The sky bled purple and orange with half the night looming as dawn beckoned. Prince Driburtine had sent the emissary Samtheur to fetch the rest of their coterie while a sliver of moon still hung. Any minute they would stagger through the door, tired and possibly a bit drunk. Whatever they were, the news, the plan, would sober them up.
Driburtine ground his teeth as he peered out his only window. The castle’s laborers made their way outside the wall to the fields. Men and a few women dressed in clothes that looked like they hadn’t been washed for over a month. Mud and sweat made them rigid enough to stand by themselves like a scarecrow with no cross. He loosened his tunic to relieve the pressure in his chest. It provided none. The tightness percolated from within. A sharp pain came from his fingers. He looked down. Blood dripped from a torn nail. He’d been raking them across the stone window sill without knowing it. After feeling more confident than ever about their chances last night, his nerves betrayed him this morn.
What weighed on him? Was it the fact of revealing that he and Samtheur had withheld information about the Rebel General’s army from the others? Was it the fact that time still remained for one to betray them with this information? Or was it that the day had arrived? The one he’d dreamt of since he first read his uncle’s letters. This very day on Prima Earth thousands of boys would become men through some action or decision: taking the family name as oldest male, relieving an aging father from his duties for good, killing one’s first game for a family of their own—none were so perilous as Driburtine’s.
The familiar knock came at the door. He bid them enter. All six of the men looked tired, not ale-worn. Driburtine’s nerves eased slightly. Baggy eyes and messed hair was better than swaying shoulders and sour breaths. The prince straightened up and put both arms behind his back. Each man: the emissary, the captain, the High General, the Inner Council member, and both Governors looked him in the eyes.
“They say a wise man knows his future … like it has already passed,” he paused with a placid expression. “Can any of you make sense of this quotation?” He raised an eyebrow.
Each of the men gave an answer suitable to his own rank in life. All were intelligible and could be argued they were indeed correct. However, none were the true answer—the one Driburtine searched for.
“It’s a quandary of a saying, I admit. So many possible answers. Some would argue it rhetorical …” He smiled and pictured many who might think so. “The most correct explanation is this: one builds his future in the present … while using the past to plan for the moment, thus he knows what lies ahead.” Every muscle in his face flexed and eyes flared. “Today we do what none has dared … to forge a future only we have seen … because my father’s time has passed.”
All of the men, except for Samtheur, looked around at the others.
“What are you saying, Your Grace?” High General Shaden asked.
Driburtine walked up to the man. He laid both hands on the general’s broad shoulders and looked dead in the man’s faded blue eyes. “I’m saying that a rebel army, our army, waits for my command in the Tinder Forest. I’m saying that we have a plan that when executed, today, will give us Conge.”
Each held cross looks as the realization sunk in that Driburtine had concealed this information. In the time it took a hummingbird to flap its wings their irritated expressions dissolved into ones of hardened determination.
“Samtheur!” Driburtine commanded.
The emissary unrolled a scale rendering of the castle, the prince and Rebel General Itturad reviewed the night prior, on the long wooden table. Each of their eyes lit up as they drew closer and saw exactly what the scroll contained.
“You each have a job … carry it out and the country is ours.”
The men caught on quickly as Driburtine detailed the plan, nobody objected or added a thing. Each knew their responsibilities and left to make preparations. All but one … Inner Council member Joal Chigg who remained looking over the prints with both index fingers steepled against his lips. His eyebrows arched to where they almost touched. It looked as if fire would expel from his eyes as his face turned harder.
“Council Member Joal,” Driburtine asked in a tone lower than a murmur. Chigg gave no indication of acknowledgment. “Is something troubling you?” The Prince put a hand on the rendering itself.
The council member turned with a neutral expression, holding for a long silent moment. Driburtine was growing tired of the natural coyness of Chigg. He had no time for games.
“If something is on your mind, speak it now, Joal.” He stepped less than a foot away, looking down on him, trying to use his size to goad an answer.
Chigg only smirked, surely he had seen this tactic before in his years on the council. Driburtine felt juvenile in his attempt to intimidate, but he had to be sure everything remained perfect before their coup. Any weak link or second guessing and the plan would fail.
“I know why you kept this plan from the rest of them … but why me, young Prince?” Council member Chigg eased a half step back to put a comfortable amount of space between them after the slight.
“I play no favorites.” Driburtine ignored the joust. “All of you are in league with men that are dangerously loyal to my father. Especially you. Any slipped word, or precaution missed, and we’d all be dead now.”
