The wind wailed out of the north, blasting tiny shards of ice into her face. Alea shivered, and turned her back – for all the good that did. Better get back into the shelter with the others, no matter how irritating Milo might be at close quarters.
She crawled through the entrance, pushing aside the stinking furs someone had pillaged from a dead berserker to use as a door. Inside, it was surprisingly warm – but of course, it smelled horribly of Milo’s perpetual flatulence and the rest of the furs gathered from the dead berserkers.
Well. Warm was something, anyhow. It was depressing, but she had to admit that Testikles had his uses. The snow-house thing… this igloo of his had kept them alive through the night. But if they were going to continue to survive the eternal winter of this dreadful place, they couldn’t keep relying on a half-witted halfling barbarian with a disturbing affinity for pigs.
They absolutely had to get back to the wagon. Somehow.
“So we’ve got Skrote,” Alea said, interrupting Milo’s latest efforts to shout Jack Rabbitt out into the cold. “And my axebeak. I guess we can double up on both. But that leaves two of us walking twenty miles in the snow.”
“We can make a travois for Scrote,” said Testikles. “It will slow us, but it is simple enough.”
“The longer it takes, the longer we’re out in the cold,” Jeoff said. “If we camp frequently and build these snow shelter things… well, I expect we’ll be attacked by Yetis or some shit. That’s okay when we’re rested and prepared, but if they hit us after a long day’s walk it could be a problem.”
“I’m a true Paladin,” Iledove announced. “I haven’t mentioned this before, but if I compose myself and pray to Helm, he will send me a magickal steed so that I may further his greatness across the land.”
“A magickal steed,” Alea said. That wasn’t exactly a comforting idea.
Iledove nodded enthusiastically.
“Hang about,” said Milo. “What kind of steed are you going to get out here? The last horse we had froze stiff, remember?”
“Maybe she’ll get an axebeak like Alea’s,” said Jack Rabbitt with a thump of his drum. “At least it didn’t run off when Jeoff’s stupid ring thing teleported us here. A magickal axe-beak!”Ka-thump! Ka-thump!
“I should hope not!” Iledove. “I want something with dignity. Poise. Grace. Style. I mean, so please thee Lord Helm, of course.” She glanced at the icy ceiling.
“There are no wild pigs here,” grunted Testikles. He seemed to be cleaning… stuff… from under his toenails with a knife. “It is too cold.”
“How are you going to summon the steed?” said Jeoff. “Is it magic? Can I watch?”
“It’s part of my ineffable relationship with the mighty god Helm, the defender of justice,” said Iledove. “I don’t think anybody’s supposed to watch. Anyway, it wouldn’t do you any good. You’re not a Paladin of Helm.”
Jeoff looked thoughtful. “Is it a Helm thing, then? Or is it a Paladin thing?”
“I’m not sure,” Iledove admitted. “Either way, what difference does it make? You don’t worship Helm, and you’re not a Paladin of any sort.”
“It’s the principle,” said Jeoff. “It’s better to know how these things work.”
“Have you figured out how that brown mould shit that nearly killed you works, yet?” Alea nudged the Elven sorceror. “Or the stupid blue flame and the screaming head?”
Jeoff lifted his chin. “It’s a work in progress,” he said haughtily.
On the other side of the little snow shelter, Jack Rabbitt thumped his drum again, setting off yet another of Milo’s lunatic tirades. Without bothering to look, Alea lobbed a handful of half-melted snow and dirt in Milo’s direction. “Fuck’s sake,” she said. “If you can do it, Iledove, then please just do it. I don’t know how much more of this shit I can take.”
“For the glory of Helm,” said Iledove. She set her mouth in a grim line, and crawled out of the shelter. After a moment, she stuck her head back in. “Please don’t let anybody follow me,” she said.
“And if I don’t come back in an hour, please come looking for me,” Iledove said. “It shouldn’t take more than an hour. I think.” She let the filthy furs fall back across the doorway and disappeared again.
About ten excruciatingly painful minutes of Milo later, Alea saw Iledove poke her head back through the gross furs. She looked pensive. “I think maybe you should come and look at this,” she said. “All of you.”
“Fine with me,” growled Alea. “Between Milo farting and complaining about Jack Rabbitt, suicide by snow is starting to look like a good option.”
One by one, they exited the snow-shelter. Alea went last, watching carefully to see that Milo wasn’t alone with Jack Rabbitt long enough to knife him.
