IN A REALM WHERE MAGIC IS OUTLAWED, ONLY THE OUTLAWS WIELD MAGIC.
Atyron Evergreen stood there on the battlements of Storm Haven Keep, his long black streaming over his shoulders in a slight breeze. He bent his long bow, surveying the horde of Vipers charging across the greenway below him. He slowly sighted on one of the hooded warlords and fired his bow. The arrow took the hapless warrior in the center of his chest, sending him flying backwards into the mass of the five thousand black-cloaked warlords streaming toward the high walls of the Haven of Storm.
Although he was only 16-summers-old, Atyron had recently accepted leadership of the elite mercenary company known as the Wolf Lords of Shadow. This, however, was to be his first–and perhaps his last–mission, defending this keep on the southern border of the Emerald Glens, depending on which way the Fates decided.
Shortly before joining the men and women of his company on the Storm’s battlements, he dressed in his finest leathers, his cream-colored shirt and vest contrasting sharply with his unruly raven tangles. He had learned early on from his mentor and former leader of the company that if this was the day he was going to die, he might as well look good while doing so.
He had ignored the stares of the other members of the Wolf Lords all dressed in their battle-scarred armor of leather and plate, and taken his place at their center, pausing long enough to lower the ample hood on his shoulder cloak. He had then taken up his longbow to assess the enemy moving rapidly across the greenway toward the keep. He had fired off nearly an entire quiver of arrows since then, and still the enemy kept coming.
On either side of him long bows thrummed as the Wolf Lords added more kills to the swarming horde. “Damn them,” he softly muttered, “they just keep coming! We will run out of arrows long before they reach these walls!”
Beside him, Shiields offered his young leader, a wry grin. “Once they do reach these walls, my Captain, there will be many in that swarm determined to kill the young archer who took out so many of their fellow warriors as they crossed the greenway below! So, you best watch yourself, pup. Stay near me and Jetts, and we will watch your back when they storm these battlements!”
Atyron glanced over at Shiields, whose dark shaggy hair fell to broad shoulders, while a coarse three-day old beard shadowed his rugged-looking face. Shiields was a man to have at his side in a battle like the one coming their way, and he had been particularly protective of young Atyron ever since he had accepted leadership of the company a few months ago. A leadership that was thrust upon him due to the sudden disappearance of their former leader, who up and vanished one night and had not been heard from since.
Small, wiry Jetts appeared at Shiield’s left side, brandishing twin short swords. The tiny waif of a Chaykin shook backs strands of his sweat-drenched chestnut hair and gestured to the horde racing across the greenway of the keep below them. “Geesh, Ace, you took out nearly sixty of those Vipers coming our way! I almost thought for a moment there, that there wouldn’t be any left over for the rest of the company!”
Jetts gestured with his other sword at the other company of mercenaries stretched thin on either side of them on the Storm Haven’s battlements. “Save some for us,” he said. “I just told Spawn and Staggin that you were getting so good with that bow that you wouldn’t even need our help should these Vipers reach these walls! I really can’t wait to try out these new swords!”
With that, the small Chaykin lashed out with both blades, and whirled round into a battle stance, one blade snaking out in an overhand slash, the other coming up in an underhand cut. “Come on, you swarm of mad hornets! Come taste my steel!”
Atyron and Shiields exchanged a look, and then both rolled their eyes at the Chaykin’s antics. This was going to be a long battle.
