Eir beckoned me into her cabin and shut the door behind me. I stood in the centre of the room, clutching my staff and pulling my cloak tight around my neck. In spite of the warmth from the fire, my teeth chattered. The wound in my arm had closed over, but the ghostly warrior’s blade had done more than physical damage.
Trying not to think how close I had come to death, I looked around the room as Eir moved about, straightening chairs and picking up empty cups and plates to take over to the place where she prepared her food. The cabin hadn’t changed much in the year I had been absent. The same rugs covered the wooden floor; the same paintings hung on the walls. The smell of warm bread from the rolls she’d just baked filled the air, and a pot of her famous vegetable stew sat bubbling over the fire—unusual for a race who prided themselves on the kills they made, she rarely ate meat. I used to tease her about it, saying she ate so many carrot tops it was no wonder she had red hair. It used to make me smile every time. Now, it just made me sad.
Eir hadn’t changed much either. She’d slipped off the leather coat she must have hastily tugged on to come outside, and wore a dark green hunter’s tunic that, in spite of its simple cut, bore beautiful light green embroidery around the neck and wrists. Leather breeches tucked into warm fur-lined boots completed her outfit. She’d lost weight, I thought.
I tore my eyes away from her tall, slim form and looked at the far corner. Fragments of stone littered the area where she did her sculpting the way they had always done, although the statue had changed. The last time I had been there, she had been working on a huge figurine of some ancient king she had admired. When we argued, I had accused her of spending too much time thinking of the past as if associating herself with these distant, heroic figures would cleanse her of the mistakes she’d made. Clearly she’d taken this to heart, as now the half-finished sculpture that stood there portrayed the sometimes fierce, sometimes puppy-like Garm, head raised in a proud pose that made me want to smile. I didn’t, though, too nervous, too wary to show humour.
The cabin tidied, Eir obviously decided she couldn’t put the moment off any longer and turned, appraising me calmly. “You can take off your cloak,” she said, somewhat wryly.
I shook my head. “Too cold.” I had to force out the words the way I used to watch Eir push carrots through a metal grater she’d invented.
A frown flickered on her brow and she threw a couple more logs on the fire, picked up a thick fur from her bed and came over to me. I leaned my staff against the wall, then shrugged off my backpack. Indicating for me to take off the cloak, she placed the fur around my shoulders, then dragged a chair close to the fire and pushed me into it.
Garm came and thrust his wet nose into my hands. I bit my lip, trying to stifle the sudden surge of emotion, and leaned forward and buried my face in his fur. “Thank you,” I whispered to him, knowing he had saved my life.
“He misses you too.” Eir pulled up a chair and sat opposite me, a few feet away, as if worried that if she sat too close, I might turn and flee like a deer in the forest.
I sat back up and huddled in the fur, studying her mutely as she dipped a ladle into the stew and poured a little into a wooden bowl. “Here.” She held it out to me. “It will help to warm you up.”
I accepted the bowl and a spoon, and began to sip the hot broth. It tasted strongly of rosemary and dill. The vegetables were crunchy without being hard. Before I realized it, I’d eaten the whole bowl.
“Better?” she said, amused, as I put down the empty dish.
“Thank you.” I felt suddenly tongue-tied. We had spent so much time together and knew each other so well. How could I not know what to say?
“How have you been?” she asked.
I looked down at my hands. “Fine.”
“Are you well?”
“How is Timberline Falls?”
I glanced up. I hadn’t told her where I was going, but she’d sent me the letter, and obviously she’d discovered where I’d gone. “Beautiful. Quiet. Peaceful.” Lonely. I didn’t say the last word.
Her lips curved. “Retirement suits you, then?”
I let out a long, slow sigh. She knew me well enough to know better than that. “I have missed the army,” I said softly. “Of course I have. But it has been good for me. I was like a well-loved bow that has been used every day for many years. It will always serve well, but there comes a time when it needs to be put aside for a newer model.”
Her smile faded and her eyes hardened. “That is seven kinds of Dolyak manure. You were hardly ready for pasture.”
“Maybe not physically.” I met her gaze and held it for a moment, seeing the familiar impatience and frustration in her eyes. I looked away. She would never understand how bad I had felt when Rudi died, and why I hadn’t been able to deal with his death. I’d hoped over the time we’d been apart that she might have come to understand, but clearly that wasn’t the case. Eir and I had been close, but a rift had opened between us, and I wasn’t sure it could ever be repaired.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to be there. I missed Chauncey and home. Eir’s spicy stew sat uneasily in my stomach, and I longed for my plain fare and simple, home-made ale. I stood and paced the floor. “Why did you send the letter?”
She raised her chin. “I need your help.”
“You have a whole army of soldiers to call on,” I snapped. “A thousand people at your beck and call. Why does it have to be me?”
“Because you are the only person I trust enough to give this task to.” She spoke calmly, meeting my glare with honest eyes.
Her comment threw water on the fire burning inside me. The sharp retort died on my lips, and instead I just sat back in my chair and said, “What do you need?”
She leaned forwards, fingers linked. “Something is stirring, Freya. There are reports coming in from all over the place—from Divinity’s Reach to Ebonhawke—of the murder of important people.”
“Was that the first time you had seen the ghosts yourself?” I nodded to the door. “Have they come for you before?”
Her gaze was steady. “I do not think that warrior came for me. I think he came for you.”
I blinked, realization sinking in like a stone thrown into a vat of honey. “Great Bear. Really? Why?”
