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The Shawl of Snowflakes


Despite the discovery of lands more savage and more remote than the northern reaches of Faerun, the Savage Frontier beckons a wanderer. To a loner set on his own survival these frozen lands are an affront, for the very notion of the long dark and cold suggests that a man alone stands no chance. The strengths and resources of many is what is needed to endure the embrace of the North: a comrade’s hand, when one has fallen through the ice; a welcoming hut when one has succumbed to snow blindness; a small settlement when one has been starving and the hunt has been impossible. Yet it is to the loner that the North is the most appealing: it offers an unrivaled vastness of white and meaningful solitude. Also, a person not born into the North, no matter how acclimatized and skilled in the art of braving the frozen wilderness she becomes, will forever remain a ‘southerner’ for the natives, and therefore an outsider. Reject this station – and you will certainly die; accept it – and in your position of an observer and a humble student of the northerners, you shall discover the world where the barbarian tribes hunt and make war in the foothills of the Spine of the World, and where Auril’s reign is contested only by more ancient, if just as malicious, powers. For nothing is benevolent in the North. It is an ultimate test for your strength and your will. Take it.

Sevyr Wind, the ranger of Shaundakul


1. Einarr’s Hunt


The dog looped back and returned to stare at Einarr with her distant yellow eyes. This weighing unafraid gaze belied her bloodlines: she was a half-wolf, fiercer and moodier than any dog. Every time they hunted in the foothills of the Spine of the World, Einarr thought that the sallow bitch tested her master’s prowess against the voice of the wilderness. He looked directly into his dog’s eyes until she gave a lazy wag of her shaggy tail. Then, unhurriedly, she went on her winding way between the sparse poplars.


For a short moment, the hunter stared after his companion, envying the light footfalls of the wide paws and, at the same time, trying to see if the jagged edges of the icy crust cut the dog’s feet. Then Einarr tagged at the leather harness, which cress-crossed his shoulders and was strapped to the sledge with a deer carcass. Frozen, the leather straps were as hard as the iron blade of his spear, and with a monotonous motions of the skier, they rubbed even through his fur-lined jacket. Wearily, he thought of the warmth of his hides-covered hut and the salted tea with chunks of fat in it that would take the chill away from his bones; and of his wife’s fingers that would take away the numbness from his shoulders. Jorunn was awkward, but she knew well how to soothe him. He had married a fine woman – strong and quiet, and heavy with their fifth child just now. Einarr chuckled and pressed forward, his wide skis and laden sledge leaving deep regular trails in the powdery snow.


Einarr pulled for a while, trying to find his way between the hills, to avoid climbing their steep slopes. The white sun above was listless and spared no warmth to the Spine of the World: it was growing colder, and the silence of the forest was turning into the frigid stillness. The cold stole the limbs of the unwary. Even worse, the cold seeped into a man’s mind and led it away to the world of the white dreams, leaving the limp body behind to freeze. To keep his mind awake Einarr started humming an uncomplicated song of an Uthgardt hunter. A song like that would be merely a diversion in the summer; in the winter it was a litany of life: a simple tune that jumped from his thoughts to the things that a hunter sees in passing.


This winter is cruel, worse than the last five winters. I walked in the foothills for two days before I killed the Master Deer. A proud Deer, a Warrior among his Herd with three-years antlers, thick red blood and yellow fat. The poplar trees look like pale gold of the dwarves from under the mountains when they come to trade it for deermeat and herbs. My father’s father gathers herbs in the spring and summer. I wish it was spring again and my first-wife had born me my third-son. The Master Raven took off the branch into the sky. I’m the Black Raven, the Black Raven of Uthgardt myself. Lo, brother, you will have meat from my kill once I come to the yurts of my clan-family.


When the shadows started to lengthen, the dark clouds left their high seat on the jagged ridge of the Spine, rolled down the mountain slopes and spread across the sky. Einarr sighed derisively, regretting that he would not reach his yurt for another day, but not surprised in the least. Winter blizzards came and went as they would in the foothills.


The hunter searched the forest for a place to set up a shelter before the wind picked up and, before long, he made a small prayer of thanks to the Raven.


A recent slide had ripped a hill slope and the fresh rounded hole stood bare under the overhanging bluff, red with clay among the whiteness of snow, like a bloody wound left on a polar goat carcass’ by a bear’s bite. The sliding soil took along the trees, uprooting and shearing poplar and fir alike. Near the bottom of the hill where the displaced soil mass had come to a stop, there was a tangle of broken branches, boulders, ice and dirt. But one trunk stood, cracked at Einarr shoulder’s height, dropping its short northern branches set with waxed needles to one side. The fir was neither alive nor dead, preserved by the cold till the springtime, when the sun will call for its resin to flow, and the mighty roots will pump and spill it out of the cut vessels of the tree, when those rigid boughs will grope for it and will find none.


Throwing wary glances at the blackening skies, Einarr went to work.


He dug shallow snow from underneath of the broken tree and cut the branches to make just enough room for his body - a bigger shelter steals warmth, not offers it. He set the sledge on its side to make a windbreaker and collected more branches to cover the frozen dirt and set a fire after the worst of the storm would pass.


The snowflakes froze together in flight and slipped by; so did the hours. The wind howled, trapped between the low clouds and frozen earth. Huddled under the branches and blanket, Einarr and the dog listened to the stranded element. When the night had diminished, and the feeble dawn slapped back the dark clouds, the she-dog climbed out of their makeshift den. She joined its voice to the wind’s, but crawled back inside quickly, bringing chill and icy breath of the blizzard with her.


Einarr slept and awoke again only to the silence of the early evening. The storm was over, leaving the air tingling with cold and the land and tree embroidered with the myriad of crystal-clear ice beads, festoons and other decorations. Einarr sensed a woman’s hand in the fanciful and delicate beauty of it: Auril’s hand. The hunter smiled, imagining the severe goddess of winter and cold leaning over the world, just like his Jórunn would lean over a canvass with her needles and colorful threads. Once Jorunn entered his thoughts, she would not leave.


Grinning and savoring the vision of a healthy boy wrapped in a blanket all covered with red and black embroidery in his mother’s arms, Einarr went about setting a fire. When it took, he extended his stiffened fingers toward it and sang to the flames, praising and coaxing them to grow taller. Afraid to offend the spirits of the wind and snow, or even Auril of the Icicles herself, Einarr slyly commended the elements as well; even if in his heart he did not feel grateful for the storm. The she-wolf lifted her nose to the washed-out twilight skies – twilight, because neither darkness nor light was ever complete in the long northern winters - sniffed the air in. She did not howl this time. Instead it crouched and growled. Seeing that, Einarr went immediately into a crouch himself, hefting his hunting spear.


The man and the dog saw the glow of the Aurora Borealis at the same moment; the she-dog’s coarse hair stiffened and rose on her back. Sweat beaded on Einarr’s brow: the ancestors did not dance in the high halls of the Raven Tribe, coloring the skies above with their festive fires to share the joy of the ever-hunt with their kin. They had come back to Toril – or so it seemed, for the northern lights crested and then rolled down the neighboring hill. Coming closer. “What would the Forbearers want of me?†Einarr thought, “They must have taken me for my father’s father, Otkell the Shaman.†His hand eased on the spear and he spoke comfortingly to the dog, but did not fool the bitch: she sensed that her master was nervous about pointing out to the Forbearers their mistake.


The silence of the world was absolute, as the pair of hunters waited tensely for the glow to approach them.


At length, Einarr saw the Forebears. A Forbearer. Despite what the legends said, the ancestor did not dance in the lights. It was nothing more than one small figure sitting cross-legged on a crystal sedan chair. Einarr was more impressed by the entourage: six shaggy yetis served as the spirit’s chair bearers, flanked by the honor guard of twelve ice trolls. The radiance of the Aurora Borealis spread from a sphere mounted at the foot of the chair. It was frightening to see that someone, even a mighty Black Raven Shaman – and Einarr had no doubt that only a shaman could do such thing in the afterlife – could harness the flares of the heavens. Einarr hoped that the strange procession would pass by, but the figure tapped one of the yetis on the shoulder and pointed them toward Einarr.


It was a little girl, Einarr thought at first, but when he looked closer he saw a grown-up, no bigger than a dwarf, but much slighter, and beardless.


She sat sloughing, the right shoulder rising almost to her jaw, and the left dropping. All of her attention seemed to be focused on her blue-nailed fingers rolling the edge of a thick shawl that draped the midget’s legs in loose heavy folds. Finally, she lifted her head. He shivered: there was no eye apples or pupils, just two lidless ovals covered by opaque film that reflected the colorful lights of Aurora. The woman was blind.


Black Ravens left what few deformed children born to them as offerings to whatever gods wanted them – perhaps the ancestors took one and elevated her to be their messenger. The woman raised a hand, and a wide sleeve rolled back, showing a bony hand. Sinuous crystal bracelets rolled along it, from the wrist to elbow, chiming softly.


“You praised the Frostmaiden and her creations, child of Black Ravens,†the woman intoned and Einarr could not chase away the impression that the dead eyes scrutinized him. “Then why do you offend her by keeping the ravager?†She pointed at the red flower of fire at his feet. Einarr did not know if he was more afraid to lie or to tell the truth to a Priestess of Auril – for that what the woman surely were. The bracelets made a sad melody as the aurilite leaned forward from the chair and passed her hand in the air. The flames went out with a resigned hiss. Confused by this casual show of power, Einarr stumbled back. But the dog, like any cornered animal always fought the harder the more it was scared, so it sprung forward, aiming to land on the chair, to bite the one who killed the fire and menaced her master.


