child_m.gif (3208 bytes)ale of Light

CHAPTER 8: EAVES OF DARKNESS

Bremmy walked sullenly along the rough path, his thoughts dark and bitter. It was late afternoon, and already the previous night’s fight seemed like a distant memory. His shoulder still throbbed with a vicious pain, though the bleeding had been stopped with a make-shift bandage, torn from Maree’s spurned dress. Luckily, no major tendons had been ripped, and so his left arm still worked- though the pain was intense when he tried to hoist his axe. Yet what pained him most was his humiliation. The priest himself had put up a worthy fight, and had nearly bested Bremmy. That alone left a bitter taste in his mouth- a priest managing to hold his own with a great Morrim warrior. The fact that he’d then been ambushed, and used as a ransom against his own friends’ lives- that was the final humiliation. Bremmy kicked a stone, in frustration, sighing forlornly as it skipped down the path. He had come along on this quest in order to protect his friends. Out of all of them, he was the only warrior, and the oldest, bar Morandor. It was his job to defend them, with his life if necessary, yet he had ended up endangering them all. He had a lost all his honour. He had a lot of making up to do.

He walked along at the back of the group, covering the rear in case of attack. In front of him, Grendel and Maree walked. Grendel was looking around him curiously, as was his nature, his eyes taking in everything with a vibrant sense of wonder. Maree was limping at his side, leaning heavily on Mep’s staff, which she had borrowed. Her left leg was wrapped in a similar bandage to Bremmy’s, though the wound still bled, and had soaked the blue cloth to a deep shade of purple. She had been forced to change the bandage three times already, though Maree had neither complained or expressed her pain. Bremmy admired her strength, and reminded himself bitterly that it was his fault that she had taken a wound. He vowed to redeem himself. Ahead of Grendel and Maree, Morandor led the way, occasionally troubling himself to speak to Mep. The poor wizard was being harassed by the greasy shepherd, who plodded along beside him. Morandor answered Mep’s questions with curt nods, and occasionally a small smile. Morandor seemed in better spirits than the rest of the group- as if they hadn’t just been subjected to a great defeat.

The flight from Stonegate had been hasty and urgent. They had run from the town, unable to even risk purchasing a horse. Bremmy had carried Maree as far as he could, as she was barely capable of walking, let alone hurrying. Once they had put a considerable distance between themselves and the town, Morandor and Grendel had created earthen horses from the soil, and they had rode hard and fast until the sun began to come up. They stopped then, having seen no sign of pursuit. They had no reason to expect any- the Stormcrows had all been killed, and the Inquisitor had surely suffered the same fate, at the hands of their mysterious saviour. But news spread quickly in the paranoid lands of Rhutalath, so they couldn’t be sure of a safe journey. After ensuring there was no one trailing them on the road, they had managed to get a few hours sleep in a small hollow, at the side of the dirt-track they had been following. Upon waking, Maree had announced she was able to walk, and had shunned Bremmy’s offers for aid.

Bremmy looked around again at the scenery. The path they were on was seldom-used, and was at times little more than a thin brown trail. Morandor had avoided the main road, which ran to Taur Valax, their destination, fearing a pursuit. This path, whilst harder-going, was used only by farmers and the occasional trader, off to sell his wares in the remote villages. It also had the advantage of being very scenic. In the distant, on his left, a long-line of tall hills dominated the horizon. Several of them were crowned with standing stones or small henges, though they appeared hazy, as if covered in fog. Bremmy squinted at them, to try and see them better. They looked very familiar.

"What are those, Morandor?" asked Grendel, inevitably noticing the curious stones. "They don’t look Rhutalathian."

"They’re not," Bremmy said, answering for Morandor. "They’re tomb-markers. They look Morrim in origin." Bremmy had seen similar tombs in Krishkan, where he had lived for most of his life; they were usually vast barrows carved into the hills, and filled with treasure.

Morandor nodded. "They’re the Bulltombs- they once belonged to the Ursani clan, long ago. They’re not used anymore. The hills are generally avoided- the people of Isana say they’re haunted."

