A Queen waits for her husband.
A mercenary watched him die.
Eyes look accusingly at Valguard.
Can he be responsible for a Kingdom falling?
The race to find the TEN OF SWORDS has cost everyone involved dearly. The only survivor, the bruised and battered mercenary Valguard, limps to the Red Castle to give his account of the loss of the King to a Queen famous for her fiery temper. Physically scarred and emotionally broken, the shell of a once strong mercenary seems ambivalent to the repercussions of his actions – or inactions – over the loss of his friend.
It’s not every day you have to tell a Queen her husband is dead, thought Valguard. He clenched his jaw as two massive guards heaved open the huge oak doors to reveal the majesty of a grand hall, full of soldiers and subjects awaiting news of their King. A King that several days ago, he had witnessed die.
In between dual crowds on either side of the room, sitting high on the raised throne sat the waiting Queen, surrounded by all her attendants.
‘Shit,’ he whispered. There couldn’t be any more public a place to have to deliver the worst possible news. He had hoped for a more intimate meeting with just a handful of dignitaries.
Guards lined up behind him to escort him on the approach to their monarch.
‘Here we go,’ he thought to himself.
He moved off, not waiting for his escorts. The crowd stopped mumbling and silence descended on the large chamber, broken only by the footsteps of the visitor’s boots on the polished tiles. The noise echoed off the floor up to the red, volcanic stone of the vaulted ceiling. Vast unstained glass windows filtered the sunshine into diagonal shafts of light and warmth into an otherwise cold room, illuminating the banners that were draped over the walls adding colour – again mostly red – to the room.
He passed the court herald, a withered, grey man who barked louder than you would expect for someone of his age.
‘VALGUARD OF... Templeford?’
That sounded wrong. It was only where he lived, he didn’t own it. But, he supposed it was preferable to Valguard the mercenary, Valguard the thief or even Valguard the killer.
The mercenary stood about six foot tall and in good shape but not excessively so although he looked like he had just come from a battlefield and needed a bath or a trip to the infirmary – possibly both. Long, dark brown hair that seemed to stick up randomly in every direction, flopped as he walked and the temples were prematurely grey for a man in his thirties. He was dressed in functional, dark autumnal coloured leather and canvas clothes that were actually armour. He strode in big walking boots and had no visible weapons but the belt and harness under his coat suggested he did and kept them discreetly hidden.
He was doing his best to hide recent injuries; a dropped shoulder and a limp as well as colourful bruises and scabbed cuts on his face. But despite the pain in his leg, he still walked briskly, straight down the centre of the hall, the escorts behind him struggling to keep up.
The gauntlet of Royal guards stood imposingly still on either side with halberds held vertical. Their highly polished chest plates and matching sallet helmets reflected the morning light that streamed through the windows, right into the crowd’s eyes opposite.
Around the throne waited the principals of her different offices; The High Reeve, The Secretary, The Castellan, Captain of the Guard and a number of handmaidens. In the centre, sat Queen Samantha the First. She was slim, possibly too slim, sat bolt upright and had a stern body language. Dark, straight hair was braided together and topped with a modest crown, then draped forward over her shoulder. She wore an exquisite dress, layered with different red fabrics and even darker shades of burgundy.
All the jewellery she wore featured stunning rubies. Small gems dangled from her ears while around her neck was an elaborate gold chain, its centrepiece a magnificent ruby. But the item of jewellery that Valguard couldn’t take his eyes off – for a very different reason – was her wedding ring.
This would be difficult.
The sound of his echoing footsteps on the polished tiles died away as he reached the bottom step of the raised dais and he dropped to his knee with some discomfort before bowing respectfully to the Queen who waited impatiently on the throne.
She did not look happy.
‘Your highness, I bring–’
‘WHERE IS MY HUSBAND??’ she shrieked across the chamber, her unqueenly voice echoing off the stone walls multiple times before fading.
Valguard looked up and met her gaze. ‘I’m sorry. It is with a heavy heart that I believe him lost.’
Her face changed from annoyed to distraught. The crowds behind the soldiers murmured to each other at the news, but the Queen demanded more clarification.
‘When you say ‘lost’, do you mean ‘dead’?’
Valguard paused but there was nothing else he could say, except ‘Yes.’
Murmuring became chattering and the even the well-drilled soldiers flinched. Only their normally rigid chins were visible below their half helms but mouths had dropped open with shock. Tiny head movements betrayed hidden eyes that darted between comrades, awaiting instruction from their Monarch. The overlapping panels of steel in their gauntlets clattering as fingers tightened on the wooden poles of their halberds.
