Ahlfred’s Quest

A Fantasy Short Story by Landon Knepp

Ahlfreds Quest

by Landon Knepp

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405 years after the fall of the kingdoms.

 

Pray do excuse me, young lad.” The youth of about seven years stared in confusion as Sir Ebbert squatted in the alleyway, his body failing him at the worst possible time. There was no reaction whatsoever from the boy. “Lad, run along! Would you like me to find your mother and recommend a whipping?” Still nothing. What an undignified predicament for an officer of the king, he reprimanded himself.

Thankfully, Commander Antony entered the alley and grabbed the boy by the arm. Trying to sound threatening but smothering a grin, he growled, “Am I gonna need to slap you in chains, you little pervert?” The big bear of a man pushed the child back toward the streets before continuing, “Now run along and tell everyone how you saw the Captain of the King’s Shield soiling the gutters!”

Antony roared with laughter as a mortified Ebbert finished his business, then situated his armor and uniform. “I tell you true, Commander, I’ve never had such unruly…” Ebbert paused for a moment and continued in an embarrassed whisper, “defecation…in all my life. Forgive my candor, but it’s practically water.”

“Thank you kindly for the thorough report. But as I’ve told you countless times already, go back to your bed chamber and rest. I can manage the inspection on my own.” Antony gave little effort to keep the exasperation from his voice.

No longer a young man, Ebbert nonetheless kept himself in impeccable shape. The silver-haired knight was lean and muscular, but unfortunately his physical strength did little good against whatever was raging inside him. “Today is quite probably the most important day in the history of the Towerland. A day that will be celebrated in the annals of the future, restored kingdoms. As you said when you toasted me and my men night last, ‘To the memory of the Fallen Kingdoms and the founding of the new!’ I will not let today be the day I fail my king.” He was determined to hold his body together through pure force of will if that was what it would take.

They re-emerged into the bustling streets with their complement of eight guardsmen. Everywhere they looked, the banner of Sunstone danced in the breeze. The banners were violet, decorated with the golden sigil of the Sunstone tribe. The tribe was named for the Sunstone, a large, rounded monolith of whitestone on top of a hill, having the appearance of a setting—or rising, depending on who you asked—sun. Their sigil was a simple likeness of the stone, with the ancient glyph representing their name underneath.

It was the day King Willet of Shadow Garden would lay down his sword and his crown before the Good King Ahlfred of Sunstone, putting the Towerland into a position of unity unrivaled in its four centuries. Until recently, this occasion was beyond imagination. The day they had chosen to make the pact official also happened to be the day of Havensfeast, their holiest of days. The streets were overflowing with revelers, merchant carts, singing, dancing, and one king’s official who could not go more than a couple of blocks without having to squat in an alley.

King Willet and the Good King Ahlfred had been at war for years, as support was slowly built for Ahlfred’s Quest. Weeks earlier, the balance of power finally and firmly tipped toward the Good King when the patriarch of the ancient tribe of Vehada agreed to marry his daughter to Ahlfred. She was his only child and would be the only person left to carry on their line, a line that had very nearly been extinguished during the conquests of Countess Vereena a generation prior. The tribe of Vehada was the only royal line of the Old Kingdoms that had survived. And while they had little actual strength, the name carried great prestige. At the announcement of the union, many undeclared powers pledged themselves to Ahlfred, while Willet was abandoned by many of his allies.

On such an important occasion, Ebbert, the captain of the king’s personal guard, and Antony, the commander of the king’s forces, were both personally tasked with overseeing the defenses of Stone Tower, the capital of the Towerland. Before Ahlfred took the throne, it had been the capital in name only, having no actual authority over other regions. But the city derived its name from the fact that it had been built around the Stone Tower, which gave it a distinguished status. Control of the capital changed hands so frequently that it had never been adequately fortified. Calling what surrounded the city “the walls” was being generous. Some sections were nothing more than a few felled trees. For this reason, Ebbert and Antony made their rounds, checking the gates and keeping an eye on the state of the crowds.