"It is true," Bremmy confirmed. "Even as far away as Krishkan we have heard of the Bulltombs. Our legends say they were ransacked by the Rhutalathians, and all the ancestral weapons were stolen, along with most of the ancestor’s wealth. Now they wander the hills, in search of those who violated their resting places, and stole what was rightfully theirs."

"I heard an all together different story," Morandor said wryly, though he did not divulge what that story was. They walked in silence for a few minutes, Bremmy staring respectfully at the sacred hills. Grendel seemed to making notes in a book with his quill, whilst Maree tried to avoid looking at the haunted heights. Mep and Morandor were once again chatting.

"Do all Morrim bury their dead in mounds?" Grendel asked, looking up from his book.

"Barrows," Bremmy corrected him. "And no, very few do these days. Once, when the tribes were primitive, and rarely stayed in one place, sites like the Bulltombs were common. They were usually somewhere central to the wanderings, where all the tribes could meet up. As well as being burial sites, they were also meeting places, and religious centres." Bremmy stopped, thinking that Grendel was ignoring him, before realising that the young wizard was scribbling enthusiastically in his notebook. Bremmy continued, happy to have someone so interested in the ways of his people. "That was long ago though, before even the Great Fathers were born. Now, most Morrim tribes have settled down in towns. They have shrines beneath their houses, for their sacred ancestors. Even the primitive Ursani."

The path now was climbing up a steep slope, before descending again to a valley beyond. The forest of Taur Valax could be seen in the distance, a small line of dark-green on the horizon. Morandor led the way down the hill, though he also seemed to be listening to Bremmy’s words. "And did your house have a shrine?" Grendel asked, hoping to learn everything about Morrim culture in one day.

"The one in Krishkan did. Though no one was buried in it."

"You had no ancestors?" asked Mep, a little puzzled.

"Oh, plenty," said Bremmy. "All great heroes and conquerors, or so I’m told. But most are buried in Mizania, and my father will tell me nothing off them. We fled from Mizania at a young age, and I’ve no recollection of my tribe."

Grendel and Maree were staring at him, a little shocked. This was all new-information for them. They had always assumed he’d lived in Krishkan all his life. It had not really been a secret, but the Ardanian colony had been his home for most of his life, so he hardly thought about Mizania, a place as alien to him as the Green Peaks of Drowzani would be. "So you’re Mizanian?" asked Maree. "I always thought you were Morrim."

"I am Morrim. And Mizanian. Everyone who inhabited this land before the pale-folk came are Morrim, and all their descendants. But not all Morrim are Mizanian."

"I’ve never heard of Mizania," said Mep, slipping slightly on the downward slope. "Where is it?"

"Its a country to the south of Ardadain," Grendel answered. "Its meant to be quite civilized."

"Quite Civilized?" Bremmy asked, incredulously. "It is the peak of Morrim culture, and quite as advanced as any of your pale-folk lands. Even the wonders of the Elven-lands pale compared to the Golden Spires of Mizania." Bremmy was fiercely defensive of his mother-land, despite no memory of it at all. He would hardly have even known of his Mizanian heritage, if he hadn’t heard listened to the snide taunts of the Krishkan children. And the fact that his Tribal Tattoos were unique, and had no comparisons anywhere in the Ardanian colony. His father had admitted to him that they had once lived in Mizania, though he refused to reveal anything else about it.

Grendel wrote another note in his book, before looking at Bremmy again. "So, nice buildings then? That’s quite civilized. What about religious practices?" Grendel asked, underlining something on his page. Obviously, the curious mage had started another heading. "Do they use Barrows too?"

Bremmy was getting a little uncomfortable with the questions now, and was staring longingly at the Barrows on the hills. He suddenly felt homesick, though he wasn’t sure which home he was missing. "No, they have ziggurats there," he said excitedly. "Vast beautiful temples, built from pure gold." Bremmy smiled at the images in his head, images he’d had since he was a child, listening intently to his father’s tales. "Tall, and magnificent. Stretching towards the sun."

