Veskur Wyrd wore the very power of creation itself on her hand.
The gaurn she had crafted made the world around her a loom, each thread something that she could pull at, weave, color, or remove as she saw fit. But acting on one thread, she had learned, forced all the others to move as well and she did not possess the mathemagics necessary to predict the consequences of each movement. Difficult enough to know what results her more mundane actions would craft – when playing with the very fabric from which creation was wrought, well, who could say how long each thread was and how many other threads it was attached to?
She was becoming more and more hesitant to use the power she had granted herself, for she feared that each use violated the choices of those around her – thereby making her a rapist of the soul, something worse than Endrall could ever have accused her of being. She had seen the chance of Endrall and Figo becoming her lovers, of being with her into her old age. All she had needed to claim this future was patience but she had forced events to come sooner, not understanding what would happen because of her one selfish choice.
Both of them were gone now and she was alone.
Hurt, but wiser. More cautious. She would not use the power she had taken so lightly ever again.
Figo remained an absence in her life, leaving an aching emptiness in place of the joy his mere presence had once engendered. She mourned him often, dreamed of him, gentle words and soft skin, his laugh and smile. She could barely remember the sound of his voice, the taste of his laughter.
At least things seemed to be working out with Endrall. The man held her, kept her, made her feel wanted and all he wanted was to treat her as she deserved to be treated – and whenever she forgot why she deserved to be treated so, he was there to remind her. He held her and pushed her away, kept her close and whispered of his affair with Hekro. Veskur suffered these stories in silence, knowing better than to express any discomfort; whenever she tried to express anything save approval Endrall would remind her that she was disposable, that they were not friends, that she was not a thing to be trusted.
It was alright, Veskur thought. As long as Endrall was happy it was alright; nothing was more important to her. She had done so much, crafted so much harm out of her base loneliness. Endrall was right. Endrall could be trusted in ways that she could never be, not even by herself. The proof of her monstrousness was in the thing she wore even now and the knowledge her creation gave her.
Still, with Sotaas and with Endrall back in her life, she had some reason to keep moving. She started going out of her keep again, a feral presence tolerated in proper society through the auspices of those two people. River had left her, no longer speaking to her due to what had happened with Thea. Thea praised her with one breath and insulted her the next, treatment that Veskur was certain that she deserved. Sotaas argued otherwise. He was a dam against the abyss that Figo had left behind, supportive and honest.
It was through Sotaas that Veskur learned of Deeam’s coming union with Glow and received an invitation to the event. The two of them planned to go there together, Sotaas pressing Veskur into making the arrangements, knowing that she needed something to take her mind off the thoughts that had thrown her mental state into civil war. She took to it with gusto, with passion, making certain that they had transport and a place to stay, seeing to all the small details personally. Deeam himself got in touch with her.
“There are treasures that the Darroken are lending us for the occasion,” Deeam said, sitting in the quiet of Veskur’s kitchen. “I know you’re familiar with that nation. Would you mind collecting them?”
Veskur said that she would be honored, made the necessary arrangements and spoke to Sotaas. The two of them would go and claim what was needed before heading south and west, into the lands where Deeam would wed his blood to his bride and ascend to the position of Njord. Sotaas was pleased with the promise of this escort mission and all that it entailed. It could mean much for both of them.
A week before the journey was to begin Veskur was working in her laboratory, trying to reconcile the mathemagics she had crafted to predict the extent of the changes she had already made. It was heady work, engrossing, and she felt a passion for it that echoed what had once driven her from one sleepless night to the next. She didn’t notice when her manservant interrupted her.
“How long have you been there?” she asked him.
“A quarter hour,” he replied, offering a lopsided grin. “There’s someone at the door to see you.”
Curiosity overcame passion. Very few people came to see her any more – Sotaas, Deeam, occasionally one of the Nauthiz Coven. She had been having trouble re-acclimatizing to the isolation that had once been her whole world but now, caught within numbers she had been forced to invent to describe meaning no one else would ever understand, she had lost all sense of time.
Following her manservant to the front gate of her keep, she pulled her cloak a little tighter around her body. Already she could feel the chill from outside, the chill summer wind and whispering snows that haunted her home even in the warmest months. Her manservant drew open the door, introducing her guest.
“I can’t stay long,” Endrall said, removing the gloves from his hands. “I was visiting Hekro to the west and, well…” He stopped, looked at her.
“Hekro,” he paused, swallowed, came closer to her and waited until she had taken him in her arms. “Hekro left me. I have an invite to Deeam’s wedding but I don’t know if I can go now. I had planned on entering with the Golden Champion beside me. How am I to face the Nauthiz Coven, or Secu and Risue, or any of the others? What will they think of me if I enter alone?”
“You won’t know until you get there.”
“I don’t even have means of getting there, not this late. No way to get there, nowhere to stay, no means of holding ground.”
“Hekro arranged everything?”
He nodded. She sighed.
“You can come with me, I suppose,” Veskur said slowly. “I need to check with Sotaas first, make certain that’s alright, but I’ll see what I can do about getting you there, making certain you have a place to stay, and giving you the means to stand your ground.”
“Why would Sotaas have a problem with it?”
“You broke his heart,” Veskur sighed when Endrall just stared at her, eyes brimming with hostility. “Let me speak with him. I should be able to manage something.”
“Alright,” Endrall nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”
The first thing Veskur did after he was gone was go back to her lab to tidy things up and retrieve her gaurn. She went to her manservant, told him that she would be gone for a few days, packed a light assortment of snack food and stepped out of her home. She looked at the horizon before holding her gaurn aloft and calling on the power of the ethcinos.
In the wastes, back in the wild places where the Coeecians and Vanir were not known, out at the edge of the world was where Ygg Sotaas had settled. No one else could find him there, lost in a self-imposed exile. They were siblings now, two whom had made each other more and, like lodestones, they would find one another, be drawn to one another. It was the destiny of one to find the other, writ in the fabric of everything as if it had always been. So mote it. So mote it. So mote it.
She found Sotaas on her third day of travel. The Wanderer of Ygg came up on her from out of the green, appearing as an extension of the woods that he had made his home. They fell into one another’s arms – there were ways, now, that Sotaas completed Veskur that not even the Lady herself understood. They walked in silence for a time, learning about one another merely by being in the other’s presence.