As if Havensfeast weren’t enough of a pain in my ass,” complained the imposing Antony as he tried to maneuver around a merchant cart full of smoked mutton. “Like bringing fire-jugglers to a monkey show.”

“Oh, but the symbolic nature is worth it!” Ebbert beamed. “Memorializing the day our forebears discovered that the Tower keeps the Dregs away, while also celebrating the union that will lead to their defeat. The inconvenience is a small price to pay for the inspiration the Good King has brought to his people.”

“I suppose it’s also an inspiration to let Count Nava make camp outside the walls with his and Willet’s armies?”

“Mutual trust, my friend,” answered Ebbert, though somewhat more muted. The count was a known madman, and Ebbert didn’t like the idea of him being anywhere near the capital. But now was not the time to provide tinder for his friend’s doubts.

“Lemme ask you something, Captain,” Antony began, changing the subject. “You really think, even with all the armies as one, we’ll stand a chance out there in the No Land? If the stories about the Fall are close to true, how do you fight something like that?”

Ahlfred’s Quest, his rise from being the young lord of moderate power, to being the most powerful ruler the land had known, was built primarily on his determination to be the savior of those imprisoned beyond the Tower’s sanctuary. No serious effort had been attempted in over two centuries to defeat the evil that had ravaged the rest of the world so swiftly and so savagely. Early on, you couldn’t spit in the Towerland without dampening a false messiah. All claimed to know the answer, and none lived long.

Ebbert paused to consider the question. “Well…Vizier Riverbend has assured the Good King that the answer has been found and that it lies with the Chronographers Guild. He even claims that, whatever it is he’s found, will be enough to convince the Knights of the Tower to pledge their swords. We must have faith in the young vizier. Everything he predicted when he orchestrated the union with Vehada has come to pass, after all.”

“Aye, no denying the Whisperer has proven his worth. And yes, I’ve heard his talk recently. Just seems whenever someone starts speaking of invading the No Land, it never ends well.”

Ebbert still did not hear the confidence he was looking for in Antony’s voice, so he smiled and added, “Borrow some hope from your children, Commander. Your eldest has volunteered for the first mission, has he not?”

“That he did,” Antony said, darkly. “On the first day, he had the years to qualify for service.”

The aging knight didn’t understand how Antony could sound so dour while giving news that would have filled him with pride. But seeing that it didn’t stir the feelings he’d hoped, he left the matter there and returned to their present duties. “I suppose the Foggy Gate needs the most attention. Word from Berard is that the portcullis has been jam…oh no.” Ebbert froze, and his face tightened.

“You can’t be serious!” Antony said, roughly massaging his eyes. “Have you tried shoving a cork up there?”

Once again, Ebbert rushed to the nearest back alley. He was beginning to feel a touch faint. All surrounding noise now held a slight echo, and his gut felt as though he’d eaten blazing coals. Curse this mortal husk! he silently fumed.

Form a wall!” Antony commanded their guardsmen, hoping to avoid more gawking children. They lined up to block the entrance to the alley.

The realization was setting in for Ebbert that his insistence on personally carrying out the task before him was putting it in jeopardy. With what he could tell was Antony’s best imitation of sympathy, the commander said, “You must know we can’t keep on like this.”

I am setting an unenviable pace,” he admitted with a sigh, his bent legs shaking and his back against a stone wall.

I know I haven’t your years and experience, Captain, but you can trust me to carry on the job.”

Oh Antony, my dear friend. It was never a question of your ability.” Ebbert’s voice was full of sorrow and guilt as he went on. “In all my years, all the great men I’ve served—and that includes Ahlfred’s own father, don’t forget—the Good King has been the very best. Not being at his service and at his side on this day, why, it makes mock of my vows.”

Oh, to the No Land with all that!” Antony shot back indignantly. “The king knows the man you are. He knows your sacrifice and your loyalty. One day of illness will in no way change the fact that the man thinks the world of you.”

