Sun hid behind the clouds. A silhouette of a falcon crossed the white sky.
One more line marked on the ground.
“Count the birds,” she heard.
Vatna looked at the symbols she made in the fresh snow.
“Seventeen birds, Sky Watcher. Five falcons and twelve wrens,” she said, glancing at the man sitting on a fallen tree with his eyes closed. “Third falcon preyed upon the ninth wren.”
He did not respond. Vatna had to take the auspice herself. Today’s foretelling was for war and winter, Hakkon’s favorite domains. Earlier in the morning, the gods had brought a warning about the long and harsh season of snow that would soon engulf the Frostback Mountains. Now, all the signs spoke of war.
“Lowlanders are fighting among themselves, no end in sight. Brother killed a sister. She called upon the gods for help, but the one who answered her was gentle, so she twisted its nature. Still, she was slain, and the god was slain along with her. The Lady is weeping for her children.”
She erased the lines and got up.
“Some of the Lowlanders are gathering in a temple up north. They want to end the war, though they do not want to change their ways. The gods are suffering. Sky Watcher, I believe that the Lady of the Skies is in danger.” That was not part of the auspice, but Vatna had to say it anyway. She wanted to do something about it, not just read the signs and hear the gods mourning the death of another one of their kind.
The man opened his left eye, looked at Vatna for one breath, and closed it again.
“Tell me again, what did you see in the Land of Dreams?” he asked.
Vatna frowned. There was no reason to say it again. She had described that vision to Sjor a dozen times already.
“An old evil that has awakened. Its prison was breached. I saw the blood of the earth, filled with poison, and it silenced a dragon,” she recited, her voice as unemotional as she could manage.
She’d had similar dreams over ten years ago when the dark plague was ravaging the Lands Below. But this evil was different, more… human. And she had a strange feeling, a suspicion in the back of her mind that the dragon she was seeing now was nothing like a Mad Dragon, and that the real threat was lying somewhere else. That poison - that poison she recognized well. It was called the Taint by the Lowlanders, but the Avvar referred to it as the Rot. But she couldn’t guess the meaning of the blood of the earth. The gods were unsure what it meant too.
Sky Watcher nodded and opened his eyes, revealing an eye white as snow. It could no longer see a single light in the Land of the Waking. But in the Land of Dreams, it could pierce the clouds.
Vatna heard a falcon’s cry, short and shrill. She looked up and extended her hand, covered in a thick leather glove. A moment later, a grey bird gently landed on her forearm. He was a young, curious creature compared to the other hold-beast, but he was well trained.
“Do you still want to go into the Lowlands?” Sky Watcher asked. He started walking towards the hold, using his staff as a cane. Vatna followed him.
“Aye. I want to help the Lady if I can,” she replied solemnly.
Sky Watcher clicked his tongue.
“And you want to take the hold-beast with you.”
Vatna fell silent.
"It’s not a place for an Avvar, nor a god, nor a hold-beast. Three of those combined will find nothing good in the Lands Below,” he warned, shaking his staff. Ash grey feathers attached to the tip were swinging back and forth. “Go and ask the Stone Seer for permission,” he said.
Vatna was in shock. Did he really allow her to go? After days of arguing? Now that she had almost given up? But the Stone Seer… She could be an even bigger obstacle.
Vatna paid her respects to the elder and started running towards the hold. The falcon was flying at her side.
“You didn’t tell him about the falling sky and the wolf,” she heard a soft whisper of a god inside her. The god that was sharing a part of her body, as well as the falcon’s, for almost two winters now. The god that the Sky Watcher passed on to her, as she was chosen to become one of the Two-Falcon Hold’s augurs. His name was Himnar, and the link between him, Vatna and the hold-beast was unique even among the Avvar. Not many other gods could travel from one body to another with similar ease, and the ritual performed to create such a link was a closely guarded secret.
Vatna jumped over a rotting log. “If the Lady’s Veil is going to be torn… They might not let me go if I tell them just how bad things have gotten in the Lowlands.”
