Dream of Embers Book 1

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The Savage Art

Chapter 3

The Savage Art

Donniker kept a sly watch from the opening of his tent’s flap, seeing the figures outside huddled to one of many campfires. In the night shadow they looked almost human, but that was only until they talked in guttural noises, snarling as much as speaking at times. He could understand them and to an extent speak their language, but he was Master over them, and so they obeyed him in plain King’s tongue.

They were far yet from civilization, and in towns and crowds of people Donniker always warranted odd looks from a passerby. He had a bony face, his straw coloured hair drawn into a ponytail and his skin, especially on the cheeks, was marred by purple blemishes. Onto that a dreadful blow in a fistfight had set his jaw slightly askew, the broken jaw never having healed properly.

If only that blow had killed him many said, because there was no loss of life within this man. He was outright filled with malice and spite, and in many countries across the world would have hanged for counts of murder, rape and pillaging if they could but catch him. Having survived this long came down to his ability to finding friends and masters as devious as he, and he was well aware of this need.

Donniker was not frail, but didn’t have the might or skill to hold his own in battle except if he could ambush from behind with a club or dagger. By the company he kept and consequence of his misdeeds he came over a strange fellow, a wanderer to many obscure places, calling himself the Pilgrim. This was long before now, before Donniker ever had any real talent.

At the time the Pilgrim kept Donniker safe from some other unsavoury types, who hounded him with greater fervour than any other authority had time for. In exchange the only thing Donniker had to keep up with was the Pilgrim’s incessant fables and ramblings of deeds Donniker was sure belonged to men already dead. And he would have written off this man’s far-fetched tales if not that he insisted on stumbling through the Starwall on the occasion.

This at least was enough to get Donniker’s attention for a while, and so kept the Pilgrim’s company. Nobody, not anyone, ever crossed the Starwall with impunity, what less stumbling through it? And yet the man talked of the lands of the east as though he was there just yesterday, when in fact those lands had been lost to the west centuries by now. He found the stranger an unquantifiable source of knowledge and a constant presence of insanity that seemed to leak through the air and touch everything and everyone around him.

Yet the madness within the man had an alluring quality and Donniker became enthralled by his abilities. Sensing the malice in Donniker the Pilgrim taught him the power of dreams, how to entreat them and through them bind others to his will.It was soon afterwards that the Pilgrim disappeared and Donniker never saw the man again.He often wondered if he had returned from whence he came.

At first Donniker merely used the newfound gift as a means to mischief and robbery. But the effect of his power was not substantial on humans, and could not be used other than a catalyst to already troubled environments. Stirring up needless fights in taverns quickly grew tedious and was profitless besides.

Finally he found a race as sinister as he, and vulnerable to his suggestion. He gave the goblins ambition and greed, and fuelled it with a hate for anything besides themselves. He became a talisman to them and they knew better than to cross his command, because traitors were dealt with quickly.

With the visions and direction he gave them they were no longer a species squabbling over scraps and holes to live in, or who casts a bigger shadow, but rather a formidable band of merciless raiders. Donniker thought his effort spent forging them into such as vain, until, as he had hoped, he was contacted by the kind that would require his service of murder and mayhem. He had a Master once more.

As for the goblins he made use of their hate as often as he could, and soon he would need that hate for them to marshal into an assault, for they would break apart and flee without it. Cowards, backstabbers and parasites, all of them!

Donniker grew worried however, that this hate he imparted on these foul creatures would spill over and sully their discretion, ultimately making them turn on him. But Donniker never spent too much time on it, dismissing the worries with thoughts of great payment, and eventually, being rid of goblins forever. When their use is over and I no longer lead them they will hide again in all that is cave and hollow, and starve out like they wretchedly deserve! He thought in amusement.

His resentment of them was born from fear. He had seen what they were willing to do to each other, some of them even indulging in cannibalism. He suffered no delusion that they wouldn’t tear him apart in a bout of hunger, only to realize afterwards they had fed upon their only hope of rising out of a miserable existence. To say the least he made sure they were well-fed, if only they were well-fed on each other.

His only problem was that his followers were as despised as he himself, and had an even a harder time travelling through any kind of civilization. The journey with the goblins however was always swift as they needed little rest, and could scurry across arduous landscapes as well as mountain goats, and did not shy away from hauling Donniker up the most obscure mountain trails one could imagine.

There was one mountain range they did not even consider; Dunnoom. Even goblins hasted on by a whip would not climb where ice and snow filled the passes and Dunnoom carried the reputation of being the most treacherous mountain on the face of Angaria.

They did well to stay clear of the roads where the Highwaymen guarded, who did so on behalf of themselves as much as for the King.

Not all the roads could be avoided, but then not all the Highwaymen were above corruption, and a good few coins bought the road open for them for a crucial few miles at a time, before they got into the hills again.

There was a wretched eagle in the sky that often followed them regardless of which road they took, three days straight at one stage. Donniker was highly suspicious of it, and he ordered the goblins to capture the blasted thing, and if it suited them, consume it. Whenever he had such a problem that might require a more delicate touch he turned always to Osdasylin, who was best with devices and traps.

‘See it caught. It bodes ill and seems like a spy to me,’ said Donniker.

‘Spy?’ queried Osdasylin, the goblin sounding as though he thought the idea ridiculous.

Donniker balled a fist overhead and the goblin cowered, falling over his own feet. ‘How is it that you question everything? Is nothing I say worth taking without comment!’

’I’m sorry Master, it is how I create, I question...

‘Then save your sorry questions for all else besides me. When I issue a command I expect the deed done no matter how little you think of it!’

‘Of course Master.’

Days later the eagle had still eluded them despite their best efforts. This only fuelled Donniker’s suspicions of its nature, and agitated as he was, the goblins always became the object of his wrath. When he beat on them it was expected to be taken without defiance.

He was troubled, on edge. And that was partly because their perilous road hitherto was only to have them on standby. They were, as his Master said, a contingency, and only needed if all else failed.

Two goblins suddenly jumped at each other, Donniker flinching behind the tent flap at the sudden movement, as the one quickly pinned the other down. They too are growing more agitated, thought Donniker as he realized they were up in arms because of a silly toy Osdasylin had made to keep them preoccupied. Regardless of our summons, we will need to move soon.

‘Be sure you are there before Mallova’s height, and be ready to act on a moment’s notice,’ the summons had said. And they would be; the payment was enough to settle Donniker’s debts and then some. Donniker had watched the white moon closely each night, incrementally growing to a full circle.

The goblin who came away with the toy stood upright momentarily, growling threateningly at his brothers.

Standing upright, which goblins rarely ever did, they were a head or two shorter than the average man. Mainly they hunched, or squatted at a standstill, their movements were jerky and they didn’t mind using their arms now and then in a run. Their skins, or hides rather, ranged from grey-green, dull-grey or even a sickly black, like a man taken by frostbite. The brows of their faces were heavy above mean eyes set close to each other, noses hooked and mouths drawn in thin grim lines. Most of them looked malnourished, showing lean muscles and the skin pulled tight across the skulls.

