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19 March 2009 @ 11:52 am
The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Thirty Six  
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX

APPROACH


Brydon gazed at the dark bulk of Ven-Kerrick for a long time, trying to memorize the layout. Rakyn’s maps were more familiar than his memory of their rush through the place during their escape. It was difficult to reconcile the stone walls and towers with the schematics in his mind. His current vantage on a small hillock gave him only sketchy details—they were still too far from the castle to make out occupants. They had encamped for the night far enough to remain undetected by any patrols sent out, not that anyone would be expecting them.

He turned Darkling and rode back to the others, who waited near their small fire. Brydon had awakened early and ridden Darkling for a short distance to stretch his legs and judge the distance they had left to travel that morning. It had taken him, Jace and Verana three days of fast riding to reach this point after leaving Prince Amerryn in Shimmer. He figured they had another few hours before they arrived at the castle proper.

“We have to enter through the caverns,” he said to Jace as he dismounted. “I only hope we can find our way without Shevyn’s guidance.”

Jace smiled and handed him a cup of tea. “That won’t be a problem. On our last journey though the maze, I marked the passages.”

Brydon stared at him in amazement and Jace shrugged.

“You never know when you will need to get in to—or out of—a place in a hurry. I used a bit of white rock and left scratches that only I can find.”

Verana’s bell-like laugh tinkled forth. “Jace, you are a rogue.”

They waited until dusk before they approached the rock face with the concealed door. Brydon pulled Darkling to a halt at the sight of a rider coming toward them. He shaded his eyes as best he could. It was a lone figure—a single man from the look of it—so he readied his bow and an arrow. Jace cried out and Brydon nearly dropped the bow in surprise as the liver-colored horse slid to a stop some distance away.

“Brydon!” the rider yelled.

Toryn?” Brydon called incredulously. Toryn slapped heels to his horse and galloped closer. When he neared, he reached out a hand and Brydon grasped his forearm with a giddy laugh. The two stallions danced around each other, but Brydon could think of nothing but Toryn and his sardonic grin. He looked the same as ever, but for his strange attire.

“I never thought I would see the day I’d be glad to see a dirty Falaran alive,” Toryn said fervently and smiled.

Brydon did likewise; grinning so widely he felt his jaw would split. “Leave it to a hardheaded Redolian not to listen to sound advice.” He sighed. “I told you to stay put. But... I’m glad to see you. How did you get here? Fly?”

Toryn shrugged and patted the neck of his steed. “Bloodsong ran most of the way. He’s fast and he does not tire easily. The ship docked in Larec four days ago. How far do you suppose that is? Sixty leagues? Sixty-five?”

Jace stared at him for a moment and looked at the chestnut stallion that bared his teeth at Darkling. “Try one hundred and fifty,” he corrected.  "That journey takes days of hard riding."

Toryn gaped at him. “That’s not possible—”

“I’ve been there,” Jace insisted.

Brydon nodded. “Rakyn had maps. The distance is at least that.”

Toryn struggled with their words for a moment, but shrugged it off. “The maps must be wrong, unless we docked in a different location. Bloodsong is fast, but not that fast.”

Brydon looked at the stallion closely, but decided not to chance touching the horse’s mind this near to Reed. The horse tossed his head and danced like a normal steed, snorting slightly and posing for Darkling in a pseudo-aggressive stance. It was a beautiful animal, nearly the color of blood with no white markings to be seen.

Toryn greeted Verana and Jace happily, but did not take time to detail his adventures.

“I brought you a gift,” Toryn said and suddenly handed Brydon a familiar-looking wooden case.

Brydon unlatched it and stared at the contents in amazement for a moment.

Jace peered over Brydon’s shoulder. “The Gauntlet!” he breathed. “Toryn, you are magnificent!”

“It wasn’t my doing. Thank a Voor with no liking for Shaitan. He saved my life and retrieved the Gauntlet.”

Brydon stared at the gem-encrusted item and slowly closed the lid. To have the object in hand after such an arduous struggle… it was almost overwhelming. He could turn and leave right now. He could return home—forget the machinations and problems of the south. He could go back to Falara and claim the throne, let Ven-Kerrick and the Concurrence fall. He winced at the thought of leaving Shevyn in the hands of Reed. How worthy would he be for the throne, then? He handed the Gauntlet casket to Jace.

“We’d better get moving,” he said to Toryn. “I don’t suppose you plan to stay here and guard the door?”

Toryn raised a brow without bothering to answer. Brydon nodded, knowing the question had been redundant, and led Darkling over to the rock face. He pressed the stones that opened into the cavern. They filed inside and Brydon closed the door behind them. As he did so, Toryn removed a torch from the wall and lit it. The darkness closed around them and Toryn held the flickering torch high.

