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A ShadowLight Short
This story takes place at the nordr edge of the Skagg Moore Valley and the Village of Gnarn several seasons before Bonded begins. Though the main characters are new, and the story doesn’t tie to the principal ShadowLight plot line, the story still contains characters from Bonded: the dwarves Andvarri, Elder Eitri and Ysja. I hope you’ll enjoy this side-journey of two unlikely heroes fighting for the simplest of necessities.
“You hear me, you useless shits?” Da screamed.
Ryvak’s heart somersaulted at the sound of his father’s voice, but he dragged his lame leg along, pushing and pumping—away from their home, away from his father.
“I’m gonna kill you this time, you hear?”
The soles of the boy’s boots wore so thin his toes sprung from the seams as his feet pounded ground. He clung to the wooden jar filled with honey and marked with the inguz rune—the golden god Frey’s symbol—pressing the vessel into his belly so as not to drop his treasure. He couldn’t lose it. Not now. Not after it took him two full weeks to hunt down an abandoned jar. Not after he’d labored an entire moon cycle to pilfer enough honey to fill the jar. And drawing the symbol? That had been the most difficult part of all. Only nobles knew the runes, and he was far from nobility. He’d sketched the symbol into the dirt for over a season after viewing a bull’s sacrifice at last summer’s Plow Blessing, when a Godhi from a far-away village visited to bless the local harvest. Remembering the rune and drawing the symbol wasn’t easy for Ryvak, as such things didn’t come natural for those lowly born.
But all their plans relied on that jar. And the ax.
His older brother, Gunnar, lumbered ahead of him, the stolen ax hefted over his slumping shoulder. Even though Gunnar ran too, the permanent bend of his back made him look as if he slugged along. Regardless of his slouch, Gunnar was abnormally large for his thirteen summers, while Ryvak was just as abnormally small for his twelve—like a bear paired with a mouse—and Ryvak struggled to take several strides in order to keep up to Gunnar’s one. His breath stung his chest—an icy-hot pain that matched the burn of his lame leg—but he pressed his feet forward, hugging his jar, his father’s rage spurring him onward.
“You can’t outrun me!” Da’s voice sputtered from behind them.
“Whith way?” Gunnar’s lisp intensified as he tried to plant his big feet along the uneven path without falling.
Ryvak searched ahead. The Skagg Mountains loomed in the distance; the sun melted downward into their ragged, white-capped tips, casting long shadows over the hills in the foreground.
Ryvak pointed toward the dark tangle of woodlands sloping into the mountainside, then plastered his hand back over the honey-jar as fast as he could, afraid he’d lose the liquid gold if he miss-stepped.
Gunnar violently shook his head at the suggestion.
“We can hide in the trees, Gunnar.”
The older boy’s head continued to jerk back and forth on his bowed neck. “Nei! Them hillth is nei good!”
“If we go another direction, its open meadow and Da will spot us.”
“Ain’t thuppothed to go there! It’th a bad place!”
“Look, Gunnar. We can lose Da in the hills and do our deed—just like we promised one another—we’ll be rid of him for good.”
“But the thadow thpawn.”
Gunnar meant shadow-spawn, the little ones, rumored to haunt the Spirit Hills—though his lisp distorted the phrase so much that anyone who didn’t know Gunnar wouldn’t have been able to understand him. But Ryvak always knew what his older brother meant; he also knew everyone in the Skagg Moore Valley stayed clear of those hills, especially at night, and nightfall would descend momentarily.
What difference does it make at this point? Now’s our chance.
“Ain’t nei matter, Gunnar. We got nei choice.”
“The dark oneth might eat uth,” protested Gunnar.
“The dark ones only eat babies, Gunnar, and we ain’t babies. Besides, if we don’t get a move on it, Da’s gonna do the deed for us, and we don’t want that, do we?”
The swing of Gunnar’s head slowly switched to a nod. The boy’s shaggy brows reached upwards as he stared at the tree-line, but he redirected his feet, and sprinted toward the dark mass anyway—just as Ryvak suggested.
Ryvak released a relieved breath, tightened his grip on his treasure another notch, and trailed after him. His foot caught under a rock, threatening to tumble him to the ground. The boy wrapped the jar in the nook of his left arm, as snuggly as he could manage; he reached down with his other hand. He straightened his crooked leg—never healed from one of Da’s beatings—and dragged the shorter, lame leg along as he tried to keep pace with Gunnar.
“I”m gonna knock you senseless ’till your brains spill from your skulls!” The pitch of Da’s voice amplified. He choked on the last word as if spittle caught in his throat.
Ryvak chanced a backward glance. Da stumbled, a mead horn in his right hand, a knife in his left. Amber-colored liquid sloshed from his horn, splashing the ground—so close, Ryvak whiffed the rank brew in the air.
“See what you made me do? Waste an entire day’s coin, you did! You think I work for nothing?”
Da’s bulbous nose reddened. Ryvak knew to stay clear when Da was drunk, but he thought if Da was occupied with his ale, they’d be able to take their jar, steal the ax, slip away and do their deed—finally, be rid of him for good—before Da even realized what happened.
