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The Image of Love

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Petra skirted quickly around the edge of the clearing, staying low, steady and focused on the tracks in front of her. The deer were still one step ahead, but not for long.

“Petra?” Eivor called from a short distance away, her tone uncharacteristically cautious as her voice carried through the trees. “I fear I may have made a mistake.”

Petra sighed and abandoned her deer tracks for the moment. Following the sound of soft rustling, she found Eivor crouched on her haunches by a moist log, scraping through the damp soil with her fingertips. She looked up when Petra's feet entered her field of view, the grimace on her face definite cause for concern. Petra frowned. “What's wrong?”

“I was feeling a little strange so... I ate two of these,” Eivor admitted, holding out her hand to present two small dark mushrooms she had plucked from the earth. “Are they what I think they are?”

Petra let out a breath, relieved they weren't in any kind of significant danger, then snickered. She recognised them well enough. “Yes. You're about to feel a lot stranger, Eivor,” she confirmed with fond warning. Any romantic feelings for the clan's drengr had fizzled away as quickly as they had appeared but Petra enjoyed their time together nonetheless.

Eivor sighed and dropped the mushrooms to the earth before standing and rolling her shoulders back experimentally. “I don't feel different. Perhaps they aren't very potent?” she supplied hopefully.

“Perhaps they aren't,” Petra placated with a friendly hand on her shoulder and an encouraging smile, though there was no truth behind her words.

*

“Look!” Eivor declared loudly a short time later, pointing into the undergrowth just up the hill from where they were hiding in the grass. “There! Can you see it?” she asked excitedly, jumping to her feet and taking off on a run.

“I don't see anything,” Petra called after her, begrudgingly rising to her feet for what felt like the hundredth time to follow.

“Can you smell the honey? It's sweet! The air is sweet!” Eivor cheered, her glee so loud the birds resting above them scattered with an almighty flutter.

“Honey?” Petra murmured to herself as she ran, taking a deep breath in through her nose and embracing the faint aroma of undisturbed woodland flooding her nostrils. It was a heady scent, one that that she lived for some days, but - even to her senses, honed and trained to a fine point - there was no honey around.

“I smell honeyed mead in the air,” Eivor announced in an exhilarated whisper, barely slowing in her pursuit to let Petra catch up. Petra shook her head, fond and exasperated in equal measure. Eivor was now completely and utterly in the throws of hugr magic. The only remaining chance they had to bring home deer for the feast was if the creatures were already dead by the time Petra found them.

“All we need to do is follow-” Eivor started but then stopped, her head snapping to the faint crunch of a twig and the whirl of red fur in the undergrowth. “There!” she pointed, her smile growing wide, eyes bright and glazed over.

“A fox?” Petra frowned. “We're supposed to be hunting deer.”

“It's love,” Eivor clarified, awestruck, unable to remove her attention from the now empty space in front of them.

“Love,” Petra repeated, deadpan. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

“Love incarnate,” Eivor explained. “The image of love. The symbol of love. The very essence of love.”

“Eivor,” Petra stopped her with thinly-veiled tolerance. “It's a fox.”

“Exactly. I want to get closer-” Eivor implored, hushed, crouching in the tall grass and inching forward.

Petra held her breath as she followed. “Is this the first time you've followed the image of love?” she asked mockingly, deciding to play along as they crept through the grass.

Eivor snorted as if the question itself were ridiculous. “Of course not,” she scoffed. “But we should follow it anyway.” Petra rolled her eyes.

“Where does it usually guide you?”

Eivor considered for a moment. “Norway. A boat. The longhouse.” She reached out and clasped a hand to Petra's arm, stilling and shushing her.

The bushes had stilled completely, the fox having made its cautious and rapid retreat underground moments ago. In order to catch a fox, a hunter should be quick as a bolt of lightning and silent as the grave; they had been neither.

“It seems like we lost the image of love,” Petra teased, closing the distance to crouch by Eivor's side.

Eivor visibly deflated in front of her, her head hung slightly between her shoulders. “It is for the best,” she sighed dejectedly, her lips turning down at the corners as she stood to her full height. The light in her glassy eyes had dimmed and she seemed quite desolate when she spoke. “Truth be told... It has been lost to me for some time.”

Petra felt her stomach sink; she had never seen Eivor look so sad. “What do you mean?” she asked gently, coming to stand by her.

“It dug in deep,” Eivor admitted, each word seemed like it had been forcibly torn from her. “Deeper than I could ever have expected, or even imagined, and I buried it there,” Eivor looked at her, imploring. “I have to,” she clarified, her voice cracking. Petra watched her shoulders slump and, though her words made little sense, she could see all too clearly that it had been a painful confession.

“So you... Buried the image of a fox?” she tried, struggling to understand.

“Yes. The essence of it, the everything of it,” Eivor stared out into the wilderness. “It is my duty. I have no choice.”

Petra wanted to help, to understand, but she was growing weary of tailing Eivor over the hills, trying to piece together her drug-addled riddles. “Valka's prophecies have more clarity than your words,” she joked amicably, trying to lighten the tension Eivor had placed between her own shoulders.

“My words are perfectly clear,” the drengr argued.

“No,” Petra countered with a short laugh. “They are not.”

Eivor huffed and – to her relief - chose not to say anything in response. The sun was beginning its descent behind the hill, casting a golden glow over the grass and ferns around them. It wouldn't be too long before the rabbits came out. Petra took a deep breath, scanning the area. She could see tracks everywhere and it would improve her chances of a successful hunt quite significantly if she could come back alone before sunset.