“I hope you remember which passage to take? Because I don’t,” Toryn offered as he examined several corridors that led from the large chamber.

Jace studied the walls of each opening all and then gestured toward one of the central passages. “This one.”

“Are you sure?” Toryn asked.

“Have I ever been wrong?”

Toryn crinkled his brow, but apparently could not recall Jace ever being wrong, so he shrugged. They quickly unsaddled the horses and fed them some grain. Brydon gave the horses a barely perceptible mental nudge to keep them from fighting during their absence. He fervently hoped they all lived to return, or the horses would be trapped in the cavern until they starved. He argued briefly with Jace at the wisdom of setting them free outside, but decided against it.

They would just have to prevail.

The journey through the twisting caverns did not seem to take as long as it had the first time they had traversed the maze, but at the time fear of Reed’s pursuit had given length to every shadow.

Jace led them to the stables without pause. Brydon cracked the door slightly and peered inside; the place bustled with activity. Stableboys and servants entered and exited, arms laden with harnesses, yokes, and blankets. Oxen bayed from the stalls. Men shouted at each other and the noises blended with an even louder cacophony beyond the doors.

“We seem to be just in time,” Jace commented after joining him at the door to take in the scene beyond..

“For what?” Brydon asked.

“I have no idea, but from the look of it, everyone in the kingdom is in attendance.”

A sense of foreboding gripped Brydon at the words. “Can we get through?” he asked and closed the door, shutting out the sounds of activity.

“I don’t think so. We are not exactly inconspicuous.”

“Should we go back and try a different passage?” Verana asked.

Brydon looked at Jace, who nodded. “We will try a few. If they lead us nowhere, we will come back here and take our chances.”

Toryn sighed, obviously less than pleased with the idea of more trekking through caverns, but he said nothing. Brydon frowned and wondered if Toryn had changed during their separation; Brydon expected grousing and complaints, but the Redolian remained silent.

Jace led as they backtracked. They bypassed a corridor that led to the right and took the first left hand branching. The new passage made several hairpin turns and eventually dead-ended in a small cavern. They searched diligently for possible concealed doorways to no avail. Discouraged, they trooped back to the main passage—marked by Jace with a white chalky stone—and went on. The next leftward passageway terminated in a flight of stairs that curved up into the darkness.

“Excellent,” Jace breathed. He put a foot on the lower step, but Brydon’s hand stayed him.

“If this leads to the castle,” Toryn asked grumpily, “Why would Shevyn take us through the stables before?”

Brydon grinned. “If it were your castle, would you tell near-strangers of a secret way to get inside? She took enough of a chance showing us the passage at all. And Shevyn may not know all the secret ways.” Brydon paused. “We need a plan. Toryn and I will try to locate Shevyn and bring her back here—wherever ‘here’ is. Jace, you and Verana find Kerryn. He may have plans of his own for disrupting this wedding. Whatever else happens, Reed must not be allowed to remain in Ven-Kerrick. Either we kill him or we capture him and turn him over to Rakyn. He has exercised his will upon these people long enough. Adona help him if he has harmed Shevyn.”

“Shaitan will be his downfall," Verana said solemnly.

“'Men are like grass and their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the glory of Adona stands forever,’“ Jace quoted.

“So be it,” Brydon and Verana said in unison.

“And blessed be the princes who are wise in the ways of the world,” Jace added. Brydon looked at him curiously. Jace chuckled and rooted in his pack, then dramatically pulled out a length of black material.

“Uniforms of Ven-Kerrick,” Jace explained. “Provided by Rakyn, of course, the sneaky little—”

“Jace,” Verana warned and the Knight-Priest laughed.

“Prince,” Jace finished. Jace had only two of the uniforms, which consisted of simple black tunics and matching cloaks, embroidered with the silver Gauntlet crest of Ven-Kerrick. He gave one to Brydon and one to Toryn, insisting that his own black uniform would pass cursory scrutiny. They did not argue and donned the outfits before ascending the steps.

The stairs ended in a door that swung open with a low grating—a sound that was dissipated by the din of running water. Brydon looked around in amazement as they stepped out of the darkness. They seemed to be in one of the two towers of Ven-Kerrick. The doorway was concealed by the stones of a large staircase which curved up and away.

The sound of water came from a large circular fountain--the only object in the room. Water poured from a haphazard rock sculpture in a continuous loud cascade. It was far from lovely and seemed to be oddly placed, tucked away in this lonely corner of the castle.

They shut the concealed door and Brydon realized aloud, “The fountain is here to cover the noise of the door.”

