Why was everyone being woken up at once? Nicolas Sterling hardly had an hour of sleep since his last shift of patrol on the city walls before knights burst into the chamber, rattling beds and shouting orders. Instinctively the archer took the bow laying beside him in bed and hopped down from his top bunk. A young man of about twenty years, Sterling had on him a thick amount of dark stubble and equally dark bags under his eyes. A ten-hour shift on the wall was enough to make any man collapse of exhaustion and boredom.
“What is this all about?” One of the elder archers asked as he whipped his cap on. A knight turned and approached the man, almost as if his question was outrageous. He stood before him, a full head taller than the rather malnourished yeoman, and spat.
“Do as you’re told, archer. These are orders from the king himself.”
“Prince, you mean.”
“No. His Highness passed earlier this morning. In a few hours, Jameson Piermont shall be formally recognized as king.” The knight turned his back and joined the rest of his troupe as they worked to the next set of barracks, yelling just as loudly at them as they had in Sterling’s chamber. Nicolas raised an eyebrow. Was there to be an attack on the royal wedding? The question was unnerving enough, but some of the men began to whisper of this being James’s policy from now on. High concentrations of military might. That was just as disturbing, if not more so.
“Sterling,” The eldest archer called while the others still shuffled about half-asleep. Nicolas approached the man and stood tall before him, when a hand was placed on his shoulder. “I’m sorry for the lack of sleep, but orders are orders. I’m trusting you to take these men and position them on the southwest wall.”
“Yes sir. Might I ask what’s going on?”
“Afraid I can’t say. Even if I wanted to, we commanders know as much as you do. Go now.” With a supportive pat the man motioned Nicolas to take his leave.
“Alright 22nd squad, you’re with me!” He hollered over the chatter, so as to organize them in blinding speed. He looked to the ragtag group of exhausted soldiers, many of them not even wearing uniforms that matched. The Piermonts always favored their knights by providing them the proper amenities, while infantry and the archers were often overlooked in such matters. Though it being his first act of leadership, Sterling wasn’t proud of his mangy appearance. Still, orders were orders, and with his commands, the small company of archers followed him to a long stretch of wall between two dividing towers.
The air was crisp and calm in the early morning. The sky behind them was just beginning to grow pale with the oncoming sunrise. As a cool morning breeze shivered down his back, Nicolas pulled his brown hood up to help keep his face just a little warmer. He inspected his tired men, all of whom took their positions on the wall with a certain vigor he found surprising. Bows in hand, they stared into the waning night with only torches on the tower walls to provide light for them. The lack of light helped their eyes to adjust, the young man thought, but he was still confused as to why they had been called back into their positions so hastily. Young though he was, Sterling knew that a tired troupe led to mistakes being made, and if there was someone coming to attack during the royal wedding, mistakes simply couldn’t be made.
“What are we looking out for sir?” One of the exhausted yeomen asked.
“Anything. Any single thing that might be out of place. Be it riders or an entire army. Alert me if you see something, and you will do well to see something as soon as possible.” Despite his youth, Sterling knew how to conduct himself, and as a result, he didn’t have many of the others harbor harsh feelings toward him. Not that it mattered. The lifespan of a common archer wasn’t long, albeit much longer than a simple infantryman. A few years at the most without injury, and if the injury were severe, most retired with a small payment for the rest of his life. The payment was rarely enough to live well on, so retired archers often turned to small jobs to supplement a steady income, usually in trading or merchandise. Nicolas even knew a few retired archers who went on to live comfortable lives as farmers, given that they had land provided to them for their service by the kingdom. Very few had the years put in to be granted a piece of land, but Nicolas felt that it was something to work toward.
Everything was still for what seemed like hours. No one made a noise, and save for Nicolas, who walked up and down the section of wall he lorded over, not a single muscle twitched for the archers on watch. Sterling could have fallen asleep just walking, seeing as it was so quiet. He was impressed by his men, but as time wore on, some began swaying back and forth, their eyes becoming more difficult to keep open with each passing moment. Some of their knees felt numb, their extremities weak as fatigue was mounting. Sterling tapped one man on the back, right between his shoulder blades, which helped the man to snap back to. The men to his side did likewise, and the men to their sides as well, until the wall was back at attention. Nicolas smiled. Then, just when things seemed the most quiet, one archer cocked his head up.
“Sir? What’s that? Off in the distance?” Sterling rushed to the man’s side, just as everyone fixed their eyes on a dark mass breaking away from the night sky. The coming morning light helped their eyes make out what would have been hidden otherwise.
“I’m not sure. Tanner’s eagle?”
“If that’s Tanner’s bird, it’s hit one helluva growth spurt,” The archer replied. Sure enough, as it got closer, Sterling could see that this was no ordinary bird flying toward them. It was much, much larger.
That’s when he saw the fire.
Susan couldn’t sleep. How could she? Today was such a big day she hardly had a wink of rest, despite her new chamber maid’s protests. She spent most of the night pacing around, her chest fluttering with excitement. Finally, defeated, the maid sighed and agreed to see the princess into her wedding dress. Susan clapped her hands joyfully and she skipped across the room.
