There were four of them at least, four wolves, a hunting pack. Jane had faced wolves before, many times, but never alone, never in complete darkness, and NEVER without a sword.
Idiot! She could almost hear Sir Theodore cursing. A knight is always on duty, child. Remember this. You may be out of uniform, you may be attending a ball in all your finery, BUT you are on duty, a shield to your King, day or night. Leave your sword behind the nearest door if you must, but never be more than three paces from that door – and keep a dagger with you at all times.
At least she had done that! Jane reached under her tunic, pulled a short dagger from her waistband, and crouched low to the ground. She could hear the wolves padding through the forest undergrowth on both sides of the track. They would have her scent by now, and they would be wary, for she would smell of Dragon too. So they might be hungry, but they wouldn’t be stupid - they would watch and circle. Jane glanced up at the sky, if she was lucky, they would circle long enough for the moon to come back out. If she could see the wolves, she would have a fighting chance against them.
She was not lucky. One of the pack came charging out from the undergrowth. As it emerged from the cover of the trees, Jane could just make out the soft halo of starlight reflecting from its grey fur. She waited until the last moment, watched as it leapt for her face, then fell backwards, her dagger raking into the wolf’s belly as the animal drew a graceful, bloody arc above her. The wolf collapsed on the track behind her. Jane threw herself on its thrashing body, pulled back the head and sliced open the creature’s neck. Then she rolled, hugging the corpse to her chest as its blood drained down over her face and clothes.
She lay completely still, her heart beating like Smithy’s hammer, her breath clamped behind clenched teeth. She heard the other wolves approach, heard them pad around her in a wide circle, sniffing the air.
The ruse would not hold them back for long, but if it could hold them for just a few minutes until the moonlight returned. She turned her head to the side, and peered out from under the corpse. No hint of moonlight, and yet something flickered off in the far darkness. Jane strained to see. What was that?
‘Jane?’ The call was very faint. Had she imagined it? The wolves stopped pacing their circle around her. They had heard it too. She stared out at the flickering light. It was a flame. Someone had come searching for her.
Jane pushed the dead wolf away, sprang to her feet, and roared at the top of her lungs. She roared the cry Sir Theodore had taught her years before, a cry that cut through the background din of a battlefield, one so shrill it could be heard by her fellow knights despite the clamour of sword on shield.
‘TOOO MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’ She crouched, one arm extended, the blade of the dagger pointing out, then she closed her eyes and focused all her attention on the sounds of the night. The wolves had stopped moving. Were they hesitating? Unsure what to do now that a second prey was running up the track towards them?
‘Hold on!’ Robert’s voice? Jane fought the urge to look over her shoulder at the approaching light, it would blind her to the wolves.
Then one sprang at her. She couldn’t see it, she just felt the creature’s weight as its body slammed into her. They fell backwards together. Jane rolled to the side and heard the wolf run off, heard it whimpering. She realised her dagger was gone, torn free in the attack. Had she buried it in the creature?
Then Robert was beside her.
‘Use this!’ He thrust the flaming torch into her hand and turned as two more wolves attacked them. The fight was a mess. Jane realised she was scolding herself at every move, just as she would in practice, cursing aloud at any mistake. By contrast, she saw how Robert stayed silent, and focused.
Despite everything that was happening, the speed and the utter chaos of it, Jane was surprised at how well she could register every move and detail of their struggle. It was an odd feeling, as if she was watching other people entirely.
At the end, five wolves lay dead at their feet. The moon drifted out from behind it’s cloud and Robert turned to look at Jane.
‘Your face!’ He stared at her. Every inch of her face, hair, and clothes, was slick with the blood of the wolf she’d held on top of her.
‘Not mine,’ she said. ‘The first wolf.’
‘What did you do? Eat it to death?’ He sat on track, his breathing fast and laboured. Jane reached down, took his hand, and hauled him to his feet.
‘No time for rest, not yet! I think the Princess asked Dragon to fly her back down.’
‘Good. We can get some sleep at last.’ He paused, reading the look on her face. ‘What? Why is that not good news? And why are you still holding my hand like this.’
‘Come on,’ Jane dropped his hand and set off down the track. Robert caught up, and listened patiently as Jane told him all about the Merchant, and Gunther’s little conspiracy. The full impact of what he was hearing struck Robert, and he started to run. Jane tried to keep up, but a great weariness came over her, and she dropped to her knees. Robert stopped and ran back to her.
‘Not just the wolf’s blood, I fear.’ He bent to pick her up, but Jane waved him to stop.
‘No need, Dragon’s coming. He think he felt the bite of the wolf. He’s coming fast.’
A short while earlier, before the cloud had drifted over the moon, Jester had been having a conversation with it. In truth, he had been throwing curses at it. How many uncounted nights had he stayed up writing sonnets by moonlight, sonnets for Jane, declarations of a love he was too scared to voice? He shook a fist at the moon. Too many! That’s when he saw Dragon come flying across it’s bright face - with someone astride the creature’s neck.
