Life in the frozen Shiverpeaks carries many harsh burdens, and those who choose to live there must be as stalwart as the mountains themselves. The norn have many virtues, among them a fierce tenacity and a zest for the challenges that life brings. One of the most fundamental parts of norn culture is their reverence for the Spirits of the Wild, manifest embodiments of the natural world. These spirits are not only sources of inspiration, they are guides and allies through the difficult journey of life.
The fire blew sparks toward the heavens like stars seeking to return to their high, dark home. But there was no joy in this blaze, no celebration. What had once been a proud lodge was now little more than piles of ash huddled in the shadows of flickering, ember-lit logs.
“I’m sorry, Viskar.” The old skaald placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “There’s nothing we can do. Your father lost the house, and everything in it, on his last wager with Grimhilde. She had the right to do whatever she chose with her winnings.”
“She cheated. She cheated, but I can’t prove it. What of my father, Fiach?” The youth snarled the words, biting off the syllables like a wolf gnawing its leg out of a trap. “Did she have the ‘right’ to kill him, too?”
Old Fiach sighed. “He was wrong to attack her. There will be no retribution from the Wolfborn of Hoelbrak for Grimhilde’s actions. Nor should you seek vengeance upon her, Viskar. You are a new hunter, barely old enough to bear your own blade. Grimhilde is powerful, and legends of her cruelty are told at the moot to frighten children and humans.” Shaking his head, the skaald pulled a leopard-fur cloak closer about his weary bones. “Put away your anger, young one. Bury your father. Leave this matter to the crows.”
“No.” Viskar wiped away his tears with the back of his hand, leaving soot stains across pale cheeks. “I may be young, Fiach, and I may be inexperienced.”
“But I am still norn.”
Bear, Snow Leopard, Raven and Wolf
The norn believe in personal strength, individual victory, and an earthy spirituality that is both primal and complex. They revere the spirits of nature, embodied in animals that are both guardians and the essence of the world. It can be said that there are probably as many Spirits of the Wild as there are basic types of animals—one Spirit of Wolf to embody all wolves, one Spirit of Dolyak to teach the lessons of strength and perseverance, and so forth. Unlike the human gods, these Spirits of the Wild do not represent high-minded concepts like “War” or “Nature,” but instead embody all the complex virtues and vices of the animals they represent.
Because of their history, the four most important Spirits of the Wild to the residents of the Great Lodge of Hoelbrak are Bear, Snow Leopard, Raven, and Wolf.
These spirits manifested themselves to lead the norn survivors south after their northern homelands were ravaged by the rise of the Elder Ice Dragon, Jormag. Bear is the most revered of all the spirits, and she is seen as an icon of strength, insight, and wisdom. Snow Leopard is a solitary, stealthy spirit, much like her animal kin, and the norn respect the secrets she collects. Raven is the cunning trickster who loves riddles and wordplay, and Wolf is the spirit of teamwork, friendship, and family. Norn choose to follow the path of a certain Spirit of the Wild because they feel a kinship to the lessons it teaches.
It is important to note that simply because the four Spirits worked together to help the norn survive Jormag’s attacks does not mean that they—or their followers—are always on the best of terms. Followers of Wolf scorn Snow Leopard’s stealth as “cowardice,” and the shamans of Bear have been known to mistrust Raven’s adherents, calling their deceptions dishonorable and weak. Tales of epic battles between heroes of each lodge are told at moots, immortalizing in legend both the virtues and vices embodied by their patron spirits.
The stars above the Shiverpeaks were cold and bright, crowned by the iridescent borealis of the northern sky. In the Great Lodge of Hoelbrak, a youth stood before the shamans and sought lessons of revenge.
“No,” said the shaman of Bear. “Learn strength, Viskar. Learn wisdom. Grimhilde does not seek victory. She seeks the utter annihilation of her enemy. I will not teach you to throw away your life.”
