How Willow and Ash Found Their Place and Got Their Feet Wet — A Vecatran Folktale

Once upon a time, when the world was brand new, Trees walked the earth like creatures, looking for their favorite places to grow. None could settle into the ground, and eventually, the many faces of Vecatra grew tired of the chaos and indecision. They called a meeting of all the Tree people so that everyone could claim a territory for themselves. As the day of the meeting approached, the trees all talked excitedly about which areas they wanted— Oak and Holly arguing in booming voices over which time of year was best, Fir and Pine arguing over the high mountains—until their voices sounded loud as the ocean.
There were two trees, however, who didn’t participate in the shouting and bragging. They were quiet souls, given to contemplation, and didn’t like the noise and competition of the greater forest. These two, Ash and Willow, had been friends since they were saplings, and so they wandered away to find a quiet place together.
It was early Spring in this new world. The snows were melting, the rains had been falling, and without trees in the ground to anchor the soil and slow the waters, fields, and low areas were beginning to flood. Rivers crested their banks, carrying away good soil and carving new channels. Willow and Ash, out walking together, discovered a deep channel with a river raging away at the bottom and stood together to watch. The waters raced and churned, for the river was in a hurry to reach the ocean. Ash threw a stick into the water and they and Willow watched it sail away.
“Willow,” said Ash, “I don’t want to go to the meeting.”
Willow looked at her friend. “Why not?” she asked.
“Vecatra scares me. How can I ask for what I want if I’m too scared to speak?”
Willow looked back at the water. She bent her head as low as she could and dipped the ends of her hair into the river. Her feet were sinking into the mud around her. Ash threw another stick.
“I don’t want to go to the meeting, either,” said Willow. “I bet the faces of Vecatra wouldn’t even miss us if we stayed here.” She had sunk to her ankles in the mud, and the cool earth felt good around her toes. Just upstream, a part of the riverbank gave way, and mud collected against the little dam she was making with her feet. Soon, water pooled and a little eddy formed. Ash dropped a seed into the eddy, and they both watched it swirl around.
Ash hopped to the opposite bank. “You should let your feet sink into the ground,” said Willow. “It feels really good.” So Ash wiggled their toes until they were buried, and then laughed as the worms crawled around the hairs on their feet.
“Willow,” said Ash, “you’re growing.”
And she was. She was growing strong and supple, nourished by the water and rich mud of the riverbank. Her feet sank deeper still, and she stretched herself further over the water. “I love this place,” she said to Ash. They looked very handsome over there in the evening light, their broad leaves glowing.
That night they watched the stars come out and shine in the still water near Willow’s feet. If they wished for anything on the evening star, neither said anything about it to the other. They had always been comfortable with silence in each other’s company.
The next day, all the trees gathered together around standing stones in a great meadow. At the appointed hour the many faces of Vecatra arrived—they came as a great, branch-shaking wind and as a shower of rain. Some came on the notes of a tune, and others in a twinkle of starlight. In the mighty presence of such company, how could the Trees keep up their arguments?
One by one the trees discovered their places and left quietly—some abashed and others with a short laugh, as if they were just learning their purpose in life. Oak and Gorse together took the fields and meadows, with Aspen close behind. Fir and Pine took the high mountains, along with their cousin the Cypress. Apple went on a long walk to keep a meeting she had with an emerging species of monkey and wound up settling near a mountain range in the center of the continent. Soon the meadow was empty again, and Vecatra saw that it was good. They just had one more stop to make on this early Spring morning.
Meanwhile, back at the riverbank, Willow and Ash were having a great time gazing at the surface of the water and trying to count the fish swimming by. It wasn’t until the small birds took shelter under Ash’s branches that they noticed that the wind had picked up and that thunderheads were starting to gather overhead. Ash felt their heart race, and Willow was nervously flashing the white side of her leaves. Thunder boomed, distantly yet, as Willow tried to tug her feet from the sucking mud.
“Willow,” said the River, in a voice like an echo from a deep cave, “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know! We missed the meeting!” She replied.
“I think Vecatra is coming to us,” said Ash.
“Ash, Willow, listen,” said the River. “Have you not already chosen your places?” Willow stopped tugging at her feet to consider the question as a light rain began to fall. “Am I not a worthy place to grow?” asked the River. “Have courage. We will face Vecatra together. Let me help you.”
And so Willow and Ash buried their feet even deeper in the mud, toes becoming roots and reaching into the river bed. Water filled their trunks and branches, and swirled around their knees. Willow felt the River cool her anxious heart, and a sense of belonging suffused her spirit. Ash took a deep breath and looked at their friend, and together they faced the growing winds.
“Willow and Ash,” boomed the voice of thunder. “We missed you this morning!” “We…we already found our place,” said Willow.
“We didn’t want to trouble you,” said Ash.
“Are you sure?” asked the Thunder. “We could give you any place you want.” “We’re sure,” said Willow.
“Why would you not face us?” asked the Rain.
“Oh, hush,” said the River. “Am I not a face of Vecatra? I knew where they were and we have chosen their place together.”
There was a pause.
“So be it,” said the many faces of Vecatra together. “all is as it should be, and as it shall be. Willow and Ash, yours are the waterways. Guard them well.” And with that, they left in all their noisy splendor, and to this day Willow and Ash stand side by side near the rivers and streams of the world, cooling the water in summer and anchoring the banks in spring. The rivers strengthen the trees, feed them, and carry their seed. All is as it should be, and Vecatra sees that it is good.

