The Ash Snow
Dawn... a new day begins.
The morning dew is oily and leaves a thick black film over everything. Roiling thick clouds overhead promise a heavy downpour of black rain. There are always those that prefer the rain to the ash snow. Prefer feeling that cloying oily sludge washing over them to the chocking clouds of dust and ash that fall during dry weather. And it is reasonable to say that the rain has its benefits it washes the ash from the sky in one fell swoop, and gives a respite for a time,a day a week even a month during snow season was once recorded when there was no ash snow.
But the rain has its drawbacks.
The oily water seeps into everything clothes, packs contaminating food and water and even the dwarven made filters that allow humans to breathe during the snows, clogging them. sickness spreads faster during the rains and when there are floods small villages and outposts get isolated. Invariably after a heavy rain there are whole settlements left dead with no one to deal with the aftermath.
This far north, just below the arctic line, the rains come less frequently and there is always the ash winter. Sages tell that The Great Teeth, the mountains always dominating the northern horizon, were the main source of the ash clouds when their great peaks exploded during the fall of the last Dark Lord. Great clouds of ash and soot filled the sky getting trapped and now they slowly fall chocking humanity as the dark lords last act of revenge. further south where his influence was less there is less snow and there is told even lands where the sun still shines in the sky and the people can breathe free.
But there were times when even those in the north could breathe free, in the morning hours. just before or after a heavy rain when the air was thick and heavy with water the soot would be pulled down to the ground and the air would clear.
It was one of those mornings, deep within the moaning forest. The forest was an ancient thing now receding and fading from the world in its dotage. Once there had been dozens of villages hidden among its trunks and even whispers of a few elven fetes among the tall boughs. War and strife made the forest a natural haven and the great cataclysm following the dark lords end made that haven a tomb. Soon enough starvation and disease set in and one day the contents of the forest spilled out, moaning and ravening for human flesh. Hence its name.
Amongst the tall evergreens a lone traveler wake from under her heavy skins and pull herself from the small hovel she had squeezed her body into for shelter. She was a tall woman with broad shoulders, wide hips and a large bosom long years hunting and fighting had built terribly strong muscles and a lifetime in the north had grown a healthy layer of winter fat. The traveler stood, cracked her back, arms, and legs stretching them in the open air. She shook out her hair red and shaggy and cut short for practicality as a breeze passed over her. She had been nude under the skins and the sudden cold gust prickled her skin but she felt safe enough from prying eyes secure in the knowledge that only the mad or the foolish ever traveled this far into the moaning forest during any season. laughing she wondered for the hundredth time which of those two she was and breathed in the momentarily clean air letting the cold fill her lungs.
The woman named Arnora took in another breathe and thought of her father the warlord Asbjorn tall and terrible to behold so many times she had seen him rise in these clean cold quiet mornings. She took another breath slapped her chest with both hand three times thrust both arms out wide and roared into the forest. All around the echo shook the trees and even a bear would have quailed at the fury of her roar. Still it seemed a small pitiful mew compared to her fathers own. thoughts of father turned to thoughts of home and invariably to the great hearth that was once at the center of the village, ever burning, a communal source of warmth and security. For a moment she could hear the sounds of children. laughter , crying, soft snoring and the inarticulate chatter. the hearth had been her heart. to have failed so utterly...
Almost too late the wind shifted and deep and resonant came the moans filtering among the trees. Foolishly Arnora had woken them from their dreamless sleep and they were already on the move. She had little to carry and no steed to carry her, there were no serviceable paths through the forest any longer in any event so a steed would have been more hindrance than help. They were always slow always ponderous and there had been none of the tell tale screams to warn of thinkers. So Arnora dressed and gathered her gear, furs, cloak, leather girdle and custom chain to fit her broad shoulders and large chest, a thick leather gorget that came up to her chin and went past her hair line, goggles and face mask with a fresh filter, finally shield and spear. By that time the first was just coming into view. but still far enough away so as to no be a concern. she was gone by the time three more showed up.
