The black witch, p.7
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       The Black Witch, p.7

           Robert D. Jones
 
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  "I don't know what to do," she said.

  "Well, you have to make a decision." Erik stood up and left Isolde to the fire and her thoughts.

  ***

  "Isooldee!" a voice cried out in the early morning.

  She bolted up from her sleep full of confusion. Harald... Harald's tent, her senses came back, I fell asleep in Harald's tent...

  "Isolde!" It was Erik, he was calling from outside.

  Mjolkum had returned with full force during the night, just as Erik had said it would. The wall of the tent billowed in and out, but inside it was warm and the air was still.

  "What's going on," Harald murmured now awake.

  "I don't know," she said pulling on a boot, "wait here and I'll be back."

  She slid out the door and the world was in chaos. The wind blew in every direction, ice and snow stinging her warm face and howling through her ears.

  "Isoooldeee!" Erik called out but she couldn't find the voice, the storm was too wild, she could barely see her arm in front of her. He thudded into her, his face crusted with ice and frozen solid.

  "Isolde!" his eyes were wild, "come look!"

  He took her by the hand and dragged her north into the worst of the winds. The warmth had fled from her face, her ears felt like they were being ripped off with razor blades and her nose burned numb.

  "What's going on?" she called over the wind.

  But all he said was come and pulled her along faster.

  When he stopped she could barely make out the outline of Sven, he was crouching low, his heads bowed down out of the wind.

  "Sven found it this morning!" Erik cried out.

  He crouched down and brushed the snow off the ground, cold steel poked through, and then he gripped a hidden shaft and pulled it up out of the snow. A mighty battle axe. Isolde gasped in astonishment.

  "It's Wulfric's," she cried with wide eyes.

  They took the axe back to the camp and squeezed into Harald's tent. Isolde had insisted on it.

  "I don't like it," said a fur-wrapped Harald in a hoarse voice, "we should return and tell the Jarl."

  Erik scoffed at the idea, "There are five of us, all fighters. We can take Orlog."

  "If she has killed Wulfric, how are we to do better?" Harald's voice was straining, his one good eye staring down Erik.

  Isolde saw the look, "he might not be dead, Harald," she said, "we didn't find a body."

  Harald shook his head, "all the more reason to send for help."

  "I don't think so," Erik cut in, "if he's still alive, he'll be dead by the time we get help. We need to save him now."

  "This is ridiculous," Harald said as he broke his gaze and looked at the three in turn, "look at us, you know the stories, she'll tear us apart."

  Isolde noticed that the yellow in Harald's face had waned and the natural colour was returning. His dark brown eye darted between them.

  Sven spoke now with his deep throaty accent, "maybe he's right, Erik, How can we go on with Harald and Bjorn the way they are?"

  "Where is Bjorn?" Erik snapped, "let me hear what he says."

  Sven slipped out of the tent to fetch the man.

  "I won't leave a man out there to die!" Erik continued, "and you owe him your life, Isolde."

  "I owe it to Harald too, and you owe me yours," her voice was sharp, she didn't like Erik's tone.

  "Well," said Erik, "I will save this man, alone if I have too."

  Isolde buried her face in her hands and wanted to scream.

  "You have to make a decision," said Erik, and Isolde knew what he meant.

  She took her hands away from her face and looked at Harald and Erik in turn. She took a deep breath. Arrgghhh Eriiiik! Sven's scream cut through the winds stopping the hearts of the three in the tent. Isolde and Erik snapped a look at each other and scrambled from the tent. By the time they got to Bjorn's shelter, Sven was rolling in the snow outside weeping hysterically. Isolde ripped the tent open. The putrid smell of rotting flesh flooded out. The air was heavy and humid, and Bjorn lay deep in his furs face up, his face contorted by a silent scream. He was dead. The rings around his eyes had stretched deep down his cheeks, jet black with obsidian veins tracing the snow white skin on his face. It was as if the darkness of space had burrowed its way into his sockets and sucked the life out from within. He was a withered husk of a man. Orlog's sigil was burned into his forehead.

  "Look," Erik spat as he knelt down and picked up a horn from Bjorn's things.

