The beautiful but stark icy landscape rushed past in a blur as the young woman steered her dog sled over the snowy fields. Her cheeks flushed, she reached up and pulled her furred hood tighter over her face, leaving just hazel eyes peering out. Behind her, a long red braid flicked out, catching the wind and whipping around like a flag in a storm.
Nadya did not know what to expect when she reached Waldsby, how would they react? Would they blame her for bringing the wrath of Nazhena upon them or would they take the portal as a blessing and seek a safer home? Her biggest opponent will be Birgitte, the factor. Can she communicate with the witch? Would she make a trip for the City of Hoarwood to seek aid? That was a wonky bridge that had to be crossed one way or another. And what of her allies, what if they fail? How much time would she have to get them to flee before Radosek came for them?
“No!” Shaking her head, Nadya steeled herself. They would not fail, the strangers from the south seemed strong and fearless, there was little between them and the foul witch in the tower left.
Movement from her left suddenly drew her attention, something swift moved from the clumped winter yews that dotted the landscape. Squinting to lessen the glare, the ulfen woman scanned the shadowed spaces under the trees. Blue eyes, cold and intelligent glared out at her, and with an explosion of snow, the large shaggy wolf broke from the bank of snow and charged after the sled.
Rare terror clutched at her chest, fear pulling the air from her lungs. Winter wolves generally left them alone, they were protected by Nazhena’s rule. Did this one know, was it a messenger or assassin? Knuckles white, she swallowed the fear and pushed her dogs harder, urging the team to outrun the sprinting wolf.
Missing the speeding sled on its initial charge due to being spotted by the keen eyed scout, the wolf fell into a run directly behind. Powerful legs pushed the creature closer and closer to his prey, the smell of fear from the woman and dogs driving it forward. Still, the sled was fast it and its gain was slow. Inching into range, the creature opened its mouth and let fly a cone of life-stealing cold. Within a blink of an eye, the braided woman flicked something behind her as fire suddenly spread across the snow causing the wolf to swerve to avoid running through it. Nadya felt ice strike her back, the edges of the sled freezing over but then it was gone, the creature’s breath stopped short as it desperately avoided the alchemist fire.
“Lucky” she whispered to herself, but that was it, with stoic acceptance, she felt her empty belt pouches, the last of her alchemical fire gone. The only advantage she had now was knowledge of the land. With that, she urged her dogs on and started to change direction.
For over twenty minutes she led the winter wolf through copses of trees, over snow banks and into natural ice caverns, her route consistently stopping the wolf from gaining top speed or a straight enough section to unleash its breath. It tried, but each time, only tree and terrain suffered the blast. She was so close to Waldsby but she started to wonder if she should lure the creature there, it could kill many if it decided to follow her in. Her dogs were tiring but the blasted wolf just kept running, seemingly immune to such exhausting movement.
Desperate, Nadya racked her brain even as the wind burned her face, her hood long whipped back allowing her fiery hair fly loose. A plan, a poor, ill-though plan formed, she knew it was risky but she could not allow the creature into Waldsby and maybe she could at least injure it enough that her friends would return to the village before it.
With another cry out to her dogs she changed direction one more time, heading for the remains of an old hunters cabin. She had stopped there a couple of times when the blizzards picked up, the remaining walls creating a wind barrier. But the building itself was not what she wanted. Aiming for a snowbank that dropped down to the old cabin, she steeled herself, the wolf not more than eighty feet behind her. The dogs hit the bank and leapt over and down the ten foot drop away. Letting go of the sled as it hit the natural snow ramp, she spun in the air and tucked herself up.
She hit the ground hard, the snow giving way to the old wooden palisade buried slightly below. Behind her, she heard her sled slam into the ground and break apart, the dogs circling in sudden confusion. Despite the pain from her back from landing on it, she scrambled to her feet and dug her hands into the snow.
“Come on” she quietly screamed “Where the hell are you?” Sharpened wood answered her cry, and tightening her grip, she lifted. Though no longer all in one piece, part of the old wooden fence still clung together, the tops sharpened into long points. Pushing it up and forward, she slid her gloved hands down the stakes as it went up and over, their ten foot length now angling towards the snow bank. Struggling to stop it from now toppling forward, her muscles screamed as she prayed it came quick. And it did.
