Thursday, August 27, 2009
The Howling Fjord: Part 3
I awoke to the snap of flint as flames came to life in the hearth. Getting up from the shoveltusk hide on which I’d slept, I turned to see Vyldra taking a single-bladed ax from its mount on the wall, cradling it like she would a child. She wore a look of serene expectation, a would-be saint awaiting confirmation. As red light from the flames pushed back the shadows, Vyldra spoke.
“This ax has drunk deep from the throats of trolls and monsters, and today it shall gorge on heretic’s blood. My father brought it into battle, honoring its maker, and I swear to one day place it at the feet of the All-Father.”
She placed the ax on the table, taking a scarred wooden shield from the wall and running her left arm through the straps. A metallic glint on the ax blade revealed an inset saronite rune, keeping it keen and sharp. Getting to my feet, I put on my coat and prepared myself for the upcoming battle.
“Where is your father?” I asked.
“Preparing our exit from Skorn. We now stand in the winds of fate, Destron. Blood shall flow and feed the thirsting earth, as it must. Do you still need time, or is the battle-lust already upon you?”
“I am ready.”
Before leaving, she again bound my wrists with a thick cord of rope, reminding me to play the part of a slave. The rope ran through an engraved saronite ring.
“I will enter the hall of Bikurn bearing a gift, and will leave bearing a much greater gift,” she laughed. It took me a moment to realize I’d just heard a vrykul joke. I offered a nervous chuckle, though she had already started to explain her plan.
“Bikurn has ears only for flattery, and I will praise his wisdom and prowess when I stand before him. Unleash your sorcery the moment I speak of the All-Father, not a second before or after. Destroy his guards but take no action against Bikurn, for his blood must be on my hands. Fight Bikurn only if he kills me, for you must then do what you need to survive. A false rune clasps your binds; others shall see it and think you helpless, but the rope is made to break with but a little force. Do you understand?”
Before we left, Vyldra placed bundles of wood all around the fireplace. She intended to leave no trace of her or her father’s time in Skorn, burning their ancient home as a gesture of contempt. I do not think she timed it to provide a distraction for our activities.
Morning’s cold light revealed Skorn’s full deterioration. I thought back to Vadrad’s story of trollish slave revolts in the waning days of the vrykul nation. Returning home, the vrykul had no choice but to rebuild their own villages, their knowledge of architecture atrophied by centuries of indolence. I was certain that no professional hand had ever touched the crude houses.
Tendrils of oily smoke rose up from rekindled refuse fires throughout Skorn. I was again reminded of their barbarism, how they were scavengers on the corpse of their own empire, and suddenly wondered if I could trust Vyldra. Her quest to achieve godhood by bringing a man’s severed head to a possibly non-existent deity did not inspire much faith in me. Even so, I had no hope of escape. Warriors roamed the streets, followed by slavering wolf-hounds.
A great house, perhaps better described as a disarrayed pile of wood and metal, stares down at Skorn from the top of a rocky hill. Crooked chimneys and uneven turrets stick out at seemingly random points from the structure, supported more by inertia than any structural integrity. Weapons festoon the walls, and I noticed a splendidly decorated Amani war club among them. I followed Vyldra to the tall and narrow doorway, a dwarven skull nailed to the top. No guards stood at the front, and we entered the shadowed hall without trouble.
Inside, Bikurn’s hall looked a good deal like Vyldra’s home, cluttered and neglected. A pair of vrykul men sat on the floor, dice clattering on the wooden boards. They jumped to their feet when we entered, drawing their swords.
“What brings you to the hall of Bikurn, Widow’s Woe, oh Vyldra, Bloody-Haired?”
“I bring more fuel for the fire, another soul for the Death God.”
Vyldra pulled me into the hostile eyes of the vrykul.
“No warrior’s soul dwells in this battered body, though the Death God craves the spirits of wayward slaves like this. We shall bring him to—”
“Do not think to steal my glory, Olf, with Sword Running Red! Only I will bring this sacrifice to Bikurn’s feet; stop me and your blood will wash the floor.”
“Very well, though Bikurn cares little for Vadrad’s bloodline. Perhaps he shall find you a better sacrifice, though I do not know what the Death God could do with your paltry soul.”
Vyldra said nothing as Olf and his companion banged on the closed wooden door at the other end of the room. A voice bade them enter and they opened the door. Vyldra strode into Bikurn’s chamber, free of fear, while Olf and the other guard stepped in behind us. Bikurn slumped on a rough wooden seat at the far end, clad in frayed furs and bones, his waist-length yellow beard splattered with ancient stains. A mass of weapons covered the wall behind him like a curtain. The death priest’s bushy eyebrows arched in surprise as Vyldra approached.
