The tavern erupts with screams and shouts. I hear the Wolven leader yell, “No weapons! No weapons!” before his pack barrels into the line of Knights, picking them up or knocking them over. Some of the patrons join in the brawl, but most of them make a break for the door.
Then a white-booted foot kicks the door inward. A stream of Knights pours through.
“ON YOUR BELLIES!” they scream. “ON YOUR BELLIES!”
No one listens. Everyone keeps swearing and shoving. The Wolven are in a full-on frenzy—Knights are flying every which way, crashing against walls, tables, and chairs.
“Close on my heels!” Ren yells, yanking me by my arm toward the door. He ducks a wild slash from a panicked Knight, then slams his chest with a ferocious shoulder-check. I see a flash of steel and I draw my knife without intending to. There’s a nerve-jangling scrape of metal on metal, and I realize I’ve parried a strike from a gleaming straight sword.
Ren shoves my attacker and kicks his legs out with a vicious sweep. “Let’s go!” He maneuvers behind the charging Wolven, who break through the Knights crowding the doorway.
We tumble out in a rush of armor and fur, then take off running up the street. Shrill whistles pierce the air. I experience momentary puzzlement—who’s blowing whistles? Then it dawns on me: the Knights are using them as some sort of signal.
“On my heels!” Ren shouts, glancing back at me. “Close on my heels, Jon!”
“I’m—” I trip and stumble into a giant Wolven, who snarls angrily and swats me away. “I’m trying!”
There’s a flurry of whistles, followed by shouts from outraged Knights. “Bar the gate! Bar the gate!” The thirty-foot portal looms high in the distance, growing larger in our vision as we sprint toward it.
“Eckles!” Ren waves both arms, trying to catch the tower guard’s eye. “Look here, you tub of guts!”
Eckles spots him and calls, “Sorry, Ren! I’m bound by coin!” He wraps his hands around a rusted lever.
“Don’t you trigger that cursed lockbolt!” Ren screams. “You still owe me from our last card game, Eclkes! Cry off and I forgive your debt!”
Eckles wavers, torn between duty and greed.
If I had to guess, the “lockbolt” would be the vertical beam off to the right, held in place by a coiled chain. If Eckles pulls the lever, the beam falls down into the L-shaped braces built into the gate. It’s a giant deadbolt that goes all the way across.
Eckles yells, “Fine! But make it look convincing!”
Ren casts a quick look to his right and left. “Wolven—get us past that low-shadow gate! I’ll take care of the magical barrier!”
The Wolven leader barks an affirmative. “Done!”
Ren blows into his half-fingered glove, summoning a pure blue swirl into his palm. He stops running, cocks his arm, and snaps forward in a full-body throw. The ball of energy streaks ahead, leaving a sparkling tail trailing behind it. The ball stops short of the massive gate, collapsing into a rippling wave that makes the barrier fully visible—it brightens and peaks, then quickly fades away.
The Wolven leader howls triumphantly. “Forward, brothers! And woe to any who stand in our way!” He drops to all fours and starts galloping, doubling his speed in less than a second. His fellow Wolven follow suit, pounding the earth with their giant paws.
Eckles shouts, “Now wait just a second! We’ll crank it open if you wait just a—”
A handful of Wolven crash against the gate, shoulder first. They bounce back onto the ground like hairy wrecking balls.
A sliver of daylight appears between the doors. No more than a couple feet wide, but still—my heart races with a surge of hope.
More Wolven crash against the doors, eliciting a sharp crack from the wooden beams. Eckles is yelling at them, begging them to stop, but none of them are listening. A third and four wave smash the gate, cracking it open a few more feet. Wood breaks, metal whines, pulleys and braces are tear and snap.
The first wave of Wolven get to their feet and slam into the gate with murderous force. With a final, thunderous crack, the doors swing wide and we all pour through.
Eckles holler, “You owe me, Ren! Hear me well, you gods-cursed wanderer! YOU OWE ME!”
Ren looks over his shoulder and throws a two-fingered wave up at the tower. Beneath the shadow of his hood, I see him smiling.
I’m smiling too.
“Go! Go!” Ren gets behind me and pushes me forward.
My vision is filled with galloping Wolven, dirty traders, and a handful of Wildlyre. We pound ahead for a hundred yards, then Ren yanks me sharply left—off the road and into the woods.
“Go. Go.” Ren keeps pushing. Still urgent, but not as much.
Finally, we stop in a forest clearing. There’s me, Ren, twenty or so traders, and a dozen Wolven—the same ones from the tavern brawl.
“Well.” A man with a Zorro-style mustache puts his hands on his hips. Two swords are sheathed on his back, framing his head between their hilts. “That was fun.”
Another human—blonde, blue-eyed, dressed in a buckle-coated jerkin—laughs merrily. “A bit of exercise to break the tedium.”
Ren gives him a suspicious glance. “Right. Well if that’s all, my companion and I will take our leave. Come on, Jon.”
As he turns to go, the man with the mustache says, “Wait—where are you headed?”
“Naversé.” Ren keeps walking.
“What a coincidence!” The man with the mustache hurries up to Ren. “That’s where we’re headed!” Jerkin Guy follows in our steps. Mustache Guy looks back at the others and calls, “Anyone else headed to Naversé?” The rest of the traders mutter a negative or shake their heads.
The Wolven speak briefly amongst themselves and call back, “We’ll travel with you, if you’ll have us!”
Ren stops in his tracks and turns around. His rigid posture and scowling face tell me he’s not happy with this new development. “I have no need for High Taire duelists.” He looks at Mustache Guy, then at the Wolven. “Or a pack of Fenric warriors.” His gaze settles on Jerkin Guy. “Last of all, I do not care for low-shadow pickpockets, who will lighten me of coin when I rest my eyes.”
Jerkin Guy looks astonished and affronted. “What are you—”
Ren holds my knife out to me. “Missing something?”
I experience a jarring flash of cognitive dissonance. How did he—
Oh. Right. Pickpocket.
“I’m not a pickpocket!” the man exclaims. “I’m a professional thief! And a damn good one, thank you very much!”
“I’m fine with parting ways,” one of the Wolven (he looks like a giant husky; one eye is blue and the other is green) growls. “We do not care for smelly humans.”
“Good,” Ren says. “Everyone’s happy. Let’s go, Jon.”
“Wait.” The Wolven leader peers closely at me. I’m instantly nervous—yeah, he’s huge, but that’s not it. There’s something commanding about his presence. Like he’s a legendary general or something.
He lays a hand on my shoulder, searching my face with his deep-set eyes. There’s something familiar about him. I can’t quite place it, but…
My mouth drops open.
I just found my dog. Apparently, he’s a seven-foot tall, canine warrior.