Their hair stank, and the dark strands as it often were, were oily and unkempt, save maybe for battle were they’d tie it into ponies to avoid nuisance. Hair tied up and weapons drawn they were like rodents in a fight, amassing and overwhelming, offering no fair contest, coming in high and low and in from the sides, not even caring if they stabbed one of their own in the process.

In daytime the goblins carried heavy packs, not so for provisions, which they could get off the land well enough, but rather carrying the parts of their instruments of war. The dream of biting, clawing and screaming did little to improve civility within their identity – they could never organize into cities or cultures, thought Donniker. Ingenuity in war on their part however was maybe unmatched, crude mostly, but ingenious all the same. The best of their contraptions all had a curious collapsible quality, compact, tough and mobile like the goblins themselves.

The Wheels of Menace as they were called, were for the moment but lengths and rims of wood and bolts of iron, and rope too, but could be quickly assembled for a siege. There were also dark rubber buttresses and metal spirals which Osdasylin had explained would be crucial to survive the tumble.

They will not be ready for it, thought Donniker in delight. Like the goblins, he enjoyed watching things burn, and where they went towns would burn splendidly. The only thing that had been missing from the stocks had been the incendiaries. Donniker still wondered whether letting his supplier live was a mistake.

A few nights ago a wagon had rode into their clearing. Like snakes from a nest the goblins emerged from their place of rest, so paranoid of pursuers that there was a wall of spears and many drawn bowstrings pending toward the slow and lonely wagon. Donniker himself approached muttering angrily, telling the goblins to stand down as he recognized the apparent intruder.

‘You are late,’ he said to the three men on the wagon.

Only the leader of them spoke, as the other two men looked highly anxious in the presence of goblins.

‘The markers you laid out to follow were hard to see. We had to backtrack several times to pick up the trail again.’

‘They were intended to be hard to follow; I did not want Highwaymen tracking us down in the dead of the night.’

‘Fair enough I guess,’ said the man.

‘Is this the full load?’ asked Donniker.

The man stood aside and made a sweeping gesture to the wagon behind him, ‘Courtesy of House Sannil, may his generosity and affiliation with pirates never be questioned,’ said the man dryly.

Donniker spat to the side. ‘Be careful where you say such things, men like Sannil and his father do not fall without dragging all those involved into the pits with him.’

The man shrugged. ‘Come have a look see,’ said the man as though he didn’t hear Donniker’s warning.

Donniker followed him around the wagon to the back end and the man lifted the canvas. Many head-sized clay pots were stacked on each other, wax-sealed, some of them oozing the substance they contained from the lids. The smell intrigued Donniker, somehow familiar, but he could not put a name to it. He leaned in closer, but the smuggler pulled him back and shut the canvas with a jerk. ‘Careful with that torch man, one whiff of flame will set these things alight! They won’t burst like Gypsy craft, but they will damn well unleash an inferno if you allow it!’

This was the first indication that this aloof man feared anything and so Donniker took him seriously. ‘Can I count on it as an instrument of siege?’

‘I don’t know these things as well as the sea folk do, but they are a fair amount stronger than your everyday lantern oil.’

‘Then your part is done, be gone from here,’ said Donniker.

‘I’m inclined to have something to eat first, is there nothing like a little goblin hospitality? Besides arrows and bolas I mean?’ asked the aloof man, looking over Donniker’s shoulder at the campfire, as though expecting to see something being prepared there.

‘The only hospitality they will offer you is putting you on the spit and enjoying you as the main course, take your leave and while you do so be thankful that I did not have them tear you apart just to be cautious about it. You have already proven yourself to have a loose mouth on you.’

The man held up his hand as though in apology. ‘A man can a take hint, and I’ll not talk out, this little encounter won’t make good pillow talk even if the girl is paid for the night.’

For a long while after Donniker was tempted to send out a goblin host and kill the suppliers in the dark.

A figure outside made his way toward the tent, formally ambling to his Master like an overfed duck. Donniker retreated as the biggish goblin entered, this particular one being the chief among them, named Gerfas.

The goblin-chieftain Gerfas grumbled before uttering, ‘Message has come Master,’ he said, holding out a letter he had already torn open and read, the contents smeared by grimy fingers.

Bloody beasts, any idea of etiquette is lost on them... At least he can read…

Even as Donniker read the letter the goblin spoke out of turn, ironically as though thinking Donniker had any trouble reading.

‘It says we must come, Attoras must burn!’

Donniker smiled. Later, wandering outside among the goblins, he was entranced again by the moon, Rodreon, which for the last couple of days displayed a curious quality, shedding its red light on the mists in the hills, the mists so readily changing to suit the red hue of the heavenly body. He took it as an omen of blood and fire, and they would follow it into the west, into the hills, and unleash this moon’s prophecy on the heart of the Northlands.

II

A few days after the funeral Shala could not help but notice the restoration of Attoras to its bustling self. The sombreness was swept away by the coming of the westerly wind and the streets closest to the northern wall had the clamour again of a bazaar in harvest time.

The castle itself had hints of its good humour restored. Shala had come upon a member of the guard being bellowed upon by the Marshal Gibbon, chastising him for not holding by the proper dress code. As it would have it, the man failed to wear boots, and it had become a sorry sight seeing him trying to explain that the castle dogs had eaten them.

At this Gibbon’s voice got explosive and the man stuttered stupidly trying to stick to his excuse (It was the guard named Urad, Shala remembered from the other night).

The Princess was in a position to vouch for the man at least, and did so. Just this morning two of her father’s hounds streaked past her, a big leather boot between their jaws. In their wake came running Urad, his bare feet slapping hard on the castle floor, arms pumping at his sides and a face of panicked aggravation driving it all.

Shala set after the affair. With her father gone those hounds had only time for two people; the one being Lorrie the kennel Master and the other being Shala herself. She had no problem keeping up with Urad (he wasn’t very fast despite the effort he put into the chase) but they had no chance of catching up to the dogs even with them playing tug of war with the boot. Coming around the corner they had managed to see the hounds slip into the big ballroom doors.

Together they followed inside, the biggest room of the castle often a palace of dust because of its neglect, the curtains drawn so that it was cast in darkness. There they had cornered the hounds and while Shala soothed them Urad tentatively freed the boot from their jaws. In the little light available Shala could see the boot was ravaged beyond use and their chase decidedly vain. But the man thanked the Princess heartily all the same, seeming embarrassed that his situation had drawn her into this.

So Shala explained this to Gibbon the Marshal and he nodded understandingly. ‘Very good Highness,’ he said, his moustache quivering, ‘be thankful the Princess stood witness for your story, and there is no excuse for allowing the dogs to get to your boots in the first place. Be off with you!’

With a curt greeting to the Princess, Gibbon was off and Urad scrambled to someplace less troublesome. Left on her own Shala considered what she should’ve questioned earlier; where was Lorrie the Kennel Master in all of this? Some other castle constituents had taken the dogs away of course, but of Lorrie there had been no mention.

