Telkarnith woke with a start, his sleep disturbed by clanking and shouting coming from somewhere outside his inn room. Frowning, he threw off the sheets and grabbed his sword, and headed out toward the common room.
The Blue Zephyl Inn was a battleground. At first Telkarnith had thought it might be a simple tavern brawl, but he knew otherwise when he saw the aggressors were heavily armed and all wearing leather armor and yellow tabards, each marked with the same symbol in red. Sword in hand, Telkarnith waded in to try to stop them from hurting the unarmed tavern patrons.
"Back off!" Telkarnith said. "If you're going to pick a fight with someone, it better be someone who can put up a fight!"
"What have we here?" said one of the attackers, looking over at him and giving a laugh. "A youngling who's getting too big for his britches. Ever been in a real fight before, boy? You look like you must be sixteen or seventeen. By your age, any good Calickan will have made their first kill in battle and taken a trophy to prove it!"
"I haven't killed anyone yet," Telkarnith replied. "But if you don't leave this inn right this minute, you might just have the honor of being the first!"
The large man laughed heartily again, beard shaking as he did so. "You've got spirit, kid, I'll give you that, but it'll take more than a fresh youngling to take down Chief Karsu."
"We'll see about that." Telkarnith charged in, sword first.
Chief Karsu seemed more amused than anything else, easily deflecting Telkarnith's clumsy attacks. "You might have a magic sword, boy, but you've got no idea how to use it."
Telkarnith bit back his objections. He had trained, both before and during his training as a shaman, but when it came down to it, playing with wooden sticks and practice dummies was nothing like real battle. Karsu, on the other hand, might have been fighting as long as Telkarnith had been alive.
"Enough," Karsu said. "I grow weary of this game. Stand down, youngling, and I will show you my mercy and spare your life."
The spirit in Telkarnith's sword whispered in his mind. "This isn't worth your life, Telkarnith. You're outmatched and outnumbered. Be patient. You can even the score here when the odds are a bit more in your favor."
"Fine," Telkarnith said quietly, lowering the sword and backing away. He hated it, but he had to admit that Zarnith was right. This was foolhardy.
His distraction, at least, had at least given some of the patrons the opportunity to slip away from the scene. The Calickans proceeded to raid the place for any valuables they could find, leaving Telkarnith to stand in a corner and watch helplessly, but they were good to their word and didn't raise a hand against him. Then, when they'd gotten what they'd come for, they made off again.
The innkeeper cautiously poked up his head from behind the blood-stained bar. "Oh, bother, what a mess. At least they didn't kill many people. Those barbarians wouldn't know fine wine if they got hit over the head with a bottle of it!"
"I'm sorry I couldn't help," Telkarnith said sheepishly.
"I appreciate what you tried to do," the innkeeper said. "This isn't your fight, though. If it isn't one tribe, it's another, and someone's always coming down those mountains to raid Trinketon."
One of the patrons spoke up, "Not all of the tribes of Doralis go raiding innocent targets." He was a young man, perhaps nineteen, and carefully cleaning a nasty scrape on his left arm.
"Be that as it may," the innkeeper said, shaking his head. "I wish someone would put a stop to this."
"We'll do what we can, but I can't make any promises. The Calickans are our enemies also."
"Who are you?" Telkarnith asked. "Are you one of these tribesmen?"
"I am Falk, of the Rhondar tribe. I'm just glad that I was not wearing my colors while in town, or they would have killed me on sight."
The innkeeper snorted. "Barbarians, the lot of you. But I've still got no problem with barbarians so long as they pay their bills and don't break anything." He went off to try to tend to the wounded.
Falk approached Telkarnith. "You've got a good heart in your chest and a good mind in your head. We could use another sword to fight against the Calickans. Will you come?"
Telkarnith thought about it for a moment. "From what you've said, the Rhondar sound like good enough people. And I'd love another shot at Karsu when I'm better prepared for it. I will go."
"You'll get your shot, I'm sure," Falk said. "I was going to wait until dawn to leave town, but with this attack I'd best be gone as soon as possible. Let me stop by my room to pick up my things. By the way, have you a name?"
