ANNIKA - Utrøst
Behind her, Annika could hear Dagmar fighting to breathe. The babies were blessedly quiet, hidden in the exposed roots of the tree.
A dozen vourdalaks stepped from the shadows into the clearing. The majority had shifted, walking upright. Others, unable to manage on two legs, added an arm in a grotesque stumbling crawl. Time had been cruel to the wolfmen; fighting and inbreeding had greatly decreased their numbers and health over the years. They advanced in chilling unity, a theatrical display controlled by unseen hands.
Annika shook her short, fox-red hair from her eyes and settled her sword into her pale hand. She could handle two or three, had done so earlier that very night, but now there were too many. She would not win.
It came down to just how many she could take out before she died. If her last gift to Dagmar was a few moments more with their newborn children, then so be it. Annika clenched her jaw highlighting the bone structure that had allowed her troll ancestors to pass for humans of unearthly beauty. She felt far from any beauty now. Her amber eyes filled with tears. She never let emotion enter a fight, but this night was like no other.
The tree at her back was the Døråpning Tree of legend. Shorter and much wider than the surrounding trees, it looked like it had been plucked from some exotic forest and placed here by mistake. The root system was largely above ground, like fingers reaching into the earth of Utrøst, leaving a large, hollow basin in its center where Dagmar and the twins hid in the shadows. The Døråpning Tree was the only remaining gateway between Utrøst and Gammal Värd. No one had been able to open it in years, so they wouldn’t be escaping that way. But it was at the far edge of the clearing and Annika could see everything. She brushed the leaf strewn ground with her white-tipped tail—no creature could approach without her hearing.
Towering trees surrounded them, unmoved by the drama playing out beneath their ageless branches. Only the thinnest moonlight reached the clearing, speckled through the shadow of leaves. Not that Annika or the vourdalaks needed much light to see. Still, untold nooks and portals waited in the dark of the forest. She only needed to give Dagmar the chance to find the right one.
“Run,” she whispered to Dagmar who was stifling another moan. “Take them and run.” It was ridiculous even saying it out loud. There was little chance of Dagmar being able to stand, let alone run—she had just given birth and was still weak from captivity.
The quiet was marred by the rapid advance of the enemy and the hitching of Dagmar’s breath as she whispered a spell over their helpless children. With no time even to offer one last word of love or comfort to her partner, Annika rushed forward, screaming in rage, and hacked off the head of the nearest vourdalak. The tang of blood filled the clearing. Her muscles stretched and gloried in the destruction of her enemy. Annika was born for battle. A second and a third monstrosity fell before she heard a rhythmic click of two stones hit together. The sickly prickle of strange magic crawled across her skin.
Vourdalaks were not practitioners of magic. Their master, Gruvrå Hamelin, had arrived wielding the gem power against her Annika. An unnatural sensation seized her limbs, and the paralysis took everything but her breath.
Annika’s jaw froze open, mid-scream. In a click of two stones she had turned from warrior to statue. She could still see and hear, but nothing she did convinced her body to move. Her sword was held high over her right shoulder, clutched in both hands, unable to deliver the next deadly blow. The blood of her enemy rolled hot down her face, dripping into her mouth and eyes. Gruvrå Hamelin was in control again.
The vourdalaks rushed past in a blur. She focused, fighting down impotent rage as fur and leaves flew in her face. Behind her she heard a frenzy of snarling followed by Dagmar’s scream and Hamelin’s triumphant voice.
“We are not too late. Bring the vessel.”
Not too late? Annika’s heart skipped. Hamelin thought that Dagmar had not yet delivered. The blood of battle was obscuring the scent and signs of birth and the vourdalaks were too stupid or too scared to correct their turbulent leader. That meant the twins were hidden safely, at least for now. Annika could hear no sounds from the children. Dagmar must have been successful in creating a shield. What was happening? Annika was not left to wonder long.
The vourdalaks paraded past, carrying Dagmar’s unconscious form. Riding on the back of the final vourdalak was Gruvrå Hamelin, perched in a leather sling. She was no taller than Annika’s forearm and dressed in a pale blue gown and matching cloak. Her dark fur gleamed with a sheen that made Annika’s stomach clench. Gruvrå Hamelin should have been ridiculous, but she was terrifying, and the vourdalaks were not the only creatures under her command. Annika had made the mistake of underestimating Hamelin once; now she saw the truth. Gruvrå Hamelin signaled the beast to stop and straightened in her sling to study Annika’s face.
