Claw’s musty fur felt soft in her hands as Therelin stroked the old sleeping hound, his oversized head lying in her lap. The candles had long gone out save for one flickering guardian. Had the spell failed? It rarely did before but the night was queer and all the nervous tension leading up to this moment may have jinxed her calling. Still, all the old powers surged at the ritual’s completion so she felt something else must afoot.
The hound’s ear twitched towards the door and soon enough, the young wizard heard the slow, heavy footfalls of her former guardian climbing the stairs. With a heavy knock, the unlatched door opened, ushering in a chill wind that guttered the last candle out.
“Sorry your Grace, but the men are ready,” Tog said softly in the dark.
Even in the half-light of the torch-lit stairway, she could see the dark, heavy lines of age in Tog’s worn face. Formerly a woodsman, Tog’s features were weathered and hard from a life of physical toil. But even with the gruff beard, the calloused hands, and the imposing build, Tog was a gentle soul, more at home with the oaks and maples than the hardship Therelin was about to impose on him.
“I told you not to call me that,” Therelin replied.
Silence was Tog’s only rebuttal. Ever since Therelin’s powers started to manifest, Tog became convinced that she was one of the seven lost princesses of Mott. That ancient and doomed kingdom didn’t interest Therelin but she was tired of arguing against the old man. The hour was late and the calling had obviously failed. The party could wait no longer.
With a sigh, Therelin gathered her staff and cloak and headed down the stairs with Tog and Claw following closely behind. The damp, acrid air of too many bodies lying in too close proximity for too long of a time hit the wizard full in the face, unsteadying herself and bringing tears to her eyes. As she blinked the moisture from her eyes, she looked at the motley band she had gathered.
The Twins, Osbert and Osbert were in the corner, playing cards as usual. One was a fair shot with his crossbow and the other was strong enough with that slab of steel he called a sword. Most days she didn’t bother trying to figure out which was which.
Gil and Rupee were asleep and oblivious to all. They were great scouts in their day but hard times had them selling their skills to whoever had coin and the tease of untold riches had brought them eagerly to Therelin’s cause.
Claw padded over to his pups, Fang and Runt. No longer pups, however, Fang was spitting image of his father and Runt was, well, anything but. Looking all wrong in color and proportion, no one was sure how Claw sired a big dumb brute like Runt but he was as lovable as he was big so Tog didn’t have any choice but to keep him.
“It is time to head out. I want to be at this ‘library’ before the moon is full, which gives us four days if we hurry,” Therelin told her team.
The response was immediate. The men gathered their weapons and gear in silence and headed out of the cramped cabin to the waiting horses. Though not many answered Therelin’s call for adventurers to journey to the Frozen City, those that did did so more out of devotion than coin. Rumors of the “Green Witch” had circulated around the nearby villages and homesteads quickly. While news of Therelin was met by its fair share of fear and hate, some, usually the ones with deep-rooted ties to the land, met her with awe and respect.
“Fox didn’t answer the call either?” Tog asked as the team settled in to rest and make camp. The group had made good time and was nearing the Frozen City’s outer edges.
“No, but that isn’t unexpected. Thurgen is ranging in the Upper Peaks.” Therelin reminded him. Thurgen, Therelin’s ‘brother,’ for lack of a better term, was a skilled Ranger and had taken their falcon companion, Fox, with him on some errant business far to the east. Fox had the curious circumstance of being both called by Thurgen to be his companion and having a familial blood bond to Therelin, binding his soul to hers.
“Hrmm. That boy takes the bird too far afield,” Tog grumbled.
“Fox is free to choose the calling of-“
Suddenly, crashing through the underbrush, a massive creature burst through the camp scattering the men and sending the hounds into a fury. A huge mass of blood and fur shot through the camp heading straight for Therelin. With the hounds barking in pursuit and the men clambering after, Therelin turned to face the snarling menace. With a heavy rush, the creature knocked Therelin to the ground and began thrashing its head back and forth, rooting deep into the folds of her cloak and ripping the soft cloth to get what it came for.
Laughter stopped the men short as the creature was not pulling gore from their wayward charge but rather, a bag stuffed with oversized mushrooms. Having found it’s prize, the large bear sat back, oblivious to the hounds barking and armed men around it and started munching happily on the delicate morsels. Tog sat back and smiled. The calling had worked after all. Therelin’s companion, Mutt, had come home.
It was cold in the Frozen City, colder than usual. Therelin had made the risky decision to camp deep in the foreign land to be nearer to the rumored Library of Qog. The risk was paying off as Gil and Rupee made good work scouting the surroundings on their way in and spied two other wizard camps staked a half-day’s march to the south. The team would set out at first light but couldn’t risk a fire this close to their prize with enemies, known and unknown, lurking near.
Dawn soon crested the icy peaks and found Therelin’s camp already cleared with the group setting out down the slope to the ruined, ancient streets of Felstad. Nearing the library site, Tog scowled.
“No library, your Grace.”
