They’d been on the road for half a tenday before the aspirants began to tire of each others’ exclusive company. It was a gray, shadowless day, and rain fell in sheets to muddy the road. The horses were having a difficult time with their footing, and Eirik pulled the coach over to give them a break. He led them down to the south back of the river Hrimdal for a drink, and when he returned the aspirants were sitting in the driver’s box. Eirik climbed up, sat between them, and urged the horses onward. The rain beat on the windows of the driver’s box, and for a while it was the only sound to be heard.
Brynjar eventually broke the silence. “So where are we?”
Eirik thought for a moment. “We took the fork onto the north road the day before last. We’re not making quite the pace I’d hoped for.” He tallied on his fingers. “About a hundred and fifty miles from the city. We should be coming to Höjdheim a little while after noon. I’m thinking to stop there for the day, if this rain doesn’t let up.”
The aspirants looked out the windows at the sodden landscape. The cart rattled over a small bridge of mossy stone, crossing one of the streams which fed the Hrimdal. A bit further from the road there would be fields and farms, but it was impossible to see that far through the rain. To the right, it was just possible to see the lazy curve of the river about half a mile downhill. In a few months it would be frozen again. Ahead, the road curved between two hills, to the sides of which clung a handful of tall, straight conifers, the only trees stubborn enough to grow this far north. The sights were not able to hold their interest for long.
After a minute or so Nissa quietly asked, “What’s Höjdheim like?”
Eirik lifted his shoulders. “It’s on a hill, of course, and it was fortified during the war with the giants. I’ve never been there before, or even along this part of the road, but my father is friends with the lord of the town and the nearer farms.”
“Your father?” asked Brynjar.
Eirik blinked. He’d thought it was common knowledge at the Guild. The nobility tended to see becoming a mage as settling for second place, and those of them that did so were usually known for it. “Eskil Sigvardsson der Kjellskraj of Mikelsfjord,” he said. “That’s not important, though. At the most, making an issue of it might gain us a softer bet for the night and oblige me to a man I don’t know.”
The aspirants accepted that at face value, and to head off the descending silence, Eirik asked, “You’ve been studying under Master Alvarsson for two or three years now, then?”
“Only six months,” Brynjar said. “We were Master Karlsson’s students, but the hiisi killed him last winter.”
“That’s a poor bit of luck,” Eirik said. “I didn’t know that he had students. Teaching mages don’t normally go to the front.” Aware that he sounded rather unfeeling, he self-consciously added, “He was a good man.”
“Master Alvarsson told us that we live in dangerous times, and that people we care about are going to die.” At Eirik’s look, Brynjar shifted uncomfortably and recited, “Letting it bother us is ignorance of the end that awaits us all, and weakness we can’t afford if we want to survive ourselves.”
Eirik sensed that the silence off his other shoulder had become a stony one. “Do you disagree?” he asked Nissa.
She gave him a fiery look. “If it doesn’t bother us, did we ever care at all?”
“Alvarsson actually talks like that, then?” Eirik asked, filing away the knowledge. Baltasar would be as glad as he ever got to hear it; that degree of fatalism was unhealthy. A few years ago, there had been some issues with death cults, which the Chieftains and the Council might have ignored as a problem which would likely fix itself, had the cults been less eager to spread their message. Eirik had been only peripherally involved, but he remembered that the handful of cultists who’d been taken alive had couched their views in such language. “Far be it from me,” he went on, “to stand between a master and his aspirants, but all the same I don’t think you should listen too closely to Alvarsson on such matters.”
It seemed to him that he’d just added weight to one half of a long-running argument, or so he imagined from Nissa’s triumphant expression. Brynjar didn’t seem ready to let it go, and having no desire to hear children arguing philosophy they didn’t fully understand, Eirik interrupted. “I’ll trade you a story,” he said. “Both of you together, I mean.”
They leaned forward and exchanged a look around him. “Will you go first?”