Staff of Winter, Part Four - Tyr Tywilwich
Tector had been sitting outside the hut for an hour or more when he heard branches cracking nearby. Leaping to his feet, he saw the gaunt figure of Storm emerge from the woods, accompanied by a bent old elven woman. The two friends greeted each other warmly, before asking Brisen whether she could locate the missing member of their party. She chided Tector for not making himself more comfortable, and joked about Sophia’s name (“Sophia, so fair!”) but led the warrior and the sorcerer directly to the young lady through the gloaming.
Sophia was wary when she first heard the sound of something approaching through the trees, and prepared to flee. But she waited long enough to spot a glint of mithril armour, and quickly realised that she had found her friends . . . or they had found her. A warm reunion followed, and the companions swapped incredulous tales of the visions they had experienced since they became separated, as Brisen led them back to her home, offering food and drink and to help the three friends work out where they were headed and how best to get there.
They arrived back at the hut, deep in the dark forest, and Brisen bustled around, offering the companions clear spring water, freshly roasted rabbit, and fresh blackberries. All the while she babbled quietly to herself in a language they could not understand, occasionally interrupting herself to ask one of the group a question or make a comment on their appearance, complementing Sophia’s beautiful golden hair, Storm’s silver-tinged scales and Tector’s bull-like build.
As they ate, Brisen asked where they were headed. They explained that they were seeking the tree of life, Crann na Beatha, and had been told to seek it in Try Tywilwich.
“Ah. The dark lands. The broken lands. You must take care, younglings. Dangers lie in Tyr Tywilwich. Take care, brave souls! Do you know the way?” The companions admitted that they were unsure, and Brisen offered to set them on the right path.
Storm then asked for her views on the enchantment of his basilisk eye, and after conversing about their encounter with the monster, and their remarkable lack of stone limbs, she suggested that some form of stone should be used, in sympathy with its power of petrification. The dragonborn suggested that he use a rock crystal. Brisen responded that it would have to be a very large crystal, and then mused that another form of crystal from the natural world might suffice, such as eternally frozen ice. Storm thought this was an excellent suggestion.
Once they had eaten, the old elf bade them rest on beds of woven twigs and heather. They slept well, and woke refreshed. Brisen led them through the forest, picking her way through the deep woods with an agility that belied her age, finding smooth paths where there appeared to be none, and avoiding the gnarled branches and tree roots which seemed to catch the clothing and feet of the companions at regular intervals.
Eventually they came to a place where the trees thinned a little. Brisen stopped, and seemed to be singing softly into the light breeze. After a few moments, a large and very colourful purple and yellow butterfly fluttered to her, landing on her hand. She lowered her head, whispering, and it took to the air once more, fluttering away through the trees.
“Follow the beauty of the forest,” Brisen bade the companions, “and you will find yourself at the border to Tyr Tywilwich. Your guide will go no further, as the creatures of the forest know better than to trespass in the land of darkness. I only hope you will not regret it when you arrive there. Fare well, my young friends,” she said, shooing them off with a chuckle.
The butterfly set a punishing pace, and the companions found themselves tripped, bruised, sweaty and scratched by the time they reached the edge of the ancient forest. The land had become rocky, and eventually they emerged over a treeless ridge and looked down on the barren, mountainous wasteland beyond. A miasma of grey smog hung in the air, smelling faintly of sulphur.
The butterfly landed briefly on Sophia’s nose, drawing a smile, before fluttering back into the forest. The companions could barely make out the sun through the smog, but a sluggish, polluted river was clearly visible, wending through the wastleland. From the position of the sun, the companions determined that the it was flowing to the west. Recalling that this was the right direction, they made their arduous way down the rocky slope, walking for several hours to reach its banks. It gave off an odour of rotting eggs and was clearly not potable.
Sophia and Storm extended their senses, seeking arcane traces of the tree of life, but could only discern that the entire landscape around them held traces of broken magic, as if shattered by a great war of sorcery in the distant past.
The companions followed the river until it got dark. They could barely see, the smog above blotting out what moonlight there might otherwise have been, and the group was forced to stop and make camp given the treacherous, rocky terrain they were crossing. Setting watches, they bedded down nervously, Brisen’s warning of the dangers of Try Tywilwich turning in their minds. They were pleasantly surprised, come the next morning, that the night passed without incident.
