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The Tides of War

Yawn Longfang
Nikolai Longfang
Stanrick Longfang
Raskolf Vakr
Harlok Longfang
Magrat Farwalker
Azra Steelfang
Dria Northwind

The sun-horse had disappeared over the horizon, but residual hues of orange still brushed the caravan camp. The colors gently melted away, however, and gave way to a palette of blues. As Raskolf drew upon his long stemmed pipe, though, the glow from the bowl briefly splattered his features with the color of the sunset past.

“It has been far too long, Raskolf.” said Imglyf, leaning onto the shoulder of her childhood friend.

“Indeed, it has.” said Raskolf, “I only wish the cause of our reunion were a more joyous occasion.”

“Aye, these are troubling times, for sure. But let us not dwell on the darkness. There will be plenty of time for that once you have been safely delivered to the great hall of the Grimwards.”

The pair stretched and rose to their feet. The campfires of the caravan could be seen flickering in the East. Representatives from the settlements had rendezvoused with the Ulven of the Watchwolves, Clan Nightriver, and Pack Longfang. Tomorrow, they would be meeting with Clan Grimward. Their mission was to stop a civil war before it happened.

Imglyf was a sturdy woman, nearly as tall as Raskolf. She had a round face, and could go from warm smile to white-hot snarl in less than a second. Not a lot of people could tell you that, though, since the Ulven don’t believe in communicating with the dead. She would have been a very beautiful woman, if one could only look past the burns. She wore the heavy armor and fine furs of a war-pack leader. Her shield bore the distinctive heraldry of the Lunar camp of the Watchwolves. It was the same heraldry that Raskolf was born under, though his current station, not to mention his marriage, had seen him settled far away, to the eastern horizon, in the Solar camp.

“That little Elise of yours, Raskolf, is this the first time she has met your parents?” asked Imglyf.

“It is. I haven’t made it back to the Western camp for years. If I had, I would have been sure to visit you.”

“She seems to be quite spirited. Are the stories she tells of your adventures true?”

“Yes. I have not raised a liar. She has fought the Mordok since she was six, and was at my side when we faced the Lich and his hungry ghosts.” Raskolf replied.

“Really? And what of these tales of the Night Horse?” smirked Imglyf.

“She befriended the little Prince of New Aldoria on one of our diplomatic missions. She believes that his horse is the Night Horse of Luna.”

Imglyf laughed and leaned on her old friend as they walked.

“It is actually quite understandable.” said Raskolf, “The horses from Faedrun are twice as big as the creatures we are used to here, and this particular horse was as black as soot.”

“I meant no offense toward your child, Raskolf. She is a delightful child. A little thin, perhaps, but strong for her size, and brave for her age. Lighten up.”

Imglyf’s eyes met the road for a few seconds.

“You… you seem to have done well for yourself, Raskolf.” she said.

“I don’t know, Imglyf. I dishonored myself past the point of retribution and destroyed the one thing I wanted in life. I failed my family. I failed the Clan. I failed my friends. I failed the Tundra Wolves, and now they’re gone. The only reason I hold my current station is through the grace of my High Priestess.”

“I wasn’t talking about your position, Raskolf. I was talking about your family.”

“Oh. Yes. I am blessed. But I still disagree with the statement that I have done well for myself. I have a wonderful daughter, and a wife of high station who loves me more than I deserve. I didn’t do well for myself, and I certainly didn’t do well for those who needed me. I was just very fortunate.”

“Do you think that the High Priestess has put you in such a position out of spite? Is it a way to torture you?”

“No, of course not. She loves me. She loves me, and protects me, just as I do to her.”

“I see.” said Imglyf.

“That’s what makes it so hard, Imglyf. I know I don’t deserve what I have.”

“And what do you deserve, Raskolf?” asked Imglyf.

Raskolf opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself before any words crossed his lips. Imglyf’s icy blue eyes sent a chill down Raskolf’s spine and into the pit of his stomach. The two stopped walking and stared at each other. Raskolf clenched his teeth, broke eye contact and started walking again. He stared submissively at the path.

It was silent for a few long minutes, save the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet.

“You’ve changed, Raskolf. You’ve changed, and it is a shame. You obviously don’t remember what you told me when we were young.”

The pair stopped in front of one of the caravan tents. Raskolf didn’t say anything.

“Love is blind.” said Imglyf, removing her helmet and letting the cool night air dance with the patchy wisp that remained of her scalp. “You told me that love is blind. I’ve lived off of those words for twenty years. Obviously, they never really meant anything to you. Are you really that selfish? You talk all the time of this lesson you have learned in humility, but when it comes down to it, it is all about you. Don’t you see? It isn’t about what you deserve. There is no such thing. Look at my face, Raskolf. Life doesn’t care what anyone deserves.”

“But people care, Imglyf. People cared about what happened to you. People cared about what happened to me. People want justice.”

“Those people can burn. I killed the one who did this to me, but it didn’t fix anything. It didn’t make me feel better. Justice isn’t real.”

“It was still a matter of honor, Imglyf, for the Clan.”

“Then the Devourer can have the Clan.”

“You are getting awfully irreverent, old friend.”

“You want irreverence, Raskolf? I have not yet begun to defile my honor.”

Imglyf put her helmet upon her hand as though it were a puppet, moving the visor up and down with her fingers as she spoke.

“Look at me,” said the helmet in a mocking sing-song voice, “My name is Raskolf Vakr. I’m a whiny little bitch-pup. The Clans are at the brink of war and I have been sent to keep the peace. Never mind the fact that my actions might change the world you live in, you should feel sorry for me for having to represent you.”

“That’s not what I sound like.” growled Raskolf.

“Who said that?” replied the helmet, “I can’t see anyone. Speaking of blindness, I’m so goddessdamned blind that I can’t see anything my woman sees in me.”

“That is really immature, Imglyf. It’s a good thing we never married.”

“That is really immature.” repeated the helmet.

Raskolf and Imglyf were suddenly bathed in lamplight as the front flap of the tent opened and revealed the confused face of Father Aegeus, the Human representative from Crow’s landing.

“Enough!” shouted Raskolf, suddenly embarrassed to be pointing a finger into the empty face of a helmet.

The human Cleric’s eyes were wide, and he slowly backed into his tent and began fastening the ties.

“Raskolf,” said Imglyf, “your wife is the High Priestess of the Watchwolf Clan. She saw all of this before it happened. She saw war. She saw the monsters. Did it ever occur to you to ask her what she sees in you, or had you really convinced yourself that she was the one who was blind?”