"Telkarnith Chelseer," he said as they headed back to the hallway.
Falk seemed a little surprised. "I'm sure the Rhondar will be more than happy to have a Chelseer on their side."
After gathering up their things from their respective rooms, Falk headed toward the stables and started loading up a packhorse. Telkarnith reached out and stroked the weary creature's muzzle and murmured to her soothingly. He gently reached out with his spiritual powers and brought energy and life back into her. She was a nag, starting to get old, and not really up to this sort of work anymore, but she was treated well enough.
The horse let out a sigh and said in equine language, "Thanks, I feel so much better. Ugh, do I have to carry all this stuff?"
"Where's your horse?" Falk asked, glancing over at him and raising an eyebrow. Not a shaman himself, Falk wouldn't be able to understand the horse.
"What? Oh, I don't have one," Telkarnith said.
"No? Well, I suppose I could shift some stuff off onto the gelding and you could ride the packhorse here."
Telkarnith shook his head. "No, I'll walk."
"Yeah, you're right, it would probably be just as fast. She doesn't move very fast anymore."
"I'll take some of the burden off of her, also. I can carry some of that."
Falk's eyebrow went up again, then he shrugged. "Well, if you insist." He shifted off some of the things to Telkarnith. "The tribe sent me down to Trinketon to trade for supplies. Anything we can't make or get ourselves we have to trade for, or live without. The Calickans just steal what they need, and they aren't the only tribe that does it."
The packhorse said to Telkarnith, "You're my new best friend."
It was still well before dawn as they left Trinketon and headed off into the mountains to the east. The Calickans had vanished into the night, or perhaps they were off looting and pillaging other parts of town. Telkarnith would dearly love to see some justice done here.
"Welcome to Shal Rhon," Falk said as they climbed the last stretch of mountain path. Up ahead, there was a town, perched on a cliff, although it was more of a fort than a village.
"This is your home?"
"The home of the Rhondar tribe, yes," Falk said. "Our capital, headquarters, whatever you would like to call it. There are other outposts here and there, but this is the heart of it all. And you'd better not even be thinking of betraying us, because I'd kill you myself."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Telkarnith assured him.
After handing off the packhorse to the care of others, and Telkarnith turned over the extra bags he was carrying, Falk led him off to a rough wooden building to one side of the gate. A barracks or training hall, from the looks of things.
"Captain Varg," Falk said, saluting his fist against his chest at the man. "I've brought us a potential ally."
The captain was a bear of a man, with a full beard and a long scar on his cheek. "We don't need the assistance of an outsider. We can handle the Calickans ourselves. But your new friend is welcome to stay for our protection, if he wishes."
Telkarnith said, "I'm certain that the Rhondar are mighty warriors. But I, too, wish to fight against the Calickans. I would not want to be a burden to you."
"I have no command over you, stranger," Varg said. "Fight, or don't fight. What you do is your business."
Heading out of the barracks again, Falk made a helpless gesture at Telkarnith. "I'll help you get settled in, if you like. I was hoping that his reception would be a bit better."
"It's alright," Telkarnith said. "I understand."
Falk showed him to a small room in the Rhondar fort, and left him to rest. They had been travelling all day, and without even a full night's rest, and were both tired.
The snows were heavy this high in the mountains even this late into spring. Telkarnith enjoyed walking through the wilds, listening to the sound of birds on the crisp mountain breeze, and letting his senses open up to the life all around him. He was glad for his years in training as a shaman, and how Marvel had taught him to recognize what was before his eyes, and what he could not quite see.
His senses on this morning picked up a disturbance nearby. Frowning a little, he trudged off through the snows and came upon a gruesome sight. There was blood and gore on the snow, and a depression where it looked as though something large had lain recently, but it was no longer there. Bootprints and hoofprints were still discernable, although as snow started to fall, those would be difficult to track as well.
Nearby, there was what looked like the den of a large animal. Telkarnith took a peek inside, and thought he heard a soft whimpering sound from the back of the cave. The ground was slick with blood, and Telkarnith thought that there must have been another fight inside, a much more one-sided one.
