The soft glow of the moonlight lent the snow-laden trees and ice covered lake an otherworldly glow. The Dark Lady leaned against the railing of her balcony, the highest in all of Blackgard Keep, breathing in the sharp chill of the night air and admiring the vista. For several nights now, dark clouds had obscured the moon. Though she had no qualms about dark and turbulent nights, the darkness had a way of hiding some of winter's beauty. Below her sprawled the grounds of Blackgard Keep, and beyond the castle walls, the forested valley nestled between two intersecting mountain ranges. The sharp howl of a wolf cut through the night, some ways distant. Another called out in echo, and finally a third from just outside the walls of her castle.
Claudia waved her index finger through the air in a lazy gesture, making small crystals of ice appear and dance on the wind. She settled her fur cloak over her shoulders, more to redistribute the weight than to try and stay warm. She hardly felt the cold now, even so far north and in the dead of winter.
Though the frigid north was a far cry from her native southern clime, she already felt quite at home here. Blackgard Keep had once been the home to one of her vassals, an ancient and terrifying ice demon known to many as the Cold One, and to her as Xtarrohz. Claudia had subdued him and after her retreat to the north following her conquest in the south, she had securely chained him in the castle's dungeon and set her vassals to clearing out the bones and carcasses that had littered the great halls and chambers. Now that the keep had residents, it had begun to feel almost comfortable.
Two large werewolf packs had taken up residence in the forest around the keep, and Kelyn Evragsson, chieftain of Clan Agrona, had settled his tribe in the castle's shadow. With each passing day, Blackgard Keep became more like the spiritual center of a fledgling kingdom and less like the imposing, isolated haunt of a bloodthirsty monster. Of course, Claudia was unwilling to sacrifice all of the gravitas and dread the former occupant had instilled in Blackgard. That alone lent something to her political power, the image she was carefully crafting around herself.
Claudia turned her gaze up to the moon and twinkling stars. It was waning, though it would be another week and then some before it was gone completely. She traced the constellations with her fingertip, constellations her father had taught her and her brother to recognize when they were small.
Her father, whom by her own hand had been killed.
Claudia's hand tightened on the unyielding stone of the balcony railing. The cold wind intensified, howling down from the north and whipping her dark hair about her face. With great difficulty, she calmed her nerves and turned her thoughts from the subject. She knew that she ought not to let it bother her as much as it did. To be the Dark Lady, she knew she would have to make sacrifices, and her familial ties were one of them. Even though it was an accident, and even though she regretted it, she could not bring her father back. It was foolish to dwell on it.
Despite herself, she found her thoughts turning to her brother, far to the south in Sybalia. Was he restless tonight as well, staring up at the same moon, the same stars? Marius no doubt had plenty to occupy his thoughts, and his relationship to Claudia most certainly would cause him many problems. Though they were now ostensibly enemies, Claudia could never bear him any ill will.
She turned away from her balcony with a sigh. Thinking about her family always made it hard for her to sleep. It was unlikely she would get any rest now, so she instead made her way down to the castle kitchens. At this time of night, it was deserted, though the cook fire was always kept lit in case a messenger should arrive at a strange hour. She stoked the fire and put on the kettle for tea. As she waited for the water to boil, she heard a door creaking in the corridor. Claudia hastily rearranged her cloak in an effort to appear proper, but try as she might, she could not hide her nightgown. It would hardly do for one of her subjects to see her like this, but it could not be avoided now.
The door to the kitchen swung open. "My lady," Azfelyndoran said, inclining his head in a bow. He brushed a lock of silvery hair behind his pointed ear and sat down across from Claudia. "Is that tea? A cup would be lovely right now."
His companion scoffed. "Not for me. Where's the ale?" He poured himself a flagon from a cask and took a long draught. "Nothing better after a good hunt." He sat down opposite Azfelyndoran and sighed, combing a knot out of his tangled mop of dark hair with his fingers.
"I heard the howls earlier, Famratyr." Claudia poured hot water into an earthenware cup and offered the kettle to Azfelyndoran. "What's the news?"
The werewolf picked a bit of raw meat from his teeth and spat. "You're not going to like it."
"Andothasariel is getting tired of waiting. Hell, they condescended to use the werewolf relay."
