Blood of Ten Kings
©2018 Edward Lazellari
A prince among men
Daniel awoke in a dark wood. The queasiness, aching joints, and vertigo were bad...worse than the morning after he and Adrian snuck off with Mr. Lutz's pint of Jägermeister--which he and Adrian surmised must be the German word for Nyquil.
Daniel tried to stand up, but his head weighed fifty pounds and pressed him back on his ass--the world was two sets of swaying phantom images attempting to converge into a single picture. He closed his eyes and put his head between his knees for a moment. Then, slowly, he lifted his head and looked around.
The brush was dense and riddled with thorns and thistles that threatened to scratch out an eye and scar you like a rabid coon. A smoky haze softening the edges of the world reminded Daniel of old Hollywood movies that used nylons over the lenses to soften actresses past their prime. The forest smelled of bacon.
The last thing he remembered in the meadow was trying to help Seth and then a searing light. Then just infinite blackness--he and his friends were specks of dust flying through an immeasurable vacuum. Daniel couldn't gauge their velocity, but millions of lines of light, what he could only imagine were entire universes, riffled past like the edges of discs in a cosmic jukebox--in the deep reptilian recesses of his mind, he knew that if they'd collided with so much as a stray proton, they would be obliterated. And then they fell toward one disk...and then they were pulled toward the darkest pool in that light, like a still lake as seen from the air. It drew them like a beacon in the storm. Lelani did something--though how she could move or think in that state was beyond comprehension--she changed their course. The wizard found a stream away from the dark spot and diverted them all--but it was rough...literally fighting momentum and thrust from midair.
And then he woke up here...alone.
His heart was beating rapidly; cold shivers ran down his back despite the warmth. I can't be here, he thought, realizing tens of thousands of men beyond these trees wanted to kill him. Daniel balled his fists tight, his fingernails dug into his palms. Don't panic, he thought over and over, trying to stave off exactly that.
Something bounced off his head and onto a bush. It was a granola bar. Twenty feet above, his backpack dangled from a branch. With the wooziness fading, Daniel shimmied up the tree and crawled out on the branch to retrieve it. Someone below was making a racket, running toward his spot.
Daniel cautiously climbed up to the next large branch to put more foliage between him and the ground. A young boy of about nine or ten broke through some brush. He was breathing heavily, dressed in drab browns with leather sandals. Behind him came heavier footfalls with the clanking of metal. The lad ran ahead a few more steps before backtracking over his own footprints and diving into a hollow log behind a shrub, disturbing a family of porcupines that had scurried out irritably.
Two men in red and black uniforms were on the boy's trail. They followed the false footprints, and beyond, no doubt thinking to recover their quarry's trail. The boy exited his log pulling painful looking spines from his arms and face as he started back until they heard more men coming from that direction.
"Pssst!" Daniel signaled. The boy squinted to find Daniel in the tree. Daniel waved for him to climb. The boy scurried up, reaching the branch just below him. He was a wiry kid and tried to make himself even thinner on that branch. They faced each other, Daniel looking down and the boy looking up wide-eyed and scared.
Three new men approached with a girl and boy on rope leashes, both slightly younger than Daniel's new friend. They shoved and tugged at the children mercilessly. The girl was scratched up and crying--her rope chaffed at her neck. The lad that Daniel assumed was her brother tried to help, but his handler yanked on his rope and then smacked him on the head with a studded glove. The kid wavered on rubbery legs and collapsed, but immediately sprang back up and steadied himself. The men who'd run by moments before rejoined their friends beneath the tree, having realized they'd been tricked. They conferred with each other in Farrenspiel, which Daniel did not speak. He'd exclusively been studying Aandoran--which was close enough to Middle English for him to be grateful for that Chaucer elective in junior high--but had yet to start any of the empire's other languages. The tone of the men's conversations was not lost on anyone though. One of them began shouting angrily into the woods; this time, Daniel understood them even through a heavy accent.
"You are fast rabbit, but come now or we will hurt little ones!" To illustrate their point, the man handling the girl took her face in his studded leather glove and squeezed. She cried out.
The boy on the branch closed his tear-streamed eyes trying to pray this situation away. Daniel wished he had retrieved his pistol from the pack.
