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Conquest and Glory

The fire burned low in the Great Hall of the Watchwolves of Luna. The assemblage had been talking for a long time, and had shut out the servants, so no one had tended the fire recently.

“We estimate that there are perhaps eighty Grimward Soldiers in the Wolf’s Hackles.” said Knorr to the council, “They have entrenched themselves in such a manner that the terrain favors them against any troops approaching from the East.”

“In other words, they have cut us off from the Watchwolves of Sol, the Nightrivers, and the Fenrir.” Said Bergthorr, the Lunar Chieftain.

“Our allies will not likely be able to break through.” said Knorr, “Even if they had superior numbers, the Grimwards are in an excellent position to defend from that direction.”

“Our only hope is to open the pass from this side.” said Raskolf.

“We cannot spare the warriors to do that.” said Bergthorr, “The Graytides are massing on our Southern border. We will just have to wait it out while relief comes around the mountains the long way.”

“We will be dead by then!” said Raskolf.

“You are not in any position to argue such, Ambassador.” said Knorr, “You already overstepped your bounds with that debacle in Grimward territory. You are no longer a military commander. Consider yourself lucky that you were even allowed to participate in this meeting.”

“If you don’t want my input, then why invite me? I have more experience with this sort of thing than anyone else here.”

“You have made poor decisions in the past.” said Bergthorr, “Your record is far from flawless. I myself might be a grandfather by now were it not for your incompetence as a war pack leader. By the way, that is a very nice shirt. Don’t make me compliment it twice more to make it mine, weregild debtor.”

Raskolf gritted his teeth.

“I would never be so arrogant as to claim to be infallible.” he said, “I made that mistake once before, as you so politely pointed out, but I learned from my mistakes. I learn from all of my mistakes, and trust me, I have made mistakes that you don’t even know about.”

“Tell me about it, disgraced one.” said Knorr, “One of the reasons we are in such a situation is because you went and got our Chief Warpack Leader killed in that disastrous peace summit of yours last spring! Imglyf would be sitting right there, in your chair.”

“Hold your tongue!”

“In the name of Gaia, stop!” yelled Lucia, “This is my first time being allowed into such a meeting, and I pray to the mother of us all that this is not how my leadership does business!”

“Thank you, young Witch,” said the Priestess, “You are correct. This is not how the Watchwolves of Luna do business. Now, how badly do the Graytides and Grimwards massing to the South outnumber us?”

“There are at least twice as many of them.” said Knorr, “Not only that, but Khulgar Graytide and Lycon Graytide are leading them, and their personal warpacks are among the assembled. These are not mere clan militia of Grimward, these are warriors. They are well equipped, and well trained.”

“What do we have to work with?” asked the Priestess.

“One understrength warpack with an inexperienced leader and our militia of turnip farmers and blacksmiths.”

“Don’t sell our people short.” said Raskolf, “Many of those farmers and blacksmiths are veterans of our war with the Mordok. They may not be well equipped, and many of them may no longer be in their prime, but they will fight hard to defend their homes. Do not underestimate our warpack, either. Those warriors have faced the Grimwards before, and their leader was there when Imglyf fell.”

“What about the independent warpacks?” asked Lucia, “Have any of them answered our call for help?”

“The Bloodfangs said they were coming.” said Knorr “Their leader was once a Watchwolf of Sol. We have had no contact with them, however. They were coming from the East. They could be somewhere in the Great Wolf’s hackles already.”

“If that is the case,” said Raskolf, “then it is even more important that we open that pass. It is our lifeline to the Solar camp, the Nightrivers, and possibly one of the most elite warpacks on Mardrun.”

“With what troops?” said Bergthorr, “We don’t have anyone to send. We need our warpack here, to protect our capitol, our people, and our Great Hall.

“I’ll do it.” said Raskolf.

“Pardon the cliche,” laughed Knorr, “but you and what army?”

“I will take my personal bodyguard of Longfangs, as well as the novices that my brother has been training. They are good. I have watched them practice.”

“Raskolf,”, said Chieftain Bergthorr, “Two things for you. First, may I remind you that you are not allowed to lead military actions anymore. Ever. Second, nice shirt.”

“Then I will go and trade with our enemies in the mountains.”

“Trade?” asked Lucia.

“Yes. I will take my personal bodyguard, which my brother will surely augment with his students, and we will go and trade steel with the intruders.”

“This council will not allow such nonsense!” shouted Bergthorr.

“Do not think that you can speak for all of us, Chieftain!” shouted the Priestess, “Raskolf’s plan does not use any of the troops that you had planned on using in the defense of our land. On matters of trade or commerce, you have just about as much authority as he does regarding defense. His Longfangs are his bodyguards, and they have to follow him wherever he goes. If he goes into the mountains, it is their duty to follow him.”

“And what of Rhodi’s students?” said Knorr, “Are we really expected to send our sons and daughters on a suicide mission?”

“One of the final stages of their training is to fight alongside an actual warpack.” said Raskolf, “The opportunity to fight alongside the legendary Longfangs is not one that comes along every day. Besides, I have a theory.”

“And what would that be?”

“If the Graytides and Grimwards have massed two warpacks in the area to our South, I find it hard to believe that they would also place elite warriors in the mountains to hold a pass. That would leave their lands farther South and East open to the Nightrivers, and the humans of the Order. There are eighty Grimwards sitting up in that snowy mountain pass right now, far from home and feeling sorry for themselves. They are not warriors. They are militia.”

“A few minutes ago, Raskolf, you told us not to underestimate militia.”

“It’s different when they are defending their homes. These Grimwards are not. There is more to war than numbers, Chieftain.”

The Chieftain gritted his teeth.

“You are getting way too good at bending the rules to suit your desires, Raskolf Vakr. No matter what you say to the contrary, that is proof enough to me that you are no longer a warrior, but a politician. Stop looking for glory. You claim to have learned so much from your mistakes, and yet here you are, ready to march a tiny contingent of troops against overwhelming odds to relive your past. It is selfish and un-befitting.”

“The only thing I care about is the Ulven people and my Clan.” snarled Raskolf, “That pass is the key to our survival as a people, and I am willing to risk my own life to secure it. That is not selfish at all.”

“That is enough.” said the Priestess, “It does not matter whether or not Raskolf has the approval of this council. He is not asking permission of us. He is simply telling us what he is going to do. I may not be a tactician myself, nor have I ever walked the path of the warrior, but I know a thing or two about the hearts of warriors and I can tell you that within his chest beats one. He does this not for glory, but because he believes it to be right.”

“What would you have him do, Chieftain, if not to go to the pass?” asked Lucia.

“I would have him guard this hall. He is a good fighter.”

“You mean you would have him protect you?” she snapped, “And you call him selfish?”

“How dare you, you insolent pup! This is the first time that you have been invited to sit with us in council. Do not make it your last.”

“My apprentice makes a good point, Chieftain, and whether or not she attends these gatherings is not your decision to make. It is mine. See to the defense of your people. It is your job. Since you have already dismissed Raskolf’s counsel on the matter, you obviously do not need his help. We should release him from this meeting.”

“Very well. Raskolf, you are dismissed. But before you go, weregild debtor, I would like to compliment you a third time on your very fine shirt.”

