The Wolf Pack. Valley. The Wolves encounter the guardians of the Sword.

It’s the first Tuesday in the month again, and so it’s time for the next episode of The Wolf Pack. I hope you enjoy it.

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VALLEY

The valley was truly beautiful. It opened towards the east and the sunrise. It was densely wooded but with open glades between mature oak trees. The snow-capped mountains towered high above them to the north, west and south, but gradually fell away towards the east. Below them, spring was beginning to burst out. Trees were showing the first pale blush of green and there were spring flowers blooming. They wondered how long they had spent with the yeti.  They worked it out by the height of the sun that it must be the middle of Grildar at least.

‘Then I’m not a child any more,’ stated Thadora. ‘If it is the middle of Grildar, my birthday has gone. It was on Grildar 8. I’m sixteen!’

‘That should have been cause for a celebration, then,’ responded Basalt. ‘We must have a birthday party when we finish this quest.’

They slowly walked down the slope towards the woods, listening to the birds singing their songs in the trees and bushes until they entered the woodland. It seemed an almost magical place. The large oak trees spread their branches high towards the sun as though in welcome and all with the hint of new greenery. Beneath their feet, last autumn’s leaves crunched. The huge trees every now and then gave way to open glades where the sun’s rays filtered down making the place look almost magical. Then they stepped out of the forest to see a lake spread before them. It was steaming in the sunshine. Kimi wondered why that should be so.

Basalt explained to her. ‘This is volcanic country, Kimi. There is heat below the ground, which feeds the volcanoes. There are often hot springs nearby. I suspect this lake is one such, fed by a hot spring from below the volcano.’

They decided that they all needed to eat, and then to bathe, as it was a long time since they left Roffley and their last bath. Settling down by the lake, they ate the cold food that Grnff had given them before they parted. As they looked towards the lake, they saw strange birds flying in the sky.

‘What are they?’ Thadora asked the words that had been in everyone’s lips.

No one seemed to be able to say. Then one of the birds, followed by two or three of the others, dived into the lake. They expected to see them rise into the air shortly, probably grasping a fish or something, but to their surprise, they seemed to remain swimming in the water. Then Asphodel noticed something with her superior elven sight.

‘Strange birds, with four legs as well as wings,’ she said.

The others looked closer.

‘The wings look rather leathery, not like birds’ wings at all. They look like pictures I’ve seen of dragons in my father’s library. I used to like to look at his books on the animals and plants of Vimar when I was a child,’ said Randa.

‘You know, I think she’s right. They do look like dragons,’ responded Basalt. ‘Just our luck. I suppose we couldn’t have hoped for our good luck to continue,’ he grumbled.

‘Well, they’re a long way away. Maybe we’ll be able to avoid drawing their attention,’ said Asphodel. ‘We’ll have to be very wary. Anyway, they looked rather small. Maybe they’re just babies.’

‘Or maybe they only looked small through distance. Or maybe they are babies, but if so, their mother won’t be far away,’ groaned Basalt. ‘Well, at least I’ll end my days in pleasant surroundings in the company of friends.’

‘Don’t be so pessimistic, Bas,’ Kimi scolded him. ‘We may not see any more of them, and even if we do, if we’re careful, we may not alert their parents.

‘Always expect the worst, Kimi, lass,’ Basalt retorted. ‘Then when it doesn’t come to pass it’s a pleasant surprise.’

‘You don’t always go by that philosophy though, do you Basalt?’ Fero put in. ‘I’ve known you to be a happy sort of fellow at times.’

Basalt grunted in reply.

