It is a long and solemn walk back to the castle. The rattling of the heavily laden cart and the steady foot falls of the horses are the only sound. Not one word is spoken; none can find it in their hearts to do more than march in sombre silence alongside the sad fare. The soldiers and guards carry their helmets close to their hearts and as the procession passes the first of the houses, they are joined by a steady flow of villagers. No words are needed to explain to the newcomers the contents of the cart. Mourners fall quietly in step – silent and with heads bowed. As word is taken to the castle, a crowd begins to gather outside the gate. Lord Tewdrig stands at the head of the assembly, his kindly face heavy with grief and guilt.
The cart draws to a stop before the crowd and Ralen walks silently across to stand before the elderly Lord. They nod wordlessly to each other and Lord Tewdrig motions for the people to make way. The cart rattles past while the crowd remains outside, their attention fixed upon Ralen and their master.
‘You have done us a great service, My Lord,’ Lord Tewdrig says, after a time, ‘it only grieves me that I was such a fool as to delay seeking your aid. Much might have been different otherwise…’
His voice trails off, the shame of his error weighing heavily on his shoulders.
‘What’s past is past, My Lord,’ Ralen replies, ‘the killer is no more. I only hope that the closure of granting your loved ones the dignity of a proper funeral will bring some peace to you all.’
‘We are grateful to you, My Lord. More than we can express,’ Lord Tewdrig replies, to the muted agreement of those gathered, ‘there is no gift I can give that would truly fulfil my debt to you.’
Ralen shakes his head, ‘I do not come for payment my friend. If you desire to thank me, then grant me just one wish.’
‘Anything my Lord.’ The old man replies without hesitation.
‘I would speak with your son before I take my leave.’
‘My son?’ Lord Tewdrig says, blinking in surprise, ‘Well…if that is what you wish My Lord.’
‘It is.’ Ralen confirms.
‘When would you desire to speak with him? I must warn you, he has not spoken a word since his return.’
‘That is good.’ Ralen replies.
This statement shocks the crowd.
‘Good, my Lord?’ Lord Tewdrig repeats.
‘Yes. It means that there is a chance for some future benefit to come out of this nightmare. If you have no objection my Lord, I would speak with him now.’ Ralen replies calmly.
Amidst a susurrus of confusion, he is lead away into the castle. Lord Tewdrig walks slowly, clearly filled with curiosity as to what he has in mind. Their path leads up two flights of stairs to a large oak door, watched over by a single guard. He lacks the armour typical of his class, but both his burliness and the heavy blade resting against his shoulder make a clear statement as to his purpose. When he recognizes his master, however, he unlocks the door, then stands aside and bows to them both. Before entering, Ralen turns to Lord Tewdrig.
‘I shall need privacy. I must ask both you and your servants to leave us be for some time.’ He says.
Lord Tewdrig bows reluctantly and motions for the guard to come away, leaving Ralen to enter his son’s room alone; shutting the door behind him.
Ralen surveys the room’s lavish furnishings. Gold gilding and gaudy engravings give the furniture a chaotic appearance; almost offensive to his eyes. The window shutters are thrown wide open to let in the fresh air of the early evening. The gentle breezes ruffle the tassels of the linen curtains drawn aside on the oversized four-poster bed. Shoved against the centre of the far right wall, its vastness leaves the bruised and battered young lord looking all the more weak and fragile. He lies propped up on a mound of pillows, his legs covered over with blankets and his chest bare and glistening with salves and ointments to ease the multitude of bruises. His straw coloured hair is slick with moisture and sticks to his forehead in short curls. His swollen eyes appear closed, but Ralen does not sense any rest in him. As he steps forward, the boy reveals his wakefulness – turning his bruised face slightly to towards him. Ralen stands beside the bed, looking impassively at the young man. A weak smile forms on the young lord’s scarred lips.
‘I thought you might come.’ he croaks.
‘And now I have.’ Ralen replies.
‘Come to reproach me for being an impulsive fool?’ he asks.
‘If you still need that of me, then there is no hope.’
The boy chuckles.
‘What of my stupidity; falling for the bitch’s trap as I did?’
‘To my mind, your punishment at her hands seems to have been quite sufficient,’ Ralen says, his face serious, ‘I am glad you do not attempt to deny the fact that you acted impulsively and foolishly.’
The young lord looks down, his smile fading somewhat.
‘I suppose even the most stubborn men reach a point where they can no longer deny that they are wrong.’ He says.
Ralen nods slightly, waiting for the boy to continue. In due course, he does.
‘Forgive me for not recognizing you my Lord,’ He says, ‘I should have known it was you from the start, except that I was convinced that another werewolf could only mean me harm.’
