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Short Story Entry - The Howling Court


Dcb26
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It is a dangerous thing to be uninvited, and that becomes more true the farther north you go.  Only death invites past where the spruce trees are dusted with snow, because out on the ice, the land remembers a time when man was just an amusing idea.  
These are the comforting things I tell myself as I hug the tree line, keeping my pace slower than a march, but faster than a crawl.  If I run, something hungry is like to spot me from the air, or I run the risk of shattering the delicate plates of ice that keep me above the freezing clutch of the snowdrift.  I’m not sure which is worse, but today isn’t the day I want to find out.  I’m tempted to think of roaring fires and spitted meat with grease that runs through your fingers, but it’s easy to become thought drunk on those, best to stay sober for the work ahead.  So instead I comfort myself with Confessor Eric’s last words to me before the start of this trek, and a passing touch of pine bark, wherein it’s said the last warmth of Gaea now resides.  

 

That hasn’t made me any friends back at the barracks.  Want to know how to make half an army laugh?  Tell them you worship a dead god, you’ll learn more nicknames for country bumpkin than you have toes and fingers.  Well at least I have all my toes and fingers, it’s one thing to worship Arkon and claim to have his fire in your heart, it's another to have the sense to line your boots and gloves with wool.  

 

I was tempted to convert in my early days with the Rangers, there’s a slight pressure to do so.  No one says it of course, but it’s implied in the silences, and woven in with your failures.  Missed that shot?  Arkon’s light would have illuminated the target.  Falling asleep on guard duty?  Let his warmth soothe your need for sleep.  Bastards, it was the warmth of the fire that had me dozing in the first place.  Still I’m reminded every time I tread the paths why I’ve kept to my faith, Arkon may shine on us from above, but it’s on Gaea’s bones we tread.  There’s a creak of ice beneath my boot heel, and I’m reminded yet again.

 

For one slender moment, I’m very aware of how very alone I am out here; the vertigo of solitude however passes with the ice creaking, and my steady tread begins once more.  I should have waited for Orea to come back, partners out on the ice are almost as much a necessity as woolen socks.  Not just because they watch your back either, but because after a few months out here you begin to talk to yourself, and while you’re fine company, I miss my friend.
 

I don’t realize how much I've missed her until we meet at the mouth of the cave, and I feel as though a piece of my soul was returned to me.  I run my fingers through her thick fur, she presses her forehead to mine, and we embrace for the few moments we have before getting down to the ugly business of it.  Wolves don’t like to be kept waiting.  
“She is angry at his presumption.” Orea mutter-growls, in speech that is just as much glance and head shakes as it is words.  She nips at my fingers as we head deeper into the earth, where the ice’s bite gives way to the warmth of earth and root. “I do not pretend to understand why you're doing this, you owe him nothing."
"Oaths aren't about owing someone, they're promises, not debts."
"Oaths are words you men are so fond of, leashes made of wind.  I warned you of them."
"You did." I say nothing more on the matter, it's the echo of an argument had a dozen times over.

 

The smell hits me first, it’s raw and overpowering, the smell of wet fur, urine, and meat turned bad, stirred and baked in this underground oven for gods know how many cycles.  As bad as it is though it's practically rosy compared to our reception.  It's bared teeth and raised hackles that greet us when we reach the Den.  They’re big lads, almost the size of horses, Orea’s two elder brothers Vaje and Urik.  They’re sleek streaks of lean muscle and coarse fur, a cough away from ripping out my throat.  I remember a time where I could tussle with them playfully after a hunt.  A low growl raises in Orea’s own throat to answer her brothers, we'd talked about this, but it's a reminder of what's riding on this for her.  She's thrown her lot in with me, if I get the teeth, she's no more welcome among their pack than I am now, and lone wolves don't last long up north.  Slow enough to grow grass by, I reach to my shoulder and gently remove the bow hanging there.  I raise it above my head, then set it to the cavern floor, and I don't rise until those finger long teeth are bared no longer.  Introductions were done, everyone knew where they stood.

 

I've never been allowed in the Den before, once I was on good terms with the wolves, but never on equal footing.  I suspect Orea's kin see me, much the way the higher born back at the barracks see her, as some amusement or pet found in the snow.  Hundreds of forms shift restlessly on the naturally carved shelves of the cavern as we are led in, their colors ranging from the purest of whites to shear pitch with all manner of in between.  To see them all restlessly pacing, to feel their accusing stares boring into me front and back, the idea that the wolves are fighting for their survival seems laughable.  I don't dare laugh though, and not because we're surrounded, but because that twisted form Orea and I found in the snows is still fresh in my mind.

