“These villagers are foolish,” Aren said as he walked alongside Sir Weylan. “Likely it is a common wolf that plagues them, not this night demon they talk of.”
“Consider the pelt-tribesman’s words,” the knight said.
“The barbarian witch?”
“Shaman,” Weylan gently corrected him. “He spoke of his apprentice banished for practicing forbidden magics and wolves attacking his own people.”
”And you believe him?” Aren scoffed.
“The folk of Fenwyld have lived peaceably with the pelt-tribe for two generations,” Weylan said. “The spirit of the wolf protects them.”
Aren shook his head but said nothing. The flat moorlands began to fall in gently rolling ridges. Behind them, the setting sun threw long shadows over hidden hollows and they stopped to make camp.
“Why do you lend your ear to the barbarian’s words?” Aren said later around their small fire. “He does not honor the Anuoin.”
“You forget that before the Anuoin there was only Aeshia herself,” the knight said. “The men who lived then honored what they saw all around them, which was the living land.”
“But what power can their spirit have?” Aren said. “If it is of Aeshia than it is but a confused shadow.”
Weylan said nothing. The fire danced between them bringing little cheer in the gathering gloom.
“Do you remember why I agreed to train you as a knight?” Weylan said.
“You saw in me the desire for glory,” Aren answered.
”Yes,” Weyland said. “But it is a greater glory I wish for you. Here in the kingdoms, your courage and ambition will lead you to great valor. But in Selendria, you will know the glory of Arandilae, the All-Father, and of serving the lands in his name.”
”What is it like, Selendria?” Aren asked.
Weylan smiled. “It is a land of eternal spring, blessed by the Anuoin.” His eyes shone golden in the firelight. “In my holding in Dyvers, the white roses bloom and swans glide on cold, clear lakes. It is my home.”
Aren’s eyes fell on the knight’s round shield. On it was emblazoned the symbol of Selendria—a swan with outstretched wings carrying a white rose aloft in its mouth.
“No more talk tonight,” Weylan said, shaking himself out of his reverie. “Let us give our honor to the All-Father and rest, for tomorrow he shall guide us.”
They woke to a thin, gray mist creeping over the moors. After breaking their fast, they continued on, led by portents and augurs only Weylan could follow. The sun gave little warmth and soon, even the proud Aren seemed to shrink under the oppressive gloom.
After a long while, they spotted a small hut at the bottom of the next slope. They descended cautiously, but armored as they were, stealth was impossible.
As they drew nearer, two skulking forms crept from behind the hut. Wolves! To run would be futile. They would have to stand their ground.
“Kneel!” Weyland yelled. “Shield up. Strike when I say.”
The wolves charged, closing the distance with frightening speed.
“Now!” The knight cried. As the creatures lept, Weyland and Aren sprang up, smashing with their shields and thrusting with their swords.
Weyland and Aren stood back to back, striking with quick, deliberate strokes. As the last wolf fell, Weylan spotted a figure out of the corner of his eye, a pelt-tribesman, bearing down on them with a crude wooden spear.
The tribesman struck wildly, a strange savagery in his eyes. The erratic attack almost overwhelmed the two, but he was no match for shield and sword. Weylan struck the tribesman with the flat of his blade, staggering him. Seizing the moment, Aren ran him through.
“I knew the pelt-tribe couldn’t be trusted,” Aren said smugly.
“Not this one,” Weylan said. “He is the banished apprentice. See? He wears the black feathers of the crow, the wolf spirit’s foe. Let us see what he has built here.”
They entered the hut, a shamble of withered branches and ragged animal skins. It was practically bare, save a blackened wolf skull smudged red with strange symbols.
“This must be the dark magic the apprentice has been using,” Weylan said. “Somehow, he is commanding the wolves with it.”
“We should destroy it,” Aren said.
“Not here,” Weylan said. “It must be returned from whence it came.”
Weylan wished he could explain to Aren the purity of vision that comes from dedication to the All-Father. The benedictions refined over time that opened a second sight for the sacred and mystical.
“Follow me,” he said instead.
Weylan placed the skull in his haversack and led them deeper into the moors. Gradually the ground widened into a bowl-like depression. Out of the mist rose pillars of ancient wood carved in the likeness of wolves. And then, towering before them like an otherworldly mountain, stood the dome of an ancient burial mound.
Weylan felt a great darkness beyond the yawning doorway of the tomb. He invoked a sacred blessing of the All-Father upon them both and led them inside.
Great holes pierced the ceiling of the tomb letting in shafts of wan light. They continued until they came to a large chamber at the center. The presence of evil was stronger here and threatened to dim the benediction laid on him.
Weylan placed the wolf skull in the center of the chamber. He drew his sword ready to smash it when Aren cried out behind him.
Weyland turned to see a vision of pure horror. A mass of gaunt, skeletal wolves, skin hanging in tatters, pressed around the young squire. Weylan uttered a prayer and his sword blazed with holy fire. He sprang towards Aren hewing at the creatures snapping at their heels.
“Destroy the skull!” Aren cried. “I have them. Go!”
Reluctantly, Weylan left the youth’s side and rushed to the center of the chamber. He raised the sword and brought it down on the blackened wolf skull.
There was a great clap of thunder and Weylan was thrown to the floor. Before him rose the swirling forms of two spectral wolves, locked together, snarling and swirling.
He watched the battle with wondrous horror. Here perhaps was the spirit of the wolf the pelt-tribe worshipped bound to some abomination, and its power was dwindling.
Weylan sprang forward, lashing at the dark wolf with his blade. Coldness rushed through him, yet still, he struck at the spirit, feeling his blade cleaving the insubstantial beast. Darkness swallowed him and there was a great roar of twin voices and all fell still and quiet.
Weylan staggered to his feet. The wolf spirits were gone and with them the feeling of darkness. Turning, he saw the corpses of the wolves strewn about and lifeless once again, and something else that made his knees turn to water.
He rushed through the chamber and knelt at the torn body of Aren. Weylan knew the prayers and blessings of the All-Father and the Anuoin that would cleanse this place, and even the old rituals of Aeshia. Yet he knew no power to restore life to the youth.
Weylan wept. Aren would never know the glory of Selendria, of taking on the mantle of the All-Father’s blessing, of dining in Weylan’s modest keep in Dyvers. Weylan could not give those to the boy. The glory he sought would end here. But perhaps he could bring him the glory of a hero. One who fought a great evil and saved the souls of men and a power older than the Anuoin whom he served.