As a boy my father had taken me hunting in Chetwood and although it was considerably smaller than Far Chetwood away to the north it had seemed to my childish eyes the largest, darkest place that could ever be. Back then the Blackwolds were naught but a loose collection of troublesome families and none had laid claim to any part of the forest but still my father had urged caution whenever we heard or saw others travelling through the trees. “Folks that as come through here,” he would say “more as likely want to get gone as quickly as can be and won’t thank us for any delays we cause ’em.” His warnings didn’t stop at just travellers though, “Thems that as live out here are a queer bunch and don’t want bothering either. I ain’t saying they be wrong ‘uns but like my old pa said and his afore him “Ye’d be a fool to put yer head in a bee’s next, boy” and I tends to agree. Folk whats live here want to be left be and left be we’ll leave ’em.” Not that people were the only dangers under the green leaves and many a path he showed me to avoid the wolf dens in the cliffs or the spider traps by Midgewater. I’d grown to respect the forest, but I can’t ever say I liked it.
Still, as Everwyn and I rode past the lumber yard and under the eves of the enormous trees I was surprised to feel a small shiver run down my spine. True it didn’t seem so big or so dark any more, but something about this place chilled me. Maybe it was the way in which all sounds seemed to vanish into the trees leaving only the uneasy snorting of our horses to keep us company, or maybe it was just the memories of those stern warnings from my father, I could not say for sure but when we heard our first wolf howl I felt my grip on my reigns tighten considerably.
Time had not been kind to the old woods and I could not imagine my father, were he still alive, bringing a young boy out here to hunt again. Wolves roamed freely, sullenly staring at our passing as if calculating their chances against both of us together. Spiders had crept out of the marshes in frightening numbers and hung in their webs or stalked through the undergrowth waiting for a meal to pass close enough by for a strike. We avoided all of these as best we could, quickly and silently dealing with any we could not, until we came to the heart of the forest and caught the scent of wood smoke of the breeze. In the gloom we could see sparks from several camp fires rising upwards and since our victory in Archet we had found our first tangible clue to the whereabouts of the Blackwold scum. With the thrill of the hunt beating in our chests we began to plan out next step, silently smug that we had got so far with out detection.
The arrow that zipped past Everwyn thudded into my shoulder, luckily the thick padding stopping it from reaching my body, and I was knocked off my feet. My friend had already notched an arrow and let it fly by the time I stood up and began running to where she was pointing. I could see a female Blackwold archer crouching behind cover and I ran at her like a wild horse before she had time to get off another shot. Everwyn’s arrow was true and the scout yelped in pain as it dug into her leg. Seconds later I leapt over the log she was cowering behind and swiped my shield up hard against her head. She folded like flag cut loose and collapsed to the ground.
We had been lucky. No one else seemed to have heard the commotion and the scout had not been able to get a warning cry out before I had knocked her out. “She dead?” asked my friend.
“Just unconscious,” I replied.
“Good,” she said and bent to start tying her to the log, “Wake her up and she can tell us where her friends are.”
It didn’t take long for the scout to tell us what we wanted. The Blackwolds had half a dozen camps scattered in the woods outside the old fort. the old fort itself being where the chief was to be found and although she claimed to know nothing about a Ranger named Amdir, she said that the Blackwold chief was the one responsible for the attack on Archet. Whether she was telling the truth or not didn’t really matter, our course remained un-altered only now we knew to look out for more scouts such as her. Everwyn tied the gag around her struggling head and began to move out.
“And her?” I asked looking down at the woman who bore a wild look of fury mixed with terror.
“Let the wolves have her,” Everwyn replied coldly without looking back.
We skirted three campsites and passed by a small cottage before we came to the old fort. All were crawling with Blackwolds, but the old fort itself was clearly their main stronghold. We hid in the trees and watched as scouts and captains passed by on well-trod paths and patrol routes. “A lot of activity,” I whispered.
“Well they did just burn down Archet. They must know Bree’s constables will be looking for them.”
“Still,” I replied, “Something doesn’t seem right. Seems like they are protecting something.”
“The Ranger, you mean?”
I nodded, “Maybe. Not sure how we can get into the fort to find out though. Look,” I indicated into the fort itself, “They have dogs and that will complicate matters.”
Everwyn squintted, “They’re not dogs. More like some kind of wolf. Big, nasty looking bastards.”
“I hate wolves,” I muttered, more to myself than to my friend.
“Then you really won’t like this,” she hissed back, her voice urgent, “Look!”
Down below us, emerging from one of the gates to the crumbling fort came something I had never seen before, something I had only heard of in song and tale, something that had terrified my childhood dreams. It strode on all fours, its powerful shoulders working like twin pump handles as it swung its low, powerful head from left to right sniffing at the air. Its eyes were fierce and its lips curled back over teeth as long as a spear-tip. My blood froze in my veins as, wide-eyed, I hissed back “A warg… Oh gods, a bloody warg…”