Their father righted himself and pumped his legs hard, advancing on the boys. “Just like your ma! Always running!”
Ryvak yanked his head around, forcing his legs to go faster. “Hurry Gunnar,” urged Ryvak. “He’s gaining on us.”
Gunnar slung his head back to look at his brother. “Going as fatht as I can,” he said, heaving.
“Running aint’ gonna help you, neither!” yelled Da, his voice closing in. “You, a piss-ant cripple and Gunnar, dumber than worm shit! I always catch you, and you’ll be sorry for the trouble you’ve caused me!”
Gunnar’s lips pinched—an unusual sight, as his lower lip usually hung down, forming a cup where saliva gathered, and sometimes dribbled. Da said Gunnar was born stupid and his looks matched his brains, but that’s not what Ryvak thought. Ryvak saw a gentleness in his brother’s face that he’d never seen in anyone. Maybe he’d gotten it from their Ma, but Ryvak didn’t know. He’d never seen her—or at least he couldn’t remember seeing her. She was fragments of memories his older brother told him at night when neither boy could sleep.
The older brother cinched his arm around his middle. Gunnar’s too small tunic—he’d grown out of the rag when he turned eleven—clung right above his trousers, and Ryvak spotted purple mounds blooming over his brother’s back. Blood leaked from one, staining the filthy wool crimson.
Da must have clipped him with the tip of his boot.
“You want me to carry the ax?” offered Ryvak, huffing to catch his breath, run and speak all at the same time.
“Nei. Too heavy for you.” Gunnar smiled, though his lip dragged down into its customary sag, saliva pooling at the edge of his mouth.
As much as Ryvak didn’t want to admit it, if they intended to escape, Gunnar needed to carry the ax—the younger boy already carted the honey-jar, plus he was too small and too weak to heft the ax for long. So, Ryvak settled his sight on the horizon, and urged Gunnar forward. A hundred paces more and they’d reach the forest line.
Ryvak strained against his muscles; they wanted nothing more than to sit and rest. His heart fluttered in his chest as he continued, his pace beginning to slag. “You’re a pathetic little shit,” his father would say.
The boy reached down, grabbing the wool of his trousers. He twisted his fist into the coarse material and hefted his crippled leg, lugging it as he drove forward with the other. The jar’s lid teetered with his effort, and the boy hoped the precious liquid wouldn’t spill before they got their chance to use it.
Gunnar’s form deceptively plodded ahead of him, his giant strides covering long patches of ground. Shadows dropped from the clouds, darkening the earth where they ran. Blotches of autumn grass over a stony flat—yellowed and dead in their stalks—wavered from the wind, tangling around the boy’s legs as he strained.
Suddenly, something caught the back of Ryvak’s calf. He lunged headlong, face-first. He cradled the honey-pot with both arms, protecting his precious cargo. Another jerk from behind. His body lurched backwards through the air; he hit the ground, horizontal, with a thud. Wind knocked from his chest. His bones reverberated with the fall. His chin caught a rock, and Ryvak thought his teeth would shatter.
They didn’t, but might as well have from the tremor searing through his head. The metallic taste of blood swamped his tongue, but the jar, thank the gods, remained intact.
Reflexively, Ryvak muscled his head around and spotted Da: fist wrapped around the boy’s ankle, his grin as evil as tales of the shadow-spawn.
“I told you, I’d catch you.”
Da yanked again.
Ryvak dug into the dirt with the fingers of one hand, slowing his pace, keeping his belly from being skinned on the rocky ground, while tenaciously gripping his jar with the other.
Da wielded his mead horn and knife in one hand while the other wrapped around Ryvak’s bad leg. Light as the boy was, Da dragged him backwards like a straw doll, twisting his lame leg as he pulled. His thigh burned like the fires of Muspell. All Ryvak could do was slide along with the force, and pinch his jaw against the pain.
“What’s that you got there, boy? Been stealing goodies for yourselves and holding out on your old Da?”
Ryvak curled himself around the jar when the pound of feet thumped up beside his head. The boy twisted his neck, and gazed upward. Gunnar hovered before him, ax leveled toward their father.
Da laughed—a fiendish kind of bellow, blasting straight from his gut.
“You ain’t using that on me, boy.”
Gunnar sucked in his sagging lip and chewed the fat flesh. The ax wavered in his grip. His eyes bolted from Da to Ryvak and back again.
“Come on, hand over the ax, son, and I won’t box them big ears of yours this time.”
Da gestured to Gunnar with his chin, but refused to release Ryvak’s ankle—or put down his knife and ale horn. He stood with every confidence his dumb son would give over. Like he always did.
Gunnar’s head swayed. Spittle ran from his mouth, dripping off his jaw bone.
“Don’t do it. I ain’t worth it. Take this,”—Ryvak stretched the pot towards his brother—”and run. You still got a chance without me.”
The hoot from Da split the air like thunder. His shoulders—as massive as a bull’s haunches—quaked with amusement. “How touching. What a sloppy gesture of brotherly love. What you got that’s so precious anyway?”
