Chapter 48. Trapped in a Spider's Web
Erik rested his head on his hand while he studied how the spider in the roof worked on its net. It was fascinating how such a small animal could make something so intricate. An insect with shiny green wings and long delicate legs came dangerously close to the web. Unaware of the danger it took one step in the wrong direction and was trapped by the sticky web. The more it struggled to get free the more it got itself into trouble. Finally there were just some sporadic twitches in wings. Erik lost his interest for the drama above his head. The pillow and the mattress were soft, filled with the finest feather but the forced inactivity made his muscles restless. A small oil burner spread a pleasant scent in the room. He had no sense of time because there were no windows in his chamber and he had no idea for how long he’d been unconscious after the elves had caught him. When he thought about how he’d been captured he could still feel the sticky smell of the cloth that had been pressed against his nose.
This was a strange place. Erik could not really put his finger on why, but the castle gave the impression of being a place of show off while he could perceive decay beyond the façade. The long-eared lords and ladies had costly clothes made of fabric most humans could only dream about, but at a closer look he could see that many of them had been repaired so many times that they would not last much longer. The fat spider in the roof seemed, however, to live in abundance. Erik considered his situation. He was still alive and as far as he could tell the elves had for the moment no intention to kill him. The Dragon had even offered him armed elves to help him to take the crown. The problem was, however, that the offer was too generous. Erik had learned that nothing in life was for free and he didn’t have a good feeling about what the elves might want in return for helping him. “The Dragon”, by the way, what a stupid name. If the situation hadn’t been so grave he would have laughed when he’d heard the name of the Dark elf king.
When Erik was a child his mother told him to not go too far into the forest or the Dark elves might take him. His friends were told the same thing by their mothers. When he grew older he had dismissed this as something parents told their children so they wouldn’t get lost in the forest. But now he’d gone too far into the forest on his own and the long-ears had indeed taken him. He smiled when he thought about what his mother would make of this. Most likely the old lady would give him one long look and say “I told you so” whether or not she had believed that such a thing was really possible.
There was a sound at the door. Someone was turning a key in the lock. Quickly Erik pulled the black tunic over his head. Black, always black, no wonder the dark long-ears seemed so solemn when they had no colors that could cheer them up. He still felt naked though, without armor or weapon. But of course the long-ears had taken everything from him. They had even tried to take his beard away but he had drawn the limit there. The khol around his eyes could be washed away but it would take more time for the beard to grow back.
The door opened and the young women who had walked with him to the Dragon came in. She looked young anyway, but as far as Erik knew she could very well be his senior by hundreds of years. She was carrying a pile of clothes, a black tunic on top of his own clothes that the elves had taken from him. Erik didn’t know what to make of this. The dark lady was dressed as a warrior or a guard but did a maid’s work.
She put the pile down, pointed to the black tunic and said in his own language, but with a heavy accent “change.”
“What, do you want me to change tunic now?”
“No now, later,” the dark warrior maid answered. Maybe he was supposed to change before the next meeting with the Dragon? The warrior maid looked at him unabashedly like he had watched the spider in the roof.
Her eyes had a peculiar color and her unblinking gaze seemed even more intense with the khol painted around the eyes. The pale skin looked almost translucent in the light of the lanterns on the wall. Somehow the cold beauty of the lady warrior reminded Erik of Alde.
“What’s your name?” he said. Even a long eared kidnapper would be better company than the fat spider.
This simple question seemed to startle the dark lady. “Indindra,” she replied with a puzzled look.
Erik deliberately pronounced her name wrong, laughed as if he was embarrassed, and asked her to say her name again. He made her repeat the procedure three times before he finally pronounced her name right.
“Indindra, a pretty name for a pretty lady,” Erik put on one of his broadest smiles. A smile that often had worked wonders with human women. To his surprise and amusement the smile seemed to work on long-eared ladies to. Indindra looked down and Erik thought he could see a red flush on her high cheek bones. If there had been a flush it was, however, gone when she looked up again.
“You pretty too,” she said with her unblinking eyes resting steady on his. There was a smile on her lips, a smile that actually seemed to reach her khol-painted eyes. Erik suppressed the impulse to laugh; he’d been called many things before, good and bad, but this was the first time anyone called him pretty.
Before he’d decided what to make of this unexpected turn of events, Indindra surprised him again. “May touch?” she said and reached out a slender hand. Before he had answered she was stroking his beard. Without thinking Erik lifted his hand and put it over hers. He’d half expected Indindra’s hand to be as cold as her beauty and was surprised to find it as warm as the skin of any human woman.
Indindra made a sudden movement and before Erik could blink he found himself with cold steel against his throat. The long-eared lady pressed a knife against him, just a few millimeters from his death. If she would press the knife just a little bit harder his life would flow out of him in a read stream that not even the elves would be able to stop. Even at this close distance Indindra’s skin was completely flawless. She smelled like roses mixed with leather.
