Saturday, December 26, 2009
The Storm Peaks: Part 1
Words cannot describe the grandeur of the Storm Peaks. The supreme size of these lofty mountains defies the imagination, a realm of icy wonder taken from the dreams of the world. Mountains miles in height give way to mountains higher still, bound in ice all through the year.
Vrykul legends speak of the Storm Peaks as a place for the gods. Certainly it is not one for mortals. Freezing winds cut through ice-walled canyons, unleashing the fury of the northern storms on lonely valleys covered in endless drifts of snow. Towering fir trees somehow thrive on the lower slopes, patches of snow contrasting with the deep green of their needles.
Glank flew his zeppelin over many of these frozen gardens, the wind buffeting the rickety vehicle as it choked and wheezed its way to the goblin outpost of K3. The decrepitude of Glank’s vessel somehow enhanced the natural majesty of the Storm Peaks.
The Zandalari had received Mumbwe’s return with zealous exhilaration, the bloodshed in Gundrak confirming the power of the gods. Mumbwe practically glowed with savage piety, her wordless chants accompanying the prayers of the Zandalari.
Her tongue had not yet regenerated when Glank flew over Zim’torga. A freelance goblin pilot, Glank was returning to the goblin outpost of K3 in the Storm Peaks after delivering documents to a cartel representative in Vengeance Landing. He charged me a considerable amount for the passage, more than was really reasonable. I paid, wanting to put Zul’drak and its dark superstitions as far from me as possible.
Glank ran his operations on the cheap, and his skinflint nature showed on the zeppelin. A half-broken model dating from before the Third War, a tangle of jury-rigged repairs obscured any hint of the original chassis. Each morning I would help empty the snow that accumulated in the carriage over the night, brought in through gaps in the hull. He flung a rapid stream of curses at the wailing winds as he flew, his whining voice muffled by a flea-ridden fur collar.
K3 first appeared as a blinking light in the stark white expanse of the Snowblind Hills. It was just past nightfall when we arrived, and the mighty northern storm clouds had cleared long enough to reveal the stars, sharp and bright in the northern sky. K3’s light seemed somehow fearful in that vast emptiness, a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to keep away the darkness of winter.
I doubt anyone could find K3 without their beacon. Snow piles up in great drifts around the stout walls, threatening to spill inside the town. Seven domed snowhouses stand in the enclosure, built closely together as if for warmth. There is little sign of goblin activity, and snow covers the streets.
Glank set the zeppelin down at a junk-strewn field just north of town. The intermittent glare of the beacon revealed bits and pieces of broken machines laced with frost. Footsteps ran in trails all around the mess, suggesting recent activity.
I stepped outside of the cabin and took in a deep gulp of the coldest air I’d ever breathed. The icy intake sent a shock through my body that not even undeath could repel, a touch of raw nature at its fiercest. I stood there for a minute with arms outstretched, knee-deep in snow and under all the stars of the sky. Was this what the shamans felt when they communed with the spirits?
I was so absorbed in the astounding landscape that I didn’t first hear Glank disembark. Soon enough, his nasal voice had brought me back to reality.
“This is K3. Not much here, really. Some of the folks in K3 seem taken by the place, but I’ll never know why. Come on, I don’t want to stand out here all night.”
I walked through the empty nighttime paths of K3, hearing only the crunch of the snow beneath my feet. Glank used snowshoes to stay on top of the snow, a necessity given his small size.
“If you plan to spend any time up here, I suggest you buy some of your own,” he recommended.
We rented a pair of cots at the Snowmelt Hotel, the largest structure in K3. More of a barracks than a hotel, many of K3’s residents consider it home, sleeping in coffin-like cells attached to the common room. Glank went straight to his room upon arrival, leaving me in the empty common room, lit by a single electric lamp hanging by a cord from the ceiling.
“What brought you all the way up here?” inquired a reedy voice. A worn-looking goblin woman with a mop of red hair stepped out from the shadows, dark circles around her eyes. She was polishing a dented teakettle with an old dishrag.
“I’m hoping to reach Ulduar, though I’m not really sure how,” I said.
“You and just about everyone else. That’s why Steamwheedle built K3, you know. Cartel bigwigs had a mind to beat the dwarves to Ulduar, though they figured out it’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, a lot of reasons. For one, the dwarves will shoot anyone who starts tinkering around with Titan goodies. Besides, by the time the cartel has a full-on expedition set up, the dwarves will own the place. That’s why we’re working with them instead of against them.”
“They pay us good money to support their archeologists or to do surveys. Enough to make K3 a profit! Not much of one, but better than nothing. Hey, if we’re going to chat, let’s do it in the kitchen. I don’t want to wake anyone up out here.”
I followed the goblin woman into the kitchen, ducking through the low portal. Inside, tin plates and eating utensils stood in neat little stacks. The live stove bathed the cramped room with a soft warmth.
“By the way, my name’s Niddy,” she said, motioning for me to have a seat on a dented metal stool.
“Destron Allicant,” I responded.
“Good to meet you, I keep the hotel here running smoothly. Not everyone’s willing to move up to the Storm Peaks, so they pay pretty well.”
“I’m a scholar. How would one get to Ulduar from K3?” I asked.
“Hmm, well there’s no sure way to do that. Not to say it hasn’t been done, but there isn’t like a regular air ferry to the place. Truth is, a lot of the surveyors who go up there never make it back. This place is called the Storm Peaks for a reason, you know.”
“Are there any passes leading to Ulduar?”
“If there are, no one’s found them. Most lead to dead ends or isolated valleys filled with some pretty hostile sorts. If you ask me, you’re better off staying in K3.”
“It is possible, though?”
“Sure, though it’s a real longshot.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Does the Steamwheedle Cartel run K3?”
“K3 was their idea, but it’s actually a joint venture with Far-Flung Enterprises, a newcomer that’s invested near all of its cash in Northrend. Most of us aren’t employees for either company though. They hired us on a contractual basis.”
“Do you feel limited by that?”
“Not at all! It’s a real good deal, and I’m not likely to fall into debt. I spent the last nine years of my life in debt slavery for Barterbolt Enterprises’ alchemy division, and I don’t plan on going back to that. My brother too, we were in that together. He’s up here now, with me.”
“Debt slavery. I’ve always had trouble understanding how people who love freedom as much as you goblins can reconcile yourselves to debt slavery.”
“It’s part of life. We goblins are free to do as we please, and that includes making bad decisions, like what our parents made. They died before they could pay their debt to Barterbolt—not that they could—and we inherited it.”
“That hardly seems fair.”
“Oh, don’t be so sanctimonious. Hey, I’m still alive, right? Lots of the debt slaves in the alchemy division are buried in pieces down in Undermine. Me and Yezz—that’s my brother—survived, and things are looking up for us.” I could not help noticing that her voice wavered a bit as she spoke, her sleepless eyes touched by doubt.
“Sorry, I hope I did not come across as self-righteous.”
