As Stanrick, Selena, and One of Agnosco walked through the camp, they saw all of the makeshift tents of the collected warriors of Nightriver. They seemed to be in good spirits despite a number of them being bruised, bloodied, and bandaged.
A larger tent was chosen for the meeting location a ways away from the main camp. Although they appreciated the distance so that they might discuss with Kragen openly, they couldn’t help but feel a tinge of caution. It was fleeting, but definitely present, as the three of them approached the tent. Several Nightriver guards stepped aside and allowed them inside. One guard in particular was a grizzled veteran, his beard and hair flecked with gray, a leather eye patch covering his left eye, and what appeared to be a horribly jagged scar.
Once inside, they saw Kragen Bloodmoon. Clad in his black leather breastplate and large white fur over his back, he stood ready to meet with them, but as they judged by the look on his face and the scowl he wore, he was none too happy about it.
Pleasantries were absent as he spoke.
“Chieftain Stanrick Longfang and the human from Agnosco… you have been persistent on meeting with me. Speak, let me know your intentions, and then I must return to my duties. We are still at war.”
“I am well aware of this, for this war has affected us all”, Stanrick said. “My pack has been involved in this since the Watchwolves and humans were murdered in the Grimward great hall. I need not be reminded of this fact. However an issue has been weighing on my mind, and at first I thought maybe I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time, but now I need to know. My people swore that they would uphold the finding of the honor duel, and enforce the Watchwolf treaty. The only issue is it seems we can find no one that knows what happened. You and I have fought as brothers together when the outsiders first came to your shore. We burned our dead together, and we let you into our homes as if you were one of ours. But now I ask for the truth with the Great Wolf as our witness. What happened that day?”
Kragen Bloodmoon shifted his weight and visibly looked taken aback. The three could tell that he is not amused that the meeting he finally agreed to attend was about this.
“Do you really think that this is important right now?” he said. “Look around you, Stanrick Longfang. There are more pressing matters than the honor duel that stopped the fighting between our people and the colonists years ago. That duel ended the fighting, and that is all that mattered. My war pack was there to witness it, end of story. Now is there anything else?”
“Of course that is important, considering Grimward uses the battle cry that the honor duel is a lie.” Stanrick replied. “I was in your war pack; I did not see this. The fact that you don’t see this connection is troubling”. Stanrick stood firm, his eyes narrow. He strained to his full height. “I lost my family in that war just as Khulgar had. I made peace because of this duel. Who fought in it and who won?”
Selena watched the body language of those present, trying to read the room.” Having talked to Grimward and Khulgar myself”, she said, “I can confirm firsthand that Grimward believes that something was not right with that honor duel. So it’s time for the truth to come to light. All of it.”
One had remained silent thus far, watching and trying to think of everything that led up to this point. The biggest worry he had on his mind was before him. Kragen was irked. He’d have to tread carefully.
One recalled the conversation he had with Stanrick and Selena right before meeting with Kragen. He recalled stating that he had stressed to his most diplomatic spies, who were the most familiar with Branthur Nightriver, to make it clear that they would be willing to venture out and meet with Kragen if they could be allowed access to the front lines. Agnosco had good relationships with several of the militia factions. However, realizing the Ulven might have frowned upon that, they would agree to meet wherever they could get access. Things happened so fast, he felt he had gotten the summons before Branthur Nightriver replied to his spies. He was curious if that was the reply. Time would tell.
One cleared his throat and made a partial introduction.
“Kragen Bloodmoon, I apologize for having to speak with you with the war still going on, I’ve heard stories of your exploits and realize the harm of having you off the front lines. I hope we can make this quick. However, I do agree with Stanrick and Selena. If Grimward claims the honor duel for the cause of battle …would it not be best to start dismantling their very foundation for supporting the war in the first place? A shirt is a shirt, but pull a few correct strands and the whole thing comes unraveled.”
“It’s entirely possible these questions may not do much to affect the war”, he continued. “However, if we can even get a temporary truce to look into the matter. That should allow time for your people to heal, mend armor, gather supplies, and spend time with their loved ones…”
Basically, what it boils down to is…I’m not a fighter. Mardrun is currently at war and I can’t sit by, watching everyone else risk their lives. If I can do something to help, I will. If someone comes to us and says, ‘something is curious about the original honor duel’, then I’m going to use my resources and investigate every available option I have, as it might make a difference.”
One paused, took a glance around, and realizing the point was made, let the others continue.
Subtle differences in Kragen’s stance and posture gave away that he was contending with some sort of inner turmoil mixed with an obviously heightened amount of anger. Short of stature, Kragen made up for this with a dominating presence that rarely failed to impose on others regardless of their size.