The council member gave a dismissive look. “I’ve kept graver secrets for longer than your years. I don’t adhere to the vail you held over our eyes and dismiss it simply as royal privilege.”
“What’s more grave than treason?”
Chigg scowled and eyes returned to fire. “Not many … yet there are some.” The council member walked round Driburtine and made for the door. Opening it, he halted subtlety as the prince slammed it shut. The council member turned coolly and waited with restrained indignation. Driburtine’s eyes turned to fire themselves. “If I’m not convinced of your loyalty, I will cut you down and let the hogs digest your flesh.” The prince glowered over him.
The council member held his assured demeanor. This was surprising in light of such a formidable threat. “Your father’s reign must end … I’ll play my part.”
Driburtine did not care about the words, he knew that a man’s eyes and face told everything. They held as still as a mountain. The truth was spoken. Driburtine’s eyes cooled like beached rock under the tide. A second later he released the door and the council member slid out. The prince breathed deep down into his stomach. Although the man played on his last nerves, he had no desire to spill his blood; he would need Chigg’s connections. Humorous that a king would need such things, but the fact remained that no one worked for free and Chigg had a never ending collection of favors to call at any moment.
It took a quarter of the sundial’s turn for him to cool his blood and demeanor before making his way to the Round for breakfast. The smell of sour wine seeped out the great room into every hall. His own steps, the scrapes of spoons on wooden bowls and delicate words were all that could be heard. Entering, he estimated around fifty people partook in the dawn meal. Not surprising for the raucous that took place last night. He was sure of the fact that many gave into sleep but a few hours ago. It would be midday before the bulk of the host and the host himself, the king, would lumber out of their beds to fill a chamber pot. Whether they made it out of the rooms at that time was in question.
One of the few who rose with the sun was his mother, the queen. She wore a flowing blue gown with silver stitching and draped sleeves. It looked newly made, much like she always did. He found her beautiful in a way only a son could think of his mother.
She smiled at him as she politely sent away one of the serving girls. No manner of celebrations could keep that woman from a bountiful breakfast. In truth, she hated to waste any hours of the day. This they had in common. They had more than that; straight blonde hair sprouted from both their heads, oval green eyes that glinted in light, tall, lean and strong as well as a fastidious nature in completing their tasks.
He made his way up the large wooden dais. Each step echoed in the near empty Round. He went for his seat when the queen stopped him. “Your father won’t be up for hours. Please sit here.” She motioned to the King’s Chair between them. “It makes no sense to sit so far away with an empty seat between us.”
Driburtine held as he felt every eye, although few, in the Round draw upon him. To sit in the King’s Chair or the King’s Throne for any man was punishable by death. Did this exclude the royal family? Was his mother being naïve or did she believe that it meant nothing? She had always been too good for this kingdom. An outsider might even think her born of another country and married into Conge. They would be wrong though. The evil and the Great Shadow’s influence had no effect on her. Although, she never defied the king.
The breath in his lungs seeped out without him able to gather another. His hand gripped the chair’s arm. A thick, sturdy piece that supported their entire line of ancestors. Every king and the occasional queen regent that was forced by death to rule and wait for a male to come of age had laid their hands, left their sweat upon this mantle. The reality that he would be the first to take it by force, by war, and alter the future that would make his ancestors frown, overtook him. He truly felt the eyes of all the others now. Will they know? Am I showing my hand by sitting in my father’s chair before ceremony legitimizes it?
“Dributine,” his mother said in her soft way. He panted quietly with eyes flared open. “What is the matter, dear?”
He went to speak and almost said too much. Instead he thought of the lie that sounded best. “It wouldn’t be respectful of me to sit there, Mother.”
She smiled. “That is silly. Your father would never take it as insult. Let others look.” She panned around, causing the voyeurs’ eyes to turn down. “You are the future king and it will be your seat one day … please sit.”
Her firm gentleness always quelled his tantrums in youth, now in manhood they had a soothing effect. “Yes, mother.”
He took the seat in the King’s Chair and postured for a comfortable position. It was no different than any other chair, besides that it was set higher than everyone else’s. As he laid his arms on the rests, a serving girl brought a plate with a bit everything on it: bacon, jam filled sausages, eggs, honey spread on bread, biscuits piled with butter and a nectar ale. The queen laughed and shook her head. “See … it’s just a chair. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I suppose you’re right. It’s not like it’s the King’s Throne.”
His mother turned up a blonde eyebrow. “Sitting on that one and your father might have a few words.”
“More than just words, I’m sure of it.”
