Freta stared at Tara across the camp fire.
Tara blinked. She was still there.
“This isn’t possible,” she said. “You’re in Sovngarde.”
Freta smiled. She rested her elbow on her raised knee, then put her chin in her hand, as if settling in for a long story, as she had so many times in the past. She was sitting directly on the ground, impervious to the bitter cold and snow, it seemed.
She looked radiant. In her steel armor, really a mix of steel and leather, she was as commanding as ever. Her hair was down, dropping over her shoulders. She’d always worn it in a loose ponytail while in the armor, but not now. Now, it was as Tara had always preferred it, down and flowing. Her glacier blue eyes gleamed with joy. She looked happy.
“You have to protect her,” Freta said. Her voice was as silky as Tara remembered it.
A fresh pang of grief hit at the sight and sound of Freta. Tara fought back tears.
“Who?” she asked.
“All of them, my little Breton,” Freta said. Her smiled deepened. “It is so good to see you again.”
Tara couldn’t help it. She smiled back. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Freta looked around, taking in the sights. “I never made the pilgrimage. How magnificent the view. And High Hrothgar.”
Tara joined her in looking around. The view was like no other.
She and Katla had climbed the seven thousand steps to High Hrothgar. Tara had not kept count, but her legs agreed there must have been at least seven thousand steps.
“You’re insane,” Tara had said to Katla when they stood at the bottom of the steps, at the first wayshrine. They’d read the plaque, the first in a series of ten, as told to them by a pilgrim who’d just come down the mountain. All ten describing The Way of the Voice.
“They are to be read and contemplated,” the pilgrim had said.
“I’m climbing,” Katla had said, firmly. The firmness in her voice that Tara understood always meant she would not take no for an answer, or tolerate argument. “When will I ever get this chance again? Come on!”
“I think you’re trying to turn me into a Nord.” Tara had grumbled.
“You’re the one reading all those Nord history books.”
They’d climbed the steps, read all the wayshrines, met one other pilgrim higher up, around the fifth wayshrine, killed two wolves, and passed at least six goats. The climb itself was indescribable.
The first few hundred or so steps had been in an autumn morning glory, full of the rich colors of this turning season. The wind and bitter cold had started soon enough, though. What Tara couldn’t get over was how quickly the world seemed to fall away. How separate this mountain felt from the world below. The snow, ice, and wind blinded one a bit, fading their surroundings, increasing the sense of separateness.
Tara had been good through the first leg of the journey. The wayshrines left much to contemplate; on peace, war, power. This Jurgen Windcaller had the right of it, she thought.
What Tara didn’t have the right of was enough furs for the cold. Nord blood was supposedly resistant to the cold. Not hers, though. Bretons were resistant to magic, instead. The cold was cutting right through her. She’d need to get a thicker set of furs, she thought. Katla was loving it, it seemed.
“Come on!” she’d kept insisting after they arrived at another wayshrine and Tara wanted to turn around.
“I’m cold! And hungry!” Tara said. She didn’t recognize her whiny voice. What was she, twelve? Scratch that. She didn’t even complain like this at that age.
“We’re almost there.” Katla had encouraged.
They hadn’t been almost there most of the day.
“Are we there yet?” had escaped from Tara more than once.
Then, they were.
High Hrothgar had come into view, a mammoth of a building, filling one’s sight. They’d already stopped at several points to look out over Skyrim. Everything was so small. Even the other mountains.
High Hrothgar was its own vision. Gray, ancient stone, with a center tower and two wings. It filled the path. In front of it, a shrine of sorts. A large chest sat at the bottom of where the two staircases met, each led to a massive set of doors on either side of the tower. There were flowers and coins strewn in front of the chest. Gifts from the pilgrims.
The chest was for supplies, brought up and left for the Greybeards, Klimmek had told them. They’d met him at the inn in Ivarstead. He usually made the trip to bring supplies.
“Stick around a week, I’ll have more to bring up. Maybe pay you to take them up for me?” He’d offered.
“We won’t be here that long,” Tara had said.
“Wow,” Tara had said upon seeing High Hrothgar. The sun was setting, leaving a rich golden hue to strike the building.
“It’s incredible.” Katla had agreed.
“They don’t let people inside?” Tara had asked, again. She’d inquired in Ivarstead, and people had looked at her funny, as if everyone knew this.
