Silent World Six Celebrated!
Nordic Council lauds returning heroes at the Mora Midwinter Gala
Three months ago a group of explorers emerged from the Silent World - and rocked the Known World on its axis. Against all odds, the crew not only returned alive, but brought with them something the world has needed for 90 years: a cure for the Rash. While the details of the mission remain shrouded in secrecy, officials confirm that rumors of a Rash cure are not unfounded.
“Obviously we still have a lot of testing to do before we can release anything to the public,” said Siv Västerström, one of the expedition’s founders and noted Rash researcher, “But this new discovery has done more to advance our research than the last decade of study. Maybe we should have sent people on this stupid death mission - I mean, study mission, please don’t print that - years ago.”
Västerström refused to confirm or deny rumors that one of the expedition members actually died of the Rash and came back to life through “supernatural means”, as some are claiming. But tonight’s festivities will give Mora’s best and brightest a chance to find out for themselves. All six members of the expedition - including Sweden’s own Emil Västerström, a celebrated Cleanser - will be present at what some are calling the event of the century. In addition to the traditional dinner and dancing, there will be a special presentation by the Nordic Council and a question-and-answer session with the crew. Attendees will have a chance to uncover some of the mysteries our heroes brought back - or maybe just claim a dance with a famous face. Either way, it should be a night to remember.
Story continued on Page 5, Homecoming Heroes
Tuuri tossed the newspaper onto the bed without finishing the article. “Good gods, where do they get this stuff? ‘Claim a dance with a famous face’? If someone asks Lalli to dance, he’ll probably bite them and hide under a table.”
Sigrun laughed. “I hope he does. It’ll liven things up, anyway. Can you believe we’re not supposed to bring weapons? Where’s the fun in that?” She adjusted the sheath of her boot-knife—rules or no rules, there was no way she was going unarmed—and settled her skirt to hide the second knife strapped to her thigh.
Tuuri tore her gaze away from the exposed stretch of skin on Sigrun’s leg and fidgeted with her own dress. She’d found one with a high neckline and sleeves, deep blue except for the silver buttons up the back. It covered the mark that was her souvenir from the Silent World: a handprint, so pale it glowed in dim light. Scar tissue might have gained her sympathy; this sign of divine intervention only raised questions. Better to hide it—and the purpling bruises on the insides of her elbows—and try to be just another of the returning heroes.
“You all right, Fuzzy-head?” Sigrun’s voice broke into her thoughts. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine!” Tuuri said. “Just nervous, I guess. It sounds like there will be a lot of people at this thing.” She gave her collar one final tug and took a deep breath. “Ready?”
“Almost.” Instead of triple-checking her weapons, Sigrun strode over to Tuuri and caught her gently by the shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay. Compared to what we’ve been through, a fancy dinner is nothing, right?” She grinned, and an answering smile tugged at Tuuri’s lips.
“Right. I guess I’m just being silly.”
“Nah.” Sigrun pressed a kiss to Tuuri’s forehead. “I’d rather face down a troll than a bunch of fancy Swedes too, nothing silly about it. But if anyone gets too nosy, just remember what I taught you.” She released her hold and caught Tuuri’s hand, pulling her towards the door.
Tuuri snorted. “Sigrun, I’m not stabbing anyone!” No matter how tempting it might be.
“Aww, you’re no fun!”
Sigrun had to hand it to the Swedes—they knew how to throw a party. The ballroom was decked out in crystal and fine fabric; the attendees dressed to match, glittering as they made their entrances. Tempting aromas rose from the food tables, and the drink station boasted enough booze to keep the entire Norwegian army happy. Sigrun was actually impressed.
The rest of the crew’s reactions were fun to watch, too. Lalli didn’t seem to care about the glitz and glamor, but Sigrun saw his eyes go wide when they passed a table laden with desserts. Emil wore his best ‘lofty rich kid’ expression, but the way he chattered on about the table arrangements betrayed his excitement. Reynir didn’t even bother pretending; his jaw dropped open as soon as they set foot in the room. Even Mikkel looked a little pleased.
And Tuuri—well, her face was lit from within, eyes bright with excitement. “It’s so beautiful!” she breathed, clutching Sigrun’s arm.
“Sure is,” Sigrun said. If the others noticed that she wasn’t looking at the room when she said it, no one commented.
Dinner was uneventful—other than Lalli hiding under the table as predicted, and Emil having to crawl under to coax him out—and the Nordic Council speeches were downright boring. It wasn’t until the question-and-answer session that the night started to heat up.