“No try escape,” she said coldy.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Erik lied.
“Dream you can,” Indindra said and smiled grimly. “Plenty guards everywhere. You die if escape.”
“I thought I was your guest. Is this how Dark elves treat their guests?” Erik made an effort to smile and for once found it somewhat difficult to accomplish. Indindra took the knife down so quickly that he concluded that she’d not exactly followed instructions when she threatened him.
She’d been right though. Of course the possibility to overpower Indindra, take her weapons and break free with her as a hostage had crossed his mind. But he’d dismissed the idea almost as soon as it came into his mind. Such a plan would probably have been hopeless anyway. He didn’t doubt that the cold dark elves would sacrifice Indindra without hesitation if that would be what it took to catch him again. It was also likely that they would rather kill him than let him escape. Erik didn’t want to die. As long as there was hope that he might live he would probably be better off playing the game as the Dark elves wanted instead of getting himself into more trouble by struggling to get free like the insect in his roof. If he couldn’t kill Dark elves he could just as well kill some time instead.
“How old are you Indindra?” he asked, partly to make her stay a moment longer and partly because he really was very curious about her age. He’d never seen an immortal before the long-ears attacked him. Too late he remembered himself. This was hardly a question he could have asked a human lady if he wanted to make a polite impression.
Indindra did indeed seem to find the question inappropriate. She looked uncomfortable. “Many years, me?” she asked and looked at him to see if she had got the question right. Erik nodded and Indindra looked thoughtful for a while. Finally she showed him all her fingers nine times and then she showed him seven fingers.
“You’re 97 years!” Erik said impressed and Indindra nodded.
“Indindra young but already good warrior,” she said and sounded defiant.
“You’re indeed a very good warrior, “Erik said. You really took me by surprise with the knife.
Indindra looked down and blushed as she had done when he told her that she was pretty. “You good warrior also,” she said and looked at him. “Strong warrior.”
“You never told me what you think of my beard,” he said and looked challenging at her. She raised her hand again and stroke his chin. “Don’t try to kill me again please,” he said and laughed.
“No try kill, only scare. No afraid anymore, knife sleeps now,” Indindra said and smiled.
“You should know this about me Indindra, I’m not easily scared,” he said and fired his broad smile as he placed his own calloused hand over Indindra’s pale slender hand. This time she did not draw her knife, instead she gave him a smile that made his heart beat faster.
After all, time would probably pass quickly until he would be summoned to the Dragon again Erik thought. Who was he to complain that the long-ears wanted to make him a king? Maybe his situation wasn’t so bad after all.
Chapter 49. Don’t forget where you belong
“I swear, it must have been a demon from the underworld. It stared at me with yellow evil eyes, showing its long fangs. On the front of its head it had sharp horns, just like a demon. I draw my sword ready for fight but then it was just gone as it’d never been the there.”
From the look on Harald’s face one could almost have believed that the story was true. But everyone knew about Harald’s practical jokes by now.
“You said it had brown skin, long horns, fangs and yellow eyes?” someone said.
“So laugh at me then Torfast, I know what I saw. You won’t laugh so loud when you look into the demon’s eyes one dark night when you go up to take a piss.” Harald said. More laughs followed but silenced as Torfast began speaking.
“I’m not laughing. It was the horns of such a demon that made this,” Torfast finger pointed at the long white scar on his left cheek.
“I thought you said that it was a jealous husband’s knife.” Everyone turned; no one had noticed that Alexander had joined them. “Please sit down,” Alexander made a gesture with his hand to stop everyone from rising and sat down amongst them. “Please don’t let me interrupt.” A bowl with stew was handed over to Alexander. Torfast was looking down into the ground and shrugged his shoulders with a wry smile on his lips.
Njal, the bard never missed an opportunity for a joke, “I heard that you got that scar in a fight against some outlaws. You shouldn’t complain though. According to the women, that scar is what makes you beautiful” he said and laughed.
It seemed like everyone had heard a different story about Torfast’s scar and Torfast only smiled and shrugged his shoulders for each version that was offered. The only one who wasn’t laughing was Harald, which was unusual.
Alexander stretched his legs. He finished the stew and felt pleasantly full, a feeling he had almost forgot when he joined the camp. It felt good to sit among the men, almost as if he was among friends and not a lord with his subordinates. But somehow, the distance was always there. Even if there was still talk and laughter around the fire, the atmosphere had changed from when he walked in among them. He had walked in just in time too, in time to hear that Torfast was beginning to tell about how they had captured the forest creature. It seemed that Torfast had forgotten the gold that had been paid in return for his silence about that night. Slightly worrying was also that Harald obviously had seen one of Roe’s kin out there in the forest.
