I don't usually post a whole chapter at once. I'm doing it this time because I wanted to get some feedback on the full flow of the idea; I wanted folks to see how it all comes together in a single sitting. For what it's worth, my goal for this story is a little different than it has been on some of the other Wanderhaven tales. If the "Sneax & Elaina Emboo" stories are campfire stories told about the fantasy versions of my daughters, this story is more a fantasy retelling of my marriage. It's my story, and it's Sally's story.
We met and got married. This is our story, but it didn't happen exactly like this, obviously.
Wolfgang & Salamatu
Chapter 1: The Hunt
The sun clears the treetops, and despite the throng of courtiers gathering for the hunt and the stamping of their horses nearby, Wolfgang is staring. He simply cannot make himself turn away. Though she is surrounded on every side, she may as well be standing by herself, a statue consecrated to some forgotten sylvan goddess, alone atop her horse at the edge of the clearing. Long golden hair spills down her back, lit like a halo beneath the sunlight streaming down through the trees. She is by far the least elevated by birth amongst the royal retinue, but still Apollo’s light crowns her in glory. A slight point at the tips of her ears hints at the fey side her heritage, as does the shape of her figure. She is both gladiator-hard and as curvaceous as a bar wench. It is a mesmerizing combination.
Wolfgang at last turns away, but soon enough he is back, watching her again from afar. She could command a fortune as a courtesan, he thinks, but instead she dresses in riding leathers and submits to the indignities of the hunt. She pays more attention to her bow than to the men milling around conspicuously beside her. If she has noticed their regard at all, she has been careful not to show it.
Her name is Salamatu, and there is something about her that keeps men at bay. It must be a truly powerful primal force given the rapacious appetites of the court.
I’m embarrassing myself, he realizes.
“You like what you see?”
Wolfgang turns to find his friend Puck, who is grinning. Puck is dressed in a loose purple doublet and hose, which means that unlike Wolfgang, he’s not going on the day’s hunt. He’s come simply to needle Wolfgang about it.
Wolfgang looks down and tries to muster some dignity. He hopes that he’s not blushing too badly. “She certainly sits a fine horse. Just seeing her almost makes this stupidity worthwhile.”
“I’ll bet she rides well, too,” Puck replies dryly, “depending on who she’s mounting.”
“Gods,” Wolfgang mutters, “don’t be crude. I’ve never heard a vulgar word about her. In this court,that alone is a feat of note.”
“Aye,” Puck replies. His frown mocks, but the way he claps Wolfgang on the shoulder is friendly and encouraging. “Unexplored territory is a rare find indeed in this crowd.”
“Wonderful. I should write that down.”
Puck shrugs. “It’s my fault that the court is a bunch of depraved sycophants? I’m a realist. Maybe she’s one, too, come to that. You never know ‘til you ask.”
“I don’t see how that helps.”
“Don’t you?” Puck sighs theatrically. “No, I suppose you probably don’t. The sainted Wolfgang Amadeus, patron of the great House of the same name, a man who can no more woo a woman for pleasure than he could fall upon his sword. Alas for virgins everywhere, who would die unloved and alone were it up to you.”
“You’re practically their patron saint.”
“I’m no saint. You know I’m not.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I’m not the one putting on airs now that he’s become patriarch of his House.”
Here we go, Wolfgang thinks. He turns away and starts checking the fit on his horse’s saddle. “Is there a point to all this?”
“You’ve been watching that poor girl all morning, Wolfie, and now you’re just gonna stand here and not even say anything? That’s pathetic.”
“What is there to say?”
“You’re a patrician, my friend, and a man of learning. Patriarch of a noble House, even. Surely you can think of something.”
“Like what? I have nothing to offer her, Puck, and you well know it.”
“She has nothing now!” Puck cries. “Gods, you are an idiot. Your affections will change nothing for her either way. Can’t you see that? The woman has come from the gutter. Doubtless, she understands the realities of the thing. But unlike you, she does not strike me as stupid. All I’m saying is, take her to dinner and see where it leads.”
