Updated: Dec 14, 2018
Harsh winds whipping down from Highmountain can be felt even as far as Akstad amid the Runewood. It is hard to keep the morning fires burning in front of the tents, but it is first among my chores as the day dawns. Later, I would prepare wrappings that would be used to bury the dead, for there was always war and ritual combat. The Bonespeaker clan performed the final Rites and tended the graves, petitioning Helya with the tales of their victories to allow them to pass through her realm.
As the clan rises with the sun, some seem grateful for the warmth of the fire, but the Runecarver’s son, always dissatisfied and trying to show his dominance, clouts me hard on the snout and shoves me to the side, in his rush to the fire pit. And, of course, he expects his morning kaffe, black and bitter, to magically appear as he sits. I snarl like a wild wolf, but I am not allowed to push back, a captive and slave, and the beating from yester-morn still freshly marking my back hide. I scamper to another captive, this one Vrykul from another clan, and he hands me the kaffe to deliver. I return to the firepit; I am supposed to grovel and fawn over this favored one, but his father is not present, so I stand as straight as I can manage, taller than my owner’s son by two hands and my lip curls into a sneer as I hold the metal cup down to him. He stands rapidly, the runes of swiftness cut into his skin by his father (though I learn later that makes him slower than one who cuts his own flesh), flicker silver like a rushing river and he spits, spittle running down my forehead and across my eye.
I knew it was coming. I did not react. But I received the beating anyway; leather, always the leather whips biting into my hide. Yesterday it was from behind, this morning lashed with my back to the thin trunk of a white birch, the stinging whip cut welts into the fur across my chest, and the knots of the birch dig into the unhealed welts on my back. I snarl with rage, at first, but eventually black out amidst my own howling cries that are echoed among the wolves that prowl the lands.
Somewhere in my mind I hear shouting in the distance and though my body and mind fight against it, my nostrils are assaulted by the smell of fire, not as it sits in the central pit, but a raging whirl of red and orange as it begins to attack the trees around the village, and my eyes open in wide-eyed fear, for I am still lashed to the birch, and I remember fire through these woods when I was a smaller calf just learning the language of my captors. “Brann! Brann!” I could hear the word shouted amidst other words calling for warriors to arm themselves and fight, but I could see no attackers, only Bonespeakers, who under the night sky, clashed against their own clan members, not in ritual combat, but in traitorous madness.
I strain against the bonds, fighting to break free from this trap of death for I will never surrender to them or give up. They could burn or kill themselves, but I yearned for the right of combat and for the right to prove that I might undergo the Trials and prove myself. If I could do that than I would be truly free. I refuse to die lashed to the birch, for they would leave me to rot a slave, for all their beliefs of tending the graves of the dead, they would put me to the fire, burning alive if they could and grinding my ashes into the Earth beneath their hard leather boots.
I pull and pull, muscles rippling beneath my fur, the burning strain painful as I never ease up.
She came to me then. The Keykeeper of the village, darting between the trees, and my eyes lowered immediately as I had been taught from the second I could crawl in this foreign land. She was most trusted in the clan and wielded power just under the clan’s leader Runeseer Faljar, as his mate and as village crone.
“Raise your eyes, so you see the Truth I speak to you, now. The power that lies beneath the Earth tells me you are important, Shu’halo. And I do not argue with the Earth, do you?” she asked, deftly cutting the leather strip that holds me captive to the tree. It is sudden and I stumble forward and barely stop myself shy of bumping into her. I have always been told not to touch her, not to look at her, not to speak to her. I can see her power in the ways the runes leap forth from her skin in blazes of light, like I have never seen on the Runecarver or his son.
I step quickly back from her as she thrusts forth the dagger, but she turns it hilt first and offers it to me as if it was the most normal act in a world that was not a tempest around us. I take it. I have no reason to harm her. The Keykeeper had never once caused me pain, and more than once had used a salve to calm the welts that others, including the Runeseer had inflicted. While others spoke of her as sinister and disagreeable, I had never seen this in the way she treated me.
“You must cut the rune yourself into your fur or it will hold almost no power,” she said, and in that moment the chaos around us slowed and it was just the Keykeeper and her words unlocking reality from what I thought were dreams. She nodded as she saw the reaction in my blue eyes. “Look to the lines of power, the ley-lines that cross and span all of Azeroth. They show you the runes of power and one will call to you. That is the rune you will cut and you will feel the power lying inside you, until you call it. Once we live through this night, I will teach you more and the rune will become more intricate. For you will win your freedom this night… if you live.”
I had always seen these lines of power, but now she reached out and quickly traced a mark on my arm with her fingertip and lights of power engulfed my mind and my surroundings. Overwhelmed, I fell to my knees, but the Keykeeper held my arm straight between us and parallel to the Earth. Her eyes darted to the dagger and then back to my forearm. I drew the dagger’s tip across my arm, slowly tracing the brightest rune I could see in the current of the ley-lines, three wavy lines, crudely drawn, and it was done. She let go, the ley-lines dimmed, but the rune now blazed like bright fire on my forearm, and I felt drunk with power and speed.
“Go now. You will know friend from foe. Go! Go! Choose your path, Shu’halo!” She shoved herself away and ran back towards the village. I glanced once at the mountains of my birth and then ran the other direction, after her to save the only home I knew.
As we approached the first hut, I saw those I had known almost my whole life fighting each other, killing each other. While death was not unheard of in challenge fights, this was not a challenge but a war. The first Vrykul to lunge at me, died with the dagger I held now in his throat, my hand striking out with a speed that surprised me. I ripped the dagger forth and met the next and the next to come for me; they were no match for my quickness and seemed as surprised as I was.
Those Bonespeakers I had always treated with respect and kindness stood against those I had always met with defiance and disdain. As she said, I knew friend from foe and always had.
We neared the central fire pit, where just that morning I had been spit upon for standing tall, and now I stood even taller. In the heat of battle I knew no pain and no fear, only rage when I saw my owner and his son taking their axes to the other Vrykul, who had been captives alongside myself and a handful of other Shu’halo taken into captivity with me, the few who also survived.
I bellowed out a challenge and lunged for my owner, Hargvald the Cruel. He turned, but the speed of my strike and strength of my rage ended his life, a shocked look erupting as my dagger plunged through his breast bone. I held him up by the dagger’s haft until the light left his eyes, hearing his son flee alongside the rest of the traitors towards the cliffs which led down to the home of the Tideskorn. I let him fall and looked up to see the Runeseer and many others watching me lining up around the fire pit.
The Runeseer, the clan leader, looked around after a few seconds and nodded to those of us still standing. “We attend to our duties, to care for the dead. But these traitors will not be buried, nor cared for in the afterlife. Burn them so as to cleanse our village and our bloodlines of those who have betrayed us and betrayed Yotnar.” With that, I felt a hand on my arm, and the Keykeeper whispered for me to take up my task as a Bonekeeper and as a slave no longer.
The next night as the bodies burned I was given a name, Leidolfr, and until the Keykeeper died fighting against the Legion and those Vrykul that grew corrupted by the Power of Fel, she taught me what she could of the runes, to carve, to read, and to see the truth in the ley-lines of the world.
The Keykeeper’s last words:
In one thing, I have failed you. It was at my word that we attacked the village of your birth and stole you and the other Shu’halo calves from your home. They could not have taught you what I have, and you would not have grown strong as you have or understood the history of the Titan, the Vrykul and the Human, or the power of the runes that you must master and the runes as they move through the ley-lines. Now you must find another teacher for I go to face Helya for what crimes I committed in this realm. Go and learn to be Shu’halo no matter how difficult the journey.