The forts around the western capital were the last bastion of defense. A Hail-Sumitra (or Hail-any Exalted name here – whatever the speaker preferred) should the worst come to pass. The knights of the Crownsguards were the beginning and the end. The strongest of all the warriors, yet the last to come into battle. Naturally, that meant they were low on activity, so they were more than happy to do the grand inspection to make sure the forts and barracks were up to snuff. Had it not been for this inspection, they’d be stuck in Joyeuse’s castle going over numbers and armory checks until they could see the numbers in their dreams. Bel de Coeur was a member of the Crownsguards, and one of the few who had no issues whatsoever with the deluge of numbers and weapons in their grand arsenal. He felt comfortable with technical details. He was the healer, after all, and what was healing if not a challenge in technical skill? The prettiest stitches to suture a wound, the careful setting of a bone – it was all a matter of technique.
The Crownsguards had practically turned into children again when Princess Birdie told them of their duties. Harley Ritter, in particular, was excited. He loved nothing more than to share his wisdom (questionable, to Bel) with his fellow soldiers. Especially the younger ones who reminded him of his own son, only sixteen-years-old. Alesdair, their young leader, had only yawned at the nose while Chelinde, the princess’s hand and adviser, smiled. They would have to stay, Bel knew. An advisor was needed by her queen’s side, and the paragon of the guard would be his charge’s side always. After a filling breakfast in which Harley and Mick Zwingli stuffed their faces with rashers of bacon, they left for the first of the barracks around the capital. Harley gave his son a bone-crushing hug, Mick and Anya a kiss for their Jacqui, and Bel his own hug for his daughter, Jour.
“Pop, you’re only going to be gone a day,” Luvino groused. Bel knew he was at the age where he believed he was too old for any signs of affection. From girls, apparently, it was fine; but from his father, well, it was just embarrassing. Bel was grateful girls were more accepting of affection. He didn’t know what he’d do if Jour refused his hugs.
“A day away from my beautiful son? Tragic!” Harley cried. His fake cries turned into laughter when Luvino tried to squirm away from him.
“I’ll be back in two shakes,” Bel murmured. He kissed Jour’s hair – as pink as his own – and pulled away, clasping her by the shoulders. She looked more like her mother every day: just as beautiful…and much stronger. Never would her future husband have to suffer as Bel suffered, to lose his wife and receive his greatest joy all at once.
“If Luvino even so much as winks at you, Jacqui, punch him in the balls,” Mick said gravely. There were great peals of laughter from the Crownsguards, and Luvino winked at Mick instead.
They saddled up on their coursers (though the northern expatriate of them, Anya, preferred a sturdier and humbler pony) and met up with the vanguard waiting outside the castle gates. Even in their riding leathers and odd bits of armor, the people of Joyeuse came out to see them. When Bel looked back, he could see the princess, the children (though they disliked being called children), Alesdair, and Chelinde waving. Chelinde and the girls kissed their hands as if they could not bear to stop, and even Alesdair managed a lazy wave as they trotted through the thoroughfares. Even in the most ungodly hours of the morning (Harley’s words, not Bel’s), the city of Joyeuse was alive with kinetic energy. Hawkers called to the young and the old, weaving sumptuous tales about their wares. Children, waiting for academy to begin, played in the streets and watched the horses walk by with wide eyes. People were crying their names – as if they were riding for the tourney instead or riding to check on barracks.
“Sir Dante! Sir Dante!”
Even greater, though, were the cries for their nation. A deafening, proud roar: “Joyeuse! Joyeuse! Joyeuse! Wijsheid!” Joyeuse might have been the capital, but Wijsheid was the greater sum it was a part of. The whole western dominion under the rule of pretty Princess Bernadette.
“It’s like we’re popstars,” Fayruz snorted, yet she seemed to like the attention as she held up her bow to the approving public.
“You’re my popstar,” Roman sighed dreamily. They were yet another married couple in the Crownsguards. Next to Aria and Desmond, they were probably the most affectionate.
Dante dry retched from behind Fayruz, and Mana snickered. The guards at the gates let them pass with hails and cheers. They rode into the farmlands and beyond. The first forts were the grandest of them all – festooned with red tapestries bearing the flaming sword of Joyeuse. It filled Bel with pride to see it. They made their inspections (it was clean and well-kept, and they found soldiers scrubbing furiously on their hands and knees – something usually done to teach them discipline and modesty), and saw over the training at the fort. Fayruz had some choice comments about the archers – barking orders and commandeering them to notch, draw, and loose until she was satisfied. Other than that, they were quite good. They left that fort to cheerful farewells…and Harley, Fayruz, and Mick had a leg of mutton each, saddling up one-handedly (Mick stumbled as he went).
