Author: Maelstrom

Chapter 1
Chapter One

There was nothing like the cold of the mountains. No matter how many times I'd walked these trails, the sudden feeling of iciness on my skin and in my lungs was like no other. I felt refreshed, but not refreshed in the sense I just drank a cold glass of water, but as if my soul itself was being cleaned by the mountain mists circling above my head; like ice was growing in my  veins. I felt focused, permanently invigorated, as if I could run for miles with only one breath or cross a lake in one stroke.

        The trees around me rustled in agreement as a chilling wind swept through them, whistling to me sweetly. The vivid green of the soldier pines and conifers was beautiful, sparkling enchantingly with morning dew on their branches. The stream below me rushed across the rocky riverbed like silk fabric, clear as glass and as reflective as a mirror, bubbling delicately. The sky was grey overcast, but the sun behind it made it blindingly white, like fresh snow in winter on a clear day.

        I took a breath, drinking in my highland paradise.

        It was almost like Ragnarök never even happened.

        Suddenly, upstream, I heard a couplet of splashes and my head whipped around to spy my quarry standing in the stream, taking a morning drink. The great stag was an elegant beast, its soft coat of tawny fur covered in a thin sheen of sweat. A pair of twisting antlers matched its elegance, making is one of the best targets id seen this season.

        Its chest heaved violently and I new it had been running. It frothed at the mouth and nostrils, breathing in labored gasps. Even now, as it rested, its muscles twitched and spasmed in exertion; it must have been running for a long time.

        Silent as a cat and dark as a shadow, I slipped through the forest, closing in on my target, trying to get in range for my crossbow. Across my back, I wore a hooded cloak, dappled in a simple camouflage of browns, greens, and blacks. Under that was my faded, black windbreaker and a simple, if weathered, shirt. I wore a pair of old jean, beaten and stained with use and travel, just like everything else I owned. Perfect for the forest.

        Carefully, as I approached my target, I lowered myself on my hands and stomach. I began to slowly pull myself to the edge of the tree line to the stream's bank. Finding my self suitably positioned for my shot, I leveled my crossbow, peering at the stag through the telescopic sight.

        My breath came out with calculated timing as I rested my finger lightly across the trigger with a familiarity and tempered skill very few people had. I prided myself in being an excellent marksman, one of the last legacies my father had given me before he disappeared, and if I shot, chances are I killed. The world seemed slow as I stared down that scope, my heart beating like drums in my ears. Da-duh. Da-duh. Da-duh.

        My finger tightened on the trigger and I inhaled my breath.

        The stag's head sprang up from the stream like a whip, obviously alarmed. I thought he had noticed me, but instead his head swung in the opposite direction, upstream. In two quick snorts, it sprang out of the river bed and into the forest, disappearing too quickly for me to get a shot off.

        "Fuck me!" I hissed to myself and pounded the ground with a closed fist. Flustered, I bit back another curse and shook my head, angry at myself for not taking my shot when I had the chance. Game was too scarce now to make such mistakes.

        "Now how are you going to eat, huh, Alec?" I stood and slapped myself on the forehead, groaning at my stupidity. I hopped down onto the bank and left my crossbow propped up against a river rock, crouching down by the stream so I could see my reflection in the water. Sleepless eyes stared back, a warm amber-brown in a pool of dark flesh.

        At twenty-two years old, my face looked like anyone else my age; scuffed, beaten, worn, and a little bit scarred. My hair was short and shaggily cut, and a dark stubble seemed to constantly grace my jaw line no matter how many times I shaved it.

        I reached down, cupping my hands and dipping them down in the water, the iciness mildly shocking. I splashed it on my face, momentarily cooling my frustration. The water rolled down my neck and into my shirt, ticking my chest. Ignoring the possible dysentery creating bacteria, I brought some water to my lips, drinking thirstily. It tasted of cleanliness. Of the cold around me.

        Something splashed upstream and I froze in place, snapping my head in its direction. I caught sight of something dark darting back into the forest with nothing but the sound of water; not even leaves crunching or sticks cracking.

        A feeling of wrongness began creeping up my spine. Something was off and I smelled danger. The mountain paradise quickly turned into a trap as I spun slowly in a circle surveying my surroundings with a hunter's eye, the darkness emanating from the trees.

        The birds were gone and the forest was quieter than it ever was naturally. Even the wind seemed to note this and died down to nothing. Nothing moved. The silence was deafening, snow building up on a weak branch near the breaking point.

         I edged closer to my crossbow, thanking myself for leaving the bolt loaded as I stretched out an arm to touch it. Suddenly something atop of the bank snarled evilly, then without warning, a massive force collided with me, knocking me breathless into the stream.

        The icy water enveloped me, hugging me in its cold, iron grip. In glimpses I saw fur, teeth, and claws as I rolled in the water, grappling with my attacker as its weapons dug into my sides, jaws snapping at my face.

