Astrid lay on her back with her eyes closed, listening to her mother’s command. Isla’s voice drifted above her. The older woman’s speech still held a melodic quality, like a fine tune sung over a summer breeze, yet the tone waned, as if her vocal chords wilted inside her throat.
“You must stay completely tranquil. Empty your thoughts and feel for the Mother.”
Frustrations from the morning’s instruction with Balin still raged. Her pulse quickened at her mother’s demand for inner stillness. Her head spun with her desires for companionship. The young woman’s inability to communicate her needs clenched her muscles, like a noose tightening around her neck.
“Nei, my child.”
Her mother grabbed hold of Astrid’s shoulder. Even Isla’s touch had weakened over the seasons—still firm, but lacking the inner strength Astrid feared since childhood.
“Calm yourself and listen.”
The young woman drew in a breath, trying to obey. Isla’s voice turned melodic and her touch sent a vibration through Astrid’s shoulder. The sensation spread throughout her limbs, and her mind quieted. Astrid suspected her mother used the touch of the Mother in order to calm her. She melted at the timbre of her Isla’s words and the softness of her fingers upon her, drifting, nearly to the point of sleep.
An image flashed behind her eyelids. Hallad, the boy her mother often spoke of as Astrid’s future—now a man—appeared in front of her. He sat upon a plank, watching two younger men squabble across the room from him. Hallad’s muscles bunched under his linen tunic as he fiddled with a green bow in his lap. His hands were broad, like his shoulders. His legs and arms overpowered the short bench, like a tree reaching for both the depth of the earth and the height of the sun at the same time. Light from the longhouse’s vent holes shone down upon him, illuminating his tousled hair and skin with a golden wash. While the young man observed the others as they bantered, Astrid realized Hallad stayed apart from them—wanting to join in, but unable. When she had viewed him through the shadowwalk before, jealousy for his life full of companionship sprang up inside her, but now she understood his connection to others was merely an illusion. For whatever reason, he felt alone—like her.
“Astrid!” Her mother’s voice hit like a slap. The vision disappeared. “You are not sleeping, are you?”
Astrid shook her head.
I wandered into the shadowwalk without the ward, and with mother watching!
“What is that look upon your face?”
The young woman realized her lips had formed a smile. She pressed them back into a straight line.
“You do not enter the shadowwalk without shielding your whereabouts! You know how important that is, Astrid. I have lectured you time and time again. You must always guard against the Shadow before you sleep, and you never willingly go into the walk. You understand this, do you not?”
Astrid nodded, unable to admit her guilt. Even if she managed to control the shadowwalk, she would never purposely cut herself off from the only solace to her loneliness. Viewing others through the walk wasn’t the same as seeing them in the flesh and blood, but it was the only window to life she had.
Isla huffed, drawing out her breath. “I’ve schooled you on the dangers of the Shadow since childhood. I’ve warded you for your entire life to keep you safe. It is high time you learn for yourself.”
Her mother firmed her grip upon Astrid’s shoulder.
If she knew I went into the walk every night, after she’d sung the ward, what would she do?
“Listen, my light, listen for your heart.”
I’ve seen him, Mamma, the boy you call my destiny, and I long to go to him.
“Do you hear your heart beating?”
A thump resounded within Astrid’s chest. She nodded. Her throat tightened another notch at the thought of slipping back into the walk. She struggled to focus on her mother’s words, but a rush of images pushed at the corner of her mind.
“The Mother’s life blood beats along with yours.” Isla patted her fingers against her daughter’s collar bone, matching the rhythm of Astrid’s heart. “Now, set the ward by saying the word algiz.”
Astrid twisted her lips, trying to form the first syllable—her mouth awkward, unruly, and unwilling to comply.
With my eyes closed it would be so easy to slip away and see him again.
“Al…giz.” Her mother enunciated the rune name, drawing out the vowels as if speaking to a child.
Astrid squeezed her eyelids tight, grimacing, forcing back her thoughts of the young man as she tried to speak. Her tongue thickened as she twisted it inside her mouth. She bit her lower lip in frustration, and shot upright, opening her eyes.
Isla struggled to stand from where she knelt by her daughter’s side. Her frailty startled Astrid. With her eyes closed, she could imagine her mother as she had once been, a striking, towering figure, resonating with quiet power. But now her mother’s legs wobbled as she straightened, and her body wasted and thinned.
Isla’s amber eyes shone with concern; the color matched the low-lights of her blonde hair. Even though her face retained a peculiar agelessness, the sickness wore through, hollowing her cheeks, as if eating her away from the inside out.
Astrid reached out to steady her mother, but Isla backed up, unfolding her hands to reveal a stone marked with the algiz rune.
“Watch me, then, but do not give up.” Her mother’s voice fell, heavy with effort. “You must learn to fight the darkness. I will not always be here to ward the Shadow for you and my strength…”
Astrid’s brows knitted with worry at her mother’s inference. She reached toward Isla, but once again, her mother stepped backwards.
A rumble started in the back of Isla’s throat, as if clearing a pathway. Then, her song blossomed, filling their one-room hut.
“Algiz,” sang Isla, but the word took on multi-layered intonations as her mother weaved a melody throughout the two syllables, drawing them out. The room buzzed. The rune floated from Isla’s hand. The round stone hovered above her palms, glowing white, casting beams on Isla’s thin cheeks.
