Chapter III: Flowers in the Snow

    “Dwinger!” Gailyn shakes me. “Are you okay? Dwinger, wake up!”

    “Aye, lass, I’m awake.” My eyes break open, and the bright sun shimmers off the snow, forcing me awake.

    As the snow covers me, I lay right outside of the little cabin, and the black lake silently waits nearby. I don’t know when I have fallen asleep, and the dream or hallucination or whatever last night may be something sinister or mere delirium.

    “How are ye two?” I stand up and look around.

    “We’re fine. You should’ve woken up Vahn for the second shift, but instead you pass out in the snow like a drunkard!”

    “Do either of ye felt something last night?”

    “What do you mean, Dwinger?” Vahnikopa reaches from behind and pats me on the shoulder. “Did something happen last night?”

    “Nothing. I must be cleaning cobwebs in me sleep.”

    “Well… Gailyn and I feel rested. Mayhap we can continue onward to find a town not crawling with cannibals.”

    “Right ye are, greenskin.” I glance at the lake. “I’m sure this side of Tungol isn’t all unneighborly.”

    “Something wrong?” Vahnikopa looks at Gailyn.

“Nothing.” Gailyn glances at the lake. “It’s nothing. Dwinger, survey the land and get us to civilization. I’m sick of this horrid wilderness.”

    “Oy, just because I been all over doesn’t mean I’ve literally been all over.”

    “Do your damn ranger shit already, you mutton-headed Dwarf!” Gailyn stomps her right foot and towers over me.

    “Yer gonna have to be a lot taller to stare me down, lass.” I push her away.

    The sun hovers right above the trees with the bigger moon peeking through branches from the east. Night may come sooner than expected. Despite what little ball of fire we have, at least it can tell us that the coast sits to the west, and Eithung waits up north. Around the lake, the clearing of the trees reveals a single trail out to the northwest. The trial lacks any footwork in the long time, yet the path seems to blossom open, inviting us to take a serene path to safety.

    “Well, let’s start heading out that way.” I point to the trail.”

    “Wait, isn’t that a different one from we came in?” Gailyn looks around and points south. “Didn’t we come from that direction?”

    “I’m sure we did, but I don’t want to waste cranium energy pondering where the hell we came from. Grab your bags, and let’s go.”

    Vahnikopa eagerly heads for the trail far before the two of us got a chance to grab our backpacks. His face lacks any orc-ish emotion that I’m so used to; he’s hard to read that one. On the other hand, Gailyn seems afeared of this whole place, and even as a stout dwarf, I must agree with her.

    Gailyn and I walk around the black lake to reach the trail ahead. No face appears beneath the black waters, yet for the first time, we can see our own reflections in the lake water. Still and motionless, the water becomes a perfect mirror, reflecting our weary faces.

    “Dwarf, are you familiar with ghost stories?” Gailyn mutters into her chest.

    “There’s a ghost story for every snowflake on the ground, lass. What ye on about?”

    “I mean of legend. Maybe even things we mortals shouldn’t even know? My father spoke of unimaginable forces beyond our grasp, maybe even beyond the scope of the Divines.”

    “All phooey non-sense if ye don’t confirm the story yerself. Ye manlings always grumble the in dark about the supernatural. Until you see it yerself, most stories mean nothing.”

    “Yeah…” Gailyn takes one last glance at the lake.

    We catch up to Vahnikopa, who peers deep into the trees. I signal them to follow behind while I scout ahead. The trees crumble away from being petrified, dead monuments and become living, organic wood. The stench of ash dissipates slowly. The cold air fills my lung with a slight scent of berries. A spotted deer scampers through the trees in the distance—a real deer! The sound of birds chitters in the distance, and the fur on these trees grow thicker.

    “This feels right.” I slow down to meet with the other two.

    “I’m not so sure.” Gailyn nervously looks around.

    “What’s wrong with ye? Why spooked ye?”

    “No.” Gailyn briefly slows down then catches her pace. “I mean, this whole new world is far different. I’ll get used to it. Don’t worry about me, dwarf.”

