Eir had lost many friends herself and tried to help me through my grief, but even she could not heal the wound I carried deep inside. For I knew I was responsible for Rudi’s death.
I had ordered a raid, keen to continue the push into Orr. Rudi had advised me to wait until we’d received our intelligence on Risen numbers in the area, but I was too impulsive and—like all Norn—desperate for glory. I led the attack anyway, Rudi at my side—and we walked straight into an ambush. A third of the unit were killed, and Rudi died defending me, throwing himself in the way of a Risen warrior’s blade to save my life.
I would never forgive him for that.
Eir thought my guilt and grief self-pitying, and eventually she lost patience with me and we argued, long, bitter fights in which we both said things that could not be unsaid. Hurt and in pain, I resigned from her service and just walked out one day without looking back.
I hadn’t spoken to her since.
I looked at the letter once again. I trust you more than any Norn who has ever fought in my services. I knew she spoke the truth, because Eir did not say anything she didn’t mean. And I knew she wouldn’t have swallowed her pride and asked me if this was not of the utmost importance.
But I hadn’t used my powers for a whole year. If a wolf wandered onto my property, I shot it with a crossbow. I had lost the energy and the desire to control the elements I had once channelled on a daily basis. What use could I possibly be to Eir now?
Something shivered through me like a chill breeze, making my tattoos glow and the hairs rise on the back of my neck.
I got up from the chair, walked over to the door, opened it and leaned against the frame, looking down into the valley. It had started to snow again, fat white flakes coating the branches of the fir saplings and the top of the wooden fence around my land.
The next full moon was six days away. It would take me five days to get to Hoelbrak.
A few weeks before, I’d sent a beautiful coral jewel in a mithril setting that had taken me weeks to craft to Skya, the master artificer in Hoelbrak, with instructions to make me a new staff. Not because I ever planned to use it, but because…well, although I no longer channelled the elements, I would always be an elementalist at heart, and the staff was like a security blanket that I liked to keep nearby. I’d planned to ask her to send it back to me, but it would be a lot cheaper to travel there myself and pick it up, plus I wouldn’t have to worry about bandits raiding the delivery along the way.
I’d go there, I decided. And on the way, I’d think more about whether I could bring myself to see Eir again.
The journey to Hoelbrak through Dredgehaunt Cliffs was long but relatively uneventful. I travelled with a Dolyak supply train for half the journey, then when they turned off to the west, I continued the last few miles on foot.
That first night on my own, I made camp, built myself a fire and sat before it, cross-legged. I drew my fur cloak close around me, linked my fingers and concentrated on the flames.
For a long while, nothing happened. My pulse felt sluggish, my blood running slowly through my veins. For a year I’d blocked the flow of energies, building a barrier between myself and the elements, and I began to think I wouldn’t be able to break that barrier down.
That made panic rise inside me, causing my heart to pound. I may not have wanted my powers, but the thought that maybe I would never be able to use them again frightened me. Surely I hadn’t done lasting damage?
I closed my eyes, blocking out the flames, and thought of Rudi.
Rudi had had a mischievous sense of humour, and he had enjoyed pranks and teasing his friends. But beneath his impish exterior, he had been intensely loyal, a steadfast and solid guardian, whose admirable virtues had filled me with a light I could not explain as I fought beside him. I had a thousand faults—I could be loud, judgemental, irritable, brusque and sharp, but Rudi never grew impatient with me, and his steady resolve in battle had always calmed me down.
I imagined him sitting before me, remembering the way he used to take my hands in his before a fight and close his eyes in a prayer of meditation that had enveloped me with light. I imagined his goodness flowing through me, washing away my sins. Help me, Rudi, I prayed, trying to release the barrier I’d erected around my guilt and resentment. Heal me.
In my mind’s eye, a vision of the Great Spirit of Bear bloomed, huge and silver.
A wave of grief crashed over me, so powerful I cried out with pain, but it vanished immediately, and with its disappearance came a surge of heat as I drew the flames of the fire into me and let them race around my body. I gasped, blown away by the overwhelming power, pushing myself to my feet and standing motionless as the element raced through my veins. I’d forgotten the sensual pleasure it brought, how strong and vibrant it made me feel.
I hadn’t realised I’d been living a half-life, my once-vivid days dulled to greys and blacks by sorrow, but now everything exploded before me in a burst of colour as fire spread in a wide circle.
In the woods, the green eyes of two prowling wolves glittered, the starving animals driven by hunger and greed. I walked into the trees, dropped my fur cloak to the floor and spread my arms as they slunk towards me, thinking this thin, pale Norn an easy target. I waited until they were only feet away, waited until I could see their sharp yellow teeth as they bared them for the kill.
They leapt towards me, and then I raised my old staff and let fire rage through my veins. The ground bubbled and boiled, spewed lava and flame, and fire rose up to engulf the animals that twisted in the air and fell to the ground as a mass of charred flesh and burned bone.
Exultant, I raised my face to the skies and let the icy Shiverpeaks air and the shimmering starlight cool my flaming cheeks.
I’d been a fool to think I could put battle behind me. That I could retire and refuse to fight. I was born to control the elements, to channel fire and earth and lightning, and to bring cooling water down to heal my friends. I was born for this, and Eir had known it, known all along that I couldn’t stay away forever. I loved her for her faith, and hated her for it too. For I would never be free, and while that brought bliss, it also brought despair.
The rushing inside me died down, and I returned to the campfire and curled up before it, drawing my fur cloak over me.
Tomorrow I would rise and go to Hoelbrak. I’d collect my new staff, and then I’d go to Stonewright’s Steading and see what Eir had to say.
But for now, I would sleep.