Chapter 6: Snowy Fields

While her guides struggled with their burden, Virpan marveled at the mountain world. She walked across the sparkling landscape, enjoying the crunching noise her feet made when she stepped through the thing white shell. Clouds rushed overhead at a startling speed, whipped by winds which occasionally sent shimmering plumes off the peaks.

Rour bounded around her, apparently as enamored with the environment as she was. She found a crooked stick and played fetch with the fluffy monster, wondering how mountain dogs had grown so long. Despite their anemic pace, several times she fell behind the brothers and had to rush to catch up.

A small column of smoke appeared in the distance, the brothers increasing their pace at the sight. Ahead of them appeared the camp, which had already been halfway disassembled. Howngthirr and Nathlit walked up to their father as he stowed the tent pegs in a wooden box. He turned around as they approached eyeing his sons and the stranger they had rescued.

“So, my son, at least you can complete half a task,” Uonkshrail said, patting Nathlit on the head. “Have you learned your lesson?”

“Yes father,” Nathlit replied sullenly.

“Now, we’ve no use for this firewood anymore, so go help your mother fold the canvas.”

“Of course father,” he said, dropping the bundle to the ground. He turned and walked around the half collapsed tent. Uonkshrail turned to Virpan, a smirk barely visible through his beard.

“Ach, so, girl,” he croaked, “I understand you’re the one who took my young Howngthirr’s virginity?”

“W-what?!” Virpan and Howngthirr exclaimed in unison. They stared at each other and then back to Uonkshrail, turning red

“He-he, don’t be ashamed son,” Uonkshrail said cheerily, “Why it was in such a cave that you mother and I…”

“Ahh, father, please,” Howngthirr sputtered, waving his hands, “I didn’t, we did…”

“I did not lay with your son,” Virpan said, stepping forward. “My name is Virpan, and I am on an important mission for the order of Valtor.”

“Humf, Baldor,” he said dismissively, his demeanor turning cool.

“What’s the matter?” She asked, glancing between Howngthirr and his father.

“Don’t think too highly of the order myself,” Uonkshrail replied, crossing his arms. “Their monastery down the valley has been causing my village problems for years.”

“I had no idea,” Virpan said, shifting awkwardly, “I’m not a Valtorite myself, if that makes a difference. I just promised to deliver an old man’s letter.”

“Oh lass,” he sighed, “It would be wrong of me to stand in the way of a young woman’s honor.”

“Thank you. Now, do you know the way to the Wanevap Monestary?”

A dark look flashed across Uonkshrail’s face.

“Ooh,” Howngthirr moaned. “That’s the one down the valley.”

“S-sorry?” Virpan stammered.

“The best way to that particular monastery is through our home village,” Uonkshrail said blankly, staring at some invisible thing in the far distance. “Howngthirr.”

“Yes father?”

“Escort our guest back to home; she can find her way to the monastery from there.”

“But, wait, this is supposed to be my first expedition!”

“Then your brother will escort her instead.”

“No, no,” Howngthirr said hastily, glancing at Virpan. “I’ll do it father.”

“Good,” he said quietly, slinging the box of tent pegs over his shoulder. Uonkshrail took several steps before stopping and turning to Howngthirr. “Be safe out there son.”

-#-

Howngthirr said little as they departed the caravan. It seemed that he had become conflicted about helping her. As the afternoon wore on Virpan felt the allure of the mountains wearing off. Her companion’s silence created an awkward atmosphere, while the frigid snowmelt soaking into her borrowed boots made the trek increasingly arduous. Dusk found them taking shelter at the mouth of another steam cave.

Though it was too small to provide shelter, the warm air rushing out made the night more bearable. Virpan and Howngthirr sat quietly, watching the sun set. Below them was a vast green expanse which Virpan knew must be her jungle home. That even the tallest trees were indistinguishable from her mountain perch was surreal to her. Without fuel for a fire Howngthirr lit an oil lamp for light. He produced some dried meat from his pack, offering half to Virpan. The stuff tasted like smoke made solid.

“How far is your village from here?” Virpan asked quietly, hoping to break the silence.

“We should arrive there the day after tomorrow,” Howngthirr said, glancing at her, “the caravan was just starting out.”

“What is your caravan carrying?” she asked, trying to stave off silence.

“A load of silver ore,” he replied, “why?”

