By T.K. Wilson (Rated G)
Katrina Lawson sat down at her computer on a Monday morning to read her email. Such a new, wonderful way to communicate! She could do her work in her tank and shorts, without a care in the world for dress codes, thank goodness. It was boiling hot!
Since opening up her freelance editing business, she had had many clients spread the word of her talent. She sifted through her spam and advertisements and store ads until she found a new email from a personal account.
The subject line read “Inquiry of rates”, which is what her ads told people to title emails. She absently clicked her mouse, taking a sip of coffee while it opened. It contained only one sentence: I know about Eardwulf.
The mug came crashing out of her hands, smashing on the linoleum. She shook uncontrollably, running for her shoes, ignoring the shattered mug and the cut on her bare leg from the flying shrapnel. She thought for some reason of the Lady of Shalott and her fatal mirror. She ran from her house, locking the door behind. Katrina ran as fast as she could toward the entrance to the city of Evermore. She tumbled down several times, her hands and knees soon skinned and torn, pure adrenaline coursing through her veins. Soon she reached the secret door and unlocked it, throwing herself inside to the safety and darkness beyond. She couldn’t stop. She kept on running until she reached the main hall. There, she saw Eardwulf speaking with two huge ogresses.
“Eardwulf!” she cried.
The ogre turned around, alarmed. He turned white as he hurried to the bruised and bloody Katrina.
“Kitty!” He swept her up and carried her to a bench, settling her there. “Who did this to you?”
She was too out of breath to answer.
“Don’t stand there like a frog on a log, Runt!” exclaimed one of the ogresses. “Go find that shapechanger guy, or Rosealba, we’ll take care of her for now.”
The first ogress, one with long black hair she wore in braids, who reminded Katrina of pictures of Brunhilde, knelt down and started undoing Katrina’s shoes.
“I’m Berdine, by the way, and that’s my sister Eda,” she nodded to the red haired ogress who was nearby fetching water. “We’re Eardwulf’s sisters.”
Eda held a small silver cup up to Katrina’s mouth. “Here, have a drink.”
Katrina tasted applejack mixed in with the cold spring water.
“That’s better isn’t it? Here comes Wulf then.” Berdine looked over her shoulder.
Eardwulf, trailed by Rosealba and Caelan, came to her side. He tenderly cleaned her hands with warm water. Elysium flowers floated in the water, dulling the pain and making her sleepy.
“Rest now, Kitty,” soothed Eardwulf.
“Wulf, somebody knows about us,” Katrina finally explained.
Everyone paused what they were doing. Eda muttered an ogrish curse word.
“Somebody pretended to be a client and sent me an email-”
“What mail?” questioned Eda.
Katrina continued, ignoring the interruption. “…saying ‘I know about Eardwulf’, and I came here straight away.”
Eardwulf ground his teeth. “Was there any indication of who it is?”
Katrina shook her head.
A vein in the ogre’s neck started pulsing visibly.
“Wulf,” Katrina put a hand on his shoulder. “Look at me.”
Her voice cut through the red mist that played on his vision. He looked into her eyes, feeling the bloodlust drifting away. She released his shoulder and reached up to put her arms around his neck. He bowed down a bit more to give her better access. Berdine and Eda looked at each other. Berdine raised an eyebrow, Eda shrugged. They’d never seen their brother this vulnerable with anyone before.
“Easy,” Katrina murmured. “I know you’re frightened.”
“Stay. Please, stay the night here, Kitty.”
Katrina froze. “You’ve never asked me that before.”
“It’s not a tenable solution, I have my job.”
“Yes.” Eardwulf’s voice sounded hollow. “But I can’t leave you in the hands of whoever sent you that message, either. He’s clearly watching you.”
“I’ll take that risk.”
“I really have no say in the matter, do I?”
Eardwulf pulled away. “Let’s get your wounds dressed.”
“What happened, anyway? Looks like you lost a fight with a blackthorn bush!” said Eda.
“I was so shaky while running here, I kept falling down.”
Eardwulf gave a brief chuckle, then began winding bandages around the seeping cuts. He didn’t let on how the sight and smell of Katrina’s blood made him ill.
Katrina ended up staying in Evermore the rest of the day. She noticed that Caelan seemed agitated and Cullen was trying to keep him calm.
“She’s so close, Cullen!”
“Calean, we can’t move against him now. Not until we know where he is.”
“Aisling can show us.”
“He might not be keeping her where he is, and he might use her as a trap.”
“Oh, you’re right!” Caelan’s golden head went into his hands.
Cullen patted the wulver on the shoulder. “We’ll find her and set her free someday. You’ll see.”
Rosealba came behind her to check her dressings as Katrina watched the exchange.