Outside, the bleak vista seemed utterly unchanged. Upslope, the narrow, snowy path still led up to the crappy-but-intimidating bear’s-head entrance to the now-empty caverns. And downslope, a depressing view out over the endless snows of Icewind Dale did absolutely nothing to life Alea’s spirits. “Okay,” she said. “So… what are we meant to see?”
Iledove pointed at a nearby snowdrift. Everyone turned to look at it except for Milo, who glanced around and sidled up behind Jack Rabbitt. The one-eyed bard frowned, and thumped his drum warningly.
And the snowdrift opened one eye.
“Fuck!” said Alea. “That’s a huge fucking polar bear!”
“Yes,” said Iledove. “And… uhhh… watch this.”
The huge bear sat up. It raised a paw and waved clumsily at Alea.
“Why is it doing that?” said Alea, backing away.
“I’m in telepathic contact with it,” said Iledove. “The bear is my steed.”
Alea froze. “Are you fucking joking?”
Iledove shook her head. “No. Helm has decided that in order to enhance his glory and bring justice to Icewind Dale, I shall … ride… a polar bear.”
The bear was still waving.
“Should I wave back?” said Alea. She didn’t want to get on the wrong side of a massive predator.
“No, it’s okay,” said Iledove. She approached the bear and patted it on the neck. The bear leaned into the patting and made a sort of grunting sound. It looked happy. Probably, anyway.
“What about a saddle?” said Jeoff. “Did Helm send you a bear saddle?”
“No,” said Iledove. “I’ll just hang onto his fur, I suppose. And whoever rides with me will do the same.”
“Well, I’m on Beaky,” said Alea.
“Me too,” said Jeoff quickly. “I think I’m allergic to bear fur. Especially when the bear is still using it.”
“Skrote will carry me and Jack Rabbitt,” said Testikles.
Everyone looked at Milo. Milo looked at the bear. Then he looked back to Iledove. “Has he eaten?” he said in a very small voice.
Iledove shrugged. “For the moment, I think. Just stay behind me. You should be okay.”
“Fuck,” said Milo.
They rode long and far across the bitter, treacherous snows. Sometimes Testikles got down and walked beside Skrote. Sometimes he made Jack Rabbitt do the same. The cold crept in, no matter what you tried to do. There weren’t enough furs in all the world. Your snot froze. Your spit froze. Your breath turned white in the air and froze onto the furs around your face. Trying to talk made your lips crack, and the blood froze where it oozed from the cracks. After a while even Milo shut up.
Sometime in the afternoon, Alea paused her axebeak. “Does anybody else hear that?” she called.
Pulling himself from his stupor, Testikles listened carefully. He noticed a low, earthshaking rumble – more the kind of thing you felt than heard. Looking around, he saw they had entered a long, meandering valley.
Ah. Not good.
He leaned over Skrote’s shoulder and spoke to the mighty boar. “Come, Skrote,” he said. “I know you are weary, but hear me. Now you must run as you did when you were young, for doom is close upon us. Away!” He hunched low over Skrote’s neck and called back to Jack Rabbitt: “Hold on!”
The boar sprang into action, bounding through the snow with the kind of speed and agility only a pig can summon. “Make speed!” called Testikles to the others. “Avalanche! Avalanche!”
“What the actual fuck?” said Milo. He glanced backwards and saw a massive wall of whiteness roaring down the slopes towards them, sweeping everything before it. “Fuck! Make the bear run! Run bear! Run!”
Iledove’s new steed bounded forward, galloping over the snows on its broad paws. Milo clung to the fur of its rump, screaming. Close behind, the axebeak bearing Alea and Jeoff stretched out its neck and lifted its feet to its chin as it fled in terror.
Testikles risked a sideways glance. The wall of churning snow sweeping down the slope towards them was closer still. He could see torn trees and great boulders caught up in the seething, roaring mass of whiteness. A dead mammoth bounced high into the air, then disappeared into the all-consuming whiteness.
“Faster, Skrote,” said Testikles. “This is no death for warriors such as we!”
The earth shook. A mighty wind rushed before the roiling wave of snow and debris. Skrote squealed and sprang ahead with desperate strength. Huge chunks of snow and earth rained down around them. Jack Rabbitt screamed despairingly and the world faded into roaring, endless whiteness –
– and then they were free, and Skrote slowed to a trot through ankle-deep snow as the avalanche thundered behind them. Testikles patted Skrote’s neck, and leapt down to the ground. Jack Rabbitt followed, falling clumsily as the strength fled from his fear-struck legs. Testikles saw the tracks of frozen tears on the older man’s face, and he nodded.
