Hoelbrak had become a flurry of activity. The joyous celebration of the lunar new year had been overtaken by a sombre anticipation, as Hoelbrak prepared to play host to the jotun. The House of Ymir, Ulfridda had explained, was an ancient bloodline of jotun seers, sages, stargazers and mountain-kings. King Ymir had survived the mythical rise of the ‘Swallowers’, ancient beings which rose to swallow the world every age. In jotun mythology, the Swallowers wiped the world of life, poisoning the very fabric of magic and when satiated gave way for the new dawn of Tyria. They believed that their bloodlines, being a remnant from the previous rise, allowed them access to greater magics than the lesser races. Ulfridda elaborated that their blood was their obsession, and inevitably their downfall. Centuries of inbreeding had caused the brutality of the species, wars ravaged between brothers, sisters, parents and children that threatened to split the mountains themselves.
A letter had arrived to demand the terms of the parley: a tent was to be erected, seats for five of the jotun party, and a drawing of the crest of House Ymir which was promptly replicated into a grand tapestry. Although Knut requested she attend, Ulfridda had verbosely and rudely refused and determinedly held a blank face whenever the subject was raised in polite conversation. Koda’s Breath had not left her side since his release and their thwarted attempt to leave Hoelbrak and had caught her swearing profusely under her breath on more than one occasion.
The tent was grand, as most norn constructions are. Large brocades of silk had been dusted off and unfurled, and they twinkled in the sunlight and lightly falling snow. Knut was intent on presenting a facade of power and had the Wolfborn forgo their pelts for shining plate armour. Dolyaks were slaughtered and their meat cured, trained animals were stationed around the tent for show, and fine ale was ordered from Knut’s own cellar.
Koda’s Breath had not been able to shake a dreadful feeling. The demand for his presence was unsettling at best, but coupled with Serene Wrath’s warning, he was perpetually on-edge. His memories of negotiations between the Council of Chieftains had slowly began to flow back but not enough to convince him of his own skills. Ulfridda had suggested, in her only mention of the parley, that he should stay silent throughout.
When it came time for the parley, the norn gathered in an immense crowd before the Southern Watchpost. Horns sounded and the crowd hushed, as the musicians began to sing, lyres were played, and flutes whistled in the deadly quiet.
Oh we sing of mighty Hoelbrak
Our place amongst the snow
To shining cities and grand estates
We have no need to go
Our spirits walk among these halls
Our hearts do soar as one
We shall defeat our every foe
When all is said and done
From Dragon’s breath we fled afield
And came upon this place
Hoelbrak is where we make our homes
We cannot be displaced
As the musicians sang, a small group of jotun made their way from the watchpost through the crowd to the Might and Main. The path was guarded by Wolfborn, and wound its way down in such a way that Koda’s Breath, who was standing beside Knut and his sons, was unable to see the party until the moment they passed under the bridge linking the Eastern Watchpost to the Great Lodge.
In the lead was a large jotun male, wearing a crude shift and barefoot in the snow. He held aloft a banner with the sign of Ymir on faded grey cloth. Behind him followed three jotun in hooded robes of ash-grey and dirty leather. They each held a different object. The first carried a smooth, polished and bloodstained stone. The second, a book that could not have held more than nine vellum pages, and the third, a simple and crude crown of iron. Finally, from underneath the bridge came their leader.
She was held aloft on a simple litter. Four jotun held it high, her feet coming to their shoulders. Her face was covered, but she turned her head in such a way that indicated she could see through the cloth. She wore the most elaborate clothes of the party: a fitted, long-sleeved dress which covered everything except her hands, which themselves were adorned with white fur gloves. Her shoes, which were rare to see worn among the jotun, were also of a white fur.
The first in the procession stopped before Knut and slammed his pole into the ground, creating a bang that silenced the crowds’ whispers and musicians’ song.
“Here comes Skode, Bloodkin of Ymir the First, Stargazer, and Regent of the Jotun Lands. She presents to Knut Whitebear, Master of The Great Lodge of Hoelbrak, City of the Norn, the Rights to Rule.” He paused to take breath. jotun speech was slow and particular, as they chewed every word which they uttered, and a pronouncement of this kind took a long time.