Raskolf said nothing. He turned his back to the assembled elders, un-fastened his belt, and pulled off the fine green tunic that had been gifted to him by the Prince of New Aldoria. Folding the shirt nicely, he set it down on his chair as the flickering torchlight danced across the branded runes of shame upon his chest and back.

“Thank you, Raskolf Vakr.” said the Chieftain, “You better leave now, before I compliment your pants as well.”

“If you did that, then you would be the one who felt ashamed of himself, Chieftain. Good luck, sir, with your battle here. I hope that the Great Wolf’s ears ring with your name.”

The Chieftain snarled in return, but Raskolf was already leaving the Hall.

“You could have let him leave with his dignity, Chieftain.” said the Priestess.

“Don’t you see it?” said the Chieftain, “He is a careless glory-seeker, not a warrior. He hasn’t changed at all over the years and he hasn’t learned anything. He just wants to redeem himself in the eyes of the Great Wolf by dying heroically, but it doesn’t work like that! You can’t TRY to be a hero. It has to just happen. That man is no warrior, and he is certainly no hero. My son was a warrior, and my son was a hero, and my son is dead. My son is dead because of Raskolf Vakr, and now you fools have just condoned that idiot to take another pack into a hopeless fight to die. Their blood will be on your hands and the hands of Raskolf Vakr, but not mine!”

“You are blinded by your emotions, Chieftain.” said the Priestess.

“I think you are blinded by your ambition, Priestess.” growled the Chieftain.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Raskolf’s mate is the Clan High Priestess, after all.”

“Enough!” shouted Lucia, standing so quickly that she knocked her chair over backwards, “That is enough! Look at yourselves! What in Gaia’s name are you thinking? This is no time for in-fighting. Our enemies could be crossing the border as we speak. My whole life I always looked up to you people. I always trusted that you were wise, and that you knew best, and that you would take care of me and my family. I was but a child, but I knew these things to be true. Well, today I see for the first time just how foolish and naive I have been. You are not wise. You do not know best. You are just children yourselves!”

Bergthorr bared his fangs, but then averted his eyes and clenched his fists. He said nothing.

“Chieftain Bergthorr,” said Lucia, “you lamented earlier tonight how you lost your son and had no grandchildren, but I think that you may have forgotten your position. You are the Lunar Chieftain of the Watchwolves. The people outside of this hall all look to you as a father, or a grandfather. They trust you to be wise. They trust you to be fair. They trust you to be understanding, and right now, they trust you to protect them and organize their defense. That means that you need to listen to your advisors, not chase them out of here with their clothes half on. What you did to Raskolf was juvenile, and you should be ashamed of yourself, young man!… I mean, old man… Chief.”

*

Outside the Great Hall of the Watchwolves of Luna, the human warrior Thanatos stood talking to Stanrick.

“So, what do they do in there during these meetings?” he asked.

“How should I know?” grunted Stanrick.

“You’re a guard. Surely you’ve been in there during this sort of thing before.”

“No.” he hesitated, “Not really.”

“Come on, friend. Tell me. Are they doing some kind of dark rituals? Are there animals involved?”

“Of course not.”

“Is there blood? Are they reading entrails?”

“Why are you being so persistent?”

“I can’t help myself.” said Thanatos, “The irony is killing me.”

“Explain, human.”

“See! That right there! You just did it. You invite us up here for this great cultural breakthrough and make a big production out of allowing non-Ulven into your Hall for the first time, but then afterwards, things go right back to the way they were before.”

“Look here, pup. Things are not the way the were before, nor will they ever be. You are within the walls of this stockade, are you not? And are our leaders not in that Hall at this very moment, strategerating how we are going to survive the war that we got ourselves in all because we stood up for you people in the first place? How dare you show such disrespect. We are a proud people, and our leaders are wise, charismatic, and selfless. What is going on in that building right now is a sacred and beautiful thing.”

Suddenly, one of the doors to the Great Hall burst open and Raskolf trudged out into the snow of early spring. The bare-chested Ambassador screamed, flung his balled-up cloak into a snow bank, and kicked one of the pillars so hard that he dislodged a sheet of snow from the roof overhang.

“I knew it.” said Thanatos to Stanrick, “They’re gambling in there!”

*

Lucia began hastily gathering up her things. Her mind was racing. She couldn’t believe she had just said that, and her anger and righteousness was suddenly replaced with terror. She just wanted to run away. She scurried towards the door and reached for the handle.

“You are right.” said Bergthorr, “Don’t go.”

“What?!” asked Lucia.

“Chief?!” said Knorr.

Lucia had never thought in a million years that she would live to see the day where she snapped at an elder, let alone spoke to one in such a chiding manner, but her own actions weren’t nearly as shocking to her as the fact that her Chieftain had just admitted that that he was wrong and she was right. Lucia felt dizzy, as if the world was being turned on its side. She wasn’t entirely off target either, but of course it wasn’t actually THE world so much as HER world.

“You are right.” he said again, “I let my emotions get the better of me. My eyes are blinded by my hatred for the one who took my son from me. Now sit back down, Witch. Sit back down. We have our work to do here.

Lucia set her chair back up, fixed her hair, and then took her seat. She was trying not to let anyone see that she was shivering with anxiety, and kept her hands out of sight beneath the table.

“Now, in the event that Raskolf’s, er, trade caravan, fails their mission,” said Bergthorr, “we could be in for a long siege. Knorr, have someone find out how much food we have in our larders, and in the larders of every outlying village of more than two-dozen people. We will need to consolidate it here, and plan the evacuation of the infirm and the children. Every able-bodied adult of 12 years or older who is not part of the militia already will begin training tomorrow on how to fight in a unit. Send word to every village. As the Militia moves South to our border villages, they can pick up anyone who owns their own weapons and armor. Those who don’t should head North to train here.”

“I will make it so.” said Knorr.

“Lucia,” said Bergthorr, “have you selected a warder yet?”

“No, Chieftain.”

“You have fought the Graytides before. I want you to head South with the militia, to supervise the triage and care of the wounded, and to offer spiritual guidance to the troops. It is dangerous to go alone, however. Before Rhodi’s students leave for the Great Wolf’s Hackles, I want you to go and select a warder from amongst the class.”

“In that case, Chieftain, I have already made my decision. I choose Drifa. We fought the Graytides together at the Wayward Inn, and I trust her with my life.”

“Very well,” said the Priestess, “Go to her, then, and tell her when this meeting adjourns. Do you have a totem necklace to present her with?”

Lucia Coinen, the daughter of the most successful merchant in the history of the Ulven people, smiled. She had more jewelry lying around then she could keep track of.

“I do.”

*

The village looked different empty. Everyone had either fallen back to the next village down the road by Gill’s farm to train with the militia, or had been evacuated to the Chieftain’s stockade farther North. The five guards were the only ones present here, now. Their job was to serve as lookouts for the rest of the militia, who were over at the farmstead. The guards ranged in age and variety from a fat white-bearded old man with barely a tooth in his head, to a skinny boy not old enough to shave, and having just gotten his fangs.