“Vyldra, Bloody-Haired, Daughter of Vadrad, Death-of-Foes. Your sight offers no pleasure, for I still remember the foolish words your father spoke before our slumber. Does he seek to make amends and, too cowardly to face my wrath in the flesh, sends his daughter? Or are you the gift? A sign of desperation from a man whose time has passed. I have wenches aplenty, all fairer than you,” he rumbled.
“My gift is for the Death God himself, one of his lost children sent as sacrifice.” Vyldra knelt, and her legs tensed as if preparing to spring.
“Perhaps you are wiser than your father, Vyldra, Bloody-Haired. Many nights yet shall pass before I again light the pyres, and many prisoners must we capture before an offering can be made, though the Death God’s servants at skull-crowned Gjalerbron always hunger for more souls.”
“Doubtless they need—damn this lie, my only gift to you is the wrath of the All-Father!”
Howling in fury she jumped to her feet and rushed towards Bikurn. His eyes widened in shock, but only for a moment, and he leapt off his throne, tearing a two-handed giant’s sword from its place on the wall. Vyldra slammed into him with her shield, the impact knocking him off balance and he lashed out in desperation, the sword cutting through the air.
Slower than their master, the guards drew axes and started forward. Ice lashed out at my command, frost gripping their legs and halting them in place. Startled, they did not realize that I was responsible. Taking advantage of their confusion I stepped back, detonating arcane bursts on the floor and flinging up a storm of jagged splinters that burrowed into vrykul flesh. Olf screamed, a shrill and horrible sound, blood gushing from his punctured left eye.
As frost lost its grip I fired a barrage of arcane missiles into the still-sighted vrykul, waves of blue bolts hitting his body. He fell dead as I spent the last of my mana reserves, leaving me to face a partly blinded but furious warrior without recourse to spells. Free of the ice, Olf bounded towards me, screaming obscenities. I ran to the back wall, thinking to grab a weapon though his great size let him catch up to me in no time at all. I threw myself to the floor as I heard the whoosh of his blade, not quite dodging the fist holding it. I felt a loud crack, the force of the blow flinging me halfway across the room like a rag doll. I landed in a heap on the floor. Too dazed to properly react, I lurched to the side when Olf reached my position, evading his attack by mere inches. Olf kicked me as his sword hit the floor, his foot as heavy as a mace.
Scrambling to my feet I grabbed a vrykul dagger from the armory, nearly the size of a sword for me, and clutched it in too-small hands as Olf swung his sword for the finishing stroke. Fast as I could I threw the dagger at Olf. Never trained in throwing weapons, my projectile hit his leg and fell to the ground without hurting him, but it did slow him for a split-second. I ran out of the way before he could compensate. Enough mana returned for me to cast a flame burst at Olf’s feet, and he snarled in pain and rage, though obviously far from finished.
“To the grave with you!”
Olf never saw Vyldra behind him, her ax cleaving halfway through his neck. The warrior’s remaining eye widened in shock as blood streamed down from the wound. Vyldra wrenched the ax free and watched him fall to his knees, trying to curse through the gore flooding his throat. Choking and gurgling he collapsed, the life leaving his body.
A cruel smile lit Vyldra’s face. Turning from the dying Olf, she went to Bikurn’s prone body. Kneeling at his side she hacked off the head in three quick strokes. She lifted the head up and examined it, finding it to her liking.
“A fitting gift for the All-Father. You did well, Destron, even when your sorcery left you. We can speak more later; now we must leave before the rest of Skorn learns of my glorious deed.”
Dumbly, I nodded and followed her out of Bikurn’s bloody hall, not sure what to expect outside. My wounds, which would have been crippling to a human, did little more than hinder me. Even so, I felt terribly vulnerable at that moment. I am sure Olf would have killed me if not for Vyldra.
I stepped out of the great hall and found myself staring into a golden eye the size of my fist. The eye belonged to a fearsome beast, a provisional dragon that walked on its wings like a bat. Bone spikes ran along its jaws and throat, and tiny, almost useless arms hung from its bulk. I remembered hearing about the proto-drakes favored as mounts by the vrykul.
In fact, two proto-drakes waited outside. Vadrad rode one, and a vrykul woman I did not recognize sat at the other. Both were cheering Vyldra.
“My golden girl, you have brought honor to those before you! Let the minions of the Death God quail in fear when they hear of your bloody work!”
“Bloody work indeed. Bikurn and his lackeys now rest in beds of gore, two felled by my ax, and another by the Forsaken’s sorceries. Speak of this later; now we must make haste. Destron, go to Hilgmar’s drake; she too remembers the old ways, and she will one day ride alongside me as a val’kyr. I shall go with my father.”
