A Royal Sacrifice Ch. 18byslyc_willie©
The embers had long since cooled, leaving blackened planks of jagged wood that jutted up from the ground like the ribs of the earth. All that truly remained of the simple wooden shed was the mammoth wheel, turning lazily in the gentle waters.
He had, at first, been angry. Potions, precious herbs, a lifetime's worth of hoarding the rarest books and scrolls. Mysteries most of the world would never understand were now gone, literally as ashes upon the wind. Oh, yes, there had certainly been anger within the wizard's mind. It had taken some time to let it temper . . . and be transformed.
Upon his mount, Guy Dorr watched as Bagdemagus took a knee in the sooted ruins, touching the scorched earth. The apparently sentimental pose made the rogue frown. This is the man I serve? He thought. A great and deadly wizard, who keeps an entire kingdom on edge . . . yet he is just as human, or nearly so, as I. Returning to his ruined home, as the Queen had to hers . . . Dorr chuckled. There is irony and perhaps even justice in that.
His eyes narrowed as he watched the wizard, moving his hand just above the ashes and coal. What Dorr had first perceived as sentiment now seemed to be something more practical. Bagdemagus was searching for something. Dorr's suspicion was confirmed as Bagdemagus suddenly thrust his hand down through burned and scorched wood, then returned, clutching something small.
Bagdemagus stood and walked back from the remains of his sanctuary, dusting his hands, cleaning the small object he had retrieved: a ring. Dorr saw only a glimpse of the sizable ornamentation before the wizard slipped it within an interior pocket. The rogue said nothing of it as Bagdemagus climbed smoothly into the saddle of his pale horse.
"This changes nothing, you know," the wizard said, gazing to the forest as if he could see through it to the castle beyond. "The fire was merely an inconvenience."
"Of course," responded Dorr. He could not hide the sarcasm in his voice.
Bagdemagus smirked, not looking to his vassal as he pulled on his riding gloves. "Do you truly believe that such a desperate act means anything?" he asked rhetorically. He obviously did not expect an answer. "To be honest, I am a bit impressed with their fortitude and courage. It will make their downfall all the more to savor."
He turned his head, storm-grey eyes boring into Dorr's. "Nothing has changed. In fact, this has only escalated matters. The Midsummer's Day draws nigh. The time for playing games is gone. There will be no more pawns to play with. Only a Queen. And a knight."
Dorr nodded, although he was not entirely convinced. The wizard did, indeed, play a good game with pawns. But when it came down to confronting the most important pieces . . . Dorr was not altogether certain Bagdemagus could hold his own. Perhaps he has spent so much time in the shadows that he falters in the light . . . .
"They think they have struck me a blow," Bagdemagus said as he gathered the reigns of his infernal mount. "I think I should show them that they have done no such thing . . . and that their perceived victory has earned some retribution." With a sharp cry and a digging of his heels, the wizard spurred the pale horse forward.
Dorr took in a breath. I certainly hope so, wizard. I do not intend to go down with the ship, you know. With a brief "Hah!" he followed the wizard into the woods.
Clack! Clack! Clack!
The sounds of wood striking wood echoed across the castle's training grounds. A ring of Royal Guardsmen, stripped to the waist in the beating heat of the midday sun, watched as Cedric and Falhurst squared off, attacking and defending, thrusting and parrying, striking and dodging.
"Good! Good!" cried Falhurst with a grin. "Your skill grows like a giant every day!"
"I do not take my duty lightly," replied Cedric, muscled torso gleaming with sweat as he advanced again. He hammered expertly with the wooden training sword, his blows much less clumsy than they had been, those weeks before. Every strike carried with it power and poise. Falhurst found himself on the defensive more often than he would have preferred.
"Just remember," Falhurst said, each word expelled with a puff of breath as he fended off the young knight's blows. "There is more to swordfighting than the sword!" So saying, he ducked beneath a powerful swing, spinning about on one leg as he swept the other out. He caught Cedric by the ankles, and the younger man toppled back, landing with a grunt upon the dirty ground.
Cedric lay stunned a moment, recovering the breath that had been forced from his lungs. He found himself staring at the tip of Falhurst's wooden blade, hovering just an inch from his face.
"You fight well, Cedric," the Captain said. "You just may be the best swordsman in the castle. But you still lack experience." He stepped back, lowering the blade to his side and offering his hand.