He took a drink of the nectar ale to settle his nerves. A tasty concoction that was only brought out for spring breakfasts. It played nicely with the warming weather and blooming of flowers. A pale yellow glared off the circular stone opening at the top of the Round. It figured to be the hottest day of the year. Driburtine didn’t know if that bode well or poor for them.
“You seem so distant, my Son,” the queen interrupted before he could prattle on in his head about something he couldn’t do anything about.
He took another drink and grabbed the greasiest piece of bacon. Salty and savory, and a quarter inch thick—like a good piece of pork belly.
“How so? I feel fine.”
“You can’t fool your mother. I noticed it yesterday too.”
He shot a single spout of air in derision. “Just because I don’t howl in blood lust during the execution or salivate like an inbred over dancing whores.”
“Watch your mouth. What calls for this venom toward me?”
Driburtine sighed, realizing that his anger came out at the wrong time and directed at the wrong person. “I’m sorry, Mother. I don’t care much for those things. Yet father and everyone else do. Although I’m surprised that you can stand them at all, let alone enjoy them.”
“You presume an awful lot.”
“Then you do hate it as I do?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What did you mean to say then?”
His mother put down her fork and turned to face him entirely. “Seeing blood shoot like a geyser or a woman tantalize powerful men with her placket-lace is not my idea of entertainment … however, in the end a traitor, one who tried to kill your father, was put to a righteous and merciful death.”
“And the woman?”
“It’s of no concern to me …”
‘It’s of no concern? Father practically made love to her with his eyes.”
“So what if he did?”
“It’s disrespectful to you. It shows others how he has clearly dishonored you in the past with more than just his eyes.”
She pursed her lips and her eyelids lowered. “He only dishonors himself. I am not simply made up of what your father has done. I have my own charges, my own duties that I see to. Most of which you are not aware of. Nevertheless, they are equally important to this kingdom and your father does not possess the patience or skill to perform them. It is with that and the safety of our people that I draw my honor. I love your father, yes. He loves me more than anyone will see. So he can ogle poor girls and bed slatterns on occasion. Yet I’m the only one he begs for and I remain unstirred by the man’s puerile misgivings.”
It is said that a good woman never stops surprising. If that was true, his mother remained one of the best. The clay that made her was cured by a master potter, he thought.
“It’s not right though … even if you are stalwart in yourself. So much of what he does is dishonorable.”
“I know you feel that way. I’ve seen it for years.” She laid a hand on his. It was so soft it felt pleasing. “You and your father are two very different men. That does not make one good while the other bad. It simply makes both of you your own.”
Driburtine’s expression and defensiveness softened. No doubt his mother had a way of dealing with the most stubborn individuals—the king and himself included.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I don’t mean to take anything out on you. I’m frustrated is all.”
She smiled. Her teeth matched freshly fallen snow. “All great man who are forced to wait, live in constant frustration. One trait you and your father do share. Patience … your time will come.”
“Alas … in thirty years, when I’m as old as father is now.”
“You’ll see it’s for the best.” She laid a hand on his cheek. “All the more time for you to grow wiser than you already are and lead Conge into greater prosperity than any king before.”
His mind went to the future, a carefully depicted state of his ruling over a peaceful, prosperous and above all congenial Conge. A freshly signed treaty between them and the other countries of Men, declaring a state of no war. All the pillaged artifacts returned to their rightful owners and in their place were freshly minted marble statues and gilded chandeliers made by Congean hands. A smile and a firm handshake greeted the commoners rather than a sneer and challenge to prove one’s manhood. Celebrations followed plentiful harvests, birthdays, anniversaries of peace, and above all, wellness of life. Could this all be possible if I just wait? Is it merely my own impatience that is driving this coup? Thirty years to wait. It seems like a lifetime. I could wait for such a future … there is no certainty though. Patiently allow for father to pass and the crown to transition to my head. This is too optimistic. Every coin has two sides. In that time Hovan and others could dismantle us. Greater war could spread. Then what I could have done would drive me into madness. The slashed throats, pieced hearts and defiled bodies would lay at my feet. No one would blame me … no. Only if they knew the truth that I could have stopped the insanity before it began. No. I am right. We … are right. Conge must change now … for the better.
He stood up and the queen’s hand dropped off his cheek. Dropping the silverware, he turned to leave.
“Driburtine, where are you going?”
“I have charges I must attend to.”
“You seem upset again. How can I fix it?”
He halted mid-step from walking down the dais and turned back to the queen. She was truly innocent in all this. Complicit only out of duty and tradition. She knew no different. He kissed her on the cheek. “It is as you said, ‘constant frustration.’ I will endure as I always have.”
