Dawn’s first light didn’t bring much comfort with it. Even the sun’s warm rays as they weeded their way through the avenues like reed-thin, fingers grasping at the Grunier’s citizens gave little comfort. Perhaps it was the anticipation. Eirik could feel it as he and Shuet walked side by side down the busy street.
Outwardly, the old Huntsman appeared calm but it was an illusion. Eirik knew better than to let the placid expression he wore fool him. To their brothers he might be smiling, but deep down it was obvious he was grieving.
There would be a lot of headstones with graves to match in the coming days. Many mothers who wouldn’t see their sons or daughters. It was best not to speak of it. The others already understood that a hard battle lay ahead.
Grenden was the last one to be convinced. I hope the meeting with Jormund and Henrik goes smoothly.
“How is he managing?” Shuet suddenly asked.
Eirik blinked as they waded through the crowd. “He?”
“The frost giant, how is he adjusting?” Shuet replied rephrasing the question.
“Boru isn’t happy but is honoring his oath. As an exile he doesn’t have many options.” Eirik scanned the crowd, then glanced back at Shuet. To be honest, when the fight does come he’s probably the most eager.”
The older Huntsman nodded and shifted his gaze to the crowd. “So many people might get hurt tomorrow.”
“It’s war, Shuet, no one is willing to say it, but this is what it is.”
He frowned. “They’re too scared to.”
A cold wind whipped through the streets. Eirik watched him pull his cloak tighter and cracked a smile. It was one of the perks of being a Pure. Unlike Blooded, with the cold being only a minor nuisance, for a Pure the cold held no sting at all.
“Keep smiling you sodded bastard,” Shuet commented bitterly. “Some of us aren’t blessed with your lineage.”
Eirik laughed, but it was shortlived as he caught a glimpse of the keep poking above the other buildings. A familiar sting pricked his heart following by the heat of an all too familiar rage. Eirik narrowed his eyes and clenched his fist as he stared at it.
“Have you tried talking to her?” Shuet asked.
Eirik shook his head. “There’s nothing left to say. She belongs to him, thanks to the insidious potion or whatever you want to call it.”
He stopped in the street after feeling Shuet’s hand press against his chest. “We will get her back, Eirik,” he said.
Eirik looked down, his rage cooling at the look in his friend’s eyes. “Or die trying.”
Shuet nodded. “Or die trying.” The old Huntsman resumed his pace. Eirik could tell he was keeping a mental note of Grunier’s layout. “What have you had Boru doing these past few days?”
“Grunt work mostly. We’re taking contracts while we are here. He does a lot of heavy lifting.”
“I imagine it’s hard for him to do much else with his size in a city like this,” Shuet commented.
“It’s harder knowing he can never return home,” Eirik replied. “He’s young, barely twenty winters. Frost giants can live to be two hundred if I recall.”
“Strange that he would be here,” Shuet mused. “Perhaps he was looking to make his mark at an early age?”
Eirik smiled. “From his temperament, I think it’s safe to assume. Not unlike a certain someone you once knew.”
Shuet chuckled. “Ah, Wulf. He’s calmed quite a bit since he married Kala ten years ago.”
Eirik laughed. “It’s better to say she tamed him.”
The soft grin around Shuet mouth revealed his age lines on his face and eyes. It was easy to forget how old he was. The old Hunstman held is age well and was as strong as anyone years younger, but as with anyone, each passing winter draws the Keeper’s Shadow ever closer.
That was one of the drawbacks of being Pure. The frost giant ancestry in your blood was stronger meaning you aged more slowly.
I pray you find a warrior’s death old friend. I dread the day I might find you asleep for the last time.
“You’re getting soft, Eirik,” Shuet commented with a sly grin.
Eirik frowned. “Me soft,” he laughed. “Remember who you’re talking to!” The sheepish grin Shuet wore was like an irritating ringing in the ear.
“Glower like a bear all you like, but your eyes say different,” he teased. “You can roar and huff, but I know you better than anyone.”
Eirik shook his head and sighed. I’ll never admit to it. “So, what will be the order of the day?”
“We record the patrols and distribute the information among the Thran,” Shuet replied. “I want our people to stop monitoring the Blades and Viktor’s men under the guise of keeping the peace.”