In an instant, a cocoon snugged around them, like a layer of invisible down-feathers. The once dead space vibrated with energy. Astrid stretched her arms outward to revel in the sensation.
“Some hear her as a pulse. Others hear a hum, or a song, or a whisper within them.” Isla cocked her head, studying her daughter. “See? You can feel the Mother. You just need to open to her.”
Astrid stared up at the gleaming figure of Isla, stunned by her power. She could not imagine anything inside her could be as beautiful. She knew darkness lingered in the corners of her being. Why else would she be so willing to risk the shadowwalk when her mother preached against its dangers? The young woman shook her head to argue.
“You must learn!”
The demand struck Astrid like another blow. A sharp note escaped her mother’s lips, and the rune stone dropped back into Isla’s hand. The light extinguished along with the energy that had saturated the room.
“These are not games we play Astrid! You possess more power than anyone who has ever lived, save perhaps, the Mother herself. I know. I have seen it. Much rides on you. And you sit here in your stubbornness, refusing to try.”
But I’ve tried for so long and I don’t know how!
Astrid’s neck constricted again, until she registered a sharp pain in her throat. She pushed down a swallow as her mother glared at her.
Then Isla wobbled, reaching for the hut’s center pole to steady herself.
Astrid scrambled to her feet to help. Isla held her off by raising her hand and waving her daughter away.
“I need a moment to rest.”
Pressing forward, Astrid wrapped her arm around her mother, trying to guide her to a hay-filled mattress that lay atop a plank against the hut’s wall. Isla weakly swatted at her daughter; her limbs seemed too heavy for her to handle.
“Leave me. Send Balin to me when you depart.”
Astrid hesitated, but her mother yelled, “Go!”
The young woman crossed to her bed and picked up her fur-lined mantle and sword as she watched her mother labor. Isla eased herself into bed, huffing air as she slid downward to meet the blankets. Astrid considered covering her mother up, or brewing herb tea for the woman, but she knew her efforts would be met with reproach. Instead, she swung on her mantle, fed two logs to the fire pit, and left the hut.
Balin had propped himself against the outside wall of their hovel, an unflinching sentinel dressed in chain mail. As Astrid exited, she jerked her chin toward the dwelling, signaling for the warrior to attend to her mother. Although the man wasn’t her father, he shared a bed with her mother, and had done so for as long as Astrid could remember. When she was younger, their intimacy had infuriated her, but over the years she had come to accept his presence. Balin had taught her skill with the sword, and made seasonal journeys to the nearest villages for supplies. They remained isolated from society, because of her. Astrid did not fully understand the constant need to be hidden away—because of what she was, because of what she possessed inside of her—but she knew it wore her mother down. Though Balin bore a savage scar on his right cheek, and enough hair and muscle to cover a bear, the man tended to her mother with the tenderest affection. Astrid remained angry at his constant confinement of her, but she had to admit silent thanks to him for reducing the pressures her mother bore.
The warrior acknowledged her with a tight nod then entered the hut. Astrid circled the wood structure; its roof bowed from the heaviness of winter’s snow. Ice crunched under her boots as she walked. The cold bit at her lungs, but she took succor in how it enlivened her—awoke her pores and roused her senses. She understood the chill of winter—much like her, winter was also withheld from the life of spring.
Astrid drew her sword, the slick sound of metal exiting her scabbard as arresting as her mother’s song. She whirled the metal in a series of figure eights—a display Balin would have called foolish. The whir of her iron against the air soothed her, and she stopped, gripping the hilt. She fingered the fine scrollwork shaped like an ash tree on the handle and wondered if she would ever meet Hallad in the waking world.
“Lower your voice or the girl will hear.” Balin’s gruff tone seeped through the chinks of the hut’s logs.
Astrid stilled, stretching her head around to listen.
“I care not if she hears,” replied her mother. “She risks us all with her selfish, stubborn behavior.”
“Her skill with the sword excels daily. She nearly bested me this morning. I am sure in time her ability with song—”
“I heard the Mother’s song before I could even crawl! She has had seventeen summers! There is nei more time!”
“Are you sure of your vision? Per chance the girl has nei touch of the Mother.”
“Oh, Balin,” Isla’s voice sunk, “I wish it were so, but I know. I have seen her future…the future of our worlds…and if she does not open to the Mother, if she does not sing, the Shadow will devour us all.”
“Come love, you tire. You must rest your head. There will be time to try again when your strength returns.”
“I fear my strength all but fades.”
“Hush. Do not speak so. You will recover.”
“Nei, my separation from the heart of the Mother has wrought havoc on my body and mind. The insults of surviving in this land wear on me—fires, killing, pillaging. I can barely hear the Mother here, like a distant whisper on the wind. It is as if my blood leeches from my limbs. Perhaps Astrid’s failing is my fault. She may have heard the Mother’s song if I had returned to Alvenheim.”
“You did what you thought would keep her safe.”
“Maybe I should have never separated her from the boy. His presence might have given her the extra will she seems to require.”
“Before she managed to ward herself? You would have risked Hallad’s protection as well. Settle your thoughts, my heart. You could not have done more.”
“I do not mean to take my ills out on you, Balin,” Isla hesitated, “or on Astrid.”
“What can I do to ease your pain, love?”
“The only comfort to ease me is to hear my daughter’s song.”
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