The Hellfire Rebellion
Heymon woke as the first glimmers of light shone through the window beside his bed. As the oldest of his siblings, he slept on his own straw pallet, unlike his nine and eleven-year old brothers, who shared. He had helped build the extension to the house last summer, which had been a proud moment for him. Without the money he had helped his father bring in, the family probably would not have been able to afford the materials.
The village they lived in was not large by anyone’s standards, but the people were fairly well off. Many of the families of people who worked in the mine lived here, on the edge of the forests. They did not rely solely on animals and crop-farming to get by as many in the nearby villages did. All the miners were freemen, so unlike the serfs in poorer areas they weren’t forced to serve anyone. Everyone in Woodstone owned their own land and could do whatever they wished with it. That wasn’t to say they were rich though. They just weren’t struggling to feed themselves, that was all.
Heymon stood up and stretched, curling his toes and feeling some of the dust from the floor rub between them. His ability to fall into a deep sleep in minutes and wake up well-rested on almost any surface was one of his few talents. He’d had sixteen years of practice.
“Time to get ready,” he muttered to himself with a sigh.
He noticed his brothers were still asleep in the corner of the room and smiled slightly. Heymon and his siblings shared the dark hair of their father, and the brothers looked very much alike. One day they would probably join him and his father mining brimstone. The thought was a bittersweet one. Slynn, the owner of the mine, paid a respectable wage, but it wasn’t a job for children, and he didn’t want to imagine his brothers down in the dark caves.
Quietly, Heymon found his mining clothes and put them on. It was very easy to pick up dirt and grime going underground, so his normal clothes and work clothes were distinctly separate. This thick, supposedly white, tunic had been washed the day before but still didn’t look clean as he pulled it on. It had been owned by his father before him, and most likely his father before him, yet was still in one piece.
As he finished dressing, he looked up as his father appeared in the doorway, chewing on a piece of bread, then wiping his mouth with hands which had wielded many shovels, and heaved too many picks down in the mine. Dain Hardwood was a big man, with a strong jaw, and arm muscles built up from many years of hard labour which could crush a man’s head between them. But his eyes were kind, and Heymon looked up to him, for not just because of his height, which Heymon was fast catching up with.
“Are you ready to go?” asked Dain in a rough whisper, looking over and checking on his other two sons.
“As soon as I’ve had a bite to eat,” smiled Heymon, walking through to the adjoining kitchen to find something.
They walked together to the mines, just as the village began to come to life around them. Windows were thrown open as the sky brightened to become a sunny morning, and other miners said their goodbyes to their families and joined them on the dirt road. Many of them came up to Dain to greet him and say a few words. Heymon tried to imagine himself doing the same thing with his son in twenty years or so. It was difficult to picture. For that he would need a wife as well, which wasn’t something which would be arranged any time soon. There was still plenty of time for all that. It was unusual for women in the village to marry at his age, especially poorer ones, as they were needed to help provide for their families. Still, there was a girl he had spoken to a couple of times at the market, about the same age, and he did wonder whether she would one day be the mother of his children.
“Why are you so quiet today?” asked his father, knocking him out of his daydream.
“No reason,” he shrugged. “I was just wondering about the mines, and whether I would have children who worked in them as well.”
“You’d need someone who would have your children first,” laughed Dain, before his expression sobered a little. “The mines will outlive us all, I imagine. They’ll stay open so long as the castle wants its hellfire. There will always be someone who wants to deprive the Farhorns of their crown, or think they can risk raiding the odd ship, and only a fool wouldn’t make himself ready for when that time comes. Peace never lasts. If the mines don’t stay open then someone will see an opportunity to attack.”
“Does the hellfire matter that much for war?” asked Heymon sceptically. “I know they like to shout about it but it seems like it’s mainly for show.”
“My great-grandfather was in the Royal Fleet when they fought those Eastern bastards, and it won the battle,” Dain reminded him, with authority. “Forget about treaties and agreements, nowhere else has a weapon like it, and I guarantee you that’s all that’s stopping them from turning around again and stabbing us in the back.”
Heymon let the subject drop. His father liked to voice his opinion on the Kingdoms’ politics, and Heymon didn’t know enough to contradict him if he was wrong. They moved onto more light-hearted conversation, while inside Heymon wondered if what his father said was true. Was peace really so impossible?
They were getting closer now, and could see the smoke rising from the furnaces ahead. He felt the familiar feelings of fear creep up on him as the sulphurous smell of the mine reached him. He should be used to it by now, but despite never having been in an incident, Heymon always felt that the mines had this aura of danger about them, as if they could strike down the miners at any time.
They reached the entrance to the mine, which was unguarded. The miners were relied on to police themselves in terms of theft, but even if somebody did steal something, there were few to sell it to, as Slynn sold the majority directly to the King, and the King obviously wouldn’t buy from thieves. They walked through to pick up their tools, shoes sticking in the wet dirt. Heymon could sense something was wrong as soon as they reached the tool rack. Several men were gathered around in deep conversation and were glancing around as if fearful of being overheard, despite there being none of Slynn’s men within earshot. One was a man who Heymon recognised. He’d taken a job at the same time Heymon had joined. He saw his father’s face had changed. It was wary. Dain approached to find out what was happening, and Heymon followed, feeling apprehensive.
“Have you heard?” demanded Parry, a long-standing family friend, whose face was red with rage as he approached. Dain shook his head.
“Slynn sent a man. The money-grabbing leech wants to bleed us dry. He’s cutting everyone’s pay by almost half, miners, smelters, everyone.”
Dain’s face went grim, and Heymon’s heart sank. This was bad. They were getting by alright at the moment, but not everyone had two family members working the mines, and it was an unpredictable job. They were paid based on the amount of brimstone they brought in, so if a vein ran dry then conditions could be hard until a new one was excavated. Many families had chickens and grew a few vegetables at home but that didn’t come close to making up for this loss. His insides were hot with anger at the man who was doing this. How could this be allowed?
“Is the messenger still here?” asked Dain slowly, in what was clearly a forcibly controlled voice.
“No, he didn’t stay long,” spat Parry. “But it can’t be just this mine either. I’ll bet every one Slynn owns is getting the same. We can’t let this happen, or we’ll starve come winter. The other mine owners will probably follow his lead as well. We need to spread the word, and after work if we have enough people then we go to the brimstone stores where the mines are managed to complain. If there are enough of us, then he has to change his mind. Elgar here thinks it will work, and claims he can definitely convince a few others. I assume you’re with us?”
Parry glanced briefly at Heymon, before fixing his stare on Dain, the real decision maker. His father was respected here, and his opinion meant something. There was a tense pause.
“There can’t be any violence,” said Dain finally. “We can’t force Slynn to change his mind, but if we threaten to stop working then the King will have to intervene. If we act like rebels, then they’ll just crush us and replace us. We need to be the good guys, and there need to be too many of us to brush off. If it’s possible, once we’ve rallied people here someone should go to the mines Slynn doesn’t own. If he can get away with it, other mine owners will do the same, so it’s as vital for them as it is us. If some of them can join our march it will give us all the more bargaining power.”
Parry nodded, grinning devilishly under his beard.
“We’ll show them that they can’t get away with this,” hissed Parry, to the group. “We’re freemen, not slaves!”
“Agreed,” said Dain, grabbing a pickaxe. “Now let’s get to work and convince the rest of them.”
Heymon had been quiet for all of this, watching the events unfold in front of him while mulling it all over in his head.
“Listen Heymon, I understand you might not want to get involved in this, and it could turn nasty, so if you don’t want-”
“I’m in all the way,” interrupted Heymon firmly. “It’s disgusting for them to treat us like slaves. We have to do something to try to stop it.”
His father smiled grimly and clapped him on the back.
“Good,” he said. “Now let’s get down there and do some real work.”
Heymon nodded, and picked up one of the wooden poles, which had a large wicker basket at each end, and balanced it across his shoulders. His job was to carry the chunks of rock which the miners broke off from the bottom of the tunnels up to the top where the brimstone could be properly extracted. It was hard work on his back, carrying all that weight, but he could feel himself getting stronger from it every day.
Heymon headed down into gloom to begin the hard day’s work, knowing that while he walked up and down carrying heavy loads, his father and his friends were organising a protest. He could feel an unusual stir in the air as he passed burly men hacking at the walls. Something exciting was happening, something big. As far as he knew there hadn’t been an organized protest like this that wasn’t an outright rebellion, and they never ended well. If Slynn refused, he wasn’t sure what the plan was. Taking on the King’s army would be madness, but surely the King wouldn’t send troops against them just for a protest. They would have a chance to back down before things got violent.
“Anyone down in the lower tunnels?” asked Heymon, noticing a man he knew who had joined the mines recently, a man named Merek. Heymon had the job of fetching from the bottom, so he always went as deep as possible first to pick up whatever there was and then fill up the basket on the way up, so that he didn’t waste energy walking down with a load.
“Nay, wouldn’t say so, we’re the last,” he replied amiably. “Got a fresh load for you just here.”
He gestured to a small pile of rubble he and another man had been working on. Heymon came over, setting down the carrier and loading it up with the yellow rock. The dampness of the walls in the morning, visible by the light of the flickering torches mounted on the walls, made it seem as if the grey wall was oozing yellow blood from open wounds. He was in one of the deepest tunnels now, and it was almost as if he could feel the rock above weighing down on him. The air and the surface around him felt damp. He had hated it down here when he had first started, but he was getting used to it.
With the baskets laden, he hefted the pole across his shoulders, not looking forwards to the trek back up the slope, and stepped out ahead of Merek to make his way back to the top. But as the boy balanced the heavy load, he put his foot down on something loose and his foot slipped. As he tumbled, Merek reached out to grab him, but Heymon had momentum and Merek only succeeded in getting himself hit by a heavy basket and fell too, crashing down beside Heymon.
Heymon twisted while sliding, spotting one of the wooden supports. As he passed it, pushed the basket of brimstone past it and used the pole to jerk himself to a halt. He checked himself over. He was slightly bruised but alright. He breathed out with some relief, putting a hand against the large wooden beam which linked into a set of wooden struts on the ceiling.
Merek, who had stopped below him, dusted himself off and looked up at him, raising his eyebrows. Heymon laughed.
“You probably should leave that beam alone,” said the man, looking up at where it joined the ceiling, “I think I heard it creak.”
“I didn’t hear it,” said Heymon, feeling a spike of nervousness at realising he had crashed into the main support. He looked up, and heard a cracking, rumbling sound above him.
“Move!” yelled Merek.
Heymon tried to scramble to his feet, as the wooden supports at the top began to splinter, and all of a sudden the ceiling cracked open. He thought of his parents, and his brothers, and the imaginary family of his that had crossed his mind earlier. He prayed that he would make it back to them, but as he got to his feet he couldn’t resist looking up to acknowledge the danger for himself, and watched as the rift above his head opened and a terrifying mass filled his vision as the world fell in on him.
Maddon raised the crossbow stock to his shoulder quickly, looked down the length of it, and clutched the lever underneath, causing the weapon to shudder, and a quarrel to punch into the soft grass, narrowly missing the hare as it ran across ahead of him. He swore under his breath, and dismounted his courser to pick up the bolt. He didn’t know why he bothered to come on these hunts. He had no natural ability, nor much inclination to practice. He never ended up enjoying them.
“Hard luck,” said his sister Ariana sympathetically, the nearest rider. Naturally, she had managed to shoot down a couple of wood pigeons already, whose bodies were now attached to her saddle. She was one much more suited to the hunt. Unlike him, she had the ability to use a bow, and was better with it than he was with his crossbow. Her long dark hair was tied back into a more convenient ponytail, her face was plain but flushed, and she wore unremarkable riding gear. All in all, not someone most people would imagine to be a princess, the eldest of the King’s three children.
“Any sign of the deer?” he asked, knowing that once there was a big catch they would head back to the castle.
“Not yet, but I think we’re closing in, and we can’t let Rowan get the kill,” she smiled, and with a slight movement, she steered her horse away to rejoin the main party.
Maddon sighed, and tugged the quarrel out of the ground, slotting it back into place and winding the wheel of the crossbow around to pull back the string. He was sixteen. If his father wanted to go hunting, he was old enough to decide not to go with him. His Uncle and cousins hadn’t joined them this time, after all. Still, there was always the possibility of bringing down some big game. His favourite hunting memory was from last year, when he had managed to bring down a small boar, and they had eaten the beast that same day. It may have just been because he had brought it down, but it was one of the most delicious things he had ever tasted. He still had the horns.
Remounting his horse, he jabbed his heels into its flank to set it cantering in the direction his sister had gone, where his father, the King, and his entourage could be heard amidst the baying of the hounds. Maddon groaned inwardly when he saw his twin brother Rowan ride over to him. They had the same green eyes and brown hair that all three of King Berin’s children did, but other than that and a shared birthday they were as dissimilar as you could imagine. Rowan was of average height, strong, and outgoing, seeming to have little on his mind but fighting, while the more reserved Maddon was taller and thinner, and considered himself the most intelligent of his siblings.
“Shot anything yet?” asked Rowan with a wide smile, his crossbow resting jauntily on his shoulder.
“Not yet, but I’m tempted,” muttered Maddon, glancing ahead to the dog handlers. “I’ll go and look up ahead.”
“Just be careful with the crossbow, you might hit someone,” said Rowan, smiling.
“If you’re worried about that, I know where you can shove yourself,” he replied.
Maddon found it enormously frustrating that a matter of minutes meant that an imbecile like Rowan would be the next King. He might look the part, but when it came to the intricate politics of managing a Kingdom he would be hopeless.
Maddon spurred on his horse, leaving Rowan behind him, and came up alongside the royal party. He nodded silently to his father, who was dressed in light leather armour, dyed blue, and a blue and silver cloak – traditional Farhorn colours. He was riding at a casual pace and holding a throwing spear, with the sword at his hip which he never abandoned. He clearly had little interest in the smaller game, it seemed, and was saving himself for when the hounds found something. He had a guard on either side. Berin didn’t speak, and Maddon had nothing to say, so he allowed himself to overtake his father and scanned ahead, searching the woods for some sign of big game.
As he did so, his eyes caught some movement in one of the bushes. It seemed as if there was something over there. Maddon set his horse in that direction, his interest piqued, and then caught a glimpse of something metallic. Before he could question it, there was a low thrum, and a stirring in the air, and something passed by him. His head darted back and he looked on with shock as the King twisted in his saddle suddenly, dropping his spear. From another direction, he saw a quarrel fly through the air and catch the courser’s flank, causing it to buck and throw the King from its saddle.
“Protect the King!” cried one of his guards, wasting no time in reaching the King and using the large shields on their backs as cover while they checked him.
Maddon looked ahead again, and saw the bush he had been looking at stand up, and begin to run. The bush dropped the weapon it had just fired, revealing a man camouflaged in leaves and branches. He didn’t know about the other shooter, but this man didn’t seem to be sticking around. Maddon looked briefly back towards the King, who was now shielded by his men. He couldn’t see his father, but the way he had twisted suggested more of a side shot than a lethal one, and there was little he could do to be of assistance – he was no physician. If he wanted to help, there was only really one thing he could do.
Seeing the crossbowman ahead fleeing he made a quick decision, probably the riskiest one he had ever made. He dug his heels in hard to the horse’s flank, and set the horse galloping in pursuit, leaving behind the shocked group of people. He hoped that his thinking was correct in that, despite him being the most exposed of the royals, he had not been targeted, and nobody was trying to kill him in particular. He also hoped that the would-be assassin had no other lighter weapons which he had kept on his person. Maddon’s heart was pounding. This was not his style, what the hell was he thinking chasing a fugitive?
He could still see the man through the gaps in the trees up ahead, sprinting as fast as he could. The woods made it difficult to maintain a fast pace on the horse, but the courser was bred to be light and fast, and he was gaining on the man. If he saw a weapon on him he would abandon the chase, he decided. He did not want to be left in a real fight, but at the moment the situation seemed to be a simple one of hunter and prey.
Maddon’s grip tightened on his crossbow, and he clenched his thighs hard on the horse, desperately trying to keep his seat on the saddle as the horse made him sway unsteadily. He was not a particularly talented rider, but like all noblemen, he had been taught from a young age so was well above the skill of the average person. The trees opened into a small clearing and Maddon saw the figure clearly for the first time. The assassin was not a large man, which he found slightly reassuring, and he was well camouflaged. Even now, closer up, he still appeared to be a moving part of the foliage. No wonder the hunters who had gone ahead to track the deer earlier hadn’t noticed anybody.
Maddon raised the crossbow again, focusing on the man’s feet as he moved agilely from side to side. The crossbow shuddered, the string thrumming, and the man cried out, falling with a bolt in his thigh. Maddon cried out triumphantly, feeling a surge of pleasure as he pulled on the reins of the horse to bring it to a halt. While the man struggled to get to his feet again, Maddon quickly wound the wheel around to pull back the string, and slotted another bolt into the groove. He hadn’t shot a person before, and a part of him was oddly curious at the pain he had inflicted.
“Stop right there or I shoot!” he cried, panting with exhilaration while he realised that he had ended up completely on his own. This could easily be a trap. His partner might still be out there. The man turned over, showing his pained face, which had been rubbed with dirt. Maddon didn’t recognise him. He held up his hands as a gesture of peace, and Maddon dismounted, keeping a safe distance from him. He almost fell as his leg muscles had seized up clenching the horse’s side, but kept his balance. In the distance, he heard the hounds, hopefully now directed onto the trails of the men.
“You don’t have much time,” threatened Maddon, clearing his throat and trying to sound less fearful than he actually was. “You get one chance. Tell me who sent you, and I swear, on my honour, I will let you go. I’m not interested in the weapon; I want the man wielding it. If not, I can either shoot you or let the King’s torturers have you and get the information out, I haven’t quite decided yet. You have until those hounds reach us to decide.”
The prince congratulated himself on his quick thinking. The noise of the dogs in the background made for a more threatening effect than any he could deliver alone, and for all this man knew, this could be his only chance to live. Maddon remained wary of the other shooter who he knew was out there, and was tensed to twist around at any sudden movement or noise around him. The man on the ground was clearly tormented, and Maddon wondered whether he even had a tongue, as he hadn’t said a word yet.
“I can’t name him,” said the man quickly, his eyes darting towards the woods to his right. “We were hired by a middleman. He was tall, taller than you, and bald, I think, but he wore a hooded cloak and never spoke much. We were told to wait on standby for word of when the King next went on a hunt.”
The hunt today had been a spontaneous decision, decided just today. Nobody outside of the castle could possibly have known far enough in advance to have men already waiting. Maddon swallowed, his insides writhing. There was someone inside the castle. The question was, was it a spy, or the plotter himself? Maddon advanced on the man, closing to a distance of about ten yards.
“I truly can’t, please, you swore,” said the man, real fear evident as the barking became louder.
“Alright, get up, go,” said Maddon shortly, his heart still racing. He was still wary of a sudden attack.
The man thanked him, and turned, limping, to head out into the forest again, still with a bolt in his leg. Maddon, still pumping with adrenaline, and taking great care to steady his trembling arm, clutched the lever underneath the crossbow. A quarrel shot out and perforated the knee of his uninjured leg. He screamed, and fell to the floor.
“You swore!” he yelled, trying to get to his feet, but collapsing with a grunt. “On your honour!”
Dark red stains were evident on his trousers as blood pooled around the wounds.
“And you shot my father,” he replied, half-thrilled, half angry. “Besides, who said I had honour?”
He didn’t feel guilty about it; there was no excuse for the man’s actions. He could hardly release the man who, if he had been a bit luckier, would have robbed him of a father, and the Kingdom of a King. Besides, this way Maddon got the glory of bringing him in, although that triumph would be greatly diminished if it turned out his father’s wound was serious.
“Over here! I have one of the men,” called Maddon, as support closed in. He patted the horse’s neck, making a note to reward it for a job well done, and then looked back at the man on the floor. “Today is not going to be your day.”
Maddon was nervous as he returned with his escort, seeing his siblings next to the wagon which until recently had been intended to hold whatever they caught. The physician accompanying the hunt was bent over it. Hunting had its risks, so it was common for him to be nearby in case of an incident.
“Is he alright?” he asked anxiously.
“I will be fine,” said Berin, turning as Maddon came into view. “The wound will be treated properly at the castle.”
He had taken a bolt to the shoulder, just underneath the collarbone. The surgeon had cut away the main part of the shaft and bound the wound with honey, but left the main job of removing the head and treating the wound for the castle, as the wound did not appear lethal. The King would be carried back in the wagon, it seemed.
“So what was this?” asked Rowan. “Why were they targeting you?”
“When you’re King, somebody always wants to kill you,” stated Berin. “This one isn’t the first to try, he won’t be the last. I doubt we will know why, unless the perpetrator reveals himself. What we should be concerned with is how he managed to get close.”
“Better ask this man,” said Maddon smugly, gesturing to the horse which the attempted murderer was being brought back on. “I managed to run him down.”
Rowan looked stunned, and Ariana smiled.
“Impressive,” she said, examining the man critically. “I didn’t manage to catch anything this big. It’s interesting camouflage as well.”
The man under examination said nothing. He seemed determined not to say anything at all now that he was a captive.
“You should not have chased him on your own when you knew there were assassins in the woods, you could have got yourself killed,” said the King. “The dogs would most likely have tracked him down eventually without foolish heroics, and we had to send men after you.”
“I saw him abandon his weapon, and I didn’t want him to get away,” replied Maddon, careful not to sound argumentative. “Besides, it worked out for the best, we now have a prisoner.”
King Berin frowned thoughtfully.
“Yes, it seems we do, and I will be interested to speak to him later,” he said. “But do not ever risk your life unnecessarily again. You are a prince; those kinds of risks are for lesser men.”
Maddon nodded in assent. He had a point. But he couldn’t help but feel an immense pride at his success.
“No sign of the other man?” he asked.
“No,” said his father, “but he will surface. We can make sense of this when we’re back at the castle and this blasted thing is taken out.”
Maddon returned to his horse and mounted it, relieved that his father seemed to be in good health. Rowan did the same, and directed his horse over to him.
“So go on then, what happened?” asked his brother, looking curious. Ariana heard Rowan’s question and her horse trotted over as well. Smiling, Maddon related the story, but left out his conversation with the man, claiming that the second bolt had been used as the man tried to flee again. He hadn’t decided on what to do with the information he had, and didn’t want to risk it circulating and putting any traitors in the castle on alert. If he did decide to tell someone, it would have to be someone he trusted to be quiet, like his sister Ariana, or his father, who had the power to take action. Rowan though, was too talkative. It briefly crossed his mind that if his father died today, Rowan would be King. It would explain the apparent lack of professionalism in the shooters, but Maddon dismissed that possibility. Rowan was no plotter.
“You made the shot from horseback?” asked Rowan. “Guess there’s still hope for you as a hunter after all.”
“I guess so,” said Maddon. “So what were you doing while this was going on?”
“I didn’t know what was happening,” admitted Rowan. “I saw father fall but I didn’t see either of the shooters so I stayed where I was. I didn’t even see you ride off.”
“I looked, but didn’t see the man who missed his shot,” said Ariana. “I just hope he doesn’t try again. It’s worrying that somebody came so close.”
“He had an open view on me,” said Maddon, thinking about it. “If he had wanted to he could have probably killed me.”
There was a moment of dark silence as they thought about it. Nothing like this had happened before as far as they could remember, and it was a strange thought to think they could become targets simply because of the family they were born into.
“Well,” said Rowan, breaking the silence, “hopefully it was just a couple of poachers with a grudge, and nothing bigger.”
Rowan rode ahead, keen to return to the castle. Ariana and Maddon exchanged a look. Both of them clearly had the same feeling. This wasn’t over.
Dain pulled desperately at the pieces of stone blocking the lower tunnels. He had abandoned all tools as too unwieldy and had resorted to using just his hands to pull at the pieces of the wall between him and his son. His frenzy meant his hands were rubbed raw and his fingernails were a bloody mess. While he had been discussing what they could do to stop their community falling into poverty, the news had fed through of a collapse down below, with two people trapped underneath it. Merek, and...Heymon.
Of course he had rushed to the site, but the way had been blocked. Totally blocked. The supporting beam had collapsed completely, apparently when Heymon had crashed into it. Volunteers immediately joined him to help. Parry had come as soon as he heard, as had Elgar, a man Dain didn’t know or like much. Nevertheless, he would be eternally grateful for any help that saved Heymon.
“Parry, make sure you move those upper rocks first, and get rid of those ones on the left,” he pointed to an area. “Elgar, work on this bit, but be careful in case somebody is trapped underneath. Make sure-”
Parry interrupted him by taking hold of his arm, speaking gently.
“Dain, we know what we’re doing. Just relax, Heymon will be fine.”
He held his tongue, accepting that he should leave them to it, and went back to his job in silence. The quicker they worked the better their chances, so they slaved on, not stopping to eat or drink. Someone had taken the job of carrying away the rock they shifted, and progress was being made, slowly.
“Come on, come on, move,” he murmured impatiently.
Parry shouted above the sound of the scrabbling, “We’ll get to them.”
He didn’t know what he would find under there, but his brain wouldn’t let him believe that Heymon was dead under there. It just wasn’t an option.
“Stand back!” shouted Parry, as the rock in front of them shifted and some fell away. Dain did, feeling a spark of hope that they were almost through.
“You see that?” asked Parry, glimpsing something pale in the rock at their feet. Dain’s heart clenched and it felt as if his chest was being squeezed in a vice. It was somebody’s skin.
“Dig him out!” he roared, getting into a new whirl of activity. Suddenly, a hand was exposed. Then an arm. And then-
“Anim have mercy,” Parry made a sign and looked upwards, then away. Dain sank to his knees, his hand trembling as he reached out to touch the piece of the tunnel which had caved in the back of Heymon’s head. It had broken the back of the skull and the wound was gory. He felt for a pulse, but the skin was cold. Heymon was right in the middle of the collapse. He hadn’t stood a chance.
“I’m sorry,” said Parry gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Not right that this could happen, ‘s not. You can leave. We’ll handle the rest.”
“No,” said Dain coldly, feeling empty. “I’m staying.”
Parry didn’t argue. He turned to the boy with the job of carrying the debris up, who was just staring in shock.
“Don’t stand there like a fucking simpleton. Get a sheet to cover the body!”
The boy nodded mutely and ran to fetch one. The body. That was what his son was now. In silence, he helped the others clear away the rest of the rubble around him. Soon his whole body was exposed. Perhaps he was imagining it, but the body seemed frail, as if it had been squashed thinner, although the only obvious blood was on the rock embedded in his head which nobody had dared touch. The awkwardness of it hung in the air between them. Feeling self-conscious and a little ill, he went over to the body, grabbed the rock, and pulled, removing it with a sickening squelch, throwing the rock aside. Nobody said anything.
Dain knew he shouldn’t look, but he did, and immediately averted his eyes. It was a head of hair which seemed so familiar, in such a crippled state. It made him want to retch. He didn’t look at his son’s face when they moved him onto a sheet and wrapped him in it. He was afraid of what he might see in his face. Dain wanted to know that he hadn’t suffered, and to see a face in agony or fear would ruin that for him.
They all turned as they heard a noise by the blockage. It was faint, but there.
“Merek?” shouted Elgar.
“I’m here,” replied the faint voice. “Do you have Heymon?”
Elgar glanced back to Dain, seeming reluctant to say.
“We’ll dig you out,” shouted Parry. “Stand back.”
Dain wanted to hit the lot of them. They were acting like he was some fragile object that would break if they said the wrong thing. He was a grown man, not a child. He had dealt with loss before, it was just that this time had been so unexpected. He would have to bring the news to his wife Gelen as well, and dreaded the thought. He would have to bring back the body and see the sorrow and accusation in her eyes. She had thought he was too young to work in the mines, but Dain had argued against her. Why had he encouraged Heymon? They hadn’t been that desperate for money, and he could have found something else. Dain had been too focused on the family tradition, and his own pride at having his son follow in his footsteps, that he hadn’t looked out for him the way he should. He had to take a part of the blame for Heymon’s death, and that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
He didn’t think as he cleared away the remainder of the rock blocking Merek in. It seemed like a cruel divine joke that someone as innocent as Heymon had been taken while Merek had survived. They made an opening, and the man crawled out of the darkness, coughing. He was dirty, but seemed completely unharmed. It wasn’t right. Why should he be fine?
“Where’s Heymon, I couldn’t hear him. Is he-” Merek caught sight of the body wrapped in a white sheet and his face fell. He had gone pale, and seemed genuinely shocked.
“Dain, I’m so sorry, I tried to save him,” said Merek, wide-eyed. “I tried to stop him falling but I just got dragged down with him. It happened too quickly, I ran towards him, but then it all fell in on us. I hoped he was just knocked out, or on the other side, but...please don’t blame me for it, I would never have wished any harm to him, he was a kind lad, the best.”
Dain hadn’t expected such a strong reaction, especially from someone he hardly knew, and was touched despite himself. It was hard not to believe the emotion on the man’s face, and Dain couldn’t hold anything against him. He had tried to save Heymon and almost died himself.
“I don’t blame you,” said Dain, his throat rough with grief. “Thank you. I didn’t realize you knew him well.”
“We never spoke long, but he was always around, carrying,” Merek looked down at the sheet. “Is there anything I can do?”
Dain shook his head. Parry coughed.
“Will you take him home then?” he asked. “The protest can go on without you.”
“You know I said much the same to Heymon,” muttered Dain. “He said what Slynn was doing was disgusting and that we had to do something. I’ll come with you, and I’ll bring Heymon. Maybe that will make him pause.”
“It was him who ordered us to expand, remember,” said Parry. “We weren’t going to mine this deep but he wanted more than we could mine.”
“That’s right,” remembered Dain, feeling a spark of anger permeate his otherwise empty chest. “The greedy bastard wanted more.”
“It’s his fault, if you think about it,” continued Parry. “We could have taken our time, we were working well and the current tunnels had plenty left in them, but he forced us to dig deeper when he knew it wouldn’t be safe. He killed Heymon.”
Dain could see what his friend was doing. He was trying to drag him out of his sorrow and raise his ire for the cause, but it was still working. His brain was looking for someone to blame, and Parry had shown him a clear villain. He focused on that spark of anger, trying to feed it into a flame which consumed him. It felt easier to be angry at Slynn than think about Heymon. Dain gathered his son in his arms, and turned to the others.
“Gather everyone at the top, I have something to say.”
Dain made his way outside, laying the awfully light sheet outside the main entrance to the tunnels. It had seemed a good idea a moment ago but addressing the entire group seemed arrogant now. What made him the person to listen to? But it was too late to change his mind now, as the whole workforce, over two-hundred men, were stood to hear what he had to say. Dain cleared his throat, feeling like he should be on some kind of stage to speak to such a large group. But if their protest was to work they needed to be united, and even just a few words might help.
“Today has been an eventful day,” he said, closing his eyes briefly to regain composure as his mind flashed back to this morning, when Heymon had been alive. “For some of us, more than others. As most of you will have heard, there was a mine collapse earlier, and...my son was killed. Assigning blame is impossible for an accident like this, but if it wasn’t for Favian Slynn’s greed, we would never have dug those tunnels, and Heymon would be alive.”
Dain paused, while the whole group of men in front of him was silent, listening to him. If there was one thing Dain understood, it was people, and in particular these people. He knew that these kinds of men would rather risk their lives than endure pain and suffering with patience.
“He is the first to die from that man’s greed, but if we endure what he is proposing to pay us, he won’t be the last. We could live on it for a while, maybe, but when winter comes or a vein dries up people will starve,” Dain raised his voice. “Better to die like Heymon than to slowly waste away. Yes, some could try to find other jobs, and let new workers suffer in our place, but we are miners, it’s in our blood! They need us down there, and we deserve money that we can survive on. If we stand together, Slynn will have no choice but to reverse his decision. He cannot replace us all. We can make sure that Heymon did not die for nothing by making sure Slynn’s greed doesn’t ruin our lives. Rivergate needs us to work, and even Slynn can’t argue with the King. I for one am going to make my feelings known. Are you with me?”
A roar of approval came up from the crowd of miners, and it was an inspiring sight. All these people he knew, cheering his words, uniting for the same cause.
“Then let’s talk to Slynn.”
They marched together, falling into step as they travelled along the cobbled forest road, boots and wagon wheels clattering as they went to take on this one man who seemed to hold so much sway over their lives. Almost all of the men from their mine had joined them, meaning there were close to two hundred men with him now. Dain couldn’t help but feel that at least a part of it was as a show of solidarity to him after what had happened to Heymon. He had tried to make something positive out of it in his short speech, to use it to inspire them to join him, but he would throw it all in and let the cause fail if it would bring his son back. Unsure of what to do with Heymon, he had decided to place him carefully in the wagon with the brimstone load that they were bringing along, as an alternative to just leaving him lying outside the mine. He hadn’t been home since this morning, so Gelen still had no idea, and he knew it might be wrong to leave her ignorant, but at least she could be happy for a little while longer. He had no desire for her to have to feel what he was feeling.
The mine where Dain worked wasn’t the largest, and did not make up a large enough proportion of the brimstone supply to stand alone. He had not heard anything about the other mines, but he could hardly doubt that Slynn’s ones at least would side with him if push came to shove. People just needed the guarantee that they weren’t going to be alone in their fight, and Dain was confident their workers could do that.
Their men stopped when they reached the building. It was plain, made of sturdy grey bricks, and large iron doors, one of which was ajar, covering the entrance. It was wide enough to accommodate the wagons which came and went, carrying large amounts of brimstone from all the mines nearby, to be stored and then delivered to Rivergate on demand. A smooth paved road marked out the route taken. Attached to one side of it was a small stable, to keep the horses of whoever was rich enough to own one. Six guards stood in a row by the double doors, each armed with a spear and shield and clad in light brown leather armour. Not quite the intimidating figures of the King’s Bloodsworn, but not to be dismissed nonetheless. The guards may be outnumbered, but there was a good chance of there being others elsewhere.
Dain’s heavy heart came to life a little, speeding up as the guards announced their presence. They didn’t seem panicked by their approach; either they were just professional in their attitudes or someone had seen their precession and sent word ahead to warn Slynn. Dain looked around to either side to see if there was an obvious trap awaiting them, but saw nothing between the trees. They were reaching the crucial point now, and how the next hour played out would be vital.
A man emerged from inside the building. They were not close enough to make out a face, but on his signal the guards pushed the door closed, and sealed it shut with what looked like a large wrought iron key. The man in question turned towards the men approaching him, seeming unconcerned, and stood a step in front of his guards, waiting patiently with his hands clasped in front of him.
As they got closer, Dain, at the front of their march beside the wagon, began to make out more of his features. He was of average height, about thirty years old, with brown hair, short and neatly trimmed. He had a fairly wide face, and golden-brown eyes. His clothes were maroon, with gold patterning suggesting expensive needlework. Dain didn’t recognise him, as he never deigned to visit the mines, but he suspected who it was. Favian Slynn, the owner of the largest number of brimstone mines in the Kingdom.
The troop of miners stopped, the closest of them fifteen yards from the man, who had a serenely calm expression on his face as he waited for someone to speak. Dain stood there for a moment before realising that nobody else on his side was going to, and spoke up.
“Are you Favian Slynn?”
“I am,” replied the man. “How may I help you?”
Dain paused to keep himself composed as a cold shiver of anger ran through him, and allowed himself a moment to think before replying. He needed to be careful. He was speaking for all of them here, not just himself.
“You ordered the reduction in pay for the brimstone?”
Slynn seemed unabashed as he looked Dain over. It was almost as if he thought everything completely normal and couldn’t fathom why a hostile-looking group of men was in front of him. Dain tried to speak as civilly as possible.
“A great many of us view that as unfair, and want the decision reversed.”
Slynn smiled, as if finding it humorous.
“Well I shall take that into account, but last time I checked you do not decide how much you are paid. You just decide who you work for. If you do not like it, you are perfectly free to work somewhere else, as is your right,” he spread his hands in a friendly gesture. “But it is my right to decide what value I place on a particular service, and I feel that yours have been overvalued for a long time now, and changes must be made. Now, unless there is anything else, you may leave. Everyone else has left and I wish to go home.”
He turned away, and Dain felt like he had just been knocked flat. Everything the man said was correct, and Dain didn’t know how to argue with such cold logic. There was a stirring behind him among the men. He felt almost powerless. He just needed to find the right words, and Slynn would see that he was wrong, but he was a miner, not a diplomat. Dain wanted to see some kind of regret or shame from him. At least an insistence that he had been forced into it by the King. But he showed no guilt.
“My son died today!” shouted Dain, pointing to the wagon. “He died in a collapse in the mine you made us dig up!”
Slynn looked at him almost quizzically again, and laughed lightly.
“And this is my fault?”
That was his breaking point. A rich, miserly, far too clever wordsmith laughing about Heymon’s death in his face while he tried to do the right thing for hundreds of men who would struggle to survive because of one man. Dain roared and ran at him, with no plan of what to do, but just wanting to break that facade of impassiveness, and possibly his jaw.
Favian looked surprised, and perhaps disappointed, stepping back as a guard stepped forwards, swinging his spear around to bear against the side of Dain’s head, smashing him with the butt of it. Dain felt a bright flash of pain, and then he was being dragged up off the floor.
“Fetch the whip.”
Dain stirred as he felt the hands on him, and tried to struggle but was held too tightly on either side by the guards.
“That pay is rightfully ours,” insisted the miner. “Punishing me won’t change that.”
“You do realise I have a seat on the King’s council?” asked Favian almost disbelievingly. “I could have you hanged. Consider this a mercy. The rest of you, learn from this to be happy with what you have, and not cause trouble.”
Favian nodded to the whip-bearer.
Dain cried out as a searing red hot pain flashed across his back as if he were being branded. As soon as it began to fade he was struck again, and he writhed to try to escape his hold, making a guard stumble but not freeing himself.
“Fuck you Slynn,” yelled a voice he could not see, sounding like Merek’s. A stone rebounded off the wall and landed in front of him, thrown by whoever had shouted. Suddenly it seemed as if everybody was shouting, the silent observers becoming an angry mob in a flash.
“There are more of us!” shouted someone.
“Make it ten lashes, I’m leaving,” said Slynn, walking away. Perhaps he thought that if he ran he would encourage them like a pack of wolves seeing prey, but given what followed, running seemed the more appropriate response. Dain grunted, managing not to cry out as the next lash hit, and a shout went up. The guards holding his arms threw him to the floor to defend themselves from the oncoming rush, but neither of them was quick enough, with one knocked to the floor and one tackled. Within seconds they were being brutally kicked, their light leather armour providing little protection.
The guard with the whip had had it ripped from him and Merek had it around the man’s neck as the choking man tried to elbow and kick his way out of the hold. One guard turned on the spot and ran. Another threw his spear, thankfully missing in his attempt, before running himself. The other, backed against the wall, stood his ground, jabbing at those who came near, but was soon surrounded, and his spear and shield ripped from him.
“Don’t hurt them! They’re honest men, paid to do a job,” shouted Dain, using his weight to knock people back from the guards on the ground, who weren’t even trying to fight against the overwhelming numbers. He caught Merek’s eye, who threw his coughing man to the ground, looking disgusted. Dain pointed.
“There’s the real evil. Capture Slynn before he gets away!”
Dain picked up the rock from the floor next to him, and threw it towards Slynn, who had taken a horse from the stables and was riding away from the chaos. It fell pitifully short, and the men could only watch as the man rode away too fast for any man on foot to catch. There was no chance any of them could catch him, even if they found a horse. Riding was a pursuit of the privileged.
Merek spat blood onto the ground and looked at Dain.
“Well what the fuck do you suggest we do now?”
The King, his wound now treated and confirmed to be non-lethal, had asked for Rowan’s presence in an emergency council meeting. As future King, and now sixteen years old, he was expected to attend the Great Council and learn affairs of state. He had been excited the first time, but soon realised that taxes and politics were far less interesting than swordplay. When he was King he could leave the micromanagement to somebody else like Maddon, who also attended but seemed to have more of an interest in it than he did. His father made a point of attending all meetings, but it seemed as if he mostly just gave his assent to his brother and Favian’s decisions.
The Council chambers adjoined the throne room and had few decorations other than a blue banner with the silver Farhorn eagle stitched into it, some candles, and a large table which took up most of the room. A map of the Five Kingdoms was hung on the wall, with the Eastern lands not featured, as nobody knew how large they truly were. The army that had invaded them hadn’t stayed for long.
The King naturally sat at the head of the table, with his brother Prince John at his right. His left seat was empty, as Favian had business down at his mines and this meeting was arranged very suddenly. As such, several of the other seats were empty where other major Lords or their representatives may have sat. Rowan had assumed that this was about the prisoner who was currently lingering below in the dungeons, but a scroll of parchment his father was brandishing suggested otherwise.
“This morning a letter arrived from King Darrowmere,” stated the King. “He would like to sign a lasting peace treaty and encourage trade between our borders. He hopes that this will put an end to the uncomfortable tensions which have emerged since The Settlement, and to recognise each of our respective claims to the agreed lands.”
Rowan glanced at the map. Rivergate had once been the capital of the largest Kingdom of them all, but not anymore. There had been a dispute over the line of succession when the current King Darrowmere’s great-grandfather, a Farhorn, had abdicated out of fear when an Eastern armada threatened their lands. The rule passed over his young daughters to his younger brother, a far more military-minded man, and his daughters had married into the Darrowmere family. Their descendents felt that they deserved the throne in Rivergate, and the dispute led to a rebellion in which the Darrowmeres carved out a substantial piece of territory for themselves. The treaty to end that rebellion and divide the Kingdom into two had since become known as The Settlement.
“I don’t like it, but unless we’re planning to declare war and reclaim the land then we should go along with it,” said John.
“I agree,” said the King. “The new borders he suggests are a small price to pay for avoiding war. Even if we did regain the lands we would gain very little from it. They have no special resources which we do not have ourselves, or a profitable sea route. They just have a population now accustomed to another ruler. By signing the treaty we can agree to allow trade routes from the other Kingdoms to pass through as well.”
“What of the people living on the land Uric wishes to take?” asked Rowan.
“They will have to find new homes,” said the King. “We can assist them in that. They will not be harmed.”
Rowan felt conflicted. It just seemed unfair to negotiate with rebels who had stolen the land from them and to let them keep it. Then again, it wasn’t as if the Darrowmeres would just change their minds without a fight. He had broached the topic with his father several years ago. Rowan had asked how the Darrowmeres could claim a right to the land when the rules clearly stated that after an abdication the line of succession followed from the current ruler. The answer hadn’t been satisfying then either. Because we wrote them.
John picked up the letter to read the final lines.
“He says that if you accept, he will come to Rivergate with his son Fendred to sign the treaty, and looks forward to meeting your sons and daughter Ariana.”
John gave his brother a look full of meaning, and Maddon was frowning.
“He’s bringing his eldest,” he said, “and looks forward to meeting your daughter, referenced by name. I find it unlikely that it is solely so he can witness the signing of a treaty.”
“Do you believe he wants to arrange a marriage, your highness?” asked one of the other council members.
Rowan tried to hide his surprise, having not made the connection. He felt awkward being here to witness a discussion about marrying off his own sister to a rival family. Ariana could be very defensive and stubborn, particularly when her father tried to discourage her from pursuits which he considered less feminine, such as archery and hunting. Their mother tended to side with Ariana in giving her freedom with those things, but she had mentioned several times that at her daughter’s age she had been married and pregnant, and Rowan doubted she would resist the King on this issue. As for Fendred, he hoped that the prince would not try to keep her from her horse and bow, or things could get ugly.
“Fendred is of age and unmarried. A marriage seems a sensible way to seal a treaty,” said the King. “I see no problem with it. I believe he is bringing his son to ensure he approves of the arrangement before suggesting it.”
“This is preposterous, the Darrowmeres are our enemies!” exclaimed Maddon, leaning forwards in his seat. “Signing a treaty doesn’t mean that he won’t break it when he feels that it’s convenient, and Uric’s reputation is far from trustworthy. King Arran was killed by his son as Uric’s delegation was visiting. He’s not a man we want in the Kingdom.”
“This is anything but preposterous, boy,” said his father in a voice which silenced the room. “Kings need to stand by their promises or they lose credibility. He made the offer himself, and it benefits both of our Kingdoms. This is the first indication that they are willing to accept the current state of play. To refuse it would be a step towards war, which I have managed to avoid for the duration of my rule. As for Ariana, it is past time she was married. She is eighteen years old and if she pleases Fendred she will be queen, and her first son will be a king. She will not get a better match, and her influence on the next king in Grenfell could be beneficial. I will speak to her to ensure that she tries her best to encourage this match.”
His voice implied no argument, but Maddon tried anyway.
“What if Uric plans to declare war on another Kingdom? He may have decided that with King Arran gone Lowmarch is weak, and a treaty may demand that we stay out of it,” persisted Maddon.
The room paused, considering this. Rowan felt a little guilty, as if he should be arguing for his sister to stay, but he knew she would need to marry eventually, and it was a good match. Ariana would probably complain, but this was one time he felt she should keep her stubbornness to herself. It didn’t endear her to anyone, and would not change anything. He would miss her, but it was in her best interests, and as their father had said, she would be a queen someday
“That is possible,” agreed the King, “but our only alliance is with Queen Reyna to the south. If he does attack one of the other two Kingdoms, then we are not involving ourselves. King Jakov never wanted to commit himself to our defence, and I have had no dealings with Arran’s son. They can fend for themselves.”
“So the treaty will be signed?” clarified John, looking for final confirmation.
“So long as the terms are reasonable, yes,” said King Berin. “I shall have a reply drafted. To celebrate the signing of the treaty, we shall hold a tournament and test the mettle of Uric’s heir in a melee.”
His father looked towards his own two sons, and Rowan felt a nervous thrill, his worries over the arrangement vanishing. He relished a chance to publicly show off his talents. Kings needed to demonstrate their fighting prowess to be truly respected. Defeating Fendred and winning the tournament would be a wonderful way to win over the people he would one day rule and impress the King, and he practised his combat daily. He could see Maddon’s face was strained and trying to appear neutral, but he clearly did not look forward to the event.
“What about the family link?” asked Maddon.
The King waved a hand dismissively.
“Not an issue, fourth cousins are too distantly related for anyone to be concerned, and the temple has given approval to many closer matches.”
Maddon looked displeased but didn’t argue. Rowan had sympathy. It was not particularly fair that his brother would have to enter just because it was expected of him, despite his lack of ability, but that was just how things worked, and there was nothing to be done about it.
“Will it just be a melee, your highness?” asked one of the men, interrupting the sudden silence in conversation.
“There will be archery and a separate joust as well, as is generally expected,” consented the King. “The knights will need to train well from this and of course Rowan and Maddon will compete, and give a respectable display.”
Rowan nodded confidently, already imagining the occasion in his mind. He had fought in individual duels with some of the knights and despite being just sixteen had the strength and speed to defeat grown men.
“Now, onto the issue of the assassination attempt,” said King Berin, his face solemn. “The interrogators have yet to speak to the prisoner, but his accent sounds local. Whoever hired him did so within the Kingdom. Mr Duskwalker, tell me what intelligence you have on the two assassins.”
The King’s spymaster leaned forwards, looking a little embarrassed.
“None, your highness, I’m afraid nobody saw the man fleeing, and the bolts and crossbow used bore no markings – they could have been from any blacksmith. I have tried to track down poachers who may have seen suspicious characters waiting in the forests for your hunting party but understandably nobody wishes to admit to being in the woods at all. I believe the best hope is to talk to the captured shooter and ask him to give up his employer. Obviously his life is void but if he has family we can promise to provide for them in return for useful information.”
“We can make that offer, but I have no patience for torturers, if he will not speak then we shall proceed with his execution tomorrow without trying to force words out of him, I doubt he will have anything useful to say except what he thinks we want to hear. Only a fool would let these assassins know anything that could incriminate him if the men were captured. Other than ensuring a watchful guard is kept I believe there is little else to be done. That is all.”
The King pushed his chair back and stood, moving carefully with his injury, and walked to the door. The red-cloaked Bloodsworn by the door followed him as he exited. The guards would be ever more vigilant now after the embarrassment of allowing their King to be wounded. They took a failure like that very seriously. Rowan was bothered by the mystery of the assassination, but he knew there was little he could do about that, and his mind was otherwise occupied with visions of the tournament’s revelry. There was one person he knew who would definitely be interested in that new development. He needed to find Quinlan.
Rowan glanced around him as he passed the doors of the keep to enter the training yard, where loud metallic clashes resounded throughout the area as the knights were sparring. He sighed, looking for Quinlan as Maddon talked beside him.
“I just think that with this Fendred person around it makes sense that we work together in the melee for as long as possible,” said his brother. “If we focus on watching each others’ backs and agree not to fight each other then we’re much less likely to be knocked out of the running early. Father wants us to beat this Darrowmere, so it would be stupid to fight each other when we could take him on together.”
“Fine,” huffed Rowan, willing to humour him. “We don’t fight until the end, but I’m not risking my chances just to protect you, you’ll need to make sure you can defend yourself.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to team up, but a deal like that relied on both of them giving each other equal protection, and in all honesty Rowan would just be putting himself in more danger trying to protect Maddon while receiving little in return. In the end it would just be counter-productive, and in all honesty be worse for Maddon. The King was unlikely to care much that Maddon didn’t do well if Rowan won, so he should just worry about himself. If he could help Maddon in the tournament without putting himself at risk, he would. He just didn’t want to commit himself to anything in case it was impossible.
