The Devil's Armor
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King Lorn the Wicked knew the knives were out. In the past days—days he knew were the last of his kingship—conspiracies were everywhere, with no one to be trusted. It was the reward for a life lived in treachery, where alliances shifted like sand in the storms kicked up by war. It was how Jazana Carr wanted him to end—alone and afraid.
Tonight, darkness fell heavy on Carlion. Soldiers milled about the castle courtyard and its many towers, keeping an uneasy eye on their foes in the distant hills. Clouds obscured the moonlight. An abrasive breeze stirred Lorn’s cape. He drew his wolf-fur collar closer to his face and squinted against the dust and sand, filth that constantly tumbled through the streets of his capital out of the crumbling mountains. From atop the wall-walk King Lorn could see for miles. The turrets of Carlion provided an excellent vantage against invaders. As he had for the past three nights, he watched as Rihards forces waited in the hills, their many torches glowing defiantly, announcing their numbers. They had not yet advanced on Carlion, but Lorn and his men knew time was short. Perhaps the duke awaited more of Jazana Carr’s mercenaries to bolster his own forces from Rolga. Perhaps the siege would start at dawn.
Or perhaps they were waiting for one more traitor to make a move. King Lorn’s mind turned on this as he stared into the hills. There was work to be done tonight and he had very little time. If he was to escape this trap he needed to be sharp. Jazana Carr was clever. The bitch-queen from Hanging Man had held his stones in a vice for months now. One by one she had co-opted his barons, cooing to them with her endless supply of diamonds. Lorn wondered how much Rihards had cost to turn. Not long ago, he and the duke had been close allies. They had even been friends, though Lorn had always used that term carefully. As he stared out into the hills, counting up the torches of Rihards massed army, he was sorry the duke had betrayed him. Yet in an odd way he was also glad. It had opened his eyes to treachery. He turned away from the hills just for a moment and looked down at his soldiers. Twenty feet below, the main gate of Carlion stood in rock-solid defiance to the army in the hills, fortified with stout beams and fighting men with bows and lances. Among these men stood Jarrin, his Captain-at-Arms and garrison commander. Jarrin was pensive as he milled about his troops in his distinctive armor, his head toped by a falcon-faced helmet with a crest of dangling feathers. Few of the men wore their helmets down, Lorn noticed. Not so with Jarrin.
Afraid to show your face?
Lorn’s gaze lingered on his captain. It was he who had brought Jazana Carr’s letter to the castle, he who Duke Rihards had summoned forth. And it was he who had agreed to the dangerous mission, almost without pause. Jarrin had always been a brave man. For a moment Lorn felt puzzled.
He looked away from the captain, up over the castle toward the city beyond. His capital was bleak, blacked-out by fear of the coming invasion. There were no peasants or drunks in the streets, no watchful citizens waiting to defend their city. They were all barricaded into their shabby homes, totally unwilling to bolster their king. Once, a very long time ago, the city had been a jewel. Now it had been bled dry, a necessary evil of civil war. Lorn grunted as he looked at his city, deciding its fate wasn’t his fault.
"My lord is troubled," came a voice. Lorn turned to see his manservant, Uralak, crossing the wall-walk toward him. Uralak wore a doublet and chainmail shirt, both too large for his slight frame. His was an older, slender man who was not much Lorn’s senior. Years of hard work had roughened his hands and face. Like all those who had remained in Carlion, Uralak had prepared himself for battle, though Lorn doubted he would last more than a few moments in combat. He was a good man, one of the few whose loyalty Lorn never doubted. "You should go inside, my lord," said Uralak, keeping his voice low. "It does none of us good to see you brooding here."
King Lorn kept his eyes on the capital, the city he was sworn to protect. Such was the weight of his kingship. It was a promise he had kept for almost two decades. Mostly.
"They have never loved me," he said with a deep breath. He took note again of the city’s darkness. "Look, they do not even come to offer arms or comfort. Not one kind word has come from them."
"They are afraid, my lord," said Uralak. He did not argue Lorn’s point of being unloved. The manservant clenched his collar around his neck and turned to look out over the hills. "You were right, my lord. Duke Rihards is a patient man." His old eyes narrowed on the numerous pinpoints of torchlight. "And persuasive. His men follow him willingly in this treason."
"Rihards has a potent tongue," Lorn agreed. His old ally the duke had come from Rolga with a robust army, spurred by Jazana Carr’s promise of wealth. The Diamond Queen, as she called herself, had thusly persuaded many of Norvor’s fractured barons to join her. She had done what Lorn himself had never been able to do, bringing a kind of tyrannical peace to northern Norvor. She seemed to have all the wealth of the world at her pretty fingertips.
"I should have killed him the last time he was here," lamented Lorn, recalling Rihards last visit to Carlion. It was hardly a month ago, when the two had planned their defense against Jazana Carr’s coming mercenaries. "Do you think he knew then, Uralak? Was he laughing at me while we drank our wine?"
"Who can say, my lord." The old man’s face tightened. "We are strong. We will resist them."
Lorn leaned out over the wall walk, wrapping his hands over the castle’s pitted stone. He ached to speak the truth to Uralak—to anyone, really—but knew he could not. For a moment he wished Rinka was with him, and that he could lay just one more time in her loving arms. But his third wife was dead and as cold as the mountains, leaving him an infant daughter to protect. Rinka had died with screams in her throat. On nights like this, it seemed to Lorn that he could still hear her cries echoing through Carlion’s battered halls, bloody and exhausted as she pushed their daughter from her womb.
"And now that bitch wants to take my daughter away from me," spat Lorn. It was Jazana Carr’s final insult to him, delivered by a man he had once trusted. In her letter she had described her wretched plan, to kill every man in Carlion but to raise Lorn’s daughter as her own. And what was he to do? Kill his own child? He had considered it. It might have been worth it to keep Poppy from falling into the bitch-queen’s care, but Lorn had a better idea.
