“I am grateful that you were able to receive our party, your highness.” said Raskolf, “On behalf of the Watchwolf Clan and all the independent packs represented by our resolution committee, I wish to extend my gratitude to you for hosting this summit. Your hospitality warms my heart, and I am ashamed that I misjudged your people based on a single unfortunate experience.”
Raskolf and the Prince crunched down the gravel paths of the Royal gardens at New Aldoria. Rhodi trailed a few steps behind, savoring a sweet yellow apple which was not native to Mardrun.
“Not at all, Raskolf.” said the Prince, “I admire what you said earlier, about the Ulven running towards their problems, and never away from them. As a leader, I have never been one to sweep my problems under a rug. I must admit, that I too, have suffered from certain prejudices against the unknown. I am ashamed to admit that I was surprised when your party showed up on my doorstep with security resolutions and treaties in hand. Forgive me for my frankness, but truth be told, I wasn’t even sure that your people had mastered the written word. As far as first impressions go, I must say that this visit has given me new hope. I am elated that my kingdom and your clan were able to resolve this diplomatically. You must understand that just as you had misconceptions about my people, I had no shortage of misconceptions about your own. I had, for example, heard rumors of a fierce, matriarchal, warrior-dominated heathen confederacy of short-tempered beast-people who strike first and ask questions later. Quite ridiculous!”
Raskolf’s thoughts drifted to Priestess Ravensmark’s initial reaction to his report of the Aldorian incident at the Wayward Inn. He cleared his throat and flashed a nervous grin in the direction of the Prince.
“Yes, your highness. Ridiculous.”
“Indeed, you certainly ran at this problem head on, but thankfully for all of us it was with pen and paper in hand, rather than with swords.”
“Yes, your highness.” said Raskolf.
“Say there, Ambassador,” said the Prince, “I do believe it is time for a smoke. Would you and your brother care to join me in my Library shortly? I will supply the tobacco this time. Shall we say three-quarters past the hour? That should be sufficient time for you to change into your smoking clothes.”
“Of course, your highness.” replied Raskolf.
“Splendid.” said the Prince, “I should like to hear more of those fanciful tales of yours!”
“That’s our religion.” Muttered Raskolf, as the Prince sauntered casually away from them down the path.
“Watch this, brother.” said Rhodi, “If I throw this apple core over my shoulder, someone will run out and pick it up.”
“They wear special clothes for smoking?” Raskolf grumbled.
“Lookit!” giggled Rhodi, “Here he comes! He’s going to use a handkerchief to pick it up too!”
“The Prince has already seen me in both of my shirts. What now?”
“They even pick up after the animals.” said Rhodi.
“Maybe if I turn the feasting shirt inside out?” mumbled Raskolf.
“That’s a stupid idea, Raskolf.”
“Oh, so you really were listening to me.”
Just outside of the keep, Elise was perched upon a fence with the youngest Aldorian Prince. She was wearing her favorite dress. It was the fancy one that Freya had given her at Davon’s Reach; The one that she wasn’t supposed to get dirty. Elise and the little Prince had been playing all morning. Unlike their parents, the children were spared of any paranoid misconceptions and, in fact, neither of them was familiar with the word “racism”, let alone the concept. They had been getting along splendidly since they met. While their folks had been bowing and scraping and pretending not to be afraid of each other, the kids had simply introduced themselves by first name. It only took about two seconds for them to decide that they were friends and run off holding hands.
Now, Elise was marveling at the little Prince’s horse. She had never seen anything like it. Horses were exceptionally rare in Mardrun, and the tiny, brown, scruffy, short-legged wild horses that she had seen in her homeland looked nothing like this animal. The Prince’s horse was twice as tall, in the eyes of a child, at least. It had a sleek, muscular coat of short black fur that shone like obsidian in the sun. Its mane was neatly braided, and its tail immaculately brushed. The horse had huge hooves, with feathery black fetlocks. He moved like a god. Elise was in love.
