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Before Him, I am Bound by Honor

Before Him, I am Bound by Honor

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Rill walked through the village with a purpose. If her no-nonsense stride wasn’t enough to convince others to move out of her way, her fiery and angry scowl would do the trick. She had just returned from the coast with a dozen Longfang hunters. They had escorted her to see the small group of Longfang warriors off on a Stormjarl longship. The ship, along with the emissary, was to make its way to the southern edge of Nightriver territory and link up with other ships that would take the Longfang warriors to Clan Stormjarl territory.

She continued to walk, lost in her own thoughts, as she approached the long house of Onsallas village. She was still at a loss of words that the Phoenix Syndar had brought to them a claimant bar from the Stormjarls. How did they even get the stupid thing? She knew she was a bit harsh in seizing the Syndar female and forcing her to turn the claimant over, even temporarily, but she was willing to ruffle a few feathers in order to look into the reasoning behind the bar. The claimant being found and brought to the village was the worst timing ever. She didn’t even fully understand why it was so damned important. Its arrival had confirmed Clan Stormjarl calling upon an honor debt that Pack Longfang owed them from decades ago.

Pushing past the burly guards to enter the long house, Rill shoved the giant wooden doors aside and stormed into the room. Behind her, the guards quickly shut the door. Inside the room a few Daughters of Gaia were tending to their duties and waiting quietly and patiently. The Runeseer was deep in her seeing mediation.

Unblinking eyes shining like glowing moons turned to Rill as the Runeseer cast another hand of runes onto the mat in front of her.

“Soulveig, this is wrong. What are we doing? Why are we sending our warriors to Clan Stormjarl?” demanded Rill as she came to a stop in front of the Runeseer. It was obvious that the time for any honorifics or professional greetings was over.

“Silence, Rill. You know better than to address me this way.” reminded Soulveig in an even and emotionless tone.

“No, not this time. Gaia be damned, I won’t stand by and let this happen!” roared Rill as she bristled and looked as vicious as ever. She looked like an angry wolf ready to pounce and kill.

An odd silence hung throughout the room as Rill’s angry gaze stayed locked with Soulveig’s emotionless stare. The other Daughters in the room conveniently moved to the edge of the room hoping to be close enough to listen in but far enough away to be spared the wrath of either of them. It was Soulveig who finally broke the silence.

“We are Ulven, child. We are Pack Longfang. Honor and loyalty flow through our veins and give purpose to our charge. ”

“Priestess, you know what is happening is wrong. I don’t care about the honor debt, we can send a hawk and discuss terms for the debt in the spring. You know this could be a trick to remove our warriors from the war.”

“If we turn our backs on honor, we are no better than the Mordok. I will hear no more of this nonsense, Rill. You of all Daughters here should know better than to even hint at straying from that course.”

Rill thought about the situation. She thought about the consequences, the words she had spoken. In one final act of defiance, she exhaled a forced sigh and softened her features. She knew it would do her no good to argue with the Runeseer.

“I am sorry, Priestess. I let anger and emotion get the best of me. It will not happen again.”

At that moment, Soulveig closed her eyes and squinted for a fraction of a second, and opened them. The shining light in her eyes was gone and she collapsed a bit from the strain of maintaining her meditation. She coughed a few times and several Daughters came over and helped her with a drink. Her eyes studied the runes she had cast in front of her. Concern spread across the Runeseer’s face and she looked again, as if willing the runes to speak a different message would actually make them change. When she finally spoke, she croaked the words through parched lips.

“No… no… it isn’t supposed to be like this.”

“Priestess, what do you see?” said Rill as her own worry began to rise. She had been training under the Runeseer for quite some time now. She had begun to learn how to read the runes and she could see the divination cast out before her.

=====

Some members of Pack Longfang apparently were never meant to be sailors.

The first day on the open water saw fair weather and good travel as the Stormjarl longships took them to Stormjarl territory. The second day, however, was a completely different story. Howling winds and a dusting of light snow raced to attack them, finding ways to penetrate under their armor, furs and cloaks. Once calm waters had turned into churning waves and a constant rocking motion that seemed to never end. Periodically a warrior of the Longfangs would stumble over to the edge of the ship and wretch their stomachs into the oceans.

