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Olaf Sejuani Dead of Winter.jpg
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Short Story

Dead of Winter

By Graham McNeill

Even from a distance, Sejuani could see the mammoth was dying.

Lore

Even from a distance, Sejuani could see the mammoth was dying, but like everything in the Freljord, it fought to live with every fiber of its being. Half a dozen spears and twice that many arrows jutted from the colossal beast’s matted hide, its russet hair stiff with frozen blood, but still it wouldn’t die.

Its furious bellows shook the mountainside, and Sejuani kept glancing to the lightning-wreathed summit, fearful of an avalanche.

Or something worse…

Purple lightning flared beyond the mountains, silhouetting the toothed peaks and turning them into serrated fangs ripping open the sky.

She and her Winter’s Claw hunters had stalked the mammoth for a week, driving it toward the shallow canyons of the foothills, but each time it broke through their ring of spears and axes to flee higher up the mountain’s pine-shawled flanks.

Of the ten warriors she had set out with, only seven now remained.

Three less mouths to feed.

Sejuani hated having to think this way, because these were fine hunters and fearsome warriors, but Viljalmr the seer was predicting one of the harshest winters in living memory and the Winter’s Claw’s supplies of food were dwindling fast. The mountain herds of Elnuk they would usually raid had already been driven south to the greener lowlands by their Avarosan drovers, and the fish of the Ice Sea were locked below thick pack ice.

She hauled back on Bristle’s reins, pausing to gather her thoughts. The giant drüvask grunted and shook his head in annoyance, the smell of the mammoth’s blood thick in its nostrils. The mounts of her hunters were wary at being this close to a mammoth, but Bristle was eager for a fight.

“Easy there,” she said, loosening the stiffened scarf from across her mouth and feeling the cold on her skin like a slap in the face. “This is not a fight for tusks, but spears and bows.”

“Good to know even Iceborn can feel this svaaging cold,” said a cloaked figure riding next to her. His voice was muffled by the furs wrapped around his face, and all Sejuani could see were his bloodshot eyes. The rest of his face was hidden behind a leather mask wrought in the shape of a roaring bear, its snout formed by thick, overlapping knotwork.

A low rumble built in Bristle’s throat at the man’s nearness, so Sejuani ran a hand through the coarse, wiry hair of his flanks to calm him.

“I feel it well enough, Urkath,” Sejuani replied, “I just don’t gripe about it.”

Urkath nodded up the mountain and said, “How much higher do you think our quarry will go before it turns and fights?”

Some three hundred yards ahead of them, the mammoth trudged uphill through the snow, its steps labored and a trail of crimson staining the virgin whiteness of the landscape.

“It won’t be long,” said Sejuani. “He’s lost too much blood to reach the summit. He’ll turn before the timberline.”

“How do you know?” asked Urkath.

“I don’t,” admitted Sejuani, “but I’m betting he thinks we won’t follow him if he gets higher.”

“Is he wrong? Any higher and we’ll cross into the realm of He Who Stands.”

Even thinking about the Volibear Volibear and the Ursine flooded Sejuani’s mouth with the taste of warm blood and the sensation of lightning in her veins.

Images flashed in her mind, sharp, bright, and painfully real. Memories that weren’t hers, sensations she hadn't felt, woven together as though she’d lived them only moments ago.

Fangs and claws ripping flesh from the bone…

Elongated skulls with cold, blue fire burning in empty eye sockets….

A pact and a living city reduced to blackened skeletons of stone and timber…

Slaughtered corpses hung from the withered branches of death-nourished trees…

“Warmother?” said Urkath.

Sejuani tried to answer, but the words wouldn’t come, as though a more ancient, primal part of her soul was looking out through her eyes, the part that once ran with the beasts, knees and palms bloody, skin raw and bare, caked in mud.

Urkath reached out and placed a hand on her fur-swathed arm.

“Warmother?” he said again, more urgent this time.

Her hackles raised at his unwanted touch. Saliva filled her mouth as her lips pulled back, baring her teeth, ready to tear his throat out.

Sejuani closed her fist on the spiked pommel of her saddle, hard.

The pain cleared her head and wrenched her back to the present as she let out a shuddering breath.

“You’ll want to take that hand away,” she said, her eyes flashing a pale winter’s blue and her tone icier than the mountain winds.

