Death of a king, p.21
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       Death of a King, p.21
 

          
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  “Nat!” Sir Rowan said urgently, his hair and cloak flapping in the wind. “Reg! By the gods, this is good fortune.”

  “Sir Rowan!” said Reg. “We were—”

  “No time for it, lad,” the knight said, pulling his horse alongside Natalie’s whinnying mare. “You two need to come with me.” The anxiety in his eyes was unmistakable.

  A cold wave of fear washed over Natalie. “What’s wrong with Sir Edris?”

  “It’s bad, hon. Very bad.”

  Reg leapt onto his horse. “How far?”

  “Two days.”

  “Lord Braverton’s?”

  Sir Rowan wheeled his sweaty horse around. “Aye.”

  “Lead the way.” Following Sir Rowan, Reg kicked his horse into a gallop. Natalie followed suit; however, as they raced out of town, something caught her eye. She slowed.

  A young boy with curly hair dashed across the porch of The Prairie Wind Inn, talking to himself with great animated gestures. He appeared terrified.

  Magnus?

  “Nat!” Reg shouted over his shoulder.

  Natalie hammered her heels into her horse’s ribs and shot after him and Sir Rowan—wondering what the hell Magnus was doing in Winros Minor.

  • • •

  Riding hard, they reached Lord Braverton’s manor late the next day. A striking woman, wearing a long white dress that flowed behind her, hastened toward them, her pallid face betraying her anguish.

  “Is this his daughter?” she asked Sir Rowan. Not waiting for an answer, the woman helped Natalie from her saddle. “Come with me.”

  Sir Rowan hurried after them into the manor house, through the great hall, and up a wide stairway punctuated by alcoves with busts of past lords. “Is he any better?”

  “No.” The woman cursed. “Not a damned bit.”

  They ran along a passage full of priceless artwork.

  From up ahead, Natalie could hear muffled screams.

  Then they came to a bedroom bigger than any Natalie had ever seen. She stopped short. There, strapped to a four-post bed, was Sir Edris—his left arm swollen to twice its original size. Greenish pus seeped from the bright red gash across his bicep. His eyes wide with terror and pain, he thrashed his head. One of the knights standing solemnly by his side loosened the leather gag.

  “Natalie!” Sir Edris shrieked. “Don’t let them do it! Don’t let them take my arm. Don’t let them. Promise me! Promise me!”

  Natalie stood in the doorway, horrorstruck, as Sir Edris writhed. She backed away, but the woman in white took her hand and urged her into the room.

  A knight refitted Sir Edris’s gag, muffling his cries.

  “We need to remove his arm,” the woman said urgently.

  Natalie blinked at her. “Who—?”

  “Natalie,” Sir Rowan said, “this is Lady Braverton. She’s a close friend of your father’s.”

  “We don’t have much time,” Lady Braverton told her. “He won’t let us do it. As his heir, you can give the order.”

  An ominous man with an ax stood by the door.

  Natalie shook. “Heir? I, I…I can’t—”

  “You’re his daughter,” Lady Braverton shouted. “He’s not in the proper frame of mind to make a decision. Tell them to remove the arm. He’ll die otherwise. We don’t have much time.”

  Rooted to the ground, Natalie watched helplessly as Sir Edris screamed, expression pleading.

  “I…I…” Natalie protested. “But it was only a scratch! How did this happen? How—? Did it get infected?”

  An elderly man in the red robes of a physician came forward. “I’ve tended the wound as best I know how, and it keeps getting worse. I’m afraid it’s in the hands of the gods, now.” He bowed his balding head.

  “We’re wasting time!” Lady Braverton seized Natalie’s wrist and pulled her to a group of knights standing defiantly by Sir Edris’s bedside. “Tell them to remove his arm. He’ll die otherwise.”

  Sir Edris might have sobbed, “Then let me die.” Natalie couldn’t tell. She looked at the knights, their hands resting on their swords, and then at Reg next to her.

  “Reg?”

  Reg couldn’t answer. Staring at Sir Edris, tears dripped from his face.

  How did this happen? It was a scratch. Well, maybe not a scratch. But it hadn’t been deep, and the wound was clean. They’d treated it right away. How the hell did this happen?

