Storm closing in, the party decided to head for the village. Urtusk pulled the sled with food, taken from the troll’s cave. If questioned, the party could pose as traders. Cold was unbearable. Shanka asked the spirits to help herself, Holt, and even the hearty Urtusk endure. Kazimir snuggled in his cloak, and the others already enjoyed Shanka’s divine protection. How could common people survive in this land?
Late afternoon, Urtusk heard dogs barking, and human voices. A hunting party, he said. They were heading in the same direction, just ahead. In twenty minutes, they came into sight. Five humans, who resembled woodsman, with a pair of sleds, each pulled by a pair of dogs. Alarmed to see the well-armed party trailing them, the woodsman quickened their pace. More alarmed when a giant insect stepped out of the woods, grasping one man in its pinchers, shucking him open. The leader, a woman with a long, red braid, ordered her men to protect the sleds and dogs. She stepped up, hacking at the giant mantis with a handaxe.
From a hundred feet away, Kazimir threw a web over them all, while the others rushed to aid the strangers. Tacey and Holt fired crossbolts that missed, but Njaldur struck true with his bow. The mantis broke free of the webbing and grabbed the woman. Urtusk yelled as he cruised through the snow. The insect dropped the woman and lunged twenty feet to bite her Kellid quarry. The barbarian wrenched free of its claws. The monster was quickly killed, slammed by the raging spirits of his ancestors.
The woman spoke Skald, directly to Urtusk, but he shook his head. In common, she said, “Strangers, we mean you no harm.”
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Njaldur said in perfect Skald, “We saw you were being attacked, and had no choice but to help you.”
She looked confused, but introduced herself as Nadya Petska, along with her companions: Sven Svenson; and his son, Sven Svensonson; his brother, Jaral; and his other brother, Jaral. She explained they were traders returning from the Land of the Mammoth Lords with food for their village Waldsby. Njaldur explained how they had traveled here through the portal, which puzzled Nadya. He went on to say they were also traders, having a sled of rations. Since the two groups were headed in the same direction they decided to travel together.
The storm approached and though they would not outrun it, Nadya urged them to march on until dusk. When questioned about her knowledge of the Pale Tower, the woman was guarded. When pressed, she said the white witch Nazhena Vasilliovna had imprisoned her daughter, Thora, for some offense. She feared for her safety. Shanka recalled the spirit trapped in the doll.
Camp was made in a stand of fir trees, as the sky churned up darkness and white blindness. Around the fire, they ate well; the party shared their ample food, including meat and vegetables from the south. A feast to the Irrisen folk. Nadya patrolled the area, and returned with an anxious look. “Someone is coming,” she said.
“A merry fire, and friends to share it with,” a figure said, pushing through the firs. She was radiant with pleasant features, but a chill fell over them. The creature’s skin was blue like the winter-touched fey, with horns and ears, and the lower half of a stag.
No one spoke, but room was made for the unexpected guest. She continued. “I am Mierul Ardelain, troubadour to the noble families of Irrisen.” She smiled. “Where I come from, when a name is given, a name is returned.”
Everyone introduced themselves. Mierul seemed interested in Kazimir. He said he had been to White Throne in his travels, to pick up a tea set. She accepted the story that they were all traders. “I see, you have half-orc slaves,” she said.
To break the ice she offered to tell a tale. Njaldur challenged the bard to a duel. Whoever was judged best would win a prize. Njaldur wanted her harp. If she won, she would get one of his magic arrows. She agreed, went first.
Her tale accompanied by her harp was of Queen Velikas. During her reign, silver mines enriched the lands; but a plague among the miners spread as far as the capital cities of Irrisen. A Kellid slave, known as a gifted healer, made a deal with the White Witch Queen. In exchange to save the Queen’s people of the plague, Irrisen would promise to never attack the people of the Mammoth Lords. Queen Velikas agreed. The Kellid with the aid of powerful spirits saved the land, and the Queen true to her word pledged that Irrisen would honor the deal. But, as the Kellid had not asked for her own protection, she was promptly sealed alive in a mine where her tormented soul lives to the this day. At the end, the fey bard’s face transformed into a devil. She screamed in delight. Everyone was quiet. In the midst of the snowstorm, they were all transfixed, consumed by the tale.
