Chapter 36: Strange Bedfellows
Balaam’s heels echoed on the cobblestones as he trotted towards the east gate again. In the distance, he could hear the fighting and see the flames engulfing the western half of the city. He wondered if perhaps he should’ve followed the princess instead.
No. That would be reckless. At this point, I should know better. I just hope the old stranger is watching. I hope he sees how much prudence I’ve learned.
The donkey skirted the cemetery, still wary of its shadows, and found his way to the portcullis of the eastern gate opening to the moors beyond. There he saw Gilead’s Chief Warrant Officer speak with one of his soldiers as a steady line of people hurried by them into the city.
“How could she not be there? She was your charge!” Egan shook his head.
“Yes sir. She, well, I turned my back for a moment, sir. We were leaving the cemetery you see and, well she was gone.”
“She’s the heir to the throne! If she dies, Gilead will perish with her! Are you sure she’s not among the tombs?”
“No sir, we checked. Even the rabble have cleared this area since yesterday. A few men are still searching the castle, perhaps they’ll find her majesty.”
“Very well,” Egan sighed. “Help these people in. I’ll do a final search around the tombs myself.” Egan took a deep breath and strode down an alleyway that lead to the cemetery gateway. Balaam followed in the shadows, at a distance.
The girl needs a defender. He’s as good as any.
Balaam followed Egan as he moved past the open gateway and past ancient stone monuments and crypts. Emblems of trees and faces adorned many of the crypt doors. Half broken statues of cherubs watched the pair creep by.
“Damnable night,” Balaam heard Egan mutter and the chief paused to look across the gravestones and rested his eyes on the King’s crypt. The door had been freshly sealed with Samuel’s entombment.
Balaam stumbled on a cobblestone and quickly scurried behind a crypt.
Egan turned to find the source of the noise but the lane was empty. “Princess?” he called out and paused again to listen. Balaam watched Egan slowly wrap his hand around the hilt of his sword. Balaam sighed, there was no easy way to do this. He stepped up behind the chief.
“He was a rotten old codger but he was my friend,” Balaam said.
Egan spun back around to face the voice, and his sword flew from its sheath.
“What? Who?” Egan looked past the riderless donkey, “Come out! I’ll not play games with you!”
“Good. I hate wasting time,” Balaam replied.
Egan’s sword dropped along with his mouth.
“You . . . you speak? You speak!” Egan’s eyes widened.
Balaam sighed. “Yes, I hear that a lot. Look, the princess is who you’re looking for? Yes? She’s on her way to her father’s side. I should think she’d need some help. She won’t listen to me, never has.”
“What black magic has Mariselle spun here? How can you speak?” Egan picked up his sword and held it outright as he slowly approached the donkey.
“Mariselle had nothing to do with it. It’s a long story, but I doubt we have time to get into it. Suffice to say Samuel gave me shelter when no one else would.” Balaam stared at the crypt door for a moment in silence. “Safe travels old man,” He turned back to Egan. “Best if you hurry along. I’d try the castle.”
Before Egan could respond a guard emerged from the shadows.
“Chief!” the soldier called.
“The donkey. He can . . . well, he’s a donkey that . . .” Egan stared at Balaam, as the donkey scooped up a patch of grass into his mouth and smiled at him wryly.
“Sir?” The soldier looked at him quizzically. “Chief, you must hurry to the fields outside the eastern gate. Mariselle and her men were spotted approaching from beyond the King’s Road. Those still outside the walls have nowhere to run.”
“How many men are with her?” He asked.
“Easily twenty, sir. Though I’d wager more are following. We have only six armed men, including you.”
“More lambs for the slaughter.” Egan sighed as he glanced at the refugees in the distance. His brow furrowed. “No. Not again. Those within the walls have some protection at least. Go then, ensure our men have the weapons they need. I’ll meet you outside the gate in a moment.”
The soldier saluted and slipped away into the night. Egan eyed Balaam again.
“Whether you be a mad dream or not, I’ve no men to spare a search for Alexandria now. If the Maker can make a donkey speak, perhaps he can shelter a wayward princess for a time. I pray she is as determined as you claim.”
Balaam watched as the young chief straightened and turned back to the city street, ready to face whatever fate had in store outside the gates.
* * * * * * * *
Absalom moved silently down the castle’s stone hallway. The tapestries lining it had been partially torn from their rods or left jumbled on the floor. His shadow crept in and out of doorways like a mouse, furtively moving, pausing to listen, then moving again. Not a bloody soul.
He paused as he came to the great hall of the Lion. The feasting tables had been knocked on end, platters and broken chalices lay strewn about. Mariselle’s retreat from the palace with her retinue had been a hasty one. They probably took all the wine as well. Absalom shook his head as he kicked a chalice aside. After the chaos in the marketplace, he’d rushed to the top of the high wall, skirting the circumference of the city. With some sneaking, he was able to have a clear vantage of the harbor and the Amorite fleet landing at the docks far below. His own ship was in ruins. The harbormaster was most likely dead. He would find no compensation for his losses there. But here, here . . .
The sound of armored boots on stone echoed into the chamber. Absalom slid into the shadows behind a large stone pillar.
“Any luck?” a guard’s voice called.
“None and I doubt we will with further search. Princess Alexandra wouldn’t have a reason to return here. I’ve already checked the royal quarters, what little is left of them. Mariselle stole everything, save for the king’s chest. She probably didn’t have the key and the damn thing weighs a ton.”