“You should be alright now. Caelan would be here, but as you can see, he’s rather distraught.”
“I’ve never seen him like this. What happened?”
Rosealba sighed. “The Wizard is holding Caelan’s beloved as a prisoner and has been for years. Aisling is her name and she has a very precious, very powerful gift. She’s a dreamwalker, an elf with the power to travel in the realm of dreams, and this is why Morthon wanted her; she can harvest dream-energy from all sentient creatures for him to use in his spells. When he’s in the vicinity, she’s able to project to Caelan because of their bond.”
“The poor thing!”
“He’s been miserable for weeks now. It would take a heart of stone like Morthon has not to be moved.”
Katrina went home that night and cleaned up the mess left after her mad dash. Her computer had taken no damage, thank goodness. She shut it off; there was no way she would be working tonight, she was far too tense! She drew all the curtains and sat in bed, not even changing her clothes in case she needed to flee in the night back to Evermore. As she hovered between sleep and waking, she heard someone give Eardwulf’s signal; the call of a barred owl. She jumped out of bed and ran to the back door to let him in.
The shape stumped closer and reached out one hand for her. The other he held at his side in a fist. She took the offered hand trustingly.
“Come inside, I’ll make tea.”
The hand refused to let go.
Then she realized it wasn’t Eardwulf. This ogre was much taller. He pulled on her arm and dragged her outside.
“Let go! Let go of me! Who are you? Let me go!”
The ogre opened his fist and blew some powder into her face. Katrina dropped to the floor of her porch in a heap.
“Too easy.” she heard a voice above her mutter. “What does Eardwulf see in you, anyway?”
Katrina knew no more.
The next day, word came back to Evermore that Katrina had gone missing, several hours after the event. It was now afternoon in the world above. Eardwulf, paced madly, rubbing his horns. “It was Hapthor. It has to be.”
“No doubt, but what are we gonna do?” asked Berdine.
“Do? I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do, we’re gonna track ‘im and trouce ‘im until we make him cry for his mama!” proclaimed Eda, punching her right hand into her open left palm.
“Can you scent him out, Caelan?” asked Eardwulf.
“It’s possible to follow him through earth, air, fire, and water and never lose his trail.”
“We must risk daytime travel; there’s no time to lose.”
Meanwhile, Hapthor had reported back to his employer Morthon, the wizard who had caused all the trouble for Evermore for months. He was crafty and cruel, yet handsome in a way. He dressed like an eighteenth century pirate, in a crimson coat and tricorn hat. Despite his old fashioned clothes, it was he who sent the email, at Hapthor’s urging. He approved of his henchman’s plan, for he had no love for the people of Evermore and their elf-friends.
Morthon eyed the bound and gagged Katrina appreciatively. “You’ve done well, Hapthor; she’ll do very nicely.”
Katrina worked her gag loose and growled. “What do you want from me? Who are you?”
“Why, I am a wizard, and you are about to make me the most powerful one in the world.”
The human glared in contempt. “And how am I supposed to do that?”
“I suppose it won’t hurt to tell you, since you’re going to die.” Morthon said, coolly. “In the chamber just below this one, there is an egg of a chudo-yudo, a great, multi-headed dragon.”
Katrina knew enough folklore to see where this was going. “And you intend to feed me to this thing, so it doesn’t eat one of you?”
“Clever, isn’t she?”
“I’m not afraid of you or your dragon.”
“We shall soon see about that.”
Hapthor carried Katrina to a huge cavern, lit with a bunch of artificial lights running off generators, she guessed. In the center of the place sat the egg. It was massive, at least the size of her car. A little distance from the egg was a pole, no doubt meant for her. What a cliche! They might as well have just put a sword in Wulf’s hand and put up a neon sign.
“I’d say I was sorry, but I’m not,” said Hapthor. “That should teach you not to get involved with my cousin.”
“You’ll regret this, Hapthor.”
“Do you still believe that softie will come for you?”
Caelan trekked through the forest, following the scent. Tireless, the ogres followed. The air darkened around them as the Wraiths surrounded them.
“We must be getting close,” said Berdine.
Eardwulf nodded, keeping his eyes on Caelan. He was distracted with worry about Katrina. How close was she? Was she even still alive? If she was alive, he would never let her out of his sight again!
Katrina squashed the fear that washed up from her stomach as she looked at the egg; it began to wiggle. Very well, she thought. Whatever fate she would meet, she would meet it without screaming or crying. Morthon didn’t deserve the honor of seeing her hysterics. If she were to cry, it would be when Eardwulf came to save her. She pulled at her ropes, trying to put a brave face on. She glared scornfully over her shoulder at Morthon and Hapthor; she had nothing but contempt for them.
