Twelve days! Twelve days of endless searching and at last I have finally found it!
It was high noon. Ava knew because it was the only time of day the sun could be seen through the thick mass of clouds that blanketed Spectermere’s grey sky. The small, white disk offered little light and even less heat. It had no power here, where frost, wind, and dark reigned over the land; a place where an easy death came to the weak and unwary.
Ava risked her life trekking through Draugr Forest for it. Minervin said every land on Archaicron had at least one, but even he doubted that she would find one in this frozen wasteland. She knew better though, there was no doubt in her mind that she would find one eventually if she went deep enough into the forest.
It did not have the exact look of the Panacean Fountains he described in his tales. The waters were a light turquoise instead of deep blue and the surrounding rock formations, covered in the long-forgotten writings of The Ancients, were weathered and in ruin. But there was no denying the effect it had on the scant wilderness around it. The frost-bitten vegetation was thicker and had better colouring, as much as it could in a land like Spectermere. Even the nearest trees had a few blackened leaves blowing in the chill breeze.
It was a Panacean Fountain! It had to be! She was almost certain of it, far too desperate for those healing waters to nitpick on small details.
Ava stared at the rippling waters that never froze and wondered idly if it would clear the stain of her birth. A thought she dismissed almost immediately. Still, Minervin needed them; the ailing man was getting worse and worse with each passing day. She needed to get back to him soon. Already she had been away from him for far too long. Though all her efforts, all her time and all her meticulous planning would be all for naught if she could not eliminate the troll squatting at the fountain’s base, gnawing on a piece of fleshy bone from its latest kill. Sounds of bone cracking, grunting and lip-smacking filled the silence. Noise bred from the certainty that it was alone and safe in the area.
Wrapped in a thick coat of dark grey fur, the troll was largely fat, brawn and hard bone, standing a full chest, shoulders, and head over her at full height. They would not have normally been a problem for Ava when she hid this high up in the trees, but the abnormally high number of migrating beasts to the northern forest had been taxing on the arrows she brought with her.
She only had one left, for one perfect shot to the eye. Hitting it in the dense muscle anywhere else would just enrage the beast, and Ava would rather freeze up here than engage an angry troll in melee combat. They were vicious beasts, ready to impale themselves on a sword just to kill a man with a swipe of its overlong arm. She had seen it happen once to a fisherman at The Frozen Lake.
Ava carefully repositioned herself on the branch, hoping the beast confined to her belly would remain silent and nocked her last arrow. She had the element of surprise at least, the troll had not caught her scent yet, but it would soon. The cold winds of Spectermere changed in the blink of an eye. The troll just needed to turn toward her.
A chill breeze blew at her back and rustled her tattered fur cloak. The troll snuffled as it whistled passed. It turned and roared when it spotted her, dropping the flesh from its hand and stumbling to a stand. Ava pulled on her bow’s string and loosed. The troll howled and thrashed when the arrow met its mark, it snapped her arrow in two with flailing arms and fell to the ground with a heavy thud. Curses, there goes my last arrow.
Ava waited until the troll’s body stopped convulsing, then sheathed her bow. She made her way down the tree with agility and dexterity that awed Minervin when he had first seen her climb and he told her that she reminded him of the Earth Elves. Ava beamed at his praise, quick to accept the comparison.
To the undiscerning eye, she might have passed as an elf, with her glimmering golden-brown eyes and long, pointy ears, but the fangs gave her orcish paternity away. Yet, some differences made these features her own. Her ears were shorter; ending just passed the top of her head and the fangs were tiny, fitting neatly inside her mouth. Minervin said she owed these differences to the human half of her heritage.
Her skin was another story. Minervin had never seen anything akin to it before. ‘A perfect combination of two races,’ he said. It was mostly the pale skin of humans, but at some places it darkened into a purple dusting along the tips of her ears and ran across her hairline to arrow between her brows, deepening at the centre of her forehead.
Ava once hoped to find at least one of her parents at the Outpost; a purple orc ought to stand out, except Minervin told her that the orcish sub-group died out sometime in the First Era.
He explained that the sudden re-emergence of her purple skin was a result of her spirit grabbing at certain unused traits from both her parents when she was conceived. An abnormal spirit grabbing at abnormal traits is what she understood of his daft explanation. But he always insisted she had a strange sort of beauty, and she believed him most times, except when she went to the Outpost. There she could not delude herself, because the denizens there would not let her. It was there that she was always reminded as to why she was left out in the frozen wilderness.
Though relations between the races were not unheard of, especially at the Outpost, their hybrid offspring were taboo and murdered at birth while both parents were branded and shamed for the rest of their lives. Ava supposed there was a small mercy in being left out in the cold rather than being murdered at birth. It was, after all, where Minervin found her, took her in and raised her despite the outrage he received from many at the Outpost. For that, Ava owed him her life and finding a cure for his illness was the least she could do to repay him.
She shoved all thoughts of her parentage back to the recesses of her mind, dwelling on it would make her angry and miserable, and filled two water skins with the Panacean water. She emptied her third and filled it too. She will travel back to The Outpost following the stream and take what she needs there.
A strong, icy wind blew past her, its cold tendrils finding their way through her layers of wool and fur. The beast she was carrying at her belly whimpered, curling into a tighter ball. She shivered and pulled her wool scarf over her mouth and nose, turning to the whirlwind that twisted and twirled far in the distance.
Even at this far end of Spectermere, the upper half of it was still visible. It was a menacing sight, a swirling mix of violent wind, frost, and cloud that no one dared go near.
‘It is the spirit of this land,’ Minervin told her, ‘As much a part of it as Wraith Mountains to the west and Draugr Forest to the east. Maybe even more so.’
