The young pup raced on as his heart beat loud in his ears, his eyes wide and his gaze forward. He could no longer hear them, but he knew there were behind them still. Panting, he turned to the great wolf he raced alongside, the sun’s rays giving her silvery fur an ethereal shimmer. She had risked everything to free him from their nets, even as the rest of the pack scattered and fled, and as they raced through the forest, the young pup knew in his heart she would get them to safety, no matter what. And so, gritting his teeth, the little wolf turned his gaze forward, dug deep and raced on, matching the great wolf in pace as they made their mad dash through the forest towards safety.
Then, he heard it once more. First, the hooves, heavy and many, then the barks, and as the sounds filled his ears, the young pup felt his self-control threaten to leave him as an icy hand gripped his heart and squeezed with all its might. But even then, the great wolf beside the pup would not be cowed, and with a single bark, she broke the pup free of his terror, and lowering her head, she widened her stride, her low growl all that was needed to spur the pup on and match her pace still.
But the hooves were getting louder, the barks echoing about them more and more, till at last, shapes began to form at the edge of the pup’s vision, and as they grew, the icy hand’s grip returned.
Then came the thuds.
The first one startled the pup, bringing him almost to a halt, but another bark from the great wolf startled him a second time, sending him bounding forth once more. Then, more of the pointed sticks began thudding about them, and as they rained, the silver wolf began weaving between the trees, the little pup at her heels. And thus did they race, their mad dash sending them crashing through vines and leaping over logs as stick after stick fell about them.
Then, at last, a roaring sound reached the young pup, and as it filled his ears, his heart swelled. Of course! The river! They need only dive in and the current would carry them free of their pursuers! Of course! And so, gritting his teeth, the young pup raced on, waves of euphoric joy crashing against him as he tasted salvation.
But salvation was not to be theirs, for as the river came into view, time slowed, and the young pup could only watch as a pointed stick thudded against his companion’s back, a heart-rending whimper escaping the great wolf’s lips as she fell forward and slid on the wet grass. The young pup stood in stunned silence, staring at the felled wolf as his terror returned and grew to full bloom.
Then, the hooves stopped, and the loud, harsh sounds of the two-legs reached him, pulling him from his stupor. Snarling, the little wolf bounded to the great wolf before turning to face their pursuers, baring his teeth and growling with all he had. He was no match for them, this he knew in his heart, but she’d given her all to save him. He owed her no less, and as the two-leg’s pets raced forth, the little pup swallowed hard and prepared for the end. He would not run. He’d rather die beside her than live without her.
As the pets raced towards him, however, a single bark from the two-legs stopped them, pulling their gazes to their masters, and then, at last, the great wolf rose. Swallowing hard, the young pup turned to her, but seeing the pain within her eyes called forth a piteous whimper from his lips. Movement from the corner of his vision caught his attention, though, and turning once more, he watched as the two-legs approached, their shining sticks in their hands, and lowering his head, the young pup bared his teeth and growled once again. As he did so, however, he felt a grip upon the back of his neck, and as the grip tightened, he felt himself lifted clean off his feet and flung into the river.
Stunned, the young pup watched as a single tear ran down the great wolf’s face, and as he crashed into the water, the last thing he would see before being pulled beneath the surface was the sight of the two-legs charging at his mother, their pets by their side.
Sitting before her dressing mirror, the Baroness sighed as she ran a hand across the side of her face, her gaze gaunt as she traced the wrinkles about her cheek and the crow’s feet by her eye.
“I used to look so divine,” she muttered before shaking her head and lowering her gaze, a long sigh escaping her lips.
Then, hurried footsteps reached her ears, and as she heard them, she turned to her door, her eyes bright. Before long, a soft knock came at the door.
“Come!” she cried.
All at once, the door swung open and a man in riding attire stepped in, one who bore a striking resemblance to the seated noble.
“Well?” the woman cried as the rider closed the door behind him.
The rider turned to the seated noble, and as he stared at her square, a slow smile parted his lips, one that spread to the sated noble as she raised a soft hand to her chest.
“The rumours were right, Mother,” the rider said, heading toward his mother. “They were right!”
“Are you positive, though?” the woman demanded, her smile swiftly fading. “You claimed to be sure last time, but that last wolf was—”
Reaching his mother, the grinning rider went on his knees and clasped her hands.
“I stuck an arrow into this one, Mother,” he said, staring deep into the noble woman’s eyes, “right into its flank. The bloody thing yelped and whined, but it never stopped whining! As if the poison on the arrow tip didn’t even matter!”
At those words, the Baroness’s smile returned.
“And as for the wound,” the kneeling rider continued, “bloody thing was fully healed before we knew it.”
Squealing, the seated noble cradled her son’s face in her hands as she tapped her feet with glee.
“I knew I could count on you, Duncan!” she cried at last. “So, when will its blood be ready?”
“We don’t have it yet, Mother,” the noble replied. “It got away.”
“What?” the noble snarled, her gaze darkening greatly.
“Patience, Mother,” the rider soothed. “We will have it in a few days.”
“But you said it got away!”
“It did, yes.” The rider nodded. “But we killed its pack. It’s alone.”
“Gods damn it, Duncan!” the noble roared, pushing her son away from her. “If it’s without its pack, it can fall prey to any number of wildlife! Of what use will its blood be to me then? Gods, what were you thinking?”
Smiling still, the rider rose. “How about a little faith, Mother, hrm? There are no predators to worry about where its hiding, and—”
“If you know where it’s hiding, why aren’t you out there searching for it?”
“Because we’d draw attention, Mother. Father mustn’t know of that thing’s existence, remember?”
At those words, the seated noble’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you telling me that thing’s hiding in your father’s personal hunting grounds?”
“Not quite, Mother.”
“Ah, ah!” the rider interjected, raising a finger to his mother’s lips. “You said I could handle this, remember? Let me handle it. You’ll get its blood, I promise.”
The noble glared at her son a spell, but soon shook her head.
“Fine!” she huffed. “But don’t fail me on this, Duncan! Okay?”
“Mother!” the rider cried. “When have I ever failed you?”
Biting back a smile, the noblewoman shook her head and sighed.
“Might as well go get changed,” she said, turning to her dresser once more. “Your father and his guest should be returning soon.”
“Of course, Mother,” the rider replied before leaning in and kissing his mother on her cheek then bounding for the door.
The noblewoman watched her son leave through the mirror, a soft smile upon her lips. Then, as the door closed, her gaze drifted to her face, and as she stared once more at the ravages of time upon her fair complexion, her smile faded as she sighed once more.
“Soon,” she muttered. “Soon.”
Then, breathing deep, she sat tall and resumed her beauty ritual.
“Lisa! Gerald! Malcolm!” the young girl yelled, her elven ears pricked to hurting.
But, once again, all she heard were the gentle sounds of the forest within which she walked.
“Let’s go for a walk, Liza…” the young girl muttered in a mocking imitation of her friends. “It’ll be such good fun, Liza… And they just run off and leave me!”
Huffing, she carried her gaze about her as the knot within her stomach began to tighten.
“Gods, where are they?” she snarled, before scanning her surroundings once more.
Then, shaking her head, she sighed and turned to the crossroad before which she stood. None of the paths looked familiar, nor the trees that lined them, or even the words upon the signpost across from her. She was lost, there was no other word for it.
“Lisa! Gerald! Malcolm!”
“Ugh!” young Liza cried, then turned to the crossroad once more
Then, shrugging, she wandered down the overgrown path to her left.
