Secrets of the Court: Chapter 20

 February 15th – Morrow's Glade

Christine never saw who charged first. The only thing indicating a fight was the sound of steel and shouts coming from both sides. Rajac kept to her side as he swiftly escorted her to the horses. The meadow saw the courtiers run away in a crazed panic. People fell and got trampled into the snow, and horses grew nervous at the commotion—breaking free from their carriages or the pages that held them.

The peaceful morning broke into chaos as it witnessed a raging battle between the men of Launel and Hawthorne. Tristan, Durun, Fawkes, and Joseph kept most at bay as more men joined their side. Soon, Durun took the front, fiercely cutting down his opponents as blood dripped from fresh wounds, tainting the white ground.

"Go!" he shouted as Savoie attacked once again, trying to stab him in the chest with his longsword. "Go to the palace, I will stay!" Durun urged. Tristan did not have to think twice and soon he, Fawkes, Joseph, and a handful of other men ran for their horses.

Christine had never seen a battle before and she did not know how to react. So she stood there, watching the massacre take place, feeling a coldness expand inside her chest. She watched men cry out in the icy morning as they fell, the frozen steel ripping their soft flesh. It was violent, bloody, and void of any humanity.

As men tumbled to the ground, they cried out the names of loved ones. Some, choking on their blood or trying to hold their flesh together, cried for their mothers in a desperate attempt to be saved by the women who had brought them into the world. To Christine, such a sight was heartbreaking.

"My lady, we need to leave!" Rajac urged as he helped her on her horse.

"But what about Tristan!" she exclaimed, looking at the group of men slicing each other down. Her heart rose in her chest as she saw him, followed by a dozen men as they made their way to her.

"There he comes! Now, let's not linger!" Rajac mounted his horse. Tristan and the others had grabbed their own mounts. The masked man turned around, watching Durun fiercely taking down the other group of conspirators. They were slightly outnumbered, but he knew the other would succeed. He trusted in him.

"Where to, Hawthorne?" shouted Fawkes as their horses cantered away. They rode between the running servants who tried their best in following their fleeing masters.

"My townhouse!" Tristan shouted back. "We need to regroup before we head to the palace."

With that they set for Wessport, leaving the bloody fight behind them. Christine held onto Monica Savoie's horse and closed her eyes.

Before this day, with Athar's imprisonment, she had thought it was all over, she thought they were safe. But it seemed that was never the case. Those few days had merely been the calm before the storm—a storm that revealed itself to be a raging tempest.

The townhouse stood almost empty as they arrived. The men in the group were grim as Tristan and Joseph had informed them of every detail on the road. Tristan quickly dismounted his horse and opened both doors wide, letting in the people that followed him.

The entrance was quiet and still. A small layer of dirt had already started to cover the floor, the dust particles quickly stirred as they entered.

"What is the meaning of this?" shouted a female voice in irritation as she rushed to the hall. When she saw the sight of battle-worn men and the bloodstains they carried on their clothes, her face changed from a quiet irritation to a pale white. Shock and confusion were apparent in her dull eyes. Mrs. Rochester never expected that this was how Tristan Hawthorne would return to his townhouse.

"My lord… what on earth…" she trailed off as her eyes found Christine, standing next to Rajac and Joseph.

"Get all the fighting men you can find in this house and bring them here, Mrs. Rochester," Tristan said without giving her a second look. She did as he bade immediately, without questioning him. Only the steady click of her heels could be heard as she rushed away from the group.

Tristan, however, was in a desperate situation. They were a dozen strong men up against an unknown number of fighters who had planned their attack for months, maybe years. He never let his fear show, he only worried about keeping Christine safe and away from the fight.

They walked into the abandoned hallway, now foreign to them. To Christine, it seemed a lifetime ago that she had stood there and watched as the palace servants came to take her things. It seemed a lifetime ago as she had escorted Antonia Coticelli up those wide stairs to be fitted for her gown.

Her eyes sought Tristan's. He was in a heated discussion with Rajac and Fawkes. They needed a plan and fast. Joseph had seen at least forty men take down the king's guard and he had no idea if James was captured or not.

