Harlok, Rill, and Magrat walked the steep path through the Pineed Trees. Magrat was anxious. She had walked this road numerous times before, but it was always while exploring, helping on patrol, or going to a secluded spot to watch the village life from a distance. Now, her purpose was different. Magrat had made efforts to be a welcome guest by doing chores, patching up scuffs and scrapes with her healing skills, going on patrols and even training and hunting. The Longfangs had treated her well with the few vocal exceptions seeming to have been silenced quickly as it became obvious that veteran warriors and Daughters of Gaia tolerated her presence.
Magrat missed the mountains of Faedrun. This was probably the closest she had felt to “home” since she left, but it wasn’t the same. She wasn’t ever sure she could feel truly at home, but for now this was the best she could hope for. Though the Longfangs had been kind to her, and shared much of their culture with her, there were times when she felt like a stray dog that had been taken in out of pity. The Syndar are a proud and long-lived people, and though she would never be so rude as to show any resentment on the outside, accepting charity wasn’t exactly in her blood. Perhaps that was why she worked so hard to contribute to the pack. There was no going back. Her home was gone. Her people were almost certainly gone. All she could do was burn the dead and march forward, just like the Ulven. She laughed to herself when she realized that she had begun thinking like one.
The frenzy of activity after the human’s dinner had everyone on edge. There was little open talk of war, but it was obvious that the Longfangs were preparing for dark times. Magrat found it a bit odd that no outsiders were allowed inside the village, yet the warriors included her in training and close group discussions around the campfires at night. Magrat almost let herself feel welcome.
Harlok, Rill, and Magrat arrived at the entrance to the village. The front gate was flanked by two heavily muscled warriors, armored in a similar fashion to Harlock. Magrat and her escorts waited patiently outside the gate as an older woman approached, her confident stride and bearing marking her as one of the older Daughters of Gaia, most likely one of the Pack Longfang witches.
“We have not had an outsider step through these gates in many years” said Rill, “The importance of this invitation should not be taken lightly. The Priestess has requested to speak with you directly. She will be surrounded by her Daughters, including me, but I will only be allowed to watch and listen. If you threaten her or she finds you a threat to us, you will be killed. No matter what she asks you, do not lie. She will know.” said Rill as the witch finally reached them.
“The Priestess is ready.” said the witch
Harlok clasped Magrat’s forearm in a sign of respect and nodded to her before turning on his heel and heading towards the tavern. His gesture was probably meant to put Magrat at ease, but it made her nervous instead. It was almost as if he had just said goodbye to her.
Magrat followed Rill and the witch trough the village center. Even though it was later in the day and the light was fleeting, the townsfolk and even children were still out. All eyes were upon Magrat.
The three women approached a large building, which was guarded by two fearsome , scar covered veterans. The thickly muscled guards pulled open the massive wooden doors of the building as if they weighed nothing at all. Magrat tried not to look at the intimidating warriors, and instead keep focused on what lie ahead, but the intensity of their gazes chilled her to the bone.
Magrat followed Rill and the witch briskly through a corridor, leaving tapestries fluttering in their wake, until they came to a large room. The room was big enough for a respectable number of people to sit and have council. It smelled strongly of incense. Several Daughters of Gaia were seated in the chamber. As they entered the room, Magrat recognized Azra Steelfang among the daughters, clad in fur and armor. As the three women entered, the room became silent, and the Daughters rose to their feet. As Magrat continued into the center of the room, she could feel their eyes upon her. Rill motioned for Magrat to be seated upon the floor. Magrat took her seat. Behind her, Stanrick and Yawn entered the back of the room, having just been retrieved from the tavern by Harlok.
Magrat bowed her head respectfully. Before her was a built up area, one that was more practical than lavish. It was not a throne, chair, or a couch, but more of a lounge with stacked pillows and small tables adorned with all sorts of totems, items, and herbs. The linen canopy above it gave the impression that it was to provide some measure of privay, yet also remain open so that all nearby can see and hear what is said when appropriate. Standing at either side of the canopy are two more guards just as fierce and as grizzled as the two guarding the doors.
At the center of the canopy sat a woman, cross legged, and adorned with fabrics both elegant and earthly. The woman was very old, yet far from frail in appearance. She had vigilant eyebrows, a strong jaw line, and long waves of gray hair that flowed down from beneath a head dress of leather, bone, and metal. Like two small glowing moons with black centers, her eyes shone with a spiritual light that cut through the dimness, much the same as a predator’s eyes might glow when on the hunt. Magrat found herself entranced by that gaze as wisps of incense smoke circled the pair. Ulven are known for sizing up others with intense gazes, but Magrat had never experienced anything like this before. It felt as though there was not a single secret in her world that this woman could not know just by looking into her with those intense, unblinking eyes.
