I could start this story by telling you about a pair of Bearpelt clansmen, one followed by spirits the other offering to oversee her exile. I could tell you about the Varisian merchant coming south from Irissen. Maybe, I could start with telling you about my half-brother coming back to Heldren from whatever poor debtors town the Temple of Abadar assigned him. But I’d rather start with the day that all of our lives became a story worth telling.
The young half-orc entered the smithy and was greeted by Isker and Xanthippe Euphram, father and daughter, smith and apprentice. They exchanged pleasant greetings and asked why Holt was back from the city.
“Heldren has always been good enough for me,” said Isker. “We could use your help around the forge, Holt. You were always a good worker.”
To that Holt politely declined, citing his duties to the Temple of Abadar.
“Well I better get back to these horse shoes,” Isker said, leaving his daughter to speak with Holt.
Xanthippe asked why Holt was back in Heldren, and he explained his task. He was to wait here for a woman.
“A woman?” Xanthippe raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, but for business.” Holt explained that a noble woman had passed through here for a wedding, and would likely be back through on her return to Oppara. Holt was to serve her legal documents, for the wedding never happened and she was to repay her dowry.
“Maybe you’d like to get a drink at the Silver Stoat later,” Xanthippe asked.
“That’d be nice. We can catch up,” replied Holt.
Around nearly the same time Holt was trying to flirt with his teenage sweetheart, a Varisian merchant was making his way into town on horseback. Coincidentally, that was the first time a snow owl had ever been sighted flying near Heldren, white fur standing out like the unseasonal cold gripping the border wood. Heldren wasn’t the kind of place you’d find those wintry things, especially not in the middle of summer.
This Varisian took his time looking over the town. Heldren not being a large place, he quickly found the Silver Stoat and the livery next door. Hesitant, because he would not find a place to stay the night, and therefore might be stuck with his horse stabled here, he spoke with the woman working there.
“That’s a fine horse. Northern breed?” She asked.
It was. The merchant, by the name of Kazimir, was on his way through Heldren to Zimar for a wedding. He had some trouble on the northern road and was a bit behind schedule. He noticed the carriage in the back of the livery stable.
“An merchant left it to me once. It broke and I helped calm his horse. He let me keep it as a gift. We use it for weddings occasionally, although not much else.”
Kazimir was then directed to the Silver Stoat. It doesn’t have rooms, but it has food and drink, and the owner will let a paying customer sleep on the floor near the hearth.
On his way to the Silver Stoat, Kazimir noticed something strange about the building across from it and the livery. It housed the carpenter and his work, but the facade of the building employed a style Kazimir had not anywhere but the city of Whitethrone far to the north, in Irrisen. The style was known as gingerbreading, and it consisted of intricately stylized carvings along the wood of the building.
Taking note of the Carpenter’s taste, as well as the ancient statue in the center of town, Kazimir turned and entered the Silver Stoat.
A handsome young man, your narrator no less, found himself enjoying a midday nap out under a willow tree just beyond the low stone wall surrounding his mother’s house.
“Where are you, son?” Came his mothers voice, and he jumped up to answer her call, ever the dutiful son. “What are you doing?” She asked when she saw him approach.
“Er. Uh. Well… nothing.” He said, at a loss for a little lie that might irritate his mother less.
“Take these four silver coins and go buy some pig feed. Do not go to the Silver Stoat. Bring it back and feed the pigs.”
His real name was Rutilus, but he went by Njaldur. And Njaldur had a keen mind when opportunity presented itself. He took the four silver coins, but he had a better idea about how to use it.
As he passed the general store, the owner Vivialla saw him and how he jostled the coins in his hand and she shook her head because she was not as keen and didn’t recognize an opportunity like Njaldur did. Her head was filled with the mundane tasks of a normal life, but not Njaldur.
His head was swimming with stories and rumors.