Before mounting the proto-drake, who hissed and rumbled like some dwarven engine, I grabbed the Amani war club from the wall. A stylized wooden eagle’s head capped the club, indicating a ceremonial purpose. I recognized it as a symbol of Mueh’zala, the eagle, the Amani psychopomp who is an aspect of Hireek, the bat, Loa of knowledge and magic in the south. Blades of polished obsidian ran down the club, three on each side, while a foreign saronite rune embedded in the handle preserved it.
Knowing the Darkbriar Lodge would have use for such an artifact, I slung it under my arm as I clambered onto the giant’s saddle. If Hilgmar thought my choice of armament odd, she gave no sign. With a fierce cry the proto-drake lifted itself from the ground with its muscled legs, wings flapping in the cold morning air. It loosed a bestial roar as it picked up speed, the dying town of Skorn falling into the horizon.
Frostblade Peak and Gjalerhorn rise miles above the ground, citadels of stone and ice standing sentry on the Howling Fjord’s northern border. The two mountains are visible throughout the misty forests north of Skorn. Hilgmar and Vadrad made good time on their proto-drakes, the beasts possessing levels of speed and stamina quite impressive for their size. The landscape below rushed by like a river, dense greenery giving way to scattered pine glades and rocky fields as altitude increased.
Hilgmar offered some context for Bikurn’s hatred of Vadrad. Both had claimed credit for killing a prominent Amani chieftain, and Jarl Halgurdsson had decided in favor of Bikurn. His social standing greatly diminished, Vadrad found himself marginalized among the Winterskorn, which I suspect helped shape his politics. As for Hilgmar, she had been a childhood friend of Vyldra’s, and held her in an almost religious awe.
Towards the end of the second day we landed in the foothills around lofty Frostblade Peak. Patches of slushy snow dotted the ground, thickening until it blanketed the earth a just few miles to the north of where we stood. Standing on winter’s edge, accompanied by mythic warriors and strange beasts, I felt as if I’d truly reached Northrend. A freezing eastern wind howled across the desolate highland. Vyldra was the first to speak, shouting to be heard over the wind.
“I am in debt to you, Destron, but no debt can take the place of the All-Father’s sanctity. Here we must part ways, for you will find no home in the All-Father’s hall until battle stills your breath. Even I may only enter after proving myself to Thorim, and the head of this heretic is but the first step on a long journey.”
“That is fine, Vyldra. Besides, there is more I want to see before I go to the north. Will you all be petitioning the All-Father?”
“Only I shall do so directly. Hilgmar shall rise to glory as my shield maiden, and will doubtless take her place among the val’kyr when the time is right.”
The old vrykul smiled.
“More must I do before I join the ranks of the All-Father’s army. I shall go with my precious Vyldra as far as the Storm Peaks. Then my doom must take its course. Mine is to take my sword into the wastes, where I will spill the blood of giants until my heart beats no more.”
“I wish you the best of luck,” I said, privately wondering if their time would be better spent helping the Horde or Alliance fight the Scourge. Still, I knew full well that they were beyond the point of persuasion.
“May the All-Father guide your path, Destron,” said Vyldra. “The eddas say that slaves who aid their masters in battle will find a place at the table of the All-Father. More than vrykul make merry in those glorious halls. Perhaps we shall again fight alongside each other when it is time for the Last Winter. Farewell!”
I watched the vrykul ride their proto-drakes towards the overcast sky, shrinking as they flew off into the north. I was alone, and free to go where I pleased. I decided to visit the Alliance outpost of Fort Wildervar, which I’d heard about in Westguard Keep. While not sure of my exact location, I felt reasonably confident of finding it.
Reaching it turned out to be harder than I'd suspected. Traveling through Winterspring was the last time I’d seen snow, and I forgot how much time it takes to slog through the stuff. Three days passed before I reached the shores of placid Caldemere Lake, the bright and distant sun reflecting off its frigid waters. I could see the rugged homes of Fort Wildervar on the other side, below the crags of Frostblade Peak. An aerial scout, mounted on a hippogriff, flew over the town’s peaked roofs as I watched.
I made my way around Caldemere, reaching a series of ramps leading up to Fort Wildervar. A trio of fur-clad anglers stood at the lake’s edge, near some soldiers in improvised-looking armor. Eyes all around lighted with curiosity when they saw me.
“Did Captain Adams send you?” demanded one.
“Captain Adams of Westguard Keep? No, he did not.”
“Thank the Light for that. What’s your business in Fort Wildervar, traveler?”
“I’m simply working my way north to help out with the war effort.”
He gave me a doubtful look.
“Supplies are stretched very thin in Fort Wildervar. We hate to be inhospitable, but this is a hard land. You can stay five days; longer if you serve the community in some way. Go to the town hall; you will know it when you see it. Register there.”
