The black witch, p.5
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       The Black Witch, p.5

           Robert D. Jones
 
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  "You idiot," the blonde haired boy spat, "don't you know who I am?"

  "Just kill him, Svensson," a raider said, addressing the giant leader, "or cut out his tongue and we'll take him to Ravenscar."

  "Hrothgar will take your head for my tongue," the blonde hissed.

  The giant turned on the blonde and stood over him, fidgeting with the axe in his belt. Isolde's eyes widened, her heart raced and she did all she could to be still with the rain hammering against her.

  "Maybe I'll take your eyes then, Erik," the giant snarled with a deep, harsh voice, "who gave you leave from the Rock anyway? Or did you run?"

  The blonde spat at the leader's feet. The raider laughed, like a giant bellowing, he arched his back and laughed into the sky before snapping back and kicking the blonde in the head. Isolde heard the skull crack and grimaced as his head wrenched backwards into the mud.

  "Rope them up," the giant roared to his men.

  Isolde couldn't take her eyes off the blonde's blood running down his face in the rain, her teeth were grinding under the pressure of her clenched jaw. The giant stooped over the other two and slapped them about, she heard him saying something to each but their voices were muffled in the storm. Her mind was raging... Hrothgar's gone too far. These are our lands! The men had their backs to her as they unbundled ropes and laughed. Now, she thought, strike now while they're busy! Her hand fumbled for her sword's grip and tightened around the leather. Now, Isolde, now! A voice within urged her on. What are you waiting for? She thought to herself. Now! Now! A crack of lightening lit up the sky.

  "Hey! You there! Come out!"

  She had been spotted! One of the raiders came at her, reaching for his axe and pointing. Isolde couldn't wait, NOW! The voice screamed. She burst from the shrub screaming wildly. Sword raised high above her head. The raider's jaw dropped. His axe caught in his belt. She swung down, her blade tearing into his neck. The impact rippled through her arm as the steel bit deep into the flesh. She tore her arm back. The others stood in amazement, their comrade choking on his own blood, writhing like a worm in the mud, gasping for air.

  Isolde backed up, holding her sword in front of her, the blade outright like her father had taught her. The men screamed at her as the heavy rain washed over their faces. Dark eyes, grim toothy mouths, long knotted hair.

  "You'll pay for that, little girl," one growled as he peered over to his friends.

  "She's a pretty little princess, isn't she?" said another licking his lips and coming up slowly with a cruel axe in his hand.

  Her heart thundered in her chest. It felt like a nightmare. The giant leader stepped forward in front of the others.

  "So here she is at last," he grinned.

  She swung her sword out at him and the giant laughed as it whistled harmlessly through the air.

  "That's too sharp for you to play with, young lady," he said, "put it down and come here."

  He stepped forward into her arc and she swung again. Like lightning, the huge man sprang forward and caught her arms. She struggled and squirmed but he held her with a vice grip.

  "Drop it!" he roared.

  But she would not. She screamed out in anger and snapped at his ear with her teeth. He threw her back and the sword fell to the ground. The wind howled. Her heart pounded, he came at her again. She threw her arms up and clawed at the raider. It was no use. He struck her hard on the cheek. Her head cracked back. Half dazed she came back at him, snarling like a wolf. He hit her again, harder. She didn't get back up.

  The giant was above her, and then Harald. Harald? She thought as her vision swirled in a dizzying haze. It is Harald! He was swinging an axe like a demon from hell. One of the raiders got knocked down, then another but she couldn't keep up. Harald stood against the giant and the two swung at each other like madmen. They swapped blow for blow before the giant's axe arced high and came crashing down. It was like the hammer of god, bringing all the strength of hell down on to Harald's head. He fell. Blood, she could see blood, Harald's blood, seeping into the soil. The giant stood above him, raising his axe. Isolde screamed and turned for her sword. It was no use. Another raider smirked at her before striking her down. She felt rough ropes tighten around her wrists. Harald! She moaned, squirming to see her friend. But Skaldi stood above the boy now. Blue smoke fuming from his out-stretched hands. He was holding the giant at bay somehow. The leader dropped his axe as though it was burning hot. She was ripped up by her arms and could see no more. Her head screamed in pain, she couldn't fight back. In a flash, she was being pulled away into the pelting rain with the retreating giant and his last raider.

