Discover more from Newton’s Tales of the Macabre
Shadow of the Wolf by Newton Webb
A Dark Fantasy Horror Short Story: Two templars ride into a rural town determined to battle the forces of evil, but not everything is as clear cut as their doctrine promised.
“I thought templars had horses,” Barnaby grumbled as they walked along the main trading route. Persistent drizzle dogged their steps along the waterlogged dirt road.
“We usually do.” Angel furrowed his brow. “But for the moment, we prepare your body for the trials ahead.”
“Wonderful,” Barnaby huffed, his muscles aching and his legs leaden. Crows in the trees lining the road cawed in a mocking tone.
“The Lord of Light himself chose you for this task, Bee. Otherwise, he would have directed me to someone with skill and might, instead of a…” He looked closely at Barnaby. “I want to say lumberjack…”
“Clerk. Prior to my incarceration, I recorded accounts and inventory,” Barnaby said miserably. “I thought my service to the Lord of Light would be transcribing manuscripts or books.”
Angel slapped Barnaby on the shoulder with a mailed gauntlet, propelling him forwards and bruising his sensitive flesh. “Then this is a journey of redemption for you! Think of it, they doomed you to execution for your sins, but now, like me, you are a crusader of the Lord, hunting out evil in the shadows and illuminating it with the Lord’s light!”
I should have stayed. At least hanging is quick.
“Do you ever think that maybe you should choose someone else and let me, you know, wander off?” Barnaby asked cautiously.
“You are a nobleman, Barnaby, and I believe that spirit of self-sacrifice makes you ideal for this role.” Angel puffed out his chest heroically. “Look at you, trying to make life easier for me, even at the cost of becoming a heretic, and dooming yourself to death at the hands of my blade.”
Barnaby felt a cold chill run down his spine. “You wouldn’t really do that, would you?”
“Kill you? No, of course not. You’re a soldier of the Lord.” Angel resumed his mile-eating stride. At nearly seven feet tall, his easy pace, even in half plate, was crippling for the short, chubby Barnaby to maintain. “No, I’d only kill you if you became a heretic.” He looked at Barnaby closely. “I can count on you to do the same to me if I ever fall from the Lord’s favour, right?”
Kill you? How in the burning realms am I supposed to do that?
He reached up and touched the unfamiliar hilt of the sword strapped to his belt, nearly two feet shorter than Angel’s and still too heavy. “Oh, of course, don’t worry about it, I’d murder you in a heartbeat,” Barnaby said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, though he looked at the overly confident man striding forwards with all the swagger of a male peacock and was sorely tempted.
Angel had gifted him with a sword and a dagger upon paying for him to escape the noose, along with a thick, woollen travelling cloak emblazoned with the sunburst symbol of the Lord of Light. Pulling the cloak, damp despite the wax proofing, tight round his shoulders, Barnaby looked at the lengthy shadows. They stretched from the trees across the road, like dark fingers throttling the last remnants of light. “It’s getting dark. Do you think we’ll find an inn?”
“I’m sure of it, a nice warm fire, a jug of ale and a haunch of meat.”
That’s what you said the last two nights.
As Barnaby trudged forwards, he noticed Angel had got ahead, so he forced a brief burst of speed out of his deadened legs, to catch up with his companion. Despite his heavy armour, his sack of provisions and unfeasibly large sword, Angel remained stubbornly energetic.
He isn’t even out of breath, Barnaby thought bitterly. He doesn’t sweat, he glows.
A wolf howled in the distance. Barnaby looked round nervously. “They won’t attack travellers on the road, will they?”
“Of course not. They only attack humans when they are starving,” Angel said, not missing a step.
“Great… Thank you, that is wonderfully comforting.”
It was pitch black when they saw the light ahead. A small wooden palisade surrounded a bleak settlement of rundown huts. It was impossible to judge the size of the settlement in the dark, but from the look of its meagre defences, it didn’t appear to be a prosperous one.
“Illumination! There is ale behind those walls! Or I’m a pigeon!” Angel increased his stride. Barnaby surprised him by keeping up.
Stew, please have stew. Thick meaty stew. Potatoes or bread, I don’t care. Just have warm, rich stew.
“No entrance after dark,” a voice called out.
“We’re soldiers of the Lord of Light, on his holy business,” Angel declared firmly, not slowing as they approached the wicker gate.
“I said, no entrance after dark.” Whoever the voice belonged to remained behind the wall, shrouded in darkness.
Angel reached the wicker fence, shaking it vigorously. It wobbled, and several sticks broke free.
“Stop that!” A man stepped out, aiming a crooked spear at Angel’s chest. “Alwin, get out here.” Reluctantly, his partner emerged.