Eyes watchful, Urkath snatched his hand back and said, “Apologies, Warmother, but to enter the lands of the Lost Ones without their leave… it’s a death sentence.”

A shadow blotted out the low sun before Sejuani could respond, a towering figure of a man wearing the wide-horned helm favored by warriors of the Lokfar.

The coastal peninsula of Lokfar was one of the harshest, most brutally cold regions of the Freljord, and only those with fire in their blood could endure there.

Its warriors were typically rangy, lean, and stoic.

Shedding blood alongside Olaf Olaf the Berserker for many years had taught Sejuani that he was none of those things. Even on foot, he was easily the biggest Freljordian she had ever seen, the equal of the mounted Sejuani and Urkath in height. Some said Olaf’s mother must have lain with a troll to grow so big, but they never said it to his face.

He climbed into the teeth of the oncoming blizzard like a man out for a stroll, his powerfully-muscled body made thicker and broader by the furs and iron plates bound across his chest and arms.

The braids of his beard were frozen into spikes of fiery orange and his pale eyes were alight with the prospect of potentially facing what lay at the top of the mountain.

“A death sentence, you say,” said Olaf, striding past them. “I like the sound of that.”

The mammoth sank to its knees within a spear’s throw of the cliffside timberline.

Its blood soaked the snow, and Sejuani almost felt sorry for the beast, coming so close to the border between this world and the terrible things that dwelled in the storms wracking the summit.

She pushed thoughts of sentiment aside. An animal this size would feed the Winter’s Claw for a week—surviving a day, an hour, or even the span of a breath was a victory in the Freljord.

Sejuani slid from Bristle’s back as her hunters dropped to the snow, unstrapping long, thick-hafted spears from their mounts. She reached over her shoulder and unlaced the thongs securing her mighty flail, Winter’s Wrath.

Steeling herself for the pain, she gripped its leather-wrapped haft and swung it around her body, feeling the deathly cold of the True Ice secured at the end of its thick chain. Pale radiance built behind the blue of her eyes, and she exhaled a breath of aching cold.

The flail was a weapon of great power, but it came with a cost.

Glowing lines of hard, crystalline blue formed under her skin, threading the veins of her forearm and reaching up to her corded bicep.

Urkath drew his great longsword, its hilt worked from the jawbones of a rimefang wolf and its blade sharp enough to cut stone. Olaf unsheathed his mighty axes, their blades glimmering with hoar-frost.

“My edges hunger,” said Olaf, his teeth grinding in anticipation. Blood flecked his lips where he’d chewed the inside of his cheeks.

“We do this right,” said Sejuani. “Together. No heroics.”

Olaf grinned and nodded, his eyes glazing over and his mind already sinking into the blood-mist of the berserker.

Sejuani took a step toward the mammoth, lifting the flail and letting the beast see the glimmering cold of its True Ice.

“Get up,” she ordered. “You are a king of the Freljord. You don’t die on your knees.”

The mammoth glared at her and, taking strength from her words, pushed itself to its feet. It threw back its shaggy, tusked head and loosed a ferocious bray of defiance. The sound echoed over the mountains like the Forge God’s Forge God’s legendary Carnyx, a war-horn whose blast could be heard all around the world.

The sound shook snow from the trees, eclipsing the storm raging at the summit.

The mammoth lowered its head and stamped its huge front legs, each as thick as the ironwood trees ringing the rocks at Ornnkaal. Its head swayed from side to side, displaying its jagged, sword-like tusks, each capable of goring a warrior to death with a single blow.

“We will give you a good death, you have my word,” promised Sejuani.

“A glorious death…” grunted Olaf, the words forced out between bloodied teeth, but Sejuani wasn’t sure whose death he meant.

The Winter’s Claw hunters spread out, weapons at the ready. The warriors with the spears flanked the mammoth left and right as Sejuani, Olaf, and Urkath stood before it, meeting its challenge head-on.

With a bellow of rage, the mortally wounded beast charged.

Its speed was ferocious, far faster than should have been possible.

It churned the snow, throwing up great chunks of black rock and bloody ice.

