Secrets of the Court: Chapter 21

 February 15th - Wessport

The men welled in like water through a small crack in the hull of a ship. The king's guard held their swords high and served as the first shield against the rebels. The hole in the door was small enough so that only one man could enter at a time. It served to their advantage. While three men had managed to enter, they soon regretted their decision to head in first. One was met with an arrow in the eye, falling dead to the ground instantly. The other was swiftly cut down by a guard, screaming in pain as the sword sliced through him. The wounded man was barely old enough to be called a man yet — the boy clutched his abdomen as his lifeblood spilled out of him, staining the elegant Persian rug splayed across the floor of the room.

While the king's guard kept the breach in check, the rest of them decided that it was better to leave quickly.

"Your Majesty, there is a safe passage down to the chapel. From there we can get you safely out of the palace until this whole situation calms down," Fawkes urged with a drawn sword.

James stared at his Field Marshal, insulted as he spoke. "I will not flee like a coward with traitors on my doorstep. I will stay. You may, however, escort my wife and her ladies-in-waiting," he roared, reaching for his own sword, ready to strike.

No one dared question James, and they all took on Braun's men as they spilled in. Callahan was tasked with escorting Queen Tabitha and her ladies down the passage followed by some servants and some of Tristan's footmen. The stable master swung his hammer left and right, screaming as adrenaline rushed through his veins. Fawkes laughed merrily as he easily took down one man after another. Ben and Fawkes met and they grinned at each other. The aging general felt like a young man once more when the thrill of the fight awoke every living cell in his body. Ben, however, was scared senseless.

Braun's men changed tactics for they understood that it was better to fight fewer of the king's men at a time. They had already taken down some of the king's guards and courtiers that way.

"The situation turns dire, my friend!" Fawkes smiled as he readied his sword when two men attacked him at the same time. He instantly killed one with the mere thrust of the weapon. He landed a hard punch right in between the other man's legs.

"Aye," came the strangled reply from Ben who swung his hammer through the air, making a whooshing sound. It embedded itself in the head of his attacker, sending parts of his cracked skull and brains everywhere as he fell to the ground. Braun's men took a step back, rather not facing the fearsome man.

"Wonderful! How are you faring otherwise?" Fawkes asked in casual conversation as he took down yet another man. He released a hearty chuckle and his attackers thought he must surely be mad to be in such a jolly mood during such a perilous situation.

"Scared shitless, m'lord!" came the honest reply as Ben fended off yet another rebel. It evoked a roaring laugh in Fawkes.

"Then know that if you fall, you will fall with honor!" he replied.

Tristan could not hide an amused grin as he saw the strange duo take on most of the men that charged into the fray. The corpses and wounded men were quickly piling up, and it made fighting harder. James was stubborn, and he would not see reason. Tristan was certain that even more were on the other side of the door. They were still trying to take down the rest of the door. Most who had started removing the furniture that blocked it had been struck down by the crossbowmen or knife-wielders. It would work for now — until the supply of knives and arrows ended.

"Sire, although I understand your need to prove yourself, I would still advise we retreat for now. We cannot keep this up for long," Tristan growled as he easily took down two more men, the blood splattered across his front. Ruby-red droplets ran down the leather face and neck. It stained his black doublet and shirt. Tristan was able to usher them aside so that he and James might decide.

"If we lose this fight, Hawthorne, it means I will have to leave Wessport. Traitors like Braun and Athar will take over the capital and place someone else — or God forbid — themselves, on the throne. It will mean a bloody and tedious war of succession. Angloa will suffer for it and I could not bear that."

James seemed to have aged at least two decades overnight. Tristan regarded his eyes and understood what he implied — better they die here, only a few — than endless armies of soldiers, innocent bystanders, and villagers that would be caught in the middle of the fight. Angloa had just recovered from one war, she could not suffer another one.

They had to accept that they might be overtaken by Braun and his followers. They had to accept that they had to sacrifice themselves.

"You will be the last heir of your line," Tristan pointed out. It was something James had already thought much about—not just during that moment. He knew such a moment might soon befall them either way. His wife was barren, unable to bear any children. Despite trying, James had not managed to persuade for an annulment of their matrimony, for it had indeed been consummated.

"I know," came the terse reply. It brought great sorrow to James. It pained him to think that everything his ancestors had fought for would end with him. A heavy hand squeezed his shoulder.

"Only a great man would sacrifice so much for his people, Your Majesty," Tristan said. There was a hint of admiration in his voice. "The rest of us can only aspire to do as much."

"Careful, Hawthorne. I am not dead yet," James teased as he raised his sword. A brief glance was exchanged between the two. It was a moment where words were not needed. Tristan had found a new respect for James. It seemed the king had finally redeemed himself in his eyes.

