Sunset framed the great mountain. The crimson rays licked the jagged rocks like great fingers of flame and the white top glittered in a burning brightness. No one noticed the black shadow that bounded up the side of the mountain to a great promontory, that looked out over the whole land of Carrock. He was a great beast of pride, his pointed ears turned towards the east, his keen, shining, green eyes carefully regarding the darkening world. The black nose sniffed at the wind and the white muzzle shivered just a bit, letting ivory fangs be visible for a moment. His massive chest was white like his muzzle, though the rest of him was as gray as any wolf. He stood motionless, a lord of his lands, staring out over the beauty. Slowly the sun sank and a nearly full moon began to let its pale light play across the lands. It glittered in the lake at the foot of the mountain. The wolf looked at the moon, threw back his mighty head and howled. Below men trembled at the sound. Again he howled, this time a slightly different note in his voice. He stared out over the land again, before turning and bounding down the mountain.
“The Wolf is back,” Tennek said slowly, looking into his half-empty beer mug. “I heard him last night on the Mountain. I think the old wizard is finally going to get it.”
“Bah,” old Roche grunted with a wave of his hook, “that Wolf is not nearly as big as you make him and the ‘heroic deeds’ could be those of anyone who has a bone to pick with Alick. After all, who doesn’t? That beast is just a wolf and a nuisance at that.”
“But you can’t deny the fact that your dogs weren’t frightened or mad about him,” Pulleny put in. He was a sandy-haired young man with a liking for all animals. “My animals sounded like they do when I come home after a long time away. It was like — well — as if the lord himself were coming back.”
“Your stupid mutts can’t tell the difference between a man and a fence post,” Roche laughed. “They might as well go chasing fluff on the pastures rather than watch your sheep. I tell you that ‘Wolf’ of yours isn’t worth one wit. It’s just a pack like all the others. And if I catch one of them near my farm I’m going to let ‘em have it — bang!” He made a shooting motion with his good hand.
“Old Roche is dreaming again,” Will the barman laughed. “If you think you’ll get the Wolf, you’re mistaken. You know I’ve seen that beast with my own two eyes. It was nigh well two years ago.” A hush had fallen over the whole tavern and the men and their women moved their chairs closer to listen to the bartender’s soft, deep voice. It was well known that Will Charou had the gift of stories and no one would miss out on one of his tales, true, tall, or otherwise.
“It was a night much like this last one, only a short time after full moon. His highness had just vanished and the old wizard had taken the throne. I was afraid that there would be robbin’ folk around, trying to get at the good beer in the cellar. And that night it happened. There was a knock on the door after hours and the Gatherers came in.
“‘It’s time for you to pay up,’ the leader said. ‘His lordship wishes for your best ale and fast. Don’t forget to add the salted meat and fresh sausage.’” Will mimicked his voice perfectly, to the amusement of his audience.
“‘Sir,’ I told him, ‘I’m not giving anything. I’ve already paid my taxes and can’t afford to do so again. His “highness” will have to go without.’
“That made those ruffians so mad that they dragged me out to the front yard and pointed their guns at me, but they didn’t do it without several black eyes and two knockouts.” The crowd laughed, eyeing the meaty bartender’s huge fists.
“Still,” he went on, silencing the laughter with his calm voice, “they got me, tied my hands behind my back and pointed their guns at me.
“‘Gimme your key,’ he snapped, but I told him no. He cocked his gun and I could see his finger tighten on the trigger, when suddenly a huge shadow leaped on top of him, growling. I was knocked down and when I looked up I saw the Wolf standing in front of me. His eyes glittered with anger towards the Gatherers and one growl made them drop their guns and disappear. The leader aimed his pistol at the Wolf and was just about to shoot, when the big beast jumped at him and got his ear. Now you know why he always wears that big hat. He ran away yelling in the night and the Wolf turned around to me. I thought he was going to eat me, but he just came around and bit through the rope that tied my hands. I stood up and I could swear that his head came up above my waist and I’m no small man. He had a white spot on his chest.” Will pointed to his own. “He gave me one warning look and then bounded off into the night and vanished.” The whole house was silent for a moment.
“Are you sure that you didn’t make that up?” a stranger asked out of one corner.
“Mister,” Pulleny snapped at him, “the only stories that Will adds to are the ones where he’s winning. His having been tied up and knocked down should make you believe what he’s told you. Maybe you should listen around and hear some of the other stories that are around — especially those of the Gray Pack. Maybe this one won’t be so hard to believe then.” The crowd chimed in with loud boos and hisses and the stranger apologized.
“No harm done,” Will intoned, “but it’s getting to be closing time. You know what the wizard does to people who hang about after hours. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The people laughed and paid their fares. Only old Roche remained seated, tapping his hook on the bar.
“Impressive story, Will,” he remarked with a laugh, “but I hope that that’s not what our little group is founded on.”
“No, old man, we are founded on getting his highness back in office and the wizard out. With or without the Wolf.” The old man nodded and bade his host good night. The bartender looked out into the dark, noticing that tonight the moon was full. He shivered in the fresh air, went into his warm tavern and locked the doors.