As Da settled his gaze on the honey-pot, Gunnar did something entirely unlike himself. He swiped the ax so rapidly a blink would have missed the action. Da’s mead horn sliced in half from the blow. Rusted at the thing was, Ryvak would never have thought the old ax would have done so much damage, but the force clipped the horn from Da’s hand and split the horn in two. Mead spewed through the air, engulfing them with its nauseating smell.
Da lunged, trying to catch the bottom half of the horn—even drunk, Da was quick.
But Gunnar was quicker. He reached down and pulled Ryvak to his feet, while Ryvak cinched his fingers around the jar and clung to it with what little strength he had left. Gunnar hefted the younger boy over his shoulder, like a sack of rye, and took off at a run. From Ryvak’s bumpy vantage, he spotted Da fumbling over the ground, and groveling over his spilled drink.
Within a few steps, Gunnar groaned under Ryvak’s extra weight.
“Put me down, Gunnar. I can run.”
“Not ’til we get away.”
There would be no arguing over the matter, so Ryvak balanced himself and hung tight. He glanced to his side. The ax, slung back over Gunnar’s other shoulder, thumped up and down, like Ryvak. The younger brother had wondered if the rusted head could even cut clean through bone. When they stole the hatchet, he’d reasoned it didn’t have to—all the ax needed to do was slice just enough to open an artery and let lose stores of blood, but now he knew the decrepit old head would do the deed fine.
Gunnar bounded toward the tree-line, scattering the base of the Skagg Mountains, as the sun sizzled out over the horizon.
Da’s voice echoed like a nightmare behind them, “I don’t know what you’ll are planning by stealing that ax, but you sell it, and I’m taking it from your hides! As far as what’s in that jar, you better be handing it over to me quick-like! The both of you! You hear me boys? I ain’t playing games this time, and I ain’t finished with you yet!”
Neither boy looked back. They dashed headlong until the tangled wood of the Spirit Hills encompassed them, sucking up every bit of sound, including their father’s distance screams.
“You hear him?” Gunnar bent over, holding his ribs, trying to catch his breath. An unhealthy gurgle resonated from his chest.
Gunnar had lowered Ryvak from his shoulder, and the boy sat on the cool earth, his jar nestled on his lap, listening.
“Ain’t following us nei more. The hills frightened him off.”
“Ain’t nothin’ frightenth Da.”
“Nothing but these hills… and losing his ale.”
Ryvak would have smiled at his jest, but an uneasiness snuck up his spine. For in fact, not only did Ryvak not hear his father, but he heard nothing. Not a hoo, not a chirp, not a flap of wings—just the heave of Gunnar’s breath and his own in the silence of the Spirit Hills. A blanket of blackness pressed down from the canopy of trees, squashing any brightness from the lingering twilight, leaving the two boys in shadows.
“We better keep moving and make sure. We don’t want him—or anything else—interrupting when we do it.”
Ryvak hefted himself upright, along with his jar, and straightened his lame leg as well as possible.
Gunnar swallowed hard; his gulp sounding labored. He stood and swept the ax back over his shoulder. He winced as the wood handle struck his flesh, but he settled the instrument over his tattered tunic anyway. Ryvak wanted to reach over and inspect the elder boy’s wounds, but he figured it wouldn’t matter soon.
“Thure we thould go through with thith?”
“Ain’t nei other way to be rid of him, Gunnar. We’ve tried running. He always gets us back and beats us all the more.”
“If we had thome money, maybe we could buy land and make honey to thell. Build uth a hut and collect wood for our fire? Have a thafe place. A place to belong.”
A safe place to belong. The thought sounded sweet in Ryvak’s head, but he knew better. Even if they managed to find a place of their own—others wouldn’t accept them. That’s what Da said. Your brother a half-wit and you a cripple? Who’d put up with such uselessness? You’ve got to earn your keep in this world, boys. Ain’t nei free rides and ain’t nei place for a couple of half-men. Any other father would have ordered his wife to take you two bundles out in the woods when you was born, to be taken care of by the wolves or snatched up by the shadow spawn, and you’d be dead and gone like you should have been. Only I put up with such a disgusting, pathetic pair. There ain’t a single place in all of Scandia that would want the two of you.
“We don’t got coin, Gunnar. We don’t got nei way to get that much silver for buying land, besides stealing it, and ain’t nei one around has that much extra money where we could get to it.”
“But killing one another?”
“I told you, Gunnar. It ain’t killing.”
“If you cut off my head, and do the deed on yourthelf, thoundth like murder to me.”
“If we murdered one another—like letting Da beat the life from us—we’d be draugrs and walk the land half-dead, but if we sacrifice ourselves to the gold god Frey, we’ll be assured a place in the afterlife. Da can’t hurt us there. We’ll be protected for good.”
“We’ll go to Valhalla?”
“Nei. Valhalla’s only for heroes.”
The elder boy bent his already crooked neck. “Ja, we ain’t nei heroes, that’th for thure.”
“Cheer up, Gunnar. Helheim’s where sacrifices go. They say it’s always Autumn so the apples are always ripe, and the stars are always clear and bright against the sky.”
“It will be.” Ryvak smiled at his brother. “But we got to find the right spot to do it. Come on, let’s move before it’s too dark.”