And it was true. The ruined streets gave way to an open plain of ice and in the center, a huge manor- or what was left of one- lie wasted and broken. Walls that could have been forty feet high were toppled or sagging while whole floors of the upper levels seemed to have collapsed in and around the outer shell. Dejected, Therelin turned to face her men. When she met Gil’s face, he looked at her hard then nodded towards the manor.
“Looks like something’s still down there,” Gil said with a hint of optimism. Therelin turned back and sure enough, a clearing could be seen in the middle of the ruins. It looked like figures, statues more like, were standing in the center facing each other. The sight was curious enough to have meaning beyond an eccentric oddity.
“But we’re not alone, eh?” Rupee quipped, interrupting Therelin’s assessment of the field.
“Damn! They marched through the night!” Therelin could see now that both enemy wizard parties were converging on the manor. Spurred on by the sight of each other, both wizards were racing to the scene without taking stock of their surroundings. They hadn’t seemed to notice Therelin’s group so she used it to her advantage having the men and beasts pick there way through what little cover was available.
The group arrived a little after the first two wizards setup, who were now stopped to assess the whole field and each other. There was little chance of going unseen on the way in but the caution and cover guaranteed Therelin’s band wouldn’t be sniped or blasted if one of these spellcasters had the shot.
The first wizard set up on Therelin’s right flank and in the field. His men did showed no caution and lined up in almost military fashion, more methodical than brash. The other wizard split forces and was approaching from the opposite side of the manor. Therelin needed to hurry and disrupt their plans before they got too entrenched. If she could force them to act without planning, they would get sloppy and hopefully their superior numbers would not overwhelm her modest crew.
“Tog, find Claw good quarry! Osberts? Defensive cover as we storm up the middle. Gil and Rupee, I need you ready to run the moment you see an opening. No need for subtlety but no unnecessary risks. And Mutt-“
Therelin turned to her faithful companion but he was no where to be seen. Soon she spied him sauntering down the left flank in the shadow of a tall outer wall. Scowling, she ignored the beast and turned back to her team.
“Nevermind. Go, all you!” Therelin knew her role as well as the rest of them. She would lie back in support and call out maneuvers if anyone got into trouble. She was not like Thurgen, rushing headlong into battle and wading in with song and steel. She was best when she could see the whole field and assist as needed.
Gil and Rupee crept up to an outer retaining wall and let the Osberts clear a path. Tog had his hounds and was rounding a large poplar when a shrill birdsong pierced the air. There was not a bird in a hundred miles that would make that song but Tog understood Therelin well. The Red Thrasher gave that song when danger was approaching the nest as a warning to it’s mate to be still. The hounds understood almost faster than Tog and we’re already in a low crouch, soundlessly snarling at the foe they could already smell.
Sure enough, the clumsy steps of a few soldiers could be heard just around the high wall up ahead. They had apparently stopped and were talking loudly about some bauble they found. Tog unhooked the leashes and with a snap of his fingers, all three hounds took off in pursuit. Tog took off after them and pulled up short as he rounded the tree. This wasn’t just some errant soldier, the methodical wizard had accompanied his charge and both were now staring wide-eyed as three large hounds bore down upon them.
Tog was no match for a fully prepared wizard but if his eyes were better, he would have seen a dark stain coming from the front of that wizard’s silly robes. The wizard seemed wholly unfamiliar with the sight of warhounds and seemed likely to rely on his wealth and prestige to hire real soldiers. This is a day Tog would make him rue that oversight.
Lucky for the Wizard, there was just too much ground to cover and with a quick gesture, he sent his bauble-carrying soldier flying over the wall and out of reach of the hounds. His sacrifice for a silly bauble was impressive until Tog realized that the wizard never saw it as a sacrifice. The same gesture was quickly repeated by his apprentice and the wizard was flying out of reach as well. Tog should have felt dumb for not seeing their gambit but he knew this spell as well. He couldn’t pull it off with the tight efficiency of his enemies but he also knew that the spell didn’t get you very far and the hounds were quick to spot where their prey landed and were in pursuit again. Well, all except Runt who was confused by even the simplest ruse so he broke off the pursuit and went in search of a new enemy. He cut left across the field to catch a soldier sneaking up to the statues in the middle of the manor.
While Tog and the hounds menaced one Wizard, the rest of Therelin’s team focused on the statue carvings in the center. Upon closer inspection, they could definitely see valuables curiously placed in front of each statue. There were three statues on each side, facing towards each other and separated by a few volunteer trees that must have sprung up in the recent thaw. As Therelin watched, one of the soldiers snatched a golden box at the foot of a statue and slink off.
No sooner had the box left its place but a statue jumped down and engaged a soldier from the opposite side. These men were tough and unfazed, easily crushing the ancient guardian to rubble. The soldier with the golden box slowly came back into view just in time to see Runt jump at him, biting his arm viciously. Gil wasted no time and rushed forward hacking and slashing, taking the surprised soldier down and staining the bright snow red. Like a carefully orchestrated circus troupe, Rupee rushed in to scoop up the golden box and Therelin sent him flying over the wall. Rupee was out of sight of most of the field and would head back to the camp to to secure the treasure and wait for his comrades.