“I am sorry,” said Wolf’s followers. “We would gladly help you avenge your family, but what you propose is suicide. Think of your pack. If you attack Grimhilde, she will punish those you love.”
The Havroun of Raven shook his head when Viskar asked. “You cannot even tell me how she cheated. Grimhilde is clever, and she always has a lethal surprise for her enemies. If you do not know more than she does, she will destroy you.”
Viskar clenched his fists. “Will no one help me?”
A shadow moved in the corner of the lodge, and yellow eyes gleamed. “You haven’t asked me yet,” murmured the Speaker of Snow Leopard, Valharantha, her movements smooth and graceful.
“Will Snow Leopard teach me to take vengeance?” he asked. “If I follow her path, will she show me how to defeat Grimhilde?”
“More.” Valharantha lowered her eyes and smiled. “She will turn your vengeance into legend.”
A Shaman’s Burden
Unlike humans, whose priests are revered for their dedication to one god, all norn feel equally guided and befriended by the spirits. Some norn don’t follow a particular path, preferring instead to revere all the Spirits of the Wild, following each whenever its lessons are relevant in their day-to-day lives. Those who choose to become shamans devote themselves to a Spirit’s sacred area: a shrine, lodge, or hunting ground dedicated to their patron Spirit of the Wild. They serve their people as guardians and teachers, protecting their territory and instructing others in the lessons of the spirit they revere.
Four of the most powerful and dedicated shamans are known as the Speakers of Hoelbrak. They tend the four lodges that flank Hoelbrak’s main hall, which were raised in honor of the spirits that led the norn to safety. The wise Alarrin of the Frostborn speaks for Bear’s lodge; Moda the Black is Raven’s learned speaker; the Wolf Lodge is kept by a young speaker named Fastulf Jotharsson; the beautiful and mysterious Valharantha is the Speaker of Snow Leopard.
Shamans can be found across the Shiverpeaks and even in far-flung areas, but one special type of shaman known as a havroun is far less common. A havroun is a special servant of the spirit, a vigilant and active defender of the spirit’s interests both in this world and the next. Havrouns have the unique ability to physically cross into the Mists and go to the Hall of the Spirits, where the brave live forever. They do not need to open a portal or perform a ritual unless they are taking others with them. Alone, they simply step into the spirit realm, sending their spirit into the Mists as easily as crossing a hearthstone. There is only one havroun per Spirit of the Wild; there may be another in training, if the current havroun has grown old or weary and is preparing for their final crossing into the Mists.
The Other Spirits
Primarily, the norn of Hoelbrak revere the four Spirits of the Wild that led them south, but other spirits exist and teach lessons of their own. Some are less powerful, such as Minotaur, Wurm, or Eagle, and they are rarely seen or called upon. Some spirits are not sentient, such as Mountain, Fire, or Darkness, and are depicted as challenges to strive against or legendary obstacles placed in a hero’s path, rather than friends or guides like the Spirits of the Wild.
There is also a small group of spirits that are revered with great sorrow. These “lost” Spirits of the Wild remained behind to fight Jormag. Owl, Dolyak (also known as Ox), Eagle, and Wolverine are lauded for their bravery and their sacrifice. Owl’s death is known to the norn—the last Havroun of Owl confirmed it—but as to the final outcome of Dolyak, Eagle, and Wolverine, even the shamans do not know. No norn has been blessed to serve as havroun to those spirits in generations, but then, it is not uncommon for weaker spirits (or those who are not close to this world) to be without a havroun. All that is truly known is that these spirits held the line in the far North and, by their bravery, aided the norn in escaping Jormag’s claws.
Grimhilde knelt, studying the tracks. She’d been following them for six days, since the skaalds in Hoelbrak sung the legend of Whisperclaw, a fierce young mountain cat. Soon, she would challenge the beast, and—
“Grimhilde!” a voice called from the mountainside above. With a start, she reached for her weapon. Had someone come before her? Was her prey dead by another’s hand? In anger, the warrior straightened and peered up into the crags. She did not have to wait long to see her enemy. “Who are you?” she asked cautiously, fingering the blade on her axe. If this stripling had stolen her prize, she would make him pay…with pain.
