Aberforth Strongjaw is a martial genius and the champion of his clan. When their alliance with the humans draws the Redwolves into war with the elves of the Forest of Ymrion, he marches to the front lines with the men and volunteers for a perilous mission to strike at the very heart of the enemy forces.
The six pillars surrounding the training ground trembled. Dust and sand rasped against the surface of the weathered monoliths as they shook free of the seams and cracks on the chiseled stone.
The air itself seemed to vibrate from the power of the punch, rippling with a column of force invisible to most of the observers. Little more than a heartbeat later, a tree in the distance groaned, leaves raining from its branches as the impact of something unseen flung splinters from its gnarled trunk.
The solitary man standing in the middle of the training ground flowed back into a neutral stance and exhaled. The mana he’d gathered into his body dissipated harmlessly back into the environment, leaving behind little more than a lingering tingle in his core.
He stood in silence for a moment. In that space between breaths, he meditated, attuning himself to the world around him and the mana that flowed unabated through it.
He could sense the breeze. It blew gently past his ear, disturbed only ever so briefly by even the titanic force behind his punch before returning to the natural course of its meandering.
He felt the sunlight on his skin, the hint of moisture on his brow, and the dirt beneath his feet. He was connected to the world. Grounded in it. And he could feel the land breathe.
A smile touched his lips as he took a breath. "Teacher," he said.
"I suppose it would be futile to try and deceive your uncanny sense of hearing, wouldn’t it, Aberforth?" said the older man with a chuckle.
The younger man laughed and opened his eyes. He nodded curtly and thumped his chest twice with his right hand in proper greeting.
It was only right to show a modicum of respect to the man that had taught him to fight: Callaghan Boarbreaker, one of the tribe’s most storied warriors. And although he taught more than he fought these days, the man yet commanded the reverence of the tribe.
Grizzled was a word more than apt to describe Callaghan. His body bore the scars of a life of hardship. Some were large and jagged, like the one that stretched from the corner of his left eyebrow, across his forehead, and over a few inches of scalp. Others were smaller, cleaner, such as the one in the right corner of his lower lip.
Most of the scars were hidden under the leather jerkin strapped tight around Callaghan’s torso and the breeches that hugged his legs. Those that were visible were difficult to miss, as pale lines on green-hued flesh were wont to do.
The scars did nothing to detract from Callaghan’s good looks, though. He wasn’t just a decorated warrior, he was the proud sire of more than his fair share of pups, too.
The years only served to enhance Callaghan’s rugged appeal. He looked far better now with gray streaks in his braid than in the past, and it was no secret that the women wanted to bear his children as much for his good looks as his martial prowess.
Callaghan, however, had never taken a wife. Despite his apparent desirability in the tribe, no one had ever tried to court him. Most were satisfied with siring his pups or a night in his bed. None pursued anything deeper.
It wasn’t that no one wanted to. Everyone just had the good sense not to. Callaghan had a metal band around one of his tusks. He’d had it for as long as Aberforth had known him and it was one of his most prized possessions—more valuable to him, in fact, than any other.
"You become more uneven with the passing of the seasons," said Aberforth with a wry grin.
Callaghan punched him in the shoulder. Though he didn’t put enough force in the blow to hurt, neither did he hold back. Even so, Aberforth didn’t budge so much as an inch. "And who, pray, told you to look so closely at my balls, Aberforth?"
Aberforth snickered good-naturedly and shook his head. "They’re difficult to ignore when they knock against your knees with every step, Teacher."
"My boy," said Callaghan, clapping both hands on Aberforth’s shoulders. "My most talented and hard-headed student. My pride and honor. I hope you live a long and prosperous life."
Aberforth quirked an eyebrow. "Thank you, Teacher?" he said.
Callaghan nodded. "May you see many, many seasons, like our forefathers of legend. May you grow old and well-loved, surrounded by your children, their children, and their children’s children, generations of your bloodline healthy and strong."
A brief sense of profound dread filled Aberforth. It had been a curious thing to say at first, but the more Callaghan spoke, the more ominous the words seemed to become. "Is everything alright, Teacher?" he murmured.
"Of course," said Callaghan, squeezing Aberforth’s shoulders. "I just want you to live for a century."
"I want you to live long to be so old your balls drag across the ground as you walk. We will see then if you have the courage to call another man uneven."
Aberforth blinked. He placed his hands on his teacher’s chest and shoved. Not with all his strength, but certainly with enough to make Callaghan stumble back a few paces. "Hey! Fuck you!" he shouted, cheeks flushed dark with embarrassment.
