“Can you see it, Jormund?” Henrik asked. “The wolves can sense the eve of battle.”
Jormund scanned the pack. They were in full barding, their riders checking harnesses and prepping them. It was a proper military. Each of Henrik’s men were seasoned fighters. The long years of defending their borders from the frost giants had hardened them.
Bows were placed in cradles on every saddle. Arrows filling each quiver. As he continued to watch, Jormund could almost feel the bond between rider and dire wolf.
“They were raised from pups. A rider spends his whole life with his mount and its pack,” Henrik explained. “The Whispering goes back many generations, but it was my great-grandfather who first to begin training dire wolves for war. The beasts are far more intelligent than people give them credit for.”
“So it’s like one giant pack?”
Henrik nodded. “It took painstaking effort and many years of his life to achieve such a feat. Even so, there must always be an Alpha. He must fight with them, spend time with them and be seen by them. He must never show weakness because at that moment he will be challenged.”
Jormund turned. The expression on the old Thran’s face was strange. It was as if he were saying something that openly he couldn’t voice. As he stared at Henrik, it suddenly dawned on him.
“This is the way,” he replied. “When this is over, you must become the Alpha.”
The old Thran let out a sharp whistle. A long howl followed. Both the pack and its riders parted revealing a wolf just larger than the others.
The wolf was nearly solid grey save for the white ‘socks’ on its feet. It’s left eye was white, a long scar running from the top of its scalp to its left cheek. His barding was different from the other dire wolves. Armored plates were woven into the breastpiece and shoulders. Each joint was also armored and padded.
Jormund struggled to look away from the Dire Wulf’s singular eye. He stared into the dark orb, a feeling coming over him. Something in his mind screamed for him not to look away.
“Haut had been with me since I was a boy,” Henrik said. “We have slain many giants together.” The old Thran paused briefly as Haut approached. “Extend your right hand to him.”
The tone in Henrik’s told this wasn’t a request. Jormund extended his right hand and Haut opened his mouth, biting down, but not doing harm. Jormund felt so small in that moment. His hand fit so easily inside the Wulf’s mouth. Its canines lined neatly across his wrist.
The air was still, a silence had settled over the camp. It was if Sokroas itself was waiting in anticipation for what might come next. Still, he dared not look away, his eyes affixed to Haut’s one.
“If you flinch, look away or show any fear, he will take your hand,” Henrik said. “You must stand firm. You must gain his trust and show your trust in him. See him not as a beast, but as a brother you would shed blood to protect. The pack is family and as family, we are one.”
Jormund dug the heels of his boots into the snow. His expression stern. Haut growled softly in defiance adding a bit of pressure to his bite.
Jormung felt the sting of the dire wolf’s teeth and locked his jaw.
“Trust between wolf and rider is absolute,” Henrik continued. “Do you trust him, Henrikson?”
It was a strange question. The way Henrik spoke made Haut more like a person than an animal. Haut tensed, planting his paws in the snow.
Jormund smiled and narrowed his eyes at the beast. “Do you want my hand? Will that prove worthy of you?”
Haut growled louder, the pressure of his bite increasing. Jormund didn’t need to look to know that blood had been drawn. He could feel it inside his glove.
“I have made a vow. I have taken a new name. I have accepted that there are more to protect!” He stepped closer, gaze never wavering, the pain was growing, like a seax pressing into the back of his hand. “I never grew with you. I have never spilled blood with you. But this day I shall and, if you allow, we will share this battlefield as one!”
Jormund felt on the peripheral, it was trying claw it’s way out. He stuffed it down, hardening his gaze, leaning forward. The pain grew as he shifted his positioning and pressed his forehead against Huat’s muzzle. His gaze, however, remained affixed to the dire wolf’s.
Haut suddenly let go and backed away. Blood dripped from his mouth and exposed canines. He stopped growling and sat on all fours in the snow. He was still staring as if waiting.
“Go,” Henrik whispered. “Mount up, but do so, not with caution, but with boldness.”
There was something about the way Haut was seated. Even with the dire wolf down on all fours and seemingly relaxed. Jormund saw that muscles in his legs were still tensed.
No fear. Fear means death.
Still staring the dire wolf down, he boldly strode forward. Haut remained motionless, his passivity an obvious farce. The dire wolf was still watching with his good eye.