Toryn was already at one of the two arched doorways that led from the room. The others joined him. The left-hand passage revealed a long corridor that seemed to continue endlessly, lit by oil lamps in cressets every dozen or so feet. The right-hand corridor was better lit—a large doorway led outdoors; it was open and daylight brightened the corridor. Directly opposite the outer door, another open portal led into the castle. From there came the muted sounds of weapons clashing and men shouting.

Brydon started forward, but Jace pulled him back.

“I know where we are,” Jace explained quietly. “We are near the barracks. That door leads to the interior practice yard—where the Gauntlet Knights usually spar.”

As if to confirm Jace’s words, faint sounds of clapping emanated from the area beyond. Brydon nodded.

“If we explain the situation to the Gauntlet Knights,” Verana said excitedly. “They will help us!”

Jace shook his head. “There are no Knight-Priests here. Reed persuaded the king to send them away long ago. How else could he have managed to murder the royal family with none the wiser? Most likely those are Reed’s men.”

Before they could decide on a course of action, a burst of giggling startled them. They all turned as the sound became louder and two girls descended the stairs of the fountain tower, breathlessly reaching the bottom with a great rustle of taffeta. They were brightly gowned, bedecked in laces and bows; their young faces were alight with mischief. They halted when they spied the four interlopers and one clutched the other’s arm fearfully.

“Oh!” one burst out and her round face blushed prettily under a wild mass of blond curls. “We are lost.”

The second one giggled and clutched her friend more tightly. This one was less fluffy, but her hair was just as curly and just as blond.

Jace stepped forward and smiled at them. “Are you certain you two are not prowling the castle, looking for mischief?”

The thin one burst into laughter and buried her face in her companion’s shoulder.

“Hush, Katryna,” the plump one hissed, controlling a giggle. Then she looked saucily at Jace. “No, kind sir. We were merely seeking a way back to the Great Hall. Perhaps these handsome young men will be so good as to escort us?”

The one called Katryna gasped and stared at her friend as if shocked at her boldness. The first tittered unabashed. She looked at Jace once more. “You are a Knight-Priest, are you not? Are you with the Gauntlet Knights encamped in the outer ward?”

Jace did not respond to the odd question, so Brydon asked dumbly, “The Gauntlet Knights are here?”

The plump girl looked askance at him. “Unless there is another company of Knight-Priests who dress in black with a fisted gauntlet blazoned on their cloaks,” she replied cheekily. “My father was displeased that the Gauntlet Knights are not in charge of the ceremony. It is rumored that Prince Reed is planning to disband them when he is King.” She turned large blue eyes on Jace. “Is it true?”

“I do not know, child,” Jace responded quietly. “I am a Shield Knight, from Terris.”

“Oh.” A look of momentary disappointment crossed her features, and then she brightened. “Well, it has been pleasant conversing with you, Father.” She nodded to Jace. “Our fathers will be furious with us if these kind gentlemen do not escort us back to the Great Hall forthwith.”

“Seela,” the thin girl gasped, but the other shook her off and sauntered forward with a shimmer of green satin and attached herself to Toryn’s arm.

“You are going back to the Great Hall to watch the wedding, are you not?” Seela asked Toryn sweetly.

The blood drained from Brydon’s face. “Wedding?” he choked out, unable to stop himself.

The girls looked at him oddly. “The wedding of Queen Shevyn to Prince Reed, of course.” Seela laughed “How can you not know?”

“He just returned from Penkangum last night,” Toryn interjected smoothly. “We did not have a chance to tell him.”

Katryna, apparently overcoming her shyness during her moment of solitude, rushed forward and clutched at Brydon’s arm.

“Is it not romantic?” she gushed, fluttering golden lashes.

“We would be well pleased to escort such fair ladies,” Brydon said into the tense silence, shaking off his daze. He detached himself from the coyly smiling Katryna and handed her off to Toryn.

“I shall be but a moment, milady, while I converse with the good knight,” he explained. She nodded and gleefully grasped Toryn’s free arm. The two girls giggled and murmured into Toryn’s ears, an activity he did not seem to mind in the least, judging by his amused smile. Brydon, Jace, and Verana moved away from the others so their conversation would not be overheard.

“Wedding!” Brydon spat. “It seems we arrived just in time.”

“He will marry nothing but Shevyn’s lifeless body, if I know her at all,” Jace commented dryly.

“We have to find her quickly,” Brydon said.

"I will try to get word to the Gauntlet Knights," Verana murmured. “None of you would be allowed through the gates without question, so I will go. Surely, they will let out one lone Healer to tend to a sick person in the village. With the crowd, even an Ebon such as myself should not draw attention.”

Jace nodded. “I will look for Kerryn. I should draw little notice in a castle full of wedding guests, after a minor adjustment.” Jace unbuckled his cloak and draped it over his left shoulder before fastening it again with the clasp-chain upon his right shoulder. Thus worn, it left his right arm and hand completely unencumbered, and also covered the shield insignia upon his breastplate.

