Part 7 – What Freya Did Next
Freya considered Jala’s prone form – there really was an astonishing amount of blood trickling out of the fu-shaped cut made by The Whore of Knives. Freya was under no illusion as to the identity of Jala’s assailant – The Whore was in all the most frightening legends and bedtime stories and he was described in detail – the matted bearskin, the knives at his waist, the mad, staring eyes. And she, Freya, had bested him in a fight! Well, she’d helped Jala to do it, at any rate. What a great story that would make – if only any of her people had been left alive to hear it.
She had been avoiding thinking about all that, but seeing Jala lying there brought it all back – the screams of anguish, their cold faces, her mother’s tears as she bundled her into the safest space she could think of.
‘Not you as well,’ Freya whispered fiercely.
Jala did not respond, for she was preoccupied with slipping in and out of consciousness, hands pushing vainly at the gashes on her stomach and arm.
Freya remembered the words of the Wise Woman – and Jala’s scorn on hearing those words. You might not be able to cure shingles or tooth rot with moss, Freya reasoned, but you could surely use it to staunch an open wound.
She set down her pack and scampered off into the trees, taking care to always stay within sight of Jala. She pulled up moss from trees and rocks and ground, holding out her smock before her to gather it all together. It was less than a minute before she had enough, for as we have heard, it was a very mossy wood.
Kneeling beside the barbarian, Freya set to packing her wounds full of the soft green fauna. As she worked, Jala’s breathing became more regular and a little colour returned to her cheeks. Freya removed her mother’s cape and placed it over her friend to keep her warm.
‘Now all we can do is wait,’ Freya told Marek, ‘she needs to rest.’
But waiting was not Freya’s forte, and soon she felt an itching in her toes as if they wanted her to be off again. Her attention kept returning to the fountain, to the opening that led underneath.
There was a snore. This satisfied Freya that her friend was on the mend – once she had slept this off she’d probably be as right as rain. Barbarians are made of tougher stuff than Southern folk, this much Freya knew.
Freya got to her feet, and approached the slain Whore of Knives. The helm had been knocked from his head at Jala’s final sword stroke and his dead eyes stared blankly up at her, black blood congealed around his nose and mouth.
She tugged at the clasp holding the bearskin around his shoulders. It was spotted with a thick reddish residue which she hoped was rust as she successfully pulled it free and placed it in her pocket. Then she pulled the skin itself, hard. It took a good deal of effort to maneuvre it from underneath the man, for he was heavy and death made him more so – but she persevered. When at last she held the prize in her arms she turned quickly away, for the Whore’s head now faced in one direction whilst his body faced the opposite way. Jala’s last stroke had severed every tendon and bone.
Freya climbed up onto the fallen tree that lay over the entrance to the fountain, and hung the bearskin over the outstretched roots so it fell like the curtain that separated her family home into two rooms. Content that it was secure, she pulled the sleeping Jala slowly into the hollow, so she would be warm and concealed.
Then she turned her attention to the tunnel.
‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek,’ she said into the darkness. ‘But how far under do I have to go?’
She peered around the bearskin curtain one last time. Jala stirred in her sleep, muttering something that might have been ‘beware of Gütte Ragworm’ – which is sound advice, which you would do well to remember. ‘Dreaming of the old times,’ Freya murmured, wondering whether that was a good sign or one of fever and delirium.
‘I’ll just have a quick look, Jala,’ Freya whispered, ‘scout out the situation. I’ll be back before you wake, most likely.’
‘Got you, Ragworm,’ Jala murmured in response.
‘Keep an eye on her, Marek,’ Freya instructed. The young stoat looked relieved to be staying above ground – he had always been a little afraid of the dark – and curled himself obediently at Jala’s feet.
The entrance to the tunnel was narrow and low, so even Freya had to stoop to get through it. A fully-grown adult like Jala would have to crawl.
Inside the temperature abruptly dropped very low, and the further Freya went the colder it got. The tunnel sloped deep down under the ground, gently at first and then with increasing steepness. There was a light source coming from somewhere, but it was very faint and Freya could only make out the vaguest of shapes. She stretched her arms out in front of her for balance, and soon developed a system of trailing her right hand along the wall to keep herself oriented.
She had been walking about ten minutes when the crumbly earth at her fingertips gave way to a thin covering of icy coldness. Another five, and the sloping floor beneath her feet began to level off, at the same time becoming smooth and frozen. She carefully picked her way across the floor, gritting her teeth at the cold that soaked up through her heels and settled itself in her bones.
