His feet sank deep, crunch, crunch, crunch, dark legs clad in dark and stained in white, disappearing in the thick white below.
Norn loved the cold, this was a well known fact. Yet, this norn was wearing one extra layer of fur over his clothes, plus a long cape that dragged in the snow and flapped furiously around him like an angry hiss every time the frigid wind picked up. On his back, one hump that made him look like a exceptionally tall grawl with an ebony coat: a thick, fur-lined backpack, containing the only warm spot on his body.
Fiel was among the vast majority of norn that reveled in the snow. And yet, he couldn’t help shuddering. There was something about this place, so far North, at the gates of the Far Shiverpeaks… here, the cold bit him to the bones.
The backpack shivered as well. Fiel readjusted it over his shoulders, checking that the flap on the top had not fallen open.
“Just a little more” he said, too soft for him to hear anyway.
Not far from them, against a rocky, ice-covered cliff, stood their destination. The fort was clinging to the face of the hill like a pile of haphazard rubble, walled by a tall half-circle of logs, each about as thick as a norn and twice as tall. The Vigil stronghold was the final stop between the last of the norn settlements in the South and the front line against the minions of Jormag further North. As such, it got a lot of traffic: reinforcements from the Pact and the Vigil, marching towards the grey-white horizon, flow of dead and wounded, pulled away from the mist and the wind.
A guard stationed at the gate hailed him from his watchtower. Fiel lifted his hood, one hand extended to protect his face from the whipping cold.
“Ylva Fanghammer! Is she stationed here?” he shouted back. A pause. The guard disappeared, and a few moments later the large gate was pulled open just wide enough to let him pass. A couple of Vigil soldiers pushed it back close the second Fiel crossed the threshold. The guard –a lieutenant, actually, if he remembered all those outfits dress codes correctly. A human wearing a Pact-style armor– was already waiting beyond it, arms crossed, dominating the newcomer with his glare and posture despite their obvious size disparity.
“What’s your business here? What do you want with her?”
“I came to talk to her.” Fiel smiled, but he was cold and sore from all the walking and his grin was everything but courteous. “Private matters. If–” he quickly added, “you’ll allow me to pass. Sir.”
“And why should I? What tells me you’re not just some Svanir spy, hm?” The lieutenant’s eyes narrowed as he pondered which would be more entertaining: probe him further, or kicking him back out in the snow for not being more forthcoming. Fiel had all the time to observe his face then, whipped pink and raw by the wind, his eyes, sunken and utterly miserable.
The human sighed. “Ah, whatever. This way.”
He took him to the Eastern corner of the fort, where two charr recruits were bashing at frosted dummies, supplies were piled in wooden crates and covered with a protective tarp, and, more importantly, a forge was blazing.
Fiel might have just as well followed the sounds to the place. He knew that metallic song well. Even the pattern of it had a strange familiarity to him.
Nostalgia. His heart was all tingly from it. Of all the places to feel that.
A tall norn woman was hammering away at a blade. She had removed her Pact-issued armor from the waist up and was swinging away, each mighty blow making the muscles that would make a gladiator envious twist and ripple beneath her dark skin. Her braided hair cascaded down her back like a thick ebony rope, swinging to the rhythm of that new sword’s birth.
“YLVA!” the officer shouted above the clangs. “SOMEONE HERE FOR YOU!”
She kept hammering, turning her head slightly to acknowledge the man, but still very much focused on her work. She stopped only when she deemed it okay to, and set her tools down.
Her face was like a cast-iron sculpture: sharp, hard, unpolished. She was roughed by fire and battle, and when she turned around, the necromancer noticed several scars he had not seen before, across her face, arms and chest. Her eyes were the color of steel, twin daggers that pierced at the poor idiots that had been foolish enough to disturb her.
Fiel had to refrain from pinching his lips between his teeth in apprehension, for both his and the lieutenant’s sake.
He knew how his mother hated to be interrupted when she was working.
Ylva’s face, however, lit up. The daggers melted into rough silver nuggets, and a faint smile cracked the mask of her features.
“Fiel…” She peeled her smithing gloves off, tossing them aside, and stepped forward, muscular arms extended to embrace her son.
Ylva was a giantess in her own right, even to the scale of the norn. Even as a grown adult, Fiel stood several inches shorter than her. He remembered his father telling him that, once upon a time, when they were much younger, some norn joked about how she must have been sired by a grizzly bear and a particularly frisky jotun. According to him, she kept some of the joker’s teeth to this day.
The necromancer braced himself for a crushing, sweaty, and utterly embarrassing mother-bear hug.
“Hello, Mother. Long time no se-aaaaaAAAA OW! OW! OW!”
In the three steps that it took to cross the distance between her anvil and her son, Ylva’s attitude changed dramatically. Instead of an embrace, rough fingers closed over the lobe of his left ear, strong as a vice, and were pulling down to make the necromancer a few inches even shorter.