Hearing the words brought a morsel of comfort to Ebbert. One benefit of Antony’s gruffness was that he did not give out kind words in vain. Coming from him, he knew it carried weight. “I suppose the best I can give today is to not muck it up,” said Ebbert, allowing a small smile. “I’ll make up for it on the day we celebrate Havensfeast across the seas.”

Aye, and on that day, I’ll stay in bed,” Antony replied, and they shared a laugh.

Ebbert scanned the alley, looking for any loose cloth he could use to tidy himself. “Another humiliating spectacle I’ve created,” he sighed.

Ay you,” Antony called to one of the guards forming the human dressing screen. “Gimme your cape.” The man unfastened his violet, silken cape and handed it to Antony, who tossed it to Ebbert.

He held the material in his hand and stared down at it for a moment, reflecting on how much it represented to him. “Oh, this is most distasteful.” But knowing there was little option, he did what he had to do.

Who knows,” began Antony. “With a little rest, maybe you’ll even be well soon enough to watch me drink myself stupid at the evening feast.” After the captain made himself presentable, Antony gave him a pat on the back and an encouraging smile. They wished each other well and parted ways.

Luckily for Ebbert, he had so hindered their inspections that they had not made it far from the castle. He approached by way of the rear entrance, knowing the Tower Court would be a jungle by this hour. After only a couple of blocks, the spires were in view. It was not what many would consider an awe-inspiring structure. Much like the walls, it had been constructed in haste and never kept a resident long enough for it to be built into quarters befitting the ruler of the civilized world’s preeminent city. Though, to Ebbert, it was everything a king’s seat should be. Whenever he would hear someone cast aspersions on its lack of grandeur, he’d bristle and tell them, “It has everything a castle needs and nothing it needn’t.”

A fifteen-foot outer wall surrounded the compound, which was no more than three acres. Beyond a small bailey was the Stone Keep, three stories with a spired tower to each side, rising an additional story. All in simple graystone. Behind the main keep was a series of unadorned, stone buildings used for barracks and administrative facilities.

Although Ebbert’s status would have easily afforded him his own manor and team of servants, he insisted on living in the barracks with his men. Having never married, and having spent most of his life either fighting wars or serving lords in some sort of armed capacity, military living was where he felt at home. Though King Ahlfred had insisted he have a private chamber, a compromise Sir Ebbert reluctantly accepted.

His breathing became heavily-labored as he passed through the postern gate and reached the barracks. The rapidly-weakening captain made his way down the corridor, growing dazed. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he used the stone wall to keep steady. Just make it back to your chamber, he urged himself. Some water, maybe send for some peppermint to soothe my ailments, and a quick rest. I can be back at my king’s side in time for the procession.

He was nearly to his door when he noticed the smell. A smell that had surrounded him far too often in his life, a smell he instantly recognized—like rotting fruit and unsalted pork left in the sun. It was a smell that made the air heavy and clung to his nostrils. Following it down the hall toward the armory, he could feel his muscles reflexively tighten, preparing to react. Right hand reaching to his left side, gripping the hilt of his sword, he swung the armory door open with his left. His heart sank as he saw an out-of-place pile in the far corner of the room, a layer of assorted linens covering a lumpy mass. He walked over, threw off one of the sheets, and confirmed his fears. Underneath was a tangle of motionless bodies, and from his vantage, one visible face.

Ebbert leaned in and squinted, trying to force his now-trebled vision to focus. He knew the face well, and the recognition brought a deep dread. He quickly threw off the remaining cover and scanned the other faces. Fighting through the fog that had enveloped his mind, he finally pieced together enough information to turn his alarm into a full-blown panic. It wasn’t until he bumped up against the wall that he realized he was stumbling backward. His increasingly-clammy skin was sweating out what little moisture his body still held. He studied the faces again to be sure. These were the twelve guards he had hand-picked. The twelve guards who were supposed to be protecting the king at that very moment. All dead, all in nothing but underclothes. Spinning to examine each wall in turn, he saw that the racks were nearly bare—armor, capes, swords, all missing.