It was the same thing for each fort they passed. They would make their assessments and offer advice, and the insatiable trio would come out with meat or dessert. As they rode, they shouted gossip to each other over the thundering of their steeds.
“Have you heard that concubines are outlawed in Saffara now?”
Saffara was once ruled by a cruel king, only to be overturned by his just son – Malik II. Princess Birdie had attended his coronation just months before, and now the heartlands were a better place. Healing, but growing strong.
“Good on that King of Hearts!” Desmond cheered, “Have you heard of the tourney in Francia? They say the young lord bested the competition a hundred feet away! You have some competition, Fayruz!”
Francia being another region in the western kingdom. It seemed young Lord Armand was making quite a name for himself as an archer. Bel had met him once. Young Lord Armand was as comely as they came, vaguely flirtatious towards Jour…but he seemed displeased, restless, even. Fayruz’s snort drew Bel from his thoughts. As if a little boy could ever dream of besting her.
The gossip continued and helped them pass the time. The pirate lord, Cassius, for example, was totally sleeping with the queen of the seas, Rayanne…whom coincidentally, was also an old flame of Alesdair’s. They said that in the east the master of the demon slaying guild, Pythios Diamondrake, was a closeted Hilda fan. Only don’t say it to his face or he’d call you a liar. They said that in the south, little Prince Roman was already calling the shots when it came to finances, and that it was only a matter of time before he took over all other matters and revolutionized the tropical southlands. In the east it was said that the new king and queen were trying for another child, and Bel was glad for them because they were a sweet pair.
“Oh, have you heard in the skylands that – what is that?”
The moon hung swollen and heavy in the sky, and they were all caught in its silvery streams of light. It cast silver onto their skin, their hair. Bel squinted into the night sky. There was something flying towards them. It seemed like a bird. Perhaps the princess was sending a messenger hawk to them. Only…it wasn’t coming from the direction of the castle. It was coming from the opposite direction. The shadow grew larger and they stared, as dumb as sloths. Bel heard the whistling of wind through armor, the rattle of steel. In the moonlight, Bel could see its wings. Huge and awful – membrane and mottled skin stretched thin over bone.
“Scatter!” Fayruz bellowed. She was firing a stream of shots – only for the swing of a sword to knock them away.
The Crownsguards obeyed, but the members of the van were eager to show their bravery. Harley shouted at them for being fools, but they surrounded the creature and raised their weapons. In one fell swing, they were dying. Horses reared and whinnied until they were silenced with another stroke of the giant blade.
There was a hum of magick – Anya was attempting to bring her otherworldly creatures into this world. Yet the knight – was it a knight? – surged for her. The giant blade slid through the soft skin of her belly, tearing through leather as a warm knife through butter might. Anya fell from her screaming horse. Mick wailed and sent a whip of lightning towards the dark knight. It stunned them for all of ten seconds before they descended upon Mick with its great, terrible wings fending them off. Their horses were screaming, trying to run. Dante was first to abandon his, trying to meet the knight’s greatsword with his own.
Mick lost an arm as the knight turned to knock Dante back.
Everything was happening too quickly. Bel slid from his horse to kneel by Mick’s side – then Mick’s head was gone and Bel was gasping and slack-jawed. Fayruz was shooting arrow after arrow with her longbow, only to have her shots shrugged off as if they were nothing. Roman was the only one still atop his horse, the steed brave and bold as the master. When he attempted to ride down the knight, he cut Roman and horse alike right in half.
We’re dying. Bel realized. The bravest, the brightest, the boldest – and they were being crushed like flies.
Then the knight beset him. The one trying to mend wounds and keep his friends fighting. First went one of his legs, and he found himself sprawled on the grass. Bel raised his halberd, but he was too slow. There went his arm, twitching on the ground – and suddenly he couldn’t see out of his left eye, and his face was a blaze of agony.
“Leave him alone!”
“Harley, no – just run!”
Stupid, courageous Harley came at the knight with his twin blades. The force of the knight’s blade sent him back, landing in a heap on Bel’s lap. Bel held him close, weeping, trying to look around and see who was still alive. Little to none, it seemed, and for that Bel wept even more.
The red sword glinted in the moonlight as the knight raised it above his head. Bel stared into the dark visor. If he was going to die, he would face death head-on.
Then the knight twitched – just a jerk of the head as the arms fell back to his side. “A warning,” he – she – said, “This is a warning.”
Then they were gone in a rush of wings. Bel stroked Harley’s hair, murmuring to try and keep him awake, “You have a son to get back to. You can’t die here.”
And Harley died. He didn’t look as if he were asleep and peaceful, he just looked dead and cold. Bel bled, and he cried.
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