    “No shame in fear. Fear is a test of courage.” Vahnikopa beats his chest. “Fear is what allows adventurers to become like heroes. Pluck is the heart of overcoming fear.”

    “I’m impressed, Vahnikopa. Did you find yer nutsack and stop being mopey?”

    “Hardly, dwarf. I’ve always been myself here. This warm snow reminds me why I came here.”

    “Is that so? Yer usually talking bleak moments of holy indoctrination or speaking of sour instances of our situation.”

    “I’m a man of Bilehwit, an avatar of her graceful mercy and courage.” Vahnikopa holds one hand to his chest in prayer.

    “Yer ain’t no walking god, greenskin. I’ve yet to see ye whip out yer dingle and fallen dead drunk on a priest’s lawn.”

    “I’ll ignore your heretical remarks, for they have no merit in the eyes of the Divines.”

    “Ye damn well know the only reason gods come down to our humble little plane of existence is to plough every orifice and indulge in mortal debauchery.”

    “Will you two shut up?” Gailyn steps between us. “I don’t want to hear anything about Gods or spirits or whatever. Don’t you feel it? The trees…”

    “What are ye afeared of?” I look around. “Nothing in the shadows, lass. And it’s not like we get into divine philosophies every chance Vahnikopa here spouts holy words.”

    “I get it, Dwinger. You’re a militant atheist.”

    “No, I know Gods exist—just look at this fucker here!” I thumb Vahnikopa. “By the Forge! I do know. Blindly worshipping them is a different matter.”

    “Please stop talking, you bearded buffoon.”

    “Aye, lass. We don’t want to call attention—”

    In the distance, a faint cry sings to us.

    “Hear that?” I hold everyone. “A plea! Let’s go!”

    We drop our backpacks and rush forward into the woods. A small clearing appears ahead, and a lone manling lays on the ground surrounded by dire snow wolves, large white canines as big as horse. No time for a plan.

    Vahnikopa rushes forward bearing his sword and shield, and his loud orcish cries attract the wolves. Gailyn pulls out her bow and readies for battle, and I’m left in the dust as they seem far too eager to fight for someone else’s survival, and my strong, stubby legs can’t possibly compare to the stride of taller Eordcynns. Dwarves are not made for running.

    I pull out my twin hammers, Karog and Gorak, and rush as quickly as my legs can get me. There are three dire wolves, each of them surrounding the helpless man. Vahnikopa jumps over the man and stands over him with shield and sword. A wolf strikes first, gnashing it with large teeth and crushing jaws. Vahnikopa blocks and shoves such an obvious attack away and stabs through the beast’s mouth and into the brain. Gailyn covers Vahnikopa’s back by pelting the wolf directly behind the greenskin. Three shots to the wolf’s neck, and the creature drops to the snow, bleeding out and breathing its last. I come in for the final strike to dispatch the last of the large wolves; Karog goes straight for the bonebox of the beast, landing true and crushing skull. The wolf’s head collapse into an indistinguishable mass of fur and flesh. The fresh blood melts the snow around us as the last wolf take its last breath.

    The manling on the ground rolls onto his feet and looks up at us.

    “Oh, praise the Gods! Angels have come for me!” The manling grovels.

    “Are you alright, lad?” I lift the man up onto his feet.

    He stands at a fair height. He has the face of a young man, yet his scape grows short greys. He bears furs all over his body, a single woven basket, and a flute on his hip. No weapon on him whatsoever.

    “I’m fine, thank you Master Dwarf.”

    “Call me Dwinger, manling. These are me companions, Gailyn and Vahnikopa. I’m going to keep things short here: Do ye know where the nearest village is?”

    “Oh, yes. I’m from a little village north of here, Stonewater. I was out here collecting snowberries for tonight’s dinner; nothing much else to eat around here. I think I just wondered too far into the woods before those things surrounded me. I’m grateful to you Master Dwarf for your rescue.”

    “Dwinger, manling! No need for any formalities with me. Ye can be prancin’ decorum with prissy-pants over there.”

