“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Wolves circled the castle staying inside the forest on familiar tracks their family pack had traveled for generations. The smell of blood and fear was everywhere. Stress filtered through the woods on a willowing breeze. The pungent odor of humans made the pack anxious and alert. Rolf’s breath was rapid and shallow. He felt an awful thirst and waited.
Rolf’s older brother led the way to the back of the castle, and they waited until no sign of human could be seen or scented. The group darted across the open estate keeping in the low ground between the hillocks that surrounded their den. They ran straight through a small opening in the wall shielded by two cedar trees with branches hugging the ground.
✽ ✽ ✽
Marius waited outside the study of Count Răzvan. Anger and indignation coursed through him and tightened his fists at his side. Hate welled up in him, constricting his throat, focusing his mind, and setting the stage for the inevitable bloody confrontation with those who dare such an insult to the people of the Wolf.
“The Count will see you now, Sir.” The Count’s aide de camp motioned for him to enter.
The study was as dark as the mood Marius felt. The room light’s were dimmed, and only the sunlight filtering through the window illuminated the Count’s desk and the green writing pad where commerce was inked into profits. The Count was only partially standing in the filtered sunlight, and the strong shadows half hid his face and eyes providing Marius with a formidable view of his master. No evidence of his benevolence was apparent in the dark shades of his eyes.
“What do you know of the Duchess’ shooting?”
“I know she was shot and her would be assassin is dead,” Marius replied.
“Pity, my Lord?” Marius struggled to control the vitriol in his voice.
“Yes, I would have liked to question him,” the Count said with the even tone of someone discussing business ventures instead of life and death.
“Ah, yes. Our enemies become quite chatty in your presence, my Lord.” Marius saw the Count smile under the eyes that shouted death in their unfathomable darkness.
“Our Duchess is in the castle infirmary. The doctors say she has a deep gash on the right side of her head. They suspect a brain bleed and swelling could result, so they have placed her in a shallow coma to keep her still and out of pain.” The Count explained. He walked out of the shadow to a sidebar, took out two glasses, and poured a brandy for each of them. Marius moved closer and accepted the offering. It was customary to share a drink over essential matters, and the Count did not ignore the customs of the Society of Wolves.
The Count’s eyes bore into Marius as they gave a silent toast to their future hunting successes. “Tell me what actions you’ve taken,” the Count asked.
“I’ve had the body of the assassin taken to the morgue for DNA testing and to see if what’s left of his clothes and any items on his person hold any clues to his identity. He was a professional. I expect little more than what the DNA will tell us. However, I do have his rifle and ammunition he used. We’ll check serial numbers and analyze what we can to find the origins and movements of the tools of his trade.” Marius briefed the Count in that emotionless cadence intelligence officers universally possess.
“How long will this take?” The Count asked.
“Six weeks, approximately,” came Marius’ answer.
“What are your plans in the interim?”
“We will continue to look for clues that will uncover the chain of events. There are people we will uncover that will tell us the next step up the chain,” Marius assured the Count.
“And if they don’t talk?” Asked the Count.
“Then the wolves will grow fat for the winter, my Lord.”
“Leave no stone unturned. Suspect everyone until you know they are not part of this plot to destroy our rebound from obscurity,” The Count demanded.
“As you command, my Lord.”
“One more thing, my faithful friend. We’ll do everything covertly. We will announce that a poacher’s errant shot frightened the Duchess and such was the realization of his mistake that he fled and has not been found. We’ll give our enemies a smoke screen to blind them while we cut down the low hanging fruit on the way to the top.”
“Yes, my Lord. With pleasure.” Marius met the Count’s grin with his own sardonic smile.
“You need not kill everyone. Only the ones you think need killing.” The Count signaled the discussion was over by turning his back to Marius and setting down his empty glass.
“My pleasure to serve, my Lord,” Marius replied while setting his glass next to the Count’s in a noble gesture of solidarity, duty, and service to the Society of the Wolves and the Society’s aristocracy.
Marius left the study and acknowledged the aid de camp as if to say, it is done. He made his way through the labyrinthine castle to the sub-basement where the medical facilities were. In the Duchess Drăgana’s darkened room, he ran out the nurses and doctor attending her.
Dear gods, he thought. Her face was swollen and purple. Dried blood still matted her hair. He pulled down the covers and gazed at the athletic body laid down by the avarice and power hungry outsiders. He noted Alexandra had no other injuries other than some bruising from her fall off the platform. He placed his hand on her sternum and felt her shallow respiration, her warmth, and beating heart.
Marius closed his eyes and felt the energy of his revenant Duchess. He leaned down and spoke in her ear as his hand slid intimately up to her neck in a gentle hug. “I pledge my life, my sword, my men to you. Those that would harm you are destined to the belly of my wolves.” He rose and saw the fingers of Alexandra’s hand flex. The thumb rose above a clenched fist.