Undraland, page 8
I clutched tighter to Jamie, aware that I did not know him, but also very aware of the other Tomtens watching me and talking about my every move as we passed. “Fossegrimens. Uh, are those the guys that’re under some kind of curse from the Siren Queen? They play music that controls people. Fiddles, I’m thinking.”
Uncle Rick had a smile in his voice. I could tell he was happy to finally share his real life fairy tales with me. “Not controls. Persuades. There’s a big distinction there.”
“Right. And they’ve got a gang war against the Nøkken, who use their singing voices to try and persuade people and nature and whatnot with their songs.” I heard a group of people nearby whispering about the girl with Prince James. Apparently, junior high was transferrable to Undraland.
“You are every bit as brilliant as you’ve always been. If I had a green Skittle, I’d give it to you straightaway.”
“Well, they changed the flavor since I was a kid. It’s some shade of disgusting now.”
Uncle Rick chuckled. His laugh was the best. It was easy to access, and always joyful, never biting. “Now, that is a shame. I suppose I shall just give you a gold star, then.” We stopped and he turned, pressing his thumb to my forehead, sticking what I assumed was a gold sticker there.
“Do you just carry a stash of those around with you?”
“This one’s a bit more special, if you’ll allow me to be impertinent. It’s an arv.”
“Arv?” I inquired.
Jamie made some noise of appreciation for what was apparently a grand gift. I felt my forehead, but did not find a sticker. There was a warm, tacky to the touch spot there instead. It began to dissipate into my skin. “What is it?”
“It’s my mark. I have a limited number of heirs, so I’ve marked you as mine. Wherever you go, we’ll be able to find each other now. Does that reassure you, even though I had you brought to this foreign place?”
I reached around with my eyes closed for his robes. “If I could see you, I’d give you a giant hug, Uncle Rick. Thank you. Your heir? Like, I’m your daughter sort of?”
“More than sort of. You have family in Undra now.”
I paused. “Can I still call you Uncle Rick? I kind of want to leave my dad as my dad, if that’s okay.”
“Of course.” My uncle chortled, deep and velvety, and I could feel the love in his eyes. “You’re causing quite a stir, holding onto Prince James like you are. He’s betrothed, you know.”
Rule #2: Learn the law of the land quick and abide by it, no matter how stupid.
My face heated, and I dropped Jamie’s arm. “Jeez, I should’ve guessed with the whole woman in jeans scandal that it’d be weird for me to be near you. I’m sorry. Wasn’t thinking. Do you want me to talk to your fiancée? Let Britta know I’m not stealing her man?” I felt so stupid and turned around. I could sort of make out Jamie’s form, but I could not see the amusement he spoke to me with.
“That’s alright, Miss Lucy. And I’m not betrothed to Britta. My fiancée is Freya.” He spoke her name like it was a species of insect that had yet to be determined as useful to the world.
“Oh. My bad.” I held up my hand for a high five to break the tension. “But prince? Not too shabby, Jamie. That’s pretty cool. Should I bow?”
He gave me a gentle high-five. I could tell he didn’t totally understand the gesture. “In front of my father, sure. But I’m third-born. Not worth the curtsy.” He reached for me again, tucking my arm in the crook of his elbow. “It won’t do to have you falling in front of your audience. You’re the first human in these parts. You’ll want to leave a good impression as a representative of your people.”
“Whatever. I heard that woman. They think I’m part dwarf.” I kept my eyes closed, but the light was too bright for my eyelids to properly filter. I put my hand over as a blinder. “Why is it still getting brighter out? Not to be a whiner, but this is kinda painful.”
Jamie fielded this one. “We just left the city, and it’s mostly farms out here, so there are less buildings to block the sun from you.” He patted my hand. “Plus, there’s probably still a bit of Jens’s venom in you. Do you have a terrible stomachache?”
“It will wear off,” Uncle Rick assured me. “The after-effects are a bit like a hangover. Let this be a life lesson to you that you never want a real one.”