“Forget about it, it’s too cold here to hold grudges. More profit in forgiveness,” she snickered.
“Like I said, you ought to stay. Talk to Slirk to put a contract together. A Forsaken like you can get pretty far in this climate.”
“Would that expedite getting to Ulduar?”
“It sure couldn’t hurt.”
Snow fell intermittently from gray skies through the next day. I woke early, watching the residents of the Snowmelt Hotel rouse themselves for another day of cold weather and hard work. Conversation was muted, though hardly despairing. Goblins matter-of-factly exchanged pleasantries over bowls of porridge and tins of hot coffee. Niddy flitted from one end of the parlor to the other, her spindly form possessing a curious grace.
Taking a cup of coffee, I went outside during a lull in the snowfall. Niddy’s advice, while practical, was simply wrong for me. Working at K3 hardly assured passage to Ulduar.
The idea did appeal to me on some level. Perhaps the mountain scenery had robbed me of my sense, but I could see myself spending time in K3, away from everything else. Thoughts that I’d kept at arm’s length since Conquest Hold began to make themselves known. Were the new evolutions I’d seen in Horde culture merely a regional phenomenon? Perhaps Northrend’s ancient darkness was tugging at the minds of orcs and Forsaken, leading them to ruin.
Or was it the same everywhere else? Both Horde and Alliance looked to be rushing headlong into conflict. K3 might be an ideal place to wait out the storm I feared was on the horizon. Then again, perhaps not. If the nations marched to war it would doubtless reach even the farthest places of the world. Horde and Alliance are global entities in a way that the Scourge is not.
While I do not wish to raise my hand against the Alliance, the fact remains that many in their number wish me and all Forsaken destroyed. I would be the first to admit that a fair number of Forsaken leaders deserve destruction. I do not think that I do. Nor can I sit idly by while the orcs who defended my people die on the battlefield.
I forced myself to turn away from such gloomy thoughts, and began learning more about K3. A surprising number of its inhabitants are former debt slaves. Ever an irrepressible people, these goblins approach their lives with commendable alacrity.
“Right now I’m just a furnace mechanic, but I’m tinkering with some of my own inventions in my spare time. Devices to make life in this place a bit easier, with plenty of applicability in other cold parts of the world,” boasted one goblin named Nozdok Riggrom.
“Easier in what way?”
“Heh, I can’t just go around telling everyone. Plenty of folks here would jump on my idea if they overheard. Right now I’m going to keep it vague, get people interested. When I’m done and everyone’s raring to know, I’ll release it.”
“Fair enough. Are you borrowing much money for this?”
“Not a copper. I buy and collect scrap with my earnings, throw in some salvage when I can get it. Explosions can throw scraps pretty far, and I’ve got a knack for finding the pieces.”
“Sometimes when they soup up the defenses for K3 they mix up the components and something explodes. They collect what scraps they can find, but never all of it.”
“What do you defend against?”
“Whatever this place feels like throwing at us. Looks nice and quiet, but we’ve got gnolls to the west, vrykul in the mountains north of here, and magnataurs out east. I don’t think any of them are real big threats to us, but there aren’t too many of us at K3, so we need to be prepared.”
No one in K3 seemed to know very much about the vrykul, though the goblins described them as different from the ones in the Howling Fjord. The handful of bruisers who’d seen them said the local vrykul had ice-blue skin and frost on their armor.
“All women too,” remarked a bruiser named Igz.
The vrykul had never attacked K3 directly, though they sometimes preyed on scouting parties. Such was also the case with the magnataurs. The gnolls had made a single disastrous assault on the town. Concentrated gunfire drove them into the hills, without a single fatality on the goblin side. Since then, the gnolls contented themselves with attacking isolated scouts.
“After they saw what happened to the gnolls, I think the vrykul and magnataurs wised up and figured it best to let K3 be,” added Igz.
I am not so sure that his confidence was well-founded. Disorganized gnoll bands don’t pose much of a threat, but if the vrykul did attack, the defenders of K3 might find themselves hard-pressed to withstand them.
My time in K3 turned out to be a bit of a vacation. After surviving Zul’drak, I found it relaxing to be among the freewheeling goblins. Though not employed, I did actually earn some money helping to defrost machinery with low-level fire magic. Goblin mages do exist, but are relatively rare; not many show interest or talent in the arcane arts. I also followed Glank’s advice and bought a pair of snowshoes.
For the five days I got to know the residents, hearing them tell stories of suffering often chilling brutality, all related to me with a casual shrug. I am not sure if any race is as resilient as the goblins. On some level, I wonder if their resilience in the face of disaster is entirely a good thing. I suspect it may help perpetuate debt slavery and other evils. However, this attitude is certainly more constructive than the self-indulgent misery preferred by many Forsaken. The key may lie in turning the energy and resilience towards the goal of eliminating some of the abuses in the system.
This is not to say that everyone in K3 comes from a background like Niddy’s. Former debt slaves only make up a plurality of the population. Of those, some had relatively benign experiences. One example, Slirk, used his time as a slave to make valuable connections within the Steamwheedle Cartel (to whom he had been indebted). He was so good at this, that the cartel offered him ownership of the Snowmelt Hotel once he paid his debt.
I met with Glank again on the third day. After arriving he’d planted himself at a dented corner table. His stench and odious personality dissuaded anyone from trying to move him. I’d have gladly ignored him, but he was the only pilot headed beyond the Snowblind Hills in the near future. If I wanted to see more of the Storm Peaks, he was my best chance to do so.
“Mind you, I’m not going to Ulduar. Just to the mountains north of here. Vrykul country,” he said, after taking a long and noisy slurp of coffee. Some of it spilled out the corner of his mouth and dribbled down his dirt-encrusted neck.
“I’m aware. I’ll be willing to pay a full gold piece to go along.” Niddy came by the table, refilling our coffee. She gave me a sympathetic glance as she poured.
“I’ll need more than that. There might be a lot of competition coming up here pretty soon. I hear that the brass is planning to clear out the magnataurs with sappers, open us up for expansion—”
“What? Where did you hear this?” demanded Niddy.
“A few days ago, the hell does it matter to you?” he snarled.
“Dammit, they can’t do this. Slirk, get someone to cover for me real quick!” she called out. Practically dropping the tin pot on the table she ran out of the room. Curious, I got up to follow her.
Her hands moving quickly, Niddy strapped snowshoes onto her boots as she walked, finishing the last buckle mid-step. With remarkable speed she cut a line across the snowy evening streets, vacant save for a lone trapper dragging an empty sled across the main thoroughfare.
Niddy made her way to a small building at the edge of town, a bright light glaring down from the top of the door frame. Despite her hurry in getting there, she only gave the door a light rap.
“Niddy, is everything all right?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t intruding.
She turned around, her eyes wide in surprise. Niddy opened her mouth to say something when her knock was answered, the door opening to reveal a sharp-looking goblin woman.
“Ricket, you’re not really going to use the sappers, are you?” cried Niddy, turning to her.