The clouds promised rain but like so much else in this world, promises were rarely held to. With every trudging step Arnora's large round shield, studded with iron and gouged and pitted more by teeth and fingers than by Ax or sword bounced against her back. The spear was for now a walking stick. 6 feet of wax wood core so dense and strong that it could stop a steel sword or Ax and can shatter bone. the head was an additional foot of steel cunningly bonded into the base and tapered to a dull point. the metal never rusted, never pitted or cracked it never shone either to prevent it catching the light.
Trudging along bleary from sleep and already rushing trying to avoid the inevitable convergence on her campsite, clumsily Arnora almost blundered into one of them. It appeared out of the morning fog staggering and lurching on legs that were fused together at the thighs. The whole body was melted and twisted from the fire that had killed it, the features melted and running like a candle but also cracked and blackened at places. Blind, its eyes melted and burst it moved towards Arnora guided by sound. slowly the warrior slid past and the creature lurched onward tracking the last sound it had heard.
Shocked into alert the hearth maiden scanned her surroundings the woods had been thinned here the work of the former residents of a village. Those same residents were now dotting the landscape wandering in every direction most in the same state as the one that had slipped by. another by product of her vanity they were all moving in the general direction of her echoes. She had to take cover and ride out the herd. Settling into a hovel Arnora began to datdream letting mind wander to where it always went.
When she was a child Arnora Asbjorndottor would sit among the other children listening to the old sage a creature so withered with age it was impossible to tell if it was male or female. The sage always told tales of the before times, before the ash before darkness before the dead rose and all the world collapsed in on itself. He told tales of the great northern kingdom of the great human society that had flourished and its wars against the dark lord. How all the world had united to hold back the darkness. It was strange how those memories were clearer than most of the others from her birthplace clearer even than the memories of her birth mother and father or of her brothers and sisters. The stories stood out in her mind at five years old and took hold. Perhaps it was the the fact that the old sage and his stories kept the children quiet and calm on that day when her real father's men came across the river to sack her village.
Arnora had never seen the attack that destroyed her village, she was rushed into the center hearth with the other children as the bells rang warning of the raiders.. But she had seen enough since then to know what had happened. the long boats pouring out of the mist, hitting the docks and shore with unerring precision and coordination then the undisciplined mass of men pouring off those same boats killing everything in sight those would be where the raiders took the most losses but by then the village would be broken, most of the few fighters and warriors dead and then the burning looting and raping would commence Father would insist on it even in villages where there was no resistance at all it broke the populace and made his landing all the easier.
Children were gathered up in the village center for inspection most were drowned but Asbjorn liked to at least see if any were worth keeping. Arnora remembered the raider roughly snatching her up she remembered the smell of the burning thatch roofs and a few inarticulate screams she remembered feeling a length of wood wrapped in leather on the hip of the raider carrying her but nothing else of what happened in those crazed moments. But her fathers account of what happened as he came upon the gathered children and villagers made sense.
Arnora was a large child and with a lucky strike she could have castrated to raider as he carried her. the other men would have found that hilarious causing the whole attack to stop dead as they all gathered to see Willem the raper rolling on the ground screaming and a five year old girl holding a knife knife in one hand and Willem manhood in the other. she never remembered any of that what Arnora remembered was the warlord as he swaggered into view.
He was a giant of a man compared to a child though somewhat smaller and much thinner than many of the other shaggy fat bellied broad shouldered raiders. He carried a huge great sword and no shield the sword was of a much higher quality than the others as well as his furs and mail marking him as a leader. At the sight of the warlord she turned to him and began to swing the knife never backing down. Arnora remembered his smile, a mouth full of white straight teeth not blackened and broken like the others. He edged closer careful of the knife and squatted down slapping aside any wild swings that might have by luck made contact. He laughed and all at once on cue the others laughed and stopped when he did.