  ***

  The storm was in full force, the rain so heavy that Isolde could barely see in front of her. Her head pounded from the blows, her body begging to collapse. Thunder exploded in the sky and lightning ripped open the land around her in brilliant forks of white light. The raiders had fastened a rope around her neck, wrenching her forward in a choking pace.

  "Keep up, you dog," the giant snarled, ripping the rope forward.

  They ran for hours, driving her to the point of exhaustion on their relentless path west. Her feet slipped and slid over the slick cobbled stones that made the ancient path. The drowning torrents from Mjolkum flooded the valley. Lightning cracked again, exposing pines that wrenched back and forth as the northern gusts raised hell all around. Her captors yelled commands back and forth in the throaty tongue of the northern tribes. There was no break. No moment of reprise. The noose stayed taught around Isolde's neck, and they made their path for Ravenscar.

  Her mind gave up on the pain and fell into the deep rut of self-sorrow and guilt. Harald... Tears swelled up as her mind's eye cast back images of him bleeding out in the mud. Adrenaline had been coursing through her veins at the time, but now with nothing else to distract her, the events played on repeat. He had burst out of nowhere looking like a hero of old. His hair swept off his face. He was furious, she had seen it in his eyes, they were intent on blood. It was shocking, she had never seen him like that. He swung his battle axe like a saga-giant. Isolde smiled at the memory, my Harald she thought before bloody flashes of his fallen body flashed back. She sobbed.

  "Shut up," the giant growled as he ripped at her lead.

  They entered another valley, this one narrow with sharp inclines of bladed slate and jutting roots. The winds howled above them but it was calm here against the slopes. Even the rain pulled back leaving only the misting of spittle in the air. In the sudden calm, Isolde could feel eyes all around. The Watchers in the Wood... she shuddered at the thought.

  "Five minutes boss," the smaller raider pleaded as he doubled over his legs panting.

  The giant man huffed, and passed him Isolde's lead, "hold her while I piss."

  Thoughts of escape flashed through her mind. She turned to the smaller man and her heart dropped. He was licking his crooked yellow teeth with a sickening spark in his eye.

  "You whore," he hissed, "three good men you killed..."

  He snapped the cord and choked her into his outstretched fingers.

  "You're all alone now..." he whispered into her ear. His free hand ripped at her hair and snaked its way down her face and groped at her chest. She wanted to scream out but the noose held her neck too tight. He forced her down onto the wet ground and wrenched her legs apart. She kicked and fought but it was no use.

  "Get off her, you grot," the giant was back.

  "C'mon, Svensson," the man said from between her legs, "you can have a go first if you want."

  "Get off her," the giant said again, "Olaf's promised her for the High-King."

  The raider blew her a kiss and scrambled off her. The giant took the lead and wrenched her back up onto her weary feet.

  "He's got something special for you," the giant had a darkness in his eye as he looked her up and down.

  The other raider started to mutter and point up into the distance, "Who's that boss?"

  Isolde followed his hand. In the gloom of the night, she c
ould see a silhouette. To Isolde's burning eyes, it looked as if something big was lumbering toward them, something dark. Her captors pulled out their axes and stood motionless.

  "Go look," ordered the giant.

  The small raider threw his round-shield onto his arm and lurching forward hesitantly. He walked slow, his axe held low by his side. The shadow met the challenge. It looked like a great bear-man. It moved with the confidence of some hell-spawn beast. Isolde stared aghast. It walked tall and upright. distant lightning flashed in the sky and the glimmer of steel shone for a moment. The beast roared like a wild animal and cut the raider down in a single blow. She began to shake. Her vulnerability became too real. The noose around her neck, her bound hands and beaten body. The sudden death of the smaller man hadn't broken the fiend's pace and the beast advanced on. She wanted to flee but the giant kept her lead tight.

  The monster's voice boomed, it was raspy and harsh and commanding, "the girl is mine!"

  Her knees went weak. She pulled against the rope but the giant yanked her in. Again, silent lightning flashed and she saw the beast for a moment.