James charged again against the men in the room, finding a new strength he never knew he had. It was as if their conversation had somehow kindled new strength in him. James would not retreat, but he would not hand over his crown willingly either.

Tristan followed him for he would do all in his might to keep his king alive. But there was something more that pushed him to fight. He fought to see Christine again.

They heard the door weigh heavy as it cracked under the pressure the men on the other side placed on it. With another loud boom, it gave way yet again. The opening was bigger, allowing more men to spill in. Tristan and the others stared in defeat, their limbs tired and their breaths heavy at the oncoming wall of screaming fighters. Yet, they all raised their swords, ready to take them down.

Many on the king's side had fallen — at least a fourth. They were thirty against hundreds who tried to squeeze into the parlor. In the midst of the traitors, they saw Braun. He wielded a thinner longsword and a knife, fixated on only one man—Tristan Hawthorne.

Tristan rapidly pushed away those he was fighting against as Joseph took care of them. Braun wanted a one-on-one fight with the masked man, which he would get.

Tristan pried a sword away from one of the fallen.

Their weapons clashed instantly and the force sent them both flying back. They quickly realized that they were both equal in force. Braun was an excellent fighter with excellent form and he caught Tristan off guard many times. As Tristan felt the sweat pearl down his forehead, he grew wary. There was no option of defeat here and he continued blocking the attacks Braun sent flying his way.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the king's guard form a protective circle around James. More and more men poured in, trying to capture the king.

"It is so surreal, isn't it? The sensation of defeat that overwhelms you before you lose," came Braun's voice as he clashed blades with Tristan. They both locked swords, staring the other down. Tristan ignored Braun’s words as he breathed heavily. He would not beg — like he was certain Braun wanted.

"I must confess, I never once suspected you. You played your cards well, Lord Braun."

"I play this game better than you will ever comprehend, Hawthorne," Braun said, leaving out Tristan's title. Tristan's arms shivered as his muscles were about ready to give out after the sustained fight. He had never stopped to rest since the duel of that morning.

"If you kill the king, the next person you put on the throne will be seen as a usurper," Tristan retorted. The words sparked a reaction in the other.

"Do you really think the people will accept James after they find out what his father did?" Braun mocked. "We have enough proof to show King Philip was poisoned by his brother the last few weeks of his life until his passing."

Tristan squared his jaw as he knew what Braun spoke was the truth. He did not try to appeal to the other's humanity. Braun couldn't care less if a war started. He couldn't care less for the people—for the kingdom. He only cared for himself and the riches and powers this coup would bring him.

"So, you do this out of a sense of duty to Philip then, and his true heir?" Tristan asked in disbelief. He struggled to utter the words as he fought on, blocking more than he attacked now. This was not at all like when he fought against Alistair. This time he was not certain he would win.

Braun laughed. "If that is what you believe then let it be so. But in truth, I wanted to lead this attack because I knew deep down that Alistair — the fool — would fail, as he does in everything else," Braun spoke with passionate conviction. "While Alistair expressed his contempt and distaste for you openly, I kept such feelings to myself. My hatred for you goes deeper than you can ever begin to understand. My disdain for you knows no boundaries. I will so love when I see your blood be yet another stain on this rug. I will rejoice when I see your cold lifeless eyes stare back at mine as I unmask you. How I will delight in chopping off that proud head of yours and parade it through the streets, alongside with the son of the usurper. How I will laugh when the people you once protected scorn at your marred face — the public will be ready to believe any twisted thing we shall concoct about you!"

The look in Braun's eyes made Tristan grow pale under the mask as he understood how much the man truly loathed him. The cruel grin grew as Tristan tensed. Braun knocked the sword out of his hands in a complicated maneuver. He dug his thin knife into Tristan's left shoulder. Tristan firmly bit back a scream, not willing to give Braun the satisfaction of reveling in his pain. This only served to aggravate Braun further as he twisted the knife around in the wound, enjoying every second of the agony that flashed across the blue eyes. Tristan managed to push Braun away, and he dug out the small knife, the blood spilling from the wound.

"I did not know that my mere presence at court could evoke such hatred in you, Braun," Tristan said through gritted teeth as he bit back the pain. His vision started failing him as his head grew light. He had to rest against the wall behind him for support. Tristan released an exasperated sigh. He had always been a man of his word, always having kept what he promised. Yet, this time it appeared he would not be able to — he would break his word to Christine.

The steel tip of Braun’s sword pushed against his throat and Tristan waited for the slash.

"Alistair voiced what many of us feel. A peasant doesn't belong at court, and a deformed one even less. You defile everything we stand for and you disgust me. But that is not the main reason for my hatred," Braun spat as anger rose in his otherwise cold and calculating eyes.