“It's getting late,” she told Eivor finally, watching her scuff her foot on the ground, seemingly at nothing. “Come on, we should go home.”

*

Considering Eivor had returned to the settlement to rest for a few days, Randvi's afternoon had been unusually quiet and suspiciously productive.

Eivor had gone hunting with Petra, this much she knew, having been close to forcibly ejecting her from the longhouse herself earlier that morning. She smiled, allowing herself to feel one moment of affection amongst an eternity of buried emotions. Eivor was a six-foot nuisance who drove her insane but gods, Randvi loved it when she was home.

As if on cue, Petra called her name from the door of the longhouse. She settled her notes and followed the sound of the commotion, peaceful silence broken all at once by the sound of stumbling feet.

“Randvi, can you take care of this?” Petra practically begged, leading a stumbling Eivor into the Map Room by the arm.

Randvi balked at the faded look in Eivor's eye and the stagger in her walk, the way she swayed in place when Petra pulled her to a stop. Eivor blinked twice at her, like she was trying to focus, and smirked.

“She's drunk,” Randvi sighed, folding her arms.

“Not exactly,” Petra dodged, clearly trying to keep a smile from her face.

Eivor blinked again and stared at the ceiling, her eyes flickering back and forth as if watching shooting stars. She seemed dazed and distracted, murmuring nonsense to herself, nothing like the silver-tongued pin-sharp drengr Randvi was used to.

“She's high?!” Randvi guessed, incredulous.

“As a hunting hawk,” Petra admitted with a giggle.

“Gods, Eivor,” Randvi scolded. “What have you been doing?”

“I found the image and I followed it again,” Eivor muttered to the ceiling. Randvi's brow furrowed in confusion as she glanced between the two. “I'll always follow.”

When it became clear Eivor wasn't going to say anything remotely useful, Randvi rounded back to Petra. “What is she talking about?”

Petra shrugged. “She's been speaking in riddles all afternoon. Claimed to be following “the image of love”, whatever that means.”

“Is she mindsick?”

“I don't think so,” Petra hedged, though she didn't sound completely sure.

Randvi clenched her jaw. “Should we wake Valka?”

Petra snorted in amusement at the thought. “I fear that the two of them speaking to one another may tear the boundaries that separate the nine realms,” she joked, sobering when Randvi didn't find it funny at all. “There isn't really any need,” she appeased. “She ate some mushrooms and then ran all over the hills to the north chasing a fox. I think she tired herself out.”

“I just told you that,” Eivor grumbled petulantly.

“Eivor, really,” Randvi chided, picking stray twigs and blades of grass out of Eivor's hair and tunic, letting them fall to the floor. Eivor looked down at her then, her expression soft and warm. “You should lie down,” she added in a gentle, firm tone, daring to cup Eivor's flushed cheek in her palm to keep her attention.

Eivor nodded, the expression on her face similar to that of an overtired child.

“Gods, where were you when I was steering her through the forest?” Petra quipped. “Just trying to get her back here was a trial but she will do anything you ask of her.”

“Ah, yes. We have quite a lot of history behind us. She trusts me,” Randvi ducked her head, dropping her hand and using it to scratch her nose, trying to hide how happy that thought made her.

Petra's face dropped, then, eyes growing wide, glancing from Randvi to Eivor and back again, a small smile growing at the corners of her mouth.

“What?” Randvi pressed, a little panicked. “What is it?”

“Eivor,” Petra held up her hands to keep Eivor's attention, speaking slowly and clearly. “Where does the image of love lead you?”

“Where it always does,” Eivor replied simply, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Petra bit her lip. “What about now? Right now? Are you still looking for it?”

“Why should I?” Eivor laughed with a shake of her head. “It's right here.”

Petra nodded with a grin. “I thought so. Rest well, Eivor.”

Eivor smiled at them both and wandered placidly into her chambers, presumably for the remainder of the night.

“What was she talking about?” Randvi inquired once Eivor was out of earshot. Petra gave her a fond expression, a kind she had never seen before. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I... I finally understand what she's been trying to tell me,” Petra laughed, surprised and pleased in equal measure.

“Which is?” Randvi was beginning to lose patience but Petra didn't bite.

“Not for me to tell you, I'm afraid. Goodnight, Randvi,” she said with a knowing smile, leaving before any more words could be said.

“You finally understand her. Hm. That makes one of us,” Randvi grumbled to herself, finally able to at least attempt to refocus her attention on the Alliance Map.

*

Hours later, in the dead of night, Randvi's notes blurred before her eyes, Eivor's words still tumbling over one another in the back of her mind. She always spoke with meaning, with purpose, Randvi knew that. What had Eivor been trying to say? What had she seen out in the forest?

She shivered in the cool air as a breeze blew in and pulled her cowl tighter around her shoulders, her fingers brushing through familiar soft red fur.

Fox fur.

“She ate some mushrooms and then ran all over the hills to the north chasing a fox.”

“Claimed to be following the image of love, whatever that means-”

No, it couldn't be- She couldn't mean-

Randvi startled with the thought, dropping the raven figurine she had been repositioning with a clatter, goosebumps travelling in waves up her arms.

She stared through the longhouse, to the empty archway of Eivor's chambers, the drengr's soft snores barely audible in the silence of deep night.

She couldn't have meant-

What else could she have meant?

Randvi gripped the side of the table, forcing herself to take a slow, shaky breath.

Was Eivor in love with her?

For the first time in a long time, Randvi's chest dared to bubble with the bravest, smallest hope.