We have a rule in our house. Every year at Christmas, every member of our family has to make a Christmas present for every other member of our family. This is how my book got started. For the past two years, my “made” present has been a Sneax and Elaina Emboo short story for my girls. I’m writing a short story this year as well, but this time it’s not for my girls, it’s for my wife Sally.
As before, this story is based on our families’ Dungeons & Dragons characters. We played a lot of D&D as a family while we were up at the cabin in Maine, and in the course of that experience, Sally and I invented new characters. These we named Wolfgang and Salamatu, and they were meant to better reflect our true-to-life personalities as expressed via the fantasy of Wanderhaven. Sadly, we’ve not had time to play any actual D&D since we got back, so this story is the very first time these characters have seen the light of day.
This story doesn’t yet have a title. Right now I’m calling it “Wolfgang and Salamatu”, but I doubt that’s how it will stay.
Wolfgang & Salamatu
Chapter 1: The Hunt (Part 1)
She’s standing alongside her horse.
The sun clears the treetops above Gaevin’s Grove, and despite the throngs of courtiers and the stamping of nearby horse hooves, Wolfgang cannot take his eyes from her. Long golden hair spills down her back, lit like a nimbus of fire by the sun as it shines down through the trees above. Apollo’s light crowns her in glory, though she is by far the least elevated of birth amongst the retinue. A slight point at the tops of her ears denotes mixed fey heritage, as does the very shape of her figure. She is as slender and athletic as a dryad but as curvaceous as a low-born bar wench. Fact is, she could command a fortune as a courtesan, but she is dressed in leggings and riding leathers, and she pays more attention to her bow than to the milling men gathered conspicupously around beside her. If she has noticed their regard, she’s been careful not to show it.
Her name is Salamatu.
Wolfgang knows this--and much besides--but he has never spoken to her. There is something about her that keeps men at bay. It must be a force of nature given the rapacious appetites of the King’s court.
“You like what you see?”
Wolfgang turns to find his friend Puck grinning. He shrugs and tries to muster some dignity. “She sits a fine horse, that much is certain.”
Puck’s grin grows. “I doubt that’s all she does well.”
“Don’t be crude, Puck. She’s come from nothing to join the King’s retinue, and I’ve never heard a cross word spoken of her. That alone is more than you have accomplished in a lifetime.”
“Aye, ‘tis true,” Puck replies. His frown is mocking, but he claps Wolfgang on the shoulder. “Unexplored territory. A rare find amongst this crowd.”
“Gods, Puck, you’re incorrigible.”
Puck shakes his head. “I’m a realist. I’ll bet that she is one, too.”
“So was my father,” Wolfgang replies. He turns to Puck, and there’s an edge of bitterness in his words. “Look where that got him.”
“Touch,” Puck replies, hand to breast. “But in fairness, they also gave your father a medal and renamed the palace square after him. That must count for something.”
“I’ll be sure to ask my mother next time Father’s creditors come calling.”
“God of morning,” Puck swears, “the sainted Wolfgang Amadeus has wounded me and left me bleeding in the grove.” He steps forward, and his tone becomes serious. “So that’s it then? You’re just going to stand here and not even say anything?”
“What is there to say?”
“You’re a patrician and a man of learning, Wolfie. I’m sure you can think of something.”
Wolfgang sighs. “I have nothing to offer her.”
“She has nothing now!” Puck cries. “Gods, you are an idiot. The truth is that your affections will change nothing for her either way. As you say, the woman has come from nothing to become the King’s Ranger, and doubtless, she already understands the realities of the thing. Unlike you, she does not strike me as stupid. All I’m saying is, take her to dinner and see where it leads.”
Wolfgang looks back at Salamatu. He wants to sigh but knows how it will sound. At last he says, “It can lead nowhere. That is my entire point.”
“For the love of Zeus, man, I’m not telling you to marry the poor girl. Just woo her a little.”
