Wednesday, June 15, 2022

#47: Tovt

I fade in and out throughout the night, bouts of restless sleep intertwined with fits of nightmarish dreams or hallucinations.  The relentless cold has penetrated my body, the dull warmth of the flickering fire my only lifeline.

When I finally awaken, I take a few moments to gain my bearings.  It is difficult to tell how much time has passed—it is perhaps late afternoon.  Given that it is likely the beginning of the winter season and knowing the shortness of days in the Frozenfar, it is likely that I have been unconscious for nearly an entire day. 

I hear Aros crunching through the snow nearby, and I raise my head wearily to watch his approach.  He is carrying a small deer on his back, two legs wrapped around either shoulder.  He throws it to the ground near the fire and starts the process of breaking down the animal, the tinge of iron from the deer’s lifeblood permeating the air.  It raises memories of past hunts and kills, and I have to shake myself out of the brief reverie.

“Good morning,” I say feebly, earning a raised brow and a stoic nod in return.  I crawl towards him with my knife in hand, gesturing and offering to help with his skinning and butchering of the animal.  Though weak, I want to prove myself to this warrior, show him that I can be of some worth.  He raises a brow again but tosses me a haunch, and I do my best not to spoil the meat or bit of hide as I prepare it for the fire.  The smell of roasting game awakens a deep hunger—I don’t even know how long it has been since my last meal, and my mouth waters.

When we finally settle into the meal, I start slowly; even the ritual of breaking my fast seems foreign, and it takes a long time to fill my stomach.  The nourishment starts to restore some of my energy.  Aros takes a long pull from a large clay jug and offers it to me.  It is filled with cold water, and I refresh myself.  Aros seems content to let me continue to rest, busying himself with tasks about the campsite.  Not knowing what he plans, not knowing where we are, I pull myself to my feet and settle into a ritual, struggling to coordinate mind and body.  I start with a lot of stretching—my limbs are yet weak from lack of nourishment, muscles bunched from lack of activity.  Once satisfied, having earned myself a sheen of sweat, I find a nearby rock and sit quietly, letting my spirit reach out once again to Nobanion.  I ask nothing of my patron, still feeling that I have not yet earned that honor, pleased enough to simply feel a connection again.  By the time the ritual is complete, I am nearly spent—recovering, but not yet recovered.  Aros is not the most vocal of companions, but I get the impression that he’s satisfied with my presence and with the silence.  I spend a long time gazing out over the barren horizon.  Eventually, I lose the battle against fatigue and fall asleep once again. 

When I next awaken, it is from a restful, dreamless sleep.  Whether a gift from Nobanion or the natural progression of my slow recovery, I give him silent thanks nonetheless.  The sky is dark and overcast, no light from the moon visible except for the faintest illumination of covering clouds.  I am rested enough that I don’t feel the need to sleep any more, and I use the energy to explore the camp, careful not to disturb Aros in his sleep, though I doubt that the warrior is truly ignorant of my presence.  Escape is the farthest thing from my mind—I am still weakened, completely without resources, and despite our current relationship as companions, I don’t even know if he would let me get away.

The way Aros arranges the camp shows he’s a skilled woodsman and hunter, able to care for himself in the bleak Frozenfar wastes.  I eye his weapon, lying on the ground nearby.  It appears to be manufactured, though crudely, a blade of unworked steel nested into a long wooden shaft to form a crude axe or bladed mace.  He wears around his neck a token, a small amulet made of sticks, bones, feathers and strings of cartilage.  It stirs neither memory of Malar nor worry, not being recognizable as a symbol of any particular faith.

I return to my seat near the fire, content to let Aros rest.  Thoughts of the encounter with heucuva troubles me—both the nature of the deceptive creature as well as how it was repelled by my body when I threw myself between it and Aros.  Was this Nobanion’s doing, or some other mystery?  I am left unsatisfied, with no answer clear.   I mind the fire quietly for the remainder of the evening, keeping watch, until morning arrives and Aros stirs to wakefulness.

After eating, Aros smothers out the fire.  Taking this as a signal that we are about to leave, I take the hide from the deer and throw it over my shoulders.  It is still bloody and somewhat sticky on the inside but will provide warmth in the harsh environment.  Aros seems satisfied with the decision.  “Where are we off to?” I ask, expecting no response.

This time, surprisingly, he speaks.  Tovt.”  What that means I cannot possibly discern, so I gesture for him to lead and follow along as best I can.  Fortunately, he walks closer to my pace than his own, and though it is sometimes a struggle I am able to keep up.

