The Wind's Journey: Through the Northern Kingdoms

By @Artolian

The Wind's Journey: Through the Northern Kingdoms

By @Artolian

The first chapter in "The Wind’s Journey" series, by Øyvind A. Arntsen.

Chapter 1

Winter Warrior

Once upon a summer, in a land far to the north, beyond the towering gates of Artelumien, over the lush fields and meadows of the Free Plains, through the dreaded forest of the Northern Kingdoms, standing at the edge of the great Arnash mountain range which have since time immemorial stood guard against the harsh cold of the Frozen Plains and the bitter winds of the Winterland, there stood a girl. Her blond, messy hair had recently been cut and her short but muscular form was dressed in a simple gray tunic covered by a protective layer of chainmail armour. A set of worn out and dirty leather trousers with a couple of knee high steel greaves covered her legs and on her left hand sat an old steel gauntlet, both scratched and stained. On her back, strapped in place with a set of thick leather straps, hung a heavy two-handed broadsword, its edge jagged and chipped with a set of simplistic runes engraved close to the guard.

Her home lay far behind her, her destination further still in the distance, but while standing on the tip of the steep cliff, gazing out over the southern wealth of the known world, she thought she could see it piercing the clear blue sky in the horizon like a white spire of hope rising above another set of distant blue mountains past the green carpet of seemingly never-ending forest hiding the land before her. Looking down the cliffside she saw that the forest consisted of a dense gathering of spruce trees, their tightly netted branches creating an ominous presence within their shade. The trees themselves were strikingly tall and rose up towards her like silent guardians, the vanguard serving as the last line of defence against the gray landscape she stood upon and all that wandered it, like rabid trolls and rumored giants along with scarce goats and howling winds, a world of which she knew all too well by now. Some even claimed that the werewolf’s of old and sacred gods made their home within the mountains depths, but the girl had neither found nor feared such old tales for she was raised a warrior, trained like a beast and honed like a blade, and as such feared no fabled man, god nor creature regardless of whether they be rumoured or true.

Stories spun around campfires were just that after all, stories. Unless a story proved to have both teeth and claws, will and strength, it was not a challenge worth her steel or concern, though her bravery mattered little in the presence of the more pressing danger she currently faced. A danger that had claimed far more lives than any made up tale told to frighten those who’s fantasy where greater than the threats to their lives.

Having journeyed tirelessly for days with little but water and days old meat to feed on, she was starting to feel the toll of her journey strain both her legs and gut. The weight of her chainmail and sword felt heavier than ever before upon her shoulders and back. But hunger and exhaustion was a strain she had endured many a time before and she was too determined to let them break her. Indeed, they where little more than a nuance. No, the true danger lay in what the near relentless whispers in her mind, fueled by her current condition, kept on telling her. To turn back and end this foolhardy adventure, to just lay down and stop poisoning herself with fruitless hope- the only goal left for her to chase. But what choice did she have? What option was left but to go on? No, the whispers where wrong and she would not listen.

Still the whispers remained, however, causing her moments when her mind begun to slip and consider them, even for but a moment, offering her lies presented as small comforts of what had once been and could still be if she just turned back.

It had been two full moons since she last saw the tundra and glaciers of her homeland in the north and longer still since she knew the warmth of a bed and hot meal as the mountains held no love nor hospitality for her kind. The whispers drew on these familiar, longing comforts, attempting to lure her from her true destination and so all she was left with was her ever defiant will focusing her on what truly matted. Fortunately, she was of a champion’s heart, her determination strong as the wolf, her ferocity mighty as the drake and her will wilful as the wind itself, her only remaining companion beside the whispers. Fortunatly the wind was also her guardian and protector on her tireless journey and its whispers, faint as they where, where words of encouragement and truth.

Press on still, my child, the wind said softly with gentle a brush by her ear, for once you can rest peacefully in safe arms, these challenges will be but a memory to be swept up and fade in the flow of time…

However, despite her stoicism, deep down the child of winter and steel knew that unless she found wild game to hunt and safe shelter to hide beneath within the forest, she would sooner fall to her blind determination than be saved by it. It was simply a given fact she couldn’t ignore despite her desire to do so and so she had to press onwards with care, not the same brute defiance that had governed her for the last passing days. Greater men had fallen to such shortcomings long before her and all proper warriors knew that rest, how ever fatal it may seem when you have nothing left save your own bitter spite to tread on, were invaluable, especially when facing the unknown. And right now the great unknown stands before me like the depths of the eastern sea, the girl thought with a sourer frown.

