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Ten Days to Everspring, Part Two

“It’s big,” I hear Stanrick mumble under his breath as we stand on top of hill in the road so he can get a clear view. From here, we can see the healer’s hall, the Clanleader’s halls and the four foot stone wall with its large wooden burgwall perched atop it – a reinforced fence around the settlement, complete with watchtowers jutting from the wood every thirty feet or so.

I shrug, saying “Such a fortified place isn’t something you think of when you think of my Clan, I know . . . especially considering our highest ideals are knowledge and learning, not warfare. The wall around the city has been there as long as anyone can remember. Nobody is sure when it was built, but we keep it in good repair. If it’s there, we may as well use it.”

I take his hand, starting back down the road. Rambling about the history of the area, “Everspring is built on the largest hill here. The settlement sprung up around the natural hot springs, and the safety of the hill didn’t hurt. Our territory is a mix of everything the land has to offer – we’ve access to the Great Forest to the north, and that’s where the Stargazer holdings are. It opens up into rolling fields to the south – that’s where we are now.” Smiling faintly, I continue, “Not as fertile as Goldenfield’s, but enough to supply us with food. The land gets rockier the further south you get – good enough to hold a few mines. Pack Windwalker mines salt from the walls of Howling Cove.”

Seeing Stanrick perk up at that, I pick up a bit. “How they mine the salt is how they got their name. I should take you there, come Spring. It’s quite a sight. Our main trade with other clans is the Truthseekers – our knowledge of the the Laws used to be sought after by a lot of Clans,” I said, a bit of pride creeping into my voice. “Most of my fellow seekers are off studying the same thing I am, though. This war has us all scrambling, trying to understand.”

I sigh a little. “Though for physical goods, it’s salt to preserve food, stone, clay, and gems to those that don’t have good mining land. Our Clan is made of 5 packs. The story is that Pack Spritclaw, Pack Stargazer and Pack Solfire are all related. Spirtclaw and Stargazer were brother and sister – some say they were twins – and Solfire was a cousin. The founders joined forces to defeat what we believe to be an emanation of the Corruption at the Springs, and they formed the core of the Clan. The smaller Packs of Windwalkers and Cloudwatcher joined later – coastal lands that joined.“

Stanrick looks at me like I have lost my mind and I sigh “Sorry.”

He stops and kisses my forehead “Everything will be fine.” he states as we near the gates. I watch as Stanrick eyes the refugee tents off to the left of the gates. They have been here long enough now that they have even erected a spiked fence made from logs around their camp site.

I frown as I look at the gates. I’m nervous, and I don’t like it. I’m home – I should be happy, but yet all I feel is weariness.

Stanrick tugs my hand “Let’s go, love. Standing out here isn’t going to make it easier.”

We enter the main gates. Passing by one of the larger wells, I can feel people turning to look at me as I walk past. My blue gambeson and raven-headed torc giving away both my clan and my job. I can see people leaning in and whispering to each other as I pass, hand in hand with Stanrick. I set my eyes to the smoothed path in front of me, helping Stanrick pull the sled across the stones – had I been thinking, I would have attached the wheels so it would behave like a cart before we entered the settlement.

Stanrick looks up and around at the houses and structures as we pass. They vary in size depending how big a family is living there. Most of the houses are wooden in construction, fortified and strengthened against the winter with stone or fired clay brick. The Clan’s tradition is to build two floors – though the first is normally sunken into the earth a few feet to help keep cool in the summer and warmer in the winter, and to aid in storing grains and dry goods over the long winters. With their thatched or wooden roofs, they’re another reminder of what I’ve left – there’s nothing nearly so elaborate at Onsallas.

We pass by the main square where more refugees have set up, and I can see Stanrick’s hand rest nervously on his sword. I show him down a path off the main square and stop before a communal house – close to the human’s inns, but with promises of work and hospitality rather than money. Walking past the familiar hand-painted sign declaring it to be “The Drunken Uncle”, I help pull the sled to the back of the building and into one of the storage sheds.

“We’ll take out what we need and can come back for the rest later.”

“You don’t have a house here?” Stanrick asks as he tucks his extra armor under his arm and a pack over his shoulder

“No. I am not allowed one.” I state as dig out my packs and hike them on my shoulder.

He frowns at me.

“I am still an active Truthseeker. I get sent all over the place. It used to be to help settle disputes over territory lines, or to help a chieftain research a problem because he can’t see an unbiased view of the issue. I’m not here often enough to make having a home practical. If I ever get taken off of active duty then I can have a home… maybe.” I say.

We walk around back to the front and up the small steps to the door, which I push open, the warmth of the room washing over us as we step in. It’s quite large, with a heavy stone hearth in the back holding a nice warm fire. The bar sits off to the left, a dozen seats set before it, and the room is scattered with about five or six tables. There is a door to the right of the bar that I know leads off to the spacious kitchen with its brick ovens and large cooking fire, as well as the part that would interest Stanrick the most – large casks of mead and wine, ready to be tapped for thirsty warriors. Furs and tapestries hang from the walls in the main area, and a set of stairs head up from just to the left of the hearth.

