Sigurd doubled the knot on Alogo's tether around the small birch tree, which stood amongst the last patch of forest before a clearing. The home of his employer sat down in the embankment, less than a mile away. The journey had taken just under two hours, the weather having cooperated pleasantly. But the remainder of the trek he would continue on foot. As it was mandatory his presence go undetected, except to the man of inquiry. He glanced up to the sky, checking the position of the sun. He should be heading back now. Unhooking his knapsack, Sigurd searched for a place to hide it, should anyone come looking for something to steal. Not that there was anything they would find of value outside of the horse. But there were things Sigurd would be at a loss without, a compass, flint, a few maps, bounty slips, payment agreements, and such. Stowing the worn out bag under large flat rock, then kicking a few surrounding leaves over it. Now to shuffle on.
“Keep yourself together, old boy.” He told the jet-black steed who watching his every move. “I'll be back shortly.”
Picking up a light jogging pace, Sigurd took to the woods on the opposite side of the road. Pushing through vibrant grasses and thick brush, under low limbs and over scattered rocks. Quickening his speed as the shadow of forest closed in around him. It was a lush and healthy forest, filled with vivacious wildlife, from meadow-hares to great elk. A particularly overladen berry bush brought back a fleeting memory of collecting the wild purple fruit as a child. Their tart taste returning to his tongue like a ghost. He smiled at the remembrance of how he and his brothers often frightened their mother by faking gruesome injuries using the dark red juices for blood. One of the few happy memories he knew. Breathing in a gulp of the cool, fresh air, Sigurd pressed on.
Soon, the trees began to thin out, revealing a stone wall that curved around the land at the foot of the embankment. He stood at the edge, glancing down under the overhang, then up over his shoulder, back towards the road. There was no one to be seen, but that did not mean there was no one about. He'd have to tread lightly. Stepping back into the shroud of the forest, he waited a beat. Counting seconds and the rate of his heart.
Wouldn't her royal highness like to see this? Sigurd bolted, straight ahead, gaining high amounts of speed with each foot plant. Just before the tree line broke, he ripped off his right glove. Where cream flesh should have been, was the smooth, gray, bark of a tree. Wood sculpted and twisted into the shape of a hand. Vines for vanes and knots for knuckles. One of two dark secrets that he'd carried for half his life. Crossing it over his left shoulder, he pulled the shoulder down, leading his body into a forward tumble. In the moment of air suspension, his entire body underwent a change not unlike turning a bag inside out. For when his feet hit the ground, he was no longer a man. Body sleek yet muscular, hair black as midnight, with four clawed paws that dug into the dirt.
Sigurd donned his touched form... a wolf.
The second of those secrets. He kept running. Making his way down the embankment side, across the open lawn before the wall. At the back of the estate, there was a section of wall that he had dug a tunnel under many years before, which led into the courtyard. A tunnel that the groundskeeper had been paid to keep open and quiet about. The entrance on the outside of the wall, was hidden behind a shrub. Slinking past the prickly leaves, he crawled through the dirt about four feet, before his nose popped up over the muddy brim on the other-side. Pulling his ears back, he scoped the area for people. This tunnel opening was shielded from sight by the small garden shack which sat near the wall. There was no inclination of servants or family members milling about. The main house sat quietly, at peace with it's natural surroundings. The dusty brown stone glowed warmly in the orange afternoon sunlight. The estate was not expansive, but was large enough to uphold the families political status. It was made with a simple elegance. The main house stood only two stories high, not including the small attic space under the high pitched roof of slate blue shingles. Out in front, there was a circular tower whose roof peaked into a cone, where the flag bearing the royal guard crest, flew when the master was home. It looked safe to move, so Sigurd scampered quickly into the open. The window to his employers office was in sight, about thirty feet away, on the ground level floor. Krctunch! He froze.
Someone had spotted him. Slowly, sinking closer to the earth, he turned his gaze to the left, where a young man stood with a pile of firewood at his feet. He recognized the boy as the employers youngest son. A tall gangly lad, named Luke, just under his own age. His chestnut blonde hair tussled over his fair featured face, which held an animated expression of surprise. A bemused smile crept onto his lips, as he bent slightly at the waste, extending his hand out towards him.
“Hey there boy, how'd you get in here again?”
Sigurd stifled a snort. He never had gotten used to this kind of reaction. Most people were alarmed by an intimidating creature such as a large, black wolf stalking about in broad daylight. But not this boy. He'd always had this merciless vindication to pet him. Sigurd shifted his gaze up towards the window of importance. He could not make it through, without the boy blocking him. Internally he cursed the innocence of youth, and decided to elude further entanglement by trotting away towards the front of the house.
Tch. I do not envy anyone whose form is of the domestic breeds. The shade off the side of the house felt cool against his heavy coat, leveling his temper down to a sensible degree. Sigurd continued on his path around the house, the boy following close behind. When he reached the front, he dodged behind the tower, sitting up against the corner between it and the house, disappearing into the shadow. Luke Appeared before him, but was looking out to the front yard, clearly having lost sight of him. “Aww...” He shuffled his hair with a defeated sigh, then turned to enter the house through the front doors. Taking the opportunity, Sigurd ran back around, to the study window. Reaching it, he stood up placing his front paws on the sill. Through the glass panes, he could see the elder man at his desk, hunched over a paper, quill scribbling quickly about. Captain Rickard Grimhilt, hard at work even at home. Just as he was about to tap on the glass, the interior door swung open, revealing Luke.
