The Duke's Wolf, Part One
by Amber E. Scott
Illustrated by David Esbri
“It’s terrible!” Olna’s shrill whine cut through the clatter of pans against plates. “I don’t know what to do. We’ll be ruined!”
The sudsy dishwater lapped Bun’s elbows. She scrubbed the roasting pan and didn’t turn around. “What now?” she asked. “Have we run out of salt? Because I bought another three pounds last week and tucked it in the back pantry.”
“Oh no, no no.” Olna leaned on the counter and stared anxiously up at Bun. “It’s much worse than that. Vigilantes in the area!”
Bun’s scrubbing slowed for just a moment. Then she picked up her brisk pace. “That has nothing to do with us. I’m sure Duke Hessel’s hunters are already running the vigilantes down, more’s the pity for them. You’d think after thirty years people would begin to accept that the duke isn’t going away.”
“But they’re heading this way,” Olna moaned. “Meln told me that Sharen said that she talked to Barek and he said he got a letter on yesterday’s wagon from his cousin in Valedeep that said the vigilantes had passed through a few days ago and one of them mentioned the Weary Wayside Inn.”
This time, the scrubbing stopped entirely.
Bun was 22 years old and possessed of everything a head maid and spinster owner of a busy inn required: perfect posture, sharp eye, quick tongue, slavedriver’s efficiency, and the dragon’s trick of knowing exactly how much the inn held and where any given item was at any given moment. She also possessed a few qualities not required by her position: a motherlike loyalty to her workers, a plump face with distinctly un-spinsterlike kissable lips, and a rational and analytic mind. The latter now worked quickly, turning over Olna’s statement.
“Did the letter say how many of them there were?”
“Meln said three.”
“They can’t stay here, obviously,” Bun said. “If the duke learns we’ve even looked in the direction of renegades we could be thrown in prison. I won’t lose this inn. Any groups of three or more that arrive, turn them away. If you’re too frightened, come get me. I’ll show them the door.”
“What if the hunters come for us anyway?” Olna whispered.
Bun leaned against the counter and stared into the scummy dishwater. She knew Olna had heard the same stories. Overzealous hunters throwing innocents in prison. Interrogations that left honest peasantfolk scarred and crippled for life — if they survived at all.
“They won’t,” she said, not at all certain. “We’ll toss any strange folk out the minute they arrive. Keep completely honest and open about everything. That’s all we can do.”
“What if the vigilantes come in disguise? What if they threaten to kill us?”
But Bun had already returned to her dishes. She hauled the dripping roasting pan into the rinsewater. “Trust me to handle it, Olna. Now go and tell the others.”
Late the next evening, Olna rushed in on Bun as she starched pillowcases in the back laundry. Olna was too excited to say anything, but she didn’t have to. Bun put down the starch, hung the pillowcase up on the line, and marched into the taproom.
The taproom was deserted this late at night. Embers still glowed in the big stone fireplace, sending red light rippling across the floor. Bun moved easily between the scarred, round tables. They had stood in the same positions ever since she was a girl small enough to run beneath them. Unlike most inns in the area, the taproom held a low, flat roof instead of the traditional vaulted ceiling supported by rough-hewn timbers. The Weary Wayfarer had been a noble manorhouse in bygone decades, before Bun’s father had bought it and converted it into an enormous inn. The taproom had once been a dining hall; Bun knew that marble tiles hid beneath the oak floorboards.
Three hunched frames wrapped tight in water-drenched hooded cloaks clustered near the front counter. Rain beat against the windows and wind rattled the interlocking glass panes.
One of the cloaked figures leaned heavily on the counter. Bun saw the man’s companion gripping him by the elbow, as if holding him upright. She squared her shoulders and advanced on the trio.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but the inn is closed. We’re not accepting any new patrons tonight. You’ll have to go elsewhere.”
The figure in the back stepped around his two companions. He pulled his hood back, revealing young features, a sharp chin, straw-colored hair plastered wetly to his skull. Bun’s mouth fell open. Her shock and relief was so great, it rendered her speechless for a moment.
“Bun,” the man said. “We need a place to stay.”
