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Wild Hunt

Updated: Apr 19

BY RAGNA A. RUTHVEN


 

Chapter One: Kings’ Recollections


The day had broken frigid and gray, and a chill wind rolled down off the Tiger's Fangs formation. Hirc trudged slowly down the Kings’ Road, wrapped up in his time-worn traveling gear. Before him, the fertile Theigh valley stretched out with its farms and orchards—and some twenty miles further, his destination: the capital city of Nahrstrom.

Glancing back along the way he had come, Hirc heard the city of Orgun begin to come alive, the sounds of the market a murmur in his ears. If, on a clear day, he was to stand atop the city walls, he would see Nahrstrom as a faint smear on the horizon. His bones creaked with exhaustion and cold. It had only been five days since he departed the capital, and yet he longed wearily for the comfort of home. 

Never should have left, he thought despondently as he clutched at a tarnished silver locket that hung around his neck. His heart skipped a beat when he flicked the cover open, and a lump formed in his throat. The pictures dredged up a wave of pain and haunting memories of his lost loves—their visages forever remembered in the locket, evoking both joy and a deep sorrow. An elegantly dressed she-goat, her regal posture and delicate features reflecting a sense of grace and dignity. The strokes of the artist's brush fell far short of properly expressing her noble yet mischievous spirit, but it was all he had. The second painting portrayed a smaller, younger she-goat adorned in a vibrant yellow dress with ribbons intricately woven into her mane. Cradling the pendant, Hirc’s eyes became drawn as he once more saw the innocence and playfulness in his daughter’s expression. 

Imala… Kaya… 

He remembered when his wife and daughter had sat for the portraits, before the war… His paw started trembling as he dolefully caressed the locket, and his vision misted over softly. Eventually, Hirc released his breath while pulling the straps of his pack tighter. 

It would take at least ten hours to reach the city gates from there, and that was only if the weather held out. Taking another deep breath, he stepped off, his hooves clopping lightly against the well-worn slabs of the Kings’ Road. If you knew where to look, you could spot the sigil of the king who had first laid down the stone—at least, until the Jaws got around to erasing them; they seemed determined to destroy Karanor's history and replace it with one more to their liking.

Spruce trees rose tall, lining the road in clumps—though far more numerous were the stumps of those that the League had cut down for firewood during the war. Hirc cast off those thoughts with a violent jerk of his head; he needed to keep a clear mind. The road was clearly visible, despite the foot of fresh snow that hadn’t been there when he’d last passed through, but many a mammal had taken a nasty fall on such ice-slicked stone. He held on through the level stretch of the road for several miles, crossed a wide flat of ice berries, and dropped down into a shallow depression once called Blumau's Spring. The area had been dry for over a century, but he had heard tales of when it had served as a watering hole for the caravans coming up from Vornstrom. 

Hirc sighed loudly. Imala and he had been saving up for a proper wagon like a Vardo—not some lighter cart meant for moving goods a short way, but one suited to a traveling merchant. He kicked at a clump of snow; that dream had died along with all else he cared for.

"Deiken, take every last one of those fanged bastards," he spat bitterly. 

Over the following two hours, the farmlands on either side of the road gradually gave way to woodlands with large stands of old-growth trees; he knew he was coming upon the Ötztal. A steady rise in the land became apparent, and in the distance, he could see a large hill with a conical top, slightly flattened at the summit.

"Xwaadúu," he muttered quietly as he started to climb. The road here was steep, about the steepest a wagon could handle. After half an hour's plodding, Hirc crested the hill, stopped, and released a great sigh; he’d come to what’d once been the bustling inn of Xwaadúu had stood there for nearly five hundred years, welcoming traders from across the Cradle. Its red roof and blue doors made it recognizable from miles away. Now, all that was left were the remains of its great hall, its massive timbers blackened by flame, its stone floor littered with slate from the collapsed roof. An eerie silence hung heavily, broken only by the far-off cawing of crows and the occasional gust of wind rustling through the ruins. His heart sank as he surveyed the scene, feeling a profound melancholy and nostalgia for the inn's former glory. Many times, he had stopped there before the war, often delivering spices or taking a consignment of other goods to Orgun and beyond. He had met Imala here, had proposed here… 

He sighed and pushed the memory away. 

Ahead of him, the entryway yawned like an open mouth. Once more steadying his nerves, he stepped into the darkness beyond the doorway, the resounding echo of his hooves filling the air as he occasionally kicked away remnants of charred wood and cracked tiles. The acrid odor of ash choked the air, causing his nose to scrunch up. Nevertheless, he ignored the smell and trudged across the floor.

The once-grand entrance hall lay in ruins; looters had not been kind to the brass fittings; nor had time been to the intricate carvings, now only barely visible on the wooden columns. Soot and cobwebs coated every surface, reinforcing the uncanny atmosphere of abandonment—and so did the dense wafts of mildew and old smoke that stung at Hirc’s nostrils and eyes.

Dim light filtered through the shattered windows, providing little solace as he ventured further into the gloom. The sound of his hoofsteps echoed ominously, creating an otherworldly symphony with each step. Occasionally, a loose flagstone would shift beneath his weight, causing him to pause momentarily before continuing his exploration. All around him, blackened timber and charred debris scattered across the floor, serving as a haunting reminder of what had been—now only the remnants of a long-forgotten fire. Despite the desolation, he pressed on, driven by an intense curiosity, his every pace a testament to his determination.

Hirc leaned against a sturdier part of the bar, allowing his fingers to trace the ornate engravings that adorned its surface. Memories flooded his mind as he recalled the nights spent there, sharing stories and laughter with fellow travelers. The bar had been a place of camaraderie, where strangers become friends over a shared drink. The innkeeper, a massive elk named Korran Ghara, whose family had run the inn for centuries, had always been ready with a quick witticism or refill. But now, the bar stood as a lonesome testament to the inn's prior valor. The shelves that had once held an array of spirits and liquors were now reduced to shards and splinters. Hirc's heart ached at the sight, mourning the loss of a cherished gathering place. 

We lost so much—and for what? Silently, he placed a single coin on the bar.

"To you, and may your purse be full and your cup never run dry," he whispered, offering the traditional traveler’s toast before pushing away from the counter. As he continued his exploration, Hirc's gaze fell upon the remnants of the inn's hearth. It had once been the heart of the inn, providing warmth and comfort to weary travelers on many cold winter nights. Old Otenn would stand by the fire, fiddle in paw, and croon out old ballads or, if he was well into his cups, bawdy songs that would make the ladies blush. Now, it lay cold and lifeless, stones filmed in soot from the inferno that had consumed the building. Lit by the Jaws when Korran couldn't provision them. He had heard the stories; they had tied him and his family to the pillars and burned the inn down around them. Unable to bear the weight of his memories any longer, Hirc made his way to the back of the building, where the sleeping quarters had once stood. 

The rooms, similarly destroyed, had once been a refuge for tired souls seeking respite from their journeys. Hirc's mind wandered to the nights he had spent there, lying beside Imala, their bodies intertwined as they whispered promises of forever.

The loss was immeasurable, the destruction irreparable. The inn had been more than just a building; it had been a symbol of hope and connection, a beacon in a world consumed by chaos. With a heavy heart, Hirc turned to leave, his hoofsteps reverberating through the empty halls. And as he returned to the fading sunlight, he wondered if anyone would ever rebuild. 

But he doubted it. There would be no rebuilding, no revival—what would be the point? 


What is the point?


 

Chapter Two: Portents of Anger


As Hirc continued on his journey toward Nahrstrom, The Xwaadúu fading behind him, his eyes strained to make out the distant walls of the city on the horizon. Despite his relentless pace, the capital remained nothing more than a tiny dot of color, barely visible even as the hours slipped away. Frustration and disappointment washed over Hirc when he carefully studied his map and realized that he had severely underestimated the ground he had covered. The revelation hit him hard, but he refused to let it deter him. Determined to reach Nahrstrom as quickly as possible, he resolved to push on without taking any breaks. With sheer determination driving him, he estimated that if he maintained this relentless pace, he would arrive at the city by the morning.