  "It's from the skull," Isolde said in shock.

  "I told him to throw it away," Erik said, "idiot wanted to make it into a cup..."

  Isolde noticed a tear form in Erik's eye.

  "I am sorry," she said, coming to him in an embrace.

  Erik dropped the horn on Bjorn's body and left the tent. Isolde stayed. She looked at the Bjorn in shock. His expression, everything about it made her shudder, he died terrified. It was clear to her. By the time she left the tent, Erik and Sven were sobbing together by the fire.

  "Erik," she called, "do you still want to kill this hag?"

  He turned slowly but said nothing.

  "Sven, can you take Harald home? Tell my father what is happening."

  "Will he come?" Sven asked with a hoarse voice.

  Isolde nodded and went to Harald's tent. She explained the body of Bjorn and Harald nodded.

  "I won't leave you," he said.

  "Yes, you will, Harald," she looked deep into his good eye, "if you love me, you will do this for me."

  She leant forward and kissed Harald. Her lips lightly brushing against his. It had taken him by surprise. He kissed her back and put his hand through her hair.

  "I don't trust them," he said.

  She leant close to his ear and whispered, "then trust me."

  She kissed his neck and stood back up.

  "Get home safe, Harald. I will see you at home."

  ***

  Mjolkum was furious. He sent winds and ice and snow headlong into Isolde and Erik, forcing the pair to inch themselves on at a snail's pace. Isolde had no idea which way they were heading, the very air around them was a maelstrom of whirling chaos. She could only hope that by forcing herself into the worst of the storm that she would reach its source.

  The day dragged as they fought for every step and Isolde was exhausted by the time they reached the icy shore of the frozen lake. When she viewed the land last night from the hilly crest, she thought it would have only taken them the morning to get there, but now the afternoon was passing and nightfall would come on them soon. There was no shelter for them here, the plains were a barren waste of snow and ice, the air so cold and forceful hat she had lost all feeling long ago.

  "Look!" Erik cried out moving onto the edge of the ice.

  Isolde's feet slipped under her as she stepped up onto the pale-blue sheet. Careful steps forward and it was clear what Erik had found.

  "Blood?" she called out.

  "Wulfric's maybe?"

  "Look, it's over there too."

  Isolde gestured further along the ice. The deep crimson pools were not big, but they stood out against the glassy ice below and were easy to spot. Erik crouched down and ran his hand over the stain.

  "It's frozen solid," he said.

  They followed the blood spots as though they were bread crumbs from a long forgotten fairy tale. The ice was rock solid and Isolde had a hard time keeping herself up with the wind pushing her back. The day was failing them and in the setting twilight, her heart faltered as a familiar sound swept by her on the wind. Laughter. Light giggling like children at play floating in and out of the winds around them.

  "Do you hear them?" she cried out to Erik in panic.

  "Spirits, Isolde, do not listen!"

  The laughter surrounded her ears, a thousand different voices attacking and retreating with the wind. She threw her hands against her ears and scrunched her eyes shut but couldn't escape the sound. Erik reached out and pulled her on.

  "Come on," he yell
ed, "we'll freeze if we don't get off this lake before night."

  The pair pushed on, Erik leading Isolde by the hand, chasing the blood across the ice through the dreadful storm. Isolde could feel the cold all around her, but the winds were nothing compared to the slow creep of ice below them. Its frigidity crept up silently, it burrowed deep into her boots until her feet were numb and spread up her legs like an ancient ivy creeping up a wall.

  Erik held her hand tight and pulled her ever onward, the wind screamed, the laughter burrowed into her mind, the cold had taken her senses. He pulled her on and on. The sun set and she was blind in the chaotic night. He pulled her on. The wind howled and slammed into her. It was trying to rip apart their grip. It was trying to send her off the ice of this accursed lake. Mjolkum was trying to end her through bitter cold or rotten madness. And then everything stopped. Calm serenity.