“Why, after so long, is this of such importance? The duel is done. It was a draw, the Nightriver champion fought a human champion and they could not best each other. Some say the Ulven champion actually won, rumors say the human champion did. My war pack was there to witness it; the draw between the combatants formed the truce that stopped the bloodshed. Besides, do you think the Grimward war packs give two shits about the honor duel anymore? They are here, they want war, and they will stop at nothing to kill all of the colonists. This matter is finished; you would be wise to let this go.”
Kragen finished and visibly softened for a moment, his edge gone.
“I ask that you let this go; we have more pressing matters”, he said.
One looked around once more and wondered if he should speak up first or wait for Stanrick and Selena…he thought it interesting that Kragen seemed like he had wanted to say more. Not wanting to lose momentum, he spoke before they did.
“Kragen, I understand those were trying times and you seem to want to get back to the front to help your war packs. I can’t help but to ask, why do you continue to state the same story we heard from various sources? If you and your war packs were there to witness the duel, would you not be able to say who the champions were?”
“From what I’ve uncovered from two independent sources”, he said, “my people had a female Vandregonian Soldier, but I’m still working on getting a name. After that, I will try to ask her personally about what happened. I’d like a balanced side of the story so no one will say the humans skewed our side of the history here on Mardrun.”
One paused here, hoping Selena or Stanrick could jump in for their views.
Stanrick showed no sign of giving in. He took a moment to size up everyone then glanced to Selena, who gave a small nod. He looked to the nicer war chief. “When we hold such things in our highest regard, it upsets me that no names are given to the champions. And maybe I didn’t make it clear when I asked who, but I wanted a name, because the warrior who fought against another to end so much bloodshed should have each of us singing their name. A human that had the courage to stand against an Ulven champion should have our respect so their name be known. You keep saying your war pack was there but have not said that you witnessed it yourself, this would be fine if you had fought the duel. However, you speak of the Ulven champion in the third person.” He paused. “Now we are at the point that time is being wasted. I have warriors on the front line and am here asking a question that should not be this hard to get the truth about.” He looked Kragen in the eye, clearly upset that someone who had been a friend for so long was dodging his questions. “Each time you give me an excuse that this is not important and a waste of time,” He paused, briefly, “that is where my time has been wasted.” Stanrick was not at the point of shouting, but his voice was raised. He took a deep breath before he continued. “Honestly, I didn’t really care much about it for a long time. One day I was on the battlefield killing humans, the next I was heading home to raise a child and my kid brother. Thought nothing until the day four years ago, when you came to the outpost with humans in tow. But no one asked me about a duel so I never thought about it. It wasn’t till the human here started asking me if I knew about this duel that I even began to wonder. Yet for such an important event almost nothing was known. So I will ask a third time, who fought in the duel?”
Selena touched Stanrick’s shoulder.
“If you boys are done posturing now”, Selena sighed. “Kragen, I am tired. My soul is tired. I started looking into the war over a year ago, when I was still a member of Spiritclaw. I left my position as Truthseeker feeling unsatisfied because I never found the truth; I thought I had failed for a long time. It took me a while to realize that I hadn’t failed, but the focus of my hunt for the truth had changed. That Gaia needed my skills as a Truthseeker in the world as one of her Daughters. I am here because I still hold the skills of a Truthseeker, but those skills have expanded. I see what Gaia is trying to tell everyone, but they are choosing to ignore it.” She paused for a moment. “I opened the door for others to follow in hopes their skills could find something mine could not. I asked the humans to look into the war from their side to try and find something I could not. Every story has multiple sides and the truth is often somewhere in the middle.” She nodded to One. “His group is the closest to the Truthseekers that I have found. I may not agree with everything they have done, but they do hold the value of knowledge and truth above all else, and most importantly they are using their information to help the betterment of their race as a whole. That is more than I can say for our own. In the past two years I have seen Ulven cast off traditions and turn into whining, self-centered asses, more concerned about their own images than doing what is right. They are turning to bullying and threats before even attempting to be civil and just ask for help, or say what’s on their mind, or Gods forbid come out with the truth when confronted. The Lorespeakers have lied to the race a whole for Gods only know how long. Their lies are only now slowly coming to the surface. Yes, Grimward may not give two shits about why they are fighting anymore. They just know that this is what we used to do…according to the stories, but they also fail to read deeper into those stories to see what else we used to do.”