“What’s bothering you?” Sotaas asked. Veskur bit her lip.
“I have something to ask you,” Veskur said. “You’re not going to like it.”
“Is it about Endrall?”
“You know he took your name from you?” Sotaas asked. “He calls you a dryw to anyone that will listen.” Veskur choked on this insult, shaken. She closed her eyes, swallowed and accepted. She deserved to be named thus.
Endrall had already explained this to her at length.
“I didn’t know.” It took her a moment more to find her voice. “He wants to come with us to the wedding. Hekro left him, doesn’t want anything to do with him right now.”
“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” Sotaas snarled. “He needs female approval because the mother surrogate he was rutting with left him. Whatever.”
“You’re okay traveling with him?”
“No, but I’ll go to make sure he doesn’t do anything to you on the way up.” Sotaas paused, looking off into the green for a long while. “I won’t sleep under the same roof as him.”
“Do you want me to make other arrangements for you or us?”
“No, no, I’ll come up with something.”
“You know as well as I do that there is very little that you or I cannot accomplish,” Sotaas said, holding up the gaurn on his hand. Veskur smiled, hugged the man and left him to wander the wilds a few days more.
When the day came the two of them met at House Raido to collect their things. Veskur had taken care of their transport while Sotaas had plotted their path – they would head east, into the Darroken lands, then travel south and west to collect Endrall, loop up north to High House Wynn. The journey to the Darroken lands was simple enough, their claiming of what Deeam sought equally easy. The importance of what it was they held, however, was not lost on either of them.
The Darroken were considered the most trustworthy of the other nations and existed outside the politics that defined so much of Vanir interaction. As such, the Vanir elders trusted this other nation to look after the vestments used to proclaim a man or woman as Njord, Freya, or Freyr, vestments that were as old as any of the Vanir houses, as old as Midgard itself. They both held the fabrics with a sense of awe and gratitude, knowing how rare it was for any Vanir to so much as see what they now held.
When a Vanir noble ascended to any of the three dominant positions he or she set themselves outside the normal politics and games that existed in Midgard. Their sole responsibility was to tend to the Vanir nation as a whole; they cut ties with their former House, gaining instead all the Vanir peoples as a home. The Njord was given the task of mapping the constant change of Vanir borders, of keeping those borders pure while exploring other lands and developing Vanir interests. Over the ages those that had become Njord had furthered the obligations that came with the position, exploring the avenues of science and lore as much as physical geography and the passings of history.
The ceremony that marked a new Njord saw a long rope tied around the Vanir’s shoulders, starting on the left hand, looping up the arm and around the shoulders and then down to the other hand. The rope represented the ships that the Vanir had used in the earliest days. A sleeveless cloak was then draped around the neck and down the shoulders, leaving the back exposed. The cloak had writ on its length the sigils of all twenty-seven Houses, from hedonistic Fehu all the way to meditative Dagaz. Finally, a walking stick and oar woven together of elm and ash, symbolizing the willingness to wander every last corner of the world and leave nothing unexplored.
Veskur and Sotaas held these treasures in their hands with great care. With reverence they packed them, knowing that they would have to keep the nature of their burden secret from everyone else and understanding the honor and trust that Deeam was placing in them. They were both moved to the point of giddy exhaustion, each vowing to see the sacred fabrics to their destination even at the cost of their last breath.
The Darroken lands were well maintained, the roads peaceful and trustworthy. Nonetheless, the two kept a careful eye on the world as they crossed back into Midgard, heading to the far west and into the lands held by House Suwilo. Veskur had arranged to meet Endrall far afield from the capital, not wanting to chance bumping into Sahr Eri. If anything, Sotaas was even less enamored of that prospect.
“He didn’t like me very much.”
“Who? Sahr or Endrall?”
“I don’t think Endrall is actually capable of loving anyone, never mind liking,” Sotaas said, frowning at a gathering ring of clouds. “But, no, I meant Eri.”
“Oh, good,” Veskur said, shaking her head. “I thought it was only me that he despised.”
“He really did, but only because you’re as erratic as his banished wife.” Sotaas sighed, climbing to the top of the carriage and lying down. “He thought you were going to ruin Endrall’s life the way that his wife ruined his.”
“Eri is the most celebrated healer of our age, right?” Veskur asked. Sotaas muttered something that might have been assent. “Just checking.”
“Good on you. I’m going to sleep until darling Endrall arrives. Wake me up when he gets here.”
“He’ll be here soon.”
“Sure he will.”
Sotaas was lost to slumber long before Endrall’s arrival, this casual notation of his faults something that Veskur passed the time thinking about. There had been a time just after Figo had left and she had been devastated that Endrall had offered to come and care for her. The day he was supposed to be there came and went, time stretching out as she waited and waited, thought and repented, but still there was no sign of the man that would claim that they were not lovers despite them being everything that lovers were supposed to be.
She had tried to contact Endrall by means of every Science at her disposal but had learned and found nothing. In despair she had retreated to the wilds around her keep, seeking solace in wander, but she had been only a day into her wandering when Endrall had contacted her. He had been furious to find her home empty of her, demanding that she return instantly before severing all contact. He’d spent the next day yelling at her, letting her know that she was inconsiderate, evil, and valued only so much as he saw fit.
Veskur had believed him then, in the wake of Figo’s absence.
She wasn’t so certain that she believed him now.
A full day came and went before Endrall appeared. He came in the company of Farrell, though the kitsune begged off coming with them – it had merely served as an escort. This was a good thing, as Veskur was uncertain how long she would have been able to not kill the creature. Everyone else seemed to have forgotten that the kitsune had betrayed them all once upon a time but Veskur had heard the broken words spilling from Figo’s sleeping lips, had heard her former love recount the crimes this creature had committed. Endrall kissed its cheek before glancing at the carriage, offering only a brief nod of approval as Veskur poked Sotaas.
“What’s is… oh. You’re here.”
“Is that any way to greet me?”
“Yes. It is, in fact, the perfect way.”