The closest of the ice trolls lifted one of its hands, which was a long crystal blade, and stubbed the she-wolf in mid-air. She collapsed without a sound back on the fresh snow, the droplets of living blood freezing before they reached the ground. The white frost flowers grew thickly and rapidly along the wound, above the dog’s loyal heart. Einarr could do nothing but stare.


The barbarian was not afraid of any natural foe, not even of the trolls and yetis. But the blind priestess was something else. A single thought, a cruel thought occupied his mind: if she killed him, she would send him to Auril, and he would never hunt with Forbearers, never feast in the heavenly halls.


“This did not start well,†the Aurilite said quietly, and put a hand on the troll’s horned head. The creature twitched miserably under the light touch of these claw-like fingers. Satisfied with the punishment, the woman quieted and crossed her hands under her breasts. Her lips moved, and her blind eyes suddenly glowed on their own with pale white light, like the one of the moon. The moments passed; Einarr watched her lips, but could not hear a single sound. He had seen his father’s father to drift away like this, when he smoked the fumes to walk among the Forbearers. Finally the priestess came out of her trance and said loud and clear: â€ÂThe Black Ravens do not honor the Frostmaiden as they should. She is angry. I shall come among your people soon. Go, tell them to expect the High Priestess Hallveig, and to prepare to pay homage to Auril.â€Â


“Why should I serve you, Hallveig the Ugly?†Einarr found his voice at last, and with it, his courage. “Better that I be dead, like my dog, than come with a message like this to my father’s father yurt.â€Â


Hallveig laughed melodically: “You’d take your dog as an example?†Einarr clutched his spear tighter. The priestess lifted her hand, and Einarr prepared to sell his life dearly and take at least one troll down. But the ice trolls did not move. Instead the frozen corpse of the she-dog stirred and convulsed with the flow of life that Hallveig forced back into her. The fierce animal whined no louder than a newborn pup and did what Einarr had never seen. She rolled on her back opening the hairless belly with pale nipples to the priestess in an unequivocal canine show of surrender.


“I will not yield!†Einarr tried to charge at the trolls, but the cold air froze around him and became an ice wall. Hallveig commanded her henchmen and they moved in closer. If Einarr though that he could not grow colder, he saw his mistake when a feeble hand pressed a point of an ice dagger to his throat. The immeasurable chill shoot from the prickle on his skin into his very heart. “You are my serf now, and I wish you to deliver my message.†She had defeated him in battle; she owned his life. Sensing his defeat, the aurilite unlocked the air grip, and Einarr fell to the ground near his dog, shivering. Hallveig threw her shawl over him: “That should warm you up, my shawl of snowflakes. Now go swiftly, and do not light the fires. By Auril’s will.â€Â

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2. Einarr’s Dreams


Otkell, the Shaman of the Black Raven’s Tribe, was sent a dream. He was aware: what he saw, bode ill.


He dreamt of a newborn left in the snow, in the tracks of the moving tribe. There was no question why her ashamed parents abandoned her: her eyes were covered by white phlegm of a blind-born. Her little body was too small, too stunted to promise a healthy child. Snowflakes circled through the air, settling on the child’s bluish skin and did not melt. Soon, she would be covered by a shawl of snowflakes from head to toe. Soon. It was a lucid dream, which Otkell could shape at will, but nothing was out of the place. He turned from the corpse and started after the sledges of his people.


Snowflakes still fluttered through the air when he went out of the yurt with a mug of steaming herbal brew. The splitting headache confirmed the dream to be prophetic, and he swallowed the burning medicine in big gulps. Otkell had to think about the child’s significance. He closed his eyes to ward off the light of the pale sun: even this weak, it was unbearable.

“My father’s father.â€Â


The voice that addressed him was diffident, but familiar: his own flesh and blood, his descendant.


“Speak, my son’s son,†the shaman said.


“I met Auril’s priestess today,†Einarr started hesitantly, “she wills the tribe to pay homage to the Frostmaiden.â€Â


The light blazed Otkell. He struggled to pry his eyelids open, to look at his grandson, but the snow blindness was upon him. So he hooded his eyes and asked painfully: “Tell me all, my son’s son. There is danger to our people in this meeting. Grave danger.â€Â


Otkell could see again, by the time Einarr had finished his telling.


“Where,†the Shaman asked urgently, “where is the Shawl she gave you?†From the look on the Einarr’s face, he felt that he had done a great wrong: “With my wife. She found comfort in it for her belly, and warmth.â€Â


“Fool,†the shaman’s voice thundered with power, “Oh, fool. Are you not my son’s son? Had you not enough wisdom to come to me first, with such a thing?â€Â


“I… there was a deer-kill to bring to the yurt. How could I come before you, my father’s father, after the many-day hunt? How could I pay you proper respect if I had not touched the floor of my yurt?â€Â


The shaman cringed. He could not fault Einarr for doing what he did, in accordance with every custom of his people, but he wished he could. What, by the raven wings, possessed this man to take Auril’s gift to his yurt. How did he allow himself to be claimed for Auril?


“Come inside,†Otkell said stiffly to Einarr, and motioned him into the yurt. It would tax him beyond recovery, the shaman knew, to walk with a non-initiated one through the veil, chasing after the prophetic dream, but that was no time for him to be at ease. A torch, a fire that would burn bright against the cold of Auril, had to be found or forged.


Einarr watched in awe as his father’s father, the shaman of the Black Ravens, laid out two blankets made of the totem bird’s feathers on the floor, and set a brazier – an oval plate on crow’s feet - between them. Otkell motioned for Einarr to sprawl himself on the blanket. When Einarr hid under the fir-tree, in the blizzard of the day before, he knew that the snow might bury him.


This was a comfortable yurt, made of the woolen blankets and deerskins, and smelling of herbs and firs not unpleasantly. Yet here he felt more apprehensive settling on the black blanket, too short for his lanky legs, than under the branch-and-snow roof of his shelter.


Einarr turned his face toward the old shaman, but he found little comfort.


The old men whom Einarr’d welcomed in his yurt; the old man who smoked a clay pipe watching the white northern skies long into the summer nights; the old man who stood up in the tribal counsels and announced his will as firmly as a chieftain would - that old man was gone.


Instead there was a shadowy presence on a raven blanket.


It chanted to the fire on the oval adamantine plate and watched the fumes and ashes of the herbs he fed to the flames.


The last thing Einarr saw before the time parted before him was Otkell, taller than a giant, with a pair of black wings unfurling behind his back.


And then Einarr found himself standing, in the tracks left by his people’s sledges, and a raven was perched on his shoulder.


By his feet was a child of his body, his little daughter, left in the snow.


There was no question why she had to be abandoned: her eyes were covered by white phlegm of a blind-born. Her little body was too small, too stunted to promise a healthy child. Snowflakes circled through the air, settling on the child’s bluish skin and did not thaw. Soon, she would be covered by a shawl of snowflakes. Soon.


He turned from the corpse and started after the sledges of his people, to find his wife. There she were, sitting on the sledge, still weak from the childbed. Vigdis turned to him, hearing the snow squealing under his foot, and he groped her shoulder roughly: “You will bear another child this spring. A strong son. That what’s Otkell said.†She turned away, subdued. The raven on his shoulder preened his feathers and croaked: “Sister, sister.â€Â


Vaguely, Einarr realized that he was walking with his father, in the winter before his mother bore him under her heart. Then his wandering spirit latched onto another soul, which had gone beyond the veil of time.


A cold soul of ice and power.


The High Priestess of Auril, Chilali, did not sleep or take food for five days. For five days, she did not need sleep or food, led by the vision and by her Mistress’ will. Now she kneeled by a blind, naked child in the snow. The child, little girl, lived, and smiled at the High Priestess, catching snowflakes into her toothless mouth.


“Let your will be done, Frostmaiden,†Chilali announced to the winter, her voice chiming in the cold air like icicles.


The High Priestess covered the newborn’s head with the wide sleeve of her robe, in a gesture of blessing. The pale blue fringe looked brighter than the summer skies against the white of the garment and snow and that which the child was lovingly wrapped into.


Chilali lifted the blind girl into her hands and gathered the blanket, no, a shawl of snowflakes around the light body.


For five more days Chilali walked alone, carrying the blind child, until the procession of the Priests in white robes met her by the foot of a glacier, and escorted her to the Ice Temple of Auril. The Ice Gates, the crystal arch, soaring fifty feet above the edge of the ice circus, shone like Aurora Borealis when the procession went underneath. The Temple buzzed with life, all of its inhabitants running out to meet Chilali and to follow her. Without stopping, without caring to make summons, because she knew that they would all come, the High Priestess walked through the courtyard and into the Ice Hall, the heart of the Temple build to hold all the faithful of the Frostmaiden. Once inside, Chilali put her precious burden on the altar, in the view of every priest, acolyte and servant that manned the temple and who now stood in attendance on her.


The babe turned her small head toward the gathering, and the white phlegm of her eyes came alight. Underneath, the shiny eyes of crystal were revealed. The tiny mouth opened, and instead of a newborn’s cry, came the voice that one hears in the wind of the snowstorms. “I am Auril’s own eyes. I have come to serve.â€Â


The High Priestess Chilali bowed to no one in the temple; she kneeled so rarely that she’d almost forgotten how to do it. Yet in front of the blind girl she prostrated herself on the ice floor.


