“The Sorcerer of Greybourne was clear.” My father’s voice rang out over the quiet multitude. “A hero will be chosen from among those competing the two quests.” His stern gaze locked upon face after petrified face as the gravity of his words pounded in my chest. “Garçon is worthy, but he is one. One man does not a competition make. Is there not one among you who would ride at his side to save our kingdom?”
I hated Garçon. He was easily the handsomest man in our tiny kingdom, tall and strong, and by his own account, fearless. The women folk crooned words of lust in whispers when he passed. He had all the sense of a headless cockerel, but enough sense to be aware of his physical excellence and he was every bit the gloating swine about it. A bully and a braggart. Nothing more by my account.
“You would all stand before me as cowards,” my father bellowed. “Surely as cowards, do you not fear more the curse of Greybourne’s wrath than these folly quests?”
“I am no coward; I will compete.”
I said it in a voice too meek to gain any confidence, but over the congregation of mutes, I might have yelled it. Laughter poured forth from every mouth but my father’s. None laughed harder than Garçon.
“Lord Greybourne’s Sorcerer was clear,” I agreed loudly, as the throng silenced themselves again. I stepped forward. “He declared that a hero would be chosen from among those who competed…” I glared at Garçon. “He said nothing of choosing a man.”
My father’s eyes betrayed what his mouth had relegated to the privacy of our home. I would not return from the first quest. Failure was all I meant to him. I had failed him when I wasn’t born an heir, and now I would fail him with his very kingdom at stake.
“I cannot send a woman, nay a girl, simply for the lack of a real volunteer,” he barked angrily at the host of men biting their tongues. “Must we cast lots?”
“If it is my failure you fear, father, then rejoice assured that Garçon will be your hero. Or do you fear that a woman will find the favor of Greybourne that you in all your rein have failed to find?”
Before all the men of our kingdom, my father spat at my feet. “You have refused any horse.”
“To be my slave, yes. The Sorcerer said nothing either of choosing a rider.”
My father sealed his heart against me. He whirled on the crowd. “A kingdom of cowards,” he roared. “You have earned your fate. So be it!” And he marched away to prepare for the inevitable.
A Wizard’s Moon marked the night of the first quest. Garçon and I set out together, south along the castle wall toward the woods above Greybourne, he upon his horse and I trotting alongside. My sword, a blade forged in France named le Rasoir Argent, had been a treasure of the Windermeres for generations. I could only imagine the grudge my father bore in passing it on to me. It hung longer than my legs and clinked annoyingly against the ground as I trotted to keep up with the ambling gait of Garçon’s horse.
Garçon was sullen. Away from the company of others, his arrogance seemed subdued. He knew my detest for him and it unnerved him, but he was belied only by his silence. His hulking frame coasted gracefully in his saddle, muscular and powerful, black hair silhouetted against the light of the moon in a near-black sky. I stood no chance of besting him at anything.
“Perhaps, I should carry that for you,” he offered and then looking to me nervously, “not to lighten your load. The sound of it is more bothersome than my grandmother’s queries on my courtship.”
I loosed its girth and handed it up to him. When I didn’t ask about his courtship, he ventured perhaps the most cerebral thought I’d ever heard pass his lips.
“Honor is not in life, but in the lives of those you serve.”
I didn’t answer.
“We stand no chance against the wolves alone,” he went on. “We will surely both die, and so then the fall of the House of Windermere.”
“It is a house doomed to fall,” I said. “I have seen to that in my nativity.”
“Perhaps not this night, Princess. What chance the wolves have against us is far lessened if your wit is matched with my strength rather than against it.”
The road had turned to the east and down into the wood. The trees began to thicken, taking with them much of the light the moon offered, as I pondered Garçon’s proposition. Could there really be a shred of integrity beneath his boastful crust? Honor? More likely, when we defeated the grey wolves and mastered the first quest, he would turn on me. I should never have given him my sword.
“I don’t know if it would be wise what you suggest. The Sorcerer has eyes that watch these woods.”
Garçon laughed. “And ears too, yes Wizard?” he called loudly. “There are no eyes, Princess. Sorcery is but tricks. He preys on fear and ignorance to earn Lord Greybourne’s fat.”