“Alright,” agreed Maddon, accepting that he wouldn’t get a better offer. “We leave each other alone.”
Rowan nodded, not looking as Maddon walked away, and having ascertained that Quinlan wasn’t any of the fighters, scanned the spectators. Sure enough, he spotted a black feather protruding out of the folded brim of the hat Quinlan sometimes wore. His cousin was animatedly explaining the complexities of the training to one of the interested young women observing. Quinlan was an odd one in the castle. His father was the Queen’s brother Trystan, who had died at war before he was born, while his mother had been a servant at the wedding of Rowan’s parents who happened to catch Trystan’s eye. What happened to her wasn’t common knowledge, but the end result was that the bastard boy had been given a home with the rest of them, and had become one of Rowan’s closest friends, as well as being one of the only people who could best him with the sword. Rowan made his way over, and when Quinlan caught sight of him he politely exited his conversation to join him.
“Who was that?” asked Rowan teasingly.
“That was Lady Sophia. She loves to watch duels and fighting but so few of her friends are interested. A real shame.”
“I’m sure,” said Rowan knowingly. “I thought you might be interested to hear about the outcomes of the council meeting I was just at.”
“Ah yes, so what exciting revelations did this meeting bring?” asked Quinlan, raising an eyebrow. He was two years older than him, and just a little bit taller, a fact which frustrated him sometimes.
“You’ll like this, there’s a tournament coming up,” he said. “It’s to celebrate the signing of this treaty with the Darrowmeres and the King thinks the letter implied Ariana’s marriage. Some prince called Fendred will be coming.”
“A possible marriage and a tournament?” said Quinlan, sounding intrigued. “What does Ariana think?”
“Haven’t seen her yet, she’ll probably say that she’ll only agree to it after meeting him, and then decide she doesn’t like him,” he said. “I doubt she’ll have much choice though.”
“What about this Fendred?” asked Quinlan. “Is he any good?”
“No idea,” said Rowan. “He’s a little older than us, but that’s all I know. We’ll need to train for it, of course.”
Quinlan grinned impishly.
“Well I am always happy to oblige in that respect,” he said. “How about Maddon and your other cousins, will they fight?”
“Father didn’t give Maddon much choice. He asked me just now whether we could make a deal to fight together,” said Rowan. “As for Edmund, I don’t know, he’s only a year younger than me, and a good fighter, but I’m not sure if he’s up to fighting in a melee yet.”
“Seems sensible for him to sit this one out, they are pretty dangerous. After the last one they stopped allowing war hammers,” remembered Quinlan with a grimace. “What weapons were you thinking of using?”
They often practised with a variety of weapons; axes, maces, swords, and all sorts, but Rowan knew where his strengths lay.
“Sword and shield, it’s what I’ve trained the most with, and there’s no point trying to fix what isn’t broken,” he said distractedly, watching as one of the swordsmen nearby was knocked to the floor with a crash, and then turning back to his friend. “Why, were you planning something else?”
“I was just watching these knights and it seems as if almost everyone is training with a shield and a one-handed main weapon, so probably that’s probably what they will use in the tournament too. I think it might be fun to switch things up and use a hand-and-a-half and ditch the shield. It might be harder to defend myself but I’ll have a longer reach, and I think it will throw people off,” replied Quinlan, smiling.
“Risky move, going two-handed with a weapon,” said Rowan admiringly. “I hate fighting without a shield.”
“Well I suppose I’m more used to handling a long sword,” chuckled his cousin.
Rowan rolled his eyes.
“Is it your swordplay which had Lady Sophia so interested?”
“Come on Rowan, you know I would never do anything her father would disapprove of,” said Quinlan, a twinkle in his eye.
“Well I’m not so sure. If the rumours about last year are to be believed...”
“I’m an honest man now,” said Quinlan.
“Right,” said Rowan doubtfully. “Perhaps I should try talking to her myself then. She is attractive after all.”
Quinlan laughed, looking back at the crowd of people.
“Well it is about time you tried something with one of the castle girls, but trust me, she’s not your kind of girl.”
“And what makes you think you know my kind of girl?” asked Rowan. “She seems nice enough.”
“Oh, she is. But too intelligent for you, she’ll work out what an arrogant arse you are too quickly.”
“It’s not arrogance if I know I could beat you in the fighting arena,” he replied, unfazed by the friendly insult.
Quinlan shrugged confidently.
“Just you wait. You might doubt the longsword, but you know me, if everyone else is doing one thing, I’ll be the one who tries something different,” he laughed. “I would try a quarterstaff but I never really gained any experience with it.”
Rowan laughed as well.
“I would love to see you fighting armoured knights with a quarterstaff,” he said, shaking his head at the image.
“I might have to train with it some more after the tournament and get good with it,” said Quinlan. “But that’s something for later. Any idea how much time we have to prepare?”
“Well Uric has to receive the reply, and then he has to make his way here, probably with a large guard. He’ll send word ahead that he is coming of course. We have several weeks, maybe more than a month if things drag on. If we practice every day we should be well prepared. I might get some lessons with Weapons Master Falk to see if he has any advice.”
“Well there’s no time like the present,” said Quinlan, gesturing to the large stone armoury where everybody stored their weapons and armour. “Think you can handle it?”
“Well you probably need the practice with your longsword,” said Rowan, as they headed over.
“I’ll beat you a few times with it if you like, but I’m not letting you get too used to it or you’ll get the hang of my tactics,” said Quinlan. “Just like I know all your moves almost by heart with the sword and shield.”
“Doesn’t stop me winning though,” said Rowan, as he began strapping on some light protective training armour.
“Maybe against the other knights who don’t want to hurt the poor prince,” countered Quinlan. “But don’t expect any special treatment from me in the tournament. You’ll get no easy win from me.”
“Oh I count on it,” said Rowan, tightening the final clasp. “Now let’s fight.”
Dain watched as men hammered at the door to the brimstone store, the sledgehammers clanging loudly against the metal, unable to break through. The thick iron was holding strong, and as Favian Slynn had made off with the only key they knew of, it seemed as if they would need to knock down the entire building if they wanted to get in, a process which could seriously anger the King, and make moving it all the more tough. Besides, how could they hide it all effectively? It would be incredibly difficult to do so stealthily, as if the amount inside matched the size of the building then it would require a lot of wagons, and they would be seen travelling along any normal road. With the men they had it would just take too long.
“Stop!” cried Dain, causing the men to look back in confusion.
“What are you doing?” asked Parry irritably, nearby. “We need this stuff, it’s our bargaining chip.”
“Well I’m not saying we should give it up,” he replied. “But look, they’ve hardly made a dent, and there’s little point anyway, by the time we get in and transport it Slynn will have reached help and sent men after us, we can’t be subtle about it. The King’s army could roll right over us if that was what they wanted anyway, and it’s not as if we plan to use any of it. We might as well just stand our ground and guard the building. Slynn’s key isn’t any use unless we’re gone, and we don’t have the manpower to break the building down and move it all in time.”
“Alright,” Parry conceded. “But what you’re saying does rely on some goodwill on the King’s part, and I don’t trust these rich bastards. Going on strike is one thing, but blocking access to these stores is criminal, and they might feel justified in forcing us away.”
“Perhaps,” said Dain, “and I’m not saying we should die for it, but King Berin has never shown any lust for violence, and he does need to be careful. Killing us isn’t what he or Slynn will want. We make Slynn money, and it will cost him to train up new men. I guarantee you that before any violence we will be heard and spoken to by a messenger. Until then, we hold our position. Our main concern is being able to feed ourselves if this situation lasts.”
“Most of us have some money saved, and a lot of us have families who will support us,” said Parry. “We’ll get by.”
At Parry’s words, Dain’s mind flashed to home, and then to Gelen, and he felt a spasm of emotion cross his face. Once the chaos after the whipping had settled down, they had organized themselves, letting the guards go, those who couldn’t walk unaided being helped by those in better shape. They had agreed that Slynn couldn’t possibly organize a response in less than a day at this distance from Rivergate, so they sent men to every brimstone mine in the region to tell them what was happening, and to ask them to come here to listen, and hopefully join their strike. After that, they had let people return home, leaving some volunteers behind in case Slynn returned, those leaving promising to return the following days so they could sort out their planned course of action. Dain had taken the opportunity to return home with Heymon’s body. His wife had wailed at first when she saw him, but by the time they had buried him she had subsided into silent grief, hardly saying a word. What had killed him inside was having to explain to Heymon’s younger brothers that their brother wouldn’t be coming back ever again. Dain would give anything, even his own life, to reverse what had happened. Sons should never die before their fathers, such a thing was a tragedy, especially when it happened so pointlessly. If Heymon had died standing up to Slynn, at least there would have been purpose behind it, but from some falling rocks? He needed to put it out of his mind and move on. As irrelevant as these things seemed in comparison, all the people here had listened to him petitioning them to join him and protest. He needed to keep a clear head and make sure that he didn’t let them down.
“With any luck the King will just realise the importance of maintaining order and keeping production of their special weapon ongoing and just force Slynn to reverse the decision,” said Dain, sighing.
“Judging from the size of these stores though, they may not be in any hurry,” said Parry. “There hasn’t been war since Berin was crowned, they must have barrels and barrels of the stuff.”
“That’s not really the point though,” said Dain. “It’s about appearances. They need to appear strong to their enemies and part of that is being able to produce more if they need it. Besides, it’s for the entire royal fleet as well as the army, and you do hear talk of pirates every now and again.”
Parry nodded, pulling a face.
“It’s a tricky one. We’d better bloody hope that the rest of the miners join us, because on our own...”
“They’ve agreed to meet and listen,” said Dain. “Besides, why should their reaction be any different from ours?”
“Not all of them are Slynn’s mines, they might need convincing. Someone will need to rally them,” he looked at Dain. “I think it did make a difference when you spoke to our lot after work, you know. It’s probably best with just one person rather than having everyone speak over each other, I think it gets the message out clearer.”
“So who’s going to speak to everyone this time?” asked Dain, almost afraid to ask.
Parry rolled his eyes, gesturing around them.
“Do you see anybody stepping up?” he asked.
“You want me to do it then?” asked Dain. “Why?”
“People listen to you, Dain,” said Merek, butting in. “You were the one who rallied everyone before, and you stood up to Slynn. You understand that there’s more to this whole thing than just arguing about pay, and even though I haven’t been at this mine long, I can see people respect you. You’re the face of this for us now.
“Well I wouldn’t have said it quite like that, but you get the point. I’ll speak to the other men, but I doubt they’ll disagree. Don’t let this get to your head and think you can order us about though,” he warned.
Dain was a little stunned by Merek’s words, especially since they came from somebody he hardly knew.
“Thank you,” he said. “I guess I’d better think about what I’m going to say to them.”
“What you said to us worked fine,” said Parry. “Don’t worry about it. Worst case scenario, they hate you and decide not to join us, leaving us struggling to feed ourselves for the rest of our lives.”
Parry clapped him on the shoulder, smiling, but Dain sighed, unable to laugh when what his friend said was so true. And it wouldn’t only affect them either, it could end up affecting the whole area. With such a large part of the village so much poorer, the local merchants and tradesmen would lose customers and their losses would filter through to the whole community, with Slynn hoarding the money all away.
“You know, we might be able to get the other families to help us as well,” remarked Dain, to those around him. If these changes stay in place then the whole region will become poorer, and even those with no miners in the family will be affected. Obviously a lot of families will have their own concerns, but some of the more well off men, the merchants, and tradesmen, could see helping us an investment in the future, and we can promise to pay them back for any food they provide for us.”
“You want to beg for charity?” asked Parry doubtfully.
“If we need it,” Dain shrugged. “If the King decides to wait us out in the hopes that we’ll give in then we might need outside help to keep going.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he replied. “But you have other things to worry about now. Men from the other mines are arriving.”
Parry was right. Groups of people were gathering around men from their own mine and talking to them about what had been happening, curious about how they had ended up camped outside such a valuable store of brimstone. Dain thought over what he would say as more men arrived, their numbers ballooning outwards so it was impossible to count them. What could he say that would get through to them? He needed to stir up emotion in them; logic on its own wouldn’t work on everyone. What would they care most about? Themselves, and their families, of course. Their reputation as well, most miners were proud of their status and freedom, compared to the serfs who had little choice in working their lord’s fields, and only barely supporting their own subsistence. The day-to-day running of the mines was managed almost solely by the miners themselves. Slynn’s only real role was to pay for the investment in tools and to buy the brimstone they dug up and sell it on afterwards, leaving them to distribute the money. There was often bad feeling towards people like Slynn, and a feeling that the money they made was far in excess of what they contributed.
Dain kept thinking, and paced around, nodding to people he knew as he passed them, and exchanging the odd word. A few from other mines wanted to know what they were here for, and Dain told them that when everyone was here he would speak to them all about what had happened and what they wanted. Eventually the arrival of people slowed, and judging by the numbers everyone who they expected was here. There were hundreds and hundreds of people now, almost certainly over a thousand with his mine’s lot, and perhaps close to two thousand. It was hard to say with so many, and hard to see where the mass of people stretched to.
“You alright?” asked Parry.
Dain nodded, taking a deep breath, and looking around to assess his audience, stepped up to speak.
“You did good, Dain,” said Parry, coming to him once the rest of the men had finished their back-slapping and handshaking. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“Well that’s why you weren’t up there yourself,” laughed Dain, relieved and pleased with how it had gone. He had won over all of Slynn’s miners who were suffering the pay cut, and a few others seemed willing to throw their lot in with them as well, workers in other mines who had felt displeased with their conditions for a while but had felt unable to act on their own. They were clearly hoping that if the King intervened to order Slynn’s changes reversed then he might ask for their demands to be met as well. Obviously not everybody had been convinced. In some of the mines conditions and wages weren’t bad enough for people to want to risk joining a protest like theirs, despite Dain’s warning that if Slynn’s cuts went ahead then they would spread to their mines as well. Perhaps they just needed time. If the King didn’t send soldiers after them people might be more willing to join them. The problem was the self-fulfilling aspect. People wouldn’t join if they thought soldiers would attack, but more men joining was the biggest deterrent to them attacking.
Regardless, today could be counted as a victory for Dain and his men. Their numbers had grown massively before the King could even respond to what Slynn would no doubt tell him, which meant the response may not take their size into account. They could grow even more the next day as word spread through the locals of what was happening. The biggest problem now would be keeping their group together. Right now the miners seemed in a good mood, all talking to each other and exchanging stories, but things could change when food ran short and the King retaliated. Dain’s thoughts were interrupted as Merek called him over.
“There’s a man here, he wants to speak to you,” said Merek. “He says it should be away from all of the others.”
“Just me?” asked Dain, curious.
“He didn’t ask for anyone else but he didn’t say not to bring anybody either. He had two men of his own with him though, armed, but he was all cloaked.”
It must be one of the King’s men sent to negotiate, that was the most logical explanation, although wanting to speak privately was a little strange. Seeing Dain speaking he must have assumed Dain was the leader of the group. Perhaps he was just worried about being attacked by an angry
“I’ll get Parry as well,” said Dain. “This might be important, and that way the numbers will be even.”
Merek agreed, and a few minutes later the three of them were being led by Merek into a shadowy part of the woods, the only sound being of twigs cracking underfoot as the noise of other miners faded.
“This doesn’t seem right, what if they mean to kill us?” asked Parry.
“Only one way to find out,” shrugged Dain, taking a large step to avoid a tree root.
They walked forwards, past a large oak tree, and suddenly there was the man Merek had spoken of. He wore large brown robes with a hood that in the shadow of the forest left a large part of his face dark. The two men with him were armed similarly to those who had guarded the gates to the brimstone store, with spear and shield.
“I saw you talk just now, it was very impressive,” said the man, with no greeting. “I can see how you became their leader.”
Parry bristled a little next to him, and Dain spoke.
“I’m not their leader, we have none, I just spoke to them,” he explained modestly, pleased by the compliment but not wanting to seem arrogant.
“Well perhaps you should be,” replied the man, his moving mouth one of the only visible parts of him. “Men rally more easily when there is someone to rally behind.”
“What do you want?” asked Dain shortly, glancing at the man’s dusty cloak. Perhaps the man who wore it was just trying to disguise himself but he was not dressed as he had imagined a messenger of the King would. The man spread his hands placatingly.
“Just to help you,” he said, a smile in his voice. “Isn’t that what you want?”
“How would you help us?” asked Parry suspiciously. “And what do you get out of it?”
The man reached inside his clothes and withdrew a small leather pouch, throwing it gently to Merek, who caught it reflexively. He pulled it open, and gold glinted inside. Dain had never even owned any gold. Few people did, and this was a tremendous amount of money to just be given away as casually as the cloaked man had just done.
“If this lasts you may find it useful to have some financial support,” he said. “I don’t want anything in return, except the guarantee that it will be used to help your cause and not wasted. Provided this is agreeable to you, I will provide more as the dispute goes on. It won’t solve all your problems, but it should help a great deal.”
Dain was immediately suspicious. The man wasn’t showing his face, and wanted to give money for nothing in return. This was no simple act of charity, this struck him as political. There was a hidden goal here, apparently making it worthwhile for somebody to try to pay to keep their strike and hold of the brimstone stores going. Dain turned to the others either side of him and spoke in a low voice so the other man couldn’t hear.
“I’m not sure about this, it doesn’t feel right,” he admitted. “He might wait for us to take his money and start making demands, or he could be an enemy of the King.”
“Money is money, if you don’t want to use it for the lot of us just split it between us three and forget about him,” said Parry. “What can he do that the King can’t?”
Dain shot him an angry look.
“We’re not using the money just for ourselves, it’s either for all of us or none of us.”
“Well we’re in no position to turn down offers of help, no matter where they come from. We don’t have to spend it right away, but if we become desperate it could be useful,” said Merek. “He’s not asking for anything in return and if he does we can just say no to it. Use the money.”
Dain sighed, and turned back to the man.
“Alright we’ll take your money, but if you want to keep dealing with us you need to show your face, I don’t trust a man who keeps himself hidden,” he said, eyeing the figure.
The man paused, and then in one smooth movement, removed his hood. Dain didn’t know what he had expected but the result was nothing to marvel at. The man was utterly unremarkable, with grey eyes, plain features, and no hair at all, facial or otherwise.
“I look forward to dealing with you in the future,” he said, smiling slightly. “Think on what I’ve said. Men need a leader.”
And with that he and his guards turned to depart, leaving Dain deep in thought.
“Quinlan!” called Maddon, catching up with him in the castle halls, his footsteps echoing off the stone floors “I need to talk to you.”
Quinlan heard him but kept walking.
“The answer’s no,” he said, not turning round.
Annoyed, Maddon persisted.
“I haven’t asked you anything yet,” he said.
Quinlan sighed and stopped, turning to face him.
“You want to make me the same offer you made Rowan, you want me to help you out in the melee so that you don’t get your arse kicked. Correct?”
Maddon shrugged, unembarrassed. He knew his strengths.
“I’ve seen you and Rowan fighting, you’re a natural, if you trained more you could be one of the best swordsmen in the Kingdoms. You’re one of the only people here who could beat Rowan in a duel. All I want is for you to lend a helping hand in making sure I reach the last four.”
Quinlan raised an eyebrow sceptically.
“Flattery is fine, but in reality I may not even make the last four,” he said. “Besides, Rowan is a friend, if I were going to team up with anyone, it would be with him. Why should I help you? If you were the better swordsman I doubt you would give me a second glance before turning down this demand.”
This was proving to be another hard sell. He had expected that, going in with no leverage, but it was still frustrating. At least with Rowan he had managed to get him to agree not to fight him until there was nobody else left.
“There must be something I can help you with that you wouldn’t go to Rowan with,” insisted Maddon. “A secret, or someone you’ve made angry. I’m a prince, and this is a rich Kingdom, if there’s something you need money for I can lend a hand. New armour, or weapons for the tournament perhaps?”
“I have no secrets,” protested Quinlan, turning angry and moving away from him. “There’s nothing you can help me with, and I don’t want your money. It’s just a tournament anyway, it won’t kill you to fight it like a man instead of trying to cheat your way through it.”
For a moment Maddon considered what his illegitimate cousin had said. Would it be so bad if he just tried to fight? He would almost certainly be beaten by the first knight who fought him, but was there any shame in losing to a trained warrior? Then he thought of his father’s look in the council meeting, and the people who would be watching. Even more important to him was wiping the smug grin off Rowan’s face. To best his brother at his own game would be incredibly satisfying. He would not give up on any possible route to winning.
“Even if you don’t need my help now that doesn’t mean you won’t need it later, and as you said, it’s only a tournament,” continued Maddon calmly. “It’s always good to have friends in high places. Even now I sit on the Grand Council, and though you are friends now, when Rowan is King it may not be wise for him to associate with a bastard.”
Quinlan’s nostrils flared, and his look was stony. That last remark may have been poorly chosen, although Maddon didn’t consider what he’d said to be rude. It was just the truth.
“Do you have anything else to say or are you done?” he asked the prince, folding his arms.
Maddon sighed, recognising a lost cause. It had been necessary to at least try. There was some slight suspicion in his mind that Quinlan had been overly defensive when he had suggested having a secret, but if that was the case it would be difficult to find out.
“It was just a friendly offer, let me know if you change your mind,” said Maddon, remaining civil.
“Yes, alright,” sighed Quinlan, shaking his head. “Now goodbye.”
He walked away, leaving the prince to think about how else he could try to pull this off. He could always just give up on the melee and put all his efforts into practicing the jousting instead, there would be honour in winning that, even if it was less prestigious than the melee. His riding and balance was decent enough, and he knew Rowan and most of the others would probably be practising their duelling more than anything else. Still though, there would be knights who specialised in the joust anyway, and he knew Rowan and his father cared much less for that sport, which would make any victory far less sweet. As for the archery, there was no use him even entering that.
Maddon looked out through the thin window to where men were training in the courtyard outside. He didn’t want to approach any of the other entrants as he had done with Rowan and Quinlan. It was one thing to ask family, but it was not a princely thing to do to go begging for help from strangers. Perhaps he would just have to win on merit. He didn’t have Rowan’s talent but he was probably cleverer than all the brutes swinging at each other down there. He could watch them all and look for any repeated sequences they were trying, and any weaknesses they might have. His memory was almost faultless, and he was sure he would be able to remember everything he noted down. Rowan in particular was guilty of rattling off the exact same sequences of moves a lot of the time. It meant they were fluid and fast, and even when you knew what was coming it was hard to beat, but it could be predicted.
Of course, any of Maddon’s counterattacks to these moves would cause them to react differently to what he might see in training, but that was unavoidable. He also couldn’t do anything about entrants from other regions who arrived on the day of the tournament, but other than Fendred and any others who came with the Darrowmeres, he didn’t expect a large number to do so. Rivergate was the capital and naturally harboured the largest number of knights, and not all would have the money or the inclination to make the journey here. Of course, those that did bother would most likely do so because they thought they had a good chance of winning. He would just have to hope that they would arrive a few days early and train in the courtyard so he would have a chance to watch some of them. If not, he could always try to seek out those he had noticed with particular weaknesses, and just play defensive while keeping out of the fighting as much as possible. It would not be easy, but it was the only way he could approach it. On top of that he would need some training with the Weapons Master, he couldn’t rely on his head alone.
“Am I interrupting some deep thoughts?” asked a voice, making him start.
“Damn you can walk quietly,” complained Maddon, shaking his head at his sister Ariana.
She was wearing an emerald green dress which was well made but ill-fitting. The tailor had clearly not taken into account her larger than average upper body muscles which she had gained from years of archery. It was an activity their father had tried to discourage as he thought it unwomanly, but that was one thing she would not budge on, and short of locking her up all day there was little to be done about it. Her slightly unusual appearance and behaviour did not help when coupled with her clearly very plain facial features, and although his memory was unclear as he had paid little attention to her as a child, he got the impression that she hadn’t fit in very well with the other young girls of the court. He had definitely observed that she became uncomfortable and didn’t talk much around their cousin Seraphina, John’s daughter. Maddon had grown up with similar problems, although on his side he knew it was in large part due to his own intolerance for the stupidity of others, and he often chose to just be in his own company. Still, he felt that their shared social awkwardness created a special bond between them that made them closer siblings than her and Rowan.
“So have you come up with a plan yet?” asked Ariana casually, her fingers dancing along the stone of the window ledge as she came to stand beside him and look out at the courtyard below.
“Is it so obvious I’m scheming?” asked Maddon jokingly, to which his sister didn’t reply. He sighed. “I don’t know, I’ve thought about it, and I think I know what I need to do, but there’s no getting around the fact that most, if not all of them are better swordsmen than me.”
Ariana seemed thoughtful as her eyes lingered over the people below.
“Being more athletic doesn’t necessarily make them better swordsmen,” she said. “Speed, strength, and experience will matter of course, but I think there’s a lot to be said for quick thinking and improvisation.”
Maddon looked at her doubtfully.
“I didn’t realise you knew so much about swordplay,” he joked. “Perhaps you can coach me.”
“I was just giving my opinion,” she huffed. “Just remember not to get too caught up in it, it is just a tournament, and it’s not like you need the prize money.”
“I suppose,” he admitted, although he didn’t fully accept that; doing well did matter to him. “How about you, I assume you’re planning to enter the archery?”
She nodded, perking up a little.
“Yes, I’ll certainly try, there is prize money after all,” she said. “And I think someone in the family needs to win something or we’ll never recover the cost of setting it up.”
“Indeed,” said Maddon. “So father didn’t protest about it or forbid you?”
“He agreed. With conditions,” she said, shooting him a meaningful look.
“Ah. He wants you on best behaviour for our guests, I take it?”
“It seemed the best I could do, I don’t think there was any way to argue with him about it.”
Maddon couldn’t help but feel a little awkward, having been there at the meeting. He had argued against it, but saying he had done so unsuccessfully would not cheer her up.
“Shouldn’t you be happy? I thought girls looked forward to these things,” tried Maddon with an enthusiastic tone. “You’re getting married after all.”
She made a face.
“Yes, to a prince, lucky me.”
“Well it’s not ideal that you’ve never met him, but it might all be fine, he could be a very nice guy, and at least it’s better than a fat old man,” said Maddon, trying to keep her spirits up with fake optimism. “Imagine if you’d been promised to someone like Moredent.”
She gave a small laugh, but it seemed tinged with sadness.
“You’re not wrong, I should be happy that he’s young at least, it’s just...it’s another kingdom,” she said. “But it’s not like I’ve been given any choice either way.”
Maddon felt a pang of loss at the idea of his sister leaving. She was the one person he felt he could be open with - he would effectively be alone if she left. He would have to make friends. He hesitated before saying what was on his mind, knowing his mother and father would disapprove.
“There may not always be a good alternative, but you’re wrong,” he said. “You always have a choice.”
“Hmm, maybe,” she said, moving to leave before remembering something. “Oh, by the way, Favian Slynn is downstairs, I think it was important, you should check it out.”
Maddon entered the throne room, where the evening light coming through the large stained glass windows cast long shadows, and made unusual colours dance across the room. He glanced at the tapestries depicting various scenes of famous battles as he walked. One in particular always struck him. It depicted the battle of the East Sea, and though the first part showed far fewer Farhorn fireships and missile boats to counter the invasion force the end result told a different story. Flaming arrows sailed overhead and there were men being burned alive as bright orange hellfire arced towards them, turning their ships to ash and melting their skin. Even the men in the water were not spared, as the substance was potent enough to burn on any surface once alight. Even with such a crude medium the maker did well to capture the expressions of agony on the bronzed faces of the foreign invaders. What a thing it would have been to witness. It was often spoken of as the most impressive military victory in history, at least in their kingdom. The scale to which the Farhorns had been outnumbered was probably exaggerated, but considering that the attack had come before any declaration of war yet not a man of the invading army had landed, there was no doubt that it deserved to go down in history. Little would please Maddon more than to have the fame and respect of Rowan the first, or as he became known after that battle, Rowan Dragonfire.
He too had been a younger brother, Maddon recalled, a prince until King Doram the Yellow heard the Eastern armada was coming and ran to hide at Lord Darrowmere’s castle in the West with his daughters. The younger brother, a more suitable King, took control and gained fame. At the same time, Lord Darrowmere had seen an opportunity and he married Doram’s eldest daughter, knowing any male children would have a good claim to the throne. The result had been civil war a generation later, something Maddon believed Rowan could have stopped if he had used his power to arrange an ‘accident’ for his brother and wife, taken custody of his daughters and married them to people of his choosing. Even better, they could have become Virgins of Metella, forbidden by religious vow to procreate. He could have had them killed as well of course, but that would be a little distasteful, even in the circumstances.
Maddon took his mind away from history and looked to the front of the throne room. His Mother and Father were both listening as the mine owner spoke with serious expressions. Slynn looked dishevelled, and had presumably been travelling without a carriage. The King and Queen on the other hand looked pristine, with Berin in royal garb, having cast off the sling for his arm as soon as possible, and his mother Helena resplendent in a perfectly tailored dress with her long dark hair held in place by ornate silver clasps. The man stopped speaking when Maddon came into earshot, turning to the King as if to check his permission.
“What’s happening?” asked the prince seriously, trying to work out what would be serious enough to cause Favian to come straight to the King before cleaning himself of the mud and dust of the road.
“It appears that a group of rebel miners at least one hundred in number have seen off the men and seized the main brimstone store,” his father said in a critical tone.
Maddon blinked, surprised.
“They want more money, nothing else,” said Favian, shrugging it off. “There is no need to do anything about it at the moment, they will need to return to work soon enough.”
“It is not for you to decide whether there is or is not a need to do anything about it,” said the Queen, a touch of ice in her voice. “You might have seen that your actions would anger the men like this, it is hardly surprising they reacted so.”
“My Queen, I apologise for my lack of foresight, as I did not expect anyone to resort to illegal actions. I did tell his royal highness the King at the last council meeting I attended about my plans,” he said, bowing in deference to her.
Maddon’s mind flashed back, remembering the last time he had seen Slynn at that meeting. Little of great importance had been discussed that day, but he had been pleased with his contribution overall, and remembered suggesting a change to the market tax which had been implemented.
“As you left you mentioned that you planned to return to pre-war levels of pay,” Maddon recalled. “The way you said it made it sound trivial. How much of a change was it?”
“A reduction of about eleven silver eagles per pound of pure brimstone,” said Slynn, “from twenty-five to fourteen.”
Something like that would make a massive difference to the workers, his mother was right, that was obvious to cause discontent among the workers.
“And were you going to pocket this difference?” asked Maddon, trying not to sound too accusing.
“Now now Maddon, it was within his rights to do what he did, that cannot be disputed,” chided the King.
Meanwhile his mother, whose eyes were normally a soft, kind green seemed hard and disapproving. She did not like Slynn.
“Thank you your highness, I am sure you are aware that it will benefit the capital with reduced costs as well, and as they are used to higher pay they should increase productivity once they become accustomed to the change. In the meantime, I can arrange for any new brimstone mined to be transported somewhere else. It is only a fraction of the miners who have protested.”
So far, thought Maddon.
“Shouldn’t we call a council meeting about this?” asked Maddon, not entirely approving of the position Slynn seemed to be taking as sole advisor. King Berin shook his head.
“No need for that, it is only a small matter as of yet. I shall send a messenger commanding them to disband, and if they do not, the store shall be forcibly retaken. I will order a small force of men to commence combat preparations.”
“We should be careful, violence could easily turn the common people against us, especially if they feel the miners are justified. After all, they did not kill anybody,” the Queen said, seeming displeased. “They may not mean any harm.”
“Nevertheless, they are criminals,” said Berin. “We cannot leave them unpunished, or meet their demands, or before we know it all of the mines and quarries will be doing the same. However, I will arm the men only with quarterstaffs, and if they refuse the demand to give up the brimstone stores then they shall be able to take it back without killing if needs be. If there are indeed only a hundred or so men it should not be difficult, and I will instruct the men not be overly violent unless attacked. We will have the moral high ground in this.”
“A very wise stance, your highness,” said Favian. “I would only advise not to make any threats you cannot follow through on.”
“Of course, of course,” muttered the King.
Maddon’s mother seemed satisfied, but he himself was unsure. He knew that appearing fair was important but half-measures could be worse than doing nothing, as Doram the Yellow and the Darrowmere rebellion proved. In this case if Maddon were King he would either use overwhelming force and kill whoever resisted to make an example of them or give them what they wanted using the Royal coffers. In the first case he may anger some, but they would certainly hesitate to defy him, and in the second the men would be happy, and thankful for his kindness. Either way, the issue would be dealt with. What his father was doing risked making him look weak if the non-violent staff-wielders did not force them away. He did not argue though, because he knew his father had more experience and no reason to listen to him. Besides, he may very well be right to worry about people being dissatisfied with how he responded. Sometimes major events such as rebellions could result from trivial causes.
“If it pleases you, your majesty I shall retire home,” said Favian, bowing, and leaving when King Berin gave his assent.
“Did you come for anything else?” asked his mother, as Slynn’s footsteps faded.
Maddon saw that for once, nobody was here to see the King and the only other men in the room were the guards who could easily be ordered away. Now would be the time to mention what he suspected about a spy in the castle. He hesitated, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. In all honesty, he didn’t trust his father not to tell those he trusted, like his brother or the rest of his council. The only one of them Maddon truly trusted to be innocent was Rowan, who he didn’t see as capable of something like that. Even if the spy was just a kitchen maid or guard, Maddon didn’t want any discussion being overheard, or given away in pillow talk to the servant. Besides, if the person who wanted the King dead was in the Kingdom, there was a good chance they were at court, and putting them on alert with a pointless search would make them more careful. Better for them to believe they were safe, and they might make mistakes. This tall, cloaked, bald man may turn up in the castle. Then there was also the second assassin to worry about.
“No, that’s all, I just came because Ariana said something was going on down here,” he said, feeling a touch of unease as he thought of the man who was to be executed soon, and what he might say of Maddon’s actions when he was captured. His father had been against torture and uninterested in what the man had to say, so that was in his favour at least.
“I expect you are preparing well for the tournament,” said Berin soberly, leaning forwards to hear what he had to say.
“I am,” Maddon nodded. “I have a training plan, and I’ve decided what I need to do.”
His father seemed pleased.
“Good, I’m certain you will make me proud,” he said, as Maddon controlled his expression carefully so it wasn’t obvious he was cursing his father’s certainties in his head.
“I will certainly try,” said the sixteen-year old, nodding to his parents before he left, his smile fading once out of sight.
He would just have to conduct his own investigation.
“I just want to know that you support what I’m doing,” said Dain to his wife, who had hardly been speaking to him of late. “I’m only doing what’s best for the family, isn’t it obvious?”
Gelen swept her blonde hair out of her face and turned to look at him.
“It isn't obvious, actually,” she icily, her voice low so as not to wake the children, who were asleep at that point. “If we just accepted the situation we could deal with it, and get by, as we always have. What you’re doing risks putting the children through yet another funeral. You think the King will choose the poor over the rich when he has the power to wipe you all out in a heartbeat?”
“I’m not going to die,” protested Dain. “I know we can’t fight an army, I’m no fool, I’m just doing what needs to be done for the sake of all the families, ours included. Besides, there’s no way to reverse what has already happened, so the only thing to do is follow through with it.”
There was a pause, in which the sound of birds could be heard outside, singing while oblivious to the problems of men.
“Well as there’s no choice, of course I will support you and the family to the best of my ability, in public if necessary. But, if an offer comes to end this thing with no deaths, I don’t want you to let your pride stop you from accepting a reasonable offer. If it’s impossible to get your pay back to what it was, accept it and stand down, alright?”
Dain hesitated, before nodding.
“This isn’t about pride, I’m not doing it to get back at anyone, it’s just the only way I see us being able to change anything. If the right offer comes, I’ll take it.”
“Alright,” she said stiffly. “That's settled then.”
Dain nodded, beginning to move towards his wife but then stopping himself. He didn’t know how to behave around her now. Her arms were folded, and she was looking away from him. He couldn’t tell whether she blamed him for Heymon’s death or was just angry at him putting himself at risk, but there was an obvious wedge between them. The awkwardness was interrupted by a knock on the door, and Dain immediately moved to answer it. The miners were alternating between personal time and guarding the brimstone store, and he had asked for someone to find him as soon as something important happened.
“Dain, good you’re here,” said Parry, once he saw him. “The King sent a messenger, he’s waiting by the camp.”
Dain looked to his wife, who sighed.
“Do what you have to do,” she said, her face expressionless. Dain kissed her on the cheek, forcing a smile.
“For all we know, he could be telling us that we’ll get what we want,” he said, and closed the door.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” muttered Parry, glancing over his shoulder to check that they wouldn’t be overheard. “I didn’t want to mention it in front of Gelen, but the messenger brought men with him.”
Dain gulped, fearing the worst.
“Thankfully just staffmen, although none of our men are armed so let’s hope they’re just for the messenger’s safety,” said Parry. “I told him you were the leader and were the only one who could speak for us. That gave me time to come and get you, and a couple of others on the way.”
“You think it will turn into a fight?” asked Dain, preparing himself for the eventuality.
“I don’t think those men were here to kiss us goodnight,” laughed Parry. “But it doesn’t look like they want to kill us, so there’s that at least.”
Dain nodded, considering his options. The King was probably relying only on Slynn’s information, and wouldn’t have realised their numbers had multiplied as much as they had. That would be crucial if things came to a fight.
“Alright, here’s what I want you to do.”
He outlined his idea briefly, and Parry went away to carry it out. Dain hoped it wouldn’t be needed, but he wanted to make some kind of provision for negotiations going sour,
It didn’t take long to reach the stores, but by then the light was fading, and fires had been lit, giving a warm glow to the proceedings. The King’s messenger was on horse, smartly dressed, and surrounded by a large troop of staff-bearing men in light leather armour. They numbered well over one hundred men, perhaps even two hundred. It was an intimidating force, but it had been designed to be overwhelming before Dain had rallied the other miners to join him. As it was, they were on more even ground.
The miners had gathered outside their tents where the camp had been set, a sprawling mass of them facing off against the ordered lines on the other side, just a couple of hundred yards between them. The miners, perhaps intimidated by the silent stance of the men across from them, were refraining from calling insults and merely talked quietly among themselves, waiting for a development. Dain had used the money given to them and paid some of the local farmers to supply food directly, meaning that for the moment the men were well fed, although some of them will have been drunk on ale. That had been a necessary purchase as well, to keep up morale. Merek spotted him as he approached and joined him as he approached. Since the whipping, Dain had come to appreciate Merek’s presence, being more reliable and less hot headed than Parry. He felt he could trust him more than some of his other friends from the mine.
“Where’s Parry?” he asked, looking to see if he was following Dain.
“He’s busy,” replied Dain. “Now, I think I’ll see what they have to say.”
He walked out into the no-man’s land between the sides, feeling everyone’s eyes on him as he did so.
“Dain Hardwood?” asked the messenger imperiously.
“Aye, that would be me,” he called in reply. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Mr Tesserell,” he replied. “And in the name of the King I order you to leave.”
Dain gritted his teeth.
“Are you willing to negotiate terms?”
The rider sniffed disdainfully.
“Here are your terms. Abandon the brimstone store or it will be forcibly retaken. You may continue your strike elsewhere, or go back to your jobs without punishment. That is all.”
Dain could feel the wave of unhappy chatter break out behind him as the words hit home. It had been a mistake to approach him in public. By doing so he had let the messenger get the upper hand, as hesitating while deciding on a course of action made him look unsure of himself. Whatever he decided, he needed to appear strong.
“And what of our demands? Will they be met if we return to work?” shouted Dain, so that everyone could hear him. “Do we get what we deserve?”
The messenger bristled at his tone.
“You get more than you deserve in going home unpunished. Be grateful for that, and let us have what is ours. The brimstone is not yours, you have no right to it. Tell your men to move away, or you will be declared criminals.”
The messenger was right, the brimstone wasn’t theirs, and they could still continue the strike without it. But they had made a stand, and it would be a crushing blow to give into the threat and hand it back. Dain turned to the miners.
“Well men. He says that the King wants what is his, but won’t give us what is rightfully ours. Does that seem fair?” he paused for effect. “I think not! He knows we are in the right, and chose to send men with sticks rather than swords. Will we give in to them?”
“The fuck we will!” shouted someone among the uproar, as men roared their defiance. Dain turned back to the messenger, feeling a surge of elation as the men yelled their support. He was playing with fire defying the king like this, but to stand up for what they deserved with all of the miners was an incredible feeling.
“Very well then,” said the negotiator tautly. “I have my orders. Men, advance!”
At his word, the men spread out into a long double line of men, twirling the eight-foot-long pieces of wood in an intimidating sequence of moves as they slowly came forwards. They clearly knew how to handle their weapons. Dain backed away, keeping his eyes on the staffmen, and raised his voice above the hubbub.
“Spread out! There are more of us, if we fight in groups we can take them.”
Dain wasn’t entirely sure of his statement though. The staffmen were ordered and professional, and the moment the miners began to be forced back it could turn into a mass retreat.
Some of the men, caught up in the heat of the moment, ran forwards to take on the advancing lines. The response from the front line was swift and brutal, wood battering against flesh, knocking the men back. One man tried to block a hit to the head as the staff smacked into his arm, being followed almost immediately by a hit to the stomach as his other hand instinctively clutched his wounded arm. A follow up hit from the staff knocked him to the ground.
“Attack together,” roared Dain, angry at the impatient fools who had just suffered for their foolishness. He raised his fist into the air. “Everyone, charge now!”
He ran forwards, knowing their only hope was to overwhelm them with sheer mass of numbers. They couldn’t hesitate; they needed to get within the reach of their weapons so they could rip them from them. Dain picked a man out of the line, focusing on him as he closed the distance between them. The man saw him coming, and raised his staff defensively. When Dain could see the whites of his eyes he leapt towards him, bracing for the impact that he knew would come.
Sure enough, the staff swung around, catching Dain in the midriff and winding him as he barrelled forwards. He didn’t try to block it, knowing he could easily break an arm, but absorbed the impact and grabbed hold of the weapon, not letting go as his momentum took him into the man.
They both kept their footing, and although Dain was struggling to breathe and sore from the hit he kept hold of the staff. The man behind him struck at Dain while he was unable to fight back, catching him painfully in the ribs. As far as Dain could see, it was a similar story along the rest of the line. The staffmen had been forced back a step, but had absorbed the charge, and while the front line held off the mass of miners with horizontal blows, the second line were using their long reach to strike forwards at the men to keep the first line from being overrun.
Dain locked eyes with the staff-holder, his hands hot from the friction against the wood while he forced the man back into the man behind so that the latter didn’t have enough space to swing. The noise around him was deafening as both sides struggled to gain the upper hand. Where the hell was Parry?
A new roar came from behind the lines of staffmen, and Dain saw the outlines of more men running from the forests, holding flaming branches as weapons. Finally.
The King’s messenger, who had been observing the battle from his horse, tried to spur his horse to ride away, but a branch swung in his direction and knocked him clean off his horse, out of Dain’s sight. The additional miners, led by Parry, ran to join the fight, crashing into the backs of the staffmen, who were suddenly faced with a fight on two fronts. With a burst of strength, Dain strained his tree trunk-sized arms, digging his heels into the ground and lifting the staff into the air, with its owner still on it. With a grunt, he swung it over his head, and the helpless man was set upon by miners.
Now with a weapon in hand, Dain rejoined the fight. A staff-wielder in front of him swung his weapon around, knocking a miner Dain didn’t recognise to the ground with a flourish, before turning on him. There was a tense moment where the two men appraised each other. The man was young, lightly muscled, and sweating from the action. Dain saw his face change giving away that he was going to attack. He blocked the man’s first swing towards his head, wood cracking against wood, but with lightning speed the staff came around again to hit him in the side. Wincing at the pain, Dain swung his own weapon around hard, almost hitting a miner when his opponent dodged the attack. An unarmed miner came to his aid, and Dain joined him in the attack, swinging wildly. The staffman deflected his attack, deftly sidestepped and hit the other miner between the legs, and followed it up with a feint attack towards Dain that gave him time to finish the groaning man with an elbow to the head. Dain swore inwardly, realising he was clearly outmatched. He discarded the staff and ran at the man instead, knowing that even if he didn’t have the skill, he was stronger than the other man.
His opponent somehow managed to avoid him, tripping him with the staff as Dain collapsed in the churned up dirt. He rolled, looking up as the staffman prepared to bring his weapon to bear on him.
“Hey, fucker, over here,” called a voice, distracting the man long enough for the speaker to punch him in the stomach, which even through the leather armour made him double over. Dain seized the opportunity, and kicked at the man’s leg. He stumbled, and then Dain’s saviour knocked him down with a backhand to the face. Still conscious, the man dropped the staff and put his hands up in surrender as he lay on the ground, unable to fight any more.
“You’re damn right you give up,” said Merek, offering Dain a hand. “Struggling?”
“I had it under control,” said Dain, lungs still burning from the exertion as he looked around him. “First you attack the guy whipping me, and now this? You fancy me or something?”
Merek laughed, clapping Dain on the back good-naturedly. The King’s men were now in full retreat, their lines broken and unable to cope with the numbers. Several men lay groaning on the ground, while others nursed serious wounds, but in all honesty he was more relieved to see them moving. There would surely be broken bones, and they could only hope that there had been no deaths. He spotted Parry in the distance, apparently unharmed. Dain’s role in the fight was done, he would just need to deal with the aftermath.
“I assume you organised the reinforcements from the forests,” Merek said, brushing himself off and looking around at the men around him.
“Parry went round and fetched some more of the men who had left the camp, and took them into the forests. I didn’t think the staffmen would realise the missing men, as we already had more than they seemed to have prepared for.”
“Fair enough,” laughed Merek. “Well we have the King’s messenger, and a bunch of his men. What shall we do with them?”
Dain sighed, not really in the mood for decision-making, but knowing that things needed to be done.
“The staffmen we can gather up and send on their way with some stretchers for those who need them. Keeping them prisoner wouldn’t be worth it and we’re certainly not executing them.”
He looked around, trying to ascertain who was who in the dark. The miners had allowed the remnants of the King’s forces to retreat without giving chase and were now cheering and celebrating their victory, as they deserved to. Mourning the costs of it was something for the morrow.
“Anything else?” asked Merek.
“Bring me the messenger, I want to speak to him,” said Dain. Merek nodded and went to do as he said, leaving him a little time to think. They needed doctors, or nurses. Some of the miners’ wives could perhaps see to them, if they were sent for. He himself knew nothing of how to patch people up.
He checked his ribs, and winced at the pain in his side. He hoped they weren’t broken, that could end up being very inconvenient. Dain saw that a couple of men were gathered around a prone figure on the ground, and approached to see what was happening. Whoever it was, they weren’t moving, and when Dain got closer, his heart sank as he saw that the head wound made it pointless to try reviving him.
“What was his name?” asked Dain quietly.
“People called him Big,” said a miner gruffly. “I dunno what his real name was. He had no family, i’ was jus’ him.”
“Well then, all we can do is make sure his sacrifice wasn’t in vain,” said Dain, knowing the words sounded hollow. He sent a prayer up to Anim that this would be the only casualty of their war, and that the man was with his loved ones now.
“Dain?” asked Merek, behind him. “I have the messenger.”
“Alright,” said Dain, turning to see the well-dressed man being held between Merek and another miner.
“If you’re going to kill me, might I say-”
“Shut your mouth and listen, I have a message for the King, and I want you to relay it word for word,” interrupted Dain, in no mood for posh pricks like him. “Tell him that a man has died now, it is his fault, and that there will be no negotiating until we have our pay back to normal. Tell him that I never wanted hostilities with the King, and remind him, we did not kill anybody in taking the brimstone store, yet after killing one of ours, he calls us criminals. Tell him,” Dain raised his voice, feeling anger at the injustice of it all build up inside him, “that we are moving the brimstone, and he is in no event getting it back unless he gives us what we want, regardless of what his bed-friend Favian Slynn has to say about it, and that from now on, violence will be met with violence.”
The messenger hesitated, glancing at the intimidating men surrounding him, and nodded.
“Well then that’s settled,” said Dain, rubbing his hands together as a sudden chill hit him.
The real struggle had begun.
A mass of people had gathered in the castle courtyard, where a wooden pole stood on a platform of wet sand. All had gathered to witness the event. There was excitement in the air and their voices melded together into an incomprehensible babble which drifted up to the royal party on the large stone balcony overlooking it. The day was cloudy, but the sun still made an appearance to give some warmth to the proceedings, and the atmosphere seemed jovial. The commoners did love a public event, and there hadn’t been enough space to fit in everyone who wished to see it.
To Rowan, it seemed a little sick. He didn’t understand why people turned up to watch. It required a slightly warped mind in his opinion, although Maddon hadn’t seemed to share his misgivings. Perhaps that said something about him, or maybe he just enjoyed reminding people of his moment of glory in bringing this about.
“Isn’t it about time to bring him out?” asked his brother, just as the trumpets blew and the bedraggled, shirtless figure was escorted onto the platform in the centre of the courtyard. Having spent all the time since his capture in the dungeons with poor quality food he looked the worse for wear, although he hadn’t been tortured, and walked without difficulty. In his opinion the no torture policy worked in their favour. It was easier to hate a man when he was strong and unbroken, it made him seem more deserving of punishment.
