The catastrophe of the e.., p.19
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       The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, p.19

           LR Manley
 
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  This was King James’s private amphitheatre. Only his most trusted and favoured subjects got to watch spectacles played out here. The king grinned and lowered his arms. The room slowly fell silent and after a pause he addressed his assembled audience.

   “Loyal soldiers of Anghofio. Tomorrow we march on Alegria.”

   There was another loud and prolonged roar of approval from the men. The king waited until it had died out. “For years we have lived in Alegria’s shadow but now the queen has forsaken her realm and Alegria is weak. No longer will they be there to gloat and look down on us. Soon we will have Alegria for ourselves!” 

  He raised his voice on the last sentence and there was an even louder roar of approval from the assembled men. They wore the black and orange cloaks of the elite King’s Daggers and all were bearded. His most loyal and highly trained men. 

  “As my gift to you all,” the king said loudly. “I give you a spectacle you probably thought you’d never see.” He gestured with his right hand and through some unseen mechanism a hole opened in the floor and slowly Mordalayn rose up into the arena. After a moment’s pause the men screamed louder than ever, all standing to roar with delight at the prisoner displayed before them. 

  As the platform Mordalayn was on reached the surface it stopped with a loud clang and he glanced slowly from side to side, his face betraying no emotion. 

  The king signalled for silence and the clamour gradually died away as the excited mob of men sat down again. 

  “Behold,” king James said in a mocking tone. “The queen of Alegria’s sword. Caught like a common street rogue.”

   There was much laughter. 

  “Now I present him here for your pleasure, as my loyal soldiers.” King James gestured again and crossbow men appeared on the wall, their bows primed and pointed at Mordalayn. One by one they took up position. There were twenty in total, fingers over their triggers. Then a portcullis opened with a grinding noise and four guards came out at a quick march, their black cloaks flapping behind them, their swords drawn. They nervously approached the Caracalic and proceeded to unlock his chains. Mordalayn knew he could take at least two of them before the snipers could loose a shot but he also knew he had to remain calm for the time being.

   As the last chain was released, the guards stepped back, swords still pointed at the huge figure.

   “Now my friend you will not be alone,” King James told him. There were sniggers amongst the seated crowd. The king shouted loudly. “Bring out the rest.” 

  Another iron grilled gate ground slowly upwards. Mordalayn glanced back as around twenty men, some frightened some defiant, were pushed and herded into the arena. When they were all in front of him King James addressed them directly.

   “Those of you who betrayed my trust, you have one chance to redeem yourselves now.” The guards used long staffs to push the men into the centre of the grilled floor which was rusted and menacing looking. They prodded the prisoners, some of them their former equals, towards the centre of the room. They were placed in groups of two, facing each other. As a guard approached Mordalayn he bared his teeth and snarled at the man. The guard blanched and swallowed hard and instead gestured to the Caracalic to take up his position. He stood facing a man of average height. The man’s face betrayed no emotion as he looked the huge figure up and down. He instead looked over at where King James stood waiting patiently for the men to be partnered off, his face lit by a wicked smile. When the pairing was finished Mordalayn mentally counted the number. Twenty one in total, one man stood alone, looking relieved but also frightened.

   The buzz in the room was powerful. Everyone could feel the excitement and the gleeful anticipation of the audience. After waiting for a few moments more King James spoke again. 

  “Those of you below are there for betraying your king or for being enemies of Anghofio. You now have one chance to receive the king’s mercy.” He paused at this and the room was silent, all attention was on him. He continued. “The floor you are standing can be either lethal or benign, depending on where fate has decided to put you.” There was subdued laughter at this and the king paused again. “Those of you on benign platforms have to defend them. Those of you who are not will need to steal one.”

   Some of the men in the arena clearly knew this and had already seen this game played before. The others looked terrified or angry and glanced around frantically for ways of escape. There were none. Mordalayn slowly scanned the arena and saw that of the men assembled here maybe half were hardened soldiers. The others simply looked bewildered and scared. Normal men who had earned the wrath of an evil king. 

