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.
Thorgaut noticed that all three wolves were converging upon him. He needed to do something, but what? There was little he could do tethered to the rope without any weapons left. He realized his only chance was to climb up the cord and away from the ferocious jaws of the wolf trio.
His body was numb from having hung upside down for so long, and his arms felt like rubber. The thought of letting go and succumbing to the wolves went through his mind. He immediately shoved them aside.
He was Thorgaut Kabbisson, the firstborn son of a Jarl and the rightful heir to his father’s seat in the lodge. He would sit in his father’s place when the time came. He would also challenge the regional King to take his throne as well. Thorgaut’s mother had driven that thought into his head every single day since as far back as he could remember.
He was the rightful heir to all the northern kingdoms. One day he would rule and reign over all the cities and towns of NorthWorld.
He would not give up now. He would do everything in his power to fulfill his destiny and live up to his mother’s expectations; even if he had to come back from the dead to take his rightful place.
But right now he had to survive, and the only way to do that was to make it to the top of that rope.
Thorgaut twisted his head and torso up towards the rope. He grabbed onto it with both hands and began to pull himself up as fast as he could. One pull over the other. Reach. Grab. Pull. Reach higher.
He favored his right hand that the wolf had bitten. He couldn’t pull himself up as far on it as he could with the other. First, because of the pain whenever he squeezed it around the cord. And second, because the blood from the wound made the rope slippery and harder to grasp.
Thorgaut could hear the wolves below but tried to ignore them for the time. He concentrated so heavily on his current task that he didn’t even bother to look down. He focused on getting one hand over the other to pull himself up as fast and as far as he could.
He still had a ways to go, but his arms were already exhausted from everything he’d been through today. His breathing was rough and labored. Rasping.
Thorgaut paused to try and catch his breath while he clung to the rope with all his might. His arms trembled from the effort, and his grip started to slip.
Somehow, he finally remembered to wrap his legs around the rope and squeeze tightly. Up until now, he had just been using the strength of his arms to pull himself up hand over hand. Thorgaut realized that he could use his legs to relieve the strain on his arms. That brought immediate relief to his hands.
His fingers especially ached, and it hurt when he tried to relax them. Thorgaut grimaced as he stretched and wiggled his fingers around. They began to prickle as the blood flowed back into them and regained their regular coloring.
Thorgaut took a moment during this brief break to look down. The wolves were still circling on the ground below him. The black wolf had its head turned up towards Thorgaut. It watched him intently. It didn’t break eye contact with him but held his gaze until Thorgaut looked back up at the rope.
He felt exhausted and too tired to continue pulling himself up. He looked back down. The gray wolf had sprawled out on the ground as if waiting for Thorgaut to fall back into their waiting jaws below. In a way, he wanted to. Fall on the ground. Sprawl out in the grass. Rest his tired body. It would be such a relief and would feel so good.
Thorgaut swatted the thoughts from his mind. He swore and muttered a curse at the wolves under his breath. Strangely, he realized that the didn’t feel any anger or hatred towards them. They were wild animals defending their territory and hunting for prey.
He wasn’t sure in which category he fit. Did they see him as a threat? Why were they targeting him like this? They didn’t look starving. And they didn’t seem like mere dumb animals he usually saw in the woods.
Thorgaut could tell that they were brilliant. They seemed to have a highly evolved form of communication. There were much more intelligent than the rest of their species.
Thorgaut looked back up and reached out to start pulling himself back up the rope again. His arms trembled from the effort. His shoulders ached and his muscles burned under the strain of his struggle. But he found that he was still able to continue and hitch himself up bit higher.
The rope loosened somewhat as he pulled himself up, but it was still tangled around his legs. He couldn’t use his hands to unwind it since he was hanging on to the rope, so he tried to shake them free. It took him a bit, but he finally got it undone. He pulled his legs p and wrapped them around the cord again tightly to hold himself in place.
Then he reached up again even higher. Only this time, Thorgaut shook the rope off of his legs before attempting to hitch himself up. He didn’t want to risk it getting stuck around his legs again. He needed to conserve his strength.
He didn’t have that much farther to go. Just a couple of more pulls and he would reach the branch. Then he could pull himself up into the large tree and rest. After that, he could wait in safety until the wolves grew tired and left.
Thorgaut reached up once more and stretched to grab the rope as high as he could with his good hand. He pulled his body up and then wrapped his legs around the cord for another brief break.
It was rough going, but Thorgaut knew he could make. Not much farther to go. After catching his breath, he started again. He shook the rope off his legs and reached up with his other hand. The one that the wolf had bitten.
