Astrid waited for her mother to sleep, and for Balin to attend his chores. She double-checked her mother’s state, holding her hand above the woman’s nose.
Shallow, as if she scarcely lives. Her shoulders slumped at the thought. I keep a terrible secret from you. I’m sorry I am angry that you and Balin isolate me from the world, but I understand. You love me, Mamma. I could not bear to lose you. You are all that I have.
The young woman resisted the urge to caress her mother’s frail cheek and set about her business. She dug into a pouch that lay on the covers near her mother’s feet, retrieving the algiz rune stone.
The door squeaked. Astrid hid the rune stone in the folds of her tunic and turned. Balin’s bulk lumbered into their hut, his arms laden with chopped wood. He eyed Astrid suspiciously as he laid the logs next to the fire pit.
“When I was young, I fought for kings and chieftains,” he began in a hushed tone.
Astrid planted the stone in her palm and squeezed her fist tight around it as she crossed the room to her own mattress. She gathered her mantle, slipping the object into her pocket. She swung the cape over her shoulders, intending to exit, but Balin continued.
“I murdered men for the glory and riches of rulers. I took lives to satisfy another man’s greed. All of it was meaningless. Until I met your mother, and learned of you, I had nei purpose. I stumbled along performing mindless brutalities for others, but your mother gave me a reason worthy of fighting for.”
Astrid started at his words.
Balin reached underneath the bed he shared with Isla and pulled out a wooden box. He opened the lid and shuffled through his belongings.
“You will need this in the days to come.”
The warrior retrieved a lamellar breastplate and handed it to Astrid. She didn’t reach for the armor, so Balin crossed the room and pressed it into her hands.
“Not to worry, I resized it to fit you.” He chuckled. “I realize women care about their looks, even a woman a tough as you. I would not have you fighting in armor too loose for your form.”
She took the gift and fingered the leather squares, noting the breastplate was lined with intertwining iron rings joined with wire. Chain mail dangled from under the shell intended to cover her upper limbs and stomach. The garment weighed down her arms and she wondered if she would ever manage to wear such a heavy piece.
“I do not understand how the song works. I am Scandian and ignorant of the ways of Alvenheim. But you are strong, and you will learn it because you must. I have never known you to back down from a challenge.”
Astrid couldn’t determine how to acknowledge Balin’s speech. She laid the armor on her bed and strutted toward the door.
“The boy, Hallad…”
Balin’s mention of the young man caught her attention and she stopped, listening.
“Everyone needs a champion, a guardian, someone that is devoted to the survival of the other. I am that soul for your mother. I know the boy is the one for you. But you need to be worthy of him, because as much as your mother needs me, I need her too. It will be the same way for you and him.”
Astrid met Balin’s gaze, his eyes heavy with warning. With that one look, she realized what she must do.
Astrid wrapped her fingers around the algiz rune stone, as she leaned her back against the trunk of an evergreen. The mighty giant’s branches caught the snowfall leaving the ground bare where Astrid sat. She chose a tree situated far away from the hut that she shared with Balin and her mother, requiring solitude to complete her task.
I cannot fail…for my mother… for Balin…for Hallad…
Rolling the stone in her palm, Astrid closed her eyes. She steadied her nerves, and listened for the heart of the Mother. Branches cracked, giving way to the weight of the snow. The breeze whistled between the trees.
Astrid gripped the stone tighter, but the rock lay dead in her hand. Lifeless. Unmoving. She forced her thoughts inward, but met the fear of blackness, the fear that somewhere inside, the power she possessed was tainted by the Shadow. A barrage of thoughts attacked: her inability putting them at risk, her mother’s sickness, Balin’s talk of the young man’s safety, and above all, her mother’s desire to hear Astrid’s song.
She reached up and rubbed the heel of her hand across each eyelid, trying to clear away the jumble hiding inside her mind.
My head refuses to be silent, but I must find a way.
She thought of her mother’s song—her voice like a blanket wrapping her away from the storm. “Sleep, sleep, little one sleep,” Isla would sing when Astrid was a child.
Nei. I cannot sleep before drawing the ward. I must focus on feeling the Mother.
But her memories pushed in on her. Astrid mouthed the lyrics along with the recollection of her mother’s lullaby until she heard herself singing the song inside her head.
The sound of her own voice startled her. Her thoughts had always consisted of jumbled words and spoken phrases, but they never possessed an audible tone. She marveled in the melody, the vibration spreading throughout her skull as if her voice had awoken after years of slumber. It reverberated out in all directions—clear, high, and lilting.
