Nomads - Passage One: Lost Spirits of the Frostlands

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm
This is the first of three (long) short stories that will make up the Nomads trilogy.
Passage One: Lost Spirits of the Frostlands is set in the icy regions of the far north in a time where large animals roam and civilization is in it's beginning stages.
Passage Two: Reflections Over Lake Taern & Passage Three: Twilight Over Dask will follow.

Submitted: May 11, 2016

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Submitted: May 11, 2016

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Nomads

Jacob Harroway

 

 

A woman limps through the snow, coming from nowhere, and heading nowhere. Her furs are soaked with frozen blood and blubber, and she uses her crude spear in an attempt to loosen a path in the waist deep snow. Her trance is hypnotic, swaying back and forth like a tree in gale. Winds howl and toss flakes of ice until the woman can see only white haze all around. Onward she struggles, in defiance of the elements and in defiance of her broken body.

Moonlit silver hair streaked with gold loosens from her hood and flaps in the wind, without the strength to put it back into place, she trudges forward. Pushing her way through to a ridge, the woman attempts to survey her surroundings. Nothing but white. Night was all around her and the moon and stars were smothered in the blizzard. A deep groan sounded from underneath and the woman froze into place. She dared not move. The ground gave way beneath her feet.

Down she crumbled with the ice cliff, her spear was thrown away and the woman lost in the darkness. The cold enveloped her. Surrounded her, and she couldn’t find the will to continue. Her desires faded, and her spirit was leaving. She was tired. Down to the bones and etched into her being. Tired of wandering.

Senses dulled and her consciousness began to fade away. She lost herself in the currents of the ice, wind, snow, and below all, water that stretched beyond thought. Back and forth the currents of the water took her. Back and forth. Yet each time she felt herself moving, forward, slowly being pulled along in its strong grip.

Alertness surged into the woman as her head broke the surface and she was assaulted by the unyielding wind. Her hood was tossed straight off her head. Once more she was pushed, heaved from the icy rubble pile, she skid across the snow and rolled over something hard and rough. Stone? Lucidity deserted her while the cold sunk further into her bones. Silver gold hair streamed in the wind and the woman’s last glimpse was an orange glow in the distance.

 

Passage One: Lost Spirits of the Frostlands

 

Njord of Dask sat hunched over his fire and rubbed his gloved hands over it's flames. His cave was small, but it sheltered him from the storm. He couldn’t seem to get warm in this cursed land, a frozen tip of land that took the brunt of the northeasterly winds coming down from the north sea. In the heart of winter it didn’t matter how much wood he burned or how close his tall lean frame got to the fire, it was still cold. Njord made sure to keep his long dark hair well back from the flames, yet neither the chill or his hunger would lessen.

He had been out searching these frozen islands from tip to bottom, looking for a rare moss that grew in the caves, and he had nothing to show for it, but hunger and a chill. The natives of the islands north of the Obtwae were even less helpful than the main-islanders. Roamers who followed their food all along this shore of ice sheets. They’d never help an outsider, that is until one of their own needed healing. So Njord searched alone.

He couldn’t hear anything over the constant swirl of the wind, but he was sure he heard a crash like a thunderstorm out in the blizzard. A rumble that lasted ages and shook his crouched caves’ walls. Once it settled Njord grabbed his boneknife and tentatively peered out into the gusts. He couldn’t see anything beyond a few paces in front of the hollow’s entrance so he sat back down near his fire.

Njord clutched the boneknife and eyed the mouth of the cave. Most likely a snow collapse of some kind, but you could never be too safe out here. Large beasts prowl throughout all times of the day and Njord was not getting caught unaware again. A nagging sensation irritated his thoughts, and he felt the urge to find out why. After thirty odd winters Njord had grown used to following his instincts.

With a huff he wrapped a few more furs around his shoulders and head, and headed out into the blizzard. He left his bow back in the cave, it would be useless, so he clutched his large boneknife downward ready to strike. Njord crept low to the snow, part to avoid the worst of the wind, and part to remain unseen, there was more than just predators out here.

Even with limited vision Njord was able to find the collapse without too much trouble. It was closer to his hollow than he would have liked to admit. There wasn’t much out here but snow and ice, and Njord was just about to turn back when he caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of his eye. A dark speck on an otherwise white canvas.

Gripping his knife tighter Njord moved forward step by step. His breathing increased and he prepared for the worst. Getting within a few paces he finally got a good sight at what the beast was. Instead he saw a woman, wrapped in bloody furs, arms thrown to the front. It was hard to tell under all that snow.