I hear rustling in the kitchen as a older male walks out behind the bar. He is not a little man, with the physique of a warrior that has long since retired from the front lines. In his late 50s with gray creeping into his closely-cropped brown hair – a habit he still hasn’t given up from his fighting days, even if his long mustache and beard both need a good trim. His eyes light up as when he sees me.

Coming around the bar, he pulls me into a huge bear hug before I could even say anything. Unbidden, tears begin stinging my eyes – more than anything else here, now I feel like I am home. Bowmen was a close with my father, often acting as his bodyguard back before my parents met. They both defended the walls when the Mordok came in force to Everspring – he was my father’s best friend, the father I never knew I had. After my family had died, it was Bowmen who picked me up off his tavern floor when I stumbled in. He put me to work, taking care of me and making sure I didn’t lose myself to grief.

“Keres shared the letter with me about what had happened to you in the black. You have had everyone worried, child.” He scolded me as he hugs me tightly.

“Sorry,” I mumble into his tunic. He holds me out at arm’s length, looking me over, checking for wounds and the like. Satisfied, he finally notices Stanrick. They stand there for a while, silently sizing each other up in the way only warriors can do.

“Stanrick Longfang, Warrior of Pack Longfang,” Stanrick finally says, breaking the silence hold out his arm.

Bowmen eyes it for a moment before clasping his wrist. “Bowmen Spirtclaw, Pack Spritclaw. I am assuming you were charged to guard Selena by your Pack Elder?”

Stanrick nods “I was. I wasn’t about to complain, either.” I can see Bowmen raise an eyebrow at that as he smirks a little.

“Yes, Bowmen, Stanrick and I are mates.” I finally sigh. I could see him putting the pieces together already.

Bowmen smiles broadly, and I can hear the sarcasm creep into his voice. “No, you don’t say. “ I glare at him, and he laughs heartily, the same Bowmen from my childhood. “It was about time, child,” he says, walking back behind the bar. “So, what has brought you back?”

“I was expecting to hear word back from the Clanleader about my next move after I came out of the black. I didn’t receive anything, so once I was well enough to travel again, I came home. Is there anything wrong here?” I ask.

Bowmen frowns, saying “Nothing out of the ordinary as far as I am aware. We are still getting refugees, maybe two or three a month. Some of the Clan’s Daughters have set up a kitchen in the square to help feed them. They’re trying to pull their weight and be good guests while in our territory. Some of those who want to be warriors help with patrols and keeping everyone calm, others help cook in the refugee kitchen. They even go out to try hunting and fishing to help offset the burden. They even helped clear the paths of snow during the last snowfall.“ As he lists this off, I see Stanrick shift uncomfortably.

I frown and sigh. “I see. How are stores holding up?”
“They are good for now, though if the troubles increase, we are going to need help to feed them all.“ Bowmen states.

I nod. “I am not surprised, I am hoping the Elders are already talking to the neighbors to secure extra food should be be necessary. I will bring it up with Clanleader Cahal.”

“How long you staying?” Bowmen asks.

I shrug “ I don’t know. The weather was getting bad on our way here. We may get snowed in for a while.”

“You know the trade. You cook while you are here, and everything is fine.” Bowmen smiles

“I know. Stanrick caught a deer a few days ago, so we smoked it to preserve it long enough to get it here – though it needs to be properly cured and dried.” I state.

Bowmen smiles. “I’ll bring it in and set it up for curing.” Bowmen reaches under the counter and pull out two brass keys, handing one to each of us. “I’ll keep some of that deer, and send the rest to the kitchen in the square.”

I nod in agreement, leading Stanrick up the stairs to the door at the end of the hall. I open the door for him and push it aside. The room is fairly large, with a small stone fireplace and mantel on the left, with a cooking hook for a tea kettle or hanging oven, as well as a small stash of wood near by. A large four poster bed, covered in blankets and furs, sits against the back wall, with a trunk at the foot. A large round table sits to the right of the door across from the fire place – a cozy place for travelers. Walking to the back wall, I set my bags down. Stanrick looks around – it’s smaller than then his cabin, though not by much.

“Are the other two rooms we passed this big as well?” He asks.

“No, they are smaller. They have cast iron stoves and double beds – it’s where my brother and I stayed when we where younger.”

“So, what’s next?” Stanrick asks
.
I sigh, saying, “Next . . . I go make my presence known to the Clanleader, and we work from there.”

++++++++

Stanrick and I stand at the steps of Clanleader’s Longhouse, set atop heavy stone risers carved from the hillside itself. Perhaps the largest longhouse I’ve ever seen, it is about two and half stories of solid oaken structure with intricately-carved and inlaid pillars on either side of the door. If you have a trained eye, you can see the protective runes embedded within the knotwork. The doors are imposing, with reinforced hinges and an elaborately decorated archway, carved to look like two large oak trees, each holding a raven watching any who enter.
I paused just outside the doors, forcing my face to go blank and trying to stamp out the roiling emotions I felt. I need to be about business now. Adjusting the backpack on my shoulder, I meet the guard’s eye and he nods at me, only glancing at my escort for a moment before tapping his neck. I nod back, adjusting my torc to be perfectly straight and smile at him before signaling that he can open the door. Taking a deep breath, I enter the halls.