"We will protect Poppy, my lord," Uralak assured him. "All of us; we won’t let her be taken."
The King of Norvor, troubled and weary from what seemed like a lifetime of fighting, looked at the man who had been his servant for years. "That won’t be enough, Uralak." He studied him, astounded by his ignorance. "You do know that, don’t you? Duke Rihards has ruined us. When they come, they will kill us."
Uralak stiffened. "No, I don’t know that." He set his jaw a little higher, looking at the hills but not really seeing them. "And the men don’t know that either, my lord. They are with you."
King Lorn the Wicked needed to say no more. There had never been any question of Uralak’s fealty. Like most of the castle’s servants, the old man had been born and bred to it. There was no treachery in his profession.
Soldiers, however, were a different matter. Lorn’s gaze flittered down once again toward Jarrin, who was walking aimlessly through the men of his garrison, giving orders that didn’t need giving.
"Uralak, keep an eye on things for me here," said Lorn. "I’m tired. I’m going to my chambers. In an hour send Jarrin up to see me."
"Yes, my lord."
Lorn picked his way along the wall-walk, climbed down a ladder leading to the courtyard, and gave the main gate of his castle fortress a cursory inspection. The garrison soldiers stayed silent, looking at their king with gaunt expressions. They had suffered for him and he knew it. If he hadn’t been so afraid of treachery, he might have appreciated it. Instead he crossed the courtyard without a word, making his way to the tower where his chambers were, where his infant daughter was asleep.
They had made love in a poppy field, running through it like children then laying down in the red flowers to satisfy their lust. And when Rinka had realized she was with child and had traced it back to that romantic day, she had proclaimed that any girl child from their love-making would be named Poppy, so that she could remember that time when she was so happy. On that day war had seemed such a distant thing. Though it raged all around them, they were lost in love and in their arms had forgotten the Diamond Queen and her minions and the noose closing around Carlion. Lorn was many years Rinka’s elder and had already gone through two wives before marrying his latest, youngest bride. The first he had put away for being barren, the second he had lost to a lung cough. That one had been a good breeder and had given the king three fine sons, all of whom had ridden off to war, and all of whom were dead. Edvar, his youngest, had served with Duke Rihards. Only a week ago had his head arrived in a basket.
King Lorn thought of all these things in the quiet of his chamber as he studied his daughter’s tiny, sleeping face. He always kept her very near, a constant reminder of the young wife he had lost. Six-month old Poppy slept in a crib away from the window. Lorn himself reclined in a hard wooden chair beside the crib. His troubled mind reviewed his plan, but the sight of his daughter was a constant distraction.
Of all things, Lorn had never imagined himself taking a woman in a field of flowers. He was well into his fifties now, and thought he had abandoned such notions forever. But Rinka had rekindled something in him. It was amazing how virile she made him. And because he had so little to give, because he was a pauper king who had spent all his pennies in defense of Carlion, he knew that she did not love him for his wealth or the promise of a richer tomorrow. Rinka was a smart woman, wise enough to know that Jazana Carr could not be stopped. It was Rinka who had prophesized a year or less till their demise. Had she lived, she would have predicted Rihards treachery, Lorn was sure. She was clairvoyant that way, and he missed her. She was the only woman he had ever really valued. And that was why—perhaps the only reason—he would do anything to save their daughter.
"Jazana Carr thinks us fools, child," he whispered. "She wants to raise you as her own, an insult to my eternal memory. Would you want that? To be covered in diamonds and to be a whore like her?"
The infant did not respond. Lorn wasn’t even sure she could hear him. Time would tell, but she might well be as deaf as she was blind.
On a table nearby stood a decanter of wine and two crystal goblets, among the best glassware the castle still could offer. Most things of value had been sold off long ago. Both goblets were empty, awaiting Jarrin’s arrival. Next to the wine decanter was Jazana Carr’s letter, written in her own offending hand. Lorn’s gaze moved from his daughter to the ugly note.
She scorns me.
It was not enough that she should announce herself the savior of Norvan womanhood, or that she sought his kingdom and castle.
She would take everything from me. So like a woman.
Lorn was about to tell his sleeping daughter this when a knock came to his chamber door. In the near-perfect silence the sound startled him. He sat up, his strongly-featured face creasing.
Jarrin, his Captain-at-Arms and commander of the dwindling garrison at Carlion, pushed open the door and waited in the threshold. He was in impressive man in his armor, wide and forbidding. He held his helmet in the crux of his arm, the first time he had removed it in many hours. His divested head shone in the torchlight of the hall, cleanly shaven to a bald shine.
"My liege," he said, bowing. "Uralak told me you wish to see me."
"Yes," replied Lorn, though it wasn’t quite correct. He detested Jarrin now, and would have preferred the company of just about anyone else. "Come in. I want to speak to you."
Suspicion flashed through Jarrin’s eyes. He covered it by feigning exhaustion, sighing and saying, "Forgive me, my liege. I am very tired." As he noted the wine decanter he added, "I may not be proper company tonight."
"Come in and be quiet," said Lorn, gesturing toward his daughter. "She’s asleep."
Jarrin did as his king requested, entering the room as quietly as his bulky armor would allow and coming to stand before the sitting Lorn. The king pointed to the opposite chair.
The captain did so, looking uncomfortable. Lorn ignored this as he poured oxblood wine into the twin goblets.
"We need to speak, my friend," said Lorn. "There’s not much time, and I needed to get you away from curious ears." He pushed one of the goblets across the table toward Jarrin, avoiding the carefully folded letter laying between them. It seemed to Lorn that his captain was making every effort to avoid glancing at the note. With a gauntleted fist Jarrin took the goblet but did not drink.
