The clearing was busier than he remembered it. Instead of just Lycans, he could now make out the chatter of Dryads, Elves, assorted Animal-Kin, Gnolls, Orcs, Harpies, one Kul’Matha, and a smattering of Pixies who were busy perching on Brutus much to his annoyance. Each time they landed he would try and swat them away, but they’d just come back a few minutes later to pester him.
The many conversations softened as Hygar approached, and he sat himself down upon one of the stump stools. It wasn’t his intention to stifle their exchange, but they all looked to him as if expecting him to say something. The large Werewolf cleared his throat, uncomfortable with the eyes upon him. “Greetings, friends,” he mumbled softly. “Per your request, we have gathered to discuss the happenings in Voraniss.”
Following suit, many of the gathered began to find their own seats; though some of them were content to plop on the ground, and Brutus stood vigil in the back as was his way. One of the Dryads wistfully clasped her hands together and sighed. “Thank goodness you’ve arrived, Hygar. There are many things happening in the forest that require your attention.”
“Would you like to begin, Lavendoris?” Hygar asked of the Dryad. They were kind creatures, elusive to outsiders as they spent most of their time within their groves or wandering the deep forest. He was fond of them, for they reminded him of Voraniss itself. If the forest was ever turned into a person, he imagined it would be a lot like a Dryad: Mysterious, beautiful, and giving…so long as you didn’t cross them.
“Oh yes, please. Thank you,” the Dryad stated, turning her attention to the group. “As most of you are aware, there have been many refugees entering the forest as of late. It is becoming difficult to keep track of them and make sure they understand the rules of the Forest. Why just the other week I caught a human trying to chop down one of my trees and I had to chase him out and send him running in the direction of Kenkilit for Cronin to deal with. We cannot continue like this or someone is going to get hurt.”
Brutus grunted his agreement. “She is right, Hygar,” he said lowly. “These newcomers don’t know the way of things. Not as a collective. They enter our borders and if they are lucky they are found by one of your Circle. If they are not lucky…” he jerked his thumb towards the Gnolls without any sense of subtly.
“What are you looking over here for?” demanded the largest Gnoll. Zok Bloodknuckle was his name, but he was only the most recent voice to step forward for their people. The Gnolls were frequently changing leadership and fighting amongst themselves. And if they weren’t fighting with themselves, they were fighting the Harpies. “You sayin’ we killed a few wanderers? So what if we did? They ain’t got no business bein’ in our space.” His words were buried deep beneath an accent flavored by barks, growls, and whines, but Hygar could understand it if he concentrated.
Brutus growled angrily. He didn’t take kindly to being sassed by the Gnolls. “If the Alpha says it is their business to be there, then it is their business.”
“We ain’t werewolves. Who says we gotta listen to your way?” Zok pushed back.
Brutus slammed a fist into the ground and the Pixies that were sitting on his head fluttered off to hide behind Lavendoris instead. “This is what I’m talking about, Alpha. The Gnolls continue to do what they want without any regard for anyone else. They need to submit to your authority or get out.”
“Get out? Try and make me, dog breath.” Zok stood up and stared into Brutus’ good eye. He was itching for a fight and Brutus wasn’t going to deny him.
In a flash, the large Werewolf pounced and the two were brawling on the ground and exchanging punches. Lavendoris yelped and tried to move out of their way, while the Harpies cackled in amusement. One of the Orcs got excited by the promise of battle and decided to jump into the fray by turning and punching the Orc next to him. This caused the Elves to get nervous and they drew their bows, turning their aim on the motion in the center of the clearing. Who knew how long the brawl would go on for if Hygar didn’t speak up against it?
“Enough!” Hygar roared. It was an uncharacteristically loud sound for him. Loud enough so that the hair on the back of Brutus’ neck began to bristle. “Is this what you want for Voraniss? Do you want to be an unruly mob of savages forever?” He furrowed his brow and shook his head in disdain. “Right now we have enemies at our door. Enemies that don’t care about your freedom,” he said pointedly at Zok, “nor your wolves,” he said at Brutus, “nor the Forest you all call home. If you do not unite to fight you will just be picked off one by one. If not by the poachers today, then by the Strangers from Beyond the Stars tomorrow.” His disappointment in them was intense, and despite their tough exteriors, they felt ashamed by his scolding. “Your petty squabbles can wait.”
Brutus released the headlock he had on Zok, and Zok removed his fist from Brutus’ gut. The Orcs helped one another up. Nobody dared to speak. The clearing was too tense and too uncomfortable. Hygar’s dad voice had cowed them all into submission. Well, all except for one. In the back of the clearing came a soft rumbling voice that spoke painstakingly slow.