“What’s his name?” she stammered, convinced that this little boy had captured the Moon-horse himself, like the Watchwolf Hero Agnon had done in the sagas.
“Midnight.” replied the little Prince.
“Midnight.” Whispered Elise. “I think Midnight… I think Midnight might be the legendary Moon-horse of Luna.”
“That’s stupid. He’s just a black horse.”
“It’s not stupid. It’s true! There is a magic horse that makes the moon rise every night.”
“That’s stupid. He’s just a horse, Elise. Horses aren’t magic.”
“He is not just a horse! He is a god!”
“He isn’t so great. I can’t even ride him cause he’s too crazy.”
“Maybe you aren’t important enough.” muttered Elise.
“Nothing.” she sighed, “Nevermind.”
Well, now we’ve seen him. You want to play hide and seek again, Elise?”
“No.” she said, staring into the animals eyes.
“What? Oh, come on. Let’s go. I let you see the horse.” whined the little Prince.
“No, thank you.” whispered Elise.
“Awww, come on!” He pouted.
“Okfineyouhide.” She replied too quickly for proper punctuation.
“Great!” shouted the little Prince as he ran off.
Elise didn’t try to find him. For the next couple of hours, he was quite proud of himself, thinking that he had won.
Raskolf and Rhodi exchanged clothing with a couple of Longfang warriors, who had attended as part of the security detail. They weren’t fancy, but at least they were different clothes, and clean. The two brothers were surprised to find that by smoking clothes, the Prince had apparently meant pajamas. They met him in the Library at the prescribed time and found him in his robe and slippers.
“Tell me, Ambassador,” said the Prince, “What is the meaning of your title?”
“I am the Voice of the Watchwolves. I speak for the Clan, under the authority of the High Priestesses of both Luna and Sol. Wherever I go, I am accompanied by the Eyes and the Ears.”
“So you are more than an emissary. You actually speak with the authority of your Clan.” said the Prince. “You are no mere messenger. You are actually important.”
“It is my burden to bear.” replied Raskolf.
“Very interesting.” The Prince said, blowing out smoke rings that seemed to hang about his head for an unusually long time.
“And how did you come to acquire such a position?” he asked.
“I was assigned the title of the Voice of the Watchwolves by my High Priestess, Anjan Ravensmark, to whom I am warder and mate. I am her personal bodyguard. I follow her by day and sleep with her at night. She is mother to my daughter, Elise.”
“Ah, so you were selected by her. How did you win such an honor? Was it trial by combat? Did you have to perform quests and do valiant deeds in her name to win her favor? Please. Tell me of your errantries.”
Raskolf glanced at his brother. Rhodi patted him on the shoulder and poured him a drink.
“I was once the leader of an elite war pack called the Tundra Wolves.” Raskolf said, “Only the best warriors from all across the Ulven Nation were allowed membership. We belonged to no one pack or clan. We went where we were needed. Fighting the Mordok was our life.”
“I see, so you earned the favor of your Lady through military service. You are a war hero.” Said the Prince
“No.” replied Raskolf. “I was an incompetent leader and I got the Tundra Wolves wiped out. I entered into the service of Anjan Ravensmark because I ran out of money to pay my blood debts to the families of the Tundra Wolves. She picked me to be her Warder and gave me the responsibility of serving as her diplomat by personally representing her.”
The Prince choked on his pipe smoke and desperately gestured for Rhodi to pour him a drink.
“Yeah,” said Rhodi, as he filled the Prince’s goblet, “Anjan hasn’t been the same since her head injury. My brother left that part out.”
“My good man!” coughed the Prince, “That is not something I would share so openly with people you are supposed to impress. You are representing your Clan. You said so yourself. Perhaps I gave you too much credit as a politician and a diplomat!”
“With all due respect, your highness, I disagree. My people are all about honor. I’ve just proven to you my sincerity and trustworthiness. I keep no secrets. A man without secrets is a man who cannot be blackmailed. I said it before, your highness. The Ulven do not run from their problems, we run towards them. Sometimes, even wise men have to learn things the hard way. I like to believe that my Priestess recognizes that.”