At either end of the Storm’s high battlements, Darcstar and Bruising sent a mind pulse to each other e as they warily eyed the dark-clad, hooded warriors racing toward them in the thousands. *These Vipers hail from the Realm of Shadow,* Darcstar sent through his telepathic mind-speech. *I don’t think the young pup was preparing for such a large force to deal with. Do you deem it wise to spread ourselves so thin upon these walls? Shouldn’t we be falling back to the second wall, which will be more easy to defend?*
The huge, well-muscled Bruising at the opposite end of the line of mercenaries nodded at the thin, blue-robed cleric looking back at him end from the eastern end of the battlements. *Darc? You having doubts about our pup’s strategy? Where was your voice of opposition when Creed asked us to assign Atyron leader before he left us? Having second thoughts now?*
Darcstar, adjusted his blue robes about his thin frame and drew his war-mace out of his shoulder sheath. He offered the broadly grinning Bruising a look of annoyance, his bearded features creased by a serious frown. *Like you, old friend, I did not question Creed’s wisdom on the matter. But I did not think a battle like the one before us would be thrust upon our young Atyron so soon. The lad’s too young to know what to do against a massive force like these Vipers before us.*
The large Bruising looked down the line of the band of thirty of his fellow mercs. *And a fine example we would make,* he pulsed back to Darcstar one hundred yards away, *if we asked those Children of the Forest behind us to be the first line of defense, Darc. No, I think our pup has wisely staked us out here on this first wall to boost morale. Did you see the fearful, wide-eyed looks of those Chaykin Black Foxes? They might man this fortress of Storm Haven, but not one of them has seen battle, especially battles like the ones that were fought here in the past decade. We serve to instill courage in those who man the second wall behind us. Atyron’s plan is wise.* Darcstar gave Bruising a wry grin and sent back, *A wise plan? To die here in the first wave of enemies to swarm this wall?*
Bruising’s loud laughter caused all thirty-some mercs to swivel their heads and to look at the big man in puzzlement. He gave them all a fierce grin and boomed, “The point Atyron is trying to make here, is that we can face impossible odds . . . and live! And no matter how many waves of enemies wash over these walls, we will still be standing in the wake of their lame attacks! Besides, every man dies. But not every man lives a life worth dying for, and that is why we make a difference!”
Atyron brushed the long strands of his dark hair out of his eyes and nodded at the big bard. “Well said, Bruise. Perhaps when these waves have crashed upon these shores and we are still standing, you can compose an epic song about this day.”
And although Bruising smiled at his young captain in confidence, only Darcstar at the far end of the battlements noted the trace of fear and doubt in the big bard’s dark eyes. *This,* he pulsed to the bard, *is going to be a long, bloody battle. Let us hope you survive it compose this epic song. And better yet, let us hope I am around to listen to it!*
Atyron looked away from the enraged horde hastily making their way to the front wall of the keep. He peered up and down the line of this grim company who stood the wall with him.
Laerthorn the Lean.
Beoworth and Beomont, the Twin Titans.
Greedsire the Grim.
Wizzgal, Lady of the Bright Star.
Eladreme the Wise.
Caermina, Lass of the Vale.
Syzyll, the Magi Mistress.
Stalment Spear of the Dragon Flame.
Kat, the Black Lion of Wintermist.
Talland, Sword of the Morning.
All of them had earned a name for themselves, rising up through the ranks of the company, their deeds and accomplishments listed in the Book of Records. If indeed they fell here this day, their legacies would long be remembered as they were read aloud before council meetings at the mountain haven of Shadow Keep where the company made their home.
Wolf Lords of Shadow fit these men and women well, and the Wolves of the Shadow company had earned a reputation for being one of the fiercest mercenary companies to offer their services to the Council of Nine Lords in the realm of Valasar.
It is ironic, Atyron thought. We have made a fortune in the service of the Nine Lords, fighting in one war after another. Yet today we forfeit our fee, when we might very well die defending this haven. I wonder what Creed would say if he knew that I had committed the Wolf Lords to this particular mission? If he still lives, he would reprimand me for foolishly throwing away the lives of such brave fighters. And if he is dead, fallen somewhere along the long road his destiny took him down, he is more than likely rolling over in his grave at my foolishness! Oh, Blackstag, I wish you were here!
Atyron nodded at each member of the merc band and he was bolstered by the grim courage he saw in their eyes. At 16-summers-old, he knew he should never have accepted leadership of the mer-cenary company, because now it had led them to this: A suicide mission with no hope for survival. And yet not one merc gazed back at him with anything other than respect and admiration in their eyes. They knew they would die here today. They knew that their young leader, that most of them fondly called the wolf pup, had led them here. As their captain, Atyron knew they would follow him to the gates of the Seven Hells if he asked them to, and yet he knew they did not deserve to have their lives end in such a battle.
If we could turn and run right now, Atyron thought, entertaining that thought for several seconds. But then again, now that they are committed to this fight, not one of the Wolf Lords of Shadow would follow me down from these walls. No, and I can just hear the twins, Beoworth and Beomont saying, ‘Today is as good any to die. Who wants to live forever?’
Atyron slowly lowered his long bow to the battlements, and drew his sword. The blade glimmered with a strange golden light and he knew the magic it was endowed with was responding to the war-lords from the Shadow Realm charging their way. Soon, it would be cleaving heads from shoulders, and slaying scores of the dark-cloaked, hooded, pale-skinned Vipers who managed to scale the walls.