“What is all this nonsense about? Why are you not opening this twig - gate thing?” Angel leant on the top of the gate to get a better look and it flexed under the immense weight of his armour and muscle.
The guards looked at each other as they continued to hold their weapons in as threatening a stance as they could muster. “Nobody enters after dark. It isn’t safe. Especially when the full moon approaches.”
Angel pointed at the sunburst symbol on his tabard. “This symbol marks me as a templar of the Lord of Light. To deny me entrance on my holy mission would be heresy.” He pulled his immense blade clear of its scabbard and examined it critically in the torchlight. It was longer than the gate was tall. “I’m worried that nobody explained the price of heresy to you.”
The guards looked at the huge armoured knight with his sword and whispered to each other.
“If they didn’t,” Angel said, beaming happily. “It means death.” Angel sheathed his blade. “Now, be a good man and open the gate. I’d hate to break it.”
The first guard reached forward and opened the gate. Angel strode straight through. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see the light.”
Barnaby followed, offering an apologetic smile to the guards who had nervously stepped back. Angel’s ham-sized fists banging on the door of the Wild Boar Inn resulted in the sound of a bar being drawn back. Angel pushed a harassed innkeeper to one side as he tried and failed to open the door just a crack. Stepping inside, Angel seemed oblivious to the atmosphere as the entire inn fell silent, everyone staring at them with deep malevolence.
Finding a table close to the fire, Angel took off his wet cloak and hung it on a chair. His armour gleamed in the firelight. Barnaby noticed, with grim amusement, that everyone’s eyes seemed to be drawn to Angel’s sword.
“Ale, bread, meat.” Angel called out to the barkeep. There was silence. Angel pulled out his purse and tossed some coins onto the table.
The effect was immediate. The barkeep smeared a smile on his face. “Of course, sir. Very good.”
Barnaby sat down with relief next to the fire, his cloak joining Angel’s on a chair facing them. “Water too, please.” Barnaby loved ale as much as the next man, but he was so exhausted he could only manage water and food. He sat down. His muscles itched with relief as they worked to repair the damage of a day’s hiking. His body unwound as he slumped in his chair. It took a force of effort to remain awake as he waited for their food to arrive.
It was almost tranquil, with the warmth of the fire and the relative silence of the inn, despite the hostile glances of the inhabitants. Angel shattered the atmosphere with his booming voice. “So what is this nonsense about not letting travellers in after dark? That is when travellers need to come in the most. Remember what the Lord of Light says. ‘Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’”
From the corner a priest spoke up, raising his head from his ale cup. “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls round like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” His head slumped back down.
Angel stood up, his eyes alight with fiery passion. “Devils? Barnaby, I knew he led us to this place for a purpose. Evil besets these good folk.” He strode over to the priest. “Tell me more good man.”
The priest looked at the giant soldier looming in front of him and moaned bitterly, “Heathen’s fill this village. The Lord’s light doesn’t penetrate the blasted trees.” He sighed. “They come to the temple and pray to the Lord of Light, but the second they leave the doors, they pray to false idols.”
“That is enough, priest. We are all loyal followers of the Lord here. You are talking about a bit of silly nonsense practised by a handful of old timers,” the innkeeper said, bringing Angel and Barnaby tankards of ale. “Bear him no mind Templar, he is too deep in his cups.” He left a jug of water in front of Barnaby. If Barnaby had any money, he’d have tipped him. “They go into the woods, sing a bit and drink a lot. Those idiots don’t bother nobody.”
“Heresy!” Angel’s brown eyes glimmered with excitement. “You are in luck Bee, your first trial is at hand.”
Barnaby looked at the templar with dismay, shaking his head. Instead of the water, he took a deep pull from his ale.
“Priest, tell me more.” Angel lifted the priest’s head from where it had slumped. The priest was insensible. Angel slapped him a few times and then dropped the head. It fell to the table with a thump.
“Whoever can tell me about this heresy will receive the Lord’s beneficence.” Angel waited, but only silence followed. He tried again, “And plenty of free ales.”
A young man spoke up. “We don’t always close the gates, just as long as the full moon lasts.”
Angel walked over and sat at his table, joining the man and his lady friend. “Why? What is everyone scared of?”
“There is a local legend, a wolf in the woods,” the man mumbled.
“That is enough, boy.” A grizzled man with a ruddy face and a thick leather coat was sitting with two of his friends. He stared at Angel with a hostile expression.
Angel’s face darkened. He turned to look the man in the eye. The man flinched and immediately pulled his coat closer and turned away.