The man made a sudden lunge at one of the men holding him, bringing his bound hands around to strike at his face. The people watching roared in disbelief, then cheered as he was knocked to the ground, and beaten into submission. Maddon laughed.
“How did he think he would get away? It gives us a good show, but it would be better if he just accepted his fate with dignity, don’t you think?”
“Indeed,” agreed John, a step behind the main group, with his three eldest children. Devin, the youngest, was not here to witness any of it. A good thing, probably. Quinlan was also invited to watch, and stood in the shade behind his cousin Seraphina, at the back of the family.
“I don’t blame him,” she said, looking up at her father. “You would have to try, wouldn’t you?”
The bloodied and beaten man was tied up securely to the pole in the centre of the stage, not struggling any more. Some of the audience threw insults, and the odd projectile at him, but did not advance past the line of armed guards preventing them. Rowan glanced at his sister, who had not said a word since they had come up here. Her face matched his feelings. This man may be guilty, but it did not feel like justice to turn it into a spectator sport in front of a baying mob. Trumpets sounded again, and the crowd fell silent. King Berin stepped forwards to speak, the Queen at his side, his voice cutting through the mumbling below.
“This man has been found guilty of high treason, and by the sacred laws of our kingdom, been sentenced to die. If his soul is truly good and pure, he shall be able to suffer the pain of his punishment in silence without complaint. Only then can Anim judge him fairly and declare him worthy of forgiveness. If he cannot, he is condemned to join Aterus in his black realm for eternity, and forever feel the pain of his death.”
The crowd cheered, and the King stepped back from the stone railings, where a Farhorn banner was draped.
“Time to place your bets, murmured Maddon, not looking away from the scene below.
The King’s justice stepped onto the platform with a long knife in hand, and the chatter was replaced by tense expectation. This part was reserved for particularly heinous crimes. The blade of the ominous black-clad figure flashed twice in the sunlight, and the victim gasped, his face contorting horribly as his stomach was slashed in a wide ‘X’ shape. Rowan winced, but didn’t look away as the King’s justice reached in, and the shuddering man’s intestines were gently pulled out to hang in front of him. The poor victim managed to not make a sound, but his chest was heaving as he panted rapidly, looking away from his mutilated stomach and up at the sky as blood dribbled down onto the sand underneath him. A man could survive for hours like that, before infection set in. Thankfully, there was a quicker solution.
At the King’s signal, a man ran out carrying a small barrel. Excitement rose in the crowd as the cloudy, viscous liquid dripped in large globules onto the man.
“Trial by fire,” Rowan muttered bitterly, feeling bile well up in his throat as the man with a barrel moved away, and a torch bearer came forwards. He glanced over to the others. Maddon was watching calmly, showing no reaction to the burning, and Seraphina had looked away. Most had forced impassive expressions onto their faces. They had to stand by their sacred justice after all. It was disgusting really, this whole spectacle. He understood the man had to die, but he couldn’t see what made people want to come to watch this cruel end. What was wrong with them?
With a sudden thundering roar, the liquid caught fire, engulfing the man in seconds. Evidently, and unsurprisingly, he was not able to endure the pain and screams rang out through the courtyard. Most had to shield their eyes from the glaring orange flames, and it was not long before the noise of the dying man subsided.
“Not of pure soul then,” noted Maddon quietly. Ariana tutted, clearly finding the comment in poor taste. Rowan blinked, the bright afterimage playing across his eyelids while the flames shrank in size. Thankfully they were far enough away not to be able to smell the burned flesh. The wooden pole cracked and collapsed, the body falling with it and crumbling at the impact of hitting the ground. Almost nothing remained of what had previously been a man, and he was apparently condemned to burn like that in eternity for his crimes.
The King stepped forwards to the front of the balcony again.
“The sentence has been carried out. May that be a lesson to all who try to strike against our Kingdom.”
The crowd half-heartedly cheered his words, and began to disperse, the main excitement of the day over. The family likewise made their way back into the shade of the castle. Rowan waited until everyone had moved away and his father was out of earshot to say what was on his mind to Maddon.
“So do you think this whole thing is worth it then?” asked Rowan. “I mean, it seems like a waste of hellfire.”
Maddon sighed exasperatedly.
“The man deserved to die, Rowan, he committed treason. And if we’re going to execute him we might as well show off a bit, the hellfire reminds them of our strength and they enjoy seeing it,” said his brother. “When you’re King, there will be people working against you, and if you show weakness, they’ll win. Simple as that.”
Maddon sounded pretty condescending saying it, but he had a point. As King, there would be hard decisions, and even if he avoided war, there would surely come a time when he would be responsible for someone’s death, indirectly or not. Things would be so much simpler if he were just a knight.
“Yeah, well, how about some sword training?” asked Rowan, gesturing behind him as he changed the subject to something Maddon couldn’t get superior about. “The Darrowmeres are on their way after all. You could probably do with the practice.”
Maddon shook his head, seeming surprisingly unfazed. Rowan had expected him to seem more worried.
“No thanks, I have my own training plan. The cousins will probably be up for it though, try them,” he said, before walking away. “But don’t forget the council meeting.”
Perhaps he should be a little more wary of his twin. He was definitely the kind of person who would try to come up with a way to win, even if he didn’t have much aptitude for it. His reply had certainly suggested he had something in mind. Rowan put it out of his thoughts. He was probably just trying to put on a front. It was a melee. Maddon’s only way to win would be to train and fight like everyone else.
One by one, the great lords and important people of the realm filed into the room. Every part of the Kingdom had their representatives, and even the Priests of Anim, known as the Anima, were accounted for, to try to ensure that whatever decisions made were in line with their religious teachings. Then there was the spymaster, and the treasurer. There would be no empty chairs this time. The King was of course at the head of the table, with his brother at his right. Favian Slynn had taken the position at his other side, something which was unlikely to please the other lords, considering the man was not part of any noble family at all. Rowan took a seat next to Maddon in one of the overly large council chairs.
“Another bloody council meeting,” he complained with a sigh. “How many more do we need before we can just get on with our lives?”
“Would you rather we didn’t decide what to do about the miners?” asked Maddon. “I mean a thousand of them stole and hid a massive amount of brimstone, but council meetings aren’t as interesting as battering someone with a practice sword, so let’s not bother.”
“Yes, I realise decisions need to be made, I was just saying,” huffed Rowan. “You don’t have to be a dick about it.”
When everyone was seated and the loud scraping of chairs had ended, the King stood up to speak, his still injured arm stiff by his side.
“As some of you will be aware, there has been some bad news as far as the miners are concerned. For those who don’t know, Mr Tesserell can explain.”
The man stood up to speak, clearing his throat. His movement suggested the action was painful, and he clearly hadn’t managed to avoid the recent violence.
“Thank you your highness. I went with a force of King’s men, armed only with staffs, to demand that the miners abandon the brimstone they were illegally keeping from us. On their leader Dain Hardwood’s orders, they refused, and so I ordered the men forwards. However, it was immediately obvious that there were more men than we expected, and even more charged from the forests behind us when the lines engaged. They routed our men and I was taken to Mr Hardwood,” said the man, pausing and looking around the room. “He had just come across a dead miner, and in retaliation said he would take the brimstone to a place of his choosing, and would not negotiate further unless we met his demands. He said that he would respond with violence to further aggressive action, but did not seek any hostilities.”
He sat down, while unhappy voices assimilated the new information.
“Yes, why would we think he sought hostilities?” Rowan said to Maddon in a low voice. “He only attacked Slynn’s guards, stole a few tonnes of brimstone, and threatened the King. He sounds a very peaceable man.”
“It’s an outrage!” cried one of the lords. “We cannot allow mere peasants to attack King’s men and dictate terms to us like this! It will give the others ideas. They’re an unruly bunch at the best of times. One lot of them killed the overseer at a manor the other day! We cannot allow this violence!”
“Well technically they’re a bit more than peasants, the brimstone miners have been freemen since The Settlement,” corrected Maddon, “and our men attacked them, but I appreciate your point.”
“What I want to know,” said Prince John darkly, “is why our esteemed council member here said there were only about one hundred of them, when there were actually...how many would you say Mr Tesserell?”
“It’s hard to say, your highness, it was dark, but I would not be surprised if it ended up as close to one thousand.”
John gestured towards Slynn.
“Exactly. So why did Mister Slynn inform us otherwise?” he asked the room, deliberately putting an emphasis on his lack of titles. He sat back, as all eyes turned to the mine owner, who coughed, and glared at the prince.
“My information was correct, I reported what I saw at the time. How was I to know that their numbers would increase so dramatically before we could hear about it?” he argued. “Did you foresee this happening?”
“Perhaps because you own most of the mines?” replied John, ignoring the question. “Maybe if you spent less time in the castle and more time paying attention to the people in your employ then something like this wouldn’t have happened.”
“You may not realise it but I have important duties in the castle,” huffed Favian. “I earned my place on the council.”
“Well if your duties are taking up your time then I’m sure there’s a solution,” said John darkly.
“Who do you think would win in a fistfight?” murmured Rowan as he watched the argument unfold. “My money’s on John.”
“I don’t know, John looks stronger, but I heard Slynn grew up in a poor area, I think he could handle himself if it was without weapons,” replied Maddon, also watching intently.
“If the numbers were clearly more than we expected then why did Mr Tesserell give the order for the men to attack anyway?” asked Favian.
“I was following the orders I was given,” he argued. “They were unarmed and untrained, I expected them to fall back. If they had not had men hidden then it would most likely have gone in our favour.”
“We can sit here laying blame all day,” said the King, silencing the arguing. “It’s irrelevant. Mistakes were made, and we need to fix them. Spymaster, do you have anything to comment?”
Mr Duskwalker nodded, his black ponytail shaking.
“Well your highness, it seems that in general the common people are fully behind the miners, and believe their actions were justifiable. As to whether their beliefs would lead to active support, it is hard to say.”
“I presume you could insert some hired eyes into the camp,” said King Berin.
“I know some men who would be willing,” said the spymaster. “Would you like me to give them the order?”
“Your highness, would it not make more sense if I found some retired miners to do the job?” asked Slynn coolly. “It would be easy to do, I know a few of them, and they wouldn’t stand out so much. A man with no background would stand out a mile, even among so many men.”
“We can do both,” said the King. “There’s no harm in having too much information. As for our next course of action, please speak if you have an opinion.”
One of the Lords, a rotund man with a jowly face from the Moredent family, raised a hand.
“Mr Tesserell, you seem the best person to ask about this. To what extent did you feel the miners were influenced by this Hardwood man? If he were to disappear, would the rest of them be more agreeable?”
Rowan felt uneasy at the question, and Mr Tesserell seemed surprised by it.
“If he had ordered them to back down then I imagine they would have, but it’s hard to say what they would do without a leader, there could be any number of people wanting to take the role.”
“Were you suggesting we hire an assassin?” asked another one of the lords, frowning.
“Well there’s more than one way to make a man disappear. He just needs the right incentive. A bit of money would do the trick I imagine.”
“If money was all it took then we could bribe him to order the men to stand down,” said Favian, leaning forwards to speak. “But I doubt that would work, the man lost his son in a mine collapse and seems to have got it into his head that what he’s doing is for his memory. Although of course, if he were to have an accident, then his replacement may be more open to persuasion.”
There was a moment of silence after this suggestion as the room contemplated it.
“How would that help with getting the people on our side?” asked John unhappily. “We’ve already ended up killing at least one miner, now you want to kill another?”
“If his life is the only one which needs to be sacrificed for the issue to be solved then yes, I believe we should. It’s surely better than sending troops after the rest of them.”
“Well the Anima would obviously stand against any violence,” said the priest, frowning. “Would it be unreasonable to meet their demands?”
“Trust a priest to be on the miners’ side,” muttered Rowan, sighing.
“It would not do to give in to threats from a few commoners,” said one of the Lords. “I say just leave them. What can they do? They’ll run out of money for food in a week or two and then return peacefully to their jobs.”
“I am of this opinion as well,” said the King, who had been quietly thinking while the discussion went on in front of him. “I do not wish to give anybody any further excuse to hate us, and Hardwood seems not to be looking for violence, so we’ll leave him be. In the meantime, we can organise a brimstone route from the remaining mines straight to the capital, and guard it sufficiently. The physicians don’t use much and the need for hellfire is not pressing. We have a large store of it, so we can make do with that. That should also send the message that their strike is pointless. Favian, you will contact the other mine owners and organise that, and I will also leave you in charge of all matters to do with the strike while King Uric is visiting. I do not wish to give him the impression of a weak Kingdom, so only approach me if it is an emergency.”
“Excuse me, you’re leaving him in charge?” asked John incredulously. “He’s the cause of this entire problem!”
“I think you are forgetting your place, dear brother,” said Berin. “I am the King, and I believe that Favian is the best man for the job. He knows these people better than anyone.”
“He also makes a good person to lay all the blame on if it all goes to shit,” Maddon noted.
Rowan nodded. He hadn’t thought of that, but unlike all the Lords from powerful families around them, Favian was just a mine owner who had earned a place on the council because he had been useful in solving the King’s problems. He could be discarded at any point, whereas the Lords provided men for the army and food to keep the massive capital alive.
“Now, there is plenty more we need to discuss, so let’s be moving on,” said the King. “We’ve yet to even begin on taxes.”
Rowan groaned inwardly, and tried to picture the upcoming tournament instead. It wasn’t far off now, he just needed to be patient. He sighed, looking around the room. Not his speciality.
“Stand back!” yelled Dain, ordering the miners to stop their work and get a safe distance away. Seconds later, the beams supporting that part of the tunnel began to creak like a poorly constructed bed, and all of a sudden gave way, heavy rubble crashing to the ground and throwing up dust, obscuring their view and making their world go black. When it settled, the entrance to that tunnel was completely blocked, the way impassable.
“Well that should keep the brimstone safe,” said Parry, coughing.
Dain nodded. It was about as safe as it could be. It would take a while to get through all of that rock and transport it back up to the surface, and although that would be a pain, it wouldn’t be possible for the King’s men to steal it without them knowing. The only way to extract it would be to use experienced miners, who would hopefully only do so once their demands were met. Even though it wasn’t Dain’s mine, he was sure the King would be able to find out the location due to the long line of wagons which had led here in broad daylight. But even if he did, the underground location meant cavalry would be impossible to use, and the infantry he might send would have to navigate the dark tunnels on their own, where they could collapse the tunnels or spring an ambush at any point. Maintaining formation would be impossible on the uneven ground. Basically, it would be almost impossible to take by force.
“You think it’s a good place to base ourselves out of then?” asked Dain.
“Definitely. There’s a long way between Rivergate and this mine. We’ll have plenty of time to react if the King tries to send men here. We just need a few men on watch near the capital who can send word if men are coming. We don’t want to be taken by surprise.”
“I agree,” said Dain. “But we should also think about food. They could try starving us out if we retreated inside, so it might be an idea to buy a few barrels of salted pork with some of that money we’ve been given.”
“And if we have time maybe try to dig a hidden tunnel.”
“And build some barricades.”
“A few traps would be nice as well.”
Dain and Parry exchanged a look and laughed.
“Alright, come on guys, let’s head up to the surface,” said Dain, not liking the unfamiliar feel of this mine. It felt smaller, the walls closer together than he would have expected. He strained his thigh muscles, leading the men up and out at a relatively fast pace and taking a deep breath of fresh air when he reached the sunlight. The mine was mostly just out on its own, surrounded by hills and wide grass plains where the miners had made camp. It was a peaceful place for the most part, but he didn’t have long to rest before others began surrounding him to bring up all of their issues and gripes, all clamouring to be heard.
“Now listen Dain, I know you want us to stand united and all that after the brimstone battle, but us men from Newrock were wondering if we could group closer to our village? It’s just over here is awful far to walk and the men have families to see to, you see?” explained the man imploringly.
Dain sighed. There was no winning with this lot. Everyone had their own opinions on what to do, meaning whatever he chose was the wrong decision for someone.
“Listen,” Dain began, “I-”
He stopped, noticing a disturbance in the field of men in front of him. A man was running this way, knocking people aside and yelling at the top of his voice.
“Armed men coming this way! Just a mile away! Armed men, on their way!”
Dain froze in shock. So this was it, the army had been dispatched. He had said to the messenger that he would not negotiate until their demands were met. Perhaps that had been the wrong move. Perhaps he had doomed the lot of them.
“Alright, grab whatever weapons you can!” shouted Dain, storming into action. “Grab the pickaxes and the shovels, and group together around the mine. They won’t want to fight us in there.”
It was chaos as men ran to arm themselves, grabbing whatever they could. There were nowhere near enough pickaxes or other tools for everyone, and they had not been expecting any attack so soon and without warning. Dain picked up a large rock, testing its weight. It wasn’t ideal, but it would certainly do a lot of damage if swung with enough force. Meanwhile, his mind was spinning. How the hell had they got so close unnoticed?
“How in Anim’s name did things come to this?” asked Dain, standing alongside Parry again in the front line of miners, his heart pounding. Here he was, a man who only ever wanted to make a decent living and raise a family, about to fight for his life.
“We all have to die sometime,” said Parry. “And this seems as good a way to go as any.”
“Dain! There you are!” said Merek, pushing his way through to stand on his other side. “Any idea what’s happening?”
He had managed to find himself a large shovel used by the smelters to shovel rock into the furnace. Dain hoped he was able to use it well.
“I have no idea what’s coming,” said Dain. “All I know is they’re armed and heading this way.”
As he finished speaking, he caught sight of the first of the oncoming men on the hill in front of them. He was soon joined by another, and another, and many more. Soon there were hundreds coming, kicking up dust as they approached. Tensions were high, and in their tightly packed group Dain could feel his clothes beginning to stick as sweat began to form.
“I think we have the numbers,” said Parry. “We should charge them and surround them, like with the staffmen.”
“Hold on,” said Merek. “Do they look like soldiers to you?”
“What do you mean?” asked Dain, squinting to try and make out the men better. They weren’t in any formation, just a spread out mass of people, and they were clearly not armoured. He could see the sun glinting off their weapons though, so he wasn’t optimistic about their friendliness.
Their approach seemed casual, although they kept their weapons ready. As they got closer, he was able to make out more details, like the generally dirty state of their clothes, and the kind of weapons they were carrying. He saw war sickles, pitchforks, billhooks, and other modified farming instruments.
“They’re not soldiers,” realised Merek, standing up straight and looking them over. “They’re farmers.”
“More importantly, look at their leader,” said Parry, in an odd tone. “Look!”
Parry sounded genuinely fearful, something Dain had never seen in the man. He had been ready to face death against the King’s army but one of these peasants frightened him? It made him nervous as he tried to see the cause of it. The men were close now, enough for them to make out expressions and pick people out. Dain searched for the leader and saw the man who Parry must mean at the head of his group, and why his friend had reacted that way.
“No, it can’t be,” he said, his eyes widening as he instinctively backed into the person behind him.
“It is,” said Parry. “The Touch of Aterus.”
Like the waves from a stone dropped in a pond, the words rippled back in whispers through the men. The Touch. He has the Touch. Dain looked at the man, who seemed to be smiling at the reaction he was causing. He commented to the men next to him, who laughed loudly at whatever he said. The men around him didn’t seem aggressive or warlike. A lot of them looked weak and underfed, and more afraid than the miners. The leader, a tall, thin man, held up a hand, and the group stopped. He stepped forwards, raising his weapon, a wooden pole with a long metal scythe attached, in greeting, before speaking in a hoarse, gravelly voice.
“You can put your weapons down, we come in peace,” he said, casting his eyes over the men pooled around the entrance to the mine. “Which of you is the leader?”
Dain stepped forwards, his eyes fixed on the man’s face. He didn’t drop the rock.
“I am Dain Hardwood. I speak for these men,” he said, with more confidence than he felt. The man smiled in response.
“Yes, I have heard of your exploits. My name is Redskin. Some call me the Undying,” he said, flicking his hand up to his face, which was horrifically scarred and discoloured. The rare disease which had taken him over had caused unsightly growths, and the long burst pustules had left their mark. He offered a hand, which was equally affected. His age was almost impossible to tell from his face but his movement seemed smooth and unhampered, so Dain guessed he was thirty or so.
“I’m not going near anyone with the Touch,” said Dain. It wasn’t said to be particularly contagious but it was lethal enough that you couldn’t take risks.
The man laughed coarsely.
“I am no longer affected by it,” he said. “Aterus touched me, but Anim redeemed me. These men can attest to it. I’ve lived with them for many years now. I am perfectly healthy, barring a few...disfigurements.”
“That’s ridiculous, nobody survives the Touch,” protested Dain. “If you have truly been touched by Aterus then there is no coming back.”
“If it hasn’t killed me after twenty years, I don’t think it will kill me now,” he said, spreading his arms out wide and laughing. “I am more alive than ever.”
Part of him wondered whether the disease had turned the man crazy. Dain had only ever seen the disease on one person before. They had been dead within days and their body was burned to stop it spreading. He had never heard of anybody surviving it. When people got it they were often killed because everyone knew death was inevitable anyway and it avoided the suffering. And yet, here this man stood, who, despite everything, seemed to be in good health, with hundreds of men at his back.
“What’s your real name?” asked Dain.
The man shrugged.
“What does it matter? The boy I was born isn’t the man I am now. Redskin is the only name that matters.”
“How up himself is he?” muttered Parry. “Tell him to fuck off far away from here.”
He wanted to agree, the man sounded pompous and ridiculous, but if what Redskin said was true...
“What do you want?” asked Dain. “Why are you here?”
“I think we have a lot of common ground,” he said diplomatically. “We both want the same thing, truthfully. You want higher pay and better conditions? So do we! Wouldn’t it be better to stand together? I’ll follow your lead on everything of course, and my men will too; I’m not here to usurp your position.”
“And the weapons?”
Redskin shrugged, his expression turning a little dark.
“Things are different for serfs. We’re paid a pittance, and every week we’re forced to work on temple land for free. There was even talk that they were going to stop paying us, and go back to how things were before the war. They were going to take away all the freedom we’d been given, and we weren’t having it!” Redskin’s voice grew animated and his grip tightened on his war scythe. “So we did what we had to and took up arms against our oppressors. I heard that a group of miners were making a stand and thought that you seemed a good man to follow. Am I wrong?”
“I need a moment to think,” said Dain. “Men, relax, I don’t think he intends to fight. Merek, Parry, with me.”
His two main men joined him out of earshot of everyone else but within sight of both sets of men. He turned to them with a serious look.
“Well, what do you think, should we let them join us?” asked Dain.
“I don’t like the look of this guy,” said Parry. “He might say he’s cured but we shouldn’t take the risk with something like that. Besides, look at the lot of them, what use will they be in a fight?”
“Well we’re hoping it won’t come to another fight with the King,” said Dain. “Merek?”
“I think they could be useful,” said the miner thoughtfully. “Think about it, what will the King’s first worry be when he hears about this?”
“He’ll want to make sure no more people join us, obviously,” said Dain. “But what if that just makes him attack to end it quickly?”
“Well if that’s the case then we abandon them and leave them to fight the King’s men on their own,” said Merek. “And as for the disease, I think he’s telling the truth, as hard as it is to believe. Even just on the march here you would expect it to kill him or spread, but it didn’t. He might truly be blessed by Anim, and we can’t argue with that.”
Dain pressed a hand against his forehead and closed his eyes, thinking. Merek made it sound simple.
“These men aren’t just on strike like us though. They’re armed rebels. Harbouring them is a whole new crime!” said Dain.
Merek gestured to the miners and their makeshift weapons.
“Aren’t we basically the same?” said Merek. “These men came here looking for men with a common cause, and I think we have one. These men probably have more reason than us to protest. All they want is to be able to provide a better life for their families, like us. This thing could lead to changes across the entire kingdom, not just in the mines. The people will be far more inclined to help us if they see that we want to do more than just help other miners.”
“Alright, you’ve convinced me,” he said, still feeling apprehensive about the decision. He walked over to Redskin. “You can join us, but your men do whatever I say, no matter what, alright? I decide how things play out. And first things first, you hand over all your weapons for safe keeping. This is not a rebellion; we’re not here to fight the King.”
“Your wish is my command,” said Redskin, his facial scars twisting into a smile.
“I can’t take responsibility for feeding your men though, we have enough trouble as it is,” said Dain.
“I completely understand,” replied the man, stretching out a hand. “To our new partnership.”
Dain hesitated. Then, he took the proffered hand, holding back a shudder at the feel of the man’s skin. For better or worse, they were in this together.
Maddon blocked the sword strike with his shield, and retaliated by stepping forwards and thrusting with the point of his own sword. His opponent quickly batted the blade away and went for a high slash, him barely enough time to bring his sword up to meet it. There was a clash of steel and Maddon strained to stop his blade being forced back into his face. Then suddenly the resistance was gone, and he went forwards, being almost instantly battered by the shield which swung and hit him on his right side, knocking him to the ground.
“These are basics Maddon, come on. You never lock your blades like that with someone stronger,” said Falk sternly. “Did you see what I did? I moved my back foot to the side and spun so that you’d come forwards, off balance, and then used my shield.”
“I saw,” muttered Maddon bitterly, spitting and taking the hand that was offered and pulling himself up, instinctively looking around even though they were in walled-off private training area inside the castle.
“Good, then you’ll be able to do it,” said Falk, tapping his sword against his shield in invitation.
Maddon went right into the fight again. The balding weapons master was fifty-six, with greyish stubble, and not overly quick. Nevertheless he seemed to be able to predict his every move. He supposed that was what came from being constantly trained as soon as you could hold a sword. After doing his ten years of service he had distinguished himself enough to be offered a place as Weapons Master, supervising the training of everyone in the castle who needed it.
He knew he had to pay attention in these lessons. The Darrowmeres would arrive in a few days’ time, and he still didn’t feel ready for the melee. He’d hardly practiced the joust at all either.
When Falk began pressing the attack, Maddon was ready for him, waiting for the right moment and then dodging around him, swinging the front of his shield into the man’s side. Falk took the hit but didn’t stumble. He looked unimpressed.
“Hit me properly,” he said.
Maddon swung his shield around again, harder, into Falk’s leather armour. The Weapons Master still stood there looking at him.
“In the tournament you’ll have to hit someone hard to beat them, you know, they won’t give up just because you managed to score a hit,” said Falk. “Put your whole body into it, don’t just use your arm.”
Maddon gritted his teeth. If the old man wanted to be hit then it wasn’t his problem. He twisted around and then swung his elbow in for the strike, putting his shoulder behind it. But Falk had dodged out of the way and Maddon ended up swinging into nothing, while Falk’s shield swung around to hit him in the back, making him lose balance. He ended up kneeling in the grass with his opponent’s sword hovering by his neck.
“As well as being forceful you need to be balanced, you can’t guarantee they’ll take the hit,” said Falk.
“I’m a prince, shouldn’t that get me special treatment?” muttered Maddon under his breath, getting to his feet.
“Let’s practice that move again,” said Falk. “Whenever you’re ready.”
After a couple more tries he got the hang of it, and felt confident enough to suggest something else.
“Rowan normally starts with an upwards sweep, then a high strike, and after that a feint leading to a strike aimed at the knee, can you help me practice against that?” asked Maddon, casually leaning on his sword and acting like it was no big deal.
Falk gave him a look, unimpressed.
“I’m not here to train you to fight your brother,” he said. “If you want to do well against him, the best thing to do is improve your general fighting skills.”
“I can’t beat Rowan with improvisation, I know he’s naturally better. If I want to beat him I need to tailor my style specifically to counter him. You’ve been training him as well, you can help me with that,” said the prince. “The King would be far more impressed with you if I ended up winning over Rowan, he already knows my brother is a good swordsman.”
“I don’t think pitting you two against each other would please your father very much,” said Falk.
“It’s not pitting us against each other it’s training me to give me the best chance of winning the tournament,” persisted Maddon. “Besides, the King has other things to worry about. After Mr Tesserell screwed up with the miners he’ll need someone else to command his guards who will be protecting the supply line.”
He glanced up at Falk, hoping his intentions weren’t embarrassingly obvious.
“And who is the King considering?” asked the Weapons Master, not showing any emotion.
“He hasn’t shown much preference towards anybody yet, he’ll probably pick whichever of the council members volunteers for it, which I think would be a shame. They’re all either inexperienced or too old,” he said, not looking at Falk while he flicked his sword tip up with his foot. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t choose any of the nobles.”
“Of course not,” said Falk dryly. “I suppose you’re saying that I would be considered if you said a few words to him.”
“Well I think you would be perfect for the job, and it won’t take much for the King to see it,” said Maddon innocently. “Tesserell was a fool who only followed orders and it bit him in the arse. He wants a man who can think on his feet and take control of the situation. The way you’ve trained all of the knights shows you can keep the men in line. I can’t think of a better man.”
“And why would I want to lead these men against a few peasants?” asked Falk.
“Well it would show to the King how loyal and useful you are when you do a good job. Doing well could even lead into becoming the next Captain of the Guard.”
Falk said nothing for a few moments. Maddon tried not to let his cheeks flush. The Weapons Master was employed by his father, and Maddon was pretty much a child to him. It wouldn’t surprise him if Falk laughed away the offer and ridiculed him, but the words had just come to him and he had gone with it. The flattery felt painfully obvious but people always saw the best in themselves, and Falk might believe everything Maddon was saying to be true. It was said by many that the current Captain of the Guard was getting too old for his job.
“You’re a devious little bastard aren’t you?” laughed the Weapons Master. “I see no harm in training you to the best of my ability. I am duty bound to serve all Farhorns after all, so if Rowan made the same request I would of course oblige, and how I train the knights is no great secret.”
Maddon smiled, relaxing and shrugging.
“Of course, it’s your job, and this is private training, it’s between us,” said the prince. “And also, if you happen to see a tall bald man in a cloak wandering about, I would appreciate it if you could tell me.”
“Alright then,” agreed Falk, giving him a curious look before returning to his usual serious tone. “Well first thing to bear in mind is that you have slightly longer reach than Rowan, but he’s stronger and will want to play aggressive. We can work on your manoeuvring, and I know Rowan’s style well enough to mimic it.”
“The other knights too?” asked Maddon.
“A few of them have noticeable weaknesses, yes,” said Falk. “But it will take a while to cover it all, and time is short.”
“I know,” he replied. “No time to waste then.”
He went into a fighting stance, and they resumed their training. Maddon felt very pleased with himself. His offer should give the Weapons Master a much better incentive to help him. He was starting to feel he had a chance to win this tournament.
Maddon glanced over the board in front of him, his mind elsewhere. He had let himself get distracted by recent events with the miners and the upcoming tournament, but what he should really have been thinking about was his theory that there was a spy in Rivergate and what he should do about it. The problem was, the place was always teeming with people, and he didn’t know how to flush the person out. Maybe it had been a mistake not to go to his father straight away, but he hadn’t seen what good a search would do when no sane person would carry incriminating information on them. If he want to him now though, he would have to explain why he hadn’t said anything straight away and that would land him in a heap of trouble.
“Ok here we go,” said Maddon, moving all his separate cavalry round to the flanks, keeping them a safe distance away from his opponent’s pieces so they couldn’t be intercepted. He would have a clear line to mop up Devin’s archers now, and then circle round to attack the infantry.
The game had complicated rules on the numbers of each piece you could choose and the damage each unit did to another, but the principles weren’t too difficult. Swordsmen did better against spearmen, spearmen did better against cavalry, and cavalry were good for quick movement and attacks from the flank or rear. It got more complicated with pikemen, which had their own set of rules, while archers and artillery had additional constraints like ammunition and range. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a game Rowan generally had the patience for.
Devin picked up the cup and shook the dice enthusiastically. John’s youngest son was only eight years old, but he was probably already brighter than both of his older brothers. Maddon liked to think it was his influence, having spent quite a lot of time with the child, and taught him how to play torram, as they were doing now in the dusty old library. He could hardly stand to be around Edmund and Robard, but Devin looked as if he would make a very capable lord someday.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a tall bald man anywhere?” said Maddon, grimacing at Devin’s good roll against his infantry line.
“Why?” asked the kid, looking confused.
“Just a secret friend of mine who I haven’t been able to find,” he replied. “If you see someone like that, maybe in a cloak, come and tell me right away, and I’ll see if I can get you a treat as a reward. You’ll need to be careful though, he’s quite shy, you can’t tell anyone about him or he might run away.”
“Ok, what kind of treat?” asked Devin, moving some pieces about on the board.
“If you find my friend for me, whatever you want,” he said, absent-mindedly moving his cavalry, which Devin had not managed to stop. He rolled, not bothering to look at the damage chart, which he knew off by heart now with perfect accuracy. Devin’s archers would be dealt with, and then he could round on the infantry and his general.
“So did you see anything interesting while you were running around today?” asked Maddon, passing the dice over.
“Oh! I just remembered, I saw one of the cats catch a mouse today!” exclaimed Devin excitedly. “It ran after it really fast and then caught it, and it ate its head first, and then all the rest of it.”
“Wow,” said Maddon, nodding with fake enthusiasm, “that must have been nasty.”
“It was fine,” said Devin, rolling the dice, and laughing excitedly as he removed three of his cousin’s infantry pieces from the board. “There! I’ve won now!”
“What?” asked Maddon, his heart skipping a beat as he looked over the board. That couldn’t be right, he had been a few moves from finishing Devin off. His face started to flush when he realised that the kid was right. The gaps in his line left a space for his one unit of heavy cavalry to storm through to his general, and there was no way to stop it, barring an incredibly unlikely series of rolls in his favour.
“See?” asked Devin happily. “You left your general on its own, so I can just kill it like I wanted to.”
“I can see that,” said Maddon, digging his nails into his palms and taking a deep breath. He had given the boy a handicap at the beginning but it shouldn’t have been enough for him to win, when Maddon was twice his age! He had got too distracted, both by his thoughts, and by getting caught up in his own moves. He managed to force a smile, controlling the anger. “Well done. Want to do another quick game?”
“No, too long,” said Devin, getting down from the chair. “See you at dinner.”
“But-” the eight-year-old ran off before he finished speaking, not bothering to help pack up. Maddon slammed a fist against the table, sending dice and torram pieces rolling onto the floor. He closed his eyes and concentrated, trying not to let himself get carried away, and when his temper felt under control he opened them again, and looked around him. The afternoon light coming in through the large windows was reflecting off the dust particles as they swirled about in the air, around the hundreds of books that the library possessed.
Maddon examined the indents he had left on his hands. He had never been good at losing, even as a child. He had once been an equal, if not better swordsman than Rowan. Then one time he had got ill and been bedridden for weeks. While Rowan kept training Maddon had only books and weakening muscles. When he finally found his feet again Rowan beat him easily and with poor grace, which Maddon didn’t handle well. A gap which he could have recovered from just got worse and worse as he avoided training and Rowan kept on practising. The tournament was his best chance to regain some of what he had lost, and he would seize it enthusiastically.
Sighing, he bent down to gather up the pieces. The last one had rolled under the bottom of one of the bookcases, and as he reached for it, his eyes caught on an ancient book which was so covered in dust that the title was unreadable. Maddon and Devin had chosen this part of the library because they knew they wouldn’t be disturbed. Nobody ever came to this section for anything. He picked it up, dusting it off and examining it. The Construction of Rivergate Castle.
“Interesting,” murmured Maddon to himself. When being taught the history of the Kingdoms, it had mostly progressed from the first ruler in the first castle. Not much was known about the time before that, or how the castle had come to be built. As someone who liked to know things which other people didn’t, he thought it might be worth reading. It was conceivable that he was the first person in the last few hundred years to read it. He picked up the heavy, leather bound book and dusted it off. Then he went to find a candle, lit it, and set it down on a desk. It opened naturally at a point roughly halfway through the book, where a key had been tucked in. Maddon shrugged and scanned the page.
The lettering was old-fashioned and hard to read, but he began to get used to the style. The author didn’t go into much detail about the people building the castle – it mostly seemed to be writing about the materials, and diagrams of what was to be built. Maddon suspected that the book was the work of the architect, perhaps intended as a personal record. It was interesting recognising parts of the stonework which he couldn’t even recall noticing, and other old sketches showing the original designs which no longer held true.
Maddon looked over a floor plan, trying to get his bearings of which room was which. He eventually pinpointed the throne room, and worked the rest out from there. They had a large page covering every floor, but it was the underground floor where something stood out to him. A one word annotation had been added in the cellar, something which made no sense at all: entrance.
He checked the next page, which was an old map of Rivergate, before the additional set of walls had been built to contain the overflowing city. A thin, black line led from the castle, stopping abruptly at a temple outside what were now the inner walls of the city.
It was a tunnel, he realised, with shock. Whoever it was who had ordered the building of the castle, they had been paranoid or secretive enough to build a tunnel from the castle out of the city. Maddon lay back in the hard chair, taking it in. If it still worked, then this was a massive piece of knowledge. And he might be the only one who knew about it.
The line of mule-drawn wagons rolled along the road, almost obscured behind the lines of men surrounding it. Their scabbards hung by their sides, and their shining metal armour clinked as they walked in a heavy marching rhythm, kicking up dust. King had sent armed men this time to protect the delivery, clearly trying to make evident that disrupting the wagons would be a greater crime than anything they had done already. The number of men they had compared to the relatively small number of wagons would be absurd in normal circumstances, but after the recent swelling of their numbers it made sense to protect it.
“This isn’t good,” murmured Dain, standing a few hundred yards away with a group of miners. “It’s bad for morale.”
“Agreed,” said Parry. “But they’re armed, what can we do?”
“I still think we could win the other miners round,” said Dain. “We’re all in the same boat really, we just need to let them see it.”
“So what, just go and talk to them?” asked Parry.
“We have a lot of people with us, and there are only two mines yet to join us, we could have hundreds of men camped outside of each and still protect the brimstone.”
“The King will send men though,” said his friend. “It could turn violent.”
“It could, but I’ll be damned if it’s because of our lot,” said Dain, before raising his voice. “Alright, back to camp, we’ve seen enough.”
When they got back to their camp outside the brimstone mien, the mood was fairly jovial. Although the reasons behind it were unclear, the mystery man turned up each week with a bag of gold for Dain, and so with the help of the miners’ families, they were coping with the demand for food and drink. If they had to keep it up with many more men though, things could become difficult.
He saw Redskin, instantly recognisable even in such a large crowd, rise from a game of dice with some of the men and approach him. He and his men had managed to fit in without too much trouble, although there wasn’t much mingling. Mostly men just stuck to their usual groups and ignored the peasants, which was fine by Dain. As for Redskin himself, the men had mostly got over their fears of catching his disease, although they still didn’t get too close.
“What’s the situation?” croaked the man, his voice as cracked and coarse as ever.
“Why do you want to know? This is a miners thing,” muttered Parry.
Redskin turned to face him looking him in the eye calmly.
“How the King treats his people is a problem for everyone,” he replied, turning back to Dain. “How vulnerable to attack are they?”
“There are a couple of hundred swordsmen,” said Dain. “It would be far too costly.”
“But do you think we could win?” asked Redskin.
The miner rounded on him, a little annoyed that the man was an inch or two taller.
“There is no chance that we are going to risk that many lives and probably have to kill those men just to stop a brimstone delivery. It’s wrong, and all the excuse the King needs to wipe us out.”
“Alright, alright, I agree with you,” Redskin raised his hands up defensively. “I was just wondering what you planned to do. I mean, something needs to be done, right? Your miners will start talking soon.”
“I realise that,” said Dain. “That’s why we’re going to send groups to gather around the mines and see if we can’t convince them to join us.”
“Convince them?” questioned Redskin. “Alright, what do you want our men to do?”
It was a tough decision. He wasn’t letting himself trust the man or his serfs just yet, but he had to choose whether to leave them with the brimstone and the weapons they had taken from them, or bring them to gather at the other mines.
“Your men can join my half,” sighed Dain. “But don’t do anything stupid, violence could get us all killed.”
“Of course not,” smiled Redskin. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning, before work starts at the mines.”
The man nodded and made his excuses to leave.
“He’s too nice,” said Dain to his friend. “I don’t like it, or believe it.”
“I heard from one of his lot that the man in charge was whipping someone, and he just walked right up to them and slashed their throat with his scythe, never even said a word.”
“I also heard he was the son of a Lord, I’d be careful about what rumours you believe,” replied Dain, frowning.
“Who’s to say he isn’t?”
The next morning they were up from their makeshift tents before the sun had risen, all preparing to march out apart from those left to guard the brimstone. Dain felt a guilty about the time he was spending away from home, partly because he secretly was glad to be away, and choosing to camp outside this mine rather than return home as often as he should. He brushed off the yellow dust which always accumulated at the mines from his clothes, and went to find Merek, who was getting a drink from the river.
“Merek, I want you to lead the second group at the mines,” said Dain. “I trust that you will do your best to avoid violence, and see if you can convince them to side with us.”
“Of course,” said Merek, looking surprised.
Dain nodded curtly, and later the two groups went their separate ways. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake splitting up the groups, but he didn’t expect to win the mines over instantly and it seemed more efficient to target both at the same time. While walking there, he ended up alongside Parry, who was unusually quiet.
“In case you were wondering, I chose Merek to lead the other group because I want someone like you with me to watch my back,” said Dain. “You know I don’t trust Redskin, and I’d rather have you here than at the other mine.”
“Whatever you say,” said Parry, not looking him in the eye.
Dain didn’t push the subject. The truth was, although Parry was his oldest friend, he didn’t have the right temperament for such a potentially volatile situation. When they arrived they saw that the King had been prepared for their arrival.
“Looks like the King threw some money around. They’ve had an upgrade,” noted Parry, as they came within sight of the King’s men guarding entrance to the mine area.
“Well it’s a change,” said Dain. “I’m just glad it’s not swords.”
Instead of staffs it was now shields and straight wooden clubs. Perhaps they thought that with shields it would be easier to brace against charging miners, or perhaps it was a response to the death that Dain had spoken of to the messenger. These short, almost cylindrical clubs looked much less likely to kill someone with blunt force, although he didn’t doubt that they would hurt.
At their approach the club-armed men spread out, forming a line of shields, stopping them twenty yards from the entrance.
“Relax, we’re unarmed,” said Dain, making a peaceable gesture. “We’re not here for violence; we’d just like to talk to the other miners here.”
One of the men in the line of shields spoke up.
“You’ve got a lot of men with you for just a talk.”
“And considering you didn’t know we’d be visiting, you seem pretty tight on security. Now how about this: you let me talk to the men when they arrive, and after that we get out of your way. Sound fair?”
“We’re not to let anyone through who doesn’t work here,” said the man.
“Then I guess we’ll have to wait,” said Dain, stepping back to stand with the miners. “Unless your men are going to attack peaceful unarmed men?”
None of the men replied, and so Dain took a seat on the ground, and waited for the first worker to arrive.
“Leave some space on the path, we wouldn’t want to disrupt their work” he called, eliciting a laugh from his men. It wasn’t long until the first three workers arrived in a group, stopping instinctively at the sight of so many people gathered around. Dain stood up, along with the rest of the men, and turned to Redskin.
“Stay out of this,” he said, before stepping out into the path.
“Of course, Dain Hardwood,” acknowledged one of the approaching miners. “I remember the speech you gave. It was a good one.”
“And your name?” asked Dain.
“Merle. Now may I pass?”
“Do you need to pass? You could just join our strike instead,” he replied. “It’s what’s best in the long run.”
“Yes I know your view on it,” said Merle. “But I’m afraid Slynn doesn’t set our pay, and we’re getting along just fine, so unless you’ve all been offered jobs here, I suggest you leave.”
“Slynn may not own this mine but if our strike fails then your pay will have to drop too. They can’t have different mines with such vastly different wages, it wouldn’t work. People from all the other mines will be coming here to ask if they can work for anything more than Slynn pays them, and you think your mine owner is just going to say no so that he can pay you guys what you want?” asked Dain frustratedly, as more men began arriving, stopping behind Merle’s group.
“Mr Harlowe is a reasonable man,” said one of Merle’s friends. “He didn’t go along with Slynn’s cut, and he’s always been fair to us.”
“Even so, he owns the mine to make money, not to give out charity!” protested Dain. “He won’t have a choice!”
“And so what?” said Merle. “Even if it is inevitable, we might as well take the money while we can. All you’ve managed to do so far is get people killed.”
Dain felt a flash of anger, and had to restrain himself from lashing out at the man. He needed to convince them, not fight them.
“Well perhaps you should think about whose side you’re on,” said Parry, coming to stand by his side. “Because at the moment it looks like you’re happy to let down your own kind for the sake of a bit of money. We’re making a stand and you’re selling out to the rich fucks like Slynn rather than actually try to make them change things for our lot.”
The other miners made noises of approval around them, and Merle’s eyes flicked around warily. Dain’s miners and peasants outnumbered the ones wanting to pass by a long way, and the King’s men were on the wrong side to help.
“Just let us pass, we’re not trying to disturb your strike, we’re just doing our jobs,” said Merle, starting to walk forwards slowly. “You can’t stop us from trying to feed our families.”
Merle tried to step past him, but Dain stood his ground, squaring off against the other miner.
“None of us are starving,” he said. “We’re making do. If you join us then the King will have to give in.”
“You don’t all look too well fed,” replied Merle gesturing to some of the thin peasants.
“New arrivals, farm labourers. They wanted to help,” Dain explained. “They’re not the only ones. A lot of the people are supporting our strike. Even non-miners appreciate what we’re doing.”
It seemed as if all the workers had arrived now, all massing behind Merle, so Dain raised his voice.
“It’s time for all of you to join the strike now! Don’t abandon your brethren. Miners have died, and we need to show the King that when we stand united we will not be trodden on!”
A man came storming out from the mine area behind the lines of shields, looking angry at the disturbance.
“I thought you men were here to make sure my miners got to work?” said the man, who Dain presumed was Mr Harlowe. “Get these troublemakers out of the way so my men can pass.”
“As you say, Sir,” saluted one of the men, and the line of shields began advancing towards Dain’s group, banging their clubs with rhythmic wooden thuds against their shields.
“Don’t fight them, we don’t want this turning ugly,” called Dain, getting a little desperate and trying again to persuade Harlowe’s miners. “It’s your own livelihoods at stake here!”
“I’ve had enough of this,” muttered Merle, barging into Dain to try and force his way past.
“Hey!” said Parry, grabbing hold of his shirt and wrenching him back. “Watch it, where you’re walking.”
“Bite me,” said Merle, bringing his head back to headbutt Parry, whose nose instantly sprayed blood.
That was the catalyst to turn what was already a tense situation into chaos, as Parry swung a fist, and Merle’s friends began getting involved to tear him away. Suddenly it seemed everybody was pushing and shoving, and fights were springing up. On the other side the shields had reached the miners and kept advancing, pushing at the men, who wanted to stand their ground but were wary of the clubs, which swung at everyone who pushed back. Redskin pushed his way to the front of the miners and spread his arms out wide in a peaceable gesture, walking towards the shield lines unafraid.
“Now let’s stay calm here, there’s no reason to-”
He stopped as a club swung towards him, and caught it mid-swing with both hands. The man who had tried to strike him frantically tried to shake his club free, his eyes fearful.
“Get the freak!” he yelled, as Redskin ripped the weapon from his hands, throwing it away.
His victory didn’t count for much, as the men around him set upon him, swinging from all directions and beating him down to the ground. One of his friends tried to wade in and help, but just ended up taking a battering himself as Dain watched in dismay. Redskin should have realised that a man with his infected appearance wasn’t going to be welcomed. Dain had to suddenly dodge as a fist came towards him, letting the man overbalance and kicking him away. This was ridiculous. He needed to do something
“ENOUGH!” bellowed Dain at the top of his voice, his tone making everyone around him instinctively stop. Parry wiped some of the blood off his face, and Redskin used the opportunity to scramble away to stand by the miners, cursing at the club-wielding thugs.
“You see?” cried Redskin to the assembled miners, gesturing to his bruised and bleeding self. “This is what the nobles do! They beat down the lower classes and expect us to take it when we’ve done nothing!”
“You’re sabotaging work at my mine,” said Mr Harlowe. “The men don’t want to strike, so leave.”
“I’ll leave,” said Dain, deciding to try something. “If you’ll answer me this and swear to Anim that what you’re saying is the truth. If our strike fails, are you committed to keeping these men’s pay the same as it is now?”
Mr Harlowe looked uncomfortable as all his workers’ eyes turned to him.
“I don’t need to defend myself to you,” he protested, turning to the King’s men. “I thought I told you to force these men away.”
“Sir, why won’t you answer his question?” asked one of the other miners. “Are you planning to cut our pay as well?”
“I can’t make any promises, alright?” replied the mine owner. “I don’t know how things will play out in the future, I’m not looking to change things but there may have to be cuts.”
There were unhappy rumblings among the men, and Merle came forwards looking annoyed.
“Come on guys, let’s not take this the wrong way, let’s just get to work and not cause trouble.”
“You’ve caused enough trouble already,” called one of Harlowe’s miners. “There’s a decision to be made here.”
Mr Harlowe sensed things were beginning to turn against him, and sniffed, standing up straight.
“If you want to strike, then strike, just bear in mind that you’re not irreplaceable, I can get other men to work here, and probably for cheaper as well.”
“There you have it,” said Dain, treating that as a victory. “They don’t value you, and you probably won’t last unless you accept the pay cut. So all there is to consider is this. Years from now when you’re struggling through a hard winter with little food, will you be happy with your decision today? Will you be proud of how you behaved?”
“That’s enough,” said the mine owner. “Clear the way so we can be done with this, and shut that man up.”