“Fascinating! I do believe that I am beginning to understand how you people think.”
“Good, but personally I find myself mystified by humanity, so I cannot say the same.”
The wine began to flow. Soon, Rhodi and the Prince were engaged in a deeply philosophical conversation about the wisdom of making mistakes, or turning mistakes into wisdom, or something like that. Raskolf wasn’t really listening, let alone participating. He was somewhere else entirely, reliving his regrets. It is said that the Ulven burn their dead and never look back. The ghosts of their past are not spoken to, nor are they looked for. This is mainly a religious taboo, but it extends metaphorically into the way that they live their lives. They run. They run ahead, and never look back. Raskolf knew better, but he couldn’t help himself.
“In a way,” he thought, “running forward is kind of like running away from your past.”
“Well, brother,” said Rhodi, “You won’t put much distance between you if you carry it on your shoulders like that.”
Raskolf gritted his teeth as he realized he’d said it aloud. He nodded and put down his drink. He must have had more than he realized if his tongue was that loose.
“Gentlemen,” slurred the Prince, “speaking of running after things, I would like to personally invite you to join me for a fox hunt tomorrow.”
Ylsa Stormherald had been sparring with one of the Longfangs when she’d noticed the little Prince leaving the clearing which held the Aldorian Keep. She was annoyed that she wasn’t allowed to smoke with the men-folk. She was pretty certain that there were all kinds of interesting stories being told by the fireside. Human society baffled her. Why was she denied entry into the Library simply because she had different plumbing than the guys? What the heck were they doing in there anyway that they didn’t allow females? It had to be something embarrassing. Maybe they were flapping their plumbing around. She’d heard that politicians did that when they got together. If that was the case, then she was actually pretty glad that she wasn’t a part of it. After a couple hours of sparring with the Longfangs, the Watchwolves, and some Aldorian Soldiers, she was starting to get bored, but then a swordsman in fancy fluffy clothes showed up. He was tall and lean, with long dark hair tied back in a practical, yet elegant fashion. The tall dark stranger had a meticulous goatee framing his charmingly lopsided grin.
“Young Lady,” he said, bowing and removing his hat, “you have set my poor heart all out of rhythm, for your grace is incomparable. Please, I beg thee, help me to get back into time by doing me the favor of this next dance.”
The newcomer threw off his cloak with a theatrical flourish. Ylsa was delighted to see that he, like her, was a practitioner of the two-blade style.
“Well, that was cheesy.” thought Ylsa, who found the gentleman’s posture to be something reminiscent of a skinny weasel holding leather punching needles. “Still, this may at least prove interesting.”
“Very well.” said she. “I’ll lead.”
“Your highness,” said Rhodi, mimicking his brother and slapping him on the back, “I am terribly sorry, but unfortunately, we must respectfully and politely decline your invitation. We seem to have neglected to bring any hunting clothes. Ha! That was slick brother. All this talk about honesty and you can’t bring yourself to just tell the Prince that neither of us knows how to ride a horse!”
“Well, it will be terribly obvious tomorrow now, won’t it?” said Raskolf, “I can’t believe he summoned his tailor to measure us on the spot. This is going to be embarrassing.”
“I can’t believe these lunatics take horses into the forest. That is like waving a steak in front of the Mordok. It’s a wonder they haven’t been attacked yet.
“Maybe I should have said that it was against our religion to hunt foxes.” Mumbled Raskolf.
“It’s just one fox.” said Rhodi.
“That hardly seems fair.”
“That wouldn’t have worked either.” Said Rhodi, “He’d just hunt something else instead, probably a boar.”
“I’d feel better about that. At least you can eat a boar. What in Gaia’s name do you do with a dead fox?”