Loki obviously believed that jokes about demons and Torfast’s scar were exhausted because he shouted, “`Njal, please sing “Make a wish.´” The bard smiled, and picked up his lute.
The song was well known so everyone could join in the chorus.
Alexander left the party and strolled in the direction of his tent. The bass voices singing the chorus embedded the night in an almost magic feeling.
Jasiri, one of the few jarls that had joined the rebels in the forest waited outside Alexander’s tent. “It’s a beautiful starlit night don’t you think,” Jasiri said and looked up to the sky, his teeth shining white in contrast to the dark skin that he had from his mother. The romantic and tragic story about Jasiri’s mother and father was the theme of some of the most popular songs on the bard Njal's repertoire. But like in most good stories the songs always had a sad ending. The beautiful foreign princess had died when Jasiri was born and the father died within half a year from sorrow. Unlike Alexander, Jasiri had very faithful relatives and they had raised him and managed his inheritance until he was old enough to be his own master. It had warmed Alexander’s heart when he’d first seen his friend in the forest camp.
Jasiri looked down and scratched his beard before he spoke “There is one thing we haven’t told you yet. A couple of months before you came here there were four Light elf riders asking about you and if we would know where to find you. The elves didn’t seem pleased to hear that all we knew was that you probably had been murdered by Erik’s people. Then they searched our camp as if we would have hidden you here. It seemed like they had some unsettled business with you. Would it be a problem for you, if they would come back to find you here?”
Alexander slowly placed a chair for himself and made a gesture to Jasiri to sit down before he answered. “Yes I would be in deep trouble if the Light elves were to find me, and so would anyone hiding me I expect.”
Jasiri nodded thoughtfully but didn’t ask more about the elves. “Sigrid believes that we need to march back to claim your crown before winter. The winter will be hard out here. If Erik’s new relatives decides to march in to help Erik, the lords who are still loyal to you will be replaced by lords loyal to Erik. With Light elves running around in the forest looking for you there’s one additional reason to move soon.”
Alexander noticed that even a warlord like Jasiri referred to Sigrid, the chamber maid, as a leader. As far as he could tell she was not formally appointed as a leader in the camp but everyone still seemed to refer to her as an authority.
“There are too few people in this camp to hope to win a large battle,” Alexander said. “Are you sure we can expect more to join us when we come back?”
“I’m sure. Your father made many loyal friends during his reign and Erik has not convinced as a great leader. There are some other candidates to the crown but they will not challenge you once it’s clear that you’re alive. If I’d been better prepared for Erik’s attack I wouldn’t be sitting here in the forest. But his attack on me made other lords more prepared for what to expect. He’s made some great losses in his still fruitless attempts to defeat the lords that won’t surrender to him. You will be king, no – you are the king. Don’t forget were you belong.”
“So much hope and trust they have in me,” Alexander thought, "All their dreams and hopes focus on me reclaiming the crown, when all I dream about is seeing Aliendre and Alex again. I must not fail these people who are willing to risk their lives for me. But I belong with Aliendre”
Chapter 50. Alexander makes an Offer
Alexander found the tarn where he had been told it would be, not far away from the camp at all. The water looked deep, perfect for offers to the gods. Someone had built an altar and carved an idol that watched over the lake.
An offer to the gods had to be something that was valuable or important to him, or the gods might be offended instead off pleased. It was said that in the old days at very hard times when people were starving and no other offers had helped, a king could be given to please the gods. He was glad that such practices had been abandoned a long time ago, if it was true that it had ever happened.
A good stallion could, however, still be a suitable sacrifice to the gods, but they needed all the horses they had and it was unthinkable that he would offer his own horse, his old friend whom he had shared so much with.
But there was one thing that he could give the gods, one thing that was not only costly but also very dear to him. Slowly he lifted the long necklace that Aliendre had given him over his head. The necklace had been loaded with magic to keep him shielded from his father in law, King Eraldor. He didn’t know if there was still magic left in it. Maybe it could still protect him and when he took it off, King Eraldor might find him. The necklace was the only thing that he had to remind him of Aliendre. But it couldn’t be helped. Something valuable must be offered to make the goods listen to him and help him. If Aliendre’s magic couldn’t protect him anymore he had to have faith in his own gods. Alexander took a deep breath and threw the necklace into the tarn.
When the necklace hit the surface of the water he kneeled and silently asked the gods to help his cause and to protect all those who followed him. He also asked the gods to allow him to see his wife and son again.
When Alexander lifted his head he saw that a black raven was looking at him.
It cried, spread its wings and flew.
Alexander’s heart was filled with hope.
The raven would take his message to the gods and they would listen.