A Folktale for Rowan

Long ago, there was a little cottage perched high up the side of a mountain. This mountain towered over a little village and only one steep little footpath wound down from the heights. In that cottage, a druid named Bridget lived with her chickens Ruis and Luis, and her lovely red cow Caorann.

So as all observant children know, few things can grow in the high mountains. But the rowan tree loves the rocky cliffs and the wind in her leaves, and folk called the tree flying Rowan because of this. As it happened, the Druid’s cottage had five flying rowan trees growing around it, and in the spring when the tree was in full bloom the frothy white petals made it look like her house was ringed in clouds. In the late Summer, these flowers would ripen into flame red berries and were the favorite treat of Caorann the cow, the chickens, and the Druid herself.

Now on the lower slopes of this mountain, was the finest grazing land for miles around, and Bridget would take her cow to those fields to let her eat her fill. But the villagers would also use these grazing lands for their own cows. For years the druid and the villagers were able to share this land. But the Druid, being wise in the way of the trees, knew that when her rowan trees had a bountiful summer harvest, the following winter would be a hard one; and that the snows would last near to April and the grass on the slopes would be thin and late. So the druid saved the rowan berries. She threaded them on a string and dried them in her rafters, she made them into jelly, jam, and pies.

The druid weathered the long hard winter and sated herself on the rowan jams and other saved summer crops. But hunger struck hard at the village below, and where there are hungry bellies, malefic spirits will come to fill them. Knowing this, the Druid turned once again to her protectors, the rowan trees. She remembered that her mother had taught her the rhyme:

“Red thread and Rowan tree make evil spirits (Malefic) lose their speed.”

So the druid tied charms of rowan twigs with red thread and hung them above her chicken coop, and around the neck of the cow, and on the lintels of every door and window in her home for protection. By night she burned a few rowan twigs to aid her in her divination spells and listened well to what the gods told her. Her divinations told her that a mob of villagers, possessed by hunger spirits would come to burn down her cottage under the light of the full wolf moon.

To prepare, The druid wet down the walls of her cottage and her barn and redoubled her charms and she set trip threads with alarm bells along the narrow path up the mountain and wove red yarn into nets that she strung from her Rowan trees. When the moon rose full behind the winter clouds, a mob from the village tromped up the winding mountain path to her cottage. Blinded by the might of spirits that possessed them, the villagers stumbled over the alarms, and the druid knew that her predictions had been true. As the mob approached her door, she hid among her rowan trees, just as the possessed villager came under their canopies, she whispered to her tree friends, and the roots rose to bind their feet, and the nets fell upon them from above. Thus captured, she drove the spirits out of the villagers and banished them from the world. Now clear of mind, she freed the hapless and hungry people and shared with them some of the food she had saved for winter. She gave each one a protection charm of rowan and told them to plant the seeds near their houses, and sent them back down the mountain. Soon the spring came and new rowans sprouted, and all was well for many more years.

The Silence after an Avalanche Fell

Eidr stood at the edge of the somber gathering, the weight of the cask of beer resting heavily on his shoulder. The funeral was a solemn affair, with mourners clad in dark furs and heavy cloaks, their breath forming frosty clouds in the frigid air. The bleak, rain-touched fall landscape served as a stark backdrop to the assembly, a reflection of the void left by Hallbjorn’s passing.

As he listened to the eulogies and laments of those around him, Eidr felt a profound sense of conflict within himself. It had been a long time since he had last taken on the mantle of a Skald, before his time in the unforgiving Rhimelands, before he had been forced to scavenge and fight for mere survival. In those days, he had roamed the harsh wilderness, far from the halls of poetry and song.

