It was hard for me to admit, but I kept underestimating norn ale, or so this numbing pain told me. The cheap beer that Kára and Vadi enjoyed so much tasted nothing like the ale back at the citadel. Where true charr drought stung with every sip, this one was soothing to the throat, and so I drank more of it than I should have, making my headache the following day all the more embarrassing. My head swam, making every step a challenge requiring my focus or I’d fall over.
Even though the greater part of the blizzard’s fury had passed, ravaging the homestead while we drank and sang, snow continued to fall heavily around us, erasing our tracks as we went. During my travels through the Shiverpeaks, I had learned this: charr were not meant to live in the snow. At first, I thought my fur would keep me warm. Although it did help me against the cold, it was also an ideal place for snowflakes to hold a mass convention. Flakes would turn to clusters. The clusters would turn to a sheet of white, and my body heat would melt it, drenching me from my snout to the tip of my tail.
Let me rephrase that: It was an ideal place for snowflakes to hold a mass melting suicide, but they gathered in numbers anyway.
“I’m really grateful you made this fur coat and clothing for me,” I muttered to Kára who was walking next to me.
She looked at me with a bit of surprise before answering, “Are you kidding? I could not let you go out clothed just in your own fur. Besides, you repaid us, and then some by helping with the hunting.”
“Yea, well…” I shrugged, “I am still grateful.”
A smile crept on to her face as she stared into the distance.
“There will be more snow coming,” she stated, changing the subject in the blink of an eye. I arched an eyebrow at her.
“Tell me,” I said slowly, “what do you mean? Will the snow keep falling, or will the snowfall intensify?”
“Both,” she replied with concern written all over her face.
“Should we try and find a shelter?”
“No,” Kára said with a shake of her head. “We better keep on walking while the snowfall is like this and look for shelter when the time comes.”
-I wonder how long that might take,- I thought to myself.
Three hours, tops. That’s what I had discovered. Although it was almost impossible to tell precisely how much time had passed without the sun being visible, I knew for a fact that it could not have been more than three hours when the storm returned with a vengeance. As the winds picked up and the snow turned into frozen whips, lashing us with every gust, we managed to find a rocky inlet as shelter. We sat close to each other to share our warmth. We were protected on most sides by stone, yet there was one side that allowed the snow to batter us every now and then through the violent and turbulent winds of the blizzard above us. The sounds of swaying trees and flailing snow merged with the deafening roar of the cruel wind. The sheer strength of the noise drowned out every thought.
“How are you holding up?” Kára asked, her voice hardly audible, even though she shouted above the racket.
“I’m still alive!”
“Good!” she replied.
I could hear her laugh, but I failed to see the humor in all this. It was Kára who found the shelter when we needed it. Without her, I would have passed it, not knowing it was even there. She knew the land around here. She understood the manner in which the hills rose and fell, how the creeks flowed and how the forests grew. It allowed her to find a place like this even though she had not been here before. Some beings say that knowing the landscape was a natural thing for a ranger, but Kára was no ranger and I knew better; those who spend time in nature become one with it. If you stop and take the time to understand the land beneath your paws, you could see and feel the way it was built up. You cannot make a rifle just by looking at one; you need to understand each bolt and coil before you can start on the barrel or the frame. Just like that, you must understand the flow of the land before you can claim to understand it. Back in Ascalon, I knew the land. I ran up a hill once, one I had never seen before, and I knew what lay beyond. Here however, everything was new. My train of thoughts was rudely interrupted by a soft snoring beside me. I glanced over to the norn. She was lying in an awkward position, resulting in her heavy snores that were softened by the storm beyond the storm walls.
-Blasted norn,- I thought. -How can you sleep at a time like this!-
Not much later, however, I felt that sleep had also found me.
Morning had come. The blizzard had died down so much that the savage snow storm turned into a gentle fall of white flakes, but it was only clear enough to see no more than a couple of asuran feet ahead of us.
“Come,” Kára’s voice rang. “Let’s get going.”
Still chewing on some tough jerky, I stood up and walked towards her. I followed her gaze down the road.
“It seems calm,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied in a low tone. “It seems.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“What do you expect to find on this road, Kumara? It’s an important road leading to Hoalbrak.”