“I… I never thought…”

“Damnit, Raskolf. You told me that Love was blind. After I was scarred, you told me that not only was Love blind, but that Love was blind because Raven had pecked out her eyes. You said that Love had been maimed, but that didn’t change who she was, and that through her suffering, the most unlikely of us could find each other. That was how I knew I had someone special in you. The other boys stopped courting me after this happened to me, but you still pursued me.”

Raskolf was quiet for a moment.

“But, then why?” he asked, “Why did you reject me? I courted you, for Gaia’s sake!”

Tears rolled down the one eye that Imglyf had which still watered properly.

“I rejected you the night before the Tundra Wolf selection,” she said, “because I wanted you to go. I wanted you to pursue your dream. I didn’t want to be a burden. I didn’t want to be your regret. I didn’t want to be your mistake ten years down the line. I hurt you because I wanted to make you angry. I wanted to make you strong, and give you an advantage over the other boys. It worked. But if I had said yes to you, you never would have tried out. You would have just… settled for me; an ugly mate. You’d probably be a turnip farmer or something.”

“I can’t believe this! All this time… Wait a minute! You dared to complain about me and call me whiny? We could have been mated twenty years now, but you somehow felt that you weren’t worthy, or deserving! What hypocrisy is this?”

“You miss the point, Raskolf.” she sighed, “Things happen for a reason. My action set into motion the events which shaped the man you are. You are not the man I need. You are the man the Ulven need. Your wife sees it, and so do I.”

“It is comforting that you have faith in me, but still I doubt myself.”

“Would it have been more comforting if I hadn’t just openly admitted what a fool I am?”

“Possibly.” said Raskolf, “It is always easier to have faith in another, than in yourself.”

Imglyf shuddered.

“Some lessons,” muttered Raskolf, “can only be learned the hard way. I, for example, have learned never to question the wisdom of a woman.”

“Even if she is a hopeless fool, Raskolf?”

“Yes.” said Raskolf, “Especially so.”

For the first time in twenty years, the two embraced under the light of the moon.

“You know, Raskolf,” whispered Imglyf, “I think I may have been wrong about one thing. Maybe you are the man I need.”

Raskolf kissed Imglyf on the head, and then he pushed her away.

“I would not question the wisdom of a woman,” he said, “but her desires are another thing entirely. Good night, friend. I will see you in the morning. We have a long day ahead of us.”

Raskolf watched Imglyf disappear into the night. She did not look back at him. Raskolf began loading his pipe with tobacco as he walked towards the campfire. He took a seat on the ground next to some slumbering guards and quietly searched his tobacco pouch for a small lighting-stick. Finding a suitable one, he gently placed it upon a rock, and watched the tip closest to the flame begin to smolder. Footsteps approached him from behind. He could tell it was a human by the noise they made when they walked. Raskolf scooted over a bit to make room for Father Aegeus, and the old man unfolded his camp stool to sit down. The human Cleric didn’t say anything. He just quietly and carefully loaded his own pipe with shaky, but patient hands. Once the old man’s pipe was loaded, Raskolf removed the smoldering stick from the fire and politely lit the Cleric’s pipe first, then his own.

———

At the next campfire over, the Longfangs were stretching out for the night. They still wore their armor, though. They were in reserve right now. The Watchwolves of Luna had taken the night watch, appropriately enough, but the Longfangs had to be ready to fight at a moments notice if the Watchwolves sounded the alarm.

Dria and Azra had dozed off back to back, leaning up against each other. Yawn was slumped against a log. His pipe had gone out, and he was drooling on his armor. The others were still awake.

“What do you suppose that was all about?” Wigwald asked Stanrick, as Imglyf stormed through their camp without saying a word.

“It looked like she was crying.” added Nikolai.

“How could you tell in the darkness, Nikolai?” asked Wigwald, “She’s wearing a helmet.”

“Nikolai has keen eyes, pup.” grunted Stanrick.

“There is more to reading a person then just their eyes, young Wigwald.” said Nikolai, “There was grief in the way she carried her head, and regret in her back.”

“Aye,” agreed Stanrick, “I saw embarrassment in her steps as she walked.”

The young Longfang looked confused.

“Wolves cannot speak as we do. Can they, Wigwald?” Stanrick said, poking the fire with a branch and illuminating his face with an orange glow as the flames crawled out from the coals.

“And yet,” said Nikolai, “they speak to each other. You must learn to read a person’s entire body, Wigwald, not just their face.”

Yawn stretched his back, snored, and passed gas in his sleep. He would have been proud of it had he been awake. Wigwald scooted down a little. Azra and Dria scrunched up their faces in their sleep.

“Did you ever wonder, pup,” said Nikolai, “how Yawn is so good at communicating with Harlok? It is because Yawn can read him better than any of the rest of us. He has a knack for it. Having known Harlok for so long helps, I am sure. Isn’t that right, Stanrick?”

There was no answer.

“I said, isn’t that right, Stanrick.”

Stanrick was staring up at the moon. His eyes were glazed over, and he was breathing through his mouth.

“Here, pup.” said Nikolai, “Have a go at this. Look at Stanrick there. What is he thinking about.”

“Well,” said Wigwald, crawling over to get a better look, “he looks like he is in a trance. His eyes are distant, and there is a certain sadness to his face.”

“Look at his shoulders, though.” said Nikolai.

“His shoulders are back. His back is straight. He looks proud.”

“Very good, Wigwald.”

“But what is he thinking about?”

“He is thinking about that human woman again.”

“What?” asked Wigwald, “How can you tell?”

“You saw the signs. You just have to know how to read them. You will learn, with time. You will learn a lot of things.”

“If you don’t stop undressing me with your eyes, pup, you will learn much about hand to hand combat very shortly.” growled Stanrick.

Wigwald quickly averted his eyes and stared submissively into the dirt.

“You may get a lesson in combat sooner than you think, anyway.” whispered Magrat, “Tomorrow, we will see how the other Clans react to your adoption of me.”

Harlock grunted suddenly, and crawled into the firelight. He smoothed out a patch of white ash on the dirt and began drawing with a stick. The others gathered around. Harlok began by drawing many little circles.

“Many moons?” guessed Stanrick. “The past?”

Harlock nodded. He drew the shape of a big man in armor. On the figure’s chest, he made the mark of the Graytide.

“Pack Graytide?” muttered Wigwald.

Harlock grunted and nodded. He then pointed to himself, drew his short sword and chopped down into the ash. When the dust settled, the others could see that he had buried the blade perfectly into the figure’s arm. Harlok erased the figures arm, and then re-drew it upon the ground at the figure’s feet.

“Oh.” said Wigwald, “You have history with them.”

Raskolf and Aegeus smoked their pipes in silence. When Raskolf had finished his, he knocked the excess out upon the heel of his boot. Father Aegeus scraped his out with a metal tool.