I assured him that I did not intend to stay long and that I could make my own food. Fort Wildervar looks almost idyllic at first glance. Stout homes offer light and warmth against Northrend’s cold. Forests of snow-dusted trees cover the lower slopes of grand Frostblade Peak, the icy mountaintop looking over the town like some slumbering god. In the town itself, everything looks new. Half-built houses stand on the periphery. The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pealed in the frosty air as I entered.
The inhabitants gave me curious looks, the more venturesome offering cautious hellos. They carried themselves with the quiet confidence that one would expect of homesteaders living in such a rugged environment. Fort Wildervar’s outer coziness is deceiving, for such places can only survive through the most strenuous effort.
I entered the narrow town hall and nearly bumped into a mule standing inside the threshold. Startled, it took a moment to amble off, its hooves clopping on the wooden floor. At the other end, I spotted a small pig dozing under the stairway, while chickens clucked in a tiny pen.
“Hello there, stranger,” greeted a dark-haired woman of middle age. “You must be here to sign the register.”
“That’s correct. I’m Talus Corestiam.”
“Christina Daniels. Welcome to the wild north,” she smiled. “Are you from Captain Adams in Westguard?”
“I did come from Westguard, but I was not sent by Captain Adams. Are you expecting someone from him?”
“Adams likes to think that Fort Wildervar is a satellite of Westguard Keep, so he sends an official here every two months, along with the occasional batch of colonists. Last time one of his lackeys got here was six months back; we figure the vrykul killed the last few.”
“Perhaps Adams forgot?”
“Adams never forgets anything,” she laughed.
“So what is the purpose of Fort Wildervar?”
“Wildervar’s an iron mine. We arrived here with the Fifth Legion and a team of dwarven engineers. They dug the mine, but were called west to reinforce the Seventh Legion, leaving us behind.”
“Are you able to extract ore from the mountain?”
“We’ve done precious little of it, none at all for the past year. Frostblade Peak lives up to it’s name, and we need to put all our efforts into getting food. We’ve sent an appeal to Westguard, but it’s anyone’s guess as to when supply caravans can get here regularly.”
“What brought you up to such a dangerous land?”
“The king promised us protection, money, and land to go north and mine ore. Most of us come from the foothills in northern Elwynn, where wealth is in short supply. Stormwind and the Horde emptied out more than half the mines in the First and Second Wars. My parents resettled there after the Second, and learned there’s scarcely any work to be had.”
Many hailed Stormwind’s resurrection as an outstanding success, but Christina’s story shows the deep scars left by the orcish invasion. Stormwind’s power is something of a facade. It has never fully regained the strength and prosperity it enjoyed prior to the First War. Problems like the Defias and the Blackrock Clan further erode its strength. Stormwind’s citizenry, hardened by these constant threats, may be its greatest resource. One wonders how long they will tolerate Varian’s wild-eyed expansionism.
I went outside to explore Fort Wildervar. Smokehouses line the northern edge, set up to preserve game and fish. While some food comes from the tiny farms at the forest’s edge, to the south, they do not yet offer enough to support Wildervar’s tiny population. The practical settlers are well-aware of their town’s tenuous existence.
“Unless we start getting more support, we’ll have no choice but to disperse,” predicted a man named Andron Hellus. I spoke to him as he took a break from chopping wood.
While I agreed with these sentiments, one must keep in mind that such immense logistical efforts are bound to suffer from poor planning. This is not to say that massive supply errors should be considered acceptable (as that would encourage carelessness); rather, that some are inevitable.
I spent the night in the town hall, sleeping on a hide rug tucked away in the back. Fort Wildervar lacks a proper inn, hardly a surprise given their circumstances. I dislike sharing quarters with animals, but I accepted the situation with grace.
Mountain winds blew a light sprinkling of snow over Fort Wildervar the next morning. The colonists went to work as always, braving the frigid climate to keep Wildervar alive another day. I spoke with a rangy woodcutter named Viktor Ostmann, who’d moved up to Fort Wildervar with his family. Poverty-stricken in their home, Northrend offered the best chance at a better life.
“No regrets on my part. Not to say I’m entirely happy about the way things are run here, but I never expected it to be easy. Only a fool would. I can hunt and fish as much as I need here, not like in Elwynn where a fellow needs permission for every little thing.”
“Were you a hunter back in Elwynn?”
“Not a professional. Nobles still own most of the wilderness, and you cannot hunt without their approval. I knew a quite decent man, named Gamel, who ended up in the Stockades for hunting quail when he wasn’t supposed to.”
“How does one get permission?”
“Request it from the local authorities. They usually grant it, but you can’t rely on them saying yes. Too many other folks hunting, they’d say. I used to work in the Jangolode Mine, but when they closed it down there was no way for me to get the money I needed, at least not regular.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, isn’t hunting up here somewhat different than it is in Elwynn? How did you adapt to the new environment?”