"Perhaps because we have sent all of the messengers of my people back, telling them that it will only be a little longer." Azfelyndoran took a sip of tea. "It has been some time since you have returned to the north, and when you last went to the dark elves for aid—"
"Whose side are you on, Azfel?" Famratyr snapped.
"I serve Lady Claudia. And while I understand that establishing her reign is taking time and there is much to do here, my people value oaths quite highly. Lady Claudia gave her word that she would return to learn the ways of Dark magic. But now things have begun to settle down, and we are becoming more established here. Perhaps it is time for her to make the trip to Andothasariel."
"I already know how to use magic. I need no training."
"I shall not contest that you have unquestioned skill at basic elemental magics. But there are more complicated workings that my people could teach you. And a diplomatic visit to the city could help solidify your power amongst the elves."
Famratyr shrugged. "That's not the only news though. Byrlind's wolves heard another message earlier that banshees have been spotted on the highland plains to the south. Some of the mountain tribesmen have heard rumors that ogres have been seen in a few cave systems to the east. When I've gone ranging, I've seen some tracks that could only come from wargs. Skaggi swears she's seen a few of them in the foothills of the Paimondes."
Claudia nodded slowly. "The dark races are coming back."
"But we don't know if they'll be loyal to you. We'll have to send our folk out to bring them into the fold."
"There will be time enough for that," Azfelyndoran said. "But now is the time to solidify the alliances we already have."
Claudia scowled. "You aren't going to let this drop, are you?"
"My lady, you gave your word. I am only looking out for your best interests. My people support you now, but we cannot ignore so powerful an ally. If we do not reaffirm their support, we may not be able to count on their promptness in our hour of need."
"But what of the other races? Surely they are no less important."
Famratyr shrugged. "It's not just the three of us anymore. You're a queen, and you have subjects. You can delegate the task to them. I could go in your stead."
Claudia waited for Azfelyndoran to make some kind of quip about the foolishness of sending Famratyr on a diplomatic mission to initiate their normal verbal sparring. When no such remark came, Claudia's eyes narrowed. "You've been planning this for some time, haven't you?"
The werewolf smiled sheepishly. "Our alliance with Andothasariel is important. We knew you'd be reluctant to go, and you would need every assurance that things would be handled in other parts of your domain while you were away from Blackgard. We've made some arrangements."
"And what do these arrangements of yours entail?"
"Well… everything. Or just about."
Claudia sighed and massaged her temples. "Explain."
Azfelyndoran crossed his legs primly. "Of course, should you not consent to any of the measures Famratyr and I have taken, you are free to reject them at your leisure. That said, I have taken pains to ensure that Kelyn and Zhaggo oversee matters of state here at the keep in your absence, and have instructed the werewolf relay to put out word that you are in Andothasariel approximately when we arrive. I have also assembled a small escort party."
"And who will be escorting me?"
"Myself, naturally," Azfelyndoran replied. "And Valentine of course. Kelyn has given Seonag leave to accompany us, and Elastariel has volunteered to come as well. I have granted Lady Ilse the honor of entry to Andothasariel at her request."
Claudia nodded slowly. Seonag had served as her bodyguard in the Galletian campaign, and had proven time and again to be a loyal and capable escort. Elastariel was a dark elf who had long been estranged from her city, though she proved to be immensely cunning and, of late, a capable mage. Ilse Erdmann, along with her brother Bernard and their companion Corina Miller, were sorcerers who had joined her horde as it crossed the Galletian frontier. They had gone underground in the intervening year between Claudia's rise to power and the fall of her predecessor, Kalaryndor. The three of them were not unskilled in the arts of Dark magic, and had worked closely with Azfelyndoran in a converted dungeon in the castle to devise new spells and theorems to better harness their magic. Undoubtedly, she was accompanying them to bring word of their experiments to the elf mages in the south, and to learn some of their secrets as well.
Claudia turned to Famratyr. "You won't be coming?"
The werewolf shook his head. "I can do more good elsewhere. I've been sitting here to long, I need to go a-roving before I get stir crazy. I thought I'd go north and bring some of the northern packs around, and I think it would be a good idea for a diplomatic visit to secure Mattias's position."