“We wouldn’t have ordered them up here if we weren’t going to use them. You know that,” said Ricket, her tone hostile.
“Yezz can do lots more than blow himself up! I know it! Just give him a chance, it’ll be worth your while,” pleaded Niddy.
“Ha! Why don’t you tell that to your brother? He seems ready to go, if you ask me.”
Without waiting for permission Niddy stepped inside. Ricket raised her hand as if to stop her, but apparently thought better of it. The door swung shut.
I went back to the Snowmelt Hotel and finished my negotiation with Glank. As I’d expected, I still ended up paying more than I wished. I stayed in the parlor as the clientele drifted off to bed, the howling wind audible through the ice walls. Soon, I was the only one left.
I began to wonder if Niddy would even return when she finally got back, visibly flustered. She stopped when she saw me.
“Niddy, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m not the one I’m worried about. Why did you follow me?”
“I apologize if I intruded. You seemed distressed.”
“Well, that was real sweet of you.”
“Do you wish to talk about it?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know! It’s my brother Yezz, you know, the one who went through debt slavery with me? He’s a sapper.”
“A dangerous job, but isn’t it somewhat prestigious?” The sappers are certainly among the most infamous of goblin professions, having made a name for themselves with the oft-suicidal bravery they displayed during the Second War. It occurred to me that I’d not met any sappers during my travels.
“Prestigious? No! Hold on, let me get something to steady my nerves, and then I’ll explain it to you.”
Niddy disappeared into the kitchen and came back out a while later with two cups of hot cider. She handed one to me before taking a seat.
“Now, I’m not going to pretend to know much about humans or any other race. But from what I hear, sometimes when a human suffers something really terrible, he shuts down. Stops caring, or gets really frightened.”
“It’s been known to happen,” I said, taking a sip of the hard cider.
“With goblins, it’s the opposite. See, we’re always looking ahead to the next best thing. It’s in our nature, you know? But we can get knocked off-kilter same as anyone else, we just show it differently.”
“Well, when a goblin survives something really terrible, like debt slavery to Barterbolt, he can go crazy. Starts thinking he can survive anything. This sort of goblin will do anything that he thinks will score him a profit, no matter how stupid. These are sappers. They’re all crazy. And my brother’s one of them.
“We both saw bad things under Barterbolt. Folks getting blown up from moving explosives too fast, or getting tired and making some stupid, lethal mistake. It got to Yezz, and he started doing really reckless things. Anytime the overseer needed someone to do something suicidal, he volunteered.”
“Did you ever try to stop him?”
“Of course I did! How couldn’t I? I know us goblins aren’t supposed to care about anyone, but he and I looked out for each other, did that ever since we were kids. But he said it was a sure ticket out of debt slavery.”
“He continued doing this after your release?”
“I made him get a regular job at first, but he wasn’t good at it. Couldn’t sit still, always wanted to try something mad and dangerous. Risk makes life worth living, you know? But there’s such a thing as too much of it! I was so mad when he told me he’d become a sapper!”
“Are there any other jobs that provide thrills with less risk of death?”
“Sure, I think. But people like Ricket look for goblins who survived Barterbolt or the Venture Company, look for anyone who’s lost their good sense and then gets them to join. She knows they’ll jump at the opportunity.”
“How are sappers usually used?”
“They dig tunnels, set charges, transport explosives. But you already know that they’re told to detonate it if things get rough. Thing is, sappers actually think they’ll survive! Like they’re so tough no explosion can kill them. But it does!”
Niddy began to cry, still talking through her sobs.
“And Yezz is tough! You have to be to get through what we did. He can’t survive this, though! And Ricket knows it and uses him all the same!”
She put her face down on her arm, her body shaking. Not sure what to do, I took her hand in my own. Niddy looked up at me after a moment.
“Thanks, Destron. I don’t think any goblins would care much if I told them. I guess this is why they say that a goblin’s best friend is anyone from another race.”
Niddy was silent for a while after that. We sat together in the darkened parlor, drawing strength from each others’ company. I finally broke the silence.
“Is there anything you could do to stop the exploitation of the sappers?”
“I don’t know where to start. It’s a tradition. Like, the goblins who become sappers are too crazy to do anything else, so they might as well blow themselves up. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it until Yezz got suckered in.”
“But surely a skilled and judicious explosives expert could accomplish more than a sapper. He could bring more experience, and less recklessness.”
“Sure, they have people like that. Sappers get the grunt jobs.”
“Still, wouldn’t the sappers do that even more effectively if they received proper safety training and some mental recovery?”
“Maybe,” she sighed. “I could try to pitch that idea, talk about the increased profits that could come from a dedicated demolitions force. If any trade group would go for it, I bet it’d be Steamwheedle. I don’t think that’ll happen in time to save my brother though. He’s been through so much, and he’s really smart. I know he is! He just needs a little time.”
I spent the next few days with Niddy, helping her draft a proposal for the Steamwheedle Cartel. I offered some advice, but she did nearly everything else. My scholarly style would not win many converts among the hard-bitten Steamwheedle executives. Her writing voice, sharp and to the point, posed a better chance of acceptance.
Niddy took me to the sappers’ barracks on my last day, wanting to introduce me to Yezz. The sappers, fourteen in total, live together in a large (by goblin standards) but single-room house sporadically overseen by Ricket. Everything there is in deplorable condition. Scribbles of implausible devices cover the walls, most only half-completed. The sappers talk in a nearly constant stream, stumbling over their own words in the rush to make themselves heard. They wear their field equipment at all times, eroding the quality. Only the explosives are missing; it would not do to let them carry ordnance. The sappers satisfy themselves with fakes, strapping empty barrels to their backs and holding sticks of wooden dynamite.
Yezz grinned when Niddy introduced him to me. He wore red-tinted goggles and thick leather gloves at all times.
“Destron, is it? I’ve got some great ideas here, maybe you and I could go into business once I’m done with my contract here, hell, why wait? We can start planning now. See, I’ve got these ideas, dredging it up from the sea, lots of potential here, you know?”
Niddy looked away for a moment. She stepped in, saying that I would soon be leaving K3. The two of them switched to conversing in Goblinish. Most goblins know Orcish or Common (or both) in order to facilitate trade, and the two languages have become the preferred tongue of the public realm. Goblinish is only used when discussing personal matters. Even then, Yezz kept his endless line of chatter, a smile fixed on his small face while Niddy held back her tears.
Niddy walked me to the edge of town, where Glank was preparing his zeppelin. Frigid winds blew across the Snowblind Hills as we waited, and Niddy shivered in her coat.
“Thank you for the help, Destron. I owe you for this one. Not sure how much money it’s worth, exactly.”
“Take your time figuring it out,” I said, knowing that to refuse payment would insult her.
“At the very least I’ll put in a good word for you wherever I can. Give you some credit if this thing ever takes off.”
“Most of it was your idea.”
“Not sure if I’d have made the attempt without you. To be honest, I’m not so sure this will work.”
