SECRETS OF THE COURT
February 15th - Wessport
The men welled in like water through a small crack in the hull of a ship. The king's guard held their swords high and served as the first shield against the invaders. The hole in the door was small enough so that only one man could come in at a time. It served to their advantage. While three men had managed to enter, they soon regretted their decision to head in first. One was met with an arrow in the eye, falling dead to the ground instantly. The other was soon cut down by a guard, screaming in pain as the sword sliced through him, ripping up his tender flesh. The wounded was barely a man yet—the boy clutched his abdomen as his lifeblood spilled out of him, staining the elegant Persian carpet in the room.
While the king's guard kept the breach in check, the rest of them decided that it was better to leave with the king.
"Your Majesty, there is a safe passage down to the chapel. From there we can get you safely out of the palace until this whole situation calms down," Fawkes urged with drawn sword.
Jasper stared at his general, insulted as he spoke. "I will not flee like a coward with traitors on my doorstep. I will stay. You may, however, escort my wife and her ladies-in-waiting," he roared, reaching for his own sword, ready to strike.
No one dared question the king, and they all took on Braun's men as they welled in. Callahan was tasked with escorting Queen Tabitha and her ladies down the passage followed by some servants and some of Edward's footmen. The stable-master was fighting; as courageous as ever. He swung his hammer left and right, screaming as adrenaline rushed through his system. Fawkes laughed merrily as he easily took down one man after another. The eyes of Ben and the proud general met, and they grinned at each other. It was clear to him that Fawkes was enjoying being in battle once more.
It was true, the aging general felt like a young man once more when the thrill of the fight awoke every living cell in his body. Ben, however, was scared senseless. They were at one point surrounded by more than five men.
Braun's men soon changed tactics, they understood that it was better to fight fewer of the king's men at a time. They had already taken down some of the king's guard and lords that way.
"It seems a dire situation, my friend," Fawkes smiled as he readied his sword when two men attacked him at the same time. He instantly killed one with the mere thrust of the weapon. He landed a hard punch right in between the other man's legs.
"Aye," came the strangled reply from Ben who swung his hammer through the air, making a whooshing sound. It imbedded itself in the head of his attacker, sending parts of his cracked scull and brains everywhere as he fell to the ground. Braun's men took a step back, rather not facing the fearsome man.
"Wonderful! How are you faring otherwise?" Fawkes asked in casual conversation as he took down yet another man. He released a hearty chuckle and his attackers thought he must surely be mad to be in such a jolly mood during such a perilous situation.
"I'm scared shitless, m'lord," came the honest reply as Ben fended off yet another attacker. It evoked a roaring laugh in Fawkes as heads turned to see what might cause such a reaction at such a time.
"Then know that if you fall, you will fall with honor," he replied.
Edward could not hide an amused grin as he saw the strange duo take on most of the men that charged into the fray. The corpses and wounded men were soon piling up, and it made fighting harder. Jasper was stubborn, and he would not see reason. Edward was sure that even more were on the other side of the door. They were still trying to take down the rest of the door. Most who had started removing the furniture that blocked it had been struck down by the bowmen or knife-wielders. It would work for now—until the supply of knives and bows ended.
"Sire, although I understand your need to prove yourself, I would still advise we retreat for now. We cannot keep this up for long," Edward growled as he easily took down two more men, the blood splattered across his mask. Ruby-red droplets ran down the leather face and neck. It stained his black doublet and white shirt. Edward was able to usher them aside so that he and the king might decide on the best course of action.
"If we lose this fight, Cullen, it will mean that I will have to leave Wessport. Conspirators like Braun and Athar will take over the capital and place someone else—or God forbid—themselves, on the throne. It will mean a bloody and tedious civil war. The people will suffer for it and I could not bear that."
The young monarch seemed to have aged at least two decades overnight. Edward stared into the endless depths of the king's eyes and understood completely what he implied. Better they die here—only a few—than endless armies of soldiers, innocent bystanders, and villagers that would be in the middle of the fight. Angloa had just recovered from one war, she could not suffer another one.
They had to accept that they might be overtaken by Braun and his followers. They had to accept that they had to sacrifice themselves.
"You will be the last heir of your line," Edward pointed out. It was something Jasper had already thought much about; not just during that moment. He knew such a moment might soon befall them either way. His wife was barren, unable to bear any children. Despite trying, Jasper had not managed to persuade the pope for an annulment of their matrimony, for it had indeed been consummated Also, Tabitha and he were not related: both reasons for an annulment. He was not allowed to divorce, it was against the Catholic Church to do so.