“Sjör and I lived with each other for many winters. He was just like you once. And he can feel that there’s something you’re not telling him, but he is letting you go. He trusts you.”
“I know, Himnar, I know,” she replied. She kept running. The hold was close. She slowed down only when she reached the gate.
“What’s the rush, Vatna?” asked one of the men repairing the fence.
“Busy day, Sven, as always,” she explained jokingly. “We finished the auspices, so I’m looking for Jokka. Is she in the hold?”
Sven put down the hammer and wiped his hands on his pants.
“Aye, she came back not so long ago. She’s speaking with the Thane right now,” he pointed to the center of the village, which meant that Vatna should look for the Stone Seer in the audience hall of the Thane’s house.
“Thanks!” she replied and started running again. She rushed by Old Joel’s hut, shouting ‘Blessed day!’ to the oldest tribesman in the hold, passed by her home, where her mother was getting ready for the Ritual, and ran past the house of her paternal cousin Fannar, who was skinning the snow hares he’d caught in his traps.
Finally, she stopped in front of the doors decorated with a symbol of the hold - a two-headed falcon. Himnar landed on her forearm, and Vatna was ready to go in. She knocked three times and announced herself.
“Come in!” she heard the voice of Thane Magnus.
Vatna stepped inside and closed the doors quietly. She saw three members of the Hold inside - Thane, who was a burly middle-aged man, Stone Seer, whose age was impossible to tell if not for a couple of silver hair at her temples, and the falcon that was sitting on a perch.
Magnus greeted Vatna warmly, his long black mustache perking upward with a smile, but Jokka cut straight to business.
“What is it Vatna? The Sky Watcher approved the auspices you performed?” the augur asked, her eyes narrow. Jokka’s emotions were hard to read. It didn’t help that the upper part of her face was always hidden - behind a mask or behind an intricate tattoo. Only her eyes were visible, and she often looked at people in that doubtful, cynical way, though her tone of voice did not match. On the contrary - she had a sweet manner of speaking. Jokka wasn’t nicknamed a Silvertongue for nothing. Only when she was angry did she raise her voice, and she was terrifying in those moments.
“He did, Stone Seer,” Vatna replied, and summed up the prediction of the hold’s future she’d inferred from the pattern of the messengers sent by the Lady of the Skies.
The Thane's face was as harsh as the cliffs she'd scrambled down to return here. A long winter meant that by the time spring came, there might be a shortage of food. The Avvar tribesmen spent all summer and autumn on gathering supplies that would get them through the season of snow, but no matter how well they were prepared, they always prayed for an early thaw.
On the other hand, Magnus didn’t care too much about the war in the Lowlands. He was saddened by the death of the gods, as anyone would be, but the summit of mages and templars on the verge of the Avvar territory wasn’t an alarming perspective for the Thane.
“They’ll either kill each other there or broker a truce. Both are good. The worst thing that could happen is if nothing changed. The dwarves are not too eager to follow their usual routes. We’ll just have to make sure that the passes leading through Haven are safe to travel once the spring comes,” Magnus said with his hand on the hilt of his short sword.
Jokka did not comment. She was observing Vatna carefully, and the falcon was subjecting the young mage to similar scrutiny.
“Let me talk to Fjall,” Himnar suggested.
Vatna looked at the other falcon. Just like the bird on her hand, it was housing a god of the hold. A goddess, to be precise, since Fjall was referring to herself as female. Vatna walked up to the perch and let Himnar step off her hand. The two hold-beasts looked like complete opposites. The falcon that belonged to Fjall had iron grey feathers, in contrast to the light grey of the wings of the other beast, and she was much bigger than Himnar. His current body was just two years old, so it wasn’t surprising. Still, next to her counterpart, Fjall appeared menacing, like a looming shadow.
“Is that everything you have to tell us, Vatna?” the Stone Seer asked politely.
“No,” Vatna shook her head. “The Sky Watcher informed you about my visions, didn’t he?”
Jokka glanced at the two falcons, who were sitting on the perch with their wings brushing against each other.
“He did,” the woman nodded. “And he mentioned that you want to investigate the matter from up close. To leave the hold and venture down into the Lands Below.”