After they had eaten, the dragons seemed to have disappeared so they walked slowly and quietly down towards the water. They were looking for places where they could bathe in privacy, the men apart from the women. There was a small beach in front of them, and they were approaching it when Fero, who was ahead as usual, held up his hand and stopped. They drew along side of him and saw, sprawled on the beach and basking in the warm spring sunshine, a small iridescent shape. It was one of the baby dragons they had seen flying over the lake. It was about three feet long from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tail. Its wings were spread out to catch the maximum warmth and it was snoring gently. It had the horns of an adult dragon on its head, but they were rather smaller in comparison to its size. It did not seem to be a definite colour, but its scales shone with many colours in the sunlight. There it looked red, here blue, and then again green. Sometimes it seemed to be black. It was a truly beautiful creature.

‘The pictures of dragons in my father’s books were definite colours,’ puzzled Randa. ‘Not this iridescent mix. I think that the books said that there were blue dragons in the mountains.’

‘Yes, but p’rhaps th’ young’re different. P’rhaps th’ colours come later on, but dragon or not, it’s so-o beautiful,’ put in Thadora.

‘True enough. Many youngsters look different from their parents,’ responded Fero. ‘Think of frogs and toads to name but two. Dragons may be like that. Anyway it seems there are dragons around here after all.’

Asphodel then murmured in Elvish. ‘Dragons! Typical! How are we to fight dragons?’ Then she turned to the others. ‘That poem said there were guardians near the tomb, but didn’t specify what. Maybe the guardians are dragons.’

The sleeping creature suddenly leaped up. It looked around itself, saw the friends and made some sounds.

Asphodel looked surprised. ‘That sounds like a form of elvish!’ she said. It sounded as though it said, “Dragons? Where? I’ll sort them out for you.”

The Wolves looked at one another.

Asphodel replied, in elvish, ‘You’re the dragon, even if only a baby.’

The creature looked incensed. ‘Baby?’ it said. ‘Baby? Who are you calling a baby?’

‘But aren’t you a baby dragon then?’ asked Asphodel.

‘Indeed I am not! I am a fully-grown dragonet,’ it responded.

Asphodel translated the conversation to them.

‘I’ve heard of dragonets,’ Randa said, ‘but they are considered to be myths by most people nowadays.’

Asphodel translated when the little creature asked what Randa had said.

‘Do I look like a myth to you? My name is Mulldee, by the way. If you’d been properly brought up you’d have introduced yourselves to me first, since this is my home.’

Asphodel again translated for the others and Randa then looked towards the creature and said, ‘I, at least, have been properly brought up. I am Randa. My companions are,’ and she indicated each one in turn, ‘Carthinal, a mage, Asphodel, a curate of Sylissa, Fero, Thadora, Basalt, Kimi and Davrael. May I apologise for our poor manners.’

After more translation, the dragonet replied, ‘That’s better. Now we know each other, I must ask you what brings you to our valley?’

The companions looked at each other and then at Carthinal. The young half-elf spoke for the first time.

‘Asphodel, tell Muldee that we are passing through. We became lost in the mountains, and a pair of yeti showed us the way through the volcano.’

The dragonet put his head on one side, and looked at Carthinal. ‘Most unusual. In fact, unheard of. Yeti helping people?’

Suddenly there was a flurry of wings over Muldee’s head. Another dragonet appeared, this one paler in colour, but still with the iridescence of Muldee. It made a series of whistles and clicks. Muldee responded with his own series of whistles.

‘My clutch mate, Amonine,’ he told the Asphodel. ‘She hatched after me, and so is more of a baby.’

‘Huh! Baby indeed. I only hatched seven hours after you! Come on, Deedee. We’re waiting for you.’ (She spoke in the form of elvish that Muldee had used so Asphodel could understand her.) With that, she dived into the water and swam away.

Muldee’s concentration seemed to evaporate as he saw his siblings swimming and diving, and he turned to the travellers saying, ‘I don’t suppose “they” will let you do any harm, anyway, so I may as well go and play.’

With that, he ran to the water’s edge and swam out to join the rest of the dragonets out in the lake.

Once he had gone, the others looked at each other.

‘Not only do they damn well exist, they talk too. That’s real cool,’ said Thadora in delight at the little creatures.