Now, as the Master of Coin of Runeheim, entrusted with the practical matters of the community, he felt that he had lost the right to call himself a Skald. The weight of responsibility had shifted from crafting verses, reading runes, and weaving tales to balancing ledgers and ensuring the clan’s economic stability. It had been a trade of skills, out of necessity, but it had left him feeling detached from the art of storytelling and the bardic tradition he had once held dear.

Eidr’s hands tightened around the cask of beer as he contemplated whether he had any right to stand before the assembly and recite the eddaic verses he had learned for the occassion. The verses, though etched in his memory, felt distant, like fragments of a past life. Doubts gnawed at his heart, whispering that he was no longer worthy to be called a Skald.

But as the ceremony continued, a deep sense of duty stirred within him. He could not deny the bonds of friendship that had connected him to Hallbjorn, and the promise he had made in the moonlit night, to honor his friend’s memory, weighed heavily on his soul. Eidr knew that, despite his changed role in the clan, he had a duty to pay homage to the fallen warrior in the most heartfelt way he could.

With this determination, Eidr steeled himself for the moment when he would step forward and share the poem he had prepared, knowing that even if his path had diverged from the art of the Skald, his heart remained tethered to the traditions and to the memory of his dear friend, Hallbjorn.

Eidr’s mind wandered back to the grim and fateful night previous, when he had first seen Hallbjorn’s lifeless body, surrounded by a circle of people, illuminated by the flickering firelight. The image was etched into his memory like a haunting painting. Hallbjorn’s chest bore the gruesome evidence of his demise—12 stab wounds, a grotesque testament to the brutality of his end. Worst of all, his heart had been ripped from his chest, a horrifying desecration of the fallen warrior.

As Eidr gazed upon the lifeless form of his friend, a seething rage had surged within him. His hands had clenched into fists as he watched Knut, another clansman, engaged in a one-on-one duel with the heretical enemy responsible for this vile act. The scene played out before him, and Eidr couldn’t comprehend why they allowed the wolf of slaughter the dignity of a duel, rather than descending as a united crowd to exact swift and brutal revenge.

He had expected the so-called heretic by the White Lion to pay dearly for the sacrilege of defiling Hallbjorn’s body. But as the duel unfolded, despair settled upon Eidr’s heart. The warrior, perhaps a coward in Eidr’s eyes, managed to evade the felling blows and slipped away like a wraith into the shrouds of the night, disappearing like smoke into the darkness. The grudge went unpunished, leaving Eidr and others with a gnawing sense of injustice, an unquenchable thirst for vengeance that was never sated.

In that moment, as he stood beside the fresh grave, with the echoes of the Eddaic poem still ringing in the cold air, Eidr couldn’t help but feel that the memory of Hallbjorn deserved more. His friend had been a warrior of unmatched valor, and the heretic’s vile act had gone unanswered.

After watching the enemy slip away into the night, with rage and despair gnawing at his soul, Eidr had retreated to the moonlit clearing he remembered so well. It was there that he had performed a ritual that was both an act of remembrance and a plea for justice in the afterlife.

In the quiet stillness of the clearing, he had sacrificed a fox, mirroring the gruesome manner in which Hallbjorn had met his end. The ritual had been a somber reflection of the depths of his emotions, with rage and despair mingling within him. Eidr had called out to Auvfaldr, the god of their traditional ways, beseeching the deity to grant Hallbjorn honor in the afterlife, despite the fact that his dear friend had followed the path of the White Lion God, Benalus. Eidr’s heart ached with the knowledge that their paths of faith had diverged, but he still sought to ensure Hallbjorn’s story and honor was preserved and that he received his rightful place among the Branded Men.

As he offered the fox’s life to Auvfaldr, the moonlight filtering through the trees seemed to cast an ethereal glow upon the clearing. Eidr’s voice had risen, fervent in its plea, and the very same Eddaic poem that he now considered reciting during the funeral had echoed through the woods. The words had flowed from him like a tribute to Hallbjorn’s legacy, a recollection of the Branding that had earned him the title of the Avalanche, a name that still rang through the hearts of Runeheim.

Eidr’s memories were a tapestry of emotions, intertwining with the traditions of his people and the unbreakable bond he shared with Hallbjorn. Now, as he prepared to share the Eddaic poem once more, he hoped that his story, his friend’s memory, and their shared history would be recorded among the annals of the Branded Men, so that future generations might know the tale of the Avalanche and the enduring friendship that transcended even the divisions of faith.