  They stepped off the ice and passed into a calm new world. Isolde almost collapsed onto Erik but he held her up. Before them was a frozen paradise, there was no wind, the ice and snow did not fly all around but stayed on the ground and roofed the tall pines and spruces that grew far apart from each other. Ice-tipped green grass covered the small hills and birds sung their evening songs. Isolde looked around in shock, she turned her head back to where they had come, there was a wall, a barrier of spiralling winds full of ice and snow that she could barely see through, it stretched far out to the left and right and arched its way far above her head, she followed it all the way around. A perfect sphere... she thought as the great dark mountain climbed before them and pierced the chaos. Erik put his hand into the wall of wind.

  "It's really there..." he said half stunned.

  It was quiet and solemn, the air was crisp but she couldn't help but feel the presence of something unnatural.

  "More blood," Erik said pointing up the hill that lay in front of them.

  Thick dark blood had tainted the ice frosting of some of the grass. They climbed the small hill slowly and with care, keeping their eyes moving from shadow to shadow. It was night outside, but here in Mjolkum's dome, there was an eerie luminescence about, like the great wind barrier was emitting an ice-blue haze that helped them see.

  Isolde could feel her heart thudding against her chest, this land made her anxious. She slid her hand down her side to find the comfort of her swords grip but her fingers flew back as she brushed the pommel.

  "What's wrong?" Erik asked noticing her reaction.

  "Feel it," she said gesturing to her sword, "it's searing hot."

  Erik knelt down beside her and looked at the weapon curiously, reaching out and feeling the radiant heat emitted from the citrine crystal embedded in the pommel.

  "What is it?" he asked having never noticed the jewel before.

  Her mind flashed back to Skaldi's cabin and slowly she whispered his words aloud,

  "Temper a lie with dragon's fire.

  The blind will see with burning eye."

  "What's that mean?" Erik asked startled by her trance.

  She drew the sword from her side so the blade hung down and extended her arm out. Yellow light glowed out from the translucent swirls within the eye like a summer sunset. It drew her in. She peered through the smoky swirls that writhed within and the world came to her through a crisp honeyed filter.

  Everything was as it were but it was if she could understand the truth of all things, as though she could see the unseen emotions. The trees shone brightly and the once hidden birds could be seen flittering between boughs and trunks like flaming arrows in flight. She gasped in amazement, the blood trail they had followed pulsated darkly, like the putrid trail that a snail leaves behind. Erik held an aura that throbbed darkly with bursts of white gold. But when she looked at the wall of wind she shrieked and dropped the sword.

  "What do you see?" Erik asked in shock, but she was stunned, mouth gaping open and fell backwards into the grass.

  "It's alive," she stuttered, "the wind is alive."

  Erik picked up the sword and looked through the dragon's eye. His mouth swung open and Isolde knew what he saw. Through the eye, the wall of wind was filled with spirits. Thin beings of black light, slender and small with the wings of a dragonfly, flittering in all directions at whirling speeds. They crashed and cursed and kicked and bit in a frenzy of violence, clawing at the edge of the wall as if they burned in hell fire and wished nothing but escape.

  A beast's bellow roared down from the hill behind them breaking their shock. Isolde spun up on her feet in an instant.

  "Wulfric!" she cried out.

  The huge man was above them like a lone tower of muscle and furs. He roared again baring rows of jagged teeth. She could see his eyes were wild, his face soaked with blood. His hands curled into fists of rage. A third bellow came crashing down the slope and the man came thundering with it.

  "Run Isolde!" Erik called.

  Her heart hammered in her chest and for a moment she was frozen. Erik rushed forward, her sword raised in his hand. She could see the oncoming collision, like two bucks charging with furious antlers. But before they met, her body came back and she ran.

  CHAPTER XI

  It was like a bad dream. She was light headed and the world strobed around her in flashes of horrific scenes. Her legs were racing up the hill. Wulfric's massive body hit Erik. He was on the ground. Her sword went flying. Her legs kept moving. Her heart pounded. She was over the hill, the world rushed back. The screams and grunts of Erik and Wulfric were terrible but they were behind her now. In front loomed the dark mountain, and the cave's entrance was plain to see. She sprinted with all her might, her lungs burning, begging for breath.

