I sat at a table in the Crow’s Nest Tavern, nursing a tankard of Friesson’s Ale. The room was growing a bit hazy, and my movements were becoming slow and careful. Perhaps I should make this my last, I thought, taking a mouthful of the bitter liquid.
The haunting memory of the journey through the asura gate, the arcane magic sliding over me like a slimy snake, was beginning to fade, but anger continued to burn in my stomach like acid. I’d avoided Malus’s insidious touch, only for Sohothin—Rytlock’s precious sword—to be snatched away by children and taken to a group of bandits. It might already be melted down, the precious stone prized out of the hilt and sold, or else spirited far away to be sold in some far-off part of Tyria. What would Rytlock say when he found out what had happened?
I slumped down further in my seat and ordered another ale.Outside, the sun slipped further into the sea and the world grew dark. Inside, the barkeeper lit the lanterns and the room filled with the smell of food—roast lamb cooked in red wine with shallots and carrots, according to the menu. I ordered a dish, knowing I wouldn’t be leaving any time soon. Ellen Kiel had told me it would probably take a few days to trace those who had stolen Sohothin, and until then, she’d suggested, why didn’t I enjoy the delights Lion’s Arch had to offer?
I’d moped around the traders for a while, but had no desire for the exotic goods they offered nor the money to spend on them, and no wish to go with the others down to the beach at Sanctum Harbor. I hated swimming, disliked the hot sun, detested holidaymakers and didn’t want to go sightseeing. Christof had lost his temper with me and yelled that if I was so miserable, perhaps I’d be better off with my own company, and so I’d marched off and ended up in the Crow’s Nest.
Now, part of me wished I’d stayed with them. Although I’d never been sociable, and I didn’t detest my own company, when I was in this sort of mood I irritated myself, and at least if I’d been with the others the jokes and stories would have made me forget my troubles for a while.
A sharp pang of homesickness hit me, and I caught my breath as tears stung my eyes. I wasn’t going to cry sitting here, surrounded by strangers. It’s the ale, I told myself. True, I did used to get bored sometimes in Timberline, with only fish and bears to keep me company. Still, at that moment I longed for the crisp coolness of the mountain, the icy streams, and the pink flowers that would be sprouting on the green slopes as the snow retreated.
“Still feeling sorry for yourself?”
I looked up to see Christof standing before me, two tankards of ale in his hands. He placed one on the table and took the seat opposite me, looking at me with no trace of his previous exasperation. Instead, his eyes held fondness, and a hint of pity.
“Yes,” I said, and finished off the tankard I was holding before taking a swig of the new one.
He took a mouthful of the ale that probably half-emptied the tankard in one go, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled. “Don’t worry. Ellen will find the culprits. She’s got plenty of informants and people on the inside. She overlooks much of what they get up to so that when it matters, she can call in favours. It will only take a day or two.”
“I hate waiting,” I grumbled.
“I know. But you’re going to have to be patient.”
“I hate being patient.”
“Is there anything you don’t hate?”
I looked into my tankard. “At the moment, ale and the lamb stew that’s about to appear in front of me. And that’s about it.”
He chuckled and leaned back as the waitress brought over two dishes. I frowned as he started to ladle the stew into his mouth. He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t mind if I join you?”
“Do I have a choice?” In spite of my words, I was glad of his company and soaked a large chunk of bread in the stew before eating it. After swallowing, I gave a large sigh. “Great Spirit of Bear, that tastes good.”
“Perhaps it will soak up some of the alcohol,” he said wryly.
I ignored him. There was no point in adding that I intended to drink a lot more before the night was out.
The next morning, a massive weaponsmith’s hammer smashed repeatedly on an anvil inside my head.
“Serves you right,” Christof said, bullying me to get up. “You drank the inn almost dry.”