Hapthor looked at his master. “She’s not afraid at all.”
Morthon, for all his wickedness, still had the sense to turn white at the look Katrina shot at him. It soon passed.
“Make sure she doesn’t escape.” he hissed to his partner.
“Nobody gets out of a knot I tied.”
Caelan plunged ahead, guided by his nose and the beckoning shape of Aisling, flitting ghostlike in front of him.
“I come, Aisling! I come!”
The Wulver put on a burst of speed, his three companions charged after him. He quickly spotted a cave.
“Here! Come on!”
The sun was quickly setting. Eardwulf followed Caelan without hesitation into the cave. Berdine and Eda were close behind, chanting in counterpoint harmonies to keep away the wraiths. Eardwulf looked around, but the place was as black as the heart of a thundercloud. Wraith dust hung thick in the air. The ground shook.
“What was that?!” yelped Eda.
“Some new devilry, no doubt.”
Caelan howled. “This way! I smell Katrina!”
The dragon burst from its shell, three-headed and horrid. Katrina pulled at her bonds again, biting her cheeks to keep from screaming.
He will come, she thought desperately.
The dragon swiveled in her direction, flicking its snake-like tongues at her. It came slowly toward her, still covered in goo from the egg. Katrina swallowed a whimper of fear.
“He will come. Nothing will stop him from coming for me. Earth and air and fire and water are nothing to Eardwulf,” she chanted to herself. “He will come for me. He will come.”
She glared at Morthon again.
“He will come for me,” she whispered again.
A huge hammer whistled out of a tunnel behind her, smacking the dragon in its center head.
“Hojotoho! Hojotoho! She’s here, Wulf!” shouted a voice.
“What the-!” bellowed Hapthor
As the dragon turned its attention to its assailant, Katrina strained to see who it was. A huge ogre woman charged at the dragon, grabbing the hammer.
“Eda!” Katrina cried.
“Oh, you’re a feisty one, aren’t you? Berry, get in here!”
“Hojotoho!” came an answering cry, Berdine rushed in, followed by Caelan in his wolf form.
“Blast them! They’re ruining it all!” shouted Morthon. He turned to Hapthor. “Don’t just stand there, go deal with your relatives!
Eardwulf’s unmistakable tread came from behind Katrina. She let go of the fear she’d been holding in and sobbed in relief. He put one massive arm around her to catch her while he cut her bonds.
“Kitty, are you alright?”
“Uh-huh,” she managed.
She winced as the dragon bashed Eda away.
Eardwulf started pulling back with his knife, carefully cutting through the tightly knotted rope. “I’ve almost got it, stay very still.”
Hapthor grabbed Eardwulf, pushing him away from Katrina. The knife narrowly missed her arm as the valiant ogre was yanked away from her. Katrina frantically pulled and strained at the rope, trying to see what was happening.
Eardwulf rolled to his feet, his knife skittering across the floor. He faced his cousin and let out an animalistic roar.
“Ha! There it is, come get some!” taunted Hapthor.
Eardwulf charged, striking with his fists. Hapthor took the blows, laughing and taunting in ogrish.
“Soft! You’ve lost your touch, cousin! Must be that Katrina woman!”
Eardwulf stopped, a look of shock on his face for a split second. Then he struck out, grabbing Hapthor by the throat.
“Take her name out of your mouth,” he snarled, his eyes going bloodshot.
He threw Hapthor bodily, surprising the larger ogre.
Morthon shouted, “Finish him off, Hapthor! We have-”
The wizard was halted mid-sentence when Caelan transformed and tackled Morthon to the ground.
“Where is she!? Where is my Aisling!?” the wulver shouted.
“Someplace you’ll never find her.”
Caelan punched Morthon in the face. “You lie! You must keep her near, that’s how your foul magic works!”
Katrina pulled hard one last time and got her hands free. Berdine landed hard at her feet, dazed from the fall.
“Berdine! Berdine, quick! Get me Wulf’s knife!” Katrina screamed.
Berdine took a second to understand, then grabbed for the knife. Her brother and cousin grappled nearby, the look in her brother’s eyes terrifying the ogress. His gentleness was gone; Hapthor had awakened the berserker; there was no way he would be alright after this.
“Berdine! Give me the knife, I can help!”
Berdine handed the human the knife without question.
Shaking, sweating, crying, Katrina sawed away at the ropes around her legs that cruelly cut and burned her skin. Morthon and Caelan rolled along the floor, nearly getting run over by the ogres once and the dragon twice. The last of the rope snapped away from Katrina’s legs, then the post jerked and broke as Hapthor was driven into it by Eardwulf. Katrina jumped clear, then slashed Hapthor’s arm with the knife; it broke his concentration long enough for Eardwulf to land a terrific blow and knock him flat out. Eardwulf, still panting and growling, drew his ax to finish off his foe.
