A squat stone fort sat on the edge of a quiet village, serving as the local barracks. The dark streets were lit up by the warm glow of dusty lamp light. Inside the fort, the walls were adorned with silver and slate blue banners bearing a wolf's head crest. Arms racks and trophy cases surrounded a square pit, four feet down, small flights of stairs leading out on all four sides.
In the middle of the ring stood a young man in loose black attire, a sleeveless top revealing well toned arms with light scarring scattered across both limbs. He bore the mementos of countless scraps on his skin, a mark on his cheek so recent that the stitching remained in his flesh.
The young man was hardly twenty years of age but bore a hardened snarl and narrow, glaring grey eyes. His dark hair hung to his shoulders in shaggy, unkempt curls and his hands tightened around the hilt of an oversized, ill-crafted cleaver one might rather generously refer to as a sword.
Heavy, armoured footsteps broke the bothersome quiet of the empty sparring chamber and a voluminous appeared in the threshold. It was a man approaching fifty, dressed in the same standard as the various banners around the fort. He wore armoured boots, gauntlets and a breastplate of chain overlaid with light steel plate.
The older man had strong, broad features, a finely trimmed beard of black streaked with grey and eyes overshadowed by bushy brows. His physique was heavy and well maintained for a man of his age, rippling arms leading into big, thick fingered hands. "So Rolf, what's your strategy for tonight's attempt?" the older man asked while tramping down the steps and giving his blade a few practice swipes.
"Easy, I overpower you and then beat you into submission."
"I'm not quite sure that constitutes a strategy but nonetheless I marvel at the simplicity with which you approach life."
Rolf huffed at the other man's response. "I'm tired of hearing you talk Edwin, fight me!"
Edwin let out a hearty guffaw, steadying both hands onto the hilt of his sword. "If you ever want to join the Wolfsguard, you'll need to address me as Captain Bastaff."
Rolf made the first move and approached with a quick dash and a sweeping lunge. Bastaff was out of the blades rather substantial range in a single quick step, blade lifted in a defensive stance. The great cleaver swung wildly, its weight sending it into a clumsy swipe and offering the defensive party and significant opening.
A simple thrust later and Bastaff's sword was poised at Rolf's throat, the older warrior allowing the tip to hover several inches from his opponents flesh.
Rolf almost seemed to growl at his opponent, his glare intensifying. His great blade rose up and clumsily smacked Edwin's away before unleashing a powerful downward stroke. The attack was promptly avoided with a sidestep and a parry, allowing Edwin to press his attack further. An array of two-handed sweeps followed, Rolf barely able to pull his sword up in time to defend himself. Each blow sent Rolf's blade rocking left and right until his defense was all but broken. An overhand feint left Rolf with his blade lifted to the ceiling and Edwin's sword yet again trained on his opponent's exposed vitals. Edwin fought in a clean cut and defensive style. His motion was never more than what was necessary, never any flourishes, nothing fancy or clever, just precise parries and powerful strokes.
"Dammit!" Rolf grumbled, hopping back and grinding his teeth in frustration.
Edwin sighed and shook his head. "You can't honestly expect to fight me with that piece of scrap, can you?"
"Well if you'd just hand over Wulfsever, I wouldn't have to!" Rolf retorted, his voice an aggravated rumble.
"You know I can't do that Rolf, not until you earn it."
"It was my father's blade, you can't keep it from me," he growled through clenched teeth.
Rolf moved on his opponent again, one powerful horizontal stroke after another. With careful dodges Edwin avoided the first three sweeps and then stepped past Rolf's range. He caught his opponent's wrist with one hand and drove the pommel of his sword into Rolf's face with the other. The blow sent the young man stumbling back where he found Edwin's foot jammed behind his own and artfully tripping him. In but a second he was on his back, disarmed and with Edwin's sword once again hovering only inches from his throat.
Rolf's heavy, panting breaths came in irregular rhythms, eyes set in a perpetual stony glare.
"Look at you," said Edwin. "Swinging that brick you call a sword around has already exhausted you."
"Hrrragghh!" Rolf howled, pulling his knee up to his chest and slamming it into Edwin's gut with all his might. The blow sent the older man back, hitting the stone floor with a thud and a loud grunt. Both men were scrambling to their feet but the younger, more spry Rolf was up first, pouncing upon Edwin as he rose up and delivering a wild haymaker. The punch blasted Edwin straight in the face, sending him back down to the floor.
Standing over Edwin, Rolf began to rain down punches, only one managing to land before Edwin threw his gauntleted hands up to protect face. One punch after another, Rolf drove unprotected hands in the hardened steel of Edwin's gauntlets. A flurry of blows later and Rolf's knuckles were bruised and bloody. It took upwards of a dozen more punches but eventually the pain coursing through his hands caused him to recoil and left Edwin with an opening. The big man capitalized with a gauntleted uppercut, landing square on Rolf's jaw and lifting him off his feet.
