wandering Reghed witch
A very tall human woman with pale skin and blue eyes like all Reghedmen but raven black hair with a white streak which stands out among the fair-haired barbarian folk of the tundra. She speaks with a cold forthrightness and her demeanor is grim and humourless. A playful arctic fox frolics at her side with an uncomfortably intelligent look in its eyes.
A tall woman dressed in bear furs, brown and white, and finely-made with rawhide stitching, strides across the spongy, multicolored turf, still spotted with patches of snow though the warm season comes. Her long blonde hair is braided and pinned with elegant whalebone combs, blue scrimshaw of the highest craftsmanship. She smiles and her blue eyes sparkle as she approaches the largest sealskin tent, oily smoke rising through the center hole. Her strength was legendary amongst the Tribe of the Elk. She strode like a raiding warrior, not like an expectant mother in her eighth month. No, this was Dýrleif Hrothufsdóttir, first child of Hrothulf the Strong and granddaughter of Angaar the Brave. Because her mother was not Reghedmen-born, and instead was a dark-haired Luskan-born former captive, she kept her father’s name. Though, she did not think it hurt to remind people that she herself was descended from kings, not only her brother Heafstaag, whose war-tent she only now lifted the flap to enter, her presence a privilege of her station. Not prone to smiling, today her heart was full of joy. The Elk Tribe High Shaman had assured her that her child would be a healthy boy. And since Haefstaag had no child, she thought it not too far a stretch to imagine this son of hers becoming the next king, ruling the most powerful tribe of Reghed in a place that could never be hers.
Haefstaag held council, his voice carrying cold logic and conviction rather than bold inspiration. Wulfgar, the huge boy who served as his loyal flag bearer, silently adding strength to the words of his king, whose missing eye and useless left hand might have given an ambitious Elk warrior second thoughts of a Challenge for leadership. But Haefstaag bore many scars, each one of them a testament to a victory over man or beast. The polar bear that had ruined his hand did not hunt the ice again. On this day, Haefstaag planned a massive raid of Ten Towns. The fishing villages will have had enough time to grow their coffers and stores and would be ripe and plump for plunder.
He met Dýrleif’s eyes across the tent as his warriors argued logistics. Her nod was returned by him with a smile. He would wait to see his nephew born before taking his men south, a good omen to carry them through the long trek.
Thus, I came into this world, a quiet baby girl with raven hair and blue eyes wide open to see the looks of horror on my mother’s and uncle’s faces. Only my father, the red-bearded Skírnir, quick to laughter, smiled at me at this joke by the Elk Totem spirits who were clever prey. A meeting was held, however, and over Skírnir’s protestations, it was decided I would be exposed upon the tundra, a death sentence to hide my family’s shame and appease Tempos, God of War.
There are times now, when I sleep alone under the northern stars — Well, almost alone, my dearest Fönnreyf! — that I dream of that night of which I could hold no natural memory. I dream you came to me and wrapped your warm, white fur around me, licked my nose and ears, toes and fingers, to drive away deadly frostbite. You nipped me to keep me awake, yipped at curious ravens who came to scavenge. After that endless night, you slipped away and hid as a grieving Skírnir approached to gather my remains in a blanket only to find me still gurgling and alive. He insisted this was a miracle and a true sign of the spirits’ favor and had the wisdom to publicly proclaim it to the entire village rather than privately to Dýrleif.
It was decided I would be allowed to live and my father joined Haefstaag on that fateful raid, the skalds singing of victory and wealth. When they returned months later, there was no singing. Haefstaag had been grievously wounded by a drow elf swordsman who had defended Ten Towns and Wulfgar was presumed dead along with many of our kin. My father had survived but I wonder sometimes if he might have been better off had he fell that day, a clean death in battle which was all any Reghedman ever hoped for. Instead, like Haefstaag, he came back like a whipped dog. My mother looked down upon me in her arms. She no longer smiled.
Dýrleif’s name means “elk’s heir.” This knowledge drove her ambition. That day, she named me Freyja. My name carries with it an association of beauty, but also, of death.
