tagSci-Fi & FantasyOutlander Ch. 08

Outlander Ch. 08


A hush fell across the supplicants in the throne room when the giant doors unexpectedly swung open and the Captain of the King's Sentinels entered the hall. Tradition dictated that the doors remain closed once petitioners had been admitted, and supplicants were allowed to leave only when the King had heard and judged every dispute and request brought before him. The practice discouraged the populace from wasting the King's time with frivolous and meritless matters, and interruptions were rare.

Chael marched purposefully; the soft thud of his boots on the polished marble tiles was the only sound in the sudden quiet. His black eyes habitually scanned the hall as he approached the throne. A cursory glance took in the familiar banners that covered the walls, each a symbol of a battle won by either Aramoor's Army or Navy dating back to the founding of the kingdom. Some were tattered and rotting with age, others were faded, while yet others were still vibrant.

A dozen massive crystal chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceiling like giant glass birds frozen in flight. Thick marble pillars spaced in two even rows marched down the hall as though pointing the way to the gilded throne that sat on the raised platform at the far end of the room. Carvings of light green ivy with darker leaves spiraled up the pillars and stood out against the ivory marble background, their vivid colors a part of the marble itself.

Jeweled sconces of silver and gold were mounted along the walls between the battle banners. They would not be lit until nightfall, for the sun's golden rays cascaded through the gigantic panes in the clear glass window that stretched almost the full breadth of the wall behind the throne, affording all a breathtaking view of the city and harbor below. The throne room had been designed to intimidate with its majesty.

Chael was not interested in the grandeur of the throne room, however. He focused on the people: the nobles in their finery, with the occasional dull gray, green, or brown wool of a commoner sprinkled among them. Only a handful of people stood below and to the right of the dais, waiting their turn to speak to the King. A much larger group, the supplicants whose requests had already been heard, stood to the left of the dais. His eyes methodically assessed them for threats before he went to stand before his King, directly in front of the throne.

He noted with disgust that the four Swords of Aramon who kept the petitioners away from the King did not carry shields. How could they protect him if someone were to hurl a blade or fire an arrow? They made no effort to conceal their boredom with the proceedings and assumed various lazy poses as they stood on the steps of the dais. If Chael's men had been guarding the King, as was their right, they would have been alert and vigilant at the approach of an armed man, whether or not they knew him well.

Chael studied his monarch with concern. King Damroden, the second of the name, slouched on his throne and stared dully ahead as though unaware that Chael was even there. He was a boy of barely eighteen summers, with sandy-brown hair pressed to his head by a thin circlet of gold on his brow. He was thin, almost frail, and tended to be bookish where his father had been robust and strong. Old King Roaden had died mysteriously in his bed a few months ago, the cause unknown even to the Sorceress Amalee. The remotest parts of the kingdom were still unaware that a new King sat on the throne.

Behind the King stood Chancellor Titus Vallen of the Aramonic Priesthood. Well over six feet tall, the Chancellor had an air of superiority about him that grated on Chael's nerves. His hair was iron-grey and his thin face was dominated by a large hawkish nose, sunken cheeks, and piercing blue eyes. He wore his black priest's robes as though they were a sign of his right to command rather than as a symbol of servitude to Lord Aramon.

Until recently, the King of Aramoor had four advisors. Amalee, Sorceress of the First Rank, represented the Witches of the Covenant, but she had died after a fall down a stairway broke her neck a few weeks ago. Strangely, the King had not sent for a replacement. General Forsith, Supreme Commander of Aramoor's Armed forces, had been ordered to join the patrols along the northern border, while the Chamberlain, Lord Kardigan, had been thrown in the dungeon for treason when he had argued against replacing the Sentinels as the King's personal guard. Only the Aramonic Chancellor remained, along with the priesthood's military wing, the Swords of Aramon.

"Your Majesty," Chael said before he knelt on one knee with his hand resting on the pommel of his bastard sword.

The King nodded his head absently and Chael rose to his feet.

"Why do you interrupt the King's business, Captain Dovangi?" Chancellor Vallen asked in an unctuous tone.

"An urgent message for the King has just arrived by bird," Chael said, eyeing the priest distastefully. He held up the small tube.

"Bring it forward," Vallen said to one of the Swords of Aramon.

