Death of a king, p.18
Death of a King,
Part of her hoped it would rain or something, but the thought of two grown knights cancelling a duel because of the weather was absurd.
Why were they like this? Why did they always stand by their rules and codes? Who cared who said what about whose father?
She watched an elderly couple as they ate. She wondered what the husband would do if somebody insulted his wife. Would he demand to fight to the death?
Then why were these knights and adventurers so different? Why were they so eager to die for nothing?
From what she understood, most of them were the youngest sons of wealthy families, undoubtedly eager to please their remote and influential fathers or make a bigger name for themselves than their older brothers who inherited the family estates and titles.
Sure, women had their peccadilloes, but they wouldn’t fight somebody for the sake of honor.
What kind of person would duel somebody else because of what they might or might not have said?
She could feel herself teetering on the verge of screaming or crying. She couldn’t allow herself to do either. She had to think. There had to be a way out of this.
The mixture of talking and sounds of eating faltered as several diners regarded her. She ignored them. They could all go screw themselves for all she cared.
Natalie fought the rising tears. Then, suddenly, Sir Rowan dashed in, saw Natalie sitting by herself, and hurried to her table.
“How is he?” he asked as he sat across from her. He was hungover, but the concern in his face was unmistakable. “Is the wound as bad as it appeared last night? Did it close properly?”
“It would if he’d stop moving his arm. He keeps tearing the stitches.”
Sir Rowan drew a hand across his unshaved face. “How did this happen?” he asked himself.
“So you don’t know either? I mean, why Sir David is so irate?”
Sir Rowan shook his head. “Not a clue. I wish I had. Perhaps then we could smooth things over and call off the duel. Say it was all a misunderstanding.”
“Do you think—” Natalie stopped, but then pushed forward, though she already knew the answer. “Do you think he has a chance?”
Sir Rowan stared at the table. “Ten years ago…hell, three years ago.” He shook his head. “Two-handed. What was he thinking?”
Natalie laid a reassuring hand on his forearm. “He’s strong as a bull. And he’s still Sir Edris.”
“You should have seen him in all his glory. He was a sight to behold, I can tell you, young lady. He was like poetry with a blade. Nobody could best him. Even then we knew he was going to be one for the ages.”
“And is this, this…Sir David—” She glanced at the other customers. Some were still watching her as they ate. She lowered her voice. “Is he that good?”
“I’ve never heard of him until now. I knew Donnie had a few sons. And I always assumed one would follow him in this business; however, I’ve never heard of his exploits. Still, if he’s Donnie’s son, he’ll be formidable.”
“But Sir Edris is a foot taller than him and, and—” She didn’t want to say more muscular, because she wasn’t sure that was true.
“He’s hurt. And with two-handed weapons, strength means everything. It’s a battle of power, not finesse.” Sir Rowan drummed his fingers nervously on the table. “I wish I knew what this was all about. Sure, Ed might make an off-handed comment or two about other adventurers. But everything he says is usually the king’s truth. He’d never say anything to cause something like this. He and Donnie have always been on more or less friendly terms.” He muttered, “Two-handed weapons. By the gods…”
“At least he has until tomorrow to heal.”
Sir Rowan smiled. “That he does, young lady. I’m sure all will seem brighter in the light of a new day.” He got to his feet. “Is Ed in his room?”
“Yes. Perhaps you could talk some sense into him.”
“He doesn’t need any more than he already has, I can assure you. Yet, I’ll give him what wisdom I have. Take care of yourself.” He made to leave, then paused. “When the time comes, stay clear of the dueling field. You hear me? Ed will have enough to think about tomorrow. He doesn’t need the distraction of having you there.”
Natalie tried to reply but felt a sob closing her throat.
He cupped her cheek with his hand.
“This is how we live,” he said. “And die. Do you understand? There’s nothing to be despondent about.”
She nodded, two tears tumbling free.
He patted her shoulder. “There. There. What will happen, will happen. Try not to think about anything but good things. I must be off. Remember what I said about staying clear of the dueling field.”
She watched him hurry up the stairs to Sir Edris’s room as though somebody’s life depended upon it.
For a long while, Natalie sat at her table, staring out the window as people passed the inn. She tried not to think about what might happen.
Sir Edris couldn’t move his left arm, let alone swing that damned two-handed sword. She knew exactly what was going to happen. Tomorrow, about an hour after sundown, Sir Edris was going to die.
And there was nothing she could do about it. Nothing.
Across the street, a small crowd cheered as Sir David strolled by, waving and smiling as though he hadn’t a care in the world.
Natalie waited for the cluster of cheering well-wishers to disperse before following Sir David to a four-story inn a few streets over. As she walked casually behind him, pretending to window shop, she noticed he was much bigger than he had appeared earlier that morning. And he wasn’t nervous. If anything, he had a confident, almost cocky, air about him as he joked and shook people’s hands. Perhaps that was all an act. Perhaps, deep down, he was terrified at the thought of fighting the great Sir Edris. Perhaps he would jump at a chance to call off the duel—he merely needed a face-saving excuse.