The air was unseasonable cold. Njaldur had heard folks say that Qadiran agents were to blame. A boy was being nursed back to health after falling through some ice and nearly freezing to death. People tend to get paranoid when kids get into danger, he figured. Interesting enough, though, the kid had said that he had heard a “white stag talking”. To Njaldur, who was no stranger to tales of the mysteries of the wood, or at least the stories told about them, a talking white stag sounded a more likely culprit than Qadirans still harboring a grudge.
Old man Dansby had reported crops being stolen from him. Njaldur had taken an apple or two that had fallen to the ground, but never could that be construed as stealing. Someone else was likely filching Dansby’s crops. Maybe it was the giant white weasel Dryden Kept had sighted.
He finally came to the Silver Stoat and inside he went.
Inside, Kazimir chatted up the bartender, Menander Garimos and his wife Kale, about the goings on, including the strange weather. Njaldur eyed the apparent wealth on his person, the colorful kapenia, but no visible coin purse, and slid casually by to greet his half-brother, Holt, at a table.
Holt let slip his current mission and Njaldur thought quickly of a way to intrude. “Heard about that noble woman you seek going west to that wedding, but the wedding never happened. Heard she was making her way back through here. Abadar would smile on you paying for that kind of information, wouldn’t he?”
Holt awkwardly dodged the question, and moved his focus to the Varisian man making acquaintances. They shared what they knew about the wedding. Kazimir revealed his wedding gift- a fine tea set. Njaldur offered to play some cards for it. He took out his Harrow deck. “Do you know Towers?” He asked Kazimir. “I do,” said the Varisian as he grinned.
Out near the woods, the Kellids made their camp. Urtusk, the warrior, had caught a ptarmigan, which was odd for this time of year. He had left the bird by camp and gone out to gather firewood. Shanka, who was preparing the bird, watched as it’s feathers, laying on the ground around her, all stood and arrayed themselves like a forest, quivering in place, before falling inanimate again.
Urtusk heard a noise and looked to see an injured Ulfen man crawling towards them. His fingers and ears were black with frostbite. He picked the man up and carried him back to their camp. The spirits of smoke and fire were coaxed out to warm him. Some were kept in an ember pot, which they carry along to take him into town. He needed warmth, shelter and remedy to begin healing. As they went, the frostbitten Ulfen mumbled “The Winter Touched are coming…”
In the Silver Stoat, Njaldur threw his cards down in a defeated huff. Kazimir politely pulled his winnings across the table towards himself. Njaldur drew his fiddle and bow, and playing a song about hungry pigs.
The door crashed open and there stood the two imposing Kellids, the rather large warrior holding someone in his arms. Njaldur’s fiddle strings squealed and went silent. Old Mother Theodora sprung into action, hobbling over to a table and ordering the Kellids like her own kin. “Put him on the table here,” she said as she shoed at the mugs on the table, which were quickly moved to make room.
Njaldur noticed a patch on the frostbitten Ulfen’s shoulder- it signified the Hungry Ravens, a Ulfen mercenary group that operated in the area. The group once held Njaldur and Holt’s father as their captain, no less.
Shanka studied him, and knew she had not the magic to repair his wounds. Old Mother Theodora said “We can take him to Willowbark, she can help. Then I’ll go and speak with Elder Natharen.” Natharen was the local Erastilian. Urtusk picked the Ulfen up and took him to Willowbark, the apothecary. Then he returned to the Silver Stoat.
By then Njaldur has picked back up his fiddle and was playing it wistfully, a feeble attempt to lighten the mood.
The group of them discussed what needed to be done, and how they should act before the trail went cold. Whatever harmed the Ulfen was still out there. They decided to talk to him in the morning.
Old Mother Theodora walks behind Njaldur and raps her cane on his chair, nearly knocking him over. She sits at the table and takes Njaldur’s Harrow deck. She reprimanded him for using them so carelessly, and Njaldur rolled his eyes. “I know,” he said. “Anger the spirits and all that.”
Theodora closed her eyes and a silence fell over the room. The lights seemed to dim. All the coarse hair on Holt’s arms tried to stand. Her eyelids twitched half open. Her hand slowly drew nine cards in a spread:
The top left corner, indicating a positive force in the past, was The Empty Throne. That reminds them that those who are gone will always been with them- ghosts to the living. Ancient knowledge from a far-off source will serve them well.
