Bloody, bloody hell.
Ely leaned in between the crenellations, watching the horror below unfold. Indeed, blood spilled forth. First from the neck of a Marlish guard. In slow succession, droplets of deep red burst from the gap just above the top edge of his gorget. His head craned back, throwing the surge of bodily fluid up in an arch. By the time the fatally-wounded man crashed to the ground, a curvature of blood had painted the cobblestones, alluding to more of what was to come.
Other knights fell, all in quick succession, as the horde of barbarians descended upon them.
Ely looked past the carnage below to the quay. There, loosely docked to the granite pathway of the wharf, had landed a Marlish galley. From its deck, Lewmarians continued to infiltrate the seaside streets of Arcporte. In sight of such a threat, Marlish citizens and foreign visitors alike dispersed in all directions, frantically trying to distance themselves from certain death. Those closest to the galley did so in vain, to fall and never rise again.
“What is happening?” Ely whispered. Why is the harbor so poorly manned? Where are the magistrates? The soldiers who should be patrolling the wharf? Where?!
As the last of the knights to respond to the enemy landing fell, the Lewmarians nearest the castle coalesced into a pack as they marched toward the barbican.
Ely scanned the battlements, both those of the curtain wall where he stood and the ones at the gatehouse to his right.
Where are the men?
He considered shouting then considered his garb. He still bore the armor, including the helm, of a Voiceless.
Damn it all. “Guards! Guards!” he shouted through the visor. “To your posts! To arms! To arms!”
Not a soldier answered as he raced down the parapet walkway to the stairs, practically falling down the steps in his haste. He blew past servants and attendants who appeared oblivious to the dangers beyond the walls.
No guard responds! And why hasn’t the war horn been sounded?
Coming to the gate, Ely found the main portcullis raised and the draw bridge lowered.
I’m too late, he realized as he spotted the first of the Lewmarian warriors traversing the drawbridge of the barbican, which was unmanned.
He peddled backward, the shadows of the gatehouse overtaking him. The sconces that were usually lit to illuminate the recesses lacked flames, providing pitch in all recesses and corner were there should have been none.
This must be a dream. A nightmare.
The Lewmarians marched through the smaller gatehouse of the barbican, momentarily disappearing into their own cave of shadows. Silhouettes of their brethren appeared behind them, giving the false impression that the enemy was stepping into the abyss. As the first line of Lewmarians emerged from the gatehouse into the barbican yard, though, Ely knew would never be so lucky.
Ely groped through the darkness. He must have passed the chainwheels to the main gatehouse’s drawbridge ten thousand times in his life, never giving them much attention. Sometimes he would note the guards on duty by them or the oxen harnessed to them. Only now did he realize the importance of their position, their crucial purpose to the castle’s defenses.
Even if I find one, the two must be handled together. And the oxen are absent. As are the guards.
Still, he searched. The damp and cold of the stones around him greeted his fingers first. Then a sconce. He turned to his left to reach for the ground when his shin struck a rounded shaft.
The shaft! Ely nudged the base of it with his foot. The portcullis chainwheel!
He scrambled blindly over the other protruding bars and square teeth of the cylinder mechanism. It was smaller than the drawbridge chainwheels, which by comparison were massive. It also sat vertically whereas the other two operated horizontally.
As he felt the wheel, his hands came to rest on an oblong piece that seemed bolted to the floor, which laid attached to a triangular wedge.
Ely pulled the handle of the wedge, the other end of which was firmly planted between two bottom wooden teeth of the chainwheel. It gave a little yet did not pull free. From the barbican yard, the footfalls of the enemy became emphatic.
He scanned the interior of the gatehouse as his sight adjusted to the darkness. The pitch gave way to dimness, with shapes and patterns materializing.
In the nearest corner, Ely spotted a small pool that had collected from the droplets of the slanted ceiling above. A temporary support beam had been wedged between the top and the floor, with sandbags outlining the edges of the puddle.
Ely hurriedly heaved one of the sandbags from the floor onto the handle of the brake. It budged then slipped back into place, stubbornly serving its purpose. Ely threw another sandbag atop the first. Again, it moved, edging further from the teeth.
The harsh language of Lewmar struck Ely’s ears. He glanced over his shoulder to spot the first line of Lewmarian warriors on the fixed bridge.
Ely pushed down on the sandbags, which were in danger of falling over and away from the handle of the brake. Come on, you bloody bastard!
He turned again as the Lewmarian boots clapped the heavy wood of the drawbridge.
“Ahhhh!” he cried as he plopped the whole of his self onto the sandbags and the brake.
The sudden momentum pried the wedge free from the teeth. Unhindered and without another to man its handles, the chainwheel spun, unfurling the chains that had kept the portcullis suspended.
Those Lewmarians nearest to the iron barrier bolted forward as it fell. All but two slammed against the patchwork bars. Of the two, one had dove beneath its spikes only to be impaled. The other had made it through uncut and now scrambled to his feet.
Ely drew his arming sword as the lone Lewmarian straightened and drew two hand axes. Through the crossbars of the portcullis the Lewmarian’s brothers-in-arms beat the iron and cheered on their compatriot. The rancor distracted Ely for a moment, at which point the Lewmarian blazed forward, axe heads raised.