He spoke.

“Neath the mountain Einjallar, on the Wolfchaser river,
Winter’s ice thawing, the river-banks swelling,
As village-gates opened to spring’s first endeavors,
A wild man descended the rime-covered mountain.

He came to the meadhall, calling for guest-right.
His trunk as a barrel, limbs stout as tree-trunks.
The hair on his chest mixed with blood long forgotten.
Hallbjorn his birth-name, scion of Greywolf.

On the mountain he trained, through windstorm and blizzard,
The fire of his rage overcoming the winter.
His mentor surpassed, now he came to the lowlands
For bloodshed and glory, the hunt never-ending.

The men of the village met these words with a challenge,
The warrior’s way, a test of the stranger.
Should he prove himself strong against the warrior chosen,
Then he would be welcome, with shelter and feasting.

Seven men stood before him, the pride of the village.
As guest he could choose the one he must challenge.
Hallbjorn emptied his ale-horn and met them with laughter.
“Every one will I fight, and be done by the sunset!”

The circle was drawn, the warriors made ready,
Cast lots for the honor to be first to the blood-pit.
They took up their axes and sharpened their daggers,
Each eager to fell the arrogant stranger.

As the first fighter entered, the crowd roared to greet him.
Just as quickly the crowd fell back in stunned silence.
The mirthful great man, the wild man of the mountain,
Before them transformed to a terror of bloodshed.

The blood of the first still steaming, he pointed
To the second in line, and called him to come forward.
As a starving man given the key to the feast-hall
Was Hallbjorn when faced with the chance to do battle.

Seven entered the pit to bring down the stranger.
Seven men carted out, bloodied and broken.
Hallbjorn squinted against the sun not yet setting,
Looked to the crowd and called for more ale.
This was witnessed by Erik, the Skald branded Treehide.
In the feast after battle he stood and declared:
‘This unstoppable power that comes down the mountain,
I name thee the Avalanche, and call for the Branding!'”

The Metalli of Stragosa

Founding:
The Metalli of Stragosa were founded by three masters in the early days of the city, under Reichgraf Nemesis Dragomir.  These founders were Master Blacksmith Thorne Merkstave, Master Engineer Bakara Nefji, and Master Miner Borso.

Organization:
Master Borso was named Guildmaster, and has held this title since the beginning.  The first Charters were Blacksmithing and Engineering, but the Metalli also bought the Carpentry charter when the woodworking guild of Stragosa closed. Members include these three professions, as well as miners, hunters, and foresters.

Officers tend to be fluid, organized around the passions and interests of the officer rather than a strict schedule.  Some recent Officers have been Market Officer Edme, who set prices and made sales markets, Education Officer Corvo, who found books and trainers for their members, and Gathering Officer Luca, who organized the guild’s gatherers.

Dues: At least some of the rumors of wealth must be true: Metalli members famously pay no dues, as declared in the Guild Song, recorded below. Borso himself shows signs of wealth and generosity, giving to the church at each Convocation.

Responsibilities:  The Metalli make few actual demands on their members, opting to entice them with profits instead of give orders.  Imperial Law is followed: no noble vassals are permitted to join, all work is of good quality, and prices are fixed and published. In this way, they are similar to many local “merchant guilds” in other cities, accepting all members in order to show a united front when negotiating with the city.

In addition, most members participate in what the guild calls “Ventures”, which are cooperative profit-seeking projects where several artisans work together.  A system of credits and shares ensures that those who put in money or commodities are repaid, and profit is shared.  These large Ventures set aside a share for the guild itself, which is how it finances its own operations and spares its members from official Dues.

Reputation:
The Metalli are reputed to be the wealthiest organization in the valley, even more than the city itself according to certain rumors. They will tell you that they achieved their wealth by this cooperation profit sharing spirit.

Jealousy abounds in the city at the group’s wealth, but it comes also with a grudging respect at the guild’s accomplishments. The organization has survived three Grafs, and the loss of the city’s bursary when it was sacked by Njords.

Some strife exists with the Nobility on the guild’s inclusion of gatherers such as Borso himself (a miner), as well as foresters and hunters. The nobles of Stragosa Valley have more land than people to work it. And while no charter exists for these skills, those who hold the land would surely prefer to order their vassals rather than negotiate with merchants.

