A Fantasy romance
From his demeanor, it's hard to see what this man did to the city of Meldritch. The once thriving city now lay in ruins, their demise was brought upon them by their desire to appease the man who stood at the city gates.
He was not rich or powerful. To look at the poor wretch, you would imagine he’d had a hard life, for he was thin with broken teeth and unkempt appearance. When he spoke or sang, his words and music gripped the imagination of the people like a fever. His words and music could drive ordinarily sane people to do anything to stop him from leaving. When he entered Meldritch - as he had many cities before - the people had no idea what they had let enter their village.
To the world outside, he was no more than a wandering scribe, trying to buy a meal and a place to rest by telling stories. On his departure, he left in his wake a city dazzled by his stories of far-off lands, but he had an agenda that nobody knew about until it was too late to do anything. Like all things, once he’d had his pleasures, he left; leaving behind a trail of misery and disgust.
For a while, everything had appeared pleasantly joyous as the man spread his fascinating stories and ate and drank freely. By all the reports, you’d expect the man to be of great stature and strength, but the opposite was true. Strength and size were not his powers. His powers came from his ability to capture your soul with his words. Tales from enchanted lands flowed from his dry lips like leaves of dying trees. His audiences grew with each telling, as did the value of the stories. With his stories, he earned enough to pay for a small meal and a drink for the two companions. The time being the late Fall, the town’s people begged the stranger to stay, but he’d tired of their company, and all he had to say was, “The land calls me to walk a new path.” The first falls of early snow chilled the earth, and the fruits had long gone from the trees and hedges. The man stood at the gate and steadied himself for the journey ahead. With a last glance to the city he was leaving, he walked out of the gates, and sneered under his breath, “They'll never learn, Drux.”
Following in his master’s footsteps was Drux - a large dog - wherever Baal Korax went, Drux was close to her master's heel. Nobody was sure how they’d crossed paths; some say Baal had rescued Drux from a freezing cavern; others will tell you that Baal raised Drux from a cub. Baal believed that Drux was the last of the Wolfen who once roamed the forests and hills. Baal had walked many paths over many hills, and he'd never come across any other wolfen or heard talk of any clans living in the areas.
Like Drux, Baal had a distant past that eluded memory. The past was so much a blank to him; Baal had no ideas where to call home, or when he came into the world. All Baal could say is that the only life he recalled was a traveling scribe. The man didn’t bother much about his past, to him, the road in front was all that mattered, and for now, the way led to the high ranges and the place they called home. “Come, Drux,” he called as man and beast left the sight of the city, “It won’t be long before you can return to your true form,” the man said as he ruffled the dog’s messy mane.
The two travelers took to the open road and left the city in their past, never to return, for that would be to tempt fate. Baal had spent most of his life on these roads and never been back to any village or city. The only place he returned to was his shack, every winter.
“We need to cross the ridge before the heavy snow comes, or we’ll not see our home until the early Spring, Drux, my old friend,” he said to his companion as they made their way to the footpath that led to the hills. At this time of year, only the foolhardy took the roads to the high mountains, unless they had a reason. In Winter, the supplies came along the lower path; they made an extra day, but those roads are safer at this time of the year. The dog looked to the hills that lay ahead and gave his tail a wag, to show she agreed with her master. The man and his companion started their long, cold walk to the mountain range ahead, and with hearts full of thoughts of the road, and bellies full of the most exquisite food they set off on their journey.
Baal’s hide thigh boots kept some of the winter's cold from the snow from chilling his feet, but he knew they needed to keep moving to reach shelter so that Drux wouldn’t get too cold, for ahead of them lay a long journey.
The snow-covered landscape made for a beautiful view as the pair climbed higher, but the knee-high drifts made walking tiresome for Baal. He glanced back, and seeing Drux begin to shiver and struggle; he retraced his steps to his friend, "Come, I'll carry you from here. It isn't far, and we'll be in the warm soon, my friend."
The dog looked up at her master with a sad longing in her eyes and gave a weak grin. There were times when she'd happily have ran ahead of Baal, but lately, Drux had taken to keeping in step with her master.
Baal walked the short way back to his friend and heaved her tired body onto his shoulders, "We'll need to pick up the pace. I feel the chill in the air getting colder on my old bones, and that means a heavy fall is on the way."
