Chapter One: The Siege of Ravengate
What is a man to do, if he was to choose between what was the honourable choice and what was the right choice?
For Sir Aedan Howe, one of the sworn sworn of the King, that was the question he had been asking himself for the longest time. He found himself conflicted by this simple question as he quietly walked through the decaying city of Ravengate in the early hours of the morning, the sky was a beautiful blend of orange and blue, the warmth from the morning sun brightened his mood ever so slightly.
On this day more bodies littered the streets of the once vibrant city than ever before, disease was thick in the air, the stench of corpses brought a nauseating feeling to the Royal Guard’s stomach. For the past year or so Ravengate had been holding off a siege in a sense. A siege of disease inside its own walls and for the past week a siege on the outside.
Many of those in Ravengate remember this event as The Red Death, treating it as a punishment from the maker, while others of the more fanatical side of things treated it as a test on the maker’s side, to test the people of the world on if they deserved to live in his perfect world. Sir Aedan had to admit he was never one for prayers and wishful thinking, but yet even he found himself praying in the temple of the Divines on rare nights.
The disease was referred to as ‘The Red Death’ or ‘The Red Plague’. Rightly named considering the circumstances of which the infected were found upon their deaths. Bloody, and left in a horrific state of petrification.
Sir Aedan was far older than he looked, far older. Though his hair was not grey and his heart not weakened by age, he was the oldest among the Royal Guard of King Jasper II. He was Six Decades old around the time of the disease, forty of those years were spent with the Righteous Knight of Iron the Legendary Monster Hunters in Southern Aster. He knew every disease known to man, Elf or Dwarf, and never in his years had he seen anything quite as violent as this disease.
One with the infection could wake up healthy in the morning then drop dead coming evening. The normal symptoms he encountered was itching, a never ending itch that felt as though creatures were crawling beneath their skin. He had seen people strip the flesh beneath their very arms to stop the itching only to die from the shock soon after.
If he had to guess what caused the disease, it was likely caused by an insect, a flea or a mosquito carrying it. Fleas would pass it onto cats and dogs in the streets, good beasts dogs, but filthy. Whether it was sheer luck or the last embers of brilliance from a madman, but King Jasper had sealed off the city at the start of war when he rose the taxes of food and travel. Most of the country rose in revolt just due to that, and luckily for the rest of Aster the King had locked off the city and shut the gates in the early days of the infection.
He made his way through the city, his Royal Guard armour once a beautiful golden set of gilded steel was now dulled and scratched to near unrepairable proportions. Despite how damaged the plate was he felt the armour grow heavier the closer he seemed to get to the castle.
It frightened him seeing how quiet the city was now, when once upon a time Ravengate was a marvel to look at, a truly golden city boasting the highest population out of all the cities of Aster with the last census claiming the city to top over Six Hundred Thousand men, women,children and assorted others.
But now under a third of the city’s population still lived. Aedan never expected it to be so hard seeing so many people he knew dead, he had fought in battles and seen friends die throughout his whole life but seeing so many children dead almost made him vomit at the images in his head.
He had just piled the last found dead this morning, from the coroner they counted it at six thousand eight hundred and thirty two.
Most of these dead were children. Their petrified expressions lingered in Aedan’s mind like that of an old nightmare. The King had started a war because of his greed, because his treasury was running too low and he wanted to increase the tax on travel.
It made him sick.
The last of the dead had been burned only a few minutes before, but the smoke from the fire already clouded up the morning sky. Blending the sun’s rays with the black smoke made some peasantry believe it was still the evening.
His armour growing heavier and heavier still as he moved through the city, thinking on how this disease had destroyed his home, it was destroying the city from the inside, while the King’s brother fought to free Ravengate from his brother’s rule from the outside.
Aedan knew with certainty that the disease had been wiped out, they were burning the dead to strike fear into the small folk. It was working. Whether or not he left the city alive, the madness would end today.
Stopping outside the doors of the great keep, Aedan hesitated to open them. He gripped the handle tightly but he couldn’t will himself to open it, fear or an unknown force was holding him back. Gripping the door tightly he forced it open, armour rattling as he walked through the great keep.
There were ten knights assigned to protect King Jasper. Ten of the best warrior’s Aster had to offer.
Out of these Ten, only three were left.
Sir Cailan, was killed during a riot at the start of the outbreak. He fought off the civilians who took the life of Prince Duncan Swiftguard.
Sir William and Sir Peter fell to the fatal disease only a few months prior.
Sir Isaac was executed with his family for attempting to leave the city.
Sir Jacob, was slain in battle shortly before the disease made itself known. A small band of bandits murdered Sir Jacob with Kim Princess Selene on the road after peace talks with the south.
The last two, Sir Arthur and Sir Owen were executed for a suspected relationship with each other. This was discovered only a few days ago. The two men were executed the day before, with their bodies on today’s pyres.
All that remained of the Royal Guard, was Sir Aedan Howe, Sir Alexander Williamson and Sir Tristan Greenwood.
The last three Royal Guard of a mad King. There was definitely a tale to be told there. Aedan took off his helmet as he made his way through the halls, his medium length brown hair was cut to fit his helmet, eyes were of the same colour. At a glance you could tell his nose had been broken one too many times in tourneys, and his face half disfigured from a monster attack during his youth, light stubble formed along his jawline making him appear older, and despite it all, he still would have considered himself the best looking out of his brothers in the Royal Guard regardless of his ‘deformity’.
He walked through the castle alone, Sir Aedan believed himself used to the quiet, but with most of the workers in the castle dead from this disease, the quiet of it all made Aedan uneasy, something not easily done. Down the marble hallways of the castle, he saw the two remaining Royal Guard standing at attention at the doors to the throne room.
Aedan turned his eyes to the tallest of the two Sir Alexander and then to the Lord Commander who stood to the right.
“The King’s brother has reached the city walls, his forces will breach the gates soon enough. He is still of the royal family, do not fight him... do what you wish with his men.” Sir Tristan didn’t agree with Sir Aedan, standing to oppose the Knight.
“You do not give me orders, Sir Aedan.” He told him. “You are the newest among our ranks. And I am your commander. I say that whoever battles against the king will taste steel.” Aedan acknowledged the commander,despite his views on Aedan he believed the two shared a mutual respect.
He turned to Sir Alexander who said nothing, either out of disgust or out of fear. Either way he knew the two men had made up their minds.
Now it was time for him to make up his.
Aedan opened the throne room doors, where the old King sat on the throne of Aster’s Kings and Queens. Thousands of years old, yet still looked as new as the day it was carved.
The King however, looked like death itself.
In the twenty six years King Jasper II had ruled Aster, he never looked worse than the day the plague ended. The King’s hair, normally held back by the golden crown that adorned his head, now fell over his eyes, almost as white as his face. His eyes sunken in from days of sleep deprivation,his body gaunt from the lack of food in the city.
Aedan knelt before the King on his throne, followed soon by Sir Tristan and Sir Alexander. The stench of sweat struck Aedan’s nostrils as he knelt before the old King. “My King,” Aedan addressed him, placing the gilded helmet in front of him as he knelt. “The dead today count at... Two thousand, four hundred and seventy three... that is the number we counted this month alone.”
King Jasper staggered as he got from his throne, retreating behind the pale throne to the stained glass windows to look over the city in the early morning. “What of outside the gates?” He asked, trying to stand strong despite his frail state.
“Outside the gates ten thousand men stand at the ready to breach the gates and free the people. If we acted sooner we could have warned the rest of the country about the disease, even if it was only your brother, we could have-” King Jasper lifted his hand to silence Aedan.
“I did what was necessary to keep the disease from breaking out, Sir Aedan. If one infected rat left the city, if one dead body fell into the sea then the rest of the country would surely suffer.” Aedan looked back to his King, his conflicting morals taking over his duty to his King.
“Your grace, what will you have us do if your brother should attempt to storm the city with his allies? The other houses believe we have the people of Ravengate imprisoned and they all believe you too mad to rule any longer.” Sir Tristan asked.
“That man is a fool to try and challenge his brother. He should meet the same end as the others who defy King Jasper.”
“What we did was wrong...” Aedan muttered, clenching his fists tightly. The King did not hear what the bastard knight had said, but Sir Tristan however did hear him, the older knight had to agree with his young brother,but their vows forbade them from taking up arms against the King even if they were so inclined.