Barely out of the encounter Kaell the cook caught up to the Princess, and she sighed internally for the inappropriate amount of time he spent following her. Arriving at the same time however was Rolf the Squire and he had thoughts of a similar kind. ‘You stalk the Princess needlessly cook, I’m sure you have other duties to attend to, don’t let me have a talk with Master Jalson!’

Kaell cowered and was off in an instant, like a chastised dog. If only our hounds were as easily scolded. Now Shala was simply annoyed; she’d much rather trade Rolf’s company for Kaell’s.

‘You should let me escort you more often Highness, I will keep these pests away,’ said the Squire.

‘I’m sure that you would, but the real pests are those of the court and if I ignore or dismiss their attentions I would be an unfit Queen. Is there something you wanted to say Squire?’

‘Yes Highness, I know not if you heard but there was a herald of trumpets... the Lord Patrick of Sannil and his father, they have arrived Highness. I would expect that Your Highness would wish to greet his entourage at the gates.’

‘I would not!’ said Shala and Rolf could barely contain his surprise. ‘My father’s funeral is over and they were not in attendance. They have no reason to be here!’

‘Your Highness, they have travelled a far road, it would be unjust to send them back now,’ said Rolf hesitantly.

‘Indeed, but luckily I owe them nothing more than the courtesy of my home. Let Master Dieral attend to them and arrange for them lodging befitting royalty.’

‘You will not come out to see them then Highness?’ asked Rolf.

’No, I’m not fit for company as I am now. I spent my morning chasing a pair of dogs and so I’m in need of a very long bath. I expect I won’t be done till nightfall.’

Shala made good on her word and no one outside her chambers saw her again that day. She had that bath she talked about and afterwards she worked on directives that needed her revision and approval, sitting at her desk and studying them privately. Swarztial had been trying to swamp her with pleas of the kingdom and paperwork - now she answered them pre-emptively, and by morn sent them out to court and let them deal with it on their own. She worked well into the night, neglecting to eat, by the end of it looking satisfactorily at the heap of parchments. Standing up she opened the music box on the mantelpiece and climbed into bed.

The next day it was only by noon that Shala was disturbed, Merohan knocking at her door. For him Shala gladly answered, ‘Yes Captain, how may I help?’

‘It is Councilman Pasco Your Highness, he graciously requests an audience with your person on the tower top.’

‘The tower?’

‘He seems adamant to speak to you alone. After he realized how determinedly you avoided this morning’s meeting at court he was certain I would be the only one Your Highness would respond to.’

Shala snorted in amusement. ‘He was right,’ said she airily.

‘Will I be telling him that you are busy, Highness?’ asked Merohan.

‘No, it is quite alright. I have time for the man. But while you are here Captain escort me all the same. I decided to have witnesses for my encounters with politicians and my father used to say to me to never meet a man alone on a tower top, unless it is in the dead of the night to steal a kiss from a lover.’

That got a chuckle from Merohan and they left, and on their way Shala chose that they walk the periphery corridors, used more often by cleaning staff than the administrative ones.

Council member Pasco met her at the tower top, wheezing and red-faced. He was a man of middle-years, the stresses of politics having whitened his hair prematurely.

‘Excuse the summons Highness, but I prefer to meet where we could have some privacy and a breath of fresh air besides.’ He was very much of the opposite nature of Swarztial. Hard-working rather than conniving, and a man with sons and daughters – he had better things to do than trying to manipulate kingdoms. Shala counted him a friend, or as much a friend as an honest ruler could ever be to a member of the council.

‘Not at all. I daresay you pain yourself more than me by this arrangement.’

Pasco casted an embarrassed glance down at his sweat stained tunic and said, ’No, I need to walk the stairs much more often. A year Highness! Just a year of gluttony and a man of my age loses all his fitness. The curse of these council meetings. They put rich foods and fine wine before us and as our bellies strain against belts and buckles we are left in a self-satisfied stupor and we say; why not? Surely the realm is well-off if we feast so lavishly. And when it is time to cast a ballot Swarztial smiles, because we are played by the illusion of plenty and comfort, and more often than not the ballot goes his way. A cheap trick! But then I am rambling Your Highness...’ said Pasco, finally having noticed the stern impatience on Merohan’s face.

‘It has been very gruelling Highness, I know. If your father could have seen what I have seen he would be exceedingly proud of you.’

‘Yet Swarztial wants to have a ballot to dispose of me and as you just admitted he gets his way in these matters.’

‘As you know I will never vote against you as it stands, and another senior member has already relayed to me that he will vote in your favour, member Gahum if you are familiar with him.’

‘Yes, he is rather silent, but he watches with a wise eye. My father thought much of him.’

‘He is, as I know him to be, first and foremost a champion of the people, and he will not side toward Sannil just because others do. He detests weak rule and had you not stood up against Swarztial the way you did Gahum might’ve taken it as evidence to favour Patrick of Sannil. But you endured, and I suspect Gahum is well revised on Patrick’s reputed weaknesses. Swarztial will not issue a ballot knowing Gahum will vote for you, because once you are instated as Queen he cannot question your sovereignty ever again. You have, as far as I am concerned, gained a crucial victory.’

‘Victory?’ said Shala in disbelief. ‘It sounds impossible... Then on what grave news are you here? Is it Swarztial, will he now make an attempt on my life?’

No! No Highness. He is not rash and he knows you are very well protected. It is something a bit more devious. I grew worried when I saw a great escort bring in the house of Sannil to town yesterday.’

’Yes, I heard they’re gracing us with their presence,’ said Shala, as if she didn’t want to be reminded of the fact.

‘You have not greeted them?’

‘I plan not to,’ said Shala.

‘You must know then Highness, that with them was their champion of the sword, the Master Yanci-gan.’

Shala was taken aback by this news. ‘But there are no sword tourneys here, why bring their champion?’ ridiculed Shala with a frown.

‘Exactly, Your Highness. My best guess is that Swarztial is going to invoke some historic rite to depose of you in a less... democratic way.’

‘Will he challenge me to swords?’ asked Shala, her voice hinting toward laughter.

’No Highness, not directly. It will be an Issue of Champions, and it is not good news. There is no one in this land that can match swords with Yanci-gan, not even our captain Merohan here, though he is your best choice.’

Shala became grave, and she looked out far across the land. She was aware that Merohan had tightened up at her side by Pasco’s lack of faith, but the councilman’s blunt statement was true enough. ‘We must not allow them this. Pasco, if you have any objection against Patrick ruling then you must find a way against this. Some rule or law, remnant or forgotten must be dug out. If they cite Issue of Champions I do not know whether any I command will be able to defend my right as Queen.’

‘I know Your Highness, and for today, uncommon as that may be, I’ll side with you, and I’ll burn the midnight oil till dawn if that’s how long an answer is in the coming. I’ll scour the old records. It should not come down to this, not to blood when there is reason.’

Shala did not answer, she’d even let it come to blood if only she had confidence in winning.

‘What about Gahum, can we count on him in any way?’ asked Shala.

‘Afraid not Highness, he might not cast a ballot against us, but if Patrick challenges you in combat he’ll expect you to deliver such a champion, even if the reality is that you can’t.’