“We’ll get out of your way,” said Dain, backing away as the men advanced towards him aggressively. One of Harlowe’s miners, an older, bearded man, pushed his way forwards to stand in front of Dain.
“Back off, Harlowe, he’s been far more peaceable than you,” he said gruffly, glancing back at Dain. “I’ll join your strike.”
“Thank you,” said Dain. “Men, let’s head off. Anyone who wants to follow can do so.”
He turned away from Harlowe and the mine guards and started walking, his men following him as he passed them. The eyes of the other lot of miners were on him, a lot of them seeming conflicted. Several of them silently joined his group, followed by more, until the remaining miners realised more than half their men had left. That was the tipping point, and soon it was just a small group consisting of Merle and a few others stubbornly standing by themselves.
“You can’t run the mine by yourselves,” said one of the miners.
Most of the remaining few gave in and went with the crowd. Merle swore softly, looking around him bitterly.
“I’m going home,” he said. “You can’t force me to join.”
He left, and Dain shrugged, feeling pleased. The victory was his anyway, the mine couldn’t continue, and the majority of men had come with them. It could hardly have gone better.
“I thank you all this, you’re doing the right thing,” said Dain. “You won’t regret it.”
“We better be, because if not we really pissed off our boss,” laughed one of the men.
Dain led the way back to their camp, with Parry at his side, and Redskin busy explaining his appearance to some of the doubtful new men.
“He can certainly take a beating,” muttered Parry, sounding impressed as he watched Redskin, who was walking unaided.
“Yeah, well he was asking for it,” said Dain. Let’s just hope Merek got on well.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t there when they got back, and there was no sign of them that evening either. It seemed that they had had a more difficult convincing them. Perhaps they were camping out overnight.
“Alright, I’m going to go back home and see how Gelen and the kids are getting on,” said Dain, getting up from where he had been warming himself by the crackling fire. “Parry, you’re in charge till I’m back tomorrow.”
“Tell them I say hello,” replied his friend, and the others around the fire waved him off.
It felt a little chilly away from the fire, and Dain rubbed his hands to generate a bit of friction as he made his way through the assembled tents in the dark. The mine they had made their camp by wasn’t far from his own, so it shouldn’t take too long to reach home. Then tomorrow he could go and check on Merek to see what progress was being made.
As Dain passed the edge of the campsite the noise of the men began to fade away, and the glow from the fire faded. He stepped out onto the forest path, then stopped. He thought he had heard a noise nearby, but he couldn’t see anything in the shadows. It was probably just some small animal, there never normally bears in this part of the woods.
Suddenly a silent figure shot out from the shadow, punching him in his right side with a painful thud. Dain grunted at the impact and grabbed the arm that was swinging towards his chest, noticing a glint of metal that could only be one thing. A knife.
They grappled, while part of Dain’s mind was racing trying to make sense of the situation. The man was trying to force the blade into his heart, straining with the effort. But Dain was stronger. With a bellow, the miner twisted the man’s arm violently and shoved the knife deep into his soft flesh. The assailant staggered back, his eyes wide, and fell onto his back, twitching.
Dain doubled over, breathing hard and clutching his side. He grimaced at the pain. Had he got a stitch from the exertion? He felt wetness, and looked at his hand, which even in the dark he could see was covered in blood. It had been a little more than a punch that his attacker had hit him with.
“Oh sh-” he began to curse, feeling his legs go weak. He tried to stay standing but couldn’t, falling down next to his attacker, who was already dead. He tried to speak again, to call out, but all the air in his lungs had left him. He lay on his back, looking up at the stars and trying to concentrate on the light, not allowing himself to drift away. But as he watched, the stars slowly began to dim, and his strength began to fade. He felt detached from everything, like he was underwater. Not like this, he thought. He tried to move, but an overwhelming tiredness overcame him, and his vision went dark, the world around him ceasing to matter.
Ariana stood in the courtyard with the rest of her family, nerves coiling in the pit of her stomach. She had spent the morning being tended to by her lady-in-waiting, having her hair combed, her dress fitted, and her face coloured so she could be put on display like a pig at market. It seemed pointless to her, she knew she wasn’t pretty, but she hadn’t wasted any time arguing about it. She had been expecting it and knew it was pointless. It had seemed as if the day was still far-off until a couple of days ago, when it had somehow snuck up on her. Today was the day King Uric arrived, and with him, her potential husband.
In preparation, the castle had been cleaned and decorated, with blue and silver Farhorn banners being hung, and new furniture brought in so that the castle would be fit to house a second royal family. Servants were standing ready to attend to them as soon as they arrived, and all of the Bloodsworn would be working full hours for the duration of his stay. Her father was clearly keen to impress the visiting king, and seemed to be paranoid that if things weren’t perfect then Uric would walk out on the signing of the treaty. She started as her mother touched her on the shoulder, distracting her from her thoughts.
Ariana nodded. It was just fear of the unknown. If he turned out to be truly horrible she could just point blank refuse. Her father would be furious, but he could hardly hold a knife to her throat and make her marry him if she really couldn’t go through with it. The watcher standing above the large grey stone gateway sounded a short yet loud note on his trumpet.
“They’re in the city,” acknowledged Maddon. “You know, if we just killed him now and took his lands it would be so much less hassle.”
Ariana bit back a laugh, and their mother whacked him lightly across the head.
“Behave, that’s not funny,” she scolded.
A cry went up from the gateway, and the wheels of the King’s carriage could be heard clattering against the road’s cobbles along with the clopping hooves. It entered at a leisurely pace, stopping halfway up the path. The carriage was large and extravagant, jet black with gold trim and silver studs, pulled by two impressively large horses. On the doors were the Darrowmere coat of arms, two crossed swords, encircled by a golden crown which had been added after the succession dispute. Following them was an almost never-ending stream of men travelling on horseback, most of them armed.
“Is he planning to try and take over the castle?” asked Rowan incredulously. “That must be about a hundred men.”
“He’s just being careful, we should be thankful he’s even willing to come,” said their father.
The carriage doors opened, and down stepped the King and his son. Uric Darrowmere was a very large man who clearly kept himself in good shape. He was dressed formally, in green and black ceremonial dress, with a thin gold circlet on his head. More interesting was his left eye, or what mess remained of it. There was almost certainly an interesting story behind that. Perhaps it was just the wound, but there was definitely a sense that he was not a man you ever wanted to fight.
Fendred on the other hand was tall and slim, athletically built, with short black hair and sharp, pointed features. He was attractive, noticed Ariana. He walked confidently, seeming far less threatening than his father, and followed by some of their guards, they approached the other set of royals, Fendred slightly behind his father. Ariana curtsied, and everyone except her father either did likewise or bowed.
“It is good to see you again in better circumstances,” said King Berin, stepping forwards to shake Uric’s hand firmly.
“Indeed,” replied the King, a humourless smile on his face. “Let’s hope that it never comes to that again. As I’m sure you know, this is my eldest son, Fendred.”
“A fine young man,” said Berin approvingly. “May I introduce my wife Helena, my brother John, and my children, Ariana, Rowan and Maddon.”
“It is my pleasure,” replied Uric, kissing Helena’s hand and then delicately taking Ariana’s. She tried to smile as he kissed it, while inwardly she couldn’t help this feeling of revulsion. Part of it may have been his mangled eye, but she also thought there was something very predatory in the way he looked at her as he bent down. Thankfully, the moment was over quickly, and he moved on to shake the princes’ hands as he greeted them confidently.
“So you’re planning to be the next King in Rivergate?” laughed Uric when he got to Rowan. “Let’s hope you’re as strong in mind as you look in body, eh? And as for you,” he continued, rounding on Maddon, who despite his neutral expression, Ariana could tell was suspicious of the man in front of him. “You seem a smart one. I’m sure you’ll have your work cut out for you helping your brother lead, if that is what you choose to do.”
Uric then went on to greet Prince John’s side of the family, person by person. Fendred was more reserved, merely bowing once.
“It is wonderful to meet all of you,” he said, a small smile on his face as he briefly caught Ariana’s eye. “I look forward to getting to know you while we’re here.”
There had definitely been something suggestive in his voice, and despite herself, she felt a small flutter in her stomach, and for a moment dared to hope that things were going to turn out well. There was none of the disdain or contempt that she had feared. Perhaps with the dress and the work her lady-in-waiting had done this morning she didn’t look so bad. She had to remind herself not to get carried away. She knew nothing about him, and shouldn’t assume anything just because he was attractive and happened to smile at her. She still had no desire to marry someone she didn’t know, and had only gone this far without making a fuss so that the King would let her take part in the archery.
“Well, now the introductions are done, we can get your men and horses accommodated and fed,” said her father, signalling servants over, keen to get things moving along. “The reserve barracks will have space, I can have some of my men show yours the way.”
“I’ll take ten of my men in with me,” he stated. “I assume that is no inconvenience to you?”
“None at all,” assured Berin. “Now, if you’ll join me, there is a feast to be had.”
Ariana cut up another piece of the gravy-covered boar meat, forked some roast potato, and chewed it slowly as conversation bubbled around her in the candlelit dining hall. It was, of course, delicious, and she wished she could just sit there and savour it, but she was finding that difficult.
“Wonderful food, wouldn’t you say?” asked Fendred, who was sat at her right. Ariana nodded.
“Yes, very good,” she agreed. What else was there to say? She wasn’t used to meeting new people. She hardly spoke to anyone outside of her family. She and her cousin Seraphina had never got on as children or held a proper conversation since then. She had a lady-in-waiting who she felt close to but she was under an obligation to stay with her. Granted, she was also friendly with Quinlan, but he was technically her cousin anyway, although due to his lowborn status he had not been asked to wait with them earlier to meet the King, and was now sat on the far end of the table. At least he was with the family now. Her father had been unsure, but her mother had insisted, and so he was sat on the outside of the other cousins, next to Seraphina. Ariana was at the end of her table, so only had Fendred to worry about.
“So you’ll be in the tournament then?” she asked, feeling like she should make an effort with the conversation. Fendred nodded, a slight smile on his face.
“I am indeed,” he said. “I’m looking forward to facing a new set of opponents, I don’t get to see many new people in Grenfell. And of course I’ll be facing your brothers. Which of them will you be supporting?”
“Well I can’t really choose one over the other,” said Ariana, although she did think it would be nice for Maddon if he managed to get a surprise win. “I’m looking forward to taking part in the archery competition though.”
“Oh, you’re taking part?” asked Fendred, surprised. “Your father must be a tolerant man.”
“Well I think it would be unfair of them to not let me take part,” she said.
“As you say,” he replied, taking a sip of his wine, his eyes glancing around the hall. The room was spacious, with a large crackling fireplace behind them, sending soft waves of heat washing against their backs. The royal table was a step higher than the tables further in front of them, which consisted of some Lords and Ladies of the court and a select few of Uric’s men. Meanwhile on Fendred’s other side, the two Kings were talking.
“Your arm seems to be paining you,” noted Uric, as Berin cut his meat with a slight grimace.
“Just a hunting injury,” replied the King, who Ariana supposed was technically not lying. “And your hand?”
He gestured to the other King’s left hand, which he had avoided using while eating. It had a large and ugly pink scar in the centre of it.
“Well as I’m sure you’re aware, Kings always make enemies,” shrugged Uric. “Someone shot an arrow at me, hit my hand, and knocked it back into my eye.”
He mimed hitting himself in the face with the back of his hand, lining up his scar with the missing eye, and laughed
“Lost some of the movement in it after that, but it’s still useful in a fight,” he continued, using his injured hand to pick up his goblet of wine and drain it, a few drops of red running from his mouth. “The man who fired the arrow though...well he didn’t live long to regret it. More wine!”
“I wouldn’t expect so, going after someone like you,” laughed Berin, signalling a servant over.
Ariana shook her head in exasperation.
“He’s trying so hard to keep your father happy, it’s too much,” she muttered to Fendred.
“And mine is doing his best to act big and impose himself,” sighed the prince, leaning closer and speaking in a low voice so that his father wouldn’t hear him, enough that she could feel his breath on her ear. “Just wait until he gets more wine in him.”
Ariana smirked, and tried not to react to how close Fendred had come. It was disconcerting, especially with all of these people around. She kept expecting him to realise who he was talking to and suddenly shun her, but it wasn’t happening. Suddenly it all became very real. She could actually end up marrying him. She had known that of course, but it hadn’t felt real when the prospective husband who she had never met was off in another kingdom. Now, she was starting to picture it, and it was terrifying.
Ariana drank some more of her wine, hoping to replace the nerves with a more pleasant drink-induced buzz. Uric however, had been drinking steadily during the meal, and had become impatient, slamming his again empty goblet down on the table.
“How about some entertainment then?” suggested Uric, a gleam of excitement in his eye as he turned to Berin. “One of my men against one of yours.”
“If that would please you,” agreed Ariana’s father hesitantly. “Shall I ask for the training weapons to be brought in?”
“No need for that, Shaldar is happy to fight with real weapons aren’t you?” asked the King exuberantly, as the man came to stand by his side. He nodded once, with little expression.
“Poor bastard has no tongue,” said Uric. “But he’s a good fighter. It would take a lot to make him submit in a duel.”
For the first time, Fendred looked uncomfortable.
“Father, let’s not do this here, we’re their guests, and I doubt anyone would want to risk an unprotected fight,” insisted the prince.
“Nonsense,” said King Berin. “Our Bloodsworn are very able fighters, I guarantee you we’ll find a worthy competitor.”
The King sent someone off, while tense and excited chatter ran around the room.
“I’m sorry about this,” said Fendred hastily. “He can’t be reasoned with. I don’t know why he has to be like this.”
“It’s fine,” said Ariana, feeling a genuine affection for him as he worried over the new development. He was clearly a different man to his father, which was something Ariana could appreciate.
As Uric’s man Shaldar checked his weapons, a long curved blade and a dagger, his Bloodsworn opponent arrived, led by the servant. He was of similar height but very different in appearance. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, with more brawn than his opponent. As was usual for the Bloodsworn, he was clad in a red cloak and armed with a halberd as his primary weapon, although he had a sword on his waist and a shield on his back to go to if that weapon was lost.
“Ah yes, this is Asher,” said Berin. “He’s only in his fifth year of official service but he’s one of the best. He won last year’s Bloodsworn tournament.”
“What’s that?” asked Fendred quietly. Ariana leaned close to explain.
“Since the majority of the Bloodsworn are trained almost constantly as soon as they can hold a sword and because there are so many of them they don’t take part in the usual tournaments, so they stage their own each year,” she explained.
“I wish you a good fight Asher,” smiled Uric, nodding his head. The man bowed in response, and made his way to the wide space in between the royal and the other tables, where Shaldar faced off against him two yards away. Both drew their weapons.
Ariana was transfixed, as was the entire room. These two were actually going to fight with real weapons. The size of the blade on the halberd sent shivers down her spine, and the heavy weapon was accompanied by a heavy mail shirt, with metal helmet, greaves, gauntlets and boots. Meanwhile Shaldar only wore light leather armour and seemed to move like a serpent, with an equally predatory and compassionless expression. She knew it was wrong, but she didn’t think she would feel any pity for him if Asher did have to kill him to win the fight. Asher looked to the royal table for a signal, and Berin opened his mouth to speak.
“Begin!” cried Uric, getting there first.
Shaldar made the first attack, darting forwards with a potentially lethal slash that was parried upwards. He tried to follow up the move with a stab from the dagger but Asher dodged away, and the two faced off again, slowly circling.
“How good is Shaldar?” asked Ariana, without taking her eyes off the fighters.
“I’ve seen him fight about a dozen times and you should count yourself lucky if you just survive a fight with him,” said Fendred, sounding disillusioned.
Asher went for a stab with the spike of the halberd which his opponent deftly dodged, then had to raise the pole in defence of a slash, angling it to hit against the wrist of his knife hand as it stabbed forwards as well. The two of them feinted, attacked and parried, both of them doing an incredible job of defending themselves from the attacks of the other.
Shaldar launched a new series of attacks, swinging his blade while constantly keeping moving. Asher was standing his ground in the centre of the space while Shaldar attacked. He was doing a good job, but his opponent was very quick to dodge his attacks. As they watched, Shaldar went for a wide slash, spinning out of the way of the counterattack and embedding the knife in Asher’s arm. To his credit, Asher only grunted, and while he was close he lifted his knee to launch a savage kick into Shaldar’s side, powerful enough to knock him into a table, rattling the cutlery. Asher took the opportunity to remove the bloodied knife and toss it behind him.
Uric laughed and clapped, enjoying the spectacle. Asher looked angry now, and it clearly pained him to hold the halberd. Shaldar recovered himself and squared off against Asher again.
“Do you submit?” he asked, stepping towards Uric’s man, blood dripping from his arm. Shaldar responded by lunging towards his opponent. Asher didn’t try to block with his weapon but stepped towards his attacker and turned, swinging the halberd round as the shield on his back deflected Shaldar’s blade and Asher shoved into him, knocking him back as he swung. The back part of the blade, designed for pulling mounted men off their horses, hooked around Shaldar’s ankle and pulled him off his feet so that his back slammed into the ground. Asher stepped forwards, kicking him brutally in the face with an armoured boot and stamping on his right hand to keep him from swinging his weapon again. He held the point of the halberd against his neck, putting just enough pressure on to draw blood.
“How about now?” panted Asher.
Shaldar spat out half a bloody tooth onto the floor, but said nothing and didn’t move.
“Oh you can’t talk, that’s right,” said the Bloodsworn guard, lifting his weapon slightly. “Submit?”
The man nodded, glaring, and Asher stepped away, grimacing as he dropped his weapon and examined his arm. Applause broke out among the spectators, and even Uric begrudgingly praised him.
“That was well done,” he admitted. “Perhaps Grenfell should start taking the unwanted children to train as guards.”
“Thank you for doing the Kingdom proud,” said Berin. “You will be duly rewarded, and I shall have my physician examine both of you.”
Asher bowed his thanks, and left to have his arm seen to. Shaldar managed to get to his feet unaided and left the room, a bitter expression on his face.
“Wow,” murmured Ariana, almost in shock. “Does your father get him to do that kind of thing a lot?”
“More than I’d like,” sighed Fendred. “Although it doesn’t normally end with Shaldar getting a beating; that was impressive from your man.”
“It certainly was,” she agreed, as a servant mopped away the blood from the floor. Her heartbeat was just beginning to return to its normal pace. She glanced over at Fendred, who was angled towards her as he hesitated over saying something. She raised her eyebrows, feeling the nerves return again as she again remembered that this could be the man she married.
“As I’m not taking part in the jousting, would you like to sit with me that day?” he asked, smiling at her.
She felt her face flush as he looked at her.
“Yes, that would be nice,” she found herself saying. Fendred smiled.
Rowan levelled the lance at his target, focusing on it and riding towards it at a fast pace. The lance was heavy but the weight felt good, and under control as he rocked in time with the saddle. He was closing in. Twenty yards, then ten, and five. He braced, and leaned into the impact as he struck the shield, the horse continuing unbroken in its stride as the quintain’s arm swung around rapidly, the weight just missing him as he sped past.
“A victory for the prince I believe,” called Fendred, who Rowan hadn’t noticed appear. “Congratulations, those wooden opponents are ever so tough to beat.”
Rowan removed his helmet and wiped away the moisture which had accumulated on his face in the spring sunlight.
“Well I have the joust to prepare for,” he replied as he dismounted and walked over, feeling like he was being mocked. “What are you doing here?”
The man stood haughtily, with Shaldar by his side for protection, dressed for show rather than sport, although he still carried a sword on his belt.
“I had some time and I thought I might have a look around while the negotiations were going on,” shrugged Fendred. “And then we saw you practicing and thought we would offer our greetings. You appear to ride well for your age.”
“For my age?” asked Rowan, irked. “I’m less than three years your junior, and besides, you aren’t even participating in the joust. Why is that again?”
Fendred raised his arms peaceably.
“No need to take it personally, I only meant that not all men sixteen years of age are capable of competing in a tourney,” he said. “And I’m afraid that jousting isn’t something which excites me much. Besides, it’s so easy to injure oneself, and I would hate to miss the melee. That is after all the key event, and I’ve been looking forward to it for some time.”
“Indeed,” agreed Rowan suspiciously, “although you may find it to be a little tougher than you expect. We have a lot of well-trained knights in the Kingdom, especially compared to Grenfell.”
“I think I can manage,” said Fendred, with a small smile, looking Rowan over. “I’ve been hoping for more of a challenge. The competition at home is a little stale. I hope you last long enough for us to face each other.”
“Oh there’ll be a chance for it, don’t worry,” said Rowan. “I’ll be ready.”
Just then, Quinlan rode over from where he had been practicing and dismounted, assessing the situation.
“Everything alright?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Rowan. “As Fendred here doesn’t seem to feel up to the joust, we were discussing the melee.”
Fendred didn’t rise to the bait.
“And who might you be?” he asked, turning to Quinlan, who like Rowan was wearing full armour for the practice.
“Quinlan, Rowan’s cousin by Trystan.”
“Ah yes, the bastard,” Fendred said. “In the joust as well I take it? I was under the impression that only knights and important families were allowed to enter, but I suppose you have been taken in by the Farhorns. Did they pay for the armour?”
Quinlan opened his mouth to speak but Rowan interrupted him, seeing his cousin was angry. As annoying as this prince was, Quin shouldn’t anger him, especially with Shaldar there. Rowan as a prince had far more leeway.
“If you’re not planning to train then I suggest you leave,” said Rowan. “Try and relay that to your man if he doesn’t understand, but make sure he doesn’t get into any more fights with the guards. At this rate he’ll have trouble eating his steak.”
The bodyguard glared at him, and Rowan felt a twinge of unease.
“He’s not deaf, he understands,” said Fendred. “I would try not to annoy him if I were you, his temper can get the best of him sometimes.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” muttered Rowan, before gesturing to Quinlan. “Let’s go inside, we’ve practiced enough for today.”
“Alright,” replied his friend looking at Fendred and his guard as they walked away. “So that’s the prince, eh?”
“He’s probably just trying to annoy us to put us off our game in the melee, but he seems like a right shit.”
“You sure you didn’t do anything to start him off?” asked Quinlan, raising his eyebrows. “You do have that quality sometimes.”
“Me?” exclaimed Rowan. “You saw how he was, calling you a bastard and everything, that’s just him.”
“That’s normal for highborns, their fathers put it into them, and I am a bastard,” said Quinlan matter-of-factly.
“Well, yes,” admitted Rowan uncomfortably. “But it was the way he said it.”
“Whatever,” said Quinlan. “Let’s just get out of this bloody armour.”
When they got back to the castle, there was a gathering in the throne room, and both Kings were stood at the front above the watching group.
“The negotiations are completed,” announced Berin. “Our two Kingdoms have signed a peace pact, and will allow free movement of merchants between our borders. The borders have been redrawn, and both sides are happy. With this completed, we are ready to begin the tournament tomorrow!”
There was a cheer from the assembled group, and Rowan looked at Quinlan. Tomorrow it would be.
The day of the joust had arrived. The people had all come to watch, and the vendors’ stalls had followed, selling steaming hot pork and bread to those who could afford it. The watching royals and important men and women of the court were seated in the wooden stands, able to watch over the proceedings from the perfect vantage point, while the common people gathered around the outer fence of the arena. The event was free to observe, and featured a few famous names and so had generated a substantial crowd. Excited chatter bubbled up as people discussed and gambled on the outcomes of the joust.
Rowan, meanwhile, was sitting on his horse just outside the entrance to the arena, checking the straps on his armour yet again while he waited to face his first opponent. His father had arranged it so that that person would be Maddon. This at least meant that one of the princes would advance to the second round, although Rowan suspected that the motivation was more to ensure a less embarrassing exit for Maddon than losing to a less talented or well known opponent.
“Please welcome onto the field, Prince Rowan Farhorn, and Prince Maddon Farhorn, sons of Berin” called the announcer.
“Don’t worry, there’s no shame in losing to the future King,” joked Rowan to his brother next to him, as a lance was handed to each of them.
“Thanks,” muttered Maddon sarcastically, taking the shield that was handed to him with the same eagle crest as Rowan’s. Just like him, he wore a blue cloak with the silver Farhorn eagle stitched onto it.
Rowan flicked down the visor of his helmet, reducing his vision to a thin slit, and spurred his horse onward. They were greeted by trumpets and cheers from the crowd around them. The people loved the show of it all, he supposed that if they couldn’t be a part of it then watching it was the most excitement they could get, and the two of them were famous after all. Rowan’s heart was beating hard. Maddon may not be the strongest opponent to face, but if anything that made the prospect of potentially failing even worse. Jousts were never a sure thing. The animal could react badly to some noise or sound, and likewise his concentration could be broken.
Rowan looked over to the royal box, where his family were sat, and nodded his head. He steered his horse into position across the dirt floor, holding his lance up straight, and tightened his grip on the shield. Maddon was at the other end of the arena, in his shining silver armour. He actually looked like a proper knight dressed like that. The trumpet blew again, and Rowan set the horse into a gallop, lowering his lance. Maddon did the same, approaching him with exhilarating speed. Rowan tried to focus on his shield despite his limited vision, and held onto the horse as strongly as he could with his legs. Maddon’s lance drew near, and Rowan held his steady, making contact with Maddon’s and driving it into his opponent’s shield while the other lance only deflected off his own shield. The younger prince flew off his mount, crashing in a heap of metal into the dirt while Rowan rode on, intensely relieved and happy not to be in the dirt himself. The crowd cheered as he raised his shield arm into the air, buzzing with adrenaline, although he wasn’t entirely sure all of them knew which prince he was. Still, there was nothing like a tournament victory with the crowd watching. He threw aside the lance and dismounted, slightly concerned about Maddon, who was struggling to sit up.
“Everything alright?” he asked, trying not to sound too smug as helpers ran to check on the fallen prince.
“Fine,” coughed Maddon irritably. “Just winded.”
Rowan offered his brother a hand and he took it, pulling him to his feet to the applause of the crowd.
“Rowan Farhorn is the victor!” cried the announcer, as the two of them left the field.
“Could have been either one of us off our horse there,” he said pleasantly as he helped his brother walk off. “You never really know with jousting.”
“This modesty thing you’re trying doesn’t suit you,” muttered Maddon, shrugging off Rowan’s arm when they reached the exit and the crowd were no longer in sight. He walked off to his tent, and Rowan shrugged. It was never fun to get knocked down in public; he could understand why Maddon would be a little annoyed.
Rowan had a while before his next joust so he used his break to watch a few of the other competitors. He saw the man he was due to face barely keep his balance as he unhorsed his opponent, and watched as Quinlan successfully beat another of the knights. Rowan clapped him on the shoulder as he left the arena.
“If we both win our next two jousts then we’ll be up against one another,” noted Rowan.
Quin smiled wryly.
“And unlike the rest of these knights I won’t feel sorry about putting the heir on his arse,” he laughed.
“We’ll have to win twice for it to come to that though,” said Rowan. “And that’s no guarantee.”
As it turned out though, that was exactly what happened. After a run where no contact was made, on the next tilt Rowan managed to drive his opponent off his horse after a slight hit which jarred his shoulder but did not knock him off. In the subsequent joust, his opponent pulled out due to injury, leaving Rowan to pass straight through to the semi-final while Quinlan defeated his two opponents without complications. Rowan sought him out before their joust, pulling back the flap of his tent to find him strapping on the last piece of his armour with the help of one of the squires enlisted for the tournament. It was a little stuffy, but a lot more peaceful away from the noise of the people.
“Thank you, you can go now,” said his cousin to the boy, who subsequently bowed and left the tent, leaving the two alone. Rowan found a seat, sitting awkwardly due to the clunky armour he was wearing.
“Ah, it feels good to sit down,” he said stretching out with relief as he looked at his cousin. “So here we are, the big showdown.”
“It’s not the final, that’ll be where the focus really lies,” Quinlan replied.
“Maybe,” admitted the prince. “But you must be interested to see how it will turn out.”
“Of course,” said Quinlan with a smile. “I’m just not as competitive as you are. I enjoy the joust just for the sport.”
“And I don’t?” asked Rowan.
Quinlan smiled wryly.
“Let’s be honest. You want to win to make yourself look good, make your father happy and get the crowd cheering for you. You care too much about what other people think. But hey, it’s probably a better motivation than doing it just for the prize money like some people here.”
“That’s not all I care about,” said Rowan. “And besides, what kind of person doesn’t care at all about what people think of him?”
“Well you’re a prince and your father’s favourite son, it’s easy for you to say,” retorted Quin. “Trust me, sometimes it’s better not to care what people think of you.”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it, life is hard when you’re a bastard,” moaned Rowan sarcastically. “Let’s face it nobody finds their life easy, and nobody ever stays happy when they get what they think they want, so just be happy with things as they are and stop wishing for things to be different.”
“That sounded dangerously close to being wise, you know,” he admitted.
“I have my moments,” the prince said, relaxing back into the chair with a slightly smug smile.
A moment later a page ran in, demanding their presence for the joust. With grim smiles they shook hands, and begun walking to the arena, each of them mentally preparing themselves for the joust. They mounted their horses, each took a lance and a shield, and waited by the gate to be called. Quin met his eye.
“I would wish you good luck, but...”
“No hard feelings, however it turns out.”
“Of course not,” smiled his friend, nodding his head.
They looked ahead as the trumpets blew.
“Please welcome onto the field, Prince Rowan Farhorn, son of Berin, and Quinlan Striph, natural born son of Sir Trystan Greentree.”
Rowan nodded to his cousin, and set his horse in motion, raising his shield to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd as he headed to his side of the arena, the horse jogging him up and down as it trotted into position. He avoided looking up towards his family, trying to focus on the task at hand. He felt nervous. Not only did he want to make it to the final but this was Quinlan, and bragging rights were at stake.
In position, he faced his opponent, who to the uneducated observer looked as much a knight as any other. Those who knew their crests however, would know that the black rider set against the green of his shield would be red on that of a trueborn son of a Greentree. Black was never normally used for the emblems on a house’s shield. Regardless of birth, he was without question an incredibly skilled rider, and didn’t appear tired at all. Though Rowan had jousted plenty of times before, with a natural aptitude for it, he hadn’t participated in a full on tournament like this before and was feeling the effects. He rolled his shoulders, allowing the adrenaline to rid him of his aches and the weight of his lance and armour. There was nothing like a dose of nerves to help you in a tight spot. It focused the mind and made you stronger.
The trumpets blew, and Rowan dug in his heels, spurring the horse into a gallop. He was well balanced on his horse despite its speed as he closed in on his cousin, riding as close to the tilt line as he could manage. His grip on his lance was firm, but not too tight, exactly as it should be, and his eyes were unblinking through the visor. He knew how to joust. They were closing, and Rowan clenched his legs, bracing for the impact. Both riders aimed their lances and the weapons clashed as each aimed to unhorse the other. The impact when they collided jarred him to the bone, unbalancing him, and Rowan lost control as wood cracked and a hail of splinters made him close his eyes. His shield flew from his hand and he dropped whatever was left of his lance, losing his seat on the saddle. In desperation he reached for the reins, his gauntleted fingers closing on the cord which was the only thing stopping him from falling. He held on, his other arm flailing for purchase as he felt himself sliding. He found it, and with a heave of exertion, and gasps from the crowd, managed to painfully drag himself back into an upright position. Recovering himself, he looked back to see what had happened to Quinlan. He knew he had landed a blow, but his cousin had also kept his balance. His happiness at surviving the tilt faded. He had barely managed to keep himself up in that first run. Quinlan had landed a hard hit on him, and taken Rowan’s without falling. The crowd were applauding their efforts enthusiastically, enjoying the spectacle.
Both lances had been broken on the tilt, so new ones were fetched while the arena was cleared of debris and a boy fetched Rowan’s shield. Annoyingly, Quinlan had kept hold of his. He couldn’t help but feel a little shaken by both the impact and how close he had been to falling. He gritted his teeth, trying to focus. He needed to score a hard hit and knock Quinlan off fully. He accepted his new lance, and gripped his shield tightly, angry at both himself for not doing well enough and at his cousin for not falling. This tilt would be the one. He would send the bastard flying.
When the trumpets blew he immediately sent the horse charging off, lowering the lance and riding as hard as he could. The blow would be a crushing one, he was sure. He let his body take over controlling his movements while his mind was set on winning. He wasn’t afraid of the silver-armoured knight coming towards him, he was eager for the impact. The crowd were near-silent as they neared, only fifteen yards apart. Rowan angled his lance across as his cousin was about to pass, and slammed into a wall, or something which felt like it. Quinlan’s blunted lance caught him in the chest, splintering on his armour, and this time he knew he was done for. His horse rode on without him as Rowan crashed down hard, crumpled on the ground. He stared up at the sky, wondering whether he would be able to move if he tried. He couldn’t hear or feel anything, and wasn’t entirely sure he was breathing. The sky was pretty though. It was a clear day, with only a few fluffy clouds to break up the blue expanse.
His view was broken when two physicians came over, removing his helmet and prodding him to check for injury. Rowan squinted as his eyes adjusted to the additional light and brought a hand up to shield his vision. So he could move. He staggered to his feet, pushing away the physicians who tried to help him, and rubbing his chest where the lance had struck. At least it hadn’t been the ribs. That would almost certainly have resulted in a break. He would need to have it checked, but would rather not let on that he was in any way injured while so many people were still watching. He glanced over to the royal box, where Uric was chuckling and saying something that was most likely making a joke about how a bastard beat the King’s eldest son to a stony-faced Berin. Rowan looked away. Quinlan was in front of him, just getting off his horse as the announcer finished declaring him the victor.
“Sorry about that,” called Quinlan, removing his helmet, “but you did leave yourself open. Do you need any help walking?”
“I’d have done the same,” muttered Rowan, wanting nothing more than to just be away and out of sight. “And I think I can walk. Well done on winning.”
“Thank you,” said Quinlan, offering a hand. “No hard feelings?”
Sighing, Rowan shook his hand, and Quin subsequently raised his arm in the air, gesturing to him and prompting applause from the crowd. Rowan wanted to protest, but could hardly do that now, so he just smiled ruefully and waved to the people.
“They appreciate a good tilt, even if you lose it,” said Quinlan, after releasing his arm.
“I suppose,” admitted Rowan, as they made their way off the field. At least he had beaten two opponents before losing to Quinlan. “You’d better win the joust now, you’ve come this far.”
“I’ll try,” he laughed. “And remember, you’ll have a chance for revenge in the melee as well.”
Rowan perked up a little at that.
“That’s true. And we can give that arrogant shit Fendred a beating while we’re at it.”
“I look forward to it,” said Quinlan.
It was just past sunrise as Ariana headed out to the archery range with a bow and quiver over her shoulder. Now that Quinlan had beaten Rowan and gone on to win the joust it was her chance to shine, and there weren’t many hours left in the day to practice. She had watched the joust yesterday with Fendred, who had been polite and kind, although seemed somewhat reluctant to talk about himself or anything personal.
The air was cold and fresh, and there were still tinges of orange in the sky to the east. The range in the castle was used to train the small garrison force which was present in peacetime, and was available to anyone with influence, which obviously included the royal family. Ariana preferred hunting to the practice ranges, but it was here that their skill would be measured in the tournament. It should be easy when the targets weren’t moving. It was a sheltered area, so there was very little wind, although the tournament would be held in a separate area outside the castle grounds.
Ariana stuck five arrows in the soft earth in front of one of the shorter range targets. She liked time alone like this. She wasn’t being forced to dress up nice or act all ladylike. She didn’t have to worry about anybody else, it was just her and her bow. She felt something shift behind her and spun, nocking an arrow to the string and drawing it back to point at the wary young man standing in front of her.
“I hope you have a tight grip on that arrow, my lady,” said the man, raising his hands in surrender. “If not I’d appreciate you pointing it away from me, I do value my life quite highly.”
“How did you get past the guards?” Ariana asked, relaxing her pull on the string a little when she saw that all the man had on him was his own bow and quiver. He was shabbily dressed, but stood tall, suggesting that he wasn’t starved of food.
“I asked nicely, I find that often works,” he smiled crookedly. “It’s good to see you again princess, I am sorry that I startled you.”
“How do you know who I am?” she asked suspiciously, looking him over again. Had she seen him before? He wasn’t from the castle, she would have noticed hair that orange. He wasn’t as cleanly shaven as the men of the court tended to be either.
“Well where I come from it’s not unusual to see female archers, but this is the city, so hunting wouldn’t be how you feed yourself. That would mean archery is a hobby, and suggests a fair bit of spare time. You’re also using the castle range. Now, there’s only one noble born woman I know who ever had an interest in archery, and that’s Ariana,” he smiled, looking at her appreciatively. “You’ve definitely grown stronger since I last saw you, I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of you, even without the bow.”
Something was triggering in the back of her mind. The pointed nose, the bright blue eyes, and of course the rare ginger hair. She blinked, suddenly seeing it.
“Florian?” she asked disbelievingly. “Is that you?”
The man shrugged modestly, smiling and nodding. Ariana dropped the bow and brought him into a tight hug.
“Wow,” she laughed. “It’s been what? Six years?”
“About that,” he agreed, wrapping his arms around her. “How are you these days? Is Seraphina still...”
“A bitch? No, she’s alright now I guess. I don’t know, we don’t really talk,” said Ariana, releasing him from the hug and punching him in the arm. “I almost shot you, you moron. Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“That hurt,” complained Florian, rubbing the spot with a rueful smile.
“Try not to cry about it,” she teased, an impish grin on her face. “So what are you doing here?”
Florian raised his bow.
“I’m here for the competition. Thought I could get some practice in. And you never know who you’ll meet when you go to the castle,” he winked.
Ariana laughed again, in high spirits. While growing up, Florian had been a ward of the King at the request of his father, a minor Lord, and had been one of Ariana’s only friends for over five years.
“You look so different,” she noted. He had lost all the roundness, and was now lean and athletic, with the arms of an archer.
“In a good way?” he asked.
“In a good way,” she smiled, brushing some hair behind her ear. “So how’s your father?”
“As well as can be expected,” replied Florian, his brow furrowing a little. “He doesn’t leave his bed much these days, but he’s being looked after and his mind is still there. Now are we going to talk all day or practise our archery?”
In response, Ariana picked up the bow she had dropped, turned, and shot an arrow at the target. It struck just below the central circle.
“Ooh, not quite,” muttered Florian, pulling an arrow from his quiver and firing it to land just above Ariana’s. “Bullseye.”
“It was my first shot, I was just getting my eye in,” she protested, pulling another of her arrows out of the ground, and then shooting the rest in quick succession. They all landed in the yellow circle.
“Not bad,” nodded Florian appreciatively, drawing more arrows. His first three hit the bullseye as well, but his fourth hit one of the arrows clustered around the middle and deflected away.
“That counts, that has to count!” he proclaimed. “That was a perfect round.”
“I don’t know, that could have been landing anywhere,” she said. “I’ll give you two points because it was going to hit the target, but that’s all I’m afraid.”
“Alright then, I see how it is,” said Florian. “Let’s stop messing around at the shortest range, we both know it’s too easy. I’ll collect the arrows.”
For almost an hour they joked around, trying to one up each other with trick shots until they tired and ended up just sat back against a wall, reliving old memories. She hadn’t realised how much she missed having someone like him around the castle. Her handmaiden was a lovely person, and they talked a lot, but Ariana never felt like she understood her. Florian may have been gone for six years, but he didn’t seem any different, on the inside at least. On the outside, well, he looked a lot more mature.
“So what will you be doing after the tournament?” questioned Ariana, picking at her fingernails as she asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” he said, looking bemused. “I think it’s up to me, really, which isn’t something I’m used to. I’m not entirely sure what I should do with my life.”
“I know what you mean,” she laughed, sighing. “Do you...never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
“What?” asked Florian, curiously. Ariana hesitated, looking at him out of the corner of her eye while she picked apart a piece of grass.
“Do you remember the day before you left?”
“Of course,” he said. “Who would forget?”
Ariana felt her face growing hot as she spoke.
“I was gutted when you went home,” she said quietly. “I cried for weeks.”
Florian reached across to stroke away a drop of moisture which she hadn’t noticed rolling down her cheek.
“Well maybe this time I don’t have to leave,” he said. She met his eyes. They were such a bright shade of blue. He was even close enough to smell, and it was making her heart race. He leant in, taking her face in his big, warm hands and kissing her tenderly. She was happy to let him.
“I think we had better get ready for the competition,” she whispered, when they broke apart.
“Oh yes, that,” muttered Florian, getting up and pulling Ariana to her feet. “Good luck.”
“You too,” she said, grinning. “I’ll see you there.”
She waved goodbye, and left with a spring in her step. This looked set to be quite the day.
Ariana tapped her foot nervously, waiting for the tournament to begin. She was waiting outside the specially prepared range at the tourney grounds, with the many other competitors and one of the Bloodsworn guards nearby to watch out for her safety. It was an overwhelmingly male group but she wasn’t the only girl.
“Relax,” said Florian. “It’s just firing a few arrows at a target, you’re good at that.”
“I know,” she replied tersely. “I only want it to start, that’s all.”
She looked around and saw Maddon making his way over, the others having taken their seats already.
“Florian, long time, no see,” he smiled, shaking the man’s hand and clapping him on the shoulder. “Almost didn’t recognise you. The hair gave it away.”
“Likewise,” laughed Florian. “How have you been?”
While they talked, someone tapped her on the shoulder, startling her.
“Fendred!” she exclaimed, slightly panicked. She had almost forgotten about him with all the day’s excitement.
“Hello,” he said, seeming a little bemused by her surprise. “I just thought I would wish you good luck with the competition. Here.”
He handed her a small blue flower.
“Oh, well, thank you,” she said.
“I’ll see you later,” he promised, taking a hand and kissing it before making his way to sit down. Maddon did the same, wishing both of them luck.
“Was that Prince Fendred you were talking to?” asked Florian sharply, looking at her carefully.
She nodded, surreptitiously tucking the flower away and not entirely sure why she was doing so.
“Yeah I’ve spoken to him once or twice since he’s arrived,” she replied. “He seems alright, for a prince.”
“Hmm, if you say so,” said Florian. “Be careful with him. I’m sure he can be very charming, but just remember that it takes time to find out what someone’s really like.”
“I know,” said Ariana, becoming annoyed. “I was just being polite to him.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the archery competition will now commence!” called the announcer.
“Do you think he talks like that at home?” whispered Florian, putting on a voice. “Dear wife, the lovemaking will now commence!”
Ariana stifled a giggle and tried to hold in her laughter. They were divided into groups of six to fire at their targets. Only the best two would move to the next round. She was in a separate group to Florian to begin with. The initial range was only thirty yards, and as far as she could tell there was no wind. She looked at her other competitors. They were all normal looking men. She didn’t recognise any of them and couldn’t gauge how good they would be. There was a small crowd gathered around the outside of a small wooden fence. The contest hadn’t quite gathered the same number of people as the joust.
In the first six, Florian performed markedly better than the rest, some of whom were in fact quite poor shots. Only one of his six arrows actually missed the yellow circle, also missing the ring around it, scoring him fifty-eight out of a possible sixty. He qualified for the next round easily, and it made Ariana feel significantly calmer about the first round. Her six was up next, and she ran a hand along the smooth wood of her bow, testing the string before stepping up.
She stuck six arrows into the ground in front of her mark. She picked up the first, nocked it to the string and drew, feeling a little strain in her arms and back. She breathed in, focused on the yellow circle at the centre of the target, raised the bow slightly, breathed out, and loosed. It struck the middle with a muffled thump, and in quick succession she followed up with five more arrows. All were clustered tightly within the bounds of the yellow. She smiled, and there was mild applause from behind her. The other five had not done so well with their targets, although one did score in the fifties. The announcer called out the results, and she headed back to Florian, feeling a little smug.
“Don’t feel bad, not everyone can manage to get them all on target,” she teased.
They talked quietly while watching the rest of the first round competitors go, trying to work out who were the best shooters among them. It was a long wait, but at least after this it would get shorter, and it gave her more of a chance to catch up with Florian.
“The one on the right is one of my lot, and they’re all good marksmen and women,” he said, leaning close to talk. “Everyone trains with a bow in Redwood.”
Ariana nodded, feeling uncomfortable with his head this close to hers and so many people around. She had no idea what to do. She was supposed to see Fendred again and she might be marrying him. Yet now Florian, her oldest friend, was here throwing things all out of place by kissing her.
“Ok here goes,” he said, smiling as he went to compete in the next round.
She watched him as he shot his six arrows. He was very composed. He picked up each arrow the same way, smoothly drawing it back while he held the bow straight, hardly seeming to feel the strain. He was an archer through and through, as was she. Florian scored the highest out of the six people, making it to the next round without breaking a sweat. Now it was her turn, at the slightly longer distance of forty yards. Florian wished her luck as she went over.
Ariana took her place in the group of six, analysing the distance to the target in her head. On the signal of the judge, she drew her first arrow and shot. A gust of wind sent it a little wide, and it missed the bullseye by an inch. Annoyed, she rushed her second shot and snatched it, sending it high. It missed the yellow and the red parts of the target, giving her only six points. She took a deep breath, trying not to let herself get flustered. She forced herself to avoid counting her competitors’ scores, and focused on her next few shots, making the most of her allowed time. After the first two shots, she was used to the distance and wind speed, and her next four were accurate. After releasing her last one with a sigh of relief that it was good, and noises of appreciation from the crowd, she looked at the scores. She had scraped it by the minimum amount possible. There was more polite applause from the crowd as they left their places in front of the range.
“Cutting it fine there,” teased Florian.
“It was never in doubt,” she joked, although she felt very fortunate to still be in the competition. She felt that there was definitely some luck in the accuracy of her last few shots. Thankfully the round after that went a little easier despite the longer range, and she made it through, as did Florian. This meant that there would only be two more rounds before the final, and it was foreseeable that they might make it.
“So do you have any plans for the prize money if you win?” asked Ariana.
“Not really, to be honest. I mean it would obviously be nice to have but I don’t know what I would buy. I could just use it for something helpful in the nearby villages in Redwood, there will definitely be a good use for it,” he said. “You?”
“Well now you make me think I should say something charitable,” said Ariana, thinking. “I don’t have a dagger, I’d like a dagger. It’s not the kind of thing my parents would let me have, but a bit of protection is always good. Really though, I just want to win because it would be nice to have one thing which nobody can argue is my real talent. Maybe then my parents will actually accept that archery is what I do and stop trying to discourage me from it.”
“Fair enough,” said Florian.
The next round had them as part of the same group, meaning that both of them had to beat all of the others to still go through. The targets had been moved back again, meaning that lower scores were likely. Ariana checked her arrows, and flexed her bow, feeling some butterflies build up again. The next round, if she made it, would be the last before the final. She nocked an arrow to the bow. The signal was given for the archers to fire, and she drew the bowstring back to her ear. She noticed Florian’s first shot land perfectly on target and looked away, taking her first shot with careful aim. Its course was true, and it gave her confidence. Her second shot was only a little off-centre and the rest were generally accurate. She looked at her competitors targets. She felt a sinking sensation when she saw that none of Florian’s arrows had deviated further than the innermost ring around the circle, which at sixty yards was pretty incredible. Thankfully though, none of the others had managed the feat. She tried to count all her opponents’ scores, but it was too close for her to see. All that was obvious was that Florian would be in the semi-final. She waited tensely while the judges counted. Florian gave her a sympathetic smile.
“The winners of this round are Florian Swift and Ariana Farhorn,” called the announcer, to applause from the watching crowd.
A happy laugh escaped Ariana, and she beamed at Florian, who shook her hand, resisting the urge to hug him as they were in public.
“The final six,” he said. “Pretty damned good in my opinion.”
Ariana nodded, unable to stop smiling. With difficulty, she tried to put on a neutral expression as the other disappointed competitors left their places. No matter how she did now, getting this far in a tournament of so many people was a big achievement. With so few left, it wasn’t long before they were in front of the range again, the range extended again, this time by twenty yards. Ironically, she felt less nervous than the round before. She hadn’t expected to get this far, and really didn’t expect much more. She and Florian wished each other luck. One of the other competitors was also a woman, and another was a friend of Florian’s from Redwood, but there was nothing remarkable about the rest other than their success in getting to the last six.
Some wind had built up, and at the current range would make a significant difference. She licked a finger to work out the exact direction, judging the strength of it in her head. When signal was given, she drew an arrow from the barrel in front of her and pulled the bowstring back to her right ear. She rotated her upper body slightly to the left to adjust for the wind, angling the shot to adjust for the drop. She held it in place for a few seconds, her muscles straining just a little, and released, the arrow whistling past her. To her surprise, it was a near-perfect shot, and she was able to adjust her aim accordingly to the slight variations in the wind. All six of her arrows were released smoothly and naturally, with almost no bow vibration. The thuds as they hit the target were almost inaudible eighty yards away amid the murmur of background noise.
Ariana tried to count her score. A couple of the arrows were at the boundaries of the rings and so it was hard to tell from where she was, but even by the standards of the other five it looked like a respectable score.
“Oh Gods, I might actually be in the final,” she said to herself. The judges checked the targets, spending some time examining her own to check the scores. She tried to avoid getting her hopes up. She probably hadn’t made it, the odds were against her. She shouldn’t be disappointed if she hadn’t.
“The scores have been counted,” called the announcer dramatically. “The final two archers are Florian Swift and Ariana Farhorn.”
Ariana gasped, unable to believe it. It was down to just her and Florian, of all people. She went to him after he finished congratulating his friend who hadn’t made the cut
“We did it!” she exclaimed to him, overjoyed. “We made it to the final!”