Cedric ground his teeth, then gripped his Captain's hand. As soon as he was on his feet, however, he shoved forcefully into Falhurst's chest, bearing the man to the ground and falling with him. His hand planted on the Captain's chest, he held his own wooden blade threateningly, the dull tip just nudging Falhurst's neck. Cedric's face glowed with anger and frustration, his eyes frighteningly fierce.
"I need only get this close," hissed the young knight.
Falhurst glared back. "I am not the wizard," he spat. "And you are out of line."
The fury in Cedric's eyes faded. As if a man coming out of a trance, he eased back, moving his sword away. "I must apologize," he said, offering his hand to the Captain of the Guard.
Falhurst grunted as he was hauled up, and met the knight's admonished gaze. "You fight with your heart like no ten men," the Captain said. "But you must fight with your head, as well."
Cedric took a deep breath, forcing calm to enter his mind. "He will pay," he vowed, yet again. That singular phrase had become nearly a mantra since Rebecca's death.
"Doubtless he will, Sir Cedric," Falhurst said, clasping the younger man's shoulder. "But if you don't temper that fury of yours, it will be by someone else's hand."
Cedric managed to push a smile to his lips as he nodded. "You're a fine teacher, Falhurst."
The Captain grinned. "Come on. I believe I feel an ale calling."
Cedric's smile stretched and grew as it became more honest. "I believe so, too."
Eric was alone within the stable when Lord Dorr arrived. He barely glanced up as the man dismounted; just enough to confirm whom it was. Eric's ears caught the sounds as the lord pulled his riding gloves off.
"I'd never have figured you for a stablehand," Lord Dorr said.
Eric's response was quick, as if he had readied it. "And I never figured you for nobility." He remained with his back turned to the man.
Dorr bristled slightly. He had never been a man to be treated casually; briefly, he thought of the dagger at his belt, and how easy it would be to slip it between the giant's ribs. But he restrained himself; Eric's death would serve nothing, after all. "'Twas something I felt necessary to hide from the church elders," he said dismissively. "Not many lords' sons take the path of the cloth."
Eric chuckled as he turned around, lips curled in a knowing smirk. He looked down upon the shorter, slimmer man, wiping his hands with a rag. "That is because none do," he said probingly. "Just as they don't vanish in the midst of the night with the contents of the collection box."
Dorr pursed his lips, cocking his head slightly with a look of haughtiness. "You had best guard your words, Eric. Such baseless accusations could be grounds for imprisonment where I am from."
Eric took a single brave step closer to the rogue. "And just where is that, Guy?" he asked. "Certainly not Ural."
Guy laughed. "Well, obviously not," he said. He huffed, slipping his gloves into his belt, just beside the hilt of his dagger. "To be honest, my family was poor, little more than country royalty. The Great Drought had hit our lands hard. Why else do you think I would have been sent away to a monastery?"
Eric frowned slightly, thinking.
Guy let a small smile escape. "I don't blame you your suspicions, Eric," he said, effecting a non-threatening pose. "I am a stranger to your world, after all. Well, this world, at any rate. I suppose it is only natural you might fear I would reveal your background."
Guy stepped closer and reached up a friendly hand, settling it on Eric's broad shoulder. "Be at ease. I know not why you decided to exchange the life of a translator of heathen works to scrub the flanks of sweaty horses, and to be honest, I don't much care. We both had our reasons for leaving the cloistered life; 'twas not for us. Obviously, we have both found better masters."
Eric mused silently, feeling the entrance of doubt into his suspicions. He nodded without a word.
Guy smiled. "You were ever the insightful giant then, Eric," he said warmly. "I see that has not changed. Perhaps, sometime, we should catch up, you and I."
Eric glanced to Guy's horse. "I'll see that Judas is tended to," he said.
Guy smiled warmly. "I know you will. As ever, you are a trustworthy soul." He turned and headed out of the stable, his smile vanishing instantly. He would have to keep a close eye on Eric now, he knew. For a moment, he considered alerting Bagdemagus . . . but something told him the wizard did not need to know everything.
No, definitely not everything . . . .
Who the girl was did not matter. She may not have even had a name so far as Eric was concerned. It was enough that she had gathered up her skirts and lifted her legs high and wide for him. He had rarely been so selfish in his conquests – at the least, he wanted to woo the women he chased enough to make them want him – but on this night, his frustrations needed an outlet. And the comely redhead was more than willing.