“So I stabbed it right in the forehead, and the thing just burst all over me! All in a day’s work though, of course.” Sigrun sat back and nodded to the moderator to signal that she was finished. The woman looked a little green, but she gathered her composure and called for the next question.
“Yes, I have one,” the man said. He was dressed in the height of Swedish fashion, something Sigrun only knew because Emil had been talking about it for weeks. It didn’t suit him nearly as well as it did Emil, though. Or maybe it was just the sneer that didn’t look good on him. “What I want to know, Captain, is what place does religious nonsense have on a military expedition?”
Sigrun raised an eyebrow. “Religious nonsense? Not sure I follow. The gods like blood, and most of the military people I know like killing trolls in the face, so I think you’ll find it goes together pretty well.” She’d had this discussion with Swedes and Danes before, and in most cases they agreed to disagree. It was none of Sigrun’s business who they prayed or didn’t pray to.
“Not that,” the man said. “I’m asking about the rumors that your ‘rash cure’ involves raising people from the dead.” He leveled a long look at the far end of the table, where Tuuri sat beside Lalli. “Finnish witchery, or something.”
Oh, fuck no. They hadn’t been through hell and back—literally—to deal with this. Sigrun opened her mouth to make a retort—
“That’s a fascinating question, sir.” Tuuri’s voice was calm as a frozen lake. “May I ask you one in return?”
The man frowned. Tuuri kept right on going. “Have you ever met a Finnish 'witch'?”
He shook his head. “Of course not.”
“Well, my grandmother was a mage,” Tuuri said, “and she was really powerful. She could stop a charging Rash-beast with a few words, or call down a lightning storm, or even set a curse on someone.” Her gaze sharpened. “The only thing she couldn’t do...was cure the Rash. If she had, I wouldn’t have had to go into the Silent World with a breathing mask on.”
The man’s face had gone pale at the word “curse”, and now he looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“Of course,” Tuuri said, “In ninety years, no one else found a cure for it either. And not for lack of trying.” She shrugged and held out her hands. “We only found what we did because we were brave and lucky and favored by the gods. And because the six of us worked together.” She made a sweeping gesture at the rest of the crew, hand angled to the namecards in front of them—each of which bore a country flag, and the Nordic Council’s star. “We were invited here to celebrate that teamwork, not so you could argue with Captain Eide about her crew’s tactics. Especially when you admit to knowing nothing about magic.”
The man scowled, and his mouth twisted. Fortunately, the moderator interjected smoothly before he could reply. “Oh look, it appears our time for questions is up! If you’ll all make your way to the ballroom, I believe the dancing is about to begin.”
The audience rose with a great scraping of chairs, and the noise level rose with them as conversations broke out. The crew was no exception.
“Tuuri, oh my gods,” Reynir said.
“Did you see his face? I thought he was going to burst into flame—” That was Emil, looking both horrified and proud.
Mikkel looked proud too, offering Tuuri a solemn handshake. “Well done.”
“It was,” Sigrun said, eyeing the crowd, “but I think it’s my turn to play hero now. He’s coming right this way, and I don’t think he wants to ask Tuuri to dance.” She drew herself up to her full height and planted herself directly in the man’s path. “So nice to see you again! Pity the session ended, we had such a nice discussion going. Care to dance?” She’d learned the way of making a question sound like an order long ago, and this man was as defenseless as a one-legged troll. She steered him away from the table and toward the dance floor before he could protest.
Dancing was, in some ways, not all that different from fighting. At least not to Sigrun, who knew how to use it like a weapon. She could dance well, when she wanted to. But not everyone had to know that, least of all obnoxious Swedes. Although it was possible to have debate on the dance floor, she’d discovered that there were better ways to deal with unwanted dance partners. Most people had trouble keeping up their half of an argument when Sigrun kept stepping on their toes.
“Oh, sorry—soldier feet, you know, used to stomping trolls. What were you saying?” The Swede’s mask of civility was looking strained by the time the song ended, and he declined her offer of a second dance. It didn’t matter, though—she’d given him something to be annoyed about besides his ridiculous question, and she’d given Tuuri time to escape. Hopefully she could get away herself, to make sure Tuuri was all right.
But now that the dancing was underway, there were plenty of other people who were eager to dance with Sigrun. She spotted her crew every once in a while: Mikkel dancing with a tiny, wizened woman, Reynir being spun enthusiastically by someone in a Cleanser uniform, and even Lalli, lured onto the dance floor by a smiling Emil with a pocketful of cookies. But she didn’t see Tuuri, even when she moved to the edge of the room and scanned the crowd.