Ryvak plucked Gunnar’s sleeve and led him along. The full moon popped over the horizon and struggled through the bared branches, barely casting light, as they shuffled through fallen leaves and tangled undergrowth. The sound of their passing amplified in the unnatural silence, but Ryvak ignored it—ignored the rise of his neck hairs, the tightness of his skin, and that peculiar tingling sensation signaling they weren’t alone. He only hoped they’d be done before whatever it was out there found them.
“We’ll be together after we done it, right?”
Ryvak shot his head up towards his brother. Gunnar’s eyes—beady upturned dots underneath bushy dish-water brows—caught the meager moonlight and glowed like the softest stars in the sky.
“You know I’d never leave you,” Ryvak assured him.
“Nei.” Ryvak smiled tenderly. “Never. Not ever.”
Gunnar bobbed his head, and the two continued onward until they reached a meadow clearing. And there, in the center of the half-dead shafts of yellow, a rock rose from the ground—just tall enough to lean over and lay one’s neck flat over the smooth, brown surface.
“I think we just found the perfect place to do our deed,” said Ryvak. “Are you ready?”
Gunnar turned toward Ryvak, nodding solemnly. He led the way to the rock, lumbering. The whip of wind through the lifeless tree branches brought scents of molded leaves, cool pine, heady earth, and most of all, the crispness of the season’s change.
“Who goeth firtht?”
Ryvak reached toward his brother, taking hold of the ax handle. “Best if it’s you. Then I’ll slice my wrists.”
Gunnar nodded, lowered himself to his knees and stretched his head over the rock. He pulled the tangle of dirty hair away, exposing his neck. The light caught his skin; Gunnar’s usual dirtiness looked milky-white, and the blonde in his hair seemed more like spun gold than murky water.
“Not yet, Gunnar. I’ve got to do the ritual to make sure Frey hears us and comes to take us when we does the deed.”
Gunnar gulped, and straightened. “Oh.”
Ryvak handed him the honey-pot. “Set it in the center of the rock.”
The elder boy obeyed.
“Now open the lid and spread it into a circle.”
Again, the elder boy followed Ryvak’s instruction, using a fat finger to pull the honey from the jar. The whiff of sweetness caught in Ryvak’s nostrils; his head spun with the scent. Funny how honey smelled nothing like his Da’s mead. The scents were similar, he supposed, but honey seemed pure while mead gave off a rankness. His stomach gurgled. When was the last time he’d eaten? He couldn’t remember.
“Do you think Da wath tellin’ the truth?” Gunnar swirled his forefinger in the sticky liquid, circling round and round.
“What about her?”
“That Ma ran off ’cause Ma couldn’t thand the thight of us?”
Ryvak shrugged. He’d never thought about it—just assumed Da’s words were the truth.
“I wath thinking, why would Ma run off when Ma’s the one done thtuck around long enough after having me—knowin’ I wathn’t right—in order to have you?”
A slow smile spread Ryvak’s face at the notion; for all Gunnar’s stupidity, Ryvak thought him the smartest boy alive.
“Ain’t nei matter, Gunnar. She’s gone, and we’ve only got each other.”
“All right, it’s time,” said Ryvak.
“What if you get the thacrifice wrong?”
“Ain’t nei way to be sure, Gunnar. We’d better just get on with it.”
The chill and silence, prodded Ryvak. Whatever was “out there” he’d rather not find out. Animals or shadow spawn, if they hurried and did the deed, could have their corpses. They’d already be in Helheim, so what would they need bodies for?
“Golden god Frey,” said Ryvak, though he didn’t sound like the Godhi presiding over a sacrifice. His voice jittered like a frightened child’s. “We ask that you accept us as a … humbled offering?”
“Humbled offering to your greatness. We ask you to take me and my brother to the hall of Helheim, so we can live out our lives in peace. We don’t want to be draugrs and we don’t want to haunt this spot we die on. Oh, and wherever our Da goes after he’s dead and gone, we don’t want to be there neither.”
The elder brother shook his head in approval. He tugged on Ryvak’s tunic.
“Are you gonna thay the poem?”
“Oh, ja,” said Ryvak. “Honey flows in wooden cup—”
“We only got a jar.”
“Nei matter, Gunnar. Frey’s a kind god. He won’t care.” Ryvak hesitated before continuing. “Take a taste and drink it up. We’ve nei other gold, but this to give. Frey take our lives so we can live.”
Ryvak smiled at his recitation. He wasn’t sure if he’d remember the honey song.
He gestured to Gunnar, “Now take a taste.”
Gunnar grinned. “I like thith part!” and stuck his two biggest fingers into the honey; he shoved them into his mouth and moaned with satisfaction.
Ryvak followed suit, and when the thick liquid touched his tongue, the flavor goaded more gurgling from his belly.
Each boy savored the moment, reluctant to move on until Ryvak gathered his wits and said, “Now, golden god Frey, I draw your rune, inguz, and ask you to free us.” Ryvak reached back, and swirled his finger into the honey, but the gummy substance pooled back around into a flat puddle. Ryvak frowned.
Ryvak bit at the inside of his cheek.
“If we don’t do it right, we’ll become draugrth.” Panic rose in Gunnar’s tone.
“Nei, Gunnar. It will be all right. I promise.”