Being careful to tread in his previous steps, Baal began the climb to the old shack they called home. The climb wasn't long, but with the cold, and feeling tired, Baal struggled with the rise, "I don't remember it being this hard last year, Drux," he muttered as he trudged the sharply rising hill. It was some minutes before the hut came in sight, "Here we are, home for the Winter. It won't be long, and then you can stretch out again."
The wooden hut didn't look much from the outside, but it kept the worst of the winter winds and snow out, and that's all the man and his dog needed. During the Spring and Summer months, they'd built a store of fruits from their journeys across the ranges, now is the time to make the meals that would sustain them, until their next trip.
The small hut lies hidden from sight below the ridge lines of the nearby hills unless you know where to look it's easily missed - even Baal lost sight of the cabin once or twice on his return.
Being careful of the drift above the door, Baal kicked the door open. He watched as the snow slid off the roof, and waited for the last flakes to float to the ground, and then he stepped over the doorstep, "Here you are," he said as he laid Drux on a bearskin, "You rest for a while, and I'll start the fire. We'll be warmed through shortly, Drux." Drux looked up from the floor and wagged his tail, and then he laid his head down and went to sleep as Baal went outside to the log pile.
Baal stepped outside and noticed some paw marks that he didn't recognize, and for him, that was odd as he had got to know all the prints of the animals in the area.
Baal glanced at the sets of paw prints in the snow around the stack, many of them were easily recognizable, but among them was a sect he'd never seen before. "Hmmm, I wonder who you are?" he muttered as he looked in the direction the prints were heading, "I thought I knew all my winter guests, but your mark is new to this area."
Baal eyed the trail of tracks leading to the hillocks surrounding his home," We're here for you, my friend if you choose our company. I hope you have somewhere safe to hide and stay warm," he muttered into the wind that drove the snow. He wasn't in the cold long before he could feel his face tingle with the bite of the wind, "I must be getting old; there was a time when I enjoyed the cold bite on my face, now I want the warmth of the fire," he whispered.
Baal picked the logs for the fire from his pile and began to walk back to the cabin on his way he glanced at the trail, as far as he could tell there was no sign of blood. So He was lead to assume that the creature wasn't hurt - that didn't mean it wasn't in danger - in the depths of the forest there are many creatures unknown to man. Most of these animals Baal gave a wide berth.
From a child, Baal heard stories of creatures that could control their shape, strange as it sounded, he had never questioned these tales. The people of his tribe were not driven to make stories up, more than likely they related their experiences in stories. The stories of these creatures get passed from generation to generation, and with little change, or embellishment, only the people changed as the new generation saw what their family had seen in the years past.
As he looked at the rim of the nearest mound, he thought "Somewhere out there sits a new friend, or maybe many friends. I can't force them to come to me, but I won't drive them away as the people in the villages do. In a way, I am like them, only, seeking no company other than my company and wary of strangers prying into my life. "
He couldn't know but Baal was confident that dark eyes were watching from the hills around him, something in his soul made him aware of another's presence. If he didn't know who they were, one thing was sure, and they wouldn't attack until they'd found out as much about him as was possible from scouting the woods. There was little he could do but wait for what was going to unfold to unfold at its pace, so he walked back to the cabin and with a final glance towards the hills, he eased the door open.
On the floor in front of him lay Drux, his friend was completing the changes from Wolfen to human and revealing the gorgeous young lady who was inside the body of a young wolf. Donning a robe that lay on the floor beside her, Drax said, "Close the door, please. Now I am in human form I can feel the chills of the winds more. I think I know what kept you, you saw the tracks at the back of the house and wondered who made them. In my other form, not only did I see the tracks before you, but my sharp sense of smell told me that our visitor is not alone. I sensed about 20 others out there. They won't attack, even though they have the numbers to overrun us, of that I can assure you."
Baal glanced at the beautifully, lithe body before him, and then replied, "How can you be sure?"
Drux gave a wink, to acknowledge that Baal appreciated her new form, and then continued, "The creatures out there are cold, hungry and far from their hunting lands."
Baal walked to the window and looked out at the mounds of land protecting his cabin from the worst of the winds, "Can you tell if they're Wolves or Wolfen, Drux?"
