Freyleif and a local healer had been working on Sigmar all through the night. When she finally came downstairs we all jumped up in anticipation, but the news was not good.
"We've done all we can but there is little change. We bound his wounds and stopped the bleeding, but while he is still breathing, he just won't wake up. So if he's coming out of this, he has to do it on his own."
We were unsure how to proceed from there. Caleb, in his unending kindness, had offered to take care of Sigmar while we took our supplies back home, but could we really leave him alone? Of course we wouldn't, but our people were waiting for the supplies we gathered. If we stayed, we'd not only risk their lives, but ours as well if the Royal Guard decided to come after us again.
The thought of another fight sent Heinz and his remaining follower packing. I didn't blame them. They were in no shape to fight.
We figured we had a week at the most before we would feel the consequences of whatever story that commander would tell his King. He and his remaining soldiers had already left. There were no parting words and only meaningless gestures. We could only hope Sigmar was right about him.
Amongst ourselves we couldn't agree on what to do with Sigmar. The irony was that he would be the one making the final decision in these instances, but without him there was nobody to make the final call.
In the end we took a vote, and decided to stay in this town for as long as we felt we still had a comfortable lead on any possible pursuers. We'd take Sigmar with us, whether he was awake or not.
And so it happened.
In those few days we packed up all the supplies we gathered: crates of fish, jars of honey, bags of tomato seeds, pots of flour and sacks of tomatoes. It sure looked impressive.
Artwork by The Ladyrose
I thought it was even more impressive when Svidi managed to negotiate with the dwarves to take the supplies up north through the mines for us. This would allow us to move fast enough to evade anyone trying to catch up to us. Our journey back promised to be a lot smoother than going down there.
But even Svidi's diplomatic skill was no match for the will of the Consortium. The dwarves refused to grant passage for any humans. They too must've heard of our skirmish with the Royal Guard, and did not want to get involved in any conflicts.
On top of that, there was still the matter of reopening the northern entrance to the underground city. If we could not convince them to do that, all of our endeavours of the past weeks would have been for nought.
Fortunately for us, dwarves value their riches more than their principles. Anders was able to bribe them into sneaking him and Svidi on board of a mining cart and taking them back to Keldagrim. The plan was to appear before the Consortium and convince them face to face to let them, the supplies, and the rest of our people go home.
Home. It seemed within our reach.
Reinn had not yet regained full mobility of his leg, and Signy, while having her broken leg splinted, still had trouble walking too.
Traveling with them and Sigmar in their current state would be difficult at best, but we managed to borrow a cart on which we could move the three of them, even if we had to go through the mud and snow.
We had to get going. We had said our goodbyes to Caleb and Arnhein as well as Anders and Svidi.
It all rested on them now. I remember Armod writing a promissory note to the Consortium, offering to encourage the hunting of trolls as a means to pass the initiation rites once he sat on the council of Rellekka. We had no way of knowing if that was enough, though.
We were heading north, straight to the river, hoping that parts of it would be frozen solid enough to let us pass over it. The sooner we’d reached our lands, the less chance of us being intercepted by the Royal Guard.
On our way there we discussed what the king of Kandarin could possibly decide.
"I don't think he would lie to his king about losing his men." Armod stated. "I don't think he would even lie about how it happened. These lands are not as dangerous as our own, you know."
"You think he'll blame it on the people from Hemenster?" Hild had trouble following Armod's reasoning.
"Sure, why not? They must know that some of them don't like being pushed around the way they are. And what could they possibly do to those people? Extort them even more? Kill them? They'd cut off their food supply if they did that." "Isn't that a reason to blame us instead?" Vemund interjected. "Moreover, even if he does believe that the people of Hemenster attacked them, he's still going to blame us."
Armod stopped and turned.
"You think that, while that commander will try and shift the blame towards the people of Hemenster, his king will still decide that it is us who incited the uprising in the first place?"
