I had never been a graceful morning riser, so imagine my surprise when I awoke in the pale, early morning light and couldn’t even lift a hand to rub my tired eyes. Trying not to panic, I was immediately thrust into complete consciousness. The ice crystals were visible all along my peripheral vision, so my guess was that the symptoms had manifested and spread while I slept, because it surely wasn’t there when I passed out. I took a deep breath and slowly moved my arms. Despite my instinct to struggle against my bonds with every ounce of energy I had, I knew doing so would risk injury. If I pulled too hard or too quickly, I could cut up my arms pretty bad. As I pushed, the sounds of cracking and breaking filled the air and my arms finally started to come loose.
Something blunt pushed gently against my cheek a couple times and with a grumble, I turned my head to see what it was. My neck was a little stiff, due to what I assumed was from the ice and even though the chilly temperature of the ice didn’t seem to bother me too much, the prospect of a hot bath sounded lovely.
“W-what are you doing?” I asked, my voice rough. My throat was irritated, like someone had taken sandpaper to it.
Alena gasped and jumped backwards, her crystalline eyes so wide, I thought they would pop out of her head. She let go of her staff and it clattered to the stone floor.
“Commander!” she exclaimed nervously. “I didn’t know you were awake.”
“You didn’t see me moving?” I asked wryly.
The asura reached down and picked up her staff. “Hey, ice undead move, don’t they?”
“Ice undead?” I stared at Alena incredulously. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
She merely shrugged and then yawned, not committing to an answer.
More ice started to crack as I carefully worked again to pull my limbs from the ice. One by one, I pulled them free and sat up, but my head began to echo a thundering stampede. Groaning, I closed my eyes and rubbed at my temples, remembering all the drinking I did the night before. I had definitely had consumed too much.
Opening my eyes, I found Alena still standing next to my bed, studying me closely, her long grey ears twitching. Something dawned on me then.
“Alena,” I hesitantly asked, resting my arms on my chest.
She yawned again. “Yes?”
“Why are you in my sleeping area?”
The little asura brightened a little. “Oh, well since our little exercise last night, I thought it would be a good idea to keep a close eye on you.”
Slowly, I pushed myself up into a sitting position, mindful of my head. The pounding ache wasn’t as bad this time, to which I was thankful. “Have you been here all night?”
“Can you explain this?” I asked, nodding to the iced-over bed while clutching my shaking hand to my chest. “What in Grenth’s name is going on?”
“I don’t know yet,” Alena confessed, “however I did make some interesting notes while you slept.”
“Not creepy at all,” I murmured.
She wrinkled her nose at me, but continued to share her findings. “Your heart rate spiked last night and you started twitching a lot, just before the ice started forming, leading me to believe that your symptoms are triggered from high levels of stress. However, this ice thing is –very different. Has this ever happened to you before?”
I nodded as I recalled the violent point Danae made with me before I left for the Shiverpeaks. The fireplace poker I had picked up to defend myself from her forceful lesson, had frosted over around my hand before I tossed it away, near the fire. “Yes, once that I can think of. It wasn’t nearly as bad though.”
The asura thought about this for a moment while scratching an ear and yawning. “That’s fascinating. I’m not sure I’ve seen this before in someone not in alignment with the elements. Have you come into contact with anything you think could be influencing your abilities?”
Immediately, my thoughts went to the blade. Yes, I was usually in close proximity to it, but I had only made direct contact with it a couple of times. I stopped, wondering if my thoughts were correct. I recalled the last time I was in its presence, checking on its safety. My memory was a little fuzzy, but I remembered reaching out to the blade. I never touched it from what I could remember.
“I don’t think so.” I couldn’t tell her about the blade yet, not until we were all together back at the hall. At least, that’s what I told myself. I just hoped that I would actually believe myself. Damn my deeply-ingrained habits.
The ice on my bed began to dissipate into nothing and Alena shuffled closer, running her hand along the mattress where it had been completely frozen over just a moment before. Rubbing her fingers together, she made a thoughtful sound. “My ears, it completely evaporates, ignoring normal properties of ice. It never reaches its liquid state.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Gods-given magic,” she said and then pointed at me. “Your magic.”
Eager to record her findings, Alena left me to straighten myself up so I could at least make myself somewhat presentable. I put my boots back on, brushed off bits of wool fuzz stuck on my leggings from the bedding, occasionally eying the piece of furniture, hoping that maybe it would ice over again. If it did, that would at least prove that I wasn’t the source of this strange ice curse. I didn’t want it to be me. I didn’t want something to be wrong with me. There was already too much on my plate to balance, and I didn’t need one more thing to tip the scales.