Around them the fight waged on, men on both sides falling. The circle of the guards around James grew smaller and smaller as they fell, one by one. At one point, Tristan's eyes met James's and they both knew it to be over. They both accepted their fates as they nodded wordlessly. While James made peace with his fate — accepting where his life was leading him — Tristan regretted his. He regretted not being able to spend every last of his breath standing by Christine's side. Her face suddenly flashed before his half-closed eyes as he was struck by the overwhelming fatigue. Her smile and eyes enthralled him and all he wanted was to close his eyes.

"You took the one thing I cared about from me," Braun was suddenly by Tristan's ear, whispering into it. His hiss managed to alert the masked man once more.

"Cadherra?" Tristan asked after a moment’s thought, not wanting to play guessing games. Braun would have laughed if it was not so evident. He pushed his thumb into Tristan's wound and the other man almost screamed, but all that emerged was a pained grunt.

"It should have been mine!" Braun spat.

In the distance, Tristan heard commotion and shouts. He thought his mind was playing tricks on him, perhaps more of Braun's men were joining the battle. Braun was too enthralled by his emotions to take note of his surroundings.

"Cadherra should never have been given to the likes of you!" he growled. The sword was pressed hard against Tristan's throat, making it difficult for him to speak.

"Cadherra belonged to the Vega family long before it belonged to you!" Tristan started suspecting everything was not as it seemed. A theory — a horrible presumption — started taking root in his mind. He began to comprehend just to what lengths Braun had gone to claim the land as his own. " orchestrated Charles Vega's downfall?" Braun looked at Tristan with even more contempt, if that were possible.

"I did no such thing. Charles Vega was a traitor," Braun sneered. But there was something amiss in his face, something that sent Tristan's stomach turning. He did not believe Braun.

"You must have a motive for leading this revolt," Tristan said as sweat trickled down his brow. He was about to have his throat cut open, yet, if he could make Braun give a spoken confession — surely to be heard by someone nearby — it would be enough.

Braun inched closer, pressing harder against the wound as his face twisted into a frown.

"Always meddling in others’ business, eh Hawthorne?" he whispered in Tristan's ear. The words made Tristan push against the sword in contempt, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder.

"You planted evidence showing him to be a traitor, didn't you. And for what? For a mere piece of land?" Tristan asked in disgust and disbelief.

"I admit to nothing." Braun looked ready to plunge the knife deeper, an action which would be fatal.

For most of his life, Tristan had not feared death. When most men sought to avoid it at any cost, he accepted it as part of life. He knew that sooner or later, his time would come. There had been many times when death had breathed down his neck, many times when he had nearly lost his life. He had not been afraid then — perhaps it was the sense of invincibility that often accompanied the younger years.

Yet, now, he could not accept that his life would end. Fear gripped his heart as he came to realize that he might meet his end at Braun’s sword, unwilling to accept such a defeat. He had a promise to keep, after all.

Thus, mustering every last ounce of strength he could gather, Tristan fought as hard as his weak body allowed him. He pushed against Braun despite his wounded shoulder, despite the loss of blood and pain, gritting his teeth. Alas, his feeble attempts coaxed a satisfied chuckle from his opponent. Braun revelled in the desperate attempts of his enemy—indeed, Braun enjoyed it enough to let his guard down.

The shouts they had heard before sounded stronger now. One of Braun's men looked out the window and was horrified by what he saw.

"M'lord Braun!" he shouted in the commotion. Two of the king's guards were left standing by James's side. Half of the men who had come with Joseph, Fawkes, and Tristan were still alive, but straining from the fight. Their weapons were up as they were on a standoff against Braun's men while he faced Tristan. Braun grew irritated by the sudden interruption.

"What!" he shouted as he turned from Tristan. Braun sent daggers at the man who had dared to interrupt him. He was faced with a paling man, twitching as if eager to run away.

"A large army is currently storming the palace. There must be hundreds of them!" the man exclaimed as he pointed to the window. The king's men held their breath — could it be their people?

Braun released Tristan who fell to the floor, clutching his bleeding shoulder, as he struggled to ignore the white-hot pain coursing through it. Braun rushed to the window and looked out, his heart speeding up as he saw a whole regiment of armored soldiers running into the palace.

These were not his soldiers.

He looked around the room—thoughts and plans of an immediate escape were flashing across his eyes as he realized he would become overpowered should he stay. He rushed toward Tristan but Fawkes and Ben intercepted him with weapons in hand. Joseph rushed to guard his friend, even James and his king’s guard placed themselves as a protective shield between Tristan and Braun.

"It appears to be over for you, Braun," smirked Fawkes, twitching to cut him down where he stood. Braun saw Tristan smirking knowingly at him as well. It was as if he knew the soldiers would come. Only then did Braun wonder if Tristan had been stalling for time. He pointed his sword at Tristan.