“I find myself puzzled by your race, Ambassador.” said the old man, “On the one hand, I hear all sorts of tales of how savage you are. My Friars tell of heathens, polygamous unions, and a blood-thirsty warrior caste. They have compared you to wild animals.”

Father Aegeus fumbled with his tobacco pouch a bit, but managed to put his things away without dropping any of them.

“Then,” he continued, “on the other hand, I have seen tonight that you are a philosophical and passionate people. You live by a code of honor. Not only that, but you demonstrated that you are capable of withstanding temptation. A wild animal could do no such thing. Clearly, my Friars are mistaken.”

“Clearly.” grunted Raskolf.

“You know, Ambassador,” said the old Cleric, “little things like this give me hope.”

“Hope isn’t the same thing as confidence, Father.” said Raskolf, “We all have hopes. Hopes are just wishes that have been elegantly disguised.”

“Well, Ambassador, I place my hope into prayer, and that gives me confidence.”

“If that is true, Father, then the future of Mardrun is merely a wish and a prayer.”

“There is a great deal more to it than that, I assure you. The gods offer us guidance. They speak to us in our hearts, Ambassador. Listen to your gods, and I will listen to mine. Peace is but the noblest pursuit of important men and peasants alike. As long as we are on the side of peace, our faith will protect us. We will triumph, because our cause is righteous, and it will be a shared triumph for all peoples of Mardrun.”

“I’m relieved to hear that, Father Aegeus. As soon as Clan Grimward has been pacified, you will have to show me how your positive attitudes are going to protect us from the Hungry Ghosts. Goodnight, Father Aegeus.”

“Raskolf!” rasped the old Cleric, “Regarding those ghosts; let me handle that. I am an expert on the subject of the Undead. If you can lead the conversation regarding the Graytide’s treaty violations, I will handle the part about the Undead.”

“Fair enough.” said Raskolf.

“I know that this might seem like it has come at the worst time, but believe me, there are forces at work that neither of us can begin to understand. The Undead should certainly not be welcomed to these shores, and yet, in the light of the recent tragedy and turmoil involving the Graytides, the rise of the Undead may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It may be the key to unity on Mardrun. When faced with news of the Lich, Clan Grimward will almost certainly have to rethink who their friends are. This could be the beginning of a grand alliance, and a unified crusade against a common foe.”

“Yes, Father. The Prince of New Aldoria told me all about your grand alliance on Faedrun. Forgive my rudeness, Father. You said that you have faith in your Gods. Well, I have faith in mine. My High Priestess has foreseen all of this. For the last year, I have been trying to stop her visions from coming to pass. Thus far, I have failed. As far as I know, this is our last chance.”

Father Aegeus shot Raskolf a stern look. He said nothing.

“I’m sorry if I have shattered any notions you had of me, Father Aegeus, but if it makes you feel any better, I am going to bed now, and I am still going to bed alone.”

———

As the caravan took to the road the next morning, it was the first time that the Ulven made more noise than the humans. Father Aegeus had convinced all of the colonial delegates not to wear any armor. The old Cleric himself carried no weapons either, but had not been able to convince all of the others to go so far, even though he had made a sound argument that the Ulven could not attack unarmed men. Other diplomats, remembering the reports of the Graytide massacre, marched with guards at their sides, and carried bright, ceremonial blades beneath the traveling cloaks that protected their feasting finery from the dust of the road. Raskolf wore his armor, and carried the same pitted and corroded blade at his side that he did on any other day. The other Ulven were armed and armored as well. The Longfangs led the way, providing scouts and front security for the caravan, while Imglyf’s Watchwolf war pack protected the flanks. Imglyf herself walked with Raskolf, but there was a sad and awkward silence between the two today. The human dignitaries from the different settlements all had their own bodyguards, of course, and the men chatted and caroused merrily. Some even sang songs. Their attitudes soon changed.

As the caravan got deeper into Grimward territory, the road became rougher. The woods became more dense, and the trees blacker. Before long, a twisted and thorny canopy provided a ceiling to the ever narrowing trail as the trees grew together overhead. The scouts became aware of movement in the woods. On either side of the caravan, large grey wolves paced the travelers, and bright green eyes flickered in the shadow. Occasionally, the silhouette of a man would be seen, but only briefly before it melted back into the darkness of the blighted wood. Eventually the caravan began to enter the clearings of the village outskirts. As the humble farms and homes came into view, Raskolf noted that the buildings were adorned with strange totems of bone. They were not the bones of animals. Raskolf’s mind raced. The rumors were true. The Graytides really had violated the tenets of Gaia. They were taking trophies from the dead. Imglyf had seen it too. She turned to Raskolf with a worried look upon her face. Before he could say anything, the caravan was being surrounded. Warriors of Graytide seemed to melt out of the forest on all sides.

From the ring of warriors, a spokeswoman emerged.

“My name is Wargah.” she said, “Who goes there?”

Wargah was tall and lean. She was dressed in black furs and dull heavy chain mail. At her side she held a gleaming white sword that contrasted sharply with her drab clothes and armor. The only traces of color upon her were her bright green eyes and her blood-red hair. Her shield bore the mark of Clan Grimward.

“Good morning, Wargah. I am Father Aegeus Cornelius Barringer.” said the old Cleric, pushing past the guards and fearlessly stepping up to Wargah.

He meant to look her in the eye, but she was much taller than he had realized and he found himself looking squarely into her chest now. Taking a step back, he maintained his composure.

“As I was saying,” he said, looking up into her face and offering his hand, “I am Father Aegeus, and these are members of the Resolution Delegation Enclave of Mardrun. We have come to speak to Clanleader Haygreth Grimward.”

Wargah ignored the shaky hand of the old Cleric and turned her back to him.

“He is expecting you.” she growled, “You are the last group to arrive. Follow me.”

The Great Hall of the Grimwards was a huge longhouse of black wood. Both the architecture and the furniture had a rough shod appearance to it, as though it wasn’t really finished, and were held together in part by splinters. The Ulven delegates sauntered in as a group, along with their escorts. The human delegates from New Aldoria and Crow’s Landing entered next and were accompanied by standard bearers. The Clan Nightiver representatives were last, along with some human diplomats from Newhope Colony. At the head of the largest banquet table stood the massive Haygreth Grimward, the Clan Leader, flanked closely by Pack Graytide Chieftain Khulgar Graytide, and representatives from all of the Grimward packs, except the Blackwings. A few independent packs were present as well as several representatives from other Clans to the north. A representative from Clan Stormjarl, south of Grimward, was also present. The way the Grimwards and their allies had clustered together at one end of the longhouse, opposite the newcomers, made it look almost as if the two groups were already lining up for battle.

