Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Enter the King

Duke Horace Andragon Oakfir, awaited word, pacing the hexagonal chambers of his study, a half-mile away in Castle Cranok. The Duke was done up spectacularly, in his finest dress armor, shining silver and gold with scarlet enamel done in fine patterns on his breastplate, gauntlets and greaves. Attached to his armor was a fine, heavy cloak, red as blood, with the house Emblem, the Crane in white relief trimmed with golden thread. The armor was heavy, though not nearly as heavy as that worn for battle, and the Duke had a fine sheen of sweat over his nervous features.

In his fourth decade, the Duke had the features of a young man, a swift and ready smile, with an endemic aristocratic smirk. He had an athletic build, close cropped light brown hair, and slightly watery, poorly focused eyes. He always seemed to be on the verge of making a joke, usually ill-timed, and usually at someone’s expense. Despite these frailties, the Duke had made a legend of himself as an Andrayan hero of epic proportions. Songs abounded about the valiant deeds of the Ermine Prince. The songs ranged the gamut, funny jocular tales where the hero ended up in a pool of mud, and heroic jaunts through dragon caves. Prince Warren had won serious battles during the Succession, but the Ermine Prince, Duke Oakfir, had won the peasantry with songs, cheap wine, and endless promises. An attendant filled a jug of ale, and handed it off to the Duke’s gauntleted hand.

The Duke’s study was an odd place, as it was not used for much study. In fact, in the last few years, the Duke had rarely seen the inside of it at all. Mounted on the walls were the heads of slain beasts, and the battered shields of slain enemies. The walls were cluttered with such momentos, and a servant was hurriedly making room upon the wall above his desk for one more. That would be the place of honor, the Duke thought feverishly. Though the Duke was strong, an able fighter certainly, and known across the land for his determination, many, in fact most, of the trophies in his study were gifts, or gained from the victories of fellows and subordinates. Not this trophy, he muttered to himself, this trophy would be the feather in his cap, the medal of honor, and he would have gained it all by himself. With the help of the Creanin, he heard a whisper.

The Duke turned around, cuffing a servant with his gauntlet in outrage. Almost immediately he realized his error. He mumbled an apology to the downed servant, and motioned to another to help the stricken servant. Minds playin’ tricks, he thought, fair enough, it’s a big night. The Duke was right, of course. Tonight would be the night he would be crowned King of Andrayor. It had been a long bloody road to get here, and he was sure that it was only the beginning of the flow of blood. The Duke did feel sorrow over that, if only people would listen to him. I’m right, I know I am, he thought, a whimsical half-smile touching his features. No one could know what he knew, not now certainly, but soon. Soon, they would all understand, because Horace had been promised.

His father was the first to break the news, King Horace I, who would hence be known as the Paendragon, was an old man now, not yet senile, but his tall frame was stooped with age, and the ceremonial armor he wore had been hollowed out by his armorers, such that a table knife correctly placed, could penetrate the fancy plate mail. King Horace, still had the grace of a man who had once ruled supreme over the land, and he entered the study with a practiced gentility.
Duke Oakfir looked at him eagerly, a child waiting for a gift from his father.

“My boy,” the old King spoke, his voice cracking, “My boy, you are King.” Despite, their armor, the two embraced immediately, and the Duke Oakfir’s strong arms crushed the old man to him.
In spite of himself he couldn’t believe it. The campaign had been a close one, and Warren had won many important battles, and though the people chanted “Oakfir” in every village, cries of “Warren” and “The Eagle” had taken in many of the larger towns and cities. The Duke sincerely believed that he was a man of the people, raised by the peasantry, raised for one purpose, as promised by God, to be King. So it was for this reason, that almost immediately, his wonder wore off. And the air around the new King, condensed, turning into an invisible cloak of newfound royalty, surrounding him. He breathed it in, and became more royal with every breath. His father, released from his crushing grip, sighed and smiled.

“That’s King to you, father. You may address me as your majesty,” his smile had an impish cast, and it was mirrored on his father’s face, older and sadder. Horace the Elder sized up his eldest son, and took a deep breath, preparing to speak carefully, in his reedy voice.

Horace the Elder seemed about to respond when another figure strode into the chamber in flowing violet robes with close cropped hair. Great gold chains hung wrapped around his neck, amulets and mystical tokens hung from compartments and pockets in his robe, such that as he moved into the room, the sorcerer jingled and clinked.

Oakfir released his father immediately, forgetting him in his haste to embrace the robed man. They met with crash, as the ornate mail of the new King clanged heavily against the chains and other implements of power hanging about the person of the sorcerer. He was older than the young King, but had a boyish gleam in his eye, which despite his black beard and mustaches gave him the impression of a boy about to do some mischief. The two were a pair, and they embraced like boys.

“How bout it, you crazy magician! We did it! We did it! We made me King! Did you get to see the look on old Warren’s face? Were you there? How did that old bag Hintrose take it?”
This barrage of questions made the sorcerer smile, and though he did not answer the King’s questions, his enthusiastic gesticulating had their chosen effect.

“My King, we have taken the day! Everything went exactly according to plan the Magistrae interceded at the last minute, and banished the Prince for the “safety of the government and the well being of the country.” Without the support of the Council, Warren’s troops were forced to flee.”

“That’s phenomenal Khaddy! I knew we’d do it! That’s what faith is you know, real faith.”
Horace the Elder, cleared his throat, his graying countenance quick to dissemble. “High Magician Khadash, was it a complete rout? Is the capitol completely secure?”

Khadash turned toward the Elder and regarded him gravely, “Ah my Lord, you are keen to see as ever.” Forgetting the new King for a minute, the tall magician, swirled his violet robes dramatically, “The city is not yet ours, nor, in truth the Keep. Right now, the men of the Crane, the Kraken, and Steel of Steelrook are sweeping the castle for liegemen to the Duke. Voravian fears that loyalists to Queen Hintrose might take make some last ditch effort to free her from captivity.”

