Despite the relative peace, it had been a bad year for Ringo Flinthammer. Little arguments and slights had festered and now, during the Feast of Winter Veil, when all of Khaz’s children should be gathered around the family hearth, singing songs and feasting together, he was alone, trudging through the heavy snows in the Coldridge Valley, hunting for his dinner.
“Ah’m nae responsible fer how ye choose tae get offended by completely reasonable opinions, nae matter who ye …”
He paused, raising his blunderbuss. It had been a hard winter in Dun Morogh, following a poor harvest and a dry summer. The animals who could afford to were hibernating and dreaming of a green and prosperous spring. Scrawny wolves stalked the barren hills, hunting bony rabbits and, occasionally, raiding dwarven farms for their rams.
Ringo’s stomach growled as he peered through the thick snows. The wolves would have some competition tonight — it’d been a while since he’d eaten himself, after storming out of his parents’ home before dinner, not remembering, at the time, that he didn’t have enough coppers for dinner at the Thunderbrew Distillery.
There was that noise again — but what was it? The Frostmane trolls, as hungry as the wolves or dwarves, had been out raiding as well, and it was rumored that some of the dwarven disappearances of late — which normally ended in finding out someone got pointed the wrong way when going home from the pub and had ended up sleeping it off in another pub the next town over — had ended up roasting on spits in Frostmane camps.
It suddenly occurred to Ringo that storming out on his family might have felt good, but against a pack of cannibal trolls, the rest of the Flinthammer Boys would be very welcome.
The curtain of snow cleared for a moment and there was a blur of white fur. Ringo jerked up his gun and prepared to fire.
“Rabbit, wolf or boar, ye’re gaein’ in the stew pot t’night!”
The bear cub looked up at Ringo and made a bleating vocalization, blowing air and snow out of its mouth. Snow?
“Are ye eatin’ that, wee one?” Ringo lowered his gun and dropped to one knee. “Ye’re starvin’ worse than anyone, ain’t ye?”
He looked around for larger tracks. This cub was too young to be out on his own and his mother, if she still lived, would normally be close at hand.
But this was a bone-white cub, the kind referred to as a “spirit bear” by the Frostmane. The trolls believed these bears to be supernaturally clever and strong, but other bears — who tended toward the black, brown or gray in Khaz Modan, shunned them, pushing them out of their dens to starve as cubs.
Whether this one had been abandoned, or his mother had starved or been killed, it had no fear of Ringo. It couldn’t afford to: The ribs were visible through the white fur as the cub munched on another mouthful of snow.
Ringo sighed, slinging his gun over his shoulder, reaching slowly out for the cub.
“Ye’ll nae get anything but a frostbitten mouth doin’ that, wee one.”
The bear shivered as Ringo scooped him up. He let Ringo gently dig the snow out of his mouth, but then switched to chewing on his leather glove instead. Ringo quickly slipped his hand free, not wanting to let the cub make a meal of his fingers.
“Well, Ah’m hungry, but it’s the Feast o’ Winters Veil, and Ah will nae let Greatfather Winter catch me killin’ a starvin’ wee cub fer dinner. Ah reckon Ah kin find enough food fer …” His voice trailed off. “Ah cannae guarantee Ah kin find enough food fer one, let alone two.”
The cub groaned as he chewed his way through the glove.
“Me folks hae food — more than ye’re likely tae get out here, at least.” He glowered at the cub. “Ye’re gonnae make me apologize tae them, ain’t ye?”
In response, the cub nuzzled Ringo’s beard, the tip of his nose like a block of ice.
“Fair ‘nough.” Ringo turned and trudged back up through the blowing snow to Anvilmar. “Reckon a warm fire and a bit o’ rabbit stew would do us both right. But once the thaw comes, ye’re outta here, Frostmaw — Ah donnae need any bear who’d eat snow doggin’ me steps, nae sir.”
As the sound-muffling snow fell in thick white clumps, the cub murmured quietly, snuggling into Ringo’s beard, and fell asleep.