Haefstaag and Dýrleif continued their pursuits. Haefstaag recovered from his injuries but his pride was wounded too deeply. He won the alliances of the smaller Tribes of Wolf, Tiger, Seal, and Caribou. Only the fanatical Tribe of the Bear, in their worship of Auril, remained aloof. Despite his hatred of the arcane, Haefstaag made covenant with the wizard, Akar Kessell, who shared his overwhelming desire to destroy Ten Towns. Dýrleif gave birth to two little brothers for me, though neither survived to his naming. My mother barely acknowledged my presence but my father tempered his sadness with kindness. A permanent pall had seemingly settled over the Elk Tribe and the wise among us felt we rushed headlong into the icy sea. It was then that Wulfgar returned.
The boy had returned a man, a giant even among the tall Reghedmen, mighty and skilled in battle. He had learned at the side of the very dark elf who had wounded Haefstaag. Unable to convince his former king to turn against Akar Kessell, he Challenged him for the right to rule. As Dýrleif watched her brother fall to the ground to the cheers of far too many to her liking, she knew her ambitions were now just as dead as Haefstaag. Wulfgar rallied the Tribes to turn against Akar Kessell and make war upon him at the side of Ten Towns and their strange champions and my father joined them in their march to Cryshal-Tirith and Kelvin’s Cairn. The High Shaman ordered the camps struck and we followed a few days behind the army.
With my mother indifferent as to my whereabouts, I began to test the limits of how far my five year-old legs could stray as we traveled. To my delight, a beautiful arctic fox paced our march, amusing me with his antics like leaping headfirst into snowbanks to emerge with a burrowing vole in his muzzle. He was too clever to be seen by our outriders who wouldn’t allow a fox so close to our stores but he never hid from me. I called him Fönnreyf because that was his name. I could not wait to tell my father about him.
But when I next saw Skírnir, his ears heard nothing. The women, children, elderly, and shamans of the Elk Tribe staggered like sleepwalkers in the killing field of the ice below Cryshal-Tirith to find our families. The few dozen of our warriors who had survived all carried harsh wounds. After hours of walking through dead men, orcs, dwarves, and others, I gazed down into Skírnir’s eyes that no longer smiled at the world. He bore no wounds. Some black magic had taken the breath right from his lungs. Dýrleif caught my attention and joined me. She mechanically gathered up his weapons and what ornaments he wore and anything else of value. I sat stroking his hair. When my mother turned away, I cut a lock away to keep. To this day, I weave it into my own braid every morning, along with what little I own that is precious and meaningful to me. Dýrleif wandered off, forgetting me there, and for the first time, that I remembered at least, Fönnreyf came to me and let me stroke his warm fur with one hand, while I kept the other ensnared in Skírnir’s hair.
The dead were eventually buried in a mass cairn there and we departed for the tundra. The Ten Townsfolk suffered their own losses but not as dear. They saw this as a great victory. For us, it was the beginning of a terrible time.
We wandered, chasing the elk and caribou, though our hunters were few and damaged. Our elders were abandoned or left on their own, to die out in the cold and leave one less mouth to feed. Some younger folk left the tribe to try to settle with our new “allies” in Ten Towns but there is too much blood and pain there for the fisherfolk to welcome us. Wulfgar, who might have made a transition easier, abandoned us along with his civilized wife and adopted child and went east towards Mithril Hall. Jarund Elkhardt was king now over a broken people.
Dýrleif barely spoke to me and I barely spoke to anyone. I was a stranger to the Elk Tribe. Though I foraged and learned the ways of collecting herbs for poultices and setting broken bones, it never seemed as though my help or presence was welcomed. Though, this mattered little to me as I took great joy in exploring with Fönnreyf. I learned to understand his yips and cries when he’d found something to eat or something beautiful to behold. I would unbind my hair and lie down on the soft turf when the snows had gone, more comfortable than any feather bed in a city, and he would call up to the stars and we would name them.
Such freedom was not to last, however, and as soon as I was of age, Dýrleif arranged for my marriage to Ari Snorrason, the hunter. If she had meant me ill by it, to be fair, I do believe she could have chosen far worse for me. For instance, Ari’s older brother, Hrafn, who seemed destined to be our new High Shaman before too long.
