It was a hot, dry summer. Crops withered. The rain did not come. The sun baked down on the people that tilled in the fields as they prayed for water. The land around the Capital was cooled only by the river that flowed next to it. The tall palace, made of such pretty white stone, stood on the eastern side of the sprawling metropolis. The hungry river, too weak to support many crops, gurgled past its base.
The city gasped in the heat, and the people within murmured dissent. Their King, Gantalin the Second, languished in his palace, surrounded by guards, as the poor folk starved. Even now blades rang out from a melee in his honor, on this the anniversary of his crowning and marriage.
There was whispered talk of rebels, armies from the even hotter southlands that quietly took control of supplies heading to the King, to distribute them among those more needy. He had never been a popular king, a cruel, paranoid man who spat on those under him, and cared not for anybody but himself. His father, Gantalin the First, had spared the rod.
Palen Littleson, with cut black hair and tan skin, the youngest member of the Castle Guard, watched the melee from his place in the stands, to keep anyone from jumping into the fight. The King's orders. The King himself fought with laughs and shouts, wielding a sword that was too heavy for him, against opponents that knew if they struck him they would be punished.
There were strong knights in plate and chain, carrying swords, tridents, maces, or hammers. Outriders come to the city for festivities, wearing leather, bearing wicked scars on their body, and thrusting at enemies with notched swords and knives. There was a young man barely able to hold his sword up, a squire searching for a name and honor. Champions of noble ladies hoping for a favor smiled to the crowd. Two women, one with dual short swords, the other with a curved saber, stood back-to-back against the other fighters.
Palen watched, keeping his eyes on the fighters and the crowd around him. They cheered and groaned as fighters were struck. They knew the King would be the last standing, and they knew to cheer when he proclaimed himself the winner. If they didn't he would throw a tantrum.
He could have them all killed. He could have them put in torture chambers. He could have one after the other attack him in the large dusty ring that he stood in now. Palen's heart thudded, praying that he wouldn't be forced to carry out one of his atrocities.
Palen had silvery mail on, under a chest plate. His black cloak puddled behind him. He shifted his weight, and the armored pieces on his body clanked. His arms were crossed, never too far from the sword attached to his belt or the dagger behind his back. His helmet, with the shining parapet symbol of the king, kept his face in the shade. He scanned the crowd, looking as he was ordered for anyone who might try and hurt the king. Palen's swordsmanship was good, he felt. Good enough to take any of the poor folk that gathered for a piece of fun in a tiring summer.
The crowd roared and Palen glanced toward the ring. The twin women had fallen, taken from both sides by knights just as they attacked the young squire. The squire had dived out of the way, landing awkwardly and dropping his sword. He scrambled for it as two knights disarmed the women and gave them flesh wounds. The two knights both looked at the squire, who was rising to his feet with a helmet covering his vision, and turned on each other.
The crowd cheered as these knights fought valiantly. The taller one, the knight Palen knew as Sir Wren, dodged the sword of the other and smashed him with his shield as the women were helped out the exits. The other knight, Sir Yolena, recovered and struck again. Palen rested his hands on the ladder that led down to the ring, absorbing the fight. Sir Wren was an accomplished fighter, but Sir Yolena had terrific strength.
The King, dressed in gold armor and carrying a round shield, disarmed an outrider after a weak attack and kicked him in the face. The outrider pleaded for mercy, and the King graciously gave it. Now it was just the dueling knights, the King, and squire. The knights fought still, trading strong blows and bawdy taunts to the delight of the crowd.
But, finally, Sir Wren beat out the other knight with a flashy display and sent his sword flying. Sir Yolena admitted defeat and exited. A bloodless melee, Palen thought. Because the King does not like the sight of blood.
Sir Wren looked at the squire, who shrunk back against the wall. The knight turned from him and approached the king. He saluted and raised his sword. The King saluted back with a grin on his face, and approached.
It was nowhere as dazzling a fight as the last. Sir Wren could have killed the King in a moment; he simply went through the motions as the King tried to batter away at his armor. The King, a man in his forties with little muscle and a fair pouch of fat, had no hope to win in a fair fight, but Sir Wren knew the punishment for injuring the king. Dishonor, if he was lucky.
King Gantalin brought his sword down on Wren's, knocking it out of the way. Palen knew a weak strike such as that would do no more than take up Sir Wren's time, but even so there was a large opening that the King took advantage of, jabbing his sword into Wren's chest. His armor turned it away, but Wren fell backwards anyway, pleading for mercy as the outrider had.
Palen shook his head in disgust.
Now it was the King and the nameless squire. The young man had close cut blond hair, thin arms, and a trembling jaw. His chain mail looked too long, and he had no plate. Leather gloves wrapped around his sword, and leather boots kicked up dust as he came out from the side of the ring, sword wavering as he stepped closer to the King. Palen thought that even the King would have no trouble with this man. The King took a long step forward and the squire took steps back. The King and the crowd laughed.
The squire started to circle around the King, ranging again toward the wall of the ring, and another ladder. The man bumped into it, and it rattled. A guard at the top of the ladder ordered him away from it.
Instead, the young man placed his free hand on one of the rungs of the ladder. The Guard shouted at him and started to climb down.
The man wrenched, and the ladder fell. The guard's cry was silenced as he crumpled on the ground. The King turned back to the young man with a shout on his lips, and found the man's sword whipping toward his head with uncommon speed. The King ducked behind his shield and the arena rang. The King stepped back, but the man had dashed around him with speed Palen didn't believe. He struck at the King's flank, at a break in the armor above the knee. He missed, but kept the cut going, turning it around into another attack. This one crashed against the King's sword, swatting it aside like a branch.
"He's trying to kill me!" The King shouted, as he swung. The man stepped into the attack, caught the King's wrist, shook the sword out of his weak grip, and kicked violently, sending the King sprawling. The man was on him immediately, bringing his sword down with a flash where the King's head had been a moment before.
Palen walked himself down the rungs of the ladder, holding his sword away from his feet. Archers on the roof of the stands aimed down at the man, but couldn't fire for fear of hitting the King. Palen and two other guards ran toward the center, where the King had scurried away from the young man who was clearly out for blood.
The man's face had changed from fear to fury, his stance from novice to master. The sword he'd hardly been able to hold with both hands he now swung with one hand hard enough to crack against the King's battered shield. Palen and the two other guards stepped closer, and the man took notice. He glanced up at the archers on the roof, and sprang.
Palen watched with wide eyes as this young man jumped over his head and rang his helmet from behind with the flat of his blade. Palen fell to his face and heard shouts and crashes. He looked up two seconds later, and found one of the other guards bleeding on the ground. The last dueled with the young man but his skill was nothing compared to the furious assassin. Palen got to his feet and attacked from behind.
The man spun and deflected Palen's strike, used his foot to knock back Palen's kick that was just rising off the ground, and grabbed the parapet emblem on his helmet. Palen's neck screamed as he was thrown to the ground. He heard more clashes, and the King screaming for his death. Palen wrenched the helmet off his head, and spun, trying to find the man. The last guard lay dying. King Gantalin shrieked and the man appeared, as if from nowhere, dropping down with his sword pointed at the King's heart.
Palen leaped, and struck the man in midair. They landed in a pile of armor and weapons, and Palen was hoisted onto his back as the man jumped to his feet toward the King. More Guards were entering the arena now, holding shields and swords between the King and the assassin.
It didn't stop him. The first man was jumped over as Palen had been, the second dropped to the ground with cut calves. The third nearly landed a hit but the man flowed around it with a snarl on his face. Palen, once again, got to his feet and stumbled into the fray. Another guard had been cut, and blood gushed from his thigh in a thick stream. Nothing separated the King and the man.
The King backed away from him, shouting. "Stop him! Stop him!" Palen surged forward as a familiar form stepped in front of the King. Sir Wren's sword met the man's, and they fought. Even Sir Wren could not keep up his guard, though, and suffered a cut on his forehead that became a blinding curtain of blood. He backed away as Palen attacked from behind.