We head in the direction of the rising sun.  Though nominally heading east, the terrain makes a direct route impossible.  Before long we come upon a stream that joins our path, and we follow our way along it eastward.  The sky is overcast and prevents the sun from shining through, but I track its passage in the clouds until nearly highsun.  We climb atop a low ridge that appears to have a valley beyond, and once we reach the crest, we are rewarded with a view of several huts and bonfires on the valley floor.  Aros is unsurprised, and we are clearly in lands he knows.  “Tovt,he repeats again, taking long strides forward as he enters the valley.  I repeat the word softly, “Tovt, smiling briefly, and follow.

The small village is reminiscent of Crahdorn’s gathering of tents, though Aros’ folk—assuming that this is indeed his village—gather here in greater number.  Other figures are seen about the village, also tall and muscular, though few quite so much as Aros.  Their race is clearly of human lineage, though of a stock I don’t recognize.  They are, however, to a person, of intimidating stature.  A crowd gathers and people begin to approach, forming a small audience for our arrival.

An older man, taller than me though still not as large as Aros, approaches.  His hair is long and dark brown mixed with strands of grey, and he is adorned with many fetishes of gut string and bone.  While unrecognizable, this man carries with him the air of a chieftain or leader.  He narrows his eyes, almost stalking me as he nears, muttering lowly under his breath.  He stops before me and utters a single word, “Frode, its meaning lost on me.  Aros begins to speak in his language, communicating with his elder.  After a time, he says my name, “Zeb,” and gestures towards me.

The older man circles as he inspects me, reminiscent of a panther advancing on its prey.  “Hota!” he calls, and though the commanding tone is clear, I have no idea what directive he has given.  There is an air of suspicion in the tone, perhaps.  I draw my blade slowly, flipping it so that the blade is in my hand, offering him the hilt.  He looks at it skeptically before Aros interjects, explaining something more.  The only word I recognize is “heucuva,” which elicits a rare reaction of surprise from the elder as well as from those gathered.

He eyes me carefully, quickly snatching the knife.  He examines it briefly before tucking it into his belt.  Aros hands the pouch he took from the stone circle to the older man, who seems pleased.  He issues a few more commands to those gathered, and the circle begins to disperse.  “What now?” I ask Aros, shrugging my shoulders.  Unsurprisingly, Aros provides no response.  Instead, he grabs me firmly, not necessarily intending to be forceful, pushing me towards the edge of the encampment to a small bonfire.  He motions for me to stay there, and sits across from me silently.  I ponder Aros and his folk—their skin is slightly tanned compared to the fair-skinned barbarians of the North, but they share a similar square jaw and physique.  Related perhaps to tribes I know, though likely not directly.  

One individual stands out among the crowd, however—a woman, young compared even to Aros, her skin much darker than the others with long, black hair.  She strikes me as foreign, clearly not a blood relative to this tribe, though she wears their clothing and is adorned with similar fetishes.  It does, however, appear that she has scars—marks on her arms and face, a lattice of raised skin.

Aros doesn’t seem particularly talkative, but I decide to probe the matter.  I use pantomime and verbal cues to ask the elder’s name, thumping my chest and voicing the word “Zeb” before pointing to the elder in the village center.

Frode,” responds Aros, though whether that is his name or a title I am yet unsure.  Confident in my ability to communicate, albeit crudely, I ask after the raven-haired woman’s name.  “Vargmenni” is his response.  Satisfied, I sit still and quiet, awaiting whatever judgment or sentence may come.  Hours pass.

Finally, people begin to congregate once again.  Whereas before it was a couple dozen, now it appears as nearly the whole village has gathered.  As the sun starts to set and twilight approaches, I watch as they meet around a large bonfire.  The elder man, Frode, seats himself on a log near the fire, and motions for Aros to bring me forward.  The situation reminds me of the keravela tribes near Dagger’s Deep, Odesia’s kin, where Kezia revealed her reading.  I shake my head to rid myself of that particular memory.

Frode, draws my knife from his belt, setting it down on the ground.  He begins to speak, repeating the word “Hota.  After he says the word, I notice small pieces of bone laid before him and he begins to utter words I discern as magical in nature—primitive and unorthodox, but clearly recognizable.  He very suddenly reaches out his left hand and grabs my forearm.

Hota!” he repeats again, this time pantomiming speech with his hand.

“You want to speak?” I ask, regretting my slow-witted response.  “Hota” is the response again, though this time he nods.