The rustle of robes and muted prayers told her that the whole assembly, from the full priests to the last yeti that polished the glistening floors, followed her example.


It was then that the High Priestess felt that for ten days she took neither food, nor sleep. “Leave her,†Chilali heard, and floated toward the gates, behind which there was nothing, but the shining snow.


Still blinded by the light, Einarr left Chilali to her afterlife, and hang in the darkness for a while. Then, suddenly, he was with the child-priestess Hallveig, when she was growing into womanhood amidst ice and reverence, and under a great burden. As she matured, her own self emerged, as it would in any child, and tried to root herself. From very early on she knew, that the price of being for her was to know no desires, but the glory of Auril, and a will fully subservient to her deity’s.

At times, it felt that it would crash her, but she went about, cool and collected, as a High Priestess should. And they bowed after she’d passed them in the ice-walled halls. But there was another annoyance. A raven circled above her head continuously, asking and probing every minute: “Can you do that? Or this? Are you shielded against fire? Do you…†Tired of these questions, Hallveig ran to her blue chamber where frost flowers, she draw with her breath, were more beautiful, than the real ones encased in the ice cubes. She crawled into her bed and pulled the white shawl over her head.


As she was falling asleep, free of the raven at last, a leathery hand pushed her back onto the black blanket. “A few more questions, Einarr.†And again, she was strolling purposefully through the halls, and the raven was drilling her.


Then Otkell led Einarr away from his sister’s past, to his own body and into the day before. Not until Hallveig the Ugly draped the shawl around his shoulders, did Otkell let him return to the blanket in front of the adamantine brazier. Dizzy and weak, the hunter stared at the diminishing flame, where his own figure, and Hallveig, and the trolls, and even the sallow dog were turning into unrecognizable wisps.


Otkell the Shaman was no longer a winged giant. He was an ancient man, and his fingers curled inward, digging into his palms, like claws. His whole body was shaking. Fighting a fainting spell, Einarr found a clay pot filled to the brims with black paste that the shaman put out before the séance, and fed some of its content to the old man. When the shaman’s eyes brightened, and he was able to take the pot and the wooden stick, used to scoop the sticky mass out of the pot, from Einarr’s hands, Einarr fell asleep where he sat.


At length, he came to, feeling neither well, nor refreshed, and was greeted only by Otkell’s back and the grinding noise of a pestle. “Father of my –“ Einarr started finally, lifting his head and shoulders of the floor, but the shaman made a gesture with his hand that ordered him to silence. He obeyed, sagging back onto the feather blanket.

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3. Einarr’s Challenge


Eight days after Hallveig’s meeting with Einarr, the Frostmaiden’s ambassadors had descended from the mountains, making their way to the Black Ravens’ lands. True to her word, the High Priestess Hallveig led them in person. In the last years, she had forgotten just how completely Auril’s will was interwoven with hers. Now she felt it, as sharply, as she did when she was two winters old, and spoke no word but Auril’s. Ever since she had spied the Raven’s hunter, she felt it. Her dutiful hatred of his fire in the virginal snow had been pushed aside by Auril, for a greater passion, for a more immediate task. She was nigh consumed by the Frostmaiden’s need. These were troubled times, after Ao the Almighty had decreed that all the gods would draw their power from the devotion of their mortal following. It was not enough for Hallveig to be the Forstmaiden’s Eyes among the quire. Auril, her nurturer, demanded that those who worshiped her out of fear and unwillingly would be brought to heel, to become hers in truth. The barbarian tribes were Hallveig’s first task, and her own people – the first among them.


On the tenth day, just after dusk, the Aurelites came into view of the Black Raven’s yurts. The procession was splendid. First came the honor guard of the ice trolls, carrying the silken banners. The banners streamed and flapped against the dark skies, and the snowflakes of Auril were whiter than real snow.


Tamed, the trolls presented a fine spectacle. Every sharp plane of their bodies reflected Aurora Borealis, until the trolls shone, surrounded by a myriad of rainbows: savagery made into beauty. Behind the trolls, came other wonders. A torch, that spelled forth the northern lights, was set on a sledge, dragged by a quadruplet of pristine yetis and flanked by the dozen priests of Auril. Hallveig stood by the torch; she was wearing the same robes that the rest of the priests – snow-white, blue-fringed– and the same boots made of the polar wolf’s pelt, with fur turned outward. The only ornaments of her office were her blind orbs, and she needed no other to be marked.


The Auril’s embassy was met by the Raven Tribe with matching decorum. Upfront stood Chief Sigurdr, in a heavy fur jerkin sewn with adamantine disks, deerskin leggings covered with beadwork. His sword belt, made of heavy gold and adamantine plates held a double-bladed war axe. At the chief’s left shoulder stood the tribe’s three Elders, and at his left – Otkell, the Shaman in a mask of a raven with a silver beak and a ritual garment made entirely of black feathers, bones and slate ward stones. The warriors and women crowded behind, garbed in their best and sporting ornamented weapons, jewelry and beadwork.


If Hallveig expected the tribe to cower before her, she did not show her disappointment when that did not happen. The ice trolls parted, affording her the fine view of the Black Raven leaders. It was Sigurdr, who spoke, but the words were far too careful to be a spur of the moment.


“Hail, the People of Auril, and be welcomed by the Raven Tribe. And greetings to you, Hallveig, blood of our blood.â€Â


Hallveig remained silent, so the Chief had to go on when the pause turned to uneasy silence, interrupted only by the flapping of the banners. “We welcome you, blood of our blood, for it was revealed to us through our ancestors, that it was your own brother that you tried to take into bondage ten days past.â€Â


Hallveig did not move, but her eyes glowed brighter at the revelation. Again, she did not speak, which Otkell the Shaman considered a wise choice, for the woman now would hear it all before having to address the people, who stood in front of her en force and whose fealty she sought for her Goddess.


“Hallveig, it pains me to announce that your mighty father Geiri and mother, Vigdis, are dead.â€Â


A pause again, and this time, Hallveig inclined her head a touch. If she felt anything at all toward the man and the woman who had given her birth and then left her as an offering in the snow, it would not be love, Otkell the Shaman thought. Yet, the respectful silence was cleverer, than any words of mourning or a retort.


The Chief finally came to the point where his words placed the fate of his tribe into the gods’ hands: “By the custom of our tribe, the children of the same mother and father are in the bondage from the day of birthing, the bondage stronger than any other tie. You, Hallveig, are a woman, and unwed. Your brother is a hunter with a yurt, a first-wife, three children of his loins who live, and one who is dead. ‘Tis the Elders’ decision that it is his place to take you to his yurt and treat with the respect due to his elder sister, until you wed and have your own yurt.â€Â


A faint expression of amusement appeared at Hallveig’s lips. “I am the High Priestess of Auril, and I do not abide by your rules,†she pronounced, each word sharper than a dagger.


“Then,†Chief Sigurdr said, in a voice that carried, “You cannot claim your right of bondage on him. He is absolved of the battle-field oath given to a stranger, who does not venerate our custom.†Otkell the Shaman lifted his hands in the air, revealing a short rod, crowned by a figure of a raven, the size of his fist. He thrust the rod upward three times and the carving enlarged each time, until it grew twice as big as a real raven, and on the fourth thrust, it took off. It flew up, not a solid form, but a shadow, a spirit of the tribal totem. The tribesmen parted, until Einarr stood alone. The raven alighted on his shoulder and said in a nether voice, fit for his ghostly form: “So be it. Einarr, Son of Geiri, you are released from your oath.â€Â


Hallveig’s face grew colder than the river-ice of her Mistress. “This man’s allegiance belongs to Auril, the Frostmaiden,†she said gravely.


“If that is Auril’s will, we need a surer sign of it,†Sigurdr rejoined.


The banners flew up into the sky, vertically. The Chief looked at it, frowning, and more than a few in the crowd behind him gasped. The raven, the totem bird of the Tribe, then took off Einarr’s shoulder and rose higher than Auril’s snowflake – a black bird in the blacker sky. Comforted, the Chief smiled at Hallveig – a mighty warrior, soothing a helpless maid. The banners were once more long bands of silk, rippled by the wind.


Hallveig looked over her troops.


“We will die before we forsake our forefather’s faith,†Otkell, the Shaman said quietly, “if you attack us. The contest of the gods should not be solved by slaughtering the quire.â€Â


Hallveig arched a brow: “So the Raven Tribe harbors an oathbreaker and hesitates to join the battle to find glorious death? How… enlightened. Had the sons and daughters of the Raven lost the last of their honor?â€Â


The warriors shifted uneasily, but Sigurdr replied calmly: “We honor our traditions, Hallveig, as we always did.â€Â


“And do you traditions include any oath that is binding?†Hallveig taunted.


“Yes,†Einarr said, stepping forward. His heart pounded in his chest. He was instructed to wait for the Shaman’s signal, but the moment was upon him, and he felt that the hearts of his people and their path to the Forefathers were at stake. He could abide no longer the weaving of the words.