“I do,” Vatna said solemnly. “I ask for your permission, Stone Seer. And for yours, Thane,” she turned to the leader of the hold, who seemed very surprised by her request. No wonder, since no one but the augurs knew about the details of Vatna’s visions.
Jokka did not respond right away. First, she approached the hold-beasts, and gently touched Fjall on the back. Her eyes glowed for a moment, though to an inexperienced observer, that flicker could be mistaken for a reflection of the magically enhanced fire that burned in the center of the hall. Magnus did not say a single word either - he waited for the decision of the augur.
“Very well,” the woman finally spoke after the uneasy moment of complete silence. “You may go, Vatna. And I can’t stop Himnar from going with you, no matter how much I would want to. The gods have decided. I am going to tell you just two things, girl,” she said and looked straight at Vatna. The color of her eyes resembled frost on steel. “If you get yourself killed down there, your name will be forgotten. I won’t bother looking for your bones. And if the god of the hold gets killed because of you, don’t dare coming back here. Your name will become a curse. Pray to the Lady that it won’t happen. That’s all I have to say to you.”
Vatna didn’t flinch, and she was pleased with herself because of that. Jokka despised those who showed weakness. The tension in the air vanished when Magnus spoke up.
“If that’s the Stone Seer’s decision, I grant you my permission as well, Vatna.”
The young mage bowed before the elders, expressing her gratitude and respect. Then, she walked up to the perch. She looked at Fjall. The female falcon was staring back at her with undeniable intelligence in her eyes. Vatna thought about how thankful she was for her support, knowing that the goddess was able to pick up the feelings. The hold-beast blinked once. Next, Vatna extended her hand and let Himnar climb on her forearm. They exited the audience hall together.
“What did you tell Fjall?” Vatna was curious.
“I reminded her about the time she journeyed with someone. It was very long ago, I never told you about it, but it’s not my tale to tell,” Himnar explained.
“Oh. I see. Do you think she could tell it to me when we come back?”
“You’re going to have to ask her. I’m not sure.”
Vatna looked around. There was still a lot to do before she could leave. Good thing that the auspices were completed so early in the morning.
“We’ll meet outside of the hold when you’re done,” Himnar suggested and Vatna agreed with his idea. She released the falcon into the sky, and as he flew away, she could feel the invisible rope between them stretching longer and longer, but it could never snap, no matter how far away from each other they were.
First and most important task - gather supplies, Vatna thought to herself and directed her steps towards home.
Vatna opened the door and walked into the hearth room. Her mother was cleaning the house to prepare for the First Breath of Winter.
“Mother. I’m leaving for the Lowlands,” Vatna announced.
Selke did not reply right away. First, she inspected her daughter from head to toes and sighed.
“When?” she asked.
“As soon as possible.”
“And Stone Seer agreed? You won’t be here for the sacrifice to Hakkon. Weren’t you supposed to help with that?”
“I already completed the auspices with Sky Watcher. He and Jokka have been leading the Winter Ritual for years. They don’t need me around.”
Selke put down a wet cloth that she was holding, went into the cooking area, and started packing food that wouldn’t spoil during weeks of travel.
“Mother, I can do this myself,” Vatna protested and rushed into the kitchen, but Selke lightly slapped her on the back of her hand when she reached for dried meat.
“I’ll do it. Sit down and wait,” the woman said, and Vatna knew that there was no use in arguing. So she sat down and observed.
She was nothing like her mother. Taking one look at Selke was enough to see that she wasn’t from the Two-Falcon Hold. For one thing, she had bright red hair that only one of her daughters inherited. Vatna had plain brown hair just like her father, and her skin would turn bronze in the sun, not pink. The difference was easy to explain. Selke was “kidnapped” from a tribe that lived far in the south when Einar, Vatna’s father traveled there in his youth.
Selke wrapped the food that she gathered in a piece of cloth and handed it to Vatna.
“That should be enough.”
“Thank you, mother.”