“That’ll do, pig,” he murmured to Skrote as first Beaky the axe-beak and then Iledove’s bear emerged from the swirling spray and roar of snow that still streamed past. Both the bird and the bear still carried their riders, fearful eyes wide, furs rimed with snow and ice.
“Holy fuck!” squeaked Milo, his hands knotted in the thick fur of the bear. “Holy fuck! Holy fuck! Holy fuck!”
“This is safe ground now,” Testikles said. “The avalanche has shaken loose the uncertain snows. We can raise a shelter here and rest.”
“Holy fuck!” said Milo again.
“Heard you the first time,” said Alea. She slid down off her axe-beak and turned back to look at the vast river of snow and ice still streaming past behind them. “Holy fuck!”
Everyone agreed on that much.
Sometime towards dawn, a cry from Alea woke everyone within the snow shelter. Milo grunted, struggled, then heaved himself free from somebody’s arms. To his utter horror and disgust, he saw it was Jack Rabbitt, the bard.
“I told you to sleep outside!” snarled Milo.
“You said we could be spoons,” said Jack Rabbitt. “You were the little spoon, all nice and warm.” He winked at Milo. Or maybe blinked. How could you tell when the old bastard only had one eye?
“Fuck!” snapped Milo.
“Guys?” came Alea’s voice. “There’s somebody else out here. Three of them.”
“Stay away from me, you creepy old bastard,” mutter Milo, pointing his dagger at Jack Rabbitt. He scuttled out of the shelter into the bitter chill of the night, and looked around. Sure enough, three tall, fur-clad figures approached on foot.
“Who goes there?” called Alea.
“I am called Bertrand Antler,” called the tallest of the three. He was draped head to foot in heavy furs and skins, and he wore some sort of horned head-dress, though it was difficult to make out exactly what kind of horns were involved in the uncertain light of the low moon. “What brings travelers so far afield? Do you need help?”
Alea looked uncertainly at the others, arranged in a semi-circle behind her, their hands near their weapons. “Help?” she said.
“The avalanche,” said Bertrand, pointing to the wall of snow and debris. “We are of the Elk Tribe. We came to see if there were game animals caught in the snow, and found your shelter. Do you need aid?”
Testikles pushed forward. “I am Testikles Hag-Slayer of the Boar Clan. Well met, Bertrand!” He smacked himself on the chest, then held his hand out. Weirdly, Bertrand and his buddies smacked themselves too, and Bertrand stepped forward with his hand out. Even though he was like, twice Testikles’ height he did this thing where he gripped Testikles forearm and Testikles gripped his and they did a sort of handshake for men with balls too big for their pants while staring at each other, both trying to be cooler and more grim-looking than the other.
“Well met,” said Bertrand at last. “Your shelter is meager, and you carry no food. Come with us to our camp and receive the hospitality of the Elk Tribe.”
“We are honoured,” said Testikles. “We have traveled far, and we are weary.” He turned back to the others. “These are people of honour,” he announced. “We should go with them.”
Milo wanted to barf. Were these Elk Tribe bastards going to be just a whole fucking gang of giant Testikles?
“Are you sure?” said Jeoff. “We’ve only just met them.”
“Be of easy mind,” said Bertrand. He was annoyingly tall, blonde, and square-jawed in a way that made Milo want to smash him right in his nice, white teeth. “We are the Elk Tribe of the Reghed. We follow the herds. It is not our way to deceive strangers in need. In the bitterness of Auril’s winter, it is meet and proper that men of good will should befriend one another.”
“If you say so,” said Alea. “I guess we could use a hot meal…”
The Elk Tribe encampment wasn’t too far off, which was a good thing. There were a few guards and a whole lot of tents made mostly out of elk skins. The Reghed assigned a big tent to the lot of them including Jack Rabbitt, which pissed Milo off. How come everybody thought that one-eyed fuckwit was actually part of the team? He didn’t do shit, except to whack that fucking drum and write crappy songs, but he still ate food and slept in the warmth with the rest of them. How was that fucking fair?
Milo waited his moment, and when he was out of earshot of the others, he grabbed Bertrand by the elbow. “You fellows got any gold?”
Bertrand frowned. “We have little. It serves to trade with outsiders. Otherwise it has no purpose to our people.”
Testikles popped up out of nowhere. “Beware of Milo,” he said. “He has a sickness of the spirit upon him.”