Florian grinned happily, running a hand through his overgrown hair, shaking his head in disbelief.
“One of us is going to win,” he said. “Who would have thought we’d actually manage it?”
She was sure that there had been a significant amount of luck in there for her, but she had been practicing with a bow for over ten years practically every day, so it wasn’t as if she was completely undeserving of a place. The same was true of Florian of course – his learning to shoot had been a large part of the reason she had wanted to do the same. As a child, Ariana had never understood why it was any more socially acceptable for him than her.
The targets were moved back to one hundred yards in preparation for the final. For this round, presumably to make things a little more dramatic, they were to take turns in firing two sets of thee shots, with Ariana to be shooting first. The target seemed so far away now. Hitting the target at all would be a success for the average archer.
“Good luck,” said Florian, with a crooked grin as she was called up for her first shot. He didn’t seem bothered at all, while her heart was racing. Before there had mostly been five other people for the crowd to focus on. Now when she went up it was only her, and everyone would be watching. There were plenty of spare arrows in the barrel in case it went to sudden death, but it should only be six.
Ariana took a deep breath, trying to steady the butterflies in her stomach. She pulled an arrow from the barrel and drew it back, phasing out the background noise. She released, and the arrow shot through the air, thudding into the target in the left part of the blue area for six points. It was respectable, but Florian was in his own league when it came to archery, so she would need to do better. She drew another arrow and fired again, adjusting for a slight change in wind which blew a few strands of hair in her face. The release was smooth, but she had over-adjusted and it was on the other side of the target in the red. She couldn’t tell whether it was seven or eight. She took her time with the last arrow, straining for about five seconds before releasing it. It thudded into the red as well.
“Twenty-one points,” called the announcer, after receiving the scores. Ariana nodded, moving back to let Florian shoot. It wasn’t bad, for a target one hundred yards away, but none of her shots had hit the yellow.
Florian was composed as always, upright and focused as he fired. He almost looked like a different person. His easygoing, laid back nature vanished as he methodically nocked, drew and, holding his body as still as a statue, released. His first two shots landed in the inner red section, and the third in the outer yellow, for twenty-five points. Ariana sighed. She had given it her best shot, literally, but Florian would probably win, as he deserved to. She could at least try to make it close though.
“Well shot,” Ariana congratulated him quietly. Florian nodded his thanks.
She went to stand in front of her target for the last time, stretching to try and get rid of some of the muscle ache from all of the shooting so far. Florian’s arrows were removed, leaving her a clear target to aim at. She nocked the first of her last three arrows to the string. The wooden bow creaked slightly as she pulled back the string and aimed, feeling the feathers on the back of the arrow brushing her fingers. The string twanged, and the arrow flew off, thudding into the target a moment or two later. A nine, it was almost perfect. She took her penultimate one, trying to aim it on a similar path. Eight points. That was good, but wouldn’t win her the tournament. She took her last arrow, drawing it back fully, her hand hovering next to her ear. She released it, feeling pleased with the shot as she watched it fly, and it thudded into the centre for maximum score. The watching crowd applauded, and Ariana smiled before moving away to let Florian shoot, doing the calculations in her head. She had scored twenty-seven, and he would only have to match his last round to beat her by two points. Two eights and a seven would see them tied.
“Well done,” said Florian. “That last shot was wonderful.”
“Thank you,” smiled Ariana. “I think you might have the victory though.”
“You never know, princess,” he said, winking.
Her heart was in her mouth as Florian picked his first arrow. In the next few minutes one of them would be celebrating winning the tournament, and it wasn’t obvious who. Luck could definitely come into play here. He fired his first shot, and it hit the inner red part of the cloth, scoring him eight points. Still inconclusive. He took a little longer with the next shot, and when he released it, it landed dead centre in the middle of the target. The onlookers gasped and applauded loudly, as they should for such a shot. Ariana couldn’t help but feel disappointed though. Florian only needed to get higher than five points and the tournament was his, and he had yet to score lower than that. He glanced back, an almost apologetic smile on his face, before taking his last arrow. He didn’t rush, taking his time as he drew it back and aimed. This would decide it for good.
The arrow arced through the air, almost too fast to follow, thudding into the target one hundred yards away. Ariana’s heart missed a beat. The arrow had hit the outer edge of the black-dyed ring. The judges examined the target at close up to check, referring the score to the announcer, who finalised the results.
“With a score of forty-eight points to forty-six, first place goes to Princess Ariana Farhorn!”
Ariana clapped her hands over her mouth, shocked and overjoyed. It seemed impossible, but thanks to a stray shot she had won! She looked back to the Royal box in the stands, where Maddon and Rowan were clapping the most enthusiastically, her parents more reserved but seemingly pleased. She laughed, and then remembered Florian, realising how disappointing it must be to lose first place and the accompanying prize money in one bad shot. She went over to him.
“Congratulations,” he said cheerily, shaking her hand. “You shot well.”
“Thank you,” she said, bemused. “Although it looked like you had it. What happened with that last shot?”
“Just went off target,” he said, shrugging casually as if it was nothing. “It happens.”
“I guess,” she said, a little confused by how well he was taking it. She didn’t have much time to ponder it though, as the sound of a commotion erupted behind her. A man in ragged clothes had burst through from the crowd and vaulted the fence, making an odd sight as he ran frantically, running out in front of the stands. Ariana didn’t know how to react at first, wondering if he was some crazy person desperate to catch a view of the King and Queen, who weren’t visible to the commoners inside their wooden box. Then she saw the bow and quiver.
She barged Florian out of the way, reaching for an arrow out of the barrel. She pulled one out, knocking the barrel over in her hurry as she spun to face the man, drawing back her bow as she did so. The King’s Bloodsworn were moving to intercept him, but the attacker already had an arrow out, preparing to aim at the Royal box. Ariana didn’t have time to think about her aim, she was relying on instinct as she released the arrow, seeing that her target was drawing back the string of his bow.
Her arrow whistled through the air, travelling the distance in less than a heartbeat and piercing the attacker’s throat. He spun with the impact, spraying blood and releasing his own arrow, which embedded itself harmlessly in one of the wooden steps, just a couple of yards from the King. Ariana looked on in shock as the man she had shot spasmed, an arrow in his neck. He cried out in pain, gurgling sickeningly while his hands reached weakly for his throat. The movements became slower and slower, and in full view of the crowd, he died, his arms falling limp as the pool of blood slowly grew.
Dain opened his eyes. There were wooden roof slats above him, and dust was circulating, highlighted by the sunlight coming in through the window. He started to sit up, gasping in pain as he did so, and collapsing back down. He was surprised. He hadn’t expected the afterlife to be so painful. The idea that he was alive honestly seemed to be the more unlikely option, and yet, looking around, he appeared to be in his own house, in his own bed. He lifted his shirt to examine his side. There were fresh bandages around the wound where he remembered the knife going in. It seemed that he had been found, and his wound treated. He also seemed to be thinner, making him wonder how long he had been asleep for. Most importantly though, he had survived. Miraculously, and unexpectedly, he had survived.
“Gelen?” called Dain loudly, hoping for final proof.
He heard footsteps, and broke into a grin as his wife and two children came running into the room.
“Dad!” they exclaimed, running towards him as he forced himself to sit up to greet them.
He grunted as the younger of the two collided with him for a hug, sending pain shooting through him. Dain hugged them both, ruffling their hair as he looked up to Gelen.
“You’re awake,” she said, smiling for what seemed like the first time in a very long time.
“I am,” he smiled, releasing his children from the embrace, still finding it hard to believe.
“How do you feel? Do you need anything?” she asked, putting a hand to his forehead to check his temperature.
“Yes please, I would love some food and water,” said Dain, only just realising how hungry he was.
“Of course,” said his wife agreeably, leaving to fetch it. She came back with a bowl of porridge and a cup of water, the latter of which Dain drank in one go.
“How long was I out for?” he asked, tucking into the food.
“About four days,” said Gelen. “You lost a lot of blood. You woke up at one point in a pretty fevered state and opened up your wound so I gave you a drink that put you back to sleep. I’ve been feeding you honeyed water and some soups to keep you going.”
“Thank you,” said Dain, touched at the care she had given him. It had been hard trying to connect with her since Heymon’s death but perhaps his near-death experience had changed her perspective.
“How did I get here? I was at the miner’s camp. A man attacked me.”
And then Dain had killed him, he suddenly remembered. The attacker had made him a killer. Admittedly it had been self-defence, but it angered and saddened him that he had been forced to do it.
“One of the miners found you unconscious,” she explained. “They fetched someone to treat your wounds temporarily, and then Merek and Parry brought you here when the wound was well enough for you to travel.”
“Merek’s back?” asked Dain, surprised. He had been with miners at the last open brimstone mine. “I should be over there.”
“You almost died!” protested Gelen. “You’re not healthy enough to go running off again, and besides, it made you a target, they tried to kill you!”
“Kids, why don’t you let your mother and I talk in private for a bit,” said Dain lightly.
“Can’t they manage without you?” asked his wife. “Just leave them to it.”
With poetic timing, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” called Dain.
They heard the door open, and moments later Merek appeared, breaking into a relieved smile when he saw Dain.
“It’s good to see you awake,” he said. “How are you?”
“He’s injured,” said Gelen, crossing her arms. “What do you want?”
Merek looked to Dain, a slightly desperate look on his face.
“We need you back with the men,” he said. “Things are getting out of hand. Redskin is making speeches and stirring people up, saying all sorts of things about the greed of the aristocracy and how we need to take what’s ours. It looks like he wants to lead the miners, and with you gone, I’m worried about what might happen.”
“But what are you doing here?” asked Dain, glancing at Gelen, who was standing silent as she listened. “What happened at the mine you were visiting?”
“When we arrived, there were men armed with clubs and shields protecting the workers, forcing us away to let them in. The workers didn’t want to join us, so we set up nearby, trying to make our voices heard without turning them against us. Anyway, Redskin turned up one afternoon, apparently to see how things were going, and telling us that you had been stabbed. That night, there was a massive mine collapse, and the workers couldn’t get to the brimstone. The mine owner didn’t have the money to pay them the same to excavate it with nothing to sell, and nobody from Rivergate was there to promise them money. So Redskin stepped up and gave a speech, convincing them all that the only way they would get anything was by joining the strike. You should have heard him, I mean you can say what you like about him but he knows how to speak to people,” Merek shook his head, as if he didn’t believe what he was saying. “Anyway, we get back, with new miners to join our camp and Redskin’s a bloody hero. Apparently he promised the group at camp that he would bring the last miners to our side.”
Dain leaned forwards, rubbing his face with his hands to wake him up as he took in the news. The timing of the mine collapse meant it had to have been deliberately organized by Redskin. It was an idea he had considered, but ruled out. For one, it pointed directly to his group and secondly, while he may disagree with the miners choosing to work, it wasn’t right for him to sabotage their place of work in an attempt to win them over.
“There’s one other thing,” said Merek, the look on his face not boding well. “Redskin used your stabbing as a justification to encourage everyone to arm themselves as a show of strength to the King. Most of the men now have some kind of weapon on them.”
“Oh by Anim, this gets worse and worse,” said Dain, trying not to panic. “Has there been any response from the King about this?”
Merek shook his head.
“None yet, but I don’t imagine he’ll let this pass without comment,” said the miner. “We need you down there.”
This wasn’t good. Taking up arms could cause them to be labelled as rebels and to some may be seen as an act of war. It could help their cause, depending on how powerful they were relative to the King’s army. If they were only seen as a nuisance then the King may have justification to wipe them out. If they were viewed as a real threat then it might make the King more eager to negotiate, but it was playing with fire and risked the whole situation spiralling out of control. Redskin seemed to be a loose cannon and it looked like if Dain didn’t do anything about it then he would be the one negotiating with the King, and that could not be allowed to happen. Dain looked at Gelen, who had a resigned look on her face.
“Do you have to?”
“I do,” Dain nodded.
Gelen left the room, and returned with a staff for him.
“I know you want to see this thing through, but please, if you don’t think it’s winnable, then accept it and come home. There’s no use in dying just for the sake of it,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek. “Just come home.”
“I will,” said Dain with a small smile. It was the most affection Gelen had shown him since Heymon’s death. He forced himself to his feet, swaying as the light-headedness hit him. Merek put an arm around him to steady him.
“I’ve got you mate, don’t worry, we’ll get there.”
It was a hard walk. There was very little wind, and the warm sun was making him sweat. His wound still pained him, and he was worried that it might start bleeding again. Merek supported him though, explaining a few of the other things which had been going on in the past few days.
“One of the men recognised the body of the man you killed,” said Merek. “Apparently he was a miner at one of Slynn’s mines, short of money. Maybe he didn’t like you getting the rest of his mine to strike and losing him his job, or maybe he was offered a deal. Nobody can say now.”
If his assassination had been ordered by the King, then that was very bad news indeed. That would suggest an inclination towards resolving the strike violently rather than through negotiation. He had hoped that the King would be against such underhand measures. Perhaps that was foolish of him. It was a scary thought, to realise that people wanted you dead. Dain had never intended for there to be any violence. Of course, it may have just been one man with a grudge. He wouldn’t be getting paid if his mine was closed, so perhaps he desperately needed the money.
“He would have been fed though wouldn’t he?” asked Dain. “We are able to feed everyone still, I take it?”
“Yes, Parry and I collected the money from our mysterious benefactor in your place, and on top of that the families are helping by trying to collect donations in the markets,” explained Merek. “We have enough for the miners, but people are starting to turn up to join our group, and we can’t support them all, as we’ve told them. Redskin seems perfectly happy to promise them a place with his lot though.”
“Of course he is,” grunted Dain bitterly, breathing heavily with the exertion of walking. “Now the real question is how he’ll react when I arrive at the camp.”
Merek continued to support him as they struggled onwards along the path, eventually reaching the miner’s camp. The first thing Dain noticed was their greater numbers. As Merek had said, the last of the brimstone mines had joined them, and others had begun to turn up as well. He also noticed the weapons all the men were carrying in their hands or at their belts. They were generally adapted work tools like sickles, hammers and pickaxes, often with an extended wooden handle for greater reach. Some men had made themselves wooden shields as well. Many turned to look as the pair approached, surprised and pleased at their return.
“It’s Dain! Dain’s back!”
A crowd gathered around them, patting him on the back and saying how glad they were that he was up again. Dain thanked them, appreciating his friends’ concern and the support of men he barely knew.
“It’s good to see you again,” said Parry, appearing and embracing him, and putting an arm around him for support. Dain noticed that he had adapted a pickaxe into a kind of war hammer by flattening one end and sharpening the other into a short point. He wore it around his waist.
“You too, friend, you too,” he said. It was then that he saw the tops of two wooden posts stood not far from the river passing by the camp.
“What are they?” asked Dain, trying to get a clearer view over the people and the tents.
“They are where we put the spies,” said Parry, sounding disgusted. “Nobody knew what to do with them so Redskin suggested tying them each to a post and leaving them there for a while.”
Well at least they hadn’t killed them.
“How do we know they are spies?” asked Dain.
“Some of the miners thought they were acting a little oddly, and Elgar saw them sending off a message. They claim to be miners and yet none of the miners from any of the mines recognise them. All in all, it sounds a little suspect,” said Parry. “Besides, one of them admitted it eventually.”
“Cracked?” asked Dain. “Let me see them.”
“As you wish,” sighed his friend. “It’s not pretty though.
He made his way over, leaning on Parry a little for support, forcing smiles as more miners he hadn’t seen yet recognised him. When he saw the spies, the only positive thing he could think was that at least they hadn’t killed them. The men had been beaten to a pulp. They had been stripped down to their undergarments and there was still hardly an unbloodied or unbruised patch of skin on them. One of them had an undoubtedly broken nose; the other had a head wound that appeared to have bled all over the place. Both had black eyes and purple splotches all over. He couldn’t tell if there were any broken ribs but he wouldn’t be surprised.
Dain gritted his teeth angrily, and without saying anything, went over to the nearest of the men tied up. The man flinched away at his approach, something which only infuriated him more. With some difficulty he tried to untie the ropes.
“What are you doing?” asked Parry, disgruntled.
“What does it fucking look like?” he replied. “I’m trying to set these men free. A little help would be appreciated.”
Merek wordlessly handed him a knife to cut their bonds, but Parry stood his ground.
“You’re just deciding that yourself are you?”
Dain cut the bonds of the first man, and stood up.
“Yes, I am. These men are just hired eyes, doing a job. They don’t deserve this. Besides, unless you were planning on killing them then what else is there to do?”
“I don’t know, but I think we need to send a strong message to stop them sending more men,” argued Parry. “Someone tried to kill you, and for all you know these men were going to try to finish the job.”
“Well, unless you’re going to stop me, then they are being released,” said Dain, hobbling over to the second man and cutting the ropes tying him. The two of them looked uncertain of what to do, and weren’t in a very fit state to run anywhere. Parry didn’t move, but his expression was stony. The other men gathered around seemed uncomfortable in the situation, and Dain wondered whether they disagreed with what he was doing.
“Redskin won’t be pleased about this,” Parry said.
“My ears are red, do I hear my name being mentioned?” asked the man, stepping out from behind the crowd of people, his long scythe in hand, and his big thug by his side. He touched a hand to one of his ears. “No, sorry, I forgot, they’re just always that colour.”
“Go,” said Dain to the men. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to stop this. Tell the King that I do not wish him any ill will, and that nothing has changed; this is all over when our demands are met and Slynn’s cuts are reversed.”
“Dain, I am glad to see you well,” said Redskin, with a humourless smile. “I see you’ve decided to let our friends go. Of course I swore to follow your lead, so I won’t protest, though I am afraid you may have forgotten some of my people’s demands. We did agree to work together after all, and that means both our needs should be met. Otherwise why are we here?”
“A fair question,” replied Dain, staring the man down.
Merek came over to him, whispering in his ear.
“Remember what we decided before? The people support us more readily when we see that our strike is about more than just miners. It’s supposed to be about the working classes standing up to the aristocracy. If we abandon our supposed allies for our own gain then we will lose support. Also, you did shake on it.”
Dain closed his eyes, breathing in through his nose, frustrated at the sense Merek was talking. Redskin may have a violent streak in him, but they had made a deal. He shouldn’t be unfair on Redskin’s men just because their leader was an arrogant prick. The man was smirking knowingly as Dain looked back at him.
“Alright, give me the terms for your labourers,” he muttered.
“Gladly,” the man replied, outlining what he wanted. In essence it involved better pay, fewer hours of work, and no forced temple labour days, which wasn’t unreasonable. As well as that he wanted no punishment for any previous violence before the strike. After that Dain sent them away, after having a staff fetched for each of them to help them walk. Redskin left. Parry left after that as well, apparently not prepared to talk to him after his actions.
“Isn’t it nice to be back?” asked Merek ironically. Dain chuckled bitterly.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Maddon, trying to tell whether Ariana was actually as well as she claimed. The events at the archery competition yesterday had been unexpected, to say the least, and he hadn’t had a chance to talk to her alone since, so he thought he would check in on her before the melee.
“I’m fine, honestly,” said his sister, standing in the doorway of her room, already dressed for the event. “The guy deserved it, like you said. I would have preferred him to survive for questioning, but everyone’s safe, so we can be happy.”
“I know,” he replied. “It’s just a lot of people might find that kind of thing stressful.”
Ariana gave a forced smile, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“Stop worrying about me and just be thankful that the melee wasn’t cancelled,” she said. “And speaking of melees, we’ll be leaving for the tournament soon, you should make sure your armour and weapons are sorted.”
“Alright I’ll go,” conceded Maddon, realising it was about the time for him to get ready. “I’ll see you down there.”
“Well if I don’t get a chance to say it later then good luck,” she said, “and be careful, the swords may be blunted but people do get hurt in these things.”
“I’ll look out,” he said, pushing off the doorway with a spring in his step. He was nervous, of course, but after today, however it went, the tournament would be done with. Besides, his father wouldn’t be expecting too much from him, so he felt that with all the training he had done he could only surpass expectations. It could hardly go worse than the joust, anyway. Maddon had decided to focus his training efforts on the melee, so he wasn’t sure why he hadn’t just avoided that event as Fendred had done, given that he would be up against talented opponents and there was the risk of injury. And of course it had to be Rowan to knock him on his arse of all people. It had been quite satisfying to see him unhorsed by Quinlan later that day. That reminded him. He thought he had discovered something very interesting which he needed to discuss with Quinlan.
The melee arena wasn’t far from the city, and by horse the journey would be very short. Maddon’s equipment was being carried for him in a carriage with several of the others while he trotted along the cobbled road on his horse amid the throng. The group from the castle with competitors and the royals rode together with a large escort of guards, making quite a sight as they passed through the streets, and many people came out of their houses to see them pass, calling out as they did, with shouts of “Long live the King!”, “All hail the Farhorns!”, and in one case “Pay the miners!”. It made Maddon smirk. Even on the richer north side of the city where there was only a slight smell of sweat and sewage the miners had their supporters.
He found it hard to see any of the people due to the triple line of Bloodsworn guards surrounding them, but it was nice to be out in the city and away from the slightly gloomy castle walls. With no way to tell whether the initial two assassins were the only ones or who paid them, the King wouldn’t allow any of them to leave the castle without good reason, even with guards. It was nice to be out and hear the sound of life and the rushing of the Larimer River through the city. The houses closest to the castle were tightly packed together neatly, becoming more disordered as they progressed further out towards the newer buildings. Outside the outer city walls were a number of tents and other temporary dwellings where travellers and beggars had made camp. The city gates didn’t open for everyone, and it led to a dubious sort congregating outside.
While they travelled Maddon ran over everything he had learned in his own training and from watching others train. It was a fairly pointless exercise, as he could remember everything perfectly, but it helped to keep his nerves at bay. He resolved that after the melee was over he would keep up his efforts with training. Learning to fight was something that was useful not just for tournaments, and he should not have let himself lapse so long.
There were a fair number of people already at the tourney grounds when they arrived. All the competitors had their own brightly coloured tents around the ground, away from the crowd. Some were armoured and getting in some last minute practice outside the arena. Maddon dismounted smoothly, and with the help of one of the young squires, carried his armour over to his tent to get changed. It was heavy, but by now he was used to it. His shield was of course emblazoned with the Farhorn crest, as was his blue cloak. Checking himself in a looking glass, he thought he cut a fine figure.
Exiting his tent, he saw Quinlan outside a nearby tent, leaning down to check his boot straps, his helmet on the ground beside him.
“Quinlan!” called Maddon, waving a hand as he headed over. The look on his face was less than excited.
“Yes?” he asked warily.
The prince smiled, trying to make sure he sounded friendly.
“I just thought I let you know that, as we’re friends, I’m not going to tell anybody about what’s going on between you and Seraphina,” said Maddon, watching as Quinlan’s face went rigid. “Personally, I don’t mind, you’re not blood relatives. I would just advise you to be careful, as who knows how the King’s brother would react if he found out?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said his cousin flatly, his eyes flicking around quickly to see who was nearby.
Maddon smirked. He had worked out what was going on between Quinlan and Seraphina after seeing them sat next to each other at the feast when the Darrowmeres had arrived. Maddon had been thinking about John and Favian Slynn’s argument last meeting when he noticed the odd behaviour of his daughter next to him. The looks and smiles that passed between them whenever they brushed arms, the way Seraphina had instinctively reached for Quinlan’s hand during a tense moment in the fight, before blushing when she realised what she had done, looking around to see if anyone had noticed it. A lot of it wouldn’t be obvious to most people. But Maddon was a person who was always paying attention, and it was clear that the way they were behaving went far further than Fendred and Ariana’s cautious courtship. He had paid more attention to both of them since then, and noticed that in family meals they often shot looks at the other one, and there was a noticeable reaction when one of them entered the room. Of course he didn’t know for sure, and it was a bit of a gamble, but Quinlan’s reaction practically confirmed it.
“Please, don’t even bother,” said Maddon. “Why would I tell anyone anyway? I imagine that the irreversible damage has been done, and there are more important things to worry about. However, if you do ever need a way out of the castle around the guards, I may have discovered one.”
Quinlan ran a hand through his hair, a desperate look on his face. He looked around him again.
“You want me to help you win, is that it?” he asked. “Is that what it will take?”
“This isn’t blackmail,” Maddon insisted. “No matter what you do, I won’t tell anyone. All I’m trying to do is offer you something as proof of friendship. I know you weren’t a fan of this idea before, but working together until the end is a good strategy, and I’m perfectly happy for you to win if you beat me fairly. Second place is very respectable for me, not to mention more believable. Besides, it wouldn’t be a real win for me if you threw the match.”
His cousin sighed.
“And what was it you were saying about a way out of the castle?” he asked.
“I was reading an old book which described a tunnel leading from the castle. I haven’t had the time to look for it yet but it would take you out of the castle into the city if you need it, and as far as I know nobody else knows about it.”
Quinlan nodded slowly.
“What about Rowan?”
“If we’re all still in the game at the end then I guess you have to decide which of us you’d rather fight,” said Maddon. “But I know what I would prefer.”
The sun was high in the air as the competitors took their places in the arena grounds. With the melee being the most important part of the tournament, it got the most impressive stadium. The royal box seemed to loom over the competitors, at the highest point as well as being on the innermost ring of seats, with Darrowmere and Farhorn flags hanging down from the box underneath the royals. Every tier of seats in the arena was full. Over sixty competitors stood on the field, and by the end of it there would be one man still standing. A melee was chaos. Everybody would be fighting at once, whaling on their opponent until they submitted or could no longer fight. They were dangerous of course, but that only meant greater glory in getting through it. Even just participating in one gained respect.
Maddon looked around, but couldn’t make out Quinlan in between all the suits of armour. He could see Rowan not far away, distinguishable by a cloak identical to his own. An announcer began to read out a list of names of the men participating. Each competitor raised their hand to indicate their presence, the idea being that it helped the crowd to single out their favourites. He saw the hand go up for Striph near the edge of the arena, followed shortly by Swift. He hadn’t had a chance to speak to Florian, but he was also a person to potentially team up with. He hadn’t been as good friends with him as Ariana as the age difference was fairly pronounced but they had got on well enough. When the announcer reached the end of the list, the trumpets blew, and he stepped back.
“Let the melee commence!”
Maddon knew his strategy. He had to fight his way over to either Quinlan or Rowan and then stick with them, preferably getting into as few fights as possible before he found them. He looked around him quickly. There were opponents on all sides, and no rules about who had to fight who, so he could be attacked from any direction. He should try to head for the edge of the arena first, where he would be less vulnerable.
The first clashes between people begun around him, and Maddon’s heart leapt into his mouth as his first aggressor saw him alone and charged at him. He forced himself not to panic as lots of options ran through his head at lightning speed. He settled on a move and moved to meet the charge, remembering what Falk had shown him. The moment before contact, he spun to the side, his right leg moving behind him to his left as he swung his arm around, smashing his shield into the man’s arm and following it up almost instantly with a sword strike to the head. The attacker’s momentum carried him forwards and he stumbled away from Maddon.
The prince didn’t wait for him to turn around but dodged around a fighting pair towards the edge of the arena in Quinlan’s general direction. There were no points for eliminating opponents, the winner was just the last one left, and as thrilled as he was with his successful first hit, Maddon had no idea who that knight was or what he was capable of. He reached the edge unhindered, where a wooden wall ran around the arena, with doors built in for losing competitors to exit, with help if necessary. In the direction he was going, it had the advantage of obstructing swings to his left side, which was ideal, so long as nobody attacked him from the other direction.
As he paused to look around, he saw one of the men in front of him take a hit in the stomach from a flail, denting the armour slightly. The fighter doubled over, while the flail-wielder stepped back to deliver the knockout blow from the round chunk of metal he was swinging. Obviously for the tournament there were no spikes, and there were rules on the weight of the ball, but it was a brutal hit. Maddon had seen the flail-wielder in training and recognised the armour. His choice of weapon was an unusual one, but he was good with it. Maddon attacked, swinging from the right and hoping to catch him unawares, but the man reacted quickly, dodging backwards towards the arena wall. Perfect.
Maddon followed up his attack, swinging low and then hitting with his shield, knocking him back. The man tried to swing the flail around but the ball dragged against the arena wall, losing a lot of its speed, and Maddon pinned the chain against the wall with his shield, feinting with a swing from the sword and then kicking the knight in his codpiece with an armoured boot. Unconventional, perhaps, but not strictly against the rules. The problem with a flail was that it was a very aggressive weapon, with very limited ability to block, leaving him reliant on his shield for defence.
Maddon kept up the pressure, not wanting to give him time to back away from the arena wall where the prince had the advantage. His next few swords strikes were blocked by the man’s shield, and the knight retaliated with a kick of his own that Maddon blocked with his shield. He could see what was coming next, and he raised a sword to catch the overhead swing from the flail at the top of the wood. The chain wrapped around his sword, almost hitting him. Luckily for him, it caught, and with a strong grip, Maddon wrenched his sword sideways, swinging it so that the flail was ripped out of his opponent’s hands. The weapon slid off the end of his sword and went flying into the sandy ground behind him.
Maddon grinned inside his helmet, and the man, now without a weapon, ran at him with his shield in front of him. Their shields clashed and Maddon swung the pommel of his sword into the side of the knight’s helmet, knocking him off course. The combatant blocked one of his sword strikes with his shield and swung a punch at Maddon’s head which the prince smashed head-on with his shield. He heard a noise of pain and knowing the man would struggle to block both, swung his shield around towards the man’s face and then his sword low, making contact with the latter strike and causing the man’s leg to buckle. As he sagged, Maddon barged into him, knocking him down so that he fell on his back. He moved in to put the man out of action for good, raising an armoured boot.
“I submit!” called the knight, hitting the ground twice to signal it, just as Maddon was about to bring it down on his stomach. He smiled in relief. He had won the fight. He felt like there should be more of an audience reaction to show it, but the rest of the arena was still fighting. He took a moment to get his breath back.
“You seem to be doing well,” said Quinlan, appearing in front of him wearing a green cloak, longsword in hand.
“Well I’m still here,” he said, as his defeated opponent left the arena.
“Then let’s get back into it,” said his cousin.
The prince sighed, and headed back into the fighting.
Maddon grunted as he took a hit from the mace on his arm, deadening it. All around them were the clashes and clangs of metal on metal, too numerous to distinguish from each other. He felt like he had been fighting for hours now, and a lot of his focus now was on conserving his energy. He imagined himself at the centre of a circle. He was holding the centre of it, while his opponent wasted energy dodging around him and attacking. Maddon was happy to let him, focusing on counter-attacks where his opponent tended to drop his guard. That way he didn’t waste energy on hits that would most likely be blocked.
He waited for the next swing, blocking them with his shield and lunging forwards as the fighter’s guard opened up. It was a weakness Maddon had noticed with the knight even before the tournament. He also knew that when he started taking hits the man only got more aggressive. When the prince’s stab hit, he reacted as Maddon expected, launching a series of quick attacks with his one-handed mace that were hard to keep up with. It was a shorter and therefore quicker weapon than a sword, and it meant the warrior always tried to come in close.
Maddon retreated backwards under a hail of blows, trying to keep his head. He didn’t have the instincts for fighting – he just had what he had been taught and his own intelligence. He was on the back foot with an opponent coming towards him. What should he do?
The knight swung downwards at him and Maddon stepped back with his left foot, the mace swinging past him without making contact. As the knight advanced with the strike he brought his sword down on the man’s shoulder and smashed the edge of his shield into the attacker’s helmet, breaking his attack. As his opponent was knocked back another voice called out to him. The knight’s head turned, and Quinlan’s heavy longsword caught him behind the kneecap, swinging around to strike him in the chest, taking him off his feet, where he didn’t try to get up.
“I did have him you know,” said Maddon, secretly relieved to have had the help.
“I’m sure you did,” said Quinlan, stopping to look around. Only about a quarter of the competitors were still standing. They were nearing the endgame. He could see Rowan fighting it out with someone, still going strong. While he watched, two fighters, apparently also a team, set upon the pair mid-fight. Perhaps neither of them would need to knock Rowan out of the running. In theory he and Quinlan could just stand here and watch, but ‘spectator fighters’ were seen as poor sportsmen and tended to gather abuse. The unwritten rule was that they should be attacked and ganged up on by those nearby.
“Come on, let’s join in,” said Quinlan, signalling for Maddon to join him as he ran to Rowan’s fight. He sighed, and followed, wishing he could have a slightly longer break.
Quinlan caught one of them unawares, jumping in with a kick that sent Rowan’s opponent stumbling.
“About time you turned up,” said Rowan, nodding to his cousin.
Maddon left him to his opponent and approached the other two, his sword at the ready. The two had broken off their fight upon seeing him approach and now there was a stalemate, with the three of them equally spaced, catching their breath.
“Well, he who does not strike first...” muttered Maddon, swinging at the man on his right. His strike was parried away, and he dodged back to avoid a swing from the other fighter. He moved to his right, trying to keep the man between him and the other opponent as he attacked. Unfortunately, the other opponent chose to attack Maddon as well, and he found himself on the defensive, facing two opponents. He skirted to the side, trying to move so that he only faced one at a time and swinging wildly in retaliation. He almost dropped his sword parrying away a particularly powerful swing, and was forced back by several hard hits to his shield, falling to one knee.
“Look out!” he shouted in desperation to the nearest of the two, pointing towards the other. To his surprise, the fool fell for the ruse, looking away for a second, just long enough for Maddon to swing the sword upwards between the man’s legs, doubling him over. Rising up, he brought his shield round into the knight’s head, knocking him towards the second man, and then bringing the sword down on his back. Weakly, his opponent swung his sword upwards but Maddon stepped away and his own sword struck his opponent’s metal gauntlet with a hard clash, causing him to drop the weapon.
“I submit,” coughed the man, dropping his shield and raising a hand in surrender. By this time Quinlan was there to help dispatch the second man, and he was dealt with without much trouble. Rowan’s opponent was down as well, with the prince almost as out of breath as Maddon was.
“Did you seriously yell ‘look out’ in the middle of a fight?” asked Rowan in disbelief, shaking his head.
“Don’t look at me, he’s the one who fell for it,” protested Maddon, gesturing to the man.
“Only five others in it now,” noted Quinlan. Maddon nodded grimly. There were two separate fights going on. Their unofficial truce couldn’t survive much longer.
“Is that Fendred?” asked Rowan, looking at the trio of fighters furthest from them. Maddon looked, and saw the Darrowmere sigil of crossed swords on the fighter’s black and yellow tunic.
“That’s him,” Maddon agreed. He saw no sign of Florian. It seemed that he was a better archer than a swordsman.
Perhaps recognising the prince as the member of a rival kingdom, the other two seemed to be ganging up on the man, who was doing well at holding his own. As they watched, he dodged around one of them, sending him tumbling into the wall of the arena while he attacked the other. By the time the man regained his footing Fendred had disarmed the other, who subsequently submitted, and moved to attack the rising man. While that happened, a winner emerged from the other fight, and Quinlan rushed off to meet him.
“Well then,” said Rowan, turning to Maddon. “Not long left now. At least you’ve done better here than the joust. Shall we see what the Darrowmere is really made of?”
His brother’s attention drifted to Fendred, and Maddon’s anger took control. Rowan had to bring up the joust, didn’t he? He loved to one-up him at every opportunity.
“Not this time,” muttered Maddon to himself, anger building up inside him.
“What was that?” Rowan asked, looking back just as his brother’s blunted sword caught him in the face, sending him reeling back. Maddon followed up, hitting his shield arm and slashing at his chest. He parried the last blow and stepped back, regaining his balance.
“You devious little cunt!” exclaimed Rowan, going into a fighting stance.
“I think you’ll find I’m slightly taller actually,” replied Maddon, almost trembling with the sudden rush of adrenaline, his blue cloak billowing behind him, identical in colour to Rowan’s.
Rowan attacked, launching into a rapid sequence of moves. The first one scraped against his shield, sparks flying as it lead into a high slash which Maddon swayed away from. Next he knew his brother would feint a strike at his chest and go for the knee. It was the same combination he always started with. Maddon ignored the feint, interrupting the sequence by slamming the edge of his shield into Rowan’s neck and stepping in close to follow it with an armoured elbow to the head. His brother stumbled away, shaking himself off and raising his guard up again.
“When the fuck did you learn to fight?” croaked Rowan, clearly unsettled as he rubbed his armoured throat.
“Falk’s a good teacher,” replied Maddon, waiting for him to attack again. The weapons master had privately taught both of them, spending several hours with Maddon focused solely on how to beat his brother. Part of that included sharing what he had been teaching Rowan, which Maddon was hoping to make good use of. He also knew that it would waste more of Rowan’s energy if he was the one constantly on the attack.
Rowan reacted as he hoped, not waiting to catch his breath, but going straight into a new series of attacks. His swings were noticeably slower than before, and Maddon avoided them all, waiting for the right moment when he ducked under and past Rowan’s heavy swing to slam the edge of his sword into the prince’s back, knocking him away. Rowan could win this if he just had the patience to hold off and let force Maddon to do the attacking, but in his mind he should be beating his brother easily, and every hit Maddon scored infuriated Rowan more, making him ever more desperate to rush at him. He was breathing heavily now, and his sword was dragging in the sand. Maddon was in better condition, the adrenaline keeping him alert. Rowan raised his sword to strike again and Maddon launched a kick, his heel driving into an armoured stomach, causing Rowan to stumble back yet again.
“You weren’t keeping your shield up,” he shrugged unashamedly, hearing the sounds of a fight towards the other side of the arena behind him. Rowan let out an angry cry and charged at him, sword held aloft. Maddon didn’t react quickly enough and was tackled to the ground. Now that was a move he wasn’t prepared for. His sword fell from his hand as Rowan punched him in the stomach. Winded but angry, Maddon swung the shield around, connecting with Rowan’s helmet, making him fall sideways, relieving the weight on Maddon’s legs. He pulled one free and kicked Rowan in the sternum. Maddon scrabbled away and retrieved his sword, standing and kicking away Rowan’s, holding his own to his twin’s neck.
“Yield!” shouted Maddon.
His brother said nothing for a few moments. Then he swore.
“I yield,” he spat, removing his helmet.
Maddon backed away, exhilarated and exhausted with his victory. He looked around to see how Quinlan was doing and saw that he and Fendred were the only two remaining, fighting a fierce battle. His cousin had the longer reach and a heavier weapon, but it was slower as well as stronger. Fendred never gave him a moment’s peace as Quinlan dodged away, swinging his longsword expertly to bat away the prince’s attacks. Neither of them seemed to be scoring a hit. Maddon was too engrossed to even think about intervening in the fight.
Quinlan swung his weapon in a wide horizontal swing into Fendred’s shield, the weight of the strike sending him stumbling a few steps to his left and splintering his shield. He swung the longsword again, with a strike that looked as if it would break an arm if it connected. But it met empty air, as Fendred dodged out of the way, swinging his sword across to strike Quinlan below the ribs. His following attacks were too quick for the man to block, and Fendred’s sword caught him under the chin, knocking his head back. Before he could recover, Fendred was inside his reach, kicking his legs out from under him as he slammed an arm into his chest, sending him to the ground. And with that, only two remained.
Well at least he was guaranteed some prize money, thought Maddon, not feeling good about the fight as he walked to the centre of the arena to meet Fendred. The prince threw his damaged shield aside, swinging his sword around as if he was twirling a baton. He didn’t even seem tired.
Maddon didn’t waste time on words, but swung at him as soon as he was within reach, steel clashing against steel as they sparred and sparks flew. This wouldn’t be like fighting Rowan. He had never fought Fendred before and hadn’t seen enough to notice any weakness in his style. He seemed to be a reactionary fighter, responding to how his opponent attacked with no apparent preferred moves. He parried Maddon’s sword away skilfully several times before eventually responding with a lunge that bruised his ribs. Fendred backed off for a moment, waiting for the prince to come to him.
They circled for a few moments, the tension palpable. Fendred was using his sword left-handed, a rarity which Maddon wasn’t used to. Fendred walked towards him slowly, his sword ready but not swinging. He backed away a little, but Fendred kept coming. He seemed calm, with confidence that probably wasn’t misplaced. Maddon swung his shield around, directing it at Fendred’s head. He caught the edge of it with his empty right hand and headbutted Maddon, his hears ringing from the blow. Fendred twisted the shield, sending pain through the younger man’s shoulder and elbow as he was forced to bend backwards. Maddon swung his sword at Fendred but the prince parried it away and before he could react a gauntleted hand hammered into his face.
The next thing he knew he was on his back, blinded as light rushed into his eyes, vaguely noticing a shadow above him. Fendred said something muffled which Maddon couldn’t focus on. He blinked as something metallic hovered very close to him, taking up a large part of his vision.
“Do you yield?” Fendred repeated.
“I yield,” he said, unable to nod due to the sword less than an inch from his eye.
Wild applause went up from the crowd around them, and Maddon forced himself into a sitting position. Fendred offered a hand up and he took it reluctantly, finding it hard to so quickly forgive someone who had just brutally knocked him into the dirt a moment ago.
“Well fought,” said Fendred, pulling Maddon to his feet. “I’d heard that your brother was the better swordsman. It seems that was incorrect.”
“Thank you,” said Maddon with a smile. He had beaten Rowan. Now there was an achievement. Second place in the melee was a hell of one as well. He waved to the cheering crowd around him, and to the royal box where his family sat. Yes, he would sleep happily tonight.
Ariana stood in front of her mother and father in the throne room, Maddon beside her. The King had asked to speak to them while the Darrowmeres were busy on their own.
“So it seems that you are both to be awarded prize money for the tournament,” said the King, looking down from his throne, which was several steps above them.
Neither of them said anything. It was clear that their father had something to say.
“Maddon, I must say I’m tempted not to give you anything at all. You acted selfishly in the arena, attacking your own blood without warning when he was the best chance our family had of victory in the tournament,” said Berin, stern-faced.
“I’m sorry but it was a melee, and I won that fight on merit and training, not because I struck first,” Maddon retorted angrily. “You cannot blame me for not beating Fendred just because Rowan didn’t fight well enough to defeat me.”
“Rowan is well known to be the better swordsman,” replied Berin.
“I know,” said her brother, “but I trained a lot with Falk, who as you know is a very talented teacher, and I believe it paid off. I don’t think you should be angry with me just because I tried to win the melee by fighting the person I believed to be the bigger threat before I fought Fendred.”
The King looked thoughtful while their mother, a quiet and reserved woman, finally spoke up.
“My dear, you know you can’t keep the prize money, he is not a child, and didn’t break the rules of the melee,” she said, before turning to Maddon. “However, it was poor form to do something like that for the sake of a tournament and I do expect you to apologise to your brother. You will also be missing dinner for the next two nights. In the future you should remember that when in public you are representing the family, and the people need to see us as unified, even when you are competing against each other.”
Maddon looked down, not saying anything. Ariana thought he was lucky to get off so lightly. She understood why he had attacked. He always let Rowan get under his skin, and although Rowan thought his teasing was light-hearted, Maddon tended to remember it and let it anger him. Although she didn’t agree with it, it didn’t surprise her that he had struck out when he had seen the opportunity, especially after Rowan had floored him in the joust.
The King sighed, and picked up two small wooden chests which she hadn’t noticed next to the throne. Each was about the size of a log. Despite the fact that there were more competitors in the archery, making it harder win, Maddon received the same amount of money as her for just second place, five-hundred gold pieces. It was only a minor grievance though, as she was obviously very fortunate to be getting anything at all.
“Five hundred crowns is a lot of money, so don’t waste it,” said the King.
“We won’t,” they both promised, taking the chests. Ariana held back a smile. It was more money than she had ever held in her life.
“Don’t make me regret trusting you with this money,” said the King. “I shall see that Falk is appropriately rewarded for his help. Regardless of how, you came out of the melee in second place, and I don’t blame him for your behaviour.”
“You could put him in charge of the men against the miners, or even make him the next Captain of the Guard,” suggested the prince. “He was Bloodsworn himself once, and he’s a strong man. I would put all of my progress down to him.”
“I shall consider it,” said the King. “Now off with you both.”
Ariana nodded and smiled in thanks and left with her brother.
“So,” said Maddon, as they left the throne room behind them, “I think it’s time for a trip to the city markets.”
“You really think that going and spending all of your money is the best idea?” she asked. “Father did just say...”
“I’m not saying to spend it all,” he protested. “But it would be nice to have a little reward after everything, don’t you think? I fancy an early birthday present.”
“Alright, we can have a look,” she assented. “Let’s just sort out these chests and we can go this afternoon.”
By the time the afternoon came round, she had allowed herself to get a little excited by the idea of the market. It had been a long time since she’d bought anything for herself. She generally left the choosing of her clothes to others who seemed to care more. She met Maddon by the courtyard doors, where a retinue of ten Bloodsworn waited to accompany them.
“Alright, let’s get going,” he said, and they set off into the city. It was a rest day, and a clear sky, so the streets were full of people. The inner city markets on the northside were the preserve of the rich, selling the more colourful and expensive wares the city had to offer. The trade agreement with the Achijanian Empire to the east meant that the city’s markets had the greatest diversity on the continent, and never failed to impress her. She could smell warm exotic spices in the air and hear the animated chatter of vendors and customers.
Ariana left Maddon and examined some of the nearest stalls, her eyes passing over the expensive silks, laces and other fabrics disinterestedly as some of the merchants held them up.
“Touch the dress my lady, it is the finest quality, and in the royal colours!”
As if she hadn’t seen enough Farhorn blue in her life.
“No thank you, I’m not looking for clothing,” said Ariana politely.
The castle had plenty of food and wine, and it wasn’t her responsibility to buy it, so she left that part of the market alone as well. She continued on, escorted by her guards, before her eye was caught by a bowyer’s selection. She didn’t feel she had a need for a bow, but couldn’t resist a look at some of the more unusual foreign ones.
“My princess!” exclaimed the moustachioed easterner, bowing upon seeing the royal guards. “Is wonderful to have you here! I hear great tales of your prowess with the bow, and to do with such a clumsy Westerland weapon you must be even better than they say!”
Ariana smiled at his enthusiasm, and raised an eyebrow.
“Clumsy, you say?”
“Well not to try cause offence, but the bows they make here are simple and without the power. For army, maybe easier to make, but for skilled archer, it not make sense to use straight bow when you can buy best. Take this – hold.”
The merchant passed her a finely crafted wooden bow, and she ran her hands over the varnished wood, then tested the string.
“The curves make arrow fly faster, even if bow smaller. Much better if hunting in forest. Easier to hold draw back too yes?”
“Well I haven’t seen how far the arrow goes yet,” replied Ariana. “Every merchant claims to sell the best.”
“You take bow now and try, no pay, can return tomorrow if don’t like, but that will not be the case,” the merchant smiled self-assuredly.
Ariana smirked. She liked his confidence.
“No need for that, I’ll trust your word, the bow looks well-made,” she said.
“Wonderful!” the Easterner exclaimed. “Now with good bow, should have good knife, I have good pair here, very beautiful, with emerald, match your eyes!”
He was certainly a persistent salesman, but she had come to the market with the intention of buying something.
“I’ll have a look,” she assented.
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed again, dashing behind exuberantly to retrieve a wooden box. He put it on the table to show an identical pair of daggers. The man unsheathed one to show an exquisitely sharp knife. The handle was ergonomically designed, patterned with dark green pearl and a smooth emerald gem, and the dagger was slightly curved, with no hilt – the transition from handle to blade was smooth. She had never seen a more elegant weapon. Even its sheath was beautiful.
“A princess must protect herself, no?” said the merchant. “These can be hidden easily on person and are good weight to throw, if needed.”
Ariana nodded sagely.
“How much?” she asked.
“Five crowns for bow, forty with daggers,” said the man.
“I’ll take them,” she decided, “but don’t try to sell me more, I have enough for one day.”
The merchant winked as he boxed the knives.
“Don’t worry, you have the best now, you no need more,” he assured.
“I’ll take your word for it,” she replied, taking her items, enjoying the thrill that came with buying new things. She couldn’t wait to try the new bow, and though she would likely never need the knives, the bow could break, and it was nice to have a valuable and tangible reward for the archery win to keep with her. Besides, the time may come when she felt the need to defend herself with them, and it was better safe than sorry.
Ariana walked along the inner wall of the castle, high up where she could see the massive city stretching out before her, teeming with life, even as tinges of red spread across the sky. She could hear the gulls where they gathered by the docks as the fishermen were bringing in their hauls. By her side was Fendred.
“So the treaty is signed and the tournament is over,” she said, breaking the silence. “When will you leave?”
“It depends,” he said. “A few matters still need to be settled.”
Ariana nodded, pondering the connotations of that sentence.
“You fought well,” she said. “I’ve never been one for melees but you were very good.”
“Thank you,” he said. “My father has always been keen on training me to fight. I suppose congratulations on your victory as well. I didn’t realise that archery was such a talent of yours.”
“Well it’s an important thing for me,” she replied. “I’ve been doing it for years.”
“I see,” said Fendred. “So do you have any idea who that man was that ran on at the end?”
“Not a clue,” said Ariana, wanting to change the topic as the image of his dying convulsions flashed through her mind. She had no inclination to go into the story of the hunting incident as well, especially since they had no idea who sent the assassins anyway.
“Well as it’s beginning to get dark, would you like me to walk you back to your room?”
