It was a cool night, but then it was cool every night in Hoelbrak. That was the way the norn liked it, mostly because it kept their ale frosty, and I was no different. I sat at the open air bar enjoying the cool breeze and my frothing ale. It was well into the night, and the air was filled with raucous of happy, drunk norn and the crackling undertones of the flaming fire pit.
‘Another, Georgie?’ asked the barkeep, Vheratha.
‘Fill me up!’ I said with a grand gesture.
After a long day of laboring it felt nice to get drunk. Music started playing from nearby the fire pit and I decided to take my drink and enjoy the festivities. I’d maybe even have a dance, if I got drunk enough. I received my freshly filled mug and thanked the barkeep with my coin. As I stepped away from my seat a figure bashed into me, and I was repelled backwards by his enormous form, my ale splattering across the floor and over me. I growled angrily.
I wiped the sopping froth off my clothes.
‘You should watch where you’re going, rabbit,’ a voice growled back. I looked up to see a towering bear of a man. His oversized shoulders were extremely muscular, and his face was worn with battle scars. His dark hair spilled over his shoulders and his goatee was braided, a typical fashion of young adventuring norn. He was a fearsome sight, but I had tangled with his sort before; all brawn and no wit.
‘Clearly the Snow Leopard never gifted you with grace. You lumber clumsily like a wild minotaur,’ I sneered back. He merely scoffed in reply.
I was eager to beat some respect into him. Norn always responded the same way to me. Many made the dangerous mistake of not taking me seriously. Not because I was a woman, but rather because of my appearance. My shoulders were too petite, and my frame too lithe. My fair hair and lake blue eyes did not help either. I had been called a great beauty by a traveling human, but to norn I was simply unintimidating. However those who made the mistake of crossing me, rarely made the same mistake twice, and soon I was going to beat the same lesson into this brute.
‘You are like a mutt; all bark and no bite!’ he sneered back at me.
‘Come and see just how hard I bite!’ I growled, tossing my mug to the side. The brute’s lip curled and he began cracking his knuckles.
The tavern fell silent and all that could be heard was the hanging banners flapping in the winter winds. The patron’s eyes were on us, for they knew what was to come. Many of them had been raring for a good bar bash-up all week, and all they needed was for one of us to throw the first punch and Vheratha’s Tavern would become a brawling pit.
We stared at each other and then the brute chuckled. I gritted my teeth as my temper flared and I tensed my fist, preparing it for the impact.
Then a distant voice cut through the tense atmosphere.
‘We ask for volunteers! We need strong and able arms to carry stretchers, and those who know the mending arts to help those who are injured!’
My concentration was diverted. Perhaps there had already been a brawl at another Tavern. Though it would have had to be grave indeed if they were carrying people off in stretchers, and calling for healers. Normally they’d just leave the drunk on the floor to sleep it off.
I still held the brute’s gaze, knowing that if I looked away he could try and land the first swing.
‘Refugees from Dolyak Pass and Hunter’s Lake are in need of aid. Some are gravely injured,’ the voice continued.
The brute flinched and our glare was broken. We looked around to see the crowd had parted for a distressed norn.
‘What is it Ulof?’ Vheratha asked over the bar.
‘News from the Foothills. There has been some sort of attack. Refugees are flooding in. They are in desperate need of aid and the Wolfborn guards cannot tend them all. They are asking for volunteers.’
‘Speak man, where are the refugees?’ the brute demanded.
‘By the Brawler’s Bout, between Bear and Wolf’s lodges,’ the norn said.
The brute strode out of the tavern without another glance at me. The crowd of bar patrons grumbled as they realized there was to be no brawl. However, a few faces looked concerned by the news, and many of them followed the brute out.
From Vheratha’s Tavern, which was situated on a ledge overlooking Brawler’s Bout (the great flame in the center of Hoelbak), we could see a string of flickering lights in the distance. As it slowly snaked forward I realized it was a somber procession of battered Norn and lumbering dolyaks. Despite the distance I could see many were hobbling and there were faint snatches of children’s wailing on the winds. I gasped in horror at the sheer number of them.
I slowly made my way down the ledge to the makeshift camp that had been set up. There were many animal skin tents, but it was clear that there was not enough to house everyone. Children and adult alike sat in the snow, or makeshift hay flooring, their dull eyes downcast. The shrieks of babies as mother tried to calm their children, and the clatter of wood as bowls of hot soup were passed out could be heard all around me.
A norn’s pride was sacred, so help was given wordlessly, as if it wasn’t a choice for the receiver. I silently took the place of a weary stretcher bearer, and he nodded before hobbling over to the fire pit. The stretcher bore an unconscious older norn, who’s leg was badly injured. As we set him down, a young mender hurried over to inspect him. The man who had carried the front of the stretcher sat down next to the injured man and held his head in his hands.
‘You should get some soup,’ the mender said to the man gently.
‘No,’ he said, his words muffled by his hands. ‘I have to be here when he wakes up. I have to tell him his mate didn’t make it.’
I helped the mender bandage wounds, and carry stretchers through the night, but the number of injured was ever growing and the space for them quickly diminishing. As I took a swig of water to ease my exhaustion, I looked across the camp to see a young norn boy. His face was smeared with soot and wet streaks ran down his face. He was looking around, frantically searching the faces of every norn that passed him.
‘Child,’ I said loudly. He looked around and I beckoned for him to come over. He tried to hide his tears by wiping his face on his sleeve before slowly walking over to me.
‘Are you hurt?’ I asked.
He shook his head.
‘Then are you lost?’ I persisted.
He silently nodded.
‘When we are lost, norn do not cry young one,’ I said as gently as I could. ‘We pray to Bear for courage, and ask Raven for guidance.’
He nodded again, and spoke in a hoarse voice.
‘I can’t find my parents. My homestead was destroyed so I thought I would find them here, but they are not.’
‘Crying will not help you find your parents. Come, let us look for them together,’ I said, patting him firmly on the back. He sniffed deeply and nodded.
We wandered through the camp, his eyes flitting from norn to norn, but as we walked his face grew increasingly drawn.
‘Do you see anything familiar to you child?’ I asked, but he shook his head.
‘Maybe they’re not here,’ he said weakly. ‘Maybe they’re still at the homestead.’
‘Kesgir!’ a voice called. The child perked up and whirled around. A tall, muscular man hobbled towards us. He had black hair held back by a cloth band and his brushy bread was braided into three. ‘Kesgir, we found you,’ he said, relief in his voice.
‘Engar!’ the child said, obviously recognizing the norn. ‘Have you seen my parents?’
‘There is time for that later, my child. For now go sit with Yier and Mastulf,’ he said, gesturing two children huddling up with a female norn, obviously their mother. The boy nodded and smiled weakly at me before running into the wide arms of the female norn.
‘Thank you for accompanying him. I am Engar,’ he said with a small nod.
‘And I am Georgie Bearclaw. Tell me, what has happened? In the confusion I have heard little about the attack.’
‘It was as if the sky itself was falling, and the ground was shuddering with rage. I don’t know who attacked us, but our homestead crumbled and amongst the flames there were so many bodies. Many of us didn’t make it.’ He looked to Kesgir, who was now eating hot soup with the other children. ‘His parents perished protecting their homestead. They fought heroically.’
‘What will become of him?’ I asked quietly.
‘His father and I were the greatest of friends, we lived close to each other in Dolyak Pass. I will take him in as if he was my own blood, and tell of his parent’s legends. They will not be forgotten,’ he said solemnly. ‘Thank you again friend,’ He said giving me a curt nod before returning to his exhausted family.
Over the next week I spent my time aiding the refugees as best I could. Many norn wanted to rise from their stretchers and fight the invaders despite their wounds. It took a firm hand to keep them down.
‘Recover now so you can grow your legend in glorious battle,’ I would say firmly. ‘You may die with honor, but there is more glory in surviving as a hero!’
While this kept most of the injured refugee norns from pursuing death, there was much talk in Hoelbrak of norn heading north to fight the mysterious invaders. Every afternoon when I visited the tavern, many would boast loudly that they would go and slay the evil and return home, legends.
As the sun set on the last day of a full week since the refugees arrived I decided I too should head north and face the invaders. My legend was still yet to be made and this seemed like a good opportunity to make a name for myself.
The next day I dug out my heavy armour from my chest, as well as my mace and shield. I left through the east gate of Hoelbrak and entered the Wayfarer Foothills. I took a deep breath of fresh air and looked around. Apart for a few refugees milling on the outskirt of the town, everything looked normal. The forest was calm, and the merchants were hawking their wares to passing travelers.
I followed the road north, and as I passed into the snow laced forest, a Lionguard stopped me.
‘Another adventurer heading north I see. I warn you, I have seen bigger norn than you come back with their tail between their legs.’
‘I will not be so easily broken,’ I snapped and surged forward.
I continued walking north, steaming about the Lionguard’s words. I would show them all just how strong I could be. When I return to Hoelbrak I’d be able to boast of my glory and put them all in their place. As I walked the snow sprinkled path I noticed something glittering a short way off the road. I frowned and went to inspect it. It was a sword blade jutting out from the snow, but as I dusted it off I realized to my horror it was attached to the sword belt of a body lying face down. After a few moments I steeled myself and rolled over the body. It was an elderly norn. His face was pale, and the icy snow had preserved him so it looked like he was only sleeping. He had obviously stumbled in fatigue and died from the cold last night. I wondered how many other refugees had found a similar fate. Perhaps his family was looking for him. As painful as it was, I dusted off his snow flecked features and left him there. The snow would continue preserve his body, and I wouldn’t disrespect his memory by burying him in an unmarked grave.
The road was dotted with signs for refugees who were heading to Hoelbrak, and sometimes I would pass camps set up for refugees to stop and rest. There were so many drawn faces, and while I wanted to know more about the mysterious invaders, asking them to relive their sadness seemed too cruel. By the afternoon I could see Twinspur Haven in the distance and decided I would rest within its walls for the night. Perhaps the refugees that rested there would be more willing to share their story.
As I arrived at the gate I saw a boy and a Lionguard exchanging words.
‘You cannot travel alone child. It’s too dangerous. If the Svanir don’t get you then the invaders will,’ the Lionguard barked. ‘I’ll get a guard to escort you back to Hoelbrak.’
The boy looked distressed and his eyes flickered around until our gaze connected.
‘Kesgir!’ I exclaimed.
The boy jumped backwards.
‘You know this boy?’ the Lionguard asked, raising his eyebrow beyond the rim of his helmet.
‘She’s traveling with me!’ the boy said hastily, before I could reply. I glanced at Kesgir blankly, and he winced. He looked absolutely desperate.
I sighed, and nodded. The Lionguard clearly didn’t believe Kesgir’s terrible attempt of a lie but as another group of refugees passed by he clearly had other things to worry about. He shrugged and hurried to help the passing group.
I grabbed Kesgir’s arm and pulled him to the side.
‘What are you doing here? Where is Engar?’ I hissed.
‘I left. I have to go back home,’ he cried.
‘What? Why?’ I asked, taken aback by his desperate attitude.
‘Engar said my parents are dead, but he’s lying. I don’t believe him. They must be still at the homestead.’
I sighed and put a gentle hand on his shoulder.
‘Go home Kesgir. Engar cares for you like a son. He wouldn’t lie to you.’
‘No!’ Kesgir shrugged off my hand. ‘I am going home!’
His eyes flickered with ferocity and I knew nothing would convince him.
‘Fine young one. I will take you,’ I said.
Kesgir’s eyes widened in shock, but then relaxed with relief.
‘Thank you,’ he breathed.
‘Hmm,’ I murmured.
As we entered the haven I looked in the direction our journey would take us. The blackened clouds pulsated and I realised we were heading straight into a gathering storm.