Bryech Savagefang and Orrin Kair, recently traded to Pack Longfang from Pack Bloodfang, were excited at the opportunity and the challenge to join the ranks of the elite Longfangs. Now they sat huddled and miserable against the side of the ship gathered in their cloaks and spare clothing. The conditions were terrible, but no one spoke a word of discomfort for the Longfang warriors were too well disciplined and the Stormjarl sailors were at home even in these conditions. Harlok and Azra sat opposite them, showing less visible discomfort but obviously enduring just as brutal of conditions. Next to them and bundled in a thick wool cloak and still sporting the red face paint was the Stormjarl emissary. Her task of summoning the Longfangs and overseeing the claimant bar and the honor pledge was now complete and she was returning home.

Five longships sailed in close formation to one another as the entire war pack of Pack Longfang was being sailed to Clan Stormjarl’s main settlement.

After several hours of harsh conditions, the settlement became visible to the ships and the crew and the waters calmed as the snowstorm had passed. Longfang warriors stood on wobbly legs not accustom to sea travel and rose, the cracking of ice on their cloaks and clothing audible to those on board. The settlement of Graytir Stormjarl, Clanleader of Clan Stormjarl, spanned out before them as they entered the port and prepared to dock their ships.

Standing on the dock was a commanding looking Ulven. He was dressed in black and brow leathers and mail armor with an ornate sword sheathed at his side. A thick mantle of what appeared to be bear fur sat on his shoulders. His head was shaved tight and he wore a medium length and neatly trimmed black beard. Standing directly behind him in full armor and in formation were a dozen Viknar. These veteran warriors were the shock troops of the longships and honor guard to the different Chieftans and Priestesses of the clan. Although not quite as well trained as the elite Longfangs, they were very formidable nonetheless.

As the ships came to dock on both sides of the long pier, the Ulven greeted them.

“Proud and honorable warriors of Pack Longfang. I am Bolverk Stormjarl, Warleader of Clan Stormjarl. I welcome you to Clan Stormjarl territory and the settlement of Graytir Stormjarl, Clanleader of Clan Stormjarl.”

=====

Graytir Stormjarl walked with purpose through the hallway leading into the great hall. The mud and stone base of the hall was simple yet elegant. Wood carved with runes and knotwork traced along the edge of the ceiling and gave the building an even more profound setting. The great hall of the Clanleader was simple yet lavish in its design, a beacon that could rival any other clan in size and aesthetic value. Wooden statues adorned both the halls and the steps leading up to the entrances. Clan Stormjarl was wealthy and their great hall displayed this quite well. Behind him the noise of mail armor could be heard as two of the Clanleader’s personal Viknar followed him.

Outside, it had started to snow. Any other season, Graytir would have stood quietly and admired the beauty in it from the balcony on the second or third floor of the great hall. Now, it was just a reminder that his time was up and he had a hard decision to make.

Graytir pushed the doors open to the main room in the great hall. A massive chamber stretched out before him, serving as an auditorium for meetings and gatherings. Where an entire assembly of Chieftans and Priestesses of his clan would normally meet to discuss matters of the clan every year, now only a handful of them gathered near the front of the auditorium. Standing at the center of them was Svayla Hendray, High Priestess of Stormjarl and mate to the Clanleader. Graytir saw her and it warmed his heart. Although Graytir was a good looking male Ulven, age and leadership had crinkled his features and started to put gray to his short hair and short trimmed beard. His mate had aged well, looking very lovely despite her only being a few seasons younger than him.

“I wish we could greet you on more pleasant matters, Clanleader.” said Bolverk Stormjarl. As always, the Warleader was adorned in blackish brown layers of leather and darkened mail. Several weapons were sheathed or hung in rings on him. Older than Graytir, the burly man was a master of melee combat and his muscles were taught and corded from decades of use. Constant practice and overseeing of the training of each Chieftan’s Viknar kept him much more youthful than his years would dictate.

“Pack Longfang warriors have been brought to the settlement. The emissary we sent confirmed that Soulveig Longfang upheld the honor debt without hesitation. Honor serves them, and they are loyal to you.”

“Good. We are going to need them in the months ahead.” replied Graytir as he walked in and stood next to his mate near a large table. A few maps and some carved wooden warriors were placed on them in strategic areas.

“I have received two letters just recently and felt that their words should be heard by all present here today. Before today, the only letters that arrived were from some colonist group called Agnosco. I know their words angered us and were not well received, but I don’t think they truly speak for the colonists as a whole. After months of very little word from any of the other clans, these arrived by hawk this morning.” said the Clanleader as he unrolled the first of two small letters and read them out loud in front of his audience.