“She's strong!” he exclaimed catching Arnora's hand with a grip that could have pulverized her hand in seconds all he did though was squeeze enough to make her drop the knife. The girl then resorted to kicks and scratching slaps all of which meant nothing against his mailed legs and calloused almost leathery hands. The warlord stood and Arnora was lifted up by the wrist like a rag doll still kicking and now spitting. Fear made her bowels and bladder void. “Look at the size of her!” he said voice welling with pride.
“KILL THE REST!!!” he roared then lower he said “we have all we will ever need right here” the sounds started up again but Arnora could only focus on the warlord, her soon to be new father staring into her eyes. His hand shot up and grabbed her around the throat and mouth his grip closing ever so tighter, blackness crept in around the edges of her vision and all she could hear was the sound of rushing water finally there was nothing but silence and blackness and a soft voice saying “you will be my spear in the darkness my wall against the darkness. You are my daughter now and forever...”
Father had not intended her for the boats, or for the taverns serving as a whore to her men. She was to be a hearth maiden. A warrior trained to be stronger and better than any raider. Trained to defend the home and hearth, the women and the old and the children, when the men went out raiding, trained to defend against any threat
The herd stopped coming at dawn and a few hours of still quiet gave Arnora the confidence to try and wiggle out of her hiding place, and continued along her course. A rough path began to open up a few miles further into the forest. Along it Arnora began to notice signs of the long abandoned lean to and hovels, signs that there had been, in years past a village of some kind. They had all been long since abandoned
Most likely as the outside world deteriorated in the decades following the cataclysm this village or settlement became more and more isolated. That isolation brought a degree of safety but also forced the community to become closed and insulated shunning any rare contact with the outside. The small independent homesteads were abandoned and those people all congregated in the center of the largest town.
Arnora found that town soon enough. It was connected to a small mill itself a ruin thanks to the now dry river. Outer buildings and homes were rotted shells as the residents, year after year, moved towards the center. More people in one place made for safety in numbers but there was also probably a steady decline in the community. Hygiene, medicine, and order would have broken down as people became more fearful and ignorant of the outside world. All it would take was an outbreak of disease or some disaster like a fire and well...
In the end it had been fire as Arnora discovered coming upon the blackened remains of the town center. It started at the main hearth and spread among dozens of poorly constructed and spaced dwellings, the fire and smoke had killed probably hundreds of men women and children in minutes before they could ever have organized and fought it. The fire would never have burned hot enough, especially with the rain, to have destroyed the bodies. Who ever survived the fire would have been set upon in in hours by their neighbors and within a few days the herd would be crossing Arnora's path. Stragglers appeared here and there but they were spaced far apart and mostly deaf and blind so it was easy to avoid them and move on finding the ruined path she had been following.
The herd had moved almost universally in the opposite direction of Arnora, so there was little chance of running into a mass gathering. But there was another threat that presented itself:survivors.
There were bound to be survivors lone refugees or even families that had had the good sense to run when they saw the town was lost. Tragically most of those were probably being hunted down by their own former neighbors even now but there was a chance of running into a few in this direction.
There was strength in numbers to be sure, but also a problem of being slowed down by the sick or injured. As well as a problem of limited supplies. Terrified fleeing villagers had little mind to take sufficient stores to survive in these harsh environs. The hearth maiden had limited rations and was moving towards a goal that had an expiration date. For the most part though, aide from a few glimpses of game flitting about the trees there was no contact with and so Arnora continued on her path for most of the day stopping once the forest was dark to eat and rest. Already the air was turning acrid and the respite brought on by the rains would soon fade.
That was around the time that she heard a sobbing whimpering call for help. Following the sound she tracked it to a trapped person who had fallen into a ditch and been caught in a heavy steel snare meant to trap large predators. The snared man was most likely a villager he had no gear to suggest he was a hunter and no viable supplies. The snare had caught his leg at the mid calf and from what Arnora could see it would have already gone rotten, there was no visible fresh bleeding and the man wasn't favoring it suggesting it had gone numb with gangrene. Arnora had hung back slowly and quietly cresting a hill to get a look at the victim. He wasn't aware of her staring off in the opposite direction calling out in weak exhausted whimpers.