"You shall suffer my loss today more than I ever will, and you shall rue the day you ever got in my way, Tristan Hawthorne," he growled.

Fawkes tried to lash out at the nobleman, hoping to catch him before he fled. Alas, Braun was quicker and stormed off with the remaining men.

"Retreat!" Braun yelled and his men swiftly followed him. The rebels started running away blindly, not knowing where they would meet the newly arrived soldiers.

"Remember my words, Hawthorne!" Braun said before he left the parlor as well. The king's men watched Braun leave with what was left of his rebels in utter disbelief. They could not believe their luck. Tristan tried to get up — to follow the traitor and his men — but he found he still had little strength.

"Go after him," James ordered his guards and some courtiers who were still standing. He saw Tristan resting exhausted against the wall and grew worried when he noticed the wound and the blood.

"I have some spirits in my personal chamber that will help to awaken Hawthorne. Robert, go get them." James turned to his chamberlain who did not idle and did as his king bade.

"Whose army has come to aid us?" asked a baffled Fawkes as he stared out the window. He saw an impressive militia of horsemen, pikemen, and several officers that stood waiting for their turn to lead their group of soldiers into battle. Fawkes could not single out a leader.

"Probably Lucius Chaeld," came the rasping voice of Tristan as he downed another gulp of strong liquor. They all turned to him while Robert bandaged his wound. The bleeding had finally ceased.

"Lucius?" asked James. "I thought you said he remained in Cadherra."

"Aye." Tristan caught the king’s gaze as his countenance turned serious. "Many months have led up to this point and I have been tracking these men, never truly knowing their identity. There is a lot we should speak of, Your Majesty. A lot of information I have will shed some light on this situation. Lord Athar will help with that as well."

"Lord Athar?" asked the chamberlain who could not help himself. James's lips thinned at the mention of the name.

"He is innocent, Your Majesty. A trial with real witnesses and real evidence will prove as much," Tristan answered tiredly.

"Innocent," James said, forcing each syllable out of his mouth.

"The evidence Cardinal Thorpe provided was false—unknowingly or knowingly I do not know. You have seen yourself who the mastermind behind this whole rebellion was. Alistair himself confirmed it to me while I fought him this morning," Tristan continued explaining. He was reminded of Durun, who had stayed back.

"I must speak with Athar immediately!" James got a determined expression on his face. "There are many wrongs to be righted here."

They heard how the shouts of battle and steel clashing against steel faded away. It seemed the fight was over as the last of the traitors no doubt had been taken care of. Tristan forced himself to stand on unsteady legs — against his better judgment — pushing aside the fog that descended upon his senses.

"Before we go down, someone needs to go into the passageway. We left Peter wounded with Timothy before coming here. He should see a physician before anyone else does," said Fawkes, pointing at the entrance they had come through. The chamberlain quickly went there, escorted by a few other men who would show him the way.

Meanwhile, the rest of the group left James' chambers, leaving royal apartments behind to discover just who their saviors were. Tristan faltered in his step every so often, but both Joseph and Rajac were by his side, supporting their tired friend as they quickly descended to the lower levels of the palace.

With each step, however, all Tristan felt was relief. There was no doubt in his mind that Braun's men had been vanquished. He could not believe that they had come out victorious. A small smile managed to slip on his face.

"What has got you so happy?" asked Simon. "Braun could have killed you."

"But he didn't," answered Tristan. He didn't even seem to care that he had been bested by another. The only thing he cared about was that he would be able to keep his promise to Christine.

He was alive.

Suddenly a figure ran toward them. It was Victoria, looking disheveled in nothing but her nightgown and a frock she had thrown over it. Her long, raven locks were a mess, and she held an expression of fear and confusion. In her hand, she held a heavy candleholder.

"Cousin, what on earth is transpiring here?" she exclaimed as she saw James and his men. James opened his arms to embrace Victoria.

"Oh sweet cousin, thank God nothing happened to you," James murmured against her head.

"I heard the most horrible sounds outside my chambers and when I walked out I saw bodies everywhere and an army at our gates. Are we being besieged?" she asked, trying to control the amount of fear that shone in her eyes.

"We were besieged, Your Highness, but we suspect the traitors have all fallen," explained Fawkes. James let go of his cousin and held her at arm's length to make certain she was not hurt. Victoria's gaze wandered to Tristan, and a frown extended on her face as she realized he was injured.

"We will go and meet the men outside. If they prove to be against us, it is best you stay here, Your Highness," said Tristan, not wanting a doting princess by his side. The frown on her face revealed her worry for his well-being. It seemed Tristan was growing more and more in the princess' favor.