The main hall is large, two-level room with individual boxes on the second level balcony for the Clan’s Elders to have meetings away from the general public, who even nowc crowd the lower level. Benches, stored off to the side, offer seating, and can easily be removed from hall. Tapestries depicting the symbols of the Packs that make up Spiritclaw hang from certain boxes, denoting the Pack that sits there. Today is like every other, the hall busy with dignitaries from the various clans vying for the Clanleaders attention, Stewards meeting with craftsmen and traders, making sure their goods and skills are put to best use. The hall is more crowded than usual, however – refugees trying to stay warm, no doubt. I feel Stanrick right on my heels as I weave through the crowd.

“I think I saw dignitaries from clan Grimward and Nightriver.” I hear Stanrick whisper to me.

I nod, responding “Not surprised. I am sure they are trying to convince my clan to pick a side.”

Approaching the simple riser that has three elaborately carved chairs – a large one in the center and two slightly smaller ones flanking it – sitting in front of doors on both sides that lead to the studies and living quarters of the Clan leader and his family, as well as for the High Priestess. Between the doors hang a large dark green banner with the three gold arcing stars, the symbol for Clan Spiritclaw. To the left and right there are smaller banners – red with a golden flame in the middle for Pack Solfire, and an one from Clan Steinjotunn; Vedrfolnir, I believe. These banners represent the Clanleader, the High Priestess and the Clan Leader’s primary mate.

I need to take a few moments to take in the entire scene. The Clanleader, the High Priestess, and his mate all sit in their appointed places – not exactly a rare occurrence, but a reminder of what my Clan holds dear. That, and the reasons I have returned.

Clanleader Cahal Spirtclaw perches on his chair, studying a manifest that had been handed to him by one of his Stewards. Cahal looks to be in his sixtieth winter, and has been Clanleader for about 20 years. I still remember when he got elected – I was in my early teens, and I remember the Moot that it happened at. It was one of the largest Moots that anyone can remember. His short cropped blond hair, just barely dusted with gray, though its hard to see, serves to highlight his yellow eyes – an especially bright mark of the Great Wolf – and even at his age, his fangs remain quite large. Born on the cusp of the Truthseeker moon and the Talesinger moon, he seems to have the unique ability to both see the balance of the situation and express his thoughts eloquently. Seriously wounded in the Mordok attack that Bowmen speaks of, he recovered after a time but needed the use of a cane since then. Moreso than any other Clanleader in our history, he relies on his Truthseekers, as traveling is difficult due to his infirmity, though he has been known to show up unannounced in especially tricky situations. Dressed in dark green woolen pants and a white tunic, overlaid with his dark green woolen doublet, as well as a silvery wolf pelt over one shoulder, demonstrating that he is both Clanleader and Chieftain – and warding off the chill, I suspect.

To his left in High Priestess Morrigan Solfire, bearing the dark red hair and yellow eyes that all females in her Pack acquire as marks and wearing a burgundy dress – well-suited to her hair – over a black woolen chemise. Despite being the High Priestess for about 30 years, she is younger then Clanleader Cahal. Pack Solfire has always had more daughters than sons – and while not quite as numerous as the Daughters of Goldenfield, they certainly produce the most Daughters in our Clan. Morrigan’s eldest son Faelan leads her Pack as chieftain, though Morrigan is still a Pack elder and is often consulted on matters – no matter how embarrassing it is for him to be chastised by his mother for rash actions. Faelan happens to be at court today, leaning over his mother’s chair and talking to her about whatever matter happens to be on his mind. Only a few years older than me, he has had his marks for a long while – dark hair, worn long and pulled back into a tight ponytail, red eyes, and – like his mother – the Great Wolf’s fangs.

To Cahal right is Gjerta,originally from one of Steinjotunn’s Packs. Even though her and Cahal are mates, she does occasionally travels between the Clans so she can visit her relatives. More than just the Clanleader’s mate, though, she oversees our clan’s hawks, explaining her presence at the high seats of the Clan. Near her, their son Henrick is studying hawk feathers – the same age as Asgeir would have been. They played often when I was in town.

He is actually the first one to notice me, and comes racing down the steps to tug on my gambeson while smiling up at me. I kneel down as he eagerly holds up two feathers.

“This is from a red-tail hawk, and this one is from a gray one.” he says eagerly.

“That’s very good, Henrick. Are you going to follow in your mother’s footsteps? ” I ask.

“I don’t know yet. It depends if I have any skills with the actual animals, but mom says I can’t play with the hawks ’till I’m older,” he states with the enthuasism of a child. He holds the gray feather out to me, “I’m glad you’re home. I was afraid you disappeared like Asgeir did.”

