In all our lives, there are times for silence, and there are times to speak and be heard. Quite what made me open up to Darr, that chill evening at the end of summer, surrounded by the hills and glades of Harathi Hinterlands, I couldn’t say. Perhaps I’d simply been dwelling on my past too long, bottling it up until the pressure became to great; or perhaps, in some small part of me, I wanted Darr to… understand.
“Mikk,” I repeated, breaking the stillness that had fallen between us. “I fell in with him out of desperation, more than anything. He’d been out of the crèche a year longer than me, and he’d learnt to be self-reliant. No college wanted him, and he couldn’t find a place in even the most basic of krewes. They all said he was shiftless, lazy, self-absorbed. Untrustworthy.”
Darr, still crouching before me, rocked back on his heels. “And was he?”
I laughed. “Absolutely. At first, I wouldn’t have trusted Mikk to peel an apple, let alone join a work krewe. He’d have caused damage for the fun of it, and stolen tools just because he could.”
Darr didn’t look impressed, but how could I explain it to him? That Mikk might have been the lowest of the low in Rata Sum, but from the day we met, he never once judged me. He never once asked why I hadn’t joined a college, why I was wasting my life on frivolities. He never asked why I wouldn’t make friends, and so rarely engaged with other asura. He was simply there for me, unconditionally and without question, a comforting and stalwart presence. A friend.
“He was a thief?”
I shrugged. “Mikk would never have classed himself as such. He wasn’t interested in thievery as an art, not like I was – he stole because he was bored, or because someone had annoyed him, or to prove a point. He didn’t even care if he got caught.”
We sat in silence again, Darr not pressing me though he was no doubt eager to hear my tale. For several minutes I simply sat and remembered: Mikk, pale-skinned and ever-dishevelled, with watery blue eyes and ears that seemed too big for his head. A norn we’d encountered in Rata Sum once referred to him as an over-sized, albino rat, for which Mikk followed him round the city for two weeks, repeatedly tampering with his food. By the end of it, the norn was too nervous to eat and fled the city with Mikk laughing after him all the way to the gate. He could be cruel, I recalled, but there’d been a bright, irrepressible spark of life in him that had drawn me in all the same.
“We kept getting in trouble,” I went on, “or at least Mikk did. No-one ever caught me stealing, but Mikk was a known troublemaker and I was guilty by association. The last time he got out of the Peacemaker cells, he told me he’d had enough of Rata Sum and his talents were wasted there.”
I smiled at the memory, and those that followed. We’d left Rata Sum the next morning without a scrap of regret, and what followed was a whirlwind tour of every major city in Tyria. We caused gleeful havoc in every one, getting in trouble with every peacekeeping force on the continent, and even I spent more than one night in a cell. Those were the happiest days of my life.
“We ended up in Hoelbrak,” I said. “It was like nothing we’d ever seen.”
Hoelbrak was a marvel, and even as we shivered in the relentless cold, we found ourselves settling into life there. Mikk might have had a bit of a grudge against norn, but in general they were harsh but fair. The norn judge all individuals on their merits – not just on intelligence and their latest research efforts, but strength, and cunning, and wisdom. I might have blended into the background, but Mikk – with his gift for storytelling and trickery – fit right in.
“We were happy there. Two friends, getting into mischief but no serious trouble. We had the norn who knew us wrapped around our fingers, and they didn’t seem to care. Mikk even persuaded some of them to go on a hunting expedition in the Foothills.” Mikk might have been a trickster, but he was a terrible hunter, and we hadn’t caught a single thing. The norn had grumbled and returned to Hoelbrak drunker than they’d set out; Mikk thought their grousing was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.
Darr shifted again, as to remind me he was still there. “So what happened? Why aren’t you still in Hoelbrak?”
My smile faded. “Mikk was… restless. He was the same everywhere we went. Before long, playing a few tricks on the norn wasn’t enough for him, and he started talking about going back to Rata Sum.”
That had been the last thing I wanted: better to be an outsider in Hoelbrak than one amongst our own people. “The only way I could persuade Mikk to stay was to suggest an even bigger scheme. We were going to steal something… from the Sons of Svanir.”
Even now, I could picture Mikk’s face, utterly jubilant as I explained the plan to him. This was exactly what he wanted: a heist to make his reputation in Hoelbrak. We never considered the repercussions that might follow, or how precarious the balance between the Sons and the rest of the city might be. It was all just a game.
“I know a little of the Sons of Svanir,” Darr said, sounding uneasy, “but I’ve never ventured into one of their lairs.”