Ely deflected them with ease. The Lewmarian circled him, then struck out again. Ely blocked those as well, but the Lewmarian had made his way close enough to shove him back. Ely lost his footing, stumbling to one knee.
The enemy on the other side of the portcullis chuckled. Their cheers rose.
Ely hopped back to his feet as the Lewmarian dashed upon him again. This time, an axe blade glanced off the pauldron on his left shoulder. Though it did not pierce or cut the steel, Ely nonetheless felt the brunt force of its impact.
I need to end this.
The Lewmarian smirked, clearly impressed by his own efforts to wear down Ely. He took the opportunity to gander at the chainwheels for a second.
Ely swung his sword. Over his head. Across. In large, overbearing arcs. The assault was wild, a flash of steel striking from the depths of the shadows.
Yet the moves were also too wide. They lacked precision. The Lewmarian could foresee them as Ely stepped in each assault, winding up his arms for the next. He defended himself with ease, his guard let down.
Exactly as Ely had intended.
Ely minded his advance, putting thought not inasmuch in regards to time or force but direction. For each lunge and strike, thrust and blow, forced the Lewmarian back closer to the crossbars of the portcullis.
The increasing proximity brought the calls and jeers of the enemy upon their ears. The Lewmarian, prodded by his countrymen, fought back with increased aggression. His moves, in turn, became ill-timed and chaotic.
He swung at Ely and extended his reach just a tad much. Seeing the opening, Ely plunged his sword into the pit of his arm. The man shrieked. With his eyes closed briefly, Ely came into him with a knee to his torso. The Lewmarian, dropping his hand axes, fell back into the crossbars, his fellow warriors shocked by the turn of events.
Reaching down for one of the hand axes, Ely lobbed it straight at the Lewmarian. The downtrodden warrior had nary a chance to spot his own weapon when it cleaved into the flesh of his neck, nicking an artery.
A geyser erupted from the fresh wound. The Lewmarian gripped his neck with both hands. He looked up to Ely, who came up to deliver the tip of his sword to the base of his gut.
The Lewmarian slumped over as his brothers-in-arms slammed against the portcullis, reaching through the bars. They pounded the barrier and cursed at Ely as he wiped clean the length of his sword and slinked away.
Though victorious, Ely hardly felt the champion.
Where are the bloody guards? The soldiers?
Emerging from the shadows of the gatehouse into the light of the bailey, Ely saw the attendants and servants who had heard the commotion of his battle flee from the entrance. Aside from them, though, the castle grounds felt abandoned.
“Very well,” Ely said to himself, resigned.
He sheathed his sword. He unhooked his leather chin strap and removed his helm. A few servants took notice while many others continued to scatter.
“I command you to stop!” Ely roared.
Recognizing his voice, the rest paused. Ely tucked his helm under his arm as he strode to the middle of the bailey.
“Will one of you miserable wenches and swine tell me what the hell is going on?!”
All turned their gazes to the ground, unsure of how to answer him.
Really? That fool is in the castle?
Ely turned to the parapet stairwell to his left to find Master Reysen emerging. Dressed in a doublet and hat of crushed red velvet, one could have mistaken him for a member of the court had it not been for his face.
“Yes?” Ely groaned.
“What are you doing here?”
Ely, his mouth ajar, was about to answer that he had snuck back earlier than expected from the Chesa. Master Reysen, however, would not allow him a word edgewise. “Why are you not with the rest of the castle’s soldiers? They left on the hour of noon, as you commanded.”
Me? “I commanded?”
“Yes, they marched to the north on your orders. The scouts remain with the main force, as you requested, though the commanders did not like it.”
Not send scouts ahead of a force? “Master Reysen, the day has been long. Come with me and recite all that has happened. Start with your coming to the castle and go over every details concerning my edicts.”
“What of them?” Master Reysen asked, pointing to the gatehouse.
Ely shifted to spot the Lewmarians at the portcullis, continuing to bang on the iron crossbars. The gatehouse is unmanned. They’ll gather grappling hooks and ladders soon. It’s only a matter of time.
He turned back to Reysen to discover that other servants were coming into the bailey, eyes wide and eager to hear of what their prince would do to save them.
“The rest of you, to the chapel. Once the lot of you have entered, bar the door. It was built not only as a House of Mar but as a sanctuary in times of invasion. Reysen, let us go. And speak quickly.”
The latter command proved easy for Reysen to fulfill, so that by the time that they came to the corridor leading to the Throne Room, Ely had a greater sense of the mutiny within Arcporte Castle.
“I can scarcely believe it,” Ely said, after Reysen paused after his piece.
“We thought it was you, Sire, giving them commands.”
“And my grandfather?”
“Asleep. Mage Wystan gave him two doses of Truscubium root potion, just as you had –”
Ely shot a glance at the town crier. “Pardon.” Master Reysen lowered his head.
“No time for apologies now.” Ely hastened his stride as the corridor curved to reveal the double doors that led into the Throne Room.
As was protocol, two guards stood at attention, their halberds crossed to dissuade entry. Upon seeing Ely, the two exchanged looks, hesitantly pulling their long pole to their sides.
“Open the doors!” Ely barked.
The guard to his right offered a look to his partner. “We never saw you leave . . .”
Ely, astounded, reached for the handles of the double doors. In one motion he pushed them open as Reysen and the two guards stood aside.