"My liege, I should return to my post," said Jarrin. "If the duke attacks—"
"If the duke attacks he will run us down like dead grass." Lorn smiled and lifted his goblet in toast. "To tomorrow, then, and our deaths."
Returning the smile, Jarrin said, "No, we are strong, my liege. We will repel them."
"Ah, you don’t think that, Jarrin. You’re not as stupid as Uralak. You know the truth." Lorn raised his eyebrows. "Don’t you?"
Jarrin hesitated. "I will admit our task is great . . ."
He went no further. Lorn leaned back in his chair. With his goblet cradled in his long fingers he contemplated his captain.
"Well, perhaps you are right," he said. "Perhaps Jazana Carr hasn’t been able to buy as much loyalty as I’ve feared. Or maybe Duke Rihards will have a change of heart, hmm? Do you think he will renounce the bitch-queen for the sake of old friendships?"
"I cannot say, my liege." At last Jarrin drank, hiding his face behind the goblet.
"No," Lorn agreed. "Who can read the heart of a traitor?"
Before the awkward silence grew too long, Lorn put down his goblet. "Look at that," he said, pointing with his chin toward Jazana Carr’s letter. "A bold woman, that one."
Jarrin nodded. "I wish I had never laid eyes on it."
"What choice had you, my friend? Duke Rihards called you forth, and I needed Carr’s message. It was brave of you. Have no regrets."
For the first time since he’d brought the letter into Carlion, Jarrin looked remorseful. "Have you read it, my liege?"
"Of course I have," Lorn snapped. Then he remembered that Jarrin probably had not. "Go on. Read it yourself if you like."
"No," said Jarrin. "I don’t care to."
With a flick of a finger Lorn nudged the note closer to Jarrin. "She calls me a tyrant. She thinks her reign would be better than mine. I suspect some in the city think that as well."
"It’s been hard for the people, my liege," replied Jarrin. He was a proud man. It didn’t surprise Lorn that he was rising to the bait. "They’ve endured hardships for you. They want only to see an end to things, to have bread again."
"Then they can blame Jazana Carr for that!" In his anger Lorn almost crushed the stem of his goblet. He glanced toward the still sleeping Poppy, lowering his voice with effort. "Almost twenty years, Jarrin; do I have to remind everyone of that? It could have been twenty years of peace for us all if not for that ambitious bitch. If the people blame me for this war, then I say let them call me wicked." He sat back, brooding over his wine, wanting to smash the goblet against the wall. There had been no way for him to make peace, and no other country had come to aid him. But his people, stupid, mindless sheep, had never seen that. "I get blamed for infants dying, for mothers having no milk, for crops withering, for blight of every kind. Is that how they’ll remember me?"
"They will welcome an end to war when it comes," said Jarrin.
"They will celebrate my death."
"No, my liege."
"No, because I will not let them." Lorn smiled sharply at his captain. "I will not die, Jarrin. Not tonight."
Again the silence rose between them. Lorn watched Jarrin’s expression. The moment stretched like syrup. And then he saw it, just for a moment, just a hint, and he knew that he was right about his trusted aide. Before the hint could flee, he seized it.
"How much did she buy you for?"
Jarrin knew in an instant he’d been discovered. His hand shot toward his dagger, but Lorn was ready, grasping the table and tossing it over, smashing it against Jarrin like a shield. The decanter and goblets flew through the air as Jarrin tumbled backward, his armor unbalancing him. Quickly Lorn released his own blade, a narrow stiletto pinned beneath his cape. The weapon leapt forward as Lorn pursued Jarrin over the table, landing on him like a jaguar. Jarrin’s head collided with the floor, his arms flailing uselessly. Lorn dropped his weight down upon his quarry, buckling Jarrin’s breastplate and knocking the air from his lungs. Clasping his fists together he hammered Jarrin’s jaw, snapping it. The young captain wailed in pain. Too slow to react, his eyes widened horribly as he felt Lorn’s stiletto at his throat.
"I know she paid you," panted Lorn. He was a big man and easily held down the stunned Jarrin, straddling his mid-section while the stiletto hovered threateningly. With one push he could puncture the gorget. "How much I wanted to believe you hadn’t betrayed me," Lorn hissed. "But you’re like Rihards and the others; you love only money."
Jarrin tried to speak, but his fractured jaw garbled his words. "Butcher!" came the cry, spit out with blood and saliva. Lorn lifted Jarrin’s bald head and slammed it into the stone floor. Jarrin’s eyes fluttered wildly. Seeing his captain still awake, Lorn roared and hammered a fist into his temple. The stiletto’s pommel broke bone and skin; Jarrin drifted into unconsciousness.
Lorn leaned back, exhausted. He closed his eyes and caught his breath, straddling his near-dead captain. Poppy was crying. Inadvertently they had struck her crib, knocking it aside. Lorn’s eyes shot to the door. He had left strict orders not to be disturbed, but Lariza was like a second mother to the child and always ignored Lorn’s gruff commands. Hurriedly he rose and went to the door, opening it. Not surprisingly he saw the nursemaid coming down the hall. The young woman stopped when she saw the king.
"I heard the child, my lord," she said, trying to look past him. "Is she all right?"
"She’s fine." Lorn hardened his expression. "And I knew you’d be on your way. What did I tell you woman? I’m not to be disturbed."
"Yes, my lord, but—"
"Go!" ordered Lorn. "I’m with Captain Jarrin."
"Then let me look after Poppy. . ."
"Away, woman!" barked Lorn, pointing down the hall. "Now."
Swallowing her anger, Lariza spun and huffed down the hallway, her skirt billowing behind her. Lorn cursed under his breath and closed the door. Poppy was still crying in her crib. Lorn ignored her, going straight to the unconscious Jarrin. Stupidly, he had left his stiletto on the floor beside him. He picked it up, then noticed Jarrin’s own dagger strewn across the floor. Its blade was flat, like a carving knife, a better tool for the work at hand. Lorn picked it up, tested its edge with his thumb and decided it was perfect.