As he finishes speaking, I take the offered feather. It amazes me how children can say the simplest things and – yet – touch us to our core.

“Thank you, Henrick” I smile, and he turns to bound back up the stairs. His mother, witnessing the entire exchange, smiles and leans over to her mate while nodding her head in my direction. Cahal looks up from his manifest and studies me for a moment before handing it back to the Stewards and dismissing him. He motions me over, and I kneel down before him.
“Rise, Truthseeker. You are home now.” He states.

“Thank you, Clanleader. I have much to report.” I start as I stand again.
“I bet you do,” he says, cutting me off, though he is no longer looking at me – he is looking past me, to Stanrick. Sensing the proper decorum, he has taken up a defensive position behind me, just to my left. “I see you have warranted a Longfang escort back from Onsallas.”

“Of sorts, Clanleader. Runeseer Solveig saw cause to send me home with an escort, this is true. This is Stanrick Longfang, warrior of Pack Longfang and my mate,” I state.

Cahal’s eyes snap back in my direction, and he frowns at me. I can feel a cold sweat starting at the small of my back as he continues to glare at me. I dare not flinch or move, feeling the tension in the room thicken. Stanrick shifts beside me – I now have the attention of High Priestess Morrigan and Gjerta. Morrigan is studying me with the same gaze as Cahal, and Gjerta looks at me sympathetically, as Henrick’s eyes shoot back and forth between me and his father, uncertain what is going on. Cahal raises his cane and slams it down on the floor, the echo reverberating around the room, as everyone falls silent and all eyes turn on us.

I try to keep my breathing calm and controlled, I knew that this was a possibility.

“You are a Truthseeker. Your duty is to me and my people – your people.” Cahal states loudly so everyone in the hall can hear. “Before this assembly and your mate, recite your oath to me so all can remember what it is you do for Gaia.”

I breathe in deeply and take off my raven-headed torc, holding out the end for Cahal to grasp. “I, Selena Stargazer, daughter of Haldane Stargazer, who was the son of Freya Stargazer, who was the daughter of Huginn Stargazer, whose truth rang in the Great Wolf’s ears, do reaffirm my pledge to you, Cahal Spritclaw, as my Clanleader. I pledge to fly out when beckoned, as the Ravens did for the Great Wolf, and bring back news and information. I swear to do so honorably and without prejudice or bias so that you may make a decision with a balanced heart. Should I fail at my duties, I shall be cast out, never to see hearth nor home again, and upon my death, the Great Wolf shall eat me, denying me my home in the hereafter.”

Cahal nods at me and loudly pronounces, “As a member of the raven’s flock, I reaffirm to you my support, and hereby swear on the ring of the Truthseeker that you will be my eyes and ears. Those who threaten you, threaten me, and as the Great Wolf promised protection to the ravens for their loyalty and service, I hereby affirm that same oath to you. So Gaia, hear my oath, and the Great Wolf hold me to it.” He releases the torc, and I return it to my neck while taking a step back.

“Both of you shall meet with us for dinner. We shall talk then, Truthseeker.” Cahal says.
“Yes, Cahal,” I answer, and with that, we were dismissed for the time being. Stanrick steers me towards the wall under the balconies.

“What was that all about?” he hisses at me.

I shake my head “If I had to wager a guess, it was a show of dominance. I have a feeling that Nightriver and Grimward had been pushing him hard. It was a show to them and anyone else that he is, in fact, in charge, and he will not be so easily swayed by pretty words. I was used as a reminder that he is in charge, as well as the fact that I am his eyes and ears, so killing me – or any of his Truthseekers – will have greater consequences than they realize.”

Stanrick harumphs at me “Make sense, I suppose. I still didn’t like it.”

“I know, beloved.” I kiss his forehead.

Stanrick and I walked passed the guards stationed at the doors to the private section of the Great Hall, our escort leading the way. Evening meal had come; most of the hall had cleared out. Even the refugees has left to go down to the kitchen in the square. Our escort led us to the large dining room at the back of the lodge. My cousin caught my gaze as we entered the room – she is apparently on duty tonight. All awkwardness aside, the dirty look she gave me when Stanrick walked in beside me was quite entertaining. There had been two seats saved for us across from Gjerta and Henrick. Even High Priestess Solfire and her son Faelan were there tonight. I could feel my steps falter a bit as walked. Taking my place next to my Clanleader and across from Gjerta, Stanrick sat to my left next to Faelan and across from Henrick, who studyied him with an unabashed look of awe on his face. He had never seen a Longfang warrior before, though I know he has heard the tales. The last time Clanleader Cahal requested the skills of the Longfangs was well before Henrick was born, but the stories were still told.

Servers began bringing out the food; legs of lamb and chicken, root vegetables and unleavened breads, along with wine and mead. Gaia bless children for being the ones who can just come out and ask the uncomfortable questions that must be on everyone’s minds.

