Chapter II

The Red Gryphon Inn
By: Hensbane

The Talos Valley is an eighty-mile stretch of verdant, heavily wooded land lying between the open arms of the Fyrestorm Mountains. The River of Dreams runs the length of the valley, feeding a small tarn called Black Wolf Lake via a small waterfall then it exits back into the hidden recesses of the Fyrestorm Mountains. The Great Lir Highway, though only a rutted dirty track as yet, runs from one end of the valley to the other and is the only way in or out of that domain, that is unless a person is daring and has the agility of a mountain goat to traverse the craggy cliff walls of the mountains or knows the secret paths of the ancient Trolls. Small hillocks dot the countryside of the Talos Valley; each possibly hiding ancient caves now inhabited by those creatures that favor the dark of night for their hunting, though once those caves housed the Silver Dwarves and their forges. The Dwarves were forced to flee the valley when Karnak took control of that place of serene beauty turning it into a place where demons walk for no longer can the children of Light abide to dwell there. Where once green trees and rolling hills of grasslands existed, there are now only twisted ugly trees covered in thick layers of black moss and the grasslands are now composed of poisonous plants and thistles. The fertile moors have become stagnant repellent areas where choking vapors rise up to strangle any mammal the comes near the place, clear ponds have been transformed into quick mud holes ready to suck down any hapless migratory birds that might try to land there for a needed rest. The Dark Lords, under Karnak’s command have created a place that has become an abomination to the natural world. No longer do the blue birds sing, nor do the insects chirp out their joy for the pleasure of listening ears, instead the screams of the dying fill the air of that now damned place.

High up on those strange cliffs composed of phosphate impregnated stone a lone man stands watching the scenes of torture and death being played out below him in the valley. His brilliant blue eyes wince as he watches the futile efforts of the victims as they attempt to escape Karnak’s hulking minions. Swords and shields are no defense against fangs and claws enhanced with black magic and the man watches as the ground beneath the victims’ feet becomes drenched in their own rich red- black blood. The man watches as the cowled figure of Karnak comes limping forward, as fast as his now twisted body can move, to select those he will sacrifice to the dark earth- gods, the others are left as food for those beasts called the Night Stalkers. The man can only pray for a quick death for those below him. He knows this enemy from his days as a mercenary warrior allied with King Kronos nearly three hundred years before during the Mage Wars. Karnak is pitiless in dealing with his sacrifices, not even the cries from the children moves his heart of stone.

The man, a mage-warrior, called Karl Strange, nodded and mumbled to himself, "So, Karnak, you have given over your soul completely to the dark gods. I would pity you, for the pain you must endure with every movement, but you chose this path for yourself old friend and now I must try to kill you, my once friend and shield companion."

Karl Strange allows those memories to come forward in his mind and he shudders as he recalls the last time he saw what Karnak was capable of doing. It was during the raid on Blackamore Castle in the northern area of the Phantom Realm his mind travels back to that afternoon raid.

"Captain Strange," one of his men called out from just outside the castle walls, "We have him inside, should we storm the building now, sir?"

"Aye! Use the flying buttress to break down the doors and move your men as quickly as possible. Remember that Karnak will have laid traps for us." Karl Strange called out to his second in command.

‘Thrunk!’ The flying buttress battered against the great oaken doors of that foul castle. ‘Thrunk, thrunk, whoosh!’ The great double doors burst open allowing an eerie black cloud to rush out into the open air, covering one of the three of the men operating the flying buttress with an oily film.

"Oh, gods of the Old Ones, I am being eaten alive by this stuff!" The man screamed as he threw himself off the deck of the buttress onto the hard earth. His body knew no more pain as his head burst apart upon coming in contact with a boulder on that barren rock strewn ground, mixing bloody brain matter with the black oozing goo that had once been a warrior.

Karl Strange cautiously moved toward his dead comrade, careful not to touch the stuff now foaming on every piece of exposed flesh on the man. Whatever this was covering that body did not stop its action until the man had been reduced to a mere puddle of oozing trembling flesh.