An unnatural fog started rolling in and Therelin could just make out the other caster, dividing the field between him and the rest of us. Unfortunately, this field divided most of the statues and their precious treasure from her band.
“Archer!” Osbert cried out as several arrows flew past. Cursing her distraction with the fog, Therelin realized only too late that an archer had crept around her flank and was now pinning her men down from crossing into the middle. Osbert tried to lay down some cover but his crossbow took too long to winch and he was stuck hiding behind cover.
Therelin, angered by the surprise, jumped out from cover with a spell ready only to see the archer turn away and scream. His feet tried to turn as well but in his panic, he clumsily fell and the brutal force of a severely angry grizzly bear set upon him, ripping flesh from bone.
Therelin granted herself a wry smile and turned back to the main battlefield. There was still treasure to be had so she dismissed the spell she had readied and made a quick, complicated movement with her index finger and thumb to bring one of the treasures closer. With his brother busy fussing with his bow, Osbert came out to recover the treasure. As he approached the prize, two more soldiers rushed the center and, seeing him in the open, charged. Osbert fended them off with his massive greatsword while his brother gave up on the crossbow and followed the trail of blood left by the pitiful enemy archer.
More Snarling and screaming off to Therelin’s left had her turn her attention away from Osbert’s fight to spy Mutt attacking another soldier, this one laden down with a massive box of goods.
The fog started to clear and Therelin could see a bit more of the field. The crafty wizard on the far side had more soldiers filing out of the center, carrying whatever goods they could find. Broken statue pieces lie in ruin across the snow and ice, evidence that the magic animating them was not strong enough to make them very dangerous. She looked for the wizard and spotted him creeping out from behind a group of trees. His hands were contorted in weird ways and vibrating with violent energy. Tracking his gaze, she soon saw his target.
“MUTT!” Therelin screamed, but it was too late. A white-hot shard of light lanced from the wizard’s arms, slamming into the center of the beast. Smoke poured from the wound and ground but Mutt, miraculously unfazed, slammed to the ground, roared a deafening challenge, and charged. Therelin’s confusion turned to horror as she saw the shriveled, burnt body of the wizard’s own soldier lying on the ground. The poor soul probably never knew what hit him and his precious goods lay scattered across the open plain.
With the crushing weight of a boulder, Mutt slammed into the wizard and began attacking in a vicious fury. The hapless wizard had no defense and was soon nothing but a pile of gore. Their wizard gone, the rest of his band started to flee the field but not before Gil and Runt cut another down. Osbert followed in the gruesome trail Mutt left behind and gathered the scattered goods of the fallen soldier. By the time the rest of the fog cleared, the battlefield was empty and her band started picking through the remaining treasure.
Osbert was dead. His brother held his head across his lap and whispered soft secrets to him that only they had shared. Therelin stood by and comforted the grieving man, shamed that she hat not done more for him in the battle. A shadow fell across them both and she looked up to see Tog, half his face slick with blood from some hidden wound on his already scarred bald head.
“Are you hurt?” Therelin jumped up, checking her former guardian over.
“No, I’m fine but you’ll need to come with me.”
Tog led Therelin to a quiet group of trees. The sun was setting low on the horizon, casting shafts of darkness across the bloody ground.
“Oh, Fang.” Therelin knelt down to hold the bleeding dog’s side. “This looks bad, Tog. Can you help him?”
“I’ve given him some branburn root and Gil is making something to bind the wounds. I think he’ll recover,” Tog replied.
“Okay, thank you,” Therelin said as she scratched under the collar of the dog’s strong neck. “Where is Claw?”
Tog’s face fell and he pointed to the opening just beyond the trees. Therelin lay the wounded dog down and scrambled up, her legs feeling clumsy beneath her. Her heart pounded and all sounded became muted as the roar of blood rushed past her ears. Therelin rounded the trees and then sank to her knees in the wet, red snow.
“No no no no.” Therelin said softly as she crawled to the broken dog’s body. Claw lifted his head slightly to see her and she caught him when he tried to lay it back down. His body shuddered in ragged, shallow breathes as Therelin slid under him to rest his big, dumb head in her lap. His fur was dry and matted with blood as she stroked the soft spots behind his ear.
“Claw, you’ll be ok. Shhh. It’ll be ok. It-” Claw stopped shuddering and looked at her with deep, dark eyes. Therelin held her breathe as she waited for him to inhale one last time. Somewhere off in the distance, Runt let out a lone, mournful howl. Therelin looked up and saw Tog’s face, the old man blinking away the tears.
“I’m so sorry, your Grace.”
With a defeated cry, Therelin collapsed onto the body of her friend, still warm. She breathed in that dark, musty smell, and wept.