Long shadows gathered as the noonday sun dipped slowly in the sky, blinding the dozen westbond riders as they journeyed. They rode at a fast, steady pace, the dust from their horses’ hooves billowing out behind them. To their backs lay the Rhina, the flowing blue river that snaked south and east until it reached the sea, and to their fore spreading out like a bulbous weed rose the Tricealian capital of Akarath. Surrounded by patchwork quilts of cultivated fields and walled off manor houses. It was a testament to the kingdom, and Prince Aaron could smell it from there.
Drawing on his steeds riens the prince nodded to his squire who raised his hand bringing the remaining ten riders to a halt. They were knights of the Vanguard, mostly, with three manservants accompanying them and two squires to draw the baggage mules. They were certainly fewer than when they had left. Aaron revld in the fond memory of near a hundred Vanguard knights, dressed in gleaming armor, suitability riding the vanguard of the Tricaelian war host as they paraded out of the city. Those men had since dispersed, the levied returning to their farms and the knights to their estates and families. Those of the army that remained, well remained at the captured castle of the traitors. Aaron had seen no reason to drive three thousand men back across the river on yet another painfully slow journey. “We should travel swift and light. No more than five men so that we might return with all due haste. I wouldn’t be gone a moment longer than I must.”
He’d informed his leading commander. Sir Iben was a stern, and cautious man however, and would not hear of it.
“Your grace has been wounded in battle, and is not fit to swing a sword.” He spoke bluntly, with an assurance that came with dealing with the royal family for so many years. He had the gray hair and titles to show for it after all. “No fewer than thirty sire, thirty armed men and their retainers.”
Aaron however was no less stubborn, insisting upon speed to protect him on the road. He did not fear bandits, nor anything or anyone, and he’d be damned if he scurried home, surrounded by hundreds of bodyguards. It was bad enough he would be returning with his arm wrapped in bandages and his left eye a nasty green and blue from a week old bruise. They had gone back and forth before settling upon ten men to accompany him, plus his new squire. Sir Iben had been displeased to say the least, but he’d dutifully chosen his five best knights and assigned them to guard the Prince.
Thus assembled they rode, and a fortnight later they’d arrived on the outskirts of Akarath, the Seat of the King. Prince Aaron squinted at the city, hidden behind the dipping sun. They would arrive well before nightfall should they keep up a decent pace. Waving one of the manservants forward Aaron issued a few final orders. “Ride ahead good man, inform the keep of my return and have the servants prepare my chambers. I wish to bathe upon my arrival.”
Aaron thought for a moment, then said. “If my lord father and sister have returned insure they know of the my coming as well. I would dine with them.”
The servant nodded his head. “As you say m’lord. Anything else?” “No, now ride.”
And ride he did, setting off at a gallop full tilt down the dirt path leaving the others to follow at a slower pace.
Just as Aaron had predicted their party arrived at the outer city walls well before nightfall. The dirt roads had changed to cobble and there was an abundance of taverns and street vendors packing up their stands for the night. They cast curious glances at the Prince, as if unsure of his motives. Some whispers rose, and though the Vanguard loosened their swords in their scabbards Aaron ignored it, keeping his gaze locked forward, not giving the peasantry so much as a sideways glance. Aaron led the way up the cobbled steps towards the gate, one of the smaller ones reserved for nobility, when a score of battle armored knights burst from the archway, spilling out onto the dirty path leading up to the passageway. Most were not mounted, but they marched swiftly down the path, led by a tall knight astride a destrier of immense size.
Aaron recoiled at the sight, uncertain at their motive. He had not received word they would be greeted by a welcoming host of this magnitude. Aaron eyes slide over the knights until they locked onto the leader, a smile flickering across his face. “Sir Arvel, I would recognize that crest anywhere. But to what purpose does he approach with so many armed men?”
Aaron glanced around at the other knights and men accompanying him. Equally bemused expressions on their faces. “I suppose we will have to wait and find out.”
They did not have long to dally. The knights reached them quickly, surrounding them in a wall of steel and flesh, naked blades held tight in gauntleted hands. They faced outwards, forming a protective ring around the royal and Sir Arvel. Aaron nodded to the older man, giving him a look off amused curiosity. “Warm greetings sir knight. I welcome your company but this is, unusual.”
He said, matter of factly. “Might I be privy to the occasion?”
Arvel approached, straining his bony frame against his plate as he darted a hand up, enunciating, “Agurrak nire liseria.”
A formality, a term which roughly was a generalized greeting to royalty. His helmet, a sallet with mask, was removed with care, revealing the disheveled and gaunt features of the man. “Lord, I’m afraid there’s been an incident, involving His Majesty.”
Arvel paused, glancing about at his own patchwork retinue compared to the Lord Commander’s own. “An attempt on His Majesty’s life, he’s unharmed. The perpetrator is in custody, but we cannot be wholly sure that there are not other associates out for the heads of His Majesty or perhaps yourself.”
Sir Arvel took a deep breath as he rested an idle hand on his longsword’s sheath, balancing himself as he looked back to the city momentarily. “My company of foot has been tasked as your provost. I surely hope you do not mind, sire.”
A dark scowl materialized on Prince Aaron features. The news did not bode well with him. Would the enemies of the crown, the potential assassins be so bold as to make an attempt upon the king in daylight, surrounded by Vanguard and with the Woodsmens’ center of operation so close? “How was this not discovered? How could the Woodsmen have failed so spectacularly in their mission?”