I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d really heard him say that.
“Taunka are these great big fellows, look like tauren but shaggier and with shorter snouts. They’ve lived here in Northrend for ages and ages.”
“I’ve heard of them, but I thought they were part of the Horde.”
“I think they are now, but they weren’t when we arrived. We made a deal with the taunka; we gave them weapons and tools, they taught us how to live here. We got food from them, letting us work the mines, until Captain Adams ordered us not to speak with the taunka.”
“So your dealings with the taunka are a well-known fact.”
“No secret, though some people don’t like to talk about it. I’m not ashamed, the taunka are good people. Honest dealers. Fort Wildervar wouldn’t exist without them. I’m loyal to the king and Alliance, but a man needs to remember his debts. If a taunka got lost and wandered in here—not as if that would ever happen—we’d help him get to Camp Winterhoof.”
“That’s the taunka settlement west of here, correct?”
“It’s a good-sized one. Word has it they won’t be there for too much longer though.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Oh, some of the long-range trappers mentioned that the taunka were packing up their supplies.” He spoke quickly, his eyes turning down to the ground.
“Any idea why?”
“No one told me.”
The call to settle distant lands is typically answered by the desperate, the mad, and the ambitious. If they succeed in their efforts, the hardships of such a life nurture an independent and sometimes reckless breed. The citizens of Wildervar see no reason to fight the taunka, who aided them in their survival. Of course, if settlement increases, conflict will likely arise. Until then, the colonists are inclined to see the taunka as potential allies, politics be damned.
In establishing such far-flung domains, I wonder if Stormwind has created something it cannot control.
Descending the foothills around Frostblade Peak I came to the nameless valley between it and Gjalerhorn, a realm of snow-laden pines and frozen ponds. It is only marginally more hospitable than the area around Fort Wildervar. Wolves slink through the forests, pursuing the shaggy mountain goats that feed on the meager vegetation. Neither population is very large.
From talking to the inhabitants of Wildervar, I got a rough idea of Camp Winterhoof’s location. I longed to visit a Horde outpost not ruled by the Hand of Vengeance or Apothecarium. Stronger than that was my desire to learn about the taunka. A handful of the old Shu’halo legends reference “tribes of ice and snow,” guardians of the world north of the Kaldorei forests. Not specific in details, most shamans believed those tribes to be the spirits of Winterspring, in northern Kalimdor. The Horde made official contact with the taunka while I was in Undercity, en-route to Quel’danas.
I followed the road as it coursed its way through the dense forests on Gjalerbron’s slopes, the sky darkening above me. Passing a bend, I saw a campfire flickering on the side of the road, two massive figures seated nearby. Shadows hid their features, though I could see their shaggy heads, each with a pair of small horns growing from the fur. One stood to his full height, easily eight feet.
“Greetings, Forsaken,” he said, in accented Orcish. “By what name are you known?”
“I am Destron Allicant.”
“You are welcome here, as long as you heed our ways. I am Pahnuk Rimehorn, a brave of the Winterhoof Tribe. My friend here is Lomok Icerunner, of the same.”
The tauren of the south introduce themselves with the name of their tribe. For instance, an individual from the Skyhoof family in the Runetotem Tribe will give his or her last name as Runetotem, not Skyhoof. This is not the case with the taunka, whose family lines are a source of great pride.
“I’m glad to finally meet you.”
“Our lookouts saw you approach our lands. We came to greet you, for friends are hard to come by in the north.”
“The orcs say that your people hate the Scourge more than anything else, and may know best how to destroy it,” said Lomok.
“The Forsaken are working on a variety of methods, though with little concern for ethics.”
“Our ethic is survival. We will not insult our ancestors by dying in the snow, at least not until we kill twice our number,” threatened Lomok.
“Peace, Lomok. Destron is not yet familiar with our ways. Do you know of the Shu’halo, whom you call the tauren?”
“I have spent time in their lands. They are an admirable people.”
“If you wish to learn of the taunka, you must never think of us as the tauren. You would be hard-pressed to find two races more different.”
“I will keep an open mind.” In fact, as the Feralas and Thousand Needles tauren prove, there is a great deal of variety within the tauren race.
“Come, sit with us by the fire. Fire is what brings souls closer together, sparking the warmth of spirit in the endless winter.”
Pahnuk promised to take me to Camp Winterhoof the next morning. I spent the night asking about the taunka. Pahnuk bore my inquiries with grace.
“Is the Winterhoof Tribe nomadic?”
“Where our prey goes, we follow. Generations upon generations have hunted on these slopes, tracking beasts through the boundless forests and snowy wastes. We were an old people when the Kirovi humans came to these lands, staking their claims. Their braves now lie buried under snow and ice. Such is the price for challenging the taunka.”