‘We haven’t lost yet,’ said Shala, suddenly becoming irritated with their air of resignation, ‘If Merohan is who I choose, we must have faith that he will defeat Yanci-gan.’

‘Yes, of course Highness, but let me first see if I can’t find a way to avoid a matching of swords altogether. This matter already feels too much like a war. I beg your leave Your Highness, let me attend to the old annals.’

‘Of course, and thank you member Pasco.’

The man made a solemn bow and left.

Shala sighed. ‘What do you make of this Captain?’

Merohan composed himself and said, ‘Tourneys that decide lordship are a thing of the past, and belong these days more to battlefield quarrels. But... I have never heard of such an ask being declined Your Highness, not when the throne is in dispute between two powerful houses. Being cautious I am like to say that if councilman Pasco does not arrive with an answer we will have to match swords with the Sannils.’

‘And are you up for it?’

‘Of course, until the very moment Yanci-gan draws blood nothing is decided. He might find that I am nothing like tourney combatants. He has yet to come against a soldier of my experience.’

‘Then I am appeased,’ lied Shala.

III

The following morning there was no trace of member Pasco. At first Shala thought the man was simply caught up in something, or maybe had visited the catacombs, where she knew many old documents and scrolls were also stored. She had been certain he would turn up. Maybe he has visited Scholar Naceus in town, in hopes of burrowing some of his wisdom on the law? Thought Shala hopefully. Whittling her time away in worry, high noon was fast approaching, as that was the symbolic hour of combat that allowed the oculus of the throne room to cast the light upon the floor.

The council was called and Shala was obligated to go, hoping Pasco would be in attendance. All the same Captain Merohan was at her side and she noticed him in the nervousness of combat.

On their way to the throne room she was intercepted by Patrick’s entourage, his father and his own council tailing him like richly-dressed dogs. By his side was Yanci-gan, a much more imposing presence than the upstart noble himself. Every stride he took brought a clanking of armour, fully clad in black steel and at his hip hung the sheathed katana sword that had made the man famous in the north.

The pauldrons he wore were layered like his breastplate, making his shoulders look very wide and further exaggerated by his helm that guarded widely into the back of his neck, with two short ornate horns just above the slit of his eyes. Heavy armour, but a deadly fast sword to compensate.

Shala regretted staring at the champion as Patrick walked forward and without shame planted a swift kiss on her lips in greeting.

‘My Lady, as lovely as ever!’ he exclaimed. Shala was too surprised to have pulled away and was suddenly rooted in anger. Until that day no man but her father had kissed her because of her station, and she had to put aside the mortifying thought of being kissed by this man.

‘Don’t seem so embarrassed Your Highness, merely a gesture between the noble.’

‘Nobility? You think that an excuse to trespass? To come onto me uninvited?’

Patrick sighed. ‘Truth be told Princess Shala, I have no inclination to this duel Swarztial supposes. I’d rather have you by my side and reconcile what should be a prosperous relationship between Sannil and Evrelyn. Let us put this aside and be wed to me dear Princess. I know my proposal now is untimely and informal, but Swarztial will bring before the court Issue of Champions, and once he does, all the more desirable solutions would be beyond recall.’

And I will refute him, one way or the other. To you my answer is the same as when you proposed to me months ago; I have no interest in a man who will be a weak King and a cruel husband.’

‘You speak needlessly harshly Princess, I had thought Swarztial exaggerates.’

‘Do not try and make me feel guilty for doing so. You and your ilk were not even present when my father was buried.’

‘The journey is difficult to make, we came with as much haste as we could.’

‘And yet lesser pretenders still made it even though covering the same distance. Were you too busy fitting armour to your champion here? Too eager to snatch the crown to be bothered otherwise?’

Patrick sniffed. ‘Well then, I suppose we have nothing further to discuss. Be warned my Lady, Yanci-gan is unmatched in the north and when I take to the throne the House of Evrelyn will never again be welcome in my realm - consider it recompense for the insults you and your father have laid on me.’

They passed swiftly by, making for the gallery stairs.

‘Don’t worry Highness, not even the King can chase away royal families from the realm without being scorned.’

‘Yes Captain, but in thinking of such things we have already conceded that Yanci-gan will be triumphant.’ They turned to the throne room, and it was the last place Shala wanted to be.

Even inside the throne room there was nothing to be seen of member Pasco, and Yanci-gan already stood in the light of the oculus, as still as a statue as he waited for a prospecting opponent. He did however for a moment remove his helm, his face stern and his short hair greying at the temples despite being young still.

From the gallery Swarztial commanded proceedings and brought before the council the Issue of Champions, speaking on behalf of the Sannil family.

‘The suggestion is barbaric, there has not been such blood spilt in these halls for many decades, and it was back when future kings squabbled vainly,’ retorted Shala.

‘But the need at the time was great and so the need is great now. Questions arise over your sovereignty and you must answer it if the people wish it,’ said Swarztial.

‘You are hardly the people, and how must I account for myself by the sword-arm of someone else?’

Swarztial sneered. ‘It is said that the blood of the most worthy calls the greatest champion, Lord Patrick already has his. If your claim to the throne is as indomitable as you suggest Your Highness, a fine warrior will rise to represent you in the tourney of the throne room.’

Shala was appalled. This place would now be slandered with bloodshed, and she could offer no other choice unless Pasco showed himself. And at that he needed to provide something to allay the challenge laid down by the Sannils. The House of Evrelyn was deemed thin and she needed to establish herself worthy. But she could not take this chance, because there was little chance against Yanci-gan.

‘I refuse to agree to this, though my standing might be blemished, I can’t allow such a duel here!’

Swarztial turned up a smug smile. ‘Let me remind you then Highness that we spoke of rituals and hallowed traditions, which are sought to be protected by your House and which you defended so bravely before this very council. Is it that you recant away from traditions such as the challenge to swords to your convenience, so that you may stay in power?’

Shala’s heart sunk into her stomach and she was horrified to have walked so blindly into this. Of course Swarztial had brought up the matter of Des Pellu that day with more intention than Shala would have guessed at the time. She defended traditions of the realm, and now she would be shown as a two-faced ruler if she doubled back on her word. Swarztial had her snared, and her anger at the man was only matched by the anger at herself.

Merohan stood closer and motioned for silent council with the Princess. The Captain of the household guard assumed their predicament, and all but knew that the Princess could no longer back out of this challenge without completely losing the faith of the Council.

‘Your Highness, I must offer myself as your champion,’ said Merohan with urgency. The Princess could not see Merohan winning, and yet there was no better than he in the castle. Surely Gremhalden in his prime, but the old Knight could not carry himself in combat as he did before his fall. Of course any of the other Knights would have been more than ideal, being at least a challenge to Yanci-gan, and Shala was sure one of them would have aligned with her and offered himself as a champion.

And yet Swarztial had gone to great lengths to ensure none but the crippled Gremhalden were present in Attoras. Once again she realized the extent of Swarztial’s malice; how he had seen to every contingency. Shala was not in the habit of fearing men, but she was now growing helpless in countering Swarztial.