Sejuani and Urkath dove to the side, but Olaf leapt to meet the beast with a bellow to rival that of his foe. His ax struck the mammoth in the center of its head, but bit only a finger breadth before skidding from the thick bone of its skull. With a dismissive flick of its trunk, the mammoth tossed the berserker over its back. Olaf landed hard on the rocks behind, dangerously close to the sheer drop of the cliffs. He came to his feet with a delighted, lunatic laugh.

Sejuani rolled to her feet and swung Winter’s Wrath in a wide, two-handed sweep.

The flail’s True Ice smashed into the mammoth’s back knee.

It faltered, stumbling as the limb buckled beneath it.

The beast crashed to the ground and skidded to a halt, trying to push itself to its feet on a back leg that wouldn’t work. Sejuani’s warriors closed in, ramming their spears into its flanks with the grim, pitiless precision of hunters who had done this many times before.

Thrust the blade, twist the haft, withdraw to a safe distance.

The mammoth roared and surged upright as iron spearheads pierced its body, fresh blood staining the snow. A successful hunt had little to do with glory or honor; it was about exhausting the prey, wounding it and wearing it down until it couldn’t fight back.

Then came the killing.

One of her warriors slipped in the snow, and the mammoth jerked to the side, stamping down with one mighty foreleg. The man’s scream was cut off as he was crushed to gory red paste beneath its massive foot.

The other hunters backed off, chests heaving, looking for an opening to strike again.

The mammoth swung its lethal tusks from side to side, turning on the spot and backing toward the edge of the cliff. Sejauni moved left, keeping the head of her flail in motion. Urkath circled right, sword held high at his shoulder.

Sejuani resisted turning her head as she heard Olaf’s ululating battle cry.

He charged headfirst at the mammoth, his ax flashing silver in the waning light.

The beast lowered its head, tusks ready to gore the berserker to death.

Olaf was deep in the blood-mist, a state of mind that turned him into a ferocious killing machine, a living avatar of death. The mammoth swung its head up and Olaf leapt into the air to grip one of the slashing tusks with his free hand. Using the momentum of the beast’s movement, he swung up and over its head to land on the mammoth’s shaggy back.

His ax hacked down, like a woodsman chopping at a stubborn tree-root.

The mammoth reared up, shaking its body to dislodge the berserker, but Olaf had ridden wilder monsters than this. He gripped a handful of its long hair and laid a flurry of blows upon the mammoth’s back. Seeing his chance, Urkath charged toward the beast, sword raised to cut its exposed throat.

Its trunk lashed around his waist like a tentacle of the boneless creatures that sometimes washed up from the deep ocean on Yadulsk’s shores. The mammoth lifted Urkath into the air before slamming him down on a jutting black rock.

Sejuani heard his spine shatter even over his scream of agony.

Twice more it smashed him against the rock before hurling his body aside.

Urkath’s bloody remains fell to the snow, his body shattered, his arms and legs hideously twisted. Sejuani screamed and sprinted forward as Olaf continued to chop through the beast’s thick hide to its spine.

The beast’s eyes were maddened with pain and fury, but still it saw her coming.

It bellowed and thrust its tusks at her, almost too fast to avoid.

Almost…

Sejuani dropped to the snow and slid beneath the mammoth’s belly on her back. Holding the haft of Winter’s Wrath in one hand, she screamed as she took hold of the chained shard of True Ice in her fist.

The pain was unbearable, as if she’d thrust her hand deep into a fire.

She slammed the shard up into the mammoth’s chest, turning her head from the flaring burst of blue-white fire as it punched deep into its body.

Sejuani slid out from under the mammoth and sprang to her feet. The chained True Ice fell from her numbed hand. Her fingers were black and clawed with frostbite.

The mammoth staggered, its mighty heart freezing in its chest, the blood in its veins turning to ice. Its eyes misted with the white of a blizzard and it staggered like a drunk as it fought to stay upright.

“Olaf, get off!” yelled Sejuani. “Olaf!

Her voice was hard and commanding, a voice to be obeyed. It penetrated the blood-mist wreathing Olaf’s mind, and he vaulted from the mammoth’s back.

He landed next to her, chest heaving, eyes wide and his ax blade soaked in blood.

Sejuani wanted to speak, but the pain was too great. That was good, she hoped, it meant the hand wasn’t beyond saving. Her fingers throbbed in agony, and she thrust them deep within her furs, doing her best to hide the pain.