The boy on the leash tackled the soldier manhandling his sister, slamming into his hip with his whole body. His handler yanked harshly on the rope, harder perhaps than intended because the boy's neck bent with a sickly snap, and the lad went limp.
The young boy's leg jittered. Daniel heard the child struggle to draw breath, like a wet and raspy wheeze. The other soldiers chastised the man who had broken the child's neck, but the tone lacked human concern--it was anger at having lost chattel. The girl wailed over her fallen brother. On the branch below, the older boy's face turned wet and twisted with helplessness and rage.
Don't do anything stupid, thought Daniel, a little too late.
The boy rolled off his branch. He landed badly, but that didn't stop him from battering the nearest soldier ineffectively. The soldier laughed and bound the boy with his brother's leash. The younger boy still jittered on the ground, seizing up as he suffocated slowly. The soldiers dragged the two siblings away as they pleaded not to leave their dying brother.
Daniel climbed down and approached the dying boy. His wheezing grew fainter. He was very aware of his dwindling life; his fear painted in the whitish blue of his face. He gaped at Daniel with bulging eyes that said he'd intended to do much more living than his scant few years. That strained glare seared itself into the prince's memory; it was the most disturbing thing Daniel had ever witnessed. The boy's raspy grunts pleaded to put him out of his misery.
Daniel knelt next to him, unsure if he should touch the kid--his mind a jumble of thoughts. Lelani or Reverend Grey would know what to do, but neither was here. Daniel retrieved his pistol from the pack and aimed it at the boy's temple--and stayed like that, hand and gun quivering for far too long. What if they hear it? he thought, justifying his delay. Daniel's eyes welled with the realization that he was unable to follow through...he couldn't end this child's suffering. Time relieved him of this burden; Daniel didn't even hear the boy's final breath to mark his passing from the world.
Daniel was not cognizant of how long he sat beside the body. He was overwhelmed--by this child's death, by the fact that he was in Aandor, the very last place he should be without protection. When he emerged from his daze, the sun was past its apex. He pulled the cell phone from his pack. No signal whatsoever. He was truly on his own, in a strange universe.
Daniel donned his protective vest, clipped his hunting knife to his belt, and holstered his gun. Malcolm had given him the Rock Island M15 for his fourteenth birthday in February; there wasn't a piece of antiquated armor that could stop a .45 caliber slug. He looped the nylon holster onto his belt.
The child looked so innocent...at peace. Daniel had a hard time tearing his eyes away. He'd watched his stepfather drown in his own blood. But, cruel Clyde had earned that death. This boy...this could have been Bree MacDonnell or his stepsister Penny. He touched the boy's face--a fading remnant of warmth remained, just enough to confirm the lad was once a living being. These children were his subjects.
I hid like a coward, he admitted, disgusted with himself. Daniel's hand rested on the pistol. Cal spent hours teaching him how to properly handle the weapon. Those animals rounding kids up like chattel wouldn't have had a chance against him. If Daniel had acted, that kid would still be breathing...running to safety with his siblings.
Daniel sobbed as though he'd lost his own brother. Why was he filled with shame? He didn't know these people. The guardians just started forging his chains of obligation without asking if he wanted to be the prince of anything. All he ever prayed for was a dad who wouldn't beat the tar out of him and a mom who wasn't addicted to drugs. How the hell did I end up becoming the savior of a million people?
He couldn't explain what propelled him to pursue those soldiers--rage at his own impotence...shame for being too weak to end the boy's suffering--fear because a gunshot might have brought attention on him. Daniel wouldn't look at his own reflection right now. But if he rescued those kids it might set things right, and then he could search for Cat and the others.
The trail was easy enough to follow--he heard their bellowing fifty yards out. The forest ahead thinned. The soldiers and kids were in the back yard of some homestead--a log-built structure with a thatched roof. A makeshift chicken coop was against the house and beside it a bloody tree stump for chopping the poultry. A few feet from the coop a large wagon wheel rested against a shed. A three-wheeled buckboard leaned toward its missing limb. Twenty feet to Daniel's left, near the edge of the tree line, was an outhouse that was unfortunately upwind of his position; the lingering odor of smoked barbeque took the edge off the shit smell. From his vantage, several columns of black smoke rose over the forest into the sky in the distance. A dirt road ran in front of the log house--Daniel suspected they were on the outskirts of a town that wasn't faring very well.