  “Before we begin…a few rules,” King James said raising his voice and again the audience cheered. “If you are not on a benign platform when the bell strikes its third tone, you will die. If you try to share a platform with another, you will both die. If you refuse to fight…you will die. Whoever is left at the end will be granted Our mercy. Any questions? Thought not.” 

  Guards came forward from the open portcullis gates clutching crudely made, short swords and King James spoke clearly. “Do not pick these up until the first trumpet sounds. Anyone who tries is a dead man.” The guards unceremoniously dumped the blades at the feet of each person, with the exception of Mordalayn who was left without a weapon. They retreated rapidly through the open gates, the portcullises slamming down as they stepped through. A trumpet sounded a high note through the room and the men bent down to retrieve their weapons. King James sneered. “The mighty Queen’s Sword will fight unarmed. Let’s see if this haughty warrior can show us all how he earned his status with the odds a little fairer to his opponents.” 

  Mordalayn glanced down and around the arena floor. The grill was vast and covered nearly all the circular space beneath them. The platforms beneath the grills were about one metre by one metre, large enough for two men to stand over but also big enough to defend by allowing a defender free range of movement. At another signal from King James the metal platforms beneath them began to slowly move around with a grinding noise. They scraped underneath the grill in unpredictable patterns under the feet of the men above. The man who had no partner suddenly dropped his sword and shrieked “NO! This isn’t fair!” and tried to run for one of the portcullises in the wall. He got to make three strides before four crossbow bolts thudded into him. He fell heavily to the floor, dead before he made contact with the grill. There was more laughter from the assembled audience and several could be seen making bets as to the outcome, many pointing with enthusiasm at Mordalayn. 

  “One more thing,” King James said, rising from his ornately carved chair once more. “Feel free to change partners at any time.” Still more laughter and a loud cheer went up from the audience and they leaned forward, elbows on their knees to watch the spectacle below. With a grinding crunch the circular metal platforms locked into position under the floor and as Mordalayn glanced down he saw his partner had the safe point. The man looked at him. “Think I’ll change if it’s all the same. See you in the final,” he said quietly. As the trumpets blew loudly to signal the start of the contest he leapt sideways at the man next to him and grabbed him by his collar, yanking him back and hurling him against the arena wall. The man cursed and scrambled to his feet as his usurper took a defensive stance, ready to repel any attempt to reclaim the position. 

  All around men began struggling, no one in the arena knew how many safe platforms there were but they all knew there would be less than the amount of men alive there in that moment. No one came near Mordalayn, content with easier possibilities and amidst much shouting and grunting they tried to shove one another over the exposed metal of the grills, swords clashing together. Mordalayn quickly looked around in every direction, primed to defend his position but the desperate men around him knew their best chance was against each other and not against him.

   To his left an inexperienced man, not used to sword play fell to the more prolific moves of his opponent. With a silent glare at the man
who had beaten him he slumped forward onto the floor. A cheer went up from the men watching and in a couple of places coins began to change hands. The victor in that round stepped back into the central spot of his platform and glanced from side to side quickly in case anyone tried to flank him.

   One or two men on the outer edges of the group were not being bothered by the others, most of the fighting was in the centre where only Mordalayn was left unchallenged. King James watched the spectacle intently, his hand resting on his chin as he watched the Caracalic standing unopposed. 

  The first bell began to toll and the men who had safe positions checked where they stood once more to make certain they were safe, swords held ready. Two men were down and as the second bell tolled the victor of the second fight frantically grabbed the body of his beaten opponent and pulled it clear of the platform and onto the grill. The third bell sounded and all the safe points had been claimed, there was no one left to fight in this round. After what seemed like a horribly long time the final bell tolled. Suddenly with no further warning, blue flame shot from every place in the grilled floor except for the safe areas blocked by the metal plates. The flames were three metres tall and as the audience cheered enthusiastically and the men in the arena looked on in horror, the bodies of the two losers and the man who’d tried to run, vanished. Just as quickly as they had come the flames disappeared and there was no sign the men had ever been there except their fallen swords. 