The mammoth staggered and swayed, dragging its back leg as its blood grew ever more sluggish and cold. Her hunters closed in, spears poised, but Sejuani halted them with a word. The hunt was over. The beast had its back to the cliff, nowhere to go.

Though the mammoth knew it was beaten, it lifted its head proudly.

It had fought to the last, and Sejuani held her weapon high, honoring its spirit.

The great beast stared her down, caring nothing for the gesture.

Instead, it stepped back and over the cliff.

Sejuani ran to the cliff’s edge and sank to her knees, watching as the mammoth fell thousands of feet down the mountain before landing on a wide expanse of heavy snow.

“Svaag!” swore Sejuani, balling her fists in the snow, heedless of the pain.

Olaf stood over her, leaning dangerously far out over the cliff.

“Ach, we’ll just climb down to carve it up,” he said with a shrug. “The beast saved us the bother of dragging its carcass off the mountain.”

Sejuani sighed, about to agree with him, when she heard a distant cracking sound. A sound babes in arms were taught to recognize.

The sound of breaking ice.

A network of angular black lines spread out from where the mammoth had landed and Sejuani realized the wide expanse of white wasn’t a stretch of tundra at all. It was the frozen surface of a mountain tarn, a lake pool formed in a deep hollow.

The ice splintered into jagged segments and Sejuani watched with a sick sense of horrified inevitability as the mammoth’s body slid beneath the frigid black waters, far beyond their reach.

“Svaaaaaaag!”

Defying all Sejuani’s understanding of the human body, Urkath yet lived.

His ribs were smashed and his spine was splintered into fragments, but he still drew breath as Sejuani and Olaf squatted next to him. Incredibly, he’d managed to prop himself up against the very rock that had destroyed his spine, drawing short, hiked breaths.

Wolf Wolf calls me home…” he said with a pained grin, his voice little more than a whisper.

Lamb Lamb would never think to come for you, Urkath,” said Sejuani, taking his hand. “We are Winter’s Claw. We don’t go meekly into the beyond.”

Urkath nodded. “My sword?”

Olaf pressed Urkath’s weapon into his palm and closed the man’s fingers around its grip.

“The tale of your death will be told at the hearthfires for many seasons,” said the berserker, a melancholic edge in his voice. “I envy you that.”

Urkath coughed a mouthful of blood and said, “I’d gladly… swap fates with you, big man.”

“No,” said Olaf sadly. “I do not think that you would.”

Urkath turned his head, the light fading from his eyes, and said, “The gods… they show me a fine sight… as I die…”

Sejuani followed his gaze to the top of the mountain, where a vivid borealis of crimson and amber had driven away the lightning, a swathe of light painting the night sky that was as beautiful and magical as it was strange.

She saw Urkath’s bloodstained mask lying in the snow and slid it over his now lifeless face.

“Wolf will be here soon,” whispered Sejuani. “Give the old bastard a scare for me.”

They left Urkath there, at the border between the realm of mortals and the Lost Ones.

His body belonged to the Freljord now and his spirit would roam the frozen winds until the cold, atavistic soul of the land found a use for it.

Their mood was grim as they descended the mountain.

To stay on the hunt any longer would be pointless. As it was, they had only scraps to sustain them back to the Winter’s Claw encampment, two days’ travel westward.

Exhausted and with hunger gnawing at her belly, Sejuani swayed in Bristle’s saddle, her frozen hand tingling beneath her furs.

Olaf kept pace with her on foot, keeping his own counsel, his mood dark.

Night closed in as they reached the foot of the mountains and camped in the lee of a titanic menhir. It had once been part of a great stone circle higher up the mountain, but had toppled in a long-ago earthquake. The smooth stone surface was carved with ancient symbols no one could read, and a pair of frozen skeletons lay entwined at its far end, a frosted blade lying within their bones.

Lovers or bitter enemies, who could say?

Dawn brought fresh snows and colder winds coming off the high peaks, as though the mountain itself sought to drive them from its slopes. Their route home took them past the remains of a village that had once stood where the road turned to the mountain pass. Its structures were ghostly tombs now, its inhabitants dead or long gone.

Nightfall on the second day saw them come within sight of the Winter’s Claw encampment.