        I fought back, punching and clawing only the way a cornered animal could. The stream must have not been more than three feet deep, but it ran fast and pushed us downstream at a good clip, bashing us against the rocks along the bottom. Using this to my advantage, I pinned my foe under me and cracked it against the riverbed, momentarily separating us.

        I managed to stagger to my feet and stand against the water, while my attacker spun farther down the stream, where it began to shallow. Reeling from the brief fight and bleeding from some cuts on my ribs and legs, I finally saw my enemy in full.

        I knew it at once. A direwolf, a massive monster of a wolf that was bigger than any dog. Its shoulders must have at least reached the top of my hips and it was as long as I was tall. Great shaggy black fur with grey stripes covered its entire frame, now sopping from water. Vicious fangs poked out of its jaw like that of a boar and gleaming eyes stared at me, promising sweet, ravaging death. Even in its size and hairiness, I could see its skin stretched taut across its rips, becoming even more pronounced with each ragged breath. It stank of desperation.

        Normally direwolves would never attack a traveler or hunter, but the wolf looked just as ravenous as I did; hunger was a great motivator for throwing out nature's rulebook. Thankfully, they didn't travel in packs like conventional wolves; they were too big for that, so I didn't have to expect any of its friend bursting out of the forest.
        It snapped and snarled at me, sending a line of saliva flying from its jaws as its eyes flashing malevolently. Based on its ragged coat of fur, I would have bet it had the beginnings of mange.

        From my hip, I pulled out my blade, a foot-long combat knife with a seven-inch blade. Black metal rippled against light reflecting of the water, blue and white stripes wafting and waving over the steel.

        Okay, time to level the playing field, I thought, holding out my weapon just the way my father taught me; in my right hand, close to my body so I could strike with force, and with my left ready to block.

        The stream was threatening to rip my legs out from under me, swirling past my calves powerfully. I knew at once that if I tried to go in for the attack, I'd lose my balance and fall right into the water; then the direwolf would have me exactly where it wanted.

        I shouted at it; to either scare it off or goad it on. Either way, it was better than waiting for me to lose my feet in the torrent. It dipped its head and growled lowly, dead and menacingly.

        That doesn't sound good… I thought to myself, briefly.

        In two, quick bounds so fast I wouldn't have believed an animal that size capable of, it leapt on me, jaws wide open for the coup de grace on my neck. In pure reflex, my blocking arm went up as it impacted with me and its jaws locked tight around my forearm, crushing it. I thought I heard a bone snap and I yelled out in pain, falling back into the water with the wolf.

        We scrambled down the water aways, the wolf tearing my arm apart as I struggled to get my blade up. Repeatedly, I managed to get my head above water just long enough to get shoved back down, filling my gasping mouth with water. The clear stream was beginning to become tainted with dark pink as my blood emptied out into it, swirling about me in a cloud. Reddish foam thrashed around me as we fought.

        The wolf released my arm, making a lunge for my neck. Just as it freed me, my feet caught on a rock. Bracing against it, I struggled to get my blade hand and head out of the water. The moment of the kill seemed to stretch one for minutes as my knife came down at the same time as the wolf's fangs began to grace my neck.

        But I was faster and my blade slammed into the dire wolf's jugular with enough force to drive the entire seven-inches of black steel in, leaving only the hilt to be seen. In mid-bite, the wolf froze as the pain over whelmed it, blood flooding through its throat. I ripped my blade from its neck and slammed its body off of me. In the moment of vulnerability, I stabbed again, this time with a full, two handed, downward strike to the top of the skull. I could feel the knife cleave straight through the bone and into the soft brain, scratching against the sides with grisly vibration. The wolf's eyes rolled back in its head and it began to seize and shake, twitching in its last throws of death. I held onto the knife with all my life, teeth gritted and arms locked as the adrenaline pounded through my veins, water whipping past us.

        The stream was now completely crimson, my blood and the wolf's mixing in the wake of my triumph over the beast.

        Exasperated and wounded, I dragged the corpse of the dire wolf up onto the bank, grunting and stumbling like a drowned rat. Too tired to continue walking, I collapsed, closing my eyes as I tried to comprehend what just happened.

        Then I started laugh. I was thankful no one was there to see me as I must have looked insane, laughing next to a corpse. But I couldn't help it, the sudden feeling that I was alive was so euphoric I couldn't do anything but laugh. It was a weak laugh, painful in my wounded state, but a laugh all the same.

        Winded, but finally managing to gain back my breath, I pulled my knife out of the wolf's head and began checking my injuries, which were becoming more painful by the second as my adrenalin began to slide back to normal level.

        My ribs were bruised and deep red scratches ran alongside them, but other than that, they were fine. My left arm was the real trouble.  The flesh where the wolf bit was mangled and torn, bleeding profusely. The area around it was beginning to swell and I knew I didn't have long to bandage it and keep it down. On the bright side, it looked like my arm wasn't broken, but the bone might be cracked. I made a mental note to be careful with it for the next few weeks until I was sure it was healed.