  It was enormous, it dwarfed the giant with a frame like an ancient bear with thick black fur wrapped around it like a cloak. Black eyes focused on her captor. They were wicked and intent, peering out of a deeply scarred skull. A violent battle axe hung low in its two hands and a long red wiry beard fell all the way to a thick leather belt in two great heavy plaits. And then he growled, baring his rows of chipped yellowed teeth. It was Wulfric.

  Isolde's heart leapt in hope at the sight of her old guardian. The giant dropped her lead and lunged forward with his axe. The blow sailed overhead and Wulfric stepped aside with the ease of a man who had faced death a thousand times. There was no contest. Wulfric hurled his axe up with all his might. The heavy steel ravaged the giant's belly ripping it open. The sound of hacked flesh was awful and the giant crashed forward into the cobbled path. Wulfric never broke his stride. He took one look at Isolde and grimaced, ripped her up onto his shoulder and marched onward.

  Wulfric didn't take her far and dropped her down just out of sight of the bodies. They sat on a slope by the road and he untied her binds.

  "You're a stupid little girl," he spat as he released her. His voice was harsh like gravel and he said it with conviction. "Running around out here alone is a death wish. As stupid as your mother."

  "What would you know?" she said, flexing her free hands, "look how far I have come and I'm fine!"

  "Fine?" he laughed sardonically, "yeah, you're alive because of me."

  "I could have handled them," she said.

  "Yeah, you were doing fine. Just like you handled those wolves right?"

  She raised an eyebrow, "how do you know about the wolves?"

  "You think you know it all don't you, Little Bird. I've been tracking you for two days now. Thank the gods you move so slow and leave so many breadcrumbs behind. I bet you hardly have the strength left to go on."

  "So, what? Father sent you to babysit me?"

  Wulfric laughed at her again baring his mouth of jagged peaks.

  "Gods no," he said, "Harald was supposed to do that. Where is that coward anyway? Back home no doubt. And where's that tramp Skaldi?"

  The memory of the battle flooded back to Isolde and Wulfric could see the pain on her face.

  "So they found you, huh?"

  She nodded slowly. She explained what had happened, the winds, the wolves, the raiders and the blonde haired youth and his two friends. Harald's ferocity and Skaldi. Wulfric sat silently and hung on her every word.

  "So the boy became a man in the end," he said as she finished the tale.

  They sat for a moment in silence, Isolde rubbing her neck where the coarse rope had held her.

  "We need to find them," he said, "The boy may yet live."

 

  CHAPTER VIII

  Isolde and Wulfric headed east along the ancient road of cobbled stones. The morning sun broke the rim of the eastern mountains, crowning the peaks in a golden lining. It was easy travelling compared to the rigours of the wooded wild that sprawled out on either side of them. The rain was light but the valley gave them shelter from the wind blowing above them.

  "Why are you so determined to kill yourself, Little Bird?" Wulfric asked.

  The pair were an odd couple on the road. Wulfric stood an easy two heads above her and must have been twice as broad. But he hung his head low between rounded shoulders whereas Isolde walked tall and kept her head high.

  "I don't want to die," she said with a sure voice, "I just don't want to live having done nothing. That seems like a kind of death to me."

  "You're young," he said, "you have a whole life ahead of you. No need to swing a sword as soon as your big enough to hold it."

  "My mother was younger than me when she went to war."

  "So that's what it's all about then?"

  "Everyone says I am just like her but I don't see it," Isolde sighed, "she sounded so brave."

  "If you don't want to live in her shadow, Little Bird, maybe you should step to the side and let the sun shine on you in a different way."

  "I don't get it," Isolde frowned.

  Wulfric cleared his throat, "it's like this, Isolde. You are obviously trying to prove that you are her equal, or maybe even better than her. But everything she did led to her death."

  "She didn't die being a hero," she cut in bluntly.

  "She died doing the greatest act of heroism I have ever seen," Wulfric's eyes were glaring.

  "She died giving me life. What the hell is so heroic about that? I may as well be a murderer," she snapped.

  Wulfric stopped walking, grabbed her shoulder firmly and spun her around to face him. Isolde could see the sternness in his eyes as he pierced her gaze.

  "You know what, Isolde, I've watched you all your life playing the damned victim. We all have shit in our past. Everyone. You didn't kill your mother so get over it."