“I also know that not everyone on Grimward’s side is devoted to this war,” she said. “There was dissent and there were questions when I was there looking. Some questioned but did so quietly for fear of being killed. I can only guess that those questions still remain since they haven’t been answered. There is more to life than just the fight.” Selena stopped herself. “But, that is neither here nor there. You don’t really care either. You are conflicted about something and are hiding behind the posturing of the notion that if you look intimidating maybe it will just go away.” Selena leaned her elbow on the chair and rested her cheek in her hand “I am not a child. Yelling at me to go away will not necessarily mean I will run away. I am not scared. I am too tired to be scared. If you don’t want to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do that is fine. How about you do it for your soul? I may not be a Truthseeker anymore, so I don’t know if I have the Great Wolf’s ear anymore, but I hold Gaia’s favor. Lie to the Great Wolf, and you get eaten, but lie to the Mother on top of it, and there is no telling how her displeasure will manifest. The Truth will cleanse your soul, Kragen. Let go of the burden and when your time comes, stand before the Great Wolf and the Mother and you can proudly say: ‘Yes, I dishonored myself, but I accepted my fate and I made amends the best I could.’”
Selena’s words rang true and seemed to cut through some of the tension in the room. Kragen’s features had softened a touch before she spoke and he seemed visibly pained by listening to them, but he made no attempt to interrupt her. When she was finished speaking he closed his eyes and paced a bit, eventually facing the wall of the large tent and averting his gaze from the three of them.
“I will make amends the best I can, I will do what I must.” Kragen trailed off a bit, talking more to himself than to anyone else.
Kragen took a deep breath, holding it for what seemed like an eternity, and finally exhaled. His posture had returned to that of a more confident or assertive stance, but he did not turn to face his petitioners.
“Her name was Vanessa Grimm, and she was a Sergeant of the Vandregonian army”, he said, finally. “She was the human champion that dueled the Nightriver champion in honorable combat. She defeated her opponent and pushed for a truce after her opponent underestimated her and promised her and her race ruin on the Ulven lands. Her opponent… was me.” Kragen said, pausing afterwards to let the details sink in.
After a brief moment, Kragen walked back to the table set up in the tent. He looked down at it like he was studying the papers or items on it.
“In our culture, a Warleader is chosen to uphold the honor and martial prowess of the Clan. They help the Clanleader and the High Priestess. To be Warleader has been the greatest honor of my life; second to that is being a father.”
Kragen turned to face the three, his expression returning to an edge but nowhere near the posturing it was before. Paying attention to his demeanor, Kragen seemed almost relieved to finally let the truth out but remained the imposing presence he wished to present to them.
“When my war pack had run down a unit of Vandregon’s soldiers long ago during the Ulven and colonist conflict, our enemies would not roll over nor would they have any chance of winning. They impressed us to a degree, but their ideals of combat and personal honor were much different than ours. We killed them, one by one, some of us mocking them, until a lone warrior called out a challenge in combat. Bruised, bloodied and haggard, this female warrior called out to face her. One of my warriors was going to accept the challenge and kill her in a duel, but I stepped forward instead. I wanted to prove to our warriors and theirs that a challenge like this was foolish, and that they would not be able to take on the Warleader of Clan Nightriver, the greatest Clan of Ulven people. I accepted her challenge.” Kragen said with an almost exhausted tone, placing great weight on the final sentence of his speech.
“I mocked her. I threatened her and her warriors. I disrespected her. I promised her death and ruin once we overran her people. Why should I show her the respect I would an Ulven warrior? She was frail, she was weak, she was not of my kind, and at that time we were so sure we would crush them and finish off these outsiders for good. I did not show her the respect I should have and I did not take the duel as seriously as I should have. It was a great fight and she was skilled. She had the upper hand before I knew it, and before me was a great warrior that I underestimated. I could not come back from it in time, and as our blades nicked and cut each other we both wore down. I broke her arm and she broke my jaw, and as I lunged a final time she stopped my blade and had hers by my throat. I was defeated utterly, and she could have killed me then and there.”
The words spoken by the Warleader seemed to weigh heavily on him. His voice became a bit softer and his eyes seemed to drift to distant memories.
“She stayed her blade. She said she knew who I was, that I had the power to speak reason to my Clanleader. She won in honored combat and would spare my life if there was a truce between our people, in order to allow reason to win where swords had failed. I agreed and said it would be done. The fight was over and I was defeated. I swore on my honor to uphold my end of the deal, but I could not live with the thought of an outsider defeating me in combat, and of being made a mockery in front of all the Ulven people. The shame, the dishonor, to myself and my Clan to be the first and only Warleader in our people’s history to be bested by an outsider!” Kragen said loudly.