Vatna stashed the package inside the backpack that she had been preparing for a couple of days. Then, she put on an additional layer of clothes and re-braided her hair tightly, so that not a single strand would come loose.
“Where’s Hirka?” she asked her mother, who returned to cleaning the hearth.
“She’s checking traps.”
“I wanted to say goodbye to her.”
“You know what she is going to say,” mother replied pursing her lips.
“Yea,” Vatna nodded. Her younger sister would say something like ‘I don’t care where you’re going. You can leave for the Sunless Lands and never come back.’ And then she would turn around and walk away stomping. Vatna would get frustrated and disappointed, but she wouldn’t try to stop her. No one would be happy in the end. Still, she should say goodbye to her sister. Who knows what will happen while she's gone.
Vatna opened a chest that was standing in the corner of the room and took out her armor. A leather chestpiece, arm braces, and shinguards. She adjusted the straps in a few places.
“The signs from the Lady showed that winter this year is going to be harsh and long,” Vatna said when she was done.
Selke walked up to her daughter and looked at her with a serious expression on her face.
“We are prepared for anything that might befall the Frostbacks. Are you prepared for what you’re going to encounter in the Lowlands?”
Vatna looked her mother in the eyes.
“I won’t know for sure until I see what’s going on. But I know that the gods need help. Himnar will be with me.”
Mother placed a hand on her shoulder.
“My little chosen one. You were always close to the gods. Closer than anyone. But you must remember that in the Lowlands, people are different. And that makes the gods there different too.”
“Mother, I know that. I know that very well. I have traveled with the augurs dozen of times. I was taught how to protect myself. In my waking hours, and in the Land of Dreams as well. I’m going to be alright.”
Selke hugged her daughter. She did it rarely. Vatna was a grown woman. Her little girl was already much taller than her, taking after the father.
“The Lady shall keep your safe, Korth shall give you strength, and Hakkon shall make your enemies tremble in fear,” Selke whispered and then pulled away from the hug. “Your father is in the workshop.”
“Thank you, Mother,” she said with a slight smile. Then, she straightened her back and called a serious expression upon her face. “May Hakkon’s First Breath weed out weakness and disease, leaving only what’s strong,” she recited the words of the ritual that was supposed to take place that night.
Selke followed with a traditional gesture, touching her neck with two fingers.
“Maybe you should’ve stayed for the ceremony at least. I’m still surprised that the Stone Seer is letting you go before that. You were supposed to lead along Sjor for the first time”
“I will do it next year. I prepared everything. The sacrificial animal is caught, the auspices are finished. The gods will be appeased. Maybe Jokka has seen something too, and that’s why she’s letting me off so easy. And Fjall must have advocated for me, at least that's what Himnar implied.”
Selke just sighed the way that she always sighed when she wasn’t convinced, and waved her hand towards the door.
“Then go. At least I’ll have one less mouth to feed during the winter,” she grinned.
Vatna smiled back and put on her backpack. Next, she picked up one of the weapons displayed on the wall. Her trusted one-handed axe. The most expensive thing that she possessed, due to its lyrium core. Dwarven crafts like that were hard to come by. She checked the sharpness of the blade, even though she sharpened it personally just yesterday, and the metal was enchanted, so its edge wouldn’t become dull for the next few months. As for her staff, it was going to be left with Sky Watcher. Vatna couldn’t risk bringing attention to herself, not with the war going on in the Lowlands. The Avvar tribesmen have seen several clashes between mages and templars. It was always devastating for both sides.
She said a final goodbye to her mother and took a good look at the place that she has lived her whole life. It wasn’t rich with decorations, but to her, it was beautiful. She glanced at the long piece of rope that was hanging on the opposite wall. The symbol of their marriage; the twenty-two knots, one for each summer, took up less than a third of its length. Vatna smiled, as she did every time. Her father tied each knot a little closer to the last; neither of them had any intention of finishing their vows to each other before the Lady took them back to Her. She also checked the protective sigils painted in each corner of the house, and when she made sure that they’re still impeccable, she could finally leave.
She reached the workshop as quickly as she could, considering that almost every person in the hold she encountered on her way there wanted to know why Vatna was carrying a backpack. Was she leaving? What for?