There was a hard choice before Arnora.
Good sense told her to move on. The man had no visible gear or weapons that would be useful and he was too far gone as well. The leg would have to be removed at the hip to prevent the gangrene from spreading, and at that point there was no way to stop his bleeding or prevent new infection. He was dead no matter what. Whether by starvation sickness or random walker coming by and finishing him off. Most likely though, he would die of dehydration and exposure and then his death would take days...
Arnora made her way down to the snared man to try and end his suffering cleanly.
At first he didn't react as she came closer behind him. She let her steps rustle some loose stones and he tensed, probably half delirious and exhausted. He was laying on his belly and the snare was heavy and rooted to the ground to make movement difficult.
"W-w-who's there" he stammered. He shifted the snared leg and it made a sloshing tearing sound. He went still as there was probably still some feeling in it, enough to tell him he shouldn't be moving
"Just a traveler "Arnora began calmly not wanting to scare him anymore than he was. She had considered just hitting him in the back of the head and making it a clean end, but maybe he knew something useful and it seemed too cold to simply put him down.
"Oh thank god. Please, I was running from the fire and I got caught. I heard a few of the dead ones before so I tried to stay quiet but, but I'm so scared. Please it hurts so bad!"
" there's nothing I can do for you" Arnora said as she began to circle around to his front wanting to look in his eyes before she did it. "I m heading to pena duro at the southern end of this forest. Do you know it"
"Please it hurts so bad, and I'm so hungry. Help me."
"Is it still there? Did your village trade with them? Please, I need to know."
"The pain, I'm so scared, please help me.”
" I will" Arnora said her voice full of regret "I will help you. But please tell ..." The words caught in her throat as he looked up into her eyes.
The flesh around the face and neck was sagging and gray, mottled with yellow and red His eyes were sunken and starting to dry out, becoming crinkled, yellowed and milky. He'd been dead at least a few days. Exposed to the elements as he had been, decomposition had begun to advance quickly. For a moment he stared up trying to focus.
“P,P Please” he stammered licking drawn, thin cracked lips “Help me, I, I think I can still walk if you help me get to my feet” he suddenly crawled forward with a jerking start and again there was a wet tearing sound; only it continued as he began to pull himself forward ignoring the pain and tension. Arnora lowered the spear point towards him, and he stopped his eyes going wide with shock. “Why? I can help you, I know the camp, it's still there, we traded with it before the fire.” His voice became reedy and panicked “It hurts!! IT HURTS!!!” the sound echoed off the trees and into the forest it would be a miracle if none of the horde heard it.
“Shut up!” Arnora hissed trying not to yell. And make more noise. He began to quiet down, then looking back at his leg and pulling again. He hadn't realized what had happened. That he had died and by some remarkably bad stroke of luck had come back as a thinker zombie. This was a mercifully rare occurrence since thinkers were virtually unstoppable. They felt pain and could be slowed by injury; but only by reducing the corpse down to ash would stop it . Even worse was that thinkers retained their memories and ability to think, making them capable of strategy planning and trickery. This advantage faded though, the longer they went without feeding. Feeding upon human brains, which they craved with maniacal fury, made the relentless pain they felt from decomposition lessen and allowed them to regain their personality. Its confusion was her only advantage, and that would make it less aggressive.
Time was running out though. It could sense its precious food close enough to touch. The only option was to run, a fight against a thinker was a losing proposition unless you were well prepared. Which Arnora was not.
She turned to start back up the hill. That was when the problem started...
“Wait” It called “Please!” there was no reason to answer it. She kept moving up the hill
“Don't leave me!” Arnora could hear the panic. All too human panic.
“Help me!” Desperation now. She continued up, trying to climb as fast as safety allowed.