He sensed more than saw the lone cub in the darkened den. The little one was whimpering softly, alone, and probably hungry. Telkarnith gathered him up in his arms and gently carried him outside. At least the cub seemed unhurt, but Telkarnith didn't want to think about what had probably happened to his littermates.
"Come on, little one, let's get you somewhere safe," Telkarnith murmured, heading back to Shal Rhon.
When he got back inside, Falk intercepted him and looked to see what he was doing. "What have you got there? What in the world are you doing with a two week old wolf cub?"
"His mother was killed, and his littermates were taken, probably killed as well," Telkarnith said. "I'd certainly hope that none of the Rhondar were responsible for this."
"No," Falk said. "We don't go after snow wolves. That's just a bad idea in general. They're very intelligent, and they will remember. Where was this?"
Telkarnith described where he'd found the den.
"That's bordering on Calickan territory, there," Falk said, frowning. "That sounds like their handiwork. But you still can't keep a wolf cub here. Its pack might come for it, and what would you feed it?"
"He would have died otherwise," Telkarnith said. "I'll take the chance. I'll take care of him. He deserves a chance to live."
"I still think this is a terrible idea. Wolves aren't dogs. And snow wolves are big. But it's not my call to make."
Falk left him to go try to find something to feed the cub. He got some goat's milk and poured it into a bowl, warmed it a bit over the fire, and tried to help the hungry cub drink. From behind him, he heard a light throat clearing, and glanced back to see the Rhondar chieftess, Berona, standing in the doorway with her arms folded. The chieftess was a muscular woman, larger than many men.
"Chieftess," Telkarnith said, first bowing, stopping himself in mid-bow, then saluting across his chest clumsily. "I was just--"
"Yes, Falk told me." She approached and looked over the tiny cub thoughtfully. "So, what were you planning on doing with it?"
"I will take care of him, chieftess," Telkarnith said. "I will raise him as I would my own son."
"What guarantee do you have that this wolf will not harm my people?"
Telkarnith looked down at the small, helpless cub on the table, hungrily lapping at the milk provided. "I was trained as a shaman for the last two and a half years down in Hlaya. I can communicate with animals."
Chieftess Berona nodded. "A shaman, I can believe, may be able to manage this. Very well. But understand this, that if there are any problems, both you and the animal are out of my fort, even if it's in the middle of a blizzard."
"I understand, chieftess."
The chieftess left him alone with the wolf cub again. Telkarnith helped the cub finish off the bowl of milk, and cradled him gently in his arms. He could hear the wind picking up again outside, and snow was drifting down to blanket the ground and bury the reminders of a great crime.
"You're a snow wolf... I think I will call you Helkhar," Telkarnith said. "In my mother's tongue, it means Winter. It may be spring, but up here in the mountains, it still thinks it's winter."
Telkarnith didn't figure that goat's milk alone would be ideal, so he looked around the fort for their dogs to see if there were any nursing bitches. He found one, with a litter of three pups. They belonged to Captain Varg, however, and he was a bit hesitant about asking considering his prior chilly reception.
"Captain Varg," Telkarnith said, cradling Helkhar to his chest. "I found this orphaned pup, and I was wondering if I might be able to foster him on your bitch?"
Varg looked askance at him, and gave the cub a cursory examination. "That's a snow wolf cub you have there, boy."
"Yes, sir," Telkarnith said. "The chieftess has given me permission to raise him here, since I'm a shaman."
"I've never heard of an elf being a shaman before," Varg said with a shrug. "But you'd better not hurt that bitch. She's already lost half the litter." He rubbed his head.
Telkarnith reached out with his senses and felt the lifeforce of the bitch and her pups. They were weak, and had had a hard time of it, and while the surviving pups would probably be fine, their mother wasn't so well off.
Telkarnith reached out with one hand and crouched down, stroking the dog's muzzle. "It's alright, girl," he murmured softly. "I'm sorry about your pups, but I can help you at least." He brought forth his healing magic to give her strength and restore life.
The result was immediate and dramatic. The bitch looked up, her ears perking and eyes bright, and licked Telkarnith's hand. "Thank you," she told him, in canine language.
