As the moon rose over the horizon, Whitefoot looked out over the clench. Thousands were already here, and thousands more were streaming in from outlying villages and more remote tribal grounds. The Great Cull was more than 600 moons in the past and he was the only warrior who had returned from it. This clench wasn’t quite as large as the last clench before the Cull, but it might be close. As he watched the clench form, his mind wandered back to the way events had unfolded over time to bring them here.
The Cull had cost him many friends and clanmates as well as an eye and an ear, and if he had followed Pack tradition of fighting to the death it would have cost him his life and might have been the end of the Pack as he knew it. When the Cull happened, however, Whitefoot had been sent back by his sire with a message to the rest of the Pack to go into hiding lest their enemies seek out the old, the young, and the nursing mothers who had been left behind. Their enemies often called it “withdrawing” or “retreating” and his sire had explicitly ordered his withdrawal, but deep in his heart he had felt that he was betraying his friends, his family, and himself as he watched his brothers and sisters and sire being slain and the heaps of Pack dead rising higher and higher.
Upon his return the remaining Pack members had been silent, but they had obeyed. Whitefoot’s sire had, after all, been the Alpha and it was widely expected that one of his pups would someday take his place. The Pack had withdrawn to the barren hills of the far north. The hunting wasn’t as good, but there weren’t as many mouths to feed and there were many caves in which to hide while the Pack grew strong again.
After a hundred moons had passed and a new generation of warriors was almost ready, the Pack had begun to expand their territory. They stayed to the north and stayed near the barren lands, but the harsh environment made the young warriors stronger. After two hundred more moons had passed, the Pack started to gradually encroach upon the woodlands near the barrens.
Another hundred moons of gradual expansion brought them near their old territory, but also brought terrifying news – the old enemy had been sighted! They were in tiny villages near the Pack’s old hunting grounds and only a few had been seen, but they were there. Whitefoot had sent scouts throughout the land, and for the next hundred moons they were silent observers. They brought the news that as far as the great neck between the lands there were villages of the enemy, and that near the site of the Great Cull they had set a mighty walled village in the heart of the Pack’s hunting grounds.
For the last hundred moons, Whitefoot had been coming up with devices to reclaim the Pack’s territory and eventually wipe out all remnants of the enemy, so that hundreds of moons after he had passed they would not arise and wipe out the Pack as he intended to do to them now. He had doubled the number of scouts (which occasionally meant that one was observed – then being forced to kill and consume his observer to avoid detection) and he had started some of his most intelligent and dexterous folk to constructing tools such as he had seen among the enemy.
As the moon reached its zenith, the crowd had finished assembling and grew eerily quiet as they waited for Whitefoot to address them. He looked out over three generations of warriors who would be departing soon. “My children, tonight is a night long awaited. Too long have we lain hidden in fear. Tonight we set out to reclaim our birthright and destroy our enemy and avenge our ancestors. We will drink their blood and feast upon the tender flesh of their young before the next moon rises. Tonight the Pack sets out on The Great Hunt. The First Claw is already on their way to prepare the way for us and now we set forth to join them. To the hunt!” A great howl arose over the valley as the Pack departed.
Amundr was excited. Today was Market day, and that meant that he and his father would soon be heading into town to trade. He was sitting at the table eating eggs and sausage while his father reminded him of his responsibilities. “Remember, you need to load all of those skins and all of the meat that is finished curing into the wagon. I’ll see to the team and gather our provisions for tonight and tomorrow.”
“And if we do well at Market today, I will get something for you. You have certainly earned it.”
“Thank you, father!” THAT was a surprise. Amundr’s father Olafr loved him dearly and he knew it, but he had always been a frugal man. Amundr’s mind raced – what would his father think of as doing “well” and what would his gift be? There were so many amazing things at Market, colorful clothing and useful tools and weapons and animals and unusual foods. Amundr couldn’t wait to see what the surprise was.