"We cannot charge in blindly," Tristan said heatedly. "Or we will be slaughtered on the spot." His words made Christine shiver involuntarily. She didn't want to imagine him in such a position.

"But we cannot go through the main gates. They will be guarding those," Rajac said pensively.

"Then where can we go?" asked Fawkes. Some of the other men who had followed them—loyal to the king, had nothing to offer on their part. They lounged around, waiting for a command they could follow. It was Christine who realized they had overlooked one thing.

"What about the passageways?" she asked after a long silence as they had all desperately tried to come up with a plan. "They probably think we are being taken prisoners by Savoie and Alistair back at the glade. They will not yet be guarding the passageways."

"But we do not know of any entrance outside of the palace," Joseph said. He had always heard of the secret passageways, but never actually seen them. Suddenly, one of the men, Michael Callahan, got up. The young sandy-haired man bore a charming and arrogant grin as he spoke with evident hope in his voice.

"I know of one passageway. It starts in the upper circle, by the east fountain, and goes all the way to the chapel. It was an escape route for the king in case the castle ever got besieged. But now the lords and ladies of the palace use it for… other things…" Callahan turned red as he insinuated what those other things might be. But none of them cared for such frivolities. Gossip was not the first thing on their minds at that point.

"Do you know where the entrance is?" Tristan walked over to him, this was their only chance.

"I do, my lord Hawthorne," Callahan nodded. He knew the great responsibility that lay on his shoulders. Only he could now lead them through the vast and complex networks of passageways that were hidden throughout the palace. "If we can get to the chapel, we can get to His Majesty's quarters through yet another passageway that is located in the chapel as well. We can get him out there until we join our forces and take down these traitors." 

Tristan placed a hand on Callahan's shoulder and gave him an approving nod. He looked around, at all the weary faces that seemed to seek him out for guidance.

"In the basement, I keep some weapons we might use—flintlocks, swords, and a variety of knives. Joseph will show you. Be back here quickly and then we leave," he said in an authoritative voice. The men spared no time and rushed after Joseph. He took them down to the basement where the old Roman relics of the past guarded secrets lost in the folds of time.

Tristan turned to face Christine. When his eyes searched hers, he only found anger and fear in them.

When he neared her, reaching out for her, she turned from him, trying to hide her face. Her jaw was tensed and her eyes glazed over. The air in the room was weighed heavy. Dust particles that had been stirred from the dirtied floor were flying around, caught in the beams of light that entered from outside. The doors to the courtyard were still wide open and the naked sky greeted them; almost taunting them. The blue heavens smiled down on them–a beautiful day with a perfect sun, but it smiled down upon a turbulent capital.

At first, Tristan said nothing, for he had no words. There were sadness and anger emanating from her. She didn't want him to go. But as he placed a hand on her chin, guiding her face to meet his, he conveyed to her that it would be alright. Christine's harsh demeanor broke after a while as her lip quivered. A strange premonition had taken hold of her—nauseated at the thought that Tristan would soon be in the lion’s den.

Tristan had given enough for Angloa, why did he have to give more now? She wanted them to go home and leave the turmoil of Wessport behind, to let it rot in its excessive corruption and greed. But she knew deep down that Tristan had to go to James. She knew deep down that he had a cemented duty to his monarch and his country. Tristan belonged to Angloa before he belonged to her. At least, that was what Christine thought. In the end, there was nothing she could say or do that would change his mind. In the end, like it or not, she had to accept the cards fate had dealt them.

Christine stepped in closer, she was reminded of that early morning, of the hours before dawn, when they sat in each other's arms, staring at the fires as they awaited the duel. Why did it feel like it was all repeating itself?

"Promise you will return to me," she said after a while. Her voice was strained but her anger washed away. She didn't want to part ways while being angry with him. She knew that asking him to stay would be futile and unnecessary, the only thing she then could do was accept that he had to leave. Christine took a deep breath, burying her face in the fabric of his doublet, and took in the scent of pine and sandalwood.