“The Kirovi are your enemies?”
“Friends are few in Northrend. My ancestors have shed the blood of Kirovi, furbolgs, Nerubians, Drakkari, magnataurs, and others. Should the taunka survive, my sons shall shed the blood of many more races. Survival demands no less.”
“What of the Alliance? My understanding is that the Winterhoof Tribe has an amicable relationship with the humans of Fort Wildervar.”
“Wildervar has not offended us. They settle on Kirovi lands, and we are glad to see strangers take the lands of our ancient foes. Besides, the Winterhoof Tribe will soon depart these hunting grounds.”
“Where will you go?”
“To Camp Oneqwah, home of the Coldmane Tribe. Few from either tribe survive, so combining our forces is a simple matter.”
“Have you lost many to the Scourge?”
“More than half our braves lie dead in the forests to the south. Vrykul reavers slaughtered an entire band of taunka, and the ancestors demanded blood in repayment. Fifty of us trekked into the forests, a host of spirits at our backs. Three days we fought, taunka spear against vrykul ax. We killed more than our number, yet they never stopped. That is why we must leave the lands where our fathers hunted.”
“What of the Coldmane Tribe? How did they lose so many?”
“There the blame lies on the Kirovi. Even after their towns fell to the Scourge they persisted in their evil ways. As it is the eagle’s nature to fly, so too is it the Kirovi’s nature to be wicked.”
“Has there ever been peace between your peoples?”
“We set aside our differences to do battle against the magnataurs, though that was long ago. Sometimes we traded, yet always with doubt.”
“Were they unwilling to help you fight the Scourge?”
“Most were already dead by the time we realized the Scourge was a threat. Spirits of wind and air told us of enemy movements, but the Kirovi were caught unaware.”
Pahnuk and Lomok went to sleep, while I mulled over what I had learned. Northrend was a violent place long before the Scourge ever came to Azeroth. I did find it odd that the Kirovi would continue to fight the taunka after the Scourge decimated their kingdom. I could not help wondering if there was more to the story than what Pahnuk knew.
The taunka are certainly more aggressive than the tauren, yet I was not sure why. While Kalimdor is less hostile than Northrend, the tauren spent much of their history suffering persecution at the hands of the centaurs and quilboar. The tribes still bear great animosity towards those two races, but they seem less eager to advertise their hatred. All the talk of shedding the blood of ancient enemies made Pahnuk sound almost like an orc. Eagerness to learn more about the taunka kept me up for some time, before I finally forced myself to sleep.
We reached Camp Winterhoof just before noon the next day. Camp Winterhoof is a gathering of wooden huts on a rocky bluff, puffs of smoke rising into the mountain air. Surrounded by miles of icy highlands and forests, Camp Winterhoof is easy to miss. I could hear the wind’s hollow cry somewhere in the distance, though the air remained still. I figured it came from one of the gullies that furrow Gjalerhorn’s slopes.
A lone, white-furred taunka stood at the gates, really just two posts marking the entrance to Camp Winterhoof. Stretched hides hang from the posts, decorated with a harsh and angular script that bore little resemblance to the Taurahe pictograms I’d seen in Thunder Bluff.
“My heart is gladdened to see you again, Pahnuk and Lomok. I am also happy to see that our visitor has safely arrived,” he said, offering a slight nod.
I stopped, stunned, the moment I entered Camp Winterhoof. A tempest raged and howled in place, bright lights flashing through its cloudy body. Suspended over a pool of water, the storm’s movement did not send a single ripple across the surface. The sound of wind intensified, the storm twisting like a living thing in pain. Three taunka stood before the storm, two of them babbling and twitching as if possessed.
“What is this?” I asked, amazed at the sight.
“A storm spirit,” answered Pahnuk. “Our shamans heard him laughing in the north, ready to bring freezing winds and killing frost to our people. He has paid for his foolishness.”
“He’s a prisoner?”
“For now. We may set him free, we may harness his power to our own ends. We may even destroy him. The shamans will decide.”
The whirlwind reared back like a snake and lashed forward, bursting with lightning as it slammed into an invisible wall. Shrieking with rage it struggled against its bonds. I immediately barraged Pahnuk with questions, amazed at the difference from the reverent tauren, who would never seek to imprison a spirit.
“Please, Destron. It is not my place to speak of this. You should consult one of our shamans. I can arrange a meeting, if you would like.”
“I would appreciate that,” I said, my attention again drifting to the imprisoned spirit. I sensed the terrible power within, the full fury of a northern storm held in place by the shamans’ will.
Panuk led me to a dwelling of interwoven wooden branches, insulated by hide tarps. Four esteemed-looking taunka were at the entrance, their eyes on me. One of them, dressed in comparatively elaborate fur robes, bowed and introduced himself as Chieftain Ashtotem, leader of the Winterhoof Tribe.