“To what end? So that I can take her virtue?”
“What virtue? Her mother was a whore!”
“And my father was a drunk,” Wolfgang replies. He can hear the acid in his voice, but he cannot contain it and does not care to try. Instead he turns away, slipping a foot into the stirrup of his horse. “Good day to you, Puck. I’ll see you after the hunt.”
Before Puck can reply, Wolfgang has mounted and kicked his horse into motion. In the distance, horns call the hunt to order.
The hunt itself is endlessly tedious. Wolfgang had not wanted to go, but his mother insisted, and that was the end of it. For the honor of the House. “One does not turn down an invitation from the king,” she’d said.
It had been a fair point.
Wolfgang sighs, but there is nothing for it. House Amadeus has a sterling reputation from ancient days, and his father’s actions at Gaevin’s Grove have cemented its legacy for the next century at least. However, unless there is another war, it is extremely unlikely that Wolfgang will ever escape from beneath his father’s shadow, and the truth is that Wolfgang has no interest in the glories of war. Both the king and Wolfgang’s mother would prefer it otherwise, but in the end, the choice is not theirs. Though the king may disapprove, he can hardly force a Royal Commission onto an unwilling candidate, even one from a House as well-reputed as Amadeus.
Still, the King has no choice but to invite the patriarch of House Amadeus along to court functions. To do otherwise would risk snubbing the House--a move that no one wants. It would be better if Wolfgang’s father remained alive to accept the honors given in the name of his service, but in the end, the former patron of Amadeus gave his life to the Lord of Wines. There is nothing that anyone can do about it, not even the King. This leaves the task of upholding the House’s fortunes to Wolfgang. He must at least maintain the forms of nobility on his House’s behalf.
House Amadeus is penniless; honor is its last remaining asset. Like it or not, Wolfgang must do what he can to safeguard that asset for future generations.
At least there is Salamatu. As the King’s Ranger, it has fallen to her to choose their trail. The King has decided to hunt wild boar this day, so Salamatu must also have gone ahead to look for a den of the creatures towards which she can lead the King’s party, but Wolfgang has no idea when she could have done this. Still, she seems to know where she is going.
The hunt has been in the saddle for hours, slowly winding its way north along a shepherd’s trail that has led into the foothills above Wanderhaven’s northern outskirts. Salamatu sits steady astride her horse, a large wolfhound out to her front, her horse inexorably picking its way ever higher along the trail. Behind her, the King’s retinue is strung out and bedraggled, ridden into the dirt by the combination of the pace of the ride and its shear duration. The King himself is in fine spirits--Wolfgang privately believes that he enjoys watching his courtiers melt in the late summer sun--but the rest of the party has fallen into ill spirits. Lords Foghorn and Winegarten are bickering over the size of the stag they took at the last of the King’s hunts; most of the rest of the party simply looks bedraggled and exhausted. Even the dogs look tired. When the hunt started, there was much barking and canine enthusiasm. Now the beasts look merely whipped and bedraggled. Wolfgang feels it, too, though he at least has been smart enough to bring a large broad-brimmed hat to keep the sun off of his face. It helps that he is half the age of most of the men of the court and that his father has drilled him in the saddle since the day he learned to walk.
At last Salamatu reaches the shade of a small stand of trees. She turns and looks back at the members of the hunt, frowning when she sees that only the King and his bodyguard have followed her closely. Wolfgang is not far behind, but the rest of the hunt is spread along the hill as it falls away into the distance below. There is a treeline along the ridge up ahead. Within lies the promise of shade.
Salamatu points towards the trees. “Your Grace, there is a creek just beyond this ridge. I suggest we water the horses and then let the dogs take the lead. There was boar-sign here yesterday, and I cannot imagine that the creatures have gone all that far in a mere twenty-four hours.”
The King inclines his head, allows his bodyguards to ride on towards the trees. Wolfgang pulls even with Salamatu in the King’s wake, and he cannot help but comment. “You rode here yesterday as well?”