Somehow, the man knew. He spun and slapped Palen's sword away and rolled under a punch, coming up behind Palen with unearthly agility. Something pushed Palen forward and then back, and the man dashed for the King. Palen ran after him as more guards poured into the arena.
Palen was finally able to get the upper hand, and locked his arm around the man's sword arm. The King saw and aimed a thrust at the man's stomach. For an instant Palen realized the sword would go straight through the man's body into his, before the man kicked at Palen's ankle and rolled him over his shoulder at the King's strike. Palen rolled and knocked the King off his feet, serving him up on a platter in front of the assassin.
There was a silent moment as the King stopped rolling and looked up into the young man's eyes. The man looked down on him and then raised his sword over his head.
Palen's sword cartwheeled through the air and stabbed into his left shoulder, spraying blood on the King. The man stumbled backwards and looked down at the wound. The chain mail had shattered and the sword had pierced flesh and muscle. The man looked around at the circle of guards closing in on him, weapons ready.
Face screwed with pain, he lunged at one of the guards and flashed around. There was an open door out of the arena there, and he whistled as he ran forward.
The two women fighters appeared with their weapons raised at the man. Palen breathed out, assured that these two accomplished fighters would be able to stop him.
He ran past them and they didn't blink. They kept their swords up at the guards that neared them.
The crowd in the stands had gathered for a fight, and they saw one. Two guards fell, and more after that. The women had obviously been keeping themselves in check during the melee, but now they unleashed their skill. The guard's swords couldn't touch them, and four were dead before Palen reached them.
He didn't have his sword, and that took one of them off balance. She had shoulder-length brown hair and the curved saber. She swung it when Palen appeared unarmed. He dodged around it and pushed past her, shoving her into the other woman.
He entered the foyer to the arena and caught the eye of one of the armorers. The armorer pointed toward one hallway that led to the stables. Palen ran down the hallway as a mighty din came from behind him, the guards piling on the two women.
The stables were nearly empty and filled with the powerful stench of beast. Palen saw the young man jump on a horse and smack its flank with the sword he carried in his uninjured arm. The horse reared and raced out of the stables.
Palen ran to the nearest saddled horse, and threw himself up onto it as he unsheathed his dagger. He slashed at the horse's reins that kept it tethered to a post and snatched up the cut remains in each hand. He dug his boot heels into the horse and it ran outside.
The sun blinded him in the open. He no longer had his helmet to shield him, and he squinted. He saw a closing lane and urged his horse in that direction. The city stank of piss and the poor fare the citizens ate. The dust swirled into his face, and he blinked it out painfully.
"Make way! Make way!" He called, sticking his spurs into the horse again and forcing it into a gallop. The peasants scrambled to reopen the lane, and Palen saw the retreating horse bearing the assassin. His horse pounded after it; Palen's cape snapped behind him. He gripped the bare ends of the rein tightly.
It looked like the assassin was heading for the south gate. There was no way to get them to close it in time. He bent low over his steed and guided it around a child almost too late.
The assassin turned a corner, following the main road toward the south gate. Palen knew a better way. He went straight through, diving his horse into a narrow alley and slowing. He pulled it around a corner and got it running again. A washerwoman nearly got in his way, but she saw him in time and fell backwards into a puddle of slop as he galloped past.
He broke into the sun on the main road and wheeled his horse toward the edge of the city. He didn't see the other horse. He could close the gate before he escaped!
Just as he raced past a wide intersection the assassin's horse turned up next to his. Both of the riders did double-takes, and then bent over their respective steeds. There was now no way to close the gate in time. Palen would have to stop him directly.
A minute later they burst out of the city. The assassin's horse was fast and nimble. It was, Palen realized, the King's horse. The crowd thinned once they were free of the gates, and the assassin's horse gained ground on Palen. He sunk his spurs into the horse again, and froth spilled from its mouth as it pushed its legs to catch up. Incredibly, it did, and inch by inch he got closer.
They were on the main road heading south now, paved with broken stones and littered with people. These same people made way as soon as they saw the two horses, leaving the sun-baked road free for the chase. Palen's horse had gained more ground, but both horses tired. Either could easily break an ankle on the disrepaired path.
It curved around a low hill, and Palen saw his chance. As the assassin's horse followed the road, Palen's charged up the hill and jumped into the road in front of the other horse. The assassin slowed and looked around.
"Just the two of us. And you have no sword."
"No." Palen drew his dagger. "But I don't need one. You know more guards followed me. Surrender."
"And put myself at the mercy of the King?" The young man laughed. "Kill me now; at least you could have compassion." He jumped off his horse and slid his sword from its scabbard. "I have an injury, you have a baby's sword. On even terms I defeated you. Maybe this will be different."
"Why did you do it?" Palen asked, not confident about his chances against this man. "What has the King done to you?"
The young man laughed again. "Starved the kingdom! Murdered countless hundreds! He sits in his castle as we go hungry and thirsty!"
"The King does not control the rains!" Palen shouted. He saw dust rising from the road. It would be a few minutes, at least.
"And if it was a wet season of plenty, no doubt he would claim the credit!"
The truth of the statement struck Palen, but his face didn't change. "Perhaps."
"Get out of my way!" The Assassin shouted, stepping toward Palen. Palen took a step back, and the man grinned. "You know even though I have an injury, I can beat you. I've trained all my life for a chance to kill the King." His eyes narrowed. "And you ruined it!"
He charged, bringing his sword down on Palen's neck. Palen jumped back, nearly knocking into his horse. The man swung again, and Palen jumped forward, past the strike. His horse's leg was cut, and it reared with a scream. It turned and charged back toward the city, and suddenly the way was free for the assassin. "And again you fail to stop me." The assassin said. He rushed at Palen and Palen deflected a strike with his dagger. The assassin pushed, thrusting and striking, driving Palen away from the road, and away from the King's horse. Palen's foot clipped against a stone and he stumbled; the assassin knocked him in the head with his sword's hilt, and he fell with blood streaming from his temple. "That's for my shoulder."
The assassin turned and looked at the approaching dust. "I hope the King is good enough to forgive a guard that let an assassin escape with his favorite horse." The assassin smiled. "With barely a scratch on him." He vaulted onto the horse and galloped south.
Palen lay on the road. He'd failed miserably. The would-be assassin's words had stung him. His head felt shaken. If only he'd had his helmet. In another minute he heard approaching horses, and he lifted himself to his feet with trouble. "He followed the road! His horse should be tired! Go!" He waved on the first group of guards, and the second group slowed and dismounted. This group included Sir Yolena and several of Palen's brothers in the guard.
"Are you all right, Littleson?" Yolena asked, helping Palen toward the horses.
"Yes Sir." Palen wiped blood off his forehead. "This was my only injury."
"Then you were lucky. Everyone could see how skilled he was. Here, get on my horse. I can walk."
"But you're injured," Palen said. "From the melee."
"Just a scratch from a friendly spar. You fought an enemy. You saved the King! More than once! His Highness will surely reward you!"
Palen considered this as the horses plodded back to the city. The King might honor him, but he didn't expect a parade. If the poor folk heard he had saved the King from an assassin, he expected rotten fruit and mud balls before cheers.
"The two women were captured," Sir Yolena was saying. "The King suspects them to be part of a rebel faction, and the boy as well. He's furious that the boy even got close enough to hurt him."
"What did he expect?" Palen said. "His Highness shouldn't be participating in melees."
"I agree, but keep those sentiments to yourself. You know how the King takes those that speak against him."
Palen sighed and shook his head slightly. A good ruler would consider the criticism against him. If he had stayed out of the melee, a half dozen men would still be alive and his life would have been safe the entire time.
"Your job isn't to tell the King what to do. Your job is to keep the castle safe," Yolena continued. "You did your job today."
"I know," Palen said. The horse swayed as it walked, and the motion was calming to Palen. He felt sleepy. Blood from his head dripped to the ground.