“Irony upon irony,” Shiields said, gruffly giving a slight nod of his dark-haired head so that his bearded chin stuck out slightly as if pointing at the swiftly advancing enemy. “Here we are the Wolf Lords of the Shadow Company, and we find ourselves pitted against demon lords from the Shadow Realm. There ought to be some god laughing at one of us, Wolf Lords or demon lords, or perhaps both. Or perhaps, Creed knew something more when he settled on our name ten years ago. He always was a dreamer, more like a visionary, and perhaps he saw this battle in our future even then. Shadow against Shadow. And then the darkness falls.”
“Are those lyrics to a song, Shiields?” small Jetts asked, curiously. “If not, maybe you ought to quote them to Bruising after this battle. He could always use better lyrics for the songs he composes, don’t you think, Ace?”
Atyron peered down at the Chaykin beside him. “Yes,” he readily agreed with the tiny waif, knowing Jetts was speaking sardonically, knowing full well that there would never be an afterwards for them after this battle. “Remember those words, Jetts. Perhaps you can quote them to Bruising yourself. After this coming fight.”
Atyron reached down with his free hand and tousled the small Chakin’s shaggy tangles.
Jetts reached up just as Atyron’s hand was leaving his bowed head, and he took a hold of his wrist with both small hands and held on for long moments. “It was good to have served under you, Captain,” he sadly said. “I rode beside you throughout these six long years, serving as your bodyguard as Creed commanded me to, and when you were named leader, I knew Creed had chosen well. Tonight, perhaps if we soar beyond the stars, I will still remain at your side.”
Shiields offered Jetts a shrewd glare even as the halfling released Atyron’s wrist. “How touching, Jetts,” he said, a bit gruffly. “But as for me, I will be riding away from this battle, not soaring beyond the stars. Today is not my day to die.”
Atyron remembered then how Creed had always repeated that phrase each time before leading the Wolf Lords into battle. Somehow it had become his mantra, and mysteriously it had seemed to work. Atyron then wished for the second time that day that their former leader were there to stand beside him.
As he gazed down at the mad rush of Vipers racing toward the walls of Storm Haven, Atyron remembered how he’d first met the Elf Lord known as the Blackstag.
It had been snowing hard that day when Atyron’s people and kin, the Gypsy-Elves of Glen Mirren, were attacked by a large force of Karth. The antler-crown warlords erupted from the woodlands surrounding the caravan of gypsy wagons and attacked the nomadic Elves like ravenous beasts. The gypsies had fought back, each warrior among them ferociously defending their kinsmen, and for each elf who died that day, they took at least six Karth with them. Still, the Karth kept pouring out of the trees, slaughtering and butchering man, woman and child.
Six-year-old Atyron’s father had hidden him inside the house-wagon of his family, beneath a pile of furs, offering young Atyron a dagger just before leaving him there to join the battle raging outside. And Atyron had listened in terror to the members of his kin and people being cut down by the savage, merciless Karth.
A quietness then settled on the clearing, and the Karth began to systematically loot the wagons of the dead, searching for the jewels reputed to be carried by the roving bands of Gypsy-Elves. Disgusted at having lost a great number of their own, they became enraged that their fierce fighting resulted in finding no treasure amongst those they had ambushed.
At the end of their futile search, the Karth finally reached the larger, finely painted wagon of the Gypsy Chieftain. Expecting to at last find treasure stored within, the massive, wild-haired, antler-crowned Karth entered the wagon, and Atyron exploded in a furious rage, attacking him with the razor-sharp blade. He slew the Karth warlord and emerged from the door of his house-wagon, the bloody blade gripped in his fist.
Atyron slew two more of the hulking warlords before the others even realized there was a raven-haired little terror armed with a deadly blade among them. But his valiant attack was stopped short by one brutish Karth who came up behind him and knocked him senseless with a vicious punch to the back of Atyron’s head.
He went sprawling, his dagger flying out of his grasp. When he managed to sit up, the huge Karth warlord was already moving toward him, raising his rusty sword for a killing stroke.
An arrow suddenly sprouted in the center of the stunned warlord’s chest appearing there like a wild red rose. The Karth took two steps back from the force of the red-fletched death that sank so abruptly in the center of his chest, then toppled over and fell to the ground.
More than a hundred Karth warlords turned as one to glare in fury at the lone, black-haired Elf seated on his black steed at the top of a nearby hill. The Elf fitted another arrow to the string of his finely crafted longbow, offering the savage warlords a look of defiance. Atyron thought certain his rescuer was surely about to die, and yet the regal Elf archer clad in his forest green leathers fired off six more shots before the Karth e gathered their wits to move.
