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Prologue: Winter's Shadow

 
Prologue: Winter's Shadow

The day before last, the final golden leaves of autumn had fallen from the aspens and birches that dot the parks and boulevards of Scurdaeg. After a day of freezing rain and biting winds, the first flakes of winter are falling silently on the City of Storms, settling elegantly on the bare branches, cobbled streets and slanting roofs. The crashing of waves from the sea can still be heard from the bay, but all natives of the North know it will only be a matter of weeks before utter silence descends on the city as the sea completely ices over.

The eight of you have arrived in the great hall of Queen Eisa's palace, and stand arrayed before the Bleached Throne, the ornately carved whalebone chair that has been the traditional seat of the monarchs of Scurdaeg for the past 300 years, recovered by Queen Eisa's predecessors after the 200 year Interregnum after the War of Six Thrones, before which it was used for millennia by the cruel iron-fisted kings of Old Drenheim in the distant past.

The throne rests upon a dais raised 10 feet off the ground. The rest of the hall is empty of people; benches and tables line the walls, and tapestries of great battles adorn the gray stone walls, and the vaulted ceiling is supported by rows of ornately carved columns. Whether you answered the queen's summons, or followed your own hearts to the city for reasons unknown to you till now, the Iron Queen herself gazes upon you from her lofty perch with eyes gray as the sea during a storm.

"I thank you all for answering the summons," the queen intones in a strong but not unkind voice. "Indeed, others loyal to Scurdaeg answered the call as well...but I culled them from your number, as I can use only the hardiest of souls for what I intend; and those souls are you."

She stands from her throne and descends the stairs from the dais, her royal robe of gray wool lined with white wolf fur trailing behind her, her staff of office clanking on the stones rhythmically, the polished adamantine of her sword hilt at her belt flashing in the light, her crown resting comfortably on her braided flaxen locks, the single large sapphire gleaming in the thin steel band. She comes to stand before you, addressing you individually.

"Master Anton," the queen said to the halfling, "
Crown Prince Aelfgar, a high-ranking Knight of the Iron Glacier, older brother to Eisa's second child, Princess Abelena
My son tells me you have been most helpful to the knights. Your intelligence has helped them put away more than a few traitors in our midst. I'm sure your skills will be most useful for the challenges that lie ahead."



Moving on to Lyeth, the queen says, "And dear Lyeth. Your superiors have told me you have performed most excellently and humbly in the order of Arbiters, and that many reckless lawbreakers have been acquainted with the palace jail cells thanks to your relentless hunting. I'm sure you will be a most valuable asset to this team. And, if it comes to it, I believe you may be a fine conduit between us and the elves of Heleg'Nor."



Now standing before the wizard Garn, the queen eyes him up and down and says, "Master Taberic, your leader, Archmage Thoven, has spoken highly of the quality of your spellcraft and dedication to research. 'Prodigious,' I believe, was the word he used to describe your abilities. I trust his judgment; and as such, it is my firm hope and belief that you will be able to shed the light of arcane knowledge on the issues that I believe are beginning to plague the North."



Next is Corynn Rayess, the ex-soldier. The queen smiles slightly and narrows her eyes. "Master Rayess, I reviewed your records after you were terminated from service; and I honestly never would have expected to see you standing before me today. But despite your unruly behavior, the records are undeniable; you were a good soldier, skilled at what you do. I don't know what has happened in the meantime, and I'm not sure I want to know; all I ask is that you display the skill and loyalty you did when you first served, and that will be enough for me."



She then moved on to Ruln, the hulking Neanderthal who looked so out of place in the hall of the Iron Queen. She eyes Ruln curiously, and not without a slight hint of caution from her body language. "Ruln," she says. "An old name. Older than Scurdaeg, maybe even older than the tyrant kings of ancient Drenheim. A true native of the North. I know not exactly why or how you have come here, but I do know that your people do not pursue things out of frivolous fancy. Whyever you are here, it is something extremely important to you. I can use someone of such steadfastness on my side. I just hope that our purposes may coincide, and foster a mutually beneficial relationship."