Ebbert took a deep breath. Ahlfred has no Shield! Your king needs you now more than ever. You will make it to him. Commanding his body as he would have commanded one of his men, he ordered it to obey. He stiffened his back and straightened his shoulders and marched through the corridors and passageways, toward the front of the grounds. His legs wobbling with each step, his eyes losing focus with each movement of his head, he would find out just how much power the mind had over the body. Fortunately, there was nothing left to expel, as his stomach continued to convulse. Due to the array of events throughout the city, Ebbert did not come across a single person of rank as he passed through the castle.

When he reached the bailey, he glanced at the sun to estimate the hour. If his judgment was correct, King Ahlfred would be meeting with the high signal at the Luminarium, on the opposite side of the Tower Court. He took another deep, resolute breath, realizing this meant he would have to go straight through the rollicking horde that engulfed the circle between the castle and the temple.

Brothers! Our king is in dire straits,” Ebbert rasped to the outfit of Royal Swords who were attending the main gate.

Wha’s ‘at, ole man?” one of the men replied in a mocking tone.

We must alert Ahlfred. There is imminent peril!”

Geezer’s mad, ‘int ‘e?” another guard jeered as he laughed to his partner. “King ain’t even ‘ere, ya rot-smellin’ fool!”

You don’t understand! His Shield is compromised. We must—”

Listen to ‘im still goin’!” the guard interrupted with a cackle. He looked the captain square in the face and shouted, “Alfit! Ain’t! Here! Now get. Got us a job to do.”

Ebbert clenched his fists and burned with fury as the men shared an obnoxious, high-pitched laugh, barely a full set of teeth between them. He made the snap judgement that his time, what little he probably had left, would be better served pushing his way through the dense crowd than trying to convince these useless louts. As he elbowed past the rest of the guards, he made a mental note to insist that the Royal Swords come under his purview when this was all over. As a lower order, he knew these guards were not to the standards of his men, but he had not realized the extent of the gap.

Make way for the King’s Shield!” his wavering voice yelled out has he reached the crowded, circle street. No one paid him much mind as he began pushing his way through the throngs. “Pardon. Excuse me. Beg your pardon.” He croaked an apology to each person he moved aside.

“Mind yourself, ya old cock!” shouted a rotund man with a protruding forehead. As Ebbert tried to slip past, the man shifted his weight to hold his ground.

“Please, sir. I must get to the king.” The desperation rose in Ebbert’s voice as he again tried to move the man aside.

The blaggard curled his plump fingers into a fist, like a ball of wadded up sausages. “It’s like that then, is it?” He swung at Ebbert, whose instincts took over, even in his current state. The deteriorating knight deftly moved aside and grabbed the man’s wrist as it swung past. In a single motion, he twisted, dislocated the man’s arm at the elbow, and guided him to the ground.  

“In the future, please consider your actions,” Ebbert added, half-apologetically, and continued on. He stepped over the writhing man, with nobody nearby seeming to notice.

Knowing it would be less condensed, he stayed as close as possible to the roped-off perimeter of the Stone Tower and the approximately two-hundred foot diameter of green that surrounded it. The charred remains of those who had tried to approach the ancient structure made people wary about getting too close. He trudged along the great circle at the center of the court, doggedly advancing toward the Luminarium, easily the most impressive building in Stone Tower. It covered an area the size of the entire castle compound and was much more ornate, as the Order of the Torch had the luxury of continuing their work regardless of who occupied the throne.

