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Ashe The Harder Path
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Short Story

The Harder Path

By Lillian Herington

The colossal brazier flared to life, its flames reaching high into the air. In times past, the gathered tribes would use this as the mark of the festival’s beginning.

Lore

The colossal brazier flared to life, its flames reaching high into the air. In times past, the gathered tribes would use this as the mark of the festival’s beginning.

The harvest festival had always been the largest celebration of the year for the tribes, and one of the last before winter set in on the plains. As the fire was lit, cheers should have echoed up the frozen slopes of the mountains, calling down blessings from the Three Sisters. Now, though, the mass of gathered Avarosans remained silent as they turned away from the flames to look up to the stage where Ashe stood.

She let her eyes roam over them. No festival had ever seen so many gathered together, and she knew they had come to see her.

She grabbed her bow and unslung it, the now-familiar piercing chill of the True Ice surging through her body. The cold was still painful, even after all her time with the weapon—but now she welcomed it, using it to focus and block out distractions. She lifted her gaze from the crowd to the roaring flame, and took a deep breath as she pulled back the bowstring. All other sounds of the festival faded.

A crystal arrow of pure cold formed, beckoned forth by the deep magic coursing through the bow. Ashe held her breath as she let it continue to channel magic through her arms. The temperature on the stage plummeted, frost creeping out from beneath her feet.

When the cold threatened to finally overwhelm her, she released her breath and let the arrow fly.

It arced high over the crowd, and slammed into its target with a deafening crack. In an instant, the brazier was frozen over, the dancing shapes of the fire enveloped by the spreading ice. The setting sun shone through the crystalized flames and onto the crowd below, and finally the cheer broke out. The crowd invoked the blessings of the Three—Lissandra, Serylda, and Avarosa herself, reincarnated in Ashe.

Ashe kept her address short.

“Avarosans! Never before has a harvest festival seen so many. Sit with your kin from across the snows—we are one family now. Eat, drink, and enjoy!”

She smiled as the crowd cried out her name. She raised her bow high, and the cheers rose higher in response.

Inwardly, she grimaced. As so often, she wondered if it was her leadership that drew them all together, or the weapon she carried. It was the symbol of Avarosa, and many in the Freljord believed that, as its wielder, she was Avarosa reborn. Ashe slung the bow over her shoulder and shook the thought. Why they joined wasn’t as important as what they had become. She hopped off the stage and moved into the crowd as they dispersed to feast-laden tables.

The boisterous tribes mixed together, sharing food, drink, and tales of hunts past. The Stonepicks described the warm yet treacherous southern mountains. Ashe cheered with the others when the Red Snows recounted the defeat of the Noxian warbands that had tried to advance inland from the coast. A warrior from the Ice Veins, storied blizzard walkers one and all, clapped Ashe on the back as she passed, sending a strange chill through her.

All these and more had responded to her call and joined the festivities. All had pledged themselves to the Avarosans, and each tribe needed her to be something different. A prophet, a savior, a mediator. A Warmother.

Ashe would be them all if she could.

As she neared the far end of the feast, though, she froze. At the last table, sitting somber and removed from the rest, was a group of Iceborn that she knew all too well—the Snow Followers, vengeful zealots who had slaughtered a whole tribe only months ago.

A tribe whose only crime had been joining the Avarosans.

A large woman, doubtless their leader, rose and approached Ashe. “Warmother Ashe, Avarosa’s chosen, wielder of Her divine bow. My name is Hildhur Svarhem, truthbearer and Warmother of the Snow Followers.”

Ashe imagined the sight of the scorched huts again, the screams of her people dying in agony, and her fury ignited. The crowd around them quieted as Hildhur continued, whispers spreading quickly. All gathered had heard of what the Snow Followers had done.

“We swore an oath that no faith-traitors would ever again follow those falsely claiming to be Avarosa reborn. Your warriors fought bravely, but not well.” She unslung a large war-axe from her back, its blade coated in a thin but clear layer of True Ice. A true Iceborn, she bore the discomfort of the weapon’s chilling effect silently.

Ashe measured the woman’s wide stance, counted the few steps between them. Dried blood matted Hildhur’s armor—more Avarosan blood? Ashe’s muscles tensed as she prepared to move. She was ready for any attack.

What she was not ready for, however, was for the Warmother to kneel, lower her head, and offer up the war-axe with both hands.

“Forgive us, Warmother Ashe. I did not know then what I do now. I came to challenge you before all your followers, to unmask you as a false prophet. But the magic you wield is beyond any I have ever witnessed. None can deny that She speaks through you. I offer you my axe, Joutbane, and my head. Spare my people, that they may prove their worth by hunting, farming, and dying in your name.”

Each of the gathered Snow Followers followed their Warmother’s example, kneeling in deference.

At once, voices from the crowd called for vengeance. “Death to the raiders!” they cried.

Barely more than smoldering ruins when Ashe had arrived, the skeletal remains told the story of a village surrounded. The few warriors had been easily identified, for their bodies were untouched by fire, but hacked down and left for the crows. The rest of the tribe had hidden in their homes, praying for mercy, or simply a quick death.

They received neither…

Eyes welled up with fury, Ashe reached for the axe. She would take Hildhur’s head, as a warning to any who would—

As her hand clasped around it, and the True Ice sent the familiar spike of cold through her arm, Ashe felt her bow beginning to radiate against her back. A slow, chilling pulse, like a winter breeze.

Her mind calmed.

“Stand, Hildhur,” she said, looking down at the war-axe.

Hildhur rose, furrowing her brow in confusion. Ashe met her probing gaze.

“The Snow Followers have shed the blood of my tribe, and they are my enemies,” she continued. “But you have shown humility and remorse, here and now. You are not the Snow Followers any longer—from today forward, you are Avarosan, and that makes you family. You have nothing to fear from me, cousin.”

She thrust the war-axe back into the woman’s hands, and the tension in the air broke. Soon enough, the celebrations were underway again, the joyous feelings redoubled by forgiveness and mercy. Ashe walked to everyone seated at the table, welcoming each in turn.

As she turned from them and walked away, she was careful to keep her grief in check. Her heart still burned, but her people needed her to walk a different path than that of revenge. She played her fingers along the bowstring, seeking comfort in its chill.

She would be better. She must.

References

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