“You’ve done more than anyone else to help the sappers. That’s something, at least,” I said.
“I did it to help Yezz. He’s the one who finally broke, but I’m not sure I could have survived debt slavery without him. I owe him something, and I might never get the chance to repay him. And now they’re going to send him to get killed.”
“He’s family. It’s only natural for you to love him.”
“Sure. And that’s love; repaying someone even after they can’t help you anymore. Just because it’s what has to be done.”
We stood there in the snow for a while longer, the only sounds coming from the distant wind.
Glank did not survive the crash. His broken body was the first thing I saw when I extricated myself from the wreckage, stepping out into the howling mountain storm. Snow hurtled down from black skies, driven by punishing gales. I struggled forward, trying to make headway. The snowfall increased, soon leaving me blind in a world of endless white. Fearing that I’d fall off some unseen cliff, I sat down in the snow and waited for the storm to clear.
Undeath does not render me immune to the effects of severe cold. Forsaken can be revived after being frozen, but I knew I wouldn’t last long in the Storm Peaks without my wits. I only needed to keep warm enough to prevent from shutting down. Fire spells accomplished this reasonably well, and I used them judiciously throughout the ordeal.
Not even the worst winter storm poses an obstacle to some of the natives. Cold hands gripped my arms and lifted me up from the snow, hours or days after the crash. Too stunned to react, I did nothing as they tied my hands together behind my back. I heard a shout, but could not make out the words over the storm.
Seized by my left arm I was moved along through the snow, pulled and cuffed if I lagged or went the wrong way. I caught glimpses of my captor as a silhouette. The size of the gloved hand around my arm was like a human’s but larger. I realized I was at the mercy of the vrykul.
I do not think we marched for long before reaching the caverns. The snow suddenly vanished, replaced by worn rock walls on all sides. The entire structure shook as massive doors clanged shut behind us.
My captors were indeed vrykul, though not like the ones I’d seen in the south. Matching the descriptions I’d heard in K3, they looked to be carved from ice. Jagged rims of frost lined their clothes and tools, their features perfect yet somehow lifeless. Three of them stood around me, all women.
“Here is where you will work and die, slave,” spat one.
“He looks like one of the corpse-drones, sister. Wiser, I think, to slay him now,” growled another.
“You worry about safety when glory awaits? Then leave this land and run yelping to the south like the gutless dog you are!” shouted the first, her high voice echoing in the mines.
“You doubt me, sister? Then let me prove my courage to you in blood!”
“Overseer, put this one in irons. Fylni and I shall settle our score at the grounds.”
Another vrykul emerged from the shadows. She clapped a crude ball and chain around my right leg, and shoved me into a dark corridor of unworked stone. I passed other vrykul, dressed in rags and chipping at the rock wall with worn picks.
“Now work, slave. Work until you die. You are worthless to us,” said the overseer. She leaned down to the corpse of a vrykul worker, taking the mining pick at his side and shoving it into my hands. I staggered under the weight of the thing, made for someone much bigger than myself. Without another word, the overseer retreated into darkness.
I tried to assess my situation, bewildered by the sudden change. The passage echoed with the sound of metal striking stone, and I could see two vrykul miners up ahead, laboring under the lanterns' pale light. Layers of black filth covered their welt-ridden torsos, and their hair grew wild from neglect.
As the overseer’s lantern receded into the darkness the miners slowed, their starved faces taking on wary expressions. Soon the work stopped entirely and the two vrykul shambled towards me. Bloodshot eyes peered curiously from tangled hair, and the closest one spoke, revealing a mouth of seeping gums.
“What strange fate brings you here? Never before has the Death God sent his servants to the winter darkness of the Storm Peaks. Do you come alone, or does an army of the dead spill Hyldnir blood even as we speak?”
I hesitated, momentarily at a loss. Would the vrykul truly mistake me for a Scourge minion? Perhaps exhaustion and desperation made them see what they wanted to see.
“My dark master sent me to see if the tales of vrykul mettle prove true in these dark mines, though he told me little beyond that. I am a lesser lich, Khal Deathfrost, appearing weak to lull my enemies into complacency,” I said, choosing my lies with great care.
“Then let us bring the wrath of Ymiron and the Death God to the ice-bound wenches who put us here! My heart yearns to again feel the battle song, and to hear the death cries of my foes! I am Mitgrum, Sorrow-of-Orphans, bladesman of the Dragonflayer. My battle-brother here is Rinnerjar, of the Crushed Jaw, hailing from the same.”
“Patience, Mitgrum, Sorrow-of-Orphans, and Rinnerjar, of the Crushed Jaw. From his death-shrouded halls my master savors the promise of vengeance, and he will not be hurried.”
“But it is our doom to die in battle! The decrees of fate cannot be delayed, even by the gods!” exclaimed Mitgrum.
“Rest assured that you do battle even now, in some way.” I studied his face, hoping he believed me.
“This? Battle? There is no clash of arms or shouts of war, only the chipping of stone. This is work for slaves! We have our ways of finding honor, but there is no better death than to die bringing woe to the Hyldnir!”
“And even a slave may be rewarded if he fights well at the side of his master, which you are doing through your endurance. Or do you question the promise of the Death God?”
Mitgrum looked suddenly doubtful.
“Never will my words go against those of the Death God. We merely hunger for battle.”
“How did you come to be captives?” I asked.
“Even as rivers of blood fed the forests around Voldrune, Thane Torvald Eriksson, with Fist-Full-of-Gore, sent us to the mountains of storms eternal. Traitors cower in the dark places here, mocking our honor with their life. Strong are we, and wise in the ways of winter, but the Hyldnir used foul sorcery to trick us and bind us in chains!”
“What do you know of the Hyldnir?”
“Withered crones and ugly maidens to the last, hoping that the gods of old will wed them. No one can say how long they have held to their mountain fastness, or if they took part in the long slumber,” said Mitgrum.
“They test their blades against each other at the Hyldsmeet, which goes on even now. I hear them speak of the trials in which all the Hyldnir take part, dipping their swords in the blood of kin and neighbor. Outlanders too, take part, though few are foolish enough to go against the word of our master,” added Rinnerjar.
“Are all the prisoners here loyal to the Death God?” I asked.
“Most are the cowards who see only the past, who seek glory in the musty sagas told by aged idiots. Truly only the weak flee from the promises of the Death God, for they fear to raise their hands against the Hyldnir.”
“How many are loyal, besides yourselves?”
“We and three others are the only true warriors in these cold halls. More once labored here but they have gone on to glory. We fought and killed them as they ailed, so that they might die in battle.”
“Good,” I said. I’d apparently stumbled onto the weakest faction of miners. Yet the mention of the Hyldsmeet brought me a sliver of hope. Vyldra, the vrykul woman I’d helped in the Howling Fjord, had stated her intent to go north and participate in the event.
If Vyldra still lived, she might be willing to help. I also wondered what had happened to her father, Vadrad. Had he also been put in the mines? I doubted that Vyldra would have allowed that to happen.