The entire exterior had a finish of smoothed whitestone, mined from the Snow Caves of the South, the same material from which the Stone Tower was constructed. On each end of the rectangular structure was a gold-domed, pillared rotunda. In the center of the roof was a ring of pure gold, twenty feet in diameter, five feet high, and a foot thick. The ring housed a large fire that was always kept burning, except when put out by heavy rains. The Order claimed that this was the legendary Torch of the Sun, though the fact that rain could extinguish the flame made Ebbert doubt it was the genuine article.  

Spacious Palladian windows lined the upper level of the structure. Some of Ebbert’s most peaceful memories were of accompanying the Good King on visits to the high signal as the sun set. The open-air windows brought in the refreshing breeze from the bay, a balm to the last of a summer day’s sweltering heat. Even now, it was impossible to keep the images of the sun disappearing into the sea completely out of mind.

At long last, he was around the circular street and at the steps of the temple. The attendants knew Sir Ebbert well and let him through without incident, though he saw looks of concern or horror on their faces as he passed. Ascending the winding staircase that led to the high signal’s audience hall on the top level, every step required his full concentration, but the goal was within sight. As he reached the top of the stairs and made his way down the corridor, his breathing was a ghostly wheeze. He neared the door to the audience hall and found it odd that there were no attendants standing guard. Am I too late? he wondered. Have they already left? Then he heard someone shout his name. He turned to see the bearded face of Commander Antony rushing to give a hand. “Antony…praise…the Creator!”

“Ebbert, my friend, what are you doing out of bed? You look of something shat out by a sickly goat.”

Every breath Ebbert took felt like he was swallowing sand. “My men…all dead…The king…in danger!”

Being several inches taller, Antony had to crouch as he took Ebbert’s arm over his shoulder to keep him on his feet. “Calm your worries, Captain. We’ve already foiled the plot. The king is fine. Let’s get you fixed up, and I’ll take you to see him.”

“Bless you!” Ebbert croaked.

“Let me get this steel off so you can breathe.” Antony unhooked the chain that connected the front and back segments of Ebbert’s breastplate. The captain was finally beginning to feel a touch of relief, when intense pain shot through his gut, just below his ribs. Ebbert’s eyes widened in terror as the man who had been his friend drew their faces together, and drove the dagger deeper. In a sharp whisper, which held equal parts anger and guilt, Antony said, “Apology probably don’t seem shit as I’m going through with it. But I’m sorry as one in the right can be.” Ebbert stood with his mouth hung open, trying not to believe what was happening. “You truly are one of the hardest bastards I’ve ever met,” Antony went on. “Your men succumbed to the poison in the night, never even woke. A tool of women, I know. Less than they deserved. But we had to keep this quiet. I’m sure you understand.”

The commander began to twist his dagger, when the door to the audience hall creaked open. Antony retrieved the blade and stashed it behind his back before the attendant poked out his head.

“What is this commotion!?” the fresh-faced attendant hissed, giving as scolding a look as he was able. His face softened as he realized who was being reprimanded. “Commander Antony, Captain Ebbert. My deepest regrets. Do come in.”

Ebbert tried to speak, tried desperately to yell out his warning, but he was unable to draw a breath. From inside the hall, he could hear High Signal Ki’nan bellowing out a prayer. “May the light of the Torch guide our dear king! As you go forth to lead our united land, may the Torch of the Sun, the very light and warmth that forged our sacred Tower, may it flow from your heart!  Mikdel e’ta tival!”  

Mikdel e’ta tival!” echoed back from those gathered.

As the attendant waited for a response, Antony’s face revealed the gears turning in his head, calculating his options. Ebbert was sure he would flee; the only question was whether the traitor would finish him off first. “I have urgent news for Good King Ahlfred!” Antony shouted at last, halting the prayer.  