        From the pocket of my jacket, I pulled out some rolled up tampons and duct tape; they were the best I could scavenge up before my trip, but they got the job done. Tampons might have had other intentions for their uses pre-Rök, but if you didn't have proper bandaging, they soaked the blood right up all the same. Duct tape was timeless, if you couldn't use duct tape to fix something, you might as well just throw it away.

        Unrolling the tampons and placing them on the torn flesh, they immediately began inhaling the blood. Normally, I'd wash the wound out with boiled water, but time was against me, so I decided to make due. Next, I rapped the entire 'bandage' with duct tape until I was sure it was secured, though I was careful not to make it too tight and cut off circulation.

        Satisfied with my jury-rigged medical solution, I contemplated the corpse in front of me. I might have missed my chance with the stag… but meat was meat, wasn't it?

        "Waste not, want not," I decided, shrugging as I got down to work. I didn't stop till the corpse was stripped bare of skin, red, veined flesh shining under the noon day sun. Its pelt sat neatly folded inside my pack alongside my game bag, filled with the choicest cuts of meat. Looking at the mutilated body, flies already gathering, succulent haunches still attached to it, I couldn't help but regret letting it rot. Though the thought of eating wolf meat was not the most appetizing, meat was meat in the end, and leaving it for the carrion somehow seemed wrong. All the same, I couldn't take it all; my pack was not built for the weight, besides, being over ladened while trying to make my way though the craggy Fulrons was a risk I was not willing to take.

        As I made my way back to camp, night fell over unexpectedly fast, evening orange and pinks in the sky fading to blues and blacks. The cold took on a sinister chill with it, bleeding through my damp clothing. The forest's nocturnal inhabitants began their orchestra, filling the still night with a chorus of calls and howling, sending the hair on my neck up on end. I could hear wolves, off to the west, even farther up the mountain, but I relaxed once I realized they were the regular variant; their howling didn't have the same tinge of beastliness to it.  

        My camp was spaced out around a small clearing deeper in the forest, away from the stream and off the trail, the blackened remnants of last night's fire sitting in the middle. My sleeping bag, stained with travel, was rolled out under a leather tarp stretched between two trees. Weary and pained by my ordeal, I let my pack slip from my shoulder, stowing it under my makeshift shelter and huddled into my sleeping bag, curling up in an effort to keep myself warm. Sleep came easy after that.


        Above me, the Fulrons loomed over, grey with granite, white with snow drifts clinging to the cliffs, and black from the shadows cast from the dusky, afternoon sun. Wispy, snake-like clouds hung about the peaks, circling them, following the curvature of the craggy ranges. High mountain winds sent banners of ice crystals streaming off the snow capped summits like ribbons of silken cloth. Somewhere down the mountain, I could hear a rushing stream, engorged on melting snow, rolling off rocky riverbeds.

        The switchback trail I paced down seemed endless, twisting back and forth, back and forth, dropping into the dark forest below. Despite, my legs carried me at a brisk pace, invigorated by the thought of lying down on a bed instead of the ground for once. I still had a few leagues to go, though, and my calves were burning with a healthy pain, but pain all the same. My arm was throbbing dully, feeling hot under the bandaging.

        As beautiful as these highlands were, something seemed off, like the forest itself disturbed. There were no birds, save for a few glimpses as they huddled in their nests. Normally, a solid breeze wafted into these hills, keeping the air from stagnating, but now it had gone dead, silent, making everyone of my footsteps sound as if I was stepping on glass. Even the clouds above took note, their typically bluish-grey mass taking a dark hue. As always, the cold was ever present, freezing my ungloved fingers and exposed face, fighting against me with bitter malice. At least my clothes were somewhat dry.

        Regardless, I pushed onward, ignoring the forest's hauntedness, using it as just another motivation to keep my feet moving. I felt unnerved though, the last days of summer were coming to a close as autumn colors began to spring up, but when I looked to the sky, felt the harsh air, walked the hard, frozen ground… all I could think of was winter, cold, unforgiving winter. Maybe it was just an unnaturally cold day and I was letting the idea run away with me, but still… it didn't feel like autumn.

        I shoved my thoughts aside as I rounded the next bend along the mountains slope, having left the switchback trail to follow a more scenic tangent. Through a break in the trees, looking down the mountain's grade, Normündir's valley spread out before me, filled with overwhelming color and immensity. From my northern perch just on the edge of the Fulrons, I could see most of its sister range, the Askuns, encircled the valley to the south, tapering off on its western edge to reveal a dark green spread of forest that stretched on past the horizon.

        Gentle rolling hills covered in vibrant summer grasses waved at the subtle suggestion of wind. Beds of white flowers gleamed lightly of the evening sun, bordering the streams that fed into Normündir's lake. The lake was a pool of orange glass shimmering against the fading sun, looking more like a mirror than a body of water, black shapes of fishing boats slowly sauntering across its surface, breaking the mirror's trick with their wakes.

