“I have never seen the forgotten god. My grandmother told me these tales, but she never saw the forgotten god either—nor did her grandmother before her, or hers before her, a thousand times over. His legends endure only around crackling fires and meals of roasted fish. The further back we trace our ancestors, the truer the tales become.”
The children’s weary faces lift a little higher. Firelight dances on their cheeks, but pain lives in their eyes.
“Gods dwell around us, in the sky, in between clumps of soil, and behind the veil of stars. We need only to seek their favor, to channel their being into our hearts and deeds. For instance, on the sea, it is so cold that your eyeballs might freeze solid in their sockets. No, it’s true! But when sailors rub blubber on their faces and think about the Seal Sister, whose true name is forgotten, they are protected from the icy ocean winds.
“Others, such as, refuse to allow their own legends to fade, and still stalk this world. He demands sacrifice and forces obedience, much like the Ursine…”
They have all heard tales of the half-bear abominations. Fear makes the children lean closer to the fire.
“Oh yes, little ones—we may speak later of the bearskinned storm-bearer, but the less said about him the better.”
Like grandmother used to say, once they lean closer to the fire, they’re yours.
“Instead, these stories concern the firstborn of the gods…”
The Shaping of Land
Ornn was the firstborn of his brothers and sisters. He leapt into the world, itching for a fight. This was not so easy, however. Trees were weak adversaries, snapping far too easily. Icebergs melted at his touch, running away into the sea.
Frustrated, he punched a mountain. The mountain did not yield. Ornn was pleased by this, so he challenged the land itself to a good-natured brawl.
As Ornn wrestled with the land, he dented and bruised it, shaping all of the Freljord that we know today. He headbutted mountains from the planes, and pounded down deep valleys. When he was tired, Ornn thanked the land for the glorious match. The land responded by opening a fiery pit, showing him its very heart, and he was honored to see it was a reflection of him: a fiery ram. The land had deemed Ornn worthy, and bestowed its secrets to him, gifting him the strength of primordial flame, for fire is the true agent of change.
He looked at the landscape that was the result of his fight and nodded. It would do. After this, Ornn set himself to building tools and weapons.
My ancestors must be smiling, for at this moment, a light snow begins to fall. Gentle flakes settle on the children’s furred hoods, and they stick out their tongues.
“Did you know that there used to be no snow in the Freljord?” I ask them. The children look confused. “It’s true. Our lands have always been the coldest in the entire world, but in the early days there was only bitter, dry air, and no such things as stormclouds…”
The Origins of Snow
It was during the early, cloudless and cold days that Ornn built a house. He made it of the finest lumber. The magnificent home spanned three valleys. Can you imagine that? After completing his majestic Horn Hall, Ornn appraised his work.
“Good,” he said. These were the days before language, so this was a compliment indeed.
Now, his sisterwas annoyed. Ornn had felled her favorite perching trees to build his home. So she decided to teach him a lesson.
While Ornn was sleeping, she flew in through his bedroom window. Then, she tickled his nose with one of her feathers, causing him to sneeze a gout of flame that set fire to the bedsheets! The bedsheets set the floor ablaze! Anivia panicked, and flapped her wings to fly away, but this only stoked the fire hotter with the dry Freljord air. Soon, all of Horn Hall was alight.
The fire raged for days, darkening the skies with ash. Of course, Ornn slept through the whole thing. He awoke atop a pile of ashes in a very bad mood, for he had not had a restful sleep. But he did not know what Anivia had done. And to this day, she has never told him the truth.
“I complimented my own handiwork, and look where it got me,” said Ornn, surveying the damage. “Never again will I pat myself on the back. I shall let the quality of the work speak for itself.”
Ornn had one goal in particular for his next home: he did not want it to be flammable. He fashioned himself a spade, a lever, and a fork. With these tools, he could dig for ore, move mighty pillars, and eat the delicious spiced cherries he so enjoyed.