    “Shut up, dwarf.” Gailyn predictably chimes in. “I bet your clan don’t even know what manners are!”

    “Ignore the lass. She’ll just be going on something about decency. Can ye show us to a village? We’ll get ye first-rate protection.”

    “Is that all? I could offer so much more those who saved me.”

    We’re adventurers, lad. Unless ye have information or gold, ye leading us the village is plenty enough.”

    “Oh, that’s neat! I always wanted to travel far and wide. Explore these lands and fight rogue rapscallions.” Jeth points the way and walks.

    The three of us follow the strange, curious man. I do not sense any ill intentions from him compared to other inhospitable manlings in these lands. Gailyn seems suspicious of the man, yet she looks over her shoulders away from him as if she is afeared of her own shadow. Vahnikopa seems not to care about being careful, for he believes if ill times come because of his decisions, he will face it then and there.

    “If you want work, I hear that the armies of Authlyrd are looking for mercenaries for the war with Eithung.”

    “War? What about?”

    “Who knows what those big cities war over, am I right? We’re far too south of Eithung to be a threat to Authlyrd’s armies. Nothing in Stonewater anyway except berries and snow.”

    “I think we’ll be staying out of that. We’re not here for war, fighting for ideologies we might not even agree with.”

    “Oh, good, good! That makes sense. If I was as strong as you guys seem to be, I would join up. Yes, yes, because I get to travel, eat, and earn coin.”

    “Well, lad, nothing is stopping you from getting stronger. You go out; you train hard; and you fight monsters.”

    “You make--make--it sound so easy. No, sir dwarf, I’m not too capable.”

    “Whatever you say, lad.”

    Our paltry conversion passes the time as the double-manling leads. In a tunnel of trees, I finally see a small speck of light at the end. A small village appears with hospitable sunshine raining over it. The manlings here move and motion as regular peasants should—as humans should be! They smile and work despite the harshness of the cold. A dog scampers across our path, a canine beast with grey and white fur. Birds here and there fly through the gentle, cold breeze, not making a single sound in flight. Soon enough, an inn appears ahead, The Icy Shanty. The open doors let’s out a comfortable draft from within, and the warm air invites us in.

    “Here--here--we are.” Jeth seems proud of himself. “Let me buy you dinner and board! It’s the only thanks I can give.”

    “Oh, thank you so much for your generosity.” Gailyn uses both hands to cup Jeth’s right hand.

    “And a drink?” I inquire.

    “Well--well--of course!” Jeth pulls out his bag full of snowberries. “We have the best wine in… around here.”

    “We’ll be seeing about that! I doubt it’ll even touch the glistening foam of our strong ales.” I beat my chest.

    “Come on, Dwinger.” Gailyn pushes me into the inn.

    A humble atmosphere fills my lungs. People are drinking, chatting, and enjoying themselves. No eye strays our way with hungry looks. I feel like I’m home: a place of comfort full of alcohol. The bartender, a voluptuous half-elf woman, throws a courteous smile our way. Her blue eyes look us over with minute curiosity.

    We sit at a table near a window to the see the snow building on the sills. Without a word, Jeth runs off to the bartender to order food and drinks for the party.

    “I’m so hungry.” Gailyn rests her head on the edge of the table. “This is the worst of it.”

    “Yer dainty toes getting too swollen?” I rib her left arm. “Ye haven’t seen worst yet, lass.”

    “Shut up, dwarf.”

    “He’s right, Gailyn.” A grin creeps across Vahnikopa’s face. “Tougher days are ahead for us. With the miracles of this world helping us along, we’re able to safely secure a single moment of respite.”

    “Why are ye in such a bloody good mood?” I lean onto the table.

    “No reason, Dwinger.”

    Jeth comes back with a tray full of steins with crystallized froth dripping from the sides. He places the drinks down in front of us, but as he passes by me, that friendly demeanor left a frightening impression on me. In the low light and cramped time, a sinister energy grabs onto my skin. A strong prickling sensation crawls all over my face and beard; then, it shoots through the tip of my nose, leaving nothing behind. The moment is brief, but it brands my mind and memories.

