A Night of Winter
Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Hammond alerted Caldor of the visitor before the knocking began. He had just slipped into ethereal half-sleep when the fat bird fluttered onto his chest, pecking at his neck incessantly. He groaned and swatted at his companion, who ducked the calloused hand with ease.
“Lemme sleep,” he grumbled, peeking at the raven perched atop him with one half-opened eye. Hammond tilted his head and met his gaze, then pecked once more at his neck. As Caldor began to turn to his side, the knocking began. It was two loud bangs, enough to startle him into motion. On the other side of the room, he heard Eira jolt awake as well.
“Go back to sleep. I’ll deal with this,” Caldor said as he sat up and Hammond repositioned to his usual spot on his shoulder. The sky was clear tonight, and the moon shined through the window just enough to let him see his way to the door. He glanced over to the other bed, where a small body was curled into the fetal position under the covers.
Two more bangs rattled the door and Caldor checked to make sure his blade was within reach before sliding open the lock and peeking outside.
It was the innkeeper, a burly, older man with a thick gray beard. He had broader shoulders than Caldor, himself an exceptionally broad man.
“I told you to only knock on my door if someone was dead or dying, which one is it?” Caldor asked.
“Not sure, but it seems like it’s a job for you,” the innkeeper turned and began to head downstairs. “She says she needs a Watcher.”
“Everyone needs a Watcher, that’s the problem,” Caldor muttered as he grabbed his cloak and turned to Hammond. “Watch her. If anything happens, get my attention.”
The raven met his eye and hopped onto Eira’s bed as Caldor closed the door. He swung the cloak over his shoulders with a fluid motion and clasped it as he walked downstairs, shaking his head of sleep as he went.
The room was lit with several lanterns, and smelled of lamb and liquor. Two clan guards stood uncomfortably near the door, and the innkeeper was near the fireplace, stoking the flames.
A woman sat in the corner of the room, facing the door. Her nose was blue from the cold, and she was shivering beneath several layers of blankets. There was a haunted look in her eye, and she stared unblinking at the far wall.
Caldor was a large man, and by Skellic standards he was ancient. At a ripe age of forty, he had lived twice as long as most other warriors, and—aside from a single, thin scar across his right cheek—he had made it through unscathed. His blond hair had begun to turn white at the base, and the patchy beard that crept across his face like an unseemly mold had also faded in color. He had been handsome in his youth, but the daily stresses of being a Watcher had worn heavily upon him. His face was decorated by grimace lines which gave him a semi-permanent, disapproving frown.
His tall, broad stature commanded attention, and it was given to him as all eyes watched his entrance.
“Get me something that’ll wake me up,” Caldor asked the innkeeper as he passed. He pulled up a chair at the woman’s table. “Tell me what happened.”
“I work for Lord Valdsson at his keep, three miles north,” the woman struggled to get the sentence out through her chattering teeth. “I was cleaning up after the feast, when all the sudden the windows blew open. No, they shattered, and snow came streaming in. That’s when I started to hear the screams.”
The innkeeper approached and the woman fell silent. He slid two steaming glasses of cider onto the table, then slipped away to tend to other matters.
As soon as the glass hit the table, her hands shot out to grab it. Caldor could see her fingertips were turning black. The Watcher respected her, most wouldn’t last an hour outside in nothing but skirts.
“Two of the other maids went out to see what was happening, but I ducked under the table. I watched,” the woman had begun in a whisper, but her voice was rising now. “It was the snow! It was shaped like a wyvern’s head, and it took them up in its jaws. They were hanging, and screaming, and then another head grabbed hold, and they both pulled, and—”
The woman’s words caught in her throat. Caldor heard the two guards muttering behind him. He let the woman grieve for a few moments, letting what he had just heard steep in his mind.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, but I need you to keep going. It’s very important that I know everything I can if you want me to help.”
The woman met his eyes, and he could see the fire of vengeance within them. She nodded solemnly and took a long drink from her cider.
“Their parts were tossed into the snow, and I grabbed a tablecloth and wrapped it around me for warmth. That’s when he walked in front of the door. He was covered in blood, and his cheeks were scarred, like someone had tried to slice off parts of his face,” she began to snarl, as if just recalling the man’s visage was enough to infuriate her. “And there were marks: big, blue marks. Right on his cheeks.”