“Hear me out, my mother’s daughter, my father’s seed. I was released from my word by the Elders. But here, with all the tribe standing in witness, I swear that if my sister wins a fight against me in the Circle of Challenges, where the spirits of our ancestors watch from the height of the totem polls, then I would hold my first vow true. But if you, Hallveig, should prove the weaker, I shall take it as a sign from all the gods, both old and new, that they wished you to be returned to your tribe. I will take you into my yurt as the custom dictates, and honor you as one of mine, till you wed and have your own yurt.†Great fear took a hold on him as the last word was out of his mouth. He had seen the priestess’ power, and he had but a tactile defense against the cold magics of Auril. And plans build on a dream.


“Do you accept?†He forced himself to ask.


Despite her diminutive stature, the priestess seemed to be looking down at him. Yet, she did not respond immediately, weighing him, hoping to find a reason behind the mad request.


“I accept,†she said with finality.


The Circle of Challenges was a sacred place, but on the night that became known thereafter as Einarr’s Challenge its aura of holiness was magnified three-fold. The Circle was thirty paces in diameter, paved with the special kind of slate that repelled the snow, leaving the Circle always bare, always dark underfoot, apart from where the golden-colored veins ran through the paving slate. The eastern part of the Circle was occupied by the tall totem poles: a snarling wolf, a bear raised on it hind legs, a snow worm uncoiling its deadly rings and other beasts - the totems of them whom the Black Raven defeated in battle, and those of their allies. And above them all, on a pole of a giant pine, covered with carvings and painted symbols, soared the black raven.


Six monoliths of the same slate, every one as tall as Einarr, bordered the Circle on each side of the poles. Opposite to the poles stood a giant gate of two more standing stones, and they were crowned with a horizontal slab. Four human men abreast could walk through the dolman, that was said to mark the grave of the First Chief of the Raven Tribe, the great forefather Alfor himself.


Hallveig’s retainers chose to stand to the north of the poles, and the tribe reflexively crowded to the south. The People of the Raven lit up two bonfires on their side. The orange light, cast by the burning wood, met the bluish glow of Auril’s Aurora Borealis.


Side by side, Einarr and Hallveig walked under the dolman and stood uneasily in the mixing light of two sources. Einarr was glad for the illumination – Hallveig’s eyes were not so frightening now. His task felt easier, felt doable. He hefted his battle-axe.


The Chief Sigurdr lifted his warhorn to his lips, and blew out a clear note. Hallveig chanted softly, and Einarr lunged at her. But his axe met a wall, as it connected on the woman’s stunted body. He swung again, and, even preoccupied with her chant, Hallveig allowed herself an amused flicker of her moon-eyes. But this time his blow was not aimed at her head. It was aimed at something that was falling from the sky, something which a ghostly raven above let go off. Einarr’s axe cracked open a clay pot above Hallveig, and all of its content spilled on the top of her large head. In a fraction of a moment, the oily liquid coated the priestess and burst up into flames.


“Einarr,†Otkell had said, “Once the poultice touches the Eyes of Auril, it would blind the goddess for a moment. It will dispel the magical defenses and rob the Priestess of her power. For one moment. Do not miss it, son of my son, or we are all lost.â€Â


Einarr charged, dropping the midget woman to the ground and burying her under his weight, pressing her against the black stones. He must have kicked the air out of her lungs, for she gaped upon him, rasping through the burned lips. He threw the axe, and it clinked on the sacred slate, and the steel blade broke into two. No time to wonder. Einarr pulled the hunting knife from his belt and jammed it into the priestess’s right eye. He thought it would be much like plucking gemstones from their setting, which he had done many a time when they raided the outsider’s towns. He was not expecting blood that sprayed from under his knife; and much less he expected the low, rumbling scream and the force wave that convulsed the body under him, almost throwing him off. He held on grimly and slashed the knife back and forth, destroying as much of the eye as he could.


Cold sweat poured into Einarr’s own eyes, chilling unpleasantly every inch of his body. The left eye’s glow intensified and the priestess under him trashed with a redoubled effort, far stronger, than the tiny woman should have been capable of by rights. “Auril looks with those eyes, Einarr,†Otkell the Shaman had said, “Your sister is a blind-born.†With a yell he pulled the knife that burned in his palm, free, but his hand was now held into place with - something – a sphere of light that opened itself around the priestess’ head.


Einarr once had to lift a heavy boulder to free a man whose leg had been trapped underneath. He could only hold the boulder afloat for a short while, and his back was on fire for two weeks after that. It took him more effort than that to push his knife over the bridge of the woman’s nose – the distance no more than the length of his thumb’s nail. The sphere expanded, pushing him outward, lifting him, but his hand was still inside. He struggled for footing, his soft-soled boots slipping on the slate, and pushed with all his might. The point of his blade scratched the eye’s surface, and the sphere exploded around him, setting his brows and hair afire and crashing his teeth and nose. But he dug deeper with his knife, bent not on cleansing and purging, as Otkell the Shaman had taught him, but simply on scrapping and scrapping with his knife in the bleeding socket.


Thus occupied, Einarr was unaware of the world around him.


One of the priests of Auril, the youngest of them all, dropped to his knees and screamed, pressing his palms to his head. As on the cue the rest of the white-robed clergy went mad with pain as well, breaking into the run, leaving two behind, unmoving, dead. Two of the ice trolls were compelled to follow the priests in their flight, but the yetis and the remaining trolls were released from the bondage. They reverted to their true nature - the bestial anger. The warriors, tired of the long wait and the struggle of mighty powers, hit their axes into their shields and charged the yetis and the trolls fiercely and with joy.


The sacred gold-veined slate tasted blood that night. And when the first of the Ravens fell, when his blood dripped through the ooze of trolls and the dark blood of yetis to wet the ground underneath, a ghostly figure stepped though the dolmen. The heather raven flew to the figure’s wrist, and the two fought among their men, the Chief Alfor slashing with a shining axe, and the giant raven using its mighty beak and claws to rip his enemies.


It was the sacred place of the Raven Tribe, and they were strong that night, stronger than ever before.

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4. Einarr’s Youngest


Jorunn looked up at him, her dark eyes full of quietness that envelops a woman close to her birthing time. She pushed her fingers through the clotted fur on his jerkin and grounded it between her fingers to clear away the dried up dirt: “You are the greatest warrior among the Raven, my husband. Do not shame your wife.†Einarr laughed, embracing her, cautious, she thought, of the swell of her belly.


“The Shaman told me that the son you carry would grow to be a mighty man, a chief between the chiefs, a raven between the crows,†he said with pride. Jorunn placed a palm where she could feel the child kicking: “I cannot wait for him to see the light of day and hunt in the mountains. He has already chased and killed every beast that there was in my womb.â€Â


“Let it be the last worry our third son gives you, Jorunn,†her husband said. A shade came over Jorunn’s face, as it always did when something reminded her of her first son, who had thought himself a man grown before the Tribe had granted him the title of a man.


Einarr shifted uncomfortably: “I should go.†Jorunn, clutched his hand: “My husband,†she said quickly, “My husband, it is not our sons that worry me. It is our daughters.†Involuntarily Einarr looked into the yurt, where two girls were seated with sewing, listening to Hallveig’s voice, their faces upturned to her. The blind priestess’ hand clutched a pestle, and she grounded and grounded corn into meal. A spell of giggles came from that corner just then, and Dalla, the youngest, clapped her hands.


Einarr moved looked up at Jorunn, wonderingly: “So, my wife, what is wrong with our daughters?†Jorunn frowned: “You are not home often, my husband, hunting or holding counsel with your father’s father. I… I watched. Einarr, your sister is telling them tales, fanciful tales about magic and power that Auril grants to a man… or a woman. Their little hearts long for such things. I…â€Â


Einarr, patted her comfortingly: “So, she told them a few tales. My father’s father tells of the dragons and Alfor the First Chief and plenty more things besides.†Jorunn lifted her chin stubbornly: “Do not tell me that you have not seen the power of the tales. You, whose first son went to make war before entering manhood!â€Â


“My first son never lived as a man, but he died a man’s death, in the fighting with the Tribe of the Wolf, woman,†Einarr replied, “War and glory attracts every boy who is worthy of becoming a man, tales or not. If you think that your daughters show you less respect than they should, then remind them of their duties. I would rather have peace in my yurt than quarrelling women. Be grateful that your daughters do not shy away from my sister, who was sent into my yurt by the Elder’s will, like other children in the village.†Jorunn shook her head: “You are not paying attention, husband. Nobody shies away from your blind sister any more. She is called The Wise among the women, and to her they go for advice, and ask to mind younglings.â€Â


Einarr sighed impatiently: “Wisdom is the only thing that she can find comfort in, Jorunn. She is ugly and blind, and will never be a woman to a man.â€Â


“I wish,†Jorunn said quietly, “I wish she was not ugly and blind, and no woman at all. Then someone would have taken her as a wife and she would have been spinning her tales to her own brood.â€Â


That very night, Jorunn woke him: “It’s time,†she rasped, “Go for the Shaman, Einarr.â€Â


Groggily, Einarr eased his wife back, and noticed that she was burning with fever. Hallveig rose from her pallet and, without saying a single word, started making a fire, and heating the water. “You know… how?†Einarr asked, half-way to the doors. The blind woman smiled: “I am a woman, after all.†Jorunn stirred on the bed: “No. No. Not her. Bring the Shaman. Bring the Shaman, Einarr,†and moaned in relief, as Hallveig put a wet cloth on her forehead.