“It’s as good a path as any,” she muttered as she went.
As the young elf wandered on, her thoughts began to turn to the moment when the siblings had approached her, and as those memories filled her thoughts, so too did she once again feel the dread that had gripped her upon witnessing young Gerald’s smile.
“I knew I shouldn’t have gone with them,” she growled, her gaze darkening greatly. “I just knew it! But no, Father had to stick his big fat beak in! Be nice, Liza… They’re our hosts, Liza… You never make friends, why not try this once… Gods, this is precisely why I didn’t want to come on this stupid trip! Stupid humans and their stupid petty—”
And then, a most peculiar sound echoed about the young girl, a loud clang of metal upon metal in a manner she’d never heard before, and before she could even think, pain the likes of which she’d never felt before shot up her right leg and tore through her, and as she breathed deep to scream, the young elf felt that self-same leg get pulled out from under her and thrust skyward, spinning her about such enough force as to smash the back of her head against the soft forest earth, darkness claiming her just as she began swinging from the tree beside her, her right leg hoisted high by the wolf trap that had her ensnared.
“Do you think she’s really scared now?” little Lisa mumbled, sucking on the generous helping of iced cream she’d just shovelled into her mouth.
“Hrm?” Her older brother frowned, sitting up in his lawn chair and turning to the little girl square.
“Liza,” Lisa replied. “You think she’s really scared now?”
“Oh, terrified!” young Gerald replied, a wide grin upon his lips as he reached for the goblet upon the small table beside him.
“Heh, yeah!” Little Lisa giggled before scoffing down some more delicious iced cream.
“You think we’ll get lucky and some wild beast will gobble her up?” she soon mumbled.
“No wild animals go to that part of the forest, Lisa,” Gerald replied. “Father’d never let us go there on our own if there was.”
“Oh, I know that!” little Lisa added.” But I can dream, can’t I?”
Those words brought a giggle to young Gerald’s lips, one that flowed to his little sister’s.
“You think maybe now she’d stop being such a snob?” little Lisa asked after a spell.
“Doubtful.” Gerald sighed. “She’s an elf. Those bloody buggers are always looking down on humans.”
“Her father seems nice, though…”
“That’s because he wants something from Grandfather.”
“Hrm…true,” the little girl muttered, then scoffed once more on her sumptuous treat.
“Though, we should probably go get her in a bit,” young Gerald said at last, a sigh upon his lips.
“Aw,” little Lisa whined. “But I was going to get some more.”
Smiling, the young boy turned to his sister. “Best we go after you finish this one, Lisa.”
“If we wait too long and Grandfather gets back before we go get her, he’s not going to be happy with us.”
The little girl moved to speak, but she knew her brother spoke true, and instead, she huffed and pouted, then, turning, to the bowl in her hand, she sighed and placed the bowl upon the small table they shared.
“No, Lisa, finish it,” Gerald urged.
“I don’t want anymore, now.”
The little girl crossed her arms and pouted, her gaze at her feet.
“Fine, then.” Gerald sighed and rose. “We might as well.”
Those words froze the children where they were, their eyes going wide as the blood drained from their faces.
“What’re you two doing here? And where’s your elf friend?”
“Father!” Young Gerald grinned, turning to the man approaching them, the servant by his side wearing the same rider’s cloak as he.
“We were…uhm…” Gerald began. “We…I mean…uhm…”
The noble’s steps began to slow as his gaze grew dark and fierce.
“You left her in the woods, didn’t you?” he growled.
“No, Father! Of course, we didn’t! We just—”
“Then, where is she?”
“Uhm…” young Gerald began before glancing at his sister.
“She wanted to go for a walk, Father,” the little girl offered.
“Mhm!” the little girl said as she and her brother nodded, a smile upon their lips.
“And if I were to go find her now, and I ask her myself, that’s what she’s going to say? You two wouldn’t be lying to me, would you?”
The siblings moved to nod once more, but as they stared deep into their father’s eyes, their gazes slowly fell as their smiles faded.
“What did I tell you about doing this to our guests’ children?”
“But she was asking for it, Father!” Lisa whined. “She’s so rude!”
“But it’s true! I mean, she wouldn’t—”
The little girl fell silent.
“Now, I want you and your brother to get out there, and not come back till you have that girl in tow. Am I clear?”
“Yes, Father,” the pair mumbled.
“Am. I. Clear?”
“Yes, Father!” the pair cried.
“Good!” the noble snapped.
The siblings exchanged glances before huffing and rising, their shoulders greatly sagged.
“Where’d you leave her, anyway?” the noble asked as his children made to do as he’d commanded.
“In Fiddler’s Copse,” the little girl muttered, but in her despair, she didn’t see the vehement shake of her brother’s head, or the terror in his eyes.
“What did you say?”
The little girl stood tall as a sharp gasp escaped her lips.
“What did you say, Lisa?” the noble demanded when his daughter fell silent.
The little girl turned to her father, biting her lip.
“Lisa!” the noble barked.
“We left her in Fiddler’s Copse!” the startled girl cried.
The noble marched towards his children, his gaze a blazing inferno as his children cowered before him, and as he reached them, he raised a fist, his rage barely contained as he snarled at the children.
“Did I not tell you to stay away from there?” he growled at last.
The siblings fervently nodded as one.
“And you disobeyed me?”
The siblings exchanged glances, but said nary a word.
“Get inside,” the noble added. “We’ll discuss this later.”
“But—” Gerald began.
Startled, the sibling raced for the manor in the distance.
“My lord—” said the servant that had watch all that had unfolded, his face ashen as he spoke at last.
“Take Trent and Julius,” the noble interjected, “find that brat.”
“But,” the servant continued, wandering towards his lord, “what if she’d wandered west of the Copse and got caught in one of the traps?”
“Then, you fix it!”
“I don’t care what you do, Samuel,” the noble hissed, his face close enough to his servant’s for the man to feel his lord’s breath upon his face, “you fix it! Father must not know about those traps, or that wolf! Am I clear?”
The servant nodded.
“Good. Now, go!”
Nodding once more, the servant spun on his heels and hurried for the stables.
It was the constant yipping that brought Liza to waking, a soft groan escaping her lips as she roused, but as her senses became her own, she gasped as a fiery pain tore through her. On instinct, she reached for her right foot, only to at last realise she was hanging upside down by that self-same leg.
And the yipping continued.
“What…who…” Gritting her teeth against the pain, Liza turned, till at last, her eyes fell upon the wolf pup sitting beside the tree from which she hung, its white fur caked with mud.
“A white wolf doing this far south?” The young girl frowned.
But the pain was unrelenting, and turning once more, she reached for her leg. And once again, as she stretched forth, the pain grew in intensity, forcing her to once again leave her leg be and hang where she was.
“Help!” she screamed, her voice quivering. “Somebody!”
There was no answer.
Fighting back her tears, the elven child turned to that which gripped her foot, then carried her gaze from the metal trap to the thick rope that ran from the trap to the tree and behind it, and as she stared at the rope, she knew at last what she needed to do.
“Please, let me do this right,” she whispered, and, raising a hand, the young girl breathed deep and focused on the rope, and as she let out her breath, she called forth a single bolt of flame and hurled it at the rope.
But it was a most piteous spell, and as it slammed against the rope, the young elf felt her heart break as the rope appeared undamaged.
“Gods damn it,” she said, sweat pouring down her face.
