|He turned to face the creature and understood now why the people of this land called it the Stalker Wolf. The beast stood, seven and a half feet tall, on its hind legs.|
On occasion it would do us all well to be reminded that there are real heroes who wander between the realms of man and the realms of the folk. One such was the great magician Avan Weatherstrong, a braver, wiser and kinder wandering prince one could not hope to find.
The knight was the youngest of an embarrassingly large number of male siblings. For this reason Avan Weatherstrong was compelled to search hard for his path in life. He required a social position that would allow him to be appropriately royal. At the same time, it could not be so royal that it sparked political difficulties between himself and one of his brothers.
Thankfully he had a talent for magic. This would have been a disaster if Avan Weatherstrong was a serious contender for his own royal seat. Or if one of his brothers had got there first. Happily, neither was the case. Because of this serendipity the prince became a fine and disciplined alchemist. He learned his craft under some of the finest tutelage available in his land at the time.
When Avan Weatherstrong came of age the celebrations were somewhat muted. At twenty one, he had only nine years to work out what to do with the entire rest of his life. By thirty a prince is expected to have made all the important decisions. Further he is expected to be ready to go forward into a future filled with stability and prosperity.
Avan Weatherstrong was a student of some accomplishment. Despite this, he had no life experience. He was wise enough to know that, unless he acquired some, he risked being an embarrassment to his family line. He did not want to be the sad kind of prince who never found ease with their station in life. Such men were always reversing direction and indulging in fads and fancies. Much apart from anything else Avan Weatherstrong did not believe that suited his own sense of self. Something had to be done.
What Avan Weatherstrong did was to make a road pack, saddle up a steed and set out into the world to find adventure. Today's story is about one of those adventures.
When the young prince set out upon his journey he determined to explore some of the far off places. In the fringes of reality magic is more potent and strange things are commonplace. His desire was to gain an insight into the heart of magic, the Liminus, a point in the great weave that is between all things.
There are tales of his time at the edges but nobody knows whether Avan Weatherstrong did get his insight. There are facts to suggest that he did. He returned from the soft places and undertook further adventure. he eventually settled to happiness and stability. Storytellers offer these facts as the proof. Only he could have told us and it would appear that he never did, for stories of his exploits are all very old and there will be no more that are new.
It came about that on his way from Weatherstrong outward to those soft places Prince Avan passed through the land of Skulkmite. A land that was caught within a moment at the edge of winter, cold and bitter, with little in the way of daylight. Avan had been riding since morning as the sky had darkened and the air had slowly turned to bitterness.
He had been in the saddle long enough by this time to have developed some sense of a day on the road. He only stopped to make camp or, occasionally to stay at a coaching inn for the night. He had passed through three large cities and had taken some time to learn a little of each of them.
Avan Weatherstrong was not a young man who would rush into peril. Even so, he always felt that something was lacking when time was passing too pleasantly. So, as the warm weather of the summer he had left behind was cut to ribbons by a constant north wind. As he was forced to stop to pull on a heavier riding coat. As the outline of trees on the horizon began to resemble clawed hands more than soft green clouds. Avan got a taste of something amiss in the air.
The prince had not considered what he would do if he encountered evil or mischief on his wanderings. He was not a knight for he obeyed protocol, which is neither code of law nor spiritual path. Seeing the desolate wasteland that surrounded him he understood that evil was now close at hand.
Avan Weatherstrong decided that he should seek it out. He resolved that if it was in his power he would put an end to this evil, whatever it proved to be. As he rode his horse along the main road that lead into the land that he had entered he approached a farm house in the distance.
He spurred his steed on to reach the dwelling, dismounted and rapped upon the door of the house. After a few moments a hatch in the door, decorated with the symbol of a shooting star, opened. A man looked out through the barred slit, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.
"Who are you?" asked the man.
"A traveller in this land," Avan replied. "I notice that the weather here is significantly worse than in the bordering lands, unusually so. I wonder if you would be able to tell me why that would be."