"Sounds like a king to me." Beigarth answered. "Those crowns are heavy on the head, see?"
Armod grunted and resumed walking.
By the end of the day we had reached the river which had frozen over completely.
I still don't know what it was. Some say it was just the cart jolting about. Others say it was the smell and feel of our lands. But just as we got off of the ice, Sigmar woke up.
"What's going on?"
Reinn and Signy brought Sigmar up to speed while the rest of us set up camp and prepared some dinner. He still seemed woozy, but at least he could walk.
By the time we all sat down around the fire the evening began to fall. I couldn't help but notice an upbeat mood in everyone. Despite our wounds, the possibility of a throng of enemy soldiers on our tail, and even the creeping thought of the unwillingness of the dwarves to open up their passage, I felt satisfied with all that we had done.
Armod was the only one that seemed worried. He brought up our earlier conversation again, and asked Sigmar for his opinion.
"So what do you think? If their king decides to act, his soldiers will be the next thing crossing this river."
"It's a good possibility, but there is little we can do about that now. Let's get back home first and start work on these plans and pick up Anders and Svidi at Keldagrim."
Armod stood up.
"You guys go on without me."
Everyone looked up at Armod now, awaiting an explanation.
"I'm the one who is directly responsible for the hostilities between our people and Kandarin. I should be the one that prevents any further escalation, one way or another."
"Then I should stay too." Freyleif now stood besides Armod.
"I'd stand with you, but I can't walk." Signy chimed in.
"Look." Sigmar started. "Sit down. Please. I know you mean well, and try to make up for past mistakes. But that's just it; it's in the past."
"Yeah, getting yourself killed or even killing them isn't going to change the mind of their king." Vemund agreed with Sigmar.
We argued through the night about it. Even when morning broke, Armod was still adamant on staying. Vemund had offered to stay and help build some defenses too, even though he had agreed with Sigmar that staying was a bad idea.
In the end it was decided that the only ones continuing were Sigmar, Pieter, Beigarth, myself and our wounded Reinn and Signy. But even they said they'd return once their legs were healed. Beigarth also wanted to rejoin his friends, but said he'd first help by killing a few trolls, should it be necessary.
We had left them our supplies and weapons and, with fresh reluctance, headed out.
By the evening of the next day we had reached home. Pieter immediately went ahead to explain his plans to our chieftain Brundt. He didn't understand much of it and looked with a questioning shrug in our direction.
Obviously Brundt wanted to know what happened to the rest of us, and why we took so long to get back. Sigmar gestured in return that Pieter's plans were sound and he should listen to them. Sigli, his father, smiled at Brundt.
"I told you they'd make it back eventually."
Our stay wasn't long. I was in the middle of telling Hamal what happened to his niece when Brundt joined us. He too wanted to know what happened, but I had no time to explain it all. We had to get to Keldagrim, and fast.
The next day, a dazed and confused Brundt ordered people about, all under the direction of Pieter who had become a full blown architect for the time being. Beigarth, Sigmar and I prepared for a fight with the trolls, as did another two dozen or so of our warriors. We should've been this prepared in the first place.
We left town where, despite the cold, a hustle and bustle of people were running back and forth building and crafting all kinds of odd contraptions. Pieter seemed to know what he was doing.
Our trip back to the entrance of Keldagrim didn't happen in the lazy pace that got us there first time. We were in a hurry, and we meant business. Only two days were needed for us to reach the mountains, and this time we knew where we were going.
But what would we expect? Would the trolls have laid siege to the entrance, or started to mine their way back in themselves? Perhaps they just left, knowing that dwarf was off the menu. We could only hope.
We were in the dead of winter now. Visibility was almost completely gone in those mountains, the cold could bite through the smallest opening in your coat, and you couldn't hear anything else but the wind.
Nevertheless we pushed on. If there were any trolls around they would surely know we were coming, but there were none. We had reached the entrance, but as we had feared, it was still blocked.