Within, before the throne stairway, paced Prince Jameson.
“What is the meaning of this?” Ely demanded.
The Prince paused, looking to the others in the room. There were several knights in his presence, along with a few counts from various parts of the island, accounting for the bulk of the two dozen men inside. Only one lord stood in the ranks, though: Baron Tristan.
“I am talking to you.” Ely nodded to the Prince.
“A Voiceless speaks,” the Prince replied, initiating chuckles from his small audience.
“You know who I am.”
“Indeed. An imposter.”
The Prince waved to the guards at the double doors, who promptly closed them behind Ely. The knights and counts around him then drew their swords and dirks as Reysen backed off to the side.
“Marlishmen,” Ely began, his hands raised and extended, so as to urge calm. “I understand your folly. You have been tricked, duped, by one who appears as me. That is an honest offense I can forgive. Lay down your arms, and I pledge to you, all will be spared the gallows.”
“Marlishmen,” the Prince before the throne began. “You know me well. I have been with you the whole of the day before this fraud appeared from out of nowhere just now. In the armor of one of our Voiceless knights, no less. What did you do, pretender? Kill one of our unsuspecting silent knights, knowing full well he could not scream?”
Ely ground his teeth. He had had enough of this ruse. “I killed no one but the Lewmarian who tried to overtake the gatehouse. As we speak, the enemy beats upon our gates. And this, this fox, stands before you as me, doing nothing!”
“Nothing! Why, what an accusation. I have done plenty. Who do you think sent the bulk of the castle soldiers and guards away, so as to allow our guests to enter unopposed?”
Ely stepped back.
“Yes,” the Prince said, stepping forward. “The Lewmarians are most welcome. They are just the scourge we need to rid Marland of the fat, lazy and entitled barons that have filled their bellies and their coffers in the days since the Century War. This kingdom lost too many of its best from Kin and Har-Kin alike due to the errors and misgivings of the Saliswaters.”
Ely’s peripheral vision to all those who weren’t the Prince was fleeting. Still, it was enough to gather a sense of those who surrounded him. Dressed in perhaps their finest, the clothes bore years of use, with frayed collars, cuffs stitched in haste and pairings that reflected no taste for aesthetics. The weapons drawn were even more telling, bearing tints and other discolorations, products of smiths with only a rudimentary sense of metallurgy. The men hailed from lower manors and poorer hamlets, who families no doubt suffered losses during the centennial conflict from which they never recovered.
Save for Baron Tristan.
It then dawned on Ely. Tristan’s brother, that bloody fox. “Sir Ernald?”
The Prince, sly and careful though he was, could not help himself. His mouth curled into a crooked grin.
“All those who look upon me will know me as Prince Jameson.”
Those around Ely leaned in, eager. A knight stepped forward.
And that was enough.
Ely unsheathed his sword. Without knowing whom was closest nor caring how many he could reach, he swung his blade like a wild man. Hacking and cutting, his sword shivered against the others, whose owners wielded them with their own sense of desperation. None could match the training of Ely though, who expertise came out in that rush of conflict. The tip of his sword soon bore blood, convincing the traitors to pause. In their lull, they encircled Ely, pitting him against the eastern wall of the Throne Room as the brother Ernald and Tristan brought up the midsection of the mob.
“You will never–” Ely started.
“What?” Baron Tristan interrupted. “Win? That is the problem with your kin. You never stop to consider your propensity for losing. As the family that provides our nation’s sovereigns, you are bound to lose the Crown – and your heads – someday. That day just happens to be now.”
“No imposter can serve for long.” Ely dodged a thrust from a determined knight. He slashed at the traitor’s throat, only narrowly missing as the man leaned back. “Marland will find out. They will know.”
“You’re right. An imposter’s day are numbered. Just look at the False King of Belgarda. However, in the case of our great nation, my brother – pardon, Prince Jameson – will not serve as monarch for long. Once crowned, he will have a public mishap, and in the interest of our island, will name me chamberlain. That designation will hold as he will not have sired any heirs by then and your grandfather will be made too feeble and weak to rule. Then, another melee of circumstance will occur, I will go from chamberlain to . . . Well, you can guess the rest.”
The semicircle around Ely tightened. He swung out at his approaching assailants, who met his strikes with increasing aggression of their own.
The mass shifted their focus to the far corner of the Throne Room. From one of the servant entrances, another in the guise of the Prince emerged.
Gerry, striding toward the mob, stopped in the center of the hall. With both hands he held the grandest sword the lot of them had ever seen. “Lower your weapons!” he demanding, feigning authority.
The façade was easily dismissed. Ernald and Tristan laughed, as did some of the counts.
“Now who is this?” Ernald asked, chuckling.
“Prince Jameson,” Tristan began, turning not to his brother but to Ely. “Have you a royal double you have been hiding? I should have known.”
“I am a royal, Jameson of Kin Saliswater,” Gerry pronounced loudly, though his voice wavered.
“Pardon, Your Highness, but I believe you are mistaken.” Tristan motioned to Ernald. “We already have our Prince Jameson. As these good gentlemen can attest, he is the one and only.”
Nods and a collection of affirmative words rose from the audience of knights and counts. In their unified reaction, some even shifted their blade tips toward Gerry, which did not go unnoticed by him.