‘At least they’re not dragons. They seem harmless enough,’ Kimi replied.

They decided to continue their search for bathing places. The men quickly found another beach about one hundred meters away, and so the party split. The girls quickly undressed and ran to the warm water. Randa had some soap in her pack, and she soaped herself, and then her hair. She threw the soap to Asphodel who did the same, and then the other two had the soap. They swam in the water and splashed each other. It was so good to feel clean again.

The men had also stripped off. Basalt was quite happy to wade into the water as far as his waist, but pointedly refused to go any deeper. ‘If dwarves were meant to swim, we’d have been given webbed feet,’ was his reply to the urgings of the others.

Davrael was standing in the shallower water still trying to persuade Basalt to come in deeper, when all of a sudden, he found himself swept from his feet, and took a severe dunking in the water. The normally proud and dignified Horselord looked far from proud or dignified as he thrashed around to regain his feet, and came up spluttering. He automatically felt for his knives, but of course they were not there, as he was naked. He looked at the others. They were all laughing. How could they laugh when something had nearly drowned him? Then he saw a flurry of water in Basalt’s direction. Something was beating the water and covering the dwarf in a fountain.

Basalt was spluttering in anger, and he too reached for his non-existent axe. Then a shape burst from the water beside him, and he realised what had happened. Muldee had decided to join them in their swim. He was still smarting from the loss of his dignity but had to smile when Carthinal was dragged down by the playful dragonet, and came up spluttering and angry. Muldee then flew high in the sky and dived into the water. Soon they were all, except for Basalt, swimming and diving with the little creature and enjoying themselves immensely.

When the men saw that the four young women had left the water, they too climbed out onto the sand and sat there drying off before putting on their clothes, also to give the girls time to dry off and get dressed. They saw ripples in the water and thought that one of the dragonets was approaching, but nothing emerged. Davrael thought he saw a figure that looked vaguely human beneath the water, but could not be sure. They watched, but saw nothing. Eventually, they decided it must have been a large fish of some kind. Then, just as they were dressing to go back to the others, Fero dashed into the water and managed to catch the shape. He drew out a beautiful woman, who was spitting and scratching at him. She had blue hair and a faintly greenish tinge to her skin. Her ears were pointed like an elf’s, and she had elf-like slanted eyes of a deep blue colour, but her pupils were elongated like those of a cat.

Fero held her gently, but firmly whilst the others looked in astonishment.

‘It’s a nymph!’ exclaimed Carthinal. ‘This must be her lake.’

‘Yes, half-elf,’ she spat, ‘This is my lake. You did not ask my permission to swim.’

‘I apologise,’ he replied, bowing slightly to her. ‘We didn’t realise that a nymph was present. We’d have been more respectful if we did.’

‘So I would hope,’ she said. ‘Now let me go!’ This last was to Fero.  ‘No one has visited this valley for hundreds of years, and I have been left in peace,’ she said. ‘Now you come. Why are you here?’

‘We are on a quest,’ Carthinal told her. ‘We are searching for a magical item.’

‘Oh-oh,’ the nymph said. ‘Well, I don’t expect you’ll get far. The Guardians will soon see you off. No one comes here now. The stories of the Guardians are enough to frighten would-be treasure seekers. It suits me. Although sometimes it does becomes lonely with only the dragonets for company. They are amusing, but at times can be rather irritating.’ She cast a sidelong glance at Fero. ‘Occasionally I feel the need for company of a more, shall we say grown up kind. The dragonets get a bit tiresome at times.’

‘Don’t look into her eyes, Fero,’ Basalt whispered out of the side of his mouth, ‘Nymphs can spell humans into thinking they are in love with them.’

‘Don’t worry, Dwarf,’ she said, ‘I had a human lover once. He loved me of his own free will and I him. That is better than a sorcerous love. I have never wanted anyone under magical coercion since.’