Her mouth remained partially open in a look of puzzlement. She went to respond, but he turned and made his way out of the Round without waiting.
Relative silence still remained throughout the castle. They still had hours to prepare for the greater host of governors, great families, and his father to wake. He prepared a raggedy sack with his armor. Not his full garb, but a light surcoat, a thin mail undershirt, and a half-helm with a golden crown affixed to its top. Limited armor to protect from glances, grazes, and even some direct stabs but not too much to limit sight and mobility. Unarmored, the Cazrians were fast and found most armor’s weaknesses within a few jousts. He had to move near their speed.
It took him longer than before to escape the castle unseen. Being daytime and the fact that several of the sentries were back at their posts. He took the exact same route through the forest and the same soldier greeted him; this time without such surprise. Everyone in the camp, dressed in similar armor to what he carried, donned looks that could cut stone. Some were nervous and fidgeted with their daggers, swords or bows, some sat for no more than a half second before finding something else to fiddle with, and some simply remained still with eyes caught somewhere between now and the fight’s end.
The soldier pulled open Rebel General Itturad’s tent and Driburtine strode in. The general wore the same black doublet and garb as the night before. It looked as though he could have slept in it. His helm sat at the left back edge of the table; an open faced helm made of vadium, a third lighter than all steel and stronger than most; only highborn or high ranking officials adorned such a helmet due to the metal’s rarity and difficulty to mold. It bore no design. A myriad of evenly spaced inch long spikes protruded on the top and sides.
Itturad had his back to Driburtine and kneeled in prayer to whatever gods he worshiped. The man spoke aloud, but not loud enough for the Prince to hear. He waited out of respect even though it had been a decade since he called upon the Congean gods. He cared not for their blood lust and sacrifices that seemed to never end.
After a moment Itturad rose and turned. “Ah, Your Grace, I didn’t not hear you come in.”
“That’s twice now. Should I be worried?”
The general chuckled. “Hardly. All men yell on the field of battle.”
“That as well.” The general walked up and shook Driburtine’s hand fiercely. “This day blood will fertilize the soil that will feed our progenies.”
“Indeed it shall.”
Itturad’s eyes focused and brow narrowed. “Is everything set, Your Grace?”
Driburtine nodded. “Everything is in place. All we do now is wait for my father and his sycophants to wake. It may be hours from now.”
“Sounds as if we missed a special celebration yesterday.”
The prince dismissed it with a spit of air. “They always are.”
“How will we know when it is time?”
Driburtine looked up expecting the sky. The black inside of the tent was all that stared back. “There will be a signal.”
The sun crept toward its precipice. Several hours passed, turning early morning to mid and mid to late. Driburtine and the general said few words. Both prepared in their own way. Driburtine strapped on his armor and somehow felt stronger with the additional weight. Perhaps knowing that it guarded while allowing full and quick movement. He rehearsed parrying, jabbing, slashing, and blocking—his body felt strong and as ready as his mind. As the light transitioned from pale to yellow of nearly noon, they exited the tent into the ranks.
All the soldiers with their fangled beards and steel eyes followed their every step. Anxiousness; not out of fear, yet the desire to carry on with the task beat like a drum through the ranks. Driburtine walked with his head tilted to the sky. The men parted down the middle to allow him passage. Something must’ve went wrong. They should have signaled by now. Did our dear captain fail in his duty? Did the High General revert back to the days of serving my father without question? Did the shadowy Inner Councilman betray us at the last moment?
A crack came from the direction of the castle. Driburtine smiled as all the men turned to the sound. A single flare of currant colored smoke shot up like a geyser above the tree line. The signal. It has begun. A quiet fervor swirled through the ranks. Dribrutine felt it in his chest. Lines formed behind with each man in tow with the other. The Rebel General came to the prince’s side. “It looks like war after all.”
Driburtine felt ready. His skill with a blade rivaled any in the north. Yet nerves made his skin go taut and his throat dry out. In reality this was his first true battle. The confident words he meant to say would not come forth.
The cracks of branches both on the ground and still connected to the pines snapped as they marched to the edge of the forest. With each step the strength of their defiance grew stronger. The sun fingered through the trees ahead. Driburtine threw out a hand. The army halted before Tinder’s end, keeping them out of sight for now. He alone continued forward.