Veskur stood by and said nothing during this exchange. Sotaas climbed into the carriage beside her, Endrall sitting opposite them. Sotaas’ hand briefly touched Veskur’s, some form of Science that Veskur was not familiar with allowing the man to implant words in her mind: He is not to be trusted. He is going to try and hurt you. Do not let him touch you and we will get through this together. Veskur was not certain how to respond so she merely nodded, trying to make the motion look casual. She doubted Endrall would catch such a slight twitch but a quick trace of fingernail along her hand let her know that Sotaas understood.
The journey took a total of four days. They spent all that time moving, Sotaas and Endrall resting while Veskur kept going – the same endurance that let her spend weeks awake and working in her laboratory serving her here in turn. The roads were quiet, all of Midgard hushed in anticipation of the new Njord’s ascent. Even the Coeecian borders had been relatively quiet, the madness named Jesam the First keeping to himself as Deeam prepared to become so much more than he now was.
Endrall spoke of his hopes for the future, the things he had learned while serving along the Coeecian border and then back in the lands of his House. Veskur listened with more interest than Sotaas, though the Wanderer of Ygg made polite noises where appropriate and seemed to relax his guard somewhat as the days wore on. By the second day, he was even volunteering some of his own stories, speaking of far off lands that he had traveled to since his exile.
“Far to the east, past the Darroken, there are people that live in huts made of thick cord,” Sotaas told them as they dipped into and through a valley. “There are poles that stretch dozens of feet into the air and hundreds upon hundreds of these cords are woven together to form cities inside, though the ways into those cities are secret and hidden. Men there are seen as little more than work animals. Their entire culture is built around the domination of men by women.”
“What a strange people,” Endrall said, catching Veskur’s eyes with an indulgent smile.
“It’s true,” Sotaas continued. “They live the way they do because of the weather. For a full third of the year, they are battered by winds and rains that put the worst storms that Coeecian trickery can cobble together to shame, while for another third the naked sunlight withers and blackens all human life that it touches. Their structures bend with the wind and do not fall while the cords release the heat they suffer during the hot months.
“I stayed with them for a full year but I never learned their language, only their culture. They subscribe to a strange series of beliefs, thinking that the energy of their minds leaves their bodies when they die only to be reborn as something or someone else. I asked them what the purpose of such a process would be and they claimed they were working towards some form of transcendence, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
“The women maintain their control of their nation through the secrets of those cords – the weaving of the individual lengths and the combining of them into structure. Though they respected me for my skills, they would not teach me or even allow me to witness their most secret craftings. I might have pushed but, to be honest, those same women have a means of fighting that can only be likened to a spider trapping things in a web. I would not like to fight them within what they have woven and have never seen the purpose in rewarding hospitality with hostility, even if the shelter offered is offered by barbarians.”
“But they are only barbarians,” Endrall scoffed. “I’m certain, were we to bend our minds to discovering their secrets, we could take their weavings apart and put them back together.”
“I am less certain of that.”
“I’ve read about the people you describe,” Veskur said. “They were involved in that war the Darroken were fighting forty generations or so ago.”
“I hardly see what bearing the ancient history of a backwards people has on the modern world, though they sound interesting enough,” Endrall said, resting his chin in his palm. “Do they really abhor males so badly?”
“Yes,” Sotaas said. “The Nauthiz Coven would feel right at home.”
“What about you, Lady?” Endrall asked, leaning back to best show the line of his musculature. “What mad dreams have been driving you forward?”
“Equations, mostly,” Veskur admitted, shy. “I’ve had to invent three mathemagical languages to fully explain what it is I’m trying to do.”
“And what is that, exactly?”
“Well, we know that there had to be a prime cause of which we are all echoes,” Veskur said. “Various other Scientists have tried to cast their numbers backwards to describe what was, but the future has always interested me more than the past. It seems to me that there should be equations that could be used to predict what is going to happen, seeing that matter and energy are consistently moving forward and behave in certain causal patterns.
“The truth of this knowledge proves free will a lie. We are doing what we’re doing in accordance with forces that were set in place long and long before any of us were born and will continue to move thus when we are all gone and dust. The illusion of decision, of discovery, of experience is simply that – an illusion brought upon by a pre-determined lack of understanding. Though we are advanced enough as a people to recognize that truth we are not moved past the primitive superstitions of our own history to recognize that truth completely, which is why we still think that we are making choices.
“My recent passions, which are not mine so much as they are an echo of whatever the prime cause was, have been trying to trace the passage of one thing to determine the passage of another. Cause and effect chain together, you see, and if something happens in the macrocosm there will be a mirror of that in the microcosm and vice-versa, as well as everywhere in between. If one can find the equations that describe the precursor of a macrocosmic event, then an understanding can be applied using those equations to predict what is going to happen in our immediate cosm.”
A long silence followed Veskur’s description.
“Is cosm even a word?”
“If it isn’t, it should be.”
Their talk turned to lighter topics thereafter – the weather that followed them, the quietness of the road ahead, the lingering taste of food eaten and processed. Sotaas‘ hand found hers, fingers tapping out a certain beat to let Veskur know that he wanted to continue speaking of those equations at some future time when they had left behind unwanted company. For all his brilliance, Endrall did not notice this silent intimacy between the two that he had abandoned for reasons of his own.
“We’ve known forever that there is iron in the blood of both the Vanir and the people of the lesser nations,” Endrall said. “Father has had some small success using magnets in the healing of various aches and wounds, but my studies have actually taken me a step further than that. It seems that the movement of blood within the body creates a slight magnetic field that traces the outline of the body that it moves through. This field can be tested via a series of techniques that I’ve been developing.
“The testing of this field can be used to determine the necessity of surgeries and the places those surgeries would best be performed. It can be used to chart the movement of energy within the body and discover those places where the flow of energy has been disrupted, thus allowing those of us with the proper knowledge to fix whatever they problem might be, or at least make a definitive diagnosis.
“My imprint in the field of medicine will be so great that it will make my father’s efforts look like the urgings of primitive trickery when compared with our Sciences. This is the length and breadth of my genius and the glory I will win for it, well, it is a good thing that the two of you know me. My accomplishments will make you both great by the simple virtue of your association with me.”
Veskur and Sotaas shared a look but said nothing.
