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“Asta, where are you?” Brenna called as she stood outside the sealed entrance to the forbidden caves. “You were strictly warned not to go inside these dreaded caves of death!” Her voice sounded shrill even to her, but she was beginning to panic, for Asta had been gone since sunrise.
“By the goddess Solveig, Brenna! I am not within the infernal caves!” Asta blared.
Brenna jumped, startled by her twin sister who now stood directly behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief even as Asta chastised her.
“You are not my keeper, Brenna. Being born first, although in truth apparently mere ravens’ calls before me, does not indicate you must watch over me like a Highgardian goshawk. You are as annoyingly protective as our older sister. I thought with her gone we might actually enjoy more freedoms.”
“You sound pleased Torunn is no longer here with us in our realm of Highgard!” Brenna accused.
“That isn’t true.” Asta’s sad tone confirmed her words.
“Two whole moons have passed and the vessel in which Torunn traveled has not reappeared to take us as we expected,” Brenna said. “I am becoming increasingly fearful. Torunn will have been in Midgard for some time now. I know she’s dauntless and strong and surely able to defend herself, but I yearn to know she is safe. I want the three of us to be together again. The longer you and I remain here in Highgard, the greater the possibility we will fall ill with the scarlet affliction.”
“I’m not without concern for her, Brenna, but I did warn you and Torunn. I’m not certain we should have trusted the light-beings when they insisted we go to Midgard. Neither of you would listen to me and Torunn’s impulsiveness and desire to protect us might have brought about her own demise. She may not have safely journeyed to Midgard, to Norway, the land of the Vikings,” Asta suggested.
“Dare not speak those words, Asta! Surely, she made the journey safely. I feel it in my bones; Torunn lives. As our eldest sister, she bravely set out to find a location where we would be free of the threat of the Red Death. Perhaps Midgard and our realm of Highgard are simply not on the same moon cycles. The vessel will surely reappear soon so that we can join her. The night of the next whole moons will soon be upon us. I’ll go to be with Torunn, and then you will follow when next the moons wax.”
“Have you had a vision of Torunn since she left Highgard?” Asta questioned.
Brenna shook her head. “No, none at all. None to suggest she has arrived safely, but none to reveal she’s been harmed or is in peril.”
“Nor have I. With our sisterly bond, I believed we would sense her presence even though she is in another world. With our Highgardian gifts of seeing the truth and the future, I thought we would know,” Asta said.
“I thought so as well, Asta. Sometimes I do wonder about the purpose of our powers, of our godly magical abilities, if we don’t even know what has happened to Torunn. None of us predicted our younger sister Eydis’s death either,” Brenna remembered woefully.
“Maybe we weren’t permitted to see those visions for it would have been too painful for us. As an irrefutable seer, it is certain Eydis knew, but she simply protected us by not informing us of her prophetic visions of her own impending death,” Asta said.
“You have no signs of the affliction, Asta? Your eyes remain clear with no redness within, no fever or cough?”
“You asked me that this very morning as you do every morning, midday and night.” Asta sighed. “See for yourself, Brenna the Healer. I know it will ease your mind if you determine for yourself.” Asta touched her arm in reassurance.
Brenna stared into her twin sister’s eyes and was relieved to discover they were a lovely shade of dark blue, as always, and the whites remained clear with no sign of red. She placed her hand to Asta’s brow, smiled when she was cool to the touch and then tightly embraced her.
“Brenna, you are in a constant state of disquietude. I know you have always been diligent in tending to our health, but you were once filled with cheerfulness and unfaltering optimism. It was a joy to be in your company for your lightheartedness made you a treasure to all. Now you have changed and being in your presence leaves me uneasy. In truth, I avoid you when I am able.”
Asta, often noted for her abrasiveness and speaking her mind with little regard for others, did appear to be concerned for Brenna as she offered her advice.
“Perhaps you might go to the Ensorcell Forest, gather herbs…use your much-loved mortar and pestle, brew an elixir or concoction of some sort, maybe create more of the lovely fragrant potion for washing our hair.”
“I have created numerous remedies, Asta. I’ve collected ever so many herbs now bundled and tied, drying within my healing chamber, more than I could use even if we weren’t soon leaving Highgard. There are several bottles of the fragrant hair potion in our bedchamber. Finding herbs and creating potions and remedies is how I have filled much of my time since Eydie died and Torunn left.”
“Then go to the Whispering Waterfall, stand beneath it and allow the waters to calm you. Attempt to enjoy your remaining time in Highgard. You’ve always possessed a caring disposition for others, but with Eydis and Torunn gone, your mirth seems to have left you, Brenna. You’ve always derived joy from nature; go now to spend time with the birds and the animals. Do something besides constantly following me around and asking of my condition!”
Brenna lowered her eyes and nodded. She was well aware she’d been unsettled much of the time since Torunn had gone. She disliked feeling responsible for Asta’s safety and she gave much credit to Torunn, for she’d capably borne responsibility for her three younger sisters for seven sun’s journeys since their aunt and grandmother died. Torunn was clearly much more suited to be the protector.
“Torunn would dislike you comparing yourself to her!” Asta had evidently heard her thoughts, as she so often did.
“She would dislike you hanging about the caves as well.”
“Do you suppose Torunn has found a man in the human world?” Asta surely purposely changed the subject for the caves were a point of contention between them. “Do you think she has experienced the wild primal urges and physical desire the light-beings spoke of? Do you suppose she’s lost her virginity and been passionately joined with a man?”
