Read Winter Witch Online

Authors: Elaine Cunningham

Winter Witch

The first rank of winter wolves leaped through the flames, fangs bared and eyes glowing with eldritch blue light. Ellasif held her breath at the sight of them. They were as beautiful as they were terrible, and for an instant she wondered how it would feel to plunge her hand into that dense white fur.

Bowstrings sang in twanging chorus from the cottage lofts. A storm of arrows swept toward the fire moat. Most bounced off thick pelts, but three of the winter wolves stumbled and went down. Two rose and ran again despite the arrows protruding from their bodies. The third wolf lay twitching, a white shaft protruding from its eye socket.

Ellasif’s heart triumphed as the children of White Rook made good their first volley. There would not be time for a second.

“Brace!” howled Red Ochme.

The warriors ran forward and set their pikes against the shield wall, iron points angled toward the charging pack. All the warriors, shields and spears, braced for impact.

But the wolves did not challenge the wall. To Ellasif’s astonishment, the first rank slid to a stop and reared up on their hind legs. They set their forepaws on the upper edge of the shields, and at last they sang, but not to the moon. They sang to winter.

Crystalline clouds poured from the wolves’ jaws, shimmering in the firelight as they spread out into icy fog. The frost riming the creatures’ mouths whitened the faces of the warriors who crashed backward to the ground, rigid as felled trees ...

The Pathfinder Tales Library

Prince of Wolves
by Dave Gross

Winter Witch
by Elaine Cunningham

Plague of Shadows
by Howard Andrew Jones

The Worldwound Gambit
by Robin D. Laws

Winter Witch

Elaine Cunningham

with Dave Gross

Seattle

Winter Witch
©
2010 by Paizo Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles and reviews.

Paizo Publishing, LLC, the Paizo golem logo, and Pathfinder are registered trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Pathfinder Campaign Setting, and Pathfinder Tales are
trademarks of Paizo Publishing, LLC.

Cover art by Jesper Ejsing.

Cover design by Sarah Robinson.

Map by Crystal Frasier.

Paizo Publishing, LLC

7120 185th Ave NE, Ste 120

Redmond, WA 98052

paizo.com

ISBN 978-1-60125-286-9

Publisher’s Cataloging-In-Publication Data

(Prepared by The Donohue Group, Inc.)

Cunningham, Elaine, 1957-

Pathfinder tales. Winter Witch / Elaine Cunningham ; with Dave Gross.

p. ; cm.

Portion of title: Winter Witch

Set in the world of the role-playing game, Pathfinder.

ISBN: 978-1-60125-286-9

1. Imaginary places--Fiction. 2. Witches--Fiction. 3. Missing

children--Fiction. 4. Magic--Fiction. 5. Fantasy fiction. I. Gross, Dave.

II. Title. III. Title: Winter Witch IV. Title: Pathfinder adventure path

PS3553.U472 P75 2010

813/.54

First printing November 2010.

Printed in the United States of America.

To Liz Courts, Crystal Frasier, Hugo Solis,
and all the creators of
Wayfinder
.

Prologue

The Dancing Hut

In the Lands of the Linnorm Kings, children seldom weep, and the hardy northern women scream only in the rage of battle. Cursing, however, is a celebrated art mastered only once a woman approaches the moment of childbirth.

Marit perfected her art while writhing on her bed, the sheets already sodden with the sweat of her agony. Her only attendant sat hunched on a chair nearby. Ellasif had just entered her tenth winter. Her small face furrowed in concentration as she committed some of her mother’s more inventive phrases to memory.

When the waves of pain ebbed and Marit lay limp and panting, Ellasif dipped a cloth into an infusion of soothing herbs. She wrung it nearly dry and draped it over her mother’s forehead. It was bad fortune that the child had decided to come tonight, when their mother was already weak with fever, but the midwife had not been surprised. Everyone knew that storms called to the unborn.

