I remember the years of struggle. Long, stretching seasons where sunlight was sparse, and the hungry night arrived all too quickly. I remember the rites and songs as we laid follower after follower to rest, forced to move ever onward. Parent and child, animals, friends: none were safe as we carved our new paths and founded our new lives.
Tonight, in the shadow of these great mountains, I share with you a story from another time. In this time, your grandparents were small, squalling babes—some of whom I sang lullabies to, heh!—and instead of a seer’s sharp mind, I had the strength and skill of a hunter.
I was a young man back then, instead of Grandfather Eiwa. Oh yes, and I was a skilled archer! With the silence of a great cat I stalked prey. With the sharpness of eye to rival a falcon’s, I watched over our following. With the patience of a mammoth, I knew when to lay still and when to strike with all the strength I had.
What I did not know was when to use each. Sometimes, a well-meaning action creates more trouble than anything.
Take this journey with me, and see things as they were. The time of the year was close to the very season we enjoy now, when daylight just begins to stretch further than the darkness, and the snow finally begins to melt. Around our feet, the trails grew slushy and difficult to traverse, but the days began to grow brighter, and with them came hope.
These were my favorite times of the year. The crispness of the blue sky was a welcome friend. Have you noticed that the sky never seems so bright, so vivid, as during the melts? Perhaps these days I am more comfortable in the warmer seasons, but I will always love the newness of the daylight, reborn and glorious, as it chases the hard winter away.
During this time, we were only a few years into establishing the routes we now use every year. Both our herd and our numbers were still small; we had only recently started recruiting others into our following and teaching them the ways of the Broken Tusk. I was a young man, perhaps only a little older than some of you are now. Still an adult in the eyes of the following, but young enough to be over-eager to prove myself.
My day’s task was to scout ahead. I was to learn which creatures had awakened from slumber, which patches of grass had revealed themselves from beneath the snow, and to ensure the herd’s next resting spot would be free of predators and other dangers.
I took no partner with me save for Isul, my beloved friend, my air-rider. Such a magnificent falcon. He, too, was eager to explore the way ahead, and so I encouraged him to go. It was exhilarating to be exploring by myself, knowing Isul was not too far away.
Stepping carefully along the sprouting grasses and dotted pools of melted snow, I came upon a spot that led to a shallow riverbed. I was stirred by its beauty and felt a swell of pride; this would be a fantastic resting spot for the herd.
In my excitement, I did not pay close enough attention. For by the time I had approached, too late did I see the giant creature already exploring the waters.
I froze in place, watching and waiting. Hoping the massive bear would be more interested in the potential fishing spot than in me. For now, it seemed oblivious to my presence.
I should have let it be and reported back to the others. But a thought crossed my mind: how fantastic would it be, not just to return to the following with news of this beautiful resting site, but to crown that achievement with another: a grizzled bear already brought down to feed our people?
I see some of you already shaking your heads at the thought. And you are right to do so. Well you know by now that you should never hunt bear by yourself.
Only, I was convinced I was not alone. I could call for Isul, and together we could handle anything. And the longer I thought about it, the more I persuaded myself it was the best choice. Food was in short supply, after all, and the great creature could provide much.
I crouched low in the muddy bank and began readying my bow. But when I looked up, I was not ready to see the great beast charging me!
It had seen me; my presence startled it, and I suddenly understood how alone I really was. In the space of a few seconds, many thoughts ran through my mind: where is Isul? I cannot outrun the bear. I don’t have time to make more than one shot. I should have waited. Ancestors, let me live through this and I shall not make this mistake again!
The brown bear bounded toward me, then stopped short with a mighty thump of its front paws. It growled at me, teeth clacking. I began backing away from it slowly, hoping this was the only charge the creature would make.
It was not. It surged forward again with similar body language, only this time it connected, knocking me back into the mud. Panic surging, I knew my greatest chance of living right now was to feign death. I rolled instantly to my stomach and cradled my head and neck with my arms. Already my hip was stinging from where the bear had made contact, but at least my instinct was correct. With a mighty thump that shook the mud, he stomped once more, but not on me.
I could not see him, but in my mind’s eye, he was only a few scant feet away. Let him be content, I prayed. Let him go away…
He was not content. He did not go away.