"This land belongs to the Stalker Wolf," the man behind the door replied. "It hunts under a fat, autumn moon, it has made the land this way for many years. You would best to be off the road by nightfall."
"Is this wolf dangerous?" Avan asked. "Can no one drive a lone wolf from your realm?"
"This is the Stalker Wolf," the man replied. "Sir Skulkmire battles with the beast whenever he is able, but the wolf is cunning, it eludes capture."
"Maybe Sir Skulkmire would benefit from a helping hand," Avan said. "Where might I find him so that I may offer him my assistance?"
"Many have come, traveller," the man said. "None have left alive. If you are another fool you will need to follow the road for Skulkmire Woods. At the end of the road is Skulkmire Manor. Good luck."
His speech finished the man closed the door hatch without waiting for thanks. Avan got back up on his horse and made his way along the road into Skulkmire Woods.
The woods were sparse and marshy, filled with mist. Avan had to ride across several bridges to find the manor. The house was made of stone blocks that may once have been a light grey, or white, now they were black and grimy. The manor was not just old but looked to be in bad repair.
As Avan rode up the path towards the manor he was met by a figure dressed in hunter's garb.
"Who goes there?" the man asked.
"I am a traveller in these lands," Avan replied. "My name is Avan Weatherstrong, I seek Sir Skulkmire."
"And you have found him," the hunter replied. "What business do you have with me, stranger?"
"I understand that it is your duty to find the Stalker Wolf," Avan said. "I offer my assistance."
Skulkmire said nothing, just nodded his head.
"You're most welcome here," the knight replied. "Whether you will find the Wolf so friendly I severely doubt. Come, eat with me, we will set out when the moon rises."
Avan and Skulkmire sat down together at an old, worn table that would have gladly provided seating for twenty guests. Skulkmire's servant, a tall, thin man with gleaming eyes, brought a meal of cold meats and boiled vegetables. The prince observed the servant carried out his duties with a tall, crooked top had sat atop his head.
"Is it just you and your servant?" Avan asked Skulkmire as the meal was served. He was curious to find out the story behind the top hatted servant. Protocol and diplomacy prevented him from asking directly.
"My family are dead," Skulkmire explained. "Killed by the Stalker Wolf. I cannot marry till the beast is dead."
Skulkmire fell silent. That was the end of the conversation. Avan felt that he was not truly welcome at the manor. He could not understand why.
While they ate night fell, a Hunter's Moon rose over the land pale and fat. The moon was so large and so bright that it provided almost as much light as filtered through the greasy, grey clouds of the daytime. The night sky was clear, making the air even colder, but the Hunter's Moon was so bright that no stars shone in the inky sky.
"Come then, if you're coming," Skulkmire said as he lead his own horse out from the stables. "And may the Hunter's Moon bring you the luck to live through till morning."
With that the dour knight climbed up on to his horse and rode out of the Manor Estate. Avan mounted his own steed and followed after.
For hours the two rode together, searching Skulkmire woods for sign of the wolf. The hour grew later and later, then earlier again. Not long after midnight Avan believed that they would not find the wolf that night.
"I hear something!" Sir Skulkmire said. "Wait here!"
The knight spurred his horse and rode into the trees. Avan had not heard anything. He was not confident that separating was the best course of action. Skulkmire was too hasty, already gone before Avan could voice his concerns.
Before long Avan did hear something, the sound of heavy paws squelching through the marshy ground of the woods. Avan heard the snuffling breath of the beast, from the rumbling noise he guessed that the Hunter's Wolf must be large indeed.
Avan dismounted his steed and drew his sword, tilting his head in an attempt to identify the location of be beast. The wolf was fast. Before Avan could work out where it was it charged him, bursting out from between two trees, claws extended, jaws open.
Avan dodged and managed to evade the first attack. One look at the beast told him that it was no ordinary wolf, it was not even the larger dire wolf that terrorised some lands. All mundane wolves hunted in packs. A hunter encountering one alone could best them. The reason the Stalker Wolf dominated this land was that it was clearly a supernatural beast.