Ryvak glanced around and found a small stone; he scratched the symbol into the rock, making white scrawl lines to form the outline of the rune. Once done, he nodded at his handiwork, satisfied with the wavy lines.
“That wath real good, Ry. I wath worried for a moment.” Gunnar let out a sigh. “Are you done?”
“All but for the,”—Ryvak jerked his chin toward the ax—”you know.”
Gunnar nodded and once again stretched his neck across the stone; he closed his eyes, as trusting as any newborn babe in the arms of their mother.
Using all his might, Ryvak hefted the ax up, and behind his head. Now if he could just swing the blade, slice the iron edge downward, center of Gunnar’s neck—make the kill quick-like so his brother didn’t suffer.
A tear pricked the edge of his eye. He swallowed. His father’s face—red, angry, screaming—scorched his memory. Useless, pathetic son of a whore. You’ll never be anything. You or your half-wit brother. I damn the day I ever set your seed inside your bitch of a mother.
Just one quick downward motion, thought Ryvak. His hands trembled, as he gripped the ax’s handle tighter. That’s all it will take. The weight of the ax would do the rest; lay open Gunnar’s skin, crack through his artery, release his lifeblood and let the cherry liquid ooze onto the rock while Gunnar bled out. The break of the neck would probably kill him before his juices waned.
Wouldn’t it? Or would it?
Would Gunnar lie there writhing, screaming out in agony? Or would he sob and shudder like when Da hit him?
Salty water broke from both Ryvak’s eyes and streamed over his cheeks. He checked the urge to wipe them for fear of losing grip on the ax handle. They slithered down his skin—warm, and hot—like blood.
His arm shook. He heaved the shaft from his shoulder. The blade quivered near his ear. His muscles gelled, and with all Ryvak’s strength, he swung the deadly block down, down, down. Except, instead of seeking Gunnar’s neck, the boy plunged the ax into the ground, lodging the head in the dirt with a thump. Every bit of him shook—his hands, arms, legs, heart. He wanted to sink downward, but forced himself to stay upright.
Gunnar blinked, opening his eyes.
“What’th wrong?” The elder brother glanced at the ax head shorn up in the dirt. He shifted his gaze back up to his brother. “Don’t worry, Ry. I’ll do it.”
Then Gunnar stretched his long legs and stood, looming over his brother.
“You’ve never even hurt a fly,” argued Ryvak.
“I ain’t hurting you. I’m freeing you. Just like you thaid.”
Ryvak’s tears ran all the harder. The suck of his lungs came hot and fast, as if he couldn’t catch enough breath.
“Anyway,” said Gunnar. “It’th my fault.”
“Da hating uth like he doeth.”
The protesting shake of Ryvak’s head broke the rivers of tears. He smeared their wetness with the back of his hands and snuffled. “That ain’t true, Gunnar Bruttrson! Not one bit!”
“I’m big, and dumb, and utheleth,” continued Gunnar. “I ruined the theeds. I dumped them, tripping like a clumthy ox. I ruin everything with my thupidness.”
“Them seeds weren’t spoilt, Gunnar. You can’t spoil ’em by dumping them from the sack.”
Gunnar nodded. “That’th how dumb I am. Don’t even know they weren’t ruined. Da’th right to be mad.”
“Nei, Gunnar. Da hates everyone. Some men are just born hating.”
“That’th why I got to do it.” Gunnar reached down and wriggled the ax from its earthen sheath. “I got to do thomething right before I die.”
The brothers’ gazes caught one another—Ryvak’s tear-blurred eyes staring into Gunnar’s beady bits, shining with love for him. Finally, Ryvak nodded. He slunk to the ground. The coldness of the dirt raised the hairs on his back. He pushed his toes into the earth to raise himself higher, as his cheek barely grazed the top of the rock. He continued to push until he stood, angled, and stretched his neck out for Gunnar.
But Ryvak didn’t close his eyes. He stared upward. Through the tangled, leafless branches of their little opening, Ryvak spotted the moon, and time stilled. His heart clacked against his ribcage in slow motion…thud…
Blood rushed his ears like the squeal of a tempest.
Slowly, Ryvak turned toward Gunnar. The ax brightened in the moonlight—a murderous, rusty comrade in their crusade—and Ryvak spied the same conflict in his brother’s face. Gunnar’s tears streamed harder. His lip sagged; his spittle pooled, dripping from his chin in time with his teardrops.
And Ryvak thought, There’s not a soul in the world I’d rather spend eternity with than my brother.
Then a crack sounded in the silence of the Spirit Hills. Another pop spluttered, like wood breaking.
“What’s that?” asked Ryvak.
Gunnar swung his head toward the clearing’s perimeter, the ax swaying away from Ryvak’s head with his movement. His eyes switched back and forth. The ax quivered on his shoulder and Ryvak realized Gunnar was trembling.
The elder boy cleared a lump from his throat and with a low, rumbling tone, said, “Thadow thpawn.”
Neither boy demanded they finish their deed before the dark ones descended upon them and did the job for them. Ryvak knew he couldn’t do it, no matter the consequence, and the look upon Gunnar’s face told him the same was true for his brother. In that instant, their dream of freedom slid, twisting, churning, turning until the desire to die morphed into the will to save themselves…someway. Somehow.