“Dein!” Bun put a hand on her chest and took a deep breath. “Oh, Dein, you startled me! I thought you were one of the vigilantes we’ve been hearing about.” She gasped a little laugh.
He gave her a crooked smile, the same smile Bun remembered him using on their teachers when he was caught playing truant or on her father when he caught Dein sneaking jam out of the pantry. “Funny how these rumors get started.”
Gooseflesh prickled Bun’s arms. She looked down to see that Dein wore a scarred leather breastplate. A sword hilt wrapped in well-worn strips of cloth poked out from beneath his cloak. She glanced at his companions and saw they too wore battle-marked armor and carried weapons.
Desperation and fear showed on Dein’s face. He tried to hide it behind his easy smile, but Bun saw the trapped look in his eyes.
“Dein,” she said softly. “You aren’t fighting against Duke Hessel, are you?”
He looked away. “I’m in a bit of trouble. Nothing you need worry about. I need to talk to your father; is he awake?”
Bun wrapped her arms around her middle. News traveled slowly in this rural area. Aside from the occasional letter arriving by wagon, all news spread by word of mouth. Bun had dispatched letters to her distant relatives, but hadn’t known Dein’s location.
“Father died just four months ago,” she said.
Dein looked stricken. “Oh, Bun,” was all he said.
She held up a hand, as if about to push him away. “You can’t stay here,” she said. “You have turned vigilante. I can see it. The duke will have sent his hunters after you.”
“I know you can hide us,” Dein said. He’d only been gone two years, but he looked far older than Bun remembered. “This old place is full of hidden rooms and secret passages. I know you know them all. Please, Bun. Garanel is wounded and we can’t travel much further.”
Bun looked at the figure slumped against the counter, then back to Dein. “I can’t. It’s too dangerous. You’re asking me to risk my safety, my workers, and my inn. Everything I value.”
Dein stepped forward and grabbed her hand before she could pull back. “I know we’ve had our differences. We didn’t part well. But I’m your friend, Bun, I always have been. I’ve thought of you a lot since I left. If you send me away now, you send me out to die. You must have heard stories of the duke’s hunters, but believe me, the stories are nothing compared to the reality. I can’t leave Garanel behind, and we can’t run with him like this. There’s no healer in town, is there?”
Bun shook her head. The nearest priest was twenty-six miles away, in Asterdown. “You could steal a couple of horses. A wagon.”
Dein made a dry sound. Bun decided it was supposed to be a chuckle. “In our condition, I doubt we could steal a loaf of bread. And even if we could, and got away before the hunters arrived, I don’t know that Garanel could last that long in the wet and rain. Bun, please. I need your help.”
She pulled her hand out of his grip. Of course she knew she should turn Dein away. Childhood friend or not, he was asking too much of her.
And yet, Bun thought, he’s got nowhere else to go. And Father always did like him.
She could not risk it. “I’m sorry, Dein. You have to go.”
He stood still, staring at her as if she’d spoken the words in a foreign language. Bun looked away, suddenly ashamed to look at him. But this is the only logical decision.
Then Dein spoke in a soft voice that blended in with the drumming of rain on the windows. “I’m sorry too, Bun.”
A lump formed in Bun’s throat. But her melancholy evaporated with Dein’s next words. “Sorry I have to do this,” he said. “If you turn us out and we get caught, which we will, I’ll tell the hunters that you helped me.”
She whipped her head around to face him, her mouth falling open. She felt as if she’d been slapped. “I don’t believe that, not for a second.”
He lifted his chin and looked down his nose at her, his shoulders thrust squarely back. “You’d best believe it. If the hunters get us, they’ll get you too.”
“This is extortion!”
“I’ve learned that sometimes I have to get my hands dirty to get what I need. You don’t have a choice now, Bun.”
She stared at him with growing horror. Her stomach twisted into an icy knot. Protests fluttered through her mind, but she didn’t voice them. Dein’s expression told her that he meant every word he said, and would carry through with his threat.
The ice in her stomach melted with a wash of red-hot rage. For a moment, Bun struggled inwardly with the conflicting emotions.
Then her rational mind took over again. “It won’t do you any good if I do hide you,” she said. “Even at this hour, someone’s bound to have seen you come inside. They’ll see that you don’t leave. The hunters will track you right to my door and tear this place apart looking for you.”
