Terin climbed the stairs to the hunting lodge’s upper rooms while he listened to the muffled sounds of the argument raging down below.
When Terin had returned to the hunting lodge, the boys that had been sitting in wait earlier were long gone, and the only light came from the partially open doors to the planning room. The thin curtains that had previously concealed the doors were pulled tightly closed, but the thick smell of tobacco smoke permeated the entryroom fit to choke a man down. Whoever the Duke had in there, the Duke certainly wasn’t very pleased.
Terin expected Duke Arneghast was going over the state of the supply lines from the flat lands. Nothing got the Duke quite as riled up as having to find sources for all the supplies his forces needed, and then getting them to where they were wanted in an orderly fashion. Many was the time when Terin was first tasked to attend the Duke at his residence that the subject of supplies came up; it seemed to be one of the few things the Duke would get irrational about, irritated all out of proportion to whatever concern there may have been.
Whatever the current cause of the Duke’s anger, Terin hoped that his Grace Duke Arneghast would finish the meeting soon. Glancing back down, as if able to see through walls, Terin recalled the layout of the sandtable. He really wanted one last look at the sandtable, preferrably in the company of Redwulf while they went over the route he considered best.
As he reached the dark passageway at the top of the steps, he felt a sudden queasiness in the pit of his stomach, as if something turned within. For just the briefest of moments, as his thoughts touched on Redwulf, his bowels had felt as if they were filled with water from a mountain lake. Just as sudden the feeling passed, but he knew that feeling well; it was the same that he felt every time he allowed his thoughts to touch briefly on his daughter, Alise, the daughter he had never even seen with his own eyes, until he found her burned and broken body in the arms of his wife, Milia. Dead, dead the both of them and buried under other bodies, the end result of a raid by the Bleeding Bear deep behind the Madrigal forces of the high pass. Dead at the crushed command post of his father, Baron Martin, in the battle that heralded the beginning of the end for the duchy of Madrigal.
He paused for a moment, standing still and silent before the Sword Room door, as he took the few extra moments necessary to settle his breathing and bring himself back to a state of calm. Terin knew that animals could smell fear, they react to it, respond to it. Terin believed that an animal responded more to scents than to sight, and he wanted this first private meeting to set the tone for the rest of the time they would be together. Terin had to begin by ensuring that when Redwulf saw him, he saw the leader of the group that would set out in the morning. It would be a foolish mistake to treat Redwulf as a man that just looked like a dog, and try reason or persuasion on him. Terin was the leader of whatever group set out on the morrow, and one way or the other, Redwulf would have to accept that. Once they got into the mountains, if any of them were to survive what they were likely to find, then Terin had to be confident that there would be only one voice Redwulf would listen to; his own.
Terin forced himself to relax, and then broke through the instincts of his body to relax in truth, at rest but ready to flow in response to anything or nothing at all. The control that is not control, shifting mind, body and soul to an alert but relaxed posture, no fear to open the pores, no rush of blood to bring the shakes, no sweat to raise a stink. The heart of the Path of Mastery; to be clear, calm, and smooth as the flow of a mountain stream.
Riding within his circle of breathing, centered and poised to adapt to whatever lay ahead, Terin felt the underlying excitement of the moment. The unknown lay just on the other side of the door, lying there waiting to be discovered. Just there, on the other side of the door.
This was a trace of the same excitement, the same deep desire to learn that had brought him to leave his family and his certain future in order to take up training and study with the Order of Radiance. To be called a Knight, to stand in judgment over others or act as the law in rough places, to defend those that could not defend themselves and train them until they could stand alone, the romantic life he thought to live and the adventures he would have, all a small part of what had drawn young Terin to his calling with the Order.
But the greatest part of his calling had been the simple need to know. To get out into the world, where the libraries were, and the hidden stores of knowledge. To find the ancient journal a family kept in remembrance of their ancestor, or the ruins that yet held secrets to be discovered and restored. To seek out knowledge of what had gone before, of what men had known of the world, of what they could once do, and bring it back to the light.
Nowadays, Terin felt little of that old excitement. Excitement and enthusiasm had been burned out of him, and all he was left with his duty, and his determination to spare others from what the war had cost him if at all possible. Now, when he studied, it was to search out the ancient ways of war from before the Diaspora. It was to seek out the background and nature of any dangers that might threaten the lives of the common people of the Borderlands, and to see to it that as many as possible were prepared to handle those threats.
