The letter stuck out of my mailbox, the red wax seal imprinted with a wolf’s head announcing it had been sent from somewhere in Hoelbrak.
I looked around for the courier, but there was no sign of him, so I knew the letter must have been there for some time. I retrieved the folded piece of parchment and stood looking at it for a moment, weighing up whether to open it or just take it inside and throw it on the fire. I blew out a long breath that misted before my face. My log cabin in Timberline Falls sat on the edge of the alpine slopes. Sometimes in summer the wind blew warm air from the west and the snows melted to reveal tiny blue flowers that littered the grass, but today a layer of white coated the green banks and, without my gloves, my numb fingers had trouble grasping the letter.
I didn’t want to open it, because I knew who had sent it, and almost certainly that it contained news I did not want to hear. The seal still intact, I walked up the slope to my house, went inside and closed the door.
I pulled a chair before the fire, stirred the stew in the pot that bubbled merrily, put another log on the flames and lifted Chauncey the cat onto my lap. He walked around a few times, digging his sharp nails into my leather breeches before settling himself comfortably.
I leaned back and looked at the letter again. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t burn it. I could only imagine what Eir Stegalkin would say if she found out I’d destroyed her message without reading it. My lips curved wryly. I’d been the recipient of Eir’s wrath in the past and barely lived to tell the tale, and didn’t want to repeat the incident. Equally, however, I did not want to know what the letter contained.
But I had never been one to put off a task, preferring in all cases to grab a moose by the antlers. I glanced over at the trophy moose’s head that hung on the wall of my cabin as proof of this. Then I looked across at the small bear shrine to one side of the fire. The statue of the Great Spirit of Bear, carved by Eir herself and given to me when I retired from her service, looked at me gloomily as if aware of the ominous nature of the letter. I sighed, asked for his blessing, then took the letter and peeled open the seal.
I was right—the letter had Eir’s signature at the bottom. It consisted of only a few lines, but the moment I read them, they tugged at both my heartstrings and my cursedly strong sense of duty, just as she would have known they would.
I hope this letter finds you well.
I am sure your heart sank when you saw this message, and for that I am sad. We did not part on good terms, and although I still feel anger and regret at your decision to retire, I still miss you, and think of you every day.
And so when an important task arose that I can only entrust to one person, you were the first who sprang to mind. For though we have not always seen eye-to-eye, I trust you more than any Norn who has ever fought in my service, and I have nothing but respect for you and your abilities.
If you agree to take on this role, please come and see me at Stonewright’s Steading by the night of the next full moon. If you do not arrive by then, I will assume you have decided not to help, and I will entrust another with the task.
I look forward—I hope—to seeing you soon.
”Exodus of the Gods,” I swore. I scrunched the parchment into a ball and threw it onto the floor. Chauncey, sensing my irritation, jumped down from my lap and walked off, stirring up the smell of lavender and mint as he disturbed the rushes.
I leaned my head on the back of the chair and looked up at the ceiling, counting the logs and struggling to control my emotion. I did not want to leave my home. I had grown comfortable there, and I enjoyed the peace and quiet. I had made the decision to retire nearly a year ago, in spite of Eir’s reluctance to sign my release form and my own inner hesitancy and guilt at leaving her. It had been a huge adjustment after a lifetime spent on the road and in battle, but I had adapted to the slow pace of life, enjoying my long days fishing and hunting, or jewel crafting in the workshop out the back. I didn’t miss my fighting days at all.
Except that I did. Looking down, I stabbed my toe at a half-eaten rat Chauncey must have brought in at some point, nibbled and then abandoned. Life at home was calm, quiet, peaceful, restful, and…dull. I heaved a sigh and glared at the pot of bubbling stew. I missed the company of the rest of the army. In the early days when I first met Eir and helped her to slay the giant worm Issormir, and during my initial training in Wayfarer Foothills, I had not been certain that a military life was for me. The new elemental skills I was developing both excited and frightened me, and I had not been an easy student, alternately resentful and over-eager.
But as the years went by and I joined other Norn fighting throughout the Shiverpeaks, and eventually went on to become a captain at Fort Trinity heading expeditions into the Ruins of Orr, I knew I had found my role in life. I proved to be a natural leader, skilled in the control of all four elements, and I woke in the morning excited at the thought of the day ahead. Eir and I were inseparable, and her love filled me with joy.
Soldiers often find it hard to show their feelings as everyone risks his or her life on a daily basis. They become used to losing close friends over the years, and used to the cloak of grief. However, when you spend so much time with a small group of people, it’s inevitable that you all grow close, and my unit became my family. Out of all the members of the unit, and apart from Eir, I was closest to Rudi.
Rudi had been by my side since we first graduated. At various times, we had both been injured and forced to rest, and had both occasionally spent time in other units, but ultimately every time we found ourselves gravitating back to each other, and had formed a firm friendship. At Fort Trinity he finally became my second-in-command, and when we ventured into the Straits of Devastation, I felt great reassurance at the knowledge that he had my back.
Which was why, when he died, it hit me with the force of an avalanche, and I fell to pieces as I had never done before.