“Free people of Mardrun,

This may very well be my last correspondence. The Grimwards, enemies of Gaia’s ways, who forsake her tenets and emulate the gruesome trophy taking and blasphemous rituals of the Mordok, have routed our troops and besiege our final settlement, where for countless generations my people have faithfully guarded the Western horizon, as was our sacred duty. The Watchwolves of Luna have waited nine months for relief, and our staunchest of allies, the Longfangs, faithfully held the pass through the Wolf’s Hackles. Though we opened our halls to colonists and fellow clans, and organized the grand alliance against the Undead incursion, our pleas for help have gone unanswered as three seasons have come to pass.

A wise elder once said… The true warrior does not love the flashing blade for its sharpness, nor does he love the black fletched arrow for its sharpness, nor does he love the glory of war. A true warrior cares not for these things. A true warrior cares only for the Ulven people, the clan, the pack, and the family. Those are the only things worth dying for…

Though the Watchwolves of Luna are hopelessly outnumbered and besieged, I, Raskolf Vakr, the Voice of the Watchwolves, promise you that we will not waver in our pledge to Gaia’s children. We will perform our sacred duty to protect the Western Horizon, even if we fall to the last soul. We do not do it for glory. We do it because we know that should we fall, a powerful portent of the apocalypse will come to pass. We do it not for ourselves. We do it not for selfish glory. We do it for all the free people of Mardrun. We do it for the future of all Ulven. We give it our all, because some things are worth dying for.

Elders of Stormjarl, by the time you read this message, it may very well be too late for my people, but I urge you to look inwards. In your chests beat the hearts of true warriors. Figuring out the right thing to do is always easy, but finding the courage to do so is another matter entirely. Be brave, my friends. Be brave. The eyes and ears of the Great Wolf are upon you, and you will be judged.

Signed by my hand this day,

Raskolf Vakr, the Voice of the Watchwolves” said Graytir as he put down the first letter and unrolled the second letter before continuing.

“To my Brothers and Sisters of Clan Stormjarl,

About five decades ago your clan believed in my pack so strongly, that you helped us set up our lives on the edge of the world. An action that other packs and clans thought foolish. And for five decades we still stand at the swamp. Our warriors have protected every clan at one time or another because we are one Ulven people, and that was the path Gaia had set our feet to. Gaia’s path is not always easy, and we all will have great loss at times. We know that if we walk this path that our deeds will ring in the Great Wolfs’ ears.

My father was Dennagrath Stormjarl, a carpenter, ship builder, and warrior of pack Longfang. One thing he taught me was that as Ulven, one thing we should never give up is our honor. And he told me that Clan Stormjarl was a clan of honor.

But now we find our race in strange times… Ulven killing Ulven, and you are not in a safe place. Your people look to you for guidance, and you stand before the maw of Grimward. You have three choices…

One. Give in to Grimward, let them use you as they stray from Gaia’s path, and you will be known as the lap dog of Grimward. Win or lose that will always be the case. You asked for our aid and we sent it, if you join them your actions will look to every one as a trick to take the Longfangs out of the fight, even if that is not your intent.

Two. Stay Neutral. No Ulven should have to give up honor because other Clans say they will kill you if you don’t. The Longfangs would gladly stand and fight defending a Clan that stood up to Grimward. Your honor would stay and we could buy you time if you chose to evacuate your people if need be, with the promises that we will one day return you to your home.

Three. Join Nightriver in defending the humans. Your clan is strong and wealthy your skills with ships unmatched. And I know you can see the advantage of having humans here to trade with. From what I have heard you are a wise leader and have already tried to trade with the colonists. Your goldwood coins are in the hands of many people, Ulven and colonist alike. I am not saying that they are all good; I am saying that they are like pups in need of a chance to grow. We cannot give them that if as Ulven we just kill them. Some have proven honorable and even now some march to aid the Watchwolves, like any honorable pack or clan would do if their friends were in need.

You gave my Pack a chance, look at the path Gaia laid before your feet. Do you really feel that siding with a group that is so driven by hate that they will kill their own kind to seek vengeance? The Graytide had killed with out mercy in this quest… Human, Syndar, and Ulven. The elders and the pups. They take trophies, fingers, and ears… even the fangs of other Ulven. In a way I under stand what Khulgar Graytide had lost. My first mate was killed in the war with humans as was my father, but peace was made.