He hammered and shaped chunks of ore until a black mountain stood. Inside was a great forge that channeled the primordial molten flame from deep within the earth. He was pleased with his Hearth-Home—but it was too hot inside to dwell comfortably, even for Ornn.
So he dug a trench from the sea, straight to the mountain. The Seal Sister allowed cold waters to rush through the trench and cool the Hearth-Home. Great plumes of steam rose up. It took three days for the mountain to cool enough for Ornn. In that time, the ocean that fed the river dipped several inches.
By then, so much steam had risen from the waters that the perpetual blue sky was mottled with darkening gray clouds. As these new puffy forms gathered and cooled, they grew heavier and heavier until they burst with snow.
It snowed for a hundred years. This is why the Freljord still has so much snow today.
One of the children frowns at me. “If Ornn did so much for the world, then why is it only you who knows the stories about him?” she asks. The girl is young, but has already seen so much hardship that her hair has several shocks of silver running through it.
“There is one tale that answers this very question,” I reply. “Would you like to hear it?”
The children’s eager faces say it all.
Three Sisters ask Ornn for help
Once, there were Three Sisters who needed Ornn’s help in saving their world. Ornn, however, did not care to help anyone save any world, anywhere. It was for personal reasons, and he did not elaborate on the matter. But this did not stop the Three Sisters journeying many days and nights to ask.
“There are creatures of great and wicked magic that stalk our tribes,” the First Sister said. She had fierceness and war in her eyes. “They want to destroy all things and claim the world for themselves!”
“This sounds like a problem,” Ornn said. He did not look up from his forging.
“Then will you fight with us, and use your strength to slay the monsters?”
Ornn grunted. This grunt meant “no” in such a way as to halt any more discussion. This was understood by all. If you heard this grunt, you would have thought the First Sister wise for not pressing the matter further.
“These beings watch our every move,” the Second Sister said. There was hope and wisdom in her voice. “I would ask you to take the spade that once dug your mighty river, and use it to dig the deepest trench in all the world. Then we can lure the monsters into the pit ourselves, and solve our own problem.”
Ornn grunted. The sound of this grunt meant “I will dig that hole,” and that everyone should stop talking immediately. This was understood by all. If you heard this grunt, you would have thought the Second Sister wise for not pressing the matter further.
So Ornn dug them a trench, for a very deep hole can add much to a landscape. Also, he had planned on digging one anyway, and the proposed location was a fine spot. When Ornn was finished with the trench, he left the three sisters with nary a word, for he had already said far too much to them.
“That is one deep hole,” the Second Sister said. “I pray it is deep enough.”
Wind blew up from the freshly dug abyss with an otherworldly howl, as if to say that it was deep enough. If you had heard the abyss’ howl, you would have thought it wise that no one climbed down to measure its depth.
Several years later, the sisters returned. They looked as if the battles with their foes had taken a toll.
This time, thespoke. Her icy breath reminded Ornn of the cold and dry days, long ago. “Ornn, Builder of All Things,” she began.
“I did not build all things,” Ornn grumbled. Again, he did not look up from his forging.
“Just some of them.”
The Third Sister continued. “We come now to ask you one simple favor. The pit you dug is so deep and so wide that we cannot build even a single bridge across it. Teach me how to build a bridge that can never break, and I will do the work myself.”
Ornn raised an eyebrow. He studied the Third Sister’s eyes. He did not trust her, for she had a scent of magic about her, and magic always makes sturdy things weaker. “There are many able bridge builders. Go and bother them.”
“The other builders cannot make a bridge with the type of stone we have,” the Third Sister replied. “They claim it fell from the sky, and they cannot forge it for all their efforts.” She then presented a chunk of star metal.
If you had seen the star metal, you would think it wise that only Ornn could possibly ever shape this material, for it was almost as stubborn and unyielding as him. Ornn agreed, but he would do the work alone, and required the star metal itself as payment.