“We do not know. At least—we cannot be sure. But I have a theory. A month ago, I had a letter from Logan.”
My eyebrows rose. “Goodness.”
“Yes,” she said wryly. “It has been a while.”
“What did he say?”
“He told me about the murders that have been committed in Queensdale and Kessex Hills. You know Logan—he has a finger in every pie, a spy in every town. But nobody could tell him how these occurred; nobody saw anything except the occasional glimmer of light. No one has ever survived one of these attacks to tell the tale—until tonight.”
I stared at her. Some of my shock and embarrassment at having nearly been killed faded at the thought that I was the only one to avoid death at the hands of the ghosts. “So who did he think was doing the killings?”
“He spoke of a visitor to Divinity’s Reach some moons before. It was a necromancer, called Malus.”
I shivered. Although I had known several necromancers in the army, I still didn’t like them. I disliked everything they stood for—the control of death and disease and the spirits of the otherworld. To tell the truth, they frightened me a little. As a soldier, I dealt with death every day, and had taken many lives. But the ability to control it? To alter it—to take someone away from the Great Spirit of Bear; to drag them back into the world without their permission, not knowing whether they returned whole or were tarnished by their descent into the darkness—how could that be a good thing?
“He came to request an audience with Queen Jennah,” Eir continued. “Logan was there when they met. Malus told Jennah he was an heir of King Doric, just like she is. He said he had come to ask for her help in rising up against the Charr to take back his rightful lands. He said he had found a way to channel the Foefire—to use it to control the ghosts of those who had once been his people, and to get them to follow him and do his bidding. He said he had a great army just waiting to join with hers to defeat the Charr.”
I stared at her. “He wanted to start a war?”
“And what did Jennah say?”
Eir’s lips twisted. “She did not believe him. She and Commander Samuelsson are the only known heirs, and she presumed he was lying. Logan said Malus was a pathetic creature, gaunt, dirty, with wild hair and unkempt clothes—he hardly looked like the heir to a throne. Jennah listened politely then, when she realised what he wanted, she tried to end the audience. Malus apparently started screaming that if she would not help him, she and all those who refused to help him would pay. Logan threw him out. Jennah refused to discuss it, saying she would not give the madman another thought, but when these strange murders started happening, it made Logan suspicious enough to send a warning to the old members of Destiny’s Edge, just in case…”
“And so you think it was Malus who raised that ghost outside?” I shivered.
“I was not sure before, but now I am.”
We studied the fire, lost in thought for a while. I clenched my fists, trying to suppress my anger. I wanted to curse the Queen of Kryta and her useless Captain of the Seraph for not realizing this Malus was more of a threat at the time. But Eir had a soft spot for Logan, and I knew any criticism of him would only anger her.
“So you think Malus tried to kill me?” I asked Eir eventually. “Why?”
Eir stroked Garm’s head where he’d rested it on her knee. “A week after Logan’s letter arrived, I met with Knut Whitebear. We were just talking over an ale—at that point I hadn’t given Logan’s letter much thought at all. But then Knut happened to mention he’d had a visit from a madman who tried to convince him to join him in starting a war against the Charr.”
I went cold inside. “Malus.”
She nodded. “Knut did the same as Logan—threw him out and thought no more of it. But when I told him what Logan’s letter had said, it became apparent to both of us that Malus was obviously trying to muster support across the lands. Unsuccessfully, so it seems. But then reports started coming in of these strange murders. Several of our commanders have been killed including Ottar, Finna and Hallveig.”
My heart pounded. Those names were well known to me—norn I had fought beside in battle. Warriors whose skill I respected. And they were dead?
“Knut called me back in,” Eir continued, “and we discussed the possibility that Malus was behind it. I recalled that Logan’s letter had said that Malus had threatened to take his revenge on any who refused to help him. And now, I am sure that is what is happening. He wants to weaken us. And then I think he will try to destroy us all.”
I laughed and gestured to the door. “But that was one ghost! Do you really think he poses such a threat?”
“That one ghost nearly killed you, Freya. Three of our seasoned commanders are already dead. Do you really doubt Malus could cause terrible harm if he manages to raise a whole army? I think he may be trying to gain one of the ancient Orrian swords—either Magdaer or Sohothin—to return it to the Foefire’s Heart. Legend says that if an heir of King Doric does so, it will put the ghosts of Ascalon to rest. But it does not explain what will happen if a necromancer does so, one who is intent on destroying the world. I think it will do great harm, maybe calling into being all those who dwell in the netherworld.”
I suddenly felt very small and insignificant, knowing little about legend and the matters of history. I was a soldier, not a theologian. I had no interest in debating the matters of kings. “So what can I do about it?”
Eir stroked Garm’s ear. “The sword called Magdaer that belonged to King Adelbern resides in the Ascalonian Catacombs, guarded by the ghost of the king himself. Malus will find it difficult to retrieve it. However, its sister, Sohothin, is in the hands of a very good friend of mine.”
“Rytlock,” I said flatly. I did not hold the same fondness for the mangy cat that Eir did.
She grinned. “Yes. I need you to go to Rytlock and tell him what has happened. Explain to him that it is essential that Sohothin be protected and placed somewhere that Malus could never find it. I dare not send a normal messenger—I am afraid that Malus will intercept them.” She leaned forward and held my hand. “The whole world could depend on you, Freya. Will you undertake this task?”