Grendel just nodded stoically, clearly showing no appreciation for Mizanian achievements. He scribbled a note in his book, his face as expressionless as any scholar, eager to learn, but ignorant of the real stories and emotions behind such facts. Bremmy tried to get Grendel to share his passion, and began to walk close to Grendel. "Beautiful ziggurats, which glow red in the morning sun, and engulf the towns below in a sea of blood. Beautiful gardens there are, too, at the foot of the ziggurats. With tall trees, blossoming in blues and pinks, and streets paved with gold...." Bremmy finished his oral vision with a dramatic gesture, designed to express how important the word ‘gold’ was.

He looked as Grendel began to write again. He blinked. Grendel had written ‘Trees.’ His entire notes on Mizania read; ‘Quite nice. Big Ziggurats. Trees.’ Bremmy stormed back to the rear, scornfully. Not even a mention of gold. Barbarian!

Bremmy settled back into his bitter thoughts of defeat, dishonour and redemption, this time also adding ‘unappreciated,’ to his musings.

They walked mostly in silence for the remainder of the day, exhausted, and longing for their great journey to be finally over. Bremmy assumed that their journey wouldn’t be much longer- once they’d found out where the Vale of Unicorns was located from the great Wizard, Valaxus, they could go there, and await the arrival of Zardock. Bremmy smiled at the thought- he had great plans for that rodent, most of them involving a lot of pain. He’d make Zardock suffer, both for this long and uncomfortable journey and, more importantly, for Bremmy’s resulting loss of honour. The more he thought about it, the more it became clear that Zardock was his main hope for redemption; killing the little runt would appease Tyra’nka and the other Gods that he’d offended. Then, within a month, maybe a little longer, he’d be sat in the Wizard’s Rest, in Doromir, drinking fine Mir Ale in front of a warm fire. He smiled as he thought of Doromir- he hated all this journeying, and sleeping rough, and starvation. He especially hated the cold. An indomitable and rugged warrior he may be, but he enjoyed his creature comforts.

The sun began to set in the west, stretching their shadows across the vast plains. The Bulltombs dwindled behind them, and the forest crept ever closer. The forest lay below them, in a low plain reaching all the way to the Kerin Sea. From his elevation, Bremmy could see the top of the forest, covering the plains like a thick black blanket and, beyond it, on the edge of sight, the grey, foggy sea. Bremmy stared at it happily; he loved the sea. Far to the north-east of them, apparently on the coast, there were a scattering of small bright lights; a coastal town or fishing village. Bremmy thought eagerly of the inns such coastal villages possessed, yet it was over ten leagues away, and far out of their way. He had little doubt that they were going to spend yet another night in the cold wilderness, huddled around a campfire.

"We’ll camp here, for tonight," Morandor said, on cue. The old wizard had walked a short distance east of the road, to a small hollow surrounded by hazel trees. "Its still a few hours to the forest, and I wouldn’t want to arrive in the middle of the night." Maree gratefully sat down in the hollow, and sighed- there’d been little rest in the past few hours and no doubt her leg was bothering her. Grendel immediately crouched beside her and attended her wound. "Get some firewood, Bremmy, there’s a good chap," said Morandor. "I’d send Mep, but I’d like to actually feel some warmth this side of the apocalypse." Mep gave a small protest, but Bremmy just nodded, and hoisted his axe onto his shoulder. He was as exhausted as the rest of them, but he had a duty to his friends. Keeping them warm was small repayment for putting their lives in danger, but it made him feel slightly better. He walked off to a small copse, whistling quietly to himself. Hopefully, tomorrow would bring a battle, or at least a skirmish, and with it a small amount of honour.

