you? Who are you?” Thorgaut demanded. “Show yourself.”
“I’m right here, silly,” she said.
Something soft and warm brushed against the back of his neck. Thorgaut leaped forward and spun around. Still, there was nothing there.
“What is it?” Svart asked.
“Something touched me,” he shouted angrily. He moved forward waving his arms around wildly. “They must be invisible. Be careful.”
Svart crouched down to make himself smaller. He started waving his arms around as well to feel for anything around them.
The giggling turned into laughter. A hilarious, uncontrolled belly laugh of someone having a jolly, good time at Thorgaut and Svart’s expense. Thorgaut stopped waving his arms around and stood still.
“This isn’t funny,” Thorgaut spat out. “C’mon, Svart. Let’s get out of here.”
He started walking again with Svart following close behind.
“No, please wait.” the voice spoke up again. “I’m sorry. I don’t get many visitors around here. I don’t know how to behave myself appropriately sometimes.”
Thorgaut and Svart stopped and turned back around.
“Look up,” she said. “I’m right above you.”
Thorgaut looked up towards the roof of the cave. It took him a few seconds to spot her because the gray coloring blended right into the cave roof. The first thing he noticed was her eyes. Several, large beady unblinking black orbs staring straight down at him. From there he was able to make out its outline.
He and Svart both saw it at the same time. Thorgaut leaped backward and scrambled away from it. Svart attempted to jump too but lost his footing. He slipped and fell to the ground.
“Relax, boys.” she sighed. “I’m not going to harm you.”
“You’re a spider!” Thorgaut yelled.
“Duh, smartypants,” she replied. “You act as if you’ve never seen a spider before.”
“Not three feet long,” he retorted.
“You have a point there,” she sighed. “Most spiders don’t grow as big as me. And those that do go outside of these caves are usually killed by your kind before they grow to half my size.”
“Most don’t talk either,” Thorgaut said.
She jumped down in front of them and shrugged. “What can I say? I guess I’m special like that.”
Thorgaut scowled at her and shifted his position defensively to get a better look. She had a small head with two large eyes in the front. Several smaller eyes circled them across the sides and top of her head.
She noticed Thorgaut checking her out, so she turned a little for him to get a better look. First to one side and then the other. She had a long oval shaped body with dark brown stripes that circled her abdomen. Four of her long, slim legs pointed forward, and the other two aimed back.
Thorgaut shied away from them as she moved around. She pulled her legs in to keep them close to her body in a non-threatening manner. But he still didn’t get too close to her. She could snap out at a moment’s notice.
“Who are you exactly,” he asked. “And what do you want with us?”
She giggled again for a second and then caught herself. “I’m sorry. Couldn’t help it. I wasn’t going to bother you. I was going to let you go on by, but I felt sorry for the boy after all he’s suffered. I didn’t want the Snarer of the Abyss to get a hold of him.”
“What are you talking about? How do you know what Svart has been through.” Thorgaut demanded.
“Oh, boy!” she replied. “I guess this is gonna be a long conversation.”
She paused to look at Thorgaut and Svart. Each stood on opposite sides of her.
“We’re waiting,” Svart said.
“To make a long story short my name is Draunrysn, but you can call me Happy Feet. That’s what it would mean roughly translated into your language.”
“Roughly translated,” Thorgaut exclaimed. “Where did you learn to speak our language?”
“Human languages are easy. I simply pull the words out of your mind.”
“What? Like you can read our minds?” Thorgaut asked flabbergasted.
“Something like that,” she replied. “Yes, I guess you would call it that. I filter through your thoughts, Thorgaut Kabbisson who is looking for his way home.”
“That’s not very polite,” he complained. “It’s an invasion of my property and illegal in most places.”
“I can’t help it,” she sighed. “It comes naturally to me, and you could stop me if you knew how. It would take some training to build up your mental defenses. I have come across those of your kind who know how to protect their minds.”
Thorgaut didn’t know what to say. He started to stammer something out, but in the end looked at Svart. The boy shrugged as if to say he had never heard of cave-dwelling, mind-reading spiders either.
“In my defense,” the spider continued, “I’m nor prying deep into your memories. I’m only reading your surface thoughts.”
“Thank you,” Thorgaut finally said. It felt like a silly thing to say, but it was all he could think of at the moment.
“Oh, don’t mention it, darling,” she replied. “Well, I must be getting back to my web and check on my eggs. I left them unattended to follow you down here and see where you were going. You can never be too careful around here. Anyway”
“Wait, please.” Thorgaut pleaded. “How can we get out of these tunnels? And what was that about the Abyss Monster?”
“Oh, right! Don’t continue down this tunnel. It doesn’t lead anywhere. There is a deep abyss at the end of it covered with a web. You won’t see it until you fall through because it looks like the cave floor.”
“The Abyss Snarer is a spider, like you?” Svart asked.
“Why yes child,” she replied “And you’ll make a nice snack for her. Unlike me, she’s not known for taking pity on her prey. Pay attention.”
Thorgaut felt a light pressure across the top of his head. He received a brief mental image of a spider almost as large Happy Feet. It was a lighter brown then her, and its stripes ran straight down its sides rather than around its abdomen.
“That’s the Abyss Snarer. You don’t want to bump into her down here. If you see her, run as fast as you can. She has a nasty disposition, and even I do my best to avoid her.
“Papa never talked about spiders living down here,” Svart interjected.
“Most of my kind, the Eshebrot as we call ourselves, live deeper down. It’s warmer, and allows us to avoid contact with those of you who live above.”
“So, why do you live here?” Svart asked.
“I had a little spat with my husband’s family after I killed him. So, I moved off a ways to avoid them. Plus there are a lot more rats and bats up this way. And it’s been a long time since the trolls have stopped coming through here. So, I made myself cozy here. No place like home. Right, boys?”
Happy Feet seemed like she was going to keep on rambling on, so Thorgaut interrupted her. “I don’t mean to be rude and cut the conversation short, but how do we get out her exactly.”
She paused for a moment and then said with one of her usual giggles, “Which way would you like to go exactly?”
“I thought you could read minds,” Thorgaut said. “Don’t you know where we want to go?”
“I told you that I was respecting your privacy by not digging into your mind. Besides, you don’t seem to know where you want to go exactly. You seem to be a little lost.”
Thorgaut laughed. “That’s the understatement of the year. I’ve been lost for several days.”
He felt the same warm pressure on the top of his head as she probed his thoughts.
“I don’t know how to get you back to the house of that woman in the woods,” she said. “It seems to be the place you most want to go right now.”
“Halldora’s house,” he nodded.
“There is a magical warding spell that is cloaking the house to keep anyone from finding it. I sense that there are caverns that come out near that area. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you which ones without more information about the location.”
“It’s okay,” Thorgaut replied. “Can you help me get back to my friends by that bend in the river.”
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll even take you there myself. First, I need to go back and check in on my babies though. Come along and follow me.”
Thorgaut and Svart followed Happy Feet back up the tunnel the way they had come. They started walking when a voice hissed out from the darkness behind them.
“Stealing food that’s headed to my trap, are we Draunrysn. You could at least share. There’s enough for each of us. You can even keep the bigger one for yourself and your babies. The little one there is plenty big for me.
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.