Oakfir interrupted peevishly, “well then we’ll flush them out. We won’t let a single inch of that castle go unsearched,” his voice began to rise, “we’ll find them all, root them out, hunt them down, turn that dusty old fortress inside out!”

Again, Horace the Elder made a little tick in his throat. His son faltered and stopped. “And what has Captain Eldrak done with those he has taken captive?”

And again, the dashing sorcerer regarded the old King gravely, but with a trace of guile in his dark eyes. Without answering the question, Khadash spoke carefully, “Those who have yielded, caught unawares, or disarmed have been removed to the west gallery. As Lords Voravian, Clinnkray, Ginnplain and you yourself agreed.”

The old man stared hard at the young enchanter as if attempting to light the mysterious depths of his black eyes. Oakfir, seeing his father silenced, asserted himself.

“What time is it Khaddy? I’ve been cooped up in here all night, and it’s driving me crazy!”

“It was necessary your highness. You understand that. You couldn’t be involved in the taking of the succession.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know all that. But I want out. Now. It’s time this city saw what a real King looked like!

“Horace,” said the Elder of house Crane, “I think you should stay here in Cranok until we receive word that the city is subdued.”

“Your father may be right,” said the unctuous magician, “a stray arrow from a balcony, or third-story window and your majesty might be the shortest lived King in the history of Andrayor!”

“Dammit Khaddy not you too! What good is being King if you can’t do what you want when you want it!”


The door to the study had opened again, and a sudden chill gusted into the room, guttering the torches spaced evenly on the walls. Two more men swept into the room, both were armed. The room seemed to drop in temperature almost immediately.

“Close the damn door! I swear to God it’s it cold in here, you’re letting the heat out! Get your butt in here and give me a progress report.”

Clinky, or Lord Clinnkray was by far the oldest man in the room, but his countenance and his bearing were square and bluff, his eyes cruel and cold. His skin was pale and in some places pocked. His hair receding and ending back into his heavy shoulder guard. His eyes, deeply set in his large skull burned with something worse than zeal, and his breath stank of old hatred. He was in full armor, and his plate mail coated in black email glowed with an unearthly non-light. Embossed on the front of it was a human skull, inlaid in ivory, and accented with the horns of ram, done in mother of pearl. Attached to his side, where a sword would have hung was a long great mace of black iron. It bore the signs of recent use.

Following him was a man of middle years. He was not in heavy plate, but wore the heavy dark green robes and mail of a Temple Guard. His eyes were low lidded and watery, but his skin was pink and prone to being flushed. His skin hung from his chin in loose wads, and his robes bulged slightly. A sword was belted to his side, but it was cinched in its scabbard for riding.

Khadash nodded to the two, and exchanged an almost imperceptible glance with the middle-aged new comer. He stepped back within the study, allowing the two men into the room. “Lords Clinnkray, Voravian, welcome.”

“What is the King still doing here?” Clinnkray grated. He had been a fearful campaigner in his earlier years, and had been known as the Beast of RedClay. He was so old though that none but the eldest castellans and graybeards could remember the days of his youth. So eventually the RedClay had been lost to meaning, since the Lord himself never spoke of his past. Now he was simply known as the Beast.

“Yes, Clinnkray!” Oakfir crowed jubilantly. “That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s go out there and break some heads. I don’t want to miss all the fighting.”

“His highness didn’t seem to mind missing most of it.”

Horace the Elder interposed on behalf of his son, “Clinnkray,” he said coolly, “in just a few hours, young Oakfir here will be anointed your King. It might do to start paying him your respect.”
The moment lengthened until the new King broke into a sunny grin, “Oh come on Clinky, don’t be such a downer. Today is a day for celebration! Right boys? Now let’s get out of here and clean house! Here boy,” he gestured to his page, “fetch Captain Eldrak. Tell him to ready my honor guard.” The boy, a sandy-haired lordling of a wealthy family, scurried out of the chamber. His footsteps could be heard slapping down the stone hall.

Again, Khadash attempted to intercede, “but my King—”the Baron Voravian unctuously slid between them.

“Your Majesty, I have long dreamed of the day when I could address you as such. As you know I have spoken to the multitudes, I have lived among them, and this is what they say: they say that you’re the king of their heart, the one that really does it for them. Now you have that now, and you can keep that, by doing exactly what you’re proposing,” Voravian spoke in quick, clipped sentences, his eyes beady and focused, “now you want to go out there and fight, and you’re going to, and I support that. But let’s keep that multitude in mind, shall we? They’re your supporters, so if you’re going to do this, then by all means, let’s do it right.”

The bejeweled Horace the Younger, looked up quickly, a slow smile coming to his face. He listened intently to his most trusted advisor.

“So you want to go out there and bust some heads right?” It occurred to no one that the newcomers must have been listening at the door. “Well, here’s what we’re going to do. I have it on good authority that in two hours a young knight is going to try to assassinate the old queen.”
“No!” Oakfir gasped, the lives of royalty were almost always sacrosanct, and Queen Hintrose would make an excellent hostage. Of course, had the circumstances been different, he would have gladly ordered for the headsman. As Duke of the House Crane, Oakfir had personally called for the Headsman more times then any of his Duchy’s predecessors.

“Believe it, your Majesty, these traitors would stoop to any low, stop at nothing to see you laid low, to see Prince Warren on the throne.”

“But why?”

“Who can say, your Majesty, these men have no faith, no reason either, for that matter. Perhaps they seek to cast an aspersion on your character, maybe they mean to blame her death on you. Maybe they think she’s a danger to their Prince, maybe they believe that she sided with you in your rightful bid for the throne. It matters not, my liege, it could be any of those reasons, or none of them. What matters now is that we must stop it.”

“My God!” Oakfir swore, “you’re damn right! What do we do?”