Quickly Njord rushed towards her and ripped off his glove to check her heartbeat under the woman’s jaw. A faint thump spiked Njord’s own heart and he swiftly, but carefully probed for broken bones. Her right leg seemed a little loose but other than that she seemed solid, so he carried her back to his cave and the warmth, trudging through the snow. Once inside Njord laid her on his second biggest fur; not his sleeping fur but his working fur, and placed three more precious pieces of wood on the fire.

Turning back to the woman Njord noticed her hair for the first time. It was pale as moonlight, with sun coloured streaks and fell below her shoulders. He looked dumbfounded at the beautiful oddity before rushing to grab his herb bag. The fire grew with the added fuel and Njord moved the mysterious woman closer to it’s edge, before stripping her of her crusty red furs. Blood and green slashes scored her skin in more places than he could count and black bruises covered her body.

Njord gasped and hurriedly searched in his pouch for his stone mortar and pestle. He set it on the stone floor and sprinkled herbs, roots and leaves in. He crushed them up into little flakes with the mortar and then added black rivermoss he had been saving with water. Stirring it all together created a black paste that Njord used to tenderly rub over the cuts. His hands moved with care and were steady from long seasons of practice.

He turned the slim woman over to see what damage there was on her back and stumbled backwards in shock. Furious at himself for dropping her he rushed back over and gently laid her down. Njord couldn’t help but stare as she lay there, she was thin from hunger but that wasn’t what he stared at. Thick black lines curved along her skin starting from an origin just below her shoulder bones. They reached out long and deep below, frantic and short above, oddly it reminded him of a spider. Njord hesitantly reached out a hand to touch, and couldn’t believe there was no bump or feeling to it, just smooth skin.

After fixing a different paste for the bruises Njord put sturdy sticks around her broken right leg and wrapped it all up with a length of vinerope he kept coiled in his pouch. Methodically he draped her with his sleeping furs and bent to lay down next to her. Shaking his head in disapproval Njord placed another log on the fire and stripped his own furs away. She would never get warm enough to survive. Deftly laying next to her Njord covered the two of them back up with layers of fur and enveloped her without taking away too much of the healing paste.

Her cold flesh shocked Njord and he gasped in shock, when he pressed against her, but eventually he was able to nook his head into her shoulder and cover her body. He could still her a faint heartbeat, and the sound continued throughout the snowy night. The storm slowly passed and the fire flickered on. Stars came out to shine and the moon’s glow could be seen bathing the entrance to Njord’s hollow. Ray’s of sunlight crested the white landscape and Njord opened his eyes. He hadn’t slept a moment.

 

 

The sun and stars cycled three times before the woman truly awakened. Njord had changed her dressings, and gave her water and a thin paste of herbs twice a day, and went out hunting on the third. He wasn’t the greatest hunter of the lands, but he could still catch his meals when the need arrived. He just didn’t like to take a life unless it was needed.

Njord carried his prize, the limp form of a snow fox, rare this far north, up the incline towards his hollow. He was in a good mood, red meat was scarce enough to find up in these frozen lands, and there was not a cloud in the sky since the blizzard had passed through, though the wind still came strong from the north. He flung the fox near the fire’s edge, unstringing his bow, then lifted one layer of fur off himself as well. It wasn’t until he went back towards his meal that Njord saw the woman looking at him.

Her eyes were of the deepest shade of blue Njord had ever seen, bottomless, like the ocean. The woman’s head was against the stone wall close by the fire’s edge with the furs still wrapped around her. Silver and gold hair fanned out atop.

“Hah!” Njord said with a shout. “So good to see you awake, I thought I’d almost lost you. How do you feel?” When the woman made no reply Njord continue on. “Ah, a weak-mind question, of course it hurts. Do you have a name fair one?”

The woman did nothing but stare, her eyes questioning and her face calm.

“No matter, it is best for you to keep strength,” Njord went over to check her wounds, and to see if the fool woman had broken her leg braces. He stuck an arm out to pull back the pile of furs when the woman suddenly snarled at him and bared her teeth. He jerked his arm back and muttered to himself.

“Very well,” he said at last, “perhaps you would like some meat.” and set about cleaning the fur with his boneknife. There was a large enough portion for the both of them from the animal. Two hunks of meat Njord skewered with a sharpened stick and placed over for the flames to lick. When they began to pop and sizzle Njord walked the woman’s meat to her still held by the wood. She made no move to grab it, so he left it beside her and walked over to the other side of the fire to eat his.

Sitting cross-legged Njord stared into the flames and let the woman take her meat herself. She moved slow with hesitation and pain, but finally brought the red meat to her mouth and tore a piece off. Njord noticed her chewing slowly and smiled to himself.