Goals and Motivation:
The Metalli often say that they wish to “Build Stragosa Strong”, probably recognizing that if the valley is not secure and prosperous, then neither can be any guild within it.
The Metalli deal most frequently (but not exclusively) with the Hestrali nobles, working their lands and building their projects. It may be that a secret alliance exists, or just that those who are comfortable with coin tend to be first to agree to the Metalli’s terms.

-Sticks and String

CW: Violence, Eye Trauma

It was a familiar dream, seen a hundred times and to be seen a hundred times more. He knew this, but still fear filled his gut like glowing lead. Hot, heavy, toxic, and lethal.
Snow swirled around him, burying him up to his ribs, and biting deep into the sopping wet cloths we wore. Yet still he ran. One foot in front of the other, he ran. Stillness was death, by cold or by blade, he knew that if he stopped, he would die.
And so a much younger Rosto ran, through thick drifts of snow and howling wind. Though freezing rain and ice capped streams. He ran from the images that would haunt him forever, he ran from the sounds of battle and bloodshed, he ran from the bodies of his family piled high like cords of firewood, he ran into the ice and snow and cold. He runs into Her arms.

Time passes and a young boy wrestles in the snow with a older man, a splintered bow and shattered ax littering the ice around them. The older man bleeds from an arrow ruining his left eye and the young boys face is marred from cheek to cheek by an horizontal ax wound that nearby bisects his nose. The boy is dying, he knows it in his bones, the cold bites deep into his flesh and he cant breath through his ruined nose and broken jaw. The older warrior is trying to squeeze the life from him, two hands wrapped around his throat. The boy does the only think he can, with his last breath, he screams into the cold void of death. A raw, ragged, primal scream, the last sound of despite life flinging it’s self into the frozen void.
The storm churns around them, and She watches on.

Rosto awakes from his nap, still nestled in the crook of the branch he had found a hour before, bow across his lap, and arrow knocked. The snow piled up on his skin and cloths not bothering him as he takes stock of what awoke him form his nightmare. Below him, a stag moves in the snow, silent as stalking cat. Rosto draws the nock to his cheek, sights down the shaft, and exhales a heatless breath.

Sticks and String, Ice and Cold, Simple things that separate the living from the dead.

Memories of a Humble Life

A few years ago

“Vernon, please slow down. You know I’m not as athletic as you” Valter ran to catch up with his friend, fumbling with a bag his mother gave him.
“Yeah, that’s cause you’re always at home with your ma cooking. If you came with any of the gatherers, especially the hunters, I’m sure that’d change real quick”
“There you two are, I was wondering how long everyone was going to wait,” Pasi and Kjeld stood waiting for their friends outside the door to a modest looking cabin.
“I had to convince this one pretty hard to check this out. You know how he worries” Vernon gave a friendly side-hug to Valter, who still seemed nervous about something.
“Yeah, when you said it was some adult thing you heard about, I was with you. Who knows, maybe there’ll be sparing or something” Kjeld punched his fist in excitement.
“F-Fighting? Vernon, you didn’t say anything about that” Vernon sighed.
“I don’t know, they might, but listen. We’ll make sure you don’t get hurt, okay? Right Pasi?”
“Yeah. We’re kinda taking you at your word here, Vernon, but we’re all friends. If something doesn’t feel right, we got each others back” Pasi patted Valter on the back.

They all entered the cabin and were welcomed warmly to this odd group. Members of many clans were there doing things from crafting, eating, some found the ears of other members and were speaking passionately to them, others were sparing in a makeshift fighting ring. Kjeld did pick a couple sparing matches and won about half of them, coming out a bit more bruised than he’d like. Vernon and Pasi were preached to about some pretty obtuse ideas, but some of it made sense to them. Vernon looked for Valter who was seen speaking to another member about his age off in a quite part of the cabin. He smiled as a sense of pride for his friend washed over him.

about 3 months later.

The four were sitting eating a mid-day snack out in the forest together. Since joining this strange group, Valter had started coming more out of his shell and joining the others in the forest.

