The first hand account of a journey into Ulncamnorn, and the discovery of a strange village that doesn't exist on any map.
I remember reading about several doomed expeditions to Ulncamnorn, some of them sent out to find groups that had never returned, only to themselves go missing in the process. I wonder if this is one of those ill fated groups?
These mountains are treacherous, but not by dint of monsters. The cold is the real enemy. The sun remains distant, even on cloudless days. The very air consumes all heat. It seeps through cracks in clothing and spreads across skin like mould over bread. We almost froze again, and we're still not any less lost. We found a cave to shelter in for the night. Tomorrow we make for the edge of the plateau, and hope to reclaim our bearings.
I've found several of these now, written by the same hand. Whatever binding held them together dissolved long ago. The pages are shuffled now between stacks of other writings. This will take some time to reconstruct.
The Undred Sea stretched in the distance before us, crowded with shattered sheets of ice. The water was a blue so dark it was nearly black. Only, we weren't meant to be anywhere near the sea. Before we reached the edge, we thought we were still in the southern regions of Ulncamnorn. Yet there we were, standing farther north than anyone had ever been before. But even in that we were wrong. Behind a snowy outcrop, far beyond the plateau, near to the sea, rose a thin plume of smoke. We're headed there now, seeking salvation. Behind us lies only ruin.
These may be in the wrong order. It's hard to piece the pages together when most of them don't have dates. There are a lot of them, in any case, so at the very least I know the author survived for quite some time.
There are stories of specters wandering these mountains. Children's tales of ghosts and the eternal dead. They leave footprints in the snow as they search for a way out. They're all that remains of those lost here over the ages. Their memories faded, their own names forgotten. Their bodies fallen over, buried and frozen somewhere along the way as their spirits continue onwards, evermore.
I suppose it's meant as a warning, to instill a fear of these mountains into children from an early age. Do not go into the mountains, the story says, or you'll be cursed and lost forever. Yet here we've come, for the sake of some metals molded by men.
I debated putting these words to paper, but I think there needs to be a record of what we found here. Everything happened so fast after we began our march towards the smoke. I lost track of time. We all did. Maybe it's been a month? That would put us somewhere in the middle of Jereum's Decay.
Where to start? We found blood spattered across the snow, and several sets of footprints. They weren't animal. We followed them into a clearing in a small grove. There we found an abandoned campsite. Ash and cinders surrounded by stones. Felled trees used for sitting. Blood soaked snow. The remains. We were sick to look at them. There was little left of this person, most of the flesh and muscle had been carved off. Only the scalp was left untouched. They were straight, clean cuts, and we could see where the heavy blade had occasionally cut into bone. Words were hard to come by.
He walked into the clearing then. A man with a wild bearing about him, skin burned by the cold. I still remember the confounded look on his face as he staggered to a stop. Had he forgotten something? We never found out why he came back. He reached for his sword and Elubiere put an arrow through his neck. His sword fell into the snow as he grasped at the wound, trying to stem the bleeding. He spoke a few heavily strained words before he died.
"It wasn't our fault."
We left the grove. The campfire was too small to have been source of the smoke we saw, and we didn't want to be there for any further introductions. We scarcely stopped for the rest of the day. We found a road, near dusk, and a signpost covered in snow and ice, pointing north still, to where no civilisation had been marked on any map. We thought our fortunes had turned. The road lead us into Namarhel.
We strode into Namarhel when the first stars began to glimmer in the sky. The first few houses we saw looked abandoned. Snowdrifts and ice covered the windows and doors. There was no light anywhere that we could see. Silence lined the empty streets.
We continued until we stopped at a crossroad. In every direction the village looked lifeless. Achard decided there was only one recourse. He bellowed at the top of his lungs, announcing our arrival. Iswynne was not happy by that.
"The cold must have frozen your senses," she said.
She drew her blade, as did I. I felt a sense of dread festering within me. We carried on. Our footsteps bred the only sound, and it wasn't welcome there. For a brief moment longer we thought the village truly had been abandoned.
Then the bells began to toll. One rang out nearby—a frantic, swelling sound. Ding ding. Ding ding. More followed, each calling out the next, spreading through the village, until the cacophony was so loud it could have woken the dead.
We marched on to the frantic cadence of the bells, goaded like cattle. Elubiere insisted we put our weapons away. He made the prudent point that unless we wanted a fight, we ought not to walk into someone's home with weapons drawn. We kept to what appeared to be the main road, and soon the bells stopped.
We arrived at what looked like a village square. The square was built of carefully laid stone. Within the stonework was depicted a giant creature, not unlike a starfish, with nine sinuous arms, and a triangle with perfect edges and angles in the centre. Five iridescent rings were embedded within each of the five topmost arms. Something about the stone made it glow beneath the starry night.
The houses around the square were mostly dark, except for three that had dimly lit lanterns hanging near the doorways. Liles was the first to spot the shadow holding another, standing in the middle of an adjacent road leading into the square.
The man spoke the Bellaren tongue, but his accent was unlike anything we'd ever heard before. At first, we didn't understand him. He pronounced some of his letters softly, and he dropped certain sounds altogether. I thought back to the grove. Had that man's accent been different too? It would've been hard to tell through his gargled voice, on his dying breath.
This man, holding his lantern, told us we were in Namarhel. He told us the village didn't receive many visitors. The way he looked at us, I think we might have been the first. He lead us to an abandoned hovel where we could spend the night. He spoke of nothing else, nor did he answer any of our questions.
We lit a fire, and took turns to sleep.
There were five of them in the group, as far as I can tell. Elubiere, Achard, Iswynne, Liles, and the author of these accounts. I've yet to find a signature, or any hints as to who this author might have been.
The next morning, we stepped outside into a numbing cold. The streets were hedged with snow drifts. The wind coming off the nearby sea, the Undred, felt like a thousand blades of ice were sawing through my skin. Even beneath my heavy cloak and underclothes I shivered.
We went in search of help, of someone who would speak to us, and maybe guide us home. We saw very few people in the streets, none spoke to us, and most kept their distance when we tried to approach them. They all had the same wild nature as the man in the grove, the same burnished skin. They all wore ragged, stitched furs and skins. All of them looked frail somehow; weary.
We found the village square again. From there we found the great hall, and we found it as empty as most of the rest of Namarhel. There was little about the hall that was great. It was a small building that would sit perhaps two hundred guests, with only one central hearth. Tusks hung along the walls, along with shields decorated with painted insignia worn down to near nothing by age. Some of them had fallen to the floor.
We met the cleric, Hellescim, in that place. He was a tall man with—as compared to the other villagers we saw—fine ordained clothes. A silver morning star hung at his side.
"The fire wasn't meant for you," he said.
The smoke we saw on the horizon that day, from the edge of the mountains, was a beacon. A group from the village had gotten lost in the mountains. The villagers lit a great fire in hopes that the smoke would lead them back home. The cleric asked if we had seen them or any traces of them in the mountains.
Achard lied before any of us could formulate our thoughts. He said we found nothing but desolation there, and faced nothing but the prospect of our own deaths. While the beacon might not have been meant for us, he said that we were thankful for it, for without it we would have been lost. That last part, at least, was true.
I don't think Achard made a very good liar. There was a stillness in the air. The cleric's hand rested on his morning star as he examined us from the doorway.
Elubiere broke the silence. He had a way with words that elicited trust in others.
"We're sorry if our arrival caused any distress," he said. "Achard speaks the truth, we wouldn't have survived much longer in the mountains had we not found you."
Iswynne then asked for help in finding our way home, and for any food the villagers could spare to help us make the journey. She asked for a map of Ulncamnorn, if one existed, to guide us through the mountains.
Hellescim was put at ease, at least partly. I could still see some suspicion in his eyes. He said food was hard to come by in Namarhel, but as long we were guests in the village we could join them for the midday meals. Directions would pose a greater challenge. Very few had ever left the village, and none had gotten very far. The mountains were treacherous, with most of the terrain impassable, especially during the fast approaching winter months.
"There is no map to or from this place," he added. "We like it that way. We're a private people."
