#17 A Tale of Two Friends
“Why can’t we go to Boscaria?”
Aiga Aelyn is sitting across me, ale always in hand, her eyes darting from one handsome visitor to another. The inn is getting crowded again as the skies are clearer, the sun shines brighter, and new faces are arriving every morning.
“Because Boscarians will kill any Osvarii on sight”, I repeat for the hundredth time. “Shall I remind you of what happened to the friends of Ilderil, the sentinel of the forest?”
The bard purses her lips as she reminisces the story, and frowns.
“I refuse to believe there’s never been an Osvari who has befriended a Vasariga, Boscarian or not”, she finally retorts.
She chugs the last remnants of ale, asks the innkeeper for a refill, and wolfs down the small bowl of poultry and vegetables someone left behind.
I get ahold of the ceramic jug, full to the brim with water, and pour some into my own mug.
“I might have heard about two friends”, I begin, without looking Aiga in the eye. “A Vasariga and an Osvari, indeed.”
The bard smiles. It’s the kind of smile that confirms persistence is rewarding.
“Now you have to tell me about it”, she says. “Ah, thank-you fair maiden!”, she says as the innkeeper’s daughter brings more of her favourite drink.
“I presume you never heard of Asgwyn and Hjalsten.”
Aiga shakes her head.
“From their names, I’d guess they’re a Narivi and a Nordrunan”, she replies. “But I might be wrong.”
“It’s an old tale grandparents used to tell grandchildren. Vasarigæ have their own version of the story, and we, Osvarii, have ours. This tale is older than the king of Nordruna. When the friendship between an Osvari and a Vasariga meant defying every written law in existence.”
A Tale of Two Friends
Asgwyn was a scout from Nariv. An Osvari, like us. Loyal, cunning, smart, and a kind soul to those in need. She didn’t have a powerful mahrym, nor did she need one. Among her many qualities, she was also persistent and strong.
During one of her many incursions in the northern territories, she fell prey to a hunter’s trap. A net sprung up from the snow and tightened around her small body.
Disoriented for a moment she looked around. The net was bouncing from side to side hanging from a tall tree. She looked down to calculate the distance from the ground.
The hunter was close, of that she was certain, for the tracks beneath were very recent. Before she could move an inch, a big shadow approached the trap.
Frightened, she struggled to free herself from the net to no avail.
A massive hand got hold of the tree branch and split it in two, and the net fell without a sound on the thick snow below.
Asgwyn looked at the hunter. He was large, very large. Was he a giant? A half-giant? A Nordrunan? Her legs shook as she tried to get up and run, but she tripped over the holes in the net.
“No”, she thought; “I’m too far away from their cities, their villages, their hunting grounds. There should be no one this far.”
She got up on her feet and faced the Vasariga. He was three times her size, his head a hurdle of flaming unkempt hair and a bushy beard.
He was also very thin. His ribs showed, his cheeks were sunken, and he hadn’t had a meal in weeks. Asgwyn looked at the Vasariga. Tall and big as he was, he was on the very verge of dying.
He didn’t stop her when she dashed back into the forest. He didn’t run after her. He sighed and repaired the net, in hopes of catching game next time.
As Asgwyn climbed atop a tree, she felt a spark of mercy. And as fate may have it, or perhaps a conjunction of convenient coincidences, she devised a deer in the distance. Old, yet too agile for the large man’s traps. It was alone.
She took good aim with her bow and released a single arrow. It was a clean shot, a painless death. She swiftly fetched the deer, thanked the gods, and carried it all the way where she had fallen prey to the large man’s trap.
The Vasariga was nowhere in sight. Asgwyn felt her heart race as she nervously prepared a fire and, once the flames roared high, she got ready to dash back into the forest again.
As she turned around, the hunter was sitting at a distance, observing her every move. He spoke in grunts and pointed at the fire and the deer, then placed his hands on his stomach, indicating he was hungry.
“I know”, Asgwyn replied, but the man shook his head. She then pointed at herself. “Asgwyn”, she said. She then pointed at him.
The large man wasn’t a hunter. Just a poor, hungry Nordrunan with terrible luck. But of that he couldn’t speak. He pointed at himself.
“Hjalsten”, he said in a hoarse voice. He then pointed at the deer again, and at himself.
Asgwyn nodded. She also pointed at the deer, then at the Vasariga, and repeated: “Hjalsten.”
He smiled, and very slowly approached the small Osvari, and sat down beside the fire. The first meal shared between an Osvari and a Vasariga in over two hundred years of war.
From then on, Asgwyn took a detour with each of her comings and goings to the Nordrunan cities. The large Vasariga, Hjalsten, had started to build a small campsite for himself. Every so often the small Osvari stopped by with a new meal, which they shared in silence beside the fire.
Why Hjalsten was alone, she didn’t know. But they enjoyed each other’s company.
Months went by. By the end of spring, they were already communicating in a more elaborate manner, using signs, languages, even drawings on the ground. They laughed at their small misunderstandings. Hjalsten mended Asgwyn’s cloak once, and Asgwyn repaired his hunting net. She taught him to hide his traps better, and also how to hunt more efficiently.
When reporting back home, Asgwyn told her fellow Osvarii all about the Nordrunan cities and encampments. The location of their smallest villages. The walls. How everything was protected. All, except for Hjalsten’s encampment.
The Osvarii burnt the small villages to the ground. They cracked the walls open and slaughtered Vasarigæ in their sleep. Those barbarians were helpless against mahrym.