The Third Sister gave it to him, and he used it to forge a tool to help build the bridge.
With that tool, and only that tool, Ornn built the bridge. The Second Sister felt bad about the Third Sister’s lie—for they did not need a bridge at all. She asked Ornn what sort of tool it was.
“I used it to hammer,” Ornn said. “So I will call it ‘Hammer.’ I have said enough.”
When he was out of sight, the Third Sister walked the length of the bridge, reciting strange incantations across the entire span. This turned the bridge into a crossbar that sealed the beasts below within the abyss. However, Ornn had been right, and the addition of magic ruined the quality of his work. Had the Three Sisters left it well enough alone, it would have lasted forever. Instead, the enchantment would slowly eat away at the masonry. It would take ages, though, so nobody paid it much mind, and the Three Sisters vowed never to speak of Ornn again.
Ornn, meanwhile, realized he did not like people asking him favors, and threw his spade as far to the west as he could. Where it landed, no one knows, and its fate is lost to darkness.
Then he turned east and threw his favorite eating fork as far as he could. It landed in the Great Sea. Some say, later, a mer-king found a powerful trident at the sea-bottom, and still uses it to rule his kingdom."
Ornn was ready to throw his hammer into the night sky, but he could not bear to do it and decided to keep it. Were you to see Ornn and ask him if it is his favorite tool, he would scold you for thinking like a child. But in secret, he favors Hammer above all other things he has made.
“Dawn brings the plumpest berries and the meatiest fish,” I say to the children. “We need to be rested.”
They groan in unison and plead with me for one more story. Just one more story.
“There is only one more story about Ornn left,” I tell them. “We should save it for another night…” Only when they pledge to do every chore and not complain about being too tired, do I relent.
The Troll and The Ram-Door
Everyone knows that you never challenge a troll to a drinking contest, don’t they? Even you little ones know not to make a bet with a troll, for trolls are sneaky and will always win. Also, everyone in the Freljord knows that the uglier a troll is, the luckier and more cunning it can be.
Unfortunately, Ornn did not know any of these things.
Grubgrack the Hideous was the oldest troll-kin in the world. His chest hair was so long, it got tangled up in his gnarled toes. Ugh! He would often trip over it and break his nose, which was bulbous and misshapen from being broken so many times. He only had two good teeth, one bad eye, and one worse eye. Warts and pimples covered his rotund belly. I will not tell you how he smelled. If I did, you would never eat fermented fish stew again.
“Build me a door that will keep my treasure safe from thieves forever,” Grubgrack said to Ornn outside Hearth-Home, “and I will give you ten casks of my trollmead. It’s a family recipe.”
Ornn dismissed his guest, but Grubgrack stuck out his foot to stop the door from closing.
Ornn did not want the troll’s bunion-covered toes ruining the paint, so he let the creature go on. “Let us make a wager,” said the truly un-beautiful troll. “Whoever can finish a cask of trollmead first owes the other a debt.”
“If it will make you go away, okay.” Ornn had never been beaten in a drinking contest. Everyone knew this back then, and now you do, too.
“At least it will be good to have a drink,” Grubrack replied, and his smile warped one of the Hearth-Home’s pillars. While Ornn’s back was turned, the troll slipped a shard of True Ice into a cask and handed it to his challenger.
They toasted in the jovial manner of the Freljord and drank. Ornn found the trollmead watered down, and he did not like it. However, Grubgrack was halfway through his cask. With his own cask still almost at the brim, Ornn tipped his head back further and drank until he thought he would drown. But Grubgrack slammed his empty cask down and belched, and the fire in the oven turned a sickly green! Ornn coughed and spluttered.
“What is wrong?” Grubgrack teased him. “Are you choking?”
Then Ornn noticed the True Ice in his drink. It was perpetually melting and watering down the trollmead. No matter how much he chugged, the True Ice had replaced it. He smashed the cask with one hand.
