Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 4

Twenty-four Horselords of Eodon rode north towards the nation’s border. Twenty-four arrived at Kensington Keep, and found signs of struggle, looting, and slaughter. Twenty-two continued on, following what looked like orc tracks, against all belief that such a thing could be true. The other two returned to the capitol, pushing their mighty steeds harder and faster than perhaps any steed had been pushed. Sir Sealfrey the Pious and his companion Keshia rode day and night across hills, down roads, through farmland, under thick treetops and through rocky streams, stopping only when they and their mounts could not continue. They arrived at the gates of the Grey City worn, exhausted, hungry- but determined.

They had been gone barely a week, but Sealfrey knew immediately upon seeing the city at the horizon that something was horribly, terribly wrong. The city’s banners flew, but the normal colors of green and silver had gone, replaced with standards of pure black. Deep, bottomless black. It could only mean one thing. The true King of Eodon was dead.

Guards stood at the city gates, watching the roads. The Horselord sped to the north gate, pulling the reins back at the last moment, his steed skidding on the cobblestones as it came to a halt. As Keshia slid to a stop behind him, he called out to the nearest guard.

“Please, there is no time. Tell me, why are the banners black? Who in the king’s court has died?”

He knew what he was going to hear before it was said, but he had to ask. He prayed to the gods for it all to be a mistake.

“His majesty, the late king Lainen Tarithal the second, as well as his son. The new king, Galex Refic, was crowned just yesterday,” the guard replied.

One of the other guards approached and began to speak, but Sealfrey could wait no longer. He whipped the reins and his horse stomped past, forcing more than one guard to jump out of the way. His eyes burned with anguish, terror, and fury for the supposed “king” in Lainen’s place. He sped through the thoroughfare, peasants and merchants dodging out of the way as he and Keshia darted south to the city’s core, Eodon Castle.

They both leapt from their mounts as they reached the entrance, running as fast as they could to get into the structure, ignoring the castle guards waiting at the gates. Neither spoke as they passed beyond the castle walls.

Nobody knew what happened within those castle walls, but Sir Sealfrey and Keshia never left the castle alive. The twenty-two of Lainen’s favored Horselords continued their search for orcs, many days’ ride from the capitol, unaware that their beloved king was dead.

Syf had been a Horselord since a young age, following in her father’s footsteps. He was a draconian, a proud leader of their green-scaled clan, and he had pledged his life and his loyalty to King Lainen Tarithal I many years before. She began training as a knight after her father’s death in the Great Orc Wars, and she had been squire to Sir Evard Ironbeard, priest of Molog, brother to the marquis of the dwarven nation of Seven Hammers, long-time allies of Eodon. Evard taught her everything she knew, and the two were never far from each other’s sides.

After hearing that Sealfrey and Keshia had left so suddenly, Evard, as Knight-Captain, had ordered the remaining knights to regroup and follow the orc tracks to the north. They rode on until nightfall, making camp a short ways off the trail, making sure to keep their fires low and their activities quiet. It bothered Syf that the orcs, if these even truly were orcs, didn’t seem to need to stop and rest. Their trail just continued, never ceasing, never slowing, on to their destination.

Then again, maybe she was letting her fear get the best of her. Maybe whoever was leading the orcs spent a good deal of time and effort covering the signs of their rest. It might just be the fact that orcs were a sort of a myth to her, responsible for killing her father in battle yet completely wiped out by the time she was old enough to fight. No, not completely wiped out- apparently they had come back, somehow. But how was it possible? King Lainen’s army searched everywhere, all across the lands, killing each and every orc that lived. Some people called him cruel, but those people clearly never lost a loved one to the menace. But even if some of them survived, could they have multiplied this quickly? Or could magic have been involved? Evard always said that even magic couldn’t bring someone back from the dead. So what was happening?

She tried not to think about it too much. She looked over the low fire at Evard, polishing his golden armor in the light of the embers. He smiled at her, and then went back to his work. It put Syf at ease. With Evard in charge, they’d find their mark and return to Eodon and receive commendations from King Lainen himself.

The next morning they continued on, once again following the tracks. The trail continued on, and the Horselords followed. For days and days, turning into a week, they followed the same tracks, never straying from the path. The vast forest gave way to the northern plains, and eventually the path led outside the borders of Eodon, and into the mountains beyond. The knights rode their mighty steeds atop a high mountain, and finally found what they were looking for.