        Normündir, my home, sat almost humbly next to the lake, looking unwilling to break the natural elegance of the valley. Quaint, brown buildings with thatched roofs huddled close together, lines of muddy roads criss-crossing through them. Even from atop my perch in these stony mountains, I could imagine the warm hearths, the people cozy in their hibernating state, sipping tea, the smell of cooking permeating through the air.

        Reluctantly, I wrenched my eyes away from the stunning sight, but I knew that if I didn't start moving fast, I'd find myself walking in darkness, a fact I did not envy.

        So I moved on, furthering my descent to the valley. The trees continued to grow denser and denser as I left the sparseness of the high altitude behind me, covering my path in shadows. Over the next league, the trail's slope lessened as I crossed through the Fulron's foothills and into the valley. When I finally broke through the sea of trees, the sun had finally dipped behind the mountains by the lake, dimming the land. The lake stood on my right, its coastline dotted with partially submerged boulders, their massive grey bulk hidden by the cobalt waters.   

        Ahead of me, Normündir waited, so close I could smell the fishing boats unloading onto shoreline and the earthy scent of smoke from fires. Docks, paired with longboats that rocked on the slight urgings of the lake's waves, stretched out into the waters alongside Normündir's grand hall, a massive longhouse built upon an even more massive block of natural granite. The Rock, as some of the villagers simply called it, was cut and hewn by mason to resemble castle walls, intricate carvings chiseled into the battlements. The hall itself was built to match, with massive, oaken doors, arches carved to resemble sleeping dragons, and great half moon windows on the second floor of the eastern and western sides, overlooking the town and the lake respectively.

        My trail bled into the lake's rocky shoreline, but I met up with the nearest road into town, nodding in greetings to a pair of dwarven fisherman who were walking away from their boat parked on the shoreline, a dripping net of fish stretched between them.
From the top of The Rock, looking out over the lake as the sun's glow faded over the edge of the Fulrons, were the village's young couples, huddled against each other in warm embrace, not more than a few years younger than myself, but still looking like the foolish children I never was.

        As I finally entered town, I was surprised by the amount of activity. With it so late, I would have thought everyone inside, preparing dinner or finishing up with the days chores, but instead, they swarmed through the town's square, where a number of unfamiliar merchants had set up shop. By the look of the carriages drawn around the square, I could tell they were from the south, their shaven faces and unlayered clothes so more than words could. In any other time, I would have stopped and taken a look at the goods, but my purse was as empty as my stomach.

        Some villagers did see me in the crowd and greeted me warmly, asking about my trip, but I was too weary to strike up a conversation so I neglected to tell them the story of my bandaged arm. Besides, I had a promise to keep.

        Night's Hall a traveler's perfect rest-stop, it had one of the best cooks in the whole village, the only wine you could find this close to the Jotunheim glaciers, the fluffiest bed, and the swarthiest, voluptuous girls you could find in any brothel. As Ellovendir, the Hall's eccentric dwarven proprietor, liked to put, "They come for the drinks, but stay for the mattresses." It sat; towering above the two hovels crammed in next to it with its two stories of over embellished glamour, bright crimson banners and carved balconies clashing against the dull grey and brown village. Wherever you tended to walk in the village, your eyes always seemed to be drawn too it, like a beacon of greedy, delicious sin.

        As I passed through the door, a suffocating wave of incense, smells, and body heat passed over me as a bell jingled lightly. The first floor of the Night's Hall was compromised of a bar on the far wall, flanked by two sets of stairs on either side. Across the floor were a number of tables and alongside the walls were red velvet couches, ladies in various manners of undress laying about them, looking bored in an enticing way or entertaining their clients. Sultry, twisted, dark, inviting… that's the way Ellovendir liked it.

        One of Ellovendir's elven twins came up to greet me, her heels clicking sharply against the wooden floor as she approached; if it was Alura or Yalla, I couldn't tell, they looked exactly the same, but once they talked I could usually pick the right one out. Alura was the civil one, Yalla was the raunchy one.

        "Ah, Alec!" she smiled sweetly and hugged me in a fond embrace, "How was the trip?"

        Yeah, defiantly not Yalla, I thought, though still painfully aware of how far the cords on her blouse were unlaced. Alora, as far as elves go, was lithe, though still a good half a foot shorter than I, always energetic and ready to detonate like a compressed spring. Like all her race, her skin was milk white, accenting the pink blush on her cheeks and the red lipstick she loved to wear. Thin, tapered ears, high and pointed, held back her honey blond hair which fell across her shoulder in an impeccably groomed pony tail. She had a welcoming face, one that could melt most men, and for a whore, she defiantly looked the part, but I knew her long enough to have resisted her charms thus far.

