It’s difficult to articulate just how relieved I was to see Erin again. I didn’t weep, or embrace her, or collapse in a heap on the floor – asura aren’t given to such displays, after all – but when the norn built a small fire on the cave floor and we both sat beside it, I felt more content than I had done in weeks.
And it was weeks since I’d last seen Erin. Then, we’d been in Ascalon, and she’d decided to leave our little party to spend time training Priory soldiers in Blazeridge Steppes. She’d been a member of the Priory long before we met, I knew, but it hadn’t been until that day when I really understood how seriously she took her responsibilities – or how much her travels in Maguuma had made her miss home.
Well, I could understand why she might have come back to the Shiverpeaks, but what was she doing out here?
“Drink this.” Erin had already draped a fur – which was probably heavier than I was – around my shoulders, but now she handed me a steaming cup. I pressed it to my lips, enjoying the heat as much as anything. Its smell was of something strongly spiced and alcoholic; I sipped, but carefully.
“You have my thanks, Erin,” I said finally, as feeling began to return to my hands. “Without you, I might have…” Somehow, I couldn’t finish that sentence. It’s unlikely I would have died, but I would have been forced to make my way back to Lion’s Arch – straight into Spark’s clutches, no doubt.
Erin laughed, stretching out her legs beside the fire with a creaking of leather and armour. “It’s not like you to be so formal. You got lucky, though. I was just out here tracking an arctodus that’s been causing trouble around Mennerheim.”
“Mennerheim?” I echoed. I really had no idea where I was.
Erin peered at me more closely. “Just how lost were you?”
I shrugged in reply.
“Well.” Erin reached for her own drink, warming beside the flames. “Do you want to hear what I’ve been doing?”
I did, more than anything, just for the sheer normality and companionship of it. I nodded.
“I spent nearly a month with the Priory in Blazeridge Steppes,” she said. “I trained them and I fought beside them. I liked the work and I liked Ascalon, but after a while I got itchy feet. I missed home: it was as simple as that.”
“So you came back to the Shiverpeaks?”
“To Hoelbrak, first, but I’ve spent the last two weeks travelling, helping the homesteads out here, tracking and hunting. I was actually thinking of going south again, to Durmand Priory – Mennerheim just happened to be on my way.”
I nodded, although my geography was hazy, at best. I had only the faintest idea where any of those places, save Hoelbrak, was.
“And then I ran into you.” Erin laughed again, softly, as though amazed; well, I was fairly amazed, too. “When I set out from the camp this morning, I had a feeling today was going to be important. I lost the trail of the arctodus hours ago, but something kept leading me onwards. Sometimes I thought I saw bear prints in the snow, and sometimes I could hear voices on the wind.” She shook her head. “The Spirit of Bear was leading me here, I think. She wanted us to meet again.”
I wasn’t sure bears had anything to do with it, but I thanked the Eternal Alchemy all the same.
Erin shifted her weight and refilled her cup, before saying, “What about you, Amber? What are you doing here?” The questions were casual, but Erin must have known something had gone wrong for me to have ended up out here, alone. Were I sitting beside anyone else, I would have kept quiet, but I’d never had any reason to keep secrets from Erin.
Still, it was difficult to know where to begin. Erin’s time away sounded so very ordinary, whereas the longer I’d spent with the rest of our companions, the stranger my life had become.
I took a deep breath. “Spark’s building a weapon that eats souls and she took energy from a Searing crystal and she worked out what to do with it by watching Zurra-” Another breath. “-but she can’t complete Souleater without my help.”
Erin’s forehead wrinkled in concentration. I would have made a joke about the intellectual failings of norn, but that wasn’t really fair, as I wasn’t making a lot of sense.
“Spark,” Erin said slowly, “is building a weapon… and she wants your help?”
“That’s about the gist of it.”
“I’ll assume you were less than willing.”
I hunched up, pulling my knees to my chest and almost burying my face in them. “Souleater, Spark’s weapon… It’s monstrous. I can’t be a part of what she wants me to do.”