Dein’s eyes grew wide. He looked off to the side and bit his lip. He rubbed his lower back as he thought. “Damn…you’re right. There must be some way to save us. You’ve always been the smart one, Bun. Think of something!”
Bun closed her eyes. She heard one of the logs in the fireplace collapse into ash, a soft explosion. Water dripped into pools on the floor, a repetitive tic tic tic. Garanel’s breathing was harsh and irregular.
“I miss the old Dein,” she said. She opened her eyes. “The one with big dreams but no follow-through. Alright, come with me. Bring your friend.”
Dein scowled at her for a moment, then turned and helped his friend lift Garanel to his feet. Bun saw that the third vigilante was a woman, tanned and lean with a hint of elf in her sharp features. Bun motioned for the trio to follow.
She led them through the kitchen, pausing to light a lantern, and then took them down a short flight of stairs, towards the back pantry. A corridor ended in a solid wooden door with an iron latch. Bun pushed the door open to reveal a narrow cupboard lined with shelves. Barrels squatted in neat stacks against the far wall.
Bun pulled the lid off one barrel. Pearls of barley glistened in the lamplight. She set the lamp down and buried her arm up to the shoulder in the grain, fumbling along the barrel’s bottom for the latch. She found that for which she was looking and tugged sharply. Behind the stacked barrels, a section of wall swung silently inward.
Bun shook barley out of her sleeve and lifted the lantern. Behind her, she heard the woman gasp. “What is this place?” she asked. Her voice held a soft slur and long vowels, a western accent.
“It used to be a manor house,” Bun said. Light flooded into the hidden room. It wasn’t much bigger than a closet, with wood-paneled walls and a bare, dusty floor. “An eccentric lord had it built with hidden rooms and secret passages. My father converted it into an inn. Come on, help Garanel inside.”
She stepped back and gave Dein and the woman room to work. They hoisted their injured friend into the hidden room. Bun saw the injured man was tan and elven-featured as well, perhaps the woman’s brother.
While Dein and his partner helped Garanel into the secret compartment, Bun raced back to the kitchen. She snatched up a handful of linen towels and returned to find Garanel resting as comfortably as possible in the small room.
“Dein, go up and get a blanket out of the closet,” Bun ordered. She clambered over the barrels and started removing Garanel’s cloak.
“What are you doing?” the man rasped. Bun saw that his tan skin held an unhealthy gray tinge, and dried blood flaked his lips.
“You can’t sit in damp clothes,” Bun replied. She handed the cloak off to the woman behind her.
By the time Dein returned, Bun had learned the woman’s name — Selisai, and she was indeed Garanel’s sister — and they had Garanel dried off, his wounds bound with torn kitchen towels. Bun had averted her eyes for a moment when she saw the ugly gash across the young man’s chest, but had soon composed herself and resumed aiding him.
“Don’t you have a healer with you?” she had asked Selisai as they worked.
The half-elf woman tightened her lips and shook her head. “We did. The hunters killed her when we were running.”
Bun didn’t say anything to that.
After Dein came back they wrapped Garanel up in the blanket and settled him in the corner of the small room. Bun climbed back over the barrels into the pantry. She picked up Garanel’s damp cloak, studied it, sighed, and handed it to Dein.
“Now what?” Dein asked.
“Three people came in tonight,” Bun said. “Three will leave. We’ll head out of town, wait for a bit, and then sneak back to the inn. Then you can hide with Garanel. Give me a moment to go upstairs and tell Olna I’m sending you away, and then we’ll leave. Hold the cloak for me until then.”
Dein put a hand on her shoulder. “Bun, I — I really appreciate this. I wish we could have done it another way.”
She snorted. “Close the door and let’s go.”
Fifteen minutes later Bun was crouched under a tree, rain pouring off her hood and soaking through her clothes. Dein sat on her left, Selisai on her right. The tree sat atop a hill just out of the small town. Through the grey drizzle, Bun saw the lights of the Weary Wayside shining yellow, beckoning travelers on. Two tall lampposts bathed the front entryway in light even through the storm.
