First Book of the Valley: Volume X
Drowth Haledin 2nd
The Collection Foreword
In celebration of the part the wers have played throughout the history of Ralvamore, Lord Drowth of Dunhill decreed for all Werish Ways and happenings to be collected forthwith by his kin for years untold. And so became an assortment of heroes and adventurers, beasts and knights and wars and evils, which the ways of the wer's could claim for their great history. Be it in word, rhyme, art or song, all great happenings were gathered in the grandest of fashions to be kept for all of time.
73rd of the Bear
you need to see, sir. Up on the western branch," came Ronan
Hawthorn's nervous call.
Hugos-Walter Baldwin looked up from his sun drenched chair. A shaft of unframed light had fallen through an open fold in his tent and its summery fragrance had caused him to doze off. Hawthorn, the commander of the werwatchers, was peering around the tent flap. He was only young, playing a role that was meant for a much older wer. Baldwin had always found him irritating, which was as much as an insult to him as it was to the watch.
Most folk would did not even realise a pack of wers lived in the oakenwood. Baldwin's noble kin had not involved themselves with the troubles of the Valley since the Era of the Eagle, when the Stormmarian Empire had ruled Ralvamore. In his opinion, the need for any sort of watchers was completely unnecessary. Every morning, Hawthorn and the other nineteen watchers filed down to Green Mounds at dawn for strumler and archery practise, with no body to look upon their embarrassment but the sun.
And what for? Baldwin asked himself. Every day they would sit the four branches, looking out over the sleepy Greenway in the west, the barren peek of Startop in the north, the peaceful Hold of Evendayle in the east and the rolling Green Mounds in the south; sighting only the odd traveller trudging harmlessly down the south road.
The order had been named appropriately- not after soldiers or warriors- but watchers. Unfortunately, Hawthorn had not yet grasped the idea.
"I'll be the judge of what I need to see. Waking an old man when he's sleeping!" Baldwin huffed. He had certainly seen his years, and now his bones were fragile and his mind constantly sleepy. A silvery mane of hair ran around his old and withered face, with his eyes of green and almond were full of memory. The royal blue overcoat he had had since a young man sat on his shoulders as naturally as his hands hung over the armrests of his chair.
"I apologise." Hawthorn said. "But the matter in hand requires someone of your position."
Baldwin sighed, "Very well, lead the way, commander."
The werish camp of
the Oakenwood was especially pleasant as Baldwin, leaning on his
silvery green ironwood staff, and Hawthorn made their way to the
western branch. The forest was home to oaks of every sort. Some
were old and noble, with tawny brown bark and heart shaped
leaves. Others were young, sparsely branched and filtering
streams of golden light to freshen up the wild grounds below. Its
roots had spread from the flanks of Startop Mountain, dividing
the Greenway into the Hold of Evendayle and lavish
The werish camp was tucked away in a small clearing of the forest, awash with wild flowers and green grasses. A group of young wer's were tasked with racking any fallen leaves of the Oakenwood into huge, heaps of rotting compost that now garrisoned the edges of the camp. Every wer of the pack had a task to fulfil- and they did not waste time tossing and turning over who should do what and where it should be performed. Families of the pack had held the same crafts for eras and eras, and it was not likely to change. For father taught sons and the sons taught their sons, of any gifts their family held dear in their craft. Much like with the Hawthorns. Lucien Hawthorn had commanded the werwatchers before Ronan. Then there was the Brightfoot's who managed the coin, the Garheart's who owned the wine merchants and the Karkton's who ran the smiths. So it went on and on until there were the Crick's, the very wer's who raked away the leaves of the clearing. The Baldwin family- one of the oldest of the pack- had always sat the Pride in the Grand Pavilion, leading the wers in council.
In and around the flowers of the clearing was a hamlet of tents, one of every colour. They rippled like a lake in the warm, southern wind. The only solid structures were the weathered, bronze pipes that rose out of the dipping sheets like masts; funnelling silver deltas of smoke from fire-pits within. Fungus and moss from the forest had encroached on the thick fabrics, mouldering them to look as if they had sprouted from the soil and blossomed into huge buds.