The King turned away from his knights, staring outside of the castle with the early morning sun shining through the stained glass window depicting a red sun, same as the day the monsters arrived through rifts so long ago. Aedan could feel his mouth drying up in the fear of what would come next. Would Jasper ask them to burn the city to the ground, enlist the Pyromancers left to like the pitch and leave the city in ashes? Would they open the gates willingly to the princess and risk the disease breaking out? Who could say with a King who was now frightened of his own shadow.
The three remaining knights knelt in anticipation of what their King planned next.
King Jasper gave a tired sigh before turning back to his knights with a smile.“Commander Greenwood, take your brothers to the white tower. Devise a plan for the ‘friends’ who wait at our gates. You have free range to do whatever you so please.”
Sir Tristan got to his feet and nodded to the King. Sir Aedan had to admit to feeling slightly relieved that they would not destroy their city this day. The trio of Royal Knights followed the empty hallways to the southern tower. Sir Aedan’s thoughts were as full as the halls once were, as he began building a plan in his head.
“I truly feel relieved, I don’t know about you Sir but I feel a lot lighter after that.” Sir Alexander admitted to Aedan.
“I agree, with how King Jasper has been of late I feared the old fool would have ordered us to-” Sir Tristan cut off Sir Aedan quickly, the bastard knight kept silent for his commander as the three stopped for a scolding.
“I would not speak so ill of the King, Sir Aedan. He still has his Pyromancers skulking around the castle. One of them catches wind of your treasonous talk and it’ll be your head that rolls.” Sir Tristan placed his hand on Sir Aedan’s shoulder like a father does to his long lost son. “We need not lose another brother because of these... foreigners.” Sir Tristan opened the door to the stairway leading to the tower and the trio made their way up to discuss their battle plan.
A few hours between the three passed with no noteworthy progress being made. From The White Tower, Sir Aedan watched the chaos in the city unfold.
Prince Fenris was sacking the city, Aedan thought to himself. He knew it was only a matter of time until the city fell. He failed to recall a time where he was wrong in regards to a city under siege. Ravengate was undermanned, barely a thousand men fighting in the city and on the walls against what was likely twenty thousand outside the walls. The city would fall come nightfall and then the people would be free or the disease would destroy everything. He could hear the distant but audible sounds of a coming battle. Horses feet, the marching of bloodthirsty men, and a far away scream. Thousands of ally soldiers came to Ravengate to free her people but were completely oblivious to the truth of the matter of the red plague.
It was hard to not feel guilty, scores of commoners would be killed during the attack despite the fact they claim to be freeing them from a tyrant... all while they hid behind castle walls.
All because of what seemed to be a smart decision at the time. How could anyone have foreseen what would happen?
“We need to get to work,” Sir Aedan said. He forced himself to look down from the window at the ink and quill on the table. As one of the last remaining Royal Guard he saw fit to finish the chapters of their fallen brothers. In all the chaos no one completed the entries of the book. He could hear the rams breaking the gates to the city. Perhaps the city would fall quicker than he believed. A blessing for him, he thought. But the risk of the red plague escaping the city terrified him, for all they knew it could be gone, but why take that risk just yet?
A great thundering crash came from the front gate. Cheers came from it and this made Sir Alexander jump from his seat. “What was that?” He asked.
“The end,” Aedan told him, placing down the quill after finishing the entries of their fallen brothers. “We’ll all be dead come morning if the gods are just.” Aedan’s pessimism coming out in this grim time. “Prince Fenris’ allies will ruin the city just to get his brother off the throne... yet they don’t know what they’ve likely unleashed.” Swiftguard men screamed with animalistic ferocity as they charged through the North Gate, spreading all throughout the Northern half of the city. A small number were engaging with the pathetic excuse for a City Guard that remained but the majority of the men rode uncontested throughout the street. Looting, raping, and murdering most likely. It could be the only reason why so many would be screaming and running like rats away from the fighting towards the Keep.
“We must not give up hope,” Sir Tristan told them. The old knight grabbed his sword and descended down the stairs with Sir Alexander following behind.“Sir Howe, do not leave the King’s side! Protect him with your life!” Was the last thing his commander had told him that day.
It had been abundantly clear that the pathetic excuse for a defenders of Ravengate were severely outnumbered, and it was just a matter of time before they reached the castle walls.
This was over the moment King Jasper decided to make that child his heir.
However, Sir Aedan couldn’t voice his opinions to his King out of concern for his life. Aedan’s head would – No – he’d burn Aedan alive in the square as a message for any other treasonous fools. Another way, I have to find another way. Aedan told himself. Through writing? A message! Aedan quickly grabbed the ink and quill as he started to think of what to write... he pried his mind. It had never been a talent of his that was more Sir Tristan’s forte than his. He begrudgingly began to write the letter to the King. Words of any worth are always best communicated through speaking in person, Aedan decided now was the time.
He stood up and strolled quickly out the tower’s solar, looking for a messenger to send to the king. Aedan’s request was definitely simple. Asking Jasper for leave to make terms with the attackers and hopefully spare many lives in the process including his own. He shuddered, the disturbing thought at the back of his mind, he tried to shut it away but he was a fool for trying to remain hopeful in such a hopeless situation. Jasper won’t listen, you know it. He’d burn this city to the ground to kill a disease that is already dead.
Jasper had dismissed most of his council due to letting foreigners into his country which he believed spread the disease. The rest of his council died from said disease days after. But as usual, he kept his guards close out of paranoia. He’d also enlisted the help of Pyromancers as a last resort if the disease came close to breaking from the city... the final storm the King called it, and they’d burn the city to the ground to prevent the disease from spreading with the help of magic. Their leader, a man named Henrik, was fascinated with fire magic and would not disobey the king if he was asked to burn the city to the ground.
I’ll have to kill Henrik... all of his men too.
And if my hand is forced, King Jasper as well.
It was an incredible, shocking realisation as to what he had to do. A treasonous one. To kill a King he had sworn to protect with his very life, going against every aspect of his morality to save the city from destruction. But the only alternative was the city being consumed by mage fire. It would be better to dispose of a few than an entire city falling to the flames. The Barrels of oil are everywhere,from the brothels to the markets and the tunnels under the keep itself... Sir Aedan had heard the word “Random” used more than once concerning the placement of pitch.
One spark, and we’re all dead.
It will not be so easy, Aedan thought. I need to get the situation in the throne room, is it empty? Are there any soldiers inside, so loyal they’re willing to defend a psychotic old man? As Aedan pondered and pondered, he exited the tower and came down into the early afternoon sunlight. A middle-aged man appeared around the corner dragging a wheeled cart filled with various fruits. He knew his face well.
One of Henrik’s messengers, thank the gods.
He was clean shaven and modestly dressed, and was quick to notice Aedan’s shining armour and cloak. “Good day Sir Aedan,” he said, nodding respectfully.“Is there any news on the progress of the battle?”
He’ll have to do, Aedan decided.
“I’ll tell you, good man. However I can only say on the condition you deliver a message to King Jasper for me,” He told him. His voice calm but firm.
“That can be done, Sir Aedan. I’d do anything, just please, let me inside Redmount Keep. It is the safest place!” His dark brown eyes were laced with fear. He wants shelter, thought Aedan. Understandable.
“If you deliver the message, you’ll be allowed to cower inside the keep.”
“What would this message be, Sir?”
“Just a word to His Grace the King. Tell him Sir Aedan has decided the best course of action is to make peace with the attackers, they need to understand why we shut the gates to everyone.”
The man looked afraid again, but he swallowed down his fear. “I will do as you wish, is that all Sir?”
“Yes, that is all. Return to me as soon as you can.”
The messenger nodded and sped off, his pace increased. It would help if I knew who else was in that throne room. But in that second, Aedan kept quiet. He could not be sure of this man’s loyalties. With Fenris sacking the city and closing in, Jasper is probably so paranoid he’ll turn his soldiers against me. Aedan never liked having to think through his actions, an endless maze of court politics. Yet as of now, his actions not only meant the difference between his own life or death, but the lives of thousands of innocents. As well as the King. Just to think of killing the man I am warn to defend... what have I become?
It was a lot of weight to put on a young Elf’s shoulders.
He re-entered the white tower and climbed all the way back up the steps, to make it seem like he was hard at work. To the abyss with surrender terms, these men want to be heroes and want to overthrow a mad tyrant. Again, he was deep in thought and staring out the window. The city was now an even more chaotic pit of battle, the sounds of battle becoming more prominent by the minute.