“I am so glad it will be you, Captain. The first to mock Gruvrå Hamelin will be the first to spread the word of her triumph.” Her whiskers twitched. “Once I sink my teeth into those tender little hearts, the prophecy will be as dead as Utrøst.”
Annika screamed and thrashed inside the prison of her own body, she could not fight her way out.
“Of course, you will not be left totally unmarked, Captain. I will leave you a little memento of this historic night.” At a signal, the vourdalak turned, moved closer, and Hamelin leapt from the sling onto Annika’s shoulder. The weight of the rat rocked her body back and forth before it steadied. Hamelin removed two yellow gems from the pockets of her cloak. Holding one in each claw, she clicked them together and then spit in Annika’s immobile face. “For the Interland!” Seconds later, she disappeared with her vourdalaks into the trees.
The sudden silence in the clearing was sharp as a slap, quickly replaced by the ragged terror of Annika’s breathing. She could feel the repulsive coat of Hamelin’s magic surrounding her and pushed it away. She willed her body forward and back trying to create momentum.
The heartless moon gave witness to the hour, sliding behind the curtain of trees. She would not give up though exhaustion and grief began to tempt her. Then a sudden wail from the hidden babies reached her ears and Annika jerked with new fervor. She was rewarded by a sudden softening and Hamelin’s magic released her. In the next instant she pitched forward. With nothing to break the fall, she crashed face first into the ground. It was a strange victory.
It had been difficult enough to breathe before, but now her face was buried in the grass and the force of landing had knocked all the air out of her lungs. Annika focused on the crying—the healthy, normal crying—distracted from the panic. Moments later her eyes, dry as paper, blinked, followed by the click of her teeth as her jaw finally shut. Her neck and shoulders were next. She managed to twist her face to the side, coughing out debris and letting air move freely. As feeling came back to her arms, she unclenched the hand still wrapped around her sword. She pushed her body up to see the Døråpning Tree where the babies were hidden.
The edge of Dagmar’s cloak was just visible and wriggling a bit as one impossibly tiny foot kicked angrily into the night air. Her heart soared at the sight. Arm over arm, Annika pulled herself towards the tree, hips and legs dragged behind, crackling over the forest floor. She could not bring herself to leave her sword, making progress even slower. At last Annika reached the tree and placed her hand on the squirming bundle. She could feel the familiar tingle of Dagmar’s magic as it recognized her and released the shield.
Heat radiated in a calming flow from the roots of the magical tree, keeping the newborns warm. No wonder they had remained quiet and calm for so long. Annika leaned into the comforting heat and the delightful living wiggle of their children. Exhausted, she collapsed with her cheek on the rough bark and took a brief second to breathe. Twisting herself into a seated position, back against the roots, she drew her sword up to her chest. Searching the perimeter, she saw nothing. Her legs remained heavy and unresponsive, yet she had fair range of motion from the waist up. Little good that would do her if the vourdalaks returned. And when Hamelin discovered Dagmar had already given birth, they would return. The babies were the prize. She banged the back of her head against the roots in frustration. She felt a tiny foot knock her squarely in the kidney. She smiled knowing that this was the kicking Dagmar had been complaining about for the past three months.
The woods erupted in sound, crashing and howling moving back towards the clearing. There was little time and only one thing left to try. Annika had little hope it would work.
She flipped back onto her stomach, legs still useless. Why were they taking so long to recover? With the dust of Dagmar’s magic still on her skin, Annika took a steadying breath. She let go of everything and tried to let the magic guide her. She had witnessed the ritual often enough, though it had never worked. Centering the twins in the basin of the roots, Annika pricked their heels with the tip of her sword, wincing in sympathy as they screamed protest. Allowing their blood to drip over the metal and into the earth, she didn’t know which words to speak, so she simply whispered, “Please.”
Annika kissed both of the tiny nicks and then drove the sword into the ground. She thought she felt a flare of heat. Gathering the two angry babies her chest, she dragged them deeper under the exposed roots of the tree. Rewrapping them in the cloak, she reached over to pull the sword from the ground. Curling about her children, she gave in and wept along with them.
The ground began to tremble and hum. A blinding light filled the interior of the tree and the twins were suddenly silent. The Døråpning Tree was opening. Annika felt a surge of fear; she hadn’t really expected it to work. With angry howls at their backs, they fell into the light.