Born of Winter
‘My mother is the shrieking winds of winter, and my father the harsh bite of frost in your bones.’ –Ozrik
In the western Sheldomar Valley there was once a small village near Geoff. Its name is of little consequence, because it no longer exists. Where once a small group of people scratched a living out of the land, now there are only the fire blackened husks of what were once their homes. Indeed, if it had a name, Ozrik no longer remembers it. After all he was a boy when the giants came, and he’d seen maybe seven winters in that time. He remembered it being a happy place, or at least as he likes to think of it that way. Certainly his parents worked hard, and his siblings were kind to him. Most others gave him suspicious glances, or treated him warily. I boy his age with winter white hair and icy blue eyes was a rarity, and the simple folk of his village were a superstitious lot.
None of that mattered when the giants came. They were merciless in their slaughter, and only Ozrik was spared. Something he never understood at that time. But these are old memories. Memories of a terror-filled night, screaming friends and family, and the smell of burning wood, stone, and flesh. These are memories he does not dwell on, for the pain of that traumatic event has walked with him his whole life, and to dwell on them is to scratch that wound anew.
But this tale does not begin here, for who would want to read of such tragedy? I only tell you this part because so many who know this man have often asked where his tale began. To say it began when giants raided his village and slaughtered his people would be the wrong place to start. So we will start here…
The fortress is always cold. Cold, and lonely. But the cold does not bother Ozrik. It never has. If he had spent the last three years amongst children his own age, he’d know that it was abnormal for it to not bother him, as it does others. Being a slave of the giants and a prisoner in their fortress tends to skew a child’s upbringing, and so Ozrik has no idea what is normal for a child of his years.
As like many previous days, Ozrik begins to contemplate why he is still alive. He’s seen what the giants are capable of, and the savagery of their abilities. As with other days, he concludes that this is their way of torturing him. This is the cruelest form of punishment they can manage. To destroy everyone in his life and then leave him to wonder, every day, why he is still alive.
Today is different though, for when the doors to his cell open this day, the giants don’t drag him out to feed on scraps, or assign him some menial task. This time they toss another person into his cell. The man lands in a heap at his feet, and Ozrik is too stunned to even react. He stares long at the man without moving or saying anything. He’s not even sure the man is alive, until there is a wet cough, and the stranger rolls over, spitting blood onto the floor.
His battered and bloody face is not the first thing Ozrik notices, nor the oak leaf and acorn amulet. He doesn’t even note that the man is human, the first human to be in his cell in three years. What he sees immediately, is the hair. White. White as winter snow. And his eyes: piercing blue. Just like Ozrik‘s.
‘Are you capable of speech boy?’ coughs the injured man as he rolls onto his back, making no attempts to rise. It’s clear from the sudden wince on his face that he is gravely injured, ‘or is your mouth locked open like that permanently?’
Ozrik shakes his head and works his mouth, but can’t find any words to say anything. He’s aware of how simple he must look, a frightened boy incapable of speech, and he hates himself for being this helpless, but still he manages to say nothing.
‘Just my luck, a mute,’ the man says as he drags himself towards a wall and props himself up to sit with his back to it, his face grimacing the whole time, ‘the bastards probably tore your tongue out long ago.’
‘Do you have any water?’ the stranger continues, after several moments of breathing with laboring gasps. Ozrik numbly crosses the cell and carries over the skin of fresh water and hands it to the man, who takes a long pull from it.
‘I…’ Ozrik manages to stammer, ‘I am… not a mute.’
‘Well, well,’ the stranger laughs, ‘It speaks after all. You got a name, boy?’
‘Ozrik,’ he stutters, ‘I w-w-was named after my grandfather.’
‘Grandfather, eh?’ smiles the stranger, ‘Does he have hair like you? Was he touched by winter as well?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ Ozrik says, ‘I’ve never met him. He died before I was born.’
‘What about the rest of your family?’ the man asks, ‘any of them marked?’
‘They…’ Ozrik stammers, and against his will the tears well up, ‘… died. All of them. The giants…’ his voice trails off unable to continue as he stairs sullenly at the cold floor. The silence stretches, and the stranger coughs again, and spits another wad of blood onto the floor. He groans in agony, before he manages to speak again.