Voravian had the King in his thrall, his lips pursed in a semi-smile. Off to the side, Clinnkray smiled maliciously. His smile was even more ghastly than his frown, his teeth yellowing often altogether missing.

“Word is this young knight will be leading his cabal out from the Merchant quarter, crossing the Central Green, and heading to the Circuit Royale to recruit more followers before—”

“I thought the Merchant quarter had been subdued,” said Khadash softly.

Voravian looked at him swiftly, his lips pursing uncertainly. “Ah, indeed sir, but my informant has presented very compelling evidence. Besides, we would not wish to risk our new King in the very heat of a pitched battle!”

“Like Hell!” Oakfir protested.

“Enough talk,” Clinnkray interrupted. The Beast spat on the floor of Oakfir’s study; his spittle was flecked with blood. “If this man who would be King approves, then let us squash this madness at once.”

“Well, I am King, Clinky, God damn it, you will respect me!”

“You have not been crowned yet Oakfir,”

“Now father, he can’t treat me like this, you tell him—you tell him that I’m king now. Khadesh, little help?”

It was Voravian who came to Oakfir’s aid. He made as if to place his hand on the Baron’s armored shoulder, then withdrew it. The hostility in the old man’s glare was so pronounced it made the pudgy man step back a pace. Instead, Voravian flicked his hand upward, casually, then rolling his hand languorously around he interceded, “My liege, you must consider your new Kingdom. You must be the fair and gentle ruler, who removed a missing King, and his inept Prince from power. If you came to the rescue, say after the rebellion is put down, and are seen to bestow mercy on this troubled knight. Might that not cement the people to you?”

Oakfir paused a long while. His heavy brow knit in thought. Clinnkray grimaced and swore.
“And should this rebellion of his go totally unpunished?”

“Not at all. There are many dubious honors we could bestow on such a knight.”

Clinnkray’s bony face split into a nasty smirk, “Lord of the Latrines,” he grumbled.

Oakfir brightened, considering. Voravian continued, “my King we must strike now. If you give the order, my lords Clinnkray and Ginnplain, can see to the destruction—the counterattack and put it down. There will be time for justice later.”

A knock sounded on the heavy study door. It was Captain Eldrak, returning with the former Duke’s guard. The meeting was over. Oakfir and Khadesh left the room, Oakfir sweeping ahead grandly and ostentatiously grabbing his bejeweled sword by the hilt.

Voravian exchanged a long look with Clinnkray, and glanced at Horace the Elder. He smiled slyly at the former King, and followed Oakfir out of the room. Clinnkray stayed behind for a moment.

The old King and Clinnkray stared at each other for a time. The fire crackled loudly. Finally, the older man spoke, “things will be different this time around, won’t they?”

Clinnkray’s eyes glinted, reflecting the flames, “there will be much blood,” his voice, a grating rasp, sounded almost eager.

Horace I, who had seemed a frail man a moment earlier, a warrior out of his prime and deconditioned, hardened for a moment. Clinnkray could see the King as he had been years ago, a duelist and warrior of many battles. The old King looked deep into the pitted and pocked face of his Minister of War and said, “It better not be his.”

The Beasts only answer was an unblinking stare and a wide, creeping grin.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Coronation Knight

Jerrod awakened abruptly to the sound of swords ringing. Dizzy, and fighting the urge to return to sleep, the young knight shook the sleep from his eyes, trying desperately to concentrate. The sounds were coming from outside his chambers, in the hall. Before he could catch his bearings Jerrod leapt from the bed, and raced to the entryway of his chambers. He reached the door and put his head against the stout oak, listening intently. There was nothing, not a sound. He heard the quick patter of servants’ footfalls along the corridor outside, and then nothing. He waited. He could hear heavier foot falls in pursuit and muffled cursing, again, nothing. He waited. Finally, there was a clash, and then a cry. Jerrod’s mind raced, questioning, searching for answers and finding none. It occurred to him that his page had not returned. Then his face paled in horror, tonight was the coronation! He had nearly slept through it, and now, something terrible was happening, and here he was, still barely dressed.

Quickly, Jerrod ran to his dresser put on a fresh tunic and donned his sword belt. He stopped then, and replaced his ancestral blade with another from his armory, a non-descript short sword. If there was fighting in the keep, a long sword would only be a hindrance. He went to his bedroom and peeked out the narrow window of his cell. It was pitch black outside. The window was high, and two feet deep into the wall, making it difficult to see what if anything was happening below. But again, his ears told him more, a sharp whinny, the class of steel on mail, shouts, the keep was being invaded! Duke Oakfir dared rebellion.

Jerrod listened at the door, sword unsheathed, dirk clenched between his teeth. He waited for a lull in the action, then opened the door quickly, and closed it behind him. He waited for a full minute with his sword drawn, hearing only faint shouts, seeing nothing. Knowing his duty was the Prince, the knight trotted toward the royal chambers, the sheath of his short sword slapping against his thigh.

The corridors were strangely empty now. Every so often, he observed a ripped tapestry, torn from it’s rigging, or slashed at haphazardly. Jerrod’s quarters were in what was commonly called the barracks, a slur to the knights in residence, who couldn’t afford nicer rooms. But other knights, and minor lordlings like himself were housed here. Most seemed deserted now. A few doors were ajar, but most were locked tightly. He could hear boisterous laughter from one, but the crest on the door was House Kraken, a house known for it’s wiley and unscrupulous knights. Other doors, like House Mercator had been busted open, splintered wood careening crazily like teeth of some wild and woolly giant. House Mercator was a small but loyal vassal to the Prince. Jerrod had only passing acquaintance with the knight. He peered inside, but saw only similar destruction within. The prince, he thought reluctantly, is my priority.