"Not that it is necessary," Azfelyndoran muttered. "Otmar was grooming him for command, and the other giants readily accepted him. Famratyr just wants to eat an auroch."
Claudia patted Famratyr's hand. "I think it's a splendid idea. You'll at least see us off, won't you?"
"Of course, m'lady."
"When would we leave, Azfelyndoran?"
"As soon as possible, I should think. Given but a few hours warning, we could leave on the morrow. I have been ready for some time now, and should shortly be able to tie up any loose ends."
Claudia stood and fought back a yawn. "Well, if there is a long road ahead of us, I suppose I ought to at least try to get some sleep, no? I bid you good night."
The goblin turned his head and spat onto the packed earth of the castle courtyard. He glanced up at the young swordsman leaning on a hitching post beside him. "What's taking them so long?"
The swordsman shrugged. "We haven't been waiting very long. No need to be so fidgety, Zhaggo."
The goblin scoffed. "I don't see why I have to wait around here. It's not like I'm going south."
"But you will be left in charge of the keep when we're gone. Claudia undoubtedly has some things to tell you."
"Kelyn is in charge too, but he isn't here."
The swordsman cuffed the goblin's shoulder. "Now you're just being quarrelsome for the hell of it."
Zhaggo's reply was cut off by a clattering of hooves on the new cobblestones of the approach to Blackgard Keep. "Valentine!" The swordsman turned and smiled as a tall man wrapped in animal furs rode through the gate on a powerful black stallion. Behind him rode a stately, dark skinned woman with her silver hair pulled back in a practical braid. The man swung down from his horse and traded grips with the swordsman. "You're looking well, Jason. Especially considering the sorry state I left you in."
"I'm sure the wine must have addled your brain, Seonag," Jason replied. "I distinctly remember drinking you under the table."
"Must be your memory that's flawed. Not how I recall it at all."
"Oh? So you haven't been off in the wilderness hiding your shame?"
"Not hardly," Seonag said. "Had business to take care of for the chief. He sent me out to trade with the Red Moon tribe. It was an important mission. We needed goats."
Jason shrugged, conceding the point. Clan Agrona had little in terms of livestock, and goats were a valuable commodity. However, he was not going to allow a chance to needle the tribesman to pass him by so lightly. "I'm sure it was very important. Not having to face me after holding my wine better than you was just incidental." Then he smiled and clapped Seonag on the shoulder. "I'm glad to have you back, my friend." He crossed to the elf woman and kissed the back of her gloved hand. "Lady Elastariel, always a pleasure."
"Charming as ever, Valentine." The elf inclined her head to the knight. "I do not see Lady Claudia about. Are we not to be setting off shortly?"
Jason shrugged. "I'm sure she'll be along."
Elastariel nodded slowly and made no move to dismount from her large black horse, idly running her fingers through its mane. A groom brought out the rest of the party's horses from the stables, all similarly dark in color and elvish bred. Jason fed his steed an apple and rubbed the white blaze on the horse's forehead. The emissary from Andothasariel who had gifted them the horses had expressed his deepest regrets that so shameful a mark had appeared in the bloodlines, but Jason had taken an instant shine to the beast and assured the elf that there was no harm done.
"Peace, Malpas," he murmured. "We'll be off soon enough and have ourselves a real adventure. Won't you like that?"
Though the stallion was undoubtedly intelligent, Jason doubted he could understand the true meaning of his words. Nevertheless, the horse understood his tone and calmed down. Jason saw a young goblin toddling by in the company of three others from Zhaggo's clan. "Meagra!" he called. "Come here a moment, if you please."
Meagra crossed the courtyard to him, and he picked her up. "I'm going to go away on a trip, Meagra. When I'm not here, I need you to do something very important for me, all right?" The goblin bobbed her head up and down. "All right. I won't be here to keep Zhaggo out of trouble, so I need you to do it. Watch him like a hawk, understand?" Meagra raised her hand in a facsimile of a salute, and Jason laughed, putting her back down. "And take care of yourself, dearie." He shooed her off in the direction of her family.