“I am Priestess Soulveig Longfang,” said the woman, “Runeseer of Pack Longfang. These are troubling times and the runes speak of many changes to come. Throughout my people’s history the Longfangs have been the wardens of such change. The runes call to me, they show me things that are to be and what could be. The future is uncertain, and the outsiders have done much damage to the land of Gaia and have threatened our ways. Clan Grimward, heralded by those of Pack Graytide, push for action that could soak the land in both Ulven and outsider blood. Clan Nightriver stoically defends the outsiders and pushes for tolerance even as tensions rise. And the Watchwolves Clan have called out for action and speak for those that follow them. Soon, the other Clans and Packs of the Ulven will be swayed in one direction or another. And in the middle of this we have you… outsiders from a far away land, with customs and religions different than ours, with tales of monsters and of dead that walk. The Great Wolf listens to the deeds of the Ulven, yet his ears do not ring with your names; the names of the outsiders. The deeds in time are read through the runes, yet my runes on you are cryptic. This is perplexing, so I demand council of you and those like you. My warriors tell me that you respect us and have earned your keep here at the outpost. My warriors tell me that you watch our customs yet have them of your own. My warriors have told me that you can be trusted. I demand proof…” says the priestess as she holds out a hand filled with small bone chips and shards, carved with runes that seem to resonate with some sort of spiritual energy.
“Magrat Farwalker, Fishbone tongue shaman and chosen of the Ram, hunter from the land of Faedrun and the Celestial Mountains, lorespeaker of the Lost…” said the priestess as she cast the rune bones onto an ornate leather mat in front of her, “Tell me. Why are you here?”
Magrat drew in a hissing breath. The last time she had been addressed by her full title was similar to this. She had stood before her people’s assembled elders and shamans, and they had told her to go, go south. Learn. See. Hear. Listen. All the answers she had carefully prepared, the thought out responses to imagined questions, fled her mind, caught in the gaze of the Priestess. Hundreds of reasons flit through her mind. Her people had sent her away. She moved to find new information. To see new places. To learn of the world as very few of her people had seen it. She fled the onslaught of the Undead, and moved with the men of Vandregon. She was put on a ship when she was sick and could hardly remember where she was, and found herself trapped in an alien land, surrounded by men and Syndar she did not know, and by this race that seemed to come straight out of her people’s legends and myths.
“Almost seventy years ago,” she said, “my people sent me away. The Dead walked our lands, and our enemies lands. Our Histories spoke of past times such as these, but none carried the secret to defeating it. I was to find out what was happening to the rest of the world. I was to find how to stop the Dead. Much… much of my time away from home, among the men and Syndar of the south, of Faedrun… is hazy. My memories are broken and spotted. I do not know what happened. I was found, ill and delirious. They sent me to Mardrun, when the evacuation wasn’t an emergency, not yet. But by the time I had recovered, no one was returning. I was trapped in an alien land. I followed the course of the world then. Going where it seemed I should go. Doing what needed to be done. I am here.”
Magrat hesitated. Words did not seem to be able to contain all of everything that had happened; the fall of her entire world. She breathed deeply. She called on her totem, and his presence settled around her, and she asked for help to speak the emotions and thoughts in her heart. With his guidance, she said the only thing she knew to say.
“I have no where else to go.”
Priestess Soulveig listened to every word spoken by Magrat. Never once did her gaze waiver, or glance at anyone else in the room.
For the first time, the priestess looked down at the runic bones before her. To the untrained eye, it simply looked like they had been scattered on the floor. But the priestess saw more. She read them, she understood them, and she felt the signs and portents of what they represented. She brought a hand up to hover over the bones. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then one of the bones suddenly jumped and flipped to the other side. The priestess considered this change and then brought her hand back.