He continued his way, winding upward to the nicer rooms. A few times he saw a body, a man at arms, guard or servant caught at the wrong place, and time, broken and smashed to pieces against the heavy marble walls. The blood was in some cases already gummy and drying.
Jerrod fought a rising sense of panic. What if he was too late? What if the Prince had been deposed, executed, more likely held captive? Greater too was an almost stifling sense of shame. In his prince’s principal moment of need, Sir Jerrod Brinkford had been prostate on his pallet, he a sworn knight of the Prince’s personal guard. He fought down the rising bile, and concentrated on the mission ahead. Ahead he could hear the clash of arms again. Perhaps it wasn’t too late, maybe he could save the Prince. Maybe he could still find an honorable death, fighting to fulfill his oath.

Ahead were a set of stairs, leading around, a poorly lit circular staircase. A basinet came crashing down the stone stairs, dented by a mighty blow, the once circular helmet came spinning to a halt at Jerrod’s feet. He dashed up the stairs sword drawn. At it’s head, a soldier lay face-up, his torso halfway down the stairs. His head was bent incorrectly, and his eyes were already glazed. Jerrod leapt over the felled man, calling the Prince’s warcry, “For the Eagle! The Eagle!”

Jerrod beheld a bloody sight. The hallway was narrow, maybe ten feet across, at least ten dead men were downed, leaning against the walls bleeding their last, or no longer bleeding at all. A few men, in orange and grey tabards were finishing off the last guardsmen living. Jerrod’s cry took them by surprise, and he came amongst them blade hacking at limbs and upturned faces. The first barely knew what hit him, his hand was severed and it fell, still attached to his mace. Jerrod did not stop his charge, he surged against the surprised soldier, shouldering him to the wall, and piercing him with the dirk in his other hand. The next one had time to whip around, but could only manage two parries before Jerrod’s fierce attack made him fall back, tripping on the outstretched arm of a corpse. The knight of the green dragon dug his blade deeply into the man in passing, disabling the soldier before he’d the chance to rise.

The last soldier stood ready, having finished another guard a moment earlier. This fellow was bigger and burlier than Jerrod, with a grizzled beard and a jagged scar across his cheek. He grinned and raised his mace to Jerrod’s overhead strike. His blade bounced against the heavy metal, ricocheting violently. Jerrod fell backward with his blade, and tripped over the soldier he had just stabbed. The large soldier screamed and came forward quickly, mace raised to smash the young knight beneath him. Jerrod rolled out of the way at the last instant, using an abandoned spear to prop himself up, plunged his dirk into the calf of his assailant. The man roared and tried vainly to swat the knight with his bloody great mace. Jerrod rolled back the way he’d come, this time easily avoiding the poorly aimed mace. He spun around on his side and kicked at the back of the man’s knee as hard as he could. The large man collapsed falling just over Jerrod. The young knight scrambled back, finally attaining his feet again. Panting roughly, he picked up the spear and threw himself forward with it. The grizzled soldier had just enough time to sit up and take the weapon full in his chest, he gargled blood, coughed and sighed.
Jerrod retreated for a moment, trying to catch his breath. Grey and Orange, he thought wildly, grey and orange—House Salamander was aligned with Duke Oakfir. House Salamander had been beaten! The contest honest, the winner clear, House Salamander owed vassalage to the Prince now. Yet here they were, slaying the House Guard, all eagle men. The hallway was quiet now, except for the shallow breathing of the man he’d disabled. Jerrod didn’t bother to question him, already moving forward.

A small scratching noise made Jerrod turn defensively back toward the stairwell. Nothing. But Jerrod was, despite his youth, was a patient man, and finally he observed that one of the guardsmen still breathed. He approached the dying guard and bent down, wiping blood from a gaping wound on his forehead. Before Jerrod could utter a word, the man spoke, his last words rattling and gasping.

“The Queen, save the Queen.”

Jerrod snatched his sword and dirk and ran forward, heading toward the Queen’s chambers, leaving the man to expire on his own. Down a long gilded hallway, littered with bodies and washed with blood, into the Hall of the Falcress. The hallway ended abruptly, the young knight paused at the threshold. Peering around the corner, he observed that the entryway to the Queen’s chambers was guarded by two unkempt soldiers. They wore no livery, only leather jerkins with metal discs sewn into the fabric. One had a spiked short axe, the other a wicked curved blade. They seemed to be common mercenaries. A season’s campaign was all the practical experience Jerrod had. Mercenaries were warriors by profession. These two looked none too trained, but both had many more years then he did. Jerrod hesitated, his resolve wavering, sweat streaming down his face. Finally, his oaths of fealty overcame his fear. He charged silently into the Hall.

Once again, surprise gave him the edge. He sped out around the corner and entered the ornately decorated Hall. He was spotted immediately and one of the mercenaries fell back in a defensive posture, landing on the foot of the other. The second soldier, cursed loudly and spun into a small table holding a tall Kjargaad vase. The finely crafted urn tottered as the delicately carved wooden table collapsed under the weight of it’s new cargo—the wildly panning mercenary. Table, vase, and soldier crashed to the floor. Jerrod charged with blade over head, his eyes intent upon the posture of his adversary. The man feinted and dodged left, toward him. Instead of pursuing the first opponent, the young knight planted a hearty kick in the knee of the fallen man, who yelled as shards of the priceless vase fell like small knives around him. Jerrod didn’t recover quickly enough and took a swipe to his side, cutting through his serviceable doublet and slicing his ribs. Jerrod fell back circled his opponent. Meanwhile the other mercenary had recovered and had his arm under him bracing to stand. He had to act fast. Jerrod wasn’t sure if he could take the two together—and he’d already lost the element of surprise.

Jerrod bellowed, allowing anger and outrage to boil within him. Months of bloodshed and heavy campaigning, all to be undone by a coup in one night! Where were the guards? Where were the knights sworn to protect and defend the royal chambers? He seized his anger as his master-at-arms had taught him, and directed it into full frontal assault. His barrage of quick cuts, wore out the scimitar carrying guard, whose single bladed weapon could only parry on both sides. When Jerrod had breached the man’s guard, he ran the man through, unceremoniously jerking his blade out before the spiked ax of the other fighter could reach him. The guard fell, blood oozing out from the hole in his stomach, his face ashen, and blood tricking from his mouth. The other mercenary apparently thought better, seeing his comrade dead, he turned, and ran to the other end of the hall.