The three of them travelled to Njordheim, the place where every Njord since the dawn of the Vanir nation had ascended to that position and where they all ruled from once they had given up their old House and home. Soldiers from honorable Gebo were waiting to greet them, providing an honor guard for the two as they carried the treasure they had retrieved between them. A pouting Endrall was not allowed to accompany them on this journey. Instead, having spotted the Nauthiz Coven, he made his way over to them in order to exchange pleasantries.
Deeam was waiting for them in his private chambers, his back to the door and his hands clasped by the base of his spine. He wore a simple long vest and a pair of pants and somehow managed to look regal despite this; his mere presence and the perfection of his being flooded the room.
“You have retrieved what was needed?” he asked, his deep baritone caught by architecture and booming around them, a rolling thunder that Veskur was sure he must have practiced. They nodded, dropped to their knees, presented him with what they had collected in his name. “Excellent. I also see that the two of you came here with Endrall. This is good – I had feared in the wake of what happened with Hekro that he would not be here. Does this mean the ice that lies between you has thawed?”
“As much as can be,” Sotaas said.
Veskur said nothing.
Deeam had questions for them after that, wanting to know the state of things elsewhere in Midgard and what troubles threatened from the other side of the Coeecian border. He seemed bothered when they spoke of how quiet it had been.
“Jesam the First has proven to be a cunning opponent,” Deeam admitted, clasping Veskur’s shoulder. “If only you had the chance to destroy him the way you destroyed his predecessor, eh? I’m sure the chance will present itself if we give it a little more time.”
Conversation turned to lesser things thereafter. Deeam wished to speak with Sotaas for a few minutes on his own, so Veskur left the two of them to go and wander the halls to look for Endrall. The two of them would have to settle the arrangements that she had made for them sometime in the near future and Veskur, for all her insight and knowing, was beginning to trot along the edges of exhaustion.
She found Endrall chatting up the Nauthiz Coven. The eldest of them caught her eye, her typical hostility mingling with curiosity. There was a conversation there, Veskur knew, and she did not need to use her gaurn to know that it was not meant for that moment. Endrall was reluctant to leave, enjoying himself despite the quiet tension of the three ladies that he was speaking with.
“I was just starting to get comfortable,” Endrall muttered as they climbed back aboard their transport. Veskur said nothing, getting the vehicle moving and taking them to the small cabin that her own contacts had allowed her to acquire.
Endrall nodded acceptance as they entered, clearly deciding that their surroundings would do for this venture. There was a single bedroom, a kitchen, and a greeting area.
“I’ll take the bedroom,” Endrall declared as Veskur unloaded their things. “You can have the greeting area.” Veskur had secretly been hoping that she would have been able to fall asleep in his warmth but she accepted Endrall’s terms – to do or say anything else, she thought, would have made her the rapist or the dryw that Endrall had named her. She gave him his things and found a place to lie down and was asleep almost instantly.
She awoke one day later to find Endrall preparing for the festivities to come. He had left dishes for others to clean and no food for her to eat, but she struggled out of the sleep haze and found something to drink, using Science to boil some water and make tea. As the fog of sleep faded she looked to her own things, retrieving the clothing that she would be expected to wear at the ceremony.
“We’re out of food,” Endrall said, emerging from the changing rooms and straightening a cuff. He glanced at her, frowning. “How do I look?”
“Perfect,” Veskur said, staring and not bothering to hide her hunger. He spared her an amused smile, walked forward and took her hand in his. There was something in his eyes, some small fracture that made a lie of his perfect confidence. “What’s wrong?”
“It was,” Endrall swallowed, closed his eyes, was silent a moment. “I don’t know if I can do this. There are a lot of people here that have direct ties to, well, Sotaas or House Elhaz. They hate me, I know it. They hate me. The Nauthiz Coven and all the rest.”
“No one hates you,” Veskur said, wrapping Endrall in her arms. “No one here is going to hate you on behalf of another; we’re all Vanir here, not barbarians.”
“I hear them whispering,” he pressed. “I heard them whispering yesterday.”
“We’re crowning a new Njord,” Veskur said. “There’s a lot to be done. I’m not even going to pretend to know the full scope of the preparations and things that are happening but I can tell you that no one has time just now to hate you. There’s too much else to do, too much else to focus on.”
“So… I’m not important?”
“You are to me,” Veskur said, cupping his cheek in her hand and looking into his eyes. “You are the most important person in any room you walk into. There is nothing and no one in my sight that will ever be more – you walk into a room and nothing else matters.”
He stared at her for a long time after that.
“I don’t trust you.”
“We’re not friends.”
“But, well, I will say this: you’re sweet.” Endrall frowned as he noted the clothing that had been prepared for her. “I did not realize you were going to be among the Honored Guard.”
“Neither did I.”
“Deeam must think very highly of you.”
Veskur muttered her agreement, taking what had been laid out for her into the washing and changing rooms. She let water soak into her hair, scrubbed the aches and fatigues of her body out, left the pools of water and pressed herself with discarded clothing until she was completely dry. Sighing, she began wrapping herself in the traditional garb of the Honored Guard, the willowing sleeves and the long jacket, the pocketless pants and tall boots. She tied her hair back as best she could, raised the hood at the back of the jacket over her brow just so, set the rings that had been laid out for her right hand onto the proper fingers and studied her reflection in the water she had left.
The only thing that looked out of place was the gaurn that graced her left hand.
She studied this for a time, deciding it was not something that she was willing to relinquish.
Endrall was waiting for her when she emerged from the room. He watched her with his piercing eyes, measuring her. She turned when he asked her to, his eyes roaming over her as if she were nothing more than meat for him to devour. He nodded approval at the ended of it.
“You look beautiful,” he said, and for the first time in her life, Veskur believed those words.
They joined hands and walked to the waiting transport. It struck Veskur that she had to look like something from a fable as she helped Endrall aboard, the uncomfortable weight of the levl an awkward presence at her hips. They spoke but sparingly on the way to the center of Njordheim but of this Veskur took no note; she was lost in her own thoughts, thoughts that inevitably turned to the man sitting beside her.