“Selena . . . why did you go into the Swamp? Did you not want to live anymore?” Henrick asked.

I was in mid-chew on my bread and meat, and it took some self-control not to choke on it. I could see the blush starting to rise on Gjerta’s face and the disapproving look that Cahal shot his son, even though Henrick was oblivious as he looked at me in wonder.

Sighing, I began, “No, Henrick, I went because I was needed. I was told they needed someone who could divine locations. Since I had fought with the corruption when I helped bring the idol back here last summer, they thought I might be more resistant and could handle the Swamp better. I knew Ulven were going into the swamp. I was not going to let them go alone when I had the skills necessary to help bring them home.”

Henrick frowned at me. “But you almost died. And what about your job to father?”

“Yes I almost did die. There were also a large number of Outsiders that went as well, and I knew it would be a good opportunity to see how they would react. Nothing brings out the truth more than facing death. Fear often strips away pride and prejudice, as well as making us realize things that are truly important. In that case, not all Outsiders were good, but there were some that rose above. Even though it took us longer to get home, most of us made it back.”

Henrick narrows his eyes at me as he contemplates what I said. “I still think it was dumb for you to go into the swamp.” He states plainly.

I hear Stanrick stifle a giggle behind his glass of mead.

I sigh, “Yeah, you aren’t the only one.”

“So what were you divining?” High Priestess Morrigan asks me.

“At first I thought I was looking for a book. That was the item that the majority of the group was looking for. When the cart and everything broke down, I thought I was trying to find the best way out of the swamp. Apparently, neither of those things is what I was connected to.” I nudge Stanrick, who pulls out a Star of Gaia from under his tunic. “Apparently, I was looking for that.”

“The group we call the Pirates found it amongst other items in the Swamp. After hearing about how Stanrick and I almost died – how annoyed I was that they just left without telling me they found it so I could stop looking – they offered it to me as an apology, along with some their tasty drink. That, and I think they knew if they tried to barter it back to us, we may have just killed them to return this to the Ulven people. “ I shrug a little “ When I touched it, I knew that it was the item I was tracking in the end. How such a powerful item got so far into the swamp, I have no idea.”

Pausing, I turn and look at Clan Leader Cahal. “ The Pirates are not the most honorable of the Outsiders. but they understand the rules of survival better than most. The Captain understands the idea that he needs to take care of his crew. His crew may not like him – nor, on occasion, respect him – but they do follow him when push comes to shove. Their rituals are a little strange – I watched them brand his own son as a rite of passage, and they have a slave girl who I think is torn between wanting her freedom and wanting the companionship that the crew provides. They are unique, even among the Outsider groups I have seen”

“Are they a hindrance?” Cahal asks.

“Currently more of a nuisance than a hindrance.” I state.

“But they almost cost you your life!” Henrick blurts out.

I blink at the child. “Yes, but they also apologized. It would be rude not to accept their apology. They are trying, and I think they are learning. Their old life of raiding doesn’t get you much here. We don’t trade the shiny things like Outsiders do, so those things are not on the few boats we set to the seas. So raiding our ships is not as valuable as it was at their home – or at least, not as valuable as they would like. Besides, the moment they become a hindrance, people – either Ulven or Outsider – will just kill them. “ I state. Henrick seemed to calm down with the notion that if they become too much of a problem they will just be removed.

Cahal looks at Stanrick “You have been quiet. The Outpost has a constants stream of Outsiders and visitors, more than any other territory outside of Nightriver. What has been your take on the Outsiders?”

Stanrick leans back in his chair, pulling out his pipe from his waist pouch. He contemplates the question as he packs his pipe, finally responding in his quiet voice, “I have mixed feelings. They have stepped up, time and time again, to defend the Outpost. When Whiteoak tried to raid and take over both the Outpost and the village, Humans came to defend the village. There are downsides as well – there has been an increase in bandit activity on the roads leading to the Outpost. While most tend to behave in the Outpost, we have some whose silly games have almost burnt it down. Then again, my younger brother has almost burnt down the outpost on occasion.” Stanrick pauses to take a long drag on his pipe. “Honestly Cahal, they are like our young; they don’t know the rules or customs and need lessons. Some are older and never had a hand to guide them, so it makes sense that they resent us for trying to show them how to act. However, I do know one human, a honorable man who goes by the name William – you would think him an Ulven who just lost his fangs. I think he is the reason that, even though I lost my first mate and father to them in the war, I can look past that and see good reason in keeping them around.”

Cahal leans back in his chair in contemplation.

I frown “I saw Grimward and Nightriver emissaries when I came in.”

Cahal looks up at me and sighs. “Yes. They have been here for about a month now. Each trying to outdo the other with getting my attention. It’s why I called you out like I did. Both their words are compelling, but I trust the stories and words you Truthseekers bring back; they hold more weight as they are not clouded by personal judgment or the judgment of their Elders. They would do well to remember where my priorities lie – the truth we seek, rather than the truth they think exists. You weigh the needs of the people with what you see and hear.“ I nod in agreement to that. “If anyone want to get my attention, they best do it through the Truthseeker I have sent to discern the truth in this struggle and prove that their side is the one Gaia has chosen.”