Every dead Human, Syndar and Ulven is one less to fight our real enemy which is the Mordok. Of this, the Great Wolf would be right to forget our names.

You must of course do what you know to be right for not only you but for your people, so I ask if you do join with Clan Grimward that you show every one that you are not a trickster and dishonorable and to return our warriors.

Stanrick Longfang, Warrior of Pack Longfang”

An intense silence filled the room. Everyone attending made sure to listen intently. Everyone attending made sure to think thoroughly about what was said. It was finally the Warleader who spoke.

“Clanleader, these letters are full of inspiring words and of reminders of honor, but I feel that it is too late now. Where were they months ago? Where was the pledge of support and the actions to back them? Nightriver is wise not to cross the river and attack Clan Grimward in their own lands, but the complete lack of any backing to these claims of support means we have to look out for the survival of our people.”

“Warleader, you would have us take a side in this war? I know our clan has always had good relations with Grimward, but to side with them? They openly started this war and are going to throw us into a fight that would dishonor our entire race!” replied one of the assembled Chieftans.

“Pup, you see only what your young eyes can perceive directly in front of you. Look around! What support do we have from Clan Nightriver? What support do we have from the rest of the clans? If not for the honor debt to Pack Longfang, we would have no aid at all and that is only a couple dozen warriors! You heard the words from Raskolf Vakr on that letter. The western settlement of the Watchwolves is under siege. Haygreth pushes north and is winning. If we turn against Grimward we will share their same fate…”

“Enough, please, we need to discuss this openly between us. I know the other Chieftans are not here to voice their opinions and concerns, but I have been given their support to act on their behalf. They are tending to their packs and their villages and preparing for our decision, one way or another.” interrupted the Clanleader.

“Svalya, what news from the emissaries?”

“Clanleader, they have reported to me directly and we have discussed numerous topics related to each side of this conflict. Clan Nightriver promises support and aid, but we have not seen any evidence of this. Clan Grimward promises support and aid and has already proven they are willing and able to give it. We have had no chance to discuss matters with the colonists or any of their settlements. The letter we sent to the settlement of New Aldoria during the human’s market faire went unanswered and… our daughter is still missing.” replied Svayla in an authoritative tone until the last part of it where her voice wavered with emotion.

“The other clans underestimate Haygreth. I have known him for many years and he is not the brute that others believe him to be. He knows what he is doing. He has planned this out and he has something that other clans do not. Conviction. He has put plans in motion as others sit and talk. We are even guilty of it. I respect the Watchwolves for their decision to back Nightriver, but they now suffer for it.” said Graytir.

“Clanleader, the other Chieftans have sent word over the last few months. Clan Grimward waits at our borders for our decision. They have not been hostile… They have even been helpful and respectful of Stormjarl territory. But we cannot be fooled, the mobilization of these war packs is no coincidence. They wait for the command from Haygreth and his Warleader.” replied one of the Chieftans. That very topic was on everyone’s mind, as Haygreth made no attempt to hide the warriors he was gathering at the Stormjarl borders. It was an obvious tactic to try to sway their decision.

“I know. One of the reasons why some of the other Chieftans are not here is because they are seeing to the defenses of some of their settlements. We have never needed to stockpile weapons and food and build defenses for our villages from Mordok attack, let alone try to prepare for war.”

“Clanleader, if we oppose Clan Grimward and we receive no support from Clan Nightriver, we can’t win. Their war packs are trained and seasoned warriors. It is well known that they are willing to push brutality to extremes against the Mordok… Our people are not prepared to be the target of that!” said another Chieftan. Emotion filled his voice and it was no surprise. His pack’s village was located near the border between the two clans and would probably suffer first if the two clans went to war.

The discussion continued for a bit as other Chieftans and even the Priestesses started to chime in and try to speak their mind. Graytir thought about calming them but felt that allowing them to speak was the right choice. This continued for a couple minutes and started to die down.

