The Wolfhound. Recalling the Past. Voiceless.
A thick rain fell from a dark and foreboding sky when lightning tore open the night to reveal a lifeless body hanging from a noose above Mumling’s waterway.
Nearby, a black, hungry wolfhound cringed. Frightened by the sudden burst of light and crack of thunder, it tucked its tail and made its way around the parameter. The dog growled at the witnesses as it wandered past.
Bartram Humblefoot, the venerable Paladin of the Ancients, knelt reverently in the rain. Bartram’s soaked head was lowered in prayer to offer last rites to the deceased. Barefoot, the halfling was dressed in a ringmail tunic and tan leggings; a leaf-bladed shortsword was sheathed at his side, and his arm was braced behind a round silver shield planted solidly in the mud.
Accompanying Bartram was a middle-aged Gaelwyn man who remained still and silent. A halfling, Bartram was only half their height and, kneeling, his head arrived just above their kneecaps. Their company was illuminated by the faint glow of an oil lantern resting at Bartram’s feet.
Trotting on in the wet, the hound passed the entrance of a tavern named The Third Duck; overhead, a placard depicting three waddling ducks swayed in the wind from rusty iron chains. The dog whined, sniffed the stoop for scraps, and pressed on.
Inside, Rof Mok, a dingy miscreant beleaguered by his past, sought to drown his memories in tankards of ale. Rof’s rotting teeth were stained brown from tobacco, and his matted, graying hair was unkempt. His pedestrian clothes were ripped and soiled, his shoes muddied, and grime was fixed under his fingernails.
“Naw,” a comely barmaid exclaimed, pushing Rof Mok off as she passed. “‘Nough for you, y’lazy goat.”
Nearby patrons chortled at Rof Mok’s expense.
Despondent, Rof Mok drunkenly examined a ring captured in his filthy palm. It was cast from the purest Brigantian silver and fashioned to appear as a woven, leafy vine. Its shank was worn smooth and harbored an inscription carved in a flowing script that read, “Return to Me.”
Grasping the ring, his mind clouded by sorrow and regret, tears welled in Rof Mok’s eyes. Losing the slightest semblance of composure, his head fell heavily into the crook of his arm, and he blacked out.
It wasn’t too long before the barmaid met a sentry at the tavern door and pointed gruffly at Rof Mok.
It was hours before midnight, and high above the Temple of Silvanus, ominous clouds threatened a deluge of rain.
Constructed from massive granite blocks, the temple was topped by a vaulted gable roof covered in vigorous green moss. A single tower near its entry soared beyond the roofline with a pointed spire.
The black wolfhound padded its way through a garden and into the cemetery. It wound through rows of statues and forgotten granite markers before abruptly stopping to growl at a man digging up a fresh grave. The hound hunched forward with its hackles up, and it snarled at the man.
“A grim,” Rof Mok gasped, making a religious gesture to keep the creature at bay. And when the blessing didn’t work, he raised his shovel and swiped recklessly at the dog. “Get! Go!” he yelled. Avoiding the swing of the spade, the wolfhound whimpered, turned, and darted from the graveyard.
Returning to work, Rof Mok upturned more soil until he struck a pine box and, after prying it open with the edge of the scoop, found the corpse resting within.
Bending over, Rof Mok wrestled in the pit for a time until he emerged with a silver ring held between his fingers. He narrowed his eyes to focus on the ring and cackled.
Midday, loitering at the temple’s entrance, the wolfhound didn’t encounter any smells that interested him, so it left.
Inside, in a round antechamber, Bartram circled the body and spoke to a handful of mourners attending the service of a fallen soldier.
“Captain Wen Fak died bravely defending the merchant caravan from the goblin attack,” Bartram told them.
An acquaintance of the recently departed, Rof Mok brusquely folded his arms and kept his head bowed, interacting with no one.
The widow approached the body and tenderly caressed Wen Fak’s cheek, neck, and arm. Her fingers grazed over a silver ring.
“He was a kind man,” Bartram said to his widow, Sae. “His friends called him ‘a gentle giant’. Madam, can you share his story with us?”
She smiled and fondly recounted their courtship.
As a young man, Wen Fak delivered rye bread to the baker’s customers in Mumling. He was fit, tall, and agile and delivered the loaves to homes by hand, warm and fresh. Every morning, burdened with a narrow wooden warming oven strapped to his back, he’d race to a home found furthest from the bakery to work his way backward.
