The black witch, p.3
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       The Black Witch, p.3

           Robert D. Jones
 
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  "I think it may be time for us to head home, Isolde."

  As he said this and turned to leave, the wind picked up. It pushed against their backs and sent their hair forward. The distant laughter floated on the wind. Skaldi turned and grabbed Isolde by the arm, pulling her in.

  "Come now, Isolde, stay close."

  He powered forward but she noticed that he made a point of not running and of keeping himself tall. Without warning, the wind abruptly changed and forced itself against their stride. Isolde's hair flew back with the wind stinging her face. The sound of laughter engulfed them in a cacophony of voices. Some high like children, others low and menacing, all laughing, cackling and hissing. Skaldi gripped her hand like a vice and forced her onward, but each step forward was like fighting a raging sea. Her face and hands stung in the cold. The gusts became so fierce that she could barely open her eyes and the air around them was so chaotic that their senses were close to being overwhelmed. She felt her head begin to daze this way and that and her sight waning in and out of focus, only being brought back by the tight grip of Skaldi and the odd jolt he sent through her arm as he dragged her along. Her head was going light and she tried to grip his hand tight but her eyes were slipping in and out of darkness. Suddenly, the wind came to a halt. Without its resistance to hold her up, Isolde stumbled forward into Skaldi and the two tumbled down. She hit the ground hard and rolled, they hadn't realised how close to the edge of the hill they had come, and now without the strength to stop she tumbled round and round, down the slope. Every tree found her, their ragged roots flying out to strike at her body, rocky outcrops tore at her clothes and dead branches speared out like the vengeful spirits of fallen warriors. When she finally found the foot of the hill, she lay dead to the world, sprawled out bruised and beaten. Her head still spinning but the night was calm and silent.

  "Isolde..." Skaldi called out from the darkness, "Isolde?..."

  Moaning in pain, she was hardly able to move and Skaldi almost tripped over her battered body in the dark.

  "Come, my girl," he said, reaching down to help her up, "we must get back right now."

  His voice was fast, Isolde had never seen the old man so startled. He got her back on her feet and quickly led her on. Without the unrelenting wind holding them back, they found themselves quickly passing trees and outcrops and before long the end of the forest was within sight. The great trees at the wood's edge groaned and swayed as they passed into the free air of the fields. They seemed like great watchmen glad to be rid of the intruders. Skaldi led her along the river toward the village gates with the same haste he had in the woods.

  "I must see the Jarl," he said with a wild spark in his eyes, "you need to pack for travel. Meet me in my quarters as soon as you can."

  With this, he stopped and gripped Isolde's shoulder,

  "We do not have time anymore, Isolde," he said looking into her eyes with the seriousness of a parent, "come at once!"

  CHAPTER IV

  It was the middle of the night when Isolde came to Skaldi's cabin and quietly knocked three times. The town was alive with people still in the street and questions were on everyone's lips. Where did that wind come from? Why has Skaldi arrived so late and in such a rush? What had happened to Isolde?

  Faced with a solid oak door, Isolde waited for Skaldi. The bitter night air stung her face and she wondered if she had brought enough clothing to keep her warm. It was quiet with only a light wind carrying the chorus of chirping crickets. It seemed an eternity before Skaldi opened his door. He was hunched over under the doorway and held his finger to his lips before allowing her in. It was only a small house which housed a wooden door leading into a single room with a low wooden bed, a few heavy oak chests, two shuttered windows, all surrounding a central hearth which cast deep shadows as it slowly died out.

  "Have a sit on that chest there, Isolde.," Skaldi said as he pulled back his hood and stretched his neck. She brushed off some dust and cobwebs from the aged oak box and sat down.

  "I am sorry for the mess," he laughed, reaching for the tongs to bring the smouldering embers back to life and add a little light to the room. "I have only just got back from seeing your father, and he did not like what I had to say."

  Isolde leant forward, her hands held together between her knees as she gave the old man her full attention.

  "I do not know what attacked us, Isolde," he continued, "but I heard the voices and I fear the message."