"I will always return to you," he murmured against her ear while brushing her soft golden locks away from her face. Despite the cold that seeped in from the still-opened door to the townhouse, a flush crept up Christine’s cheeks.

He placed his arms around her, and she leaned into the embrace, resting her head against his chest while listening to his heartbeat and to his steady breathing. She wished that they could stay this way forever but she had not the courage to voice it despite wanting to.

Christine closed her eyes and appreciated the warmth and closeness of the embrace, her own hands trailing around his waist as she pulled him further in. His heart sped up at the brash action, and she was not aware of the pink hue that had spread across her cheeks. She opened her eyes and looked up.

Christine never knew how it happened. She never knew who took the first step. Her mind spun as the fresh scent of pine and sandalwood washed over her. The nerves in her skin seemed to be more sensitive and receptive. She felt it before she ever saw it coming.

Tristan couldn't be sure either who had leaned in first. Maybe they both had simultaneously. Her breath was sweet and warm against his lips as her own softly pressed against his. For a moment, the action had him dumbfounded and amiss at how to react. That brief second felt like an eternity—her soft lips brushing hesitantly against his own, uncertain if they should continue. It was gentle and innocent as she kissed him.

It was the first time he felt her skin against his own. The sensation sent a jolt through them both as they wanted more. After that first, tender instance, he smiled against her mouth and pulled her further into his arms, deepening their kiss. He heard her breath catch in her throat as she willingly opened her mouth against his. Her arms circled around his neck while his own gripped her tightly around her waist. She allowed herself lost in the kiss, welcoming the intimacy between them. Christine felt the kiss grow wilder, more passionate, and desperate.

She never knew who broke the kiss first, only that his mouth smiled against hers—his forehead pressed against hers as he let his hands glide through her loose tresses. Meanwhile, her breathing was rapid, her fingers grabbing at the collar of his shirt

"How can I leave now?" he murmured softly against her lips sending a shiver down her spine.

"Only with the promise that you will do all you can to return safely," she whispered, turning her head to stare into his eyes. "And promise me to be careful." She never knew the effect she had on him, of that Tristan was certain.

They weren't aware of how some of the men had returned from the cellar and kept to the background. Simon Rajac looked at the couple as his jaw grew tense. Amalia Rajac was in Wessport Palace, in the midst of the battlefield. And he wanted nothing more than to get her to safety. Fawkes smiled knowingly, remembering how it felt to part from a loved one before an important fight. But they had little time to spare and approached them.

Christine grew shy in the presence of the others and promptly stepped aside. Mrs. Rochester had returned with some footmen who had been informed of the accounts of Morrow’s Glade and the situation at the palace. Two stable boys and the stable master joined in as well. They barely made up a force of twenty men. But at least it was something.

"We will get him back to you unharmed," said Fawkes as he gave her a small bow.

Christine gave him a stiff nod, watching in quiet despair as the men walked out of the townhouse with heavy steps. They approached the horses while the stable master and pageboys saddled some horses for themselves and for the footmen.

"Look after her for me while I'm gone," Tristan said to Mrs. Rochester as she neared them. The old woman's lips thinned, her skin still white as a ghost's. She nodded, frightened out of her wits, wanting nothing more than to get away from Wessport. But she took one look at Christine and sighed. She owed her ladyship loyalty as her servant, and Mrs. Rochester would do what she could to keep her safe.

"I will, my lord," she said in low tones. That was all the seasoned general needed as he reached for his horse.

Tristan mounted Cid, ignoring Fawkes as he, through jests and in good humor, tried to lighten the mood. Tristan turned in the saddle, facing Christine, watching her stand in the grand door opening next to Mrs. Rochester. The winds stirred the snow from the ground, the white flakes swirled around her form as the sunbeams kissed her skin. Her fair locks danced in the wind, her lips were slightly swollen from their kiss and her eyes were large and glazed. She had her jaw squared and her hands gripping her skirts tightly. Something tightened in his heart as he took her in, a part of him wanting to remain behind with her.