Drux smiled sweetly, and replied, "I have no doubt they are Wolfen. If my senses are correct, they belong to the Drassian clan."
Baal smoothed his beard with his left hand, and then replied, "I thought the Drassian clan was driven to extinction over a hundred years ago in The Great Wolfen Hunt."
Drux sighed, and replied, "That is the legend, the facts are not right. All they did was go deeper into the forest than any living thing has been. For this group to come out in the open, something bad is happening in the woods. Nothing since the hunt has driven the clan to hunt in the open, and here they are now, in the open."
Being a man of the woods, Baal didn't like the idea of shooting animals for no reason, but a pack of wolfen on the hunt was not something he had thought of coming across. In all his years of traveling, he had never heard of any stories of wolfen packs roaming the countryside; usually, the people in the city left a few sheep loose to maintain the balance; for the pack to keep the pack from wandering from their home. Wandering meant something was wrong in the woods, and whatever it was, the creature was forcing the wolfen to break unwritten codes that are something they would never do willingly. To violate the laws, meant bringing death to the pack, or at least a war with humans. He stood at his window looking at the snow, and he wondered what their plan was? Would they wait it out until they had no choice but to attack, or would the pack attack as the light faded, and they had the advantage of night vision to aid their attack? Restlessly, he fiddled with the latch of his rifle and looked for his store of rounds. Baal realized he couldn't hold out long if the pack attacked, so he had to make the first shots count and hope the wolfen would reconsider the attack to maintain the group's survival.
Drux was watching, and waiting to see who made the first move; who made the first step would have the advantage, being a wolfen but Baal's close friend, she found herself caught in the middle. Releasing, she would lose out no matter what the outcome, she decided to be the first to move. With a yawn and a stretch, she said to Baal, "Put the gun away and let me speak to them. I may be a distant relative, but I am still one of their kind, they may listen to me."
Baal glanced at his young friend and realized that she might be right if anyone could keep the peace, there was no better person or creature than his beautiful Drux. One of her many attributes was being calm of spirit. This calmness had helped them in their wanderings over the eons to enchant the villagers with tales as she changed shapes before their eyes to ease their minds; little did these people know that as a hybrid wolfen, Drux had much more to her personality than shape-changing.
With a slight nod, Baal said, "As you wish, but I'll be watching for anything to go wrong. If I see anything happening, you know I won't hesitate to shoot."
Drux nodded her agreement and said, "I'd have it no other way. We protect each other that is our arrangement, and that is how it will always be."
With a heave of her slender shoulder, Drux pushed the door to the shack open. The chill of the air made her catch her breath before she had a chance to take the form of the wolfen, so she shuddered as she knelt.
Baal had witnessed the change the change many times, but he never tired of seeing his beautiful young lady companion change into a grey-haired wolfen. He always wondered if the color of her fur was an indication of her age, or to blend into the shadows?
Drux's head turned to the cabin window as she started to track the wolfen, behind her, as Drux padded out to meet the wolfen she heard the click of the rifle bolt and hoped she could avoid the bloodshed that might follow if the attack took place.
She sniffed the cold air, and braced herself, as she padded forward head bowed but eyes keenly watching the shadows for movement. To her surprise, all appeared to be calm on the fringes of the woods, apart from the eyes that watched as she walked towards the pack.
At the edge of the forest, she stopped for a while, taking in the sight of the gathering wolfen before her, she realized they were leaderless. "I am Drux of the Macarri, I come to the Drassian in peace," she called to the pack. "I bear no malice for past doings or past betrayals. I come only to find out why you are so far from your land and without a leader."
A grey-furred wolfen approached from the crowd of restless creatures. "I am Darian of the Drassian clan, our land is under threat from dark forces, and something unseen is hunting us as we move. Our leader, Mandarro, was the first to be taken; his death meant those who are here could escape. To him, we owe our lives, and we will avenge his death."
Drux passed a glance at the tired wolfen standing before her and said, "My master doesn't have much, but he's a kind man if you can convince me you come in peace; I am sure I can convince him of your intentions."
Darian didn't need to wait for an answer from his followers, he said, "We've traveled far and eaten little. I can guarantee you, Drux, despite our tribe's histories, we have no intention of starting a war. All we ask is for some food and a little warmth. The winter is on us, and our group cannot travel to the far hills without some strength. As you see our numbers are few, and those who are here are injured."