‘I understand,’ Ralen assures him, ‘you were, after all, only a small boy when last I visited your father’s land.’
The young lord nods.
An uncomfortable pause follows as Ralen stands waiting for him to continue.
‘What...’ he begins, faltering out of nervousness before he continues determinedly, ‘why have you come to see me then?’
Ralen holds his gaze.
‘It will soon enough be your responsibility to manage your father’s land and care for the people under his charge.’ he states.
‘What of it?’ the boy asks, his face falling in anticipation of what is to come.
‘Thus far, your life has revolved around your own desires, to the detriment of those around you. You are impulsive; acting without thought or care of the consequences of your actions. Such qualities are intolerable in a leader.’
Ralen pauses to allow the young man time to digest his reproach.
‘You have suffered the absence of your mother. Your father has failed in his responsibility to discipline you and I understand that such a privileged lifestyle makes it difficult for a young child to develop empathy for those less empowered than he. I do not seek to blame or beat you for your shortcomings, but your birth-right will one day make you the master of many and can you honestly say that you have in any way shown yourself fit to be entrusted with such power?’
The boy does not respond, continuing to stare at the sheets of his bed.
‘Whether you like it or not, you will have to choose: either to uphold your responsibility or renounce your claim to the privileged lifestyle which goes with it. If you should choose the latter, know that grave consequences are certain to follow for the people of this land. However, should you choose the former, know also that it is your responsibility to grow into a strong, wise and just man, so that you will be able to serve your people well when the time comes.’
‘But I do not want that responsibility.’ The young Lord protests.
‘Then are you willing to accept the consequences of rejecting it?’ Ralen asks.
‘No, but everywhere I turn there are consequences! A life as a peasant or a life spent serving peasants! What choice is that?!’
‘The freedom of choice is inextricable of the freedom to either accept or complain about the consequences.’ Ralen replies calmly.
‘What kind of advice is that?’ the boy asks, frustrated.
‘Make the right choices.’ Ralen says simply.
‘And suffer for it?’
‘If you so wish.’ Ralen says, shrugging.
Ralen shrugs again,
‘Consequences are inevitable. Whether you suffer them or rise above them is up to you.’
The young Lord stares, momentarily dumbfounded. It seems for an instant that he understands Ralen’s meaning, but a spark of rebellion makes him sneer.
‘Why should I trouble myself with this; how could you understand? You had everything a man could wish for handed to you from birth: strength, stature, a fighter’s instincts and even magic. You are the mighty Ulraek – immortal hero and undefeated warrior. Look at me! The son of a minor country lord, shorter than most women and scarcely strong enough to wield a sword or throw a spear more than ten paces. You know nothing about what it is like!’
After a moment’s pause, he swallows. Ralen’s eyes are fixed upon his own, not glaring or threateningly, but steady enough to make him regret his words. After a time though, Ralen smiles slightly and holds out his hand.
‘Take it.’ He says.
The young lord looks from the proffered hand back to him, wariness plainly evident behind his bruises.
‘Take it,’ Ralen repeats, ‘let me show you my answer.’
Licking his bloodied lips, he tentatively reaches out and grasps Ralen’s hand. His brow creases in nervous anticipation, before his eyes suddenly go wide and stare sightlessly ahead.
Lord Tewdrig reaches the door just before Ralen opens it. The old man stumbles slightly as his hand fails to find the handle and he tries to compose himself, somewhat out of breath from his short run.
‘What happened?!’ he asks sharply, ‘I heard the cry. Where is my son?!’
He pushes his way past Ralen and hurries into the room. He pauses when he sees his son, sitting upright in his bed, his face pale and his eyes staring vacantly at the far wall.
‘Judoc!’ Lord Tewdrig cries, rushing over to his side, ‘My son! Speak to me Judoc!’
Judoc blinks, but does not answer immediately. His lips move silently, as if he were muttering to himself.
‘Good God…’ Lord Tewdrig moans, then turns to Ralen with fire in his eyes, ‘what have you done to my child?!’
Ralen does not answer, his face remaining placid.
‘It’s alright father.’
The old man turns to find his son looking at him, the glassiness leaving his eyes.
‘Judoc?’ he says nervously, ‘Are you alright? Why did you scream?’
‘It was only shock that made me cry out father,’ Judoc replies, glancing briefly at Ralen, ‘the Lord Ulraek…surprised me is all.’
There is a trace of nervousness in his expression, which is not lost on Lord Tewdrig.
‘You sounded as if you were in pain.’ his father persists.
‘It was shock father, nothing more.’ Judoc insists.
‘My Lord,’ Ralen says, ‘I must take my leave of you now. Farewell Judoc.’
