The Spine was harsh that day, and Barely stumbled on her swiftly numbing feet. Though they terminated in cloven hooves and her legs were coated in fur, there was only so much that her Beastman form could do against the icy winds of the South Wall Mountains. Her antlers grew too long for her to easily reach them when they became tangled in the low branches of a tree, and Barely simply sat below her trap in despair. Alone in the South Wall… there was a hero once that was forbidden to die here alone…
However, Barely wasn’t technically alone. There was another life inside her. That knowledge almost compelled her to stand and free herself from the tree branch, but before she made a decision on the matter she felt the reverberation of incredibly intense magic to her right. Then, behind her, at an angle that she wasn’t quite able to turn, something was swiftly approaching her. Barely began to panic, twisting the branch and tangling her further. A deep, ominous growl shook her to her core, and she tugged and scrabbled at the twisted branches, eyes rolling in an attempt to see the beast behind her.
Suddenly, the branch snapped and Barely fell forward, where she twisted around to stare at a dog-sized skunk, head low and watching her. She didn’t have any weapons. The skunk didn’t really look like any skunk she’d ever seen before, though. It had a single, solid band of white, spanning the entire width of its back, and its fur was short. Not to mention how thickly built it was. Maybe this was another one of the Jottun experiments. Fitting that it would ultimately be the Jottun that killed her after they had so brutally created her.
A hidden voice called from the wood, “Mellivora?” The beast immediately ceased growling and turned its head toward the voice, and a tall woman stepped from the wood, ducking a thick branch and smiling when she spotted the beast. She said something to it, but Barely couldn’t make it out.
The beast turned again and scampered toward Barely, who tried to tell it to go away, standing rapidly in an effort to get away herself, only to have the thing ram its shoulder into her shins, knocking her back down… and swaggering off in another direction. The woman approached Barely, still smiling, and held out her hand, “Mellivora gets territorial. Come on, you’re freezing.”
Barely accepted the woman’s hand and stood, flinching when she reached around her face to grab one of her back-swept antlers. She remained still, however, as the woman removed the gnarled branch still caught there.
“What was that thing?” Barely chattered through mostly clenched teeth. The South Wall never seemed so cold, before. She didn’t expect this.
“Her?” the woman pointed at the creature swiftly disappearing into the underbrush, “She’s a honey badger. Companion animal, otherwise you’d never see one this far north.”
Barely suddenly didn’t know what to say. She stared at the woman standing so confidently in front of her. Her eyes were yellow with rectangular pupils like a goat. Beastman, maybe? Her corn-yellow hair framed long, thick horns, too, like the mountain sheep except… didn’t only the rams sport horns?
“Follow me,” the woman said, turning and walking ahead, “we can talk on the way and then I’ll get you out of here.”
That’s when she spotted the tail. It was almost rat-like, but the end looked like it could be used as a club, sporting a bone-like material similar to her horns. What sort of atrocities did the Jottun inflict upon this woman? She did follow her, however.
The tall woman spoke first, “What’s your name?”
She hadn’t spoken to anyone in so long, she wasn’t even sure that she could anymore. “Uhm… Barely.”
“Barely? Like a bear? Is that a warrior’s name?”
“Barely Anything, ma’am, it’s a… uhm… slave name… actually.” her voice trailed off. Suddenly, Barely was embarrassed. She regretted not lying at that moment. She could have changed everything just then. Barely could fight. All wild creatures could fight. She could have been a warrior.
“Well, that’s awkward. We’re going to have to get you a new name, then, hmm?”
Barely didn’t know what to say, so she just fell silent. The woman continued after a short while. “Do you know me?” She asked.
“I, uhm… no.”
The woman looked sideways at her, “I know you’ve heard my name, at least. You’re my proudest legacy.”
Barely thought a moment, and suddenly it dawned on her, “YOU are Cerlissa?” she blurted, “I thought, well…”
“I thought you were… taller?”
The woman laughed out loud. “To the top of my head, I am twenty-two hands. How tall did you think I was?”
Barely blushed a deep crimson and mumbled, “I was told you were… a uhm… dragon… that you breathed fire at the Jottun and crushed them dozens at a time…”
Cerlissa stopped short and gave Barely a scowl, “For Gwind’s sake, Grakas gets all the credit. He always gets all the crow-begotten credit.” Then proceeded walking. Barely followed, but remained terrified to say more.
“Where are you headed?” Cerlissa began again, seeming a lot less perturbed than Barely had initially guessed.
“Uhm… I don’t really know.” Barely stammered, the cold was still getting to her, although the conversation made the whole situation seem a lot less desolate. “I was really just heading South and hoping for the best.”
“South?” Cerlissa asked, “You came from Lovis?”
Barely had told herself that she was going to lie. That anyone who found out about her origin would either kill her on the spot or condemn her to death by sending her back. When she opened her mouth to speak, however…
“Norsca, actually.” Barely nearly slapped herself for her honesty, but decided to just keep going, “I’d heard stories of Vulcanica. I thought maybe I’d escape, but…”
Cerlissa remained quiet for a moment, letting the unfinished sentence hang in the air.
After a moment, where the only sounds were of walking feet, crushing sticks beneath the snow. Cerlissa took a breath to speak, “I need help, but I can’t explain it until you’re in. I can take care of you. You won’t be a slave anymore, but I do need a certain… contract… from you.”
“Yes.” For the first time in years, Barely spoke without hesitation. “I’ll sign it. I’ll work for you.”
“With me.” Cerlissa corrected.
“With you. I’ll do it.”
Cerlissa studied Barely, “You’re sure you don’t want to think about it a moment?”
“I’m sure.” Barely said confidently. “You’re Cerlissa Grav-Norsca. I’d do my people a great disservice if I ref… I’m pregnant.” Barely deflated. Sure that it would disqualify her.
Cerlissa only smiled, “So am I. Triplets. If I can do it, you can do it. And that’s precisely why I’m here. I need to tell my friend the good news.”
Barely grinned. No one, not even other women- not even other Beastmen had ever talked to her this way. It was empowering.
Cerlissa stopped and faced Barely, “I guess we can work out the details later. Sign here.”
A flash of blue light revealed a paper scroll with shining letters unroll from Cerlissa’s upraised hand. A pen appeared in Barely’s hand, and though she didn’t actually know how to write her name, she was somehow sure that the scribble she put down was, in fact, her true signature.