The sun had almost set by the time Crown Prince Einreich, whom all of his friends referred to by his nickname of Slade, left the Noorvix barracks along with his friend Wulfstan after their day’s training. Both filled with excitement about the rare and incredible opportunity that the day had presented to them. As they hurried away from the training halls, located in the north-west quadrant of the city, adjacent to the army barracks, Slade and Wulfstan were imagining scenes of heroism and grandeur if they could take advantage of the day’s chance discovery. It would be the ultimate experience to date of their young lives and they were both supremely confident in their eventual success, in fact the thought of failure simply had not occurred to either of them.
It was the custom in the northern kingdom of Vestland for all young men and women to complete two years of military training once they reached sixteen summers. Although The Kingdoms of Kaynos had been peaceful for hundreds of years High King Erich nonetheless felt that it was important for the people of his kingdom to be well trained and well prepared. Given that the archipelago of Ostland, ruled by its bloodthirsty and violent overlord known only as The Dark One was a bare day’s travel across the Eastern Sea and that Ostland’s primary source of income came from the illegal slave trade none of Erich’s subjects disagreed with his ruling.
Wulfstan and Slade had begun their military training at the same time over a year ago. To Slade it had been an undesirable yet necessary requirement, one that he could not wait to finish. For Wulfstan, however, it had been a life-changing experience and he had already enrolled for further training in order to join the ranks of Vestland’s standing army. Wulfstan’s enthusiastic response to the military life had come as something of a surprise to Slade, who had always thought of his friend as a gentle giant, quiet and almost shy. Yet under the tutelage of Vestland’s great generals and the warrior Knights of Ilmater Wulfstan had revealed his promise of ultimately becoming the perfect soldier.
For Slade the only part of his training that he actually enjoyed was that given by the Knights, who combined divine magic with military skill. Slade felt drawn to the magical arts and often wished he could go on to study spellcraft in some form when his military service was finished. Unfortunately, at least to Slade’s way of thinking, that path was not available to him; as a Crown Prince of Vestland’s royal family Slade would leave the military to join the Black Lotus monastery where he would train as a monk for seven years before taking up the mantle of his royal responsibilities. It was yet another duty that he really did not want.
Today, however, Slade had enjoyed his day in the barracks as much as, if not more, than Wulfstan. Not for the training itself, but for the gossip that had flown thick and fast amongst their instructors. Gossip that had given Slade an idea and was the reason he had sent word to his sister Ursula and their friend Ming to meet Wulfstan and himself at the Salty Dog tavern near the docks at sunset. As Slade and Wulfstan rounded the corner towards the dockland business district they could see the two girls sitting alone outside the tavern waiting for them. Exchanging a grin the two young men quickened their steps even more.
Ursula and Ming had begun their own military training only at the beginning of the year and like all first year recruits still enjoyed the privilege of finishing their day early. Slade felt his heart begin pounding at the sight of Ming. While the four of them had been raised together in the palace only Slade and Ursula were related by blood. Ming and Wulfstan were orphans who had been brought into the royal household as small children. As the four of them were so close in age and similar in temperament they had quickly become inseparable companions. In the past year, however, Slade had begun to look at Ming quite differently to an adopted sister. So far he had kept his growing feelings for Ming to himself, unsure how she would react. Slade could not, however, deny that Ming’s exotic beauty stirred his very soul each time he looked at her.
Unlike the natives of Vestland, Ming had skin of a tawny, burnished bronze, wide spaced liquid eyes so dark they were almost black and long, straight, shiny blue-black hair. Tall and slender she moved with a supple grace, like a panther or a lioness. Like Slade she had a quick, sometimes wicked sense of humour, was extremely intelligent and Ming also shared his love of mischief and adventure. Ursula and Slade on the other hand, not only looked very much alike but were also very typical of the Vestland people. Slade at just over seventeen summers was already almost six and a half feet tall and heavily muscled from his training, with reddish blonde slightly wavy hair, dark blue eyes and the milky pale complexion so common among his people. Ursula, slender and delicate, shared her brother’s colouring except that her hair was curlier and an almost white blonde. Not even Wulfstan, for all his candid brown eyes, thick, black hair and heavy brows shared Ming’s exotic looks.
As they arrived at the table Slade saw that Ming and Ursula had already ordered drinks for them all; dark ale for Wulfstan and himself while the girls drank lemon-barley water.
