The Other Hunters
Grimward only ever sent scouts.
It made sense, for all they knew the great road through the pass was the only way over the mountains that could accommodate an army. But that didn’t stop Khulgar Graytide from looking for another route, an unguarded way into Nightriver territory among the narrow, unsteady paths the Coywolves walk when time is more important than safety.
Of course, “unguarded” is a matter of perspective when one is discussing the low mountains. The Mordok may have learned to give the road a miles-wide berth, and do not venture into the wide-open space of the tundra, but the foothills and valleys? Those dark, tangled spaces are second only to the Dirge Swamp, especially with the war distracting those who usually keep them at bay. It takes a great deal of luck or skill to avoid them.
And if Grimward does get lucky, and find one of the paths that snake between Mordok dens, well… then there are the others. The hunters that did not seek food.
Banning Redscythe looked down from his perch at the scout party drawing near. Four Ulven, rather than the usual party of six, their clothing torn and bloodstained in places – clearly, they could have found a luckier path. Only one of them carrying a bow, and he was almost out of arrows.
Looking closely, Banning could see family markings on the scouts’ clothing and weapons. All crests and colors he’d seen before, but none that he knew personally. Good. The Redscythes were part of Grimward, once. Some of them still are, and Banning hoped never to meet family on his patrol.
He had left his rucksack and one of his axes – the ice axe, not Leikn, he wasn’t an idiot – on a snarl of roots two trees over when he heard the Grimwards coming, as a sort of bait. It was almost embarrassing, how easily they took that bait, heading straight to the bag without noticing the fresh pine sap oozing from the marks his climbing spurs left. By the time they started scanning the trees for him, it was too late.
The first small, round stone to leave Banning’s sling landed squarely on the archer’s temple, dropping him instantly. Their confusion at the sudden attack bought time to launch a second stone, this one glancing off the leader’s ear – stunning, but not killing her.
The remaining two scouts rushed the tree, clearly not expecting him to come down. They were wrong. Calk boots can do quite a lot of damage to an Ulven neck, especially at the end of a long drop. Rolling out of the fall, he drew Leikn, his fighting axe, and made short work of the last man’s knee and breastbone before the leader could draw herself back to her feet. He closed with her and – seeing the string of phalanges she wore around her neck – turned his axe, crushing her skull with the hammer side, not the blade.
Looking around, Banning sighed, and cleaned the blood off his axe. The easy part was done, and much faster than he had expected. These four would meet the Great Wolf soon… but not immediately. He removed the bandages from the older wounds the Mordok had given them, and pulled a few items from his rucksack.
A few extra blows with a chipped and rusty scimitar here, some scuffed up leaves there. He broke the archer’s bow, and buried the scimitar in his skull, obliterating the mark from the sling stone. Tossed a few shards of a broken shield near the Grimward with a mangled neck. He did not quite have the stomach to make the scene look much more like a Mordok attack than that, even in the case of the leader with the finger-bone necklace. But that was all right. Night was coming, and the still not-voice in the back of his head told him the coyotes would finish the job in a few hours, well enough that Khulgar would not be made aware of the Coywolf hunting party intercepting their scouts, in the unlikely event another party made it in this far.
Not even the Longfang warriors stationed near Edana’s Pass quite realized what the hunting party was doing. Banning and the others left the settlement with a group of hunters who actually were after food. Perhaps they thought this excursion was just a bunch of trappers, and that Ifor Bloodskin was a passive Champion, biding his time in the longhouse until the conflict either spilled onto his doorstep again, or Ioan Hindsblood was magically returned without a scratch on him.
Whatever they thought, it didn’t matter. What mattered is the back ways and deer paths through the mountains remained open to bring supplies to the Watchwolves, and closed to any Grimward incursion. The fewer people who knew what a farce their “neutrality” was, the better.
As Banning changed out of his heavy boots and spurs into a pair of swift turnshoes, a few flakes of snow began to fall from the sky. It was time for him to move on. Leaving a trail away from the fight would be counterproductive, and if he didn’t make it to the rendezvous point in a few hours, his shield-siblings would worry. They were beginning to pull back to the pass – soon, the mountains would be so choked with snow that their patrol would be redundant.
It was time to go home, and see firsthand what the past month had brought to the rest of the pack.