‘That not usual?’ asked Davrael. ‘Nymphs not usually love humans, I think.’

‘That is true. He found his way into the valley when he and his army got lost in the mountains. He wandered away from them to be alone. He had just lost a battle and was feeling despair. I saw him and loved him immediately.

‘He was proud and dignified; a bit like you, warrior,’ she looked at Davrael. ‘I was going to cast a spell on him, but he saw me and I then realised I did not want him to love me through magic, but for my own self. I showed myself to him, and comforted him. He truly loved me. He could not stay with me forever though as he had a wife, and had his duty to his country and so he left.

‘He returned many times though. His adviser, an elf, cast a spell on his men so they would forget where the valley is. Only my lover and his adviser could find it again. But that was hundreds of years ago. I’ve been alone ever since, except when the advisor came with others and created the Abominations. My lover came back to me, you see. To stay forever near me; not her, his wife. He was dead, of course. I’ve mourned his passing ever since. Don’t worry, handsome, dark stranger,’ she said to Fero. ‘I would never want to have love through magic again, when I’ve had the free love of a man.’

They were silent for a while. Then Carthinal asked, ‘Why are you telling us this? Nymphs are usually shy and don’t talk readily to mortals such as we.’

‘I don’t know,’ she replied looking puzzled. ‘I felt that it was important you know. Whether to you or to me I don’t know.’

With that, she turned and slipped back into the water and was gone.

The men looked at each other. ‘I think we’ve found our valley, guys,’ said Carthinal. ‘Let’s go and tell the girls!’

They all sat around the fire they had built from dead branches gathered from the woods around. Carthinal repeated what the nymph had said.

‘It was most odd,’ he told them when he had finished. ‘Nymphs are the shyest of creatures, and don’t usually succumb to loneliness, yet this one was quite voluble, telling us things I would not have expected.’

He left them to draw their own conclusions about the valley, which they quickly did.
‘There are tales of Sauvern falling in love with a nymph, aren’t there?’ asked Asphodel
‘Yes, indeed there are,’ replied Carthinal, ‘and if you take into account that we’ve been warned about “them” and also told of the “Guardians” it seems to add up. As I said to the others, we seem to have found our valley.’

‘Or rather, had it found for us,’ said Basalt. ‘We would have been hopelessly lost, if not dead if Grnff and Zplon hadn’t saved us and brought us here.’

Asphodel was thinking. ‘And there was the mysterious man who told Grnff about us—before we even knew each other existed. We’ve definitely been directed here. I think this is the valley, too.’

Just at that moment, there was a flurry of wings overhead and then, in a spray of sand, Muldee arrived. He landed on his hind feet, and sat, to all intents and purposes like a dog begging for food, his strong tail balancing him behind. In his front talons he was carrying a large fish.

Asphodel translated his words.

‘I thought you may like this,’ he told them, dropping it straight into Randa’s lap. ‘I’m sure you would like a change from those birds the yeti seem to enjoy so much.’

Randa was not over-pleased at having the wet and fishy creature land on her, clean as she was now, and she threw the fish away from her. The fish was still alive, and it flopped about, wetting Randa further.

The others smothered laughs as she picked it up gingerly and said, ‘Thank you, Muldee. We’ll enjoy this immensely. Will one of you kill it please?’

‘Why can’t you?’ said Asphodel.

‘I’ve never killed anything before. I’m not sure I can.’

‘That’s not true, Randa,’ Fero told her, ‘you managed to kill those wolves that attacked us, and very efficiently too, I might add.’

‘That was different. They were attacking us. It was our lives that were at stake.’

Fero looked at her, and pointed out, ‘It could be our lives at stake here too. People die without food as well as by being killed by wild animals. It’s necessary to kill in order to survive. Sometimes killing is to stop something from killing you, but more often it’s in order for you to eat.’

‘Yes, but someone else has always done it for me,’ she whined ‘and it’s arrived on my plate looking nothing like an animal that has given up its life for me to eat.’