“So,” Ming said in her usual languid drawl, “what is this exciting news that could not wait yet could not be mentioned within the palace walls?”
“Tell me first,” Slade began, looking over his shoulder as if afraid of being overheard before leaning closer to whisper, “have you heard any gossip in the training barracks lately?”
“You mean talk of the werewolf?” Ming asked.
“Yes,” Slade answered, still grinning broadly.
“Hardly secret information Slade,” Ming laughed slightly, “the werewolf is all that the instructors have spoken of amongst themselves for days.”
“What if I told you that I knew where the werewolf is lairing?” Slade asked.
“I’d call you a liar, brother,” Ursula spoke for the first time, “No one knows where the creature lairs or the Knights would have moved against it already.”
“True, but as it happens we four possess knowledge that the Knights do not have,” Slade answered with a smile before sitting back and drinking deeply of his ale while he watched them ponder his words.
“What information could we possibly have,” Ursula asked scornfully, “that is not already known by the Knights or even the Black Lotus monks for that matter?”
Ming had been quiet, frowning slightly as she always did when thinking something through, then suddenly her face broke into a smile, “The cave,” she said looking expectantly at Slade.
“Exactly,” Slade said excitedly, leaning forward once again, “I’ve been listening to the trainers talking about the attacks and it suddenly occurred to me where the beast must be. All of the attacks have happened within a half day, or a day at most, of the cave and even though the guards, troops, Knights and Monks have been hunting the monster no one has even come close to catching or killing it. It has to be hiding in the cave.”
The cave that Slade was referring to was one that the four of them had discovered several years earlier during one of their frequent exploring trips through the nearby countryside. As children they had often found it fun to slip away from their royal bodyguards and go off alone seeking adventure. It was a habit that had gotten all four of them into trouble on more than one occasion yet even the inevitable punishments had not discouraged them from their wandering ways. This particular cave was located in the cliff side under the headquarters of the Tears of Ilmater, home to Vestland’s Knights, which sat high on the cliff overlooking the Vestland harbour.
The opening was a bare slit in the rock so covered with brush and weeds that it was practically invisible if you didn’t know exactly where it was. That the four of them had discovered it at all was the purest of chance and they were certain that they were the only ones in the area who knew of its existence. Once inside the opening there was a short tunnel that led to a large, open area. It was a place they had often used as both a hideout and a headquarters for their adventures when they were younger. As Slade said it would indeed be the ideal spot for the werewolf to be lairing in order to have avoided discovery for so long. Although how the creature had found the cave in the first place was a difficult question to answer as werewolves were not known for their intelligence, but the creature could have stumbled upon it by chance, as they themselves had years ago.
“I think you must be right,” Ursula said slowly, “we must tell the Knights immediately.”
“Absolutely not,” Slade said quickly, “Not, at least, until we’ve had a chance to try and find it ourselves.”
“What?” Ursula said, obviously horrified by the very suggestion, “Have you lost your mind? Slade we’re not much more than recruits, we’ve barely begun our training and even that is a fraction of the training the Knights undergo. We can’t take on a full-grown werewolf,”
“I disagree,” Slade answered, “I think between the four of us we can finish off this werewolf. Think about it, we’d be heroes in Vestland.”
“We’d be dead in a cave is what we’d be,” Ursula snapped.
“Not necessarily,” Ming said quietly, “I think if we were clever about it we might be able to kill the monster.”
“Really,” Ursula said acidly, “what about the fact that werewolves can only be killed with silver remember? Where exactly are we going to get our hands on silver weapons?”
Ursula’s comment stopped Ming cold but Slade and Wulfstan only grinned even more broadly.
“Well, actually,” Slade said after taking another long sip of his ale, “Wulfstan and I have already got some silver weapons.”
“Where did you two get silver?” Ursula asked suspiciously.
“You know that we’re in our final year of training, that includes learning combat against much more difficult and exotic creatures; including werewolves,” Wulfstan said, still grinning.
“You mean your trainers have actually given you permission to go after this werewolf?” Ursula asked.
“No, Ursula, I think it means they stole the weapons from the training halls,” Ming said with a laugh.
“Are you telling me,” Ursula began, her voice raised.
“Lower your voice,” Slade said quickly.
“Do you mean to tell me,” Ursula began again in a whisper, checking over her shoulder to ensure no one was paying them any attention, “that you two stole weapons?”