He invited us to his temple. There was more that he wanted to speak to us about, and he suggested that we could be of mutual help to each other. We accepted.
The temple was a five sided structure built of stones the colour of copper and ash. The inside smelled of seaweed and driftwood. Columns of light spilled into the building through long, narrow windows near the ceiling. We followed Hellescim to a dais at the centre of the hall. We were surrounded by empty pews.
Tapestries hung from the temple's walls, with intricate detail woven into the fabric, but their colours had faded and become dull. It seemed that everything in Namarhel was aged, and decayed.
I remember one scene clearly. A large group of people knelt at the base of a great mountain, taller than all the others. They bowed and prayed to this monolith. The landscape—the rocks, the trees, the very ground—was twisted in an unnatural fashion. There were others there too, prying from behind trees and rocks at the worshippers.
Hellescim hit a piece of flint with an iron striker. The sparks fell into a stone basin. A fire gently roared to life as it spread through shallow grooves in the stone. The flames burned a striking cerulean blue, and they formed a perfect triangle. The fuel was a sort of sap they had discovered nearby long ago, Hellescim said, bleeding from the walls of a mountain. It was slow to burn, it burned hot, and it was sacred to them.
He then asked us to have a seat, and pointed to the nearest pew. Some of the other villagers began arriving at the temple. They were hesitant when they first saw us, but Hellescim pleaded with them not to be mistrustful. The sermon soon began.
Hellescim spoke of Namarhel's roots. The founders of the village crossed into the mountains in search of a new home. They had no direction, there was no end to the road ahead. Ulncamnorn was vast, untamed—a mirror to their spirit—with unbound beauty and strength, yet it was also a place of hardship and loss. Those founders finally settled near the sea following a confounding journey of discovery.
Near a century had passed, and the villagers still represented that spirit. They had seen great hardship, and experienced tragic loss, yet they survived and flourished in a place where none thought life could exist. They built homes, they raised families. I thought the sermon was for our benefit, but as it continued, it became clear it was meant for the villagers. There was a solemn air about the congregation this cleric was trying to dispel.
Hellescim referred to us only briefly. He talked about the others, the villagers lost in the mountains. He spoke of transgressions they made, though he stopped short of disclosing their nature. We'd found Namarhel, he said. They too could find their way home. There was no escape from Ulncamnorn, nowhere to run from fate. Hellescim glanced in our direction, though he avoided eye contact.
"Our fate is tied to this place," he concluded, "and fate is best faced head on."
Next came the feast. We returned to the great hall with the congregation. Other villagers joined us there. The congregation did not mix with the remaining villagers. This was the first sign we saw of a dichotomy within Namarhel.
The great hall was never full. Villagers came and left, and seats were always plenty. They served a stew made of hard root vegetables, walrus meat, and a sour, fruity spice unknown to us. A firm, crisp bread accompanied the stew, and the drink of choice was a broth cooked on walrus bones. The food took some getting used to.
The bricklayer arrived with a gust of wind that blew open the door. Two others came in with him. A flurry of snow rushed into the room behind them—a snow storm had begun. The group approached our table. We sat on the congregation's side of the hall. The bricklayer gestured to our table, and posed what seemed a rhetorical question to the cleric.
"You wouldn't object if we sat here, Hellescim?"
The bricklayer introduced himself as Berhal. He said he was a builder, though there was little left to build. These days, all there was was maintenance.
Berhal spoke of the shaping of the earth by the hands of time. Mountains grew like flowers, and our lifetimes were but the blink of an eye compared to theirs. This knowledge gave him a comforting perspective about the uncaring, callous nature of existence. He likened Ulncamnorn to a tomb, and commended our survival skills.
I raised the question of the villagers who were lost in the mountains.
Hellescim said it was a private matter, but Berhal was more forthcoming.
Seven drunk villagers broke into the food stores. They gorged themselves. They spilled flour. One of them pissed into a crate of coldgrow root. He assured us it wasn't the root we were eating that day. Someone happened upon them, and ran to raise the alarm. By the time more villagers arrived at the storehouse the thieves had fled. In the morning, they found tracks leading out of the village.
We asked no more on the subject, but one final question did come to mind. Why were the thieves more afraid of their own people, than Ulncamnorn?
"Why did you come to Ulncamnorn?" Berhal asked. He made a show of the question, so everyone would hear. "Few would come willingly, without good reason."
I'd nearly forgotten why we came. Liles said it was his fault. There was truth to that, but we're all responsible for our own choices, aren't we?
Liles met with a band of mercenaries passing through Kallabran. They became amiable over drinks, and they boasted of their last job. The mercenaries had chased a bounty to the hills bordering Ulncamnorn. They found the wanted man in an encampment on the banks of a river. The mercenary that took the fugitive's head washed his hands in the river, and spotted something gleaming in the water.
He pulled out a gold nugget the size of his fist. It was likely worth ten times their bounty. The river came down from the mountains of Ulncamnorn, and so did the gold.
Liles asked if they remembered the location. The mercenaries had drawn a map. Liles bought that map for a considerable sum.
We were on an expedition of discovery, with dreams of wealth. It was a welcome change from our usual jobs. We found the encampment. We panned for gold and found the river was rich with deposits. We followed the river upstream. Within five days, we were lost. We were fools.
We eventually retreated to the hovel we'd stayed at the previous night. Hellescim impressed on us again before we left the great hall that there was no way back. Ulncamnorn would devour us if we tried, and it had been a marvel it hadn't done so already. He suggested that perhaps we could find salvation in Namarhel. Perhaps we were meant to.
I had a feeling Hellescim didn't want us to leave, and not because of a fear for our own well-being. Elubiere, Iswynne and Achard agreed with me. Liles thought the cleric meant well, but he had always been a little naive.
We met with the bricklayer again later that evening. He came to us at the hovel. He said there was a map, a path that lead out of Ulncamnorn, but the map would provide little assurance we would ever make it home. He thought our odds were nearly naught, but he felt it his obligation to give us the option.
The founders never meant to stay in Ulncamnorn, they'd always planned on returning home, but over the years dispositions changed. There was only one left now who knew the way, but he wasn't in Namarhel. Berhal said we would have to go back out into the mountains, and that there were more dangers there, more horrors hiding in the shadows of Ulncamnorn than we could imagine.
"I'm sure Hellescim urged you to stay," he added. "Consider your choice carefully."
We awoke in the middle of the night to the deafening, solemn knell of a hundred bells. It was the same toll that welcomed us when we first arrived in Namarhel. We stepped outside and could see nothing but our breath upon the air, and the milky stars above us in the sky.
I wanted for nothing but the bells to stop. Ulncamnorn was a vast, forsaken mountain range, spread the breadth of the Soldern Sea across the north of Sulmaril. Nothing ever came down from the mountains to the settled lands, but that was not to say there was nothing there. Swathes of the mountains were unexplored. The longer those bells rang, the more trepidation I felt. What if something hears?
Finally, the last of the bells rung out and the silence took back the night. A gentle breeze whistled, and blew about some loose snow at our feet.
We were to meet with the bricklayer again in the morning. He asked us to come to a place called Mongers' Cross. He gave us directions from the village square. When we set off in the morning we saw groups of villagers all heading in the same direction. We followed them to where a small crowd had gathered.
We passed a woman whose eyes shone like ice. Iswynne asked her what the gathering was for. Had it anything to do with the ringing of the bells?
"They came back," the woman said. "The Ennead will judge them now."
We pushed through the crowd. We found a broken down cart, and climbed atop to get a better view. Three villagers were tied to posts ringed by stones. They wore torn clothes, and had dark, matted hair. We didn't immediately realise they'd been drenched. Three empty pails lay nearby, one tipped over. Hellescim stood next to them, torch in hand. He spotted us in the crowd. A solemn look prevailed upon his face.
He lit them, one by one. They screamed as the flames took them. They burned a striking cerulean blue, and the crowd looked on, unmoved, and silent.
We began to make our way towards Mongers' Cross. Elubiere said something that made us all take pause. Out of all the people we saw since we arrived; the crowd gathered for the executions, the congregation at the temple, all the villagers feasting at the great hall, none had been children.