“You want them to sloppy. With everyone so tense they are trying to watch for anything out of the ordinary.”
Shuet paused, eyeing the street leading directly to the keep itself. “I’m certain Viktor is aware of the other Thran meeting,” he said. “He’s not a stupid a man. Either he isn’t concerned and believes his plan will succeed or he is laying a trap.”
“Do you think he’s assuming they are discussing the show of force he has on clear display for everyone to see?”
“Easy enough to assume, but we can’t be careless,” Shuet answered. “If he believes it will convince the others they have no other choice but to side with him, then the meetings work to our advantage.”
Eirik felt his stomach turn over. It was hard to keep from imagining that it could be that simple. “I’ll tell my Rangers to keep watch for any shift changes. If he does suspect, he’ll send the Blades before his own people.”
Shuet stroked his grey beard thoughtfully. “Makes sense. I will tell mine to do that same.”
“Huntsman Eirik! Huntsman Eirik!”
Eirik looked up the street. A small boy, no younger than fifteen winters came running up. On the right breast of the heavy hides and yak shag, he wore for warmth was a metal pin showing he was a messenger. His bright blue eyes shone with relief as he ran up.
“I’m…so..glad to have found you,” he gasped.
“Easy boy,” Shuet said. “You’ll invite the Keeper’s Breath into those lungs of yours in this cold.”
The boy shook his head and knelt to steady his breathing. “I have a message from Thran Agrim for you Huntsman!” he said.
Eirik tensed, balling his fists. What could that yak scrag ridden sheep bleater have to say to me!
“Eirik…” Shuet said placing a hand on his shoulder. “You’re scaring the boy, he’s not Viktor.”
Eirik took a breath. The boy looked as if he had nearly pissed himself. “Deliver your message.”
The boy reached into the shoulder bag slung over his shoulder and pulled out a folded piece of parchment. Eirik took the parchment. The sick feeling in his stomach grew and he unconsciously fell onto his knees.
“Why,” Eirik whispered, his voice barely audible.
Shuet could only look on at the disgust and anguish written all over his friend’s. The tears that followed robbed the old Huntsman of any words he could have spoken. Not waiting to be paid, the boy ran off.
It was probably the most reasonable thing he could have done. Whatever the letter had said, Eirik was hanging on by a thread. It would take much to send him flying into a rage now.
I never thought I would see you cry.
Shuet glanced at the parchment after Eirik’s arms had gone limp in his lap as he stared at the street beneath him. The words inscribed on it were enough to understand.
She bears my child.
“Why..?” Eirik repeated a little louder. He was sobbing now.
Shuet resisted the urge to reach out and embrace his old friend. He glanced at the passersby on the street. They were giving wide berth, their expressions showing caution. It was like animals avoiding a dangerous predator in the wild.
I never imagined you to be this cruel Viktor.
Eirik had once talked about how hard it was for Blooded to have children. Pure were believed to be unable to conceive at all. Ylva was a miracle, one that came with a hefty price. He had lost Astrid, his wife, shortly after Ylva was born. The strain had been too much.
“I’m going to rip him in half, Shuet! I’m his screams will be kenning like no other!”
As Eirik stood, Shuet felt the hateful chill in his friend’s words. They were soft and hushed as he spoke. His eyes were empty and dead, Viktor’s had robbed him of reason.
Shuet breathed in deep and stepped in front of him. “No, Eirik. Not this way.”
Shuet locked his jaw, his heart pounding like a drum. Time can teach a person to overcome many of the most fearful things Sokoras had to offer. Having a Pure towering over him at seven feet, wasn’t one of them.
It was quick but he shifted to his right, then stepped back. Eirik’s fist had come within inches of his face. He could still feel the cold rush of air left in its wake.
You always did lead with your right.
Eirik, shifted his stance, putting his left foot forward. Shuet, out of reflex reached for his axe hanging on the loop of his belt. He resisted the impulse to wield it.
No. He held his hands out, palms upturned. “So this is how it happens, Bloodfist?
A flash of recognition registered on Eirik’s face. “How can you stand there?” he asked. “How can you be so calm?”