“A winterborn? In Valdsson’s keep?” one of the guards exclaimed.
“I’d heard stories, but I’ve never seen one in person,” the other guard replied.
“We’ve all heard the stories!” the woman yelled. “And they’re all true. I’ve seen how evil they can be. They’re a curse on this world, and if we don’t stop them as babes this is what we have to look forward to!”
The stairs behind Caldor creaked slightly, and Hammond landed on the Watcher’s shoulder. He sighed.
“Thanks for the warning,” Caldor muttered scornfully to the bird. Hammond puffed his chest out with indignation.
Before he could defuse the situation, the woman began screaming. After what she had been through, he couldn’t blame her.
Eira stood at the foot of the stairs, rubbing her bleary eyes. She had seen ten summers, but seemed younger. She was a mousy girl, with frizzy blond hair and a long, thin nose. She had bundled herself in blankets, which trailed up the stairs. Of course, those aspects of her appearance weren’t why the woman was screaming. No, that was due to the luminous, blue marks covering her neck.
Caldor looked at the guards, whose hands were on their weapons, before glancing around the rest of the room. He began to play out scenarios in his head, assessing various objects in the room as candidates for makeshift weapons.
The woman was still screaming when she hurled her glass of cider at the small girl.
Its contents spewed forth in an arc as it flew towards Eira, but the girl’s eyes shined blue and the steaming droplets turned into small flakes of snow as they neared, floating gently to the ground. The same could not be said for the glass, which Eira showed no intention of dodging.
Caldor swore under his breath and let magic course through him. For a moment, he was nothing but mist, a thin gray streak dashing through the room. He made himself return to corporeality facing Eira, and the glass collided with his back, glancing off his right shoulder blade and smashing into the wall. He winced, but he could tell no real damage was done. The woman was still shrieking, a shrill din that was only exacerbating the situation.
“Hammond, shut her up,” Caldor commanded as the guards began to move closer. “And both of you, stay right where you are.”
The raven hopped onto the table and caught the woman’s eye. They stared at each other, and slowly the panicked screams turned into a low moan which slipped gently into silence. The guards took a tentative step forward, but Caldor’s glare stopped their progress. The Watcher turned to Eira.
“Go back to the room. I’ll come get you in a bit,” he said, speaking softly.
She lowered her head sheepishly and gathered her trailing blankets before retreating back up the stairs.
He didn’t break eye contact with the two guards until he heard the door to his room close. Normally, he would be assured that a couple of guards wouldn’t attack a Watcher, but people did stupid things when they were scared.
“The two of you, have a seat by the door,” Caldor said, nodding his head towards a table. “Do anything brash, I kill you both. Am I clear?”
The two men nodded and sat at the indicated table. Their hands didn’t leave their blades.
Caldor shifted his gaze to the innkeeper, who was grabbing a broom. He didn’t look like he gave a damn about anything that had happened save for the broken glass.
“I’ll pay for that,” Caldor said.
“Hammond, watch them, I’ll be back down in a few moments.”
He turned and strode up the stairs.
That went well, he thought to himself as he knocked softly on the door before entering. Eira was skittish, and startling a winterborn was a poor idea.
She was already dressed, sitting silently on her bed.
Eira pointed towards the lone window in the room. On it, the word ‘sorry’ had been drawn in the frost.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. She’s just having a very bad night,” Caldor began to pack his things into the large haversack by his bed. “In fact, we’re going to go help make her night better.”
Eira perked up noticeably at the notion, meeting Caldor’s weary eyes with her hazel ones.
“We’ve got a long walk ahead,” Caldor fastened his sheath to his side. “Are you up for that?”
Eira nodded and smiled as Caldor dug into the haversack, pulled out two gold pieces, and placed them on the nightstand. He began to don the dark blue leathers of a Watcher.
“Turning the cider to snow was a neat trick, have you been practicing when I was asleep?” Caldor asked.
Eira clasped her hands and rocked back and forth, smiling coyly.
Caldor nodded towards the window, “show me.”
The young winterborn’s eyes ignited in blue energy and outside the window the snow swirled into the silhouette of a hand, which waved to Caldor before dispersing into a flurry.