The villagers numbered at least several hundred. We could discern no reason for the absence of children. The founders had settled in Namarhel near a hundred years past. They must have been capable of bearing children. Were the villagers affected by something that caused them to become infertile? Did they collectively choose not to have children? Maybe they were simply hiding them.
We passed by a group of villagers sat outside a hovel where smoke rose from a stone chimney. There was a cabbage-like smell upon the air. The villagers stood and began to walk behind us. I glanced over my shoulder. At least one of them carried a cudgel.
We tried not to antagonise the villagers following us. We walked on without paying them too much heed. They kept pace, but it seemed they hadn't yet settled on what they wanted to do. As we passed through the streets, more villagers joined them, and that attracted others in turn.
There was still so much we didn't know about Namarhel or its people. We passed into an open space in the village. There we saw catapults, falling apart from disrepair and frozen to the ground. Large, round stones arranged in piles, long mortared together by ice. What use did they have with weapons of war in such a place? Regrettably, questions were more common to find than answers.
By then, the crowd following us had become a mob. The villagers surrounded us in this open space. Some of them had picked up stones, evidently intended for us. I drew my weapon for the second time in Namarhel.
For an unending moment, nothing happened. We were better armed, and that made the villagers hesitate. I searched for a way out, but what stills a mob? They looked upon us with resentment, as if we'd taken something precious from them. I knew that as soon as the first stone was cast we were dead.
"Achard!" Some of the looks in the crowd turned to confusion. "That's my name," Achard said. "Maybe you recognise my voice, I announced our arrival two days ago, just before you welcomed us with your bells."
Four villagers pushed through the crowd at that moment to come between us and the mob. We recognised two of them as the men that sat with the bricklayer at the great hall. One of the men asked another to raise him on his shoulders. They fumbled a little, I think in an attempt to disarm the crowd.
"Most of you know me, I am Torren," the man who sat upon his companion's shoulders said. "This has been a trying day, I know, but this will not stay your guilt! These folks were lost, and they happen upon us, and there is no crime in that. What will this resolve? Let us not cause any more sorrow today."
The other two men walked between us and the crowd, trying to keep the mob at bay, but three of the villagers from the mob pushed through. They carried disdain in their eyes, and cudgels heavy in their hands.
Torren asked to be let down. His companion knelt and he jumped off.
"They are blameless," he said to the three men but for everyone to hear. "Can we say the same of ourselves?"
The three villagers that pushed through the crowd were dissuaded by Torren, though they begrudged their retreat. Once they turned back, the rest of the crowd began to disperse as well. I couldn't help but think Torren wasn't referring to that day's events alone in his appeal to the mob, as horrible as they had been. After all, we played no part in what Hellescim had done.
Torren breathed a sigh of relief once the last of the villagers turned back.
"I didn't think this would go our way," he said.
Torren urged us on to Mongers' Cross. He said that despite everything, Berhal would be waiting for us, and even though there was little for us to trust in Namarhel, we could trust that he would keep his word. Berhal's influence was growing, but he wouldn't able to keep us safe in the village forever. Before we parted ways we tried to ask a few questions, but Torren offered little in the way of answers.
I asked Achard later what he was trying to do, when he shouted his name.
"I don't know," he said. "Anything."
Berhal and Hellescim knew. They'd kept it to themselves until we met Berhal at Mongers' Cross. When the lost villagers returned to Namarhel they spoke of the death of Amashael, and the arrow that fell him. There weren't many suspects in Ulncamnorn.
Their words were otherwise senseless. Their skin and fingers black from frostbite. They spoke little of the others that had ran with them, and less of their purported crimes in Namarhel. They were shamed by the very mention of food.
They were sick in the mind, Hellescim determined, taken by madness, and their crimes still remained unanswered.
We described our encounter with the villager, Amashael, in the grove outside the village, and what we'd witnessed at the camp site.
"We are many things but we are not cannibals," the bricklayer said. "They were within reach of Namarhel. Why they would... Ulncamnorn isn't a place welcoming to the living. The mountains are malevolent, infectious... You must return to them."
Hellescim may not be as welcoming anymore, Berhal warned. We were lucky, moreover, that the mob that beset us wasn't privy to the story of our encounter in the grove. Lastly, there remained the small matter of us finding a way home.
We were to travel east, towards Yghis Yar.
I've read of Yghis Yar before. It's the highest mountain in Ulncamnorn. It's oddly shaped, as if it was bent, and the stone is of a different colour to all the other mountains. By all accounts, it doesn't belong. Embellishments to make for a better story, I'm sure.
We left the comforts of Namarhel behind, such as they were, with added provisions of cured walrus meat and crisp root flour bread. We travelled into the east, with only simple words of guidance from Berhal.
"You'll reach a signpost guiding you south in half a day's walk. Ignore it. Keep heading east. There was once a road there, it's been seldom used in recent years. If the Ennead favours you, you may still find traces of it."
From there the instructions grew vague. Berhal would not give us a name, or any assurance that this man we were to seek was still alive. The bricklayer apologised for leaving us wanting. One way or another, he said, we would find what we're looking for. "East," he repeated. "Just keep heading east."
We eventually reached the signpost. The recent snowfall had made the journey difficult. I was tempted to follow it south.
"There was another panel here, pointing east," Iswynne said. "You can see the imprints in the wood left behind by the nails. Someone tore it off."
"What does that mean?" Liles asked.
"It means they're hiding something," Elubiere said, "and for whatever reason, Berhal is leading us to it."
There was no road to the east. Instead we followed a line spindly pine trees laden with snow. In the distance ahead of us, three mountains loomed. None were Yghis Yar. That mountain still lay hidden. These were Ehgaus, Cirredun, and Ulmn, named the Three Wardens.
We continued east through a passage between Ehgaus and Cirredun. We took shelter there for the night in a small cave. We lit a fire, ate some of the food we were given, and spent some time asking riddles. My favourite was:
I'm full when I'm empty, and I'm empty when I'm full. What am I?
We took turns keeping watch while the others slept. I dreamed of wind that night, blowing across the vast mountain ranges of Ulncamnorn. The wind was fierce, unrelenting, and it carved away at the mountains, but I was safe, perched somewhere high in the sky above wrapped in a warm embrace. Thousands of years passed with every heart beat, and I watched as the mountains slowly eroded below me. The wind continued until there was nothing left, and then even the wind itself wasted away.
There was only darkness left. I felt myself moving, falling away. The darkness shrunk as the distance between us grew, and around it formed the walls of the cave where I slept. I lay atop my bedroll, with my eyes wide open, and the dark thing stood in front of me.
I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I could only watch as it studied me.
With all my strength I tried to move, and finally whatever had bound me released its grip. I screamed and scrambled away from where the dark thing stood. The space was empty. The cave was brighter. I woke the others, and Achard stood at the mouth of the cave, the last of the watch. None of them had seen what I described.
We continued through twisting icy paths for most of the morning, keeping the sun to our right. I could not stop thinking of the creature I saw. Had it been a dream? Even now as I write this I have doubts. I don't remember waking. My eyes were open, plain as day. I could feel the creature's own eyes upon me, even though I could not see them. What could it have been if not a dream?
The winding road lead us around a bend. We cleared an outcrop, and in the distance ahead Yghis Yar loomed. We all stopped in our tracks. This was the mountain from the tapestry hung in the temple of Namarhel. It stood ringed by other mountains like a monolith, its bare slopes the colour of coal. The entire mountain was slanted, and its peak was tapered and curled, like a flame atop a candle licking at the cold air above it, frozen in place.
"We shouldn't be here," Liles said. "We're not meant to look upon that."
"It's just a mountain," Elubiere said, but even he couldn't hide his unease.
I remember there was no wind in that moment. I thought it strange. I'd dreamt of wind the night before, of the passage of time and of the fall of mountains. Yghis Yar was different. I don't know how, but I knew that it would not erode like the others. Yhgis Yar would be there long after the rest of the world has crumbled.