    I blink.

    My eyes glaze over the drink, following the suds creeping around the rim. It smells fruity and spiced. Gailyn rushes to her drink despite not even knowing what it is. Vahnikopa meditates before every sip but fails to see the fallacy of drinking blindly; however, poison never drags his body or mind down. I fail to see a reason for this man to betray us after our charitable deed. The ale sits on the edge of soft ice, but it blooms as it washes down my throat. At this moment, this ale reigns supreme of all others, far and wide.

    “Good, good, right?” Jeth nods in approval. “Our barley and wheat have been blessed by Frore. Magical plants that they are as they thrive in the cold.”

    “Tell me more, my friend.” Vahnikopa perks his ears.

    “Oh, oh? Well, Frore is the god of ice and sky. We worship, worship him around these parts, so he may bless us with bountiful food in these harsh lands.”

    “Do you know of any other deities of these lands? Like from any cults or such?”

    “Well, well, I’m not so sure. There are the Great Divines, I’m sure. I do talk, talk much to many other travelers, and the furthest I’ve ever gone out was to forage in the woods.”

    “I see.” Vahnikopa visually scrutinizes Jeth.

    The food comes on various, grand platters. Most platters seem to be berries and other fruits, but one plate held a leg of a large beast, most likely from a mountainous bird. Gailyn lacks any sort of tableside decorum and rushes for the food. Vahnikopa, despite his empty belly, prays before taking a bite in. I pick, choose, and sniff the fruits and meats; they smell of fresh snow with the influence of unfamiliar spices.

    “Not, not to your liking?” asks Jeth.

    “It’s not that, lad. Strange things have been happening to us, so a cautious approach is best.” I nibble on one of the berries.

    “Oh, wow. You really do sound like true adventurers. Sir Dwinger—”

    “Again, call me Dwinger, lad.”

    “Dwinger, Dwinger can you take me along with your party?”

    “Why do ye want to do that?”

    “I want to travel more, for I aim to know all the tales of these lands.”

    “A bard?” I stroke my beard. “I’m not sure, lad. Can ye even handle a blade?”

    “Well, uh, if I travel more, wouldn’t I learn to handle myself more!”

    Vahnikopa finishes his prayers and dines. Gailyn looks up from her food.

    “Give him a chance, dwarf. He may surprise you.” Gailyn finishes her words then her bread.

    “Oh? Like when I assumed that ye were an archer when ye really a conjurer pulling arrows from the ether! That would’ve been helpful under the sewers of Torhaven when we were hunting that cockatrice.”

    Gailyn throws a dinner roll at my head, but a gob as big as mine can catch any flying wheat.

    “You two are like children.” Vahnikopa places a flab of meat into his mouth.

    “I’m nearly ten times yer age, greenskin.”

    “That’s only in your beard, dwarf.”

    “Ye got a mouth lately.”

    “Sir, sir Dwinger,” Jeth cuts in. “I beg of you to let me join. I have already travelled these lands, so I am sure I can be of use!”

    “Look here, Jeth.” I stare straight into his eyes. “This isn’t some fairy book ye might be reading in the literature hole. Ye’ll be in serious risk of death or even worse.”

    “Worse?”

    “Yea, worse. Ye spirit might be banished or stolen, yer remains may be scattered to all four corners, or ye might become a slave with yer thoughts and hopes desolated beyond any means. Death’s sometimes the lucky way out of the life.”

    “Well…”

    “Oh, don’t scare him off, Dwinger.” Gailyn leans over. “If you have the courage and heart for it, do it. That’s better than any peasant shaking their knees and wallowing under the shadow of glory.”

    “Do what you feel is righteous.” Vahnikopa nibbles on bread.

    “What ye fucks think ye doing?” I yell through my teeth and beard. “We barely made it out alive, and ye all want to take on some neonate?”

    “He’s going to learn somewhere. Why not under the arms of experienced tutelage? Isn’t that what you did for Gailyn?”

