There is an old tale of a world long forgotten, of a people who traveled in great wooden ships to a new world. When they made land, they were met with the native people, and it was not long before blood spilled. Some have told it that the native people met the visitors in peace, and were invaded and struck down for their efforts, their resources plundered. Other versions of the tale tell of natives rattled and afraid, trying to repel these strangers, who fought back in kind. It’s possible that both are true. But the message to all such tales, when told to young humankind today, is this: whoever struck first, the ending was of one people broken beyond repair, and another cursed down to their very bones for their malice. And we could afford neither such disgrace, in a world already so inhospitable, in our second chance after our first home was broken. The most important thing was, would always be, to endure.
This is why we keep apart from the Varou. Some are sure that their fangs and fur mark them as attuned to the wild magic of this land, others say it reinforces that they are mere beasts scrapping endlessly over territory. This, too, does not matter. We are strangers, we are guests. The Varou mark their lands clearly, their carvings etched into the wood of the trees as a clear sign of when we venture too far within. And when the marks are made visible to us, we stay clear. If a tribe marks out territory where we have settled, or where resources are precious to our survival, the Elderman goes alone to petition. The traditions observed, the things that are said, these are secret to us. We are only made aware of the outcome, whether our safety is granted or we must stake our claim elsewhere.
It is too dangerous to go into these woods unarmed, but the Elderman would bring the tribes upon us if he simply struck the Varou down or made demands. This is all we know; all the rest is for the Elderman’s line alone.
This is why I do not tell them where I am going. This is why I take the raven’s feather from around my neck and place it in my pack, to mark myself as separate from any clan or kin, my actions purely my own. I am told the Ironsworn are protected by the gods and the land, and so the Varou mark them as special and do not hold them to the same truths as our settlements. I can only hope this is so, or that I am marked so apart my actions bring no bear onto the others I am trying to save.
I make sure I am not seen as I enter the dense shadows of the forest grounds on the outskirts of Ravenrock. I am used to hiding and watching, listening, ever-careful in the name of trapping game during a hunt. So I am unseen, at least to my knowledge, as I begin the path eastward into the forest depths. I do not know the way. I do not know if these beings have a settlement of their own, or they move in packs like wild beasts. I only know that the Elderman’s petitions take two days travel, one there and one back. His direction is always straight east, until he is so deep in the brush he can no longer be seen. And as the Varou roam the forest, seeking game and territory as we do, their passage is not without signs – a broken tree limb, a loop of vine, a passing shadow in the cloud of the mist.
(Journey to the Varou, challenge rank: Dangerous. Undertake a Journey – 3 + 2 wits + 1 (bond with Ravenrock) = 6.
3, 6 – Weak Hit. -1 supply, 2/10 progress.
Waypoint Oracle – Hovel, Grim
Gather Information – 4 + 2 wits + 1 Wildblood = 7
1, 8 – Weak Hit. Momentum +1.
Varou – Zlata. Role – Thief. Description – Fervent. Goal – Rebel against power.)
It is a long walk, and the path is no small danger. I must keep lookout for wild beasts, as well, and for the hazards of the woods, hidden under the shadowy canopy of jade leaves that stand overhead. It is still the warmth of summer, and I feel the trickle of sweat on my neck as I take a pull from my waterskin, carefully keeping inventory of the supply.
I don’t know what I expect to find of the Varou, or what the results will be, but I know enough to say I do not expect the hovel after only a few hours walk. It looks like a long-abandoned structure, windows covered crudely with planks of wood, any hearthfire long gone dark. Even so, I approach with careful steps, ready to sprint away at a moment’s notice, to see if there is light within.
Instead, she finds me.
As I peer through a crack in the boarded windows, she returns with a basket gathered full of herbs and fungi, and from the twitch of her nose she smelled me before I even saw her. In a moment, faster than I can blink, the basket is on the ground with its contents scattered to the mossy earth below and she is crouched low – waiting, ready to charge at a moment’s notice. Time seems to freeze, and I realize in all this time I have already been on edge, already as taut and ready as if I were in the heat of battle – long before she appeared.
Her eyes are more catlike than lupine, I notice. Their pupils shrink to slits, the irises a tawny gold with a quiet, focused gleam. Her hair is long, shaggy, dark – tied back with a simple leather thong, none of the elaborate feather-and-bead adornments I have seen in artistic depictions and the glimpses we have caught of Varou hunters in our own sojourns between the trees. She has the look of a hunter, long limb and corded muscle, a taut acrobat’s body. I know the look of this form because it’s similar to my own, after my years stalking the wooded edges of our territory with a bow, at times with no choice but to flee from the woods’ many dangers.
My hands begin to drift towards my bow, but I hesitate. Am I so eager for a fight? Consequences to the settlement aside, she has made no move to actually attack. I am a stranger to her, I am the intruder. I lift my hands.
“I am sorry to intrude. I am Ironsworn, I seek information. Please, may I have a word?”
Her nerves are as much of a coiled spring as mine, and for a moment I am unsure if she will even hear me, much less how she will respond.
(Compel, +heart – 1 + 2 = 3.
8, 1 – Weak hit. +1 momentum, future Gather Information with +1.)
Not a stitch of her relaxes, and there is the space of a breath before she dives. My stomach swoops and heart sinks, fearing it will come to blows after all, but in that heartbeat of a thought she is diving for the door behind me and, on pushing it open, pushes me into the hovel along with her. It closes behind us with a soft thud.
“You will bring half the wood down on us, babbling,” she hisses beneath her breath. There is yet enough light even in the boarded windows to see by, and now with her hand on me, I see she has the blunted muzzle the depictions show, a felid mouth, but a human shape to the rest of her face – though her ears are slightly pointed.
I take a slow, steadying breath, though my thoughts are too many and the first one I catch is…lacking. “Your basket.”
She rolls her eyes and pushes me into a chair. “Sit.”
She is back with the food within a few minutes’ time, though. Food is not something to waste here, especially in high summer, especially when one is – for whatever reason – alone.
“I am sorry,” I say again, softer, when she is inside again. “Have I compromised your position?”
“Not as I can see,” she says cautiously, “but then, I have yet to have answers from you. Your people do not come this far into the territory. Who are you?”
“Ironsworn,” I say hurriedly again. “I am – I am Maia, and I am Ironsworn. I seek information, I thought perhaps your people – they might provide.”