Breathing deep, she raised her hand once more, but as she fought for calm, smoke began to rise from the rope at the point where her bolt had hit, and as the smoke slowly grew, the young girl’s heart began to swell, and grinning, she turned to the wolf.
It had stopped its cries and was staring intently at the rope.
Grinning, the young girl turned to the rope and began breathing towards it, even though she knew in her heart it would make no difference.
Then, after what seemed an eternity, the rope snapped, sending her crashing to the earth. But as she landed, the metal trap slammed hard against the forest floor, its jagged teeth rending her flesh and filling her with such excruciating pain that young Liza couldn’t even scream, instead hugging her thigh tight as she fought against the pain.
The wolf pup’s yips rang out once more as it ran towards the stricken elf, and reaching her side, it began stomping its front legs, its gaze intent on her.
“Would you give me a bloody moment?” Liza cried at last, tears streaming down her face. “This bloody hurts, you know!”
In response, the wolf pup gripped one side of the trap in its teeth, its growls ringing out as it glared at Liza once more.
The young girl glanced from the trap to the pup and back again and, sniffling, she wiped her face and gripped the other side of the trap with both hands.
Wagging its tail, the pup turned to the trap, and as its growls deepened, it began to pull.
In response, young Liza pulled on the trap with all her might. But the trap remained unmoving, and, shaking her head, she let go of the trap.
The wolf turned to her once again and began yipping once again.
“I tried, alright! It didn’t move!”
But the wolf would not relent.
Still the wolf yipped on, its cries getting louder with each passing moment.
“Alright!” Liza yelled at last, reaching for the trap. “Alright!”
The wolf pup gripped the trap once more, and as its growls returned, it began to pull.
Young Liza dug deep and pulled with all she had. She pulled till she could no longer feel the tips of her fingers. She pulled till her arms began to quiver. She pulled till she felt the veins in her temple come alive. Then she pulled some more.
Then, at last, the trap began to budge.
The joy that washed over the stricken child was beyond compare, fuelling her arms and steeling her resolve, and slowly, little by little, the pair pulled the trap’s teeth wide enough apart to allow Liza pull her leg free, and the moment she was free, the pair let go.
The wolf pup yipped and spun about where it stood, wagging its tail furiously as it did so, and as Liza stared at it, she couldn’t help but smile.
“Alright, alright!” she said at last. “You were right, I was wrong. Happy?”
The pup yipped in response.
Shaking her head, Liza turned to her leg, but as she stared, her smile began to fade. She was bleeding, and badly, and though her trousers hid the full extent of her wounds, she did not need her eyes to confirm what the intense pain from the wound was already telling her. She would not be able to put any weight on that leg, and as panic began setting in once more, she carried her gaze about her.
The pup began yipping once again, this time stepping towards the trap, and pausing briefly, raised a paw and ran it across the closed teeth of the trap.
“No, no, stop that!” Liza cried, reaching for the pup. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The pup darted out of the young elf’s reach, the pain shooting through her keeping her from lunging after it, and as Liza sat back, the wolf yipped and ran its paw across the trap’s teeth again. And again. And again.
“Stop it!” Liza said. “You’ll hurt yourself! I said stop—”
Her words were cut short by the pup’s yelp as it backed away from the trap, blood dripping from its paw.
“Told you!” Liza cried. “Come, let’s see how bad it is.”
The pup yipped at Liza in response before wagging its tail and making its way towards her.
“I don’t know why you’re so happy, you just cut your bloody foot open! Now, let’s see.”
As the pup reached the stricken elf, it stopped and moved to place its bleeding foot onto Liza’s wound.
“Hey, what’re you doing? Stop that!” Liza cried, her eyes wide as she recoiled from the pup, only to cry out and double over at the pain that shot through her.
The pup yipped at her once more, its gaze fierce upon the elf.
“Don’t bloody look at me like that!” Liza snapped through gritted teeth. “What’s wrong with you!”
The pup growled at the elf, then stepped forth and rubbed its bleeding foot about Liza’s wound.
“Hey, stop that!” Liza cried, recoiling from the pup once more, only to once again be frozen by the pain, and as she doubled over, the pup rubbed its blood all over her wound, then stepped back and sat upon the earth.
Straightening, Liza turned to the wolf.
“What’re you…” she began, but her words were cut short by a most intense burning emanating from her wound. It was not as crippling as the searing pain from the wound itself, but it rapidly grew in intensity, and as Liza moved to demand an explanation from the pup, she gasped as steam began rising from the wound.
“Oh, gods,” she said, her eyes wide as she stared at the steam before turning to the pup.
“What did you do?” she shrieked.
The pup began yipping once more, its gaze twice as fierce as before.
“Don’t bloody look at me like that, what did you do to my leg!”
The pup’s yips continued unabated.
“Don’t bloody bark at me! What did you bloody do!”
The pup rose at last, its eyes as fiery spheres fixed upon Liza’s face.
“I swear, if you’ve done anything to my leg, I don’t care what you are, I’ll…”
But then, young Liza realised something. The pain, it was abating.
“What the…” she muttered, turning to her leg.
Slowly, she drew her leg towards her, and though she felt a stab of pain, it was nothing compared to what had come before.
“How did you…?” she said, glancing at the pup.
The pup licked its lips and sat back once more.
With the softest of touches, the young girl lifted her trousers to see the wound clearly, but there was no wound. There were marks upon her skin where the wound should be, and blood, of course, but nothing else.
“I…” she began, turning to the pup. “I don’t understand, how did you…”
Without warning, the wolf stood tall and stared into the distance, its eyes wide and its face gaunt, and before Liza could draw breath, the little pup spun about and darted for the undergrowth.
“No, hold!” Liza cried.
But it was too late, the pup was gone.
The young elf stared in utter confusion at the spot through which the pup had disappeared as she sought to make sense of it all, but voices soon reached her ears, distant and soft, calling her name.
Biting back her frustration, the young elf glanced behind her, then turned to the spot once more, her lips pulled to a thin line. Then, at last, she rose and, shaking her head, she turned and headed towards the voices. But soon, she stopped and turned to the spot once more, and as she did so, her gaze fell upon two earthen-brown eyes staring back at her from the undergrowth, and with a smile, the young elf nodded.
“Thank you,” she mouthed, then spun on her heels and raced towards the voices.
“And here we are!” the baron of the manor cried as he stepped free of his carriage, a wide grin on his lips. Then, as he breathed in the crip chill air, he stepped aside and turned to the elf alighting behind him.
“So!” the noble continued. “Was I right, or was I right?”
Stepping free of the carriage, the elven mage smiled. “You were right, Marcus…”
“Ha! Told you!”
“Welcome home, darling,” came a voice from behind the noble, drawing his gaze and that of his companion.
“Ah, my dear!” the Baron cried, stepping forth to place soft hands upon his beloved wife’s shoulder before kissing her upon each cheek.
“So, how was it?” the Baroness asked as they parted.
“Ah, well…” the Baron began, then turned to the mage, his smile widening.
The mage glanced from one noble to the other before sighing and turning to the Baroness square as his own smile widened. “It would seem your husband was right. Lady Tamworth’s cocoa and hazelnut cake is indeed luscious enough to rival the delicacies served in the Woodland Court.”
“Oh!” The Baroness grinned. “My sister would be pleased to hear that!”
“Yes!” The Baron nodded, then levied a pointed stare at his companion. “If only a certain someone had said something before we left!”
“Marcus…” the mage growled.
“Well!” The Baroness grinned. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind hearing it from me. If that’s acceptable with you, of course, Master Waterweave…?”