The door swung the rest of the way open, and the attendant moved aside to beckon them in. As Ebbert was dragged through the doorway, he struggled to understand why Antony had not taken the opportunity to escape. The hall was glittering even more than usual with ornaments of gold, silver, and every gem imaginable. Both the western and eastern walls were lined with the Palladian windows. Filling the room, Ebbert saw King Willet surrounded by his advisers and a handful of guards. Willet was glaring at Antony questioningly, his clammy complexion and the sweat that dotted his silks undercut his stately facade. High Signal Ki’nan was standing in the center, between the two parties, flanked by an assortment of high-ranking beacons and several attendants. All of the holy men wore white silks. The high signal was set apart with gold filigree trim on the collar and sleeves, along with a burdensome quantity of jeweled chains around his neck.

Then there was Ebbert’s beloved King Ahlfred in all his regal splendor, the gold of his branched crown shimmering. He stood tall, with a satin cape of vibrant purple over his broad shoulders, lined with white fur. Underneath, a doublet of richest leather, intricate floral patterns stitched throughout. The image was perfected by the beautiful Queen Naimi at his arm. A rainbow of fresh flowers decorated her lush waterfall of cascading, raven-black hair, and accented her sparkling, silver gown. At the Good King’s other side was his vizier, known to most as the Whisperer.

Then, behind the king, feet from the king, Ebbert saw the final subjects of the scene before him: the twelve men in the armor and capes of the slain knights of the King’s Shield. The faceguards on their helms were all drawn down.

Ahlfred’s face sank as he noticed Ebbert’s condition. “Captain Ebbert! What’s happened?” He turned to the high signal, “Your Holiness, summon your anatomist! Your apothecary! Governor,” he turned to Willet, who grimaced at the verbal demotion of rank, “are any in your party healers?”

“Your Grace,” Antony interrupted in his most solemn tone, “I’m afraid the news is more grim than it even appears. In our rounds, Captain Ebbert spoke of an urgent matter he must attend. This aroused my suspicions, as clearly there could be no more urgent matter than the security of this day. I followed him and caught him conspiring with, um, known…assassins.”

“No, no, there must be some explanation,” Ahlfred said in his deep, commanding voice. “In all my years, I have never known a more loyal and noble servant than Sir Ebbert. Please, my dear brother, tell us the truth of it.”

Ebbert tried with all he had to fill his lungs deep enough to speak. Every effort was agony. His throat was so dry, it was cracked and bleeding. His tongue was like a dry sponge in his mouth. Each movement in his chest was like the dagger being plunged all over again. He choked and gasped; trying to make any decipherable sound was hopeless. Some other method of communication would have to be used. He was able to catch the Whisperer’s eyes. It made no sense, he knew, but he pleaded with his eyes to scream “danger”. The Whisperer studied him appraisingly. Ebbert moved his eyes to the false guards behind Ahlfred, then back to the Whisperer. It was working; Ebbert could tell he was piecing it all together. The vizier looked at the blood dripping from underneath Ebbert’s armor. He caught a nervous glance between Antony and Willet. Moving his head as little as possible, he turned to look back at the false guards. “My king, may I have a private word?” the Whisperer asked with an affected nonchalance.

“Yes, yes, in a moment. Ebbert is deathly parched. Someone give the man some water.”

An attendant quickly filled a large goblet and handed it to the fading knight. He barely had the strength to grasp the cup, but he drained it down his throat as fast as it would fall. Each gulp was simultaneous torture and bliss. The vizier again begged a private word with Ahlfred, this time with more urgency, but again the king was oblivious to the subtext.

“Can you speak, Eb?” Ahlfred urged.

Willet began to fidget; his cheeks reddened. “I’m afraid he’s past speaking,” Antony awkwardly tried to interfere. “No use hearing lies from a traitor, anyway.”

Eb?” the king implored.

Pushing past the pain, Sir Ebbert marshalled every ounce of his focus. Lungs, give me breath! Work, damn you! Give life to my voice! He had never known such a trial, but with all he had left, he was able to get out one word and one motion. He pointed toward the guards behind the king and choked out, “Imposters!

Chaos ensued. Everyone looked around in confusion. Willet’s hands rose to chest-level and began flapping in what seemed an involuntary, nervous spasm. The Whisperer tried to cut through it all. “Ahlfred, these are not your gua—”

DO IT NOW!” Willet screeched, cutting off the vizier.