No. He wouldn’t call off the duel. Boys and their codes. They were willing to battle to the death over meaningless words. As Sir Rowan said, it’s how they lived—and died.
Why, by the gods, two-handed weapons? Why not short swords, or maces, or those long thin knives—something where Sir Edris could have used his enormous reach to his advantage?
She knew why. Because “two-handed weapons” was what Sir Edris would’ve always said in such situations. He was a mountain of a man. In his prime, nobody could beat him, especially with swords seven feet long. It was something he said in the heat of the moment, not realizing he was severely injured.
Somebody was going to die tomorrow…
Not somebody. Tomorrow the man who had taken her in and protected her like his daughter was going to die.
She had to stop this. Codes and honor be damned. She wasn’t going to lose two fathers in one lifetime.
Once inside the inn, Natalie followed Sir David to the third floor. She noted what room he went into and stopped to collect herself. She wasn’t going to cry. She was simply going to appeal to his sense of fair play and honor. Fighting a wounded man who was drunk at the time he agreed to fight? There was no honor there. Now, if Sir David wanted to fight Sir Edris in a couple of weeks when his arm was better…
Should she say that? That might sound like a challenge. Then again, these boys thrived on affronts to their character. Tell them they weren’t man enough to do something and they’d do it as sure as the sun coming up.
She had to say things right. Maybe she’d begin with some flattery. Maybe she’d give him one of those seductive looks, and then appeal to the fact it wouldn’t be much of a fight. After all, it was against a wounded man. Where was the glory in that?
That was a good line. She’d have to remember to use it. Sir David couldn’t deny Sir Edris was
That should do it. He’d have to agree to fight Sir Edris in a couple weeks. At least Sir Edris would have a chance.
He could still die.
Better to go out a warrior than a wounded old man.
A wealthy merchant came out of a room up the hallway. He tipped his hat to Natalie, then cantered down the stairway, humming to himself. When he was out of sight and the sounds of his footsteps couldn’t be heard, she tapped on Sir David’s door.
It opened almost immediately.
There, before her, stood Sir David.
By the gods, he was bigger than she recalled—bigger and not so young, twenty-five maybe. And he had a scar across his jaw. He’d obviously been in battle before.
Natalie coughed and readied herself, but Sir David spoke first.
“You?” He opened the door wider. “You’re the harlot who was with Edris last night.”
“Har—?” Natalie huffed, taken aback. “I am not!”
“What other type of woman would be with him at that hour?”
“I am not a harlot! I’m his—” Should she say? Brago was still out there, searching for her. Then again, saying she was Sir Edris’s daughter might help fix things. He’d see Sir Edris as not a knight, but somebody’s father. She took a deep breath. “I’m his daughter.”
Surprised, Sir David reappraised her. “Then what the devil are you doing—?” His face lit up with overwhelming joy. He laughed so loud it unnerved Natalie. “He sent you, didn’t he? Don’t deny it! The fat bastard sent you here to beg for his life!” Sir David left the doorway and wandered about his quarters. “Oh, this is too rich. His daughter!”
Natalie stepped into the room. “He didn’t—”
“Oh,” Sir David said, laughing so hard he was on the verge of tears. “I always knew he wasn’t what everybody claimed him to be. I always knew in my heart of hearts all the stories were contrived. Nobody could be that good.” He slapped his knee, doubled over in mirth. “His daughter!” He added in an overly feminine voice, “Oh, please! Don’t hurt him! He’s my father!”
“I don’t sound—!”
“The mighty Edris!” he said. “How pathetic! Before I slay your father, I’m going to give it to him good! He’ll wish he never crossed swords with me. Sends his daughter to beg for his life!” He laughed again. “I have to go tell everybody.”
He made for the hallway, but Natalie closed and blocked the door.
“Nobody is going to believe you!” she said. “They’ll think you made it all up!”
“I’m sure half a dozen people saw you come here.” He leered suggestively at her. “Believe me, you’re easy to remember. You must take after your mother. Perhaps after this is over, you’d like to spend time with a real knight.”
Natalie slapped him across the face, but probably hurt her tingling hand more than his red cheek.
Chuckling, he pushed her out of the way; but Natalie blocked the door again.
“Don’t!” she said.
“Don’t!” he mocked. “That’s exactly what your father is going to say before I cut off his head. If you think your father is wounded now, wait until everybody knows what a coward he is. He’ll beg me to put him out of his misery. ‘Don’t!’” he laughed.
Natalie’s skin ran cold.
She could imagine how the duel would begin. There’d be words thrown back and forth as the two men strutted and posed. Sir David would keep saying that Natalie had come to his room begging for him to spare Sir Edris’s life. Sir Edris would be so angry he wouldn’t be able to think straight.
“And when the time comes,” Sir Rowan had said, “stay clear of the dueling field. Ed will have enough to think about tomorrow. He doesn’t need the distraction…”
“Get out of my way, woman.” Sir David opened the door and called down the hall, “Tyler! You won’t believe—”
Drawing the knife she kept in the folds of her dress, Natalie leapt on the knight, yanked his head back, and slashed his throat. Blood gushed everywhere. Sir David staggered and fell heavily to his knees. Gaping at Natalie, he groped for his neck, then collapsed motionless at her feet.