Callaghan recovered with ease. He hardly even lost his balance despite the force of the blow. He chuckled as he made his way back over to Aberforth with a smirk and said, "That may prove somewhat problematic. There is something of a line."
Aberforth rolled his eyes. "I know well enough you would put me at the head of that line if I asked… Teacher," he said, purposefully drawing out the last word.
Callaghan grinned. "Should I take that as a request, student?" he said in the same mocking tone Aberforth had used.
Aberforth huffed and shook his head. On any other day, perhaps, but he hadn’t pointed out the imbalance in Callaghan’s gait at a whim. "On a more serious note, Teacher… Have you consulted with the Singer for that?"
Callaghan’s eyes followed Aberforth’s gaze as it flitted briefly to his leg. He chuckled and patted Aberforth on the head, ruffling his dark hair. "There is very little the Singer can do for an old injury like this," he said.
Aberforth grabbed Callaghan by the back of the neck and thunked their foreheads together. "You must take care of yourself, Teacher," he said. "There are generations of warriors yet that could use your wisdom."
"Bah," said Callaghan, patting Aberforth on the cheek. "You’ll take over for me before long."
Aberforth slammed his forehead into Callaghan’s with enough force there was an audible thud that attracted the attention of the other trainees. Fortunately, the others had the good sense to quickly turn away. "Would that I could fill those boots," he said.
"You could," Callaghan pointed out. "They would simply burst."
Aberforth frowned. "Metaphorically," he emphasized. "You have a limp, Teacher. You’re not lame. But you will be soon enough if you continue to be stubborn."
"Fine," said Callaghan. "Fine. I will see the Singer."
With a smile, Aberforth released his teacher and said, "Good."
"Stubborn as your father," Callaghan muttered under his breath.
Aberforth chuckled. "I will take that as a compliment," he said. His father was something of a larger-than-life figure in the tribe—someone to whose example he hoped he would live up to.
The comparison wasn’t unwelcome, even if Callaghan had meant it as more of a jab. Aberforth didn’t see stubbornness as a negative. It was just another sort of determination, and that was a good thing most of the time.
"Of course, you would," said Callaghan, shaking his head fondly. "You are done for today. Go. Freshen up. Your father has called for a brunn."
Aberforth frowned. "A brunn?" he said. "Are you certain? Does father intend to take us to war?"
Callaghan shook his head. "There is no doubt about the call for a brunn but I cannot say I know anything about your father’s intentions. All I know is that a messenger arrived and that your father called for the assembly soon thereafter."
Aberforth nodded, a grave look on his face. "Very well," he said in a somber and serious tone that was a marked departure from his earlier lightheartedness. "I will be there."
"Good," said Callaghan. "I have my own preparations to make, so I will take my leave of you now."
"Go, Teacher," said Aberforth. He thumped his chest twice with his left hand. "I will see you at the brunn. Spirits guide you."
Callaghan gave Aberforth a rueful smile. "Spirits guide us," he said, lingering on the last word as he looked off at the splintered tree in the distance. "I sense we will need them ere long."
Aberforth retreated to his abode at the edge of tribe territory. He’d built the hut with his own hands and, despite the glaring flaws he’d spotted in the years since its completion, remained quite proud of it.
Tucked away in a clearing by the side of a stream, it had proved the perfect place for him to cultivate his abilities. It wasn’t so far that he couldn’t get back to the tribe to assist if need be, but it was also far enough away that he could meditate without fear of interruption.
As he entered the clearing, he was gripped with the strangest sense of foreboding. As he ran his fingers over the doorframe, he couldn’t help but feel as if it would be a very long time before he came back.
He shook his head. He knew to trust his gut when he needed to but he didn’t have time to process the unsettling portent. His father had called a brunn, and whether or not it sent the tribe to war, the news was unlikely to be good.
Aberforth swept into the domicile and grabbed some cloths with which he could dry himself and a small wooden dipper which he could use to wash the sweat and grime from his body. Once he had all he needed—including the soap the Singer had given him as a present for his name-day two weeks since—he made for the stream.
He tossed his clothes onto a rock by the side of the river, stripped off the loincloth and sandals he’d worn to train in, and waded into the water.
The stream was deep enough the water in the middle came up to his waist. The current, however, was relatively slow and posed no threat despite the volume that flowed through.
The surface was crystal clear—almost mirror-like. Aberforth could see his reflection in the placid surface, the image perturbed only faintly by the stream.
He had his mother’s eyes, he’d been told. They were blue as a clear day. But he had his father’s looks. Handsome. Strong jawline. Perfect tusks. Callaghan had told him he was the spitting image of his father as a youngster.