Ahlfred reached for his dagger as he turned toward his guard, just in time to see the sword disappear into his chest. With a dreadful scream, the queen fell to her knees. Ebbert’s heart and mind yelled out murderous threats, but from his mouth came only a dry rasp. The Whisperer knelt down and used his cloak to put pressure on the wound, but the king had died instantly. Seeing the high signal make a dash for the door, Antony caught him by the back of his silk robe and forced him down to his knees. “I’m afraid we’ll need everyone to stay put.”

With no purpose left, the resolve Sir Ebbert had marshalled over his flesh was gone, and he could feel death’s approach picking up pace. He let himself fall to the ground near the window to the courtyard, and he lay there observing the scene, waiting for it all to be over. The false guards began removing their helms, no longer needing to conceal their identities. Clinging to the arm of Ahlfred, the queen sobbed over his lifeless body. The Whisperer, realizing he was gone, gave up trying to staunch the bleeding and simply knelt with her.

Willet turned angrily to Antony, “Well you certainly fouled this all up! What possessed you to bring that walking corpse here?”

If I may be frank, I saved your ass,” Antony shot back. “He found the other bodies and was making his way to warn the king.”

I…am the only king!” the dumpy usurper insisted.  

Ebbert knew if only he were his normal self, he would cut them all down single-handedly with the righteous anger raging inside. But his body was no longer responding.

Aye. He wanted to warn the pretender,” Antony amended. “I caught him at the doorway. Stubborn son of a bitch refused to die.”

Oh, I suppose this will do fine,” Willet said as he regained his composure. “We’ll just need to do a bit of catch up.” He looked down at Ahlfred’s lifeless body. “You claimed the Sunstone was the rising sun of a new world. It looks instead to be the sun setting on your House. I will see to it that Ahlfred’s Quest goes down in the histories as Ahlfred’s Folly.” It was a speech he had clearly prepared and expected to deliver while the king was still alive. He turned to the false guard who struck the fatal blow. “Rolis, bring me his crown; let’s see how she fits.” The fat below his pointy chin beard jiggled as he let out a spastic, high-pitched giggle.

That was all the Whisperer could take. He sprang to his feet and made a move toward Willet but was grabbed by three guards after only a couple steps. “We’ll burn Shadow Garden to the ground! We’ll feed you to the Dregs! Our armies will devour every—” one of the guards fed him a backhand with mailed knuckles to end the threats.

Your armies? Thank you for reminding me,” Willet said as another giggle escaped. He placed Ahlfred’s crown atop his auburn curls. It was all gold, with appendages jutting up in the shape of tree branches. “Antony,” Willet continued, “go give the order to open the gates for Count Nava and my men. We can still have this all wrapped up before anyone gets wise.”

Aye, my lord.” Antony bowed and set off.

The Whisperer was still struggling to get loose from Willet’s men, and the king studied him for a moment. “The pretender’s famous puppet-master. Barely more than a boy. The trouble you’ve caused me these past years with that freakish brain of yours.”

It’s nothing compared to the trouble you’ve brought on yourself today,” he spat. “You will be ruined. Your name will be erased!”

Dear, dear,” the king replied with mock concern, “I’m afraid you’re just too dangerous to live. Guards, get him out of my sight.”

With pleasure,” said one of the men.

They dragged him to the window behind Ebbert, threats and curses flying with every step, and unceremoniously tossed him out. It took a few seconds before Ebbert heard him land. It wasn’t the type of thud he had expected; there was more of a crack. A sick laughter broke out among Willet’s men. “Oh hell, Gerrick, we couldn’t make such a perfect shot again if we had a hundred tries!”

Willet scampered over like a little boy trying to be included in his older brother’s games. He looked out the window, then joined the guffaws. “Just a whisper in the wind!” he added, quickly looking around for approval. The laughter continued but grew much less sincere.