Bun held herself still and silent, trying to radiate anger and cold towards Dein. When he’d first appeared she’d been shocked, but also happy to see her old friend. Now she felt as if she’d cheerfully strangle him. I wish you’d stayed away, she thought.
She jumped when Dein spoke. “I’m sorry to hear about your father,” he said. His voice was soft, almost lost in the pounding rain. “How did he die?”
Bun maintained her stony silence. Dein sighed. “We were friends, in a way. As friendly as a successful businessman and an ill-mannered scamp could be. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for him. The world’s worse off for losing him.”
“He died in his sleep,” Bun said shortly. She shifted position, trying to relieve a sudden ache in her calf. “He’d been sick all winter. We thought he was getting better, he’d started to get up and move around a bit. Then one morning he didn’t come to breakfast.”
“He was a good man.”
Bun kept her eyes fixed on the inn. “Obviously not good enough to turn you respectable. What have you been up to all these years? Setting barracks on fire and throwing eggs at the duke’s soldiers?”
Dein turned his face away and didn’t reply for a long time. Just when Bun thought he wasn’t going to respond at all, he said, “How much do you know about Duke Hessel’s policies? His hunting parties?”
Bun wiped drizzling rain from her face. “Just what everyone knows. When we were annexed after the end of the war, Hessel was appointed to manage our lands. His taxes are fair and he doesn’t interfere much with the common folk. He holds sedition as the highest form of treason, though, and his hunting parties arrest anyone found working against him or trying to overthrow the new regime.”
“That may be what it’s like up here,” Dein said, turning to face her, “but it’s much different in the south. You must have heard the stories or you wouldn’t have helped me. It’s terrible down there. All Hessel needs is a hint of treason — a neighbor reporting you, or someone overhearing you complain about taxes in the marketplace. And the next day the huntsmen are at your door and few who go to the gaol come out again. It’s madness.”
“So you decided to do something about it,” Bun said. She couldn’t keep a hint of deprecation out of her voice.
She was watching Dein out of the corner of her eye, and she saw him flush. “You didn’t use to be like this. When we were kids, we always talked about leaving town someday when we got old enough. Doing great things. Changing the world.”
“When we were kids. But we’re not kids anymore, Dein, we’re grownups with grownup responsibilities. I couldn’t leave father and the inn. This is my home. And now that father is gone, it’s even more my home. I love it here.”
“How can you love spending all your days taking care of peasants and loud-mouthed merchants when you could be doing so much good? You’re the smart one, Bun, you always have been. If you’d been with us, maybe things would have gone differently.”
“They certainly would have. I’d have talked you out of stirring up trouble and you wouldn’t have gotten hunted at all. You always had big dreams and no sense of the responsibility and work involved. If you knew that Hessel would send hunters after you, why on earth did you go around drawing attention to yourself? You didn’t think, as usual, and now you’ve dragged me into it.”
Dein moved next to her, and for a moment Bun thought he was going to stand. She turned her face to watch him. Then Dein settled back down on his heels, his face red and brow furrowed.
“Because we’re not kids anymore,” he snapped. “And if you can’t see that what Hessel is doing is wrong and that someone needs to stand up to him, then I doubt I can explain it to you.”
“No doubt you find my desire for peace and quiet baffling,” Bun said icily. Though she tried not to show it, Dein’s tone hurt her.
“No, not at all. You say I’ve always had big dreams and no drive. Well you’ve always had the drive but no dreams worth dreaming. If you won’t do the right thing because it’s right, I don’t mind forcing you.”
“How dare you—”
“Hush,” Selisai whispered. “Something’s moving down there.”
Bun broke off and looked down into the valley where the little town slept. A single wide road ran straight through the valley, small buildings sprouting around it like mushrooms. A century ago the town had been larger and more prosperous, the surrounding farmland dotted with rich manses and plantations. A string of bad years and hard winters had eroded the town’s foundation, until most of the wealthy landowners had left. Now only the small valley remained, with the Weary Wayfarer looming over the other buildings like a refined but benevolent master.
The rain and shadows obscured Bun’s vision of everything but the lights in the darkness. “I don’t see anything,” she whispered.
“It’s a wagon,” Selisai whispered back. Her voice was strained, her almond eyes peering into the darkness. “And it’s slowing down. I think it’s heading for the inn.”