Jerrod was fine with that. He threw open the doors of the queens chambers, and to yet another horror. The queens room was torn asunder, and a group of liveried soldiers gathered in the far corner. At least five dead Kingsmen had earned the honor of defending the queen to the death. They lay strewn about, hacked, and bled to death, surrounded by torn curtains, pillows severed and ripped apart, priceless sculpture and gilded moldings shattered and littering the floor. He had only a moment to gather this all in, when he heard the scream of a woman.

The soldiers had gathered by the dais, and were taking turns on a woman. There was no way to be sure from this distance if it was the queen. They wouldn’t dare, he thought. Such an act would be despicable, even for a house as vicious and unscrupulous as House Crane. None of the Great Houses would stand for that sort of treatment, it was beyond the pale, unheard of.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all, I swear it on my mother, and on the King, and on any God you can name. I swear I’ll—” It was the voice of the Queen, Jerrod knew it immediately, ragged and breathless.

His vision focused and he observed that the woman being raped was not the queen, but one of her handmaids, a young girl, maybe fifteen. She was being held by two men, but she was totally limp, half-naked, in the brightly lit room. Another was crouched over her, his trousers down around his ankles. Jerrod’s rage knew no bounds, and he bellowed again, a raw, inhuman sounding cry. The young knight, still bleeding, charged forward, crossing the gap and nearly beheading the rutting man in uncontrollable bloodlust. Blood fanned across the room, and covered the young girl. The other men turned in anger and surprise, drawing their weapons and circling about him. There was something puzzling about these men, though Jerrod in his frenzy couldn’t tell it. But these men were obviously trained, and once the shock of seeing their sport end so abruptly wore off, they turned toward him with military precision, fanning around behind him and cutting off his retreat.

Fine, he thought, let it end then, my vows complete, my rest earned. Jerrod lay about him with sword and dirk, but it was to no avail. There were too many men, and more were coming in. He took a cut on his arm, then a cut to his thigh. Then finally, a rapier pierced his side. The dirk snapped, and when finally he lost his blade, the end was a highly raised wicked looking halberd, slicing downward at his bowed and bleeding head.


A commanding voice called from the entryway to the Queen’s chambers. The blade swung away cutting a gouge in the marble floor beside the young knight. The queen sighed audibly behind him, she and her trembling handmaiden still captive. So he had failed, he thought. Though his vision was fading, Jerrod could see the ring of steel open up, allowing a finely clad figure to observe. It was then, in Jerrod’s last conscious moments that he connected the dots, the rage and the pain of his wounds fading as his mind detached and prepared to wander away. These soldiers were liveried, under direct employ and service of none other than the finely clad lord before him, the ruthless Rudy Steel.

“The young knight of the Reach, alone, and undone.”

Jerrod tottered and fell to his knees. As the darkness enclosed him, he had one last cogent thought: Rudy Steel and Queen Hintrose were scions of two powerful Andrayan houses, and their houses had sworn blood feud against one another. A wave of despair swept him into unconciousness with one last thought. He had failed again.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Far above the land, a cold descended. And descended, touching the last of summer’s dry leaves with icy fingers, releasing them on their sad journey back to the earth from which they came. Away in the distance the light fades over the horizon, and uneasy dusk settles over the city and the surrounding lands. The day’s activity faded, the lamplighters come out with their long hooked poles, beginning their day and staving off the night with small flickers of fire. The children have gone in, except for the urchins, who no longer scamper about, but have begun to creep furtively along the city’s byways. Central Market has closed, and only a few merchants are left, packing their wares on wooden carts to pull back to their homes.

Not all the city was shutting down though, Tavern Row was in full swing. The day laborers and sailors have begun to pour in from the outlying districts, and port, cramming the long wooden trestles with thirsty and exhausted men. There were sailors sitting side by side with coopers and blacksmiths, and journeymen sharing a thin chicken leg with a prentice. Serving wenches circulate through the crowd, dropping seething tankards of ale on the filthy tables. Harlots also circulate straddling the more prurient sailors and teasing the quieter types. Bawdy music proliferates from a plethora of instruments, lutes, guitars, dulcimers, drums and flutes, while the girls dance or sing badly and of bad things.

And though the city is quietly shutting down around them, the night is full of talk. And of whispers. And the main topic of this whispering is a single question: Who will be named King? There are other questions in the night, and these are murmured more quietly than even whispers. Was the King assassinated? Was it really suicide? What will the illfated Prince Warren do? If Duke Oakfir reasserts his claim to the throne, will there be war? But then the conversation slips away from these dangerous topics. A supporter of Prince Warren at the Three Lilly’s Taverna could get a sword through his chest. Mentioning Duke Oakfir at the Lion’s Head would cause a riot. The city is tense, divided, and unhappy at the sudden demise of the king.

He had not been a universally loved King. But he had been a prosperous one, and the realm flourished, and people’s pockets had grown fat. Now times were uncertain and dark for the supporters of the Eagle, the King’s Coat of Arms, and oddly hopeful for the standard of Duke Oakfir, the Crane. Nonetheless, these and other whispers stirred the ashes in the pit, creating new flames, and killing others.

It was in one such tavern, called the “Crooked K” that two particularly dark men met over two untouched flagons of ale. The tavern was full when the first had entered--and the alehouse quieted almost immediately. It was a raucous setting filled with especially seedy denizens. The place stank of old beer, stale vomit, and diseased nightwalker, it practically crawled with vermin. And they were just the paying customers. At one table a bunch of large filthy men played at dice, one had passed out at the table—his money was gone. Another brandished a dagger and cut the sleeve of a surly one-eyed sailor. A whore was servicing a pockmarked man in the corner, while the giant bouncer stood nearby waiting his turn.