Rolf made to charge in once again but Edwin was prepared this time. He blocked the blow and trapped Rolf's arm in a solid lock, torquing his body and flipping the younger fighter onto the ground while maintaining his grip on the boy's limb. The arm was wrenched hard and Rolf was rolled on to his stomach, Edwin crouched over him and bending his arm behind his back. "You've lost boy, go home."
Edwin released his grip on Rolf's arm, rising from the ground and retrieving his sword. "That's the seventh time this month. Why do you keep doing this?"
Rolf got to his feet while shaking out his arm and casting a maligned stare at Edwin. "You know why I'm doing this Edwin, don't play dumb. I need to join the guard so I can protect the village with the rest of you."
"We both know this isn't just about protecting the village Rolf. It's about revenge and if you can't learn to let that go and develop some damn self control, you're to much of a risk to send out into the field."
Rolf anxiously strapped his blade into his belt while he grumbled out a retort. "You know I can't do that Edwin. The wolves have taken too many of our friends and family. They took your brothers, my parents, too many others and you want me to let go? That won't happen you old bastard."
Edwin stepped in close to Rolf, casting an intense stare into his eyes. "Then you'll never join the guard and you'll never get your hands on Wulfsever. I promised your father I'd look out for you if anything ever happened to him and that means I won't let you die because of an obsession with revenge against a horde of savage beasts!"
Rolf matched Edwin's expression before looking away with a snarl and marching past him. Muscles still aching and small droplets of blood falling from his hands, Rolf navigated the halls of the barracks for a short time. The other members of the Wolfsguard eyed him as he passed,many breathing a sigh of relief when he was gone, grateful that he wasn't in the mood to start any more fights this night.
The heavy metal gates of the fort came open with a squeal, making way for an old cobblestone path that lead toward the centre of the village. It wasn't but a few steps outside the gate that a quiet squeak of a voice caught the young man's attention.
"Rolf," the voice was soft, almost inaudible and broken. The young man titlted his head in the voice's direction, seeing a familiar figure. It was that of a girl around his age with a slight build and wearing a strange, stitched red mask covering her face. She wore a plain, cream coloured dress and and a deep, dusty cloak with a billowing hood. Not an inch of her skin was visible, hidden behind long gloves, tall boots and tightly wound scarves. Her face mask was stitched of red cloth and covered everything from her neck to her hairline, leaving little holes for her eyes and allowing her chocolate brown hair, cropped at the jawline, to frame the mask. In her hands she held a woven basket filled with bound herbs and little bottles.
"Oh, Rosalynn," he muttered dismissively. "What do you want?"
Her amber eyes peeked out from behind the mask, lingering on his bloody hands. She moved closer, walking with an awkward stumble and reaching for his hands. "You were fighting with my father again, weren't you?" she said, unable to raise her voice above a whisper.
Rolf avoided eye contact, pulling his hand out of her reach and starting off down the road. "Yeah, so what if I was? Your old man has it in for me, if I don't prove I'm good enough to join the Wolfsguard by beating him, I'll be stuck working as a smith's assistant my whole damn life."
Rosalynn hurried along behind him, keeping pace with the taller individual by taking several strides to his one. "You know that's not going to help. Besides, I don't like you two hurting each other."
"Well what other choice do I have?" he said, shaking his head and letting out a long sigh. "It's not like I'm going to get in any other way."
"At least let me clean you up," said Rosalynn. She hurried ahead and moved into Rolf's path.
Rolf remained silent, staring at his boots as he walked. Rosalynn took this as compliance and after a cursory look around she spotted a ragged stump and fallen tree near the side of the road. She took him by the arm, pulled him over and sat him down on the stump. Rosalynn got down and placed the her basket on the ground, taking out a clean cloth and a bottle of rubbing alocohol. Quietly she began to work on cleaning off Rolf's hands.
"So Rosalynn, what's with the mask?" he asked in a gruff voice, concealing a wince as she dabbed his cuts and a sharp sting shot through his hand. "It's been over a year since the incident with Solomon. Why have you been hiding your face like that?"
Rosalynn continued to work, despite becoming visibly unnerved when the question was posed. Her voice squeaked from behind the mask and she squirmed uncomfortably. "P-please don't," she murmured, pausing briefly. "Don't ask about the mask. I don't want to talk about my mask."
Rolf closed his eyes and ground his teeth together. "I haven't seen your face in what, fourteen or fifteen months?"
Putting away the alcohol, Rosalynn drew out a small tin filled with a milky coloured cream and began to gently apply it to his knuckles. "I'm sorry Rolf," she murmured. "I just... I don't want to talk about the mask."