Eisa next lays her eyes upon the strangest thing she has yet seen in her court: the orc, Deresk. "Now here is something I never thought I would see," she says with a hint of wonder. "A respected member of clan Redtusk standing in my court, unguarded, not hostile. I hope you will forgive me, but most of your kin I have seen were either lying dead upon the field of battle or stealing off with travelers in the night. My scouts in the wilderness tell me a change has come to the power structure of the orc tribes in the North; whatever has happened, you clearly are different from your savage brethren. Perhaps you may be of use in this team's journeys to uncover the encroaching peril so few have felt."



Now, Queen Eisa crosses her arms and levels a piercing gaze upon Uldin, the dwarven cleric and ambassador from Gildar Hold in the great Skyspear Mountains of the mainland in the south. "And Master Hadderhek," she says simply. "I trust your accommodations have been satisfactory? Certainly not as...luxurious...as the glittering halls of Gildar Hold. But in your time here you've proven to be a shrewd and stubborn diplomat, and the tales of your exploits upon the battlefield have preceded you. I hope and trust your mace and prayers will avail themselves against the shadowy forces arraying against us...for both our people's sakes."



Finally, she turns her gaze on L'lef, the tall, pale-blue-skinned-and-haired human from the circle of arctic druids. "And of course, Master T'sorf," she says. "The druids of your order are a secretive and reclusive lot, but are unquestionably the masters of the lore and nature of the North, a bastion of what good can come out of the savage earth. We do not have much contact with them here, but they are respected and honored just as the biting north wind; their knowledge and skill not to be questioned, but acknowledged as what it is. Your guide, Rohn, spoke very highly of your knowledge and skill; almost as if you had been born with the blood of the North itself. I believe your intimate knowledge of the North and its wild strangeness will be extremely useful to our endeavors here."



The queen then went back in front of all of you.

"Now, let us adjourn to the feast hall, where your bones will be warmed and your bellies filled with the best provender Scurdaeg can provide, such as it is, and we will discuss in more detail what I will wish of you all. Come, this way."

You can talk to each other here, or just say what you're thinking etc., ask questions and all that
She then leaves and starts leading the way down the hall toward the feast hall.

Garn being overwhelmed by the acknowledgement that the Iron Queen has given him for his work in the tower and feeling a sense overwhelming wonder about the seven that stand with him muster's up his best greeting and says It is my greatest honor to meet you all and with much curiosity and a plethora of questions that come to my head about your history, I will say "better to break bread before such questions are answered". So instead I will state my name again in case you didn't get it. My name is Garn Taberic. From The Brotherhood Of The Frozen Tower. [gives his best bow]

Corynn relaxes his stance as the Queen finishes her speech, obviously somewhat less tense now than just moments earlier. It's clear he's getting a second chance, and he's going to take it. "I'd appreciate if you just stuck to 'Corynn', I've never been big on formalities." he says to the others before adding, "But I agree with Garn, lets eat before we talk."
There's a few oddly long pauses here and there as he talks, as he pauses to look for somewhat better words than the rough slang ones he'd normally use.

The court. He had been used to seeing strange and unusual things in the city, but this room... it was something else entirely. As the queen spoke, his eyes shifted about the hall, eyeing the columns, the decorations, especially the tapestries: histories, no doubt, of things long past. While he remained facing his front as the queen spoke, it is only as he is addressed that he forces his gaze back to her position on the dias.

And, as she speaks, he closes his eyes. His head is still held high, shoulders squared, and his breathing is deep. Whatever it is that draws his attention inward, it is not inattentiveness to her words; yet nonetheless, he appears odd, standing there, wearing little more than a leather jerkin and pants; those are barely noticable, however, beneath the pelt he wears wrapped about him, the shaggy hide of some great white cat, its fangs still resting over his forehead.

