Through pale breath on autumn air, Oswyn watched a tendril bleed across the night sky like an opening wound. Comets, the scholars called them. Priests of the Holy Circle claimed they were fallen heroes, soaring across the heavens on wings of fire gifted by the gods for their brave deeds. I wonder if they’ll have a pair for me, he thought. After tonight, a tour of the hellfires may come to suit me better.
“Lord Oswyn,” a voice spoke. He turned to meet Sir Holden, who he scarcely recognized in servant’s garb.
“You’ve kept me waiting in the cold, sir,” Oswyn said. “Was there difficulty on the way?”
“Nothing too taxing, My Lord.” He reached into the folds of his roughspun garment and produced a small vial. “The Brothers thank you once more. There will be songs sung of this day, I promise you.”
Oswyn slipped the vial into his sleeve. “Do tell them to sheath their quills until the deed is done. I’d hate for His Majesty to hear us celebrating his death while he yet lives.”
“Do not tarry long,” Holden said. “They prefer a bloodless death, but other means shall be pursued if it’s not done within the fortnight.”
“You’ve made that clear, Sir, though I can’t help but wonder at that. Your ‘brothers’ have no army that I can recall. The harvest tourney is in a fortnight. Do you intend to lure His Majesty into the melee and slay him yourself?”
“Your japes are uncalled for, My Lord. We are capable. Rest assured.”
Oswyn sighed, birthing another cloud of mist about their heads. He looked back to the red fissure in the sky and gestured. “Ever see a winged hero, Sir Holden? Now’s your chance.”
The knight followed his gaze and smiled. “Southrons don’t follow the Circle. Our heroes stay in the dirt where we bury them.”
“What do they call that in the lowlands then?”
“The old ones call them dragon’s tears. They say the Great Dragon forged the world through clenched teeth, with such effort that he still rests in the heavens, watching. When the realm bleeds, the Dragon weeps.”
Oswyn sat in his bedchamber, turning the vial over in his hand as he’d done every morning for a week. Has it really come to this? He’d known King Caelen when they were but scruffy boys with skinned knees. When the war came, Oswyn pledged every sword at his command to Caelen’s cause. He earned a seat on the royal assembly for his part in winning the throne. Now here he sat, plotting his friend’s death.
Caelen had changed in recent years. Each day brought news of another fealty lord burned alive at the king’s command, often during assembly for all to see. One could not ignore the screams escaping the dungeons, where good men were tortured for reasons unknown. Whispers of madness permeated the court, while the common folk had taken to calling him Caelen the Cruel.
He concealed the vial as a knock came. The king’s squire entered with a royal summons. A wisp of fear lashed at Oswyn’s neck as he followed the lad. Of late, Caelen spent most of his time locked away in his tower while the assembly did their best to govern the realm without him. A summons these days was seldom a good tiding.
When he entered the royal chambers, Caelen greeted him with a surprising embrace. “Good morrow, old friend,” he said. “Have you broken your fast?”
“Not as yet, Your Majesty,” Oswyn said.
“Then sit and break it with me. We must speak of traitors in our midst.”
The lump in Oswyn’s sleeve seemed to grow heavy. “If it please, Your Majesty.”
“When did you start calling me that? This isn’t the assembly hall. You sound like one of these stooging old codgers that buzz about my backside all day.”
“I’m sorry, Caelen,” Oswyn said. “It’s been a while is all. You don’t much leave your tower anymore.”
“Aye, that’s what these bastards have done to me, Os. When we were young, I’d never have holed myself up between a few stones like a bloody craven. But times change, and so do the battles we choose.” Caelen brought a hand up to his silvering beard. “That’s why I’ve asked you here. I mean to name you viceroy.”
“Viceroy?” Oswyn’s brows came together as bewilderment replaced fear. “After Robert burned, it was said you no longer saw need of one.”
“Rash words. I need a friend at my side, now more than ever. I’ve filled my court with fools and wolves, and you’re the last among them I know I can trust. Things are dire, Os, more than you know. A shadow looms from the East. I need your help if I’m to drive it back.”
“There is nothing east. The realm is yours from shore to shore. The old kingdoms are long scattered to the winds.”
“The shadow I speak of lies beyond the shore,” Caelen said. “A black hand is reaching across the sea and grasping for my throne. Their agents are at my back and under my bed, plotting my demise as we speak. I’ve burned many and more, but still they scurry about like rats.”
“Why have you not spoken of this before?”
“I must be careful how I speak these days. There are cracks in this castle, and words are slippery things. This is why I need you. Will you help me in this?”
Oswyn stood and fell to one knee. “I’ll do whatever I can, Your Majesty.”
The king laughed. “You always have. Rise, Lord Viceroy. And eat something, for hell’s sake.”
Tradition called for the king to preside over the harvest tourney each year, but Caelen elected to stay in his tower. He feared it too great an opportunity for his enemies to strike. Knowing what he knew, Oswyn couldn’t help but agree. As viceroy, it fell upon him to sit the king’s chair during the games. He played his part well, waving at the common folk and hailing the knights as they paid him tribute in the king’s stead. Beneath his false smile, anxiety would swell each time one of them raised their visors to salute him. Holden lurks under one of these helms.
Finally, the wayward knight showed himself, drawing closer than Oswyn would have liked. “Well met, Lord Viceroy,” he said, “and most sincere congratulations on your new title. You deserve it so.”
Oswyn returned his salute. “Thank you, sir. Good luck in the tourney.”
“I’ll need it, My Lord. I’m afraid I face today’s combat alone. My squire has abandoned me in my time of need.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. He must have good reason to leave such an esteemed knight wanting for aid. Perhaps the lad knows something you don’t.”