Finally, a dozen warlords raced toward the lone rider. The solemn Elf lowered his bow, and Atyron wanted to shout at him to draw the twin short swords from the sheaths at his back, but just as the twelve Karth reached the base of the slope where the dark-haired Elf sat calmly upon his steed, a large pack of huge white wolves emerged from the forest behind him. The enormous beasts fixed their green-eyed gazes on the advancing Karth. A moment later, a second pack of white wolves darted from the undergrowth on the other side of the Elf’s steed. This second pack merged with the first and together they rolled down the hill like a raging white wave, washing over the startled warlords and hurtling toward the others who stood there amidst the carnage of those they had slain.
Atyron scrambled to his feet, looking around him in wide-eyed terror as the two packs of white wolves tore into the warlords and ripped the lives out of them in the most bloody battle he’d ever witnessed. By the time it was over, Atyron stood there frozen in fear as each wolf glanced in his direction, then silently loped off into the surrounding woods. Atyron stood alone amongst the dead, facing the black haired Elf rider.
“What is your name, young Gypsy boy?” the Elf asked, his voice strong and clear in the frosty air.
“My name?” Atyron asked, incredulous and trembling with sorrow at the loss of his parents and so many of his kin folk. “I stand here amidst this carnage, and you ask for my name?”
The Elf then nudged his horse sending it trotting down the slope. “Well,” the raven-haired rider said, “it is some place to start. And if I am to take you with me, I would at least expect to know the company I travel with.”
“With you?” Atyron asked, his sorrow being replaced by a slow burning anger. “Though I am grateful that you and your wolves intervened on my behalf, where would you take me? Where would we be traveling to? Besides, I have dead to bury.”
The Elf then cocked his head, as if listening to some far off sound. “Do you hear that, lad?”
He sat there still as stone, his green-eyed gaze locked on the distant slopes. Atyron then heard the distant call of a lone wolf, then an answering call, and then an entire chorus of shrill howls coming from the tree-lined slopes. “Those are not my wolf allies,” the Elf said, grimly. “Those who come to feast on the leavings of this battle are many. They are the dark wolves of the Riddle Woods, and they outnumber the White Wolves of Masgar by at least three hundred. I am very sorry nameless gypsy boy, but there will be no time to bury the dead. If you wish to live, you must come with me at once.”
Atyron rode out of that clearing of slaughter and death, tears blurring his vision as he sat behind the Elf rider. He continued to glance back as the dark steed beneath them picked his way up the slope toward the forested tree line above them. But even as he tried to get one last glimpse of those he’d loved sprawled in death behind him, the tears continued to flow. He choked back sobs threatening to burst from his lips, and in sympathy the Elf seated in his saddle before him, reached back and gently squeezed his left shoulder.
After a time of riding through the still falling snow, Atyron finally managed to say, “Evergreen. My name is Atyron Evergreen.”
And as the howls of the wolves of the Riddle Woods rose behind them, the Elf glanced to their left and right where the White Wolves of Masgar ghosted through the woods around them.
They rode for quite some time before the Elf rider spoke again. “I am Blackstag, once Elf Lord of the Kingdom of Mint. I am now an outlaw in exile, yet you have nothing to fear from me. My close friends call me Creed.”
When they finally stopped riding, Atyron pulled aside the ample hood of the cloak Creed had lent him during their journey. He brushed snow flakes off his cheeks and looked down at the fortress nestled far below them amidst giant pines.
Fierce winter breezes whipping his long locks of ra hair about his head and shoulders, Creed studied the keep for quite some time. On either side of them, white wolves emerged from the snowy wood-lands, and each of the green-eyed beasts stood there peering down at the forest fortress with wary looks.
“This,” Atyron said, knowingly, “is Shadow Keep, isn’t it? The bards of my tribe spoke of this place and they say it is haunted, a place of ghosts of those fallen in some long forgotten battle that took place here ages past.”
Creed offered him a slight grin. “Shadow Keep is named for the giant pines overshadowing this fortress, nothing more. Before men came to the depths of these woods, the White Wolves of Masgar made their homes in the warren of dens running back inside the cliff face. The ghosts rumored to haunt the halls below could only belong to the Bright Company who built this fortress and allied themselves with the white wolves they found living here when they arrived. The Bright Ones were a company of wizard-warriors, and yes they did fall in battle here ages past, but I seriously doubt whether their shades roam these halls. At least, I have not encountered any for the past five years I have been living here.”