“It can lead nowhere. That is the whole gods-damned point.”
“That is not the point! For the love of Zeus, man, I’m not telling you to marry the poor girl, but this whole hangdog thing you’ve got going has got to stop. Yes, your father is gone. Yes, you are the patriarch of your House. Yes, you have creditors coming out of your ears, and you may even have to submit to an ill-considered marriage if the dowry is big enough. None of that means that you ought to crawl into a hole and pull the hole in on top of yourself. It’s unseemly.”
“All I have is my name, Puck. The honor of my House, earned at great cost. That is what I have to protect.”
“You see? This is what I’m talking about! You sound ridiculous when you talk like that. Like a grand duke or something defending his baronial rights to some poor burgher’s farmland. Your father is dead, Wolfie, but you are alive. You have to live.”
“No.” Wolfgang sighs. “You said it yourself, Puck. I have to marry. That’s not the same thing at all.”
“Fine,” Puck replies, finally exasperated. “Enjoy the hunt then. It will be thrilling, without doubt. Make sure to give the king my regards.”
“Oh, for the love of…” A horn calls in the distance, and Wolfgang turns back towards his saddle. He grabs the pommel, steps into a stirrup, and slowly begins pushing himself up onto his horse. “Gods, I swear the worst part of my father’s passing is these idiotic outings. You don’t know what you’re missing, my friend. But you will someday…”
“Oi.” Puck untangles the reins and hands them up. His smile is broad and gloating. “Like I said, tell his Grace that I said hello. Puck Winstead, at his service. Try to remember, yeah?”
“Just get out of here. I’ve got work to do.”
The hunt is predictably tedious, of course. Wolfgang wanted to skip it, but his mother insisted, and what was there to say to a grieving widow? “One does not turn down an invitation from the king,” she’d argued.
It had been a fair point.
House Amadeus has owned a sterling reputation since ancient days, and Wolfgang’s father’s legacy has ensured that this reputation will continue for at least another generation absent some serious missteps by Wolfgang himself. Sir Maximus Amadeus was once an intimate of the king and was named commander of the Wanderhaven Home Guard while still in his prime. He led all Kingdom forces at the Battle of Gaevin’s Grove and was accounted a great commander by all who served with him. He was a man that other men looked up to, even better men of nobler birth. Against this shadow, Wolfgang feels like a fraud. Or a placeholder, perhaps. Unfortunately, the former patron of Amadeus gave his life to the Lord of Wines when his duty was done, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it now. Sir Maximus’s death has left a hole in his House that his son has not yet figured out how to fill.
In fairness, the king has tried to do what he can. He would gladly give me a commission of my own in the Home Guards. That wouldn’t see Father’s creditors paid off, perhaps, but it would be something. But even thinking about it sends Wolfgang staring off into space. He finds himself drifting aimlessly, letting his horse move of its own accord while his thoughts cling stubbornly to his father’s grave back in the city. Grief is a pit, and though Wolfgang knows that he needs to climb back into the sun, the climb itself is daunting.
I’m just not my father, Wolfgang thinks at last. He wants to scream it. They all want me to be something that I’m not. Someone that I’m not. If I’ll never be the commander that Father was, I’ll also not drink myself to death before I’m fifty, either. That’s got to count for something.
But it doesn’t. Not really.
The King has no choice but to invite House Amadeus’s patriarch along to court functions, unfortunately. To do otherwise would risk snubbing the House—a move that no one wants. It would be better if Father were here to accept the honors given in the name of his service, of course. But he isn’t, and honor must still be upheld. Amadeus is penniless; honor is its last remaining asset. Thus, Wolfgang’s task as patriarch is to safeguard that asset for future generations.
At least there is Salamatu. As King’s Ranger, it has fallen to her to choose the court’s route. The king decided to hunt boar, so Salamatu must also have gone ahead at some point to look for a den of the creatures towards which she can lead the king’s party now. Wolfgang has no idea when she could have done this, but she seems to know where she is going. Compared to the rest of the court, that makes her a genius.