“One would certainly hope so. But I’d wager you afford him more credence than he deserves. If I know him well, he’s merely lost his spine at the last second. No matter though. The game will still be mine.” Holden turned to leave, before looking back with a flourish. “My brothers send their regards.”
The rest of the festivities were torturous. Holden’s words struck a stifling fear into him, made him feel an utter fool. I should have told him. I should have confessed. The guilt had been eating at him from the moment he felt the king’s embrace. A braver man would have delivered the traitor’s name there and then. But to indict Holden meant implicating himself, and truth be told, he still feared Caelen’s fire. The knight had been right in that much at least. Now his remorse was growing too heavy to bear, and time was running short.
Sir Holden’s turn at the lists only increased his trepidation. He was unhorsed on the first pass, giving him a convenient excuse to leave the fields in a mummer’s show of disgrace. The look he gave Oswyn as he sauntered away spelled a thousand words, all of them as loud and clear as a battle drum.
When he finally entered the king’s chambers with truth upon his lips, he was too late. Caelen was not alone. Sir Holden leaned against the hearth with a half-empty glass of wine. “Speak of the storm and clouds approach,” he said. “Come to finish what you started, traitor?”
Before Oswyn could muster a reply, the heavy wooden doors behind him slammed shut. The doormen had followed him in.
“My wine taster is dead,” Caelen said. “The good sir tells me you can lend some light to this mystery, Lord Viceroy.” His hand lied at rest on the hilt of his sword.
Oswyn’s fists clenched. “Your Majesty, whatever he’s told you is a lie. He–”
“And what of my cellar guards, who say the viceroy ordered them to stand aside while he went rooting through my carafes? What of the men in my service who searched your rooms and found this?” A vial left his hand and shattered at Oswyn’s feet. “Are they all liars, Os?”
“Not all.” Oswyn stared at the shards of glass, as the guards took his arms. “These are strange times, Caelen. I’ve done things I’d not proudly admit. Hear me out and I will confess my true crimes, but I swear to you this is not one of them. Please. You’ve known me all your life.”
The king’s voice was scant above a whisper. “Aye. Your betrayal is all the more wounding. I will hear what you have to say, perhaps on the morrow. Right now, I can hardly bear to look at you. Plead your innocence to the cells, old friend.”
There was no morrow for Oswyn, not for a very long while. Time lost all meaning in the dungeons. There was no telling just how many days he lost to that cold darkness, but it was enough for the glare of the sun to blind him when they saw fit to drag him out. They carried him up stairs and down hallways, ignoring his moans until finally coming to a stop and letting him fall to his knees. The flames at last. My time has come, he thought, but fire’s grip never came.
When sight returned he saw Caelen’s throne before him. On it sat a man with olive skin, dressed in ornate silk robes. He spoke in a language Oswyn had never heard before. As fair a woman as he’d ever seen stood at his right hand, speaking in the common tongue. “Silas the Exalted wishes to know your name, and why you stabbed your king.”
His voice cracked and faltered from disuse. “I am Oswyn, born of Edwyn, formerly Viceroy to His Majesty, and I did no such thing. I was not told–”
“A poor lie.” An odd kindling of fear and rage stirred inside Oswyn at the sound of Holden’s voice behind him. “I was there when Caelen died at this wretch’s hands, Your Exultance. The king was a madman, true. The realm cried out for a just ruler to take his place. But that doesn’t mend this man’s broken oaths. He should be put to the chopping block.”
“Holden flavors his falsehood with truth,” Oswyn said. “If Caelen is dead, his blood is on my hands. But I never brought steel against him. It was through dithering fear that I killed my king. I watched as the castle crumbled around him, even tore down a few bricks myself, and yet failed to reach out to my friend. It was likely this false knight’s sword which slew Caelen, but I let it happen.”
Silas nodded and spoke again. “Silas the Exalted is pleased you have spoken truly, Lord Oswyn. He knows who you are and what you have done. You have been brought before him that he might see for himself whether you have conquered the fear which led you into darkness.”
“That I cannot say.”
“You need say nothing. In your place, a craven man would have begged for mercy, or proudly claimed the king’s death in hope of gaining favor. Silas the Exalted has been watching from afar. He knew of your plot with Sir Holden and the Brothers. He witnessed your reluctance to act in the end.”
Holden took a step closer to the throne, nostrils flaring. “His Exultance has been given false counsel if he believes I had anything to do with King Caelen’s death. I am sworn to serve the throne, now and always. I did my best to protect His Majesty, even in his madness, and I have carried out every order Your Exultance has asked of me since the realm became yours. This traitor would sully my name to protect himself.”
Silas stirred atop his throne, eyes illegible. “Does this good knight truly believe that a man should be held in judgment for treason against a dead ruler, who has upon reflection been deemed unfit to wear the crown?” his second voice asked.
“Treason is treason,” Holden said. “In a just rule, none must be suffered.”
When Silas spoke again, there was no translation. The guards fell upon Sir Holden without warning. He made the mistake of drawing his sword, and they cut him down where he stood. As they dragged his carcass away, the irons about Oswyn’s wrists were released.
“Rise, Lord Viceroy,” the new king spoke through his interpreter. “Silas the Exalted has use for you. If his subjects are to love and obey, he must have a familiar face to show them. He must have a voice free of eastern intonation to carry his will. Most of all, he must have the service of one who has seen the harsh penalties of hesitation, fear, and disloyalty.”
Oswyn rose and met the king’s gaze. “That much I gladly swear. Never again will reluctance bind these hands.”
J.W. Alden has been writing stories since he’s been old enough to use a pen. Speculative fiction is his usual domain, but some other weird things sneak in from time to time. He lives in Florida with a cute girl and a bratty dog. You can read more from him at www.AuthorAlden.com.