Baldwin and Hawthorn passed down a row of market tents, every one teeming with wers both young and old, smoking wilder grass and enjoying fulsome glasses of golden troll wine in the sun's glory. As a member of the Pride, Baldwin nodded and smiled too many of the werish families on the way, wishing a 'good morning' and 'wonderful day'. As they passed one tent, Baldwin's favourite food traders run by the Tapylon's, the scent of roasting hazelnuts brought the air to life.
"Pardon me," Baldwin said all of a sudden, "The Brown House is just over there and I would very much like to check my post." The postal tent of the camp was coloured with blueberry blue and blackcurrant purple.
Hawthorn sighed. "You really need to see what's up on the western…"
"If I wish to check my post, I will do so." Baldwin interrupted, "I was only asking to be polite, anyway," and he left the commander to pass under the threshold of the Brown House- which was indeed a tent- but tradition prevailed.
A couple of brownies, with their strips of tan, sack clothing and moth-like wings, were hovering next to the tent flaps, smoking very small veins of wilder grass. They hissed through smoky lips as Baldwin passed them. Of all the beasts and creatures the wers could converse with, the brownies remained stubbornly silent. They had always been bitter to those bigger than themselves.
Every Brown House of the Valley was famed for its confusing intricacy, with a vast array of shelves and pigeon holes standing to attention in countless rows. Each one contained rolls of parchment and sealed envelopes. It was said that only a brownie truly understood the vast webs of post.
"Good morning." Baldwin said to one brownie. It was hovering on level with his eyes. "Do you have anything for me?" The brownie looked at him for a moment, with black pearls for eyes. Then it whizzed off into the pigeon holes, shooting around them like a bee in a honeycomb. Even though Baldwin was the only wer in the tent, the brownies were all still at work, throwing scraps of parchment to each other from every direction. The normal bronze pipes of the werish tents did not serve as a chimney to the brownies, put as a funnel for delivers of packages and enveloped from the other Brown Houses of the Valley.
Suddenly, a small role of parchment was flung at Baldwin, who only just caught it in a fold of his overcoat. How rude, he though as he was ushered out by a small swarm of the winged creature. He placed the role of parchment into his pocket, to read after Hawthorn had wasted his time!
Once out of the
Brown House the market ended and the elderly wer looked up to see
the western branch, a small look-out post sprung between two arms
of a giant oak. It was cradled like a child in a cot of ironwood
plants, shining a silvery green in the afternoon sun. The only
way up was by a spiralled flight of stairs that snaked up the
tree like twisting ivy. Baldwin gulped as he saw them, for the
same stairs had been in place since he had been a boy.
He had been born in the very same clearing one-thousand-and-eighty moon ages ago (which for him felt like a full turn of an era). He had not stayed put, however. In the golden years of his life the Valley had seemed as small as the oakenwood- and he had travelling from Hold to Hold, befriending kings and lording's alike. He had sailed the Wide River and even learnt the ancient mountain script of his Old Wers. The Baldwin's were expected to travel the Holds- for how else would they sit the Pride with knowledge and wisdom?
The rotting, lethal stairs to the western branch seemed to bring back a flood of forgotten memories.
"Would you like a hand up?" Hawthorn asked from beside him.
"No, no," Baldwin said, "I can still lift leg after leg."
After what seemed
like hours of hard climbing and a determination not to wield to
Hawthorn's irksome offers of assistance, Baldwin emerged on the
look-out post panting like a dog and resting his frail body upon
his ironwood staff. The canopy of the oakenwood had surrendered
to the sheer height of the western branch, so that the patchwork
of the Greenway lay out before him, edged finely in the north by
wood and in the south by rock; the horizon shimmered like glass,
for the Grey Lake swept along its entirety; and all was smiled
upon by the rays of the afternoon sun. In the blue sky, dark
smudges flew like shooting stars. The Dragon's Back service
circled around the Rain Rings of the Valley- ironwood galleons
towed by dragons of the Misty Lands, far to the north. Baldwin
had enjoyed the famous service in his time.