The little Prince was feeling quite smug. He had gotten his leggings wet, but the bridge out by the creek was the perfect hiding place. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been there, or even how long Elise had counted for, but he was pretty sure that he had totally stumped her. He hadn’t seen or heard any sign of her. After a while though, he started to get bored. It was his turn. Maybe he should go find Elise so they could switch off and she could try hiding. He’d clearly won this round anyway, and it was starting to get dark. The sun hadn’t set, but the moon was visible. He was just about to climb out from under the bridge when he heard footsteps. The little Prince froze. It was Elise. The little Prince silently backed into the shadow of the foot-bridge.
“Where are you?” she whimpered.
Elise slid down the embankment of the creek. She was just a few feet from the little Prince, but couldn’t see him in the encroaching darkness.
“I can’t believe I lost him.” She sobbed to herself. “They’re gonna kill me.”
Elise kicked a pebble into the water under the bridge and cried.
“Elise,” said the little Prince, coming out of his hiding place, “It’s ok. I’m right here. I’m not lost.”
“Oh.” said Elise, “It’s you. Actually, you aren’t the one I was looking for.”
The light was failing, but students of the Aldorian duelist had lit a ring of torches so that all could witness the clinic he was teaching. Ylsa had the best seat in the house, so to speak. She was exhausted, but she couldn’t stop now. She was learning more from this sparring match than she had in months of study with her packmates. Things were happening too fast for Ylsa to really see a lot of what she was doing, but she could hear the fight quite well. Typically a swordfight with the Ulven sounded like the slow clanging of a smithy. This fight sounded more like the hectic scraping, chopping, and whisking of a busy kitchen.
“No!” the Duelist panted, “Not like that, you are over-reaching. Here, allow me to demonstrate what you just did. Did you see that? A simple feint and I could have thrown you completely off balance. Watch me make the same mistake and see if you can capitalize on it. Excellent! There you go! Brilliant. Now, we lock up! Ahah! Oh, but I am stronger than you. Remember what to do? Excellent! You learn quickly, but I can tell that you are getting tired. Ahah! And here we go on one, two, and three! Step! Dip! Parry!”
Ylsa was so out of breath that she couldn’t have asked him to stop even if she’d wanted to.
A sizeable crowd had gathered, but it was strangely quiet because everyone was straining to hear what the Duelist had to say. He wasn’t shouting. Even though he was panting, he was calmly talking to Ylsa as if the conversation was personal. He was quietly coaching her as they fought.
“What do you mean you weren’t looking for me?” shouted the little Prince. “I’ve been sitting in a puddle under a bridge all evening waiting for you!”
“Sorry.” said Elise, “I actually forgot all about you.”
“I heard you, though. You were talking to yourself. Don’t lie. You were too looking for me!”
“No, I wasn’t!” Elise shouted back, picking up a stick and waving it menacingly.
“Oh yeah, well then who were you looking for? Your stupid magical moon horse?” The little Prince shouted.
“GRAH!” shouted the painted face of the Mordok scout as it lunged down over the edge of the bridge and grabbed at the children.
“EEP!” screamed the little Prince.
“EEP!” screamed Elise.
“YIPE!” yelped the Mordok scout as Elise reflexively jammed the stick into its eye.
Before the little Prince could comprehend what had just happened, Elise was dragging him through the forest by the hand, and they were both running as fast as they could, with the Mordok scout pounding down the trail behind them. The Mordok was clad in primitive camouflage made from burlap scraps, and he wore a fox skin hat. He was armed with a spear and a crude bone-knife. He wasn’t armored.
“If only I had my sword,” thought Elise, “we might have a chance.”
