Arnaald Hardrada chose to take the nissa, Skruff into his confidence. After all, this wondrous little creature had selflessly followed Huldred’s instruction to do all in his power to locate the wizard. This and more did he accomplish. Rescue in the face of personal peril was what the nissa had provided. Indeed, Arnaald was not certain that Skruff had any concept of danger, but one thing was certain; once set to a task he was a trustworthy powerhouse. As they sat about the morning’s small campfire, Arnaald stirred the ashes and asked, “Skruff, my good friend, I wonder if I might ask a great personal boon of you?”
Skruff was gnawing on the last mouthful of dried venison. He shrugged and responded, “Depends. What’s boon?”
“Well,” Arnaald continued, “Our quest, as you may or may not know, is far from over.” Now he had Skruff’s undivided attention. “Just over the next rise, as I’m sure you know, is the town of Haarm. What I need from you is to go there and find Huldred. Tell her that you have been successful in locating me and that I will contact her at my first convenience. Tell her only that, as it does not serve my purpose yet to make her privy to all that I plan. Also inform her that she will be contacted by a protagonist of my choosing to join Garr on the next leg of his quest. Can you remember all that?”
Skruff seemed mildly annoyed at the last statement saying, “Of course Skruff remember. Mind like steel trap, Hrumpf.” He was however, clearly elated at being included in the next part of the adventure.
“Alright then, if you are quite through with breakfast, be off. I will see you soon enough, I’m sure. Oh, and Skruff,” he added with a covert wink, “remember…secrecy.”
Skruff smiled and nodded as he shouldered his little backpack and was off.
Giving the nissa a day to reach his destination and deliver his message the wizard settled in for a leisurely day preparing himself for what was to come.
Early the next morning Arnaald gleaned from his own pack items necessary for the ritual he was about to perform. He then set all the prescribed items such as various herbs and crystals and sundry arcane items on a chamois before him.
This being accomplished, he stripped completely and rubbed himself head to foot with an elixir of unidentified (for the purposes of this tale) composition.
Satisfied that all was in proper readiness, he leaned forward and sprinkled the herbs and such over the glowing embers of that morning’s fire, the smoke of which he slowly but deeply inhaled. Then he stood, staff gripped confidently in both hands over his head and began to recite the chant for shape-shifting.
In a matter of moments the metamorphosis began and moments after that, where had stood the person of the wizard Arnaald Hardrada, stood the image of an aged Elfin cleric, rune-embroidered robes and all.
Checking his look in the reflection of a nearby woodland pond he smiled his approval and said aloud, “Well now, you old conjurer, it would seem that a year’s sleep has done you little harm. You still have the old stuff.”
When all was packed neatly into his pack and the fire and all traces of their presence eradicated to his satisfaction, Arnaald mounted Torfax saying, “Well my old friend, what say we get on with this, hmm?”
An hour later they stood on at the brink of the hill overlooking Haarm. “Odin’s eye”, exclaimed the wizard, patting Torfax’s withers, “It’ll sure be good to be in the company of old friends again.” At that Torfax began a brisk canter down the steep, winding slope.
Huldred had just finished breakfast when Maggie approached the table to announce that she had a visitor. “I’ve heard of his like but never expected to have one grace this establishment, that’s for sure.”
Huldred’s response was a questioning glance as she wiped her mouth with a napkin. “A nissa if I’m correct,” she responded. “Showed up bold as ya please a few moments ago knocking at the back door. Asked for you by name, stating that he was ‘on an errand of great consequence‘. His words exact.”
Huldred rose excitedly to her feet gathering up her dishes stating, “By all means Maggie, show him in, please.”
“Very well,” Maggie responded. Taking the plates she added, “Here, let me get those.” As she turned to leave she nearly tripped over Skruff who had, unbeknownst to her, followed her in defiance of her request that he wait to be announced. “Freya’s tits!” she exclaimed, recovering her balance. “I thought I asked you to wait.”