He should have made a different choice, he realized, once he had pulled her knickers down and unstrung her bodice. She was busty, and possessed a thick, flame-colored forest of hair about her sex. She reminded him of Viviane almost immediately, which, strangely enough, had aroused him at first. The scullery wench had teased him to hardness with her mouth, then grinned as she lay back in the stable's hay loft. She obviously enjoyed exposing herself as she splayed her legs like those of a cooked chicken.
She – what was her name? Adele? Ada? It didn't really matter – grunted and cooed like a well-groomed whore as Eric thrust away inside her. She came once, then urged him to pull out so that she could taste her own fluid upon him, then propped herself up on knees and elbows, offering her backside. She winced at first at the initial penetration, then growled her pleasure while rocking back against his hard body.
She rutted like a feral creature, allowing herself to be taken, mewling like a cat in heat as Eric thrust into her again and again. He felt her clench, heard her moans as she became awash with pleasure, and finally felt his own rush begin. At the last moment, he slipped from her spasming tunnel and thrust out over her firm, rounded cheeks. His fluid splashed into her hair, across her back, trickled down her thighs.
He fell back onto the bed of straw beside her, taking deep breaths. The cherub-faced redhead relaxed, cooing contentedly, brushing back sticky strands of hair from her face as she smiled.
"You're quite the lover, Eric," she expelled, her face glowing and sweaty. "I have to admit, I was curious . . . ."
Eric stared at the ceiling, noting the warped timbers that made up the roof. The recent rain had made him aware that the stables needed a good shingling. "I am glad to have satisfied your curiosity," he said, almost absently.
The redhead moved closer, letting her hand wander aimlessly across his thickly-muscled chest. "Mayhap . . . in a bit . . . we could have another go?" she asked.
Eric sat up, a suddenly sour taste filling his mouth. He stared out through the hay-door of the loft. "Do you ever wonder about where your life is going?" he asked, mainly of himself. "Why you have chosen to do what you do?"
The scullery maid scoffed. "I serve in the Queen's kitchen," she said. "I consider myself fortuitous enough. I could be sloshing ale in the tavern, or trading myself for pennies."
Eric stood and approached the broad opening of the hay loft door. He looked down upon the darkened courtyard. "I wonder . . . ."
"There are worse things you could be doing, lover," the girl chided, then giggled.
Yes, and I've done them, he thought. Adultery, betraying the church. Sinning, it seems, has become my occupation. He glanced back to the wanton redhead, smiling thinly as she fanned her naked legs in invitation. He pushed away from the opening and approached her. No sense stopping now . . . .
They could have gone to the tavern with the other guardsmen who were off duty that evening, but Cedric did not want to overhear any whisperings about Rebecca. He knew there was still talk about 'the Devil's Whore' and to what level her corruption had extended. Mixing that kind of overheard talk with inebriation, Cedric knew, would not be the best of ideas.
So he and Falhurst settled for tapping one of the oak casks in the keep's cellar. Even though it was just the two of them, seated at a tiny table and surrounded by the rank aromas of spilled beer and wine, it was far cheaper than a tavern. Predictably, it took only a couple of pints to unleash the dogs of Cedric's emotion.
". . . care not what it takes, but that man will be dead," the young knight avowed. His eyes were already dark and sullen, studying the scratched and grainy surface of the table. "I will be there when it happens, to see the shock and pain on his face as he suffers against the blade of my sword."
"Temper your rage, Cedric," the Captain cautioned. "Use it. Don't let it use you."
The knight sputtered, then wiped the foam from his mouth. "You didn't lose the woman you love, Falhurst," he said gravely.
The Captain leaned back. "Not to some evil wizard, no," he said. "I lost my wife when she fell from her horse."
Cedric raised his frowning face. "You were married?"
"For a few wonderful years, at least. Deirdre passed . . . it's been almost four years, now. Trust me, the pain fades. It never goes away, but it fades."
Cedric gritted his teeth. "Not until that bastard is in the ground," he growled.
"Aye, I'm sure that will help," responded Falhurst with a sly smile.
"No, burned, first," Cedric continued, as if to himself. He gulped from his flagon. "Then quartered. All while he's alive."
Falhurst chuckled darkly. "You are not a man to cross lightly, I see."
Cedric downed the remainder of his beer and slammed the cup to the table as he lurched to his feet. "I don't feel like waiting," he rumbled, heading to the cellar stairs.