“Yes, I’m leaving today. How long? A couple of weeks at most,” she told her uncle and aunt when she bumped into them. “The augurs allowed me to investigate what the Lowlanders are doing.”
“Those bread eaters should have killed each other by now,” Gunnar scoffed and spat on the ground. “You’d imagine it would be an easy feat for them. They die like flies anyway. Last week, I saw two corpses in the abandoned bear cave on the east side of the Vindur Mountain. They were dressed in those thin colorful robes. I think they died from the cold. Cold, Vatna!” he laughed, but his wife immediately shushed him.
“It’s a bad day to be saying things like that,” Anwen hissed and Gunnar gave her an apologetic look. He was trying really hard not to anger his new wife since she was with a baby, but he forgot himself this time. Anwen seemingly forgave him, and then she turned to Vatna. “It’s a bad day to be leaving the hold too. First Breath of Hakkon should be greeted in the hold, with your kin, not somewhere on the road. What are you going to do if the mountain passes get buried under snow and ice?”
“I’m only going because the gods are worried,” Vatna explained. “So I’ll find another way if I have to.”
“Vatna knows what she’s doing,” Gunnar swiftly interrupted, and gently nudged Anwen on her waist. “Let’s go, Snowdrop, you wanted me to help with that package, right?” Then, he said a quick goodbye to his niece and walked away with his wife.
Vatna walked inside the workshop that belonged to her father. Even the finest Orzammar crafts needed a repair from time to time, and most of the things bought from the dwarven merchants weren’t as good quality as Vatna’s axe for example.
Einar looked surprised by his daughter’s appearance.
“Hmm, so Jokka agreed to your insane idea? I had serious doubts you’d be able to convince her,” he said merrily.
Vatna took off her backpack and put it on the ground. Then, she checked if her weapon was secured tightly to the belt, and sat down on a stool.
“I am shocked too, actually. I didn’t even have to beg. It was almost too easy,” she chuckled.
“You should run before she changes her mind,” Einar joked.
“Yea, I should.” They both smiled; Jokka was not known to capitulate. “I just wanted to say goodbye to you and Mother, and make sure that everything’s ready for the ritual.” She fiddled with a piece of leather that was laying on the table. Her father was sharpening an ornamented knife that belonged to the Stone Seer, but he paused the work and walked up to another table in the corner of the room and opened a small chest.
“Here, take this. I would’ve given it to you in the evening if you were staying in the hold,” he said, handing Vatna a knife. Its handle was made out of horn and it was carved in beautiful patterns. She took the knife out of the leather sheath and examined the blade. It gleamed silver, like the blade that belonged to Jokka, but the shape was different. The Stone Seer’s knife was thin and pointed, made to pierce through flesh with ease and ensure swift death of the sacrificial animal. The blade that Vatna was holding was slightly curved - perfect to separate the skin, so it could be preserved as a sign that the sacrifice to the gods was made.
“Thank you, Father,” Vatna said, grateful for the unexpected gift. “But I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to use it in the Lowlands.”
Einar closed the chest and returned to the other table.
“It never hurts to have one more knife,” he shrugged.
“I guess you’re right. So, I should get going. This winter will be a long one. May Hakkon’s First Breath leave only what’s strong,” Vatna cut the words of the ritual short.
Einar replied by touching his neck as tradition dictated, and gestured Vatna goodbye. She grabbed her backpack and was ready to go out when the doors opened wide. A ginger-haired girl was standing in the entrance, her face almost as red as her braids.
“What’s going on, Hirka?” Einar asked.
The girl ignored him and looked at her older sister with fury.
“I hope that the wolves will eat you, Vatna!” she shouted.
Einar stood up.
“Stop it now, Hirka. You won’t be spending time with Siri this evening, and if you say one more word, you’re going to regret it,” he warned.
Hirka looked at him and huffed angrily.
“I don’t care. Not a bit. She can get swallowed by a dragon and I won’t care.” Then, she turned to Vatna again. “I hope your bones will drown in ice!”
