The Iron Rook VII
"The Baron is dead," Derren reported to Duncan in the councilors quarters, when he finally got in to see him. Present with him was Gerald, Mira was busy that morning. "Thanks to an anonymous man, we think someone who was close with him but betrayed him, we received his severed head. Afterward, we reclaimed the lost districts in the city and his rampant followers were far more easily dealt with. We still can't fully confirm it was him as we never knew his face but all signs point to it."
Duncan seemed to only be paying half attention, but when Derren stopped he urged him to continue.
"And due to the long endeavor of the Sky Cloaks, we also found his stashes of that strange candy that had put the people under his sway. A majority of them were stored and distributed in the Southeast ward of the city, also known as Rats Hobble. By the commander’s order, it was ablaze, including the entire ward.
"We're working on finding his holdings, brothels, gambling houses, all of it, and destroying it all. The commander is sending a message to anyone who tried to rise up and take his place. If it's working only time will tell, but after the dust settles the city should be at peace, as much as it ever was before at least."
'Were that I could say it was same for the courts,' Duncan thought absent minded of Derren's report. 'Everyone now it seems is up to some sort of scheme, and always there's a plot in the works.'
"And as for the conspirator you have had me chasing, the one with the Blue Rose symbol," Derren hesitated, but Duncan didn't notice. "No further trace has yet to be found. Whoever it is has covered all their tracks and we have yet to see anything of them since Captain Royce's tragic death. His own killer is yet to be found as well, and we lack any leads."
Duncan's eyes moved over to the doors of the council room slowly closed behind a dark skinned man in a red uniform. He turned his attention back to Derren and asked, "Is that all you have to report Captain?"
A flash of anger crossed his eyes and he said bluntly, "Yes my lord it is." He then turned and left without dismissal.
Duncan ignored his attitude and nodded for Loren to approach them when Derren was gone. The royal guard bowed his head and said, "My lord I have finally identified the traitor as Captain Erutol."
"Erutol, Terry Erutol?" Gerald asked incredulously.
"Yes my lord," Loren said.
"Gods be damned, I would never have pegged him for the rebel," Gerald said, a bewildered expression grown on his face.
"It would seem the man is a great deceiver to pull one over your eyes, Gerald," Mira said mockingly.
Gerald shot her a look and opened his mouth to speak, but Duncan stopped him before he could.
"Enough!" He shouted in agitation by their childish antics. He gestured for Loren to continue, "Go on."
"He's grown desperate it seems. Whoever is pulling his strings is pushing him hard. If not for this I doubt he would have ever recruited me. But as it stands he only has four other men, I've identified them all, they would have probably killed me the moment I turned my back to them had I said 'No'. They planned to make a move on you this eve when they were scheduled for guard duty outside each of your chambers."
"So they only brought you, in particular, because you have guard duty for Duncan tonight?" Mira implied.
"Yes my lady, in fact, that's how I know it's to take place tonight. They had two set for guarding your door this eve and one on Lord Gerald's, the Captain's plan was to dismiss the second and unknowing guard in his place. But they lacked anyone close enough to Duncan, so as my lady said, they brought me in."
"Well then you heard him," Gerald said. "We should go grab him now before he can make a move against us."
"No we should wait," Mira argued. "We still don't know who else he might have recruited."
"You said he's growing desperate?" Duncan asked in a loud tone to cut through the arguing of his fellow Lord's.
"I did my lord," Loren said.
"Desperate men make rash and dangerous decisions," Duncan said, and then paused to think. After a few minutes, he said, "We go with Gerald's plan and take him now. If he's being pressured into pulling off an assassination of this magnitude with how few men he has, then something bigger is in the works and it's happening soon.
"Time is the one thing we don't have, Gerald you and Loren round up as many men as you can find and capture them all alive. Mira, you take our own men and wait in your quarters until I or Gerald personally comes for you. He might send someone we missed right after you soon as he sees us coming."
Duncan waited in the throne room, with a handful of his own men. He learned fast that the only men you could truly trust were the ones you brought with you from your own castle. And while it was generally frowned upon to have your own men while living at the castle, unless during times of tournaments, Duncan kept a handful around, along with Mira and Gerald; he'd insisted on it with them.
The Royal guards were there to protect the Royals and the Nobles. But they were corruptible, that's been proven too frequently. Maybe before, there was a time when they were the most loyal men in the world, but no longer is that the case. So despite the frowns it bore him, and the others, he had his own personal men for guards; he tried to use them as little as possible, though.
When Captain Erutol and the men identified were brought in, they were absent of any shackles. Gerald, it seemed, wanted to give them some dignity, and they gave little to no trouble at all when they were grabbed and dragged away to be sent to the dungeons for suspicion of treason.
"My lord you know me," Captain Erutol pleaded calmly with Gerald. "Whatever it is you think I did is wrong, I'm a Captain of the royal guards, a title of great honor. If the king hears about this he may remove me from the guards all together and throw me out. I implore you to see reason, I only ever served the king and everyone here faithfully."