“For 10 years your people and the humans have lived alongside my people. You are strangers to us, your ways are different to us, and your motives and ambitions are different than ours. There are those among you that wish to start again in our lands and there are those among you that will do nothing short of starting a war for personal gains. My warriors say that you have become known to us. We know that there are outsiders who will, if left unchecked, bring ruin to our lands and our people. My warriors say that you are not among them. You have showed them who you are. At least you have shown them what you want them to see. But I know you, Magrat Farwalker. I know you as if you know yourself. I know of your bonds, your blood, and your secrets. You, lorespeaker of the Lost, you traveled to find a path for your people but in doing so, you yourself became lost. You have made a great journey, one that could have taken you anywhere and yet here you are. ”
As she gathered the runes, her other hand moved to a small table that contained a number of trinkets. At this distance, Magrat couldn’t make out what all the items were except for the one that the Priestess picked up with her fingers. It was a canine, bleached white and large. It did not look like an animal or Mordok tooth. The Priestess placed this canine into her hand with the rest of the runic carved bone chips. She hovered her closed fist over the leather mat and stared intently at her closed hand with her shining unblinking eyes. Then with a quick flick of the wrist, she opened her hand and cast the runes onto the mat once again. They seemed to naturally tumble into place, but this time Magrat noticed that one of the runes had come to rest on part of the large canine, propped up oddly by the tooth.
“In a river, water flows gently in a single direction.” said the Priestess, “It rolls and flows evenly, gently rising when the sky brings rain or falling when the summer draughts set in. But the water always keeps flowing, always in the same direction. If you know the river, the land, if you look where others cannot readily see, then the direction the river is flowing is known to you. You can see it, know it, and read it, but no matter what you do, you cannot stop the water. Now perhaps a bridge was built in this river. By its original design and place, it should fulfill its purpose and the flow of water should gently move around it. But what if the water moved around the bridge awkwardly, causing swirls of currents and shifting of dirt and sand downstream? It could choke the fish and kill the wildlife. Now imagine that a large rock was placed into the river. It could be placed close to the bridge, diverting the water around it properly so that it continues to flow smoothly downstream, correcting the path of the water and making the bridge and the river coexist in harmony, or it could be placed out from the bridge, diverting the water directly into it and chipping away at its rock. Eventually, the bridge would crumble as the diverted water eroded it at its base, the water removing the bridge and bringing the river back into harmony.”
The Priestess paused and gathered up a single chip of bone.
“We,” she continued, “Pack Longfang, are like that rock.”
The Priestess nodded to the older witch that had guided Magrat into the chamber. The woman rose, walked up to the Priestess, and took the bone chip from her hand. She turned, walked directly towards Magrat, and came to a stop just a couple of feet away. With her free hand, the Witch reached down to a sheath at her belt and drew a dagger. Even though Magrat’s instincts screamed that she must focus on this immediate threat, she remembered Rill’s words that she would be killed if the priestess considered her a threat. Magrat looked deep inside herself to find the strength to focus on the shining, predatory eyes of the Priestess.
“Tell me, Magrat Farwalker, would you kill those of us gathered in this room if it meant that you could both return to and save the future of your people?”
Magrat considered the scenario laid before her: The lives of every female, male, and child, her family and friends, her blood and kin, for the lives of these relative strangers who, for the most part, barely tolerated her presence, and treated her with indifference. There were only a few she might dare call friend, but she had no doubts as to where their true loyalties lay.
The word rang bittersweet through her heart, and for a moment, anything seemed worth the price, to be home again, to never be alone again. But she knew it could not be like that. Though they were not overly kind, the Longfangs had taken her in. It would make her an Oathbreaker, of the worst kind. She had to be honest with her self. It had been seventy years since she had last seen her people. Who knew how the war had changed them, and how it had changed her?
”Besides,” an irevverant but practical part of her mind reasoned, “there is no way I could take the guards, let alone the entire room.”
She quickly squashed the inner voice, and gathered her wits.
“I would kill anything and anyone I could that threatened the lives of my kin.” She flicked a glance at the witch. “And mine.” She added mildly. “But I see no thing here that could be a threat to them, except my own actions.”
It has been seventy years. If my people have survived this long, the deaths of Ulven in their name could only shame us. If they have not survived, my presence will not change anything,
and your deaths would solve nothing. It would be a hollow victory anyway, and one that, by the laws of my people, I could not share in.”
The priestess smiled at these words, the first time she had made any hint of emotion at all.
“Honest answer, Magrat Farwalker. The truth of your words and the conviction of your reasoning behind them is genuine. Know that I would do the same, kill anyone, to protect my pack and my people. Sometimes the Longfangs are sent to do hard things, but it is necessary for our people. Sometimes the runes tell me of grave things; things that must be dealt with for others to survive. These hard choices are what make us strong. We are the wardens of change. To hesitate in our duties could bring doom to our people.”