“Stole is such an ugly word,” Slade answered mischievously, “personally I prefer the term ‘borrowed’. Once this is all over we’ll put them straight back.”
Ming burst into full laughter, shaking her head slightly. Every time she thought Slade had finally reached his peak in outrageous behaviour and sheer audacity he would do something like this that would out-do everything else. It was one of the things that Ming liked most about Slade, one of the many things. In fact, lately Ming had begun to wonder if she didn’t like Slade a little too much; after all he was practically her brother, they had been raised together as siblings with the High King and Queen treating Ming and Wulfstan no differently to their own flesh and blood children. Yet more and more Ming found herself looking at Slade as anything but a brother, not that she would ever have dreamed of letting him know that, no doubt he would be horrified to learn how she was beginning to feel about him. Nonetheless Ming could not deny that being a part of Slade’s inner circle was an endless source of mischief and fun.
“You’re actually going to go along with this crazy scheme?” Ursula asked Ming.
Ming, still chuckling quietly, nodded her head in acknowledgment.
“I can’t believe it.” Ursula said, “Do you all realise how much trouble we will be in if we get caught? No make that when we get caught?”
“Since when, my dear young sister, has getting into trouble ever bothered us?” Slade asked, smiling wickedly.
“Never, I suppose,” Ursula replied with a small sigh, “Oh, very well, count me in. When do we begin this foolhardy adventure?”
“We lay the groundwork tonight, say that we’re going camping or something for the three-day spring harvest festival and leave first thing in the morning. By the time the holiday’s over we’ll all be heroes.”
“I still think we’re more likely to be dinner than heroes and I don’t even want to think about what father will say when he finds out but all right,” Ursula said resignedly, although in truth she was actually beginning to feel a little excited about their quest but she would not let her brother see that, not yet anyway.
Once they had Ursula’s agreement the four of them put their heads together and began to lay their plans.
The next morning the four of them, having told the King and Queen they were going camping in the woods to celebrate the spring festival, set out from the palace. Ursula was surprised that they left on foot, which would take them most of the morning to arrive at the cave. If they travelled by horseback they would be there in a bare hand’s span of the sun.
“The smell, sister dear,” Slade answered when Ursula questioned why they were not taking horses.
“The smell?” Ursula asked, confused.
“Too hard to disguise the scent of four horses,” Ming cut in, “the werewolf would smell us coming long before we get there and our only real chance is to try and surprise the creature.”
“Exactly,” Slade said with a smile.
“All right; that does seem logical” Ursula said, thinking it through, “but what about our smell? Won’t it smell us coming as easily as it would the horses?”
“That had me worried for a while as well,” Slade said, “but then I came up with a little trick that I think is pretty clever.”
“Let me guess,” Ming said, “somewhere in that pack of yours you’ve got some brindle weed. Am I right?”
“Of course. There’s brindle weed growing all around the cave’s entrance, if we smell like brindle weed the werewolf will never know what hit it,” Slade said triumphantly.
Brindle weed was a common and noxious weed that grew rampantly throughout many parts of the Vestland countryside. It was a terrible bane to Vestland’s farmers as it choked out the roots of other plants, including crops, and robbed the soil of all its nutrients. Many of Vestland’s poorer families earned their living by getting rid of the weed for local farmers in exchange for food and clothing. Some of the more enterprising families had even made themselves fairly wealthy by making the long trek to Glantri to sell the brindle weed they collected, which was highly prized by many mages as a spell component and virtually impossible to find anywhere else in The Kingdoms. It would also serve them well in their quest as brindle weed had a particularly strong smell.
“Very clever, Slade,” Ming said, smiling up at him.
“Well, I,” Slade could feel himself beginning to blush at Ming’s praise, “it seemed logical and we know the weed is there...,” he trailed off, his feelings for Ming once again making him feel foolish and tongue-tied.
“I’ve been thinking,” Wulfstan interrupted, mercifully putting an end to Slade’s embarrassment, “sneaking up on the thing is well and good but we still have to face off with it and kill it before it gets a chance to bite any of us right?”
“Yes, but we agreed that if we tackle it during the day, while it should be sleeping we can catch it unawares,” Slade said.
“Yes, but maybe there’s another, better way to make sure the odds are on our side,” Wulfstan said.
“What do you mean?” Ursula asked.