‘My name is Alec. Many call me ‘The Icefang‘ or ‘Alec the Froststalker’ but those are just names I earned over the years. There was a time Icefang drove fear into the hearts of foul creatures like these giants, but that time was long ago. Now I’m old.’ Alec coughs, and it rattles deep in his chest.
‘Gods no! That man is dead – and this broken fool is all that’s left.’ Alec chuckles as he shifts into a more comfortable sitting position. ‘How long have you been here, Ozrik?’
‘Three years,’ the boy answers after pondering the question, ‘I think. I don’t know why they’ve not killed me this whole time.’
‘Because they’re a superstitious lot.’ Alec states, ‘the frost giants believe it’s bad luck to kill someone touched by winter.’ He gestures to Ozrik‘s hair and eyes, ‘You’ve been born with a gift, boy. Shame you didn’t know. Not to worry, though, I can teach you to use it.’ At the newcomer’s words, Ozrik looks around the cell skeptically.
‘In here?’ the boy asks, unconvinced.
‘No, of course not,’ Alec replies, ‘Once I’ve got my strength back, we’ll escape here.’ Ozrik for the first time in years felt some semblance of hope. Freedom was such a forgotten thought for him, and he went about his daily routine in the fortress in a numb state of shock. To be free of this wretched place! To see the world beyond the walls! For the first time in three years the boy smiled. The giants came to the cell that night and shattered the bones in Alec’s legs. The screams were terrible. Ozrik held the man’s head as he thrashed about like a crazed animal, broken in the dark. When the pain drove Alec into unconsciousness, only then did Ozrik sigh, as his cheeks streamed with tears. There would be no escape now.
THREE YEARS LATER
‘Confounded boy!’ Alec fumed. He had one hand against the wall to steady himself, and the other clutched at his makeshift crutch, ‘You’ll need to be faster!’ Ozrik‘s shoulders slumped. He was already sweating with effort, and he felt silly twirling two lengths of wood around. He’d managed to salvage the wood and smuggle it into the cell ages ago, and Alec ran him through a daily routine that he claimed would teach him the forms he needed as a foundation.
‘This is stupid!’ Ozrik shouted in frustration, flinging the sticks to the floor, ‘You can’t learn to fight like this! What good is all this without an opponent?’
‘What do you want?’ Alec asked impatiently, ‘To face me?’ he laughed aloud, but not unkindly. ‘Ozrik the cripple-slayer is what they’d call you.’ Ozrik felt shamed, and glanced at the twisted legs of his cell mate. Without proper care, they did not heal properly, and Alec had limited mobility, and almost none without his crutch. Every step the man took brought stabs of pain up both his legs, and short trips left him panting for breath.
‘I’m sorry.’ Ozrik finally muttered. He meant it. Alec had already taught him so much. The man had travelled as a scout throughout the realm and fought with many bands of rangers in mountain regions to help stem the mischief caused by roving bands of treacherous creatures. The giants lured him up the mountains, as tales of their savagery spread. Three years in the cell with Ozrik, and the man still had so much to teach him.
‘Nevermind,’ Alec said, smiling, ‘Let’s rest instead.’ The scout slid down the wall, sighing in relief, and stretching his crippled legs out before him, beckoning Ozrik to sit in front of him. ‘How far did you get last night?’ the man asked, after rubbing his aching legs. Ozrik had to think and count in his head the amount of door locks he picked open before answering.
‘Out of the dungeons and across the main hall. I got into the pantry. I crossed the yards too, and found more work areas, there were many tools in the new area, I pilfered a few and stored them in our hidden stash.’ answered Ozrik, nodding his head towards the loose floor stone where they excavated a place to hide items.
‘Good,’ Alec nodded, ‘Did you get outside at all?’
‘No, not last night,’ sighed Ozrik, ‘but I did see outside during the day. They had me work on loose mortar on the outside wall. The east wall. I was dangled by rope as they chuckled and swung me around when they got bored.’
‘You memorized the terrain?’
‘Of course, but…’ Ozrik hesitated.
‘But what? Spit it out.’
‘It’s mountains and cliffs. Harsh terrain.’ The boy answered.
‘So? You’re young boy,’ Alec chided, ‘and I’ve taught you enough you’ll survive.’ Ozrik chewed his lower lip, not sure how to phrase his concerns to Alec.