He is incredulous.
Salamatu smiles, and it’s dazzling. “Indeed, my lord. The King wanted boar, so it fell to me to find some.”
“But that’s unbelievable! It’s no wonder you’ve risen so fast in the court. I can think of no one who would have done likewise in your place. And please, call me ‘Wolfgang’. I am hardly a lord.”
“I know who you are, Wolfgang. I was simply trying to be polite. And as for the court, well, it is full over over-bred puppies and lecherous old scoundrels. Neither deign to do their duty well, even at the express will of the King himself. However, their faults are not something with which I need concern myself.”
Was that a barb? Wolfgang decides that it was, and it brings a smile to his face. “Touch, my lady. No doubt this is why His Grace had you set such a punishing pace this morning--to point up his court’s laziness.”
“I had heard you were intelligent. It is good to see that the court does not always lie.”
Wolfgang inclines his head and rides towards the shade ahead.
He likes this girl. He was infatuated before, but that was admiration from afar. The truth, however, is better than the illusion. She has spirit and a quick wit. She is irreverent. It’s a promising combination.
That truth only depresses him, however, when he considers the reality of her station.
Wolfgang’s horse passes beneath the canopy of trees and snorts in relief. He feels it himself and dismounts gingerly, achy from so much time spend in the saddle. Sweat covers his brow and runs down the small of his back, making his clothes stick. Even the weight of Commitment, the sacred sword of House Amadeus, feels heavy at his side. He sighs, and his horse snorts again before pulling on the reigns towards the sound of the stream bubbling below. Wolfgang takes a long pull from his waterskin and then lets the horse lead him towards the sound of water. Other horses are there, and Wolfgang’s joins them, leaving its rider alone with the King and his retinue.
“Your Grace,” Wolfgang says. He dips his head.
The King inclines his head in turn. “Glad to see you’re holding up under the strain, Wolfie,” the King replies. When next he speaks, there is a certain proprietary pride in his voice. “She sets a fine pace, does she not?”
“Indeed, your Grace. I told her as much already.”
“I’ll bet you did.” The King’s smile is knowing. “Finding her was a stroke of luck from the gods. Some of my advisors argued against adding a person of such low birth to the court--and a woman, to boot!--but I overruled them. Do you know why?”
“No, your Grace,” Wolfgang says. But this is a lie. A sinking feeling settles in his chest.
“Because part of a leader’s job is to recognize talent!” the King cries. “To put his people in a position to succeed. Advisors advise, aye, and sometimes we must heed their counsel, but a true leader--a true King--must know when to listen and when to decide for himself.”
“Aye, your Grace.”
“You look uncomfortable,” the King observes. “You must know already who taught this me this truth.”
“I do, Sire.”
“You father was a great man, Wolfgang. He gave his life in service to this kingdom. You must see that.”
“I do, your Grace. It’s just--”
“It’s just nothing,” the King replies. He says it in a tone that indicates that the matter is closed to discussion. “You wear the past like a shroud, Wolfie, and it weighs you down in a way that your father would never have allowed. You should not let it consume you so. The Kingdom needs House Amadeus. It needs you.”
Wolfgang hears the dismissal in the King’s tone, and he knows that he should let this go. There are other courtiers approaching now, and a public argument with the King will serve no one. Still, he hears himself say, “With respect, your Grace, my father was nothing if not consumed by the past. I am merely trying to find my own way.”
The King frowns, and for a moment, there is anger in his face. But he looks up and sees the courtiers coming, and then the anger slips away, as though it were never there. Only his eyes are still alight with it when he says, “This discussion is not over, Wolfgang. We will speak of this again.”
“Aye, your Grace,” Wolfgang replies. There is nothing else he can say. He inclines his head and backs two steps away before turning. It is only when he hears the voice of Lord Foghorn hailing the King that he realizes that his own heart has started racing.