Passing out of shadows and into light, he saw the mass of Great Families, the Governors, the Inner Council members, their maids, their squires and their contingency of Cazrian warriors pass over the moat by the only drawbridge. The one who led them was the one who he knew would see them off—his father. The king’s face looked long and saggy from the night before. He still wore a smile and had lost none of his desire to regale the others with unsavory japes. That was a good thing though. As long as he kept his attention on them, it allowed Driburtine to go unnoticed for a few more crucial moments.
The prince watched as every man, woman and child crossed the drawbridge. A pitch of exhausted laughter came from the troupe surrounding his father. Driburtine’s eyes went to the High General Shaden who brought up the rear of the exiting citizens. The prince nodded to him. Shaden stopped at the edge of the moat. Driburtine smiled as the last of people crossed the wooden plank.
“Prince Driburtine!” Governor Rielles yelled to him, causing the others to turn from the king. “Come to see us off?” he finished with a smile full of purpled teeth.
His father and the others stopped a stone’s throw from him; some looked jolly, some looked tired, and some looked confused—one being his father.
“Son, I thought you were gone for the day no less.” Tratien looked him up and down. “What are you doing in that armor? More practice?”
Driburtine ignored the questions. “General!” he commanded.
Shaden pulled on his helm. “Ranks!” he howled.
Governors Emder and Gritten rushed away while their small contingencies filed in front of the High General and the drawbridge entrance.
The crowd turned and watched in shock.
Driburtine moved to step two. “Captain!” he yelled up to the castle battlements.
The rusted gears ratcheted as the drawbridge slowly ascended. Captain Raefell and his small troupe had succeeded at taking out the tower guards and controlling the parapets and, most importantly, the drawbridge controls. A thump like a war drum echoed in the silence as their enemy’s only escape closed.
The king, along with Low General Trivarian, stepped toward Driburtine with furled lips. The prince’s sword scrapped against the inside of its scabbard, the sound so gravely it sent a chill up his own spine. The two took a step back with looks of true astonishment. Driburtine held the freshly sharpened Currant Blade in a strong two handed stance. Trivaran grabbed his father and tried to pull him away to safety, but the king pushed him off.
“Enough of your games, boy!” King Tratien scolded. Chalky spittle sprayed onto his beard.
“Is no game, Father … remove yourself from the battlefield … or become one with it.”
Trivarian overpowered his father and forced him away. The Low General, the half-Cazrian bread for war, knew what this was without explanation. “You must not be harmed, Your Grace,” the man barked in his guttural voice.
“So it is treason then? The boy turned prince usurper overnight!” the king yelled at him, his face fuming red. “I knew it! You were always queer! You have no army! Fifty versus seven hundred? You’re dead, boy! I’ll dance on your bones this eve!”
“There’s an army, father.” Driburtine pointed the stolen Currant blade to the sky.
Hollers and war cries powerful enough to wake the gods erupted from the forest. Branches severing, swords unsheathing, feet pummeling the ground broke into the field. The Rebel General and his brigade stormed passed Driburtine into their enemy. Trivarian pushed the king into a stumbling sprint out of the way. The black bearded Low General held his ground as the horde engulfed them.
“Fire!” Driburtine howled.
A mass of arrows pierced the air from the castle battlements. Captain Raefell and his men fired once more into their enemy’s contingent before the field was blended with both armies. Several Governors and Great Family members got caught in the battle while the others fled. They ran scared and were cut down in seconds.
Swords scrapping, dinting and puncturing leather, cloth and armor panged like a dying band; howls, screams, shrieks sang to the heavens, blood and entrails fed the soil. In a matter of minutes they had cut the two hundred man enemy advantage down to even.
Driburtine faced a large Cazrian man who thrust like a sluggish oaf. The foe jabbed for his stomach, trying to end the fight. Driburtine parried the lazy attempt and sliced the man’s thick neck. He didn’t even wait to watch him die and pursued another. A wiry Cazrian with beet red skin threw down a rebel soldier and impaled his stomach. A bloody groan, a twist of the rusted sword and the soldier perished. Driburtine’s teeth gnashed as he sprinted at the Cazrian. Lowering his shoulder, he plowed into his enemy’s chest and drove him to the ground. The Cazrian’s leathered skin scraped against his face and stunk of month old sweat. Driburtine pinned him and removed his dagger. Jamming it in the man’s side, blood emptied like a cistern. The once throbbing red eyes dimmed and lost their ferocity.
Driburtine dropped his chest against the dead man’s as swords hurled over him—three of his own versus two Cazrians. Divots of metal and drops of blood and sweet pelted him as they fought. Vibrations of a thousand feet rumbled through his heart. The third rebel soldier put down the second Cazrian with a swift stroke across the skull. He pulled up Driburtine with a soaked gloved hand.