Karl pulled a blood-red leather pouch from his cape pocket and gently shook a measure of glittering white powder into his hand and sprinkled it over the puddle laying upon the ground in front of him, the powder seemed to jump across that bloody puddle and then settle down upon it. The puddle began to shimmer until there was only a black mark upon that ground leaving no trace of the foul magic creation was left to behold. Karl, satisfied that whatever had covered his comrade had been neutralized, turned to look for the other two men who had been on the deck of that flying buttress when it had been attacked. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that they had ducked below the black cloud and were at that moment climbing down the crossbeams to safety, only one man had an arm covered with the greasy stuff and this Karl covered with the powder from his pouch. The man would lose that arm but he would have his life.

"Olaf, it is a good thing that you are of the left hand, not the right." Karl joked with the man as he prepared a potion to relieve the pain from the destroyed arm, knowing that Olaf would relax if his Captain could still joke with him. Karl smiled as Olaf collapsed in his arms and then Karl motioned for two more men to carry Olaf to a place of safety until the raid was over.

They had forced their way inside that foul hellhole of a place and fought their way through those Ogres and winged Harpies that were in service to Karnak. It took better than an hour to send the last of the creatures fleeing their attack and then Karl and his men had surged forward to locate the dungeons where Karnak performed his dark rituals.

Karnak must have felt confident that his minions would stop any invaders, for he left no further guards to hinder the mercenaries path down to the dungeons. What they stumbled on that day left a permanent mark on Karl Strange’s mind.

There was an eerie green glow lighting the cold gray stones walls and floors of the dungeon. Chains hanging from the ceiling rattled as the men bumped into them when they entered that oval shaped room. All along the walls, coated here and there with a film of slime from the damp, hung the skeletal remains of those fortunate enough to die before Karnak could complete his torture of them.

"Oh, Great God’s of Light! Look at those poor creatures tied to the tables!" Karl’s second in command, Peter Blake called out over his shoulder.

Karl felt his own tears flow from his eyes as he beheld the tiny torn bodies of five little girls, all still alive, writhing on the tables before them. The girls were covered in hellish sores and whip marks, some had had their limbs broken, for they lay at the wrong angle to their bodies. One child in particular drew Karl’s attention, for she looked at him with eyes that matched is own in their shade of blue, though now those deep blue eyes were filled with fear and loathing.

"Kill me!" The child managed to croak through torn lips, the effort causing her mouth to bleed again. Karl offered her a drink from his flask; she refused the offer with a violent shake of her head and uttered that phrase yet again. "Kill me! Have mercy, don’t let the thing inside me be born!" Those would be the last words the child would ever speak in this world, for at that moment her stomach and abdomen began to heave and roll as something began to claw its way out of that tiny swollen belly. Karl didn’t wait to see what it was as he slit her emaciated throat and then ran his sharp knife into her belly. Whatever had been in there vanished in a puff of foul smelling smoke as his silver knife came into contact with the thing. Of Karnak there was no trace for he had escaped from his castle as Karl and his men were entering it. Karnak’s whereabouts had remained a mystery until Karl had received word that strange things had been happening in the Talos Valley, in the place of the Fyrestorm Mountains.

