On a high rock in a cold land, a bear and a wolf came to meet.
Both were great generals of their respective kin. The Bears had come from the north in search of conquest, while the Wolves of the south sat staunchly on their haunches, primed to defend.
War had been waging, but now a parlay had been agreed, and it was to be held here on the eve of what promised to be a most terrible battle.
‘Why have you come?’ asked the Wolf.
‘I have come to negotiate, to avoid further bloodshed,’ answered the Bear.
‘Yes, indeed,’ said the Wolf. ‘But my question is broader. Why have the Bears come south? Why does the blood of Wolves now scar these lands?’
‘Do not waste both our time, Wolf,’ said the Bear. ‘You know as well as I do why we are here. These lands are not yours, they never were.’
‘And yet here I am, willing to die for them, as is our entire pack.’
The Bear bristled, and growled, and stepped closer to the Wolf. ‘If you welcome death, then fear not, for it shall come easily.’
Despite the mighty stature of the Bear, the Wolf did not flinch. ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But why has it not come already? Why am I still standing? Why have you not yet struck me down?’
‘Do not test me, Wolf,’ snarled the Bear. ‘Parlay or not, keep braying and I will strike you down with a single claw, and your blood will flow down this hill into your forests and your rivers, and you will have no-one to blame but yourself for the blight it leaves.’
‘I do not doubt your strength, Bear,’ said the Wolf. ‘Only the will that guides it.’
That struck an unexpected chord in the bear. He hesitated for a moment before saying, ‘My will is my Master’s, and therefore it is iron.’
But the Wolf was sharp-eyed, and had seen what he had seen. ‘You are not so callous as you would have people believe. And I know that you do not truly seek us harm. We are brothers, you and I, bonded by an ancient ancestry.’
‘You are wasting your breath, Wolf…’
‘Be that as it may,’ said the Wolf. ‘I want you to know that I know why you are here: because you have no choice.’
The Bear was now deeply uncomfortable, scratching his claws on the rock and curling them into balls. ‘Do not fight us, Wolf,’ he said, attempting to divert the conversation. ‘We are too strong, and even if we should fail, he will let loose his dragons, and those dragons have many heads, and they will reign fire on all that you hold dear.’
‘And then what, he will rule the ashes?’
‘If he must,’ said the Bear.
‘And you and your brethren will be dead as well.’
‘If I do not fight, or if I do not compel your surrender, I will die anyway!’
‘By his hand, I know. And that is why I am sorry for you, Bear. Truly, I pity you this burden.’
‘I do not seek your pity. I seek only your surrender. Please. For the sake of the Bear and the Wolf.’
The sun was setting now, casting a pink and red glow over the far-stretching plains and plateaus. There was an eerie calm, with no noise save for the luting songs of the forest nightingales.
‘Do you hear that, Brother?’ asked the Wolf, with his nose turned up to the sky and his eyes closed.
‘Bird song,’ huffed the Bear. ‘What of it?’
‘The nightingales sing hopeful songs of these lands, as they have done for generations. Through famine, and unrest, and the worst of all winters, they have continued to write and sing and fly, and ever have we listened to their wisdom. Your Master has told you much of these lands, but has he told you of the nightingales and their songs?’
‘You might have endured famine,’ said the Bear, ignoring the question, ‘but you will not survive fire.’
The Wolf gave the Bear one final look, eye to eye, a deep and penetrating gaze, before turning away. ‘Do not underestimate the nightingale, Brother,’ said the Wolf, now starting the long and slow decent back down the hill. ‘Do not underestimate the Wolf.’
The Bear watched as he went. ‘Wolf!’ he called, but received no answer. ‘… Brother…’ he said, but in response heard only birds, and howls, and the chilling rattle of his own grizzled breath.