The mage smiled. “By all means. And, might I add, Lady Dunnington, you look especially stunning today.”
“Oh?” The Baroness smiled raising a hand to her cheek.
“Now, now, Tarnus,” the Baron growled, the smile upon his lips drawing all venom from his voice as he slid an arm about his wife’s waist. “This wonderful beauty is mine. Go get your own.”
Chuckling, the mage bowed. “My apologies.”
“Apology accepted!” The Baron grinned, then cast his eye about him, and as he did so, his smile faded.
“Where’s Duncan?” he said, turning to his wife.
“Uh…” the Baroness began, her smile fading as she glanced about her.
Then, she turned to one of the servants behind her. “Go fetch my son. Tell him his father’s home.”
“At once, Your Grace.” The servant bowed, then turned to hurry forth.
“Tell him we’ll be on the West Lawn,” the Baron added, stopping the servant.
“At once, Your Grace,” the servant, repeated, bowing as he spoke, then hurried forth.
“West Lawn?” The Baroness frowned.
“Hm.” The Baron nodded, then turned to his guest. “Yousaid you enjoyed watching the sun set over the trees day before yesterday. Thought it would be nice to indulge again over a spot of tea. What do you say?”
The mage’s smile returned. “Sounds delightful.”
“Splendid!” The Baron grinned, then began leading the way towards the West Lawn.
“There is one other thing you were right about,” the mage said as they headed for the grand mansion before them.
“Hm?” The Baron replied.
“This place truly is more peaceful than your castle.”
“Ha!” The Baron grinned and nodded. “It is, isn’t it.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t made this your main residence.”
“Yes, well,” the Baron sighed his face drawn, “ask me that next time war breaks out.”
“Ah, I didn’t mean—”
“Father! You’re back!” came a voice from the manor before them.
As one, the party stopped and stared at the young elf racing towards them from the manor’s entrance.
“Liza!” The mage grinned before going on one knee, his arms wide.
Giggling, the young elf raced into her father’s arms, and as her laughter rang out, the grinning mage lifted his daughter high and hugged her tight.
“Told you I’d bring him back in one piece.” The Baron grinned after a spell.
“Yes,” Liza smiled, nodding at the noble, “you did at that, sir.”
“Ha!” The Baron grinned, ruffling the young elf’s hair.
“You changed your clothing?” the young elf’s father asked, his gaze upon his daughter’s breeches.
Smiling, the young elf nodded. “I caught my trousers on some brambles, tore their edges rather badly. Mistress Haversham’s having them mended.”
“Liza…” The mage sighed.
The young elf shrugged, a sheepish smile upon her lips.
“Children with be children.” The Baron sighed, smiling at the young elf. “Gerald’s just as much of a handful these days.” Then, the man frowned. “Speaking of which, where are Gerald and Lisa?”
“I’m not sure.” The elven girl frowned. “I believe they’re on some errands at the moment.”
“Errands?” The Baron smiled. “They were naughty again, were they?”
“Eh.” Liza shrugged, a smile dancing on her lip.
“Yes, well… We’re off to the West Lawn for tea. Care to join us?”
“Oh! Uhm…” the young girl began, glancing at her father before turning to the noble square, then shrugging. “Why not!”
“Well said!” the Baron cried. “Come!”
In response, the mage set his daughter down and slipped a hand into hers as the lord of the manor resumed his march.
“Uhm, Lord Dunnington,” young Liza said as they turned down the manor’s main corridor and headed towards the grand double doors in the distance that would lead them to the West Lawn, “may I ask you something?”
“Of course, girl!” the Baron said, smiling at the child.
“Do you…uhm…do you have white wolves this far south?”
“What?” the Baroness said, her tone sharp as she frowned at the child.
“White wolves,” Liza pressed, turning to the woman. “Do they come this far south?”
“Oh, they don’t come this far south, my dear,” the Baron replied, grinning at the girl, “there are packs that call these lands home.”
“Mhm.” The Baron nodded.
“But, they’re not—”
“They’re not naturally from here?”
Young Liza nodded.
“You’re right, my dear, they’re not. They were brought here.”
“Oh? By who?”
“Northfolk mercenaries. We get a lot of them whenever there’s a war on. Bloody fierce blighters, the lot of them, but yeah, that’s where those white wolves come from.”
“Oh!” young Liza gasped. “Of course! They bring their pet wolves with them, don’t they!”
“That they do! And those that don’t make it, well, their wolves end up roaming the forests.”
“Of course!” Yong Liza nodded, grinning. “Gods, why didn’t I think of that?”
“You needn’t worry, though, Duncan’s charged with keeping anything with sharp teeth out of the forest about the manor. And I daresay he does a splendid job of it.”
“Why do you ask, anyway?” the Baroness asked, frowning at the child.
Swallowing, the young girl shrugged, her smile taking on a slight wooden edge.
“Oh, I heard some talk, that’s all,” she said at last.
“Well, uh…” Liza replied, then began glancing furtive glances about her.
Then, the young girl’s eyes shone, and with a smile, she turned to the Baroness. “I heard the servants speak of white wolves with special blood. Blood that heals.”
At those words, the Baron came to a screeching halt before turning to face the elven child square, and though his smile remained firm upon his lips, the gaze he held her in brought the hairs on the back of her neck standing ramrod straight.
“Did you now?” he said at last, the intensity of his gaze growing with each passing moment.
“Marcus…?” the mage said at last.
Tearing his gaze from the elven child, the Baron turned to his friend as his smile warmed. “Forgive me, old friend. The story is a…sore one for me.” Then, he turned to Liza once more.
“They’re called cethari wolves, my dear,” the Baron said. “The northfolk have a legend, regarding their earth goddess, Liv. She’s supposed to have this white wolf as a pet. Or familiar, as you’d call it. Damned thing supposedly gave its life to protect her during some…ambush or other, can’t really remember to well. But anyway, the goddess is supposed to have brought the wolf back to life, then gave it the power to mark any white wolf it pleased as one of its pack. And that, my dear, is supposed to grant the bloody thing divine powers of earth and healing.”
“Yes.” The Baron nodded, then snarled. “Stupidest garbage you’ll ever hear, though.”
“Marcus!” the Baroness cried.
“Oh, hush, my dear!” the Baron threw back. “It’s garbage. And not just any old garbage. Think of all the harm it’s caused!”
“Harm?” Young Liza frowned.
As one, the nobles turned to the young girl.
“My dear, that blasted legend is solely responsible for those poor things being hunted practically to extinction,” the Baron continued.
“Oh?” Liza replied.
“Yes!” The Baron nodded. Then, he leant forward. “And do you how many cethari wolves have been found in the last twenty years?”
Young Liza shook her head.
“None! I don’t even know how many thousands of wolves have been slaughtered in that time, but not one of those things ever turned out to be anything other than a normal bloody wolf.” Then, he sighed and shook his head. “There’s a bloody reason it’s called a legend, after all.” Then, he stared square at the young girl. “But do you know the worst of it?”
Once again, young Liza shook her head.
“There have been many nobles in those self-same twenty years…nobles, mind, not lowly peasant, who’ve been caught drinking fresh wolf blood. And some were even caught bathing in it!”
Grimacing, young Liza recoiled from the Baron as a deep shudder gripped her.
“Precisely! These are people who should know better, and they debase themselves to…”
Gritting his teeth, the noble closed his eyes and breath deep. Then, standing tall, he let out a long, ragged sigh before forcing a smile to his lips.
