Part 5 – The Riddle of the Runes
Jala was accustomed to her own company, but it seemed to her as if perhaps she had been led to choose this path for a reason. Had she not come to the settlement then this underprepared and inexperienced girl would undoubtedly have set off on her own. Jala would indeed have done the same at her age, but a Northwoman is made of sterner stuff.
“You are brave and full of spirit, young Freya,” Jala said with a smile. “But you are small and young and not likely to be prepared to face your journey alone. Is there a town nearby that I might take you to for safety?”
Jala could see Freya’s face darken as she spoke, so she hastened to her point.
“If you were to wait and heed the advice of these runes of yours, you would be rushing into danger. Is it not wiser for you to bide your time, gather your allies and employ a strategy of some kind? Is that not the custom among your people?”
Freya snarled and turned her back on the warrior.
“Who asked you anyway?” she said angrily, perhaps forgetting that she had. “I’ll go with or without you, so if you’re going to leave then just leave, ok?”
Jala sighed. The girl was wilful and headstrong, just as she had been at her age. She felt a kind of kinship, one that she could not simply ignore. She placed a gentle yet uncertain hand on the Freya’s shoulder. The young girl turned to look into her face.
“Very well, little one. I will wait for the runes with you and accompany you on your quest. Mark that I’ll not be doing so to protect you, but rather to teach you the things you will need to know.”
“I know everything I need to know!” Freya cried. “I know that a well kept axe strikes truest. I know that little black berries like the ones on the bushes behind the blacksmith’s are poisonous. I know you should never eat yellow snow. I know-“
“Valuable knowledge indeed,” said Jala. “But tell me – have you ever hunted elk? Deer? Anything larger than a rabbit?”
“Well … no, but-“
“Do you know how to skin? How to track your prey by the track and droppings left in their wake?”
“No, I’ve never really had to-“
“And perhaps most importantly … have you ever killed someone who meant to kill you?”
Freya maintained a thoughtful silence.
“All these and much more I can teach you. Three days until the runes glow silver? We might as well begin. If, of course, you’ll welcome my instruction?”
Freya nodded eagerly and Jala gave Marek an absentminded stroke. Marek bit her on the thumb, but not unkindly. His trust would come grudgingly or not at all, it seemed.
The days passed uneventfully. Freya proved an adequate student, well-suited to practicing stealth and nimble-fingered enough to skin rabbits efficiently. She was no prodigy and she made mistakes left right and centre, but Jala kept patient.
The evenings were spent telling stories long into the night by the dying embers of a fire. Jala spoke of many heroes of yore: Hrong Frost-tongue, the hulking mute Saviour of the Snowfox tribe; Byonar the Fierce, with his mane of red hair and flashing white teeth; sly old Daggerfingers the Swift.
In return, Freya related the tales of local legends: how a cobbler’s son came to marry a washerwoman who was secretly a wolf; how an intervention by the fairy folk once left a drunken lout with one foot three times the size of the other; how the great dragon Fairfax had slithered up from the South only to be slain by a beautiful princess with a chip on her shoulder.
Soon the awaited night had arrived. As the sun slipped below the horizon Freya led Jala by the hand, pulling her towards the gate with eager tugs. As they stood before the runes, Jala gripped her axe’s shaft tightly. She trusted not this magic. She grew more nervous as the moon crept ever higher.
The runes had indeed begun to glow faintly. If Jala had been technically-minded, she might have supposed that some sort of luminescent paint had been employed. As it was, she was forced to concede that the runes were indeed glowing.
Any thoughts of fraud would have been driven from her mind within minutes, though, as the light of the runes grew ever more intense. Within a matter of minutes the runes were shining as brightly as any lantern ever did – and, stranger still, they had begun to move.
Freya watched with eyes wide in wonder as the runes re-arranged themselves on the post. Letters twined their way through letters, words broke apart and scattered like leaves in the wind. Soon an entirely different set of runes were on display.
“I have to admit,” Jala whispered, “that’s quite impressive.”
“They’re beautiful,” said Freya. “What do they say?”
A moment passed.
“What do you mean, ‘What do they say’?” Jala asked slowly. ‘Can you not read them?’
“Well, no. I thought they’d change into a language I can read. I guess magic just isn’t convenient like that. Can you read them?”