Chael handed the message to the man and narrowed his eyes when the tube was given to the Chancellor rather than the King. King Damroden didn't seem to notice or care. Chael waited as Vallen broke the seal and unrolled the tiny parchment that he pulled from the small tube. His eyebrows rose as he read the message before turning to look at the King.

"It says that an Outlander has come through the portal on Franeer Island," he said and a gasp rippled through the room. Vallen waited for the excited whispering to subside before continuing. "It also says that Captain Garek Liaman murdered the watcher of the portal before he and his crew seized the Outlander for reasons unknown. William Drebin, Captain of the Kraken, is in pursuit and will send word when the traitors are dead and the Outlander is safely in his hands."

Chael gaped in disbelief. Captain Liaman was a man of honor, and the father of his friend, Aiden. He had lost two sons and had seen Aiden injured beyond repair in the fight against the Karokai. Chael refused to believe Garek Liaman had turned traitor. Captain Drebin, on the other hand, was rumored to have acquired his warship by smuggling and selling slaves to the barbaric tribes to the east before somehow securing a commission in the King's Navy.

"Liaman?" the King asked, seeming to wake from his thoughts. "I know that name from somewhere," he said, as though struggling to remember.

"Of course you do, Sire," Chael said before Vallen could answer. "Captain Liaman was a friend of your father's, and his son Aiden is married to your cousin, Viviane." Chael was horrified by the King's behavior. He had always been sharp of mind but since taking the throne he appeared to have been reduced to a half-wit.

"Yes," the King mumbled. "That must be it."

"Be that as it may," Vallen said with a sneer as he forced himself into the conversation, "these charges cannot be ignored." He held up the parchment for emphasis. "Liaman must have done this to prevent the fulfillment of the Seer's prophecy. I fear he has betrayed us all and is now in league with the Karokai."

Chael shook his head in denial as the Chancellor spoke. "There is no way that Garek Liaman would betray his King," Chael responded angrily after Vallen had finished his accusations. "There must be some other explanation."

"Perhaps you're right, Captain Dovangi," the Chancellor said in a conciliatory tone. "Perhaps it is all just a misunderstanding. Still, to be safe, I think we should send birds to every port and riders to every city and instruct the local authorities to arrest Captain Liaman and his companions on sight, for their own safety of course, and have them transported here so we can get to the truth of this matter."

"Arrested and clapped in irons?" Chael said in disbelief. "On the word of a man who's rumored to have been a smuggler and slaver? This is preposterous."

"Let us ask the King to decide, shall we?" Vallen said with a malevolent smile before he turned to the King. "Your Majesty, shall it be my way, or the Captain's?"

"Well," King Damroden said hesitantly, looking confused. He shook his head slightly as though trying to clear his thoughts and sat up a little straighter on the throne.

Vallen frowned then stared at the King intently. Chael almost missed the subtle, barely perceptible movement of the Chancellor's hand before the King seemed to lose interest and slump back down on the throne.

"Take care of it as you see fit, Chancellor," he said woodenly.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Vallen couldn't hide the gloating from his voice or his eyes as he looked at Chael triumphantly.

"But Sire!" Chael protested.

"Enough!" Vallen boomed and the gathered nobles and supplicants flinched. "The King has spoken. Continue to question His Majesty's wisdom and you will find the rest of the Sentinels expelled from the palace while you are escorted to the dungeons like the last man who argued against the King's commands. I'm sure that Chamberlain Kardigan would enjoy the company," he said with a snide smile. "Now don't you have a door to guard somewhere?"

Chael bit his tongue and fought the urge to rip his blade from its sheath as the assembled nobles tittered in laughter. He'd suspected Vallen had some unnatural hold on the King, and now he was sure. Vallen was using the power of the Leylines to rule in the King's name, and with Amalee dead there was no one in the palace who could stop him. No one except Chael, that is.

Keeping his expression neutral, Chael bowed to the King, turned on his heel, and headed out the way he had come in. Plans whirled in his head. He knew what had to be done, but who could he trust to help him? The Sentinels would rally to his side, but they were outnumbered ten to one by the Swords of Aramon. The priesthood's military had moved into the palace complex over the last few months one squad at a time, until you couldn't go anywhere without running into a few of them, clinking around in their snake belly armor, looking down their noses at everyone as though looking for some hidden offence. One thing was certain: he had to find a way to speak with Chamberlain Kardigan without the Chancellor's spies finding out.