A few guttering torches marked its edge, and Sejuani’s heart sank to see how few they were now. Not so very long ago, when she had first marshaled her followers, they numbered in the thousands, but hunger and the harshness of recent seasons had forced her to scatter her host.

“How do you fare?” asked Olaf as they trudged toward the beacons of light, the first words he had said since coming off the mountain.

“At last, he speaks,” said Sejuani, irritated at his sullenness.

“Ach, don’t mind me,” said Olaf. “Each time the blood-mist takes me I hope it will be the last time. That I will finally die in glory. And every time it fades, I am sad that I know I am one step closer to dying at peace.”

Sejuani shrugged. “Have no fear, Olaf. With enemies all around us, I promise you days of blood and battle, nights of death and fury.”

Olaf grinned, and his grim countenance vanished like snow before the summer.

“You swear it?”

“I swear it,” promised Sejuani. “But to answer your first question, Viljalmr will take it as an ill-omen that the tribe’s leader returns with nothing to show for her hunt.”

“A pox on his kind,” spat Olaf. “Seers only ever speak in riddles and deliver naught but grim portents. I’d sooner trust a southerner.”

Sensing an opening, Sejuani asked, “Are you ever going to tell me why you went south?”

“No,” said the berserker. “I don’t think I will. Some tales are best left in the past.”

Sejuani ran the stiff brush through Bristle’s fur, letting the anger burning within her after the meeting in the tented longhouse flow from her with every hard sweep. As she’d feared, the seer, Viljalmr, had found great woe in her having returned without meat for curing. Circling the firepit, his cloak of raven feathers glistening in the orange light of the flames, he told the assembled claw-leaders that the coming winter would be the grimmest any of them had known.

Olaf had openly mocked the man, telling him a child could see the same thing.

The other hunting claws had met with little more success—Svalyek’s claw had taken six elnuk from an Avarosan drover who’d waited too long to lead his herd to greener pastures, and Heffnar’s group had found and killed a small pod of horned seals trapped on land after the ocean floes had frozen to the edge of the land.

It wasn’t nearly enough, but it would keep the tribe’s bellies full for a few days.

Fear made the tribe’s blood run hot, and shouting voices clamored to know what she would do, how she planned to keep her people alive until the spring muster. Sejuani had no answer, and angry voices echoed long into the night with ill-formed thoughts on how they should survive.

Some said they should march south to Ornnkaal Rocks and make peace with the Avarosans, but they were quickly shouted down by Gunnak, the most bellicose of Sejuani’s war-leaders. Beating his tattooed chest with his ax, he demanded they take their claws and carve a red path as deep as they could into Avarosan lands to earn a glorious death.

Sejuani had to admit, despite its suicidal futility, the idea of riding into the southern lowlands with blades unsheathed greatly appealed to her. Others said they should try another hunt. After all, wasn’t there still light and food enough to mount one more expedition?

Heads nodded at that suggestion until Hunt-leader Varruki explained there was barely enough food to sustain the hunters, and that everyone would be frozen and starved before they returned.

Quieter speakers said maybe they should disperse the tribe, each family making their own way into the wilds. Smaller groups would be easier to feed after all…

Sejuani had quashed such talk straight away.

She knew it was going to be hard enough to get the full tribe back together in the spring months as it was. Breaking up even further would only tempt each smaller group to turn from the Winter’s Claw to try and forge a new life in the south.

In the Freljord, community was life, and to separate further was to die. No one could endure alone, and only by the combined will of the tribe, even one as harsh and unforgiving as the Winter’s Claw, was survival even possible.

Besides, going south meant a life lived as a prisoner of the fields, of homes built from stone, of tending flocks. That was not the Winter’s Claw way, and would never be their way.

Sejuani would rather die with the blood running hot in her veins and a blade in her hand than stooped and worn down by years of grubbing in the dirt for seeds.

In the end, Viljalmr had marched straight up to her, a brazen threat to her authority.

How were the Winter’s Claw to survive?

Once, she would have struck him down for such open defiance, but his question was fair and everyone gathered in the tent knew it.

Her people needed a leader who could make life and death decisions without fear, so she told the assembled leaders they would have her answer when dawn’s light clawed over the mountains.