There was an awkward silence in the room until Kragen calmly said, “Bovna was my friend. She trained many warriors and stood by me in combat. That night, when the Vandregonian soldiers slept in the camp next to us, she and other warriors crept into their camp and killed them in their sleep. Vanessa Grimm, human champion and the warrior who defeated me in honored combat, had her throat slit in the middle of the night. Bovna thought that killing them would erase this problem. She did not respect the humans at all or see them as equals. Her actions made things much worse, but my actions did not make things better.”
“My personal war pack was sworn to secrecy, that we would work to stop the fighting but that what happened that day would follow us until the Great Wolf’s judgement. The truce was successful and we stopped the fighting. For years, what happened that day remained a secret. I would atone for my actions in time and gain my honor back; nobody cared and nobody looked… until now.” Kragen said, and nodded, his gaze fixed behind the three people in front of him.
Suddenly, it all made sense. Each person there realized that they had made a mistake: the lack of details, the evasive answers, the postponing of meetings and difficulty in finding out clues. The meeting in a tent. Alone, far removed from the others camped nearby.
Expertly executed at once, Stanrick, Selena, and One saw a flash of a leather strap move in front of their faces. They had been taken off guard and were unable to stop it in time. Three Nightriver guards had crept closer during the meeting and placed leather belts over their heads on Kragen’s command. Quickly, they tightened the leather belts around the necks of each of their targets, beginning to constrict them and cut off their air supply. All three of them realized that they were being choked as their captors behind them pressed them down onto their knees and tightened the belts still more.
“I told you to leave well enough alone”, the Warleader said.
Stanrick smiled, even in the midst of such a dire situation. He was fighting the instinct to break into a fully rage-filled attack. “You won’t even face me as a warrior? Lying is one thing, but to murder us will get you eaten”, he said, directing these words in an attack on Kragen.
A flash a fear crossed Selena’s face as she realized the extent of the attack, before it was replaced by rage. She glared at the Warleader, with the glare unique to every mother, which tells a person that they are in deep trouble. She looked to Stanrick, then to One, and then at the ground. She chanted in old Ulven with the gasp of breath she took, but it was hard to tell if she attempted a healing spell or something of a different variety because she held it in, containing the magic within herself.
One, for his part, was engrossed with the story Kragen had laid before them, which filled in the missing pieces. Agnosco had been half right. Many nights were spent postulating what had actually happened after the original honor duel unfolded.
It had bugged him and Double for quite a while after Cahal Spiritclaw informed them of one interesting point. He stated the Nightriver Clan had often frowned at his attempts to look into their past. As far as Agnosco understood, the Truthseekers were highly respected and had nearly unlimited access. For them to be pressured to back off, there would have to be something embarrassing they wanted to remain hidden. Seeing how Kragen Bloodmoon was the Warchief, perhaps a pup had gone against his direct order? However, they would have taken corrective punishment to right the matter…except that wouldn’t have been that great or scandalous of a secret. Double and he could never quite answer it, but it kept coming to the conclusion that an underling had done something wrong…except that didn’t say much. Now he realized the truth.
“If only the Baroness would have gotten the details for the Vandregonian troops that she was investigating sooner”, he thought. That small detail could have saved them from the current situation.
One gasped for another breath, trying to judge the position of everyone in the room. He realized that even though things were dire, he had something that would prove useful. Growing up, his father was someone important, so he was often drilled in certain steps in case of a kidnapping or attack. Such an attack would be carried out in hopes that the assailants would try and influence his father through him. He was given a special brooch to wear at all times.
He had walked into the tent without any weapons. It was doubtful he’d have been able to take them in, anyway. No one realized the brooch pin holding his cloak shut was actually a modified piece of jewelry. It was, in fact, a very small knife.
Because he had the leather belt around his neck, the Ulven holding him captive would naturally see his hands raised trying to pull it free. He only needed seconds to bring his hand down, to draw out the knife brooch from the cloak and continue down and around to stab the guard. Seeing how he was kneeling, the most exposed area was the Ulven’s groin, though another target would serve, should he have time to draw the knife and pierce the relatively undefended area. If he was lucky, the follow-up would be his captor bending over in pain in such a way that he could grasp on and roll him over his shoulder. He needed perhaps three or four seconds for the stabbing. As such, he also required a distraction where the eyes of everyone present would be off of him to complete the motion.
As he stood before the three struggling captives, Kragen knelt down and faced Stanrick, who was struggling to keep the leather belt from closing too tightly around his neck.
“I admire your warrior spirit, Longfang”, he said. “I long to answer your challenge in honorable combat and indeed face you as a warrior, but it cannot be this way. You and I know each other from a long time ago. It pains me to do this, it really does, but I have no choice. I made a mistake and I will be judged for it. Those that followed me made a mistake and will also be judged, but this has gone beyond the scope of personal honor. The Clan is at stake now, and this alliance we have built is fragile at best. I believe Gustav’s intentions to be fickle and I don’t trust Clan Ironmound to be allies forever. I must see this through. I must help Branthur win this conflict, and then I will face my judgement. The future of my Clan and the Ulven people as a whole is more important than my own failings of honor” He paused, quietly surveying his three incapacitated captives.
