Time stood still within the throne room of the Palace Aurel. For a moment the ring of clashing metal ceased. The few remaining members of the King's Guard watched, transfixed in horror, as the body of their monarch crumpled onto white marble floor with a blade of glittering steel through his chest.
Sir Charles of Martyr's Peak, Captain of the King's Guard, stood stock still on the dais. His sword hung uselessly from his fingertips as his brain slowly processed what had just happened.
The King —
There was no time to think about it. The battle resumed as quickly as it had halted. Instinctively, the Captain turned and parried a blow that had been aimed at his head. His assailant sneered at him and moved instantly into a sideways sweep, determined to cut him in half. Their blades met with a loud, ringing clang as Charles blocked again and then leapt back.
His opponent laughed and began to circle him, a vulture eying his prey. "Give it up, Captain. It is our victory. You and your men should accept your fate."
Adrenaline fuelled by fury filled Charles's veins; he had failed in his duty to protect the King, but it wasn't over yet. Allies smuggled in by the Rogue had managed to secure the Queen and the heir when the melee had broken out; they had disappeared down one of the many servants' passages that ran through the palace. As much as he trusted the abilities of the Rogue and his men, it was Charles's duty to ensure the safety of the Queen and her child, and he would see it through if it was the last thing he did.
His eyes flicked across the battlefield. Only a handful of his men remained, their ceremonial red and gold armour bright in the sea of black and navy blue. He glanced back at his opponent and swiftly dodged an incoming lunge.
At this rate we will all fall here, the Captain thought grimly. We must get out of the audience chamber.
Another attack was coming, but this time he didn't step out of the way. He heard the whistle of the blade as he ducked low and it sliced through the air above his head. He lunged, the blade slicing through the gap between his opponent's mail and helm. The enemy fell to his knees, eyes wide in shock as his blade clattered to the floor, Charles's sword piercing straight through this throat.
I will see this through.
Charles yanked his blade clean from the fallen body and thrust it into the air. "Men of the King's Guard," he roared. "Fall back!"
Hidden in the shadows of the servants' passageway, the Rogue and his men could hear naught but screams and the clash of steel on steel. The metallic scent of blood pervaded the air, clogging his mouth and nose. Stepping through the concealed door, he found himself in the centre of pandemonium. Soldiers clad in Port Valour black and blue bore down on servants and Royal Guardsmen alike, blades arcing mercilessly through the air to rend armour and tear through flesh.
The Rogue grimaced at the bodies strewn haphazardly across the floor of the Palace entrance hall as they seeped pools of crimson blood onto the white marble surface. Edward, you fool. I warned you of this. He clenched his jaw and hoped to the four gods that the people he'd hidden amongst the servants had done the job he'd assigned them. He had thought the King of Aurelia sharp enough to act on the information the men of the Thieves' Guild had gathered. A fatal mistake.
He muttered an oath over his misplaced trust and signalled for his men to come out of hiding. "Round up the women and children," he ordered. "Get 'em into the servants' passages an' outta here."
They nodded and disappeared into the fray, daggers and short swords finding their way into the flesh of each enemy they passed as they weaved through the mob to answer the innocents' cries for help.
The Rogue watched them go and slipped back into the shadows of the servants' stairwell. His men would take care of servants trapped in the fray, but the servants were not the only people in danger. The man behind this insurgence was shrewd; it was unlikely that he would let the lords and ladies loyal to the Crown survive this attack. He raced to the quarters he knew the King reserved for the most loyal of the nobility, checking them one by one only to find the bloody corpses of the Crown's most loyal followers and their guardsmen. The tiny spark of hope he'd held in his mind dimmed with each door he opened.
Lord Garrett of the Southern Fens… the Baron of Eastwind and his wife… the Countess of Hazel… The number of dead kept rising.
He threw open the last set of mahogany doors and froze. Empty?
His brow furrowed. It wasn't possible. The Duke of Lake Vale – whose chambers he now trespassed – was the closest to the throne. If the Aurels were killed, Regan was next in line. He would be at the very top of the insurgents' execution list.