The form of the great wolf flew over the embankment, it’s blue eyes scanning for his prey, assuming it had taken poor refuge within the ruins. Too late is saw the deadly spikes below it as momentum dragged him down. Hitting the top of the spikes, it screamed in pain, a hideous human sound to escape from such a maw. Biting into his flesh, the creature’s weight carried it forward, causing the broken fence backwards. With snow underfoot, Nadya could do little as the fence crashed down on top of her, like cruel horizontal prison bars. Desperate, she tried to scramble out but the weight and her aching limbs failed her. With a scream of frustration, she looked around for signs of the wolf.
Her eyes met icy, cold death. Injured and hobbling, the wolf levelled its head and walked over onto the fence, his weight crushing the wood into the woman. Blood pooled upon the snow from the numerous wounds in his stomach and flanks, but they were not as deep as she had hoped.
“You are the most vicious little rabbit I have chased in a long time” with each snarling word, the creature inched forward to her face that peered from between the posts. Struggling still, the defiant ulfen edged her hand to her axe, but a paw smashed down on the post above her shoulder causing shooting pain.
“No rabbit, your time is done. You have betrayed the witches and I have been sent for you. Some in your simple little village may yet live because of the Factor’s actions, you would have only doomed them.” Standing high on all four legs, the creature watched as rage came across the woman’s face as she learnt of her factor’s betrayal. Still, such rage could not mask the pain the woman was in, his weight grinding the posts over her chest, face and arms. He watched with amusement at the woman’s last action, drawing a dagger from her belt and flicking it between the posts. It missed easily, despite the prayer to Gorum, the Lord in Iron, for it strike true.
“It appears even your false gods have abandoned you it is the end” mocked the wolf as he lowered his drooling maw, blood mixing with the saliva as it dripped over her face, hot breath filling her lungs. He was right, she did seem to have insulted the gods somehow and her throw was not nearly as forceful as she wanted, but it might have been enough.
A whistle escaped her lips, short and harsh and the sound of a dozen huskies snarling suddenly caught the wolf’s attention. Looking over, the dogs that had been standing confused and slightly cowering were straining against their leashes. Fear grabbed him but quickly replaced with more mocking laughter, they were still bound to the broken sled, a long strap of leather caught from the train lead and the leading bracket. The sled itself was wedged into the broken lodge, it was going nowhere. And then there was a sound of tearing. With eyes narrowed and ears pricked, the wolf scanned the howling dogs to determine where the sound was. A glint of metal reflected back at him, a dagger lodged into the bracket where the leather lead looped, not deeply and certainly not enough to sever it, but it did cut it and now with twelve blood-crazed dogs pulling on it, it was tearing quickly.
Pain pierced his chest, a small pick had been stuck into him from the woman. Her arm awkwardly sticking out between the posts, her grip vice like on the small weapon. With burning hatred, the wolf shifted his weight on the fence forcing it to slid painfully across the woman, before it caught on her arm. Between the wolf’s weight and the strong wood, her arm snapped, causing an ear piercing scream from the woman. That was enough, as one, the sled team surged forwards, the leather binding tearing free. The wolf disappeared under the bodies of twelve huskies driving him off the fence. Underneath, Nadya felt paws, claws, fur and bodies scrape over her, each one causing pain shooting through her. Blood poured from numerous wounds and the pain from her arm just brought closing darkness.
“You are not the alpha predator you son of a bitch, you, like the witches, can bleed and fall” Her defiant words were barely heard over the snarling chaos to her side, but she felt that they were good final words as the darkness consumed her.
Pain. Pain was good, pain meant she was somewhat alive.
Hazel eye fluttered open, staring up at a clear blue sky, broken only by some wood pressed hard across her face. She would groan in pain but that would require more effort than she was willing to give. Turning her head sideways slowly, her gaze fell across the carnage. White fur stained red was everywhere and the ruined body of the winter wolf laid unmoving in the snow. She could see at least five of her beloved dogs lay dead around it and several more looked quite injured, their heads down, staring at her from nearby.
A wet, salivary tongue suddenly licked across her cheek causing her to flinch, the movement jarring her broken right arm. This time, she couldn’t contain the cry of pain and as she shifted, she found her lead sled dog looking down at her. His fur red, but he seemed unharmed. A low whine came from him as his blue eyes searched over his master.
