Mouflon felt the meeting went as well as could be expected. The ambassador from Bird had seemed a bit uncomfortable in the cramped chamber, but brightly plumed wings would make any sized cell seem small. Then again, the Lord of Clan Ram had chosen that confining chamber specifically for that reason.
All in all, the Clan would benefit from the trade negotiations only slightly, as usual with any negation concerning Clan Bird. Their sometimes partners had the advantage of both refined goods and a stingy persona that had become the trademark of their Clan. Still, two loads of iron for every one of the choicest merchandise was not the worst they had done. Well, indeed.
"Lord Mouflon," a feeble call came from behind.
The Lord Ram turned his head, absent of their usual ceremonial horns. "What is it Herne? Has Paydrick changed his mind again?" It wouldn't be the first time during the man's visit.
"No, sire," old Herne wheezed. "The ambassador has already begun to make arrangements for his return flight to Diurn."
"Then what is it man? Have out with it."
Herne grasped an enameled pillar beside himself to steady his trembling body. "The Lord of Clan Feline has called on you."
"Lord of Feline?" Mouflon queried. "I thought they were done with Lords. Settled on a council or something. When did some fool claim Lordship of that wretched Clan?"
"Within the last month, sire. The messenger called him the Hunter and has requested you meet with him at his capital."
The Lord of Ram shook his bare head. As he set his headdress of spiraling horns on its stand he laughed quietly at the Feline's brazen new Lord. "He won't last long," Mouflon said with a sad grin on his face. "He has yet to learn the subtlety needed for these kind of politics."
"What does he want sire?"
"The thing his council was too afraid to ask: Help. This Hunter of men recognizes the weaknesses of his Clan. He probably felt that his council was causing the weakness and overthrew them. A foolish move to be sure."
"True, my Lord."
"I know it's true, Herne. Regardless, the Hunter wants me to give him troops that are being used to keep our enemies to the west from coming too close. Even if I was guaranteed that Clan Badger would remain in their castles, I'd still not grant the newly crowned Lord Feline his wish."
"So shall I send a message of your refusal back to the Felines?" Herne asked.
Mouflon shook his bare head thoughtfully. "If this Hunter of men wants my men, then he will do whatever he believes necessary to get them. For all I know he might be a power hungry monster who seized control of his Clan in a bloody struggle. On the other hand, the council could have peacefully given him control and he might do nothing if I refuse. This could be a problem, Herne."
"How so, my Lord?"
Mouflon looked eastward into the spirited skies that separated him from this Hunter of men. He spoke through gritted teeth, "Because this Hunter of men might come here and bring those bastardized weapons of Reyjan's with him. If he did that we'd have little choice but to support him."
"What if we simply agreed to his request?" Herne asked softly. It wasn't often he dared give advice to the Lord Ram himself.
The Lord shook his bare head. "No. That would be even worse than him coming here. Feline has fought Canine for nigh almost two hundred years. My predecessors have all received requests from both Feline and Canine to assist them in slaughtering each other. To give in now would be a failure. We can't side with either Feline or Canine."
"Why so, my Lord? If Feline emerged victorious because of our assistance we could claim a portion of Canine territory and increase our trade revenues."
"True," Mouflon agreed. "If Feline won Clan Ram would benefit from our support of the victors. We would be able to trade with Clans that have been beyond our reach. We wouldn't be forced to haggle over every scrap of garbage Bird throws our way while we pour raw material into them only to get back garbage. Yes, we could do well indeed if Feline won. If Feline won. Such a thing is impossible to tell after two hundred years. The dogs and cats have made a habit of war. What's worse is that their population can support such an atrocious war with enough people still to fill cities! Their entire Clan is geared for war. If their war stops now everything they've built up would collapse without a moments hesitation. And Bird will be there to pick up the scraps. Hell, not even Bird. Just Crow-Raven and their idiotic aristocracy."
"Might as well just be Clan Crow," Herne said bitterly. "The Ravens were lucky to be the first absorbed into Crow during that civil war of theirs. Gryphon and Hawk weren't nearly so lucky. I have to pity the Robins and Eagles, nothing more than beggars now."
"Are we still getting newcomers from Bird?" Mouflon asked absently.
"Yes, sire. They're being sent to the mines as you requested."
"I have nothing against getting the Bird's waste, just so long as it benefits Ram," he said defiantly. "We need to survive long enough to establish a decent treaty that can benefit the Clan without losing our autonomy. I'd hate to think what Bird would do to these hills and streams if they got their grubby paws on them."
"It'd be a rape, sire," Herne said solemnly. He continued doubtfully. "If I may, my Lord, the messenger from Clan Feline is still waiting for your response."
Mouflon hesitated. Idly chewing on his fingernails, he spat out the waste with bitter satisfaction. A small dot of blood expelled from an even smaller tear in his skin.
"What did the messenger say about his new Lord?" Mouflon asked stonily.
"The messenger spoke a great deal about his new Lord," Herne answered truthfully. "He believed his Hunter would succeed where the other eight before him have failed."
Mouflon nodded grimly, "We didn't receive a messenger. If the Felines come calling we can claim he didn't reach us. By the route he took, he probably already came through Bird. They're strong enough to deny the Felines support without fear of repercussions. We aren't. Have Agust dump the messenger's body in the mountain pass. With any luck the body will be buried under the snow and won't be found for years. All the same, try not to put any incriminating marks on him."
"And the rule of sanctuary concerning messengers?" Herne asked politely.
"Ignore it," Mouflon commanded. "His death will save countless lives of our own Clansmen. Those rules are made for peaceful times, and this Hunter of men has made it clear that he cannot abide such a time."
"As you wish, my Lord," Herne said as he bowed out of the chamber.
Mouflon looked back at the simple horned helm that had been passed down to him by his father. Taking it in his hands, he caressed the plain, yet elegant, workmanship. No subtle designs to distract the bearer from his duty: The survival of the Clan.