Yet in this atmosphere of utmost debauchery, even the heavyset bouncer eyed the dark cloaked man nervously. He made as if to approach, wetting his lips at the sight of the fine, dark cloth, but the hooded man stopped directly in front of him for just a second. His gait, slow and deliberate. That second seemed to change the man’s mind, as the bouncer mumbled something and retreated. The cloaked figure continued past as if he hadn’t seen the hulking, scarred tavern brawler. He approached the bar and drew the frightened bartender in with a crook of his finger. The tavern only served one beverage and it was quickly ordered and delivered. The hooded man went to a table in the corner where a covey of cutthroats were bragging and berating each other. None of the men even seemed to notice the cloaked man at first, but a slow shiver, like a sinking sheath of ice, crossed over the table and one by one they looked up. Then, to a man, they all turned and left the tavern, their faces pale, and their eyes fearful.

The dark man sat down at the table, moving slowly, but daintily too. If he were very old, as his withered hand and careful movements would suggest, than he must be frightening indeed to keep such company at bay. Talk resumed at the “Crooked K,” but quietly. Men stole fearful glances at the man in the corner, and started casting feverishly mistrustful glares at their compatriots. It was as if the cloaked one’s very presence inspired distrust and recriminations.

It wasn’t long before the cloaked man’s companion entered. He was similarly dressed, covered from head to toe in fine black cloth. His step was brisker, smoother, unctuous. And if the mood hadn’t so abruptly soured at the “Crooked K” he might have been received with more fanfare. As it was, the filthy denizens continued their subdued conversations, drinking heavily, while a few others stumbled out the door for brighter haunts. The younger one ambled over to the corner where his companion waited with a mug of tepid, flat ale. He sat down. The two were silent for a bit, sizing each other up.

Finally, the older one grasped the other’s hand with his weathered claw.

“You are certain?” His voiced rasped, slithered into the question. “You are certain he is the one?”

The younger looked taken aback at the fervor and strength in the other’s composure. “Yes Master, he is the one prophesied. There can be no doubt.” The old one’s claw tightened, making the younger miscreant subdue a wince. Then finally, he relaxed, withdrawing his hand back into the folds of his dress. He let out a long rustling sigh, like dead leaves floating through an alleyway.

“I have known him since he was a boy,” the younger man blustered.

“The final preparations, they have begun?”

“Yes, everything begins tonight.” The younger man, who could certainly not be described as young, merely younger than the ancient, foul creature before him, was feeling more secure. His voice had become more full, and more persuasive. He was plainly excited.

There was a long silence then, as the younger waited on the elder’s pleasure. Finally the old creature spoke. “We have waited a long time for this day. We have come so close, so many times. I would not want to be you, if you are wrong.”

The younger made as if to speak, but the elder of the two continued, his voice like the sound of slugs being squished under a stone. He was holding the earthen mug, fiddling with the handle, “I have dreamed of this day since I was his age. I wonder if he even knows what he is capable of yet … no doubt .. no doubt he thinks he is more capable than I.” The mug shattered, spraying ale in every direction but his, “he must be broken first, broken and remade. I will not accept anything less.” He wiped his hand on his robes, carefully, pausing a moment to suck a prick of blood from a bony finger.

“But Master, I assure you. I have trained him, he is ready!”

“Pah! I’ve seen him strut around, like a young cockatiel. Ready! But, no matter.” The old one, gathered himself, preparing to rise. “Very well. Then we will proceed as planned. Go.”

The light was all but gone, and the city was lit. The greatest city in the Kingdom. The jewel of Andrayor. The city of New Islington. And it was lit by the last ray of garish red light hanging over the horizon. But now the countryside was perilously dark. Outside of the city a low rumble began in the northeast, causing a stir in the heavily packed road toward the main gate. The rumble increased until it was a thunder, a peasant pulling a wagon struggled to get off the road in terror. A long column, two deep, of armed cavaliers stormed by heading for the central causeway of the Ivory Keep. At its center was a tall man with close cropped hair and a determined gaze. This was no ceremonial procession. The cavalry was bruised and bloody spattered from furious campaigning. However, the standard of the eagle, though tattered still flew high on the bearer’s lance as the King’s Van raced back to the capital.

The kingsmen reigned in as they reached the Herald Gate. The Herald Gate was the tallest and widest gate in the city. Made of the same white marble as the Ivory Keep itself, the Herald towered above the city’s walls. It was certainly the largest of the city’s gates, and as such was usually closed by Vespers each eventide. Emblazoned in gold leaf and brass, the realms coat of arms, could barely be seen in the darkness. It was an imposing sight to approach in the dark, and the residents had named it the Bat for its large winged towers flanking the gatehouse and the heavily fortified enceinte. Tonight it was especially foreboding. As the column drew to a halt, the horses steamed in the cool night air. They had been run hard. A young knight with green insignia approached the gate with the standard bearer in tow.

“Prince Warren approaches, Hie the Gate, Prince Warren approaches!” He cried.

There was no answer. The young knight looked back at the squad with an uncomfortable grimace.

“Prince Warren approaches, Lord of the Henin Sea, Defender of the King, Heir to the throne. Open the gate! Prince Warren approaches!”

Again, no answer. Just the eerie wind blowing around the arrow slits, whistling desolately. The young knight stood awkwardly, awaiting acceptance, or new orders from the captain. Then a loud bang, followed by a loud grating, and the grinding of chains, signaled the impending opening of the gate. The young knight rode back to the column. For a moment, all was still. It was full darkness now, and the only light to be seen glinted off the knights mail in blue flickers. A rustling sound indicated a hasty conference among Prince Warren’s retinue. Sir Wickford Dalton, a balding older baron, whispered harshly into the Prince’s ear. Warren shook his head slowly, scanning the ramparts. Finally, he nodded. Lord Dalton signaled, and the column prepared to enter the city.