And it is only a few more breaths before his eyes open again. His lips pull back... unevenly, perhaps, due to the four parallel scars gashing his right cheek... to reveal his teeth, an expression which might be hard to read, until he speaks, his voice a deep rumble, filled with pride. "So may it be," he responds to her: nothing more. However, his eyes now shift to view the others present as she introduces each one, eyes narrowed, contemplating. Among these people were some of the tallest he'd seen since he'd come south. These, he judged, were those who would find ways to survive. There was pride among them... although the one who bowed, he was yet wary of.

Still, as Eisa passed, he eyed each of those remaining in turn, already-wide nostrils flaring in approval. "Let us eat."

During the ceremony, the hood upon L'lef's fur clad cloak was pulled back to reveal dark blue hair, which cascaded down the boy's shoulders. The boy possessed bright peircing blue eyes. The eyes never wavered from the form ofQueen Eisa, as she spoke and moved about the hall's chamber. The young mans face, was still and motionless. If one were to take in his facial features, they would note the scar above his left eye. Despite the fact the boy was rather young his face didn't give way to either his thoughts or emotion while he witnessed the scene before him.

However, once the Queen had finished her introductions of the others and greeted L'lef he gave the woman a nod and for a moment his eyes shimmered with light hinting that the boy had at least some respect for the woman.

Despite the Queens beckons to the dining hall the youth stood still. A slow smirk formed upon his lips as he appeared to take notice of each persons action. The child stood remaining motionless until the last of the others exited the hall. Then if all went according to plan, he too would go in pace with the others and follow suit.

However, if any other wished to wait for him to leave; there might be need of a bout, involving who can stand there the longest, silently. The winner of course would recieve the priviledge of exiting the hall last, but hopefully that will be a tale for another time.

Standing at 3'3", Anton quickly noticed he was by far the shortest individual here. He sized the others up, noticing one in particular was truly a giant from his perspective. He wondered, for a brief moment, if he would find himself out of his depth here, an issue that had never arose previously. The handsome, yet pale, halfling contemplated the others, using his exceptional powers of observation. Finally, he laid eyes on the queen, whom appeared in many ways exactly how he had pictured her.

Anton had never been in the queens presence before, and he was very curious to see what she would be like. As she descended from her throne, Anton took one last look at the others from his end of the line to gauge their feelings on being in her presence, then turned as she laid eyes upon him.

After her wonderfully generous introduction and compliment, Anton bows to the queen and graciously replies in a steady, young voice, Thank you, my lady. With the address from the queen, Anton no longer felt out of his depth. He did, however, pay close attention to what the queen said to the others, so that he could recall the information at any time.

When dismissed, Anton allowed a few others to speak before he himself did, thinking, I better hold off talking for a moment, I doubt all the others would be alright with the smallest and least intimidating individual to break the ice. He listened to the others and their agreement to dine first. He nodded in silent agreement and walked near the front, so as to get the best view possible in the hallway, prepared to engage the others in conversation as soon as they were ready.

The night Deresk came to the Scurdaeg, the orc shaman was so tired, overwhelmed, and unprepared for anything a city might contain he simply fell asleep in the hay at an inn after the man in charge refused him service unless he departed with his weapons and talismans. At least he had a roof over his head heavier than a leather tent. That night he dreamed a furious dream in which an angry ice spirit chased him across a wide open plain, and the faster he ran, the faster the spirit moved and froze the ground upon which Deresk stood. At long last the mangy, one-eyed bear appeared with a snide look upon its head and standing on the cliffs of a great mountain. Th bear cocked its head up and Deresk looked where the bear indicated, and he saw at the mountain's cliff a might snow eagle guarding her nest. She swooped down, and Deresk look behind and saw she was aiming her talons directly at the rapidly advancing ice spirit. Then he awoke.