The Rogue scanned the room for signs of a bloody struggle – or better yet, a sign of life. His eye caught the upturned corner of a rug, and beyond that a closet. He yanked the door open. The maid hidden inside squeaked and flourished a small butterfly knife, her free hand hugging a young boy close to her chest. Then her eyes widened in recognition. "You're the—"
The Rogue shook his head and cut her off. "Where're Regan and Ashe?"
"I don't know. We heard the commotion outside and Their Graces told me to hide..." She glanced down at the child quivering in her lap. "So I hid. I – I think the soldiers took them." Her eyes met with the Rogue's. "What's going to happen them? What's going on?"
The only response she got was another absent-minded shake of the head. The Rogue stared aimlessly into the closet, lost in thought as he turned over the possible outcomes of the insurgence in his mind. Regan and his wife had been taken away – most likely to be executed – and if Edward, Elaine and their son were killed, then…
His eyes flicked to the child huddled with the maid in the closet.
"You're both unharmed?"
The woman nodded.
"Put that knife away an' follow me. I'll make sure the two o' you get out of here safely."
Allan Smythson was the first to notice that something was amiss with the Queen. She lagged behind the bulk of the group, her breathing a staccato of short ragged gasps. Concerned, he drew even with her and saw that her face had turned ashen. He caught her by the elbow as her footsteps faltered and she dropped to her knees.
"Missus Elaine – er... Your Majesty?"
The young thief clucked his tongue impatiently as the Queen mumbled something under her breath. "You'll need t' speak up, missus," said Allan brusquely, crouching down to get a better look at her condition.
She responded with another unintelligible mutter and placed a trembling, white hand on his forearm. Allan's heart leapt into his throat as the Queen suddenly toppled over, her pale hand sliding to the floor leaving a dark-red stain on his sleeve.
"Merde," he swore in Caselen and prayed quietly, "Don't be dead. Please, don't be dead..."
He turned the unconscious woman onto her side and found the source of the blood. Redness gushed from what appeared to be a small laceration in her abdomen. It stained the base of her bodice and seeped into her skirts.
Allan stared at growing puddle, horrified by the sheer magnitude of the bleed. How in the Trickster's name had he managed to miss such an injury?
The wound appeared to be small, but judging from the amount of blood it had pierced deep. Hurriedly, he drew his dagger from his belt and began to cut strips from the hem of the Queen's gown to fashion rough bandages.
Up ahead Belladonna, Mistress of the Thieves' Guild, sensed something was wrong and turned in time to see the Queen's silhouette fall. The child in her arms let out a whimper at sudden movement. Wordlessly, she shoved the sleeping Prince into the arms of one of her men and raced back to see what had happened.
The young rogue was doing his best to stem the blood flow but no matter how much pressure he applied to the wound it continued to weep. He looked over his shoulder and met her gaze, hopelessness in his eyes. "It won't stop," he whispered furiously, his voice cracking slightly. "What do we do? The Rogue'll have my ears if she dies."
Mistress Belladonna bit her lower lip. They couldn't stay where they were. The insurgents would eventually overwhelm the King's Guard and work their way into the underground labyrinth of tunnels they were using to evacuate the palace. Her mind raced, searching for the best course of action. Finally she gripped Allan's shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze.
The look he gave her indicated that he thought her mad. "What do you mean? We can't just—"
"Leave her," repeated Belladonna stonily and tightened her grip. "Look at her; she's practically dead. She'll only slow us down."
"But she's the Qu—" Allan gasped and stopped short as Belladonna's open hand smacked him in the jaw.
"Your allegiance lies with the Thieves' Guild, not the throne of Aurelia," she hissed as she dragged the thief to his feet, "Our duty is first and foremost to the Rogue. We were told to the save the Royal Line; it matters not whether it be Prince or Queen. The insurgents are coming and we do not have the time to tend to her."
"Remember, Allan. You have sworn a duty to the Rogue. Will you go back on your word?"
Allan swallowed. "No, Mistress Belladonna."
"Good." The man stumbled and fell onto his backside as she released him. "Now let's get out of here."
Allan watched her stalk over to the other men and snatch the Prince back, then he turned his gaze back to the limp form of the Queen. His eye caught a gold locket at her throat and the jewel-encrusted rings on her fingers. He glanced nervously over his shoulder to check that Belladonna was not watching him and hastily pocketed the items.
"Forgive me," he whispered to the dying Queen and disappeared into the darkness.