“Well, I just wondered if we might not be better off setting a trap, maybe some kind of pit trap or something outside the cave entrance.”
“But to do that wouldn’t we have to wait until the werewolf left the cave and hope that it didn’t come back while we were still digging it?” Ming asked.
“Well, yes, I suppose that’s true ” Wulfstan began, “I guess it’s not the greatest plan after all.”
“Maybe not but you’ve given me an idea,” Slade said thoughtfully, “I just need to think about it a little.”
The sun had not reached its zenith in the sky before they drew close to the cliff where the small, isolated cave was hidden and Slade called the group to a halt. Filling their water skins in the nearby stream each of them added the ground brindle weed that Slade had brought with him, and then they all washed themselves with the mixture, thereby eliminating their natural smell. Stinking of brindle weed the four of them sat down to refine their plan of approach and attack. Now that the moment was at hand they were all beginning to feel a little apprehensive; this went far beyond any opponent they had ever come up against.
The werewolf had already attacked and killed several people so far and would continue to do as long as it remained at large. Slade felt a brief moment of doubt; perhaps he should have gone to the Knights with the information he possessed instead of convincing his friends and his sister to try and help him tackle the beast, but he quickly brushed it aside. They were here and they would see the task through. After all, he reasoned to himself, they had all been hunting before; they had even taken on a small band of marauding goblins only that winter. A werewolf shouldn’t be that much more difficult.
Although Slade and Wulfstan had been able to procure some silver weaponry, namely a full quiver of arrows with silver points, two silver daggers and a single, silver-edged, long sword, they had been unable to acquire any special armour, which meant that all the four of them had were their recruits uniforms. The uniforms consisted of leg and arm braces of stiffened leather along with a thick and heavy leather jerkin that protected their torso. None of them had helmets, or shields, and the jerkins they had would only provide a small deterrent to a werewolf. Seeing how inadequately prepared they really were Slade felt another moment of doubt. They had the barest beginnings of combat training and poor quality equipment; this adventure could very easily turn out to be a complete disaster. Slade quickly brushed aside his doubts, the four of them had proven in the past to be a formidable team, they would surely succeed.
Just to make certain of that, however, Slade had decided to adopt at least part of Wulfstan’s plan. They would not dig a hole directly outside the cave but instead would create a wide channel in a semi-circle around the entrance that would operate almost like a moat. That way they would be working at a far enough distance that they would be unlikely to disturb the werewolf while it slept. The only problem with the plan that Slade could see was that they would first have to determine whether or not the creature was actually inside the cave, which meant at least one of them would have to go inside and check. Slade had decided that he should be the scout, partly because he felt responsible for his friends and Ursula, but also because of them all Slade had spent the most time in the woods; he knew how to move quietly and remain unseen. Hunting wild game with his father was something Slade had learned at a very early age and a successful hunt depended, to a large extent, on the ability to be stealthy. However, Slade also knew that the others would be equally keen to take up that task and he would have to do his best to discourage them.
“All right,” Slade said when they had all finished preparing, “Wulfstan’s plan has given me an idea.” Slade then outlined his plan for digging the trench that would effectively act as a pit trap preventing the werewolf from moving too far away from the cave entrance. The others enthusiastically agreed with the plan, as Slade had felt certain that they would. Then he announced his intention of sneaking into the cave to ensure that the beast was, in fact, inside and he immediately encountered the opposition he had known he would get from them.
“No way are you going in there alone,” Ursula said fiercely, looking to Ming and Wulfstan for support.
“She’s right, Slade,” Wulfstan said, “We’re all in this together. Separating is a bad idea.”
“Besides that,” Ming said, her voice shaking slightly, “what if something happened to you? How would we know and what could we possibly do to help you in time if we just wait around out here?”
“Trust me,” Slade said imploringly, “I know what I’m doing and this is the best way. I’ve had more experience in the woods than any of you, I can get in and out without it having any idea I’ve been there. I’m not going to take a foolhardy risk.”
“You always take foolhardy risks,” Wulfstan said with exasperation, “it’s a part of who you are but this time I think you’re going too far.”
“If anything happens to you...” Ming trailed off, unable to even speak the words aloud.
“It won’t,” Slade said with a smile before setting off to the cave’s entrance.