Now, brushing the thick hair running down Bristle’s back, she felt the raging storm within her mind finally calming. Grooming the giant beast always soothed Sejuani’s emotions, reminding her of a time when things had been simpler, though part of her knew that life had never been simpler, not really.

She thought back to when she’d brought Ashe Ashe to the Winter’s Claw after finding her alone and in exile on the ice. She smiled, remembering how her childhood friend had mistaken Sejuani for one of the Ursine.

Her strokes grew harder as she thought of how Ashe had betrayed them and turned her back on Sejuani during the raid on the Ebrataal. That was the moment Sejuani had known for sure there was no chance of the Winter’s Claw ever making peace with the Avarosan.

Bristle grunted in annoyance, stamping his hoofs in irritation.

“Careful, lass, the beast’s getting unsettled,” said a voice from behind.

Sejuani spun, reaching for the knife at her hip.

A shape lay at the corner of the corral, small and useless looking, like a bundle of rags.

She released her grip on the knife, shocked to see who had spoken.

Lying in a makeshift bed of straw was a wretched old man who should have been left out on the ice to die many years ago. His legs were stumps that ended just above the knee, and his sightless eyes were mottled white like a gull’s egg.

His name was Kriek and he’d once been the seer of Olgavanna’s tribe, farmers and builders who’d refused the call to Sejuani’s banner. So she had sent Urkath’s war-claw to wipe them out and take their herds, their furs, their iron, and their salt. The survivors fled up the slopes of a mountain whose summit seethed with the red rock that flows.

When Urkath returned, it was with Kriek on his back and he’d seemed confused when Sejuani demanded to know why he’d brought them a useless mouth to feed. Urkath claimed the Ursine had driven them from the mountain, speaking of blade-pierced titans draped in bloodied fur and horns, gaping skulls, and fists that hurled fire.

He’d simply said that the mountain had told him to bring the blind man, before dumping him unceremoniously at the edge of the village. Sejuani had given orders that no one feed the seer, that he be left behind for the Freljord to take. But here he was, many months and leagues from that battle, alive and, more confusingly, somehow still with the Winter’s Claw.

“Word is you glimpsed the realm of the Lost Ones on the mountain,” said Kriek. “Don’t envy you that, lass. I saw them once, back when you drove us into Hearth-Home.”

Sejuani put aside her irritation long enough to say, “You didn’t see anything. You’re blind.”

Kriek nodded and said, “Oh, I seen them, better’n any true-shotted archer ever did. White and gold in the clouds, lightning for blood, and voices of thunder. I saw, I did.”

Sejuani peered into the milky whiteness of his gaze.

“Those eyes haven’t seen anything in many a year.”

“True,” said Kriek. “World went white for me on my tenth winter, but some things are best seen without eyes, lass!”

Sejuani tapped the flat of her blade against Kriek’s neck and said, “Call me lass again and I’ll slit your throat right now.”

“Ah, yes, that’s right, you’re no lass, you’re Warmother, ain’t ya? You remember that next time some seer tries to tell you what to do,” laughed Kriek, waving a filthy, gnawed hand at her. “But listen, you know warriors who lose a hand or leg’ll swear they can still feel the cold in ‘em? Same for my eyes. Now I see more’n I ever did before, more’n I ever wished to see. Things you’d gouge your own eyes out with that knife if y’saw the half of them.”

“You don’t know the things I’ve seen,” said Sejuani.

“That’s right,” said Kriek, leaning in. “Ever since that night you and your spirit walker made offerings to the Lost Ones… You sang the oaths, you burned the wood in the death knot, and offered up the weapons and bone, so what do you see? Days of blood and battle, nights of death and fury?”

Just thinking of the slaughter at the city by the river filled Sejuani with a hunger for raw meat, a thirst for marrow sucked from splintered bone.

She shook her head free of the sensations and said, “How are you alive? I told my people not to feed you, to leave you behind.”

“Old Ornn fed me,” said Kriek. “At Hearth-Home, just before your killers came out of the smoke. Lifted me up like a babe and nourished me with a mouthful of broth from his great cauldron. That he did, yes!”

Sejuani sighed. Kriek was clearly mad, but she was more irritated that someone in the Winter’s Claw had clearly been feeding this old fool when their own were going hungry. She went to rise, but the old man’s hand shot out and took her wrist in a powerful grip.