He grinned. “Now, I am but a simple man-at-arms.”

“Very simple,” Verana agreed with a bright flash of a smile. Jace gave her a quelling look and grasped Brydon’s forearm.

“Go with Adona,” Brydon said fervently. Verana laid both her hands upon their clasped arms in silent blessing. Brydon left them with a sigh and crossed the room to join Toryn and the girls. Jace and Verana departed through the left-hand passage.

Brydon pasted a smile on his face. “They will find their way to the chapel,” he said brightly as one of the blond girls left Toryn to fasten her grip upon Brydon’s left arm. “Is your party located in the lower level, or the upper gallery?”

“I think we are to be seated in the lower level, but our fathers were discussing the dullest things in one of the upper antechambers. Katryna and I were terribly bored and slipped away to watch the soldiers pretend to fight. They are giving an exhibition before the ceremony.”

“Then your fathers are most likely where you left them. We shall go back the way you came,” Brydon decided. He turned and drew his companion past the fountain. They ascended the stone steps.

On the castle’s second level, they made their way past a small gathering of onlookers, most of whom leaned on the long stone railing and looked down into the practice arena below. Wagers were called out, betting on this or that combatant. Brydon wished for the practice sessions to result in many a fatal accident for Reed’s men, the fewer soldiers he would have to deal with later.

The crowd thickened as they approached the antechamber at the eastern end of the viewing chamber. Noblemen and women of all types milled about, renewing acquaintances and exchanging gossip. They returned the girls to their fathers with a minimum of fuss—the elders admonished the girls for traipsing off alone, thanked Brydon and Toryn, and sent them away with pointed glances that warned them never to approach their noble daughters again.

Brydon barely acknowledged the false gratitude before he turned and entered the long corridor with Toryn hurrying after him. They passed the dining hall and wove through the milling crowd. Before the large doors that opened into the upper level of the Great Hall, a large flight of stairs climbed to the next level. Brydon was glad to note that the steps were not guarded, though plenty of Reed’s guardsmen were visible—alert sentinels scattered throughout the crowd. Brydon took care to keep his face turned from them, in case any of Reed’s men might recognize them from their previous ignominious visit to Ven-Kerrick.

Brydon dragged Toryn into a small party of nobles as they ascended the stairs. The leader of the group regaled his flock with an elaborate tale of how the marble staircase had been built and how a Kerrick had arranged to have the marble blocks purchased from the 'heathen Parmittans', though that had been before the Great War, of course.

Halfway up the stairs, Brydon saw Kerryn standing in the crowd below, talking to a tall, hawk-faced man. Kerryn looked despondent and nervous and Brydon longed to signal to him, but there was no time. He would have to trust Jace to find Shevyn’s cousin. When they reached the landing for the third level, and the nobles turned right and made their way to the Grand Balcony, from which vantage one could see below all the way to the first floor entry hall. To the immediate left, a wall paralleled the balcony railing and led to large double-doors, before which stood two competent-looking guardsmen in Reed’s bastardized Ven-Kerrick livery. Brydon spared them the merest glance before he marched down the left-hand corridor.

“Those are Shevyn’s rooms,” Brydon explained to Toryn in a murmur, remembering his endless poring over Rakyn’s maps and floor plans. The presence of the guards confirmed it.

“The sentries don’t look to be a problem,” Toryn suggested.

“Except that Sheyvn’s doors are in full view of the Grand Balcony. I do not think the crowd will stand idly by while we deal with the guards and abduct the Queen.”

They stopped before the next set of doors and Brydon made certain no attention was directed their way before he opened one and took Toryn inside. They entered a sumptuously decorated sitting room. Brydon spared it barely a glance before crossing the room and entering another portal. A second chamber was also quickly crossed. The third chamber contained a large bed, an oak armoire, and the usual bedchamber furnishings.

Brydon walked directly to the left-hand wall and pulled aside the tapestry. Toryn hurried over to it up for him so that some light from the window embrasure fell upon the wall. Brydon probed the stone for a moment with splayed hands until he located a hairline fracture. He pushed hard and a portion of the wall pivoted silently, opening a way into the next room. He grinned at Toryn's surprised look.

“Rakyn,” Brydon explained. “Someday I plan to find out just how he knows so much about this place.”

He stepped through cautiously with one hand on his sword-hilt and Toryn followed. They found themselves in an empty bedchamber, elegantly furnished in pale oak and decorated with tapestries of burgundy, rose and peach, woven in delicate patterns of Bodorii design. A large unfinished needlework was mounted on a stand near a comfortable chair. It caught Brydon's attention.