Uncle Rick called out to someone in the distance, beckoning them to us. Jens answered, and I heard him running closer. Now the whispers around me included Jens’s name, too. They spoke of him in the same awestruck and excited way Tonya would have gushed if Vin Diesel walked into the room.
I sighed. “Oh, good. I was wondering if there was a way to make this whole experience worse.”
Jamie’s smile could be heard in his tone. “Now, now. He’s my best friend. A real solid Tom. He’s the best protector we’ve got to offer.”
I had several disparaging remarks to this, but I kept my mouth shut. Jamie was just too sweet for me to burst his bubble about what a jerk his friend was. “That’s nice,” I lied.
When Jens reached us, he sounded concerned. “Why are you guys taking so long?” He smacked his forehead as it dawned on him. “My venom. Sorry about that. I didn’t think about your whole being human handicap.” He turned to Uncle Rick. “Foss is on his way. Tor and Nik are here, but they’re already starting in on each other. I hope you know what you’re doing, Alrik.”
“Yes. If you’ll excuse me. I’ll go on ahead and see to quelling their fight. I fear if I wait for Lucy, your hut will be in cinders by the time we reach it. Excuse me, Goose.”
“Huh?” My foot snagged on a root, so I clung tighter to Jamie.
Jens touched my shoulder. “I gotcha.”
“Get your paws off me,” I warned. “I’m getting along just fine.”
I could hear Jens’s disapproval. “I can see that. Look, this isn’t Ohio. You can’t hang onto an engaged man like that, Loos. People are already talking.”
I harrumphed, dropping Jamie’s arm with chagrin. “Fine! How do you expect me to get anywhere if I can’t see where I’m going?”
“Hold onto me instead.”
I stopped walking and crossed my arms over my chest, miffed that Alrik left me with the jerk who attacked me twice and punched out another woman. “Dude, that’s not gonna happen.”
He let out a noise of irritation. “Fine. Go on to my place, Jamie. Help Alrik get them all cooperating with your diplomat-speak. Tor’s out in my orchard, but he’ll be back. I’ll make sure Lucy doesn’t kill herself tripping over her own two feet. Oh, the glory of guard duty.”
Jamie trotted off, leaving me to Jens’s devices. Apparently I was headed in the wrong direction, because he kept telling me to walk a little more to the right.
“You seem pissed,” he observed.
“Well spotted.” I huffed when my stomachache started to get to me. “You know, if I had a fiancé, I’d want him to help someone who needed it, even if it was another woman. Your culture is weird.”
“You won’t get any arguments from me. I’m barely here anymore.”
“Because the king wants you dead?”
He scoffed. “If anything, that’s a reason to stay. The more King Johannes tries to off me, the weaker he looks. He’s an idiot.”
“Whatever. Could you rage against the machine a little quieter? Your voice is like a foghorn.” Plus, there were people yelling their greetings to Jens, as if he was a celebrity.
“Keep going right. Follow my voice, Loos. Go to your right.”
I could hear a group of women nearby gossiping about Jens the Brave and “the human female”. Apparently, him being out in the open was almost as much of a scandal as me being here. I could feel people watching me as I walked where Jens led, and I hated it. I felt so foolish, plodding along with my eyes shut, stomach churning and flesh baking in the too-hot sun. “So what’s this meeting about?”
Helsa seemed enthralled that the great Jens was speaking to them, her voice all high-pitched and giggly. Oh, brother. “Yes! Farmer Amund’s goats got into Davin’s potatoes and nearly caused a riot between their families.”
The other female piped in eagerly. “And Prince Jamie’s betrothed is coming in three days to inspect the land. If she likes it, she’ll stay, instead of taking Prince Jamie to her father’s kingdom.”
“Great,” he answered, though I could tell he had opinions about this.
Not to be outdone by her friend, Helsa added, “There’s a wolf about, Jens. Do you think you could see to it while you’re back? How long do you think you might stay this visit?”