The kids were tied up, listless. Two new soldiers came around the corner of the cabin dragging a muddied, beaten woman and a bloodied man who was an older version of the boy Daniel met in the forest. The children cried out, "Momma! Papa!" The soldiers handed off the pair to the backyard crew.
"Where's Aldrich? Where's Aldrich?" the mother asked repeatedly, counting only two kids where there should have been three. She became hysterical as the realization of what happened to her youngest son set in. One soldier began slapping her. Her husband, also anguished over his son's death, stupidly rushed the man and punched his jaw. Daniel was frozen with fear behind a bush. There were too many soldiers, and they were all psychotic. The invaders pounced on the father, stabbing him in the back and neck until he went limp. The family wailed as soldiers threw his bloody body into the chicken coop. Then they separated the hysterical mom from her kids. She slapped the man who stabbed her husband and tried to claw his eyes out. She took out a good chunk of his cheek. He punched her nose, and she fell hard on her knees. They bent her over the chopping block face down and bound her wrists with rope and staked the rope into the ground.
Daniel's heart caught in his throat. Were they going to behead her? He unholstered his weapon and clicked off the safety. His hand was shaking...he forgot to breathe. He had no plan. Should he walk into the yard and order them to release the hostages? Would they even recognize the gun as a weapon? What would Cal do?
Another soldier rushed out of the cabin cheering that he'd found the family's money stash. Most went to claim their cut, but not the main instigator that the mother had attacked. He dropped his britches and urinated on her hands, then wiggled his manhood before her face. His cohorts joked that she would bite it off. The instigator grabbed the daughter and dragged her before the woman. He placed his dagger point on the little girl's throat, and with a huge grin, again shook his prick before the woman.
Daniel was about to shoot him, when gunshots in the distance froze everyone in place. Birds rushed from the trees as the echo reverberated through the forest. It had to be the guardians, but the echo made it impossible to pinpoint where it came from. After a minute, the soldiers resumed their thievery, leaving strange noises for others to investigate.
A fat soldier abruptly exited the outhouse. He turned to his right and spotted Daniel crouching in the brush. The soldier got over his shock first and drew his long sword. Daniel blew a doughnut-sized hole through the center of his chest. The others turned toward the gunfire and pulled their weapons. Daniel just began shooting in the order closest to him; proximity had become the plan. While this happened, the young girl slipped out of her captor's grip, and got away. True to the soldiers' predictions, the mother lunged forward as far as she could and did indeed bite down on the instigator’s cock. The soldier squealed like a slaughtered pig, screaming bloody murder as he battered her head with his fists. When he freed himself of her, he fell hard on his ass, bleeding profusely from a raw stump. Go mom! Daniel thought.
One soldier grabbed the son as his shield. Daniel aimed carefully, let out his breath and squeezed the trigger, evacuating the soldier's right eye and everything behind it. Only a single soldier remained standing--he drew his sword clumsily.
Daniel fired--click, click, click--the fucking thing jammed. Up close, the man was older and more portly than any soldier had a right be; he approached Daniel, wary of the gun. Daniel looked around and grabbed the outhouse guy's long sword. It was cruder than the weapons he'd trained with...the balance was off, it was slightly bent, and riddled with nicks and dings. But it was sharp. Daniel's stance was instinctual, drilled into him over months. This was it, the bullshit test to see if he was a big poser.
The young boy suddenly slammed into the soldier from behind throwing the man off balance. He swiped back with his sword, just missing the lad by inches, tripped over his own feet. He fell toward Daniel, landing before the prince on his back. Daniel almost felt bad for the man, with his network of blue varicose veins across his pasty white neck. The old soldier swung up at Daniel and nearly took his ear off. Daniel easily deflected the next blow from his vantage. Daniel couldn't tell if it was because the man was stunned from the fall, or if he was truly a pitifully bad swordsman, but windows of opportunity kept presenting themselves. The prince was annoyed...didn't this asshat realize he was being merciful? With the soldier's next back-handed slash, Daniel stepped forward and put his full weight on the man's sword arm and slid the tip of his sword into the soldier's throat. The soldier gurgled and died.