The sight was a blessing after so long between the barky bars of the tree-trunks below- Baldwin enjoyed the seclusion of the werish people but needed to feel the wonder of the elements from time to time. He saw himself as quite rare, having travelled the Valley, for normally his kin grew, worked and died in the very same tents.
The elderly wer looked to Hawthorn, who was talking to another werwatcher. He had been stationed in the branch for two days, dirty and sweaty.
"So, what is this problem you so urgently required me to see?" Baldwin demanded, annoyed that there was not an impending army of angry giants marching down the Greenway. All looked peaceful.
"There-" Hawthorn pointed. Baldwin squinted his green and almond eyes upon the south road that cut through the Greenway like a sword. A distant group of black dots were bobbing up and down- slowly but surely approaching. They looked like a group of riders. Baldwin guessed there were around ten to twenty.
"I do hope that's not what you called me up those wretched stairs for!" Baldwin spat. A sudden wave of rage took him, and he saw Hawthorn's heart drop through his widened eyes. However, the thought of his ironwood staff (being as strong as iron itself) slamming into Hawthorn's gormless face soothed the anger somewhat. "They're merely a group of travellers, at best a legion of questing knights from Dunhill!"
"I… I'm not too sure, sir." Hawthorn stuttered over Baldwin's purposeful annoyance. Inside, the old wer was glad of the drama. He had grown restless recently, tucked away in his sleepy tent for hours on end. Up here at least there was a bite to the wind. "You see, Haggard's eagle spied something-" Ronan gestured towards the other werwatcher, who stood underneath a golden eagle, its yellow talons somehow holding up a strong, feathered body.
Another child, Baldwin sighed as he saw Haggard. The boy was hardly taller than his eagle and obviously much weaker in strength and mind.
"And what exactly did your bird spy?" Baldwin demanded of Haggard. The more werwatchers he put down- the less likely it would be for them to seek his advice again.
"Grazeloths, sir. He spied grazeloths."
Baldwin snorted in the boy's face. "Don't be ridiculous. Only werwolves are known to ride grazeloths."
"Which is why I called for you, sir. I didn't know what to do." Hawthorn stuttered. Baldwin silenced him with a single glance. You woke me and forced me up those wretched stairs for the word of a fool! Baldwin doubted Haggard could even mutter to such a grand animal!
"I shall ask the bird myself." Baldwin decided, lifting an arm for the eagle to land on. The talons would not break his skin- not if he told the eagle to be gentle at his old age. The bird instinctively caught the wind in its sword length wings and glided onto the welcome arm.
The old wer parted his lips as if to speak, yet instead a low screech sounded around the western branch, much unlike his usual deep tone. He carried on like this, squawking and tweeting, like the very bird was stuck in his throat. Then the eagle took its turn, skittering its head in time with a reply.
Black as bears, they are! Baldwin made out from the eagles troubled tongue, and as fast as a questing horse. They ride not with skin-walkers- but halflings, shadows of the night and moon… fear them… FEAR THEM!
The eagle's wings burst open, snapping twigs and branches, and its great body lurched into the sky- crying a terrible scream. Baldwin remained silent, unmoving, despite the anxious eyes of Hawthorn and Haggard wondering about his dazed expression like a pair of lost children.
"Go and call the Pride." Baldwin simply commanded.
"But sir-" Hawthorn pleaded, "-order an evacuation."
"We're not good enough to face werwolves!" Haggard pleaded.
"Do not challenge me, boy!" Baldwin's overcoat swirled about in a flash, "Do you think you know better, with all your years of hard work and experience?" Haggard and Hawthorn fell into an uncomfortable silence. Baldwin saw how their mouths twitched, wanting to say something, but his solid gaze dared them otherwise.
The two werwatchers scurried off. If they had tails, they would be firmly between their legs. Baldwin would have chuckled at the sight, if it were not for the werwolves. After hearing it from the eagle, there was doubt in his mind.
The wolves had not been seen since the ending of the Era of Wolf. Back then, they had brought the Valley to its crumbling knees, ripping through the Holds like a terrible plague. If not for the wer's, Baldwin thought, the moon would shine throughout both day and night even today. His own grandfather, Baldric Baldwin, had led a siege against the wolves of Evendayle. He had thrown them back in to the darkness they crawled out from! They would never dare ride against the wers of the Oakenwood whilst a Baldwin remained in the Pride, surly?
