Eventually, the racket coming from the jarl's hall fades away behind her, and she stops running.
It hurts to breathe, and her face stings where the branches have hit her, but such trifles do little to distract her from the piercing, silent anger boiling in her chest.
She wants to hit someone.
The basket is still in her hands, though most of its contents are missing. They must have slipped out while she raced blindly through the forest. Not that she cares, anyway. The only mushrooms left this side of the stream are shrivelled old things her mother wouldn’t feed to the goats. The jarl's servants have made sure of that.
Perhaps she should have thought of a better excuse for leaving the farm. Gudrun won’t fall for it, not with just a handful of wrinkled mushrooms to back her up. She can count on being forced to spin and weave until her fingers start bleeding. But then, that won’t be much of a punishment, since she hardly does anything else these days. The men will be sailing west in the spring, and they’ll need linen for their ships and the sign of the Raven perching in war flags. Plenty of fertile soil down there, they say. That’s why Aslaug’s wedding to jarl Gunnar’s son has been so hastily arranged. Her father could use more men to conquer the new lands, and an alliance with jarl Gunnar will keep his people well-fed during the cold winter months.
Small wonder he’s known as Sigurd the Spider.
Wiping out tears with the back of a hand, she lowers herself onto the ground, basket in tow. A handsome husband, a beautiful hall and more golden bracelets than Hild could ever dream of- Aslaug shall have it all, while she remains stuck in her father’s farm, turning down marriage offers from peasants twice her age whose breath positively stinks. Is it really unreasonable to long for more?
She’s tired of the coarse woollen dresses Gudrun expects her to wear every day, of laying manure in the fields and herding cattle with her sisters. The hungry stares of local men have taught her to think higher of herself; after all, no girl in town, wealthy or poor, can rival her beauty. It might just as easily have been her sitting next to Gunnar’s heir, if not for her lowly origins.
The wedding guests are probably feasting on roasted boar and drinking to the young couple’s health by now. Tears well up in her eyes again, but she stubbornly refuses to cry. What use would it be? Pulling her legs up to her chest, she concentrates on the trees surrounding her instead. Under the dense canopy of leaves, the afternoon light is rapidly dwindling, and a thin, grey fog has begun to creep up the base of the mountain. Strange shadows cling to the branches like large, black birds.
“Then three times they did circle the mountain
and the mountain opened to let them in…”
The song pops up in her mind unexpectedly, startling her. For the past three weeks she’s had little time for the Elvenking and his underground kingdom. Perhaps she’s just growing up. As a child, she was fascinated by the story; a young milkmaid turned Queen Under the Mountain thanks to her generosity and good looks. Back then it was easy to believe the same thing would happen to her one day, that such an Elvenking must necessarily dwell under the only mountain she knew, waiting for her to capture his heart. She would steal to the woods in her finest clothes, hoping to run into him, tossing her hair about and batting her eyelashes with coquettry. He never came, but Hild couldn’t quite bring herself to abandon the game, not even after her thirteenth summer, when the neighbouring farmers started visiting her father to discuss marriage. True, her dashing king was only a fantasy, but also the one thing in her life over which she had control. For as long as she sat by the rock face that granted access to his kingdom, half-hoping to step inside, everything else- milking the goats, cleaning the hearth, turning down suitors- faded into oblivion.
It was the wedding announcement that brought things to an end. How to find solace in a children’s tale when the gods had mocked her so cruelly? Her faith in the Elvenking was lost the very afternoon Gunnar’s carts started rolling into the valley, loaded with presents and foodstuffs.
A cold gust of wind makes her shiver. In her haste to escape the noise and laughter leaking out of the hall- which were becoming unbearable- she’s forgotten to bring along her cloak. The sky above her head is darkening; back at the farm, her mother will be cooking supper. As much as she would like to remain here forever, it is probably time to swallow her pride and return home. Reaching for the basket and smoothing her dress over her hips, she starts climbing down the slope. By now, the fog has thickened so much she can barely see what lies ahead. Twice she slips on mossy ground and nearly loses her balance; fortunately the stream is only a few paces away, and, from there on, it’ll be easier to walk. The clearing is eerily silent; while crossing to the left bank, a vague suspicion makes her look up for an
instant. And she freezes.
There’s someone standing by the rock face.
Someone whose eyes are fixed on her.
He’s wearing a white fur cloak instead of a black one, and his face is not like she had envisioned it, but Hild would recognize that leather armour anywhere. It’s the first thing the song mentions. Her throat has gone dry and she’s trembling all over, unsure of what is really happening- but she forces herself to step onto the bank, swaying her hips and straightening her back. Gudrun’s dress- however ugly, and itchy- perfectly sets off her figure, and she knows it.
The Elvenking greets her with a charming smile. His voice, when he speaks to her, recalls the sound of dry leaves rustling in the wind:
“A strange sight, on such an evening! Shouldn’t a pretty girl like you be enjoying herself at the feast, instead of wandering alone through the forest?”
Up close, he’s even more handsome. Gold gleams around his neck, and a cascade of white-blond hair falls unbound down his shoulders.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before, sir.” Her eyelashes flutter as she casts her eyes down, the very image of demure. She´s no longer afraid; this is exciting. “May I ask your name?”
“Exquisite manners! But you do know me- it is the Lord of the Stone Halls and King Under the Mountain that stands before you. Though perhaps you’d find ‘The Elvenking’ more familiar? I’ve heard your people sing of me as such. Now, will you satisfy my curiosity?”
What can she tell him? Not the truth, that’s for sure. In the story, the young milkmaid was rewarded because of her selflessness and good heart. Talking about her jealousy towards Aslaug isn’t going to help her case.
“My sister lies ill, and the healer has sent me to find mushrooms so he can make a poultice to help her…,” she says at last, clutching the basket against her chest like a scared child.
And, in a stroke of inspiration, she adds:
The title seems to amuse him.
“What do they call you, girl?”
Hild hesitates for a moment. She’s listened to enough tales in her lifetime to be aware of the power names enclose, but this here is her future husband, isn’t he? Why would he ever turn her name against her?
“Hild, Your Majesty.”
“Hild,” he repeats, as if trying to get used to it. On his lips it sounds different, royal.
A pale hand touches her face to tuck a strand of wet hair behind her left ear; she shivers with pleasure. His fingers are icy cold, but gentle.
“What a lovely creature you are,” he murmurs, so low that she has to lean towards him in order to understand the words. Or so she wants to believe.
“Your Majesty is very kind.”
“Only to those I find pleasing.” They’re still close, his mouth inches away from her
neck. “Do I please you as well?”
Blushing, Hild wonders if he’s going to kiss her.
“Yes.” No more formalities now that she’s confident of her triumph.
“In that case, I’d be honoured to have you grace my table tonight. We, too, will be
celebrating your jarl's new alliance.”
Relief washes over her like a wave. This is it, the end to all of her troubles. She’ll be Queen under the Mountain, drink wine from a silver cup and share the King’s bed. Aslaug can rot in her hall! Taking a deep breath, she offers a silent prayer to Freyja. The gods have been merciful to her at last.
“As you wish.” Her lips part in a genuine smile. When she raises her head to look directly at him for the first time, she notices his eyes are completely black, like a raven’s. No whites, no irises.
He smiles back and takes her hand in his.
“Come, then. My guests will be delighted. It’s been a long time since they last tasted