        "It had its ups and down, I guess you could say," I hid my arm at my side, remaining vague, grateful how dark the room was, "But I'm here now, that's all that matters," It was always best to stay a little reserved with Alora when you talked. She wasn't the gossipy problem, but her sister was, and whatever you told Alora, always seemed to end up in Yalla's ear, which, in turn, would end up in everybody else's.

        "Oh, you must be here for Fael! I'll go fetch her," she spun around, ready to spring up the steps to Fael's room, but I caught her arm for she could leave.

        "Actually, I'm not here for Fael," that was half a lie, but I felt it necessary, "I'm here to see Ello, if that's not a problem?"

        "Oh okay…" Alora seemed a little bit confused, whenever I came in here it was always to see Fael, "I'll go get her now, but I'm sure Fael will be right down quick once she hears you're here."

        Let's hope not, I thought, but said, "Thank you," Alora then clicked her way up the steps in search for Ellovendir, leaving me alone with an open room filled with distracted eyes.
        A nearby table called out to me, the cushions of its chair looking like heaven to my aching body. I walked over and let my body sink into it, dropping my bag at my side as my strained muscles finally relaxed for the first time in three days. I let my head fall back and my eyes closed in satisfaction. It was a glorious feeling as all the pain seemed to flee my body.

        I almost fell asleep, but a familiar hand tickled across the back of my neck, making me arch my back. I didn't even hear her approach.

        "You know I hate that, don't you?" I twisted to see Fael, standing at my side with her dark fingers tapping a song into my shoulder.

        "You know I know that's a lie," she took a seat on my chair's arm rest and began playing with my hair, smiling down at me with her purple lipstick which match perfectly with her bluish-black, dark elven skin. She was everything Alora was not, where she was sweet and welcoming, Fael was tart and overwhelming, where she was beautiful, Fael was sexy, where she was contained, Fael was fiery. Her hair was as black as night, eyes the color of amber stars, and a voluptuous figure that was almost unnatural for dark elves. She was everything I wanted, but nothing that I needed.

        "Is there anything you want, Fael?" I tried to remain distant, but her pouting lips lessened the hardness of my voice.

        "Is that the way you greet me now? I remember when you were a little more… sincere in your salutations," she smiled, her teeth shockingly white against her dark skin.

        "That was a long time ago, people change," it was hard to remain so cold with the heat from her body pressed against me close, the fire from the hearths dancing in her eyes.

        "But you don't. I don't think you've changed ever since I met you… what'd I used to call you?"

        The memory was still painfully fresh in my head, I sighed, "My Rock… you used to call me My Rock."

        "My Rock… My Rock at The Rock… do you remember us… just watching the sunset over the lake, kissing…"

        I pushed her away stubbornly, standing up from my chair, unwilling to play Fael's game, "Please, Fael, can we not do this tonight? You and I… we're not together any more, we haven't been for the last three months. Can you just stop playing at this?"

        Undeterred, she sauntered over to me, placing a single finger on my chest, "Admit it, you miss me. You miss me more than you ever thought possible. You miss me on those cold nights, when you're all alone in those mountains. You think of me." Her smirk read of the upmost confidence. She knew. I knew. Probably everyone in this room knew.

        But I didn't care.

        Just as I was about to open my mouth and lie, tell her I didn't miss her, to break her hopeful little bubble, but the familiar, sing-song voice filled the air.

        "Alec!" I heard a squeal behind me pierce my ear drums and turned to see Ellovendir standing next to Alora, her frilling dress overflowing with fabric, "Gods be good it is wonderful to see you!"

        I walked over to give her a hug, awkward due to her dwarven stature. Ello was a soft, round thing, flushed cheeks, about at eye level with my stomach, but her appearance betrayed her true self. She was a peculiar, explosive, lucrative business owner as ruthless and conniving as any I'd ever seen. Her business was her life and her girls were her blood, she fought for both tooth and nail. But she was pleasant to me and I was always a welcome sight at Night's Hall.

        "Good to see you to, Ello," I said, smiling down at the dwarf, "I take it business has gone well?"

        "Brilliantly. Ever since this caravan has pulled into town I've had no shortage of willing customers, you should see the stuff they're selling out there!" she flashed her short, fat fingers at me, now ordained with an array of gaudy rings, "All from the south, they say!"

        I looked at the flashy jewelry, snorting, "The south, huh? Well I bet all the stone in the south won't be able to match up with what I brought you." In a flourish, I reached into my pack and rolled the dire wolf's pelt out in both my hands, the fur creating an audible snap when it fully extended.

        "Oh, Alec! I can't believe you remembered!" she hummed as she ran her hands over the grey and black fur, her fingers sinking deeply into the softness. Then she looked up at me, perplexed.

        "This isn't elk?"

        "Dire wolf," I corrected, then held out my rudimentarily bandaged arm, "Gave me a run for my money, I'll tell you that."