“Tell you what,” Ernald said. “Drop that fine sword in your hands so that I may keep it as a gift, and I will give you a head start.” He pointed at Gerry first. Then he motioned his head toward Ely. “So that you don’t have to watch him be hacked to bits. Who knows? Perhaps you will even outrun the knights that chase after you.”
His entourage chuckled. A few even closed in further on Ely.
Gerry tightened his grip on his sword as he looked past the mob to his brother, still pinned against the wall by a row of swords.
“Run, you fool.” Ely meant only to mouth the words, yet they escaped in a whisper. Save yourself. Go on, now. Run!
Instead, Gerry breathed deeply. He straightened as he took a proud step forward.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he proclaimed.
“As you wish,” Ernald waved his hand in the air absentmindedly. He turned to Ely. “In the name of Kin Saliswater, and of the Crown, I, Prince Jameson, command all of you to–”
A thud against the outside of the double doors cracked through the cavernous Throne Room. The whole of them shifted their attention to the entryway as another pounding noise from the opposing corridor resonated through the chamber.
Before either Ernald or Tristan could bark a response, the doors flew open. A grouping of Voiceless knights charged in, creating a defensive perimeter for the one they guarded:
“What is the meaning of this?! Swords drawn in the Throne Room? I’ll have every one of your heads.” Artus stopped midway between Ely and Gerry, with his retinue of Voiceless around him. He shot a glance at Ely, then Gerry. He recognized each for who they were – and for a moment, exhibited paternal leanings of concern – before furrowing his brow and fixing his stare on the brothers of Har-Kin Boivin.
“Your Majesty!” Baron Tristan exclaimed.
“Baron Artus, now,” the elder Saliswater corrected.
“I was only following your grandson’s orders. These two, two imposters here stormed the castle together, hoping to assassinate him much like they did your son–”
“Do not mention my boy!”
Ernald placed a hand on his brother’s forearm, drawing him back. “Grandfather,” he said, his arms extended. “It is I, Jameson. Do not let these frauds deceive you. I am who the good Baron Tristan says I am.”
The audience of knight and counts around Ernald parted to allow him to approach Artus. Even some of the Voiceless hesitated to keep their weapons raised. Artus, noting this, moved to the front of his retinue.
“That’s far enough.” Artus extended his hand, prompting Ernald to stop a few feet from him.
“But, Grandfather–” Ernald began.
“Do not listen to that fox, Grandfather!” Gerry yelled.
“Nonsense!” Ernald pointed at Gerry. “He is a fraud. I am the real Prince.”
Gerry wavered. All eyes turned to him. Then, on his otherwise nervous façade, a grin appeared.
“No. I am the real Prince!” he proclaimed.
He shared a look with Ely. A fraction of a second it was. Enough, though, for Ely to grasp his intention.
“No!” Ely screeched. “I am the real Prince.”
“Do not listen to them,” Ernald protested.
“No, listen to me,” Gerry urged.
“No, me! Me!” Ely added.
“Attack them!” Ernald commanded.
“Kill him!” Gerry directed, motioning to Ernald.
“Kill the two frauds!” Ely waved his hands, garnering as much attention as the confused audience would allow him. “Kill them all!”
The last bit proved too much, as Artus raised his hands into the air. “Silence!”
Quiet struck. Ely and Gerry shared another look, before joining the others in their gaze towards Artus.
Yes, Grandfather. Give the command. Say what we hope for. Do not worry. Gerry and I will be fine.
To the surprise of everyone save Gerry and Ely, Artus took the bait. “They are all imposters,” Artus bellowed. “The three of them. They murdered my son.”
Baron Tristan, sensing that he and his brother were losing the upper hand, stepped up beside Ernald. “My Lord, you are mistaken. The one before you is your grandson, your kin. On my honor, I vouch for him.”
“What honor? You are a Boivin. Cowards by blood.”
“Careful, Baron Artus. You are not the man you once were. I fear that madness has overtaken you in your old age.”
“How dare you accuse me of madness! You think that that ship in the harbor did not go unnoticed? You and your cohorts here invited the enemy to our doorstep. I’ll see you in the gallows for that.”
“By what right? With what force? By the looks of it, my men outnumber your three-to-one.”
“You are right.”
Their heads snapped to the entrance, where King Felix and Grand Duke Xain appeared, flanked by their Realeza.
“Three-to-one,” Felix stated, nodding to Baron Tristan. “With the odds against your favor, though, not for it.”
“Your Majesty,” Artus said. “I advised you to remain in your quarters.”
“And forego the opportunity to partake in an engagement? Nonsense. What say you, nephew?”
“I wholeheartedly agree, uncle. I wholeheartedly agree.” Xain smirked, patting the sword still sheathed at his side.
“Your Majesty,” Tristan started. “Allow me to explain. This is the one and true Prince Jameson. These other two are fakes, I assure you. The good Baron Artus here cannot tell the lot of them apart. He is feeble-minded–”
“I am a Saliswater!” Artus roared. He parted from his protective circlet to approach Ernald and Tristan, who withdrew behind their own ring of swords.