I shrugged as I set paw on the dirt road.
“Who knows? It could be drakes, grawl, an elder dragon or even worse…”
“Worse?” she said with a puzzled stare. “What could possibly be worse than an elder dragon?”
I turned to face her, grinned and said, “Other norn.”
She scowled and punched me on the shoulder, but I could see wrinkles of laughter around her eyes.
“You are overly careful for one of the biggest predators alive,” she laughed. “You must have been a scout or an assassin!”
As the words left her mouth, her eyes grew wide. She shut her mouth with such force that I could hear it even though I was a pace ahead. Glancing over my shoulder I saw that she has forced her eyes towards her feet. For a moment, I pondered over all the possible responses I could give her.
“Scout,” I said after a strained minute. “I was a scout.”
The tension was gone, but so was the conversation. For about an hour, we walked without a word being spoken. We watched our surroundings and pondered over our situation. Or at least I did. Only the occasional sounds of animals, the crunching of the snow beneath our paws and the various noises from Kára’s armour notified us that our hearing was intact. After about an hour, we approached a fork in the road and I turned to Kára.
“For a hunter, you make a lot of noise,” I said in a teasing tone.
“Well,” she said whilst patting the axes that hung from her hips. “This outfit is not for hunting, it is for fighting!”
“Are you expecting a fight?”
Her face turned stern as she said, “If what you told me is true, then yes, I do expect to fight.”
Our conversation was rudely interrupted when we reached the diverting paths.
“Hail, travellers!” a loud voice boomed from the other road, scaring both the wildlife and myself.
My perception must have gone rusty to not have noticed a norn approaching us. I attempted to keep on moving, but Kára did not join me in that. In fact, she turned towards the newcomer and greeted him warmly.
“Hail, merchant! What brings you here?”
“What do you think? I’m going to Hoalbrak to sell my wares!”
“Then maybe it’d be best if we travelled together?” Kára asked the norn whom I have yet to look at.
“Fantastic idea!” he guffawed. “The more the merrier! My name is Holf, and yours?”
“I am Kára, and the bundle of gloomy fur over there is Kumara.”
The hair on my neck bristled, but I did all I could to prevent them from noticing. Slowly, I turned to face the newcomer. He was clad in thick, leather clothing lined with fur. His face seemed friendly, and a large, braided beard hid the majority of his lower face. A sword hung at his hip, its scabbard attached to a belt made of intricately woven leather strips fastened with a large brass buckle. A small rug sack hung on his back. The majority of his cargo was loaded on to a dolyak lumbering behind him.
-I did not miss a norn,- I thought. -I missed a norn and his bloody dolyak!-
“Yea, hi,” I muttered.
The merchant didn’t seem to be bothered though.
“Good, with the three of us, this trip will be a lot safer!”
“Why?” I said, trying not to sound as annoyed as I felt. “Do you expect trouble?”
Worry was plastered all over the norn’s face as I spoke those words.
“There has been troubling news as of late.”
“Do tell,” Kára said intently.
“There has been talk at the local tavern,” he said, scratching the back of his head. “Talk about grawl coming down from the mountains and attacking lone travellers. There have been several reports, but I doubt it could be any more than rumours, right?” Holf asked with a glimmer of desperate hope caught in his voice.
His gaze shifted between me and Kára, but met neither of our eyes.
“Bear help us…” he muttered.
I waved a claw dismissively. I knew how the norn thought about their precious spirits of the wild, but I was a charr and I had to keep up appearances, at least to this newcomer. The norn seemed to enjoy my little display of charrness though, and brightened up a bit.
“Well,” he continued. “We have a better chance if we keep moving.”
As he finished speaking he started moving down the road towards Hoalbrak. His dolyak followed him immediately and Kára took a few big steps to end up walking next to him. I let the small caravan pass me before I started walking, but even when I did, I kept a slower pace than the others. They did not seem to notice and within a few minutes, I was several paces behind them.
-I will stay back a bit to watch the rear,- is what I told myself.
But deep down, beneath my fur and my display as a tough charr, I was scared. I was afraid of getting too close and to fail again.
End of Part 3