Part I.

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A MOURNFUL HOWL ECHOED THROUGH THE VALLEY, stopping Dern cold. Wolves, he thought at first, but it was only a single howl and it didn’t sound right—he knew the sounds of wolves well, and this was different. He stood motionless a moment more, but heard nothing and so resumed walking back to camp with his last stack of firewood. The afternoon was dry, but bitterly cold with the autumn sun having already receded behind the hills to the west. Dern deemed it wise to light his fire early, especially if there were wolves or some other creature about.

He set a bundle of dried pine needles to flame with a few dagger strikes to his flint and much blowing, and then added twigs until he had sufficient heat to add a pine log. After several more pine logs were aflame he added the seasoned oak he’d been fortunate enough to come across. Oak burned hotter and longer than pine, but only if it was dry, and the huge, broken limb he’d discovered looked to have been ripped from a gnarled white oak during last winter’s cruel winds. It had taken Dern several hours to chop the oak into manageable pieces with his small axe, but there had been little else left for him to do after his father left him alone in the forest that morning.

The fire was soon burning hotly in the fire pit he had fashioned. The pit was surrounded with the largest stones he could gather, and the bottom was lined with stones as well. The ones on the bottom allowed the fire to breathe and the rocks along the perimeter projected the fire’s heat outward rather than letting it all escape into the heavens with the smoke. Old Skote taught him that years ago, before Skote got caught slitting someone’s purse and was hanged in Sealport. Old Skote had taught him how to make mats of pine boughs, too, one to sleep on, and another to use as a cover to keep off the hoarfrost. The green pine boughs Dern used were certain to muck up his cloak with sap, but the cloak was threadbare and near worthless anyway, and the green boughs were softer and less likely to catch fire from a stray ember. Old Skote had taught him a lot more worthwhile skills than his father ever had, Dern decided. Garamund the squire had too. Dern hoped to see him again, now that they were in the northlands for the first time in three years. If his father would allow it.

Another howl suddenly sounded through the trees, this one closer. Dern could not discern whether the beast was getting nearer to him or whether his walk back to camp had brought him closer to the beast. Another howl followed a moment later. Dern checked the sky through the canopy of trees above him and decided he had maybe another quarter hour of daylight left. Either spend a sleepless night beside the fire or go see what’s howling….

There was another howl. It definitely wasn’t a wolf. It sounded bigger. Dern grabbed his axe in one hand and his dagger in the other, but then changed his mind and tucked the dagger back into his belt to grab a stripped pine branch instead. If this beast attacked it would be better to fend it off with the branch and counterattack with his axe. Satisfied with his armament, he padded silently between the trees towards the howling animal.

The baying had come from the direction of the Stonetown road, which was no more than a hundred yards from where Dern had struck his camp. He heard no more howling, but as he got closer to the road he heard whimpering. He slowed his pace and kept to the shadows of the trees as he came into view of the road.

The animal was huge: a mongrel dog of some sort, almost the size of a calf, with a tangle of black hair, huge balls dangling between its back legs, and a long, square snout. It was pacing back and forth, and stopping to chew at something—no, to lick at something… at a man lying injured on the ground, Dern realized. There were arrows protruding from the man’s chest, at least two that he could see, and then Dern saw the horse, some distance off on the other side of the road. It had an arrow protruding from its haunch and the poor animal was trying to bend around and chomp at it with its teeth, but to no avail.

Dern stepped slowly onto the road. The dog saw him and began growling. Its hackles bristled atop its meaty shoulders and slather dripped from its yellow-marbled teeth.

“Good puppy-dog. It’s alright. I just want to help.” The hound didn’t appear to believe him. Dern tried raising his stick and axe up in a less threatening pose, but still the dog snarled at him. Dern took a few more steps to get a better look at the man, but stopped when the dog lunged at him in warning.

“Alright,” Dern conceded, back-stepping a little and craning his neck to glimpse at the man where he laid crumpled on the ground. The man wore a great helm and a gray fur cloak over steel mail. An oaken shield was strapped to his oddly bent left arm. “My lord,” Dern shouted. “Are you alright? Call off your dog and I can help you.” The warrior made no response. Dern could not tell if he was breathing or not. “My lord?”

Dern extended his branch outward to keep the dog back and tried stepping forward, but the beast snarled and snapped off the end of the branch.

“Wulfmum’s teats!” Dern swore. The dog barked and lunged at him again and Dern was forced to retreat. Not until he was back off the road did the dog relent. Dern pitched his stick back into the road in defeat. “May the wolves have the lot of you then.”

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