King Felix strode forward. His Realeza, and nephew, stayed close at hand, forcing every other to step back. He eyed Artus, along with Ernald, Ely and Gerry. “I do admit, the similarity is striking. Uncanny, really. I suspect it to be the result of much alchemy, be it potion or paste or poultice. Not even the keenest of eyes could tell the difference between the three.” He scanned the lot again. His gaze fell on Ely once more, then Ernald and Tristan, followed by Ely before settling on Artus. At that, he reached up to his neck, his fingertips suspended above his scar. “Yet, even in old age, kin know their kin. The ones that matter. Those who would live and die – especially in battle – for one another. If Artus sees a fraud amongst us, then they are false.”
“But . . .” Baron Tristan uttered, his hand extended to his brother. “We have . . .”
“Baron Artus, as ranking lord in this chamber, I grant you the use of my personal guard, the Realeza, to restore order. What say you? What is your command?”
Artus glanced to all sides, his sight finding his two grandsons.
Go on. Continue the ruse. We can save ourselves.
“Voiceless,” Artus shouted. “Realeza. Arrest all three imposters, and any who stand in your way!”
A flurry of steel followed. The Voiceless fanned out across the Throne Room, with the Realeza close behind. The counts and knights aligned with Ernald and Tristan fell back, their blades raised in haste. The guards of two Courts came upon them, determined to disarm. Cuts and thrusts met blocks and parries. The knights and counts allied with Boivin struck back furiously, their betrayal of the Crown having been exposed. Desperately knowing that escape was the only option that did not end with the gallows, every traitor lashed and broke from each other, leaving Ernald and Tristan to fight their own way out.
Gerry and Ely had nary a moment to relish in the reveal, though. In the onslaught, some of the Realeza set their sights on them with blades aimed.
“Run!” Ely shouted at his brother.
Ely ducked under the swipe of a Realeza, which with a strike sent sparks flying from the stone above. He darted and shoved through the combative mass, limbs and weapons knocking against his armor. The collisions did little to slow his flight, for soon he had dodged into one of the servant doorways.
The clap of boots remained close behind. Ely had nary a moment to savor his elusiveness when he spotted the Realeza in the same corridor. Sheathing his sword, Ely sprinted the length of the passageway, with the Ibian guards close at hand. Ahead, the sconces had burned out.
He allowed himself a fleeting wisp of a smile. He knew this section.
The Realeza continued after him. They stormed through the dark patch of the unlit area, coming into the light of the other side only to discover Ely’s absence.
“Where is he?” the one in front asked, pausing to look in all directions. The passage had led into a hall, from whence several more corridors crisscrossed.
“He was right in front of us. He couldn’t have run ahead that fast!” shouted another Realeza, as two others from the dark joined them.
They nearly considered doubling back when two Marlish counts – traitors having escaped the Throne Room – burst in down the hall.
“After them!” pointed the front Realeza. The three by his side fell in behind him as he led the charge, the traitors in their sights as they fled.
From the shadows of the unlit corridor, Ely dangled from the vaulted ceiling. Two intersecting iron bars had been secured overhead, to provide support to the short dome that still lay crumbling, as the castle’s masons placed little importance on a passage frequented by servants. For Ely’s part, though, the cross bars of the vaulted ceiling had provided much opportunities for escape, whether in the games of his youth or the ladies of his present.
Wiping his hands on his pant legs, Ely retreated in the opposite direction until a corner finally presented itself. Though lit, in the commotion of the conflict the path was still unoccupied, providing Ely with yet another opportunity. Hurrying to a recess cut for a standing guard, he reached to a loose stone above. The width and height of his head, it proved light and porous, so that he could balance it in one hand while he dug his hand into the space to retrieve one of his prized disguises.
The wax was so real that Ely could – in his heightened state – not help but admire the craftsmanship. His craftsmanship. The face staring back at him was of a grizzly dungeon master Arcporte Castle had employed years earlier, who had since died. His semblance had been such that one could have mistaken him for any dungeon master, or a veteran guard or even a mage. So generic had been his appearance that Ely had made several likenesses of varying degrees. The one he now held in his hands was of a pensive man, one who exuded wisdom and authority. Or so he hoped.
The echo of footfalls broke the length of Ely’s admiration. Fitting the disguise in haste, the clamor grew until the chorus stopped.
“You there!” shouted a man with a hoarse voice, his accent Ibian.
Here we go.
Ely turned around, the mask fully fitted against his face. He clutched his side, feigning an injury.
“The knight . . . one of Tristan’s . . . he went that way.”
The Realeza eyed him with suspicion. Chances were that he would have prodded Ely – in his guise – further, especially as he still bore remnants of the Voiceless’ armor. But the clash of swords further down the corridor, beyond Ely’s line of sight, prompted the Ibian guard to dart away.
I’ll need to work on my dungeon master’s voice. Still, it’ll do.
Ely bolted up the passageway. The sounds of the fighting from the Throne Room and beyond growing faint. He considered grabbing a weapon from one of his other secret compartments. Doing so would mark him as a fighter not a servant fleeing, as now there were several. Might as well keep up the ruse, he thought. The time for swords will soon be at hand.
First, I must find Gerry.
Ely circled to the main bailey. There, a count held his sword limp in his bleeding hand as three Voiceless closed in on him. Stupid fool. Gerry, even in his frightened manner, would never retreat to the open. Then, Ely made for the kitchen, where he could hear the sniveling and cries of a half dozen servants.
“Is it safe to come out, Sire?” one of the servant girls had asked.
Too concerned for his brother, Ely left without replying.
