It had been a hard journey from New Aldoria, but she had survived, as had the others. It had been a close thing, though. Uncomfortably close.

Drifa pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she stared into the fire. She was tired of travelling, day in, day out. For someone who’d never ventured far from her home territory, the last several months had been a shock. She’d never imagined Mardrun would be this big, leagues and leagues with no end, all the time watching and waiting for the ambush from Mordok or bandits or, even worse, their supposed allies.

Allies. She snorted, shaking her head. More like headaches. The longer Drifa spent around humans the less she understood them. Always rushing about and panicking, half-hysterical most of the time. So dramatic. How could Raskolf stand dealing with them so much? They never listened, bickering and squabbling with each other like spoiled cubs fighting over the choicest teat.

And arrogant? She’d never been so angry as at the first outpost they’d stopped at, when they’d looked down their noses at her, their upper lips curled as if smelling something foul. Her efforts in the smithy had been redoubled that night, and her arms and back had paid the price for it the next day.

Rage wasn’t as useful a tool as folks made it out to be. There was always a price, and sometimes the price was awfully heavy.

Some of the humans were pleasant enough, true. But others were just abrasive, and rude. Honor did not seem to be a commonly-held concept among humans, and dealings with them always seemed barbed, like the worm in a ripe apple.

She sighed and tucked her skirt around her feet, settling herself more comfortably against the chill. Perhaps she was just being paranoid. There were good and bad apples the world over, and one shouldn’t cut down an apple tree over a handful of rotten fruit. She picked up a stick and stirred the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. No, one shouldn’t judge an entire group by the failings of a few.

Drifa had been on the receiving end of that kind of judgment for a long time, until she’d finally found a clan that would take her in. The sense of pride she’d felt when she’d been accepted by the Watchwolves washed over her again. No other clan had opened their home to her, no other clan had welcomed her and healed her hurts and made her one of them. Her, Drifa Blackfrost, the last member of a dead clan, a clan the Ulven believed had been cursed by Gaia for their blasphemy.

She never knew what rite their Clan priestess had performed, and had never felt brave enough to ask the High Priestess Ravensmark. But on the fateful night that old Utta Brightmoon, the Clan Winterclaw Priestess, had performed her strange ritual, the Mordok had come boiling out of the forest like hornets, slaughtering her people in numbers she’d never believed possible.

She could still hear the old woman’s voice, cracked and papery, lifting Gaea’s protection and blessings from her clan, calling down Gaea’s vengeance upon them, tears streaming openly down her wrinkled face until a Mordok spear buried itself in her throat. She could still hear the shrieks of the children, the fierce, gruff battle-cries of the warriors, the clash of steel and the dull, sickening thud of the club that dashed her father’s brains across the snow.

She remembered blood. Blood on the snow, and the discordant, ululating screams of the Unclean Ones. That sound woke her from sleep more often than she cared to admit, and it frightened her to the core of her being. She would do anything to avoid hearing it again, anything, but yet here she was, traipsing through the whole of Mardun with people who fought Mordok, and dead things that didn’t stay dead but walked, and dead mages who didn’t stay dead but cast spells, and other such horrors.

Drifa didn’t fight Mordok. Drifa didn’t fight anything. There was a reason that Drifa Blackfrost was the only surviving member of her Clan.

Drifa Blackfrost was alive because she ran.

The thought shamed her, but she didn’t regret it. Running was the only way she could have survived.

She could remember her father and her mate and their pack, loping back into their village with the heads of the Unclean Ones mounted on their spears and victory painted on their faces. They’d raided a Mordok nest and looted it, taken trophies from the dead and goods in retribution for raids on their own camps. She could remember the angry words of Priestess Brightmoon, her eyes flashing and her gnarled hands clasping her staff in rage as she berated Drifa’s chieftain father for his Pack’s heresy.

Her father’s laughter, and gruff dismissal of her words. The pack began raiding in earnest, ranging wider and wider with their war parties, and always the trophies, always the proof of their conquests, heads and ears and claws and trinkets, crude idols and tools. Soon the whole clan was participating in Helmingur Blackfrost’s depredations, despite the warnings of their Priestess. It was a foggy new moon night Utta Brightmoon performed her dark ritual and the death of Clan Winterclaw came to pass.

She’d never figured out how the Mordok had missed her, as wild as her flight through the misty forest had been. She’d run until she’d dropped from exhaustion. The next morning dawned pale and wan, the sun obscured by rank smoke. Fearful, Drifa had retraced her steps, crept carefully back to the ruins of her Clan’s village. Nothing but atrocities greeted her. There were no other survivors that she could find.

A long period followed of aimless wandering, being driven away by other clans frightened of suffering the same fate as the Winterclaws, before falling into the warm, welcoming, open arms of the Watchwolves, who’d given her a home and a purpose.

Drifa was thankful for a purpose. She’d never had one before and the novelty pleased her. Images of a frustrating youth, a youth spent trying to be something she could never be. Her swordsmanship was poor, her shield work worse. She’d never gotten the hang of weaving or sewing, and a meal prepared by her less-than-able hands would cause even the most ravenous to declare a fast. She’d managed to become moderately competent in treating injuries, but she’d never truly mastered the art, and the complexities of herb lore baffled her.

In short, she’d never really been very good at anything. However, she’d learned that avoiding uncomfortable situations was preferential to bearing the shame of mediocrity, so avoidance became almost second nature to her. Drifa became talented at deferring, at drifting, like the drifting snow she was named for, falling into the path of least resistance.

Now she had found something she was a little bit good at. Smithing was fun, and useful. She could only do simple repairs now, but had hopes of becoming if not good, at least competent. Rhodi Vakr, the Clan Smith, seemed to think there was hope for her. And she could truly contribute to her pack and clan, for the first time. It was a wonderful feeling.

She yawned, baring fangs that gleamed wetly in the firelight. Maybe that feeling was worth braving armies of Mordok and dead things and mages that wouldn’t stay dead and rude humans and strange Syndar and sore feet and tired muscles.


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