Christine overlooks Wessport

Tristan never felt Cid walk away from her—from an image that would ingrain itself into his memory forever. He never heard the joyful conversation between Fawkes and Joseph the young blonde raise her hand, waving him goodbye—the winds picking up her skirts and swirling them around her legs.

The sun shone on a desolate plaza, a naked tree stood in its center with dunes of snow around the base of its trunk. The tree had always stood naked, no leaves would grace its crown. It had been dead for at least half a century, but it would not be taken down, by request of James.

It was barely mid-morning and yet no merchants nor inhabitants of the city had graced the streets of the upper circle. All kept to their houses, peeking out the windows as they spoke in hushed voices. Those who had been at Morrow's Glade had run to their townhouses and barricaded the doors, waiting out the siege of the palace in safety. It was evident that they cared little for what happened to their monarch. Women sat in their parlors, gossiping while paranoia overtook them. The men had gathered their footmen and put them to guard the various entrances of their houses.

It was therefore that the clatter of hooves managed to stir the households encircling the picturesque square. They flocked to the windows, pushing to see who had dared venture out at such a crucial hour.

They were not surprised when they saw Tristan Hawthorne and Anthony Fawkes leading a group of men to the plaza, armed to the teeth, and looking about ready to take down anything or anyone who came in their way.

Christine still haunted Tristan’s thoughts as he lingered on their kiss and their goodbye. Despite the perilous situation, his heart was soaring.

Callahan took them to the small plaza and dismounted his horse. He approached the old tree and looked around the trunk until he found what he was searching for—a switch. To their surprise, the switch released a mechanism that opened a thin passage in the wide trunk of the naked tree.

"This way, it takes us underground, and the path is quite long," Callahan urged as the others followed. Tristan glanced around. Leaving their horses out in the open would surely call attention.

"Joseph, take the horses aside, hide them in some alley. It will save us a few minutes if Savoie and Alistair happen to come by this square," he said as he pointed to a shadowed alleyway where their horses could be tied to the end of the house. Joseph started taking the horses in groups of four, helped by a page as the rest started entering the passageway.

Once Joseph and the page were finished they hastily entered, butterflies extending within their stomachs and the premonition of a coming fight cause a sense of malaise to creep up on them. Joseph stifled an involuntary shiver. He had never partaken in such a fight. It had always been on the battlefield, the moment before striking the other army. But he always knew exactly where it was and when it would strike. Now he was about to confront an enemy of unknown numbers at an unknown place. He had caught a brief glance at the men that had entered the palace—robust, merciless brutes who looked like they fought daily for a living, like they thrived on the kill. They were nothing like the men that had accompanied Tristan and Fawkes. Joseph tried to hide his nervous state when a hand suddenly squeezed his upper arm.

"The thrill of the fight has gotten to you too, eh lad?" chuckled Fawkes as he walked behind him, slightly hunched over in the low stone passage. Joseph gave a stigg nod his throat tight and his jaw clenched in anticipation.

They moved slowly, the roof low and iced over; no doubt it would be dripping with water during the warmer months. There was only one torch—held by Callahan at the front. The men followed him meticulously in silence as he led them through the tight passageways and complex network of paths. Rats and other vermin jumped aside as their heavy footsteps struggled to find secure footing between the many roots and upturned stones that covered the ground. But, as they advanced, the ground became more even, the roof higher and the space wider. After what seemed like an eternity, they were walking in a normal corridor. The sense of claustrophobia was long gone and now they strained their ears to hear any signs of a confrontation.

The group reached the end of the passage. Callahan put up a hand to signal them to a stop, but he never made a move to open the door and leave the cold and murky corridor. Tristan squeezed past the men and moved to the front.

"Why are we not getting out of this blasted place?" he growled as his eyes stared harshly at Callahan, suspicion arising every second the man didn't answer. Callahan, on the other hand, had been staring out a small hole, allowing a view of the east end of the chapel. He stepped aside to let Tristan see what he had just witnessed. Tristan hunched forward and looked through the hole carved into the stone. His whole body tensed as he saw what he surmised to be a group of ten men—maybe more—guard that part of the chapel.