He began to lose track of time staring blankly into the city.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
Aedan gulped. It could very well be Henrik, Aedan was in his tower, after all. Aedan would have to kill him, there was no other choice.
“Who’s there?” Aedan’s voice was tense, he got up from the chair and grabbed his sword from beside the table now ready for a fight.
“A message from the King,” The messenger’s voice responded. He had returned!
Aedan opened the door a crack, and luckily it was indeed just the messenger and he stood alone. He exhaled and opened it completely. The dark eyed man nodded respectfully and spoke. “His grace... demands you bring him the head of his treasonous daughter, do this and you will be given lands and titles and legitimised as a Howe.”
It took all he had to keep a straight face at the prospect.
Jasper wanted me to decapitate his own brother to forsake my vows to protect the Royal family... Aedan struggled to hide the look of disgust on his face. Yet he composed himself and held his tongue, like he always had. The messenger continued to speak. “His Grace also commands you to help defend the Keep at all costs, he will not tolerate surrender. He is alone with the left hand of the King. Every man is needed, Sir Aedan.”
Aedan’s heartbeat doubled, as he made the terrible realisation. That could only mean one thing.
He’s actually going to do it. He’s going to command the destructions of the city...That is if he hasn’t already. I have to act now!
Aedan soon found himself bursting into a sprint, almost unconsciously, toward the throne room. “Stop!” The messenger called. “May I be let into the Keep now!? Please, stop!”
But Aedan barely heard the man’s pleading.
He dashed over the small bridge which connected the white tower to the rest of the keep and into the kitchens of the Small Hall. The kitchens had been completely ransacked, all of the food taken from the cupboards and shelves. He almost slipped and fell due to some slippery substance, but kept his feet and pace.
The kitchens led to the Small Hall itself, a modest room which could accompany at best a hundred guests. At first glance it was completely empty. Then, Aedan saw a young low born woman sitting on a table with a babe at her breast. The child was crying, almost aware of what has to come. “Sir!” The woman called after him. “The soldiers are nearing the gates! Do something!”
I am doing something,
Like the messenger, Aedan left the woman behind to be taken by destiny, whatever that was. He found the door which led under the hall that divided the keep in two. Aedan was then outside again, in the outer courtyard. Here, he saw the woman was right, Swiftguard men had to be close. There was a small collection of archers on the battlements, firing into the streets below. Sir Tristan and Sir Alexander commanding the men where Sir Tristan caught a glimpse of Aedan.
“Sir Aedan! Get to the King!” Aedan could hear the sound of metal clashing and the screams of pain from beyond the walls. It won’t be long.
A communal yell came from beyond the walls. It was the main gate to Redmount Keep, which was being smacked with a battering ram. There was two iron doors on either side of the gate with a portcullis in between.
If this is their plan, they’ll be here all day, he told himself.
Just as Aedan turned the corner to enter the Great Hall, it burst open. A man dressed as a common soldier came strolling out, shuffling quickly on his feet. Aedan almost passed him, not paying mind.
Until he took a second glance at the man, the short blonde hair, brown eyes almost black, mousy nose, and the strange limp he walked with. This could only be one person. Henrik. He kept his head down and his strides determined. He was heading to a Postern gate, about a hundred yards from the portcullis. Aedan took after him, cutting him off as he got to the gate. He looked around one more time. Nobody watching? Good, nobody will see.
“Sir Aedan, I hope you’re not trying to desert our cause!” Said the Left Hand, he had a bright smile. “His grace wants you back in the throne room, you best not leave his side again!”
Aedan took a deep breath, doing his best to mask the fear inside him. He looked deep into Henrik’s eyes, almost to the soul of this mouse of a man. His tone was flat.
“Where are you going?”
His smile faded, Henrik sensed something was wrong, very wrong.
“Oh... uh, on the King’s business.” His voice was now ice cold. “Now step aside and let me pass.”
As Henrik attempted to move beside Aedan and through the gate, he again was stopped. “I cannot let you do that.” Aedan drew his sword quicker than a viper, giving the hand barely enough time to react to what was about to happen. Henrik’s jaw dropped in horror, realizing what was coming. For an instant, Aedan regretted it. Just for an instant. I am about to murder a defenceless man. Aedan had crossed swords once, with a spell sword during the black magic rebellion, but he had never enjoyed killing a man. Monsters were one thing he was trained to kill but men were never his targets. No, this man has his defence. Caches of pitch all around the city, where one match could send the entire city to the abyss in an instant. He thought of everyone who died because of the Red Death, the men dying outside the walls of the keep at this moment.
Aedan flared with anger, providing himself with both the motivation and the momentum for a savage downward cut aimed straight for Henrik’s gut.
A messy and lethal blow.
Aedan had cut the man open from the breast to below the navel, blood pouring out almost like a waterfall. All Henrik could do was gasp before he passed from the shock and pain.
He couldn’t help but look down at the dead hand, to process what he had just done. Aedan immediately got a strange feeling in his stomach, like it was tightening. The man’s eyes were still wide open, empty. He... he sickly enjoyed it.
He sighed, a long deep sigh.
Aedan walked slowly,as he mind felt as though it had been cooked a little. It isn’t like he hadn’t seen men die before. It always happened at tournaments, and during contracts on monsters and the Black Magic Rebellion. Several people he knew had been killed. He had been watching people die and burn for the past year now. This was no different.
“Heave!” It was the yell from the men handling the battering ram which shocked Aedan back to reality. He looked back up to the battlements, to see if there were anymore loyalists still fighting. There were a few still standing, but he couldn’t focus on them.
He quickened his pace, and opened the great door to the Great Hall.
King Jasper was entirely alone in the room, except for the flaming torches that lined the hall. He paced back and forth in front of the throne. The King was talking to himself again, loudly and angrily. His dark green eyes, wild and feral, looked up to meet Aedan as he walked briskly across to meet his King.
“Sir Aedan! They’re traitors, all of them! The traitors want my city, but we will cleanse it of their filth and the Red Death!” Jasper hissed, and then he coughed. A nasty snot filled cough. He spat it out. “My hand is about to give these traitors a warm welcome!”
He then cackled, a somewhat sickening evil laugh. He was like a hag, just like the stories Aedan heard as a child. After a moment, Jasper’s smile left him, and he gave Aedan a deathly glare which almost made him shiver. He looked more like a common rat than nobility. His smell was atrocious; he probably hadn’t bathed in weeks now.
“I thought I commanded you to bring me my treasonous brother’s head! I want that bastard dead, that traitor, you’ll bring me his head or I’ll have you murdered like the rest!”
With that, Aedan felt something inside himself snap.
I may have sworn my life to this man once. But not anymore. I forsake my vows to this Mad King. I’ll give him to the dirt. As if on cue, Aedan noticed Jasper stared at him, with a wild hellish gaze. He was looking down at something. “Whose blood is that on your blade?”
At that moment, Aedan realised he’d forgotten to sheathe his sword. He was still holding the thing, stained with Henrik’s blood. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Far away Aedan could hear the voices and the clashing of steel. They’re just outside the Hall.
“Whose blood!?” He asked again. Did it really matter now?
“Henrik’s.“Aedan’s voice was emotionless and plain, just like it had been before he gutted the Left Hand of the King. I feel like I’m losing myself in this city, going insane just like the King.
Aedan thought Jasper’s eyes couldn’t get any wider, but they went from dinner plates to bells from the church. He tried to run from Aedan, to the throne. It was a crooked hobble, not too unlike Henrik’s way of running. Falling face first onto the marble, Jasper seemed to have pissed himself, large drips of liquid coming out from under his robes. Maker the King has pissed himself, a man of his stature should die with some dignity.
No, he doesn’t deserve to die with dignity.
Aedan caught up with him as he climbed the steps to the throne, as if sitting on the chair would protect him from Aedan’s wrath. He wasn’t quick enough. Aedan grabbed him by the shoulder three steps up, turning him around to face the sword. Like Henrik’s lethal wound, the cut was swift and deep. A rivulet of blood streamed out from his neck.
And that was where King Jasper II, Thirty Second Swiftguard King of Aster fell and died. The eagle head crown of his ancestors fell to Aedan’s feet as the life drained from him, staining the tips of Aedan’s white and black cloak.
Aedan could do nothing, but sit on King Jasper’s Throne as he awaited his fate.
