The tavern was lively, but truthfully many here were simply trying to drink away their worries. News had spread through the streets that Viktor had called for a banquet in honor of his guests. Only the Thran, the druids, the Rangers and a handful of their representatives were allowed to attend. It was the perfect opportunity for Viktor to enthrall everyone and seize power.
Wulf scanned the room, finding Eirik and Shuet sitting at a large table over by the wall with some of their Rangers. Eirik happened to look up and waved him over.
“Perfect timing, Wulf,” he said. “Shuet and I have been discussing things.”
Wulf eyed the men with them. It seemed foolish to be so open in a place like this. “We have been speaking about the plan and the frost giants encamped outside the walls.”
“I assumed somehow Viktor cleverly afflicted them as well.”
Shuet nodded. “He has, which changes everything. More will be arriving in two days.”
Wulf paused glancing at the other Rangers sitting with them.
“They know how to keep their mouths shut, Wulf,” Shuet commented. “They are here to carry out our orders once this meeting is over.”
While he was trying to sound reassuring. It didn’t help. Too much was happening, they had to be more cautious. “So one way or another he plans to make Sokoras his.”
The two Huntsmen nodded. “So it would seem,” Eirik replied. “The leader of the giants will also be attending the banquet. I just hope the hall is large enough for them.”
“Our lodge would be, chances are he’ll hold it there.”
“That makes sense,” Shuet replied. “He could easily subdue anyone with their support.”
“I trust you have better news,” Eirik commented.
He sounded exhausted. “Jormund, Henrik, and Dag are with us. Kala and her druids as well.”
The surprise on Shuet’s face was a bit satisfying. That didn’t happen often. Wulf smirked, soaking the moment. “Wulf, how in the snows did you pull that off!?” he asked.
“I can’t all take credit. Kala and Eadra, the woman I told you about, had a hand in it as well.”
“So that leaves Grenden and Illhiem,” Eirik chimed in.
Wulf nodded. “ We have a dragon as well,” he added. This time it was Eirik’s turn to stare in disbelief. If things were different, he would have rubbed in his friend’s face.
Eirik quickly regained his composure. “What’s one dragon against six and possibly more?”
“He’s not like the others,” Wulf replied. “He’s lived his life free from enslavement. His magic is powerful and he’s likely much older than the young wyrms the giants keep. He claims he can slaughter the frost giants for us.
Both men grew quiet. Eirik appeared skeptical. “That’s a huge boast,” he commented.
“I agree, but I pray it will count for something,” Wulf replied.
“Have you seen what’s he’s capable of?” Shuet asked.
Wulf nodded. “Some and if not for Eadra I would not be sitting here with you. The dragon is fond of keeping secrets. So I really don’t know how strong it is.”
“Either way, a dragon is more than we had a few minutes ago,” Eirik mused. “It will make a welcome addition along with the exile.”
Wulf furrowed his brow. “Exile?”
“Not every giant was enthralled by Viktor,” Eirik explained. “One of them stubbornly refused to accept any food or drink brought to him. Until recently he was living off their supply of rations and melting snow for water.”
Wulf smirked. “That sounds rather childish. I thought the giants were deeply loyal to their leaders.”
“This one it seems has issues with authority,” Eirik replied. “He is very set in his views of the world and our place in it. It was why he was banished from his tribe.”
“Will he fight with us?”
Eirik nodded. “He read my tattoos, so he knows what is happening.”
Wulf tilted his head forward pinching the bridge of his nose. “Please tell me they don’t say what I think they do?” Eirik was smarter than this. Even if almost no one could read runescript.
Eirik frowned. His eyes flashing with anger. “My grief and grievance are for all to see! It is my people’s way!” he replied harshly.
Wulf sighed. “Fine, but pray no one else is smart enough to figure it out or we are going to find ourselves used as fertilizer for Viktor’s Fern plantations! Personally I don’t want my remains to be mixed in with yak scrag and used to make compose.”
“To answer the question,” Shuet chimed in. “He will fight.”
First a dragon, now a frost giant. The world was making even less sense. “Just make sure he doesn’t kill our people when this turns bloody.”
Shuet shifted in his chair, his eyes belying how tired of this he was. “I pray that we can avoid a massacre.”
Wulf reached out, placing his right hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I pray we all survive this madness somehow.”
“We have more than just each other standing with us,” Eirik said. “We will make it through.”
Wulf nodded. “I noticed our brothers are patrolling the city.”
Shuet smiled. “Are they?” he said. “I hadn’t realized.”
His scrag faced grin told the tale. “Doing what we do best, Shuet?”
“Wulf, we are simply providing support and security in these uncertain times,” he replied.
It made sense, watching Viktor’s men and the Blades. Learning their habits and routes. It would make taking them down easier. “What about Savar’s men? What have they been up to.”
Shuet frowned. “Savar has sworn fealty to Viktor, he made it public two days ago,” he replied. “There was some who objected and he promptly slew them to silence the others.”
“So his forces have more than doubled.”