“I’m good Tove” Reaching through the fence with her good arm, she scratched the side of his face. “But you are heavy like a bison, off the fence boy”. With a command, Tove stepped off the palisade and began sniffing around the top, scratching in the snow to get his snout under the end of the fence.
Soon, Nadya felt the fence rise off of her chest a little as her husky wormed his way under it to get to her. She knew he had got there when she received another lick to the top of her head. With the fence now angled slightly up, the ulfen woman started to push with her good arm while trying sit up. It wasn’t going to work, she could not get enough leverage so instead, started to push with her legs, squirming along on her back to push herself out.
Finally free, she just laid on the ground for a few minutes. She was sore despite the numbing coldness on her back. Her cloak and top was soaking wet from laying in the snow and despite herself, began to shiver. It was cold, but the clear sky still made it feel quite warm and with some rare luck, there was little wind. Taking the risk, she removed her heavy furs and dried herself as best as she could. It was brisk, but she was confident she could make it back to Waldsby before exposure got to her.
Gritting her teeth, she bound her broken arm to her as best she could, every action resulting in shooting pain through her body. She quickly determined that at least one to two ribs had also broken from being crushed by the fence and wolf. Taking shallow breaths, she whistled to her dogs. She hated to leave the fallen dogs but time was of the essence. However, she discovered quickly that two dogs could barely limp. Despite their pain, she could not bring herself to put them down and so, slowly and painfully, she helped them into the ruins and with the aid of the other dogs, dragged the wolf’s body in there as well. They laid down, using the wolf for warmth and gave her hand a lick before closing their eyes.
“Stay strong” she whispered to them “I will be back to bring you home”. With that, she stood, reclaimed her weapons and walked out into the white.
It was little under an hour when Nadya staggered into town. Tired, cold and flanked by dogs, she walked down the main street to the open gawking of her neighbours. Dressed only in her buckskin pants and a loose linen shirt that was torn and bloodied, she looked like she had been dragged over stones for hours. Quickly some of the village folk rushed to her, and called for the healer. They tried to drag her into the tavern but she refused, her eyes suddenly locking on a morbid scene.
Hanging from the broken clock tower of the townhall, Factor Birgit’s body swung slightly from a rope around her neck. Following her gaze, some of the townsfolk suddenly went quiet and a look of fear came over them. Before she could ask questions, she was forcibly pulled into the barber’s shop by Rusilka, the usually happy dwarf woman and forced into a chair.
Rusilka cast her gaze over her friend. Half naked, freezing, covered in scratches and claw marks, arm sitting at a grotesque angle and deep bruising on her chest and stomach.
“I don’t think leeches is going to do it love” quipped the dwarf “what happened to you?”
“Long story, but I don’t have the time. Can you just straighten the break and bind my ribs, we have little time, for the village is in grave danger?” Nadya’s voice was gravelly and quiet but carried the sense of urgency that spurred the dwarf woman into action.
“What happened here, who killed Birgit?” Nadya’s question was punctuated with a yelp of pain when Rusilka grabbed her shoulder and wrist and pulled.
“No one, she did it herself” said the dwarf as she continued her administrations. “Some strange man entered the village this morning. He walked through like he owned the place, clad in a long black coat he strode to Birgit’s house and after a few moments, dragged her out and into the snows. A little after, she returned, walked into the town hall and suddenly she leapt out of the tower with a rope around her neck.”
“No-one has cut her down?” quizzed Nadya “I know she was a horrible person in general but no-one deserves that, even if the bitch sent a winter wolf after me”.
“We went to, but the man returned and demanded she stay there as a message. A few of the menfolk warned him to leave and grew aggressive and he just threw them back with magic. The ground itself seemed to rip and surge into them. The men are okay but it was enough to shake them. The man then left but no-one has been game to cut her down yet.”
Finishing the bindings on both her arm and chest, Ruslika then turned to dabbing alcohol over the dozens of angry scratches. Shifting uncomfortably at the stinging pain, Nadya managed to keep from verbalising the pain as she thought about the strange events.
“We have to flee Waldsby Resulka, Nazhena may come for all of us and I doubt any would be spared her wrath.” The matter of fact tone of her friend’s statement started the dwarf who looked up her with suddenly suspicious eyes.