Part of her regretted not having taken the sea route, even more so now after the loss of- No, can’t think about it. Not now. Can’t look back. Got to keep moving onwards, she reminded herself with gritted teeth, her frown deepening further before she closed her eyes in an effort to calm herself.

“Wind guide me and carry these thought to distant lands,” she muttered before opening her eyes again, her expression hard, yet calm once more.

The wind did not answer, but somehow the girl felt relieved as she sighed and looked down the cliffside again, her eyes searching for a safe passage down. That’s right, she thought triumphantly with renewed vigour. Have to focus on the here and now, not then and there.

She hesitated for but a moment longer before beginning her descent down the mountain, careful not to misstep or tread on loose rocks as she climbed down a narrow and nearly unseen path running down the rugged mountainside. It was a slow and daring affair seeing as how steep the cliffside was, but the girl prevailed, keeping her focus on each step instead of letting her mind wander further. It’s just like Jarnor said, she thought with a grunt of relief as she stepped off the path and onto the gravel around the foot of the mountain. Only fools fall to thoughts of weakness.

Leaning back against the mountainside, she took a moment to sit down and go over her body to look for any new bruises and scratches. Her hands were sore, her arms and legs shivering in pain along with her aching back and she was almost at her limit already.

“Makk,” she muttered tiredly as she turned her head to the sky in an attempt to focus on the faint songs and whispers the wind carried with it in the hopes of ignoring her pain for but a moment longer so that she could rest a while without flinching in pain.

The wind sounded muffled and distant to her down at the ground, however, and there was a myriad of odours she had never smelled before clouding her mind all of a sudden. The air felt damp and warmer than on the mountains, further dulling her senses to the point where she begun fleeting through misty, blissful thoughts free of her aching limbs and for a moment she was lost to her surroundings and all its wonders. One such thought lead her to wonder about how very different this land was compared to that of her homeland.

In the Winterland there was scarcely any forest to be found at all and what little there was stood for perhaps a generation or so before being converted to timber. Instead, vast open fields with glittering snow and glistening ice coloured the land with an icy blue hue that made it hard for any vegetation to grow. In contrast, this forest was something altogether different and wondrous to her. It seemed so daring and impressive to her youthful eyes as she tilted her head forwards to take a better look in-between the mass of trees standing before her, but the forest within was all too cloaked in shades and branches of deep brown and green to make sense of. Looking up again she became aware of the needled branches waving rhythmically in the wind like obscure creatures sharing secret amongst themselves, although their speech evaded her ears. Yet even though the forest was both strange and foreign to her, it did present a rather luxurious benefit as well as wonders.

In there I can actually hide and I won’t be nearly as exposed as out on the tundra or in the mountains, she thought with a pleased smirk before her thoughts drifted back to an earlier encounter with men carrying swords, smelling of blood and looking to spill more of it. Her blood. She thought they had lost them in the glacier, but…

She shook her head frustratedly. Just forget about it. They can’t possibly have followed us this far anyway. Not over the mountains. Besides, there are more pressing issues anyway, she reminded herself while focusing her eyes on the sky above.

The sun had made its own steadfast journey across the sky and soon stood to fall and colour the sky red in its own blood before night eclipsed the world within its starlit cloak. The forest would likely grow dark as well then, further hindering her journey onwards. But there’s time yet, the girl reassured herself while shielding her eyes against the sun which seemingly had lowered itself to mid noon. If I stay a little longer I may regain some stamina and perhaps loosen the pain in my legs a little… But just as she thought about it, weighing her options, another thought interrupted her dozing mind, one of haste and impatience. Makk. What am I even doing here?! Can’t just sit around either. If I do I will just fall asleep and sleep can wait! She could already feel her legs starting to fade beneath her. Better start moving while I’m still able!