“And you wouldn’t want to.” I shivered, remembering. We’d spent a week studying the Sons, and nothing we’d discovered had been heartening. Their corrupted steadings were cold enough that even norn could barely survive in them, everything blue-gleaming ice and grey stone.
“What were you going to steal?” Darr asked.
I shrugged. “We didn’t really know. Our only aim was to find something recognisably belonging to the Sons, but we couldn’t get close enough to pick something.” The few times we’d tried to stroll casually through the tunnels belonging to the Sons in Hoelbrak, we’d been unceremoniously evicted. The disciples of Svanir might have to play nicely with other norn if they weren’t to get kicked out of the city, but they had no such compunctions about us.
Darr gave a sigh and I realised I’d drifted off into reverie. He shook his head. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”
I winced. No, I didn’t particularly like it either. “The lair of the Sons in Hoelbrak, they call it the Veins of the Dragon,” I said, voice dropping almost to a whisper. “When we finally went in, one night, it really was like being inside a gigantic frozen beast. We could hear the ice cracking and shifting around us, and all the snores of the norn as though they were the grumblings of its innards.
“The Sons have only a single lodge, which they call Dragon Hallow. We didn’t know what lay inside, but it was guarded day and night so there had to be something worth stealing.” That had been Mikk’s logic, anyway; by this point in our endeavour, I was starting to wish I’d let him lead the way back to Rata Sum.
Darr raised an eyebrow. “And what did you find inside?”
I shook my head, weariness and regret gripping me. “Nothing. We never made it in.”
Suddenly, I felt as numb as though I was back there in those frozen halls, stiff with fear and cold, only able to keep moving because Mikk wouldn’t wait. We’d crept past the watching Wolfborn outside, then the sleeping bodies of the norn, picking our way around them as though they were boulders. A pair of torches burned outside the Dragon Hallow, and two Sons stood there, awake and all too vigilant. We’d watched them for long minutes, before determining they weren’t in any hurry to leave their posts.
In whispers, I pleaded with Mikk to turn back, but he wouldn’t listen. Ever since I’d proposed this mad scheme, I realised, he hadn’t listened to another word I’d said. The idea was too fixed in his mind, the glory and the thrill of it. No matter the terrible danger we were in, I couldn’t make him leave.
So when Mikk started up that final slope, creeping towards the Dragon Hallow, I couldn’t turn away. He was counting on me to provide us both with invisibility, and I did, even though my legs were trembling and I could hardly hold my hands steady. We moved silently towards the lodge, and I realised just how huge the guarding norn were, like bears towering over us, coming closer and closer with every step. So close, in fact, that I could smell the musk of their furs, the staleness of old ale. So close, that when one of them coughed, I startled badly enough almost to fall over – and, in my fright, let my invisibility drop.
I couldn’t describe that horrible moment to Darr – I barely wanted to remember it myself. The jolt of recognition in the eyes of the norn as they reared back, the grate of their swords being drawn, Mikk taking two more eager steps before he realised he’d been seen. And then the pause, the silence, no-one quite knowing what move to take.
It was the Sons of Svanir who chose first. I felt sick just recalling it: the nearest norn drawing back his arm, his sword glittering with white light… And then plunging it through Mikk’s chest without so much as a word.
I can’t quite remember what happened next. I think I screamed. I think – instinct taking over – I flung down a handful of blinding powder and slipped back into invisibility. I must have fled, because I can still hear the roars of the Sons ringing in my ears, and the next I could truly recall, I was huddling in the shadow of a statue of some great norn matriarch, the sun gliding over the horizon behind me.
None of this I told to Darr. I couldn’t find the words. Instead, only: “We were seen. One of the Sons stabbed Mikk, and I knew as soon as I saw the blood that he was dead. And so I ran, and I ran, and I didn’t stop until I was back in Rata Sum.”
Even though he hadn’t heard the worst of it, I could see Darr’s horror. I had persuaded my one and only friend to commit a daring and dangerous act. I had watched him die for my stupidity – and then I had fled, like the coward I was. I didn’t even know what had become of his body.
And here I was, telling all my sordid secrets to an asura I barely knew. Peacemaker or not, it was quite clear that Darr had never once done something so heinous and deplorable himself, nor had he believed me capable of such weakness. For the first time, as tears streaked my face, I wondered why I’d told him such things at all.
I was still wondering as Darr nodded once, then silently got to his feet. He walked away, leaving me to my misery – and wondering, too, if I had just given Darr something he would one day use against me, held over my head like a Son of Svanir’s sword.