He was proud of the likeness, the proof his father’s blood flowed in his veins. He only hoped he could live up to his father’s legacy.
Aberforth shook his head. Now was not the time to dwell. He took a breath and submerged himself into the calm flow of the stream, letting the cool water wrap around him as he ran his fingers through his hair.
Soon after, he resurfaced and made his way back to the riverbank. He grabbed the soap and rubbed the bar between both hands, marveling at the way it frothed in his fingers.
The Singer had explained it was a product of the humans’ ingenuity but it might as well have been magic to him. He might have even been suspicious or wary of the damn thing if the Singer hadn’t assured him it was perfectly safe.
It was more than safe, he’d found. It was nothing short of a marvel. He never felt cleaner than when he had an opportunity to indulge and lather up with soap.
The effectiveness of the little bar at stripping the dirt and grime from his body was remarkable. It helped him smell clean and fresh. And for so little effort, too.
For all the wonder of soap, it did have some drawbacks. It was wont to leap out of his hands, for instance, if he wasn’t careful.
It never lasted long enough, either. There was so much of Aberforth the bars he got from the Singer never lasted more than half a dozen baths. And as laborious as they were to make, he never felt comfortable asking for more than one or two at a time.
Today warranted the luxury, though. Aberforth wanted to look as presentable for his father as possible. He wanted to appear dignified and worthy of his father’s pride and respect, a young warrior of the tribe.
Most of all, Aberforth wanted the chance to prove himself. He was the tribe’s darling, a once-in-a-millennium martial genius that would surely elevate the tribe in the eyes of the world.
The tribe treated him well. His people doted on him. It was good, on the one hand, as he didn’t want for anything. On the other, though, it was a crushing burden he’d had to live with his entire life.
He had more to prove than his strength and prowess in the art of war. He wanted to show the tribe he was worthy of their reverence, that he was deserving of his pedestal. Because if he wasn’t immune to self-doubt, he couldn’t imagine the people would believe in him no matter what.
Experience was another thing he sorely needed. Even Callaghan agreed he had learned all he could on his own. However, his status in the tribe made it difficult to get the experience he needed.
He was too important to the tribe to send out into the world without preparation. The elders had refused their permission despite Callaghan and his father advocating on his behalf. Not until he was ready, they’d said, but he had been ready for years.
Callaghan had more to teach him but nothing he could learn until he knew what it was like to be in battle. Nothing he could comprehend until he understood the meaning of treading the line between life and death in the flailing and chaotic dance of true combat.
He washed the soap off his body and steeled his resolve. This time, he wouldn’t be denied. This time, given the chance, he would fight.
The men of the tribe stood assembled in the hide hut, in the room with the walls covered in drums. Each one was unique; each one was lovingly crafted. A Redwolf boy did not become a man without first making his drum.
From where he stood to the right of his father, Aberforth could just about see his drum. It was hung in the place of honor just beneath the Speaker’s—beneath his father’s.
Each drum was a labor of years. Everything, from the wood used in the frame, to the hide stretched over the drum and the nails, glue, and cord used to tension it, was made without assistance. It wasn’t uncommon for a young man’s first attempt to be an utter failure.
The quiet buzz of conversation faded to silence as Aberforth’s father cleared his throat. Speaker Desmund was a soft-spoken man but he never had to so much as raise his voice to command the attention of the clan.
"Our human allies have begged for our aid," said Desmund. It was a simple utterance, straight to the point and bereft of unnecessary fluff yet still laden with information.
Desmund was precise and purposeful with his words. As such, Aberforth had to raise an eyebrow. Begged? he thought to himself. The tribe’s human allies were prideful. That they would go to such lengths spoke to the gravity of the situation.
"Has the war with the savages truly cost them so much?" said one of the men in the assembly.
Desmund nodded. "The numbers defy comprehension," he said.
Aberforth blanched. So many? He struggled to imagine a number that would have necessitated such a phrase. He could conceive of hundreds—the tribe had grown to such numbers since they found lands they could claim as their own. He could even conceive of thousands, as he’d seen on the rare occasions the orcish tribes met.
If his father was talking about numbers that defied even his comprehension, then…
Desmund broke the silence that had settled over the hut. "The kingdom of Altyria is fallen."
Aberforth shuddered. What a terrible thing. It almost didn’t bear thinking about but he felt oddly honor-bound to confront the ugliness of it all. It felt as if to do otherwise would be to insult the memory of all that had perished.