“I’m excited for our next meeting. I’m hoping I can beat Bjorn this time” Kjeld hopped down onto a log and rummaged through his pack.
“Whenever you two fight, it’s always a bloody mess. I worry one of you isn’t going to make it out alive” Pasi chomped on her trail ration that Vernon’s mom made.
“That’s what Oddi says is the bettering of the soul. Facing your conflicts head on and pushing yourself to the limit” Vernon recalled, shooting a glance at Valter.
“I think that’s supposed to be less literal than what Kjeld does,” Valter mumbled through bites of rations. The others laughed. A smile grew on Valter’s face which then made Vernon smile even more.
“I just hope Hilda doesn’t try and kiss me again. I like talking with her, but she seems to think I want something more. I just like that someone likes doing things at the camp as much as I do” Valter thought out loud, the others listening politely along.
“Yeah, someone just as odd as our Valter” Kjeld ruffled Valter’s hair.
“What, and you’re normal?” Vernon chided.
“For some clans, yes” Kjeld rebutted.
“We’re all a little odd, let’s be honest. That’s what makes us wonderful, though” Pasi intervened.
They all smiled and continued eating their rations.

Present time.

Vernon sat, alone, on a log near a river, reminiscing on these times as he stared into the rushing water. They started creeping back into his mind more and more now as he settled into his new life in Runehiem. He hoped if ever he saw his old friends again, things would be like this again. He had a pit of doubt in his chest that this would not be the case, however.

The Woodsman’s Hope

((Sentences or parts of sentences in all capitals seem to be written by a much more frantic and chaotic hand))

The warm summer sun shone down through the verdant canopy as a woodsman, new to this particular area, trudged on through the underbrush. There was a bit of a reprieve from the hotter-than-normal summer Njordir was having in the cool shade of the forest just outside Runehiem, but the evidence of hard work and exertion showed on this man’s clothes and brow. His pack, filled with materials gathered from the land, weighed on his shoulders, albeit still a burden he could bare. His clan taught him well the value of hard work and respect for the land. He ventured toward the top of a hill deep in the woods in search of a vantage point to get a lay of this new land, as well as a place to sit to enjoy his hand-made trail rations.

As he shifts through the brush, steps over fallen trees and rocks, and skips over small sinkholes, he thinks back on his parents. They were so caring and knowledgeable in their craft and taught him much raising him. HE’S JUST SO DISAPPOINTED THAT THEY HAD TO BREAK THE FAMILY APART. They taught him the best mixture of nuts, berries, flour, honey, and just a bit of animal fat to make these trail rations just the right thing for a hungry gatherer. All he’s learned in life has been from either his parents or his clan, EXCEPT VIOLENCE. He still misses them, EVEN THOUGH THEY DID THE UNTHINKABLE. As the woodsman sits on a fallen log atop the hill to enjoy his trail rations, he looks out into the forest and hopes he continues to make friends in this new village. For the short time he’s been here, it’s felt more and more like home AND WHERE HE BELONGS. He sees new paths forming toward bright futures, and not only the one involving taking a priestly vow. As he’s dwelling on the new friends he’s made, he finishes his trail rations and is ready to venture forth again.

He looks back from where he came, and a small ephemeral bird darts across his sight line. It was so quick, even the trained woodsman couldn’t fully catch it. He looks toward where it went and is met with just the typical sight of the dense foliage with several rays of sun piercing through the canopy for illumination. A voice stirs in his mind, “I HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR LIFE, EVERY ASPECT OF IT”. He blinks a few times and shakes his head. For good measure, he takes a drink from his water skin, and tries to focus on the voice again. Nothing but the chirping of the birds, the buzzing of insects, and, in the distances, the soft rushing of the river. He says a brief prayer for safety and turns to make his way back to his work and to town. This incident sits uneasy in his mind, BUT AS SOON AS HE LEAVES THE FOREST AND GETS BACK TO TOWN, IT IS OF LITTLE CONCERN TO HIM. He finds peace in his community and the act of helping them with their needs.

Over the next few weeks, during days when he ventures not into the wilderness, the woodsman is found practicing archery in whatever suitable open area is available, mostly out of preparation for the next season’s hunt BUT ALSO YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOURSELF. His thoughts, again, drift back to his parents. His mother was such a dependable hunter and member of the clan, BUT SUCH A DISAPPOINTMENT IN THE END. The clan trusted her with many a folkwise and leaned on her frequently for food and clothing for the winter. WHY DID SHE HAVE TO DO IT? WHY? WHY? WHY? The woodsman, gathering his arrows from his last volley, had tears welling up in his eyes. He wiped his eyes, nocked another arrow, and took just a second to aim. Just before he let the arrow fly, he closed his eyes and let images of hope fill his mind. Next he opened his eyes, he was met with the arrow jutting from the center of the makeshift target. “The light of Benalus is the gateway to hope, the road to salvation. I feel I have hope, so I must be on the right road,” The woodsman mumbles to himself.