Asphodel responded to this by telling her that it was about time that she learned to face life’s unpleasantness as well as the good things. Carthinal glanced at her. She had learned a bit about life and death herself since her kidnapping by the orcs and having to live off the land.

‘Killing a living being is never pleasant,’ she went on, ‘but sometimes it’s necessary as Fero said. Before the flood I’d never killed anything either, but I had to learn or starve. You kill the fish!’ Muldee had been listening to this exchange with a perplexed look on his face.
Randa, supervised by Fero, found a large stone and hit the fish sharply on its head, and began the process of cleaning it. By her face, it was not a job she was enjoying very much. When she had finished, Asphodel gave her a handful of herbs, which she spread inside the fish along with some wild garlic they had found near the trees. Then she wrapped it, supervised by Asphodel, in leaves and placed it by the side of the fire, almost, but not quite in the flames.

Muldee was again bewildered. ‘Now you burn it!’ he exclaimed. Asphodel laughed at the little creature’s expression and translated once again. ‘Why do you ruin a good fish? I had a lot of trouble catching that. It’s a big one. Enough to feed you all.’

Asphodel had to explain again to the dragonet. He sighed and replied to her explanation.
‘It seems I know little of the world. We’re very sheltered here in our valley.’

Then he seemed to be considering all he had learned.

They ate the fish, and it was very good. It was, indeed, big enough for them all with some left over. They offered Muldee some, but he refused, saying that he did not think he would like burned fish, even if they preferred it. Then he flew off, telling them that it would soon be dark and he needed to go back to his clutch mates for safety.

They spent the night there on the beach. The nights were getting warmer, but not warm enough to want to be far from the fire, even if it were safe to do so, which they were unsure they were. After all, there were the mysterious Guardians to consider.

The following morning, they finished the remains of the fish, which tasted even better than it had the previous evening. Each of them expressed a feeling that eyes had been on them all the time they were on watch. It had been a most eerie feeling, as there was no sight or sound of anything, Fero had moved silently towards where he felt the eyes were, but had seen nothing. They quickly dismissed it as imagination. The warnings of Muldee and the nymph had been on their minds they decided.

After breakfast, they set off in search of the tomb that they were now quite sure must be in this valley, somewhere. They walked towards the head of the valley, in a westerly direction, with the intention of circling the lake, and returning by the northern and eastern shores. The mountains towered over them, making them feel very small. There were small woods down here nearer the lake, interspersed with meadows, which now had flowers blooming. The day was warm, and the sky cloudless. In these less dense woodlands, bluebells were just beginning to form their blue carpet under the trees. Thadora was entranced. She had never seen a bluebell wood before and exclaimed continuously of its beauty.

‘If I’d ’ave known ’ow lovely the damn countryside is, I’d ’ave never stayed in ’Ambara,’ she exclaimed. ‘I always thought as ’ow it’d be so not excitin’ livin’ outside o’ th’ town, y’know, nothin’ to do, nothin’ ’appenin’, like, but it’s so bleedin’ lovely, and I’ve not been bored one little bit.’

The others all laughed at her comments, and Fero pointed out that their journey so far had been an unusual one. People did not normally get attacked by wolves, traverse a difficult, almost impossible pass, nearly die from the cold in the snow, get rescued by yeti and walk through a volcano, not to mention meeting dragonets.

Yet in spite of the idyllic surroundings, as they neared the western shore of the lake, they all began to have a sensation of being watched, much as they had during the night. The nearer they approached the western end of the valley, the more fearful they felt. They instinctively drew nearer to each other, and walked with hands on weapons. Carthinal searched his mind for both offensive and defensive spells, and used the staff to put protective armour of “hardened” air on himself.

As they emerged from one of the little woods they saw spread out before them a meadow of wild flowers, much as others they had passed through. There was one difference, however. The feeling of menace here was stronger than ever, and standing before them amongst the flowers, looking somewhat out of place in the meadow, were twelve warriors, swords drawn and ready to do battle.

