Chapter 21: Evil Unleashed
Egan’s side ached as he raced up the final steps inside the Lion’s Maw and through Gilead’s western gate. His hands trembled as he tried to draw his sword and finally let it slide back into his scabbard. The image of Salain’s head, the slaughter of his men, and the massive thing screaming for his death were too much. Egan fell to his knees and gasped. In his moment of fending off the darkness, he had failed. Bitter tears rolled down his cheeks. And his father’s voice echoed in his mind.
“Stand up, dammit.” Egan whispered to himself. “Do your duty.” But for a moment his legs refused. He wanted only to die, he hadn’t seen the attack coming soon enough, hadn’t drawn them back when he should, and now nearly half his men were rotting in the sand. He felt like a boy again, timid, terrified, and utterly unworthy.
There’s still more to lose. The thought called him to shake off the rawness he felt and stand. He looked around the Ambassador’s Square and knew the calmness here was about to be utterly destroyed. Sleepy homes and shops that lined the large green space of uncovered sod would wake to battle cries, thirsty blades, and flaming arrows. At the far end of the square, a patrol of guards made their way down the market road, curving out of sight and leading to the center of the city. They’re too far. Has no one heard the watchmen? Egan scanned the high walls. None of his sentinels were present. The initial call of alarm was never resounded. Egan hurried to the nearest guard shack. A pool of blood lay within. Egan’s stomach dropped. He drew his sword and crept around the side, just beyond the torchlight was three bodies. The western watchmens’ throats had been cut, terror sliced across their frozen faces.
A patrol of guards interrupted Egan’s racing thoughts.
“Chief Warrant Officer? We heard your call . . .,” a guardsman started and then looked down at the bodies. “Maker.”
“Have you not heard the explosions? Close the gates! We’re under attack! Their agents are already within our walls!”
“Yes sir!” his man called and with a yell to the other guards, the men ran to the archway and worked the winch, slowly closing the massive wooden doors and drawing down the iron lattice in front of it.
Egan looked around the square.
“Where’s the rest of the city guard? Why is no one at his post?!” Egan yelled at the guard.
“Apologies Chief, a great commotion occurred not two hours past in the market and now protesters rally in the castle’s courtyard. All hands have been called to quell the people.”
“I sent men to handle the market problem, not break up a rally.”
“They were redirected along with the city watch to pacify the mob.” The soldier looked down.
“The watch corrals the people when barbarians are at the gate? Who made the order?”
“Well,” the guard shifted in his boots nervously, “the Queen herself, Chief.”
Egan threw out his arms. “What mire have we sunk into? What madness? Go, send messengers to the eastern gate and the castle barracks. Spread the word. The watchmen on the stair have been calling the alarm for nigh’ twenty minutes. Echo their warning! And reinforce this door, the demons below will not find it much of an obstacle,” Egan yelled and ran to a nearby horse, pulling himself onto its saddle.
“What about you, Chief?” the guard called out.
“I’m going to have a discussion with the Queen!” Egan kicked at the horse and sped down the market road towards the castle.
The inner hallways of the castle were empty, much to Alexandra’s relief. Rustag seemed loyal, but he was also dangerous, and any unwitting servant who happened to slow their progress might become victim to his fists. The giant was surprisingly nimble and quiet for a man of his size and she almost lost sight of him as he moved ahead of her. Finally, after several twists and turns, they came to the king’s bedchamber.
“Please stay near the door, I might need your protection if we’re found,” Alexandra said and rested her hand lightly on his arm.
Rustag grunted. “With my life, M’lady”.
She entered the room. Within she saw a wisp of a man lying in bed, his face as white as the sheets that covered him.
“Father!” Alexandra ran to his side.
Braeden’s breath rattled and he seemed barely conscious of anything, his hollow eyes staring at the ceiling.
“Father, it’s Alex! What has that witch done to you?” she slowly pulled up his head, now light as a feather.
Braeden coughed, and his eyes brightened a little. His focus shifted to Alexandra’s face.
“Daughter?” his weak voice whispered.
“Papa, I never should have left you,” She said, tears filling her eyes.
“No tears now . . . so happy to see you . . . ,” Braeden whimpered, his voice breaking. “Don’t mourn me. I’m nearly well. Mariselle attends me nightly with her cures. She says the pain is normal, and I’ll soon be right.”