On and on he went. To Mage Wystan’s quarters. To the main gatehouse. To the castle stables. The blacksmith’s workshop. The guards’ barracks. All in quick succession, blowing past one skirmish or match to another.
Where are you, Gerry?! he nearly screamed.
He stopped. Of course.
A short time later, Ely slowed before the statue of their mother.
“You can come out now,” Ely urged, panting. Then realizing that his voice was muffled by his disguise, he removed his wax mask. “I said come out!” he screamed as the wax left his face, which was met by the crispness of a sea breeze.
He surveyed the Sovereign Gardens, noting them devoid of any nobility or attendants.
From the other side of a tall goldenrod bush, Gerry emerged, uncertain.
“Finally.” Ely threw his arms around his brother.
“We mustn’t stay long.”
“I know, Baron Tristan and his men. But the Voiceless and Realeza –”
“Not them! The real threat . . .”
The utterance from Gerry trailed off, leaving his mouth agape. He peered over Ely’s shoulder. Instinctively, Ely looked behind him.
From the shelter of the garden’s manicured trees and shrubs, the wild men of Lewmar appeared.
Their eyes not leaving the enemy, they backed away, only turning when they had built up enough momentum to break into a run. For all their hulking presence and thick garb, the Lewmarians moved with surprising rapidity, able to progressively close the gap between themselves and the brothers.
“The castle! The castle!” Ely yelled.
Racing up the steps of a small stone staircase, Ely and Gerry hastened to the top. They were almost halfway when at the head of the stairs another unit of Lewmarians appeared.
“I see them. To the side door. There!”
Midway up the stairs leveled and became flush with a stone parapet that intersected its path. To their left, an archway stood. Ely and Gerry bolted for its opening as the Lewmarians descended upon them from above and below.
The parapet was dim though lined with unlit torches. It had a few windows cut into the outer wall that ran the width of the cliff. Through them, Ely glimpsed the remnants of the Lewmarian’s raid. Arcporte below lay dotted by fires, with spirals of smoke stretching above the city like dark specters. Masses fled through the streets as herds do when chased by wild packs of dogs. In the harbor the sea churned, tilting ships to and fro, as though patiently biding their time until calm returned.
Shooting past the last window, the corridor cut into the cliff turned further into the interior, leading the brothers into darkness. Ely and Gerry slowed, groping the walls, their hands coming upon cool sandstone. Trailing them were the shouts and the unintelligible banter of the Lewmarians chasing after them.
“Are they close?” Gerry asked, already knowing the answer.
“Just keep going.”
Instead, Gerry halted. Ely, having no notice, bumped into him.
“I said keep going,” Ely said.
“But, there is a fork. Two paths.”
Ely brushed past Gerry. Extending his hands, he found the flat surface before them. He patted the width of it, noting that on each side the stone wall curved and led away, a separate path in each direction.
“What are we going to do?”
Ely wondered the same. The labyrinth of tunnels between each section of the castle grounds was meant to be an expeditious way of escape to the Marlish who knew it. To the ignorant, however, the system was designed to confuse and frustrate, affording no shortage of roundabouts and dead ends. A useful model, to be sure. The problem, though, was that so much of the interior tunnel system was now unknown, with patrols in the area discontinued since the close of the Century War.
And today we pay for that ignorance. We go into the void. Uncertain.
“This way.” In the pitch, Ely grabbed Gerry by the shoulder and shoved him into the tunnel that curved to their left.
“Are you sure?”
No further queries or protests came from Gerry as they scurried into the abyss. Looking back, Ely glimpsed the glowing edges of torchlight from their pursuers. Of course they would light our torches. Their faint light was swallowed up by the darkness as once more their path turned, as were the foreign cries and calls.
Perhaps they went the other way.
Gerry paused again.
“Another fork?” Ely asked.
“A dead end.”
His soul collapsed. The cavernous shell of his body filled with dread. He fell forward into the wall before them, feeling from top to bottom for any hole or space where they could continue their flight.
Then came the rise. Of shouts. Murmurs. Talk. In foreign tongues. Those from Lewmar.
This could be it.
Ely drew his sword, though he continued to run his hands over the wall.
“Do we fight?” Gerry whispered. Though in darkness, Ely could hear him slowly draw his sword.
“Perhaps,” Ely said, not caring for his brother’s trepidation.
“Ely, if we fall . . .”
“No time for that rubbish. We aren’t gone yet. Help me look.”
The voices down the hall grew in volume, as did the harshness of their tone.
Come now, enough of this dead end. There must be another passage somewhere.
Soft glow morphed into radiance as the first of their torches came into view.
Not yet. Not yet.
Light spilled into the length of the tunnel, exposing the two. Gerry, as though resigned to their fate, turned. Slowly he raised the tip of his sword.
The sudden light proved enough. A dozen steps back from the dead end, a narrow entryway stood. Ely grasped Gerry by the back of his collar and shoved him through the adjacent tunnel. With his brother before him, he pushed violently as he hurried, until the two of them broke into a frenetic pace. He cared not whether they crashed into another wall or off of a sudden cliff. For the torches followed at a pace to match their own.
Then ahead, by the dimness of the torches behind them, Ely caught sight of another fork in the corridor.
“Faster!” Ely urged Gerry. “Turn right.”