“Sure,” said Ariana, unsure what other response there was. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to happen here. She had thought that seeing Fendred in person would make her choice obvious, but it didn’t help at all. They made their way down some steps where Fendred held the door for her, letting her enter the torchlit keep.
“So who was it that you were talking to during the archery competition?” he asked, when they were out of earshot of the guard at the door. Ariana played it casual.
“Who do you mean?”
“The scruffy ginger-haired man,” Fendred continued. “The one who came second place.”
“Oh you mean Florian,” she said. “He’s a friend of the family, the middle son of the Lord of Redwood. He lived with us in Rivergate for a few years. Why?”
Fendred seemed hesitant to continue.
“I just wasn’t sure that it was appropriate for a young unmarried princess to be talking to him in public,” he finally said.
“I’m sorry?” questioned Ariana, surprised. “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to talk to him?”
“Well it’s how rumours start, isn’t it?” said the prince. “It would be wrong to tarnish your reputation with someone too unimportant for you to ever marry anyway.”
Ariana said nothing, not wanting to say anything she would regret and the conversation died between them. They arrived at her door.
“Well, this is my room,” she said, reaching for the doorknob.
“Wait,” said Fendred, holding her wrist, and then clasping her hand. “I’m sorry about what I said. I didn’t mean anything by it, and I should never have brought it up.”
“It’s fine,” said Ariana. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Good,” said the prince, taking her other hand. “Because I’d been hoping for a moment alone like this and would hate to have ruined it.”
Oh by the Gods, he was going to kiss her, wasn’t he? She felt almost claustrophobic, pressed in between him and the doorway. His hands were warm around hers as he held them together between them
“Ariana, will you fulfil our fathers’ wishes and do me the honour of marrying me?”
Then before she could answer, he kissed her, her mind racing with thoughts and emotions.
“So what do you say?” he asked, a few moments later.
Ariana didn’t know what to say or what to think. It wasn’t fair to be put on the spot like this. She needed time to think and decide. If it hadn’t been for what happened with Florian, she might have said yes instantly, but now there was conflict in her head. On the one hand she had her childhood best friend who she may never be allowed to marry, and on the other, an apparently charming prince who had her father’s blessing and was asking her here and now.
“I...I don’t know,” said Ariana, a little panicked. “I mean we barely know each other.”
“You don’t know?” repeated Fendred, almost incredulously. “This isn’t a choice you get to make. Your father has agreed to it. Asking is just a nicety.”
Ariana remembered Maddon’s words to her not so long ago. You always have a choice.
“My father isn’t the one getting married,” she replied. “I just need more time to decide.”
Fendred backed away from her, swearing in frustration.
“What better offer are you expecting?” he asked, his voice rising. “I’m heir to a whole bloody kingdom, I just thrashed the best fighters Rivergate had to offer, and I’ve been kind and respectful to you this entire week. What more could you want? Besides, it’s not like you’ll be winning anyone better with your looks.”
Ariana’s face fell, hurt. She had thought he was better than that. She knew she wasn’t pretty but she thought he was fine with that. A whole new person had emerged from him, and his calm composure was gone.
“I don’t give a shit if you’re the heir to a kingdom,” she yelled. “If we had the same rules as in the Icelands, I’d be the fucking heir to my father’s throne anyway.”
Fendred shook his head in disbelief.
“Are you on the bleed or do you really not understand the way the world works? Women don’t do archery, and crazy ice tribes aside, they certainly don’t rule kingdoms. They do what their father or husband tells them to do, and that’s exactly what you’ll do when you’re married to me.”
Ariana shoved him back angrily, hating how her eyes were beginning to water as they always did when an argument got heated. Fendred raised a hand in retaliation, before stopping himself.
“I’m not going to hit a woman,” he said. “Now calm yourself down, you’re acting hysterical.”
Ariana punched him, sending blood spraying from his nose. She ripped out one of her newly-purchased knives from its sheath, grabbed his neck, and with muscles gained from years of archery, slammed him against the door. She held the blade up to his throat.
“Maybe my father could force me to marry you, but I promise you, I will make your life hell,” she threatened darkly, trying to hide the crack in her voice. “You may try to force me into bed but I will fight you every time. You may force me to bear your children but I will do my best to raise them to hate you. Give me the opportunity and I will run away into the forest and live like a peasant rather than live with someone as two-faced and conceited as you.”
“You’re mad,” said Fendred, grabbing her arm and throwing her away from him, onto the floor, the knife clattering on the stone. He marched away, clutching his nose.
“You’d better believe I’m mad!” Ariana shouted after him, as he rounded a corner away from her. She sat there for a few moments, breathing hard, and then buried her face in her hands. What had she done? Fendred was the son of a King who her father was hosting as a guest. That was it, she was dead. Her father would be furious beyond belief. Not only that, but somebody that she had been on the verge of marrying and genuinely liked had turned out to be a complete arsehole. Real tears formed in her eyes, and she didn’t try to stop them. She considered the thought of running away. She could hunt, after all, probably well enough to survive. It seemed a more attractive option than sticking around to see how her parents reacted.
Ariana looked up at the sound of light footsteps padding towards her. It was her handmaiden, a basket of flowers in her hand, most likely for Ariana’s room. Katrina was always doing things like that. She was younger than the princess but at times seemed to act like her mother. She was her only friend in the castle who wasn’t a blood relative.
“Princess, what’s wrong?” she asked, dropping her basket and putting an arm around her. “There’s blood on your dress, are you alright?”
Ariana looked down, surprised at not having noticed the dark red droplets which had seeped into the light-coloured fabric.
“Is that a knife?” asked her handmaiden, shocked.
“I hit the prince, and held a knife on him,” she said, a short hysterical laugh escaping her at the ridiculousness of what she was saying. “It’s his blood.”
Katrina blinked, her mouth hanging slightly open, but she tried to pass it off.
“Well why don’t we get you cleaned up, and then I’ll get one of the servants to heat some bathwater over the fire,” she said. “We’ll worry about the rest later.”
Ariana nodded, and Katrina helped her gently to her feet, guiding the princess inside and sitting her on the bed while she had a bath filled with hot water. When it was ready, she submerged herself in the steaming tub. The burning of the water helped in clearing her head, and Katrina did her best to help soothe her with words as well. She took an inordinate amount of pleasure in the bath, appreciating it all the more because it could not be long until word of what she’d done got back to her father. And when it did, there would be hell to pay.
“The miners are the only ones standing up for the rights of the workers like you! If they lose it will be a message to the aristocracy that they can get away with starving us for their own gain. If you help them win then it shows that we are stronger than they are, and that we do need to be listened to! Have the pride that you’re helping a good cause and help feed the strikers. Stand up to Slynn and men like him! Give food, give money, whatever you can, you will not regret it and we will not forget it. Feed the miners! Keep the strike up, and we will win!”
Dain felt a surge of pride watching his wife speak. He had clearly married the right woman. While the men were taking their stand, many of the women were doing whatever they could to help. For some, that meant looking after the kids and managing whatever livestock or land they had. For Gelen, it meant speaking at markets and appealing to the public for help to keep the miners fed, since officially they had no income. Gelen didn’t know about the money Dain was being given by the hooded man, and neither did anybody else except Parry and Merek. This way they had an explanation for where some of the money came from and how they were able to afford feeding everyone. And of course, it was important to have another source of support other than an unreliable stranger.
Today was the first day he had actually seen her in action at the market, and her words seemed to be working. The people were getting stirred up about it, and some were giving money, which was no small thing. Nobody here would do that lightly. Dain let her finish, then used his size and his staff to push through the throng of people in the market. He stepped up to the small wooden platform and embraced her, kissing her on the cheek.
“You were brilliant,” he said, before turning to the expectant crowd. “Now, I believe I would be the best one to answer your questions.”
One of the bolder men came to the front.
“Do you really think that your demands will be met?” he asked doubtfully. “Didn’t the King send a man to kill you?”
“There is no evidence that the man was sent by the King. But even so, he was unsuccessful, and here I stand. Besides, the strike does not live and die with me, many could take my place,” said Dain, thinking ominously of Redskin. “The King has been waiting a long time now for our strike to end, but we still stand strong, while the Kingdom has no brimstone supply whatsoever. Before long he will have to force Slynn to back down, as we will not.”
“If you need money from us, does that not mean the strike cannot be sustained without our help?” asked another. “Besides, we only have so much we can give!”
Dain paused before answering.
“Do not worry about the resolve of us miners, we won’t break easily. I admit that without the people’s help it would be a struggle, but we would last a long time, have no doubt. I ask your help so that the brave men risking their livelihoods can rest assured that they have the support of the people and that they will not starve if the strike does last,” Dain replied.
“I heard that you armed yourselves. How are you anything better than rebels?” asked a woman in the middle of the crowd.
Dain sighed inwardly, cursing Redskin.
“Unlike rebels, we have no violent intentions,” defended the miner. “We carry weapons in defence, after men of ours have been beaten and killed in confrontations with the King’s men, and an attempt was made on my life. We are not an aggressive group, and have done no wrong in that respect.”
And so it continued, with questions coming and the leader of the strike doing his best to answer them, until enough was enough and he called an end to it, taking the generous donations of the people with him. He left his wife, and went off to the miners’ camp with the money in a large pouch at his belt. The walk was tiring – he was still recovering from his injury, but it was a relief to reach the camp and see everyone in good health. These days he had started to become paranoid about leaving in case some situation arose which he was not there to fix. He breathed in the malodorous stench of the great collection of men and smiled. The men were bantering and laughing, still in good spirits despite the length of time they’d spent camped here. The ale probably helped in that respect. He didn’t know how long it would last though. It was easy for men to become restless, and now that the last of the mines had joined the strike all they could do was wait. He greeted the men, finding a group from his own mine, Parry among them, and settling down for a game of liar dice. He wasn’t playing for long before he was interrupted.
“So our glorious leader has returned,” said Redskin, his scarred features contorting into a smile as he appeared, flanked by his beast of a friend, Gottren. “Where were you, if I might ask?”
Dain sighed, and looked up at him. Redskin was a constant thorn in his side. He seemed to crop up everywhere, unwanted, but always wanting something himself.
“I was with my wife, at the market, collecting donations for the strike, now get to your point, I’m in the middle of a game,” said Dain.
“If you insist,” agreed Redskin. “I believe it is only fair that we share our food together. If we are to be a unified group, we should not leave one half overfed and the other hungry.”
“Our original deal was for your men to feed themselves,” reminded Dain, forcing himself to his feet to look Redskin in the eye.
“It was,” conceded the man. “But circumstances change. We have been gaining men from all over the place. The King made a deal with the Darrowmeres which forced men away from their homes, and it’s left them with a bone to pick. Our men now at least match yours in number, and more come every day. Every man who joins us makes the King more likely to give in, and you benefit evermore from our protection, but give us nothing more in return. I brought you the last brimstone mine, remember.”
“You did,” Dain nodded, “although I question how you did it.”
“Who the fuck cares about methods?” laughed Redskin. “Besides, I have reason to question your methods as well. Why don’t you explain to all of these men here how you’re paying for all of the food you’re providing?”
Dain felt a sudden chill. He glanced at the men around him, whose eyes were all on the pair.
“Nothing to say?” teased Redskin. “Go on; show us how much you managed to collect in donations. I highly doubt it is enough to feed every miner here. Being responsible for a large group of men myself, I’ve been struggling with the calculations. I’m starting to wonder how your men have enough food to build up a store of it as well as feed and water everyone. It makes me wonder whether you have some other source of income.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dain said flatly. “Perhaps the people are just more willing to give money to miners than rebels.”
Redskin’s eyes flashed.
“Perhaps,” he said, “but your men carry weapons now too. I think we are very much alike. If your men grew hungry I think they too would start to wonder what they would do to set things right. There’s a manor nearby, you know. Lots of food. Lots of money, too. It’s a veritable honey pot. Yes, it’s guarded, but we have a lot of men. And the hungrier they get, the sweeter that pot looks...”
Dain was taken aback. He reassessed Redskin, looking at him anew.
“The King would kill you all!” he protested. “You can’t be serious. If your group is getting too large then simply stop taking on more men.”
Redskin shook his head smugly.
“Those poor men who’ve risked death by abandoning their lords to join us? It’s not in my nature to reject them. I could never do that to them,” he said. “As for the King, I think he’s a smart man. Say we did raid this manor. He then has a choice. Meet our demands and lose nothing, or risk his soldiers just to punish us. Besides, it need not come to that. You have enough food to feed everyone, no?”
Dain glared at him.
“You’re crazy,” he said. “Absolutely insane if you think you could challenge the King like that and ever get away with it. And you want us to share food with you?”
“Haven’t you been appealing to the people with the claim that you’re standing up for all of them?” the man challenged. “What kind of message would it send if you were seen to only care about miners and no one else?”
“It does make sense,” said Parry, butting into the conversation. “I mean, we’re far from starving, and we want Redskin’s lot to stand with us to make us stronger. Before we were only relying on the shortage of brimstone to make the King give in. Now he has even bigger problems than that! Surely keeping them well fed only helps us.”
“And what about when more men join?” asked Dain, focusing on Redskin. “You claimed you’d welcome everyone with open arms. Well every farm labourer who joins you is one less working in the fields. If this keeps going on there’ll be a food shortage across the Kingdom!”
“A food shortage and a brimstone shortage? All the more reason for the crown to meet our demands,” he replied, unfazed.
Dain wanted to punch the man in his smug red face. He refused to show any concern for anything, and had dangerous predispositions towards violence.
“We’ll share half our food supply with you,” agreed Dain finally. “Only half, no matter how many more men join. The other half remains ours.”
“I happily accept,” said Redskin, inclining his head and turning to leave. Even the way he did that infuriated him.
“Parry, find Merek and join me in my tent, we need to talk,” said Dain.
His friend went to find Merek, and Dain went to his tent to wait. The wind made the fabric of the tent flap, blocking out most of the sound from the camp, giving him a clear head to contemplate his next move. Leadership was certainly not all it was cracked up to be. Everyone wanted something from you and it was impossible to satisfy everyone.
After a time, the entrance flap was pulled back and Merek’s face appeared, with Parry behind. The tent was large, but meant only for sleeping in, so the three men were all forced to sit to have their discussion.
“You wanted to talk, then?” queried Merek.
“I’ll get right to the point. Redskin is becoming a loose cannon. I’m worried that he’ll end up doing something radical soon, and it could result in him bringing the rest of us down with him,” said Dain. “I don’t think we have much to gain by supporting him. I believe we need to let the King know that as soon as he meets our demands, not including Redskin’s, I will ask everyone to end their strike and leave the labourers to sort out their own problems. Sound right?”
Parry shifted uncomfortably.
“Do you not think everyone will see us as disloyal?” he asked. “We’re supposed to be sticking together.”
Dain wasn’t in a mood for pity.
“I’m sorry, but in this respect, the miners are my only concern. I doubt Redskin would show any loyalty in our position – he just knows that his demands are less likely to be met if he stands alone. Besides, I was the one asking the miners to go on strike. I have to take some responsibility for them. Redskin’s lot had nothing to do with us. If we are given the opportunity to end the strike with our demands met, we should take it. At that point it makes no difference what the people think”
“I agree,” said Merek. “I don’t think it would come as a surprise to Redskin. He’ll probably expect it. I imagine he just wanted his men to latch onto us for support until they grew enough to stand by themselves.”
“That’s settled then,” said Dain. “Redskin will most likely want to be at any negotiations from any of the King’s envoys, but I imagine a quick word in private would be doable the next time the King wants to speak.”
“Was there anything else?” asked Merek.
What Dain was thinking made him feel dirty and disgusted with himself, and was something he would never have dreamed himself thinking of before the events of the strike, but he felt that it needed to be brought up.
“Earlier today, Redskin threatened raiding a nearby manor for food and money. He seemed genuinely prepared to kill, and risk a violent response from the King as a result. If he does this, and the King mobilises forces against him, they may not distinguish between his lot and the miners. We are at the same camp, and thanks to him we’re all armed. He could get us all killed. If he truly wishes to go ahead with this folly, that one man could be responsible for hundreds of deaths.”
“What are you suggesting then?” asked Parry darkly.
Dain met his gaze.
“I think we should be prepared to kill him.”
“What the hell are you doing?” asked Rowan sceptically, looking around to see whether they had been noticed entering the dingy cellar.
“Just trust me,” said Quinlan. “And prepare to be amazed.”
His cousin strode over to one side of the room, dragging one of the barrels to the other side of the room. He proceeded to reach down, slipping his fingers between the gaps in the stone paving, and pulled up the loose stone slab. Left was a square hole large enough for a man to fit through. Rowan strode over to it, intrigued.
“What is this?”
“A tunnel into the city. Maddon found it,” replied Quin. “We had a deal where I’d help him in the tournament, and he showed me the tunnel in case I ever wanted to use it.”
“The sneaky bastard,” muttered Rowan, awed. “Oh shit, sorry if that’s offensive.”
His friend sighed and shook his head.
“Just get down the ladder you fool.”
Rowan descended carefully into the darkness, watching where he put his feet. Movement was slightly awkward due to the sword at his belt, but he reached the bottom without trouble. Quinlan followed, replacing the floor piece where it had been before, plunging them into near-total darkness. Rowan swallowed nervously. He had never been a big fan of the dark.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked, in what he hoped was a neutral voice.
“You’ll be seventeen years of age in a couple of weeks, it’s only right for me to get you a gift. Besides, it might make up for you getting humiliated by your brother,” his cousin laughed.
“It’s a little early for birthday gifts don’t you think?” asked Rowan.
“Well, I got impatient,” said Quinlan. “Somebody could find out about this tunnel soon and then it would be awkward.”
“And this gift requires us to go down into it?”
“It does indeed,” replied Quinlan. “Now follow me, it’s this way. Use the walls to guide yourself. If you have to.”
Rowan did as he was told, treading carefully.
“There aren’t rats down here are there?”
“Who can say? Let me know if you feel any.”
Something brushed his leg and Rowan started, before realising it was Quinlan.
“Oh piss off,” said Rowan, making the other laugh.
After what felt like hours, they reached a door at the other end, at which point there was the sound of a key turning in a lock and a door opened in front of them.
“Why is it still dark?” he asked.
“We’re still underground,” said Quinlan. “Now come on.”
Rowan followed him up a set of stairs, his feet scraping on the stone. At the top, Quin pushed open a wooden trapdoor and they emerged into a small, dark room, dimly visible by the light of the gibbous moon outside the window. Quinlan proceeded to cover the trap door with the mat which had been in the way as he had lifted it. There was a small altar against a wall which had a stone basin carved into it underneath a symbol depicting a large circle linked to two smaller ones on either side, the left darker than the other two. A priest had once told him that it represented the three realms: those of Anim, Aterus, and men, the largest circle, where once all had lived together.
“Are we in a temple?” asked Rowan, realizing that the room they were in was curved.
“An abandoned one, yes,” said Quinlan. “On the outskirts of the city.”
“Would you mind telling me why this is necessary?”
“All in good time, don’t worry. Now come with me, I need to work out where to go.”
“You mean you don’t know?” asked the prince, following him through a door into the largest part of the temple where the congregation would pray. Again, this room was circular, topped with a large dome. The third circle of the symbol was never included in the design of a temple however. Although it didn’t stop some heathens, worshipping of Aterus was an offence punishable by death, and to represent him in a place of worship would be completely inappropriate.
Their footsteps echoed in the wide space as they headed down the aisle towards the doors at the other end. The temple had been emptied of practically everything valuable, although the stained glass windows remained above the altar at one end, as did the plain wooden benches of the congregation. Although it was a moderately large building relative to most, it was nothing compared to the massive construction on the north side of the city.
Quinlan opened the doors and signalled for Rowan to follow as they walked out into the silent streets. Having adjusted to the dark inside, he could see fairly well in the moonlight, or at least well enough not to walk into anything. They were near the outer walls, where there was more space than between the clustered riverside buildings near the centre.
“How long will this take?” asked Rowan, trying to work out where they were going. They were on the south side of the river at the moment. It was the slightly less respectable half of the city where the poorer population lived.
“Not too long,” replied Quinlan, as they passed by the sounds of revelry from inside a rowdy tavern. The door opened and a particularly drunk man stumbled out, leaning against the wall for support.
“The night be young, lads!” he called, raising a glass. “Drink and be merry!”
He followed his words by throwing up into the street, and they let him be. Their father would never have approved of getting this close to the people without guards. It was risky, but exhilarating. He never got to just walk through the city unhindered. Anything could happen out here.
“I take it that our plan isn’t to emulate that man there and simply get drunk?” Rowan checked.
Quinlan looked back at him, a half-smile on his face.
“Well we can do that too,” he said. “Come on, Rowan, surely you can work this one out. Sneaking out in the night without your father’s permission, the south side of the city...a birthday treat?”
Something clicked in his mind.
“You had better not be taking me to a brothel,” Rowan warned.
Quinlan grinned mischievously.
“And why not?”
“So that is why we’re out here? I’m a prince; I can’t just go to brothels,” Rowan spluttered.
“This one comes recommended from someone I know. I’ve been told it’s very discreet.”
“Have you used it?”
“I can’t say that I have, until now I would never have been able to afford it, but that’s beside the point. On your birthday there’s going to be some kind of dance and there will be a lot of fine young women of noble birth, all of whom will most likely be falling over themselves for the chance to dance with the prince. They don’t want to meet an inexperienced boy. They expect to see a man.”
“They expect me to have paid to sleep with whores?”
“Well, yes – they probably do!” said Quin, laughing. “I bet your father did it at your age. It’s a normal thing. Your first time is a messy rush that’s best not done with the person you marry.”
“I’d rather you didn’t bring my father into it,” cringed Rowan. “I’m really not sure about this.”
“But you’re still following,” smiled Quinlan, not stopping.
“Apparently so,” he sighed, feeling nervous now as he followed. Was he really going to go through with this?
“You know what, if you’re nervous, this might help,” said his cousin, passing him a leather flask from his belt.
“What’s in it?” asked the prince, opening it.
Quin just shrugged and smiled as Rowan sipped it. It was foul-tasting, and bloody strong. He struggled not to cough as it went down, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of Quinlan.
“Damn, that’s powerful,” noted Rowan, clearing his throat as the drink sent warm fuzzy tendrils through his head and stomach. He had another drink, grimaced, and then passed it back.
“Nothing like a nice strong drink,” laughed his friend, patting him on the back. “Enjoy it, it’s nearly your birthday and you’ll be with a beautiful woman tonight.”
“What about you? Are you...partaking?”
“Oh no, I’ll be fine,” said Quin, taking a swig from the flask, and giving it to Rowan again. “This is just your night. Keep it, we’re almost there anyway.”
As they rounded a corner, they heard a muffled cry from just ahead of them. It was hard to see in the dark, but there was some kind of a struggle going on. They looked at each other, silently agreeing to move forward. Rowan put a hand on his sword, ready to draw quickly if needed.
“What’s going on here?” asked Quinlan, stepping forward in front of the prince. Now that they were closer it was a little clearer what was happening. Two large, aggressive-looking men stood in front of them, and one of was struggling with a black-haired girl a little younger than Rowan, a hand around her mouth, presumably to prevent her screaming.
“Nunna your business,” replied the unhindered man brusquely.
“Who’s she?” asked Rowan, his courage buoyed by what small amount of drink he’d had.
“No idea,” replied the man. “Just havin’ a bi’ o’ fun.”
The prince drew his sword, heart pounding. Quinlan followed suit.
“Well it doesn’t look much like she wants to go with you,” said Quin. “I suggest you let her go, and perhaps then we won’t have to kill you.”
The two men, both of whom were unarmed, looked at each other. One of them shook his head, and the other swore angrily.
“Fine, all yours,” replied the man holding her, releasing the girl and shoving her to the floor in front of them. The men made their exits. They sheathed their swords, and Rowan bent down to check on the girl.
“Are you alright?” he asked, putting a hand on her shoulder. She flinched a little at his touch, and he removed his hand hastily.
“I...think so,” she said, her voice high and trembling. She looked up at the prince, and Rowan finally got a good look at her. She had striking features, with deep-set eyes and a sharp jawline. She was beautiful, but she also seemed so fragile, like a porcelain doll.
“What’s your name?” asked Rowan.
“Krea,” she said, looking confused. “Who are you? Why did you do that?”
“I’m Rowan,” he said, smiling and helping her to her feet. “This is my friend Quinlan. We were passing by and it looked like you needed help.”
“You saved me,” she said, wrapping her arms around Rowan. “Thank you.”
“Well, alright, that’s fine,” he said, bemused. “Do you have a place to get back to?”
The girl looked nervous and unsure of herself.
“I don’t have the money. I have no family. I thought that maybe if I waited near a brothel I could pay for a meal by...well...”
“We understand,” interrupted Quinlan. “Rowan, a word?”
Rowan turned away from the girl and leaned in close to hear what his friend had to say.
“Look, take this money, get this girl a cheap room in an inn somewhere, and then I’ll leave you two alone, how about that?” whispered Quinlan, smirking.
“Oh come on, don’t give me that look,” hissed Rowan. “Honestly, if I thought you had the imagination for it I’d suspect you of setting this up.”
“I can promise you I did not. Now let’s do this,” he turned back to the girl. “If it’s alright with you, my honourable friend Rowan here will buy you a room in an inn to stay for a few nights, sound good?”
“On my own?” she asked. “What if the men come back?”
“You’ll be fine, you’ll have your own room, no one will hurt you,” said Rowan.
“Will you protect me?” asked Krea, holding onto his arm and looking scared. Quinlan raised his eyebrows suggestively while Rowan tried to wrap his head around the situation.
“Ok let’s find a place for you,” said Rowan. “We passed a few inns on the way here, I’m sure one of them would be fine.”
They headed back in the direction they had just come from, watching warily for any further signs of trouble.
“Perhaps once you’re settled and fed you could look into getting a job as a kitchen maid,” suggested Rowan.
Krea nodded without saying anything. Rowan found it impossible to imagine a life like Krea’s. It seemed that for whatever reason, she was completely on her own. Rowan’s life was practically planned out for him, without him getting much say in the matter. Krea could end up doing anything. Eventually, they came to an inn which looked suitable, and they went inside, paying the innkeeper in return for the key to one of the upstairs rooms.
“Rowan, how about I leave you to it? It’s not far, you should be fine on your way back,” said Quinlan, shaking his hand. “I’ll leave it unlocked for you, just make sure the girl’s alright.”
“I’ll just make sure she’s settled in, that’s it,” said Rowan, shooting him a look.
“Sure, I believe you,” said Quinlan, with an infuriating smile. “See you back at the castle.”
Krea turned to Rowan, eyes wide as he led her up a set of dusty wooden stairs to the room he’d paid for.
“You live in a castle?”
“I suppose I do,” said Rowan, taking out the key the innkeeper had given him and unlocking the door to Krea’s new room. It was little more than a bed and a window, but it was at least better than having her stay out on the street. He gave her the key to the room.
“Here you are, we’ve paid for a month,” said the prince, feeling out of place. “You get a room to yourself...and food to break your fast each day. I’ve told the innkeeper that I’ll be checking in on you and that he should keep you safe.”
In response, Krea began to unbutton her dress.
“What are you doing?” asked Rowan, grabbing her arm to stop her.
“This is what you want, isn’t it?” she asked quietly. “You pay for the room so that I lie with you.”
Oh Gods. Rowan looked around him, as if this were about to be revealed as some sick joke of Quinlan’s.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, trying not to get aroused by her only partially covered chest. He might have laughed if the situation weren’t so depressingly ridiculous. “As much as I would love to, it’s just a room.”
“Then why?” she whispered. “You don’t even know me.”
He didn’t know what to say. Did she not understand common human decency? He took a deep breath, struggling to find the right words to say.
“Just stay here. You don’t need to go out on the streets again. I mean, how old are you?”
“And is that the first time you’ve tried that?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Well to me that’s just not right. You shouldn’t have to do that. It’s not necessary. As you pointed out, I live in a castle. I can pay for you to stay here for a while, and I don’t need you to do anything that you don’t want to, alright?”
She nodded. Rowan took out a few silver eagles and copper pennies, leaving them on the small table by the bed.
“Here,” he said. “I’ll come back in a few days to make sure you’re alright.”
He turned away and moved to the door.
“Thank you,” said Krea. “I still don’t know why you would do this, but thank you.”
Rowan sighed inwardly, digging his nails into the wood of the doorway.
“Stay safe,” he said, leaving and closing the door behind him. “Anim’s teeth, what was that?”
He nodded to the innkeeper on the way out, not saying a word, and made his way out into the cold, dark night again. It seemed anything really could happen when you went outside the castle.
Maddon knocked three times on Ariana’s door, opening it on hearing her reply. His sister was sat looking sorry for herself by the looking glass while her handmaiden combed her hair. The stone-walled room was decorated with warm autumnal colours, and the windows were open, allowing a cool night breeze to waft in.
“Katrina, would you mind if I had a word with my sister in private please?” asked the prince, with a polite smile.
“Of course,” she replied, although the look she gave him was less than happy as she exited, closing the door behind her. Maddon watched her leave.
“She is one attractive handmaiden,” Maddon commented, earning an exasperated eye roll from Ariana.
“I know you think so,” replied his sister. “I’m afraid she has no interest in you though.”
“A pity,” muttered Maddon distractedly, before refocusing on the princess. “So what’s the damage?”
“Even though Fendred never explained anything, the Darrowmeres storming off was enough to earn an angry lecture from both of them. I’m not allowed out of the castle for an indefinite period of time, so no archery or hunting,” she said. “I have to attend even more of those ridiculous lessons on the skills a princess needs. Thankfully, they don’t know about the knives, but it doesn’t look like I’ll get to test the new bow for a while.”
“Next time it would probably be a good move not to punch a future King in the face,” he said. “Just a thought.”
“I think you of all people should understand seeing red and lashing out,” replied Ariana.
“Touché,” he said. “So the marriage deal is off for good?”
“Yes, it looks like it. They told father I’m not a suitable match and left,” she said. “Good riddance to him.”
“As you say,” agreed Maddon. “The treaty was signed beforehand, I suppose.”
Despite his sister’s predicament, he couldn’t help but feel guiltily relieved at how things had turned out, for purely selfish reasons. If it weren’t for Ariana’s punishment, he wouldn’t feel bad about it at all, but he might be able to help her out in that respect.
“Apparently father’s going to offer Seraphina as an alternative match,” continued Ariana. “He wants more than just a signature.”
“Seraphina?” queried Maddon, turning to look at her in surprise. “Interesting.”
“What’s so interesting about that?” asked Ariana.
“Nothing,” he said hastily. It was easy to forget that the secrets he knew were actually secrets when he was comfortable and off-his-guard. If the Darrowmeres accepted that marriage deal that could be a little awkward given the situation with Quinlan. It was unfortunate for women that their bodies could be permanent evidence of a pre-marital transgression. Or perhaps it was just unfortunate that such a transgression was so much worse for a woman than a man. Regardless, the castle’s teenage couple would not be happy.
“So do you have any special plans for your birthday?” asked his sister.
“Nothing in particular. I imagine there’ll be some kind of feast or dance though.”
All of a sudden he felt a tremor through the floor, and reflexively grabbed hold of a chair. It was followed almost instantly by a deep rumbling sound from outside.
“What the fuck?”
He ran to the window. The orange glow of fire was visible beyond the inner walls, not far from the docks. That could only mean one thing. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he went cold.
“The hellfire store,” murmured Maddon. “Someone’s blown it up.”
Leaving Ariana, he dashed out of the room, almost tripping on one of the castle cats and sending it scampering away. He ran down the hallway, his footsteps echoing behind him, and took the stairs four at a time, past torches and tapestries, and curious people emerging from their rooms. Before long he was in the throne room, where his father was barking orders to the men around him.
“What’s happening?” asked Maddon. “It’s the hellfire, isn’t it? It’s been blown up. Was it miners?”
“We know nothing for certain,” said the King. “I’m sending men to investigate now.”
“I’d like to go,” said the prince. “You know how good my memory is, I can give you a full report.”
King Berin assessed him carefully, pausing a moment.
“Fine,” he said. “Arm yourself and be alert. Do not stray from the guards.”
“What about Rowan shall I fetch him?” asked Maddon
“No,” said the King. “There is no need to risk two Farhorns, especially the heir. Besides, he isn’t down here and we don’t have time to waste.”
Maddon nodded and enlisted the nearest squire to help him. A few minutes later, he was on a horse, clad in light blue leather armour with a mail coat and helm. There hadn’t been the time for full plate. He joined a Bloodsworn escort of thirty men, which included several crossbowmen as well as halberdiers, and set off into the cold night air in the direction of the fire. There was a definite thrill in it for him. As flammable as the liquid was, hellfire didn’t just explode by itself, and it was hard to see how it might have happened by accident. The gates to the city would be guarded, as would the docks. Even if the river weren’t flowing the wrong way for it, there were gates where it entered the city and watchtowers at the sea. If it was indeed sabotage, the men responsible were still in the city.
It was night, and so the streets they rode down were quiet as the grave, and the clattering of horseshoes against the stone-paved streets seemed all the louder as a result. The moon offered little light and the orange glow ahead of them stood out sharply, even as it dimmed. Before long they had reached it, and things did not look good. What had once been a tall, rather narrow tower was now just flaming wood and rubble. But worse than that were the bodies, and the smell of burning flesh which accompanied them. Maddon saw three just on his approach, and there would no doubt be more.
“How many men were guarding this place?” he asked.
“Eight,” replied the man leading the guard. “One at each corner of the tower, two Bloodsworn inside, and two on the roof whose job it was to light a large torch if they came under attack.”
Maddon nodded, and dismounted from his horse, tying it to a nearby post.
“This area is clear, you may want to scout the streets nearby to look for the men who did this,” he said. “The rest of you can help here.”
Taking a closer look, it was evident that this was no accident. While attempting to switch off the part of his brain that noticed the damage the hellfire had done, melting both skin and armour, he could see that several of the tower guards had been struck by crossbow quarrels.
“There were most likely at least six men, and good shots too,” noted Maddon. “The two on top were not even given the opportunity to raise the alarm, suggesting that despite their armour, both were killed instantly. Going up against a fortified position like this where each man outside had their own guard box, they will have needed more than just the element of surprise. It will have been very difficult to do with fewer than six. I expect they will have concentrated fire on the two at the top to stop the alarm being raised, revealing themselves to the other guards.”
He borrowed a torch from one of the other guards, and stepped up onto some of the rubble to look around. There was another body a few yards away from the majority of the debris, a wooden beam resting on its back. Maddon signalled for another of the men to join him and lowered the torch. He was Bloodsworn. He was face down, crossbow bolts in his chest and shoulder. Little remained of his cloak but ashes, and he had lost his helm, leaving a clear view of his seared scalp. His left arm had suffered a severe wound, and there was a trail of blood originating from his front. Clearly he had been in close combat.
“This man was alive when the attackers left. Presumably they were in a hurry. They set a fire, and left this man for dead. He crawled some of the way out and...”
Maddon stopped. He bent down, pulling off his leather gloves to hold up to the man’s mouth. There it was, a faint tickle on the hairs of the back of his hand.
“He’s alive!” shouted Maddon. “Send for help!”
The men did as he said, and before long, they had the unresponsive man turned over and on a stretcher going back to the castle. Hopefully he would have a useful account of what had happened. Unfortunately, the clearing of the rest of the debris did not turn over any more live guards. However, they did note that there were eleven bodies in the building’s vicinity, even after they moved the live one. Their faces were beyond any recognition, but what they could tell is that they were fully armoured, with axes and shields for close combat.
“Seems unlikely that a miner’s salary would stretch to that,” said Maddon darkly. “But no recognisable insignia. Could be anyone. Mercenaries, even.”
“Surely they must have drawn attention entering the city or at the inn they were staying at,” said one of the Bloodsworn. “How could they have passed unnoticed? People don’t just turn up with armour and weapons.”
Maddon sighed, exasperated. He had no patience for soldiers. They rarely trained their minds to have any imagination.
“We just hosted a large tournament. We’ve had men turning up with armour and weapons from all over the Kingdom! They wouldn’t have drawn any special attention for it at their inn or in the city. Leaving the city now though, that’s where they have a problem. Although whoever planned this may not be too worried about that now it’s done.”
“There’s little else to do until tomorrow but bring back the bodies. Most likely they were nearby, and we can try the nearby inns for men who look like they’ve been in a fight, but if they have any kind of a brain they’ll have already sold or ditched the armour and just passing themselves off as travellers. Unless any are sporting obvious battle wounds, they’re lost, along with our hellfire supply,” the prince said, running his hands over the top of his head to rest at his neck, as he was prone to do when stressed. “Let’s go back to the castle.”
He mounted his horse, and rode off with the men, the fiery glow fading away behind him. The largest store of their signature weapon was gone, destroyed from within their own walls. Whoever their enemy was, they had won a major victory tonight.
“I have tried to heal the arm, and treated the other wounds as best I can, but he is yet to wake. I cannot say I feel confident about his chances,” said the physician. “The arm may have to be removed.”
“Regardless of your feelings, you will try your hardest to save him,” said King Berin. “Asher is one of our best fighters, even with one arm, and he has always served loyally.”
“Of course,” bowed the man, his physician’s brooch glinting on his chest. Maddon always thought that black robes were far too gloomy for a man whose occupation was to heal, but he supposed the stains would be less obvious. The physicians’ room stank of decay and the noxious compounds supposedly used for healing. There were all sorts of potions and herbs along the shelves of the room. Maddon even spied some powdered brimstone.
On the beds next to Asher were the bodies which had been brought in from the tower, including the attackers. The morning after the attack the body of a crossbowman had been found on the roof of one of the houses so his body was there too. They had checked with the guards on the gate and they had no memory or record of any men arriving with armour and weapons who didn’t belong to any house. It was customary to search all wagons entering the city, and the people too if they looked suspicious.
“They could have bought armour and weapons within the city,” said Maddon. “Or had them brought in on a ship.”
“Miners couldn’t afford that,” said Rowan.
“These men don’t look like miners to me,” said Maddon. “You’d expect miners to have more muscle in the shoulders and arms, and calluses on the hands. These men are strong but they don’t look like they’ve been doing hard labour for most of their working lives.”
“I agree,” said the King. “These men don’t look like miners. Somebody paid these men to do what they did. Nevertheless until we know more we can’t rule it out, and this changes nothing with regards to the strike. I will not be forced into a settlement. I’ll keep the city gates closed for the rest of today while we spread the word and ask our questions, then resume the normal routine with a few more guards on watch at the gates.”
“Is that our only response to this – to ask a few questions and then let it go?” asked Rowan sourly. “Should we not do something more?”
“There’s nothing we can do until we know more,” retorted the King. “Trust me, this angers me a great deal, but what would you have me do? Anyone with money could have bought men to do this, given the right contacts, but there is no way of knowing who unless we find the men and get them to talk.”
“And if we don’t?” asked Rowan.
The King sighed.
“Then we end this unrest one way or another and rebuild our hellfire stores. The kingdoms are at peace, and our trade with the East is too profitable for them to want war. We have no pressing need for the weapon,” he said. “It’s a costly loss, yes, but we still have the hellfire already with the siphons and that which had been recently produced and yet to be moved to the tower. It shall suffice for now.”
“And the funerals?”
“Tomorrow,” said Berin. “Naturally, you are both expected to be present. Now l do not feel there is anything more to be gained from lingering here. Good day to you.”
He left with his guard, leaving the two brothers alone in the room, the master physician having moved to his quarters in the adjacent room.
“Mother says I am to apologise for my behaviour in the tournament,” said Maddon, not making eye contact.
Maddon looked over to his brother.
“It was wrong of me to attack when you were distracted,” said the younger prince, his face growing hot. “I was angry and not thinking clearly, and I’m sorry.”
“Good,” said Rowan.
“You know it wouldn’t hurt to practise with each other,” said Maddon. “I know you consider yourself the better swordsman, and perhaps you are, but I didn’t win out there just based on an early swing. I bet we’d have a fair bit to learn from each other. I could give you some of my winnings too, to make up for it.”
“I don’t want your pity winnings,” scorned Rowan. “And I don’t need to train with you to learn how to stab people in the back.”
He turned and left, leaving Maddon with corpses and a comatose Asher for company. He had made an effort to reconcile with Rowan. He hadn’t needed to offer his own money, and training with his brother would likely end up in Maddon coming off worse, but he had asked nonetheless. He sighed, and left the room, finding Falk stood out in the hallway, leaning against the wall.
“My prince,” he nodded respectfully.
“Captain,” Maddon saluted in passing.
“The King’s put me in charge of training and leading the club cohort and the city garrison,” called Falk, making him stop. “I don’t know how much influence you had but I thought I’d thank you anyway.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” nodded the prince.
“You know, I think I saw that friend you mentioned the other day,” said Falk, eyeing Maddon’s reaction.
“Tall, bald, hooded, you remember. He came to the castle recently requesting an audience with Favian Slynn regarding information he had about the miners. The two of them spoke in private.”
“Where is the man now?” asked Maddon urgently.
“Not a clue. What’s his importance?”
The young man was too preoccupied to answer, as questions and potential decisions clashed against each other in his head, vying for dominance. What did this mean? What should he do about it? Was it even the same man the assassin had described?
“I need to go,” said Maddon, turning and setting off down the hallway. This was not something to keep to himself. It was time to bring this to his father.
“What do you mean this is the last visit?” asked Dain, crestfallen as the visitor handed over leather purse. “This isn’t even as much as last time.”
They were standing in the forest, well away from the camp, Dain with Parry, this man with a couple of his own guards. After his recent deal with Redskin, this was the last thing he needed.
“Well I apologise, but money does not flow so freely for my friend at the moment,” said the man, in a quite unapologetic tone. “Good day, and good luck.”
The man left with his men, and Dain closed his eyes to think. Things were going to get difficult now. He turned to Parry, who had come with him for this.
“This will be the final straw, you know,” said Dain. “We need to deal with Redskin soon,”
“Dain, I think you should reconsider.”
Dain turned to face Parry, speaking in a low voice.
“You know what,” said his friend, checking that they were alone by the riverside, the rushing water preventing their words from carrying too far. “Redskin is on our side, he’s fighting for us, not against us. And haven’t you always been the one insisting on a peaceful way?”
“Redskin is crazed, he will get men killed, you’re just too blind to see it,” hissed Dain. “Anim would thank me for hastening his death.”
“He survived the Touch,” stated Parry simply. “Nobody does that. Is that not a sign that he is a man to follow?”
“The Touch?” repeated Dain. “That’s as clear a sign as any I can think of that a man should be stayed away from. How can you take being cursed as a sign of strength?”
Parry crossed his arms, looking at Dain challengingly.
“Perhaps you’re just threatened by him,” he said. “You know you haven’t been the same since the strike started. I’m starting to think you’re enjoying leadership a little too much. The power might be getting to your head.”
“Enjoying it?” Dain scoffed. “I’m not enjoying this whatsoever, but the group needs a leader so that it doesn’t descend into chaos. I’m doing it for the good of everyone else, not my own.”
“So let’s say that you do manage to kill him,” said Parry. “What happens then, in your mind? Do Redskin’s men get a new leader, or do you plan to lead them as well?”
“I only want to represent the interests of miners,” said Dain. “I didn’t ask the others to join us.”
Parry stepped away from him, shaking his head disgustedly.
“What about the bigger picture, Dain?” he said, his face reddening as he grew more vehement. “This is about more than just miners now. This strike has become bigger than us. It’s about pride, and standing up to the King!”
“You didn’t even want to let his group join us originally!” exclaimed Dain, struggling to believe what he was hearing. “How can you be backing him now?”
“What he’s saying makes sense,” he said. “He’s shown himself willing to commit to our cause. He took a beating from King’s men, he brought us the last mine...and he isn’t considering the murder of an ally.”
Dain sighed, the fight going out of him. He could see that no matter what he said, he wouldn’t be able to bring Parry round to his way of thinking, and if he persisted, there was a danger that his friend would cross to Redskin’s side just to save the wretch’s life.
“Alright,” said Dain. “If you truly think that way then I won’t go ahead with it. You’re my friend, and I value your opinion. I don’t want us to fight.”
“I’m glad,” said Parry, clapping Dain on the shoulder. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“I suppose you’re right, killing isn’t the answer,” he said, smiling and clapping Parry on the shoulder in return. “I’ll see you later, I have some things to sort out with the food distribution.”
His smile faded as his friend left. Whatever Parry might say, Dain could sense the way the wind was blowing. Things had gone too far, and unfortunately, words were not enough to change things any more. Action was needed. Perhaps it would cost him his life, and although he didn’t want to think too highly of himself he knew there was a chance that the strike would disintegrate without him if that happened. However an end to the strike was better than standing by while people began to die, and he was prepared to sacrifice himself for that. Attached to a sheath at his belt was the knife which he had been stabbed with by a man attempting to kill him. It seemed almost fitting that he planned to use that same knife for a similar purpose. He would act alone – he couldn’t ask anyone else to risk their lives for him in this case, and his plan didn’t require more than one man anyway.
Dain spent the afternoon with the men, eating, drinking and doing his best to enjoy himself. There had been no word from the capital for a while now, and there was little more he could be doing. When the light faded and evening came, he decided it was time, and made his excuses. He then limped his way through the tents, over to Redskin’s camp. The grass was soft under his shoes, and he had never appreciated the feel of the wind on his hair or the beauty of the stars any more than he did at that moment. He suddenly wished Gelen were there with him. She would obviously try to dissuade him from this, and he hated the thought that he might be leaving her to fend for herself, but she was strong, she would get by without him if indeed he did not make it out. He just had to hope that Redskin’s men did not share his temperament when it came to justice. The miners would stand by him, he hoped, when it came to it.
Dain brought his mind back to focus on the present, putting his weight on his staff with every other step. His wound had partially healed, but still pained him at the end of the day. He received some curious, and some slightly hostile looks from those in Redskin’s camp who recognised him, but he was left alone. Eventually, he came to Redskin’s tent, obvious from its size, being the largest of any man’s in both camps, and from the two armed peasants guarding it.
“I would like to speak to Redskin,” said Dain.
The men at the gate said nothing, but gestured for him to go in without disarming him of his knife. He would have still tried if they had, it would just have required a little more improvisation.
“So how may I help you then, Dain Hardwood?” asked Redskin, standing beside the fire in his tent, looking at him expectantly. Dain noticed that the man also had a knife at his belt, although his scythe was on the floor a couple of yards away. The miner hesitated. Everything in Redskin’s tent felt far more normal and real than he had pictured in the haze of his imagination. So much hinged on this moment of his life, but other than his nerves it hardly felt different to any other.
“I wanted to talk about the terms we sent to the King with the spies, and whether they can be negotiated down,” said Dain, steeling himself for what needed to be done. He flicked the base of his staff forwards with each step as he approached.
“Our demands weren’t unreasonable,” he said, eyes fixed on Dain’s. “It should not be a problem for the King to force the local lords into line. If anything we should ask for more now we have more men.”
The heat of the fire was making him sweat, and Dain’s clothes suddenly felt itchy and uncomfortable. His right hand was not far from the knife. Redskin was still watching him, waiting for what he had to say. Dain opened his mouth, trying to remember what he was going to say, and saw a flash of suspicion on Redskin’s face. Dain’s hand twitched towards the knife, and he saw the other man’s eyes dart downwards to it.
Dain drew the knife, lunging for the taller man’s throat as Redskin moved in a flash, grabbing the miner’s wrist, and before he could move, stabbed through Dain’s other hand with his own knife, pinning it to the staff. Dain cried out in pain and shock but kept hold of his knife as it inched closer to Redskin’s face. The other man grabbed Dain’s throat in a vice-like grip with his other hand, choking any words which might have come out. The man moved his disgusting face closer to Dain’s while holding the knife at bay.
“What hurts more, I wonder?” said the man, flecks of spit hitting Dain in the face. “The pain? Or your failure?”
A blow struck him in the head from behind and he dropped his knife, remaining standing with the help of his staff, which he dared not let go of as much as the muscles in his hand protested at the agony. Redskin released his throat and pulled the knife free, causing blood to spurt from his hand as the man kicked his staff away, causing Dain to collapse to the ground.
“Gottren, send some men to get cloth for his hand and then tie him up. I think we need to show the people something.”
Dain’s hands were tied behind him, a rope leading from them to Redskin’s largest henchman as Dain was paraded into the heart of the miner’s camp by a selection of Redskin’s loyal men, all armed.
“Gather round, gather round men,” cried the leader of them in person. “Come and see your great and honourable leader. See what he has become.”
Fire crackled in the hands of the torch-bearing peasants as miners came from their tents to see the source of the commotion. Dain hung his head. It felt as if a whole host of tiny daggers were embedded inside his hand, not to mention the friction of the ropes, and he was feeling faint from the blood loss and shock. But it wasn’t as bad as the shame he felt at letting the men down. Some of them probably looked up to him, expecting him to be the best of them, and he had failed.
“Let him go!” demanded Harry, a man from Dain’s own mine. “We’ll have your head!”
His shouts were echoed by many of the other miners around him, crying for him to be released. They were still loyal to him. They didn’t yet know why he was in this position.
“Not quite yet,” said Redskin, his voice cutting through the furore. “This man should answer for his crimes first, should he not? He came into my tent claiming a desire to negotiate the terms we gave the King, and then drew a knife on me,” Redskin paused to throw down the offending blade, point first, into the dirt. “He attacked me, and I defended myself, unfortunately wounding him in the process. Thankfully my ever-faithful men came to my aid, and I was not forced to kill him.”