  Isolde frowned. "I don't understand."

  "There were voices in the air, Isolde. Dark voices."

  "What did they say?" Her heart quickened its rhythm.

  "Only one word..." he whispered, "...Isolde..."

  Her eyes widened.

  "They were calling you," his voice hissed in a whisper.

  "I... I... don't understand," she stuttered, "who is calling me?"

  "I do not wish to hazard a guess yet, not yet, but your friend Harald swears it was the elves and he may not be far from the truth."

  Isolde laughed nervously.

  "Don't laugh, Isolde. He may well be right. In any case, the time has come. I have made a decision to give you a choice. What you do with it is up to you." He paused to let the words sink in. "Open up that chest you're sitting on. I have something of yours."

  She stood up slowly, watching the old man with doubt. The chest was stiff but opened with little effort, its hinges creaking with age. It was too dark to see clearly, but she reached in and felt soft cloth covering something hard and heavy. She lifted it up and in the light of the fire could see it was long, but the old rags were folded around with care and bound with twine.

  "Open it," he said, leaning forward in excitement, his eyes bright as he watched her every move.

  She untied the cord, and slowly unwound the cloth until the shimmer of steel sparkled in the dancing light. The rags fell to the floor and she gasped. She held before her a broadsword of fine craftsmanship. Its edge was razor sharp and the blade's length was engraved with ancient runes running down to its hilt. The guard was short and melded into a handle bound with dark leather which itself flowed into a heavy round pommel that encased a crystal of fiery red. She was speechless, her eyes fixated on the runes that she could not read, and her fingers began to trace the markings.

  "In God's Hands," Skaldi said, "that is what it reads."

  She looked up at him slowly, a single tear forming in the corner of her eye.

  "Skaldi, thank you. Thank you so much."

  "It was your mother's idea," he said, trying to stifle his own tears, "she said that all mothers were God because they bore life."

  He stood up and took Isolde in a warm embrace by the fireside. He held her for a long time, both sobbing in silence.

  "She was a great woman, Isolde. She would have loved you. She wanted you to have her sword. It was her final wish for me to keep it, you know. To keep it safe until you were ready to face your own destiny."

  Isolde held Skaldi. She could find no words as her heart was mingled with both joy and sorrow. As Isolde fought back tears she found her eyes drawn into the deep crimson crystal. It seemed alive as deep dark swirls like a whirlpool twisted and writhed within its body.

  "The dragon's eye," said Skaldi, following her fascinated glance. "It is the one your mother ripped out."

  Isolde gasped in awe as she looked at the jewel set within the hilt of the sword.

  "She swore it showed her things," he said, "and I have heard tales, but never has an eye opened up to me."

  Isolde looked up at him, her eyes wide in amazement.

  "In the old days," he continued, "the lore masters used to say 'Temper a lie with dragon's fire and the blind will see with burning eyes.' But I always thought that you could see just fine with your own two eyes."

  Skaldi chuckled at his own words but Isolde's eyes were entranced on the deep swirling in the crystal. It drew her in strangely as though it watched her.

  "Anyway," Skaldi said, sitting back down on his bed and gaining
Isolde's attention once more, "the hour grows late and we must talk. You are going to take up this sword and seek out Orlog. It is what I have decided."

  Isolde burst out a laugh, her eyes wet again.

  "So you have spoken to my father?" she asked, "Skaldi, I do not know how to thank you."

  But Skaldi was not smiling. His face had returned to a grim countenance.

  "Your father does not want you to go, Isolde. I said that I had decided, and he trusts my decisions, but only so far. The decision on what you do is yours alone. You wanted to be a woman. To be respected. Well, now you must make a choice and live with the consequences."

  "He'll kill us," she said.

  Skaldi smiled grimly

  "He cannot shelter you forever. Your name is on the wind and it seems you have a destiny to fulfil. And Isolde," his dark eyes bore into her, "if the Black Witch does catch you, she will have you begging for death before she is done."

