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The sun was shining over Icewind Dale.
Out on the lake, fish jumped in the early morning light. A cold breeze ruffled the water, sending a pleasant shiver down Raoul’s neck. Far to the north, the forbidding peaks of Kelvin’s Cairn stood sentinel over the land below.
Slowly, Raoul became aware of a low buzzing sound creeping in at the edges of his consciousness. Intent on enjoying the morning, he tried to push it away, but the sound grew louder, more insistent. Panic started to rise in Raoul’s chest. The buzzing filled his ears, his head seemed to thrum with it, and his chest was a vise, squeezing the breath from his lungs. Frantic, Raoul gasped for breath …
… and awoke.
It was dark out, of course. It was always dark in Icewind Dale. In the many months Raoul had spent with the goliaths of Wyrmdoom Crag, he had never once seen the sun. Only the stars, shining like a sea of diamonds overhead, gave any constant light here. Raoul gazed up at the now-familiar constellations and unconsciously traced the patterns tattooed on his arms and chest, the embodiment of his long training with the shaman of Wyrmdoom Crag.
Raoul’s view of the sky was obscured by the sudden flare of torchlight. There was a heavy crunching in the snow as a towering figure approached and stooped over Raoul’s sleeping sack, the heavily tattooed face a craggy landscape of shadows dancing in the torch’s flickering light.
“Time to go,” the goliath said, and turned away to finish breaking camp.
Raoul gathered himself, strapping on his snowshoes, hoisting his pack, and setting off after his companion. Keothakan was a warrior of Wyrmdoom Crag, accustomed to the rigors of life in Icewind Dale and no stranger to its perils. He was also Raoul’s friend. At least, Raoul considered him a friend. He was fairly certain the goliath saw it that way also, but it was admittedly hard to know the warrior’s mind, in this and many other things.
On they trudged through the snow, Keo’s torch a small beacon of light in the enveloping darkness.1 They had been hiking across the tundra for nearly a tenday now, following the curve of the Spine of the World as they made their way toward the community known as Ten Towns. Raoul’s new home.
As they walked, Raoul noticed Keothakan angling away from the dark ridge of mountains they had kept to their left the last several days. The goliath caught his gaze and seemed to guess his thoughts.
“Today.” For a moment, it seemed all the goliath was likely to say, but then, “We will make the trail, almost certainly. And, if the weather holds, the town on the hill. Bryn Shander.”
The thought of a warm bed and a proper meal filled Raoul with verve, and the next few hours passed quickly. Finally, Keo paused in his tracks and pointed to a dark band that wove its way through the low folds of snow and ice.
“Ten Trail,” Raoul breathed. The last time he had set foot on the trail, it had nearly been the death of him. But that was before he had met Keothakan. A lot had changed since then. Raoul had changed.
Eager to reach their destination, Raoul started forward, but Keothakan’s heavy arm swung like a turnstile across his chest, stopping him in his tracks. “Look,” urged the warrior.
Raoul followed his companion’s gaze and, after a moment, saw it–the glow of torchlight reflecting off a snowy bank on the far side of the trail. There were other travelers on the trail.
“Should we see who it is?” whispered Raoul, but Keothakan stood as still as stone, his brow furrowed as he watched the torchlight’s progress up the trail.
Suddenly, a feral roar shook the air. The distant light danced madly, and shouting voices mixed with the ring of steel in the unmistakable alchemy of battle. Raoul’s muscles tensed, perched on the edge between flight and frenzy.
But the goliath was two giant steps ahead of him. Surging through the snow with his glaive held high, Keothakan called to his companion, “They’ve been ambushed by a snowy owlbear. Stay back!”
That settled it. Raoul sprang forward, to action.
1 One of my favorite illustrations in Rime of the Frostmaiden is of a party of adventurers trudging through a snow-blanketed forest with torches in hand. I love how that one detail–that it is so dark in Icewind Dale that adventurers need to carry torches even when they’re outside during the day–completely sells the story’s central tension. I also just love the old B&W illustrations of adventurers carrying torches into dungeons deep, so the image resonates with me aesthetically as well. Even though the party has multiple spellcasters who can summon light at will, a druid who radiates starlight, and a cleric who can give everybody darkvision, I still describe the characters as walking around carrying torches when they’re traveling because I want to hammer that image home.
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