They entered the city and met more guards. Double patrols walked the walls and the area around the city, and inside as well. The city was on high alert. They stopped inside the south gate and Palen's wound was wrapped tightly. More guards followed them to the castle, on the east side of the city by the river. When they got inside the tall inner walls they found Sir Wren and other knights. Sir Wren saluted, and Palen returned the gesture. The outer courtyard was a flurry of activity, with battalions of soldiers dressed to fight. Nobody was going to get into the castle without someone seeing.
In the main courtyard, surrounded by the monstrous outer towers of the nine-ring court, Palen dismounted and was shown into the main section of the castle by the new castellan. The old one had been thrown out of the city -- banished -- by the king after some perceived slight several months ago. This new castellan, a man by the name of Quincy Robel, was mean and cruel. He sneered when Palen came near.
"The King will see you immediately," Robel said. Palen smelled wine on his breath. "No waiting. At once."
Palen would have cleaned and dressed, but keeping the King waiting was its own offense, so he followed the castellan up the stairs and into the King's council room.
The room was flooded with light from a ceiling made of windows. Banners, marked with the King's parapet, hung from the walls. The sides of the room were crowded by knights, guards, and lords. The King, shadowed by the Captain of the Guard, the Queen, and their Prince -- a boy following too close in his father's steps -- stood at the end of the room. The King sat in his gold throne, an opulence he instated mere days after becoming King.
Palen sank to one knee and bowed his head. "Sire."
"Rise, Palen..." Palen heard a whisper. "Littleson." Palen got up to his feet. He clasped his hands behind his back. His black cloak was dusty from the race and the fight. He stank of sweat, and his wound burned.
The King rose from his gold seat and came closer. He stood a few feet away from Palen. He was shorter than Palen, and thinner. He too clasped his hands behind his back. "On this, the anniversary of my wedding and crowning, I was attacked. Attacked by someone you thought was weak, and inexperienced!" The King shouted. "And he nearly killed me. But! Guard Littleson jumped in and saved me! More than once he kept the assassin from landing a blow on me!" The King smiled at him, and Palen's stomach clenched. His instincts told him more was to come.
"And then," the King said, in a quieter voice. "The assassin ran. He took MY HORSE!" He bellowed the last two words. "And escaped! And still guard Littleson gave chase! He chased him out of the city, and stopped him on the main south road, less than a league from the city!"
The blow was unexpected. It made Palen stagger to one side and fall to his knees. "And you let him escape!" The King shouted at him. Another blow, from a fist, dropped Palen to the ground. "You idiot!"
"Sire!" Palen heard someone say. Hands circled his arms and pulled him up. Sir Yolena stood next to him. "This man saved your life!"
"Silence!" The Kings' voice cracked with fury. "I see it all! I see what your little minds scheme! You, and your young friend, and the women in the dungeon! You pretend to save my life from the assassin, he escapes, you receive nothing more than a cut on your head, and suddenly I take you into my confidence as my savior!"
"And then when all is quiet, you murder me in my sleep!"
"No Sire!" Palen shouted. He dropped to his knee. "I swore an oath to protect you!"
"Words are nothing, Littleson! A man breaks an oath as easily as he breaks a twig! Guards!" The King shouted at a duo to his right. "Take this traitor to the dungeon and strip him of everything but the skin his mother made him!"
After just a moment's hesitation, the guards took Palen by his arms and dragged him out of the council room. "Wait!" Palen called as his boots scraped on the ground. "Sire, please! I mean you no harm!"
The doors slammed shut, and the guards let him get to his feet. They each kept a hand firmly on an arm, and Palen was brought across the giant central courtyard to the prison tower. He was brought into a cramped cell with a small window and a wooden door.
"I'll spare you the indignity of being undressed by another, but do it quickly. I have the feeling our liege isn't finished with you yet," one of the guards said. Both of them turned their backs as Palen stripped out of his armor and clothing. A ragged blanket was thrown into the cell, and he wrapped himself in it. The guards removed his other things, and Palen sat against the back wall under the window.
A tray of stew and bread was placed in the door by a guard, with two more guards holding their weapons at the the ready in case Palen tried to do anything. He knew both of them, both of the men with their swords pointed at him like was a murderer.
"Arin! Paul! Please! You know I'd never do anything to hurt the King! I was protecting him! You know that!"
"I'm sorry Palen," Arin said. "But if we let you out the King will know. He'll kill us without a sorry thought." The three of them closed his door and locked it, and opened the cell across from his.
Palen ate the food. He hadn't been given utensils, but he sopped the stew with the bread and drank it when the bread was gone. Soon the bowl was empty and he threw it into the corner. It crashed against the wall and a crack appeared in the wood.
"Say sister," he heard a voice say, "it looks like the King's defender isn't all that happy."
"Isn't he now?" A similar voice asked. "Do you think that's because the King's a loon?" Two voices cackled laughter. "Oy! Guard!"
Palen pulled the sheet around him and went to the window in the door. One of the women from the melee was looking through the door across from his, wrapped in a sheet of her own. She had droopy, pale brown hair, and a stubby nose. Palen remembered her; she was the one who wielded the saber. She and her sister must have been thrown into the cells after Palen pushed them down.
"You're the reason we're in here," the woman said with a sneer.
"Come get me, then," Palen said, looking through the window. "I don't talk with traitors."
"Oho!" The hidden voice said. Another face, the one of the woman that had held the two swords, pushed next to her sister. "Aren't you one as well?"
"No Utena, that can't be!" The first woman said, outraged. "He saved the King's life, and then gave chase to our brave brother!"
"I suppose you're right, Soma," Utena said. She had dirty blond hair wrapped in a fraying braid. She didn't seem to have a sheet; Palen only saw bare shoulders. "But then why's he here?"
"Like I said, I think it's 'cause the King's a loon so off his rocker he thinks that fish fly!" Both women laughed.
"Quiet!" Palen shouted. "It's just a mistake! You tried to kill the King!"
"Did we? No, I don't think we did!" Soma said. "We just got in the way of some of your friends. And, I'm afraid, some of them ran into our weapons!"
"We were cleaning them, you see," Utena jumped in. "Silly fools hurt themselves!"
"Liars!" Palen shouted, then stomped away from the door. There wasn't any place to stomp to, unfortunately. He heard the laughter from the other cell.
"What's your name, boy?" One of them asked. Palen couldn't see.
"I don't talk to traitors."
"Well it's a good thing we do, otherwise you wouldn't have anyone to talk to! Tell us... did you get him?"
Palen waited for the mockery, but none came. It was a serious question.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Because he was our friend. Did he escape?"
Palen went to the door and looked through. Both of the faces looked back at him, waiting.
Palen sighed and sat against the far wall. "He got away."
Both of the women breathed sighs of relief. "That's why you're in here, isn't it? You let him get away?"
Palen hesitated. "Yes."
"You have to admit your King's being a bugger."
"He's your King too!"
"Like shit he is!" One of them shouted. "He stopped being my King when our parents starved to death! He doesn't care about us! He doesn't care about you! Without you, his miserable life would have ended three times over, and what does he do? Throws you into a cell so you can sit on your bare ass!" The unseen woman cackled. "And then what? Torture? Banishment? Will he have the executioner chop your head off before you can kiss his foot one more time?"
"That won't happen!" Palen shouted. He didn't believe it.
"He's mad! A spoiled rotten ruler that should still be sitting on his mother's knee! I can only imagine what his poor wife goes through each day, he probably demands sick acts from her nightly!"
"And his son!" This was the other one. "He's going to be worse, I tell you! His father lets him do exactly as he wants, and when our current fool on the throne quits, this one will take his place and blow whatever sinking ship is left to hell! And boy, you mark my words, that'll happen!"
Palen snatched the cracked wooden bowl, stuck his arm out the bars of the window in his door, and flung the bowl at the other door. It struck a hand clenching one of their bars, and Soma pulled her hand away. "Ah! Bastard!"