  The survivors looked around at their fellows and as the cheering in the arena died down the plates underneath the grill began to move again with a strained grinding. “Well done and welcome to the second round gentlemen,” King James said, clapping theatrically. With another clang of finality the plates locked into positions beneath the grill once more and the trumpet sounded for them to fight again.

  Chapter 26

   

  Crow and Harrod peered round the room but strangely there was indeed no other way out. The frozen priests stood glistening in the pulsing green light of the huge cone tower in the centre of the room. 

  “Errr…you can get us out of here can’t you?” Harrod said, his cheerful demeanour slipping only slightly. 

  Crow grunted and removed the crystal again then walked to the shining, fat grey wedge blocking the door. He spoke a few words and the barrier slowly sagged in on itself, collapsed and finally crumbled to dust. Harrod cautiously stuck his head out and looked up and down the corridor. There was no one. 

  “This is weird” he said to Crow. “We’ve just walked into the most secret place in the whole of Alegria if not the world and there’s no one trying to stop us any more.” 

  Crow glanced at him. “The Alegrians became lazy. When you have so much power for so long you forget what it’s like to be powerless.”

   Harrod shrugged and the two men edged down the long, dark corridor, checking in shadows and making their way to the main doors. Harrod was fully expecting a squad of Alegrian guards to jump out on them at any moment. There was no one and as they made it to the main doors, to this most secret and precious of Alegrian chambers he shrugged. “If they’d known it was going to be this easy Siavy wouldn’t have paid us so much,” he mumbled.

   Crow placed the crystal back in his pocket and they took a final look down the corridor then strode through the doors. The winding staircase behind wound up and up and after many steps they arrived at a second taller and more slender door. Both pulled their ceremonial robes firm and drew their hoods over their faces. Crow placed his hand in a carved recess at the side of the door and it glided open silently. In front of it was a huge statue in brown and black speckled marble. There was just enough space to squeeze out one at a time into the huge hall. Harrod went first and the door closed behind them. They moved off, blending into the traffic of people around them. No one paid them any attention.  

  “Praise be to Alegria and all who…” Harrod began as a group of priests came near to them but Crow nudged him again and he went quiet. As they walked out the main entrance of the central hall, Harrod muttered to himself. “It really shouldn’t have been THAT easy.”

  Chapter 27

   

  Jared, Bue and Scious made their way through the tunnels of the dungeons. In the distance they could hear the faint sounds of cheering and what sounded like fighting. Scious led them up snaking corridors, lit by sputtering torches. There were no sentries left in this level, the two they had trapped and the drunken jailer seemed to be the only ones left. As they moved onwards they saw a curved wooden doorway ahead. Scious turned. “This leads to the main games room,” he whispered and motioned for them to wait. Bue glanced at Jared who looked nervously at Scious as he tip-toed forward, his spindly frame reaching the doorway. Adjusting his hat he cautiously touched the door handle and pulled slightly. The door moved and he peeped out. Turning back he whispered to them. “It’s ok, come on.” As they reached him the clashing of metal, the roars and shouts were louder. They faced a curving corridor that appeared to be encircling the arena. Unbelievably there was no one around.

  “They are over confident” Scious said softly and beckoned the others to follow him. They crossed the passageway swiftly and reached a recess in the curved wall. Scious looked anxious. “I can take you now if you want but if you want all of you, you MUST be together. My debt is good for one boon only. I will not make two trips.”

  Jared glanced at Bue before he answered. “We need to get Mordalayn out of there.” 

  Bue pulled a face. “You can’t. By the sounds of it there are hundreds of people in there.” 

  “Well then, we’ll have to sneak up on them won’t we,” Jared snapped angrily. “Where’s the entrance to the arena floor?”