He would wait for Prince Fenris Swiftguard to arrive, what the new King would do Aedan could only imagine. Would he be punished for forsaking his vows? Would he be rewarded for overthrowing a mad tyrant? He shuddered at the thought of his neck being broken at the gallows, or his head falling into the crowd in the square.
Him dying would please man, his own family included would be delighted to hear of his execution. He slumped down on the throne, sword hanging loosely in his grip as the adrenaline of what he had done quickly wore off. His breathing slowed and he felt himself relax if for a moment.
But that moment didn’t last long. He thought on what would happen to Queen Rowena, to the child she would give birth to in a few short days if the doctors were right. Fenris was better than Jasper, no one could debate that, but what would he do to secure this throne? Prince Duncan was dead, Princess Selene was dead, the Queen would be in childbirth and no one knew if the baby would survive long with people knowing that they’re the Old King’s child.
But if the child survives, then this war to free the people from King Jasper would have been for nothing in Fenris’ eyes, he still wouldn’t have gotten his throne. He’d be overshadowed by a child. Sheathing his sword, Aedan walked around the Old King’s body which already began to smell from his soiling himself before death. He had to check on Queen Rowena.
“She’d be near the top of the keep if anywhere... there’s nowhere else for her to go.” Aedan told himself out loud, he rushed out the door and ran as fast as he could despite his heavy armour. Aedan knew what kind of man Fenris was, and worried that there could be someone already going after the Queen to secure his place as King.
He couldn’t let that happen. He couldn’t let the thousand year long dynasty be butchered in the chaos. His father might have objected, but Aedan couldn’t let that happen. He heard shouting above him, the last of the Guards inside the castle protecting the family. A small group of soldiers must have broken through the ranks. He reached the top of the stairs and found a dozen soldiers pushing their way into a room at the end of the hall. The man in front was the largest man Aedan had seen. They broke through and charged into the room, the bodies of the remaining guards crushed under their feet. Shrieks from two women and children filled the hall as Aedan charged after them.
He knocked one soldier aside as he found the tall soldier, thrice the size of Aedan crush one of the children against a wall, whether the child was still alive Aedan could only hope. The maid cradled the child in her arms, hoping the child was still living. The man prepared to lift his sword to cut the Queen down as she covered her belly in the corner of the room. “NO!” Aedan shouted as he rushed forward with all his strength and drew his sword. He swatted the blow aside, saving the queen and her unborn child’s life. The man turned his attention to Aedan, and it didn’t take long for him to notice his medallion. He was an iron knight like him, but his expression was like that of a wild animal, eyes bloody with rage. His breathing was loud and frightening. The massive man screamed in a mad rage as he swung his sword towards Aedan. All the soldiers backed away in fear as Aedan was forced to back away and defend himself. “Stop this madness!” Aedan shouted. The man ignored his orders as he swung again.
He had become a wild animal that had been denied its kill and now he was going to take that wild ferocity out on Aedan. He was stronger than Aedan, his blows vibrated Aedan’s wrists each time their blades connected. But Aedan was more agile even in heavy armour. He couldn’t defeat him in a straight up fight but maybe he didn’t have to. With every swing he seemed to get slower and with less force behind any of his blows he could connect. He was getting fatigued using such a large axe. His fight up to the keep must have exhausted him. But this didn’t take away from how dangerous he was. He threw a wild swing that nearly connected with Aedan’s head but he managed to duck underneath it at the last moment. This left the man vulnerable for a split second which Aedan utilized. He drove his sword through a weak point near the shoulder joint in his armour. Blood began to drip out of the resulting wound but the beast didn’t seem to notice it. He swung again and Aedan struck the other shoulder when he saw his opening, drawing blood again and this time the man noticed it. The wounds were sapping his strength.
“You will not harm them,” Aedan spoke with conviction.
He screamed and charged Aedan again, his attack sloppy and easily avoidable. Aedan struck him with the pommel of his sword with a hard swing to the jaw. The blow stunned him, allowing Aedan to slash at the back of his left knee. His sword sliced through bone and flesh like butter. The large man screamed in pain before finally dropping to the ground. No longer able to stand, he held up his hands in surrender as his eyes peered into Aedan’s. “I yield,” he growled almost in a whisper.
“Be thankful that I am a man of mercy, but you will never fight again with those wounds.” Aedan replied. He turned his attention to the man’s men who were completely shocked of the outcome.
This was the strength of a Royal Guard.
“Thank you, Sir Aedan.” Whimpered the Queen. The maid closed the eyes of the child this monster had slammed against the wall, a boy of only ten years.
Aedan gave the maid a comforting smile and embrace to help ease the pain.
The Queen screamed in pain. Aedan knelt down and held her hand. “It’s coming...” She whispered.
“Blankets! Now!” He shouted, one of the soldiers ran to grab blankets for the Queen while others tried to tend to their commander’s wounds. Aedan reached past her belly and felt the warm wet sensation of blood. She was haemorrhaging and badly. Something was wrong. “My Queen, you’re losing a lot of blood...” He told her with a look of sorrow.
She returned his look with acknowledging tears. If she gave birth now, it was almost certain she would die. “Please... Sir Aedan, help me through this,” She pleased. He nodded and tried to give her a comforting smile.
After what seemed like hours, with the battle raging outside the walls, Queen Helena gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, thick black hair was already on her head as she came out, and her eyes were a vibrant green, the first newborn Aedan had seen with such developed features already.
With his hands now covered in blood, Aedan handed the child to the handmaid who had valiantly acted as the midwife for the baby.
Queen Rowena was bleeding out. Something had gone wrong with the birth. Now, Aedan Howe was no midwife, but it didn’t take one to figure that much out. They only had the handmaid, a girl named Ilia. This was something Aedan hadn’t thought about, a possibility that didn’t cross his mind in his plan to save the city.
A scream broke Aedan away from his thoughts, and he remembered where he was and why he was in this room. Nothing in his vows told him he was required to stay in this room. In the Keep even. The King was dead by his hand and the city was safe.
If Aedan had been any other man, any of the remaining Royalguard, he’d have left the Queen and the maid. But that was unfair.
He was the protector of the people. And someone needed his help.
Aedan knelt down beside her, and her hand clutched his instinctively. Even dying, her grip was strong. It was a true shame that such strength had gone to a woman. If she had been born a man, she could have become an excellent fighter. But the maker had a sick sense of humour and cursed her to a life of dresses, courtesies, and betrothals.
The King had been stupid enough to never listen to his wife’s council, he ignored everyone’s council to be frank, but Aedan’s blood boiled when he thought of King Jasper. Perhaps if the King had abdicated when his health began to decline, none of this would have happened.
“Sir... Aedan,” She whispered, her voice weak. She didn’t have long, only a few minutes at best. From outside the room, her daughter’s wailing could already be heard. A weary smile crossed her face. “Let me see her... let me see my daughter.”
Maybe before all this, had she asked that of Sir Aedan, he would have denied her. The Queen must be taken from here. She is no longer her concern. But no matter where he stood before, he couldn’t deny her this.
He called to Ilia, who was holding the poor child, and she entered. The baby was swaddled in Aedan’s own white cloak. There had been little else to use, and it was old anyway. He wouldn’t need it where they were going. She passed him the child, who continued to cry out, and he in turn passed her to Rowena.
Almost as soon as the child was in her arms, she quieted down. She was her mother after all. Of course he would find comfort in her. She shushed him, rocking him slowly, back and forth. She was weak and Aedan was surprised she was managing to hold onto the child. She had no name yet, having only been born not long ago. They would need a name for their Queen. It only seemed right that her mother, who she would never know, should be the one to decide.
“Is he here...? Has he come?” There was no need to clarify who she meant. She was asking out of fear of Lord Fenris. The man who would take the child from her mother’s arms and kill it just to have no competition for the throne.
“No. Your grace, the gods favour us today. Fenris has not breached the Keep yet. We’ll need to flee if you want your child to live.” Aedan told her.
She gripped his arm, pulling him closer to her. There was a desperation in her eyes. She knew that it was almost time. Jasper was dead, the Royalguard all but eradicated. The heirs fallen in battle or taken by the Red Plague. All that remained, was Queen Rowena, Aedan, his brothers in the Guard, and Ilia and Queen Rowena’s daughter, who had not even been named.
“Promise me.” She began, stopping to swallow hard on her words and stop the tears, “Promise me you’ll look after my daughter. Protect her, save her, serve her. Please... do not let Fenris kill her... Please.”