“Fuck off!” growled Milo. He shambled off into the gathering dark, taking stock. There had to be gold, right? He poked amongst the tents, following different people this way and that, seeing what there was to be quietly lifted. Gold would have guards, wouldn’t it? There would be a couple of brawny sorts watching over the treasure tent – but if it was made of skins, he could just slit the back, slither in, and they’d never know, would they?
Or not. There really weren’t all that many tents, and none of them was heavily guarded. Discouraged, Milo wandered back to the big fire for a look-see.
Jack Rabbitt was thumping away on his drum, singing his shit-house song about Milo which made Milo want to kill him a lot. Happily, it looked like the Reghed didn’t think much of his songs either. That was a point in their favour.
On the other hand, Testikles was sitting in the middle of a bunch of the biggest, brawniest Reghed bastards. They were comparing tattoos and scars, obviously telling bullshit stories. Testikles pointed to the pig tattoo on his fore-arm and said something Milo didn’t catch, but the Reghed burst out laughing like they thought Testikles was the funniest fucker they’d ever met.
Deduct one point.
Not far away, Jeoff and Alea and Iledove were talking with an old Reghed with lots of bracelets and tattoos and shit. Probably the tribe chief, or some shit like that. Milo sidled closer, sticking to the shadows so nobody noticed him.
“To our shame, yes,” said the chief, in answer to somebody’s question. “Once the berserkers were tribesmen. But in the struggle against Auril, they turned to the accursed chardalyn to make powerful weapons – and it destroyed their minds. They became evil, murderous beings preying upon anyone they could find.”
Alea looked uncomfortable. “The berserkers were actually your people, once?”
The chief lowered his head. “It is so.”
“We met a bunch of them,” Jeoff said. “They attacked us and we killed them.”
A hush fell. Milo felt for his dagger and got ready to run.
“You slew them?” said the chief.
“Sure did,” said Jeoff. “Also, in a ring-related accident of a completely understandable nature, we got teleported to the caverns where they were hiding and we killed all of the ones that were there, too. Every one of them. Had to cut them into pieces, actually. There was this weird cold fire keeping them alive, and we couldn’t stop them without completely dismembering them. True story, bro.”
Beyond the edge of the firelight it was a clear run to end of the ring of tents. Milo tensed himself. Once the perimeter guards charged in to join the curb-stomp party, he could make a run for it. If the others kept the rag-heads occupied long enough, he could maybe get to one of the frozen streams, cross on thin ice that wouldn’t support the big bastards… They’d have to go the long way round and he could put some real ground between them before they got back on his trail.
The chief raised his head, and lifted his hands like some kind of drunken party animal, except slower. “May the Great Spirit bless you,” he said. “You have done what we could not. You have brought peace to our afflicted brothers. We thank you, travellers, for your courage and your skill.”
A murmur went around the crowd. Milo looked left and right. It was unbelievable! Nobody was trying to kill them! Even as he watched, a wizened old crone with tears in her eyes swept Testikles into a nasty, saggy-boob embrace and people actually cheered.
Fuck that. No way Testikles got to be a hero without Milo.
“Yeah, we’re heroes,” said Milo, striding into the firelight. “Except for Jack Rabbitt. He didn’t do anything. He’s a cunt.”
“Sickness of the spirit,” Testikles said, pointing at Milo. “Do not lend him money. Also, we have a weird blue fire in a sack with a screaming head.”
There was a confused moment in which Jeoff tried to deny everything while Alea tried to change the subject and Iledove enthusiastically confirmed Testikles words. Finally the chieftain raised his hands again.
“Is this true?” he said.
Alea sighed, and opened the bag that hung on her hip. Instantly, the horrific screams of the head in the bag slashed the air, while the cold blue flame flickered and shimmered. The chieftain’s eyes widened, and the other Reghed pulled back, making noises of surprise and anxiety and shit like that.
“This is a vile mystery,” said the chief. “Summon the Shaman!”
“There is no need,” came a strong voice from outside the circle of watchers. A man wearing a really impressive carved elk-head mask approached, and the Reghed gave way respectfully so he could enter the circle. “It is I!”
Testikles frowned. “Many times I have heard people say that,” he said. “Never once have any of them been wrong. It is… strange.”
Milo bit his tongue.