“Behind the rock,” Ryvak commanded in a hush.
He pulled at Gunnar’s sleeve, tugging him down and around. Gunnar came, but as slow as sludge—too frightened to move on his own. They squatted there, backs pressed against the cold stone, chests heaving with fright, and listened.
Between the snapping of wood, came the high pitch of a whistle. A merry little tune echoed in the clearing.
The two boys shot questioning glances at one another.
The whistle grew louder. Quick footsteps joined the tune.
“Elder,” said a voice, “Why are we—”
“Hush!” a gravelly voice commanded. “In silence, you’ll hear.”
“Nei disrespect, Elder, but why do you always speak in riddles? I can’t—”
But the voice cut short, and the silence returned to the Spirit Hills.
Both Ryvak and Gunnar sucked in their breaths and held them for long, dizzying moments.
“Ah,” said the first voice. “I see what you mean.”
“You know what we must do?”
“If you’re pointing out what I suspect, then I think so, Elder.”
“I am, Andvarri. Your ability to reason bodes well for you. You might make a good apprentice after all.”
Some more shuffling of feet sounded, then the whistling started anew while the Elder voice rambled on about the seven sacred trees of Scandia or some such nonsense.
Both Ryvak and Gunnar let out their air.
Ryvak motioned around the rock, and each boy poked their heads to one side. Two little men—not short, not small, but actual little men strolled in the distance. The older one carried a staff meant for someone three times his size, and poked and prodded at various bushes near the ground. The other nodded enthusiastically at every word the Elder said.
Gunnar’s eyes grew into saucers; he gasped, but Ryvak covered his brother’s mouth before any words flew out. When he was sure Gunnar wouldn’t speak, he removed his hand and wiped Gunnar’s spittle from his palm.
“Thadow thpawn?” mouthed Gunnar.
“They—” but Ryvak slapped his hand back over Gunnar’s lips. Even Gunnar’s whispers were louder than most people’s speech; though Gunnar had no idea his voice thundered so loudly, Ryvak was all too aware about the fact. Especially at that moment.
“I know. Not what I expected either,” whispered Ryvak.
From the tales Da told, Ryvak expected the dark ones, the shadow spawn, the little ones, the dwarves, to be demons with red eyes and fangs for teeth. Yet, here stood two mild-looking men, albeit truncated in size, pleasant-looking enough and not one bit scary. Certainly not child eaters.
“But look what the older one’s wearing.” Ryvak pointed to the gnarled old man.
The Elder dwarf kept poking the ground, and the other little man—a jolly dwarf, wearing a perpetual smile as if nothing ever bothered him—would scramble to where he prodded, pick some specimen, and then hand it back to the Elder. The Elder examined it with one eye, for he only had one. The other eye was a shrunken mass of skin that sunk into his skull. Then, he’d nod, and tuck the specimen into a pouch fastened around his middle.
“The pouch,” said Ryvak.
Gunnar sucked in his lip.
“Dwarves carry gold in their pouches.”
The hair of Gunnar’s brows dipped downward.
“If we had money, we could buy some land and sell honey?”
Finally, a slow smile turned up most of Gunnar’s mouth as recognition lit up his eyes. He nodded emphatically, then as quick as his enthusiasm overtook him, he frowned, and shook his head, still not understanding.
“We’ll steal it, Gunnar. You tackle the smiley one, and I’ll grab the pouch. Then we run. We run as fast and as far as we have to until we’re safe. Understood?”
Gunnar shook his head.
“What’s the matter?”
Ryvak slipped his hand over his brother’s mouth again, and warned, “Quietly, Gunnar. Like a rabbit over snow.”
Gunnar bobbed his head; Ryvak slid his fingers away.
“What if I hurt him?”
“You’re just gonna tackle him and hold him down. That’s all.”
“But if I thit on him and break his boneth?”
“You won’t, Gunnar. You wouldn’t do that. I know you.”
After a moment of consideration, Gunnar nodded his agreement.
The two boys edged up to a squat.
“When I say go.”
Ryvak switched his gaze to his brother, to check if he was ready. The elder boy remained focused on their prey, and Ryvak whispered, “Go!”
The brothers took off, running. Gunnar pulled ahead within a step, barreling toward the younger dwarf, but before he reached his target, the Elder appeared in front of Gunnar—almost as if he’d sprung from one place to the next with the speed of a lion. Ryvak wouldn’t have believed it, had he not witnessed the event himself, and he blinked repeatedly, unsure that he had actually seen the miracle.
He knew he had though, because the old man stretched out his walking stick, and Gunnar caught his foot on the gnarled wood, and flew. He landed with a heavy thud, and Ryvak scrambled to his brother’s side. Gunnar groaned, holding his ribs as he sat upright.
“Don’t hurt my brother!” screamed Ryvak, but his voice trembled. After seeing the old man’s impossible feat, he was a bit terrified of the unassuming dwarf, and wasn’t sure if sparks would fly from the little man’s fingers, or if his head would spin and fire would spew from his mouth.
“You two look hungry,” said the Elder.
