The sounds of battle, the cries and screams, the clash and ring of steel on steel that echoed from the streets below and down in the Great Hall drew Oryan High King out of sleep instantly. A rush of fear chilled his bones even as he leaped for his sword and chased sleep from his mind. He paused only long enough to pull on his trews, before drawing his sword from the stand.
Gwenifer scrambled from their bed and raced toward the doors, her long, deep chestnut hair streaming loose, wearing only a thin shift over her tall, slender body, her own swords already in hand.
Knowing that where she went there was no chance of return, he wished keenly to be able to wrap his hands in that hair once again. He loved her hair. He loved her. Passionately. Grief already twisted his heart, knowing where she was going and what it was they faced.
With her hand on the door, she looked back at him, her gray eyes despairing.
“Go for Gawain,” Gwen cried. “Morgan will be with him if he’s returned, if he can reach him. I’ll hold them as long as I may.”
Gwen knew Morgan would try to get to him first, if he’d returned, if he could reach him in time.
Her eyes lingered on Oryan’s longish, much beloved face. Once upon a time she’d feared he’d married her only for her lands and title, for she’d always known she was plain and the only thing she could give him was tall sons and daughters. She’d been astonished to find he’d married her for her heart and mind.
As much as he loved her, she loved him. She knew she was going to die, if there were shouts in the Great Hall the odds were already against them. She wanted to run her hands through her husband’s dark brown hair one last time, to stroke and touch and hold him, but the cries and clamor below told her time was too short.
She was the Queen. She could go, run with Gawain herself, provided there was any place safe for them to run to. She would then be only the dowager Queen, guardian to Gawain until his adulthood, should he live so long, and dependent upon the charity of one of their vassals or neighboring kingdoms. Oryan was King and there were those who would flock to follow him because he was their King. And to Gawain, their prince. Their son. Her son.
As High King, even in exile, Oryan could protect him far better than she.
As she ran down the long hall, the stone cold beneath her bare feet, a thousand thoughts raced through Gwen’s mind.
Most of them were of Oryan and Gawain.
Precious Gawain. She pictured her son in her mind’s eye, so astonishingly beautiful to his mother’s fond eye, with his father’s thick brown hair and her gray eyes. She thought of the thousand things she would now never see. She wouldn’t watch him grow to manhood, or marry, or have children she could bounce on her knee. A part of her wept. Sorrow and fear burned in her chest like acid, threatened to turn her nerves to water.
Knowing who the cause of this likely was she could also too easily see her son bloody and broken on the stones below her windows. Thrown there by his uncle, Haerold, her husband’s half-brother―no other would have done this―as a sacrifice to his own ambition, or he would raise her son to be another such as he. Better dead than that. Anything but that.
She wanted to weep but instead grasped her swords all the tighter. Morgan had said she was one of his better students with a sword. Now she would have the chance to prove it. She would make him and Oryan proud.
Oryan’s heart cried out in grief and in protest as he watched her go but in his King’s heart he knew she was right.
“Go,” he shouted, in place of the kiss he should have given her.
His heart tore but she’d already flung the door open and was racing away down the hall. Away from him.
The clash and clamor of battle came all the louder through the open door as he ran through it behind her.
Close, far too close. How had they gotten in so quick without the alarm being raised?
With the battle so close and Gwen going to face it, Oryan ran the other way, toward their son, toward Gawain and Morgan, if Morgan had returned in time. Morgan, Oryan’s High Marshal, wouldn’t let the boy die, not if there was life and breath in him to prevent it.
Whatever power resided in the earth and sky, in the fields and flowers, Oryan prayed to it and to every other god as he ran down the stone halls, his heart torn between his beloved wife and the son they had made between them.
Gawain was all, he was everything. If anything was to be preserved from this betrayal, it lay in Gawain.
This was Haerold’s doing, of that Oryan was certain.
His brother, or half-brother and Oryan cursed the day his mother met the infernal wizard who helped her make him.
Some strange magic crackled and snapped in the air, prickling his skin, while flashes of it lightened the sky through the arrow slits like greenish lightning, but not as pure. No, not as pure. If he dared allow himself the luxury of weeping in rage and sorrow he would have.
Gwen. His heart was breaking.
Just the thought of her, alone… He could picture her in his mind’s eye as she fought on the stairs, her swords slashing, holding and defending…dying…to buy them time, to save him and their son.
Gwen’s thoughts were of Oryan as she raced down the stairs to the landing to find the enemy in Haerold’s colors of black and gray coming up, their feet pounding up the stairs toward her.
She stopped to face them down, lifted her chin and swords defiantly.
And they came.
Steeling herself, she parried with one sword while she slashed with the other, taking the first with a kick, to send him staggering back against his brethren. She cried out her fury, her rage and despair as she slashed and battered at them, driving forward and the surprise of her attack pushed them back, a step, two, until she gained the landing. It was hers now and she would hold it as long as she could…
Above, Oryan rounded the corner to find Morgan there, strong, sure, capable Morgan and he blessed whatever Gods there were on earth or heaven for the man who stood before him.