“Not unless you’re studying The Way of the Voice,” Katla had confirmed. “They take few students. Few can learn it. And it takes decades to master.”
“But they did that shout we all heard,” Tara had reminded her. “They’re calling this Dragonborn person.”
Tara had asked about the shout in town, as well. Everyone had heard it.
“Means Dragonborn,” one of the guards had told her. “In all my years, I never thought I’d hear such a thing.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and this Dragonborn will show up. And they’ll let us all in,” Katla had laughed and winked at her. She’d looked around, studying the area at the bottom of the steps, near the last of the wayshrines.
“We’re going to have to camp out here for the night. Didn’t time our climb very well,” she’d said.
Tara had agreed. Night was falling quickly. It was too late to consider traveling back down the steps. She hadn’t seen anything that would suffice for shelter on their way up, either. No caves, no real outcroppings to speak of. This corner, behind the wayshrine, with High Hrothgar behind it would provide some protection from the wind, at least.
They’d made camp and eaten a fast dinner. The camp fire struggled to stay alight, and it was so cold outside the tents.
They did enjoy the sight of Masser and Secunda rising behind High Hrothgar. That sight was a gift, Tara thought.
“Go to sleep,” Tara had said to Katla. “I’ll take watch.”
Katla had given her a worried look. “Are you sure you’ll be okay out here? I’ve got more furs…”
“I’m fine. Go to sleep. Get warm,” Tara had said.
Why hadn’t she taken the offer of more furs? It wasn’t long before she was shivering. She sat as close to the camp fire as she dared. She didn’t think it would last the night. There was no wood this high up. They’d been carrying firewood, but she was having to feed the fire a lot to fight the wind. They had not planned this pilgrimage well.
“Who?” Tara asked Freta again. “Who am I protecting?”
Freta’s eyes shifted to Katla’s tent. “Katla first. Then the others.”
Tara joined her and looked at Katla’s tent, then back at Freta.
“I didn’t protect you,” Tara said. It came out as a whisper.
“You were never meant to,” Freta said. Her tone stated it as a matter of fact.
Tara felt a tear fall, then freeze on her face. She wiped it away.
“Who are the others?”
“You know. Rigmor and…well, you’ll know her when you see her,” Freta said.
She leaned in closer to the fire, closer to Tara.
“When you fail the one, don’t fail the other,” she said. “She’ll be your way back.”
Freta simply smiled.
“I don’t understand,” Tara said.
“Premonitions, my little Breton. I told you.”
“I don’t understand.” Tara repeated.
Freta stood, still smiling. She came and knelt down in front of Tara. Tara breathed in her scent, the mix of mead and leather that always enveloped her.
“You will always be the most beautiful woman I ever knew, Tara Blaton.” She kissed her forehead. “Go. Stay in the tent with her tonight. Before you freeze to death.”
“Freta…I…” Tara started.
“You’ll both be safe tonight. Go.” Her hand brushed Tara’s hair, as she’d done so many times, on so many nights. “Hair of fire. Heart of passion. Protect them well.”
Tara shivered awake. The camp fire had died. The wind had battered it into submission.
She blinked and looked around. No Freta. Of course not. It had been a dream.
Freta was right, though. She’d freeze to death trying to stay outside the tents, keeping watch.
Tara checked the sky. The stars were bright against the deep black of night. Dawn was too many hours away for her to stay out here. And, Nord blood or not, she couldn’t let Katla be subjected to this, either.
Tara looked at her tent, then at Katla’s.
Stay with her.
Tara climbed quietly into Katla’s tent and pulled the flap closed, finally getting relief from the wind.
She watched Katla for a few minutes. She was buried in furs, fast asleep. Her breath came in soft waves, the shallowness of deep slumber.
Tara climbed under the fur blankets, still in her own furs, which covered her leather armor. Katla had a roomy tent, and Tara was able to lie down without being too close. She took a deep breath. Katla smelled of leather, wood, and something sweet Tara couldn’t quite place. The immediate warmth of furs, and the beauty of Katla’s face brought comfort. Katla looked so innocent, so relaxed. While asleep, at least, her face wasn’t carrying the stress of having assassins after her.
Stay with her. Protect her.
Tara fell asleep and did not dream.