The ash of funeral pyres drifted down like grey snowflakes, settling on Sorne's hair and shoulders. There was so much of it in the giant area of camp that they had to wear cloth covering their noses and mouths. Sorne was sitting near Nirsal's last resting place as Thadash approached. Cecilie was the only one who could conjure fire hot enough to ensure the dragon's passage into the next world, burning her with white-hot flame that could consume a hide hardened against fire.
"Are you ready to go?" the shaman asked gently.
Sorne sighed. "I am not going to back to Ash Kordh."
Thadash was quiet for a moment, processing that. "Where will you go?" he asked in that same soft tone.
"I don't know. I have an invitation to go to Sakana. It's a border town on the edge of Genev," Sorne said. She smiled bitterly. "I've had enough war for a hundred lifetimes. Maybe I can find something else."
"Vridash mentioned he was going to stay with you," the shaman said, sitting down on the earth beside her. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, offering what comfort he could.
"I couldn't talk him out of it," Sorne said softly. "He said he wanted to just be a hunter for a while. You can make a good living doing that near Sakana. I already talked to the thanes. They understood. After all, I only agreed to lead until the war was over."
Thadash nodded slowly. "Will you be safe in Genev? I know Aldana was hunting you."
"It's been a long, long time. Even his memories will have faded," Sorne said. She sighed a little bit. "I want to see Mauléon again. I don't miss it, but I wonder now what became of it, what became of Genev. I do not know if Aldana is a good king, but I doubt it."
"Promise me you'll at least send letters. We can have scouts check in at the border, if you persuade the Genevais to be less hostile," he said quietly.
Sorne nodded. "I think that can be arranged. Aitor is the local commander at Sakana now and he has a great deal of fondness for orcs after fighting alongside them. I'm sorry, Thadash."
"Don't apologize," Thadash said, giving her a squeeze. "We all heal in different ways. I hope to one day see you again, even if we must cross the border into the south. And remember, Ash Kordh will always be open to you. Murdak and I can promise you that."
"Thank you," Sorne said softly. She knew deep down in her heart that Ash Kordh was too interwoven with pain to be a welcome home again, but she would never tell Thadash that. More than anything, though, she felt heartsick, alone, and tired. As she had told Nessa, she was wearier than she had ever felt before in her life. Vridash was her brother, but he could not fill the holes in her life alone. She hugged Thadash tightly. She knew his grief was as deep as her own. Leaving them to dwell in it was the one thought that had been weighted against her decision to go back to Genev.
After a few more moments of quiet, shared pain, Thadash released her. "Be well, little sister," he said softly. "You will be missed."
"I will carry all of you in my heart," Sorne said. "No matter how far I go, you are still my family. I will love you and miss you."
Thadash smiled at her, but his eyes were teary. "That is all we can hope for." He rose to his feet. "Have you said farewell to Murdak?"
"Yes," Sorne said softly. "He said much the same as you."
"Good," the shaman said before giving her another smile and walking back towards the rest of camp. He passed Vridash, who was on the approach with packs in hand.
"If we stay in Talin and hug the border, we can avoid the southern cities and towns of Genev," Vridash said as he set down a pack next to Sorne. "I would say we could pass through Genev, but I am not going to pass without remark. Even in Sakana, it will take time to earn trust from those who are not Aitor's men."
Sorne nodded as she stood up. She wrapped her arms around Vridash, hugging him tightly. "Thank you for this, brother," she said softly. "I don't know what I would do without you."
"Die, probably," Vridash said with a chuckle and a grin made crooked by his tusks. He was trying to stay good-natured, if only to lift spirits as far as they could. "I have to say, I'm looking forward to some peace and quiet. Maybe we can even build a house."
Despite everything, Sorne smiled. "I don't think carpentry would suit you."
"Gotta learn somehow," he said with a shrug. "I've been talking to one of the humans, Aitor. He says there's always work for people like us. No shortage of beasts and demons to fight in the wild places of the world. There are also some old ruins that need exploring."
"Turning us into adventurers?" Sorne said, raising an eyebrow.
"Treasure hunters, maybe," Vridash said with that same, crooked grin. More seriously, he said, "I know you want to hang up the sword and shield for a while, Sorne, so that's what we'll do. No more war. But...these things don't just let go. So I thought, small battles, things against beasts to keep skills sharp, might be worthwhile. Just in case Aldana's men come poking around where they shouldn't."
Sorne nodded before studying him intently. "That's awfully wise for you."
"Hey, I have my moments," Vridash said. "It's that shaman training I failed at." He sighed a little. "It's going to be very different, I think. But that's not a bad thing. We've earned the rest."
"Nessa said I may not get a chance at rest," Sorne admitted.
"If I've learned anything from what you say Nessa says, it's that gods don't know the future any more than we do," the archer said. "And even if she's right, I think we can still squeeze in a year of quiet or two." He put a hand on Sorne's shoulder and gave a soft squeeze. "If we can take on the biggest army and biggest demons in the world, we can take on anything."