‘Goodbye My Lord,’ Judoc replies quietly, then turns to his father, ‘don’t worry about me father, I will be fine. You must see his Lordship on his way.’
Still suspicious, Lord Tewdrig reluctantly gets up from beside his son and silently follows after Ralen. As they leave, a healer enters the room to tend to Judoc and shuts the door behind him. Lord Tewdrig waits until they are out of earshot of the guard before pressing Ralen once again,
‘Come now my Lord, what did you do to leave my son so?’
‘No my Lord, that must remain secret,’ Ralen replies, shaking his head, ‘but suffice it to say that I firmly believe he will be better off for what he has seen.’
‘But why did he scream?’ the old man persists.
‘The truth can hurt, but it heals those who truly embrace it.’ Ralen replies cryptically.
‘My Lord this will not do, I wish to know…’
‘No.’ Ralen interrupts firmly.
He turns to face Lord Tewdrig, his face set in a kind, but determined expression.
‘If you trust me my friend, then be content in the knowledge that I have done nothing to harm your son in any way. Judoc will tell you of our conversation, but I beg you not to press him for more than that. No good will come of it.’
The elderly lord looks at him hopelessly. Although obviously dissatisfied and disappointed, he daren’t profess not to trust the Lone Wolf’s word. After a long and uncomfortable pause, he at last nods reluctantly.
‘So be it, My Lord.’ He says.
Taking pity on him, Ralen clasps his shoulder reassuringly.
‘Not all knowledge is beneficial my friend. There are times when ignorance should be treasured; like a strong house protecting one from the tempests and storms which rage unseen in the outside world. All will be revealed, as the time becomes right for it.’
Lord Tewdrig smiles weakly and shakes his head.
‘As always my Lord, you speak in riddles beyond my comprehension.’
‘Less so than you might think.’ Ralen replies.
They continue on their way. In moments they reach the courtyard, where the cart still stands bearing its heavy load. Five guards are stationed around it to prevent the sea of onlookers from getting too near the corpses. Already Ralen can hear the sounds of hammers and saws as workers begin to assemble a large pyre outside the castle walls. There are very few voices to be heard, as those not working continue their solemn vigil of the dead. Ralen’s face falls as he passes the grim pile and he pauses to pay his final respects.
‘Will you not stay for the funeral?’ Lord Tewdrig asks.
‘No my Lord. I am neither family nor friend to those who have passed away. I think it best if I leave your people to mourn in privacy. I have in any event another matter to attend to.’
The old man nods in understanding.
‘Then once again, I thank you my Lord, and I wish you well in your future.’ He says.
‘And I you.’ Ralen replies, bowing his head.
‘Go well my Lord.’ Lord Tewdrig says, raising his hand.
Ralen nods once again, then turns to leave. He walks silently past the assembled mourners. Few notice his departure and those that do have not the heart either to speak or to cheer. As he exits the castle gate, he looks for a brief moment towards the massive pyre. The men have worked fast and sweat glistens on their brows in the light of the late afternoon sun. Among their ranks, he recognises some of those who accompanied him into the cave. A few notice him and almost as one man they turn and bow in solemn gratitude. Ralen raises his fist to his chest and bows his head in return, before continuing down the path.
The sun shines in his eyes, causing him to look down at his feet as he makes his way towards the forest path. There are no workers in the fields now, leaving his passage uninterrupted. His steps are slow and unhurried. What reason is there for eagerness? The grim work of this day has not yet drawn to a close.
Passing between the trees, he can already sense the change, however. Birdsong has returned to grace the once silent woods with its bright melodies. Now and again a hare sprints across the path, in a sudden dash of grey and brown fur. With his mind deep in thought, it is only a matter of time before the shadowy ruins of the abandoned quarry come once more into view.
As he nears the entrance to the pit, he begins to transform. Slowly this time, his body grows and his limbs change. His muzzle creeps out from his face and his tunic gradually expands to fit him. His fur emerges slowly, along with his luxurious tail. The claws steadily return to his hands and feet and at long last his lupine body reaches wholeness. Sweeping aside the veil of ivy, he descends along the steep tunnel into the caves. His hands and paws crunch heavily against the gravel, but there is no need for stealth now. Turning the corner of the short passageway, he re-emerges into Auola’s chamber. The fire now merely glows as the embers begin to die. To his eyes, however, the corpse of the defeated vae is still perfectly clear.
Silently, he crosses the chamber. He crouches down beside the body and rolls it over, before scooping her up in his arms as if she weighed nothing at all. Standing to his feet, he advances towards another tunnel beside the entrance to the pit. This tunnel extends down into blackness and as its darkness envelops him, he wordlessly summons a small sphere of light to guide him. It illuminates a narrow passageway, continuing some way into the distance. The floor is uneven and the ceiling rises steadily until it finally escapes his light. He walks solemnly on, carrying the limp body as gently as if it were a sleeping babe. His eyes never stray from the floor ahead and his expression is vacant and sad.