"They have foreseen our actions," Callahan muttered as his jaw tensed. His black eyes grew harsh as he realized that there was nothing they could do to get to the king. But Tristan didn't appear as dismayed by what he saw.

"Where is the other passage we need to get to?" he asked as he counted the men—a total of thirteen armed men.

"Do you see over there, by the confessionary? There is a panel in the back of the column that opens one of the larger portraits on the wall behind it. It'll take you straight to the king's personal quarters," Callahan explained. Tristan's eyes drifted to the confessionary. It wasn't too far away. The chapel was far enough from the main building that a confrontation would most likely not be heard.

"If they expected us," he began, "they would have placed more men here. I am certain Lord Braun is aware of this passageway, and therefore he placed these men here. But I do not think he foresaw that we would use it." Tristan straightened and turned around to stare at the faces of the men that had gathered close to him.

"We have the advantage—the element of surprise. If we use the pistols, we will attract attention. But if we use the throwing knives and crossbows instead we can silently take out at least half of them," he said as he eyed their choice of weapons. At least two of the men carried with them crossbows. Another three carried daggers as well as bigger knives.

"Do you know how to use those?" Tristan asked as he pointed at the weapons. He received cocky grins as one of the men took a knife and gracefully played with it in his hand. The sharp metal danced around his fingers as the man handled it. The others that had the crossbows gave him a faint nod as they started loading the weapons with the small arrows.

The rest of the men silently got their own weapons ready. Most carried swords. Some footmen had robust axes while the stable master bore the largest hammer any of them had ever seen. It might have looked comedic if the situation were not so dire. The stable master, Ben, sported a proud, dark-blond beard and wild unkempt hair. His dark eyes were eager for a fight, and the hammer was gripped tightly in both his hands.

"We get out silently on my command. You with the crossbows and daggers take the front. When you are out of weapons, head for the other passage with Callahan and open it. The rest of us will keep up a barrier. Once we see that the passage is open, then we get in quickly. We cannot afford to try to kill them all. Other posted guards may happen upon us and we'll be stuck fighting in this chapel forever." He looked around at the serious and gloomy faces. "Those who stay behind… stay behind," he said coldly. It was cruel but they all understand his reasoning. They could not return for a fallen friend and doom their mission. "That includes me as well. If I fall, leave me," Tristan said, detached. He hoped such a thing would not happen. But, while he had been certain he would win earlier that morning against Alistair, he was not certain now of what was to come.

"But how are we supposed to get the king away from here safely if the passage we use is blocked?" Fawkes said pensively.

"Are there other ways out of the king's apartments?" Tristan turned to Callahan.

"The passage we're taking splits in two. I only know of the one leading from the chapel to the king's quarters. But I have no idea where the other one leads," he said, uncertainty expanding on his face as he twisted uncomfortably. None of them wanted to get stuck with James with an army at their doorstep. They needed a safe way out.

"Then we agree. We grab His Majesty and head for the other hidden passage." Fawkes was serious as he spoke. His longsword was sharp as he gripped it firmly. The eagerness for battle was clear in his eyes. The old general suddenly felt twenty years younger.

"On my signal," whispered Tristan in anticipation as the tension rose. The men felt their muscles twitch at the coming fight, knowing that some of them might fall. Tristan peered out the small hole, waiting for some of the guards to disperse. He was already in a fighting stance, tightly gripping two long knives in each of his hands that Joseph had given to him in a rush. They were as good a weapon as any other.

Tristan slowly pushed against the door as it opened, watching the guards walk away. Only six stood there, chatting in merry tunes, not too preoccupied with keeping a lookout.

He jumped out.

Tristan was followed by Joseph, Callahan, the knife-wielders, and the crossbowmen. They glided like ghosts in the still chapel. Each sound any of them made sent their hearts beating wildly. They did not wish to get found out yet.