Thorgaut grabbed hold of the rope with his sore hand and let go with the other to pull himself up. Unfortunately, the blood dripping down the cord made it too slippery for his grasp. Poor Thorgaut no longer had the strength to keep hanging on with his bad arm. And he still hadn’t pulled himself up high enough to get his legs wrapped around the rope.
He started to slide down the rope and flailed to grab hold with either his legs or his other hand. But he miscalculated and missed with his good hand. The momentum jerked the line out from his under his legs. His body was going too fast, and he couldn’t stop the slide.
Thorgaut continued trying to grab on with his hands and squeeze the rope between his legs to slow his fall. His efforts were all in vain. All he did was get some nasty rope burns on the way down. The pain was excruciating, and he yelled out in pain and frustration.
When his body reached the end of the line, his head swung down and back. The force of gravity and pull of his body when he arrived at the end, caused the rope to swing out in an extended arc. He swung right through the pack of startled wolves who were trying to figure out what this crazy human was doing.
As he swung out and reached the end of the swing, the weight of his body and pulls of gravity proved to be too much. The rope snapped where he had been cutting through it earlier when the whole attack started.
Thorgaut was finally free of the rope and completely airborne. He went flying through the air with his arms and legs flailing. His body somersaulted through the air, and he tried to twist himself around to land on his feet.
He almost managed, but his feet were numb from the lack of circulation. He hit the ground and tumbled to the ground awkwardly. He rolled for a bit in the grass and leaves until his body slammed into a young sapling and came to a complete stop.
Thorgaut spat out the dirt and leaves in his mouth as he lifted his head to look around. He felt disoriented and tried to get his bearings. He rolled over to look back at the tree where the trap had snared him. And then he saw the wolves again.
All three headed towards him once again. He sighed in exasperation.
The wolf stopped circling him and sat down a short distance away.
“Can you speak?” Thorgaut asked him. “Are you one of the mythical talking animals I’ve heard of?”
The wolf cocked its large black head to the side. It remained completely immobile and unflinching for a long time.
The other wolves gathered around it and sat too.
It was unnerving and Thorgaut didn’t know what to make of this turn of events. So, he remained still as well and stared back at them.
The black wolf turned to the yellowish-red wolf and snarled a command. It stood up immediately and approached Thorgaut cautiously.
It was almost close enough for Thorgaut to reach out and touch. But he didn’t do that of course. It was a tense moment.
He remained perfectly still with his arms crossed in front of his chest still holding the arrrows.
Thorgaut wanted to move. He was still hanging upside down which was uncomfortable to begin with. But now his muscles began to burn from the tenseness and stillness he tried to maintain.
For some strange reason, Thorgaut realized he didn’t feel fear. The animal didn’t seem intent on harming him at the moment. It was as if the animal was analyzing him for some reason.
After a minute or so, the wolf turned around and walked back to the rest of the pack where they seemed to be conferring among themselves. Thorgaut had no idea how though. He couldn’t actually hear them say anything.
The wolves seemed to have reached a decision. They separated and spread out around him. The black wolf went to his right. The white wolf to his left. The gray wolf went around behind him where he could no longer see it.
Thorgaut twisted his head for a minute to try to see where it was going. He caught a glimpse of it but turned back to keep an eye on the yellowish red wolf that was still in front of him.
All four wolves stepped in closer and tightened the circle around Thorgaut. things didn’t look good, and he realized that staying still wasn’t fooling them into thinking he was dead. And they sure didn’t seem to plan on leaving anytime soon.
“Hey!” Thorgaut yelled at the top of his lungs. “What’s going on? What are you all doing?”
The wolves paused when he started to yell. The yellowish-red Wolf snarled quietly as if it was telling him to hush up. Then it took a step closer. Its eyes bored in on him. The wolf’s eyes began to glow softly. Thorgaut squinted looked at it more closely. The glowing eyes of the wolf really weirded him out. A chill of fear ran down his spine.
“What are you doing to me, you demon-wolf!” Thorgaut shouted in its direction. But it didn’t stop. Its eyes shone even brighter.
Thorgaut looked wildly around the other wolves surrounding him. They had all stopped as well, but their eyes were not glowing like the yellowish-red wolf. It took another step closer. Thorgaut’s ears began to ring and he felt a buzz in the back of his head. He could almost feel it’s snarl vibrating at the base of his skull.
He closed his eyes tightly trying to squeeze the vibrations out of his head, but they only got stronger. He opened his eyes once again, and his head throbbed with pain. The glow in the wolve’s eyes dimmed and brightened in sync with the throbbing he felt.
“Was he being hypnotized by a wolf?” Thorgaut asked himself. His mother had never told him any stories about strange wolves with glowing eyes. This was pretty freaky. none of his friends would ever believe him if he made it back alive.