“Oh, I can’t even wait! I’m getting married today to a prince!”
“Yes. And shortly after sunrise at that.” The maid said, her voice hinting at her exhaustion.
“Sunrise? I thought it was to be early afternoon.”
“Not anymore, Your Grace. James gave the order not too long ago that you were to wed shortly after sunrise.” Susan’s lips curled upward from ear to ear.
“Oh, he must be just a excited as I am! Can you believe it?” The maid could hardly keep herself from rolling her eyes.
“No Milady, I’m just as surprised as you are.” Sure enough, everyone in the castle had been awake for several hours now, scrambling to make sure the wedding was ready but also because there was an unknown panic in the guards and soldiers. No one knew what was going on, but it gave the chambermaid a rotten feeling from the very beginning. There came a thundering boom at the door, startling both women when the maid rushed and opened it. On the other side was General Tanner, dressed in his knightly armor from head to toe.
“His Majesty requests the princess to be dressed as soon as possible. He can’t wait any longer for this wedding to take place. It shall be held in his father’s chambers now.” He spoke with a certain urgency that unnerved the maid. Rather than ask questions, which was a luxury most maids did not carry, she curtseyed her thanks and closed the door.
“Who was that at the door?” Susan asked as she ran a hand along the lace sleeve of her dress, still displayed proudly and waiting for her to wear it.
“A word from His Eminent Grace. We must hurry Milady. Mustn’t keep you two from being united as one.” The princess gave an excited squeal as she eagerly did as she was told. The maid helped her into the elegant white dress, but only after squeezing her into a corset that made her form look sickly. Whatever was attractive for royalty, the maid thought while doing so. They could hear the hallways outside shuffle loudly as guards, servants, and knights scrambled about.
“Oh, no one can wait can they?”
“Just as excited as you are Milady.” The maid replied as she tightened one more strap on the dress. After she was handed a large looking glass, the princess admired and awed at the image of herself. The maid feared she would start crying and ruin the makeup she had applied.
“I’m the luckiest woman in the world. I really am.” Susan turned to the maid, where she rested her hands on her shoulders and gingerly kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you so very much. For all of this, for dealing with me. Everything; all of it.”
“It’s nothing, my queen. Shall we go?”
“Of course.” The maid then led Susan out the door, where the Kaiser guard swiftly escorted them toward King Carl’s chambers. Though it was early, the stained-glass windows were beginning to grow illuminated as the sun began its daily climb in the east. Despite the lords, ladies, maids, servants, and guards running about, Susan seemed oblivious to the seriousness of whatever was going on but her wedding. She simply smiled and waved to those who passed her by, commenting on their rudeness as they failed to acknowledge her. Finally the guard brought them to the grandest of doors. When opened, they saw Prince James standing before them, with an elderly priest in solemnly dark clothes and hood at his side.
“Shall we, my love?” Even James spoke with a sense of unease as he took Susan’s hand in his.
“Of course my love. May I...may I ask why we’re in your father’s chambers?” She looked to the king’s bed, only to see that his body was still there with the sheet laying over him. A sense of dread fell over her as she failed to imagine why they would wed in the presense of a dead man.
“With so much going on, there was only one person I wanted to be witness to our wedding.” James replied as he took her other hand in his, so that they faced one another. The priest, with a thick, heavy book wavering on a single shaky hand, touched the two’s hands gently with his free one.
“You said you wanted a swift ceremony correct, Your Highness?”
“Yes. The quickest you can muster.”
“Oh James,” Susan snickered. The laugh was a little more forced, seeing as how there was a corpse behind her in the lavish chamber.
“Well, if there is no one to object to this most holy of unions, then with a single kiss, a kiss to bind you now and until the day you die, I do most certainly proclaim that here today I present the King Jameson and the Queen Susanne Piermont.” And without much romance, James lurched forward and planted his lips firmly on Susan’s. Surprised at first, the princess very much liked the unexpected intrusion, but just as swiftly as he kissed her, he stepped away, breathless.
“Well my love, it is done. Come, let us enjoy our stay in…”
“What’s going on, James?” Susan asked grimly. Her demeanor was all but changed. Her girlish giggle and smile were now gone, and her brow had furrowed with her expectation of an answer. The now-king was just about to take off when he stopped and looked at his wife, still catching his breath from their rushed wedding.
“You needn’t worry about that now.”
“I believe I should. As your queen, I demand to know what’s going on. I didn’t even know your father was dead!” She stamped her foot once on the ground when she pulled her hands back to her sides in a pouting fit. Collecting himself, James cleared his throat and stood tall, a full head higher than Susan.
“We may be under attack, my love. We don’t know yet by whom, but we’ve just received word of an attack on the southwest wall by fire. They won’t tell me anymore, and we have been ordered to flee through the secret exit beneath the castle.” With his words, Susan’s face changed for the worst. So much for such a perfect day. She swallowed the lump in her throat and fought to change her heartbroken expression.
“Very well my love. Lead me. Save me. As I always imagined my king and love would.”