Silence rang loud in the darkness at these words. Dain could feel eyes on him, taking in the information and judging him.
“He lies!” croaked Dain, seeing no other option. He would say whatever it took to stop Redskin winning over the men, and if possible, preserve his life. “I did no such thing. On my life, I swear I did not.”
“Well you’re happy to swear by your life,” said Redskin. “But how about your wife’s? Or what about that son of yours I’ve heard about. Will you swear on his grave?”
Dain glared up at him, about to respond, before he was interrupted.
“Redskin isn’t lying,” spat Parry, coming close enough for his face to be visible in the flickering light. “You came to me the other day claiming that he was out of control and that we needed to kill him. I thought that you’d listened to me, and changed your mind, but apparently not. Don’t even think about claiming that you didn’t do this.”
Dain’s heart sank. Now he had truly lost his friend. This must be it. He was going to die surrounded by men who hated him.
“Alright I admit it,” said Dain, raising his voice. “I tried to kill Redskin and save us from the violence he’s trying to bring. I was willing to die for that belief and I do not think I was wrong. He can kill me if he likes. At least I will have died for the right reasons.”
“No, I wouldn’t kill you,” said Redskin. “I only want peace between our men. I am not your leader, and I will not be the one to kill you. I do not blame you for your blindness. You simply cannot see the right path.”
Dain blinked. That was unexpected.
“As for the violence you claim I preach, all I can say is that sometimes, to meet our goals, drastic measures are necessary,” said Redskin. “You can hardly disagree. Though your motives may be misguided you have only served to prove my point. You believed that the ends justify the means, and were willing to die for it. I believe the same!”
Redskin paused, letting the words sink in, before speaking again with renewed vigour.
“Men! Our enemies are not within our own camps. Our enemies are out there,” he gestured out into the darkness. “Our enemies are the men who hoard their money at our expense and take away the riches which are rightfully ours. Anim knew that my purpose was to claim them back for us, and that is why he saved me! There is a manor nearby, I know it well. We have already observed that the King is willing to let us stew here. We have not done enough by simply banding together. Let us take action! Let us force him to take notice by marching there, and taking what is ours!”
Redskin’s men cheered, although Dain’s miners remained thankfully quiet.
“We march in an hour. Those of you who wish to join me, ready yourselves and follow me. Take your leader back too, although you might wish to find one with a better temperament. Those who do not wish to come now, think on whether this is the man you wish to follow. When I return, there will be choices for you to make.”
Redskin signalled for Gottren to let go of the rope holding Dain, but didn’t untie him, then began walking away with his men.
“Rest yourself well, Dain Hardwood, I may not be so forgiving if you try that again on my return.”
He sank to his knees, and Merek ran over to unbind his hands.
“Fuck, Dain, are you alright?” he asked. “You look bloody awful.”
“I’ll live,” said Dain, looking past him, and up to Parry. “I’m sorry I lied to you, but I was doing the right thing.”
Parry shook his head, his upper lip curling.
“Goodbye Dain,” he said, walking away in the direction of Redskin’s men. “Try not to get yourself injured any worse.”
Dain opened his mouth to call after him, thinking of all the curses and insults he could throw, but realised it was pointless. Parry had made his decision.
“I asked Falk to watch out for a tall, bald man in a hooded cloak, and according to him, a man of that description was meeting with Favian Slynn,” said Maddon. “I know you’ll be angry at me for not telling you about the man the assassin described the moment it happened, but based on what the man said it sounded as if there were someone in the castle working against you, and I thought that if I told you, word would get round and whoever it was would be on alert again.”
“Maddon, that is not your call to make,” said his mother, looking down at him. “Your father is the King, and no matter what you might think, you are not always the cleverest in the room. We are far better able than you to root out suspected traitors in our midst, and your actions have only slowed the discovery of the perpetrator.”
Maddon glanced up at his father, expecting the worst.
“He met with Favian? You are sure?” his father asked, stroking his chin, deep in thought. He sat above Maddon on the throne, facing the rest of the wide empty throne room.
“That’s what Falk said, and he was pretty convinced,” said Maddon.
“I will hear his side of it,” he said, calling a guard over. “Bring me Falk and Mr Slynn.”
“You mean you’re going to question him before you arrest him?” asked Maddon disbelievingly.
“Even a King needs to treat his council members with respect,” replied Berin. “It’s as important to keep the Lords happy as the people.”
“I agree,” said Maddon. “And if Favian were a lord...”
“I think you’ve caused enough trouble as it is. One more word from you and you’ll find out what a real punishment is.”
Maddon remained silent as they waited in the throne room for Falk and Slynn to arrive. Falk came first, and after throwing a curious look at Maddon, repeated what he had told the prince at the King’s request. The King thanked him, but did not react noticeably. Then Slynn arrived. As usual, he was finely dressed, with barely a hair out of place, and as calm as ever.
“How may I be of assistance, your highness?” asked the man innocently.
“You recently met with a man wishing to talk about the miners,” said the King, getting right to the point. “This same man is believed to be responsible for orchestrating an illegal assassination attempt which we have reason to believe was ordered by a man in this very castle. Can you explain yourself?”
Favian’s expression was abashed.
“I’m afraid that on this front I am guilty,” he said, shocking them all. “I know the man you speak of, he goes by the name Drenn, and I did meet with him to order the assassination. I know it was unsuccessful, but it was wrong of me to go against yours and the council’s will. I put myself at your mercy.”
“The council has nothing to do with this!” exclaimed the King angrily. “You just confessed to treason!”
“Treason?” queried Favian confused. “I was speaking of the knife I sent after Dain Hardwood.”
Maddon’s mind worked furiously to process the information. He hadn’t been expecting this. The spymaster’s men had reported overhearing about an attempt on the miner’s life, but the leader of the strike had made no accusations against the castle.
“So you do not confess to the attempts on my life,” clarified the King.
“Your life, your highness? I’m very sorry but I can be of no help to you there. You know me, I would never dream of plotting against you like that,” he insisted. “I only ordered the attempt on Hardwood’s life because having spoken to him in person and seen him with the miners, I know what a unique man he is. I sincerely believed that by having him killed I could end this strike for you before things got out of hand, as my informants tell me they are beginning to.”
“And for that you betrayed my trust,” the King said, his expression dubious. “I find it hard to believe that you would be so in need of money that you would send a knife rather than wait.”
Slynn hesitated, seeming unsure of his reply.
“There is another reason as well,” admitted the man. “Upon returning to my chamber one evening I found that a knife had been left on my pillow. The message attached to it was ordering me to bring an end to the strike. The knife had the mark of the Judges.”
This was getting stranger by the minute. The Judges had not been mentioned outside of stories in a very long time. Few actually believed they existed.
“Tell me why you did not report these threats at the time,” demanded the King, his face deathly serious.
“I know that the castle believes the Judges to be a myth, and that you would treat it as if it were any normal threat, but I am a more careful man. I decided that the easiest way to deal with it was to kill the strike. And I judged that the best way to do that without giving way to the men and causing recurring problems was to kill the man at its head.”
Berin nodded, considering his information.
“So you say you are unaware that the man you met with is believed have hired the men who led the attempt on my life?”
“Well of course, if I had known I would have told you immediately,” said Slynn. “This man is known by some to have a poor reputation, but I never believed he would stretch to treason.”
“So why were you meeting him after the attempt on the miner’s life had been made?” asked the Queen.
Favian’s hands were palm-up in a gesture of peace. He spoke in a measured and honest manner, each word begged to be believed. If he was lying, which Maddon certainly hadn’t ruled out, then it was a good performance.
“The men he hires are not generally killers,” replied Favian. “His primary business is information. I have used him before to help solve the crown’s problems your highness, and it is through him that I put my own spies into the rebels’ camps. After hearing about the trouble from Redskin’s new men I decided I needed men in his camp as well as that of the miners, and spoke to him about making it so. Of course now that I know, I can arrange another meeting so that your highness can arrest him and question him to get to the truth of the matter.”
“I would appreciate that,” said the King. “In the meantime, however, I will have to remove you from the council. I appreciate you being open about it, but whatever your reasons, you acted against my ruling and that must be punished. Serve me well outside of the council and I may be able to reinstate you.”
“I understand,” nodded Favian solemnly. “Is that all?”
The King nodded.
“That is all. When you have drafted a letter arranging to meet this man, bring it to me so that I may look over it.”
“It shall be done,” bowed Favian, making his exit and leaving them listening to the sound of his footsteps fading away before they began to talk.
“A compelling story,” said Maddon, who was curious as to his father’s take on the events. “Do you believe him?”
“I see no reason to doubt it,” said the King. “Favian has always served the crown well before now. You say that you believe there is a spy in the castle but there are innumerable staff here who could have given warning about the hunting trip. I do not see what gain Slynn gets from my death. Under my rule he has been given an important role in managing the kingdom, with a seat on the council. On top of that he has bought and expanded many of the brimstone mines, making plenty of money. Given how far he has come without a respectable family name, he has no reason to be dissatisfied.”
“You do not think it more realistic to have just given in to the miner’s demands when he received the threat, rather than buy an assassin?”
“Well, whether the knife was a deliberate impersonation of The Judges or not, Favian is a proud man. He is not the kind to give in easily when confronted. He sees giving in as public defeat, and I do believe that he would rather risk death than be forced into that.”
“So what next?” sighed Maddon. “Is that Favian’s only punishment?”
“We still need him to bring us this letter. After that, I will order a search of the rooms of every man and woman in this castle, and consider a harsher punishment,” said the King. “Falk, I trust you can organise that? I will need every room and everyone working here searched without them getting a chance to hide anything. That includes all the royal rooms as well.”
“Would that not be a job for the Captain of the Guard?” asked the man.
“He is old, and soon retiring. I trust you for this,” said the King. “Besides, you were Bloodsworn, you’ve served the castle your entire life. Your honour cannot be questioned.”
“Thank you, your highness, I shall speak to the men and have it done,” said Falk.
As he left the throne room, the King’s brother stormed in, red-faced in visible distress.
“I want you to find that bastard and kill him!” yelled John, gesturing wildly. “I’ll do it myself when I get my hands on him!”
“Calm yourself, brother,” said the King. “What has happened?”
John stopped, breathing deeply, a pained expression on his face. He glared at the Queen.
“Your brother’s bastard has run away with my daughter!” he said. “Nobody saw them leave and no one knows where they are. She could be dead for all we know.”
Maddon kept his face still, trying not to let on his involvement in this. Clearly Quinlan had used the tunnel which the prince had revealed to him. He should have seen this coming when Quinlan asked about following up on their agreement at the tournament. The bastard had claimed that he only wanted to sneak Rowan out for his birthday in a few weeks’ time. That must have been a ruse.
“Watch your manners with my wife,” warned Berin. “I will send men out to search for them, do not worry. We shall find them, and Quinlan will be punished. If we find her before word of the transgression spreads perhaps the Darrowmeres will still agree to the match.”
John apologised, and his anger began to be replaced by worry.
“I’ll happily forget the match if it means Seraphina comes back,” he said, running a hand through his hair and pacing in front of the thrones. “She was in such a state when I told her of it, but I never saw this coming.”
“John, she is clearly of noble birth. Anyone finding her will surely prioritise the ransom we will offer over anything else,” said the King. “Now relax, we shall handle this. Maddon, do you know anything of this?”
The teenager shook his head.
“I barely speak to Quinlan. Ask Rowan, he may know.”
The King held his gaze, and Maddon didn’t look away.
“Alright, you may go, but tell your brother I wish to speak with him.”
Maddon nodded, and made his exit.
Maddon was woken by a knock on his chamber door the next morning, and groaned. His sheets were too soft. He had no desire whatsoever to get up. Giving it a moment longer, he forced himself up, treading barefoot on the rough stone floor, and opened the door to two Bloodsworn.
“Really?” asked Maddon exasperatedly, realising what it was. “You know I was the one who gave information which led to this search. I would appreciate another hour of sleep before you go through this farce.”
The guards shifted awkwardly.
“We are under instructions from the King to-”
“Yes, I know, just get it over with,” sighed Maddon, still in his bedclothes. He wasn’t entirely sure what they expected to find in there, especially since he had known the search was coming, but he didn’t obstruct them. He had warned Ariana so that she could ensure her new daggers were not questioned by the King, who was unlikely to be supportive of them.
Unsurprisingly, they found nothing, leaving Maddon to put everything back how it had been when they were done. Once dressed, he headed downstairs to eat, bumping into Rowan on the way.
“Good morning,” said Maddon. “How are you?”
“Fine,” grunted Rowan, apparently not keen on a conversation.
“Bit of a shock about Quinlan then, isn’t it?”
Rowan looked at Maddon, seeming to be struck by a new thought.
“Did you know?” he asked.
“That he was going to run away? I had no idea,” said Maddon.
“No, about the fact he was screwing our cousin,” replied Rowan, not dissuaded.
“I had no idea,” said Maddon, in an attempt at an innocent expression. “We never really talked that much.”
“Well you told him about the tunnel,” said his twin brother. “Who knows what else you might have used for help in that stupid tournament?”
Perhaps Maddon didn’t give Rowan enough credit when it came to intellect. He did have these moments of insight.
“Look, you knew him better than me,” said Maddon, dropping his voice. “But be careful when you talk about the tunnel, anyone could hear.”
“Does it make you feel important to have all these secrets?” asked Rowan. “Do you enjoy knowing these things and thinking about how nobody else does? The normal response to finding out something like this would be to tell our father, the King, and have it sealed so that none of the apparently abundant number of people desperate to kill him have a way in. I’m tempted to tell him myself.”
Maddon sighed as they reached the ground floor, meaning his voice had to remain low so as not to be overheard by the guards.
“I am just of the opinion that something like that could turn out to be useful in the future,” said Maddon. “I stumbled across the knowledge in an old book and ripped out the pages referring to it so that nobody else can do the same. Besides, the castle is full of guards. It would be near impossible for an assassin to sneak in.”
“Perhaps,” said Rowan, pushing open the door to the throne room, “but-”
He halted mid-speech, as they took in the scene ahead of them. Prince John was on his knees in front of the King and Queen, begging.
“Brother, I have always stood loyally by your side. You know that I would never do this! It is some trick! I’ll wager that the slimy letch Slynn is behind it. He wants a bigger voice in the council, we have never seen eye-to-eye.”
“Favian is no longer on the council, and do you think I cannot recognise your hand? I have been reading it for years,” boomed the King, standing and throwing a scroll of parchment to the ground. “These words are clear as can be. You have done your part and will not pay the rest of the money until Drenn has fulfilled his side of the bargain? You will not accept another failure?”
“I have never heard that name before,” insisted John. “Who is this Drenn?”
“He is a known procurer of assassins!” shouted the King. “As you must well know by now. I have heard enough. Guards, throw him in the dungeons. Perhaps that will bring out some honesty in you.”
“Brother, you can’t do this, I am family...”
“Enough!” the King was breathing hard just from the exertion of yelling. “Be thankful I do not take your head this instant.”
Maddon stood away from the doors, watching wide-eyed as John was marched away. He locked eyes with the prince as he left. They were wide, and pleading. Maddon walked over to where his father stood, looking out at a window with a stony expression. He picked up the letter. It was as his father had said. It never mentioned assassins or the King, but given what they knew it clearly implicated Prince John in a bad way. Maddon agreed with the King on his other point as well. As far as he could see, the handwriting was a match.
Yet he still struggled to believe it. He knew that there were some people capable of putting on an act as true as if it were real, and that there was clear incentive for John to do what he was accused of, but what he had just seen from John did not leave him feeling convinced that they had caught the man behind it all. Perhaps he was just pleading desperately for his life like any man would, but at the moment Maddon was unsatisfied.
“May I speak to John?” he asked, cutting through the deadly silence.
The King glanced back at him, uncaringly.
“Do what you like with him, I do not care,” said Berin.
Maddon thanked him, and left the room, no longer concerned with food. He would solve this if it killed him.
Maddon sat down on a small wooden stool, looking around at the dark, damp surroundings. On one corner of John’s cell a small puddle had formed, and each further drip of water from the ceiling splashed into it audibly. The only light was from a torch behind Maddon’s head, which made a loud crack every once in a while when it shot out a spark. His uncle was forlorn, a defeated man. Merely being behind bars seemed to have made him shrink in on himself and lose his authority. As somebody he was used to acting respectful towards, it was very disorientating to see him like this. He was still in a prince’s clothes, too, shivering from the cold.
“I know how this all looks, Maddon, but I didn’t do it,” said John, laughing bitterly. “I am not simply saying all this just to save my head. I’ve been set up.”
“Of course, that’s what someone who was trying to save their head would say,” said Maddon, trying not to sound accusative. “I want to believe you, but I need more than you claiming you didn’t do it. You rarely hear men walking to their executions proclaiming their own guilt.”
“I realise that, but why would I betray my family?” asked John. “Why would I risk everything to do such a thing?”
“Men do strange things when they see a chance for power,” Maddon shrugged. “With Berin gone, Rowan would be next in line, and you would be there to guide the young King. Perhaps you would convince him to make you Regent for a couple of years. Perhaps then Rowan and I would have to be the ones watching our backs.”
John’s face fell a little.
“You must see that I am no murderer. You’ve known me for a long time now. Berin is my brother. Surely you understand! Your brother will be King one day, would you betray him?”
Maddon’s face was impassive.
“I don’t think I would, but the sequence of royal succession does leave you wondering sometimes, doesn’t it?” he said, keeping a close eye on John’s face. “I think I can be honest with you here, as you might have thought the same, but I don’t think Rowan would be a good King. He worries too much about swordplay and doesn’t focus on his lessons about managing land and money. He doesn’t think – he acts rashly and sometimes behaves like a child. But because he was born a few minutes before me, he will be King.”
A low chuckle escaped John’s lips.
“You’re right, the system is flawed,” he said. “We hope for Anim’s hand to make things work, and we try our best to raise the first-born to live up to his role, but it’s like drawing lots. You don’t always get the best ruler. Truthfully? Yes, I have moments where I believe I would be a better king than Berin. But that doesn’t mean I envy my brother’s position.”
John shook his head, a twisted smile on his face.
“I have no desire to sit on the throne. Power brings no joy in and of itself. You are young, you didn’t know your father when he was younger, but he was adventurous, full of life and happiness. Even after our father died he retained that same spirit. But over the years the weight of ruling has caught up to him. He has had men killed, and ordered his own to their deaths. He has done his best to keep a kingdom under control, and a prosperous kingdom at that, but the people give him no love for it in return. Would you believe that once I was the serious one of the two? When have you last seen him smile? He has had two attempts on his life recently, and they are not the first. Trust me, the council gives me enough of an input into the ruling of the kingdom. I have no desire for any more power and no grudges against the King. All I want now is for my daughter to return and to be free to reunite with my family again.”
Maddon nodded slowly, and his stool scraped as he stood to leave. John stood up hurriedly.
“Where are you going? What are you going to do?” he asked anxiously.
“What can I do?” the prince replied. “I am not the King.”
“Do you believe me?”
“I think I do, for what it’s worth,” said Maddon. “But I am not the one you need to convince.”
Dain was jolted awake by the sound of commotion in the camp. His left hand throbbed with pain, and blood had seeped through the bandage. He didn’t know yet whether the damage would be permanent. In truth he should be thankful that he wasn’t dead. Part of him wondered whether Redskin had left him alive just so he could have the miner watch while he wrested control from him. If Dain had died then it might have been enough to turn the miners against him. As it was, it was Dain they were more likely to turn against now. He knew he wouldn’t be able to catch Redskin by surprise again, if the first time could even be classed as that.
Dain picked up his staff with his good hand, and left the tent. His side would probably have healed fully by now if he had given it the chance, but he had yet to rest properly since regaining consciousness after the attack. He blinked a couple of times, his eyes straining to adjust to the morning light. Many of the other men were doing the same. A few hundred yards away Redskin’s mass of men were returning, and at their head was the man in question, clearly having taken his share of the spoils.
“Honestly, what is the point of a horse?” asked Merek sceptically. “Is he planning to ride it into battle?”
“Well it might come in useful now our food supply is getting smaller,” said Dain, only half-joking.
As Redskin drew nearer with the wide blue river rushing past on his left, it became clear that Redskin had done more than just raid supplies. Behind him, some of his men held long ropes, with people tied at the end much like he himself had just been. Redskin cantered into the miner’s camp with a triumphant expression on his face, clad in light leather armour. He threw something down to Dain, and he caught it. It was a clay pot, filled with a sweet, viscous liquid.
“Good day, Dain,” greeted Redskin, with a predatory smile. “I did say I would help myself to some of that honey, did I not?”
“What is going on?” asked Dain, looking at the people tied up. “Who are these prisoners?”
The youngest of them could only be about sixteen, and though her companion was comforting her, the poor girl looked terrified.
“We have the Lord of the Manor, his wife, and a couple of surprisingly rich travellers we came across,” said Redskin. “They’ll definitely be worth something to the crown.”
“You think this will help us with the King?” asked Dain incredulously. “He’ll kill us for it.”
“Well it won’t hurt to have a couple of women around the camp,” he chuckled. “Anyhow, the King wouldn’t want to risk his own niece now, would he?”
“Excuse me?” asked Dain, his eyes darting back to the girl. She was pretty, and well-dressed, but had no business being in this part of the kingdom.
“It seems that the pair of fools fled the castle,” laughed Redskin. “The man had several hundred crowns on him. That buys a lot of supplies, and on top of what we got from the manor, this group of men looks to be becoming an army the King won’t want to mess with.”
It was almost true as well. Many of Redskin’s men had upgraded their weapons, with a surprising number of them armoured better than their leader, who seemed to have chosen mobility over greater protection, and had kept his long scythe, which still looked dangerously sharp.
“The point of this is to negotiate with the King so that he sides with us,” said Dain. “We’re not fighting him. And if you take any liberties with the women the King will not forgive it.”
“Even you cannot claim to know the King’s mind for certain,” said Redskin. “But while we’re here, I have a gift for your men. Hold on a moment.”
He signalled to his men, and two of them came forwards bearing a large crate, dumping it in front of the miners with a clash of metal. One of them opened it to reveal the weapons which had been held inside. These were vastly superior to any of the improvised weapons the miners had had before. This was real professionally forged steel.
“I wouldn’t want my men to be any better armed than yours,” he said. “There won’t be enough for everyone who wants one, but it’s a start. Miners! Take what you wish!”
Dain turned to the miners.
“Do none of you see what is happening? The King will not forgive the use of hostages. We need to release them now!”
There were a few shouts of agreement, but nothing substantial. Nobody new moved forwards to join him.
“Well my men are the ones guarding them,” said Redskin. “I am taking responsibility for them unless you can get your men to support you in this.”
“Let it go, Dain,” said Parry, emerging from among Redskin’s men with a sword resting on his shoulder. “We’re keeping the hostages.”
“Glad to see you doing well,” said Dain sarcastically, observing the cut on his friend’s cheek and wondering whether a man had died for it.
“Likewise,” said Parry.
“Alright then,” said Dain. “I will discuss the matter with my men and follow their wishes.”
He gestured for Merek to join him, speaking in a low voice.
“Listen, the King’s family being taken means this is now personal. That, and Redskin’s theft, gives him all the justification he needs to wipe us all out if he wants to. The best thing for us to do now is return the prisoners to him as a gesture of good faith. Otherwise we are dead. We need to act.”
Merek sighed, looking at him pityingly.
“I’ve been among the men. A lot of them are unhappy about your leadership. They say you’re speaking for yourself rather than for the miners. Doing this without consulting them will not win you friends.”
“There is no time,” Dain glared. “Now are you with me?”
“Of course,” said Merek. “But how-”
“Find out who will stand with us on this. I will endeavour to do the same. We do not need many. Then, as night falls, we will free the captives, whether most of the men agree with us or not. If we get away with it, it aids our cause and undermines Redskin.”
“And what of the men guarding them?”
“They have made their choices,” said Dain. “If they do not submit willingly, then we may have to use force.”
“Alright, I’ll gather some men.”
When the night came, Dain had twenty armed and trusted men with him, all willing to fight to release the prisoners. He had no idea how many men Redskin would have on guard, but he couldn’t see it being a huge number. Dain himself had chosen a one-handed warhammer to resort to if it came to a fight, with his staff in a gauntleted left hand, tied with cloth to support his weak grip on it. Redskin’s men had been marching to and from the manor for the entire previous night, and there was barely a sound coming from their camp. He nodded to Merek.
They moved as quietly as they could towards where the captives were being held near the river, crouching down fifty paces from the spot. When they reached it, they were met with a bit of a surprise.
“Two men guarding,” he said, looking around to check that he wasn’t missing anything. “Seems a little easy.”
“Well surely we still proceed?” asked Merek.
Dain thought for a moment.
“March up calmly, don’t attack them,” he said, getting to his feet. “With me, men.”
He began to walk confidently over to the men on guard, waiting for the men to notice him.
“Who goes there?” asked one of them, brandishing a spear at them, alerting the second guard to their presence.
“Put down your weapons and there will be no violence,” said Merek, taking the lead.
There were several tense moments of silence. The two men shifted. Dain’s grip on the warhammer tightened. Then they threw down their weapons. Dain went over to the younger pair of prisoners and bent down to untie them from the pole they were bound to.
“Why are you doing this?” asked the young man.
“Does it matter? Just be grateful that I am,” said Dain. “Do you know your way back home?”
The girl shook her head tearfully.
“We can’t go back home,” she said. “Quinlan will never be allowed to stay in the capital. That’s why we had to run away.”
“Do you have any money whatsoever?”
“I buried some at a place I know for safekeeping,” said Quinlan. “But the diseased one took everything I had on me.”
Dain nodded and looked around, trying to see whether their actions had been noticed. He signalled a man over.
“Tie Redskin’s two men to one of the posts, then take ten men and see if you can secure two horses without being noticed,” said Dain, before facing Quinlan. “Son, come over hear a moment.”
Dain took him aside and appraised him. He was a tall young man with relatively long brown hair, and in good physical condition.
“I appreciate your feelings, but you need to take this girl back to her father,” said Dain. “She’s too young to be out here with just you to rely on, and it’s too dangerous.”
“Look, she chose to come with me,” hissed the man, his face contorting angrily. “The castle’s rules are oppressive. She has no freedom. They were going to marry her off to a man she’s barely spoken two words to. How could I let that happen to the girl I love?”
Dain sighed. Young passion. Dain missed those days. The times when you could possess such strong feelings for a person that they would make you blind to the reality of the world. He felt sorry to be trying to ruin that with the tedium of old age.
“I’m guessing that by now there will be men searching for the pair of you. You can’t keep running together forever. You might be able to live that kind of life but she’s a young girl, and already you’ve ended up caught up in this. Accept the inevitable.”
The man crossed his arms defiantly, waiting for him to finish.
“Dain, we have the horses, no alarm raised.”
“Good,” said the miner, passing the reins to Quinlan. “Do the right thing.”
The young man said nothing, but gently helped his partner up onto the saddle before mounting the horse after her.
“Thank you for freeing us,” said the man. “If I do see the King, I’ll put in a good word.”
Dain saluted, and checked that the Lord of the Manor and his wife were equally ready.
“That Touched man killed my father in his bed!” said the man. “Tell me you do not follow him.”
Dain assured him that he very much did not, and after that, he signalled for them to go. The horses whinnied, and with a digging in of the heels were sent on their way.
“Well that’s that,” said Dain, satisfied. One less reason for the King to have them all killed.
A loud voice came out of the darkness behind them.
“Indeed it is,” called Redskin. “Now I would love to hear the explanation for this.”
A line of men emerged to join him, all of them armed at least as well as the miners, and outnumbering them. Perhaps that had been the reason for such lightly guarded prisoners. He wanted to catch Dain in the act in an attempt to shame him for sneaking around while most of the miners slept.
“It’s what my men wanted,” said Dain. “I am fulfilling their wishes.”
In truth, it had been unclear whether this move was generally supported or not, and he hadn’t wasted time to make certain. He knew that releasing them was the right decision, just as with the spies.
“So you claim,” said Redskin. “But I have my doubts. I wonder whether most of your men would even know of your plan.”
His men seemed to close in on them a little, backing them up against the river. Dain weighed up the odds in his mind. He reckoned his men would be in better condition for a fight, being well-rested and used to toiling under hard conditions. But numbers did matter.
“So what now?” asked Dain.
“I have a proposition,” said Redskin. “Let us ally. Let us accept that our true enemy lies in Rivergate. Take up arms against the crown, and we can fight the King together.”
“You’re delusional. The King has real soldiers in the castle, not just peasants. Even if rebellion would help the people, it would never work,” he said.
Redskin sighed, shaking his head. Above their heads, there was a rumbling among the clouds, and he felt the first drops of rainfall.
“I offer you friendship, and you keep rejecting it. Why are you so determined for us to be enemies?”
“You know what Redskin, let’s stop this pandering for support among the men and be honest here. Neither of us wants the other as a leader of any men. I have tried to deal with you, and though you didn’t kill me when you could have, I’m betting you would have loved a good excuse to. So I’ll give you one. Let’s settle this among ourselves, man-to-man.”
The man cocked his head to one side slightly.
“What are you suggesting?”
“Single combat, a fight to the death,” said Dain. “Here and now.”
Merek grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around.
“Dain think about this,” said Merek, “you’re injured, you’ll be slow. He’s a killer.”
“He’s been through an all night march and lain awake tonight to ambush us,” whispered Dain. “This is the best moment to do this. Wait much longer and there will be no other opportunity. In any case, this strike has made me into a killer as well.”
Dain turned back to Redskin, staring him down as the rain began to fall in earnest. He knew it might be foolish to risk his life again, but he could never live with himself afterwards if his inaction ended up getting people killed. At least he would enter the afterlife dying for the right reasons. Redskin glanced briefly at the men around him, and Dain knew what he must be thinking. He had convinced many of the people that Anim had singled him out for protection, and that he had cheated death. Dain didn’t believe it, but if the claim were to be convincing, the man couldn’t show any fear.
“You will have no alliance then?” asked Redskin. “You will not stand up for the people?”
“You do not represent the people,” yelled Dain, as water droplets ran down his face, soaking into his clothes. “I will not stand by you, and I will endeavour to make sure that none of my men do either.”
“Very well then,” said the man. “You can have your single combat. Wake your men. They will want to see this.”
Dain gave the orders to the men awake, and Redskin told his own to back away. Before long, they were surrounded by onlookers, with weak, sheltered fires at the edges of the ring they were to fight in. Redskin was wearing leather armour with the exception of a visorless steel helm, and using his long scythe two-handed. Dain had just his staff, a metal gauntlet, and the warhammer. He saw no point in using a sword when had never practised with one. A hammer was simple. You just hit hard with it.
He faced Redskin, adrenaline numbing the pain of his wounds. The rain had faded to a drizzle, and he could see him clearly in the light of the fires around them, lit up in an orange glow.
“Your plans of rebellion end tonight,” said Dain. If not by his own hand, then hopefully at the hand of miners enraged by the killing of their leader, if there were still enough left who supported him.
“You cannot fight a God’s will, Dain,” smiled Redskin.
Dain gripped his staff as best he could, ignoring the pain from his hand. He’d had it tied so that even if he relaxed his hand it stayed roughly in place, although it made the grip slide. He stepped up to Redskin, swinging the hammer towards the man’s head and having it parried away by the wood of the scythe, using his own staff to block the counterattack with the blade dangerously close to his head. Dain swung the hammer again hard, hitting him below the ribs. Redskin coughed, winded, and as Dain brought the weapon back to swing again, the bottom of the scythe swinging up and hitting him between the legs.
Dain doubled over, wincing as pain shot through his entire body, leaving him breathless. He grunted and punched forwards with the flattened top of the hammer, driving it into Redskin’s chest, knocking him back and giving Dain some space to recover. Redskin swung the scythe down and he hammered the blade away in a flurry of sparks. His feet squelched in the muddy ground as the two moved around each other, Redskin moving catlike in front of him.
Dain attacked again, swinging blow after blow with each being knocked away or dodged, leaving his lungs burning with exertion. He could feel his strength starting to flag. He moved his staff to block a low swing of the scythe and felt the wood crack as the blade broke through, biting into his calf. He started to fall, and Redskin punched upwards with the wood of the scythe, catching him under the chin and knocking his teeth together, felling him like a tree. He splashed down into the wet mud, defeated and barely conscious. He barely noticed as his weapon was kicked away and the scythe glinted above him. I’m sorry Gelen, he thought. He would be joining his son now.
I’m sorry I left without giving you any explanation. It must have been a shock for me to vanish without warning, and I wish I’d had a chance to explain myself. I’ll be in the city for today only. If you would like to talk then come to the place I showed you.
Those words were the ones on Rowan’s mind as he left the council meeting. To their general surprise, Seraphina had arrived back at the castle, and had tearfully pressed the note into his hand before sealing herself up in her chambers, not speaking to anyone. Rowan had barely listened while the men discussed what to do about the raiding of the Blackwood Manor. The King was under pressure from the Strattyne valley lords not to give into the miners’ demands in case it caused problems in the quarries, or the iron and gold mines. Instead, the King was going to order the men to disarm themselves and return what remained of the stolen money and weapons, or be considered rebels and criminals. He was demanding that Redskin, the man responsible for attacking the manor, be handed over to the King for a trial. Falk was busy training men in preparation for a negative response to that demand.
Rowan had decided that he would go to meet Quinlan, despite the bitterness he felt towards him. It wasn’t his leaving that bothered the prince the most. It was that he had kept the secret of him and Rowan’s cousin Seraphina without ever revealing it to him, when they were supposedly best friends. Rowan even suspected that Maddon might know. But then Quinlan had left without even a warning.
He waited until nobody was watching, and then snuck into the cellars, ready with the excuse of searching for spare food from the kitchens. The tunnel was so much worse to go down alone than it had been with Quinlan. He had noticed that last time and he tried not to think about what might be in the darkness, hidden out of sight. He clutched the handle of his sword tightly to reassure himself. When he did emerge from the trapdoor at the other end, he found Quinlan waiting for him.
“It’s good to see you,” said his cousin, shaking his hand firmly and clapping him on the shoulder.
“Likewise,” said Rowan, a little more reserved, glancing around the small room of the temple.
“So...” said Quinlan, rocking on his heels as they stood there awkwardly. He brandished his flask. “A drink?”
Rowan sighed. He wasn’t overly keen, but he wasn’t sure what else they were to do.
“Sure,” he agreed.
Not long later they were back in good spirits, leaning back against opposite sides of the room with conversation flowing freely.
“So, you and Seraphina?” asked Rowan. “How long was that going on for?”
“That depends on what you take as the start,” said Quinlan, smiling wryly. “You know, there was one time when you came knocking on the door and Seraphina hid in the cupboard with her clothes while you came in. After that I made sure to lock the door.”
“You’re joking, surely!” exclaimed Rowan, laughing open-mouthed. “I was in the room while the cousin that another cousin had been screwing was naked in the cupboard behind me?”
“No word of a lie,” Quinlan laughed, taking a swig from the flask and sighing contentedly.
“You could have told me, you know,” he said, a little bitterly. “I can keep a secret.”
“You probably could have,” said Quinlan. “But Seraphina swore me to secrecy, and didn’t tell anyone herself either.”
“What about Maddon, did he know?” asked Rowan.
“He knew,” nodded Quin. “Worked it out before the tournament.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed the prince, shaking his head. “That devious louse is always involved somehow. He lied to me about that as well.”
“Why are you angry with him again?” asked Quinlan. “Is it still the tournament?”
Rowan sighed, trying to find the words.
“It’s partly that, but it’s just him being him, all of the time. He tried to apologise for that, but it was so clearly insincere, and it was obvious that he just wanted us to train together so he could improve his swordplay.”
“Well maybe you should train with him,” said Quinlan. “I know you two have your weird twin issues, but if you’re going to be King you’ll have to get better at being civil with people when you have an issue with them. Anyhow, Falk’s got the garrison to train, and the other knights as well. And you don’t want to have to train with Seraphina’s younger brothers, they’re such uppity little twerps.”
“Perhaps,” said Rowan. “I’ll think about it.”
“Besides,” said Quinlan. “You could do with learning from that embarrassing pounding you took from him.”
“Hey,” complained the prince, punching him on the arm. “You didn’t do much better.”
“Well Fendred was a very good fighter,” nodded Quinlan. “We had a good fight, there’s no shame in losing.”
“Whatever you say,” teased Rowan, as they lapsed into a brief silence. “So what are you going to do now?”
His cousin shrugged.
“I’m in the city for tonight, and then that’s it,” said Quinlan. “It’s quite clear that I won’t be welcome in the castle, and so I’ll just take what money I have left and find something to do to pass the time.”
“Any idea what?”
“I’ve thought about trying to find my mother’s side of the family, although it wouldn’t be easy,” said Quinlan, turning morose. “But in truth I don’t know. Everything’s all gone up in flames.”
“Why did you two come back then?” asked Rowan.
His cousin sighed.
“With a bit of help from a smarter man than me, I saw sense,” he said. “It was hard advice to take, but it was the right thing to do. Seraphina wasn’t suited to life outside the castle.”
“Probably the right move,” said the prince.
Quinlan sighed, drinking further from the flask and finishing its contents.
“Never fall in love, Rowan,” he said, with a false smile. “Life’s far easier if you don’t, and you’re not left wanting to throw yourself off a rooftop. Not that there are many rooftops tall enough out here in the city.”
Rowan didn’t know what to say.
“Bloody stupid rules in the castle anyway,” continued Quinlan bitterly. “Why should a woman need her father’s permission for anything? Especially a father who’s currently locked up in the dungeons for treason!”
“I...don’t know,” said Rowan. “But when I’m King, you’ll be welcome back in the castle whenever you want.”
“I appreciate that,” said Quinlan drowsily, the alcohol and the late hour seeming to take their toll on him. “You’ll be a good king, Rowan.”
“Thank you,” said the prince. “Make sure you look after yourself out there in the real world. Don’t go getting yourself killed, or drowning your sorrows too much.”
“I won’t,” yawned his cousin, closing his eyes and exhaling quietly, settling down to sleep. Rowan tossed the trapdoor mat towards him and stood to leave.
“Goodbye, Quin,” he said.
He pulled up the trapdoor, and headed back into the castle.
Rowan wasn’t entirely sure what had motivated him to come out here into the city. It might have just been sheer boredom. With his best friend gone, and not being in the mood to talk to his brother, there weren’t a great many people he was comfortable spending time with. Perhaps he needed more friends. Regardless, as a result he had ended up here, back at the inn which Krea was staying at. He had promised to check up on her, it was only right that he followed through.
The inn door creaked as he opened it, and he nodded to the innkeeper on the way up the stairs. He knew what it must look like to the man, but ignored it. Rowan reached Krea’s room and knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” asked a soft, female voice.
“Rowan,” he answered.
A few moments later the door opened and Krea let him into her room, closing it behind her and placing her candle on the bedside table.
“Hello,” she said.
“Good evening,” he said. “How have you been?”
She looked healthy, and clean, too. She was also wearing a different dress to the one she’d worn out on the streets.
“I’m fine,” she answered, moving closer to him. “Thanks to you.”
“It’s no trouble,” said Rowan with a smile. “Nobody’s given you any trouble then?”
“Well I would only go into the city in the day. Most nights I stay in my room,” she said. “Sometimes I help in the kitchen, when I’m needed. They don’t pay much, but I don’t mind. It gives me something to do.”
“That’s good,” said Rowan. She seemed more confident too, almost a different person.
“I find out something today,” she said. “I was talking to someone in the kitchen, and they mentioned that the King’s son was called Rowan.”
“One of them is, yes,” nodded Rowan, feeling a little self-conscious. It was easy to forget that the poor in the Kingdoms paid so little attention to the royal family if it didn’t affect them. To most people he met he was famous.
“You said you lived in a castle, you never mentioned being a prince,” she said. “It makes even less sense for you to be helping me now.”
“Why? Does having money and a family name make me less likely to care?” he asked, laughing.
“In my experience it does,” said Krea, moving closer so that she was almost touching him. “I suppose you’re different. You could have had me last week, but you said no.”
“Well it wouldn’t have been very princely to take advantage,” he said, his heartbeat accelerating slightly at her proximity. “You had nearly been kidnapped that same night.”
“And now?” she murmured, leaning in. Before Rowan could take in what was happening, they were kissing, and his hand moved instinctively to the back of her neck as she pressed herself against him. He felt a rush of heat run through him.
“You’re sure you want this?” he checked, looking her in the eye. He didn’t want it to be something she regretted. Krea nodded. “Good enough for me.”
Their lips met again, and they moved towards the bed. Her body was warm to his touch, especially when the dress was cast aside, and although things were slow and awkward at first, he soon gained confidence.
“Well,” said Rowan afterwards, lying back in the bed, “that was something.”
Krea nodded, biting her thumb. A small, shy smile played across her lips, and she had wrapped half a bedsheet around her.
“I...hadn’t realised it could be like that,” she said. “I liked it.”
The prince smiled happily, reaching out to stroke her face.
“I’m glad,” he said, kissing her again. “I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but this was better.”
“I thought a prince would have done plenty with all the women in the castle,” said Krea.
“No,” said Rowan. “Most of the girls in the castle are either staff who are told not to bother us or shy groups of ladies who laugh and giggle in the background. Most of the noble ones have fathers who would want them to marry first, and the choice of who I marry is really my father’s at the moment.”
“Why does your father decide?” she asked. “Aren’t you a man now?”
“He’s the King. He’s not the kind of man you argue with. He wouldn’t like it if I took an interest in just anyone.”
“But I’m not noble,” said Krea, “and here we are.”
“Well my father isn’t here,” Rowan laughed. “Thankfully, he does not seem to be in any rush to find me a wife. He’s more concerned with my sister.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” she asked interestedly.
“A younger twin brother, and an eighteen-year old sister,” replied Rowan. “Did you...have family?”
“I had a younger brother, Halden,” she said. “He died with my parents.”
“I’m sorry,” said Rowan. “It must have been horrible.”
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “It’s hard to find people who care on the Southside. Just getting enough food is a struggle.”
“And to think I felt as if I had problems because my best friend left,” said Rowan, feeling guilty about how much he took for granted everything which Krea didn’t have. “At least you’re safe now.”
Krea looked down.
“For now. How do I know that you’ll visit again? I might never see you again after today, and what could I do?” she asked. “I am very grateful for what you’ve done, but how long can it last, truly? Once you tire of me, I’ll just end up on the streets again.”
“I won’t let that happen,” promised Rowan earnestly. “You’ll find an honest job before long, and I’ll make sure you’re looked after. I could even try to get you a job in the castle, if I speak to the steward.”
“Then you’ll truly get sick of me, seeing me all the time,” she said. “And wouldn’t the King mind?”
“Who says the King has to know?” asked Rowan, considering the idea. “The steward knows that I’ll be King one day, he’ll want to be on my good side.”
“It’s a nice idea,” she said, snuggling up to him. “My prince.”
Rowan laughed at her expression, and then remembered Quinlan’s cautioning words earlier. His advice might be harder to follow than he had originally thought.
“The time has come men! There will be no negotiations. Our captives are gone, and by now the King will know about the raiding of the manor. We have waited here long, and heard no indication that the Rivergate will give way. We are just criminals in their eyes, and they would see us starve and die. The King will be raising an army now, but if we act quickly we will catch them by surprise. We can steal a night’s march and be crossing the river before they even know we are coming. Some of you have had a taste of the riches available. Well let me assure you, the capital is something else entirely. We will sack the city for all it is worth, and every man can leave with enough money to live happy and free for the rest of his life,” cried Redskin animatedly. “I am not a violent man. I spared your leader’s life out of compassion despite his attempts to kill me. But he has not brought you any success. He has acted without regard for the rest of us, doing only what he deems best in his own eyes. He has shown himself to be violent and erratic, and will bring you nothing. He is no man to follow! Come with me, and some will fall, but what better cause to die for than to bring down a corrupt King who signs away our kingdom’s land to our neighbours? Join me, men, and we will dine on the finest wines and meats you have ever tasted at the end of it! Arm yourselves! We march on Rivergate!”
Dain’s eyes opened blearily to the sound of cheering. He could feel the vibrations through the ground from the stampede of feet around him. What was happening? He coughed, leaning his head to the side to spit out the salty blood which had been pooling in his mouth.
“Dain, are you alright?” asked Merek, kneeling by Dain’s side.
“Ah Merek, always there to save me,” chuckled Dain deliriously. “I can rely on you. Not like that shit Parry.”
“Don’t say that, you’ve hit your head hard, and your leg is bleeding badly,” said Merek. “You’re bloody lucky Redskin didn’t kill you. Again. One of these days you’re going to have to do something about this suicide wish.”
“Redskin!” exclaimed Dain, sitting up rapidly, and grabbing his friend for support when his head started swimming.
“He’s leaving,” said Merek, looking behind him. “Took a lot of the miners with him too. They’re attacking the capital.”
Dain looked around at the men gathered in the dark. How many were there left? One hundred. Two? It was too difficult to tell, and his vision was struggling to focus properly.
“The capital?” asked Dain. “What, do they think they can force the King to meet their demands at swordpoint?”
“I don’t think it’s about that anymore,” said Merek. “Redskin’s always seemed to have more violent tendencies. It looks like he just wants to sack it of its riches and move on.”
“And Parry?” he asked, in vain hope. Merek shook his head, and Dain swore. A large part of him wanted to break down and give up. They had lost so much, and he felt so powerless.
“We should warn the King,” he said, trying to think clearly despite the pain all over his body. “Make sure that he knows that we aren’t with Redskin.”
“Dain, I think it’s over. One way or the other, the strike has failed. Redskin has a point. For whatever reason the King hasn’t met our demands. Redskin’s actions aren’t going to make that any more likely.”
“And what of those who choose peace?” asked Dain, gesturing around him. “There must be something we can do. Some way of reaching the capital before Redskin does. If we warn the King of this then he may be kind enough to meet our original demands, or at the very least not put to death all of the miners I dragged into this strike.”
“There is a way,” said Merek. “I know someone not too far from here with a bird that will fly straight back to the capital.”
“Who is it?” asked Dain, surprised.
“Merek!” shouted Elgar, coming over, grabbing him, and speaking in a low voice to Merek that no one else but Dain could hear. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Don’t ruin this for us now. We’ve come this far, and there’s nothing more you can do to help them anyway.”
Merek hissed something that Dain couldn’t hear, but whatever it was, Elgar did not take the comment well, drawing back a fist and punching Merek in the face. Shouts went up from the other miners as they intervened on Merek’s behalf, dragging Elgar away.
“You’re a fool, Merek! They won’t understand, they’ll kill you for it.”
Elgar was thrown aside and knocked out with a brutal punch to the head. Dain ignored him and examined the wound on his leg. It was deep, and bleeding quite heavily, but it didn’t look like it had hit bone. The trousers were already ripped, so he tore off the bottom half of the left leg and tied it around the wound. He stretched to pick up his broken staff, and then forced himself unsteadily to his feet.
“Merek, explain this, now,” said Dain, standing by power of grim determination. He stumbled at a strong gust of wind, steadying himself with the wooden rod, and a couple of the other miners came to his aid. The other remaining men closed in around Merek, closing him in.
“I will,” promised Merek. “If you promise not to kill me once I tell you.”
“Why in all the Five Kingdoms would I do that?” asked Dain, examining the man in front of him suspiciously.
“Just promise,” said Merek, looking serious.
“The last couple of times I’ve tried to kill someone, it hasn’t ended well for me. I guarantee you that I won’t.”
Merek looked at him, a pained expression on his face.
“You have to understand, Dain, I stopped when I realised what a problem Redskin was becoming. Most of the time our aims were the same anyway!”
“I swear, Merek, if you don’t start explaining right now...”
“Elgar and I were being paid to make sure that the strike happened,” blurted Merek. “We were given that job before we were hired. I’m fairly sure it’s why we were hired. But I swear, nobody was supposed to get hurt.”
Dain shook his head, not understanding.
“What in Anim’s name are you on about?”
Merek’s head was in his hands, an anguished expression on his face.
“The mine collapse that killed Heymon,” he said. “It was never supposed to collapse with people in the tunnels, nobody was working down them at the time, but the supports had been deliberately weakened, and when Heymon fell into them...I tried to save him, but I just ended up stuck in the collapsed shaft myself. I was too late.”
Dain’s mind was reeling as if he had been struck in the face. Everything he had thought to be true was collapsing around him. Merek had caused the collapse. Accident or not, If it weren’t for him and Elgar, Dain’s eldest son would still be alive. He pointed an accusing finger, tears blurring his eyes.
“You killed Heymon?”
“Nobody was supposed to be in those tunnels!” insisted Merek desperately. “It was an accident, and I am so sorry. I have tried to make it up to you since then. I’ve been neglecting my orders for weeks now, the money doesn’t matter to me now.”
“Orders? What fucking orders?”
“At the beginning, it was harmless,” said Merek, his voice trembling. “I was to befriend whoever looked set to emerge as leader of the strike and gain their trust, helping them, and if nobody emerged, to try to start an uprising ourselves. I believe it was the same for all of the mines suffering the pay cut. I stayed with you, helped you, and did what I could to ensure that the strike kept going, just as you wanted. When our strike led to other groups like Redskin’s springing up, we were told to convince everyone to accept them, and I did so, believing that more men could only help the strike.”
“Well of course you believed it if you were being paid to!” shouted Dain. The miners around Merek shifted, disgruntled, with hostile expressions on their faces.