“And unfortunately, it is more important than the lives of the three of you”, the Warleader said honestly and with a definite tinge of remorse.
Stanrick glared and thrashed a bit, driving his guard, who was having a hard time keeping him under control. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Selena attempting to manifest her magic, her guard watching Kragen more than he was watching her. In a bold move, Stanrick planted his foot on solid ground and pushed forward with all his might, bringing his guard with him and knocking him off balance.
It was just enough to cover the distance.
Stanrick’s forehead landed with a sickening crunch on the bridge of Kragen’s nose. Standing and reeling back from the sudden pain, Kragen let out a throaty growl and covered his nose with his hand as blood flowed uncontrollably down his face. The guard controlling Stanrick regained his balance and pulled hard, cutting off the air flow to Stanrick entirely. He slammed Stanrick’s face into the dirt not once, but twice. Now face down in the dirt with the weight of the Ulven guard on top of him, Stanrick was stuck firm and quickly running out of breath.
Selena took advantage of this to try to complete her spell, and the only thing that she could think of that would help was to summon energy to blind or stun her guard after realizing healing magic would do little in her current situation. Her guard struggled for a moment, and when Selena twisted to aim her primed hand at him, she felt a sudden flash of pain pierce her ribs. She had been stabbed, and she felt the metal blade sink deep into her flesh. She cried out in pain and finished her motion, opening her palm right on the face of her guard, which caused a bright flare of light to blast him in the face. Crying out in alarm, the Nightriver guard dropped his hold on the leather belt and stepped back. Selena fell forward several feet, clutching at the small knife stuck in her back.
One was also waiting and took advantage of the distraction. He quickly reached for the brooch knife, unsheathed it, and quickly stabbed over his shoulder several knives. First he felt it bite into leather, then again it skidded off of something metal. The third time it cut into and sliced across exposed flesh, and his guard cried out in pain. His leather noose went slack for a second and One lunged forward, breaking the guard’s hold on him.
As Selena crawled forward clutching her side, One turned and backpedaled away from the guards, moving swiftly toward her. He helped Selena up on her feet. Now at the back of the thick canvas tent, One and Selena were free and coughing to regain their breath. This moment of respite only lasted a few seconds, as the blinded guard had shaken off the effects of the spell and had drawn a sword, and the other guard held his bleeding hand to the side and unhooked an axe from his belt. There was nowhere to go; it would take too much time to get under the tent walls and escape, and Stanrick was only several dozen seconds away from being choked to death. Selena cringed through gritted teeth and pulled, removing the knife from her side. She clutched the wound tightly, holding it partially closed as blood soaked her clothing. One looked almost ridiculous, brandishing his tiny knife out in front of him as two armored and angry Ulven began to move in cautiously.
“I am impressed with the three of you.” Kragen said as he flicked blood from his hand onto the ground. His nose was broken, and blood was still running down his face, yet Kragen had recovered completely and ignored the pain. As Stanrick struggled for every gasp of air, Kragen looked down at him and drew his sword.
“You have earned an honorable death, warrior, and you two as well”, he said. “When we light the pyres for some of the fallen warriors tonight, I will personally speak of you so that the Great Wolf may hear of your deeds. Your deaths will not be in vain; this will not be a straw death for you. Meet the Great Wolf with pride and honor, my friend.” said Kragen somberly as he lifted his sword over Stanrick.
“Warleader… are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you want to be judged as a murderer and coward?” said a clear voice amongst the chaos.
Kragen hesitated a moment and looked up, attempting to find where the voice had come from. Stanrick’s captor also seemed to be taken off guard, and gave just enough slack to allow a lifesaving breath of air to reach his lungs. The two guards closing in on Selena and One stopped just a moment and turned a bit to see who was speaking.
At the entrance inside the tent was the older Ulven guard, the graybeard with the eye patch and scar. He stood tall and confident and looked solely at Kragen when he spoke.
“Jovin, you know it must be this way. We cannot afford to let this secret out. There is too much at stake now. You know this! You were there, you went with Bovna, and you killed the humans in their sleep. Why the change now?” said Kragen quizzically and almost painfully.
