“We can change the rules later if you’re going to keep that grumpy look on your face,” Jojo chuckled at Yda while they were hiding behind some camouflaging bushes, “Make them a bit softer for your bad luck.” Yda paid him no attention, she was too focused on the task, crouching with her bow next to her, ‘needle-shooter’, as she liked to call it; she was the one to give the sign when the duchess’ carriage would arrive.
“We could lower the wages limit,” said Jojo.
“Silence,” Yda spoke calmly, “they’re supposed to be closer now.”
“They were supposed to pass by here since dawn but now the sun is nearly at its peak, damn heat,” Jojo protested while swiping the sweat from his eyebrows, “they aren’t coming, hear my words.”
“One more word and you can forget all about playing any games with me from now on,” Yda hissed the words through her teeth, threatening Jojo’s chances to gain more from his purse worked better than threatening his neck. Lifetime within the brotherhood had taught her well.
So it worked.
Jojo scowled at Yda then retired to the tree with the big chunk behind them. Bjorn and Olaf sat there, two real brothers from the north, raised and lived as lumberjacks, and when they joined the brotherhood their occupation extended to chopping more than just trees and logs. They were tending to their axes in the shades although they had each a bow next to them, every member in the brotherhood had to learn how to use all types of weapons, according to their leader Jarvis, but axes were their style.
“Can you believe that?” Jojo asked quietly while loosening the belt that carried his sword and a daggers set which he had won from Yda, “She can’t stand losing, women!” he giggled under his breath.
“I think she can’t stand you blabbering nonsense all the time, and personally I agree with her,” said Bjorn, the younger brother with a grin on his face. Olaf looked at them both, his right palm caressing the cheek of his axe and he smiled.
“Yeah, laugh all you want. Funny northmen”, Jojo said with contempt, tightened his belt again and crawled back to where Yda was hiding.
“Damn frozen-brain men. You can’t even ask them a bloody question,” Jojo said to Yda. Yda slowly turned her head towards him, her face filled with rage.
“You alright? Your eyebrows are about to be ruined”, Jojo mocked, and when he noticed that Yda’s face grew redder than strawberries he said “Fine, bloody silence it is,” as he crouched lower behind the bushes.
After few moments, “what was the plan again?” Jojo asked frankly.
“Shoot three arrows and charge. Don’t make me start wasting my arrows on you,” Yda spoke with some hopelessness in her voice.
“I thought you southerns didn’t joke,” Jojo said and fell again to his silence.
The rest of the brotherhood hid on the opposite side, except Blain, the ugliest among his brothers, he had dug a hole in the ground on the side of the track, and covered himself with small branches and dirt.
“In the name of what is above and below, how could he stay still like that for all this time?” Chauncey said while sneaking from behind one of the large trees that blocked the sunlight from reaching the ground, Warwick was sitting next to him, his massive back and shoulders to the tree and his knees bent and eyes closed, one would have thought he was sleeping until he said “If you had to choose between his hole and Jojo’s side, which do you choose?”
Without looking at him, Chauncey sighed and said “Point taken.”
Close to them was Nigel, the most handsome, rescued by Jarvis the night before his execution ten years ago. Jarvis has postponed all of his brothers deaths at some point. Nigel was once a senior sword master, but fucking some rich wives and dueling with their husbands had put him in a quarrel with the law, not to mention that he had also fucked the supreme judge’s wife.
Nigel hunched behind a big bush and waited, for he knew patience was a virtue. He was imagining how the fight was going to be when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Jarvis had walked and crouched to his side without his notice. There was a rumor among the brothers that Jarvis could move between the shadows, Nigel was smart enough to give those rumors some credit.
“Good times are coming,” Jarvis said silently and winked at him, a sly line drew on his lips.
Now that’s interesting, Nigel said to himself, Jarvis seems eager even after all this waiting.
“You think something delayed them?” Nigel asked with the same level of voice.
“That’s what Silas said,”
“I don’t trust damn mages,” Nigel protested.
“He’s not a witch,”
“What about all the things he did before?”
“Well, he calls it some sort of science” Jarvis cleared his throat.
Nigel looked profoundly at Jarvis who held a sword on his side which Silas had helped him make and a bow with three arrows in his hands. He muttered some curses and didn’t say anything further.
A few moments later, Yda made a bird sound whistle and all her brothers got to their feet, except Blain, either standing or crouching, bows and arrows in their hands and their preferred weapon next to them, as if they’ve done it one hundred times before, which they did and more; ready for the point of no return.
Six mounted knights appeared at first, forming two lines of threes, red sigils on their heavy grey armor. Behind them a big fancy chariot pulled by six horses and behind it another six knights.
Jarvis saw them in a hurry, he thought that it was for the better since they wouldn’t see the trap until it’s too late.
When the last of the first group of knights passed next to Blain, arrows started flying according to the plan that Jarvis had set two days before. Chaos filled the ranks and the chariot stopped as two knights from the front and one from the back hit the ground morbidly. Two more waves of arrows drowned two more knights and the chariot’s driver. The knights pulled their swords and shields and became well protected from the flying bolts, which was already too late. A moment of tranquility passed with no sound but the heavy breath of the horses and the squealing of a knight on the ground.
A white mist started rising from the ground, Nigel cursed Silas in his mind, then a battle cry came from the trees and the brotherhood attacked from both sides. The knights, brave as Jarvis had noted in his mind, but foolish for their loyalty, or maybe they were getting paid more than their life costs, stood their ground with their heavy shields and shiny swords.
The brothers knew better than to engage a knight on his stallion straight on even if their numbers surpassed the horsemen’s, even with the mist that Silas had summoned, they needed more distractions, another element of surprise, so the plan was that the closest brother to the victims had to scream continuously and by considering the voice’s echo, Blain would decide the right moment to reveal himself. Chauncey was closer than his brothers, a sword in one hand and a shield in the other, he cried louder than thunder, not of anger nor to scare the knights, but of hope that Blain would wake up in case he had fallen asleep in his hole.
So it works.
The knights considering Chauncey as an easy target readied themselves to attack but they heard a weird sound from the mist that circled beneath them, a weird raging sound. Blain rose from the ground like a mad leviathan would rise from the sea, dirt and leaves falling from his mouth, revealing an ugly creation going ape-shit.
Now to say that Blain is ugly is a bit of an understatement, he was more hideous and terrifying than a hellhound spawned by the devil himself, that’s without mentioning his huge built and his utmost biting-face-passion.
So he rose.
Blain drove his first sword into the lower back of a knight where the armor is poor and who hadn’t noticed the whereabouts of the sound, dodged a swing from another knight and drove his second sword into the heart of his mount and pushed them both to fall on their side. Then he jumped over that fallen knight and held his head with his huge hands and bit his cheek.
By that time, the rest of the brotherhood had closed in and there was no quarter to be given by the looks on their faces. Swords clashed and spilled some blood, axes chunked and poured a crimson flood. One big armored knight with blond hair escaped the battlefield but none of the brothers made any attempt to follow him, they were focused on making sure to leave no beating heart within their reach but their own. A moment of silence followed, then the door of the carriage opened and a lady with a black dress and a blue gem on her neck stepped outside, her red hair tied in a knot above her head revealing a sharp jaw and fair skin, she had blue eyes that reflected thunderstruck but no fear. She walked towards the brothers who had gathered behind the carriage while looking at the mutilated corpses of the fallen knights around her.
“How dare you?” She demanded, rage filling her voice, one hand on her side holding the dress that covered all her curves and the other on the gem around her neck, Nigel noticed some lights flickering between her fingers and muttered under his breath “Great, more science”. “This is a royal envoy, the king will hear of this and will make you regret breathing the air on his lands.” The brothers stayed where they had been standing, somehow between bedazzlement and shock. She kept walking towards them slowly, threateningly. When she noticed that no one said a word she continued, “I am Helen, the duchess of Hearthshire and you have committed a crime against the crown and will be prosecuted, if not by law then by the gods!” She raised her finger and started pointing at the brothers who hadn’t moved a muscle yet, “Surrender now and maybe you’ll get a quick execution,” she stood between the frozen brothers with her chin high. “She talks too much,” Morg said, the last of the brothers who always hid somewhere along the road and waited in case someone ran away from the brotherhood’s trap. He held the head of the blond knight who had fled in his hand. He stepped in closer and threw it in front of her. “Fiends!” She hissed and as soon as she made a quick turn backward, she met the fist of Blain on her face that threw her to the ground. “She does talk too much,” Blain said, “I think we found a competitor for Jojo,” he grinned at his brothers who started chuckling, even Jojo. Blain started unbuckling his belt as he walked closer towards her, “Now let’s see what lies beneath this lovely dress.”
