I cannot sleep. Trying to convince myself this is because of recent events is not working and I cannot resist stealing a glance at my right hand from time to time as if it were separate to the rest of my body. Floorboards creak under my weight as I pace the lodge, my course always bringing me back to the dying fire at the centre. Staring at red embers serves as a mild distraction, but it is not enough; I prefer the creaking of wood to jar my head.
I do not like the idea of leaving Helena alone with our guests even if it is a foolish thought, but outside I am convinced that I will find the solace I require, the expanse to turn my thoughts free from the confines of the lodge. As I swing a great coat about my shoulders, a heavy lump knocks against my thigh – the device. Removing the lump I return to the dying fire, absently placing wood onto the embers and stoking them with a poker, all the while staring at the thing as it is brought into relief by flames called once more into service on this long night.
Leaning the poker against the hearth, I angle the device as it rests flat upon the palm of my outstretched hand. It is heavy for something so small, cracks reveal filaments of copper poking through the surface and I can feel a faint memory stirring as I note the depressions on its smooth but blackened surface. A single name pops into my head: Infallible Garrom. There is no doubt that I have seen its kind before, if not the same design – there is definitely a certain quality to the aesthetic nature. That troika with their fussing and fiddling; their ums and ahs; the banter of obsessed craftsmen as they measured and tweaked; and yet still I had hit the log on the wing, not Infallible. For all of their buttons, guile and brains… I had blown the spinning hunk of wood clear from the sky before it had even reached the zenith of its arc. Yet the story tells of how a norn bested an asura.
“What is that you have?”
I blink, bringing the now back into focus, a little surprised to find that my hand is gripping the device with some strength. Helena kneels on the floor at my side. She is dressed and I am just about to ask if she is having problems sleeping too, when I realise that grey light is filtering through the windows of the lodge.
“I do not know,” I reply. “It was lying in the snow when we found them.” I pause briefly and then add, “Last night.”
Helena pats my leg as she rises and stretches, then covers a yawn with the back of her hand. “Are you hungry?”
“I suppose so.”
She smiles. “Making plans?”
“Not yet, but there is something about this thing,” I turn it around with both hands. “It is clearly related to those two in some way.” I gesture at the bedroom.
“Like their clothes?” Helena responds.
“You do not know, old bear. Your assumption will leave you none the wiser.” It is odd that from any other mouth I would find that patronising, but she has such a way to say it right. “Food will help.”
I nod as she strides across the hall to open the main doors wide. Still early, the light is not yet so bright but it still causes me to squint. Helena hums and moves about, adjusting and setting things in place that have most likely not been moved but reflect the busyness of her mood this morning. I watch as she heads outside and I can hear her humming still while she fills a pail with water from barrels stored at the side of the lodge, then her bustle recedes before soon the noise of logs being split punctuates the morning stillness.
My attention is returned to the device, held casually now, and I draw a thumb across the black soot to see if it will come off. There is something here, a depression in the surface, similar to the switches on the opposite side and as I wipe free the blackened mess I note that it is loose. Perhaps if I could take it apart it will offer some clue as to who the maker might be. Easing a nail along the rim of the depression I feel it give slightly and there-
The squealing high-pitched noise hits me instantly, forcing my hands up to my ears for protection and the box tumbles to the floor. A flash of white stuns my eyesight and I am blinded as I try to scrabble backward, tipping off the seat to crash to the floor. Nausea clutches at my stomach and the sound of the box climbs higher in pitch, hurting my head – green blotches cloud my vision as yet still I seek to move, but I can feel myself becoming detached as my senses are overwhelmed and a crushing, rolling pain buffets my body in waves like an indecisive wind. Then there is a bang and the floorboards vibrate, a bang again, faster it repeats over and over, the floorboards juddering in unison – faster, faster, bang, bang… The noise has stopped, the pain has stopped and I flop onto my back, breathing hard, raising my head and blinking green spots.
A shape wobbles into view and something grabs my arm, hoisting me to my feet. Bear’s teeth – I stumble, groggy as the sick feeling forces me to double over. But that is enough to ease the sensation and I can feel my breath coming back, senses settling. I look up.
Helena stands before me, eyes afire with an angry grey, one hand gripping a hatchet, the other my arm. She is staring down at the floor as if waiting for something to happen.