‘Jane!’ He shouted her name, jumped down from the wall of the royal fountain and started running to the training yard. Yet, how could it be Jane. She could not have made her way up the mountain in so brief a time, not unless Dragon had sensed her approach and flown to meet her on the road?
He raced into the yard. No Jane, and no Dragon. Where had they landed? Then it struck him, a brutal awakening, cold as ice: not Jane at all, the Princess! The foolish young child had gone down to confront the Merchant! Of course she had. Jester cursed himself. If he had been thinking clearly, if he had not been so caught up in the indulgence of his own melancholy, he would have worked it out immediately. He ran to the stables, and slammed straight into Smithy.
‘Woah! Steady on Jester. The tavern will still be there if you take it nice and slow.’
‘No tavern, not tonight!’ he grabbed Smithy by the elbow. ‘I think
I saw Dragon flying back from the mountain with the Princess.’
‘Good, finally there is hope for some sleep tonight.’
‘Not yet. I think Dragon has landed out there.’ Jester pointed in the direction of the town. ‘Out beyond our castle walls. Go and inform Sir Theodore, I’ll go and find her little Majesty.’
‘What are you keeping from me?’
‘No. Something!’ Smithy peered forward, examining Jester’s face with the same scrutiny he afforded the horses. ‘Your face is all creased up with worry. What concerns you about all this?’
‘No time. Just tell Sir Theodore! Please!’
‘Alright,’ Smithy let out a sigh. ‘Get along, I’ll go and fetch the Captain, but you ask one of the sentry guards to go out with you on whatever fool’s errand this is.’
Jester nodded and ran out to the main gates where he wasted precious minutes trying to persuade one of the two guards to come with him. They both refused.
‘Leave our posting on your say-so? I think not Jingle Boy.’
‘Don’t mind him,’ said the second. ‘He was born rude, popped out of his mother complaining of the cold air. But rude as he may be, he’s also right. Deserting the main gate would land us in a great mess of trouble. So, if our talented young Smithy has gone to tell Sir Theodore like you say, then it’s best we get instructions from our Captain of the King’s Guard, not from a balladeer of the King’s Court, no matter how talented you are in that role.’
The sentries lifted a locking bar from the night gate that was built into the wall beside the portcullis. The night gate could be defended by a single guard. It was a narrow squeeze. Anyone trying to use it had to be slight of build, and without armour. Sir Ivon believed the door to be a mischievous contraption designed to keep him out after a night of serious drinking in the tavern. Jester hurried through and ran down the gently sloping approach road, his way lit by burning torches high on the battlements behind him.
The night air had brought little relief from the heat of the day. The flagstones under his feet were still giving off trapped summer heat like bed stones, the large round stones that Pepper warmed in the kitchen ovens to put in all their beds on winter nights.
When he reached the statue and looked to his right, Jester could see the town square and the Merchant’s house, but he could see no sign of Dragon or the princess. Had they landed further off, down at the wharf perhaps? Or had they set down here, the foolish child going into the house and instructing Dragon to leave?
The Princess was sitting at a long dining table when Gunther came into the room, escorted there by Pincher Bates who had a hand on the young man’s shoulder. The room was large, almost a dining hall. Three of the Merchant’s henchmen were standing about, drinking and picking meat from their teeth. Gunther’s father was there too, settling into a huge oak chair at the head of the table.
‘Gunther!’ Lavinia looked up and waved. ‘Do you always eat like this?’ She swept her hand out to indicate the remains of a substantial meal. Venison, a roasted pig, and two large fish sat on platters down the centre of the table. Around them were jugs of ale, torn loaves of bread and a scattering of different fruits.
‘Look at all these figs!’ She reached for one. ‘I can’t remember the last time we had figs up at the castle. Tell me Gunther, why have I not paid you a visit before?’
‘Too busy?’ Gunther did his best to make light of the moment, to hide the terror he felt, for Lavinia and for himself.
‘We do eat very well,’ his father laughed. It was a deep laugh, a loud rumble like distant thunder. Then the Merchant turned and looked squarely at his son. His face was a picture of anger, his eyes ice-cold.
‘You do. VERY well,’ said Lavinia.
‘A small reward for my hard-working men who strive every day to bring quality goods for castle and its royal court.’ He looked at the man who had escorted Gunther into the room and spread his arms out wide in theatrical disbelief. ‘Pincher! I am duty bound to ask you why no figs have been sent to the castle these past weeks?’
‘An oversight,’ Pincher went along with the little drama, dropping his head in mock shame. ‘I shall set it to rights first thing tomorrow.’
‘Indeed you shall,’ the Merchant turned back to his guest. ‘Now my young Majesty, what brings you here at such a late hour, and without escort? This must be of the utmost importance, a secret undertaking perhaps?’