Deciding there was no turning back, he bent over Jarrin and pried open his mouth. Inside was his unmoving tongue. Lorn took the tongue in his left hand and pulled. With his right he worked the dagger, slicing off the tongue like bacon. Blood sluiced from Jarrin’s mouth. Amazingly, he did not awaken. He was a dead man anyway, Lorn knew, and sat back with satisfaction, the pink muscle from Jarrin’s mouth bloody in his palm.
Time was his enemy. Lorn rose and walked across the chamber to his dressing area, where a basin of water stood below a mirror. A small bale of white cloth rested on the dressing table. Carefully Lorn wrapped Jarrin’s tongue in some of the cloth, then placed it on the table. He dipped the bloody dagger into the basin of water, rinsing off the gore, then went to work on himself, carefully shaving his head, shedding salt-and-pepper hair at his feet. After a few minutes he was done and stared at his bald reflection in the wavy mirror. His eyes were nearly the same color as Jarrin’s, he noted with satisfaction.
While his daughter poppy continued to cry, King Lorn the Wicked shook the blade in the water once more, then began shaving his beard.
At the foot of a small, dentate mountain range, Duke Rihards of Rolga waited impatiently atop his armored horse, eager for a sign of success. Around him were a handful of his loyal knights, men of his own country who had accompanied him from Rolga to lead the assault on Carlion. He had come with an impressive force of a thousand men, a mix of Rolgans and mercenaries from Jazana Carr’s conquered territories, men who were well paid for their loyalty to the Diamond Queen. After years of resistance, Duke Rihards had finally joined the ranks of Jazana Carr’s whores. He was not proud of himself. A man of few friends, the duke had counted King Lorn among them, but war and Jazana Carr’s wealth had conspired to change that. The duke looked out across the craggy plain toward Carlion, the fortress lit with torchlight as its defenders awaited their fate. According to Jarrin there were still two hundred men in the garrison. Rihards could barely believe King Lorn the Wicked had held the loyalty of so many in the face of certain death. He had a strange and ruthless glamour. Rihards smiled a little. A breeze blew across the plain, making him shiver. In the moonlight his men looked like ghosts, their polished armor dully gleaming. Behind him in the foothills, his mercenary force laughed and ate and sharpened their pikes, sure of the coming victory. They were northerners mostly, from places far more north than Rolga, from the Bleak Territories where Jazana Carr was most powerful. Duke Rihards suppressed a sigh as he spied Carlion, looking so forlorn in the clouded night. All across Norvor Jazana Carr’s forces were tightening the noose. In Vicvar and Poolv, the dukes of those southern cities were gasping their last. Rihards himself could have easily been among them, and he wondered now if he should have stayed loyal and died with honor like those brave fools.
"Ah, but she pays, you see," he whispered.
A knight of his cavalry heard his lament and turned his helmeted heard toward the duke. "My lord?"
Duke Rihards slowly shook his head. "Nothing, Glane. I was just thinking," he said. He did not trust his men enough to share his melancholy. He was a turncoat and could trust no one these days. That’s what Jazana Carr had made of him. It’s what she made of all Norvan men, lapdogs to perform for her. Rihards ground his jaws together, knowing the misery of being gelded.
For more than an hour he sat atop his horse, refusing to move or rejoin the rest of his troops, even when Glane suggested he rest. It was very late. They had plans to attack in the morning, with or without Jarrin’s success. But Jarrin’s plan would make everything so much easier, and Rihards could not bring himself to rest or to eat until he knew of Jarrin’s progress. He had already told the captain of Lorn’s secret escape route, a hidden collection of doors and tunnels the king had revealed one night in a drunken stupor. Jarrin had said he knew of the route, but had never seen it because it was part of the king’s private chambers, which consisted of an entire wing of Carlion Castle.
So far, though, Captain Jarrin had not appeared. The Duke of Rolga began to fret. Lorn was a resourceful man. Perhaps he had discovered his captain’s plan. Perhaps they would need to battle the king after all.
Then, like an angel from heaven, a lone rider appeared out of the misty moonlight, galloping away from Carlion across the rocky plain, toward Duke Rihards and his waiting army. The knights surrounding the duke noticed the rider at once and began murmuring excitedly. The rider was a wide man, barrel-chested and wearing royal armor. As he drew closer his helmet could be seen, forged into the likeness of a bird. Duke Rihards was overwhelmed with relief. Not wanting his army to see what was about to happen, he snapped the reins of his patient stallion and rode forward to meet Jarrin, calling to his knights.
"Ride," he commanded them, and the five cavalrymen followed, leaving behind the safeness of their army and entering the bleak flatland. Rihards rode at the forefront, keeping a watchful eye on Jarrin. The captain seemed to slump in his saddle. In his arms was a bundle of cloth. Sighting the parcel brought a grin to the duke’s face. Amazingly, Jarrin had succeeded. As he drew closer his wishes were confirmed; the thing in Jarrin’s arms was indeed a baby. But Jarrin himself looked horribly wounded. Blood trailed down from beneath his closed helm, soaking his breast plate. He looked on the verge of collapse, teetering in his saddle. Finally he stopped riding and waited for Rihards and his men. The Rolgan duke reined in his horse, halting his company a pace from the wounded captain, who sat seething on his mount, bloodied and battered, his breath rasping beneath his iron helmet, the crying child of King Lorn in his left arm. Suddenly he let out an angry grunt, and with his right arm tossed something pink into the sand between them.
"What the. . .?"
Rihards grimaced as he studied the bloodied thing. He looked up at Jarrin. "What the hell is that?"