The middle left card, the unclear past, was The Forge. It represents strength through diversity, tempered by fire for a trial ahead. Holt knew that this fate spoke directly to him.
The bottom left card, the negative past, was The Tangled Briar. It spoke of ancient deeds and one who is powerful yet lost, looming over the reading, bringing that moment upon them.
The top middle card, the positive present, was The Theater. It was the card of true prophecy- the puppets acting out a scene as the prophet acts out a scene. The prophet is the audience and the prophecy is the show. But knowledge of these visions may be a most potent ally. This was no doubt relevant to Shanka, for she too had visions and played her part.
The center card, the unclear present, was The Foreign Trader. A bargain made, a commitment formed, under the auspices of this card always concludes true, but the costs are never clear until it is done. Kazimir was paying particular attention to that.
The middle bottom card, the negative present, The Mute Hag. The hag sees into the hearts of men from a great distance. This is who opposes them and her power is terrible.
The top right card, the positive future, was The Juggler. The card of those who toy with fate and destiny. A tricky task that will be a disaster or the greatest performance ever seen. Njaldur bristled at the thought of such a thing.
The middle right card, the unclear future, was The Uprising. A great upheaval is in the making. Its great strength and rage catches all in its grasp and does not let go. Urtusk knew that this card was meant for him.
The bottom right card, the negative future, was The Cyclone. It portended a great disaster awaiting. Everything that it touches will be destroyed and it threatens to touch everything.
After reading the cards, Old Mother Theodora was awfully shaken by the strength of the reading. Every single card was perfectly aligned, a nearly impossible occurrence. The power of a reading where each card was in it’s strongest position was unbearable to Old Mother Theodora, causing her to faint. Shanka saw to her and found her to be alright. Shortly after she reawoke and was walked safely home. Everyone else turned in for the night, agreeing to meet at the Silver Stoat in the morning to look into the attack outside of town.
On his way home, Njaldur stopped by the general store, the storefront now dark. He knocked on the door. “We’re closed,” Shouted the shopkeeper from her window above. “I just need some pig feed,” said Njaldur goading, jingling the remaining coins in his hand. Vivailla shook her head and ducked back inside. Njaldur waited a moment and the door clicked open. He went inside, paid for the feed and walked the bag back home. After feeding the pig, he thought it best to sleep in the barn.
Ionnia Teppen met them all at the Silver Stoat, and led them all to the Apothecary to speak to the Ulfen mercenary.
Yuln Orstag was still worse for ware, but he was conscious. “If your dad was there we would have held them off,” he told Holt and Njaldur. But he wasn’t, and all ten guards, the lady and her servant were gone, except Yuln. Outlaws waylaid them and took those they did not kill, beating them as they did. The battle turned quickly because the outlaws had aligned themselves with cold fey of the north, the Winter Touched, sword to the White Witches.
Yuln also told them that there was snow and ice in the woods, and they had left him for dead in such conditions. He knew that cold iron and burning flame could harm them. He gave Njaldur his cold iron longsword.
“I’ll spill much frozen blood with it,” Njaldur said, holding the blade up before his face.
“That’s just a loan, boy,” Yuln responded.
The group left the Apothecary and traveled the six miles out of Heldren to the massacre site.
They found a wagon turned over, and another wagon still upright, but something shaking it from the inside. Around the area were many dead bodies, and standing between them a statue of ice.
The shaking wagon had a spear holding the back door closed. Removing the spear let the doors burst open, and out of it came two of the undead, once living men, but living no more. But they were vicious none-the-less and clawed and lunged at them.
Urtusk sliced at them with his axe and Njaldur ineffectually drew a daze charm in the air- it did not phase the creature he targeted. Holt called out that they were immune to such charms, and only slashing weapons would do. Kazimir used his crossbow to no avail, and Njaldur slipped in to steal a flanking position from his half brother. After a few violent moments the zombies fell to the ground- cold and dead again.