‘Have you decided Lady Shala? Or do you feel your rule wavering in this hour?’ mocked Swarztial, certain he had the Princess cornered. ‘Is there someone beyond this room you would wish to call? Of course we would accept a resignation if Your Highness feels-’

The heavy doors of the throne room burst open, slamming against the wall as they swung apart, wrenching every eye to the threshold. Shala sincerely hoped it was Pasco who had found the might to smash open the doors like that, but she doubted it.

With the sudden light introduced from the outside it took a while for them to see a man standing there, geared for battle, and with an animalistic mask on his face. Shala squinted vainly to see who it was. The guards closed on him, pointing spears at the intruder. He stopped briefly, but did not even look at those barring his way.

‘I come seeking council with Princess Shala Salstasha of House Evrelyn!’ he commanded, and his words put a strange hope in Shala.

Swarztial stalked the circular gallery, until he could get a proper view of the intruder.

From where Shala sat she could confirm that the man was indeed masked, a steel helm lined with silver, and the pointed ears that were visible from a distance became an outline that had the gallery squirming, and they hummed in discussion.

Wolfshead, thought Shala, but she was as confused as the rest of the council. She thought she ought to do something, or say something, but felt rather frozen, and rather curious besides.

’What is this? The royal council is busy with the future of the Kingdom! And how did you get in here? Those doors were locked! This is trespass!’

‘Barred only to the unworthy,’ said the man, ‘I bid you Chancellor Swarztial, that you spoke of Her Highness’ right to the throne in calling an able-bodied warrior. I will offer myself as such.’

Still no one could recognize him past his mask.

‘Let him pass!’ commanded Shala from the throne.

Without further invitation the man marched passed the unsure spears, the council members all eyeing him with suspicion. This they did not expect. He approached purposefully, his movement filled with danger. It surprised her, but the man kneeled briefly before Shala, and stood up before she could acknowledge or address him.

With him closer now she saw he wasn’t as heavily armed as she thought, wearing only a tough black leather jerkin, crisscrossed with belts over the chest, and edged with tufts of wolf fur on the shoulders, his arms bared and showing strong lean muscle. He wore gloves and boots and trousers of a simple kind, and did not look much suited for the task except for the grace of his movements.

The mask he wore made his identity a mystery, not being able to recognize him from his longish copper hair at the back, and she was certain she had never seen his silver earrings before. The mask itself was fashioned in the likeliness of a wolf’s head, made so that it could fit the face of a man, the ears upright, the snout short and the eye sockets slanted and angry. The Wolfshead had no lower jaw, as to open the mouth area of the wearer.

‘The mask you wear seems highly familiar, where might you have stolen such an artefact?’ accused Swarztial from above.

’The mask is mine, and it marks me for what I am, a Wolf of the Black Mountains, of the Severangati, the Order of Severance...’

Laughter rippled through the council, led by Swarztial and the Sannils.

’Are you stupid lad? The Wolves are long dead, and no longer in the commission of the King even if they did still live.’

’Then I pray to you, be at rest, believe your own lie if it comforts you, but it will not save your champion from me.’

The council looked unsettled at his suggestion, their mirth cut short. The Wolf walked up to the throne, where Shala sat tensed, her hands still knotted on the arms of the grand chair. For a moment she wanted to cry out and let her guards tackle the man. Merohan indeed stepped in front of the Princess, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword.

‘To be expected Captain of the guard, I only ask for swift audience,’ said the Wolf, as though dismissing Merohan.

‘Let him address me for the moment,’ said Shala softly to the captain.

‘I’m watching,’ said Merohan at the intruder, standing aside, but still close by so that he could listen in, and act if need be.

Shala sat forward. ‘I bid you warrior, remove your mask and tell me your name.’

‘No Highness, my name and identity will avail you nothing. I am here only to offer myself as your champion, and I will not fail should your trust be offered. But you must decide fast!’

Shala looked at his eyes set deep behind the mask, crisp blue, and fierce, fully determined as if he had been prepared for this fight even before the vile council members could have fathomed the plan.

‘My Lady I do not like this, he is sent by the council members themselves, so that they may assure victory! He will fail on purpose and laugh afterwards at how gullible we are even as they attend to his cuts!’ urged Merohan quietly.

‘Stay your tongue if you cannot give good council Merohan,’ said the man. ‘My Lady, in your prayer you asked for the health of your father. It did not come to pass, but let me be the answer to saving what’s left of his House.’

‘Do you listen in on every privacy!?’ hissed Shala, wondering where this man could’ve possibly hid at the time.

’Rather me than all the others who spy and whisper in this castle. Give me your trust! My Lady...?’ he said, looking hard at her.

On the back of this man were two short swords sheathed in a cross, the hilts peeking over his shoulders and crafted from polished white bone. He has the mask of a Wolf, she thought and she knew only the Savage Art of the old order made use of two swords, one in each hand.Shala’s mind made knots and tangles, indecision threatening. Where is Naceus when I need him? Ask the right questions he would say...

‘Can you defeat a champion like Yanci-gan?’ she asked forcefully, hoping to glean a true answer from the man.

‘Yes,’ he said, his eyes remaining unchanged behind the mask and Shala saw self-assurance if nothing else. It was not enough to soothe her over.

‘What was the creed of the Wolves?’ she asked.

We are but ghosts,’ answered the man. Shala was almost surprised. She was so determined to find any little lie in the man before her. ‘I have walked the mountain and stood at the summit, tested by the cold. I have stared far out from the cradle and witnessed the tundra. I was in service to your father, Highness, and now I’m bound to you.’

Shala sat in silence, stricken by indecision. My father has made no mention of Wolves still in existence.

’That means little Highness, he’s a lunatic to my eye. If he is an imposter he could have read the old scripts and-’ Shala held up her hand to silence Merohan and she looked at the warrior.Taking a deep breath Shala said, ‘Then so be it. With you rests the fate of my father’s house.’

With a single nod the man turned away from her.

Shala clenched her jaw tight as the warrior took the circle, Yanci-gan approaching in full battle dress of breastplate and fauld, enamelled black, the layered steel fashioned like lobster scales, looking impenetrable and interwoven almost artistically.

‘Do you not wish to dress? I’ll allow for time if you wish to visit the armoury - you have little besides that relic you call a mask,’ asked Yanci-gan, offering the Wolf the same advantage he carried on his own body.

Shala thought that was rather honourable from him, considering who he represented.

‘Don’t give him fashion advice Yanci-gan! Make him bleed!’ bellowed Patrick from the gallery. The council laughed. His father Hanson pulled him back into the chair and gave him a stern look.

‘This is how I come to combat,’ said the Wolf curtly, ‘would you not rather remove your armour? It may end up saving your life if you lay it aside now,’ said the Wolf with sincerity.

That made the gallery chuckle again.

‘No, unfortunately that would be foolish advice to follow, especially coming from my opponent.’

‘As you wish,’ said the Wolf, as though he were uttering a death sentence.