“What have you done? Was it those strangers, what danger are we in?” The tone was more accusatory than she had planned but it hit home, a look of guilt washed over her patient’s face.
“Radosek is dead. They have taken the Pale Tower while Nazhena is in Whitethrone. They had no choice, she is destroying their homes in the south, they are just defending their loved ones.” Nadya hoped her words were true by this point.
“Why you, why would you help them? You know what they can do, they have Thora, why would you risk us all and your family?” Rusika’s voice grew louder.
“Thora… Thora is dead. Nazhena killed her right after taking her. She never intended to release her, she…. She stole my daughter’s soul and trapped into one of their chicken huts.” Her voice was low, she had not yet verbalized the horror that was the fate of her daughter, nor mourned properly. Rage had been the only emotion she had allowed herself, and yet, despite the saying it out loud and the sickening sadness taking over her, she pushed it back again, she had work to . Steeling her voice, she stared at the horrified dwarf “I will keep helping them until I find Nazhena and I send her screaming into hells that spawned the thrice damned witches. However, you all have a chance of freedom, true freedom from their tyrannical rule, a land of warmth, of riches and community.”
Ruslika just continued to stare, she felt devastated, the little girl had been such a sweetie, she had often braided those cute little curls. How could Nadya contain her grief, how could she even think of the village at this time.
“Help me convince the village folk to make for the portal that leads to lands of the south, they are to pack light and fast, we have little time before it closes. We will be free from the witches, thousands of miles from their grasp. We lose our home but gain safety and freedom.”
Nadya’s empassioned plea shook Ruslika, and slowly she nodded. Waldsby was a place where you were born and died and nothing but savage servitude happened in between. Clasping her friend on the leg, she nodded again. “Let us go then”.
Fear worked against Nadya to begin with. The village lived in fear of the witches but that fear also kept them rooted to the spot. So, she changed tact and instead of trying to convince them all in the open, she started after individuals. Soon, she had convinced the smith, store owner and several other key business owners in the village. Realising that without such resources, they would come to ruin anyway, more and more agreed. It was not a nice way to do it, but Nadya did not have the time for them to find their courage.
Her strongest hold-outs were the village priest and logging manager. The priest had always been a grumpy, doom is all around and life is futile kind of person but now his stodgy ways were just plain dangerous. As for the logging manager, he had actually done well in this village as he owned the permit to log the Hoarwood and made him the richest person in Waldsby. He didn’t like losing his workers or village.
He made his displeasure more overtly than the whinging priest however and as he tried to restrain and arrest the traitor, thinking she was vulnerable with her injuries, he suddenly found himself seeking the priest’s aid for a pick wound to the hand. She then quickly won over the loggers with tales of forests without snows, evil fey and winter wolves. Where they could earn their coin safely. Well, as safely as logging can get.
Within a few a hours, over ninety per cent of the village had packed their meagre possessions and were heading south for the portal with Nadya at their lead. Many did not want to go but bowed to peer pressure and thought of living in an empty village with no services was enough motivation to follow. Nadya had picked several locals she knew who were skilled in outdoors and charged them with becoming the protectors, they would guide the village safely to a new place called Heldren. Only these she had told that she was not coming as well.
At the portal, signs of a massacre still remained, half buried in the snow. Shocked, fear started to bubble through the villagers again, but Nadya cleared her voice and stepped forth.
“Bodies of the dead should not make you fear, we have seen it all before in our lives. More than we ever should have. We all have lost ones we have loved to this evil land, to the whims of rulers and teeth of their pets. Instead, take a final look, for if you are brave enough to step through the portal, this is the last time you should have to bear witness to such savagery. Our home has always been our community, not Waldsby or Irrisen, for how could a place that is so hostile to its citizens be considered a home? We go together, and as such, we take home with us.”
Silence greeted her speech but a slow nod began through the crowd and as one, moved forwards into the howling portal of wind. Nadya stood to the side and watched as her neighbours and friends filed through, silently preying it was going to be better for them, she could only trust the words of her allies. Finally, her actual neighbour stepped up with her two sons, Orm and Mjoli.
Emotion suddenly surging up through her, bottled for too long, she knelt and hugged them both, hot tears staining her face. Confused, they hugged her back, their small warm forms pushing against her broken and battered body.
