Balfrith stood on the raised foredeck of the Reindeer as it sailed toward the Drakenmount Fjord, approaching its destination. The main sail was about half full under a light westerly breeze, and the stern sail was furled, but they clearly had plenty of power to sail up to the fjord’s entrance, before deploying oars for their final approach. As sailors climbed about in the rigging and over the decks, he watched the great mountain which gave its name to this city of Nifflgarde, Drakenmount, growing quickly as they drew closer.
Is that actually a dragon coiled and resting on the peak? he wondered, brows raised and eyes open wide with awe. He craned his neck to see as they drew close, about to enter the protected fjord with the mountain on their left. Hallgeir laughed, a throaty, gusty sound, from behind him. Turning, Balfrith saw him, Eldamir and Calunoth all standing just a step behind and watching both him and the mountain. “What’s so funny?” he asked.
Hallgeir said, “You look as if you’ve just seen your first dragon, ‘in the scales’, as it were.”
Glancing back up at the mount, Balfrith said, “Haven’t I? I was wondering if that really is a dragon resting at the peak. But I don’t suppose it to be so, eh?”
Calunoth, standing near, grinned. “Nay Balfrith, though you’re not the first to see it, and wonder. I myself had the same reaction, many years ago, at my first arrival here. I know exactly how you feel.”
Balfrith bristled at that, thinking that the cynical mercenary couldn’t possibly know how he felt. But he calmed himself, and said, “Indeed? And if it’s not a real dragon, then what is it?”
Laughing again, Calunoth said “That, my young friend, is a tribute to the stubbornness of the Men of Nifflgarde. Though our friend Hallgeir would probably prefer that I call it a monument to a great king.”
Hallgeir shook his head and said, “Not a monument to any king, Calunoth. It was commissioned by king Eyrik the Great, and begun during his reign. But it memorializes nothing, except perhaps the greatness of the Men of Nifflgarde. After all, I’ve yet to see or hear of anything like this in Sildara, or anywhere else for that matter.” He grinned broadly, and Balfrith wasn’t sure if Hallgeir was joking, or smiling in pride.
He looked again at the mountain, and wondered. What would drive a nation to do something like this?
And then his attention was drawn away from the mountain, for they rounded a shoulder of rock rising from the waters of the fjord, and there ahead of them was the city of Drakenmount. The fjord narrowed at this point, and Balfrith noticed that the waters had suddenly become rather rough. The captain ordered oars to be mounted and the main-sail furled.
As the noise increased all around them, with the rushing of waters driven to and fro by conflicting tides, oars sliding into locks and sailors calling across the rigging to one another, Balfrith continued observing the city ahead of them. It stood at the heights of a steep slope down toward the water, overlooking the bay, and the docks, below. But it was small, perhaps smaller than any city he’d ever seen before. More like a mid-sized town than a royal capital, he thought, considering. It was walled like any other city, with those walls running full circle around it. Even the area near the docks was walled, though it had a great double-towered gate facing the docks, large enough to let two or three wagons through at the same time. From the gate, a wide road descended back and forth down the rocky slope to the level of the docks. It appeared to have been hewn from the living stone of the fjord, and seemed to Balfrith to be almost as great a feat as the carving of the dragon above had been.
The buildings, the few that could be seen peeking over the walls, seemed to be only one or two stories tall. Scanning the walls and the few roofs rising above them, Balfrith couldn’t locate the keep, or see any sign of a royal palace.
Finally turning to Hallgeir, he asked, “Does the king still have his royal seat here in Drakenmount?”
“Aye,” answered the laconic northerner.
“I can’t see the palace from here - can you point it out? Or is there a keep of some sort?”
Hallgeir laughed, a single short bark. “Nay, Balfrith, for the entire city is a walled castle and has no need of a keep. The fjord is well-protected as well, from both the sea and the surrounding land. Look about, and take note of the heights: we are in a protected valley, with walls of living rock all about us. Even the tides at the fjord entrance protect us, for there are few Men in all the West, save those of Nifflgarde alone, who know how to navigate these treacherous waters.”
Balfrith looked around, taking note of what his companion had pointed out, and nodding. Hallgeir added after a moment, “I will point out to you the king’s hall after we’re in the city. It is little different than most of the other structures, though somewhat larger of course.”
It took them perhaps half an hour to reach the pier under oar power, and Balfrith continued watching the city as they approached, trying to see whatever details he could. Unfortunately with the city so high above the level of the water, and with its walls rising above the level of most buildings, he couldn’t see much beyond them. After disembarking the ship, the four companions walked up the switchback road from the docks to the port gate, staying out of the way of wagons moving up and down, carrying cargo and the occasional passengers.
Once through the great gates, Balfrith looked around at the buildings. They seemed to be constructed almost entirely of wood and stone, especially with stone footings and foundations, and many of them actually appeared to be growing grass on the steeply-slanted roofs. He shook his head in amazement, wondering where these north-men had gotten their crazy ideas about building.
Finally he turned to Hallgeir and asked, “Why are the buildings here so different than the way we build in Nûmidëa or Sildara?”
Hallgeir looked around, and said, “What do you mean?”
“Well, everything seems to be of smooth wood logs, laid atop a stone foundation. There’s no use of plaster or mortar that I can see. And look how there’s grass growing on the roofs - also how steep the roofs are. What advantages does all this bring?”
Hallgeir shrugged, and was silent. Just when Balfrith thought he would get no answer, the northerner said, “The roofs are steep because of the snow. We get so much of it here, and so quickly, that if it piled up on top of our buildings they would just collapse. This way, it falls down into the streets where we can clear it away.”
Balfrith stopped walking and looked at his companion. “Just how much snow do you get, anyway? We might get a few inches in the winter, but it usually doesn’t stay very long and certainly doesn’t pile up so high that it could collapse a building.”
Hallgeir thought for a moment, then said, “I remember more than one winter where the snow got higher than old Svartli the miller, and he was the tallest man in the mark. Ten spans tall he was, straight and skinny like a pine. We had to dig paths through the snow to get anywhere, and it piled up so high you could hardly see the sun except at noon. Most of our houses were covered right to the lower edge of the roofs, except the few that had a second story on them.”
Balfrith was dumb-struck, trying to imagine the scene that Hallgeir described, and utterly at a loss to do so. “But… how did you do anything in all that?”
“What’s there to do in winter? We had already stored away our provisions for the next several months, so there was no need for fishing or hunting except in sport, nor any farming to be done. The women would weave new clothes, or repair old ones, and the men would work on interior house repairs. No one worked very hard, though. We would put on our snow shoes, or skis, and play in the snow - both men and women. And the men might go hunting for bear, or boar, or deer. I did not live near any lakes, but I have heard that some men go fishing on the frozen waters of the lakes. And on Skaldsdays we would go to the ritual house, to hear stories of our ancestors, and of the gods, and celebrate the sacred days.”
Balfrith could only shake his head, as Hallgeir’s answer invited more questions than it answered. He could see that it would take some personal experience before he really understood the Nifflgarde version of winter. And given the lateness of the season, I might just get that chance.