“Go about your work as you would. Do not mention my name to a soul, not even the other loyalists. I will contact you when the time is right,” I said.
“Give us the word and we shall rise up and flood the mines with Hyldnir blood, and build mountains with their skulls!” proclaimed Mitgrum.
The mine is very poorly run. The vast complex of tunnels worms deep into the mountain, yet entire sections lie abandoned, preserved only by saronite energies. Passages meander into the rock without any sense of organization. Miners hack into the walls at random and are nearly always rewarded with dead stone.
That the mine produces so little appears lost on the overseers, who make only sporadic checks on the workers. A miner can go for days without seeing one of his oppressors. They did not even relieve me of most of my supplies, seizing only the Amani war club I’d taken from Skorn.
I could not fathom why the Hyldnir would bother with the mine. The slaves consume a great deal of food (minimal sustenance for a vrykul is still considerable), which is in scarce supply so far north. This might be justifiable if the mine produced significant amounts of ore, yet the carts rarely hold anything beyond dust and rubble. Obtaining slaves is another challenge, since few ever venture into Hyldnir lands.
Conversing with the other miners proved impossible. I believe that Mitgrum and Rinnerjar maintained their silence, but most of the vrykul also assumed me to be Scourge. The situation forced me to keep company with the two loyalists.
Fueled only by a few bowls of gruel or broth each day, extended effort was beyond the ability of the vrykul slaves. Mitgrum and Rinnerjar only mined during the rare visits of the overseer. The rest of the time they sat in the frigid darkness, their bodies collapsing from hunger. Too hungry to sleep yet too tired to work, the two vrykul did little more than lie on the ice-cold stone floor, dreaming of bloodshed. Nothing less than the thought of battle could rouse them, and then only for a little while.
“Though the Hyldnir entomb us in the rock and starve us of food, our master knows that we will never die the death of cowards,” wheezed Rinnerjar. “If the time is not right to bring war unto the Hyldnir, then we shall fight our own number to ensure that we enter paradise drenched in blood, as a warrior must.”
Rinnerjar lurched to his feet, the sudden exertion causing his knees to buckle. Grabbing the pick he moved up the tunnel at a crawl.
“Tell our master that I died in gory honor with a battle cry the last sound from my lips. Tell him that I died with but one regret, that I could not hear the music of Hyldnir death-screams.”
“Grant me the honor of helping you to the death of a warrior, Rinnerjar, of the Crushed Jaw,” said Mitgrum, standing up. “I will be your strength on the way to glory.”
Mitgrum put Rinnerjar’s arm over his shoulder, and helped the ailing vrykul on his final journey. I followed close behind, both alarmed and curious. I felt a twinge of discomfort at allowing Rinnerjar to go to his death, but knew he would accept no other fate.
They found another crew of miners at the end of the tunnel, languishing in the cold. I could just see their wasted forms under the lanterns, shuddering with each shallow breath.
“Cowards all!” shouted Rinnerjar as he removed himself from Mitgrum’s support. “You writhe like corpse-worms in the rot of the old ways, shirking the fate decreed by our king and our god! Forever will your bones hang in the Death Halls of Var, your souls and deeds cast to oblivion!”
Rinnerjar swung at the air with his pick, his arms trembling.
“Do any of you dare face the might of a warrior?” he screamed, the withered voice echoing in the mines.
A vrykul with a wild yellow beard stood up, spade in hand. His ruddy complexion marked him as a new arrival.
“I see no might in your spirit, only the shrinking fear of one who has abandoned the All-Father. I, Ulf, Wolf-Hearted, will teach you the way of the warrior, and in so doing end your wretched life.”
Howling, Rinnerjar aimed his pick at Ulf’s head. The stronger vrykul dodged easily and slammed the spade into Rinnerjar’s gut. The shock of the blow threw him to the ground, and Ulf pinned him there with his foot. He raised the spade and brought it down with all his might, once, twice, and a third time. The pale light revealed the blood spattered across the blade. Then he raised his head and looked to Mitgrum.
“Heretic and death-worshipper Rinnerjar may have been, but the All-Father respects bravery in all its forms. If I have need, you must deliver unto me the same death found by your friend,” said Ulf.
“I swear it will be so.”
What I had seen was actually a vrykul funeral, held under great duress. I followed Mitgrum back into the tunnel.
“Death in battle is our hope, Khal. Do you see the bloody soul of fallen Rinnerjar in the halls of the Death God? He cannot be anywhere else. Death is the only measure of a man. I know that the val’kyr no longer accept all who die in war, but the Hyldnir, not cowardice, restrain us in our deeds.”
“My master tells me little, but I am sure Rinnerjar received his reward. He did die well, and there is nothing more that my master would expect,” I said.
I learned that all the vrykul miners, loyalist or rebel, cooperate to ensure a violent death for all. Some seek this more directly, attacking the overseers, though the anti-Scourge vrykul were sometimes reluctant to do this, seeing the Hyldnir as near to the gods. As for the Hyldnir, they make no effort to discourage this practice.
Cowards (meaning anyone who does not die in battle) are condemned to the cold afterlife of Var. Mitgrum said that the Death God used the souls in Var as mindless soldiers called var’gul, more like fodder than actual warriors. Even those who die in battle can become var’gul, if they perform poorly or fail when challenging others in certain ritual duels. The winners of these duels become ymirjar, the deathless warriors of the Lich King. He explained this when I questioned his understanding of the Death God’s ways.
Fear knotted Mitgrum’s brow as he spoke of glory. I could sense his desperation. The vrykul do not fear death, but the desire for a particularly spectacular one sometimes compels them to wait. Mitgrum’s every thought revolved around killing the Hyldnir, and he feared he would not get the chance. He spoke in great detail of bringing wagon loads of bodies to the Lich King, and ascending to the highest honor.
The only time the miners see anything of the outside world is when the scant ore is gathered and taken to the Hyldnir village of Sifreldar, south of the mine. This is done with the same disarray as everything else. The miners put the ore and waste rock into packs, which they then carry to the entrance. Presumably, someone else then sorts through the mess.
I got my first good look at Sifreldar when carrying my pack out for disposal. Left to icy neglect, the bleak village of Sifreldar clings to a precarious existence at the base of jagged mountains. It resembles the town of Skorn in most respects, consisting of narrow houses that are little more than jumbled collections of wood and stone. While the southern vrykul towns are lightened by dashes of color, Sifreldar is uniformly dark. Layers of ice settle on peaked roofs that sag under the weight. Iron cages stand on the snow all through the village, devoid of living occupants.
A wild-voiced overseer yelled curses at the miners as they emptied their packs, her obvious insignificance sharpening her fury. The miners paid her little heed. After unloading my own pack, I noticed a nearby vrykul unlike the rest, her skin colored in the familiar flesh tones of the south.
Our eyes met, and I instantly recognized Vyldra. She gasped upon seeing me, and immediately turned to the overseer.