Concern rippled through the ranks of the gathered men, and for good reason. "How can this be?" said Oliver, a youth whose drum had weathered scarcely a summer. "Did the merchants lie? They said the king of Altyria led his people to victory after victory against the elves!"
Another broke in. "Tiberius is not a man who would trade in falsehoods," said one of the men, his shoulders mantled in sheepskin. "But it has been some moons since the merchants from yonder came to our lands. Perhaps things have changed since last we heard from them."
"So quickly?’ Oliver said in a tremulous voice.
Callaghan nodded, his expression grim. "Such is the way of war. The tides may turn on a whim—or the smallest mistake."
Desmund glanced at Callaghan. Their eyes met and something unspoken seemed to hang in the air between them before they shared curt nods. "Treason broke Altyria."
The discontent in the room grew thick in the air. "Bastards," said one of the men.
"Cravens," said another, to a murmuring of agreement from the rest. Even Aberforth found himself nodding along.
Aberforth took a deep breath. He looked at his father and said, "What should we do?" He caught himself just at the end. The brunn wasn’t the place to bring up their bond of blood. Here, they stood as Redwolf men.
Desmund seemed to consider the question for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was low and grim. "War is a terrible thing," he said.
Faces around the room darkened to reflect the gravity in the Speaker’s voice. Older men’s gazes grew unfocused and faraway. They ruminated on times long gone, of an age Aberforth could only imagine must have felt like a lifetime ago.
The air was thick with the scent of grief and anguish. The younger men, born into the decades of prosperity the tribe had had since they claimed their own territory, could feel the weight of it on their shoulders.
Aberforth fought the urge to quail under the oppressive force of the elders’ sorrow. The tribe had always taught its young about war and its horrors but never would Aberforth have even imagined the way the second-hand despair could make him feel.
Desmund broke the fugue that had gripped the men. "No man should ever be forced to witness such horrors," he said. "But the tribe owes the humans a great debt."
"’Tis true, but—" began one of the elders.
"Twrhold," said Desmund in a voice as soft as a whisper but the single word cut through the elder’s protest with ease. "The gift. A parcel of land given generously to a struggling tribe by a magnanimous king."
Desmund continued, his voice gaining in strength, his tone reproachful. "In the Redwolves’ time of need, the humans came to our aid. Now, they beg us on hands and knees for help."
The men held their breaths as Desmund rose from his chair. "Law does not oblige us to act. So generous were the terms with which the Redwolf was given their land," he said, casting a steely-eyed gaze about the room. "But honor demands we take up arms in defense of our friends and benefactors."
Desmund took a step forward but he reached behind him to grasp Callaghan by the wrist. They shared a look and in the sunlight streaming through a nearby window, the matching bands on their tusks seemed to gleam as their eyes met.
Aberforth couldn’t help but smile. It never failed to amaze him, the bond between his father and Callaghan. Together, they seemed unstoppable. Invincible.
Desmund turned his attention back to the gathered men. "Those with reservations need not follow me into battle. There are other duties to attend to. Stay at home. Protect the tribe. But the Redwolf will not stand idly by while his friends are slaughtered. He will smell blood in the air and bare his fangs."
Callaghan thumped his right fist against his chest twice in quick succession before tilting his head back and howling. Swept up in the fervor of the moment, heat coursing through his veins, Aberforth did the same.
Others followed suit and for the first time in his life, Aberforth felt as if he well and truly belonged with his people.
There was considerable tension between the humans and the Redwolf men. It was unfortunate but not entirely unexpected, a consequence of two vastly different cultures being brought together under stressful circumstances and limited space. All parties at least had the good sense to refrain from open hostility.
The training grounds were something of a neutral space between the Redwolf and human camps. They were also a place of mutual respect and bridge-building between the races.
While it was inevitable that people would butt heads, the disagreements were hardly ever more than could be settled with a bout in the arena. And even those were useful for building rapport.
The divisions in the men were either absent or less visible in the command tent. Perhaps it was a sense of mutual recognition between the veterans of each race. Perhaps it was the wisdom to know that petty disagreements on such matters as race were inconsequential when the stakes were so high.
"The loss of Altyria’s forces was a major blow, as you might understand," said the human general. He looked old but his eyes were as sharp and clear as a young man’s.
He was clothed humbly with a pair of linen breeches and a long-sleeved tunic. On top, he had donned a simple leather gambeson with several vertical stripes running from his shoulder to the bottom of the garment over his left breast.
Aberforth had quietly asked Callaghan what the decoration was about and was told the colors represented which clan of humans the general belonged to. It made sense though Aberforth struggled to imagine how such a display could be practical in battle.