Resisting the urge to stay until dusk and in spite her aching limbs, knowing full well that her lazy thoughts were the product of her exhaustion, and laziness is never a good thing when tired, she rose back up again, her legs screaming in resignation and her shoulders almost collapsing under the weight of her chainmail, but it couldn’t be helped. She just had to let the pain fuel her spite rather than her desire to simply lay still until she could feel no more. And so, while gritting her teeth and muttering a series of profanities best not repeated, she started walking into the outskirts of the forest, her eyes set on whatever path she could make out before her.

Can’t stop now. Have to go on. Can’t turn back. Just keep moving.

Her pain is what drove her forward now, what filled her with such fierce determination. No longer did want or desire pull her back or hope beckon her onwards. Now pain was all she knew and she would outrun it, somehow. And yet, despite this undeniable resolve, if she was to look back, even for but a moment, she may have lost her grit in the relentless waves of thoughts pressing against her driven will. Thoughts piercing deeper and much less mercifully than any physical pain she felt otherwise. Thoughts of sorrow, grief and loss. Thoughts she had forbidden herself even when her dreams surfaced like icy clouds filled with freezing rain, filling her with a cold dread, forcing her to awaken herself.

The last time she had rested she had felt it sneak up on her, evil omens of nightmares lurking in the back of her head just waiting to take advantage of her tired, weakened mind and so she had forced herself to continue and press on until she had almost fallen over due to a distinct lack of strength in her legs, and yet still she had refused to allow sleep to capture her mind. She was her own master after all, a lone wolf with no pack to follow, not answering to anyone but herself. Not pain, not sleep, not hunger, not even exhaustion would take her without her consent.

Yet now an entirely new and foreign foe started to manifest itself within her and as she forced herself deeper into the forest, she instinctually begun unbuckling the straps on her back in order to free her broadsword and rest the blade upon her shoulder with a firm grip around the handle, ready to cut down any branch or creature the would stand in her way. The weight and chilled steel of the sword was a comforting familiarity, even though it was a little too heavy for her to wield at the moment. Still it evoked a sense of calm in her as she begun treading through uncharted territory, stepping over moss covered roots and rocks, ducking under low-hanging branches and skipping over small puddles of dirty rainwater. It helped her feel secure, not hampered or weighed down, despite her surroundings and state of being.

But even with sword in hand she couldn’t help halt or stay off the sneaking discomfort crawling up her back as she ventured further into the deepening growth surrounding her senses. It almost reminded her of fear, but fear was an emotion she refused to acknowledge at the moment. The cost was too steep and she saw little reason in it regardless. Still, there was something different about it, something unfamiliar, and despite her refusal to acknowledge it, it lingered, growing by the moment as she ventured further into the shaded undergrowth of trees unending.

From a distance the forest had seemed like any other forest she had imagined, old, overgrown, dense, trees taller than men, but once inside the smells, sounds and shade turned everything into something entirely unknown to her and for a moment she felt a little thrown off balance. Worse yet was the fact that as she stepped further and further into the dense gathering of trees, the wind, who had followed her faithfully ever since she set out on her journey, begun fading away like embers in a dying fire before meeting the sudden the touch of cold water. And when the girl turned around to call out for it to guide her steps once more, she found her words cut short by the wall of vegetation shielding her from the outside world with trees surrounding her like watchful guardsmen, regarding her every move with unseen eyes and unheard whispers.

Although it felt as if she had just wandered straight into a trap she had yet to realize had taken her captive, the girl reminded herself that she would surely feel the wind whisper in her ear and play with her hair again before long, because wherever she went the wind were always there with her- the only exception being when she entered a house or a closed room in which the wind was denied her company.

Needless to say, she had always enjoyed being outdoors as she never felt lonely outside with the wind blowing by her. She adored the fresh breeze from the ocean and had always allowed it to play with her and even throw her off balance every now and then in stormy weather or when she wasn’t expecting it too, but as she walked over fallen branches, through deep heather and soft dirt with the last shimmers of sunlight fading away along with every familiar sound, all she was left with was a dreadful feeling of slowly drowning. It felt wrong, pressuring and condensed, something unnatural slowly strangling her. And as she stopped to listen, hoping to find a breath or brush of wind to call out to her once again, she felt a creeping sensation of hopelessness as there where no other sound than those she made herself to be heard, as if everything had turned dead around her or she had just been locked deep underground. Drops of sweat were starting to form above her brow.

