A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 18

byslyc_willie©

But so had a good three of the young knight's attackers. Their bodies lay lifeless upon the bridge, slowly seeping blood onto the aged boards. Cedric's foes were garbed as bandits, in black leather and half-face masks, brandishing crude curved blades. A quartet of them surrounded Cedric on all sides, yet the knight was doing an admirable job of turning and slashing, parrying strikes aimed at him from all directions.

He won't last against them, good as he is, thought Falhurst as he unsheathed his blade. Good thing I am here . . . .

The charge of the midnight-colored horse was all but undetected by the five men battling upon the bridge, until just a moment before Falhurst's strike. The Captain slashed downward as he passed, all but cutting one of the bandits in two with a vicious strike. For a brief moment, Falhurst and Cedric caught the other's eye; that moment was enough to establish a basic strategy.

Taking advantage of the momentary chaos, Cedric ducked and rolled, coming up upon his feet beside the man Falhurst had just cut down. He slammed his boot into the still-twitching man's head, rendering him still, and faced the other three. Meanwhile, Falhurst reached the end of the bridge, turned his mount, and spurred the black horse forward in another deadly charge.

The three brigands pondered their options quickly, casting looks back and forth. With an orchestrated cry, two of them lunged for Cedric while the third turned to meet Falhurst's charge.

It was then that Falhurst saw the object rolling across the bridge, back along the way he had come, a good thirty or so paces away. Over the head of the bandit who was set to receive his charge, Falhurst watched the small keg, spilling thick oil, as it bumped against the far side. The distraction was enough, and the Captain cursed himself for having been caught off-guard . . . just before the bandit's strike came.

Instead of slashing at the man in the saddle, the brigand swung low, clutching his heavy, curved blade in both hands. The black mare howled piteously as its legs were cut down. The heavy bulk of the beast crashed to the bridge amid hideous shrieks of pain, hurling Falhurst from the saddle. He slammed into the wooden flooring of the bridge, mere feet from the dark slick of oil that ran like a stream across the boards.

A flick of steel, the sound of the rush of flame . . . Falhurst turned his head to his left, seeing a shadowed figure within one of the stony alcoves of the bridge. The figure held what looked like a miniature torch, blazing with fire, which illuminated his features. The Captain saw dark eyes, long, thick black hair, and a sneering smile before the match was tossed onto the oil . . . .

Falhurst scrambled back, just as the blaze caught and grew, catching up his sword as he heard the heavy footfalls behind him. He spun about just in time to catch the vile brigand's blow upon his sword, and shoved the man back, responding with skill and confidence. Steel rang off steel as the bandit was beaten back. Behind the Captain, a veritable wall of flame shot to the sky, effectively cutting off reinforcements. Falhurst could feel the heat against his back.

Cedric, meanwhile, had clamored onto the edge of the bridge – upon the same spot from which Bagdemagus, he remembered, had leapt – and was taking advantage of the high ground as his two foes slashed and jabbed. He batted away their blades, then jumped with a flip, landing as if expertly timed. Low in a crouch, he slashed backward, his sword nearly slicing one of his foes in half, just at the waist.

The bandit convulsed, sputtering blood, all strength gone. His sword dropped, as did his body. Cedric allowed himself another grin of victory – he had been enjoying a few of them that night already – and jerked his blade free. Standing, he faced the last of the bandits, his sword extending out toward the man's chest. Drops of blood rolled off the polished, sterling blade.

"Join them, or flee," Cedric said simply.

The last of the bandits hesitated a moment, then huffed and turned tail. Cedric smirked.

"Sir knight!"

Cedric spun about, adopting a practiced, defensive stance, holding his blade in both hands. Across the battlefield which the bridge had become – yet again – the young knight saw Falhurst, held against the body of a taller, darker man, with the blazing bonfire behind them casting them both in shadow. But no shadow could obscure the blade held against Falhurst's throat, nor the evil, maniacal gleam in the eyes of the man who held the knife.

"Bagdemagus," hissed Cedric through clenched teeth. Hatred and desire for vengeance made him take a step.

"Come any closer," the wizard said, grinning above Falhurst. "And your friend dies."

Cedric took another step. "I'll wager his sacrifice against yours," he intoned.

Falhurst's flashed widely. The wizard laughed. "So you would see your friend dead, just for the opportunity to slay me?"