* * * *

Jack strode toward Monch who waited tensely with a look of resignation on his brutish face. Both men raised their fists as Jack approached and planted his feet solidly in front of his hulking adversary. Neither man spoke; they were long past grandstanding and petty insults. Instead, they unleashed their fists upon each other in a hurricane of violence.

Work aboard the Arabella ceased as the crew gathered around the combatants. Charuk ran to fetch the Captain and the other officers. Garek had left standing orders to be notified whenever Jack and Monch fought to make sure things didn't get out of hand. In truth, Garek wanted to be present to ensure the Outlander wasn't killed, and to have his wife or daughter heal Jack if his injuries required their intervention.

Jack jerked his head to the side, narrowly avoiding Monch's meaty fist. He immediately threw a counterpunch and felt the impact through his arm as his fist landed solidly on Monch's jaw. Monch barely flinched before answering with a thunderous right hand that bounced off the side of Jack's head, forcing him to scramble backwards.

Garek, Ava, and the rest of the officers pushed their way through the crowd surrounding Jack and Monch. They watched as the two men exchanged blows, their fists flying at each other so fast they were a blur to the eye.

Monch assailed Jack with a flurry of punches. Jack blocked most of the blows with his arms but he was forced to retreat again. He desperately responded with punches of his own, but the big man shrugged them off and steadily advanced.

The crowd undulated around them as Monch drove Jack relentlessly across the deck of the ship. Ava gasped when Jack lurched to avoid a punch and stumbled over a rope coiled on the deck. He staggered into the forward mizzen-mast and barely avoided falling. Emma, who had just joined them, looked at her daughter sharply, noticing the concern she had for the Outlander.

Both men grunted and cursed as they fought. Blood flowed freely from a cut over Jack's eye, opened by Monch's callused knuckles. His face was covered in a grotesque sheet of crimson and he continuously wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand to try and keep the blood from blinding him.

Monch rushed Jack, swinging his fists as he came. Jack tried to duck under Monch's assault to tackle him around the legs, but Monch was ready. He flung Jack aside, using his own momentum against him. Jack hit the deck and rolled before coming to a stop against a crate. Monch didn't press the attack on his downed opponent but waited patiently for him to get up. The bully wanted to keep the fight standing where he had a serious advantage in reach and skill.

Discouragement and a sense of inevitable defeat began to seep into Jack as he wearily climbed to his feet. He felt an overwhelming desire to yield. All the pain could end with just that one little word. All he had to do was say it. He sighed and his head sagged despondently, fists falling to his side. Monch smiled, finally seeing defeat in the Outlander's posture.

Ava saw the defeat in Jack's stance as well. 'Yes, yield! Please end this,' she pleaded silently. She had winced with every blow he'd taken, and had fought the urge to run to him as he sustained each new injury. Her stomach was in knots watching him suffer. She just wanted his pain to end. She'd tried hard to not care for him, tried desperately to deny that she felt anything for him, but her heart cried out as he stood there finally pushed beyond his ability to endure, his face a mask of blood and agony.

"No," Jack said quietly, surprising everyone within earshot. Dignity was the only thing he had left and he would cling to it even if it killed him. His face hardened with resolve. He raised his head slowly and his eyes sought those of his opponent, meeting them with cold defiance. He shook his head from side to side. "No," he said again, louder, his voice as hard as steel. The triumphant smile slowly slipped from Monch's face.

For a moment, Ava thought Jack had yielded and relief washed through her. Just as her mind processed what she'd heard, Jack raised his fists and motioned for Monch to come on. She buried her face in her hands, unable to watch him take any more punishment.

Monch stared at Jack in disbelief before advancing again, his face twisted in hatred. The Outlander stood before him, hair soaked with sweat and his face covered in a macabre mask of blood, mocking him with his refusal to admit defeat. Monch growled in frustration and prepared to engage the Outlander once more.

Jack's mind raced as Monch stalked toward him. He knew had to do something different but he'd tried everything he could think of and still the big man defeated him. Monch suddenly charged and in desperation, Jack swung his back leg in a round, sweeping arc in an attempt to kick the bully in the ribs. He was too slow though, and his shin landed squarely across Monch's upper thigh instead.