“I did because I followed Bovna’s commands. I stood by and let it happen, and my hands were stained because of it. My honor is stained because of it. You knew it was wrong then; you severed Bovna and sent her into the Dirge for her actions. She went alone, willingly, crushed because she had lost your favor. Then you asked us to keep this secret. Now, you are willing to do more and kill more for your pride and your own twisted sense of honor. You speak of the “greater good” with honey on your tongue while you dishonor yourself and your Clan. Great Wolf damn you, Kragen Bloodmoon, for you are an honorless cur and unworthy of the title granted you or the loyalty of those in your Clan. I will not follow you in this. I will ask you one more time, Kragen, are you sure you want to do this?” said Jovin with a mixture of emotions showing through in his words.
Kragen’s face was twisted in an expression of both shock and anger. Jovin’s words cut deep; they went deeper than any weapon could cut his physical flesh. After a moment, anger gained hold of Kragen and he leveled a fierce gaze at Jovin.
“I will kill you for those words, Jovin Nightriver. You will share the fate of these three now. Guards, kill them all.” said Kragen as he turned his attention back to Stanrick who had struggled for just enough air to keep from passing out.
A fourth guard in the back and the wounded guard with an axe stepped quickly towards Jovin. The veteran made no move. He waited until the two guards were moving to a close distance with him to finally make his move. He did not move into a defensive stance nor reach for a sword to defend himself.
Jovin instead grasped the canvas flap door to the tent and pulled it fully aside and open.
“KRAGEN!” roared a figure. With the door opened, it revealed the large frame of Branthur Nightriver himself.
Time seemed to slow as Kragen and his men froze. A look of shock was equally shared amongst them. Branthur walked inside the tent, one slow step at a time, almost as if he needed many seconds to truly comprehend what was happening. Kragen’s guards lowered their weapons and Stanrick’s captor released his hold on the leather belt. Stanrick gasped as precious air filled his lungs. Selena and One kept their distance in the corner but were no longer being confronted by the opposing guard.
Branthur ignored everyone in the room and was looking straight at Kragen. The Warleader suddenly appeared very small. Branthur looked timid and confused for a moment, until finally a fierce look of rage filled his face. He immediately bristled and looked ten times larger than he actually was. Although he only wore a tunic and no armor, he looked like the most dangerous warrior that ever lived. He suddenly moved forward with a determination powered by his great anger.
He walked past Kragen’s guards, who did not move to stop him. He stormed up to Kragen with a throaty growl.
“What…have…you…DONE!?” roared Branthur as he leveled a powerful punch square on Kragen’s face. Kragen could have dodged it, but never flinched as the blow racked his head sideways with a crunch and sent him flying through the table set up in the room. Maps, tankards, and small things left on the table went flying and crashing to the ground.
Branthur stepped over the fallen Warleader and grabbed him by the throat. His meaty hand easily grasped around it, and he picked up the Warleader by his neck to place him back on his knees.
“You… you will pay for this. You have dishonored me! You have dishonored our Clan! You have dishonored yourself! I trusted you, you were my friend, my brother, and you betray me? Your actions are unspeakable. You dare to lie and now this? You would murder those that called you friend? You would murder a Daughter of Gaia to protect your honorless hide? I will deal with you, Kragen Bloodmoon. You will NOT be judged; that honor is for Ulven who are worthy!” roared Branthur again as he slammed Kragen into the ground, further destroying the table and sending chairs flying.
Not a single person moved for a moment except for half a dozen of Branthur’s bodyguards and several of the Vandregonian officers that constantly accompany them. They slowly proceeded into the tent, cautiously approaching Kragen’s men with weapons drawn.
“Detain them. Each and every warrior under the command of Kragen. Bring me my branding knife.” said Branthur, who was oddly calm after such a display of rage and anger.
None of Kragen’s guards put up a fight, for they knew that this was over. The Vandregonian soldiers and Branthur’s guards rounded them up, tied their arms, and took them out of the tent. Kragen remained bloodied and beaten on the ground, breathing heavily and making no attempt to escape, as two Vandregonian soldiers moved forward and grabbed his arms to detain him fully. He did not put up a fight and instead hung his head in shame and silence.
After a few moments, Branthur turned to Stanrick, Selena and One. He looked tired and pained, likely from the shock at the betrayal of his friend.
“I owe each of you a boon; Stanrick Longfang, Selena Stargazer, and One. Name your price.” he said calmly.
One was still rubbing his throat with one hand and his other hand with the blade, still shaken a bit. It had been a while since he had done something like that with the brooch dagger.
“Branthur, I thank you for your timely arrival…” he said, trailing off.
Taking a deep breath to try and calm down more, he looked towards Stanrick and Selena.
