The shadow sped around the walltop, quick as the breeze. The town bustled below, going about their morning routines. The shadow ran on, defying the wind—and the laws of nature—with its breakneck pace.
It slowed. Then it disappeared.
Moments later, a stable boy in Kharador’s palace courtyard jumped at the sight of the cloaked shadow coming straight at him. There was no entrance from where it was coming; the dark-cloaked figure had come from nowhere. The stable boy’s small, smooth face jolted into a picture of fright as the black thing came barreling down on him.
A gloved hand appeared from among the folds of cloth. The sign of the Silver Wolf was stitched into the palm. This was no enemy. It bore the king’s seal. The boy dived into a nearby feed pile, dodging the figure’s unstoppable advance. It fled from his sight, marching steadily to the palace doors
The stable boy’s master strode in, leading the King’s Wolf by its harness. His eyes followed the shadow as it threw open the palace doors, the guards making no move to hinder her.
“Never seen her before, have you, boy?”
The head holding a pair of wide eyes shook slightly, rustling the feed in the pile.
“That’s the Guardian. Be expecting her ev’ry morning.” He snorted. “It’s better that way.”
Inside the palace, the cloaked Guardian threw off her hood, revealing a leather mask that covered most of her head. A long curtain of reddish-brown hair, freed of the hood’s restriction, flooded down her shoulders, ragged and unkempt. The echo of her boots thudding against the stone floor reverberated against the high arched ceiling of the castle’s main corridor. Her hasty strides generated breeze enough to rustle the tapestries and banners that lined the walls. Tapestries depicting the War; the King’s father astride his white Wolf; rigid human armies forming rank on rank in a flat, lifeless cloth tableau. The blue and silver banners of the King; the smaller, duller banners of the Sprite Lord, black and white moth-eaten flecks in a field of dully gleaming colors. All of these stirred in response to the rapid tread of the Guardian, who plunged through corridor after corridor, the servants scattering at her approach, until she reached the curving steps of the princess’s tower.
She sprung up the steps two at a time, and, taking advantage of the shadowed hall, began peeling away layers of cloth. First, the gloves came off. Then the hood. Then one of the two capes that kept her from the chill, and from the prying eyes of the curious. The more mystery that surrounded the Guardian, the better.
Then the mask. A deep breath through the gaping, skull-like nostrils. The sweat trickled through the labyrinthine cobweb of scars stretched taut from her hairline to her chin. Free of the mask, at last, at the threshold of Aileen’s chambers.
She did not knock, but slid the key into the lock, silently turned it, and pushed the heavy door open. It was early, yet. The princess would still be asleep, lost in her dreams.
Then again, thought the Guardian with a smile, she is still lost in them in her waking.