Drifa just wanted to go home, wherever that was.
The refugees’ flight from the burning shell of the Wayward Inn had begun to develop a nightmarish quality in her mind; the line between reality and memory blurring with each passing hour. She looked over at her friend, Lucia, who sat blinking wearily into the fire, still dressed in the tattered remains of her finery. In her mind’s eye she could see the stark horror on her friend’s face as the Greytides came after them, the afterimage of Lucia’s spell seared blue into her thoughts like a lightning strike. Hair stood up on the back of her neck as memory took her.
The sounds of battle filled her ears; the ringing of steel on steel, the nauseating crunch of steel striking bone, the pursuing pack’s mocking laughter. The hoarse bellow of the Greytide turncoat, Rogar Shadowfang, as he ordered her to run, to leave, to not turn back no matter what she heard. She did what she was told….
As she stumbled down the brush-covered hill into the marsh something changed in her, something buried deep within shifted and she could run no longer. Tears welled up, spilling down her cheeks, leaving pale streaks through the grime. Rage followed. Swallowing her fear, she called out her challenge, refused to run any farther. She turned with every intention of murdering her pursuers, dropping her leather toolbag and gripping her weapons with sweat-slick hands. There were too many, and Drifa was no swordsman. She could feel the icy rush of the swamp water as she lost her shoe in the mire, and the numbing terror that seized her heart as she felt them closing in. Drifa raised her borrowed sword…
Harsh laughter as they paced around her fallen body, enjoining her to call for help, call her companions back to save her. She screamed her refusal, her voice breaking as the blood seeped from her wounded arm. Then Rogar, seemingly back from the dead, helping her, bandaging her, and another frantic flight through the forest, Lucia dodging and casting her spells, the Greytides pursuing, cornering them again, Drifa’s less-than-able hands raising her weapons once more in mindless terror. A desperate contact and then blood, so much blood, pouring from her chest with each breath as she lay in the mud, shaking hands wrapping bloody bandages in a vain effort to stem the tide, and Rogar again, fighting off his former packmates despite his many wounds, giving her time to get to her feet and stumble on, stumble until they were far enough into Nightriver territory to keep the Greytides from following them.
She could feel her heart pounding in her chest, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps, each inhalation like shards of ice piercing her lungs. Her limbs felt weighed down, dead weight dragging her down into the marsh with each labored step. It would be easier to lie down and die but she was too stubborn to do so. She struggled on, fresh blood welling through the bandages on her chest and arm, her shoes and skirts soaked with mud and swamp water and worse. She couldn’t stop. None of them could stop, not until they reached Nightriver territory and the welcome sight of a village…
The weary smith’s apprentice blinked and the memory faded, slowly letting reality in. There were no Greytides here, not yet. It was over, for now. Beside her were the rest of the survivors, tended by members of the Nightriver clan. Badly wounded and near dead from exhaustion, her compatriots sat staring into the fire with the bemused expressions of those who had found themselves gifted with lives they had thought to lose.
Across from her the two Goldmanes sat leaning against one another, their eyes shadowed and their faces grimy. Drifa was thankful she’d aided the taller one after her honor duel with Harlok; there would be plenty of death soon enough if Clan Grimward had their way. There was no need to rush it along. She’d liked them in the Inn before the Longfangs returned with their dire news, even if they were kind of quiet, and she was glad that she could still like them.
Honor duels. Pfah! An excuse for more fighting, Drifa thought, as she looked away from the flames and into the darkness of the trees. The dead were walking, walking and killing and making more dead walk, and the Ulven were fighting amongst themselves. How unproductive was that? The Ulven needed every warm body hale and hearty to fend off the undead hordes, and the Mordok that were sure to follow.
Scavengers! She turned her head and spit into the fire, causing it to sizzle. Nothing but scavengers. Mordok fed off the unfortunate. Like vultures, only more unnatural. The Unclean Ones were a blight upon Gaia, and she could easily see them using this situation to their advantage.
No, they would have to put aside all of this ‘war’ nonsense if they wanted to survive. The People of the Wolf could not afford chaos and disunity, either amongst themselves or with their ‘allies’, the humans and Syndar.
So far Drifa had met more good colonists than bad. She’d liked the human, what was his name?… William, that was it. From Vandregon. He’d come to the Wayward Inn with the clanless Ulven, Venator, to try to rally an army. She felt bad that she hadn’t recognized the clanless one after the skirmish with the Greytides, but with blood thick in the air filling her nostrils and the shock of the attack she’d been turned all kinds of widdershins. She’d actually thought he was a Greytide, at first. How embarrassing!
On the tail of that thought, an uncomfortable idea began to push its way to the forefront of her brain. She tried to squelch it, but it kept popping up, like an excited puppy that couldn’t sit still. After a brief internal struggle she let it up, examined it, and shuddered.
Drifa Blackfrost was going to have to use a sword.
Dear Gaia, she was going to have to try to learn to fight effectively, or else she was going to be a liability the Watchwolves could ill afford. After years of avoiding wielding a weapon, the thought made her cringe. Her cheeks flushed in embarrassment, and she scrubbed one dirty hand over her face to hide it.
They didn’t give her a weapon, and for good reason. Drifa was more likely to cut off her own foot than damage an opponent. She had all the elegance of a drunken cow, and about the same mass. But somehow she had to turn that inebriated bovine into a murder machine, and do it quickly, or else she would find herself at the mercy of other Ulven who would either aid her or kill her. Neither option seemed very appealing. She already owed her life to the Greytide turncoat, and the idea of that debt being given to even more people shamed her. Her life wasn’t worth that much.
She coughed, bloody foam springing to her lips. She wiped it away absently, lost in her thoughts as the fire burned down and one by one her compatriots were led away to their rest by Nightriver healers. Patiently she waited, until the fire burned down to coals and her thoughts turned to sleep.
Beneath all of her worries, her thoughts, and her memories, was a deep-seated almost subconscious fear that all the treaties with the colonists of Newhope couldn’t banish. What if her people were being used? What if the humans were manipulating them, turning them on each other like feral dogs, making their goal of conquering Mardun that much easier?
What if Clan Grimward was right?