In spite of everything, she knew she wanted him. She wanted to see him smile, to hold him, to take him inside of her. She gave no thought to her own pleasure; even before Figo she had found more gratification in the giving of pleasure than in the taking of it. She wanted to wake beside him, for him to wake beside her. But most of all she wanted him happy, regardless of what that meant, regardless of what that took.
Her left hand twitched.
Endrall took no notice.
They arrived long before the gathering crowd, Veskur able to find a place to rest their carriage and helping Endrall down from that height. They spotted the Nauthiz Coven chatting with Rock and a handful of others and wandered over – Sotaas, too, bore the markings of the Honored Guard.
“You look good,” Endrall said, sizing the Wanderer of Ygg up with a terrible light in his eyes. Sotaas ignored him, turned to Veskur and told her that Deeam was waiting for him and a handful of others, those that had been named as the Honored Guard. Nine such people had been chosen by Deeam, another nine by Glow.
“Is there anyone else in their number that we know?” Veskur asked.
“No one you’d be familiar with,” Sotaas said. “Follow me, I’ll introduce you.”
There was a moment, a single moment, where she turned back and saw that same fracture of vulnerability in the eyes of the man she was leaving behind, but then Sotaas had her by the arm and was dragging her away.
“What’s the rush?” she asked.
“Deeam wants to speak with all of us, to prepare us for the ceremony to come.” Sotaas paused, looked at her. “Do you understand what Deeam has done by naming us among his Honored Guard?”
“Not really, no.” Veskur let her confusion show on her face when Sotaas continued to stare at her. “I’ve been a virtual hermit all my life, remember? Until I invented the gaurn no one wanted anything to do with me. So, no, I have no idea what being named an Honored Guard means. I never before had reason to care.”
“Alright, granted.” Sotaas’ lips twisted in a small smile. “I keep forgetting that you’re just about as reclusive as I am.”
“Given that you don’t know even this? Probably.” Sotaas sighed, started to run a hand through her hair and got his fingers caught in the hood that covered her scalp. “So annoying.”
“Cute.” He shook his head. “By naming us his Honored Guard, Deeam is announcing to the rest of Midgard that he views us as the most competent, trustworthy, and skilled Vanir that he knows. Should he decide to quest, it is we that he will call upon, and should he decide to go to war, it is we who will be expected to raise and lead his armies.”
“I don’t know the first thing about leading armies.”
“You spent five decades with Lord Figo Jera, the most feared general this side of the Golden Champion, and you know nothing about leading armies? You must have picked up something. Anyways, in times of formal duress you’ll be asked to provide protection and advice to the Njord, to occasionally act in his interests or as his ambassador, and in certain instances you will speak with his voice or act on his behalf.”
“Do the people that Glow picked as her Honored Guard do the same thing?” Veskur asked, wondering if she could ask for a transfer.
“You’d hate their end even more,” Sotaas grinned. “Those chosen by the Njord’s spouse stay with the Njord and their chooser at all times, keeping them both safe.”
“You are utterly correct in my not wanting to do that.”
“I know. Follow me. There are some protocols we’ll be expected to go through.”
They spent the morning rehearsing the things that they would do over the process of the coming union – protect the young couple, escort them from place to place, and deal with any problems that might surface. Glow’s chosen had to deal much more with the latter, for which Veskur was grateful. Most of what she ended up doing was standing around, looking important, while Deeam and Glow drew every available eye – which, Veskur thought, was exactly as it should have been.
Rings and oaths were exchanged under a sheen of lightning and a slight drizzling rain. The falling water caught the flashes of light within them, twinkling like stars as they fell down around the new Njord and his presumably lovely bride. Veskur could feel the eyes of Sotaas and the Nauthiz Coven sometimes glancing at her but she ignored them. Her attention was divided solely between the new royal couple and the healer’s scion that sat prim and watchful. She could not help but feel that she was being judged.
“Do you, Deeam of House Wynn, accept the vestments of the Njord, with all the circumstance and consequence that comes with it, knowing that your life up until now and the life of your lover are forfeit? Do you relinquish all ties to House and all ties to man, forsaking all in the names of Midgard and the Vanir nation as a whole?”
“Know then that Midgard accepts you as such. Deeam of House Wynn is no more and is gone as though he had never been. Standing, Deeam Njord, and remember always that you are an extension of the land and all that the land might be.”
“I will prove worthy of the name you have given me.”
“And do you, Glow of House Pethro, accept the lot of keeping the Njord in check, to provide consul and confidence, to hold his secrets and guide his hand? Do you forfeit all that you were, House and name, and wed yourself to Deeam Njord as conscience and sobriety to better guide and serve the names of Midgard and Vanir?
“Then rise, knowing that Glow Pethro is dead and will be struck from all record and all knowledge. Instead there is only and ever has been only Glow Skathi, extension and compliment of Deeam Njord. Rise and let it be so.”
The two new powers took one another’s hands and turned to face the assembled Vanir nation, Deeam raising the hand of Glow as the crowd cheered. White flower petals fell from every tower in a shimmering cascade. In their multitudes the falling tide looked as a massive snowstorm, the sight of it catching Veskur’s breath and holding her still for several moments until Sotaas poked her. She noticed everyone looking at her, wondered when everyone had quieted, remembered what it was she was supposed to do.
“Veskur of House Wyrd yields to Deeam Njord!”
The next member of the Honored Guard did the same until all of them had spoken that oath, pledging themselves to the service of the new Njord until either he was dead or they were. Veskur wasn’t certain what she thought about this and so tried to silence her mind. The skin underneath the gaurn on her hand itched horribly but she held herself steady, ignoring the weight at her hips, the pull of her clothing, the sweat on her skin. There would be time to tend to herself later.
At that moment the only thing that mattered were Deeam and Glow.
The roar that followed the end of the ceremony was deafening, the release of petals that accompanied that conclusion making the previous downpour of same seem as a river compared to an ocean. Every noble present raised their weapon in salute of the Njord and his love, every peasant there fell to both knees and bowed their head. The pure scope of the adulation presented in this moment rocked Veskur to her very core – she had never in her life imagined that so many people could exist, never mind gather for a single event. When she stumbled, it was Sotaas who steadied her.