The ceiling was now much higher, so she could walk upright and look around her more. As Freya squinted at her surroundings she could identify tiny points of bluish light trapped in the ice around her. These were beautiful, but ominous somehow. She felt like they were watching her.
At length, the ice tunnel led her into an underground cave so exquisitely beautiful it stole the breath from her lungs.
The walls were curved and smooth, and glittered as though the ice itself was filled with starlight. Someone had carved furniture out of the icy floor and polished to look like crystal, although when she touched the back of a chair she knew it was definitely ice.
In the centre of the cave stood a grand table covered in intricate carvings of planets and stars. On top of it there was a long rectangular box formed from frosty silver ice. As she approached she saw the table was almost taller than her. She wondered, with no small amount of trepidation, if it might be a banquet table for ice giants. To wake an ice giant would be to wreak havoc on the surface above, for they have ways of controlling the weather.
Still, something urged her forward and she found herself examining the carvings on the table leg – they were so intricately done, would ice giants be able to create something so delicate? – then she leapt back in horror.
Trapped inside the table, silver and ivory and very human looking, were femurs and tibias and the tiniest finger bones.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said a voice that seemed to come from all around her – which naturally made her feel entirely afraid. ‘Come closer, let me see you.’
Freya remained motionless, her gaze pointed upwards at the icy box on the great table. As she stared, she thought she could make out a figure lying inside.
Knowing how stupid this must surely be and yet unable to prevent herself, she stepped towards the table again, standing on tiptoe to peer into the box on the surface. The ice remained cloudy and she could barely discern the shape within – when suddenly a head swiveled round and Freya found herself fixed in the gaze of one blue eye.
Her first instinct was to scream, but the cold of the cave plucked the sound from her throat.
‘Hello,’ said the owner of the eye, ‘have you come to free me?’
Freya had a strong feeling that the owners of the bones had probably had a go at freeing the owner of this strangely hypnotic voice.
‘Who are you?’ she asked, hoping she sounded braver than she felt. ‘Are you an ice giant?’
The creature in the box laughed, a thin sound like wind through branches on a long dead tree.
‘Who am I, she asks! You come into my home uninvited, and you do not even know my name.’
The eye stared at Freya, unblinking and intensely blue.
‘Let me out, and I will tell you who I am.’
‘No,’ Freya replied, but even as she said it she found herself clambering up onto the icy table, as easy as scaling the tree by the fountain to make a hiding place for Jala.
Standing on the table, she gazed through the lid of the casket. The figure within was a woman, dressed in a blue robe trimmed with silver lace. She had long white hair reaching to her feet, and gnarled hands clasped around a sceptre of ice. The blue eye staring out at Freya was the only one in her head, the space where the other eye ought to be a scarred socket.
Around the edge of the casket lid were carved runes, similar to the ones in the gate back home. As Freya watched, they began to glow silver.
‘That which you seek is under the Fountain of the Meek,’ the woman crooned. ‘Let me out of here, young one. I can tell you what happened back there, and I can help your barbarian friend to find what it is she is looking for.’
‘You’re lying,’ Freya said flatly, although she made no move to go. ‘I know who you are now, and you cannot be trusted.’
The woman cackled, ‘is that so? Who is it you think I am, then?’
‘You are the Star Witch,’ Freya said, ‘you eat children and stars and all that is good in the world. Our parents tell us stories about you to get us to behave.’
‘I’ll bet they do,’ the witch replied, pleased. ‘Go to bed or the Star Witch will eat your soul, that sort of thing?’
‘That’s about right,’ Freya agreed. ‘And those stories must come from somewhere.’
‘People make up stories to frighten children all the time,’ the Star Witch replied, ‘and to explain the things they can’t understand. People, as I suspect you saw when your village died, are frightened and stupid and need stories to hide behind. I am a victim of storytellers, that is all.’
Freya thought of the bones encased in the table.
‘The table was made by the giants, not me,’ the witch said, as thought she had read Freya’s thoughts. ‘They use bone magic to trap people. Primitive magic, if you ask me.’
‘I didn’t ask you.’
‘No,’ the witch smiled, ‘I suppose you didn’t.’
‘How long have you been in this box?’ Freya asked, eyeing the softly glowing runes.
‘Two hundred years, give or take. I haven’t been counting.’
‘How did the same runes end up on the gate of my village?’
‘Ah,’ the witch said, ‘that would be telling.’
‘That’s why I asked.’
‘Well, I shan’t tell you unless you agree to let me out,’ the witch told her. ‘If you do this, you will not find me ungrateful. I can help you and your friend, you know.’
She smiled, revealing a row of cracked black teeth.
‘So. What do you say?’