People looked to their Queen, primarily with concern but secondly to see how they should react. She remained silent for a long time, with a dropped head and hand over her eyes, her brow furrowed. She was upset but seemed not to be crying, when her hand slipped from her face she looked back up, her eyes were red and teary but she remained surprisingly calm.
Valguard thought it best to wait.
In the background, Ministers huddled and whispered as they often do. Dispassionately starting to plan the necessary arrangements without delay; funerals, coronations, reprisals?
Finally, the Queen spoke again, in a quiet but broken voice, as though she had suspected her husband’s fate and this was merely the confirmation she had been dreading.
‘Did you see it happen?’
‘No,’ the visitor shook his head and explained. ‘We were underground. We were separated by a rockfall just beforehand.’
‘Then, he could still be alive?’ she hoped.
‘Well... not really, before the rockfall trapped him he was being overrun by hundreds of soldiers,’ he dashed any glimmer of hope there might have been.
The Queen could not believe it. Just a couple of sentences and her King was gone. Impossible.
‘Were there any others present?’
Valguard closed his eyes to avoid seeing her reaction, ‘Yes. The Magician was in...’
‘Do not be coy in my presence, Valguard. We both know that bloody wizard’s name,’ she snarled at him.
He tried again. ‘Hawkwood approached us all separately to help him find a sword.’
The Queen rolled her eyes and sighed desperately, ‘It’s always a sword.’
‘Severan joined us in the mountains.’
‘Anyone else? The Barbarian? The Werewolf?’ she recalled some of his past associates.
‘The Barbarian was there, yes – also dead. Nobody likes the Wolf anymore. There was a young soldier too – he’s alive but badly injured.’
‘What a bloody mess.’
‘Did you get this sword? After all this... death?’
The Queen looked surprised, ‘Then he died for nothing.’
She looked back at her husband’s battered comrade with accusing eyes.
‘And yet you escaped, without a scratch?’
‘I escaped, yes,’ she was half right. ‘Once again, I owe my life to your husband,’ he could see which way this was going and decided it was time to play up the fact he had been a lifelong friend as his defence.
‘The King dies and you were left standing with my husband’s sworn enemy? It’s not looking good, is it?’
‘I cut his hand off and watched him fall to his death if that helps?’
‘No, it doesn’t. That bloody wizard is too evil to die. He could betray even the reaper himself.’
The queen drew a deep breath.
‘Then it seems he sacrificed his life to give you only a couple more days of yours,’ before shrieking again for him to be held.
At her command, Valguard’s escorts became his captors. He was grabbed tightly by the men surrounding him and the tips of two dozen halberds were quickly swung down to point right at him. The collar of his coat was pulled back over the top of his shoulders, locking his arms in a makeshift restraint.
He did not resist. Despite the fact that he could take care of himself, these soldiers were not his enemy and he would not challenge them. More importantly, he seemed to have no fight left in him.
With the mercenary secure, the imposing frame of the Queen’s bodyguard who until now had stood patiently at her side, unfolded his thick arms and slowly walked down the steps towards the captive. Emit Mackro, was a tall man dressed to the neck in the red armour of his legion, adorned with black outer plates of command, medals and a ceremonial cloak – also in blood red – draped off his wide shoulders. He stopped in front of the prisoner and looked down at him with a stony face.
‘Emit,’ Valguard nodded nervously, acknowledging the soldier by his first name but receiving no reply. Instead, Mackro reached beneath Valguard’s arms and withdrew both the swords holstered underneath and held them tightly in his hands, admiring the craftsmanship of the blades.
Valguard wondered if he was going to return them point first, but he didn’t.
Mackro nodded back to the Queen who at his signal rose from her seat and appeared to float down the steps, her unseen legs stepping beneath an exquisite red dress. As always, her attendants followed her, tiptoeing behind so as to make no sound.
As she passed Mackro, she plucked one of the swords from his grip and whipped it up to Valguard’s throat, but stopped short of dealing a lethal strike. Immobile in the vice-like grip of his captors, Valguard’s closed his eyes for the final time expecting her to drag the blade across his pulsing artery. Holding the blade still, its razor sharp tip pressed into the notch of his neck, just below his stubble. Where the metal nicked his flesh, a round bead of blood slowly appeared and then spread along the silver metal. Valguard swallowed, remaining perfectly still.