"You're not going to get any more stew, now," Utena tsked. "Pity. It wasn't bad stew. It's too bad the only way to get it in this kingdom is to try and kill the King!" She laughed, but Soma sucked on her knuckle and didn't join in. "Go on!" Utena said, seeing Palen's furious expression. "Throw your cloth at me, too! That'll leave you nice and warm come the night!"
Palen went back to the wall and pulled the sheet around him tightly. He looked up at the small window in the wall and tried to figure out what time of day it was. The light looked late.
Palen didn't sleep much; he never could. He laid on the cold stone with the sheet over him. The piss bucket, which he'd taken advantage of earlier, stank. He couldn't see the stars or the moon through the window, and the cell was dark except for the torch down the hall that cast long shadows through the window of his door.
He heard low muttering. Soundless, he crept next to his door. The women in the cell across from his talked.
"...they would!" One of them said tensely. "Bena failed; we know what the backup is!"
The other one responded, in a quieter tone. "We expected Bena to at least hurt the king. He barely even touched him. We can't expect Amonid to follow the plan if the situation changes."
Palen didn't know who those names were, but Bena could be the assassin, perhaps?
"We'll know in a few days. We just need to last until then to know for certain."
"What if we don't last until then? We both know the stories. The King may take us into a dirty shed and cut us into bits, or any other horrible death."
"He'll try to get information out of us first. He knows we're rebels; even an idiot like him can't miss an opportunity like this." There was a pause. "We have to be strong. We can't let anything slip that could give the others away."
Both of them seemed to realize that the cell next to theirs was quiet.
"That poor boy. He did his duty and saved the king, and he's thrown into a cell stark naked for it."
"He's not our friend. He's the enemy," the other responded.
"We need to sleep," The first said, and the cell was quiet.
The sun's light was just getting into the cell when a half dozen guards marched into the hallway. Palen jumped awake, hoping his cell would open and the King would enter, apologetic. Instead, he heard the rattle of keys as they entered the door across from him.
"You," Palen heard a guard order. "Up. The King wants to speak with you."
"I'm not dressed for it," Palen heard. Then a smack, and a feminine cry.
"Up. The King doesn't mind a bruise here... or there... on a prisoner," the guard said. Palen heard a muffled moan. He imagined mailed fingers pinching soft flesh, and grimaced. The guards moved around, and Palen looked out his door's window. The blonde one, Utena, was being led down the hallway, flanked and followed by the guards, covered in nothing but the dirty brown sheet.
Soma saw him looking. "She's a beauty, isn't she? You should see her after she gets cleaned up. She'd make any man rebel." She snickered. "What's your name, boy?"
"I'm not a boy!"
"Oh? What are you... eighteen? Nineteen?" Palen didn't respond. "You ever had a woman? Married? Held land?"
"None of them? Oh, the terrible things our king does. Come, tell me your name. You know mine. It's only polite."
Palen hesitated. "Palen Littleson."
Soma, he think, curtsied.
"Tell me... what are they going to do to her?" She asked him. He looked at her. She looked through the bars, hiding all but her eyes and the top of her head from view. Utena must have taken the only sheet.
Palen's stomach roiled. He'd heard the stories, told only in whispers. He didn't know how many were true... but he knew some would be.
"He'll rape her," Palen began, quietly. "He'll beat her, sometimes while raping her."
Soma's eyebrows raised in horror.
"He might pin her up to a board and take a knife, and make cuts on her skin. He could cut off nipples or an ear."
Palen had seen it only once, when the King was convinced that an old man was trying to kill him. "He might whip her, or boil her." The things the King had done... no woman needed to hear them. "He has crueler tortures. He will try to break her."
Soma took a breath. "She's strong. What if he doesn't break her?"
"He'll kill her. Or give her to his guards to use as they will." That had happened, too. A woman, stricken pale by fear, tied to a post. Palen had left and walked through the city, sickened by it. "Or he'll throw her back in with you, bleeding. He may take you and make her watch as he does the same things to you, until she begs and pleads him to stop for your sake."
"She won't. We knew what would happen if we were caught." She waited for him to continue. "Why do you serve him?"
"He's my King. It's my duty."
"He's a monster!"
"He might... be." Palen said. The words, from his own mouth, shook him. "But it's my job to keep him alive."
"Your job!" Soma laughed mockingly. "Your job is to take orders like a dog, while my friend is raped and killed! While people starve!"
"And what do I do instead?" Palen shouted.
"Join me!" Soma said, pressing her face against the bars. "A man like you, someone who could nearly beat Bena in a sword fight! He's trained all his life to kill the King, and you stopped him! You'd be such a strong ally!"
"I'm not going to join rebels!" Palen threw back. "I know your stories! You steal and kill, and blame the King!"
"We steal because it's impossible to get food otherwise! The only way to get food is to steal! But the King eats well every day! He never goes hungry!"
"He's one man! If he gave up his food, who wouldn't starve?"
"You can't argue me this! He's hoarding the food, ignoring the poor, and killing anyone that dares mention it to him!"
Palen and Soma stared at each other. Palen wished he could reach out and smack her.
"My father," she said, grimacing, "and mother. They were farmers. They were ordered to give up their food to the King's men as they marched. My father refused; he said there wouldn't be any left for me. For them. The soldiers left.
"And then, two weeks later, the King himself appeared with fifty troops, slaughtered my parents, and burned everything I had to the ground." Her mouth trembled. "You can guess what they did to me. I was seventeen."
She turned away. "I wandered after that, cold, hungry, tired, beaten. The road is never a safe place for a woman alone, even when the King kept the laws. Now?" She laughed once. "I was lucky I wasn't murdered the moment I took my first step." She looked at Palen again. "That was three years ago. Have things improved? The King does what he wants, even though he's a madman."
"It isn't our place to judge. We know nothing of the weight of rule."
"Don't we?" Soma's eyes narrowed. "If I were a ruler, I wouldn't force my citizens to give up their everything, and then burn and kill them if they decided not to. I wouldn't throw my defender-" she jabbed a finger at him "-into a cell because I thought he was a rebel!"
Palen imagined the things that, even now, Utena suffered through. But she was a rebel! The King may take it too far in some cases, but she had aided an assassin! What was happening to her was her own fault.
The thought made Palen feel sick. How could he wish horrors on someone who was trying to help others? If he had let the boy -- Bena -- kill the King . . . his madness, his tyranny . . . it would have ended.
The day went. Utena didn't return. Soma tried talking to him, but he was too deep in his own thoughts, and as the sun moved she gave up. Dinner was brought, and a sheet, for Soma. Palen heard her throw it in the corner of her cell with a scream and a curse. When it hit the wall it sounded wet.
Palen knew the paths for this part of the castle; he'd walked it himself before, listening to the cries and pleas of the prisoners. He waited until the guard walked by and then hissed at Soma. She didn't respond.
"Soma!" He said quietly. He heard a shuffling, and her eyes appeared in the shadows thrown by the torch.
"What?" She whispered. Palen could just make out tear streaks on her face.
"I heard you and your sister last night. Talking."
Soma hesitated. Then: "She wasn't my sister."
"She wasn't my sister!" Soma screamed under her breath. "We lied, to keep each other safe. I met her on the road after my home was burned. We joined the rebels together, and just told everyone we were related." She sniffed. "It seemed easiest." Palen waited for her to continue. "You said you heard us talking."
"What are the rebels planning?"
"You think I'll tell you?" She chuckled. "You're stupider than I thought. Why the hell should I tell you?"
"I won't tell anyone." Palen paused. "I swear."
"Oh? You swear, do you? Which one?"
"Your words mean nothing to me, guard. You say you protect the King. If I tell you, you have to break one of your promises. Which one would it be? The one to me? Or the one to him? I think I know."
"I've been thinking about it," Palen said. "You're right. I don't think the King and I are going to get along much longer." He pressed his face against the bars in the door's window. "I'm sick of it. I've had to see so much more than you!" He whispered. "How do you think I knew what they would do to Utena?" The other cell was silent. "Even during the melee, it was disgusting to watch him. His actions mock us. Everyone."
Her face appeared in her door's window. "How do I know I can trust you?"