Yet, why did his skin crawl with such fear.
The sun was slowly dipping into the Grey Lake- its sweltering heat drowning beneath the shimmering water- but if anything, the encroaching darkness sped up group of dots plummeting down the south road. Should I have ordered an evacuation? Baldwin pondered as he slowly and steadily began down the western branch stairs. It is true, the werwatchers will be useless against such a legion of wolves… if it is indeed wolves. No. The Pride would make the decision- they always did. The wers did not like rash verdicts, they were too far from the politics and troubles of the Holds to understand what danger was. They would not evacuate if Baldwin stood on the matter alone.
His troubled mind went to the other elders who sat the Pride along with him. Would they even believe a group of werwolves were charging down the Greenway? They mistrusted the werwatchers as much as he did, and so any such warning from them would be almost humorous!
The elderly wer was surprised as his foot found the green grasses of the werish clearing. He saw the Grand Pavilion (the meeting tent of the Pride) standing above the other tents- the tallest peak in a rippling mountain range.
Will they think me mad? Baldwin thought of the Pride, heeding the words of werwatchers… the words of children? Maybe he should not call the Pride after all. Werwolves, he snorted, what a fool I am to believe such nonsense.
A harrowing scream suddenly cut through the afternoon breeze, and the swaying tents of the clearing seemed to freeze.
breathing, as if to wait for another scream. Yet instead there
was a different sound. One altogether more petrifying. The
muffled crunch of splintering timber slowly spilled through the
air, followed by the sharp screams of a thousand tiny branches
snapping… as a monstrous tree trunk barged its way through their
claws. Its tangled roots upturned and the whole tree chopped the
air in two as it plummeted towards the row of market tents
Baldwin and Hawthorn had passed through earlier. The bronze
chimney pipes clanged and then collapsed as the tree collapsed
upon them. More wood snapped as the tent poles broke like bones,
leaving the corpses of canvas to rip and split.
And then it happened again, a falling giant flattening a cluster of family tents.
And again, the Grand Pavilion crumpling.
And again, wer's disappearing.
where ragged shadows leaping over the fallen tree trunks. They
galloped gracelessly on four hairy legs- like those of a bear yet
with the rhythm of horses. They easily doubled the size of
Baldwin's ironwood staff. The grazeloths were hideous. Upon their
backs were great brutes of werwolves. They rode with swinging
lurches, slashing away their paths with razor-sharp strumlers.
The weapons, the size of short swords yet topped with
frosted-iron spikes, swung maliciously.
The wolves had crumpled, flat noses under steep, joining eyebrows of the thickest nature. Their ears were set low, covered in a dank fur- like their arms and legs and neck. Their skill to transform into wolves may have ended in the previous era, yet their wolfish appearance defiantly endured.
Baldwin's bones had gone cold. He felt very heavy, with an overwhelming desire to fall to the floor. His eyes closed instead, so tightly that prickles of colour sparked on the inside of his eyelids. When I open my eyes, all will be normal.
It did not work. The brownies of the Brown House were scattering like a swarm of flies into the air, leaving their crumpled home to the mercy of the wolves. Smoke had begun to rise from the fallen corpses of the tents, with the fabrics pressed against the roaring fire-pits within. Wolves hate fire, Baldwin though for some comfort. They would not stay for long once the tongues of red and orange livened.
He turned on his shaking legs, heading back up to the western branch. That was the only safe place left… unless the wolves chopped it down too. The thought did not stop him, however, for it was a far better death than by claw. He moved up the steps as a much younger man, jumping two at a time, not even using his ironwood staff.
The screams of the wer's were slowly dying out below, the crackle of flames getting louder and louder. The wolves were finishing off the last of their pray and bounding back to where they came from. Though Baldwin did not watch them go. Wheezing and shaking, he sank to the wooden floor of the look-out post. He gathered his frail limbs and tattered overcoat into ball, and turned into a whimpering child.