“Hey, Twig,” she called. Lalli stopped what he was doing and looked up expectantly; Emil, startled by his sudden lack of movement, nearly fell over. Sigrun smothered a laugh. “Where’s your cousin?”
Lalli narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, then pointed. Sigrun followed the line of his arm down the room until she spotted a door that let out onto a balcony. She could just see a set of footprints in the snow.
“Thanks Twig! Good luck with the dancing, Emil.” Sigrun looked around to make sure no one was watching, then slipped out into the cold.
Tuuri watched her breath escape in frozen clouds. It was quiet on the balcony, with only a faint hint of music and conversation from inside. Quieter now that her breath came and went in even waves, rather than the short panicked bursts from before. She could go inside soon—and she’d have to, if she didn’t want to freeze. Just a few more minutes.
The door opened with a soft creak. Tuuri squeezed her eyes shut; maybe it was someone wanting a bit of fresh air, and they’d soon close it and leave. She’d be hard to see, huddled in the corner with its comforting shadows. No reason for anyone to look for her here.
But when the door closed, footsteps approached her instead of going away. Even without looking, Tuuri recognized the intruder.
“Awfully cold to be out here enjoying the view, Short Stuff.” Tuuri opened her eyes. Sigrun leaned against the wall beside her, folding her arms over her chest. “Everything all right?”
“Yes.” The word came out automatically. It was what she always said when someone asked that—it was just what people said. But she knew it wasn’t true even as she said it. “Well...no. I couldn’t handle being in there. Not after that man.” Not when his question raised memories of everything she’d been through: infection, dying, going to Tuonela and clawing her way back. Nearly dragging the rest of the crew down with her. She had the mark to remind her, and the bruises from where the researchers took her blood to study. Surely that was enough for anyone to cope with.
Sigrun sighed. “Can’t say I blame you. Real piece of work, that guy.” After a pause, she added, “Lousy dancer, too.”
Tuuri giggled. “I saw. I’m surprised he can still walk!”
As though the laughter was an invitation, Sigrun came closer and put her arm around Tuuri’s shoulders. Despite the cold air, her skin was warm, and Tuuri couldn’t help leaning into the touch. “If he’s the reason you’re out here, I should have done worse than step on his feet. Did he find you again? Did he hurt you?” A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with the cold.
“No, nothing like that!” Tuuri said. “I came out here before your dance ended. I knew I couldn’t face him, or anyone else. I just…” She swallowed hard. “I’m so tired of people questioning it. Asking why the gods allowed it, why I deserved a miracle when so many others didn’t get one. Or thinking we’re making it all up, like that guy.”
Sigrun tightened her hold, pulling Tuuri closer and wrapping both arms around her. “I know. It sucks, and it sucks for you most of all.” Her voice came out rough with emotion. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Tuuri let out a long breath. “Neither would I.” No matter what else happened, or what people said, she’d been given a gift. And she didn’t intend to waste it.
“Good.” Sigrun stepped back. “Now, how about we go in before we freeze to death? I don’t know about you, but I think we need a dance to warm us up.”
Tuuri glanced at the door. “I...guess so. I’m not looking forward to the crowd, but...I would like to dance with you.”
Sigrun squeezed her hand. “Perfect. Don’t worry, I promise not to step on your feet!”
Laughing, they made their way back into the warmth and light of the party.
“Mmm?” Tuuri didn’t raise her head from Sigrun’s shoulder.
Sigrun kept up her slow, turning steps, watching as a few more couples left the dance floor and made their way out. The hour had grown late, and before long even the most dedicated dancers would be off to bed. Sigrun thought that sounded like a pretty good idea.
“Do you wanna get out of here? I don’t think they’ll miss us.”
Tuuri roused enough to look around the steadily-emptying room. “Oh. Okay.” She made no move to let go of Sigrun though, and Sigrun didn’t want her to. She slid her arm around Tuuri’s waist and turned so they could walk together, with Tuuri still pressed against her side.
The hotel was fancy enough to have an elevator—which normally Sigrun wouldn’t have bothered with, because stairs were nothing compared to the mountains back home—but tonight she was glad of it. It meant she could stand with Tuuri cuddled close, warm and solid in her arms, until they reached their floor. More romantic than carrying her over one shoulder up several flights of stairs, anyway.
Not that I should be hoping for romance, after the night she’s had. She’ll probably want to go straight to sleep.
