Watered with fears
Brithei Firekeeper, knelt by the newly raised cairn. It was short and that turned her heart to ice, bitter, cold and hard.
Had he grown to be a man, her son would have stood head and shoulders above her. When his time came his sons and daughters should have toiled all day to pile the stones.
Instead his own mother had cut his ground and piled the stones. And a day was all it took to cover his small body.
Her son. Gone. Taken by curses of Ice and Fire. Curses wove by the Marchers and their allies.
She turned to face the others, nodding to her husbands to approach. Irb Sawyer held out the jagged knife, still warm from the fires they had used to purify it.
She felt the burn from the first cut. Droplets of her blood ran down her thigh. She clung to the physical pain, embracing it, letting it in to touch the torment in her soul.
"By the ancient oaths, I cut this mark. We shall pursue them and never stop. We shall hunt them and never rest. We shall slay them and never tire. Let those who never die mark my words."
If those who never die heard the words this time they gave no sign. So many deaths. So many oaths. Perhaps even stone grew weary of the dying.
At the Winter Solstice, Imperial strategists discovered details of the Jotun military strategy and laid a trap for them. Weaving powerful curses of Spring and Winter over the land they turned the entire territory of Mournwold into a killing ground. Thousands of Imperials lie dead as a result of the apocalyptic battle, but for every human soldier dead two or three times their number of Jotun have fallen. Imperial magicians cut open the throat of the Jotun armies and bled them like cattle.
The magic of Spring is impossible to control. A spring curse is like a fire in dry field - best hope the wind is at your back. It falls on friends and enemies alike - it falls on any who stand in its path. The bloody magic of Rivers Run Red is a pestilence on the common inhabitants of a region who must endure its effects. But by combining the curse with a deadly Winter curse created specifically to slaughter any who fall ill, the Empire has added thousands of names to the Butchers Bill. Acting in concert these two curses have killed a sixth of the civilian population across the Mournwold as well as more than half of the remaining population of the Greensward.
Less than a year ago The Throne issued a grand proclamation calling on citizens to "to stem this tide of Imperial blood". This reaction is strongest in the Mournwold where the ghastly death toll has caused many to question whether the Empire really has their best interests at heart. But the questions are not confined to the territory and a group of Wintermarkers are also deeply concerned about events that have transpired.
The Marchers of the Mourne have struggled under Jotun rule for three decades, many of them dreaming of the day the Empire would liberate their home. Others would have fled, but for many Marchers land defines who they are and so they remained. Pressed into slavery by the Jotun, they were forced to work their land as thralls, living hand to mouth, bound to hand over everything they produced.
For all the squalor of that life, there are now some who pointedly ask if the invasion of the Empire has not brought worse horrors. The Jotun are not generous masters - but they were lawful and treated those who served them honestly. And any man or woman who desired to be free could become so - by taking up a place in the Yegarra, the human soldiers who fought alongside the Jotun. Life under the Jotun offered only a few hard simple choices - but the young who died at the hands of these curses had no choices at all.
More and more Marcher voices in the Mournwold are questioning if they shouldn't be fighting to free their land from the twin curses... of the Jotun and the Empire. In practice it is very unlikely that open conflict will break out - most of those prepared to take up arms against the Empire already won their freedom from the Jotun years ago by doing exactly that.
But what is clear is that nobody who visits Anvil on a regular basis is getting a warm welcome in the Mourn right now. To the contrary there is open hostility in some quarters, sour looks and dark comments. It hasn't devolved to rough music and shunning yet... but "they're warming up the pots and pans" as the Marchers say. After much discussion, those who are most outraged nominate one of their number, a short stoic woman called Mary Singer to go to Anvil to settle matters with the other Marchers.
She is expected to turn up early Saturday evening and is certain to head direct to the Marcher camp.