“Because, if I give into my rage at what’s been done, then all is lost.” It took only a moment, but Shuet suddenly realized how angry he was. It was the kind of fury that left a man feeling hollow, emotion and desire were meaningless distractions. “So much has been taken, yet despite that, you have that much more to live for. Will you so callously throw that away and become what they nicknamed you? Or will you save her from a monster?”
Eirik simply stared, his face showing how conflicted he was. Pure were known for their rages. Some learned to control them.
Shuet glanced around them. Some of the townsfolk were watching. It was easy to assume one was watching for Viktor. He stepped closer, Erik dropped his fists. There were tears in his eyes.
Shuet embraced him. “We are close,” he softly whispered. “Even now Viktor has ears. If we let him play us for fools, then tomorrow is meaningless.”
He felt Eirik wrap his arms around him. It was like being confined in a winepress. “I will contain my rage,” he quietly sobbed.
“Good, lets head back to the inn. I think we can both use a drink.”
“So, Shuet managed to keep him calm?”
“It appears so, my Thran,” Gunnar replied.
Viktor leaned back on his throne and shifted his attention toward the double doors leading into the chamber. “Disappointing, but it changes nothing.”
“The word I received is that a comment was made about rescuing someone,” Gunnard commented. “I believe they are talking about Ylva.”
Viktor sighed. “Of course they are talking about Ylva, sheep for brains.”
Gunnar cringed and instinctively cowered. “Forgive me for stating the obvious, my lord.”
“Did your informant say anything else about this rescue?”
“No, sire, but it would be stupid for them to try,” he replied. “Your forces are growing. More giants will be here within a few days, Savar’s men as well.”
Something doesn’t feel right. “Any word from Grenden?”
“None, my Thran, I hear tale he is meeting with Henrik and Jormund this morning. Illhiem has already been to their camp as well.”
“What of Thulm?”
“He has not been seen since leaving the Grey Beard,” Gunnar answered. “Some are whispering he is too ashamed to show his face after such a defeat at the hands of Huntsman Wulf.”
Ashamed, how laughable. “Who spreads these rumors, Gunnar?”
“The people mostly. You know as well as I, they are prone to gossip.”
Grenden could be weighing his options. He puts his people before himself. If siding with me serves his best interests then he will make a declaration to reflect that.
“Do they know…” he mused.
Gunner cocked an eyebrow. “Know what, Sire?” he asked curiously.
Viktor waved his hand dismissively. Did Eirik suspect something before I banished him and his Rangers?
“Gunnar, are you aware that Bodvar wants to be responsible for overseeing the market?”
“I may have heard something,” he replied. “I was surprised you let him, even if Ylva is overseeing things.”
“He’s up to something, Gunnar. Though I was surprised, he even suggested she be present.”
Viktor could see the wheels already turning in Gunnar’s mind. He was a clever man, one whose desire for self-preservation was just trustworthy enough. “Wouldn’t it be prudent to administer the Dragon’s Brew, as you call it, preemptively?” he asked.
Viktor curled his lip. It would be if not for the unforeseen side effects. “Prudent yes, but…”
“Side effects?” Gunnar asked nervously.
He was tensing as if expecting to be hit.
Viktor nodded. “Side effects indeed. The giants show no sign, but Savar is becoming less capable. He’s like some lapdog hanging on my every word whenever I’m present.”
Gunnar frowned.“So more of an idiot than usual…” he quickly covered his mouth, color draining from his cheeks.
It was difficult not to stare at the man. He almost never voiced such thoughts openly.
“Forgive me, my Thran…” he said, his words coming out muffled through his hands.
Between, the abject horror on his face and the honesty of his statement. Viktor found himself overcome. His sides stabbed at him as he laughed with tears coming to his eyes.
“Oh, Gunnar…Well done!”
“My…Lord?” he asked hesitantly.
Viktor fought to catch his breath as he wiped his eyes. He waved his hand, shook his head at the confused expression Gunnar wore. “Forget it, just make sure that everything goes smoothly. Have some men watch Illhiem and the others, just to be safe.”
“Who shall we test the next batch on?” he asked. “It should be ready by this evening.”
“Pick one of Savar’s men and someone from the city. It’s too risky to target one of the Rangers or any of our guests with the banquet tomorrow night.”
“I will see to it,” Gunnar replied with a bow.