Jarvis suddenly stepped in between, his dark eyes speaking his thoughts and fixed on Blain, and no one dared to challenge him, not even the monstorous Blain who moved away without hesitation. Jarvis knelt beside the duchess and offered his hand, “Apologies my lady, on behalf of my fellow friends. Their parents didn’t seem to invest in their courting manners.” The duchess took his hand and stood up, the lights between her hand and the gem died out, confusion drawn on her face, she looked deeply into his face and frowned, “You look familiar,” she said. Jarvis smiled innocently and said “I have visited Hearthshire before but you wouldn’t have noticed someone like me,” he bowed. She kept looking at him in silence, Jarvis looked at the sky then back to her, at the gem on her neck, and spoke elegantly “We are heading tomorrow to Frostburn city, perhaps your highness would be safer if you stayed in my tent till then,” he held his hand to guide her. She took it. “And one more thing, if you try to escape, I won’t stand between you and them,” he nodded towards his brothers who have busied themselves in salvaging the corpses and the carriage. She nodded and asked superiorly “Am I a prisoner now?” Jarvis sighed and said “Until tomorrow, then I’ll set you free.”
So they camped.
Night spread its dark wings sooner than expected and a cold breeze swept the forest where the brotherhood had camped. Jarvis cuffed the duchess in his tent and went to the fire where his brothers had circled around, putting enough distance to avoid her eavesdropping. Jarvis noticed that Blain was in a foul mood and yet he approached him and put his hand on his shoulder with serenity, “that was quite an entrance to the stage,” Jarvis said, trying to cheer him up. “I just wish I had a bigger audience,” Blain replied as he revealed a bag and shook it to make the coins clink against each other. Jarvis nodded, “Soon brother, soon!” Then he stood up and walked toward Silas who seemed a bit worried, “Did she try to do anything?” Silas whispered the question to Jarvis after he sat down. Jarvis shook his head and opened his tunic from the neck to reveal a similar gem as the duchess’ but smaller and black, “Then my work protected you well,” Silas continued with a proud face.
Time passed and the brothers chatted and bargained with each other, then they fell into the silence that follows successful trade of stolen items.
“Did you bury the corpses well?” Jarvis asked Morg.
“Deep enough that he probably knocked hell’s door,” Jojo replied instead.
“But no one answered,” Morg added with a humble smile.
“That’s because he’s with us,” Yda said and nodded towards Jojo.
The brothers laughed. Jojo said “Two jokes in one day? That’s a record for a woman from the south.” Jojo laughed alone.
The brotherhood could have spent the next few hours in silence if it weren’t for Jojo who kept showing off his bargaining skills and how he once traded a dead dog for a piece of bread with a blind man. No one paid him attention.
After a while Jarvis stood up and paced around the fire, glanced at the pile of logs that Chauncey had assembled earlier then back at the fire, he picked a darkened piece of wood from it and threw it in the darkness that surrounded them, then he stood straight and bowed his head and said “Brothers and sister. I will spare you the subtlety that precedes every speech of every leader, because I am not your leader, you might think that I am, but I’m not. I am your brother,” he lifted his head, his dark eyes absorbing the light from the fire, “Our journey has been quite a dangerous one, some brothers have been claimed by the hands of destiny and others are yet to join them. What lies ahead in the next coming days is a fork of fate, on one side lies my debt to be paid, on the other your freedom to embrace,” he paused, his eyes wandered into the fire in front of him for a moment as if shooting its lights back at it, then he looked up at the sky, his lips started moving again, “What will happen if you stay will taint your pity souls with disgrace. Your last chance to abandon me is at midnight.” Jarvis walked towards Silas who pulled a bottle from his bag and passed it to him casually, then he went back towards the tent.
“Do you promise to behave?” Jarvis asked the duchess after he stepped inside, a key in his hand.
“Yes,” Helen replied with hesitation, confusion filling her thoughts, her eyes drifting to the corners of the tent.
“You don’t seem concerned about dying, more about something else I suppose,” Jarvis noted, he knew better when to ask a question and when to make a statement. He poured two cups and offered one to her which she took thirstily.
“To your freedom?” Jarvis suggested and raised his glass, she nodded and drank. Her curious chain of thoughts distracted her from her present moment, she didn’t notice that Jarvis hadn’t sipped from his cup until she had finished her drink; she cursed curiosity.
“You are a mage,” she said and looked at her legs, numbness crawling inside of her, ‘how could I have acted so naively ‘ she thought to herself.
“Wrong,” he replied.
“You’ve poisoned me,” dizziness filling her brain, ‘Is this my end?’ she asked herself.
“You barbarian,” the cup fell from her hand as she tried to clutch into the armchair next to her, one hand trying to reach for the gem that was around her neck, ‘If I could just say the right words I’ll save myself,’ she hoped, her legs dancing beneath her,
“You monster,” she tried to shout but failed, and fell to the ground.
“Not yet,” Jarvis approached her and pulled her hands away, she dozed off.
So she dreamt.
She saw herself when she was 20 years old, fifteen years ago, she was more enthusiastic than ever. She was walking through the halls of Frostburn Palace where King Oliver Gudhart was residing, she was enjoying the beauty of sculptures and architecture that filled the walls and the corners of every room, the ceiling of every corridor, she was certain that it was a memory that she was reliving rather than a random dream. She was heading to meet her employer for the third time, the Marquess of Gaulburg, Philipe of Alpine, the king’s eldest cousin from his mother’s side, the next in-line to the throne after the princes.
A female servant, whose name she forgot, had received her at the main hall and guided her to the marquess. He was standing on the balcony that overlooked a botanical garden where a big white dog was barking at two boys, they were fighting with sticks and a small girl was throwing small rocks at both of them, the king’s children.
The servant announced Helen’s presence and left them alone. She saw herself unsure as she approached the marquess and passed him a bottle, he had a drink in his hand which he passed to her to hold it as he inspected what’s inside the box. She told him that one drop would be enough to put a horse to sleep for hours, and that he can make someone slip it into his enemy’s food and water. The marquess poured a drop into his drink and called for his servant, he yelled at her and told her that his drink is wasted, she apologised and told him that every drink is tasted every morning to make sure of its condition, he said that he didn’t believe her and he forced her to taste it then he told her to sit on the chair next to them. Helen remembered that the marquess spent the next half hour telling her about the king’s plans for the fighting tournament in a couple of weeks, that he wanted all his family and knights to be present. He told her about the history of such events and that perhaps she might find the right man for her. After a while they both looked at the servant to find her sleeping heavily, the marquess smiled cunningly and asked her how much more could she produce within a week, she told him. She saw herself overjoyed when the marquess promised her that she will be rewarded lands and title in the future, she remembered the feeling of relief, of no more living in huts and forests, no more being discriminated. The marquess left her alone as she watched the kids playing in the garden, one of the boys stopped fighting and turned around and their eyes met, he had a weird look on his face but not as odd as when his sister hit him with a small rock on his head and his younger brother took the opportunity and charged him, throwing him to the ground.
An hour passed and the duchess woke up to find herself on the ground, tied up again in the middle of the tent, but this time each of her limbs was pulled to a corner, beneath her a piece of fur, two small mirrors next to each cheek, the light of the lantern was so dim that she could barely see the reflections of her eyes, and for the first time since she was a child she couldn’t feel the icy touch of her gem on her neck; and that’s when she was certain that the worst is yet to come. Her breath started to get heavier, she tried to free herself from the ropes but she failed. Her muscles tensed, her forehead started to sweat.
“I wanted to let you warm up a bit because it was getting cold somehow, colder than your heart,” Jarvis spoke from behind her, he amplified the lights from the lantern and revealed himself. His feet made no sound at all as he stepped around her. Even though shadows and dark smoke had covered him, the duchess knew that he had a sadistic smile on his face, and a petrifying one on hers.
“Who are you?” she asked, no authority sign in her voice.
Jarvis remained calm and pulled a sharp dagger from his belt, unwilling to give her what she wants.
“What are you going to do?” innocence filling her tone.
He crouched next to her and started cutting her dress carefully. Her muscles tensed harder as the cold breeze squirmed all over her naked body. Jarvis stood up again, unbuckled his belt and removed his tunic and knelt between her legs. She knew what was happening and yet she couldn’t stop herself from giving him the satisfaction of fighting back; specially that even if she tried to avoid looking at his dreadful face, she saw herself in the mirrors which captured her more into the mortifying moment.
The duchess’ helpless voice resonated throughout the forest while Jarvis was raping her. Her violated screams turned the owls silent, made the beasts hide in their den, and pushed the snakes back underground. Everything outside the tent was silent except the brotherhood who remained at the camp, they didn’t seem to mind the horror that was happening, not even Yda. “Why did he get the first fuck and not me?” Blain asked while chewing on a piece of meat.
“Why not?” Jojo asked, “Come to think about it, perhaps he’s giving you the chance to fuck her later as dessert to your dinner,” Blain didn’t reply and went back to munching his food while entertaining in his mind the idea of a pleasing second course.