“Bring the Shaman, Einarr,†Hallveig repeated after Jorrun, “Have not you heard her? Or your son will come on his own.†Einarr backed away from the former priestess. There was a faint smile on her lips, a knowing smile that went beyond the simple amusement of a woman over a man’s helplessness in the childbirth room. Or perhaps those were the shadows of the night and the oil lamp.


Einarr ran to Otkell’s yurt, and entered it without a traditional greeting, stumbling over something - it was dark inside, and sweet smoke of herbs filled the air. Einarr kneeled where he stood and felt for the obstacle that tripped him. It was Otkell’s leg. For a split moment, Einarr thought that the man was dead, but when he placed his palm on the older man’s chest, he felt its rhythmic if slow raising and falling, similar to the times when the shaman entered one of his trances. Hopelessly, Einarr called to him – and to no avail – as he knew it would be. The shaman could only waken himself. On the way back, Einarr prayed that Hallveig did not boast about her ability.


She did not.


It was his youngest’s weeping that greeted him when he entered his yurt. That was all he could do, to step through the doors, before a faint chant froze him in place. “You are too hasty, Einarr of the Ravens, my mother’s son and my mother’s seed,†Hallveig hissed, “I thought you would have attended with more care to your father’s father. Rest a while.†She took the child, wrapped in the shawl of snowflakes, from her breast, and lifted her head. Lifted her eyes… Jorunn’s eyes onto him.


“Jorunn,†he called unsteadily, “Jorunn…†A lump of blankets on their pallet was still. “Save your voice for the mourning days,†Hallveig told him with a chuckle. Then, turning away: “Finna, is Dalla ready?†His eldest daughter came, leading Dalla by her hand. “Yes, Mother.â€Â


“This is not your mother!†Einarr raged, “How dare you to name this woman your mother?“


“A High Priestess is called ‘mother’ by the acolytes, Father,†Finna said, “and the Forstmaiden wants me, so I shall be an acolyte as soon as we pass under the Ice Gate.â€Â


“This woman is lying to you, daughter, “ Einarr screamed, “she has no power, no station in the Temple, since I took Auril’s Eyes!â€Â


“Then why don’t you come and stop us, father?†Finna asked and tilted her head to one side. She looked curiously as he tried to break the invisible bonds that held him in place. “I thought not. A Priestess, Father, always remains a Priestess, a wielder of power. And power is not only in what you can do. It is also in knowing when to show your skill, and when to conceal it, as Otkell just learned.â€Â


Hallveig placed her hand on Finna’s head approvingly, and looked around the yurt, her glance that of a proper mistress. “Go ahead,†she told Dalla and Finna, “We have forgotten nothing.†The girls scampered out of the yurt, their cloaks tickling his paralyzed legs. Hallveig, in turn, brushed past Einarr, then stopped, and turned back with a smile: “You have a fine daughter, Einarr.†She flipped the corner of the shawl, to reveal the child’s face. The baby’s eyes, too large for her wrinkled red face, were covered by white phlegm and glinted softly.


“Auril looks with those eyes, Einarr,†Otkell the Shaman had said. “Well, let her look at me,†Einarr thought bitterly. “Let her...â€Â


“Did you think of a name for a daughter, Einarr? I do not think that Ulf would fit her very well.†The name of his first son, cut painfully into Einarr’s heart. “I am going to call her Vigdis, for my mother, I think,†Hallveig smiled one last time, and was gone. He was left to stand on the threshold of his own yurt, looking at the pile of blankets. When the spell expired, he still stood awhile, before coming to the corner where his wife lay dead. He took the blankets away, and dropped bodily to the floor. Under the blankets there was a snow bank, shaped like a woman. Einarr buried his face in the snow, and his tears ran with the melting water.


And there he was, the following day, looking over the forested hills at the sparkling glacier, high in its mountain seat. In front of him stood the Elders and his father’s father, the Shaman. “I forbid you,†Otkell said. “I forbid you,†Sigurdr repeated.


“My second son has a yurt of his own, and Auril has the rest of my kin,†Einarr said simply, “There is none for it, but for her to have me too. If she would have me.â€Â


Sigurdr took Otkell by the shoulder: “Your loss is great, but your son’s son is one man. Let him go.†Still feeble from Hallveig’s spell that assaulted him on the night of Vigdis, the Eyes of Auril’s birthing, Otkell replied in a voice of one who beheld the future: “It is not one man that I mourn for leaving the path of his forbearers; it is the sign of the things to come.â€Â


Einarr whistled for his sallow dog and skied onward, unchallenged.

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Here we go, my Forgotten Realms based story... I've gone over the limit just a tiny bit, but I think the pacing is better than my original story. Thanks again to Bri for proofreading. Enjoy! :)




The Value of Discretion


“Gods Nolis, what were you thinking? What do you think those guards will do with the gold? Give it to the poor? Help widows and orphans? They’re gonna take it for themselves, so why shouldn’t we have it? It’s not like we’re rich!â€Â


“Not everyone’s like that. There’ll be some honest soul who’ll do the right thing with that money.â€Â


“Sorry? What did you say? ‘like that’? Like me, you mean? Well, if that’s what you think of me, maybe I should just head out on my own, find some nasty lying scum like me to spend my time with!â€Â


“No, that’s not what I meant Torae, please-“


“Oh no, I don’t have to take this from you. Goodnight Nolis, I hope you’re very comfortable in that warm glow of righteous poverty that you enjoy so much.â€Â


The lithe young woman spun on her heel and stalked across the campsite, her short blonde hair flicking back and forth with each stride, muttering choice obscenities as she went. The young man stood open-mouthed for a moment, then furrowed his brows, shrugged his massive shoulders and went over to see to the horses.


“So, who do you reckon’s sneaking across camp tonight for a not-so-quick visit?†asked the portly old man stirring the bubbling kettle that rested over the fire.


“Hmmm. Nolis, I think. Torae seems rather... upset. There is no way that she will be making that journey tonight.†Replied the tall man without looking up from the saddle he was repairing.


The old man chuckled, and shook his half-tamed grey hair. “Aklon my friend, you just don’t understand how this works. Of course Torae’s upset. That just means her blood’s up. She’ll mutter and mumble and once she thinks Nolis has suffered enough, she’ll be over there to let him know she didn’t really mean all that.â€Â


“No Forthan, it is Nolis who will break first. He will go to her tent and try to apologize to her, try to convince her of why it was necessary to tell the guards about the money and promise to make it up to her and she will forgive him.â€Â


Forthan grinned and waved his spoon admonishingly, spattering soup on his rumpled blue tunic. “Would you care to make a wager on that? I’d ask you to make the meals, but a month of your cooking would be a little much. No offence.â€Â


“None taken,†Aklon raised an eyebrow at his friend, “We cannot all be as adept as you. If you wish a wager, shall we say five silver coins? It would seem a reasonable sum.â€Â


“You’re on, my friend. Either way we’re in for another awkward morning. Now, the soup’s done, let’s eat.â€Â


The morning light streamed between the trees, lighting the camp a brilliant orange and casting a network of long shadows over tents and equipment. Nolis emerged from his tent clad in only his breeches and looked around, clutching the rest of his clothes in his hands. He spied Aklon tending to the horses and walked over to his friend, coughing politely to get his attention.


“Good morning Aklon. Uh, have you seen Torae anywhere?â€Â


“Good morning to you Nolis,†Aklon smiled and indicated the path that led off into the trees “Torae has gone to the stream to bathe. Her mood seems much improved this morning.â€Â


“That’s good. I hoped she’d... be happier,†Nolis wrung his clothes for a moment, looking at the ground. “I’ll um, wait a while before I go to wash.â€Â


“While you are waiting, can you rouse Forthan for me? We need to be on our way and you know what he is like in the mornings.â€Â


“Right you are, I’ll get him.â€Â


Nolis nodded to Aklon and made his way over to Forthan’s tent, where a long string of grumblings, groanings and general complaints issued from the canvas chamber, before the fat old man followed them out into the morning light, blinking and scrubbing his fingers through his beard. “It’s always the crack of dawn, isn’t it. Azuth’s Word, I’m getting too old for this nonsense. Why aren’t I in a feather bed somewhere with a warm and wanton wench to wake me up instead of this great ox of a boy, I ask you?â€Â


“Because we lost all our money when the big ox decided to do the right thing,†Torae declared as she strode from the bushes, her hair still damp from her morning ablutions. “But today is Shieldmeet and there’s always a new opportunity out there for us. We’re going to get lucky today, I can feel it,†Torae swayed her way over to Nolis and tickled his chin, grinning mischievously. “You’re getting shaggy again ox-boy. Don’t forget to shave while you bathe or no-one will take us seriously,â€Â


After she watched Nolis depart, Torae turned her gaze on Aklon. “And you, Aklon the Ever Serious, are doing that the hard way again. Let me show you how to do the chores,†Closing her eyes, Torae extended her hands before her, fingertips touching, “Servitis modesta, incantis minutal!†And as she spoke, the air rippled in a roughly human shape, which moved off into the camp, picking up equipment, stowing and cleaning while Torae imperiously observed its progress.