He felt those words were prepared more for Sir Tristan than him, she was asking him to do something that was already his duty. She knew he would have carried it out regardless if she had asked for it. But she was dying, and a dying mother was allowed to have some wishes for her children. He held her hand that was on his arm. “I promise, on the Gods of Old and The Maker. By all the gods, I promise you I will protect your child until my last day.”
Rowena smiled, and the last of her energy left her. She sagged back against the pillows, looking even more exhausted than the birth itself. “I had hoped to live to see my child grow.” She let out a humourless laugh. “It is not nearly enough recompense for all that has happened. But it hurts enough to know the gods do not care...”
“My Queen, you cannot leave us yet! Not yet.” Her eyelids already began to droop. He knew if she fell into a sleep, she would not wake up. “Rowena, please, do not leave yet! You daughter needs a name! Let her have one final gift from her mother! Please!”
That did it.
Her eyes opened wide, and there was a surprised look in them. It was almost like she had forgotten to take her shoes off before bed rather than name her daughter before her death. Aedan had taken the girl back, afraid that in her weakened state, Rowena might drop her. With his help, she held her for the last time. She looked at her face, at her tuft of dark hair and her emerald eyes. She would look more like her mother than her father.
“Freya, Freya Morgana Swiftguard.” She finally murmured, so low that Aedan had to lean in to be sure he heard right.
“Freya,” She repeated more firmly. He nodded.
“Freya,” He agreed with a grin. The girl fussed in his arms, and he thought of how the child would never be held by her mother again. It brought an ache to his heart. Hadn’t there been enough death and suffering from this war? This stupid war the King started because of his greed. Weren’t there enough orphaned boys out there, that had no one? Did the gods have to add another to the list? Were they punishing the child, Freya, for a crime her parents had committed and no her herself?
Her grip with slackening, her fingers slipping away. “Aedan,” she breathed, voice a little more than a whisper. Desperately, he reached for her hand. It was futile; he was trying to hold onto her life, to keep her there with him.
With a final sigh, she let her head fall back. The light that had once glowed so brightly in her eyes, the light that had been her will to live and fight, burned out. Only darkness and an empty feeling was left. She was no longer the beautiful Queen who was too young to die, she was now just a corpse, another story to be told.
Aedan soon began to weep, how could he not? It was all too much, he had just killed his King and now the Queen had entrusted him to protect their daughter with her dying breath. He held a baby in his arms that would never know her mother or father, would spend most of her life running from shadows.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, holding her lifeless hand and her child, who cried now. He was only broken out of his tears when he felt a firm and gentle hand on his shoulder. Looking away from the girl, he stared into the eyes of Sir Tristan. His commander.
Sir Tristan nodded when he saw Rowena dead and the child in Aedan’s arms. He knew, he understood. His hand hadn’t left Aedan’s shoulder. He was looking down at the baby now, a silent question on his face.
“Freya, her name is Freya.”
“A beautiful name, she will be a good Queen when the time comes.” He promised, though there was that unspoken thought in there. They all believed Jasper to be a good King, and look what happened. They could only pray that she does not follow in her father’s footsteps. “We’ll need to leave soon.” Tristan continued. “We’re going to have to find passage to Cinnia, or maybe Ebeth if we can find the coin.”
Aedan nodded, not wanting to speak. There wasn’t anything to say in truth. They had to leave Aster, if they were to protect Queen Freya. Fenris would hunt them down till the ends of the world, but what the new King wasn’t aware of, was this:
The Queen was protected. And she always would be.
The three knights made sure to take turns holding Freya once they were free from the city, passing through the gates during the chaos of the other civilians fleeing in terror as Fenris took the throne for himself. They fed the newborn goats milk that they managed to scavenge from the kitchens, not much was left for the three grown men but the days that it would take to bring Freya to a place of safety the milk was plenty.
After a few days of riding, Aedan was the one to hold the Queen. She seemed most at ease when in Aedan’s arms, the Knight made sure to feed her whenever she needed it. Despite how bad thing would get, Aedan seemed the least bothered by his duties to the Queen. Checking the flask, Aedan noted that the milk would run out soon, only having a few days worth, but thankfully they were only a days ride from what Aedan considered a safe haven for them before they flee across the sea.
Castle Blackwood. Home, Aedan thought.
He hadn’t seen his father figure Alvis, the very man who taught him to use a sword, since he was risen to the Royal Guard. Aedan only hoped the old man held no hatred towards him for leaving so suddenly. He needed answers as to why one of their own tried to assassinate the Queen. But he also missed the warmth of Alvis’ embrace.
The road was dusty, the summer sun hot. Their armour was wearing them down and when the did stop it was never for very long. They had to keep moving. Little Freya was asleep, resting in the crook of Aedan’s arm. His cloak still covered the child and protected her skin from the summer heat. That was what she did most of the day; she would eat, sleep, and cry. By now the three Royalguard were used to the cycle.
“Up ahead,” Sir Tristan called out, his voice dull and raspy from the road. They didn’t speak much between one another, as there wasn’t much to talk about. Aedan raised his head from where he had been gazing down at Freya, and a smile lit his face. Castle Blackwood was just as he remembered, the view beautiful, the walls impenetrable. He hadn’t been home in years, having served in the Royalguard for a long while but now he felt like a child returning home to his family after a trip to the market.
As they neared, rides rode out to approach them. They stopped some feet away, shouting, “Halt!”
Aedan was exhausted and sore and irritable from the long journey. So were the others. Rather than kindly greet them and ask for shelter, he called out to them, “Oh for- Step aside you fools! Do you not recognise a brother of Iron when you see one?”
“Sir Aedan?” They asked incredulously, their faces ones of shock and surprise. No one had heard from Sir Aedan in years, so no one knew if he survived the war. It was as if they had seen a ghost.
“Yes!” He snapped, “Now are you going to keep me and my fellow Royalguards waiting or are you going to get Grandmaster Alvis and let us in!?”
The men quickly moved aside, giving hurried, “Yes Sirs,” and “Sorry, my lord.” He didn’t have the time nor the strength to correct those who called him Lord. Instead, he and the other two urged their horses forward and entered Castle Blackwood.
Hours went by with them settling in. Aedan took to the wood just outside the Keep, looking for a place to rest his head away from the eyes of others. He held Princess Freya in his right arm, and a rusty shovel in his left as he travelled through the woods outside the grounds. An itching sensation was gnawing at Aedan the whole journey there in the back of his mind, like a dog merely brushing against its owners leg to get their attention.
The sword in his possession, it was corrupted, rotten, filthy. The armour was false gold and he wanted rid of them both. This blade was the tool he broke his oath with, it would serve as the reminder of his failure. He had to bury it, leave it forgotten in the ground to rust and wither away so he could continue on with his life. Because of this, Aedan searched for a glade not too far from the castle, the four tower of the Keep were still in view even as deep as he was in the woods.
Perfect, he thought to himself.
Looking at the early morning sun in the sky, a beautiful orange blended in with the cool blue that would follow the rest of the day, Aedan took a minute to breathe.
He placed Freya down gently in a dip in a tree nearby where he would dig this hole outside the castle ground, opposite a great oak tree that stood higher than the rest in the glade.
Aedan prepared to dig the hole, he took off his gauntlets and thrust the shovel into the ground, shovelling the dirt into a pile to the right of him.
The early sun ascended to noon by the time he believed the hole deep enough. Even though he had second thoughts on what he was about to do, he took off his armour, the golden chest plate of the Royalguard glowed bright as the sun reflected off of it. He couldn’t bare to look in the reflection, this title once was for the honourable and the worthy, but now Aedan felt as filthy as the criminals who hold the title of knight. How can he call himself a knight after forsaking his vows?
Aedan dropped the breastplate into the dirt, followed by his own helmet and gauntlets. Aedan unbuckled his sheathed sword from his side and drew the blade one last time.
“Who are you?” Aedan asked himself, unsure of such an answer to that question now. “What, are you?” He demanded from his reflection, but no reply came from the reflection in the steel. The sword was sheathed almost as quick as it was drawn and tossed into the pile. The man spared no time in covering it with dirt, eager to return to the Keep with the Queen to secure passage for across the sea.
Covering the hole in the dirt Aedan knelt before the tree, sitting in silent prayer before taking young Freya back to the Keep. Aedan returned to his chambers with the Queen, Tristan and Alexander were already settled into a room given to them by the guards that met them at the gates. For the first time is days, the men were free of their filthy armours. Sir Alexander sat down on a bed, taking the armour off of him and hanging it on a mannequin with the intent on cleaning it later on. Sir Tristan, was already in the process of cleaning his armour, with an oiled cloth to give his armour its shiny coating again. Out of the two who still held their Royalguard armour, Tristan’s armour had seen the most wear. Scratches from battles decades past adorned the chest plate.