"Famous last words," Sorne said as she started to walk back to her tent to collect her gear. She didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions. Her armor, now scarred and worn, her sword and shield, a seax from Dálkr and Tóla, a new spear, and equipment to take care of her weapons and armor. She wished she had more mementos, things she could cling to now that her world was broken. She had a knife from Graaol that she kept in her boot or along her thigh, Nirsal's scale around her neck, and Áshildr's gifts. There was a bar of soap sitting on top of her gear, no doubt a gift from Thadash.
Josu and Aitor were both waiting in her tent, looking much better now that they were bandaged and cleaned up. "Sorne," Aitor greeted, his smile a bit cautious. "Will we see you in Sakana?"
"Yes," the njoshari said, offering them a wan smile. "Vridash and I are going that way. We'll come just south enough to see Mauléon after we meet you in Sakana. Then we can return to the border and maybe make a life."
"You could join the wardens," Aitor offered. "You would be welcome with us."
Sorne shook her head. "I'm done with war," she said. "It's only brought me pain."
"Understood," the border warden said, inclining his head. He smiled at her and Vridash. "I look forward to seeing you there."
"As do I," Josu said. "I'm joining along with Aitor, so if you aren't angry with me..."
"Those coals long ago burned out," Sorne said with a little smile meant to be reassuring. "Besides, what happened wasn't your fault. It just...the world is a cruel place. I merely learned that young. You fought alongside us. That matters more."
Josu seemed slightly relieved. "Thanks," he said. "We owe you for what happened on the field. We should be dead right now. I mean, we almost were until you got back up again."
"I want to look over the maps before we leave. Find the best route," Vridash said, taking a seat at the low table. The maps of the battlefield had been replaced by those of the Talinese-Genevais border.
"You two are welcome to stay," Sorne offered.
"We'll get lunch and bring it back here," Josu said. He and Aitor stepped out, off to find food and mead for them. It wouldn't be a difficult quest, given that the giants were all about to eat.
Vridash made a study of the maps as Sorne sat down beside him. "It should be simple to avoid patrols and trouble if it's just the two of us, or even the four, should Josu and Aitor join us in heading north." He glanced over at her. "I'm surprised that Dálkr and Tóla aren't coming as well."
"Tóla just told him they're expecting a child, something I wish she would have known before the battle yesterday," Sorne said dryly. "I just about murdered her, at least until she mentioned that she only figured it out today. They'll head back to Stormhenge. It's much safer for a giant child."
The archer chuckled a little. "That sounds like Tóla."
Sorne made a noise of disapproval, but she wasn't really angry. She understood that Tóla hadn't wanted to abandon Dálkr, even if she harbored suspicions about it. No doubt a visit to one of the orc healers or shamans had confirmed it.
"A little life after all of...this...seems welcome to me," Vridash said softly.
She nodded. "They already promised to visit when the little one is old enough to control his shapeshifting and travel. That'll be a few years, but I'm looking forward to it."
"You'll be an old lady by then," the archer said with amusement.
"Either I will be or I won't be," Sorne said. "I'm not sure of which. At any moment, Nessa's gift could expire and then I'll die. It's a strange feeling, like a sword hanging over my head."
"If she doesn't give you a long and happy life, I'll duke it out with her when I die," Vridash said.
Sorne smiled and shook her head a little. "It's good to know you have my back," she murmured. "May it never come to blows."
They spent a few hours looking over the maps and just talking with Aitor and Josu. Sorne tried to be conversational, but for the most part she was quiet. She wanted to be close to people, but at the same time she still felt like a curse. She missed Nirsal and the others intensely, a lump in her throat and an ache in her chest. The mead eased it a little, but it was no cure for her sorrows and she knew it. Time was the only answer, at least until she was reunited with them. Until then, she had Vridash to look out for, as she'd promised Banaak.
Night passed without event. Sorne laid outside rather than in her tent, surrounded by ashes. The sky was still blocked by smoke. She would miss the incredible clarity of Ash Kordh, where every star could be seen against nebulae and the light of the moon. But the dull darkness of the sky matched what she could feel behind her breastbone.
As soon as the sun started to rise, Sorne was up on her feet, collecting her gear. Before anyone was the wiser, she and Vridash had slipped out of camp with Aitor and Josu. They did not want a hero's farewell any more than they wanted thanks or the medals that Philippe had offered. They had done their part and that was enough. The silence between them was weighted, but not uncomfortable. There was a strange companionship that came with shared grief left by war. They walked quickly, leaving armies and war behind. The njoshari's thoughts lingered behind them for a moment, but then she brushed her scarred fingers against the surface of the dragonscale she wore. She had lost enough. That was not her world any longer.
The future awaited. Genev awaited. The consequences of her choice in front of Nessa awaited. She was not the girl who had left Mauléon, but neither was she the woman who had left Ash Kordh to fight the Princes of Iron.
If Sorne had once been a creature of fire, now she felt like one of embers.
End of Part One.