The priestess nodded to the witch in front of Magrat. The Witch suddenly grasped her wrist and held her palm up. When she brought the dagger towards Magrat’s hand, her instincts told her to snatch her hand away, but the deliberate motion of the Witch froze her in place. The tip of the dagger bit into Magrat’s green flesh, deep enough to be very painful and draw blood, but not deep enough to damage anything permanently. Blood boiled up from the wound and pooled in her palm, and the witch carefully took the blank bone rune and placed it into the blood. She spoke a quick prayer of magic and then removed the bone from your palm and walked back over to the Priestess.
“My warriors have brought to me dire news pertaining a pack that we have history with. They tell me that relations with Pack Graytide have not gone well; that they push for violence. They tell me that their leader threatened others and could not be reasoned with. But there is more to this than what is seen. Others do not wish to see the truth and therefore justify what they want. Tell me, Magrat Farwalker,” said the priestess, “what do you believe of Pack Graytide and their intentions? Their views? Their actions?”
Magrat watched calmly as the blood welled up from the wound in her hand. It was not the first time she had been bled ritually, and it would certainly not be the last. She licked the wound clean, and quickly bandaged it, watching the Priestess closely. Yes, it was not the first time her blood had been used in a ritual, but it was the first she had ever seen Ulven practicing blood magic. This was new to her.
“I have only briefly met a few of the Graytide, their new cheiftan, Khulgar, being one of them.” said Magrat, “Khulgar does not seem pleasant, but I can’t really blame him. My own people have had to deal with unwelcome guests on our lands. The humans treated him with much disrespect, and antagonized him. They almost refused to listen to him when he delivered the missive from the Watchwolves. I admit to not being impressed by how he has comported himself so far, and in my mind, it reflects ill on those he commands. I do not think the Graytide are wrong, but I don’t know if what they are doing is right, either. I have seen war. I have seen slaughter. Some of the memories I have left to me, I do not want. I know what an entire village dead looks like. What it smells like.”
Magrat paused and clenched her injured hand until blood dribbled onto the floor.
“I do not wish to see it again.” she said, bitterly.
The priestess considered these words and smiled. As before, she consulted the runes, casting them, and then holding her hand out over them. The priestess started to withdraw her hand, stopped as if she had reconsidered something, and put her hand out over the runes again. This time, nothing shifted or moved. The runes were still. The priestess returned her hand to the side of her crossed legs.
“You think and comprehend more than most of the other outsiders. You are wise, Magrat Farwalker, and you are correct. Most had not noticed Khulgar Graytide’s new rank amongst Pack Graytide. He is now Chieftan, a sudden shift in power that not even I had seen. Khulgar is hotheaded, as many of my people are, but the real threat is that he has a voice and there are those among my people that are beginning to listen. If enough listen, there will be blood. The runes hint of a time where Ulven will take the life of Ulven. It is obvious you have seen enough slaughter in your time, Magrat Farwalker. I see it in you. It is so strong, so clear. You are among the outsiders who bring wild tales of things my people do not understand; things that by our ways cannot be, but you do not need to tell me what you have been through for me to know it is true. That, I can see in your soul very clearly.”
With gentle patience and grace, the Priestess arose from her cross legged position. She stepped forward and down the steps of her canopy sitting area, her eyes locked with Magrat’s; their breathtaking silver shining brightly in the dimmed light.
“The situation in our land is grave. There are things changing daily, things that the runes cannot tell me. Pack Longfang mobilizes for war in hopes to stop it. The Watchwolf Clan declared dangerous words but they were words that needed to be spoken. Negotiations between my people and the outsiders must continue. Pack Longfang will deploy to areas of Mardrun and protect emissaries and diplomats. You have ways that are different than ours, but the runes tell me of a great darkness in the future; one that cannot be stopped by us alone, especially if my people are at war. I would ask that you help us, Magrat Farwalker. Help my warriors understand what it is we may face in the future. Help us prepare. My Pack prides itself on being the strongest Ulven warrior clan of our people, yet we are ill prepared for this kind of fight. You bring with you knowledge, both of a new enemy and of a new land. In exchange, you can find a place among us.”
The priestess never moved or changed her expression, but her tone changed ominously as she spoke.
“But know this, Magrat Farwalker. We of Pack Longfang do not tolerate weakness. You will train with the warriors, you will earn your keep, and you will serve with us if you are to be with us. I will not allow my warriors to put such faith and trust in an outsider who has not earned it. If you prove yourself to us, we will help you in return. You are not the only Lost to have walked the lands of Mardrun, Magrat Farwalker, and we can help you find out more. Perhaps one day, you will walk the lands of Faedrun with Longfang warriors at your side, but only if you so choose this path. What is your answer?”
