Hour of the wolf

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There is a hollow void just before dawn, between the darkness and the light, into which all hope falls. It is from the bottom of that pit that Guijus Tellador sees his world, fear and doubt and paranoia pressing down upon him like soil thrown into an open grave. He senses the end draws near but he cannot see it.

In the hour of the wolf he is alone with his innermost thoughts. He lies in his bed, silence clawing at his mind, as possibilities of rescue wink out one by one, like stars blotted from the sky. The dark ceiling bears down upon him, the palace walls close in on all sides, and he knows there will be no salvation.

He cannot go back. It is done.

Kirya is gone. He knows, somehow, that he will never see her again. The daughter that meant more to him than all the crown's power, than all the people in the valley. She was why rose from his bed in the morning with confidence and why he closed his eyes at night with dreams of a better future. He had run out of people to blame. No evidence had been found of a fight, or of her being taken against her will. Lief had been an obvious target, one long overdue a reckoning, but he could see now that there was nothing to link him to her disappearance. Reports had come back from Anja's agents of unconfirmed sightings to the north, even suggesting that she was accompany Fenris Silt.

There was no way he could retain her against her will, leaving only one other explanation. She had not been taken, but had chosen to leave. His own blood, abandoning him to treason and betrayal.

He wanted to talk to Fenris, to consult him about the best course of action. They had spent hours in the evenings poring over reports and strategy and ideas. That absence was felt more keenly than he had ever expected. Fenris' hand had always been steady and fair, despite his veneer of calculating indifference. Guijus' anger had forced his most trusted adviser into hiding, he knew, and there was nothing he could do to return to how things were.

The hour of the wolf left no prisoners.

Anja had grown even more distant in recent weeks, such that days would go by during which they barely spoke more than a handful of sentences to one another. She seemed distracted and always tired, to the point where he wondered if she slept at night or walked the shadowed palace corridors. She might have been physically still there, but she had left just like the others. Guijus had always ruled through the bond of his family: Guijus had been the strength, Kirya the conscience, Anja the will. Without them he could feel his grip on the throne weakening, and feared that others would soon sense it, too.

After receiving word of the sightings of Kirya he had begun preparations to send an envoy to Bruckin and to release Theodus Lief. The situation was dire enough that even Guijus Tellador could swallow his pride to avoid a war he was not confident of winning. Diplomacy was to have been the order of the day, until he had woken to find Lief gone and his ship down in flames, the broken bodies of the crew scattered across the forest. There would be war now; there was no alternative. No escape. There would be death by the thousands, and at the end of it all they would all still be trapped within the mountain ring, prisoners of the valley regardless of who sat upon the mesa throne.

Seldon. He had started all of this, with his claims and impressive tales. Those endless promises of travel and trade and freedom beyond the mountains. He had tempted them all to dream of change, then had abandoned them to chaos and uncertainty, vanishing as suddenly as he had appeared.

There were days that Guijus wondered if he had imagined the entire encounter. He found himself rushing to the records room, sifting through papers to find official reports of Seldon's arrival at the palace. Stryke's telling of the finding of the man on the glacier, broken and bloodied. There were some in the valley who would have killed Seldon on sight, rather than treat him as an honoured guest. He repaid that welcome poorly.

There was another life there, flickering on the ceiling, just beyond reach. Possibilities flickered through Guijus' mind. The city rejoiced in Tranton Seldon's introduction, welcoming him into home and taverns and markets. The party descended upon the Verase estate and it lasted two weeks, drinking the old man's cellars dry, and at the end of it Tranton drew a map more detailed than any that had ever been seen in Lagonia. On it were the safe routes through the Barrier Mountains, charting a new future for all inhabitants of the valley. A pilgrimage had begun with King Guijus Tellador at its front, leading his people to a newly expanded life beyond the peaks. He had been the first to sight ocean, witnessing its blue expanse as it pressed against the Headland coastline. They had descended into the new world and their generosity towards Tranton had been returned in kind. Some Lagonians ventured on, crossing the seas to the vast deserts and tropical mysterious that lay in the darker depths of the world, but Guijus had returned to the valley, triumphant, having secured new alliances. Baron Theodus Lief had bowed to his wisdom and courage and Lagonia was truly united for the first time, not borne from necessity and scarcity but from a common goal to show the valley's culture to the world such that all could benefit. It was a golden age of plenty, finally enabling the shuttering of the machine rooms. The revelation of their existence was painful and unforgivable and so he abdicated, vacating the throne and taking the responsibility and the shame with him, passing power to his younger and more compassionate daughter. Queen Kirya Tellador became the people's queen, leading them to greater glories than anyone could have imagined and Guijus watched from the sidelines, happy to be free from his obligations and knowing that his actions would shape the world for generations.

A clock on the mantelpiece at the far end of the room ticked ceaselessly on, borne forward by time with no regard for politics or the despair of man. The seconds advanced slowly, the wolf baring its fangs for one final time before the sun would banish it back to its hiding place.

All was disaster. If there was to be any survival he would need to hold onto power with a clenched fist. People were easily distracted, never more easily than by the noise and fury of war. There would be war: he would see to it. It would consume them, and drive attention away from his errors and the calamities of his court. He would emerge the victor, in the end, even if he were standing atop a mesa of ashes.

Outside, a wolf howled at the closing of the night.

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