“Jattel!” the whisper came harsh and cold from the lips of the old man. “You sleep now in comfort, but soon comes day that you sleep under the hedge, soon comes the day that you fear for your next meal. Prepare yourself, Traveler. Soon comes the day.”
The cuts burned into Jattel's chest flared up and the heat was excruciating. He sat up in a cold sweat and the burning almost immediately subsided. The words of the old man still rattled in his mind. He pulled away his new shirt to see that the scar had reddened, but was fading once again to the look of an old, worn scar. The first man. rueska. Sleeping under hedges. It wasn't as if Jattel was unaccustomed to that lifestyle. He had been sleeping under hedges more often than he liked over the past few years, but something in the old man's voice impressed upon Jattel with a terrible dread. Gym and his family couldn't know about this or they would surely kick him out of their care, so he laced up his shirt and swung his legs over the edge of the feather-filled mattress.
His boots sat there beside his bed, so he tugged them on and then saw a basin of steaming water on a small table on the opposite side of the room. It was an odd feeling to have such small comforts. He quickly washed his fash in the water and pushed back his mass of hair on his head. It would be good to have a set of shears to cut the cumbersome hair away. Perhaps his hosts... no. Jattel couldn't ask Gym and his family for more than they had already given him. It was more than anyone had given him in his entire life. He wouldn't start taking more than his due now.
After he was finished washing up, he went out of his room into a dimly lit hallway and heard sounds of Hrothr and his mother chattering away in their own tongue, and he followed the sounds of their voices until he happened upon the familiar kitchen. A yawn suddenly crept up on him as he walked into the room and he stretched out his tired muscles, still aching from the hard three days he spent at sea.
“Jattel! Good morning! Would you like something to eat?”
“Ma', look at him. He's still half asleep. Don't assault our guest so early with food.”
Hrothr's voice was playful and both were smiling broadly at each other.
“He needs his strength, Hrothr. And you know better than anyone about eating, just like your father!” she turned her smile to Jattel and said, “Here, Jattel of Svartyr. Sit. I will fetch you some bread and cream.”
She sat a dark, sweet-smelling lump of bread in front of Jattel on a pewter plate, and a small bowl of cream next to it. The cream smelled of honey and the bread smelled of berries. His first bite was much larger than he intended and he realized how hungry he actually was. He scarfed down the bread, then lifted the bowl of cream to his lips and began to take a sip. Hrothr was eyeing him with one brow lifted.
“You are drinking the cream? That is odd. It is better that way traveler?”
Jattel almost choked on the cream when the boy pronounced the word traveler. He said it with the same accent on the 'a' that the old man in his dreams pronounced it. The runes in his chest felt a little warm at that thought, but so did Jattel's face. It was nothing.
“Traveler? Why do you call me that?”
Hrothr was taken aback and his face shifted from inquiry to confusion.
“Well, because that is what you are! You are a traveler and it is good to call a thing what it is, right?”
“Now, Hrothr, be kind. He doesn't know our ways.”
“Do they not call things what they are where you are from Jattel of Svartyr?”
“Of course, but normally we just call someone by their name. I'm sorry. It just, I am unaccustomed....”
“Oh now, look what you've done Hrothr. Apologize! He is our guest.”
Hrothr rolled his eyes with a smile. Then enunciated his words very specifically.
“I am sorry Jattel of Svartyr if I offended you. We will have to talk later. I want to know about where you're from, but for now, my da' needs me in the field. He likes to get the field ready, even before the ice has thawed.” Hrothr got up to leave, but as he was wrapping his cloak around his shoulders, he turned back to Jattel and said, “But just so you know, it is better if you dip the bread in the cream and eat it that way!” And he walked off with a broad smile on his face.
There was another piece of the sweet bread in front of him when Jattel looked back to his plate and Theila was smiling a motherly smile as she continued to wash the plates from the night before in a basin of steaming water.
“Thank you,” he started, “for the bed and the clothes. It has been too long since I have met the kindness of strangers. I thought surely that I was going to die when my skiff washed ashore, but your husband... thank you.”
Thiela stopped what she was doing and turned to Jattel with that same motherly smile.
“If he had not helped you, he would have had to face my wrath when he returned home. It is the way here that we help travelers.”
The scar flared up as Jattel flinched from the word. He was frowning and Theila's smile shifted to concern.
“Is something wrong Jattel?”
He looked up at her, surprised, then said, “No, no. I mean, yes. I don't know how to repay your kindness. Where I am from, there is no kindness as you have shown me.”
Her worry turned back into a smile again, something Jattel had grown unaccustomed to in the years passed.
“There is no need to repay. We give freely to you, Jattel. You will need to decide what it is that you are to do next, however. Why have you come to Vythafjora?”
Jattel thought for a moment before answering.
“I don't know. I wasn't exactly planning to come here at all. The ship that I was on sunk and I was able to find that skiff before the ship went down. This is Vytha... what is this land called again?”
She laughed before answering.
“Vythafjora. In truth that is just what we call it here. There are many different people in this land who call it something entirely different. There is even a city where people speak your language better than myself or Gym could ever hope to. It is a city to the North where much trade is done. But many throughout Vythafjora know your language well enough. I only learned it because my father was a trader before he passed. All of the merchants in Vythafjora know your language well so that they can haggle for the best prices. But my native tongue is Vytha, those in the North call is Vysha.” She laughed at herself before going on, “Oh but I babble on. Tell me, what kind of land is Svartyr? And how is it, with a name like that you know nothing of the Vythafjora lands?”
“Svartyr? It was my home before... well, before the empire came. What do you mean with a name like that?”
She looked surprised.
“Well it is a word in Vytha, of course! It means dark or darkness. Is it a dark land?”
“Oh, no. Well yes, it is a place within the Svartyr Forest. So I suppose it could be called dark. But no, we don't have stories of Vythafjora. Before the empire came, we were just a small, quiet people. The stories we tell are from before there was an empire to the West or the Kingdoms of Docouver to the East. Our stories have no mention of another land. Especially one this far away. It took me three months to make it to the sea, then another two months of travel on the seas before my ship sunk. I was on that skiff for three days before your husband rescued me.”