“A Wolf at the Door”
“There’s no sense in fretting
a fox in the hen house
when there’s a wolf at the door.”
Rain fell mercilessly on three riders and a lone wolf found traversing the muddied trail that cut lazily through the Morgan plains between Mareston and the Spine of the Dragon.
As midnight neared, Sir Byron, Togo, Sir Edmund, and Arthur Hawkmoor had returned to Brigand’s Rest to discover Laylah had been busy in their absence.
The stone overhang that sheltered the cave entrance was now fortified with walls, guard towers, and a barbican, all manned by bowmen from Houses Archer, Fletcher, and Hunter — a fact that surely would not sit well with the Earl of Morgan.
It was a welcome sight to the road weary Bordermen, however, especially for the newly knighted Byron Fletcher. He had long been away from his kinsmen. But their dour faces sent chills up the spines of he and his companions.
This was no joyful homecoming. A dark pall hung over Brigand’s Rest and they were eager to discover why.
Gaining entry, they found an inviting courtyard, despite the inclement weather, with a central fountain, a small inn, a Lords’ Hall, and stable. They followed the steady hammering from a smith’s anvil to find Corbin Sloane, the bandit leader whom they had befriended when the Rest had been freshly explored.
Sloane sheltered the horses and was looking over their shoes as greeted his friends warmly. He explained that dark days had fallen on the stronghold, that men and women had been mysteriously vanishing from within the Rest Grounds for two weeks. These were not deserters, but seasoned veterans and loyal servants, including a Watch Commander — Captain Artemis Graille.
They thanked their friend for his candor and left him to attend to the horses, continuing deeper into the holdfast. They were met by a House Hunter sentry, Golbruk Covert, who explained he was sent by Laylah to guide them through the facility.
They entered the cave system, passing through the mushroom fields and the newly constructed Alchemist House. Following deeper still, they discovered the flooded secret chamber to be totally reconstructed (the water was rerouted to feed the central fountain). Here were the Bordermen’s bedchamber and a lounge. They stored their gear and pressed on, in to the great crypt where a massive war room table was displayed. Beyond lay the secret Treskeggmal chamber.
Descending the stair, they were warmly met by Laylah herself beneath the willow branches and hanging skulls of the Treskeggmal. They could tell that she had missed them greatly. She showed off her secreted bedchamber and introduced them to the alchemist Holland Graille.
Graille shook each man’s hand and presented them with a “homecoming present” — a vial each of a healing elixir concocted from the fungi, bisporus, and translucent waters of the mushroom field. He bid them farewell and left them to talk with Laylah.
Laylah confirmed what they had learned from Sloane, but revealed they had found a clue: a snatch of clothing caught between stones in the far crypt. It was a secret door. The missing had been taken somewhere deep into the underbelly of the crypt. A lone search party of four skilled rangers never returned. It was decided that they should wait for the Bordermen to return before exploring further.
The men agreed. They returned to their rooms for a short rest, followed by a meal brought down from the inn. It was light on vegetables, but well-seasoned broth, venison, and fresh bread made it a pleasant fare, nonetheless.
Geared for adventure, the Bordermen met once more at the secret door leading into the bowels of the crypt. Laylah wished them luck and she sat back and agreed to await their return, her prayers descending with them.
Arthur led the way, brandishing a torch and his Hawkmoor longsword. A blood trail splayed out at the bottom of the stair. Edmund followed, uncovering a lamppost that, when ignited, lit the whole chamber revealing four wolf statues, several side passages, and a breached wall.
Togo was confused, but ultimately was intrigued by the scent coming from the breach. He led Byron and the others into the darkened vault. It opened into a cave complex where they fought off two living wolves. Continuing, they spotted a campsite ahead, with a thick straw pallet, campfire, and numerous crates, barrels, and chests.
Their attentions were drawn south, however, where, just past a roof collapse, steps descended into a sort of amphitheater. It was littered with the corpses of servants and men-at-arms, and in the midst of the carnage were four wolves who immediately attacked.
The Bordermen made short work of three of them, but the forth, severely wounded, attempted to escape beyond the expanse and into a southern passage. Sir Edmund gave chase, catching the wolf in the hall and skewering it with his spear.
But a noise from beyond caused him to turn and strike out, but the thing was too fast, easily avoiding his thrust.
Towering above him was a hybrid wolf-woman clad in a chain shirt and tabard, a bow and quiver slung across her back, and an arming sword gripped firmly in her hand.
“You have killed my children,” she barked. “Now you will pay for your insolence.”
Togo looked up at Byron, wide-eyed and said, “Oh man, we’re screwed.”
to be continued