“Are you alright, My Grace?” he asked with wide green eyes and drops of his enemy sticking to his face. “My apologies, I did not see you there.”
“Not necessary.” He sheathed the dagger. “This is battle. Do not hesitate for pleasantries.” Driburtine clapped the man on the back and sent him toward a pack of overwhelmed soldiers.
The crack of axe and sword blunting against each other and grunts of exhaustion and pain echoed in every direction. Driburtine scanned for a target. The Rebel General Itturad slouched in his black armor while Low General Trivarian stalked round him. Driburtine’s comrade looked haggard and overwhelmed. I cannot lose him! He sprinted through the melee and twice dogged a swinging axe meant for someone else. He watched as Trivarian hacked at his general furiously. Itturad did everything he could just to remain standing. A scarred Cazrian stepped into Driburtine’s path with mace at the ready. The prince went right and drew the man’s favor. A hair before his enemy’s strike he dodged left and threw a glancing blow. It was enough. Blood spurted from the Cazrian’s wound. The prince was taught long ago if you were to glance anything, make it the neck and it would most assuredly be enough.
His rebel force moved with fast and succinct strikes while the Cazrians made sweeping and sluggish ones. Itturad held his sword with one hand, desperately trying to block Travarian’s every attempt. Hold on, General! Driburtine slalomed through the last pack of soldiers. He reared back as he approached Travarian from behind. The Low General turned and saw Driburtine. The prince swung and Travarian ducked. The blow caught the tip of the Cazrian’s helm, clipping off the Low General sigil. Travarian dropped into a puddle of blood and mud. Dribrutine lost his footing after the furious swing and reached down a hand to keep from falling. He jammed the Currant Blade into the ground to push himself upright. The Low General’s footsteps sloshed behind him. He swept his sword, the force turning his body toward the enemy. Their steel collided. Neither waned nor yielded. Driburtine slid his sword down and went to slice the man’s wrist. Travarian pulled away and hammered down repeatedly. The prince blocked each attempt. The Low General stalled after nine swings. Dribrutine took advantage and launched his own attack. He came from every angle, mixing combinations to keep him off-balance. Trying to crown him with blade, Driburtine forced the general’s defenses up and kicked into his gut. A guttural yawp expelled from the man and Dribrutine pressed. The Low General had a response to every strike though. Each man went through the same book of swordsmanship. The other always countered with the perfect parry because they had learned from the same teachers. Each was a master, an elite swordsman. Driburtine saw countless men, on both sides, drop as they fought. Each body added to the battlefield soup and was used for traction by another soldier. Scan his surroundings too long and the Low General would end him; he could only take quick peaks at the battle around them.
Driburtine’s breathing echoed in his head. He tasted blood and chalky spittle as his arms shook, struggling to hold the Currant Blade shoulder high. The Low General’s face cringed and stomach concaved like he hadn’t eaten in a week. They stalked slowly, looking for any opening. There were a few, but neither had the energy to strike quick enough.
“You’re a fool to rebel, boy.” Travarian grumbled through pants. “Even if you win the day, the other cities and the rest of the Cazrians will raze the palace to the ground before they let you rule.”
“Only a fool thinks he owns something that never belonged to him. You will look up from the inferno of the afterlife and see that most served out of fear … not loyalty.”
“True it may be. The strong will keep the weak in line as always.”
“Yes they will.” Driburtine forced his arms to chasten and hold the sword still.
The Cazrian’s red eyes widened and pupils shrunk. He hollered, causing blood and sweat to spray off his beard. The Low General charged with sword swinging wildly. Driburitne back peddled and prepared for the onslaught. Travarian swung with all his remaining strength and lunged beyond his reach at the retreating prince. Driburtine slammed his sword down on the Cazrian’s, causing it jam in the muck. The Low General’s shins collided with his own steel. Stumbling, his chest collided with the ground. Without hesitating, Driburtine sloshed toward his combatant and pinned him down with blade pointed at Travarian’s head. The Low General growled through clenched teeth. “Just end it, boy!”
The prince dropped a knee on the middle of the man’s back, leaning all his weight into him. Travarian wheezed and tried to push up, but his arms failed.
“You deserve a slow death.” Driburtine latched both ends of the Currant Blade and slammed the flat of it on the back of the man’s head. Steel and bone cracked.
He pushed the Low General’s face into the murky stew of the battlefield. A muffled holler and bubbles like boiling water were all that gurgled up. The resistance against his arms peaked … then waned … waned further … then in one last fury of screams and splashing everything ceased.