Gazing up into gray skies, the old man squinted in the bitter wind. A raven cawed in the distance. The old man arose from his seat on the snowy earth, shrugged off his blanket, and began to crack his joints.

“What is it, Grandfather?” asked the boy.

“It is a sign.” the old man grunted.

“What is? The bird? It is just a bird.”

“No.” said the old man, reaching for his dented old helmet and shuddering at the cold metal as he set it upon his head. “It is a sign. I know that bird. There will soon be a wolf on the road.”

“Wolf road?!” exclaimed the boy.

“The eyes and ears, son. The eyes and ears. They come to warn us that our enemies are coming.”

“What do we do?!” stammered the boy, fumbling with his armor as he followed his grandfather outside of the wall.

The old man didn’t answer at first. As the two walked out onto the road in front of the village, they were joined by the other three guards. The old man smiled sadly as he gazed out upon the snowy Southern road.

“Your shield, boy.” growled one of the other guards, who worked as a baker when he wasn’t part of the town watch.

“Huh? Oh!” said the boy, running back inside the walls to retrieve it.

“That grandson of yours would forget his own head.” grumbled the baker.

The old man didn’t say anything. He just slowly raised an arm and pointed to where the clearing ended and the road disappeared into the darkness of the woods.

There was a wolf on the road, with a raven perched upon a stump next to it. The world was silent for a few moments.

“A grim omen.” said one of the guards.

“What is?” panted the boy, returning with his shield.

The wolf and the raven were already gone.

“You missed it.” grumbled the baker, fastening the chin strap on his helmet.

“He was not meant to see it.” said the old man, “It means that he is not to share in it.”

“What are you talking about, Grandfather?”

“You must leave now, son.” he said, “You must run as fast as you can to Gill’s farm and alert the militia there that the enemy is coming.”

“No!” he shouted, “I will stay and fight! The eyes and the ears can alert the others. They don’t need me and I won’t leave you.”

“The four of us have seen an omen, boy.” said one of the guards, drawing smoke off of his pipe for the last time and then dumping out the bowl, “You missed it. That happened for a reason. It isn’t your choice. Now go.”

“Warn the militia and join up with them.” grumbled the baker, “And don’t sulk. You might still get a chance to die later, with them.”

“Here, boy. Take my pipe. Maybe smoking will help your beard come in. Assuming you live to see the end of the day.”

“What’s going on?” cried the boy, “Why won’t you tell me?”

“We have seen a wolf on the road, son.” said the old man, “Now run swiftly to the farmstead, knowing full well that the real Great Wolf will be less than a village away from you, and closing.”

The boy’s eyes widened.

“Do not mourn us, son.” said the old man, wrapping his cold arthritic hands with dry leather strips. “It is only death. The Great Wolf already knows our names.”

“You on the other hand,” said the baker, “better run along before you get eaten.”

“I killed two Mordok last summer!” he protested.

“No, you helped kill one that had been ganged up on by you and your little friends,” snickered the other guard, “and the other one was almost dead already and you put it out of its misery. Neither of those count. Now go. Join up with the rest of the militia so you can at least get the experience of fighting in a shield wall.”

“Well, we should all go. Come on!”

“No, son.” said the old man, “The eyes and ears are upon us, and we will be judged. Besides, we couldn’t keep up with you. Go now, and do your duty. I know that you will earn great glory and honor in the future, for if you were not meant to, then why would you have missed the omen when the rest of us saw it?”

“It is a good day to die,” said the guard, tossing his tobacco pouch to the boy to go with the pipe he’d already given him, “but not your day to die.”

“I will be brave, Grandfather,” said the boy, “and I will prove my warriors heart by not crying even if I miss you.”

“You make me proud, grandson.” said the old man, “The Great Wolf’s ears will surely ring with your name someday.”

“They surely ring with all of yours this day.” said the boy, “If I live to have children, I will make sure that they, too, know all of your names.”

“It has been an honor.” said the baker, saluting the boy.

As he turned to walk away, the boy hesitated and tried to keep himself from looking back.

“It is alright.” said the old man, “You do not need to be ashamed to say it. I love you too, son.”

“I love you, Grandfather.”

The noise of weapons being beaten in rhythm upon shields drifted up the road. The boy ran as fast as his legs could carry him to warn the others of the attack.

The Graytides clustered at the edge of the woodline. Khulgar was puzzled by the apparently deserted village, and the four poorly armed and barely armored men who had come out to challenge his mighty war pack. He was afraid that it was a trap, but after the humiliating defeat at Ulslog, his warriors were too worked up and frenzied for him to hold them back. He didn’t order a charge, but it happened, so he worked his way to the front of the pack.

On the road, an old man stood defiantly, his spear set to receive the charge. As the screaming horde closed on him and his companions, time seemed to slow down, and the black armored warrior with the red eyes seemed to morph into the shadowy form of a great black wolf. The fight was over in exactly as much time as it took the warriors to run over and trample the four men on the road.

The boy ran as fast as he could. He was already clear of the Northern boundary. The cold air burned his chest. He was ashamed of himself. He’d promised his grandfather that he wouldn’t cry.

*

There were fifteen of them in total on the trading caravan into the Great Wolf’s Hackles. The party was comprised of seven Watchwolves, seven Longfangs, and the human named Thanatos. Raskolf scouted the Grimward encampment from the higher ground of a ridge. There were twenty of them. Otama and Azra looked on as well. Fifteen versus twenty is not good odds, especially when the defender is the one with the numbers, but there was more to it than simple math. Raskolf could tell that many of the Grimwards were archers. That meant two things. First, that they were likely not warriors, but men who hunted for a living. Secondly, they were lightly armored and carried no shields. Raskolf confirmed this by glancing around the camp. Indeed, there were only a handful of shields lying about. The element of surprise would be everything in this battle. If Raskolf could get his troops in close enough, the archers would be helpless against his armored “sword and board” fighters. The Grimwards in this camp were disorganized and unprofessional. They did not even post sentries.

“Otama,” said Raskolf, “we are going to charge straight down the one trail that they are actually guarding.”

Otama didn’t say anything, but she raised an eyebrow.

“We will charge straight in, just those of us with long weapons or large shields. About half of us in total. We will create a shield wall right there where they have actually prepared to defend.”

Behind Otama, Azra grinned. She had played this game before.

“The defenders will think that everything is going as they have planned and drilled for. They will focus all their attention on trying to overwhelm us with numbers and focused archery. We have the shields and armor to endure that long enough for Azra and a handful of others to charge down the ridge and flank them from within their own camp.”

“We will get rid of the archers first.” said Azra, “They will go down quickly once we close with them. That will even the odds and put us behind their melee fighters.”

Otama shot a concerned glance at Raskolf.

“And you, Ambassador, will be in the back coordinating this.”

Raskolf didn’t acknowledge her statement. He just tossed his cloak back over his right shoulder and headed back down to the waiting warriors and novices. Minutes later, he was charging madly down the trail, straight towards the enemy camp.

“Raskolf! Get back!” shouted Otama, “How are we supposed to protect you if you are in the front?”

“Run faster!” he panted.

Up ahead, he could clearly see archers scrambling to pick up their gear and nock arrows.

“Shield wall!” he yelled, “Now! Lock up but keep moving!”