“Eight years!” she growled. She didn’t even raise her voice, but her tone was so commanding, she might as well have shouted. Even the officer took a step back. Or three. “Eight years, and no news from you! Not a word, not a raven, nothing! If it weren’t for the merchants in Hoelbrak who caught a glimpse of you every now and then, we wouldn’t know if you were still alive or not!”
“Is that my son’s voice I hear??”
The flap of the nearby tent flew open, and out came Farrin, Fiel’s father and the norn he was named after.
If Ylva was tall, Farrin was, by comparison, rather small. Upright, he barely reached his son’s chin. The differences didn’t stop there: where his wife was stern, rough, sullen and cold, Farrin was soft, open, warm and inviting. Years prior, the skaald followed his wife to the Northern frontline when they joined the Pact, and like her, he had a few new scars to prove it.
Fiel has always remembered his father to be on the plump side. Now, muscles were showing on the exposed areas of his body. He used to have long, sleek, and exceptionally well kept platinum hair; now it was cropped short, and a pink crescent-moon gash was crossing over the sky-blue eye on the right side of his face. Farrin was a happy man, the type to whom smiles came naturally, even when they were sad. The smile was still there, but it had dulled a tad over the years in the frigid North.
He walked to his son laughing and with arms open, and kept them open.
“My son! Blood of mine, adventurer and mage! I am so happy to see y– Ylva… Ylva, please. You’re going to rip the boy’s ear off…” He put a gentle hand on his wife’s arm, and she relaxed instantly. “Although she is right, you know. We do not expect our child to stop at every step of his adventures to compose us a ballad of his deeds –though I bet it would have been glorious–, but a simple note every now and then would have put both our minds at ease.”
He crossed his arm and put on his face the look he always wore whenever he was trying to be authoritative. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t hold it for more than a couple heart beats, and his arms flew around Fiel for a hug so enthusiastic it lifted him off the ground.
“I take it you know him, then.” The officer was still standing nearby, arms crossed, a suggestion of a smile tugging at the corner of his lip. “Then again, I should have seen the resemblance.”
Farrin quickly dropped his son and came to meet his commanding officer, stiffening in a salute with the ease of an actor who was much too flamboyant to look genuine, yet convincing enough to be believed.
“Permission to have my son remain here for a little while, sir?”
The lieutenant scratched the stubble on his chin as he pondered. “Sure, why not. Nothing’s been happening for nearly two months now… things are getting boring as fuck over here. Just don’t cause any trouble.”
* * *
They spent quite some time catching up, huddled in his parents’ tent. Mer was out of the bag and curled up over Farrin’s lap.
When Fiel pulled the griffon out of its warm improvised cocoon, his father became immediately smitten. His mother, on the other hand, was thoroughly unimpressed. “We already have plenty griffons over here, what’s so special about this one?” she said. And so lil’ Mer spent most of his time there greedily sharing the older norn’s body heat and Pact rations.
Fiel and his parents knew very little about what happened to one another since he left Hoelbrak as a sullen teen.
They enrolled with the Vigil soon after, then later on were drafted to join the Pact when it was formed. They told him about how since the human god of War came along, Jormag and its minions seemed to have… quieted down. There was of course the occasional Svanir scout lurking around the camp, but even then they never wandered close. The flow of the wounded slowed down to a trickle –the vast majority of them being caused by the local ice wurms– and that of the dead stopped completely. Things were getting boring at the camp, and every soldier were essentially reduced to babysit the fort, waiting for their turn to be relieved, or for Pact instructions that never came. Ylva was bored out of her mind. She was done repairing all that the could repair at the camp and reinforcing all that there was to reinforce. Now she was forging extra swords to pass the time, whereas Farrin found himself sufficiently relaxed to start composing poetry again.
Fiel, in turn, talked about the Godslost swamp –omitting the part where he died, for obvious reasons… his ear was still hurting. He talked about the Priory. He told them about his various trips to Orr, and pulled out one of the ancient orrian orichalcum earring he had kept on him all that time. (He knew neither of them had any particular interest in jewelry, especially his mother, but he knew the both of them could at least appreciate the craftsmanship.) He told them about the guild, then recounted his voyages to Elona, told them about the fire god, the Forged, the ghosts.
“Which brings me to the reason of my visit.”
Fiel pulled the metal arm, now completely inert, out of his bag.
He told them about the Exalted, about how the fallen god used the same methods as the Forgotten to raise an iron-clad ghost army. And, finally, told them about his plans for the salvaged body part.
His mother scowled –that is, slightly more than usual. And imperceptible change to the unfamiliar eye.
“That’s it? You come visit us after eight years, just to tinker with a fancy gauntlet?”
Farrin on the other hand was already leaning closer to the arm in his son’s outstretched hand. Tales of magic, rogue gods, armies and forged weapons of legends? That’s what all he was about.
“It’s an armor that was worn by a ghost, Ylva! Forged by a god! Not just some enchanted bauble sold by some roadside peddler! Imagine the possibilities!”