We continued east still. Fortunately Yghis Yar lay to the south. We didn't know how long we'd walked. Ulncamnorn began playing its tricks on us again. Time itself had frozen in the bitter cold. It felt like half the day had passed, but the sun had scarcely moved. We passed through a snowy ravine, and emerged upon a plateau. In the distant horizon, the clouds turned a slate grey, and the air grew hazy and thick with snow.
We began to think that we were lost again, that again we'd wandered into Ulncamnorn's maw and it had swallowed us whole. Twice we were the fools. Then we smelled smoke, and thought that twice we'd found salvation.
We followed the smell of the smoke northwards along a cliff wall and found a hovel nestled into the rocks. Smoke billowed gingerly from a stone chimney. There were piles of chopped wood arranged neatly against the walls. The windows were shuttered. There were footsteps leading in and out of the hovel.
"Is this what we were meant to find?" Achard asked.
Elubiere knocked on the door. Three strikes. Too loud, I thought.
There came no answer. Elubiere aimed to knock again.
"He won't answer," a voice said from behind, "he's bedridden. It's about time you…"
When we turned around, the woman dropped the small animal she carried on her back and took a few quick steps back. She reached for a small blade at her side.
"Who are you?"
I wouldn't have known what to say. We're mercenaries from Kallabran. We got lost in Ulncamnorn, almost died of starvation and cold, until we chanced upon some cannibals. We then found Namarhel, where the villagers burned three others alive for stealing food. We found they had no children, only war machines frozen to the ground, with no one around to fight. The villagers worshipped a strange creature they called the Ennead. There were two factions in the village at odds with each other, only a few of whom would speak to us. We were almost stoned and beaten to death by a mob, but were saved because someone appealed to their conscience. Then we were sent east, with little instruction, only a faint hope that something or someone there could help us find our way home.
"Berhal sent us," Elubiere said. "He said you could help us."
Her name was Eilyrenna. We introduced ourselves and shared an abridged version of what had happened to us since coming to Ulncamnorn.
"Berhal. I didn't think I'd hear that name again," she said. "I've not talked to anyone apart from my father in a long time, my sense of trust might me a little blunt, but I feel you mean us no harm. I don't think he can help you, but I won't stop you from trying."
We entered the hovel at her invitation. A few flames twinkled in a narrow fireplace. The room was dark and smoky, and smelled of must, but it was warm. Eilyrenna cracked open two of the small windows, and let in some light. The walls and floors were covered in animal skins, and in one corner, an old man lay upon his bed. His eyes were turned towards us, but they looked straight past us.
"Father," Eilyrenna said, "we have visitors."
Eilyrenna warmed a smoky broth in a small iron pot. She had little to share, but it was plenty to chase away the cold lingering in our bones and muscles. We shared a little more of our ordeal, in Namarhel especially, and what little we had learned from Berhal and Hellescim. Iswynne apologised. We had come without anything to give in exchange for Eilyrenna's hospitality, or for any other help they might provide.
"Don't worry," Eilyrenna said. "I think there's still something you can do for us."
The old man stirred in his bed. He smelled the broth, and his eyes came into focus. Slowly, he raised himself into a sitting position. Eilyrenna came to his aide, and lead him to the table where he sat down in silence, and began slurping the broth.
After few mouthfuls, he spoke. His first words to us still echo in my mind.
"I saw you, but I was dreaming," he said. "Every day I find it harder to wake. The dark thing is always there, watching, its embrace growing stronger, as my own upon this world withers away. What day is it now, my precious?"
"I think we've began the Sinking."
The Sinking is a common term for Lorr's Argent Wisp. The beginning of winter. Liles made the connection. The Sinking originated with a people who once lived in Sulmaril, when the land was called Heradūnn. Their descendants still occasionally use the old names for the months, though otherwise their culture is largely gone.
"It sleeps below the black mountain," the old man said. "It cannot wake. It doesn't know how, doesn't remember, but it can dream. The mountain contains it, but the dreams are leaking. We didn't know. It can reach out. It can influence those who are weak. They aren't kind, the dreams it dreams."
"You speak of a demon," Iswynne said.
"No," the old man said. "No, this is something else."
"Stories," Eilyrenna said. "They're just stories. What is it you came here to ask?"
"We're looking for a way home," Elubiere said. "Berhal told us there was only one left who knew the way out of Ulncamnorn. Is that you?"
"The way? Yes, sometimes, but not yet," the old man said. "Berhal sent you here for something else." He paused, his eyes wandered. "Yes. Bring him the Shield of Lyndriad, then ask him about the Dunevim."
Eilyrenna would not have us stay any longer. Her father needed to rest, she said, but I think our presence there simply made her uncomfortable. We headed once more into the claws of Ulncamnorn, still in search of answers to too many questions.
We travelled back south along the cliff wall, and returned to the small plateau. We decided to make for the edge, to try and gauge how far we'd have to walk, and maybe see where it was we were meant to go. The Undred Sea stretched in the distant horizon like a black sheath being pulled over the world.
Just below the horizon there lay another village.
We made haste towards the unknown village. The haze we had seen on the horizon had turned into a slate wall that was quickly drawing near. By the time we reached the village's outskirts, the storm was upon us. The sky was dark and the air thick with fog and snow. The wind wailed like a wounded animal and assailed us with ice. I could feel the cuts and bruises swelling on my face.
"We need to find shelter!" Achard yelled.
Fortune was on our side, for we had found ourselves to be closer to the village than we knew. I don't remember what order all of this happened in. When we first spotted the village, I expected a welcome similar to the one we received in Namarhel, but the storm masked our approach, and by the time Iswynne was rapping on one of the doors, all I cared for was survival.
Liles pointed to the door, it was frozen shut. Elubiere threw his shoulder against the door but it wouldn't budge. Achard then yelled, beckoning us to another house nearby. The house was also abandoned, but the door was slightly ajar. With a little coercion, Elubiere drove it open. We filed into the small house, and shut the door behind us.
Berhal provided us with a small flask of Langres Blood, the mountain sap profusely used by the villagers of Namarhel. We used it to start a small fire. Within, the house was also covered in ice and snow. The furniture was dry and splintered, and the kitchen was still well stocked with crockery. Iswynne called us into the bedroom. In the bed there lay the mummified remains of two people.
Their arms were wrapped in an everlasting embrace.
We spent two nights in that house until the stormed passed. We kept the fire going by breaking down and burning some of the furniture to keep ourselves from freezing like our hosts.
On the first night, we closed the door to the bedroom. We all suffered from exhaustion and soundly fell asleep. Iswynne and I woke once during the middle of the night. The fire had gone out and we were both numb from the cold. I don't know how the others coped so well. We started the fire again, and lay down next each other for added warmth.
When I woke again, Achard was sitting by the fire, stirring the flames.
"The storm hasn't let up. Looks like we'll be here a while yet."
I looked to the windows. They were iced over, and the ice was seeping in through the cracks in the framing. I could hear the wind howling outside like a pack of hungry wolves. A small pile of snow had formed underneath the door to the house. For the time being, we were trapped.
On the second day I paid a visit to our hosts. The pair still lay in their bed, entangled in eternity. They were lying on top of the bed, uncovered, and still clothed, which I thought odd. I wondered if their spirits had joined the other forsaken souls forever roaming the mountains of Ulncamnorn.
Their skin was thin and frayed. It reminded me of the texture of a beehive. There was little of use in the room. An empty cup and plate lay on a dresser by the bed. The drawers were packed with folded clothes. Their shoes lay neatly by the bedside. There was another, smaller fireplace in the room, packed with ice and snow. There was only one thing of note in the room, and that was just how pristine and undisturbed it looked.
Then I realised. These people knew they were dying.
The storm finally broke early in the afternoon, when the sun was starting its plunge towards the western mountains, from whence we came. We waded out into the streets, where the snow was now up to our knees. The air was crisp and clear.
We moved slowly. We passed a house where to roof had collapsed under the sheer weight of the snow. We saw no signs of life. We heard no noise, except that of silence. Achard picked and approached a house. He raised his hand as if to knock, but then lowered it. He grabbed the door handle, and pushed. The door opened with little force, and he disappeared inside. I already knew what he would find.