It took a moment for his own breathing to settle. He peeled the blade off a shorn and bloody skull with tufts of hair dropping to the sides. Goodbye, general. Now for the rest of your wretches. He whipped around with a curled lip, ready to end this battle and take the crown. What he saw turned his skin cold and taut. Like winter burgeoning too soon with a freezing fog, icing the ground before the farmer could harvest his crop—their doom became evident. No one betrayed … all plans occurred as intended … but their foe had awoken. The Cazrians moved and cut down his men like they dreamed about this battle since youth. The fire had returned to their eyes while he had dueled their fallen general. Their intoxicated blood had been flushed out by the essence of their ancestors; all sluggishness and fatigue had dissipated like smoke in the wind.
Tears drizzled out of Driburtine’s shaking eyes. Everywhere he scanned his comrades screamed and fell, cried and perished by sword, dagger, axe or mace. He stepped forward and drew back almost stepping on a corpse—one he never thought would fall. The Rebel General Itturad’s head clung to its body by a few tendrils of muscle. To his left at the drawbridge, the High General hung over a sword with its hilt buried in the muck and tip piercing out his back. The clinking of the drawbridge’s gears drew his gaze. The king’s own Paladins now posted at each parapet along the battlements. Raefell … not you too.
A small band of no more than ten Paladins walked across the drawbridge to the king who was guarded by a pack of Cazrians. The others scoured the field cutting down any last survivor. They ignored Driburtine as he stood in shock. A pair of sentries led three bound men along the wooden plank toward the king: Governors Riddard Emder and Luthar Gritten, and Inner Council member Joal Chigg. Emder and Gritten had soiled themselves above and below while Chigg held his scowl. A crowd of people had gathered at the portcullis fighting to see what had happened just outside the castle walls.
Driburtine’s slung down and sword dropped. The Currant Blade drowned in the blood water. The last few cries rung. He would not run, he would wait until the last moment to face his father.
“Driburtine!” a female’s voice yelled. “No! No! What have you done?”
He turned up to see his mother running toward him. A Paladin corralled her and moved her toward the king. He fought back more tears as she wailed for him. Samtheur the emissary came running behind her and they locked eyes. The young man’s face had gone pale and gave Driburtine a desperate look with hands held out. Driburtine slightly shook his head. If anyone could make it out this alive it was Samtheur.
A hundred of Cazrians, some nursing minor injuries, had survived and settled in ranks next to the king. The Great Families along with the five other Governors crowded next to them—all staring blankly at Driburtine. He looked down at the Currant Blade. Its silver hilt the only part remaining out of the blood water. Do I end it here … my way? Do I face them along with the humiliation and torture that is sure to come? The stagnant puddle grew darker as a cloud shielded the sun. I will not run from them.
He drew up the stolen blade and sheathed it. Looking down the entire way toward the king, he made sure to avoid stepping on any soldier—friend or foe. There was no use in disgracing the deceased. Whether malevolent or virtuous there was honor in fighting for a cause a man deemed just. As he got closer the hushed voices of the high-born and the heavy pants of the Cazrians grew louder.
He settled three strides from his father. The king’s face lost some of its anger from earlier but remained fumed.
“Well, boy … flagons of blood … Congean blood, at that, has been spilled on your account. Anything to say for this atrocity?”
Driburtine turned to the two Governors and Inner Council member. Riddard and Luthar looked as if they had seen death himself while Chigg returned his gaze with one of abstention. Of what he guessed was sorrow.
“What of Captain Raefell and his men?”
The king looked at the three captors and back to the prince. “As dead as these eunuchs will be.”
Driburtine nodded complacently.
“Is that all you to say?” the king shot back with arms flung open.
“Your rule should’ve ended this day.”
A gasp went up from the crowd. The king’s face flinched in anger and its red color returned.
“Bring him!” the king yelled as he held out a hand to the right.
One of his Paladins pushed forward Governor Riddard to his knees.
“No please don’t do this, Your Grace,” Riddard stuttered through sobs. “It was your son, the prince, who orchestrated this. He threated to have us flogged if we didn’t obey. Please … please tell him, Driburtine.”
The king waved a dismissive hand. “Do it!”
The Paladin drew a golden dagger and lashed the man across the throat. Blood flowed through Riddard’s hands as he clasped the gash. Driburtine closed his eyes, making the final gasps of his comrade all the more resonant.
He opened his eyes as they dragged the dead Governor away.
“Shall I continue?” Tratien pointed toward the two other captives. “Or shall we do yours next?”