Alexandra sighed and wiped her tears away. Her hands trembled. It was as if every nightmare she had ever dreamed had come true at this moment, and there was no one to shield her from them. How do I even start? Panic, like a thousand icy needles piercing her skin, washed over her. She caught her breath. And in that instant, Colin’s words came back to her mind.
“Sometimes you have to just pretend you’re stronger than you really are.”
Alexandra bit her lip. She was her father’s caretaker now. “Her cures?” she looked around the room.
“We’ll soon be together again, Daughter, in the great hall, you, your mother and I.” Braeden’s voice wavered and drifted as if he was on the verge of sleep.
“Papa, where are these cures? Where does she keep them?” She gently shook her father back to consciousness.
“By the fireplace, there,” he mumbled, making a slight motion to the alcove on the opposite of the chamber near the fireplace.
Alexandra moved round to see a table had been set there and on it an alembic boiled a viscous green fluid. Across the table, she saw a burlap bag, the bottom of which was wet. She carefully opened it and the pungent odor of rotten fruit and bitter almonds wafted up her nose.
“What alchemy is this?” she mumbled and tossed the bag off the table. A twisted root lay nearby, She picked it up and sniffed. Mandrake root, we were always told to stay away from it - it’d explain why he’s so thin. Still, to be so weak and delirious, no plant could do that without something more . . . .
Alexandra’s mind raced as she searched the chest under the table and found a long glass vial, a cloth membrane had been tied to the top and a trace of yellow fluid stained its bottom. It smelled of rot. Then in the corner, she noticed a tall basket vibrating slightly. A heavy stone was placed on the top. A chill ran down her neck. Only one living thing could possibly fit in the container. She straightened herself and gingerly approached the container. Every inch of her knew what was within and wanted to run from it but she needed proof of Mariselle’s scheme if a tribunal was called.
Presumption can be questioned, Alex thought as she drew closer, but the truth is under that lid. Carefully lifting the stone off and setting it aside she removed the basket lid and stepped back.
She stepped forward again and slowly peered over the lip of the basket.
A black cobra sprang from within. She screamed and fell back, knocking over the basket. The serpent slid out and coiled itself at her feet, its hood opened wide and its fangs extended.
Alexandra looked down at her unprotected feet, she might be able to move them but the size of the snake meant it would reach her before she could roll away. It hissed again, taunting her to try.
She shimmied back, and the snake shot forward.
Rustag’s massive hand caught it by the throat. The serpent turned and bit his arm over and over again. Rustag snarled and pulled the serpent from his arm before grabbing its head and snapping its neck. He threw the carcass into the burning coals in the fireplace.
“Rustag! Are you alright?”
The big man slumped down to the floor and rubbed his arm, “With my life M’lady. It will mend.”
Alexandra looked over the wounds, the venom oozing from the bites was the same pale yellowish color as in the vial.
“I’d see you to a healer if one were left,” she said, “We have what we need now, Rustag. Mariselle used that thing to poison the king. We can bring her before a magistrate and take back the kingdom!” Alexandra hugged the giant. Rustag gently put his hand on her shoulder before wincing.
“Can you walk?” she asked him.
“Serpent’s bite was minor, I have strength yet,” he said, and slowly lumbered to his feet.
She turned to her father. He slept fitfully.
She turned back to Rustag. “Thank the Maker. I need you to find an old soothsayer. His name is Samuel. He’s old in years, blind, and carries a staff.”
Rustag nodded, “I remember him. He served in the Lion’s Hall. He smelled of lye and dirty sheets.”
Alexandra bit her lip. “If any man can heal your wounds and bring father back from the brink, it’s him. Leave by way of the east gate. His cottage is a little over a league to the northwest of the King’s Road, near the northern shore.” Alexandra walked back to the table and drained some of the alembic’s contents into a flask before stowing it in her pocket.
“You will be defenseless.” Rustag looked down at her, his bushy brow wrinkled.
She looked around. He was right. No room off the main hall would be safe from Mariselle’s grasp. She glanced out the window to the city, a large crowd had formed in the courtyard, and in the distance, past the Ambassador’s Square and the western gate, she heard a resounding boom. She looked out to one of the crumbling spires, the nearest one loomed over the castle courtyard, its doorway was only two hundred feet from the castle’s entrance. The nearby guards had left their posts to hold back the mob.
She turned to Rustag. “I know where I can stay with him. Please help me carry our king.”
Rustag nodded and walked to Braeden’s bed, lifted and cradled the old man in his arms like a child.