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The Pool of Giants
Approaching the mountain edge, she could now see that what legend had called a sea was really more of a bowl. A basin. A white-rimmed chalice of murky salt water, whose brim's far edge stretched away into the misty North, imperceptible. There is no shore, only snowy cliff edges that the churning waves beat against in unconcealed fury. The only way into the water would be to plunge down the sheer drop. She gazes down at the waves before backing away from the edge. That is not what she came to do.
Behind her, the Great-elk snorts and paws at the snow. His hide and massive antlers have turned white with frost, a memento from the blizzard that hit a couple days ago and which had her scrawling warmth runes on her skin and the Great-elk's with numb, desperate fingers. Unconsciously her hand comes up, and she pats the beast's flank without taking her eyes from the dark waters. Their short breaths fog around their heads, carried away by the howling wind. Snowflakes sting at their eyes and tangle in her flying hair; icy sea mist whistles against her bare face, the taste of salt on her lips. Other than the wind and the waves' incessant roaring, it is utterly silent. The hares and mountain goats they had first encountered had disappeared the further they ascended. There is no life here. A shiver that, for once, is not from the cold runs down her spine, and she bares her forearm. With a trembling finger she traces invisible lines onto her skin, the strange warmth seeping into her bones with a burning sensation as she murmurs the incantation for the courage rune.
She takes another deep breath, the frigid air piercing her lungs, before she reaches into the pack slung over the Great-elk's shoulders. She pulls out the cloth-covered weapon, and when the fabric shifts, the blade glints even though there is no sunlight to reflect on it.
* * *
At her birth, there was quite a lot of surprise at her appearance. Her mother and father are children of Summer and Autumn, respectively, so their newborn daughter had been expected to have blue or green eyes and golden hair and skin — like a child of Summer, and like her siblings — or perhaps hazel eyes and auburn hair like a child of Autumn, as her cousin is. But when she had been revealed with Summer's golden hair but Winter's snowy skin and eyes, all but the Sisters of Rest were shocked.
"What does this mean?" they said her father had asked the eldest Sister. "What does it forebode for one of my children to be of two seasons?"
The Sister had been silent at first, watching with blind eyes as the other Sisters tended to the baby. They were near identical in collective appearance: the same gauzy robes, the same unseeing eyes wrapped in thin blindfolds, white skin, white hair differing only in length, powerful wings that they kept tucked close to their backs. Some were drawing invisible runes of health, happiness and blessing on the baby's flushed skin; others were standing aside, hands folded in silent prayer. It was impossible to discern which hailed from the kingdom of man or the realm of elves.
"The child will be of fruitful years," the Sister had spoken at last, in the motionless, voiceless way the Sisters spoke. "She shall be strong and able-bodied as your eldest son is despite her youth. She shall have beauty both in appearance and spirit, and the praises of her name shall ring throughout the land. And in time, she shall rule the kingdom with wisdom and fortitude rivaling that of your great ancestors."
"That is good. I am very glad to hear that," said her father in a strained voice. "But Sister Sapiens, what is it you are keeping from us?"
Nothing at first, then a sigh like rustling parchment. The Sister turned her head to face the king even though she could not see him. "There is a great challenge that approaches in the times to come. It is a challenge of death and darkness, from which only one victor will emerge. Your child will stand in its way and her victory will bring the fate that I have spoken."
"And her failure?" the king whispered. "What happens if she fails?"
It felt as if Sister Sapiens gazed at him for a long time, although that couldn't have been possible. "If she fails, death will find its domain in this land. If she fails, then there will be doom as none have known since the ancient times." And then the Sister lapsed back into silence, refusing to speak any more on the youngest daughter's destiny.
* * *
The wind batters her as she approaches the cliffs. Sea-spray streaks white salt across her cheekbones, the mingled scent of snow and salt water overwhelming her heightened senses. Her foot catches a loose stone and she stumbles, the wrapped blade gripped against her chest. She had tucked her sun-colored hair into her hood but the wind blows it free, long locks whipping across her face and vision. Gasping in the thin air, she forces herself to get up. The Great-elk lows mournfully some paces behind, and it sounds as though he is trying to encourage her.
A thousand waves crash against the cliffs; she thought she could feel the rocks trembling under her hands as they were thrashed again and again. Every step sends a jolt of pain through her frozen body. Every blink freezes her eyelids shut, eyelashes laced with white ice. The wind howls around her like a horrifying beast and the sea bellows as if it and the wind are locked in battle, war throes ready to split the earth and cast an eternal blizzard. She grips the cold dagger hilt, feeling the metal through the folds of violet wool and squeezing her eyes shut as ice stings her face, the wind taking her voice away when she shouts into the storm herself.
* * *
"It is Nalhaich Iahna, isn't it?"
Sister Sapiens had slowed to a halt at the sound of the clear, fierce voice addressing her. Her wings moved around her with slow, wafting movements. An expression of calm was, as always, molded like a mask on her face. She had said nothing.
