Up in the glowing green forests of Valedale, Duke Jack Wolfwatcher was sitting outside amongst the grass, as he so often did. His kingdom didn’t question it; his father before him had been just the same way, rumours that a gift of animal magnetism had been passed down through the ages littered the conversations of his people, others that were more sceptical of the Duke’s more personal affairs often said that the wizard whom was seen so often with the Duke had cast a spell on the unsuspecting man. The Duke himself had heard all of these rumours and more, but did not bother to correct anyone about them; after all, who didn’t like a little rumour now and again? It wasn’t like anyone was getting hurt.
At this present moment, Duke Jack was leaning against a tree, surrounded by its mighty roots, with Halli the red fox curled up in his lap, purring. There was a deer sniffing at his shock of blue hair, although she did not trust him enough to lay down beside him, like a raccoon was. A noble stag stood close by, watching Jack carefully as his hind investigated the Duke, the rest of his herd hid amongst the trees, although now and again, a head did poke out of the bushes.
He sighed as he thought about the warnings of wolves in the area of Valedale. Wolves usually stuck to the area of Firgrove, however Duchess Zelda Dusknight had said that her knights seemed to think that the wolves had gone up into the mountains of Valedale for reasons unknown to them, although they seemed to think it was to prey on the lemmings that frequented up there. Just in case there were any sighting or, Aideen forbid, attacks, Duchess Dusknight had sent a handful of her knights to Valedale to ward them off. The Duke held onto that small comfort.
Jack looked up at the stag; it was a beautiful animal, with powerful antlers that stretched up into the sky, with ten prongs that were longer than the Duke’s forearm. The amber eyes never left the Duke, and the oak-coloured ears twitched at every small movement that he made. ‘Good sir,’ Jack said softly, the stag flinched but did not bolt away, rather he turned to face the Duke as though he was listening intently. ‘Good sir,’ he said again, 'I shall not hurt neither you nor your lovely mate, for I have too much respect to lay a harmful fingertip upon either of you. Hunting is prohibited in this area, and has been for many years now, due to our partnership with the forests and its animals.’
The stag looked as though he had understood the words, for he lowered his head and the tension in his shoulders relaxed. It was then that the animal stepped forward towards the Duke and lowered his muzzle to sniff at Jack’s hair, then nudged his shoulder in a display of trust. Jack could have shouted with joy, but of course, he couldn’t, for he would frighten the animals around him. Instead, Jack nodded to the stag, a wide smile on his face.
It was then that the peace was shattered.
'Duke Wolfwatcher! Duke Wolfwatcher, sir! Oh, sir, where are you, please?!’ a shrill voice pierced through the air. The stag and the hind bellowed with fear and bolted away into the bushes. Jack thankfully dodged the flurry of hooves and the antlers that almost impaled him. The raccoon hissed and scurried away up the tree. Halli jumped off of Jack’s lap and looked at the approaching intruder.
The Duke growled and stood up. 'What is it?’ he snapped to his advisor.
His advisor, a scrawny man with a rodent-like face, bowed deeply to his Duke. 'Sir, apologies, sir,’ he simpered, 'I have received word, sir, that someone of this kingdom is in trouble, sir.’
An icy shiver dribbled down Jack’s spine. 'Who is it?’ he said, already reaching for his sword. Halli pressed into the Duke’s leg as she felt his anger and concern spike.
'I am not sure, sir, although Miss Theodosa Lionheart, who gave me the message, said that she had been up in the mountains when she heard wolves howling and growling. She looked to see what was happening and saw the colours of Valedale on the man’s cloak and sash before a wolf blocked her view of the face of the victim. She said that she may have seen magic, but she is unsure,’ the advisor said in a hurry.
Jack paled as he heard about the magic. Without a word, he let out a piercing whistle for his horse. A moment passed before there was a thudding of hooves and a noble dapple grey Lipizzaner gelding burst out of the bushes and stopped at Jack’s side. There was a loose royal green bridle on the gelding’s head, which Jack hastily fastened. Not bothering with a saddle, he used a fallen tree trunk to mount his steed.
'Thank you for warning me of this,’ Jack said. And with that, he urged his horse into a gallop and steered him towards the mountains.
Almost an hour later, Jack and his steed, Dale, clattered up onto the mountain path. There was a slash of red in front of them and, upon further inspection, it was blood. The Duke groaned and cantered his horse in the direction that the blood seemed to head. There were patches leading further up the path, and as Jack and Dale advanced along it, they heard wolves snarling and fighting with something or someone.