And such a storm! Wind howled as it stalked through the village, scrabbling at the cottage and snatching away handfuls of thatching. Shards of ice clattered against the shuttered windows. Hailstones tumbled down the chimney to die hissing in the hearth fire. The candle on the bedside table trembled as yet another peal of thunder rolled in from the forest separating the village of White Rook from the eternally wintry land of Irrisen.

It occurred to Ellasif that the distant booming she’d heard since nightfall might not be thunder. The possibility of what else the sound might be stole her breath, and her lips silently shaped one of the curses she’d just learned.

Ellasif had never given much thought to the stories village children whispered of the winterfolk, or to the maze of living fences that kept those fabled horrors at bay. But then, she had never imagined that the fences might fall.

She ran to the window and unlatched the shutter. Standing on tiptoe, she peered out into the clearing.

Rain and sleet fell steadily, a frigid downpour that clung to the roofs and trees in ever-thickening sheets of ice. Undeterred, the people of White Rook continued their work. The bonfire blazing in the village center cast a broad circle of light and—so it seemed to Ellasif—far more shadows than could be accounted for by the human inhabitants alone. There were restless spirits among the houses, long and small.

Most of the village women tended the birch grove, a natural palisade stretching north-south from the cliffs to the river. A lattice of vines connected the trees in an intricate pattern that was both maze and fence. The women went from one groaning tree to another, shaking ice from the drooping limbs. An elder birch faltered under its burden and broke with a sound like a thousand shattered mead jugs. The women scattered as the tree crashed to the ground, bringing with it several of its smaller neighbors and the web of interlaced vines connecting them.

The clatter had not yet died away when another deep report rolled across the village. It was much closer than any previous boom, and there was no mistaking the sound that followed: the slow scream of a falling tree.

Ellasif braced for the impact, her breath frozen as she counted off the moments. The ground-shaking crash signaled the death of an ancient pine, one of the pillars supporting the fence of tree-thick vines White Rook’s people had shaped and tended for generations.

The outer perimeter was coming down.

They could expect no assistance from any king. Opir Eightfingers had shown little interest in defending the border with Irrisen, despite the proximity of his capital, and there were those who said he was no true king for this and other reasons. There had been a time when Trollheim declared the village part of its territory, but Castellan Freyr Darkwine had not sent his Blackravens so far south since the start of the interregnum. The men and women of White Rook stood alone against the invaders.

The village women abandoned the birch grove to guard against whatever might come through the breach. Ellasif’s hands itched for the grip of a weapon as she watched the women scramble into position. She scrubbed her palms against the rough wool of her skirt and tried to push the battle-lust aside. She knew her place was here. Soon she would be an elder sister, with all the responsibility that role entailed.

But the frenzy of battle preparations proved too tempting to resist. Ellasif lingered at the window, watching as men rolled barrels of vjarik, a distilled spirit strong enough to blind a linnorm, into the stone-paved trench that formed a barrier around the village. Warriors took up positions a hundred paces behind the fire moat, weapons in hand and tall wooden shields lying ready on the ground before them. Ellasif’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She’d never seen a shield wall in battle. According to the bards’ tales, few foes could overcome a barrier formed of Ulfen warriors.

Spear warriors formed up a dozen paces behind the front line of warriors, weapons in hand. Several of the older boys dragged bundles of spears from the weapon huts. One had already taken his place beside his warrior, four weapons held ready to pass: two slim throwing spears, a sturdy pike, and a short spear for hand-to-hand fighting.

In the center of the village clearing, behind the warriors and their boys, three old men fed the bonfire. The storm fought them with wind-driven sleet and sudden gusts that dove down to throttle the leaping flames or hurl them up onto the thatched roofs of the surrounding houses. But the huge fire pit contained the blaze, and the circle of stone pillars supporting the conical roof and chimney of the village center kept the wood dry enough to burn. Buckets of pitch stood near the fire pit, bristling with the shafts of fire arrows.