After a frugal breakfast the group trudged on once again through the desolate wasteland, which became a stinking bog as the meandering river flowed through low-lying land. The friends were attacked by swarms of biting midges, but battled on throughout the day, until darkness and exhaustion overcame them and they were forced to make camp once again.
The night passed uneventfully, and the companions struck camp again the next morning. They worried about their supplies, as they had enough food and water for just one more day, but felt they had little choice but to continue.
As the day went on, the ground became gradually rockier. To begin with the companions were grateful to leave behind the bogland with its swarms of biting insects. But the terrain gradually became harder, and they were forced to clamber arduously across the broken landscape. They looked around for signs of life but saw nothing; not even the slightest hint of a plant or animal.
Reaching the end of the day, they made camp once more, and finished the last of their food and water. Deeply troubled by their lack of supplies, the companions resolved to save the enchanted bread given to them by Gwydion’s daughters, and set up camp for their third night in the broken wasteland. Next morning they debated once again whether they should turn back, but agreed to continue pressing onward.
The slow and arduous trek across the broken landscape continued, the group constantly climbing up and down rocks, ravines and ridges. The lack of supplies was acute, and the companions found their throats dry from lack of water. As the day wore on this began to take its toll, until Storm had the ingenious idea of conjuring ice javelins and melting them to provide drinking water. This slowed them down a little, but provided just enough water to get them through the day, and they made camp again for a fourth night in the wasteland.
Each of them woke with a raging thirst, and although Storm’s ice helped ease the worst of it, they were still suffering its debilitating effects. Tector called upon the blessing of the Lord to ease their suffering, and they set out across the rocky landscape again. The cloud of smog above them became thicker and thicker throughout the day, making them cough and cover their mouths as best they could. The ground became more broken, and they could barely see the river due to the jagged peaks and troughs in the land.
Toward the end of their fifth day in the land of darkness, their progress came to an abrupt halt, as the broken ground ended in a wide, dark chasm. The polluted river flowed over the edge and cascaded into the darkness below.
Taking to the air, Storm flew down into the darkness of the chasm, lighting his way a little with a lightning orb. A slightly corrosive mist of water from the falling river stung his eyes, and he flew out again, up into the air above the river. Looking down, he could see that the chasm spanned the entire river valley, and that it was over a hundred feet across, with more broken lands on the other side.
While Storm was scouting the length of the chasm and the lands beyond, Sophia and Tector stayed close to one another, keeping a watchful eye on their airborne friend and the lands nearby. As they waited, Sophia heard the sound of voices nearby. Listening carefully, she could make out a male voice, speaking in danagrim: “Come on, it’s this way.”
She alerted Tector, and they turned in the direction of the voices, waiting anxiously. From around a jagged rock face, three danagrim emerged. At first glance they were archetypes of their race – tough, bearded and incredibly stocky, their arms as thick as the legs of many humans. Each carried a large circular shield on his back and a huge greataxe in hand, with handaxes and throwing axes at their belts. They had long, shaggy beards; one dark brown while the others were fair. The one in the front wore fine mithril chainmail and a horned helm, while the other two had tough leather armour studded with steel rivets.
The leading danagrim noticed Sophia and Tector and stopped. “’Old up!” he exclaimed in broadly accented English, sounding very similar to a danagrim from the west coast of Scotia. “Hou the hell are ye?”
The other two danagrim moved to either side of the first, hefting massive greataxes in their meaty fists. The leader looked between the two friends. “Eh, ye’re a pretty one,” he remarked to Sophia. “An’ a big lad,” he nodded to Tector. He hefted his greataxe again, frowning. “I’ll no ask agin, hou the hell are ye? An’ wo are ye doin’ here?”
“We are searching for the tree of life,” replied Tector.
“Crann na Beatha,” added Sophia.
“Oot here??” asked the danagrim, incredulous. The companions nodded. “Eh, ye’re mad! Hou are ye?”
They introduced themselves as Tector the Dragonknight and Sophia de Percy.
“Aye,” nodded the danagrim. “Don’t see many humans in thas neck ‘o the woods. Ye’re lookin’ fer somethin’ are ye? On a quest, are ye? Just the two ‘o ye?”
“No, we have a friend with us,” replied Tector. “He’s not a monster, just so you know. He’s a dragonborn.”
“A dragonborn, eh? I heard some legends about them. Hmmm. Two humans and a dragonborn, oot here, on a quest. Are ye suicidal, or what?”
“Well, we’re not really planning on it, but we might be,” answered Sophia.
“Aye, too right you might! Look at ye, wee scrap of a girl! How are ye gonna survive oot here?”