   “This way,” Scious replied “but you won’t make it more than a few yards.” He smirked again. “I have a better idea.” 

  They moved around they hallway again and towards a row of steps that led down. The sounds of mayhem from the arena rose and fell deafeningly.

  Three men down and the survivors squared off once more. Now down to eighteen men the plates had reduced to twelve. The screams of excitement from the soldiers seated on the stone benches was almost thunderous as those before them threw themselves at their opponents. Again there was some who were left untouched as the six vulnerable men picked their opponents. They twitched nervously, their swords held ready. There was a scream as another man went down to his opponent’s blade. Mordalayn again had a safe point and stood unarmed and ready. Although in the first round no one had tried to fight him, they knew that he was not someone to try and face in the later stages. He whirled as a man tried to attack him from behind. With a snarl he dodged the stab aimed at his ribs and swept his elbow up into the man’s face. The attacker was dashed back into the wall. There was a roar of approval from the spectators and coins again changed hands. The man groaned and staggered to his feet, shaking his head and squared off to the Caracalic once more. 

  Mordalayn knew there was no point in trying to reason or negotiate. They were both being forced to fight to the death and he admired the man for his bravery. His foe looked up and their eyes met. Mordalayn’s gaze was cold. He adjusted his stance to prepare for another attack and the man hurled himself forward, swiping the sword in a classic attacking move. Two actions from side to side as he lunged, followed by a thrust that would have gutted anyone in front of him. Mordalayn was no longer in front though. He stepped behind the man and grabbed his neck with huge hands. “You are brave my friend,” he whispered and after a moment’s struggle his rival fell limp. Mordalayn pushed the body to one side.

   Again the audience bellowed loudly in appreciation and Mordalayn glanced around rapidly for other challengers. Four men were down and the remaining eight fighting for space struggled on. Looking up to the gloating face of King James Mordalayn silently prayed for both a miracle and vengeance. 

  Scious and the others made their way to the door at the bottom of the steps. While Bue held his crossbow ready Scious opened
the door and peered in. Inside was a darkened room that curved with the space it was built around. A blast of hot, damp air sprang through the gap and Jared could see what looked like copper pipes twisting and winding around. Scious again lifted his finger to his lips and they cautiously moved into the stifling, foetid room. 

  Inside were two small, damp, sweaty figures. They were green in colour and hunched over various knobs and levers. One was barking orders at the other. “No, no!” it snapped irritably. “You keep the gauge at sixty until the third trumpet call! Have you listened to anything I’ve said?” 

  The other figure snapped back. “I kept it at sixty, just my hand slipped is all.” 

  “Your hand slipped?! YOUR HAND SLIPPED?!!!” the other one shrieked. “It’ll be more than your hand that’ll slip if you ruin King James’ss fun today.” 

  The second creature snorted and wiped sweat from its forehead with an equally sweaty sleeve. It had a large, scaled nose that occupied most of its face. “Why don’t you do the plates and I’ll do the flames. Happier then?” 

  “NO!” the other snapped. “You do as I tell you and I….” His voice trailed off as he saw Bue’s crossbow aimed at his face. 

  Scious spoke up. “Switch off the flame and raise the portcullis nearest to us.” 

  The creature hesitated and tried to move but Bue jerked, moving his bow. His expression was furious and the creature decided not to argue. “The…there are HUNDREDS of soldiers up there” he stammered, trying to get some semblance of control back into his little world. 

  “Just do it,” Bue told him. 

  The creatures gulped and the littler one reached for a valve.

  As the first trumpet sounded there were five men down. Those who were safe constantly checked for threat while the remaining fighters struggled on. Panicking, the man who held the safe point flung himself at his adversary and managed to knock his sword away. It arced against the marble wall and clanged to the floor. The man’s momentary joy was short lived though. The other took advantage of his distraction and grabbed his sword arm by the wrist and proceeded to grapple with him, trying to pull him clear of the plate.  

 
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