“You asked…Skruff say no,” came the reply. Smiling, Huldred intervened. “It’s quite alright, Maggie. Fact is I’ve been expecting him for some time now.” As an aside she added, “He’s not being rude. It’s just his way. Very direct.”
“Well, if you say so, but I like to be listened to in my establishment. Hrumph!” She turned in a rustling of skirts and made for the kitchen.
“Hmm, first impressions and all that,” said Huldred, which only elicited a curious cock of the little man’s head. “Never mind“, she said. “What news?”
Hoisting himself onto the bench at Huldred‘s table, the nissa began picking and nibbling at remnant biscuit crumbs. “Skruff find wizard“, he said, adding nothing more.
“And?” mimicked the nissa with a questioning glance.
Exasperated, Huldred fumed, “What news? Is he alive, dead, WHAT?”
“Oh ,yes” ,came the reply.
At this Huldred reached out and grabbed him by the beard saying “Listen you. Stop beating around the bush and talk to me.” Suddenly something occurred to her. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Always!” came the reply.
Huldred pushed away from the table commanding, “Stay right here. DO NOT move. Do you hear me?”
Skruff nodded, “Of course. Skruff not deaf.”
Soon Huldred returned from the kitchen with a fair-sized biscuit, a hunk of salt pork and a mug of milk. “Here you go’ little one. ‘Scuse my manners, it’s just that you were gone so long without a word.”
“Okay, no problem,” said Skruff shoving a piece of biscuit into his mouth. “Anyway, Skruff find wizard…alive. He say he’s gonna contact you soon as he can. Also, will send someone to talk to you. End of message.”
Huldred sat blinking for a moment, then, “That’s it? Where’s he been? Why was he gone so long?”
“Yep, don’t know and don’t know. Not my business. Skruff found him and gave him your message. That’s all.”
She wanted to hug him and smack him at the same time. Against all hope, he had in fact located Arnaald and delivered her message, but at the same time his lack of information was maddening. Had this little enigma no curiosity of his own? Did he not think to harvest any information of his own accord? Ultimately she decided to be thankful for the information she did receive and patted Skruff on the head saying, “You’ve done well, Skruff.”
Skruff beamed with pride and when he finished his breakfast Huldred took his dishes back to the kitchen. When she returned the nissa was nowhere to be found.
At approximately the same time the nissa had shown up the previous day, Maggie found Huldred in the great room speaking with Ilsa. “Scuse me, ladies,” she said. “Huldred, you are the popular one lately. You’ve another visitor. An elderly woman. And she’s an elf at that.”
Huldred’s brow furrowed. “An elf? Hmm. Well, you might as well show her in.” To Ilsa she said, “Excuse me won’t you, cupcake? I’m not sure what this may be about.”
“Certainly, Huldred.” said Ilsa. “I’m due to meet Lai at the market anyway. Enjoy your visit.” Then she was off.
Returning to the door Maggie was pleased to find the old woman waiting where she was asked to. “Thank you for waiting, ma’am. This way please“, Maggie started off at a brisk pace only to find the old woman struggling to keep up. “My apologies,” she said, turning back. “It seems I’m used to running in this job.”
“Not at all, my dear” said the elf holding up a staying hand to the apology. “Lead on. I’ll keep up.”
Upon arriving at Huldred’s table Maggie said, “Huldred, may I announce…” , realizing she’d forgotten to ask the woman’s name she turned, “I’m sorry…?”
“Ummm…Elgin.” Responded the old woman.
Rising from her seat, Huldred smiled and said, “Please be seated,” indicating a chair across the table from her own.
Maggie asked if she could bring the woman anything. “I’m fine, thank you,” said the woman with a smile. At that, Maggie turned and left the two to their business.
Huldred was silent and smiled politely, choosing to let her company play the opening gambit. Finally Elgin cleared her throat and began. “Huldred, I am here at the behest of an old friend; a mutual acquaintance actually.”
“Ah yes,” she replied. “I’ve rather been expecting word from him. I hope he’s well.”