“When you have the strength I would love to hear your name traveler,” Njord said. But there was no answer, and he did not expect one in the future. The woman silently finished off her meal and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep. Njord waited only a few moments before going over to her and fix her braces and bruise coverings. Some of the smaller cuts had healed over bright pink, and all but the deepest bruises were gone as well. Yet there were a few gashes in her pale skin that lingered and Njord knew her leg would need much longer, but the worst was behind.

She slept until the sun passed below the low mountains and snow covered ice, and the stars shined bright in the sky. Njord sat at the edge of his cave sharpening his boneknife with a teal stone and stared upwards. He stared at the blue and green bots in the sea of silver lights over the horizon, like he always did. The two twins always stayed together, and the time was coming for them to reenter the sky proper. They were largest and brightest during the hot season, days Njord looked forward too.

He had never seen anyone with hair like that woman’s, or those eerie markings covering her back, and he had walked long and far throughout the lands. No bump, as if they were a part of her skin. It was strange, but perhaps she would speak to him on the morrow.

The night was still, except for a light wind in the air, when Njord heard a crunch in the near distance. He perked his head and gripped the knife listening in the wind. He was about to lower his guard when another crunch came closer and a snarl drifted towards. With a leap Njord hurried back into the cave and fire, and clutched his knife in front of him.

Mere moments later a huge beast came prowling in the entrance. Taller than Njord’s midriff the beast walked on all fours, and had two teeth that stuck out below its jaw almost the size of his forearm. A sabertooth! It roared and smaller jagged teeth filled it’s mouth. With a pounce it leaped at Njord, great paws with four claws shooting forward. He yelled and threw himself to the side, landing hard by the woman. Njord got to his feet and stabbed his knife at the beast.

The beast ripped it from his grasp and sent him spinning to the stone floor. It came at him again, bright orange eyes hungered for the kill. Njord had been lucky once with a sabertooth, but it didn’t look like his luck would hold again this time. The beast jumped atop of Njord and scored it’s claws across his outstretched arms, once, twice, and blood flowed down. It reached back to strike again when the unthinkable happened.

The fire, left untouched in the center of the cave roared to life. It’s flames grew tenfold and swirled with anger. The sabertooth reared back in fright at the sudden outburst, seasons of hurt from man’s fire ran deep within all animals, and Njord turned his head away from the flames in pain and cried out. Through one eye he could see the woman, still sitting with her back against the wall.

Her face was furious, blue eyes ablaze she stared straight ahead and screamed defiance to the night. The flames danced as if alive and streaked out to strike the sabertooth. It screeched and made to run outside, but the flames overtook him and poured out from the pit. Njord watched in horror as the beast was consumed by the fire, and red and orange danced over his hulking body.

Shaking he turned back to the woman, half in fear, but her eyes were closed. Rushing over Njord checked her and she appeared to be unconscious. Breathing, just barely, Njord turned back to the fallen sabertooth, lying dead on the stone floor, and finally remembered his own wounds. With a gasp the pain came rushing back and he hurried to work himself up a salve.

He kept glancing at the smoldering beast and at the much smaller fire flickering in the dark, while he covered his gashes. Njord hesitated before laying more wood to build the fire back up, and eventually decided against it all together. Calmly he picked back up his boneknife and slit the sabertooths throat, caution had saved him before, and worked at hacking some of it’s meat off. No use waiting til it rotted on him.

His forearms protested and hurt with the action, but Njord persisted through. Stacking the bloody meat in the corner Njord came back to the carcass. Gleaming in the firelight the predator’s massive teeth called to him, and he decided he could not miss another chance for the rare bone. It was nasty work separating the two teeth from the sabertooth’s skull, but Njord managed.

With his arms burning like never before Njord tossed the two blood covered teeth at the woman’s feet and fell down on to his fur bed exhausted. The night blurred together and details became hazy in recollection, Njord was not long in finding sleep.

 

 

The next span of life for Njord and the nameless woman went by in a haze of pain. With the gashes in his arms every small task for him was a struggle, and the woman slept, only waking to eat. It was a good thing Njord had cut the sabertooth while his blood was pumping strong, the first morning he could barely open his waterskin. Time passed and their pile of sabertooth meat thinned, but the two became stronger and Njord even found a thick shaft of wood nearby for her to hobble around with. He made sure she knew not to put any weight on her right leg.

Still she gave no answer to any of his questions and it was beginning to grind on him. Njord had healed many men and women across his turns, but they would all at least say something to him. Anything; whether happiness or joy, or even anger towards him, at least they had shown some emotion. This woman stared far into the distance, looking at the cave wall, and was lost.

“Can you tell me your name?” he asked one morning like all the others. Maybe the woman was dead in her mind, just a shell. “Do you know how? Can you even understand me!?”