‘You won’t be able to navigate the cliffs. Not eastward anyway.’ Ozrik decided it was best to be direct about it. Alec just frowned and shook his head.
‘We’ve been over this, boy.’ The old scout said sternly, ‘You get beyond the wall, and you go. I can’t go with you.’ He gestured to his crippled legs, a sudden coughing fit wracking his body. Ozrik nodded as if in agreement, but his thoughts did not mirror the gesture. He was running out of time. Alec was only getting sicker in this cell. The scout already looked like he’d aged ten years since he was first dumped here.
‘I’m not strong enough, yet.’ Ozrik stated.
‘Foolish boy,’ Alec replied, ‘you don’t need to be strong. You just need to be fast.’
I do need to be strong, thought Ozrik to himself, strong enough to carry you.
THREE YEARS OF PLANS
The wood sticks are a blur as Ozrik swings them around with practiced ease. It is his fourth time through the forms tonight, and his body moves without thought. Indeed, his thoughts were elsewhere. With a flourish, he stops, and exhales slowly.
‘Ready?’ Alec asks, his face full of anticipation.
‘Yes.’ Ozrik replies, to the point. He is ready. Pulling the makeshift picks from the hidden stash, the young man quickly makes short work of the cell lock. He’s done this hundreds of times over the years, so it takes seconds to unlock it.
‘Now remember the plan,’ Alec begins patiently, ‘Avoid any of the giants you see, and do–‘ He’s cut off by the loud snap of Ozrik‘s makeshift practice swords. In one quick move, the young man has broken them over his knee.
‘What are you doing?’ hisses Alec, ‘You need to stay quiet! Have I taught you nothing?’ But Ozrik is ignoring him, as he looks the broken sticks over, choosing one and discarding the rest. Alec is too confused to speak, but somehow manages to find his words, trying to ignore his ward’s strange behavior.
‘Now remember where I hid my items,’ Alec recites. He’s told this story many times before, in painstakingly detailed accounts. The tale of how he hid everything he had when he knew the giants were tracking him, and when he knew that he could not escape them. ‘When you reach the pass south west–‘
But Ozrik is gone. Silent as a ghost, he’s left the cell, not even bothering to close the door. Alec can hear the soft clang of a cell door down the hall, and feels a sudden stab of emotional pain. Surely he wouldn’t leave without saying good bye. What in all the gods has gotten into the fool boy?
He scrambles for his crutch, and painfully drags himself limping across the cell to the door. Before he can reach it, Ozrik is back, without the broken stick, and with a large contraption of wood and canvas, and a long heavy length of rope. He quickly grabs the contents of the stash, which are already placed in a cloth bag.
‘What is all this…?’ Alec stares at him, confused now. Ozrik keeps his stare level into the eyes of his mentor. He’s grown so much already, no longer shorter than Alec. He tries not to think that perhaps it’s Alec that has shrunken in illness.
‘It’s a travois, and some rope. I made it slowly over the last few months, and stored it in an empty cell down the hall.’
‘Don’t be a fool, boy.’ Alec’s voice is stern. ‘We’ve been through this a thousand times already–‘
‘I’m not leaving you.’ Ozrik‘s eyes do not waver, nor does he budge.
‘Look at me!’ Alec says, his voice hoarse, ‘I can barely walk!’
‘I’ll carry you.’
‘You’ve given them no reason to hurt you,’ Alec pleads, ‘I’ll slow you down, and when they catch you they’ll break you like they did to me. Don’t do this. You know that fat oaf of a guard walks the hall every few hours in the night, if we’re both gone the alarm sounds sooner!’
‘The guard won’t be waking from his slumber,’ Ozrik states bluntly. Alec now understands why the young man took pains to select which broken stick to use. And now he knows that Ozrik has made it impossible to turn back now. He sighs, his eyes bright with emotion.
‘Please,’ Alec begs, ‘I don’t want you to die for me.’ But Ozrik only shrugs, as he quickly moves forward and hefts the older man across his shoulders. He tries to ignore Alec’s grunt of pain, and somehow manages to grab the bag and travois, as he begins to move out of the cell.
‘If I leave you behind,’ Ozrik says, ‘then who I am will have died already.’