The second time he had called me that, he was mocking my family. “It is a wonder that you alone have seen through his trickery, Garçon,” I mocked in return.
He fell silent and we took a fork in the road that led more southerly and downhill toward the moor. This road was not oft traveled and never at night. Ailryu, once the last outpost of our people, was the only thing that lay in that direction, and it lay in ruins. No one who lived to tell the tale of her destruction, shared the same account. Some said giants had destroyed buildings. Others claimed the forest itself had marched down into the moor. On one count they all agreed. It was the howls of the grey wolves were the battle call they had all heard.
Ailryu’s ruins appeared to our right through the fog drifting up from the moor. Garçon slowed his horse. I stopped trotting. The sight was eerie. The wisps of fog played tricks with the mind to make any sorcerer proud. It was easy to understand how the victims who survived the onslaught that day saw so many things. Whatever they saw, it had turned an outpost to rubble.
As we stepped up to the moss-covered stone remnants of what was once a proud fortress, one vapid image did not disappear when I glanced its way. In the center of what was once Ailryu’s courtyard lay the outline of a lone wolf, not grey, but as white as the moonlight. My blood ran cold and suddenly, I felt the night chilling the sweat from my running, and I felt the breath of the moor on my cheeks. I reached for my sword, already trembling, and fear shot through me as I realized le Rasoir Argent was on the back of Garçon’s horse, edging slowly away from me now, back toward the forest.
The night was wracked by a long slow howl. I turned to look and deep in the fog up ahead outside the ruins, a giant grey wolf held his head to the full circle of the Wizard’s Moon. The strike of a switch to a horse’s rump and quickly galloping feet followed the howl. The coward!
“Garçon, my sword!” I cried.
“Apologies m’lady,” I heard his voice echoing in the distance as he disappeared into the dark wood. “Here you are then.” The sound of steel clattering against stone, almost beyond my ears, made it clear my sword was to be of no help. At least in death I wasn’t “princess” anymore.
I couldn’t see them but I could hear them. Responding howls, some far and some near, and the rustling in the brush… I wasn’t sure how many, but an army of the grey wolves lay before me, amassing.
One small unarmed girl at the edge of a forest warrants no army. An army I faced none the less, but only ahead. To my right stood a single challenger, mysterious, possibly even a werewolf of the Sorcerer’s own conjuring, but only one. I took a deep breath and walked into the ruins of Ailryu, forcing calm into my stride with every nervous step. I could feel the army of grey wolves closing around me in a tightening circle with the howls of legend spinning me in my own mind.
The white wolf lay staid. I knelt before him to meet my fate, and instead his yellow eyes met mine. A simple look. The fear that was mine shot through him and his head jerked away from me. He was afraid of my eyes.
“You’re beautiful,” I said, reaching out a hand in terror and waiting for it to be torn from my limb.
I felt he could sense my thoughts and I hated myself for wanting my sword, its picture in my mind as brilliant and shiny as its name. My hand reached his head unabated. His fur was soft and delightful and warm against the night. I put my arm around him and knelt next to his head, pulling his eyes back to mine.
“It’s alright,” I whispered.
“Shall we tear her, Master?” I wasn’t sure if it was a voice or only a thought I heard.
The white wolf stood, lifting me easily to my feet with him. He turned toward my gaze and in a moment, he accepted it. His tongue pushed from his mouth and he washed my cheeks before our lupine onlookers.
“Behold! She is the friend of the White Wolf!”
The moor and the valley filled with the resounding cry. Wail after wail went up in a chorus around me. Eerie. Haunting. Beautiful. Exhilarating.
I turned to the grey wolf who seemed to be the leader. “Greybourne’s sorcerer sent me to defeat you,” I said plainly.
He strode toward me and stopped in my face, so large he looked down upon me. Wolves don’t laugh, but I could sense his humor. “And at the palm of your hand, I have met my defeat.”
© 2012 Anne Schilde
Haha, sorry. That’s still less than half the dream, but the end is really stupid and it’s still a good story to this point.