“Forgive me, my dear,” the noble added, his gaze upon the elven child once more. “This really is a bit of a sore point for me.”
Raising her hands to her chest, the young elf gazed into the ether a spell, then turned to the noble, her face greatly whitened. “My I be excused?”
Breathing deep once more, the noble lord sighed and nodded, a sad smile upon his lips. “Of course.”
The young girl bowed, then turned and raced forth.
“Perhaps I should go speak with her,” the Baroness said after a spell, then moved to hurry after the child.
“No,” the mage replied, shaking his head as he watched his daughter depart. “No, she needs to be alone a spell.”
The mage turned to the noblewoman and nodded, a smile upon his lip. “Yeah. Liza’s a proud child, and showing weakness like that is sure to have riled her. The last thing she needs is to see any of us right now.”
“Well…if you’re sure…”
The mage nodded. “I’m sure.” Then, he turned to the noble lord. “West Lawn?”
“Ah! Of course!” the noble cried, then marched forth once more.
As for the Baroness, her eyes were upon the child, her gaze as dark as the blackest night, and as the elven child fell from view, the noblewoman breathed dee, her teeth gritted hard, then turned and hurried after her husband.
Sitting upon a stool beside the large doors of the carriage house, the servant carriage driver glared into the ether as he bent low and cleaned the mud from his boots, his teeth gritted hard as the harsh words of his noble lord’s son echoed in his ears.
“Can’t even control his own bloody son, and he comes barking at me?” the man seethed. “Bloody noble fool!”
Kissing his teeth, the man sat up and inspected his handiwork.
“Hrm,” he muttered as his caught sight of the specks and spots he’d missed, and, breathing deep, dabbed the cloth in his hand in the bowl by his stool, then bent low and began cleaning his boots once more.
Frowning, the servant sat tall, his gaze drifting to where the sound had come from.
As the servant caught sight of the approaching elven child, his shoulders sagged as a ragged sigh escaped his lips.
“Can’t they just bloody leave me alone?” he hissed, then rose, forcing a smile.
“Well, hello there, little miss,” he said as the elven child reached him. “What can I do for you? And sorry about earlier. No hard feeling, eh?” Then, he frowned as his gaze drifted to the sack slung about the young girl’s back. “What you got in there, then?”
“Nevermind all that,” the girl replied. “Can take me to the copse again, please?”
The elderly servant’s frown deepened. “You mean Fidler’s Copse?”
“Yes.” The young girl nodded.
“Why would you want to go back there?”
“I…I lost something, and I’d like to return to retrieve it.”
The servant stared at the elven girl in silence a spell, his brow furrowed deep. Then, he gestured to the sack. “What’s that for, then?”
“It’s…” the girl began, glancing at the sack. Then, she shook her head. “Must you ask so many questions? Is it not enough that I ask to be taken to the copse?”
At this, the servant stood tall, breathing deep as he thrust his chest outwards. “Well, begging your pardon, miss, but after the trouble young Gerald got me in with his father, I’m not taking any of you kids anywhere without Lord Duncan’s express permission. You get him to say it’s okay I take you, and I take you. If not, well, there’s nothing to be done.”
The young girl moved to speak, but as she did so, Malcolm darkened his gaze, silencing the child.
“Anything else, miss?” he soon asked.
Once more, the elven child moved to speak, and once more words failed her, till at last she sighed.
“Malcolm, please, alright?” she said. “Please.”
“I’m afraid the answer’s still—”
“There’s something in the copse I wish to retrieve, alright? I need to retrieve it!”
“Then go ask Lord Duncan for—”
“My father can’t know about it! If he knows, he’ll demand I leave it behind! The sack is so I can keep it hidden! Please, Malcom! I beg you!”
The elderly servant stared in silence at the elven child a spell, till at last, breathing deep, he shook his head and sighed.
“If anyone asks, it wasn’t me. Okay?”
Grinning, the young girl nodded eagerly. “Alright.”
“Good. Step aside, then.”
Grinning still, Liza did as Malcolm had bidden.
Shaking his head, the sighing driver turned to the carriage house doors.
“And, Malcolm?” Liza added.
“Yeah?” Malcolm asked as he began swinging the large doors open.
Stopping, the human turned to the elven child as he fought to suppress a smile.
“You just make sure you hurry when we get there,” he soon said.
“Good,” Malcolm growled, then turned to the carriage house doors once more, the young girl’s soft giggles filling his ears.
Marching through the mansion, his boots echoing loudly as he went, the human Duncan Dunnington hurried forth, his gaze fierce and his brow furrowed deep, and though he knew the summons he was to answer was not one he could ignore, it boiled his blood nonetheless. Then, at last, as the glass double doors that lead to the West Lawn came into view, the noble breathed deep and squared his shoulders before quickening his pace. The sooner he saw to this farce, the sooner he could attend to more pressing matters.
As he neared the door, however, his gaze wandered past to what lay beyond. As he did so, he locked gazes with his mother, and as the pair stared at each other, the noblewoman’s eyes went wide as she shook her head and gestured for him to pause his steps.
Frowning, the noble slowed to a halt, cocking his head to the side, his eyes asking the question now plaguing his thoughts.
In response, the noblewoman gestured him to hurry to the side room, and, glancing over her shoulder, she rose and sauntered towards the glass doors.
The noble’s brow furrowed deeper, but he knew better than to question his mother, and instead, he gritted his teeth and hurried to the drawing room to his right, closing the door gently as he entered. He was not in there alone long.
“Where have you been?” his mother hissed as she slipped into the room.
“Dealing with some trouble,” Duncan growled.
“Trouble is right!” the noble’s mother replied. Then, stopping, she slowly stood tall, her eyes narrowed to slits. “Wait, what sort of trouble?”
The noble stared hard at his mother. “What trouble do you mean?”
“That elf brat, she was asking your father about white wolves earlier. I think she knows something.”
At those words, the noble closed his eyes as a pained groan escaped his lips.
“Damn that brat!” he spat.
“Why, what is it?” the noble’s mother demanded, reaching for her son’s arm. “Duncan, what is it?”
Breathing deep, the noble turned to his mother, shaking his head. “The little shite told everyone she ripped the hem of her trousers on some bramble—”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“It’s all nonsense, Mother.”
The noblewoman frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I went to the copse myself, took Julius with me. We tracked her movements. She was caught in one of our wolf traps.”
“What?” the noblewoman gasped, her eyes wide as the blood rushed from her face.
“Yeah! We found the trap, it had been triggered, and it had fabric caught between its teeth. The fabric had the same colour as her trousers.”
Frowning once more, the noblewoman shook her head. “But she wasn’t limping, or anything.”
“No.” Duncan shook his head. “Care to know why?”
For a brief spell, the noblewoman stared at her son in utter confusion, but soon, her eyes went wide as she jolted ramrod straight. “The pup!”
“Yeah! We found blood on the trap’s teeth, and skin, the kind you’d find on an amimal’s paws.”
Taking a step forth, the noblewoman squeezed her son’s arm. “Are you telling me that brat knows where it is?”
“Duncan, you need to find that thing, and fast!”
“That’s what I was trying to do, Mother!”
“No, you don’t understand. Your father gave her the bathing in blood spiel, and she went tearing out of here after hearing it. If that girl’s anything like yours, she’ll be planning on going after it to try and save it! If she finds it before you…”
“She won’t Mother,” Duncan replied, grasping hold of his mother’s hand upon his arm. “She has no means of getting to the copse.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, none of the horses have taken to her, for one!”
