Hoelbrak was its usual busy self, bustling with traders bringing their wares to the markets, as well as pilgrims coming to the shrines and various dignitaries from all the lands visiting either as ambassadors or with some plea to the norn to help them out with their affairs.
I went first to the Great Lodge, drawn there after my long journey with the promise of warmth and good food. I wasn’t to be disappointed. The Lodge was warm and lively, filled with laughter and boastful tales as male and female norn alike gathered around the fires and settled down for the midday meal.
I loved the Great Lodge and had spent much time there in between my adventures, and had made many friends. I found two of them, Dotta and Inger, who had brought in fresh kill and were serving up steaming bowls of ice wurm bisque, accompanied by a stein of Highlander beer. I ate with them as I caught up on the events of the surrounding lands that I had been so ignorant of during my time away.
“Trouble is stirring,” Inger advised me, wiping his greasy mouth on his sleeve.
“Trouble is always stirring,” Dotta commented wryly, spooning another ladle of bisque into his bowl. “Eat your meal.”
He ignored her and frowned at me. “There are rumours from across the lands.”
“Rumours?” I finished off my beer and belched—a necessary way to show one’s hosts you have enjoyed their meal. There was always talk like this of trouble and problems, but an unusual sense of unease rippled inside me at his words.
Inger leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and lowered his voice. “News is coming in from Ascalon to Brisban Wildlands. Important people—council members, army captains, heads of rich families—there are reports of assassinations. Many strange murders in the night with no clue as to the culprit.”
“These kinds of things happen all the time,” Dotta snapped. “We should not suddenly assume there is menace behind them.”
Inger continued though, his eyes glittering with excitement. “There have been strange sightings throughout all the cities. Ghostly lights. Eerie noises. People are apparently afraid to venture out after dark. Folk are saying something is rising…”
I remembered the way a chill breeze had shivered through me when I stood outside my cabin after receiving Eir’s letter, making my tattoos glow and the hairs rise on the back of my neck, and I opened my mouth to ask him more.
However, Dotta cut him off with a slash of her hand. “These are just tales to frighten children. Stop telling stories and let Freya tell us her news.” Her voice brooked no argument, as if this was something they had discussed many times.
Inger stirred his bisque and didn’t look up at me again.
I talked of Timberline and the little I’d seen on my journey to Hoelbrak, but all the time, his words floated in my mind like dead leaves on the breeze, the brief flash of fear that had flitted across Dotta’s features haunting me. Was Inger’s strange story related to why Eir had called for me?
When I’d finished my food, I bid them good day and left the Great Lodge, making my way to the trade commons. A light snow had begun to fall, the flakes floating down softly across the wooden floors and beams, dusting everything with white.
I passed the carved heads of the Great Spirit of Bear, the Raven, the Wolf and the Snow Leopard, and crossed the fur-covered floor to where the crafts people were at work. I had learned everything I knew about jewel crafting from Hrolf, the master jeweller, and he gave a bellow as I walked up to him, enveloping me in a bear hug that left me breathless.
“I saw that coral you set,” he informed me. “I have not seen craftsmanship like it for some time, Freya. I have taught you well.”
He did not give compliments easily, and my cheeks grew warm with uncharacteristic embarrassment. “Thank you,” I said awkwardly. “I will see what it looks like in my new staff.”
I threaded my way through the craft area towards Skya’s workshop. Bolts of cloths and rolls of leather lay in piles with skeins of wool and cotton, and stacks of wood honed into shafts ready for all manners of weapons. The air was sharp with the tang of metal from the armorsmiths.
I found Skya working on a trident, carefully attaching the metal fork to the wooden shaft, but she put it aside as I approached. “Freya!”
We embraced, and I indicated the cupboard I knew she kept her completed pieces in. “Do you have my staff?”
“Right here.” She unlocked the cupboard, took it out, admired it for a moment and then passed it to me.
I weighed it in my hand. It was heavier than my previous one, the wood holding a slight pinkish tint to it. “Snow cherry?” I queried.
“Yes.” She nibbled her bottom lip. “I know it is heavier, but it is supposed to allow the flow of elemental magic easier and—”
“It was not a complaint.” I ran a hand down the shaft, my fingers trailing over the polished wood, feeling the natural knots and curves. “It is beautiful.”
She blew out a relieved breath. “The gem sits beautifully in a hollow at the top, the perfect size, as if it was made for it.”
I inspected the fitting and saw the way the coral nestled there, secure in its mithril setting. The deep pink tones of the gem matched the light pink glow of the cherry wood, and the staff hummed in my hands.
“It is keen to get to work,” I jested.
She turned her dark eyes on me. “May it serve you well, sister. Dark times are coming, and I think you will have need of it before long.”
She dropped her gaze, offering no further details, so I strapped the staff across my back, paid her and gave her a hug before making my way from the building. But once again, anxiety stirred.