“They have,” Eirik cut in. “Rumor has it that they are already discussing merging territories and subjugating the orc tribes between their northern border. Savar brought many men with him, but more will comes if he sends word.”
“I bet Illhiem lost his mind over that.”
“He’s already sent word to the orcs and given them sanctuary,” Eirik replied. “With Savar’s endorsement, Grenden is already considering his options.”
Wulf nodded. “If he sides with Illhiem, they’ll be a formidable force,” he commented. “But with the frost giants…”
“The will have a bloody road ahead of them,” Shuet cut in. “We all know how Viktor is about war. He slaughtered every blood relative Daegan had after defeating him.”
Wulf remembered the stories, he was still very young when it had happened. Thran Daegan was loved by everyone. The territory was a brutal battlefield in the wake of Viktor’s conquest. So many had died.
Viktor had Daegan and his blood relatives gutted, opened up and placed on pikes. He purposely tortured them so they would reanimate as Hungering Ones after suffering such a horrific death. The rumor was he keeps them in his dungeon and feeds anyone who crosses him to them.
“If he sides with Viktor, then Illhiem, his orcs and goblins are doomed.”
“Grenden will side with Illhiem,” Eirik said. “He’s no fool. He always looks ahead. Even he has to see what’s coming.”
I never pictured you for an optimist, old friend. “We can hope, but I think as soon as the others learn of what’s happening and assuming Viktor doesn’t drug them, then the outcome against him will be clear.”
“As you say, we can hope,” Shuet replied. “We know Viktor won’t use his drug on any of us until the banquet.”
“So we have two days then.”
“That we do, Wulf,” Eirik responded.
“Then the best thing for our allies is to continue gathering information,” he said. “I trust my Rangers haven’t given you too much trouble?”
“They have had questions about your absence, but no,” Shuet replied.
“Good, then we should feed whatever information we find to Dag, Jormund, and Henrik. They can formulate a battleplan. Once we get Grenden and Illhiem on our side, we’ll be ready to end this.”
“What about Thulm?” Shuet asked.
Wulf opened his mouth to answer when he heard a shout from across the tavern.
“You!!” A familiar voice shouted. “I’m going to kill you, Wulf!”
The sound of tables crashing rang in his ears. Wulf spun to his feet, the the Aetharian longblade he had taken from the tomb already drawn, and in his right hand . Thulm and his men were forcing their way past the other Rangers. Shuet and Eirik stood to flank them.
“You abandoned your contract! You abandoned my people!” the Thran shouted, drawing his greatsword from behind his back. Many of the Rangers gave him wide berth to keep from clipping them.
Even outnumbered, Thulm was too angry to see reason. He was out for blood. Some of the Rangers stepped forward to bar the way. Wulf lifted his hand to stop them. He glanced at Eirik. The Huntman’s face was stern as ever.
Eirik had taken on one his fighting stances, his hulking frame was tensed, and primed for a fight.
Wulf shook his head. “No, Eirik.”
Eirik broke his stance, a dour expression on his face. “He’s going to kill you, I hope you realize that,” he commented.
Wulf frowned. At least have some faith in me.
Shuet stepped forward, his large skeggox brandished defensively. “Thran Thulm…”
The Thran was as agile as a snow leopard. Thulm quickly glided past the other Rangers, hooking his greatsword along the curve of the axe’s broad head, plucking it from the Huntsman’s hands and quickly disarmed him.
Shuet tilted his head back as Thulm pressed the tip of his blade against his throat. “One more word and I slit your throat,” he warned. “You will wait your turn!”
Wulf could feel the tension in the air pressing in around him. It was thicker than the snow outside. He knew Thulm was no amateur with a sword. The Thran’s father had trained him since he was a boy for combat.
The Thran’s eyes spoke of how he was preprared was. They were the look of a man who had already assessed the skill of his opponants and had thought of how to fight his way through if necessary. Thulm could easily cut a swath through the younger, less experienced fighters.
“Outside, Wulf,” he said. “We can finish this properly.”
Wulf nodded, gripping the longblade tightly. It was strange though. He knew he should have been petrified. Thulm was the better swordsman in all respects. Yet, something was different. He could sense fear, hovering within him, but was distant and disconnected like a shadow hanging over him that couldn’t take hold. Instead, in its place, was clarity.
It had taken root, filling him with a calm he had never known. From the calm something else bloomed. It was simple thought, a confidence that suddenly made his inevitable defeat seem less certain.
Thulm turned his back and started toward the doorway. The Thran’s gate was steady and purposeful. Wulf stepped forward, his eyes locked on Thulm as he followed.
He’s angry. It was an odd thought to state the obvious but the way it entered his mind that was stranger. It was as if he was recognizing a weakness. Something instinct was screaming that he could exploit. Anger causes mistakes. As does fear.
Wulf noted the strange looks directed toward him as he passed his fellow Rangers. It was as if they didn’t recognize him. Like they were seeing a different person.
When he stepped through the doorway and onto the street, a cold wind blew to greet him. It brushed against him, biting his nose and cheeks, chasing a way the warmth of the tavern’s hearth.