A series of large meals followed the ceremony proper, a massive celebration that lasted for several days. The Honored Guard came and went as the days wore on; working in shifts so that three of their number consistently surrounded one of the two they were now sworn to. Petals were kicked up with every step, giving the illusion of treading in an ocean, some trick or science keeping those colors from fading, wilting, or ever touching the earth. In what quiet moments she could find Veskur experimented with those petals she could grab, trying to figure out how the effect had been accomplished.
She did not have very much time to herself. The Honored Guard worked in shifts of six hours on and twelve off. The idea, as she understood it, was to keep them all fresh and active. She and Sotaas ended up working alongside a woman named Sas Ansu, who at least proved to be adequate conversation and a sharp wit, so that wasn’t awful.
“How do you think they do it?” Veskur found herself asking. No matter how hard she pressed down upon the color in her hand it would not touch the ground.
“Which? The thing with the petals?” Sas shook the hair out of her face. “I heard it’s some secret science that the nobles of House Pethro keep to themselves. You could ask some of our opposites among Glow’s Chosen, though I would recommend waiting until after the celebration is over.”
“They’ll be easier to ply then.” Sas’ voice was wry. “I mean, it’s not like they’re going anywhere. I imagine they’ll be starved for any sort of conversation in a year or two.” Sotaas smirked, saying nothing. The three of them were called away then, acting as guides for the other nobles, allowing some to go and greet the new Njord, barring others long enough for Deeam and Glow to collect themselves that they might better speak with those who sought them.
Veskur didn’t much see the point. Most of what she heard said was simple empty congratulations and everyone there seemed more eager to be seen than heard. Sotaas muttered something about social hierarchies that Veskur didn’t quite understand or care to; she just stood there, ignoring the questioning looks that surrounded her, fulfilling her role and counting down the moments to her periods of freedom.
Endrall inevitably sought her out whenever she was trying to sleep, speaking of the people he had seen and spoken with, asking for her opinion on his interaction with them. He would tell her everything, every last little detail, and ask her to analyze what had been told. He was looking for justification, for edification, for proof that he was as liked and admired and respected as he knew he deserved to be. Veskur told him the truth as she knew it and let herself fade into sleep when she was able.
Whether for sleep or for honor, he always seemed insulted when she had to leave him and when she awoke it was inevitably alone.
She missed Figo. She looked for him but neither he or Hekro were there. Her heart had always ever focused on his duty and this moment was no exception to that rule; she heard tell that he was still on the Coeecian front, watching for incursion, and that while he had been invited to stand witness he had declined the invitation. Endrall, in those quiet moments they shared, was quick to let her know that she was the reason for his refusal. Veskur could have brought up the delicate subject of Hekro but never did, not once in a thousand heartbeats.
On the final day of the festival, when exhaustion had claimed those who were there only for reason of politic or politeness and all that remained were those that truly loved Deeam or Glow, the new Njord called for musicians and invited all those with the will or means to abandon themselves in the mania of song and dance. Veskur circled around the assembled group, the Nauthiz Coven and Endrall Sahr, Ygg Sotaas and Sas Ansu, Roch Elhaz, and Gvin Berkano. The lot of them moved in graceful circles around the royal couple, singing along with the music, rocking out as hard as they were able.
Veskur stood apart, claiming a strip of floor that was not wanted.
Every time she had danced before this had been out in the woods and private, a duel between herself and music that only she could hear, but now she was sick from exhaustion and sick of people and sick with observations she wanted nothing to do with and there would be no stopping her, not now. Sliding one foot behind the other, bringing her hands around in a half-circle, she closed her eyes and let the music carry her.
She heard startled gasps as she moved but she did not open her eyes, wanting to know nothing in this moment save the joys of movement and noise. Whispers surrounded her, calls of insanity, of insult, of injury, but she refused to let those voices touch her, refused to identify any of those who spoke. She did not want to know that Endrall was insulting her. She did not want to know this.
The music fell and the music rose and she lashed out against it, seeing it as something to fight, something to rail against. Voices rang around her and she heard her own join them, warbling off-kilter and out of tune. Her face broke into a wild grin and she heard herself laughing as she leapt from one place to the next, every turn and strike in time with the music around her.
People came to the floor and left but she remained constant, a tempest brought to life. Soaked in sweat, all muscles aching and still she moved, still she sang. The sun came and went and came again and still she moved, still she smiled and laughed. This was her moment to by happy and that emotion filled her with emotions she had not felt since Figo had finally left her, since Endrall had told her that he would be happiest beside her closest friend. She danced and leaped and spun until her entire being was a throbbing fatigue and all movement itself was impossible.
Only then did she stop.
Things were quiet after that, Deeam thanking them all, Glow letting them know that they could move on with whatever it was they were meant to do now and so they did. Endrall let Veskur limp away to claim their carriage, then return to claim her in turn. Deeam went with her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Tired, but otherwise fine,” Veskur murmured. “I have enough to get back to the cabin, but after that I’ll sleep for a day or so. Why? What do you need?”
“I was going to ask you to take the vestments back to the Darroken,” Deeam said, studying her. “If you’re too tired, though…?”
“No, I’ll be fine,” Veskur said. “I’ll come to claim them and Sotaas in the evening tomorrow.”
“He’s not staying with you?”
“He’s uncomfortable sleeping under the same roof as Endrall.”
“I see.” Deaam glanced back to where the young healer was waiting and watching them. “And you’re alright sleeping thus?”
“I love him,” Veskur said, the words rolling off her tongue. “I love him. I love him. I’d howl that from any rooftop I could if he would let me.” Veskur thought that Deeam looked like he might have said something else but then he thought better of it and said nothing. She shrugged it off; she was tired and there was a good chance she was seeing phantoms.
Deeam accepted the ride back to his new home. Veskur held the door open for Endrall, found Sotaas and told him what they had yet to do and asked if he was interested in making the return journey. He said that he was and told Veskur that he would be waiting come the following evening before shooing her away.
“Go to bed,” Sotaas ordered. “You’re weaving on your feet.”
“My calves hurt.”
“The way you were moving, you’re lucky that’s the only thing causing you pain. Go.”