By the time the sun has passed its apex, the hunt has been in the saddle for hours. The court slowly winds its way up along a shepherd’s trail, heading into the foothills above the King’s Forest. Salamatu sits steady astride her horse, and a large wolfhound lopes a few paces out to her front. The ground has become rocky and more open over the course of the last hour, but Salamatu’s horse continues inexorably to pick its way higher and higher into the hills. 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 sheer, overwhelming 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 bicker over the size of the stag they took at the last of the King’s hunts; most of the rest can do nothing but slump in their saddles and suck vainly at long-dried waterskins.
Even the dogs look exhausted. When the hunt started, there was much barking and canine enthusiasm. Now the beasts trot along sullenly and throw themselves to the ground at even a hint of a rest. Wolfgang feels it too, though he at least has been smart enough to bring along a broad-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off of his face. It helps that he is half the age of most of the court and that his father has drilled him in the saddle since the day he learned to walk. Still, there is no doubt that it has been a long ride, that he’ll be happy when it finally concludes.
At length, 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 much farther behind, but the rest of the hunt stretches in a long loose line down the trail. There is another tree line along a ridge ahead, however, so the worst part is likely over.
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 and allows his bodyguard to ride ahead. Wolfgang pulls even with Salamatu in the king’s wake. He cannot help but comment. “You rode here yesterday?”
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. As for the court, well, it is full to bursting with over-bred puppies and lecherous old scoundrels. Neither deigns to do their duty well, even at the express wish of the king himself. However, as I am a commoner, their faults are not something with which I need concern myself.”
“Touch, my lady. No doubt this is why His Grace had you set such a punishing pace—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. That truth only depresses him, however, when he considers the reality of her station. And of his own.
Wolfgang’s horse passes beneath the canopy of trees and snorts with relief. Wolfgang feels it himself and dismounts gingerly, achy from so much time spent sitting 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 hereditary sword of House Amadeus, feels heavy at his side. He sighs and stretches, and his horse snorts again before pulling on the reigns towards the sound of the stream bubbling up ahead. 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 guards.
“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. His next words carry a hint of proprietary pride. “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 replies. This can lead to nothing good…
“Part of a leader’s job is to recognize talent,” the King replies. “To put his subjects 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. Advisors don’t know everything. Sometimes it takes a man of power to force people to do what is in their own best interests.”
“Aye, your Grace.” Wolfgang has to force himself to meet the king’s eyes.
“You look uncomfortable,” the king observes. “I take it that you know already who taught this me this truth.”
“I can guess, 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 sternly. “You wear the past like a shroud, Wolfie, and it weighs you down in a way that your father would never have allowed. Don’t let it consume you. The Kingdom needs House Amadeus. It needs you. Yet you waste yourself.”
Wolfgang does not think that the business of House Amadeus is a waste, nor does he believe that his position in the city’s department of arcane engineering is a waste of time, either. But he knows that it’s folly to argue with his liege lord. The king would prefer that he accept a commission, and they both know it. However, there are courtiers approaching, and a public argument will serve no one. Still, Wolfgang 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.”
For a moment, anger flashes across the king’s face, but then he hears the coming courtiers, and his anger slips away. Only his eyes are alight when he says, “This discussion is not over, young man. Sometimes a lord must make choices that his vassals dislike. Remember that.”
“Aye, your Grace.” There is nothing else that Wolfgang can say. He inclines his head and backs two steps 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.
Time passes. Lunch is taken, and the courtiers’ spirits revive. The dogs lap at the water and play, slowly getting back their energy. The hunt begins gradually to revive itself. At length the King stands and belches, takes one last swig from a flagon of ale that his minions have produced from the gods-alone-know-where, and announces that it’s time—at last—to hunt some boar.