The heavy wood and steel doors to the castle proper swung open, and Claudia strode out, followed by Famratyr, Azfelyndoran and a woman in a plain traveling dress. Claudia, Azfelyndoran and the woman crossed to the horses and began to secure their traveling packs to the saddle. Seonag moved to help Claudia, and Jason made his way to the woman's side. "Ilse, allow me to help."
"As you wish," the sorceress said, giving her bag to Jason and standing aside.
Claudia looked down at Zhaggo. "I hope things will go smoothly in my absence."
The goblin smiled up at her, baring his pointed teeth. "Me too. Less work for me." He tapped his fingers to his brow in a salute. "You take care, m'lady."
"And you. Give the other goblins my regards. Oh, and one thing more." She glanced over her shoulder. "Xtarrohz is chained in the dungeon, and I have ordered him to make no attempt to escape while I am gone. He should be unable to disobey. I have also ordered him to assist you in any way you command should the forces of Light arrive in the north to besiege us and I cannot return here in time. I do not think it likely, but I'm not taking any chances."
"I understand, m'lady."
"I would request you feed him once a day, to ensure he is kept docile. And I would ask that you, personally, feed him." The Dark Lady gave a thin smile. "There is no other I could trust to do it."
Zhaggo cleared his throat. "Well, of course, m'lady. Safe travels, then."
Famratyr shook Azfelyndoran's hand and clapped Jason in a quick embrace. "You take care of her, all right? And if anything goes wrong, you let a werewolf know. If I hear anything in the relay, I'll come as fast as I can."
Jason laughed. "I think everything will be fine, Famratyr. Enjoy your ranging, and safe travels."
Azfelyndoran inclined his head. "Do try not to be as foolish as normal. I will not be there to rescue you."
The werewolf grinned and bowed to Claudia. "Goodbye, m'lady. I'll bring King Mattias your regards."
Claudia hugged the werewolf tightly. "I'll miss you, Famratyr. I hope to see you again soon."
With that, the company set out. They passed through the portcullis of Blackgard Keep and into the encampment of mountain tribesmen beyond. Men, women and children stopped what they were doing and turned to stare as the small procession passed by. An eerie silence descended over the gathering as they all pressed close to the worn trail leading to the castle approach. Claudia slowly raised her right hand in greeting, and all present knelt. Claudia sighed and rubbed her temples. She was still not used the reverence with which her followers regarded her, and more often than not, it made her feel more uncomfortable than honored.
They passed beyond the tent city of Clan Agrona, and the awed murmurs faded away as they entered the lands claimed by the two large werewolf packs that roved the valley around Blackgard. To prevent any territorial disputes, Claudia had granted each pack half of the valley and the surrounding lands and had accorded all lands within a half-mile radius of the castle as neutral territory.
Out of the forest gloom, many pairs of gold and amber eyes appeared, almost unblinking. Roughly half of the werewolves emerged from the shadows in their bestial form, while the rest were in the guise of wild-haired and slightly disheveled humans, wearing little else but a few furs to keep out winter's chill. Unlike the humans, they made no sound as Claudia passed by. Several of the werewolves raised their heads and bared their throats in a gesture of respect.
The unwavering stare of the wolves soon became quite unnerving, and Claudia fixed her eyes on the trail ahead of her. When they left the packs behind, the Dark Lady reached up and unbound her hair from the tight, formal braid and shook her head, allowing her raven-black locks to trail in the wind. At Azfelyndoran's stare, she silently dared him to comment on it. She had been wrapped up in politics and diplomacy since her conquest of Galletia had ended some months ago, too busy establishing her new kingdom to ever truly relax. Perhaps the dark elf had been right, maybe she did need this trip. But she would never admit it to him. Claudia wouldn't dare give him the satisfaction.
The snap of a branch in the forest around them made Jason and Seonag reach for their weapons. Ilse held her hands up before her face, ready to call up the whirling circular patterns of dark magic. "Be at peace," someone said from inside the trees. A man in furs stepped out onto the trail, three dead rabbits slung over his shoulder. His amber eyes sparkled with mirth as he stretched his arms up over his head. "I just came to see m'lady off." He bared his throat to Claudia, and the Dark Lady acknowledged him with a nod.
"I appreciate it, Sigfodr."
