Remus fumbled with his Lord's crossbow, the heavy weapon oddly balanced in his hands, which were already holding a sack full of dead foxes that'd been pierced by his Lord's expert aim. Three hounds, great Mastiff's each the size of a small pony, strode along with their own attendants, young boys who would offer them water in great bowls while wiping the blood from their mouths with forever ruined cloth strips. Remus sighed as he set the sack down, drawing the string back on the crossbow to set another bolt. His Lord was acting pensive, which meant he'd soon be sending the hounds out to flush out another fox.
The woods around the castle were thick with them.
"Remus," his Lord said in a bored voice, "my weapon?"
"Almost ready sire," Remus grunted, sliding the bolt into place.
"Boys," his Lord called out, gathering the three Mastiffs' attention instantly. "Find me another. Go!"
The dogs howled in unison before sprinting off into the underbrush, trampling bushes and logs with fervor as they sought out the scents of another fox for their master's endless appetite. Remus passed the crossbow up to his Lord, the older man sitting atop a black steed in warm furs and padded leathers dyed a deep, rich blue.
The baying hounds howled once more a few minutes later, announcing that they had something that they could chase towards their Master. The Lord readied his crossbow, aiming towards the clearing in the woods where the hounds had been chasing the prey to all afternoon. Remus closed his eyes, hating this part of the hunt the most.
He hated the sight of a the terrified fox, gasping for breath, standing in front of his Lord knowing it was about to die. He could see it in each of the creature's eyes that they didn't know why this was happening, couldn't comprehend this strange hunt.
But that didn't happen this time. This time the barking dogs continued barking, their echos bouncing off of the towering trunks around them. Looking up at the hazy rainbow of oranges and reds met bleeding out from the sunset, Remus licked his lips.
"Milord, do you think it wise to hunt this late into the day?" Remus asked.
The three heralds, all rakishly thin and haggard looking in their own right, all went silent at Remus's statement. The one refilling one of the Mastiff's water bowls paused, tipping the water skein back so as to not waste a drop should their Lord lose his temper.
Which he did.
Turning to look down his nose at Remus, he sniffed once before growling. "You swore an oath to me Remus. Your family was paid handsomely for your services. I'd hate to think I would need to try and get my funds back from them due to your... lack of desire to serve."
"I live to serve!" Remus declared, bowing his head to the beady eyed man, sweat beginning to form on his forehead. "I only... I just worry about what we could encounter in the wood after dark sire. The villagers never venture out after sunset. They hang garlic from their doorways and have heavy boards that they cross over their doors to prevent anything from coming in. The carpenters have reported having to fix several walls and doors of the village, all of which had great claw marks running down through sturdy boards and stone."
"Bah," his Lord said, readying his crossbow. "Mere worries of superstitious peasants! My men dwell in the villages to protect them from harm and I've yet to hear of any problems."
Remus knew this was because of how his Lord acted when bad news came up. He'd often order the messenger to be put in the stockades for a week, sometimes more, if the message was dire enough. He didn't like anyone inferring that his rule wasn't perfect, and things like bandits and whatever was causing the people to worry were problematic elements that would lead someone to a bout of torture. His Lord was a Bishop, a devout man of the church, and believed wholeheartedly that suffering was the way to get closer to God. He would often purchase young boys from their parents, who were stricken by poverty due to the heavy taxes he levied, to be his live in servants.
Remus had served him since he was seven, which was to say he'd been the man's personal steward for well over two-decades. He stayed by his side at all times, and slept in the room next to the Bishop. He helped the old man get dressed, bath himself, and acted as the head of the staff for the rest of the young men and children that worked for their Lord.
The sound of dogs fighting came from the distance, a new noise for the day. Remus looked up at the sky, rivulets of night seeping through the haze of sunset. The moon, a low hanging crescent, gleamed with a unique orange sheen to it.
Not a good omen, Remus thought. Looking to his Lord, he waited for the man to do what he did best.
"Blow the horn Remus, they're taking too long!" His Lord complained, adjusting the heavy crossbow against his shoulder.
Remus nodded and brought the horn to his lips, blowing a low keening noise that made the birds of the wood fly from their trees. The hounds called back, though one guttural call seemed to be added to the mix. Far deeper than the Mastiff's howls, this one seemed primal, and raw... something that set Remus on edge.