  Isolde slapped him across the cheek but Wulfric didn't flinch. He didn't even break his icy gaze. His eyes were locked onto her's.

  "Picking fights again?" he asked.

  "What the hell would you know about losing a mother you've never even known?"

  "Plenty," he said breaking contact with her eyes for a moment, "we've all lost people we love. My son. Unborn. My woman... it will kill you if you let it, Isolde."

  She thought she caught a tear at the corner of his stony face before he turned away. Isolde felt wretched, for all the years she had known Wulfric she had never known the man had been married.

  "I'm sorry," she whispered, "I didn't know."

  "Why would you?" he said turning back around to her, "you're a hard-headed idiot, Little Bird. You are just like your mother."

  A bird cawed in the distance. Mother... Caaw... Mother, Mother...

  Isolde's eyes snapped up into the line of trees skirting the ridges above them.

  "Ravens..." she whispered, "look..."

  The trees were full of them, hundreds upon hundreds of black shadows as still as stone, watching their every move with beady red eyes.

  Mother... Mother... Caaw... Another joined the first.

  "They're watching us," Wulfric grumbled under his breath.

  The trees slowly came alive as more ravens joined the chorus. Mother... Mother... Mother... More and more joined the chant filling the valley with chaotic squawks and calls. MOTHER... MOTHER... MOTHER... MOTHER... CAAAAWW...

  "Run, Isolde!" Wulfric roared as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her along the road.

  Her feet pounded the cobblestones. Mother... Mother... Mother... The word was everywhere.

  "Run! Run!" Wulfric bellowed.

  She could feel their eyes. They burned into her back. Somethings coming... her mind reeled. A cold wind. Soft like dead fingers brushed against her neck. It blew past her and the ice wind hissed through her ears. Isssooolllddeee. She wanted to roll up and cry.

  "Come on!" Wulfric cried dragging her on, "
I heard it, Little Bird. Come on now!"

  They twisted out of the valley and nothing else came with the wind. The caws and calls of the ravens faded away, but they didn't stop running. Neither wanted to rest. They ran and ran until they found the others.

  ***

  "He's lost an eye, but he's alive!" Skaldi called as he ran to meet Isolde and Wulfric.

  The old man had never looked so fail in Isolde's eyes. His eyes carried the worries of the world. It made her forget how broken her own body felt. She hadn't noticed the blonde and his two friends sitting by the fire. Watching them with curious eyes.

  "Where is he?" Wulfric said with a hoarse voice.

  Skaldi took them over to a small tent he had erected.

  "It's not much," he said, "but it keeps him out of this rain."

  Isolde peered in and gasped, holding her hands to her mouth.

  "Harald..." she cried.

  "My god..." Wulfric pulled the flaps of the entrance open, "a man at last I suppose. How bad is it, Skaldi?"

  Harald lay on a makeshift bed of blankets and leaves unconscious. His face was as white as ice. A bandage wrapped around the right side of his head was soaked in blackened blood. The one eye they could see was a deep purple and his lips were cracked and dry.

  "The axe cut deep," Skaldi said mournfully, "but he was lucky, it must have glanced off the bone. I stitched it and young Erik helped me find some herbs, but he must get home soon."

  Wulfric nodded, "Come outside, Isolde." He said.

  She shook her head and knelt down beside Harald, brushing his sticky hair away from his face, it was slick with blood.

  "Consequences, Little Bird," growled Wulfric, "actions and consequences..."

  Isolde remained with the dying Harald. Her heart had found her throat and the tears flowed in uncontrollable bursts. She lay down next to him and kissed his forehead. What have I done, she thought to herself. She lay with him all night, whispering into his ear, praying for the gods to grant him mercy.

  She didn't remember sleeping, she thought maybe it was a bad dream. But Harald's blood soaked bandage reminded her of reality. He still had not stirred.

  She crawled out of the tent to find dawn breaking. It had rained all night and the heavy morning dew had soaked the ground. Skaldi had his back to her, he was hunched over, sitting on a rock and staring into the dead fire. Wulfric could be heard snoring behind the tent, his bear skin coat pulled up over him so he looked like a hibernating giant. She walked to Skaldi slowly and embraced him softly burying her head into his shoulder.

 
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