“Eardwulf!” Katrina cried as the dragon roared.
The ogre turned and saw the greater enemy, the dragon. He rushed the beast, chopping into its leg. His sisters, bruised and beaten, stared in wonder and horror at their brother as another blow from his ax cut off the dragon’s foremost nose.
“Come on, Eda!” shouted Berdine. “We’ve got it on the run!”
Caelan had Morthon pinned, his slim body shaking with the strain and the sobs that choked him. “Tell me! Tell me where Aisling is!”
Morthon struggled against Caelan’s grasp. “You wouldn’t kill me.”
“I might,” growled the wulver, his face morphing into a wolf-like mask. “If you try me too much!”
“Kill me and you’ll never find her! These tunnels and caves wind for miles, you could spend the rest of your days searching and never see her.”
The Wizard was telling the truth, and Caelan knew it.
A massive crash distracted everyone as the dragon fell, the center head split down the middle by Eardwulf’s ax.
“No!” barked Morthon.
Caelan hauled Morthon up and pinned him to the wall. “Your beast is dead, your brute is beaten, all your plans have been undone. Where is Aisling?!”
Eardwulf stood in the rubble, still in the throes of the rage, but entirely spent. His legs buckled, almost on top of the disgusting thing he killed. His sisters grabbed him and pulled him away.
“Caelan!” shouted Eda. “We need help over here!”
The wulver looked toward his friend, then at his foe. If he went to Eardwulf, Morthon would escape, taking Aisling with him. But if he didn’t, Eardwulf might hurt himself or die from a wound he didn’t know he had. What would Aisling have him choose? She would want him to help Eardwulf… Caelan released the wizard with a cry of anguish and ran to Eardwulf.
Morthon smirked. It was too easy, all these followers of the Ard-Ri were the same. They chose what was best for others, not for themselves. He chose what was good for himself, and that was to vacate this city. He snapped his fingers, teleporting himself and Hapthor away.
Eardwulf lay on his side, twitching and panting, still unable to see things clearly. Katrina rushed to him, though Berdine tried to stop her.
“Wait, we don’t know what’s going to happen-”
Katrina ignored her, kneeling behind Eardwulf and putting her arms around him fearlessly, one under his head, the other over his shoulder and down his chest.
“Eardwulf… Eardwulf. Come back, it’s alright, I’m safe now.”
She rocked back and forth gently; the fearful, furious growls and grunts slowed to whimpers.
“Shh…” Katrina ran her fingers across the one horn she could reach.
Eardwulf fell silent under her gentle touch; whether he fainted or fell asleep, Katrina wasn’t sure. She cradled him in her arms for what seemed like an eternity. He was so heavy and she was so sore from fighting the ropes. She swallowed her pain and continued rocking her valiant champion. The lights started to fail as the generators ran out of gas.
“We need to get out of here,” worried Berdine.
“We can’t move Wulf yet, he’s too unpredictable,” argued Eda.
Katrina continued to rock Eardwulf, unsure if he was awake. He might just be weak and resting, the poor, brave man. Katrina leaned over and kissed Eardwulf’s temple; a tiny, tiny, kiss. Finally he moved, grunting as he came around. Everyone froze, unsure what would happen.
“Kitty?” he called, his voice hoarse.
“Yes, I’m here. I’ve got you.”
He looked at his hands, gasping at the amount of blood. “Whose blood?”
“The dragon’s. You saved me, Eardwulf.”
“He followed his master, and good riddance!” snapped Eda.
Eardwulf gave a sigh of relief. “Thank the Ard-Ri.”
Then he looked down at Katrina’s arm, cut open and rope-burned. “Oh, Kitty, look what he did to you…”
His hands went to touch her arm, but withdrew. The dragon’s blood on his hands was acidic, and while his skin was impervious to it, her skin wasn’t.
“I’ll be alright.”
Eardwulf relaxed into Katrina’s arms for a moment. Then he tried to sit up.
The wulver shook his head. “I had to choose. I chose what Aisling would have wanted me to.” His voice was flat.
“I’m so sorry, my brother.”
Caelan and the sisters helped Eardwulf up and out of the cave. He refused to let Katrina out of his sight and made her walk just ahead of him with Caelan scenting out the path. He was worn to rags, but he still had to look after Kitty. He was such a fool; how could he expect her to even want to be around him now, after his berserker attack? And yet, she held him… and kissed him.
She glanced over her shoulder. “I knew you would come for me.”
Eardwulf smiled. Perhaps… Perhaps she could love someone like him.
The end… for now. Find out what happens later here.