 

Maree woke early the next day. Her leg throbbed, and felt as if it was on fire. She’d slept very little that night, waking frequently with the pain. The floor was cold and hard, and seemed to irritate her wound. She looked down at her bandage, and noticed it was relatively clean- the bleeding seemed to have stopped. Grateful for small mercies, she sat up, stifling a small cry as pain shot up her thigh. Bremmy was still asleep near the dying fire, his cloak wrapped tightly around him. Grendel had moved from the spot next to her, and was instead stood on the rise, looking down to the forest. Morandor was with him, and they seemed to be talking softly. A strong coastal wind blew from the south, and their cloaks were blowing almost horizontally. Mep was nowhere to be seen, though she suspected he was sleeping inside a tree; he did that sometimes, when the weather was particularly harsh.

Maree noticed that the sun was up, and it was probably time to begin their journey again. She hoped that her leg would feel better now that the bleeding had stopped- the previous day’s journey had been nearly unbearable. Even now her leg felt stiff and numb, alternating between burning heat and a sharp chill. She started to stand, gritting her teeth against the pain. She fell a couple of times, letting out a small squeal of pain, but after a lot of effort she was standing on her own two feet. She felt her eyes water with the pain.

Grendel saw her stand, and rushed over to her. "How is it today," he asked, bending to look at her leg. He began to peel a part of her bandage back, and Maree blushed slightly as his fingers brushed her leg.

"Better," she lied. "The bleeding seems to have stopped."

"Do you think you can walk?" Grendel asked, looking up at her doubtfully.

"I’ll be fine," she said, shivering against the cold. Grendel took his own cloak off and wrapped it around her shoulders. Maree normally would have protested against such a gesture, but instead accepted it gratefully.

"Good girl," said Morandor, walking over. "At least someone shows willing! Not like these other two lazy pigs." Morandor walked over to Bremmy, and kicked him gently. Bremmy muttered something, wrapped his cloak tighter against him, then rolled over. "Wake up," Morandor shouted loudly in his ear. Bremmy jumped up with a start, his axe in hand, and nearly swiped Morandor’s arm off. He muttered what seemed like an apology, then scratched vigorously at the lice in his beard.

Morandor, glad that Bremmy had finally woken up, strode over to the nearest tree, a thick and tall hazel. He rapped on it with his staff. "If you’re in there, Alf Mep, come out now! We’ve got better things to do that wait for a lazy shepherd to get his much-needed beauty sleep!" Maree stifled a laugh- it seemed like Morandor’s good mood of the previous day had gone again, leaving behind his characteristic short-temper.

"No need to shout," said Mep, emerging from another tree at the other side of the hollow. "Some holiday this is turning out to be! Early mornings, cold nights, and not a wench to keep your feet warm!" He grinned, despite his heart-felt protests, and gave Maree a wink. Maree turned away, irritated, and determined never to go anywhere near manure-boy’s feet!

"Well, now pig-head and pig-sty have woken up, maybe we can get on with it! We do have something important to do, or had you forgotten," said Morandor. "Saving the world, Wilhaet Brem!" He shouted the last two words, startling Bremmy who had once again fallen asleep. "Hurry up and get your things!"

Maree watched, amused, as Bremmy and Mep rushed around, inspired by Morandor’s wrath, and hurriedly picked up their backpacks. Grendel picked up Maree’s for her, and hoisted it over his shoulder. She smiled at him, but took it off him; she’d come along on this journey uninvited, and she wasn’t going to be a burden. Besides, poor Grendel wasn’t the strongest boy she’d met. Despite her protests, she happily accepted when Grendel held out his arm to help her walk- her leg didn’t seem to want to bend today! Stupid thing!! She put her hand behind his back, supporting herself. He seemed to have developed a few more muscles on this trip. Adventuring seemed to be doing him good!

They set off walking after that, Morandor leading the way, with Mep and Bremmy taking the rear, and grumbling to themselves about lack of sleep and the cruelty of the world. Maree leaned heavily on Grendel, determined to keep pace with Morandor’s swift strides, despite the pain. Grendel was espying the terrain, making mental notes of trees, rocks and goodness knows what. Maree found the terrain quite boring- just a wide, boring plain, all the way to the wide, boring forest. Maree hoped the travelling would be over soon. She enjoyed the big cities, and the new places- but the endless walking and the cold nights, and the constant danger- it wasn’t as much fun as she’d hoped.

