With my eyes closed I breathe deeply and slowly. I feel Fönnreyf’s presence near, where he always is when we commune – arm’s length, no closer. His own breaths match my own and I open my eyes to survey the arrangement of small objects laid out between us on the tanned elk hide.
Mechanically, my hands stretch out to touch each in turn, these objects of memory which I have unbraided from my hair, which has never been cut and now lays splayed around me to the floor. Black, which marked me from birth as an outsider within my own people, with a streak of white that appeared on that cold and still night when my son was born, just as silent and cold, until Fönnreyf came and we together healed him and myself.
Our communion has always come to be symbolized by these items we carry, seemingly insignificant, but with an unseen weight of significance. I let my hands be drawn to one, as always, in which to meditate upon and consider what lies before us and what has passed beyond us.
On this sunless morning, we have awoken with hundreds of tons of stone above our heads, in a stone room with stone furnishings in the Hold of the dwarves of the Vale. We are guests of Stokely Silverstream, the Dain of a sundered people. I had accompanied and fought alongside three of his soldiers: Baern Khurkal, Yedek the Silent, and Skain Foehammer when it was realized that we’d both tracked the same foes: shuffling undead dwarves disturbed from their rest and in possession of objects of Black Ice, the cursed affliction that the tundra animals have spoken of as originating from Kelvin’s Cairn, itself a place that chills my heart. I was only a small child when I picked my way through a field of corpses to find my father Skírnir there. Like most of the Elk Tribe and the Reghedmen, he had lost his life in that great battle where Akar Kessell was defeated. But my fingers today do not stray to the lock of my father’s red hair. Instead, I brush against a carved golden ring, something I have not thought of in some time.
“You see, Freyja?” said Hedrun. “There are two of them and they match perfectly! Aren’t they beautiful? They belonged to some foolish explorers my father came across. He said they were already half-dead from the cold. Southern soft townfolk… it was a mercy to slay them, I’m sure.”
Hedrun’s blue eyes glittered. She was so beautiful with her fair hair so light. I wished that mine was like hers and still clung to the hope that mine would lighten so I would not stand out. Hedrun was older than me by only a few years but she was my friend, my only friend. We both were… different, somehow. Fönnreyf said I should tell her about him, though. I didn’t understand but obeyed. In those days, I hated being different so I hardly ever sought to argue. I found her father’s act criminal and cruel, though it reflected our people’s past glories before we’d allied with the townsfolk against Akar Kessell, but I held my tongue.
“Yes, they’re beautiful, Hedrun,” was all I replied.
“One is for you and one is for me,” she declared. “Because we’re the same. True sisters. True friends.”
She held one out for me and I knew I wanted that ring. I wanted it more than anything, though I had never understood the southrons’ desires for gold and gems. You could not eat it or use it as a tool. It was — artificial — to care so for it. But this time, I reached greedily to grab for it only after my hand was in motion silently thanking the fact that I still wore my mitten as I took it from her bare hand. Fönnreyf had warned me also to never touch Hedrun’s bare skin.
As I gazed down at the ring, I began to think it strange how much I had wanted to take what she’d offered and I wondered if she had used some kind of power on me. We both could do small tricks and we would show one another all the while knowing we would be shunned if anyone else knew our secrets. A coldness settled on me as I thought about her manipulating me and my anger gave voice to my earlier thoughts.
“Thank you, Hedrun,” I said. “It is unfortunate that your father bought this with blood, however. If he had saved those explorers instead, they might have been his out of respect and gratitude.”
Hedrun cackled. I never liked her laugh. It was only ever for mocking. “Grow up, Freyja. Stop being so weak.”
I looked her in the eye. “It is a weakness to allow greed to control you into evil acts, Hedrun. Mercy and sacrifice are offered by the true strong ones.”
“I gave that to you because you’re supposed to be my friend!” she yelled, probably too loudly as we were not supposed to spend time with one another. She stood angrily and turned her back to me and strode back towards the tents. “You’d better start acting like one or I won’t share with you again.”
As she left, another coldness suffused my heart, that of my ever-present loneliness. I realized then it was not a hunger for the gold I had wanted more than anything, but for her friendship.
I wondered, holding the ring again, if Hedrun still carried its twin wherever she roamed now, tortured and alone, out on the tundra. I hoped she was not alone but in my heart I knew she must be, as I am. Or was I?
The dwarven trackers, after I had saved them from death with my healing hexes, had told me I would be welcome in Stokely’s Hall. We had battled together against the followers of Barak Hammerstone, once kinsmen of the Silverstream clan but who had, we’d learned, split violently from them after Barak had accompanied a traveler to Kelvin’s Cairn and returned with finely crafted objects of Black Ice which his people carry but did not save them as they attacked the Silverstream dwarves and myself.
I had enjoyed battling and traveling alongside Baern, Yedek, and Skain and perhaps that was why I agreed to find their kinswoman, Helda Silverstream, and warn her of the Hammerstones’ treachery.
Helda was accompanied herself with some southern mercenaries: a strange-looking gray dwarf named Murryl, a flamboyant archer named Bell, a quiet crossbow-wielding half-elf named Turrell and an elven warrior named Todd Decroder with a pet cat. When we met, they battled more of these undead dwarves and then I accompanied them back to the Vale. Also with them were two men from Bryn Shandor, Gunnolf and Osten, who had some Reghed blood and wished to join the Elk Tribe, the people of their ancestry they had never known. Disturbingly, they also said that the Elk Tribe was in some kind of danger, though my feelings are mixed as to how to address this. They had heard this from Hengar, who I remembered as being around my own age, but had not known well. In Bryn Shandor, Hengar was accused of theft, I learned, and left to die in the cold. That injustice would be answered, I’d silently promised.
The mercenaries fought well, if somewhat inconsistently, against the zombies and also more of the Hammerstones. Though the adventurers seemingly possess the ability to survive the tundra, they are nonetheless the same as all townfolk in their greed for gold. Guests in the Halls of Stokely Silverstream, they still dicker and bargain and demand more and more when asked for help against these undead that plague them. Stokely wishes also to end the rift with Barak Hammerstone peacefully and believes the same solution to end the plague of Black Ice will bring that to fruition. Alas, the mercenaries demand more coin, for even that service which should be the goal of any living person in these lands.
I weave the golden ring into my braid in the practiced sequence with the other items. Could these men be the friends I seek? More likely we will be temporary allies. I have agreed to lead Gunnolf and Osten to the Elk Tribe, or at least as close as I will get, but first we will descend into the mountain where the dwarves mine for their precious treasures. My allies go for the promise of gold while I go for more answers about this Black Ice and to repay the hospitality of the Hall. As with Hedrun, this conflict of desires will likely divide me from these men whose lives are now in my care. Even the dwarves, as steadfast and plain-speaking as they have been, have a consuming greed to take from the ground until it is bare. I will continue as before, alone.