Needle Ash – Chapter 16, “The Ends of Victory,” part 1

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Chapter 16: The Ends of Victory

Michael moved silently through the halls, followed closely by Nit, Langelo, Aarne, and Mondal, who had covered his face once again, along with another mercenary, a young half-orc named Peterus. Clad in mail, the dark elf somehow did not jingle. The rest of them wore only gameson.

Michael held up a hand, and the group stopped silently. He pulled a hand mirror from his pocket and held it past the wall. He pointed around a corner at a guard, who was talking casually with a female servant, dusklight streaming through the glass windows of a wall facing the inner ward.

Nit moved up to look at the mirror, and scowled. He held up two fingers to Michael, who gave him his palm and shook his head.

After a minute or so, the servant moved off. The guard leaned up against the wall, watching her go. Michael nodded to Nit, who drew a long and vicious rondel dagger from his belt. He and Mondal (who had drawn his own, more slender dagger) moved swiftly and silently down the corridor.

In an instant Nit leapt forward, grabbing the guard by the seam of his coat of plates near the neck, and stabbed downward with the rondel, crunching through the leather of the coat, pushing apart plates, and bursting mail. In a second motion, Nit slammed the the heel of his hand down on the pommel, driving the dagger all the way home. It was so quick that by the time the man would scream, he could not, his lung being punctured. All he could do was let out a terse gasp as Mondal attacked, driving his stiletto upward under the guard’s ribcage.

The pair caught the man and gently lowered him to the floor. At Michael’s signal, the rest of the team moved ahead. Nit and Mondal flinched as Michael approached. Another guard had just come from a side hallway, splitting the distance between them. Michael didn’t hesitate.

“Langelo!” he breathed as he dove forward, grabbing the guard’s legs.

Langelo stepped forward and thrust his pike into the guard’s unarmored neck. He let out a sick gurgling sound. Aarne was on the thrashing man just as quickly, throwing his crossbow to the side and finishing the man with his dagger.

“Good job,” Michael whispered. As he got up he saw Langelo leaning against a wall, covering his mouth, his eyes wide.

“It’s Mottoli,” he breathed. “I knew him.”

“He was a good man,” Michael said. “I trained him. He was on the wrong side today, Langelo. That’s it. Keep your head above your heart.”

“Come on, son,” Aarne said. “It was nothing personal. Remember that.”

Langelo nodded and followed Michael as he turned down a hallway. The windows were streaming in light, casting shadows as they ran. Michael’s heart was pounding, and he could see the men around him sweating, even though he knew the air inside was quite cool. They went around another turn, and Michael slowed and crouched. He peeked around a corner with his mirror and saw a pair of formal guards, standing relaxed with their halberds leaned against the wall.

He signalled for Aarne, who moved up beside him. Peterus handed Michael a crossbow. Making eye contact with Aarne, Michael mouthed silently, “Count of five.” Aarne nodded and followed Michael into the empty hall. Michael gave the cadence with his fingers: one… two… three…

They both counted four silently, then let their bolts fly with a loud snap of string and steel. Both bolts hit their targets squarely in the neck, and the two guards dropped to the ground suddenly limp. Michael flinched as one of the Halberds trembled and then fell to the ground with a loud clang.

They waited for a few moments, wondering if the noise would attract any attention. He and Aarne spanned and reloaded their crossbows. Nothing happened, and Michael waved the group forward.

“Almost there,” he whispered.

They wound around a curved hallway, lined with windows of stained glass that Michael had seen so many times he looked at them only to know exactly where he was going. They slowed as they reached a stair. They all went down it cautiously, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to see who was on the landing. As Michael approached the final steps, he leapt down, shouldering his crossbow and scanning the wide gallery. It was empty.

The six men were able to go in pairs. They followed Michael into a darker hallway and stopped when it terminated in another well-lit gallery.

Michael turned and said quietly, “The royal chamber is to our right, escap will be straight out from its door if things go awry.”

