Night fell, and outside Charrgate Haven, the dry and dusty air of Diessa Plateau became cold and crisp. Inside, however, lit by the roaring fire, the room glowed with warmth as the wine flowed along with stories of days gone by adorned with lashings of good humour.
I sat to one side, my back against the wall, watching my companions talking to the charr and norn who lived in the area, who were obviously relieved to have travellers arrive to entertain them. I had to force myself not to yell out to them to stop talking nonsense so I could get on and discuss what really mattered. I hated small talk, and the conversation I needed to have with Rytlock loomed in my mind like a thundercloud. As usual, the sword Sohothin hung at his side, the pommel glistening in the firelight. I knew it would be a battle to get him to give it up.
But I’d traveled enough to know that first we had to eat, then we had to talk, and only when all the tales were told and enough ale was drunk would be able to move to the more important issues.
Christof stood to pour himself another cup of ale but, instead of sitting back with Rytlock, he made his way across to me and plonked himself down.
I eyed him suspiciously. “How much have you had to drink?”
He sipped from his cup, his eyes twinkling. “This is only my second, actually. I note that you are not partaking?” I had only poured from the jug of water all evening.
I glanced at the half-open door to the darkness outside. “My stomach is uneasy. I do not want to eat and drink tonight.”
He followed my gaze, and we watched the snow swirling in eddies lit by the lamps outside, stray flakes sneaking through the crack in the door to scatter across the rushes on the floor where they then melted. It made me think of the way the ghosts materialised out of the glittering dust, and I shivered as apprehension slipped down my spine like an ice cube.
“You fear an attack?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Maybe.” I could not explain how apprehensive I felt. I was so tense that my fingers had clenched into fists and my teeth ached from the knots in my jaw. I took a deep breath and forced myself to breathe out slowly. “It is just a fear of the unknown, I suppose,” I confided, unusually for me. “When we were in Orr, we knew what we would be facing, horrific as it was. But here… I feel that any moment something might happen, and yet I do not know what it might be…”
It made no sense and I stopped talking, embarrassed, but Christof just nodded. “I know what you mean. When Eir first told me about this Malus, a knot grew in my stomach that has not unfurled since.”
I met his gaze, relieved he understood and had not made fun of me. “He is trouble,” I whispered. “Of the kind we have never seen before.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Rytlock’s mighty shadow passed across him as the enormous charr rose and turned to pull a chair around to face us. He sat heavily in it, then leaned forward, elbows on knees.
“So tell me,” he said with his characteristic bluntness. “What brings you all the way from Timberline to visit me in the snow?”
So I told him about the grisly murders and the ghostly sightings, and what we knew of the mysterious Malus.
“King Doric’s heir?” Rytlock asked at last. “And Jennah believed him?”
“Not at first—she had Logan throw him out,” I replied. “But Logan was wise enough to send a message to Eir to warn her. He apparently sent one to all the old members of Destiny’s Edge.”
Rytlock stroked his beard, his pink tongue flicking out to test the points of his teeth as he stared off into the distance. “I received no message…”
“It does not surprise me,” I said. “The ghosts are rising all over Tyria. The messenger was probably intercepted.”
Rytlock’s eyes came back to Christof’s and they exchanged a glance. “You have seen these ghosts with your own eyes?” Rytlock asked the norn.
Christof nodded. “I have only ever seen them in Ascalon before. But over the past few weeks, we have encountered them in the Bloodtide Coast as well as through every land we passed to get here. We even ran into a party of them in the pass.”
Rytlock lifted his cup, knocked back the remnants of the ale in the bottom and tossed the cup behind him into the rushes. “So why are you here? What do you want me to do?”
This was the hard part. I turned my cup in my hands nervously. “We believe Malus is after either one or both of the two ancient Orrian swords with the intention of returning it to the Foefire’s Heart. Eir believes the necromancer will be able to call all the ghosts of Ascalon to rise, creating a great army.”
“Flame and fire,” Rytlock swore.
I rushed on. “Magdaer of course lies deep in the Ascalonian Catacombs. But Sohothin…” I let my gaze drift down to the sword at his side.
Rytlock looked at it as if seeing it for the first time. “You think he will come for my blade?”
He laughed at that, a deep belly laugh that rumbled from him like thunder. “I would like to see him try.”
I took a deep breath. “Eir thinks that when they come, they will come in force to take it. She thinks it would be better if the sword were to be taken to Lion’s Arch. At Fort Marriner, the Vigil Centerhouse holds a secret chamber protected by magic. There are many ancient treasures hidden there, and Sohothin would be safe.”
“No,” said Rytlock.
My lips curved. “At least hear me out.”
“The sword does not leave my side,” the charr said flatly.
“Lion’s Arch is the only place the ghosts have not been sighted,” Christof pointed out.
“The sword does NOT leave my side,” Rytlock repeated with a growl.
I leaned forward, elbows on knees. “I think I should remind you that Sohothin was not yours to begin with.”
Christof shifted uncomfortably beside me, and Rytlock’s eyes narrowed, while the hair on his back stood up in bristles. “What are you implying?”
I snorted. “Do not act all indignant. Logan told me you stole it from humanity.”
Rytlock stood and towered over me and roared, “I have killed men for insinuating far less than that!”
I stood and looked up at him, hands on hips. “Then it is a good job I am not a man!”
He glared at me. “Do not push our friendship, Freya. I will not stand here and let you insult me.”
“We are not friends, Rytlock,” I snapped. “Friends buy each other Wintersday gifts and braid each other’s hair. We are comrades. We have fought together, shoulder to shoulder, on many occasions. I would trust you with my life. I am not here blithely; I have not been sent to sweet talk you.”
“Really,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “And there was me thinking you were about to propose.”
My lips twitched, and the anger died from his eyes.
“You speak the truth,” he said, his tone a little milder. “I, too, would trust you with my life. But I cannot—I will not—give up my sword to you.”
“Not even for the safety of Tyria?” I asked softly.
He shook his head. “We cannot be certain Sohothin is what Malus wants, or that if it is taken from my side he will not continue to come for it. Surely it is better that I am able to protect it?”
I had guessed it would be an impossible task to separate the charr from his sword and had told Eir so, but at least I had tried. “Think on it,” I said. “We will be staying for a few days. Maybe you will change your mind.”
His look said I never change my mind, but to be fair to him, he just nodded, and then he sat back down and started telling a tale of the old days, when we had all fought side by side for the final thrust into Orr.
I let him ramble, interjecting every now and again to tease him when he started to get carried away with his courageous achievements, but as the night drew on, I fell quiet and left the talking to the others.
I moved to the doorway and slipped outside, standing in the shadows beneath the parapets where only a few flakes of snow whirled to land on my face and arms. I wrapped my fur cloak close around me and looked down the lane to where darkness shadowed the land. Somewhere out there, the Foefire burned, and Malus was planning to raise an army of the dead. Was Eir right—would he come for Sohothin? And if he did, would Rytlock be able to hold them off? The charr was a mighty warrior, but he was not immortal. He would not be able to hold off an army of ghosts.
Inside the Haven, laughter echoed, but out in the darkness, the flakes whirled quietly, silent as the grave. Moonlight slanted across the road further down the hill, highlighting the flurries with silver. I watched, tired and sleepy, entranced by the way the snowflakes glittered. Glimmering, shining in the light.
Only then did I become aware of the bitter taste in my mouth and the hairs rising on the back of my neck.
I backed up to the doorway as the snowflakes thickened, whirled, gathered into hundreds of forms. “Attack!” I yelled, throwing open the doors and startling the warriors half asleep around the fire. “We are under attack!”