She turned to her cousin to try to argue. But any attempt to speak against him was futile. Two men stayed with her as they took her back to her chambers where she would be safe for the moment.

They then continued to sneak through the corridors, passing bloodied bodies, lying still on the ground. They decided that James should stay back — just in case — as they neared the entrance from the courtyard.

Tristan, Joseph, Simon, Fawkes, and a handful of others walked out into the sunshine, their jaws dropping at the sight before them.

There had been a massacre that had washed the light stone red with the blood of many. Bodies from both sides lay dead, basking in the rays of a sun they would never feel again on their skin.

Beyond that, more platoons stood ready to engage in battle. As the group of men walked out from the palace, the soldiers bared their weapons, ready for another fight. Their superiors sat mounted and from the sea of soldiers emerged more riders. Amongst them, came Lucius with a wide grin on his face, telling the men at the front to stand down.

"My Lords!" he exclaimed, waving enthusiastically as he got down from the horse and walked up to them, followed by other men.

Lucius took one look at Tristan and rose an eyebrow. "You look horrible," he said. Tristan could not help as his lips twitched at the corners. Those were the very words he had said to Lucius months ago at Castell.

Behind him came other men—titled lords that Tristan had never met before. They seemed to be men that did not frequent the court.

"Father?" said an astonished Joseph as he laid eyes on a man. Jason Astor, Viscount of Bannria stepped up with a stern expression in his steely eyes.

"It seems the court of Wessport has not grown boring in my absence," Lord Astor muttered, looking displeased at his son. Joseph looked away from his father and at the ground as he squared his jaw.

"Why are you always the one stealing all the fun, Anthony?" said another man as he stepped up to hug a bewildered Fawkes.

"Because you always stayed locked in your castle, Edgar," responded Fawkes as he went to hug the other man. "But I am glad you came, my friend" he smiled.

James now came up to them after he was certain that these men were loyal to him. The king looked pleased as he saw the army before him. The men who had come with Lucius were all older, in their winter years.

"It seems it is you I have to thank for having reacted so quickly from Lord Hawthorne's summons," James said, expressing his gratitude to Lucius. Edgar Raleigh patted Lucius hard on the shoulder.

"Indeed, Your Majesty. He came out of nowhere, with this absurd tale that Wessport Palace and yourself were in grave danger. It was anything most of us needed, really," he smiled, baring his teeth. Edgar Raleigh was a southern viscount who scarcely ever got involved with matters of politics or the crown. He kept to the south and rarely ventured away from there. How Lucius had gotten him to join was a mystery.

"Where are you keeping Braun? I wish to speak with him immediately," said James as his countenance turned darker. Most of the others got a subdued look on their faces.

"He managed to slither through our fingers while his men fought against ours. He fled toward the entrance of the city. But worry not Your Majesty, we sent out our best men after him. He should be captured before the day is over," Lord Astor said.

"This plot runs deep, as I understand it. We need to sort through many things and it will take time. I want the bodies taken care of before vermin to get them. I also want Athar brought to me and hear from his own lips the part he played in all of this," James ordered.

"I will have the soldiers guard the palace and patrol the streets as a precaution," Lord Astor continued.

"Your Majesty," said Tristan as the group dispersed and the king started walking back to the palace.

"Hawthorne,” James said as his eyes glittered. “I owe you a great deal of gratitude. Anything you ask that is within my power to bestow upon you, I shall give." James seemed to be restored back to his former self. The despair of Athar's treason and the stress of the coup seemed like dust in the wind. Tristan shook his head as he removed Joseph and Simon’s supporting hands.

"My wish is to sail on the first ship to Cadherra with Lady Vega," Tristan said bluntly, causing James to frown.

"It is my wish that you stay here, in Wessport, Lord Hawthorne. I feel you could do much good here."

"Alas, I am determined," answered Tristan.

James's lips turned into a thin line.

"If that is your wish. I shall have you escorted back to your townhouse nonetheless, for your own protection," James said after a moment's pause. Tristan knew what it meant. The soldiers that would escort them would also be there to make sure that he and Christine did not run to get the first ship they could find. It was just as when he had returned to Wessport from the war. He was certain James would not let him so readily disappear from Wessport, not until Braun’s plot was all but cleared up—which could take months.

"I will go with you," said Joseph.

Simon Rajac expressed a wish to seek up his wife, to make sure that she was safe.

"As will I," came the baritone tones of Lucius. "I could really do with the change in company,” he mumbled as he huddled close to his friends. “Lord Raleigh certainly enjoys the sound of his own voice."

"But Joseph, you should remain behind with your father. Has it not been a while since you last saw each other?" asked Lucius.

"Yes," came the terse reply. "My father can do without my company," Joseph said.