Atyron peered into Creed’s piercing gaze, slightly amazed. “This,” he asked, “is your home? Shadow Keep is your home?”
“Yes,” Creed replied. “Since taking the long road into exile, I have shared the keep below with these white wolves, each one more loyal to me than any of my Elven brethren of Mint.”
“Wolves?” Atyron asked. “You have lived alone here with wolves? But who,” he had added, gesturing at the thick smoke rising from a tall, steeple-like chimney of the Great Hall in the central keep, “is tending that fire? Certainly not wolves?”
After a slight laugh, Creed shook his head. “That,” he said, “is what I would like to know.”
As Creed rode into the keep, white wolves darted this way and that as they entered the central courtyard. Some ran toward the switch-back trails winding up the cliff face beyond the main broch. Others sniffed tentatively at the small herd of horses tethered before the Great Hall. And still others lingered behind, providing an escort for the El Lord and young Atyron seated behind him on his horse.
The thirty odd horses tethered to the hitching posts situated before the main broch were near frozen and simply offered the wolves sniffing at their hocks dim-witted stares as if they had no fight left in them from whatever journey they had recently endured.
Creed gently lowered Atyron to the ground, then smoothly dis-mounted, removing his heavy wool cloak e as he landed beside the gypsy boy. He handed the cloak to Atyron, then reached back and loosened his twin swords in their scabbards. Then with a nod at the wolves taking up guarded stances on either side of them, he moved forward, followed closely by Atyron.
Inside the Great Hall, they found a roaring fire in the hearth and a motley crew of ill-kempt men warming themselves before the bright blaze. The sixteen men all looked to be half-frozen and near dead on their feet, and as such, posed no threat.
Creed took one long look at this band of men, and then turned his gaze on the massive, shaggy-maned Ogre who lumbered into view from an ante-chamber at the back end of the hall. The huge, ape-faced warrior peered at Creed with only one eye, and drew a great two-handed sword from the sheath at his thick waist. “Who in the Seven Hells are you, Elfling?” he snarled in challenge.
“I am,” Creed said, “the master of this keep, and it is I who should be asking who you are and what you and your men are doing tres-passing in my home?”
The Ogre took two steps forward, yet stopped as a low growl arose from the lead wolf eyeing his huge form balefully. “Shut that wolf up!” he snapped. “Or I’ve a mind to remove his head! A white wolf pelt would look good donning my shoulders, I should think.”
Creed shushed the wolf. His gaze then drifted to the shadows behind the defiant Ogre, taking in the sight of nine figures huddled there, chained and shackled. This group looked far worse than the one before the fire. Some were badly beaten, with bruises and fresh blood marring their features. The clothes they wore were in tatters, and they were each shivering there against the cold stone wall where the warmth of the fire did not reach.
The Ogre noticed Creed’s glance. He stepped protectively in front of the bedraggled band of figures and growled, “Hun the One Eye is my name, Elfling. I am a Keeper of the Law. Because of the storm raging outside these walls, my Band of Five Brothers grace your hall this evening. We are escorting these criminals to Castlelan, where we will–”
“Collect a bounty,” Creed cut him off in mid-sentence. “Keeper of the Law? You give yourself such a high title, when you and your Band are nothing more than bounty hunters.”
Hun swung his sword around, causing the six wolves to crouch down in defensive stances. Atyron found himself stepping back away from the one-eyed brute, casting worried glances up at Creed, who stood perfectly still there in the center of the hall, a blank expression on his face.
The huge Ogre brandished his sword, and slanted the long blade along his armor-covered shoulder, grinning to know that his threaten-ing gesture had caused such a reaction among the wolves. “Hunters serve the King,” he said. “As servants of the King, I demand that you serve as a gracious host this foul winter night. If this is indeed your keep, feed me and my men.”
Creed gave his request some consideration. He then asked, “And what about the prisoners you escort? Am I expected to provide food for them, as well?”
Hun let out a bark of laughter. “Waste your food on them? Naw, Elfling, They are destined to hang as soon as we reach Castlelan. Their leader, however, is to die this night, as soon as my men are well fed and have warmed themselves by your fire. You are welcome to watch.”
He shifted his great sword around to his other shoulder and made a shooing motion with one large hand. “Now be a good Elf and get us something to eat. And get those mangy wolves out of here! They smell!”