When Astrid opened her eyes, a gray-shifting landscape spread before her. Her tune echoed, resounding from far away.
Where am I?
She thought the words, but they rang out into the air, each syllable chiming like a bell in the breeze. She spun in circles to catch the tone from every direction.
“You are here.”
The voice caught her off guard, and she swung around to find the source. A man stood before her, his onyx-colored hair slicked back from his forehead. Pale skin contrasted his dark hair. His body was thin and well-toned. He possessed a fluid quality as if his limbs flowed with liquid, while his face bore unreadable expressions as if in a constant state of change.
You heard me!
Her voice resonated throughout the landscape again.
The man smiled, showing a row of dazzling white teeth. The grin softened his face, transforming him into a stunningly handsome man.
“Of course I did.”
Do I dream?
Murky smoke swirled in all directions. The man appeared closer, yet his legs had not moved.
“Nei, this is real.” He spread his arms in a welcoming gesture. “My domain.”
Do I shadowwalk?
“You’ve walked before?” He cocked his head, sounding surprised.
Ja, but always to a place—or rather a particular person, never here.
“A person? Who would that person be?”
A warning signal tapped at the back of Astrid’s brain—her mother’s years of schooling on the dangers of the Shadow. She shifted. Her eyes darted from space to space, seeking an exit. The scenery around her transformed as the fog rolled, creating various forms. One moment the horizon appeared as a forest, the next rolling hills, and then a village.
The man drew closer, floating through the distance to land directly in front of her. She realized his eyes shifted in shades of grays like the landscape around him. His hand extended outward as if to seek her cheek.
“You are so beautiful, and your voice,” he said as his gaze devoured her, “I assumed it would be extraordinary, but I never imagined…”
His eyes glossed. He hesitated, frozen in place. Struggling with the effort, he pulled back his hand and glanced downward, clearing his throat. When he returned his gaze to her, his expression was, once again, indecipherable.
“I’ve waited so long, and you come to me at last.”
Astrid tested her voice once more.
How do you know of me?
Her speech broke loose, escaping around her. Her body lightened as if she had found wings, as if she soared along with her words.
“Everyone knows of you.” His smile spread wider.
The flesh on the back of Astrid’s neck pricked.
The man edged forward until his chest nearly touched her breast. His exhale heated the skin of her face.
“I would love you like nei other, if you let me.”
His intimacy frightened her. Her heart knocked at his proximity.
“I could teach you how to sing. Release your voice to the world,” he offered softly as his hand caressed her cheek. “Wouldn’t that feel wonderful?”
The familiar twinge returned to her throat as she shuddered, unable to tell the man no. The touch of his fingers tickled like feathers as he moved across her skin to cup her chin in his hand. He tilted her face toward his, locking his smoky eyes upon her. Then he guided her head to his own, his lips parting.
Astrid strained—her throat aching to find words, her limbs fighting for the resolve to push him back.
Who are you? She managed to force the thought forward.
“You do not know?” he whispered as his lips brushed against hers.
She shook her head, but the action caused the plumpness of her mouth to catch his lips again, and again. His touch sent a shiver throughout her body, urging her to open up and claim that dark place lurking deep inside—the place she fought so hard to keep locked away.
“I am your future,” he assured her as he closed his mouth over hers.
Astrid’s eyelids sunk shut, welcoming the uprise of desire. She longed to meld into him and connect with another in a way she had never been able to do.
“Wake, Astrid, now!” Isla’s command jarred the inside of Astrid’s head, but the heat of the man’s mouth upon hers begged her to ignore the demand. Her pulse quickened, but she finally obeyed, forcing her eyes open—the man and the landscape vanished.
Isla kneeled over her daughter, panic twisting her features. Balin’s hands remained on Astrid’s shoulders, ready for more shaking should she require it.
“What have you done?”
Astrid stared back at her mother, unable to respond. Her throat clenched tighter as she remembered the warmth of the man upon her.
I spoke! He heard me!
“Did you sleep without setting the ward?”
Astrid nodded her head, as she drew her legs to her chest, trying to temper the chill that spread throughout her body.
But I sang, Mamma! I sang in the shadowwalk!
“Did you see the Shadow?” Isla demanded with a mix of rage and dread tingeing her question.
Astrid stared back at her mother, her senses numb with realization. Her fearful expression confirmed her mother’s suspicion.
Isla stood, balancing on her warrior’s arm.
“Ready our packs, Balin. We flee this instant!”
Astrid grabbed her mother’s skirts.
Isla turned to scrutinize her daughter, her voice quavering as she spoke.
“I have given up my entire life to protect you. Now your foolishness has exposed us all!”
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