By and by, the passage leads him to a dead end. Here the ground gives way to a natural crevasse. The sides are rough and far apart and the floor is beyond the reach of his light. Just within hearing, however, the quiet whisper of rushing water echoes up from the depths. A bucket sits close to the edge, tied by its handle to a very long rope.
Standing on the edge of the precipice, Ralen looks down at the body in his arms. Her eyes are closed and her head is nestled against his chest, with only the wound between her breasts to show that she is not merely asleep. As he closes his eyes, he can see it once again…
The bones break under his blow with a sickening crack. Auola gasps as her heart is pierced and he feels the warmth of her blood against his skin. Steeling himself against the sickness wrenching at his heart, he opens his eyes to share a final, mournful glance with his defeated opponent. The arrogance and fiery rage have left her eyes and in their place there is genuine fear. She gasps softly, gargling as blood trickles into her lungs. He can feel her heart stuttering and her body begin to shudder and convulse as the life rapidly drains from it.
‘But…Khrail…’ she whispers to him, her voice desperate, ‘…you would not ki…’
The crack of her neck and the sigh of the final breath escaping from Auola’s lungs, seem to him to echo throughout the cavern as he opens his glistening eyes and stares down into the pit.
With Solemn slowness, he raises the body out over the chasm and, without further ceremony, releases it. She seems almost to float for a moment, before rapidly being drawn down into the darkness of the chasm. As her coal black fur ruffles in the rushing air, Ralen’s eyes look one last time upon her fair face. Just as she is about to disappear, he briefly shuts his eyes and breathes deeply.
‘No, Auola,’ he says quietly, clenching his fists as he watches her vanish, ‘Khrail would have done it without hesitation.’
A faint splash echoes from below as her body is claimed by its watery grave. Ralen lingers for a moment, before turning slowly away and beginning the long walk back to the surface.
The ground shakes and a deep rumbling sounds from within the limestone cavern. Ralen stands a short distance from the entrance of the abandoned quarry, with his right hand raised towards the stony hillock. Cracks spread across the stone walls and several of the gnarled trees fall from their perches amongst the rocks. At last a deafening, hollow rumble sounds from within the earth and the quarry caves in on itself. The ground shudders beneath his paws as the massive boulders bounce against one another and slam into the stone beneath. Clouds of pale dust erupt from the broil; the billowing shadows looking dark and ominous against the pale evening sky. Gradually the noise dies down as the last of the boulders settle and the smaller stones trickle down in between them. The clouds of dust spread out and dissipate amongst the trees.
Ralen lowers his arm. The dark secrets which Auola hid here are now lost to the world; none shall lay their hands upon her belongings or her spells.
In his left hand though, he clasps the white robe and golden necklace which had been the vae’s disguise when she left her lair. Turning away from the ruins of the quarry, he sets off between the trees, carefully folding the robe into a tight bundle with the necklace at its heart.
The haunting call of a Tawny owl sounds to his left and he halts. Turning, he spies the mottled brown bird nestled in the fork of a hollow oak tree. Its hooded eyes stare down at him drowsily. It slowly turns its head to the side and calls once again. A faint smile returns to Ralen’s lips. Cupping his free hand around his muzzle, he returns the owl’s call with an excellent impersonation. Its head perks up with interest and it calls out again. He returns the call with the longer trill that the birds sometimes make. The owl twists its head to the opposite side, before ruffling its feathers and hopping to a lower branch. It calls out once again, then opens its wings and leaps from the perch; soaring off in silence down the path ahead.
Ralen watches it go, smiling softly. Soon though, he must continue.
It is a little while before he emerges from the trees. By now, night has fallen completely and the fields and houses of the village are shrouded in darkness. The castle, however, is lit up by the eerie red flames of the funeral pyre. The crackling can be heard even from here – carried on the wind, along with the smell of smoke and burning flesh. Ralen raises his hand to his heart and lowers his head in a final gesture of respect and farewell. After a moment’s silent prayer, he steps out onto the main road and turns his back on this grieving land.
The moonless sky, awash with stars, stretches above him. His keen eyes can see even by their weak light. Auola’s memories of her night-time raids obscure the beauty for a moment though, but he sets his will against them and shuts them from his mind. Far in the distance, the dark silhouettes of the Fayern Valley Mountains rise just above the trees. Eyes set upon his home, the Lone Wolf walks swiftly onwards; a grey silhouette, soon vanishing into the darkness of the night.
One Story Ends. Another Has Begun