Magrat’s train of thought shuddered to a complete and abrupt halt. Her pride in being asked to help the Longfang was swallowed by the shock of the Priestess’s offer.
A place among the Longfang? She could hardly dare believe that it meant what she thought it could, but what about her tribe? To join the Longfang, would that not mean abandoning her own people, the Lost? She struggled with the thought. She had not seen her home in seventy years and it pained her greatly. Her people were not meant to be alone, but what was this? She was not the only Lost on Mardrun? Someone was alive! Her heart sang with the words, even as the bewildering thought of Ulven walking her homelands sank in. Her mind reeled from all of these revelations, and slowly, deep within her, hope began to grow.
She could find a place, here and now, and not need to abandon her people. In fact, they would go with her, back home. A feral grin flashed across Magrat’s face. She stood, drawing her ritual knife, and brought it to bear on her other, uncut hand. She took a moment to enjoy it. It had been far, far too long since she had spoken the Hunter’s Oath.
“I swear, over my blood, by my Ancestors and the spirits who watch, that you shall never need watch your back, because I will be there. That you never need ask for help, because I will give it.”
Emotion boiled within her, as she made a fist, and tasted the drop of blood that flowed from it. Normally, hunters exchanged blood, but she thought the spirits could make an exception this time, for the Ulven.
“And should you fall, I will carry you home myself.”
“Your words are profound and genuine. I know the significance of what you have spoken even if those around you do not. This surprises even me. You are either very trusting, very clever, or one of us is a terrible fool. Only time will truly tell.” said the priestess as she turned and walked back to her canopy. She carefully picked up her runes and cast them again on the leather mat, taking a moment to read them. This time, they did not jump or move once they were cast.
“Magrat Farwalker, shaman, hunter, and lorespeaker of the Lost. From this point forward you will be granted access to the Pack Longfang village. You will continue earning your place here amongst my people. You will train and grow stronger, especially in the ways of the warrior. You will teach us so that we may learn, both of your homeland and of the unknown enemy. You will help us break barriers to other outsiders who could become allies to Pack Longfang. You will prove to us that you are strong or you will be cast out. The following members of my Pack, Harlok, Azra, Stanrick, Yawn, and Rill will watch over you. Prove yourself to them unanimously and you will become one of us, the first outsider to be truly a full member of Pack Longfang. Know that this honor should not be taken lightly. Some warriors may not accept you right away. Prove yourself.”
There was a quiet murmuring in the assembly.
“You are all dismissed,” said the Priestess, “save for my Daughters.”
At this, the rest of the Ulven gathered in the chamber began to file out except for the witches, daughters, and two mute guards near the Priestess. The Witch who drew blood on Magrat grabbed a towel and waited near the priestess. After everyone had left the large chamber, the large doors were closed, and the room was quiet, the priestess finally closed her eyes and blinked. When she opened them again, the shining light in her eyes was gone and replaced with a dull grayness. She coughed a splatter of blood. She reached up with one hand and caught the blood and cupped her mouth while her other shaking hand reached out and grabbed the towel from the witch. She began bleeding from her nose. The priestess hunched over suddenly, as if her venerable age had finally caught up to her, and started cleaning up the blood on her face. The Pack Longfang Daughters stood there silently.
“Rill, inform the rest of the Pack of my decision in this matter.” said the Priestess, her voice losing much of her stoic resolve it had just a moment before.
“But Priestess, the Syndar is an outsi…” started the Witch standing next to the Priestess.
“Do not make the mistake of questioning my authority or you will outlive your usefulness here.” snapped the Priestess.
She let the words sink in for a few moments until she knew that the Witch would not object further. Then, the priestess looked down at the runes that she had just cast a few moments earlier.
“Rill is now in charge of Magrat’s training and her status among us. If she proves to be a threat, kill her. The runes speak of a conflict in her that does not alarm me at the moment even if I cannot yet discern it. We, the Wardens of Change, warriors of the children of Gaia and the Great Wolf, stand upon the brink of a dark time. Blood will be spilt in the coming days and we must do what we can to stop it. Allies will turn on each other and new enemies will go unchecked unless we bear a terrible burden for our people. If we don’t, the darkness will consume us all. The Mordok are no longer our only threat to the survival of our people. Now, make preparations and gather warriors. I want escorts dispatched to protect the Watchwolf emissaries. The colony must be contacted for allies. Prepare warriors to meet adventurers for an upcoming journey… and bring me tea… and put extra sap in it this time.” coughed the Priestess into her blood soaked rag as she settled into her padded canopy.