“There is wisdom in the Wolf’s words,” said Autumn-Elm. “This forest has seen its share of bloodshed, and if we are to see more I should like to see us united and not opposed. As things were in the days of Vangrim.” He gave a nostalgic sigh, his wooden body groaning as he lifted his limbs to approach. “We need a leader. One that all people can rally behind.” Being an old tree he needed a break from all the excitement; so he paused to take another breath. “There is a precedent for this. The Giants had King Velindahl, the Animal-Kin had their Queen in Mon’ghora, the Wolves had their founder in Vangrim who was once a human Lord, and the Elves had Othorion Elderheart. Title and nobility invite respect on some level.”
Lavendoris urged the Dryads to move to Autumn-Elm’s side, taking care of him and making sure he was well. The poor old tree had already lost all of his leaves; more excitement was the last thing he needed. “You are saying we need a King?” she asked sweetly.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” the Ent replied. “There can be no confusion upon our laws, nor their enforcement, if we had a King.” He seemed relieved when the Dryads drew near, their presence healing the painful aches deep within his bark. “Kings unify lands and people. They create empires and defend them. I know better than most that time changes us all; we can either be flexible and adjust to what is placed before us, or we can stay the same to spite ourselves.”
Lavendoris hugged Autumn-Elm tightly, stroking her fingers along his barky skin. “What you are saying makes sense to me, wise one. But it begs the question…who should rule? What King is there for this new age? And could we agree? That is the choice before us.”
Zok pointed at one of the Harpies on the other side of the gathering. “The Gnolls won’t follow a Harpy. We’ve been fighting on and off for generations. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Well we don’t want to follow you either,” the Harpies hissed back, glaring at Zok.
A chorus of sound and discussion burst forth again. Everyone was arguing over old grudges and whether or not it would be acceptable to get in line behind one another. The Pixies squealed and tried to redirect the conversation to a more productive place. “Wait, wait!” they cried. “Instead of focusing on who you won’t follow, maybe think of someone that you would!”
“I would follow Hygar,” Brutus announced loudly, and without hesitation. All the gathered shut up and turned to pay attention. “You care about this forest and the people in it. All of us. You once had the chance to kill me and take my warriors for your own, but you spared my life believing that there was still something within me that could be of use to the forest and wolves that dwell here. You do not let hatred or personal grudges cloud your judgment when it comes to our wellbeing.”
Lavendoris smiled and nodded her agreement. “Yes, yes! Hygar, you once helped protect the forest from unnatural corruption by leading your adventurers in a ritual to purge it. You respect nature and those of us that are a part of it!”
Even the Harpies didn’t seem to have a grudge with Hygar. “You returned one of our stolen eggs. We haven’t forgotten.”
The present Kul’Matha’s tongue flicked curiously in and out of his mouth. “You do not encourage your Wolvessss to hunt in the ssswampsss. You leave usss our landsss and ressspect our independence.”
Zok grumbled and huffed. He didn’t want to say anything nice about Hygar, but he also didn’t want to lie. “Last winter the Gnolls were starving because they couldn’t hunt in the heavy snows. Hygar brought us meat.” He kicked at the dirt sheepishly.
“If Mogar Ironblood follows you, then we follow you too,” the Orcs agreed.
Hygar took another heavy breath and looked around the clearing. “The peoples of Voraniss that adventure with me have indicated through a vote that they too would like a King, and yet I am not sure that I am the one for it.”
“All the more reason you should be,” Brutus replied. “Those who are wary of the power they wield are the only ones fit to have it in the first place.”
Hygar plopped his chin in his palm and squinted his eyes. “If all of you will it, then it cannot be helped. I must accept the path before me, but I will need to turn to you for your collective wisdom. Voraniss is a beast like no other and she cannot be ruled as other Kingdoms can.”
“Fortunately you’re stuck with me,” Brutus laughed, baring his teeth in a jovial grin.
Lavendoris was clapping her hands softly together with newfound excitement. “We should have a celebration and invite all the Realms to come and see the spectacle!”
“I don’t know,” Hygar grumbled, “that seems like an awful lot of people.”
“Yes, yes!” the Elves insisted. “We shall make a holiday of it!”
“Can there be fighting?” asked the Orcs.
“And food?” asked Zok.
“Oh, what about games?” the Pixies inquired.
Hygar merely sighed.
Before he knew what was happening the rumor had spread throughout Voraniss. Come the spring he was to be crowned King.