Behind the pit, more warriors gathered, readying weapons ranging from swords to pitchforks to long-handled torches. Any child-stealing winterfolk who came through the sundered fences would have to run a gauntlet of fire and iron before they reached any of the vulnerable children or mothers. Everyone else in the village, spearman or shield maiden, would die before they let that happen.

Nor would those who survived the ordeal find the village children easy to capture. Atop every house was a loft with narrow windows nestled in the gables of each steep roof. The shutters had been flung open to reveal boys and maidens too young to wield sword or spear or battleaxe, but no less deadly with a bow.

Ellasif glanced toward the ladder that led to her family’s loft. A sturdy bow of well-seasoned yew awaited her there. Her gaze shifted to the maidensword over the hearth. A sigh of longing and frustration sang through her teeth. Her mother’s first weapon, despite village custom, would never be hers. Ulfen warriors were famously tall and strong, but Ellasif had always been small for her age, and seemed destined to remain so. No one of her stature would ever become a shield maiden. Never mind that the only boy who’d ever dared to taunt her about it had walked with a limp from full moon to well past new moon.

“Ellasif, come away—”

A pained gasp cut the admonition short. Ellasif spun toward the bed.

Her mother’s night robe, already damp with sweat, was drenched with more ominous stains. Young as she was, Ellasif knew what this meant. The babe must come soon, or mother and child would both perish.

Ellasif knelt at the foot of her mother’s bed. “I will catch the babe, and I will care for it,” she said. “This I swear. Now do your part.”

The ceremonial words were meant for a sister or a close midwife, but Ellasif spoke them with the assurance and conviction of a grown woman. Marit did as her daughter bade her, propping herself up on her elbows and roaring a wordless battle cry as she fought to urge her child out of the warm cavern of her body and into the cold world.

Marit’s pains stopped short of their purpose. She fell back onto the bed, pale as a wraith. She clutched the damp sheets and regarded her bloody fingers. A shadow of despair crossed her face.

“Go, Sif,” she groaned. “Fetch Agithra.”

Ellasif shook her head. “She will not come. She cannot. Midwife or not, if she left her place now, Red Ochme would skewer her with her own spear and roast her over the fire pit.”

“You, my daughter, should not have to watch—” Marit’s voice broke on a ragged cough. She cleared her throat. “You should not have to watch with me, or deliver this babe.”

“Who better?” said Ellasif. “Who tended the goats last summer when they dropped their kids? I lost none of them, not even the white nanny and her tangle of twins! This babe will have fewer legs and, gods willing, no sharp hooves.”

A weak laugh escaped Marit’s chapped lips. “Gods willing,” she said. She lifted one hand to her rounded belly and traced over her babe an ancient rune of protection: a deep crescent bisected by a straight line, the footprint symbol of She Who Watches, the white raven. Most of the villagers would have called the gesture superstition or even witchcraft, but Ellasif nodded her approval. The other villagers might pray only to Torag or Desna, Gorum or Erastil, and that was well. Life would be simpler if gods were the only powers to be appeased, but when was life simple? A thousand spirits interfered with human life every year.

A blast of wind rocked the cottage. The shutter Ellasif had unlatched flew open and cracked against the outer wall. The candle flame jumped like a startled cat and vanished into the dark.

Ellasif ran outside. Sleet stung her face, and the wind whipped her skirts around her legs as she wrestled the shutter back into place. She shot the outer bolt to hold it closed and turned just in time to witness the birch grove’s destruction.

Already bent low under their weight of ice, the slender white trees could bear no more. Icy gusts ripped away limbs and sent them spinning across the hard ground between grove and village. Whole trees came crashing down, leaving splintered stumps or holes clawed up by their roots. Only the strongest remained, including the enormous birch whose white trunk had been carved with the image of the bird that gave the village its name.

“The fire moat!” cried a village man. “Light the fire moat!”