They all dismounted their horses as the frigid mountain wind beat upon them, wrapping their heavy clothing around themselves to stave off the frost. Before them, frozen in the craggy snow, was the remains of what could only have been a battlefield. Dozens- hundreds, possibly- of hulking bodies lay, half-decomposed despite the freezing temperatures. Syf knelt in the snow next to a body that lay face-down, its skin a dark mottled grey. She wedged her hands under the corpse, her thick leather gloves leaving imprints in the packed snow. With a heave the body was rolled onto its back, and she recoiled in momentary horror.

It was an orc.

Its face was terrible, twisted in an expression of agony. Its stomach was torn open by something even more horrible than it, and whatever caused such carnage didn’t seem to stay around. She looked around the peak at the scores of dead orcs, and found herself wishing only that she could have been there to see the foul creatures get what was coming to them.

Syf heard someone call out, and it seemed the rest of the Horselords were gathering around one particular dead body. Anar, an enigmatic knight that had served King Lainen for longer than anyone could remember, stood over the dead orc, looking slightly out-of-place. He typically kept his body wrapped tightly in white cloths, leaving only a small patch of colorless skin visible over his grey eyes. He was the only one of the Horselords who didn’t wear extra protection against the elements atop this frigid peak, and as such his form looked abnormally gaunt compared to the rest of them. The corpse at his feet looked like the rest, except impaled through its ribcage was a massive claw, torn from whatever beast kill them all.

The claw alone was long enough to pierce completely through the orc, and that meant whatever created it was huge.

“Dragon. Red. Ancient.”

Anar was never a man of many words, despite being one of the nation’s foremost sages. He got the point across as efficiently as possible, expressing certain pieces of information: First, it was an old dragon, and thus very large and very powerful. Second, and more importantly, it was a red dragon, which meant it wasn’t native to such a cold climate. In other words… it was long gone. And with it, any captives the orcs may have been taking with them.

The group searched the area thoroughly, checking every corpse and looking for tracks leaving the mountaintop just to be sure, but in the end the outlook was grim. If a dragon had taken any captives, there was no way for even the Horselords to track it, let alone keep up with it. Whatever the case, Evard gave the group their instructions: The new objective, at this point, was to return to within the borders of Eodon and get word back to the king and await further orders. They had confirmed that orcs were involved, however that was possible, and that the nation was indeed under attack. Their next move was up to the king and his advisors.

Disappointed, they traveled back within the borders of Eodon, and set up camp a few hours’ travel from the nearest settlement. Evard assembled a small team of six to travel to the village, including himself and Syf, so as not to alert any of the locals of any possible danger in the area until their orders were issued. They rode into town early in the morning, saluting the guards on patrol as they rode past. They dismounted when they reached town hall, and Syf began walking towards the building when Evard grabbed her shoulder, stopping her abruptly. He held up two fingers, signaling the others to halt as well.

“Something is wrong. Look around. There’s nobody walking the streets, and everyone’s windows are closed.”

He was right. Even this early, there should be people milling about, but the only ones they’d passed were the guards near the edge of town. In fact, those guards were… Knights. The six Horselords turn around, and saw more than a dozen knights of Eodon, their livery bearing the Eodon horse symbol but colored red and black. They had crossbows at the ready, trained on each of them as if they were common criminals.

“Stand down, soldiers,” called out Evard. “I am Knight-Captain Evard Ironbeard, and I demand to know the meaning of this. Why has your livery changed color? What is going on in Eodon?”

The knights stood fast, the warm morning breeze blowing around them.

“I repeat, stand down. I demand to know the name and rank of your commanding officer.”

One of the knights, crossbow still armed and ready, spoke.

“We are operating under the direct order of the acting king of Eodon, Galex Refic.”

Syf’s eyes bulged. Galex? King?

“How dare you speak of such blasphemy, knave!”

Another knight spoke, once again refusing to lower his crossbow.

“King Lainen Tarithal the second is dead. He died almost two weeks ago, shortly after his son’s own death. Duke Galex took his place as acting king for the time being, to make sure the kingdom was united against the orc threat.”

Evard shook his head. He ground his teeth, his hands flexing and itching for something- anything- to show him that this was not true. It had to be a dream, or a trick, or something other than the truth. Before he could do anything, however, Syf spoke again.

“Even if this were the truth, under what authority do you brandish weapons at us? It is within our license to kill you outright for such insubordination.”