With a snap of her head the woman glared at him, and stared for a few moments.

“I have a name,” was all she said.

Njord’s eyes brightened, “You do? That’s wonderful.”

“I do not know,” she said before he could continue. Her voice was slow and soft, as if she had not used it in a long time.

“I am just glad you can talk fair one, rest easy. Your name will come.”

“No,” she said with more vigor, “It is lost. Much is lost,” and she bowed her chin to her chest.

“I am sorry,” Njord answered, “perhaps one day your mind will heal.” The woman made no effort to raise her head so Njord continued on. “If you cannot remember, then it is as if you are starting again, born anew. And a newborn child needs a name.”

The woman did not stir and Njord walked across the stone floor to lay a careful hand on her shoulder. She flinched slightly but did not pull away. He thought for a moment.

“Vaeta,” he spoke at last. “Vaeta, for the wind, and for the stars. Silver and gold of hair, born anew.” Slowly she raised her eyes and met his stare. There were tears in those deep blue eyes, eyes foggy with pain.

She did not speak for a day or so after that, but Njord kept saying her name every chance he could. Vaeta. Vaeta. Her injuries healed, but her spirit was still broken, and the leg was not yet hale. Njord’s own arms were only a slight annoyance now, and he began to assemble a makeshift sled. The type the nomad’s of these snow covered lands pulled. It was a labour to find all the wood, sometimes Njord had to go far too near the larger cliffs in the distance for his liking, but he made do.

Their food and Njord’s herbs were running low, so with the crude sled and Njord’s longer vinerope the two of them set out from the hollow and entered the open landscape. Njord pulling Vaeta behind through the knee deep snow. He had spent enough time up here in the farthest reaches of the north, and the softer grasslands to the south would be a welcome change for both of them.

Njord walked until his legs would carry on no further, exhausted he collapsed in the snow and panted, pulling free his waterskin. Taking a long gulp he gasped in relief and offered it to Vaeta, sitting diagonally upright on the back of the sled. Her hair was bundled up in a skin that she wrapped covering her head and mouth. Only the blue eyes showed.

She took the waterskin from his hands and took a small drink, eyes never leaving his face. “Can you show me how to do that Vaeta?” Njord asked pointing to her head. “I can never get it right.”

Vaeta stared at him for a few moments before wordlessly undoing the wrap. Slowly she showed him the motions and Njord gave it a shot. The first try was a disaster, but the second had promise and stayed intact. Being shielded from the wind and blowing snow was a great comfort, and all the clans in the frozen north wore their furs like this.

“I suppose it will stay on my head, one day I will be better,” he said, and he thought he could see a slight smirk in that unreadable face. Vaeta turned her head away and stared off into the distance. She still carried her walking stick, which was the full height of her, and Njord was sure he could see two lumps that must have been the saberteeth.

Njord reached into his pouch and pulled out the teal sharpening stone. “Here,” he said offering it towards Vaeta. “It comes from a cave back home in one of the great ravines,” she did not appear to understand. “To make something with those, not many stone can shape that bone.”

Vaeta gave no response after taking the stone and Njord took a few moments longer to catch his breath before heaving the vinerope over his shoulders and starting off again through the snow. He wished he had snowwalkers. Plodding through the bleak open land of low mountains and ridges, Njord caught a glimpse over his shoulder of Vaeta grinding the stone against the sabertooth, and he smiled openly. Perhaps there was hope yet.

 

 

Njord had never kept a steady count on the suns that passed him, too much thinking. Seasons and moons were much easier to keep track of, and he had seen two moons since finding the woman. He was also not the strongest man either, and the constant struggle of pulling the sled through the deep snow and cliffs was wearing hard on him. They had fires some nights, but most times enough cover could not be found and the two had to huddle together behind snow mounds he piled.

The snows varied in depths and he was grateful for any chance to walk across dark bedrock. The sun was nearing its peak above, so Njord stopped for a break and broke out some slices of cooked saber he had saved from two nights before. Vaeta collected hers and tore a hunk off, eating quickly.

“Your body still heals. Have another,” he said throwing her a second. She caught it with ease and finished the first. Njord took a small drink from the waterskin, there was not much left, and offered it to Vaeta.

“No, you need more,” she said turning back to her meat. Njord gave no response and took another small sip and then slipped it back into his pouch.

“What are you making with the tooth?” he asked at last.

But Vaeta did not respond and Njord did not think she would. The woman only shaped it when he wasn’t looking, as if embarrassed. With a shake of his head Njord settled back onto his hands and stared up at the clear blue sky. Small puffs of cloud scattered it, and a crooked moon could faintly be seen. Thankfully another blizzard had not rolled through and only the occasional dark cloud had come along. Yet the winds howled by night and the cold was beginning to wear on him.