Although they have fought often, Wintermark has enjoyed a relationship with the Jotun that is somewhat unique in the Empire. According to the histories the heroes of Wintermark and the heroes of Jotun have even fought together on occasion, side by side against the Thule. What has happened in the Mourn has distressed some Wintermarkers. The nation has a proud tradition of the Grimnir, physics and apothecaries who swear to set aside the heroism of battle so that they may heal and protect those fight. Some of these individuals are questioning whether the virtue of the strategy employed in the Mourne.
Almost a century ago, the Wintermark army of the Bloodcloaks was destroyed, but it left behind a legacy of heroism and healing that was carefully nurtured by the descendants of its physicks; blood-children and students alike passed down carefully-hoarded healing lore across the generations. The various threads of the army's tattered skein can still be found across the nation - a healer here, a family there. In recent years, there have been attempts to reform the Bloodcloaks, and rumours have begun to swirl that a potent artifact, the cloak worn by the army's generals until it was lost in battle - has been rediscovered.
Now the banner of the Bloodcloaks has been seen flying again - not at the head of an army, but over gatherings of grimnir and apothecaries, over urgent conversations and arguments and debates. It seems that these influential healers are uncertain and discontented over the direction that Imperial warfare is taking, and wonder what future the Bloodcloaks could have in such a glorious, merciless Empire. A delegation of healers has signaled their intention to come to Anvil during the Spring Equinox, there to discuss the future of the Empire's military strategy - and the place of the Wintermark armies within it - with the dignitaries of Wintermark. They are likely to try to find Lofyn Ulfdottir first, since she is the titular leader of this community - and go from there. They are particularly concerned with meeting the generals and the priests, especially Gunnbrand Ironwill and Ylmiska Ferbow who authored the Synod judgements pertaining to Dogri Thulebane - and would also be eager to meet with Mazo i Zabala i Erigo and Sister Meredith, the authors of judgements pertaining to the Iron Helms' tactics, even though the latter are not of the Mark. They have also sent word that they would like to meet with the Empress herself, and hope that the Winterfolk at Anvil will be able to arrange such an audience for them.
The delegation is expected to arrive in Anvil some time during Saturday mid-afternoon, most likely soon after four o'clock if nothing slows their journey.
The curse has scythed through the ranks of the Jotun, killing thousands, it seems that the majority of those slain are soldiers. This land has been a battleground for many years and most of their Jarls keep their households further West so there are believed to be few large populations of Jotun in the Mourne. As a result the loss of life among the Jotun looks at first glance to have been largely confined to those who serve in their armies.
Even so, the rumour is that the Jotun view of the Empire has reached a new low. They are apparently furious with the Empire. Likely this is just a consequences of their bitterness at the astonishing loss of life and the way their military victory this season has turned to ashes in their mouth. But allegedly there is something more than just this, that they regard this strike against them as blasphemous in some way.
Given the Empire are at war with the Jotun - probably the foreseeable future now - it probably doesn't matter much in the short term. But it if is true then it is certain to come up in any discussions that any citizens have with the Jotun and will likely prove a problem if the Empire ever did desire to treat for peace with them.
The Mournwold is home to more than just Marchers and Jotun. There have always been stories that the great forest at Alderly is home to a population of Feni who live off the land hunting and gathering what they need. Feni are known to be fiercely protective of their lands and those who know the area well say they have fought with both Marchers and Jotun in the past. The Marcher resistance fighters exiled from the Mourn by the Jotun last season say that these are more than rumours - and that at one point some of them found sanctuary with the Feni, united by a mutual dislike of the orcs. Unfortunately that fragile alliance came to nothing.
It is not clear how many Feni there are, nor how relevant they are to the situation in the Mourn, given that they are not Imperial citizens. What is not in doubt is that they will have been hit by these twin curses every bit as hard as the Empire and the Jotun.
Those same former resistance fighters report that the Jotun have often had to station large numbers of troops to defend supply lines that pass by Alderly while the Empire has more leeway to plan their strategy. If the Feni are sufficiently angered to begin attacking Imperials - or even to stop attacking the Jotun and switch sides completely - that will not improve the military situation in the Mourn.
Fear waters a bitter crop.Marcher proverb