Around them, no one moves. Queen, guards, soldiers, handmaidens, the council – all are motionless like statues or some painting. In fact, the only movement was from the Queen’s modest breasts that heaved within her corset as she breathed quickly. Obviously upset and seething at her loss, the Queen spoke surprisingly softly and as calmly as she could under the circumstances.
Now that she was close enough to look into his eyes she asked a more direct question.
‘Did you kill him?’
‘You know I didn’t.’
After careful consideration and reading his face, the Queen drops the sword from his neck, leaving a dark red line mark where it split his skin. She holds on to the weapon playfully twirling it as she paces.
‘A different question then: Did your inaction cause his death?’
‘I’m not so sure. Should I hold you responsible for his death? I am torn over your fate – it is a dilemma only a widowed Queen could have. I can sentence you to death or spare you life. You are no doubt grieving yourself but you admit to being the nearest when he fell. Did you do your utmost to save him I wonder? Or was he just another casualty of your mercenary games?’ She thinks out loud as she circles him pondering his fate with the casual indifference of someone choosing between red or white wine.
‘Life or death? life OR death?’ enjoying her moment of control.
His fate rested solely in her hands and would be decided upon with the slightest of whims. He allowed the grieving Queen her moment of torture. He expected to be reprimanded in some way and was certain the threat of death was all just a performance for the court that was watching her fascinated. They had known each other for years and he was one of Severan’s best friends when she first met the King. He was sure she would believe that there was nothing he could have done.
‘Sometimes it helps if I wonder what my husband would do?’
She took a deep breath and looked coolly at him, her mind made up.
‘Death I think.’
Valguard couldn’t believe it and was speechless. Throughout his life, Valguard had always had close calls where things looked grim but he managed to escape at the last minute. Now, after recent events, it seemed those days were over and fate wanted to balance the books.
‘Take him away!’ she cried to her soldiers.
Valguard was dragged off to the left, through a side door that would lead him to the jail on the other side of the castle. He said nothing to her, just looked at the woman who had ordered his imprisonment – but not with anger or resentment – only sadness.
The widow stared blankly at him until he was gone then returned the sword to Mackro and silently left the Chamber.
© copyright David N. Humphrey, All rights reserved. 2,147w 24.8.16
‘But that would be unconstitutional, Your Majesty!’ protested the Queen’s secretary, an informed woman with a ruffle of fair hair, none of which past below her neckline. She was arguably the most powerful person within the realm after the monarch and had done well for one so young.
‘This is the King we are talking about, Riva – not some fishmonger!’
‘Even so, we cannot be seen to execute someone for your husband’s death based on nothing more than hearsay,’ she continued confidently.
‘I am still Queen and I will execute whoever I bloody well choose! And with that in mind, I warn you to be very careful on that matter, Riva.’
Disagreements between them had been regular occurrences, but with a line crossed the secretary decided to back off for the sake of her own health.
Riva nodded and kept her head down, ‘Of course, Your Highness.’
She was a firebrand alright, you could see what Severan would have liked about her.
The Queen’s advisors sat at the rectangular table in the Royal chamber, as heated discussions continued regarding Valguard’s fate. In addition to the berated Secretary, sat; The High Reeve who implemented all matters legal; Mackro, the imposing Captain of the Red Guard; Helix the Castellan, who as his title suggests, ran the Red Castle and finally The Chancellor who held the royal purse. One chair was conspicuous as it was unoccupied, the large seat at the head of the table was missing its King. Sitting around the room against the walls were other minor councillors and a fuss of handmaidens, if that was the collective term for them. Not having a place at the table meant they were silent guests and were not permitted to speak unless called.
The elderly High Reeve, who despite her threat, leant closer to continue her argument. His wisdom and experience were seldom overruled and when they were, it was often with dire consequences. He took up the baton that the Secretary had dropped and continued in his reassuring manner.
‘Your majesty, Riva makes a valid point. There is protocol to follow. This is a constitutional event and must be handled correctly regardless of Your Majesty’s own personal feelings. And the feelings of our subjects hearts, of course.’
‘I still have to tell my children they will never see their father again. I am in no mood to be lectured on feelings.’
The Reeve’s eyes widened slightly at the retort but he matched the stare of the Queen and the wily old fox stood his ground, adding, ‘I understand, Your Majesty, but until we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, technically the King is only missing.’
‘Only?’ sighed the Queen exasperatedly. ‘We have the word of an eyewitness.’
‘The word of a mercenary,’ corrected Helix.
‘A mercenary who is currently in our cells,’ pointed out Mackro.