They continued walking, at a brisk pace, down the shallow incline. The forest grew nearer and nearer until, after a few hours, a line of tall and bare trees stood majestically before them. They stretched across the horizon, tall and thick trees, with twisting, wrinkled trunks. They looked old, some of them, older than the hills. Some were probably even older than Mrs. Bairg. They were certainly as wrinkled. Many miles away, in the centre of the forest, a small black crag raised its head above the eaves. Maree didn’t like the look of the forest- there were very few leaves, and a thick dark fog seemed to surround them.

Morandor stopped, briefly, regarding the forest thoughtfully. The path wound away under its eaves, and vanished into the gloom. "The forest of Valaxus," Morandor said, mostly to himself. "A bitter place- lets hope it hasn’t darkened his heart."

With that, the old wizard carried on down the path, towards the forest. Soon, the forest enveloped them. The tall trees grew proudly at either side of the small path, and a thick silence seemed to engulf them. No birds could be heard in the trees. Maree felt a sullen gloom grip her heart, and she wanted to break the foul silence. "Nice place," she muttered, but she said no more. The trees seemed to absorb the sound, and make her words seem distant, almost a whisper. She shuddered.

They continued walking along the narrow path, as it wound its way dramatically through the eaves. Soon, the plains behind them were cut off by the thick trees, and a darkness descended on the forest. The trees were bare, yet a permanent cloud seemed to have settled over the treetops. Mep seemed to be studying the trees with a mixture of fascination and disgust. "Strange," he said, "There’s something not quite....natural.....about these trees."

Morandor nodded. "Very little is natural in this forest, I’d warrant! Or at least no longer natural." Morandor looked up at a tree, and let out a surprise of alarm. Two bats fluttered out of the branches, startling Maree, before flying clumsily southwards. "Well, no point in trying to surprise him," Morandor said after a few moments. "Seems he has spies."

Maree noticed that Grendel’s grip on her had lessened, and he appeared a little faint. "Are you okay," she asked him.

Grendel nodded, though his face was pale. "Bats," was all he said.

Maree looked at him strangely at first, before understanding. Grendel seemed to have a fear of bats. She smiled slightly- Grendel, despite his small frame, didn’t seem to be scared of much at all. It was good to know that something so small spooked him- it made him seem more...well....inferior. Maree couldn’t resist teasing him. "Scared of little bats? What are you, a girl," she said, smiling. "What harm can a bat do?"

It was at that moment that Grendel let out a small whimper, and pointed frantically south. Maree turned to look and saw a black cloud flying towards them, fast. No, not a cloud. Bats. Hundreds of bats. She screamed, and leapt to the floor, dragging Grendel with her, just as the bats reached them. They flew over the company, screeching, their loud wing-beats sounding like thunder. Maree hid her face in Grendel’s shoulder, and screamed loudly, though Grendel’s own screams threatened to drown her out. She felt the air rush as they went past, tiny claws raking at her hair, and her clothing. Her legs were scratched by the assault, and she gripped Grendel tightly.

At last, the onslaught was over, and the beating thunder seemed to get quieter. Maree risked a look over her shoulder, before slowly standing up. The pain in her thigh seemed to have doubled, but she held out a hand and helped Grendel up. His breeches were torn here and there by the claws, though he didn’t seem to be bleeding. She hadn’t fared as well; her bare legs were covered in small cuts and gashes, a few of them dripping blood. They didn’t seem serious, though they stung like hell. Bremmy was also bleeding, his entire face and body covered in small scratches. His axe was bloodied, and four bats lay dead at his feet, two of them missing a wing. He smiled grimly. "Got some of the bastards!" he said, smugly, apparently unaware of the cuts. Mep was stood next to him, his thin clothes also torn. His face was pale, and for once he wasn’t grinning.

"Just a scare tactic," Morandor said, from within a small magical shield he’d made. He didn’t appear to be harmed. "He’s just checking our resolve!"