As they pass the dead form of the giant guard, Ozrik takes pains to step around the pool of blood spilled when he jammed the jagged stick into the creature’s eye socket.
‘Your first kill?’
‘Was it difficult?’ Alec asks softly.
‘At first,’ Ozrik sighs, ‘but then I tried to think of my family, and I realized I cannot remember what they looked like any more. They took all that from me, even the memories now, it seems. After that, it was easy.’
‘Too long you’ve been here,’ Alec says mournfully, ‘It’s not too late to leave me.’
‘You’re my family now,’ Ozrik states, ‘and I’d rather die than live through that again.’
The path out of the giant’s fortress was terrifying, but Ozrik was determined not to falter. The years of practice stalking the halls paid off, and he manages to get himself and Alec outside and into the biting frigid winds in no time. From there it becomes an exercise in willpower and determination.
Three days was Ozrik‘s best guess. Three days he spent, hauling Alec and what meager supplies they had through the snow, sometimes waist deep. Three days of scaling sheer cliffs, and lowering Alec down safely. Three days of backtracking to cover their trail, and hiding as the giants hunted for them. Three days without sleep, and barely any food. Three days of Alec begging him to abandon him and to flee with all haste. Ozrik began to think his life was always factoring into threes every chance it got.
When he finally found the hidden cave, Alec had been unconscious for most of that day, an occasional mumble escaping him. The entrance was a narrow horizontal crack in the mountain, and Ozrik had to pull the limp form of Alec through behind him. He could see now why Alec chose it: there was no way the giants could get inside. The cave was a relief from the howling wind outside, but Ozrik was too exhausted to even look around. He spotted a musty pile of old furs, and dragged them over himself and Alec. Only then did he give in and let exhaustion take him.
Ozrik‘s first thought when he wakes is that he’s back in his cell. But then he realizes quickly that this place is warm, and there is the comforting smell of a cook fire and a hot meal near him. He rolls over, rubbing sleep from his eyes and sees Alec smiling over a small fire, stirring a pot of some sort of stew. The old scout smiles at the young man, and rubs his hands over the fire. He already looks healthier, Ozrik thinks to himself.
‘Where did you get this stuff?’ Ozrik asks, his body still weary and sore.
‘I had some supplies stashed here before I was captured,’ says Alec, ‘mostly herbs and some pots and other items needed for long survival in the cold. The wood I got from the travois. I broke it up and burnt some of it. We need a hot meal, to get our energy back. It’s weak broth with some of the food you pilfered from the giant’s pantry.’
‘We needed that travois.’ Ozrik says, worried, ‘We can’t navigate the passes without it, and it’s the only way off the mountain.’
‘The passes are snowed in,’ Alec states, ‘Either full winter came early or our timing of how long we were prisoners is wrong. Either way, it’s impassable, travois or not. We’re here for a long stay.’ Ozrik shuffles over and gets himself a bowl of stew. He savors every spoonful of this first meal as a free man.
‘These are for you,’ Alec tosses him a heavy bundle of oilskins. When Ozrik unwraps it, he finds a modest cache of simple weapons, most of them in need of maintenance, and a rapier and dagger set that catches his eyes right away. The rest drops away as he picks the dagger and light sword up to admire them. Gleaming almost light blue, they seem to give off a frosted mist as he looks them over. He can feel their power ebb into him, almost as though they are extensions of his body.
‘They’re amazing…’ Ozrik states in awe, ‘They feel like they belong with me…’
‘They’ve served me all my life,’ Alec chuckles, ‘and they’re touched by the same essence you are, as am I. The essence of winter. The power of frost. I’ll teach you how to channel it. Gods know we’ll have plenty of time in here to practice. I’ll teach you to hunt and live off the land too. Even here, a man with the right skills can survive.’
‘How long until the passes open?’ Ozrik asks, distractedly, his eyes never leaving the swords.
‘Depends on our luck,’ Alec responds as he ponders the answer, ‘I’ve seen the passes closed for as little as a few months, and I’ve seen bad seasons where they were impassable for a year or two.’
As if in answer, the howling and whistling of the winter wind at the cave mouth rises, its tone mocking.