Palen didn't know. He had nothing to give her, no information that could be of use to her. His heart pounded. He wanted to help.
"I don't know. I'm open to suggestions."
The other cell was quiet. Palen sighed and sat down. Then he heard her voice. "Give me your sheet, and we can call it a start. Mine is... dirty."
Palen got up and balled the sheet in his fist. He stuck his hand out the window and flicked the sheet at Soma. She caught it and pulled it in. She quickly wrapped it around herself. "Thank you."
He nodded. "Anything else?"
"Do you have anything else in there?" She asked.
"Nothing but my bucket."
There was a pause. "You may keep that." Palen, despite the cold and circumstances, laughed.
"Do you promise?" He heard her ask, in a voice that one could call sultry, had it not come from a cold girl in a prison cell. "Do you promise to keep it a secret?"
Palen breathed out. "I do."
"Then consider this a warning. If you tell the King what I'm about to tell you... the fact that you've given me a blanket will not save your miserable life."
The next morning, they came for him. They found him cold and naked, and gave him a rough tunic with long ragged sleeves and a pair of breeches. "The King would like to speak to you," the guard, another one that Palen knew, said.
Palen stood and let them walk him away from the cell. Soma watched him leave.
He was again brought before the King in his council room. The queen and their son weren't present. It was the King, Palen, and a dozen guards. Palen dropped to his knees, pushed by the guard that clasped his arms.
"Palen Littleson," the King said. "You are accused of treason and attempted harm on my royal person. How do you plead?"
"Innocent," Palen said, looking the King in the eye. "On all counts."
"And now you're a liar, too!" The King shouted. He danced forward, and Palen prepared for the blow.
It never came. He looked up at the King, who rubbed his chin with his fingers. "You are no stranger to pain, having made it through to be a guard. You will need something more." The King looked at the castellan. "Make ready the ladder."
Palen didn't know what the ladder was. He was pulled to his feet with a puzzled expression. It must be new, and it must be bad – or a secret. The King and the guards led him to the back of the castle, and climbed down a long circular staircase.
The stairs emptied into a giant cavern under the castle, suspended high over the swift water of the river far below them. The cavern was ringed by a railinged walkway, and in the center...
"Here is where you will spend your days," The King muttered. "Unless you confess your crimes, and reveal all that you know about the rebels." The King looked at one of the guards. "Bring it down."
The guard nodded and started to crank on a lever.
A massive ladder, suspended in the center of the cavern, rattled. It began to approach those standing on the ledge on metal runners. It must have been a hundred feet long from top to bottom, ten or twenty feet wide. The rungs varied from thin twigs to stout pieces of wood, varied in their distance from each other. It hung from attachments built into the ceiling, and the bottom swayed far over the rushing water, which was punctuated by sharp stalagmites. Palen watched it come closer with an open mouth.
"You will cling to this ladder," the King said conversationally, with his hands clasped behind his cloak. "You will be given nothing. You will stay hanging until you call out that you are ready to talk. Usually I have guards take shots at those hanging on." He thought for a moment. "But we can skip that. Call it repayment for saving my life in the melee." The King sniggered, then waved his hand. "Go on! Or I'll have my guards push you off." Two guards moved forward with their weapons pointed at Palen, urging him toward the swinging ladder and the edge of the walkway. He backed away.
"My liege, please," Palen begged. He clamped his hands together. "I know nothing!"
"As did the whore yesterday!" The King laughed. "Go on! Jump!" The two guards came nearer, pressing Palen toward the ladder. He turned and looked at it.
It was stained and perilous, but it looked like new wood. Palen shuffled toward the hole in the fence, and jumped.
He hit the ladder three rungs from the bottom, but his hand missed. He slid down the ladder and latched on to the last rung with one hand. His other hand wrapped around it quickly, and Palen couldn't avoid looking down. As the ladder was winched away from the walkway he watched the river pound through the path it had chiseled.
The ladder got to the center of the massive cavern and stopped, swaying back and forth. Palen's stomach jumped. He reached up for the second rung, hauling himself higher as his feet dangled. On the sixth rung he was able to hook his feet on the bottom, and stood, clenched against the ladder. He glanced back.
The King watched him. Palen couldn't see his expression but he imagined it was a mad grin.
Palen looked below him again. Four days, he thought to himself. If I can make four days.
An hour passed. Palen had hauled himself higher, dizzied from the ceaseless swaying. The King had left with most of the guards, after ordering to be told if Palen either fell or called to speak with the King.
Palen took stock. There were no windows or way to tell the light of day; the meager light came from torches set in the wall and ceiling. Water dripped from stalactites above him. He caught a drop in his mouth once. It was gritty, but he would need it. He wished he had been able to eat before being pushed out over oblivion, and already his stomach growled. He prayed it silent. He was a dozen rungs above the bottom now, holding tightly to the strong rung. He took a deep breath. His tunic and breeches, light things, didn't stop the cold.
Every look down made him shut his eyes and groan. Heights had never been a problem for him before, but this was different. It was a height that could very quickly turn into a short distance. Palen set his head against the ladder.
More hours passed. He felt tired, but he knew if he fell asleep he could fall. He caught a few drops of dirty water and took his shirt off.
The guards had changed just once since he'd arrived. He knew the shifts were eight hours; he would be able to use their movements as a timepiece.
He climbed a few rungs until he was able to slip his legs in between two rungs that were close together. He locked his ankles around another rung and wrapped his shirt around his waist. He tied the sleeves around himself and a rung at stomach height, and tested the knot. It held, and he slowly leaned back, keeping his hands on the rungs. When he was back as far as the shirt would go he let his hands go. He stayed suspended in air, the knot pulled tight.
And so, hanging high over the rushing water and sharp rocks by only a shirt, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, he stretched, looked over at the guards, and then looked down.
He grabbed the ladder, terrified by the sight, and then his brain took control again. The events of the last few days wound through his mind in a flash. How long had he slept? He looked over at the guards again. They were the same two that had been there when he fell asleep, which meant it had been less than six hours since then, as long as he had kept track of time correctly.
He shivered, and tried to undo the knot he had worked the tunic into. It stayed put, and Palen sighed.
He found himself looking at the river. The gurgling noises that reached him sounded sweet and fresh, and the distance between them became hypnotic. He watched the streams that curved between the stalagmites flash with fire from the torches. He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate on what Soma had told him. Four days... or now three? He didn't know.
In less than an hour the guard changed again. Palen watched them switch out and stand stock-still at the room's exit. He had been hanging there for more than ten hours if the guards switched at the times he remembered. It was still four days until... he shook his head.
He looked down at the swirling river drawn in by the layers of water that washed over one another. He hung there, stopped from falling by the shirt, watching and listening to the water.
Ten minutes later he felt his body moving, and then his vision was filled by the water. He snapped out of it and grabbed a rung of the ladder as the shirt fell away from him. He snatched it with his other hand and pulled himself back up. He must have loosened the shirt more than he thought when he tried to undo it.
He looked down at the river once more, and dragged his eyes away, telling himself not to look.
And they passed.
His body clenched with hunger, nearly delirious. He kept the shirt knotted about his torso, to keep him from plummeting, to stop him from falling, to keep him away.
It snarled with rocky teeth for his body, roaring and crushing pain in his ears. Every time he looked down at it, and he could not stop, it ate at his mind, the distance and the pressure and sound and light. He though he saw figures rising from it once, but they were figments of his twisting mind. The river spoke to him when he watched it, telling him sweet secrets of the deep, begging him to join it and play. To release from his prison and fall that length of air and be free.
The torches on the walls flickered and danced, playing like children on the craggy surfaces. How he wished he could join them.
His mind was curled around one fact. One facet that he ran over and over as he hung and as his mind was twisted by the height.
And finally the four days had passed. The guard changed; they had become no more than hateful statues as the hours trickled by, and he called out to them with a raspy voice. He called to see the King with as much strength as he could manage. He pleaded and begged, weeping tears more real than he had ever wept. One of the guards ran away as the other started to winch Palen toward the ledge.