He reappeared shortly thereafter.
"There's three of them, one was a child," he said.
We chose another house nearby. Iswynne entered.
"Two in this one. No sign of a struggle. It looks like they just lay down and died. You were right, Calfron. They knew they were dying."
We decided to push further into the village. Maybe if we found the great hall—if they had one—or the temple, we might get some answers, or find someone that was still alive.
We passed more crumbled and collapsed homes. We spotted crates, barrels, and carts buried in the snow and ice. We looked out for footprints, or smoke rising in the air, but the only life we saw was a black bird soaring high in the sky above us.
We eventually found the great hall. Thick columns of ice reached the ground from the roof. The large double doors were frozen shut. Liles began to pick at the ice with his dagger while Elubiere and I circled the hall to see if there was another way in. We found a stack of firewood covered in snow, and next to it an axe frozen to the ground. Elubiere pulled the axe free, and used it to break away the ice that blocked our entry.
There were thirty-four dead inside. They all sat comfortably around the great hall, with their heads resting in their arms against the tables. At the far end of the hall, a great tapestry covered the wall. It depicted a man with a goat's head. The creature wore only a loincloth. Its eyes were black and its horns were long and curved like two scimitars. It had human features otherwise, except for thick, long, and uneven square nails on the the hands and feet.
A small hole in the ceiling allowed some snow to drift through, and fall upon the dead.
Like in Namarhel, the great hall was also lined with shields. Like in Namarhel, they were also painted, but faded with age. A few of the shields that were in a more modest condition depicted the same goat-headed creature that was woven into the tapestry.
Liles lifted one of the better painted shield off the wall.
"Bring him the Shield of Lyndriad," he said. "He meant it plainly. This is Lyndriad. The death, the despair, that's what they wanted us to see."
Liles carried the shield on his back. We left the great hall behind. Left the dead to their eternal feast. As we pushed back through the snow of the entombed village, I felt watched. The sun was high and the sky clear, yet I looked over my shoulder with every passing breath. I looked between the houses, into the windows and down the streets, expecting to find someone, or something that was looking back. I couldn't shake my dream. I couldn't shake what the old man had said.
"'Every day I find it harder to wake.'"
As we we approached the edge of village, we found someone waiting for us.
His name was Lephett, and he was from Namarhel. He looked worse for wear than his fellow villagers. His skin was tarnished by the cold, speckled with blisters healed over and over again. His eyes betrayed a haunting lust for something he couldn't find.
"You killed them all," he said in a thick accent.
"These people have been dead a long time," Achard said.
"He's not talking about them." Liles drew his smallsword. He favoured the thinner, shorter blade. He could move faster, he liked to say. He was right. He moved like a Vilidrian dancer when we were beset by fledglings. That was years ago now.
"You're one of them," Elubiere said. "The cannibals."
There had been seven of them, altogether. Amashael we killed. Three others, Kehdem, Esiarra, and Elaust, burned in Namarhel. Their names dripped from Lephett's tongue. He repeated something else too. It wasn't their fault.
"We're not responsible for what happened in Namarhel," Iswynne said. Her words were careful, like they tiptoeing around a sleeping wolf.
I had that feeling again, that we were being watched. I looked to my left, then to my right, but it was too late. The bow had already been drawn and aimed, and I didn't have enough time to shout his name.
The arrow struck Elubiere in the neck. He saw it coming. He looked irate, incredulous, and scared all at once as he grasped his neck, as his blood stained the white snow. Another arrow hissed past me and hit Achard in the back.
I don't think I had any thoughts again for quite some time. I acted, but there was no effort there to make any decisions, to coordinate a response, my movements remained mechanical until we'd nearly reached Namarhel again.
I ran at the closest of the three cannibals, the one that had shot Achard. Later, I wondered how he had missed me, but at that moment any disquiet in my mind was at rest.
The cannibal was startled. I don't think any of them expected us to react as fast as we did. I leapt through the heavy snow as if it wasn't even there. The cannibal notched a second arrow and aimed, but I threw my dagger towards his face. He dodged and the arrow fired into the ground. I was upon him.
I fell to the ground when he kneed me in the stomach. I swept his legs and knocked him down. The struggle didn't last long after that. I got a hold of my second dagger and plunged it into his chest.
Iswynne killed Lephett. I've met very few that could pose her any challenge, but Lephett did get a lucky strike. She had a deep gash just above her left hip. Liles dispatched the other man. I didn't see him fight either, but he must have danced circles around his foe. He looked a dejected victor.
We returned to our companions, our friends. Elubiere lay still where he'd fallen. His hands no longer gripped his neck. Achard lay face down in the snow. He had not moved at all. The arrow took him quickly. Five had joined the population of Lyndriad that day.
We did not bury them. There was too much snow, and the soil would have been frozen. Instead, we brought Elubiere and Achard into one of the nearby homes, one that wasn't already occupied. We laid them to rest there, it felt like the right thing to do. When we left, Liles pointed to the sky. Immense winged beasts circled high above us, slowly closing the distance to the ground. I'd seen vultures before, but these were something else. Vultures did not look that big at that kind of distance. We did not tarry. We had no intention of getting between them, and their meal.
Hours later, as we were climbing a rise towards the plateau we'd come down from not a few days before, one of the birds cried out. It was a piercing, shrill howl mixed with a guttural clicking that echoed through the mountains of Ulncamnorn.
"They're competing for the remains," Iswynne said.
"What do they eat," Liles asked, "when there aren't bodies about?"
We walked in silence for a time after that, acutely aware of our surroundings.
We travelled westward as the sky turned a stone grey. We passed outcrops and a copse of pines, and we were watched over by mountains whose names we didn't know. We made good time, and before long we stood around a bend to Yghis Yar. I was leading at the time, and I instinctively stopped. I hadn't been thinking about dark mountain, but I felt a viscid sense of trepidation as if I had suddenly fallen into a moor.
"Is there no other way around?" Liles asked.
I remembered my dream, and the old man's words. Simple stories, flights of fancy, wanderings of the restless mind, I told myself. It's just a mountain, I remembered Elubiere had said, but I also remembered the unease he'd failed to hide.
We passed through Yghis Yar's shadow, keeping our eyes to the ground.
We passed westward still, and soon saw Eghaus and Cirredun within reach.
"We're being followed," Iswynne said. She was at the tail of our short procession. "Don't look back, just keep moving. I think it's Ealyrenna."
We passed through the narrow valley that snaked through Eghaus and Cirredun, and found the cave we had sheltered in on our way to Lyndriad. The sun still clung to the sky, so we debated whether or not we should continue all the way to Namarhel.
We decided against. The road was simple from there, but Ulncamnorn was conniving, it twisted the passage of time, and played tricks with cardinal directions. The road had been surprisingly straightforward between the two villages, but we did not want to press our fortune, such as it was, lest we wound up lost once more.
I expected Ealyrenna to join us then, to reveal herself, but Iswynne admitted she had not seen her in the last hours of our journey.
"Maybe she just wanted to see us off," Liles said, "to ensure we'd actually gone."
I offered to take first watch, but in truth I did not want to sleep. This was the cave where I had seen the dark nameless thing, gazing upon me. I was intent on staying up the night, but the darkness was thick, the cold intrusive, and we had little firewood to spare. Despite my best efforts, I succumbed, and drifted off to sleep.
I woke and found myself in the cave again. A murky haze of starlight illuminated the walls. Iswynne and Liles were already awake, sitting atop their bedrolls. They were both looking out towards the entrance to the cave.
"What are you looking at?" I heard myself ask, but they did not reply.
I stood and walked towards them. I tried to look upon their faces but they only turned away from me. I began to run in circles around them but they only turned faster, always sitting and always facing away from me, until I saw Ealyrenna. I came to a sudden stop and recoiled. She was standing near the entrance to the cave, staring back at me. Liles and Iswynne were locked onto her. Ealyrenna stood entirely still, like a statue given skin and hair, clothes and a face, but beneath that surface was still all stone.
I approached her slowly, until I stood in front of her at arm's length. She did not blink, not even once, and her eyes did not move, but they still followed my gaze.