"Well, I'll be," Varg said, watching. "You really are a shaman."
The dog poked her muzzle at Helkhar, and said to Telkarnith, "Let me see him."
Telkarnith sat the wolf cub down before her. She encouraged the cub, but Helkhar was hesitant and confused. "Go on, Helkhar, it's alright," Telkarnith said gently.
Helkhar whimpered, nosing about in puzzlement, but with some more coaxing he began to suckle hungrily. "Poor little thing," said the bitch. "I'll be your mama."
"I suppose I can't say anything," Captain Varg said. "She seems to have taken right to him. But you'd best keep an eye on them, you hear me?"
"I will," Telkarnith promised.
Telkarnith blocked the incoming attack with his practice sword, and neatly moved out of the way.
"Your reflexes are improving," Varg told him.
"Do you think I might be ready to face Karsu again?" Telkarnith wondered.
"That, I couldn't say."
"Telkarnith!" called Falk from the edge of the practice area. Helkhar, lounging about and watching from the edge of the practice ring, looked up and perked his ears toward the new arrival. The snow wolf was the size of a horse now, and his fur had lightened to silvery-white.
"Hello, Falk," Telkarnith said.
"The chieftess has assigned me to go on a scouting mission to see what the Calickans are doing," Falk said. "Care to come along?"
"I'll go," Telkarnith said. "And I'm sure Helkhar would love the chance to get out and stretch his legs, and maybe take a bite out of a Calickan for good measure."
"You bet," Helkhar agreed.
"You boys had best be careful," Captain Varg said. "Those barbarians can be ruthless."
"We will," Falk said. "Sides, we'll have Helkhar with us."
"One wolf, even a big one, can't fight off a whole tribe by himself. Be careful."
Elf, man, and wolf set off through the mountains, heading north, toward Calickan territory. It was a brisk spring morning, the second spring after Telkarnith's arrival in Shal Rhon. Knowing that they'd be wanting information, Telkarnith brought along a pouch of seeds to feed birds to scout for him if needed.
For the first few days, things were uneventful. The mountains were quiet, without a sound to be heard but the wind blowing and the distant cries of animals. Telkarnith's senses told him otherwise, though. Something felt wrong, and the animals were spooked.
"Something wrong, Tel?" Falk asked. "You look very thoughtful."
"There's something not right." Telkarnith frowned deeply. "I couldn't tell you precisely what, but something feels off. We'd best be cautious."
Quietly and carefully, they crept through the mountains like animals stalking their prey. After a while, Telkarnith raised his hand to stop Falk, and they climbed up a ridge on their bellies to look over into the valley below. They were stunned to see a small army arranged in the valley, tents staked up around a dozen campfires lighting the night. Telkarnith picked out the bright yellow Calickan banners, but also ones of purple and others of green.
"That's not just Calickans," Falk whispered. "They got other tribes to help them? Where are they going? Surely they're not going to Shal Rhon..."
"I'll see if I can find out," Telkarnith murmured. He whistled like a bird, and a tiny songbird fluttered in to answer his call.
"Food?" the bird chirped at him hopefully.
"Sure," Telkarnith said, pulling out a few seeds for her. "I need your help."
The bird eagerly munched on the seeds. "Okay, what do you need? Have you got anymore seeds?"
"More after I get some information," Telkarnith said. "See that camp over there? I need you to fly down into the middle of it, near the fire in front of the big tent, and tell me what they're talking about. Think you can do that for me?"
"I can do that!" the bird tweeted brightly, and zipped off toward the camp.
Falk looked at Telkarnith oddly and said, "It'll never cease to amaze me how you do that."
"Yeah, birds are tough," Telkarnith said. "I hope she doesn't get distracted by something along the way, but the promise of more food should bring her back."
"How do you know it was female?" Falk wondered, raising an eyebrow.
Before Telkarnith could answer, there was a shout from below, and Telkarnith pressed himself flat against the ground as arrows went flying overhead. Falk fell to the ground, his shoulder pierced by a yellow-feathered arrow. From behind him, Helkhar let out a low growl.