“Never you mind them. What is your name?” Angel said. He downed his tankard in one, then leant in closer to the young couple, motioning to the innkeeper to bring them all ales. “I would learn more about this wolf.”
“I’m Jacob, Sir. This is Hild.” He gestured to his young friend. She smiled shyly, not making eye contact. “The legend is that as long as we pay tribute to the wolf in the woods, he will protect us from outsiders,” Jacob said.
“You poor folk, do you not see that the hand outstretched shades you from the Lord’s light?” Angel rested his hand on the hilt of his oversized sword and a broad smile crossed his face. “Now, where can we find this demon?”
The innkeeper scoffed. “There is no demon. It is a tradition and an excuse for people to get drunk. It isn’t worth your time, Templar.”
“Come Barnaby, evil awaits.” Angel stood, striding towards the fire. He gripped his cloak, which was still damp, and dramatically swept it over his shoulders. Droplets sprayed over Barnaby’s face.
Flames of damnation.
The innkeeper emerged with two bowls of food.
Barnaby looked at the food longingly. He looked at the fire, then “It’s pitch black outside. We have no hope of finding anything. Let’s eat the… whatever is in those bowls and then go out hunting for the evil, wolf loving, heretics.”
“Evil prospers when good men do nothing. Grab your sword. We must find these people. The moon is rising. They should be easy to find.”
The warmth of the hearth beckoned to him. The innkeeper placed a bowl of hot stew in front of him. “So what happens when generally okay men do nothing?” The templar looked down at him in silence and Barnaby shuddered at the burning fanaticism in his eyes.
How long until he thinks I am a heretic? Do I get a second chance, or will he slay me on the spot?
Levering himself out of the chair and away from the aroma of that glorious stew was the hardest thing Barnaby had ever done. For the hundredth time since leaving the debtors’ prison, he sincerely wished that he had let the gallows take him. A quick death would have been infinitely preferable to this long drawn out life of permanent dread, exhaustion and misery.
The young couple approached them. The woman elbowed the young man who accompanied her. He shyly looked up at Angel as he glanced down at them expectantly. “I don’t mean to intrude, but we’ve never had a templar in the village before. We’re getting married next month and we’d love your blessing,” the lad said.
Barnaby sighed. Don’t encourage him. Then he saw his opportunity as he looked back at the stew.
Angel’s face lit up. “I would be delighted!” He stood tall and removed his gloves, slapping them down on the table. “May the radiant light of the Lord shine upon your union, bringing you joy, prosperity, and love everlasting.” He rested his hands on the heads of the young couple. They didn’t even need to kneel. He was tall enough to loom over them. “May your days be filled with understanding and your nights with tenderness. Together you walk, guided by the divine wisdom of the Lord of Light.” Angel closed his eyes. “In His name, I bless this sacred bond that you shall form. Amen.”
“Oh, curses. Mother of—” Barnaby silenced himself as everyone stared at him. Steaming stew dribbled down his chin as he emptied the ale tankard into his burnt mouth.
“Barnaby.” Angel shook his head in disappointment. “Gluttony is a sin. See how the Lord punishes you,” Angel tutted firmly. “Come now, evil awaits.”
His mouth sore and burnt, Barnaby looked resentfully at the bowl of stew. The sight of mutton, which had somehow escaped his spoon, taunted him. All that pain just for a spoonful of overly boiled cabbage and barley. It didn’t seem fair. Picking up his cloak and throwing it round his shoulders, once more he was shrouded in cold and damp. Each stride took him further away from the fire and the food. His stomach, having been teased, grumbled as he begrudgingly followed the templar. The eyes of the inn’s patrons followed them out into the drizzle.
The guard at the gate scurried to let them out of the village, not questioning why they would depart. He was just happy not to be involved.
“Slow down,” Barnaby puffed. He scampered after Angel. The monolithic templar ploughed through the woods in the dark, oblivious to the thick foliage. “How are you supposed to find anything if you are loudly crashing round in the dark?” They’d been walking through the dark woods for two hours now with no luck. Aimlessly treading thin woodland paths that didn’t seem to have been designed for human use, and certainly not for a giant soldier and a portly clerk.
Angel stopped abruptly. Placing his hands on his hips, he surveyed the thick vegetation surrounding them. “The Lord of Light shines even in the blackest night, Barnaby.” As Barnaby caught up, Angel turned to him with a smug, self-righteous smile that filled Barnaby with rage. “Commit unto the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”
Screwing up his eyes, Barnaby bit his lip as frustration flowed through him. “The Lord of Light helps those who help themselves, right? He is a guiding light, not a controlling light.”