    “Aye, the lass has nimble digits and a strong heart, but lacked…”

    “Experience, Dwarf. I’m grateful for your leadership, Dwinger. Why not share more of that strong, dwarven head with another?”

    “Would, would you really?” Jeth holds his palms together. “I know more than music, Sir Dwinger. I know how to pick locks and such as well.”

    “Whatever.” I perk my ears. “Play me a song.”

    Jeth jumps to his feet and runs off to the bar. Barely a wink before he returns with another round of steins. His excitement bursts through his eyes when he pulls out his flute.

    He purses his lips and begins to play a melancholic tune. The song entices me and the whole tavern: All eyes and ears tune to the soft melody. Soft, slow, and well-drawn out the, his flute playing exceeded any other I’ve ever heard. The crescendo leads into a symphony that seeps into the heart, a pulsating creation of joy and sorrow. The song elevates.

    A beautiful falsetto voice fills the tavern, luring more with enchanted tones. Old Elvish drowns the song, making it hard to understand; however, the sounds between the flute and singing harmonize, which creates one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in the last century. Then, more instruments join in, the whole tavern seems to know the song. Finally, the playing comes to a slow, long stop. The patrons cheer.

    “Aye, lad, that was beautiful.” I clap. “If yer willing to learn, ready to die, and hungry for glory, then welcome to the party.”

    “You--you--really mean it, Sir Dwinger?” Jeth puts his flute away.

    “Aye, but call me Dwinger—just Dwinger.”

    “Yes, yes, Sir Dwarf.”

    I punch the lad’s right arm.

    “Listen up or get used to that.”

    “Yes, yes.” His arm twitches but dares not rub it. “We understand. Let’s, let’s celebrate!”

    Jeth’s song attracts a crowd around him. They surround him with open palms of coin or a fistful of ale. None of the other musicians seem to make it into the scene.

    Gailyn leans over to me.

    “Dwinger, you seem enthusiastic for once. I had to beg you to take me along when we met.”

    “Did you hear it, lass?” I keep my eyes on Jeth.

    “Hear what? I love the melody. It’s so different compared to the music of Torhaven.”

    “And you?” I glance at Vahnikopa.

    “It was fine.” Vahnikopa nods. “Soft and melancholic but it strikes you at the heart.”

    “Yeah, I agree.” I weakly nod. “Could use some singing, right?”

    “What do you mean?” Gailyn looks at me. “It’s a fine piece for a flute. Couldn’t ask for more.”

    “Right! Let’s get him set up then.”

    Jeth returns with a smile across his face and his arms full of another round of ale.

    “So…” Jeth looks at the three of us. “What--what--brings you all out here? Your clothes and such don’t seem from around here.”

    “Across the seas, me lad.” I take a sip of ale. “We come seeking fortune in a new continent across the world.”

    “Is that all?”

    “Well…” I look Vahnikopa.

    “I’m returning home.” Vahnikopa scrutinizes his ale before taking a sip.

    “I’m here to find someone in Eithung.” Gailyn leans back in her chair.

    “I’m here for the fortune meself.” I finish off the ale.

    “If you need a job, the village elder is offering a hundred gold pieces for the eradication of a witch.”

    “I’m not so sure.” Gailyn dismissively waves her hand. “I’d rather get to Eithung than deal with some old crone.”

    “Don’t mind the snobby princess over there.” I cut in. “We could use the coin before hitting the big city.”

    “A good plan.” Vahnikopa nods in agreement. “Besides, any funds are better than praying for mercy of the fates.”

    The night leads onward. We drink and eat to our fill, a first in a while, after several damn months of damp rooms and indescribable horrors chasing us. Jeth treats us all that night, including board. Curious how the simple peasant turns out to be a fanciful troubadour with somewhat deep pockets or loose finances.

    It’s not like we have worth ourselves. All loot and coins that we have are leftovers from the extravagant, expensive excursion. I could have bought a ship and crew myself, but with all the prophets and preachers gossiping about the Third Age of Eardgeard, problems begin to root themselves throughout the land. Within the last century, losses and hardship grips everyone—adventurer and commoner alike. Even in this modest inn, we have enough for a few months before gold runs thin, so we could use every little odd job here and there.