The Blackwolf sat with the child, Freya was sound asleep in his arms and with a smile on her face. A toothless grin of utter innocence.
“What will we do?” Sir Tristan asked, examining his old features in the reflection of his armour. “What were the Queen’s instructions?” Tristan asked, placing his armour on his bed and stretching his joints. As old as he was, he needed that relief.
Aedan shrugged his shoulders, placing Freya in a makeshift crib beside the bed.
He turned to his brothers and told them honestly. “She simply told me to take Princess Freya across the sea and away from her Uncle. With King Jasper dead, she’s the heir regardless of Fenris’ protests. But we need to keep her safe across the sea, prepare her to rule. Then, when the time is right we will return to Aster to help her claim the throne.” Because of this fact, the men were sure to be seen as deserters. “Alvis should let us restock on anything we need, food, water, wine if we so ask. One of the nurses here should be joining us too to help raise Freya.” He told them.
Sir Alexander spoke for the first time in days. And it was out of anger. “If her grace is to be safe we cannot keep addressing her as Freya. Fenris will know it is her. We should have killed those men who attacked the Queen instead of letting them get away, we were foolish. You were foolish not to kill them when you had the chance, Aedan!” Alexander shifted the blame from the assailants to Aedan.
Aedan ignored the young Knight’s outburst. Instead he thought on how they could protect the Queen, and of the name they would give her to protect her from her uncle.
“Freya Morgana Swiftguard... maybe we could call her Morrigan.” Aedan suggested, staring down at the Raven haired child. Seeing the resemblance to a witch of Legend.
“Like that old Woodland Witch tale? You’d disgrace your Queen with an unfavourable name.” Alexander declared. Seeing the Queen’s alias as distasteful. Sir Tristan on the other hand couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s so stupid that it might work, Sir Aedan. But we must remind ourselves this child will not be able to fly in the sky like a Raven or conjure flames from with the snap of her fingers.” Tristan’s smile faded away as he looked to Aedan. Sir Aedan’s own thoughts were leagues away from where they were just a minute ago, it was a strange feeling for the Knight.
His thoughts were on the deed he had committed. Was killing Jasper truly the right choice? At the time he was certain it was the only choice to be made, but now with a clearer mind and a steadier hand he doubted himself. It was hard enough that he failed to inform his brothers about how the King died, he couldn’t escape Jasper’s horrified face even in his own dreams.
Sir Tristan places a hand on Aedan’s shoulder, snapping Aedan back to reality. “Aedan, what happened to the King? You were meant to stay by his side!” Aedan bit his tongue trying to keep it hidden, but he couldn’t hold it forever. It weighed him down like an anchor, pulling him down to the ocean floor. “What happened?”
Aedan didn’t respond to his commander, not because he wouldn’t but just that he simply couldn’t bring himself to admit it. This anchor seemed to drag him deeper below the depths and made it just that much harder to admit what he had done.
After what felt like an eternity to choke it out, Aedan concluded that he must lie.
“Assassins... I wasn’t fast enough to save him, I followed after them when they attacked the Queen. I fought them off, delivered Queen Freya, and sat with Rowena as she died. I did everything I could Tristan, you must believe me.”
Sir Tristan simply stared at Aedan, leaving the knight unsure on if his commander believed him. But the two left it at that. Sir Tristan sat back down on his own bed and lay there, quickly falling asleep. In his old age he slept most of the time, some days Aedan and Alexander were scared the old Knight might not awaken.
Aedan left his armour on the bed, wishing to don his underclothes as he walked around the old castle he called home. He had one person on his mind during the visit. That was to visit his master, his father, Grandmaster Alvis.
He passed through the spiralling staircase of the Keep, catching glimpsed of the new students, the forgotten children who will correct the mistakes of their predecessors. Seeing the eager faces of the new recruits in the keep only told Aedan they were doing just as well as they had when he left and he couldn’t help but smile, for even though so many of these children were left and unwanted, here they were all equal. He couldn’t help but wonder, that had he not left to join the Royalguard, Aedan would have trained a few of the new recruits and perhaps his life would be much different. Much simpler. But Alvis and Aedan had not left each other on good terms.
The two had differing ideas of honour. Aedan, as young as he was back then, believed that the Royalguard is the highest honour he could have gotten, being born a bastard meant that he had nothing to inherit. Alvis on the other hand, saw the Royalguard as little more than a group of thugs, men who abuse their power over the people.
Ascending to the top of the great keep to Alvis’ study, Aedan had hoped to spend a bit of time alone with his old mentor, to ask forgiveness and to find answers.
The walls of this keep were old, older than Aedan, older than anyone else who walked in its great halls. If one stood alone in the halls, making nary a squeak, one could swear they’d heard the whispers of those who came before, the knights who first set foot inside as Hunters.
Reminiscing of years gone by, Aedan fell into an old habit of one foot on one tile on the walk there, reminiscing on how as a child that this superstition was needed. It was silly, but it was a fun habit.
It wasn’t long before Aedan found himself outside Alvis’ door. Two enormous doors made out of stone that was darker than the walls of the Castle but it was warm to the touch, almost as though heat was coursing through the black stone.
“He ain’t there boy,” Aedan heard a gruff voice behind him.
Turning to face the source, Aedan was met with the imposing frame of Master Elsheer.
Elsheer was a great mountain of an Elf, towering over Sir Aedan by about a head. One needed only look into his eyes to know the centuries of battle the man had endured. He was blind in one eye, from the stories it was during his time as a hunter where a drake damn near took the man’s eye out with its claw, but the old man returned the favour by plunging his axe into its heart. His armour wasn’t like anything Aedan had seen before, it was black like Iron but it had been his armour for hundreds of years, telling him it was made of something more. Rumour had it, the armour stopped the old Elf from feeling pain and that was why he has lived for so long. Aedan merely believed that he was as hard as a coffin nail.
“Where is he then?” Aedan asked, leaning against the door more casually. “Courtyard? Smoking in the woods with the wildlife?” He joked, even chucking at the thought of his mentor smoking a pipe in the woods with the Stags.
“No, nothing such as that. The Master is in the library, giving some of the more Scholarly of our brethren lessons on some of the Monster Types.” Elsheer told him, scratching his beard out of boredom. Aedan had nothing but respect for Elsheer, nothing but admiration. He hoped that when he reached the same age as him that he was as wise or as powerful. An unlikely outcome but he was hopeful.
“Thanks, Elsheer.” Aedan told the older Elf, patting his back whilst he passed his friend to find Alvis. Descending down the steps of the Keep, Aedan followed his gut. Listening for the sound of his master’s voice. Gruff, but caring.
Being alone in these walls again gave Aedan the time he needed to clear his mind, and truly contemplate whether he did the right thing that day or not. For every reason he found that told him he was right, another reason would appear to tell him that he wasn’t.
Jasper was going to burn the city, yet Aedan only needed to kill Henrik to stop the pitch from being lit.
Freya will make a better Queen, yet Fenris now sits upon his family throne.
He beat himself up over what he did. Unable to come to a conclusion on his thoughts, he put them in the back of his mind when he reached the entry way for the library. Rounding the final corner into the lower level, Aedan took in the sight before him with amusement.
His old friend and mentor Alvis, the oldest Elf of the Knights of Iron, slayer of innumerable monsters and trainer of countless young warriors over the course of a long life, as well as one of the best warriors Aedan had ever known, was snoring in his chair sleeping like an old miner after finally retiring. At his outstretched feet, a dozens of books were scattered around- some stacked, some strewn about, one even left open on the wolf pelt rug. A half-eaten apple, and a doodle of a Lesser Vampire on a piece of scrap paper completed the image of a lesson cut short. ‘Old wolf’s fast asleep...must have took their chance to escape... of course those boys did.’
Aedan walked past Alvis’ still slumbering form and out onto the balcony. Looking down into the courtyard, he spotted all the students training in the courtyard. Tackling the pendulum course to aid their footwork. Aedan’s least favourite method of training.
“Guess everyone just prefers practice to theory...”
“Hm?...What?” Alvis jumped awake. Aedan turned to back to Alvis, laughing as the old Elf rubbed his eyes.