Demon of the Rime

This place is more cold and desolate than you could have warned me. I haven’t seen any living foliage other than towering evergreen trees in nearly five months. Snow covers every inch of this hellscape and continues to fall during the nights. Our force has slowly waded our way through spring snow towards the Rime clan front lines, though where they have gone since the initial report has yet to be confirmed. We number nearly forty fire mages accompanying a larger force of troops. I must say, our numbers should easily overwhelm a nomadic force of Njords.

We rose before dawn to signs of a smoking fire over the ridge. Our quarry had been found, and we readied our formations to march upon our enemy.

Even in my months here I have never acclimated to the way my feet drag through the snow on a march. The cold numbs the pain of my thighs dragging me forward up the slope. At the crest of the hill I could finally see them, maybe 200 men around an intentionally dying fire. My breathe slowed as my eyes fell upon him, a creature of immense size towering above his men. His eyes shown red through his skull covered face, large bony spikes protruding from his shoulders. Murmurs among the men started; we had found a Rime clan demon.

Our troops clashed upon the open snow quickly stained red by the carnage of battle. This demon crushed men before us, cleaving them in two with an unnatural ease. My ears rang as my unit repeatedly cast on our enemy. His men slowly fell before us, but as did ours in even greater numbers slowly dwindling to nothing.

He stood there before what was left of us, alone. I could sense it, this impending despair and recognition of our desperation to live.

‘Deflagrate Ignis et Auctorita Luminos Dextera ex Anima Solarius Praepotentia’

Unflinching, his skin crackles and burns away slowly.

‘Deflagrate Ignis et Auctorita Luminos Dextera ex Anima Solarius Praepotentia’

The wind rips through the battlefield, crackling with the scent of burnt air. I wipe away at my eyes, my sleeves stained with bloody tears.

He crushes Alexi’s skull in his hand and his body falls limp to the ground.

‘Deflagrate Ignis et Auctorita Luminos Dextera ex Anima Solarius Praepotentia. Deflagrate Ignis et Auctorita Luminos Dextera ex Anima Solarius Praepotentia. Deflagrate Ignis et Auctorita Luminos Dextera ex Anima Solarius…..

His hands closed around my throat as he heaves my body off the ground.

Praepotentia.
An inferno engulfs us both. Screams of agony rise as flesh melts away from bone. And then, there is only silence.

Prologue: The Raid on Vissvind

The barracks in Vissvind was warm, almost stuffy from the bodies crammed inside it. The garrison had swelled recently as tales from the north had heralded a renewed war against the Rime Clans. But the tales were distant and muddled. There weren’t enough trainers for the new recruits and Arne found himself running awkward drills for the new blood.

His arms were sore from fresh effort after years of mostly gentle guard duty for King Einsland. He rubbed them absently and stood, stepping outside for some fresh air despite the bitter cold. The days blended into one another. Guard duty at the north gate. Guard duty at the south watchtower. Guard duty at the port. Training in between. Sleep in a hay bed. Bread and occasionally fish to eat. It wasn’t a bad life, but Arne sometimes wished for real battle. The dreams of his youth. Earning a Name.

Arne’s eyes wandered to the horizon where a lazy curl of smoke ascended into a darkening sky. He followed its pattern absently, marveling at the freedom of wisps as they defied the pull of the earth. And then he shook his head. Smoke on the horizon. The guard at the north tower saw it a split second after and the alarm bell rang. Arne was about to get his wish.

*****

Blood spackled Arne’s raven helm as his axe bit deep into the neck of Rimelander before him. Hollow Song, he noted with disgust. The torn faces hanging from the dying man’s belt perfectly exhibited the evil that Arne was fighting. The boy fell, Arne swiftly pivoted to deflect a heavy hammer blow from a raider with filed teeth before that opponent was impaled by spears.

Thirty five years. That’s how long since the Rimelanders broke their oaths. They had been allowed to fester on the fringes for too long. Arne shattered the knee of a bearlike oathbreaker and wrenched his axe free with a sickening crunch. Like chopping wood, he mused with a tinge of dark humor. He stepped over the man as his companions finished him off and surveyed the battlefield. He could see the signs of rout already in the enemy’s movements. Subtle hesitations, a pause too long while they seemingly looked for a new opponent.

And then one of them ran. Arne grinned to himself at the inevitable cascade and joined in the infectious roar of victory with his comrades.