“This wasn’t the plan!” snarled Otama, overlapping her shield over Raskolf as arrows began peppering the formation.

“That’s ok.” he grunted, thrusting his spear into the belly of a Grimward militiaman, “No plan ever survives contact anyway. Just watch!”

As the warriors cracked shields together and traded steel, Otama saw Azra and her skirmishers sweep down the ridge and into the helpless archers, cutting them down before many of them even had a chance to draw their swords or make any effort to defend themselves.

“See.” grunted Raskolf, “Their plan of defending this pass just totally fell apart!”

Otama watched as an arrow sank deeply into Raskolf’s right arm, causing him to lose his grip on his spear. His opponent took advantage of this and rushed in close. Raskolf managed to reach across his body to protect his exposed side with his shield, but the angle was awkward, coming from the opposite side, and the weakness of the stance left him vulnerable. He successfully turned aside the blow, but lost control of his shield in the process, the low upward strike causing it to fly up and strike himself in the mouth with its edge. Raskolf lost his balance and tumbled backwards into the snow. His opponent also took a fall from over extending, and nearly landed on him. Otama and Harlok moved in quickly to finish off the Ambassador’s Grimward enemy. Azra’s skirmishers cut down the last archer and charged into the rear of the Grimward line. The fight was soon over. The “steel trading” caravan had defeated an enemy that outnumbered them. They had suffered only a few minor injuries themselves, including Raskolf’s arm, which was immediately tended to by the Daughter of Gaia who had accompanied them.

Raskolf smiled at his frustrated bodyguards, though his grin was a little less smug, and even more lopsided now that his right fang had been lost somewhere in the snow.

“I heard a horn, Raskolf.” said Siren. “They may have alerted the next camp when they sounded it.”

“We need to keep moving, then.” he said, “Catch your breath and get bandaged up. We need to maintain our momentum. They will likely be better prepared at the next camp.”

*

As the Grimwards marched into the next Watchwolf village, they found themselves confronted by an organized defensive formation of shields and spears. The militia had placed themselves in a narrow part of the road to make flanking them difficult, and a large patch of ice lie in front of them.

“Very clever.” muttered Khulgar, who was vividly remembering the battle at Ulslog, “They have done everything they can to stack the odds. The stockade opens up between two buildings, and we are on a slight incline.”

“It matters not.” grunted Lycon, “We outnumber them more than two to one and few of them even have proper armor.”

Drifa Blackfrost pushed her way to the front of the Watchwolf formation. She was adorned with black warpaint and carried a claymore over her shoulder. Not long ago, she would have been terrified to so much as look Khulgar Graytide in the eye, but after the events at the Wayward Inn a cold resolve had overtaken her. She was no longer Drifa of Winterclaw, the refugee who looked out for number one and begged for scraps from another pack. She was a Watchwolf, now, and these were her people.

“Leave these lands at once, Khulgar Graytide. You are trespassing.”

“Trespassing?” Laughed Lycon, “Why, that would suggest that these were someone else’s lands. They are not. These lands are ours, and have been ever since we set foot upon them. All we are doing now is clearing them out.”

“Go home, Lycon Graytide,” shouted a wiry old Watchwolf with a bushy white beard, “before you slip and break your hip! You are too old to be on the warpath!”

“I certainly hope that the Great Wolf knows your name, you geezer,” replied Lycon, “for the meat upon your bones is surely long since spoiled.”

“Go home, Lycon!” said the skinny old man, whose name was Nezzer, “There are fishing nets to be mended. Oh! Nevermind. You can’t even do that you old cripple.”

The gray-bearded Lycon bellowed with laughter, and warriors on both sides cracked smiles at the two grouchy old men.

“I know you.” said Khulgar, pointing his mace at Drifa, “Last time I saw you, you were running terrified into a swamp while your friends bravely fell in combat against my warriors.”

Khulgar laughed.

“This so-called leader of yours is naught but a coward.”

“I used to be a coward, Graytide, but you forgot one thing about what happened at the inn. You forgot what happened when you cornered me and Lucia. I fought you Khulgar.”

“That’s right.” said Khulgar scratching his chin, “You did try to fight me. I’d have easily killed you without so much as a scratch if it weren’t for that traitor, Rogar.”

“Looks like you’ve gone and gotten yourself cornered again, woman.” sneered Lycon.

“It’s different now.” she said, “I’m not a cornered animal this time. There is an open road behind me and you certainly know that. It’s where you are trying to go, is it not? I’m a wolf standing up to fight alongside my pack. I am a Watchwolf of Luna, now, and I am protecting my land and my people.”

“How touching.” said Khulgar.

“Whether you are a cornered rat or a female bird protecting its nest makes no difference to me.” laughed Lycon.

Khulgar took a few steps out onto the ice.

“You blasphemers don’t have to die senselessly today.” said Khulgar to the Watchwolves, “We give you a chance to earn redemption in the eyes of the Great Black Wolf, who judges you even now. Join us in our war against the outsiders, and help us to purify Gaia’s lands of this corruption and filth from across the ocean before our mother shares the same fate as the invader’s homeland.”

“You dare to call us blasphemers?!” shouted Drifa, “You, who wear ears and fingers as trophies? You, who pull the fangs from other Ulven for the sake of your jewelery? Since when is it up to you to decide which tenets of our faith are to be observed and which are to be ignored? I saw my entire pack perish because they committed the same sins that you are committing. You were right about one thing, though, Khulgar. I used to be a coward. It was how I survived. But the tables have turned, now. Here I stand, resolute and unafraid, while you and your packs cower in the shadows.”

“Clan Grimward does not cower!”

“Oh, but you do.” said Lucia, “You are afraid. All of you. Especially the Graytides. You are so afraid of the colonists from across the sea that you have placed your fear of them above your fear of our own gods. That is why you adorn yourselves with such blasphemous trinkets. It is why you have resorted to treachery and lies to manipulate your own people.”

“How far will you take this war against your own kind, Graytide?” said Nezzer, “Will the violence ever end? Or will you just keep killing until there is no one left for you to breed with but the Mordok you revere with your sick trophies.”

“I will light your pyre myself this night!” screamed Lycon Graytide, charging across the ice and burying his axe into the skinny old man’s kite shield, knocking him clear back into the formation and nearly dislocating Nezzer’s shield arm as he ripped the blade free.

Before Khulgar could regain control of his warriors, the pack followed Lycon and surged forward onto the slippery ice. Steel rang out and wood knocked together as the Grimwards crashed shields-first into the Watchwolf formation, only to lose their footing and stumble back into the tangle of bodies. The icy ground hindered their movement and made it nearly impossible to fight. Watchwolf spears flashed out from the defensive formation, and even the ones that only caught contact with Grimward shields pushed the attackers back and caused warriors to stumble and fall on the ice. Time and time again, Drifa’s massive claymore cleaved into the Grimward shields, splintering the wood, knocking troops down, and even breaking shield arms. Her countless hours working in Rhodi’s smithy since her adoption had given her a startling upper body strength that allowed her to wield the largest great-weapon on the field with unusual ease. She truly was a different person than she had been when Khulgar last faced her at the Wayward Inn and he was a little unsettled by her ferocity as he watched her pummel his warriors into the frozen earth. He kept waiting for her to tire, but she showed no sign of slowing down despite the scale of her melee weapon nearly matching her own height. The rest of the Watchwolf formation, however, wasn’t matching her endurance nor her ferocity.