“We are,” said Gunnar at the same moment Ryvak said, “What’s it to you?”
“When’s the last time you had a warm meal?”
Gunnar’s mouth flung open and spit pooled in his lip, as if the mere thought of food set his mouth watering.
“Food in the belly clears a man’s head. Let’s him make better decisions.”
Ryvak’s gaze wandered from Elder’s wrinkled, eye-less socket to the pack strapped around his waist.
“I propose this, young lads. You can either come with me to our village, and our women will feed you the finest meal you’ve ever tasted, or…” The old man dug in his pouch and produced a shiny silver Aram.
Ryvak nudged Gunnar at the coin’s appearance.
Elder continued, “You can take this silver and purchase a meal in the next village. Though, mind you, if you’re traveling nordr, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an establishment. Best to turn vestr and travel toward the sea. There are villages a few days out along the trading route that would spot you some hot porridge. But, if you decide to return to the village and fill your bellies first, I’ll give you the coin as well. Your choice.”
The coin sparkled, or at least it seemed to under Ryvak’s hungry gaze. He’d never seen an Aram, but once, right before Da traded it for an entire barrel of mead.
“Well?” said the Elder.
“Why should we trust you?” asked Ryvak.
“Why should you not?”
Gunnar tugged urgently on Ryvak’s tunic.
“Give us a bit,” said Ryvak. “We have to discuss this.”
“Certainly,” said the Elder, and Ryvak could have sworn the old man winked at Gunnar. Then again, with only one eye, he could have merely blinked.
The two brothers scrambled far enough away for privacy.
“We’ll take the coin,” said Ryvak.
Gunnar shook his head wildly, “But we’ll get both if—”
“It’s a trick. It’s got to be a trick. Why would he offer us such a thing? The coin’s enough to buy us a lot of food, then we can figure out how to buy us a plot of land. We’ll have that dream, Gunnar. You and me.”
“Ja, Gunnar. Always together.”
A gurgling erupted in Gunnar’s stomach. Not only was the boy hungry, but more blood seeped from his tunic. The fall must have broken any seal the wound from Da had made. How far could Gunnar walk, still hurt, and both boys hungry for days?
The two stared at one another for a long moment before Ryvak said, “All right, Gunnar. We’ll go to the village, but be on guard. This might be a trick.”
So he turned, and yelled back at the dwarves, “If we come to your village, can you salve and wrap my brother’s cut?”
“Ja,” said the Elder, again, winking or blinking. “We’ll do far more than that.”
Whether the dwarf threatened or invited, Ryvak didn’t know. He only knew two things for sure: they couldn’t go back to Da, and Gunnar needed help now, not two days later. Yet he hoped trusting the dwarves wouldn’t cost them their lives.
“I”m Elder Eitri and this is my apprentice, Andvarri,” said the Elder after a long silence of shuffling through the dark, tangling wood of the Spirit Hills. Though Ryvak admitted, traveling with the dwarves proved easier; Andvarri had, after fumbling with some sticks, a murky substance he retrieved from his pocket and some flint, ignited a mini torch that produced a mighty glow. He called it a fire stick and grinned with embarrassment when the Elder praised his execution of, what looked to both boys, like some kind of magic.
“And this,” continued the Elder as he strode up to a meadow, thumping his walking stick on the ground, “is the Elder Meadow of the Village of Gnarn.”
Side by side, Ryvak and Gunnar strode passed the Elder, and into a clearing. Lanterns hung from trees, glowing bright against the shadowy wood, like fireflies on a summer night. Little people—men, women and children—danced and laughed with one another around a great feasting table laid with every smoked meat, churned cheese and honey-cake imaginable.
The two boys hesitated, looking back at Elder Eitri.
“Won’t they be upset by the looks of us?”
“They’ve seen men before.”
“But my brother’s a half-wit, and I’m a cripple. People don’t take so kind to the likes of us.”
“I didn’t seem to mind.”
“Neither did I,” offered Andvarri.
So the two boys took careful, cautious steps into the meadow when a dwarf woman noticed them. She wore a crisp white apron, and a long blonde braid dangled over the front. She smiled. She started trotting their way.
Ryvak froze at her approach, but then she yelled, “Husband!” and he realized the woman’s smile was not for them at all, but for Andvarri. The dwarf woman swooped up, and they embraced like newlyweds while the little man spun her around and around.
“Where’re the children?” he asked.
“With Nana.” Then he placed her firmly on the ground, and her gaze stretched up to the boys. “Who are our guests?”
“Ysja, this is Ryvak and his brother Gunnar.”
Her eyes glimmered with warmth as she looked them over before she huffed, “Oh, my!” Another scrutiny up and down their forms and she yelled, “Oh, my!” again, much louder.
Ryvak back up. “We offend her. Just like Da said. Ain’t nei place for a couple of half-men. Not even with the shadow spawn.”
Gunnar followed his lead, scooting backwards, and reaching over to grab Ryvak’s hand.
The woman yelled back to the crowded meadow, “Dalla! Borgunna! Frida! Come quickly!”
“It must be a trap,” whispered Ryvak into Gunnar’s shoulder as, from his height, he couldn’t reach his brother’s ear. “We’ll run.”