Sotaas helped Endrall back to the transport, saw both she and Endrall off. Endrall was silent the whole way back, the two of them travelling through the darkest part of the night in perfect quiet. Endrall’s fingers found hers and curled around them and Veskur’s heart fluttered from the slight contact, the sense that maybe now everything would be okay between them.
They arrived in utter darkness, even the lights meant to stand sentinel in the night long since guttered out. Endrall led her back into their small cabin, keeping her from stumbling over her numb feet and exhausted thoughts. Veskur held the keys to the door and managed to fumble their house open but nearly collapsed thereafter. Endrall’s gentle hands lifted her, held her, and guided her to the bed.
“It’s lumpy anyway,” Endrall whispered. “I’ll take the living area.”
“You can,” Veskur swallowed, tried to focus her eyes. “You can stay here if you like.”
Even in the darkness and through her exhaustion Veskur could see the cold that touched Endrall’s eyes at that invitation. The boy left her without another word.
She drifted unconscious thereafter, letting the tide of dreamless sleep overtake her and shatter her upon the unknowable shores of oblivion. When she awoke, it was still to darkness and the sound of hushed weeping. Exhausted, she forced herself off the slab of a mattress, creeping through the black to where Endrall sat.
“Are you alright?” Veskur asked, keeping herself balanced on the entryway to the living area. Endrall looked back at her, a silhouette held by morning’s first sliver of light.
“He hates me, doesn’t he?” Endrall said, holding himself. “Sotaas hates me. Just like you do. I know you do, and that’s fine because I hate you. I don’t trust you. And you know, that’s fine. That’s alright. I’m so much better than all of you. It’s jealousy, it will always be jealousy…”
He drifted off as Veskur came to him and rested her head in his lap, letting him know that she loved him, that she had always loved him and would always love him. She held his shoulders, whispering in his ear every oath of devotion she could think of, every promise writ in her heart, and all the words that passed from her lips she meant. She whispered and held and promised until he was sleeping, silent in her arms.
She knew this was the closest she would ever get to him. It would have to be enough, and it was. Exhausted, she bent over and pressed her lips against his forehead, crawled back to the room she had been given and let sleep take her once more.
When next she woke the sun was creeping past its zenith, seeping back towards earth. Endrall was still asleep as she slipped to his side, kneeling beside him and resting her head parallel with his, matching his breathing. His eyes opened a crack, a sliver, and she wished him good morning, told him she was going to get Sotaas, and asked him if he wanted to come with her. He begged off, desiring nothing more than rest. She kissed his forehead once more, her mouth brushing his skin, and then she was heading outside to where their chariot waited.
The passage back to Njordheim was quiet and simple. The vast majority of Vanir that had come here had already taken their leave, returning to whatever homes they had left behind. Only the best and brightest had stayed behind – the full complement of the Honored Guard, the Nauthiz Coven, and a handful of others. They were feasting when Veskur arrived, eating the remnants of the grand meals that had come before, and they welcomed her to their tables.
“Where’s Endrall?” the youngest of the Nauthiz Coven asked.
“Sleeping,” Veskur answered, catching a hint of mischief in the question. “He was very tired.”
“I can imagine,” the middle member of the Nauthiz Coven said. “But he is unharmed?”
“He’s fine,” Veskur replied, buttering a slice of bread. “He just needed a little more sleep.”
“Endrall Sahr, Endrall Sahr,” the eldest member of the Nauthiz Coven smiled. “Who do we have to thank for his talents, really? Who do we have to thank?”
Veskur Wyrd did not reply to this, realizing that some sort of game was being played while remaining ignorant of the intent and the rules. She didn’t care what point they may have been trying to make and instead turned her attention to other things. Sotaas was there and speaking with Deeam, the two of them getting on as well as they ever did, and Veskur found herself wondering if anything had truly changed.
She could have looked into the future or changed it. The means of doing so was on her left hand even now, but she did not think she was worthy of that sort of power, not anymore; her use had caused so much change and she would never know if her violation of the illusion of choice had caused more harm than good. She suspected it had. She suspected there was no crime more profane than the one she had made with every use of her power, her only solace lying in the simple fact that no one around her could even comprehend what it was that she had done.
No one save Sotaas, as close to her as breath, and Endrall, the one she loved above all else.
The rest of her time there passed without incident. She spoke briefly with Deeam and Glow about nothing of real import, she packed the holy vestments of the Njord away with Sotaas and exchanged means of contact with Sas Ansu. Once all of that was done, she and Sotaas boarded the transport, piloted it back to where Endrall Sahr was waiting for them and began the long ride back.
Endrall tried to make conversation with Sotaas the entire way back. Veskur kept silent, allowing the man to try and mend that bridge as best he could. It was clear enough to her that Sotaas was merely being polite, friendliness meant merely to make the long journey back more bearable. If Endrall took note of Veskur’s silence or lack of comfort, he shared no care of it. Sometimes, he would turn the conversation to a direction that Veskur found downright insulting but still she kept silent.
She could have used the ethcinos to fix things, used her power to settle the distance between her two passengers, but the one who stood to benefit the most from such passage had already insulted her beyond all reckoning for doing such things. He still did not understand why there was even a modicum of chance that his doing so had been wrong. Instead of speaking her mind, Veskur tried to mend their wound with words but words alone had never been her weapon of choice. Nothing was fixed. Endrall blithely continued to speak and insult and demean, Sotaas kept up a passively insulting tirade that Endrall missed entirely.
Veskur felt herself tense from silence.
They crossed over into the Darroken lands, their strange little party. Sotaas insisted that they were being followed and even pointed out where there pursuers were. Endrall grew quiet after that revelation, fearing Coeecians, and the Wanderer of Ygg left them to scout around, promising to be back before daybreak. Veskur settled up for the night, made camp, and let Endrall wrap her in his arms.
“Do you think he still likes me?” Endrall asked, voice very quiet.
“You do yourself no favors by insulting others,” Veskur replied.
“How can you tell?”
“The way his jaw clenches when you do. The way his breathing changes, the slight narrowing of his eyes. He doesn’t much care for it though sometimes he forgets how angry he is with you.”
“Me? Angry at me? Whatever for?”
“You broke his heart.”