The captain shook his fist in rage, then tilted up the visor of his helmet. Stuffed into his mouth was a wad of bloodied cloth, holding back the worst of the gore like a stopper. Rihards reared back, confused and disgusted, then shocked when he realized the pink thing in the sand was Jarrin’s tongue. He could barely see the captain’s face for the blood. Jarrin pointed down at his tongue, cursing in angry squeals.
"He cut out your tongue," Rihards deduced aloud. "Why?"
Of course Jarrin couldn’t answer. All he could do was rage and wince in pain.
"But you have the child," said Rihards. "What of Lorn? Did you kill him?"
Jarrin nodded. He held the baby jealously against his bloodied breast, and when Rihards trotted closer he slammed down his visor and roared his anger.
"We had a bargain, Captain Jarrin. Give me the child. I will see that Jazana Carr pays you your do."
Jarrin shook his head wildly. Again he grunted his curses. The way he held the child explained his meaning perfectly.
"All right, then, deliver the child yourself," Rihards said. "Jazana Carr is in the hills near Harn. My men will take you to her." He ordered Glane and two of his other knights to take Jarrin to the Diamond Queen. It didn’t concern him at all if the captain bled to death on the way; he had killed Lorn and stolen his child, and that was all that mattered. "You’ve done well, Captain Jarrin," he said. "Without your king, Carlion should fall in a day."
Jarrin tried to speak, then stopped. Rihards supposed his pain was enormous.
"Go," said the duke. "It’s a full day’s ride to Harn at least. You may rest first with my men if you wish. We have a surgeon who can look at you. . ."
Shaking his head, the captain steadied himself in his saddle then rode off, heading north-west toward Harn with the child in his arms. When he gone only a few yards, he looked back at the knights who were to accompany him, as if to ask why they were dawdling.
"Go with him," ordered Rihards. "See that he gets his money from Jazana Carr. He’s brave enough to deserve his pay."
Glane, the duke’s lieutenant, nodded. Taking two of his fellows with him, they started off after Jarrin, who immediately took to riding again, obviously in a great hurry to get paid. As Rihards watched him go, he felt a twinge of regret. He knew that the child would be well taken care of by Jazana Carr, so that didn’t worry him. Any child the Diamond Queen encountered was well treated, so long as it was a girl child. But the death of King Lorn bothered the duke. For a moment he thought of all the good times they’d had together, the fine wines and stories they had shared, and all those dreams they had voiced about defeating Jazana Carr.
But then he thought of conquering Carlion, and how he would be rewarded for the deed. He thought also about Lorn’s jeweled ring, and how his old friend had kept it hidden in a chest within his private wing, afraid to wear it for fear of theft in these dark days. And when Rihards thought of the ring—which he had always coveted—his feelings of remorse abruptly fled.
Two hours before sunrise, Uralak went in search of his master, King Lorn. The old manservant was concerned that he hadn’t seen his king for some hours, not since he’d retired to his chambers. When it occurred to Uralak that he had not seen Captain Jarrin either, he began to worry. Up until then he had stayed with the soldiers of the garrison, guarding the main gate and watching the forces of Duke Rihards in the far, far distance. Because it was too dark to see anything, the guardians were uneasy. Uralak shared their fears but did not voice them. Though he was old and only a manservant, he would die with a smile on his face.
Leaving the place he had come to call his ‘post,’ Uralak went through the silent courtyard and entered the halls of Carlion, which were empty now of women and children and rang with his footfalls as he shuffled along. Pensive, he remembered his prior conversation with his king, and how his master had seemed so forlorn, sure that their cause was hopeless. There were not many in Carlion who loved King Lorn, but Uralak counted himself among the handful. There was nothing he would not do for his king, no secret he would not keep. As he walked through the castle, he kept his suspicions to himself.
Because King Lorn’s chambers were in the tallest of Carlion’s towers, it took Uralak long minutes to reach them. When he did, he was exhausted from the climb. He found the area of the king’s chambers empty; those servants who hadn’t fled the castle had long ago gone to sleep. Carefully, he made his way through the darkened hall. He didn’t expect to be startled, but when he rounded a familiar bend a figure frightened him.
It was Lariza, the nursemaid to the king’s daughter. She was outside the king’s chamber door, listening. Angrily Uralak cleared his throat.
"What are you doing?" he whispered.
Lariza straightened indignantly. "I’m worried about Poppy. The king is in there with her, but I haven’t heard a sound from them in hours. And I didn’t see Captain Jarrin leave, either."
Uralak nodded as if nothing were wrong. "Did the king tell you to disturb him?"
"Of course not," replied Lariza sourly.
"Right. So why don’t you stop meddling, woman, and be on your way. I’ll look after the king. Go now."
The nursemaid started to protest, than decided not to be quarrelsome. She said only, "Make sure the child is all right, old man," then turned and departed. Uralak waited until she was well out of sight around the bend, then followed her a bit to make sure she was truly gone before doubling back. Lariza was right—the king’s chambers were strangely soundless. Once more he contemplated the dark possibilities. He drew a deep breath to steady himself, then knocked on the door.
"My lord?" he queried. "It’s Uralak. Forgive the disturbance, please, but I thought I should check on you."
There was no reply. Hoping the king was sleeping, he pushed open the door and peered inside.
Except for the moonlight from the unshuttered windows, the vast chamber was dark. Uralak opened the door wider to let in the hallway’s torchlight. It took a moment for his old eyes to adjust as she cautiously shuffled into the room. Not sure why, he closed the door behind him. Whatever he was to discover, he wanted to find it alone. The light of the moon was feeble but enough for him to get his bearings, and as he moved deeper into the chamber he saw the dark outline of Poppy’s crib against a far wall, safely distant from the window. Then he saw the table overturned and shards of shattered crystal twinkling on the floor. What looked like blood or wine or both stained the wood, spreading out in a dull pool of scarlet. A sweet stench assailed Uralak’s nostrils. He paused, trying to unravel what had happened. Oddly, he was not afraid. Since the news of Duke Rihards betrayal, he had expected this night, or one like it.