The noblewoman shook her head. “This is too delicate to leave to chance. Those elves are nothing, if not resourceful. You need to get out there and find that pup. Now!”
“What about Father?”
“I’ll handle your father. Just find that pup!”
Then, the noble took a step forth, staring deep into his mother’s eyes. “And if she finds it first?”
The noblewoman breathed deep and stood tall. “Your men caught the Burton boys trying to poach on our land last month, didn’t they…?”
A slow smile parted the noble’s lips. “They did at that.”
“Good.” The noblewoman nodded. “Can you make it stick?”
The noble’s smile darkened greatly. “In my sleep.”
“Good.” The noblewoman nodded once more, then leant forward. “But only if she finds it first. Clear?”
The noble nodded. “Clear.”
Standing tall once more, the noblewoman nodded. Then, breathing deep she turned and headed for the door, but as she reached the door, she turned to her son.
“Don’t mess this one up, Duncan. Alright?”
“I won’t Mother. You have my word.”
Breathing deep once more, the noblewoman nodded, then slipped out of the room, closing the door softly behind her as she went.
Sitting upon a petrified stump, a small knife in one hand and a lump of wood in another, Malcolm sighed and stared down the path the elven child had hurried along not too long previous.
“I should have my head examined for this,” he muttered, shaking his head as he returned to whittling the wood in his hand. “If that bloody idiot finds out about this, he’ll really give me an earful.”
Sighing once more, the grizzled human shook his head and whittled away, but soon, the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise, and as they rose, the human servant paused and raised his head, his gaze fierce as he carried his eyes about him.
He saw nothing.
But the feeling remained, and rising, he scanned his surroundings once more as he gripped the wood tight, and his knife tighter. Then, a rustle to his left drew his attention to two men as they stepped out before him.
“What’re you two doing here?” Malcolm frowned.
“We could ask you the same thing,” replied one of the men.
Grimacing, Malcolm glanced behind him, then shrugged. “The elf girl needed to get back to the copse, so I brought her. You’re not going to tell on me, are you?”
“You’ve got bigger problems right now, Malcom,” the second man muttered.
Frowning once more, the human servant cocked his head to the side.
“What do you mea…” he began, but fell silent as the men drew their swords
“Those are Burton blades,” he said instead, staring at the swords in the men’s hands. “What’re you doing with…”
But words failed him a second time as he realised at last what it was the men were there to do, and as a cold hand gripped his insides, he stood tall and stared at the men square.
“You’re here to kill the girl, aren’t you?” he said. “Make it look like those Burton boys you ran off last month came back and she ran into them while they were poaching.”
The men exchanged glances, but said nary a word.
“We don’t get to ask why, Malcolm,” said the second man. “You know that.”
“Yeah,” the first man replied, his tone grim. “When your lord says jump, you don’t ask why, you don’t even ask how high, you just bloody jump.”
“I see…” the servant mused. “Was it the old man, or Duncan?”
“Does it matter?” asked the first.
“It does to me.”
Once more, the men exchanged glances.
“Duncan,” replied the first.
“Ah.” Malcom nodded. “I see.”
“I’m going to miss you, Malcolm,” said the second. “You were one of the good one. Never preached or talked down to anyone. And you always found a way to make them kids laugh.”
“But we’ve got a job to do, see,” the first added. “No hard feelings.”
The servant smiled and shrugged. “That’s how it is sometimes.”
“Yeah,” the second man said, a sad smile upon his lips, but the smile was not to last. “Listen, you don’t give us any trouble, promise we’ll make it clean and quick. Yeah?”
Malcolm’s smile widened as he shook his head at the man. “Sorry, young blood, this old dog’s going down fighting.”
“Malcolm,” the first man warned. “Don’t be stupid. Only one way this can end. No shame in having a clean death, hear? Just…just kneel down and close your eyes. It’ll all be over quick.”
Once again, the man exchanged glances, shaking their heads and shrugging as they did so.
“What do you boys see when you look at me?” Malcolm asked as they turned their gazes to him once more. “Did any of you ever stop to ask why old man Marcus kept insisting on an old dog like me being the driver for his grandkids? Hrm?”
At those words, the very air between the men began to change
“There’s a reason an old man like me has survived four wars and killed off gods only know how many assassins over the years. Men like me don’t waste away with age, boy. I’ve put a lot of young bloods in the ground because they thought like that.”
“What, you really think you can take us with that?” The first man sneered, gesturing to the knife in Malcolm’s hand.
“Oh, this?” Malcolm replied, glancing at the knife. Then, he shook his head.
“No,” he added, dropping the blade and wood, then reaching behind him, beneath his tunic.
“These, on the other hand…” he said as he pulled free two daggers, the runes etched upon their sides glimmering in the evening sun. Then, crossing the blades, he ran the side of one down the other, and as he did so, the runes on the blades came alive and began to pulse.
“Bloody hells…” the second man gasped as his companion stared wide-eyed at the blades.
“Now, before we do this,” Malcolm continued, “just know that there will be no I’m sorry, and no Mercy. We start this, it’ll only end one way. So, unless you’re sure about this, best leave. Now.”
The second man licked his lips, his face gaunt as he stared from the daggers to Malcolm and back.
“Trent—” he began, turning to his companion.
“He’s just one man, Julius,” his companion interjected. “One old man. And shiny dagger or not, it’s two against one.”
“You want to tell Duncan we ran?” Trent snapped, rounding on his companion. “You want to tell everyone we turned tails from him? Hm?”
The man named Julius’s gaze went from his companion to Malcolm and back again, then he shook his head.
“Alright, then,” Malcolm sighed. “But you offered me a quick death. The least I can do is offer you the same. Now, let’s get this over with.”
Then, the grizzled assassin stepped forth.
Staring at the tree in the distance, Liza breathed deep and let out a ragged sigh. Her leg had begun to throb as a wave of nausea washed over her, but she was on a mission. But now was not the time for this, and so, gritting her teeth, she shook her head and tore her gaze from the tree before turning to the last spot she’d seen the wolf pup.
“Hey!” she called out as she neared the spot. “You there?”
Stopping, she placed the sack upon the grass, then opened it and reached inside.
“I brought you something,” she continued, pulling forth the lamb shank she’d swiped from the kitchen.
Still, no answer.
Gritting her teeth, Liza carried her gaze about her. “You hungry? Hello!”
But there was still no answer.
Breathing deep, the young elf sighed and shook her head. “What the hells am I doing?”
Then, a sharp rustle behind the elven child called forth a gasp from her lips, and clutching both meat and bag tight, she spun about, but as she beheld the little wolf pup behind her, she sighed and smiled.
“There you are!” she said, then offered the lamb shank once more. “Here. For you.”
The pup stood unmoving.
Smiling still, the young elf went on her knees and offered the shank once more. “Come. It’s me. I won’t bite.”
The pup’s gaze drifted from the kneeling child to the offering in her hand, then licked its lips.
“Ah, you are hungry.” Liza grinned. “Come. It’s luscious. Not that I’d know, I don’t eat raw meat, but I’m sure you’ll find it rather tasty.”
The pup glanced are Liza once more, then, gently, ever so slowly, it made its way towards her.
Liza held her breath and remained stock still, her eyes fixed upon the pup, till at last, reaching the meat, the little pup licked the meat once, twice, then took a small bite.
“There we go! Now, isn’t that—”
But the young girl’s words were cut short as the pup pounced upon the shank, sinking its teeth and claws into it and knocking it clean out of Liza’s grasp before gorging on it as if its very life depended on it.
