The Wolf Rider

On the night of the new moon, on the appointed day of her wedding, the Marquise Hera of Bergpass mounted her white wolf and rode to war. The wedding had been unsuccessful, aborted by brief negotiation after the death of the Marquise’s father. The war against the Crag Beasts was a far more pressing matter. They had been spotted moving past Weishatten Peak just in the day. The beacon had been lit and then went out. The Marquise knew what that meant, had learned it from girlhood. She was fortunate in having no wedding guests to dismiss.

Her regiment of armored knights mounted their wolves of grey and white and coal black with red and green and blue eyes and rode in the Marquise’s train. Years untold their fathers and their father’s fathers had ridden into the mad crests of the Weishattens to slay devilish grotesqueries with steel and fire and spell. This was the charge of the Marquisate of Bergpass, and endless watch over monstrous slithering cruelties that spoke dark poisonous speech and ate human hearts like roast pork. No weapon against them was too terrible, no enmity against them ever deep enough. They were a curse and a trial, sent by ancient gods long ago.

The night was dark but the torches were bright, and the spells that cast them strong and old, illuminated crystal staves with a cruel blue and yellow flame that struck pain into anything Shadowy. So the mages had promised, and the logic of the arcane arts was compelling to any who took the time to read the books or heed the accompanying apologetics. The Marquise’s armored knights rode their great wolves armed with steel and fire and spell, but more importantly, faith.

It availed them naught. Just at the Gethsum Vale the outriders carried to the Marquise Hera the news that the Beasts were coming, in numbers greater than any mere raid could require. They were outnumbered.

The Marquise took this news with the silent grace appropriate. Drawing her troop back to the vale’s entrance, she took counsel with her captains. Some advocated drawing the beasts into a trap, others retreating to the safety of Bergpass Keep and alerting neighboring lords and the Emperor himself of the plight. Hera saw the wisdom of both options, and tried to enact them both. She set up her men for an attack, and sent a lone rider through the Splintwood to alert the Count of Fernsloss to prepare for a general attack. That, she decided, was the least she could do.

This occurred in the space of a few minutes. Then she said, to her Captain General, who had first served in her Grandfather’s time “Light the Devil’s Curse.” An old man with a beard like iron and eyes as red as his wolf, he smiled at this. He rode down into the vale, past rock and grass, to the sound of the Beasts, scurrying and clicking. The Marquise watched him, his stave alight, calling to the enemy, chanting in the ancient tongue, the one all had shared when the world was clean and young. She saw them, black and twisted and sweating malice, being drawn to the pain his light and his chanting provoked in them, drawn to it like a child drawn to scratching its dried wound. They could not, even in their degraded state, have failed to perceive what would happen next. They could not help themselves.

At the end of the incantation the Devil’s Curse went to light, and fire red and white and acid burst through the Gethsum Vale like a flood. It devoured rock and grass. It devoured beast and earth. It left nothing but a wound. 

Into this chaos rode the Marquise and her knights, their staves aloft, their steel bright. The fell upon the fell Beats of the Crags, the unholy whelps of shadow, and they killed many. Many more than numbers should have told. But not enough. Soon the Devil’s Curse subsided, and the Marquise’s trap became a bloody shambles. Man and wolf fell dead to maw and poison tentacle, too fast for the gains. Before an hour could pass, the Marquise had failed. She called for retreat but it was too late. The enemy was too fast to get away from. All was lost.

The Captain-General, who alone had learned the trick to save himself from the Devil’s Curse, rode out of the jaws of battle and to his mistress’ side. He commanded her, as if she were a child, to flee, through the Splintwood, to make Fernsloss or the Deeping Bridge. To do her duty. She hated him for that, but knew he was right, and did not hesitate to obey. As the old man shattered his stave against a three-armed giant with a mouth in its chest, she gave her wolf the old pack-whisper and it sped away from vale into the darkling woods.

The trees stood thick around her, there sable branches hanging low in windless air. She could hardly see a thing, but dared not light a torch. She let her mount’s eye see for her, clinging to his neck so nothing brushed her off. The wolf’s breath, hoarse and powerful, was the only sound for a long time.

Not a scratch was on her, but her universe was pain. Inside she felt like a hole had been punched through her. She had been so certain of her men, so sure in her leadership. Had she not been raised to military duties since she was a girl? Had she not been steeped in the responsibilities of her forefathers, the eternal guard upon the mountains? She had done everything she had been taught to do. And how her men were dead, and her lands about to be ravaged. Her name would be a curse. She dared not weep.