Njaldur’s turn. He played his fiddle, starting with a folk tune, before launching into an epic tale of the Linhorm Kings. He plucked and strummed the strings, but its was his singing which earned him the victory. Mierul begrudgingly conceded, at first asking for a rematch, before handing him her harp. She said farewell, limped off, just as the storm was letting up.
Holt kept watch. Uneventful, except he detected something in the distance, a shadow of a shadow. In the morning, Shanka shrouded the group in protection from the elements. Not the locals; they got used to it, or they died.
An early start in the morning. As they were moving along a ridge, Nadya shouted. ""Hide yourselves, eyes in the skies! Get the tarps. Cover the sleds." Something was coming. The sky was black, and moving like a angry storm, thousands of cawing crows. Njaldur asked everyone to huddle together. Over their heads, he tossed a white blanket of illusionary camouflage, and the crows passed over without spotting them.
At midday, they reached the village of Waldsby. Nadya and her people were greeted warmly by the townsfolk. They were curious about the strangers, too. Even more curious was the village. It was nearly identical to Heldren, in the layout, as well as being a logging town.
They passed the burnt frame of a large house. The two Svens made signs of warding as they passed. Shanka asked them who had lived here. Nadya explained it was the home of the last headman and his family. Three years ago, the headman was hung from the clock tower by the White Witch. He was an alleged member of a resistance group known as The Heralds of Summer’s Return. The house was burned down; his wife and children perished in the fire. Shanka with a look of pain and fury, whispered to Urtusk that they would return later to ensure their spirits are at rest.
The clock tower on the town hall had not moved in a century. In Heldren, the clock was in perfect working condition. In other respects, things were eerily similar. In the square, there was a large statue of the woman as though sculpted by the same artist, of the same subject. The locals claimed it was Queen Elvana, but it seemed older than her reign. The inn was called the White Weasel rather than the Silver Stoat.
Nadya excused herself to report to the storehouse manager, Birgit Holorova. She invited the party to stay with her at her home, as the inn in town did not have rooms. They did not have many visitors, except for the soldiers for the White Witch. Kazimir expressed some concern for the people. They might be punished for harboring them.
The innkeeper’s wife hailed them in the square, invited them inside for refreshment. Emil Goltaiaeva, owner of the White Weasel inn, and his wife Katya Goltaiaeva were gracious hosts. They asked many questions, answered few. Njaldur requested ice wine; it was rumored they had a couple bottles. They supped on bark soup and tough, stringy meat. A single log burned in the hearth. A large mirror on the wall opposite the bar reflected on the patrons. Townsfolk came in for their midday meal. The barber of The Beardless Dwarf, Rusilka Sighja Imsdottr and Garthur Kalinin, owner of the sawmill and logging license. Garthur was more interested in Katya, openly flirting with her.
After eating, the party decided to split up. Urtusk and Shanka went to the scene of the fire, Kazimir and Holt went to see the gnome woodworker, while Njaldur and Tacey stayed at the inn to make some friends.
Njaldur bought the last bottle of ice wine, sharing it with Rusilka and Garthur. The dwarf loosened up. Told him about the White Tower, how the White Witch was not there. Her apprentice, Radosek Pavril, was in charge. Recently, guardsmen had been looking for something, but he did not know what. The daughter of Milivsa Stolya, who runs the general store, was seeing one of the guards.
Kazimir was very interested in the gnome’s artwork, which was exceptional, peculiar to find artful pieces in a backwoods village. He explained he was a trader, traveling through, and he purchased a finely-made gameboard with carven pieces. Holt asked the gnome if he was related to Tengezil Frimbocket from his village of Heldren. He told Arbagazor about how in his village there was a gnome woodworker just like him, in his skill, style, and appearance. The gnome broke down. He explained that he had a twin brother, but they had been separated at birth. All these years, he thought his brother was dead. He said he wanted to write a letter that they could give to his brother on their return.
Shanka and Urtusk investigated the ruins of the house. They were observed by an old man who emerged from a simple building next to the cemetery. He watched as Shanka prepared a circle in the ashes. The old man, a priest called Rolf Halzberg, joined her as they chanted a prayer for the lost souls. When silence fell, some relief. As Shanka met his gaze, she promised to avenge these spirits.