“There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”
Frank Herbert, Dune
Warriors. That is what they were, Marius mused. He took out a bag of the castle’s feed for his wolfpack from the hunter’s shack at the trail terminus and placed out several pans for his wolves. They attacked the bowls of meat and grains ground into a texture and taste the wolves ate with ravenous hunger.
Perched above the field and pavilion where the escarpment was bisected by an ancient road through the dark forest, Marius surveyed the unfolding scene below him. His field glasses framed faces intent on being first at the long tables of food and drink at the edge of the parade ground. There were mounds of pork, lamb, and beef on every table with potato and vegetable dishes, fresh cheese, and round hard crusted bread loaves shoveled into plates and bowls by castle staff for the crowd. The men gathered in clusters to smoke and boast around the line of beer kegs while women collected food for children and the men. Everything appeared normal as if nothing unusual had happened.
Rolf settled next to his Alpha, head on his outstretched paws. His full belly made him lazy. He watched Marius engaged in a peculiar study of the people below. His eyes followed his master’s. The food and people were no interest to the young wolf as he scooted closer and nuzzled the hand next to him. Yes, a good petting was what he needed to help him sleep, and Marius always obliged.
The royal party was gone and the pavilion deserted except for the guards that kept curious onlookers away. It was too normal. “Looks like I’ll need to go down and sniff around a little,” Marius told Rolf who only perked up one ear as his eyes rolled slowly back into his nap.
A butterfly alighted on Rolf’s nose. Both eyes popped open in alert surprise. It spread its black wings to reveal a band of pure white spots. Rolf’s eternal friend who helped him hunt the Alpine meadows of tall grass and wildflowers tickled Rolf’s nose with its delicate feet. The butterfly’s long drinking straw of a mouth tapped on the flared nostril of his companion to draw moisture. Rolf always felt the pecking touch as an intimacy that bonded them as friends and allies in the endless seasons of life and death.
The security officer clamored down the embankment to the roadbed and made his way to the back of the pavilion. A soldier of the royal guard snapped to attention as Marius rounded the corner. “Sir,” he acknowledged in that sharp tone of discipline.
“What has happened here?” Marius asked. He observed the soldier’s hesitation, he saw the moisture increase in the soldier’s eyes that danced nervously from the castle back to his superior.
“There was a shooting, sir.”
“Was anyone injured?” Marius inquired in a practiced casual tone while his heart pounded.
“The Duchess was shot, sir.”
“What?” Marius felt his stomach bile rise in his throat.
“The Lady Drăgana was . . .”
“Where is she. Where is the royal courtiers?” The officer demanded to know.
“They all hid the scene from the people and whisked her away toward the castle. That’s all I know sir.”
Misted eyes and grief clouded the soldier’s face and speech. Marius could see he was in shock and yet he held his post not allowing for the crushing blow that he and his fellow soldiers had failed to keep the Duchess safe.
Marius felt the ache of dreams dashed, and duty failed. “Thank you. Carry on,” was all the officer could get out of his constricted throat.
An agonizing climb up the stone treads to the pavilion led Marius to the scene of the shooting. Near the steps and on the ground below were pools of blood. On the raised platform of manicured grass was a tuft of braided hair still attached to a piece of Alexandra’s scalp. “Dear gods,” Marius exclaimed at the unnerving sight. He looked to the tree where the Duchess and Viscount had exchanged tender looks and saw the bullet had skimmed the tree leaving a fresh wound of torn bark and splintered wood. In the small branches just back of and above the pavilion were strands of long black hair glistening in the sunlight as they waved like prayer banners in the breeze.
An aching sickness gripped Marius. The proud officer’s dry throat burned. He was no stranger to the gore of violence. Hadn’t he stood over the torn body of the sniper without remorse or even the slightest unease? Yet, here on the ground was the blood of generations of hope that one day the long scattered aristocracy of Dacia would unite again to take back their ancestral lands and return their culture of the wolves to the present. Hope has many enemies, Marius reflected as he looked to the sky and murmured, “The gods be damned. Now, the blood of the Duchess requires another era of blood for blood. Endless war for 5000 years. I am weary of this fight.”
A corporal of the guard approached his officer with quiet respect. He waited for Marius to recognize him and give him permission to speak.
“What news have you, corporal?”
“Sir, the Count requests your counsel immediately.”
“Very well, corporal.”
The two elite soldiers of the royal guard, the Black Wolf Brigade, made their way to the waiting vehicle. Marius gave a brief order as he buckled into his seat.
“Radio the operations center and have several squads canvas the area for evidence and have the corpse at the back of the parade field taken to the castle morgue for identification.”
“Yessir,” the radioman replied and relayed the orders into the microphone to a tinny voice on the other end.
Marius held an outward appearance of calm leadership in the shock of crisis. He looked out the window at the passing scenery of forest and rolling meadow and attempted to find the wisdom in his ancient soul. He felt nothing there except growing rage, seething anger, and a need for the blood of his unknown enemy.