One of the guards put his foot on Ebbert and used it to turn him toward the window. “Eh, Knight, take a look at your champion now.”

Yes, yes, give the man one last bit of gaiety before he expires,” approved Willet.

Creator, Lord of the Tower, rain down fire. Blast us with holy lightning. Let these cruel savages join me in the grave. Ebbert cursed in his heart as he took in the grotesque scene below, but his voice could only moan. The Whisperer’s body was bent backward, completely in half, over the side railing of a mule cart. God, let power enough course through me for one last fight. Let me send these barbarians to the end they deserve.

Let’s see if this knight can make it two in a row,” barked one of the guards.

No no, we can’t draw attention,” Willet objected, reluctantly.  

Well, we better at least start disposing of those who can still muck this up. That priest would be able to raise quite a ruckus.”

Ki’nan’s head shot up, and his eyes became as big as eggs. “No! No!  I serve the Tower! I have no particular loyalty to any one king,” he shouted in shrieking desperation. Then, catching Willet’s eye and realizing his mistake, added, “I mean, unless a king comes who truly deserves it. Which clearly you do.”

Willet’s irritating giggle again filled the hall. “Tell me, Priest. Does the queen’s marriage to the deceased king strike you as grounds for annulment?”

Absolutely!” The high signal began his frantic response almost before the question was finished. “There’s no child, therefore no evidence of a consummation. Annulment would be standard procedure.”

The queen’s drenched, bloodshot eyes shot murder at the cowardly holy man. Through gritted teeth, she growled, “Believe me, it was consummated. Oh, was it ever consummated. He consummated me until I couldn’t walk straight!”

Willet giggled, but this time it was clearly forced. Ki’nan, avoiding Queen Naimi’s glare, looked back to Willet. “Hearsay! No child, no proof!”

Spineless traitor! Blood-stained hypocrite! You would serve better as the Torch’s kindling than its guardian! Ebbert’s mind and soul rained down bloody threats as a weak rattle escaped his throat.

And if the queen is not as…enthusiastic as I hope,” the usurper began, choosing his words carefully, “about my coming proposal…what does your God tell you about a…less than mutually…voluntary marriage contract?”

A hint of shock entered the high signal’s face, but apparently not enough to dissuade him giving his approval. “Well, I’ve never, well, I mean…” he almost allowed himself to meet Naimi’s defiant eyes but quickly turned away. “I mean to say, you can’t always expect a woman to understand the needs of a kingdom. You are now the most powerful man the Towerland has known. I would defer to your judgement on the best way to serve your people.”

Oh, dear, sweet Naimi. I had not even fully considered how my failings reached to you. Who is left to stand between you and this beast? The great and ancient line of Vehada has fallen into the hands of soulless swine.

A lip-puckering smile spread across Willet’s face. “Good. Good. Much to consider.”

There’s also the matter of the people,” Signal Ki’nan continued in desperation. “There are some, however much a minority they may be, who were devoted to the false king. Having the full backing of the Luminarium would go a long way toward a smooth transition.”

Don’t press your hand,” Willet spat. “The people will do as commanded.” Then, turning to his men, “The Order of the Torch shall go unmolested so long as things remain friendly. Now, there is still much to do. Everyone knows their tasks, I pray?” Several of his men set off. “And Priest, dispose of these bodies.” Noting the disdain-filled faces on many of the attendants, Willet straightened his robe and lifted his chin, trying to look as dignified as possible. “Respectfully,” he added, magnanimously.

And what of the old man?” asked one of the guards.

Willet looked down at Ebbert, disgust spreading over his face. “Yes, somebody put that poor knight out of his misery.”

The guard turned, took a few, heavy steps, and drew his sword. “Sorry, mate.”

Sir Ebbert, renowned warrior and loyal servant, was unable to move. He saw the blade, felt a wetness across his throat, then darkness.

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