As Raskolf took his position on the floor, between the two groups, he couldn’t help but feel as though he stood between two rival armies. He also couldn’t help but notice that one of Khulgar’s bodyguards had the bones of a human pelvis bolted to his helmet like ornamental horns.

“Brothers and Sisters,” said Raskolf, “I would, today, like to address you all as such. Be you my fellow children of the Great Black Wolf, or be you honored guests in our lands. Thank you for…”

“Enough with your humiliating flattery!” shouted Khulgar, “This is my Clanleader’s house. It disturbs me to see someone I have fought alongside in the past kissing this much ass. Continue with your report, but get to the point.”

“Very well. I am pleased to report that, although poorly received initially, the security resolution has been widely accepted by the colonists. The colonists are, for the most part, complying with the terms and conditions.”

“If we are here to talk about our colonist problem,” growled Khulgar, “then why, Raskolf, did you bring them with you?”

“Khulgar, I have brought these men with me because there is another urgent issue which needs to be addressed, and we will get to that shortly.”

“Let’s get to it right now, Raskolf.” growled Haygreth, “I don’t like to be kept waiting. It makes it feel as though someone is keeping something from me, or perhaps that you are trying to sell something.”

“Clanleader Haygreth, please forgive me, but with all due respect, we must address these matters in order. I am not ready to surrender the floor yet.”

“Surrender the floor?” barked Khulgar, “You mean to tell me that you have brought this brightly colored rabble into our hall with the intent of letting them talk? Who gave you the right to do such a thing? Would you make a mockery out of my Clanleader’s longhouse? Matters pertaining to the management of the invaders are strictly the business of the Clanleaders of Grimward and Nightriver.”

“I beg your pardon, Khulgar…” started Raskolf.

“Enough!” shouted Khulgar, “Enough of this farce! Have you spent so much time with these wretched refugees that you have adopted their ways? It was bad enough you wanted to solve the problem with paper and written words! Now, you want to bring their disgusting customs into my Clan’s home? This is more than embarrassing, it is an outrage!”

The bodyguard with the pelvis helmet began obnoxiously laughing and pointing a finger at Raskolf. The room broke into a cacophony of shouting from both sides.

“You want to do this that way, Khulgar?” snarled Raskolf, “Fine, we will do it your way.”

Raskolf strode up to the table, leapt on top of it and kicked a pitcher of mead into the lap of the pelvis helmeted guard, causing uproarious laughter from both sides.

“My name is Raskolf Vakr, and I am the Voice of the Watchwolves. I will be heard. I traveled west because my High Priestess, Anjan Ravensmark, has seen portents indicating that disaster looms on the very horizons that my people watch, as is our sacred duty to Gaia.”

Silence fell over the room.

“I came here to prevent that disaster. The eyes and ears of the Watchwolves identified threats to the Ulven way of life, as well as those of the Colonists. The resolution we drafted addressed those threats, if only people would listen. The people did listen. They have begun to comply with our conditions. We now have peace with New Aldoria. The dangerous idol is safely in the hands of Ulven Witches. Almost all of the newcomer’s villages have agreed to…”

“Do not lecture me about portents!” cackled a woman’s voice, “I have seen with my own eyes, what the future holds for my people.”

A tiny woman, buried in a bundle of rags suddenly emerged from the ranks of the Grimwards. She bore the staff of a High Priestess, and hunched as he walked. The warriors parted to let her through.

“Did you think that we needed guidance from your blind witch?” the woman sneered.

Raskolf recognized her. She was a Blackwing. The last time he’d met her was over five years ago when Anjan had traveled to a ceremony in Grimward territory. Raskolf gritted his teeth.

“Your Priestess may have smelled the portents on the West wind, but I have actually seen them with my eyes. It has been prophesied that these outsiders will bring about the Death of Gaia. Ancient song tells us that no Mordok can ever kill the Great Wolf, but that the Great Wolf will meet his doom on the day when the sun no longer rises. A strange god will kill The Great Wolf and then will kill Gaia after the very last of her children have been slain.”

There was a sudden eruption of activity in the longhouse as everyone on either side tried to talk at once.

“Your papers are a joke, Raskolf Vakr, and we do not welcome the guidance of your crippled priestess with her head injury-induced visions.”

“That’s rich.” muttered Azra to Dria, “A Blackwing calling someone else crazy.”

Raskolf kicked a turkey, platter and all, halfway across the room and took a few steps toward the Blackwing High Priestess. Before any of the Grimwards could go for their steel, the Priestess clapped her hands together and sent Raskolf flying backwards off of the table and onto the floor with an invisible battering ram of Arcane energy. The Longfangs and Watchwolves immediately leapt to their feet, but Raskolf motioned for them to stay back.

“This is no time for infighting!” shouted Raskolf. “We stand at the brink of war!”

“Indeed, we do.” growled Khulgar, “By your resolution, I thought I knew what side you were on, but now I have my doubts.”

“The resolution stated our demands of the colonists and clearly communicated to them, in their own language, the rules they were to follow if they were to be allowed to live in our lands.” Raskolf said, “They have agreed to follow those rules. You talk of taking sides, but my resolution has avoided war. Isn’t that the best we could have hoped for?”

“Your paper didn’t fix anything.” snarled Haygreth, “The outsiders have not halted their expansion. I’m sure that by now you have heard the human’s side of what happened North of the border?”

“I was waiting to hear your side, before I discussed it.” said Raskolf.

“We all were!” shouted the delegate from New Aldoria.

“Very well. You should be proud of us Raskolf. We actually played your game. We approached the trespassers and told them that they were in violation of the Nightriver treaties. We informed them that under the authority of your Watchwolf resolution, we had every right to cull them. They refused to leave, and instead took up arms against us. We had every right to do what we did.”

“Since when do the Graytides have the right to violate the tenets of Gaia by desecrating bodies and taking trophies?!” shouted Stanrick.

This question was punctuated by angry shouts from both sides.

“You dare question me in the face of Gaia?!” bellowed Khulgar, “You, who have brought an outsider whore into your own pack, and allowed her to wear Ulven runes? I was mistaken, for I had thought Pack Longfang were proud and noble warriors of Gaia. I thought that Onsallas was a strong outpost on the fringe of Ulven lands and not a homeless shelter for strays.”

The Longfangs snarled at this, and Harlok flipped a chair into the center of the room.

“Magrat is more Ulven than the filth I see seated across from me!” barked Stanrick, “Look at you, covered in your blasphemous trophies. You don’t look like Ulven to me at all. You look like Mordok!”