As Slade crept towards the mouth of the cave he almost felt as though he could actually hear his heartbeat it seemed to be pounding so hard. Although whether that was from fear or excitement Slade couldn’t really tell; most likely it was a little of both. It was really quite strange Slade thought to himself, that the military life did not appeal to him as he truly enjoyed the challenge of pitting himself against an opponent and winning, using a combination of physical strength and cunning intellect. On the surface the military would have seemed to suit him perfectly yet he had found his training both boring and stifling. Likely his father was right when he said it was not the military itself that Slade didn’t like but the necessary discipline that was its backbone. Slade much preferred his own way of doing things rather than the strict procedures of the army.
Drawing level with the cave entrance Slade paused, taking a deep breath and for the briefest moment he could smell a musky, slightly sweet smell on the air. It had to be the scent of the werewolf. Bracing himself Slade edged carefully through the small, barely visible opening. Just inside the entrance Slade paused, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim shadows within the cave. Little of the day’s bright light made it into the cave but lining the walls were some of the luminescent fungi native to the caverns and caves of Vestland’s mountains, which gave enough dim light to see. Watching his every step Slade slipped quietly along the short tunnel with its smooth stone walls. Now that he was actually within the cave itself the sweet, musky odour Slade had noticed before was much stronger and, with the outside woodland noises virtually silenced, he could also hear the deep, rumbling snores of the creature as it slept. He could have turned back then but Slade continued to move stealthily deeper into the cave, he wanted to actually see the beast.
Rounding the slight bend where the tunnel opened up into the body of the cave the smell became almost overwhelming, a mixture of the fetid stench of faeces and urine, blood and the musky scent of the werewolf. Although the dim light made it difficult to see clearly Slade could make out a vast quantity of bones littering the floor of the cave, all in various stages of decay. Some of the bones had been stripped clean while others, obviously from the more recent victims, still held torn and decaying flesh, which was unfortunately recognisable as human remains. In one corner Slade could just make out a skull that still appeared to have tufts of hair attached. Everywhere in the cave were splashes of blood, the source Slade realised, of the sweet component to the smell. Slade fought against the sudden urge to vomit as the nauseating smell seemed to soak into his very skin.
In the centre of it all lay the werewolf, sleeping calmly on what appeared to be a rough bed made of leaves and scraps of clothing. Slade had, of course, heard tales of werewolves before but this was his first encounter with a flesh and blood specimen and it was not at all what he had expected. Werewolves were generally only found in the deep forests of the Duchy of Karameikos where it was said there were whole tribes of the creatures dwelling. They rarely travelled beyond their own borders and for that Slade suddenly felt profoundly grateful. That this creature had come into his homeland, attacked and killed his people, and yet lay so peacefully in the midst of all its carnage completely disgusted Slade.
The beast truly looked like some bizarre, unholy hybrid between man and wolf. Its general appearance was that of a wolf although much larger and more powerful. What made it so grotesque were the humanoid aspects of its appearance, such as the human features of its canine head and the human hands and feet, with wicked looking talons instead of fingernails, at the ends of its powerful limbs. If the smell was revolting then the sight of the creature was equally repulsive and Slade felt a deep anger well up within him as he watched it sleep. In an instant the fun had gone out of this adventure, replaced by a grim determination to destroy this deadly abomination to nature. As quietly as he had come Slade slipped back out of the cave and rejoined his friends.
Slade quickly related all that he had seen in the cave, his anger and disgust obvious to his companions. His description was so vividly intense that they each felt as though they had been there themselves.
“Slade we need to go and get the Knights,” Ursula said almost pleading, “This thing must be killed and I think it’s too much for just us.”
“No,” Slade answered, more harshly than he had intended, “We will kill it now because we have to. That thing cannot live past the hour. I cannot leave and take the risk that it will attack someone else but I believe the rest of you should go home.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Wulfstan said swiftly, picking up the two silver daggers and leaving the silver edged sword for Slade, “I agree, the time for planning is over, now it’s time for action.”
“I’m with you,” Ming said as she began stringing her short bow and gathered the quiver of silver arrows.
“Ursula, I want you to go, get the Knights and bring them here,” Slade said quietly to his sister. Slade had made this decision the instant he saw the beast in the cave and seeing her now only reinforced his resolve. Slade could see that she was frightened; after all she was barely past sixteen summers. There was also the fact that they almost certainly would need the assistance of the Knights.
“No,” Ursula said shakily, “if you’re all going to fight then so am I.”