THREE YEARS OF SNOW
The snow is melting. Ozrik can smell it on the air. Three years living in the cave gave him ample opportunity to learn everything about the environment around it. He’d hunted and ranged as far as he could, and grown confident in his skills at tracking, stalking, and killing his prey. Sometimes he did it for food, and sometimes to protect Alec and himself. There were all manner of murderous creatures this far from the civilized world, and Ozrik had dealt with a fair share over the last three years.
The wracking endless cough of his mentor brings his attention back to the inside of the cave. He moves back in, and checks the broth he has boiling on the fire. Alec coughs until he spits out blood, and Ozrik tries to ignore the blood dried on his tunic. He’s coughed blood through the night, again. The old scout has aged so much in the last years. The pass had cleared more than a year ago, but Alec’s sickness had progressed too far to move him then, and has only worsened since. Ozrik feels helpless, and yet resolves not to leave the man’s side.
‘We… need to talk, boy,’ Alec manages to speak, breathing heavily from the effort.
‘Why?’ Ozrik says with a smile, ‘We talk every day. Have you met someone interesting while I was out that you wanted to talk about?’ Alec chuckles softly, but his laughter turns into a painful bout of coughing, and Ozrik immediately regrets making the joke.
‘What… will you do… after?’ sighs Alec.
‘After what?’ Ozrik says, even though he knows what the man will say.
‘After I die.’ Alec coughs again, he’s eyes squeezed tightly shut. Ozrik can’t remember when the old scout was last up and about. He does not want to answer, but knows that Alec won’t drop the topic if he doesn’t.
‘I will make my way up the mountain, and slay every giant I can find on my way to their fortress, and every giant I find in their fortress.’ states Ozrik.
‘Fool boy!’ Alec scolds with a ghost of the old steel is in his voice again, ‘You’ll do no such thing.’
‘I’m not a boy!’ Ozrik retorts, ‘And I’ll make them pay for what they’ve done to you. To me.’
‘I didn’t waste all these years on you, to see you throw you throw everything away!’ Alec sighs, heavily. He reaches his hand out and grasps Ozrik‘s firmly, before he speaks again, ‘You’ve saved me a wretched death in a cell, and for that I can never repay you.’
‘You’ve paid me more than you can know,’ Ozrik states, ‘I’ve learned so much from you. I’m not the same frightened boy you met all those years ago. ‘ His eyes are damp now. This is a conversation he does not want to have.
‘Promise me,’ Alec continues, ‘that when I am dead, you will leave this mountain, and never return. You will forget everything they did to you. Gods know boy, they’ve taken so many years from you already, don’t waste another single year on them. Move on. Live your life. Make something of it. Don’t waste it on them.’
Ozrik is silent for a long time, before he finally responds, ‘I promise.’
He sags when he says it, the weight of all that hatred and vengeance flows out of him. Alec smiles, and lays back. His eyes closed.
‘There is no greater revenge in life than to live a full life, despite your enemies’ best efforts to make it the contrary. Make something of your life…’ Alec murmurs before he begins to breathe slowly and fade into sleep yet again.
Alec the Icefang died in his sleep that night. In silence Ozrik wrapped his body in furs, and laid it out in the cave. He gathered what supplies he could, before one last long look at the body of his mentor. It seemed fitting to leave him here. Ozrik stood outside the cave and looked back up the mountain one last time. Then he set out down the slope, his heart heavy.
Alec’s skills kept Ozrik alive for the whole journey out. He lost count of the days, but Ozrik figured it took him weeks to navigate through the mountains and then out onto the flatter ground, perhaps even more than a month. Summer was upon the land, and he followed the first road he found to a town. A bit of bartering and he manages to get himself a handful of coins for some furs he’s brought with him that he no longer needs.
It doesn’t take long for him to realize that survival in the civilized world requires more than just knowledge of the wilderness. He survives on the streets, thieving his way from meal to meal. After several months of this, shame gets the better of him, and he decides to change his fortunes. It doesn’t take much to convince a local mercenary recruiter to sign him up for his sell sword company.
THREE YEARS OF BLOOD
‘This is my last campaign.’ Ozrik doesn’t mean to sound so blunt, but sometimes the direct way is best. Brock “Blackmane”‘ Kormak begins to choke on his wine, and ends up spitting the mouthful onto the rugs of his tent floor. He swears loudly, and begins to wipe down the stains on the front of his garish vest.