“Aye, I wouldn’t be surprised if that witch ran off with half the treasury. Come on then. The Chief won’t like it, but there’s no sign of the princess here.”
“I’m more worried about the King. Now that he’s up and about again . . .”
Their voices trailed off as they left the great hall.
Absalom walked back into the light and glanced up at the empty throne. Up and about, are you? Needed one last conquest before you finally drop? Still, the king’s chest sounded promising. The bastard owed him something before the city imploded, and the old man was going to pay.
After a few twists and turns Absalom found his way to the royal quarters, and what he guessed by the size of the chamber, was the king’s bedroom.
The room smelled foul, like death and decay. He saw a charred serpent’s body amidst the still glowing coals in the fireplace. What in the nine hells were you up to? He spotted a large dark walnut trunk at the foot of the bed. Three inset locks adorned its front. He kneeled beside it. Scratches and gouges decorated the face of the trunk as if several hands had tried to break the locks or pry open the lid. You couldn’t quite manage it, could you Mariselle? Absalom pulled a leather pouch from his belt and unrolled it, a set of lockpicks gleamed before him in the torchlight. Within seconds he selected the correct sizes and went to work on the locks, massaging the tumblers with the minutest of movements. After a few moments, all three locks had been unfastened and he opened the lid.
The chest’s interior was empty save for a leather-bound journal. You’ve got to be joking. Absalom slumped onto his rear and palmed his face. His father hadn’t left one cent for his heirs. At least he was consistent. Absalom reached in and grabbed the journal. He thumbed through a few pages, it was a ledger of sorts. Many of the pages were facts and figures, lists, and invoices, but as he continued to scan through the pages he saw more and more of it contained personal entries. Then his eyes froze. Absalom saw his own name. His eyes reread the passage over and over again.
It does my heart glad to see Alexandra happy. Still, I wonder of the other, Absalom. I’ve spotted him from time to time in the marketplace . . .
“You knew,” Absalom whispered. He closed the journal and clenched it in his hand. “. . .and you did nothing.”
“Nothing is all you’ll have once we’ve locked you away. Put your hands up!” A guard in full armor yelled, standing in the doorway, holding a dagger.
Absalom dropped the journal and jumped to his feet. He drew his own dagger.
“Who are you? What business do you have in this chamber?”
Absalom studied the guard as he took a step forward. This soldier wore his armor wrong, the bindings were loosely tied, the man’s stance was off and his voice sounded like…
The guard lunged forward with the dagger. Absalom spun to the side and grabbed the guard from behind, ripping his helmet off. Absalom held the blade to his attacker’s neck and instantly saw that it wasn’t a man. The head of long hair was in tangles, and the skin was too fair. Only one female remained in Gilead’s palace . . .
“Princess Alexandra?” Absalom’s grip on her loosened.
“I’d say you have me at a disadvantage but . . .” she twitched her dagger and Absalom glanced down. She had her blade angled behind her back, pointed at his crotch. “Bring your weapon any closer and you’ll be a eunuch.”
“I’ll back away if you do the same,” Absalom replied. He fingered the grip of his dagger.
“Fine,” Alexandra replied.
The two separated at once to opposite sides of the room and faced each other.
“Who are you? What business do you have rifling through my father’s things?” she asked.
“No one of any import, I assure you,” Absalom replied. “Your father owed me a debt. I was fool enough to believe there might be something of worth for me to collect here.”
“My father pays all his debts. I doubt he’d ever take up with someone like you,” Alexandra said.
“Then you’d be right. He hasn’t acknowledged me once in my lifetime.” Absalom stowed his dagger and looked around the room. There was nothing else worth taking.
She paused. A light of recognition spread across her face. “You’re him, aren’t you? The bastard?”
“I’ve been called worse.” Absalom kneeled and stowed his lockpick set.
“Sorry. You’re Absalom, yes?” Alexandra asked and gazed at him.
Absalom stood again and mockingly bowed, “At your service, M’lady.”
She folded her arms, “You picked an opportune time to claim your inheritance. With all that’s going on, what did you plan on doing?”
“I could ask you the same,” Absalom smirked. “I doubt that armor is your normal attire, and you look a fool the way you hold a blade.”
“I know which end does the stabbing,” Alexandra retorted.
“And do you know where our father is now? I’d like to have words with him. If the Amorites haven’t chopped him to pieces yet.”
“Bite your tongue! You may be blood but he’s still your king,” she replied.
Absalom ignored her chide as he approached her. “But the question remains. Why are you wandering the castle dressed as a guard unless . . .” Absalom stifled a laugh, “Are you planning on secretly joining him on the front lines? You are, aren’t you? How precious.”
“It’s the least I could do, and it’s better than skirting about in the shadows, pillaging whatever you can get your hands-on,” she said and raised her dagger again.
“Tell you what, Princess. You take me to your father and I’ll pretend you’re the real deal, I’ll even help you fasten that helmet on tighter so it doesn’t blow off with a strong breeze,” Absalom said and took another few steps closer to her.
“Why should I? I won’t let you harm him,” she replied.
“There are more than enough people within the walls of the city that want him dead. I just want . . . answers. Otherwise . . .” he rushed forward and tried to grab the knife.
Alexandra instantly sliced his finger.
“Gah!” he backed away, nursing his hand. “We’ll both find ourselves in quite a mess. I’ll be locked in my cell,” he glanced about the room, “and you’ll be locked in yours.”