The Karl Strange was tall for a round-eared human, standing nearly seven feet tall in his bare feet; muscles ripple along the length of his body as he moved with the grace of a dancer. Karl was currently dressed in the uniform that marked his rank in the society of the round-eared humans, as a warrior-mage from the knee-length green leather cape to his white silk long sleeved shirt he was dressed as a servant of Light. His knee-high black rhino-hide leather boots creaked as he shifted positions in his place of observation atop the broken cliff wall, he carefully moved his sword to another position along his muscular back and adjusted the leather straps that cross his chest pausing only to count the small but deadly throwing weapons hidden along the length of those straps. On Karl’s broad shoulder sat a large gray hawk, its sharp talons buried into the padded shoulder pads Karl wears for the perch. The bird also watched in curious wonder the display of evil going on in that valley; it flexed its claws in rage as the scent of blood reached its sensitive nostrils. The man reaches up a powerful hand and gently stoked the bird’s feathers both to calm his friend and to reassure him that there is still something beautiful and decent in the world. The man and bird have traversed the width and breadth of the Phantom Realm for better than ten years in service to the various kings and queens that rule the many lands of their realm, currently he carried a blank shield, denoting that he was aligned to no reigning power. Karl and his men now hunted alone for a homeland to call their own. Karl touched something that lay hidden from prying eyes under his white silk shirt, it was a blue-white stone hung from a black twist of leather fashioned into a necklace-pendant. The stone felt warm to his touch as he clutched it in his fingers. The mystery of the stone and how it had come onto his possession was almost as deep as the mystery of the mage-warrior himself. It had been with Karl for nearly two hundred years now and he never went into battle nor ever traveled without it in his possession. This eight-carat stone had become a talisman of good fortune to Karl Strange. All Karl knew of it was that a stranger dressed completely in black had appeared in a dream and when Karl awoke from his dreaming the stone was clutched tightly in his hand and he had never been separated from it since that night.

A gypsy cart could be seen entering the valley from the north; it swayed as it maneuvered along the Great Lir’s Highway, the wooden wheels catching in the ruts left after the last springtime rain. The three horses pulling the faded red cart are thin and near starving, their heads hanging down as they give their last bit of effort to reach their goal on the other side of the Talos Valley. The driver of the cart snapped his cruel whip across their bony scared backs adding to their pain and discomfort. The horses swayed in their ragged harnesses and strained to pull the cart along the deeply rutted track.

"Move you blasted lazy beasts! If you don’t move faster I shall sell you to the butchers when we get through this cursed hellhole." The man screamed at the horses, his face covered in a fine sheen of fear-induced sweat as he attempted to get the near dead beasts to move faster through the valley. He knew that Karnak hated all gypsies and took great delight in using all the gypsy people as fodder for the dark gods. Even now the man could hear the screams of those unfortunate enough to be caught by Karnak’s minions, those still alive as they are thrown onto the burning pyres that spread their foul stench and black greasy smoke across the valley. The man and his cart had barely forded the small rill that ran across Great Lir’s Highway when the sounds of snarling beasts reached both his ears and those of his horses. The horses shivered in fear and gave a last valiant effort to out race the things that were now on their scent. Then the lead horse stumbled from exhaustion and caused the others to stumble with him, the lead horse breaking his front left leg in the fall. The lead horse’s legs thrashed in agony as the other horses in the team rolled onto him in their effort to rise from the ground in a valiant attempt to escape the beasts now trailing them.

‘Crunch!’ And the sounds of his horse screaming in fear and pain were the sounds that reached the driver’s ears as he tried to extricate himself from under the red wagon. He looked around in panic as his eyes beheld one of his horses being eaten alive by a slavering large fanged beast the vaguely resembled a wolf. The creature’s head was far too large for its body and the fangs that extended from its jaws looked more like those of an ancient hunting cat called the saber tooth leopard its body was covered in scales and patches of dung matted fur. Those fangs looked like two great bloody knives as they ripped into the screaming horse’s flesh. The man mercifully fainted at that sight and never felt the pain as one of those great beasts ripped into the soft flesh of his own body. The Gypsy male also never saw the rest of those beasts known as the Night Stalkers, if he had he might have wondered how such creatures came into being in the natural world. Each beast looked to be created out of parts of the combined creatures of the Phantom Realm, no two of them looking like another. In fact that is what their creator, Karnak, had done to them. He had stolen the living eggs from every creature known in the Phantom Realm and with the dark use of metaphysical magic merged them into the living hosts to birth his hunting packs. Karnak’s personal guards were called the Hyrillas, great shaggy beasts that walked on two legs like men, but had the singular minds of killing machines. They worshiped Karnak as their own personal god and would sacrifice their own lives to protect him from his enemies. The Hyrillas, great hairy beasts resembling humans, were so powerful that they could pull the legs and arms from a human’s body as if they were toys; they could also rip a full-grown Polaris Bear in two with a single effort.

