The snake and the Mirror

The Wolf and the Dragonslayer

 

“This must be the Barcelona settlement,” Giovanni said as they approached the tall reinforced palisade before them. All around them were the crumbling remains of old Barcelona. The city, like so many others, was a shadow of its former size and population, but behind the walls he could see more buildings in good repair, smoke from cooking and forging fires, and the high spires of Barcelona cathedral.

“At long last,” Stella breathed a sigh of relief. The journey through the wilds of Europe had been tougher on Stella than it was on him. They had spent weeks at a time camping quietly in the dark woods, hiding from the monsters and living dead that stalked the continent. Occasionally they happened on a friendly settlement, but more often than not they were sent away without food or rest, the people fearful of what outsiders could bring.

Giovanni had taken to disguising himself somewhat. His head was wrapped in a long scarf to disguise his ears, while his tail was hidden in the long monk’s robes he still wore. Stella still wore a nun’s coif but she had traded much of her other clothing out for more comfortable traveling clothes. They walked together as they approached the gate, watching the motion of the guards who stood by the door. The gates were open, but the pair of them were stopped as they approached with a lifted hand from the guard.

“You two. You’re not from the city,” He said.

“How could you know that?” Stella asked. “There must be several hundred people here.”

“Near a thousand,” The guard said. “But not many of them go in and out during the day, and I’ve a keen eye for foreigners.”

“What my friend means,” Giovanni said, stepping forward. “Is that we are from foreign lands, we are tired and seeking respite from the road.”

“Travelers are welcome in Barcelona, of course,” The guard said. “What good people of God would we be if we turned the needy aside? We only ask you go through a simple search procedure. Shapeshifters and strange folk have been a problem for us in the past.”

Stella gave Giovanni a nervous glance, but he simply nodded.

“So long as such a search does not compromise the dignity of my friend here,” He said. “What does it entail?”

“Nothing invasive,” The guard said waving it off. “We have dogs that can sniff out spirits and devils. Nothing gets past them.”

“I imagine not,” Giovanni said. “We will gladly submit.”

They were ushered inside to a guard house near the gate. There another man brought out a pair of hounds on short leashes to inspect them.

They sniffed over Stella, one growling slightly before they were pulled back.

“Don’t worry,” the guard laughed it off. “Most people coming in stink of spirits from the outside. If they were barking, we’d have a problem.”

“O-of course,” Stella nodded as Giovanni stepped forward.

The dogs approached him, and while they set into the same growl, before they could start barking, Giovanni locked eyes with them. Instantly, the dogs were cowed, whimpering and backing off as the wolf put them in place.

“Huh…never seen ‘em do that before,” The guard said.

“Should I be worried?” Giovanni asked, pulling his eyes off of them.

“Doubt it, these boys’d bark at a dragon if they caught one. You’re free to pass.”

“Thank you,” Giovanni bowed his head as he ushered Stella into the city.

“How did you do that?” Stella asked.

“I did nothing,” Giovanni said. “But there is an order to things, and to be a wolf among hounds is to be a king among men.”

“If you say so…” Stella said. “Where are we going?”

“To find a place to stay and some food,” Giovanni said. “Then I plan to find the woman Torleif spoke of.”

“I’d like to meet her,” Stella said. “But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll find a place to take a bath after we get some food.”

“As you wish,” Giovanni said.

They found a nearby inn that had an open room. Giovanni had brought some gold and scavenged supplies along for bartering, and they were given a clean room with two beds for a decent prize, though Giovanni was quick to deny any assertion they’d be sharing a bed. After that they bought a quick lunch at a market which Stella clearly relished. Giovanni had never gained a taste for cooked food, but for Stella’s happiness, he didn’t say anything. After lunch they split ways, Stella going to look for a bathhouse or something similar while Giovanni walked to the cathedral.

There were a number of people milling in and out of the cathedral, chatting and walking as they moved over the steps and into the square beyond. Among them, Giovanni caught sight of a tall woman with braided blonde hair and a set of armor, a sword carried at her hip. More than sight, however, he could smell her. All wolves had a keen sense of smell, but a wolf like Giovanni could catch the scent of things beyond the mortal spectrum. There was something to this woman he couldn’t explain, she smelled like fresh-spun cloth and bright rays of light, but there was another undertone, the distinct scent of blood.

He moved up to her, head bowed as he approached. She was greeting and making brief small talk with many of the people, but he noticed how she held herself stiffly, keeping herself separated as if leaning slightly away from them, creating a noticeable gap in the crowd where she stood.

“Excuse me,” Giovanni said as he approached. “Would you be the woman they call Wilhelmina Koenig?”

The woman looked at him, eyes moving quickly up and down his body before she nodded. “That’s right, are you new to the city?”