He cut away Palen's shirt and pulled him off the ladder, a struggle. Palen held on to the ladder with all the strength he had, not wanting to be exposed to the welcoming fall below.
More guards entered, and three more helped the first in pulling Palen off onto the ledge. Palen clawed at the ground until he was flat against the wall. His eyes locked shut and he begged for food. Two guards picked him up by his arms and dragged him up the stairs, each step scraping his legs.
He was dropped in a room, and even the short fall from their arms to the floor made Palen cry in terror, believing he had finally fallen into the river. He hit the ground and moaned. He heard noises close to him, and found a plate of bread and a cup of water. He ate noisily, stuffing as much bread as he could in his mouth and using the water to slide it down. He spilled much.
It felt like the world was flipping. He gripped the floor with his hands, unwilling to rise. He was dragged into another room, and he watched the floor flow under him. Just like the river.
The next destination was a place he recognized. He slowly lifted his head and looked around. It was the council room, with the gold throne and the glass ceiling. He looked up at the bright sky and trembled. It threatened to swallow him.
The King stepped into the room. The footfalls rebounded on the chasm inside Palen. He looked up.
The King stood, just as he always had. Short and light and mad. Palen saw him for the first time. This was the person that had ordered him broken.
"Are you ready to talk?" The King asked, sitting on his throne.
Palen studied him as his mind threatened to snap. Then there was clarity. Palen nodded, and tried pushing himself off the floor to his knees. He nearly toppled over, but managed to rise that far.
"Good! Now. You are a rebel?"
Palen wondered if what he was doing was right. Then he nodded.
"Really." The King stood. "And you were in league with the assassin at the melee?"
Palen nodded again.
"Tell me your plan!" The King went up to him, and Palen cowered back. "Go on."
"We... I-I... He was supposed to kill you, my l-liege. It was to look like I tried to stop him. If he f-failed, I would c-chase him."
"Stop stuttering like a little child!" The King ordered, and Palen flinched.
"F-forgive me, highness." Palen took a breath. "If you were killed, I would... be there to help the transition."
"Deep in their ranks, were you?" The King snarled. "And because I lived?"
"Remain an inactive agent, ready to assist them." Palen was feeling better. "And to... help the next step."
"Next step. Next step!" The King said. "What next step? Tell me or I will kill you here!"
"Please, my liege! I was deluded and confused, but now I know I was wrong! It's today. Today, my liege! I had to tell you! Agents will become active in the city at sundown, and come in from the north in a strong band! They're going to catch the guards unaware and then march on the castle."
"We can shut the gates! Nothing gets into this castle!" The King shouted.
"My liege! There are other agents besides myself inside! Our identities were kept secret to protect each other." Palen quailed when the King turned on him.
"There are more of you? G-" The King looked at the men that had escorted Palen from the ladder. "It could be any of you. Knights! ROBEL!"
"Your Highness!" One of the guards shouted. "I am no traitor! My father served your father, and so I serve you!"
"We stand with you, my liege," another shouted.
"Of course you would say that!" The King bellowed as two knights and the castellan rushed in. "Take all of these men and all of the guards and throw them in the dungeon! Send trusted knights into the city and tell them that rebels will strike at sundown today, and march from the north!" The King suddenly turned on Palen, and Palen tensed, anticipating a blow. "You said from the north. But the assassin rode south! On my horse!"
"A trick, my liege! To throw you off the trail!"
"Of course. Of course!" The King said. "Robel! Knights! Do as I command! My life is in danger now! Throw this stinking rebel back in his cell!" The King pointed at Palen. "I'll deal with him after the night is finished!"
"Gracious King, no!" Palen shouted. "Please! I am your man!"
"You are a traitor and a rebel!" The King spat in Palen's face. "And your death will be too good for you! Take him away!" A knight brought Palen up to his feet and kept him from falling over, dragging him to the cells as Palen kicked and screamed. The news of the impending attack washed over the castle, and knights and servants took the place of the palace guard as they were rounded up and imprisoned. A great din took the place of the castle's ordinary bustle, and dry dust was kicked up as people ran to attack, or escape... or die.
Palen was dropped into his cell weeping. He clutched the ground like a child holding his mother.
"Palen!" He heard a voice. "What the hell is happening? What did you do? You told them, didn't you!" Soma snarled. "You bastard! I never should have trusted you!"
Palen's heart raced, but he took longer and longer breaths to slow it. Finally he felt calmer, even as Soma raged at him. "Now you're going to die, and I'm going to die! Everyone's going to die, and it will be your fault!" It sounded like she was crying. "You'll be responsible for their deaths!"
Palen looked up from the dirty stone floor, dizzy. He got to his knees and used the small window in the door to pull himself up. "No, no. No." He said. "I told them a lie. I told them rebels would start killing guards in the city at sundown, and a band would come from the north."
Soma watched his disheveled face for a few seconds, then gave a small relieved laugh. "Whatever the King did to you, it must not have worked all that well!"
Palen thought of the endless distance between him and the river, and nearly collapsed to the ground. "No!" He cried out, shocking Soma. "I can't... I can't help you! I can't go back into that room again!" He howled. "I don't care if I die, I just can't go back!"
"Palen, what are you talking about? Where did he take you?"
"No! I have to stay here! I can't look at it again!"
"Palen, calm down! What happened?"
"The river!" Palen screamed through the window. Soma flinched back. "He made me hang over the river, hang for my life, for days! The very place that the rebels are going to climb up! I can't go back there and see it! Can't you see Soma? I can barely stand! Whenever I close my eyes-"
"-I can see the river! Hear it! Feel it!" Palen sobbed. "I got the knights and the guards out of the castle; they're killing and throwing guards in jail because I told them there are other rebels in the castle, but I can't go back to that room or I will fall in the river!"
"Just like it wants," Palen muttered, weak and wet.
"Other rebels? There aren't any other rebels! Palen!" There was no response. "At least they'll be able to climb up without any one hardly in the castle," Soma said. "Palen! Palen wake up! You did it, Palen! There won't be anyone left in the castle to stop us! Palen!"
The other cell was quiet.
"Dammit! Palen! Wake up!" Soma called. There was still nothing from the other cell, but Soma heard running feet coming down the hallway. Two guards appeared, apparently fleeing from something. "Guards! Ho, guards!" One of them skidded to a stop, and the other kept running. The guard's helmet was tilted, and sweat dripped down his face. "I haven't been fed yet, the man in that cell needs help, and what is going on outside?" She asked, feigning fear and confusion.
"They think we're rebels!" The guard said, sticking his face into the bars. "They're killing us!" Suddenly his eyes took notice of Soma's body. He leered, and looked down the hallway. "Ain't nobody coming this way." His buck teeth showed in a grin. "Here, girl."
It wasn't the way Soma had intended to free herself, but it worked nonetheless. As soon as the guard unlocked the cell and stepped in, still grinning, she twisted his arm around his back and dislocated his shoulder. He screamed in pain and Soma drove his knees to the ground. "Your clothes. Give them to me!" She yelled as the guard whimpered. "You were going to take your pants off anyway!" She let the arm go, and, still whimpering, the guard removed his pants and tunic. Soma slipped them on. "And your boots!"
When she had those on, she threw the sheet Palen had given her on him. "Act pathetic and the King might not kill you," she said as she slammed the cell shut. She unlocked Palen's door and found him curled in a ball. He wasn't asleep, but nearly catatonic.
"Palen." Soma shook his shoulder, and he jumped, enveloping her thin wrist in a lightning-fast grab. He saw it was her, and then goggled at her clothing. "A guard tried some funny business," she said. "I want you to stand. You're in danger here."
Palen stood without saying a word. "Are you all right?" Soma asked him.
"For now," Palen managed. He took a few tentative steps, and separated from Soma. He took deep breaths. His eyes flicked from object to object. Soma led him into the hallway.
