Ulfr forced his way through the understory, ripping and tearing as he went, huge clawed feet clearing the way so he might return to…return to where? He stopped his rampaging and turned his head to the left and right as if searching for the unreachable answer to a forgotten question. A faint, niggling memory began to take form, a face that should be familiar—the answer to the question. But just as it began to take shape, the memory faded and sank back into forgetfulness. With an impatient snort, the once-great protector of kings resumed hunting. His mission was to protect the area around his new master’s lair and kill any interloper or subdue and bring it back for Him to consume. Ulfr worked in a widening arc about the dragon’s lair, sniffing and listening.
At last, he came to a natural clearing in the forest and turned his bloodied muzzle toward the west. There was something on the air. He lifted his head and inhaled. No, not a scent, at least nothing unusual. But there was something strange, a faint voice from very far away, calling out a name over and again.
Ulfr lowered his head and tried to concentrate on the voice, tried to understand what it was saying because it felt so familiar.
A bolt of pain shot through his mind at the name, and he turned red eyes toward the west. “Ulfr, we are coming.”
A face appeared in his mind, and he saw who had called: a witch. She was coming to destroy his master. That could not be allowed. Ulfr studied the witch’s face and committed it to memory. I will kill you before you can harm my master.
With a deafening howl, Ulfr returned to warn his master of this impending invasion.
* * *
“Ulfr, we are coming,” Ästa sent with all her mental powers. She leaned against the bow railing, her face in the breeze, long black hair trailing behind, eyes watering from the salty air, her mind filled with thoughts of Ulfr and what lay ahead.
She had decided to send a message to Ulfr three times each day in the hope that he would respond. So far there had been nothing, but she knew it was too distant for his mind-speech to reach her. She was not certain even if her thoughts were strong enough. Regardless, she would continue her thrice-daily messages until either Ulfr responded, or she arrived back home. She would find and rescue him, and he would be her protector once again.
Ästa willed the longship to sail faster. After three days at sea, all she could see was blue water and sky. She saw no birds, but plenty of sea creatures surrounded them. Ästa reached out to their minds and was thrilled when a whale struck up a lengthy conversation with her. It cautioned her about serpents and Kraken, which were abundant in these waters.
She enjoyed speaking with other air-breathing creatures, especially the sleek ones that danced and darted in and out of Dragonsbane’s wake. Ästa loved their interesting conversations, whereas groups of fish always expressed limited thoughts: “swim, evade, eat,” and were not very receptive to Ästa’s inquisition. Whenever she reached out to a cluster of fish, they darted away sending one overwhelming thought: “flee.”
The wolf queen turned her back to the wind and regarded her cousin, and the others huddled nearby. They played a Lupanora game that involved rolling dotted cubes of bone and moving a peg over a length of wood. She did not understand the game, but it appeared there was some wagering involved.
From the heap of items at his side, it appeared that Alec was winning. He was smiling and seemed unbothered by the rolling seas that had rendered him so helpless before. It was not the only change Ästa had noticed since bringing him out of the void. Alec was short with Torval. He went out of his way to avoid Haruka, and there were the leather armbands he wore on his forearms. He never wore those before, and now she never saw him without them.
“Ästa,” her father called, pulling her from her thoughts.
She turned to see him coming forward to speak with her. “Yes, Father.”
“I have something I must speak to you about. Will you sit with me?”
She nodded, “Of course, Father.” She noticed the small leather pouch he carried in his hand. “What is that?”
“This is your legacy. It is a gift from your mother and me, and long past time you learned of its power.” He gestured for her to join him on a nearby water cask. “Come, sit.”
She obeyed, taking the seat beside her father, and looking up into his weathered face. “What is it, Father?”
“Do you recall my tale of when your mother and I were bonded?”
Ästa nodded. “Yes, of course. It was very romantic.”
“Yes, well, uh,” Magnus began, his face reddening. “This was one of our wedding gifts.” He held out the small pouch for Ästa to take. “Do not open it just yet, if you please.”
Ästa held the gift in her two hands on her lap. “It’s heavy.”
“Inside the pouch is a stone.”
Ästa creased her brow. “A stone?”
“Yes, but no ordinary stone. This is one of the seer stones from an age before the Mist hid Fae from the world of men. It is a faerie stone of powerful magic.”
Ästa lifted the pouch, stared at the tool work on the leather, and up at her father. “Is it a weapon?”
Magnus shook his head. “Not in the way you might be thinking. The seer stones enhance the natural abilities of the person who bears them. If they have some magic, it is strengthened. Your mother used this stone to help her speak with animals.”
“As for myself,” Magnus continued, “I have no magic, but holding the stone gave me clarity of mind so I could better lead men and govern wisely. It has been in my possession since before you were born, but now I pass it on to you. It is your inheritance as your mother’s daughter.” Magnus gestured to the pouch.
Ästa loosened the drawstring and upended the pouch over her open palm. A pale blue stone, the size of a hen’s egg, dropped free and settled in her palm. As she closed her fist around the stone, a surge of power flowed up her arm and into her chest where it seemed to warm her entire being. She experienced a quickening of her heart rate and strength nearly overpowering in its desire for release. But after only a moment the sensation passed, and Ästa felt nothing more than the stone itself.
Ästa looked up at her father, her eyes wide. “Did that happen when you held the stone?”
Magnus looked at his daughter with creased brows. “I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“A surge of power.” Ästa pushed the stone around in her palm with a finger. “I don’t feel it now.” She looked up. “What kind of stone is it?”
Magnus shrugged. “Your mother said the faeries created stones like this long ago.”
Ästa returned her attention to the stone, testing its weight. “How does it work?”
“From what your mother told me, you need only hold the stone and concentrate on what you want. If you are working some minor magic, the stone will enhance it, making it more effective.”
“Does it do anything else?”
Magnus shook his head. “Why don’t you practice with it a little. I don’t know how the stone will react to your magic. You’ll have to discover its power for yourself.”
“It’s not dangerous, is it?”
“It is not dangerous for you, but do not use it when you are angry. You may accidentally injure someone. Remember, it enhances magic.”
Ästa smiled and leaned over to hug her father. “Thank you, Father. I will be careful.” She got up, but before she left she said, “Will you tell me about my mother and the bears?”
“Aye, I will, and you will be pleased to hear it, for it is an amazing tale.”
Ästa smiled and kissed her father’s cheek then went to sit with her cousin and friends.
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