When she looked up, all she saw was tangled knots of branches, allowing but a faint glow of light to pass through and as she looked around she saw that her surroundings were covered in a gloomy brown shade that made everything seem murky and muddy as if she was walking through a dream. The soft, uneven ground didn’t help convince her otherwise either.

She suddenly felt dizzy, nauseous. Her breathing begun quickening as her breath felt constrained, shallow even. But there was no retreat now, not even if she wanted to. She had walked too far to find her way back and was surrounded by an unseen grasp as if unknowingly becoming a prisoner. There where no sun nor stars to navigate her direction anymore. All she could really do was follow the general direction she had set out on: onwards, deeper into the forest in the hope of reaching the other side. She had no idea of how long she would have to proceed to find it, through, she just had to press on.

The trees had been too tall for her to determine the size of the forest from her vantage point on the mountain, but surely it couldn’t go on like this forever? The south is supposed to hold rich fields and grand cities after all, and so it has to be an end to this forest, somewhere, the girl thought with limited hope. But as she ventured on, forest was all she found. Beads of sweat begun running down her brow.

At this point, lesser men would likely turn tail and try run from the forest’s hold or try and fight it, only to in the end succumb to its hopelessness as there was nothing to guide them through it. But this young traveller’s bravery kept her going without doubt or direction still, at least that’s what she told herself.

A warrior never strays from the path set before them, she reminded herself as she bit her tongue grudgingly while stumbling through the forest floor, her feet caught in deep moss and unseen rocks as her tired legs and weakened sight struggled to keep up with her brute will pushing her on still.

Some may, and others undoubtedly will, call her a stubborn fool for not turning back, perhaps rest out before venturing any further, but even so, many a great fool have become something far greater by following their courage rather than letting themselves being lead astray by their weaknesses, the girl mused as she spat on the ground beneath her and thought back to the many bed tales of fabled heroes she had grown up with. It’s their struggle that makes them strong after all, she thought bitterly as she bit her tongue once more to quell the growing pain in her knees. It’s their determination that makes them prevail! No challenge is too great to overcome if one has the will to follow through!

However, an elusive presence hidden among the trees had taken notice of her unsure steps stumbling through the vague murk of moss and grass, seeing straight through the girls stoicism and instead catching the sent of the deep seeded doubt and uncertainty that was gradually taking a hold of the girl’s mind- despite her presentist reluctance to acknowledging it. Skilled eyes and senses begun turning their attention towards the foolhardy girl now, a curious interest awoken by her loud swearing as she fell to one knee after her leg got caught in a rotten tree stump. The presence moved carefully closer in order to stay out of sight and mind, but then suddenly became aware of something far more dangerous than itself. Something that didn’t care for the girl’s fatigue nor grit, or the presence’s own curiosity for that matter.

It was the kind of danger that drove even the most famished of predators and starved ravens away by its sheer existence alone, and so the presence fell back and watched in anticipation as the girl, trapped, bewildered and unaware of the foul green mist creeping along the forest floor like a gathering of snakes, stubbornly made her way onwards. The stench of rotten flesh and the sound of the faint whispers of long-forgotten men and women seemed to evade her senses, perhaps due to the mass of branches covering her surrounding, or maybe she mistook them for the sounds of the wind in the treetops and smell of a swamp. However, the treetops were just as hidden to her as the trees roots and although wet moss covered the ground, there was no swamp nearby.

All the girl really knew and cared for at this point was the fact that if she continued to force herself to move on she would likely be rewarded by the warmth of sunshine on her face again along with breaths of fresh air and a symphony of the wind in its awe sounding, yet hushed whispers. But even with such reassuring delights beckoning her forwards, doubt clouded her path like never before, making each step unsure against uneven ground.

She was not concerned or afraid, though. Not yet. Fear was a weakness she couldn’t afford. It was like a sickness that kept her from living. And she could not allow herself to die. Not yet. She couldn’t. But even she felt the draining touch of uncertainty and doubt poking at the edges of her mind, irritating her to the point where she knew nothing but blinding anger- which to a point helped her focus.