"My lord?" he asked softly, sure that his master wouldn’t answer. Walking in tiny steps, he made his way across the chamber, carefully avoiding the glass and blood as he made his way to the king’s dressing chamber, led there by a slick of crimson. This chamber was windowless, and without a lamp Uralak felt blind. He did his best to decipher the darkness, but once he reached the threshold he stopped.
There on the floor, naked and bloody, was a body. Headless.
Uralak stared at the corpse. Horrified, he wondered if it was the master’s. The mutilated cadaver lay on its back, all its blood spilled from its severed stump of a neck onto the carpeted floor. Ridiculously, Uralak thought about the expensive rug and how it would never be the same. Reality blurred, and the old man did not know what to do. It was a large corpse, large enough to be the king.
But Uralak did not stay to investigate further, or to search for the missing head or even to bother wondering why the corpse was naked. He simply backed out of the dressing chamber, paused in the main room where the broken table and goblets littered the floor, and composed himself. He could not begin to conceive the plans of his lord and master, and had never tried. King Lorn the Wicked had earned his epithet rightfully. Uralak had never faulted him for that. His only concern was how he would explain things to the other soldiers now that their garrison commander was missing. Without Lorn and Captain Jarrin, their defeat was assured. By tomorrow, certainly, they would be dead.
Ever the loyal servant, it took only a moment for Uralak to resign himself to this. When he was ready, he left the dark and bloody chamber and went in search of Lieutenant Vadrick, who he supposed was in command now.
They traveled by moonlight, three knights of Rolga leading the way north through a canyon shadowed with high peaks, guiding the man from Carlion toward Harn and Jazana Carr. The infant in the man’s arms cried constantly, obviously distressed and hungry, but the group did not rest. At the insistence of the man from Carlion they rode as quickly as they could, ignoring the danger of darkness, picking their way along the rutted road. Despite his wound Captain Jarrin kept an admirable pace. More than once he refused Glane’s offer to take the child from him. Glane did not care for children himself but saw the value in this particular whelp and wanted no harm to come to her. He worried that Jarrin might collapse from his saddle or otherwise drop the infant. But the captain continued, riding without a word because he could not speak, occasionally putting a hand to his bloodied mouth and fixing the bandages while he rode.
Finally, when Glane could take no more without a rest, he called his company to a halt. Looking up at the craggy peaks, he decided it was as good a place as any to stop, at least for a short while. He was cold and knew that the child was, too, and so ordered a fire to be made and food to be distributed.
Captain Jarrin did not protest.
King Lorn watched through the eye slit of his helm as the Rolgan knights dismounted. In one arm was cradled his daughter, Poppy, whom he warmed the best he could by holding her close. His other arm—his sword arm—kept hold of his stallion’s reins. He watched the Rolgans carefully as they began unpacking food and flint. Lorn could do with a fire, but that would have to wait. He had gotten this far without being suspected, but the moment he took off his helmet would be his discovery, and he couldn’t risk losing that advantage. He couldn’t fight from horseback, either, and that troubled him. With Poppy in his arms, he couldn’t ride while wielding a sword. But he had done a good job of keeping up his ruse of being wounded, and had earned Glane’s sympathy. It did not surprise him when the knight came and offered aid.
"Here, let me take the child so you can dismount," said Glane. He held his hands up and his earnest face showed no malice. Lorn quickly decided it was safe and handed Poppy to the man, who took the infant and turned his back. Lorn slipped down from his horse and followed Glane to where the two other knights were arranging their things in a ring. One of the pair scanned the area for kindling, sighting a patch of shrubs sprouting from the rocks. By the moon’s dappled light he moved carefully across the road toward the distant sticks. His comrade began unpacking his saddle bag, rummaging through it for the little food he had and some flint. Glane watched him absently, holding Poppy. Lorn tapped his shoulder, insisting he return the child. The knight made a sour face.
"We’re not going to rob you," he muttered, handing Lorn the child. "Sit and rest, and take that damn helmet off."
Glane turned back toward his man as the other knight knelt in the dirt, clearing away rocks for their fire. Lorn took a few paces out of the road, set Poppy down in her swaddling clothes, then drew his sword without a sound. Before him stood the oblivious Glane, his back turned as he watched his comrade shuffle rocks and brush away dust. As soon as he was in range, Lorn made his move. He did not hesitate for a second as he whistled his sword through the air, decapitating Glane instantly. Glane’s head flew from his body, the body wavered and dropped. Blood fountained up from its neck, spraying the kneeling knight, who looked up in confusion to see Lorn’s sword coming down. The blade crashed into his forehead, splitting it easily, opening the throat in mid-scream. On the side of the road Poppy began to cry. Lorn hurriedly removed his helmet, tossing it aside. As he waited for the third knight to return, he pulled the fabric from his mouth, cloth he had soaked with Jarrin’s blood. In a few moments the remaining Rolgan appeared, cradling the dry sticks he had gathered. He was well upon the camp before he noticed what had happened, the two dead bodies slumped in the darkness, the imperious figure standing over them. Incredulous, the man dropped his bundle and stared at Lorn.
"Great Fate. . ."
"I am King Lorn of Norvor," said Lorn. He stalked a step closer to the knight, sword in hand. "And you are the servant of a traitor."