That thought lasted just long enough for her to get Tuuri through the hotel room door. “All right, let’s get you to bed and—mmf!” Tuuri’s mouth pressed hot against hers, taking her by surprise. Sigrun was almost too startled to return the kiss—almost. “Thought you were tired,” she managed, when they broke apart to breathe.
“Mmm. Not too tired.” Tuuri slid her hands up to caress Sigrun’s bare shoulders. “Plus it was nice to have you taking care of me. You’re pretty sexy when you get all protective.”
Sigrun chuckled. “Little weasel! You had me tricked.” She ducked her head to claim another kiss as retribution. Her hands roamed lower, sliding over the smooth fabric at Tuuri’s hips. “Oughta make you pay for that.”
Tuuri grinned. “Oh? What did you have in mind?”
Sigrun hoisted her up by the legs, making Tuuri squeak and cling to her neck. “I bet I can think of something.” She crossed the room in three strides and tossed Tuuri onto the bed. She was about to follow when Tuuri sat up.
“Wait, Sigrun—boots.” She pulled hers off and tossed them aside. For a moment, Sigrun started to do the same...then paused. She’d seen Tuuri watching when she put them on—over-the-knee black leather, as tight as a second skin. They looked damn good with her short black dress. Odds were, they’d look good without it.
So Sigrun grabbed the hem of her skirt and pulled it up and over her head. It hit the floor with a soft thump. Or maybe that was the sound of Tuuri’s eyes bulging.
“You like?” Sigrun asked. This time Tuuri made no move to stop her when she climbed onto the bed and knelt in front of her. She touched one of Tuuri’s knees, nudging it away from the other one.
Tuuri’s face flamed. “Do you even have to ask?” She let her legs fall open. “Fuck, Sigrun.”
“That an invitation?” Sigrun ran her hands over smooth, soft skin, stopping just short of the rumpled skirt.
Sigrun laughed, and pushed the offending fabric out of her way. “Good.”
The finger tracing patterns over Tuuri’s stomach slowed to a halt. “Yeah?” Sigrun’s lips, red and swollen as they were, still curved into a smile at the sound of her name.
Tuuri twirled a strand of red hair around her finger. Her bones felt pleasantly loose, and moving seemed like an impossible and unnecessary task. But—
“If I can roll over, will you help me with the buttons?” Her dress was a mess, but there was no point in letting it get even more wrinkled. “I shouldn’t sleep in this.”
“Sure thing, Fuzzy.” Sigrun propped herself up on an elbow. “Let’s get you out of that.”
Her fingers made quick work of the buttons, but she lingered over the process of sliding the fabric from
Tuuri’s skin. The dress slipped off one shoulder, then the other. Sigrun paused. “Does it hurt?”
“Does what...oh.” Sigrun’s fingers skated over the pale handprint on Tuuri’s arm, then settled flat on top of it. Her hand fit perfectly. Tuuri looked away. “It doesn’t hurt. I just...don’t like to look at it.”
Sigrun’s hand withdrew, then came to rest on Tuuri’s cheek. “No?” Carefully, she tipped Tuuri’s chin up. “Look at me for a minute, would you?”
Tuuri raised her eyes. Moonlight streamed in through the curtains, bathing Sigrun in a cool glow. She’d lost her boots during the course of their lovemaking, and now wore nothing but her skin. With the hand not touching Tuuri, she pointed to her own shoulder. “What’s this?”
“A scar.” Tuuri knew it well enough by now—the pale lines spiderwebbed down Sigrun’s arm, almost like a bolt of lightning.
“And you like it, don’t you?”
Considering that Tuuri had spent an embarrassing amount of time admiring it—and all the others scattered across Sigrun’s body, in very concrete ways—there was only one answer she could give. “Yeah.”
Sigrun leaned in and brushed her lips to Tuuri’s, a remarkably chaste gesture given what they’d just been doing. Then she kissed the mark on Tuuri’s shoulder, and there was nothing chaste about it. “Well, I like this,” she said, sucking gently. “It’s not so different from a scar, really. It’s a mark of survival. That the gods believe you should live. And we convinced them of that.” She kissed her way down to Tuuri’s collarbone, and Tuuri felt heat stirring in her again. Sigrun slipped the dress all the way off and looked Tuuri square in the eyes. “No matter what some piss-head says. Okay?”
Tuuri tipped Sigrun’s head back and rested their foreheads together. “Okay.”
They lay together in the dark, tracing scars and trading touches to ward off the lingering ghosts of Tuonela. It might not fix everything—they had both come back changed, in ways they still weren’t sure of. But for the moment, it was enough.