“Clanleader, we must make preparations for either decision. If we join Grimward in war, the Chieftans can supply Grimward warriors with longships that can sail anywhere on the continent. We would be able to land their warriors on any coast or river on Mardrun
This mobility would allow them to attack and raid almost any clan and even attack the colonists directly. If we support them this way, it would be the safest way to involve our people in this war, which means an end can be found and peace can be made. On the other hand, if we side with Nightriver the longships will not be of much use if we are defending our homes. The border we share is too big and controlling the river and coasts will do nothing for Grimward warriors marching across our lands. We may be able to bring allies to our coast and have them assist with the fight and we can patrol the river and keep the bridges open so supplies and allies can come through. Control of those bridges will be key in bringing in any support from Nightriver or the colonists… but that is also assuming we actually get the support we are promised.” said Bolverk as he laid out the tactics related to joining both sides of the war.

“Clanleader, I know this decision is difficult, but we need to look out for the survival of our people.”

=====

Graytir opened the thick oaken door to his personal chambers. Svayla followed him in and closed the door, allowing the two privacy. Graytir walked through the lavish and decorated room to the large windows that overlooked his settlement. He was deep in thought and Svayla could sense his emotions.

“My mate, I know you are troubled. Talk to me.”

“Svayla… what is happening? How could we, the Ulven, allow things to get to where they are? For generations our people have settled our disputes and focused on the real enemy to the North or worked together to expand our settlements. It is almost as if we have completely forgotten them and turned inward to tear our own throats out… I don’t know what to do, my love. I am scared for the future.” said Graytir as his resolve was fully assaulted by what was happening around him. Now that they were in private, his defenses were down. Sensing that this weight threatened to crush him, Svayla walked up and put a reassuring hand on his back and his arm and stayed close to him.

“Graytir… you earned your place as Clanleader. You know this and so does everyone in this clan. The Chieftans stand by you and know that you will look out for them. They trust your judgment even if the decisions that lay ahead are difficult. Your people are with you.”

“Are they? I mean, are they really willing to live and die by my decision? It is easy to look at those maps and talk about honor but when the war is at our doorstep and blades are drawn and blood is spilled, I am not so sure. Haygreth will not just go away if we decide to join Clan Nightriver. And the other Clans may look at us with shame for joining the first clan to start a war with our people.” said Graytir as he turned and looked his mate in the eye. Svayla could see the anguish and torment behind his features.

“I don’t know what the right answer is. My love, what decision am I to make?”

Svayla paused a moment and looked at her mate. She took his hands in her own and held his gaze.

“The one you believe in.” she said as she leaned in and kissed him.

=====

As dawn broke across the horizon and welcomed the new day, the light flowed across the plains that lay outstretched before the northernmost village of Clan Stormjarl. Normally, the farmers and fishermen would greet the dawn and go about their work as other villagers would awaken and begin their daily lives. On any normal day, the sunrise would have been beautiful.

Today the sunlight glinted off of weapons and armor from almost two hundred warriors assembled in a field just outside the village. Warriors stood in formation opposing each other and stared in silence. To the north, dozens of warriors in leather and furs with gray sashes stood next to more warriors standing in full mail and layered armor wearing the gray braid of Pack Graytide. Some had painted their faces with dark masks and lines and wore their bloody trophies taken from their fallen enemies from previous battles. To the south, stood a perfect formation of Viknar in matching helm, mail, and shields… Their prestine armor and rehearsed formation making them seem rather impressive. If not for their constant training giving proof to their skill, their unscathed look would have been viewed as pompous or the mark of a unit that does not actually see battle. Next to them in an impressive shield wall stood the warriors of Pack Longfang with furs and leathers that looked well battle worn. Their experience and fearlessness earned them a formidable reputation and their presence during this meeting was no mistake.

Standing in front of the Longfangs and Viknar was Graytir and Bolverk. Opposite them in front of the Grimwards and Graytides stood Haygreth and Khulgar Graytide.

“I, Graytir Stormjarl, Clanleader of Clan Stormjarl, and Bolverk Stormjarl, Warleader of Clan Stormjarl, greet you.” said Graytir in the usual greeting of the Ulven.

“I, Haygreth Grimward, Clanleader of Clan Grimward, and Khulgar Graytide, Chieftan of Pack Graytide, accept your greeting. Khulgar is here as an advisor to my Warleader, for they are unable to attend this meeting.” said Haygreth in rehearsed formality.

Bolverk and Khulgar stood opposite of each other and one step behind their respective leader. They knew that this meeting was between Graytir and Haygreth and their voices would remain silent.