Gerry pivoted, not breaking his stride. Ely followed. The two could not have made it more than a hundred yards when Ely collided with Gerry, who gasped and cried out.
“Again!” Ely shouted. He pulled his shocked brother to the right. Thankfully, the corridor continued, taking them out of the light once more.
As they went on, the voices behind grew faint. Ely peered back to discover no light – nor Lewmarians – trailed them.
“Are we –”
“Shhh!” Ely whispered.
They pressed onward, slowing only when they were enveloped in silence.
Shafts of light from above cut through the pitch, like buttresses to the black. Ely brushed past Gerry and approached, at once relieved. They left the constraints of the tunnel and entered a hall cut from the rock, illuminated by four arched windows hewn into one side.
“By Mar, what is this?” Ely asked.
“It appears to be a chapel.” Gerry paused to admire a relief, which featured along its border men bearing pickaxes.
“Cut from granite.” Ely placed his palm against a stone pillar. Where are we? He knew that Arcporte had started as a miner’s camp, with several mine strewn across the area that would later become the city. But he had never realized that so much of the underground had been carved and populated by those same descendants.
“How far did we go?”
“I can’t hear the waves. Nor the sounds of the city. We must have traveled east, into one of the cliffsides that faces the country –”
Ely turned around to find his brother’s back facing him. Gerry stared straight ahead. At a Voiceless.
In full regalia, the knight stood at the other end of the chapel, the edge of light catching his breastplate. In one hand he bore a halberd while in the other he carried a torch. With the visor of his helm lifted, he looked back at the brothers.
Ely, his sword raised, rounded his brother to come between him and Gerry. “Were you at the castle? When my grandfather gave the order to hunt us down?”
The Voiceless tilted his helm, nodding.
“You know we are not imposters? That we are – one and the same?
Again, the Voiceless nodded.
Ely remained unconvinced. With the day’s events, the man in armor before him could have easily been a traitor, one loyal to Ernald, or a Lewmarian.
“And you are one of our guardians?”
For the third time, the knight nodded.
The Voiceless gave no reply of movement as he considered. Then he lifted the shaft of his halberd.
Clank, clank, clank.
Ely drew closer, searching the man’s face, the moment of recognition dawning on him.
“Well, I’ll be . . . You know your way around, don’t you?”
The knight nodded. Ely thought he glimpsed the crack of a smile.
“Very well. Lead the way.”
The knight turned. He guided them from the chapel down another passageway, which spilled into another hall. Only one small window illuminated the space, though from what Ely surmised, the space hinted at being grander, perhaps as much as the Siren’s Cavern.
Midway through the hall, the Voiceless stopped. He scanned the unlit area in front of him before dropping his torch and falling back to the brothers, where he took a defensive stance.
Ely needed not to know what it meant. Nor did Gerry. They crouched, their backs to each other, their weapons extended as their eyes adjusted to the low light.
All around, cloaked in the shadows, an army of Lewmarians lined the perimeter. They strode forward, the scratching of their hard leather against their furs breaking the silence. They moved as a singular unit, save for one, who stepped out from the pack. Two ovals of blue set in his face.
The three, losing their fear of the rest, focused on the Warlord. He was still dressed as he had been when he entered the dungeon, in loose trousers and shirt. He lazily draped a crude battle axe over his shoulder as he reached behind him to draw an item from his waistband. He tossed it on the ground, where it clattered and slid to rest against Gerry’s boots.
“I thank you for letting me borrow your dirk,” Konradt said in Marlish, his gaze firmly on Gerry. “Though your dungeon guards were less appreciative.”
Gerry stayed silent.
“You’ll never win,” Ely blurted, at a loss to say anything else.
Konradt cackled. “Win? Look around you, young prince. I have already won. I invaded your northern lands. I impregnated your treasured fortress, your castle-on-the-hill. And my forces have razed your city. Even if I were to die now, I have shook the foundation of your tiny island. Your Kin or any Marlish Kin will never rule the same way again. Your kind managed to avoid the bulk of the fighting on your shores during the Century War. Now, war has come to your heartland. You will never be safe.”
The Voiceless stepped forward with halberd in hand. In response, the circle of Lewmarians tightened, their blades and weapon heads outstretched to stop the Voiceless in his tracks.
“Spare them,” Konradt commanded. “I want them alive, if possible. To parade in Lewmar.”
“You can’t even be certain either one of us is the real Prince Jameson,” Ely said.
“True.” Konradt nodded to Gerry. “I know he isn’t the same one I fought on the Chesa. I’m sure of that. You . . . We’ll see. You could be him. Either way, we’re taking both of you prisoner.”
The Lewmarians inched in, as did Konradt, who clapped the head of his battle axe in his hand.
“At least tell us why?”
“Why strike here only to be captured? The escape? Why not invade Arcporte at once? Why align yourself with Har-Kin Boivin? Why all this now?”
Konradt grinned. “A sincere effort to stall me, I see. You bought a few seconds. No matter.”
The Lewmarians closed in. The Voiceless, desperate, swung his halberd out. The Lewmarians in its path fell back, allowing the knight to swoop in and grab his fallen torch.
