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Edge of Winter

Yawn had listened, though the request itself had shocked him. Who the hell would ask him – him – of all people to train troops? To raise warriors. He’d become comfortable being the outsider, being out of the call to serve beyond that of shieldmen. He was aware of it. After it was lost. He’d probably be in more discussions had he not stepped off the path. He may yet wind his way back onto that path, but . . . but the only thing that had mattered to him then was being a warrior. Proving himself. Having found it so soon, at such cost . . . that had broken something in him. He could kill. He could wound. He was skilled in it.

But . . . but all the skill in the world with sword, spear, mace, ax, and shield could not mend wounds. Could not cure poison or sickness. Could not set a broken bone, or pop a joint back in place.

He knew he’d gone a bit mad after the raid on the outpost. After the massed attack on Onsallas. In those days of loss, days of blood and thunder, he’d gone mad. Mad with loss. Mad with lament. It was then he had slowly realized what it was he wanted most of all. To end the dying. To pull his friends back from the brink. To protect. To heal. And he was willing then, for the first time in his life, to question what he’d been raised to be all his life. Moreso after the death of his mother, the very night he came face to face with the ghosts that walked. When he’d thrown a boulder at the lich, thinking he’d cornered a Mordok straggler.

He’d already step off the path by then . . . but that night, he fixed it in his mind to keep as many of his friends and family alive as he could. Then it was not about “Could he cast?” . . . He’d passed that barrier . . . but to keep his and his own safe. To grind the dead to dust. To have a means to fight them. Yes, yes skill with the weapon mattered. But the blessing tied to it gave the arm wielding it the means to end the undead. That became his new mark. His new goal. His everything.

The day was cool. As warm as it would get. He stood abreast Kreiger.The details had slipped his mind the moment Kreiger had asked him to train up his new warpack. The snow had not yet dusted the ground, though the frost was gaining footholds, slow and sure.

Siren. Siren had already set off with her lot of green wolflings the evening before. Yawn did not envy them. She would make warriors of them. Or she would gut them trying to do it.

Kreiger spoke at last, and the murmuring crowd at once fell mute. Yawn felt the hard stares and meet them, keeping his face relaxed. Unlike his niece and brother, Yawn’s fury burned cold.

“As you know, Yawn Longfang is your new packmate. I’ve asked him to train you. I’ve asked him to harden you.. The Longfang have stood with us from the start. Many of you know his brother Stannrick and cousin Harlock,” Kreiger paused letting his pack murmur for a moment at those names, shooting a quick grin in Yawn’s direction. Yawn . . . Yawn shot back a quick grimace, just a bit mortified Kreiger would mention his relationship to convince them that he was worth listening to, the odd male who picked up magic from the green one.

Yawn made a note to listen more to Raskolf on matter of diplomacy. Mostly, he waited for a command or a clear opportunity.

Kreiger spoke again. “I will be leaving. To aid the Watchwolves, who, like the Longfang, have stood and bled beside us,” Again, the murmuring came, but one voice . . . one carried over the others – a harsh, deliberate “HUH?”

Umbra . . . Umbra, a brawler of some note in the pit. And an ongoing pain in Kreiger’s backside. By reflex, Kreiger fought not to roll his eyes. This would be trouble. He had a pack of wolves. By nature they would question.

“You’ve something to say then?” Yawn called out, before Kreiger had a chance to speak.

Umbra, who stood a half-head above the crowd, grinned like a loon and shouted, “I”VE A GREAT DEAL TO SAY ON THIS LONGFANG!”

First of all, Yawn was grateful Siren wasn’t here. The pair might scrap like brother and sister, but Gaia and the Great Wolf pity the fool stupid enough to threaten or insult either in front of the other. Yawn forced himself to relax. He’d didn’t have the skill that others did in speech, but he’d listened to those who did. Though in these situations he so seldom did.

“Well then, speak your heart before its bitterness poisons you.” For once, Yawn had a plan.

Umbra swaggered forward, the crowd parting, “Some pup, some crazed pup they send to teach us? Some pup that can cast and thinks himself a warrior.”

Yawn kept his face neutral, but didn’t avert his eyes. He couldn’t allow his eyes to roll or brow to raise. “Quit circling the fire and come to your point, it’s too damn cold to stand around hurling insults.”

Umbras eyes lit up. “Anyone could do better then you.”

Yawn grinned, knowing damn well it would drive Umbra mad. “If you feel so strongly about it, then challenge me.”

That was all the bait Yawn needed to draw Umbra in. Umbra bellowed his reply, eyes flashing with anger. “I challenge you for the right to train the Bloodfangs to -”

Yawn cut off Umbra. “As this is an honor duel, the old ways say I choose the terms. First blood or first fall. Choose your weapon.”

Yawn strode for the rack, unclasping his winter cloak as he did, but did not shrug it off; clenching his hands, he rolled his wrists, popping his knuckles and thumbs. He turned aside a few shields, plucked a heavy round strap shield from the lot, taking it up by the strap, shaking it hard to be certain the straps remained stout, noting Umbra’s choice of a great sword.

Yawn strode to the clear flat patch. Umbra looked on, a bit confused. “Aren’t you going to choose a weapon?”