“I am not coming with you, I must travel to find the ones that hurt Thora” leaning back to look at her twin boys, she wiped the tears away and set her face “the two of you are almost six, and will be young men. I expect you to act as such, be brave, strong and do not cause trouble for Kashka. I will return when I am done, I promise you.” Looking up at her neighbour she gave a grateful look “Thank you so much Kashka, you are greatest person I have known. There is two hundred gold in the boy’s belongings, use it to set yourself up and care for them. If I have a way, I will send more when I can”.
Giving the boys one last hug, their cries breaking her heart, she stood and hugged her neighbour. Stepping back, she watched the three step through the portal and disappear from view, the sound of her sons calling for her the last thing she heard before the wind drowned out all else. Giving herself a moment to calm her emotion, she took the small mirror from her pocket and activated it.
It was late evening when she made it back to a seemingly empty Waldsby. Still suffering intense pain from her wounds, especially a dull ache in her broken arm, she headed to the small chapel. Entering, she found a few remaining villagers kneeling in prayer. Ignoring their accusatory glares she approached the aged priest.
“Healing magics, I have need of them” she was blunt and her voice afforded little argument.
Shaking his head fearfully, he tucked away his symbol.
“I do not want your blessings old man, I need at least two potions you might have” this time stepping up closer on him, her usually braided hair was loose and hanging like a crimson mane around her.
Again, he silently refused to aid her, his accusatory glance showing he had no interest in helping the betrayer. However, he did glance subconsciously to a small alter with a wooden box. Noticing it, she stepped around him and went to it. Opening it, there was donations, scriptures and a few small bottles marked with the image of Pharasma. Life was inscribed in skald on the side. Ignoring the now suddenly yelling priest, she dropped what few coins she had left and removed two. Pushing past, she headed outside.
Temperatures were dropping fast as night approached and clad in clean, dry winter clothes, Nadya pushed through the drift. The stars shone through as she reached the old hunters cabin. Stepping in, she found both her dogs with eyes closed, not moving. Sliding down next to them she tried to wake them. Her heart sunk when they seemed to not respond. Saying a prayer to well.. whoever would listen, she uncorked the potions and poured them into the unresponsive dogs. Pulling both onto her lap, she sat and waited, her heart sinking with every passing minute.
A low growl alerted her to a presence. Snapping out of her half-sleep for exhaustion had now taken over her, she felt movement on her lap. Both dogs heads were up and staring out into the darkness, a low growl caught in their throats. Giving the two a quick rub behind the ears she stood and drew her handaxe with her good hand.
Three figures melted out of the darkness, Dorner the logging owner and two of his supervisors. They were armed and the look on their faces told her immediately of their intentions. Looking down, both dogs were awake and certainly better but were not in fighting condition.
“Put your weapons down you insufferable bitch and we will make sure you enjoy yourself before cut your thr….” Dorner’s threat never finished, taking the initiative while they tried to scare her, Nadya let the axe go from her hand and it buried itself into his eye and cheek bone. Screaming he went down while his two friends charged the now unarmed woman. Staring them down, she hefted a stone and waited.
They never got close, as the snow and ground itself suddenly gave way to a great maw in the ground, the screams of the men quickly grew distant as they fell deep into the earth. With a rumbling shake, the ground then pulled together again, giving a deadly finality to their fate.
Stunned, she whirled around to find a figure standing off from the side, wind whipping a long black cloak, his features covered by long hair that seemed to defy the wind direction and crackling with energy.
“I thought the witches were the worst things to be found in Irrisen, but it appears the very evil of the land has crept into the souls of its people. How do you treat such a poison, where do you make the cut?” The man’s voice was dark and distant, filled with sadness but lacking empathy. It sent a chill down her spine and she found herself lacking for words.
“Your friends were victorious, but not without loss. A great loss for you all I would imagine but only small sacrifice for what is needed to free this land.”
With that simple statement, he turned and headed back into the night, leaving a perplexed but safe Nadya to watch him disappear. It had been a long day and she could not bring herself to dwell on it. Setting a proper camp, she tucked in with her two dogs and fell into a deep sleep knowing that this was only the first of many harsh days to come. But, victory was theirs for now, the seemingly invulnerable power of the witches had been rocked, the hands that held her chain had been bitten.