The grizzled Watcher gave Eira a stern gaze, but then cracked a smile. She beamed back, and wiped the sleep from her eyes.
“Let’s go save the day.”
The duo left the room and descended into the tavern, where the two clan guards still sat at the table and the woman was still staring into Hammond’s onyx eyes.
“Money’s on the table,” Caldor said to the innkeeper, who grunted in acknowledgement. He opened the front door and was met with a blast of chilled air. With a whistle, he commanded Hammond to his rightful place on his shoulder, and the three stepped into the snowy night. Eira’s eyes glowed blue and her digits began to weave strange patterns as the snow began to fall around them, creating a globe-like sanctuary from the thick flakes.
“It’s three miles north of here, let’s get moving.”
The walk was silent but for the constant crunching of snow underfoot. Caldor was used to it by now, Eira had been with him two months, Hammond for years, and both were equally talkative.
As they neared the keep, the snow intensified. Without Eira’s assistance, Caldor wouldn’t be able to see more than an arm’s length in front of him, and the frigid winds stung Caldor’s nostrils even through a thick cloth. Even under the light of a full moon, they could see no more than ten paces ahead of them.
Whatever had happened here, the cryomancy used was potent enough to birth a Winterstorm.
“When we get to the keep, I want you to protect me, but let me do what I need to,” the Watcher said as they passed through the blown-open gates. The inside walls were coated in thick layers of ice, and several small buildings were buried under white mounds Caldor’s size.
Eira gave a small grunt and tugged at his wrist. It was her way of telling him to stop. He waited patiently as the girl closed her eyes and focused.
After a few moments, she moved her hand slightly and words were etched into the snow behind her.
“If he stuck around, he’ll be in the throne room.”
Hammond cocked his head and cawed.
“Because you don’t attack a keep and leave the throne room empty.”
Hammond cawed again.
“If he left, we have bigger problems, so let’s hope for the best.”
The trio proceeded into the courtyard and the keep came into view. Layers of ice had covered the walls, making it larger and taller than it actually was. The tops of the ice had been carved into battlements. Whoever this winterborn was, he had laid claim to this place. This wasn’t a random act of violence, like Caldor had hoped. A winterborn who was lashing out could be talked down; one who had their mind set on slaughter was often a lost cause.
They entered the keep, its doors coated in vicious icicles resembling a wyvern’s maw.
Already, there were signs of violence. Drops of blood tracked down the hallway to the left, thick and red, hopefully a sign that someone escaped. Caldor turned right, if they were fleeing left, his quarry would be the other direction.
The halls of the keep had been subsumed by ice. It curved up the walls, like a powerful river had washed through and been flash frozen, the tips curling over themselves. Caldor’s hand subconsciously gripped the hilt of his blade. There was cryomancy, perfected through years of practice, and then there was the raw power of a winterborn. What it lacked in refinement and efficiency, it more than made up for in sheer ferocity.
In order for Caldor to manipulate snow and ice, he had to conjure images of simple things in his mind, and force them onto the world. If he wished to create a wall of ice, he would imagine the stone walls of a castle, the safety of a home, and the sheer face of a cliff, and then project those thoughts out into the world alongside a modicum of focus and belief. The more intense the image, the more potent the spell. The magic would only work if you truly, fundamentally believed you could do it, but was also limited by the amount of effort you placed in the spell.
Quick cryomancy, like what was used in combat, was all about simple shapes and concepts. Even outside of battle, when he could take his time to focus, he could never accomplish anything close to what winterborns did every day. The words Eira used to speak would take him hours to form due to the fine control necessary, if he could make them at all; he had primarily trained in lethal, aggressive cryomancy.
It told Caldor a lot about his target. He was untrained, but strong. Waves of ice like this were formed with the intent of burying anyone in the corridors, lord and servant alike, which meant he was doing more than just lashing out. The emotions necessary to carry out something of this scale would have been festering for years.
Why this keep? The question lingered in Caldor’s mind as they turned a corner and found the first body.
It was a guard, only just of age, frozen in a sheet of ice several feet above the ground, like a macabre artwork. His breastplate had been caved in, and blood had begun to seep out, his face frozen in panicked agony.