“What are you doing out here?” interrupted Tector.
“We’re the champions of the Brutensten clan. I’m Egil, and these lads here are Gunnar and Torben. We’re oot here on a proper quest, laddie. Ye heard ‘o Margr-Hafud Ator? No? It’s a terrible beast. A huge monster. Its ten times the size of a long hall, an’ it has a score ‘o heads. It has a host ‘o the dead beneath the root ‘o its tongue, an’ another in the folds of its neck. It roams the edges ‘o the broken lands, and raids the villages in Stenrike, the homeland ‘o the Brutensten clan. It attacked again, a few weeks past. Killed our jarl, and we finally resolved to take oor revenge on it. Destroy it once and fer all. Tha’s what we’re here fer. We ben tryn tae find it fer two weeks. What about ye?”
“We’ve been here about a week,” replied Tector.
“An’ where ye headed?”
“We don’t really know,” replied Sophia. “Something called Hynafol Gwenithfaen.”
“A hill, apparently.”
“A hill? Wha’, tha’s interesting, isn it lads?”
“Aye,” replied the blonde-bearded Gunnar. “Oor legends have it that Margr-Hafud Ator, the monster we seek, is always tae be found near a hilltop crowned wi’ standin’ stones ‘o ancient granite, and that the monster will attack any hou seek tae climb it. Does that sound familiar tae ye?”
Maybe,” speculated Tector. “We will probably need to go there after we have completed our quest, to return to our homeland.”
“’Old up, wha’s that?!?” interrupted the dark-bearded Torben, pointing into the sky behind Tector with his axe. Sophia and Tector turned to see Storm swooping down to join them.
“It’s just our friend, the dragonborn we mentioned,” reassured Tector.
“He’s harmless,” added Sophia.
Storm landed atop a nearby rock, and Egil greeted him. “We were just ‘aving a wee chat with your maties here. So wha’s your name then?”
Introductions were made, and for Storm’s benefit Egil outlined the danagrim quest once again. Sophia added that she and Tector had explained the group’s quest for Crann na Beatha and the hill of Hynafol Gwenithfaen.
“Seems tae me,” said Egil, “that we’ve somethin’ in common. How do ye plan tae get tae this hill?”
“We’re not sure,” replied Sophia, “but we know it lies to the west.”
“Aye, well west is that way,” he said, pointing across the gaping chasm with his axe.
Storm shook his head. “We don’t know how to get across.”
“Nae doubt ye’d be ok, flyboy, but can you lift yer maties here?” asked Gunnar.
“I can carry one of them. And we have a teleport ring, but I’m not sure it goes far enough to get us across.”
“Aye. Gi’ us a minute,” said Egil, and the three danagrim walked away a few paces, huddling together for a whispered conversation. The companions had their own huddle, making contingency plans in case the danagrim attacked them.
After a few moments, the danagrim turned back and Egil addressed the companions. “Right then maties. We dinnae ken what to do with ye three. Let ye go, leave ye at our backs, or do we keep ye wi’ us, fer a mutual purpose?”
Storm replied without hesitation. “We will help you fight the beast, if you help us get to the hill of Hynafol Gwenithfaen.”
The danagrim eyed him suspiciously. “I’ve no’ met many humans, had none as friends, and never even met a dragonborn afore. Not sure whether ye know about danagrim. Fer a danagrim, his word is his bond. If he breaks it, he’s a traitor, ‘an he’s hunted tae the ends ‘o the earth. So if ye break yer word, we hunt ye to the end of the earth, fer revenge, understand?”
The companions all nodded. “Right then,” nodded Egil. “We have a pact.” He spat in his palm and offered it to Storm, who did likewise before taking Egil’s vice-like grip. All six members of the group did the same with each other, sealing their alliance.
“We don’t have much of a plan to get across the chasm,” said Storm wryly.
“Not tae worry laddie, we do. Oor clan name is broken stone, we ken how tae navigate these lands. Come on, this way.”
With that, Egil led them off, immediately finding a much easier path, wending through the broken ravines and gullies rather than climbing arduously over them, yet always seeming to be heading in the right direction. Soon they found themselves moving down into the chasm, on a rough pathway that followed a rocky ledge along the edge. Egil led them confidently down some natural steps in the rock, and across a stone shelf, into a short rough-hewn tunnel. They soon emerged, on the other side of the chasm, and scrambled up into the half-light of Tyr Tywilwich once more.