The throbbing came in faster and more intensely. The pain in his head was excruciating. Thorgaut senses seemed to become sharper and more acute with each passing throb. He could sense each of the other wolves around him and their connection to each other. Even the gray wolf that was behind him still sitting quietly.
Just when Thorgaut didn’t think he could take it any longer, the black Wolf to his right gave a low growl. The yellowish red Wolf took a step back. Its eyes stopped glowing in the throbbing immediately stopped. Thorgaut blacked out.
When he came to he didn’t know how long he had been out. His head still hurt like crazy. He opened his eyes and found the yellowish red wolf right up in his face. both of his arms were hanging down towards the ground. The arrow had fallen out of one, but the other was still resting in his right hand with its tip against the ground.
Thorgaut reacted instantly, closing his fingers around the arrow bringing it up swiftly towards the wolf head. The wolf tried to leap back, but it was too close and not in a very good position to get out of the way in time.
The jerked its head towards his hand to see what was going on. Thorgaut couldn’t have planned it any better. He drove the arrow deep into the wolf’s left eye. He didn’t let go and slid his hand down the shaft as he continued to push it in.
The Wolf couldn’t pull back because the arrow was locked into its head. Since Thorgaut arm was so close it twisted its jaws into his arm and snapped its sharp fangs down into his flesh. 679
Art screamed again in pain and fury. These crazy animals would not give up. Every time you turn around they were trying to bite him. This was ridiculous. He needed to find a way to put a stop to it. but now all his arrows and rocks were gone. And he sure didn’t think you have a shot at diplomacy here anymore.
He reached out with his other hand and grabbed onto the arrow as well. He pressed the arrow even harder deeper into the wolve’s eye until it finally let go of his forearm. It raced off into the woods with its yellowish-red tail between its legs.
Thorgaut glanced briefly at his wrist. There was a lot of blood, so he couldn’t see exactly how bad the damage was. But it seemed that the leather band he used to protect his write while shooting his bow had protected his arm from the worst part of the bite. He sighed in relief as he twisted around to see what the other three wolves were up too.
Thorgaut looked at the magnificent, black creature before him. Then he looked at the arrows in his hand. Then to the axes on the ground. There wasn’t much he could do now. All he had left were these arrows. He didn’t imagine they would do much good without the bow.
The only thing he could do would be to drive the point of the arrow into one of the creature’s eyes when it jumped at him. He would only get one shot, and it would be a long shot at that. In his tired and weakened condition, he would have to get lucky. And after his run of luck these past few days, he didn’t feel very confident.
But even if he did get lucky and manage to nail it in the eye with one of the arrows, that wasn’t guaranteed to stop it. More than likely, it would infuriate the creature even more.
Thorgaut sighed. Well, this was what he had, and he was going to make use of it. This wasn’t how he had planned to die. But if he did die, he would die with honor.
He didn’t know if dying while fighting a wolf would be enough to get him into Valhalla, but he steeled himself anyway. He wouldn’t make a sound even if the wolf did sink its teeth into his throat. He would die like a genuine, brave Viking and let the Valkyries judge his worthiness in the afterlife.
“Come on you lazy wolf,” he screamed at the black creature before him. “Are you afraid of a man who is tied up in a snare?”
As he said that, another head popped out from behind the bush. This one was snow white. A white wolf as giant as the black one. Then another one. This time gray. Then a yellowish-red wolf.
Thorgaut’s heart sank. This was the end. He would never be king of Jorundarfell, much less king of the North. He steeled himself to accept his fate if his time had finally come.
If so, the words his mother whispered in his ear would never come true. The words of the old crone would all be a lie.
Then he remembered Halldora! Maybe Halldora would find him and bring him back as a shuffler. He could become the king of the shufflers.
The thought excited him. He could rule over a vast, limitless army. At the same time, it also terrified him. If he couldn’t die, he wouldn’t make it to Valhalla. He would never see his friends and family again. They would all enjoy the afterlife, and he would be eternally stuck here with the rest of the undead.
The more he thought about it, the less he liked the idea. Too many things could go wrong, and who knew would happen to his soul in the process. Perhaps it was better to die now as a brave soldier and just be done with it.
He didn’t have much time to think about it though. The wolves drew in closer and tightened the circle around him. And his instincts kicked in as he tried to figure out a way to get out of this mess he was in now.
Thorgaut had only two arrows. And there were at least four wolves that he could see. At most he could stab one or two. There wouldn’t be much he could do after that though. His bare hands wouldn’t do much damage to those massive creatures. He needed a weapon.
The wolves circled in warily. Thorgaut looked pretty harmless hanging upside down. But they had seen their fallen companion and knew it was Thorgaut’s doing. They were smart and knew better than to rush in.
The black wolf was the boldest of the creatures. It pressed in closer and continued to circle him. It sniffed the air cautiously as it moved around him.
