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“I Am Brahkis” Episode 1

The Adventures of an Intellectual Barbarian

I am Brahkis, of the Shadowwolf clan. If you come from a city with stone walls and paved streets, you might not understand what is in a name. But here, in the taiga, names are the echoes of our essence. The wind carries them, and if you know how to listen with all your senses, you will hear the names before any mouth speaks them.

It is all right if you do not yet know what I mean, for if you pay attention, I will show you. You hear “Brahkis,” and assume you know me: barbarian, wild soul of the north, mindless warrior who drinks the blood of his enemies. More animal than man. Perhaps some of that is true.  But would you forget my clan? Shadowwolf: cunning, patient, hungry, misdirecting – what do you think all that howling is about?

My clan has survived in these forests for generations. A hundred days of summer; the rest is winter. Cold, bleak, dark, and ruthless. Our shamans tell us Yorrick Shadowwolf, the clan’s founder, was a shape-shifter. Bitten by an infected wolf, he became one of them. He forged a sword of silvered steel to end his own life if the madness ever grew unbearable.

Now lost to the inexorable march of time, it remains as much a symbol of our clan as the wolf totems we use to mark our territory – boundaries that have been shrinking with every passing winter: ice that won’t melt, deer who won’t return, encroaching clans like the Roaring Bear and the Rock Wyrm; the fey Eladrin “reclaiming” the forests they abandoned ages ago. All are causes, though none are to blame. Struggle is the way of the taiga. You adapt or it swallows you whole…

Are you listening, now? Between the spaces of rustling leaves at the foot of this hill I hear the chittering and see the ethereal strands of silk blowing past on the breeze. They name the grove ahead, “Nest of Spiders,” though I don’t think Hagen has noticed. He is my Chieftain’s son and strong, like his father. But he is used to being favored and believes if he just takes what he wants, he will earn respect. Such ways will not earn the favor of the forest.

We are two days on the trail of a thief, an outsider who has poached on Shadowwolf lands. I tracked him this far, but Hagen pushed ahead with the other warriors while I was investigating signs of passage. He rarely takes the time to listen. Thick summer grass covers the downward slope of the hill, and my clansmen are most of the way down it. The groves are thick at the bottom, and it is possible our quarry fled to the trees for cover.

But I don’t have time to make certain, because Hagen has drawn his blade and is signaling with his hands to the three men behind him to fan out and enter the woods. Snapping up from my crouching position, I scan the tree-line for movement and stick my fingers in the corners of my mouth, preparing to force out a hissing whistle to catch their attention. Before I do, however, a dark-feathered bird swoops down, alighting on a rock less than ten paces from me.

It’s a grackle, and the fluttering wings distract me. The feathers on its head and neck ripple with a blue sheen, and one perfectly round, tiny yellow eye assesses me with an incredulous stare. He opens his beak, unleashing a harsh call, singular and clear. Having beaten me to it, the grackle takes flight and enters the forest just above where Hagen has stepped into the shadow of the trees.

I abandon my attempted warning and bound down the hill to join my brethren, my stance wide to maintain balance. Does the bird know better than me? The others have disappeared into the cover of evergreen branches by the time I reach the bottom. A clump of spider-silk strands hanging from a limb tickles my face as it dances in the wind, like the banner of a ghost, left behind. Knowing it probably won’t do any good, I still draw the long knife from its sheath at my waist. There is a comfort in holding sharpened steel, though it is not stronger than the tingle along my spine as the once far-off chittering returns, somewhere close.

I was brought along for my proficiency at tracking, though now it is my clansmen I seek, and not the poacher. They say I have the eyes of a hawk, but my heart is still a wolf’s, and I can smell the danger before I see it. Stale air, rotting flesh – the thief would have to be a fool to have come this way, and we fools to follow him.

It is darker under the trees than it should be. Probably the webs further filtering the sunlight. I see movement ahead to my left, one of my clan, but my attention is caught by the trees. They are thick and their limbs intersect above me. I see movement there too, though it is not the grackle, for he calls out again to my right, just before I hear a cry from deeper in the woods.

The roar is Hagen’s; I have heard it in battle enough to recognize. Dashing ahead, I weave my way around the trunks of the pines, heading for the origin of the shout, somewhat surprised he has found our prey. My haste earns me a face-full of web, and I nearly drop my knife as my hands instinctively hurry to brush it away.

I hear the chittering again as an unsettling weight drops upon my head, quickly followed by one on my shoulder. Thankfully my reflexes are quicker than my mind, and my hands dislodge the spider from my hair before I see it, slamming with enough force to fling it into the branches of a nearby tree. The second one is another matter, and I’m certain it is trying to bite me.

It is the size of a hen, but even so, its hairy mandibles have trouble puncturing the cured bear hide that covers my torso. It was a good kill last summer for Fhaltan and me, though I was never happier for it than now. A flick of my knife’s blade clears the vermin from my shoulder, and I spin to make certain it was only the two. Without seeing them, I can feel the dozens of eyes upon me, knowing nothing other than they have found their next source of meat. We should not have entered the forest here.

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