This beast was bigger than a man, more like the size of a bear. Missing Avan it sailed past, tucked and rolled to a stop. Avan knew the beast had magic but he didn't know exactly what that magic was. He didn't intend to stand still and ponder the matter if he was not swift he doubted he would get any second chances.
He knew that, short of a swift beheading, sword wounds would only make the animal more angry. Avan did not have the necessary equipment to win a fight. He knew he needed to retreat and come back with a more suitable weapon.
He hurried to the pack he had slung over his horse and picked a vial of powder from one of its front pockets. He could hear the wolf was coming for him, it had recovered and he could hear a slow tread approaching him. It was only five feet away now, but Avan knew that to live he would have to be calm and act with purpose.
He turned to face the creature and understood now why the people of this land called it the Stalker Wolf. The beast stood, seven and a half feet tall, on its hind legs. If there had been any doubt in Avan's mind regarding the nature of the wolf its loping two legged gait dispelled them in an instant.
Avan unstoppered the vial and threw its contents into the wolf's face as the beast leapt toward him again. He dodged out of the way a second time. As he did so he knew that he had succeeded in his goal. He could hear the sizzle of the wolf's skin burning. He could smell blood in the air.
The vial had contained powdered iron. Iron was an extremely dangerous substance for anything that had magic running in its veins. The wolf would recover but Avan bet that he had a chance to escape while the beast was surprised.
Avan lost no time, he climbed up into his horse's saddle and rode the animal away from the wolf as fast as he could. Before long he passed through the gates of the manor house and closed the gates behind him. He rode up to the front of the house where he was met by Sir Skulkmire's servant.
"I think your master is in some trouble," Avan said to the man.
The servant looked up at Avan with his sparkling eyes, a slow smile spread across his face.
"The master is home and in bed," he said. "He came back not long ago. I shall take your horse and prepare you a room, sir."
"Sir Skulkmire came home?" he asked the servant.
"That he did, sir," the servant replied.
"But he left me in the woods!" Avan said, shocked.
"He believed the wolf would surely end you. He told me so before the pair of you even left, sir," the servant said as he tied the horse up in the stable building.
"He planned for the wolf to kill me," Avan said.
"I probably wouldn't go that far, sir," the servant replied. "But you are the first to survive a night in the woods. The first ever since the wolf came."
"It is a magical beast," Avan said. "It will need a special weapon to kill it."
"That it will, sir," the servant replied. "And a special man to wield the weapon. Come with me."
The servant lead Avan into the manor house and up three flights of stairs into an attic storage room. In the room piles of dusty crates and boxes stacked up to the ceiling, seemingly at random. The servant picked his way through the clutter with ease.
|It was a silver short sword, the emblem of|
the shooting star engraved into the blade.
"What is this?" Avan asked.
"It is a weapon that will kill the beast," the servant replied.
"Why are you showing it to me?" Avan asked.
"You are the man to wield it, sir," the servant replied. "You will need one more thing from me."
The servant reached up into the cabinet and appeared to grapple for a moment with empty air, he turned back to Avan with his hands raised.
"Please, approach," the servant said.
Avan came forward and the servant moved around, making motions as if hanging something on Avan's shoulders. Avan was amazed to find the sensation of heavy cloth landing there, even though it appeared that the servant held nothing at all.
"What is this?" Avan asked.
"Invisible cloak, sir," the servant explained. "It were best that the master believes you to be dead. I will tell him your horse returned alone. You take the sword and wrap yourself in the cloak. When the master goes out tomorrow night you can follow and observe."
Avan Weatherstrong was not one to back down from confrontation but he did as the servant asked. Skulkmire Woods and the Stalker Wolf had claimed many lives, neither should be underestimated.