By Gernavir’s arse fur, how long do I have to stay in here, she thought frustrated as she cut off a branch blocking her way with a swift slash of her sword, a waste of both strength and endurance.

In just a few passing moments, however, her rage and frustration, doubt and resentment would not matter anymore, for without her sensing it, there was yet another presence approaching her along with the creeping mist, though this one far more dangerous than what lay in wait and, for better or worse, much faster.

“ASTEVRA!,” a voice cried out as all of a sudden a force far more powerful than the girl’s remaining will or strength pushed her to the ground.

It felt as if though a giant’s palm had slammed her down from above and as she tried to get back up the girl realized she was bound to the ground by the very same force pressing her body down into the soft dirt beneath her.

Forcing herself to turn her head against the immense pressure, gritting her teeth with growing rage as she did, she tired her best to glance about to try and locate the source of the force but found nothing save tree trunks and roots, same as before. Has to be some sort of magic, she thought angrily with a chilling realization. Surely no other element could bring her down so easily, not even the wind at its wildest held such capabilities.

Unfortunately, the girl had no knowledge of how to combat or resist magic. The orc shamans of the chilled tundra often used some sort of magic to communicate with spirits, heal wounds or call forth fire from thin air, but this felt like something entirely different. More powerful somehow, mightier and far more forceful than the gentle craft she was used to.

The girl swore loudly into the ground, enraged and frustrated beyond compare by her sudden powerless state.

“COME ON AND FACE ME, WHOEVER YOU ARE! I KNOW YOU’RE ARE OUT THERE!” she yelled outraged.

Just as she did, however, something, or rather someone judging by the sounds of sudden footsteps appearing out of nowhere, took hold of the back of her chainmail and threw her aside. The girl flew through moist, chill air in a blur of dark brown before landing hard on her left side against stone hard ground, her body rolling over several times before finally coming to an abrupt halt.

The whole scene had gone by so fast the girl felt her already tired mind spin at a sickening phase along with a tumultuous eruption from her gut, but she knew she couldn’t stay down for long if she were to defend herself against this new sudden threat- whatever it was. And so she steeled herself, pushing herself up with a loud grunt and started waving her sword about, which she had held tightly onto the entire time, in wide arcs around her as she had learned when fighting an unseen enemy.

Swing low, keep focusing on hitting and locating the opponent and regaining your balance, a familiar voice called out from the back of her mind. She struggled to regain her focus, though, and felt her feet slip on the surprisingly even and solid ground beneath her feet.

Stop. Need to find my balance first, keep calm, get a grip, she reminded herself while trying to regain her breath without retching. Fortunately, her the blade found neither flesh nor bone and her feet sensed no other motion than her own as she stepped swiftly around herself to try and spot her opponent.

Still dizzy and very much disoriented, she found herself standing in a wide clearing that continued on in two opposite directions with a wall of trees on either side like a- road? Looking down she saw that she was indeed standing on a dirty stretch of grey cobblestone stretching out beneath her and through the forest like a giant stone-scaled seadrake. She was given little time to reflect on her surroundings, though, as she realized that whoever had thrown her hadn’t pressured her onto the road itself and was probably lurking somewhere amidst the forest still, likely watching her and just waiting for an opening.

As such, the young warrior stopped dead still and instead of swinging her sword about tried her best to concentrate on listening to the sounds of the forest around her in the hope of locating her attacker before they could ambush her again. However, there was nothing to be heard save a weak, muffled whisper in the distance, or was it just her imagination?

As she stood there, anticipating the worst with her legs spread wide apart and her sword held above her head at an angle, ready to strike or deflect whatever came her way, everything remained as still as before. It felt as if the very forest itself held its breath in anticipation of what was to come.

Come on then! Come at me! What are you waiting for, the girl thought frustratedly, feeling the weight of her sword making her arms tremble as a beads of sweat ran down her cheeks. Can’t keep this up forever. Makk! What’s going on!?

Then, just as sudden as lightning disrupting the calm before a storm, light erupted before her, almost as blindingly bright as the sun itself. The girl had to shield her eyes with her hand and blink several times before she was able to make out the faint shadow of a tall figure standing before her and she quickly stepped back from the sudden light source in shock and awe.