“Time to wake up, all powerful master,” he addressed Alvis sarcastically.
Alvis sat up. “Dammit... Had three disciples taking notes on Vampires then the little rats got me talking about Ghouls and the undead.” He rubbed the side of his head, “Wanted to rest my eyes a bit.”
“Huh. Still making the students read that relic?” Aedan asked, pointing to the tome as thick as his own armour.
“Brian Flair’s books lack... well flair it’s true,” Alvis began with a chuckle. “But he’s reliable. Not like the horse shite they print nowadays.”
Alvis stood from his chair and joined Aedan at the balcony. “They’re sparring with each other without a teacher, right?” he asked rhetorically, clearly hearing the same grunts as his fellow warrior. He looked down at the arrogant students and sighed. “How many times do I have to tell them? Don’t train without the instructors! It only embeds your errors!”
“None of us listen, we laughed in your face every time you told us that... but how many of us died because we didn’t listen?” Aedan asked.
“Too many, Aedan. Too many of my children, my students, fell because of ignorance and arrogance.” Alvis thought back to the many students he has trained and lost. But he kept smiling.
Aedan could only look at him and admire his master. He was a little taller than Aedan, but still shorter than Master Elsheer. His face was covered in thick black hair with his beard separated with copper rings to give him a more warrior like appearance, with a red ribbon to tie his hair back. The oldest warrior Aedan had ever met and more a father to him that his real father. Alvis was the father of all the Iron Knights.
“Sir, I know you’re aware that this isn’t a... Social visit. I need your help, father.”
“Father? Been a long time since I heard that from you, boy.” Alvis spoke with a smile. “I thought the Royalguard weren’t allowed to have families. Thought you were too good for us.” Alvis told him, sitting back down on his chair with a slight stagger to his knee.
He was trying to hide his pain, however Aedan had heard the Wince and remembered the day his master’s claws were clipped, like that of an old Wolf.
“That wound still giving you trouble?” Aedan asked, resting on a desk opposite Alvis, watching him with the utmost concern.
Alvis let off a force chuckle. “Well, you take a spear to the back of your leg, then ask me how it feels.” Alvis said with a grimace, unable to hide what he felt with a ruined leg. “It doesn’t hurt, not anymore at least. But I can’t fight, not like I used to, never again” Alvis rubbed his right knee as he sat. Alvis was once the greatest warrior Aedan knew, he was a man Aedan both respected and feared like no other. “Now what can I-”
“The King is dead.” Aedan began, unable to look his master in the eye out of shame of his own failure. “And Queen Rowena is dead as well.” Aedan cut him off with that statement. “Me and my brothers have the new Queen with us. We need to cross the sea away from Fenris.” Aedan told him truthfully. Alvis’ face grew as white as the snow. Aedan’s palms began to get clammy as he crossed his arms over his chest. “If you can provide us with travel, no matter how small the boat is, I will be eternally grateful. This child needs to survive to become Queen when she is of age.”
Alvis scratched his beard, playing scenarios in his head before addressing the man in front of him. For a moment the old master didn’t see the Royalguard in front of him, but instead he saw the scared child that was left on his doorstep so many years ago. Alvis nodded.
“You’re right, Aedan. She needs to survive.” He made eye contact with the Knight even when he tried to look away. “Why not leave her here with us?” Alvis asked Aedan. It was a suggestion that could work. She would be protected by the Iron Knights until she was ready, and with a library of knowledge for all the scholarly needs that she required. The keep was out of reach of even the King, but Aedan had a gnawing fear that Fenris was not one to care about laws and traditions.
Aedan pondered on the suggestion. It truly was temping for him. “Please father, just give us passage with The Ice Wolf and we’ll be on our way.” Aedan explained. “Will you allow us this, Father?”
The old warrior gave Aedan an accepting nod before getting to his feet and picking up his cane and hobbled across the room, cane echoing through the now quiet library. “Come with me,” Alvis motioned for Aedan to follow him. The old knight obliged and tailed after him. “You have a long journey ahead of you, Sir Howe.”
Morrigan began to cry as they left the boat days later, a young girl named Kyra patiently rocked her, whispering soothing words to the infant. One of the final gifts Alvis had given them. Kyra was a wet nurse from the village of Blackwood. Aedan was grateful to have her with them. None of them pretended to know the first thing about raising a child, and Kyra had thankfully raised three.
Aedan still couldn’t believe Queen Rowena was dead. She had endured so much for so long and to be brought down by childbirth was insulting to her very name. The Maker was cruel.
The streets of Natsu were relatively empty in the early dawn. Few were out at this time and none paid any heed to the four people hurrying down the roads. It seemed deserted but Aedan’s training warned him that an assassin could be lying in wait. They didn’t know who was friend or foe, here or in Aster. All they knew was that they were sworn to protect their Queen. And that’s what they were doing.
If anyone saw him now and knew what he had done only a week before, they would have considered him to be heartless, a monster, and a Kingslayer. They would have thought him cold and cruel and uncaring.
In truth, Aedan had seen no other option at the time, and even now he knew not of any scenario The Old King could have been spared.
He should have been helping his last two brothers of the Guard, he should have told them the true of what happened to Jasper, he should have been protecting his Queen and planning and joining them in their work.
Morrigan let out another soft cry before settling into a quiet sleep. Aedan flashed Kyra a quick smile before turning back around to keep a watchful eye out. They walked in a specific formation, though one couldn’t tell just by looking. It was loose enough so they appeared to be a group of people walking normally together, but it covered the baby. Kyra was in the center, as she held Morrigan; Aedan was to her right; Tristan was in front and to the left; Alexander covered the back, slightly to the left. If anyone tried to come at them directly, they would be able to protect their Queen.
An old informant of Aedan’s, a Dwarf Inn Keeper named Greemor had sent a messenger boy, telling them to go to a house named Honoured Fall, it would have a Green Door with the Star of the Divines on its surface. That was where Aedan and his brothers would take care of the Queen, and that was where they would unite to raise the child for a number of years. They had to be prepared to leave at any time; they didn’t know when Fenris Swiftguard would find them, if ever, and they didn’t want to be caught by his assassins. Money would become a problem with time. Alvis had given them some money before they left, but it would not last for long. Aedan, Tristan, and Alexander would have to find work. They would have to be the child’s teachers, telling her of Aster and its lords and lands.
It didn’t take them long to find the house. The directions were easy and the house was not far in the city. It was big; two stories with a balcony, a yard in the back, a garden in the front, access to the canal. The house itself was not incredibly obvious, as there were others similar in design and colour nearby. It would work well for now.
Tristan knocked three times and gave a low whistle. That was the sign Greemor had given them to let him know it was them. Within moments, the door was opened and there stood the Five Foot Tall Dwarf. He had not changed much since the last time Aedan had seen him. He was a little older and had more grey in his hair. He squinted slightly, as if he couldn’t see them clearly. A soft smile broke out on his face when he recognized who they were.
“Tristan,” he greeted the Lord Commander. They shook hands, embracing. “Aedan.” The same courtesy was given to the Blackwolf. “Alexander.” Then he led them inside, closing the door and locking it tightly behind them.
He had said nothing regarding Kayla and Morrigan, only giving the baby one look before greeting his fellow knights.
“Sir, where should I take Her Grace?” Kyra asked carefully. She kept looking around them, examining everything. She didn’t like it, Aedan concluded. She must have been missing Aster already. But now that she had fed Morrigan and taken care of her, they had no worry of her leaving. She loved the babe too much to do that.
Greemor jerked his head to the stairway. “Up there. The hall to your left. Second door on the right is the nursery.”
“It is good to have someone we can trust now.” Greemor asked Aedan, sitting down at one of the tables in the entrance hall, “We can trust her?”
Aedan nodded. “She served my father. She is loyal.”
There was a heavy silence between them after Aedan confirmed her loyalty. So many duties, so many risks. They were three knights, a Dwarf and a wet nurse, and they were expected to raise a Queen, find her an army, and wage war on Fenris Swiftguard, who had most of Aster on his side now for sure. Through all that, they first had to survive long enough to get that far. They needed allies and friends to help them, and at the moment, they were sorely lacking in both.
Aedan let out a bark of laughter, bringing Greemor’s attention back to him. “What do we even call him?” he wondered aloud. “Do we call him Fenris Swiftguard? Fenris? King Fenris? Usurper? Jasper’s killer?” He surely sounded mad. Why would he be asking what they call their enemy when they have so many other things to worry about? But Greemor only chuckled.