Remus ordered the three heralds to draw swords and form rank around their Lord, which they did in an instant. The ten and eleven year olds' were short enough that they could battle with a wolf if needed. Especially as they, like he, had been trained against the beasts of the wild to better serve their Lord.
There were many shallow graves in the castle courtyard where the boys who couldn't handle a captured wolf were buried.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Remus gasped as the largest Mastiff burst from the underbrush, his tail stuck between his legs and a massive scratch marring his shiny coat of fur. Blood dribbled from the wound, and the hound whined as it approached the Bishop, head hung low.
His Lord stared at it for a moment, shock evident on his face.
Then his face grew angry, spittle flying from his lips. "Worthless mongrel! I sent you in there to find me a fox and you come back like this?"
The hound looked up, ears flattened against it's head. It didn't even have a chance to move as it's left eye was ruptured by the crossbow bolt Remus had loaded, dropping the great hound to the forest floor with a soft thud.
"Drag this beasts carcass off and have it prepared as a stew for the coming days," the Bishop ordered, handing the crossbow down to Remus. "And reload the damned thing, quickly! My prey is going to come running out any moment!"
Remus obeyed, pulling another long shaft from the quiver to set in the slot. Pulling the bow back, he set the crossbow to be ready to fire. Before he could pass it up, the underbrush broke once more.
In the fading light, Remus almost mistook it for one of the Mastiff's, if it were standing on it's hind legs. But this creature was covered in sleek fur and walked upright like a man. A long, sinuous tail swung back and forth behind a scarred body, one thick arm holding up a dead Mastiff by the throat, the other being dragged by the other claw. The creature had a bears head but bore thick tusks and a covering of thick quills running from the ridge of it's nose over it's head and onto it's back.
The Bishop reared his horse up, the front legs kicking the heralds forward onto their hands and knees, swords scattered to the dirt. Remus backed away, crossbow still in his hands.
"Shoot it Remus!" The Bishop called, turning his horse to run.
The Beast stopped him though, hurling the two hundred pound dog at the horses legs, snapping them like dry timber beneath the animals weight. It cried, low and loud, as it crashed to the ground, kicking with it's one good leg to try and move away from the threat. The Bishop cried out, his leg pinned beneath the horse.
The Beast loped closer, stepping over the heralds to place a clawed foot atop the horses belly, peering over it at the Bishop. It sniffed the air, eyes taking on a wicked gleam.
"God?" It asked, it's voice grainy as sand.
The Bishop, panicked, nodded shakily. "Y-yes, I am a m-man of God... be b-blessed dear forest c-creature and know the L-Lord's good w-work!"
The Beast continued to stare down at the Bishop, slowly raising the other mastiff until he was holding it high overhead. "No. No God."
The Bishop barely had time to scream before the Mastiff came crashing down on his prone form, the weighty creature bludgeoning him to death with wet, bloody splats. The Beast used the Mastiff to continually pound the Bishop into the earth until the animal's body fell apart, leaving the Beast with a bloody claw. It slipped out a slithering black tongue and lapped at it's claws.
Turning, it looked over at Remus. It's ears rose from it;s head until they were perched high into the quills. It grumbled something low and unintelligible, dropping to all fours to begin a slow march over towards Remus.
The three heralds had scrambled to their feet and run into the forest, leaving Remus alone with this force of nature, the only thing separating them being a loaded crossbow. Remus stared into the golden eyes of the Beast, and shivered at the primal hunger he saw there. Taking the crossbow, he readied it at the Beast, who stopped and seemed to smile at Remus's action.
Remus dropped the crossbow to the ground. He couldn't do it. He knew this was divine judgement for his time spent working for the corrupt Bishop. Closing his eyes, he stood still and waited for the Beast to deliver it's killing blow.
After a few moments, he opened his eyes, wondering where the killing blow was. He found himself stared at the nose of the Beast.
Fighting the urge to yell, he stared the creature in the eyes and merely smiled. "Y-you're going to kill me any s-second now... j-just make it q-quick."
The Beast let loose a rumbling laugh akin to a rock slide. Standing up, it held the bag of foxes in it's right claw, flinging it over it's back.
"No," It rumbled. "Have enough food. Go home."
And with that the Beast stomped away into the night, leaving the clearing bloody and battle-smeared, three dead dogs and an injured horse, along with a crushed old man, being the only witnesses to the Beast's appearance. Remus would say that wolves came and claimed everyone and that he barely survived. He'd wait for the new Bishop, and he'd serve him as loyally as he did his previous master.
He lived to serve, after all.