“You have no idea why,” Silas spoke calmly from where he was sleeping and the duchess’ screams stopped. The brothers glanced at him, he didn’t bother to open his eyes, then they glanced back at Jarvis’ tent where the rape sounds cut short. A few moments later a big gloomy cloud covered the sky and the only light in the entire region came from the moderate fire that the brothers had built, and out of the tent Jarvis appeared, his dark silhouette marching towards them slowly, slow enough to bring anxiety to them. And not until he was close to the fire that they noticed he was holding the duchess’ head in his left hand, his fingers clinging to her red hair, and an axe in his right hand; he threw the head in the fire. “I gave you the chance to leave,” Jarvis spoke the words like a cutting saw, stretching every syllable.
All the brothers stood up straight, including Silas, and fixed their eyes on Jarvis. Nigel was the one who broke the puzzling silence that followed, “Within the brotherhood we rise and fall. We have naught but our fortune to share and our doom to stall,” he grinned like a six year old boy. Jarvis scowled but not at him, more at himself for he had taught that prayer to the brotherhood years ago.
“Did you make a clean cut?” Silas asked and looked at the duchess’ head that was getting claimed by the fire.
“No,” Jarvis replied with a gruesome look in his eyes, he stared briefly at his brothers then went back to his tent, brought out the duchess’ corpse and pulled it near the fire, Morg stepped in front of him and said “I’ll take care of it from here,” Jarvis nodded and went back inside his tent. Once he disappeared, Jojo giggled. Blain asked him wickedly “Why are you laughing?”
“Because apparently he got the only fuck tonight,” Jojo replied and all the brothers roared with laughter, including Blain.
The brothers exchanged shifts for guarding their camp till dawn, all but Jarvis.
Inside the tent Jarvis laid on the ground, his thoughts raced but his heartbeats remained still.
He never liked to close his eyes, because only then he would hear his angels screaming from the deepest cells of his mind, screaming for hope and forgiveness, screaming of rage and shame.
Sometimes all he can do is stay awake.
Sometimes he fails and falls asleep.
The brothers woke up the next morning over the sound of rumbling thunders.
“Rain is coming,” Jojo said as he positioned himself in the chariot’s driver seat. He was wearing one of the knight’s uniform, just like the other brothers did.
“Do you really have to point out the obvious all the time?” Chauncey asked while sitting in the saddle of one of the many horses whose former owners were involuntarily dismissed underground.
Jarvis walked towards the chariot, looked at them both and said “I see you two have kept your spirits high after a long night,” a cheerful sign in his voice. They both smiled. Jarvis climbed next to Jojo and said to him impassively “Get inside the chariot.”
Jojo, suddenly surprised, climbed back inside the chariot swiftly and closed the door behind him. Jarvis pulled the reins attached to the horses and whipped them, the chariot started moving. Chauncey muttered irritation under his breath, Olaf was passing next to him on his own horse, an apple in his hand, “That’s not fair,” Chauncey said, “He gets to sit relaxed all the way while we get to keep this stupid mammal under our manhood and on top of that it’s going to rain on us.”
Olaf, with his usual smile on his face, stroked the neck of his horse gently and said “Aye,” took a big bite from the apple and fed the rest of it to his horse, then he led it behind the chariot.
“Is that all you’ve got to say? Aye?” Chauncey said to Olaf’s back.
Bjorn stopped his horse next to Chauncey, leaned closer to him and nodded towards his brother and said “He meant that we get to reach the next town without listening to Jojo’s excessive boasts and complaints, and that this mammal,” he nodded to Chauncey’s horse, cleared his throat and continued “will keep your manhood warm during the journey even if it snows.”
Chauncey, now more startled than ever, asked “Aye?”
Bjorn grinned and led his horse behind Olaf. The rest of the brothers joined them, except for Chauncey who remained steady in his saddle for a while trying to digest what Bjorn had just explained about what Olaf had just said, he surrendered after a while and followed his brothers insensibly.
So they rode.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that they reached the Swordberry town outside Frostburn city. They were completely soaked by the rain but it had stopped a while ago. They found a big tavern that was surrounded by large trees and held a sign of two crossing swords at its door, Olaf and Warwick took charge of the horses while the rest of the brothers entered the inn. Everyone around the town looked at them peculiarly, a royal envoy stopping in a town famed for outlaws wasn’t something they see everyday. A group of half a dozen men, guided by a man with short blond hair and a scar across his left cheek, approached Warwick who was tying the last horse, Olaf was standing next to him and looking at them.
“Where are you heading to, sire?” the blond man asked loudly and teasingly, his friends stood behind him.
“Inside the inn,” Warwick replied louder from his shoulder without turning around. Olaf frowned at Warwick who in return whispered to him, “We must act with superiority, we’re noble,” he winked at him. Olaf smiled.
“My name is Leeroy, what is yours?” the blond man asked.
Warwick turned around, sighed and said “My name is not important, we’re a royal envoy from Hearthshire, we’re heading towards Frostburn city and it has been a long journey so far, we’re kind of tired. Now, keep going on your way,” he turned his back to him.
“Nice horse,” Leeroy said, his men agreed with him, more men were joining them and they were armed with swords and daggers, “I think it will taste really good for tonight’s dinner” he continued, his men cheered and laughed. Olaf shook his head at that. Warwick removed the saddle of his horse and kept his mouth shut.
“So now you’re not talking anymore?” Leeroy asked, “You noble people come to our towns, drink our water and eat our food and still you behave like you’re better than us. Well you’re far away from your city Hershire or whatever the hell it is, you are in my town and this time we are hungry,” and he pulled his sword from its sheath, the metal sound rang as it slid from its case.
Olaf looked at Warwick and said “Noble?”
Warwick glanced at him, rolled his eyes and muttered “Fine,” and turned slowly towards Leeroy. Without giving a sign of hostility he started walking towards them leisurely and said “Please, accept my apologies good citizen Leeroy,” he made a small bow, “As I have told you it has been a long journey and I’m really tired and that affects my inappropriate manners. I am not better than you and you are right about being mad,” Warwick said and he noticed that Leeroy loosened his grip on his sword. He stood three steps away from him and gave him his best genuine smile. Leeroy seemed to be calmed a bit by this sudden behaviour from a noble man, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy his hunger, he said “Your apology won’t fill our stomach but a couple of these horses will do the job,” he pointed at it.
Warwick raised his right hand to his brown thick beard and caressed it, considering Leeroy’s idea, his eyes wandering on the ground around him. The moment stretched a bit, then Warwick swiftly raised his left hand with his index finger pointing up and he looked Leeroy in the eye and said “I have an idea, a little game that you might want to use as an opportunity to feed your men and yourself, would you like to take it?”
Leeroy glanced at his men, a short laugh came from his mouth then back at Warwick and said “I’ll take it, what is it?”
“Great, well listen,” Warwick rubbed his palms against each other, a grin on his face, “I’ll give you only one horse if you can throw that rock,” Warwick pointed at a big stone a bit far to his left, Leeroy and his men followed his gaze, “Over that tree,” Warwick pointed to the trees behind them which made them spin around all together only to return their gaze back to Warwick to find an axe in his hand and a headless Leeroy in front of them on the ground.
“I’ve been told that human meat tastes better than horses,” Warwick spoke heinously, red blood dripping from his axe on the green grass beneath him. Every living breath went silent for a moment, until the tavern’s door opened and Nigel showed up with two big wooden mugs in his hands, his mouth half opened. Olaf walked towards him, took the drinks and said “Nobles,” Nigel simply nodded in agreement, still taken aback. Olaf went to Warwick and gave him his drink, Leeroy’s men disappeared in no time, along with Leeroy’s corpse, they had a dinner to attend; Morg was disappointed later when he heard what had happened.
So they went.
Night came early, Silas and Jojo took their shift in guarding the horses before midnight. It was anything but quiet inside the inn as much as outside, it rained excessively and the lightnings broke and clawed at the skies maddeningly, but none of that mattered to Silas who sat calmly in a wooden chair, his eyes closed like a new born, and his own bottle next to him. Jojo tried for some time to restrain himself from talking and disturbing him, but one can do little after five mugs of ale, one can do less than little when curiosity chokes one’s brain.
He cleared his throats and said “I knew it was going to rain.”
Silas opened his eyes in amazement and smiled at him.
“Wh-, what?” Jojo mumbled.
“I believe that was the longest time I’ve ever noticed you being silent. Even in your sleep you talk,” Silas stated.
“Horseshit! I don’t talk when I’m asleep.”
Silas smiled again and said “Fine, fine. Go ahead ask me what you wanted to from the moment we sat privately.”
“Who said I wanted to ask you anything?” Jojo objected, his brows furrowed.
“Because if you maintain your inner silence you would hear other people’s thoughts stepping on your pavement before they reach your doorstep and knock on the damn door. And you my dear brother have loud footsteps.”
“Bullshit!” Jojo mocked at him.
Silas sipped from his bottle, wiped his mouth using his sleeve and said “Are you going to spend the night revealing what kind of shit you were fed when you were a baby or are you going to ask me the question?”