The defense held for a while, but the Grimwards had the numbers to press their advance onto better footing, and once they did, the Watchwolf formation began to falter. Casualties mounted on either side, the more experienced warriors of the Grimward and Graytide warpacks finding their momentum as the Watchwolf line buckled and smaller, three to four person skirmishes broke out. Lucia moved down the road as casualties needing her attention began to mount, and Drifa was forced to fall back to protect her ward.

On the front line, Lycon and Khulgar cut a swathe through the poorly equipped militia, making their way towards Lucia and Drifa. Khulgar was sure that he could take Drifa, for though strong of arm and stout of heart, she lacked experience and skill. What he really wanted to do was to challenge her to a duel. He fixed his gaze on her as he pulled his mace clear of a crushed Watchwolf skull. Time seemed to slow down. As he closed with her, their eyes met. Drifa adjusted her grip and took up a better stance, placing herself between Khulgar and Lucia. Before Khulgar could challenge her, though, Lycon Graytide charged in from the side. He was about to bring his axe down upon Drifa but she spun out of his reach and brought her claymore around the long way, with all the momentum and power of her movement behind a single blow. It connected, crushing his ribs through his armor and cutting deeply into his side. Khulgar watched in rage as Lycon crashed to the ground, showering Lucia with blood and spittle. He wasted no time. Watchwolves were already swarming Lycon’s fallen form, stabbing him, and trying to drag him away. Khulgar and Ekaj rushed in to protect him. Ekaj distracted the enemy while Khulgar helped his friend to his feet and put pressure upon his wounds. As they hurried back toward their lines, Khulgar heard brave Ekaj fall in combat behind them, but they couldn’t stop.

Drifa wasn’t sure exactly what happened. She had been forced to turn her back on Khulgar to keep Lycon from getting to Lucia. As she had pulled her claymore free of Lycon Graytide, she realized that she had been stabbed in the back. Something hit her in the head and she started having trouble seeing. There was red everywhere. She was on the ground suddenly and everything was foggy and wet. Something stabbed her again and again. The next thing she knew, She was being dragged towards the Grimward lines. Lucia was there too, marching at swordpoint.

The battle raged on in the meantime. Though the Watchwolf militia had seriously faltered, the sudden loss of the Grimward leadership had happened at almost exactly the same time that a small contingent of men from Vandregon and Watchwolf reinforcements led by a warrior named Artai had run in from the next village and bolstered the lines. They had even taken a Graytide as prisoner. The fighting slowly devolved from an organized attack and defense into a cluster of chaotic skirmishes within the village, going from building to building, fence to fence. Old Nezzer had just finished off a fighter much younger than himself who was trying to flank the building containing the casualties, when he noticed some of the Grimwards were retreating.

Nezzer watched as the Witch and her Warder, Drifa, were dragged away. Something primal flickered within the base of the old man’s skull, and despite better judgment, he ran after them alone, without saying anything to anyone else.

*

Back at the mountain pass, the Trading Caravan was locked in brutal combat against the Grimward militia. It was the third battle they had fought in less than an hour. Raskolf had never been so shot full of arrows in his life, and his shield was starting to look like perhaps the leather covering it was genuine porcupine hide. Not only was he tired, but it was getting increasingly difficult to move. His legs were stiff, and he was pretty sure that he had pulled something in his spear arm from a combination of all the overhand stabbing and the arrow he took there in the first fight today. He was out of shape and out of practice, but he tried really hard to conceal his misery. His current opponent certainly wasn’t helping things. The two had been going round and round for way too long. At first, Raskolf was impressed that his opponent was holding his own against him. Now, he was starting to get concerned that maybe it was the other way around.

Raskolf faced a hardy youth of perhaps fifteen years. The boy was ridiculously fast, and moved with a spryness and confidence that impressed the old veteran. Raskolf’s spear gave him the advantage of reach, but the weapon was more suited to fighting in a group than in one on one combat. Typically, in such a situation, Raskolf would have dropped his spear and drawn his sword in case his opponent got in close under his spear, but the boy was just too fast, and Raskolf didn’t have time to change weapons. He was forced instead to settle for a sturdy under arm position, which helped keep his opponent back, but made offense difficult because he was limited to stabbing straight into his opponent’s shielded zone. Fortunately for Raskolf, the kid never rushed in close or capitalized when he parried the spear thrusts. Raskolf guessed that his opponent was a wild talent, and probably had little formal training if any. It was only a matter of time, though, before he figured it out. Raskolf could see the wheels turning in his head.

As two more warriors moved in to assist Raskolf and flank the boy, the young Grimward nimbly dodged their attacks, rolling and somersaulting just out of their reach over and over again. The kid was fighting with instinct and raw talent. In a different time and place, Raskolf would have tried to recruit him for the Tundra Wolves. In the here and now, though, he was an enemy. Otama locked blades with the young fighter, while one of the Watchwolf novices knocked him off balance by burying a claymore into his shield.

The boy’s eyes bulged in the sockets as Raskolf’s spear punched through his unarmored abdomen and sent him crashing down into the snow like a boar held down by hunting hounds. Blood spew-ed from the boy’s mouth and as he impacted the frozen earth.

Raskolf looked down at the fallen Grimward youth. He barely looked old enough to shave. Tears welled up in the boy’s eyes and he began gasping for air like a fish on land.

“What is your name, warrior?” asked Raskolf.

“Solembum.” choked the poor boy.

“The Great Wolf’s ears ring with your name, Solumbum.” he said, “You fought well. We will howl your glorious death when we light your pyre tonight.”

Raskolf nodded to his fellow Watchwolf, and the boy’s suffering was ended with one sweep of a claymore.

“That’s seven for me, today.” said the novice to one of his fellows.

“That doesn’t count!” said the other, “That was an assist.”

The young novices started bragging to each other and calculating how many they had killed so far that day.

“Gaia forgive us.” Raskolf muttered to himself as he saluted his fallen foe.

Raskolf was about to say something to the novices, but he stopped himself and instead turned his back to them and walked away.

Solembum had been the last to fall. The steel trading caravan was battered and exhausted. Raskolf began checking on his comrades. They didn’t have much fight left in them. Harlock Longfang was in bad shape, but was refusing healing, indicating that he wanted others to be healed first. There was no time to consolidate though, because another pack of Grimwards emerged from the woods on the other side of the pond. There were about twenty of them against Raskolf’s remaining thirteen.

“Orders, Ambassador?” said Stanrick.

“Hold here.” replied Raskolf, “If they try to cross the pond, they will fall through the thin ice. If they come around the long way, they have to go through deep snow and then cross an open field. Catch your breath and eat some snow. We are going to make them charge us. Yawn, Thanatos! Taunt those Grimwards. Make them angry.”

“What? When?” said Yawn, looking up from the wound he was bandaging.

“Now.”

“Why?”