That small advance was enough to provoke a few of the enemy. Two from his right and one from his left struck out at the Voiceless. The knight, anticipating an attack, waved his halberd towards their heads, from left to right. The blade narrowly missed the first two. The third was not so fortunate, as the tip of the weapon connected with his ear. Blood spewed from the side of his head as he dropped to his knee and wailed. The commotion was such that it bought the Voiceless a moment. He gathered the fallen torch and shoved it back into Ely’s hand before drawing his arming sword.
The attack against one of their own stirred the Lewmarians. Several rushed in, though now the knight had become the main target. The Voiceless, marked for death, swept the air in large arcs with his sword. Like a steel whip it cut through the air, slashing a few of the enemy in the process. The Voiceless maneuvered away from the brothers, who faced fewer but no less formidable opponents of their own.
Ely intercepted blows from swords and axe heads. A few blades made it past his defensive blocks to skim off his armor. Such near misses prompted him to fight with increasing ferocity, so that within seconds the whole of the assault was a blur.
With the Voiceless moving from his wards, the center of the skirmish shifted toward the far wall. The dimness from the sole ray in the hall faded as the mass of them gravitated away from the light. The torch in Ely’s hand provided some respite from the darkness, along with the occasional spark from the clash of weapons.
Through the fighting, Ely cocked his sword hand to strike stone behind him. He peeked over his shoulder to notice the wall to their side.
The surprise was interrupted by a guttural sound. Ely snapped his head. On the ground a stone’s toss away, the Voiceless laidlay, his hand over his punctured tasset as blood streamed over the cuisse armor plating of his right leg. He grimaced as he cried out again.
He’s never used his voice before.
Ely bent and made to come to his aid. But the Lewmarians between them stretched out their weapons to stop him.
“It’s done!” Konradt said. “Surrender.”
The Voiceless, moaning, hobbled up on his good leg. A Lewmarian closed in to strike out at him. The knight blocked his advance. Another, from behind, dove his spear point into the back of his good leg. That one the Voiceless was not able to avoid. He sank to his knees and fell forward.
“Stop this!” Ely pleaded.
Ely, looking to Konradt, nodded. He loosened the grip around his hilt until his sword fell from his hand. He motioned for Gerry to do the same.
Clank, clank, clank.
Ely shifted his attention to the Voiceless. Laying on his stomach, he beat the stone floor with his sword pommel.
Clank, clank, clank.
He lifted his head to catch sight of Ely staring back at him. Having his attention, he swung out his sword. The tip of the blade glanced off the stone wall to create a spark before a Lewmarian came forward to step on his hand.
“Now your torch,” Konradt commanded Ely.
But Ely did not turn to him. His gaze stayed on the spot where the sword had struck.
“Drop it. And fall to your knees!”
From whence veins of soft blue light radiated.
Ely slowly turned.
“As you wish,” he replied.
The Voiceless shoved off the Lewmarian’s foot. Ely swung the flaming end of his torch against the wall. A web of blue radiated from the point of impact, growing brighter as it spread outward. Then from the center of the glowing lattice the stone began to crack. The Voiceless struggled to his feet. Ely turned away from the wall and tackled his brother. He kneeled over him as the whole of the wall exploded. Rock fragments sailed through the darkness. Above, the vaulted portion of the ceiling fractured and fell. Ely, with his hands around Gerry, fell forward as stone, dirt and dust enveloped him.
The blast came to a silence. Ely peeped out from the coat of dust that had settled on his eyelids.
The sole window that had once been small had fractured into a gaping hole, illuminating nearly the whole of the hall. The small force of Lewmarians that had cornered them now laid strewn. The most fortunate of them remained motionless under thin cloaks of dirt and dust while the worst had been crushed by large stones.
“Gerry? Gerry!” He shook his brother, who laid beneath him. “Are you awake?”
Gerry, though smothered, stirred. “Yes, I’m fine.”
“Can you move?”
“If you get off of me.”
“I think I’m under a rock.”
Ely shifted his weight. An object, certainly rigid in parts, had collapsed on him. Though it was not of stone.
Dragging Gerry with him, he slid out from under to discover the limp body of the Voiceless.
The back of the Voiceless’ helm and gorget had been dented by the falling stones. Ely turned the knight over on his back. With closed eyes and a face caked in fine dust, he laid still.
“He, he saved us,” Gerry said, rising.
Ely looked down at the fallen knight. He patted the pauldron armor of his shoulder. “Good form, chap. Good form.”
Throughout the hall, those not badly wounded started to rouse.
“The Warlord . . .” Gerry searched those bodies and faces that were exposed. “Did he, was he buried? Did he fall?”
“I don’t know.” Ely searched those who encircled them. Under the debris, he could honestly not tell one Lewmarian from another, though he suspected than even shrouded in dirt and dust Konradt would have stood out. Whether that would have been the case or not, no trace of the Warlord was visible. “We must go. Arcporte needs us.”
Ely picked up the nearest sword as Gerry sifted through the rubble.
“Grab a weapon. The army awakens.”
“But my sword. It was Symon’s, from Father . . .”
“We’ll come for that later. Move!”
Gerry hesitantly grabbed the sword closest to him as Ely pushed him forward to the passage from whence they came. Entering the darkness once more, they were accompanied by the groans and pained cries of the Lewmarians struggling in the wake of the blast.
“Ely, are you sure this is the way?” Gerry asked as they walked, the lit hall behind them disappearing from view.No. I am certain of nothing. Yet we must press on. We must fight.