“Why don’t you use your shitty silence to know the damn question?” Jojo countered with firmness in his tone.
Silas grinned and looked him in his eyes.
“Oh, the staring game, are we now?” Jojo opened his eyes wider teasingly.
Silas kept looking at him but it was obvious that he was absent, lost in another world, a moonless world. What came out of his mouth weren’t simply words and how they got out frightened the dark shadows of the night within earshot. “She is a witch,” Silas spoke sharply.
Jojo’s eyes moved slowly towards the cup in his hand, he lifted it to drink but stopped it midway before it reached his mouth, he looked at Silas, then looked back at his drink, after that he threw his cup away into the dampened grass and mud. “Bugger,” Jojo said, “You just sobered me up.” Silas kept his seriousness.
“Oh and by the way, you mean ‘She was a witch’, because now she’s too fucking dead,” Jojo pointed out.
“I hope so,” Silas replied.
“What in the name of bloody hell do you mean by you hope so?” Jojo ranted, his fists clenching.
“There is a rumour that there are beings that can summon the dead, they are called necromancers,” Silas said, disgust covering his face.
“Necromancers my arse!” Jojo enraged at him, “The dead should remain dead. Death should be a permanent condition!”
Silas kept his calm posture, “As I said, I hope so.”
Jojo imitated him “As I said, I hope so,” then he stood up and said “Well fuck me, I’m going to drink myself to death before that happens,” and he went inside the inn.
Nothing drastic happened throughout the rest of the night, Nigel and Bjorn took turns on guard duty around midnight. The former spent the night telling the latter about his experience with women and that his secret to approach married women was to feed them the right words so they approach him instead. “Don’t go after them right on the spot,” Nigel said, “No, no, no, you have to be hard to get, but not too hard because there are too many fishers around, even a whale jumps into a net every now and then,” he winked at Bjorn. Bjorn raised his cup and said “Then to every mammal and fish I’ll make a careful ploy,” he winked back, they both laughed and drank.
The sun rose from behind the tree lines and the brothers were already awake preparing themselves for the ride. Jarvis was talking to a young adolescent boy behind the inn, no one was close enough to hear what he was telling him, but Silas saw Jarvis pull a small bag out of his tunic and gave it to the boy. He brought a horse, helped him climb it and the boy vanished in no time. Jojo went inside the chariot and Jarvis climbed up in the driver’s seat and steered the horses, the rest of the brothers followed them as they headed west. The sky was clear and few white clouds were swimming through its vastness which kept Chauncey in an optimistic mood. “With this weather, we can reach the city in less than two nights,” he said, Yda joined him on her horse and said “I’ve been living for twenty years and I’ve never seen clear skies for more than a couple of hours,” Chauncey looked at her and said “You’re not helping, do you know that?” Yda smiled, sped up the pace of her horse and passed by the chariot, disappearing between the trees in front of them. Chauncey moved closer to Morg and said “You heard that? Such a liar! Women can never admit their real age, she’s by far in her thirties.”
Morg looked at him as he rode his horse and said “Just make sure she doesn’t hear you say that, I don’t like wasting my time burying a brother,” and he followed Yda into the trees.
Around noon they reached a big hill then a small slope into their east, at their west there was a cliff where Yda and Morg were standing next to their horses. Jarvis stopped the chariot, climbed down and walked towards them, “What’s troubling you?” he said. They didn’t say anything, Yda lifted her hand and pointed at a dark shape on a green land at the horizon. Jarvis followed her direction. “There’s nothing on that land but swamps and grass, what’s that?” Chauncey spoke from behind them.
“An army,” Jarvis said.
“Whose army? And why is there an army there? Their forces would take them ages to cross these muddy lands,” Chauncey said.
“Strategy,” Jarvis muttered under his breath.
Yda turned to Chauncey and said “Actually it would take them two weeks, but then again no one would see them coming.”
“Time to go,” Jarvis said and walked back to the chariot.
Jarvis led his brothers for the next few hours in utter haste, they only made one stop on the road before the sun was down but Jarvis took the risk and kept guiding them until it was close to midnight, luckily the moon was full and clear to light their way. Silas expected to come across the young boy from the Swordberry town, but there was no sign of him, he considered that Jarvis must have paid him really well.
They camped in between some trees on a high ground, Jojo was forced somehow to take charge of the fire since he was sitting all the time inside the chariot and he thought better not to argue with his brothers, specially that Blain was the one who suggested it. He brought some logs and he even took the liberty of preparing soup to feed the brotherhood, more precisely himself.
“Tomorrow we’ll reach Frostburn Palace around midday,” Jarvis said while they were sitting around the fire, he reminded them of the plan, “The tournament will start after tomorrow, Blain, Jojo, Yda, Chauncey, Nigel and Bjorn will go to the tournament, the rest will stay with me.” His brothers nodded and remained silent. “Blain will be the competing knight from Hearthshire and if something unexpected happens, you’ll follow his word when I’m not around,” Jarvis paused, looked at Blain and said, “Enjoy it while it lasts.” Blain simply smiled but there was nothing beautiful in it. “If you get caught,” Jarvis continued, “I’ll save your damn arse no matter what, just like I’ve done before, just keep your mouth shut.” Jojo interrupted him and asked “What if Blain doesn’t know what to do?” Jarvis nodded and said “Good point,” he turned towards Blain and asked “Do you know what you should do if the unforeseen happens?”
“Yes. Kill.” Blain replied.
The brothers laughed.
Jarvis sighed and looked at Yda and said “You stay hidden at the pillar and wait for Blain’s signal to make the shot. It’s around one hundred yards, do you think you can make it?”
Yda gave him a stern look and said “You didn’t bring me all this way just to listen to Jojo, now did you?” She spat on the ground.
Jarvis frowned and said “I thought you southerns don’t make jokes,” then he smiled and looked at Jojo who was totally confused.
“You were on the other side, how could you have heard that?” Jojo said, his eyes reflected fear.
Jarvis didn’t answer, instead he stood up and climbed a tree that was few feet away, a big cloud covered the moon and the light from the fire wasn’t enough to give out the shadows that merged and covered Jarvis on top.
A few seconds later a voice came from the tree that said, “We ride at dawn. Sleep now. I’ll guard alone.”
So they slept.
He dove into his memories yet his eyes remained opened to the night, and the more he went deeper the more his eyes turned wide.
He saw his dog on his bed, a tough white male brought from the north east, he looked like a wolf. He had named him Bear since he had wanted a bear as a birthday present but his mother, Queen Ylva, knew better than to leave a beast in a child’s care. He loved Bear like another brother, he followed him wherever he went, crashed on top of him whenever he fell, his thick white fur warmed them both during the coldest nights. The memory of the warmth tingled Jarvis’ skin for a brief of time but it didn’t last, the memory moved to the last time he saw Bear in front of him, motionless on the ground and covering a big red stain.
He remembered the day of the festivities very well, Frostburn tradition. Every year, on that day, the city turns into a vibrating occasion, a day when everyone within the city walls drops their worries and have a party, the day when the king, his father, holds a tournament for his warriors and guards, the day when his mother locks him up along with his brother and sister, Marcelo and Guinevere, and his dog, inside the safest room at the highest tower so they don’t witness the violence of the world.
That year was different, Jarvis had discovered earlier within his grandfather’s books and notes a map for the castle, inside the notes there was a drawing of the highest tower and a small comment that revealed a secret passage that leads to it.
That year Jarvis was prepared to witness the blood-spilling, the fights, the roar of the crowds. He remembered his excitement, the joyous feeling of an innocent soul who had a devious and childish plan.
His memory shifted again in time, their mother had locked them in the room, his brother and sister wanted to play with him but he pretend to be not in the mood for games, he sat on the window that overlooked the city and watched them as they fought, Marcello teased Guin by avoiding her attempts to touch him. A while passed until they got tired and decided to rest. Jarvis waited until they fell asleep to search for the secret passage, he found the right stone to press in a wall, a door opened without making any noise; he remembered that he thanked his god for that. The staircase was dark but it didn’t scare him, he relied on his touch as he descended the steps until he saw a faint light from the torches, he tiptoed into what looked like a vault with a metal door on the other side, boxes were stacked randomly at every corner. He tried to push and pull at the door but his efforts went in vain. He sat defeated, his back to it, he thought about the fun he was missing until he heard a shout and heavy footsteps coming his way, he quickly ran and hid behind one of the largest boxes where the shadows covered him. There was a lock switch and the door opened, four armored men ran towards the stairs but no one noticed Jarvis, he followed them upstairs quietly after they disappeared until he was few steps from the room. Bear was on the ground near the door, his fur was anything but white, a man came close and stabbed him with his long sword to make sure he’s dead, Guin screamed as high as she could, ear-piercing the men which made them turn towards her, Marcello, being a brave opportunist, managed to pull a dagger from the man behind him and stabbed him in his thigh who let go of him, then Marcello charged the man who held his sister and tried to reach for his throat but he was much shorter to reach it, the man dodged his attack and gave Marcello a strong push to the back towards the opened window.