Jormund reached the saddle, placing his foot in the stirrup and hefted himself onto the Haut’s back. The dire wold immediately stood, forcing him to cling to the saddle for balance. It was like trying to hold onto a great bear.
“Now, lean forward and touch the top of his head,” Henrik instructed. “Let go of your wants and desires. Let him see who you are. There is no deception, only truth.”
“Henrik, is this magic?” he asked, not daring to take his eyes off the Haut.
“Shut your mouth unless you want to die!” he replied sternly in a harsh whisper. “Do as I say!”
Jormund closed his mouth and leaned forward. Haut turned his head so it was within reach. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift and emotions flow, even his fears.
Haut began to growl, then grew silent. There weren’t any words, at least none that Jormund knew how he could ever explain to anyone. It was simply a sense of acceptance and understanding that began to fill him.
“Good,” Henrik said. “Very good.”
Jormund opened his eyes. Haut’s body language had changed. He was more relaxed, his muscles no longer tense. “Why didn’t I have to do this before with the other I rode?”
“Because some we breed to accept other riders, but those are few,” Henrik replied.
“How many before me have tried this with Haut?”
“In my lifetime?” Henrik asked. “Seventeen. Haut killed them all. The last one gave him that scar you see.”
“So simply killing you for leadership doesn’t work.”
The old Thran shook his head. “No, our way is different and should an outsider try, there will be daggers waiting. You are either Alpha or you are not.” Henrik backed away and knelt. “Let it be seen, let it be heard. The torch is passed to my son. To Henrikson.”
The other riders paused and knelt. All of them facing him.
Jormund was a little overwhelmed. He could scan the scene playing out around him. Even the dire wolves seemed expectant.
Henrik stood, determination written across his face as he approached. “Now, we are ready,” he said.
Planning a battle was one thing, but executing it was another. Grenden leaned over the table, staring at the map of Grunier Jormund had given him. He drew his lower lip taught, a grim expression on his face.
These narrow side streets vex me…So much can still go wrong.
The morning was rapidly drawing closer to midday. Kala had sent word her elementals were ready. For now, they remain hidden in the earth by the gate as its guardians. She gave strict instructions that they would only attack those who threaten them. It was the best she could do without being present to direct them. Knowing the Blades, they would fight them in the initial panic.
It’s shame none of the other Elders had come. There’s a reason why no Thran has been stupid enough to attack Yggsid.
He traced the routes each force would take as they fought their way toward the Ranger Lodge. It was like a gauntlet between The Blades, Savar’s men and Viktor’s own forces stationed in the city. Not every avenue could be covered. Victory depended on the momentum of their forces.
The Blades Reputation was well known, fighting past them would be critical. While disposable, Viktor wasn’t stupid. Bodvar’s men were handpicked by him.
Many were murderers, thieves or worse. Most were Absonian. Slaves bought by Viktor from Serindeth’s slaver’s guild. A few were even former gladiators.
Though seasoned, They were still mercenaries, strong and capable. Money, was where their resolve lay, not honor, that was their weakness. Without Bodvar and his circle, they would fail as a cohesive unit.
Grenden shifted his attention from the table toward the door flap of his tent. “Yes, Denmir?”
“Henrik and Jormund have sent word. They are prepared,” he said. “Illhiem as well.”
Grenden looked down at the map. “Any word of the dragon or the giant?”
“Boru was seen lurking near the main gate some time ago. No word as of yet from the druids about their dragon,” he replied. “But, some of our men venturing into the city for provisions, noted that the rangers are in place.”
Grenden studied the avenues and adjoining intersections. He bit his lip, something was off. The feeling had been nagging at him for most of the morning. He watched Denmir from the corner of his eye. The man stood there as if he had something on his mind.
“You wish to add something?”
“Something strange is happening among Savar’s men,” he replied. “Many of them are wearing white cloths on their arms.”
The feeling grew.
“Why?” Denmir reflexively stepped back in response. Grenden reluctantly shoved the guilt of responding too harshly aside.
“I cannot say, but there are others who wear red instead of white,” he said. “They appear to be divided into groups.”
“I know the message was sent earlier to the others, but have the men at full readiness. I fear we have missed something.”
Denmir tensed and nodded. “As you command!” he replied and bolted out of the tent.
This is why I detest war. Something you can’t always predict what will happen.