Thulm’s men had cleared the way, pressing everyone on the street back. Some of the Blades were helping them. It was small ‘arena’ and gave the swordmaster the advantage. There wouldn’t be much room to dodge the greatsword. Parrying would be the only option.
His fury is his weakness.
The thought was so clear. He needed to make Thulm angrier. The rage on the man’s face was apparent. His eyes were practically burning with it.
Wulf reached for his Seax, pulling from it’s sheath behind his back. The longknife was practically a shortsword. A small sense of comfort briefly welled up form within. The taught corded grip gave off a sense of the familiar the the Aetharian longblade did not.
A twisted sneer crawled it’s way across Thulm’s face. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he commented. “You broke your word and put my people in danger. Let’s hope your replacement understands his role in this world.”
Wulf closed his eyes and took a breath. Amid the calm, all emotion had vanished. It was like there were a wall keeping at bay not matter how hard it seemed to press against him. Wulf opened his eyes and exhaled.
“Let’s hope yours understands his,” he replied. He would have smiled if not for the clarity running through his mind. It didn’t stop the image of Eirik glaring at him for the snide rebuttal.
Thulm screamed and came at him. Even angry the man was quick and fierce. The seax made parrying easier, but Thulm was still stronger.
The seax sang with each blow. Every parry vibrating through his arm. The bones in his hand and left arm were screaming.
The longblade was surprisingly light. It made countering Thulm’s attacks easier than he had originally thought. Thulm’s mastery with the sword still showed, however. He was quick to use his strength to deaftly swing his greatsword as if it weighed nothing at all. To onlooker, Wulf found himself imagining how impressive it might have looked.
The Thran’s furious assault continued. Wulf found no openings, between strikes. Thulm’s positioning was flawless. His strokes forcing Wulf into narrow corners with little room for escape. Defense was the only option. Parrying the only thing keeping him alive.
Action quickly became reaction as they traded blows. It was like a deadly dance, but a fatal on if any partner made th slightest mistake. Wulf continued to move around the ring, his left arm aching.
Thulm refused to give a moment of respite. He pressed in, whirling his greatsword with a series of low, wide cuts and following with heavy downward arcs. Wulf barrled out of the way, hearing a scream as the blade connected to something.
He quickly got to his feet, suddenly realizing he was bleeding on his left leg and right arm. He felt the dull sting from his wounds and the warmth of his own blood.
When did that happen?
His arm was screaming louder. The numbness yielding to pain. Still, he managed to keep his grip on the seax. Wulf faintly heard shouting, but in the clarity it was irrelevant. Everything suddenly went silent. Thulm was the focus. Thulm was the goal.
“So much for a swordmaster,” he commented. “It’s a wonder you can protect your people.”
The Thran’s face turned bright red and he screamed, charging in, hacking madly at him in a furious assault. His attacks were different, sloppier and more easily parried. He was slower to respond to counterattacks from the Aetharian longblade.
Wulf’s right arm groaned in protest. The slash left in the wake of Thulm’s greatsword was deep. He kept countering, using the ancient elven blade to whatever openings he could find. Thulm was swinging in arcs, his torso was becoming more exposed. His more reckless and unstable.
Fatigue began to set it. It stretched itself across his body like a winter blanket, enveloping him. “I’m still alive, Thulm,” he said. “Shouldn’t I be dead?”
The Thran’s eyes flared, bording on madness. His swings grew more reckless. His form sloppier.
How many exchanges has it been? I shouldn’t be this tired.
Wulf pressed the advantage. Thulm’s attacks suddenly seems slowly or at least appeared to be. Then, he saw it. There was a wider opening in the Thran’s movements. He had finally left himself completely open.
It was then a pattern to the man’s attacks revealed itself. One that if not for the calmness and clarity of mind, Wulf would have never seen.
He swung, pouring everything into the strike. There was the faint sound of something snapping and the feel of the Aetharian blade sinking into flesh. He felt it thrust from his grasp, the calm and clarity fading in an instant.
The roar of the crowd that had seen so silent a moment ago returned in full force. It was deafening and disorienting as Wulf looked around fighting to get his bearings. His side hurt, his chest pounded. He looked down to see he had been slashed across his side, both arms and legs.
There was blood everywhere. He fought to form words, but a fog had settled over his mind. He shook his head to clear it.
Thulm lay on the ground. His greatsword lay at his feet. It was cut in half at an odd angle, where he had tried to parry the blow. The Aetharian blade was embedded in his right shoulder, making his arm useless. His men were already rushing toward him to tend him.
Wulf fell forward onto his knees. Someone grabbed him from behind, keeping him stable. The fog was rapidly was growing harder to stave off.
“Are you insane!” Someone screamed.
“Get Kala!” someone else said.
“He’s bleeding out!” They shouted. “She might be able to heal him!”
Through the haze, Wulf shifted his gaze from the dirt and snow on the ground back up at Thulm. His men had removed the Aetharian blade, casting it aside as they tried to stem the bleeding.
Wulf suddenly understood. “I really hate magic,” he mumbled under his breath, passing out.