Before her stood a man, possibly a woman, it was hard to tell due to the blinding light, dressed in what seemed like pitch black plate armour with a long brown cape thrown over the shoulders. As the girl regained some eyesight she also noticed a longsword by the figure’s left side and a big book hanging by the right. The person’s left hand was held up before them and in it floated what looked like a globe of pure light, burning like fire which and making the girl’s eyes fill with water when she looked at it.

Most southerners have no doubt heard the stories and many westerners will no doubt still remember with dread and fear the black armour of the northern knights, but this young warrior grew up far removed from the fear and awe surrounding these frightful and infamous warriors and had no idea the knight had just saved her life from a sudden, yet slow and most likely agonizing death. So rather of thanking the knight, or show any kind of respect for that matter, she instinctively swung her sword against the knight instead, seeing nothing more than the source of her sudden change of scenery and a possible threat.

All in all, it was a foolish, or rather desperate move that the knight easily managed to deflect and throw right back at the girl with a swift draw of their own sword. The girl fell over and crashed back onto the road under her own weight, taken by surprise by the knight’s speed and technique which had single-handedly deflected her own sword, a two-handed broadsword far larger and heavier than the knight’s slender longsword, before the knight could even find their footing. As the girl tried to get up, eager to retaliate, she suddenly found her own blade poised against her throat. Somehow she had lost her grip on the sword and the knight had taken hold if it in but the blink of an eye- unthinkable! The young warrior had never let go of her sword in a fight. Just what manner of sorcery am I up against?! No, not magic. Magic doesn’t work like that! Can’t be! Must be a trick, which means…

Wiser men and woman would have surrendered there and then and likely tried to bargain rather than fight back at the risk of their own life, but this particular girl was neither wise nor cowardly. Surrender was never an option for a warrior who valued their life and trade, so had the winter thought her and one should always grab an opportunity once it presented itself in time of need. As such, she slapped the blade aside with the back of her gloved hand and threw herself backward with all her remaining strength while pulling forth a dagger from underneath her chainmail which she proceeded to throw at her opponent with staggering speed.

If the knight was in any way impressed of surprised they didn’t show it, instead taking a quick step to the side to allow the dagger to shoot right past them and straight into the forest. But the young warrior wasn’t quite finished just yet, however, as the dagger was merely a diversion for her next daring move.

Fast as a sprung arrow she drew another dagger and jumped to her feet, but this time, she threw not only the dagger but her whole body against the knight as she lunged forward in a wild charge.

Finally taken aback over such a bold move, the knight didn’t get the chance to react fast enough and got pushed back and fell to the ground as the girl’s knee connected hard with their chest plate. Taking a hold of the knight’s right arm with her left knee and her right pressing against their gut, the girl pressed her dagger against the knight’s throat, but just as she where to instinctively end the battle with a clean swipe, the knight managed to snap a spell and so the young warrior was thrown aside and bound once more against the ground, defenceless and without a weapon to free herself with.

*

Igrani stood up, slowly, keeping a watchful eye on the bright-haired, blue-eyed girl laying before her, swearing loudly in a strange language Igrani could not recall the origin of. She was dressed like a proper warrior, yet lacked a cape or cloak, meaning she likely wasn’t a traveller, or at least hadn’t been travelling for long. Her eyes were slightly slanted and the nose looked as if it had endured a punch or two with a small notch in the middle of the bridge. She also had a thick jaw, wide forehead, and a solid chin as well, and yet her cheeks were almost hollow and her eyes looked sunken and tired, no doubt the result of a rough life.

Looking down at the girl’s sword which lay just as flat as its wielder a few feet away where Igrani had dropped it in surprise, she noticed it was a broadsword of fine quality and rare metal by the looks of it, the blade seemingly as slick as ice, though still chipped and in need of a proper polish. However, the runes engraved near the guard was what captured her attention the most.

If they are what I think they are, then it would certainly explain the blond hair and blue eyes, Igrani thought curiously, but was it at all possible the girl were a real “winter warrior”? She couldn’t be any more than sixteen, maybe seventeen summers old by her looks, and yet she had handled herself surprisingly well in the fight. The girl was both a skilled and experienced warrior, or could it be Igrani was mistaking skill for daring boldness? Not likely some poor runaway western bastard or refugee anyway, Igrani concluded with a deepening frown. A mercenary then? However, she had heard no word of sellswords entering the kingdoms as of late and the girl looked far too young still to be leading a life of hired blade.