Karl Strange was suddenly and rudely interrupted in his viewing the scene-taking place in the valley below him by a sharp pain on his backside. His warhorse, Warlock, had bitten him on the flank to grab his attention.

"You could have just nudged me, instead of tying to make me a meal." Karl teased the great beast whose great horned head towered even above his own. Warlock was a Trencheron, one of those rare beasts that chose their own riders and would respond to no others commands. Right now he was nipping Karl along his left flank and his right shoulder in an effort to get his rider to move off the escarpment above the Talos Valley.

Karl began looking around for the source of Warlock’s discomfort and worry, that is when he noticed that an eerie wind had sprung up whipping his cape around his face nearly blinding him and the sky had turned from azure blue to crimson red, or at least the clouds spreading between the two arms of the Fyrestorm Mountains had done so. Karl quickly mounted on Warlock’s broad back and had barely managed to reach the broken trail leading back down when the first roll of thunder echoed all around him making his body shake in response to the boom. Karl jumped in his saddle when the sky behind him lit up like a bonfire on Samhain. He barely managed to keep his seat when Warlock jerked forward and began racing down the treacherous path to the safety of the land below the Fyrestorm Mountains.

Karl frantically pulled in the reigns but Warlock would not heed the commands, his broad feet, with their claws extended to full length to grab at any hold they could manage, raced to get his rider into a safe zone. Only when he had managed to get Karl off the escarpment and down to where the other men and their Trencheron horses waited did he finally slow his pace.

"What in the name of the seven gods of Light happened up their, Karl? We saw you standing up there and then the sky turned the color of fresh blood and all the gates to the lower worlds opened up and there was fire on the mountain." James, Karl’s second in command uttered as he helped Karl dismount.

Karl was dumbfounded at James’s remarks until he turned to look back at the mountain. It did indeed seem as though it were on fire as lightning slammed the top of the escarpment with deadly sheets of brilliant blue glowing light. Karl stood there in awe along with his men as the storm raged across the Fyrestorm Mountains, none of those deadly strikes reaching to the ground below where they now watched. Karl and his men could not take their eyes from the force of nature being played out before their eyes. Just when Karl felt that he could not be more amazed by anything, there appeared in those brilliant flashes of light dark winged shadows that were even now darting toward the glowing rocks of the escarpment where Karl had been standing. When Karl’s eyes could focus again, as the brilliant and blinding lightning strikes abated, he could see that the winged beings were dragons. Each beast would make a diving rush at the escarpment, jaws extended to full, and looked to be taking a bite of stone in their gigantic maws then flying off in another direction.

"Praise be to the Old Gods!" Karl laughed and slapped James on the back, "I know why the locals have named these mountains such an unusual naming. Fyrestorm Mountains are indeed an apt name for those crumbled grayish-blue stones, look and see how the dragons carry off the glowing rock, the dragons use them for their own fiery blasts after the strange lightning imbues the phosphorous rock with power." Karl shook his head in wonder and then reminded himself that there were plans to be made if they were to be successful battling Karnak.

Karl and his one hundred and fifty men returned to the rough port town of Dorset, there they picked up more supplies to last them better than a month in case they had to face an extended fight with Karnak and his minions. The supplies cost Karl Strange most of the golden gilders he had amassed over the past three hundred years, but this was going to be his final battle one way or the other so cost was not of an importance to him at that moment in time and he wanted only the best supplies for his brave warriors.

While his men slept that last night of peace for a long time, Karl found himself unable to sleep. He found himself at the horse corral where Warlock and the other Trencherons had been hobbled for the night, an unnecessary deed to be certain, but the other warriors would not believe that their steeds would never wander away until their riders had drawn their final breaths.

"Rider, you are very troubled this night." Warlock mind-spoke with Karl.