“Magic and the knowledge thereof is not my strong point. I can put an arrow in a stag’s eye from 600 paces and I can split a man’s shield with the best of them but alas, I cannot read these runes.”
“I can,” said a cheerful voice behind them.
The pair whipped around and beheld a strange sight. The speaker was a young man with curly hair and deep dimples. This is not what was strange about him. He was polishing an apple on his tunic and grinning merrily. This also was not what was strange about him. What was strange about him was his short stature – he was only as high as Freya’s knee. The apple he was attempting to eat was almost the size of his head.
“You can read the runes?” Freya asked. Jala dropped a hand to her shoulder, silencing her.
“Who are you?” she asked warily. “And where did you come from?”
What she wanted to ask was how he had snuck up behind her without her hearing him, but she felt it best not to reveal her disturbing lapse in awareness.
“Ooh, questions,” he said with a smile. “I like questions. Answers aren’t as interesting, but I do like questions. Questions like ‘I thought everyone in this settlement was killed or carried off?’. And also ‘why in the world would you want to read some silly old runes?'”
“How about, ‘How do I remove an axe from the side of my head without needing stitches?'” Jala growled, hefting her weapon. The little man gave a jolly laugh and bit into the apple.
“Now that is a good question,” he said through a mouthful of fruit. “Let’s not find out the answer to it, eh? They call me Tam, ‘they’ being my friends and ‘Tam’ being a nickname of sorts. As to where I came from, well that’s quite a story that I’m sure you’d love to hear another time. Time being a commodity of which you are running short if you’d like me to translate those runes for you.”
He pointed to the runes and Jala was alarmed to see them beginning to fade slightly already. No doubt the next step would be their return to their original wording, such as it was.
“I would of course be overjoyed, delirious even, to do so for you. Alas, as my dear departed father used to say to me nauseatingly often, ‘Son,’ for he was talking to me and I am his son, you see, ‘Son, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ He didn’t mean it literally, of course; I for one didn’t pay for this apple.”
“That apple can’t be your lunch, it’s night time,” said Freya.
“It’s lunch time for me,” said the little man. Then he unhinged his jaw and swallowed the rest of the apple whole.
Jala sank into a fighting stance and readied her weapon. Freya clutched at her wooden sword and stood firm by her. The little man chuckled, and Jala was alarmed to see his teeth were noticeably sharper than they had seemed earlier.
“What are you?” she growled.
“Hungry,” the little man replied, “and also, quite frankly, getting rather bored. I’ve no desire to tangle with you two lovelies; I’ve found in the past that I’m terribly allergic to axe wounds. They bring me up in terrible hives, you know. Quite distressing.”
“Leave,” Jala said flatly.
“Oh, but then you won’t know what the runes say! And their message is so terribly interesting as well. Are you sure-“
“Tam! Where the bloody hell have you been?”
Tam’s face sank as another tiny figure dropped from out of the trees. This one was a woman, dressed all in mousefurs and with a necklace of rodent skulls around her neck. She carried in one hand a spear which she used to knock Tam on the head with now.
“Are you bothering the large folk again? What have I told you about bothering the large folk?!”
“Sorry, ma,” whispered Tam sheepishly.
“You will be sorry, you great lump! Now get back to the forest and don’t you even think to-“
“Excuse me,” Freya said.
The little woman turned around and favoured her with a haughty glare.
“The little folk do not meddle in the affairs of the large folk,” she said decisively. “Whatever you want, be about it, and we’ll be about our own business.”
“We just need to know – what do the runes say? Can you read them as well?”
The woman looked up at the runes and squinted at them suspiciously.
“Mmm. My Dhelvish is rusty,” she admitted. “I think it says ‘You’ll find your heart’s desire at the town by the waterfall of fire.’ That’ll be two weeks South of here.”
As she turned to go, Tam piped up.
“No it doesn’t.”
“Shut up,” his mother suggested.
“It doesn’t,” he insisted, dodging a backhand. “It says ‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek.’ That’s in the woods off yonder,” he said with a wolfish grin. He yelped as his mother grabbed him by the ear.
“Pay him no mind,” she said, “he’s young and full of piss and vinegar, amongst other things.”
With that, she walked into the woods and promptly disappeared.
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