The group was silent as they made their way back to their village. The wagons had been burned and Vlayid had been burned with them. The captured Stormcloaks had been turned loose. His men had complained wanting them to be put to death as an appeasement to the sprits but Ulfrick had refused. The girl had been carefully removed from the pole and was on a litter being dragged along by one of the horses.
“Why not burn her as well?” Tall said as they walked along ahead of the group.
Ulfrick was lost in thought.
“Why? Why bring her along. The men don’t’ like it. I don’t’ like it – carrying this curse with us. Burning the pole does no good. The Dark Goddess can see it no matter what.”
“If that’s true then what good is burning a girl going to do?”
This piece of logic made Tall lapse in to sullen silence.
They walked along for a few more minutes. Then Tall began again.
“Did you see her skin? Her ears? She’s one of the forest children. If they come looking for her and find her with us they will blame us and haunt us forever. Maybe that’s the curse. The forest children swapping our babies for their changelings or coming in to our beds at night and stealing our air or…”
“I thought you weren’t superstitious.”
“Only a fool ignores the unseen world. I’m not afraid.” Tall puffed up a little, “I just – I just am wondering why we’re taking the angry mother bear in to our home, that’s all.”
“Something happened to betray Vlayid, he was too good simply to be caught and she might know how it happened. If she is fey then wouldn’t they be more angry if they came looking for her and we didn’t have her? Killing her won’t remove the curse and I’ll not have innocent blood on my hands and nid or no nid Bejring will pay for the torture of Vlayid.”
Tall shrunk a little before his leaders steely anger. “I’d follow you to Hel’s table if you wanted a meal there but the men are grumbling. And things won’t’ be better when we get to the village…”
Ulfrick said, louder then necessary so his words carried to the group following them, “There isn’t one of those sons of snow lice that I can’t take when it pleases me. I speak for the tribe. I’ll not be second guessed by the likes of them – or the likes of you.” these last words ricochet around the forest. The men leading the horses looked from one to the other and said nothing. Their step quickened and they ceased to look at the girl on the litter.
The front pair continued on in silence for a few more minutes.
Ulfrick’s words came quiet, again just between the two of them, “Think that will do it?”
Tall risked a glance back. “Looks like it.”
Ulfrick winked at his friend.
Tall snorted, “If we ever eat at Hel’s table your wearing a maid’s dress and serving me.”
“I keep telling you – no matter how many times you ask I’ll not wear a dress for you – not in this life or the next.”
Tall was aghast but only for a moment, then he let out a loud guffaw.
They reached the village after a few days. The nid caused a stir among the villagers as expected. The men traveling followed their leaders example and simply brought their families to heel as Ulfrick had brought them to heel; strength of will and the northmen’s absolute belief in the power of their undefeatable leader.
In a day or two the village returned to normal. The nid was placed in a hut and cared for by an old woman. The old woman made a sign against evil once, the first time she entered the hut and then never bothered again. The nid regained conciseness and began eating broth. Once in a while she would try to stand up. The old women wouldn’t’ let this happen and said simply, “You’re wasting strength. Save it for when it’s needed. To waste your strength on unnecessary things is to waste Gorum’s gift to men.”
The nid slept.
When she was able to sit up – and the old woman would let her – Ulfrick came to visit her. She was looking at her wrapped hands, fingers sticking out from the bandages still swollen. She flexed her hand. The fingers barely moved.
Ulfrick looked down at her, his face serious. “We have a tale of one of our ancestors who was crucified. His strength was such that when men found him they cut down the tree he was on and let him fall. They did this to test his strength for the wastes can not have weak men. This did not kill him. When they removed the spike from one of his hands he still had the strength to take the pliers and remove the rest himself. The leader of the men who found him refused him water but told him if he could ride to their village he would be given water – for the wastes can not have weak men. He then road to their village, high in the saddle – as a warrior – before taking water. This is a story of a hero of old. There is no shame in your story. Many who call themselves men could not have lived to tell it.”
She tried flexing the fingers of her other hand with the same results. “I guess I have a lot of weakness in my body,” she managed a slight smile “and a lot of pain.”
Ulfrick’s face was now friendly. He sat down.
“Are you fey? Have you come to steal our babies in the night like my people tell me? Have you seen the Darkwood?”
“I’m not anymore fey then you think I am.”
He smiled and chuckled a little. “Yes, I’ve journeyed south. I’ve seen the alfr or elves in the common tongue. My people are not as traveled as I am. The alfr do not travel much here. So my people do not know them and people fear what they do not know.”
“I noticed in the last village.”
“I would speak of that if you are willing.”
“I am to be a curse on your people why would you welcome me?” she pulled her knees up and leaned back against a pile of furs. Her skin had sheen of wetness from the sweat and was covered in bandages.
“I wouldn’t but you’re no more a true nid then one of the dark children.”
Her red eye narrowed.
He continued,”In exchange for what I wish to know I’m willing to let you go once you’re able to fight if that is what you wish. You have my continence here in this village till then or you are welcome to leave as soon as you can walk. A simple choice.”
“Not so simple really.”
They sat in silence. He sat looking at her while she stared at the fire, red eyes glowing.
Her coughing broke the moment. She leaned over and heaved in to a nearby bowl. Blood and bile came out. She shivered when she was done and lowered herself under the blankets. Ulfrick stared at the far wall of the hut, politely not noticing her weakness.
When she was done she spoke. “I’m reminded of a saying my mother had: ‘A beginning is a very delicate time.’ I believe I underestimated you Ulfrick.”
“That was my thought.”
“I will tell you what I know.”
And she did.