"Fine, whatever you say. You almost done?"
Rosalynn responded with a little nod, wrapping a bandage around his hand and binding it in place. "Done."
"Then let's go, it's too cold a night to be standing around outside." Pushing himself to his feet, Rolf offered Rosalynn his hand and pulled her up gently.
They were in the village after only a few minutes of walking, coming to a small wooden bridge that ran over a gushing river and signaled the entrance to the town. It was a small, quaint village, with only a humble wooden sign at the end of the bridge, the name 'Ulfenmoor' etched into the surface. The town consisted mostly of a closely knit market district and then a sparse smattering of homes that radiated out from the centre. The homes ranged from humble hobbles to elegant manors and a large array of pleasant, moderately sized houses in between.
The path wound its way through the market and up into the nearby hills where what was once the most desirable property in the town sat nestled away from the rest of the village. It was a broad and sturdy two story manor with a large garden and a tall, black iron fence surrounding the premises. However it was in a state of terrible disrepair, peeling paint on the walls, gardens full of weeds and an overgrown yard that looked more like a forest than anything anything else. A great Wolf's head crest adorned the front gate and a scrawl beneath it read 'Silvercoat Hall.'
Rolf stopped at the gate and turned to Rosalynn, leaning back against the old fence and crossing his arms over his chest. "It's late and it's cold Rosalynn, you shouldn't be out here. Go on, get home. I've got stuff I need to do anyway," he said, making a shooing motion.
"I-I know, but... Could you just close your eyes for a moment?" she asked, head bowed low.
"Do we have to do this Rosalynn? You can just take off the mask for a second."
Rosalynn shook her head and whimpered at the thought.
"Ugh, fine." Rolf complied closing his eyes and standing in wait. After a moment her right hand clasped around his and squeezed tight, the fingertips of her left grazing his cheek. Her lips pressed against his for a long moment and then with a soft breath from both, she drew away. "Okay, you can open your eyes," she murmured.
By the time his eyelids had parted her face was again obscured by the mask, which she fussed with momentarily. "Good night Rolf."
"Yeah, you too," he said, turning toward the door and smiling despite himself.
The inside of the manor fared no better than the exterior. It was almost entirely dark, lit only only by moonlight pouring in through the windows. Papers and dinnerware along with a variety of discarded trash was strewn across the floor. Ruined furniture decorated the halls and paintings hung crooked or lay face down on the floor. One unfortunate portrait styled 'Adolphus Zeigel' had a hole in the centre that continued on through the wall behind it.
The moment the door closed behind him Rolf began to seethe, muscles tensing up and hands clenching into fists. "Grraaaghhh!" he roared, letting out his frustration. Whirling around he pulled his arm back and attempted to unleash his temper on the window behind him, however he came to an abrupt stop as he came to realize this particular pane of glass had already been shattered. "Dammit! Now what am I supposed to punch."
It was then that he felt something crumple under his boot. Taking a knee he examined the object, finding it to be a letter that had been slipped in through the mail slot. It lay face down on the floor and so Rolf took it up and flipped it over, sighing at the name scrawled across the envelope. 'Mathilda Schnyder.'
"The hell does she want?" Letter in hand Rolf made his way down the halls. He was quick to tear open the envelope and draw it out, eyes scanning the parchment curiously.
"Dearest Rolf Zeigel
In the years since your father's passing you have inherited his estate. I have watched for a time as you presided over our family's home, Silvercoat Hall. Your care for the manor has been unacceptable and it's state is simply abhorrent. I can only imagine the disappointment your father would feel were he to see how you've treated it.
As such I have written the letter you now hold in your hand to alert you that I will be coming to begin negotiations for the ownership of Silvercoat Hall. You have made it abundantly clear that you do not care much for the property so I assume that the matter is open to discussion. This letter will reach you a day ahead of my arrival so I ask that your prepare to receive my company.
Sincerely Mathilda Schnyder, March 06, 918AC
The letter in one hand and a newly lit candle in the other, Rolf eyed the text with growing anxiousness. He had made his way to the wine cellar whilst reading the notice. Rolf held the corner of the letter over the candle's flame and scorched the parchment, tossing it to the stone floor and letting it wither into ash.
A glass bottle in hand, Rolf ascended the stairs and marched toward the manor's study. The door came open with a swift boot and her found himself in an elegant and exceedingly well stocked study. In stark contrast to the rest of the house, this room was merely untidy rather than looking like it had been ransacked. A large oak desk sat in the middle of the chamber with a big, roomy armchair behind it. At its back were a set of wide, nigh ceiling high windows that offered a lovely view of the moon peeking out from behind inky black clouds. Shelves stocked with countless books lined the wall and opposite the desk was a grandiose portrait of a middle aged man.