The question was more hypothetical, and Aaron did not expect a proper answer from Sir Arvel. Even the high ranking knight wouldn’t know the full goings on within the kingdom’s secret police. This botched assassination was just another in a stream of foul tidings for the young prince. Entire noble families defecting, bold murder, and a generally discontent populous. The crown was losing its grip, and the kingdom was slipping away. Perhaps the only thing keeping any semblance of order now was the threat of a thousand Vanguard knights unleashing fury upon anyone who attempted armed insurrection. But how long would it be until even they began sensing a change in the winds? The thought made Aaron sick to his stomach. How close had someone come to cutting off the head of the dragon? Leaving only the crown heir and princess to hold the reins.
Aaron paled, terrified he turned in his saddle fixing Sir Arvel with a piercing stare. “My sister? She was traveling with my father when I left. Did any harm befall her?” “I do not believe so, Lord.”
Arvel muttered, eyes still darting to watch every approach. Never could be too sure. “Some small relief.”
Aaron breathed, a touch of color returning to his features. “With such troubling tidings I feel it necessary to make haste to the keep. These assassins might feel my father is their target, but surely I do not fall far behind. Sir knight, order your men forward.” “With all speed, sire.”
Arvel made to guide his helmet back upon his head, barking out to the men which had lined up nearby. “Company, forward! Diamond formation, protect the Lord Commander!”
One armored glove was raised, giving the proper motions to his men.
As one the armored column stepped out at double time, their boots clattering upon the cobbled roads. Prince Aaron and Sir Arvel rode abreast, with the mounted contingent pressed tight around them while the footmen maintained their wall in perfect form, like a double edged spear point. The diamond was forced to contract within the tight confines of the city, but they pressed on resolutely, striking any peasant foolish enough to not get out of the way in time with the flat of their swords.
Any concern Aaron had over optics had long since vanished. The Prince could only mull over the implications of this new development, and fulmagate over the failings of the Woodsmen. He wanted answers from Jack, an explanation that would simultaneously reassure, and placate. And Aaron was confident no such excuse would be forthcoming. Aaron was suddenly jared from his contemplations when their column was forced to halt, and angry shouting ensued from the front. The city was especially crowded here, in the economic epicenter, and angry cries could be heard from all around as the people pressed themselves tight against the walls of shops and houses to make room for the Vanguard. “What is the meaning of this?”
Aaron shouted above the babble of voices from every side. Over the commotion Aaron heard a wheezy old voice shouting at the top of his lungs.
“The king is dead, long live the king!”
Then a different call. “Shut it ya old fool, the king an prince be dead long live the princess!”
“They’re all dead, and the enemies march upon us!”
“The city is doomed!”
Aaron’s horse reared, screaming as a stone bounced of a Vanguard’s helm and struck it in the eye. Expertly Aaron adjusted in his saddle, allowing the horse to calm. Did these people not see him? Could they not tell he sat in the middle of them all and could hear every word they spoke. Then it dawned upon him, he wore dusty armor, a dented helm and with no banners to speak of. For all these stupid people knew his crest could be that of any lord or knight. “Sir Arvel,”
Aaron cried, finally regaining control over his horse. “Command these people aside in the name of the king!”
“Sir Arvel they are too tightly packed, we cannot push through.” came the warning from the front. A man in the line somewhere. “Your orders sir?”
Arvel bit his lip, glaring at the crowd, and then the knight. He mustered a deep, guttural tone to carry his voice to his men. “Shields forward! Push through, make a chevron and open up a channel! Now!”
He commanded, reaching up a hand to put down the mask on his helmet, using his off-hand to tear the retention strap from his longsword sheath, allowing the weapon to simply be pulled forth if needed. “Lord, I would advise to prepare for a hard ride. We will not have long if my men make an opening.” “As you say Captain, I am prepared.”
Aaron assured him his knuckles white around the hilt of his sword. He cursed his injured arm, hating himself as a weakling as pain lanced up his elbow. He would have to bear it. He could not hold his reins and hilt simultaneously with a single hand.
Before them the thin line of footmen heaved against the crowd, bringing their broad shields forward, smashing those unfortunate souls trapped between the heaving crowd and resolute knights again and again.
Eventually the crowd broke, the battle yard training of many years shattering the unorganized mass. The knights surged through, closely followed by the mounted contingent and Prince Aaron, keeping as close to the front as possible. It was a battle to be sung of, and the knights had to shove and push their way through as a miner would through rock. Fighting every inch, constantly reinforcing the tip of the spear so as to continue the advance. There was no telling how many fathers would not be returning home that evening, as men were trampled under the feet of beasts and men. And although the knights took care to use only the dull sides of their weapons the powerful swings still cracked skulls, and not an ounce of strength was withheld. After nearly an hour of grueling work the column and crowd parted, the knights all with fresh dents in their armor from thrown stones. Fortunately the only injuries that had been sustain as far as Aaron could tell were from the manservants, who wore no armor and who were sporting several fresh bruises and cuts.
Given the chance to breath Aaron turned, venting his anger about the incident upon the captain. “This is outrageous. Any Vanguard unit should not be waylaid by a rabble. Clearly the Watchmen have lost control over the city to allow a riot of such magnitude to form. And when the city should be locked down after an assassination attempt upon my Lord Father! As Lord Commander of the Vanguard I command you to rally as many men as possible, including the household guard, and the city watchmen and retake control of this city! Close off the gates and deny entry to anyone but those of higher status. No one leaves, and no one enters. Furthermore establish a curfew, and let it be the gallows for any fool who resists. You have Command Captain. Send a runner to me once order is reestablished.”
Flushed and angry Aaron spurred his horse forward, riding onto the Path of the Royals, a narrow, raised bridge that spanned the moat, and separated the keep from the rest of the city. He cast one final look back at Sir Arvel and the exhausted knights of the Vanguard. It would be a long night for them.