From the twin sheaths set in a cross on his back the man calling himself Wolf reached over and drew two bronze blades. Shala was close enough to see they were a fine craft, the edges deadly sharp so that they glistened catching the light from the oculus. But they were nonetheless made from a lesser alloy and Shala wondered on the wisdom of electing him.

Those blades are trophies, they will not last against a steel sword. Can the warriors defending my throne not even bear proper arms?

But then she watched the man go about a routine before battle, drawing the swords slowly through the air, cutting invisible enemies as he stretched, the blades whistling tunelessly; nothing but the keenest of edges could accomplish that. The blades were leaf-like, the thick middle tapering to a sharp point belying the swords’ length Shala realized. In the hands of this man they were made for speed, cutting an artery here and there, and moving on to a next foe, leaving many hamstrung in his wake as they bled out.

The champion he faced however would not be resolved by a simple display of speed or a single bold manoeuvre. In tourneys of swordplay Yanci-gan laid waste to both the freakishly strong and fast, crumbling the hopes of gamblers who favoured the payout of untested newcomers.

I’m no better, I’ve just staked my Kingdom on a man I don’t know, thought Shala, struggling to battle down panic. At least the man she had chosen still displayed an unnatural air of confidence and Yanci-gan was still looking at the self-proclaimed Wolf as though he were unwell. I could just as well have asked Rolf the squire to represent me, he too is arrogant.

Dieral, the Master of ceremonies recited the ritual and then moved onto the rules which he listed in a droning voice. ‘...No taunting from the crowd, no person, noble or otherwise, to interfere with the duel... Herewith the electorate will forego the ballot, duty of the council, and settle the right to the throne in a duel of swords. Escaping daylight, for any significant time will signal forfeiture...’

The sunlight on the floor is a virtual cage for them, thought Shala, now appreciating the dimensions the duel would have.

‘Engaged, no party may withdraw from these conditions, the outcome must be final, and the victor assured of ascendency.’

Dieral looked first to the gallery and garnered the agreement of House Sannil. They did so without pause. When the Master of ceremonies turned to Shala she nodded simply because there was no other way.

‘May the Benevolence guide their blades and His judgement show us the way! May the blood of the worthy prevail!’

Yanci-gan put on his helm and drew the katana at his waist, the slick steel screech unnerving Shala. The Wolf bunched his shoulders, the readiness of a predator settling into his limbs.

With his ornate staff the Master of Ceremonies struck the floor, startling Shala, and the echo had barely passed through stone when the Wolf leapt. Before Shala could anticipate any movement the bronze blades were glancing fearsomely from Yanci-gan’s length of steel. The exchange was terrific, the hardly noticed foot movements putting the warriors in a routine circling each other and going back and forth across the sunlit floor.

The Wolf’s lasting impression was relentless and Yanci-gan showed himself of immeasurable skill in warding off the two swords that came often from impossible angles. Regardless of the courage in Merohan’s heart he would not have lasted more than a few moments with Yanci-gan. But then the champion of the Sannils had never faced one such as Shala now favoured.

He was more than just a nuisance, more than just a boastful man; moving swiftly out of reach and often spiralling or twirling into contact again, his quicksilver cuts and stabs forcing Yanci-gan to defend to every extent and depth, even forcing the champion to kick out backwards as the bronze blades came dangerously low at the ankles. Having avoided losing a foot, Yanci-gan turned on his heel and struck overhead in an arc, and to meet it the Wolf was pushed to his knees, swords crossed above his head to catch Yanci-gan’s heavier sword.

The Wolf pushed with his swords in a scissor fashion and from the tips of his toes he drove himself up, throwing the weight of Yanci-gan clear off him and going into attack again; to stab, and cut, then coming around again spinning to slash. Yanci-gan guarded true against the fury, using the targe on his wrist to good effect when his katana was too slow on defence. When he deflected the man thus the Wolf simply came at him harder. By now Shala had forgotten of her worry of the bronze blades, they were as unbending as the man who carried them.

The Wolves were long dead, she kept reminding herself. Yet his style and movements held some remnant of the Savage Art of swords belonging to the old order. The scripts Shala had read came alive before her; the blend of blades and the bolster, the sickle arm and the sextant, along with other disciplines that had Shala puzzling as to where they belonged in lore.At times his movements seemed reckless, until they melded into strikes of precision, or defensive parries that showed his infallible awareness of his opponent.

The two warriors elicited the best from each other, and what would have been a swiftly decided contest against any other man was a now a spectacle. And yet many of the Wolf’s cuts had landed on Yanci-gan’s armour, leaving thin white scars on the plating where wounds should have been.

It is not fair! thought Shala desperately, knowing the fight should’ve been over had Yanci-gan not worn his armour. Yet the armour also made Yanci-gan slower and she reconsidered how different the fight might’ve been without it.

Finally using the weight of his blade Yanci-gan pushed the Wolf back and then quickly he reversed the cut, the edge slicing into a bared arm. Shala winced, her heart fluttering in defeat. All that was hoped for came crashing down around her. She sunk back into the chair she would have to give up to Patrick.

The masked warrior backed away in pain, Yanci-gan standing erect in victory and holding his sword in salute, the upper edge flecked with the Wolf’s blood. The Master of ceremonies raised his staff, the gallery already applauding...

Hold!’ cried the masked warrior, his sweat making the blood thin and running down his arm. At least it looked to be a shallow wound, one Shala could easily attend to.

‘The battle is not over...’ he said laughingly to the gallery. ‘Look at the cuts on his armour, do they not count for anything?’

‘But how then will you decide this battle if cuts can’t decide it?’ cried Swarztial mockingly. Shala could see that up until this moment Swarztial had been more than a little flustered. He has been as tense as I am.

Death,’ uttered the warrior, ’when you sent in your champion you have marked this man for death. Did you think I allowed him in full armour for nothing? Because I’m a fool? No. He must kill me, or else I will kill him!

The entire throne room was shocked and uncertain. The Sannil family didn’t look too willing to lose someone like Yanci-gan. Shala felt strangely the same about her champion. Her warrior had sustained a bad cut as far as combat was concerned, and for all his bravado she could not see him winning now.

She did not want to finally learn the identity of such an ally by tearing the mask off his dead face. In fact she was certain she could not bear seeing a death here, and would have left the chamber if she wasn’t central to this matter. Maybe she could still stop this and save his life? It would cost her the crown however.

‘The party that backs out forfeits the right to the crown,’ reminded Dieral to all, clearly attuned to what everyone was thinking. ‘And the Wolf is right, the battle cannot end in any way other than death if first blood is not the qualifier. That is an ancient rule.’

’You would allow this?’ bellowed Swarztial down at Dieral.

’Actually member Swarztial, strictly holding to tradition of course, these bouts were always decided by death. Those in history decided by cuts are few and far between, and are more characteristic of the men far south, down in Avandar, where they prefer show over substance. I’ll be remiss if I do not allow the duel to play out as it should.’

‘I refuse!’ said Swarztial.