I reached out to touch her. Her arms snapped forward. Her hands gripped me tight.
"It's awake," she said, the words forced through paralysed lips.
I fought to free myself and slipped out of her grasp, and fell back into my bedroll. I woke again, and scrambled away from the entrance. It was still night, and Liles and Iswynne were both still asleep.
I tried to speak of what I'd seen in my dreams to Iswynne and Liles, but the words were hard to come by. No description I could think of could aptly describe the dark thing that was watching me on that first night we spent in the cave. No words could aptly convey that feeling of something unknowable encroaching somewhere it shouldn't, touching something it shouldn't be able to touch, the helplessness that came with it.
In the second dream, I couldn't see it, but that same feeling permeated through me. The Iswynne and Liles of that dream, I think they looked upon the same thing, and Ealyrenna, no longer able to reach us in life, reached out to me through the dream.
"I can't explain some of the things we've experienced," Iswynne said, "but the isolation, the restless nights, the weight of what we've been through these last few weeks, these can all play tricks on the mind. They're just delusions, they have to be. There's no demon sleeping beneath a dark mountain, playing tricks on people through their dreams."
"Ealyrenna was suspicious of us from the start," Liles added. "She's gone home now, that's all, as will we, once we bring this shield back to Namarhel."
And it's cold, so cold, I thought. The cold has addled my mind.
I pushed away my thoughts as far as I could. I just needed a good meal and a warm ale at a hearty and crowded tavern. I needed to go home.
We returned to Namarhel and found Torren waiting for us alone on the outskirts of the village. He seemed to have been staying in an otherwise empty hovel. He spotted the shield Liles carried. I thought I saw shame briefly flicker in his eyes.
"You found it then," he said. "Berhal thought it best you saw for yourselves, otherwise you wouldn't believe us. Where are the other two?"
"We met Lephett and his remaining companions," Iswynne said. "They're dead now."
"What do you know of what lies beneath Yghis Yar?" I asked.
"The myth of Ulncamnorn?"
Ulncamnorn was not the name of the mountain range. It was the name of the dark thing that I had seen in my dream. The mountains simply borrowed its name.
Long, long ago, Torren told us, there was a war that tore the world asunder. The creature had been beaten back. The victors couldn't kill it, but they were able to trap its mind just beneath the threshold of consciousness, so it could never surface again. The world was free to remake and reshape itself over the course of aeons, during which mountains moved like tides, but Ulncamnorn's tomb, Yghis Yar, remained eternal and immovable.
"It's an unsettling story, and stories can have power, but it's still just a story," Torren said. "Come, I'll bring you to Berhal. He'll be pleased to see you returned."
We avoided the main roads at Torren's behest. Instead, we skirted around the edge of the village. Torren slowed at every crossing, and peered around the corner of every street. It was the middle of a deeply cold and dry winter day.
"Torren, why are there no children in Namarhel?" Iswynne asked.
Torren had stopped at another crossing. The road to our left led out of Namarhel, and to our right I recognised the road we'd first taken into Namarhel. Torren didn't continue onwards. His breath hung upon the air.
"We made that choice twenty years ago," he said. He didn't turn around to face us. "We don't have laws in Namarhel, not as you know them, but occasionally we come to certain understandings. That this place isn't meant for children is one of them."
"Your founders wouldn't agree," Liles said. "You're their descendants, after all. What changed?"
"It's not my place to say." Torren turned his head, if only slightly, towards us. "Berhal isn't far now. You might find what you're seeking with him."
Berhal waited for us in what looked like a once-upon-a-time brewery. The hovel, larger than most of the others in Namarhel, was filled with hoary casks and barrels. A large cauldron lay nestled soundly in a brick lined fire pit at the centre of the single room inside.
"They're empty," Berhal said, "but I brought my own. I've been saving it. It was once made here. I think today is as good a day as any to drink it, and share it with new friends."
Berhal thanked Torren and asked him to keep watch outside. He promised he would save the man a drink for all the help he'd freely given. Torren nodded, and glanced at the shield of Lyndriad before walking outside. He shut the door behind him.
Firstly, we told Berhal of our encounter with Lephett.
"I'm sorry, that shouldn't have happened," he said simply.
"They didn't simply waste food, did they?" I asked. "What wasn't their fault?"
"They did break into the food stores that night, but..." Berhal said, "it was at my request. I promised I would protect them." He stared up into the ceiling, and back down to us. "I'm going to need that drink now."
Berhal poured the drinks. He drank his in a single swift gulp, and poured himself another. The liquor tasted like oak and earth, likely brewed somehow from the root we ate once in Namarhel's great hall.
He started by explaining why we had to be ushered back to him in secret.
There was a dichotomy in Namarhel. We were right. Berhal and Hellescim had been at odds for years about the future of the village.
"We're refugees," Berhal said. "The descendants of refugees. The founders didn't come to Ulncamnorn on a journey of self discovery, they didn't wish to search for a new home, they were fleeing their homes to the one place their conquerors wouldn't follow. Why would they? Ulncamnorn would see them dead."
That was us. We were the descendants of their conquerors. Sulmaril had a long and violent history before the stability that was now imposed upon the world.
"You're Heradūnn," Liles said. "Not just by some small measure of a distant relative, you're wholly Heradūnn."
Berhal gave us a broken smile, "Yes, your ancestors wiped out mine. You can start to understand why some here might not think kindly of you."
The origins of the war between the Heradūnn and Sulmaril were lost to time, or more likely purposefully erased. The victors wrote the history books, after all, but here there were people who would still remember.
"What I told you before was true," Berhal said. "The founders didn't mean to stay in Namarhel. They had a plan. First to conquer Ulncamnorn, then to raise an army—breed an army—and finally to march on Sulmaril and take back their true home. No matter how long it took. No matter how much sacrifice. You've seen the remnants of those plans."
"The war machines," Iswynne said.
Berhal nodded. "There were more once, but they were over time dismantled. Ulncamnorn wasn't pleasant or welcoming, but we eked out a life here. We had children, we had homes, and we had peace. Many didn't want to give that up."
Here Berhal stopped. He hesitated, and instead poured himself a third drink.
"I asked Lephett and his friends to rob that food store simply to bring life back to Namarhel. We live by understandings, it began as majority rule but it all became so meaningless. The votes, once divided, skewed more and more towards majorities on all topics. We became numb, complacent and apathetic. I wanted to bring about some controversy, some excitement, but they got drunk and they got stupid. They destroyed too much."
Berhal took another swig of his drink, finishing it again in a single motion. He'd skipped over a detail, I could tell. Something he still couldn't quite admit.
There came a rapping at the door. Three urgent, successive knocks.
"Berhal, you better come out here," came Torren's voice.
"Never long without an interruption," Berhal mumbled. He left his latest drink brimming on the table, and fastened his coat.
Berhal threw open the door, letting in daylight. We followed him outside. I shielded my eyes from the blinding contrast of the pure white snow.
"What's the meaning of this?" Berhal asked.
We were surrounded. Eight men stood in half circle, blocking the exit to the hovel. They all wore armour, or what accounted for armour in Namarhel. Thick fur and boiled leather engraved with the Ennead. They all bore broad swords at the ready. Torren stood in front of them, as their leader.
"I'm sorry, Berhal," Torren said. "I had no choice."
"I hope you will accompany me a little longer," Torren said to us.
We fought greater odds so many times, and always came out victorious, but no longer. Elubiere and Achard were dead. We were done fighting.
Berhal's hands were tied behind his back and he was led in front of us, surrounded by six of the guards. It seemed excessive, something to be done for an unpredictable, violent criminal. Berhal was a pacifist, or at least he came across that way.
Torren and the other two guards walked with us. He promised we would get answers to all our questions very soon, but our path, at least for now, still walked with Namarhel.
Nine stacks of wood, like the pillars of a crown, encircled the great square of Namarhel where we had seen the Ennead laid out in the stonework beneath our feat. The creature was, by then, buried beneath a thick layer of snow, its tendrils still present but invisible.