Rolf strode across the room and carelessly vaulted over the desk, dropping into the chair. "Hey dad, I'm home," he said, looking up at the portrait. The painting depicted a man not dissimilar to Rolf. He was tall and broad shouldered with dark, neatly combed hair and an impressive moustache. He was dressed in the colours of the Wolfsguard, a slate blue coat with silver detail and white fur lining the collar and cuffs.
"So, I got a letter from your sister," he said, words slightly muffled as he bit down on the bottle's cork and pulled it out with his teeth. "She's got a mind to sink her claws into this house ya know. Can you believe that woman?" Head tilted back, Rolf took a deep swig off of his bottle and let himself relax for the first time all night. "Well, maybe she's right. Maybe I haven't been taking care of this place. But on the other hand where was she this whole time? You've been dead for more than five years and I haven't received a visit from her unless it was business related. Guess I'll have to deal with this tomorrow then, huh?"
Rolf finished off his bottle in short order and it wasn't long after that he stretched out and slept it off in his chair. The night passed quickly and come dawn, sunlight streamed in through the windows and there came a persistent rapping at the door.
"Rolf! Rolf Zeigel!" a shrill voice cried out to accompany the knocking. "I know you're home so let me in, we have much to discuss." Rolf heard her quite clearly but decided he was in no hurry. He let her knock for about ten minutes before deciding to make his way out of the study.
The door came ajar to reveal a couple on his doorstep, a small, brunette women in rectangular spectacles, dressed in a noblewoman's finery stood before him with a large man at her back, evidently her husband. The woman appeared to be masking severe distaste and not particularly well at that. The man however seemed largely apathetic, eyes drooping and mouth locked in a straight line. He was tall and had a great pot belly, though his physique was broad and muscular. He had once been a warrior of some skill and renown but retirement had taken its toll on him. The hair on his head was shorn but his grey streaked, faded goatee remained full and bushy.
"Aunt Mathilda, Uncle Karl," Rolf said, greeting them without even feigning interest. "I want to make this quick and painless so get in here and let's get this over with, I have a job to get to."
"Very well, if you insist on being brusque I will accommodate you." The middle aged couple entered, Mathilda leading.
Karl entered, offering a hand to his nephew and a faint but genuine smile.
Rolf took the offered hand and returned the gesture. "Good to see you again Karl."
For a brief moment, Karl stood in the hall, eyes scanning the manor with a great measure of hesitance. "So..." he said in a deep baritone, "I like what you've done with the place."
"Yeah, I think the holes I punched in the wall really open up the room," Rolf replied, offering a wry smile.
Karl let out a chuckle only to receive a sharp glare from his wife and instantly the expression was cut short.
"Karl, that wasn't funny."
"Of course dear," he said with a sigh.
"Karl, wait out here while Rolf and I discuss business."
"Of course dear."
Mathilda marched forward and pushed past Rolf, making her way to the study and leaving her husband behind.
A few minutes later, Rolf joined her, another bottle in hand. "I hope you don't mind if I have a drink," Rolf said, uncorking the bottle.
"Of course not."
"Thanks Auntie. I'd offer you a glass but as it turns out, I hate you."
Mathilda rolled her eyes at her nephew. "Oh you are charming, aren't you? Shall we get down to business?"
"You talk, I'll just listen," Rolf replied, leaning back against a nearby shelf and taking a swig off his bottle.
"Silvercoat Hall is our family estate, it's been in the Zeigel house for three generations. It is the home that your father and I were raised in. It goes without saying that it pains me to see it in this condition."
"So what, you just want me to hand it over?" Rolf replied, crossing his arms over his chest and giving her a skeptical look.
"Of course not Rolf, I'm willing to be reasonable. I only want the property. All of your father's belongings and his wealth, you're welcome to keep, I have my own. On top of that, I'll buy it off of you for a generous price."
Rolf tilted his gaze toward his father's portrait and then back to Mathilda. "Really? How much?"
"120,000lox, a fair price for this estate, considering all the renovations that will need to be done. With that you could buy yourself a comfortable home in the village. A fair deal."
Rolf lowered his gaze to his boots and took a deep breath. "Yeah, that is a fair deal," he repeated. "But this house is..." Rolf paused, eyes fixed on his Aunt's face. "It's important to me."
"Well you have an odd way of showing it. I honestly don't know how my brother raised such an irresponsible boy. He would be so ashamed of you right now."
Rolf found his hand involuntarily tightening into a fist. "I'll consider your offer, but for now you can show yourself out. Do it quickly," he said through clenched teeth.
Mathilda raised a brow at the request. "Oh? I was considering staying for a time and appraising the property."
"Let me put it another way, if you don't leave right now I will set fire to the house on my way out."
Mathilda narrowed her eyes to slits, glaring at her nephew. "You wouldn't be so petty, would you?"