“All friends of the Winterhoof are welcome here,” he said.
They left after a perfunctory exchange. Much as it is with the tauren, the arrival of a new guest is something of an occasion. This custom is more formal among the taunka, indicated by the presence of the tribal chieftain and elders. Undeath, in and of itself, does not appear to especially alarm the taunka. If anything, they respect the Forsaken for being strong enough to defy the Scourge.
I spent the day speaking to the taunka. Different from the Shu’halo in many respects, they share their southern cousins’ propensity for etiquette. I learned that no family within a tribe bears the tribal name. The Winterhoof name, said one, is of great import. To claim it would be the height of arrogance. While the taunka have an adversarial relationship with nature spirits, they are still deeply respectful of the ancestor spirits.
Taunka legends refer to the Times Past, an idyllic era when the land basked under long days and balmy nights. Few specifics are described, the Times Past devoid of great heroes or ancestors. Only the Earthmother is mentioned.
Like all golden ages, it ended in fire and death. Evil sorcerers enriched themselves with dark magic, and the Earthmother fled the world in shame and despair. Only her eyes remain, watching the world she so loves from her heavenly abode. When she departed, the spirits struck back in wrath, punishing the world with terrible cataclysms.
Here arise the great culture heroes of the taunka, the legendary founders of the tribes. Winterhoof the Firebringer, who crossed the tundra in search of warmth, was one. Cruel spirits of frost and snow mocked his quest, cursing him so that his hooves spread frost wherever he walked. Angry, he struck down the weaker forest spirits, chopping them asunder and building a pyre from their remains. Since then, even the simplest taunka could conjure the spirits of flame with flint and tinder. Such spiritual confrontations are common in taunka myth.
“Many did great wickedness during the Times Past, consorting with dark spirits. Yet not all of the ancestors committed such sins. So why were we punished? The Earthmother had already left, so the spirits did not act on her behalf. Spirits of nature are haughty and cruel, thinking they have the right to hurt whomever they please. Our ancestors taught us how to fight back,” said a young taunka woman named Kondas Chilltotem.
Descent is matrilineal in taunka culture, though they are not a matriarchy. However, the chieftain’s eldest daughter (called monghada, or blood-giver) wields great power in the tribe. When she chooses a mate, the leadership of the tribe passes on to the husband. Once the monghada comes of age, the tribe undergoes a week-long festival centered around competitions amongst the tribe’s unmarried braves. These include hunting, skinning, singing, and other skills. Male shamans are not eligible for this, since their control over the spirits would give them an unfair advantage.
Exactly who wins these competitions is a complicated affair. The monghada determine the best applicant based by how well he performs in all fields. This decision is not left to the monghada alone. She must confer with the other women in her family before coming to a decision. The chieftain has no say in the matter.
So as to avoid early romantic entanglements, the chieftain’s eldest daughter is discouraged from forming emotional bonds with the men of the tribe. Of course, complete segregation in such an intimate environment is impossible. Certainly the myths are full of taunka princesses who chose their mate based on a purely romantic attachment. Perhaps as a cautionary measure, these tales rarely end well for the couple. Still, their existence suggests that such behavior is known to occur.
Aside from the monghada, taunka tribes (at least in eastern Northrend), strongly encourage exogamy. Most marriages are held when tribes hold trademeets with their neighbors. Taunka of the Winterhoof Tribe typically marry into the Coldmane Tribe of the Grizzly Hills. In better times, they also married individuals from the now-defunct Bitterhorn Tribe of eastern Dragonblight, survivors of which now live among the Winterhoof. The husband always moves into the wife’s tribe.
At the time of my arrival, the only Horde citizens at Camp Winterhoof were a trio of orcs from Conquest Hold, a fortress in the Grizzly Hills. I spoke to one named Karrug Bloodblade, asking him about the Horde’s relationship with the taunka.
“I find I like them,” he said. He’d recently returned from accompanying some taunka on a hunt for rams, and was lounging in a hot spring just outside of camp. “They are brave, pragmatic: will be good additions to the Horde, I’d say.”
“They are not yet official members?”
“No. There’s no central authority for us to contact. Closest thing to that is the Icemist Tribe, and they only have influence in the east. Eastern and western taunka are like two entirely different peoples.”
“Eastern tribes, like Winterhoof here, call themselves the taunka’haga, or taunka of the hunt. The western tribes are more settled, and they call themselves the taunka’loba, taunka of the herd. They herd runty northern kodos, or sometimes woolly mammoths.”
“Herding does inspire a different culture.”
“The western tribes are also much bigger. I think the taunka’haga look down on the herders a bit. Not much—taunka still spend a great deal of effort trying to be polite—but the dislike is there.”
