The Girls of Skogtarnisor
Chapter 4: Sessrumnir
Copyright© 2020 by Tarasandia
The Will-o-Wisps led me through the forest, but no farther: there was no need for them in daylight on the broad road north to Sessrumnir. Also, once beyond the forest, I became acutely aware of the bodily needs that had seemed suspended in my nocturnal travels. I had given no thought to my journey, so had prepared no provisions, and had taken not so much as a cup to capture water. I improvised by weaving some of the leaves from my pocket into a little cup, and scooped a little from a stream that ran close to the road. I had never known such a sweet, cold water and paused to drink my fill.
As the daylight increased, so did the traffic on the road, and by noon I was passing others with some regularity. Most of my traveling companions were polite but purposeful: with laden handcarts, pack animals and wagons, I assumed that they must be headed to the markets at Sessrumnir. One woman caught me staring stupidly at a chuck of bread she held in her hand, and stopped to offer it to me.
She introduced herself as Syr, and said she was bringing a new kind of wheat seed to market, which had begun to grow in her fields a few years back, shortly after her husband passed away; it produced a most extraordinary bread: dark and rich, but soft and sweet as well. “You are plainly hungry - please take some,” she concluded, and I gladly accepted.
The roll was everything she had claimed, and left me utterly satisfied despite its small size. “Thank you again,” I exclaimed when I finished it, “that truly is extraordinary bread!”
Syr beamed at my appreciation, and invited me to accompany me while she was in the city to help her tend her stall in exchange for sharing her room and bread.
“The markets can be so busy,” she explained, “I could really use a helper. Some people just won’t wait in a long line - especially if they don’t know what’s at the end of it. Having a helper would allow me to serve my customers more quickly, and hopefully conclude my business in the city more quickly as well.”
Having no other prospects, I gratefully accepted again, and fell in beside her and her little donkey cart full of wheat and seed.
We arrived at the city walls before the sun reached it’s height for the day, and joined throngs of other merchants and visitors seeking entry into the city. The walls were a luminous milky gray, and high above them towered Sessrumnir itself, glittering in the sunlight like a jewel. The line for inspection of her goods by the city officials at the gate was long, and so we made ourselves comfortable and better acquainted during the wait.
“So, it’s your first time coming to Sessrumnir,” Syr surmised. “May I ask where you are from?”
“I’m from Skogtarn-i-Sor. It’s about a day’s walk south,” I replied.
“Oh, I know where it is - my husband used to trade there,” she said, “But he said - and everyone knows - that no one ever comes out of the village. So how come you to be on the road to Sessrumnir?!”
“My sister Brenna ran away, and I am trying to find her.”
The gate officials were well experienced at inventorying and evaluating the merchants’ common wares for an accounting of taxes due on the way out; and they were unfailingly just in their valuations, so there were no delays due to arguments with the merchants either. The line moved quickly as a result, and we were soon at the gate. The officials quickly valued Syr’s stock of seed at a standard market value for wheat, but she objected.
“I intend to ask a higher price,” she said, “And I would not want to be found cheating the Lady’s city.”
The guards just laughed, “If you can get a higher price for common wheat seed, you’re welcome to it!”
I offered each of them a bit of her bread. “This is no common wheat seed,” I said; after sampling it, they agreed, and marked down the price that Syr gave as the value of her inventory.
“It’s not everyone that would be so honest,” said the officials. “The Lady will be advised of your honesty. You may go along now.”
“But ... first, I have a question,” I chimed in.
“I am looking for my sister, Brenna. She ran away from our home in Skogtarn-i-Sor two days ago, and I am hoping I may find her in the city.”
“Was she bringing any goods of value for sale?” the elder official asked politely.
“No ... I do not believe she would have had anything to declare.”
“Well, then, we’d not have a record of her arrival,” he said a little regretfully, “Ordinary visitors are free to come and go in the city as they please. I’m afraid there isn’t much we can do to help. As you can see, hundreds of people pass through this gate every day, and this is only one of four. I’m not sure what to recommend.”
“I see. Thank you anyway, then.”
Syr had already moved ahead so as to clear the path for the next merchant in line, and noticed the crestfallen look on my face as I caught up with her. When she inquired, I told her about my discussion with the guards.
“Well ... official records aren’t the only way to find a person,” she said thoughtfully. “Newcomers - even well-traveled newcomers - tend to draw attention to themselves in a thousand different ways. Unless she’s unusually quick, she will be noticed, and someone in the city will be able to tell you where she is ... or has gone.”
The place that Syr took me to was Innkeeper Street, located close to the Greenmarket Square. She arranged for accommodations in one of the more modest but respectable looking establishments, and we proceeded from there to the market square where we set up her cart and vendor stall. Business was brisk throughout the early afternoon. Most customers greeted the price of her wheat and seed with reactions ranging from incredulity to outright hostility, but then we offered a sample of her bread, at which all but the most truculent of customers - for whom NO price was ever fair! - acknowledged she was charging rightly for her wares.
Business died down about mid-afternoon, and Syr suggested I take the opportunity to begin canvassing the other hostelries along Innkeeper Street and thereabouts, to see if a woman of my sisters’ description had visited any of them. I started out with alacrity and high hopes, but by the time I returned to the inn to meet Syr for dinner, I was exhausted and discouraged by the lack of even the slightest hint of her whereabouts. Petite young ladies with blonde hair and blue eyes were apparently quite common in Sessrumnir, and every lead had turned out to be a dead end. With each disappointment, my hope flagged a little more. My sleep that night was full of troubling dreams of loss and danger.