Einar took a step towards Hirka, but Vatna was faster. She blocked his path and now, she was standing face to face with her sister. Hirka was four winters younger, but she was already almost as tall as Vatna.
“Never wish misfortune like that upon your kin, unless you really mean it,” she said, grabbing Hirka by the wrist. The eyes of her younger sister narrowed. “Say it again, if you mean it. Go on.” Hirka was staring with ice-cold hate in her brown eyes, but she didn’t say anything. “I’m waiting,” Vatna continued looking into the eyes of her sister. Hirka huffed again and wrestled her wrist out of Vatna’s grip, and Vatna let her do it.
Next, Hirka stormed out of the workshop as violently as she entered.
“That brat is impossible,” Einar shook his head. “A belt will be too good for her.”
Vatna pursed her lips.
“Beating her won’t accomplish anything. I understand why she’s angry with me. It will get better once I’m gone.”
“And it will get worse again the moment you return,” Einar replied.
“Maybe a few weeks without seeing me will change her mind a little,” Vatna suggested. “That wasn’t how I imagined a goodbye with you or with Hirka. I wanted to just… leave her be. Doesn’t matter now. Goodbye, Father." She grabbed her backpack again and went outside.
Before going to the gates, Vatna swung by the house of the Master of the Hunt. On the way there, she ran into several people from her hold and exchanged blessings suitable for the beginning of a long winter, but she excused herself before they began bombarding her with more questions.
Hallbjorn was discussing the preparation for today’s feast with his son Mikkel, but he stopped when he noticed Vatna.
“I heard that you’re leaving the hold, is that right?” Hallbjorn asked.
“Aye. For five, six weeks. An urgent matter in the Lowlands,” she explained quickly. Hallbjorn just nodded in response. Mikkel was staring at Vatna with an intense expression on his face, but she chose to look past it. Instead, she glanced at the large cage next to the house.
“Don’t worry, he won’t escape,” Hallbjorn assured her with a wide smile.
Vatna smiled back and took one more glimpse of the animal. A lone wolf was an appropriate sacrifice for Hakkon, especially one with black fur like this. The Lady preferred a light grey coat, and an offering to her did not require fresh blood to be spilled. An animal gifted to the Lady could be killed during the hunt and placed on the altar without much preparation. Korth would be pleased with a similar offering. Hakkon, on the other hand, yearned for violence.
The beast growled at Vatna. She wasn’t the one to catch him, that was the Master of the Hunt’s job, but she did pick him as a sacrifice for the God of Winter and War. Maybe he believed that if Vatna wasn’t there, he could be running free now, his only worry - how to survive the cold night, and then the next one, and the next one, until the spring came. He won’t have to worry about any of this much longer.
“Thank you for your help, Master of the Hunt,” Vatna used her ‘official tone’. “I hope that tonight’s celebration will go smoothly. May Hakkon’s First Breath weed out weakness and disease, leaving only what’s strong,” she said the blessing and walked away, careful to avoid Mikkel’s eyes.
She took a course for the gates. There was only one thing left to do. She redirected the flow of energy through her hand and gently tugged on the Lady’s Veil. A small wisp on the other side slipped through a crack that closed immediately.
“Welcome, tiny god,” Vatna whispered to the ethereal being. “Can you deliver a message to the Land of Dreams?” she asked, and the small sphere jumped up and down. “Thank you. I would like you to find the Wise God of the White River - do you know it?” the ball of light jumped again, “- and inform it that its former student is leaving for the Lowlands as she planned. She is grateful for its advice.”
The wisp danced around Vatna’s fingers, and then it disappeared behind the Veil, and the air flickered with a green light for a moment.
Vatna walked through the gates, saying goodbye to the tribesmen that observed her with curiosity. She looked up into the sky and spotted the silhouette of a falcon.
The path ahead was long and difficult, but hopefully Korth will keep it straight, the Lady will shower it with light, and Hakkon won’t decide to rain ice on the Avvar Dreamer that dared to leave the hold on the day when she should hide inside her home and tremble in fear along with her kin before Hakkon’s might.