His stupor broken, the knight raised his defense at once, going for his sword and springing forward. Lorn hadn’t expected his speed but dodged the attack easily, sprinting aside and bringing his own blade around. The weapon caught the knight in the back, sending him sprawling. Lorn was on him in an instant, slamming his booted foot into the knight’s back before he could rise. The man let out a cry. Again he tried to regain his footing, and again Lorn kicked him mercilessly, driving his boot into his mid-section with a howl. The sword sprawled from the knight’s grip. Desperately he clawed the ground to escape. Lorn prowled after him.
"How quick you were to bring my child to the bitch-queen," he hissed. "My daughter!"
He punctuated daughter with another callous kick, this one hard enough to roll the knight over. The man looked up through the darkness, breathing hard and bringing up his hands to plea.
"Enough!" he shouted. "I had nothing to do with it! I swear, I was just following orders."
Lorn put the point of his blade to the man’s gorget. "I have no interest in your orders, dog. And I have no mercy."
He pushed the point of his sword through the gorget, puncturing the knight’s throat and coming through the other side. Pinned there, the man gave a gurgling convulsion, his legs kicking wildly as his life fled away. Lorn watched with dispassion, then pulled free his sword. The knight’s eyes bulged horribly. His hands went to his neck. He tried to rise but failed. A minute later, he was dead.
Lorn sheathed his sword. He went to the side of the road where he’d left his daughter, lifting her and bringing her to the little circle of rocks that had been made. There he found the flint, struck it once to test it, then gathered the sticks the man he’d killed had dropped. It took some time to make the fire, but within several minutes he had it going. He made sure Poppy was close enough to feel its warmth. She would need food, and very soon. But right now he desperately needed to rest, just for a little while.
King Lorn the Wicked looked up into the sky of Norvor, the country he had tried to rule for years. The clouds were clearing and he could see stars. The heavens seemed to fall on him.
"Poppy, we have so far to go," he murmured, not sure the girl could hear him.
They weren’t safe yet. They wouldn’t be until they were out of Norvor, away from Jazana Carr. But at least he had saved his daughter, and for that he was glad.
Duke Rihards, content in King Lorn’s death, slept soundly in the camp of his army. He had returned to his own pavilion guarded by a slew of his personal knights of Rolga, and awoke refreshed and prepared for battle. He was sure that Castle Carlion would fall easily, and now that the king’s daughter had been safely spirited to Jazana Carr he could give the order. He did so at dawn without hesitation.
All at once his army began to move, awakening like a leviathan from the foothills. Cavalry took to their horses and readied to charge, lancemen and infantry got in formation, beasts of burden wheeled war machines forward, archers stuffed their quivers and stretched their bow hands, the battering ram squeaked to life on its oiled wheels, and the mismatched army of mercenaries moved out, all under the command of Duke Rihards. They had come from all corners of Norvor to join Jazana Carr’s crusade, the love of gold and diamonds making them loyal. Duke Rihards himself had dressed for the occasion. Like his heralds and standard bearer, he wore the traditional armor of a Rolgan warrior, green and gold armor with the helmet of a wolf, the same symbol emblazoned on their flag. As the duke rode out under his standard, he could sense the ease of the battle at hand. Jarrin had put the garrison’s strength at barely two-hundred. A decent number, to be sure, and they had Carlion’s high walls to protect them. But fall they would under greater numbers, and might even surrender now that their king was gone.
A few hundred yards from the castle, Rihards stopped. He had come to a small swell in the land from which he could easily see the battlefield, and so decided to command from this spot. His many lieutenants and aides guarded him, some dismounting, others passing along the order to surround Carlion. The army moved slowly into position, fanning out and gradually flanking the fortress. The sky was clear by Norvan standards, the air crisp and cool. Rihards talked among his aides, casually assessing the situation. First, he would give the loyalists a chance to surrender. With their king dead, they might welcome a chance to join Jazana Carr’s new regime. If that failed, he decided, they would swarm the castle, eventually bringing up the ram to splinter Carlion’s stout gate.
The order was given, and Rihards aides went to work, relaying orders like the polished professionals they were. In less than an hour all his troops were in position. The heralds gave the duke’s terms, terms which Rihards felt were exceedingly generous. It surprised him when they were summarily refused.
"Then they will die," said Rihards. He sighed, unhappy he would have to spend so much blood and treasure on Carlion. He turned to his aide Lord Gondoir, a close confidant like Glane and Fredris. "Bring it down, Gondoir," he said. "By the end of the day I want to be inside, drinking Lorn’s wines."
Duke Rihards got his wish. By noon the exhausted defenders had given Carlion their best and were too weak to resist the battering ram or the army of mercenaries that swarmed in to slay them. Upon the fall of the gate Rihards declared that the booty of the castle was to be collected, though there was little of it left in Carlion. Whatever spoils they could find would be evenly distributed. He had one strict rule, though—the king’s own quarters were not to be disturbed. Everything else could be taken or destroyed, but nothing in Lorn’s rooms were to be touched.
Remarkably, his order was obeyed, and by early evening Rihards himself was able to enter the fortress. He trotted in like a hero, entering a courtyard spewing smoke and lined with prisoners, the ground littered with dead defenders. His aide Gondoir was with him as they entered. A mercenary sergeant and his men had quartered off a section of the yard for prisoners, stripping them of all their weapons. Some were in chains, others milled about aimlessly under the threat of Rolgan arrows. As the prisoners watched the duke enter their keep, their eyes betrayed their misery. Because the duke wasn’t known for his mercy, they rightfully feared their fates. As he rode past them—about a hundred men, he supposed—he wondered if he should execute them or wait for Jazana Carr. The women, he knew, would have to be spared. Jazana Carr did not tolerate rape.
"Gondoir, see to these fires," ordered Rihards. "And get a detail together to gather the bodies. The stench is overwhelming."
"Yes, my lord," replied his aide, then rode off with a group of knights.