Njord sniffed the air hesitantly, was that smoke? Pushing himself up he grabbed his bow and the three arrows he had left and put his nose to the wind, searching for the smell. At last he found it and told Vaeta to be silent, while he crept towards a hollow to the right.

He neared the crest and put an arrow in his string, wary. Not many humans were friendly out in the wildernesses of the world. Slowly Njord stuck his head over the rise and stood up, heading back to Vaeta once he saw who was down there. Not cave-dwellers.

“Who is down there?” Vaeta asked when Njord drew near.

“Good nose,” he answered tapping it with one finger. “No cave-dwellers, but a Frostpack.” when she looked at him dumbly, he continued. “Nomads who travel these lands, they dye their furs blue and grey with roots and berries. I’ve only seen two packs since coming here,” Njord flung the vinerope over his shoulder and lumbered across to a slope leading around and down.

They reached the narrow entrance to the hollow and stopped abruptly to a harsh bark. There was nothing in front of them as far as Njord could see. Vaeta vexed staring upward and Njord followed her eyes to a blue and grey figure high above. He carried a long spear and slid down the ice slope with ease, snow trailing like a cloak. The man reached the bottom of the slope and stood easily with the help of his snowwalkers. Wide works of wood and animal sinew that only sank slightly in the powder. His head was wrapped in dyed furs, similar to Vaeta’s and Njord’s lesser one.

Njord dropped the vinerope and held his pouch over his head saying “Healer, medicine man, herbs. I offer no hurt.” The man had not moved since sliding down and looked at the two of them over as if not sure what he saw, his spear point was ground in the snow. Vaeta was silent. Njord spared a glance for her, and she had her hands buried under the furs. No doubt clutching a sabertooth.

“Please we mean you no harm,” Njord said again.

“Can...can you help?” he said at last. It wasn’t until Njord looked closer that he saw the tall shape of a man was no more than a boy. He had sharp eyes for one so young, but his smooth cheeks gave it away.

“Are your people in there?” Njord asked, pointing. When the boy nodded, Njord said he would help and pulled Vaeta’s sled along behind the boy. Njord gasped when he saw the remains of the boy’s pack. Short of ten blue and grey bodies lay slumped around a small fire. The strong winds did not reach down here and Njord was grateful for it, that flame barely flickered.

“Where is your Firstrunner?” The boy pointed again to one off to the side, to a man sitting on his haunches staring into the rocky snow. “Thank you boy. What is your name?” He didn’t answer. Njord was beginning to lose his patience with people not answering him, but went over to the Firstrunner, leaving Vaeta on her own by the fire.

“Ho, Firstrunner. I am Njord of Dask, a healer.”

“We have heard of you,” he replied, his voice was ragged and dark wisps of hair pulled themselves free of his hood, while his veil piece floated in the wind. His leathery face weary with pain. “I am Hauko, Firstrunner of the Black Slopes Pack. Yet not for long.”

“What happened?”

“Serpents that hide in the cliffs. Cave-dwellers. Five days ago they came in the night and left quick as shadows, stealing our meat and killing many.”

“Hmm, I was told they didn’t come out from their cliffs and mountains this far north,” Njord mused, “no matter, I will help those I can.” With that he hurried back to Vaeta to make sure she was okay. He wasn’t sure how she would react to other humans, but he found she was much the same as with him. Stone faced and silent, eyes peering around at the bodies scattered beside the fire. Which Njord was sure was larger than before, now flames licked high above wood that was long charred.

Shaking his head Njord bent to work, sitting cross-legged on the stone he crushed dried wateroot, willow bark, and sprinkled a good many herbs in his mortar with the stone pestle. Both were the same deep teal stone as his sharpening stone. After adding a touch of water and stirring the mixture just right, he was holding a good heal-all paste that worked well against rot. Hauko knelt beside Njord and kept his eyes to the ground, defeated.

“Vaeta this is Hauko, Firstrunner of the Black Slopes Pack. Hauko this is Vaeta from the north.” Njord said while crushing away, and added some moss and thistle. From the corner of his eye Njord could catch the leathery faced man giving her a careful look over, staring at her strands of silver hair that stuck out of her hood and veil.

They didn’t speak a word. Vaeta’s gaze firm and it wasn’t long before the Firstrunner returned his eyes to the ground. Standing, Njord noticed the boy was back up atop the ridge encircling them, his spear clutched in one hand the other shielding from the reflecting sun. Njord went to the closest body, a woman, and quickly found she was gone already. Her grey eyes were glossy and stared into the flames.