“But the coin?” groaned Gunnar.
At Ryvak’s urging, both boys spun around. Andvarri and Elder Eitri blocked their path. The horde of women descended at their backsides.
Ryvak’s heart hammered. They’d left their ax—their one and only weapon—back in the clearing. Why hadn’t they thought to bring it? They swirled around in a tight circle. The men grinned—beaming broad satisfied smiles—while the women’s faces sunk in what looked like horror at the sight of the two boys.
Just when Ryvak thought the wild women would attack, pounce them, annihilate them with some shadow spawn-type magic, Ysja yelled, “We need towels, bandages and boiled water.”
“Tsk, tsk,” said another woman. “They look as if they haven’t eaten in weeks! Who could have done such a thing?”
“Oh, the poor babes! They’re starved and hurt!”
The women hovered around the boys like a swarm of bees on pollen. “Elder,” said Ysja, “You’ll examine the wounds?”
“Ja, of course,” said Elder, “But you might want to let them eat before you smother them with all your care.”
Ysja, Andvarri, Elder and all the women laughed, but Ryvak just stood there with his brother, as if a cyclone circled around them.
“They mean uth nei harm?” asked Gunnar, as unbelieving as Ryvak.
For the first time in Ryvak’s short life, a creeping sensation of what it might have been like if his mother had stayed, edged up the back of his spine, spreading a rare warmth over his skin.
“Come,” instructed Ysja.
The little woman took both Ryvak and Gunnar by their hands, positioning herself between the boys, and escorted them into the meadow. Her skin seemed satiny and inviting, like what Ryvak imagined comfort felt like. As they moved through the crowd, he noticed not all the villagers were dwarfs; among them roamed humans with missing limbs, or a few, not unlike Gunnar, with thick lips and upturned eyes, and some were arched at the backs, clubbed at the feet or altogether deformed. Yet all were merry. All wore smiles. All shone with that special brand of kindness Ryvak saw in his own brother’s eyes.
Once their bellies were filled with hot food, their wounds tended and wrapped, and Elder even gave Ryvak a salve for his lame leg that eased the burn inside, the boys sat off to the side of the still cavorting villagers.
“The dwarves aren’t the evil baby eaters Da told us they were, are they, Gunnar?”
“Wonder what elth he lied about?” asked Gunnar.
“Including Ma,” said Gunnar, and a tear glimmered in the corner of his eye.
Elder approached and stretched out his hand, the Aram coin in the center of his palm.
“So, this is yours,” he said.
Ryvak reached up, but Elder eased his hand back a hair. “Or,” he added, “you can stay here for as long as you like. Over time, you could earn many of these and spend them however you like.”
Ryvak narrowed his eyes. “What’s the catch?”
“Only that you be who you’re meant to be.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That you don’t become martyrs or thieves, but brothers who stand by one another’s sides.”
Ryvak scrunched his brow so hard his head hurt. He wasn’t sure what he meant. He wasn’t sure if by mentioning “thieves” the old man knew they had meant to rob him.
“You’re not what we expected,” said Ryvak.
“Oh,” said Elder. “You expected baby snatchers? Or leathery creatures with ravenous fangs?” He laughed.
“Kind of,” admitted Ryvak.
“Nonsense. Sometimes what you hear is plain superstitious nonsense.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that people think you’re something you’re not?”
Elder laughed again, his eye winking, or blinking or a combination of both. “Why should it? Outsiders can’t know what’s in our hearts. Besides, it keeps those who would intend on harming us away.”
Ryvak thought about that peculiar answer until Elder pulled his attention back, “And as for my offer, young lads. What will it be?”
“How will a pair like us earn our keep?”
“Everyone has their own type of usefulness. You will find yours. The trick of it is knowing; the choice is always yours.” The old man laid the coin down at Ryvak’s feet, turned and ambled away, thumping his big stick as he did.
Ryvak settled back into the autumn grass. The air smelled of roasted pork and honey-cakes. His stomach gurgled, but not with hunger, with digestion, and rare and satisfying sensation.
Gunnar stretched back down with his brother. Ysja had supplied the two with clean, wool blankets. Each boy pulled the warm wonders all the way up and tucked the fabric under their chins simultaneously. They stared at the moon, and the stars.
“I like it here, Ry,” said Gunnar.
“Me, too, brother. Me too.”
“It’th not the Hall of Helheim.”
“Nei, it’s not that.” Ryvak’s spine convulsed at what they had set out to do earlier in the evening, remembering the horrible moment he held the ax over Gunnar’s neck.
After a few more moments of contemplation, Gunnar asked, “Tho, you don’t want to leave?”
Ryvak inhaled the crisp autumn air, scented with pork. He listened to the merriment of villagers without a single hint of anger brewing beneath. He snuggled in the warmth of the woolen blanket without even one moth hole. He knew he’d wanted nothing more than to spend eternity with his brother, but this? Seemed sweeter than he ever thought eternity could be.
“Nei, Gunnar, I don’t want to leave,” he said. “Never. Not ever.”
HERE ENDS THE SHADOWLIGHT SHORT “BROTHERS’ KEEPERS”
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