“The wolves stay,” Creed said, firmly. “But I will feed you and your men . . .” his voice trailed off for a moment before he added, “after I have fed the outlaws behind you.”
At this, Hun roared, “Do you wish to provoke me, Elf? Do you even know who these outlaws are? If you knew of their crimes, you would not insult me by giving them food, let alone offering to feed them before the Band of Five Brothers! We have traveled far this day, through treacherous regions to bring these outcasts to justice! We deserve–”
“Every man deserves,” Creed interrupted him for the second time, ignoring his furious gaze, “to be treated more fairly than you have evidently treated them. I say they eat first, and you and your Band second. Humor me. After all, this is my Great Hall, Bounty Hunter.”
Infuriated by the evident insult, Hun wheeled around and took several steps toward the huddled figures chained and shackled against the wall. He reached down, grabbed one man by his dark hair and yanked him to his feet. With great force, he shoved him forward so that his bruised and battered face was illuminated by the firelight.
Creed and Atyron could both see the broad-shouldered, muscular man had little life left in him. His shaggy dark hair was matted with clotted blood from a deep wound to his scalp, and his bearded features were creased by an ugly red wound that ran the length of his right cheek. He wavered there with barely enough strength to remain on his feet. In his green eyes, however, there burned a fire of defiance and he glanced sideways at the huge, one-eyed Ogre looming next to him. The moment, Hun saw the flash of anger in the man’s eyes, he slammed a fist into the side of the man’s head, spinning him around and dropping him to the floor.
Hun spat on the hapless outlaw sprawled at his feet. “Shiields, your insolence has already cost you!” the big, bearded Ogre snarled. “And now tonight, here in the keep of Shadows, it will end!”
Creed spoke one word, and yet Hun and the entire Band of Five Brothers fixed him in their gazes. “Shiields?” he asked, quietly.
“Yes,” Hun replied, gloating over the heap of a man sprawled there on the floor at his feet. “A murderer and a thief, and the so-called leader of this motley crew of outcasts and misfits. I think it would set a fine example, since he is wanted alive–or dead–to sever his head from his shoulders this night. He has caused me much trouble on our trek through these woodlands, and he shall die for his defiance and insolence.”
“Shiields?” Creed asked again, his piercing blue eyes fastened on the man lying on the floor between him and the grinning Ogre. “Is the same man who held the shield-wall at the Battle of Kamber Keep?”
Hun lowered his gaze to the slumped figure of the barely conscious man. “Not hardly, Elf. The man Shiields, so named for his courage at Kamber Keep, was a nobleman, a lord some say, and his deed there was legendary. This outlaw here murdered three knights of Corse-by-Way. The man Shiields was a man of honor, this man is the scum of the earth.”
“They,” the man whispered harshly from his prone position on the floor, “killed my dog.”
It was spoken with such sadness, and yet so quietly that every one in the hall stood there waiting to hear more of what the man might say.
“You murdered three knights of Corse,” Hun thundered, “all over the death of a mangy dog? And you think that justifies your actions? And then to add injury to insult, you steal the name of a legendary hero, so what? This rabble of outlaws might flock to you? You are a despicable man who–”
“Who stood the shield-wall at Kamber,” the man said, rising up on one elbow and bracing for the boot he saw about to land on his face.
“Hold!” Creed commanded, softly yet firmly enough that Hun stopped his boot from falling in mid-stride. The Ogre and Elf stood facing each other now, with Creed taking three steps closer to the man sprawled between them.
“If this man is truly Shiields,” he said, his sights flickering from the pitiful form of the man to the leering face of Hun the One Eye, “do you realize the deed he accomplished that day at Kamber Keep? Do you know the tale, Bounty Hunter? It is told in the high courts of the Elf Kingdom of Mint. It is told in the great halls of the Seven Kingdoms of Men. It is told in the underground council chambers of the Dwarves of Quain. And even in lowly taverns, the likes that you more than likely frequent, Hunter.”
Hun rumbled, “A horde of demons attacked the county fair being held on the greenway of Kamber. Demons attacked innocents, and great would have been the slaughter had not the home guard of that kingdom thrown up a shield-wall to pret the nasty demons from reaching men, women, and children racing to get inside the city walls. An honorable deed for a man named Shiields, who led the home guard that day. But not this . . . worm of a man.”