Caldor stepped back and silently studied the man. It looked like he had just been pushed aside and left to suffocate in the ice. Such a casual disregard for not only the man’s life, but his spirit—now damned to the Wintersea—made Caldor sick.
The ice cracked next to him, forming a word. Why? He turned to Eira, the blue glow fading from her eyes.
“He’s angry. He was probably hurt like you were and is lashing out. It seems like he focused his attention on the keep. I would guess he’s from here, maybe he worked in the keep or his parents did.”
Eira nodded and they kept walking. As they proceeded down the corridor, Caldor noticed that the ice was taking on a pink hue, one that got darker as they went. Eventually, they came to two open doors, and the Watcher saw the upper half of a woman reaching around the corner. Like the guard before, she was covered in a layer of ice, but this ice was a deep red. As they drew closer, Caldor saw that the woman was missing her lower half, and the gore had been turned into a weapon for the winterborn. The doors led to a feasting hall, the one the woman had fled from. The right wall was also coated in sheets of frozen gore, the body of the other victim tossed into the corner.
The young girl didn’t make a sound as she looked over the brutal scene. Caldor didn’t want her seeing this, but he knew she’d seen worse.
“Let’s go, we should be close.”
They wound their way through a series of hallways, all covered in snow and ice. The two passed by several more brutalized bodies, their frozen blood staining the walls red.
Eventually, they found themselves in an antechamber. Two wooden doors—several inches thick and covered with carved symbols of the ruling house—lay on the ground, replaced by two imposing sheets of ice. In one, a man had been frozen, arms outstretched like morbid handles.
Caldor paused and focused inwards. He channeled his magic through his body, tracing over every major muscle, vein, artery, and organ. Like water, the magic wanted to flow through the easiest channels and subsume him entirely, but he forced it down the pathways he needed. Once only the necessities were traced, he held that pattern in his mind. After a moment, he relinquished the tight control and let the magic run over him, knowing he would always be able to call back that pattern if necessary.
“Eira, crack the door. If something goes poorly, I want you to interfere with his magic and the room, but let me do my work,” Caldor said as he strode towards the frozen barricade.
The young girl nodded and flicked her wrist, sending cracks up the ice. The Watcher felt the air flow through the broken seal and released his grip on his physical form. Every piece of his equipment was crafted to allow him to channel his magic through them. Nothing but gray mist, he flowed through the miniscule cracks and reformed on the other side.
The throne room’s large stained-glass windows had been shattered, and exposed the left side of the room to the elements. Snow covered the floor up to Caldor’s knees and icicles hung like sharpened chandeliers. The throne itself had been renovated with ice, creating sweeping planes that ended in a sharp series of spikes, an elaborate crown above the head of whoever sat upon it.
It was red. It was all red. Even the snow had become a light pink slurry, but the ice was a thick, dark crimson, the kind of blood you saw on battlefields. It was a haunting sight, knowing the atrocities necessary to create such a room. Caldor refused to let his shock show on his face.
The man who sat upon the throne was stained the same color as the room. His black leathers coated with the sopping proof of his misdeeds and his equally damp hair frozen into a menacing plume. His face was young, Caldor guessed he was just cusping manhood. His cheeks were masses of scar tissue, under which blue marks glowed.
“You’ve had a busy night, haven’t you?” Caldor asked as he stepped towards the center of the room. He needed to test how close the man was willing to let him come. The man lifted his shoulders and stared at Caldor with wild eyes. The Watcher noticed how he adjusted his posture when someone else was near. It was unconscious, but he sat in that throne like he had experience.
Caldor understood why he had chosen the keep.
“Who are you?” The winterborn asked.
“I’m a Watcher,” Caldor replied, taking another step forward. He was careful not to have his hand anywhere near his weapon. “My name is Caldor, what’s yours?”
“Eskil,” the winterborn took a moment to reply, like he was trying to figure out what Caldor’s intentions were. “How did you know to come here?”
“One of the servants escaped and found me,” he took another step and saw Eskil’s hand twitch slightly. He had made it out halfway into the room. It appeared that was the line. Eskil didn’t seem particularly troubled about someone escaping. That was good. It meant he had been lashing out instead of systematically killing, there might be some chance Caldor could reach him.