The instigator, meanwhile, got his shit together enough to retrieve his short sword and was about to stab the still bound mother. Daniel ran forward thinking this was it--this would be his dreaded first real sword fight, but the solider, in the throes of a myopic rage at the woman who'd performed his penectomy, ignored the prince entirely and managed one jab at her shoulder before Daniel lunged his long sword into the man’s lungs. The soldier staggered back, stunned. He fell on his knees then collapsed backwards.
Daniel cut the mother's bindings. She slipped off the chopping block rubbing her wrists. Her mouth was bloody. She crawled to her sodomizer on hands and knees, locking eyes with him as he coughed up blood, and shoved his own cock into his mouth while screaming and pummeling the man. Her children rushed in to pull her off him.
A squad of six new enemy soldiers rounded the house and faced them. Daniel couldn't fight them all. The men advanced on them. This is it, Daniel realized. I finally make it back to the land of my birth, to die without ever meeting my parents.
A strong gust whipped the soldiers off their feet and slammed them into the cabin smashing the wall. They landed in the dirt with an inglorious thud.
"You gotta be more stealthy, kid," Seth said from the edge of the tree line. He held his wizard's staff at its end like a stickball bat. "Going all gangsta in these woods is going to get you stabbed."
Daniel had never been happier to see anyone in his life. He had a million questions for Seth, but the wizard waved them off and signaled a silent retreat into the forest.
"Shouldn't we go in the direction of the other gun shots?" Daniel asked.
"No. More soldiers that way. Lelani can find us with a spell--if she's still alive. If not, it doesn't matter."
"Don't say that." Daniel started to follow but stopped. The family appeared exhausted--brutalized, huddled tightly in the dirt at the end of their world. The woman stared into nothingness, lost in the memory of the life she woke up to this morning.
"Come with us," Daniel told them.
Mom didn't budge, but her son was happy to have a plan and began to pull her up. His sister helped him.
"There's a thousand enemy soldiers ten miles in every direction," Seth objected. "We can't take on refugees."
The son ran into the house for items they'd need, and emerged with two sacks. Daniel rummaged the defeated soldiers for the better sword and scabbard among them. Then they all slipped into the woods.
The boy steered them along the barest of paths through brambles and bushes and ancient trees. Ten minutes in, the woods to their left thinned, and they had a clear elevated view of Yarmouth. Four thousand souls called this town home. The main street was a grubby muddy line that served as both road and drainage ditch. The dwellings were built mostly of thick wood timbers, plaster, and thatch. A few larger buildings had the look of stone, probably government offices or the homes of the affluent. Enemy soldiers stood out in their red uniforms like an angry infection among the browns and grays of the feudal town. A section of the outer wall was aflame, threatening to ignite the structures built against it. Wooly black columns of smoke rose from deep within the small city, writing the account of this siege on the sky.
Beside the western gate, someone had stacked wood and dead bodies. The soldiers lit it up. Daniel watched the flames grow higher. His heart caught in his throat when the enemy began hoisting up on a winch a portly, well-dressed man nailed to a wooden frame. They dropped him in the center of the pyre. He writhed and struggled, but even if he freed himself, there was nowhere to go. The man's shrieks carried through the forest and sent a cold shiver through the group. Below, the soldiers fed the flame with more wood and wagonloads of the dead. The scent of roasting meat grew thicker, and Daniel wanted to wretch, now knowing the source of that smell. How many of these pyres had they lit? A tugging at his sleeve pulled him away from the flames. The boy made gestures to leave now. And Daniel agreed, having seen enough. They crawled cautiously behind shrubs as they passed this area to avoid being spotted.
Twenty minutes on a thin, barely trodden path brought them to a rocky outcrop that looked like the top of an underground mountain jutting from the earth. High trees and bushes surrounded the outcrop. A small stream burbled in front of an overhang shaped like a rocky lean-to that could shelter them from sun and rain, and more importantly, would dissipate the campfire smoke as it hit the roof and fanned out into the sky. A hammock hung between two trees, and the remnants of a campfire lay beneath the overhang.