Falhurst was startled, enough that he nearly fell from his chair. As it was, he was several paces behind the knight as the angry young man jogged up the limestone steps and shoved open the doors. "Cedric!" he cried, scrambling to his feet, ignoring the spilled beer that soaked into his tunic. "Where are you going, man?"
"I'm going to exact my revenge!" spouted the knight, now running for the stables. The rains from days before were brewing again; the night sky was dark and obfuscated, with nary a star to be seen. Thunder rumbled distantly, like the approach of an invading army.
"What! How?" yelled Falhurst, trying to keep up. But Cedric was faster, sprinting now, disappearing into the stables. The guards upon the battlements watched with interest, wonder, and some amusement.
"Don't let—" began Falhurst, understanding, now, that Cedric had set himself upon a foolish, impulsive quest. But as he tried to call to the guardsmen at the gate, his words were drowned out by a loud crack of thunder. The startled neighing of horses from within the stable followed instantly.
Damn it! thought Falhurst desperately. It's as if the elements – or fate – are conspiring against me. He reached the stable doors just they burst open. The magnificent sight of the roan mare, studded leather barding covering its front flanks and head, with Cedric mounted within the military saddle above, took him aback.
Like an angel of vengeance, Falhurst thought instantly.
Cedric gathered the reigns in his gloved hands, looked down upon Falhurst. "I go to find the wizard," he said. "Come with me if you wish, but do not try to stop me."
Falhurst watched after the knight as Justice bore its rider to the gates. The guards did not hesitate, turning the wheels to part the broad wooden doors, allowing Sir Cedric to leave. Falhurst cursed under his breath, then spat.
"Damn that boy," he muttered, then ran into the stable for his own steed.
Guy Dorr stepped from the shadows behind the stables, watching Falhurst spurring his steed through the gates. He smirked; the wizard certainly has insight, he thought. He knew it would only be a matter of time before that boy grew restless.
He slipped the large ring from his finger, the one Bagdemagus had taken from the ashen remains of his hovel, and held it to his lips. "The trap is sprung. Cedric hunts for you in the village." His whispered words seemed pulled into the ring, for they were barely heard by even his ears.
He waited for a count of nine, then clicked the tiny latch on the side. The top of the ring sprang open, revealing a silvery mist that quickly shot into the sky. Guy watched it disappear, momentarily wondering if the enchantment would truly work.
I suppose we will see . . . .
When Falhurst arrived at the tavern in the village, it was obvious that Cedric had already been and gone. Drunken and half-drunken Royal Guardsmen stood out front, beginning to be pelted by the light mist that preceded a hard rainfall. Many seemed put out, angered, or anxious.
"Where did he go?" roared Falhurst as he reigned in the black mare beneath him.
Several guardsmen came to attention instantly in the presence of their Captain, and saluted. "Do you mean Sir Cedric?" one of them called.
Falhurst expelled air through clenched teeth. "Of course I mean Cedric!" he barked.
"He just about accosted us, Cap'n!" crawled a burly guardsman, swaying slightly. "All but demanding we follow him to hunt the wizard—"
"He asked for volunteers!" corrected another quickly, this one a more lucid man, wiry and tall. He met Falhurst's eye. "The knight, sir, was quite animated. He asked for men to follow him, but he was quite . . . impatient. He took off that way."
Falhurst glanced down the road that lead to the bridge, and steeled himself. He was as superstitious as the next man, but something boded truly evil this night, and he could feel it.
"Gather the most fit and sober," Falhurst commanded. "Follow to the bridge. Send another to alert Sir John."
The tall guardsman nodded. "Aye, Captain."
"Do it!" barked Falhurst, wondering how quickly he had fallen into the role of the man giving orders, instead of taking them. "And do it quickly!" He then dug his heels and slapped the reigns, spurring his horse forward.
Falhurst heard the distinct clash of steel on steel as he neared the bridge. His heart hardened as he drove his mount to the breaking point, intuitively knowing that Cedric – or at least, someone – was in dire peril. His intuition was quickly realized once the hooves of his mount began clacking upon the old and sturdy wooden planks.
Cedric was surrounded, yet his flashing sword and fierce skill kept his attackers at bay. The roan mare lay on her side, midway across the bridge, a good ten paces from the knight. Falhurst took in the black-feathered shafts that littered her body in an instant and judged, from the lack of movement, that Justice had been slain.