  “Natalie!” Lady Braverton’s nails dug into Natalie’s arm. “You’re his daughter.”

  Yes, she was his daughter. This was her decision. And any delay could end his life.

  Could she take his arm?

  Time was slipping away.

  “Everybody out,” Natalie yelled. “Everybody out! I have to speak with my father. Now! Out!”

  “We don’t have time!” Lady Braverton begged, her cultivated air of nobility crumbling. “He’s dying! Please!”

  “I can’t decide! Not like this. I need to talk with him.” Natalie turned to everybody in the room. “Five minutes. That’s all I ask. Let me talk with him, and then I’ll decide.”

  The knights filed into the hallway.

  “Don’t undo the straps,” one of them told her. “He’s not himself.”

  “If you want my opinion, miss—” began the elderly doctor.

  “Out!” Natalie hollered. “For the love of the gods, everybody get out! You too, Reg.”

  Reg was only too happy to go. Through his tears, he could hardly find the door.

  Lady Braverton was the last to leave. Anxiously, she clutched Natalie’s shoulder. “You must remove the arm. It’s the only way!”

  “I have to speak with him. I can’t—” Natalie’s voice caught. “Please, let me talk to him in private. A couple minutes. Then I’ll decide.”

  Lady Braverton struggled to speak, evidently torn between the urgency to save Sir Edris’s life and pity for the young woman forced to make such a monumental decision. “Two minutes.” She closed the door to the bedroom behind her.

  Natalie sat on a chair by Sir Edris’s bed. With his skin sallow and eyes sunken, he was unrecognizable.

  “It’s okay,” she said, soothingly. “It’s okay.” She carefully removed the gag.

  “Please, Nat!” Sir Edris begged. “By the love of the gods!”

  “It’s okay.” Not knowing what else to say, she sobbed, “I love you!”

  Covered in sweat, the knight mastered some of his pain. “Nat. I, I love you. I love you. Kill me.”

  “What? No!”

  “Please!”

  “No!”

  “Don’t let them take my arm. I’ll kill myself if they do. Please. Please, I won’t be a cripple. I won’t be seen like that. I won’t. I can’t. I’m not going to die a cripple. Nat—!”

  “Okay!”

  He calmed slightly. She threw her arms around him. His heart was pounding.

  Could she let him die like this, wracked by such incredible pain that he had to be bound and gagged?

  Through the stench of his soiled sheets, she could smell the wound. It was festering. Even if they took his arm, there wasn’t much hope. The blood loss would likely be the end of him.

  I’m afraid it’s in the hands of the gods, now.

  “Okay,” she said softer. “They won’t touch you.”

  “By the gods,” Sir Edris panted. “I love you. Promise me, Nat. Promise me you won’t let them take my arm. Promise me.”

  “I promise. They won’t touch you.”

  • • •

  Natalie closed the door to Sir Edris’s bedroom. After much soft singing and stroking his burning brow, she’d finally gotten him to fall into an agitated sleep. The corridor of people turned to her expectantly.

  “You’re not taking his arm,” she said to Lady Braverton resolutely.

  The knights exhaled in relief.

  “But,” said Lady Braverton, astonished, “he’s going to die!”

  “And he’ll die a warrior,” one of the knights replied.
“Not a cripple.”

  “None of you care about him!” Lady Braverton shouted, her voice going shrill. “None of you know him. You only care about him as long as he can swing a sword or win your blasted king ridiculous trinkets! I can’t handle this. Men are bloody idiots!” She ran up another sweeping stairway, bawling.

  The elderly physician leaned in closer to Natalie. “I believe you made the correct decision, dear. The infection has already spread. I cannot guarantee he’d live if we took the arm.”

  “This isn’t an infection,” Natalie said, holding Reg. “My father died from an infection. It wasn’t anything like this.”

  “My dear,” the old man said as if speaking to a child, “there are many sorts of infection. This one is of the green bile variety. It is a particularly potent strain, I’m afraid.”

  Natalie brushed away her tears as Reg caressed her hair. “None of this makes any sense. It all happened so fast.”