Karl, stroking Warlock’s coat with the boar’s hairbrush, responded in mind-speak, "Yes. Tomorrow I take these men into a place of certain death to face an old friend. I know that Karnak has turned his back on the world of Light and been changed cruelly into a beast-man I no longer recognize, but I still remember him as my shield companion and friend. I see the both of us as we once were; young lads whose eager minds absorbed each and every new skill that Loafstar taught us. Where have those carefree and happy days gone? What happened to us Warlock? Karnak was so beautiful, he drew women to him like the moths to the flame of a torch, and I envied him so much. He would enchant the females with his beautiful poetry and his songs brought down the birds from the sky to listen to him, the branches of the trees oftimes bent under the weight of those birds as they landed on the branches. Karnak looked as I always thought a god might look should he come to the earth to visit us mere mortals." Karl reminisced, his eyes clouded in memories of those past days.

"You loved this man, Rider?" Warlock turned his heavy horned head to look directly at his rider.

"Not as a man loves a woman, but as a man who admires perfection in things and people and Karnak was as close to perfection as any being could hope to become. Where I had to learn every magic spell and incantation, the power seemed to flow naturally from Karnak’s fingers. In less than two years Karnak had completed all that Loafstar could teach him and he was sent on his own vision quest to find his own personal familiar. He was gone from our company for more than three months and it was when he returned that I began to notice changes in my once friend. Karnak had become cruel in his teasing of females and younger beings, oftimes causing them subtle accidents to make them cry so that he could tease them about being babies or too young to be away from their mother’s leading strings." Karl’s mind continued to follow that long ago trail into darkness as he brushed Warlock’s black velvet coat to a brilliant shine. "Karnak began disappearing for days at a time telling no one where had gone to nor what he had been doing. It was about that same time that strange tales began circulating among the villagers about young girls disappearing into the woods and never being seen again. Rumors of monstrous creatures also sprang into being, though none were found during the searches that were mounted to find them. It was about five months after Karnak had returned from his vision quest that I decided to follow Karnak into the woodlands to see what he was up to without his shield friend. I came upon Karnak in a hidden bowl of earth and stone; there I saw things that made my heart nearly stop and my blood run as cold as ice on a midwinter morning. Surrounding Karnak were thick heavy shadows that moved and swayed to an unseen drummer as they danced around the flames of an enormous bonfire. Karnak was standing before an altar build of dull black stone that reflected no light from the dancing flames but seemed to absorb them into itself. On that altar I saw the shape of a little elf girl, she was bound hand and foot with silver shackles to the altar, her pale white hair flowing over the rough edges of that foul platform. I could barely see her milk-white face in that flickering light, but what I could make out was the grievous pain she was enduring. My ears picked up the faint strains of the child’s screams as Karnak plunged an obsidian knife deep into her belly. The child no longer strained against her silver binding but lay still upon that altar. Karnak bent low over that still and bloody form and lifted something high into the air above him. It was a deformed creature that was but a caricature of its mother. I could make out the slender pointed ears of the elven blood, but its eyes bulged from its head and this thing had a beak instead of a mouth. The fine pale hair was more like feathers than hair, with patches of scales along that fragile skull. The thing turned to look in my direction and opened its eyes and I could see the silver eyes of a feline instead of the pale blue of the elven world. I felt my stomach heave as I continued to gaze upon that thing, my eyes could not believe what I was seeing. Then the thing in Karnak’s hands began mewling and twisting as if to get away from its creator. I wondered how this could have become, how could Karnak have done the work of the gods in creation, then I noticed that he had with him the Stone Of Kronos, the thing that could manipulate matter as the one who wielded its power desired. This blood-red stone even now sparkled in delight as if it lived free from the rules of the gods, it was as evil a force as I have ever felt." Karl leaned against Warlock’s flank as he finished brushing out the Truncheon’s long flowing tail.

"How does one being hold the power of the gods in his hands? I do not understand how this is allowed to be." Warlock remarked as he swept his newly brushed tail across Karl’s face.

"That’s the thanks I get for all my hard work?" Karl responded by slapping his broad hand across the Truncheon’s twitching flank a second time.

"Do that again and I will take off that offending hand, Rider." Warlock warned Karl.

Karl pranced backwards and danced out his beast’s reach in case the creature was not just teasing. Karl already bore a scar on his thigh from a time when he did not heed his steed’s wishes. Karl learned that to be a rider of a Truncheon was more than merely steering the creature wherever you wanted to go, you were one with the beast or you were nothing at all and probably dead. Truncheons always knew what they were doing even if their riders doubted that fact. That was in fact the very thing that made having such a steed to ride an honor above all other things.