Amundr raced out to the shed to start gathering things for the trip to Market and was nearly bowled over by Samr and Gramr, the elkhounds that were somewhat his. The truth was that these dogs had happened by the house a few winters ago and Amundr started feeding them some of the scraps from the table. After they had been around for a year, Olafr had come to trust them enough that he would let Amundr spend a whole day hunting in the woods alone with them. They were large – almost as large as a wolf. With the two of them along Amundr didn’t fear any creatures he might meet save the largest bears, and his father took the bears near them before they grew that large. Unfortunately, the large and occasionally playful dogs were too much trouble to take to Market, so they were always left at the house while Amundr and Olafr went to town.
Their wares and provisions soon loaded onto their wagon, the team of draft horses was hitched up and father and son set out for Market. Amundr’s mind wandered back to the promise of a gift and the journey to the town of Eyjolf flew by.
Amundr was bored. Market day was usually exciting, but it was almost midday and his best friend Saegrimr hadn’t arrived. Amundr and Saegrimr had both seen 15 winters, but Saegrimr was born in the spring and thought that being 6 months older made him wiser and smarter than Amundr. Saegrimr took advantage of their age difference to kiddingly refer to his friend as “little Mundi,” just like Amundr’s father used to when he was a child.
Every Sjaundi the town of Eyjolf held Market, and Amundr had been coming in with his father to sell skins, antlers, and meat for as long as he could remember. They lived about a league northwest of Eyjolf in a small cottage near a densely wooded area, and they spent most of their days in the woods nearby, hunting and trapping bear and elk and moose for meat and hides to trade in town. They had a modest garden in a clearing near their cottage (the lumber for their cottage had been hewn from those trees) and Amundr’s mother had taught him how to tend the garden when he was too young to accompany his father into the woods. His mother had died 7 winters ago bearing Amundr’s younger brother, who had followed her the next day, and since that winter Amundr and his father had lived alone.
Each spring they would fix up damage caused to the cottage by the harsh winters and they would tend their garden. They didn’t hunt much at that time because his father explained that this was the time when animals were growing large enough to be eaten as well as bearing and tending new offspring which could be hunted in future years. In summer they plied the river in their boat and fished, trapping small game for meat and fur. They would harvest the spices and vegetables that had grown in their garden and lay in stores for the coming winter. In the fall they would hunt and kill many fat creatures and salt and smoke most of the meat. They would tan the hides and gather the furs, and the market days in the fall were the best of all. Today was one such day – they had a dozen bear skins, many elk hides and lots of smoked meat to trade along with a few smaller hides, teeth, claws, and antlers from a variety of creatures. His father was the best hunter for miles around and occasionally the baron’s own hunting guide, Stigr, would come seeking his advice.
The trading had apparently gone better than he could have hoped, because a few minutes ago his father had presented him with a new knife and fifteen steel arrowheads of his own. His father had taught him how to make flint arrowheads, but the steel ones stayed sharper longer and didn’t break as easily.
“You’ve earned it. Three of those bears were your kills along with two of the elk. If you hadn’t had to spend so much time making new points for your arrows we’d have had even more to trade today.” What his father didn’t tell him was that he had been saving up for a while to purchase these and he had also purchased a much finer spear for both Amundr and himself that he intended to give him at Yule.
Amundr wandered around the various stalls, chewing on some dried bear meat he had brought and drinking in the sundry smells and looking at the varied wares. He really hoped Saegrimr arrived soon, because his family raised sheep and produced some of the finest mutton around. As well as this day was going for his father he imagined that they might roast a lamb over the fire tonight. They usually camped just outside the city walls with most of the other outlying folk who came to town for Market day and stayed for Worship the next day. Saegrimr’s family usually camped as close to Amundr and his father as possible and they would share their meals together that night.
After the midday meal, Amundr was playing with some puppies at one of the stalls. They were elkhounds, and reminded him of Samr and Gramr. He gave each of them a small strip of bear meat and headed over to look at some chickens. People started to murmur around him and he noticed that there was some commotion off to the northwest. There were half a dozen people approaching fast on horseback and in the distance they could see a small train of wagons.
As the riders neared, Amundr saw that one of them was Saegrimr’s father, Holmr, and that all the horses and riders were bloody, and several of them had large sacks across their horses’ backs that appeared to have been soaked through with blood. As they approached the city gate, Holmr shouted “Where’s the Baron? Summon the muster. The vergrinn are coming!”