“You cheated,” Ornn said. His angry voice set off an earthquake that sunk a few islands.
“Of course! What other advantage would an ugly troll like me have against the mighty Ornn?” In truth, the ugliest trolls have almost all the advantages in the world, but Ornn did not spend much time with ugly trolls, so he wouldn’t know that, but now all of you little ones do. “A deal is a deal,” Grubgrack reminded him.
“My word is as good as Hammer,” Ornn grumbled. “Even if I was cheated.”
So Ornn labored for ten days and built the single best door anyone had ever built. He adorned it with a ram’s head, like his own, and the one at the heart of the Freljord. It was impervious to magic and lock-pickers alike. Grubgrack was so impressed with the quality of the door that he was speechless, which is very rare for a troll.
Ornn fastened thein front of the troll’s cave, which was on top of the troll’s mountain, and where all the ugliest troll-kin in history had hid their treasure.
With a grunt, Ornn trundled off, leaving Grubgrack admiring his new door.
When he had regained his wits, Grubgrack realized it had been a day since he last counted his gold, and he was growing anxious. But he could find no way to open the door! None at all.
Grubgrack tried brute force. The ram-faced door did not budge. Then, he tried to strip the paint with his foul breath. Again, the door did not budge. Lastly, he tried to pry the hinges from the cave wall but, alas, the door was fixed to the mountain so firmly that the troll only hurt his shoulders trying to shake it loose. He was locked out.
Grubgrack stormed into Ornn’s forge. “What trickery is this?” he shouted. His breath was so bad, the forge fire nearly flickered out.
“There is no trickery,” Ornn replied, stoking the flames back to life. “You told me to build a door that would keep your treasure safe from thieves forever, and I did. This door will stand longer than the mountain it is on. No one can break it. I made it just as you asked.”
“But I cannot get inside!” Grubgrack cried. “And I stole nothing from you!”
“Time is more valuable than gold,” Ornn said. “So you are a thief, and my work is as good as my word.” Grubgrack tried for years to get back inside for his treasure, but the door never opened for him, and he could not even find the keyhole. With each attempt, the ram-headed door stared back at him, an eternal reminder of the time he cheated Ornn.
And if you listen carefully, up in the mountains, you can hear greedy old Grubgrack’s wails of anguish before any avalanche, even to this day.
The children are fast asleep, snuggled into each other around the fire. I carry them one by one to the orphans’ tent. Our tribe hasn’t much to share, but we are not the Winter’s Claw.
The last child is still awake by the fire. He lies on his side.
“Those stories aren’t real,” he says with the tiniest voice.
It’s the legless boy. We found him half-dead after our own village had been raided. We couldn’t leave him—I couldn’t leave him—so I wrapped his wounds in bandages, and carried him on my shoulders.
“I think they are made up. Or… changed to help us go to sleep.”
“A story is as real as we believe it is,” I tell him, as I settle down next to him.
“There is a god who is good, but he doesn’t care about us.”
I nod slowly. “I can see why you would think that, but it is not true. There is one more story I can tell you. It was the last story my grandmother told me before I blossomed into womanhood. She wanted me to be ready, for it is not like the others. But I think you have seen enough to be ready. What do you think?”
The boy nods. I draw him close to my chest and begin.
The Tragedy of The Hearthblood
Once, long before the splintering of the Freljord, Ornn had a legion of smiths who lived at the base of his mountain. They claimed to worship Ornn, but if you were to ask him, they were misguided, for he would say he had no followers. Still, it is true that they built themselves a little town and that it was filled with folk who wished to make the finest things in all the world.
There were thousands of them. They made tools. They made plows. They made carts and armor and saddles. They built furnaces and homes. They called themselves the Hearthblood, for they never felt the biting cold of the Freljord, and could tolerate the immense heat bubbling beneath their bare feet on the slopes of Hearth-Home. They became the finest craftspeople in the world, and their workmanship was surpassed in quality only by Ornn’s.