The first knight spoke again, narrowing his eyes at the group.

“You have been branded guilty of the crime of high treason by King Galex himself. We will escort you to the capitol for trial. If you resist, it is our order to execute you.”

There was a brief pause. Nobody spoke, no wind blew, and the world itself waited.

“I’d like to see you try.”

Evard was upon the first knight, his massive hammer in his calloused hands. It collided with the knight’s chestplate, knocking him to the ground several feet back. His crossbow flew from his grip, its bolt firing harmlessly off into the air. Such an outburst was uncharacteristic of Evard, but he would be damned before he allowed himself to be taken prisoner by someone claiming to be sent by a false king.

Syf was right behind him, halberd in hand. Three of the knights fired their crossbows at her, which she dodged, catching one in her shoulder. She brought the flat of the halberd’s blade into the next knight’s face, hearing his helmet clang loudly against his skull. The four remaining Horselords hurried forward as well, weapons drawn and ready for combat.

“Aim to weaken, not to kill! These men are not the enemy!” Evard used the haft of his hammer to hook under a knight’s legs, throwing him to the ground and following it up with a soft blow to the side of the head, knocking him unconscious. “When possible, I order a swift retreat!”

They quickly mounted their horses, leaving some of the guards still standing. They fired after the Horselords as they rode away, but were too slow. As they escaped the village limits, Evard made sure to lead the group in a different direction than they had come, making a wide circle back to the camp, so as not to easily lead anyone following to the rest of the company.

As they arrived back at camp, Evard gathered everyone around and Syf began bandaging her shoulder. He explained to the rest of the Horselords what he had learned- King Lainen was dead. Duke Galex had taken the throne, and it seemed all of them- Lainen’s loyal knights- were charged with treason against the throne. Most of them didn’t want to believe it, and several cried out in anguish upon learning of the beloved king’s death. Some vowed vengeance, but Syf did her best to calm everyone down. No matter how furious or betrayed they may have felt, there was nothing they could do, right then and there, that could change anything.

They traveled across the countryside over the next month, sneaking into some small settlements under disguise to learn as much as they could. As far as anyone knew, both Lainen and his son had died of natural causes, at an incredibly inconvenient time considering the orc invasion. At first it seemed like the people were going to recognize the treachery for what it was and turn against Galex, but then two villages close to the capitol were attacked by orcs- and fear overwhelmed public reason. They rallied behind the new king, who began mustering the armies and the nation’s remaining Horselords to guard against the looming threat. Whispers remained rampant, but the officially accepted truth of the land was that Lainen and his son had died under perfectly normal circumstances.

Worse yet, every one of the Horselords that had gone off at Lainen’s behest had been branded a criminal, and now every settlement that they could find had posters with each and every one of their faces printed on them. They had to live out in the wilderness, constantly moving to keep from being detected and hunted down like common scoundrels. They made incredibly brief forays into civilization at first, until one day three of the Horselords were recognized by a group of guards, and whether they were killed or simply taken prisoner, they never returned to camp. Life was miserable, and the injustice of it all weighed heavily on everyone’s hearts.

One day, Evard called a meeting after nightfall. He had been thinking long and hard about it, and praying to Lord Molog for guidance, but he saw no other option: He couldn’t let this continue. He was going to Eodon, and he was going to slay the tyrant that had stolen the throne from its rightful owner.

Syf stood beside him as he made his announcement, faithful and loyal to him to a fault. Several of the Horselords were outraged, saying that even if Galex was a traitor and deserved death, a full frontal assault was not the answer- for the sake of their families, for the sake of their countrymen, the better solution may simply to accept a life of exile.

But others agreed with him.

He made it clear that he would bear no ill will towards anyone who did not wish to accompany him. He made it clear he knew that it was a suicide mission. But it had to be done.

Before dawn the next morning, ten Horselords began the long ride towards the capitol, knowing full well that they would never see their allies again.

The dwarf Evard, Knight-Captain of the true Horselords of Eodon, held a dirty finger to his lips. His skin and armor were painted black, like his companions. Syf nodded her large scaled head in understanding. There were guards nearby, and he had seen movement.

They would need to be as stealthy as possible now. They had managed to reach the heart of Castle Eodon undetected, near the false king Galex’s chambers. Syf lifted her halberd; she was ready. They had spent the last few weeks traveling under the cover of night, hiding in the shadows, and planning their attack. She wondered at times whether this was truly the right choice… but Evard had made the decision. She would stand by him until the end, if that’s what it took.