Yawn replied only “I have chosen. Kreiger, if you’d call the start and finish of the match?”

Kreiger nodded in agreement. “That I can do.” Then, in a softer voice, he asked, “Yawn what in the hell are you doing?” as he strode toward the pair.

“Trust me in this Kreiger, better now then when you’re away.”

Kreiger took a moment to confer with Umbra and Yawn rolled his shoulders, raising the shield to the guard position.

Kreiger withdrew, positioning himself in the ring his pack mates were still forming and murmuring. He raise his arms, and loudly called out, “FIGHT”.

Umbra rushed in, blade arching over his head, a guttural war cry sounding. Yawn lunged to meet him, shield high, his right hand closing over his cloak’s collar, out of sight of his foe and the crowd. Umbra brought the blade’s weight to bear as Yawn punched with the shield, the pommel of the sword ringing as the blow echoed off the stout oak of the shield’s slats, and the edge of Yawn’s shield connected with Umbra’s shoulder. The shield, heavier then any mace or hammer. The cornerstone of Yawn’s gambit.

Umbra cried out as the blow sent Yawn backward, skidding on his heels over the cold, hoarfrost-covered ground. As Yawn felt himself slide, he swung off the heavy cloak, the crowd gasping as he cast it over Umbra’s great sword as it dipped down and to his foe’s right, due to Umbra favoring his uninjured left arm. There was panic in Umbra’s eyes as his right arm reached to clear the cloak from his blade, struggling with his left to raise the lowered blade.

Yawn found his footing and rushed in over Umbra’s lowered guard, lashing out again with the shield’s edge. This time the lower edge struck Umbra’s left hand with a loud crack, and as the blade dropped, Yawn took a second step, driving in and up off his right leg. His left leading, arching the whole of his weight up and and through his shield arm, he clipped Umbra across his chest and cheek. Umbra pitched wildly for a moment, legs struggling to find footing, arms sweeping as he fell.

Kreiger shouted over the crowd’s roar, “FIRST FALL, FIRST BLOOD!”

Yawn tossed the shield aside in order to offer Umbra his hand, pulling his pack mate up by his. The two stared at each other a moment. The crowd fell into hushed murmurs . . . Umbra .. . beaten, bleeding from a cut along his cheek . . .

He grinned, grabbed Yawn’s sword arm by the wrist and raised it. Yawn laughed hard as the crowd cheered. When at last Umbra released his arm, he held his hands up to quiet the crowd. “First, well-fought Umbra . . . ”

Umbra chuckled. “. . . well-fought for a bit of wheat in the wind, mayhap.” At that, the crowd roared with laughter at Umbra’s good humor, even in defeat.

“You’ve fire . . . all of you. I know you burn with it, every fight, every day, in everything you do, you burn.” Yawn started and the crowd again quieted. “But, fire alone is not enough. Kreiger knows this. I know you all would give your lives for those around you, as would the Longfangs . . . as have the Longfangs, without hesitation or a second thought.”

“But to win,” he continued, “to survive as a pack takes more than fire. It takes more than fire, rage, and strength. You’ve stood with Pack Longfang. We have survived not by being the strongest, but by learning. By tactics, and discipline. By learning to move fast, to cull what we need as we go from the land, to outlast our foes, to outmove and outthink them.”

The crowd again grew hushed. . . . it was a strange feeling, being listened to . . . now Yawn knew how Raskolf felt addressing a crowd. “The wolf’s strength is the pack. The pack is only strong when they work together, and this what the Longfang have learned. I am your pack mate. What I ask of you will not be pleasant. Or easy. But let me share this knowledge with you. Let me show you how to fight as a pack. Let me make this gift to you, my pack mates . . . and know now, I will ask nothing of any of you I have not been through, or will not do myself.”

Again the crowd roared. Yawn raise his hands one more time, waiting a bit longer for the crowd to calm itself. “One final point . . . ” Yawn smiled, a bit of nerve showing even through his growing confidence. “Yes. Yes, I am the odd male you’ve heard whispers about – the one that casts. You are my pack. I will make no secret of it. I will hide nothing from you. But I am here to teach you all I can of tactics and fieldcraft, not of my own personal Journey.”

The crowd murmured a bit, so he continued, saying, “Kreiger, I think we’ve stood in the cold long enough – where is it you lot hide the stew pot?”

Kreiger called back, “So we have, Yawn. I’ll lead the way.”

Yawn called back to the crowd . . . no, to his pack. “BE MERRY! Smoke, eat, and drink, for tomorrow, training begins, and I tell you this; before the month is out, you will hate me . . . but you will be a stronger pack.” The crowd again broke into merriment, Umbra slapping Yawn twice across the shoulders – hard – as he joined him.

Kreiger rushed in alongside Yawn. “Was that plan,Yawn?”

Yawn looked to Kreiger. “Well, I knew something like that could happen . . . I hoped not, but it seems to have worked out well. Now tell me more about the rabbit stew – do you favor cheese and rabbit, or rabbit and vegetables? I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather do now than fill my stomach, fill my cup, fill my pipe, and give you a proper send off, Kreiger.”

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