Using the knight’s cloak, Natalie cleaned her knife and then hid it in her dress. Careful not to step in the spreading pool of spurting blood, she calmly closed the door to Sir David’s room.
Sir Edris descended the stairs to The Maggie’s common room, his brightly polished plate armor clanking like a funeral bell with each deliberate step. It was the day after Natalie’s fatal run-in with Sir David, and the sun was setting. Townsfolk packed the field with the three juniper trees, waiting for the battle to begin.
“I won’t allow it, Natalie,” he said as they took each stair one careful step at a time. “You are not coming anywhere near the dueling grounds. Do you hear me?”
“I won’t go,” she replied with forced disappointment. “But I can see you off to victory, can’t I? And I’ll buy the first round of drinks when you return!”
The knight smiled and took her hand. His gauntlet felt ice cold.
“Nat,” he said.
He motioned for her to be quiet, then began again. “Nat, you’re the best daughter I could’ve hoped for.”
“Please don’t. Not here. We can talk tonight.”
Sir Edris continued, heedless of her distress. “Should things go poorly—”
“Should things go poorly,” he said, “Sir Rowan has something for you. Take it and ride to good fortune. Get married to Reg, have your adventures together…and think of me.”
Now the tears came, pouring in great sheets down Natalie’s checks. She knew it was irrational. She knew he wouldn’t die in a duel—not that day, at least. But she couldn’t stop herself.
Sir Edris kissed her forehead. “You are my daughter. Do you understand?”
Sniveling, she nodded.
He hugged her, crushing her against his breastplate. She noted his left arm didn’t move.
“I love you,” she finally managed to say. “If I haven’t said it enough before…if I haven’t seemed grateful for everything you’ve—”
He shushed her. “Nothing needs to be said about that. And you’ve given me far more than a man in my profession has any right to expect.” He squeezed her. “Of all the treasures I’ve found in my journeys, you’ve been the most valuable to me.”
“Sir Edris—” Natalie sobbed.
A rush of footsteps cut her off. Sir Rowan and Sir Oliver ran up the stairs, dressed in chainmail and cloaks lined with ermine fur. When they saw Sir Edris and Natalie standing on the landing, they stopped short. A score of other men were behind them. Natalie turned away, hiding her tears. Sir Edris cleared his throat.
“Is everything ready?” he asked.
“Sir David is dead,” Sir Oliver said.
“Yes.” Sir Edris raised a fist as he descended the stairs toward them. “I will show him no mercy. It is tragic, indeed, that he had to learn the ultimate lesson, but the boy pushed me too far.”
“No,” Sir Rowan said, hurrying up the stairs to him. “He’s literally dead. They found him a few moments ago. Somebody slit his throat.”
Natalie gave a well-rehearsed exclamation of horror. “Who’d do such a thing?”
Sir Edris offered Natalie his arm, in case she felt faint. He faced Sir Rowan. “Dead? Are you sure? How?”
“You killed him!” somebody in the crowd shouted.
Others murmured in agreement.
“What?” Sir Edris shook a two-handed sword, still sheathed, in his right
He plodded down the stairs as fast as a man in plate armor could. The crowd gave way. Many fled, but not before yelling words like coward and murderer. Sir Rowan and Sir Oliver guided Sir Edris around and propelled him against his will toward his suite of rooms.
“What are you two doing?” he shouted. “Unhand me!”
“This isn’t good, Ed,” Sir Rowan said under his breath. “We need to plan your next move.”
“My next move?” Sir Edris snorted. “I’ll be damned if it involves me skulking in my quarters. What has gotten into you two? Unhand me!”
“Ed,” Sir Oliver said, compelling the much larger knight up the stairs. “People believe you’re responsible.”
“Hogwash! What do they think? That I snuck into the inn and killed the imp without being seen? It’s lunacy, I tell you!”
They got him into his parlor, Natalie following close behind. She locked the door.
“Of course it’s lunacy,” Sir Rowan replied. “But it doesn’t look good either way. You have to see it from their perspective.”
“See what?” Sir Edris roared. He threw a gauntlet across the room. It smashed into the far wall. He clutched his left arm and cursed. “Why would I ambush the little prick when I could’ve easily bested him in the field?” The two other knights didn’t meet his gaze. “You thought I was going to lose, didn’t you?”
“I never had a doubt,” said Sir Oliver. “But the townsfolk don’t know what to think. They heard you were injured, and rumors began to fly. You know how it is.”
“I suppose they believe I hid under his bed and waited for the brat to fall asleep. Honestly!” Sir Edris went to the window and peered out. From across the room, Natalie could hear the irate mob. “Look at them! The ignorant swine!” He faced his friends. “I tell you both, on my honor—”
Sir Rowan raised a hand. “You don’t need say it.”
“Absolutely,” said Sir Oliver. “We’ve known each other too long to envision anything so repugnant.”
Sir Edris appeared relieved. “Any idea who did it?”