“Not this time, little sister, we will need the Knights and so we need you to go and fetch them. Without you to guide them the Knights would never find the cave entrance and the true likelihood is that we will be unable to do more than hold the werewolf at bay. The only reason I’m not leaving is because I will not allow that abomination to hurt or kill any more of our people. It stops now.”
“Well, why don’t we do dig the trench, like we were going to do?” Ursula asked and Slade could see that she was very close to tears.
“Because it would hear us, it would smell the freshly turned earth, we would be the ones caught unawares instead of catching it off guard,” Slade answered gently, “but at the same time we can’t simply all go, some of us have to stay here and fight or there will be more bloodshed. You do understand, don’t you Ursula?”
“Yes,” she said finally, nodding her head sadly, “I’ll go but you all had better be here when I get back.” With those words she turned, quickly gathered up her belongings and began running back in the direction of Noorvix city.
“What’s the plan Slade?” Wulfstan asked, buckling on his leg and arm braces.
Slade knelt down and using a stick sketched out a rough diagram of the cave and the position of the werewolf.
“You and I will go in first and Ming will follow bringing the storm lantern,” Slade said using the rough map to illustrate where he wanted them positioned, “Ming, once you’ve set the lantern in place, pull right back and go with the bow but try and keep your back to the wall of the cave. I’ll tackle it head on with the sword, Wulfstan you angle around the back of the thing.”
“Werewolves are supposed to be really quick,” Ming said quietly.
“And powerful, and cunning and from what I saw of the thing, deadly,” Slade answered.
“Ursula will never get back in time,” Ming was watching Slade intently.
“No, she won’t.” Slade breathed a deep sigh, “but with a little luck,” he continued slowly, “we should at least be able to wound it severely enough that I can keep it from hunting again and that will give you two time to get away.”
“Maybe we are in a little over our head,” Wulfstan said, “but we’re also quick, clever, we’ve fought together before and we’re determined. We will defeat this werewolf and drag its ugly carcass back to Noorvix, the three of us.”
As prepared as they were ever going to be the three of them set off, as quietly as possible, for the cave mouth. Slade entered first, with Wulfstan close behind him and Ming bringing up the rear holding the storm lantern. She would wait to open the lantern’s cover until both Slade and Wulfstan were in position as the sudden light would almost certainly wake the beast. Creeping quietly down the short tunnel Ming’s heart felt as though it were lodged in her throat. Silently Ming vowed to herself that if they all survived this encounter she would tell Slade how she felt about him, then she cursed herself silently for even thinking about such a thing at a time like this.
As they rounded the end of the tunnel Ming felt her blood run cold; even in the dim lighting she could clearly see that the beast was not there. Its rough bed was still in place but the werewolf was nowhere to be seen. Ahead of her Ming saw Slade and Wulfstan exchange a puzzled glance. It had to be here somewhere, they would have seen it had it left the cave, but where was it? Something, whether instinct, divine guidance or simple luck caused Ming to look up and she saw with horror the beast clinging to the roof of the cave watching them intently with its red eyes.
“On the roof,” Ming yelled all thoughts of stealth forgotten and obviously unnecessary. Slade and Wulfstan looked up just as the beast, muscles rippling, prepared to leap off the roof onto them. Fumbling slightly in her haste Ming quickly set the storm lantern down, throwing off the cover and flooding the cave with bright light. The moment she had done so Ming recognized her mistake; coming into the dim lighting from outside they had allowed their eyes to adjust, now the sudden bright light was as blinding to the three of them as it was to the werewolf. Cursing under her breath for her stupidity Ming blinked rapidly, praying their eyes would adjust to the new lighting in time.
Hearing Ming’s warning cry both Slade and Wulfstan had looked up, spotting the beast almost immediately. Seconds afterwards the cave had flooded with light from the storm lantern, practically blinding them both. Fortunately the sudden brightness had also affected the werewolf, throwing off the precision of its jump. Instead of landing on them the beast fell heavily inches from their feet. Slade reacted instinctively, plunging his silver-edged sword downwards but the clumsy blow barely scratched the werewolf’s side. With incredible speed the beast jumped to its feet, roaring loudly, whether in pain or anger Slade couldn’t tell. Slade barely dodged the creature’s filthy claws as it struck out at him. Stepping backwards Slade felt more than saw the arrow fly from Ming’s bow towards the werewolf, striking it in the thigh. Clutching the sword tightly in his hand Slade swung low, aiming for the werewolf’s belly. Slade felt the sword catch slightly as it cut through the werewolf’s tough skin but still the creature seemed merely enraged by its wounds.