Knight-Commander Geoff of the Caer Mordant chapter house had set him to attend to Duke Arneghal and obey his commands for the time being, but it suited Terin well. The Duke listened to the worn Knight that had, uniquely among the Borderlands, fought the Orcs for years in the highlands, and mastered the ways of the mountains. When Terin brought forth other concerns, such as the history of the Empire and the threat hanging over them from the Elves, Duke Arneghast listened, and took him seriously. Few other leaders among the various duchies would have been so patient with him, or have spent the resources Duke Arneghast did to watch for signs of those threats.
And yet, Terin felt this tremor of what could only be fear in his heart, a fear he thought he was far past. He knew he wasn’t braver by nature than other men, he simply felt no fear for himself because he no longer cared whether he lived or died. But he did care what happened to the people he was sworn to protect and support, and Redwulf represented something wholly new to him. Something utterly without mention in any record or artifact Terin had ever studied or read of, and that covered a great deal of ground indeed, from some of the most respected military collections in the Borderlands.
Terin pushed the door open without knocking or clapping. He was completely in the moment, feeling everything around him, and he knew that Redwulf was waiting patiently for him to open the door and enter in the same way that he knew that in the room just one space down the hall, the Duke’s pet wizard waited in secret, hoping to overhear something useful to him.
Terin stepped into the mean space under the eaves of the roof, and stepping to the side instead of deeper into the room, he pushed the door closed. The room appeared the same as earlier, but without a source for light; Terin’s vision was preternaturally keen in the absence of light, a gift passed down from father to son of his bloodline, one of the more useful gifts that could grace those of Borderlander blood that survived from the diaspora. Even in the near total absence of light, he could clearly discern the drawn curtain, the chair, and the pallet on the far side of room; and the body that sat up upon it, waiting for him.
Terin walked forward softly, and sat in the waiting chair. He was acting purely on instinct guided by his experiences of how to calm skittish animals and people both. He wanted to start by setting Redwulf at ease, to seem to be no threat, but to clearly be dominant and set the pace for the discussion, just short of being an interrogation.
Remaining loose, almost casual in his body posture, Terin asked, “Redwulf, do you feel strong enough to speak with me for a little while? I want to discuss the trip we begin tomorrow.”
There was a pause in the room as Terin waited for a reply, but it was a comfortable moment, not a tense one. Somehow, Terin felt that things were going to be as peaceful as he could wish, although he had no feeling for what he might be about to learn.
There was a low cough from the pallet, and the figure upon it sat up a bit straighter, stiffening it’s back where it sat against the far wall. The voice that came floating across the darkness had a breathy quality, and while Terin wanted to call it akin to panting, it was more like a labored effort to draw enough breath to bring out a complete sentence. “Yes, Baron Trendel, I am here. I have been waiting. I knew you would come.”
Yes, Terin thought, Redwulf spoke in short sentences that had each of them a definite rise and fall, starting out strong but drifting fainter, losing force towards the end.
Terin cleared his throat, and said, “Redwulf, if you would, I would like to know how it is that you speak so well. I had thought from earlier that you were but a short time ago a normal hound, and yet you speak perfectly clearly to my ears.”
The figure on the pallet made a sound that could only be a chuckle, although it seemed by half to be a low chuffing sound, likely to do with Redwulf’s muzzle. The sound felt friendly to Terin, welcoming and inviting him to share a private joke. ”I can speak your language well. I offer my thanks to your Duke’s pet snake. It was the efforts of Malvoris that grants me these words.”
There was another of the low, chuffing laughs. “It is not what he intended. When I first came here, he attended me. He promised the Duke he would have my secrets revealed. He worked his arts, and touched his mind to mine.”
The figure on the cot leaned further into the room, and Terin could finally make out the remembered features, the muzzle, a shine off sleek fur, a gleam of the eye from a stray bit of light through loose fitting boards. “Malvoris expected his mind to be stronger than a dumb beast.”
Redwulf leaned back again, still making his chuffing laugh, and despite the seriousness of the moment, Terin had to join him. Of all the things he had considered, the furthest from his thoughts had been that Malvoris would try to pull the dog’s secrets from him by magic, and have his own secrets taken instead.
Redwulf continued to speak, his words silencing Terin’s laughter of the moment before. ”I expected to see you here, but I also wished you would not come. I wished I would be wrong in expecting you. I am sorry.”
Terin eased back in the seat, trying to use body language and scent to convey a reassuring gentleness. How do you smell reassuring? Is that the same as confident, or is confident more intensely physical and threatening? “Redwulf, I made the best time I could, once I received the Duke’s summons. I promise you, there was little chance that I would not come. The Duke has his mission for us, and I will be there beside you every step of the way. I will be there to defend you, should the need arise. You have my word on it, and I do not give my word lightly.”