Thorgaut stayed still so as not to make any sudden movements that would startle the creature. The thought flickered through his mind that they would sniff him and move on. But then he realized how silly that was. These creatures came in with deadly intent. He remained still and waited for the right moment to strike.
These were interesting creatures. They were different somehow from other wolves Thorgaut had seen growing up. They displayed an intelligence that seemed almost human. The way they interacted with each other was different from other packs he had seen. The snarls and growls of these wolves seemed more expressive than usual.
He recalled the stories of the talking animals of the North that his mother had told him as a child. But he always thought those were fables. Still, it couldn’t hurt to try talking to it.
His father always said that diplomacy was the best option for a king to keep peace. Thorgaut didn’t agree with him though.
Sometimes he thought the old man was getting soft in old age. His father seemed to have lost the fire of his youth. He didn’t want to fight anymore and didn’t stand up for the clan.
It was strange. The Viking culture and religion dictated they must die in battle to enter Valhalla. Now, the old king wanted to take things easy and enjoy the years he had left.
Thorgaut had lost respect for him in the last few battles they had fought. His father had held back and stayed behind the men who were fighting. At first, Thorgaut had thought there was something wrong with him or that he was sick. He had lingered back to watch over him and protect him if he keeled over.
But after two or three battles like that, Thorgaut had given up in exasperation. He left his father in the back and returned to the battle lines. Thorgaut had jumped right back into the fray at the front.
Thorgaut believed that there was a moment for diplomacy and there was a time for fighting. A warrior needed to choose his battles wisely. He also realized that this was one battle that he wasn’t going to win by brute force.
Thorgaut racked his brains trying to think of something intelligent to say. It couldn’t hurt to try in case the wolf could understand him. He had no idea what they wanted or what would keep them from killing him as they seemed intent on doing.
The black wolf had moved in just outside his reach. He gave up trying to think of something intelligent and decided to start talking.
“Hello!” Thorgaut tried. “How are you today?”
“That sounded like a stupid thing to say given the situation,” he thought. Thorgaut wanted to slap himself.
His father had a saying. He tried to remember what it was that the great Jarl Kabbi Skurfasson had said about diplomacy. He couldn’t remember the exact words his father used. But it went something along the lines of, “Flattery makes friends and truth makes enemies.”
Then there was that other saying his father always repeated. “Everyone loves to be flattered, so lay it on thick with your trowel.”
Thorgaut snickered at the thought of flattering this wolf. “My, what large teeth you have, Mr. Wolf.” As if somehow that would convince a deadly wolf to refrain from ripping his throat out. That would be too easy. Just say a few kind words to persuade them to move on. No, he needed something better than that. And he needed a backup plan in case that didn’t work.
He recalled what his mother had said to his father in their last argument right before he left. She was fed up with his silly ideas about diplomacy. Jarl Kabbi had been negotiating a treaty with the Krǫptugrvegr tribes to the East.
His mother, the wise Jorwen Fjelddottir, despised their kind. She warned his father that they weren’t trustworthy. She told him that they would end up disregarding the treaty and cause trouble for him. And even if they didn’t, she found their demands excessive and wanted to send them packing.
That started old Kabbi off on a rant about both sides having to make concessions. He tried to convince her to give in a bit so that everyone came out on the receiving end. He said that they needed to be open for the negotiations to be successful. He was under the delusion that he could tame the wild ones who lived in the mountains.
After spending a long time trying to convince her to live in harmony with their neighbors. When that didn’t work, he attempted to strong-arm her into being more diplomatic.
But she had refused outright and started to leave. Kabbi was livid with anger and threw the silver cup in his hand. It bounced off the wall to her side. Thorgaut didn’t think he was really trying to hit her. He was just throwing one of his silly temper tantrums when things didn’t go his way.
Jorwun turned around a laughed. “That was very diplomatic,” she said. She clapped her hands slowly for good measure.
“I think you’re finally starting to understand what diplomacy is it about.” she continued. “It’s the art of saying ‘Nice doggie!’ till you can find a rock to throw at it. You know their reputation as well as I do. So, if you continue dealing with them, make sure to find a big rock.”
His mother stomped out and refused to take part in the rest of negotiations. His father hadn’t listened to her and gone ahead with the treaty anyway.
Thorgaut knew that treaty would come back to haunt them; even if it didn’t happen now during his father’s reign. But eventually, Thorgaut would have to deal with the Kroptugvegr tribes himself. They had already started making trouble again.
He would have to worry about that later though, if he made it out of here alive that was. For now, he needed a ‘rock’ to deal with these wolves.
He didn’t have a rock to deal with these wolves. So, he would have to use his diplomacy skill until he could get a hold of one.