"The sun raises, Rider. It is time to gather your men and supplies. I shall wait with the others until you return to ride into the mountains again. I know that this day weighs heavy on your mind, but know that I am with you." Warlock explained as he pushed Karl forward and out of the makeshift corral. When his rider had vanished back into the buildings to care for the coming traveling, Warlock turned his attention to the other Trencherons and they too made their plans for the coming battles.

One month to the day later, Karl Strange and the last fifty of his warriors stood in the middle of the Talos Valley and gazed upon their new home. In the distance the smoke from a funeral pyre for the hundred men lost in that final conflict with Karnak and his foul minions rose to touch the azure sky. It was a day filled with joy over victory and loss for the survivors. A pale watery sun gazed down upon the open fields of battle, its light bringing into focus the thousands of dead creatures that Karnak had created to fight for him, as the brilliant purify sunlight touched those foul and twisted forms they began to smoke and crumble into the dust of the valley floor, until nothing was left to mark their existence but a bitter smelly dust that was quickly blown away with a rising breeze.

"Today we bid farewell to our shield companions and friends. They will be written into the books of the Old Gods and their bravery and courage will be ever the goal of future warriors." Karl talked to his remaining men; tears of loss flowing freely down his cheeks.

"What will we do now, Karl?" James Peters asked his commander.

"We will build us a homeland. From this day forward, the Talos Valley shall be our home. Let no man attempt to take it from us." Karl said, a strange note of resolve in his voice. He knew that his men had paid a great price to win this land and he would lay down his own life to keep it for them.

"I was once a farmer, before the wars took me away from my lands. I would like a patch of earth to grow crops again." Jonas Lightwood spoke out first.

"Aye, I agree with Jonas. I too once raised crops, orchards of fruit to be exact. I too would like a patch of land for myself." Greg Brittlebottm spoke up.

Soon fifty voices filled the morning air with their notes of hope for a future. A future no one had ever really thought that they would ever see again. On each and every face of his men, Karl Strange saw the light of hope in their eyes.

"The so mote it be!" Karl Strange intoned as he picked up a clump of blood-dampened earth in his hand and cast the crumbled soil into the air as an offering to the Old Gods. "We will help each other as we did when we fought in battles. We rode the trails of others for a long time now we will ride the trails of our own making."

"Hurrah!" The men shouted as one and they also gathered up a clod of soil and offered the crumbled dirt to the Old Gods.

Days became weeks and weeks passed into years as the men worked to build a world of their dreams. They returned to the cities to find wives after the first harvests had been sold, and soon the valley echoed in the sounds of laughter of happy families.

Karl Strange had a vision one night, in that vision he saw an Inn being erected close to the dirt road called the Great Lir Highway. This road would bring many travelers and they would need a place to stay and rest from their travels. The talisman Karl wore round his neck glowed in the light of that vision; it seemed to agree with Karl, an Inn would indeed be built in that valley. It was his destiny.

Karl used both the magic of his training and the sweat of his brow to build that Inn of his dreams. It was built not with wooden frames but volcanic stones gathered from the far corners of the Phantom Realm. He took a trio of his men and traveled for five months into the Fyrestorm Mountains to gather up the shed scales of the older dragons for the roofing materials for his Inn. When the three-story building was finally finished, Karl then noticed that the majority of the scales bore a reddish hue to them.

"What shall you call the place, Karl?" One of his men asked one day after he had delivered a load of fresh fruit to Karl’s new cook, Dora.

"The Red Gryphon Inn." Karl responded with a grin on his face. He had dreamt of that name the night before and it fit the place very well.

"Why that, friend?" Jake Larson asked as he leaned backwards to take in the entire structure.

"It came to me in a dream. The shingles of the roof are reddish in hue and the place does remind me of a Gryphon sitting on her eggs." Karl laughed as he gazed upon his new home. The shape of the Inn did indeed look like a Gryphon nesting as it sat there on the ground. The two side ells of the Inn formed the beast’s wings and the high dormers along the roof resembled the proud eagle-like head of that ancient beast.