The cavaliers all breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to be home, they thought. Some would be going home to their wives, others to their mistresses, but most thought mainly of bed. It had been a furious year of campaigning, and though all trusted men, even their loyalty to their lord was being tested by sheer exhaustion. First had come the traditional Aerie of the Eagles, a furious affair where the King’s offspring and close relatives battled and lay siege to each other in order to win the throne. Then there were the far more deadly battles, against the Knights of the Crane, and the forces of Duke Oakfir, and the occasional skirmishes with the Green Men, these had taken a heavy toll on the troops, and they rode with their heads down.

Beyond the Herald Gate and the thick walls and battlements, the town opened up before them. West of the gate lay the port town, known to the peasantry and merchant folk as the Wicker Palace. The whole city was built on a massive marsh and delta, stemming from the River Atrius, and reaching to the sea. The Wicker Palace was nearly a mile of quays and decks, two story houses made of wood and poor plaster, crammed together, and built on precarious stilts, extending to the bedrock beneath the mire. The place stunk, and was a general depository for the city’s filth. Despite this, the Wicpic, as it was known to those who lived there, was home to much of the city. Whoever couldn’t afford to live in the nicer districts based on more solid ground, lived in the Wicpic, living off fish, and paltry produce that smelled and tasted like fish.
To the east was the Garden Green, and beyond that the Merchant Quarter. The now silent Central Market was situated far enough away from the Wicpic to keep a cleaner feel to it. Though each morning, the Marlin Guild brought the days catch, fresh and still flopping, through the wooden labyrinth, past the Garden and to the market place. Rumbling by on huge wooden wagons, teeming with fish, clams, and oysters. (Oysters being that which the city was known for, and said to be the main economic motor for the Marlin Guild’s power.) Here the streets were paved with smooth cobblestones, and the houses composed of wooden frames with uniform red tiled roofs. During the King’s reign, the Merchant Quarter had grown by leaps and bounds, guild mandates had soared, and exports risen, and a powerful new industry, the printing press had roared into existence.

To the north lay the Ivory Keep itself. Named thus for the spiraling white towers that gleamed in the sun, and glowed in the evening. Around the keep were the noble houses in the Circuit Royale. Many were housed in the keep itself, but the noblest families owned palaces of their own. These ringed the keep, each outsripping the others with pomp and finery. Though all were well below the spires and minarets of the Ivory Keep, several strove to equal it. Castle Cranok, was by far the most inspiring of these competitors, home to the court of House Crane.
In the green, Baron Dalton called his lieutenants to him, and divvied up the men. Leave was announced, and all but the Prince’s personal guard began to disband. Some of the men headed north to the Keep and their barracks, others, ready for their drink, or their whore, went left or right according to rank and wealth. In just a short while, all but the Prince’s personal guard stood by, two score armed men. One of those men was the young knight with the green insignia. He seemed to nearly be asleep standing. The Prince called to him, and he snapped to.

“Sir Jerrod, are you so eager to find your bed this eve?”

“Your highness,” he faltered, trying to sketch a bow. “My apologies, your highness. I await your word.”

“My word?” The Prince smiled slightly, his face was drawn and tight like a drum. “Young knight, we have much to do this eve, if I am to be made King a fortnight from now. Tonight the Council will take Oath before me—” the Prince broke off, eyeing the knight, swaying in his saddle. “Poor boy,” he whispered inaudibly, “On second thought Sir Jerrod, you are excused. Find your quarters for now, rest a bit, report to Sir Dalton an hour post Complines.”

The young knight tried to protest, but was cut off by Sir Dalton, roaring, “Contradict your King, you whelp?”

That was the end of the matter. Gratefully, but shamed, Sir Jerrod Brinkford wheeled about and cantered off to his quarters at the keep, leaving the prince and the rest of the guard behind him.

Sir Jerrod Brinkford, last of his line, Keeper of the Far Reach, was a land holder in a minor earldom far to the capital’s north. Sir Jerrod had no home in the city, just a suite in the Keep. The Brinkford family estates weren’t nearly prosperous enough to have a palace in the Circuit Royale, though when his father had been alive, they’d kept property in the Merchant quarter. Now, only a four room suite remained to him, on lease by the King, in the West wing of the Ivory Keep, and one of those rooms was for his page boy, Cedric.

As Jerrod rode up the long avenue toward the West Sluice Gates, he slowed his charger to a trot, allowing Cedric to catch up on his pony. The boy, nearly thirteen now was absolutely exhausted and looked like he’d aged five years during the campaign. Despite, his dusty, haggard appearance, a faintly hopeful glimmer appeared in his eye.

“Jero, can we stay long this time? What did the prince say? I won’t move for a week when we get back to the keep.”

Jerrod was silent, his weary eyes alternately straining and blurring in the darkness. Finally he shook his head, his black unkempt hair shaking free.

“For a bit Cedric. For a bit. Maybe we can even go home for awhile.”

Cedric stared blankly out at the manicured gardens of the Circuit Royale. “Home,” he whispered. It sounded like a cross between a benediction and a plea.

They rode in silence after that. Jerrod loved the city. He loved living at the Ivory Keep, he’d come to the service of the Eagle, after his father and brother had died, proud to continue the grand tradition. He was still young though, about a score perhaps. The Reach’s master-at-arms had trained him well, his family’s history and his lifelong ambition had earned him a place among the King’s Guard, and then service with Prince Warren himself. But now, after a long and bloody campaign, all he wanted was to feel the crisp frozen air of the Reach on his feverishly hot skin. He wanted to see the dense forests that he’d grown up in, far from court intrigue and the bloody steel of the Crane’s men. Though he’d be grateful to take off his mail, leave his helmet with the armorer, and leave his horse in the barrack stables, the sword would stay on. The symbol of his status as bondsman and knight of the realm would remain, a heavy trust, weighing down his left side.