“Because they are too far away.” said Stanrick as it dawned on him, “Would you want to fight someone after running that far through knee high snow?”

“Wait,” said Thanatos, “why am I doing this?”

“Because you are very good at being annoying.” grumbled Stanrick.

“It is because you are human, Thanatos.” said Raskolf, “They hate humans.”

“Right!” said Thanatos.

The two moved a little ways out into the open field so that they could be clearly seen and heard by the Grimwards.

“Pardon me!” yelled Thanatos, “That’s right! You! You fornicators of matriarchs! You are all just in time to watch us ravage and desecrate these little girls that you sent against us in combat. If you would care to surrender now, we could really use some slaves to help us dig a pit. We really ought to dig a latrine for this filth.”

Yawn began dancing and making lewd gestures. With coaxing from Stanrick, the steel traders began laughing and cheering as loudly as they could.

“My friend the human infidel is right.” bellowed Yawn, “Say! Do all grimwards have weak bladders, or is your bloodline so thin that it just smells like urine?”

“I say!” shouted Thanatos, “You female curs have dreadful posture! How many generations removed from your Mordok ancestry are you?”

Seconds later, the Grimwards were charging through knee deep snow.

“Here they come!” shouted one of the Watchwolf novices, picking up his shield and sword. Raskolf raised an eyebrow and shook his head.

A minute later, the Grimwards were charging through knee deep snow.

“Should we form up, Ambassador?” asked the novice.

A minute after that, the Grimwards were still charging through knee deep snow.

“Ok,” said Raskolf, “If you have a bow, string it and move to the front.”

The fastest of the Grimwards were just breaking into the open field, wheezing, panting, and struggling with cramping and stiffening legs. They were widely scattered now, with some of their slower troops still quite far away. As the charge faltered and they limped into the open field, the trading caravan filled them with arrows. By the time any of the Grimwards had actually managed to close with the Watchwolves and Longfangs, the numbers were much more even, and any advantage that the Grimward had as fresh troops had been lost. It was a brutal melee. Both sides were agonizingly exhausted to the point where they had forgotten their skills and training, and combatants simply made slow and heavy chops at each other until someone died. One by one, the wheezing and panting Grimwards fell to the members of the steel trading caravan.

It had been no easy victory for them, however, and not without cost. Two of the Watchwolf novices were dead and Harlok Longfang had been mortally wounded after entering into a berserking rage and had smashed a hole through the enemy line. Everyone was bloody almost beyond recognition, and Raskolf couldn’t walk. He had taken arrows to both legs, and been stabbed repeatedly in the back and chest by someone he’d mistook for dead. Otama scowled at him as she tended to his wounds.

“Azra!” he croaked, realizing that his throat was completely dry and his voice gone.

Raskolf tried to wet his throat by eating some snow. It helped a little, but it also hurt his broken fang like crazy. He finally managed to get her attention.

“Ambassador,” she said, “Harlok is dying!”

“I know, friend. That is why I called to you. Take these to him.”

Raskolf handed her two healing potions that he had been saving for an emergency. Azra wasted no time in running back to the unconscious warrior. He was barely breathing. The Longfangs managed to carefully pour the potions down Harlok’s throat. Some color returned to his face, and his breathing seemed more consistent, but he did not wake up.

“I fear it may be too little, too late.” said the novice with the healing basket.

Yawn nodded solemnly as he helped hold pressure on Harlok’s wounds. Siren and Stanrick carefully worked the casualty’s armor off of him to expose the injuries as blood oozed out and turned the white snow a striking color of red. Siren removed Harlok’s left gauntlet to reveal a mangled and crushed hand with a broken forearm, the bone protruding through the skin in two places.

“I know some first aid and some basic healing,” said the novice, “but I fear that he has internal injuries beyond mundane ability.”

“Hopefully,” said Yawn, “those potions will be enough.”

Raskolf sat there panting from the immense exhaustion of fighting for so long. He looked in front of him at the wounded and the dead and the immense splatters of blood and gore that dotted the white field in front of him. Warriors collapses to rest and tried to tend to numerous stabs and cuts and broken limbs. A Longfang warrior with a spear rolled over a dying Grimward and stuck him through the gut and pinned him to the ground without any hesitation or remorse.

“Dear Gaia, what have we done?” said Raskolf.

*

Nezzer slowed from a jog to a hunter’s stalk. His quarry didn’t move quickly. The Grimwards were dragging Drifa and Lycon. Nezzer couldn’t believe the amount of blood that Drifa was leaving behind. Before long, the Grimwards reached the outskirts of the first fallen Watchwolf village, where they had set up a hasty triage and camp. Nezzer knew that town well. He had a close friend who lived there. Based on the message from the man’s grandson earlier, though, Nezzer assumed that his friend had died honorably in combat that morning. Nezzer counted the guards at the back gate. There were two women. One was an archer, and the other was armed with a battle axe. Then he circled around and checked the livestock chute. There was someone on the other side, but he couldn’t make out how they were armed. As he observed, the Grimward Daughter of Gaia tended to Lycon Graytide’s wounds. Khulgar was there, too. Nezzer watched in silence through the gap. He would have to wait.

Drifa continued bleeding out into the snowy earth 100 feet in front of him, but Nezzer could do nothing to help her. He had lost sight of Lucia and the Grimwards who had captured her.

Lycon Graytide’s wounds were tended to, stitched, and he was administered one of the precious few healing potions that their Witch had in her healing basket. Khulgar made some hasty repairs to their armor in the mean time. Once Lycon was back on his feet, the two gathered their things and prepared to escort the Witch’s apprentice to the front line.

Khulgar paused and stared at Drifa and the reddening snow around her prone form.

“See something you like, old friend?” laughed Lycon, elbowing Khulgar, “She has good hips on her, and is very strong. Me thinks she’d throw some powerful children.”

From beneath a tangle of dirty, blood matted hair, Drifa bared her fangs at the two Graytides.

“No, Lycon.” said Khulgar. “No.”

“But look how spirited she is! She’d be fun to break.” he sneered gyrating his hips and squinting his eyes, “I’d be willing to help you with that!”

The Chieftain shot an annoyed glance at the big one-armed veteran.

“I was right…” gasped Drifa, “about you. You aren’t children of the Great Wolf. Nor do you uphold his honorable virtues. You are just mongrel dogs.”

“Silence, wench!” said Lycon.

“Or what? You’ll kill me? Go ahead! Do it! Grant me a warriors death! It is the least you can do.”

A shout came up from the front gate. It was one of the guards.

“Look!” she said to the novice patrolling the perimeter, “There is a wolf on the road!”

The Witch looked alarmed, made a holy symbol across her chest with her hands, and grabbed her apprentice to avert her eyes before she could see for herself.

Khulgar didn’t look. Instead he stared into the watering eyes of Drifa Blackfrost and clenched his fists.

“The Great Black Wolf is watching us, Khulgar Graytide.” choked Drifa as blood dribbled from her lips onto the snowy earth.

Tilting her head back and brushing her hair aside, Drifa exposed her throat to him.

Khulgar ground his teeth and snarled.

“Tend to her wounds, Witch.” said the Graytide Chieftain.

He then turned his back to her and walked down the road.