"Do you think the place will be ready for all those footloose men that will surely come your way?" Jake asked his long time shield leader.

"Aye. The Red Gryphon Inn shall indeed be ready for all travelers to come my way. I have prepared a place where all can seek sanctuary from their daily cares and woes. I will have entertainment for those who wish it and there shall be no violence allowed inside the structure. The Inn has been prepared to repel all acts of violence. Those who wish to do battle with each other will have to do so outside the building. I have even created a pit for them to fight in, perhaps wagers can be taken on the outcomes of such battles." Karl laughed as he showed Jake the newly made pit with the steep sides and a single ladder leading down inside it.

"Now that is something that I would love to see and perhaps place a bet myself." Jake laughed and patted Karl hard upon his back.

"Jake have you been troubled by anything creeping around your place lately?" Karl suddenly asked, a frown creasing his brow.

"No, but then I am far from the Doubtful Moor." Jake responded.

"Doubtful Moor? Is that what you call the place now?" Karl inquired.

"Aye, everyone calls that dark place that now. No one goes near the place, not even those who seek the herbs for healing. We have had some of the children vanish in that dismal place. The pools have returned to blue water but there are still places in there that can suck the unwary down into certain death, and some have claimed to see strange shadows coming up from the eerie glowing mist that rises during the night." Jake told Karl, and then he looked to the sky and saw that the sun had run its course across the sky and was even now beginning to set in the western sky as pink fingers of evening were stretching across the cloudless sky and long shadows of night were creeping across the landscape. "I must be going if I am to get home before dinner. You know that Jenny gets so upset whenever I am late." Jake laughed as he returned to his cart and took his Truncheon’s reigns into his able hands and began his return trip home.

Karl breathed deeply of the fresh clean air of the valley and then went back inside his new Inn. Dora would be setting the table with a fabulous meal and his stomach was already growling from hunger. Tomorrow the first coach was scheduled to pass through the valley and Karl hope that it would carry guests for his new inn. Karl would hang the new sign for the building in the morning; it was of a shield design with a Red Gryphon sitting on her nest in the middle of the plaque.

Peter appeared early the next morning with a surprise for Karl. It was a riding horse for traveling about the great valley, especially useful since Warlock was a warhorse and above those menial tasks of carrying a rider to visit other inhabitants of the valley. The horse was dappled gray and black like the shadows found in the woods and so it was that Karl named the eighteen hands high brute, Shadow Dancer.

Shadow Dancer stomped his heavy hooves in response to the naming and butted Karl in the shoulder in delight.

"So, you approve of the name do you? It fits you to a tee you know." Karl spoke as he ran his hands across the horse’s withers and down the powerful back legs. Karl kept nodding to himself as he expertly checked out the beast while giving the impression of petting him down.

"Peter this is a very fine animal and too great a gift to give away." Karl said though he had a broad smile on his face as he continued to check out the animal.

"Nay! Karl you know I respect you above most other people and would not cause you to be upset if I could; but Warlock is a Trencheron not a riding horse for visits in the neighborhood. Warlock is a battle beast and apt to bring fear into the heart of the enemy and any women and children who might gaze upon his countenance. I know that I have suffered a bout of fear whenever those fangs of his drip that foul poison when he is angry and I have seen him in battle and received his protection myself. No, this horse is better for everyone concerned and after looking at the glazed expression on that big baby’s face right now I don’t think he would leave you even if I wanted him back again." Peter laughed and thumped Karl on the shoulder in the manner of warriors.

"Then I shall thank you for this fine creature and I am certain that the women and children of the valley will ever be thankful too." Karl laughed heartily and then he reached up to stroke Shadow Dancer under the chin as the horse bent his massive broad head down to Karl’s shoulder.

Shadow Dancer couldn’t understand the human words but he knew that the big man had accepted him and that was enough for now. Shadow Dancer was finally content for he had a home he just hoped the big man didn’t learn too soon how different he was from normal horses.