A booming thunder brought back Jarvis to the real world like a mean reminder that he is alone with his memories.
Morning arrived and the sun casted its golden light over Frostburn City to warm its busy population. Every citizen had errands to do; even the beggars and the poor, had to stay clear from others’ path.
The most agitated place was the arena where the festivals were about to be held in a day, guards patrolled every turn and checked every corner, messengers came and left, envoys and knights shook hands and made bets.
The city was awake, yet the king was still asleep.
Six knocks on his door woke him up in a repulsive mood. He opened the door to find four guards with their lord commander Sir Alex Copper, in full armor standing behind it.
“What the hell is it?” King Philipe asked and yawned, wine smell filled their atmosphere.
“We received information about an attempt to assassinate you my king,” Sir Alex said.
King Philipe held his hand and said “Wait,” he rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath and said “Come again?”
“A boy came to the palace’s gates this morning and told the guards at the gates that there’s someone who will try to assassinate you tomorrow during the day.”
“Half of the city wants to kill me every day, and they’ve failed so far, why should I be worried about what some little brat have told the gate guards?”
The guards looked among each other, confused and unsure of how to answer him.
“That’s not true my king,” Sir Alex replied, “No one in the city wants to kill you, you are the king!”
King Philipe bursted out in laughter, clapped his hands several times and lost balance on his feet and was about to fall but one guard stepped forward quickly and held him.
“The boy said that he heard someone planning to murder you during the festivals, he was talking to another stranger who held a big blue gem on his neck. The boy came from Swordberry town all by himself. I would have sent him away but he didn’t look poor and he had a good horse. He sounded honest, my king,” Sir Alex said.
The king absorbed his words carefully without saying anything, but terror seemed to crawl all over his face, his mind unsure of itself.
“Blue gem?” the king muttered, “Take me to him.”
So they did.
The young boy was sitting on a barrel outside the gate, one man was guarding him just to make sure he doesn’t make any fuss. The king approached along with a dozen guards.
“What’s your name?” the king asked.
The boy stood up promptly and said “My name is Olric, son of Untar the Innkeeper, my king.”
A guard approached the king and whispered in his ear “I know that man, he used to be in the army but he got discharged five years ago when he lost an eye.”
The king rubbed his goatee while looking at the boy, “How did a little brat like you come with this important information?”
The boy looked at his feet and muttered something under his breath but it wasn’t audible.
“Speak up!” the king yelled and shook the boy, Olric looked at him and said,”I was hiding from my mother inside a cupboard at my dad’s tavern, two men stood next to it and they talked privately but I heard them. One man said he was going to kill King Philipe, to kill you, the other man said he’ll help him. After a while they got drunk and moved away, I slipped without their notice and went outside. I heard the voice of one of them there, he passed by me and he had a blue gem on his neck, it was shining at night, anyone could have noticed it,” the boy paused a bit, the king and the guards kept their focus on him, “I told my father but he didn’t believe me, that’s why I came by myself, my king” the boy paused again and lowered his eyes, then he spoke with a crooked voice, “I took my dad’s horse, please don’t tell him because he’ll tell my mother and she will punish me.” The king stepped closer and said “No one will do anything to you, you did right towards your king, young lad,” the king called a guard and told him to send the boy back on his way, and once they were gone, the lord commander approached the king and asked “What are you going to do? We can cancel the tournament.”
The king frowned and said “If we do that nothing would stop the people from doing the assassin’s job. Just don’t let the word go out, keep things normal. I’ll think about it,” and he walked back inside the palace.
Mid day passed as the sun crawled through the sky, a white cloud intercepted it, yet the sunshine streamed through to keep the brothers warm as they approached Frostburn city gates. They were wearing the uniforms of the knights they had slaughtered two days ago, they had cleaned their outfit to keep their disguise impeccable, Blain was at the front carrying Hearthshire’s flag and he had his helmet on his head, Yda was inside the chariot wearing one of Helen’s dresses and her gem.
“Halt!” Said one of the guards at the gates. He approached the chariot, “State your business.”
Jarvis scowled at him, pointed at the flag Blain was carrying and said “I don’t think that the Duchess of Hearthshire would be happy to hear that one of the guards didn’t recognize her flag.”
Another guard of a higher rank approached them and said “Don’t mind him, he’s new here. Is the duchess inside?”
Yda moved one of the curtains and revealed a part from her face since she was covering her head with a hood , “Is there any problem, captain?” she asked bitterly to which the captain replied “No m’lady, just normal procedures.”
“Then why are we still not moving?” Yda said and displayed more of herself through the chariot’s window, exposing a blue gem on her neck. Once he saw her gem, the captain turned without delay towards the gates and called “Let them in,” then he turned toward the other guard and said “Send a word to the palace, the duchess of Hearthshire and her knights are here.”
It took a while to get near the palace due to the busyness of the city, a messenger found their chariot before they reached the center of the city, he walked towards Jarvis and said “The king asks to see the duchess urgently.” Jarvis looked at him sympathetically and turned to call the duchess from the chariot but he hesitated then signalled to the messenger asking him to get closer, Jarvis whispered into his ears “The duchess is already in a terrible mood due to the delay during our trip, I’ll tell her about the king but it’s better if she settles first,” Jarvis gave him a humble smile. The messenger nodded understandingly, he knew better than to bother the duchess of Heartshire and said “Then follow me sir.”
He took them around the palace towards a residence built for visitors, once the brothers got off their horses Yda called the messenger from inside the chariot and handed him a letter to deliver to the king, the messenger bowed and dismissed himself.
The king was alone inside the great hall at the palace when Sir Alex entered holding a paper in his hand, the king took the paper and read the words out loud “Eat nothing, drink nothing. Helen.”
The king sat in his chair, his eyes jumping from one corner to another, “What’s wrong my king?” Sir Alex asked, a moment of silence stretched between them, the king seemed lost in time and space, suddenly he stood up and said “History! Bring my double and summon your most trustworthy guards.”
So he obeyed.
The sun set behind a mountain of pine trees and Jarvis watched the threatening sky from the balcony as it rained on him, Blain approached from behind and stopped two feet away, “Tomorrow your wish will be granted,” Jarvis spoke loudly without turning around, “Tomorrow you’ll get a bigger audience,” Blain moved next to him and remained silent. A thick cloud crawled above them and Blain noticed that Jarvis’ silhouette started to blend with the shadows around him until he disappeared. “Don’t worry about him, he’ll be alright,” Silas spoke from the doorway, “Come inside, you have to witness Yda beating Jojo,” Blain smiled and went back inside.
Yda and Jojo sat on the ground, the rest of the brothers circled around them to watch except for Warwick who sat right next to them to prevent any misjudgment and deception.
“Wages?” Warwick asked.
Yda pulled from behind her a harpe, a mean sword that has a short curved blade extended near its tip, “I castrated a lot of men using this,” she said to Jojo, “Perhaps today I’ll use it to shorten your tongue,” she put the sword between them.
Jojo grinned at her and pulled the daggers that he had won before, “I wonder what would happen once you lose all your weapons,” he said as he cleaned his nails using the tip of one of the blades, some of the brothers chuckled, “Rape is a good term but I prefer to call it a reluctant seed plantation,” he said then he looked at her, his grin grew wider and he put the blades between them.
“Game?” Warwick asked.
“Words,” Jojo said.
“Better than words, riddles,” Yda suggested.
“Who starts?” Warwick
“I do,” Yda decided. Jojo agreed.
Yda sighed and closed her eyes.
“Unvoiced it cries,
Wingless it waves,
Jojo stared at her, his brothers looked at him but they were not allowed to help any of them.
“I thought you’d give a better fight to keep your genitals intact,” Jojo said and bent forward towards her and spoke with a deep voice, “The wind.” Yda opened her eyes with rage. The brothers cheered and drank.
“My turn,” Jojo said.
“Sometimes inside your mind I can be,
I’m often kept away from a bee,
To save me, your act should be wise,
It would be a waste otherwise.”
Yda thought for a moment and said “And I expected someone who talks as much as you would come up with a better challenge,” she smiled at him, “Honey.” Jojo smiled back at her. Some of the brothers only drank.
“Draw,” Warwick said, “Do you want to change the game or do you want to continue?”
Yda and Jojo decided to continue.
“The beginning of earth,” Yda said,
“The end of life and peace,
The beginning of every end,
And the end of every peace.”
Jojo looked at the room around him, “No cheating,” Warwick warned him.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m only checking to which corner I’ll take her,” Jojo said to him, then he turned to Yda and said “The letter E.” Yda clenched her jaw and teeth. The brothers cheered again and drank.
“My first be either favourable or not,” Jojo said,
“Offending some be inevitably a part.
My second, in a dry mood,
Can very much satisfy a one.
My full, though labeled a vicious word,
Is often considered a gentle one.
With a righteous heart it sometimes be felt,
Alas, with bittersweet at others be dwelt.”