“The civil war continues to rage across Mardrun, Graytir. The colonists have deceived Clan Nightriver and Branthur has abandoned his Ulven ways and allowed himself to be manipulated. I come to you today to ask for your support in bringing peace to Mardrun.” said Haygreth.

“Haygreth, our clans go back for generations. Your warriors have diligently protected your lands from roving tribes of Mordok and in doing so, it has helped protect my people as well. We have grown strong and wealthy and I know we owe your clan gratitude in helping us achieve this. We have respected your ways and you have respected ours. You know that we have been involved with the colonists in the last few years and learned from them. Why do you wish death on them?”

“The outsiders brought death with them. You saw the letters but you did not see the destruction. The hungry ghosts that forced the outsiders to flee their home followed them here and cut a path of destruction across half of the continent. They lied about it being here and only when pressed, did their pathetic coalition track it down and stop it. They buried their dead in the soil of Gaia and disrespected our ways, and the hungry ghosts came to claim them here on our homeland. That is a path of death that I refuse to let my people walk down, Graytir. There is magic that the Ulven have never seen before and I believe that Branthur is being deceived by it, that they are forcing his hand and allowing more transgressions against us to take place without proper control. Even the Watchwolf Clan, so level and wise, drafted a resolution to allow Ulven to control the colonists and it was not followed. They too were deceived and now they fight against us, but we will prevail and show them that their actions are foolish. In time, the Watchwolves will learn the truth.”

“You mean to say that in time, you will conquer them.” snapped Graytir, not giving in to Haygreth. The quip had its affect, and the pleasant and professional demeanor of Haygreth began to crumble.

“If they fail to see the truth and lose sight of the honor of our race and our charge to protect Gaia, then they are not the Ulven I have sworn to protect. I stand before you today, brother, and ask that you join me. Clan Whiteoak has pledged their fealty to me to help end this war. Other clans have expressed their concerns about the colonists and will join our cause as well. Our clans can protect Gaia and bring the other clans back from their deception of the outsiders before it is too late.”

“Clan Whiteoak is the clan that shamed themselves by being dishonorable, using trickery to try to destroy the village of Pack Longfang. Entering a village under guest right and using it to spring a trap are the actions of Ulven that have fallen off of Gaia’s path. Word travels fast across Mardrun, whether you agree with its message or not. I would dishonor my clan by siding with them.”

The two men glared at each other. It was obvious that both of them had words that they wanted to be sure were heard before this meeting was over. After an uncomfortable silence, Haygreth spoke.

“It is the actions of the brave and the daring, those that are willing to take measures that others are not, that will save our people from the destruction that lies ahead. But enough talk. We both know why we are here. You have a decision to make and an answer to give me.”

“You are correct, Haygreth. There is a decision to make. I, Graytir Stormjarl, Clanleader of Clan Stormjarl, proclaim that my clan will not join you in this war. We will lobby for peace and help end this conflict, but we will not join you in your conquest.”

Graytir was on the verge of shaking, not from the cold but from his nervousness, but maintained his composure. He was expecting Haygreth’s angered response and was taken by surprise when Haygreth smiled at him.

“Clanleader, I ask that you think of the safety of your people. Throwing in your lot with the outsiders would dishonor you in front of the eyes of the Great Wolf. You can support my warriors with your longships and help us maintain supplies so that we can end this war for good. We will make the fallen clans understand the corruption of the outsiders and take back our homeland before it is too late. We stand on the verge of an apocalypse and the decisions of a few brave leaders will save our people. I ask you again, brother, to join me and make things right.” said Haygreth in a smooth and even tone. The delivery was flawless and it was disarming.

Graytir cleared his throat and tried to think. He was surprised at how easy it was to believe in Haygreth’s cause. His words were so convincing and they made sense. However, he did not want the outsiders to die. He wanted them controlled better but he wanted a more peaceful resolution. He began to doubt his initial stance and his defenses dropped and Haygreth saw it the moment it happened.

“We are Ulven, brother. This is our homeland. What right do they have to it? Graytir, do not allow yourself to be deceived by the outsiders.”

Suddenly, the memory of several nights previously rushed back to Graytir. Svayla was looking directly at him and told him to make the decision that he believed in. He remembered the strength it gave him. He blinked and locked eyes with Haygreth, his resolve coming back to him.