Twelve battle-hardened warriors against eight mismatched adventurers are not good odds, but that was not what brought them to a standstill. It was a feeling of utter terror that was emanating from the warriors. It washed over the Wolves. Wave upon wave of fear. It was all they could do to stand their ground. In fact, Fero held out his hand to physically stop Carthinal from turning back there and then.

‘We’ve not come this far to fail now,’ he whispered to the half-elf. Carthinal looked at him.

‘They are undead warriors,’ he said. ‘If there is one thing that I cannot face it’s undead. They frighten me more than anything else does on Vimar.’

Just then one of the undead stepped forward. He was wearing a captain’s insignia of a very archaic design on equally ancient armour. He spoke, and it sounded as though the voice was all around them, echoing from the mountains that surrounded the valley.

‘Why do you come to the Valley?’ he intoned. ‘You must return and let the dead rest in peace.’

‘We mean no harm,’ Basalt said in a quavering voice.

‘You are not the leader. We must speak with the leader,’ went on the undead captain.

‘Carthinal, speak to him,’ prompted Asphodel as Carthinal made no move to step forward and respond to the creature.

Carthinal’s face was pale. He seemed as though he could not stand. Fero was all but holding him up.

‘I-I can’t,’ he managed, ‘I can’t speak to those dreadful creatures.’

‘You must or we can’t get any further,’ Asphodel scolded. ‘Remember the rhyme. “No fear must show or from there you will be hounded.” We now know what the Guardians are. You must control your fear and not let them see you’re frightened.’

Carthinal was about to protest again when Davrael came to him.

‘I understand, Carthinal,’ he told him. ‘I have fear such as you on bridge. You must face it. We here. We help you. I come stand by side. Face it and it seem less.’

With Davrael on one side, and Fero on the other, Carthinal drew himself up to his full height. His legs felt weak, but he forced them to move and carry him forward.

The three approached the centre of the meadow, and the captain, with two of his men did likewise.

‘I am the leader of this group,’ Carthinal ventured reticently.

‘Then you must answer my question. Why are you here?’

Carthinal thought of a number of myriad replies, then decided that he must answer with the truth. These creatures would surely be able to tell if he lied.

‘We are here to find Sauvern’s Sword,’ he told them. ‘We have been sent by a man who believes the world is in grave peril.’

‘What is this peril?’ asked the undead captain.

‘We don’t know. We weren’t told any details. We’re only the employees doing our employer’s bidding.’

The captain appeared to think about this reply. He turned to look at the other two with him. There were no words exchanged, but Carthinal had the distinct impression of a conversation passing between them.

Then the captain said, ‘My youngest knight, Bry here,’ he indicated the man on his right. ‘Wishes to ask you a question. It is unprecedented for the youngest to ask, but he has served bravely and well, so I grant him this boon.’

The young undead knight, who looked not much older than Thadora, said, ‘Who are you?’
‘I am Carthinal Mabrylson. My companions are…’

He got no farther before Bry interrupted him.

‘No, Not your given names. That is meaningless. What do you call your group, if anything.’
Carthinal paused for a second, wondering if he should give the name as it suddenly seemed rather adolescent to call themselves a name. Rather like the adolescent gangs in the cities to which he, himself, had once belonged.

Then Thadora suddenly ran forward. ‘We call ourselves “Wolf”,’ she cried.

The undead warriors looked at each other.

‘They are the ones,’ intoned the leader. ‘Now our vigil is at an end. We can at last go to our rest.’

With that the twelve warriors seemed to slowly fade from view, and the feeling of being watched vanished with it along with the feeling of menace. All at once, the birds began to sing. They had not realised, due to their own fear that they had not been singing in this part of the valley until the song recommenced. A collective sigh came from the members of Wolf.

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