Occasionally, he would appraise their work. If he liked what one of the Hearthblood had wrought, he simply said “Passable.” This was a mighty compliment from Ornn, who had learned long ago to let good work speak for itself. Do you remember that tale?
Ornn never admitted that he admired the Hearthblood but, deep inside his chest, his volcanic heart churned with respect for the hardworking people. They did not kneel or offer him sacrificed flesh. They did not turn his words into scriptures and spread them across the land to people who did not want to hear them. Instead, they focused on their work in silence. They were imaginative, resourceful, and hardworking. These Hearthblood folks made Ornn smile, although nobody knew because they couldn’t see the smile underneath his beard.
One day,came to visit his brother Ornn.
This was no friendly stop, for Ornn and his brother were never friendly, nor had they ever visited one another before. The great bear was going to make war and needed weapons for his army. Ornn saw the army—fierce aberrations, men twisted into other shapes by their efforts to please Volibear. They were simple, and fierce, and quick to anger.
“Give them swords and axes,” Volibear demanded, with wicked intent. “Give them armor, and I will make it worth your while.”
“No,” said Ornn, for he wanted no part in Volibear’s warmongering.
“Fine,” said Volibear. “Have your followers do it instead. I do not care. Do this. I am your brother.” This irked Ornn so much that his great horns flared with molten heat. “The people in the town below do not follow me. They build for themselves. They are quiet and work hard. That is all.”
But Volibear saw beneath his brother’s words to the fiery heart in his chest. For all his flaws, Volibear was very good at reading others.
“They are a reflection of your own image.”
Ornn’s horns grew red hot, and then white hot. “If I see you again, Volibear, I will beat you within an inch of your life,” he growled. If you had heard this threat, you would think it wise for Volibear to leave and never return.
But Volibear loved fighting, and he was not wise, so he took a piece of armor from the walls of Ornn’s forge.
“If you will not make me what I want, then I will take it.”
With that, Ornn charged at Volibear and smashed him with his horns. It was so powerful a blow, the summit of the mountain shook.
This was exactly what Volibear wanted. For centuries, he had grown jealous of the love the Hearthblood freely gave to his brother. It enraged the war-bear.
They fought for eight days. They fought so hard, the base of the mountain trembled. So fierce was their fighting that molten stone exploded from the peak of Hearth-Home. Lighting strikes barraged the mountainside, and geysers of flame gushed from the cliffs. The skies grew black and red. The blood of the world ran through the highlands as the ground shook. People all over the Freljord saw the results of the battle between Volibear and Ornn.
When the smoke cleared, the mountain had lost its peak. But worse, the Hearthblood were all dead, and their town was nothing but smoldering ruins and a fading memory.
For many centuries, the half-mountain once called Hearth-Home has stood silent. Every now and then, a plume of smoke rises from the crater where the peak once stood. Some say it is Ornn, lighting his furnace to keep the fires under the surface of the world from going out. Others say he is building a great weapon that he will one day unleash.
And there are others still, who believe Ornn was killed by Volibear, for he has not been seen in the Freljord since.
“And so, Ornn’s name and tales have been lost to time and written out of the histories.
These few stories, passed on around our meals of roasted fish, are all that remain.”
“That is a sad tale, which means it is the truest,” the legless boy says, looking up at me.
There is a tear in his eye. “What do you believe happened to Ornn?”
“I believe when the Great Builder returns,” I tell him, “it will be to remake the world.”
The boy laughs. “I would like to see that day.”
“Maybe you will. Do not weep for the Hearthblood. Weep instead for the stories lost to war and time, for once they were more numerous than the stars. Repeat these tales so our children’s children can still hear our ancestors’ voices, and stoke the fire of the forge in our hearts.”
In my own heart, I can feel my grandmother’s smile. It warms me. I feel no cold beneath my bare feet."