‘I don’t care that you do Chancellor. I did not call the fight to an end when Her Highness’ man scored a cut on the plates of Yanci-gan and I’m not going to do so now.’

Shala breathed again as Dieral gave another chance to this duel. Bless your fat heart Dieral, I’ll never make fun of your weight again.

The masked warrior looked at her and silently those icy eyes told her that he was still able to fight. That for her, he would not stop for anything. She nodded at him faithfully, although she knew she didn’t inspire much, her face worried and unsure. It seemed to be all that he needed and he turned into the circle of light again.

Yanci-gan stood like a statue, looking up at his lieges and awaiting their command. It did not take long and they gave him a nod.

‘Unto death,’ said Dieral and slammed the staff on the ground, the ring sounding commencement. They closed in on each other again, somewhat more careful and slow, knowing it was to the death. Fatigue was reckoned for as well, the fervour of their initial display turned deliberate and technical, blades screeching as they pushed in attack, the steel and bronze looking magnetised to each other.

Yanci-gan seemed to realize the mistake soon enough, discarding the engagement that better suited his opponent and started battering at him with long fluid strokes, working fiercely against a defence that had only one good arm.

And the Wolf used that arm but sparingly. He was often driven onto the back-foot or into retreat, desperately placating Yanci-gan’s well placed strokes, and sometimes using swift movements with his feet to outdistance his heavier opponent. But the circle of light was only that big and Yanci-gan pursued every time.

With each new attack Shala would see her warrior’s death, but the Wolf resisted the onslaught, blade on blade, and even twice more he gained cuts on Yanci-gan’s armour that availed him nothing but pride. They were a match as far as Shala could tell and it did not bode well for the Wolf with a bleeding arm.

A cloud moved in front of the sun and the two men stopped as the circle of light disappeared on the floor, the hall growing dark. It was as sudden an intermission as Shala had yet seen. They stepped back to opposite ends of the court, but their gazes on each other remained unbroken. It took Shala a moment to realize what was a happening and she wondered if her heart was the only one beating like this. If the rest of the day becomes overcast, does the fight wait for another day? She curiously looked toward Master Dieral, but the frown on his face made it clear to Shala; the daylight rule would not apply in a fight to the death...

And before Dieral could say something, flecks of sunlight returned as the cloud overheard grew thin, and everyone waited anxiously as the full circle reappeared. The Wolf twirled into contact again, and Yanci-gan met the attack stoically. It took him only moments to push the Wolf back, the weight of his armour and sword always counting.

Compensating for his weaker arm the Wolf was tiring as Yanci-gan drove many strikes overhead, pushing at breaking through, driving the Wolf back to the edge of the sunlight yet again and cutting high at the right shoulder where the Wolf now struggled. There was still composure and bravery even in retreat as he met the steel sword, the Savage Art under duress many-facetted, a complex weave of movements that were often attack and defence simultaneously.

But there was no give in Yanci-gan and there was no give in his armour, the Wolf suffocated toward the edges of light again - and then quite suddenly allowed himself to be driven out of bounds of the sunlit floor, after he had done so much to remain within its borders. He held up his swords in submission, and then Yanci-gan relented, his attack faltering.

The confusion struck the entire court simultaneously, and again it was only Dieral and Shala that seem to appreciate that the sunlit floor no longer carried any weight. This fight could only end in one way. It was only she and Dieral that knew... and the Wolf.

In the moment that Dieral refused to slam his staff the Wolf revealed his trickery and lunged forward, illuminated back into sunlight, hammering his masked head into the mouth of Yanci-gan’s helm where the metal grill was pliable. Following a sickening metal clang Yanci-gan staggered back and did his utmost to defend against the quicksilver attacks of the Wolf now. But Shala saw that he was in trouble, dazed from the blow to the head and his legs treading drunkenly.

The Wolf placated Yanci-gan’s sword and going from one unexpected to the next, stowed his swords away within his belt in the blink of an eye. Before anyone could linger on the gesture, he launched himself at his opponent in a high leap, both his boots coming at Yanci-gan’s head as though aiming for a kick. But the Wolf’s legs went past either side of his head, effectively sitting on Yanci-gan shoulders as his feet dangled down his back. In one swift movement he reached over the champion’s helm and grasped the undersides of the pauldrons where they came together on the upper back. Pulling, the Wolf flipped backwards off his human perch, stripping and coming away with the entirety of the interlocking armour as he tumbled; the pauldrons, protecting the shoulders... the gorget, guarding the neck... and the helm from his head dislodged and rolling across the floor. Landing on his feet, hunched, the Wolf cast aside the armour and pulled his swords from his waist. Where the pauldrons fell Shala saw enough to realize one of the Wolf’s many hits on the armour had clearly severed one of the straps keeping the upper body armour fastened to the champion’s frame. A solution to Yanci-gan’s defences had been in the making all along.

If Yanci-gan had been startled by any of this he did not show it, forwarding an assault on the Wolf with the katana sweeping through the air. The Wolf had his blades up just in the nick of time. But Yanci-gan looked vulnerable and much less certain in his movements.

Another desperate sidelong slash came from him and the Wolf spun in underneath it, ducking as the katana passed overhead, the two champions passing by one another back-to-back for a second.

Overextended Yanci-gan brought back a terrible backhand cut to chase, but the Wolf, hunkered down and spinning on the balls of his feet, had already punched up the blade from his left hand, and found Yanci-gan’s armpit as he turned into it. With the champion exposed, the bronze sword struck right through the shoulder with the point protruding near Yanci-gan’s ear and the katana at speed fell hopelessly out of reach from suddenly rigid fingers.

Shala could not believe her eyes.

Yanci-gan suffered for a moment, suspended on the blade impaling him, and then the Wolf swept the other bronze blade in a backhand cut, running it effortlessly through his neck, opening up a red smile that spewed blood and ultimately bestowing mercy. The court looked on morbidly, and just for a second Shala felt the same terror that had made men of all sides question the continued existence of the Wolves through the years.

The Wolf put up his boot against the man’s breastplate and withdrew the blade from the man’s body. Yanci-gan fell dead with a crunch, a pool of crimson forming around him. There were gasps, followed by angry whispers from the council members, and to Shala’s right hand Merohan himself was wide-eyed. The Master of ceremonies did not even strike the floor with his staff, death apparently was final enough.

The Wolf took a deep breath, wiping Yanci-gan’s blood from his mouth just below the mask, and looked up to the gallery. ‘Chancellor Swarztial, I would ask that you stop your incessant scheming, and do not even attempt at more subtle ways. I may not be seen, but I see much, and no dagger or poison will make it to the Princess on my watch,’ said the Wolf.

Damned conspirator! How many more lies will you bring into this hallowed place, guards take him!’ screamed Swarztial from above.

No, don’t!’ commanded Shala in counter, the soldiers stopping in their tracks yet again.

The Wolf turned to Shala, ’Your Grace,’ is all he said, and took his leave whilst casting a last warning glance at the gallery, strolling right out the way he had come in.