“I am,” Giovanni nodded. “I am simply a pilgrim traveling the land where I can along with my companion. I have heard stories of you and I was wondering if I might have a word?”

Wilhelmina looked him over, a second longer than he was comfortable with, and he wondered if she could sense something off about him.

“Of course,” She said. “Right this way.”

She led him quickly away from the grand front entrance of the cathedral, leading him to one of the smaller side entrances, stepping inside as she held the door open for him.

Giovanni could smell a trap, but not a violent one. Stepping into the cathedral, Giovanni would feel compelled to remove the scarf over his head. It was a simple trap, and one he could have easily ignored, but he decided to take a risk.

Slowly, Giovanni stepped inside as he removed the headscarf, revealing his pointed black lupin ears.

Wilhelmina’s eyes widened a little, but her expression otherwise remained set, confirming his suspicions that she had sensed something off about him.

“Will you let me speak?” Giovanni asked as Wilhelmina followed him into the cathedral.

“For now,” Wilhelmina said curtly. “You didn’t try to assassinate me and you didn’t burst into flames when you stepped inside.”

“I was more concerned about covering my head than bursting into flames,” Giovanni said.

“A man should not cover his head in church,” Wilhelmina said. “A wolf wouldn’t need to.”

“But then I would be betraying that I am not a man,” Giovanni said.

“Or just not a particularly observant one,” Wilhelmina countered. “Better to be seen as impious than a wolf.”

“I disagree,” Giovanni said. “But allow me to introduce myself. I am called the Wolf of Gubbio, now I go by Giovanni.”

“Gubbio?” Wilhelmina blinked in surprise. “Saint Francis’s wolf? You’re a long way from home.”

“Very far. My companion and I were on a pilgrimage of sorts. I wanted to find the other bastions of Christendom in Europe.”

“Well, you’ve found one at least,” Wilhelmina said. “And a large one, I like to think…truth be told contact outside the walls has been pretty slim.”

“It’s the largest west of Rome I’ve yet found,” Giovanni said. “But I haven’t traveled too far north.”

“Few have,” Wilhelmina said. “But I doubt you just wandered blindly. How did you find this city?”

“Well, that’s largely because of you,” Giovanni said. “I heard about you and this city from a girl called Torleif.”

“Torleif?” Wilhelmina’s eyes went wide before her face settled into a smile. “I’m glad to hear she reached Rome. I was worried sending a girl alone on her own. Even a girl…like that.”

“She is…a character,” Giovanni settled on. “But she did make it, eventually. Hardly worse for wear,”

“And what stories did she have about Barcelona?” Wilhelmina asked. “She was a lively little girl, with a pagan streak to boot. I want to make sure she’s not badmouthing this city to the rest of the world.”

“Far from it,” Giovanni smiled. “She seemed almost enamored. She wouldn’t stop talking about the woman in Barcelona, dressed like a knight and slaying dragons.”

“I only ever slew the one dragon,” Wilhelmina said. “And it was a narrow thing. Something I’d prefer…never be repeated.”

Her face gained a somewhat strained expression, and Giovanni gave her a quiet moment to recover herself.

“A good part of the sanctuary was destroyed in the attack,” She said. “We lost a few people. Too many.”

“But the dragon is dead,” Giovanni said. “…right?”

“Very dead,” Wilhelmina said.

“It is a noble thing you did then,” Giovanni said. “Dragons are the servants of the devil, and they spread destruction wherever they go.”

“It was a task. I did nothing more than what was necessary…”

“Slaying dragons is something for heroes and saints,” Giovanni said. “It’s not something to be brushed off.”

“I am not brushing it off…I’m just not one to elevate myself,” Wilhelmina said. “TO the people I might be a hero…and I’m no saint…but I did it because if I didn’t, a lot more people would die. The city would be destroyed and…Because it was my master’s last command.”

“Mmm…you are very humble,” Giovanni said. “But I won’t press the matter further. Tell me, are you getting by well in the city?’

“We are doing well, and growing,” Wilhelmina said, clearly a little relieved to change the subject. “We’re looking at solutions to expand the wall soon, it’s getting a little cramped in the city.”

“That’s good…” Giovanni said. “I received word from Rome a little while ago…the people there are preparing a strike on Nidhoggr.”

“Ah, the chaos dragon. Torleif told me about it…in her way,” Wilhelmina said. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure we can spare…”

“Ah no, I wasn’t looking for recruitment,” Giovanni shook his head. “More…I was hopeful. If Nidhoggr is defeated…Rome will look to expand its trade network beyond the Alps.”

“Rome is very far away,” Wilhelmina said. “That’s quite a proposal.”

“Ah but we’re bound by things stronger than geography. Tell me, is there an active archbishop in the city?”

“In Barcelona? Of course.”

“Then I would like to speak to him,” Giovanni said. “It’s time the faith was brought together and made whole again.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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