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Dave Gross

Black Wolf

Chapter 1

Old Wounds Hammer, 1371 DR The Year of the Unstrung Harp

Darrow slapped his arms against the cold and silently cursed his employer. Silently was the only way anyone ever cursed Radu Malveen. The finest swordsman in the city of Selgaunt was not one to suffer insults, especially not from his own carriage driver.

'Been in there a long time,' observed Pons, the master's bodyguard. Twenty years older than Dar-row, the old veteran had a voice full of smoke and pebbles. His breath turned to fog as it passed through his muffler.

Darrow looked up to spot the moon. Selune was full and bright, a glittering trail of shards forming her wake against the dark winter sky. The black silhouette of House Malveen had only barely touched her silver body.

'Not so long,' said Darrow. 'Seems longer 'cause it's so damned cold.'

The great black draft horse snorted and clapped its hooves on the cobblestones, as if to agree. Darrow pressed his hands against one of the copper lanterns that flanked the driver's perch. The frost on his mittens sizzled.

'Dark!' cursed Pons. 'Seems long 'cause it is long.'

'You want to go in and tell him to hurry? Here's the key.'

Pons shot Darrow a dirty glance. He had been on duty the previous summer, when Souran Keel decided he didn't want to piss in the courtyard and went inside to find a garderobe. Radu Malveen emerged alone soon after and ordered Pons to drive home. No one dared to ask about Souran, and no one ever saw him again.

Darrow looked up at the slumping hulk of House Malveen. Even before it had been abandoned two decades earlier, the manor was the sole residence in an area increasingly overrun by salt houses and shipyards. In its day, it had been one of the premiere social landmarks of Selgaunt. Now, moldering crates and barrels spilled out of its sagging walls to fill the central courtyard. Even the once-fabulous fountain was piled with graving boxes, between which sad nereids and locathah yearned skyward on waves of verdigris.

He wondered only briefly what the interior looked like before thrusting the thoughts away. Radu entrusted his driver with the key to the north wing with strict instructions to enter with a warning only if the city guards approached. The Scepters were notorious for accepting bribes, and Darrow had little doubt they had been well paid to avoid House Malveen. He assumed his stewardship of the key was more a test of loyalty conducted by a man who enjoyed inflicting punishment on the disobedient. Radu Malveen was not intimidating for his swordsmanship alone. To his employers and peers alike, he gave the impression that he could do anything, without concern for the repercussions. Darrow admired that ability to live completely beyond fear of consequences. It seemed like power.

Pons blew into his mittens, then pressed them against the lantern beside Barrow's.

'Ever wonder why they don't just buy it back?' he asked. Behind him, strange gargoyles crouched as if to listen to their gossip. Moonshadows crawled slowly over their crustacean limbs, scaly hides, and blank, piscine eyes.

'Best not to talk about the master's business,' said Darrow.

'The 'Skevren were broken for piracy, too,' Pons said, oblivious to the warning. 'The Old Owl's lord of Storm-weather again and practically running the city. Why not the master and Pietro? What about Laskar? He's the eldest.'

Darrow glared at Pons. Gossiping about the master's business was almost as stupid as disobeying his orders. Pons should have known better, having worked for the Malveens so long.

'So they do a little black business,' said Pons, jerking a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the north wing. 'They all do.'

'Shut up, Pons.'

'Don't you ever wonder what's going on in there?'

'No. Shut up.'

'Don't tell me to shut up, boy. I'll-Wait, what's that?'

Darrow listened but heard only the distant shush of the surf crashing on the sea breaks around Selgaunt Bay. Straining his hearing, Darrow imagined he could also hear the hubbub of watermen and their families in the huddled community of their boats. No matter the season, the boaters lived on the water, lashing their rafts and barges together when the day's work was done. The proper folk of Selgaunt would have it no other way, since the alternative was to let the riffraff roam the streets.

Pons and Darrow peered into the courtyard, down the narrow alley formed between the north wing and a wall of crates. All they could see was a thin path of glistening cobblestones where the moon slanted down between the black shadows of crates and casks, the cargo that overflowed from the warehouse. Sometimes beggars would combine their efforts to push aside a few barrels to create a windbreak, but Darrow couldn't imagine anyone trying that tonight. Without four walls and a fire, any beggar hiding here would have succumbed to the deadly cold long ago.

'I didn't hear anything,' said Darrow at last. 'Don't make us come in there after you,' Pons warned the unseen intruder. Darrow grimaced at the dark passage and pitied anyone foolish enough to make a shelter so close to the house. Pons didn't know when to hold his tongue, but he was ruthless and efficient when dealing with beggars. No vagrant who'd felt the wrong end of Pons's club came back for more.

Pons drew his short sword and stepped into the alley. Darrow did the same. Despite their caution, both men were caught flat-footed by the attack.

Something swept Darrow's legs from under him, and he hit the street hard. His boiled leather helmet spared his skull from cracking on the stones, but the impact blasted his breath away.

Where Pons had been, Darrow heard a low voice speaking but couldn't make out the words. He heard Pons's reply, 'No! I can't!'

The answer was a savage roar and a rough shout, and a hot stream of liquid splashed Darrow's face, filling his open eyes.

For a second, he panicked, trying to scramble away on all fours. Behind him, a painful wheezing filled the alley. Pons needed help, so Darrow found his courage and turned, blinking away the blood. Then he heard a sound of butchery, a ripping and tearing worse than anything he'd experienced slaughtering sheep as a boy. In the darkness, something wet and heavy hit the cobblestones.

He stared, paralyzed with fright as a towering figure rose up from the shadows. It was a man who stood almost a head taller than Darrow. The full moon made a bright halo of his long white hair, and a beaded headband held a copper medallion of a ragged claw to the man's brow. Short gray whiskers bristled on his cheeks and chest, which was bare but for a thick woolen vest that hung loosely on his lanky, muscular body. The man's left shoulder was a bleeding stump, a few strips of pink flesh testament to an inadequate healing spell. In his right hand, the big man gripped Pons by the hair. The guard's eyes were wide and blank in death.

The stranger moved forward and put his face close to Darrow's. The man's teeth were white in the moonlight, and his canines were inhumanly long and sharp. His breath was hot and smelled of fresh blood.

'Can you open the door?' he rumbled.

Darrow thought about the master's displeasure. Then he thought about Pons's guts steaming on the ground nearby. Finally, he weighed his chances of killing or escaping this gigantic stranger who had eviscerated Pons in the time it took to blink.

'Yes,' said Darrow, 'I can.'

*****
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