When the night came round again Avan left the attic rooms and moved slowly and carefully down to a side entrance to the manor. From there he left the house and moved out to the front expecting to see Sir Skulkmire mounting his horse.
The knight did leave the house by the front entrance but he remained on foot and took a path through the estate into a small walled garden. Avan Weatherstrong followed on behind. Sir Skulkmire walked through the walled garden. Its beds were overgrown and wild with neglect. Skulkmire walked on, out through a gate into the woods.
There was another, hidden, path laid out from the walled garden. It wound through the trees to a small clearing. In the clearing was a stone table, bolted onto the surface of the table was a metal box, old and weathered.
"That foolish stranger can't have had any meat on his bones," Sir Skulkmire complained. "I am absolutely ravenous."
With that he opened the box on the table. Then he reached up to the sides of his face and fiddled around behind his ears.
Avan Weatherstrong had seen a few things whilst he had been apprenticed as an alchemist. What he saw next caused his eyes to widen and his breath to catch. Sir Skulkmire's face came away from his head, revealed as a mask held over another face by no more than a thread of gold.
As the mask came away the whole of Skulkmire's body changed. His knightly attire, his very shape and substance became smoky and indistinct. The smoke rose quickly in the night air, evaporating under the Hunter's Moon. Avan believed that he could see images in the smoke, cackling demons, squirming snakes. So many evil, hungry things.
The images appeared to reach out for Avan, through his eyes and into his mind. He believed that he could feel claws scratching at some part of him, deep inside. He felt a mounting panic, he was giddy with the sensation of falling.
He scrambled through his thoughts for something to ward off the sensation that he was being attacked. In amongst the jumble of concepts and memories was a clear picture of the emblem of the shooting star. For no reason that he could define the image brought him comfort and stability, so he concentrated on it.
Avan's senses returned to his control. He breathed deeply and returned his gaze downward from the smoky vapour, all that remained of Sir Skulkmire's form. The Stalker Wolf, now revealed under the mask with the golden thread, placed the mask into the box and closed it tight. Avan knew that it was time to reveal himself.
"What should I call you," Avan asked as he shook the cloak from his shoulders. "Stalker Wolf? Or Skulkmire?"
"Call me what you will," the wolf replied. "I will eat you either way!"
The wolf stepped forward, jaws open, claws raised and shining in the moonlight. Avan Weatherstrong swung the silver sword he had taken from the manor's attic. In a single motion he cut the wolf's head from its shoulders, killing it in an instant.
The death of the Stalker Wolf raised more questions in Avan Weatherstrong's mind than it answered. Avan knew that he was a competent swordsman, but he was nothing special. There were a dozen men who could have used the silver sword, so why had the servant entrusted him with the task?
"It is not your sword arm, Prince Weatherstrong," said the servant, emerging from the shadows of the wood. "It is your mind and your heart that I had to assess. It seems I am not yet so old that I could be called a fool."
"Who are you?" Avan Weatherstrong asked the man.
"Just an old sprite who serves his lord," the servant says. "I have many names, and one secret one."
The servant opened the box on the stone table and removed the mask.
"I also have many faces, and sometimes those faces are lost, or stolen," he said. "Thank you for returning this one to me."
The servant put the mask up to his face and, in the last moment before it made contact with his skin he said:
"Keep the sword but change its nature. There is a moon maiden who can imbue it with a power over evil. When she does this tell her to keep it safe, for the boy-fool who will save a hundred worlds."
"Who shall I say sends her this message?" Avan Weatherstrong asked.
"Tell her that humble Pombero bids the great goddess Arasy greeting," the servant said. That was the last thing he said, for as the mask fit snug over his face he vanished. For just a moment Avan Weatherstrong believed that he got a brief glance at the servant's true face. Yet, when he came to think on it further, all he could remember was a strange thrill. A shiver at the presence of something terribly old and fearfully cunning.
Avan Weatherstrong took the silver sword to the moon maiden and delivered the servant's message. The task was maybe not as straightforward as he had expected, but that is a story for another time.