The gods had been ravaging the seas with their wrath for four days straight. The waters were raging, chalk-white foam crowning the waves’ crests much like a beast frothing at the mouth. The wind howled as if it were the raving creature’s primal scream, lightning its eyes flashing indignantly within its dense fur of pitch-black clouds.
Four days. Four days she had waited, from dawn till dusk, watching the seas for any sign of the familiar longship with its brilliant blue sails. By now, the winds were cutting through her fur cloak like sharp knives. It was as if the winds were pushing her ever closer to the edge, whispering a promise of her suffering’s end. It would take only a step.
From her vantage point atop the storm-tossed white cliffs of Olafjord, Hrefna could only behold the violent tossing and turning of the waves helplessly. The ‘Wavebride’ is gone, the gall seemed to scream into her ringing ears. They’re all gone and it’s your fault.
Hrefna took a step towards the edge of the cliff and peered down the steep slope. Vertigo hit her immediately, as if the pull of the abyss and the waters beneath the steep cliffs beckoned her to jump. End it, the gall half urged, half advised. Join them, lonely one. End your waiting, your hope is for naught.
Stiff fingers struggling with her belt, Hrefna retrieved the small earthen flask of Hearthfire from her hip and took a big gulp. True to its name, the brandy burned a blazing trail down her throat and stomach, a welcome, yet brief, respite from the biting cold. Hrefna gasped of relief and gave herself over to the heat for a while. How it spread to her limbs and eventually her head; how it cauterized the edges of her thoughts into dullness. She tore her eyes from the rocks below and took a tentative step back. A serene smile crept to the corners of her mouth: the gall and its voice had fallen silent for now.
Clutching the flask to her chest like a piece of driftwood in a storm, Hrefna once again focused on her lonely watch. Her insides felt nowhere near as tense as on the first two days, when she imagined seeing blue among storm gray every few minutes or so; each trick of the light had sent her heart beating out of control. Distantly, she wondered whether that meant that she had accepted the fate her visions had revealed. With her mind numbed, she dared revisiting her memories of the future that might just be coming to pass miles out on the open sea.
As all her unbidden visions, this one had caught her at a most awkward time, as she walked down the steep dirt path from the Wavebride clan’s homestead to Olafjord’s harbor. The oath-clan was about to leave the harbor.
A white flash before her mind’s eye and the next moment she was out at sea. Wet planks beneath her feet, salt water on her tongue. Her captain’s frantic shouting competing with the howling storm. Fear on the faces of her oath-kin, her friends. The Wavebride was being tossed helplessly between the waves.
Korja, her dearest Korja, clutching her little baby boy to her breast. She was chanting one of her spells, a desperate last call to the elements. Hrefna remembered thinking ‘Not her’. Korja was looking past her, eyes wide with recognition. Hrefna did not need to turn around to know a monster wave was about to hit the Wavebride. In the moment before impact, they caught each other’s gaze. There was no anger, no fear in Korja’s face, only the serenity of one who had made peace with their fate. She hugged her baby closer and gave him an almost apologetic smile. Then the wave hit and Hrefna’s heart broke in two.
Darkness, this time. And in the darkness, a single spectral thread floated prophetically before her eyes.
The seer of fates feels the tug of destiny. A whisper, of three female voices aligned. The thread pulled taut, and only then Hrefna realized the string ended just within her chest. She felt herself pulled up by it, suspended in nothingness.
A whispered reminder, stern but caring. Disturb not the threads where they must not be, seeress, as you have enough before.
Hrefna had come to on the path retching, sea water in her lungs and anger in her heart. They could not…! There was time yet to tell her oath-kin of the future and prevent all this. She had hurried to the harbor, and, oh, how she had tried to convince them to stay on shore. How she had begged, pleaded, screamed. They would not listen. What they had done instead was extend a hand to her: an offer to face their fate together, as they had all sworn when they became oath-kin.
And Hrefna, in one terrible moment of fear, had turned around and ran. She did not stop until she had reached the cliffs and collapsed at the same spot where she now stood.
As she had watched the Wavebride leave shore from the cliff, her head had burst with pain. Images flooded her mind, images of an entire life that would have been. This time, she had boarded the Wavebride with her oath-kin, but the storm was nowhere near as bad. The ship would have made it safely back to shore. She would have laughed with her friends, exhausted, but alive. She would have learned humility, respect for fate and for her own gift. Many times more, they would sail out to sea, theirs would have been a long and happy life. She would haven seen the boy Jari grow up with Korja and his father. He would have called her ‘Auntie’.
Seeing, guiding is your sacred duty. The three voices yet again. Weaving, measuring, cutting – that is the god’s. A hesitant pause. Oh lonely one, had you but relented, we would have not… Their voices, no longer in unison, broke off one by one. Hrefna heard soft sounds – the sighs of a mother, as if to explain tragedy to a child. A price must always be paid for breaking fate.
Finally understanding, Hrefna had screamed and screamed until her voice had left her, too.
Tearing herself from her memories, Hrefna realized she had been crying again. They would not come back. She knew it within the hole where her heart must have once been; she had left them to their doom and thus sealed their fates. The wound within her tore open and spilled what little strength she had left. Below the cliffs, the waters sang their siren song. If she filled her lungs with water, she would not be empty anymore. It was just one step now.
Gods, she was oh so lonely.
In the moment before she decided to jump, the wind filled her ears with the beating of mighty wings and she looked up.
She saw a raven, translucent and ethereal, as if made from the very winds itself, carrying gently within its claws a boy. Hrefna’s hand instinctively went to her mouth to cover a relieved sob.
In a final act of love, Korja must have called to the wind spirits to bring her child safely back to shore.
The raven flew past her to the Runehalls, home of the oath-clan who had raised both Hrefna and Korja. That she had chosen them over her made sense, although it stung. Hrefna was not exactly in a place to raise a child.
Looking once more down the cliff, she wiped away her tears and let out a half-laugh, half-sob. She had made her decision.
Hrefna would live. Not because she deserved to – and it would be two decades until she again felt like she did – but because it was her responsibility. Only the living could redeem themselves, before the gods or before a little boy who had lost more than he would ever know. She glanced wistfully at the Runehall’s buildings, where a commotion had just erupted following the boy’s curious arrival. He would grow up in good hands, far from the sorrow of both their circumstances. She would not let it trouble the child; the grief was her burden alone.
Hrefna both feared and longed for the day she would meet him again; the final judge of her mistakes and the one who mattered the most. In the meantime, the only thing she could do was live with her own guilt. One day, she would tell him about Korja. About Hjore, his father, and Hjeri, too, and all the others he would never grow up with. But until then, she, the lonely relic of a life that could have been, would have to remain just that. Thus, Hrefna the Lonely, who ripped the threads of fate and paid dearly for it, walked away from the cliffs and from the child to make good on her promise.
And above the ravaged seas, the stormy heavens calmed at last.