“Goodness!” Liza chuckled. “Look at you!”
Stopping, the little pup grinned at the elven child, then, licking its lips, tucked into its meal some more.
“Well, that’s the easy part,” Liza sighed and sat upon the grass. “The hard part’s getting you back to that blasted manor and finding a good place to hide you till I can speak to Father in secret about you. I know a couple of places I can put you, but you’ll have to be silent the whole—”
The elven girl’s words were cut short by the snapping of a twig, and as Liza turned to where the sound had come from, the young pup let go of its meal and bolted for the undergrowth.
“Blast! Samuel!” cried the figure that was sneaking up behind them.
As those words rang out, the young girl’s blood ran cold as her gaze fell upon the human noble racing towards them, her eyes wide and her lips agape. But then, movement at the corner of her vision caught her eye, and as she turned, she could only watch as an arrow flew past her to impale the fleeing pup in its neck and bring it crashing to the earth just as it was about to disappear from sight. Then, the thick cord attached to the arrow became taut, and began pulling the pup away from the undergrowth
“No!” Liza shrieked, scrambling to her feet to race towards the stricken pup.
But barely had she gone far when a rough hand grabbed her by her hair and pulled her off her feet.
“And where do you think you’re going?” the noble’s voice snarled behind her.
“Let go of me!” Liza cried, fighting the noble’s grip with all she had.
“Stupid brat! Do you have any idea what you’ve cost me? Hunh?” the noble seethed as he spun young Liza around to wrap a hand about her throat before squeezing tight. “Well? Do you?”
Young Liza moved to speak, to bark some choice words of her own to the insufferable noble, but the sight of the dagger in his hand stilled her tongue.
“What, no sharp retorts?” the noble sneered. “No biting response? What’s wrong, lost your voice?”
“If you hurt me, my father will melt your skin off you,” the young elf growled, her voice quivering as she spoke.
“Ha!” The noble grinned. “He’ll have to prove it was me, first.”
Then, the noble turned to his servant, who’d since darted past the pair and now knelt beside the pup, a rough hand about the pup’s neck.
“Is it still alive?” he asked.
“Yeah.” The servant named Samuel nodded. “Tough little blighter.”
Then, the servant grasped hold of the arrow and pulled it free, the pup’s sharp cries filling the forest.
“You get off it!” the young elf cried, fighting her bonds as she turned her head as far as she could towards the pup. “Leave it alone! It’s not a cethari, just leave it alone!”
“Oh, shut up!”
“You’re not…” Liza continued, but a heavy gasp from deep within the child silenced her all at once, her eyes wide as she whole frame arched forward, and as she lowered her gaze, the young girl felt her limbs begin to grow heavy as a deep chill embraced her.
“Stupid brat,” the noble seethed as he pulled free his dagger, and as the elven child began coughing up blood, he snarled and slid his dagger into her other lung.
There was pain this time, of a kind the elven child had never felt before, and as the dagger was pulled free, she raised her gaze to her killer, blood frothing at her lips as she fought to breathe.
“Gods, you’re pathetic,” the noble added, then shoved the girl to the ground before tossing the dagger aside.
“Let’s go, Samuel,” the noble continued, turning to his servant. “Trent and Julius should be done with the old fart by now. The sooner we…”
The noble’s words were cut short by a low rumble, deep and guttural. At first, neither man nor servant could quite fathom what it was they were hearing, for the sound seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, but soon, they turned to the pup. Its eyes were upon Liza, and its teeth were bared.
“Is it supposed to be able to do that?” the servant asked, turning to his lord.
The noble lord was staring at the pup, his jaw set and his gaze fierce.
“Get off it, Samuel,” he said as he drew forth his blade, “and draw your sword. Not the Burton one, that one’s useless against now.”
“Get off it and draw your sword, Samuel. Now.”
Swallowing hard, the servant turned to the pinned pup, and it was only then he saw the deep earthen glow about its eyes, and with a cry, the noble’s servant scrambled off the pup before drawing free his blade and hurrying to his lord’s side.
The pup rose, its claws digging deep into the earth as its growls rumbled on. There was more bulk to its frame now, a strength that was absent mere moments prior, and licking its lips, it turned to face the men square.
A deep and delicious smirk twisted the noble’s lips as he locked gazes with the pup.
“Come on, then,” he said as he gripped his blade tight. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
“Uhm, My Lord…” the servant Samuel stammered. “Should we be goading it.”
The pup licked its lips and took a step forth, but as it glanced at the dying child once ore, it stopped and stood tall as a soft whine escaped its lips.
“My Lord,” Samuel whispered, “maybe we can.”
Then, without warning, the wolf pup raised its head skywards and howled with all its might, and without pause for breath, it charged forth, teeth bared and claws thirsting for blood.
It was the speed of the pup’s charge that surprised Samuel the most, the little wolf clearing the distance between them in a single bound before sinking its teeth into the man’s neck as its claws dug deep into his chest, the pup’s new bulk frame sending him clattering onto his back as the pup tore his throat open.
“Get off him!” the noble barked, before slicing deep into the pup’s back just as the dying servant stabbed at the pup’s hind quarter with what little strength he could muster.
Whining, the pup sprang off the servant, then turned to the noble, its jaws dripping with blood, and with a growl, it leapt once more.
But the noble was in a league far above his servant, and with but a thought, he darted aside, slicing at the pup as it sailed past. But the pup was not to be deterred, and as its feet touched the earth, it turned and leapt again, only for the noble to once again avoid its lunge before scoring another hit.
On an on they danced, the wolf’s blood being split with each lunge as the noble’s taunts and jeers rang out, and though the dance felt like an eternity for both man and beast, it was not long before the pup’s steps began to waver and its breathing heavy.
Smirking, the noble stood tall. “You know, I always found Father’s stories of you cethari going all big and lethal before a skirmish, it always sounded a bit much. Seems like the old man was telling the truth, though. Too bad you’re only a pup, would’ve loved to have faced a proper one of you.”
In response, the pup hung its head and turned towards the pone child and, whining once more, it hobbled towards her, a thick trail of blood trailing behind it as it went, till at last, it reached the child and, whining once more, it placed its head and chest across the child’s chest and lay perfectly still.
“Heh,” the noble smiled, “still pining for the girl, are you?”
The noble’s words were met with silence.
Shaking his head, the noble turned to his servant. The man still quivered, the blood pool about him growing still.
“What a mess,” he muttered, then turned to the beast.
Breathing deep, the noble let out a slow and deep sigh, then headed towards the pup.
“Time to end this, I think,” he muttered as he reached the pup, then raised his sword, its tip aimed for the pup’s heart.
But then, a thunderous crack rang out, and with an ear-splitting cry, the noble fell to his knees as he cradled his hand, a scorched hole blasted clean through it, and as tears welled in his eyes, he turned to where the bolt of lightning had come from. What he saw froze his soul.
“You get away from my daughter!” barked the mage marching towards the noble, lighting dancing between his fingers as the fire behind the man’s eyes filled the noble with real and palpable dread.
Swallowing hard, the noble made to stand.
“If you rise, boy,” said one of the two men that had arrived with the mage, “he will cut you down. And I won’t stop him.”
“Shut up, son. There is nothing you have to say that won’t annoy me, so just stay down, shut up, and pray that girl isn’t dead.”
As a heavy silence fell upon the group, the men watched as the mage reached his daughter and as he fell onto his knees, the pup raised its head.
