“Wait!” Einarr called out even as he took half a step back. He lifted a knee high up to his chest and stepped over the bramble that had ensnared him, and even then it nearly knocked his back leg out from under him. The fleeing woman did not even glance back over her shoulder. Hair the color of pine needles streamed behind her as she ran, miraculously not snagging in anything.
“Go.” Runa jerked her chin toward the girl. “The huldra may be able to help us.”
Einarr did not hesitate: he ducked his chin down in a nod and kept it there as he dashed after the forest spirit. Why did she flee? And why was she letting him see her while she fled? Something was very wrong in this forest. He tried again: “We’re not your enemies!”
The huldra (if that’s what Runa said she was, that’s what she was) didn’t even slow when she cut to the right. Einarr followed, hurdling a bush. Almost immediately he had to duck a low branch, and then jump another bramble. At least none of those reached out to grab him.
She led him a merry chase in this way. A third time he tried – “We just want to talk!” – and a third time he was ignored.
Or so it appeared. Her trail led him into a small clearing, one where sunlight actually reached the forest floor. Just past the far side of the clearing, she stopped and turned to face him, one hand raised toward her face as though she were still frightened. Einarr thundered to a stop in the middle of the clearing, his breath coming heavy after the unexpected race. He opened his mouth to thank her, but the words would not come.
Stepping out of the shadows of the trees were more figures, their skin also the color of bark, and their hair of leaves, but where the huldra was buxom and nude, these were to a one long-nosed, hideous, and male, with loincloths tied about their waists below their sunken chests and stooping shoulders. Each and every one of them in the circle had a spear lowered at Einarr’s breast. An ambush, then? But these were hulder, and according to Afi they were spirits that could be reasoned with – even, under the right circumstances, friendly.
He raised open hands to his shoulders. “We mean you no harm.”
One of the huldrekall stepped forward, his spear still ready should Einarr make a false move. It spoke, its voice nasal and sneering. “So you claim. We watched as you were welcomed into The Woodsman’s territory.”
Einarr knit his brow. The Woodsman? “I’m afraid I don’t know -”
“We’ll be the judge of that.” The creature jabbed at Einarr, plainly not intending to hit. “You’re coming with us.”
“What about -”
“You’re coming. With. Us.”
Einarr scowled at the creature, his hands lowering as his anger mounted. “Not without my friends. I’ll not leave them-”
The huldrekall shoved its nose into Einarr’s face. “Oh, rest assured,” it spat. “Your ‘friends’ are being dealt with. We’ll not let even one of the Woodsman’s spies loose in the land where Lady Huld still holds sway.”
Einarr was even more confused now. Lady Huld, as in the goddess? Why would a goddess take interest in anything that happened to the ‘forgotten’? He was not given the opportunity to ask any questions, however, as the spear-wielding spirits began poking and prodding him to follow the very woman who had baited him into their ambush.
After a good twenty minutes’ march, the circle that had captured Einarr met up with a similar circle, this one with Runa bound and gagged even as she walked, just as upright and proud as ever. Einarr’s vision turned red around the edges: had there been so much as a scratch on her that hadn’t been there before, he might have let the rage come. As it was, he kept it at bay until their two circles had joined.
Einarr pitched his voice low, sure that their captors would hear him anyway. “You are well?”
The glare she shot him was as sour as a green apple, but she nodded agreement anyway.
Runa shrugged before making noises muffled by her gag.
“You’re telling me to stop asking questions when you can’t answer?”
The noise this time was definitely affirmative.
A mischievous mood tugged at him, in spite – or perhaps because – of their situation. “I don’t know. This seems like a rare chance.”
If the look she’d given him before had been sour, this one was positively poisonous.
“Oh, fine. But I don’t think we’re in any immediate danger here.”
As if to underscore her point, one of their guards jabbed at his leg as though to hurry him along.
“Will someone at least tell me who this Woodsman is supposed to be?” Einarr spoke more loudly this time, the question directed at his captors more than his betrothed.
“We will be asking the questions, spy.” This from the same one who had spoken to him earlier. “Soon enough we will know why you are really here.”
“I can tell you that right now, although if you were really watching us earlier you’d have heard. Our mast was struck by lightning in the storm last night. We need a new one before we can set sail again.”
“Pah! Now we know you are lying. Auna will wrest the truth from you.”
Einarr didn’t bother asking who Auna was: even if their captors had been a little more reasonable, he would find out soon anyway. He could smell wood smoke from up ahead – although why forest spirits would make use of camp fires, he could not begin to guess. Now that they were drawing closer, he could make out round wooden huts, their roofs thatched with evergreen boughs, and a small plume of white smoke from the center of the formation. Around the outside of the hidden village sentries sharpened spear points and made arrowheads even as they kept a wary eye out for their enemies – whoever or whatever they may be.
Their guard did not lead them into the village. Their path veered off to the left, where stood a much larger, much darker hut than what Einarr had seen of the village. That, then, must be where Auna waited.
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