"What the stone inscription said. 'A place few reach and fewer live. A place where waters meet skies. A place where secrets lie in plain sight.' It's Nalhaich Iahna, isn't it?" The voice was insolent but bright, light gray eyes seeking the Sister's hidden ones. "That's the only place that fits the inscription and it makes sense! Father said our first forefather threw the blade of Nalhaich in there after his battle with the red serpent! That has to be the place!"
The Sister had spoken slowly. "You speak of the Pool of Giants..."
"Yes!" A spark — of defiance? excitement? eagerness? — lit deep within the girl's eyes. "Do you not see? That is where this war will be won! If we can muster our forces and attack—"
"That is not how it is to be."
"What?" And as quickly as it appeared, the spark was dimmed in confusion. "What do you mean?"
A gust had passed through the hall, and it had taken a moment for her to realize the Sister had sighed. Sister Sapiens bowed her head and her white hair fell before her face, obscuring her wrapped eyes. Out of all the Sisters of Rest, her hair was the longest and trailed across the marble floor as she walked. It denoted she was indeed the oldest and thus, despite her title, the Abbess of their order. "Only one will go to face the heart of this conflict. And that one must win, or else all will perish at the hands of the evil we face."
Stunned silence had met her declaration. It was several minutes before the girl spoke again, this time in a trepid whisper. "Who is it?"
"Among my many vows is the vow of silence. I cannot tell you more than is necessary."
"Necessary? Sister Sapiens, the fate of our world is in peril! Countless lives are in peril! Yet you deem it not necessary to tell us who our savior is?!"
"That is because..." The winged Sister had started on her way again. "...your fate is tied too closely to that person. No matter what I say, there is the risk that I will say too much, and the peril of that risk rivals even that of a choice to remain utterly silent." With that she left, leaving the girl alone to ruminate over her lingering words.
* * *
She understood now. She understood everything. There had been a weight on her shoulders since birth and now she was carrying it to the peaks of these snowy mountains to toss into the Pool of Giants. Except it was not as simple as that. Far be it to be as easy as throwing an unwanted weight into a foaming sea. No, what was demanded of her was much more than that and now she understood it all.
Her victory did not mean her survival. She had accepted that, finally.
But she was still going to fight against it with every fibre of her being.
The blade of the dagger shines as she draws it from the cloth, holding it high above her head with both hands. Runes of warmth and courage tingle unseen on the skin of her arms, and a cloud of mist surrounds her head as she exhales deeply. Then in a clear voice she begins to shout at the waves.
"I am Nakala, youngest daughter of the High Elf-King of this land that your master wishes to take! I come to challenge you in a battle to end this war!"
Nothing replies to her words but the screams of wind and sea. Nakala grips the dagger tight, the blade cutting her fingers and blood begins to trail languidly over her palm. Without another word, she draws her arm back and tosses it, the blade gleaming as it flies through the air, plummeting down towards the water where sea-mist and the spray of waves swallow it first. She neither sees nor hears it fall into the waters.
A heartbeat. A breath. Then with a tempestuous splashing something bursts up from the depths. One is a sword that soars into the whirling sky, steel surface gleaming and etched with words that legend claimed said, "I am cleaver of might." As it shoots towards her like a silver-and-gold arrow, she could see that the legend was true. Instinctively her hands come up and at the last possible moment, the sword stops, ruby-inlaid hilt hovering before her palms before sinking downwards. Quickly, she takes the sword in hand and is startled to find that the metal is hot beneath her skin, sending a wave of heat crashing into her limbs and through her body. The weapon seems to glow and it appears identical to its accompanying dagger, save for its size and its imperial décor.
But directly behind it a great shadow rumbles out of the waters, sea foam dripping off of it as it emerges and seems to split. Then, with a great whoosh of air it plummets down, clamping on the edge of the mountain as if gripping a wall. Nakala's heart stops when she realizes it is a hand — a colossal hand made of gray rock and jasper, twined with kelp and sea-moss. The mountains crack with a horrifying sound under its tightening grip, and its form continues to emerge from beneath the sea.
A shape that is perhaps the head breaks the surface, ascending and ascending and ascending as the giant rises to its full height. The sea is in a frenzy, salt waves beating and frothing like a cauldron of boiling water, except it is ice-cold. The wind seems to throw itself into a rage and assails all with its shrieking breath; Nakala hunches over and grips the sword closer to her body, but the giant remains motionless under the merciless storm.
Nakala cannot see its face but she feels a looming gaze upon her miniscule form. She cannot show weakness. The elf princess straightens against the vicious wind and snow and holds the blade of Nalhaich up high. Her fingers tremble — whether from fear or cold, she couldn't tell — as she traces one last rune over her arm. The fierce heat whips itself into her bones and blood, right into her marrow, and she feels herself lift her head to look up at the giant, seeking eyes that she knows she will see sooner or later.
The sea roars. The wind screams. The snow fills the sky. And above it all is a sound like two boulders crashing, crashing, crashing. Nakala realizes it is the sound of the giant's heart.
With a battlecry that matches the ferocity of the maelstrom, she charges.