“On my honor, not a scrap of food has passed my lips since your dead man brought me down the mountain,” said Kriek, his lifeless white eyes boring right into her, as though something else stared out from behind them, something infinitely older and wiser. “Never took no food. Nor water, neither! Ornn’s great cauldron seen to that! No company that sups from it ever leaves unsatisfied. One mouthful and your belly don’t growl for a whole turn of the seasons!”

“Ornn’s Cauldron?” scoffed Sejuani. “That’s just a legend. Wishful thinking. It’s one of the lost tales to tell to children.”

“And where d’you think them tales come from but truth!” snapped Kriek. lifting the furs covering his body. “This look like wishful thinking to you?”

Sejuani let out an involuntary gasp at the sight of Kriek’s torso, his flesh ruddy and pink, his belly full and soft with fat. Sejuani was ivory pale, her wrists too slender, the flesh pulled tight over her frame, pressing against the bones for want of meat and fat and fish.

“How…?” said Sejuani.

“I told ya,” said Kriek. “The Great Cauldron of Ornn. Lost Ones stole it from Hearth-Home for spite’s sake. Said Ornn was too soft on mortals, that if they could fill their bellies any time they wanted, they’d get spoiled and weak! So they killed his followers and took it to their mountain, high up where its power now paints the sky with blood-red light. Ornn’s crafty, y’see. His magic’s too wyrd-cunning to stay hidden forever. Even the Lost Ones can’t keep power like that out of sight! Ask that spirit walker friend of yours. If he still remembers he’s a man, he’ll hear the truth of what I say!”

Sejuani shook her head. “Udyr's Udyr's gone. He walked into the blizzard. Said he needed time away from the spirits looking to get inside him. Said he needed to find a way to strengthen his will.”

“Then it’s all on you, Warmother,” said Kriek. “What’s it to be? The old ways? Frozen on your knees or your blood soaking warm southern soil? Or maybe try and take back what the Lost Ones stole? You’ve faced them before, so what’s one more time, eh?”

The old man’s story was lunacy, wasn’t it? How could she possibly convince her people to march into the mountain realm of the Ursine on the word of a madman?

The Freljord was a place of dark mystery, where legends walked the ice, and its magic was there in every breath. Some whispered that Ashe had fought her way to the legendary bow of Avarosa, and Sejuani’s own Iceborn powers were proof that magic was woven into the very fabric of the landscape… but still…?

“Why would you help me?” asked Sejuani. “My warriors slew your tribe.”

“Don’t you understand yet, Warmother?” said Kriek, the timbre of his voice deepening, becoming low and melodic. “We are all one tribe and it is long past time you understood that. You think too small, like a fighter only seeing the foe in front of them. You must think like a Warmother, like a queen! There is a season for fighting, a season for leading, and, aye, one for dying. But a time is coming when the sons and daughters of the Freljord must stand together or you will all die, one by one. And the first step on that road is staying alive. Tell me you hear me, daughter of Kalkia.”

Sejuani nodded and said, “I hear you.”

Sejuani left Kriek and Bristle in the corral. First light was breaking over the mountains, and she paused to savor the coming of a new day.

The orange glow of the dying hearthfire was visible within the tented longhouse, where her people waited to hear what she had decided.

Olaf squatted by its entrance, running a glittering whetstone over the blade of one of his enormous axes. He looked up and his eyes narrowed.

“You have the look of someone chewing a nettle,” he said.

“I know what we have to do, but no one’s going to like it.”

Olaf shrugged. “They don’t need to like it. You’re Warmother. You tell them what to do and they do it. That’s how this works.”

“I’ll want you at my side,” said Sejuani.

Olaf rose to his full, towering height, hooking his ax over his shoulder.

“No,” said Sejuani. “Blade out.”

Olaf nodded slowly and said, “You going to tell me your plan before we go in?”

“Remember how I promised you days of blood and battle, nights of death and fury?”

“Aye, Warmother, I do!” said Olaf, his smile as wide as the horizon.

“We’re going back up the mountain,” said Sejuani. “To the realm of the Ursine to steal the Great Cauldron of Ornn from the Volibear.”

“You’re right, they’re not going to like it,” said Olaf. “But I love it!”

References

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