"Then have someone fetch us some horses," Tristan said, his shoulder stiff as he still pressed against the burning wound. On the road to the townhouse, all Tristan could think of was her. He could picture the expression of relief as he told her that all would be settled in Wessport and that they would be able to return home—to Adelton.

They had been through a great ordeal, but it seemed that peace was finally upon them.

There was still the matter of the anonymous princess — the daughter of Philip Fell and Leonore Valois. But she had no more loyal lords that would follow her now. They had taken them all down.

The thoughts managed to keep the pain and fatigue in his body at bay, they were only a repressed afterthought at the back of his mind. Tristan gritted his teeth, if he did not think of it too much—the pain in his shoulder wasn’t that bad. The horses cantered down the desolate streets of Wessport, and Tristan tried to enjoy the warmth of the sun on the little skin he showed.

They arrived shortly at the townhouse. Its gates and doors still stood open, just like they had left them. Tristan got down from the brown mare he had borrowed, gritting his teeth as he bit back the pain. Any time now he half expected Christine to come running out at the sound of hooves to greet them.

But she never came. He suspected she had taken to her chamber while awaiting him. He entered the hallway where they had been hours before. The sun had started to lower in the sky now as it had reached past noon.

He entered wordlessly, finding the house to be eerily quiet.

Joseph and Lucius walked in after him, growing tense at the stillness of the house. It was then that they noticed the blood on the cold floor — splotches of it here and there with several sets of footprints running through it.

Mrs. Rochester lay splayed by the foot of the stairway, unmoving. In the deepest corners of his reasoning, Tristan already knew something was wrong. Yet, he refused to believe it. The three men rushed to her side and turned her to face them. She was still warm, indicating that she had been killed within the hour. Her empty eyes stared lifelessly back at them as Tristan stood up with great difficulty.

He rushed up the stairways as quickly as he could, ignoring the pain shooting through him, nor the sickening feeling settling at the pit of his stomach. He rushed through every room, finding them all empty. Lucius was quickly behind him.

"Tristan," came the quiet voice as he approached the doorway.

"Have someone search the surroundings of the house, Lucius."

Lucius had never seen Tristan in such a way. He had always been stoic, calm under pressure, and kept his head clear.

But now Lucius saw fear.

"We found more servants hidden in the kitchens. They… they have all been…" Lucius found he had not the heart to say that the rest of them had been murdered as well. He had not the heart to say how bloody the kitchens were. The look in Tristan's eyes made Lucius's heart freeze as he remained silent. "But we have not found her, there is still hope," Lucius slowly said, knowing that it would not be the case. It was then that they heard it — soft cries coming from Tristan's room.

They both rushed there, breaking open the door.

The curtains were closed, leaving the room in a murky darkness. Lucius unsheathed his sword. The cries grew louder from someone sprawled on the bed. Both of them entered and pulled aside the curtains.

Tristan's pulse was fast. The blood rushed through his veins and the adrenaline with it. He was ready to find Christine — thinking that she had locked herself there, that she had perhaps managed to remain hidden. But his heart sank in his chest as he saw a maid on the bed, with forming bruises on her face and her gown torn asunder. She hugged herself as she cried softly.

Lucius lowered his drawn sword as Tristan’s hands sank defeated at his sides once they realized what had happened to her. She didn't seem to notice them as she pinched her eyes closed.

"Miss," said Lucius slowly, not wanting to startle her. The young woman finally broke out of her trance and stared at them blank-eyed, her lip quivering. Marks and inflamed skin on her face revealed she must have received a few punches to it. Her otherwise soft body was marred as more bruises discolored her skin. One eye was puffing up and marks started forming around her neck as someone had no doubt tried to choke her.

"It…it will be alright," assured Lucius as he removed his cape and placed it around her bare shoulders. She cried harder as she held herself—inching away from him in fright.

Tristan’s mouth was dry and he had paled behind the mask as he wondered if Christine had suffered the same fate.

"Who did this to you?" Tristan asked in a hollow voice after they had let her calm down, resting her head on her knees. She looked at him and shivered. But it seemed the young woman finally felt safe in their presence as they made no move to touch her.

"T-They killed Mrs. Rochester," she whispered after a while, her voice hoarse. She cried again. "They killed the other older maids too. But not us — not the young ones," she lamented.

"Who did this to you?" Tristan's voice was harsher as he stepped closer. Her face twisted in pain as she remembered.

"Several men. First in the kitchens, then…here. They were fast…they were afraid of being followed," she whispered as if the perpetrators could still hear her.

Tristan banged a fist into the wall, ignoring the pain radiating up his injured shoulder. He had not the heart to search the rest of the house and find Christine discarded somewhere in the same manner.

"They t-took Miss Christine as they dragged me from the kitchens," she mumbled. "One of them was angry because he said they were wasting time."