    Soon the night wanes and the morning peeks through the windows of our meager, warm rooms. In the longest of times, I can wake up to a colorful dawn without the horrid smell of greenskin rubbing against me. The absolute bliss of a private room can be a blessing upon any dwarf roaming around in open spaces too long.

    We gather around the table for breakfast. Both of my companions seem well-rested for once in their lives. Jeth, the strange bard, skips down the stairs like an ignorant peasant girl. His smile radiates a charismatic glow that outshines the morning sun. His eyes seem ready, more astute compared to yesterday. He has a strong, heartful stride like that of a disciplined soldier.

    He looks my way with that continuous smile, yet it does not enchant any other in the inn. His stare gnaws on my face when I stare back to meet his eyes. Is he trying to intimidate me? The air around him ceases to move as his smile fades.

    “What’s wrong, Dwinger?” Gailyn calls my attention.

    “Nothing, lass. We should be getting ready to find that witch.” I rub my hammers.

    Gailyn and Vahnikopa prepare their backpacks and ready themselves for the road. Within the town, we were able to stock up on the basics: rations, rope, furs, flint, etc.

    We found the village elder who explains that the witch rests out to the east. He has gathered a purse full of coin from the villagers to pay for an adventurer’s service—common for small towns and hamlets. These places lack any form of militia, so they must call upon the luck of travelling mercenaries, hunters, or any other.

    The party travels east to find the witch that hexed the land with nefarious intents. Any proper surveyor can navigate the topography enough, and the area around us lacks any sort of dread that first welcomed us on this continent. Our travels are cut short due to the lack of sunlight in these harsh, northern regions.

    I take in the first watch for the night, assuring the group that they needn’t to fear for my heavy eyes like last time. The rest soon hunker down in the familiar warmth of bedrolls. The campfire sits in a ditch, a stealth fire to prevent any curious miscreants.

    Three hours after the flame dies out, queer noises rattle in distance. The invisible snap of dead wood; then, the sudden silence of suspicious snow crinkles under an unfamiliar foot. The foot sounds nothing like any hooves or animal paw. Around the campground, Gailyn’s sleeping roll lays empty. A strong breath takes me in, and I calm down. Gailyn scurries in the shadows like a cat—nature calls.

    I take the time tending to my hammers, Korag and Gorak. Every day these hammers need to be polished, for they contain a sacred power that I rather not upset. Sitting next to the dug-out fire, I listen to the movements of nature and focus on the sheen of these hammers. I mutter:

            No hearth nor home I must travel alone

Follow me through the darkness as I plea

See me through the timeless as binding three

Drinketh life from my bones as I atone

    “Get away!” Gailyn bursts through the snowy foliage ready for a fight. “Stay back!”

    With a burst of fear, she falls next to me facing westward into the frigid shadows. Vahnikopa and Jeth stir awake. Vahnikopa, experienced as ever, jumps to his feet with sword in hand, forgoing his armor. On the other hand, Jeth rolls around in a confused manner, suddenly becoming yellow at the situation. I stand there with both hammers in hand, ready for a strike from beyond the void, yet with mild adrenaline pumping, the party readied for momentary nothingness.

    “Gailyn!” I look over. “What’s wrong?! Ye crying about something, yet I see nothing.”

    “Spectre in the woods!” she cries. “I saw…”

    Gailyn trails off in lost thought. Her eyes widen with terrible disbelief, for what she has seen is completely real in her mind. I know nothing of the possibilities, but I see nothing chasing her tail. Her eyes dart around in frantic suspicion while she runs short on breath.

    “Calm down, lass.” I focus on my ears.

    “Shut up! Don’t tell me to calm down! I know what I saw.”

    “Ye hear me saying anything about disbelieving you?”

    “It’s just…”

    “Quiet!”

    Something new, the chatter carries along the cold, night air, attracting some unwanted attention. They’re sloppy, but I know the intentions all too well. With my lungs full, I bolster the party:

    “Scatter!”