“It’s a cethari, isn’t it, son?” the Baron asked.
Gritting his teeth, the noble nodded.
Breathing deep, the Baron shook his head and turned to his friend. “The pup is keeping your daughter alive, Tarnus. Do what you can before the bleeding stops.”
The mage turned from his friend to the pup, staring deep into its eyes, and shaking his head, he turned to his daughter and rested his hands upon her, then closed his eyes.
The heavy silence returned, one as charged as it was suffocating as all eyes focused on the mage, till at last a most wondrous sound filled the air. A cough, then another, and another, and finally, a deep wheeze.
“Easy, Liza,” the mage soothed, his eyes glistening. “Easy.”
“Father?” the girl gasped.
“Don’t speak. My healing isn’t the best, your lungs are still in poor shape. Just—”
“But how did you—?”
“Find you?” the Baron interjected.
Turning to the man, young Liza nodded.
Smiling, the Baron turned to the man standing beside him, and as the man caught his Baron’s gaze, he smiled and turned to Liza. “Hello, you.”
The grizzled servant nodded. “Had some visitors earlier. Played with them a little, then used this to have a word with the old man…”
As he spoke, the servant pulled free a smooth stone from his pocket, then tossed it in the air before snatching it back.
“…then, quick as a flash, your father here brought the two of them over and we raced on over right bloody quick. Simple as that.”
“But, what’re you—”
“Doing with a seeking stone?”
Once more, the young girl nodded.
Malcom’s smile grew as he glanced at his Baron once more.
“Let’s just say,” he continued, turning to the prone child, “there’s a reason old man Marcus here wanted me driving his grandkids around.”
“How many times do I have to tell to stop calling me Old man? Eh? I’m only three years older than you.”
Malcom shrugged. “Still older.”
The Baron raised a regal eyebrow at the man, who grinned in response.
Then, the man turned to the Baron’s whimpering son. “What do we do about him?”
Breathing deep, the Baron let it out slowly, then shook his head.
“Not yet,” he said, then turned to the mage and his daughter. “I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
“Oh?” the mage said as the pair stared intently at the noble, their brows furrowed deep.
“Yeah.” The Baron nodded. “In the last twenty years, there have been at least seven cethari wolves roaming these woods.”
“What?” the pair gasped.
“Yeah.” The Baron nodded once more, then gestured to the prone pup. “That one there makes eight. Heard rumours a while ago of a white wolf pup running with a silver pack, a pup that seemed able to stumble out of any trap and just shrug off the hurt. Don’t need to be a gold dragon to work out what that meant. Sent my men to catch it, but they came across tracks of another party hunting the pack. Seemed like they found it first.” Then, he turned to his son. “Didn’t expect that to be you.”
“I don’t understand,” the mage replied. “You’re collecting them? Why?”
The Baron smiled. “You remember the Dunindon ambush?”
The mage smiled. “How can I forget, you told me that tale so many times I can recite it by heart.”
“Ha!” The Baron grinned, but it was fleeting. “Except it was all a lie.”
“I didn’t survive the ambush unscathed, Tarnus. I took an arrow to the throat.”
“Mhm.” The Baron nodded. “Right the way through. And I didn’t escape. I mean I ran, of course, but it’s rather difficult to run in that condition, so I didn’t get far, and when I fell I thought, Well, that’s it! Then this Northman shows up, with this white wolf beside him. He took one look at me, cut the arrow and pulled it out of me, then cut his wolf and rubbed its blood on my wound. Damnedest feeling I ever had.”
Young Liza grinned at those words.
“Ah!” The Baron grinned. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
The young elf nodded.
“Yeah, well, didn’t take long for me to get better. I tried to pay the man, of course, but he refused, and instead asked me to keep it quiet.”
Then, the noble’s face fell. “But I didn’t. I told my father, told him everything. A month later, I return from patrol and walk in on him and mother drinking some vile red wine from a goblet.”
“Oh gods…” the mage whispered.
“Yeah.” The Baron nodded. “The Northman was under our employ, but Father had ensured he died in battle that very afternoon, then had his wolf brought to the castle. They kept that poor thing alive for months after that, in pure agony, cutting him and milking his blood like he was some infernal goat. Oh, we’d all heard the legend of the Cethari wolf, but none of us believed it. Barbarian nonsense is what my parents called it. After me, though, word spread, and…here we are.”
“Gods, Marcus, I didn’t know.”
The Baron smiled. “Many people don’t. So, yeah, I collect them. Ever since I became Baron, I’ve been doing all I can to return that blasted legend to being just a damn legend, so I collect them and hide them.”
Then, the man breathed deep, turning to his son. “But now, I don’t think I can do that anymore.”
The others turned to the kneeling noble.
“Who’s really behind this, son?” the man asked. “You have no reason to go hunting for that pup. It’s not like you need coin, and you have your health and youth. Who’s really behind this?”
The noble held his piece and kept his gaze upon the grass.
“Was it your mother?”
Still, the noble held his piece, but the gentle hardening of his jaw did not go unnoticed.
Shaking his head, the Baron turned to his friend. “Will your Tower take them, Tarnus?”
“Hunh?” The mage frowned.
“It’s getting harder to hide them. I’ve had to move them six times this year alone. And with the commotion this…mess will cause, I need them gone, and quickly.”
The mage turned to the pup. It was staring up at the mage, panting softly, and as the mage stared at it, he smiled.
“Yeah,” he said at last, nodding as he turned to his friend. “We’ll take them.”
The Baron smiled and nodded. “Thank you.” Then, he turned to Liza. “Can she walk.”
The mage turned to his daughter and shook his head. “I wouldn’t advise it. I’ll carry her instead.”
“Do that. Take her and the pup. I doubt anyone else will be able to go near that thing anyway.”
The mage smiled and turned to the pup once more.
Smiling himself, the Baron returned his gaze to his son, and as he did so, his smile faded as his gaze darkened greatly. “Now, you.”
“Father, please, I—”
“Your Burton story’s not a bad one, boy,” the Baron interjected, “but there’s going to be a change to it. It wasn’t the girl who stumbled on them, it was you and your men. Only, none of them survived, and you were never heard from again.”
With his eyes going wide, the noble shook his head vehemently at his father. “Father, no! No, you can’t—”
“Would you rather die here?”
“But…Lisa! And Gerald!”
“They’ll be well looked after. You have my word.”
The noble swallowed hard and stared at his father, words lost to him.
“I know it was your mother behind this, son, and unless you wish me take measures against the both of you, leave. Not just my lands, but this kingdom.”
“You have until sunrise, then you will be hunted. I know you’ve been stealing from me, so get to wherever you’ve been hiding your coin, get it, and get out of here, because come sunrise, should you show your face anywhere where I have reach, you will die. Now, go, son.”
“But, Father, I—”
The kneeling noble stared stunned at his father, but from his father’s cold stare to his deep frown, he knew in his heart, there was no dissuading the man, and so, rising, he carried his gaze about the group, then lumbered forth as if in a daze.
The others watched him leave in silence, and as he disappeared, the Baron turned to his servant. “See it done, yeah? I don’t want his mother hearing about this.”
The servant named Malcolm breathed deep and nodded. “I will.”
“You okay, though?”
The Baron stared at his servant a spell, his lips moving to form words, but none came, till at last, he shook his head and turned to the elves.
“Come,” he said, “let’s go give that thing a bath.”
And with nothing left to say, the noble lord turned and marched forth