No one was even aware that it was Aedan’s own hand that struck the King down.
“I don’t know. What do you call your enemy that has taken your throne?” They were tired and stressed and scared out of their minds. And they were laughing. They leaned back in their chairs, shaking with laughter.
Eventually, it died down and they were left with smiles on their faces. Greemor stood up, stretching. “Wine? Ale?” he offered.
“Ale will do for me,” Arthur answered him. He watched the Dwarf walk into another room. He tapped the hilt of Greemor’s sword which sat beside the Old Dwarf’s chair, wrapping his hand around the pommel. The sword was comforting, a reminder of what he was best at. That was what they needed now; it would be so simple to just lose themselves in fake identities, in names that were not true. They could just give up, pretend to be others and forget about Aster, the Swiftguard’s, The Rebellion.
But they wouldn’t do that. He owed it to those he lost to defeat Fenris. He owed it to Rowena, who had suffered so much from this war. He would raise Morrigan to be the best Queen Aster had ever seen - better than Jasper was believed to be. They would return things to how they should have been, with Fenris dead and a true Swiftguard once again on the throne. They would make things right.
Yet they couldn’t just forget. There was too much pain and blood and loss to lose themselves. They would each have their reminders, to keep them on track of what they wanted. Morrigan would be Aedan’s. Every time he looked at the girl, he would remember the promise he had made her mother. They would never be safe until their enemies were dead.
Aedan cursed as he once again took the wrong turn. He knew the instructions by heart, and if that failed, he had them written down and placed the parchment in his hand. But Greemor’s directions had not been as specific as he wished they were. This was the eighth time he had almost gotten lost in the same hour. Perhaps it would have been better if he had sent Sir Tristan. Maybe the old knight would have had an easier time with this navigating of Natsu.
Tristan decided they needed better armour. The ones they had were old and damaged from the journey and their time during and before the war. They were trying to keep low profiles, but they had a Queen to protect. It would be much easier to do this with new armour. So, they’d sent Aedan, who had been the only one that was not on duty or required to take care of the children, to buy some.
Greemor had given him directions to the nearest harbour which had the kind they were looking for.
The three months they’d spent in Natsu so far had been rather uneventful. It was almost more boring than on the trip across the sea. At least on the ship, he had been able to help the sailors with their work. Here, his time was split between guarding, playing with Morrigan, eating, and sleeping. The child should have been more interesting.
There been no attacks, no threats. Nothing had come from Fenris Swiftguard, or the Beast as they had agreed to call him. They had not expected anything to happen within three months of arriving in Natsu. It would be nearly impossible for the Beast to discover where they were hiding in that short amount of time. The sea would help to cover their tracks. For how long, they did not know. Aedan hoped it would be long enough for them to have an idea of what they were going to do. Right now, their goal was just to raise the child. They had no plan on how to get an army, how to get to Aster. Thinking ahead, though, might give them a chance if something were to happen.
“Dammit,” he said under his breath. Another wrong turn and now he had no idea where he was. This was getting annoying. He was tired of going one way and then having to step back, and start again. He was sure that if he tried any longer, he would truly get lost. And he couldn’t ask for directions; he didn’t speak Natu-si, and what were the chances he’d find someone nearby that spoke the Common Tongue?
He began to turn around and start home when he stopped. A few feet away, watching him intently, was a young boy. He was about the same age as his own younger cousin, with dusty brown hair and bright blue eyes. He was skinny and his clothes were practically rags. Nothing about him should have been suspicious. Except the way he looked at Aedan, as if he knew him. There was recognition in the boy’s eyes. He was watching him and no one else.
As their eyes met, the boy stood from where he had been standing. He walked away, in the opposite direction. He was looking back over his shoulder at Aedan.
“Stop!” Aedan called to the boy. The boy’s eyes did not widen in shock or fear. He merely started running. “You, boy! Stop!”
The boy turned a corner. Aedan followed him, the need to know who this boy was and how he knew him overwhelming his senses. No one should have been able to recognize him. He wasn’t wearing Royalguard armour, or a sigil. He’d left his loaned blade at the house, knowing his sword would attract more attention than a regular one. The scars would have been noticeable in Aster, but here? There was nothing to show who he had been before. So why did this boy know him?
They turned corner after corner, running down streets and past people. Aedan had long since lost track of where they were or where they had gone. He didn’t know anymore and he didn’t care. He would find his way back; this boy was his biggest worry now.
He almost caught the boy. He’d gotten close and reached a hand out to grab his shirt. But he hadn’t been paying attention. A man had stepped into Aedan’s path, and so they both came falling down onto the street. He only had time for a quick ‘sorry’ before he was up on his feet and after the boy again. The delay had given the boy the lead and now Aedan was losing him.
“Stop boy!” he cried again. The child paid him no heed. He turned down another street, some steps ahead of Aedan. By the time Aedan managed to get to that street, the boy was gone. He ran his hands through his hair, huffing as he caught his breath. The boy was gone. He wouldn’t know who he had worked for, who had sent him.
“They are hard to keep pace with, I know,” a voice said from behind him. Aedan froze, for he knew that voice. He’d heard it many times in Ravengate, in the Keep, in council meetings.
Turning around slowly, he found himself face to face with the Spymaster, Syd The Serpent. He disguised, with only his face being the clear and visible sign it was him. He’d dressed like a merchant, wearing rich silks that were an assortment of bright colours. Actually, his clothes were very much like the ones he had worn in Ravengate prior to the outbreak of the Red Plague.
“Syd.” Immediately his hand was on his sword pommel, unsheathing the blade and pointing it at the snake’s chest. “What do you want? Here to rat to the new king about a runaway knight?”
Syd chuckled, a sound different from what Aedan was used to coming from him. His voice was usually high-pitched and soft. Now, it was deeper, much deeper. “We both know you are not some Sell Sword now. You’re keeping your vows to protect your Queen, are you not? You, Sir Tristan, Sir Alexander and that Dwarf Greemor are protecting Her Grace, Freya Swiftguard.”
Aedan’s breath caught in his throat. How did the Snake know? As if aware of what he was thinking, he answered, “Secrets are my trade, Sir Aedan, and my little birds are everywhere.”
“So what now? Do you go and report this back to your new king? Inform him that the daughter of Rowena and Jasper now resides in Natsu? Have another child murdered because of that man’s anger?” He had stepped closer, his sword almost touching the man’s chest. Syd only tittered, something Aedan had grown used to coming from him.
“Inform King Fenris? No,” he said, shaking his head. “I do not serve Fenris Swiftguard. I am here because there is a meeting that should be arranged.”
“What meeting? With who?”
Syd smiled. “Between you and Lord Goren Howe. Your father.”
For his part, Aedan hid his surprise well. “What are you talking about? Speak sense, Snake.”
“Lord Howe would like to meet his son again. And I’m sure you realize that you need allies in Aster if you ever hope to return someday. Lord Howe was not in favour of the killing of innocents. He would rather not see that happen to his Son. If you had the North of Aster on your side, you would be one step closer to returning home.” Syd spoke true. They did need an army, and the North would be very useful. And with the North would likely come the Nomad Clans.
Though still suspicious, Aedan sheathed his sword. “When will this meeting happen?”
“It’s good to see you have sense. Four months from now, you will go to Amber Harbor. There will be a ship by the name of The Red Tiger. You will get on that boat, and ask to speak with the captain. You will say to the captain “Wolf’s Bane is most foul” and you will give him this.” He took Aedan’s hand and pressed a clear gem into his open palm. “From there, the captain will take you inside his ship, and you will meet Lord Goren. You will take him with you back to the house you rest at now. He must return to that ship before night falls the next day. Do you understand, Sir Aedan?”
He nodded his head. It was a lot to take in, but he could remember it. “Yes. I understand.”
“Good. You will not see me again for a long time, Sir Arthur. My little birds will follow you though, and I will send you word if Fenris plans any attacks on the young princess. One of my birds will take you home. Goodbye, Aedan.” Syd turned his back on Aedan, walking slowly away.
Aedan called him back. “Syd!” The Serpent looked back at him, one eyebrow raised in question. “Why are you doing this? You said you did not serve the Beast of the Burning Field. Who do you serve?”
“I serve the realm, Sir Aedan.” The Serpent left, leaving a shocked and disgruntled Aedan to follow the ragged child back to the house with the Green Door.