“I am your death, walking.” The youth stood on a high ledge, balancing effortlessly. “Four years ago, you cheated my father of his life. I am here to avenge that debt.”
“I remember you now.“ Grimhilde stepped backward and swept her axe from side to side. “Your father was a weak little thing—as are you. I should have slain you as a child, but that old man talked me out of it. No matter. I will deal with you, and when I return to the Great Lodge, I will end that relic of a storyteller as well.”
The youth snarled, eyes bright with cold, bitter revenge. “You’ve come here to hunt,” he said, “but you’re the one being hunted. It is six days back to Hoelbrak over ice and snow, with no safe haven, no lodges or campgrounds along the way.”
“You think to fight me?” she laughed. “Kill me, Grimhilde the Ferocious? The mightiest axe-wielder among the norn? You will die mewling like a kitten, young one. You’re not powerful enough!”
“You’re right. I’m not powerful enough to face you on your terms, so I’ll face you on mine.” The young hunter smiled wickedly. “Snow Leopard trained me in stealth and tracking. She also taught me to steel my mind against slumber. I can go five days without resting. I’ll die after six, but I’ll do it if I must. But you…you have to sleep sometime. And I’m willing to bet my life that you’ll rest before I do.”
Grimhilde stared at him, the blood draining from her face. “You would kill me in my sleep?”
“I will wait until my prey is at her weakest, and then I will strike.” The young hunter smiled grimly. “And by Snow Leopard, I swear—you will never hear me coming.”
Since the rise of Jormag, there are those among the norn—always young, male, and eager to prove themselves—who claim that “Dragon” should be revered among the Spirits of the Wild. They admire Jormag’s strength, its viciousness, and its cruelty. They claim that, by following the path of Dragon, a norn can become as undefeatable as the dragon itself. They look at the tale of Jora and her brother, Svanir, and see him as the first convert to the new spirit. Jora, who did not accept Dragon’s blessings, is reviled among their cult—as are all women. (Interestingly, Jormag does not show the same bias as its Son of Svanir followers; it has been known to corrupt all races and all genders.)
Dragon has no true shaman, no havroun. Those who follow it do not have the ability to go into the Mists on its behalf, nor do they have the gifts norn expect to see in shamans of the Spirits of the Wild. A Dragon shaman may think he is spiritual, but he falls woefully short of the real thing. These advocates of the dragon teach only corruption; they are given foul blessings; they are changed forever by Jormag. In the end, they too become icebrood and serve the beast. They may call themselves shamans, but most norn consider them fools—dangerous ones. Still, the promise of power—and the challenge to be the one that masters the dragon’s gifts—continues to lure arrogant, driven young norn into Dragon’s service.
Norn culture stresses individuality. It demands that a person be judged by their own actions, not by the actions of a group to which they belong. If three Sons of Svanir attack a shrine, those individuals are hunted down and punished. That does not mean another norn who claims to be part of the Sons of Svanir will be punished or treated badly because of the event—in the norn mindset, he didn’t do it, so he isn’t to be blamed. This doesn’t mean that the norn ignore a person’s allegiances or that they don’t understand Sons of Svanir are dangerous people. It is simply that, as a race, norn do not judge an individual for the sins of his tribe.
A norn lives and dies by her own legend.
“Let me tell you a tale.” Old Fiach the skaald raised his hands to the sky as the fires of the moot crackled and leapt. “The story of the hero known as Viskar Whisperclaw. Hail the honor-son! Rightful rage-tender, shadow-striker, slayer of treasonous Grimhilde. Viskar, who despite all challenges, was willing to give his life to claim blood-debt from the one who had done him harm…”