Tristan gripped his knives and crouched near the wall, the six men accompanying him did the same. Behind them, the other men slowly started following them. They glided as quietly as they could along the walls, stopping instantly when they saw a guard move in their direction.

Tristan motioned for the crossbowmen. The three of them took aim. A pregnant silence expanded as they all knew what would follow once the arrows were released. Tristan kept playing with the knives in his hands, gripping them tightly. One of the men inhaled slowly and Tristan knew that he would release his arrow on the next exhale.

It was a very long inhale. The crouching bowman then slowly let the breath accumulated in his lungs go and the arrow sailed away elegantly with a silent whoosh.

The guard was dead before he hit the ground. And before any of the other men could react, a knifeman threw two daggers through the air. One collided with a shorter guard in the throat, the action killing him slowly and agonizingly. The other caught a man in the chest. But the piece of metal did not manage to embed itself far enough to be lethal.

Tristan rose his hand and signaled the others to strike. The bowmen sent their arrows flying, taking down a few more guards. The other injured two more. It was then that their position was discovered.

Tristan rose together with Joseph and readied for close combat. He motioned for Callahan to run for the other passageway and open it as discreetly as he could.

More men in their group quickly joined them as the rest of the guards finally noticed their fallen comrades.

"We are under attack!" one of them shouted. They unsheathed their weapons and charged blindly into the fray, eager for a fight. Tristan, Joseph, and some others did well in keeping the bloodthirsty men at bay. Alas, one in Tristan's group was suddenly pierced, a painful moan escaped the young man as he fell to the ground, clutching his thigh.

Suddenly, more men appeared around the corner and Tristan then realized that they were outnumbered.

"Joseph, Timothy, take Peter and get him into the passageway," Tristan ordered. He would hold the men off with the remaining group as long as he could. Callahan, Fawkes, and the rest were awaiting them ill at ease in the passage.

Joseph never questioned Tristan openly. But the look in his eyes spoke of an unwillingness to leave the masked man in such an unfavorable position. He and Timothy took the wounded Peter in their arms and ran for the passageway. Some men followed but Tristan figured Fawkes would slice them dead before they stepped foot in the passage.

Instead, Tristan focused on holding the spilling horde of brutes at bay as best as he could. He realized, however, that there were too many when someone got close enough and managed to touch his arm with their sword. The wound was nothing, for he hardly felt it. But it alarmed him how outnumbered they were. He looked around his group. Five men were fighting ferociously next to him. Five men that he'd need when they arrived at James' side.

"Retreat!" he finally shouted, gritting his teeth as the other men realized that they were winning. Those standing at his side bolted for the passage without hesitation. Tristan was last—fighting like he'd never fought before. He went into a frenzy and soon none dared to step closer to him as it was clear that he would kill anyone that was within his range. Tristan was backing away slowly as more than fifteen men stood tense, not wanting to attack him for fear of their lives.

He turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him. It made him more vulnerable, for it bared his back. Yet, Tristan's legs were fast and strong, and in one breath he had jumped into the passage just as Callahan closed it behind him, sealing it.

When the other men rounded the corner they stared at the wall next to the confessional in disbelief. They searched its inside and around it, scratching their heads as there was no trace of the masked man and his men. Whispers that he must've been an apparition circulated amongst the more superstitious. Braun’s men grew pale. There was no other explanation. How else could Tristan and all those men just have disappeared? No one had seen where they had gone in the heat of the fight.

"I think we are safe for now," whispered Callahan as he pushed away from the peeking hole. "But I am certain they will inform their superiors that we are in the palace now." Callahan turned grim.

Tristan got up from the floor as he caught his breath. "Let us not think of that. We need to get to James," he said slowly, looking around the dimly lit place.

The passage was like a regular corridor, only there was no sunlight to filter through a stray window. They were guided only by the torch that they had brought with them. There was a dampness in the corridor as they proceeded forward. Its walls pressed down on them almost as if they were in an elongated tomb. The corridor was wide enough for two men to walk side by side but the roof was very low. Tristan was forced to hunch so the top of his head wouldn't hit the low roof. Several others had to do the same.