The shaman, who declared himself to be Birchwald Bandyleg, listened carefully to the story of the blue flame and the screaming heads. There was a lot of back and forth shit, and to Milo’s complete lack of surprise it turned out this Bandyleg didn’t know where Testikles’ “Hidden Valley” was. Milo was beginning to suspect Testikles had made the whole thing up. Probably he wasn’t a barbarian tribesman at all: just an exceptionally stupid halfling who’d heard too many heroic sagas. Exceptionally stupid and ridiculously muscular. And astonishingly fast. And annoyingly tough… no, he probably was some kind of gods-rotted barbarian tribesman. It really was the only explanation that made any kind of sense.
Milo stayed in earshot but out of sight while the others waded through a shitstorm of boring blather. He lifted a mug off a tray as it went past in the arms of some hapless girl who drew the short straw and had to carry refreshments. It wasn’t ale, though. It wasn’t even mead. It was sort of off-white and smelled sour, and after one thoroughly horrid mouthful, Milo abandoned it completely. The stuff was worse than yellow snow! Best guess: it was fermented elk milk.
Still, it was fun watching the others try to drink it. (Except for Testikles, of course. He tipped up his mug, drained the lot, belched and declared it was ‘almost as good as ozonka’, whatever the fuck that might be.)
Finally, the welcomings and the greetings were done. Milo sidled up to Bandyleg. The elk-mask was even niftier up close: a genuine piece of tribal art. There were collectors back in the civilised lands who would pay a fortune for that kind of thing. Milo cleared his throat loudly. Bandyleg tilted his masked head and looked down.
‘Hey,’ said Milo. ‘Nice mask.’
‘Thank you, small one,’ Bandyleg intoned. ‘I carved it myself. It is a symbol of my bond with the spirit realm, and the elk which sustain us.’
‘Cool, cool,’ said Milo. ‘How much do you want for it?’
‘How… much?’ The shaman’s voice weakened.
‘Yeah,’ said Milo. ‘I’ve got gold. Real gold! Although silver is probably more in the right price range, eh?’
‘You think… you believe I would sell my mask? To you?’ Bandyleg’s voice practically vibrated with outrage.
‘Okay, maybe the silver thing wasn’t the way to start, sure. But yeah, why not? I mean, you made that one. You can always make another, right?’ A thought occurred to Milo. He put his fists on his hips and glared up at Bandyleg. ‘Unless it’s just me you won’t sell to. Me, and others like me. You’re not some kind of filthy racist, are you?’
Bandyleg was silent, but his hand shook where he clutched his staff. After a long, uncomfortable moment he swept his furs together, and turned his back on Milo. ‘I have no more to say,’ he declared loudly. ‘I shall retire to my tent.’
And with that, he stomped off.
Milo watched him go, noting which tent he made for. But before he could do anything useful, Alea grabbed his arm. ‘What did you do, Milo?’
‘Me?’ said Milo. ‘Why’s it always me? I’m not the racist! I did nothing! Lemme go!’ He slipped free of Alea’s grip and darted away amongst the tribesmen and their tents.
Now he was definitely going to get that mask.
Dropping low amongst the shadow, Milo became one with the twilight. The wind blew through him. The beasts of the night saw him not. With consummate stealth, he approached Bandyleg’s tent, making no sound than the whisper of a soul leaving the body.
And then he ran nose-first into some fucker’s kneecap.
Milo staggered back, rubbing his face. ‘Ow, fuck,’ he said. ‘What the fuck are you doing there?’
The extremely large tribesman leaned over curiously. ‘I am guarding the tent of our Shaman,’ he said. ‘You should go somewhere else.’
‘Oh!’ said Milo, widening his eyes. ‘Is this the tent of Birchwald Bandyleg? Really? I must speak with him at once!’
The guard shook his head, keeping his eyes on Milo.
‘Truly!’ said Milo. ‘It is a most urgent matter! It involves our fates! Our destiny!’
‘The shaman is in seclusion,’ said the guard. ‘He was insulted by one of our guests.’
‘What?’ said Milo. ‘Nonsense. And anyway it must have been the other halfling. He’s an idiot. You should let me in to explain.’
‘Don’t try it,’ said the guard. ‘Killing guests is frowned upon. I would have to cripple you instead.’
‘Is that so?’ said Milo. ‘What’s your name, anyway?’
‘I am Orcslayer,’ the guard declared.
‘Orcslayer, huh?’ said Milo. ‘Big fuckin’ deal. How many orcs did you slay, anyhow?’
The guard paused. He looked left and right, and bit his lip. Finally, he raised one finger.
Milo guffawed. He fell to the ground, bellowing with laughter and clutching at his belly. He was still howling with laughter when Iledove and Alea found him, and dragged him back to the guest tent to get some sleep.