He paused and reached out to touch the stitching. Red roses bloomed around a white horse. The front portion of the horse was nearly finished—the man astride his back was nothing but a shadowy sketch of charcoal. It reminded him of a young girl's dream, never to be finished. The girl who had been Shevyn was gone now, her childhood taken abruptly by the murder of her family and her experiences thereafter. Brydon’s resolve to put an end to Reed’s evil strengthened. He could not give Shevyn back her childhood, but perhaps he could return her birthright and give her back some semblance of a normal life.

He looked to the large door against which Toryn’s ear was pressed. Toryn beckoned and Brydon joined him. He had hoped to find Sheyvn in her quarters preparing for the imminent nuptials. The sound of women's voices led him to believe the assumption had been correct. He murmured brief instructions to Toryn, who nodded and stepped aside. Brydon opened the door purposefully and strode through, leaving it partially open behind him. Six pairs of eyes swiveled to him, surprised. The seventh pair stared straight into the mirror set before her. The shocked ladies-in-waiting recovered quickly.

“How did you get into that room?” the eldest demanded—a large woman with a starched dress and greying hair.

“I have been there the entire time, of course, by order of Prince Reed,” Brydon said haughtily, though the name grated upon his ears. “The time grows near. Is she ready?”

With the question, he turned his attention to Shevyn, who sat in front of a dressing table. Her gaze had not changed from its blank stare into her reflection, not even flickering at the sound of Brydon’s voice. What had they done to her? She looked a vision, dressed in a silk gown of spun silver adorned with sapphires. Her hair had been carefully coifed and braided with silver beads. A silver crown sat upon her head and flowers of blue and white were tucked artfully around it. A long train of blue silk was fastened around her neck, cloak fashion. She looked a proper queen in every way, except for her dull expression.

“This is highly irregular,” the matron snarled. “This entire wedding is a sham. Drugging the girl on her wedding day because of nerves? It is proper for a girl to be nervous. Now she can hardly function.”

Drugged? Thank Adona that was it, Brydon thought. He had been afraid that Reed had penetrated Shevyn’s mental wall and destroyed her sanity.

A younger woman spoke up, her voice rough. A glance in her direction showed tears staining her cheeks. “She does not love Prince Reed,” she murmured. “She cannot say the words, but I can tell. She should not marry him.”

One of the other women hissed at her. “Hush! Queens do not marry for love. She knows her duty. She thinks that Prince Reed can hold the Concurrence together and restore order.”

The mention of Reed’s name caused Brydon to remember himself.

“Complaints can be addressed to Prince Reed,” he snarled, managing to keep nearly all the sarcasm from his voice. “Leave now.” He pointed to the weeping girl. “All but you. You may help me to escort her.”

The other women glared and grumbled, but obediently trooped out the double doors. Brydon waited with one hand on his sword-hilt in case the guards outside chose to investigate the mass exodus. The doors slammed and Brydon knelt quickly beside Shevyn. He took one of her small, cold hands in his.

“Shevyn,” he said urgently. He touched her cheek until her head turned and he could look fully into her eyes. “It’s Brydon. I have come to take you out of here.”

At his words, the girl put a hand to her mouth too late to stifle a gasp. She took a tentative step back, but Brydon’s hand flashed out and snatched her wrist.

“Do not,” he warned. “You seem to care for Shevyn. Would you see her married to that devil Reed, or will you help me to get her to safety?”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I am Brydon Redwing, Knight-Priest of the Lance. I am here to see Reed removed and Shevyn restored to her rightful place as Queen.”

“A Knight-Priest!” the girl breathed. “Prince Reed has forbidden them to enter these walls. He claims they stole the Gauntlet.”

Brydon gaped at her, though he should not have been surprised. “That bastard is no more a prince than I am. He, himself, stole the Gauntlet right after he murdered the royal family.”

“Murdered?” the girl burst out, a trifle too loudly. Brydon shushed her with a quick glance toward the door. She said more softly, “But they were killed by an illness!”

“Rather a strange illness that killed only the king, queen, and royal princes, was it not?”

“And two members of the council,” she added dully, tears filling her eyes once more. “Oh, it cannot be true.”

“Look at Shevyn,” Brydon told her, gently. “Does she look like a beaming bride? Or even one resigned to marry out of duty? No, she was drugged because she would never marry Reed. She would rather see him dead than have him gain legitimate control of Ven-Kerrick.”

Shevyn’s stare was far away, but she seemed to focus for a brief instant. Her hand slowly rose to touch Brydon’s cheek as softly as a feather. She smiled sadly, as if he were but a dream induced by the potion she had been forced to ingest. Then her hand fell away and her gaze returned to contemplation of a point just off Brydon’s left shoulder. He caught her hand as it fell and pressed an urgent kiss into her palm. The girl stared at him.