 

We're led before her, and even though I've seen her before a half dozen times, I nearly mistake her for a giant boulder, she's sitting so still.  She shakes the rock dust out of her coat, filling the already fetid air with thick choking clouds of grit.  She stretches out her great forelegs on either side of us, I can hear the stretch of her sinew like the ropes holding a ship at dock.  Kana the Wolf Mother, who dwarfs the largest of her sons, opens her eyes, and I am reminded of two great Suns burning in a pitch black void, feeling just as helpless before them.
"He didn't even have the steel in his bones to come himself." Her rumble resonates in the chamber, and while there is no growl in her words, I feel the force of her anger deep in my chest. " He sends one who he believes I will be less inclined to kill."

 

For the space of a breath I do consider my commander's choice to send me, if he were standing trial in the city, he would have gone personally.  Yet I can't bring myself to call Balar a coward.
"He loves his son, and his men need him there to lead, can you blame him for that?"
"No, I can blame him for not accepting the consequences of his son's actions."
"I'm here to answer for those."
"So I see." Her great yellow burning eyes narrow to slits "So you are the one who shot my son through the eye with an arrow.  The one who skinned him and wore him as a cloak.  The one who mounted his skull on your gates.  You did this in the face of our aid to the Rangers in the North for neigh hundreds of years."

 

There's a change in the mood of the cavern as she keeps her voice as calm and as steady as the rock surrounding us, I don't need to look up to know that all of them have stopped pacing, that all of them are baring teeth.
"I did not."  I reply, doing my level best to keep my voice as steady as hers. "But I taught him that did how to shoot, how to skin his game, and how to take pride in his accomplishments."
"That makes you culpable?"
"Seems a sight more than simply being his father." I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth.
"SILENCE!" Her snarl rocks me back to the heels of my feet, hot spittle flecks my ear that I don't dare move to wipe away.  Her anger is bared with her teeth, she has risen to her paws and made me to feel smaller still in this beastly court. "Do not be flippant with me man thing!  I was there when the Earth Mother whelped your kind into existence!  When you crawled from the dark and shivered at the north winds, twas I who-"

 

"What was she like?" I was only wondering out loud, I didn't expect her to hear me, but it stops the tirade and the baying about us in its tracks.
"What?"
"Gaea...you said you were there when we were born, assumed that meant you knew her."
"I did.."
"Well what was she like?"
"This is beside the point."
"Is it?" I cast a glance around, her children have been inching closer and closer towards our backs all the while, another foot and they will be within charging distance. "You're about to send me to meet her, all on account of some prat with a bow.  I'm thinking now's the best time to know more about her."

 

Kana bristles from head to toe, there is a part of her that want to snap me in two, if she was as close to the Earth Mother as she says though, there's a part that knows mercy as well.
"Someone must pay for the death of my son."
"I agree, and that should be the one who fired the arrow, Tomald himself."
"Can you produce him?" There's a dangerous edge to her voice, I can't dally too long from the point, but at the same time I have to lead her away from anger.
"Given time I can."
"Time..." She laughs, it is a very un-wolfish sound, and her muzzle contorts terribly to make it. "A precious thing, alright man-thing, why should I give you time?"
"Because right now Balar fights the true threat to both of our peoples, he fights the corruption, the Hunger that consumes all in its path.  He doesn't have the time to chase his son, not while Malakai is helping him hide.  He does this because the two of us at each other's throats is just what he wants.  Give me time, and I will drag that whelp screaming into your Den to do with as you see fit."

 

She sits to consider me with those strange eyes once more, and I feel naked under their gaze.  I get the feeling if I meant less than every word, she would have disemboweled me right then and there.
"You walked a long way just to tell me this." She finally rumbles.
"I walked a long way to look you in the eye as I did so, I'll walk longer still to see it done."
She nods, and then lowers her head so that her nose is but a few scant inches from mine.  
"Lay your head in my jaws Ranger, and swear it will be done.  Perhaps, I will not bite down." With that, her cavernous maw, wide enough to bite the head from a steer, opens to give me a view of the sharp ivory teeth within.  I pull back my hood, lay my cheek against her rough tongue, and swear as if the hand of Gaea herself was on my brow.  As her jaws tense, I throw in a prayer for good measure.
 

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