Everyone nodded silently. Michael stuck his mirror out into the hall, wondering if he would see Thokar at the other end. He saw a pair of lackadaisical guards talking quietly outside a large double door that was the entrance to Johan’s apartments.

“We’ll wait just a bit, to see if Guissali and Thokar have made it.”

They all did their best to catch their breaths silently. Michael chanced a peek again. This time he saw a bearded head looking back across the way. He held his thumb up, and received a silent wave from Guissali.

“Time for action,” he whispered. He signalled Aarne, who came beside him with his crossbow. “The rest of you get down that gallery as fast as you can after we fire.”

The nodded. Michael nodded to Aarne and they stepped out into the hallway, aimed, and shot their crossbows even as the rest poured across the threshold. One of the bolts struck a guard in the neck, the other ricocheted off of a helm and went bouncing down the hallway. Hearing the snap of the crossbows, the other team dashed around the corner.

The guard who was struck fell against the wall, gurgling a cry that he couldn’t quite get out. The other, who was still in shock from being struck in the head with a crossbow, didn’t cry out immediately. Thokar waved a hand and the man suddenly choked. Mondal was on him first, one of his swords already out. With a quick flip of the blade tip the remaining guard had his neck slit. Someone stuck a spear into him as he fell, and the loudest sound was his body hitting the floor. His halberd, forgotten, still stood leaning against the door.

“Do not hesitate because she is a woman,” Thokar whispered, as they assembled.

Baradict and Nit nodded to each other and with a swift kick broke open the barred door. Inside it was pitch black – not merely the black that is a lack of light, but a darkness unto itself, unnatural, like a curtain had been drawn before them.

Thokar gave a wordless cry and threw his hand out, sending a ball of light flying into the room. It’s light threatened to be swallowed up, but even as the dark ate it, it threw its beams upon the ornate furniture and the outer doors.

“Fire, quickly,” Michael said. He stepped into the room, his crossbow at the ready and loaded with a poison bolt. Thokar followed him in and threw flames about. Carpets and chair ignited, but the flames did little to penetrate the black. They threw enough light to see the floor and where they vaguely might be.

“Quiet,” Mondal said, as they all crept forward, their weapons held out in front of them. Langelo’s spear point trembled, and he jumped and stabbed a table. “I said quiet,” Mondal repeated. His eyes glowed in the black, two pale blue orbs that lit the twin basket-hilted swords in front of him. “There is breath in here.”

“There,” Nit slithered ahead, grabbing a flaming chair and holding it like a torch. As he inched up, they saw an guilded door.

“It is sealed,” Thokar whispered. “It may take me time to find a counterspell.”

“The walls aren’t stone,” Aarne whispered. “They’re plaster and wood, or I’m a fool.”

Thokar held aloft his staff, which radiated light, then clenched his fist. The wall beside the door cracked and distorted, and they all felt a rush of wind and a rumbling under their feet.

“Enough of that,” Harpa said, and rushed to where the wall had been brokeng. He slammed his shoulder into it and it burst asunder, into a room that was lit almost painfully bright compared to the darkness. Harpa fell forward to the floor of the room just as rolling wave of magic went through, causing a deafening crack that made Michael’s ears ring.

Michael dropped to a knee and fired his crossbow over the head of Harpa, blindly hoping he hit the woman. He noticed, too that the darkness seemed to be seeping into the bedroom beyond, poring over Harpa like mist as he struggled to free himself of the splintered boards.

“In!” Michael cried, dropping his crossbow and drawing his longsword. He didn’t know if anyone heard him or not, for he could scarcely hear his own voice. If they didn’t hear him, they followed his lead, leaping through the hole in the wall (and stepping on a struggling Harpa).

Michael felt something hit him. His feet and arms went numb, and he collapsed on the floor. He turned his head and saw Alanrae, her hair flying madly around her shoulders, standing on a window ledge, crying out meaningless words as magic flew from her hands and the floor. Thokar was beside him, countering the magic, holding it at bay, making the spells fizzle into puffs of smoke.

