Part 4 of my Oldhammer Fiction novella – see Part 1 for the start of the story.
Lola watched as Max, Bella and Oscar trotted back from the front door of the inn. Behind her Alfie growled, barely restraining his aggression. She turned her neck and bared her sharp teeth at the pitbull. Be quiet.
The three dogs entered the edge of the forest and approached Lola, their tails between their legs, submissive. She stood up, towering over them on her long Doberman’s legs. She scolded them with some short sharp yaps. What happened? I told you to stay and find out where the men are.
Bella bounded forward, eager to please, and barked an answer. We did see the men—two of them, but we were chased off.
What? replied Lola. One simple thing …
It was his fault, butted in Oscar, curling his lip at Max, the dirty white poodle. Couldn’t keep his hunger to himself, went sniffing round the tables and the Halfling innkeep noticed us and sent us out.
Max shied away, lay down and put his head down between his paws. Lola stood over him, wondering what to do. They couldn’t afford mistakes like this.
Then Poppy emerged from the ferns. I was at the stables like you told me to, she yapped in her annoying Terrier voice. There’s six horses, that means Shilby, Hardlee and four others. The other four have the livery of the Royal Guard on the saddle cloths—not very well disguised but the men are dressed as normal travellers.
Well done Poppy, at least I can rely on you, barked Lola. Were the guards still at the stables?
No they were there just seeing to their horses. They went inside to eat and drink I think.
Anyone else in the stables?
Poppy shook her head, and let her tongue loll out to cool down. She’d run all the way back.
Good. I don’t think we’ll get back in through the front door, but maybe one of the servants has left a back door open. Each of you get your knife bundles out and drag them with you to the stables.
The dogs hurried around the clearing and produced small leather bundles that were hidden in the ferns. There were larger piles of bags underneath—containing clothes, boots, traveling capes and cooking utensils.
Not you Max.
Max turned and looked at Lola with big brown eyes. Silly pup, she thought. But she couldn’t help feel a pang of guilt for singling him out. Max was the youngest—an adolescent in human terms, and not quite fully grown in terms of a dog. He annoyed him in some ways, but she felt protective to him as well.
You’re going to stay here—look after our kit until we get back.
But Lola, he whined, you promised. My first kill …
Lola sniggered. A strange sound for a dog to make and came out like a growl. You’re along for the ride kid. I don’t expect you to do any killing—least of all assassinating the Crown Prince of Hyperia.
Max turned his back and went and sat near their bags hidden in the ferns. He didn’t look at Lola.
Whatever, she thought. I’ll deal with that later.
Lola and the other older dogs trotted up the hill towards the inn, but giving the front entrance a wide birth. Even so they had to enter the gate in the large courtyard wall that surrounded the buildings of the inn. The gate was large stout and wooden—big enough to allow a coach to come in, and the walls next to it were over ten feet high—a reminder that this always hadn’t been a holiday destination—there used to be trouble in the hills, Lola remembered—half-remembered tales of orcs, goblins, trolls even. But now the most dangerous things here were her and her pack. Their shapeshifting ability was a curse of birth and a blessing—not restricted like were-beasts to only changing at the full-moon, they could change from dog to human at will—but that made them outcasts as well if normal humans knew of their abilities—that’s why although none of them were related they stuck together like a family. And they made the best of their abilities. No one gave a second glance if it was sniffing round for scraps in a lord’s hall or an inn—it allowed a shapeshifter assassin easy entry, and then it could either attack in dog form if the chance presented itself, or change to a human if sheer savagery was not required—that was the usual method in fact—it allowed a quieter kill and then escape again as a dog, who couldn’t be blamed for the kill as there were no teeth marks were there?
How they were going to kill the prince, she hadn’t yet decided. First they needed to know where he was and then most likely they would wait until he was alone, or with just one or two of his companions, and then in human form they would strike while he slept. Lola wanted them to get into the inn first.
They reached the stables which were to the right of the main building where the taproom, the common room, kitchen and private rooms were located. There was no one there—just six horses occupying stalls in the row of a dozen that the inn had. There was a room for storing tack and a large covered area that would house a coach too if there was one there. A shut door lead into the main inn building. The horses were dopey and content when the entered the stable yard, but when they got there they started to become agitated.
Bella, a sheepdog began her transformation into a human. The horses immediately began to whinny and stamp.
The black and white hairs of Bella’s fur retracted into her body and her whole frame lengthened and straightened until she was standing on two legs, her dog’s snout retracted into her face in a few seconds leaving the smooth skin of a young woman. Her hair was black streaked with white. She stood there naked, shivering and pulling at the small bag that she had carried with her.
Lola growled. You fool. No clothes and you look like a fool now.
“We’re stronger like this,” said Alfie, who had also changed from a pitbull into a squat, muscular bald man. He was gripping his dagger already. “I’m ready to kill.”
Poppy was on all fours next to him changing more slowly. Her body writing as it did so, struggling against the change—that could happen sometimes, some found the transformation between species more difficult to handle than others. With a grunt the hairs retracted into her body and she restrained a yelp as her bones and muscles changed. She was a petite human with curly brunette hair, but she stayed on all fours panting as she recovered from her ordeal.
That’s when the man stumbled through the door that lead to the interior of the inn. He stumbled because he had been drinking, some formidable Halfling brew known as Knock Knees 7. His arm was around the diminutive shoulders of a Halfling barmaid, two and a half feet shorter than him. She was giggling and innefectually slapping away his hands which were trying to make their way under her dress.
The cheery expression on the man’s face disappeared as he saw the scene in the stableyard. “What is this place a brothel? Already at it I see?” He pointed at Poppy on her knees. “Did you force her?” he accused Alfie with slurring voice. “I don’t hold with that.”
Alfie shook his head. “Na. Not that. We’d rather have privacy though if you don’t mind.”
The man frowned and looked around. Probably wondering why there were dogs around as well as two naked women and a man. Then Oscar came loping into the yard—dragging his hind legs and tail behind him. He always liked to change in private as his transformation was by no means easy—only half his body changing at one time, the other half following up to several minutes later. The front part of him was a man, the rear half that of a hunting hound.
“What the …?” said the man. His last word would have been the act that he would perhaps have liked to have been doing when he died, but instead he just said it when Alfie plunged is dagger into his heart. The Halfling barmaid screamed. Lola bit at her leg and dragged her to ground and the others bundled on top of her to quieten her down. She soon stopped struggling and was still.
Lola raised her red fangs from the flesh of the halfling’s leg. The time for stealth is over then. Into the inn and find the prince! she barked.