"How is Lord Peter?" Tristan asked, looking around after the wounded man. He saw a pale man sitting on the ground, clutching his wounded leg as blood spilled from it.

"The blood doesn't flow as fast now, my lord, but I am afraid I am not fit to continue fighting. I am sorry." There was a tone of defeat in Peter's voice as he cast his brown eyes to the ground in disappointment.

"Nonsense, Peter!" explained Fawkes. "You wait here and take care of that leg of yours. That is what is most important for now," Fawkes said with a faint smile hiding his growing concern. Peter let his head rest against the wall, his lips weakly tugging upward.

"Aye, I will rest here and wait to hear of your victory over Braun," he murmured. He grew paler by the minute.

"My lords," another voice broke the silence as they prepared to part. Timothy, the one who had carried Peter to the passageway stepped forth. He bore a look of guilt on his face as he spoke the next words. "Although my deepest wish is to go with you, may I stay here and look after Peter until your return?"

There was no doubt in Fawkes' voice as he spoke. "We need a lookout anyway—someone who will make certain that this passageway is not breached," he nodded.

"We will come back for you, Peter. I promise," Tristan vowed in low tones. "You as well, Timothy." Tristan hoped that when they did come back, they would find themselves with a living and breathing man and not a corpse. Peter managed a nod as he released a sigh. The wounded man could not hide the weight taken off his shoulders. At least he would not be alone.

"Go," Peter said finally as Tim sat down beside him, draping his cape over his shivering body. There was nothing else to be said and so, Callahan took the front, once more leading them through dark and ominous hallways. Tristan stared back as he saw Peter, sitting in the dim light of the peeking hole. His head bobbed up and down as he was no doubt fighting to stay awake.

Loud bangs could be heard on the heavy wooden door leading to the royal chambers. James had been taken to his own apartments. Queen Tabitha had been taken to a secluded room in his personal chamber, the door locked for her safety. A few loyal ladies-in-waiting had stayed as the first men invaded the palace. The rest had, as if knowing the siege would happen, run away in a frenzy, wanting to get away as fast as possible.

James stood in the grand parlor. He'd had his men barricade the door with the furniture in the room. Various settees, couches, chairs, and even heavy wardrobes had been dragged there, placed in front of the door—the last shield against the army that awaited.

James had been in the throne room when the head of his king's guard, Jeremiah Wester, clad in blood-splattered armor, came running, announcing that the palace was under attack. James had not believed it at first. He was still struck with grief and anger. He had not wanted to see anyone, not even Tristan a few hours earlier. Anything that reminded James of Athar was quickly disregarded by him. But when the unmistakable shouts of battle were heard from the entrance and hallway, he could no longer ignore them. James rushed with the king's guard to safety, trying to get a hold of his generals and armies. He realized that more than half of the court was away to watch the duel between Tristan Hawthorne and Matthew Alistair

"Robert!" he commanded, the loyal Chamberlain of the Wessport palace came to his side. The nervous state of the poor Chamberlain did not go unnoticed. The king's guards and servants were barricaded in together with James—accompanied by some courtiers that had stayed behind. The loud banging against the oak doors seemed to grow in sound and force as time went by.

"Yes, Sire," Robert said, bowing as he came to stand next to his king. James was looking out the window in deep thought. He looked at the courtyard, now infested with more soldiers—soldiers that were not loyal to him. What irritated him most, was that he would never know all the men behind this coup. For James was certain that whoever barged in through that door would not leave him alive.

Regicide was not a light thing. Once the crown had been placed upon the subject's head, they were the head of the country. Killing that representative was, in a sense, weakening the power the crown presented. No one would dare go against what the crown stood for, nor what the king was. Yet, James suspected that these people who attacked him had no care for the sacred symbol he and his crown represented. Alas, there was one thing he was certain of. He would not go down easily. He would not cower before the swords of lesser men, of backstabbers, and blackguards.

"Go through these apartments, search every room, and return with any weapon you may find," James said sternly.

"You mean to fight, Sire?"

