Part 4 – A Tale Of The Black Fox

The tracks shot out as the black fox sped away.  Only the shallow trail of tiny prints in the snow revealed the creature as more than phantasm.  Breath made little ice floes around the men’s mouths.  Even their weather-hardened, legs – thick and wrapped to the knee with strips of wool – felt the sunless chill of the frosty nighttime world.  The snowy earth and white-clumped tree branches spun an illusory and fey landscape.  And the only sound was a chorus of wolf-songs that echoed through the forest from far away northern peaks.

Aldi looked up over the distant mountaintops; the endless points of light on deep violet were veiled by waves of blue and green ghost-fire.  He nodded towards the lights, “The Raven Riders… Their shields are catching up the moon light.”

“Pay them no mind, boy.  Keep your eyes off them and hopefully their eyes shall be off us…”

“We head south, don’t we?”

“Yes, towards the sea…”

The moon hung like a huge snowball just above the traveler’s heads.  In this brightness the trail was easy to follow – even though the tracks led the men around rock, stump and fallen branch and forced them to duck beneath low sagging snowy limbs.  When the cold orb had risen higher above the pointy tops of the spruce, half way till dawn, faintly salty moisture lightened the parched frigidness.

“We’re almost there…”

Soon there was a low sloshing rumble in the consuming silence.  The trees thinned and the waters spanned out from a rocky shore: a frothy, churning yet windless tract of luminous undulating marble.  Only mound-like slate islands broke the water’s surface; distantly and partially glazed behind a veil of mist the horizon held up an armful of stars above the water’s edge.

“Where is he?  Where are the tracks,” asked Aldi as he adjusted his wool scarf against the rising, bone-biting sea spray.

“Just keep walking, we seek a cave just further down the shore.”

“This is crazy, Uncle.  All of it.”  The words were weary and held a hint of shakiness.  “Have you drunk a madness mead?”

“We shall see…”  Olgrim’s retort was without jest or sarcasm.  His eyes remained fixed on the twisting shoreline.

“There.”  Before a slowly rising seaside cliff was a mossy looking limestone mantle.  It looked as if a giant had petrified – back arched – while leaning into the water.  “That is the rock I was told about.  The cave is behind that.”

“What do we go to meet a troll, Uncle?  Tell me you haven’t made deals with that kind of man.”

“We will see.  Keep your club ready.  I don’t know all this deal holds.”

The travelers rounded the stone pedestal where upon stood the strange arch.  Of course up close it looked nothing like a stooping giant, but instead appeared as a gateway of moss-green and quartz flecked lime carved by the patient daggers of wind and water.  Slightly glistening under the moonlight the archway took on an ageless quality.  The sloshing, sea-foam spitting around its base hinted at brooding antiquity.  Between the arch and the slowly rising cliff face, the pitted darkness grew longer, deeper.  What trees sprung out of the rocky beach were ragged and twisted pine.  The sea salt air was no longer crisp but instead permeated with a clingy, decayed spoor.  Olgrim thought of Aldi’s question of trolls: the ancient monstrous sorcerers who dwelt in mountain homes and in seashore caves.  And he wondered if he had not been duped into facing a creature just as treacherous and terrible.

In the sparkling white limestone face, the moon revealed an incision.

“Is that the cave, Uncle?”

“Aye… get inside, then stay quiet and stay put.”

Olgrim and Aldi picked their way over the slippery jagged edged rocks and squeezed sideways into the crevice.  Inside, lightlessness became layered bronze and grey rays from somewhere beyond sight down the length of the long stone hall.  Olgrim pulled Aldi against the wall and spoke in hushed tones.

“Now listen here.  We face one of the Dverg…”

Aldi’s eyes widened and his innards winced.

“… He is supposed to be on the wing at night, as a bird.  He does not take notice of men unless they try to take his treasures.”

“That what we are here to do, right?”

Olgrim nodded.   “If he appears do not talk.  Get against a wall and stay put.  And touch nothing except what I tell you to.  Don’t let yourself wander.  Take nothing other than what we came for.”

“What do we seek?  What does the treasure look like?”

“It is a well, from which comes some magic water.  Maybe just a hole in the ground…  If you think you see it, tell me.  Don’t even touch it.  I have a flask for it.”

They walked further down the tunnel towards the coppery incandescence.  Olgirm stooped most of the way and carefully watched each step he took – leery of both jutting rocks and trip-lines.   Aldi picked his way along with a hand on the smooth, frigid sides of the cave.  The ebbing light flared as the uncle and nephew found themselves in a cavern that seemed impossibly high and wide for the low stone hillside that they had ventured into.

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