“I wouldn’t mind a moment of discussion”, he said in a steadier voice. “I’m not exactly sure what can be done at this point. I originally began looking into the matter because I wanted to open an alliance of sorts with Cahal Spiritclaw and his Truthseekers. However, the gist of the matter was that his people assumed it could help with the current civil war. After seeing so many of our people dying around us, as I was off the battlefield since I’m not a soldier, I had to do something. I never realized it would go this far.”
“Now I’m wondering what part of this information is the basis of the Grimward’s willingness to attack”, he said, continuing his previous point. “Could we perhaps get a discussion going with certain people? By that, I mean that the Grimward’s daughter seemed open enough while at the Serai Outpost working with the adventurers. Perhaps she, or others like her, could be contacted through a Grand Moot, which I believe Selena mentioned? The discussion on a boon can come later”, he finished.
Then One paused, so Selena and Stanrick could put in their own words
Now that Stanrick was finally free, he rushed to Selena while pulling out a piece of cloth from his bag to tend to her wound. He was breathing now and still letting this all sink in. “Thank you, Clanleader” he said with a quiet rasp. “The Great Wolf will know what you did this day.” He had nothing to ask for, at least not now. He glared over to the guard who had stabbed Selena, but heeled back on the burning rage that demanded that he smash his face with a boot. “I have nothing to ask at this time…” he said as he started to cough.
One saw what Stanrick did, and realized he could say something.
“I just want to add one more thing”, he said.
He looked towards Stanrick before Selena could speak.
“Sorry I couldn’t help you in there”, he said. “I realized with how they were positioned. I could have broken out and either hit the door and taken a chance outside or tried to help your mate. The idea with greater numbers seemed safer and I would have you owed you, at least that much. For not trying to save Selena, that is.”
One looked toward Branthur, his emotions becoming increasingly normal.
“I’m still a bit surprised you did show. The audience you allowed us didn’t make a mention of you making an appearance. However, I’ve yet to talk with my people who visited you earlier requesting this meeting, so I may be a bit ill advised.”
“Anyway, is there something you wish for us to keep quiet about with regard to this? At least until you can make arrangements…for a new Warchief?” he said, still struggling slightly with his breathing.
Selena sat there quietly, tending to her wound after Stanrick tied it off. Once she was sure the bleeding had stopped enough that she was not going to bleed out, she slowly stood up. She looked to Branthur “I can only speak for myself”, she said. “You owe me no boon, Clanleader. If you had not come in when you did, my mate and I would be dead and our children would be parentless. I should owe you a life boon.”
She sighed and looked with a great coldness at Kragen before looking back at Branthur. “I do not understand what our people have come to and why suddenly pride and anger have become more important than love and family. I am sad not for Kragen…he knew what he was doing was wrong, yet decided to do it anyway. Branding is too good a punishment for him. But this is your land and it follows your laws, so in the end it is up to you. However, something needs to be done to put into the people’s minds that this current path of selfishness and pride is wrong, and that it hurts the Pack and the Mother”. Selena frowned. “I am sad for his children, for they now must live knowing the sins he committed. I pray that they do not suffer for the sins of their father, or repeat them. I am okay with keeping this quiet till you find a new Warleader, but I will not do so for long. The truth needs to be heard”. She concluded her address with sorrow in her voice, matching her words.
“On second thought, I do have a request”, said Stanrick to the Clanleader. “Regarding Jovin and anyone who had the courage to bring this to your attention, please consider sending them to Onsallas to train with the Longfangs to regain their honor. I also wish to be there when you pass your own judgement on Kragen.”
Branthur considered each of their words and weighed them carefully.
“Stanrick, your request will be granted. Jovin and those like him will go to Onsallas and will train as part of Pack Longfang. They are yours. One, you bring up wise words for someone that is far removed from our politics as Ulven. There have been talk about attempting a moot between the Clanleaders or representatives. On my honor, I will present this to others and see if we can get Grimward to agree. I don’t think they will do it without a fight, but perhaps this will help. Selena, I think pushing for a meeting amongst our leaders would appease some of my debt to you as well, will it not?” said Branthur as he motioned for the guards to take Kragen away. “I do, however, have a request of you, Selena Stargazer. I will need a handful of Daughters to conduct a ritual. I do not ask this lightly and you may refuse, but you will be given access to the rites… to bury a criminal.”
The implication was unmistakable; when Branthur said that Kragen would not be judged, he meant that he would not go to meet the Great Wolf. He would be punished and buried as a criminal to the Ulven people, denied his journey to the afterlife. Such a thing was rare, almost entirely unheard of, and the true scope of dishonor that Kragen had brought to his Clan was fully realized.