Methodically checking each one, Njord found only four breathing and carefully, with the help of a lumbering Hauko, moved them in a line facing the fire.

“Is that your boy up there?” Njord asked, and Hauko nodded. “Tell him to come down here and help, they won’t be coming back by daylight.”

“Haruh! We need you son,” the Firstrunner called, and reluctantly the youth slid down the slope once more and trotted over in the shuffle needed while wearing snowwalkers.

“Find a rock with a hollow in it and melt snow and ice over the fire,” Njord instructed the boy, but he only stared at his father until the man nodded as well, and finally he set off to look around the camp.

Njord found the source of the injured’s cuts easy enough, he just followed the blood. A young man’s gash was deep and jagged, the sharpened stone raked across multiple times. Njord did what he could for the man, but Njord knew he would not last long. The four of them took his work without a word, and barely looked up into his face. Njord was busy tending to an older mother when Haruh bent to hand him a full waterskin, Njord thanked him and received no response.

“Forgive my boy Haruh,” Hauko said, “These last days have been...tough, on us all.”

“I am not angry at him,” Njord said bending back to the task at hand, “I am sad.”

He spent most of the afternoon tending to the survivors, Haruh and Hauko needed looking after as well, and before the sun sank too low Njord went out in search of a wood patch that caught his eye earlier in the morning. He was hesitant to leave Vaeta alone with the Frostpack, but the surviving six slept a few hours while he was gone, and most likely Vaeta as well.

Njord got the fire built up nicely and he ripped up four of his remaining saber meat strips giving everyone a couple hunks. There was only six slim pieces left from that giant beast, and Njord and Vaeta would need them on the long journey south. The stars were shrouded in cloud and the only light came from the orange and red flickering flames. Njord was last awake, watching them dance and curl, thinking of spider like tatoos, before he too lay down from exhaustion.

The next morning Hauko and Haruh were in much better spirits. The boy even said a few words to Njord. The other four did not speak, but those leathery faces looked a touch more hale. Njord hoped some would pull through. The heart of winter was no easy time to be wounded. He considered staying for another day, but that wasn’t what Vaeta needed. She needed a new start in a warmer land.

When Njord told the Firstrunner they would be leaving he nodded his head as if he had known, and offered no hesitation. They would survive, the northlanders were hardy people. Living in this bleak frozen land only left the strongest.

Njord helped Vaeta back to her sled and was preparing himself to start hauling on the vinerope when Hauko called out.

“Njord of Dask. We owe our lives to you, and clearly this woman does as well. Whispers are told throughout all lands about a healer, who helps any and asks for not in return. We shall not see another of your like. Let the Black Slopes Pack be the first to offer our saviour fire and water, that which is life.”

Njord wasn’t sure how to react, Vaeta clearly looked shocked beside. He was about to tell the man there was no need, but Hauko insisted Njord pass his waterskin. Wordlessly he complied and the man opened his own skin, and with the utmost care in the wind, Hauko poured. Njord grimaced, they would need all the strnegth they had to survive.

“Your water for my life, my water for yours,” Hauko intoned and passed Njord’s waterskin to his son. Haruh in the same solemn tone echoed his father once finished.

“Your water for my life, my water for yours.”

Njord’s skin was passed down the line until every last living member of the pack had poured a little water from their own into his and said the words. Hauko took it from the young man with ragged breath and handed it back to Njord. Njord grabbed the mans forearm in his, scarred from the sabertooth's claws under his furs, and squeezed fiercely.

“My thanks to you Firstrunner, and my thanks to the Black Slopes Pack of the Frostlands. May you see many moons.”

“May the winds be kind to you Njord of Dask.”

Njord and Vaeta set off soon after, and he spared a glance back once before traveling out of sight. The blue and grey figures, heads wrapped in fur to cover against the wind and cold, met his gaze. Nodding once more to them he crested the rise, plodding through the snow with the sun rising over his left shoulder.

It wasn’t until Njord’s first stop for rest and water did Vaeta speak to him. She had looked at him differently when he passed her back there with the Frostpack.

“Why help? They will die soon enough anyway,” she asked slowly in her way of speaking. At first Njord did not respond, not sure of his true reasoning.

“Because it is right,” he said at last. “Because everyone wants to kill and hunt, and someone has to take care of those who need it.”

Killing is needed,” was all she offered.

“Of course I know that,” Njord said with a little heat, and took a gulp from his waterskin. “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Vaeta pushed the issue no more and after taking a drink herself spoke once more.

“You are a strange man, Njord of Dask,” she said passing him the waterskin back. He had never heard her call him that, and his own name felt musical coming from her. She offered him her walking staff. “This will help carry. Better for you than me.”