Drux's instincts told her not to trust the Drassians, but her eyes and her heart were telling her that she stood before the last wolfen of a once noble breed, now doomed to extinction unless she could convince Baal to help them. In her mind, she recalled the days before the last Great Wolfen Hunt; it was a time when the tribes gathered and made the pact to help each other. The bands forgot every territorial ground in need to escape, all that is apart from the Drassian clan. Mandorro had refused access to the lands of the Drassian, in doing so not only had he put his tribe against all others but he'd put his tribe against him.
In another world, Drux would have turned her back on her enemy and walked away, but this war was not between wolfen tribes, this war was against some old evil that had escaped from the Dark Wood. She stood watching the starved tribe with eyes that filled with tears, then said, "We were once enemies, now our enemy is not our tribal history, but a legend come real. I will go to my master and ask his forgiveness for your past misdeeds against my people. He took me in when I was a cub, he could have killed me but his heart lead him to see my plight, I am sure I can get him to see yours too."
Darian tried to smile but he was too weak, "We owe you much, Drux. We can offer little in return as our land is not ours and we are forced to cross the mountain ranges in the coming winter."
Drux turned to the rest of the tribe and said, "You cannot cross the mountains. It's hard enough for climbing the hills in the Spring. If you attempt a crossing at this time of year, so many of you will die in the crossing that you won't be able to start your tribe again,"
She turned her gaze back to the cabin, in the dim light of the fire, she could see the silhouette of Baal with his gun at the ready. "If you see the door open, you'll be welcomed into our shack, if you don't see the open door that means I failed to convince my master. He won't shoot unless he feels threatened as my friend realizes he has no chance of surviving an attack - if you want that I can't stop you - but more of you WILL die, and for what reason?"
A thin female voice from the rear of the pack replied, "What you say is true, Drux. We could overrun your master, but those of us who survived would be so weak that we may not live long enough to recover from the battle. We have heard many stories about your travels and the strength of your friend; we'd rather be friends than enemies if that is possible. If not, we'll leave in peace."
Drux smiled, then said, "We don't have much, the pickings on our last journey were thin even for one such as me, with the power to travel through the minds of the humans. Nevertheless, I am sure that if you come in peace, my master will be pleased to shelter you from the cold and a little food to sustain you for a short while. Like me, he will be anxious to learn what has driven you to break the treaty set between human and wolfen, and in doing so, risk your lives."
The pack rumbled as the thoughts of the past month came back to haunt them, too many were dead to risk a fight to take the cabin, and as she said, those who did survive would be too weak to carry on with their hunt for new land.
In the cabin, Baal hadn't taken his eyes off Drux for fear she would fail in her task, and the pack turns on her to feed. In the fading light, and through the driving snow Baal's eyes began to strain. He felt for the twin axes at his side, he knew if the pack attacked he'd kill one or two with his gun, but the real struggle for survival would be hand-to-hand in the cabin. Baal may be old and weakened by hunger, but he still had the strength of an ox and the will to fight like a wounded animal.
He watched Drux anxiously, waiting for any sign that she was in danger, but none came. To his eyes, it appeared the pack was as tired and hungry as he was, he wondered what could have forced the pack this close to the edge of the forest? In all the stories he'd heard, the one constant was the threat of war if humans and wolfen crossed paths again. But, here they were, whatever had happened must have been devastating to the pack to force them from their homes, and safety.
Realizing the possibility of danger was gone, Drux said her farewells and turned back to her wolfen form for the dash back to the cabin. From inside, Baal never faltered in tracking the remaining wolfen, he'd made that error once, and only the interference of Drux saved him from a savage death. They may look tired and hungry, but at the back of their minds, they were wolfen and hunters, that is the thing you needed to remember.
Two meters from the door Drux changed back to human form, a moment later Baal heard a knock on the door, with an ax in his hand, he walked to the door and inched it open; he breathed a sigh as he saw his friend outside. "Come in, it's cold, and you need to get warm," Baal said as Drux walked to the fire. "I had my eye on you all the time, Drux, I learned not to take the wolfen for granted after the time you saved me."
She smiled, then replied, "I never doubted you, master. The wolfen come in peace, all they wish is for a night's peace from the cold, and a little food. They have information that I think you should hear too, what they told me sent shivers down my spine, as you know that rarely happens."