"Of course I mean to fight. What kind of question is that?" James snapped as he stared down at Robert.

"Nothing, Sire, just that maybe you yourself should go join Her Majesty and let us–"

"I will not be known as the king who cowered with the women while he let others fight for him. If these men mean to murder me, then let it be with a sword in my hand," James growled as his eyes burned in anticipation. Robert did not talk back. For the first time since he had known him, James displayed his true lineage—the unwavering resolution of the Fells. A shiver passed through the older courtiers in the room, for it was like Philip Fell himself was in the room with them once more—alive in James.

Robert obeyed, and he went with some willing soldiers and courtiers to raid the rooms for anything of use.

James knew of the passageways in his rooms, passageways he could have used to escape this disaster long ago. But when they had tried the main one, just outside of his chamber, they had found it lodged from the inside. Someone familiar with his apartments, familiar with these passageways and aware of the coup, had purposely gone locking the passages from the inside so that he might not escape when the time came. It irritated the king greatly, for this meant that someone in his inner circle, with access to this knowledge, had betrayed him. James knew Athar alone could not be behind this. It had to be someone else—more people from the court with powerful positions.

The banging stopped abruptly. It caused the tense people in the room to stare at the door, praying it hadn't broken. But the strong oak was intact, the metal frame had yet to bend and there was still no splitting of the wood.

"Your Majesty!" came a mocking voice. James grew cold as he recognized it, his jaw was tensed and his lips thin as ire stirred in him.

"Braun," he growled.

"Indeed." He had never heard such a vile and mocking tone in Braun's voice before. It was almost like the middle-aged nobleman savored a victory he had yet to win. The mask of Braun was off, it seemed. For he finally showed his true colors.

"I have stopped my men, for I wish to bargain," Braun said in a softer voice. It was as if he tried to lull James into a false sense of security.

"There is nothing we can bargain over."

"You care that little for your life? What about the life of your wife? Or the people in there with you?"


"I suspect you care nothing for them, then. You always were too proud, James." Braun sounded disgusted.

"It seems you have not thought about the consequences of what it means to kill a king," James retorted. "Your plan was elaborate—to lure people away with a duel. Tell me, what has happened to Lord Fawkes, Lord Hawthorne?" James was afraid that even they were in on it. What if Tristan Hawthorne had only acted in pretense against Alistair that day in the assembly room? James could bear no such thoughts and suppressed the emerging emotions of dread, sadness, and betrayal, as he had learned to do since childhood.

"Probably dead, if Alistair had his way. However, I would have liked to unmask Hawthorne myself. What a sight that would have been—to see that peasant's ravaged face and delight in the screams of your courtiers as they saw him for what he truly was." The words made James realize the personal contempt Braun held toward Tristan. He was surprised, Braun had never openly shown any distaste for the masked man.

But alas, it was true. The proud nobleman wanted the old days back, when common riffraff could not enter society so easily. He wanted the days when the rank between them all was distinguishable, and riches and power had been within his grasp. Lord Braun came from a very old and proud family—as old as the Fell family itself. But that all seemed forgotten under James' rule.

"I would sooner make a deal with the Devil than with you," growled James as he realized there would be no mercy from Braun. Never had he known he'd hosted such a man at his court. 

A dry laugh could be heard from the other side and then the loud banging started once more.

The others in the room had grown paler now. They knew of their doom. But none had yet dropped their arms and surrendered.

"Where is that damn Robert!" exclaimed James to himself after a few minutes of impatient waiting passed. The door started to give now, and the king's guard placed themselves at the front, their swords up, ready to impale the first man who barged in.

"Being useful," came a dark voice. It was another voice James recognized. His eyes lit up in pleasant surprise as he turned around.

There, in the opening to the spacious parlor, stood Tristan, Fawkes, and at least twenty men flooding into the room. They were armed, and some had blood splattered on their doublets. Robert stood next to Tristan, a wry smile spreading on his lips as he realized that there might still be hope for them.

But before the king could say anything else they all heard the oak doors crack loudly with a final bang.