"Damn," Falk murmured. "Get to cover, Tel!"
They scrambled for the trees and took shelter in the underbrush, just in time to see a pair of scouts come up the ridge and peer about, bows at the ready and looking for any sign of movement.
"I thought I heard voices," one of them said.
"Look," said the other, pointing to where they'd been. "Blood, and footprints. And pawprints, they must have a dog with them. A big dog."
"I'm not fighting any big dog," the first man said. "Let's just go tell the captain about it." The sentries turned and headed back down to the encampment.
Telkarnith frowned. "We don't have much time," he whispered. "How bad is it, Falk?" There was a lot of blood. "Falk? Shit."
He concentrated, feeling Falk's spirit and trying to reassure him and give him comfort, but he was quickly slipping away. Falk had lost too much blood too quickly. The arrow must have pierced a major artery. Telkarnith didn't think he could repair the damage quickly enough to save him.
"It's my time, I guess," Falk's spirit whispered to him. "Get home, warn someone. And tell my mother I died an honorable death."
"I will," Telkarnith promised, quietly murmuring last rites to him and closing his unseeing eyes.
The bird returned quickly, just as Telkarnith was starting to think he should find a better place to hide, and perched on his finger. "Got anymore food?"
"Did you learn anything?" Telkarnith asked.
"Oh, yeah," the bird said. "What was it they were talking about? Oh, they're heading south. They want to kill people!"
Telkarnith pulled out his pouch and spilled its entire contents in a pile on the ground. "Thanks. Here's your reward."
"Thanks!" The bird fluttered down to start eating happily.
That settled it. Chief Karsu and his army of three tribes were marching toward Shal Rhon. Telkarnith gestured to Helkhar and scrambled to get a bit further away before anyone else decided to investigate. Hopefully if they did, they'd just think that Falk had been the only one here and that the "big dog" had run off.
"I need to get back to Shal Rhon," Telkarnith said quietly. "I need to warn the Rhondar." He certainly didn't trust a bird to deliver a message of that importance, assuming it could even find the place. At least he would be able to move faster than them on foot, travelling light and by himself, than the entire army could move. But would it give the Rhondar enough time to prepare?
"Climb on my back," Helkhar said, seeming to sense his concerns.
"What?" replied Telkarnith, uncertain if he had heard the wolf correctly.
"Climb on," Helkhar repeated. "I will run like the wind and carry you home."
Telkarnith thought about it for half a moment, then heard voices from the ridge. The sentries were coming back, and they weren't alone this time. "Alright," Telkarnith said. It wasn't any time to argue about it. He climbed on top of Helkhar's back.
"Hold on tight," Helkhar said, and set off at a run across the snow-covered mountains.
Telkarnith clung to the wolf to make sure he didn't slip off as Helkhar practically flew over the landscape. It had been years since Telkarnith had ridden a horse, and it had been nothing like this. He could feel Helkhar's sheer exhileration at running, wind in his face and snow at his paws. It was growing light in the east when they arrived back at Shal Rhon.
"Telkarnith!" said the guards at the gate. "What happened? Where's Falk?"
"Dead," Telkarnith said. "Prepare for a fight. There's an army on the way. I need to speak with Berona immediately."
The chieftess was shocked by the news. "An army? Coming here? Who is it? The Calickans don't have the numbers you describe."
"There were two other tribes there also," Telkarnith said, describing their banners.
"The Margrim and the Kaalesh," Berona said, frowning. "An alliance between those three is not pleasant news. How far out are they?"
"About fifty miles to the north," Telkarnith said.
"We have some time to make ready, then," Berona said. "You've bought us valuable time."
"Don't thank me," Telkarnith said. "Thank Helkhar. He got me back here in one night rather than a few days."
"I'll arrange a whole deer to thank him with, in that case," Berona said.
Helkhar's ears perked at that and he lolled his tongue. "Nice lady," he said.
It was almost a week before the army arrived at their doorstep, and the Rhondar were ready for them. Archers from the walls rained arrows down upon them as they crept up the mountain trail toward the gates of Shal Rhon. They rolled flaming barrels down the slopes at the invaders. Their army was decimated before they ever got to the gates.