"Okay, first thing. We need to get you something better to wear. After that, I'm going to try and help the rebels come up through the cave." Palen stiffened. "You don't have to come with me. You can stand guard outside the room. Come on, if somebody sees us trying to escape, they'll attack." Palen nodded and followed Soma down the hallway. Terrible cries came from the other levels of the prison tower, as well as weapons ringing together. "Is there an armory near here?" She asked.
"Yes, this way," Palen said, and Soma followed his finger down another hallway. They came to a room with armor and weapons, in mad disarray. "Find something you can use."
Palen put together tougher pants, a chain shirt over his tunic, a sword that he belted to his waist, and a dagger. He slipped on boots and gloves and sighed, feeling better.
"Okay. It's about an hour to sundown. The rebels should be getting to the cavern right about now, but they'll need time to get up. Can you take me there?"
But before they could even leave the prison tower they ran into a duo of knights. The knights at first went for them only because they looked like guards, but then realized Soma was a woman. Soma raised the longsword she'd taken from the armory and shook her head. "Trust me, you don't want to come any closer."
"Oh yeh?" The knight sneered. "And you, boy? Are you a demon in a man's skin as well?"
Three seconds later Soma stood with her hands covering her mouth and the sword at her feet, the other knight backing away with the point of his sword quivering as he stepped toward the door. The knight that had talked to Palen was dead.
Palen had charged, moving with such speed that the knight didn't have time to even move his sword in the way. Palen stabbed him through the face, tearing off the top half of his head and spraying blood over the walls. He turned his head and looked at the other knight, who turned and ran.
"Gods," Soma whispered. Palen looked at her, and she took a quick step back. "Easy, Palen. It's me." Palen jammed his sword into its scabbard and started walking toward the stairs. Soma scooped up her sword and followed him warily. She followed Palen around a corner and found him leaning against the wall.
"I'm all right," he said. "I just... I need to stop for a bit. That knight..."
"He was going to die. He wasn't going to back down. You probably saved the other knight's life." But what brutality! Soma thought. What anger!
"I don't know why I did that," Palen said.
"It's all right. Come on." Soma put a hand on his arm. "Which way?"
"It's under the main keep. We'll need to be quiet to avoid anyone else."
"All right. You lead the way, I'll watch behind us."
They went around one side of the big courtyard, which was empty. New stains of blood were on the ground. Palen kicked open a door to the keep that was normally guarded, and stepped in. There were stairs up to the council room, and more down to the kitchens. He went up.
The council room was empty. Palen went through a door at the back, and found himself at a spiral staircase after going down a hallway.
"Is it down there?" Soma asked.
"I think so," Palen said. He looked down the stairs. Yes... he could hear the river.
"Okay. I'm going down there. Will you stay here and make sure no one gets past?"
Palen nodded, and Soma ran down the stairs. He sat against the wall away from the stairs.
Soma would be entering the cavern about now, and seeing the ladder, and understanding, perhaps, what Palen had been subjected to. She would gasp, or ignore it and try and find the rebels that were climbing up the rocky interior of the cavern, having been taken there by boats. The old castellan had told the rebels about the secret entrance after being exiled by the King.
Palen shifted. The King was adept at making his own enemies. He wondered if Bena would be in that group, or if he was in the group down the south road, waiting for the signal. He wondered how long it would take the rebels to climb-
-up from the river.
Palen turned his head away from the staircase.
The castle's noises were fewer now. He heard distant running and shouts. He didn't hear any sounds of battle.
But soon the only thing he could hear was the river, desiring him.
Palen clamped his hands over his ears and concentrated on something, anything, but the water drowned it. The room spun and stretched, turning into the cavern, and suddenly he hung from the ladder once more.
He screamed and snapped out of the nightmare, hearing boots strike the corridor outside the room. Someone was coming toward him. Palen got to his feet slowly, nearly experiencing vertigo. He dragged his sword free.
Quincy Robel walked in with a sword, spotting Palen and staying clear. "You! The traitor! What are you doing down here? Why aren't you in your cell?"
Palen didn't answer, but just then they heard voices from the staircase behind Palen -- shouts -- and the castellan's eyes turned to slits. "So. You've got friends coming up from the river. You know, I'd just found that passage under the walls. Only a few days before you were put in there. Guards!" Robel shouted behind him.
"There are no guards," Palen slurred. Robel's eyes widened. He stepped back.
Palen raised his sword, but it shook. He could still hear the river. Robel smiled.
"Look at you, a broken man." He laughed, and sent Palen's sword flying wide with a strike from his. Palen's grip couldn't hold the hilt and it dropped to the ground. Robel advanced, small black eyes gleaming with cruelty. Palen took a step back. The river got louder.
Just the two of us, and you have no sword.
Palen drew his dagger. Robel sneered. "What do you hope to do with that?" Palen almost didn't hear him; the river splashed so loudly in his ears.
Voices came from down the staircase, and Palen looked back, just for a second. Robel took the opportunity to turn and run, and Palen chased once he realized it.
He was on Robel in a second, crashing into him and stunning him. He fell to the ground and his sword went skidding away. Robel chased it on his hands and knees as Palen advanced. Robel got to it and gripped it in both hands. "Stay back. Stay back!" He yelled. Palen had the dagger in front of him. "I say stay back!" Robel swung his sword.
Palen blocked it with the dagger, kicked the man in the stomach, brought the hilt of the dagger across his face, spun the dagger around with one hand, and plunged it into Robel's heart. Robel's stunned face turned white as his lifeblood sprayed the wall, and he fell backwards with the knife still buried in his chest.
Palen bent to retrieve it. Just as he pulled the knife out and more blood fountained up, he heard a voice from down the hallway, the way Robel had run.
"Robel, what is that racket? I told you to-" King Gantalin the Second stopped dead when he saw the gruesome scene. He saw Robel, and his abandoned sword, and the blood-stained Palen holding his dagger. "How did you get out of your cell?" The King shouted.
"Why should I tell you?" Palen said. The King pulled his sword out.
"Because I am your King, and you are loyal to me!"
"You rule me no longer," Palen said, and stepped forward.
The King snarled. "I will when you are buried in the ground!" He charged with his sword up. Palen avoided the attack easily and kicked at the King, who jumped backwards. "You have no sword! I can beat you easily!"
"That's what Robel thought, too." The King hesitated, and then rushed again. Palen moved around the strike and pushed the King down from behind, knocking him to the floor. Palen turned and blocked his escape. The King noticed this, and yet he smiled.
"You can't get me. If I go down to the ladder, will you be able to follow me?" The King laughed. "It broke you. I broke you! Will you be able to see flowing water ever again?"
Palen grit his teeth. "And what about the rebels coming up from the cavern right now?" He shouted, and the King's face fell. "The ones led by your old castellan? I lied to you, but you're too stupid to see that! I was a loyal subject who only tried to protect your life, but your madness turned me into an enemy! And then I lied about the rebel's attack! There are no rebels in the city, they're all coming up right behind you!" Palen shouted, taking a step at the King. "You did this! You've doomed yourself even more than you already were!" The King got to his feet and looked behind him, suddenly hearing the steps of dozens of boots coming up the twisting staircase.
He realized the same thing Palen did, and charged, swinging his sword in front of him madly. Palen blocked two strikes and made the King stumble backwards. The steps from the staircase sounded closer. He ran again, trying to get past Palen to freedom, but Palen would not be avoided. He slammed the King backwards and stepped closer, closing the space that the King had. Palen expected another attack, but instead the King turned and ran toward the staircase, just as the first rebel, dripping wet, came up the stairs.
Before the soldier could react, the King thrust his sword into his stomach and pushed past him, taking wild swings at other rebels as he saw them. Palen raced to the first rebel and found him nearly dead already, the victim of a tearing cut. A few more rebels had been hurt, and they filed out of the staircase as Palen went down it, the sound of the river growing in his mind. He saw Soma, and she gaped at him as he went past. He ignored it.
He got to the bottom of the staircase, and could just see into the cavern beyond. There was nowhere for the King to go.
Palen trembled. He had only just been freed from the cavern that day. He did not want to go back in.