Redwulf eased back, but his posture seemed touched with sadness, although it was hard for Terin to tell if he was imagining it. Master though he was at reading the thoughts and feelings of any person by how they moved and held themselves, Redwulf was just enough like a human to have him thinking one thing and having to remind himself he had no way of knowing if he was right. Dogs in general, and especially the breed by which Redwulf was descended, the golden retriever, had always seemed to Terin to be possessed of equal parts irrepressible joy and introspective sadness.
“Baron, I was hopeful you would not come, because I saw you here. The visions, the images dancing in my eyes in golden fire. I saw this, I saw your journey. I see you now, not as you are but how you will be, the scales rippling as your skin, the claws over your hands. I see the sword, and the hammer, the black and the silver. I see the flames within you and you are not burned. I am beside you, but I am consumed like a torch. I see these things and so much more, all the time. I have seen them since I was pulled through the fire, and I cannot stop them. Whether I am asleep or awake, the things I see dance before my eyes. I smell them, I hear their voices, they never entirely stop. Sometimes the things I see scare me, but they are true things, and scared or not, willing or not, I cannot turn from watching. Other times are the worst, though. The times when it is not the true images, the pure dreams, but the voice of the other, the one that has guided me here, the one that wants something from us both. The voice that talks to me, knows me, knows my heart. It seeks me out, it tells me what to do, shows me where to go.”
The figure on the bed sat up straight once more, and in the darkness Terin could sense it’s left arm and hand being lifted up from the covers. Of a startling suddeness, a gentle golden glow began to rise from the depths of Redwulf’s left hand, palm first. The glow seemed to start as a small dot deep within the flesh, the outline of bones visible in front of it. The light grew, from a dot to a spot, and on growing to encompass the entire hand much like a golden fungus or moss, the fur glowing from within, lighting the room like a warm summers day, and bringing Redwulf’s eyes into fiery prominence.
While the source of the glow grew larger, the intensity did not. Terins’ eyes were not hurt by the sudden illumination, and he realised that he felt actual warmth on his face and hands. He noticed immediately that Redwulf did indeed have opposable thumbs on his pawlike hands, but rough black pads covered the fingertips, surrounded by the thin fur.
“I am here because I was forced into the fire, Terin. They through me in, and it burned, it burned. They had a harness, ropes, and they pulled me to them through the fire. I had no choice, I was pulled where they forced me to be. I howled, I remember I howled, I was so afraid. I burned, I could feel it, I knew what it was. But as I burned, I felt… welcomed. Loved. I was loved, and it broke the bonds of my spirit. I was free. That is when I changed… and when the images began.”
In the golden glow, Terin’s eyes met the shining eyes of Redwulf, and he found he could not look away. Tears of his own sprang unbidden to his eyes, and he couldn’t for the life of himself have said why.
“When dragged towards the fire, I had feared, and I had howled, but I had still been my master’s hound. I knew it. I could never disobey. He was my master, he was my all. But the love in the fire, the heart of the gold – it broke my bonds. I was free of one master, and found another. A master within myself.”
Terin hated to break whatever spell had started Redwulf talking, but he was gathering up too many questions to hold back any more. “Redwulf, where was it that all of this happened to you? Can you describe what this fire looked like? Who was it that put you in the flames?”
Redwulf looked deep into Terin’s eyes, and said, “We were deep in a room of stone. Stone below, stone above, and secrets all around us. We had come from the master’s greatest hall, deep into his lowest rooms. There was a wall that had been cut into, an opening to grow the keep deeper into the stone. The workers had cut into solid stone, and found an opening that was worked in the rock. An old opening. Worked stone in the heart of the masters home.”
“Oh, sweet Tyr,” Terin murmured aloud, “You’re talking about Torr Baldwin, aren’t you? They broke into some kind of underground tunnels while expanding Mordant Keep, and found something down there. Some of the oldest writings I’ve seen, journals of soldiers that lived in that time, mention something big happening around a single great stone mountain like a fist to the skies. There are at least four great mountains I’ve studied that could have matched the descriptions, but it was Torr Baldwin, the heart of Duke Hope’s power all along.”
Redwulf’s muzzle opened, and he seemed to smile. A shadow passed over the hounds’ eyes for a moment, and then the colors within changed, instantly, flashing from the warm hazel of a moment before to a brilliant emerald green. Terin recoiled back in his chair, startled enough to nearly shout aloud.