Cedric hesitated a moment, looking to Falhurst. He could plainly see the fear in the Captain's eyes, but also the resignation. Falhurst was a good man; he knew that his role as a Royal Guardsman – and their Captain, no less – meant that certain things were above his own life. As a knight, Cedric's priorities took precedence over Falhurst's, as a matter of course.

But is it right? Cedric wondered. He stopped his methodical charge. I can't expect him to sacrifice himself, just for the sake of my revenge . . . can I?

Falhurst breathed out, obviously thankful for Cedric's pause. He held onto the supernaturally strong arms that held him immobile, waiting for the moment to break free.

"Let him go, wizard," Cedric said at last. "Then it will be just you and I. Man to man."

Bagdemagus laughed. Loud and long, he laughed, to the point that it unsettled even Cedric's fierce determination, making the young man wonder, what is he up to?

The wizard's baleful laugh faded, and he gave sneering look to the young knight. "You should know better by now, Sir Cedric," he said. He reaffirmed his grip upon the blade that was held close to Falhurst's throat. "I do not play fair."

"Cedric!" cried Falhurst. "Behind you!"

Cedric began to whip about, but it was too late. The half-dozen masked men had appeared from the shadows and quickly took their places. Two of them swung lariats above their heads that they hurled just as the Captain's words were shouted. Cedric grunted in anger, fear, and frustration as first his left, then his right arm were lashed. His sword fell from his hand, clattering upon the boards of the bridge. Immediately, he struggled against his bonds, but it was no use.

A third found its way about his neck. Cedric coughed, then gurgled. He found himself stumbling back, and fell to his knees. His eyes blazed with fury, staring upon the wizard who held his friend captive.

"Let . . ." Cedric coughed again as the noose around his neck was jerked. "Let him go."

Bagdemagus considered the man he held against him. He could feel, even smell, the fear radiating off him. The thumb of his hand that held the knife against Falhurst's throat graced the man's chin. "As you wish," he said in a dark voice, then sliced the blade viciously.

"No!" screamed Cedric, watching as blood poured from the gaping slit in Falhurst's throat, as the man fell from Bagdemagus' clutches, hand slapping to his neck. Blood spurted from between tightly-clenched fingers as Falhurst tried to stem the flow. It was a reflexive, and ultimately useless, attempt.

"Falhurst . . . ."

The Captain sputtered as he collapsed, reaching with his remaining hand toward the knight. Cedric could only watch helplessly as his friend died. He stamped his teeth shut, let the image before him burn deeply within his mind, to join the pain he felt for Rebecca . . . to fuel the bonfire of vengeance that existed in place of his heart.

Finally, as Falhurst twitched in his last moments, Cedric lifted his gaze to meet the wizard, outlined against the columns of flame behind him. The image seemed fitting for a man who belonged in hell, Cedric thought.

"Your life is mine," Cedric muttered.

Bagdemagus grinned as he stood over his captive. "No," he said. "Yours is mine, my simple-minded knight." He knelt and cupped Cedric's chin. "For, whether you like it or not, you will deliver Evelyn to me."

"Never," vowed Cedric, spitting.

Bagdemagus wiped his face, then smiled evilly. "You are so predictable, it is pathetic." He stood and addressed the men holding Cedric. "Take him and secure him."

***

John could see the flames as soon as he sped through the castle gates, not waiting for the guardsmen that would follow. His heart palpitated with fear at the thought of the village being on fire, but as the horse's hooves brought him closer, he could see that it was only the bridge. A crowd of villagers had gathered near the foot, forming a line as they passed buckets full of dirt. The women and children filled the buckets from laden carts, and retrieved them when the empty vessels were tossed back.

John dismounted, approaching the fire. It was a vicious one, all right, and if the bridge had not been as sturdy as it was, it would already have burnt to ashes. As it was, the bridge would not be useable until it was repaired, at least not for horses or wagons.

"I'll take the front," John said to the man closest the fire, tossing dirt upon the blaze. He nodded and moved back, giving John room. "Keep them coming as fast as you can!" he roared.

Minutes passed in handfuls as John heaved bucket after bucket of dirt upon the fire. He called Cedric's name now and then, felt anxiety growing as there was no return. Eventually, the flames began to abate, enough to look through them and see the bodies strewn about the bridge. John cursed and hurled the bucket in his hands aside. Carelessly, he leapt through the opening in the flames, ripping his sword free. Sweat streamed down his face from being so close to the fire.