‘What did you say?!?’ Blackmane, sputters.
‘I’m quitting Blackmane’s Bastards.’ Ozrik says softly, ‘It’s nothing personal.’
‘The hells it isn’t!’ Brock explodes, ‘It’s that thrice damned dwarf isn’t it?! I knew the two of you didn’t get along, but just ignore Thunderfoot, and don’t let his biting words get to you.’
‘It’s not him at all,’ Ozrik sighs, ‘He’s just a loud mouth braggart, and it doesn’t bother me.’
‘I should have kicked him off the company years ago, he’s such an ass,’ Brock laments, ‘but gods, I’ve never met a better sapper crew than his. Shame he’s such a mean drunk…’ Blackmane shakes his head and collapses in one of the many chairs inside his quarters. ‘Damn my luck. You do realize you are the best scout I’ve ever met? Nevermind how well you kill. Gods, you frighten some of the men with the way you move those blades.’
‘Why? Why now?!’ Blackmane asks sadly. Ozrik sighs as he pulls up a chair and sits next to his long time commander. He pores himself of glass of wine, and refills Brock‘s as well before he speaks again.
‘It’s hard to explain,’ Ozrik says, and Blackmane half chuckles and half sobs at him, ‘But you’ve been good to me all the years Brock, and I will always be thankful of that. I will. I’ve learned a lot with the Bastards, and it’s not easy to walk away. But you remember the tale about the group that took on the giants; we heard it from some mercenary company on the last campaign.’
‘The Scourge?’ Blackmane recalls, ‘yes, I remember. You’ve been strange ever since. Oh gods, I’m a fool. I never made the connection. Are those the same giants that….?’
‘Yes,’ Ozrik replies grimly, ‘They are. These men bested them. It reminded me of a promise I made. These last three years, fighting for money… I’ve not made anything of myself.’
‘You’ve made us a lot of good coin.’ Blackmane offers. Ozrik just shrugs.
‘I need to go meet these men. Maybe even join them if I can. I hear that they’re fighting a war in Nyrond. I’m leaving tonight.’
‘I’ll write you a letter of recommendation,’ Blackmane says, ‘and I’ll draw out the money you’ve got invested in the company.’
‘The letter I’ll take, but not the money. Keep it in the company. These men are my brothers in a way, Brock. I’d want them to have it.’
‘I have a small amount of money, and I’ll manage.’ The two old friends clasp hands firmly before Ozrik leaves the tent.
‘It’s not often men turn down such high accolades,’ Tanamier says, glancing through the notes on the scroll before him, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone who turned down a commendation of bravery before.’ J’afrock snorts in disbelief as he looks down at the kneeling form before them. Caelynn sits lazily in a chair off to the side, his face almost bored, and Brother Griften wanders over to stand beside Tanamier, reading the letter over his shoulder.
‘Says here you turned down the merit in exchange for an audience with The Scourge.’ Griften says, ‘I guess we should be honored.’ J’afrock crosses his arms, unconvinced. Tanamier continues to look perplexed.
‘How long have you served in my forces?’ he asks.
‘Just over a year, General.’ The kneeling form replies, his head still bowed in respect.
‘A year?’ Tanamier looks again at the scroll before him, ‘Well… interesting. It seems you’ve made a name for yourself in that time. The list of your brave deeds here is impressive. Why did you want to meet us so badly?’
‘To convince you to let me join you,’ Ozrik says finally as he glances at each of them in turn, ‘Or at least to convince you to give me a chance to prove I’m worthy.’
‘We are one man short.’ Griften points out, ‘and we’re off to Greyhawk in the morning. It wouldn’t hurt to have an extra man covering our backs.’
‘True.’ Tanamier agrees. J’afrock extends his hand and helps Ozrik to his feet. The half orc looks him up and down like a merchant appraising a horse. The barbarian squeezes the scout’s arm and frowns.
‘He doesn’t look strong.’ J’afrock grumbles.
‘A wise man once told me that I didn’t need to be strong,’ Ozrik smiles to himself, ‘just fast.’
… I would be lying to you if I told you this is where Ozrik‘s tale ends. And by now you know, that THIS, is where the real tale begins.