Soma approached from behind. "Palen-"
"I'm going in after him," Palen said. "I just need to... get ready." He could hear the river calling. "Take your soldiers and take the castle. There's nowhere for him to go in there. I know that for a fact."
"There is one way," Soma said, before turning and going up the steps.
Palen heard the unceasing roar of the river, and saw the crashing water on the teeth of its open mouth. He gripped his dagger until his fingers turned white, and then went in.
The King was at the end of the walkway. The ladder hung in the center of the room like a creature, swaying slightly. Palen heard the distant water, and his vision nearly filled with the river and the spires of rock. The torches around the massive room were lit. Ropes trailed down into the darkness.
"Can you hear it calling?" The King asked. "I know what the ladder does. The river aches for you. It wants to taste your body!" He laughed as Palen inched toward him, nearly unable to look at the space beyond the railings. "And you know you wanted to throw yourself down! They all do, or they get out before it takes control!"
Palen's eyes were nearly clenched shut. He couldn't move any closer to the edge. He was more than ten feet from the King and immobile.
"How did you survive so long?" The King wondered out loud. "Most give up within two days, or fall in." The King traced a falling body in front of him. "Splash. But you made four days. Four days swinging above your doom with no food and barely any water! How?!"
Palen stepped back and breathed deep. He focused on the King. The ladder swung directly behind him, a hundred feet away. "I only had to last four days," Palen said. "Because then I could warn you about the rebels in the city. The fake rebels. That would leave your castle unprotected... and easily taken."
The King snarled.
"As to how I kept from going crazy-" Palen smiled, and the flickering light from the torches played on his face. "How do you know I didn't?"
"You can't resist it! Nobody can!"
"I did. For just one reason." Palen pointed at the King with his dagger. "To see you pay."
He took a step, and the river went to the front of his mind, crashing and churning. It whispered thoughts to him, made him wish for peace.
"Don't come any closer!" The King looked behind him at the open walkway. Out of pure spite, Palen took another step. "No! G-guards! Guards!"
"No guards this time, Gantalin," Palen muttered. "The last time you yelled that, I came to save your miserable life. And now..." Palen took another step. He was ten feet away.
"Stop! I'll honor you if you stop! Make you a lord! A knight! Whatever you want! Come no closer!" The King shouted, shaking his sword. Palen took another step. The King whimpered.
"Do you feel anything?" Palen asked. "Any guilt for the horrors you put on me? On anyone?" The King didn't answer. "No, of course not. A man like you should not live. A man like you!" Palen took another step. The river pounded in his ears. "Shouldn't be allowed! To do the things you've done!" He took another step. The King swung his sword, and Palen blocked it without thought.
He deflected it and smashed it out of the King's hand, sending it spinning over the edge of the walkway, and down into the hungry river. Palen believed he could hear a splash, and the river roared. He grabbed the front of the King's shirt, and the King started to weep.
"Please! I just wanted what everyone did! A comfortable life! The rains will come again, and the food will grow! This won't last! If you kill me, my son will avenge me! You will be killed next, by whoever you anger! A King has to make enemies to serve the people!"
"Quiet," Palen said, and the King turned his head away.
"You swore an oath!" The King said under his breath. "Will you break that oath and become a traitor? A murderer? A man nobody will trust?"
Palen's face softened. His grip became weaker, but Gantalin still couldn't escape. "Yes. I did, didn't I," Palen said. "I swore to let no man harm you."
"Ha! Yes! Now, let me go, and kneel before your King!" Gantalin smiled with triumph. Palen shook his head.
"But the river... is not a man... is it?" Palen asked. Gantalin gaped.
Palen pushed the King until the heels of his boots drifted over the gap. "Don't!" He grabbed Palen's wrists. "I'll take you with me!"
Then he released the King. He spun his arms and grabbed the King's wrists, flinging them wide. He pushed on the King's chest with both hands.
King Gantalin the Second cried out as he grabbed for Palen, but already he was falling beyond his own reach. Palen watched him drop out of sight of the torches into the roaring river. He heard no splash. He went back to the staircase leading up, and rested against the wall. He still felt the river. It wanted him, now.
"You've had enough for one day," Palen said, and went up the stairs shaking.
Soma met him at the top. She told him that the rebel force from the south had cut off the escape of the soldiers, who nearly to a man dropped their weapons when surrounded. Word spread quickly that the King was dead, killed by a man he had broken. The castle was taken without much bloodshed.
Palen sat in a chair in a non-descript room. Some councilor's room. He sat with Soma, Bena, the old castellan, and the leader of the rebellion. He was a young man compared to the castellan, with stark black hair and bright blue eyes. He had greeted Palen with a handshake and a congratulations. Palen accepted it mutely and took a seat.
"The King's wife and son are to be in protective custody. Nobody is to hurt them for the King's crimes," the rebel leader, whose name was Dherra Amonid, said. "The Queen was in tears when we found her, and, apparently, grateful to be free of her husband. Of course there is reason to believe she's trying to fool us. Her son didn't know what was happening, but he will. We have to hope that he does not see us as his enemies when he gets older."
"Don't let him get older," Bena said. When the young man learned that Palen had killed the King, a joyless laugh escaped him. His left arm was bound in a sling from the injury Palen had given him. "Kill him, and be done with it. Nobody will think you ill."
"I will," Amonid said. "If we kill him, we're no better than Gantalin." He looked around the room. "Succession isn't an issue right now but it will be soon. Who will rule?"
"The rebels will want you, Dherra," the old castellan said. He was a man in his fifties, named Ren Vonna. "It's yours if you want it."
"I cannot say that I do, much. But I will take it if no one else will. And you, Ren? Did you ever wish to rule?"
Ren shifted. "Not after seeing Gantalin's atrocities."
"Quite." Amonid looked at the four people in front of him. "We may not murder citizens in the streets, but if the crops don't improve, we may not have enough time to establish a ruler."
"The rains will come again, and the food will grow. This won't last," Palen said. The words chilled him, but of course no one else in the room knew who had said them first. "But whatever you do, I want no part of it."
"What do you mean?" Vonna asked. "You're practically a hero!"
"I need to get out of the castle," Palen said. The others knew; they knew he was broken. "I don't care if you don't understand. Maybe I'll come back or maybe I won't. You may never hear from me again."
"I understand. Gantalin had many crimes. You'll be welcome here if you decide to return," Amonid said. Palen nodded, and rose. Bena and Soma both rose with him.
"You owe me a duel," Bena said outside the room. "A fair one this time."
Palen eyed him. He wasn't much older than himself. "I do. Maybe if I return."
"No. No if. You're going to come back eventually," Bena said. Palen paused, and then turned to leave.
"I'm going to come with you," Soma said. Palen shook his head.
"I need to be alone."
"Shit you do. My family's been avenged, and Utena, and I'm no ruler. You don't have to like it, but I'm going with you."
Palen looked from her to Bena, two people without sway. "Why?"
"Because I know how it feels. I know what it's like to be tormented, and to have hate. Do you feel better now? Now that Gantalin's dead?"
Palen turned away. "I'm leaving."
"Utena was there for me. She kept me from doing something stupid. You wanted the King dead before. He's dead. But you still feel something." Palen waited for her to continue with his back turned. "I know what you feel. I want to help."
He wanted to just walk out, and leave them all, so he could have peace in his life. But he knew that it would leave him in even more pieces. "Ask Amonid if we can have some horses, and meet me in the stables in an hour."
"Where are we going?" Soma asked him. She was dressed in tan pants and skirt, chain mail and tabard. She had a sword and a shield and packs of supplies on her horse. Palen had his weapons -- sword and dagger -- and supplies as well, but had turned down the gifts of jewels or gold. He said to give them to people who could help the kingdom.
They sat on their horses outside the city, looking at the dark sky where the sun had been. Night came. Palen got his horse trotting wordlessly, and Soma followed him. He was a hero, but nearly no one knew it.
He heard the river distantly as he rode. He knew he would always hear it.