Desmund nodded. "So we have been told," he said. "I take it the eastern front of the war has collapsed?"
The general nodded. "Altyria’s military might cannot be understated, Chief Desmund," he said gravely. "The eastern alliance fights valiantly on but without King Augustus’ veteran army at the core of their forces, the eastern front is likely to be overrun in a matter of weeks."
Desmund pursed his lips and Callaghan took the opportunity to interject. "Would it not then make more sense to deploy the Redwolves to the eastern front, General Cassius?"
Cassius shook his head. "Not at this time of the year, I’m afraid." He directed the commanders’ attention to the map on the table.
"Are these mountains the trouble?" said Desmund, pointing at a series of peaks along the southeast of the forest of Ymrion.
Cassius nodded. "The montes ignis," he said. "Travelers between east and west typically take the Livian Pass during the summer and the early fall but it is perilous during the winter."
"I see," said Desmund. "How long would it take to get to the mountains and how long would it take to cross?"
"You cannot seriously—" Cassius began. He stopped himself short when Desmund raised an eyebrow. "Three weeks from here and another two to cross—one and a half at best."
Desmund nodded. "How long until the pass becomes dangerous?"
Redwolf land was further north. Most of the winters Aberforth had lived through were mild and wet, rather than cold and freezing. It was an important question to ask.
"Less than that," said Cassius. "Even were you to depart now and reach the pass in two weeks instead of three, the worst of winter will, like as not, reach you before you can cross."
Desmund nodded. "Very well. The tribe will remain. To what end will our strength be best put?"
Cassius smiled. "Thank you," he said. "Help is on the way for the eastern front but what they need is time—a reprieve from the unrelenting pressure brought to bear against them."
"You have fought the elves to a stalemate here in the western front," Desmund observed as he looked over the map and the small figures that represented the positions of various strategic assets in the region.
"Unfortunately so," said Cassius. "We have access to considerably fewer resources than the eastern front and are only lucky enough that the elves chose to press their advantage in the east rather than to reroute some of their forces west."
Desmund nodded. "Then you hope the tribe will be able to break the stalemate and push through," he said.
Cassius scratched his cheek. "We hope you can help, at least," he said.
Callaghan laughed. "You underestimate the capabilities of the Redwolf," he said.
Aberforth nodded. There were as many as fifteen human men to every Redwolf man in the camp. In terms of sheer numbers, there was no contest.
He’d watched the spars, however. Each Redwolf man was worth at least a dozen men at the least, and twenty on average. Even if their numbers were small, the force they would bring to bear was no less than their human allies.
Desmund glanced at Callaghan and chuckled. He cast a knowing look at Aberforth—as if he knew precisely what the younger Redwolf was thinking.
"No," said the Speaker. "The general is right to be cautious of the elves. They are capable of turning the tide of battle at a critical moment and that cannot be discounted."
Cassius smiled gratefully at Desmund. "Indeed," he said. "And though treason played its role in the fall of Altyria, we know not the means the elves employed to conquer them so swiftly and so thoroughly."
Aberforth quietly took it all in. He had much to learn, that much he’d discovered. More than anything, it was becoming eminently clear that winning a war meant relying on more than raw strength.
"What is the plan?" said Desmund.
Cassius was silent for a moment. "We cut off the head of the snake," he said. "Despite their relatively low numbers, the elves have the advantage of highly skilled leadership and fighting on their home soil."
"Requiring a small group of highly-skilled warriors to infiltrate deep into enemy territory to deliver a decisive strike against their leadership, yes?"
"Yes," said Cassius.
Callaghan interjected. "Have you not attempted this plan before?" he said.
Cassius shook his head. "Our mages are skilled enough they can ferry a small group of soldiers to the enemy camp without detection but the elves are monstrously strong and even our best soldiers were overcome before they could accomplish their mission."
Desmund nodded. "And that is where the Redwolves come in," he said.
"Yes," Cassius acknowledged.
"Very well," said Desmund as he rose from his seat. "We will discuss the matter and appoint men to the task. We will reconvene at sunset."
Cassius seemed taken aback. "Y-yes, of course," he said. As he looked around the room, his and Aberforth’s eyes met.
Aberforth shrugged helplessly. His father probably didn’t mean to be impolite but it was hard not to seem that way being so brusque and abrupt. "Thank you," he mouthed, before following his father, Callaghan, and the other Redwolves out of the tent.
They were scarcely out of earshot of the command tent when Aberforth took a deep breath and said, "I’ll do it."