Morgan. Thank the Gods
A tall man, Morgan was built solid with deep broad chest, broader shoulders and strong arms. He was so fair in skin and hair he was like a beacon of light in the flickering glow of the torches in the hall. That torchlight sparked like fire from his close-cropped hair, glints of gold and red. He stood four-square at the entrance to the hallway, one brow lifted, pale blue eyes watchful, his full mouth tight, determined, his swords bared as he faced the servant’s stair and looked to see who came from the direction of the King’s quarters.
Their eyes met and Oryan saw clearly in Morgan’s what he feared to see.
It was over. They were lost. Whatever faint hope Oryan had entertained for retaking the castle vanished in that single glance.
Seeing his King, Morgan pushed back grief and anger. He’d only held long enough to learn if the King and Queen or the young Prince survived.
Oryan had, and the boy.
Not the Queen.
The attack couldn’t have been planned better, coming as it did when he’d been supposed to be gone and the attackers arriving in the darkest hours of the night. If he hadn’t returned earlier than expected...
Others of Morgan’s men brought the boy, Oryan’s son, from the Prince’s bedroom, young Gawain frightened until the boy saw his father and Morgan, faces he knew and trusted.
With a faint smile and a touch of pride, one of the men held up the boy’s sword. “He held this until he saw our cockades, Captain, Your Highness. He was very brave.”
Gawain said, “Father?”
“There’s no time to explain, Gawain,” Oryan said, with a nod and brushed a hand over his son’s hair with a mixture of pride, grief and fear. “Stay with me.”
“Where’s Mother?” Gawain asked.
Oryan couldn’t answer, it was too wrenching…
Now it was only to run, to survive and live to fight another day, to take back his crown if they could, for his people and for his son.
“Go, Morgan,” Oryan said.
Morgan went, gesturing to his people to proceed and to follow, to guard the King and the Heir.
“They came from nowhere and everywhere,” Morgan said, explaining as they raced down the hallway.
He hesitated only a fraction of a moment, waiting for Gwen, hoping still but even then knowing that if Oryan was here alone then Gwenifer wasn’t coming. Grief stung him for Gwen, for Oryan his King and for young Gawain, but there was no time for it.
“The raiders had already broken through the great doors to the castle proper in numbers when we arrived.”
He and his people had watched as some kind of magical portal opened and men poured out of it. More men than his small party could handle.
Morgan’s choice had been made for him then, in that moment, the only thing left was to try to reach the boy and the King and Queen if he could. The Queen…
“Liliane,” Morgan said, “take the boy.”
The woman, one of his best soldiers, nodded.
“Where?” Oryan asked.
Morgan met his eyes and saw the grief there. His own heart ached with it.
“There is only up,” Morgan said, evenly.
The same thought was in both their minds.
Oryan looked at him.
The Hall below had been aboil with the invaders. Morgan and his people had been lucky to get past them unnoticed.
Only one ally might yet save them…if their embassy hadn’t been attacked as well.
The Court wizard had no doubt been among the first to die, as had Morgan’s, but there was another, another chance, or so legend had it. Focusing both heart and mind, Oryan sent out a Call, picturing the one he needed so desperately…
Ahead of them they heard the sounds of fighting.
Oryan swore. “Whatever happens, they must not take Gawain.”
All of them knew it. If Oryan’s line was to survive the boy was their only hope. All of them knew of Haerold, the rumors and the truths—which were far darker.
Morgan and his men sprinted ahead in a great flying wedge, Morgan at the lead as the last of the King’s men defending the back servant’s stair fell before the surge of invaders.
In a clash of steel and flesh they came together, Morgan’s Marshals and the intruders, the intruders caught unprepared for the new assault.
No one stopped for even a second nor even paused.
Liliane looked the boy Gawain square in the eyes.
“On my back,” she said, fiercely, “and you stay there. You don’t let go. You hear me?”
The boy nodded and she swung him around behind her, freeing her hands, freeing her swords.
They would have to kill her to get to him.
Swords flashed as Morgan hacked a way through and his people drove into the mass of fighters, scattering them, cutting through, cutting past. The dark clad invaders fell but they took Armand with them, an ill-timed thrust getting past his guard and armor both.
An invader leaped at Oryan but the King, no slouch with a sword himself, cut the man down on the fly with one quick swipe of his longsword as those of Morgan’s men behind him joined the battle, too.
Then they were past. Not a single invader survived that assault.
Distantly behind them they could hear the sounds of running men coming toward them, boots clattered. There was the crash of doors being kicked in, shouts of frustration and fury. Searching. Not theirs then.
Pain pierced Oryan’s heart. Gwen? If they had come so far…then she was fallen… Gwenifer!
Grief nearly swallowed him. He knew then that his beloved Queen was gone.
They raced up the stairs of the circular tower, desperate to reach the top before Haerold’s men reached them, before his magic found them.
Below on the stair came the sound of battle, the clang and clamor of steel on steel, the grunt and groan of men in combat as Morgan’s men held the door. They hammered the invaders back and back, slammed the door shut and barred it quickly. It wouldn’t hold long.
They burst out into darkness as the wind whipped at their hair, their clothes, as it battered at them.
Far beneath them in the courtyard below, the castle Guard fought a hopeless battle. Steel rang on steel, metal crashed on wood… Light flashed luridly, greenish and unnatural… magic… Men died in the roar of the flames…Shouts, screams and desperate cries filled the air clearly even so high above.
Oryan looked up to the black night sky to find it filled with gossamer wings…