Her father had taught her how to hamstring a Mordok. It wouldn’t kill the monster, but it would sure keep it from chasing them. As the children ran, the forest became darker and darker, until they couldn’t see where they were going. Elise and the little Prince ran straight off the edge of a ridge, and tumbled to the bottom in a tangle of arms and legs. Elise blacked out for a second, or at least she thought she did, but she wasn’t sure since it was so dark anyway. They were out in the open now, out of the trees. Suddenly, her eyes adjusted, and she saw the little Prince lying in a muddy grass-stained heap a few feet away. Elise didn’t look any better, and her good dress that Freya gave her was filthy. Elise didn’t have time to worry about that right now though. She crawled over to the little Prince and shook him awake. As the children were just coming to their senses, the Mordok scout slid down the embankment and raised his spear over his head. He came to a stop within arms reach of the stunned children, bellowed a fearsome war-cry, and prepared to strike. Elise and the little Prince screamed, but their voices were drowned out by the angry whinny of a huge black stallion that suddenly reared upon the plain, silhouetted by the moon.
The Mordok scout froze. Horse is the Mordok’s favorite meat. He looked to the horse. He looked back to the children. Then he looked to the horse. The handsomely muscled horse stamped the earth impatiently. The Mordok scout licked his chops and turned his back on the skinny little children, visions of barbeque dancing in his primitive mind. He drew back his spear and took aim at the delicious black horse. Just as his spear was at the point of release, he felt a sudden stabbing pain in his thigh as the children scrambled past him. He’d been stuck with his own skinning knife! The spear went wide of the horse. The scout stumbled and placed a clawed hand over the wound in his thigh. He regained his footing just in time to see the black horse lie down so that the children could climb upon its back. The Mordok scout howled in frustration and hobbled after his prey, his rage allowing him to push through the pain, and even break into a run.
“Cram!” shouted Elise, looking back over her shoulder, “That crummy knife didn’t cut deep enough!”
“Why is my horse running loose?” yelled the little Prince. “Elise?!”
Elise didn’t answer him, but she smiled sheepishly in the moonlight and swallowed hard. She knew she was in big trouble if they got out of this alive.
Elise and the little Prince held on for dear life, but the horse was very careful not to lose them. He knew where he was going. He broke into a gentle canter, and then slowed to a trot as he entered the firelight of the outer keep’s earthworks.
Ylsa and the Duelist were still locked in combat when the murmurs of confusion began rippling through their audience. The two of them allowed themselves to be distracted just long enough to see that the people were parting to let a black horse carrying two children trot regally through the circle as if he owned the place. The horse passed through and headed in the direction of the royal stables. The circle was suddenly silent. Not even a cricket chirp.
Ylsa was about to say something when the silence was suddenly broken.
“GRAH!” screamed the crazed Mordok scout, as he leapt down into the circle from the top of the earthworks.
He was covered in blood and mud, one of his eyes was swollen shut, and he had a nasty laceration on the back of his thigh. Within seconds, several fights had broken out between the duelist’s students, soldiers, and Ulven warriors as to who was to get to kill him. His last thoughts may have had something in common with those of a small mammal which has just been dropped alive into a nest of hungry eaglets.
“Elise!” said Raskolf, “What on earth happened to you? What have you done to your dress? Your Auntie Freya gave that to you!”
“Sorry, father.” whimpered Elise. “We were playing out in the forest and…”
“Wait, Elise. You left the keep? Where in Gaia’s name is Harlok? I told him to watch you today!”
“Um, he said he couldn’t.”
“He did?” said Raskolf.
“He said he couldn’t stay.” said Elise. “He and Magrat were just here to drop off that message from the Bastards, but they had to leave.”
“Wait.” Raskolf said, scratching his head, “Is that what he said?”
“Oh. I thought he said… Well, never mind. So who’s been watching you kids today?”
“Who’s Midnight?” asked Raskolf.
“The Moon-horse of Luna.”
Raskolf raised an eyebrow.
“Go wash up, Elise. I think you are in trouble.”
Stepping out into the hall, Raskolf spied the little Prince’s nurse walking him down the hallway. The boy was covered in grass stains, mud, and blood. His dirty face was streaked from tears. When he saw Raskolf, he averted his eyes. The old nurse scowled as they passed in the hallway.
“Oh yeah.” muttered Raskolf, “Big trouble.”