As ever, Erin seemed to know exactly what I was thinking. “But Spark wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. So you fled.”
I nodded miserably. “She’ll find a way anyway, I’m sure, but it least it won’t be using me.”
Erin’s breath was a plume of white in the cold, still air. For several moments, all I could hear was the sound of her breathing. “Well,” she said finally, “it sounds like you can’t go back to Spark, and you can’t stay here. Will you come south with me, to Hoelbrak?”
“Hoelbrak?” I repeated faintly, remembering the last time I’d been in that particular city. “I thought you were going to Durmand Priory.”
Erin shrugged. “A passing whim, and nothing more. You look like you could use some rest and recuperation, and the road to the Priory isn’t exactly suited to that. Being out of the wilds might do you some good.”
Ordinarily, Hoelbrak was the last place I’d have wanted to run to – but this was no ordinary day, and I was certain it was the last place Spark would look. “All right. I’ll come with you.”
“Good.” Erin rubbed her hands together briskly, and I could see she was more pleased than she let on. “Let’s go now, before night falls.”
I couldn’t honestly have said whether it was night or day at that very moment, with the snow gusting across the hillside, but Erin assured me it was a couple of hours before dusk and so we set out. Indeed, as we left the cave, the snow seemed to falter and soon it stopped entirely, revealing an undulating landscape of white slopes and black outcrops, punctuated here and there by smooth depressions that Erin told me were icy lakes.
We headed east, the setting sun at our backs, and when night finally fell, found ourselves outside a tiny stone fort, glowing with torchlight inside and out.
“Highpass Haven,” Erin announced, with a wave of her hand. “We can spend the night here.”
I was nervous about being amongst a crowd of people again, but my worries were unfounded: the haven was quiet, populated by a small number of Lionguard and traders, who paid little attention to two new arrivals. Erin greeted one or two of them, bought a fresh loaf of bread, and found us a quiet corner in which to sleep. I lay listening to the quiet murmur of voices, pleased to be warm again for the first time in days, and finally fell asleep.
Erin shook me awake not long after dawn. The haven was even quieter than before, suffused by a wan grey light now that the torches were extinguished and most of the Lionguard out on patrol.
“We can make it to Hoelbrak by day’s end,” Erin said, bundling up first her bedroll, then mine. The fact that she’d been carrying two made me wonder just how strong her intuition of an ‘important day’ had been. It was impossible for her to have known we’d meet again… wasn’t it?
We set out once again, taking a narrow pass through the hills that opened out onto a wide, snowy plain to the east. The road, as we progressed south, was studded with further havens, bustling with Lionguard and adventurers alike.
“The Sons of Svanir are busy out here,” Erin said as we walked, “but travellers usually drive them away from the roads.”
I shuddered at mention of the Sons, recalling Mikk’s grisly death. Now, only half a day from Hoelbrak, returning there was starting to seem like a bad idea.
Still, travelling with Erin once again was a genuine pleasure. She knew these lands well and pointed out landmarks, regaling me with tales of her youthful exploits amongst them. At least half of her stories were made-up and the other half wildly exaggerated, I was certain, but I laughed at them anyway. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be so at ease in someone else’s company, without fear of their plans or schemes or motives. Erin might have tragedy in her past, but she was every bit as straight-forward and honest as she appeared, and she treated me as though we’d never been apart.
The day wore on as we wended our way ever further south, finally passing into a grove of birch trees with dark cliffs brooding at their backs. Overhead, colossal stone animals peered down at me, and whilst Erin seemed to relax in their presence, their blank eyes and stern faces made me edgy.
“Nearly home,” Erin rumbled, as the shadow of the hills fell over us.
I jumped at her words, fresh tension thrumming through my limbs. ‘Home’ for Erin meant something very different for me, and whilst there was a certain safety to be found in Hoelbrak, I also knew there would be memories that I’d done my utmost to forget.