"Me and my mates fish here," the boy said. "There's a stocked pool behind the rock and berry bushes all around."
The woman started a fire in the stone pit and set up a kettle. The girl foraged for greens and herbs while her brother went to catch some fish. Daniel sat on a low flat rock beside the pit and tried to come to terms with the cruelty he'd witnessed; all to annex this piece of real estate for Farrenheil.
"What shall we call you, milord," asked the mom. A mother in her late twenties calling Daniel 'milord' felt as natural as a prostrate exam. Her soft voice was a harsh contrast to its hard tone; if feudalism did one thing well, it was to ingrain subservience when in the presence of one's betters--even, apparently, when experiencing your own personal catastrophe. Steam from the kettle brought a growl to Daniel's belly. He didn't recall getting hungry.
"Daniel. Danel, actually," he said after remembering his birth name here. "But my friends call me Daniel or Danny."
"Like our new prince," remarked the little girl.
Fiona introduced herself and her son Jack, named for his grandfather, and Sally, a little clone of her mom. Her dead son was Aldrich, Sally's twin, named for his father, a wagon maker. Fiona washed herself in the stream, wading in up to her knees and immersing her head like a baptismal aspirant to let the cool rush carry away one’s sins with the dirt and mud. With the grime and mud removed, Fiona appeared younger than Daniel realized...little more than college age. She had fair skin and golden hair that accentuated her blue-green eyes.
"So, this is Aandor?" Daniel asked.
"Oh, this is definitely Aandor," Seth confirmed. "I was exhausted in the meadow fight after just a few spells, but I woke up here charged with energy. Magic is everywhere. I would have struggled to create that hard wind force at their house if this was New York--here, it was easy breezy. Pun intended."
"Great. So you can lightning-blast these Farrenheil fuckers all the way to the capital."
"It's not about having enough power. Lightning is complex mojo. Haven't been able to replicate the advanced stuff on my own. I know a few spells reasonably well... the hard air for example. I can make a halfway decent shield...not very effective against spells or machine guns though without Rosencrantz. The tree was my crutch; now it's probably dead."
"Dead?! You sure?"
"Didn't you hear it scream?"
"No...But I heard all of you. Speaking of the others..."
"Gunshots woke me," Seth said. "I was heading in what I thought was the direction they came from when I heard your fire. You only got off five of an eight-round clip. What happened?"
"Combustion sciences don't play well here. The gun's probably cursed now. You should throw it away."
"That's stupid. Why would magic care about combustion?"
"Hey, I didn't write the laws of physics for this universe. One story says ancient wizards placed a spell over this world to neuter science as a competitive power. Remember, wizards are scientists too. They know how to make gunpowder and stuff. Another is that magical energy is sentient--intelligent electrons or something. Combustion works on super heated air and explosions, so maybe it disrupts the energy--hurts them? Who knows? All we know is that engines, electricity, and guns don't work for long in Aandor. It's meat cleavers all around. I'm keeping my pistol a virgin until I'm desperate. And you should throw your gun away. Seriously."
Jack returned with three fair-sized fish, which they cooked with some parsley that grew along the edge of the outcrop. The meal barely satisfied. The thought of high fructose corn syrup and corn-fed anything didn't seem so bad about now.
"Fiona, is Yarmouth the only town in the area?" Daniel inquired.
"Aye, the only town. There's a village between here and the capital ten leagues west. The village of Iibswitch is ten leagues north near the Sevren, and there's a proper river town--Crowe's Porte--half day's ride east along the Blue Road. They have a bridge to the north."
"Iibswitch," Seth said. "That's near where my mother runs an inn."
"Wrong direction," Daniel said. "Our best bet is to head away from the capital."
"The enemy's all over the countryside," Seth said.
"Yeah, but they were magically air dropped on Deorwine Plain outside of the capital and fanned eastward from there." Daniel grabbed a stick and sketched the kingdom in the sand. Fiona and the kids watched in fascination as he wrote the names of major landmarks as best as he could remember.
