A new day had dawned and for once, the sky was painted a clear blue. Walking around was so much easier without any looming, dark clouds overhead. Or, it would have been, had it not been for the large amount of snow that had fallen over the last few days, combined with the whispered threats to travelers, telling them to stay home, leaving the road covered in a deep layer of snow. With every step, my paws sank into the uncompressed layer of snow, soaking me from nails to groin. The white menace melted as it grasped my legs, leaving me drenched once again.
“There’s a storm brewing,” I heard Kára say.
If the snow hadn’t constricted me, I would have spun around to face her but now all I could do was turn around slowly.
“What?” I bellowed. “I see no clouds!”
She snickered, which told me there was some joke going on that I missed. This feeling was confirmed when I heard Holf guffaw as well. I managed not to shoot them in the face, but I had to muster every scrap of composure I had left.
“Your face!” Holf managed to squeeze out in between his mad laughing fits.
“Anyway,” Kára coughed. Maybe she saw the anger boiling behind my eyes. “Kumara, did you bring the… thing with you?”
I raised an eyebrow while staring her down.
“Do you mean the thingy I found while doing things?”
“What do you think I am, a norn? I won’t forget something important like that.”
The look she gave me was hard to understand, but she didn’t appear to be angry, nor did she appear to be very amused. Holf, on the other paw, seemed to be very confused. I could actually see him thinking, trying to grasp what we were talking about but failed to do so. He even seemed to have missed my semi-insult.
The rest of the day was rather uneventful. Apart from some growling, cussing and scolding from my end, there was little said between us as we plowed through the snow-covered road. Maybe we were occupied with our own thoughts, or maybe we just concentrated on setting one paw in front of the other. Either way it was a tad too quiet. As we walked on, we came through a small mountain pass with surprising amounts of green on the other side. Kára said that it usually looked greener than it did now, but that the snow had been really severe this winter and even managed to touch this otherwise sheltered valley. The road that actually led into the city of Hoalbrak was a lot less inspiring that I had thought. Where the road into the Black Citadel was wide and met a large and imposing gate of iron set in towering walls made of steel, this road was a lot smaller and led to a wooden arch with a wooden gate.
-It looks too flammable,- was my first thought upon seeing it. -One attack from the Flame legion, and their defenses are breached.-
But I pushed the thought aside and managed to hide the fact that I found their entrance underwhelming. Passing underneath the gate, we were led through a somewhat narrow mountain pass. With cold stone walls looming over us on both sides, I had to admit its defenses were better than any lowly assumption upon first glance. With every step, Holf became chattier. Halfway through the passage, we already knew where he came from, exactly where he was going, what he was going to buy and sell, and he even discussed his prices with us. Well, I wouldn’t say discussed; it was more of a one-way conversation as both Kára and I were as silent as Ash legion assassins.
At the end of the mountain pass, there was another wooden arch we stepped through as the sun was setting, and the road led to a large walkway. The floor of this manufactured road was paved with stone and wooden arches were placed here and there. Between the arches were balustrades made of wrought metal and adorned with axes and spears. Although it looked nothing like the city I once called home, there was some beauty here as well.
While leaning over the guardrail, I had a fair view of the city. It seemed to be a valley, with mountains serving as walls on all sides. Unlike the Black Citadel, which was rather packed with buildings and houses, this city appeared to be much more spacious. A few large lodges were scattered around the valley and a large brazier was located in the middle. My eyes were drawn to two large sculptures, that glistened in the light of the sun sinking behind the mountains; the statues seemed to be carved out of ice and they resembled felines. Knowing the four spirits, thanks to Kára and Vadi, it had to represent the Spirit of Snow Leopard.
The road continued to lead up a large ramp which, in turn, led to a large plateau where, even from this distance, one could see the bustle of merchants. Much to my distress, I saw a significant number of charr in this city. I knew that the Black Citadel and Hoalbrak weren’t all that far apart, and that our people conducted a lot of trade, yet I failed to prepare myself for this. Although the chances of one of my kin recognizing me were very slim, I would like to avoid them none the less.
I turned around to see Kára staring at me with her arms crossed in front of her. A subtle smile graced her lips.
“Where’s the oaf?” I asked looking around.
“Well,” she replied with relief in her voice, “while you were looking at the city, he said his farewells to us. He tried to thank you, but you were too mesmerized by the sights.
The association I had with ‘mesmerized’ brought back memories I would rather keep buried.
-I wish this blasted snow would cover up my memories,- I thought to myself.
“Are you okay?”
My gaze had fallen downwards without my realizing it. I looked up to see Kára being a lot closer that she was before. In fact, her hand was on my shoulder and her eyes were close to mine. She looked very concerned. I forced a smile and brushed her hand aside as gently as I could.
“It’s just memories coming back to haunt me,” I said softly.
“I understand… I think,” she said with a slight stutter. “Or maybe not.”
Somehow I couldn’t resist a smile. Seconds passed and I decided I trusted her and that she was, in fact, my ally.
“I do my best to suppress my memories, but every now and then, they find a weak spot to ambush me, as if to knock me down. Like a snow leopard, I guess. Weak spots can expose themselves with a thought or a specific word. Don’t worry too much about it.”
“Nice analogy there,” she said, “But why do you choose to suppress your memories?”
“Where are we going now?”
She gazed out over the center of the city for a while, as the sun’s last rays hit the mountains before disappearing completely, giving room for the night.
“There are two options, really,” she sighed after a while. “We could find an inn and spend the night there, or we could try to find Skarti and tell him our findings.”
“Is this Skarti person going to be able to use that information?”
“He is one of the leaders of the Wolfborn. If there really is a danger coming, then the Wolfborn are the ones we should reach out to here.”
“Rest sounds good,” I mused, “but I’d rather get this done as soon as possible.”
I was glad that we walked through Hoalbrak as the night was falling around us, for it allowed me to pick a path that would keep us clear from any fires or crowded places, so I could stay clear from any charr. Strangely enough, Kára didn’t oppose me on it and, in fact, opted to follow the same path. Although we must have looked conspicuous and our path was somewhat zigzagged, we did manage to find Skarti’s homestead relatively fast. It was there that our plan of avoiding crowds failed.
Skarti, together with a couple of other well-armed norn dressed in dark robes, stood before his lodging with a flock of traders and travelers around him. He seemed annoyed but it was impossible to make out what he said, as a chorus of arguments drowned his own voice out.
“They are mad about something,” I said to Kára, but she only nodded in response.
“Silence!” Skarti’s voice rang through the air. “I couldn’t even hear a dolyak giving birth with all of you talking at the same time!”
As the words echoed around us, the voices died down.
“Now,” the norn continued, “I just returned from a hunt and I find all of you here. Can one of you tell me what is going on?”
“You see,” one of the norn merchants spoke up, “many of our caravans are being attacked lately.”
“They have been for a long time,” Skarti replied, grinding his teeth.
“By grawl!” the merchant continued.
After a couple seconds of silence, Skarti stated, “Impossible.”
More voices joined the merchant and even some travelers started to join in. Within minutes, it became a ruckus again. Skarti held his hands up and the voices died down once again.
“It just cannot be grawl,” he said. “It is most likely some dressed up Sons of Svanir.”
Brooking arguments erupted again and what not. I looked over to see Kára stare at me. The moment she saw she had my attention, she gestured to me. After a brisk nod, I reached into a pocket on the inside of my coat and produced the totem. After taking a deep breath, I barged my way towards Skarti. The other norn moved aside as they saw me coming at them. Within moments, I stood in front of the Wolfborn leader. He stared at me, surprised.
“It were grawl,” I said as I shoved the totem into his hand.
End of Part 5