“I need you!” His voice was louder. She turned back, realizing that she had to shut the damned thing up before it called down the whole horde on her
“ I-NEED-YOUR- BRAINSSS!!!!!” The scream was ear splitting. Arnora turned and started back down. It would never stop screaming now. In one fluid motion, the former villager hauled its torso up with both hands planted its free leg and tried to propel itself forward, foam pouring from its mouth. With a thud it fell face first in the dirt when the trapped leg didn't tear away.
Arnora made it to the bottom of the hill and taking her spear went into a wide arcing swing. The thinker was tearing at its leg trying to rip it free of the trap. It was screaming incoherently. It turned back as it heard her coming and before it could scream again Arnora's spear came in on a full swing. With all of her momentum behind it the spear head sheared through the middle of the thinkers skull obliterating its ears and eyes cutting the scream into a gurgle. The body went wild, thrashing blindly and the leg began to rip away from the trap. It would get clear soon but it was blind and deaf and that was maybe enough.
Now Arnora continued at a faster pace there was no telling how many walkers were pulled by the thinkers screams. Pena Duro was close though she knew that now. If the village had been trading with them then it was most likely only a day or two at the most. Already the path was getting cleaner and more used. The faster path was tiring and there was no sign of pursuit or any challenges ahead eventually the hearth maiden resolved to slow down and make camp whatever trouble lay ahead it was useless to try and run the path in the dead of night even with a moon this full.
By the time morning came and Arnora retrieved her pack and shield which had lain unmolested the rest of the night she was in a foul mood. She started out and after a days travel the forest had thinned considerably and the path was much better maintained turning into a primitive road which might have accommodated a wagon. Smoke Appeared in the distance and she knew she was close.
It was approaching dusk when she came into view of the beacon fires of the former prison. The stone barracks that once housed prisoners was now surrounded by more than a dozen single story buildings smoke poured from every chimney and there was activity on the wall. Unfortunately there was also a great deal of activity shambling its way towards the wall.
The dead of the forest village were moving in pockets of four or five coming out of different points in the tree line. Some small remaining instinct was driving the smaller groups to begin to coalesce into a larger indistinct horde of rotting flesh and moans. At the wall the beacon fires were pulling them all to one point rather than the horde trying to surround the entire settlement. There was little threat of the camp being overrun or of a siege there were simply too few of the walking corpses to make that a reality. The she looked up at the sky and could very clearly see the thick dark clouds of the ash winter. The rain had stopped and the snow was coming to choke her
The hearth maiden set out at a trot her spear in hand. She passed two right between them without either ever noticing. Until she was long gone but they began to moan in that excited manner that told the rest there was an easy meal. The zombies were well spaced but to try an evade every one would be too tiring so for the next she set and thrust catching it under the nose the thrust popped off the top of its head and it fell back stiff.
The next three she passes on their left and made for the two heading right for her. Arnora spun sliding the spear shaft forward in her hand until it was almost extended its full length. The wood bent at the centrifugal force and on contact caved in the first corpses right arm and torso with a snap and the sound of a bag of porridge being burst. The blow had more than enough force to catch the second one and smash him just as badly. Neither zombie reacted they just crumpled as they were taken off their feet and sent flying a few feet laterally. One exhaled in mid moan as the air was forced from its chest. Both lay in a heap struggling to pull apart but they were twisted up in each other and were out of the fight. Arnora continued on ignoring the.
By now the horde had begun to turn from the wall and was coming in at all sides. The only hope was to try to run at the thinnest area and try to get clear of them a group of four directly ahead was the best chance of that. Running Arnora threw her spear the head slammed into the lead corpses' chest exploded out of its back and the thing was thrown back pinned to the ground wailing and trying to grab the spear. Pulling her shield from her back Arnora ran for the pinned zombie the second walker had already closed on its comrade to try and intercept her and she swung the shield in a arc from high to low the iron rim caught the rotting thing in the temple and upper scalp smashing the skull and brain it fell twitching but neutralized.