“I don’t remember,” I lied. In spite of all the ale, I could remember perfectly well what had happened. The drink had loosened my tongue and I’d started talking, and Christof—bless him—had leaned back in his chair, put his boots on the table and just let me ramble on, ordering another ale every time my tankard grew empty. I’d talked about growing up in Wayfarer Foothills, about learning to be an elementalist, about the moment I’d fought the giant wurm Issormir and come to Eir’s attention, about joining the army and meeting Rudi, about all the years we’d spent fighting together, and about that terrible day in Orr, when Rudi had died for me and my world had shuddered to a stop.
Then I’d cried, and Christof had handed me his handkerchief, paid the barkeeper, and helped me to one of the bedrooms. He’d put me to bed, pulled off my boots and covered me with a blanket, then kipped down on the pallet at the end of the bed. No doubt that had been hugely uncomfortable for his huge frame, but it had meant he was there in the night when I’d thrown up, and he’d looked after me like he was my father, even though I was pretty sure I was older than him, wiping my face with a cool cloth and holding back my hair as I brought up the lovely lamb stew with a groan.
“How do I look?” I asked him now, staggering to my feet and peeling my eyelids open.
“As beautiful as a spring morning.”
I met his gaze, and we both started laughing. “Get out,” I said. “I’ll meet you downstairs when I’ve had a wash.” He grinned and made his way to the door, at which point I called softly, “Christof?” He turned, and I said, “Thanks.”
He nodded, and then he disappeared through the door.
Sighing, I washed my face and freshened up, changed into the spare set of clothes I had in the bag he’d thoughtfully brought up for me, unbraided my hair, brushed it and rebraided it, and then made my way downstairs.
“Better?” I said sarcastically, a little embarrassed at what a sight I must have looked and the way I’d acted. Great Spirit, I’d practically told him my whole life story.
“Better,” he said.
I hesitated. “About last night…”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said smoothly. “I drank so much I can’t remember a single thing you said.”
I gave a wry laugh. No doubt he was lying—I sensed the norn could hold his drink—but that he was happy to keep my little revelations to himself. “Fair enough.” I accepted the mug of water he offered me and drank it in one go. “Okay, so what are we doing today?”
He put his hands on his hips. “Well, I have a very strong suspicion that you’ve never fought with anything except a staff.”
My eyes widened. “That’s an insulting accusation!”
“I’m correct though?”
“Well, yes, but—”
He held up a hand. “The Lionguard have a variety of spare weapons they can lend you until you get your staff back. So I thought this would be a good opportunity for you to practice with something else.”
I gave him a pained look. “I have a terrible headache.”
“I really don’t care. Come on. We have work to do.”
I hefted my bag on my back and grumbled as he led the way downstairs and started walking along Lion’s Court towards the bridge over to Fort Marriner. But in spite of my complaints, deep down I appreciated the way he was looking after me. As we walked, I wondered why he was doing so. Had Eir instructed him to ensure I didn’t get into trouble? Or was it Ellen who’d made him? I couldn’t imagine the norn doing anything he didn’t want to, and yet he was a Lionguard—part of the incredibly well-trained, trusted and respected group of warriors, and I suspected he had often followed orders he didn’t particularly agree with or enjoy.
I wondered whether to ask him, but something about him the usually conversational norn that morning made me hold back the question. He walked swiftly, fast enough so that I had to run to keep up with him, even with my long legs, and his companionable and tender manner had vanished, to be replaced with a soldier’s brisk and authoritative tone. Perhaps I’d embarrassed him, I thought as our boots echoed on the bridge. I couldn’t imagine the Lionguard behaving as I’d done the night before. No doubt he wondered how I’d become one of Eir’s trusted confidant if I always got drunk when things got tough.
The large double gates of the Fort stood open, and after a brief nod from the guard on duty we walked through into the Fort proper. It was busy, bustling with traders selling exotic weaponry and armour, as well as a vast number of people of all races heading for the asura gates to the battlegrounds. I’d been to Lion’s Arch several times but had never come this far south, and while Christof left me for a moment to visit the weaponry, I stood watching the scene around me, admiring the various types of armour and the unusual rangers’ pets.