"Rhondar scum!" shouted Chief Karsu from in front of the gates. "If any one of you has the mettle to fight me himself, rather than hiding behind those walls and throwing things at us, then come out and fight me!"
Telkarnith looked down from atop the wall by the gate, and saw that he was dressed a little differently than he was when Telkarnith first saw the man. Around his neck, he was wearing a large cloak of white fur. The skin of a snow wolf.
"I will fight you," Telkarnith called back.
He went down to the gates, and Helkhar leapt to his side, teeth bared in a snarl. The guards opened the gates just enough to let them out, and closed them again behind them. It would be highly dishonorable to try to storm the fort in the midst of single combat, even if there hadn't still been dozens of archers on the walls ready to shoot anyone that tried it.
"I smell wolf on him," Helkhar said. "Is this the man who killed my real mother?"
"Oh, how sweet," Chief Karsu said. "A boy and his puppy. Roll over and I'll kill you quickly. I'll make it nice and painless for you."
"I think not," Telkarnith said. "You gave a challenge. I accept."
"To single combat," Karsu replied. "You aren't alone, you have a snow wolf at your side!"
"You also killed his mother," Telkarnith said. "So what is it, Karsu? Are you scared? Think you can't take us down like you did her?"
Telkarnith knew that what was left of his army would not respond well if Karsu backed out now. "I am no coward. I'll slay you both and skin your pup as a rug for my daughter!"
Karsu attacked, and this time, Telkarnith was ready for him. He deflected Karsu's first swing, and Helkhar moved in, huge jaws clamping on the man's throat and bloodily ripping it out. Karsu, never getting a second swing, fell to the ground dead.
Telkarnith turned to the remnants of Karsu's army and shouted, "Your leader is dead. Which one of you cares to be next?"
Helkhar stood in an aggressive posture, bloody lips baring teeth as he snarled at them. None of the barbarians spoke up to answer his challenge.
"No one else dares to face me in single combat?" Telkarnith said. "So be it, then. Turn yourselves around and march home, and the rest of you will be spared. Any of you that takes one more step toward the gates will be shot dead or ripped apart!"
The barbarians, obviously deciding that this had all been a terrible idea and that now was a good time to be somewhere else, turned and marched back the way they'd come. Telkarnith waited until they reached the first curve of the trail, and headed back inside.
"You are a brave warrior," Chieftess Berona said. "I am growing late in years. Although you are not of our blood, you would make a fine chieftain for the Rhondar tribe."
"I am honored by the suggestion, Chieftess," Telkarnith said, bowing to her. "But I believe my time has come to move on."
"You are leaving, then, Telkarnith?"
"Falk was my closest friend here, and now he's dead," Telkarnith said. "I'm just glad that I was able to avenge him. It only served as a reminder that I have been here long enough, however. My purpose here is done. I've been here for two years now, and I really should be getting home again." He sighed softly. "Because doubtless my family will be expecting me to marry and produce heirs of my own."
"I understand, Telkarnith," Berona said. "The pull of blood is a strong one. You have given us much, and with Karsu and so many of his warriors dead, we may now have the chance to bring justice and honor back to these mountains. Go, then, with the blessing of the Rhondar."
"Thank you, Chieftess Berona."
After gathering up his possessions, Telkarnith found Helkhar behind the fort. The wolf was digging a hole in the ground, and had dragged Karsu's cloak with him, then dropped it into the hole and began covering it up.
"I thought burying the dead was more of a two-legs custom," Telkarnith said.
"Don't care," Helkhar replied. "Maybe I've spent too much time around two-legs rather than my own kind. I barely even remember her, anyway. But she shouldn't be dishonored in this way."
Telkarnith stood over the freshly dug grave and quietly murmured the last rites for the long-dead she-wolf. In his mind's eye, the spirit of the wolf shimmered into existence before them.
"I died trying to defend my cubs," said the she-wolf. "It gladdens me to see that at least one of them survived. Now I have been avenged, and I can rest at last. Thank you, Wolf Friend." The image faded, and was gone.