The golden glow emanating from Redwulfs’ left hand changed just as suddenly, spreading in an eyeblink to a powerful golden aura that encompassed his entire body. Terin felt as though he were sitting on a chair outside on the brightest and warmest of summer days; he felt the skin on his face and neck, the backs of his hands begin to tingle, as he might if he were starting to get sunburned, back before his skin had weathered to leather.
Redwulfs mouth opened, but the voice that issued forth was in all ways unlike what Terin had heard until now. Redwulf had been speaking in short sentences, starting strong, forceful, but losing breath towards the end of each one. His voice had been rough, and breathy.
This new voice was warm, rich, and powerful in all ways. Terin had heard speeches and attended councils where some of the most powerful and influential leaders of the day spoke their mind, Duke Arneghast, Duke Hope, and Knight-Commander Geoff among them. He had heard men with great charisma speak, men used to command and to lead, men who had trained themselve to use their voice in negotiation as if it were just another weapon to be sharpened and used with cunning skill in battle, with all to win or lose.
This voice that he now heard come from Redwulf was somehow similar to all of those, but greater still, as the sun is greater in brilliance than the campfire in the darkness.
The voice said, “Terin Trendel, listen carefully. I have neared the end of my time with Redwulf, but you are here at last.”
“I am speaking to you through Redwulf. I am the last of the Loremasters, and I am imprisoned within what you call Torr Baldwin, as you surmise.”
“I guided Redwulf to you with very nearly the last of my focused will. He was thrust, an innocent, through the earth mother’s fires. He has been touched by Gaia, and she has chosen to stay with him. Her presence within him, her choosing him as a vessal has let me speak to him at times, guide him when I could, and so I have brought him here where he could meet with you.”
“I beg of you, let Redwulf guide you back to Torr Baldwin. Return to the place where the earth mother’s fire flows as if from a great fountain that never ends. Go there, and STOP THEM. Those who call themselves wizards, in service to your Duke Hope. They are twisting the lifeblood of the mother to become something they think they can use as a weapon, but they have no comprehension of how vast the power is they touch, how terrible the consequences should they meet with any success in changing her nature.”
“I am losing my hold on this world, Terin Trendel. I have held on this long by strength of will alone, but I have been without rest for too long. When I let go this time, I will pass beyond, and there is nothing that can stop that now. But even so, I cannot touch them or anyone else that passes through the fire so long as the darkness and hate is woven around it like a veil.”
“Please. Move as fast as you can, and do whatever it takes, whatever it takes, but strike hard, and stop those fools from succeeding in corrupting the earth mother. I should never have raised it, but in my youth I was proud of being chosen, and foolish in my pride, and I thought that the power I had was meant to be used. Please, don’t let my foolishness be the cause of something that would end in so terrible a fate for the land.”
Terin sat up straight on the chair, and sought out any hint of deceit in Redwulfs’ eye. It was impossible; how to read the true intentions of a master orator speaking through a golden retreiver? Terin was loathe to accept everything he heard at face value, however.
“If you brought me to this place on purpose to meet with Redwulf and do this task for you, then you have had plenty of time to plan your moves. Why me, exactly? What is it that I can do, what skill do I provide that Duke Arneghast could not have had someone else do earlier?”
The golden glow around Redwulf’s body was fading slowly, but the voice was as strong as before. “You are Terin Trendel, and if you look at yourself as clearly as you see the people around you, you would be able to answer taht yourself. You are a leader respected by the men who serve him for doing whatever it takes to accomplish your mission, no matter the cost to yourself. You are a knight sworn to serve the commandments of the god of Justice, even though you no longer believe the God yet lives. You are one of the deadliest warriors in single combat currently alive. You are a scholar intimately familiar with what little your people know about the history of this land. Finally, you alone among the men of your land have spent years learning to move amongst the stone of the mountains as well as the Orcs and Dwarves can, if not better.”
“Why did I work to bring you together with Redwulf? Ask anyone that knows you for any length of time. You have the skills I need and you will let nothing stop you short of death. And you will open your ears and listen, which is in damn short supply no matter where you are.”
The golden glow was noticeably dimmer now, and Terin was far from stupid. If the glow indicated how much longer he could expect this Loremaster to remain here, then he estimated he had less than five minutes remaining to get questions answered. But there was so much he wanted to know! Should he ask about the route? How to get in? Redwulf probably already knew that. But what?
Time was fast running out, but somehow he knew this was his one chance to get the answers he wanted so very badly. Whatever was to happen next, Terin had to seize the chance, and make the most of the time he had left.