“Oh yes, quite well, but unfortunately yet unavoidably detained. He has, in fact requested that I contact you to inform you of his intentions. You see I’ve been retained by him to minister to the chieftain Garr Guntarsen in a clerical capacity. It is told to me that it would be in his best interest to prepare for the days to come.” At this she craned her neck to scan the inn. “Is he around perchance?”
“Alas no,” returned Huldred. “In point of fact he is at this very moment miles from here receiving a different but equally important type of instruction. I’m sorry to say, since you have probably traveled some miles to be here, that he will be detained in that endeavor for quite some time to come.” Here she patted the old clerics’ hand and was shocked to find that it felt much larger and more solid than it looked.
Elgin noted the look of uneasiness on Huldred’s face and quickly withdrew her hand hastily stating, “Huldred, I know of the trials facing the lad. I also know that you have no reason that is apparent to trust me given that I show up unannounced asking questions about your ward. Mayhap this will help to assuage your trepidation.”
She reached into a pocket of her robe and withdrew an object which she laid upon the table and slid toward Huldred. A ring.
“It is the ring of Arnaald’s order, the Nibbelunga” she said smiling and gazing deeply into Huldred’s eyes. “You recognize it, do you not?” Huldred’s eyes widened as she nodded affirmation. “Then you know”, continued Elgin, “that it cannot be handled by anyone seeking to do him harm. Moreover, it must be freely given.
Huldred nodded again staring intently at the old cleric.
“Huldred”, continued Elgin, “I ask you for your trust in the name of the owner of this ring. It is imperative that I have it for our plans to go forth.”
Huldred paused long before replying. Finally, “I confess that even with this talisman and the fact that I have the unmistakable feeling that we have met before, I would be hard pressed to put my faith in you if I had not had recent contact from the mage and know him to be alive. After all, while no one may handle the ring who means him harm, it may have been gotten by foul means or fair posthumously, is that not so?
The cleric nodded, smiling. “Arnaald told me of your wariness and keen insight. I am pleased to see it is so. With this out of the way, will you now confide in me as to Garr’s whereabouts that I may lend my knowledge and guidance to his education?”
“One further question first, if you don’t mind.” said Huldred.
“Very well,” Answered Elgin, nodding in Huldred’s direction.
“How is it that you become involved in this? Surely it is not for monetary compensation?”
At this Elgin laughed out loud. “Monetary compensation? Not at all, my dear. Will it suffice to say that it is in payment of an old, old debt?”
This time it was Huldred who laughed. “Yes, that will suffice. There are many who can count themselves among your company.” She continued to smile as she thought. And finally she said, “Our young master is at Fjellhiem receiving weapons instruction from the Sverdmester himself.”
At this the cleric let out a long low whistle. “I wasn’t aware the old boy was still among the living let alone taking on pupils.”
“He is as hale and hearty as you or I, I am happy to report. In fact much more so I’d say.”
“Then I should leave at once”, said Elgin. If I ride swiftly I can be there by nightfall tomorrow.”
“If you’ve a stout mount and do not tarry, I’d say you might make it with some light to spare,” was Huldred’s reply. “Come, let me see you off.”
Outside the inn, as the cleric mounted she turned to Huldred and said, “You are all that Arnaald promised and more, Huldred. I’ am richer for the meeting. Fare you well, my dear.”
As she turned her mount and prepared to leave, Huldred replied, “The feeling is mutual, I’m sure.” as she reached for the doorknob to re-enter the inn, Huldered turned and said, “Oh, one more thing.”
“What’s that,” asked Elgin.
Send my love to Garr and the rest, ‘you old conjurer’.” At That, leaving the old elf slack-jawed, she grinned a self-satisfied grin and went back inside.
Well past the edge of town, maybe a mile up the trail into the mountains, the elf stopped and snapped her fingers. The glamour fell away like so many leaves in autumn and there in her place sat Arnaald upon his steed. “Well, Torfax old boy, that certainly was a pain in the arse and good magic all for naught.” Torfax whinnied his agreement and the two continued up the trail to Fjellhiem.