The hunt remounts, and the dogs are released. Canine bodies leap about like baby bullfrogs and then settle into a nose-by-nose search. This lasts less than a minute before the pack stumbles upon the scent. Communication is instinctive, and then the dogs bound as one into the woods. They are again crazy with canine enthusiasm. A horn is blown, and the king’s party follows. Boar is sighted—or at least the signs of boar. Men give a rousing shout, which Wolfgang ignores, and their horses disappear into the trees.
Wolfgang watches the hunt go with a grim kind of satisfaction. Though he is still hours from home, the day is at last on its reverse slope, an end has been sighted. More importantly, Wolfgang has allowed himself to be seen in conversation with his liege lord, so honor is satisfied. The actual mechanics of the hunt hold little interest for him, and it seems unlikely that his absence will be noted by any of the other lords. Most of their Houses make House Amadeus look like a visitor’s shack on the Noble Quarter’s poorest border.
This is just as well. If there was a chance of Wolfgang’s marrying one of their daughters, perhaps things would be different, but as it is, no true lord would ever consent to ally his House to one as penniless as Amadeus. Not in the absence of Wolfgang’s father, at any rate. Wolfgang’s bride-to-be must therefore come from some grasping, well-to-do merchant House, and if this makes an unhappy match—and how can it not?—no one of any import will likely notice or care, save perhaps for Wolfgang himself. Sadly, there is not another possibility that will see his father’s debts cleared. Wolfgang’s mother has made this plain at least once every day for the past six months.
Off to one side, Wolfgang sees Salamatu sitting with the large wolfhound he’d noticed before, gently scratching the beast’s ears. The hound itself is enormous. It looks a little like a shepherd but has longer hair, most of which is blonde, and it is as large as a fully grown mastiff. Like Wolfgang, Salamatu seems to care little for the actual hunt. She and her dog have both reclined on a rock that overlooks a short cliff behind them. Her horse is tethered nearby. The three together seem relaxed and content. They soak up the shade provided by a stand of beech and maple trees and give no notice to anything outside their circle. The trees give way a few feet over at the edge of the embankment, allowing an overlook of the valley below. Despite the view, Salamatu seems only to have eyes for her dog.
Wolfgang dismounts, but when Salamatu fails to look up, he finds himself stammering for something to say. “That is a, uh, very nice hound you have there. I saw you with him before, but I didn’t notice him back at the grove. Is he yours, or did you somehow charm him as we were riding up from the valley?”
Salamatu turns and looks at Wolfgang appraisingly, and for a moment, he wonders if he has made a mistake. Then she closes her eyes and leans back against the rock once more. “This is Zen. He’s… well, I guess you might say he’s my partner. He’s not real fond of crowds, though, which is why I left him alone when I went into the grove.” She sits up and eyes the dog. “Go say hello to Lord Wolfgang, Zen.”
“I told you, I’m not—”
Zen turns and pads forward. Left with no choice in the matter, Wolfgang looks down and sees both intelligence and wariness in the dog’s gaze. He forces himself to hold as still as he can. Zen weighs a hundred pounds at least, and he looks as though he could tear off a man’s arm in an instant. He looks like he might want to, Wolfgang thinks. Still, Wolfgang holds out a hand, hoping he appears more confident than he feels. She would never allow the dog to attack, surely? Zen pads forwards again, and Wolfgang steps forward to meet him—until suddenly the dog starts growling.
It is the only reason that any of them survive.
Wolfgang looks up in time to see a great hairy arm come crashing down through the trees, and then he is leaping forward, crashing into and through Salamatu, carrying them both in a heap down into the stream below. Salamatu shrieks and tries to push Wolfgang away, but instead they fall headlong into the water. Everything becomes a muddy tangle. Wolfgang rolls and scrambles, trying to get to his feet, to put himself between Salamatu and whatever it is that has just burst into the clearing. He reaches across and drags Commitment clear of its scabbard. A syllable of the ancient language of dragons passes his lips, and his power surges, wreathing his blade in deadly green flame.
