Moving with caution, Helena edges forward as I raise my rifle to provide some cover just in case the encounter turns bad. The shadowy figure staggers away from the tree and turns in our direction, gasping as he catches sight of Helena, tries to take a step back but stops and sways before starting to topple. Helena closes fast, catching the scruff of his shirt to pull him up whilst using her other hand to grab under his arm.
“He’s out cold,” she reports.
I let out a breath and lower my rifle, conscious of my trigger hand trembling slightly. Is this relief that I feel?
Helena sweeps the man up and dumps him over her shoulder. “A human,” she says as she turns to face me. “Old bear?”
“Yes?” I reply, startled from the act of staring at my hand. “A human,” I reaffirm.
Helena surveys the surrounding area, clearly not bothered by her burden. “There is another here. It’s a child by the look of him.”
With personal doubts forgotten I step past Helena and spy a smaller figure lying in the snow. It is so small. Shouldering my rifle I stoop and nudge it gently, but there are no signs of life. Pulling back the collar – which I note is embellished with a fine swirling pattern – I place my finger against the child’s neck.
“There is a pulse. It is ragged, but it is there.”
“We need to get them warm; they are ill-equipped to suffer this cold,” Helena states. She is calm and ever the practical one. “We should return home.”
I marvel at such a small thing, lifting it easily and cradling it like a sleeping infant in one arm then turn to follow Helena, when my foot knocks against something hard. Crouching, I find a strange metallic box, half buried by the snow. A curious smell reaches my nostrils when I pick it up. It is an odd looking box, blackened most likely by fire and fitted out with an array of what I suspect are switches. Whatever it is, or was, it is getting too dark to examine closely, so I tuck it under my arm and head off after Helena before she can think to scold me for my delay.
“Old bear!” she calls back. “They will freeze to death in the least if you do not hurry.”
Never mind, too late it seems.
The lodge is her legend. It beckons with the promise of a roaring fire, of song and cheer. It is a home worthy of the Spirits themselves. Enchanted by the songs of her elders, Helena had listened well to the voices that sang of a timeless beauty in the old homelands of the north, and one line had struck true in her heart: tall spires brush the sky blue. The tall spires of which the old songs told were the hardy Cypress and even to this day young norn learn of how the tree coaxes snow to fall from the clouds.
With this image fixed in her mind, Helena had gone north with a small band of norn and they brought back great Cypress boles, towed by teams of Dolyak. Many were lost on the trip, lost to ice and snow that serves a master beyond nature and in recognition of this feat she built her home using the Cypress wood they had reclaimed – a legend to welcome all.
So it is now that she presses her shoulder to the great door, easing it open and entering the warm orange of the fire-lit hall and I follow, letting the snow blow across the stone floor in our wake.
“Take them to our room,” Helena instructs. “Pile furs and keep them warm whilst I prepare a broth.”
I take the man from her shoulder without comment, noting that he is almost as light as the child in my other arm. Crossing the hall I wend my way through and around assorted furniture and wooden carvings, most of which I would normally stop to admire, so frequent are the additions – some gifts, some Helena’s efforts – but tonight my mind is distracted by the task in hand. The lodge is not that big, at least not as big as its heart, and within moments I have passed through heavy drapes which separate the rooms, to rest my charges upon a great fur strewn bed. The light in the room is poor, served only by that which escapes from the hall beyond through the cracks of the curtain, although as I lay the child down I see clearly then he is not a he at all, just a girl with hair hacked so short it frames her peaceful face like a tightly drawn hood. For some reason this makes me laugh and I cannot stop, quiet at first, rising quickly to become a great belly-shaking mirth that brings tears to my eyes and scarce chance to catch my breath. Oh, but this feels good and even Helena offers a curious smile as she enters carrying a small iron pot.
“You are feeling better then,” she says, placing the pot to one side and pulling furs across the two still forms.
Damn, she knows me too well. The laugher has had its effect though and I set about wrestling a few extra thick blankets from shelves at the back of the room to cover our guests. The uncertainty of my own quiet fear recedes completely as I consider new thoughts.
“I wonder where they are from,” I muse.
Helena nods. “And how they got here.”
“Magic of some kind?” Even as I offer the idea for consideration I realise how crass this sounds, but Helena only shrugs as she finishes arranging the bedding.
“We should send for help first thing.” Helena straightens, tapping the iron pot with her foot. “I don’t think they’ll be eating much of this right now.”
“It is a curious affliction, though they seem to be at peace,” I comment.
Helena nods thoughtfully before turning to face me. “Bring the pot. We may as well not waste supper and all this thinking is hungry work.”