She could be a spy, but she certainly didn’t seem like any kind of spy Igrani had ever encountered- all too aggressive and not at all tactful, which meant that she had likely stumbled into the forest by accident, which in itself seemed practically impossible. Could be she came by the sea as a stowaway and hid in the forest, but no. The sea was at least two days away with horse and no way had the girl made her way through the forest this far without getting caught, or worse.

“What’s your name?” Igrani finally asked, her voice stern and determinant as she looked the girl straight in her icy blue eyes.

The girl stared up at her with a mix of confusion and distrust as if she didn’t understand the question. Of course

Igrani switched to the traveller’s tongue and asked again. The girl said nothing, but this time it seemed more so out of spite rather than lack of understanding by the look of her spiteful glare. Igrani stubbornly asked again, hoping she wouldn’t have to force the answers out of the girl.

“What is your name?” she repeated, taking a step closer while placing her hand on her sword hilt which she had placed at her side again during the battle.

“I am Elisen,” the girl finally answered, her tone bitter as it reeked of defeat.

Clearly a sore looser and likely not withholding information for any other reason then, Igrani resonated with an internal smile. A true warrior indeed. The girl didn’t speak the traveller tongue well and had a strong accent, but she clearly understood it, much to Igrani’s relief.

“What are you doing here and where do you come from?” Igrani pressed on, her expression hard and her tone unyielding.

The girl fell silent for a moment as if she thought on how to best answer, or say anything at all for that matter.

“I am a traveller. I come from the land in the north. I do not know where I am now, but maybe you can tell me- if you are not to take my life first,” she laughed, a harsh, cold laughter as if the thought of death didn’t scare her at all.

She probably isn’t scared of dying either, Igrani realized as she noticed the unwavering steel within the girl’s stare. She remembered someone telling her that to the winter warriors, death was supposedly just another way of being defeated, and anyone not overwhelmed by shame could rise to stand stronger after having fallen once or twice. It was as if they saw death as a new beginning to a stronger life. However, Igrani also knew that diplomacy was more likely to win the girl over rather than killing her and wait for her to return from the afterlife, which just so happened to be a very real and terrible possibility in the kingdoms.

Still, neither of us has any reason to trust each other. She did just try to slit my throat after all, Igrani reminded herself with a chilled realization. For all I know she may be an escaped criminal unknown to the order or even a forest abomination, but even if the girl’s tone was strong and defiant, her stare cold, there was something else deeper in her eyes Igrani couldn’t help but notice. Something that seemed to fear the thought of death. Something very scared and fragile. Something desperately trying to hide, but had grown too big not to be overlooked. Or was it just her imagination? Igrani couldn’t say for certain. She had never been good at reading people and preferred reasoning over intuition to decide her decisions. Even so she was known for being naive and idealistic be her peers regardless and as such they would likely see her reasoning as flawed either way, but something told her to take a chance and follow her intuition rather than her reasoning this time around as she lifted the spell with a wave of her hand to set Elisen free, again.

The young warrior didn’t waste any time now that she was free and jumped dexterously up to her feet before turning towards Igrani again, but this time stayed her hand, at least for the moment.

A long, tense silence followed as the two just stood there, measuring each other like a couple of wolfs circling each other while looking a sign of weakness or opportunity. If either of them were to make a move there and then it might have ended badly for at least one of them, though it would most likely simply end in Elisen’s exposed state.

Despite the difference between the two, however, Igrani couldn’t help but ponder the idea that they probably stood on equal footing when it came to their skill in combat. Igrani’s discipline and technique could only defend her for so long against Elisen’s quick, bold, if not to say savage attacks, likely taking advantage of any chance given to her with fierce bloodlust. It was a desperate strategy, though. A little too desperate in fact now that Igrani thought about it and one that made her question the girl’s motives all the more. The way she looks at me with those fierce eyes, like a rabid beast trapped in a corner…poor thing. I guess what I thought of as bloodlust is really something far less threatening, though dangerous never the less. Indeed, there was a deep seeded pain within the girl’s eyes, one of grief and sorrow simply lashing out against the world with reckless abandon. Or at least so Igrani thought. Still, Igrani wouldn’t put it past the girl to try and cut her throat in the middle of the night if given the chance either. What the girl really needed right now wasn’t a fight, but a friend. With this in mind, Igrani was the first one to break the silence.

“This is yours I believe,” she said, picking up the broadsword by her feet and handing it back to its rightful owner.

This was not only a gesture of diplomacy but a token of trust towards Elisen as well and Igrani hoped the girl was smart enough to see it the sympathetic gesture it was meant as and not simply a trap. She dreaded the thought of having to hurt the girl further as she looked like she could need a break right about now. Once more it was Igrani’s intuition that drove her thoughts and action, but it seemed more tactful to rely on it when dealing with such a delicate situation.

Elisen stared back at her with a sceptical look in her eyes as if there was indeed some kind of trick or trap. Which means I still have quite the task ahead of me, Igrani thought with an internal sigh.

“Are you just going to hand me my sword back like that? Are you confident that I will not attack you again as soon as you turn your back?” Elisen asked with a surprisingly daring smirk.

Igrani smiled back. At least the girl had a sense of humour after all under that otherwise cold exterior.

“We both know how it ended last time, why repeat the past?” Igrani replied with a soft shrug and Elisen laughed.

This time her laughter had a lot more heart to it, although her expression remained hard and watchful as she took back the sword.

“That’s some fine craftsmanship by the way,” Igrani offered while Elisen strapped the sword to her back. “Does it have a name?”

Elisen looked back with a triumphant look in her eyes, clearly proud of herself, just as Igrani had hoped.

“Kildringer,” she replied with a sly smirk. “The drake bane.”

“I take it there’s a story behind it. Mind if you share it sometime?” Igrani asked seemingly impressed.

“Could be,” Elisen shrugged with a sceptical look, clearly catching on to Igrani’s shift in character. “Just need to find my way out of this forest first…”

“Aha. I take it you have no idea of where you are or who I am, do you?” Igrani concluded with a somewhat apologetic frown.

Elisen shook her head.

“It has been a long time since I knew that much,” she said with another, more tired shrug and Igrani couldn’t help but notice just how deep the bags under the girl’s eyes was and how low her shoulders hung now that she was not all pumped up and ready to fight.

“Well then, I will enlighten you,” Igrani replied with a humorous smile as she held up her left hand to summon a new globe of light, this one much dimmer than the last, but bright enough to illuminate the road around them as the sky had started to darken above them, making the shade of the forest grow darker still.

With her right hand she gesturing for Elisen to follow as she started to walk down the road, but found the girl standing her ground and staring back at her, her eyes once more cold as steel. Their trust was still new to the both of them, so Igrani made no further attempt to push her new companion, instead turning to face her with neutral respect.

“You have entered the north-eastern territory of the Northern Kingdoms and the land of Haringarn,” she explained as she waved her hand around to let the globe ascend up to further light up their surroundings. “I am its warden, protector and law keeper, sir Igrani of Granen. It is my sworn duty to the high prince and the governing royal family to protect and serve the people of this land and all who pass through it. If you are indeed a traveller, then it is my duty to escort you to the nearest city or village from here. Do you understand?”

The girl’s defiant confidence gave her too stern an expression to show any sign of doubt or misunderstanding, although Igrani had a strong feeling the girl still struggled to keep up with the foreign language. However, despite the languish barrier, the young warrior replied with a short nod, signifying that she at least understood enough to agree. Progress if nothing else, Igrani thought relieved. Besides, better to try earning her trust before questioning her further.

She quickly decided to take her new-found companion to the city of Haringar, the capital city of the land which lay not too far to the east from where they where currently standing. It was less than half a day on foot, but they had to move fast if they were to reach it before the sun went down and the gates closed, effectively leaving them to wander the forest or seek refuge in a nearby village instead. However, with the shape Elisen was in, Igrani doubted it would benefit either of them.

For now, the two warriors were forged allies bound by a single goal, although Igrani had a feeling it would take some time still to melt the frozen stare she felt in her back as she turned and gestured to Elisen to follow. I guess that explain the name “winter” warrior, she thought with an amused smile.

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