Hirc trudged along, his mind consumed by a relentless and deepening cycle of despair. The purposelessness of his trek was a heavy weight in his mind, and it drained the very essence from his being. Each step felt like an uphill battle, his movements growing weaker with each passing moment. The vibrant world that once surrounded him now seemed devoid of life, mirroring the desolation he felt within. The once warm and comforting sunrays felt cold and distant. Previously a source of joy, the chirping of birds served to remind him of his solitude. His thoughts swirled with questions, echoing in the caverns of his mind. 

What difference did it make if he arrived in the morning, the afternoon, or never? 

The weight of unanswered questions bore down on him, threatening to crush his will. He barely even noticed when he stepped off of the Kings’ Road and onto a little-used trail that ran alongside it. The path there was poorly maintained, overgrown by thickets of scrubs and snow bracken, the branches still covered in a glaze of ice.

Stumbling on a loose stone, he nearly lost his balance. And when he raised his head, he felt his blood go cold in his veins. 

The dark shadow loomed over him, casting an ominous presence and seeming to swallow up all sound. Its form was indiscernible—a shapeless mass that defied the surrounding light. The conical mound stood tall, reaching two hundred feet above the valley floor. Intertwining vines and creeping plants adorned the surface and concealed the carefully fitted blocks of stone beneath. Rising out from the top was a single faceted body of obsidian. Hirc, feeling a chill run down his spine, recognized them as the infamous Anger Stones. The purpose and origin of the ancient structure were an enigma. 

He looked about in the fading light. It will take time to backtrack, he thought, the path looped out for several miles before returning to the Kings’ Road. His options weren’t good, and he didn't feel that navigating this path in the dark would be the most prudent thing.

"Mother's tits…" he muttered under his breath, feeling the biting icy-wind whip against him. He tightened his jacket, realizing that he had no choice but to make camp here for the night and resume his journey at sunrise. It was the safer option; there would be little he could do should he injure himself in the dark. As he walked slowly around the mound, his eyes were drawn to an opening that seemed to be darker than darkness itself, concealed by overgrown creepers and bracken. Pushing aside the viny curtain, Hirc stepped inside, seeking refuge from the howling gale. 

The inner chamber, also conical, featured small window slits near the apex which allowed feeble rays of light to pierce through. A dozen stone slabs, each carved into a likeness of a door lined the perimeter, while hundreds of stylized faces of both predator and prey embellished the walls, all contorted into various expressions of rage. It was these that had given the ruins their name. As he explored further, Hirc noticed notches meticulously etched into the stone floor, forming a circular depression at the center. Yet, whatever had once resided within this space had long vanished.

Getting to work, he swiftly built a modest fire in the center of the space and began preparing a small meal. His belly protested its emptiness audibly; he had eaten nothing since breakfast. With a groan, he rummaged through his bag and retrieved his meager supplies: a small pouch of tea and an assortment of bread, cheese, and dried fruit. It wasn't much of a supper, but it was far better than sleeping on an empty stomach. His every movement cast ominous shadows by the flickering firelight. 

Pulling out his locket, he flipped it open and stared into their faces. He traced the images gently with his fingers, feeling the emptiness settle within him again. 

I would give anything… 

A strained sigh escaped his lips, and he replaced the locket, setting off to clean up. Later, as he lay curled in his jacket, the warmth from the fire keeping the cold at bay, he tried to push away the will-rasping thoughts. Such things would drive him mad. Instead, he wondered what Kaya would be like now. She would be seven, playing tag with the other lambs in the back alleys or skipping rope in the park. Or maybe helping Imala with the inventory in the market stall…. He could imagine his girl at work, teaching their daughter the skills she would need to be a tidy merchant, one day. Further into that evening in the Vårdö, he could see Kaya sleeping in her little trundle bed while Imala knitted blankets, as they talked quietly of their next journey to Viltr, or maybe Azagor, or even farther north. So many options… all unrealized…

The night songs of owls filled the night's hollow spaces as Hirc slid exhaustedly into a terrible slumber, his heart beating sluggishly.

 

Hirc found himself in a dim space, lit only by pale light. Through the high windows, the moon painted the cluttered room with a sheen of frost. He scanned his surroundings, curious at the unrecognizable silhouettes, some tantalizingly familiar. As he walked, the moonlight shifted, casting a single beam onto a brilliantly white pool at the center of the room. His eyes were drawn to a table, now illuminated—upon which a book lay open, gleaming like newly fallen snow. He remembered getting this book for Imala to celebrate Kaya's birth. 

He reached out to take it, then jerked back in surprise. In the middle of the page there was a frightening visage—a colossal wolf with burning eyes, whose head wore a crown of fangs. Hirc looked up at the room, then back to the evil tome. 

He was in Imala's room. Their room, of course! Where had he thought he was? Even as the realization came to him, as the silhouettes took on the familiar shapes of their bed, the little trundle bed for Kayla and a few other pieces of furniture—there was a cautious scraping noise at the door. He strained for the unexpected sound. Diagonal stripes of moonlight made the wall seem to lean crazily. The scraping came again.

"…Hirc…?"

The voice was whisper-quiet, as though the speaker did not wish to be heard, but he recognized it instantly.

"Imala?!" He leapt to his hooves and crossed over to the door in a few steps. Desperately, he fumbled with the shadowy latch, his paws shaking so hard it took him several tries to work it free. "Imala?" he breathed out in a tremor. "I have been waiting for you for so long!" 

But there was no answer. Even as he worked the bolt from its slot, he was filled with a sudden sense of unease. He stopped with the door half-unbarred, standing on his hoof tips to peer down through a crack between the boards.

"Imala?"

A figure stood before the door in the hallway, splashed with the yellow light of the gourd-shaped lamps hanging from the walls. Her face was shadowed, but there was no mistaking the green dress, her slight build, the subtle scent of her perfume that tickled his nostrils—yellow-tinted in the lamp glow. Why wouldn't she answer; was she hurt?

"Are you all right?" Hirc asked, swinging the door inward. The small, bowed figure did not move. "Where have you been?” At that, he thought he heard Imala say something and so he bent forward. "What?" 

The words that rose up to him were full of air, painfully harsh. "…Hirc… needed…" was all he understood; the dry voice seemed to labor in speech. Then the face tilted up, and the hood fell back. Her fur had burnt away, flesh scorched black, eyes empty pits. Her teeth gleamed bright in a grotesque smile as she stepped forward, the sound of dried flesh splitting and creaking with every motion. Even as Hirc staggered away, a scream of terror lodged in his throat, he watched on. She held up a small bundle, and it caused his blood to freeze when he saw the charcoaled skin inside. The fire had charred Kaya's body so badly that nothing was identifiable. 

As he struggled to respond, a thin red line spread across the front of the black, leathery ball; an instant later, a mouth yawned open, a split grin of pink meat.

"… Isn't… she… beauti…ful…" it said, each word a rustling gasp. "You weren't… we… needed you. Coward."

Hirc bleated until the blood pounded in his ears, for the burned thing spoke, beyond a doubt, with the voice of Imala. Suddenly, the windows blew inward in a cascade of broken shards as flaming torches sailed into the room; the drapes and bedding caught alight; the fire licked up the walls. Hirc backed up, feeling the heat of the flames beat at him.