Lost for words Njord took the staff and tried to speak more to the fair haired woman, but Vaeta’s gaze left him and settled back on the horizon where it stayed. He was strange? The woman was all mystery herself and refused to give anything up. Exhaling Njord tossed the vinerope over his shoulders and braced his strength against the thick piece of dark wood. The passage through the snow continued.

 

 

Seven suns passed of travel, over snow and ice, and seeing few animals over the black stone ridges, before Njord and Vaeta found themselves caught in a wind storm. No clouds covered the sky, but the wind bit past their furs and tossed up flakes of ice that hurt Njord’s eyes. They needed to find a hollow to sleep in, trying to make a shelter would be useless in this weather, and the sun had sunk past the horizon some time ago. Only the stars and moon lit the way.

Exhausted Njord collapsed onto the ground, panting and wiping away snow from his face. There seemed to be a brief rest from the winds, but he could hear them howling further on. Taking a small gulp from his waterskin, Njord gasped at the coldness of it. Fishing through his pouch he brought out a saber strip and ate half of it, and paused before handing the rest to Vaeta.

The wind moved around her in an odd way, as if a hand was guiding them to brush across her frozen face, instead of buffeting through. It could have been a trick of the eye in his weary state, but he thought he could faintly see something in the twilight. Handing her the saber meat and waterskin, Njord fell back onto the snow and tried to focus on his inner body heat.

He went digging through his herb bag until he found a length of yellow spotted brown root. Slightly dried out from old age, Njord broke the length in half and popped one in his mouth. He passed the other to Vaeta and told her to chew on it.

“Sparkroot will keep your blood warm, but it does not grow this far north in this cursed cold.” She gave no answer but to chew down on her own. Njord could already feel it’s effects on him. The heat sensation spread down his throat and filled his belly with flame. Breathing deeply Njord encouraged the feeling and forgot about the wind and ice for a moment.

With his eyes closed it was slowly Njord realized there was more light than there had been before. Opening them he was shocked to see the spirits dancing among the stars. Ribbons of greens, reds, blues, and yellows hung in a curtain that seemed to flow and sway over the horizon. Njord had seen the Spirit Lights a handful of time in his seasons, but each one was an inspiration to itself. He was too busy looking at the display to notice Vaeta by his side.

Her blue eyes shone in the light and glistened with tears that must be frozen on her cheeks. Njord was sure he saw recognition, not wonder in Vaeta’s face. A piece of her former life had clicked into place, and brought with it all it’s painful memories.

Njord felt the urge to comfort her, but his gaze swung back over the horizon with it’s dancing colours and jumped from shock. Huge bestial shapes were outlined in the added light, a score of them at least and they appeared to be getting closer.

“Mammoths!” Njord shouted to be heard of the increasing wind, and pointed so Vaeta could see. “Hopefully they pass us by,” but that would not be so. Over the wind he could hear the great animals bellow in pain, screeching their trunks to the sky. Behind them all Njord was sure he could hear the shouts of men.

Frantically he searched for anywhere to hide, but there was not a fold in sight, and the darkness was all around, Spirits Lights or none. He spared a glance back and cried out when he could see brown instead of black shapes lumbering forward. Twice as high as a man, with trunks that fell to the ground and pale gleaming tusks the size of tree limbs.

Like thunder they came down upon the two helpless humans. Njord dove covering Vaeta as best he could, cowering while the mammoths screeched and trampled by. Deep grunts of pain and fear cut through the wind and Njord felt trapped under the weight of it all. The ground shook, and like thunder the great beasts passed, echoing into the night’s blackness.

Gasping for breath the two looked around in wonder. They were alive! Unharmed by some act from above. Njord stared into Vaeta’s deep blue eye’s and was sucked into their depths. Dazed he didn’t move until she took the staff from his grip and battered him aside.

In shock he tumbled to the snow, putting a hand on his pouch and boneknife, and went to look furiously at Vaeta. Instead he watched as she deflected the swing from a pale man and split his forehead open with the other pass of her staff. Another howling shape leap at the sled and the woman rolled into the snow, silver and gold hair streaming in the snow and wind. Holding her partially carved sabertooth in right hand, as well both hands on her staff, Vaeta moved like the wind framed by the dancing colours in the sky, flowing from one cave-dweller to the next. Slashing, spinning and rolling, the wind moved at her beck and call.

Njord finally scrambled to his feet and swung about with his boneknife trying to fend off a wide-eyed pale human. His bow forgotten, Njord desperately tried to stay alive, ducking the swings the cave-dweller took with sharpened stone in hand tied to a club of wood. He took a score across his right thigh and cried out in pain, stabbing wildly about. He hit flesh once, twice, and again and again, until the pale shape moved no more. But screaming shapes appeared out of the night and Veata knelt with her leg on the ground, pain written on her face, staff holding her upright. There were too many, and the cave-dwellers drew closer.