It was apparently very early when the stable boy first started to arouse, but as Deresk was dreaming so intently, the lad could do nothing until the dream was concluded and it was already a busy day when he at last woke up. As he did so, the boy quickly realized the error of trying to rise an orc as Deresk rose to his full height. He had not seen the boy since.

Ever since then, he had been wandering until long hours into the night, trying to get a sense of the spirits of the place. Little came that was helpful, just a few lesser beasts and the spirits of mighty horses chained to even mightier men. So much came at him, even the well honed warrior had trouble keeping a strong face to the new world before him. Angry eyes from some, curious eyes from others kept him on guard, but he thanks his ancestors and the cursed bear that none tried to test him. At least not yet.

His wanderings led him to nothing, but the bear himself made an occasional visit, always leading him to a feminine or avian source. His mother is the strongest woman he knows, but always symbolized herself with a fierce lynx. Whatever woman hear was more akin to a bird it seems. She was confirmed in yesternight's dream, when he saw through the one eye of the bear. He was wandering a deserted city, filled with shadows of the dead, looking for any remaining scraps of food left. At last he came to a palace, the largest building he had ever seen, and as the bear came to the front steps, he looked up and through one eye he saw the eagle flying high. Beneath her was a woman, proud and ture, guarding a great eagle's nest. Below her and behind the bear the ice spirit came back, and underneath it were all the demon's that haunt the tundra. Deresk woke up with one eye open that morning. The other eye still dreamed and in it he saw the woman's face.

Later that day, he stood before the woman from his dream and the palace bearing the eagle's nest. Her appearance matched what the bear saw though he could not describe her voice. A warm wind on a cold day, breathing into your heart to give you courage. She came down before the assembled group, a divided kind of humans he knew, short human like people he had seen called halflings, the tall old humans from farther North than even the Redtusk, and a short stout dwarf, much like the kind his grandfather spoke of as the orcs ancient enemies. He had not seen one until he came to Scurdaeg, but for all grandfather's boating, he hardly felt compelled to kill him. The talisman sewn to his hides and leathers and mail shake as he looks around and all give good indications of the group.

Her words are challenging, but not oveertly so. She is spurring him on, he thinks, telling him of past battles with other orcs and the fell deeds of others. He is still the savage, but from what he knows of that word, he gladly accepts the part meaning wild and untamed. That is certainly Deresk, as his the orc away from the powers of the old chieftains and the new ones out for conquests. She is wise, perhaps more than she should be in the ways of his kindred. She is a powerful shaman or priest or wizard, or just a woman with many scouts, but either way she knows much, even beyond what she tells.

The bear rests calmly in the Great Hall, clearly at peace even far away form his home. He can even hear the old fathers and mothers of his own father and mother, listening as he does or else agreeing with her talk of the North. Even his Granfather, the warmongering storyteller, is remarkably calm. The eagle is here, he thnks. And I have been called.

"I am of use in many ways, Great Woman," he says, using the only honorific he knew to give her. Woman seldom had titles beyond their gender in orc society. There is much more he can say, but he bites his tongue, especially as the smell of cooking enters his nose and goes down to his belly. He has not had a proper meal in days. As she departs he quickly turns to speak to human of the old sort, the Neanderthal. "I am with you. Let us drink and eat before the storm catches us."


Uldin's jaw is clenched as the Iron Queen speaks, more as a result of earlier negotiations than any sort of personal dislike of the ruler of Scurdaeg. Both parties were hard-headed and unyielding, and this left a bitter taste in Uldin's mouth. He appreciated the reception he had received thus far, but it was smoke and mirrors; the Iron Queen sought to lessen the impact of her terms through such generosity, nothing more.

Clad in his immaculately polished full plate armor and splendid, gold laced white fur parka, Uldin's wealth and status was obviously to any who looked upon him. He receives the Iron Queen's appraisal with a superficial smile and a curt bow. His eyes seemed distant as he watched the Queen turn on her heel and proceed to the feast hall.

"Stubborn as a mule..."