Jack had thrown the frantic kick with all the strength he could muster. He'd felt the jolt through his leg as the hard bone of his shin slammed into the gnarled muscles of Monch's thigh. He knew instantly that he had missed his target and covered his head with his arms to try and block the blows he knew were coming.

He was surprised when no blows came. Instead, Monch grunted in pain and staggered back. The big man clutched at his thigh and stared at Jack in shock.

A gasp went through the crowd and Ava peeked between her fingers, expecting to see Jack on the ground. Instead, he was on his feet, defiantly facing his nemesis. She was surprised to see the uncertainty painted on Monch's face as he clutched at his leg. "What happened?" she asked the sailor next to her.

"The Outlander kicked his leg," the man cried excitedly.

'His leg?' she thought, incredulous.

Jack saw the surprised look of pain on Monch's face and hope surged through him like an ember bursting into flame. Maybe he had finally found the key to victory. Adrenaline surged as he rapidly pressed the attack. Monch straightened and got his fists up just as Jack engaged him. Jack threw a quick punch, and while Monch was distracted by his fist, quickly slammed his shin into the same spot on Monch's thigh.

The bully bellowed in agony and would have fallen if not for a nearby barrel. He caught himself and had to lean heavily on the barrel to keep his weight off his throbbing leg. The Outlander gave him no reprieve, forcing him to push away from the barrel to meet the next attack.

The crew roared their approval as Jack stalked the man that many of them had lived in fear of across the breadth of the ship. Ava finally allowed herself to hope, to believe in her heart that Jack could do it.

"Stop doing that," Monch cried desperately after another kick crashed into his leg with a loud smack and sent him staggering for balance. He tried to scramble away, to put distance between himself and the Outlander, but his tortured leg could barely hold his weight. He frantically swung his fists at the Outlander's face.

Jack shrugged off Monch's punches. Without both his legs working to help generate torque, the bully's fists had lost their fierce power. Jack countered with a jab that snapped Monch's head back then kicked the injured leg again.

Monch bellowed in pain. He panicked and tried to run away, but his injured leg buckled then gave out completely, sending him crashing to the deck. He lurched back to his feet and limped around to face the advancing Outlander. Fear was etched on his face, and his eyes darted around desperately as though searching for a way out.

Jack feinted a kick at Monch's injured leg, and when the bully threw both hands down in an attempt to block, Jack reached deep inside for all the strength he had left and slammed his fist into Monch's exposed jaw. The big man's eyes rolled in his head and he collapsed backwards, crashing to the deck with a thud.

Silence descended over the deck. The crew gaped as though in shock. Jack panted heavily as he stood over his fallen opponent. Monch groaned and rolled over onto his stomach. He began slowly dragging himself on his belly away from Jack, moaning incoherently.

Jack wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand to clear them of blood then followed Monch. He reached down and grabbed a fistful of the bully's hair and yanked his head up.

"I yield! I yield!" Monch cried before Jack could say anything.

Jack wasn't sure what he was supposed to feel at this moment, but all he felt was relief. It was over. He let go of Monch's hair and turned to the onlookers. The silence was suddenly broken by a deafening cheer. The crew went wild, shouting and jumping, hugging each other joyously, sharing the jubilation that Jack was somehow denied.

Jack scanned the crowd. He saw Charuk waving his arms and yelling at the top of his lungs. Kairn and the sea dogs were clapping each other on their backs. Garek's face was unreadable but Ithos beamed at him proudly out of his one eye. He even saw Aiden sitting apart, playing with his trinkets as though nothing else around him mattered. Then his eyes met Ava's. Tears streaked down her cheeks and her lips quivered as she stared at him.

'Why is she crying?' he thought and took a step toward her. His legs buckled and he fell to his knees as the adrenaline drained out of his system. He struggled to stand up. He needed to find out if she was all right. Then suddenly she was there kneeling before him, the folds of her light blue dress gathered around her.

Her green eyes drew him in, silencing the cheers and blinding him to the presence of the crew until she was all that he saw. Tears spilled freely down her cheeks as she gazed at him. "Please don't cry," he said and only stopped himself from brushing a lock of her raven hair away from her face when he realized his hand was covered with his blood.

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