The fire sputtered and hissed as he poked at it from the large bundle of furs he'd become.
The air had been the fresh, soft cold of new snow just an hour before, something he'd been grateful for as he made camp, as it had allowed for the fire to be reluctantly brought to life. But the sun had set and the clouds had cleared, the calm, empty sky making the air thin and sharp. He was mildly surprised he'd managed to keep the flames alive this long.
He was further North then anyone had ever been as far as he was aware. Not that he hadn't seen anyone in his travels, but once he had passed the Claim's most Northern territory the settlements had vanished, and the last small band of Oseram delvers he'd crossed had been two weeks before.
After his meeting with them he had found himself a shallow cave overlooking a glen to shelter in. Everything here was frozen, always. But there was small game, here and there. It took hours to find a meager meal, but he was at home in the hunt, and the goddess had yet to shun him from her favor.
The harshness of this place did not bother him. He had survived far worse and found a sort of peaceful comfort in it. In being the only thing keeping himself alive, of conquering a death that would be so easy to give into. It busied him, kept his mind sharp and focused. Kept it from wandering... The solitude didn't bother him either. He'd long ago accepted silence as a part of his life, and this was no different. Though if he were honest he would still prefer to be within sight of All Mother. That he missed. But he consoled himself with the thought that even though he was no longer graced by the goddess, she was... and that was what all of this was for.
At least....he hoped she was....
He had stayed here in this cave as long as he had because for the first time since he'd left the Embrace almost two years prior, he felt unsure.
He had been resolute, even before her proving, he'd known. If she was to ever really be one of the tribe, she would need to let go of her relationship with him. It was law. And more then that it was her. She'd never open herself to them, never allow herself to find a home there if he remained. She'd have a family in her mind, she'd have a home, and that was not the life she deserved. Nor the life the Nora deserved from her. She was stronger then any of them and he knew they would need her. He'd been resolute and the plan that unfolded ended up being fairly similar to the original, even after.....what happened. So he'd considered it the goddesses will.
Shifting, he felt his bones and muscles flair with pain at the movement. He hadn't died...but he almost felt like he had some days. He'd been thrown, similar to how he had thrown her... but the blast had propelled him further, landing him in a deep embankment of snow. He had tumbled down this before coming to rest at the base of a tree. He didn't know how long he'd lain there, the waking world wasn't real. It had been the same surreal half death he'd faced before he'd been allowed to be outcast instead of exiled. He'd been found by a young brave at some point, one who recognized him. The boy had run, he remembered that, without a word and with fear in his face. He'd assumed he'd die, and slipped back into delirium, but his next coherent moment came in his cabin, being looked after by High Matriarch Teersa herself. Aloy lived she had said, and he had been brought home, with as little knowledge of that fact spread as possible. From what he knew only Teersa, the boy and one other brave knew, and she forbad them to speak of it. She knew he'd planned to accept exile to allow Aloy the space she'd need to become whole, and she'd allowed for that option to remain open to him if he lived.
He'd taken it.
Coming back to life as quickly as possible and when he was able (and sure Aloy was healing properly under the Matriarch's care within the mountain) he left. He'd gone North, collecting resources as he went. It had taken him some months of travel to leave the sundom. Moving slower then he ever had while the still healing burns on his back and head ached in the heat of those cursed lands. He subconsciously ran a hand over his now bald head as he thought of this. His beard was still there, which helped with the cold, but the long burn scars snaking up his neck to his scalp made proper hair growth impossible. So he'd given up and just shaved what little grew.
No, he'd been sure and he'd moved with a steady determination. Confident that Aloy was happy in the Embrace, helping her people become whole again after the tragedy at the proving. But now....
The Oseram he'd come across had been a small party of five, delvers who had teamed up to face the hardships of this place so far from their homes. They'd been kind and happy to speak to someone other then themselves. He'd needed supplies, not much, but he'd needed salvebrush to heal a wound he'd managed to acquire and there was none here. They'd traded him happily when he'd offered to hunt them up something to eat.
As they'd eaten together they'd chatted, well mostly they had chatted and he had half listened, but he had enjoyed the company and hearing the news from further South. At least he had initially.
"I'm just glad our asses are up here and not down there in the rusting Sundom anymore, nothing but featherhead whack jobs down there and just a bunch of stubborn old fools yelling about it before that" a man by the name of Ogdan was saying "Especially, after that insanity with that magical savage woman and that cult!" He choked, realizing his company, "Aaah shit, excuse my mouth, I tend to bluster harder then an overworked forge, magical Nora woman I mean" he said, inclining his head to Rost.
He finished chewing as he let this wash over him "magical Nora woman?"
"You don't know?! How can you not know? they say the whole rusting world damn near ended!" A rather thin young woman was saying. "and that girl was in the center of it! I swear on my family's forge!"
"Oh hush, Franda, you don't swear nothin! What are ya, seventeen? Eighteen?"
"I do, you bung I was there!" Franda all but yelled "that girl rides machines! She tames them! Rode right up to the city looking like she herself was on fire and fought like a demon once she was there! Just cause they kept the junior Vanguard within the city walls doesn't mean I didn't see plenty!"
Now he was listening intently, a sense of dread unfurling from his core that he prayed was unfounded. He needed to know. "I had not heard any of this news, would you tell me what you know? I'd be willing to barter for all the information you have."
"Barter? HA! the day you need to bribe an Oseram to talk will be the day the world actually does go to ash!" Ogdan boomed, laughing heartily and slapping Franda on the back so hard she almost fell off her rock "tell 'im girl! Can't get you to shut up about it usually! All flame hair this and flame hair that!"
She glowered at Ogdan as she righted herself but set about telling Rost everything. About the Eclipse and the Spire and the battle that could have ended it all. About the rumors that swirled for almost a year prior to that of a flame haired woman from the east who left in her path a wake of tame machines and slaughtered bandits. She had helped people in so many ways and in so many places that merchants began trading stories of her heroism when they'd meet. Every story more unbelievable then the last, though they all swore every detail true.
Rost's sense of dread had developed into a feeling of full on panic that he was not at all accustomed to as Franda rounded off her story in the dying fire light.
"Now mind you I was only in Meridian as part of the guard for a few months, my brother and I put gravel under our boots not long after the battle, but for those few months she was all anyone could talk about and by the forge it was obvious why. I mean she and our Captain saved the city and the rusting king himself just a few months before I got there! I heard that's why Avad went and set her up as his ambassador now. I'd have done the same if she'd saved my ass twice over. Never got to meet her though, which was a shame, I heard she was damn cute on top of it all"
"Auch! You're such a sleaze Fran! Like she'd have had you!" Laughed another woman to their left. Franda turned to punch her in the arm and Rost had made a rather hasty thank you and farewell.
His fire was now nothing more than a pile of faintly glowing embers. He stared at this for a long while, pulling on the tip of his thick beard, rolling over the news he'd learned of Aloy yet again, for as unsure as he now was about his current path he was just as sure that this magical Nora was in fact Aloy. How could it not be?
He didn't know if all of what the Oseram had said was true. Didn't need to know. He knew enough to guess she was not living in the Embrace, that she was not safe within All Mother's loving gaze and not, as it sounded, with her people. She had traveled far and done extraordinary things...and she'd done it alone...
He felt a pull in his soul and he knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to go and find out. Go track down the information until he knew for sure. That part wasn't hard, it would just take some travel. He wanted to find her. Hear from her lips what had happened. Hear why she had made the choices she had. He wasn't unsure of any of that.
He was unsure of how.
How does one come back from a death they chose?