“But as soon as Redskin began to cause trouble, I realised that things might turn bad. The instructions changed. They wanted us to encourage the radicals like Redskin, to convince people that he was standing up for the same principles as we were. I saw that it was going down a bad road and wanted to cut ties. I tried to persuade Elgar to do the same, but...”
“The miner who tried to kill me?” asked Dain. “Was he one of your group of rats?”
“I don’t know,” said Merek. “Not from our mine obviously, we didn’t know everyone who was involved. That way there would be those to enforce silence among the rest if they wanted to break.”
“You joined our mine not long before the strike,” said one of the miners, pointing at one of the other men. “You a traitor, too?”
“All this time,” muttered Dain, ignoring the men around them as the man defended himself. “You fucking traitor. I would kill you here and now if I didn’t need you.”
Merek looked away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I needed the money. It seemed harmless at the time.”
“Who did you report to?” he asked, refusing to show Merek any sympathy.
“The same man who brought us the money,” said Merek. “They call him Drenn. But I don’t think he can be the full story. To have us hired before the strike began? That means they must have known about the pay cut. And the only person behind that was Favian Slynn.”
It was too much to take in all in one conversation. Liars, damned liars, and traitors in every corner. Dain groaned, covering his eyes.
“Slynn loses money from the strike though,” he said. “Why would he encourage a strike and a rebellion?”
“It must be about more than money,” said Merek. “I can’t say why, but who else could make him hire spies and then cut our pay?”
“The King doesn’t know about this then,” said Dain. “He would never deliberately cause a strike. It must be someone who wants to cause him trouble. This is big.”
“I know,” said Merek.
He wished he didn’t need the man right now, but as it was, only he could offer any kind of help to their problem.
“Then let’s go send that message, backstabber,” said Dain, wincing as he hobbled over. “Lead the way.”
“This is the place,” said Merek, gesturing to the door of the house. Merek had led him to a house in one of the nearby towns in the Blackwood region, a quite prosperous area. Dain had visited the market here before, way back before the strike when he had money to spare on a few little luxuries for their house’s Summer solstice celebrations. Some of the miners had joined them, while others had gone home, not all enthused by Dain’s plan. Merek had refused to explain the confrontation with Elgar until afterwards, to Dain’s great annoyance. The house they had arrived at was unremarkable. The door was green, and it stood next to several other quite similar houses, on a paved road not far from the market.
“Shall we knock then?” asked Dain.
“I doubt he would answer,” said Merek. “Besides, it’s night, few people are here to see us. Break the door down.”
Dain stood back, and one of the miners swung a woodcutting axe at the door. On the second swing, it broke away from the lock, and they entered warily. It was difficult to see, so one of the miners went into the next room to find a candle.
“Try the upstairs rooms,” said Merek.
“Wish my house had a bloody upstairs,” grumbled one of the miners.
Dain leaned against one of the walls, feeling faint and dizzy.
“Are you alright?” asked Merek.
“Yes, I’m bloody wonderful,” said Dain, breathing deep before gathering his energy to ascend the stairs. Grabbing on to the banister with his good hand, he managed to pull himself up, collapsing to his knees at the top of them, panting. Merek tried to helped him up, but Dain batted him away and got to his feet unaided. They entered a large bedroom, visible to them only by the light of the candle one of the miners had brought up.
“Here we are,” said Merek, picking up a bird cage with a cooing pigeon inside. “This is what we came for.”
“How do we know it will go to the castle?” asked Dain.
“We don’t for sure,” stated Merek simply. “But the bird’s job is to report information about the miners given by the spies, where would that knowledge be useful but in the castle? At any rate, what you should really be asking is who’s been feeding it.”
The miners looked at each other, and one of them pointed to the large wardrobe. One of the others nodded, pulling open the door, weapons bared.
“I’m unarmed!” cried the man, holding his hands up in fright.
“Who is he?” asked Dain, looking at him critically.
“No idea,” said Merek. “He’s not the man I usually deal with.”
“I’m watching the house for Drenn, and he will be very angry when he hears about this,” threatened the man. “Nobody crosses Drenn.”
“More importantly, can he write the letter for us?” asked Dain.
“I wouldn’t trust him with that, I will be doing that,” said Merek, to all of their surprise.
“You can write?”
Merek nodded, sitting down at the table, unrolling a piece of parchment, and taking out a quill.
“Now tell me, what do you want to tell the King?”
“How am I supposed to trust what you write more than this man?” asked Dain.
“This plan was my idea. You’ll just have to trust me.”
Dain gritted his teeth, and dictated his letter to Merek. He stressed the innocence of the many miners who had not joined Redskin, and told Merek to write down a shorter version of what he had told Dain, explaining the money they had received from Drenn for food, and all of Slynn’s apparent plans. Hopefully the King would take out his anger on him rather than blame the miners. Merek wrote small, as there was only so big a piece of parchment a bird could safely carry. When it was done, he rolled the scroll up as tightly as possible, and attached it as securely as could be done to the bird’s leg.
“It’s made out to the King, it should be given to him rather than Slynn,” said Merek, picking up the bird gingerly. “I don’t entirely know how the messages are distributed at the castle though. Open the window please.”
One of the men did so, and the bird flew out, heading roughly North-East, returning to the place it considered its home.
“It is done,” said Merek.
“Good,” said Dain, grabbing the back of his neck and slamming his face against the table. Once. Twice. Three times. He stepped back as Merek raised his arms defensively, Heymon’s broken body imprinted on his mind, and swung a meaty fist into the side of his head, sending him slumping across the desk. Silence followed.
“I only said I wouldn’t kill him,” said Dain, clutching his chest at the exertion. “Can someone lend a hand?”
One of the miners offered him an arm, and he leant on them for support, leaving behind Merek’s feebly stirring body with one shocked and fearful witness.
Ariana entered the throne room, glancing briefly at the intricately detailed tapestries on the walls to her left and right. History had never interested her much anyway, and most of the tapestries represented battles and wars which nobody in the castle had even been around for, the main exception being the story of The Settlement. Underneath the windows behind the throne, the Farhorn banner hung large, the silver sea eagle spreading its wings across its folds.
“Where’s father?” asked Ariana, seeing that only her mother was here, dealing with some of the requests of the staff. She was wearing a green dress with red fringes.
“He’s with Asher. The man’s woken up,” said Queen Helena, dismissing the woman she had been speaking to and standing up.
“That’s good,” said Ariana, remembering the man’s bravery in the fight at the Darrowmere’s feast. “I see you’re wearing Greentree colours.”
“Yes, I am,” smiled her mother. “It’s not the same as being there, but it’s nice to remember home.”
“Why don’t you ever go back?” asked Ariana.
“There’s always so much to do here, keeping the castle running,” the Queen sighed. “I have been back a couple of times, on official visits.”
“And you don’t ever wish you could stay there, rather than here?” she asked.
“I always knew that I would be leaving home some day,” replied her mother. “I was happy to do it. It may not be quite as clear now but your father was a very dashing man.”
Ariana smirked at the thought.
“I just find it hard to see myself wanting that,” she said. “Even for someone I like.”
“Is that what led to the altercation with the Darrowmere boy?” asked her mother seriously, pausing their walk in the middle of the room.
“He caused that himself,” muttered Ariana. “He turned out not to be as kind as he was pretending to be.”
“I see,” said her mother, sensing the bitterness in her tone. “Well then I can understand why things didn’t work out, not that you were right in whatever you did. But you do have to bear in mind that your decisions do affect things. Our relations with the Darrowmeres matter.”
“I know,” said Ariana. “I just wish I could be the one to choose.”
“And who would you choose?”
She hesitated, feeling put on the spot. Florian’s kiss played on her mind.
“Well, someone in this Kingdom would be a good start,” said the princess, with a short laugh. “I would just like someone who doesn’t want to marry me just for my family name. Someone who I like. Someone...like Florian.”
“I wondered whether he might have had something to do with things,” smiled the Queen knowingly. “I think he’s always had a soft spot for you, that one. Unfortunately, the younger brother of the heir to a relatively minor region is unlikely to be the kind of person your father would allow.”
“Well what do you think?” asked Ariana, noticing that she didn’t state her own opinion. She wasn’t overly keen on marriage as a whole, but a marriage to Florian was better than anyone else she could think of. Regardless of what was expected, he would never force her to do anything she didn’t want to.
“My position forces me to think about what’s best for the Kingdom, but at heart I want you to be happy, and it’s getting to the point where we have almost given up hope in trying to get you to do what you’re told.”
“You have a way with father though, you could talk to him,” she said, pleading with her eyes as well as her words. “He would listen to you. Anyway, after what Seraphina did, he should be thankful I’m still in the castle.”
Her mother sighed.
“I will talk to him,” she said. “But only if you go and speak to that poor girl. She’s not left her room since getting back. With her father locked up and her first love outlawed, she’s not taking things well.”
In truth, Seraphina’s actions had made Ariana see her completely differently. Her cousin had always seemed to be the perfect princess, even making fun of Ariana as a child with all her equally perfect friends for being a little different. Now though, they had something in common. She had punched a prince, while her cousin had run away with a bastard.
“How can you let father outlaw Quinlan though?” asked Ariana. “He’s part of the family.”
“You know your father wasn’t going to allow him to be raised in the castle at first,” said the Queen. “The mother was just some serving girl at our wedding who my brother took a liking to that night. Trystan had always wanted a son, but he died fighting the Darrowmeres before he even knew about him. I begged your father to keep the boy, and although he didn’t want to, he saw that it mattered to me and agreed to it. I’ll always love him for that. I know I’ve said this before but Quinlan is the spitting image of my brother.”
Queen Helena shook her head sadly.
“He has the same faults as my brother as well. Women always did end up getting him into trouble.”
“And now he’s an outlaw,” finished Ariana.
“It’s not the harshest punishment,” said her mother. “True, he can’t return to the capital, but other than that it doesn’t affect him unless someone has cause to mean him harm. He may be outside the protection of the law, but he’s the kind of man who can take care of himself well enough. The King hasn’t sent any men to look for him. He will be fine. And in the future, perhaps the King will consider revoking his decision.”
While in the meantime, Quinlan was out trying to survive on his own.
“My Lady!” called a short man, running into the room. “A bird has just arrived with a message for the King. Do you know where he is?”
“Bring it here,” commanded her mother, taking the rolled up piece of parchment and reading it through.
“What is it?” asked Ariana, noticing a change in her mother’s expression.
The Queen walked up to the main entrance to the throne room, to where two men stood on guard.
“I need you both to go to Favian Slynn’s quarters in the castle and arrest him, then bring him here,” she said, before turning back to the message-bearer. “Take this to the King. He is in the physicians’ quarters. There is no time to waste.”
The Queen’s orders were carried out without question. Her authority was akin to the King’s.
“What’s going on?” repeated Ariana.
“The letter was a warning from the leader of the miners. The strike has become a rebellion, and the men are marching on the capital” she said. “And it seems that Mr Slynn may have had a hand in it. I would not normally put so much stock in a letter, but they name the same man as Favian himself admitted to having dealings with.”
“Wow,” said Ariana stunned. “How much danger are we in?”
“A considerable amount. I don’t know the exact numbers, but if this source is correct then there are thousands of armed men marching here and we are not well prepared for a fight. We only have the garrison and if they are able to storm the gates quickly then we will not get support,” said the Queen. “Even if they fail they could cause a lot of damage. More so if they raid along the way.”
The princess swore softly.
“If Favian wanted this to happen, does that mean John was innocent after all?” asked Ariana.
“It means Favian is guiltier,” she replied, seeming unsure, “but for all we know they were working together.”
The sound of fast approaching footsteps made them turn to the back of the room, expecting the messenger’s return. Instead, they were confronted by a dark-robed Favian Slynn emerging from the doorway.
“My Queen,” he bowed, eyes darting around the room. “Princess.”
She looked at him. He was red-faced from running and he was breathing fast. Ariana was very conscious of the fact that the only guards nearby had been the ones just sent after the man in front of them, and that they were completely alone in the room. Clearly he had evaded them. She stood very still, trying to act nonchalant. She realised that she still had her knives hidden under her dress.
“Well I can see from your faces that there is no point pretending,” said Slynn, advancing forwards. “Could you explain to me why it is that two Bloodsworn were sent to my chambers?”
“Don’t come closer, I’ll shout for the guards,” said the Queen, causing Favian to pause twenty yards away. “We have evidence that you conspired with a man named Drenn to incite unrest and kill the King. Do you confess?”
Favian looked behind quickly, watching the doorway. Her mother hadn’t mentioned anything about the attempts to kill the King in the letter, but it was a worthwhile bluff to try.
“Well confessing doesn’t strike me as a smart move in most cases,” he muttered, taking a step forwards. “Especially to a crime such as treason. Prince John was behind that part anyway, wasn’t he?”
“I will alert the guards,” warned the Queen, backing away and putting a hand out to push Ariana back.
“The guards will get here before long anyway,” said Slynn. “I need to be gone by then. But first...”
He drew a knife, already stained with blood. Ariana’s heart stopped as he rushed towards them and she froze in fear.
“Run, Ariana, get the guards!” cried her mother, shoving her away and shocking her out of her panic.
Ariana reached under her dress and pulled out the knife from its sheath. She cut in front of her mother and brandished the weapon threateningly at Slynn, who stopped only a couple of yards away. He assessed her appreciatively.
“Not the average princess,” he noted. “But tell me, do you think you would actually stab me with it? You’ll just get yourself hurt. Put it down and I can leave, how about that?”
“Ariana stop this, just run,” insisted her mother.
“I’ve killed once already,” said Ariana, her voice trembling as she tried and failed to sound confident. Here was a man she had walked past many times in the castle, never realising what he was capable of. Slynn’s wide face formed a humourless smile, his bloody blade glinting threateningly.
“Well I’ve killed today,” he said, springing forwards. She lunged desperately with the knife, aiming for the chest. Favian caught her wrist, gripping it like a vice and wrenching it around to send the knife clattering into a corner. The Queen dived towards Slynn’s knife hand and he slashed downwards, tearing through cloth and slicing deeply across her stomach.
Ariana let out an anguished cry as her mother fell to the floor limply, and Slynn capitalised on her shock, forcing the knife to her throat. He turned her towards the door, his other arm wrapped around her neck.
“You’re my way out of here,” he said, breathing hard from the exertion. Distant footsteps sounded from the direction Slynn had been running, and he pushed her forwards hurriedly.
“Mother!” she shouted, tears filling her eyes. Favian put a clammy hand around her mouth to quiet her and moved towards the door. She felt as if she could hardly breathe. She needed to get away. When Slynn moved the knife away from her throat to push open the door Ariana let her left hand drop down to her thigh, searching for the handle of the knife through the fabric of her dress. She found it, and pulled it out, stabbing through the back of her dress and into Slynn’s leg, shoving him away as he roared in pain. She transferred the weapon into her right hand, backing away from him.
“I will kill you this time,” she threatened forcefully, wiping her eyes and blinking to clear her vision.
Slynn grimaced, holding his leg and swearing. The footsteps from the other door were getting closer. Slynn chose to run, and pushed open the main door, disappearing from sight. He was the guards’ problem now. Ariana ran to the Queen, who was curled up on the floor, blood seeping freely from the wound.
Ariana knelt down next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder. She was still breathing, but the breaths were short and ragged.
“You’re safe,” whispered Queen Helena, a pained smile on her lips. She was very pale.
“So are you,” insisted Ariana, as if saying it would make it true. “You’re going to be fine.”
The Queen had one hand clutching her stomach, and gripped Ariana’s hand surprisingly strongly with the other.
“Don’t let your brothers fight,” she said, her eyes locked on to Ariana’s as she stressed her words. “Look after them.”
With those last words her strength faded and eyes drifted closed.
She had fainted, but was still alive, barely. At that moment two Bloodsworn stormed into the room, looking shocked.
“Princess, what has happened? Are you hurt?”
“It was Slynn,” she said. “He came with a knife.”
The guards looked at each other.
“What would you like us to do?”
Ariana swallowed, resisting the urge to yell at the guards for wasting precious time.
“One of you, fetch a physician, the other stay here in case he comes back,” she said, not wanting to leave her mother.
They nodded, and one of them ran out to fetch help.
“What happened to the guards the Queen sent?” asked Ariana, remembering the blood on Slynn’s knife.
“We found one Bloodsworn dead and another badly wounded. It seems Slynn attacked with some kind of fire pot weapon and stabbed one before running.”
The sly bastard.
The main doors opened and Ariana looked up, fearing Slynn had returned, only to see more Bloodsworn arriving.
“We were told that the Queen had been attacked,” said the men, appearing shocked as they took in the scene. “Where is the attacker?”
“Who told you?” asked Ariana.
“Mr Slynn did. He had been injured by the attacker himself, I gather.”
“He was the fucking attacker!” yelled Ariana, her voice cracking. “Run after him!”
The guards paled, turning and exiting rapidly. As they left, the physician arrived, with Rowan, Maddon and the King in tow. It made sense that they would arrive together if they had all been with Asher.
“Stand aside,” said the physician to Ariana, taking her place at the Queen’s side. She moved away reluctantly, terrified of what the physician might say.
“Favian did this?” asked the King, looking uncharacteristically pale. Ariana nodded.
“He fled and seems to have sent guards this way while trying to escape,” she said. “Apparently he used some kind of fire pot weapon. What did Asher have to say?”
Maddon laughed humourlessly.
“Of course Slynn fucking did,” he said, shaking his head. “Asher said he witnessed the attackers taking away a wagon-load of Hellfire before blowing the rest up to hide the fact. It seems some of that Hellfire made its way to Slynn.”
Yet another reason to despise the man.
“So, did you see the letter?”
“Yes, the rebels are on their way here. We need to do act on that knowledge.”
“I don’t care about the bloody rebels, they can do what they like,” said the King, turning to the physician. “Will she live?”
“It is uncertain,” he said. “The wound is bad. I can close it and attempt to stop the bleeding but that will not help the internal damage. If she survives the day until tomorrow then her chances are good, but there is no guarantee of that.”
The family members were all grim at the news, and the words were followed by a deathly silence, to be next broken by Maddon, the most composed of them.
“I understand how serious this is, but the rebels can’t be ignored. Ironhurst’s metal mines lie between them and us. If they reach them they could boost their numbers and cause massive damage. Now that we’ve been warned, we can intercept them at the river crossing.”
“I am not going to abandon my wife!” shouted the King, briefly looking away from the Queen. “Speak to Falk about it. Ride out yourself if you wish. You are men, soon to be seventeen. You can make your own decisions.”
“Very well,” said Maddon. “Rowan, what do you think?”
Rowan looked up, blinking away tears.
“You’re right, we need to stop them,” he said.
Maddon nodded gravely.
“Then let us speak to Falk,” he said.
“What about me?” asked Ariana, feeling indignant at being left out of the decision-making. “I can shoot a bow at least as well as any of our archers.”
“Ariana, it wouldn’t be right for a princess to be out there. You would be the only woman, and you would instantly become a target to the enemy. They would do worse than kill you if they got to you,” he said. “More to the point, we can’t risk all three of us in battle. Stay with mother. Be there if, or rather when she wakes up.”
“I’ll stay then,” she said. “Make sure you’re careful out there. Stay out of the fighting as much as possible.”
Her two brothers made to leave, while a stretcher was fetched for her mother. She couldn’t shake an ominous feeling of foreboding that when tomorrow came, not all of the Farhorns would still be alive.
Maddon watched as the men set up the cylindrical siphon tube in the middle of the barricade. They had enough hellfire for one burst. Against the numbers they were facing it would be more useful as a morale weapon than one to inflict casualties. He was hoping that it would make the rebels come to terms with their lack of experience and equipment and reconsider their march. If they were even coming that was. Who knew whether the letter was true or not? If Slynn hadn’t proven himself to be a traitor, he might have suspected that it was simply an attempt to implicate the man. Unfortunately, Slynn had escaped, the Bloodsworn at the gates not thinking to stop one of the King’s principal advisors from leaving. There was a heavy bounty on his head now, one which with any luck would yield results. Maddon just hoped his crime remained attempted murder and treason. When he had left the castle things looked uncertain.
The barricade he stood behind had been hastily erected, and would not stop them getting over the bridge by itself. The men behind it stood a yard off the ground below it, where wooden spikes had been inserted to impede the progress of the attackers. With any luck, the two hundred armoured fighters and fifty archers surrounding him would do that job. They would be heavily outnumbered, but had better armour, weapons, cavalry and a defensible position. The men were led by a captain, but officially Maddon had the command. It was a scary thought. Rowan was elsewhere, with a selection of mounted knights on the other side of the bridge whose job it was to wait out of sight until the rebels attacked the barricades and then break through their disorganised ranks. Maddon had chosen to be behind one of the barricades rather than ride beside his brother. If he was going to be in the fight, he was not going to risk being knocked from his horse while riding into enemy lines. Falk was upstream out of sight at a separate river crossing point with an equal number of men to Maddon. The river was too deep for the men to swim, and these two stone bridges were the only places in which the rebels would conceivably attack.
He took a deep breath, trying to steady his racing heart. This would be nothing like the tournament. The men coming would kill everyone here given half the chance. He hoped that being a prince might grant him hostage status, but he didn’t trust that theory in the middle of a battle when a man’s blood was up.
“Where are they?” asked Maddon impatiently, his hands trembling inside the armour. He couldn’t stand the waiting. The rushing sound of the river was making things worse by making him want to relieve himself.
“Our scouts report that they are not far, my prince,” replied the Captain. “If they attack, it will be soon.”
Maddon nodded, his armour clinking. He felt heavy and cumbersome, but the high quality castle-forged steel would be his greatest advantage against the rebels, most likely doing far more for him than his own skill. He was hoping not to have to do much actual fighting. He was here to fulfil the men’s expectations and hopefully to gain a little glory. He refused to let Rowan go into battle and prove himself the braver man without fighting himself, but there were limits to how far pride would get him. And those limits were the second line of men behind a barricade with fifty archers covering the way in front of him.
“I see them!” cried one of the men in front of him, pointing. Maddon stepped up to look and saw movement on the crest of a small hill in the distance. He felt his stomach twist anxiously. He put his visor down, thinning his vision and cutting out the glare of the sunlight. Better get used to looking through it.
“Send scouts riding to Falk and Rowan, let them know they’re coming to our bridge,” said Maddon to the Captain. The man did so, and then turned to his soldiers.
“Remember men, these are untrained rebels,” shouted the Captain. “Hold fast, and they will break and run. They may have numbers, but if numbers were all that mattered then ants would rule the Kingdoms. We’ll crush them like the insects they are!”
A cheer went up from the men, and they began to drum on their shields with their swords as the rebels grew closer, the last of their mass of men coming into view. Maddon nodded respectfully to the Captain. He had one hell of a voice for yelling. He wondered if that was what had made him Captain.
“What did you say your name was?”
“Thomas, my prince.”
“Well, Thomas, if we make it out alive, I’ll make sure you’re well rewarded for your efforts,” promised Maddon, before calling out to the rest of them. “A silver eagle for every man who brings me their dead enemy’s weapon!”
Another cheer went up, and they resumed their drumming as the nearest rebels drew closer, clearly heading towards their bridge rather than deviating. Maddon drew his sword, and held his shield ready in his other hand. His blue cloak billowed out behind him. A large part of him dreaded the advance of the enemy, but a part of him was almost excited by the risk. If they won, he could hardly picture a better feeling. He could go back to the castle as a battle veteran – a true warrior. He just had to make sure not to die.
Maddon divided up the enemy army in his mind, halving it and halving it again until the number was small enough to count, then doubling the number back up again to reach an estimate of their forces. He had it at over three thousand, perhaps even four. Still, the bridge couldn’t fit more than ten men abreast, and Maddon found it hard to imagine a man getting through the Bloodsworn assigned to him. The men coming towards them were spread across as one rolling mass, with no order or ranks. The pool of men drifted to a halt, and a distant figure at their head began shouting, the words barely perceptible to the prince, but enough to rile up the rebels with a far more audible reaction.
“Here they come, men. Don’t let it be said of you that you ran from farm labourers,” said the Captain. “Stand strong! You are King’s men.”
The attackers began their charge, and Maddon gulped, adrenaline rushing through him.
“Arrows first, and when the first men reach the barricade, then the hellfire,” said Maddon.
The rebels were just over five hundred yards away now, and it was clear that some of them had managed better weapons than just a typical farm labourer. They were shouting obscenities as they ran, melding into one load angry roar.
Bows creaked behind the swordsmen as the archers pulled back their strings. The rebels came within range.
Strings twanged and arrows flew, soaring overhead and thudding into the ranks of the attackers, felling the men who either had no shields or weren’t quick enough to raise them. Each hit and spray of blood brought Maddon a tiny bit of relief as it was one fewer able to kill him.
“And loose!” called the Captain again, sending off a second volley into the enemy. This one was less effective than the first, with a fair number of the arrows hitting newly raised shields. Unfortunately, a wooden shield was a rather cheap, simple piece of equipment, and many of the attackers had one.
The men had halved the distance between them when the next volley hit them, and although men kept falling, with arms and chests punctured by sharp arrowheads, the gaps were filled and the advance of the rest was not stopped.
“Fire at will, pick your targets!” shouted the Captain, signalling an end to the organized volleys. The first attacker, a large bearded man wielding a pickaxe, reached the bridge and was brought down by an arrow to the knee, before more surged ahead of him. He would probably be trampled by the end of it.
“Let’s show them who we are,” said Maddon, as men surged across the bridge. “Set them on fire.”
The Captain nodded, and gave the order.
There was a dragon-like roar, drowning out all other sounds, and bright liquid fire shot out from the siphon, arcing across the gap between them and into the rebels. It cut into their tanks, melting through shields and men alike. Maddon could feel the heat from where he was standing, and averted his eyes from the blinding glare. On the bridge, the men still able to threw themselves into the water in an attempt to extinguish the fire, before the current took them. They were the lucky ones. Drowning was a relatively painless death by comparison to what their companions were experiencing as their skin and insides burned. Just imagining what that must feel like made him shudder. He could feel the shock of the men seeing it from this side of the barricade. It could only be worse for the ones whose friends suffered from it.
The flow of hellfire stopped, and there were a few moments of shocked stillness, save for the crackling of fire among the bodies ahead and the river rushing by, carrying helpless, screaming men with it.
“Archers, hold your fire!” shouted the Captain, stepping up to the front line of men. “Which of you rebels would like to die next then? The first one to come forward will have that honour.”
Maddon held his breath and watched as the men ahead paused. They might seriously be considering backing off.
“You’re not reloading the fire,” shouted back one of the men at the front, turning back to his friends. “They’re not-”
An arrow struck him in the back, and he fell forwards onto one of the other men. A cry went up from the rebels.
The men surged forwards again, and the Captain signalled for the rest of the archers to resume their fire. One of the rebels was knocked to the side in the ruckus and stumbled straight into one of the wooden spikes, impaling himself. Others were struck by arrows, but there were more men coming than arrows flying and the rush didn’t stop. Soon they were battering down and climbing over the wooden spikes to attack the men above them at the barricade. For the first time in the battle, metal clashed against metal.
Before long, Maddon saw what he had been hoping not to – their first casualty. A long spear managed to pierce through one of the defenders’ defences and his armour, piercing his breastplate. The man stumbled back away from the barricade, clutching the wound, and his attacker pulled himself up in his place. He saw Maddon a few steps away and his eyes widened, realising who he was. He jumped towards the prince, and Maddon raised his shield in defence, bracing for the impact and raising his sword. One of the Bloodsworn’s halberds was quicker, the axe blade embedding itself in his stomach. Maddon saw the man’s eyes widen in surprise, and watched as the guard kicked him to the floor and finished him off.
“Thank you,” said Maddon, rather taken aback by the experience. Thankfully the very unpleasant sight of the man’s guts was obscured by the ever so slightly less unpleasant pool of blood which covered it. He looked at it for a few moments longer than necessary, trying to acclimatize himself to it. If he could look at the gruesome and not flinch, he was less likely to flinch when it meant his life.
Bodies were beginning to pile up on the rebels’ side of the barricade, making it easier for them to climb over. The fighting wasn’t stylish, and didn’t look skilful. It was just desperate hacking, slashing and stabbing until one man could gain an ugly victory. The rebels now had men fighting up and down the barricade. It looked as if they were starting to gain a foothold. The men on the bridge were being decimated by arrows, but there were only so many of those, and no chance of re-collecting them.
“Move forwards and help push them back,” said Maddon, to his guards. “Holding the barricade is our best option.”
The men beside him nodded, obeying without question. The one nearest him wasted no time in stepping forwards and swinging his halberd into an enemy’s shield, splintering it into pieces and stabbing the man with the end of his weapon. Bloodsworn were lethal fighters. If anyone could hold the barricade, they could.
Maddon was hyper with adrenaline, looking around frantically so as not to miss an attack. He saw one of his men struggling with a sword wielding opponent and rushed to help him, stabbing under the attacker’s raised arm and the through his ribs like a knife through steak. The attacker clenched up, and a slash from the other man took off his hand. The man ran the shocked attacker clean through, then nodded at Maddon appreciatively, and went back into the fight. The prince felt a surge of pride and elation. He had struck an enemy and helped beat back a man who would have killed them both if he could.
He looked right as one of the defenders was thrown onto his back beside Maddon. He saw the attacker swinging a billhook down at the floored man and kicked the weapon with an armoured boot, knocking it away. The attacker barely had time to raise his weapon before Maddon’s sword sliced through the wood of it and embedded itself halfway in the man’s neck. The prince blinked at the spray of blood, and kicked the man away to free his sword, sending the dead man staggering back. He felt unstoppable. It was grisly work, but he had never felt stronger. The next man who came at him didn’t know what he was in for.
Said next man was armed with a short sword and wooden shield, the kind of setup Maddon was more used to facing. As he climbed over the barricade, the prince swung with all his weight, but the first strike was blocked, jarring the bones in his arm. The man retaliated, swinging back, his sword deflecting off the armour on the prince’s shoulder. That could have hurt.
Maddon swung again, and this time his sword stuck in the man’s wooden shield. As he tried to pull it free the attacker stabbed with the sword, and the prince barely dodged aside. He brought a solid metal knee up with all of his might into the man’s soft stomach, doubling him over while his blade scratched weakly at the prince’s armour. Desperately, thinking of self-preservation above all else, he wrenched the sword free, splinters flying, and slashed across the man’s back, cutting through muscle and sinew, and stabbing through the back of his heart to make sure he stayed down. He needed to be more careful. One wrong move could kill him.
He stepped back a little, breathing hard and letting one of the other fighters fill his place. As he took in the chaotic, cacophonous battle, he saw what he had been waiting to see.
“Rowan, you wonderful bastard,” Maddon sighed, seeing the horsemen emerge from a distant forest to his left, the sun reflecting brightly off their armour. The cavalry were here. They would not take long. All they needed now was for Falk’s infantry to arrive as well.
“Alright men, push hard, help’s on the way,” boomed the Captain.
Maddon tried to seek out Rowan’s blue Farhorn cloak among the cavalry, but they were too far away. His brother needed to be careful out there. If he fell, then help would not be quick in coming. Maddon had no desire to fight through all the rebels on the bridge. He was struck by an uncomfortable thought. If Rowan died, then that would make him the heir to the Rivergate throne. If the choice came to him, would he risk his life to save Rowan’s? He honestly didn’t know.
Rowan rocked up and down with the movement of his horse as it charged in at a gallop, the men beside him doing the same. He levelled his heavy metal lance, eyeing an unlucky target for its point. The rebels’ flank was unbraced, not prepared at all for the charge they were about to face. Rowan tried to imagine he was just practicing for a joust. He had to ride hard and fast so that the quintain didn’t swing round to hit him.
The contact, when it came, was destructive. The prince’s panicked target raised his shield in defence, but Rowan was an accomplished rider, and his lance slipped inside the guard, penetrating his target’s leather armour. The impact almost sent him back off his horse as his hand bruised against the plate of the lance which stopped his hand sliding up the weapon. The man was lifted a yard into the air and flew from the end of the lance into one of the other rebels. The armoured horse didn’t stop, trampling the men under hoof. Around him, the momentum of the horses sent the lightly armoured rebels tumbling into the dirt. The whole mass of men seemed to shift in response as men rushed to get out of the way of the heavy cavalry. Rowan cast aside the lance and drew his sword, hacking down at the men around him to give himself some space and try to gain some control in the chaos.
“Circle back!” shouted the cavalry commander.
The men disengaged from the rebels, spurring their horses away to regroup. Rowan was shaken. He could see dead men piling up on the bridge and floating in the river. He had killed a man, and for what? These men had been led to the point where they needed to be killed to be stopped. It wasn’t a victory to kill these men; it was a tragedy that they been driven to attack in the first place.
“Are you hurt, Prince Rowan?” asked one of the knights, when they were a safe distance away from the fighting.
“I’m fine,” he replied. He had to do his duty. They needed to rout the rebels to stop the chaos spreading any further across the Kingdom and killing any more. He searched the mass of men for their leader and saw a red-faced man bellowing orders to the men by the bridge. That must be him. They’d heard from the spies in the camp that he had been afflicted by The Touch, gaining him the name Redskin, and his open-faced helm made it clear. He was surrounded by his own men, but they had cavalry. It was possible.
“He’s over there!” shouted Rowan to the knights, gesturing. “Get him and they might fold.”
“You heard your prince, let’s ride,” called the cavalry commander, signalling forwards with his horse.
Rowan dug in his heels and set off again with the hundred or so horsemen. If he could reach the leader, they could end this. That was what he was relying on. The rebels ahead of them formed a rough line, bracing for the charge with a wall of wooden shields. Rowan held his sword aloft as the men drew nearer, steeling himself for the fight.
His enemy’s weapon point glanced off the horse’s armour, doing no damage as the warhorse crashed into him, riding through the shield wall and into the mix of enemies. The shield wall broke against the sheer mass of the cavalry, and Rowan slashed down, grimacing inside his helmet as his sword made contact with flesh. One brave man ran at him wielding an axe, swinging it repeatedly, clashing against his shield three times before Rowan managed to lean over and drive the point of his blade between the man’s collarbone and neck. He felt his stomach churn and bile rise in his throat. He wanted to throw up, but there was nowhere to go.
He spurred his horse on, seeing the leader of the rebels was not far away. He gripped the reins tightly and almost fell as the animal reared up and caved in a man’s head with a kick of its hooves. Suddenly, hands gripped his shield and he felt himself being pulled from the horse, falling and crashing down bruisingly on top of a man much larger than him. He managed to keep a hold on his sword, but he was too close to use it, and instead gripped his shield and smashed it repeatedly into the man’s head, until his resistance faded.
“Get to the prince, he’s down!” shouted one of the knights.
Rowan pushed himself away from the man, panting from the exertion and falling back to the ground. He raised his shield up in defence as attackers swarmed forwards. He rolled under his horse for protection, and swung his blade around, cutting more than halfway through a man’s ankle. Rowan pulled his blade free as his shield rattled with a hard hit from another enemy. The ground was a mess of mud and blood, all of which seemed to stick to him and make it difficult to move, but he managed to force himself to his feet on the other side of the horse, and was thrown back into the battle.
Despite his fall, he was in good condition, quick despite his armour. Men came at him, and he unleashed fast strikes and counters, striking them down one by one. Other knights joined him, attempting to protect their prince and fight their way through to the leader of the rebels. He felt more and more sickened with each death he saw. People walked around in their lives, thinking themselves special and unique in the world, not considering how frail they really were. Men were just flimsy containers of blood and meat, held together by brittle bones. One strike could open them up and spill their contents like a wine flask.
“Redskin!” shouted Rowan, stepping aside as a man charged him. He struck him in the face with his shield and ran a sword through his ribs, grunting with the effort. “Where is your leader?”
He was oblivious to the progress of the battle, focused only on advancing and cutting through whoever was in his way, however much he hated it. The only way he could manage it was by telling himself that killing him would end this hell, whether it was true or not. Redskin had led all these men into this battle. If there was one man Rowan wouldn’t feel bad about killing, it was him.
Amid the commotion, he saw the man issuing the orders, his scarred face standing out even in the battle.
“He’s there!” Rowan yelled to the knights around him. “Redskin!”
Somehow, the man heard him, and turned. Rowan pointed his sword towards the man, bellowing a challenge. The man’s face twisted into a hungry expression, and he pushed one of his men aside, inviting Rowan forwards.
“On me, men!” he bellowed, rushing forwards, not checking to see if he was heard.
Rowan made short work of the next rebel who moved to intercept him, parrying away his weapon deftly and kicking him in the stomach, battering him aside as he moved forwards. Redskin raised a hand to hold back his men, stepping forwards. Rowan was relieved when he saw that Redskin wore only leather armour save for his metal helm and gauntlets. It would make things considerably easier.
“Who do I face?” he asked, looking him over critically.
“Rowan Farhorn,” replied the prince, glad for the momentary pause to recover a fraction of his spent energy.
Redskin smiled predatorily.
“I’ve always wanted to see if it was true that Farhorns bled blue,” he said. “I’m glad to have the honour.”
“I guess you’ll never know,” the prince said, moving to attack.
Rowan’s first heavy swing met only air, and he ducked as the war scythe swung for his head, passing over him and swinging back at him. He parried the scythe blade away and stepped back, taking in his opponent and trying to be aware of his surroundings. A group of dismounted knights were fighting around him, too busy to help.
The prince swung again at Redskin, who used the pole of his war scythe to parry the blade away, counterattacking almost instantly. He was fast, even faster than Rowan, and it was a struggle to block all of his attacks. Rowan tried getting in close, where Redskin’s long weapon was less effective, but he dodged, spinning and knocking him forwards with the wood of the scythe and sending him stumbling into a hostile group, with no knights to protect him. He swung at them wildly with tired swings and aching muscles, trying to force them back.
A hammer caught him behind the knee and caused him to sag, the next hit winding him in to stomach and denting his armour. He attempted to face the attacker but was struck by a blinding pain in his back. The impact sent him to his knees, and when his vision refocused he saw the handle of half a pickaxe sticking out of him, one end flattened into a hammer, the other end’s sharpened point embedded in his armour. Rowan swore violently, turning to the now unarmed man and with pure rage drove a sword through his heart and out through his back. The miner’s dead weight fell forwards, onto Rowan, too heavy for him to support. He fell on his back, pinned by the man lying across his stomach, crying out as his own weight drove the point further in, feeling each ridge and bump as it broke his skin. He lay there gasping, trying to breathe, but the air wouldn’t come.
“Step back men, I’ll finish him,” said Redskin. Rowan tried to blink away the tears in his eyes as the man stepped into view. He raised his shield up, and Redskin kicked his arm away, pinning it to the ground with his foot. Rowan panicked, trying to free the sword from the body on top of him. He couldn’t die now. He was too young, it wouldn’t be fair. Redskin reached down, and pulled off the prince’s helmet and threw it aside, exposing his face to the cold fresh air. Rowan let go of the sword and swung his free hand, punching Redskin in the leg, and dislodging him enough to raise his shield back up. Redskin stepped back and kicked him dizzyingly in the face. He felt his cheek grow hot as a bruise began to form.
“Give up, Farhorn, it’s over,” he said. “My good friend Parry has you pinned down.”
Rowan’s vision refocused in time to see a metal shield fly through the air and smack Redskin in the face, knocking him aside. In the direction it came from was the sound of fierce fighting, and as he watched, Redskin’s men were forced back and cut down. A blue-cloaked swordsman at the centre of the armoured men twirled a bloody blade.
“Redskin, I presume,” said a shieldless Maddon. “I see you’ve met my brother.”
“Nice of you to show,” coughed Rowan, struggling to believe his eyes.
“Well I didn’t feel like waiting for Falk,” Maddon replied.
The younger prince wasted no further time, surging towards Redskin and attacking. Rowan tried to free himself as Maddon and his retinue clashed with the rebels. He heaved the body off him, freeing himself, and reached behind his back to grip the handle of the makeshift weapon. He took a deep breath, and pulled.
“Metella’s tits,” exclaimed Rowan, agony shooting through him. He collapsed back onto the ground, feeling faint and sick as warm blood flowed out from the wound. He didn’t think it had gone too deep. The plate armour and chain mail helped. He threw aside the weapon and cringed as he drew the sword from the body on top of him, looking around for sight of his brother. He spotted them only a few yards from the river. Redskin had Maddon on the defensive. The prince was flagging, with no shield to protect him. Rowan forced himself to his feet, gathering his shield and limping over as fast as he could, ignoring the other small battles raging around him.
Rowan watched with dread as Redskin thrust the pole of his weapon into Maddon’s chest and with his next swing, sent the prince’s sword flipping into the river with a splash. Rowan wasn’t going to get there in time. Maddon tried to back away but the scythe swung round too quickly. Sparks flew as the curved blade tore through the helmet, coming out with a red edge. Rowan roared in anger, sprinting towards Redskin, barging an unarmoured miner aside without a thought. The man sensed the attack, looking around as Maddon fell back. Rowan raised his sword, reaching Redskin just as he brought up the handle of his war scythe to block. His sword came down with the strength of a mountain, broke the weapon in two, and opened Redskin’s chest from shoulder to hip.
The man looked down at his chest, more surprised than pained as blood seeped through the cut in his armour. The remnants of the scythe fell to the floor.
“You hurt me.”
Rowan brought his knee up and kicked, hard. His heavy boot propelled the leader of the rebels back into the river. He splashed down, floating in reddening water near the bank for a few moments before the current caught him and he disappeared under the water. Rowan turned away, falling to his knees as his stomach convulsed and he retched, saliva drooling onto the grass. He wiped his mouth, and with trepidation, crawled over to his brother’s side.
“Are you alright?” he asked, unable to see the extent of the damage. Maddon moaned in response. That was good. If he could moan, he wasn’t dead.
Gingerly, Rowan pried off the bloody helmet, causing his brother to cry out in pain. The cut ran from his ear down to the left corner of his lip. It was deep, and would certainly scar, but he would live.
“You’ll be fine,” said Rowan, laughing in pained relief.
Maddon swore angrily, his words cutting off halfway through as it made his ripped cheek move.
Rowan looked to the battle, wondering whether the danger was over. Few had seen their leader’s demise. Maddon’s men from the bridge appeared to be locked in a standstill with the more numerous rebels, while the rest of the cavalry harassed the flanks of the army. A trumpet sounded above the clash of metal, blowing in the distance behind him. With relief he eyed Falk’s reinforcements less than half a mile away.
Rowan got unsteadily to his feet. He had no desire to rejoin the fighting, but kept his weapons ready in case any of the rebels nearby rushed him. One of the rebels without an opponent locked eyes with him, an axe in his hand.
“Your leader is dead,” he said. “More of the King’s men are coming. There is nothing left to fight for. I have no desire to kill you, but I will if I have to.”
The long-haired man looked at Falk’s advancing group, and at Rowan. For a moment Rowan thought he would attack, but then he turned and ran.
“Redskin is dead!” shouted Rowan, as loud as he could. “His blood is on my sword. Your leader is gone.”
He repeated the words, hoping that the men were listening, and that there was no second in command taking charge. It was the arrival of Falk’s men which truly signalled the end of the battle though. They wrapped up the left flank, cutting into the weary rebels with fresh weapons and eager men wielding them. It began with a few men, and then, perhaps in the knowledge that they were leaderless, the fight turned into a rout, with rebels casting away their weapons and fleeing as one. The battle lines melted, with the remaining enemy dispersing away in any direction which they were free to move.
The commander of the cavalry rode over to the princes, seeing the pair by the riverside. Somehow he had kept his horse during the battle.
“Would you like us to chase down the routers, my prince?” asked the man.
“Scatter them,” said Rowan. “But don’t kill them. They won’t be coming back.”
The commander nodded.
“As you say.”
He spurred on his horse, leaving the two brothers by the riverside. Rowan sat down next to his brother, wincing at the pain in his back. He smiled in relief. Maddon looked up to at him questioningly, blood running down one side of his face.
Ariana stood between her brothers outside in the castle courtyard, listening to the meaningless words of the priest drift by in the wind as he droned on in front of them. This was where the people had gathered to watch the burning of the assassin. It didn’t seem right for them to be in the same place now. Prince John stood with them too. In the end, the letter seemed to be just a letter, and he had been cleared of the treason charges. She supposed it would have been possible to mimic his handwriting with access to letters of his, which someone like Slynn could have done without difficulty.
That man had caused so much misery. Many men had died because of him. His mines had been seized by the crown now, and though the debate had not been settled in the council, it seemed likely that the crown would reinstate the original, more benevolent pay. They were to be managed by some kind of miners’ guild, separate to Rivergate. The rebels had been pardoned without further trouble, and the Kingdom was at peace again. Ariana knew that she had much to be thankful for, with both of her brothers here alive. One side of Maddon’s face was puckered by a long scar, and Rowan struggled to climb all the castle stairs every day, but they were alive. Even so, she couldn’t bring herself to feel any relief at all. Today wasn’t a day to be happy. A funeral never was.
The clouds loomed overhead, casting a gloom across the proceedings. All of the lords and ladies of the court were there, some of whom she knew, some of whom she didn’t. Florian’s read hair stood out from the crowd on the opposite side of the pyre, a sombre expression on his face. He had lived here for a time. It was only right that he attend. It was just a shame that Quinlan wasn’t here. Ariana’s mother had loved him as much as her own children.
“...and may Metella guide her worthy soul to Anim’s light, where she may be free of the evil of this world.”
As the priests words faded into the wind, he gave a signal, and an expressionless Berin stepped forwards with a torch. Kindling crackled as he lit it, and before long, flames surrounded the Queen’s body, obscuring her from view as smoke billowed above them. The King turned, stony-faced, and wordlessly marched back into the castle. Ariana’s hair blew in front of her face, and she hung her head as silent tears rolled down her cheeks. Her mother had always been there whenever there had been a problem. She had been a constant during her life, watching over her, and now she was gone, leaving her hollow. If Ariana had been stronger, or faster, she might have stopped Slynn and saved her mother. Now because she hadn’t been, Queen Helena was dead.
When the flames eventually died down, and the gathering dispersed, Ariana scanned for Florian.
“Ariana,” called a quiet voice, interrupting her search. Seraphina was stood with her father, looking very young.
“Seraphina,” Ariana nodded, not caring enough to put kindness into her tone.
“I’m so sorry about everything that’s happened,” said her cousin, embracing her tearfully. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but...I would like us to be friends. I know we didn’t get on as children, but it’s crazy to let that stop us now, when we need our friends most.”
The princess looked awkwardly up at Seraphina’s father. She was hesitant, but could hardly refuse. Quinlan had clearly seen something in her, so perhaps she was a reformed character.
“I’m sure we’ll be great friends,” she assured, moving away.
She sought out Florian alone by the castle wall, away from the others, and pushed a leather pouch into his hands.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Your gold,” replied Ariana. “I know you let me win the archery competition, and you said you could help the people of Redwood with it. Besides, I’ve spent all I want to anyway.”
Florian shook his head.
“This is your money,” he said. “I can’t accept it.”
“I’m not asking,” said Ariana, pressing his fingers closed. “Take it and don’t argue.”
Reluctantly, he relented.
“I have something for you, too,” said Florian.
He took out an intricate silver necklace inlaid with emerald, and, with her permission, put it around her neck. She played with it in her fingers, examining the different sides of it, touched by the gift.
“It’s beautiful,” said Ariana. “Why?”
“I have to go home,” said Florian. “My father is in poor health, and I can’t stay. I just didn’t want to leave without giving you something.”
“When will you be back?” asked Ariana, crestfallen.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If it would please you, I would like us to be married, but now is clearly not the right time to ask your father. I have heard he will not speak to anyone.”
“Of course it would please me,” said Ariana, the ghost of a smile on her lips.
Some of the twinkle returned to Florian’s eyes, and he hugged her.
“I’m so sorry about your mother,” he said. “She was a wonderful woman.”
Ariana nodded, tears returning to her eyes.
The princess had made a decision. She was never going to let something like this happen again. She had her knives, and her bow. Next time, she would not be thrown aside as someone she loved was hurt. She would be ready.
The man dismounted from his horse, gazing up at the long vines which wound their way up the castle walls with pleasure. It had been a long and arduous journey, but he was finally where he wanted to be. He sighed in satisfaction, giving the stable-boy a silver to tie up his horse.
“Who goes there?” asked the guard at the gates.
“Favian Slynn,” he replied. “I’m expected.”
Guards escorted him through the corridors, footsteps echoing down the stone floor, at a slightly off rhythm due to his limp. He was led into a large room with a fire blazing in the hearth. A small table sat in front of the fire with two goblets of wine set upon it. In one of the chairs sat a large man. He was missing an eye.
“I’ve heard all kinds of tales about what you’ve done,” said Uric Darrowmere. “There’s a large amount of money on your head.”
“My departure from Rivergate turned out to be a little more rushed than planned, but everything else has worked out much as we hoped.”
“Yes, I heard about the rebels,” laughed the King throatily. “Gave them a bit of a scare.”
“Indeed,” said Favian. “I think you’ll agree, I’ve certainly proved my worth and my loyalty.”
“You have,” nodded Uric, “and unlike King Berin, I reward loyalty. Your lordship will come. My men smuggled out several barrels of their hellfire, and they are as weak as they will ever be. As soon as my army is ready, we will march.”
Favian smiled, picking up the second goblet of wine and raising it.
“To the rightful King of Rivergate.”