It’s not in my nature, as an asura or as a thief, to be particularly forthcoming about myself. Asura like only to boast, after all, and thieves live their lives shrouded in secrecy, locked behind wall after wall of hidden agendas. At least, that’s how a thief is supposed to operate. In the months since I’d left Rata Sum, I’d exposed nearly all my secrets to those who cared to listen: to Darr, and to Erin. Out of the two, I knew whose confidence I preferred to keep.
We left the Veins of the Dragon at a swift walk – Erin seemed to be as keen to put it behind us as I was. I never wanted to see another Son of Svanir; even now, my fingers itched to reach for a dagger or a pistol, and next time, I might not be able to summon quite as much self-control.
I paid little attention to our route, only that we were climbing, taking a narrow, winding trail that emerged above the city, providing a view that would likely have been spectacular if it wasn’t still snowing.
Erin didn’t seem to notice the weather, even though little snowdrifts had accumulated on her shoulders and tiny icicles had formed on the fur she wore around her shoulders. She took a deep breath, sucking in lungfuls of icy air; when I did the same, hoping to clear my head, I just ended up with a coughing fit.
Erin slapped me on the back, almost pitching me face-first into the snow. “Bracing, isn’t it? And what a view!”
I still couldn’t see the view and I was pretty sure I was going to be fully encased in ice if we stayed out here much longer, but at least Erin was in a good mood. Her cheerfulness was enough to make me feel a bit better as she turned away from the hilltop, leading me down into a small hollow, ringed by bright burning torches. Here, the snow fell more lazily, big fat flakes that I could catch in the palm of my hand. Mikk had been fascinated by the snow here, I recalled. He’d spent our first week in Hoelbrak collecting handfuls of the stuff – usually to throw at me or stuff down the back of my neck.
I realised Erin was watching me. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
I huffed out a breath, watching it drift away from me in a little cloud. “His name was Mikk,” I said finally. “We came to Hoelbrak together because we’d got into trouble everywhere else.”
I didn’t really want to recount the whole tale again, but I did: after her loyalty – her friendship – Erin deserved that much. I spoke of coming to Hoelbrak, and of Mikk’s mad scheme to steal from the Sons of Svanir. And then…
“They killed him,” I said, my voice flat. “It was never going to end any other way. We were too young and stupid to really get away with a theft like that.”
“And the Sons aren’t known for their mercy.” Erin was staring off into the distance, as if she could read something in the falling flakes of snow. “You escaped?”
“I did,” I replied, though I’d never really thought of it like that. I’d deserved to die alongside Mikk that day – only my cowardice had ensured I hadn’t. Talk of ‘escape’ made it sound like I’d beaten the odds, like we’d been in that situation due to sheer bad luck and not our own youthful arrogance.
Finally, Erin turned to me. “I’m not entirely sure, Amber, what you want me to say. I cannot offer you absolution.”
Dismay surged through me and it must have shown in my face, because Erin gave an uncharacteristically soft smile. “My apologies. That perhaps wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”
“No, it’s all right.” I shook myself. What had I been expecting? At the very least, Erin had shown a degree of sympathy to my tale, whereas Darr had displayed only outright disgust.
“Besides,” Erin said, looking out into the snow again, “it isn’t my place to forgive you. I can only offer opinions on what you did, and even if I tell you that you only committed a foolish mistake, not a crime, it won’t really help. What happened, all those years ago, is between you and Mikk.”
Everything Erin had said was true – she couldn’t forgive me for what I’d done, any more than Mikk could – but I didn’t get a chance to respond because she suddenly strode off into the snow. I followed the trail she’d forged, hopping from one of her footprints to the next, until we came to the ring of lit torches.
“What is this place?” I asked, hoping to steer the conversation into safer waters. I’d had enough of dwelling on guilt – it was time to move on, whether my past was resolved or not.
Erin bent down to brush the snow off something at her feet. It took me several heartbeats to realise what lay between us: a grave marker, carved from stone and encrusted in a layer of blue-sheened ice.
Suddenly, my heart was in my throat again. Erin hadn’t spoken, but I knew what was coming.
She straightened again, making a grumbling noise in her throat. “Not this one. Somewhere…” She moved off through the snow, to what looked like nothing more than another drift, and began to clear another marker. Half a dozen revealed themselves to Erin’s careful touch before she stepped back.
“This one,” she said finally. “I knew it was here somewhere. It had to be – these graves along belong to outsiders who died in Hoelbrak. All are buried with ceremony and dignity.”
I crept closer, delicate as a mouse picking its way past a cat. I knew why Erin had brought me here, and suddenly I didn’t want to see. She was giving me a gift, though, I realised – a chance to lay my ghosts to rest.
And there it was: Mikk’s grave. Someone in Hoelbrak must have known his name, because it was roughly etched into the stone. As I stared at it, the rest of the world receded; it wasn’t until I felt cold water soaking into my calves that I realised I’d sunk to my knees. A million words crowded my tongue, but I couldn’t put them to use. Finally, I took a deep breath.
“Mikk. I’m sorry. Really, truly sorry. I shouldn’t have abandoned you. I shouldn’t have kept running all these years, when this was all it would have taken to put things right. And I know you can’t forgive me, or maybe you’re out there somewhere and you already have, so…” Another deep breath. There was melted snow on my cheeks, or maybe it was tears, freezing to my skin in tiny drops of ice. “I really miss you, Mikk, and if there’s any way in the Eternal Alchemy for me to make up for what I did, I will, but… Well, I think it’s time I stopped running.”
Erin and I didn’t speak again until we’d left the cemetery well behind. The snow clouds had drawn back and Hoelbrak was spread below us, a glittering tapestry against the oncoming night.
“You can stay in Hoelbrak as long as you like,” Erin said, as we slithered back down towards the city.
“I know. Thank you.”
Erin glanced back at me. “You’re not staying, are you?”
“Not this time.” I felt as thought a weight of grief and guilt had been lifted from my chest, but there was still an ember there, an anger that never died. “I might have made up for my mistakes where Mikk is concerned but…”
“But Zurra’s still out there.”
“Exactly. And it’s about time she paid for her mistakes.”
Erin shook her head. “Zurra’s been on the run for so long, with the whole might of the Inquest sheltering her. How will you ever find her?”
I’d been thinking about that during my time in Snowden Drifts, mulling it over in an effort to ignore the cold. “I think there’s someone who knows where she is. I just have to track him down first.”
Erin, who knew nothing about Darr, raised an eyebrow. “And Spark?”
I’d been thinking about Spark, too, and come to the conclusion that I simply couldn’t match her on my own. “Spark will have to wait until I’ve gathered a few more allies.”
Erin looked back at me again and, for the first time ever, I saw her pout. “Don’t I count for anything?”
I stared at the norn with my mouth hanging slightly open. “You mean…”
“I’ve had enough of Hoelbrak, for now,” she said, stretching her arms above her head as though limbering up. “And let’s just say I have a bone to pick with our charr friend about how she’s treated you.”
I would have hugged Erin then, if either of us had been the hugging type. Instead, I grinned, seeing the expression mirrored on Erin’s broad face. With my past firmly behind me again and the norn at my side… Well, it looked like I was finally back in business.