The werewolf lifted one shoulder in a noncommittal shrug. "The girls wanted to say goodbye too." He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and three more figures melted out of the brush. Two large gray and brown wolves paced up the trail and sat at attention, their ears perked up and alert. The third wandered over to Sigfodr and reclined beside him, yawning wide to display her impressive fangs. Sigfodr idly reached down and scratched her ears. "They're going to escort you as far as Vassago Pass." The wolf next to him nipped his fingertips. "Valfreyr reminds me that it's all well and good for you to decline, but I'm afraid the girls insist."
Claudia allowed herself a smile. "It would be a pleasure to have their company, even if just for a short while. But what of you, Sigfodr?"
He pursed his lips. "I'm sure you don't need me tagging along too. I'd thought I would see Famratyr out of our lands. I could do for a good run myself. He hasn't left yet, has he?"
"Not as far as we know," Azfelyndoran answered.
"Good. I'll be on my way." He passed Jason the brace of rabbits. "Give these to the girls when you stop for a rest." He shrugged off all the furs he wore above his waist, revealing a muscled torso crisscrossed with many scars. With a roll of his shoulders, the man dropped to all fours as fur began to sprout along his body, and his face elongated into a fanged muzzle. A moment later, a gray and black wolf wriggled out of Sigfodr's breeches and bared his throat to Claudia once more. Claudia tilted her head to the right, acknowledging him and according him a measure of respect. Sigfodr padded into the forest and vanished from sight.
Valfreyr rose up and changed into her human shape, a comely woman with a long mane of brown hair. "All right," she said. "Byrlind, Skaggi and I agreed we'd take this in turns. They'll run ahead as wolves while I'll stay back here with you lot."
The older of the two wolves up the trail nodded, the human gesture made strange due to her wolf shape. Then Byrlind nipped at Skaggi's ear, and they began to lope up the trail, soon vanishing around a bend. "Valfreyr," Azfelyndoran muttered. "Would you kindly put on some clothing?"
The werewolf raised an eyebrow, evidently unconcerned with her nakedness. "Why, pointy ears? Do you find me distracting?" She gyrated her hips in a slow circle, a seductive smirk twisting across her lips.
"Hardly," Azfelyndoran said, noticeably flustered. "Only have a thought for propriety. You stand before your queen and—"
Seonag waved his hand. "If Valfreyr doesn't mind, I don't either."
Valfreyr sighed, sticking out her lower lip in a pout. "Oh, I do love making Azfel blush. But," she said, picking up Sigfodr's discarded clothing and pulling it on, "it would be rather embarrassing to get frostbite in a place Pointy Ears would rather I cover up. I'm sure even one with his sense of poise couldn't resist an 'I told you so'."
Elastariel hid a small laugh behind her hand, but a sharp look from Azfelyndoran silenced her. "Do not encourage her," he admonished. "If we are quite finished here, then we ought to move on. I would like to put significant distance between us and the castle before we must shelter from the cold tonight." He urged his horse forward, and his companions followed after him.
The wintry air was cold, but not unpleasantly so. Jason could not help but smile as he took in the snow-covered trees. "What is it?" Claudia asked.
"It feels good to be on out on the trail again, that's all. It's been so long since we traveled, and even longer since we've been able to travel without being hounded by the Light's armies. I'm enjoying this trip while I can."
"You think it won't last?"
"I really can't say. But with our luck, I'm not optimistic that your treaty with Galletia will last very long. Something is going to happen to push us to the brink of war again. For now, that's still far away. Edrick gave us room to breathe, and you've made strides in establishing your kingdom. Right now, he's treading carefully around my father, because he knows he can't move against Mounteblank. And if the rumors we've heard are true, Edrick's having problems in the south, too. Zhaggo heard through the relay that a few of the southern lords might even be agitating for secession. All we can hope for is that when the other shoe drops, we've got a solid power base and are able to push back against the southerners." The young man laughed. "But there's no sense in talking about things like that on such a beautiful day."
The forest eventually gave way to the rocky foothills at the base of the Haures mountain range. The surefooted elvish horses had no trouble navigating the winding mountain path that took them higher into the crags, and they showed little discomfort as the temperature began to drop with the onset of dusk. When the sun dipped behind the peaks of the Bifrons mountains to the northwest, Valfreyr tossed her head back and howled.