Yda closed her eyes and after a while her breath got heavier, Jojo held the harpe in the hilt and said “I believe it’s time for you to say your goodbyes to this lovely sword,” at that moment Yda opened her eyes and spoke with hesitation, “Farewell,” the brothers laughed and cheered then stopped when Jojo said “She’s correct, that’s the right answer. Fair and well, farewell,” he kept his seriousness although there was a small curved line on his lips, a some sort of content, Warwick saw it and said to him “You didn’t break the rules so I’ll let it pass.”
The brothers looked among each other and back at Yda and Jojo, a moment of confusion until Chauncey asked “What do you mean?”
“Jojo gave her the hint by saying the word goodbye,” Warwick said. Yda got mad at Jojo, “I don’t need your sympathy you filthy bastard.” Jojo smiled at her and said “And you believed that you found the answer all on your own,” the brothers laughed again at her and some of them rubbed Jojo’s shoulder as he looked at her condescendingly.
“We change the game,” Warwick suggested and looked at Morg.
“Damn right we do,” Yda shouted.
Morg produced two dices made of pig bones and gave them to Jojo and said, “Both of you got one try. Roll the dices and the one who gets the higher numbers wins, simple as that.”
Jojo shook the dices in his hand, blew on them and threw them to the ground. A loud rejoice filled the room when Jojo got two sixes on his two dices. Jojo looked at Yda and said, “There’s no point for you to roll, I tried to give you a chance but even the gods want me to rejoice tonight”. “Wait,” Warwick said, “It’s still her right to roll,” and he looked at Yda, she grabbed the dices and rolled with fury, one of the dices stopped with a six and the other dice kept rolling, all the eyes in the room were focused on that dice, all eyes except Yda’s, she snatched Warwick’s axe in a flash of light and hit the still rolling dice and split it in half to leave two upturned halves showing a three and a four. A moment of silence crept into the room as the brothers looked shockingly at Yda, even Jojo, then a voice came from the doorway of the balcony, “Thirteen beats twelve,” Jarvis said and smiled at them as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The darkness of the night smeared the surface of Frostburn City along with the rain, meagre lights appeared from behind doors and windows but none reached outside. Black clouds obliterated the presence of the stars like an unkind reminder that fate sometimes wipes out hopes and dreams and leaves nothing but nightmares to the sleeping eye. The night terror preyed on King Philipe who slept in his bed without rest, his body shuffled and tensed and his screams swelled as his mind drifted into his long forgotten memories.
So he dreamt.
The jousting tournament had started, the knights and their squires were waiting their turn to display their skills in combat and to capture the heart of some adoring maidens. King Oliver sat on a balcony on one side of the track, next to him was his beautiful wife and their noblemen and relatives. Philipe saw himself sitting at the border, he was watching with the corner of his eye the servant who filled their wine cups. Everyone, except Philipe, drank and ate excessively, even most of the guards and the competing knights had their share.
A brief round of applause came from the crowd facing the royals when a knight unhorsed another one using his pole, leaving him with a broken shoulder. Two other knights entered the arena.
What seemed like an hour at the moment has turned into less than a second in Philipe’s memory. The crowd cheered as another knight stroke his opponent but the cheer was cut by a turbulence from the balcony, a short squeal and someone yelled ‘The food is poisoned’ and suddenly the people who sat on the royal side and the guards started falling from their chairs, suffocating and coughing, and eventually they passed out. Philipe saw himself as he stood alarmingly and shouted ‘It’s an attack! Protect the king!’ and made it as if he was poisoned too and fell on the ground. Panic spread its cloak on the crowd in no time and right then two groups of guards showed up from around the arena, one company ran towards the crowds and formed a line, and the other company climbed at the balcony and pulled the sleeping king and queen and carried them back inside the palace. On one side there was utter chaos produced by the crowds who pushed at each other and on the other side there was nothing but footsteps of the guards who moved between the rest of the royals pretending of taking care of them.
After a very short while two guards carried Philipe to where the king and the queen were taken. Philipe remembered the feeling of power he felt when one of the guards asked him what he wanted to do as they stood alone next to the sleeping king and queen inside the big hall, ‘Give me your sword,’ Philipe ordered the guard. He took the blade and knelt between them, ‘He got the throne and the woman,’ Philipe said to the guard, ‘Yes my Lord,’ replied the guard. Philipe smiled and glanced between the king and the queen for a moment then he said ‘I’m not that greedy,’ and he slid the blade on the queen’s throat and left a crimson trail on her neck, ‘I’ll only take the throne,’ and he did the same to the king.
One guard entered the hall in haste, ‘My lord,’ he said, he looked at the dying king and queen then back to Philipe, ‘We have a problem, one of the children wasn’t at the tower,’ he continued. At that moment the lights got swallowed as if night time had fell suddenly, Philipe gazed through the window and saw that dark clouds moved in the sky like black ink smudges a white paper, he looked at the blood flowing from the king and queen’s throats then back at the clouds, he felt a nasty reminder of how untameable destiny could be.
One hour was remaining till dawn and Jarvis was on the balcony, Bjorn came out of the room and stood beside him. They both stared at the forest that was swallowed by a dense mist.
“Our father used to take us for hunting during this time of the day when we were kids,” Bjorn said, “Not knowing you one would have thought that you’re standing here waiting for some poetic sunrise with soft warm rays, but I know you, and you’re preparing yourself for a different type of hunt.”
Jarvis shook his head slowly and said “I’ve been prepared a long time ago for this day, but I’m only standing here because nothing beats the smell of pine trees during the fading of the mist,” he smiled at Bjorn.
“Praise Odin! The gods agree with you,” Bjorn said and pointed his finger to a part of the forest where the mist started to die away rapidly.
“No god can stop what time brings, whether they agree with us or not,” Jarvis said, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
Bjorn remained silent for a while then he said “My father used to say that every morning is like a fresh page yet to be written no matter what, either with ink or blood.”
Jarvis opened his eyes at that instant and turned to him, he put his hands on Bjorn’s shoulders and said “Blood. It has always been blood.”
They walked back inside, the rest of the brothers were sleeping on the floor.
After an hour Jojo woke up to the sound of dry paper being wiped on some surface, he looked around and saw Bjorn sitting in a chair and tending to his axe, some of the brothers weren’t there, “Where did they go?” he asked.
“To bring you breakfast,” Bjorn said absentmindedly.
“I thought that was Yda’s task,” Jojo said and nodded to where she was sleeping.
“I fucking heard that,” Yda replied from under the sheet that covered her, she stood up and turned towards them, she shivered and rubbed her hands and elbows, pressing her breasts under her tunic closer at each other.
“Cold, are we now?” Jojo said, “Come join me over here and I’ll warm you up,” he winked at her while staring at her chest.
Yda glanced at Bjorn who had an anxious look on his face, she sighed and rushed towards Jojo and kicked him in his ribs and left him moaning loud enough to wake the rest of the brothers.
The streets were empty save for two mongrels that slept inside a broken basket, Jarvis passed next to them and walked close to a wall towards the alley that led to the high tower’s secret passage. Warwick, Olaf, Morg and Silas followed him but they kept their distance despite the fact that it was still dark.
Once they reached the door of the vault, Jarvis waved to Silas, “It’s locked,” he said to him, ” I checked it earlier.”
Silas nodded and said “It’s made out of some weird metal, I can feel it already,” Jarvis looked at him and said “Can’t you unlock it?” “I can make it open without unlocking it but I won’t be of any use till sunrise,” Silas replied, but he knew the urgency of the matter before him, if he doesn’t unlock it they can’t enter and the plan will fail. He pulled his black gem from under his tunic and held it in one hand and put his other hand on the lock. His lips started moving but what he was saying wasn’t audible to his brothers, two blue spheres took shape around his hands and started pulsing. Even though it took less than a minute, Silas sweat profusely and looked exhausted during the process, he fainted once the door was opened, “He’s better when it’s only wind and water,” Jarvis said to his brothers sympathetically, Morg stepped forward and helped him carry Silas on their shoulders as they sneaked inside. The door closed once they entered.
The sun peeked out of the horizon and displayed its bright rays across Frostburn city which started to vibrate with its citizens. One knock was sufficient to wake King Philipe up, Sir Alex had brought a dozen guards with him, “Where is my double?” King Philipe asked after he opened the door.
“He’s getting dressed accordingly, my lord,” Sir Alex replied.
“Good. And the high tower?”
“You’ll be escorted by a dozen guards, and myself. Another dozen is already there,” Sir Alex said.
King Philipe wanted to warn his lord commander about the secret passage but he changed his mind because he didn’t want him to put guards there in order not to raise suspicions. No one alive but him knew about the secret passage as he had killed the people who helped him fifteen years ago, so he hoped that the secret would remain safe with him.
The king looked at one of the guards, “Give me your uniform,” the guard obeyed without hesitation. Once he was fully disguised, King Philipe followed the guards and their lord commander as they marched. He made a turn around the tower and reached the door that led to the secret stairs, as soon as he made sure it was locked, he followed them back hastily.