“So,†Forthan asked, sidling over to Aklon, “Who won?â€Â


Aklon sighed and dipped a hand into his money pouch. “You did. Again. Do you simply ask for my opinion and take the opposite view?â€Â


Forthan grinned. “Not always. Now, I’m going to get breakfast started, Torae or no Torae. I’d rather eat your cooking for a year than something made by an unseen servant. Ugh.â€Â






The four companions rode towards the city of Neverwinter, where the Shieldmeet celebrations were well under way, a forest of tents crowding around the gates holding the huge variety of merchants, artificers, entertainers, farmers and all the other assorted people who gathered together for the once every four years festival. At the edges of the temporary city outside Neverwinter’s gates, they set up their own small tents and saw to the care of their horses, before gathering together to discuss their next move.


Torae was the first to speak, bouncing from foot to foot in her excitement “Right, now that we’ve got all the boring stuff out of the way, let’s go take a look around, see the jugglers and the bards, maybe see if we can do some good haggling.â€Â


“I think we should look for some prospect of a job before we go buying anything,†Nolis said, a note of embarrassment creeping into his voice, “We are getting short of money after all.â€Â


“Forget that, we need to go out and have some fun. All the merchants will still be wanting guards tomorrow.â€Â


“Nolis does have a point,†interrupted Aklon. “The priests of Lady Waukeen will be conducting numerous ceremonies today and merchants may be in generous moods at the promise of success in their endeavors.â€Â


“It’s always business, business, business. Can’t we enjoy ourselves, just for once?†Torae pleaded, throwing out her hands to her friends.


“But Torae,†Nolis plowed on, trying to make his voice as reasonable as possible, “We really need to -â€Â


“Oh no. We’re not getting into this argument again.†Forthan harrumphed loudly. “You and Aklon don’t need me and Torae to find a job. Just go along and look impressive and competent for the merchants. The little girl and the creaky old man won’t win us any decent coin. It’s early morning still, so you spend a couple of hours doing that, Torae and I’ll do what we want to do and we can all meet at highsun to go have some fun together.â€Â


“That’s right Forthan, that’s right!†Torae clapped her hands. “You two big strong lads can do it! Just make sure you mention Forthie’s peerless magic and my own modest talents.â€Â

“I am sure it will enter into the negotiations,†Aklon regarded the beaming Torae with a raised eyebrow and a faint smile. “But I take your point. Come Nolis, let us seek what employment we may,†Aklon turned to go, but paused, looking over his shoulder at the already departing Torae. “And Torae? Do behave yourself today, will you not?â€Â


Torae’s face took on an expression of artful innocence that would have fooled anyone who hadn’t seen it as often as her friends had. “Don’t worry, Torae will be good.â€Â






Torae wandered among the organized chaos of the merchant’s tents, happily looking through their wares, luxuriating in beautiful silks, scrutinizing interesting trinkets and otherwise indulging herself in every little thing she could clap her eyes on. Of course, she didn’t buy anything, for Nolis was right and they really couldn’t spare the money, but it was fun to just look at all the wonderful things at the huge fair.


I really should get Nolis something. He might be a bit stupid, but he tries his best, I guess. Torae thought as she wandered up to a jeweler’s stall. And besides. If he forgets to get me something, he’ll be extra attentive tonight. Torae grinned at the thought of the lengths Nolis might go to make up for a forgotten present, even one that she didn’t expect him to get.


Torae looked down at the jeweler’s goods, at an array of nicely crafted work, mostly of brass and bronze, with a little silver here and there, mounted with little more than polished stone and coloured glass. Not wonderful stuff, but Torae hardly had the money to buy gold and sapphires. She picked over the necklaces, bracelets and other pieces, finally spying a set of bracers of polished brass, with beautifully veined ornamental stones of a vivid carmine set among ornamental etching on the metal. Torae thought Nolis would look very good in them. They were probably going to be too expensive to buy though.


The merchant noticed the direction of Torae’s gaze and stood up from his stool, smiling an ingratiating smile. “Ah, the noble lady has excellent taste, a most superlatively crafted object. Not suitable to decorate so delicate a person as herself, but certainly a thoughtful gift for a brother or father, or perhaps, someone special on this special day.â€Â


“I don’t know,†Torae began, figuring that she could beat the merchant down to an affordable price if she kept at it, “They’re only brass and a poor mix at best. And look at the shoddy mounting on this rock here. The stones’ll be falling out come the autumn. Hardly a thoughtful gift for someone close. I’ll give you fifteen silver for a gift for a casual acquaintance.â€Â


“The lady is surely jesting. That is not the mark of bad metal, it is the patina of well cared for age. These objects have endured battle and time and emerged in prime condition. The settings may have seen a little wear, but they are still as solid as the mountains the stones were hewn from. For their age alone, I could not accept anything less than seventy silver coins for the pair.â€Â


“Never are these worth seven gold coins!†Torae huffed. “With so much money I could make a copy of one, made of solid gold! Age and workmanship alone cannot add so much value to brass and rock. Eighteen silver.â€Â


“Well,†The merchant replied, eyeing Torae up and down slowly. “If money is a problem, I could arrange... other forms of payment.â€Â


“What do you take me for? A whore?†Torae’s voice suddenly rose above the surrounding noise of the fair, strident and clear as a bell. “Are you the kind of man who would take advantage of a young girl from a small village, merely for a few bits of tin?â€Â


The merchant’s eye flew open and he looked around at the crowd of faces now looking at him and Torae, holding his hands up placatingly. “I didn’t say -â€Â


“Lecher!†Torae roared before the merchant could finish his explanation, her voice belying her small size. “Stealer of innocence!â€Â


The merchant opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted again, this time by the arrival of a very large man, a weathered, leathery skinned specimen whose meaty hand thunked down on the table holding the merchant’s wares, spilling much of them onto the ground. “I reckon it might be good if you was on your way. More healthy-like.â€Â


“Please,†began the merchant, only to be cut off by the gruff voice of Torae’s hugely muscled, and slightly drunk, protector.


“You need to listen more to what’s being said, little man.â€Â


“I don’t thi-†The merchant’s final attempt at speech was cut off by the other man’s hand closing on his throat and thus beginning a distraction better than Torae had hoped to create. Using the fight and the attempts of a few others to emulate her own intentions, Torae gathered up the bracers, one or two other pieces she fancied for herself, and scuttled off into the space between two tents, leaving the chaos behind her and feeling very pleased with herself.


It was there, in the quiet mass of tents between the avenues of shouting merchants, that she heard the fateful conversation.


“Do you think this is wise, m’lord?†an unremarkable voice said from within a tent, almost so quiet as to be unheard, but Torae had sharp ears. “Why not just wait and have her killed later? Why deal with this... person?â€Â


“Because,†said a voice that was both measured and commanding, “If I were to assassinate my cousin, then as the only heir to the family fortune, suspicion would of course fall on me.â€Â


“But m’lord,†began the unremarkable voice, “A good assassin could hide any trace you were involved. And I could make sure.â€Â


“Even then, the rumour would follow me, be a blight on my reputation and honour for the rest of my life,†the lordly voice explained, “No, this priest of the Lord of the Bones will make sure that no child issues from her belly and give my cousin a death that seems so natural that none will even suspect my involvement.â€Â


“Can we trust this priest? We haven’t even seen him, all we have is the message on where to meet.â€Â


“We can trust the priest. An oath taken on Shieldmeet is sacred, even to the followers of the Lord of Bones. Whoever this priest is, we will meet him and his guardian tonight at the stone bowl. We must gather the money before moonset, so let us be on our way.â€Â


Out in the path between the tents, Torae’s mind began to race, and after allowing enough time for the owners of the voices to take their leave, she hurried to find her friends.






“Of course we can do it!†Torae exclaimed to her friends as they enjoyed some drinks in one of the food-tents. “We can get the coin and save a woman from a horrible death, isn’t that a great adventure?â€Â


Aklon took a pull from his tankard “I suppose that you have a plan already worked out, is that not so?â€Â


“Yes! It’s a great plan, it’ll work for sure,†Torae cast a glance over at Nolis, still holding his ale like someone might take it off him. “If certain people can keep their mouths shut.â€Â


Nolis stiffened slightly and stood up, drawing a few glances as the entire bench he was sitting on was forced back. “If I’m going to be a problem with this, then you don’t need me,†Torae opened her mouth to say that he would be needed for her plan, but in a rare moment, he didn’t let her speak, continuing his own thoughts. “You can just tell me what I have to do. That way I won’t give away any... thing you don’t want anyone to know. I’ll be outside when you want me.†And with that, Nolis strode off, leaving a stunned group of friends behind.


Torae folded her arms in a huff. “If only he’d learn to keep his mouth shut, we wouldn’t have to resort to this kind of silliness.â€Â


“Don’t be so hard on him girl.†Forthan said, waving a leg of chicken like a wand, “He’s doing the best his conscience will allow. You know how his father felt about lying.â€Â


“And remember,†Aklon put in, “When he tells you something, you can still believe every word.â€Â


Torae’s expression softened and she looked over to where Nolis had exited the tent. “I suppose so. Now,†she said, becoming animated once again, “This is what we have to do...â€Â





It was early evening, but Selune was low in the sky, making the lightly forested landscape an eerie patchwork of milky light and deep shadow. Through this strange half-lit world, two figures made their way down a rough path, toward a cleft in a rocky hill that burst up from the otherwise flat earth around it. One small and slight, concealed by a dark cloak and robe, the other tall and athletic, bearing several blades and wearing coarse and simple clothing, stained as though by blood.