“Are there any tribes hostile to us?”
“None that we know. The taunka are in sore need of friends. Maybe you haven’t heard, but they even made some deals with Fort Wildervar.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Like I said, a pragmatic people. Anything that gets humans fighting humans is good, though I don’t think the Stormwinders are going to war against the Kirovi anytime soon. I think the time is ready for someone to unite the taunka. Each tribe knows it can’t survive on its own.”
“What do the tauren think of the taunka? The two races take very different approaches to shamanism.”
“Hard for me to say, though the tauren I’ve met all feel conflicted. I talked to a Runetotem shaman back at Conquest Hold, and she said that the taunka and the spirits both need to work towards peace. At the same time, she was obviously reluctant to make demands of the taunka, as that would be prideful and impolite. I doubt much will change with the taunka. They love challenging the spirits.”
I spent three days in Camp Winterhoof, learning as much as I could about the taunka. As Karrug said, the hunter tribes consider themselves a world apart from the herders. However, I do not think the attitude towards the herders is contemptuous. Most in the Winterhoof Tribe regard herding an acceptable pursuit, though only for the western tribes. As the Winterhoof ancestors hunted, so too does the modern Winterhoof Tribe.
Like the tauren, the taunka decorate their encampments with ornately carved totem poles. Larger and more complex than the tauren variety, these totem poles are considered anchors for the ancestor spirits. The main pole is the single most important artifact in any tribe’s possession, and the braves will do anything to defend it.
Pahnuk arranged for me to meet with the senior shaman, one Greatmother Ankha. He guided me to the Winterhoof totem pole, which stands nearly as tall as the surrounding trees. At the top is a rough taunka head, its ancient eyes watching over Camp Winterhoof. Smaller poles flank it, acting as additional spiritual conduits. Energy flows through that place, like ghostly words felt, not heard, in the cold air. An aged taunka woman sat next to a fire near the totem’s base. Taunka women do not look so different from their tauren equivalents, though they are larger and shaggier.
“Greatmother,” said Pahnuk. “I bring Destron.”
“Thank you, child. Return to your duties, and may the ancestors guide your path. Destron, please sit down. I am glad that you are so curious about our people. Few outside of Northrend even know of the taunka, from what I hear.”
“I seek to learn as much as possible,” I said, sitting down on a log. Ankha smiled.
“I am sure that you know how we differ from the Shu’halo. We see the spirits as adversaries.”
“Given the climate here, I can understand why.”
“Do you disagree?”
“My people can neither see nor feel the spirits. It would be deeply presumptuous of me to agree or disagree. For the time being, I am content to accept.”
“The tauren are a wise people, but I fear they are weak. The ancestors are silent when I ask them why the tauren were saved from the Spirit War; why they can live in peace with the land. Perhaps the ancestors prefer it this way, for it makes the taunka strong.”
“The tauren spent much of their history in a death struggle against the centaurs and quilboar. They’ve also suffered greatly.”
“This is true, and I do not claim otherwise. Yet they speak with the land, and the land sometimes listens. The spirits of the north do not care for us. In the spirit world, only the ancestors are our friends.”
“Do they aid you in fighting the spirits of nature?”
“We could not do it without them. Our fathers look out from the totem’s eyes. Wood rots, but the totem pole above us has lasted since we first set hoof on these lands. From here they speak, and lend us their power. That is how we captured the errant storm spirit you saw when you arrived. Even the greatest shaman could not do such a thing alone; only the spirits in this totem make it possible. That is why we guard it with our lives.”
“How does one become a shaman, if I may ask?”
“Taunka children who hear the voices more clearly than their peers are brought to the Greatmother or Greatfather—there is only one at any given time. The child is trained, and when they come of age, they go to the cruelest and most remote spot within the tribe’s territory. There they challenge the spirits, and no spirit will tolerate an insult from a neophyte shaman. Survival is success.”
“Is failure common?”
“A tribe cannot survive long with too many failures. Most among the Winterhoof succeed.”
“Pardon my ignorance, but could not the spirits simply gather and wipe out your tribe?”
“Such is within their power, yet the spirits rarely work with one another. The taunka do, and that is our strength. Storm spirits are especially arrogant, and fall prey to our wards.”
Later that day, as a vast red sun sank into the west, I saw Greatmother Ankha lead the other shamans in an age-old ceremony of ancestral respect. All five stood before the totem pole, Ankha swaying her arms while rooted in place. Her hands shook like an epileptic’s, eyes rolled back in her head as she sang in a shrill and quivering voice. Drummers seated along the perimeter started up a brisk beat. The other shamans shook their bodies in time to the beat, their low voices a growling chorus to Ankha’s ghostly lead. There was nothing comforting about the ritual. If anything, it sounded like a dirge.