Raised voices pulled my attention from my thoughts and curious as I was, I tip-toed over to my privacy screen and stopped to listen. I couldn’t make out much more than two voices, one male and one female, speaking sharply to one another. My stomach growled loudly, calling for food and giving me a good excuse to venture out into the steading’s common area.
A hearty fire roared in the pit amongst the tables in the main dwelling area, filling the steading with its warmth. The tables were empty at this early morning hour, but Rugnar was already standing behind his new bar, roughly slicing off sections of a loaf of bread and tossing them next to a large hunk of cheese sitting on the edge of a large platter. Across the steading, Lord Aedan and Lady Eira were arguing about something undecipherable at the moment. Their raised voices didn’t seem to bother the norn. In fact, I imagined he’d rather stay out of their business. I offered Rugnar a polite morning greeting as I rest my elbow on the bar and cradled my head in my hand. The thunderous roar had died down to a manageable rumble, and so I watched the norn finish preparing his breakfast platter while inconspicuously listening to the argument unfolding nearby.
“I won’t have it,” Lord Aedan spat out, his sharp gestures accenting every other word.
Her arms crossed tightly over her chest, Lady Eira narrowed her cold eyes at her husband. “I kindly remind you that I am not yours to command.”
“And I will kindly remind you that this is not a game.” He took a step closer to her and grabbed her arm, pulling it sharply towards him and eliciting a surprised cry from Lady Eira. “You’re not to follow your curiosity or engage in any more activity unless I say so. This trip will not be for nothing.”
Despite my hesitations about Lady Eira, Lord Aedan’s unpleasant actions towards her struck a negative chord with me. A part of me didn’t believe she deserved it, but another part of me was still wary of the pair. Which part of me was the wiser, it was hard to say. Thankfully, I saw motion from the corner of my eye and I was forced to abandon my internal dilemma, which seemed to be fueling the rumble in my head.
“Good morning,” Quint greeted me with a smile as he slipped into his longcoat. “How are you feeling?”
“Not bad, considering,” I replied. Still leaning against the bar, I turned to face my former adviser and flashed him a lethargic smile as I gestured to myself. “Though this time this was on me, I’m pretty sure. Unless of course, you slipped something in my ale at someone’s behest.”
He put his hands up in a show of innocence. “I promise, this was all your doing this time,” he said with a little grin. “Was everything okay this morning? Alena seemed to be a little frazzled when I came to your screen.”
I forced a smile and nodded.” Yes, everything’s fine.”
He studied me for far too long to indicate he believed my reply, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about the ice, at least not yet. Not until I could figure out what was going on with me. The lord and lady’s voices rose again and I glanced over at them, feeling my jaw tighten.
“Quite a scene over there,” he noted as he approached the bar beside me. “Goes to show you that money doesn’t guarantee happiness.”
I smiled to myself. “Rhys could have told you that.” The words came out like a reflex I couldn’t control, and my smile faded as soon as the words left my lips. Even though he was surrounded by wealth and luxury, Rhys often complained about its limitations as well as the downsides to having so much. He and Sir Fendall, who did not come from a great deal of wealth, would often engage in late night debates about the power of money. It always happened over a couple flagons of wine, and no matter how heated it got, it always seemed to end amiably.
The highborns’ voices rose again, with the lady contesting another of her lord’ husband’s threats.
“If someone doesn’t shut them up, I will,” Rugnar grumbled roughly under his breath, but still loud enough for Quint and I to hear. I raised an eyebrow, and the norn innkeeper added, “politely, of course.”
I glanced over at the pair again. Lord Aedan now had both his hands on Lady Eira and she was beginning to look rather scared. A ball of nerves began to gather in the pit of my stomach. “Someone should really stop this,” I said to Quint and before he could stop me, I found myself starting to make my way across the room towards the fighting lord and lady.
A tremor under my boots made me stop half way across the room. The breakfast platter rattled loudly on the bar, joining in with the rattling from the tables and chairs, until the shaking stopped a few seconds later. I let out the breath I had been holding since the start of the shaking and then turned on my heels. Quint’s eyes had gone wide as he braced himself against the bar. A loud growl came from the sleeping area and Clarkus pushed through his privacy screen, knocking it to the ground.
“Tremors again. It must be back,” he announced, drawing his greatsword from the scabbard on his back.
Alena emerged from behind the broad-shouldered Charr, the orange feathers on her collar bouncing with every brisk step. “So close to the steading, this is quite worrisome,” she said and then pointed her staff at me. “Does your offer for that assist still stand?”