Yet they were the ones who had started that war. Stealing their resources. Attacking defenceless merchants and children. Ripping their faces off and wearing them as a trophy around their necks, their belt, even as cuirasses. “Masks of bone”, they called them. They even hung them on their walls as a warning for Osvarii who ventured too far. Asgwyn’s blood boiled at the thought of it.
But Hjalsten was different. He was kind, he had shown mercy when they had met, he had never harmed her. He had freed her from the trap. They had shared many meals, and she could say, without a doubt, that he didn’t deserve the fate that awaited the rest.
Asgwyn was taking the same detour to Hjalsten’s encampment one day when she saw the fire.
It was raining.
The forest that had served her as a refuge for over a year, in flames. Hjalsten’s tent, gone. His hunting traps, which he had set up with Asgwyn’s help, all gone. There was no trace of him. Only of Osvarii spreading and controlling the fire.
There was no trace of the Vasariga, and Asgwyn felt relief.
She revisited that forest on several occasions the next years, yet in time it was repopulated, a place for more Osvarii to live in.
As Asgwyn grew older, she was no longer fit to be a scout and joined the front lines.
Like other fellow Osvarii, she could shape-shift the bone on her arms. She could turn them into shields, daggers, swords, curved blades, even the bow’s riser, limbs, and string nocks, though without the string.
She slew more Vasarigæ than most of her peers. She was agile, nimble, so small they could barely slash her with their axes. She slit their legs right where the tissue was softest. Her only thought was of her homeland, her people, her nation.
And as she swirled her blades in the middle of battle, the wind and the snow, she saw Hjalsten. Right in front of her, he appeared. Furious, mad, the vivid image of wrath.
He swung a massive ax at Asgwyn, who barely dodged the blow. She shifted her blade into a shield, but it wasn’t enough. The ax came down on her again and collided against the blade.
Hjalsten was strong. Very strong.
Terrified, Asgwyn looked at him in the eyes, but her friend was no longer her friend.
“Hjalsten!”, she shouted, yet the wind drowned her words.
Her arms were shaking as she stopped the ax, one blow after the other, Hjalsten madder and madder. She looked around for her Osvarii companions. The blizzard was so strong that it was impossible to tell friend from foe.
“Hjalsten!”, she repeated as tears formed in her eyes. “Hjalsten, stop! We’re friends! Friends! Don’t you remember me? It’s Asgwyn! It’s…”
“No!”, yelled the Vasariga. He pushed her back and readied the ax. “Not friends!”
At that moment, Asgwyn saw them. The many faces of her fallen companions hanging from Hjalsten’s belt. Faces of terror, of horror. The Osvarii who had burnt down the forest that had been Hjalsten’s home.
“No, wait! Wait, I didn’t tell them…! I never…!”
The ax came down heavily and split her leg open. In horror, she saw her detached leg though she could still feel her. And then, the pain. She screamed. She could no longer run. Desperately, she dragged herself to a safer location, but Hjalsten blocked her way.
She tried to slit his ankle to no avail. He dodged her futile attempts to do him harm. All she saw was a blur of snow and shadows.
Asgwyn bowed her head. Her deer ears lowered. She looked at him just like the moment he rescued her from the net.
For an instant, Hjalsten hesitated.
And that hesitation cost him his arm. It flew off in a wide motion as a weapon of Osvarian bone slashed through the shoulder. Hjalsten grunted in pain and disappeared into the blizzard.
“By the gods, Asgwyn! What are you thinking?!”
Asgwyn looked at her fellow Osvari, who was just turning around to pursue the Vasariga.
“Please! He’s already hurt, and won’t live long! Just... Let him be…”
But the Osvari ignored her and followed the large Vasariga.
After that battle, Asgwyn asked to be moved to another land. Far from Nordruna. Far from the war front. Far, very far from Hjalsten.
Whether Hjalsten survived was never certain. What is certain is that Asgwyn and Hjalsten never crossed paths again.
Aiga is holding her breath, waiting for me to finish the tale before pouring her thoughts out.
“Who told this tale in the first place? What’s Hjalsten’s version of the tale? Did they both survive? For how long? I have so many questions.”
The fellow Osvarii around us are giving us strange looks. It’s one of those tales very old people used to tell children, something you wouldn’t expect to listen to at an inn.
“Not the wisest idea, telling the story from Hjalsten’s point of view in this tavern”, I reply.
Aiga nods, but is still unconvinced.
“But times have changed, right?”, the bard says. “I mean, both Osvarii and Vasarigæ can join the Temarigan Alliance, and…”
“Ah yes, that merry bunch”, I retort. I ponder for a moment. “You could visit one of the Temarigan cities. See if you meet a Vasarigan friend”, I suggest.
The bard smirks.
“I might as well do that”, she says. “I’m sure that if Asgwyn hadn’t been a scout, Hjalsten would’ve never felt she betrayed his trust. If circumstances had been different they could’ve been great friends. Perhaps even go on adventures together! What if…?”
One of the Osvarii sitting near us turns around, his droopy eyes fixated on the bard.
“Can you stop blabbing and let us enjoy our meal in peace?”
Aiga looks at me, then at the man. His tall ears are as stiff as the rest of his face. He turns back to his friends.
“So damn loud!”, he shrieks.
They laugh. The bard shrugs and finishes her ale in silence, smiles at the innkeeper, ignores the man and his group, and locks herself in her room for the rest of the day.
Sometimes fellow Osvarii are nastier than Vasarigæ.