"A scare tactic?" Mep said, incredulously. "It bloody worked! Sod our resolve!"

"Watch you language in front of ladies, master Mep!" Morandor chided, momentarily forgetting his own tendency towards colourful speech. "Come on, lets carry on! If that’s the worst he throws at us, we can count ourselves lucky!!"

Maree stared wide-eyed at Grendel, who in turn turned pale again. Bremmy, meanwhile, laughed happily, and brought his axe down on one of the deceased bats, severing its head.

They walked for another hour or so, their path winding a wide birth around the trees, and sloping gently downwards. The trees grew thicker as they walked, and the overlying branches grew wide and thick, becoming entangled and entwined. The thick, bare eaves formed a dense canopy roof, until it seemed as if they were walking within a giant wooden hall, filled with oak pillars. The thick fog cut off what little light could penetrate the roof, and eventually Morandor and Grendel were forced to create small lights in their palms, which they held aloft to light the trail. As they walked, the forest became more dense, and the undergrowth thicker, so that the path wound even more, and the going was difficult. Occasionally, Maree espied a bat or two, fluttering from the naked branches, on an errand of mischief. At those times, she gripped Grendel tighter, seeking reassurance. He gripped her back, twice as hard.

About midday (Maree couldn’t be sure exactly, as the sun could not been seen through the wooden canopy and thick fog), the company halted for a rest. Morandor passed around some of the bread he’d purchased at the Ploughman before their flight, and Maree nibbled on it gratefully. She sat down on the black soil, her back against a gnarled old oak, and rested her leg. Grendel and Bremmy did likewise. Mep stood nearby, looking disdainfully at the alien trees, and Morandor peered through the gloom, looking for any sign of their destination.

"How far is it, Morandor," asked Mep between mouthfuls of bread. "Are we nearly there? I don’t like this place. The trees- well I don’t like them. And I’m not sure they like me, either."

"The trees seem to have discerning tastes," Morandor said, his eyes glued to the path. "But nevertheless, I fear you’re right. As for how far- I’m not sure. I’d guess only another league or so at the most, in a straight line. But this path winds so much, it could take us another day!"

"Then why don’t we take a straight road," asked Bremmy, swinging his axe experimentally. "The undergrowth isn’t that thick, and I can clear a path if need me!"

"The trees don’t like that idea," said Mep, his face a little pale. Maree looked suspiciously at the trunk she was leaning against- she had been sure it had moved. A small vibration, or something. She moved forward, away from the tree, and stared fixedly at the floor.

"A straight line to where, Wilhaet Brem," Morandor enquired, a little harshly. "We don’t know which way to go- the path is our only guide. Unless you feel like taming one of those rabid bats to guide us to his master." Maree looked suspiciously at the cuts in her legs. Rabid? That was all she needed. She hoped she wasn’t going to become rapid. Foaming at the mouth, and such things. "Besides, we’re here at Valaxus’s leisure. He knows we’re here, and he seems content. But if we stray from the path, he may not take so kindly. And who knows what other foul beasts he has under his command?"

As if in response they heard a long howl a short distance away, a wild and feral noise which seemed to chill Maree to her bones. She looked east, in the direction the noise had come from, but the trunks were to dense to see far. "What was that," she whispered.

"Wolves," said Bremmy, his eyes wide, standing, and holding his axe in both hands. There was another howl, to their west, behind Maree. She looked around frantically again, before standing up. Grendel also rose, listening intently. After a few seconds there came another howl, and another.

"They’re surrounding us," said Grendel.

"They’re just wolves, aren’t they? They don’t eat humans. They eat....sheep and stuff," Mep said, panicking. The shepherd only experience with wolves were those of the highlands of the Mir Valley, who occasionally dined on his sheep.

"I don’t see many shepherds around here," said Maree. "I think they’re after us."

Morandor backed away from the path, towards the others, his staff held in front of him. He scratched his beard as he waited. Another howl was heard, this time nearer, and then another. Grendel drew one of his daggers, and Maree unsheafed the sword she had stolen from the Stormcrow in Stonegate.