Troll, he realizes.
The beast is standing there—hulking—fully fifteen feet tall and monstrously ill-proportioned. It has hairy grey skin and is grotesquely male, and its eyes bulge yellowly from beneath the massive promontory of its enormously sloped skull. Long monkey-like arms hang down from inhumanly broad shoulders, both arms and shoulders rippling with muscle and vein. Salamatu’s horse screams and rears, and one of the troll’s great hairy hands closes around its head and neck, sending the beast into a fit of panicked spasms. The troll growls as it pulls itself fully over the embankment, the sound like rock grinding at the base of a dwarven mine.
Wolfgang cries out in defiance, traces a sigil in the air, and speaks another word of power. Thunder cracks and detonates, exploding in the troll’s face and pushing it back. Salamatu’s horse screams again, stumbles, and goes down, but the troll neither notices nor cares. It turns to face Wolfgang, eyes narrowing as if it has only just noticed him. It bellows a war cry.
Despite himself, Wolfgang falls back a step.
As Wolfgang was dressing this morning, he thought briefly of his father. In deference to the heat, he’d chosen a loose cotton tunic and vest, knowing as he did that his father would never have approved. Sir Maximus Amadeus would have insisted on combat leathers at a minimum for a ride outside of Wanderhaven’s walls. “Chainmail would be better.” Wolfgang can hear it as though his father is standing there, speaking to him now. “Wearing it is good practice, and besides, a gentleman should be prepared for anything.”
Right as usual, Father.
For better or worse, though, Wolfgang and his father are not exactly the same kind of man. Sir Maximus fought his battles with strength and skill and steel. He possessed all three in rare abundance. He was an armor-clad rock at Gaevin’s Grove and on a hundred other battlefields besides, turning the tide of combat with the physical strength of his arm and with the outsized force of his personal magnetism. Compared to Sir Maximus’s cold steel competence, Wolfgang is a boy playing a sport meant for men.
Nevertheless, Wolfgang is all that’s left to stand for House Amadeus.
His skills are not his father’s, but he is far from helpless.
Wolfgang traces a sigil of protection in the air with the first two fingers of his off-hand. He speaks another word in the ancient language of dragons, and his sigil bursts to glittering life, becoming an eldritch shield as strong and steady as any creation forged of oak and steel. In his other hand, he can feel Commitment’s fiery anticipation for the coming fight.
“Come on then, ugly. What have you got for me?”
The troll surges forward, one arm slashing down, claws extended for a death-strike. Wolfgang pivots, blocks with his shield, and is thrown back by the massive force of the blow. He stumbles, tries to riposte and catches the claws of the troll’s hand with Commitment as it’s coming in for a follow-on strike. There is a sizzle, and the troll screams, swinging wildly with its other hand. Wolfgang again moves to block, but this time the troll connects solidly with the sigil-shield, launching Wolfgang bodily across the little clearing. He smacks his head against a tree trunk and loses an instant as sparks fly across his vision. Then the troll is upon him, bellowing again, both hands coming in to tear his head from his shoulders. Wolfgang has a final moment to be thankful that his lack of chainmail has not been the difference between life and death.
The troll stumbles and goes down to one knee before it can follow through. The hesitation is momentary, but it is enough to allow Wolfgang to roll away. Wolfgang gets back to his feet, looks, and sees that the troll has a pair of arrows in its right calf, that this is why it stumbled. Behind it, Salamatu is pulling another arrow from her quiver, knocking it, and drawing for another shot. She lets fly and takes the troll through the shoulder, again on the right side. Only then does Wolfgang realize that he’s lost concentration on his shielding spell. He’ll have to finish the fight with nothing more protective than his favorite cotton vest.
Looks like I should’ve worn that chainmail after all, Father.