Ellasif’s gaze darted toward the man who’d shouted the warning. Beyond the birch grove, the forest was alive with pairs of gleaming eyes. Someone threw a torch into the moat. Blue flame leaped toward the sky and raced along the stone trench—a firewall meant to frighten the wolf pack into retreat.

“Those are no mere forest wolves,” Ellasif whispered to herself. Ordinary wolves came singing to the moon. These creatures attacked as silently as they’d gathered. Great white monsters as big as ice bears, they broke from the shadows and charged the fire moat in a double line formation as ordered as any Ulfen shield wall.

“Spears away!” bellowed a female voice.

Ellasif’s heart lifted at the sound. Red Ochme’s command soared above the storm as surely as her raiding ships had once crested the wild waves. Nothing could vanquish the old warrior.

The warriors in the front line dropped to one knee and snapped their shields into position, edges overlapping to form a solid wall. Behind them the warriors raised their spears, ran three steps, and unleashed a thicket of death.

Ellasif’s gaze followed Agithra’s spear as it soared over the kneeling warriors and flew straight toward the fire moat. Twenty spears or more followed it, and all disappeared through the fire. Sharp yelps from behind the fiery barrier proved the truth of their aim.

The first rank of winter wolves leaped through the flames, fangs bared and eyes glowing with eldritch blue light. Ellasif held her breath at the sight of them. They were as beautiful as they were terrible, and for an instant she wondered how it would feel to plunge her hand into that dense white fur.

Bowstrings sang in twanging chorus from the cottage lofts. A storm of arrows swept toward the fire moat. Most bounced off thick pelts, but three of the winter wolves stumbled and went down. Two rose and ran again despite the arrows protruding from their bodies. The third wolf lay twitching, a white shaft protruding from its eye socket.

Ellasif’s heart triumphed as the children of White Rook made good their first volley. There would not be time for a second.

“Brace!” howled Red Ochme.

The warriors ran forward and set their pikes against the shield wall, iron points angled toward the charging pack. All the warriors, shields and spears, braced for impact.

But the wolves did not challenge the wall. To Ellasif’s astonishment, the first rank slid to a stop and reared up on their hind legs. They set their forepaws on the upper edges of the shields, and at last they sang, but not to the moon. They sang to winter.

Crystalline clouds poured from the wolves’ jaws, shimmering in the firelight as they spread out into icy fog. The frost riming the creatures’ mouths whitened the faces of the warriors who crashed backward to the ground, rigid as felled trees.

The second wave of winter wolves struck, hurling themselves against the shields before the surviving warriors could recover from the freezing blast. The wall jolted back, slamming into the swords the warriors raised. Savage jaws snatched away the warriors’ weapons, many tearing flesh the icy breath had welded to frozen metal. The disarmed warriors reached with ruined hands for the daggers in their boot sheaths.

But the winter wolves had already retreated. As they loped away, Ellasif prayed the creatures would disappear into the forest. Defying her hope, they stopped just short of the guttering vjarik flame and wheeled about for another attack.

Ellasif caught her breath. The fallen spearfighters left gaps above the shield wall, breaches the winter wolves could easily leap through. The enemy saw their chance. On they came in a chaotic rush.

“Shields up!” shrieked Red Ochme.

The surviving spear throwers fell back, and the warriors in the shield wall stood as one, raising the wall to meet the charge.

Not all of the wolves leaped. Some came in low to attack the warriors’ booted shins, while others worried the edges of the shield wall with their enormous jaws. One of the smaller wolves scrambled up the steep cliff on the village’s north border, only to fall back among the pack.

In the chaos that followed, Ulfen battle cries mingled with the snarls of the monsters, but these were not simple beasts. The sound of human voices emerging from the slavering jaws of the winter wolves sent a cold drop of fear oozing through Ellasif’s guts. A huge wolf bitch hung off to one side, adding to the confusion by shouting commands in mimicry of Red Ochme’s voice. Ellisif had never seen the winter wolf before, but she had heard its legend. If this were the dread wolf huntress of the winter witches, then this night could surely be the doom of White Rook.

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