Chaos erupted in the longhouse. Tables were flipped and oaths of vengeance flew back and forth as the rival factions argued with each other. Raskolf stood in the middle, dodging food and mugs. Imglyf and a few of her warriors moved out to protect the Ambassador with a shield wall. Seeing this display of force, the Graytides began to encroach on them.

—-

“Steel yourself, Wigwald!” shouted Stanrick, as he noticed the young warriors hesitation and confusion. The Longfangs moved to assist the Watchwolves.

The novice warrior hesitated a moment, before following his brethren. He had a terrified look upon his face and his shield shook a little in his grip.

The Graytides measured up the Watchwolves and the Longfangs for a moment. They held back after being met with a line of fangs and snarls. Weapons were still sheathed on both sides, but anxious fingers played on numerous hilts and handles. If the situation escalated, Clan Grimward far outnumbered the combined group of the delegates, Watchwolves and Longfangs.

“Raskolf!” shouted Imglyf, “We need to back off, for your safety.”

“No!” Raskolf snarled, “We can’t back down! I must be heard!”

Suddenly, all the barks, snarls, screams, and curses were drowned out by a single word, repeated over and over again in a panicked tone.

“Undead!” the messenger shrieked, “Undead in Mardrun!”

The great hall fell silent, and the masses parted to let the messenger through.

“Clanleader… Haygreth…” panted the messenger, collapsing to the floor at the Clanleader’s feet, “The dead walk on Mardrun! It has been confirmed. The Longfangs have traded steel with them. The Watchwolf Ambassador was there too.”

“What!?” bellowed Haygreth, “Raskolf, is this true? You dare keep this secret from us?”

“No, Clanleader, I have not. We were trying to get to that. It is the main reason for our visit.”

“Liar!” shouted Khulgar,

“No!” said Father Aegeus, stepping out onto the floor and motioning for the Watchwolves and Longfangs to make a path.

“I am Father Aegeus Cornelius Barringer, most honorable host of mine. I dedicated my life to fighting the Undead on Faedrun, and it is my specialty. The Ambassador and I decided that the subject of the Undead would be addressed by me, given my expertise.”

Khulgar eyed the unarmed and unarmored human elder thoughtfully, and motioned for his men to back off. The old Cleric motioned for the Watchwolves and Longfangs to back up. Snarls and fangs retracted as they reluctantly backed up and gave him room.

“Clanleader Haygreth Grimward,” said Aegeus, “It is true. The Undead do indeed walk on Mardrun. On Faedrun, we met our doom because the peoples of that land could not put aside their differences in the beginning. Instead of banding together to fight the Undead, we squabbled. We pointed fingers. We blamed each other. It cost us valuable time. Never again, I say! Never again will the living stand divided while the dead hungrily claw their way across the land. Today, noble Haygreth, we come to you as allies. We come to fight alongside you, not against you.”

Haygreth was about to say something when he was suddenly interrupted by the Blackwing High Priestess.

“Do not fall into his trap, Haygreth! The invaders have brought their doom with them! They have not only brought the winged spirit of Death to our lands, but now they have brought it to your very house! It is they that the rising dead want, not us! This doom belongs to them, and their wretched, dying gods!”

“No!” shouted Raskolf, “That is not what the portents say! That is not what they say at all.”

“Silence, whelp!” screeched the old witch, “Your political aspirations have already been made clear, traitor! You are nothing but a lap dog.”

“This is madness!” growled Raskolf.

He tried to advance on the witch, but Imglyf and Yawn held him tightly by both arms.

“You would dare speak ill of my Clan High Priestess in my own hall?” bellowed Haygreth.

“It is all a plot, Haygreth,” snarled the witch, “If you fall in league with this filth, then you will damn us all to share their doom. It will be the end of our people, and the death of our Gods!”

“The decision belongs to the Clanleader, High Priestess.” said Aegeus, stepping up to confront her. “Only he can decide what is in the best interest of his people. What he needs right now are facts, and the fact is that neither the North or South end of this hall can afford to go to war. We are already at war, with the dead!”

Aegeus strode within a few steps of Haygreth and extended his hand.

“Clanleader Haygreth Grimward, will you accept our friendship?”

Haygreth looked to his High Priestess. He looked to his people. He looked at the hand of the old man in front of him.

Wigwald held his breath. He had been watching body language more closely since the conversation last night. He noticed that for the first time since he had met him, the old Cleric’s hands were not shaking.

Haygreth stood before the cleric, sizing him up. His brow furrowed as he thought, then cleared as if he had come to a decision. He spoke.

“Old man, you are right about one thing.”

With lightning speed, Haygreth’s hand reached the handle of the massive claymore strapped to his back and cleared it from its sheath. Raising the blade high above his head, he brought it down with such speed and velocity that it cleaved the unarmed Cleric from collar bone to navel and caused the lifeless body to bounce three times upon the floor as gore splattered the assemblage.

“We are at war.”

Pulling his blade free of Father Aegeus, he addressed the stunned onlookers.

“I, Haygreth Grimward, Clanleader of Clan Grimward, will stand idly by no longer. The outsiders bring the plague of undeath to our lands, they poison the lands of Gaia, and they must be eliminated or cast back into the sea. I call upon you, warriors and children of Gaia, to join me, to join Clan Grimward, to rid our sacred lands of this filth once and for all! We shall bring steel and spill the blood of those that bring death and foreign ways to our lands, our homes, our families, and our traditions! Join me, and may his ears ring with your name!” boomed the massive clanleader as he raised the blood covered claymore and spread his arms in a commanding posture.

A chorus of shouts and oaths erupted from the Grimward side of the longhouse. From the folds of her rags, the old crone grinned.

“This is in direct violation of the treaty, Haygreth, and the Honor Duel!” shouted the representative from Clan Nightriver.

“Treaties belong to the invaders, not us.” growled Khulgar.

“The honor duel was fake!” roared Haygreth, “It was a lie! From now on, we will do things my way. Khulgar, remove the heads of this delegation and send them home in bags. That will be my message.”

The air rang out with the foreboding symphony of steel being drawn. The entire great hall glinted with flashes of silver as warriors from both sides unsheathed their weapons. The line had been drawn. The Ulven had chosen their sides. Ulven would spill Ulven blood.

The noise was replaced by the growing thunder of numerous Clan Grimward warriors charging into battle. There was a rush of activity as shields cracked together and steel rained down upon steel. The human guards of the now slain Father Aegeus were ground down beneath the swords and axes of the assault, their dying cries adding to the chaos of the great hall. It was quick, brutal, and obvious the Grimward warriors would take no prisoners.

“Get the delegates out of here!” Raskolf shouted to Imglyf and her Watchwolves.