“No idea,” he answered, and I could tell he wasn’t even looking at her. “To your right, Loos.”
“Okay.” I took another step, and then stopped. “Are you leading me in a circle?” I cracked open one eye at his laughter, but it was a mistake. The light was so bright, I stumbled back, landing on my rear and making a fool of myself, which only made him laugh more. Helsa and a dozen more people nearby giggled at the stupid, clumsy human. Their exact words.
His voice turned sharp. “Hey! Knock it off, Helsa. She’s not stupid. She knows how to drive a real car.”
This inane factoid about me earned deferential gasps. What a culture. I wonder what they would’ve done if I mentioned my mad parallel parking skills?
I allowed Jens to help me up, and did not even protest when he held my hand and wrapped his arm around my shoulders in what felt like a protective hold. “Please stop making me look like an idiot and get me out of here. My stomach seriously hurts, and you’re just parading me around, showing them how dumb I am.”
“I’ll take you now. I’m sorry. I just wanted to waste a little time out here. Once we get to my place, it’ll be chaos. Thought we could have a little fun first.”
“Fun? You think any of this is fun for me? People laughing at me? You making me look like a fool in front of your snobby groupies?” I hated that his apology actually sounded sincere.
“Your stomach’s really hurting that bad?”
“I just want to lie down somewhere that doesn’t burn through my retinas. Can you be a grownup and make that happen?”
“Yeah.” He clutched me tighter to keep me from falling when I tripped yet again. “Here, hop on my back.”
“Sure. Hop on. I was being a jerk. Let me make it up to you by being your pack mule.”
I rather liked the sound of that. Pretty much any option to get me out of the blinding sun and open ridicule was nothing to turn my nose up at. “Anything that makes you look like the horse’s backside you are. Alright.” I sized up his back with my hands as he laughed. “Um, you may have to help me. You’re like, a foot taller than me.” He bent down and reached for my hand, helping me up with a swift yank. I held on for dear life, not used to being this high up off the ground. He set off in the direction I assumed his house was in. “I’m not… um, I’m not too heavy?” I weighed the cons of the five-egg omelet I had two mornings ago.
“How much would you hate me if I pretended to fall over from the extra weight right now?”
“That’s how much I’d hate you. Seven.”
“Out of how many?”
“Irrelevant. You don’t want me to hate you seven. It’s painful.”
“Yikes.” I could hear the smile in his voice. I hate that it made him seem less of a monster. “Hey, how are you doing?”
Another nicety. I was going to have to work harder to despise him at this rate. I pushed my face to the back of his neck, relaxing when I could no longer see too much light through my shut eyelids. “Oh, you know. New town. New rules. No home. Just another day.”
“Homes are overrated.”
“Ouch.” He turned his head in my direction. “You know how when you’d move to a new place, you’d keep quiet for a while until you got the lay of the land?”
“Apparently you do,” I grumbled. “Thanks for stalking me for so long. Really. Feels great.”
“You’re welcome. Your family paid me a lot of money to ‘stalk’ you all.”
I thought this over for a minute as he hauled us both up the hill. “So after they died, why’d you stick around? Paychecks had to have stopped then. I know I’m not shelling it out for your stellar services.”
“Alrik pays me. I’ve been working for him for ages. There aren’t many of us still on active duty. Most retired.” He hefted me higher on his hips. “You know those lawn ornament garden gnomes you see in people’s yards? Those get left behind at our last charge’s home when we retire.”
“You already told me that,” I reminded him.
“Well, smarty-pants, it holds a permanent protection charm on the house to keep it safe. Mine’ll stay with you, since I’m bound to your family for the length of my career.” When I did not speak (I mean, honestly, what could I say to that? I’ve probably seen a couple hundred of those creepy things on people’s front lawns and never thought twice about it), Jens pinched my calf. “I know you’ve got a million questions. Hit me.”
“So, there’s lots of you, then?”