“Father, that black wolf with the wooden leg was just outside, again!”
Rickard turned his gaze up slowly up to his son. “What was that, now?”
Luke drew a breath, exaggerated enough for Sigurd to see the exasperation from outdoors. “The black wolf! He was just back.”
“Oh?” He sat up straighter. “Did he leave?”
“I think so. He disappeared. Father, why haven't we taken the poor thing in? He keeps coming back, like he's looking for a home!”
The irony of the statement caused Sigurd to choke on air. Luke's father seemed to catch the same cough. “Son, for the last time, we will not be adopting a dangerous, wild animal into our household!”
I heard that.
Luke's expression faltered, but suddenly brightened, as he made eye-contact with him. Sigurd had been caught literally with his nose pressed against the window pane. “Look he's still here!” Holy divines and boundary divided! Sigurd cursed.
“Yes, indeed he is...” Rickard's gentle face, alighted in amusement. “Luke, I'm sure he's just wandering around looking for food. Why don't you throw something out into the woods for him?”
Luke grew a smile from ear to ear. “Can I? Alright, I will!” The boy excused himself quickly, shutting the door behind him. The elder man stood up from his chair, walking briskly towards the window. It pulled up in the grinding groan of wrought iron grinding against itself.
“You really ought to be more careful to avoid your brother, next time.”
“Well, Father, you ought to be more careful about the whereabouts of your son, the next time you hire a wolf to do your dirty work.”
Sigurd jumped up and through the window, landing softly on the warm wood floor. Behind him Rickard shut the window and closed the drapes. “How did your little venture go last night?”
Sigurd eyed the man, catching the hint of humor in his tone. “Not as planned.”
“That's what I gathered,” The captain returned to his chair, shooting him a knowing look. “when the Princess ambushed me, earlier. Going on about a thief who stole her diary.”
“Hmph! Is that what she told you?”
“Well, I can assure you, she doesn't need a bodyguard...”
Sigurd shook his coat, reversing him back into his human form. His cloak swinging along his shoulders and around to his back. Stranding straight, he pointed his left hand towards the garish purple and blue bruise over the bridge of his nose. “She's rather skilled at defending herself.”
Rickard's mouth dropped open and then closed, as if he couldn't decide whether to cry or laugh.
“Gods, son, are you alright?!”
“I'll live, however, you might want to consider having her teach your guards a thing or two.”
Rickard chuckled. “So, did you learn anything about the dragon?”
Sigurd's stomach lurched. He still didn't know what to say. but he opened his mouth, hoping the right thing would come out. “...She's in as much in the dark as we are, Father.” He clasped his hands behind his back, to keep them from fidgeting. “The dragon is real, yet she doesn't know where the dragon comes from, or why it's attacking her suitors. But!” He held up his left hand, index finger extended towards the ceiling. “She believes, that it is protecting her.”
“From what?” Rickard exclaimed. “Twelve gentlemen suitors, and her loving mother?!”
Sigurd opened his palm, to gain silence. “That is what the Princess said. There was honesty in her eyes father, and fear! She believes this dragon is keeping her safe.”
“But the dragon is the danger here!”
The remark irked Sigurd deeply. Do you not even hear yourself?! “She does not see it that way... and did not give any further detail on the danger.”
Rickard rubbed a strong hand over his face with sigh. Dropping his hand to clutch the arm of the chair he returned eye contact. “There is talk, amongst the council...of annulling the Princess's claim to the throne, and instead naming her cousin, Siegfried, as the next King.”
Sigurd's heart dropped into his stomach. “They cannot do such a thing!”
Rickard raised his hands up, palms open. “They can, and they are trying. She is too much of a risk to entrust the future of the kingdom too.”
A rage instantly set into Sigurd's bones. “Denying her a divine birthright sounds a lot more risky! She is a frightened VICTIM not some MONSTER!!”
As his voice echoed off the walls of the study, Rickard's face fell dark. A beat of silence passed, in which Sigurd could feel a strong magnetic pull of magic. That electrostatic that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. That cold lonesome awe you feel after the first snowfall. His rage had brought a heavy layer of magic into the realm of the untouched. It was hiding inside the flecks of dust as it passed in front of him, in the small beam of light from the window. He drew a deep breath, dropping his gaze to his boots, trying to steady himself.
“Sigurd,” His father's voice pleaded.
Don't ask me... do not ask me to betray another...do not do this to her!
“What we first feared... is it true?”
He did not answer. He could not. Would not. It should not be this way. He heard his father stand, and place his fists on the desk. “Is she touched?” The man's voice grew heavier with strain.
A cold, bile rose in Sigurd's throat, yet a fiery heat of anger riled in his gut. The memory of her eyes, blazing in a wild determination that could shatter a steel wall. 'I will be Queen.' She had said.
“Sigurd! Is she touched?!”
Resolve struck through his core like lightening. Sigurd raised his eyes to meet those of the man before him.