When they reached the high tower, Sir Alex and six guards stayed with the king inside the room, the other six guarded the door from outside. The second dozen guards was positioned at the bottom of the stairs.
“We’ve brought tested provisions to stay inside till night time, my lord,” Sir Alex said, King Philipe ignored him as he sat on the window to look over his city; in particular to keep an eye on the arena where the tournament is held.
Sixteen knights entered the arena including Blain who carried the flag of Hearthshire, Jojo, Chauncey and Bjorn escorted him as his apprentice and servants. Yda joined the public crowd alongside with Nigel, she wore a ragged cloak and held a cane while Nigel held her bow on his back, they stayed near each other as Nigel approached a pillar that towered over the crowd from behind, he threw the bow swiftly on it then walked to the other side, still among the crowd, he pulled two swords and started juggling. The crowd thought it was part of the festivals and they gathered around him and started cheering while he performed some dangerous tricks.
Simultaneously, Yda moved beneath the pillar and when all eyes shifted on Nigel, she sneakily climbed the stones and hid herself.
“Good morrow, Ladies and gentlemen,” a fat spokesperson shouted excitedly while standing in front of the royals, “I am delighted to welcome you all to the famous tournament at the city of Frostburn. Today we have fearless and mighty knights who will fight nobly for the title of Frostburn Champion,” Blain smiled behind his visor at the word ‘nobly’, “Many cheers and thanks to our great king and host, King Philipe!” the spokesperson pointed where the king’s double had sat motionlessly, higher than the royals around him, two guards stood next to him and prevented others to talk to him due to illness which made the royals gossip among each other. The king’s double had a big crown on his head and he wore a burgundy velvet robe with a high neckline to cover the lower part of his face. More guards were positioned across the arena.
The crowd applauded and whistled.
“Let the tournament commence”, the spokesperson called and introduced the knights before each encounter.
The crowd cheered Blain as he entered the arena on his mount with a wooden pole in his hand and saluted them. His opponent, smaller sized, received more applause from the royals and the king’s double as he bowed and greeted them.
Blain dismounted him during their first engagement. The crowd clapped warmly.
Blain went back to his quarter to find Jojo missing, “Where the hell is he?” he asked his brothers, Chauncey coughed and glanced towards Bjorn who said “He went gambling, betting on your victory.” Under usual circumstances, Blain would have tortured Jojo for not sticking to the plan, but he thought that he could take the money later from him without a fuss; he kept his calm.
Seven more rounds and Blain entered the arena again. This time his opponent wasn’t small neither large, but that didn’t stop Blain from unhorsing him by a blow to the chest during their second engagement. The crowd and the royals hoorayed and applauded, King Philipe was able to hear them from his window. Sir Alex approached him and offered him a drink which he refused even though he was sweating, but no one could figure out whether it was from the heat of midday or from fear and anxiety.
The tournament paused for an hour at noon. Some of the people took a stroll to stretch their legs, others slept and rested, and some went to the privy. Only Yda and the king’s double remained at their place, one hidden and the other trapped.
At the high tower, the king paced madly throughout the room. Sir Alex and the guards kept their silence and pretended that the king was acting is normal, normal to someone whose life is threatened.
“Where is Helen?!” the king snapped, he turned towards Sir Alex and walked to him promptly, “Where is she?” he asked again.
Sir Alex stood his ground, tightened up and said, “We sent a messenger yesterday, he brought the letter. I sent two guards today but there was no sign of her,” the king glanced at the window and spoke calmly, “If she’s hiding then it means she’s also scared of something.” The king’s eyes grew wide, “Or someone.” Then he turned and went back to pacing the room while muttering indistinct words.
The spokesperson looked upward and saw that grey clouds were advancing rapidly and filling the skies, a sign of rainfall soon. He blew a spiral horn to notify the citizens that the tournament was about to continue. Men, women and children gathered their stuff and moved again towards the stage. The royals took their seats and sent their servants to fetch fruits and wine.
The crowd became alive when Blain entered the arena again and raised his pole towards them. His opponent entered and steered his horse towards a lady who sat at one side of the royals’ stage. He gave her a violet flower, which she took with shyness, then he went to Blain who sat on his horse. Next to him, Chauncey and Bjorn were readying his armor. The knight removed his visor and said to him with an enthusiastic smile “May the best win her heart.” Blain replied loudly from behind his helmet, “The beauty of a flower ceases when it’s picked from its place. You just killed one beauty to get to another, you deserve neither of them.” The smile on the knight’s face turned into a scowl and a murmur grew between the royals, Chauncey and Bjorn looked astonished. They’d never expected such words to take form on Blain’s tongue. The knight went angrily to his corner and took the pole from his squire and charged without waiting for the signal to start. Blain took his pole from Chauncey immediately and tried to meet the knight who had already gained his momentum faster than him. Blain couldn’t point his pole precisely so he only tried to defend himself, luckily the knight’s blow wasn’t accurate either and his pole slid over Blain’s shield, the crowd hailed. As soon as he reached the knight’s corner, Blain turned his horse and saw that the knight had already charged again and was gaining his momentum. Blain decided to pretend of doing the same and right before they reach each other he lifted the point of his pole higher than the usual only to meet with the knight’s helmet. There was a sound of bones breaking and muscles snapping as the knight flipped backwards and fell. He remained still on the ground.
Less than half an hour later, Blain entered the arena again. It was the final round and his opponent was a large knight with a dark armor and a pale blue shield. The spokesperson stepped in front of the royals and said “Ladies and gentlemen, as per our traditions, the final round is open to any choice of weapons. If you please, kindly applaud these brave knights whom one of which will be our champion in few,” the crowd and the royals gave their best cries to show their excitement, but each side to a knight, since it was obvious that only the townsmen favored Blain. Blain and the other knight kept to their pole.
The signal was given. Blain and the other knight charged, they met half way and they both missed. During their second encounter the other knight pointed his pole lower and hit Blain in his thigh which was against the rules but the royals and the king’s double applauded and the spokesperson didn’t dare to point the fault out, the crowd booed and showed their disapproval. “Does it hurt?” Bjorn asked Blain when he reached their corner, “A bit,” Blain said as he pressed his hand on his leg, “What are you going to do?” Chauncey asked unsettlingly, Blain didn’t reply, he gritted his teeth, “You heard that fat eunuch,” Jojo said as he appeared from behind, “He said any choice of weapons,” he walked closer to Blain and said “You got your audience, do you want to disappoint them because someone is cheating?” he continued. Blain looked at him at that instant and straightened himself as if the pain suddenly disappeared. Jojo smiled.
The spokesperson gave the signal and the two knights charged. “Well done,” Bjorn said to Jojo, “I didn’t have much choice, I’ve gambled all my coins on him,” Jojo replied cheerfully. The knight with the black armor used the same tactics but Blain saw it coming. Right before they meet, Blain released his grip from his shield and threw the pole at his opponent who dodged it but couldn’t escape Blain who jumped from his horse and tackled him physically and they both fell. Blain quickly rose to his feet and picked the other knight from the ground only to throw him back forcibly. He repeated it twice, then he removed the other knight’s helmet and punched him in his face furiously. When he stopped he stood up and found that the crowd and the royals became utterly silent for a moment, then a clap and a cheer was heard from the crowd, then another and another until the grounds trembled with their agitation. The spokesperson entered the arena and walked up to Blain, he had a scared look on his face. He shouted and pointed at him “The new Frostburn Champion!” Blain raised his hand with his index pointing up and everyone hoorayed and expressed their admiration.
A thunder rolled and a lightning stroke in the sky, the moment of joyfulness ended when an arrow struck the king’s double in his neck and he fell from his chair. A grey smoke rose through the floor beneath the royals stage and a fire flickered through their feet. What was called a festival turned now into a mayhem as people ran in chaos and bumped into each other, the lady with the violet flower screamed because her cloak caught fire during the mess but no one tried to help her as they were busy saving their own lives, eventually she favored her life and ditched her fancy dress. The citizens turned into a wild horde as they scampered through the guards and out of the arena, unwilling to be held in custody for whatever was going on.
King Philipe heard the screams and saw the smoke rising from his window, he knew that trouble was coming when he saw a small group of strangers approaching the palace, “They are heading here,” he said to Sir Alex who stood anxiously, unaware of the depth of the situation. “Put more guards at the door outside and lock it from inside,” King Philipe ordered his lord commander as his hands shook and trembled. Sir Alex obeyed and commanded the guards to join the rest, he stayed alone with the king and locked the door.
Black clouds stretched throughout the skies and hung steadily to block every beam of light from the sun, the thunder rumbled and the rain started pounding all over the city. By that time Blain, Jojo, Bjorn and Chauncey had reached the palace’s gates that was guarded by eight soldiers and two archers.