“You love her,” she observed in a hushed tone. The softly spoken words jolted Brydon, but he shook off their import.

“We must hurry,” he said, pulling Shevyn gently to her feet. “No doubt Reed will send someone to fetch her soon.”

They took her through the secret door and into the next room. It was not until then that Brydon discovered Toryn’s absence.

“Damn him!” he swore through the icy feeling clenched about his heart. The girl looked at him in alarm. “My friend,” Brydon explained, “has gone after Reed.”

~~O~~

Verana crossed the courtyard with her dark cloak pulled close about her. Ebons were not plentiful even in the south. She approached the postern gate where a pompous-looking black-clad guard halted her. He blocked her way with an elaborately carved staff.

“Where go ye and why?” he demanded.

She looked at him fully and he gasped before snapping to attention.

“I am Verana, tutor and maid to Lady Chalmyn of Kaaza. I am going to the village for her to see what books I might find for sale.”

The man cleared his throat. “’Twould be a better selection in the king’s library,” he offered.

“Milady prefers to purchase rather than borrow,” Verana explained softly. “Besides, it is rather chaotic in there.” She gestured at the castle. “I welcome the chance to escape, if only for a short while.”

“Very well,” he said. “I'll inform me relief to allow ye back inside if ye don’t
return by the end of me shift.”

Verana beamed at him, fully aware of the power of her white smile. “Thank you.”

She entered the long corridor that was only a small passageway between the walls and exited in the outer bailey.

The outer ward bustled with activity. News of the wedding had traveled far, even in so short a time, and peddlers of every type had dragged their goods to Ven-Kerrick to take advantage of the crowds. Brightly colored tents had been amassed haphazardly and the sounds of music and laughter grew louder as Verana approached. The crowd consisted mostly of peasants—the nobility had likely entered the castle as the time of the ceremony drew near.

The peasant folk were having a riotous time—eating, drinking, watching jugglers, acrobats, and dancers while peddlers tried to entice them into parting with their precious coppers. Verana ignored their blandishments as she made her way through the throng, at last discovering a mass of grey tents erected in orderly fashion near one of the walls. Milling about the tents were soldiers doing what encamped soldiers did—they napped, sharpened weapons, chatted, or paced.

Verana’s steady approach drew the attention of one of the pacers—a young, dark-haired man with hawklike features. He strode out to meet her, brows lifting slightly in surprise when he viewed her dark skin.

“Milady,” he greeted her with a curt nod.

“Are you in command, here?” she asked, evidently not the sort of question he expected.

“Yes. I am Knight Commander Montyr,” he responded.

“Knight Commander?” she asked dubiously. “Where is your Marshall, or Seneschal?”

Montyr’s face twisted bitterly. “Our Seneschal was killed in Bodor and our Marshall barely escaped with his life.” He jerked his head in the direction of one of the larger tents. “He is in there, sorely wounded.”

“Has he been tended?” Verana asked in concern.

Montyr’s manner softened somewhat at her worried tone. “Our field surgeon has seen to him.”

“May I take a look?” she inquired and shifted her dark cloak enough to reveal the rose insignia on her inner robes. Montyr’s eyes fell to it immediately and he nodded quickly, seeming relieved. He turned and led the way to the tent. Inside, a grey-haired man lay upon a cot. His skin was pale and he breathed shallowly. He muttered unintelligibly and thrashed, knocking one of his blankets partially off. Another man, apparently the field surgeon, tugged the cloth back up. He was short and balding. What little remained of his hair was grey as steel. He turned sharply as Montyr and Verana entered.

“How is he, Jak?” Montyr asked.

“Unchanged,” the surgeon replied. “Still delirious.”

Verana hurried forward and examined the wounded Marshall. The field surgeon bristled instantly.

“Madam!” he snapped, “I will thank you to keep your hands off my patient. Montyr—”

Verana ignored his tirade and asked a question. “Was there kidney damage?” She scrutinized the ragged looking gash in the man’s side, seemingly caused by a sword-blow.

The surgeon’s grey eyebrows waggled in surprise. “Nay. The wound was deep, but not irreparable. The worst was the blow to his head.”

Verana touched the neat stitches that had closed the side injury. “A fine job of stitchery,” she commented with a brief smile. “I will leave you medicines for a poultice which will draw out any poison and help him to heal. May I examine his head wound?” When the field surgeon merely gaped at her, she added, “My name is Verana. Of the Order of the Rose.”