Picking up the pot, I glance once more at our strange guests. They look so content, despite the nature of their dramatic arrival, but so still. I often lie awake at night, watching Helena as she sleeps and even then I can see she is active in her dreams, pursuing life to the full. You would be forgiven for thinking that these two, bar some colour to their cheeks, were scant hours past their last breath.
“Come on, old bear.” Helena motions and I shuffle after her, letting the curtain across the door fall back into place as we return to the hall.
“Let’s eat outside,” I say. The pot is still warm to the touch and I feel like I need the freshness of the night air to cool my thoughts.
Placing an empty bowl to one side, I lean back on the long single step that leads up to the front of the lodge. The broth was good, having been cooking slowly all day, and I savour the rich after-taste. Helena leans into my arm as we both take in the solace offered by night. The sounds of the forest at our doorstep play out a familiar performance: lone animal calls punctuate the air with an abruptness that startles the unwary, sometimes close by and others at a great distance, lending the animal voice a lonely quality.
We both turn, surprised by the interruption and even more surprised to find one of our guests standing in the doorway. The man shuffles forward, one of the blankets pulled tightly around his shivering frame. I glance at Helena who is already rising from the step, pulling herself free from my arm. Reluctantly I let go and stand, slowly so as not to startle the human who still seems incredibly wary of our presence.
“Where am I?” he asks.
Helena speaks first, “Our home.” She remains in one place, obviously not wanting to add to his discomfort. “You are quite safe,” she adds and I nod in agreement.
“You are norn?” he asks, although it is clear he knows this just as well.
I nod again. “Yes, we are norn. Who are you?”
“I…” He trails off and his brow furrows with intense concentration. “I- I am not really sure.”
As the man sways slightly I fear that he will topple again. “Let’s go inside,” I suggest. Stepping up next to our guest I realise just how small he seems in comparison and just how frightened he must be feeling in our presence and his current condition. He does not protest as I guide him back through the doorway and into the relative comfort of the lodge hall.
Once seated the man clutches the blanket at his chin, which I note bears no more than a day’s growth of stubble. Helena stokes embers in a dying fire and feeds it fresh wood, and the man edges closer to the fire.
“It’s so damn cold here,” he smiles weakly as another violent shiver wracks his tiny body.
“You are not well,” Helena states simply. “I doubt you would suffer as much if your body were in a healthy condition.” Dumping another log on to the flames as they take hold, she dusts her hands and studies the man closely. He seems unaware of her scrutiny, content to nestle inside the blanket. In return I watch them both. Helena is more wary now, guarded, and I trust her instincts when it comes to reading other folk. I itch to find out more about his and the child’s mysterious appearance but as Helena would say: clouds are full of rain; you just need to poke them in the right way to get the water out. I swear she’d make a great shaman one day, given she has more wise sayings than a tavern full of elders. I chuckle at this thought and they both look at me, Helena raising her eyes in mock derision and the man just staring at me like a startled deer.
“Where are we? I mean, where exactly?” he finally asks after a long embarrassing moment of silence.
“Shiverpeaks,” I reply. “We’re not too far south of the Icesteppes and a little east of the Shadowhorns – about a day’s trek.”
“I’ve never heard of those places. Are we close to Hoelbrak?”
“Well, you wouldn’t be able to hit it with a barrel from here, no.” The man does not seem to find this amusing and even I can see the worry written as plain as day all over his face. “It’s a fair distance to Hoelbrak,” I placate. “But it’s not too hard going if you know the way.”
The man nods and then seems to slump. “Would you be able to take me there?”
I begin to reply, “Sure, but what about your-”
“We would be happy to,” Helena cuts in. “I have need of supplies from Hoelbrak and once you are fit enough to make the journey, we shall. Now I suggest that you get some rest.”
The man nods. “Thank you.” He rises to his feet a little unsteadily and shuffles back toward the bedroom. Before he passes through the curtain he turns to face us. “Sorry to be such trouble.”
Helena dismisses him with a wave. “No bother, really. Rest and we’ll talk more in the morning.” Nodding again he ducks through the curtain.
I turn to Helena, the question already forming on my lips and she shakes her head before pointing at the main doors.
Snow falls heavily now, fast enough to have already deposited a layer upon the wooden steps. I watch flakes rush through the glowing penumbra of a lantern as Helena follows me out, gently closing the door behind us.
She steps to my side. “What about his child indeed-”
“But that is what I was going to ask,” I begin to complain before Helena shakes her head again.
“I know, my love.” She sighs and stares out into the darkness. “Does it not strike you as odd that he has an urgency to get to Hoelbrak, when he cannot even remember his name?”
Oh, I mouth silently. “You have a point. But why not ask about his child?”
“Clouds are full of rain, my love. Full of rain.”
Of course they are, I think to myself.