Out of the corner of his eye Slade saw Wulfstan trying to edge around behind the beast, an attempt to salvage at least a part of their plan. Unfortunately the werewolf also noticed the movement and with a lightning quick response the beast kicked out hard at Wulfstan, its long talons tearing bloody furrows deep into Wulfstan’s upper arm. In response Wulfstan plunged one of the silver daggers deep into the werewolf’s chest, where it lodged tightly. Yet not even the burning pain of the silver seemed to slow the creature down. Instead it began to focus its attack on Wulfstan, who continued to edge backwards away from the werewolf. Slade swung his blade again, hoping to divert the werewolf’s attention from Wulfstan but although he slashed the beast’s flesh it would not be distracted from its prey.
Ming, following Slade’s lead, began loosing more arrows, trying to stop the werewolf’s steady stalking of Wulfstan. Not having a clear line of sight, as Slade was between her and the beast, only one of the arrows found its mark, striking the werewolf low in its back. Again the creature roared, in pain, anger, defiance; Ming wasn’t sure but in the confines of the cave the sound was deafening and terrifying. Ming began to edge along the cave wall to get a better angle to continue her attack against the beast but before she could let fly with another arrow she saw Wulfstan suddenly slip on something on the cave floor, his feet going out from under him.
Slade saw Wulfstan fall heavily onto the cave floor, heard the slight grunt as Wulfstan hit the ground. For the briefest of seconds Slade felt numb, certain suddenly that he would have to watch his friend die because of Slade’s own foolishness. Without thinking Slade threw himself forward, leaping onto the werewolf’s back, his fingers digging into the creature’s eyes; anything to stop its attack on Wulfstan. Dimly Slade was aware of Ming’s screams for him to get off the creature and allow her another attack with her arrows but all Slade could concentrate on was trying to simultaneously blind and choke the beast. All Slade could think of was to give Wulfstan time to get back to his feet.
Wulfstan scrambled to get to his feet, he was badly winded from the fall and sharp pain in his ankle told him that he had done some damage to himself there as well. He regained his feet just as the werewolf, displaying a strength that astonished Wulfstan, reached behind and grabbed hold of Slade and flung Slade away from it, towards the cave wall. Brandishing his silver dagger Wulfstan leaped forward slashing at the creature’s side at the same time as another of Ming’s deadly arrows bit into the werewolf. Behind the creature Wulfstan could see Slade struggling to his feet to rejoin the attack at the same time as the beast backhanded Wulfstan hard across the chest, throwing him once again to the cave floor.
Wulfstan landed hard, sickeningly crushing some of the bones beneath him as he fell. Winded again from the fall Wulfstan was astounded as the sheer strength of the werewolf. Severe pain in his chest where the creature had struck him made Wulfstan wonder if the beast’s attack had broken a couple of ribs. Wulfstan knew he had to get back on his feet, already the werewolf was turning towards him, but the pain seemed to pin him to the floor. As the creature prepared to leap upon him Wulfstan knew with certainty this was the moment his instructors had spoken of; where the mind had to overrule the body. Wulfstan willed himself to rise, ignore the pain and get to his feet but it was too late, the werewolf was too fast.
As the werewolf leaped upon his prone form Wulfstan had enough presence of mind to ram his sole remaining silver dagger deep into the beast’s throat. As he did so Wulfstan saw Slade above the creature drive his own sword into the back of the werewolf’s neck. Even as the two blades bit deeply into the werewolf’s flesh Wulfstan still felt the barest scraping of sharp canine teeth against the side of his neck and the foul smell of the creature’s breath filled his nostrils. As the full weight of the werewolf landed heavily across his chest Wulfstan knew that against all the odds they had succeeded. The beast was dead.
“Ming, quickly give me a hand,” Slade called as he began dragging the carcass off Wulfstan. Ming rushed to his side and between them they got the heavy beast off their friend. Slade pulled Wulfstan to his feet and studied his friend’s wounds; deep slashes in his arm, and Wulfstan’s stiffness indicated broken ribs and a possible broken ankle. Fortunately Wulfstan bore only the barest graze across his neck from the werewolf’s teeth. Ming was completely unharmed and Slade’s own injuries were minimal, some bruising from hitting the cave wall and a few shallow scratches. They had not only won and survived, but had miraculously escaped virtually unharmed. The only question was whether or not his and Wulfstan’s wounds would heal normally or if they would bear some permanent taint from the werewolf. Suddenly the three of them became aware of noise and commotion coming from the cave entrance.