Christof came back and beckoned for me to follow him over to the training area. When we got there, he placed a sceptre and a dagger on the nearby wall and gestured for me to pick them up.
Knowing it was useless to argue with him, I did so. I’d never fought with anything other than a staff because, even at a young age, I’d like the weight of it in my hands, and my magic had seemed to flow naturally through the wood, so much so that I’d never bothered with trying anything else. The sceptre felt short and awkward in my right hand, the dagger even more so in my left, and I felt oddly unbalanced.
I walked away from Christof, a little embarrassed at looking so green, and stopped about twenty yards away. I put the dagger on the floor and let the sceptre swing from my hand for a moment, testing its weight. Then I spun it around my body. It felt light and was oddly weighted—with a staff, the gem set at the top is balanced by holding the shaft about a third of the way down, but with the sceptre the top was much heavier than the rest of the shaft. As I spun it, it knocked against my leg, and I stopped, mortified.
Christof walked up. But he didn’t laugh or scold me. He lifted my hand up with the sceptre and moved it slowly around. “You can’t counterweight it—you have to let the weight of the head guide the movement.”
He let it go, and I spun it again, the way he’d shown me. This time it swung smoothly around my body in a figure of eight, and I caught it neatly at the top of its upswing.
“Good,” he said with a nod.
I bit my tongue and refrained from telling him to stop being so patronising. He obviously knew his stuff.
“Now the dagger,” he said.
I did the same with the dagger, and he showed me how to wield the blade; how to hold my weight behind it when I thrust forwards, how to bring it across my body with a slice as I swung the sceptre, and how to use both weapons together when I channelled the magic.
“They have to become one,” he explained. “You have to forget you’re holding two separate weapons. Push the magic from one to the other—it has to be a circle, running through you, and from the tip of one to the tip of the other.”
“How come you know so much about magic?” I walked a little away from him and held up the weapons.
“I’m head of the Lionguard’s training centre,” he said. “Did I not tell you?”
I stared at him. “No. You did not tell me that.”
He grinned. “You get to know the knack of most weapons, and although I do not use magic myself, I’ve trained enough of those who do to understand how it works.” He nodded at the sceptre. “Go on then.”
I swung the sceptre slowly around me, letting the weight direct its motion, letting the pattern become part of my own movement, building momentum, building the magic inside my energy field. I’d thought the weapons basic and plain, but as soon as I opened my inner portal to access the elemental power, I realised I’d been mistaken. The sceptre sang in my hand as the fire scorched down it, and the moment I directed it from the head to the blade of the dagger I realised what Christof had meant about it all being a circle.
The fire blazed through me, around me, in a wall that roared and crackled as the flames rose. I closed my eyes, seeing orange and red dancing through my eyelids, and let the fire burn. Every time I did this, I remembered how wonderful it was and wondered why I didn’t do it more often. The fire coursed through my veins, built in my hands and poured out of me. It was glorious, hot as a volcano, bright as a star, and for the first time since I’d arrived at Lion’s Arch, I felt happy.
That all ended when someone threw a bucket of water over me.
I gasped, shocked to the core, and the fire died immediately as I dropped the weapons and stood there, dripping. “What in the name of Great Spirit…”
I looked around, furious, but the words of accusation died on my lips as I saw beyond Christof—who held the bucket—a huge crowd of spectators, most of whom looked as if they’d seen a dragon.
I blinked and looked at Christof. “Did I pass the test?”
He put down the bucket. Only then did I see his eyebrows were singed and his clothes were all charred. “For the love of Bear,” he said, exasperated. “I think I need another drink.”
I started to laugh, and he put his hands on his hips and glared. “Freya…”
Luckily, I was saved by Ellen Kiel, who pushed through the crowd towards us, looking highly amused at his scorched tunic. “Having fun, Christof?”
He mumbled something rude and brushed at the singed clothing, but she just grinned. Then she turned to me.
“News?” I asked, wiping my face free from the drips that ran down it. My heart rate increased as her eyes lit with excitement.
“Yes. We’ve found it,” she said.
Edited by Jalinar