Sae routinely greeted the eager, gangly young Wen at the gates of her family’s residence. Wen’s sandy-blonde hair was mussed, his cheeks rosy, and often his arms and shoulders were laced in flour. Reaching through the bars, Wen would place the largest, warmest loaf he had into her waiting wicker basket. She would curtsy and gift him a pleasant smile, and Wen Fak would stay there, waiting behind the gates, to watch her until she exited the courtyard and disappeared inside.
It went that way for months until, one morning, the baker’s delivery boy was late to arrive. Sae waited patiently near the gates and was surprised when he rounded the corner sporting a handful of colorful spring tulips. He placed the flowers in her basket and set the loaf on top of them. And every day following, Wen Fak thoughtfully brought at least one flower to accompany Sae’s bread.
She agreed to see Wen Fak on Sundays, and every Sunday, he would faithfully return to spend time by her side. Wen Fak was a poor man, and their time was spent walking prize gardens or forested paths along the river. Over the prior week, he’d write charming missives describing Sae’s countenance, intellect, and beauty. Therein, Wen Fak wrote over fifty reasons why he wanted to see her, and he made fifty promises articulating how important she was to him each and every day.
Finally, a year later, on their wedding day, gathered before family and friends, he read aloud each and every reason, every promise he’d ever made to Sae. Wen’s promises, his reasons, were all he had to give her.
Sae’s family had financed their rings, and within his, she had inscribed, “Return to Me.” He kissed Sae like an awkward giraffe, bending and craning his neck to meet her, and their apple cinnamon rye cake was shaped like a bread loaf.
Years later, when the goblin wars came, Wen Fak took up arms and joined his Mumling patriots in the field. In their Dairy of Correspondence, a magicked book that recorded what was written in its twin, there wasn’t a day that went by when Wen Fak did not write to Sae. Cozied by the fire, she would watch as the ink appeared on the yellowed page, each stroke forming letters and words.
When he wrote, Wen Fak kept to practical matters concerning house and home. He never spoke of the enemy or the horrors he’d seen, nor ever related the extent of his injuries; she knew he’d never reveal the truth about those things. Instead, he would describe the hills and countryside as if they were a lush, untouched garden that’d escaped the ruin of war. He told her of the people he’d met on the road and the kindness they paid his fellow soldiers. And at the end of every letter, he’d remind Sae why he loved her and how much he missed her, for to him, she was everything.
It hailed on the day Wen Fak’s words didn’t appear on the page. Sae was so unnerved by the rattling and pelting outside that she paced the floor, holding the diary open in her hands, anxiously waiting for the script to appear. Consumed by worry, Sae neither slept nor ate and took to recording hopeful poetic prose in their diary. She half expected Wen to rush in with a bouquet of tulips in surprise. However, days later, Wen Fak’s ravaged body was returned to Mumling in a pine casket.
Sopping wet, the wolfhound growled menacingly at Rof Mok as he awoke in an alley. Startled rats leaped from his body and scampered into the shadows. He reeked of alcohol and lay in a pool of his vomit. The cold rain fell in sheets, and the dog closed toward him, salivating, snapping, and barking.
“No, no, please,” Rof Mok whimpered, shielding himself from its jaws. He cried and begged and pleaded to be left alone. Rof could feel the dog’s hot breath as it snarled and tried to bite him. Panicking, Rof Mok picked himself up and lumbered out of the alley to stumble into the road.
“Leave me be!” he shouted, waving the dog away, yet the hound relentlessly pursued him into the street, growling at him. Rof Mok tried to run and took up a drunken, limping stride, all the while, the black wolfhound remained, ever behind him, following. White, drippy, viscous saliva drooled from its maul.
Wandering the lonely, empty streets, Rof Mok called out, he cried for help, begging for someone to save him from the mad dog. Each time Rof Mok would turn his head to see if the dog was still there, it was, slowly pacing after him as an ever-present, constant companion.
Leaving the temple, a stray black hound wandered past Bartram and Sae on the road.
“Commander,” Sae said shyly from underneath her widow’s veil. “You needn’t walk me home.”
A chill wind blew through the trees. Waves of dried oak leaves lapped their ankles. Bartram smiled kindly at her. “It is my privilege, Sae, and I’ve nothing else I’d rather do.”
Sae was silent and kept her eyes fixed to the ground as she walked.
“I’ve met many Gaelwyn men in my time,” Bartram recalled, squinting to perceive his last forty-six years in Mumling, “and none saw the world like Wen. He’d tell me that rotted, blood-stained soil was the loam of new life, and the howl of an icy-cold wind was a mother lamenting the loss of another son. Once over a campfire, I heard him spin such a yarn that gifted hope and spirit to everyone who could hear him. As tall as he was, I’d dare say the man had the heart of a halfling without the nuisance of our feet.”