“Asta, why would you dwell on such occurrences? I hope she hasn’t.”
“I hope she has!” Asta insisted. “It is what is meant to be shared between males and females. It’s true, we’ve never seen a male in Highgard. They all died of the scarlet affliction. Therefore, we haven’t had the opportunity to know this lusting the light-beings mentioned, but I do hope Torunn has found a man and has found much physical pleasure.”
“But are you not fearful of men, Asta? The light-beings also told us men are often lusting brutes who force themselves upon females. Would you wish that for Torunn?”
“Of course not! In truth, I would like to be there to witness what would surely happen should a man attempt to force himself on Torunn. She has killed horrid beasts, slain massive, fierce nidhoggrs with ease. She would snap a lecherous man like a twig!”
“I am not certain if that eases my concerns or causes me to fear for her even more,” Brenna admitted. “You recall, our shared visions suggested these Viking men are often tall and brawny, fierce and ruthless. Perhaps Torunn may not be capable of defending herself against them, especially if they are unscrupulous or bloodthirsty.”
“I think you might do well to spend time with a man, Brenna. It is apparently a means to relieve unease and said to cause a pleasing, euphoric sensation.”
“Asta, you are impossible! Why would your mind dwell upon this at length when we are not even in the human world?”
“Why would you not dwell on it? I think you might wisely choose to dwell on it rather than Torunn’s fate, or the possibility the vessel might not return, or I might have begun to show signs of the Red Death…or if there are enough stores to feed us till we leave Highgard or…”
“Enough!” Brenna interrupted. “I am off to the Ensorcell Forest and the Whispering Waterfall to find solitude…and you can wipe that smug grin off your face, Asta Seer of Spirits, and go speak with Eydie’s spirit.”
Asta had been truly relieved when Eydis’s spirit had finally begun to come to her, for she had worried she may not be capable of seeing her. Although Brenna’s Highgardian powers did not include any abilities to see or communicate with spirits, she did clearly hear Eydis calling to Asta even now.
Brenna stood under the gloriously warm waterfall and allowed the water to comfort her body and ease her mind. She grinned, for Asta had been correct, spending time in the peacefulness of the Ensorcell Forest and under the soothing water had finally calmed her. Asta’s demeanor was often fractious, but her heart was true, and her suggestions made with good intent.
Brenna loosened her lengthy, curly golden hair. She wore it twisted at the sides and then tied back, never entirely free the way Asta did, or in a side plait like Torunn, or two plaits like Eydie had. She wondered how women in the human world fashioned their hair or if it was floor length like female Highgardian hair.
As she stood there unclothed beneath the waterfall, she experienced the oddest sensation, as though she was being watched. Besides the animals here, it was only Asta and herself left in all of Highgard. Nearly everyone had died of the Red Death. With her kinship to animals, Brenna would surely not feel unsettled if it were only an animal observing her. This felt markedly different. She hastily dove within the water and when she emerged she stayed within the pool, covered to her neck by the water, and looked intently around her, for she remained unnerved.
She considered her worries and consequent sleeplessness lately might have caused her to suffer an affliction of the mind and be overly suspicious. She spotted one large raven high in the tree; it appeared to be staring straight at her. That would not typically unsettle her, for ravens were one of the animals connected to the House of Solveig…ravens and wolves.
She and her sisters were the thirteenth generation of the goddess Solveig, a sister of Odin. Solveig had been imprisoned in Asgard but escaped. She’d been warned she’d be killed if Odin ever found her again. Soon after, Solveig found the beautiful realm of Highgard. Solveig and her peace-loving followers and the many generations of their descendants had lived here ever since.
There had been some difficulties and life in Highgard was not always without challenges with wild beasts and unpredictable times. Yet the crops had grown well, the orchards were abundant, and the forests filled with animals to provide meat and furs.
There had been some disagreements between houses and families, the usual petulance when many people lived together, but mostly it had been a harmonious time for centuries. There had been some instances of disease and illness, but never a widespread affliction for Highgardians were a hardy people, strong and tenacious. However, the deplorable Red Death had hit their realm with an unrelenting voracity.
First the men and boys developed large bright red disfigurations upon their faces and bodies and often experienced a slow, unpleasant death, for the malady sometimes lasted many sun’s journeys. The women and girls usually only suffered for a few moons, for other than the same blood-red eyes and weeping blood, there were no outward signs. Instead the Red Death ravaged their bodies internally and more quickly but with fewer visible symptoms. The insidious scarlet affliction, the detestable Red Death, had finally claimed all the others.
The sisters’ aunt and grandmother had died some time ago, their aunt killed by a nidhoggr, one of the frightening corpse-eating creatures found in their realm. Bestamor died simply because she was elderly, and possibly due to a broken heart after losing her daughter.
It was always believed those of the direct line of Solveig were immune to the scarlet affliction until their youngest sister Eydis fell ill and died of the horrid malady some moons earlier. Their older sister, Torunn, left soon after to journey to Midgard. Now there was only she and her twin Asta left in the entire realm of Highgard.
Brenna looked intently at the raven. With her keen Highgardian eyesight she was able to clearly see the bird, though it remained a considerable distance away. She was startled, for the raven possessed unusual blue eyes, sky-blue eyes. When she closed her own eyes, she envisioned a man with eyes identical to the raven’s. He possessed dark black hair and many odd markings, black and dark blue symbols upon his skin. She saw him smile as though he actually saw her. Something in the smile caused her to be both intrigued and uneasy. She opened her eyes and was relieved to see the raven was gone.
End of Excerpt