“Mildred, this pitiful slave is useless to you, with his spindly arms that will surely break from the weight of the stone. Better that I sharpen my blade on his bones,” she bellowed. “Give him to me!”
“Do you dare deny me?”
“Take him, Vyldra, Bloody-Haired! The lives of these slaves exist only to speed your entry into glory,” said Mildred, her voice glum. I heard snickers from the miners, who doubtless enjoyed seeing her authority so easily overridden.
Vyldra grabbed me by the arm like a child. I hurried to keep pace as she strode through the snow, eventually headed to a narrow rocky pass cutting up through the mountains.
“What mad fate brings us together a second time? Here in the land of the gods, where honor goes to die” she growled. “Count yourself lucky that I found you, for the mines are deadly even for one like yourself. Great warriors die in this place, robbed of their rightful doom, all done to feed the bloated pride of dead-hearted crones!” Her words surprised me, to say the least.
“What happened to Vadrad?”
“They threw my father into the dark pit from which I saved you. He, who once fought with the courage of a thousand men, consigned to a wretched fate. We Hyldnir are to be the brides of Thorim, yet the gods respect courage in all its forms. The Hyldnir would lose nothing by turning him into the wilds, to die doing battle with the giants. Instead, they robbed him of his destiny!” she raged, her free hand thrusting wildly into the air.
“He deserved better,” I said. Whatever my discomfort towards his culture’s savagery and backwardness, I had still respected the old vrykul’s bravery and devotion to his daughter.
“Never have the Hyldnir seen true courage, so it frightens them. I will honor the All-Father, and my father, by spilling their blood and proving their weakness.”
“Before you continue, Vyldra, your father most likely died fighting. The miners have arranged to kill whoever is nearing death from exhaustion.”
Vyldra stopped and turned to me, her eyes wide.
“Did you see my father? I saw them dragging the body out, a great rent open in his skull, but I could not tell how he received it.”
“I believe Vadrad was dead before I arrived, but I have seen miners do this to each other. Even the vrykul who serve the Lich King receive this honor.”
“A paltry reward, one far less than what he deserved, but it is something. Now I know he looks down from his seat at the halls of the All-Father, a horn of spiced mead gripped in his hand and a savage smile on his face. I thank you, Destron. If he had the chance to die in battle I know he would have taken it, so there is no doubt in my heart as to his fate.”
She looked away, her face twisting as if in pain, but only for a moment. Regaining her composure, she continued walking.
“I crept into the mines one night, keeping to the darkness, and found him cold and hungry in the deepest tunnels. How I begged him to free himself! I promised to fight the Hyldnir alongside him, to meet death in rage as a warrior must. He refused, and forbade me from ever seeing him. ‘I am old and have fought my greatest battles, dearest daughter. Glory beyond mine is yours for the taking, and may my soul be damned if I get in your way.’ Such were his final words to me.”
“If he didn’t mention the miners’ death arrangements, he may not have known of it at the time. I did not find out until some time after I arrived,” I said.
“We Hyldnir can do as we please with the miners, but the overseers knew he was my father and would not let me save him, as I saved you. Perhaps hunger dulled his senses, so he could not see that these Hyldnir fall short of the All-Father.”
“From what I’ve seen, they do not seem much different from the vrykul serving the Scourge. Vyldra, what do you intend to do with me?”
“You helped me in Skorn, and I will never forget that. I saw how you kept fighting with your puny form, even after your sorceries left you. You are like the rabbit that fought the wolf, brave in the face of defeat. For this, I will try to release you so that you may find a better death than what the mines can offer. No Hyldnir will care what I do for you.”
“When can you do this?”
“Now, but I will ask you to wait a little while longer so that I may arrange a better escape. I know how your soul burns with hatred for the Death God, and I will not deny your vengeance. Give me but a few days, and I can promise you will sow death among the ranks of your foes.”
Moonlight cut through the narrow windows, casting its pale shadow on the floor. I could hear Vyldra breathing as she slept in the straw mattress at the other end of the room, a dark and narrow affair littered with broken furniture. Only the shields hanging from the walls appeared new, horned skulls painted on the surfaces.
I did not experience a pleasant arrival in Brunnhildar. Just like in Skorn, the locals poured their contempt on me, and Vyldra had to play along. She apologized profusely when we reached her home, a freezing house perched on the edge of a cliff.
Vyldra had found me late in the day, and she went to sleep just past nightfall, after taking a saronite-preserved meal of reindeer flank. Candlelight revealed the extent of her exhaustion, her bloodshot eyes betraying her lack of sleep. She wore her anger and disappointment for all to see.
A low and rumbling horn broke the cold morning calm. Already awake, I joined Vyldra. After setting a fire in the hearth, she cooked some preserved fish for breakfast. She looked better than she had the previous night, stronger and more refreshed.
“Many are the tests of the Hyldnir, and what I face today is perhaps the worst. Only the finest seamstress may be the wife of a god, and it is in this that I must prove my ability. As if the gods need help in that!” she snorted.
“I thought it was just combat. Have you fought at all?”
“No! My ax thirsts for Hyldnir blood, as do I. Legends speak of the clash of swords sounding over the storm, but these Hyldnir adore their little rules. Make no mistake; the Hyldnir only respect those with frost on their skins. They treat outlanders like curs.”
“You seemed to have authority over that Hyldnir overseer yesterday.”
“Sifreldar is the fate met by those Hyldnir who shirk the trials of the Hyldsmeet. I am greater than them, but no matter how many I killed in better days, the Hyldnir burden me with more trials.”
“You have more than the other contestants?”
“They say that those born of the mountains are raised to become gods, that they already know the arts of hearth and loom. Those tests are for outsiders.”
“You never learned such skills in Skorn?”
“I do not think the Hyldnir know such skills either. No vrykul woman deigned to sully her hands with brute labor. We had slaves aplenty for that. Wives and mothers would watch the slaves of the house, but none did the work themselves.”
“I see. What happened to your friend? Hilgmar, I believe?”
“She never lived to see this damnable place, her life taken by the Scourge. We three were ambushed on a storm-tossed night south of here.”
“I am sorry.”
“Hilgmar will never taste the bitterness of her hopes being broken. She died simply and with honor, as well as any vrykul could hope.”
She stood up and went to the door.
“Stay here, for the Hyldnir will not brook your kind traveling free through Brunnhildar. Busy yourself with giving life to the fire, so that I might return to a warm home,” she ordered.
The door slammed with a shocking bang, leaving me alone in the frigid cabin. Stealing a glance through the window I saw Vyldra tighten her fur robe as she walked to a rambling wooden hall. Snow fell in lonely flakes as she walked, drifting down through the thin air.
I sighed, disheartened by the brutish hostility of the Hyldnir. The vrykul are far more complicated than an initial examination might suggest. Most vrykul serve the Lich King. A few hold out, standing fast to the old ways. Then there are the Hyldnir, who appear to claim some orthodoxy over those same old ways. Since the second group lacks any sort of unifying organization, I doubt they will play much of a part in current events.