Sae nodded and smiled. “His world was always poems and color, music and prose. When we walked, he’d tell me fanciful stories of kings buried in the garden and how the jewels from their crowns seeded the brightest of flowers. He’d insist that the moss adorning the forest trees were knitted by kindly grandmothers to keep them warm.”
Bartram chuckled and rested his hand against his sword’s pommel. “And he once told me that if I were to plant my sword, it would yield a copse of knife acacia, a rare evergreen tree with silver-gray leaves shaped like blades.”
Sharing their stories, they recollected while wandering Mumling’s city streets. When they arrived at Sae’s family residence, she longingly caressed the wrought iron of the gate.
“Wen Fak was one of the most imaginative people I ever met,” Bartram sighed, looking up at her. “His heart was never in it - the war, the violence - but ours, forever marred by the experience, were made better by his.”
Sae bowed to Bartram and thanked him for his words.
“Oh,” Bartram said, retrieving a leather-bound book from his ringmail vest. “I believe this belongs to you.”
She hesitantly accepted Wen’s diary and wiped a tear from her eye. Appreciatively, she hugged the book tightly to her chest and allowed her emotions to well within her.
A passing black wolfhound snarled at Rof Mok as he crossed a high cobblestone bridge into Mumling’s commercial district. It was dusk, and gusts of cold wind blew through the streets; a storm loomed on the horizon threatening heavy rains.
Upon entering The Third Duck, Rof Mok took a bench at a community table and waited for service. He warmed his hands around a burning candle; a ring of silver adorned his finger. The aroma of baked bread and fried fish hung in the air, and his stomach growled.
Turning to greet him, the barmaid shrieked and dropped her serving tray, sending tin cups and drinks spilling to the floor.
“You!” she breathed, backing from the table.
“What?” Rof Mok asked, but nobody heard his voice.
Drawn to the commotion, breathy gasps erupted from the tavern.
“Three Hells,” swore an old man across from Rof Mok at the table. His wrinkled face wilted, he paled, and he trembled, muttering, “B-but how?”
“Out!” demanded a brawny man who stood from a nearby table to bruskly grasp Rof Mok by the collar.
Confused, Rof Mok protested as he was hauled to the door, “What? What’ve I done?”
Thrown into the dark street, Rof Mok lost his footing and collapsed, sprawling across the cobbled road. At the tavern’s door, a hobbled old woman bundled in a wool shawl cast a cup of water at him and spat at his feet. The water burned him when it contacted his skin, and he flinched at the pain. She levied a spiteful eye and gestured a spiritual warding of Silvanus before returning inside.
The wolfhound snarled at Bartram from behind.
“You don’t belong here,” Bartram whispered, kneeling in the mud, his eyes closed in prayer, “and that does not belong to you.”
Rof Mok, wobbling and leaning in the rain beside Bartram, looked up at the body swaying slowly under the bridge. Shaking, he extended his hand to find the silver ring on his finger. His eyes were red, puffy, and fearful, uncertain of who it was that dangled by a noose over the water. Rof Mok spoke to Bartram, but his voice was mute.
Bartram inhaled and breathed a heavy sigh. The aged halfling turned his head to look up at Rof Mok, the lantern uplighting his face. “The curse has you for as long as you possess it.”
Circling nearby, the black wolfhound exposed its teeth, snarled, and arched its back, growling at them.
Sobbing yet making no sound in the mortal realm, Rof Mok pleaded for the halfling to restore his life. But Bartram heard only the sound of the gusting wind and falling rain.
Taking to his feet and righting his shield, Bartram extended his open palm. Regretfully, Rof Mok lowered his gaze to his hand and, trembling, removed the beautiful silver ring. His lips quivered. He inspected it, rolling it around between his dirty fingers, before surrendering it to Bartram.
Bartram inhaled and smiled kindly at the ghost, and behind them, the wolfhound’s growling transformed into a whiny whimper.
Rof Mok looked terrified at his body hanging from the rope. He agitatedly wrung his hands and rubbed his ring finger. He cried and sobbed, he pleaded to Bartram, but his voice was distant and impossible to hear until, slowly, Rof Mok faded from existence.
Turning, Bartram left the waterway with the wolfhound. Together, they returned to Silvanus’ temple, and he exhumed the desecrated grave of Wen Fak, digging it out with his shield. Opening the pine casket, Bartram returned Wen Fak’s ring. When the ring was placed on the corpse’s finger, the wolfhound trotted off, winding between the cemetery's headstones until it disappeared from Bartram’s view.
“If I plant you, good friend,” Bartram whispered, scooping the wet, muddy soil onto the casket, “I wonder what will grow when I return?”