Rihards continued into the yard, stopping at last when he came to the keep and handing off his mount to one of his men. At once he recognized Colonel Fredris, who had commanded the assault. The colonel looked grave as he approached, bowing to the duke.
"My lord, the castle is secured. We’ve taken prisoners, as you’ve seen. I’ve already sent a company into the city to tell them what’s happened, and that you’re in command now."
"That’s all very good news, Colonel," said Rihards. "So why the long face?"
Colonel Fredris was hesitant. "My lord, we’ve secured King Lorn’s private chambers as well. Nothing was disturbed, but we’ve found something. I think you should see for yourself."
Fredris was a cautious man, so Rihards didn’t push him further. He ordered the colonel to escort him to Lorn’s chambers, though he knew the way well. The lack of emotion on Fredris’ face alarmed the duke at once; he had expected Fredris to be overjoyed at the ease of their victory. Together they made their way through Lorn’s home, now a shadow of its glory days. Lorn had long ago sold off the tapestries and other artwork in an effort to pay for the war. His many campaigns against Jazana had bankrupted him and his elaborate home. But Rihards knew of one prize Lorn would have never parted with, and as he made his way to the king’s former chambers he hoped they had not been ransacked and that the ring was still safe. A handful of his fellow Rolgans bowed to the duke as he passed them, knights who were rounding up the last of the women and children, all of whom looked at Rihards scornfully. When at last they reached the wing where King Lorn had lived and slept and plotted his many schemes, Rihards paused. There were two knights at the wide wooden door, which was closed. They had lit the torches in the hall. Smokey sunlight poured through the windows carved into the bare stone walls.
"So?" Rihards asked his colonel. "What’s the problem?"
"I posted guards because I didn’t want anyone else to see what was found," Fredris explained. "My duke, I think you should prepare yourself."
Rihards was too anxious to wait for more information. He went to the door immediately and pushed it open, entering the familiar chamber. Like the hallway, the room was well lit. The duke’s eyes went immediately to the toppled table and giant blood stain, which had dried and curdled.
"Lords of hell. . ." Astonished, he drifted deeper into the room. "What happened here?"
"A struggle," Fredris surmised. The soldier followed his master toward the grisly scene. "This isn’t all, my lord. There’s something in the dressing chamber you should see."
Rihards knew exactly where the dressing chamber was, and made a quick bee-line there. What he saw on the floor shocked and sickened him.
"Fate above. . . Is that Lorn?"
The decapitated, naked body lay prone on the floor, its flesh a ghastly white from being drained of blood, which was all over the floor now.
"I don’t know who it is, my lord," said Fredris. "It could be Lorn. But why would Jarrin do that to him?"
"Why indeed?" puzzled Rihards. He leaned over the body. Thankfully, he’d never seen Lorn naked, but the flesh looked too young to be him, even in its rigored condition. He knew King Lorn the Wicked too well to not guess what had happened.
"Fredris, wait outside for me."
Fredris did so at once, leaving Rihards in the gory dressing chamber. The duke closed his eyes, seething at having been deceived. He hadn’t killed Lorn, and he hadn’t stolen his daughter either. He cursed himself for being so stupid.
"I underestimated you, my friend," he muttered. "You have more lives than a magic cat."
He straightened. Sure that he’d been expertly deceived, he nevertheless went from the dressing chamber to the bed chamber, where he knew Lorn kept his most valued possession hidden, his ring of kingship. To his unpleasant surprise, he saw the chest waiting for him on the chamber’s floor, not three paces from the threshold. It wasn’t hidden. It had been left for him to find. Rihards knew it wouldn’t be locked. He hesitated for a moment, guessing at the chest’s contents and dreading it. Then, his resolve cresting, he went to the iron box and threw its latches. Angrily he tossed open its lid. Jarrin’s severed head stared back at him, jeering.
Rihards leaned back on his knees. Jarrin’s eyes were open wide, as was his mouth. A nail had been driven through his forehead, pinning a square of paper to him.
"You sick manic," Rihards whispered. Not surprisingly, the ring was gone. But the square of paper beckoned him. He looked closer and read what it said, boldly written in Lorn’s unmistakable handwriting:
Rihards—The mouth has what you want.
"The mouth?" The idea disgusted Rihards. Jarrin’s mouth was slightly open, coated with dried blood from the extraction of his tongue. Had Lorn actually left the ring inside it? He doubted it, sure that another nasty surprise awaited him. But Lorn’s note had gotten the best of him, and he simply could not leave it. Carefully he pried open the slack jaw, peering inside. At once he saw the stump of the severed tongue, but little else. Cursing the darkness, he reached further into he cavity—and felt a stabbing pain.
He jerked back his hand. Sticking deeply from between two fingers was a pin.
"Oh, heaven," he groaned. Staring dumbly at the pin, the enormity of his mistake stuck him. Already his hand was growing numb. "Oh, no, no. . ."
Duke Rihards looked around desperately stumbling to his feet. He saw the doorway and went through it, almost tripping over Jarrin’s corpse as he raced for help.
The door to the main chamber flew open and Fredris and his knights entered. When they saw their duke clutching his outstretched hand they stared in confusion.
"My lord, what is it?" asked Fredris. The colonel hurried closer, but Rihards could barely see him.
"I am poisoned!" he shrieked. His vision quickly blurred. The palsy in his hand race up his arm. "I can’t breathe, Fredris. . .help me!"
Horrified, Fredris and his fellows watched as Rihards crumpled to his knees, gasping. Rihards felt the noose of poison strangling him, closing off his windpipe with fiery pain. Blindness overtook him just before his eyes rolled into his head. He could barely hear his own screams as his body toppled and shook with convulsions.
Oddly, his mind’s eye pictured Lorn quite clearly as he died, flashing a fond memory. They were in a field, riding together. It was many peaceful years ago, before Jazana Carr threatened them. Back when they were friends.