James looked over his village in awe. The main road, if James could even call it that, stretched out before him until it hit the entryway built into the stone wall. James was happy to see the entryway guarded, but figured it wouldn’t have even mattered if it wasn’t. The only building in the town stood jutted out and above a splattering of Martyr tents. The newly completed rope bridge hung from it and the wall. Dreng stood tall in the center of town. All the prisoners cowered below him, too afraid to move. There was no doubt in James’s mind that Dreng was using one of his crowd control abilities. James smiled. Once again, the chieftain saved the day. The prisoners wouldn’t be hurt under Dreng’s ability, but it would buy his party time to come up with arrangements for the prisoners.
James smiled died as he watched Dreng collapse.
“Dreng!” James called out as he ran to the Tower of Stairs and descended to the ground floor of the village. James darted between cowering humans until he reached the chieftain. “What is going on?”
Patrick walked up to James and placed a hand on his shoulder. Frey gave James a sorrowful look as she held Dreng’s massive head in her lap. “I tried to tell you before, in the spirit battleground,” Patrick said quietly.
“Tell me what?” James whirled, anger filling his voice.
Lilly stepped next to Patrick. “Dreng sacrificed his life so Frey could have the ability to birth a large litter of cubs. Dreng is dying.”
James stared past Lilly, her words barely making sense, “What? Why?” he asked.
“It is the Martyr way, Brother,” Torunn said from the other side of his father. “Our females do not give birth to many cubs, and we needed many cubs to build our race back up.”
Lilly spoke again, but this time James did not turn back to meet her eyes. “It is called the Last Seed ability.”
James ignored her and dropped to his knees next to Dreng, placing one of his hands on the dying chieftain’s shoulder. His fur was extremely coarse, but that wasn’t what concerned James. What concerned him was that this was the first time he had ever actually touched the chieftain. It was odd. He had grown so close to the chieftain since he was adopted into the clan, yet they never shook hands or anything. Dreng gave him sage advice, taught him what being a good leader looked like, and was there whenever James got in over his head, yet where they as close as James thought? When James received his Mark of the Martyr, Dreng had briefly touched him with his finger, but that was about it. James wondered if he even deserved to be distraught over Dreng dying. That’s when James looked to Torunn.
Torunn’s face was unreadable, even for James. The Martyr stood there, utterly stalwart. It confused James to see his game brother react that way. Torunn’s father was dying and he didn’t even seem upset. That wasn’t Torunn though, James knew better. He knew that Torunn would be upset about it. Then it dawned on James. His game brother would be next in line. Torunn would become the chieftain and needed to act accordingly. His game brother needed to be strong. His race would look to him for guidance.
Dreng coughed. “I am glad I got to see you again, James.”
James blinked his eyes, shoving back the tears that threatening to fall from his eyes. He would have to be stronger. He was in a new world now and he had many people counting on him, just as Torunn did. James composed himself, “Me too, Dreng. Me too.”
“I am sorry we didn’t tell you sooner.”
“It’s okay,” James said. He wished he had known sooner, but it was probably better he hadn’t. If he had known he would have panicked and tried to talk Dreng out of using his Last Seed ability. If he succeeded in doing so, then the new Martyr cubs would never have been born. The cubs gave his town life. They gave everyone hope and a reason to push on. Not just the other Martyrs either. It was clear the humans in his party were developing close bonds with the cubs, just like he and Torunn had. Besides, the cub that Patrick named after himself even managed to save James’s party by destroying Ogrim’s totem. If Little Patrick was never born, then there was a good chance James and his party would be dead right now.
Dreng struggled to prop himself up by an elbow and laid a giant hand on James’s shoulder. Dreng’s hands enveloped James’s entire shoulder and most of his arm. James met his gaze and within it, he heard everything he needed to hear. This was the smartest decision Dreng had ever made, and it was the best thing he could do for his race. It was the only way to keep enough of a population so that the Martyrs wouldn't become extinct. Dreng’s eyes said that he was sad he had to go, but that he did not regret his decision. Dreng was proud of his life accomplishments, and the accomplishments of his clan. James saw that Dreng was proud of him, and James saw that Dreng knew the Martyrs would live on under his and Torunn’s leadership. James saw all that and more inside Dreng’s eyes and then he knew there wasn't much left to be said.
"You were like a father to me," he admitted finally, meeting the kind eyes behind the Chieftain's war torn face, "thank you for everything."