Drifa laughed like a madwoman. She laughed so hard that she vomited.

“Do not let any further harm come to her.” Khulgar ordered the two women guarding the gate.

“The wolf is gone.” muttered one of them, “You missed it.”

“Are you even listening to me? he growled.

“Yes, Chieftain.”

“Just keep her alive. Don’t let anyone kill her.”

“Of course, Chieftain.”

“Well,” said Lycon as the two Graytides walked away, escorting their Daughter of Gaia to the next village, “if you don’t want her, then maybe she’ll be mine.”

“Those poor kids would be built like Cave Bears.” grumbled Khulgar.

Lycon bellowed with laughter and would have slapped his friend on the back, but Khulgar was on the wrong side of him, so he could not.

The three Ulven walked down the road towards the front line. The forest was eerie and silent of any noises of Gaia. Not a single bird or beast was to be heard or seen. As they got closer to the next village, the sounds of steel ringing and warriors shouting carried clearly in the crisp winter air.

Khulgar was giving serious thought to his next troop movements and as to who was going to replace brave Ekaj as a lieutenant, when his train of thought was derailed by the big warrior at his side.

“I’ve given it some serious thought, Khulgar.” said Lycon, “You need to move on. Your mate has been dead a long time. Exactly as long as your sense of humor, in fact.”

“What? Why are we talking about this now?”

“Loneliness does not befit you, Khulgar,” continued Lycon, “It makes you grouchy and unpleasant.”

“We are on a battle field right now!”

“I’m just saying that you could use the attentions of a woman. A mead in one hand, a soft breast in the other, and a round butt sitting upon your lap.”

The young Daughter of Gaia shrank into the recesses of her cloak and shrugged her shoulders. She fell back a little, to put some distance between herself and the big one-armed Graytide.

Khulgar bared his fangs.

“Shut your mouth, Lycon.” he said.

“I am merely saying, old friend,” said Lycon, “what no one else would dare tell you. Your mate has been dead a long time.”

Khulgar ground his teeth and clenched his fists.

“You know what else has been dead a long time?” he said, “The days when you were of sufficient station to talk to me so casually.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, Khulgar?” growled the one-armed Graytide.

“Time and again I have looked to you for wisdom, and all I get is foolishness and selfishness.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” shouted Lycon, “I’m just trying to look out for you, old friend!”

“No. You aren’t. You’re embarrassed that that amateur swordswoman got the best of you and almost killed you. Now you’re looking for an excuse to show her a different kind of swordplay. You are just trying to manipulate me.”

“I cannot believe that you would even suggest such a thing! You ungrateful bastard!”

“I cannot afford another one of your failures like at Uslog. Take the Daughter to the front line. I must find Black Owl. You are dismissed.”

“Khulgar,” snarled Lycon, “I taught you everything you know!”

“I most certainly hope not, Lycon.” growled Khulgar, turning to walk away.

“I made you, dammit!” bellowed Lycon, “I made you! You wouldn’t be where you are today if it weren’t for me!”

Khulgar stopped dead in his tracks and his shoulders tenses in primal rage. He suddenly spun around to face Lycon once more with a glare that would cut lesser men down where they stood.

“And where am I, Lycon?” he shouted, “Where am I? I stand here in Ulven territory, and, yet, in enemy territory. Do you not understand? Do you not see? This is wrong, Lycon! Why do you revel in it, so? Why do you love such grim business?”

Lycon stared at his old friend until he could no longer bear his gaze. Then he averted his eyes and clenched his fist. The young Grimward Daughter of Gaia tried to hide within the hood of her cloak.

“Khulgar,” said Lycon, “this is the ultimate test of a warrior. It is the greatest opportunity in all of history to gain glory and the favor of the Great Wolf. We face our corrupted peers. We face other warriors! Not stinking cannibalistic animals, but real Ulven warriors!”

“Then what does that make this, Lycon?” snarled Khulgar, “The final battle? The end times? The glorious and bloody climax to some ridiculous holy conflict?”

“Blasphemer!” shouted Lycon, “You know damn well that this war is all about preventing the end times!”

“Is it really?” said Khulgar, “Or do we instead hasten it? As we tilt the ears of the Great Wolf with violence against our own people, have we forgotten the other half of our spirituality? What of Mother Gaia? What damage do we do in our conquest? What consequences must we live with in the future?”

Lycon shook his head. He said nothing. Nor did he meet Khulgar’s gaze.

“You!” shouted Khulgar, “Daughter of Gaia!”

The poor girl gasped in terror as Khulgar grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Tell me!” he said, “Tell me that this is Gaia’s will! Tell me that we are justified!”

“Please.” whimpered the frightened Daughter of Gaia, “Please, don’t.”

“Tell me!” he shouted, “Tell me that it is Gaia’s will! Tell me that I am her instrument!”

The girl’s eyes were huge with fear.

“Tell me!” he shouted, shaking her violently.

“Yes!” screamed the girl, “You do her work! It is her will! Please, let me go!”

“Coward!” roared Khulgar, shoving her into the snow, “So easily manipulated. And this is our spiritual leadership?”

He turned to face Lycon.

“Even if it is the will of the gods, Lycon,” he said, “it is dark work. At least pretend that it bothers you.”

Khulgar turned and trudged off the trail and into the wet and heavy snow.

“And so that’s it?” said Lycon, “And now you turn your back to me?”

“Consider yourself relieved of your duties as my advisor.” said Khulgar.

“You ungrateful wretch!” shouted Lycon, “I treat you like family and you betray my trust and my loyalty!”

“Traitors are the worst kinds of enemy, Lycon,” Khulgar said over his shoulder, “because they were once brothers.”

Lycon looked like he was going to say something, but instead he just stood there in silence for at least a minute. The poor Daughter of Gaia sobbed uncontrollably within the hood of her cloak, and fell to her knees in the snow. She felt as though she might throw up.

From the shadow of a pine bough, Corvo Blackwing regarded the entire scene undetected. As Lycon stormed off dragging the Daughter of Gaia by the wrist, Corvo redirected his gaze to the shrinking silhouette of Khulgar Graytide. The corner’s of the Blackwing’s mouth slowly curled upwards into a grin not easily replicated by one possessed of a sane mind, and his eyes laughed in silence like those of a rabid wolf.

*

After the Witch had finished tending to Drifa, she retired to one of the buildings in the little village, leaving the prisoner with the two female guards.

“I don’t think she’s going to make it.” said the first guard.

“Why not?” said the second.

“Because, the Chieftain seemed interested her.” replied the first guard, “And I can’t have anyone competing for his attention. I’ve worked too hard to get this close to him. When he picks a new mate it will be me, or no one at all.”

“Oh!” giggled the second guard, “I see what you mean. Now that I look at her, she doesn’t look too good, does she? Maybe the Witch missed a wound.”

“Yes,” said the first guard, drawing her dagger, “this one, right here.”

The guard pulled up on the edge of Drifa’s kidney belt and slipped the dagger underneath the armor and into the Watchwolf’s flesh.