"Do you know who he was?" asked Lucius while Tristan collected his thoughts. Her expressive eyes found his and stared blankly, her face twisting in pain as she shivered once more. But the young woman took a deep breath.

"T-Thinning brown hair… and a beard. He was dressed nicer than the rest." Her voice was clearer as she recalled the face.

"Braun," growled Tristan. He then remembered the words Braun had said—a vow that he had now kept. "You shall suffer my loss today more than I ever will, and you shall rue the day you ever got in my way, Tristan Hawthorne."

His heart sped up. Braun had probably come by the townhouse and taken Christine before fleeing Wessport. This was his way to wound Tristan, and it worked.

"Did he say where they were bound for?"

"I cannot know. I only saw a glimpse before another man took me up here and continued to…" She bit her lower lip and shivered involuntarily as the memories flashed through her mind.

"Before he managed to drag me up the stairs, her ladyship was defending Mrs. Rochester from that man. When Mrs. Rochester refused to back away from her ladyship, he…he s-shot her!" she exclaimed, remembering how much blood the flintlock had caused. She had never seen a pistol being used before and she never knew of its capabilities. It was the weapon of the devil to be sure.

Tristan curled his fists, another nauseating wave creeping up on him—for the first time in a long time, he was amiss at how to proceed. Saxton had been right, the traitors of Wessport had found his weak spot and they had pressed on it as hard as they could.

Tristan grabbed the girl by the shoulders, staring right into her frightened face. The sudden action caused her to cry out in fear.

"Please, I...I beg you, if there is anything else you can remember, anything that will help us find Christine, tell me now," Tristan pleaded. She shivered in his hard grip as the tears still flowed.

"I… t-think that well-dressed man — the one you call Braun — mentioned someone. He said he needed to seek him out…and then head east," she whispered in fright. “Thorpe, I think he said.” Tristan released the grip he had on her and stepped back.

"Cardinal Thorpe is mixed up in this as well?" Lucius asked, bewildered. "Good God," he mumbled quietly to himself when no answer came.

Suddenly Joseph appeared in the doorway, staring at the beaten young woman, and widened his eyes.

"I could find no trace of Christine," Joseph said out of breath as if he had just sprinted up the stairs. He and the guards had searched the whole townhouse, only finding servants, both men, and women, who had not followed them when they had first gone to the palace. The grotesque treatment of the townhouse staff was evident in the brutalization of their bodies. Joseph had not seen such a sight since Castell.

"We know where she's bound for and who took her," growled Tristan as he walked into his closet. He produced a small pack and stuffed a few sets of clothes. He rummaged through the compartments of the closet in silence as Lucius and Joseph watched helplessly. Tristan crammed whatever valuable items and coins he could gather from a small wooden box hidden within the depths of the wardrobe.  


"Rome, that was where Thorpe went right after Athar was imprisoned," Tristan growled even harsher, slamming the wardrobe door shut. "And that is where I am going."

"To Rome?" answered Lucius in disbelief. "You can barely walk straight from the all blood you have lost. And what will you do once you discover them, fight Braun?"

"Against whom you lost," Joseph added quietly.

"Always the voices of reason," Tristan muttered.

"And did not the king order you back to the palace as soon as we were done here—"

"I will find her and no one — be he king or otherwise — will make me stay another second. I did everything to secure James’ safety, Wessport, and the crown. I made a promise to Christine — that I would see her again, alive. I tend to keep that promise," Tristan growled harshly at them as he slung the sack across his good shoulder.

Lucius gave an audible sigh as he got up from the bed. The maid pulled the cape tighter around herself as she sniveled silently.

"I will come with you, Tristan. Someone has to guard your back while you storm off and get the rest of us in trouble," Lucius smirked.

"We will come with you," Joseph corrected. Lucius and Tristan stared at him silently. Joseph man shrugged. "Did you really think I would let you go after Braun and his men without me? Christine is my friend, and I want to have the pleasure of seeing Braun suffer as much as the rest of you," he defended.

"The man you call Braun," came the quiet voice of the maid as she looked at them timidly. “He did this to us because of you?” For the first time, the frightening look in her eyes shifted into a frown, only to be replaced by a growing scowl as she locked eyes with Tristan.

 Lucius placed a light hand on her shoulder, as if trying to explain the situation to her, only to be interrupted by Tristan.

“He did,” he answered in low tones as a grimace revealed itself in the set of his lips. He made no move to apologize to her, she would not have listened even if he should have.

“Then may you burn in hell, Tristan Hawthorne, together with Braun and the men who follow him,” she spat as a fire extended itself within her eyes. She watched him in pure hatred and Tristan turned around, clenching his jaw as he felt her eyes drill holes into his neck.