  ***

  Isolde and Skaldi left the town as quiet as a mouse with the full moon and twinkling stars high above them on the clear autumn night. He led her north up the cleared hills toward the southern border of the Watcher's Wood. She followed in silence listening to the nocturnal world as it chirped and squawked and howled, each sound stronger than the last until the very breeze felt as though it was alive itself.

  At last, they stood on the forest's threshold. There was no choice but to venture forth into the dark unknown. The village behind was but a distant twinkle in the valley.

  "It's too dark," Isolde murmured to herself.

  Skaldi caught the words and turned back to face her. He had lost his smile, grim were his eyes as he looked at her.

  "No one can ever see where the journey ends, Isolde," he said, "but those that have found the light never let their fear of the dark stop them."

  "Maybe we should turn back," she stammered, "start the journey in the morning?"

  "A little further, Isolde, we will find some hollow to call home for the night."

  With a deep breath, Isolde crossed into the forest with the old man. It was pitch black at first and she picked her way slowly, but it was not long until her eyes adjusted and the deep abyss she had viewed became clearer to her. They were further north than she had been before. Here the trees clung on to sharp rocks and steep inclines and their boughs were twisted in ancient knots that seemed to reach out like haunted hands.

  They found a dried creek and followed its natural track, curving this way and that along exposed rock and sandy shoals. Eventually, Skaldi stopped. He had found the home that he was looking for. A slate overhang cut deep into the creek.

  "Sheltered from the wind and hidden from peeping eyes," he chuckled.

  A wolf howled in the distance. A single, long, mournful cry carried by the wind. Isolde strained her ears to pick its direction.

  "It's following us," Skaldi said before another joined the song and then another. The air was full of life, the wolves were calling, back and forth.

  "We will be okay here, Isolde," he said, "rest now for tomorrow is a new day."

  Isolde curled up into the overhang and pulled her fur coat tight around her neck. She closed her eyes and listened to the wolves. They were still calling to one another, but their song had slowed down until the voice of only one could be heard. Sleep crept over Isolde in her weariness, and soon she was fast asleep.

  ***

  Harald ran through the night. His heart hammered as trees whirled past and the ominous sound of howls filled the air. His hands were slick with sweat. Where are they, where are they... his mind raced as he tried to pick up the track of Skaldi and Isolde. It was too dark. The creek bed climbed higher and higher up the hills, the loose rocks and grit making him slip with each frenzied step.

  Aroooohhh.... the howls sent shivers up his spine and Harald whimpered in fear. I've got my bow... he assured himself as the taught string dug into his shoulder.

  "Harald?" a slow voice murmured in the dark.

  His feet skidded out from under him as he came to a sudden stop.

  "Who... who is there?" he stuttered back, straining his eyes to see in the darkness.

  "Come here, my boy. It's Skaldi."

  Harald wanted to drop to his knees and thank the gods.

  "What are you doing out here?" Skaldi asked, his silhouette coming into Harald's view.

  "Looking for you. Haven't you heard the wolves?" Harald asked.

  "Harald!?" Isolde came up behind Skaldi, rubbing her eyes. "What are you doing here?"

  "Looking for you," he repeated, "your father sent me to bring you back safe."

  "Gods," Isolde spat, "go home, Harald. I am fine."

  Skaldi cut in, "come now, Isolde, Harald braved the dark and the wolves to come find you. Show him some kindness for goodness sake."

  "No," she said adamantly, "I am not a child to be escorted home whenever my father calls."

  Harald's heart began to pound again, "he's in a real rage this time, Isolde. You should probably come back."

  A howl pierced the night throwing Harald's head to watch his back.

  "We cannot come back," Skaldi said, "but you may come with us, Harald."

  "Nooo," Isolde whined in protest.

  "No?" Skaldi was shocked, "and why not?"

  "Because he is a hindrance. He is a coward. You should go home and be safe, Harald."

  Her words made him feel like nothing.

  "A coward?" Skaldi murmured, "he risked his life to come out here just now. All to save you. I wouldn't be so quick to call out cowardice, young Isolde."

  "Don't call me young," she snapped.