"You can write?" Jack noted. "You really are a lord, then."
"You couldn't possibly guess..." Seth responded.
"The enemy's south and west of us," Daniel continued, ignoring the budding adoration society. "The farther east we run, the less saturated the countryside will be with enemy squads."
"But Farrenheil is pushing west from Red King's Gate," Seth said.
"No. Farrenheil hasn't taken that fort yet. Time differential, remember--The Gate's probably still unaware of the invasion."
Daniel looked at the map again and circled a swatch of forest southeast of Yarmouth. "I guess we can trek deeper into the woods here; stay away from the road entirely."
"Them's centaur lands, milord," Sally said pointing to the area.
"Centaurs patrol the Blue Road for my fath...umm, the archduke? Friends, right?"
"Friends is not the word I'd use, milord," Fiona said. "Aye, they mind the forest about the road, but 'tis for their own interest s'much as ours. None of that lot takes kindly to men who stray from the path. We're not welcome in their villages. There's much sorry history between them beasts and men."
They probably don't think too highly of being called beasts, Daniel thought.
"It's a moot point anyway," Seth said. "We should find the others. Cat will have kittens when she realizes she's in Aandor."
Daniel chuckled. Seth took a moment to warm up to his own subconscious wit.
Voices came out of the forest, many footsteps heading their way along the path. Daniel pulled his sword and Seth readied his staff. A boy slightly older than Jack came around a tree carrying a young girl in his arms.
Behind the teen were four more, a young girl and boy, a young pikeman and a woman of comparable age. They carried only their fatigue covered with soot and ash.
"Hail Jack, Aldrich's son," said the teen. "May we warm ourselves by your fire?"
"Aye, Fulbert, you may," Jack said, without consulting anyone.
"There are more behind us," said the pikeman.
"They're going to lead Farrenheil right to us if this keeps up," Seth said. "We're barely two miles from town."
"What are they supposed to do?" Daniel said. "Stay there and die?"
"The lads come to this glade to escape chores and pestering sisters," Jack said.
"Hey!" Cried Sally.
"It is not on any map, nor easily found."
Oswin, a pikeman for the lord magistrate, had been off guard duty when the attack happened. He saw the magistrate cut down by archers and returned home to his wife and then escaped through a drainage tunnel. The two children with him belonged to a fellow guardsman who had died defending the magistrate.
As the sun fell toward the horizon, eight more town folk appeared led by another young boy. Soon, four hearths blazed in their little camp. People settled in as much as they could in a dark wood. My people, mused Daniel.
"Aye... I'd sooner take my chances with the centaurs," the pikeman said as they discussed Daniel's plan. "These men of Farrenheil are vicious with lust and plunder. They assault as though seeking revenge for some heinous wrong. They are enslaving everyone. I'd sooner die by a centaur's spear. We'll follow you, milord."
Follow me? Daniel thought. Oswin was about eighteen, and as the only local man in uniform, Daniel hoped the pikeman would take charge and organize everybody. Seth chuckled at the look on Daniel's face.
"What? I'm in charge just 'cause I can fucking read?" Daniel said in English.
"You have straight white teeth, shiny hair, and your clothes have a high thread count," Seth said. "You ooze smarts--everyone's begging for someone smarter than them to take charge and save them."
"Great. Next February, you can legally marry, join the army, and own property."
Daniel countered Seth's smirk with a smoldering glare.
"Look, kid..." Kid was Seth's signal that he was about to impart serious wisdom. Seth was so seldom serious, Daniel felt obliged to listen when he got this way. "You're from a higher station than these folks, and they sense this. More importantly, you're a survivor, and they sense that too. Until now, you survived for yourself...your street smarts and book smarts were your umbrella. To save these people, you have to let them under that umbrella. Same skills you always used to get by, only bigger scale. That's leadership."
Every once in a blue moon, Seth revealed intelligence beyond what he's credited with. What he left out was how much harder factoring everyone else's safety would be in Daniel's decisions. Like playing five chess games at the same time.
"We can't stay here," Daniel said, finally. "Eventually the patrols will find this place. Tomorrow we move deeper into the forest--all of us. Hopefully Lelani will find us before we run into her people."