Reaching down for her spear she brought her boot down on the pinned zombies skull just at the point where the eyes and bridge of nose connected there was a crunch and some give but it was still thrashing she put her weight down and pulled the spear it came free of the things chest and her foot seemed to be sinking into a mud hole. The thrashing stopped.
The last two were already near enough. Arnora swung the spear into the air and then brought it around in a high whipping swing sliding the shaft in her hand to give it maximum reach. Timing the swing she stepped forward right and the head head of the spear caught the third zombie right in the temple there was so much speed and force the top of the head was sheared right off and it crumpled to its knees in a heap.
The fourth was just coming into range and she turned brought her weapon up high took two steps to get momentum and lept swinging in a straight high low arc using thee extra weight of the shield on her left arm to add to the swing, the head, nearly a foot of mythril sliced through the middle of its head through the neck into the torso and then slid out at the belly as Arnora dragged back puling the weapon free through the things black putrid entrails.
The path was clear now and Arnora could see the men on the wall cheering encouraging her on to the gate, the flakes of ash were getting thick now in minutes the air would be unbreathable. She started for the gate and stopped dead.
Her cloak went tight around her gorget. The moaning became deafening behind her and stench of them overwhelming. Not bothering to turn and fight she shook off the sheild and with her left undid the cloak and let it pull away and tried to bolt ahead
Suddenly they were on both sides of her and one had latched onto her arm its mouth impotently biting into her greaves. The spear was a hindrance with the bodies pressing in, so she dropped it and punched with her left once, twice, three times. The jaw and teeth shattered and it could' t hold its grip. Another already was hugging her waist and another at her knee.
The hearth maiden turned whipping the one at her waist free and tearing free of the one at the knee. She threw a kick at the nearest to her, a wretched withered female corpse, that would have floored a man twice its size and it fell back a few inches and then the dozen zombies behind surged and the female was on her along with two more at each arm. From behind she could feel arms around her waist again. And both legs being grappled. A bony clawed hand shot out and almost raked across her face. Panic came faster than she thought and screaming Arnora brought her left arm up to shield her. The sudden reflexive move took sway the last of her balance. Fresh hands from behind pulled at her shoulders, waist, and arms and the horde before her surged with fresh intensity. The ground came up and slammed the air from the woman's throat and a shower of scrabbling wailing, decomposing flesh fell on top.
Arnora's arms were up over her face trying to ward off any infected scratches but she could feel the almost methodical rhythm of the hands feeling probing trying to find a gap, a fold some way to remove the leather and mail and get at the soft flesh beneath.
The weight on top of her relaxed for a moment and she responded with kicks designed to push away mounting attackers from a prone position, while at the same time trying to push off with her other leg to try and get free of the horde. It was no use though every time th pressure relaxed it piled back on a few momenta later. Deep in her mind she knew what was happening; as they piled on different zombies would start fighting over her, for a moment, losing focus on their goal. Some were even raining down punches trying to soften her up. The horde was in a frenzy and soon they would tear her limb from limb.
The ground began to hum and then came a heavy low frequency THUMP like a big drum. It came again now in rhythm. Arnora's arms were throbbing and her head felt like it was under water. Knots and cramps covered her whole body. Only seconds had gone by but it felt like she had been fighting them for hours. There were dozens of them surrounding her now she knew from experience there was no fighting out of it. The thought of surrender came to her now as a welcome relief; just a few moments of pain and then it would all be over. The Thump came again like a beating of a heart. For just a second one of the corpses pulled her arm away enough that she could see the sky above the mad press of Grey putrid meat and diseased lustful eyes, the clouds were so dark but she could see a flash above. Then it was blotted out by what could have been a boys face only half had been eaten away. Its tongue fell out through its teeth as it bent to take a taste of the hearth maiden.