I believe that much of vrykul self-image is based on entitlement. This could either be an outgrowth from, or a cause of, their dependence on slaves. The Hyldnir take this mode of thought far enough that they feel comfortable enslaving other vrykul, presumably seeing them as lesser beings. Certainly, vrykul presented the only real option in terms of slaves, due to the lack of other inhabitants. If the Hyldnir run out of vrykul, I expect they will attempt to put the goblins of K3 to work.
I waited in Vyldra’s cabin as dark day turned to darker night, with nothing to do besides tend to the trembling flames in the hearth. Winter storms roared outside, cold winds cutting through the thin walls and blowing dust around the chamber. Though saronite protect against decay, it cannot preserve any semblance of vitality. The fire’s fragile light somehow accentuated the sense of darkness and age, revealing the battered beds and cabinets to be no more than half-tangible memories. The future has no place in Brunnhildar.
Vyldra nearly ripped the door off its hinges when she returned, her head bowed. Snow draped her shoulders and she shivered in spite of her thick clothing. Pushing off the snow, she knelt by the fireplace and extended her hands. I finally broke the silence.
“How did you fare?”
“From morning to dusk we labored, weaving tapestries of grand design. Each they threw into the furnace, our efforts an insult to our goal and to the Hyldnir. No skill will sway them, their minds devoured by pride.”
“They scarcely seem worth the attempt.”
“They are not worth anything! They are like the armies of the Death God, worm-stuffed corpses that do not know their time has passed! Many are the vrykul maidens who come here seeking glory, only to be cast aside while the Hyldnir pretend to be gods. The All-Father cannot find pleasure in this cowardice. I can see how the Hyldnir fear me, fear my swift and sharp blade. Not one dares to stand against me in combat, instead putting me to work at looms and stoves!”
“Why do these Hyldnir behave so arrogantly?”
“Ah, Destron. If you died like a coward and found your soul plunged into corpse-drowned Var, you would still satisfy yourself in asking each damned soul how he came to Var, what he did while alive, and what he does in damnation. You could find either afterlife to your liking. It is enough to almost make me envy you.”
She gave a rueful laugh.
“Our sagas speak of Sif with the Golden Hair, wife of Thorim. No living thing could compare to her beauty, and Thorim loved her with all his divine heart. But the giants, who in those days were the servants of the gods, began to plot and scheme, jealous of Thorim and his fortune. They killed Sif one night and ripped off her scalp, sending it to Thorim. Then began the war of gods and giants. Thorim called for the warrior women of the vrykul to bring his vengeance to the giants, and many answered the call. So began the Hyldnir.”
“And Thorim would marry the Hyldnir who did the best job?”
“So he said, though a thousand years went by without a single battle-maiden ascending to the ultimate glory. The Hyldnir slept like all the other vrykul. Though they cursed the name of King Ymiron, they joined the other vrykul in slumber, for the Hyldnir could not replenish their numbers when alone. No one knows what awoke them from their rest, whether it was the Death God or some other great power, but the Hyldnir found themselves apart from their race. Thirsting for blood, they resumed their war against the giants, seeking to wed Thorim before the Last Winter ends all.”
“Then the Hyldnir regard themselves as favored warriors.”
“They think the rest of us to be the lapdogs of Ymiron and the Death God, not knowing how a brave few fought and hated the foolish king.”
“Do you wish to be Thorim’s wife?” I asked.
“Questions are as meat and drink for you, Destron, do you ever stop asking? Now I shall ask questions of my own! Does Thorim know of the Hyldnir? He is silent, and who can say if he finds the Hyldnir worthy? Certainly I do not! Courage must always be respected, yet they put my noble father in chains! I cannot forget that. To forgive it is to insult his memory,” she said, her carefully arranged vrykul speech simplified by anguish.
“I agree, you have a right to be angry. Though your father did tell you to continue your task.”
“And that is what vexes me. I must honor and fulfill his words, but what the Hyldnir did goes against everything he taught me. I have faith that the brave will be rewarded. If I go out and challenge these Hyldnir, and die in so doing, I will be rewarded. Some doubt this, thinking the Hyldnir to be like gods, but I believe it in my bones. What better fate is there than to die fighting such foes, defiant even against the divine?”
“Perhaps there are better ways to die, however. The Lich King, or Death God, rather, still rules your people. He threatens to rule the entire world. You are a fantastic warrior, Vyldra. The Horde would be honored to have you in its ranks.”
She looked away from the fire and at me, her confusion apparent.
“I must dwell on this, Destron. It is not easy for a warrior to decide which death to choose. I want to make the Hyldnir pay in blood.”
“Yes, but remember that the Death God’s actions led your father to come up here in the first place. Surely the Scourge is also a worthy target of vengeance.” As I said this, I prayed she would not become like the hateful apothecaries.
“You speak with wisdom. I will let you know tomorrow. Whatever my decision, be prepared for bloodshed.”
I could almost hear Vyldra thinking through the night. I lay on a threadbare rug, wondering if she would really fit into the Horde. Though she had many legitimate grievances against the Hyldnir and the Scourge, I suspected that much of her anger stemmed from simple pride. In a sense, this was not so different from many normal Horde warriors. Still, given that she would be the only vrykul, it seemed like a source of potential conflict.
The clash of blades heralded morning’s arrival, as Hyldnir fighters sparred in the snows of Brunnhildar. I stole a glance outside, seeing them test each other with metal weapons, easily capable of wounding or even killing. Helmed judges watched their progress, jaws set in stern frowns.
Vyldra stepped over to the window, her hair disheveled. She did not look as if she’d slept at all.
“The Hyldnir fight while we outlanders learn to be slaves.”
“Have you thought about my offer?”
“I have thought of nothing else. You speak with wisdom when you say that the Death God deserves my wrath more than the Hyldnir. Wise too is your call to join this Horde in battle. The first is a fate I will embrace, for what warrior could ignore the chance to face the Death God? The second I must shun.”
“If I am so rankled by the orders of fellow vrykul, how can I feel differently to the demands of a Horde race? I am a vrykul, Destron. It is my path to walk above and alone from the slave races of the world. There is much honor in them, I see this now. But I am a vrykul. I would shame my father, and his father, and all of my ancestors, if I fought at the bidding of a Forsaken.”
“These slave races are rising in power each day, Vyldra. If the vrykul are to have any sort of future—”
“Then we will not have a future!” she roared, spinning on her heels and turning to face me, teeth bared and eyes livid. I stood my ground, meeting her hostility without reaction.
“Without pride and honor, we have nothing. How can we, children of the All-Father, hold any pride if we serve under those races who have never known his might?”
“If you fight well and with honor, how does it matter who leads you? I am sure that a skilled vrykul such as yourself could rise quite high in the Horde.”
“Still, you do not understand. If it were only a matter of honor in battle, then I would gladly join the armies of the Death God. But my father told me of the vrykul birthright, how we can serve no other master.”