The boards creaked; some of them were obviously weakened, others had fallen to the waters below. John watched his step as he approached the closest body, a chill running down his spine upon recognizing the coat of a Royal Guardsman. He knelt beside the body and grimaced.

"Falhurst," he breathed out, shaking his head. He rose, inspecting the other bodies, noted Cedric's slain horse. But his fellow knight was nowhere to be seen. His eyes followed the dark country road leading away from the bridge. The impulse to give chase, though it had been about half an hour since he was alerted, was powerful. But John did not want to chance taking even a single horse across the bridge.

"Sir John?" called one of the guardsmen, looking more sober now as he approached. A few others had braved the dying flames, and now looked about at the carnage.

"Gather the Captain's body," John ordered. Saints, two captains dead in as many weeks . . . who would want the job now?

"But, what of Sir Cedric?"

John met the eyes of the guardsmen. Their loyalty, their obvious desire to go after the missing knight, was heartwarming. But to let them give chase now would be foolish.

"God willing, he yet lives," John said. "But we have no hope of finding him. It is obvious the wizard took him. Part of another game, no doubt."

"And we simply . . . let the Spectre have him?"

John raised his head as thunder rumbled across the sky. The storm comes, he thought. "For now," said to the guardsman, then marched back along the bridge. "Gather the Captain's body. Everyone return to the castle! There's no more drinking this night."

***

Whether sober or not, every guardsman was placed on alert. The armory was emptied of swords, bows and crossbows, spears and javelins, helmets and leather jerkins. Only a few guardsmen were left in the tower or upon the battlements; since Bagdemagus could come and go as he pleased, for the most part, the bulk of the men were deployed to the keep itself.

Eric jogged from the direction of the loft as John approached on horseback, and gave his friend a weary look. "What is going on? The village is burned?" he asked desperately.

John slipped from the saddle with grim look to his friend. "No. But Falhurst is slain and Cedric taken," he said. "'Tis obviously a ploy by the wizard to weaken us."

Eric's face fell ashen. "What can I do?"

John regarded his friend with narrowed eyes. "What can you do?" he echoed.

The giant frowned. "Yes, I—"

"You know, Eric," John interrupted. "I liked to think that our friendship is strong enough that we know who the other is. But I doubt that, now. I know no more about you than anyone else. I know you had the courage to stand up to the wizard – and wound him, no less – but then you threw in with seductress bitch and slipped back into obscurity. For anyone else, I would have thought that a sign of cowardice."

Eric bristled, setting his jaw. "I am no coward," he said gravely.

John's eyes blazed. "Then prove it," he challenged, and turned on his heel, leaving Eric to tend to his horse.

For a moment, Eric thought about calling out, but remained silent. His eyes followed his friend as Sir John jogged up the steps of the castle keep, Royal Guardsmen falling in behind him. Silently, he gripped the reigns of the horse and lead it back within the stable.

***

"Sir John, my Queen!" shouted the herald as the large doors of the great hall were thrown open. John marched into the room, flanked on either side by rows of armed guardsmen, standing at attention. Peripherally, he caught sight of archers in the balconies, bows and crossbows at the ready. Everyone was on edge; the tension hung like mist in the massive room.

The Queen sat upon her throne, the High Chancellor to one side, the Lord Chamberlain to the other. For the time of night, John had to admit his monarch looked more than suitably impressive. John was suddenly struck by how regal Queen Evelyn had become.

He stopped several feet before the steps of her throne and prostrated himself on one knee, bowing his head. "My Queen."

"Sir Cedric has been kidnapped?" she asked, eschewing formalities.

John lifted his head and met his liege's gaze. "It is my strongest suspicion."

"The boy had no right to go off on his own—" began Benedict sourly.

"Chancellor," said Evelyn in a sharp, but calm voice. "What is done is done. Admonishing my knight for poor decisions will hardly help. Especially if he is dead."

Benedict worked his jaw. "Of course," he said. "Naturally, then, we must find him. I would suggest large, heavily-armed parties—"

"if you would forgive me, Your High Excellency," interrupted the Lord Chamberlain. "But that would hardly be practical. Bagdemagus is no fool; he has hidden himself in a new lair, and apparently has numerous henchmen at his disposal. Sending the Guard out to look for Cedric would only be sending them to their own doom."

Benedict shot the clergyman a harsh look. "Vix will not allow itself to be extorted by any man, wizard or no!" he declared.