‘Correct, very secret and very private.’ Lavinia wagged a finger at each of the henchmen in turn. ‘But not with you, or you, or you. Just with the King’s very good friend, the Merchant.’
‘For my ears only?’
‘Yes, and Gunther can stay, he knows all this anyway and we can clear the matter up all the more quickly so life can get back to normal.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he turned to Gunther. ‘Son, why don’t you sit right here beside your dear father?’ He stretched a massive leg out under the table and kicked a wooden stool towards Gunther. It toppled backwards. Pincher set it upright and gestured for Gunther to sit.
‘Have a fig,’ said Lavinia, tossing one down the table to Gunther. ‘they really are very delicious.’
‘Her majesty is quite correct,’ the Merchant agreed. ‘Delicious, and all the way from a sunny southern garden. In fact...’ he turned back to the princess and smiled. ‘They are from the very garden of one of your most favoured suiters, Princess.’
‘Ah! That,’ Lavinia nodded. ‘This is what we have to discuss.’
‘Oh how remarkable,’ the Merchant dabbed his chin with edge of his sleeve. ‘Imagine my surprise.’ He glanced up at his men and told them to leave, then dropped a heavy hand down on his son’s shoulder. ‘Not you boy. You stay sitting right here beside your devoted father.’
He waited for his men to leave the room, then he sat back and gestured to Lavinia. ‘Now, my dear child, the floor is yours, tell me everything, and I, your most loyal of subjects, will put all to rights.’
Gunther sat and listened as the Princess innocently, and with no ill intent, delivered his death sentence. He watched his father’s controlled performance as he had watched it a thousand times before. They way his father could smile graciously to any buyer, any customer, no matter the anger, outrage or distain he might feel towards them.
Now, sitting this close, Gunther could feel the heat of that anger, it radiated from the man, every word stoking his rage as if Lavinia were the bellows of Smithy’s furnace.
Finally she was done. The Merchant nodded once then closed his eyes. His smile remained, but it was fixed, the grin of a skull, and his face had turned purple.
‘Are you ill?’ asked Lavinia. The merchant shook his head. ‘Too many figs,’ he wheezed.
‘Father, let me explain.’ Gunther stood up. His father stood too, a sudden movement that sent his chair crashing down behind him.
‘Oops, clumsy!’ laughed the princess. ‘That’s one stool and one chair in as many minutes.’
‘Indeed,’ the Merchant found his voice, and called out to his men who hurried back in. ‘Gentlemen…’ he paused, put a hand to his chest in an effort to compose himself. ‘Please entertain our delightful guest. I need a moment alone with my son. Come boy. Time for a little catch up, don’t you think? Just you and me?’
Gunther followed meekly. All his plans to take this man down, all his bravado, all of it melted away under the heat of his father’s rage.
They made their way through the house, all the way to the store rooms to the back, as far from Lavinia and the men as the house would allow. Gunther didn’t try to run, not did he expect any forgiveness.
His father swung round, his face a picture of fury and something else. Pain? Anguish? Gunther watched his father’s massive hands come wheeling round at him from either side. They slammed into his cheeks and then grasped his face like it was a round of bread to be torn apart. The pain was intense, he felt his father’s thumbs probing for his eyes. Gunther began to struggle, to tear himself free, but he was pulled off balance, pulled in tight to his father’s heaving chest as the man arched back his head, wailed in anguish …and released his son.
Gunther fell backwards, his eyes burning, and watched his father attack the room, smashing everything he could lift or throw.
When he was spent, the merchant collapsed back onto the plinth of a huge statue, and closed his eyes.
‘Father?’ Gunther tried to speak, but his father held up a hand to stop him.
‘But I must..’ Gunther never finished the sentence. His father struck him across the side of his face, knocking him to the ground.
‘I said NOT NOW! Now you only listen. You have destroyed years of planning, decades of work. All of it gone – and for nothing. I will not allow that. I will NOT!’
‘No. You will not speak!’ He raised his hand again, and Gunther cowered back. ‘But you WILL act, you will do exactly as I instruct you and we might yet drag ourselves out of this mess. That girl in there has to go, she has to be dispatched.’
‘SILENCE! Who else knows of your mad scheme?’
‘No-one.’ Gunther lied.
‘She said she overheard you.’
‘Me, yes, just me, I was talking to myself, going over everything. I had no idea she was hiding in a hayloft above me.’
‘Good! Then we can do this. We can clean this up.’ He turned away and started pacing. ‘I hear the girl flew off on the Dragon, and that the whole castle was witness to it. A big spectacle, yes?
‘Then she can have fallen from that beast. They will find her body tomorrow. That poor, sweet, girl, her body a broken mess on the rocks below the causeway. But life goes on, and we will request the honour of bringing justice for the girl’s poor parents. We will hunt that creature down and rid the kingdom of it once and for all.’