The queen screamed. She shook off the Paladin’s grip and forced her way to the king. “Please, my love. Spare him. Spare our son. His mind is lost now but it can be reclaimed. In time, you’ll see, he’ll return to himself and be a great king like you.” She wrapped her arms around Tratien’s side and sobbed into his shoulder.
He turned his head down to hers. They shared a few words that only they could hear. He closed his eyes and kissed the top of her hair.
“I will give you a chance, Son … a chance to regain your seat. Pledge yourself to me, to our flag and be given the brand of usurper.” The king snapped his fingers.
A piping hot brand was brought by a guard. It was a crude circle with a north and south line running through its middle and extending beyond its circumference. Its edges glowed orange and sizzled. “Do these things … and I will accept you as son and prince again.”
“No.” Driburtine didn’t waste a thought on the offer.
The queen shot up her head, eyes puffed and face wet. “Son, please! It is a fair offer for your crime. Please take it.”
Driburtine looked at her with dead eyes although some unknown force pummeled his heart.
The king took in a deep breath as fiery eyes glowered at the prince. “I’ll give you one more chance to wizen up. Accept my offer and every man of this country will one day swear fealty to you … accept it not and you will be beheaded before your own mother.”
Driburtine looked to her. The tears had never stopped. How I wish I could accept and save you this pain, Mother. What manner of noble prince would I be then? Not one who could live with the guilt of slaughtering the innocent and tearing down all unions with all countries of Men. Oh, so that I could live to see you wither gracefully as you smile upon my guidance of this kingdom. What life has been given me to torture a soul born into the wrong monarchy … at the wrong time? If I could take but one thing into a different life it would be you, sweet Mother. Yet that is a dream, one I’ve had too many times, for too long. Think of me fondly if you, by the grace of the gods, could ever sire another heir. Alas … the gods are jesters and you are barren.
The queen retched as the king spat, and the high-born gasped.
“Then let you die at the hands of my own. Retero!” the king yelled and one of his Paladins stormed toward Driburtine with sword drawn.
The prince sidestepped a swift strike. He unsheathed the Currant Blade and struck the man’s armored knee in one move. It collided with such force that the bone shattered. The Paladin wailed inside of a closed helm. Driburtine kicked it off and stomped on the man’s throat until it was mush.
“Another!” the king commanded.
A second Paladin screamed toward him. They met steel a dozen times. They locked at the hilt and tried to overpower the other. Driburtine removed his dagger and jammed it through the knight’s eye slit. It lodged deep into skull. He took out his legs and let him scream to death.
Driburtine dispatched the third by breaking his neck.
The prince cleaved the fourth Paladin’s hands at the wrist.
He garroted the fifth one with his sword. Again and again, and three more times the king’s guard met their end. Nine of the nation’s greatest warriors lay motionless around Driburtine as he threw the tenth down to join them.
“Enough!” the king yelled as he unsheathed a dagger. He yanked his queen close by the neck and held the blade to her temple. “You will accept! Or I’ll splay her skull for the worms!”
She screamed as she tried to wriggle free.
“No!” Driburtine hollered as he rushed toward his father. “Let her go, Father! This is between you and I. Let us end it!”
“I’m the king … I don’t follow your rules. It ends with her blood or yours!”
Driburtine launched forward and pushed his mother out of the king’s grip. The dagger lashed forward and caught his throat. It glanced it … but that’s all it took.
A hand went to it, but not his own. “No! No! Nooooo! Not my son! Not my son!” his mother screamed as she squeezed the wound with all her might to keep the blood from flowing.
His legs lost their strength and he dropped like a rock. The king stepped back and looked as though he forced back tears. The blood of others and his own soaked into Driburtine’s skin as the queen cradled his weakening body. Wave after wave of pain washed over him, and the colors, the castle, and the people all sloshed around his vision.
“Stay with us, Son! Stay with us!” his mother pleaded.
He put a weak hand in hers and she squeezed with all her strength. For if he stayed, his mission would not be complete. If he could not rule, better to have no heir at all. As his father aged the Governors, the Great Families, his own brothers would fight for the throne and weaken Conge. Only time would tell if it would be the death stroke and allow another nation to pick up their broken pieces.
With his last ounce of strength Driburtine looked to Samtheur the emissary. The young man wept as he cringed over with sadness. Their eyes locked one last time. Driburtine simply nodded to him. Samtheur hesitated, but nodded back. For he must carry on Driburtine’s legacy and gather who he could to their cause, tell his story, even if it took generations, so that one day Conge would be at peace with all of mankind.