"Quick," said Bremmy, frantically, "Morandor, make a fire. Wolves are scared of fire!"

"All creatures are scared of fire, Wilhaet Brem," Morandor said testily, "Yet none more so than you will be if the entire forest sets alight, with you in the middle. I’m not unleashing Wizard’s fire here!"

Maree waited anxiously as the wolves drew nearer. The howls were all around them now, first in one direction, then another, and getting closer. Maree held her sword out before her, the weight of it making her arms ache. Bremmy seemed to be chanting something quietly. The group waited, tense and nervous; Maree could hear her blood pounding in her ears.

Suddenly, a pair of eyes appeared in the darkness beneath the eaves, bright yellow gems watching them silently. They were joined by another pair of eyes, a few meters away, and another. More appeared, until all around them the shadows were lit by golden eyes, filled with hungry malice. Maree looked around nervously- what were they waiting for? A growl came from beyond the trees.

The waiting was beginning to grate on Maree, and she shifted uneasily. She wished they’d hurry up- if she was going to die, she’d rather it be quick, to get it over with. She wasn’t going to be played with like a toy. She swung her blade experimentally, and prepared to take the initiative.

She was stopped in her tracks as Bremmy beat her to it. The Morrim dived forward, axe in hand, screaming madly. The scream was loud and was filled with as much fear as anger. His axe fell swiftly, slicing into the skull of the nearest wolf. The shadows hid the assault, but the wolf’s scream, and a sickening crunch could be heard audibly throughout the clearing. Bremmy’s axe rose, blood dripping from its blade, and he prepared to attack again.

Maree flinched as Bremmy was knocked off his feet by some unseen assailant, and hurled across the clearing, colliding violently with a tree. Grendel ran to him, but was stopped in his tracks by a growl.

"I’d appreciate it if you didn’t harm any more of my brethren," said a voice from the shadows. The gloom gave way, and a figure appeared, half-wolf, half-man. The shape was humanoid, but covered in thick grey hair. Its head was vulpine, with a long grey muzzle, and gold, piercing eyes. It smiled at them, displaying a maw of vicious canine teeth. "Its terribly bad-mannered of you, to assault your welcoming party, hmm?"

"Who are you?" asked Morandor, holding his staff threateningly, and glaring at the new-comer. "Did Valaxus send you?"

"I am an ambassador, hmm?" said the figure, in a gutteral voice. "The high lord Valaxus bids you welcome to his humble Kingdom, and asks that you attend upon him. As for me, I am Hringgoar, Vulfen servant of his majesty." The vulfen bowed, though the movement made him resemble a beast, ready to pounce.

"High lord?" Morandor grunted, "A fine joke! Are we, as you say, welcome in this forest, or are your kind words merely a polite way of saying we’re your prisoners?"

The Vulfen made a strange sound, a mixture between a laugh and a howl, and bowed again. "Most welcome indeed you are, gracious guests. The high lord has not received visitors for many years. He is anxious to speak to you, hmm? Would you care to follow me?" he said, walking towards the path.

"We would," said Morandor, returning the bow. "Lead on."

Mep followed after Morandor, along the path, and Maree, after helping Grendel lift Bremmy, hurried after them. Bremmy, dazed but uninjured, followed slowly, staring suspiciously at the vulfen. Behind him, hundreds of golden eyes followed.

Maree felt her heart lighten a little, despite the presence of the wolves- at least Valaxus had welcomed them. Maybe they’d be safe after all. She smiled slightly, and allowed herself to feel a little more comfortable with the situation. Ahead of her, Morandor seemed to be enjoying no such joy, his face fixed in a suspicious scowl. Grendel’s face, as usual, mirrored the old man’s. She wondered if they knew something she didn’t. Well, it was too late to find out now- their destination was in sight. As the path entered another wide clearing Maree could see ahead of her, atop a large hill, a dark black fortress with many spires. It towered over them, a black shadow rising menacingly above a sea of darkness. The castle of Valaxus.............