He turned to face his wife fully, taking both her hands in his. Fiel recognized the twinkle in his father’s eye. He had it every time inspiration struck him.
“My love… when was the last time we forged something together? Do you remember that sword, all those years ago? Don’t you wish you could feel that thrill again? …. A god, Ylva…”
His mother’s eyes grew distant the more he talked. Fiel could almost see in them the embers of the forge, hear the rumbling breaths of the stoked fires, the ring of the hammers, the languid sighs of the steamy hot blades diving into the water… words were Farrin’s gift, and by Raven, he knew how to use them. He was slowly winning her over, the spark in his eyes catching in hers…. while Fiel’s grew dodgy with discomfort.
He felt that whatever was going on between his parents should also involve a door or two separating them from him.
“….Alright,” she whispered.
* * *
It was relatively easy to convince the officer to let them use the camp’s forge. Fiel had already brought all the raw materials and minute instruments he could carry. The rest were obtained by either purchasing them from him, exchanging them against small services (ironically, the camp’s healer was herself in need of healing after she got her leg chewed on by a young ice wurm near the gate), or from Farrin, after cashing in on a few favors.
The resident soldiers were not bashful about their curiosity, often taking their breaks near the forge to watch it all unfold. A great distraction from the monotony, especially with the rumors of magic being involved. And didn’t they mention a god? …..Balthazar?
They observed from afar, a couple of them even volunteering their help, but they always declined: this was now a family affair.
The Forged arm was taken apart entirely, its pieces heated up and hammered flat: they would have to rework the whole thing from scratch. Ylva was in charge of shaping the main parts according to Fiel’s design. Farrin was dealing with the smaller, more intricate ones. Fiel, on his end, mostly took take of the engravings. He copied the original spell etched in the metal, and added his own personal twist to it. It was very experimental, a prototype. It would either work spectacularly, or fail spectacularly.
Between the three of them, work went fast, the matter of a mere day. Mother and son often shared a glance and a discreet smile, while father sang and joked when his attention was not completely poured into the malleable metal.
Ylva had never been a very approachable woman. Her personality was a mountain of steep cliffs and cold, sharp stones and strangling brambles that few were courageous or foolish enough to brave. Some tried, most gave up. And she herself never knew how to connect with people, her son included.
Ylva lived through the metal. It was her passion, her only true love, before Farrin came and turned the bramble into rose bushes. All her attempts at communication were as appropriate as a warhammer on the last, pin-thin nail of a silver toy bird, and as delicate as a drunk dolyak in a cramped mirror shop. She tried to get her son to share her passion of smithing when he was younger, to have some common ground with him, but it never clicked. He was, and always had been, his father’s son, first and foremost. An artist, and, truth be told, a nerd.
So it warmed her heart in ways she couldn’t begin to describe to see Fiel being so passionate about this personal project of his, how focused he was when he picked another finished piece from her, barely cool enough to touch, and begin impressing another line of the spell onto its surface.
She couldn’t tell him how much she loved him and missed him, but she could show it to him through her work.
* * *
At sundown, when the Northern wind picked up and everything turned grey, they were done.
Three days it took. The bartering, the preparation, the actual forging, the polishing, the assemblage and the spell-casting… In the end, they were looking at an articulated metal sculpture.
It was smaller than the original limb, plainer-looking too. Gone were the ferocious swooping flames-evoking protrusions and the clawed fingers. This arm looked more human-like. It was more sober, yes… but no less elegant. It was a prototype, and prototype were rarely made with aesthetics in mind, but when Farrin and son were involved…
Around them the soldiers were gathered, expecting. No one knew what it was all about, but they’d be damned if they weren’t going to see the outcome of it… whatever it was.
With a beating heart and a faintly trembling hand, Fiel placed three fingers on the edge of it, near the elbow. He concentrated, his eyes unblinking, his parents right beside him. The whole camp held its breath. Only the petulant wind was disturbing the silence.
Suddenly, the fingers curled, smooth as silk.
Fiel and Farrin erupted in a jubilatory cry, and Ylva nodded satisfyingly, arms crossed. The soldier joined in, still somewhat confused, but hey! The magic.. arm… thing.. sure did move! Success! …right?
* * *
“I will send you a letter every now a then. I promise.”
Fiel was packing up. He was eager to return to Maguuma, his new home, with his pet and the arm –the prosthesis. Mer was still snuggling in Farrin’s arms, the latter spoiling him with kisses and scratches. Ylva nodded curtly at his promises.
“We will still be stationed here. You know where to find us.”
“And we know where to find you,” Farrin added between two kisses.
Fiel smirked. “Is that a threat, Father?”
“Mmmaybe… didn’t you say your Magister is also part of your guild? I do wonder how studious my son truly is… How about it, Ylva? Shall we go pay him a visit during our next leave?”
Fiel’s smile instantly dropped.
“Time to go, Mer.”