“And no more lies. You are correct, Selena, the truth must be heard. I was deceived by this. I should have looked deeper into it, but the truce ended the fighting and to me that was what mattered at the time. I feel a fool, but I will not have my Clan be made a fool any longer for this. All Clans will be given the opportunity to witness Kragen’s punishment and know that Clan Nightriver will not stand for attacks such as these carried out against our people. I do not know how Clan Grimward will take this, but I will not allow it to seed further dishonor amongst my people.”
Branthur was lost in thought as he stared at the wrecked tables and chairs before him.
“Now go, tend to your wounds and return to your people. And should you accept, Selena Stargazer, I will send for you when the rite is conducted.”
Selena did not take long to think on the unusual offer. “Yes, I will help. I will await word for when it is time. As to the Moot, I do think it is long overdue. I am sure the Clanleader of Spiritclaw will aid you in pushing for one.”
One had been listening quietly after stating his opinion on communicating with the other clans. Stanrick, Selena and Branthur spoke as he was partially lost in thought. He was trying to decide if there was anything he should ask as a boon for Agnosco. If he was honest with himself, he felt similar to what Selena spoke of. If Branthur hadn’t come then, it could have ended in an ugly way. He might have been able to last a few minutes with Selena, but most likely that would have been a generous estimate, for the guards were elite warriors. Getting to Stanrick might have let them last longer, but with the Nightriver Warchief looming over Stanrick at the time, it wouldn’t have ended well for him.
As One thought about it, if Jovin hadn’t spoken up at that point or had Branthur not followed him…they’d be dead. One thought what Stanrick did for him was honorable.
Which got him thinking…
Before One finished the thought, he realized Branthur had said something interesting
One had caught the last half of the statement…buried? Alive? That sounded harsh. Then he realized that Branthur had never said alive. One remembered then that even though it was normal for Faedrun to do so, Mardrun had different burial rights. Burnings were normal here, and that was what the colonists were abiding by. One wasn’t sure he had even heard of an Ulven being buried before. That concept had to have been a strict punishment. He, or probably Double, would have to ask them later after they got back. One heard a dismissal from Branthur and cleared his throat in a manner to indicate he wanted to say a few more words.
“I apologize, but I wish to say a little more before we depart. I appreciate everything you have done thus far. I realize it may have been awkward to allow a person such as I access to your Warchief, being an outsider. However, as I stated before, I hope you could see my organization’s actions were only aimed at bringing the truth out into the light to perhaps facilitate a quick end to the civil war, as Grimward stated this as an issue for starting the war in the first place. They were not done because I wanted to blame someone. Time will only tell if it’ll help start the talks. If Agnosco can help again, just let us know”.
He continued. “Even though you mentioned you wanted to give us a boon for uncovering the truth, I feel a bit hesitant, as if it wasn’t for your timely intervention I probably would be dead. I’m happy enough that I’m still breathing. However, after hearing Stanrick’s honorable request to give Jovin a new start, it got me thinking that everyone has had a role to play in this war so far. I’m sure you’ve heard of the contributions the Phoenix faction has made so far to the war efforts. They have given Silver, Supplies, Pineed Sap, and so on. Recently, they ran into a bit of trouble during a convoy run to support the war efforts. One of their members was overwhelmed and captured by some bandits in the area and is still missing in action. If it’s not too much trouble, could you perhaps put a small war pack together to rescue the Phoenix member, Marcus Clearwater? I know how much Phoenix members treat another as close friends…almost as family. I can supply what little I know if it’ll help”.
Finishing his request, he said “I do business with the Phoenix from time to time, and since many others do too, I thought it might be fair to offer them assistance. If this request is too much, I’m sure I can find something else that is suitable.”
One finished his words and began to turn to Stanrick and Selena. The Clanleader replied, “I am willing to assemble a war pack to bring back Marcus Clearbrook. He is an honorable warrior, from what you have said, and likely has a great welcome waiting for him on the Fire Isle. It is not so great a trial to go and bring him back.”
One was slightly shocked at the ease with which Branthur accepted his request, but he said “Thank you”, most gratefully. Then Branthur addressed the three of them once more. “In truth this time, it is time for you to go. I bid you safe travels”, and he turned away, looking up at the top of the tent.
As Branthur had dismissed them, the three still gathered in the tent turned and left. On their way out, a Nightriver hunter moved past them and entered the tent.
“Clanleader, I have an urgent report. The Grimward forces have been spotted. Their withdrawal of troops was not a retreat…” was the last thing they could hear as distance muffled the rest of the words spoken to the Clanleader.
As Stanrick, Selena, and One of Agnosco walked through the camp, they saw all of the makeshift tents of the collected warriors of Nightriver. They seemed to be in good spirits despite a number of them being bruised, bloodied, and bandaged.