“What is our neighbors’ take on all this?” I ask

“Stienjotunn is remaining neutral – or as close as they can while still following the path set out by Gaia. Many rely on our Hawks. “ Gerta states.

Cahal nodds “Goldenfield seems to be leaning towards Nightriver, as they have always had good relations. Squallborn are being awfully quiet; though their ancient ties to Grimward worry some, they do not seem inclined to jump one way or another. From what I can tell, no one has contacted Axhound yet, though they have had no love for Whiteoak for as long as anyone can remember.“
I frown, “If we haven’t started talking to some of the neutral clans, we should. I hear that our stores are holding for now, but if the increase in refugees happens, we may be struggling.”

High Priestess Morrigan looks at me. “It’s being handled. The early snow and cold has made getting messages and sending emissaries out harder than normal.”

I decide now is a good time to change the subject. “High Priestess Morrigan, has anything become of the Idol that I had cleansed?”

She frowns at me “ Progress has been slow going. As you know, many tasks have gotten sidetracked due to the war and refugees. We are still trying to figure out a way to approach it safely, but for now, its corruption is contained enough that, unless a large band of Mordok try to steal it, it is of a lower priority.” I sigh a little at the news, disappointed at the slow progress.

“Though, speaking of new things . . . “ she smiles at me. My wine glass halts, halfway to my lips. “You have a new mate.” Both Stanrick and I shift in our chairs, feeling uneasy.

“Yes, I do. Is that a problem?” I ask slowly, a hint of confrontation from the earlier display creeping into my voice as my eyes shift back and forth from everyone at the table trying to gauge them. I had a feeling that this topic was discussed before Stanrick and I arrived.

Cahal began speaking first, his voice completely different from our encounter in the Hall. “Oh no, of course not, child. Your mother would have been elated at your new choice, but your father, on the other hand . . . “ he paused, picking his words carefully, “ . . . would have been weary, but happy for you.” Cahal smiles at me – he knew my father and my mother before he became Clanleader. They had all fought to defend the settlement from the Mordok onslaught forty years ago, and it was dad’s Pinead sap bandages that helped to save Cahal’s leg.

“You two need a test that you can do together, to prove that you are good mates.” Morrigan stated, matter of factly.

“What about the job I am already on, won’t it interfere?” I ask, worried at this new turn of events.

“No. The High Priestess and I had discussed it.” Cahal says, taking over for Morrigan. “We have figured something suitable for both of you, and it ties in to the job that you are already doing for me.”

I could feel the sense of dread coming on. Stanrick looks to me, and then at Cahal and Morrigan. We both know this is traditional, Clanleaders and Elder often test new couples to make sure that they are going to work well together, but it has been a while since Runeseer Solveig saw fit to send Stanrick on any sort of test with his previous mates.

“We would like you to study the Outsider’s culture more.” Cahal stated.

I blinked a few times, trying to process this. “You have more experience than my other Truthseekers with Outsiders. I expect that, since your new mate has his own duties to attend to as well, that you will be spending more time near the Outpost. I will shuffle the other Truthseekers accordingly, to make sure their wings cover all the fields I need to keep my eyes on. Morrigan and I would like to hear more about the Outsider’s rituals, their lore, their gods, and their customs,” Cahal says, his voice remaining steady, seeking any hint of fear from either one of us.

“How does this help you with the war, Clanleader?” I ask carefully.

“One of the rumors you brought back to me, early on, was that many of Grimward’s forces believe that Outsiders brought the Undead with them. Even though we know this ‘Lich’,” he said, sounding out the unfamiliar word, ”came out of the Swamp, and to our knowledge, no one lives there. The underlying thought there is that the Outsiders corrupt the land. While the Watchwolf declaration fixed some of it, there has still been a great increase in corruptive idols like the one you brought back, as well as Mordok attacks. If the Mordok are using the Outsider to feed their corruption, it leads credence to Grimward’s rallying cry to cast them off our lands.”

“And if they are aligned with dangerous gods, that falls into my territory.” High Priestess Morrigan adds.

I sigh heavily. The Elders’ logic make sense, and they might be right. If the Outsiders are going to be used to keep this war going, we need to know more about them.

“Is your duty understood?” Cahal asks, looking at both of us.

Stanrick and I look at each other, sighing. “Yes, Clanleader,” we respond in unison.

Cahal nodds “Good. I will compose a letter for Runeseer Solveig and send it with a Hawk so she is made aware of your quest as well.”