“Yet these lesser races now build empires greater than any made by the vrykul. Does that not suggest there is something more to them?” I said, finding myself angry at her obstinacy. Something about her passion resounded within me, strange as it may seem, and I hated the idea of her skill and strength going to waste.
“There is often a deeper truth beyond mere facts, Destron. Even as these races surpass us, they are not greater than us. Our story is one of heroes, and the hero must always meet death.”
I was about to retort, but gave up when I saw the look of certainty on her face. I’d seen something similar years ago, in a vengeance-crazed demon hunter I had met in the Blasted Lands. I had also tried to convince him, my arguments dashed against a wall of pride. Such monstrous emotions take on lives of their own, dark furies made insular and self-absorbed.
Vyldra led me out of the cabin, the two of us walking in past the Hyldnir fighters, their swords ringing clear in the thin air. While I felt only gloom, Vyldra held her head high, looking prouder than I’d ever before seen her.
“I feel as if a great weight has lifted from me, the cares of decision solved in one bold move. You are right, Destron, but you are also wrong. To the vrykul, the death of a warrior is greater than the death of a world,” she said, her quiet voice exultant.
Such are the thoughts of mortals who imagine themselves gods. The vrykul love to see themselves as key players in great sagas. I wonder if it is not more accurate to think of their history as a cautionary tale for other warrior societies.
I tried to glean whatever I could from a quick observation of Brunnhildar, having been denied the chance to learn much about the place. Brunnhildar is much like its sister town of Sifreldar, the shambles of a civilization that clings to the memories of a lost past. I do not think that Brunnhildar will be inhabited for much longer. The Hyldnir will have no way to sustain their population once the saronite-preserved foods run out. Perhaps this explains the savage abandon with which they embrace death. They would rather die in battle than move south and live as farmers.
I saw the bear pen of Brunnhildar that morning, set in a wide and filthy pit in the center of the town. Half-wild white bears pace in the enclosure, their hides matted and drooping from malnutrition. I counted thirteen bears in all, four of them being ridden by Hyldnir warriors who ordered their hapless mounts with curses and lashes. I thought I detected a hint of desperation in the Hyldnir cries.
“What is your plan?” I asked Vyldra, my voice barely audible over the growls.
“The great wings of the frost-drake will take us from this damned place and into legend. We will ride out from Brunnhildar, slaying any who hinder us, and fly to a place of safety amidst the din of storms. Unleash your sorceries, for the Hyldnir deserve no better.”
The Hyldnir keep a stable of riding drakes at the western edge of Brunnhildar, where the cliffs overlook the Valley of Ancient Winters. They appear healthier than the bears, presumably considered a higher priority. Their rough, armored bodies rest on the snow, supported by leather wings that they use like legs.
“They even slew the drakes ridden here by my father and dear friend, calling such creatures useless in the north,” said Vyldra.
More likely, the Hyldnir simply could not afford to feed any more drakes. Four Hyldnir stood guard around the drakes. The nearest notched an arrow to her bow as we approached, though she made no move to aim it.
“No glories await you here, outlander wench! Return yourself and your slave to a cold hall and wait for the next test!” shouted the guard.
“I am here to see the steed that will carry me to the gods, o noble maiden of battle, to see the victory that I know is my fate,” replied Vyldra.
“What? I will make you eat your words, warm-skin! Turn back before I—”
Vyldra sprang forward with her ax at the ready, her blood-curdling cry echoing in the valley. I cast a fire burst at the Hyldnir’s feet and she leapt back, losing her balance. A moment later she lay stretched out on the snow, blood pouring out from the wound in her neck.
“I am Vyldra, Bloody-Haired, daughter of Vadrad, Death-of-Foes! Face now the vengeance of the warrior you tried to shame, and see your blood spilled on the winter snows!” she yelled.
I ran with Vyldra towards the nearest drake, thankful for the balance provided by the snow shoes. Vyldra suddenly veered to the side, charging a sword-wielding Hyldnir. Vyldra intercepted the Hyldnir’s stroke with her own ax, steel hitting steel. Then she delivered a swift kick to the Hyldnir’s gut and plunged her ax into the distracted fighter’s head. Still yelling, the Hyldnir pulled back, blood streaming from her scalp, and slashed at Vyldra. The blade missed by a hair’s breadth, and the width of the swing left her open to a second, fatal blow.
An arrow whistled past, narrowly missing my head. I fired arcane missiles at the archer, though they barely seemed to faze her. Meanwhile, another Hyldnir with a sword ran to intercept Vyldra.
Fire sparked to life in my hands, gathering heat and brightness as I prepared a more damaging spell. Then a dull shock ran up my right leg, a Hyldnir arrow embedded in the shin. The spell died as I scrambled back, only mildly hindered by the wound. I moved towards the frost drake, only to have the beast swing its primitive head at me and roar. I fell to the ground in surprise, another arrow burying itself in the snow beside me.
Using a blink spell I teleported a few yards to the side, casting a scorch spell as soon as I returned to existence. Searing flames blasted the Hyldnir, and I saw her bow fall to pieces in her hands. Possessed of the unbelievable vrykul toughness, she bounded towards me, a broad dagger in her right hand. I fired another set of arcane missiles and the final impact sent her reeling. She collapsed, dead or incapacitated.
I turned to see Vyldra, blood running from a gash on her leg. Her opponent lay dead in the snow.
“Destron, why are you not yet on the drake?” she demanded.
“The drake seems hostile, and I don’t have any spells that might tame it.”
“These drakes are proud and cruel, almost as much as we vrykul. Perhaps that is why we are the ones who ride them into battle.
Vyldra broke the chain holding the vrykul to the ground with a single blow, and then leapt on the saddle with a lion’s swift elegance, grabbing the reins and giving a hearty cry of command. The drake struggled, its tail lashing out in anger. Then she cuffed it where the neck met the body and cried in shrilly pain. Again it resisted, the muscles along its spine rippling as it tried to throw Vyldra to the side. She hit it again, and the beast finally acquiesced, lowering its head in defeat. I clambered into the saddle in front of Vyldra, her arms around my head.
The drake lifted off, the power in its body reminiscent of a mighty engine coming to life. I felt a momentary thrill at riding such a primeval creature, as if I were imposing my will on the elements, even though Vyldra had done all of the work.
In an instant, she was gone. I suddenly became aware of her absence, of the emptiness behind me.
“Vyldra!” I shouted.
Looking down, I saw her clutching her side, an arrow’s shaft protruding from a bloody wound. The Hyldnir had seen us, and I saw three running to kill Vyldra, two more standing back and firing arrows. One hit the drake’s head, breaking harmlessly on its armor plates.
Grabbing the reins I tried to get the drake to circle down, but the creature would have none of it, flapping its massive wings as it rose into the darkness. Below me, Vyldra was fighting the Hyldnir, one of them already lying in a gory mess at her feet. Yet more warriors rushed out from their frozen halls with weapons drawn.
The last I heard from Vyldra was her terrible battle-cry, carried up by the cold winds, alight with glory.