It was the reason she and the rest of the Spectermere’s denizens went about their business, barely giving the whirlwind a second thought, despite suffering miserably from the frosty winds and blinding fog it blew about in heavy waves.
She would often have odd dreams of limping into the roaring vortex, clutching her frozen shoulder, seeking out what lay at its centre and waking before she would reach it. It astounded Minervin whenever she spoke of it, and he always warned her against attempting it.
‘A spirit’s mood is an unpredictable thing, Ava. It will tolerate man’s intrusion only so much before removing the threat completely,’ he told her.
Ava turned from the sight and walked over to the troll’s carcass. She picked up its legs and dragged it along the frozen ground in search of Bluebeard and Longhorn. It was an arduous journey; the troll was full grown and heavier than the one she killed two days before. She had to let the beast out eventually to make it easier for herself, hoping it would not get itself into trouble while she was on the ground and out of arrows.
But, instead of following along beside her, the beast hopped onto the troll carcass and proceeded to lounge on it while she struggled to pull it along.
“Troublesome beast!” she sneered over her shoulder, “I do not need your added weight on it right now.”
She should have left it out in the cold to die seven days ago. Already she was using too much of her food stores just to feed it.
Ava had watched as its mother, a massive beast with terrifyingly long upper fangs, engaged a male of her kind in battle. Both beasts were the size of large cattle, but the male was slightly bigger. It had seemed a hopeless fight from the start.
One of her cubs had lain in pieces at the base of a tree, its blood a frozen smear on the ground. It had been the first sign that something was amiss with the male. She had seen predators kill their young from hunger. But the level of violence was – odd. The carcass lay strewn all over, a wasteful way to kill, as if eating it was not its main motivation.
The battle had been the second sign, the female fought tactically, aiming for the jugular, belly, and hindquarters while the male snapped at anything that came close to his jaws. He had a mad look in his eyes. His attacks were ferocious, relentless, and reckless.
The female had used this, finding an opening between his snapping to go for the jugular, but her victory had been short-lived. She had turned to go to her last remaining cub, hiding behind her in the tall straw grass and keeled over.
Her sudden death had been a shock, and Ava did not come down from her perch until the mother had not moved at all for a time. She had inspected the frozen carcasses warily and had been puzzled by what she had found. Apart from its frenzied fighting, the male had not had any of the typical signs of the foaming rages. The blood freezing from his grievous wound was especially peculiar and dark as night. Whether the ailment was due to poison or disease, she could not tell.
The female, on the other hand, had had no serious wounds. Was it possible that her heart stalled? Either way, Ava did not like the look of the entire thing. Even the remaining cub, who had abandoned its grassy cover to watch her curiously, did not go near its fallen kin.
Ava had left their bodies there, which was a pity since she had not seen their like in all her years. Their pelts would have fetched a great price at The Outpost. She would have left this cub there too, but it followed her and got itself, and her, into more trouble than it was worth.
She had considered killing it after it woke the first troll she encountered from its burrow and then led it straight to her while she searched the ground for rabbit holes. It had taken her a great deal of running away and cost her four broken arrows before she killed it. All the while the beast had hidden from view in the grasses nearby. Ava could not say why she did not end up killing the stupid creature, or why she kept leaving food out for it, or why she let it into her tent to sleep with her, Bluebeard and Longhorn during a particularly blistering cold night and all the nights after that.
“Looks like I am stuck with you for the near future,” she sighed at it. Ava had to admit the beast was pretty, maybe that was it. It was grey, like most creatures in this land, but it had a beautiful patterning of black, white, and tan stripes around its front and spots around the backside. It was not a dog or wolf, Ava knew that much, its tail was different and moved like a serpent, and its muzzle was squashed closer to its face, not long and sharp.
“You would not happen to know why more creatures are suddenly moving north of the stream, would you?”
The beast just grunted and licked its nose.
“Fine, keep it to yourself,” she huffed, struggling to get the carcass over a small hill, her breath clouding in the air from her efforts.
It was a few hours before sundown when she finally made it to her campsite with the half-frozen troll. Bluebeard and Longhorn were grazing nearby, never inclined to wander too far from the wagon or her tent. Both cattle were large and burly, covered in a long, thick, livid coat. They lifted their heads and followed her progress as she moved to the wagon, Minervin’s protective wood charms dangling from their horns.
Only then did the beast decide to get off to wander the area. She removed the troll’s innards and then attempted to heave it onto the wagon. The beast leapt onto the wagon and helped her by pulling on an arm while she lifted and pushed. It was intelligent, she noticed that much. But, not quite clever enough to know not to disturb a sleeping troll in its burrow.
When they accomplished the great feat, Ava gave the troll’s innards to the beast and set about rekindling her fire. Once she had the blaze going, she skewered one of her rabbits over it and then set about righting the tent for another cold night. The beast amused itself by disturbing the cattle as they grazed, and eventually wandering off deeper into the forest. It was almost dark when the beast came loping back into camp, a dead bird between its jaws. Ava ate her rabbit meat, cheese, and hard rusk as she watched it rip the feathers out and devour it before her fire.
It was the first time it hunted successfully. Maybe it won’t be such a drain on my stores, anymore.
The fog became so dense when dusk fell that seeing through it was a trial. The barren trees faded into dark shadows, becoming the silent, menacing spectres this land was named for. Ava called Longhorn and Bluebeard and opened the flap of her tent as they herded inside with the beast. She secured the ties on the flap, pushed the beast off her furs, unstrung her bow and covered the cattle with blankets, then snuggled down in her own. She waited for the forest to wake.
It did not. Not even the wind howled or beat against her tent and the silence made her feel more ill at ease than a fully enraged troll charging at her from out of nowhere.