“Not anymore. There used to be, but more and more are taking their retirement early. There are only a handful of guardian gnomes in Johannes’s kingdom, which is where we are. Most are the gardening kind.”
I kept my face buried in the crook of his neck. “Why do humans need protection? Can’t all be from bears.”
“Pesta. She’s the last siren.”
“A siren? Like…”
“Like in your English Lit classes you hated so much and should’ve paid better attention in? Yeah. Pesta’s the last siren in existence, and she’s chained to the Land of Be.”
I sighed. “I love that you think any of those words make sense to me.”
“The Land of Be is a place we can go where there’s no pain. There’s nothing sad, nothing violent, nothing at all, in fact. You go there to check out. Apparently, it’s bliss. You go there to just be.”
“Alright. That sounds nice. Why are you guarding me from her?”
His voice took on a serious note, which I did my best to respect. “Because it’s not as simple as nirvana. To get in, you have to give her your dominant arm and the use of your soul.”
“That’s why when you go there, you don’t feel anything bad, or anything at all. She animates the arms and uses them to keep the people there locked inside. Not that they would try to escape.” He stomped through a bunch of chickens, ignoring their clucking as they scattered.
“Jens! Slay any trolls while you were away?” a passerby called out.
“Not today. Maybe next time.”
“Good to have you back. How long do we get you for this time?”
“Not long. Say hi to your father for me.” We kept moving, and Jens was greeted by a few more farmers in a similar fashion.
“Is that the human female, Jens? Well, I’ll be. Why’ve you dressed her as a man?”
The smirk in Jens’s tone seemed to be a fairly common thing. “That’s her, alright. She’s a dangerous one. Caught her with my bare hands.” He pinched my calf again, this time with a hint of flirtation.
The audience was floored. “Wow!”
I chuckled into his neck at the sincerity of the stranger’s exclamation. “They’ve really never seen a human before? I don’t look that different from them.” When I breathed in, I could smell his skin. A caress of sugar cookie dough seemed to waft off of him no matter where I pressed my nose. It was the same smell our house always had, and even after my mom died and there was no one to make cookies, the scent followed me. Even Tonya would comment occasionally and ask if I’d been making cookies.
Jens suppressed a slight shiver any man gets when a woman sniffs the back of his neck. Goose bumps broke out on his skin, which we both tried to ignore. I cringed, hoping he wouldn’t call me out on my nasal indiscretion.
Jens continued the conversation as if I had not just been a freak who smells strangers. “You’re shorter, paler. You wear street clothes. The women here wear only dresses. You have access to all sorts of magical gadgets like phones, cars and things like that. Now, where were we?”
“Um, all the things I hate about you?”
“No, we covered that already.”
He hitched me further up again. “Right. Eighteen to twenty feet tall usually, pure muscle and not given to diplomacy.”
“Are there actual real live giants around here? I’m trying to be cool, but that’d test my ability to compartmentalize big time.” I let out a short laugh. “Big time? Giants? I’m funny.”
I could tell he was half-smiling. “You are. Kept me entertained on many a boring stakeout.” He shifted me on his back. “There aren’t any trolls in these parts anymore. Used to be, but you don’t have to worry about that.”
“You slayed them all with your massive gnome muscles?” I teased.
“Shut up.” He sniffed. “And, yes, I did. You gonna take back that ‘horse’s backside’ comment?”
“Nope. Giddy up, horsy.”
He neighed, which, I admit did entertain me. “But that’s not what we were talking about. Pesta.”
I nodded into his neck. “Right. The siren who lobotomizes your magical fairy people.”
“That’s a good summary, actually. So she claims to set the truly pure souls free by giving them a new home inside of bears. Sort of like reincarnation. A second chance at life. It’s been in the past few years that she started weaponizing some of the less desirable souls in her possession by using the not-so-pure ones. Breach of her agreement with all us ‘magical fairy people’. The bears aren’t tame when the souls go inside anymore. They’re the Weres you saw when we first met.”