All hope was not lost. They might still be working on tunnelling back out from the other side. They might just have been delayed. Or, as everyone feared, the Consortium was not swayed by Anders and Svidi. We could only wait to see what happened.
Sigmar quickly ordered everyone to set up camp. Several lookouts were posted on nearby peaks, and the paths that lead here were now constantly watched. No troll would approach us without us knowing about it.
But nothing happened.
We sat there for four days in the freezing cold. Beigarth had even gone back down to the forests with a few men to gather some more firewood.
And just as hope had all but disappeared, and Sigmar was about to call the whole thing off, we heard a clattering of rocks.
A few of us had been removing rubble from the entrance to also use as ammunition or erect barriers against any curious trolls, but the pile now shifted on its own.
A voice called out to us, but it was too muffled still. Beigarth blew on his horn to gather everyone to help move the rubble out of the way.
"Sigmar, is that you?" I recognized Svidi there, and a loud cheer roared through the mountains.
"You're late." Sigmar said to Anders, shaking his hand.
"Yeah, I know, it wasn't easy getting enough votes to make this happen. I also had to promise them a few things, but something we should discuss later."
We quickly got all of our people and supplies out of there and thanked the dwarves for their cooperation and hospitality. We were now on our way home to save our people, finally.
On our way down the mountain we encountered a handful of hungry trolls, but they fled almost immediately at the sight of forty Fremennik warriors, most of which armed to the teeth.
Artwork by Hawkxs
We were welcomed as heroes. A massive party was held in our honour to celebrate the achievements of the last few weeks. But it did have an odd aftertaste.
"Fremenniks!" Brundt started a speech and everyone fell silent.
"As you know, an expedition set out to gather the necessary food and supplies for us to survive this winter. And while they have had more setbacks than anyone would've expected, they succeeded masterfully."
"Each and every participant has hereby passed his trials!"
"Hail!" The crowd roared and banged on the tables.
"But," he continued, "if we are to prevent a famine like this again, we will need to change our ways: protect ourselves better, have greater variety of food available to us and avoid conflict if we can. But above all, and this is demonstrated again by the heroes of this story, we must work together!"
"The expedition had drawn on many people from many backgrounds; our kin from the mountains, sons from within Rellekka, and from the outside."
"All are now free to stay for as long as they like."
The crowd roared with cheers once again, and Sigmar smiled wider than he would be if he was killing a troll. Brundt went on for a while longer with his speech, but I got distracted.
I couldn't help but find myself second-guessing some of the decisions we made along the way. We still don't know how badly we stirred things up with Kandarin. We also promised the dwarves to hunt some trolls for them.
And what of our friends? They were still guarding our retreat at the river, and my mind went out to them almost constantly. Signy and Reinn eventually made a full recovery and joined them along with Beigarth.
I spoke later with Sigmar of this, and he too felt responsible. He took a few men and went to their river camp to bring them some weapons and supplies, and returned with a letter from Armod to his father.
"Thanks for everything. But to be a full part of the tribe is already too great a reward.
So far only a few trackers have showed up, but they managed to outrun us. Since then we haven't seen any activity on the other side of the river. We'll be staying here for the time being to make sure.
While the tents do their job, Vemund has been busy building a more permanent dwelling for us, should we have to weather a storm or other calamity.
Do not worry about us. The supplies you sent us will last us through the winter, and while we appreciate the weapons, I did learn something from Heinz and have started to make more of those bows and arrows. They are perfect for keeping wolves at bay too.
I hope everything worked out the way it was planned. Judging from the new dishes of food I found in the supplies, you've already started to use those tomatoes. Caleb was right, these things do keep your food arm a lot longer.
I'm pleased to see Signy and Reinn back to full health, they have been very helpful in shoring up our defences, and proven to be quite creative with the food you sent us as well.
I'll be home when I feel comfortable that I can leave this place for a long enough time to come visit you.
Your son Armod"
When Brundt had read the letter, he shed a tear.
"That's my boy."