“Verily, I say unto you, the Lord of Light has bestowed upon his faithful the gift of diligence and industry,” Angel said as he patted Barnaby on the shoulder with bone-crushing force. “For he has proclaimed that those who help themselves shall be aided by his divine grace and providence.”
“Okay, so you agree with me. Good. He could have just said Yes. Let’s stop and think about this for a moment,” Barnaby said, leaning against a tree. The slick bark was cold to his touch. “People have been coming to this clearing for years now, for decades, maybe centuries.”
“Heresy has long roots—”
“Yes, yes, very long, I’m sure, but randomly wandering round in the dark won’t find them. They’ll be on a path, one well worn.” He snapped his fingers. “The villagers will all know of its location too. You can’t hide a clearing from people who live right next to it. What else do you have to talk about in a village like this?”
Angel laughed. “And you thought you weren’t cut out for this! You are right. The Lord of Light will send us a guide.”
“Or, and this is just a suggestion. We could offer a silver coin to whoever will show us where this clearing is and save the Lord of Light some time.” Barnaby was excited at the opportunity to sort out their dilemma as fast as possible. He paced, the desperate hope of returning to a modicum of comfort fueling his stride. “We can loiter there until the full moon is over and the villagers have lost their chance to do their ritual. Then we can move on to a place with warm stew and clean beds, having achieved our shining deed.”
“A tremendous idea, Bee. Your mind is as sharp as my blade. We’ll do that.”
As they turned to return to the village, Barnaby cursed under his breath. Angel gasped with excitement.
“Illumination!” Angel shook Barnaby’s shoulder and pointed.
“I see it…” Barnaby said, his voice dripping with resentment. A campfire was glowing in the distance. Unless some other gathering was taking place, Angel had found his cultists.
Angel strode through the forest. The twigs, brambles and branches seemed to clear before him, only to time their backswing perfectly to slap, sting, and tear at Barnaby’s tender flesh as he puffed after the valiant soldier.
Barnaby considered trying to convince Angel that arriving at the site exhausted would do them no good and that they should slow down, but one look told him that Angel was in the fever grip of the true devotee. Nothing would sway him from his path now. Barnaby hoped it was actually evil cultists and not just innocent kids playing in the woods.
They were close enough now to hear music, pan flutes and drums. Angel loosened his blade in its sheath, but didn’t slow his stride. Suddenly, he stepped back, gripped Barnaby’s collar, and threw him into a patch of nettles.
“What the… the chickens!” Barnaby only stopped himself from swearing loudly at the last moment as his face erupted into a flaming mess of stinging hives. Clumsily, he rolled to his feet and turned to face his attacker before falling back to his feet in gut wrenching terror. To his horror, he saw Angel’s blade shining as the Templar swiftly disembowelled the man, and with a vicious backswing, decapitated another. Their bodies collapsed to the floor. One of their spears fell right at Barnaby’s feet. He jumped back with a yelp when he saw an arrow embedded in a tree right next to where he had been walking.
Panic flowed through Barnaby. He pulled out his sword, waving it in the air as he looked round him for more attackers. Angel disappeared into the trees on the side of the path. “Wait, wait.” Barnaby ran after him. Angel was pulling a knife from the throat of a dead archer.
“This is magnificent news, Barnaby. They fear us. We must be close.”
“Great.” Barnaby said, panting, his eyes wide with fear and his face burning from the stings. Angel passed him some dock leaves. He gratefully rubbed them against his cheeks and forehead.
“Come Barnaby, evil awaits and we shall not disappoint.” Angel wiped clean his blood slicked blade and continued his relentless approach towards the campfire.
Barnaby looked down the track towards the village.
If I ran, would he find me? Is this my chance?
Then he looked down at the bodies and realised bitterly that alone the villagers would murder and loot him. His exhausted body lumbered after Angel. It was a source of cruel irony for him that the closer he was to the devoted thug’s blade, the safer he would be.
A voice called out before being silenced in a gurgle as Barnaby caught up to see Angel striding into a forest clearing. The music stopped and what looked like a whole village of people, dressed in burlap robes, looked back at them. Barnaby stepped over the body of what he presumed to be a guard.
As the moon rose to its zenith, Angel bellowed, “And be not overcome by darkness, but instead overcome darkness with light.” He saluted with his giant sword and ran towards the mass of cultists who pulled out a wicked assortment of weapons and all charged towards Angel.