Looking up Slade was stunned to see Ursula leading a small patrol of Knights of Ilmater. Although he did not have any true idea of how long they had battled with the beast, at times it felt mere seconds and at others half a lifetime, but he was certain Ursula would not have had time to get to Noorvix and back.
“I found this patrol not far from the cave,” Ursula explained running towards them, “I told them how we’d stumbled across the werewolf and begged them to come back with me.”
“We came as quickly as we could Your Highness,” said the leader of the patrol addressing Slade, “although it would appear that our swords are not required. You and your friends have accomplished a mighty deed.”
For a long moment Slade simply looked at them, scarcely able to comprehend all that had happened. It was true they had battled the werewolf and survived but it could so easily have turned out differently. Seeing Wulfstan’s wounds brought home the reality that Slade’s quest for adventure had almost gotten them all killed. It seemed strangely inappropriate to be receiving praise from a Knight of Ilmater. The following hours passed in a blur of activity. Slade and Wulfstan’s wounds were treated by one of the warrior-priests and pronounced free from any werewolf corruption.
Riding doubled up with the patrol of Knights the four of them arrived in Noorvix within the hour with the werewolf’s head ready to display to the people. Slade was barely aware of the clapping and cheering as they rode through the streets to the palace. Even though it was the very outcome he had been hoping for Slade was still shaken by his foolishness and their near escape. Soon enough came the private meeting with his parents that Slade had been dreading; now that he recognized the folly of his actions he knew he would have to confess to his father. High King Erich and Queen Urda praised the four of them for their bravery and announced that all of them would receive the Golden Sword, the highest award possible in Vestland’s armed forces. Looking at the others Slade saw them beaming with pride and wondered why he could not feel the same.
Afterward Slade remained behind in the throne room with his parents. The moment had come for his confession.
“Father, Mother, there’s something I must tell you,” Slade began haltingly.
“Is it perhaps that you knew of the cave’s existence and that the four of you set off deliberately to hunt down the werewolf?” High King Erich asked gently.
“How... how did you know?”
“Einreich, I am your father, I know you very well. You thought it would be a grand adventure no doubt?”
“Yes,” Slade nodded, his head bowed, “I thought it would be fun, until...”
“Until you actually saw the beast and realised you had endangered not only yourself but also your sister, your friends?”
“Suddenly it didn’t seem like fun after that. I know I should have gone immediately in search of the Knights, let them handle the werewolf but when I saw it, Father, I know what I did was wrong but I could not leave that creature to hurt one more innocent.”
“So why are you not feeling more proud of yourself son? You did the right thing, protected the innocent and felled the werewolf?”
“But that’s just it, Father, I didn’t protect the innocent. I completely forgot that Wulfstan and Ming were also innocent but I let them walk with me into danger. We all could have died,” Slade looked up finally at his parents and was surprised to see both of them smiling.
“Then you have learned a valuable lesson my son and I am well pleased with you. It is not easy to be a leader of people as you have just discovered. Sometimes you must make hard decisions; sometimes you must sacrifice the few to save the many.”
“I don’t want that kind of responsibility,” Slade said firmly.
“You are yet young, you have much still to learn and you have been through a harrowing ordeal. Responsibility is not easy, Einreich, but your mother and I are proud of you. Not perhaps of the methods you used to go about it,” Erich paused and watched as Slade gave a guilty grin, “but nonetheless you have achieved a great deal. Be proud of yourself and enjoy your honours, you have earned them.”
Slade walked away, still feeling slightly confused but with the horrible burden of guilt finally lifted from his shoulders. Waiting for him outside the throne room were Ursula, Wulfstan and Ming, as he had known they would be.
“So,” Wulfstan said cheerfully, “how about we go find a tavern and see who’d like to buy us an ale? I think we deserve it don’t you?”
Slade laughed, shaking his head a little before agreeing. With their Golden Sworn awards pinned to their chests the four of them set out looking for a tavern. No one could know what tomorrow would bring but for tonight they were heroes.