‘And that is all we have,’ said Riva. ‘We need clarification.’
She sighed. She needed to calm down and carefully play by the rules or she would be labelled estranged and that could encourage people to search for an alternative heir. People needed stability at a time like this and a reactionary Queen could signal trouble. There could even be a coup and the last thing she wants would be to be overthrown.
Legally Samantha was still Queen until her husband’s body was found or such time had passed that he was officially declared dead. She would then become the Queen Regent until the Prince comes of age at which point she would become the Queen Mother – a title she had never really considered, always thinking the role would be a lifetime away. She shuddered at the thought of her premature ageing, becoming obsolete and the gradual erosion of her power.
She had done very well at the side of Severan and genuinely loved him. She doted on their three children; their son – also called Severan – and his twin sisters Ruby and Carnelia. But she could not deny she enjoyed the privilege of the position she had reached.
Although in reality, Severan was not of noble birth, at best they were Barons with some money, some land and some very good fortune. He had done well as an adventurer before he decided to ‘retire’ as a King. He found a desperate Lord who had fallen on hard times and, after some dubious negotiating, he bought the land at a very good price and the imposing castle that came with it. The keep was in need of repair, but he saved himself decades of construction work necessary to build a fortification from scratch. He only needed to fix some parts to restore it to its former glory, then added some minor improvements of his own.
For Severan, this still wasn’t enough. He protected his land’s boundaries and declared independence as the head of his own principality. It wasn’t the biggest but it was a kingdom. And if you have an unusually large and very capable standing army you can do most things especially if you are belligerent about letting people know just how serious you are and Severan was always deadly serious.
Next, he married the perfect woman, Samantha, a minor noblewoman lady and a perfect consort and soon after had children.
Samantha always regretted her brothers never lived to see the grand position she reached or the power that came with it. A power that she usually wielded responsibly, even going so far as to often calm her husband’s more extreme whims.
As the youngest, and only, female child of low ranking nobility, she never expected to do so well. Her older brothers whom she loved very much were each groomed for success, but war and disease took them early and she spent much of her youth in mourning. She and her father buried them one by one and having married Samantha away, he was trapped alone on a throne, a broken Lord.
Once again, the person closest to Samantha had been taken from her.
‘Makro, as always, I value your input.’
‘My gut feeling and from stories Severan told me, Valguard always fought well alongside your husband.
‘You believe him?’
‘Without further information, I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, Your Majesty.’
‘Would you trust your life to him, Mackro?’
He said nothing. In truth he was unsure, but his lack of an answer spoke for him.
‘Our first course of action should be to recover the body,’ said Mackro. ‘I will make arrangements to lead a detachment of the Red Guard. I will speak with the prisoner for the whereabouts of the King as soon as we are finished.’
‘I will come with you, Mackro,’ said the Queen. ‘I have questions of my own.’
Mackro nodded his approval but added, ‘While we are away, he must be kept alive. As far as we know, he is the only person who knows the last whereabouts of Severan and could still be useful.’
Samantha did not answer.
‘The King needs to be returned home, your majesty,’ reassured her Chancellor.
Samantha knew she was becoming isolated and was losing the argument for keeping Valguard alive was building.
The Castellan spoke next to temper Mackro from taking too many troops with him and leaving the castle vulnerable.
‘We need to keep garrisons here, to protect the Castle. We have heard of large scale troop movements – Paladins, brigands and even men from Brabourne crossing the Widewater. Something is going on. It is possible the King’s death could be tactical and the first blow of an invasion that leads to a full-scale war.’
One of the handmaidens gasped, then quickly stifled the noise with her thin hand when everyone turned and looked at her. Ignoring her outburst, the council continued.
‘Perhaps caution until we know who we are dealing with?’ warned her Castellan.
The Queen rounded on her advisor and fixed him with a stare.
‘Cautious? Would my husband be cautious if it was me that was dead?’
‘No, your majesty,’ he conceded. ‘He would not.’
But some of what her secretary and her other council had said was beginning to sink in and the silence of the others indicated they did not support this cause of action. She stood still, her fingers twisting her ruby wedding ring on her other hand. The Queen seemed to be alone in wanting Valguard executed.
‘Fine, fine. He can rot in his bloody cell!’ she snapped. ‘And we will have revenge on the army that killed my husband. We will paint the hills with their blood.’
‘Of course, your majesty,’ nodded the Captain of the Red Guard.
© copyright David N. Humphrey, All rights reserved. 1,438w 24.8.16