Jack drew his sword and urged Dale quicker towards the pack. He startled as he heard hoof beats behind him, and turned to see three knights clad in the red of Firgrove. He breathed in relief as he realised that he would not be battling alone, especially with the Firgrove knights, who were trained to kill or seriously injure the wolves in their kingdom, due to the sheer size of the dire wolves. 'Thank you for accompanying me, good sirs,’ he said.
The knights nodded to the Duke. 'Of course, 'tis our duty, sir,’ one of them on a bay draft said.
The Duke smiled at them. 'When we come across the wolves, please do not kill them,’ he said, 'Valedale and the forests work together and to kill one of the noble wolves - a fabled creature of legend in our culture - would be a great crime.’
The knights nodded. 'Of course, sir,’ another knight on a piebald draft said.
Duke Jack nodded gratefully and turned back to the path. He and the knights galloped into the fray of the wolf fight, horses whinnying and neighing. Thankfully, they were just normal-sized grey wolves, and not the mighty dire wolves that haunted Firgrove’s land.
Jack yelled as he saw them, attempting to frighten them off with sudden noise. Instead, one of the wolves - a dirty brown male with a scarred and bloodied face - turned to him and snarled. Jack held Dale steady and faced the wolf square on, using his body language to know that he was not afraid of fight. Deep down, underneath the adrenaline, he was very worried as he knew that a pack of wolves about this size - there were at least five here - could take down prey much bigger than his Lipizzaner and him put together. He was very glad for the Firgrove knights’ presence.
The wolf made a gruff bark, and the wolves that had been attacking their previous victim backed off and turned their attentions to Jack instead. The Duke resisted the urge to glance up and see who had been attacked by the wolves, as he knew that if he did, the wolves would probably take the chance to attack.
And then the first wolf pounced, followed by the rest of the pack. Jack swung his sword at the oncoming predators, avoiding Dale’s head as he reared in fright. The blade of the sword caught the side of the brown wolf’s head and he yelped out in pain as he was launched off-course by the impact. A grey wolf was stabbed in the shoulder, and a black female’s stomach was cut.
The knights were doing the same thing, knowing that Valedale did not agree with mindless killing, although all of their instincts told them to put an end to the wolves’ terrible attacks. They beat the predators away from the victim and Duke Jack as best they could, although it was starting to get increasingly difficult.
Although his conscience screamed against it, it looked to be that Jack and the Firgrove knights would soon be forced to kill one of them, as the attacks were starting to overpower him. Dale was batting at the predator’s with his hooves as he reared up, but it wasn’t doing much damage. The gelding had suffered a lot of bites to his shoulders and there were scratches on his flanks and neck too.
It looked to be getting too much, until there was a blast of bright purple that washed over Jack, Dale and the attacking wolves. The Duke felt the power behind it, but was not affected. Instead, the wolves were knocked back away from horse and rider. Jack urged Dale towards the victim and stood in front of him, facing the wolves. In his heart, Jack knew exactly who it was, but he didn’t want to make assumptions before truly helping him. There was more than one magician that belonged to Valedale’s kingdom.
The wolves stood up, shaking out their fur and growling. They were dizzy and disorientated from the effect of the magic, and called it a lost battle. They had their own casualties, and they would rather not start to have a death toll. The wolves weren’t stupid and knew when to retreat. Which they did.
Jack swung down off of Dale, patting his steed’s neck in praise of his bravery. And then turned to the very injured victim. He crouched down and lay a hand on the nape of the wizard’s neck, cradling his head. 'Oh dear Aideen, what have they done to you, Ydris?’ he said, looking over the scratches and bites and bruising.
'Nothing much,’ Ydris said, panting, 'just a couple of scratches.’ He moved to sit up in a more secure position and winced as his ribs throbbed painfully. 'Nothing I can’t fix myself.’
'I want you to still see the healer,’ the Duke insisted, standing up and easing the much taller magician to his feet, 'come on, get up onto Dale and we’ll take you back.’ He pressed a kiss to his boyfriend’s forehead. 'I am very proud of you for getting rid of those wolves.’
Ydris chuckled and sat hunched on Dale’s back, holding onto the reins limply. 'And thank you for coming to help,’ he said wearily.
'You thought I’d leave you to be eaten? You must be mad,’ the Duke said, setting off back down the path, Dale and the three knights of Firgrove following him.