Perhaps the matter irked him so badly because he and the Iron Queen were of a similar temperament. Now wasn't the time to brood, however... there was feasting to be done. It was a regular activity in Gildar Hold, and Uldin had grown accustomed to the indulgence. The privileges of nobility.

"I might not agree with everything she says, but at least she knows how to treat her guests well," Uldin says. His brogue is thick, though his Common speech is adequate.

Scrutinizing the other persons assembled before the Iron Queen, Uldin sees many lack the prestige he proudly bears. Especially...

An orc. Too many of them alive.

"Which makes me wonder,
Dwarvish for 'Orc'
Urzh, what does yer kind concern themselves with, aside from warm bones and filled bellies? What interest do ye have in the Iron Queen's court?"


Though not too kindly spoken, the tact Uldin manages to express is considerable, relatively speaking. He is perplexed that the Iron Queen would call a dwarvish ambassador and a feral, pig-tusked orc into the same room.


Deresk scratches his belly as he slowly starts moving to the feasthall. The crow and rats he has been eating have sustained him, and the innkeeper actually gave him a few copper pieces for it to boot, but the chance at eating real meat and whatever exotic foods the southerners made make his belly growl and his mouth water. He can see the bear likewise giving a hungry growl, not that the spirit could actually eat anything of mortal origin, but whenever Deresk had a satisfying meal, so too did the bear it seemed.

So eager was he to partake of the queen's bounty he almost missed the dwarf approaching him. He looked unlike anything he had seen in the wilds. On raid sin his youth he had seen human warriors decked out in splendid armor, but none matching the gold and polished metal of this dwarf's clothing. Likewise he has not quite encountered a beard like that, so large and yet completely free of crumbs, blood, or other refuse that enters the beards of the human barbarians back home. The harsh gaze he knows from other dwarves he has seen in the city, yet coming from one speaking with such authority, Deresk knows he had best be careful, lest he bring in others of his clan. If what his grandfather said in old stories is true, dwarves left their caves to slay orcs because they use orc bones in craven sexual rituals and use their blood to make their ale. If half that is true, Deresk fears for the worst.

He scratches his throat audibly and opens his mouth a bit to conceal the points of his tusks. They are smaller than the average orcs, something that always got him plenty of taunts back home but here he hope they will make him seem less threatening. He opts now for honesty, hoping that will satisfy the dwarf.

"I am Deresk, of Clan Redtusk," he says. His tone is like the dwarf's; stern but not overtly aggressive. "I come not for war on your kind. A come here because the old northern spirits sent me on a southern wind to this gold city. And you, dwarf? What made you come out of your mountain caves to the city of all places?"

He sincerely hopes the dwarf doesn't answer for orc bones.


There is something familiar about this Deresk. Orc he might be, and there was another thing he had seen little of... but then, one seldom saw others further into the frozen north. Great Woman? This is a proud man, he thinks, and perhaps with a way with words, but not the ones the woman uses. No; his are words full of meaning, given to bring an understanding of his meaning; such is Ruln's thought, and, as the orc agrees regarding the food, his teeth are bared once more in the expression which seems to be a smile.

The sense of approval which he has been sensing from his totem fades somewhat as Uldin speaks... not turning to disapproval, but rather to curiousity. He continues towards the offered feast, but to anyone watching, his ears shift back attentively, and his eyes narrow. Yet, at Deresk's response, he stops, turning towards him, brown eyes still narrowed. The spirits sent him, did they? Of course he would seem familiar, then. There were few here who paid heed to the spirits as they should, perhaps, but it had been years since he had seen one who seemed to fully understand their will.

And he lifted his hands, the claws still set in his cloak running along their backs, to touch his upper arms, firmly but briefly, a gesture of recognition, and perhaps a hint of respect... but one unlikely to be familiar, here. "Speaker and seer," he says as he ceases the gesture, then turns back towards the meal that awaits... though his ears are still shifted back, listening.




 

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