"Come, we shall have the soldiers escort you to the palace and have them care for you," Lucius said as Tristan disappeared through the doorway.

The young woman collected herself as she got out of the bed. It hurt, for every step and movement made her aware of her broken body. “I would not be in this state, and Mrs. Rochester and the rest would not be dead were it not for them all,” she lamented, her voice shaking as she clenched the cape closer about her.

Tristan, waiting outside the room, watched her in silence as Lucius escorted her down to the soldiers. He prayed silently that Christine had not suffered the same treatment.

"Did you see the marks around her neck?" Joseph whispered when she was out of the room.

"Whoever had his way with her meant to kill her after he was done — to silence her," Tristan said, aware of what that meant. "They wanted to erase any trace of where they were going."

He walked down the stairs on his own accord and found the two guards waiting for him there. The young woman had been placed on a horse and was waiting outside, still clutching the oversized cape around her small form. When Tristan and his friends made a move toward their horses, the soldiers stopped them.

"We could not help but overhear a little of the conversation, my lord," one of them said. He looked at the floor to avoid making any unnecessary eye contact. The guard had been a soldier serving him during the war—he had fought for him at Castell, and he found it hard to go against him now.

"We cannot let you leave Wessport," the other continued. Tristan’s mouth pressed into a thin line as the grip around his bag tightened.

"Step aside,” he said. When the guards remained still, Tristan cast the bag to the floor. “I still have enough fight in me to take both of you down," he snapped, reaching for a spare dress sword he'd found in his closet.

The guards stepped back and bared their swords, but none dared attack their old general.

"It is the king's order we follow. Please, Lord Hawthorne, we do not wish to fight you," the first guard tried to reason. Tristan ignored him, picked up his bag, and pushed past him.

"Inform James that I have left the country and that I will deal with whatever consequence he sees fit upon my return," he answered haughtily as he walked past them, grunting involuntarily at the pain in his shoulder. They never made a move to stop him. Lucius and Joseph were close behind.

They walked past the young woman and nodded as they passed her.

The three of them were silent as they galloped to the harbor, with not a second to spare. The guards had a duty to report to James what Tristan had said to them. There was no doubt in Tristan's mind that James would send out a whole platoon to get him back to the palace. Every moment was precious. If he did not leave Angloa now, he was certain he would lose Christine forever.

They arrived at the harbor, filled to the brim with merchant ships.

"We are really leaving then," Lucius said.

"You may stay behind if that is your wish," Tristan responded. "I will not think less of you for it." He only received a raised eyebrow and a shrug on Lucius's part.

"I am with you, Tristan. We will find her and make Braun pay," Lucius assured him.

They got down from their horses. Except for whatever provisions and clothing Tristan had brought from his townhouse, none of them had packed anything of substance. Lucius and Joseph had little with them — only the clothes on their backs and each a purse of coins.

They ventured amongst the masses, and the scent of the sea wafted through the air. Seagulls played in the sky, searching for food that had been thrown out or amongst the stalls that lined the docks. They found several merchant ships sailing east, but no one would leave for Rome within the day. They finally found a merchant ship and its captain, sailing for Malaga, for Spain. There they would no doubt find more ships directly bound for the Italian peninsula.

"We sail for Malaga, aye. But not until tomorrow morning," said the captain as he eyed the curious trio of men, not too keen on having them on his ship. Tristan sighed and produced a few gold coins from his purse, pushing them into the hand of the robust man before him.

"We sail now and there will be more where that came from if you heed my word," he said darkly. The captain, feeling the weight of the coins in his hand smirked—it was more money than he would make at sea for two months. He nodded haphazardly and offered them to mount the ship immediately.

Tristan ventured to the front of the deck, staring at the horizon, wondering where she was — if she was alright, if she knew he would come after her.

The sailors started running around the deck the sun had long since reached past its highest point in the sky. It now started its slow descent, soon leaving the lands of Angloa shrouded in darkness.

The sailors worked effortlessly as they settled into their routine. The songs of the seagulls, shouts of the merchants, and quips of the sailors expanded throughout the harbor.

Minutes passed until the crew members undocked the mighty vessel and left Wessport. Tristan felt the ship move in unison with the wind as the white sails caught hold of them, leaving the corrupt and greedy city behind. They were sailing for new, exotic lands in the south.

When the ship was far enough from the harbor, the people on deck saw a small army of soldiers rushing to the harbor. The soldiers were searching fervently for the masked man and his friends.

They were too late.

As the dark waters of the Atlantic swayed and the soft clouds in the sky floated slowly, Tristan vowed to himself that he would keep true to his word — that he would do all it took to be reunited with her.

The harbor shrunk in size the further they got from it and the trio sailed toward the European mainland and toward whatever awaited them beyond their island.