“It’s an attack!” Jojo yelled as they ran towards the guards who were taking a defensive stance, “They killed the king!” Jojo continued and pointed behind him towards the arena. On hearing that sentence, the guards got confused long enough that the brothers came really close to them until one of the archers raised his bow and pulled back at the string and aimed the tip of the arrow at Jojo, but he didn’t have the chance to keep his accuracy as Yda shot him with her bow from far behind which made his arrow deflect from Jojo. The brothers charged the guards, Nigel joined them in no time. The men thrust and parried as they engaged but the guards stood no chance against the brothers, particularly Nigel who moved in lightening speed between the guards attempts, he dodged and twisted and at the right moment he poked at his opponents. Yda took more time to reach them because she made another stop to shoot the second archer, and when she arrived she found that her brothers had defeated the guards, Jojo walked towards her and said “Thanks for saving my life,” she looked at him teasingly and said “It was by mistake, I was aiming at the other archer.” Jojo smiled at her and a moment of silence built up between them until it was broken by Blain’s words, “Are you done being emotional?” The brothers broke inside the palace and headed towards the high tower.
“Why did you choose the high tower, my lord?” Sir Alex asked King Philipe who sat on a chair and held his head with both hands.
“Because it’s the safest place in the palace,” King Philipe said while lifting his head, “And in case the assassins made it through the guards we can still escape through the backdoor,” he couldn’t keep the secret inside his chest anymore.
“What?” Sir Alex snapped at the notion of the word, “There is a backdoor that leads to here?”
“Yes,” King Philipe said and pointed at a part of a wall, “You see these stones? If you press the lowest one a doorway will open and you get to reach the streets outside the palace safely.”
“Why didn’t you mention that before?” Sir Alex enraged at him, uncaring that he was addressing a king, “For goodness sake, what if they know about it?”
“No one knows about it because I made sure of that in the past. Besides, only I got the keys that open the door downstairs,” King Philipe said condescendingly and produced a small thin piece of charcoal with golden scribbling on it.
Sir Alex said “That’s bloody witchcraft,” and he looked at the lowest stone, he stepped forward and pushed it with his foot. A door opened smoothly and behind it darkness and shadows covered deep stairs. He stood at the doorway and put one hand on the side, pulled his sword and leaned forward in attempt to check if he can see anything at its end. He saw nothing but the surface of someone’s knuckles hitting him in the face. He fell unconsciously on his back and the light from the torches inside the room shrank without getting extinguished.
King Philipe tried to make it to the door but Jarvis moved faster than him and blocked his path, shadows and smoke stirred through his body like ember.
Fear comes in many shapes, sometimes it takes form of an illusion and brings panic to the soul, other times it brings truth with it like a chain slowly pulled around the neck, during which no screaming could be let out no matter who’s being hung.
Philipe looked at Jarvis’ green eyes and knew him instantly, the little kid who disappeared fifteen years ago, King Oliver’s older son, Prince Jarvis of Frostburn, “It’s you,” Philipe muttered.
“It is me,” Jarvis replied.
“You’re alive,” Philipe said.
“I wish I could say the same about you,” Jarvis said and stepped forward.
Philipe glanced at the doorway of the secret passage and saw the other brothers entering, Morg and Warwick carried Silas who was still passed out, Olaf towered them all from behind.
“You can’t kill me,” Philipe said as he moved slowly towards the window. Jarvis kept following his steps, “Your sister is still alive,” Philipe continued with a cracked voice. Jarvis got closer to him, Philipe reached the window and glanced through it and back to Jarvis, “I treated her well, spare my life and I’ll take you to her, I promise you that I will”. He couldn’t finish his sentence as Jarvis instantly leapt on him and grabbed him with both hands by his neck and lifted him from the ground, “You treated her well?” Jarvis asked with horror in his voice. “Yes, yes, yes,” Philipe murmured as he gaged under Jarvis’ grip, “She’s very safe and healthy,” tears dropped from his eyes. Jarvis looked at his brothers who stood and watched, “Keep him alive until you find your sister,” Warwick suggested to him, Olaf nodded, “For me it’s just another burial that could be delayed for a while,” Morg said and slouched his shoulders.
“Mercy, I beg you,” Philipe said while choking, Jarvis glanced at the ground, his arms were shaking from Philipe’s weight, he closed his eyes for a moment and opened them again and put Philipe back on his feet. “Thank you,” Philipe spoke while coughing, “You’re welcome,” Jarvis said and pushed him through the window. Thunders covered Philipe’s screaming as he fell to his death.
Jarvis kept looking at the window and said “Karma over dogma,” he turned towards his brothers who looked at him in awe. Jarvis nodded towards the lord commander who was awake and watching from the ground, speechless from the scene in front of him. Jarvis moved closer and knelt next to him, the shadows and smoke shifted with his movements, Sir Alex tried to pull his sword but Jarvis grabbed his hand firmly and said “I’m going to ask you two questions, if you fail at any of them you die. Do you understand?” Not that he had other choices, Sir Alex looked at him blankly and said “Yes.” “Do you know why I punched you instead of stabbing you?” Jarvis asked, Sir Alex shook his head after a while then said, “So I witness the former king’s confession,” Jarvis smiled at him consolingly and said “Your chances to stay alive just increased by half,” He pulled a knife and pointed it at his throat.
“Do you know where is the safest place on earth?” Jarvis asked again, Sir Alex’s lips parted and his eyes grew wider then he nodded excitedly, “The monastery,” he answered. “Wrong, no place is safe enough,” Jarvis said and hit him with the knife’s hilt on his head and rendered him unconscious again. Jarvis stood up and saw his brothers looking at him in puzzlement, “Technically I asked him three questions, and he didn’t fail at the first two,” Jarvis said, “We’ll decide if he stays alive later, now let’s meet with the rest, shall we?” Olaf pushed between them and put his ears on the door.
Blain ran through the halls until he suddenly saw that one dozen guards stood at the foot of the wide stairs and another dozen remained up where it narrowed. They were in full armor, spears and swords held in hands and on their sides, some of them carried bows with pulled arrows aimed at the entrance of the hall. Blain stopped before it was too late and covered himself behind the wall. Chauncey crashed into him from behind but regained his footing quickly. Bjorn, Nigel, Yda and Jojo arrived and paused. “Two dozens,” Blain notified them, “Archers?” Nigel asked, Blain nodded, “Surrender yourself,” one of the guards shouted. “We can let Jojo bore them to death with his jokes,” Yda mocked, “Yda can walk naked towards them, we’ll hide behind her bush,” Jojo replied and giggled. Yda rolled her eyes and asked “You want to see me naked that much?”
“Shut it, both of you,” Bjorn hissed at them. “We’ve seen worse,” Chauncey tried to lift their spirit, the others nodded. “I’ll go first,” Bjorn said as he switched places with Blain, he raised his axe with one hand, “And you follow me,” he drew his sword with the other hand. He peeked at the guards and covered himself again, “Nice, a northern suicide attempt,” Jojo spoke from behind, Bjorn ignored him and closed his eyes, he took a deep breath, “Brother, are you with me?” He screamed loud enough that he made others’ hair stand on their end, a quiet moment passed then three strong poundings came from the door upstairs, the guards in front of it became confused and the guards at the bottom became unsettled, yet they kept their stance.
“To Valhalla!” Bjorn cried out and the door upstairs flew wide open and threw two guards to the sides. Olaf charged through with his big battle axe in his thick hands and swung in rotation at the closest guards and slashed at them with the force of a bear. Blood spattered as he advanced wildly, limbs and armors chopped and crimsoned. The narrowness of the stairs at the top gave him the advantage of splash damaging the guards. Jarvis, Warwick and Morg joined him at a distance to avoid being hit by his frenzy.
“Now,” Bjorn said to the brothers behind him and rushed towards the guards at the bottom whose attention was taken by their fellows screams upstairs. He threw his axe at one guard and engaged another with his sword, the rest of the brothers followed his lead. Yda stayed behind and fired arrows at the guards who were closer to the middle of the stairs using her needle-shooter. Bjorn pulled his axe from the neck of the corpse where it stuck and cut through his way upward. Olaf thrust and bashed his way downward until he came face to face with his younger brother, Olaf had a smile behind his bloodied face, he rubbed his hand on his cheek and wiped it on Bjorn’s face, “Now, that’s better,” he said to him.
By that time, the rest of the brothers were finishing off the moaning fallen guards, Morg carried down sleeping Silas and double checked each corpse by stabbing them in their necks.
A few minutes later, the brothers gathered around Jarvis, “What are we going to do now?” Jojo asked, “We can just settle here. After all, Jarvis is the rightful heir,” Chauncey said, “But there will be an army here soon,” Nigel noted. A noise came from the room upstairs, then Sir Alex showed up as he leaned dizzily at the doorway. A horrible look crept on his face, “Welcome your new brother,” Jarvis said as he put his sword back into its sheath, the shadows and smoke around him died out, he turned towards Jojo and said “Let’s go find some nuns.”
*To be continued*