"Gentlemen!" barked Evelyn. But just as the echo of her singular word faded in the hall, a subtle laugh, growing steadily, sounded from near the doors. Evelyn gasped as she beheld the appearance of the man from the shadows. To everyone else, save John, the wizard seemed to appear from nowhere, a shimmering force taking shape as he stepped between the rows of guardsmen.

The air was filled with the ringing of steel as blades were hastily drawn. John spun about, looking down a gauntlet of swords toward the smug wizard, automatically whipping his blade free. In the balconies above, bowstrings were pulled taut and crossbows leveled.

"This is a bold move, even for you," commented Evelyn coolly. She held out a cautionary hand, indicating her Guard to remain neutral.

Bagdemagus grinned cockily, then slipped his arm out from beneath his cloak. The sheathed sword sailed through the air, clattering upon the floor before being stopped by Sir John's boot.

"I do not think I need to tell you to whom that sword belongs," he said, evil eyes resting upon Evelyn's. "Nor should I have to say what will happen to him if you do not comply with my every request."

"The Queen bows to no one!" roared John, taking a threatening step forward, leading with his blade.

"Sir John!" cried the Queen, pushing up from her chair. "Take not a single step!"

John stopped instantly, but only due to respect for his queen. For a moment, he understood Cedric's rage, for he could feel the flickers of that same heated anger growing within his own breast. "Only for you, my Queen," he said in a barely controlled voice.

Bagdemagus chuckled, glancing around at the Royal Guardsmen, many of whom held their blades in wavering hands, their eyes filled with awe and fear. Casually, he touched the tip of a finger to a guardsman's blade. "All this flattery is doing wonders for my ego," he remarked. He winked to the Queen. "Not an easy thing to do for one of my age."

"Enough of your taunts, wizard!" shouted Benedict. "Return the boy knight, or die where you stand!"

Bagdemagus smirked, glancing from Benedict to the Queen. No one moved in the room. "You know, you were always a strong man, Benedict. Richard and I had many conversations about you, did you know that?"

Benedict paled slightly. "You won't get to me."

"Enough fancy words, wizard," Evelyn said. She stepped down from the throne, shrugging off Benedict's and the Chamberlain's hands as they tried to restrain her. She stepped up behind Sir John, settled a hand to his shoulder.

"Let me pass," she whispered.

"'Twould not be wise," he responded.

"I will be fine. He cannot kill me . . . yet."

Begrudgingly, John took a step to the side, allowing Evelyn to pass. He kept his eye on the wizard as his Queen approached the vile man. The slightest movement, he told himself, and I will see the bastard dead.

Evelyn stopped a few paces from the wizard, looking up at him boldly. Though she felt fear within every inch of her body, she knew that she could not show it, not before her Guard, not before Benedict and Lord Alistair, and certainly not before Bagdemagus. She was the Queen; her conduct in the presence of the hated enemy of Vix would be crucial.

"I could be a fool," she said. "And still now what you will propose. My life for Cedric's."

Bagdemagus smiled slowly, gazing upon Evelyn with near fondness. "Such an insightful child," he said. "I would almost believe you were mine, and not Richard's."

Evelyn stiffened. "Enough mockeries," she said. Her voice rose swiftly in pitch. "What have you done with Cedric? Tell me!"

The wizard stood impassive before the storm of Evelyn's emotions. "He is alive . . . for the moment," he responded. "But if you do not come to me by sunset on the Midsummer's Day, Cedric will die. And I promise you, his death will be the sort of thing of which only Hellish nightmares are made."

Images of her childhood friend writhing in agony, flesh burned and flayed, filled the Queen's mind, making her wince. Oh, Cedric, she thought. I am so sorry . . . Evelyn gritted her teeth. "No," she said.

Bagdemagus looked truly surprised. He took a step back. "'No?'"

"I think you've misunderstood me, Bagdemagus," Evelyn said, feeling her heart flutter as she turned her back on the man. "I have taken my role as Queen seriously. Though it would haunt me the rest of my days to know that my friend died because of me . . ." She took a deep breath, steeling herself, then spun back around, glaring harshly upon Bagdemagus. "I will do it," she hissed. "To save my people!"

Her words filled the air, a powerful declaration borne from her soul and given strength through conviction. For a moment, the wizard actually flinched. But then, slowly, he laughed once more.

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