They might have been a bunch of ignorant, herd-following savages, but at least they delivered a decent breakfast. There were eggs, cheese – elk cheese, probably – sausages spiced with onion and garlic and mysterious herbs, and some kind of tasty black bread. Jeoff used his slab of bread to mop up all the bits and pieces, scraping every last delicious morsel into his mouth, and washed it all down with a mug of piping hot tisane, with honey.
He caught sight of Milo moping about the place, and recalled a conversation from the previous evening. Turning to the big tribesman who sat by the elk-masked Shaman on the far side of the fire, Jeoff spoke. “How do you come to be called ‘Orcslayer’?’ he asked.
The tribesman – a muscular hulk with a jagged scar down his left cheek – frowned. “We hate orcs,” he said. “I kill orcs!”
“But only one, so far,” Jeoff said. “Right?”
Orc-slayer looked down at his feet.
“Amongst the Boar Clan, slaying an orc isn’t enough to earn a warrior’s name,” declared Testikles. “I am called Testikles Hag-Slayer, for it was I who slew the fell Sea-Hag that preyed upon the fishermen of Easthaven. She was protected by the living skeletons of giants, and by a hidden guardian of lightnings – yet I fell upon her, and my axe tore the breath from her body. This is how I earned my warrior-name.”
The tribesmen around the fire looked at one another, perhaps in doubt, but Alea sighed. “It’s true,” she said. “He did that.”
“One orc does seem a little… underwhelming,” said Iledove. She’d already cleaned her wooden platter, and was hungrily eyeing the rapidly-disappearing remnants of Alea’s breakfast.
“But… but I am Orcslayer,” whined the guard. “We of the Elk tribe really hate orcs.”
“Orcslayer is one of my finest warriors,” said the chief, putting a comforting hand on Orcslayer’s huge shoulder.
“One of them?” said Milo. “Who’s your best, then?”
“Bertrand Antler, of course,” said the chief. Nods and grunts of agreement came from all around the fire.
“Hmm,” said Jeoff. “I suppose he slew an orc named Bertrand?”
“Enough,” said Bandylegs, resplendent in his elk-mask. “I have meditated. I believe I have an answer to the Riddle of the Endless Blue Flame. Bring it forth!”
“You sure?” said Alea. “It’s pretty nasty.”
“The spirits are with me,” said Bandylegs. “I will end this evil of Auril.”
“If you say so,” said the battle-master. She untied the bag from her hip, and shook it. A screaming head fell out, followed closely by the bitterly cold blue flame.
“This is magic,” said Bandyleg. “Unquestionably.”
“No, really?” said Milo. Iledove tried to put a hand over his mouth but he ducked away.
“I shall dispel it,” the shaman announced. “I expect it to respond to the usual ‘Dispel Magic’ sorcery. In fact, I am surprised you did not try it already, O Sorceror.”
“I could use a refresher on that one, to be honest,” Jeoff said. “Show me your version?”
“Behold!” cried Bandyleg. He raised his hands above his head, pointed all ten of his fingers down towards the blue flame, and shimmied his hips wildly. “Dispel Magic!” he cried, windmilling his arms through a full circle and pushing his hands towards the cold flame as if throwing a ball. He stayed in that pose for an instant, arms extended, fingers wiggling, and shouted “YOWZAH!”
The cold blue flame flickered, wavered, and went out. The head stopped screaming. A ripple of applause circled through the onlookers.
“Nice,” said Jeoff.
Bandyleg straightened up. “I’ll teach everyone who is capable of learning. If this is what it takes to thwart Auril, so be it. By the way, my dreams have shown me that Auril is presently in her weakest form – that of a gigantic, cloaked owlbear.”
A murmur went up. Then Testikles raised a hand. “Why is she called the frost-maiden, and not the frost-owlbear?”
“So it is written,” said Bandyleg, as if that ended it.
But Testikles was not so easily put off. “I can’t read,” he said.
“It is written anyway,” said Bandyleg. “Yea, the time approaches when Auril must be faced. The tribes must be united, and –”
“Oooh!” said Testikles, an expression of childlike wonder on his scarred face. “Is there a Prophecy? I bet there’s a Prophecy! I want a Prophecy!”
“What?” said Bandyleg, looking around in surprise. “I mean… uhh…”
“Yes!” cried Jeoff, seizing the opportunity. “I have looked to the stars and divined the truth. Auril will be killed! Relatively soon! Might even be us that does it!”