“You are right, Haygeth, I will not be deceived by the outsiders. I will also not have my hand forced by you. Your words are twisted, Haygreth. If you think that I will allow my people to help spread such brutality and destruction then you are wrong. I am the leader of Stormjarl, I am the voice of my people and I will not join you, Haygreth Grimward.”

This time Haygreth did not smile. He focused and narrowed his gaze on Graytir, his temper flaring but just barely being held in check.

“If you are not with me, Graytir Stormjarl, then you are against me. You are a fool. I know you have met with emissaries from both sides of this war. I know that you have calculated out the risks of joining either side. I know that you have sent hawks to the other clans to ask for help, even if their words were disguised. I know that your Chieftans are building up the defenses of your villages because they are not built to withstand war. I know that you are gambling on Clan Nightriver sending the support that I am sure they have promised you.”

Graytir stood his ground, refusing to back down but unable to respond. Proud silence was all that he could muster at that moment.

“You forget, brother, that I am far better at this than you are. Come spring thaw, you will either be judged by the Great Wolf or you will bear your throat to me. I will either destroy you and take your ships and your villages or you will pledge fealty to me and they will be mine. It makes no difference to me. I gave you a chance to decide what was best for your clan. Pity you did not make the wise one.”

Graytir somehow found the courage to speak and looked Haygreth straight in the eye.

“You did give me a chance to decide and I have made my choice. Let it be known that on this day, Clan Stormjarl took the honorable route and made our own decision on this war. On this day, we were not coerced, we were not deceived and we were not forced into making a choice that we did not want to make. On this day, we walked our own path with our heads held high even if our backs were against a wall.”

Both of the leaders took a moment to glare at each other. It was obvious that neither one of them was backing down and that they both had set their mind to the decisions they were going to make.

“I know that you are worried about the survival of your people, Graytir. You should be.” said Haygreth with finality as he turned around and walked back to his lines.

The meeting was apparently over. Graytir stood there for a moment and watched Haygreth’s hulking form walk back towards his lines. Khulgar had locked eyes with him for a moment before turning and following his clan leader. Graytir then turned and walked back towards his own lines with Bolverk by his side.

“I am sorry, Bolverk, that I did not take your advice.”

“Shut that nonsense and take back your apology, Clanleader. If you think I won’t follow you into the maw of death itself, then you don’t know me very well. You made a choice and I support you. We all do. Now, let us prepare for war.” said Bolverk under his breath so the line of troops in front of them could not hear them.

It was reassuring to know that Bolverk would follow him, but it didn’t help ease the horrible knot in Graytir’s stomach.

All he could think about was how it was going to be a long and brutal winter.

=====

The half-day trip back to the Grimward camp just on the other side of the border was rather quiet. Khulgar did not dare to say anything and allowed his leader time to think. He knew that Haygreth was not surprised for plans were already in motion if Clan Stormjarl joined with Nightriver and the outsiders. He also knew that Graytir and Haygreth were friends years ago, that they had feasted at each other’s great hall and made plans to expand and grow their respective settlements. Even if the plans were in motion and preparations already made, he knew this was hard on Haygreth.

When they reached the camp, an Ulven scout with two winter hawks was already waiting for Haygreth.

“Send the hawks. Make sure the first one reaches our main warrior camp so that it reaches the Whiteoaks quickly. The second must reach the river immediately.” said Haygreth. The Ulven falconer nodded and attached a small letter to each hawk. The words were already written and prepared, the falconer simply needing confirmation from Haygreth to send them. The falconer took the small blinding helmet off the first hawk, locked eyes with the bird and whistled a few small chirps at it, and threw it into the air to the north. The same process was repeated for the second bird but the chirps were different than the first. The second bird was then released to the east. Haygreth then walked towards his small command tent.

“So it begins.” sighed Khulgar as he watched his leader leave. He turned to walk away when the falconer spoke to him.

“Chieftain, I received a hawk today with a message for you. It is from the Watchwolf Clan. It bears the mark of the High Priestess herself.” said the falconer as he presented a small rolled up letter to Khulgar.

=====

Jeyfa Shadowfang was in a sour mood. She had been ordered to move to the Yurnai River and wait. It had been three days and she grew tired of these cold conditions and iron rations. She occupied herself with meditation and practiced her witchcraft. Her small group of five Grimward bodyguards were tired and cold as they did all they could to keep from freezing to death.

