A response to T.S. Bazelli's "Author Aerobics: Layered Conflict Challenge" posted in her blog, Ink Stained. The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that involves multiple layers of conflict. This week's theme: "shadows".
Bryselsfild's horse cantered past the manor's gates. A lock of her blonde hair braided around her circlet to reflect orange highlights from the moon's rising pulled behind Mani's carriage. Lothar watched the shadows scamper in her wake, a queen's guard, as his last words -- a denial -- burned his throat like mealy fish. She rode with her back unerringly straight, like the prow of a Viking ship, like her late husband, as she climbed the hillock without a single glance back. Lothar wondered if she knew the cost of her request.
Lothar lifted his youngest daughter, Bryselsfild's half-sister, and she nuzzled against the weave of his tunic as he closed the manor's door. "Why are you awake?"
Nightmares. Every night for the past fortnight. Lothar stroked her hair as he settled in his chair. Firelight flickering over her cheeks reminded him of Bryselsfild's request, a night without shadows. He rocked his youngest daughter as the fire warmed his serrated skin. "They are dreams, not reality. Images of what might be, not what is." Images of what Lothar knew would be. No way to stop this madness, the shadows merely a gamble. "Let the fire warm you, calm your thoughts. Think of butterflies flitting through a meadow."
"The dreams. Fire, knives, blood. I saw her."
"Loki's trick. You heard her voice as we talked and he slipped her into your dreams." Lothar squeezed his daughter's tiny fingers.
"I'm here for you," said Lothar. The fire sparked streaks of light that ricocheted on the bricks. The years afflict an old man like Lothar breaking down the distance of years past. Memories of another golden-haired girl staring up at him as he sipped his mead and made promises.
"As long as I can." If only that would be long enough.
Lothar rocked her until her eyes became heavy like the moonlight shining through the windows. He left her in her bed, a quilted blanket hugging her body as her fingers bunched the pillow. He left with his bearskin coat to follow in Bryselsfild's wake.
A league from home, he took the left fork away from the horseshoes and footsteps that stood out in relief in the moon's pale light. He left the path to slip between the trees.
Laughter. Two Ærin's spawn capered along the path with ale-filled horns dripping black dots upon the path. A Valkyrie followed in their wake, her walk dismissive. Lothar held his breath as it burned in his chest. The Valkyrie passed him, moving further away.
The Valkyrie's hair flared as she stared at Lothar's tree. Seconds passed. She turned to follow the drunken gods who hadn't stopped.
Lothar approached the fenced pen where the wolf, Hati, slept chained to a granite rock. As Lothar slipped through the wooden slats of the fence, Hati opened a yellowed eye. The wolf growled.
"Quiet," said Lothar. "I come to free you."
"It is said you can consume the moon pulled by Mani's carriage. An eclipse to vanquish the shadows. I will free you if you can do this task."
"I can." Hati stood, no longer growling.
Iron links locked Hati to the ground and Lothar could not find a weak spot. He tried to convince himself that this was enough, he'd tried. He dared more than most to approach the wolf. He could leave the hate chained to the ground and return to his youngest daughter. He climbed the fence as the wolfhound watched him. No, he sighed. Lothar climbed a tree with a sharp rock in his hands, which he used to break a bough of the birch tree. Sliding down from the tree, the branch looked like a bone in his hand. With his leather tunic tie, he made a hammer.
Hati watched as Lothar smashed one of the links. Each hammer hit echoed off the hills, the Valkyrie would return soon. The chain-link shattered and Hati pounced, knocking Lothar to the ground.
"We had a deal," said Lothar.
"Yes, and I need food to chase Mani."
The wolfhound's teeth gnawed Lothar's arms and torso. Lothar's blood dripped onto the ground as he watched Hati fly into the sky in pursuit of Mani. The patter of the Valkyrie's footsteps neared. They stopped and turned away as the moon eclipsed.
Lothar's last words a whisper. "Bryselsfild, I was here for you."