This time it wasn’t a murmur but a full-blown roar. The crowd was lapping it up. Jeoff closed his eyes, pointed his index fingers at the sky, and recited an Elvish nursery rhyme while solemnly turning in a slow circle.
The crowd of tribesmen roared again.
Perhaps sensing he was being upstaged, Bandyleg leapt up and spread his arms wide. “Yes!” he yelped. “Yes! Yes! Yaayyy-esss! Hear, O Elk Tribe! The Doom of Auril is at hand! Prepare your spears and your shields! The day of justice comes apace!”
And the crowd went wild.
As the tribesmen charged away in a frenzy of apocalyptic preparations, the chief wiped his eyes solemnly, and nodded to Jeoff. “You and your band have brought us hope, after many moons of despair,” he said. “You have freed our brethren, broken Auril’s curse, and showed us a path forward. How can we repay you.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jeoff saw Alea and Iledove both grab Milo and cover his mouth, but nobody had been paying attention to Testikles. The little barbarian straightened, and said: “What we have done is no more than what is meet. Yet if you deem us worthy of reward – well, our polar bears ran away and maybe some of your elks could pull our sled now?”
“Of course!” said the chief. “Nothing easier. Orcslayer – fetch four elk, broken to the traces. And in the meantime, is there anything else?”
Remembering what he’d heard here and there around the ten towns, Jeoff figured he should try to take advantage of the goodwill of the tribes. After all, if they were going to deal with Auril, they’d probably need everybody in Icewind Dale to get involved, not just the Reghed. “We’ll try to find your king,” said Jeoff. “I know you said you haven’t seen his lot in a while. We’ll see if we can talk to the Wolf Tribe as well. The more spears we have, the better. But in the meantime, maybe you could lay off pillaging the Ten Towns for a bit?”
The chief’s massive white eyebrows knotted in a frown.
A motion off to one side caught Jeoff’s eye. Milo, still restrained, was making some kind of gesture… miming drinking something, and then rubbing his tummy like it was good. Good drink? Good ale? Good mead? Goodmead! Oh, yes! It would serve those fuckers right, wouldn’t it?
Jeoff cleared his throat and leaned closer to the chief. “Actually,” he said, “It would probably be okay to pillage Goodmead. I don’t think it would really cause much of a problem.”
The chief leaned back, his leathery face wreathed in a broad smile. “This, too, we can do for you,” he said. “It will be as you wish.”
“Excellent,” said Jeoff, rubbing his hands together. “So – how do we talk to these other tribes of yours?”
“A token,” said Testikles. “We need a token so they know we come in peace.”
“Take this,” said Bandyleg. He slit the base of his thumb with a knife, and pressed a piece of parchment to the wound. Once the parchment was bloodied, he passed it to the little barbarian who looked at it dubiously. “The shamans of the Wolf and Bear tribes will know my blood, but first you should go to the encampment of the king, and show this parchment to the High Shaman there.”
“High Shaman,” repeated Testikles. He looked at the parchment again, and shook his head. “No,” he said. “I still cannot read. Best if you take this, Jeoff.” He proffered the bloodied paper to Jeoff, who tucked it carefully away just as Orcslayer returned, leading four large and vigorous elk on a rope. Testikles took charge of the beasts, and Jeoff turned to Bandyleg and the chief.
“Right,” said Jeoff. “That’s the business done, then.”
“Indeed,” said the chief. “Fortune be with you, sorceror!”
“Auril’s Bane,” said Bandyleg. “The time is upon us.” He fixed Jeoff with a piercing glare, and sketched some kind of symbol in the air.
In retrospect, it was just possible that the ‘prophecy’ gambit might have been a little bit too successful…
As they approached the site where they’d left the sled – involuntarily, what with being teleported away courtesy of Auril and Jeoff’s idiotic shenanigans – Alea noticed a number of figures moving about the campsite. She held up her hand, and hissed a command. “Halt,” she said, and pointed ahead. “What do your elf eyes see, Jeoff?”
“Elf eyes,” Milo grumbled and spat into a snowbank. “Any fool can see it’s a bunch of those fucking duergar. They’re going through our stuff!”
“I like this not,” said Testikles.
“Hold on,” said Iledove. “We should consider our options. We don’t want to enter a fight where we are overmatched. Milo, you should… Milo?”