At the centre, Hellescim was locked in a stockade. His head and arms were trapped, and his body slumped towards the ground. He wasn't able to rest very comfortably, and he looked pale like the colour of the snow surrounding him. Another stockade stood empty next to his. Berhal struggled, and yelled, but he could not resist the force of his captors.
I thought I saw Hellescim smile, briefly.
"It's done," Torren said. "Now, my friends, you must make a choice."
Torren sighed as he stared at the stockades and their captives.
We were still missing pieces of the story. We were tired, cold and hungry. We'd eaten the last of our provisions before we reached Namarhel. I wanted sleep—though a small part of me dreaded that darkness—but Torren asked us for one more favour.
"There's someone who wants to speak with you at the temple," he said. "He won't speak to anyone but you for some reason." Torren stayed quiet for a moment. "Your arrival here dislodged something. There's no undoing that now. Berhal got what he wanted. He brought life back to Namarhel, but life isn't always good."
We asked who it was that was waiting for us.
"I don't know what name he goes by these days," Torren said. "He was always a little strange about names."
An old man stood within the temple, muttering to himself upon the dais. He did not hear us coming through the temple doors. He did not hear us calling out to him. It wasn't until Iswynne placed her hand on his shoulder that he turned around.
"Ealyrenna? Oh, it's you. There's fewer of you now. I thought Ealyrenna must have come back here. Have you seen her?"
Iswynne winced. The gash above her hip had festered, only just. She sat down in the pews at the old man's insistence. He examined her wound.
"I was an apothecary once," the old man said as he wandered off. He rummaged through some shelves at the back of the temple. "They brought all my reagents here. Hellescim fancies himself a healer, but he knows little beyond the elemental herbs."
We told him we hadn't seen Ealyrenna. We hadn't, not truly. Iswynne thought she'd seen someone following us, and I'd only seen her in my dream. The old man ignored us. He brought a collection of jars to Iswynne's side and mixed a poultice.
"This might sting," he said as he pressed the concoction into her wound.
Iswynne yelped, but sat still until the old man finished wrapping the bandage.
"I suppose she's dead then. I prayed for a different life for her, you know, but there's only one god listening in these mountains."
His name was Zakarel, or at least that's the name he gave us.
Iswynne was thankful for the poultice. The relief on her face was almost immediate.
"We had a good life here once," the old man said as he walked towards one of the tapestries hanging in the temple. "We were thriving, both villages were thriving, but we were always living in the shadow of a spectre."
Zakarel stopped at the tapestry of Yghis Yar.
"Those of us left living here, we weren't part of the war you know? My grand father, he was one of the founders. He lived through that war. He witness the needless slaughter in the name of peace and unity. He and the other founders, and they made sure we never forgot. We toiled for decades breeding a war machine, an engine of vengeance and justice."
Zakarel turned around to face us. He was a lot more lucid then, far detached from the feeble bed-ridden man we first saw, who needed his daughter's help to walk to the table to eat. Zakarel walked across the temple on his own two legs, back to the dais. Back to the basin now empty of Langres Blood, the mountain sap that burned a bright blue.
"Some of us grew tired of living under that shadow. I really did wish for a better life for her, you know?" Zakarel faced away from us, and stared down into the basin. "We, the people of Namarhel, chose to stay, to forgo the destiny of war the founders forced upon us. The people of Lyndriad chose otherwise. They wanted to go home, they wanted to fight for their freedom. We got scared. What if they went through with their plans, and they brought those butchers to our doorsteps? So we all voted, and we all understood what that vote meant.
"We had to be sure." Zakarel's voice began to quiver. "I mixed the poison we used to taint their food and water supplies. It only took a few days before they were all dead. Near all of them anyway, but those that survived we killed quickly. Regardless of… Things changed after that. None for the better, as you can see."
A dagger appeared in Zakarel's hand. I don't know where he'd pulled it from.
"It's about time somebody else knew what we did," he said.
Zakarel cut his own throat before we could really absorb his words. He stumbled as the dagger fell from his hand, then his legs gave up. His head hit hard against the side of the basin as he fell. His dead eyes stared at us from the ground, and his blood dripped down the steps of the dais in the temple of Namarhel.
I stared into his eyes for some time. This was a different man to the person we saw in that hovel in the mountains. He spoke eloquently. He was haunted, but not by what lives beneath Yghis Yar, not by his dreams and his fear of never waking. He was haunted by his own deeds, by the deeds of his people.
But he walked to the tapestry of Yghis Yar within the temple. He could have walked to any other, but he stopped there. He looked upon it as he talked of war and vengeance, and exacting justice. Did that mean something? How had he gotten back to Namarhel? What really happened to Ealyrenna?
"Calfron." Liles shook me. "We need to go."
They're going to kill us. We were all thinking the words, but Liles spoke them aloud. They wiped out an entire village of their own people to protect themselves from the Sulmaril Empire, and there we were, the butchers had found their village. But why not kill us straight away? What did they have to gain from befriending and protecting us? From revealing their darkest secrets to the very people they were so afraid of?
Our forefathers and their generation butchered and assimilated the Heradūnn, we knew that, such is war, and there are laws to this day that dictate Heradūnn marriage rights, birth rights, property rights, but they... they turned on their own people. That was unnatural, people didn't just to that of their own free will. I felt tense. Something still wasn't right. Something had been disturbed in Namarhel.
We returned to Torren. What was left to do? We couldn't run. We would die in the attempt. Ulncamnorn would devour us.
Torren had taken up residence near the town square, near where Berhal and Hellescim had been locked in the stockades. They were likely slowly freezing to death, though the pyres around the square had been lit, and kept some of the cold at bay.
"Berhal and Hellescim are our leaders, they were once united. We were once united, as the people of Namarhel and Lyndriad, as Heradūnn, but since the extermination of Lyndriad we've been slowly tearing each other apart. Maybe we deserve this fate.
"I love Berhal, he's like a brother to me, but we need to end this. We need to choose a path forward and we can't choose that path on our own."
Torren looked upon us with tears in his eyes.
"I'm sorry about what's happened to your friends. Berhal wanted you to see what happened in Lyndriad so you could judge us knowing the extent of the events that led us here. He knew who you were, who you descended from, but he also recognised that there was no hatred, no prejudice in you towards us as we held towards you. So he decreed that you were to be protected, and he put his plan in motion."
"You want us to judge you?" Iswynne asked. "Then what?"
"Hellescim wants us to repent," Torren said. "He wants us to accept our penance and prosper, bring new life, bring children to Namarhel once again. But if you leave here all of that will be at risk. You might bring the Sulmaril Empire back here to finish what they started, so he cannot let you leave, and he will not let you stay.
"Berhal wants our suffering to end," Torren continued. "He wanted us to confess our great sin in the hopes that it would bring us some measure of peace. You've given him that opportunity. Now he wants us all to stay our course, live what life we have left to one day die and be forgotten. He believes our children would just inherit our pain and suffering. You will be free to go home. After all, what harm could you bring upon us worse than what we have brought upon ourselves?
"One of them must die," he said with a finality. "I don't think Berhal had this in mind when he came up with his plan, but you must choose which. You have to do this for us."
Iswynne, Liles, and I returned to our own little hovel, the very same hovel we stayed in during our first night in Namarhel. I thought back to the stranger who first greeted us in the village square. Who had he been? He seemed oddly calm, considering all we knew now about the people of Namarhel and their fears. Perhaps it had been Berhal, but that stranger's cadence and stride didn't match.
We closed the door behind us in the hovel, and the world became a much smaller place. In that hovel we didn't have to worry about the fate of a village, of an entire people. We didn't have to worry about how far away from home we were. I admit, for brief moment, it crossed my mind that we still didn't have a way back, but I put that aside. There was nothing we could do about that.
We lit a fire and we fed it well, better than we fed ourselves, and with the flames roaring, and the logs crackling, we fell soundly asleep.
I rarely dreamed before this excursion to these cursed mountains. On this night, I dreamed of the day Elubiere and Achard died. We stood at the edge of Lyndriad. We were besieged but I could not see our attackers. The villagers, the cannibals, were nowhere in sight, but I could hear my friends screaming. I turned, and it was not just Elubiere and Achard, Liles and Iswynne were under siege as well.