“The hunters!” Dein went pale.
“Damn!” Bun jumped to her feet. “Hurry, back to the inn. I’ll try to stall them while you get in with Garanel.”
The trio raced down the hill. Bun’s boots slid in the rain-slicked grass, and she nearly lost her footing. As they sprinted nearer she saw what Selisai had seen; a simple wooden cart drawn by two horses rolling into the pool of light by the front door. Cloaked figures huddled in the cart.
A moment later she stumbled onto the valley’s floor, behind the inn, and lost sight of the new arrivals. Dein was fastest and hit the back door first. He jerked on the handle and swore. “Bun, it’s locked!”
“Of course it’s locked, it’s the middle of the night,” she snapped. She fumbled in her pocket as she staggered up to the door. There were too many keys on her key-ring, and she squinted in the dark as she searched for the right one.
“They’re knocking on the front door!” Selisai whispered urgently.
Bun thrust the right key into the lock and flung open the back door. The trio spilled into the kitchen. Bun ripped off her borrowed cloak and thrust it into Dein’s hands. Her hair was dripping wet, she realized with dismay, and her dress was soaked through. “Here. Go hide with Garanel. Don’t come out until I say so.”
They burst out of the kitchen. Bun heard a thunderous pounding on the front door. Dein and Selisai fled towards the back pantry, and Bun saw wet trails behind them. She cursed silently but there was no time to clean. She raced into the taproom.
Bun skidded to a halt halfway into the room. “Olna! What are you doing here?”
The maid turned, her hand on the front door latch. “They kept knocking and knocking and you weren’t here,” the woman said. Her lips trembled and her eyes were moist. “I was so frightened and then they called up that they were from the duke…where were you? Why are you all wet? And was that Dein’s voice I heard?”
Bun bit her tongue to stifle an unladylike exclamation. “Olna, just go stand by the fire. And for mercy’s sake hold your tongue about Dein.”
Olna gaped. “You’re not helping them, Bun!”
The hunters outside pounded on the door again. “Open up in the name of Duke Hessel! Or we’ll break this door down!”
“Gods above,” Bun swore. “No I’m not hiding them, just — just stand there and keep quiet.” She smoothed her hair, unlatched the door, and threw it open.
A cluster of four cloaked men stood outside. Bun backed up and let them enter. Olna stood near the fireplace, hugging herself.
One man stepped forward. He was a good foot taller than Bun, muscled but compact, and he moved with the quick, padding step of a wolf. He pulled his hood back and Bun saw surprisingly young features beneath hair streaked with premature grey. A long, curved blade hung from the man’s belt, and his leather breastplate gleamed wetly.
“Are you the proprietress of this place?” the man asked. His mouth was a thin, straight line, his gaze probing.
“Yes,” Bun replied. She tried to stand straight and looked the man in the eye.
He smiled. “Greetings, mistress. I am Kaeton, hunter for the duke. I’ve come for your vigilantes.”
Continue to Part Two...
Amber E. Scott (known in some circles as Medesha) lives in a dark hole in the ground with her D&D books and an internet connection. Born in Canada, she now roams the land like a tumbleweed of gaming goodness, going wherever the wind may take her. She has had several articles published in Dragon Magazine, including the "Ecology of the Will-o'wisp" and "Giants of Xen'drik," with more scheduled to appear. Her first D&D sourcebook, Secrets of Xen'drik, is now available. Amber likes playing rogues and paladins the best, but prefers DMing because of the POWER. The absolute POWER! Yes, she really is a gamer chick, no, she's not available. She just celebrated six years of wedded bliss with her husband. Amber lives entirely on praise, and will starve if you do not feed her ego. You can read more about her at www.medeshafreelancing.com.
David Esbrí is an illustrator born in distant lands who struggles to squeeze his works in as many gaming products as possible. He's somewhere close to being the resident RPGA illustrator, as well as an usual suspect in many RPG publishers. He has published a few comic books in Europe and finally has fullfilled his dream of painting for his favorite CCG, A Game of Thrones. Now the sky, his physical exhaustion, and his lack of healthy habits are his only limits. Reach him at his website.