Creek nodded. “You told the tale true, Bounty Hunter, but you left out one part. At the fair that day were one hundred young Elven boys come to offer their archery skills to the king of Kamber. It was these young archers who turned the tide of demons back, providing the time that was needed for the folk of Kamber to reach the safety of the gate. Once they did, the demons turned their attention on these young Elvish archers. That is when this man, Shiields, and the home guard under his command, placed themselves between demons and Elf boys. And this shield-wall that they threw up, allowed the young archers to retreat into Kamber Keep, then and only then, did Shiields quit the field, withdrawing his shield-wall in an orderly retreat to the haven of the keep.”
Creed paused, then added, “Hunter, did you know that an Elf usually lives one thousand years? And since this Shiields saved one hundred Elven boys by his deed, he honored my Elf kin with one hundred thousand years these boys yet live to carry out their own bright deeds. It was a great deed, one I am sure you would find hard to match, given your own status in this realm.”
Creed kneeled then and gently brushed the shaggy hair out of the battered man’s eyes. “Tell me true, are you this same Shiields?”
“Yes, my lord,” Shiields said, barely above a whisper. “And I loved my dog, my lord. She was a far better creature than the whore-sons who trampled her beneath their horses for no better reason than she was in their way.”
He swallowed and fought back tears, then added, “My lord.”
Hun booted Shiields out of his way, so that he loomed up over the kneeling figure of Creed. “I tire of this game you play, Elfling,” he snarled, angrily. “Fetch us our food, while I take care of this wolfs head. He has lived far longer than he deserves and he has told his last lie!”
Atyron, standing all this time, amidst the six white wolves, watched as Creed slowly bowed his head. He thought Hun would take him while he was unaware, lashing out with his sword, striking the raven-haired Elf Lord, but even as Hun took two steps forward, Creed rose to his feet before him.
The Elf Lord and Master of Shadow Keep then stood very still, meeting the Ogre’s rage with a calmness that was almost eery in its effect, for as Hun swung his huge two-handed sword, Creed simply glided forward and struck with two lightning-swift moves.
His first blow connected with Hun’s throat, the extended knuckles of his left hand shattering his wind-pipe. The second blow, delivered upon completion of quick back spin, sent the Elf’s elbow into the center of the big Ogre’s face, crushing his nose in a crimson spray.
Creed then swept Hun’s sword from his grasp, and as the huge Ogre crashed to his knees, he sent the blade cleaving through his neck. With a continuing whirl, Creed sent the severed head flying toward the Band of Five Brothers standing there before the fire, gaping in stunned amazement. Hun’s head struck one of the men in the chest, then slid down and bounced across the floor.
The six wolves standing protectively around Atyron, fanned out on either side of Creed, and while they peered fiercely at the men of the Band, Creed tossed the two-handed sword down beside the huge body of Hun the One Eye. “Now, if you all wish to eat, one of you take this Hunter’s keys and free these outlaws. They eat first, and then you. Is that clearly understood?”
The sixteen men of the Band of Five Brothers all nodded at once. And as one man ran to retrieve Hun’s keys, Creed gestured at Atyron to follow him to the keep’s kitchen.
Atyron had helped feed the starving, half-dead outlaws that Creed had ordered the Band of Five Brothers to seat at the table before the roaring blaze in the fireplace. As he served them plates of steaming venison, he noted the looks of disgust on the faces of the bounty hunters who were wholly disappointed by this turn of events.
Creed continued to ignore the scowling men and spoke in quiet tones during the meal to the man known as Shiields. When the meal was finished, and the bounty hunters were at last invited to the tables, their second in command, Beers, ordered six of the hunters to chain the outlaws back up.
Atyron saw only bright flashes of white then, and looked on in surprise as the six white wolves interposed themselves between hunters and outlaws. The lead wolf took two steps toward the big bellied Beers, his hackles raised, his lips curled back in menace. Beers hastily drew his sword.
“No!” burst from the lips of Shiields as he stood there guarded so effectively by the wolves. “Lord Blackstag? Call off your wolves! I will not have their lives thrown away on the likes of us! Noble beasts that they are, they do not deserve to die here on our account. Beers? Stand down. There is no need for slaying these beasts, for I will once again wear the shackles and be escorted to Castlelan where justice shall be served upon me for my past deeds.”
Atyron watched Creed move between the hunters and the wolves. “Thatch,” the Elf Lord said, quietly. “We have done what we could for these outlaws. I am afraid this matter is out of our hands now. These hunters are only carrying out the King’s Justice, and I will not–”
*Creed,* the wolf, Thatch, sent through a mind pulse, *these are the ones who I said would come. This band of outlaws is the one destined to serve the cause of the Council of the Nine Lords. We can do no less than intervene in their fate.*
Atyron stood there in stunned amazement. He was startled by the fact that the wolf had spoken through a mind-link. He was startled that Creed Blackstag, Lord and Master of Shadow Keep had under-stood him. But what surprised him the most, and left him reeling, was the fact he had heard Thatch’s words as clearly as if the great wolf had spoken to him.