Ari was seven years my elder. His father had died at Kelvin’s Cairn as well and Ari carried a guilt of not having been old enough to have fought alongside with him. He was not unpleasant to look upon, with a nose and brow like an eagle, and while he took to drink, he was never too rough with me, even on our wedding night when he swept me up in the traditional kidnapping pantomime to steal me from my family to his. Not that my family would have put up with much of a fight.
He would range far on his hunts, however, and would be gone for weeks at a time. At those times, I felt the leering eye of Hrafn, truly named as his face resembled that croaking carrion bird. It was from Hrafn that I first heard the word, “Witch.” He had spotted me speaking with Fönnreyf and chased him off, grasping my wrists to pull me close to his sneering face, the bones of countless small animals clattering against one another as they swung beneath his headdress. He blamed me for the illnesses of the Elk Tribe, for the poor weather which seemed to constantly swing from drought to flood, and for the scarcity of game. When Ari returned, Hrafn would let me be and not say a word. But one time, Ari did not return.
The other hunters said the ice just shattered underneath him, though it was thick enough for sure. They’d been hunting seal at their blowholes. Ari dropped out of sight in an instant and they could not recover anything of him. Such tragedies were so commonplace these past years, that though the shamans called for a period of grieving, it seemed unnecessary. We had been grieving for twelve seasons.
By law, I stayed in the Snorrason home and lived under Hrafn. Though he had a wife himself, a miserable woman and no wonder, he began to sneak into my bed at night. I tried to fight him off, to call upon his brother’s memory, but neither of these had an effect and soon, I was with child myself.
The pregnancy was uncomfortable. If not for my skill at healing and what I discovered to be my burgeoning ability to call upon magic to soothe my pain, I don’t know that I could have borne it.
Hrafn makes a public show of claiming that I used witchery to tempt him. Jarund Elkhardt, Dýrleif, no one, protests. The High Shaman is old and will die very soon. Hrafn is the most skilled and will take his place. The Elk Tribe needs him. They have little use for a strange, solitary girl, who has brought nothing but misfortune. And so I am shamed.
My son is born in blood. My own. I call out for Fönnreyf, who comes into the camp, into the tent, frightening the midwives but bringing a calm, healing touch to my baby boy and to me. But this is the final insult The Elk Tribe will tolerate. A mooncalf will be looked upon askance but accepted, an adulteress will be spat upon but offered shelter, but a witch, a pestilential beguiler, an arcane magic user like the one who had decimated our people, can not be tolerated.
Though I can barely walk, Hrafn has me expelled from my people. My mother, proudly holding her new grandson, the male heir of the line of Angaar the Brave, looks down upon me and does not speak in my defense. Perhaps out of pity, perhaps knowing the injustice of it and seeking to appease his conscience, Jarund Elkhardt has a small sled prepared for me with a tent and some supplies, spears, and a few coins. Having done my duty to finally bring the Elk Tribe the boy child I never was myself, the good omen, I head into the wilderness taking my witchcraft and a small white fox along with me.
I take each day as it comes. I hunt. I forage. My skills at magic increase which make it easier to bring down game and protect myself from predators. Though, I do try to speak first with animals who hunt me, to warn them off. To tell them of easier prey elsewhere. Despite my need for survival, I cannot help feeling like I betray the creatures of the tundra by trapping and killing them. Fönnreyf tells me I am foolish. That it is the nature of us to hunt and to live.
Sometimes I visit the Ten Towns but never for long. I go to trade for certain supplies when I need to but a terror comes over me in those congregations of homes which never move, planted in the ground like the few low trees on the tundra. I know the people hate me, though sometimes they ask me to heal their loved ones. If a Ten Townsman does not fear barbarians, it is just as likely he has a fear of witches. But I heal them anyway. I have a gift. It is only right that I share it. I do not love the men of this world with their endless wars and greed and pettiness and ignorance but if I do nothing to try to make it better, I am just as responsible.
Lately, the birds have spoken of a strange thing. A place where the ice has been turning black. Before I ask them, I know where they will say it is happening. The mountain, Kelvin’s Cairn. The field where my people died. And though it fills me with unholy dread, I know too that I will look upon that black ice with my own eyes. The land needs to be healed and I am a healer.