Salamatu draws again, but by now the troll has turned to face her. It will take two long strides, and then she’s finished. No archer can face a troll in close combat. Wolfgang sees the troll struggle to its feet, and he can feel its rage like a palpable force. Then he’s diving forward, Commitment held in a reverse grip. The blade slams down, takes the troll fully through the back of its calf, green flames surging and sizzling with the smell of burnt meat. The troll bellows and whirls, mindlessly backhands Wolfgang away, but still the damage is done. Salamatu’s next arrow takes the beast through the neck. It stumbles. Wolfgang is slow to get back to his feet this time, but when he calls for it, Commitment comes flying back to his hand. His other hand comes up, two fingers extended, and he is about to trace a sigil that will call down a bolt from Zeus himself when he hears a horn bellow.
The hunt has returned.
The king sits on his charger, somehow already wearing the royal breastplate, and even as Wolfgang watches, a pair of pages run forward with his Grace’s lance and helm. The king grabs the helm impatiently, slaps it down onto his head and slides the visor into place. His lance settles into the crook of his arm like a fitted piece, and then he sets spurs to his horse’s flanks.
Wolfgang can only stare. The glory of the kill will go to the King.
Afterwards, the King is joyous. Effusive.
“...absolutely magnificent,” he says. “Come out to hunt boar and wind up taking a troll! I tell you, Wolfgang, seeing you out there battling that beast was like witnessing your father on the field at Gaevin’s Grove all over again.”
Wolfgang is tired, wrung out from terror and unexpected sorcery, and he thinks the comparison to his father’s triumph is as ludicrous as anything he has ever heard. It is the King’s comparison to make, however, and Wolfgang can hardly walk away. “Thank you, your Grace,” he manages. “I am pleased to have survived.”
“You did more than survive, my boy. Much more. I am impressed.”
“You honor me, Sire.”
“Not yet, I haven’t. But perhaps I shall. You would make an excellent captain in the Royal Lancers, I think. What say you to that?”
Wolfgang’s heart drops into his stomach. He should have seen that coming but his mind still feels slow in the aftermath of battle. Now he fears it is too late. If the King has already made up his mind…
“It is too much,” he says at last. “Besides, I already serve Your Grace in the Royal--”
“Yes, yes, the Royal Engineers,” the King says dismissively. “It is important work, I’m sure, but it is not the stuff of heroes now, is it? It’s not the calling of your House, man. Anyone can fix a bridge or tune a sigil, Wolfgang. My Lancers need captains. Men like you.”
It is only with effort that Wolfgang keeps from shaking his head. I would like to see my father fix a bridge or tune a sigil, he thinks. The man had an arm of forged from iron and a voice like a base drum, but he knew shite about the arcane arts. He couldn’t have sat still long enough to learn them, even if you yourself had commanded it, your Grace.
But this argument can mean nothing to the king. The man has spent his entire adult life steering the Kingdom of the Western Isles through all the dangers that the Known World has to offer. If he has kept his kingdom safe, it is only because he has had hard men at his command, men who are ready to beat back the forces of chaos these past fifty years and more. This King has fought piracy and heresy and the Legion of the Red Lord, and through it all, he has seen his kingdom triumph. The mechanics of arcane engineering are as far beneath him as are the financial struggles of a minor House on the outskirts of the Nobles, save that the House in question once belonged to his close friend and mentor during the war.
Still, Wolfgang says, “I need no honors, Sire. I am content, truly.”
“Are you?” the King asks.
“I do what I do because I can. My service is different than my father’s, but it is still service.”
The King claps him on the shoulder. “So you admit that service matters?”
“Of course it matters,” Wolfgang replies.
“Good.” The King smiles then, and Wolfgang can see that the deed is done.
“No,” the King says, “I have heard enough. There are times when a king must listen, and there are times when he must simply decide. I told you before that it is part of my duty to see that my subjects are put in places where they can succeed. The same is as true of you as it is of any other man in the realm.”
“You have said you would serve if called. Is this not true?”
Wolfgang bows his head. “It’s true.”
“Then the deed is done. I expect to see you at the palace tomorrow morning. You are dismissed.”