Between that moment and the next Arnora spied, standing over her a thin slender beautifully dressed woman. The woman, or was it a girl, she seemed so slight and petite, had a band of silk covering her eyes and a guitar in her arms, a long slender instrument that she was strumming delicately.
“Just a moments pain, you'll pass out quickly once they tear into you.” The girl said walking in a circle ignoring the now frozen dead bodies all around. 'It could all end, all the guilt all the shame, all the fear. No one hunting you, and you need never face that beast that stalks you in your dreams.”
“No” she whispered “ I don't want to die”
The pain hit her like nothing she had ever experienced.
There was heat, hotter even than the great bonfire she had lay on when the Witch-smeller had tried to burn her as a pagan, but there was no burning just a popping. All her muscles convulsed then constricted like she was flexing them all performing some great task. They tightened even further becoming cramps, then tighter as though they would all tear from her bones, every muscle from her toes to her bowels, to her breasts all the way to her eyes which felt like they would pop from the pressure. Then it all came together in her chest and she felt what must be her heart burst and then stop. Then the world went black.
The thunder clap that followed opened her eyes. A deafening BOOM!! And then a crash as she must have jumped into the air ten feet landing with a thud. There was nothing standing over her. No corpses, no frenzied fists trying to crack her like an egg. Just air and clouds and the snow, the ash snow falling thick and tasting of soot.
instinct took over.
There was screaming tearing pain but all her limbs were intact as she rolled over and tried to stand. She failed and fell almost face first into the remnants of a blackened skeleton. It wasn't moving but Arnora beat the blackened ruined skull into dust before trying to stand again. This time she could and saw how some kind of wave of devastation had tore through the zombies. Most were just char. But a few Corpses further out from the epicenter were still trying to move though most of their bodies had been blasted to shreds. A pair of legs attached to a pelvis took three steps and then finally had the good grace to fall.
The snow was sucking up the moisture but she could feel hot blood dripping from her nose ears and even from her eyes thanks to the red tint to her vision. Instinct pulled the hearth maiden to her spear and shield some thirty feet from where she had fallen and she began to stagger towards the gate. Through the red blur that was her vision she could see the gay had opened and desperation turned that stagger into a run. The way was clear practically every zombie at the gate had broken off to get the easier meal and paid for it.
Two men probably the camp Bailey and his deputy met her at the door. They looked at each other and like idiots began to make faces opening and closing their mouths like children being teases. Arnora tried to push past the idiots but they grabbed her and to her complete surprise she fell into their arms and allowed them to drag her inside. Once inside the gate house Arnora was seated and she noticed two others: a dwarf all barrel chested and stumpy his Grey brown hair thick like steel wool and his beard braided to his waist, and a tall thin almost glowing boy, or was it a short willowy woman it was hard to tell his/ her/ its hair was black and long hanging in a loose tail over their its shoulder. She, Arnora was suddenly aware it was a she, was staring into the hearth maidens eyes. The dwarf was playing the same idiot game as the Bailey moving his mouth without speaking. Arnora wondered if they were all idiots even the girl. As if the girl could hear she began to move her mouth and Arnora could hear her clearly though there was still no sound.
"They are arguing because the constable believes the bribe he was paid to let you in was not enough. He says you are infected. But you are not, you are safe and the constable will now know that." Arnora tried to respond but she could tell that the words were mush without even hearing them. The woman knelt in front of her.
" Be still you hearing will come back shortly" and as if on command it did. Now the dwarf was in her face his ruddy stony face almost touching hers.
" God's balls girl what were you doing out in all of that." Arnora Asbjorndottor just spit a wad of blood on the floor and smiled.
"I'd heard a dwarf had a job opening. And I came looking for work." The dwarf cocked his head and then smiles and clapped her on the shoulder.
"Well then, you great big horse of a girl, you're hired"
The hearth maiden fell over and began to snore.
Outside the ash snow had become a blizzard. And all around the camp the beacon fires were snuffed out and everyone went inside to weather the coming storm.