At last the pair had reached the gates. Calling up and showing the Reach’s green insignia, a dragon on a black and white field, Jerrod identified himself to the gate keeper. The gate was opened, and the pair dismounted and walked their horses into the compound. The grooms, who were strangely alert at such a late hour, raced forward to take the reigns of Sir Jerrod’s charger, and Cedric’s pony. Handing the detached saddle bags to the page, the grooms lead the two horses off. Still armored, but now holding his helmet beneath his arm, Jerrod and the page entered the keep.

It had been some months since Jerrod and the Prince’s men had slept in accommodations according their rank. And even though Jerrod’s means were modest, he allowed a heavy sigh as a gust of warm air blew out of the keep and into his face. The keep was enormous, and it was at least a ten minute walk to his quarters. Jerrod took the time to observe and compose himself for his evening duties. Two months prior the Prince’s Van had stopped at the Keep for resupply, taking fresh mounts, rations and replacing armor and broken weaponry. At that time, the atmosphere around the keep had been cheerier. It seemed almost inevitable that Prince Warren would ascend to the throne, and that the Crane would kneel before the Eagle. Now, the mood was far tenser—something was different.

Jerrod could see it in the way that servants ran about nervously, constantly and hurriedly staring into the eyes of approaching nobles, as if they were searching for an answer. A few times, it seemed that Jerrod could hear whispering, but whenever he looked around, he blank faces in blue and yellow livery stared blankly back. Or else, the servants would scuttle away like roaches fleeing the light of the torch. Each corner hid another couple earnestly speaking to one another and then suddenly silent. And as he passed, the low murmur would resume. It was around one such corner that Cedric nearly walked full into another man.

“You there, watch where you’re going, boy!”

The man, in full regalia, cuffed the page, sending him and Jerrod’s saddle bags to the tiled floor. Jerrod’s temper flared in defense.

“That’s my page you just cuffed, I’d warn you to withdraw your hand.”

The man turned, staring at Jerrod in surprise.

“Knight of the Reach? A knight of the Reach would dare address me as such?”

The man a tall and tanned and wearing a red doublet, was armed with an ornately, bejeweled longsword. He stood directly in front of Jerrod, caressing his blade ostentatiously, his green eyes flashing with challenge. It was then that the endless lineage drilling his chamberlain had forced on him clicked into place. This was Sir Arlent, a minor knight of House Boar, a vassal to the House of Crane. Sir Jerrod, who had campaigning hard for nearly a full year, was not to be put aside so quickly.

“You’re not my liege lord. Stand aside.”

Arlent eyed the battered knight before him, the blood stains and dented mail signs of a serious campaigner. Cedric had righted himself and wore an almost comical expression of hatred and utter exhaustion. He stared at the knight of the Red Boar and seethed, a hand massaging the short knife beneath his tunic. Arlent decided to loom over the page, instead, allowing a sneer to corrupt his handsome face.

“Your boy, he’s insolent. He deserves the strap.”

“I’ll decide that. Your leave, sir.” Jerrod answered, steel in his voice. Jerrod gestured Cedric forward and moved forward, and through Sir Arlent. As they walked away, Brinkford heard a low chuckle behind him.

“I might be your lord someday, knight of the worms.”

As they drew away and upwards into the keep, Jerrod thought furiously about the encounter. The fighting had been brutal, but they thought they’d secured enough territory and strategic choke holds to earn the right of ascension. Could it be that the Prince had overestimated his lead? The knight shook his young head gravely, trying to sort out fact from fancy in his exhausted mind. Finally he shook off his doubts and shrugged them aside. Rest and wash up first, then he would do some investigation. He had some friends in the keep. Sir Roland, and Sir Melite could help—he was sure—if they were lodged at the castle still. They might be securing their own borders, or hunting bandits out country. Finally, he approached his own apartments. So grateful he could barely he speak, he withdrew a heavy iron key from a leather bag and opened the doors to his rooms.

Cedric dropped the saddle bags and rucksacks in the anteroom, then proceeded to help his master with his armor. As each piece came off, Cedric carefully strapped the piece to the wooden rack near the door. Nearly a year of campaigning had taught Cedric that utmost care was always needed in the maintenance of armor. A single rust spot, left unscoured, buffed and oiled could destroy the integrity of a piece.

However, when Jerrod was free, he abruptly turned toward the boy, frowning blankly at the wall.

“Cedric, you’re exhausted. Run to the kitchens, fetch yourself some food, then take a rest. My armor can wait till this evening.”

The boy was hesitant. “Jero, is there something wrong here?”

Jerrod did not answer the boy, instead waving him off as he turned toward his bedroom. “Go. And keep out of Sir Arlent’s way.”

The boy nodded, and went to his cot. Jerrod could hear him changing clothes to something a bit less travel stained, and appropriate for the keep. When the boy finally scampered out, Jerrod sank to his knees. It was part of a knight’s duty to keep constant vigil over his character, his relationship to God, his vows of loyalty to his people, and to his liege lord. Jerrod’s mind swam in swirling eddies, confusing and obfuscating his normally, clear and peaceful mind. Finally, using the mediation techniques he’d learned in his tiny family chapel, he calmed his mind. Forming first, a single point in his mind—then joining it with two other points. This triangle was joined by yet another point, forming two triangles. And so he built, as long as he could keep it up, a network of lit triangles in obscure blackness. The Holy Net, it was called. Finally, calm and ready to pray, Jerrod let the net dissolve around him, imagining it wrap around his form as armor.
He got off his knees for a moment, to strip, wash up, and resume his vigil. Taking off his matted undertunic, he tripped on something soft, landing abruptly on his bed. He lay there, staring up, his eyes getting lost in the vaulted ceiling. I should get up, he thought, I should. But he did not. Instead he lay there. And it wasn’t long before a soft snoring was the only sound in the chamber at all.