        She immediately let her hands fall from the pelt and descended upon my arm, examining it with a mother's eye, "Gods, just like when you were a child, I'd turn my back for one second and you'd be impaled with something new," she pulled off the bandage and cringed, "Tampons, Alec, really? Thought we raised you with a bit of class."

        "What can I say, old habits die hard?" I laughed, but she just shook her head and rolled her eyes.

        "Alora, go fetch me some boiled water. Fael, can you be a sweet, and get me some bandaging from the cupboard in the kitchen?"

        "No, I'm fine, Ello, really," I tried to pull away from her, but she had me locked in a surprisingly iron grip for her size, "It doesn't even hurt!"

        "Really?" she drove a finger into one of the gaping holes the dire wolf's fangs had drilled into my arm and I let out a gasp in pain, "Yeah, it doesn't look like it hurts at all," she said sarcastically, wiping her hands on my shirt.

        Alora and Fael came down a moment later, Alora with a kettle of what looked to be boiling water. I looked at it cringingly, knowing this was going to hurt.

        "Here… you might want to bite down on this," she handed me a rag from the bar. It tasted like ale. Alora carefully maneuvered the kettle over my arm, and turned to me, "Are you ready?"

        "Yesh," I muffled out through the rag, clamping my hands into fist in preparation. As soon as the water touched the wound, I wanted to scream out, to whip my arm out of the way and run out of the room, but I slammed my fist against the bar, crunching my eyes tight in an effort to fight back the pain as the liquid fire coated my arm. All the while, Ellovendir scrubbed the wounds with another rag, this one thankfully cleaner than the one in my mouth. Almost as soon as it started, it was over, the skin in my arm pink from the scalding water and Ellovendir's scrubbing, sensitive to the touch. But that didn't stop her from wrapping my new bandage as tight as see could. By the time it was done I was almost gasping for breath and most of the clientele was looking at me. The temptation of tears at my eyes, but I pushed them back.

        "There, all nice and clean now," Ellovendir gave me an innocent smile, "Wasn't that easy?"
        "Yeah… sure…" I nodded, fingers still shaking a bit from the pain, "Now, if it's alright with you, I think I'll take my leave. It was nice seeing you," I hugged her again and walked over to the door.

        "Now you stay safe! Next time, I want to see you here for one of my girls, not for a doctor!" she called out after me.

        Wonder what Fael thinks of that? I pondered, tentatively touching my new bandage as I considered my new destination.

Home came to mind, but I still had the business of getting the meat in my pack to the butcher to get cut and salted, so I decided to stop there, winding my way through the crowd of market goers.

        The butcher was a gruff giant named Joröm. He was a tough customer to sell to sometimes, but he was fair in his purchases. Even so, I knew I would have to pull some of my better bargaining abilities out of the bag to sell to him today.

         "You're joking right?" he looked at with me without a smidgen of humor, "What am I going to do with wolf meat?"

         "No, you see, it isn't just wolf meat, no, no, no. This is direwolf meat, much, much better than wolf. It's more like bear than wolf, really."

        "And you expect me to believe you, Kain?" he stuck his jaw out as I looked at him.

        "Yes," I said simply, trying to give him a trusting smile, "Besides, it only two haunches and some backstrap, it's not like it would hurt your business that bad…"

        Joröm scratched his chin with a bloody hand, grumbling to himself in thought; debating where or not I was completely full of shit or only partially full of shit.

        "Okay, Alec, you got yourself a deal, but only because if I said no, you'd be in here everyday, bugging me until I sold."

        We shook hands and traded goods, earning myself a few nice cuts of pork and lamb for my troubles. All in all, Joröm was very generous with his stock, but he was also a little sympathetic to me, despite his attitude. He knew game was getting scarce around Normündir and took pity on my plight. Fortunately, I learned long ago to take what was offered, even in the sake of your dignity. The beggars who were choosers often didn't remain around to choose for very long.

        Next and last stop was Malcolm, a tanner and taxidermist for the village, as well as being one of the few humans who lived here other than me. He lived farther out of town than most, more for the sake of the village than for his social awkwardness as the dyes and vats of liquid he used stunk like rotting flesh. He kept to himself mostly, though I saw him in town every now and again.

        Quite honestly, I was rather surprised he'd actually survived this long. He was frail in body, pale in skin, and not very intimidating, with no friends to speak of; I didn't even know how he managed to feed himself on the meager profit he made from his work, but he was a crafty one all the same.

        He was a little bit too crafty for me though, always watching you in the corner of his eye and moving erratically. Maybe it was just the glasses, rare as they were, I was never used to the look they had on a man, like he was hiding behind something; but I figured I probably shouldn't judge him on that… still though…

        I knocked on the door of his home; a single story cabin of sorts, rickety with shoddy repairs. There was a clutter of hasty footsteps and the door creaked open a tad.

        "Who is it? What do you want?" Malcolm's demanded from the darkness of his house.

        "Uhh… it's Alec, Malcolm," I began unsurely, but the door remained closed, "The hunter? I came here the week before?"