“Just trying to have a conversation,” she said, frowning.

“Oh, ok.”

“Didn’t realize there was so much animus between your people and the Order.”

“It’s complicated, and much of the conflict happened before I was born,” Howngthirr said nervously. “All I know is that that monastery has always been a sore spot with my village. And it’s, well, odd guiding someone there.”

“Don’t worry,” she sighed, laying back on a blanket, “in a day or two we’ll be able to part ways.”

A troubled look appeared on Howngthirr’s face, but he remained quiet. Several moments passed in silence before he extinguished the lamp and lay down to sleep. The rising cave air whistled through gaps in the mountain, creating an otherworldly chorus which haunted Virpan through the night. Dawn came too soon, the light of the hidden sun rousting the pair from their restless slumber.

A second day of trudging through the snow destroyed whatever remained of Virpan’s enchantment with the substance. By midday her eyes were beginning to hurt from the omnipresent white glare and she was feeling strangely light headed. When she complained to Howngthirr he offered her some bitter root to chew, saying it would alleviate the sickness.

Near nightfall Virpan began keeping an eye out for a place to make camp. Her guide, however, seemed intent on pressing on. Soon the sun dipped below the horizon and the first stars emerged. She tapped Howngthirr on the shoulder. “Shouldn’t we make camp?”

“Nah, home’s not much further now.”

“That’s a relief.”

They pressed on, the encroaching darkness accompanied by a noticeable drop in temperature. Virpan shivered. Just before the last rays of sunlight vanished from the world, they arrived on a plateau above Howngthirr’s village. It was a walled edifice straddling a gap in the Krags. Behind the stone curtain were several rows of tightly packed log houses, each one sporting a preposterously pointy roof. Virpan thought the place resembled a box of iron ax heads.

Curls of smoke rose rising above the village beckoned Virpan with the promise of warmth. She and Howngthirr hurried down an incline and around a boulder field to the village’s rickety gate. Howngthirr pounded on the gate. A slot opened up in the middle revealing a pair of squinting eyes.

“Who goes there?” asked a raspy voice.

“Howngthirr Uonkshrailson, I’ve returned early.”

“Oh, Uonkshail’s son,” the old man said. The sound of a latch rattling was followed by the gate being pulled aside. A thin old man in a thick cloak stood before them, holding a flickering lantern. “Come on lad, hurry, uh, who’s your guest there?”

“I am Virpan Jariku’s daughter; and I am here as a simple messenger.”

He nodded, standing aside to let them pass. Howngthirr let out a noticeable sigh of relief before leading the way to his home. The log cabins which lined the road appeared identical to Virpan, yet somehow Howngthirr managed to pick his out of the bunch. Opening the door released a torrent of warm air rushing to escape. Virpan fought against the wind and into the rather pleasant interior.

The wall on her right was dominated by a hearth, a hearty fire burning away inside. Above the mantel hung a shield bearing a bore’s head with an ax and a spear crossed in front of it.  A single table dominated the middle of the room. Two women sat on either side of it knitting by the light of a flickering candle. The elder of them looked up; her short cropped white hair forming a frizzy aura around her head.

“Your son is home!” the old woman croaked, her voice slightly louder than necessary. “Lilign!”

“I heard you, mother,” Lilign said, glancing towards the door. Her tired face was appeared much younger than the other woman’s, and her long, blond hair was only flecked with grey. “Oh, Howngthirr, what’s happened?”

“Nothing, really,” he murmured glumly. “I was sent home.”

“Oh dear,” she said. She put down her knitting needles and rose from the chair. Her eyes landed on Virpan, noticing her for the first time. “Who is this young lady you’ve brought with you?”

“Virpan; your son rescued me from the snow.”

“Oh, just like your aunt and uncle,” Lilign said, clapping her hands together. “And to think I feared you would have trouble finding a wife.”

“It’s not like that,” Howngthirr sighed, “Virpan is just passing through.”

“I’m delivering a message to the, to the, uh, other side of the mountains.”

“Ah well,” Lilign sighed, “in any case, you must be tired and hungry from your trek.”

“Indeed,” Virpan said, approaching the table. She eyed a free chair for a moment, her hand hesitating on the back.”

“Sit down, sit down,” Lilign said quickly, walking over to a cauldron beside the fire. “You’re our guest.”