It was late afternoon, the sun sinking lower in the sky, the snow falling more thickly. I hesitated, battling with the urge to head for the pass back to Dredgehaunt, unable to fight the unease that had settled in my stomach. Had there been something awry with the ice wurm bisque? But I knew it had nothing to do with what I had eaten. Inger’s words, Dotta’s fear and Skya’s warning had only served to confirm the growing sense of disquiet that had taken root the day Eir’s letter had arrived.
I now longed for the lodge I had thought dull and boring. I missed Chauncey, and I missed the view across the snow-covered hillsides, the flowers just beginning to break through the snow.
But I’d come all this way; I could not now leave without seeing Eir.
I crossed Hoelbrak, walking slowly, heading for her house. I slowed my step, putting off the inevitable confrontation.
I walked through the ankle-deep snow, glad of my thick boots. In Timberline Falls, the evening would be warm enough to sit outside for a while and some of the birds would be returning, but here in the north the cold air still retained its tight grip. It bit into my throat, chilling me from the inside out.
The wooden gates to Stonewright’s Steading loomed in front of me, and I paused and swallowed. I reminded myself that whatever Eir was going to ask me, I wasn’t in her employ anymore. I didn’t have to follow her orders and was under no compulsion to undertake any tasks she set me. I was a free agent now. The thought gave me the courage to walk forwards.
I pushed open the gates and entered the courtyard. The wind whistled around the statues Eir had carved over the years that stood like silent sentries in the gathering gloom. They seemed foreboding, casting shadows across the yard that I had remembered as being full of light and laughter only a year before.
I paused and turned, watching as the wind whipped the snow into a miniature tornado. The air tasted bitter—the unmistakeable tang of glittering dust. My skin pricked and the hairs rose on the back of my neck, and in the semi-darkness my tattoos glowed faintly, also presaging the arrival of something magical.
My heart pounding, I retrieved my new staff from behind my back and hefted it in my hand. I backed up to the wooden lodge, wondering if I had time to call for Eir. But even as I opened my mouth to shout, the eddy spun and took shape, materialising into a ghostly form.
I stared, the sight turning me colder than any snowfall could have done. I had seen similar figures before, long ago when I fought alongside Eir in Ascalon. It was the spirit of a long-dead human soldier, a warrior, hefting his shield on his arm, his blade glinting in the light of the moon that was rising in the darkening sky. Through him, I could see the statues and the walls surrounding Eir’s house, but I knew I must not fall into the trap of thinking that the ghostly man could not harm me.
I planted the end of my staff into the snow. Time to try you out, I thought, opening the channels of energy and letting fire burn through me. It came easily this time, racing up from the ground through my staff, searing through my veins and emitting from my hands in a wide arc of flame that I cast towards the ghost.
He bent and held his shield over his head, and the flame poured over him like a wave. Cursing, I moved to the side and waited for him to rise, letting the fire build in my hands again. As the wave of flame died down, he stood and advanced quickly, bringing his sword across his body, the ghostly steel glinting in the moonlight.
I caught the blow on my arm and it cut into my thickly padded jacket. It seared into my skin, the magical blade slicing through my flesh, and I yelled with fury. I was out of practice, too slow. I was better than this! I used to kill my foes before they even got a chance to get near to me—what had happened to my battle skills? Was I an old dolyak, ready to be put to pasture?
In my head, I thought I heard Rudi’s distinct, deep voice boom with laughter.
I tucked my head down and rolled past the warrior, turned and backed away as I thought of the waterfall just a mile from my lodge and imagine the strength of the water pouring over me. The healing wave rushed across my arm, knitting the muscle and renewing the skin, and I let it flood me, drawing hope as well as energy from the beautiful blue light, telling myself that I was not done yet—that I had many more fights left within me.
This time, I did not hold back and let the full force of my fury boil beneath the warrior. The ground trembled, burst forth and poured molten rock onto him. He screeched, slashing with his blade, but I refused to let him free and poured my frustration and rage onto him.
At that moment, the door behind us opened and I saw a glimpse of black fur as Garm, Eir’s wolf companion, burst out of the lodge, and behind him the tall, slender figure of the hunter, her bow already drawn. The released arrow shot forward, but Garm was faster, and he leapt from an amazing distance, lips drawn back in a snarl as he bared his teeth. He landed on the warrior and tore through his throat, and the ghost’s scream ended in a tragic gargle before he shimmered and disappeared, his glittering form becoming one with the snow that fell silently onto the flagstones.
Panting, I lowered my staff, letting the fire settle into a dull glow within me. Eir walked across to the place where the soldier had stood and studied the ground, her face impassive. Then, finally, she turned to me.
“Freya,” she said, her low, warm voice sending a frisson through me. “Perhaps you should come inside.”