        "Oh! Yes, yes!" Malcolm suddenly remembered, "Please come in!" The door closed and I heard the tinkling of Malcolm unchaining it from the other side, opening it up again and disappearing into his house.

        I opened the door softly, as if not to disturb the house itself, and stepped across the threshold, careful to rub my muddy boots on the mat so not to drag dirt in the house; like it would have mattered though.

        Malcolm kept most of the windows closed and shuttered, letting only green-tinted sunlight in from a scant few grimy windows. The smell of dust and rotting flesh seemed to fester in the house, its constant use as a morgue burning it into the walls and floorboards. I caught back a gag as my stomach tempted to touch the back of my throat.
        "So, Alec, what did you bring for me today?" he clapped his hands together and turned to face me.

        "Oh, right…" I set my pack down and reached into it, opening my game bag in the process. I wrapped my hand around the cold, blood soaked fur of the wolf's head and pulled it out. An immediate groan of disappointment emitted from Malcolm's throat.

        "What? What is wrong this time?" I snapped, irritated by Malcolm's constant artistic 'requirements'.

        "Look at it! What were you thinking, you barbarian!?" Malcolm cried in exasperation, looking ready to pull his hair out, "The fur! It's ruined!"

        "Doesn't look ruined to me," I said innocently, looking down at it.

        "The blood, it's completely ruined it! The fur's going to rot before I can even get the colors right! It's going to start falling out as soon as I start working!" he complained, ringing his hands through each other.  

        "Well how much is it worth, now?" I asked, dreading the answer.

        He shook his head, "I could only justly pay you with a small sum of coin, nothing more. Ten coppers, maybe."

        "Ten coppers?" I looked at him in disbelief, "Are fucking kidding me?"

        "No, Alec, that head is practically ruined, the best I could salvage from it is the skull; if you didn't manage to ruin that as well." I thought back to the fight with the wolf, to when I lodged my blade into its skull; I neglected to mention it. Still, I felt cheated and was not about to let go something I worked so hard to kill for ten measly coppers.

        "Listen, you motherfucker," I fired, practically spitting in his face. "I literately climbed a god damned mountain to bring you this! When's the last time you've seen a fucking direwolf?" I pushed him, tempting a fight, and he stumbled back, "You see my arm? See what that fucker did to me? I doubt you would understand the pain and shit I had to go through and you expect me to take ten coppers from you and not beat your ass bloody for it?" I blinked once at his panicking face, pale and pathetic.

        After that little exchange, I headed over to Skarl's home, clutching a stack of silvers in my hand with a smug, satisfied expression. I was always surprised how quickly some people caved under pressure; throw enough words into someone's face, add some heated expressions in there, and they would give into almost anything. It was kind of sad, actually, not being able to control situations like that, but the way I saw it, if you couldn't hold onto something yourself, you weren't supposed to be holding it in the first place.

        I shrugged and slipped my new coins into the purse at my belt, making sure it was cinched tight. Skarl's place was on the other side of town, but I didn't mind the walk, dipping into alleyways to save time. His house was a single story hovel of sorts, very small, especially for a Jotun. It was compromised of just one big room with a single bed, a hearth, some shelves littered with books, and a cooking area, but he barely used it, mainly just sitting in his chair on the porch, mulling over some philosophical, wise man's mumblings.

        A creature of habit, there Skarl sat, rocking monotonously back and forth with a chorus of squeaks following him like a pendulum, wearing a pair of human reading glasses too small for his face and reading a book too small for his hands. I'd imagine to anyone else, this would be a rare, even comical, sight, being that the jotüns were known more for hammers and spears than for books and glasses.

        He lifted his head in approach, dropping his glasses farther down on his nose so he could see me better, "I see the great hunter is back," he began smiling warmly, nodding to my arm, "It seems you bit off more than you could chew again?"

        "Yeah, well you should see the other guy," We chuckled and I stepped up to the porch, taking my friend's hand in a firm grip, his massive fingers encasing mine.

        "You worry me, Alec, every time you go out, you always come back with some new story of how you've escaped death, even a cat only has nine lives."

        "You worry too much, hell, you sit and think too much. I'd drive myself insane if all I did was read books and garden."

        "What is the saying you humans have? The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long?" he closed his book with a snap, setting it aside.

        "Well, thanks the gods I'm not a candle, besides, I'd rather live a solid forty years than have a dull existence of ninety," I reasoned.

        "You're looking to make it thirty at the pace you're going, how'd it even happen anyway?" he cocked a curious eyebrow at me.

        "Direwolf," I replied simply, "Up near the Fulrons, about three leagues from where the hunting trails reach the summit."

        "Really?" he seemed intrigued, "This far south? And it just came at you?"

        "Yeah… it was rather strange, I didn't put much thought into it though. Do you think it has something to do with my game as been so scarce lately?"