Creed turned his head slightly to study the white wolf, his blue eyes locking on Thatch’s bright green ones. *So this is how it begins? The Nine Lords are so desperate that they would incorporate criminals and outlaws into the plans of their cause? Surely, they can find others who are more–*
*And what were you,* Thatch responded, *when you first came here, Creed? Did you not tell me the tale of how your ability to speak with birds and beasts was discovered by agents of your king? And did you not, in truth, become an outlaw yourself when you slew the three Blade Masters of the Brotherhood when they came to arrest you? So, are you any better than these criminals and outlaws?*
Creed stood there, sad and silent for long moments. *Did you have to remind me of that, to make your point, Thatch?*
Atyron could see that the wolf’s words had caused the Elf Lord deep distress. He remembered what he’d said earlier about elves living for a thousand years, and how significant the man Shiield’s deed had been to save one hundred Elven boys. He could see that the lives of the elves he had taken to avoid this so-called arrest in his homeland impacted Creed, causing him deep sorrow.
*I am sorry,* Thatch offered, in tones that carried such affection for Creed, that Atyron could not take his eyes off of the bright-eyed wolf. *Forgive me, Creed, but even these outlaws are not beyond redemption. Have them swear vows that bind them. Make them into the band that will not be easily broken. Lead them, guide them, but most of all forgive them. And my brethren and I will bond with them and they will become honorable once more.*
Creed then nodded and said, “Very well, Thatch. I will do as you bid.”
Atyron then watched tears actually flow down the bearded cheeks of Shiields as Creed drew his twin short swords and said, “Shiields? My wolf friend assures me that you are not beyond redemption. If I offer you sanctuary here, will you join me in a cause that will serve the Council of Nine Lords, Servants of the Light?”
Before Shiields could offer him an answer, Beers gestured at the band of outlaws with his drawn sword and growled, “My lord, need I remind you these criminals all have bounties on their heads? Warrants have been issued for each and everyone of them, signed by the King himself, and they must answer for their crimes, my lord. If I ride away from here without them, what I am to tell my Master Hunter when I reach Castlelan?”
Creed brandished his swords, sending the glittering blades through a series of motions that left no doubt at his skills with them. He then brought both blades down, crossing them as he placed them upon Beer’s bulky shoulders. “Tell your Master Hunter,” Creed said, grinning, “that you barely escaped here with your life and those of your men. Tell him to burn those warrants, for these former out-laws have been pardoned. And then, have your Master pen a message to the King, telling him if he wishes to address this issue, he may come here himself. But, tell him my gates will not be open to him, and if he wishes to take this matter any further, he should speak to the Council of the Nine. Can you remember all of that?”
The hunters had ridden out of Shadow Keep early that next morning under the watchful eyes of three hundred White Wolves of Masgar. Some of the wolves stood watching from the mouths of their dens which riddled the cliff forming the back wall of the fortress. Others stood unseen in the snowy woodlands surrounding the keep. And still others stood boldly up and down the pathway beyond the castle’s gateway, their presence menacing and forbidding as they silently saw the Band of Five Brothers on their way.
On the battlements overlooking the snowy, pine-filled vale beyond the high walls, Creed, Atyron, Shiields and the rest of his pardoned outlaws stood there. They watched, too, their faces graced by the morning sunlight shimmering down through the branches of the giant pines.
Shiields silenced two of his fellow outlaws who muttered curses at the backs of the hunters riding away from them. He then turned to Creed and graciously said, “We thank you, my lord. You will not live to regret the pardon you granted us. We will forever be in your debt, my lord.”
Atyron glanced at Creed as he laughed, sending the rich sounds of amusement echoing among the pines. “It is not me who you should be thanking,” he told Shiields, gesturing at the wolf faces poking from the dens behind them on the cliff facing. “It is the wolves who pardoned you, who deemed your lives worthy of saving for a greater cause. And please, Shiields, dispense with the ‘my lord,’ title you attempt to honor me with. Here at the Keep of Shadows, we are all lords in our own rights. And we are all honored by the wolves we share our home with. So in truth, we are now the Wolf Lords of Shadow.”