Alanrae screamed in pain as Aarne hit her in the collarbone with a bolt, then, as if that pain renewed her, she sent a wave of wind out over the room, knocking everyone from their feet. Seeing Michael upon the floor with sudden recognition, she hurled a ball of chaotic fire at him, singing the air. Guissali leapt in front of it, holding his up, but the flames flowed around it like water, and he screamed as he fell, his armor smoking.

Alanrae was knocked back by a something invisible from Thokar. She leapt from the window, heading straight for the orc. Something shiny, like a blade, seemed to be forming in her hand, and Michael, paralyzed, shivered even as he struggled to lift his head.

The queen never made it to the stunned Thokar, for even as she leapt she died, cut through on her neck and side by two swords. Nobody, it seemed, had notice Mondal edging around the room to stand directly before the queen. Blood flew in wide arcs, steaming as it splashed on the walls and floor. Alanrae gave a soft, whimpering cry and fell to the floor before Michael.

Life left her body with her blood, but in her last moments she gazed at Michael, and perceived that she was crying before her body went still. Michael felt dimly warmth returning to his fingers, but could not move. He was aware of more fighting, and as feeling returned to his arms he was able to roll up to his knees. The men were fighting more guards, who were held at bay by Langelo and Baradict, both of them stabbing wildly with spears against the influx of Halberds through the ruined wall.

Michael managed to stand and draw his sword. He took in the body of Guissali for a moment that seemed to last an eternity, and had to wrench his eyes away from the charred corpse to see the encroaching death that was upon them. They were trapped now.

“Stand down!” He shouted. “Stand down, damn you! It is I, Michael Harthino, prince of Artalland!”

The men continued fighting, but Michael heard the the growing voice of Johan. “Stand down! Stand down!”

“Ha!” Michael cried aloud. “It worked.”

“Drop your weapons!” Johan said, still invisible behind a wall of pikes and halberds. “Drop your weapons.”

“Drop them!” Michael said, looking around. Reluctantly, they put down their weapons. Thokar gave his staff a hard look then threw it down on the ground. Mondal stepped up beside him, covered in blood, and stood tall.

Johan stepped past the front row of men. “Michael,” he said, plain-faced. “You have slain Alanrae.”

“I have, brother,” Michael said. “Are you free now?”

“Indeed,” Johan said. Michael gaped as Julia stepped past the row of men and stood by Johan.

Michael shook his head in disbelief. “You arrived here quickly.”

“Are you alright?” she said sweetly. “Were you hurt?”

“I… was hit by Alanrae.” Michael glanced to the side. “So was Guissali.”

“I’m sorry,” Julia said, her face tilted down to look at the slain knight. “He was a good friend.” She looked at Johan.

“It is a pity that the court will now know he is here,” Michael said. “I cannot execute one of royal blood.”

“No, you cannot,” Julia said. She approached Michael smiling.

Michael looked carefully at his brother. “The spell will pass. It must pass. You will understand, Johan.”

Julia approached. Michael felt confused, but he opened his arms and embraced her. She wrapped her arms around him in return.

“Thank you, Michael,” she said quietly. Michael flinched as he felt the knife cut against the back of his neck. He released her and took a weak step backward.

Julia looked at Johan. “You cannot execute him, but it seems he was injured quite badly in the melee.”

“Take them away,” Johan said. “Do not kill the prince, but do inform me if he succumbs to his wounds. He would by my next of kin, now.”

Michael felt weak in the knees. “Julia?” he said. He felt the arm of Baradict under his weight. His head began to swim. He watched Julia lean up and kiss Johan, and he finally understood.

In a haze, Baradict carried him from the bedroom, cursing at the spear points surrounding him.

This post was part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening,  of which this book is a sequel.

 

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