I felt the air leave my lungs as his snout dug under my side, trying to flip me over. Every last bit of me wanted to yelp, to flee. No, do not flee, for you will make him chase you! It took all my strength to keep my stomach to the ground, keep my arms shielding my head and neck.
He must have been as frustrated as I, for the next thing I knew, I felt his snout at my hip again, strong claws burning into my leg. I felt a moment of weightlessness, soon followed by flattening, encompassing pain along the front of my body and an icy splash of water above my shoulders. I barely had enough time to lift my head and take a breath before continuing to feign death. He tossed me into the water!
Through the panic and the loud rush of water over my ears, it took me a moment before I realized two important things: first, despite the pain, I was still alive, and second: my hips were still connected to solid ground. I was not too far under the water.
But there was still the bear! I held my breath, feeling another tap, this time at my ankle. Leave me be, I begged, remaining still as possible, half in the water and my lungs burning with need. Go find something else, before playing dead becomes being dead!
I felt nothing else. I knew I shouldn’t move until the bear was long gone. But my lungs were done recycling my one breath; I had no more. My body ached from claw and earth. Moving was my only chance at life, and yet if I moved while the bear was still near, it was certain death.
I waited. And waited.
I felt no more contact.
I NEED AIR.
I turned my head just enough to take in a breath and open one eye and was rewarded. For the bear had reared up, swiping at a blur of speed, dark feathers surrounding sharp eyes. Isul had returned! My beloved friend dove at the bear, distracting him, leading him away from me!
I sat up gasping and, in frenzied haste, looked around for my bow. There! At the water’s edge! I dove for it despite my pain and saw more than felt my hand close around its haft. My other hand fumbled to draw an arrow from my quiver, and with horror, I realized only one remained! The others had tumbled out as the bear tossed me around.
I had to make my shot count. I whistled sharply—a signal to Isul. My falcon friend responded immediately, as I knew he would. He circled up around the bear’s head once, leading the great creature just far enough away. In a moment, he would circle again and expose the bear’s chest and shoulder to me.
It is very hard to get an exact shot at a bear’s heart, especially when it’s already aggravated. But Isul was well-practiced, and we had hunted together many times. This, at least, was a perfect moment in an otherwise-messy situation. Isul wheeled. The bear turned. For one frozen moment, our eyes met, the bear and me. And then, with more precision than I’d ever had, I loosed the arrow.
The missile flew true, and I was rewarded with the telltale spray of blood, the muscular spasm as the animal decided whether to flee or fight . . . and then it slumped over.
It took me a long moment to work up the nerve to ensure the bear was finished. But finished it was. I sent Isul back to the following with a message asking for assistance. It wasn’t precisely as I’d imagined; the following had to help me as much as help with the bear.
And truly, my following, this is the most important lesson I can give from the tale tonight: we are best when we work together. We must learn to ask for—and accept!—help when needed. My intentions were good, but it was a foolish choice that nearly cost me my life, and nearly cost the following one of its hunters. We are made weaker with each loss of life, just as we are made stronger with each new addition to the following.
This night, I see you all here with me, listening and learning our ways, honoring each other and those who came before. I see you gathered, people of all shapes, all sizes, and my heart is happy. We are stronger for having you.
I celebrate you this night, Broken Tusks. And I know you will face bravely whatever challenges come your way.
About the Author
Rachael Cruz is an award-winning writer / game designer. Her TRPG work can be found in numerous properties, including but not limited to Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed-Of, Corvus Belli’s Infinity RPG, Dune: Adventures in the Imperium, Fantasy Age, RuneQuest, and Star Trek Adventures. She has been helping people play pretend before it was cool. She also believes in you. Yes, you. Follow her on Twitter at @Witchwater!
About Quest for the Frozen Flame
In the Quest for the Frozen Flame Adventure Path, Paizo’s newest three-part monthly campaign, the heroes lead a band of nomadic hunter-gatherers across the brutal primordial landscape of the Realm of the Mammoth Lords. Members of the Broken Tusk following, these brave adventurers must secure a safe route through the wilds, lest saber-toothed beasts, warmongering rivals, and the ever-looming possibility of natural disaster all threaten to end an ancient people’s legacy. Will the Broken Tusks succumb to the elements and surrender to their rivals? Or will you guide your following to glory and reclaim a stolen birthright?