The King flicks the reins on his horse, and in a moment he is gone. In his aftermath, several of the courtiers stare at Wolfgang, alternately enraged, intrigued, or visibly envious of the King’s attention. At length Duke Foghorn rides past and stops long enough to nod his head in Wolfgang’s general direction. He says nothing, but when he turns, he gives the courtiers a look that could curdle milk. Then he turns back and pats Wolfgang on the shoulder. “Congratulations, captain.”
“I… Thank you, my lord.”
Foghorn smiles at Wolfgang and then turns once again to stare at the pages and assorted hangers-on who have still not peeled their eyes away from where Wolfgang is standing. “What are you fools glaring at?” he barks. “You stare like landed trout while your liege lord rides in the other direction. Move!”
The courtiers scatter as if from a lightning strike, and Wolfgang sighs. “Thank you, my lord.”
Foghorn merely nods and turns his horse. “My pleasure.”
In another moment, Wolfgang is alone. He looks around the clearing, sees that Salamatu is kneeling by her horse, that the horse itself is still writhing on the ground. His own horse is tethered nearby; she must have gathered it up while he was talking to the king because he remembers seeing the stupid beast bolt during the fight. The dog Zen is looking at him as well, a certain sadness in its eyes, and though Wolfgang has not yet considered it, he wonders suddenly how badly Salamatu’s horse is hurt. In spite of everything, the day’s killing might not be done just yet.
Salamatu reaches down and touches her horse’s leg, head bowed as if in prayer. The moment stretches, and Wolfgang feels the touch of grief. The ranger and her horse are obviously close. Wolfgang wonders if he should offer to slit the beast’s throat, or if this is the kind of woman would prefer to do the deed herself. Horses are ever the innocents in combat. The first time Wolfgang saw his father cry, it was for a horse who’d broken a leg taking a jump.
When Salamatu looks up, Wolfgang asks, “Can she make it back, do you think?”
Salamatu’s face is sweat-stained and tired, but she looks content. “I think so. I set the leg and did what I could. She’ll not carry me Wanderhaven, but she should live.”
“You fixed a broken leg? On a horse?”
Salamatu stands, setting her hands on her hips. “I am not completely useless, my lord. Even you must see that.”
“But I’ve never heard of anyone healing a horse.”
“Priests. What do they know?” she asks. A cloud passes across her face.
“Fair enough. Do you, uh, need a ride back to the city then?” Wolfgang walks over to his own horse, starts untying the reins where Salamatu has the animal tethered. “Cobalt here may not be much of a war mount, but he can at least carry the two of us back to Wanderhaven.”
Salamatu walks over, places a hand on the saddle opposite Wolfgang’s, and looks him in the eyes. “Why captain, I thought you’d never ask.”
“You heard that, huh?”
“Everyone heard it. By tomorrow, I expect it will be the talk of the city.” Wolfgang shakes his head, puts one foot in the stirrup, and prepares to mount. Salamatu looks at him crossly. “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting on my horse. Did we not just establish that we’re riding back to the city together?”
“And you think you’re mounting first? Why? So I have to wrap my arms around you like some useless damsel whom you just saved from a troll?”
“Good!” Salamatu slides her own foot into the stirrup on the opposite side and mounts with incredible grace. “Climb up behind me. The King will be halfway back to Wanderhaven by now, and we need to get going if we’re to catch up on the back of an over-burdened animal.”
Wolfgang can only stare. “So I am to sit behind you, wrap my arms around you?”
“Relax, captain. My virtue is safe, I assure you. You are pretty enough, sure, but I think with effort that I can control myself, at least until we are within the wall of the city.”
“That’s not what I—”
“And if you try anything, I’ll cut off the hand that tries is.”
“Gods above, woman. If you hadn’t just saved me from a troll, I would fear for my life.”
“Then at least we understand each other.”
***Did you like this story? There's more from Wanderhaven in Sneakatara Boatman & the Priest of Loki.