He stopped cheering before the others. Hollow Song this far south was a rarity. Overturner’s report of the Rime Clan Althing was now public knowledge, though it was difficult to tell what was true and what was embellished. Apparently, a new clan called the Sons of Ulfrandr had tried to force others into following their mad, bestial god in the same way the Bearking had united the clans long ago. But the Rime Clans had proven as fractious and treacherous as ever, most abandoning the Althing and their traditions.

With their renewed internal conflict came more raids to the south. This had been one of those and while Arne’s own Frostravens had hurried to the aid of this settlement, the smoldering wreckage of homes and blood on the snow revealed the true danger of the raids- their speed. Arne absently touched the leonem hanging from his neck and offered a prayer to White Benalus to help guide the fallen and protect them from Sveas.

A call from his companions broke his reverie. The glory of battle was over, but the Church taught that was only the beginning of their labor. Now comes the rebuilding. Hefting a fallen beam over his shoulder, Arne rejoined his band and got to work.

Do You Like Honey Tarts?

“Miss Clodagh, what is for dessert at the dinner party?” Rosomon asked in excitement as she watched the woman’s gnarled hands knead dough. She and the other staff had been preparing all week. A guest would be visiting, and the entire estate was in a tizzy.

“‘Tis a secret, little Rose.”

Rosomon’s eyes lit up at the nickname, “Mother said not to call me that…”

“Hah!” The woman laughed, “And do you always do what the Lady says?”

The girl’s lips broke into a full smile, knowing full well that she did not.

“Ach, I won’t be telling ye,” she insisted. Looking at the girl a moment she said, “But I will give ye a hint on somethin’ else.” Clodagh set the dough aside to rise again then turned to pull a quill and parchment from a drawer. Rosomon watched her curiously, wondering what sort of hint it would be.

Clodagh returned and handed her a paper, “Here ye are.”

Rosomon looked at the paper:

Hares & Boars
Nuts & Berries
Ye’ll Not Know
What We’re Makin
Til You Figure
Out The Writin

Her eyebrows furrowed, “This is not a hint!”

“Ah, everythin in this life is a hint – ye just need t’ solve the puzzle.” With that, the woman turned back to her craft.

Rosomon hopped off the counter and moved to a stool in the corner as another cook came in to assist Clodagh. She stared at the poem, rereading it over and over. Eventually she went through the side door into the garden. As she paced she noticed the misplaced punctuation makes. At first he had thought them ink droplets, but now they began to seem intentional. Dots, letters, dots, letters – her mind worked to make the connection. How could dots give her a hint?

“Ah ha!” Rosomon ran back into the kitchens to find Clodagh alone again. “Honey Tart!”

She turned to look at the girl, excited eyes and breathing heavily as if she had just run across an entire field. “Aye.” With that, she moved to an oven to pull out a tray. Dishing out the fresh pastries onto a plate before moving back to the girl still standing in the doorway, she bent to kiss the child’s head, “Happy Birthday, little Rose.”

The girl hugged her again for a minute.

“Now, get goin – I’ve got a lot to do and not a lot of time,” Clodagh shoos her out.

Rosomon takes the plate runs back out of the door. She ran across the bailey, hoping to find a cozy place to enjoy the tarts. Not looking where she was going, Rosomon ran into a pair of legs. She followed them up to see a tall man covered by a dark fur mantle. Everything he wore was dark, except for the grey peppered at his temples. His hair was pulled back, and she could not tell how long it was.

“Pardon me,” she said with a smile, still excited about her treat and solving the puzzle.

The man looked down at her curiously but did not look away. She was small, but he thought she may be older than he had initially thought. Flying through the bailey without a care as she had, the man figured she was probably not as demur as her father would have liked.

“Do you like honey tarts?” she queried.

“Pardon?” he replied in a deep voice.

“Honey tarts – do you like them?”

“Indeed – who would not?”

The girl held up her plate to him and said very seriously, “As an apology, sir, I would split them with you. I can assure you, they will be the best you have had.”

His lip tweaked. Sir? What an interesting child. “Apology accepted,” he said as he reached to grab his tart.

She watched him expectantly as he took the first bite, “Well?”

He simply nodded to her.

“Are you visiting? I can show you around.”

“I am, but exploring will have to wait. Can you direct me to the Baron?”

He watched the girl deflate a little, “Of course.” She grabbed his hand and started pulling him along. “Mr. Hayworth, will you please stable this man’s horse?” She did not notice to look in the man’s eyes as he froze watching them pass. “I am Rosomon, by the way.”

They ascended the steps. He opened the door for her, “It is a pleasure, Rosomon. I’m – “

The Baron’s hurried footsteps sounded through the entry. “Count!”