  It was only a fissure in the black rock, snarled open like a dragon's jaws welcoming its prey. Isolde stopped in front of it. Her heart hammered. Snaking sigils and hard runes lined the dark dead rock. A warm wind sighed from the depths of the abyss within. Isolde clenched her jaw and darted into the hole. The air was warm, wet and still. The darkness consumed everything. She didn't hesitate but lurched forth down the chasm, holding her arms out so that her fingers ran along the slick wet walls of the passageway.

  It was silent. Only her own sharp breaths and the soft crunching of her boots broke the still air. The light behind her faded away and disappeared entirely as the trail twisted and turned. Isolde kept moving, but now her steps were slowing. In the infinite darkness and silence, she had to pick her steps. She could feel the wet walls and her fingers traced blind engravings. She shuddered to think what they were. The passage went on and on and the walls fanned out so that she could no longer feel both at once. Each step was an eternity in time. She lost the walls completely. Now she was truly alone in the dark. There was no sound, there was no light, she felt as though she was floating alone in time and space.

  Slowly she stopped in her tracks. There was nothing anywhere. She turned herself around, her eyes straining in the dark to see a glimmer of light anywhere. She was lost in the depths of the earth. Her heart began to pound. Her legs felt weak. Heeeeelppp... she screamed. But nothing replied, not even an echo. She screamed again and again until her voice went hoarse. Which way is back? She was panicking. Heeelllllpppp... was it a thought? Was she screaming? There was nothing in the darkness. Her knees crunched down. Did I fall? Isolde had no idea. She threw her arms around her. The ground. She had found the ground, she was on her knees. She swept her hands, sharp shards of rock were strewn around her. Rock? She thought... No, bone! her hands fumbled in the dark, she swore she could feel bones, the sharp shards of broken arms and jaws. Tears began to flow from her eyes.

  She didn't know if she had slept, she didn't know when she stopped crying. Time was meaningless here. Her stomach rumbled, her body ached. She lifted herself up, trying her best to find her feet not knowing exactly where the ground was. She went on with no idea what direction she was facing. She could feel her neck twisting from side to side. Her eyes straining to see anything. Light... was it real? A warm glow far off could just be seen. Her heart leapt.
It felt like a lifetime since she had seen anything. She moved slowly, her feet shuffling through the bones and dust below her. To her eyes, it looked as if the light was moving, as if it was coming to meet her. Was it a trick of her eye? She couldn't tell, but each step felt like leaps forward. the light grew and grew. It was overwhelming, all encompassing. It burned her eyes and just as it swallowed her whole she stepped through a low door onto dark oak floorboards that spread across a warm hall.

  ***

  Isolde's mouth was aghast and her eyes stung as the light receded. She was in a hall with a long hearth running along the centre bearing a low fire smouldering away. Next to it stretched a table made of dark oak. It was old and worn but set for a feast. Isolde frowned at the scene, there was enough food here to feed her Jarl's hall. Stuffed chickens dressed with roasted vegetables, great cauldrons of steaming broth soup, a fat suckling pig, apple in mouth, mounted in the centre.

  The feast sent a sweet odour into the air that left her mouth drooling. Isolde tore her eyes away from the food, her grumbling stomach reminding her of how long it was since she ate.

  She wandered around the room, it was well lit and easy on the eyes. Everything was a wonder to her mind, it made her forget that she was deep in the bowels of the earth. The rock walls were hidden behind enormous tapestries. She looked around, they were everywhere, there must have been at least two-dozen. By the door, she had entered hung a beautiful image weaved flawlessly by a fine needle. It showed a blonde princess riding out from a castle with a guard of knights. Isolde moved around the walls, they seemed to tell a story. The princess and a handsome knight by a stream. Another showed a marriage, but it was another man, not the knight. The first knight appeared again down the wall, he was fighting the man she married. The next showed the knight and the princess riding away. Isolde smiled. She skipped the next wall and turned to look behind the table of food. Isolde frowned. An old woman sobbed, was it the princess? Isolde's eyes flicked back to the wall she skipped, taking the art in all at once, the knight betrayed her, he married someone else. The princess was alone. Now she was old. Now she was tied to a stake burning in front of the castle walls. Isolde looked back at the first tapestry, it was the same castle.

 
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