3. A NORTHERN BARGAIN
The day ended rather quickly, mostly because I had already anticipated what an opportunist man like Aillard could demand in return for his help. Aillard had always been a man to not lose a chance where he could possibly gain. And I just offered him what he needed.
The right price that even if he wanted he couldn’t deny. But agreeing to send him a portion of our grains each month until the fight was over would surely lead to a shortage of our rations. This year, it wouldn’t be a pleasant winter for us.
But the actual cause was much greater than a few months of severe winter. Demetrius had been growing his control in the north and forming more allies but this time, the south would be equipped before he even thought of raising his weapon.
“Everyone is ready.” I put aside my thoughts and looked over at Rowan and gave a nod. He was sitting on the floor, a few paces away from me, near the entrance of the tent and wiping the blade of his axe.
“Where are we still here, waiting?” Rowan was always on alert, he trusted no one, and he was always on edge whenever we visited other packs. It was not entirely his fault after his mate escaped with his brother, he became different. He thought they were making a fool of him by hiding somewhere in his plain sight and he couldn’t find them.
“Aillard prepare a feast in our honour.” I dipped the rag in the bowl of water, squeezed the excess water and wiped the dirt over my chest, neck and shoulders.
“Huh, he certainly has. Why wouldn’t he? Now, Aillard doesn’t have to worry about his supply.” Rowan snorted.
“Still, we have to respect his wishes in his own land. We will leave after the feast. Tell the men to be ready.” Rowan grunted in reply.
A young boy came rushing into our tent, I dropped the rag into the bowl and reached for my weapon. Rowan was already on his feet, tightly gripping his axe in his hand.
The boy halted and flinched when he saw the look on our faces. He took a step back, almost out of the tent, he looked behind his back, maybe regarding familiar faces in search of comfort, then turned his head back at us.
“Apologise, um... Alpha sent me. The feast has begun. He is waiting for your arrival.” He scratched the back of his head and muttered, “We all are.” Someone called the boy’s name and he didn’t need another urge, he darted out of the tent and ran to the voice.
We looked at each other in suspicion.
“What’s the sudden urgency? Didn’t I tell Aillard we will be there? Be prepared for anything.” I told Rowan as I fastened the metal straps on my body and put my axe on the collar.
“I am. I always am.” Rowan drew back the flap of the tent and peeked outside through the gap.
“Everything looks the same,” Rowan stated.
“It always does until it’s too late. Gather the men, whatever it is we will soon found out at the feast.”
Rowan nodded his head and left.
* * * * *
When we reached the open clearing, the celebration was at a full swing. Males were gathered around the fire, drinking fermented rice from their horns.
Unmated females were at a good distance away from the heat but not so far that they had a difficulty to captivate the eyes of their suitors. Their feet were hitting the ground, arms reaching the sky over their heads and hips swaying with the lively pace of the drum beats.
Children were wrestling on the other side as their fathers encouraging their pups and upon victory, they placed their males on their shoulders and circled around the giant fire.
“Aloïs, come join us,” Aillard yelled over the beats and raised his horn for further encouragement.
Reaching upon him, Aillard patted the seat beside him and regarded me, “Our successful negotiation calls for a celebration.” I accepted his drink and took a sip, showing him my trust and laid the first foundation of our union.
“Aloïs, I think you should consider my proposal again.” Aillard brought up the topic of our earlier discussion casually between his sips. But notice how his gaze avoiding my eyes, there was nothing casual about it. He was serious about expanding the alliance between our packs, limited to some business transactions, more in the form of some unions.
I denied him earlier when he suggested putting the topic on the table, that an annual celebration could be held between our packs for unmated females.
“Haven’t we already discussed the issue, Aillard? I didn’t know this feast meant business.”
Aillard let out a throaty laugh “Absolutely, not. What kind of a host I would be?” He motioned a female, who pranced towards us, plastering a huge smile on her face. She put her hand over mine holding the mug, then poured more wine. She brought the mug closer to her lips, took a sip, then rose to her feet and left to join the other females who were still dancing.
“She is marvellous, isn’t she?”
I cleared my throat and nodded to Aillard’s conclusion.
“She will keep her male satisfied. And a fine mother to their pups.”
I was getting more and more irritated with Aillard’s vague attitudes and cryptic exchanges as the night stretched longer.
“Aillard, it has been a pleasure to include the Silveron in your celebration but we must take our leave now if we wish to reach our pack before the dawn.”
“Aloïs, I have a surprise for you. A parting gift. To remember our exchanges with good memories.”
I straightened my shoulders, and I noticed Rowan crept closer from the corner of my eye.
“Aillard, it isn’t necessary.”
Aillard raised his brow and chuckled, “I hope you say the same thing once you saw it.”
As if in a cue, a male came in view with his wide stance and urgent footsteps, but what caught my attention was that the male wasn’t alone. A female was with him, trying to catch up with his hasty pace, half of his size, his fingers dug into her skinny forearm as he dragged her with him and made his way towards us.
The female didn’t need to be handled so roughly even if she tried to escape him, she would hardly take a few steps before he would already catch up to her.
The male stopped before us and pushed the female forward. Aillard looked back at me before he approached the female.
Somehow, without seeing her face, I could sense the female was different. There was something unusual about her. Her shoulders too stiff. The dress she wore doesn’t compliment her skin. The male’s dark fingers looked like dirt on her too fair skin.
Aillard lifted the veil from her face and my voice stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to trust my thoughts. This couldn’t be possible but all the signs indicating that what I was thinking was right — her light hair. Fair skin. Blue eyes.
“Meet the northern girl.”