Baal replied, "I did wonder what made them run from their homes? It must be something more than a beast; I know no animal a wolfen is afraid to fight, not even a stronger wolf."
"Can I signal our new friends to come over?" Drux asked.
Baal replied, "If they come in peace, all are welcome at my shelter, Drux."
Drux commented, "They realize that they could overrun us, but at the same time they understand that not many would survive, and those who do would be too weak to go on. Your prowess with guns and axes goes before you, master."
Baal stroked his ragged beard and smiled, then commented, "I only use the weapons in defense, or to hunt for food for us. I'd never use them to attack an animal or a person."
Drux warmed herself for a few moments; then she went to open the door to signal all was well for the pack to come out of the woods, and take shelter from the storm.
In the woods, Darian watched and indicated to his followers to move, all the time remaining wary of a trap. The further out they ventured, the more he kept waiting for other humans, but there were none to be seen.
At the door, Darian and his troupe returned to human form as they entered, he said, "We're grateful for this shelter, Baal. We know the people don't trust us, the feeling is mutual after the Great Hunt. That is why we have remained in the dark for eons, but now something is lurking in the shadows that threaten all of us I fear."
Baal sat quietly for a while, then said, "I have heard stories about a beast that dwells in the darkness, Darian. I, too, fear for our safety and the safety of others. Few people beyond this cabin realize what risks you undertook in leaving your homes to wander the forest in search of food and shelter knowing it meant people hunt you like the beasts that you were once, but life has changed you into nobler creatures who no longer scavenge for human flesh."
Darian tried to warm his hands and feet by the fire, but he’d been in the freezing snow so long the heat made little effect on his body. “Baal, my friend, the Wolfen of my clan realized that to survive we needed to rid ourselves of the shame brought upon us by previous generations, now we hunt only livestock and small animals. To track people would surely bring about our end. Not that the urge has gone, but survival is of greater importance than the urge to hunt humans. We seek only a little food and shelter until the worst of the coming storm has passed, in return, Baal we guarantee safe passage through our new homeland if we can make a new territory in the Spring.”
Baal smiled and replied, “I thank you, Darius, for the kindness. You are welcome to share our home as long as you wish. We have little, but you are welcome to share what we have. When Spring comes, we can travel safely and find a new home for your clan.”
Darius grinned and asked, “We have heard stories of you, Baal. Tales of how you tell your stories and leave the towns waiting for more. Are they true?”
Drux shook her hair, then replied, “My master’s reputation travels before him, Darius. The stories you have heard are true; last week we left Meldritch in our wake, the people were begging us to stay as his tales of lands far away are wondrous.”
Carriada, a young wolfen, asked, “If they wanted you to stay, why did you leave the safety of the city, Baal?”
Baal turned to face Carriada and replied, “The story is only fresh for a short while, Carriada, and I needed to gather some new tales to tell the next city we visit. Though they wished me to stay, I was feeling uneasy being tied to one place too long. I am a traveler with no home, that is how I like to live, settling down is not for me.”
Drux nodded in agreement, and commented, “Nor me. I don’t know where I am from, or how my master found me, all I know is that we are not meant to be in a city under the eyes of many people.”
Carriada enquired, “How did you get the people to want you to stay longer?”
Drux replied, “It’s part of my being. I can not only change into a wolfen, but I can alter my state into energy, and I can enter the mind of a person. The ability to change my form is good, but the change comes at a high price.”
Darius commented, “What’s the price?”
I can only maintain the form during sleep time. If the person wakes, or is woken by sunrise, and I have not left them; I will remain trapped there with no hope of escape.”
Carriada enquired, “If the risk in changing is high is the need to change worth the possible cost?”
Baal replied, “Young lady, I would never ask Drux to take such a risk. That choice is always up to her to make. I usually attempt to talk her out of it, but as you see, she has a strong will of her own. Each time she changes, I pray she’ll come back to me, I can’t think of living without her.”
Carriada continued, “I didn’t realize that Wolfen can become only energy, Drux.”
Drux answered the comment, “There are only a very few us who can, Carriada. I’ve heard of one or two more, but I have never met them, so I can’t tell if this is a story or a truth.”