The two came to the cleft in the hill and walked within, finding themselves in a deep crater in the middle of the hill, shielded from prying eyes and ears. Waiting for them there, standing before the cleft on the other side of the bowl were two men, both strongly built, bearing non-descript clothing that would not have drawn attention in a crowd, but the younger of the men was clearly of noble bearing, very clean and well groomed and the sword he bore was obviously covered to conceal its quality, not its presence. Between the two men was a large chest, bound in iron and secured with a simple lock.


The two groups eyed each other for a moment before the slight figure in black spoke, in a deep, husky, but still feminine voice. “The chest and your bearing tells me that you are the one I am to meet. I truly hope this is so, for I am in no mood for foolishness this night. I am Hursh, servant of Myrkul and I have the power you seek.â€Â


“Forgive me, Death Hursh, but I was given to understand that you were a priest, not a priestess.†The nobleman spoke carefully, anxious not to offend his contact and a priestess of the god of death at that.


Hursh, or rather Torae, smiled, her normally full lips thinned by an artful application of paint and ash that also made her seem far paler and thinner than she normally was. “What are such things to the Lord of the Bones? All flesh is as dust to Him.â€Â


“Ah, yes, of course. Forgive my ignorance, most holy one.â€Â


“One day, you will understand. Now, you wish to partake of the power granted to me, yes?â€Â


“That is indeed so, Death Hursh. I have a target in mind, a woman, who will need a very specific and careful method of death. She must die in a way that seems totally natural and she must not die for three years, at least.â€Â


“This I can do for you. All plagues are at my disposal. But you do not need one as gifted as I for this. Even one of the poisoners of Bhaal could manufacture a disease that might kill before healing could be brought to bear.†Hursh-Torae husked, keeping her hands still and folded before her, the skull mask hiding most of her face lending her the image of an unmoving corpse.


“That is true, most holy one, but the death must be so unremarkable as to elicit no investigation whatsoever, and in the time she still lives, she cannot be allowed to produce an heir. Only your power can secure this for me.â€Â


“Now we come to the marrow of your proposal,†Hursh-Torae allowed herself another thin-lipped smile. “Such things please the Lord of the Bones. You wanted an oath, did you not? I swear by the Castle of Bones I shall use my powers to do as you have asked, so long as you make the proper... sacrifice.â€Â


The nobleman nodded, “And I swear that you shall be compensated for your efforts, the price I previously agreed with your go-between. Half of the sum is here. The other half will be delivered to your go-between upon the death. I take my leave.†The nobleman turned and began to walk towards the cleft in the hill opposite Hursh-Torae.


“And the target?â€Â


The noblemen stopped and turned back to Hursh-Torae, relief stamped on his features. “My apologies, Death Hursh, I wanted to make sure that you were who you said you were. A thief would have taken the gold and not cared who the target was.â€Â


Hursh-Torae sneered. “No one would be fool enough to walk in the guise of one of the chosen of Myrkul. His wrath would be terrible. Now, the target?â€Â


“My cousin, the Lady Inrebella Winterspring.â€Â


Hursh-Torae nodded. “You shall be rid of her soon.â€Â


“My thanks, most holy one.â€Â






“When is this priest coming?†Nolis whispered, his hands twisting on the haft of his axe as he and Forthan crouched in the brush some distance away from where Torae and Aklon were headed to deceive the would-be kinslayer.


“I told you, sometime around moonset,†Forthan replied, casting his eyes down the trail, looking for their quarry. “So keep quiet and wait. He’ll be here soon and we don’t want him to hear us before we can spring the trap.â€Â


“Oh no,†said a rotting, hideous voice between them. “You don’t want that at all.â€Â






Torae and Aklon, now minus the better part of their disguise, came quietly down the now pitch black trail, listening intently for any sounds of combat, but hearing nothing. Abruptly, Aklon put a hand down on Torae’s shoulder, halting her. He carefully put down the chest of coins he was carrying, swiftly hiding it in the undergrowth. Then he put his lips to Torae’s ear, speaking to her in the barest whisper. “Something is very wrong. I can hear neither bat nor insect, nor any other night creature. And there is something foul on the wind. I fear that Forthan and Nolis have met more trouble than we bargained for. Let us approach the ambush site with all care. Take this,†Aklon reached into the bag attached to his belt and withdrew a small ceramic vial. “It is dark and a lamp will only give us away.â€Â


Together, Torae and Aklon crept through the dark, silent wood to the spot where Nolis and Forthan were to have ambushed the true priest of Myrkul. The scene that met their eyes when they arrived sent ice-water flowing through their veins. Forthan lay crumpled on the trail, his breathing ragged and whistling unwholesomely. Nolis also lay upon the ground, his clothing shredded, his flesh torn, his skin pale as Selune’s face, shuddering beneath the touch of the feral looking and half naked man crouched over him. Standing beside Nolis’ head stood the cadaverously thin form of the true priest of Myrkul, tattered black robes hanging from his bones like flesh gone rotten.


The priest tapped his bone gauntleted fingers on the skull-mask he probably did not need to looks dead and his voice bubbled up from somewhere in his chest, trying to sound kind, but failing miserably. “Just tell me how many others are involved, boy. This could all end in a moment if you would tell me the truth.â€Â


Nolis drew a shallow breath and spoke as though he had just run fifty miles, “I’ve told you. I don’t know.â€Â


The priest merely tapped his mask twice, bone clicking on bone, and the feral looking man gently stroked his fingers down Nolis’ bare chest, making him arch his back in some unknown agony, though he was so exhausted, his voice gave no more than a whimper in response.


Torae’s breathing had quickened the instant she had clapped eyes on the scene and at this last terrible moment, her restraint snapped. Aklon reached out to restrain her, but it was too late, Torae leapt from the brush, her magnificent voice screaming wordless rage and defiance at the two figures before her. Helpless to do anything else than support his friend, Aklon charged after her, howling his own battle cry into the night.


The priest smiled thinly and pointed at the two fools approaching him. With a sudden and terrible speed, the feral looking man leapt over Nolis’ prone form. Landing directly in front of Torae, the man reached for her, hands crooked into claws, but Torae ducked low, lashing out with her dagger and opening a gaping wound in the man’s side, a wound that flowed shut as soon as her blade left his skin.


“Get the priest!†shouted Aklon, hurling one of his swords to distract the feral man and give Torae a chance to get past him. Batting the poor throwing weapon aside, the feral man swung again at Torae, only to have Aklon’s boot impact his spine, twisting him around and buying Torae the time she needed to get fully clear of the supernatural creature.


As Torae bore down on him, her eyes livid in a face filled with rage, the priest simply smiled again and began to move his arms sinuously while his vile, molten voice chanted softly. “Lord of Bones, hear my call, foes before me, one and all. Cold as stone, make flesh and bone, still as rock, root and stock. Animus nil Viralis!â€Â


Torae felt the magic sear into her, a cold wind that spilled through her body and soul, sapping her strength and her will. But her rage, or perhaps some vagary of Tymora, kept the magic from having its full effect. And yet some burst of inspiration made her freeze in place, for both Aklon and Forthan had schooled her in recognizing spellcasting and this was a spell she knew.


Seeing that the girl had stopped in her tracks, the priest walked over to her, running his bone covered fingers over the ash and paint that lingered on her face. “So you fooled the fool I was to meet. A pity, but the trouble can be repaired. And soon you will know all the torments the Lord of Bones can offer,†The priest’s speech was interrupted by an agonized shout from Aklon as the feral man’s hand raked across his leg. “But first, your friend.â€Â


And the priest of Myrkul stepped past Torae as though she were already dead flesh and began to weave his hands in another spell. “Master of Poxes, I plead with thee, bring forth- AAGH!†The words of the spell were cut off by the plunging of Torae’s dagger into the priest’s back, toppling the servant of Myrkul to the ground. Torae followed him down, her dagger raising for another strike.


“Help me!†the priest wheezed, dark blood bubbling out of his mouth and immediately the feral man spun on his heel and charged for Torae, who was already making her third stab into the priest’s ribs. Now blindly savaging the priest, Torae was a perfect target, but likewise the feral man, solely concentrating on removing her, was the perfect target for Aklon. Even wounded, he managed to bring the creature down long before it’s agonizing touch could find Torae’s body.


By the time Aklon had limped up to the prone priest to check that he was really dead, Torae had already abandoned the body and her dagger, scrambling over to Nolis, who was still breathing, but barely. Cradling his head in her lap, she pulled a copper vial from a pouch at her waist and ripped its cork out with her teeth. As she lowered the vial to his lips, Nolis opened his eyes slowly and said in a barely audible whisper, “See, I didn’t tell him anything.â€Â


Tears mixed with the potion on Nolis’ lips as Torae poured it into his mouth. Nolis choked slightly, but drank down the potion and his wounds immediately began to close. Yet he still remained pale and cold under Torae’s fingers, his breathing just as shallow. She looked up, her tear streaked face seeking her friend. “The potion isn’t working Aklon! What’s wrong? What do we do?â€Â


“The creature there,†said Aklon, waving vaguely at the priest’s now defunct companion, “Was some undead thing. Its touch was ice and I fear Nolis has felt it too much.†Aklon knelt next to Nolis, and Torae saw that the coarse canvas of Aklon’s breeches over his wound was worn and frayed, as though it had aged twenty years in but a moment. “This is a malady of the soul and one I cannot cure. By will alone is Nolis still breathing, so we must have a priest, and swiftly.â€Â


Torae nodded and gently disengaged herself from Nolis, whispering to him before springing to her feet, “You hang on now. Don’t you leave me too.â€Â


“Hurry Torae. I shall shorten the trip as best I can, but with my leg like this...â€Â


“You can count on me.†With those parting words, Torae sprinted off into the night, her footfalls gradually fading from Aklon’s hearing.