The man’s jaw snapped shut and he sighed deeply—whether in relief or annoyance, Verana could not tell—and nodded. He rolled the Marshall over gently until the base of his bandaged skull was visible. Blood stained the bandage darkly and Verana peeled the cloth away. She cleaned away the clotted blood with a nearby basin of water and inspected the injury minutely. Her hands were soon red with blood.

“There are chips of bone which need to be removed—I think one of them is pressing into his brain. Fetch me operating tools immediately,” she said. The field surgeon hurried away without comment. Verana heated more water in the nearby brazier. Montyr, face pale, began to edge his way from the tent. Verana halted him.

“Knight Commander, Queen Shevyn has been taken captive and is being forced to marry Reed, the man who murdered her family and took control of Ven-Kerrick. Jace the Wanderer, Knight-Priest of the Shield, and a Falaran named Brydon Redwing are inside the castle at this moment, seeking to halt this wicked farce. A Redolian aids them, but the three of them cannot hope to stand against Reed’s forces, even should they manage to locate Prince Kerryn with whatever allies he has mustered.”

Montyr’s jaw worked wordlessly as Verana’s words penetrated. “The Queen—against her will?” he finally choked out. “But Reed is Regent. We all saw the document—it was the King’s will.”

Verana sighed and knelt beside the unconscious Marshall. She curbed her impatience and continued, “Reed is in league with Shaitan. He has strange and mysterious powers. In the end, none of the royal family could stand against him. I am sure King Koryn wrote the document, but he was not likely to have been in his right mind. When her family was murdered, Shevyn fled Ven Kerrick alone. She was found in Penkangum by Brydon.”

The words were coming too fast for Montyr. “She fled?! But we were told she had gone to Bodor to visit Queen Ierona. To seek comfort.”

“Who told you that?” Verana demanded and he blanched.

“Reed,” he replied hoarsely.

Verana nodded. “She escaped him twice, but now he has her. You can well wager that he will kill her when he has no more need of her, and that will be the end of the Kerrick line, the end of the Concurrence, and more. How long do you suppose it will take the Parmittans to learn of the Kerricks’ fate? Who would wield the Gauntlet against them?”

“He sent us away,” Montyr said in dawning understanding. “He sent every Knight-Priest in Ven-Kerrick on a fool’s mission to Bodor. He said his own guard could easily protect the castle in our absence.” Montyr smacked a fist into his palm. “There was no threat in Bodor—Queen Ierona laughed in our faces. We were ambushed on the return—bandits, it seemed.” He looked at Verana. “Reed sent them?” Verana nodded, having little doubt of it.

“When we finally returned to Ven-Kerrick, we were told not to enter the castle. Reed has given us one lame excuse after another for weeks. I was suspicious, but saw no reason to doubt his word.” His face paled once more. “When we left for Bodor, the Chancellor remained behind. When we returned, he was dead. ‘An accident’.”

“No accident,” Verana responded and tucked bunches of dried moss around the patient’s skull wound to stop the copious bleeding. “Reed will allow no Knight-Priests near him for long. If he succeeds in his plan, he will disband the Gauntlet Knights, you can bet on that.”

“Not while I live,” Montyr vowed. He looked at the prone Marshall for a moment in indecision. “Have you any proof of this matter?” he asked Verana. She sighed and tucked a stray lock of hair away from her face and felt a bloody streak mar her forehead.

“No, Knight Commander,” she said softly before her eyes bored into his, “But I do not lie.”

He sighed deeply and nodded acceptance. “I fear we will have to storm the gates. There could be a bloody battle.”

So predicting he went out, calling loudly for his lesser officers and aides, and passed the incoming field surgeon. Verana turned to her patient, knowing there was no more she could do for Jace and the others. She sent a brief prayer to Adona for the safety of her friends and then turned to her work.

~~O~~

Jace was frustrated by his search for Kerryn. He jostled his way through the gathering crowd that filled the upper level of the Great Hall. Forcing his way to the railing, he searched the masses for any trace of Kerryn and came to the conclusion that the lad was elsewhere, hopefully assembling a rebellious force… unless he was in the dungeon.

Reed was nowhere to be seen and Jace prayed the wicked bastard was too busy preparing for the nuptials to waste mental energy searching the castle for intruders. Brydon would likely be safe from such a probe, but the rest of them would not be so lucky.

Jace pushed his way through the nobility again, ignoring their annoyed glares at his jostling, and back to the corridor.

“Now, if I were to organize a rebellion, where would I be?” he asked himself. He sighed and headed downstairs, just another of Reed’s soldiers running an errand, unnoticed by the wedding guests.

~~O~~

Brydon opened the door a crack and peered into the corridor. To the left, there was empty hallway. To the right, a few guests loitered about on the Grand Balcony, but Brydon saw no guards.

“What chamber lies across the hall?” he asked the handmaiden, unable to remember from Rakyn’s maps.