Linking up with the surviving delegation bodyguards, the Watchwolves formed a shield wall around the remaining human diplomats.

Raskolf had yet to draw his sword, and stood atop a bench shouting orders for the Longfangs to move up and cover the retreat of the delegation.

“Idiot!” shouted Imgryf, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him down off of his perch as an arrow shrieked through the spot where his face had been a second ago, “You are part of the delegation!”

Raskolf tried to protest, but Imglyf wrapped her cloak and shield around him and dragged him towards the door.

“Don’t worry, Raskolf!” shouted Stanrick, “We’ll be right behind you.”

The Longfangs had managed to overturn three of the massive banquet tables for cover and to delay the attackers. Despite the obstacle, the warriors of Pack Graytide advanced, pressing quickly to pursue the delegation. The Longfangs were outnumbered and would be overwhelmed once the remaining Clan Grimward warriors finished off the human guards and joined the fight. Raskolf needed them, to protect the delegation, to get out of the town, and the Longfangs were prepared to do whatever was necessary.

“Out of my way, bitc…” growled a Graytide warrior. His words were cut short as a sweeping arc of Azra’s sword caught him in the throat and ripped it open. She crouched into a low fighting stance, baring her fangs with a growl at the oncoming Graytides. Dria roared and swung her double bladed axe, catching another Graytide in the shield. It splintered and shattered as the warrior holding it was knocked to the ground by the strength of her fury.

A flash of metal darted out as Harlok’s spear tip buried itself into the chest of another Graytide. The warrior cringed and clutched for the wound. The spear pulled free, dripping scarlet, and returned a second, then a third time, lodging itself deep into the gut of the same Graytide. Harlok roared a feral cry and bared his saber fangs as he shouldered his entire strength into the spear. The tip punched through the back of the Graytide in a spray of blood as the body slumped to the floor.

Nikolai squared off against a Graytide warrior and they exchanged several blows. Most were turned aside by shields but a solid sword blow caught Nikolai in his pauldron. Although the sword’s edge was not able to penetrate his armor, the impact was forceful enough to knock Nikolai backwards, reeling in pain. The stumbling Ulven let out a roar as he planted his feet and bashed his opponent’s shield aside, exposing the shoulder enough to drive his battle axe deep into the flesh of the Graytide. Blood spattered and bone crunched as the Graytide warrior cried out and fell back from the terrible wound.

Using his spear, Harlok was trying desperately to keep an immense Graytide warrior at bay. The warrior’s great axe swung in a furious arc and buried itself deep into the table with such force that it split the solid timber in two, sending Harlok sprawling. Azra and Dria, one on each side, grabbed the arms of the unbalanced Graytide and pulled him clean through of the break in the table where he crashed face-first into Harlok’s lap. Before either could react, Stanrick let out a fearsome howl, and buried the pointed end of his sword through the base of the prone warrior’s skull and into the floor, just inches away from Harlok’s crotch. The fallen warrior’s legs kicked spectacularly for a moment as his nervous system shut down, one of his boots catching Dria in the mouth. Harlok’s eyes were wide, but he regained his composure and scrambled toward his spear.

Stanrick growled as he shield-bashed an advancing Graytide warrior, knocking him off balance. In one swift motion he pulled his sword free of the skull of the fallen Graytide and drove it into the gut of the second warrior. A well-placed and powerful blow with the edge of his shield to the Graytide’s temple finished him with a sickening crunch.

Magrat managed to loose two arrows into the mob of Graytides before they began leaping over the tables to close with her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the Watchwolf shield wall was funneling out the main entrance with the delegation. She was about to shout to Stanrick to fall back to the Watchwolves, but a powerful hand clamped onto her throat, crushing her windpipe and completely cutting off her airway. She instinctively reached for her dagger, but another powerful arm punched her hard in the stomach and then grasped onto her free arm.

“Hey, Khulgar,” laughed one of her captors, “what color does a greenskin turn when you choke them?”

“I want her alive!” snapped Khulgar from across the table, “She isn’t worthy to die in combat fighting alongside such respected foes. She will provide us with entertainment tonight!”

Before the Graytide warrior could reply, every bone in his wrist, and most of the ones in his hand had been shattered by a powerful swing from Yawn’s heavy mace. As the Graytide cried out in pain, Yawn roared and continued his assault, raining down numerous blows with his mace. The Graytide’s helmet eventually caved in; blood and gore oozed out from underneath it as his head was pulverized. Magrat hissed and with her free hand managed to get a grip on her dagger and slashed the other Graytide across both eyes, sending him spinning and wailing to the floor in a spray of blood and vitreous fluids.

“Imbeciles!” snarled Khulgar as he strode resolutely through the break in the tables, kicking them further apart with such fury that he knocked Stanrick over. Yawn raised his mace to meet the Graytide Chieftan, but before he could close with him, Khulgar casually raised and launched a javelin with the same nonchalance that one flicks a toothpick. The javelin flew swiftly through the air, like a falcon on the dive, and buried itself deep in Yawn’s shoulder, instantly paralyzing his arm and causing his mace to fall. Khulgar walked up and punched Yawn solid in the face, then picked up the fallen mace. Never breaking stride, he swung it at Magrat. Having only a dagger at the moment, Magrat side- stepped and brought her weapon up to parry what she thought was an attack to her chest. Her error became clear as Khulgar followed through with the swing at his intended target and simultaneously planted the mace square on Magrat’s foot, pinning it to the floor with several of its spikes. Magrat’s cry of pain was cut off by a quick backhand across her face with his gauntleted fist. The force of the blow knocked her backwards until her body weight pulled against the metal spikes in her foot, sending fresh gouts of blood oozing out of the wound in her foot as her flesh tore against the anchor.

Khulgar snarled at the green Syndar and un-hooked his battle-axe from his belt. He raised it to finish her but suddenly found himself blocked by the skinny form of a Longfang novice. The young man wore ill-fitting armor that he had barely grown into, and held his shield at the weak angle of an amateur. Khulgar easily smashed the shield aside, breaking Wigwald’s arm in the process, and sending him spinning down to one knee, Khulgar waited a second, to see if the boy would get up. Dazed by the pain, and with one arm dangling uselessly, Wigwald gritted his teeth and staggered to his feet, to once again face the grizzled veteran.

From across the room, Nikolai helplessly watched Wigwald in horror as he traded blows with a Graytide warrior.

“With fang and fury, Wigwald!” he shouted, hoping to help steel the young warriors resolve.

“Are you finished?” Khulgar growled in warning to the young man.