Ahead a red light peaked through the gloom. Her wolf stirred, and Hera felt the fur on its neck rise. She patted its side and soothed it in the pack-tongue. Red light could be many things, good or ill. The importance thing was to know which.

Dismounting, Hera reached into her belt-pouch and withdrew a shine-star, while pulling a sword with the other hand. Slowly, deftly, she moved at angles toward the source of the light. Her wolf stayed behind, and when it issued a tiny whimper, she silenced it with a look. It put its head down for a moment, and then watched. 

The red light grew in shape and in brightness as she came closer, but it did not attack her eyes or poison her thoughts. It just continued glowing brightly, the color of strawberries, the color of blood. It was a gem, mounted on a wooden staff, stuck into the ground. She did not hear anything else approaching it, and neither, but the sound of it, did her wolf.  That meant something. She wanted to draw closer to it, but at the moment she felt this impulse, stopped herself, took a breath, and waited.

It was not long before she heard cackling coming out of the night. Tiny tinny laughter accompanied by digestive spasms and bone-ticks. And soon, closer than she would have anticipated, came a voice like icicles upon the skin: “Yes, yess, littllee Mar-keee-sa, do not beee afffraied…”

She heard the wolf growl and as it came to her side, she saw the Red light intensify, it’s glow cutting the shadows and illuminating the things about her. The wolf did not mind the red light, and neither did the hosts of beasts before her.

“Weeee commmme to give the gggifft, Mar-kee-sa. The Gifffft we have givven yourrr armmmy,” said a cloak filled with bones, it’s head half-rotted, it’s teeth spreading around it’s mouth. It’s eyes were green and black and looking into them made Hera feel sick. She held the shine-star tight in her fist, and kept the point of her sword in front of her. 

“It is we who give the gifts, misbegotten!” came a voice behind her, and suddenly the air was filled with arrows bearing fire. Hera dropped to the dark ground, as the trees burst into flames like oil. She had seen fire in the Splintwood from the towers of Bergpass before. Her father said that the wood was like a bag of wine, needing only a spark to go off. It burned and the laughter stopped and so did the words. Her wolf wanted to flee the flames but she stilled him with a hand and a whisper in his ear.

The arrows stopped, and a man stepped through the flames into the center around the red light. Hera looked at his green tunic and his boiled leather armor and knew him in a trice. He had a cruel scar bisecting his left eye. His mouth perpetually curved into a pitiless, ironic smile. He was Ventrus, Count of Fernsloss. Her wolf growled. He paid no mind.

“Marquise,” he said.

“Count,” she said. 

“We were fortunate to find your rider. The Splintwood should not be traversed alone.”

“You were already here?”

His smile deepened. “You are not the only one with eyes on the Weishatten. I am sorry for your men.” 

“I will be grateful for yours.”

He nodded at this, and proffering a hand, said “Come, I can lead you through the flames.” 

She stood, and would have taken his hand, but the circle of flame around the red light was broken, and the twisted figure who had spoken came forth again, raging despite the burning on his back. Its mouth flew open and an unholy cry broke forth that shook earth and air. The red light tumbled off it’s staff. Ventrus fell to earth as well, as did Hera. Only the wolf stood, lunging at the beast with it’s fangs bared. It bit onto bone and mangle and tore at the foul thing, which seemed only to laugh, and could have with it’s many claws eviscerated the wolf, but Hera was too fast.

“Eat the light and die!” she cried, and with her fist held aloft the shine-star. Triggered by her curse, the totem burst open and light to blind a nation spread all through the Splintwood. Unlike the Devil’s Curse, a shine-star would harm only evil things, and its power lasted but a moment.

That moment was all she needed. With a leap she was upon the foul speaking beast, still reeling, it’s bones bubbling, grim smoke coming from it. It howled at her again but swung wildly over her head. Hera’s sword, blest by priests of war, did not miss. Off came the mangled head with its stretched teeth, and the bones, still withering, crumbled into a dusty heap. As Ventrus stood up, he saw her poking at it. His smile changed it’s tone.

The rangers of Fernsloss hunted the Crag Beasts as they fled back through the burning Splintwood. Some of those that made it out of the forest met the blades of some few of Hera’s knights who had escaped the slaughter in the vale. Very few monsters  returned to the dark mountains beyond. 

This Hera learned later. She and her wolf were escorted by Ventrus and a squad of his rangers on the high road away from the forest. For a long time they rode, on wolf and on stag, in silence, exchanging only the barest of glances.

Then Hera said “My mother said you’d broken off our engagement.”

“My mother said you had done it,” he replied.

This made them laugh, long and loud as the lightening sky harkened the coming sunrise.



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