The book burst into flames, and for an instant, the blaze flared up, taking on the shape of a giant wolf. It turned its burning gaze onto Hirc, its glance piercing him like a steel blade, and Hirc felt the primal terror of a prey being stalked by a predator—the thrill of the hunt, and the inevitable end. The Wolf appeared to howl silently, then vanished in a pillar of white fire. Those flames spread across the ceiling, engulfing the rafters in a blinding inferno. With an unnatural speed, the fires proliferated, and burning wood soon began to fall around him.

"Hirc…" Imala suddenly appeared before him, crowned in flame. He watched helplessly as she clutched Kaya to her breast—watched as fire whipped at her clothes, setting her alight, her lips mouthed silent cries of anguish. The pyre that had engulfed Imala flickered and, for a brief instant, took the form of a leopardess before exploding in a firestorm that devoured him. 

Hirc screamed again and fell backward into the darkness.

 

He jerked awake, gasping for breath as he thrashed about. He was surrounded by a blackness so profound that was it not for the faint embers of his campfire, he would have thought himself struck blind.

“A nightmare,” he panted, shaking as his voice broke, “just a nightmare…

“Who enters our lodge?” a voice rang out like brittle bones echoing in the gloom. Hirc jerked around, searching for the source of the voice. The air was suddenly filled with venomous whispers that tore at his mind like barbed hooks.

“Who ventures to disturb our hunt, our glorious charge? They will steal from us! The thief will take our quarry. They will defile the sanctity of the game…” 

As the mournful voices wailed, Hirc felt paws clutch at him, talons as cold and dry as bone, or as wet and pulpous as rotting flesh. He struggled, thrashing and bleating, but he could not shake off their grip.

A flame of lambent light suddenly broke into being, illuminating the skull of a stag with massive antlers sheathed in gold and precious stones. A pale fire burned in its empty sockets as it turned to regard Hirc with an almost hungry intensity.

“Who are you, goat?” the skull suddenly spoke, and he felt the malevolent weight of the stag’s thoughts behind it. “To dare violate these sacred halls, you are a hardened soul.” 

“I know now who you are—mate of Imala: a craven, a meddler. You have seen things you should not have seen, little goat—trifled with things beyond you. You know far too much. I shall hunt you, devour your soul, and make you a bloodthirster’s trophy.” A skeletal hoof reached out towards Hirc and his blood ran cold. And then, there was a greater darkness, a shadow of a wolf, and deep in that shadow, two red fires bloomed, eyes that must have gazed from the very blaze of Deiken himself.

“Mydrax,” the wolf said. It had the sound of ashes and earth, of smoke and flame. “He is not yours.” The eyes flared, full of curiosity and glee. “We shall take this one, usurper.” 

Hirc felt the stag's hold slipping away, Mydrax’s power withering before the dark hunger. He noticed– all at once– that the night was slowly giving way; that a muted greenish light was growing around him, revealing a spectral host out of his worst night terrors. Shades pale and terrifying, shadows dark and bestial lined the walls, while at the far end hulked a monstrous three-headed thing that pawed impatiently at the floor, its trio of maws snapping fiercely.

“Welcome,” the wolf said. “This is the Lodge of Raenir. Here, beyond the Darkest Gate…” His eyes fell inward, like crumbling embers, and the emptiness behind them burned colder than ice, hotter than any fire… and darker than any shadow. “What do you seek?”

"My— my family!" Hirc bleated, and the shadow’s laugh sent tremors through his very frame.

"And what, little goat, would you grant in return?" demanded the wolf.

Without hesitation, HIrc bleated, “Everything!”

Instantly, a gleaming white pool appeared in the center of the hall. As he watched, a second shadow arose, and it bore… 

Hirc gasped as he stared at Imala. She was the color of moonlight, but whole and healthy; she stood unmarred, and her arms clutched Kaya protectively to herself.

"They have been chosen," said the first wolf, and Hirc felt as if his heart were being squeezed in a giant vice.

"They have been chosen," the spectral host echoed.

"We have among us a mortal who would join the hunt," said the second wolf.

"By what right does the mortal declare his worth to join the hunt?" the host demanded.

"They are my family. I would give all that I am to save them," announced Hirc, his voice trembling.

"By Raenir's will, the one who first catches the prey will be honored. If the goat succeeds—he, the first hunter, will reward him with the return of his mate and offspring. Thus commands the Wolf-Father; thus it will be." A spectral boar then stepped forward, holding a massive horn.

"The goat cannot hunt, for he has no hound,” proclaimed the boar, and the host muttered and hissed in agreement.

“I shall be his hound," said a voice with the sound of a shuddering mountain. Hirc looked toward sound to see a truly monstrous, bestial wolf step forward, far larger than even a rhino. His coat was the color of coal, and his eyes blazed with a ghostly flame.

"I, Rannur: son of Raenir, shall be this goat's tracker. May the worthy find their prey."

“I, Skoll,” a deep voice boomed “and I, Sahti,” said a pair of shadowy canines, before speaking in unison, "as wardens of the hunt, shall give the prey one hour before commencement." As they spoke, Imala and Kaya seemed to shimmer in the moonbeam that enveloped them in its pearlescent glow. Hirc tried to follow, but was checked by a massive paw that held him back. Peering upward, the lone mortal saw Rannur looking down at him with eyes of blazing hot coals.

"You must wait and give every fiber of your being for the hunt against my father this night, for he will not willingly let his prey escape." Hirc nodded silently; it felt as though time had slowed to an injured crawl. Suddenly, he was startled by the call of a hunting horn ringing out.

“It has begun!” shouted Rannur as he dragged Hirc out into the night. The night sky was awash with light and fire. The goat stumbled in awe as he witnessed the mesmerizing display of great curtains dancing gracefully across the night sky. Above them, a picture of ethereal beauty was painted by vibrant hues of green, purple, and blue.

“Come, goat, come. The hunt waits for no one.” And with that, Rannur ran, and Hirc ran alongside him, utterly overwhelmed with the urge to join the pack. He felt his fingers sharpen and his mouth filled with fangs.

 

Chapter Three: Wild Hunt


The wind flung freezing rain into Hirc's face as they ran through the gloom toward the hidden foothills. The sound of the horn blast soon receded behind them. Rannur loped ahead of him, his body hunched over as he meticulously followed after scent trails and signs in the terrain, leaving Hirc to wonder what secrets lay hidden from his senses. His heart pounded in his chest, the sound echoing in his ears as he continued to follow. Then, the call of the hunt overcame him, and Hirc felt swept away by the ecstatic sensation of energy. 

A thought came to him: "This must be what it feels like to be a predator on a hunt," as the sensations took hold. How long he had run, he did not know—but gradually, cooled by the rain and fatigued by the relentless pace, the sensation faded. 

Suddenly, in the distance, a bestial howl filled the night.

"My father comes," said Rannur, his teeth flashing in the light as he redoubled his efforts. "Run, Hirc!" he snapped, and Hirc had to lengthen his bounds to keep up. They could hear no sound besides the noise of their own traversal, but the memory of the distant howling made the back of Hirc's neck prickle, and the dark face of the forest looked more and more like the welcoming smile of a friend. Rannur leaned low over the ground, nose flaring as he scented the path of the prey. Side by side, they ran down the long slope.

At last, just as the brilliant silver moon began to dip behind the hills at their backs, they reached the first line of trees, a cluster of slim birches—pale serving girls ushering visitors into the house of their dark master. The hunters passed quickly into tenebrous gloom as the trees rose up around them. The soft forest floor cushioned their pawfalls, and they ran silently as ghosts through the sparse outer woods. Columns of multi-hued light speared down through the branches, and the dust of their passage rose behind them to hang sparkling iridescently between the shadows. Hirc was tiring rapidly, sweat running down his face and neck in dirty rivulets matting his fur.

"How much farther?" he gasped.

"Farther, much farther, we must go. I remember you saying that you would give everything you had. Did I misunderstand? Would you not follow her to the very edge of the Cradle and back?" Rannur called to him as he slipped wraithlike between the trees.

"Before long, the path will become too twisted to move quickly, and the fading light will make it hard to see. Then we will need to rely on our other senses," rumbled Rannur. Hirc said nothing. He dug in his hooves, feeling his breath burn in his lungs. When Hirc finally slowed to an unsteady canter, Rannur slipped down to all fours and carefully checked the ground. The angling moonlight slid up the tree trunks around them, the forest floor darkening even as the upper branches took on shining haloes, like the colored windows of Nahrstrom's Cirice. At last, as the ground before them disappeared into the darkness, Hirc tripped over a half-buried stone; when Rannur caught him up at the elbow, he held on.

"Carefully now," the wolf said. Hirc slowed without a word, feeling the loose soil give slightly beneath him. A moment later, Rannur circled back after sniffing the immediate area. Crouching on his haunches, Hirc carefully examined their stopping place, noting every detail. They were partway down a small slope, at the bottom of which snaked a muddy streambed with a dark trickle of water at its center.

“Catch your breath and recover," he said, "I think we might just move there." With his finger, he indicated a spot slightly uphill where a great oak stood, its tangle of roots warding off the encroachment of other trees so that there was a stone's throw of clear ground on all sides of its massive, gnarled trunk. Hirc nodded, still laboring for breath. After a while, he dragged himself to his feet and moved with the wolf up the slope to the tree. Passing the tree, Hirc stopped and gasped. The forest seemed wilder, almost surreal. Flickering multihued lights and shadowy shapes phased in and out of sight among the branches.

"Do you know where we are?" Hirc panted. Rannur flicked his ears and stared into him .

"We have ventured far from the realms of the living into uncharted territories. You can sense the transformation within yourself: an undeniable, profound change. The longer we linger in this place, the more challenging it will become for you to make your way back."

"What happens then?" asked Hirc and Rannur, looking at him for a long moment before replying.

"You are lost and will become a tracker for the hunt until the end of days," Rannur delivered a blunt warning that punched through the firmament. “Best that you turn back now while you still can." 

"I cannot give up now,” Hirc responded resolutely, the otherworldly predator’s caution dispelling his fatigue, “not when I am so close." 

Rannur stared into his eyes, his expression unreadable. "Then we proceed," he said, before disappearing into the underbrush like a ghost. Moving swiftly on all fours, Hirc effortlessly weaved through the terrain, his senses heightened as he navigated with ease.

"Lose not the scent lest you find yourself a wanderer in the murk of the First Forests; one can and many have lost themselves beneath those endless branches, never to see the sun again," Rannur cautioned him. Suddenly, he stiffened, his ears swiveling around. "Hurry now, they draw closer." 

After a moment, he finally heard the faint howling that echoed through the forest and sent shivers down his spine. 

"The wolves again," Rannur said, "but their howls are yet far off." 

They kept running, the forest fading into the gloom behind them. He found himself carving through tall grass. Each blade bore a fantastical shade of blue that flashed and shimmered as he moved through the stems, humming musically in the wake of his passage. While he ran, it seemed like the terrain was changing around him. The desert sand hit him in sheets of pain; those bone-dry granules stole the breath from his lungs—and yet, he pressed on with his hooves sinking into the soft, scorching dune.

"Welcome to your desolation of empty covenants!" exclaimed Rannur with a pitiless laugh. "Perhaps you thought that, after the forest, the hunt would be easier?”

The spectral wolf shook his head in a mocking facsimile of sympathy. “Ho no—here, you stride through the wasteland of your failures—of your guilt. Feel the sand drawing the life from you; if you fall here, you will die and be left a hunk of desiccated husk fit only for the carrion birds." Hirc coughed, heat beating down on him. In the distance, the horizon shimmered in a heat-haze. But he could see the defiant moonglow of Imala and Kayla, somehow shining despite the daylight.

"Still, you persist?” stated Rannur in a pleased rumble before he headed off, apparently unphased by the heat. “Then, come; let us race the rising sun." For how long they ran, Hirc did not know. He felt himself withdrawing deeper into his mind, even as his body moved mechanically after Rannur. 

The ground became rocky, and ahead rose a daunting slot canyon. When they eventually reached that channel in the rockface, Hirc gasped in relief, the shade like cold water on his fur. But Rannur ran on without pause, and so Hirc was forced to follow. The temperature fell with the fading light until, suddenly, the canyon opened into a blizzard that hit him with such force it left his mind spinning. Head bowed and body shivering, Hirc ran in the swirling snow. 

All around him, ice pinnacles stood tall like jagged teeth, glacial winds howling through them. The orb of light shimmered, flickering in and out of view—the storm shrouding his only lasting reason for life. Rannur loped, flakes of snow and ice gyrating around him but never catching in his fur, melting before they could reach him.

"You have run to the far north, and still they elude you," he said, loudly enough to be heard over the wind. "Most would have yielded to the wild's call by now, yet you persist. The hunt is ruthless and uncompromising; how long will you last before your mind succumbs to despair and madness—before you embrace the wolf growing within you?" Rannur moved, wraithlike, through the snow. 

Hirc, however, stumbled and fell, his front paws plunging into ice-water. He yipped and jerked back as the veil of snow parted, revealing what he had nearly fallen into.Long and shaped like a great spearhead thrust deep into the valley floor, the pool was blue like the midnight sky. Its face was still and unruffled. 

Hirc paused before the mirror-smooth surface of the pool and gasped, for staring back at him was the reflection of a wolf. Drops of blood speckled the predator’s fur, beading on it like rain. The wolf's muzzle, which was a little shorter and broader than the usual, wrinkled with lips pulling back to reveal white fangs striped red. Its eyes were blue, rather than any proper lupine shade, and gleamed with demented awareness. It was only the faint stubs of caprine horns emerging from the back of his head that hinted he was anything more than a wolf aberrant.

Glancing back up, his heart pounding, Hirc saw Rannur sitting cross-legged on a flat-topped outcropping with his back turned to him. The ghostly figure had his gaze fixed on the blinding snowfields that blanketed the mountain's summit.

"See how far you have fallen?” rumbled Rannur. “Give up and return to your rightful place. You cannot outrun Raenir.”

"But the light, it's so close I can get there. I know I can!" Hirc shouted desperately. 

At that, Rannur pointed a single claw toward the summit where a faint glow was visible. "There they are. You must go on alone to climb this last summit and prove yourself—but be warned, my father is hot on your hooves, and he will not hesitate to take from you all, which you hold dear." 

Not hesitating for a moment, Hirc nodded and ran. His legs burned with an agonizing pain as he pushed himself across the rough terrain; he was determined to fight fate.

The ground rose into a steep and jagged incline. Moving across the rough scree, he climbed, stumbling and falling several times. But, eventually, he had to pause for breath. Looking down, he saw the lake, Rannur still waiting patiently upon his rock. Turning again, he glanced and saw how much further he had to go—but go on he did, fighting for every inch of rock as he pulled and pushed himself onward. 

Soon enough, Hirc paused, steadying himself on the gravel slope. He stood, jagged stones beneath his bloody hooves; joints quivering, as if yearning to immerse themselves in the frigid waters of the crystalline blue lake at the base of the near sheer incline. A few meters above waited Imala, Kayla beside her, waving to and cheering him on silently. 

Breaths heavy, Hirc moved with utmost care, his hooves and knees seeking sure purchase on the stones. 

Just a little more. So close… 

He could barely grasp the summit, his outstretched fingers mere inches from the top. Then, without warning, he tumbled down to a crash. Blarily, he looked up and saw the form of a massive wolf rise in a great wave of rock debris as if from the abyssal ocean. Imala and Kayla were clenched in his massive jaws. Suddenly, he registered nothing but pain as he was sent rolling again, feeling the sharp stones abrading his flesh away. 

An anguished cry tore from his throat as he was flung out onto the lake and into its frigid waters, yanked beneath the surface as if by some unseen paws…

 

Chapter Four: Karann’s Cold


Hirc thrashed about, scrabbling across the hard stone, his hooves scattering the ashes from his cook fire as he bleated and screamed until he was hoarse and spent. He lay there sobbing, his hooves still reaching up as if struggling to grasp for his loved ones. Through tear-streaked vision, all he saw were the heads of the anger stones standing where he had last left them…or perhaps he had never left. How long he lay there, he did not know, but slowly, Hirc got to his hooves; he felt exhausted, strangely the weight that had crushed his spirit was gone, replaced by a dull ache. It seemed like the shadow of guilt that had been haunting him since that day had been ripped away. He took a slow, deep breath and held it before letting it out. Slowly, he packed up his small camp and stepped outside. Judging by the sun's position, he figured it was late morning. Stepping off, he headed back towards The Kings Road, surprised by a little spring in his steps that hadn't been there before. A pace that led him towards Nahrstrom at a good clip in just two hours. He wondered what he would do next, where he would go, or what he’d eat tomorrow.. It couldn't have been real. He thought, but a part of him rejected that notion; it had been too visceral to have not been real. 

It was real. He had been touched.

Up ahead, the King's Road narrowed slightly on a raised spit of land that crossed a low area of marshland known as the Eckseebogg. The Eksee, a tributary of the Theigh River, emptied into this low depression of boggy ground and still pools choked with reeds and rushes. In the summer, it was a haven for midges and other biting insects, often filled with the warbles of birdsong, but here in the winter, with the water frozen, it was a harsh, silent, desolate place that was perhaps even more treacherous. Fortunately, the causeway was a straight shot through the marsh, leaving it as little more than a curiosity…. 

He grunted and stopped. Ahead, he could see what appeared to be the faint traces of wagon tracks. They seemed to have swerved sharply and run off the side of the bridge. Gingerly, he looked over the edge and bleated softly. Laying at the base of the embankment, he spotted the remains of a wagon; it appeared as if it had skidded off the causeway and rolled down.

Descending the steep edge, he stopped and stared in surprise. Splintered wood and scattered belongings littered the ground, forming a scene of chaos. The air was heavy with the smell of damp earth and the faint scent of hay and leather. His heart raced as he strained to listen for any signs of life, but only silence filled the air, filling him with unease. He squinted to get a clearer view. The sun's rays pierced through the gaps in the wreckage, casting eerie shadows, his heart raced with curiosity and apprehension. Through the tangled mess of splintered wood and scattered belongings, he could barely discern the legs of a mammal trapped underneath. The legs were slender and covered in gray fur, a wolf's most likely, he judged. Intrigued and concerned, he cautiously approached.

"Mother's tits!" He hissed, his heart sinking as he approached the lifeless she-wolf. Her once fierce eyes were now glazed over, her body limp and broken. The wagon had crushed her pelvis, ending her life brutally. What shocked him even more was the small, swaddled bundle she still clenched in her blood-stained arms. Despite the tragedy that had befallen its mother, the bundle squirmed and whined piteously, its tiny voice filled with desperate hunger and fear. 

Reaching down, Hirc's paws trembled as he pried the bundle from the corpse's rigid embrace. With a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, he gently unraveled the bundle, revealing a small, shivering creature nestled within. As he stared down into the piercing blue eyes of the wolf pup, his heart melted and he felt a tightness. The pup whimpered, its feeble cries for nourishment tugging at his heartstrings. Hirc sat cradling the little wolf in his arms; a female he noticed. She had gray fur from head to tail broken only by her black ears and paws. Hirc quickly built a fire from parts of the wagon. He had nothing remotely appropriate to feed her, but he figured he could make do with some old cheese. His wife had taught him this trick, and he was surprised by how easily he recalled it. He heated water and poured it into a small cup. Into this, he mixed the cheese, stirring repeatedly until it had the consistency of thick milk; waiting until it was cool, he gently fed the wolf pup one drop at a time.  

"Well, missy, you're going to need a name," he said to her as he cleaned her muzzle gently with a damp cloth. He looked her over carefully, trying to seek inspiration; “you remind me of Vedu Stenn," he said at last, her black ears and paws reminding him of the old Vixen merchant he had done business with before the war.

"How about Vedu? Seems to fit you." He said, stroking her delicate muzzle, drawing a happy little bark from her. Bundling her back up, he made a sling and strapped her securely to his chest. Taking one last look around, he silently prayed for her mother and climbed back up the embankment. Regaining the road, he glanced at Nahrstrom and calculated that it was still a solid four hours on a good hoof to reach the city. The sun was already beginning to set, painting the sky with hues of orange and pink. It would be well after dark before they reached the city gates, but that seemed the only option. He didn't want to risk spending a night in the vast wilderness with the young pup. The thought of potential dangers lurking in the darkness made him tremble. He tightened his grip on his pack and quickened his pace, hoping to reach the safety of the curtain walls before midnight.

He made good time, but the growing bank of dark clouds on the horizon loomed upon him too quickly. Before long, Nahrstrom was invisible beneath the mantle of dark clouds, the wind picking up noticeably bitter icy bite that carried the scent of snow. Hirc picked up his pace, hugging Vedu close as he tried to press on. Before long, the snow fell fast, filling the air and swirling into Hirc's eyes until he could hardly see. Bent shapes of trees stood a few feet ahead, and Hirc stopped. The snow became thick on his head and shoulders; it was already ankle-deep about his hooves.

"Shit," he spat and realized he had to find shelter; this was not a storm he could plow through. Looking around, he estimated he was close to the old quarry and hoped he might find some small shelter there. Hirc was shivering, and his hooves felt like lead. Stepping off the path, Hirc bleated as he sank into the snow up to his waist. It was slow going, but he knew there was a cave nearby. He forced through as the storm returned with fresh fury. The wind whistled, and a blinding blizzard followed; he kept pushing through, relying on touch more than anything else. Eventually, he saw a faint shadow ahead and increasingly felt the incline. The path dropped into a wide, shallow trough at the bottom of a long slope. It had been used to build the causeway and was now abandoned. The cave was just ahead, but in the snow, Hirc nearly missed it; he had to clear the ice from the entrance before he could squeeze his way into the narrow ingress; the space was barely large enough for him to lie down in, but it would do. 

Once inside, Hirc set to work. Someone had thankfully left a cord of wood stacked here, and it was with trembling fingers that he managed to get a fire going. He sighed in relief as the wood spat and popped, casting comforting orange flames all about the cave, and Hirc happily warmed his bones at the blaze. Outside, the winds howled and shrilled, sounding like laughter. He cuddled closer and found comfort that the storm was defeated.

Taking advantage of the warmth, Hirc unwrapped Vedu and set to work feeding her again while he helped himself to his last few scraps of bread.

"You're a pretty little thing. Imala would have loved you," he said, tickling her nose gently and wincing as she nipped him, her sharp needle teeth catching his finger.

He laughed; "Cheeky little thing, you are going to be a pawful when you grow up," he said, surprised that he was already thinking that far ahead; it was as if he had already decided to raise her as his own. He knew that would be daunting; it was rarely done, and he doubted the League would look favorably on such an act either; still he felt it was his calling. If they let you. If you survive, the words sounded eerily similar to Mydrax. He suddenly had a vision of a skeletal hoof reaching out towards Vedu as Mydrax’s grinning skull split open in mocking laughter. You couldn’t protect your last child, what makes you think you will fare any better this time goat…

Hirc's heart pounded in his chest, and his hooves trembled and quivered, making it difficult to hold on to Vedu. The worry etched deep lines on his face, accentuated by the fire's flickering light. His breath came out in shallow, rapid gasps, matching the rhythm of his racing thoughts.  

Little Vedu, sensing Hirc's distress, nuzzled against him, offering a small measure of comfort. The wolf's warm breaths mingled with Hirc's, with every gust of wind that threatened to extinguish the fire, Vedu instinctively pressed closer as if to shield Hirc from the harshness of the elements. I won't let anyone take her from me, not now, not after everything else! He thought, fiercely refusing to let anyone else crush him down again.

Outside the cave, the cruel weather persisted, transforming the landscape into a desolate, unforgiving expanse. The wind howled with a ferocity that seemed to mock their precarious refuge. Hirc's worry grew, knowing that time was slipping away, and they couldn't wait indefinitely for the storm to abate. His mind raced with thoughts of survival, weighing the dwindling supplies against the possibility of venturing out into the treacherous blizzard. Though offering some respite from the elements, the cave was becoming a tomb, its walls closing in on them with each passing moment. Soon, the snow would bury them alive.  Hirc's gaze darted between the feeble fire and the cave entrance, yearning for a break in the storm, even just a brief respite from the cold. He knew their chances of making it through the blizzard unscathed were slim, but hope still somehow flickered.The icy gusts seeped through the narrow opening, touching Hirc to the bone. Yet, he clung onto Vedu for the wolf's warmth and the companionship that offered a glimmer of reassurance in the face of uncertainty. As he sat there, staring into the flames, he felt a great sleepiness come; Hirc knew he shouldn't. But he could scarcely keep his eyes open; he felt himself sinking fast into a warm, hazy dream…

Hirc… Hirc! The voice cut through the haze. The goat slowly opened his eyes and glanced around. The fire had burned down to embers, and the cold had already seeped back into the cave. Quickly, he threw more wood on the fire.

"Hirc!" This time, the voice was unmistakable.

"Who… who's there?" he called out nervously. It was impossible that anyone who knew him could be out here. A still sleeping corner of his mind wondered if Rannur had come back to collect him.

"Come to me, now!" the words spoken softly had all the force of a command. Hirc scrabbled at the cave's entrance, partially blocked by the snow, resembling a frozen mouth, hesitant to let him go. He worked, shifting, and breaking the hard-packed ice until he could worm his way free. Once outside, he directed his gaze to the night sky. The stars sparkled like diamonds against the dark canvas. The storm had passed, leaving behind a serene stillness. Hirc stepped out, cautiously. The air was crisp, carrying the faint scent of pine. The snow beneath Hirc's hooves crunched softly as he trudged forward, muffled by the vast expanse of white.

"Who are you? Where are you?" Called out Hirc, his voice echoing slightly.

"Come to me." The words vibrated in Hirc's mind. "Hirc, look at me!" Hirc could not ignore that command; the power of those softly spoken words was too great. Hirc lifted his head and then, amidst the quiet, he saw her. A figure dressed in white, radiating a soft, ethereal glow. Goat, rabbit, wolf? He could not tell. Her features were fuzzy, muted by the glow. Her presence seemed to defy the laws of the Mother, captivating him with an otherworldly beauty. Hirc wanted to call out to her, but he was speechless. The apparition spoke with a gentle town that reminded him of Imala, but different.

"You must survive, Hirc. The fate of the Child and your own, bound as one," the spectral figure commanded. A voice that could be none other than the Mother. "Take the child to the House of Agatha. There you will unfurl the key to your future." Hirc listened, then reached to touch the ghostly figure. The figure remained unmoved by Hirc's efforts to reach it. 

"Hirc," it said again, "Do not squander the chance that has been given to you." What chance? Hirc was confused. Yet before he could gather the strength to ask for an explanation, the figure began to fade. And when every trace of the apparition had passed from his sight, Hirc thought he saw for just an instant Imala standing there.

Take a deep breath, Hirc quickly made his way back to the cave, the specter's words reverberating through his mind. He had been to the Cathedral of Agatha several times, but the place held no special significance to him, plus what was his second chance? A second chance at what? Too many questions and no answers. Reaching the cave, he quickly retrieved Vedu, who was sleeping soundly. Retracing his steps, he returned to the King's Road. 

Just as he cleared a short line of brush, he stopped, hearing some sounds from up ahead, several voices in conversation. Reacting quickly, he slipped Vedu from his harness and deposited her in the bushes. He didn't know what exactly to expect, but he would not take any chances.

"Don't move, Goat," a strange, rough voice ordered. Then it shouted, "Alpha-Lieutenant!"

Hirc looked up. Ten feet away, a single panther was sitting on the pile of rubble. A faded black and yellow cloak was wrapped around him, and beside him lay a helmet. It was obvious that he had been in the process of relieving himself. He held a bow aimed at Hirc's chest.

"Keep those hooves where I can see them, goat," the soldier barked toward Hirc. "Bring your carcass over the side, or I'll pin you to the ground." 

Hirc nodded and scrambled over the embankment with both his hooves held out before him. He positioned his body between the panther and the bushes behind which he had hidden Vedu. Hirc had been stopped by patrols before, and he always assumed that the easiest way to avoid problems was to plead poverty and hide anything of value. He hoped that would work this time as well. The Alpha-Lieutenant, a large tiger dressed in a black and yellow cloak and a silver helmet, lopped towards him while four more legionnaires followed in his wake—two carried spears. The rest were armed with short swords, drawn and ready.

"I got me a suspicious goat out here, maybe a rebel," their captor announced. "Or maybe spy," he added. By the brightening of his face, Hirc could see that this thought had just entered the panther's head. The glee it brought him indicated that there was a bounty paid on spies. Hirc looked at the Alpha. The Twelfth Legion has a reputation for brutality and efficiency, or so he had heard.  

"I am… a merchant," Hirc announced weakly to the Alpha-Lieutenant. "I am returning home to Nahrstrom."

"Simple merchant," mimicked the panther who'd discovered him.

"Sounds like a load of bull," one of the other soldiers, a cheetah, said.

"Don't like these goats," the first one said. "They lie and stink." Alpha-Lieutenant held up his hand, silencing everyone.

"Who are you, and what were you doing down there?" he asked Hirc. Hirc could not keep from glancing at the where he had hidden Vedu.

"I am Hirc, I was seeking shelter from the storm," he said, trying to keep his voice steady.

"And where are your wares," replied the Alpha-Lieutenant, "did you lose them in the storm?" That drew a laugh from the legionnaires. Hirc shook his head.

"No sir, I sold my goods and was making my way back home, I felt it was better to travel light," it was the truth as far as it went.

The Alpha-Lieutenant chuckled. "We shall see. Jaffa? Search him."

"Yes sir," said the cheetah, who began to pat Hirc down none-too-gently while another legionnaire, a female lynx, took advantage of the opportunity to relieve him of his pack and started rummaging through it. The cheetah grabbed his coin pouch and his small dagger. The Alpha took the pouch and gave it an experiential shake.

"Rather light for having sold your goods," said the Alpha, his expression skeptical. Hirc held up his hooves.

"Times are hard sir, goods don't bring in what they used to. Have to make do with what we can."

"Then I guess you know all about the toll?" said another panther, which drew more laughter from the others.

"No," Hirc replied. "I do not." He looked around at the patrol and felt his heart sink. "I wasn't even aware there was a toll station set up here." You mean bribe, he thought disgustedly.

"I'll bet," the Alpha-Lieutenant said, smiling with amusement at Hirc's cool denial. "However, ignorance of the law is no excuse. The Twelfth is here at the request of the Governor. We have the authority to collect tolls from all travelers on their behalf. No exceptions." Hirc dipped his head submissively.

"Of course, sir," he said meekly as the captain opened his pouch and started looking through coins. His expression shifted into one of irritation.

"This is all you have? You must be a shit merchant or a liar," he snapped, and Hirc felt the legionnaires surrounding him.

"Please, sir, that's all I have," he pleaded.

"Try again, goat," the Alpha-Lieutenant ordered. "I'm sure you can come up with more than this." There are no coins. There is no gold. And no meat and bones in this body. 

"Sir," Hirc pleaded urgently.

"One civilized mammal to another, I assure you, I have nothing else. That's all the money."

"I've heard of you 'Civilized Goats,'" the first panther said, contentiously. "Cowards, and cheats, every one of you." The Alpha looked hard at Hirc and then said.

"I am really sorry to hear you say that."the alpha said fixing Hirc with a cold smile.

“You will be.”


 

Chapter Five: Cirice


Stars exploded into shimmers of blue and gold as the blow slammed into the left side of Hirc's face. The punch snapped his head to the right and sent him flying back into the road. Staggered by the impact, Hirc clawed ineffectually at the air as he fell. His hooves slipped on the ice beneath the powdered snow, and he crashed heavily onto the roadway. Scrambling to gather his limbs beneath himself, Hirc shook his head to clear it. He instantly regretted it as agonizing pain lanced through his head. 

Mother's tits, I've not been hit that hard since… since… I've never been hit that hard. His attempt to regain his footing was interrupted by a heavy kick to the stomach that flipped him over on his back. A wave of nausea washed through him as he continued to roll onto one side and then vomited. His attacker's derisive laughter mocked him. Snow crunched beneath the attacker's paws as he closed for another kick. Hirc curled into a fetal passion as the blows repeated. 

"Come on, goat! Cough it up!" the cougar said, tossing Hirc's coin purse into the snow. "Maybe we should take the fee out of your ass," snarled a panther as Hirc thrashed weakly on the snow.

"Know you’re hiding it somewhere!” Each word was punctuated with a powerful kick. "Couldn't even make this frozen shithole worth our time," the panther spat. The cheetah laughed. "Bet the meat would taste good, maybe right around the leg," he said, grinning. He gave Hirc’s thigh a squeeze, and Hirc whimpered in pain and fear. 

The realization that they weren't just being cruel, but were actually serious, was real and visceral. Getting his hooves beneath him, he staggered and pushed himself up. Unsteadily gaining his feet, Hirc spat at the ground and wiped vomitus from his lips with the back of his right paw. The lynx grinned hungrily, running her tongue over her teeth as she slid a half-step to the right and jabbed straight out at Hirc, her punch landing on the goat’s nose. Hirc spun away the force of the blow, falling down hard on his rump. A bolt of pain shot up Hirc's spine and exploded in his brain. He felt as if his pelvis had been shattered in the fall, and the pain in his midsection numbed all sensation from his legs. 

Time slowed as his foe's hand slammed down over Hirc's right eye and blasted him back down against the street. Hirc's view of the world went black for a second or two but snapped back into stark and painful detail as fingers tangled themselves in his mane to pull him to a sitting position.

A loud howl echoed in the distance; the lynx smiled. The tiger glanced at the rest of his squad and nodded. Then his fist fell again and again…

 

Hirc woke and found himself lying in a bed. His body throbbed; his mind was hazy. He struggled to recollect what had happened. He knew it was there, hovering on his memory's edge. As he stared at the ceiling, attempting to remember, he heard muted chanting.

'Where am I?' he asked, his voice emerging as an awful croak. He heard the rustle of fabric and felt a glass pressed gently to his lips a moment later.

"Drink," said a soft, melodious voice, and he did. The sweetened water felt wonderful as it soothed his throat. 

"You are in the Chapter House of Lady Gathra," said the voice.

"Who… are you?" he asked as he struggled to turn his head. Sitting next to him was a petite she-goat, perhaps a year or two younger than he, with a sleek, caramel-colored coat that glistened under the candlelight. Her gentle amber eyes were curious and innocent. Despite her diminutive size, there was an air of confidence about her.

"My name is Lussi," she said, her eyes sparkling warmly as she smiled at him. Her smile was so infectious that he found himself unable to look away, captivated by its charm.

"Lussi! Where's Vedu? Is the child all right?" cried Hirc, sitting up as Lussi reached out to steady him.

"She is with the priestesses. Poor thing was half starved, but she is doing well," answered the goatess.

"Thank the Mother," breathed Hirc as he lay down again, "Thank you." 

Fully awake now, and with the memory of his journey returned in all its vivid detail. He recalled everything from when he left Orgun to when he encountered the Fang patrol, but there, his memory failed. As he tried to remember the missing details, their companionable silence was broken only by chanting and Lussi's soft breathing.

Finally, Hirc spoke, "What happened? I remember the Jaws attacking me then…" he shook his head, wincing at the sudden jolt of pain the action caused. "It all seemed so dim, and it still does."

"Yes, it would. Considering the state you were brought to us, we wondered if you would make it through the night," answered Lussi.

"Your wounds were quite severe. You wouldn't have survived without the first aid administered during your travel. A few more hours and you would have been beyond our aid. But you have some strength in you, or perhaps it was the Mother's will that graced your desire to save the pup." Hirc leaned back and mulled over that; nothing in the last twenty-four hours made sense.

"I think I was only lucky," he remarked, a relieved smile crossing his face. Upon hearing that, Lussi burst into a fit of giggles.

"The Mother heeds all her children, kind one. A knight brought you to us on the back of her barghest." At his dubious expression, Lussi's laughter echoed through the room, mingling with the flickering candlelight.

"Yes, I know. It sounds unbelievable," Lussi continued, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "I can't blame you. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes. But I swear it! A tigress and her barghest, larger than any carriage, came right up to the door. The abbess rushed out in her nightgown, completely flustered. She hoisted you onto her shoulder as if you were merely a sack of flour and insisted that we treat your wounds. The knight explained she had found you on the side of the King's Road, beaten nearly to death."

"Those troopers said they would eat me," he mumbled. Shivering, he remembered the fear he felt.

"The Knight said that you kept talking as you drifted in and out of consciousness about Vedu and a hunt of some sort." Hirc blushed at that.

"I don't recall what," he blurted. Lussi laughed softly.

"In any event, she did what she could and brought you here." She watched over you until we told her you were out of danger.

"I would… like to thank her," Hirc said impulsively.

"She has already departed. However, she left something for you. She said it was to aid your recovery." Lussi pressed a small pouch of coins into his hand, along with a letter.

Dear Traveler,

I trust you survived and recovered from your wounds if you are reading this. I regret I cannot send my regards in person, but I must attend to a pressing business. While I do not know the circumstances that led to your being in that ditch, I know you have the will to recover. No mammal could have survived all of that without a strong will.

I hope these coins will serve as a small gesture of support as you begin your journey towards rebuilding your life. It pains me that I cannot be there with you in person to offer my condolences and well wishes, but please know that I am thinking of you. Life can be unpredictable; sometimes, we find ourselves in situations beyond our control. However, I believe you possess remarkable resilience and determination to overcome any obstacles that come your way. Your strength is evident in the fact that you have managed to survive against all odds. I may not know the exact circumstances that led to your unfortunate situation, but I have faith in your ability to rise above it. You have already proven your indomitable spirit, and I am confident that you will persevere and create a new beginning for yourself.

Remember, you are not alone on this journey. There are people who care about you and are rooting for your success. Take this opportunity to lean on your support system, seek help when needed, and never hesitate to reach out to those who can guide you toward healing and recovery. I wish you nothing but strength, courage, and resilience as you embark on this new chapter of your life. May these coins serve as a reminder that you are capable of overcoming any challenges that come your way.

Yours in haste, 

Ragna Astartes of House Ruthevena

PS. The pup is cute; she also bites.

Setting the letter down, he turned to the small pouch of coins. Opening it, he gasped when he saw the gold medals within. A quick guess was that there were easily a hundred in the pouch, maybe more. With this, he could live comfortably for years and take care of Vedu… 

He closed the pouch guiltily, looked back to Lussi, and met her gaze.

"Vedu and I owe her our lives," said Hirc. "But I also owe you mine," He said, clasping her arm gently. Lussi blushed.

"I… thank you," said Lussi, "but I only sat with you and helped with minor things. The apothecaries here did the actual work. How did you end up like that in the first place?" 

Hirc hung his head in shame, feeling the weight of his past mistakes.

"It is not a tale worth sharing. Full of heartache and pain," he replied. His embarrassment was evident as he recollected his arduous journey. He couldn't help but wonder if Lussi would even believe his tale.

"Perhaps the best stories are," insisted Lussi.

He told her all of it. His wife and child's death. His melancholia. How he found Vedu. Lussi listened to everything, never asking questions. I'll tell her everything, Hirc thought, and she will then sour when I'm done. Besides bringing him more water and a meal at noontime, Lussi didn't interrupt. As he ate, he asked her about her life.

"I was born in Viltr. My family ran a small tavern there called ‘The Golden Bells.’ My uncle still runs it. He took it over after my parents decided to move to Nahrstrom to pursue better work opportunities. It was a big change for us, but Father believed it was the right decision."

Hirc nodded. "My father was the same way, but we only had to leave Orgun. My mother was very fussy, and I remember it took us far longer than any reasonable mammal would need to move twenty miles." His muzzle curled in a smile as he remembered his mother's increasingly strident calls for them to ensure they had forgotten nothing. 

Lussi giggled, then became serious. 

"I met Aytor there. He was working on the docks as a stevedore," she smiled sadly. "Always had a wild energy about him, always willing to take a chance. He used to unload the Coeur de Fer company ships. I remember he would sneak me little things he had found on board. He used to have quite a collection of curios. My parents didn't much like him; they thought he was too rough around the edges for me, but I was young and a little foolish; we got engaged the moment I turned fifteen. Unfortunately, the war came. He was called up to serve and never returned. I learned he had been killed at Orcrim."

"After that, I worked where I could. The Cirice took me on because of how short-pawed they were, and I have been here ever since," 

Hirc nodded thoughtfully. Poor thing was like him; she, too, had lost her world. 

"What will you do now?" asked Lussi, changing the subject. Hirc leaned back, his eyes fixed on the gold coins before him. With a thoughtful smile, he replied, "With this wealth, I could live in comfort for years." 

Hirc's hand reached out, gently squeezing Lussi's arm. "I could devote all my time to raising Vedu," he continued. Lussi raised an eyebrow at this unexpected statement. 

"An herbivore raising a predator? That would certainly turn some heads," she remarked, a hint of amusement in her voice. Hirc chuckled in response, envisioning the curious reactions they would surely receive.

"Vedu helped save my life, and I want to give her the chance to have a good life," he said, looking thoughtfully at Lussi. Another idea was forming crazily, but possibly, it would give Vedu something else as well as a legacy.

"Perhaps I can purchase Xwaadúu and restore the inn to its former glory, give up the silk roads, and settle down again."

"That will be a lot of work on your own," said Lussi, "Especially while raising the pup." Hirc nodded in agreement.

"It may seem daunting. I have been given the gift of a second chance—a gift I had never expected to receive. I would be ungrateful indeed to turn my back on it."

Struggling, he sat up and willed himself to stand. He paused on the edge of the bed and added, "But if I have someone to help me… who shared my dream, it could work." He regarded her, feeling a strange attraction towards her, far more than he had any right to, all things considered.

"You wouldn't know anyone willing to help?" he asked quietly. Lussi blushed and squirmed slightly as she considered the question. 

"Not really; most inns are tightly held in the family," she said. "I grew up in one and know my way around, but apart from hiring extra serving girls or extra muscle, the family handled most of the real running," she said. "I think it's pretty standard across the board." Hirc felt his pulse quicken at her suggestion.

"How about you? Between the two of us, we can bring back part of our history and make a new beginning!" Hirc said passionately. Lussi looked at him uncertainly.

"But we just met… and my work here in the Cirice," she protested. "They need my help. I am a lay sister of the Cirice." She looked at him, stunned. Hirc waved the objection away.

"You said so yourself that you don't have many responsibilities here. But if you are certain, I understand." Lussi nibbled on her lower lip nervously as she contemplated the offer. He knew it was sudden, and a lot for her to take in.

"The War ended a lot of things for a lot of mammals. You know how I feel—what I've lost. I felt I had no reason for living, but now I have found my reason, it won't bring back what I have lost. But it will let me start over." Hirc spoke gently as he watched her face.

"Could I trouble you with finding a helping paw, Lussi? I intend to rebuild Xwaadúu. We will have traders coming all the way from the Federation and beyond. We can start over again."

Lussi looked at him with a frown, her expression filled with doubt.

"There are girls and goats that may probably be interested. I’ll ask around..." Hirc looked at Lussi, his expression skeptical.

"Just so you know, I have completely rebuilt my life," Lussi said firmly. 

"No, you haven't." Hirc gestured, a sweeping, circular move that took in the entirety of the chapter house's infirmary.

"You are like me, just going through the motions and licking your wounds. I know how deep they must be, Lussi. I nearly died to realize that. I don't want you to reach that point, and I don't think Aytor would want that either."

Lussi recoiled at his words, and Hirc thought she would either shout or cry, so he pressed on quickly. Lussi sniffled. "How would you know what Aytor would want for me?"

"Because I know what Imala would want for me–what I would want for her. She would want me to live a long, happy life, and I would want the same for her. I got so caught up in my grief that I forgot what we really wanted for each other. If Aytor truly loved you, he would want the same, no?" Lussi shivered, tears trickling down her cheeks.

"Forgive me. I’m getting ahead of myself. I am grateful for whatever assistance you can provide," said Hirc soothingly.

Lussi was quiet for a moment, then answered. "Toward the end, I wanted to give up on everything… if not for the Cirice, I would have."

Hirc sighed. "I understand..."

"You said that it is mostly make-work you might have needed during the war, but the war is over… it hurts me to admit it, but it's true; Lussi, you know that as well as I do.” He continued, "And now you're thinking that it could be the same as with Aytor all over again, that no matter how much you're needed, you can fail. But you didn't fail Aytor or yourself. What you did was lose everything important to you. This is the result."

Lussi sat there for what seemed like an eternity before slowly nodding. “I need time to think." Lussi rested her head against her knees. She was quiet for a while, then finally spoke.

"Tell you what, I have a friend who runs a tavern here in Nahrstrom. I could introduce you, and he might know people who can help,"

Hirc nodded. "I'd like that, and maybe we can talk more over dinner?" he asked hopefully. Lussi looked at him, then laughed playfully.

"Courting already?" 

Hirc blushed, then nodded, "Seems the least I can do after all you have done for me." 

Lussi gave his hoof a squeeze.

"I will accept on one condition," she said as Hirc looked at her, his curiosity piqued. He leaned in slightly, waiting for her to continue.

"Name it," he blurted, his eagerness evident in his voice. He couldn't help but wonder what condition Lussi was about to propose. A mischievous glint danced in her eyes as she took a moment to savor the suspense. She then spoke, her voice laced with a hint of playfulness.

"You must promise to have a good time," she declared, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips.

Hirc's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Without hesitation, he nodded, his own smile forming. "It is not difficult with the right companion," he replied happily. Lussi clapped her hooves together. 

"Good. Once you're ready, I'll take you to see Vedu then, my friend." Hirc nodded and stood up. He wobbled slightly, but he felt steadier on his hooves after a few moments. 

“I’m sure she’ll convince you.” Hirc said. Lussi took his hoof on her own before leading him out of the room; as he stepped out into the light of the courtyard for a brief instant, he thought he saw Imala and Kaya standing there.

They were smiling.


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