Alea tapped her on the shoulder and pointed. Moving stealthily, Milo was already halfway to the duergar rifling through the big wagon-sled. “You didn’t really think we were going to plan, did you?” she said. “We never plan.” Alea peered into the gloom. “Yeah, he’s most of the way there. Wait for him get real close, then we’ll all shoot. How’s that?”
“That’s almost a plan,” said Iledove.
The fight was bloody and brief. As Milo knifed the first duergar, Alea and Testikles rained down arrows upon them, and Jeoff launched his trademark Scorching Rays, although they didn’t actually do much good. It didn’t matter, though. The duergar were caught completely by surprise, unable to respond.
“They’re here!” screamed one, as Milo rammed a knife between his buttocks. Alea clenched her arse in sympathy.
Jeoff took out one of the duergar who was atop a small rise with a bolt of fire. Testikles and Skrote charged into the fray, squealing and roaring. A second duergar loomed atop the small rise. Much to Alea’s surprise, it… expanded?
“Fuck!” said Alea. “Look at that big bastard!”
The duergar was now twice the size of a man, roaring and laughing with glee. Testikles and Skrote went for him, but Iledove’s gigantic polar bear got there first. Iledove did some kind of magic that made the great big dwarf glow. Axes, claws and war-pig tusks chopped and cleaved.
Alea took out another duergar with arrow. He hadn’t been much of a threat anyhow – his axe had fallen from his hand when Milo confronted him. It was the principle of the thing, though. She’d had about enough of these pox-riddled deep-dwarves and their stupid chardalyn fetish. Arrows were too good for them!
“Whoa, shit!” called Jeoff, and Alea glanced across to see him blasting fire at – oh! There actually was someone there, someone invisible, limned by the arcane blaze. The invisible duergar screamed as the flames ate at him, setting his clothes and his beard alight. He faded into visibility, beating at his furs, and then froze, realizing he’d become the centre of attention. As Iledove’s bear ripped the face off the embiggened duergar on the little rise, the smouldering duergar’s eyes went wide.
Alea closed with another, and slashed his beard in half as Iledove sprang down from the hillcrest where she and her bear had been fighting the big one. The paladin of Helm beheaded a duergar as she leapt, then punted the head at Milo, who laughed maniacally and kicked it back like a psychopathic soccer match.
Skrote swooped in and thunder-stomped the duergar who had been facing Milo. It must have been swill time, Alea realized, because the war-pig lowered its bloody snout to the wrecked dwarf and began feasting on his steaming entrails.
An arrow from Testikles bow struck the still-smouldering dwarf who faced Jeoff, even as Jeoff tried to retreat. The dwarf hesitated, looking at the exhausted sorceror, then at the bloodied wreckage of his companions.
“Fuck this shit,” said the duergar, and disappeared.
He hadn’t really considered the situation, though. Alea could see his footprints as he ran through the snow. She could also see the smoke trailing off him where his furs and his hair still smouldered. On top of that, there was the fresh blood trail from his various wounds. It was, in fact, probably the least useful moment of invisibility Alea had ever encountered. She and Iledove chopped the hapless duergar into pieces.
The duergar evidently hadn’t had time to pillage the place. They recovered their goods, including Testikles much-loved gilt chamber pot and the wooden leg he’d taken from the dwarf wise-woman. Testikles also found a note on the embiggened dwarf – more of a poster than a note, what with having been enlarged with its owner. He gave the note to Iledove.
“Check this,” she said, waving the paper. “It’s got the sigil of Xardorok Sunblight himself! He wants us dead. He’s listed us by name, described us, and described our wagon, too. It’s personal now!”
“I expect he’s upset that I have killed his sons,” said Testikles. One hand slipped under his furs, where he wore the tiny, mummified head that he’d torn off Sunblight’s son on a leather thong. “Good. I look forward to meeting him…”
They hitched the elk to the sled-wagon with little trouble. The elk pulled it smoothly over the snow. The only problem came when Jack Rabbitt called “dibs” on a warm spot inside. That put Milo into a frenzy, and Alea got the one-eyed bard to ride behind her all the way to Easthaven where they met Jathara at the Wet Trout, and traded their gnoll heads for cash.
Aside from a scuffle with an old drunk who recognized Milo’s new fishing lure and wanted him to give it back to the dead owner’s family, it was a surprisingly peaceful return to Easthaven. Even when Testikles kicked the old drunk in the balls and threw him into a snowbank, it couldn’t dampen Alea’s spirits.
They’d taken a job. They’d done the job. They’d got paid.
“Nice,” she said to nobody in particular, and tipped up her mug of mead.