“My life for yours!” A man yelled in the maelstrom, “my life for yours!” More voices joined Hauko’s as the Black Slopes Pack materialized out of the snow, wind, and night, to defend Njord and Vaeta. Ten cave-dwellers howled and pressed forward, and Hauko met them head on, stabbing and slashing with his stone tipped spear.

Vaeta rose to her feet once again and took off into the fray, staff raised and eyes blazing. Head wrapping clinging on behind her. Njord was frightened, but charged after heedless to his clenched stomach, and was swiftly kicked in the chest and sent sprawling. Gasping for breath in the illuminated night four dwellers pounced toward him, but Hauko of the Black Slopes Pack stood in their way and he shouted defiance taking two with him, before going down under the stone clubs, falling soundlessly to the snow.

Screaming Haruh and Vaeta came down upon the survivors like a gale, and quickly turned their attention to the remaining dwellers. Pale distorted faces turned to fear as the two remaining women of the Frostpack caught them running. Vaeta tripped the last one with a sweep of her good leg and brought down her sabertooth into his neck. Coldly she grabbed his outstretched hand holding stone club, and he slowly bled out while she stared into his soul.

Panting Njord rushed to Hauko, but his son was there first. Cradling his father’s head, Haruh wept to the Spirit Lights. Red and blue dominated the night sky.

Vaeta scrambled over to him and before she could check for any hurt he pulled her into an embrace. She tried to get free, but he held tight, no matter the blood soaking her furs. At last he let her go and he rose on unsteady feet. Njord went to the fallen Firstrunner and methodically bent to see if there was any help to be had. Haruh only shook his head and cried while the two women tried to comfort the boy. Njord’s own pouch was lost in the swirling winds he realized with a distant thought, and went out to look for it.

Exhausted from the many moons pulling the sled and Vaeta, and with a chill that was slowly turning to unnatural heat, Njord needed his herbs. Straining he finally collapsed, a hands reach from his pouch, while thought and feeling fled to a cover of darkness.

 

 

It was strange to be the one mended instead of the healer. Yet Njord was grateful for the care and attention Haruh and the two women of the Black Slopes Pack showed him, and Vaeta most of all. She hardly left his side and made sure the fire was fierce and strong throughout the long nights. Once the storm passed Haruh had found a crevice to shelter them from the elements, and the group camped there, recovering from the attack.

Hauko was buried in the snow on a ridge close by and Njord watched as Haruh, Naetah and Kurake sent the former Firstrunner to his afterlife. In solemn ritual Haruh was named Firstrunner of the Black Slopes Pack and the boy became a man.

It turned out Hauko and his Pack tracked Njord and Veata’s passage through the snow, sending Haruh to scout ahead on the second day, so the two injured women and Firstrunner could rest and heal. Haruh claimed the two of them moved more than slow enough and left a trail through the snow a blind man could follow. Grouped as four they had lost the trail in the storm, but the noise of the mammoths had drawn them in haste.

Njord was given Hauko’s snowwalkers, and the older woman, Kurake, fastened a pair for Vaeta to wear while the group rested. After a few suns passed they headed South again, if at a much slower pace. The Black Slopes Pack refused to leave Njord’s side until their journey was complete, and meant to help the two of them cross the bleak lands of the north.

Across countless ridges of black stone, frozen ice and snow, the Pack traveled with the healer and the nomad. Crossing the still frozen water south of the island, the group reached the big island, called Obtwae. They even met another Frostpack traveling over that larger land mass, and they joined the party on their crossing. The Water Skippers Pack, who Njord had met when he first entered this ice covered land, many seasons ago.

Moons passed and winter thawed. The snows clung to the shade in the rises of the Frostlands, yet warmer weather was on the horizon and that was how Njord found himself on the southern shore of Obtwae Island with a sturdy boat under his feet and a dark blip on the horizon that signaled the mainland. Vaeta beside him.

“I cannot say what you have done for us,” Njord said. “This goes beyond mere healing.”

“It is nothing you would not have done for us,” Haruh replied calmly with his arm around dark haired Naetah.

“We owe as much to you Njord of Dask,” added tall Baku, Firstrunner of the Water Skippers, in a deep voice, “memory does not fade.”

“Your water for our life, our water for yours,” Haruh said. Naetah, and Kurake with her grey streaked hair blowing in the wind, joined after. Their sister Pack clothed in grey and blue furs nodded beside the three Black Slopes approvingly, and echoed the words.

“Your water for our life, our water for yours.”

 

 

End of Passage One

 


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