The roving guard outside the wall heard the others talking and turned to peek through the fence. That was the opportunity that old white bearded Nezzer had been waiting for. The young Graytide died quietly and his body fell softly into the deep snow. Nezzer wasted no time. He wasn’t much of a runner these days, but he strode confidently in through the open back gate. The female guards had their backs to him and were taunting the hemorrhaging Watchwolf. As he crunched through the snow, they mistook him for the young warrior he’d just killed and paid no attention. The first guard glanced over her shoulder to say something to the roving guard, but it was too late. She was met with the white visage of a red-eyed wolf upon a black kite shield and a flashing blade across her face and throat ended her life almost instantly. The other guard panicked and stumbled back over Drifa’s bleeding form. The old man hacked gracelessly at the Grimward with all the vigor he could muster until she lie mangled, pumping fresh lifeblood from numerous wounds and crying in the snow. Nezzer was about to finish her, when an arrow whizzed in and stuck in his shield. Three more arrows struck the shield, and he peeked out over the top at the shooter. She was a skinny young girl, no older than fourteen or fifteen. She had made the amateur mistake of an archer who has only hunted, and never fought before. She had run in close to the old man as she fired, trying to get a better shot. She was within charging distance now. She was also clearly out of arrows, and carried no sword. A panicked look entered her eyes, and the color drained from her face as she began hyper-ventilating and stumbling backwards. Tripping over a rock, she landed on her back and made a muffled whimper as the wind was knocked out of her. Nezzer stomped up to her, raised his blade, and made eye contact with her. She had the same look in her eye that a prey animal gets when it has been caught. She was in shock. All was silent for a few seconds, and then she began crying hysterically. Nezzer knew that he needed to kill her. He needed to kill all of them. He couldn’t leave survivors. As he studied the girl, he realized that she was but a short-fanged child. His rage left him as he was suddenly bombarded with thoughts of his own grandchildren being forced to fight for their lives.

“You.” he said, pointing a wavering blade in her face, “You do not belong here. You are a foolish child.”

“Please,” she whimpered, “I was just trying to save my friends.”

“I know.” said the old Watchwolf, “That is why you are going to honor my victory by letting me save Drifa Blackfrost. I have defeated four of you by myself, and I have earned it. I am going to take her and leave now. I have shown you mercy. If you shoot me in the back, the Great Wolf will know of such treachery.”

The terrified girl sobbed and nodded her head.

The old Watchwolf threw Drifa’s arm over his shoulder and grabbed a hold of her kidney belt with his other hand. She could barely support any of her own weight. Almost all of it was leaning on Nezzer’s old arthritic frame. He had barely made it to the gate before he started to seriously doubt whether or not he could actually do this. He’d been a strong young lad once, but that was long ago. It didn’t help that the snow was so deep. Nezzer gritted his teeth, clenched his eyes, and tried his best to control his breathing, but before long, he was snorting like a beast of burden. He tried to adjust his hold on Drifa, but it didn’t help. He was still a long way from the Watchwolf line. He was starting to get his second wind and pick up a rhythm when suddenly, an arrow thwacked into the kite shield that was strapped to his back. Nezzer stumbled forward. He meant to set Drifa down, but momentum got the best of them, and the two tumbled face-first into the snow. Another arrow whizzed just over head, and the deranged cackling of Black Owl echoed through the wood. Nezzer un-tangled himself from Drifa and fumbled to unstrap his shield. Holding it in front of him, he drew his sword and began trudging and stumbling through the snow, as arrow after arrow struck his shield. As he closed with his adversary, poor old Nezzer’s legs were burning and spasm-ing so bad that he could barely bend them, and his shield felt ten times heavier than normal. There was nothing else to do, though, except push forward. He was less than twenty paces away when Black Owl threw down his bow and went for his sword. Nezzer doubted he could defeat this warrior, as fatigued and slow as he was, but his shield did give him an advantage. That was when Nezzer’s silent prayer was answered. Black Owl’s blade stuck when he tried to draw it. Nezzer saw the opening and lunged forward with everything he had. Black Owl’s blade broke free of its scabbard a second too late, and the old Watchwolf was already upon him. Nezzer knocked him to the ground, pinned him down with his shield, and began madly hacking at the fallen warrior’s legs with his sword as if he were chopping wood in a log splitting competition. He only stopped when his arm was spasm-ing so bad he could lift it no more and he was breathing in ragged gasps.

Khulgar Graytide was looking for Black Owl, and he had just found him. The crazed warrior was cackling and shrieking maniacally as he lay bleeding to death in the snow beneath the hunched and shuddering form of an elderly member of the Watchwolf militia. The old Watchwolf heard Khulgar coming up behind him and spun to face him on all fours, splattered with blood and foaming at the mouth like a predator upon a kill. Khulgar was slightly taken aback by the unusual scene, but remained calm as he drew his mace from its belt ring. Nezzer knew he had no chance in a fight against Khulgar Graytide, but he no longer cared.

“Get back, Khulgar!” he snarled, “I have defeated five of your warriors by myself today, just so that I could carry Drifa Blackfrost back to our lines. I am spent, now, but I have earned this small victory. I’m done fighting. If you carry in your heart any sense of honor or respect, you will stand aside and let me carry Drifa home!”

Khulgar narrowed his eyes and studied the hunched and shuddering old Ulven as he stumbled to his feet. Nezzer sheathed his sword, slung his shield, and walked straight towards the Graytide Chieftain as if he wasn’t even there. Khulgar took a small step to the side to let him pass. He glanced over at the mangled and bloody form of Black Owl, who began laughing even more hysterically as the Graytide Chieftain met his gaze.

“What is your name, elder warrior?” he asked Nezzer.

“My name is Nezzer,” he replied, “and I am but an old fisherman, not a warrior.”

Khulgar crouched down to apply tourniquets to what was left of Black Owl’s legs.

“They…” stammered Drifa, who was barely conscious, “They lied to you, Khulgar. Your own people… They lied to you.”

“Hush, Drifa.” whispered old Nezzer, who had his back to Khulgar and couldn’t believe that he was still alive.

“I‘m sorry.” Whispered Drifa, “I… I think I just died. You worked so hard. Thank you.”

Nezzer almost fell over as Drifa lost consciousness and all her weight suddenly shifted.

“Nezzer!” said Khulgar, “I have an important message. You must deliver it to Raskolf Vakr.”

“Very well.” panted Nezzer, hefting Drifa back onto his shoulder, “What is your message, merciful Graytide?”

Khulgar told Nezzer what his message was.

***

The Watchwolves couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw old Nezzer coming back with Drifa Blackfrost on his shoulders. He turned her over to the care of the Watchwolf Daughter of Gaia and checked in with the militia Captain, Artai, who was arranging a prisoner exchange to trade Ekaj for Lucia, the Watchwolf Witch.

Nezzer handed his arrow filled kite shield to a youthful member of the militia, as well as his helmet. Only stopping to get a drink of water, he began falling back toward the nearest settlement that would have messenger hawks. He had to get Khulgar’s message to Raskolf.

As he cleared the outskirts of the village and made his way out onto the road, he heard a noise off to the side. It was a girl. She was sobbing. Nezzer stopped and turned to face her. It was the Grimward he had spared back in the other village.

She had an arrow knocked, and at full draw.

“Coward…” was the last thing Nezzer ever said.

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