They were birds of prey, but they were not vultures, they did not wait for their prey to die, they swooped down upon us to expedite the process. There were four of them, and I was the lucky one who wasn't picked, and could watch his friends get torn apart.
They were no match against them. The birds were at least twice their size. Their beaks were like guillotines, and their claws like colossal swords. They sliced through armour and bone with little effort, and swallowed limbs whole.
One of the bird's heads twisted, and its black eye fell upon me. The creature shrieked, it was like nothing I could describe, but it terrified me. The other birds then looked upon me, they joined in on the chorus and as one they all took flight.
I found myself alone, standing in the shadow of something. I did not want to turn. I did not want to see what stood behind me. Hours passed in the dream, maybe days, and finally I woke in the middle of the night. Iswynne and Liles still slept at my side.
I didn't know where I was going. All I knew was that for the moment I couldn't stay inside. I was afraid the door to the hovel would creak as I opened it, that the cold wind would invade the hovel and stir Iswynne and Liles from their sleep, but the cabin was silent, and the wind was still.
That night Namarhel was blanketed by a thick sheathe of stars. I held my hand out and by starlight my hand's shadow fell onto the snow. I began to walk. The snow softly crunched beneath my feet, and my breath mixed with and danced upon the cold air.
I found myself at the village square. I say I found myself because I didn't remember the walk. I didn't remember deciding that that had been my destination. The burning pyres had melted away most of the snow, and I was standing atop the Ennead. Its tendrils and pith shone brightly underneath the light of the stars.
Berhal and Hellescim were still locked in the stockades. Their bodies were slumped and if it wasn't for the faint hint of their own breath upon the air, I would've thought they'd both succumbed to the cold grasp of Ulncamnorn. Between them, embedded in the ground, was a great two handed executioner's sword.
I walked up to Berhal. He struggled to lift his head and his breath was strained. He dropped his head again once he saw me, the effort needed to keep his head up evidently too great. He began to laugh, but it was a reserved, melancholic sort of laugh.
"I was wondering if I'd see you again," he said. His voice was strained. "I'm a bit chilly, I don't suppose you have a blanket with you?"
"When you sent us to Lyndriad, you said there was only one left who knew the way out of Ulncamnorn. Was that a lie?"
"I never lie," Berhal said with conviction, "but I didn't tell you everything. You would have been afraid of us if I had."
Berhal strained to look up at me again, but his strength failed him.
"Did you ask him, before he died? The founders had a way back. They needed a way back," he emphasized the word needed, "for all their war machines."
For a moment, I wondered how he knew about Zakarel. I glanced at the nearby hovel, where Torren was staying. I remembered him calling Berhal his brother. I was probably not the only one that had come to talk to the bricklayer.
"We did, but his answer was just senseless drivel, something about there sometimes being a way, but not yet. He wasn't very coherent, at least not until the end, when he broke down and confessed to us all your sins."
For a brief moment Berhal stayed quiet, and then he laughed. This time it was a genuine, hearty laugh, but it quickly turned into a dry, hacking cough. I pulled out my wine skin and uncorked it, and Berhal found the strength to lift his head and drink while I held the bottle at his lips.
"He gave you the answer, you just didn't know it," Berhal said. "The Yllendere. It's a river some ways west of here that winds its way through Ulncamnorn. In the dead of winter it will likely be frozen over, and you could follow it home. I should have thought of it, but I was never too bothered with finding a way out this place."
I took in Berhal's words. For a moment, I scarcely believed him, but of course, if we could find a river that led out of Ulncamnorn, and followed its path, we would never get lost. Memories came back to me of the river we visited in the hills bordering Ulncamnorn, where we had panned for gold. We never found out its name. Was that the Yllendere?
"Thank you, Berhal," I said. "We owe you too much."
I turned away from Berhal and walked to where the executioner’s sword was planted into the ground. I wrapped my hands around the hilt and pulled it free. It was a heavy blade, but exceptionally well balanced. I wondered for a moment if this was a old Heradūnn blade, or if the people of Namarhel had forged it.
I turned back, and walked several paces back towards Berhal. He found the strength again to look up, and our eyes met briefly as I swung the blade and took off his head.
I returned to the hovel accompanied only on occasion by a lonesome snowflake floating on the gentle wind. For the first time in a long time, I slept a dreamless sleep.
I awoke in the morning, long after sunrise. Iswynne and Liles were already awake. They had lit a small fire, and were cooking what we would come to call Namarhelian broth. The main ingredient, as always, was coldgrow root.
When I stood, and greeted them, Liles and Iswynne stared at me in what I could only describe as abject alarm and incredulity. The light of day illuminated me in glowing detail. I was covered in dried blood. It was caked upon my face, on my arms, on my clothes. How I'd not noticed I could not say, but I knew part of me had been… put away during the night. I knew what I'd done, I knew why I'd done it, but I remembered only a few of the details, a few of the moments, like a dream.
"What did you do?" Liles asked.
"I did what we were asked to do," I said, "and I found a way home."
We stayed in Namarhel through Lorr's Argent Wisp and into the Thief's Accomplice. By then, winter had truly taken hold, and the Yllendere had ample time to freeze over.
We had thought about running away that night, after what I had done, but it had been too soon, and without help, without provisions, we would have turned out just like the cannibals, like Amashael, Lephett, Kehdem, Esiarra, Elaustia, Isllid, and Belldrun. I wanted to remember all their names. I thought someone should.
That morning, we returned to the town square. A small crowd had already gathered. They parted to make room for us to pass. Torren wept next to his friend. We never did speak to him again. Hellescim at first was nowhere to be seen. He had been ushered away, to eat and drink, to rest and to heal.
When we next met with Hellescim, it was not at the great hall, nor at the temple. It was in a small throne room, one that seemed out of place, for such a small village. There too, we had a small crowd gathered to watch.
"I know what you've heard about us," Hellescim said. "What you were asked to do and the choices and consequences you were presented with. I don't know why you chose the way you did, but you have saved the life of this village, and all of Namarhel, what's left of the Heradūnn people, thank you."
He paused there, and I think it was only at that moment he truly decided.
"You're free to go. I'd prefer you not stay, but I will not force you out. You'll be safe here. This is a new start for us," he said, not only to us, "and there has been enough death in our lifetimes. If we are to move forward, we have to change, and we have to be ready to face any consequences that come our way for the things we've done."
A few days under lock and key, exposed to Ulncamnorn's scorn without respite, must have tempered Hellescim's zeal. I wondered how long that would last. I wondered if the people of Namarhel could truly survive, and move past what they had done.
Liles struggled the most with the events of our journey. He began to have nightmares when we left Namarhel, and they grew worse the farther the Yllendere took us. I asked him what the nightmares were about, but he did not want to talk about them.
Iswynne shut herself off from both of us. I think she was unhappy about my actions, and that we didn't make the decision together as a group. I think the deaths of Achard and Elubiere, and our own many close calls, had also caught up to her.
The Yllendere wound through Ulncamnorn, frozen and barren. The river was as much of a signposted road as we could ask for. We didn't know how long the road ahead of us was, but unlike when we were first lost in this desolation, we had a clear way forward.
I must make a confession. Even if no one will ever read this. I think it's the reason I wrote this entire account.
I spared Hellescim for a selfish reason. The shape in the dark, the shadow of Yghis Yar. Iswynne, Liles, and Torren all believed it to be a story, but I wasn't so sure. I felt the animosity in my dreams. I'd never felt anything like it before. What Zakarel had done, what Namarhel chose to do, people don't do that of their own accord.
When the Heradūnn fled to Ulncamnorn, they disturbed something, something that had long slept beneath Yghis Yar. I saw it in my dreams. I believe Zakarel saw it in his dreams too. I felt its grip beginning to strangle me. If the people of Namarhel perished, then that thing's attention would fall elsewhere. It would hunger and it would reach out to feed on something else. It would try to escape.
I saved the people of Namarhel so that they would remain its play things. To keep it occupied. I damned those people, and the children they will have, forevermore. I hope I can be forgiven for that choice.