“Are you here to kill me?”
“No,” Caldor saw Eskil relax one hand. “But I’m not going to lie to you, Eskil. This is bad. When people hear about what you did, they’ll want blood. Especially when they see this. Now if you come with me and tear down all this ice, I can try and convince the Council that you’re willing to get rehabilitated, but I can’t save you on my own. You have to work with me.” Eskil silently contemplated Caldor’s words for several seconds longer than what the Watcher would have liked. Then, he began to chuckle, which Caldor liked even less.
“They’ll kill me, huh?”
“You killed a lot of people, Eskil. The commonfolk don’t really like that.”
“They deserved it.”
Eskil’s eye twitched slightly. Caldor could feel the situation slipping away from him.
“You see my face,” Eskil asked, his voice beginning to raise. “They did this. I was only a boy, and they tried to cut out the marks. It didn’t work. What do you think they did when it didn’t work?”
“I don’t know,” Caldor lied.
“They tried it again, and again, and when they finally gave up do you know what they did?”
“I understand the—”
“They covered my head with a cloth and rode me out to the middle of a forest and left me! I remember screaming and begging for them to just kill me so I wouldn’t go to the Wintersea, but my father was too weak to even grant me that mercy!”
Eskil was shouting now, and Caldor could see tears welling up in the man’s eyes. Snow began to swirl around the Watcher, reacting to Eskil’s rage. Suddenly, the snow in the air dispersed, thrown to the sides of the room. Caldor swore under his breath, he hadn’t wanted Eira to meddle so quickly.
“There’s someone with you?” Eskil’s voice had become quiet and terse. “A winterborn?”
Caldor had been right. Eskil was powerful but lacked focus and training. He hadn’t noticed her until now, which meant he couldn’t sense through the snow.
“Yes, she’s my charge. I helped her, just like I’m offering to help you.”
“Why do you keep saying that? Who said I needed your help? I survived in the wild for years, and I killed everyone who had wronged me in one night.” A smug grin crept across the winterborn’s face. It was an act, but Caldor wasn’t sure who it was supposed to fool—him or Eskil. “I think I’m doing pretty well for myself.”
“You killed a lot more than just the people who wronged you, Eskil. That’s the problem.”
“They all deserved what they got,” Eskil spat.
“Really, Eskil? The servant girls deserved to get torn in half?”
“They knew what was happening to me, and they did nothing!” Eskil yelled, standing to his feet. Every part of Caldor was telling him to ready himself, but he resisted the urge. Any sudden movements and the conversation would be over. As long as they were talking there was hope.
“Of course they did nothing, do you really expect the servant girls to stand up to their lord?” Caldor remained composed, trying not to raise his voice. He had hoped to find Eskil in shock at what he did, or ready to redeem himself. His delusions could be a coping mechanism to help rationalize what he had done, but Caldor was rapidly losing faith that the man could be saved.
The Winterborn said something, quiet enough that Caldor didn’t pick it up, but he saw a shimmer of some new emotion in his eyes. Regret?
“What was that?”
“They made me do this.”
There it was, a way to reach him.
“I’m going to show you something now, it’s not an attack. Do you trust me?”
Eskil unclenched his fist. That was enough of a signal for Caldor.
“Eira, break the ice down.”
There was a low, grinding sound and the large blockage of ice shattered and moved aside, revealing the girl.
“No one makes people do anything, Eskil. This is Eira, she’s like you. She was born into a small and very superstitious clan. She had a mark on her tongue, and her father thought that her words would be cursed because of it, so he cut it out. She didn’t kill anyone,” Caldor took one more step towards Eskil and saw him tighten his fist, but not fully clench it. “Don’t blame what happened to you for what you did. There are some people who hurt others, and some who don’t. The people who did this to you, they were the people who hurt others. You’re one of those people. I’m one of those people.”
“What are you saying?” Eskil asked, his voice was shaking.
“What they did to you was terrible, and I’m sorry a Watcher wasn’t here to stop it; but, what you did was also terrible. You killed innocent people and damned them to the Wintersea. Now, I can help you, but only if you understand that what you did was wrong.”
Everything was quiet, and Caldor watched the wheels spin in Eskil’s head. He waited patiently for an answer.