Standing a few metres behind Angel, Barnaby’s sword shook in his grip and his bowels loosened in terror. Angel, he realised with horror, was laughing as he waded into the cultists. His blade was a flickering star burst as it erupted with supernatural speed. The firelight exploded from the polished metal, giving Barnaby feverish glimpses of the villagers’ faces as they appeared round him. A hooded body bore him to the ground and Barnaby clutched at its knife hand. His world shrank to the knife and the foetid source of hot, garlic-tinged breath above him. They rolled on the wet grass. Barnaby slid out from under his attacker, wriggling in the lush undergrowth. Still holding onto the knife hand, he climbed on top of the villager. The man punched him in the side. He grunted in pain. Again and again, his attacker kept hitting him until he was released. Barnaby scrambled back on all fours, away from the fire. His attacker rose and advanced after him. Barnaby continued in his backwards crawl until the attacker ran and leapt towards him. Pulling out his knife, he thrust upwards as the body landed on him. Panicked, he stabbed repeatedly until his assailant fell still. Barnaby shoved the corpse off him. He ran his hands over his blood slicked body, checking for wounds, then gasped with relief to find himself unharmed. Barnaby was alive. Somehow, he had lost his sword and his knife was somewhere in the—the body started to rise. Barnaby panicked, ran forwards and stamped on its head until it lay still. Rolling it over, he retrieved his knife and stabbed down in a frenzy until the hood fell back.
It was the lovely girl, Hild, that Angel had blessed earlier. Due to be married in a few days. Barnaby vomited on the grass, his body shuddering with disgust and horror. He rolled back and curled up, whimpering. He hadn’t asked for any of this. Barnaby looked at his blood-soaked hands. They weren’t going to hang him for theft. Now, he was a murderer of innocents. He should have walked to his death with dignity. Self-hatred flooded him.
A howl rent the night sky and he looked up to see a figure from his nightmares, a nine foot tall, giant, wolflike form approaching Angel. The villagers had broken and fled, leaving just Angel in the centre of the clearing. Barnaby lay prone in the grass watching as Angel held aloft his sword in a salute, before the two charged at each other.
He is insane.
Barnaby shook his head.
Why would anyone choose this life?
Then, with a cold realisation, he saw that Angel, for all his speed and strength, was being pushed back by the demonic form. He started to contemplate what would happen if Angel lost.
Gibbering with fear, Barnaby recovered his knife and, taking several steps backwards, shook his head as his rational mind warred with the adrenaline. Realising that he no longer knew what was the safest course of action, but it likely involved Angel being alive. He raised the knife in both hands and ran across the grass towards the giant wolf-like form. As he got closer, time seemed to slow as the creature turned to regard him with gleaming gold eyes and a giant, slobbering jaw. From it issued a growl so deep that it shook his very bones and rumbled through him as he saw in front of him death incarnate.
He screamed with rage, a high-pitched shriek of a battle cry in response. Then, his foot caught on a corpse, he tripped, and everything exploded into red hot, fiery pain before he collapsed unconscious.
Barnaby’s eyes opened and then immediately clamped shut as pain lanced through his skull. The welcoming feeling of drizzle on his face was the only source of comfort as waves of agony flowed through his body.
He remembered the dead girl before he remembered the giant wolf demon.
“You are awake!” Angel boomed.
Barnaby flinched before rolling to the side and vomiting into the grass. The morning light was exposing the site of a bloody massacre.
“Here, drink this.” Angel handed him a flask. Barnaby took it, noticing with horror that Angel had been busy stacking up the corpses.
Barnaby took a gulp before spitting it out in a coughing fit, his eyes watering. That wasn’t water. It was brandy.
“Only the best for my fellow templar. Damned if that wasn’t the bravest thing I ever saw.” Angel regarded Barnaby, shaking his head with admiration. “I could have sworn you were done for when you charged the demon with only a dagger. But you ducked under his claws with a speed that defied the most battle-hardened warrior.” Angel offered the flask again, but Barnaby shook his head.
“I did what?” he said weakly.
“Shame about the rock.” Angel said jovially as he took a hefty glug of brandy.
“The rock…” Barnaby looked round and sure enough, a large, blood-stained rock was next to him with a—“What is that?” he said, pointing querulously to a wicker basket which was resting on it. A faint cooing came from it, before the sound of a baby crying tore asunder the morning’s tranquillity.
“We have adopted a baby!” Angel exclaimed, picking up the child and raising it to the sun. “Of course, we’ll need to find a wet nurse. We can’t exactly return it to the village after last night’s antics.”
“Wonderful,” said Barnaby. He closed his eyes. Before he fell unconscious, his last regret was that he wouldn’t get his stew after all.
If you enjoyed this free short story, then please consider Tales of the Macabre, Vol. 1. My first collected works on Amazon containing sixteen short stories and novellas by Newton Webb.