The trees are growing denser and here and there patches of vegetation explode in a contrast of colour through the finer layer of snow and ice, as we descend from the pass. I can hear the beat of metal upon metal and the gentle susurration of city life drifting across the valley, the occasional distinctive voice of a trader carrying above all else.
“Hoelbrak?” my companion asks.
“I have never been to this city,” he adds. “What is it like?”
At our right-hand side the indomitable grey wall of the mountain pass halts abruptly and the edge of the trail plunges into a valley of evergreen.
“Oh.” The man stops at the edge to take in the view. I am pleased by his pause, not only the convenience, for my words would prove inadequate to describe such majesty, but it is reassuring to see him affected so; it makes him seem more human.
While the carpet of patchy ice and greenery pays homage at the foot of the city, the encompassing mountains huddle around like protective guardians, looking on with silent pride and yet assured by their own sense of strength. Hoelbrak itself is defiance; the brutal eye of the mighty norn looking ever outward, ever North; the impassive mouth set closed and grim; its stance forward bearing and resilient; and yet the passion of our culture sings exultant in the form of the great spirits towering impossibly high. The tide of threat can crash upon the palisade for all its want, but we rebuild.
“Lion’s Arch pales in comparison,” says the man. “Yep-”
I am on him so quickly, my hand closing about his throat, he barely manages a squawk as his arms flail and he tries to grip my wrist. I pull him close, lifting him clear of the ground.
“I could toss you over now.” My voice is calm, despite the nature of the threat. He grunts heavily, snorting through his nose, fighting for air as I continue. “No one would question a body found at the bottom of this slope.” Holding on to my wrist now, he struggles to relieve his own weight, eyes tearing, and I drop him unceremoniously to the floor, watching as the man draws in breath.
“What is your name?”
“I told you-”
“What is your name?”
The man stands up, shaking, tears streaming down his face.
“Hank,” he says simply.
“That is your name?” I am not all too familiar with human names, but somehow it suits his nature.
“Yes,” he whispers and then collapsing to his knees again, great sobs begin to wrack his shivering frame.
This behaviour is confusing and I am beginning to wonder if perhaps I was a little too harsh. “Hank?” I try to get his attention.
The man looks around at the floor, his hand brushes at the snow, but he will not look at me. “I was only ever a thief,” he says.
I sense it then – a feeling of knowing hits me and all I can think to do is shout: “No!” But I am too late.
With the calmest of movements, Hank rocks back, pushing out with his legs, eyes closed, arms wrapped about his puny form as he launches himself from the ledge.
No. No, this is wrong. Why? I am on my knees, scrabbling for the edge and looking over, but he has gone; only the sound of scree disturbed by his tumbling fall clatters down in his wake. Nausea clutches at my stomach and I can feel my muscles tremble, forcing me to crawl back from the ledge for fear of following after. This is bad, bad and just… unexpected.
By the time I reach the gates to the city of Hoelbrak, I am half expecting to be pulled to one side, questioned about a human man found broken and dead at the bottom of the pass – bruises about his neck. Uncertainty follows every step into the city, questioning my ultimate objective, forcing me to consider returning home and to rethink the strategy. Which is what? Had I even considered what I was going to achieve before I left? Hank and his badly disguised memory loss; the comatose waif of a child, most likely still in the same state; or is it just me and this dogged excuse of a legend? This is my strategy?
“Ho, friend. Might be you would find the answer to that face at the bottom of an ale mug.”
Lost to thought, it seems that I have wondered and wandered through a good part of the city with barely a notice of the place or its people. Turning to the voice that has stirred me from heavy doubts, I take in a warm smile and the heavyset features of a norn clearly accustomed to a life of what Helena would call a city toil.
“It seems a bit early for taking ale,” I respond.
“Nonsense,” the norn chuckles. “Why, only a moment past I heard the ice cracking under the sun’s glare. Come in, come in and we will have that scowl fixed in no time.” He beckons to a cart dressed with a bright awning and more pointedly to a series of stools arrayed before it.
I cannot keep the hint of a curious smile from my own face; I think I need this distraction. “Come in?” I question.
The norn steps around the cart until he faces me over a rough wooden bar placed atop barrels. “Of course,” he replies as if nothing were out of place. “Sit, sit,” he gestures. “Just tapped a keg so the first one is on me.”
Taking one of the stools, I sit and study the cart further. For the most part it resembles a normal seller’s cart, except the awning has been extended to cover the seats. With a fair amount of weight to bear, the wheels have been strengthened and even the cart handles sport a metal brace to distribute the load more evenly.
“You have your own portable tavern then – clever.” I smile at the owner as he hands me a mug dripping froth.
“Got the idea from that human city. Although of course I had to make a few changes to the frame.” He nods, bottom lip pursed as he looks the cart over. “Proud of it too – even if it has taken a while to get folks here used to the idea. But let us not keep the tasting waiting.” Raising a mug he had drawn for himself, he winks. “To the day.”
“To the day,” I echo and take a swig, savouring the bitter contents.
The bartender coughs and thumps his chest, placing his mug down. “Ack, this has enough silt in it to dam the Gyre Rapids! Best draw another to be sure.”
So we sit for a while, drawing off and sampling the barrels, swapping gossip, and each time I reach for some copper he frowns and stays my action with a shake of his head.
“To be honest,” he says eventually, placing what must be our seventh in front of me, “I have had barely a soul this last week prop up the bar. It makes me look good to have a customer.” Wiping a cloth across the wooden surface he sighs, working at a stain only he sees. “Glad to have the company too.”
I nod, glancing around, and it seems the norn is right. No one appears to be taking much interest even though the site he has chosen is placed close to a lot of other traders, all busily hawking their wares.
“What is your name, friend?”
“Hrok, Hrok Steigson.”
I dry off ale-soaked fingers on my coat, pausing for a fraction of a second as they brush against the unknown device stored in my pocket and then present my hand to Hrok. “Asbjorn Bre.”
He shakes my hand with a grip surprisingly strong for a barkeep. “Not the Bre? As in the lodge?”
“The same – or at least I am husband to that legend.”
Hrok laughs. “Well I never. I should charge you a tale for drinking me dry.”
I release his hand. “Any other time and I gladly would, Hrok.”
“Oh, you have your own tale in the making?”
“I suppose so.”
“Suppose? I see the son of Bear before me, if I am not mistaken. Never did I reckon such a fellow would know the meaning of doubt.”
I raise my hands, palms out. “Peace, Hrok. It has been a trying journey.”
Hrok stops and stares at me for a moment, then with a sudden ferocity he slams a fist hard onto the bar, causing mugs to fly and clatter to the floor. “Trying?” He leans in close and with a hot ale-soaked breath, whispers coarsely, “You think to make a name for yourself by supping on free ale and spluttering for a teat like the runt you are?”
The stool is clattering back and I am up, nose to nose with Hrok, our foreheads pressed together. “Runt? You think a runt would feed off this muck?” I cast aside my own ale cup, letting it smash to the floor.
“Oh dear,” Hrok proclaims, taking a step back and extending his arms as if to address all of Hoelbrak. “What do we have here? The little runt is not happy – he has had his milk taken away!” A few of the traders and their customers pause to watch Hrok. “Poor son of a Dolyak-”
Hrok grunts as I launch myself across the ale cart, catching his jaw with my fist. The heavyset norn reels away as I follow with another wild swing and he steps outside of my arm, catching it and dragging me across the cart, pulling both of us over so that we are sprawled on the ground and soon enmeshed in a messy brawl of tangled arms and flailing fists.
“Enough!” a voice bellows with some authority and I feel myself pulled back by the scruff of my neck, bodies either side grappling with my arms and allowing Hrok a single opportunity to connect with the ridge of my eye. Dazed, I collapse backward, but whoever has hold of me is strong enough to bear my weight and haul me upright. “I said, that is enough!”
Hrok steps back, holding his arms up to indicate compliance and to my surprise he is grinning. I relax and the restraining grip is lessened, although not wholly. I see then that we have been separated by Wolfborn, charged with keeping the peace in Hoelbrak.
“The sun’s barely cracking ice and you two are already drinking and brawling – could you not find a tavern?” A lean, well-muscled norn steps between the two of us, clearly the source of the shouted command.
Hrok chooses to speak up: “It is funny you should mention cracking ice, for I was only saying to my dear-”
“Spare me your excuses. Do I have to have the both of you chained up?”
“No,” answers Hrok, still grinning.
“And what about you?” The Wolfborn turns to me. He seems anxious to be on his way.
“No,” I grunt and the two holding my arms release me at a nod from the other, who is obviously their superior.
The commanding norn takes a look at the mess around him, prodding a tipped barrel with his foot. “I do not expect to see you selling your ale on the Trade Commons again. Do I make myself clear?”
“As clear as Winter’s breath,” replies Hrok.
Nodding, the norn signals to the others and they start to walk away. “And clean up this mess.”
Hrok sighs, wincing and rubs at his jaw. “Ah well.” With a degree of reluctance he begins to gather up the contents of the cart.
“Why did you do that?” I finally ask him.
“You started that fight deliberately.”
Hrok hefts a barrel and sets it on the cart. “Seems to me you needed a bit of reminding.”
I bite back on a retort as Hrok begins gathering up the pieces of several broken ale mugs. “What will you do, now they have banned you from the Commons?”
Shrugging, the norn barkeep rises. “What of you, Bre?”
What is my strategy? An explosion in the woods, a comatose child, a dead thief and an unidentified device are what I have to go on. If I look at this in a different way, I think I know exactly what the answer is.
Hrok mutters as he eases the cart forward, placing it down only a few inches from where he had just started. “A lot of traffic at the gate today.”
I look up at the asura gate and the line of travellers ahead of us. The large portal shimmers with a purple haze that looks entirely out of place in Hoelbrak – even the stone used to fashion the large ring is clearly not of this region. I can just about make out the tiny figure of an asura gesticulating wildly, arguing with a group of norn and continuously pointing at a line of unruly Dolyak. It does look like we could be some time. Turning back to Hrok, I nod at his cart. “One for the road?”