The ten that crept along the castle chambers had made the solemn decision to undertake this task. The remaining nine had chosen to accept their exile and go on their own way. Evard refused to accept such a fate- the traitor-king had killed Lainen, likely killed Sealfrey and Keshia, and had turned all of their former allies- if not the entire kingdom- against them. He was the main advocate for the attack on Galex, but not the only one.

They had bid each other farewell that day, likely for the final time. Since then, Evard had worked with the sage Anar at every opportunity to plan their attack perfectly. Nobody knew the castle grounds better than Anar, and despite his even temperament, he was an absolute terror to behold in combat. As long as he lived, their plan would succeed.

One more chamber. There would be four guardsmen, and then… Galex. Sleeping in his stolen robes, more than likely. The bastard. Just thinking about it made Syf so angry. She used to look up to him- they all had. He was Duke Galex, hero of the war, leader of the king’s armies and second only to King Lainen himself. How the trystborn could have betrayed that sacred trust and revealed his true colors…! Syf bit her lip and felt the anger well up again.

Five of them, led by Evard, stood just outside the doorway to Galex’s chambers, preparing themselves for the battle. The other five, led by the hooded Anar, were thirty feet back, keeping watch over their back so as to keep Evard’s team from being interrupted. They were almost there. Syf gripped her weapon in anticipation. They would succeed. With any luck, she would be able to land the killing blow on Galex’s foul neck herself. Evard grabbed the handle of the bedchamber, his hammer in hand, and rushed inside.

Time seemed to slow down. Evard, the finest warrior Syf had ever seen, was decapitated instantly upon entering the room. As his headless body slumped to the floor, Sir Sealfrey’s slender form became visible in the shadows beyond, his longsword dripping with the dwarf’s blood. The blade turned on Syf, who blocked and dodged with all of her might. She blocked the fear from her mind. She suppressed the confusion, though she had no idea why the noble but lost Sir Sealfrey would possibly defend Galex. As the others rushed into the room, Syf watched Sealfrey easily fend off not only herself, but the other three of Evard’s team as well, parrying blows and countering with speed the likes of which she had never seen. In the blink of an eye, the other three were dead, lying on the polished floor next to Evard. She threw herself into the battle, using every ounce of her fury and determination against him. But he was so fast, she knew it was only a matter of time. And then, she stumbled.

Her foot must have caught on one of her fallen allies. Her back hit the ground with a thud, and instantly, Sealfrey was perched upon her. His blade pierced her midsection, its sharp tip colliding with the stone floor. She had never been stabbed through her armor before- for a moment she found herself surprised by how much the broken metal pressing into her wound hurt. But she took the fatal wound stoically, thinking of Evard and of her father, hoping to make them both proud with this brave and just death. With the last of her strength, she swung her halberd at the edhel, slicing cleanly through his thigh. The leg, now freed from Sealfrey’s body, fell limply to the ground with a sickening thud.

With a guttural roar, he lost his balance, falling backward. Suddenly a pair of linen-wrapped arms appeared around his body, causing Syf one last smirk. Anar had him grappled, and the sage deftly wrestled him to the ground, holding him in a vice grip as he tried to squeeze the life out of the fallen Horselord. All was not lost. She had not died in vain. Time continued to slow as she neared the end. Her warm blood pumped through her abdomen, and she saw more as the world slowed to a crawl.

She saw the grey pallor of Sealfrey’s dry flesh. She saw the wound she had given him, where his leg had been cut off, and that it was scarcely bleeding at all. What blood was leaving his body was slow moving, thick and black, like syrup. She saw the edhel raise his longsword, even though there was no way he could effectively swing it at Anar, who still held him from behind. Finally, she saw Sealfrey plunge his sword deep into his own chest, to the hilt, and through Anar behind him. When Sealfrey pulled the sword out of his chest, Anar collapsed dead on the stone floor behind him. The traitorous knight did not seem at all bothered by the chest wound or missing leg. Sir Sealfrey the Pious, it seemed to Syf, was somehow already dead.

As he finished taking the lives of the remaining knights in Anar’s party, Syf’s vision dimmed. She let go of the confusion, the horror, the sorrow, the anger. She was in the training yard again, sparring with Evard. Learning to be a noble knight, like Evard, like her father.

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