        "Could be," Skarl stroked his beard for a moment, mulling it over, "Can't be sure, though, there are so many variables in nature, it could have simply been coincidence for all we know."

        "What's with all these merchants?" I began, changing the subject, "Isn't it a little late in the season for them to be here?" I let my hand gesture out to the crowds still browsing the trader's ware.

        "From what I've heard, they were a caravan heading to New York from some villages on the eastern coast, but they were hit by raiders and driven north along the roads. They wound up here and started off shelving goods. Odd selection too, lots of jewelry and clothes, frilly stuff, not much use here, but people are still buying… I don't know what those folks down in New York are like, but if all these trinkets are a sign, they aren't my kind of people."  

        Stuff from New York… that could be interesting… The thought of it piqued my interest, foreign goods always had a feeling of rare uncertainty I always enjoyed; every store had something new and unusual I'd never seen before, "Think they'd trade for a few cuts of pork?"

        "I'd doubt it, the lot is only excepting coin, surprised they're getting anyone to buy considering how rare money is up here. Never liked the stuff myself."

        The silvers in my pocket sang to me, reminding they were burning in my purse. I ignored them though, no good came of buying frivolous trinkets to just sit on your shelve and rot. But it couldn't hurt to look…

        "What's Morlen been up to?" I asked, looking at the grand hall from the porch, Skarl's home not being more than a few blocks away from the lake's shore.

        The elderly Jotun grumbled, shifting his weight uncomfortably, "As extravagant and careless as ever. I swear, he's bloody obsessed with his idea of progress… he got into another damned argument with Ulder on what he thinks his boundaries as sheriff should be and now he's planning a feast tonight to welcome these traders! He's making a mistake using up our food stores so close to the cold seasons."

        "A feast, you say?" I asked, ignoring his worrying, chocking them up to an old man's paranoia, "Tonight?"

        Skarl shook his head at me, rolling his eyes, "Of course, you could care less about the economical infrastructure of the village, just as long as you don't have to cook for one night?"

        I grinned ruefully, "What can I say, I'm a simple man with simple tastes, I'm sorry no one can be so paranoid as you."

        "You call it paranoid, I call it responsible. But yes, the feast is tonight, I assume you're going then?"

        I nodded, "It may be a waste, but food is food, and I've never been one to turn down a good time."

        "Just remember what happened at the last one, try to keep your temperament in check and your ass out of trouble," he warned, wagging a finger. I sighed at that, remembering the last feast Morlen held at the grand hall, when Fael and I were still a couple. An elf made the mistake of asking Fael for her services when the two of us were dancing. I was sure he was drunk, or he probably wouldn't have asked, and I had a few myself; even so, throwing a punch was probably not the best course of action. It was only a week after that I decided to end it Fael… Skarl was always warning me about my temper, just most of the time I was too angry to remember it.

        "I'm assuming you're not going, then?"

        He grumbled again, "As one of the village elders, I'm required to attend, but I don't plan on staying long if I can help it. I'd prefer to be taking care of my plants than anything…"

        "Well, if I have to keep my temper, then you're going to promise me to have just a little fun? I can't imagine how you survive without a drink from time to time, alcohol would do you some good I would think," with that, I turned to look at the fleeing sun and hefted my pack more securely on my shoulders, "Well, Skarl… I should get going before the feast starts, I would at least like some time to myself before I go, get cleaned up and the like."

        "You just spent three days in the woods alone. Haven't you had enough of the incessant solitude?" he pried, but just shook his head at my shrug, "Ah, do what you must. The feast will probably start in a few hours, so I'll see you there."

        I waved my goodbye and stepped off the porch, Skarl going back to his reading. The crowds still held no sign of dissipating, pressing up against the stalls in an effort to see the wonders they contained. I was half-tempted to do so myself, but the need for a change of clothes and maybe a quick wash spurned me forward.

        My own home was on the eastern edge of town, a far cry from the bustling market in the center of town. It was quieter her, more serene and less chaotic. A man could take his time her and not worry about the constant bustle around him. Instead of surrounded by building, I could see most of the valley and forests surrounding me, even some of the farmers' land holdings, the crops beginning their last harvest of the year.

        I very seldom actually lived in my home, a small cottage, barely a house in all rights. In response, it always seemed so dark, so dead and dusty, as if no one had lived there in a very long time, but tidy all the same. My door creaked as I passed through, the house's inner cold assaulting me; the firewood in the hearth looking bleak and desolate in its burnt form.

        But no matter how cold, or sad, or unwelcoming my house was, it was still home after all and it felt good to be back. I let my pack drop off my shoulder to an awaiting chair, taking off my cloak and throwing it in a bundle on the table. The relief of not having to carry that weight seemed to melt me and I sagged into my chair near the fire place, not even bothering to light a fire. My relief turned into a yawn and I blinked once, then again, but more slowly as sleep began to descend on me.

        The feast can wait… I thought vaguely, kicking my boots off, just a few moments… a few minutes…


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