Skaggi darted back down the trail and took up position at the front of the procession. Valfreyr quickly stripped out of her clothes and tossed them to the other wolf before she shifted into her lupine aspect and bounded up the mountain, barking to Byrlind. Skaggi pulled on the furs and took the bridle of Azfelyndoran's horse, patting the mare's nose and feeding her a handful of oats to keep her from shying away at the scent of wolf.
The young woman brushed her hair out of her eyes and looked back at Azfelyndoran as she picked her way over the rocky ground. "Your people certainly know how to breed horses," she said. "They're fast, can run for hours, and don't panic often. But for all that, they still can't see very well in the dark. Lucky you have me for that, eh?"
The dark elf's mouth twisted up in a wry smile. "I suppose we are, at that. But even so, in that form, you cannot see as well as goblins, yes?"
Skaggi shrugged. "I could if I were running as a wolf. But I think a wolf dragging her along is too much for even this pretty lady here to handle. Isn't that right, old girl?" She patted the horse's nose again.
The moon rose not long after that, making their way a little easier. The high cliffs of rock around them kept the travelers out of the wind, but as the night went on, the temperature continued to drop. Claudia pulled her cloak close to her body and tried to hold in as much warmth as she could. Byrlind appeared a little ways up the trail and growled something to Skaggi. The young werewolf nodded and barked back an affirmative reply. "Byrlind says she and Valfreyr have found a place to camp a little further on. We've made good progress today, and if we try to keep going, the cold could get dangerous."
The campsite turned out to be a flat expanse of rock in the lee of a cliff to keep the wind off. Azfelyndoran and Seonag found an old fire pit, evidence that the site had been used by trappers in the past. Jason quickly built a fire and the company bolted down a quick dinner before bundling up in furs and bedrolls to go to sleep. Byrlind drew the first watch, and sat on an overhang overlooking the valley below while the others drifted off to sleep.
Claudia made her way carefully up to where the old werewolf perched on an overhang, looking down on the valley. Byrlind had assumed her human form, her silvery-gray hair hanging limply around her face. She was smoking a carved wooden pipe, and had Skaggi's head in her lap. Byrlind idly brushed the hair off Skaggi's brow and exhaled a plume of fragrant smoke with a sigh. Claudia tapped the Patron's Rod against the ground twice to announce her approach and not startle the older wolf. When she sat down next to Byrlind, the werewolf took another drag from her pipe.
"M'lady, you ought to be in bed."
"I find I'm not sleeping so much lately. I thought you might be cold, so I brought you a blanket."
Byrlind took it with a nod, but instead of pulling it over her shoulders, she draped it over Skaggi. When Claudia raised an eyebrow, Byrlind shrugged. "You stop feeling the cold at some point. You just get numb."
Claudia nodded. "Lord Mandrake told me the same thing, some time ago."
The werewolf puffed out another cloud of smoke. "That drunk is smarter than he looks, I'll give him that." She looked across the valley, where the towers of Blackgard could just barely be seen in the moonlight. "Are you feeling well, m'lady? Leading a pack as large as you do can be wearying."
"I've managed so far. Besides, I have plenty of help."
Byrlind grunted and offered her pipe to Claudia. The Dark Lady politely turned down the offer. "You just take care out there," Byrlind said. "The world's a cold, hard place, especially for people like us. Numbness is a blessing, but if you start to ignore the cold, you'll get frostbite all the same. I'd be honored to go with you and keep you safe once more, but my place is here with my pack. At least you'll have Jason to watch your back down south with the pointy ears. He's a strong lad with a good head on his shoulders."
Claudia blinked. Such a long speech was rare from the normally tacit woman. "I think I'll be fine. I'm no fragile maiden, remember."
"No, that you aren't."
The Dark Lady covered her mouth to hide a yawn. "Perhaps I will try to get some sleep. It will be a long day of riding tomorrow."
"Rest easy, m'lady," Byrlind replied. "You've got nothing to fear with me watching over you. I'll see you safely through Vassago Pass by this time tomorrow."
"Thank you, Byrlind. May the Mother smile on you and yours. I bid you goodnight."