  “From what I understand,” the old man went on, “the injury occurred approximately a month ago, which is when many infections are likely to occur.”

  Natalie shook her head. “It started—what?” She searched the hallway full of knights and spotted Sir Oliver and Sir Rowan frowning at the floor. “Sir Oliver! The day after the incident with Sir David, wasn’t that when the wound started to get all red?”

  Sir Oliver and Rowan both nodded dourly.

  “Didn’t he apply his healing salve?” Reg asked.

  “Aye,” Sir Oliver said. “He applied it straight away.”

  “And I made sure he kept putting it on,” Natalie said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

  “Such remedies don’t help with this type of infection, it would seem,” the elderly man told them. “We’ve been putting it on nearly every night, as Sir Edris demanded.”

  “Nearly every night?” Natalie said quickly.

  “Well, yes,” the physician said, taken aback. “I suppose every night. I’m not sure.”

  Natalie turned to Sir Rowan. “When did the pain start? I mean, the arm was sore when he was at Winros Minor, but it was nothing like this. He’s demented.”

  “It started the day before we arrived,” Sir Rowan said. “Like you said, it was an annoyance at first. But it’s grown steadily worse.”

  “As has his fever,” said a knight with short black hair. “He’s only had it for about four days.”

  There was much muttering and bowing of downcast faces.

  “None of this makes any sense,” Natalie said again. Then, deep in the recesses of her mind, a thought occurred to her. She tried to ignore it, but it kept getting louder and louder.

  Remember me the next time you see your father.

  “Brago.”

  Around her, the knights lifted their heads abruptly.

  “What?”

  Oh gods, if he’s responsible for this—if he killed another of her loved ones—

  Natalie raced into Sir Edris’s room. The knight was unconscious, his ashen face damp with sweat.

  “Where’s the concoction?” She found the leather pouch on the nightstand next to Sir Edris’s bed. It was nearly empty. She loosened the drawstring and smelled it. It smelled like mud and spoiled meat, and something else she couldn’t put her finger on. She handed it to Reg. “Does this smell right to you? Is it the same ointment?”

  Reg shrugged. “It smells as bad as ever. Why?”

  “Are you implying Brago poisoned Ed’s salve?” a knight in the crowd asked.

  “I know it sounds absurd—”

  “No, it doesn’t,” said another knight.

  “It’s exactly what he’d do.”

  “The villain.”

  The room filled with angry murmuring.

  “Let me ask you all this,” Natalie said, trying to keep calm. “Who knew Sir Edris was sick? Sir Rowan, you brought him here. Did anybody see he was ailing along the way?”

  “No. No one. We kept to the country paths. The point of coming here was for him to recuperate, far from anybody who might challenge him or accuse him of Sir David’s death.”

  “We’d been searching for Ed for days,” another knight said. “Nobody knew where he was. We stumbled across him here by beggar’s luck.”

  Others indicated they had been looking for him as well.

  Nobody knew Edris was ill. Brago couldn’t have known, unless—

  “Brago did this,” she said.

  “Are you sure?” Sir Rowan asked. “Absolutely sure?”

  “Three days ago, Brago came to my shop in Winros Minor. He told me to think of him the next time I saw my father. Why would he say that if he didn’t know something was wrong?”

  “He couldn’t have learned Sir Edris was incapacitated so quickly,” Reg said. “Word couldn’t have spread that fast.”

  There was a still silence. Then somebody growled, “Retribution.”

  A swell of agreement arose from the crowd. Weapons were unsheathed. Knights beat their fists against their breastplates.

  “Retribution!”

  “Now, wait a moment, young men,” the elderly healer called as loudly as he could. “Be careful what conclusions you draw. We don’t know anything yet. It seems to me to be an ordinary infection. The pus and fever…”

  “I won’t let this stand,” Sir Rowan said, eyes smoldering.

  Sir Oliver shook a fist. “Nor will I.”

  “We need to chase the bastard down and extract vengeance!” somebody called.

  Swords were shaken in the air.

  “Wait a second!” Reg shouted. “Wait a second!” The men quieted. “He could be anywhere by now. We need to plan.”

  “Aye,” the knight with the short black hair said. “He’ll know we’re coming after him.”