“The Bloodkin Stone, first proof. The Book of Heritage, second proof. And The Crown of the Giant-King, third proof.” He paused, and looked to Knut.
“What proofs have you, Knut Whitebear?”
Knut smiled, and bellowed his response. “WHAT SAY YOU, HOELBRAK?”
All the norn watching responded with a thunderous cry, and the Wolfborn along the path bashed their weapons against their shields. The noise was deafening and continued for many minutes. Finally Knut motioned and the noise died away. Skode nodded.
“Your proof is accepted, norn. Let us parley.”
They headed inside, Skode leading the way, followed by her entourage and then the norn. Koda’s Breath entered last, and sat at the large table beside Knut.
Knut began to speak but cut himself short as Skode removed her face covering. She was clearly aged, but beautiful by norn standards. Large amber eyes were rimmed by impossibly long lashes, her mouth bow-shaped and expressive. Her skin was grey, as all jotun are, but she completely lacked the simian features of her contemporaries. Her jawline was feminine and sloped, and she moved with the grace of a queen. She looked to Knut, who was clearly taken aback, and smiled.
“You seem shocked, Knut Whitebear.” She spoke slowly and in the jotun accent, but her voice was clear.
“Yes, well, you are so diff-”
“-Different from my children, yes,” Skode finished his sentence. “I am one of the Old Ones.”
“You are very old then, milady.” Knut’s sudden politeness made him transparent.
“I am. My father survived the Swallowers, and I was born soon after. I have lived through the fall of my kind. All my children are beasts. They are shadows of our former glory. Were they not my own, I would slaughter them all like pigs.” She looked lovingly at the jotun next to her, and ran a long elegant finger across his neck. “But I am here to discuss our presence in the Dredgehaunt Cliffs. My pilgrims and I—“
“You lead an army, jotnar.” Ulfridda had entered from behind Koda’s Breath. He stood, and offered her his seat, which she took with thanks. She was wearing full battle gear, weapons in her hands. The air around her sparked with electricity. Skode looked infuriated.
“How dare you allow her here!” Skode spat at Knut. “This bitch killed my husband!” Skode’s elegant demeanour had cracked. She began to stand and Knut waved her down.
“You made demands that our friend here—” He pointed at Koda’s Breath. “—be present for the parley. I demand you allow Ulfridda to stay, but I promise she shall remain silent. Do we have a deal?”
Skode considered it a moment, and sat down again. Koda’s Breath thought this had not been a good start, and chose to speak. “Regent Skode, you must understand, we have many questions. Few of us have ever seen a jotun female, and we are curious as to your intentions here in Hoelbrak.”
Skode seemed to recover her posture, and smiled at Koda’s Breath. Her beautiful smile was marred by the sharp teeth in her mouth, giving her an overall unsettling visage.
“Females are the carriers of the Blood. We are hidden from the world for our protection. Without us, our bloodlines cannot continue. I am not surprised you have never seen one of us. We never walk outside unaccompanied or uncovered. It is how the males show us their respect. As for why we are here, we are pilgrims.”
“What pilgrimage have you come on?” Sigfast asked.
“I am the last of the jotnar to read the stars. The Swallowers have awakened. This much you know. But near one star a constellation has formed. It tells a story. The stars hold many mysteries, but I can say it tells of a group of heroes destined to fight the Swallower of Ice and Snow. The leader of this group stands there.” She pointed her lithe arm to Koda’s Breath before clasping her hands together.
The norn were silent for many moments. Koda’s Breath spoke over the silence. “Destiny is governed by Koda. If he has one for me, I would have been told.”
Skode smiled, before turning her head skywards, her eyes becoming black and speaking in a deep, otherworldly voice.
“He who works for the Balance of All shall be quietened.
And the tool he made shall silence him.
And against the consuming blizzard shall he fight.
But not alone.
To drive back the cold, and destruction
with four stars anew in the sky.
A gift of darkness, a gift of light, a gift of death and a gift of might.”
She spoke as if reciting something.
“What is this?” Knut asked.
“A prophecy of the stars. I have read their movements and understood their meaning. You, of Koda, who have not been able to contact your creator, are its focus. I can feel the energy from that thing around your neck. You are the one we seek. We bring to you the first gift.”
Ulfridda spoke. “And what gift is that?”
Skode sneered. “My child. The Dark Star.”