Gerald said nothing; he still wasn't convinced of the Captain's guilt either. And it showed on his face, he didn't dare speak for he didn't know what would come out. They stopped before Duncan, who learned to take proper cautions and kept a fair distance of a few yards between them, especially as he wasn't restrained in shackles.
"My lord hand, I implore you to see reason here," Erutol said to him, a touch of anger in his voice. "I have served his highness for over nine years now as a royal guard, seven of them as a captain! What reason would I have to harm the men and woman I swore to give my life protecting?"
More of his anger showed near the end, this whole thing was more than humiliating, it was an insult to everything the man is said to stand for. And for a moment, even Duncan doubted his guilt, but that's when it all happened. His guard dropped and Erutol twisted back and slammed his elbow into the nose of the guard nearest him. The guard reeled back in pain and Erutol yanked the man's sword from his belt and sprinted for Duncan. There was nothing Duncan could do to stop him.
Erutol leaped at him, sword raised high, with a slash intended to cut through his neck. A sharp sting ran across his cheek and down his jaw, as Captain Erutol was tackled by another body before he could kill Duncan. Duncan winced in pain, astonished to be alive, he turned back to see Loren had rescued him, as the two wrestled on the ground for a moment before Erutol slid the blade into Loren's side, and then shoved him off.
By the time he got the blade free of Loren the other guards had him surrounded, the tips of their spears pointing eagerly at him. He snarled and ducked under them making it a half-step before one spear pierced his thigh and he fell to his hands and knees. Another stabbed his hand and he was forced to let go of the sword. It was kicked away and he was then dragged off to the dungeons with his men, who also started struggling violently when the Captain made his move.
Duncan looked over at Loren now; he died from his grievous wounds moments later. He turned to a few of the royal guards still around awaiting their next orders and said, "Two of you take Loren's body to the grey sage," When they moved right away Duncan turned to the last one and said, "And you, find Lady Desmur, the master of coin, and have her draw up paperwork to have three times Loren's wages to be paid over to his family for the next ten years, then bring them to me in the council room to sign off on."
It wasn't for a few days when Duncan visited Captain Erutol and the men he corrupted. They were all silent, Duncan wanted to have them tortured, but Gerald felt that they deserved better than that and requested time to get them to talk his own way. For once Mira sided with Gerald and believed that those men could handle torture, and instead needed something else to make them talk.
Duncan agreed reluctantly, as he had his hand's full trying to spin a false story of why those guards were imprisoned in the first place. It took every resource he and Mira had to cover this whole thing up. If the other lords and ladies found out about the royal guards attempting to kill the hand of the king, it'd cause chaos in the court and castle, and might spread even further. Gossip about a potential second coupe plan might somehow get thrown in there, setting aflame the delicate peace of the realm.
Then a thought came to him, 'What if this was part of their plan all along?' Even a failed attempt on someone as important as Duncan, the hand of the king, by the royal guards was a serious problem. It would cause panic among the people at court, a large disturbance, 'There's always a second effect for their actions, and chaos in the court is their goal this time. That must be why the Captain was pressured into doing this act so hastily, whatever they're planning it's happening soon.'
He would need to make sure no one else visited the guards in the dungeons. It was time again his own men be put to work, they would be on watch duty in the dungeons and the only guards outside his, Gerald's, and Mira's chambers from now on. They couldn't afford to trust anyone else.
Of course, Mira had told him he was being paranoid about all of this, until Captain Erutol and his men were found dead in their cells one morning, died from some form of poison, as was evident by the residue of foam on their mouths. Duncan shot Mira an angered look that said, "I told you something like this would happen."
Mira glared back at him as if he didn't already know that she fully understood how bad this all was. She turned to one of the guards escorting them and said, "Grab as many men as you need and round up everyone working in the kitchen, and I mean everyone. The chef's, the serving boys, all who had access to the food. And bring them all to the council room, drag them by their feet if you must."
The guard hesitated a moment and Mira shouted, "Go!"
He jumped in surprise, then turned and rushed away to follow the order. Mira then addressed the other man, "And you, find Gerald tell him to get his ass to that councilor room as well and to bring some men, we might need to get a little rough with those chefs."
It was getting dark by the time they finished questioning the kitchen staff. The food they served to the prisoners was a simple porridge, that anyone could have whipped up. To make matters worse none of them were in the kitchen when it was supposed to have been made, they were all eating their own meals after having finished making the rest of the castle's breakfast. They had guards that were eating with them, which was rather common, that were being searched out to test their story.
Duncan sighed and got out of his chair, as he went to leave the council room Mira asked, "Where are you going?"
He turned back to face her, "To tell the king, it's time he knows and we can't keep this hidden much longer. Besides, we'll need him to soothe the nerves of everyone. Half the nobles in the castle seem to have been filled with a dreaded anxiety as if they knew what was happening, but were too scared to confront us about it."
A couple of his personal guards followed him as he walked to the king's bedchambers. He wasn't in the throne room and some days the king liked to relax in bed for most of the day with his queen; when there was nothing of importance for him to do. There was an echo of some commotion that drifted down the long halls, but Duncan was so drained from the kitchen staff questioning, and everything else, including his own lack of sleep, that he ignored it all together.