The rest of the dinner went fine, with the mood lightening considerably as we spoke of less weighty matters. Cahal talked Stanrick into helping train the guard while he was here. I think Stanrick enjoyed the notion that he is going to get to scare the balls off the Guard. They have not experience Longfang training, and Cahal thinks they were getting complacent, especially given our location on Mardrun and the relatively safety from the Mordok. Time to shake them up. I was to continue my own training with High Priestess Morrigan, as it has become obvious that my magical skills are indeed growing. It also became apparent, as a bitter wind swept through the hall, that we may in fact be stuck here for a while, so we may as well be productive about it.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

It is still fairly early in the night as I lead Stanrick through the streets. His hand rests nervously on his sword as we pass both the square and Bowmen’s common house.

“Where are we going?” He asks me

“My Chieftain’s house. “ I state, weary from the day.
.
“Are you sure you want to go tonight? You sound exhausted.” He frowns at me.

“ I just need to keep it together a little while longer. “ I state. He squeezes my hand as we walk. I just need to get all the formalities and introduction out of the way before I lose my nerve. Clan Leader Cahal took my return and the news of my new mate about as well as I expected., but I had missed the Pack Moot this year as well as I was in Grimward territory talking to Khulgar. I have a lot to atone for and catch up on, between missing that and heading into the Dirge.

We stop in front of a modest house. I knock at the door, and Birgit, Keres’s younger sister, answers the door. She squints at me in the low light before squealing and yanking me inside.

“Moooooooom, Selena is here, and she brought a boy with her!” Brigit yells at the top of her lungs. She’s only seen fourteen winters, and looks like she just got her marks since the last time I saw her. Her eye have turned a emerald green, much like her dad’s, which is quite striking against her brown hair. I also notice that her fangs have grown in while she is yelling across the house.

I groan, running my hand over my face. Yeah, so much for formal tradition. Erin come in from the kitchen, and Garik come down from upstairs. Erin, even though she is dressed only in a dark blue dress over a black woolen chemise, you can tell she is carrying the weight of her station. The hem of her dress is embroidered with silver stars, and she wears the pelt of her station around her hips. We stand there for a moment, looking at each other, before she finally walks up to me and hugs me. I finally allow myself to crumble, the walls and decorum I put up vanishing as I feel tears start streaming down my cheeks.

“I am sorry. I said I was going to be there for you, and I wasn’t,” I state as I try and pull myself back together.

“Shhh,” she says, raising a hand to stroke my hair. “You were doing your duty. No one can fault you for that. The Pack knows that your job as Truthseeker is more important. Nobody is mad at you.”

Erin move to hold me out at arm’s length. “You are here now. That is all that matters.” I nod, relieved at that.

She smiles. “Come sit down and tell me about your escort here.” Erin and Garik are only a few years older than Stanrick by my guess, and the two males have been studying each other while Erin and I spoke.
I nod to her. “Erin Stargazer, Chieftain of Pack Stargazer, this is Stanrick Longfang, Warrior for Pack Longfang, and my mate”

Erin blinks at me a moment, then grins as she holds out her arm to Stanrick. Stanrick clasps her wrist and nods. Erin smiles as she introduces everyone to Stanrick, “This is my mate, Garik Silverleaf, originally from Clan Shattered Spear, though he left his Clan and joined ours once we mated. You have already meet Birgit – she is my youngest.” Garik takes the opportunity to disappear into the kitchen and returns a tray with tea kettle and cups.

“I heard you had dinner with the Clanleader. Probably had your fill of drink for tonight.” Garik states. I smile at that, thinking of how different this reception is to the Longfang’s tradition of getting roaring drunk at a meeting.

We sat at the table, drinking and discussing, and Erin had just finished telling me how the Moot went that I startled when the door slammed open. Keres came storming in, shield in hand, and was at the table before any of us could utter a sound.

“I, Keres Stargazer, daughter of Erin Stargazer, member of Pack Stargazer and Clan Spirtclaw, challenge you, Stanrick Longfang, Warrior of Pack Longfang, to an Honor Duel for the honor of my cousin Selena.” Keres yells, not even bothering to greet either of us.

The loud THUNK was, I was fairly certain, all of our jaws hitting the table. I was about to retort when Stanrick held his hand up in front of me, stopping me mid-thought.

“She made it formal. It’s going to be formal, then.” Stanrick states plainly before I could even open my mouth to argue. He turns, looking Keres straight in the eye without flinching.

“I, Stanrick Longfang, Warrior of Pack Longfang, accept your challenge. We shall fight sword and shield, non-lethally. No magic,” he says, his voice steady.

Keres nods, “Agreed.”

We all head out into the street. Stanrick and Keres stand a good twelve feet apart, facing each other, weapons at the ready. Keres begins, rushing in with a battle cry at her lips, and the sound of steel hitting steel gets the attention of the neighbors and the guard. Erin informs the guard that this is an Honor duel, agreed upon by both parties and completely legal. The guard then stops to watch Keres, a fellow guardsmen. I merely sigh and sit on the steps, scowling. I hate being fought over. I always have.

I have no idea what has gotten into my cousin to try and challenge a man at least twenty years her senior, and a Longfang, for my honor, no less. I am perfectly able to defend my own honor, though I have to admit this must be impressive to the casual onlooker – a Longfang and a member of the guard going at it.