Wigwald looked back at the struggling forms of Yawn and Magrat. Rage flickered in his eyes. With a scream that cracked his voice, Wigwald bared his fangs, raised his sword and charged the Graytide Chieftan. Khulgar tried to sidestep the clumsy attack but the sword still caught flesh and Khulgar took a small yet penetrating slash across the shoulder. Ignoring the young man’s exposed neck, the Graytide instead elected to go for his abdomen. After several quick and repeated blows, Khulgar’s attacks defeated the armor and hacked into flesh. Poor Wigwald’s entrails spilled upon the floor.

“Impertinent whelp.” growled Khulgar, as he intentionally left Wigwald to die a slow and horrific death.

Wigwald panicked and scrambled upon the blood slick floor. He tried to pick up his insides for a few seconds before he went into shock and fell gasping into the fetal position.

Khulgar once again started towards Yawn and Magrat, but before he could take another step, he heard the enraged roar of Harlok Longfang, and braced for impact. Harlok charged, striking him hard enough to rattle teeth and pushing him completely off course, away from Yawn and Magrat. Within a matter of seconds, the two were raining axe blows furiously down upon each other.

Magrat still hadn’t managed to free her foot, but more Graytides were closing in fast and Clan Grimward warriors were starting to join the fight. Grabbing her bow, and firing as best she could with such awkward footing, she began sinking point-blank arrows into the masses as fast as she could. Just as she fired off her last arrow, Yawn managed to free his mace from her foot, and the floor.

The two stood surrounded, and back to back. Yawn was holding his mace in his off hand, and Magrat was down to a dagger. Across the room, Stanrick, Azra, and Dria, were desperately trying to get to Nikolai, who had been isolated and backed into a corner. Nikolai had moved out a bit to put himself in between several attacking Graytide warriors who were flanking Harlok. A sword lashed out and opened up Nikolai’s thigh. A javelin shattered upon Nikolai’s shield, driving long sharp splinters into his eye, and causing blood to flow freely down his neck and arm. The warrior staggered, and stumbled back from the blow, swinging blindly against the pain and the wet-hot wound in his one eye, and trying to blink past the uncontrollable tears in the other.

—-

Outside, the Watchwolves and Nightrivers had moved the delegation through the town, and they were making progress toward the trail. It was a grindingly slow process, however, as it seemed that every man, woman, and child had taken up arms. Even unarmored farmers hindered the progress of the shield wall with pitchforks, and murderous archery rained down upon the formation from every building. The formation was becoming smaller as it went, and the dead and wounded fell out. Despite the efforts of the human bodyguards, the handful of Clan Nightriver representatives, and the Watchwolves, the New Aldorian diplomat had already fallen, killed instantly by an arrow to the face. The nobleman was simply too fat to carry, and his body had been discarded on the road, where Graytide children stabbed it with sticks and spears. The delegate from Newhope had lost both his page and his standard bearer. The formation was leaving quite the trail of fallen warriors in its wake as well. Just as they finally cleared the outskirts of town and made it to the road, a barricade of carts and fresh troops blocked their path. The delegate from Newhope broke ranks and tried to run, but was cut down by a burly Graytide woman wielding a scythe. His bodyguard didn’t go after him. At the front of the enemy formation stood Wargah, with her white blade in hand. Raskolf broke ranks to confront her.

“You look surprised, Raskolf Vakr.” she sneered, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was the first time you’d ever led troops into an ambush.”

Raskolf drew his sword. Its dull and pitted surface seemed the perfect antithesis to Wargah’s white blade.

“Wargah Grimward,” he shouted, “daughter of Haygreth Grimward, I challenge you to an…”

“No!” roared Imglyf, shield bashing Raskolf into the mud from behind, “This bitch is mine!”

As Imglyf closed on Wargah, the Grimward warrior barked at her men to back off.

“Honor duel!” she snarled, as the two women closed in on each other.

Inside the Longhouse, Khulgar Graytide and Harlok Longfang had both lost their axes to the sturdy furniture of the great hall. The two now rolled and thrashed on the floor, biting, punching, and stabbing each other with their sacramax daggers. The floor was slick with the blood of many warriors, and Khulgar was now wearing part of poor Wigwald’s insides on the back of his pauldron. Rolling Harlok onto his back, Khulgar changed the grip on his dagger and plunged it straight down at Harlok’s neck, but the Longfang suddenly thrust his empty hand into the path of the dagger. The blade bit deep into the flesh of Harlok’s hand all the way down until the hilt stopped on his palm. Gritting his teeth, Harlok howled in pain as he twisted his hand around the blade, trapping it in his own hand, and then ripped the dagger out of Khulgar’s hand. The two broke free of each other, and Khulgar scrambled to find a weapon. Lunging for Wigwald’s sword, the Graytide Chieftan’s hand was stopped just a fingertip away, and nailed to the floor by the dagger Harlok held in his good hand. Harlok proceeded to madly stomp and kick Khulgar’s chest and head until he was ready to drop from exhaustion. Khulgar’s head would have been crushed if not for his sturdy metal helm, but a continued assault would eventually kill him. Harlok’s savage attack was cut short by an arrow to the collarbone that staggered him, and caused him to take a knee and fall back to the other Longfangs.

Azra and Dria were wearing out. They had held their own until now, but exhaustion was setting in, and they were losing ground to the fresh warriors who now assaulted them. Each had innumerable cuts and gashes in their armor and flesh. Azra had been forced to discard her shield in order to staunch a deep bleeding gouge in her side as Dria continued to bring her massive axe down on her opponents despite an arrow sticking clear through her calf.

Yawn and Magrat were nearly surrounded in the center of the hall. They had both been struck with several arrows, the evidence of which stuck out from their bodies like porcupine quills. Magrat gritted her teeth in pain as she pulled an arrow out of her thigh and used it to fire back into the throat of one of the attackers. Dizziness washed over her as her blood flowed, her vision beginning to fail her as she fought. She muttered a prayer of her people, a death chant, as she prepared to sell her life dearly in the cost of blood. Yawn was deliriously throwing plates, cups, and tableware at his attackers, and slurring curses. The Grimwards found this quite entertaining and had actually stopped shooting at Magrat and Yawn, just so they could watch and laugh.

Nikolai’s eye bled terribly but he continued to hack at the attacking Graytides. Stanrick was trying to protect Nikolai, but his strength was failing and he was bleeding almost as badly as his friend. He couldn’t move his left leg at all anymore, and was dangerously off balance.

The Longfangs had slowed the Graytides and Clan Grimward warriors from getting out of the main door of the great hall, but they were losing the fight and found themselves backed into the southern wall of the longhouse.

Haygreth Grimward had been summoned to witness his daughter’s honor duel against the Watchwolf warpack leader with the burned face.