The sky-blue doors to the king's bedchambers were left slightly ajar while the guards stood on opposite ends. Both of them had dark wet stains on their red cloaks, like they had a swig of red wine that spilled on them just recently. At that moment, there was too much going on for him to even care, if he remembered he'd deal with it later, can't have guards drinking on duty.
"Your highness forgive the intrusion," Duncan said as he pushed open the doors to the king's bedchambers and stepped in. "But there is something we must dis-"
His words were cut off in utter shock at what he saw before him. The queen lay face down on the bed, a knife sticking out of her back. And the king's body was at the foot of the bed while his severed head lay by his feet. And holding a small blade dripping with blood was a beautiful woman with dark red hair, glossy pink lips, and bright green eyes.
She bore a wicked smile as a warm splash of scarlet sprayed Duncan's cheeks and neck, and his two guards fell forward; dead. And then a pair of blades crossed before his throat. "Take him to the dungeons," she said. And the guards complied, Duncan went without resistance; there was nothing he could do anyways.
Duncan was left to rot in the cells of the dungeon for days. No food, no water, no explanations. He had endless time to contemplate everything. Even had enough time to figure everything out, connect all the missing pieces, so when the princess, or Queen now, came to visit him with ser Erquin, it was of little surprise.
Erquin was dressed in his full plate armor with a surcoat that had a crown with two blue roses crossing over behind it. And Queen Esmure dressed in high boots, a basilisk leather battle skirt, and a cuirass of the same blue leather as the skirt.
He scoffed at their presence as they stared him down, "We were all so busy worrying about the vines, and the thorns in the court, we missed the rose pedal." he said nonchalantly.
"So then you know who I am," Esmure said, evidently struggling to contain her own anger.
"I assume you came to talk with me because you want to know why?"
Esmure slammed her fists against the iron bars, "You murdered my family!" She shouted in rage. And for a moment, it looked like she would bust down the cell doors just to finish Duncan off. Until Erquin put a hand on her shoulder and she relaxed a little.
"You know the truth be told, I'm not entirely sure of why I went through with it all in the first place," Duncan said, a faint echo of regret in his voice. "I mean I truly wanted to improve the world, forge something better but, all I did was better my own station. Perhaps I should have listened to Sage Ordon. He was the one who truly tried changing everything, and maybe had I gone through with his end plan we might have built something great; problem was he trusted the wrong people."
Erquin and Esmure were taken aback by the Sage's name.
"Sage Ordon lived through your grandfather's reign, and at some point afterward began plotting all of this. Everything in the hopes that he could unite the three nations, not under one crown, but under multiple leaders. Your brother, Bryce, he had a similar idea. He should have taken the throne, he was the only one truly worthy of ruling the world, I should have sided with him, but ambition and desire are powerful things, and I'm not a strong man; I always knew that."
Esmure left in a huff when Duncan was finished, somehow dissatisfied with his story. Erquin signaled a guard to bring him a tray of porridge, some bread, and water before he took his leave. "Erquin wait!" Duncan called out to him before he got too far.
Erquin turned back and seemed only half interested in what he had to say.
"Sage Ordon brought in nine nobles for his grand scheme. Three from each nation, the Riverlords, as you know, died for their own treason, but the Greenlands lords and lady are still out there. They know full well about all of this, we've done well to keep this all in the shadows but they won't stop until they're dead, or they get the crown.
"Say what you will about me but my intentions are good, at least here in this moment. So listen to me when I warn you that we're on the brink of war. Lord Haden Wellis needs only an excuse to rally the men of the Greenlands to go to war with the crown. And you two have just given it to him, a princess thought to be dead for years miraculously returns to court as the rightful heir to the crown?
"No it's too convenient, how many would believe she's the real heir in the first place? Whatever supporters you have left you need to summon them and their men, and bring your forces down on the Greenlands if they show even a hint of rising up against you. Otherwise, all three nations will fight for the crown or their own independence."
Erquin turned and left without a word. 'Damn that man!' Duncan thought. Erquin had a face Duncan could never read so he had no idea if he got through to him or not.
When he settled down he looked at his tray of food. After about the twelfth day of solitude in the dungeons he had given up on life. He figured that they would starve him out then dump his corpse somewhere else when he was done. But seeing that food in front of him, and taking the first bite of that bread, he remembered how hungry he was and left not a crumb, nor a small drop of porridge. He found he was more thirsty than hungry, and his small tin cup of water only left him thirsty for more.
He received two meals a day after that but no more visits until several days later. It was late in the night when she came and woke Duncan up with a light tapping on the bars. The low burning torch on the wall did little to reveal anything about her, and Duncan only knew it was a girl when she spoke.
"And here I thought getting you would be hard," she said in a mocking tone. "I tried poison, but wow you guys really saw that stuff coming. I couldn't ever get any of you alone after that either, but here you are, alone and defenseless."
Duncan didn't respond, he just rose to his feet and waited, he knew, after all, what she had come for and that he couldn't stop her. The assassin raised her crossbow and took aim. "Any last words?"
A million things came to mind in that moment but all he said was, "Long live the Queen."
She squeezed the trigger, and the bolt fired.