He looked over at Forthan, whose breath had become more even quite some time ago, and dug in the pouch at his belt for some smelling salts. “Now my friend, do not force me to carry you back to the city as well.â€Â






“He’ll recover, but it was a close thing. In another few minutes you might have had to put down another undead.†Explained the Tymoran priest who had pulled Nolis back from the brink of death. “I’ll be back tomorrow to have a look at that leg of yours, but for now, I must rest and pray. Farewell and may the Lady’s Bright Face continue to shine upon you.â€Â


“And you, Hand of the Lady.†replied Aklon, escorting the priest to the edge of their patch.


“That was a hell of a job,†commented Forthan from his pallet. “We got all that gold and had to spend most of it on a donation to the local temple. Not even enough left to go on a drunken tour of the city after we missed the Sheildmeet celebrations.â€Â


“You will not be going on any drunken tours for a while, my friend. At least we will have time to recuperate properly before the employment Nolis and I arranged yesterday.â€Â


“The way Torae’s been taking care of him, Nolis will need a whole season to recuperate,†Forthan chuckled suggestively. “And at least the boy seems to have learnt the value of discretion.â€Â


“Yes,†Aklon smiled and began to unpack some herbs onto the low camp table he stood next to. “I am sure Torae will make him forget what he had to endure to learn.â€Â


“So, do you think they’ll finally admit it to us?†Forthan looked slyly over at his friend.


Aklon arched an eyebrow. “Five silver coins?â€Â


“Sounds good to me.â€Â


“No, I do not think they will. Torae enjoys the thought of fooling us too much.â€Â


“You, my friend, are on.â€Â

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I saw the topic of the thread and just couldn't pass up this opportnity to share my beloved Forgotten Realms related story.




Ice and Fury






They say that in all the Realms, that never has there been a wizard who can catch a wink of sleep without returning to their task once more. Malanon, a wizard, was not an exception to the lore.

The room, filled with tomes of various arcane experiments of the man and more than a few magical items, was quiet save for the frantic scribbling of a quill hard at work against a parchment. This quickly subsided as the mage’s temperament grew thinner by the hour.

In a fit of rage, Malanon took the parchments and flung them across the room. The mage had only done this about forty-two times today.

“Damnation!†the frustrated wizard fumed. “How in the name of Mystra can anyone comprehend this rubbish?†He slowly stood up and stretched out his sore limbs that had been in the painful position for half the night into the early morning.

Songbirds twilled from outside. How Malanon needed a break from the tediousness of all of it! He stood there for a few minutes basking in the bright sunlight from the one window that provided light to the tower’s study. Where the mage spent a large portion of his time. Almost without thinking, he exited the tower and decided to take a walk into the forest around his home.


Malanon instantly felt a great deal of the weight lift as he stepped out the door. The forest was alive!

The crisp cool air did little to comfort him in his weary state though the sight of two squirrels dutifully scavenging for food brought a weak smile to his wrinkled face.

It had been two busy days since the last of his apprentice’s set off for the great Hosttower of Luskan. The one tower completely built by magic in the known parts of the Sword Coast, leaving the poor mage with a large list of enchantments needed by his customers. The list was lengthy.

Ranging from wealthy noblemen needing a charm enchantment (Sune knows they wouldn’t be able to charm their spouse otherwise), to the more unscrupulous clientele needing more items than the mage had in stock. The fine young lads at the Shadow Thieves Guild in Baldur’s Gate especially. Many times on separate occasions had the wealthy guildmaster come to the mage for assistance.

To the depths of the Abyss with the lot of them.

It was winter in the realms.

The white veil of winter was all around him. Snow blanketing the ground, nearly several feet since the last snowfall of the previous week, now was twice that amount due to the overnight blizzard in the region. The trees themselves stood rigid covered with a thick outer shell of ice that at the right angle caught the peaking sunrise for a spectacular show of wintry magic.

Similar works of art appeared from the corner of the old man’s sharp eye. A large oak rose high into the air, though his mind was still on his work, sent the old man’s heart soaring. Icicles hung precariously from the many branches that shot out from the huge tree, with enough weight on some branches to send them crashing down as the temperature slowly climbed. There would be more precipitation as the day ended.

Shafts of sunlight beamed down on to the forest floor, highlighting the scrambling fauna as they prepared for another cold day. Millions of thoughts of winter circled Malanon’s mind.

A winter that only Auril could bring.

The priest was right in saying that he should beware Auril, come winter. The priest was wrong about the prices for herbs though, and the distrustful mage decided to never spend his gold in that temple again. Those were his inhibitions; his own inner wisdom shining through. Even through all the many years he had lived, there still was a profundity about it all. Where did it all come together? Walking down the steps of his ancient tower, Malanon, the “world-weary†mage, pressed on.


The sunrise invaded the region of the northernmost peak of the Spine of the World for only an instant as a large ship carrying cargo to the town of Jlaeen made it’s way to port. Then in an instant the skies turned gray and a great wind pushed the ship further off course. Snow and hail pelted the men desperately trying to batten it down. The wind continued to blow and the snow continued to fall, further hampering the ship’s direct approach to the port city.

In a tiny globe of ice fashioned from a snowglobe cold icy eyes peered at the doomed ship with glee. A wave caused by the powerful winds tore the mizzenmast off of the ship sending the crew scrambling to do repairs.

Winter once more was in her control.

A beautiful woman in blue with white trim viewed it all from the safety of the place she called home. Silently approving of it all, and openly laughing as one more fool died in the cold sea.

She was Auril, goddess of Cold and Winter. All of the elements of winter were by her whims and she held dominion over her element mercilessly. Her blue pale features formed a wicked smile as she watched a group of children playing around a frozen lake. The loud creaking of a door interrupted her thoughts.

“Your timing is poor, Flake,†threatened the Icemaiden. “An entire millennia has surely passed in your absence.†She didn’t have to turn to notice she was no longer alone in her bedchambers. Her two pet winter wolves, Whitefang and Wintermaw lay at her feet, accepting her icy fingers across their nuzzling faces.

“It seems that winter has come to the Dalelands quite early, Lady Cold.†stammered Flake. Seeing Auril nodding, feigning interest, he continued. “Several of the tribes have already dessert the tundra.†Auril was not surprised. Given the nature of the nomadic peoples. Though her plans would be more difficult to execute without the sheer ferocity of the barbarians of the White Wolf tribe.

She quickly dismissed her anxiety about the news and continued to tolerate the messenger’s ramblings.

Auril, herself, the goddess of Cold, had always been a most impatient one.

“Your excuses grow old,†Auril snapped. “If I would have anticipated such a lengthy delay, I would have simply not given you a chance to return to my side. Now, I desire no more from you. Leave me.â€Â

The small human tried to find some composure but still felt awkward at being dismissed so early by his mistress. He glanced longingly at her beautiful face obviously expecting compensation. The cold glare that the Icemaiden threw over him changed his mind and he left in a huff.

No longer concerned about the foolish mortal, she looked once more to her globe. A light dusting of snow had begun to fall and children were already at play. One turned around in circles while the other pushed him in the snow. How gaily the children played in her rightful realm! Auril scowled disapprovingly at the small moving images in the globe. Unexpectantly, she turned her scrying globe around to once more perceive the previous images of the ship. Two humans worked tirelessly on a large ship that had just come into port from the blizzard. Auril was impressed. Not only did the ship sustain minimal damages, but the men on the ship seemed to have survived the conditions. Although a few of the ship’s crew had gotten frostbitten when the unusual weather had hit. One had died in the cold waters of the Innersea. A woman was crying holding a small boy over her shoulder as the captain told her the fate of her husband. Auril smiled approvingly. Her bluish demeanor improved considerably as she enjoyed an evil laugh at the dead sailor’s expense.



Quietly she gazed at him from the dimly lit corner of the room, sipping the ale from the flagon she conjured.

“Is that Lady Youngheart?†asked the man to the patron of the tavern, casually acting as nonchalant as humanely possible. “Wizard of the Tower of Lamara?â€Â

“Aye, it is. Beware boy, that woman has a tongue that would send a sailor bawling.â€Â

They didn’t see the watching eye of the beholder just as the eye tyrant floated down from the ceiling of the tavern. All eyes turned to the beholder just as the first deadly rays shot out towards the woman. Thinking too quickly for the monstrous creature, she dived under the table and let loose a barrage of magical missiles at the beholder. “Is that all you’ve got in those things?†she chided mockingly at the beholder’s small but deadly eyestalks atop its body. She had no time to remain in place as a blast of energy from a third eye ripped into the corner of the tavern. Another blast – this time a petrifying gaze – slammed into her magical shields dissipating harmlessly. “Now you are really starting to annoy me.†She said, unleashing yet another of the wand’s many magical properties.

Strands of sticky web filament shot out of the wand covering the entire tavern in the web spell. Struggling to get free, the beholder fired two more rays from the eyestalks but it was hopeless against this powerful wizard and soon the tavern was burning.

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