“Are you able to understand what I’m saying?” I ask, and he nods again.

“My apprentice possessed similar magic,” I admit, gesturing to his grid of bone slivers, “and I am familiar with its use.”  No reaction is elicited.

I pause for several moments, constructing my response to this man.  “I climbed from my death and escaped the darkness, only to encounter this warrior Aros, who saved me from the frozen wastes.”  He continues to stare at me, and I pause in my story, waiting for reaction.

He turns to speak to Aros, the only word I recognize being the woman’s name, “Vargmenni.

“The woman with the scars,” I state quietly.  He repeats her name again.  The man’s face is unreadable.

“Have you any knowledge of a nearby town called Fireshear?” I ask, not expecting him to have ever heard of it.  “A village on the sea, larger than your own, with tents made of stone.” 

He attempts to speak the word “Fireshear” clumsily, then shakes his head.  No.

“I seek my wife and my child, though it may be many miles and many years before I can ever hope to find them.”  He continues to regard me without expression, except perhaps the slightest of nods.

“Aros saved me,” I continue, “and I owe him a debt.  And you have sheltered me, and for that I owe you a debt.”  At that, he picks my knife up off the ground, stands, and backs from the circle.  Aros grabs me again, pulling me away.  Frode begins to speak to his people, addressing the circle.  He takes the pouch in one hand and my knife in the other.  Their attention to his words is absolute.  More than once I hear the word “heucuva” again, each time eliciting sharp intakes of breath, the word clearly disturbing the villagers.

He returns my blade to his belt for a moment, reaching into the pouch to withdraw a small stone.  I’m unable to make out much detail, but it is small, no larger than a pebble.  He draws my knife again, slowly raises it to his lips, then suddenly Frode puts the blade into his mouth, twisting it and cutting into his gums.  Frode withdraws a tooth in a fountain of blood.  There is an air of seriousness, though none of the villagers move or issue anything more than a gasp.  All eyes are locked onto Frode as he inserts the stone into his mouth, replacing the tooth.  I can’t help but stare at the ritual in shock and amazement.  Before I can ask Aros what is going on, Frode reaches into the pouch, withdrawing another small stone—this one different, appearing red in color.

To my dismay he repeats the ritual, drawing my knife again and exchanging another freshly-extracted tooth with the stone.  Both bloody teeth are dropped onto the ground near the fire, Frode’s chest a curtain of dark blood.  He walks towards me and offers me my bloody blade, then closes the pouch and puts it onto his belt before retreating wordlessly to a nearby tent.

When Frode departs, the rest of the crowd begins to disperse.  I watch the them, curious to see if Vargmenni is in attendance.  I find her standing near the fire and approach, curious if any will bar my way or if she will avoid me.  None stop me, though several eye me carefully, and though she seems wary, she remains, giving me a cautious stare.

She is slight of frame, exotic in nature, and younger perhaps than I imagined before.  “Are you able to explain what just happened?” I ask, curious if she will comprehend or respond if she does.  She looks surprised, pausing for a moment before responding.  Her reply is in broken speech, though recognizable as the basest form common, often used among traders.  “You travel far,” she says awkwardly, taking me a few moments to piece together the meaning through her heavy accent.

“Yes,” I respond.  I point to the sky, continuing, “To the heavens and back.”  She nods.  “Good night,” I finish, and return to Aros aside our small fire.  With nothing more to do or say, I withdraw the deer hide from my shoulders and start to treat it, scraping it clean and burning away the bits of flesh to make a more proper hide garment.  Frode’s bloody ritual is heavy in my thoughts, though I’m not able to discern any meaning from it. 

Once that task is complete, I find a flat rock and a few bits of bone or sticks lying in the dirt, none more than a finger in length.  Closing my eyes, I contemplate the arrangement laid down by Frode when casting his spell, for indeed a spell it was.  That in itself is surprising, but the nature of the spell prepared is also surprising—it was not a ward against enemies or the elements as you’d expect from a barbarian shaman, but something more nuanced.  Though the method was completely foreign, arcane sigils bear enough resemblance that I set my mind and hands to recreating the matrix, piece by piece. 

Once satisfied, I leave it on the rock, curious to see if Frode will recognize my recreation.  I busy myself about the fire in silence for a few more moments until fatigue overtakes me, and I pull the skin over my torso as I lay on the ground, staring up at the starless sky.  For some reason Vargmenni comes to mind, and I am haunted by a phrase from the past.  Mortem disfidare.

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