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The Hellfire Rebellion

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Chapter 1

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.

“Name him!”

“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.

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