For the second time in just over a day I can feel laughter rise up, it bursts free from my lips as a rasp no matter how much I try to suppress it. Her gaze switching to me, Helena tilts her head to one side, still holding the hatchet aloft and that look. Oh, she is beauty – and that is it, I am lost to mirth.
“What’s so damn funny?” Her pride on this rare occasion asserts itself and she lowers the axe as if acutely aware of how it makes her look.
I cannot – I try to say something, but the sight of the box all broken in pieces on the floor just brings tears to my eyes and another bellyful of laughter.
“Old bear!” She punches me on the arm.
“Hey,” I cry, although it did not hurt.
“What is so funny?” she asks again, folding her arms and twisting the haft of the axe in her hand as though reconsidering its use.
“The box.” I gesture and there it is all again, another round setting off and I have to put my hand to my mouth stifling further laughter.
Hands to knees, I bend a little as the feeling subsides. Fragments of metal, odd looking components and wire, now freed from the confines of the device, lie scattered across a hacked section of flooring.
A great sigh escapes and finally I feel like I can speak without childish giggles stuttering out. “I was trying to see if I could open it.”
Helena punches me on the arm, harder this time. “Fool of a bear.”
I cannot help chuckling again and stoop, gathering up what is left of the machine. It is warm to the touch and some parts of it have an oily residue which I smooth under my fingertips. Whatever it is, the quality is good and its scent is not too dissimilar from gun oil. The idea reaches my mind at about the same time Helena chooses to voice it.
“You have made up your mind?” she asks.
I have and I nod, even if she does not need the confirmation.
Helena steps to one side and rights the seat where I had been previously, before sitting herself down and placing the hatchet at her side. “I’ll say it anyway-”
“Don’t,” I shake my head.
“Asbjorn – you have nothing to prove…”
I let her talk. I hear her words; I do listen attentively as she speaks gently. Yet it is in my very fibre now, a tingle of anticipation as my thoughts race to sort what must be done – I am already planning. When I look up at her, she stops talking and just smiles. She knows the feeling all too well, and what is best, she is not sad. How can she counsel against that which runs through her own blood?
“Then what are you to do?” she eventually asks after we have shared a single long moment of silence together.
Eyeing the piece of the machine still clamped between my fingers I consider other possibilities briefly. There is a lot of knowledge in our world, and possibly someone out there who would fare better at this than I. Yet this would mean stepping aside to be a footnote of what I am certain now will be a grander tale in the making. Helena returns my knowing smile, a passing of what I feel crosses her features – a hunger for adventure even if she knows it is not hers to have.
“I am going to find Infallible Garrom,” I state. “I will go to Hoelbrak and work my way from there.”
She stands and the busyness returns. “I will take care of the other two until your return. Only the Spirits know why the girl has not stirred yet.” Turning from me, I sense her stiffen. Looking around I see the man standing at the curtained entrance that leads to the bedroom.
Slightly abashed, he wrings his hands. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Helena replies.
“Quite the habit of magically appearing you have there,” I laugh, conscious of how false it sounds. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thanks – did I hear you say that you already plan to leave for-”
“You are not well enough to travel,” Helena interrupts him.
“But so soon,” he blurts.
There is something here that even I pick up on; anxiety riddles his body language. A sense of something strikes me and I know that I am wrong to say it, but I have to or I will never know peace. “Do not worry. You can travel to Hoelbrak with me.”
“He can?” Helena’s surprise mirrors that of the man. “He is not well enough to travel such a distance.”
“I realise that.” I need an excuse. What do I say in the face of the obvious? It is likely that my journey will only begin once I reach our fabled city and who knows where it will take me beyond…
Helena opens her mouth to add weight to her protest but the thought is already on my lips. “I will need his help. I have never travelled beyond the gates before.” I hold up my hand as Helena opens her mouth again. “Also, it could do something for the man’s mind – perhaps familiar sights will help.”
The man steps forward to support my suggestion, mumbling something about the asura gates, but Helena waves him off and turns on me. She is going to say something, close to anger, but it must be the way that I also turn slightly as though squaring off against her and she stops. I can see her collapse, and it hurts, but I know that I must take him with me – I do not trust him.