  "Then do not act like a child. Harald, you are coming with us."

  "I... I don't know..." Harald's heart pounded in his chest.

  "Don't prove her right," Skaldi said, "we will need you before the end."

  "But what about the Black Witch?" he begged.

  "What about her? You promised your Jarl you would bring his daughter home safe. Be a man of your word."

  Harald's mouth was moving but he could find no words. Here in the deep woods, in the dead of the night, with the wolves howling all around, his fate seemed to be sealed.

  CHAPTER V

  Three stick-men hung in the tree, gently wafting from side to side in the morning breeze. At least they looked like men to Isolde, she couldn't take her eyes off them. Twisted twigs bundled together with rough arms and legs, hanging by long necks. She shuddered at the sight.

  "H-h-how did they get up there?" Harald whimpered. "We slept right here."

  Isolde looked to Skaldi for an answer. His eyes were intent on the figures.

  "I don't know," he murmured, "but I think it best to leave them."

  "We should cut them down," she said.

  She hated the thought of leaving them to hang alone in the woods.

  "Don't touch them!" Skaldi snapped.

  Harald spoke up again. "But, there are three of them... and three of us..."

  Skaldi waved his arms and rustled them back.

  "Leave the stick-men where they hang." He said, "and let us forget them."

  Skaldi took the lead and forced a quick pace on the pair as they traversed into the heart of the great woods. Up and down they went all day, scaling craggy hills and down steep wooded valleys. By midday Isolde's legs burned like fire and she didn't know how much further she could go, but Skaldi kept marching and she wondered how he did it at his age.

  "Do you see that peak?" He asked as they reached the summit of yet another hill. His hand was pointing through the trees and away into the distance. The sky was clear for many miles, but away where Skaldi directed, Isolde and Harald could see the mountain he spoke of. It was no bigger than the rest of the range it belonged to, but its rock was darker and no snow lay on its peak. But what concerned Isolde was not the distance, but the advancing front of cloud. It was an unbreakable wall of cold dark grey that brooded over the mountain, slowly moving ever toward them.

  "What about the weather?"
She asked.

  "I wouldn't worry about that," Harald said, "Too far away to bother us right now."

  Skaldi replied, "I wouldn't be so sure, Harald, that is Mjolkum. I have seen him move like lightning and as quietly as a mouse. He is a wild beast, taking the lives of some and sparing others. We will keep our eye on him."

  The old man started down the hill and off they went again. Trudging the long miles with the short hours of the day they were granted. As the sun began to set, the trio found themselves scaling the last slope for the day. The setting sun cast magical light through the air and the sky above had burst into hues of bright oranges and reds, fading into a deep purple and black. Isolde noticed Mjolkum still lingered ominously over the mountain.

  "Set a fire, Harald," Skaldi said as he busied himself in collecting wood, "Isolde, scout about this hill would you. See if there is anything about. We don't need any more visits from the stick-men."

  She headed off and smiled at Harald as she passed him. Her mood was lighter now that they had stopped for the day. She wandered off to the east toward the distant mountains, following the hill's ridge with the deepening shadows in front of her. To her right, she spied a sea of dark green needles that made up the miles of pines they had already passed through. To her left was a deep ravine that dropped off leaving a gaping chasm which divided them from the next ridge. The murmuring speech of Harald and Skaldi faded off behind her and the ease of being alone became relaxing. Her feet guided her ever so slightly downward and before she knew it she was on the edge of the chasm.

  The sunlight was in its deep twilight now, but she could see well enough in the dying light. The cliff dropped about twenty feet or so into a flat bed of grit and sand. Dead wood and half buried stones peppered the ground and the narrow valley stretched across for a way before a second rocky cliff met it on the other side. She picked her way along the edge looking for a safer way down. The vegetation was sparse here, only the odd sapling clinging to the edge or a juniper snaking its way through the undergrowth. Soon the vertical drop gave way to a smooth decline, and Isolde walked down into the valley's bottom. The sandy grit was soft under her feet, the air was still and the sun released its last rays into the world before fading away completely.

 
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