No one moved or said anything until he was gone. No one followed him or barred him, like he was a ghost, or like a spell hung around him that rooted other men. For the first time Shala could remember she looked at Swarztial, and behold, she thought, the man who always got the last say, was tongue-tied and dim-witted, outraged, looking stunned where he stood, so very aware of House Sannil’s disappointment in him - their fury by the look of it. He had all but promised them the throne.

To be fair Shala herself did not understand what had just transpired here, and the reality of a dead champion lying on her floor brought about a sombreness only a graveyard could offer. But she was not upset. It kindled a strange hope in her; she did not believe that nonsense Swarztialsaid about the blood of the worthy calling the greatest champion, but for now and today, she hid her satisfaction, the satisfaction of knowing that men would still rise to defend her right as Queen.

The Wolves were an order long dead, and the man now gone was assuredly an imposter like Swarztial claimed. But for the savage skill of his swords and the dead man no one seemed to attend to, Shala and all the others could not prove him to be false.

There was a din up in the gallery, the council talking heatedly amongst themselves. Shala stood up tall and Dieral tapped his ceremonial staff with a short sharp jab to the floor to get their attention toward the Princess. There was something in that tap that said, “Your Queen wishes to speak.”

‘I hope you are satisfied,’ she spoke to them, her voice rearing loud, ’you’ve put an unkindly test to my heritage, and I staunched your vain attempts to prove me unworthy. You cost a fine man his life for your purposes, and you do not even send men to take him away. He died on my floor, so my disciples will take him and give him a good burial among warriors that served the castle in the past, lest you have no honour at all and throw your fallen toy in some ditch like I suspect you will.

‘This atrocious meeting is adjourned and I hope we never have its kind again. And for all of you who seem to think otherwise, I’m still closer to the throne than any other, and when I’m Queen, there will be no rituals of the Council you can hide behind. If you scheme then like you do now, I’ll have you put to death, for I believe what you do now against me is called treason!’

She had them shamed and silenced.

‘Merohan, start the search for this man, but meet me afterwards on the tower, I need a warrior to speak to,’ said Shala quietly to the captain of the guard. Before she left, glad to be doing so, she heard a heated argument start between Dieral and Swarztial, the Chancellor accusing him of failing to call the fight when the Wolf was pushed outside the limits. Dieral countered with his own arguments. Shala did not want to get embroiled in technicalities. Their voices grew faint as she walked faster still, her heart still racing and her mind reeling at what had just happened.

Later on she met up with the Captain on the tower top.

‘Swarztial has the entire castle looking for the Wolf, but they cannot find him, and I sincerely hope they don’t,’ said Merohan, the veteran looking uncharacteristically excited.

‘I’ll set him free even if they do catch him. How is it Swarztial has his own guard in the castle?’ asked Shala who had not lived down her own giddiness.

‘It’s supposed to be an independent guard established for the council, but Swarztial has occupied them for himself, as he often does with such matters.’

‘What do you make of our so-called Wolf?’ asked Shala.

‘I am as dumbstruck as I am thankful. I could not have bested Yanci-gan and in my place he saved Your Highness’s throne. I haven’t seen anything like it before Highness, or maybe it was in my youth, when the Wolves at their last still came to the castle. They displayed some swordplay, but there were no duels, and definitely not to the death. Remember today Highness, I doubt we’ll see such a display any time soon.’

’I’d be glad for it. My gratitude for this apparent Wolf is paralleled by my horror of having bloody disputes right in the throne room. I do not wish the likes of it again.’

‘Yet we are victors. My father always said to me that the rule of kings are drawn and cut by the swords around him, that the sovereignty is only as strong as the loyalty he commands. Today we might have seen truth in that,’ said Merohan.

‘Do you believe he is really a Wolf like he claims?’

‘I cannot think it. The timing is not right. He looked very young, much too young to have been one of the last before the Order was annulled. He had some remnant of the mighty Taggandus that had fought here twenty years ago. But it cannot be him...’

‘What of Swarztial’s cries, was Dieral wrong in how he officiated the duel?’ asked Shala carefully.

Bemused, Merohan pulled up his shoulders. ‘Was there a meeting of the minds regarding the law of combat? Certainly not. But ignorance of the law has never been taken as an excuse. It was their failure to realize the dynamic changing before their very eyes. And the Wolf took full advantage of it. Do not think less of the Wolf, Highness, no man as lightly armed as he should’ve beaten Yanci-gan with his armour.’

‘It is a matter I have never understood, why the Crimson City had the Wolves ended.’ Today especially Shala questioned the motion.

‘There must’ve been some wisdom in it my Lady, or some history we do not know. I remember in my young days how all feared the Wolves, and how even those who live close to the Benevolence did not escape this fear.’

’Yes. But my father’s House and the Wolves bathed in the same cold water of Dunnoom. That was the foundation of our bond, the strength of the Mountain. It was to keep us clear-minded and stalwart in rule, and so we owned their loyalty. I saw the cold in him today, it was there.’

‘I wonder who he was?’ said Merohan.

Shala carried a smile. ‘I don’t know,’ said Shala putting her hands on the railing. ‘I hope to have a name from him when our paths cross again.’

It was in a surreal mood that she left the tower, until she met up with deBella, who outright hugged her with furious gladness. She had evidently already heard the news.

‘O deBella, it was wondrous,’ said Shala, surprised to find some tears in her eyes, the idea that she had won this day only settling with her now. ‘I do not care for bloodshed, and I wish so the man Yanci-gan did not have to die, but I saw some great remnant of the past today. He was a warrior like none in the castle can match, and now that I think on it, he carried the cold about him like he was born to it. I stood in those freezing waters, praying hopelessly, under a broken fortress that delivers no more warriors calling themselves Wolves. And see, he comes striding through doors barred and guarded when I needed a champion most. He could just as well have been a ghost, his intervention was just and a mercy granted for all my faith, fragile though it might be. At least for today and tomorrow, my right as Queen is saved.’

’No my Lady, not just for today and tomorrow. I’ve heard all the stories, those which I can believe anyways, and I’m filled with hope. The castle is turning against Swarztial. That Wolf, impostor or not, has felled the wicked hold that vile man seemed to have on everyone here. Sannil has turned their back on Swarztial and without a royal house to support him much of the platform from which he spoke is stripped out from underneath him. If he speaks or acts ill now it is his own agenda, and for that you can take the sword to him!

‘I may be speaking too far ahead my Lady, but I think your crown is saved, everything is going to be alright. We’ll prepare for your inauguration in due time and not long from now you will be called Queen Shala of Evrelyn. Mother to all of Attoras!’ she said proudly. They spent the day in a kind of ecstasy, the castle devoid of the troubled uncertainty for the first time since King Anka’s passing.

Naceus came up to the castle naturally, with a dusty bottle of port as his contribution to the Princess’s silent celebrations. He was awash by questions concerning the Wolves, and while he was more than happy to delve into their histories, he could only pull up his shoulders as to how a Wolf had risen on this day.

Come nightfall Shala could not sleep, and from her bedroom windows she saw a curious quality of Rodreon emerge, shedding its light on the mist in the hills.

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