In terms of height and reach, the women were evenly matched. The Watchwolf was stronger, however, and definitely much more powerful. She was slower than Haygreth’s daughter, though and likely twice her age. With every swing, the Watchwolf threatened to either decapitate or dismember Wargah Grimward. Wargah, however, was no easy target. The young Grimward dodged, rolled, and parried with the reflexes and speed of a cat, the magic of her blade augmenting her already superb dexterity. Haygreth watched his daughter with proud approval, but then he noticed something. It was an old trick, difficult to spot, even for an old veteran like him. The Watchwolf was feigning exhaustion. Her movements were exaggerated and slow, yet her arms were still steady, and she was not breathing hard. Her eyes gave it away. There was cold steel in those eyes, and a calm confidence. As Haygreth watched, his heart skipped a beat. He knew what was about to happen, and he knew his daughter would fall for it, especially in her excitement of having him witness to her duel.

Imglyf led her adversary on, leading her to believe that she was tiring. It was working. She could see it in the flashing green of the young warrior’s eyes. Wargah was excited, and impatient. She could taste victory! At precisely the perfect moment, Imglyf over-swung a ridiculously exaggerated blow, and pretended her weapon was trapped in the earth. Wargah leapt recklessly in for the kill. As she was still flying through the air, her father felt his heart sink. He gritted his teeth and watched in horror as the Watchwolf spryly rolled to the opposite side and swung her weapon about into a reverse grip. Wargah realized her mistake too late. Both her feet were already in the air. All she could do was utter a silent prayer to the Great Wolf as she hurtled straight at the business end of Imglyf’s blade. As Wargah Grimtide landed upon the blade, the Watchwolf was as solid as a stone. There was no give. For a moment, both were still, and looked as if statues in a tender embrace. The equanimity was shattered when Wargah vomited blood over Imglyf’s shoulder.

Imglyf pulled her weapon free of Haygreth’s daughter and stood to face the rest of the assembled warriors.

As Wargah lay dying on the bloodied earth, clawing, convulsing, and rasping for help, she looked to see her father turn his back on her to rejoin his guards.

“No.” she gurgled through her sobs and tears, “I have not failed you. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me… father.”

As Imglyf turned and walked towards the rest of the Watchwolves, Raskolf suddenly shouted and started running towards her, pointing to something behind her. Time seemed to slow down. Imglyf turned just in time to see a flash of black arcane energy erupting from the hands of the defeated Grimward. Before she could react, the deathbolt had burned a hole the size of a helmet through Imglyf’s torso. The proud Watchwolf Warpack Leader staggered in her step, but kept her footing somehow. Turning once again to face her troops, she marched resolutely back to the formation and took her place in the ranks before collapsing. Raskolf helped lower her to the ground.

“In the songs, Raskolf…” she choked, “In the songs, have the bards make me beautiful.”

“The Great Wolf howls your name. I can hear him.”

“You’re right.” smiled Imglyf, “I hear him too.”

When Imglyf died, there were tears in both her eyes, even the one that never watered properly.

“Go get my daughter’s body.” growled Haygreth.

Before his warriors could comply, Raskolf and the Watchwolves had closed in on Wargah Grimward.

“She still lives, Haygreth,” snarled Raskolf. “but you have no right to her. Her treachery has violated the sanctity of the Honor duel. By all rights, she is mine to execute.”

Raskolf pressed the stained and pitted blade of his sword against the unconscious girl’s throat.

“She is your only daughter isn’t she, Haygreth?”

Haygreth did not turn to face Raskolf.

“She is.”

“I have a daughter of my own, Haygreth.” said Raskolf, lowering his blade, “I think there has been more than enough killing today. Since we are at war, we should consider saving some death for another day. Don’t you think?”

Haygreth made no reply, but he stopped walking.

“I will return your daughter to you, alive,” said Raskolf, “if you call a truce to collect our dead and wounded and let us leave your territory un-harassed.”

Haygreth clenched his hands into fists and shook. A single tear rolled down his weathered features.

“Go,” he told his guards, “and get my daughter. There has been enough bloodshed today. Summon the High Priestess as well. She has her work cut out for her.”

Yawn awoke to see the sky rolling past his eyes. The hard earth had jostled him awake. Painfully looking around, he saw his packmates laid out beside him. They were all lying on a piece of canvas, and being dragged across an open field.

“Where am I?” croaked Stanrick’s voice from somewhere next to him, “Is this my funeral shroud?”

Yawn stretched painfully to see that one of the flaps of Father Aegeus’s tent had blown over his face.

“No, Stanrick.” said Magrat from nearby, “You are inside the Cleric’s tent.”

Although still weak from her wounds, the injured Syndar was channeling divine energy into Nikolai’s face. His numerous cuts and scrapes would heal. It was his eye injury that she focused on. There was no doubt that he would lose the eye.

Wrapped in a bloody funeral shroud was the lifeless corpse of Wigwald. He had died in the great hall after preventing Khulgar from finishing Magrat. He was young, just a pup, but he would be regarded as a warrior during his impending funeral pyre, and his name would be sung to the Great Wolf as a hero.

Azra, Dria and Harlok limped along behind the canvas tarp. Although their wounds were bandaged, they looked battered and bloodied. All of them wore dark expressions as their thoughts were filled of the days to come.

In the Great Hall of the Nightriver Clan, Branthur Nightriver patiently awaited word on the summit with Clan Grimward. Kragen Bloodmoon sat at his side. The two faced the fire. Neither one said much. They both feared the worst.

When the messenger hawk arrived, Branthur hesitated to unroll the text. Steeling himself, he read the message aloud to Kragen.

“Clan Grimward has declared war on the colonists and killed diplomats of human factions. Nightriver, Longfang, and Watchwolf warriors were also killed in the fight.”

“Short-sighted fools!” he roared, “I knew the treaty would only last so long, especially with that lap dog Khulgar yapping in Haygreth’s ear!”

“Your orders, then, old friend?” asked Kragen as he bristled, obviously attempting to hold back a foul-tempered snarl.

“If he wants war, then I’ll give him war. Call the pack leaders to my hall.”

There was much work to be done. Even if he had all the time in the world. Recent events were progressing much better than expected. Granted, there were a few obstacles. There were even a few loose ends. But he would see to it that all of these things would be taken care of shortly.

News had spread like a plague as the heads of the colonist delegates were returned to each of the settlements in bags. War had just been declared on Mardrun. The Ulven, as a nation and as a people, were divided. Panic and fear would spread quickly amongst the refugees in the colony, refugees already divided by race and creed.

At this thought, he smiled as he walked briskly along the cobblestone road.

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