I can tell Keres is trying to get under his defense as she swing furiously, her blade clanging off of Stanrick’s shield. I can also tell that Stanrick isn’t trying very hard right now – fighting defensively, feeling her out. You can almost tell the moment when Stanrick has had enough – his stance changes slightly and he rushes in. Beating Keres’ shield out of the way, taking her off-balance, Stanrick crouches and sweeps her legs out from under her, sending her crashing to the stones beneath her feet. Stanrick steps on her sword arm as he places the point his sword under her chin.

“Yield?” He states calmly.

Keres glares, but sighs “Yes. I yield”

I walk over as Stanrick helps her up. “Now explain what in the Great Wolf’s ball sack that was all about?”

Keres looks at me, then at the ground, before sheepishly starting, “I. . . er . . . you were in the Black. I wasn’t sure you could make sound judgment . .. I thought he took advantage of that . . . ” she stammered out, eyes cast to the ground that she had so recently occupied.

The heat that shot from my eyes could probably have melted the snow around us if I glared long enough. Keres shrank in on herself a little. “I am sorry, cousin.”

I took a deep breath before hugging her. “I am sorry I scared you. I am home for now.”
She grabs onto my cloak and sobs into my shoulder. I hold her for a moment before moving her to arm’s length, smiling as I wipe away her tears. “Oh, and if you ever do that again, I will make sure I ram my staff so far up your ass you will be coughing up splinters for a year.” She smiles at me, blushing furiously from embarrassment, and nods.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

We bid a good evening to my Packmates and I am once again leading Stanrick though the city. I am tired – body and soul, mind and heart, I am just so damn worn. We head up the hill past the Clanleader’s halls. We stand before another hall that is just as big as the Clanleader’s long house, and decorated in much the same way. The outside is decorated with protective runes, worked into intricate images of willow branches.

“This is the Healer’s Hall,” I say. As we get closer to the doors, I hear a familiar thumping noise and quickly grab Stanrick, pulling him to one side before he can protest. He curses as the doors slam open and three boys come running out, stark naked, their skin steaming in the cold air. They jump into the nearest snow bank, taunting the others that they will stay out the longest.

Stanrick simply blinks at them in bewilderment, too stunned to even articulate a curse.

I sigh and shake my head, tugging his arm. “It will all make sense in a moment, beloved” We cross the threshold of the door, and I shut it while Stanrick stands in awe. The Longhouse is considerably warmer than it is outside right now. Pools are carved into the rock face of the hill, and from the top, a steaming geyser spits out water that trickles down and fills the pools. Runoff from the pools flows out the sides of the building, supplying the stream that runs through town for washing clothes and the like. Behind the geyser is an intricate mosaic image, depicting Gaia and the Great Wolf, as well as numerous alcoves that the Healers use for private treatment. A couple of the pools are roped off, the water diverted to the others so those might be cleaned and repaired. In one of the lower pools, I see what had gotten the boys’ attention – three young females were staring at us . . . well, staring at Stanrick. They giggled at each other as I shot them a withering glare. Stanrick, of course, didn’t notice – or pretended to, at least – as they were young enough to be our children. They probably just got their marks earlier this year.

I nod my head in their direction. “Young males try to get attention here through tests of endurance. They warm up in the pools with the girls, then they all rush out and roll around in the snow – whoever can last the longest wins. Though it’s really only a thing during the colder months,” I state as I lead Stanrick over to the dressing alcoves. There are boxes and the like that people place their clothes in. I start to get undressed, with Stanrick following suit. “During summer, it’s a test to see who can stay in the warmest pools the longest. I’ve seen healers have to fish them out after they pass out from heat and stubbornness.”

It’s fairly late now, so the halls are quiet and most of the Healers have gone home. The pools are open no matter how low the sun dips. Tying up my hair, I take Stanrick’s hand, leading him to one of the higher, warmer pools. I slide in, the water coming up to my chest. Stanrick hesitates a moment, seemingly studying something in the pool.

“Oh yeah, the floors are mosaics as well. Each pool has its own image; if you look, you can find Gaia, Luna, Sol, or the Great Wolf.” Looking down, I notice that we happen to be in the one decorated with a picture of Luna sitting, surrounded by moon flowers. Absentmindedly, I remark, “Remind me to set us up an appointment with the healers.”

Stanrick frowns at me, “But we’re not injured. Surely their resources . .. ”

I smile, cutting him off. “No, we’re not, because Thrand is quite skilled, but the healers here are known for their massage techniques. I have seen it do wonders for everything from old wound pains to a stubborn headache that won’t go away.”

Stanrick contemplates this as he slides in, unsure of the textured bottom. I glide forward and sit on the ledge. Stanrick sits next to me and wraps his arms around my body. I latch on to his arms and hold him close.

“Are you okay, love?” Stanrick asks after a few moments of silence.

“I will be. I just need you to hold me for a while.” I sigh.

Stanrick kisses the top of my head.

“Okay.”

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