“I know you’re delusional. I did everything for him. I supported him, I brought him into a world he would have never known, I brought him into the Darroken Lands long before you and he decided to go back there for whatever mad reason currently drives the two of you. I was the one that pushed him, that drove him. I hate you. He should hate you. You tried to keep him a child while I made him a man and now that he’s all interesting I feel like I don’t get to enjoy what I made of him.”
“What you made of him…?”
“Interesting. I made him interesting. Everything he is now I made and he won’t even speak with me. He should love me, he should be grateful. He should recognize me for everything that I did for him. But he doesn’t trust me, the way I don’t trust you, and why should he treat me thus? He shouldn’t. Not after everything I did for him.”
“And to him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sotaas returned as promised. He told them that there had been Coeecians out and about, a handful of spies moving quietly through the wild places, living off the land and avoiding contact. They had been following their party out of a sense of curiosity but had not recognized them for who they were, finally concluding that they were nothing more than a collection of young and stupid wandering nobles. The Coeecians had broken away from their path, having no desire to pass into Darroken land; the spies had been wise enough to recognize that as their destination.
Veskur caught Sotaas’ eye and knew they hadn’t been. Sotaas had used the ethcinos to change things, to make what he had said the truth. She felt her fingers itch beneath the gaurn on her left hand and fought the urge to see what might have otherwise been.
They crossed over into the Darroken lands without further incident, Endrall trying to patch things up with Sotaas and making things more awkward, Veskur keeping herself to herself, Sotaas subtly eager to be done with the journey and with Endrall Sahr. Veskur found herself wondering if the entire fight with Hekro had been a ploy to buy him this time, to allow him to reclaim Sotaas into his life.
If it had been, she thought, than Endrall had deeply miscalculated.
Once the vestments were returned Sotaas came to Veskur.
“I’m going to go find out where the final destination of those Coeecians was,” Sotaas said, clasping her shoulder. “I will come to you after I know for certain.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Veskur said. The two embraced and then Sotaas was gone, using the power of the ethcinos to vanish into the woods. Veskur felt her left hand clench. Where was the line to be drawn? When was it alright to use the power that she had discovered? She no longer knew. Too much of who she was now was wrapped up in Endrall Sahr, and Endrall, well…
“Where’s Sotaas?” Endrall asked. She had left them to grab some refreshments, had even been kind enough to pick one up for Veskur. Sotaas had wanted nothing from him.
“He went to spy on the Coeecians,” Veskur said. Endrall glared.
“I can’t believe he didn’t even have the nerve to say goodbye,” Endrall said. “That dryw.”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” Veskur said. “He’s going to find out why the Coeecians have quietly invaded Midgard. I think that’s a little more important than saying farewell.”
“I do not think so,” Endrall spat. “He could have waited another second or two.”
Veskur shrugged and said nothing, enjoyed the refreshment that had been provided her and offered to finish taking Endrall the rest of the way home. Grumbling, the boy accepted.
They left the next morning, setting out in silence and with a light sprinkling of rain complimenting a golden sunrise. The emerald leaves of the trees along their path whispered above them in a thousand strange tongues, a poet’s miasma of promises only barely understood. In spite of everything, Veskur still felt her bond to Endrall, still desired the touch of that man’s hand on her flesh.
Nothing happened. They left the Darroken lands and re-entered Midgard, passed through lands dominated by several noble Houses before returning at last to the territories claimed by House Suwilo. The words between them turned once more to Ygg Sotaas, and Veskur felt herself shaking even as she said nothing.
“I know I have to watch what I say when I’m talking to you about Sotaas,” Endrall said. “I don’t want you to confuse the ties that bind me and him with the ties that bind me and you.”
A terrible wave of fury bled over Veskur Wyrd and held her.
It was one line among many, one insult in a multitude. It was not a phrase that on its own would have poisoned whatever wells of emotion lay between the two of them but after everything else there was nothing left in Veskur save a terrible sense of cold. She swallowed, bit her tongue as Endrall continued talking, continued to insult, continued to hurt with the clear expectation that Veskur would bear whatever injury he chose to give her.
“I think that Sotaas and I should get back together,” Endrall said. “I think that it’s time for the two of us to be together now that he’s a little more worthy of being with me. Not like you. You’ll never be worthy, were never really worth very much to begin with. You know that, don’t you? What do you think?”
“Honestly?” Somehow, she managed to keep the bile and hate out of her voice. “If you work really hard at it, the two of you might become good friends. The two of you will never again be lovers.”
“I can’t believe you’d say that to me,” Endrall said. “This is why I don’t trust you. Why I hate you. Why we’re not friends.” He glared at her once more before storming out of the transport and leaving Veskur alone. She stared after him for a moment, realized he’d left most his things behind, so she grabbed them and chased after them, handed them to him. He took them, glaring all the while, his entire posture meant to hurt, meant to cripple and make her less, but so consumed by hate was she that she took no note.
She returned alone to the transport, uncertain as to whether Endrall watched her or no. She did not care. She forced the vehicle to move and took it out into the wild emptiness, using the ethcinos to enhance her knowing of the world around her until she was certain she was alone. Holding herself, she fell out of the carriage and to the earth below, clutching herself until she bled, weeping until sight itself was not possible. She was so angry, so impossibly angry and hurt and she did not know what, if anything, to do about it.
As exhaustion and fatigue claimed her in an attempt to stave off the threat of madness, a message found her, some missive sent to her by the man that had brought her so low.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t going anywhere good. I love you a lot. You know that.” A handful of seconds later another followed. “I didn’t mean to be reactive. You’re irreplaceable to me and I want you to be happy.”
She laughed until blackness claimed her, until senselessness rescued her from the hysteria that had overwhelmed her. When she awoke the carriage was gone, everything was gone. She lay on a mountaintop close to her home, an empty place coated by snow and invaded by her body and the gaurn that she was cradling.
Veskur pushed herself up on bleeding arms, looked up at a sun that gave light and no heat and knew it was empty as she felt. She was shaking as she remembered everything, every last detail playing out in excruciating detail.
I want you to be happy. Some people wished for things that would make them happy, Veskur knew. Some people wished for things and she had never thought much about what she would wish for if given the chance, but right them she knew with absolute certainty.
Veskur Wyrd woke up and wished that she were dead.