Recently a war pack of Clan Grimward had pushed across the bridge and secured the opposite side. That was over a month ago. Fighting had broken out since as the Clan Nightriver war packs on the other side responded to them, but it was sporadic and light.

If everything went according to plan then the other bridges should be secured soon as well. Now she just had to wait.

Jeyfa and her guards heard the sound of horns and the shouts of battle. Apparently there was a fierce fight taking place on the opposite side of the river. Clan Nightriver must have sent more warriors to the bridge to take back their side of it. A Grimward scout recently had reported to her that the main bridge was still under Grimward control and that the two closest bridges were taken as well.

Jeyfa heard a screech as a hawk descended from the sky and swooped in fast. She extended her forearm to reveal to the bird a falconer’s bracer and the bird slowed rapidly. It landed on her forearm as the bird’s talons latched onto the hardened leather perch. She fed it a mouse and it ate its meal ferociously. Taking the small note from its body, she read the letter and handed off the bird to one of her guards.

“Warriors, get up! It is time.” she said as she started walking towards the bridge.

Her bodyguards scrambled to gather gear and put on the last pieces of equipment and gather their weapons and shields. They knew that getting so close to the river could draw the attention of archers and they wanted to protect the witch.

“Daughter, wait! We need to wait for reinforcements before we cross.” shouted the leader of her war pack as they caught up to her and formed a defensive wall around her. Just at that moment, an arrow arced into the sky and planted itself in the shield of one of the bodyguards.

“We aren’t crossing. Clear that off and get in.” replied Jeyfa as the group came upon a fishing boat. It was camouflaged and stashed by the bank of the river.

As the warriors worked to dislodge the boat and get in, Jeyfa saw a sliver of light glint off of an arrow as it pierced through the sky. She thought that the scout on the other side of the river was either very skilled or very lucky. The closest guard tried to react in time but was too late as the arrow whistled through the air and was in a direct line with the Witch’s chest. It would have pierced her heart or lungs but at the very last moment the flicker of a blue aura around the witch flashed. The arrow deflected sharply and snapped. The broken pieces of the arrow landed harmlessly in the snow around her.

No command was needed to be said, for failing to protect the witch would mean certain death for her guards. With renewed vigor the guards surrounded her with a tight formation, overlapping the shields and creating a wall of stretched leather and wood to protect her from further arrows.

The small boat floated into the river, the current was not very strong at this part of the river but it still threatened to take the boat downstream if not for a rope that kept it tethered to part of the bridge. Two more arrows sunk into the shield wall around the witch. The warriors were concerned about how to maintain their defensive wall and keep their footing on a boat that was now rocking in the river.

Approaching one of the support columns in the center of the bridge, the aged and hardened wood had stood for decades and withstood everything that the river had thrown at it. The witch concentrated and began to channel forth a flow of mana. An orb of intense red formed in her outstretched hand and she flicked her wrist out and sent the bolt crashing into the wooden column. A great crack split the air as the bolt shattered the wood and exploded, sending shards of wood sailing into the air before they splashed into the water.

Over and over the Witch summoned forth the energy to shatter more columns and blast apart more of the supports holding the bridge up. More arrows landed into the shield wall. One of her guards was struck in the thigh and grunted in pain but he knew better than to drop his guard. His blood oozed down his pant leg. Another guard cried out as an arrow deflected off the edge of his shield and lodged itself into his collar bone, quickly soaking his leather jerkin in steaming hot blood. None of the guards moved or lowered their shield wall.

Suddenly, there was a loud crack followed by a serious of low cracks that rose in frequency and volume as the bridge groaned under the assault. Jeyfa paused, panting from the exertion of summoning forth so many bolts of magic, and waited. Like a giant tree being taken down for lumber, the bridge started to give way and the columns cracked open. The weight of the massive bridge was now working against it as the weakened columns buckled and split open.

Knowing her part of this job was complete, the daughter used a dagger to cut loose the rope keeping the boat tethered to the bridge. The stress of the bridge giving way buckled the solid beams making up its road and they split apart, spilling into the river. In a few moments, the largest bridge connecting Clan Grimward and Clan Nightriver, the bridge that had seen hundreds if not thousands of caravans and was the fastest way to transport people and supplies across the river, crumbled completely and fell into the river.

Jeyfa Shadowfang smiled as the boat floated downstream and away from the final destruction of the bridge.

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