“A guest chamber,” she replied.

“Occupied?”

She nodded. “They all are, for the wedding. But it is likely all the guests are now in the Great Hall.”

Brydon sighed. “If not, I can take care of them.”

The girl blanched, eyes wide. “You would not kill them?”

“Of course not,” Brydon snapped. “I am a Knight-Priest, not one of Reed’s hired butchers.”

He had extended his mental shield to cover the girl, fearing that her panic might alert Reed of their presence. The maiden drew a shaky breath and Brydon forced himself to grip her shoulder lightly and smile encouragement, though he was frustrated enough to shake her. She slipped across the hall and into the room. After a moment, she signaled to Brydon, who quickly whisked Shevyn into the chamber.

“It is empty,” the girl said when they moved inside.

Brydon placed Shevyn on a cushioned settee in the antechamber furthest from the door. A quick glance inside the room would not reveal her presence.

“Stay with her,” he commanded the girl. He brushed a stray curl from Shevyn’s forehead and sighed at her faraway expression. “Try to shake her out of this dazed state, but do not give her anything but water. There is no telling what wine or even tea will do if mixed with the drug she was given.” The girl nodded solemnly.

“I will return if I am able,” he added and hurried out to begin his search for Toryn, though he suspected the Redolian would be rather easy to find.

~~O~~

Brydon’s voice thundered in Toryn’s head.

Damn it, Toryn! Do not confront him on your own! You can best him with a sword, but his mind is his weapon of choice!

Toryn tried harder to push the Falaran’s voice from his mind and managed to quiet his mental chastisement to a dull roar. He did not bother to send a response, knowing Brydon would object to anything Toryn had to say on the subject.

He did not intend to give Reed enough breathing space to use his bloody mental powers.

At the doors that led into the Great Hall, both soldiers guarding the portal saluted Toryn as he passed, though they eyed him in puzzlement. He saluted back and grinned once past them. It was nice that Brydon’s friend Rakyn had supplied them with uniforms of rank.

Most of the guests were seated and Toryn threaded his way through those that still stood about. He recalled the last time he had been in this room. It had been empty them, but now nearly all the open space had been filled with crude benches. The thrones had been removed from the dais and taken Adona knew where. In their place stood a large marble altar draped with scarlet cloth. Two massive candlesticks flanked it, topped with spiral candles whose wicks burned brightly.

Behind the altar stood a round-faced man dressed in the robes of a Gauntlet Knight, though Toryn instinctively knew the man was a fake. It was more likely the cretin was a priest of Shaitan and carried a wicked gold daggers somewhere under his false robes.

Toryn threaded his way through the nobles, and then sat down at an empty aisle seat in the third row. A noblewoman with an atrocious amount of rouge on her pudgy white cheeks glared at him, but he ignored her while he sought Reed. A small group of noblemen stood near the priest, but Reed was not among them. Most likely he intended to make some sort of royal entrance.

The woman next to Toryn tapped his hand sharply with her fan. She had been making snortling noises that Toryn had ignored. Now he turned icy emerald eyes on her. She quailed for a moment and the red spots on her cheeks looked like blood as she, incredibly, paled even more. Then she remembered herself and sat up straighter, hitching her great bulk as she did so.

“That seat is reserved for my husband,” she huffed in a nasal, affected tone. Toryn studied her for a long moment while he bit back a dozen comments that would likely cause her to swoon in appalled shock. He imagined the thunderous roar that would result from her immense mass hitting the floor and held his tongue, not wishing to attract the attention of every person in the room.

“I shall be here but a moment,” he said carefully, trying to mimic Brydon’s courtliest speech. The brief thought of Brydon caused the mental shouting of the Falaran to begin anew and he winced against the strength of it. He was developing a vicious headache.

The woman huffed haughtily and shifted her weight again, nearly knocking him off the bench. He glared at her, but she pretended not to notice him.

The blare of trumpets almost made him jump out of his skin and he turned with the rest of the crowd to view Reed—who paused in the doorway looking as thoughhe had already been crowned king. The bastard was dressed all in white with silver trim and a silver coronet adorned his dark hair. The red crystal pendant dangled blatantly from a gold chain around his neck. There was a scramble for seats as Reed began his stately walk down the aisle, heading for the dais. His ermine cloak swirled dramatically and the heels of his polished white boots struck an imposing rhythm on the stone floor as he progressed up the central aisle. His wide smile gladdened the throng as his dark eyes drifted over them. Toryn kept his head partially bowed and watched Reed’s approach from the corner of his eye. The evil usurper drew closer, drew abreast of Toryn—and sprawled in an ungainly heap when Toryn’s black-booted foot shot out to trip him.

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN