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The acceptance of the challenge came quickly—too quickly, as far as Pa’hu was concerned.

Vergud certainly did not take the time to consult with the clan elders. It was possible he had anticipated the challenge, but even Pa’hu had not considered rocca an option until he had learned that Azren’s armies were on the move. So either Vergud was confident in his abilities to defeat Pa’hu in one-on-one battle, or the Rulakon chieftain had made plans to guarantee that Pa’hu would never arrive. The latter possibility led Pa’hu to bring a dozen of his best men with him.

Hoot. Hoot. The signal came down indicating that they were all clear for their ascent. The Rulakon occupied the highest regions of the mountain. With few clans willing to assault them directly, their people had flourished. During the warmer months, they hunted goats and mountain lions, and when the weather turned, they took to the caves. It was said rivers ran through the caves, providing water and fish all year long.

When the Rulakon grew restless, which by their nature was often, they sent raiding parties to the lower areas of the mountain to bring back food, furs, and boys they could mold into Rulakon warriors. Enormous uokos traveled with these raiders, making them the most feared predators of the north.

Pa’hu and his men had spent the morning climbing gentle slopes as they made their way up snow-flaked ridges. They paused to rest when they reached an area where they would have to use ropes and steel spikes to scale the mountain. Pa’hu sent up two scouts to verify all was clear.

The rest of the afternoon and the early part of the next day proceeded much the same way. It was during one of the easier hikes that Pa’hu called a halt. Up ahead he had spotted a small grove of white birch trees, their thin trunks grouped tightly together and shooting straight up to the sky, looking like a giant quiver of arrows. It was the trees’ proximity to their likely passage that gave him pause.

He caught Cawa’s eye and gave a deliberate glance toward the birch trees. The beliei was petting his giant snowy owl. Its claws clutched at Cawa’s spaulders of thick leather interwoven with feathers. Cawa made soft hooting sounds, and Tril warbled in response. The snow owl launched itself into the air, rising high above them, then circling downward toward the birch trees. The bird of prey glided there for a time before elevating itself to such a level that Pa’hu lost sight of it.

Many minutes later, Tril swooped down at them from behind to land delicately on Cawa’s shoulder. The beliei and his owl conversed in a barrage of hoots.

“Tril says there are men in those trees,” said Cawa.

“I see,” said Pa’hu. “I will need Tril to find me some friends. I have a task for them.”

“Tril would be honored. How many are needed?”

“One for each man here.”

Cawa sent his owl away, shrieking as it flew back the way they had come. The sun was above them when Tril returned with a host of other owls in tow. Tril landed on Cawa’s shoulder, while its companions gathered on the ground in front of the beliei.

“They are at your command,” said Cawa.

Pa’hu took a square canteen from his belt. Removing the lid, he stood it in front of the owls. “Have each owl take one and drop it onto the trees.”

The clansmen followed his lead. The canteens contained an oil that fire drank like a man thirsty for water—a gift to each Northerner from Azren.

The owls flew to the sky with their packages, releasing their burdens on target and allowing the liquid to spill out onto the birch trees.

“Now to higher ground,” ordered Pa’hu. He clambered up a rock that jutted from the side of the mountain. Several of his men followed him, while the rest took positions on nearby outcroppings.

Pa’hu dunked an arrowhead into the fire water. He struck the sharp edge of his flint against a piece of steel, directed the sparks to the arrow, and set it aflame. Then he let the arrow fly, arcing high in the air and landing atop the birch trees. What started as specks of burning light spread among the spiderweb of branches. He pulled out a second arrow and squatted down, allowing his bow to rest against his knee while he waited.

Once the flames stretched from one end of the grove to the other, they began to grow downward like a dragon devouring a herd of cows. The birch trees were still wet from a recent snow and resisted the army of fire. Nevertheless, with the aid of the oil, it soon promised to engulf the entire grove.

Movement at the grove’s edge caught the warrior chief’s eyes. “Ready your bows.”

His men nocked arrows in anticipation.

A single Rulakon clansman escaped the trees. He was downed by several arrows at once. Another came out, followed by a narrow stream of Rulakon warriors. The trajectory from the rock outcropping made for devastating aim on those emerging from the confines of the grove. Feathered arrows rained down on them, dropping one after another.

The flow of bodies stopped. For a moment Pa’hu believed no men were left, until his eyes caught the pale skin of a man pressing himself against a tree. He readied his bow once more, calling for his men to do the same. He squinted for a better view, tensing his arms in anticipation.

Then all at once, clansmen swarmed from their shelter. There must have been at least forty, weapons in hand and battle cries on their lips. A portion took up positions with their own bows. They were the first to be targeted and the first to die. The others were picked off as they attempted to navigate the treacherous mountainside. If one arrow was not enough, a second or third would finish the job. When it was over, not a single body was left twitching.

Several of the Capkecka warriors started to make their way down from their rock perches to collect their arrows.

“Stay,” said Pa’hu brusquely. “There are more.” His men waited in silence, bows drawn back, even as the fire continued to consume the white birch trees.

A piercing scream escaped the grove. A burning warrior stumbled out. His anguished cries were silenced by an arrow Pa’hu put mercifully between his eyes.

Pa’hu shouldered his bow and surveyed the mountain slopes littered with dead. If only there had been another way. It was one thing to kill a clan brother for survival. But this—this was senseless slaughter, worse than the conflict with the Clan of the Bear, when many hundreds of bodies had been buried in the snow before the Malduit fell into line. As he had told himself then, he still believed: the end result would be worth the price.

“I see others, Schie Bura,” said Cawa. “They hide amongst the trunks.”

He nodded. “If they have not come out by now, it means they have no plans to.”

“But why do they not surrender?” asked the beliei. “They’ll burn if they stay.”

“The Rulakon will not give themselves up.”

“Then they should go down fighting, like their clansmen. Meeting the flames—”

“Would be a braver way to die,” finished Pa’hu. “At least now they can choose their own end, rather than allow their enemy any satisfaction.” The previous Schie Bura had taught him about all the clans, from the cunning of the Dehiar to the pride of the Rulakon. And I repaid him with death.

He climbed down from the outcropping and sat cross-legged on a flat rock. “We camp here for the night.”

As they pitched tents, the stench of burnt bodies hung thick in the air, providing an unpleasant reminder of what had taken place.

The next morning, shafts of timber remained where once mighty birch trees had stood pointing toward the heavens. Among the dying embers, he could see the shapes of a proud people, their flesh blackened and peeling but their forms still standing upright in defiance.



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 Tendrils with Spine


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