The next few days passed in much the same way: once the rush of business had died down for the day, I set out to canvass new neighborhoods in the city for any sign of my sister; by the end of the third day, Syr had sold all of her stock, and asked me to accompany her to the gate so she could give me a share of her profits.
“Oh, but it’s not necessary,” I protested, “I accepted your contract terms, and...”
“And I finished my business in half the time it would normally take, and I sold ALL of it at my full price - due in no small part to your enthusiastic praise of my wares as you shared them with our customers. Once I settle up with the customs officers on the way out, I will see what the full profit is and I would like to give you a small share as a token of my appreciation. I will still come out ahead of where I’d have been without your help.”
So I accompanied Syr to the South Gate, and when we arrived there, an even bigger surprise awaited us both.
The customs officers recognized Syr and me, and asked us to come into the gatehouse for our accounting. Once inside, they had surprising news for both of us. For Syr, the Lady Freya had said that, for her honesty and integrity in declaring her goods, she was to be given a discount on her taxes due: for this visit only, she would be taxed at the assessed rate of her goods, rather than the declared value. The emotion that this announcement brought on seemed to seize her entire body for a moment, so that she hugged herself as if to assure herself she was really sitting in that seat receiving such news, and she rocked gently in her seat as if the absorb the impact of this unexpected windfall.
“I will use this gift from our lady well!” she declared, when at last she could speak, “Starting with my dear helper here, Miss Astrid!” And so from being penniless I went to having a small windfall of my own, enough to live on for about a month if I were careful.
And that wasn’t all. Once I had made my thanks and bid goodbye to Syr, the customs official called me back from the doorway as I was leaving.
“You’re the girl from Skogtarn-i-Sor, isn’t that right, miss? The one that was looking for her sister?”
“Why, yes ... I’m from Skogtarn-i-Sor!” I said. “Have you news of my sister?!”
“Miss, I’m sorry, it’s not news of your sister, per se.”
I could not keep the disappointment from my face, but I schooled myself to hear him out, and he continued when he saw I had collected myself.
“Miss, the Lady Freya has commanded your presence at the Castle Sessrumnir; she is seeking news of your village, and asked that we send you to her posthaste when we should meet with you again.”
The streets at the edge of the city were narrow and shadowed by stacked buildings with high-pitched roofs with dramatic overhanging eaves. They looked, I thought, as if they simple could not bear to be kept small by the cramped spaces they inhabited, so instead they pulled themselves inward and upward to extraordinary heights. The result was an odd assemblage of buildings that grew around each other in strange layers, and forcing all traffic along narrow and winding passages that led either toward the four gates of the city on the outside, or toward the market squares on the inside. Within the perimeter of the circle formed by the market squares both the streets and the houses seemed to relax and stretch out a bit, and gracious townhomes on tree-lined boulevards alternated with greenways full of community gardens.
Even so, the castle grounds took me aback when I came upon them. I could not have imagined such an expanse would fit within the city walls, much less within its smallest perimeter. Perhaps this was because it was located on a hill, and much of the green space was more vertical than horizontal. Clear paths and stairways invited passersby to explore the grounds, and I saw many people enjoying picnics and other pastoral passtimes on its green slopes. A laughing boy rolled down one particularly steep section of hill like a log, and at the end of his roll rushed over to where his mother was waiting: “That was AWESOME, mom! Can I do it again?”. I couldn’t help but smile and wonder what the elders would make of Freya’s easy tolerance of such frivolous activity on her very doorstep.
Recalling that I had been summoned by the lady herself, I left these observations behind and proceeded up the south path that seemed to lead to the castle itself, through the beautifully manicured forest that encircled the building itself. Very few approached this forest, and I sensed that it was enchanted somehow - perhaps to call those who were meant to pass through it, and gently discourage idle curiosity. I felt the call strongly in my bones, and approached the stone archway carved with runes where the path entered the forest itself.
To my surprise, I spied a bright blue light flickering and beckoning a little way down the path, beyond the forest edge; without hesitation, I followed it in.
As in the Labyrinth Forest, every time I thought I would catch the Wisp, it vanished and would reappear a little further in; eventually, it led me off the path and still I followed it with certainty until it came to rest at the center of a beautiful Fairy Circle in clearing within a grove of birch trees. Of course, the Wisp vanished when I stepped into the ring, but then began to circle the ring with an almost feline motion; a fog began to gather and move with it, coalescing into the figure of a great blue cat.
My first thought was that I should be sorry to die like a roasted chicken, but what else did I expect? To my surprise, though, the Skogkatt made no predatory moves, but instead seemed to be waiting for me. I moved toward them and stepped out of the Fairy Circle, and the Skogkatt disappeared, and a wispy blue light remained where his tail had been. I stepped back into the Fairy Circle, and saw the cat again.
“Bygul?” I suggested, and he purred as if to affirm my query, then turned away with a roll of his head that indicated I should follow. From the Fairy Circle, Bygul quickly led me to the castle’s grand southern entry. This time, knowing what to look for, I could see the hazy shape of him beyond the flickering light of his tail. Passing through the entrance courtyards along hallways and stairways past various small chambers, Bygul at last brought me to a columned hall hung with bright silks and filled with light from a grand balcony onto which it opened. Bygul led me to a partially secluded alcove at the back of the room, away from the balcony, and sensing his invitation, I seated myself beside him. He rubbed his large head against my shoulder, and I realized he wanted me to scratch behind his ears.
Bygul, the supposed ravenous beast, began purring and settled down comfortably at my feet.