Virpan obeyed, immediately feeling an immense relief. Soon a warm bowl of meat soup was before her and she felt right at home. Howngthirr however still appeared morose. This did not escape Lilign’s attention.

“Howngthirr, what troubles you?”

“My first caravan run, I had to turn back on the third day out,” he replied, listlessly swirling his spoon around in his soup.

“Oh son,” Lilign said soothingly. “You returned for a noble reason. Your honor is intact.”

“I just wanted to see more of the world.”

“There,” she said, hesitating, “there is another caravan leaving tomorrow for the lowlands.”

“Really? And they’d accept me?”

“I’ll have word with Rugn tomorrow morning,” she said, “I’m sure he can be persuaded.”

Howngthirr’s face lit up. “Thanks mom.”

“Don’t mention it sweetie.”

With that she returned to knitting, while her son dug into his soup.  Virpan was glad he looked more upbeat, but realized that without him she would have no guide.

“Howngthirr, I thank you for guiding me this far,” she said, hoping he got the message.

“It has been my honor,” he replied, “oh, wait. Mother, would it be alright for Virpan to accompany the caravan? He destination is not far from here.”

“I don’t see why not,” she said thoughtfully. “Though, Rugn is not a man to wait for stragglers, so you had best hope her destination is not too far from the beaten path.”

-#-

The morning came too soon for Virpan’s liking. A quick breakfast of porridge and tart berry preserves was followed by another round of frantic packing as Howngthirr prepared for yet another journey. Realizing that she possessed nothing of her own any longer, Virpan simply waited for him to finish. Shortly after the last of his supplies where stowed, Lilign appeared and informed Howngthirr that the caravan was waiting. He quickly shouldered his burden and walked out into the bustling village streets.

The pair made their way through the bundled locals, many not seeming to notice that Virpan was a foreigner. In the centre of town was a large statue of a mustachioed, muscular man holding an ax. Steaming water flowed around its base, the fog giving the monument an ethereal quality. Several smaller carved spirit ladies were emerging from the water around his feet, staring up at the powerful god.

“That’s Kagnzatb, the thunder god,” Howngthirr said.

“Oh,” Virpan said, realizing that she had been staring.

Her eyes fell upon a gaggle of people and pack mules stood not far from the great statue. The men were busy checking straps on their beasts or tucking in last minute pieces of cargo. Howngthirr approached a sour faced man and exchanged a few words. The he returned to Virpan. “We’re about to get underway.”

The words had barely left Howngthirr’s mouth when the man whistled. The train of men and beasts started moving down the main street. They passed through the western gate and out onto a sprawling meadow covered in a thin layer of snow. While staring at the few yellow flowers poking through their icy prison, Virpan bumped into Howngthirr. Something poked into her side. She looked down at his waist, spotting a hammer and two daggers tucked into his belt. She looked up and down the line, realizing that all of the members were armed.

“Uh, what’s with all the weapons?”

“The woods are dangerous,” Howngthirr breathed, “Bandits and rebels scattered across the valley. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, or so I’ve been told.”

“Uh-huh.”

She fell silent, her eyes darting around the long mountain valley. The showy fields and steep walls provided no place for an ambush. They marched downhill, the great valley widening and turning towards the north. The snow vanished, replaced with a carpet of grasses. Soon other plants began appearing amongst the grasses. Berry bushes and wheat shoots dotted the landscape.

Not far from there lay the village’s summer fields the uneven furrows covered in a carpet of young grass.  One of the party stepped out for a moment and tested the soil with his sword, looking pleased at what he saw.

Beyond the fields were the first hints of trees. The western flank of the valley became engulfed in a forest of trees Virpan had never seen before. They stood tall and straight, their branches covered in green needles.

Then the caravan slowed as they were engulfed in trees. Virpan tensed as they walked silently down the narrow pathway. Several men drew out their swords, peering through the thick foliage for any sign of movement. A few hundred yards into the forest Howngthirr came to a stop. The pathway forked, everyone in the caravan turning towards the west.

“Virpan,” he said quickly, pointing down the northern trail. “Down that path lays the monastery you seek.”

“Thank you,” Virpan said, cautiously stepping down the trail. When none paid her any mind she turned to Howngthirr one last time. “See you later then, Howngthirr.”

“See you then.”

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