  “So what are we going to do?” a knight fingering a curved sword asked. “How are we going to find the traitorous rat?”

  “Reg is right,” Sir Oliver said. “We have to plan. He was last seen at Winros Minor, and he’ll have a five-day head start by the time we get there. He won’t head to Upper Angle. He’ll try to find sanctuary in one of the other kingdoms—kingdoms that don’t have alliances with King Michael.”

  “We’ll ride in groups of three,” Sir Rowan announced. “Ollie, Reg, and I will search for the monster around Eryn Mas. Others need to go to Blue Neddle, Dardenello, and Hillshire.”

  “And Greenlawn!” somebody added.

  “And Narvon!”

  “All right!” Sir Oliver called. “Who’s going where?”

  Knights were shouting where they planned on heading.

  Natalie touched Reg’s elbow. “Reg—!”

  “I’m sorry, Nat,” he said. “I have to go. Sir Edris has been like a father to me.”

  She kissed him and then held him tight. “I know. Just…just kill the bastard. Kill him, Reg. Make him suffer.”

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  Magnus helped the limping Lord Fairhill into his new room at The Prairie Wind. It was directly across the hall from his original room, and—as far as the innkeeper knew—was being rented by Magnus. Meanwhile, Magnus was to continue sleeping in his spacious suite at The Maggie. It was all very confusing, especially since both of the rooms at The Prairie Wind were exactly the same—but Magnus didn’t dare ask any questions. If the lord wanted to have two identical rooms, one of which everybody thought was Magnus’s, who was he to argue? His main concern was not getting gutted like a pig.

  Lord Fairhill lowered himself into a chair by the window. He drew the heavy velvet curtains almost completely closed, leaving a small gap through which he could see the street below.

  “Shall I go get your things from your other room, sir?” Magnus asked.

  Lord Fairhill gazed searchingly though the space between the curtains. “Leave them be. I wish people to believe I am still quartered there. In fact,” he glowered at Magnus, “under no circumstances are you to inform anybody I am here. Indeed, you are not to indicate I am in town, or utter my name, for that matter. Do you understand? I
f asked, you are to instruct people that I left for Eryn Mas early this morning.”

  Magnus tried to retain all of the things he was and wasn’t supposed to do. “Yes, sir. Eryn Mas. Right. And I won’t tell anybody you’re here or use your name, or…or anything else you said. I promise.”

  Lord Fairhill resumed his surveillance of the street. A thin ray of sunlight slipped between the dark currents, illuminating Lord Fairhill’s pensive face.

  “Can I get you any food?” asked Magnus hopefully. “Maybe a couple bottles of wine?”

  Lord Fairhill shook his head, not taking his eyes from the street. “I want you to sit on the porch and keep watch.”

  Magnus fidgeted. “Watch for what, sir?”

  “For anybody who doesn’t belong!”

  “Yes sir.” Magnus made for the door. “I’ll go do that right now.”

  “Magnus…”

  Magnus tensed.

  “If you see any knights or adventurers,” Lord Fairhill said slowly, “you will inform me immediately.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “If anybody inquires about me, you will inform me immediately.”

  Magnus inched toward the door. “Right! Immediately. Yes, sir.”

  “And above all,” Lord Fairhill said, his voice cold and hard, “if you see Edris or his daughter, you will inform me immediately.”

  Magnus felt for the door behind him.

  “Right! Sir Edris. Daughter. Knights. Adventurers. Inquiries. Tell you. Right!” He opened the door and stepped into the hallway, bowing. “I’ll, I’ll do that!”

  “And Magnus,” Lord Fairhill called to him. Magnus popped his head into the room. “I have taken the liberty of selling my horses. You need not worry about checking on them.”

  The pit in Magnus’s stomach tightened. He had been thinking about getting his horse and riding the hell away from Winros Minor. How did the lord know?

  Lord Fairhill smiled as though reading Magnus’s mind. “I am exceedingly good friends with all of the horse dealers in town, you see. So do not bother attempting to find replacements. I will do that when the time comes.”

  “Of course.” Not knowing what else to say, Magnus added, “Thank you.”

 
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