Three months ago, they left, and nothing was the same again. Nial was always an outsider in Ravenrock, more at home in the hills and among the prophetic birds than forging human bonds. They sometimes said they felt a connection with this harsh and inhospitable land, felt a deep magic they could tap with enough knowledge and strength of will. If they had not been brilliant at augury, they would have been outcast among such hard-nosed people. But the ravens seemed to favor them, and so they were known for magic, prophecy, and for being as made for trouble as both of those things combined.
They were called ‘crazy’, but Maia knew what madmen were like, had seen people wailing in grief or seeing distant nonsenses that led them into the woods to be swallowed up. Nial understood something deeper than surface, something that saw more clearly than eyes, but they were as clearheaded as anyone. The mad do not live long in the Ironlands; survival is too demanding, this country’s threats too unforgiving.
But Nial awoke one day and spoke of a dream. They would not reveal it, only that it was a power calling to them alone, a power that could ensure survival in these harsh hills for a long time to come. They would stay up long nights, chanting, communing, developing spellwork the little settlement had never seen – the kind only spoken of in cautionary tales. They would entertain notions of seeking out the Varou, or the Elves. And then, one day, footprints led away from their home near the Ravenspire. And soon the direction those prints were headed was swallowed by the winds and the brush.
She wanted to follow them, that was the hardest part. She didn’t know if they were seeing things at last, or if they had seen some true and powerful portent, if they could handle the challenge ahead or they were in deep danger. Perhaps the land itself would protect them; it had always seemed to provide before, in ways no one could fathom. But Maia did not know where to go. And she was frightened. And they had not called for her to go with them, had not even confided in where they were going. She had her duties here, hunting and scouting in the Hinterland forests. With Nial gone, some were even asking her for the small auguries she had learned at their side – the guidance of the ravens, that seemed more restless than ever, as if they would soon vanish from the Ravenspire completely. And that would be a terrible omen indeed.
The vow, soft and beneath her breath, with only the wind and the birds to hear, was to find Nial again one day. For her own peace, and for theirs, in whatever form that might take. But fate instead would force her hand.
It is not merely that she did not dream in portents. She often did not dream at all, or at least, the inky abyss of sleep did not provide any pressing details that might suggest something as dire as this. But three months to the day after Nial’s appearance, as the summer star grew to its highest point in the sky, the dream she saw that night was as clear as a rook’s feather against the snow.
The dream was not in her familiar Hinterlands, harsh but beautiful, scrub and snow drifting into deep forest where the howls of Varou sometimes sounded. This was somewhere deep, deep in the forest brush, carpeted with leaves and vines, bursting with leaves and flowers of colors she never knew existed. And standing atop a fallen tree covered in moss, mist swirling at its paws, was a massive Elder Beast. A wolf, bone white, its eyes a gleaming gold the color of the moons. It stood, soundless, watching, and then it turned and looked straight out – ‘at’ her, as if the vision were a book she was reading, and the wolf could see straight out the page. Her blood ran like ice.
The wind seemed to whistle, not with the familiar call of ravensong, but with the howl of such a tremendous creature.
The snow will come like a wave upon the land
And swallow all it touches
To bring the earth new bones
The Ironsworn will halt the wave of white
By hearing the hidden voices
By finding the ancient paths
Find me and you will know
Or you will meet your fate alone
When she awoke, it was in a cold sweat, with rolling darkness in her gut that suggested the terror of what she had seen. Because it was poetry, it was riddle and rhyme, but it was also somehow a Knowing, the same as when she heard the signs in ravensong. There would be a great winter that would swallow her world whole. The only way to end it was to be Ironsworn to the task, to find the beast as it had called her to do so. She did not understand how something with no fact behind it could be so perfectly true, not in this harsh land, but her instincts were afire with a sureness she never felt. Nial had always been sure. She had always been the one to second guess.
And they would say, “I am blessed by you. Without your friendship, I would walk these paths alone.”
Somehow, she felt connected to them more than ever now.
Maia spoke to the Elderman, the fifth of his line. She spoke to her parents, to her small brother of nearly four years grown. Could they manage without her? They would be looked after as best as the village could, she was told. They were a strict and bitter people, but they were loyal, for if you stopped to consider whether you liked the duty to your neighbor your own home would soon be aflame.
She took her bow, a rough hatchet, the simple leathers she carried in her hunting and tracking. She knelt at the Ravenspire, that smooth unmarked pillar of iron where fewer and fewer of the birds seemed to rest. She knelt right at the spire itself, sitting among them, and they did not scatter.
And on some deep instinct, she placed her palm on the tip of the intimidating spire, letting the sharp edge of the iron bite deep into her palm.
“I will find the Elder Beast and learn the way to halt the blizzard’s might before this portent comes to pass. And if any gods are listening, may I find Nial on this path forward, to understand them better, to help them find what they sought.”
As her blood splashed against the iron, the ravens rose into the air with their voices calling out in harsh staccato, taking flight. Dark feathers scattered on the winds.
“Fight!” she heard them caw, startling her in the unexpected language of her reverie. “Fight! Fight!!”
And as if in response, the piercing howl of a Varou answered them on the wind.
She knew, at once, where to go. For who would know the nature of a wolven creature better than the Varou that stalked at her home’s very doorstep?
(Iron Vow sworn, strong hit, +2 momentum)