"I know," came the terse reply. It brought great sorrow to Jasper. It was something that hurt him deep inside, to think that everything his ancestors had fought for would end with him. He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder as it squeezed his.
"Only a great man would sacrifice so much for his people, Your Majesty," Edward said truthfully. There was a hint of admiration in his voice. "The rest of us can only aspire to do as much."
"Careful, Cullen. I'm not dead yet," Jasper teased as he raised his sword. A brief glance was exchanged between the two. It was a moment where words were not needed. Edward had found new respect for Jasper. It seemed the king had finally redeemed himself.
Jasper charged again against the men in the room, finding new strength he never knew he had. It was as if their conversation had somehow kindled new will in him. Jasper would not retreat, but he would not hand over his crown as willingly either.
Edward followed him suit, for he would do all in his might to keep his king alive. But there was something more that pushed him to fight. He fought to see Isabella again. They had parted ways in a caring manner and he knew that there was hope for them in the future.
They heard the door weighed heavy as it cracked under the pressure the men on the other side were putting on it. With another loud boom, it gave way yet again. The opening was bigger, allowing more men to spill in. Edward and the others stared in defeat and felt their limbs tired at the oncoming wall of screaming fighters. Yet, they all raised their swords, ready to take them down.
Many on the king's side had fallen—at least half. They were thirty against hundreds who tried to squeeze into the parlor. In the midst of the traitors, they saw Braun. He wielded a thinner longsword and a knife, fixated on only one man: Edward.
Edward rapidly pushed away those he was fighting against as Jacob took care of those. Braun wanted a one-on-one fight with the masked count. Edward plied a sword away from one of the fallen, so he would be more equally matched with Braun.
Their weapons clashed instantly, and the force sent them both flying back. For each moment that passed as they fought, they realized that they were both equal in force. Braun was an excellent fighter with excellent form and he caught Edward off guard many times. As Edward felt the sweat pearl down his forehead, he grew wary. There was no option of defeat here and he continued blocking the attacks Braun sent flying his way.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the king's guard form a protective circle around Jasper. More and more men poured in, trying to capture the king.
"It is so surreal, isn't it? The sense you get before you lose," came Braun's voice as he clashed blades with Edward. They both locked swords, staring the other down. Edward ignored his words as he breathed heavily. He would not beg—like he was sure Braun wanted.
"I must confess, I never once suspected you. You played your cards well, Lord Braun."
"I play this game better than you will ever comprehend, Cullen," Braun said, leaving out Edward's title. The masked man felt his arms shiver as his muscles were about ready to give out after the sustained fight. He had never stopped to rest since the duel of that morning.
"If you kill the king, the next person you put on the throne will be seen as a usurper," Edward retorted. The words sparked a reaction in the other.
"Do you really think the people will accept Jasper after they find out what his father did?" Braun mocked. "We have enough proof to show King Philip was poisoned by his brother the last few weeks of his life until he died from it."
Edward squared his jawline as he knew what Braun spoke was the truth. He did not try to appeal to the other's humanity. Braun couldn't care less if a civil war started. He couldn't care less for the people; for the kingdom. He only cared for himself and the riches and powers this coup would bring him.
"So you do this out of a sense of duty to the true king then, and his true heir?" Edward asked in disbelief. He struggled to utter the words as he fought on, blocking more than he attacked now. This was not at all like when he fought against Alistair. This time he was not sure he would win. Braun only laughed.
"If that is what you believe then let it be so. But in truth, I wanted to lead this attack because I knew deep down that Alistair—the fool—would fail, as he does in everything else," Braun spoke with passionate conviction.
"You see, Cullen, while Alistair expressed his contempt and distaste for you openly I kept such feelings to myself. My hatred for you grows much deeper than you can ever begin to understand. My disdain for you knows no boundaries. I will so love when I see your blood be yet another stain on this carpet. I will rejoice when I see your cold lifeless eyes stare back at mine as I unmask you. How I will delight in chopping off that proud head of yours and parade it through the streets, alongside the king. How I will laugh when the people you once protected scorn at your unmasked face—the public will be ready to believe any ill against you, just because of how foul you look."
Edward had never seen such deep hatred in anyone. The look in Braun's eyes made him turn cold as he understood how much the man truly loathed him. The cruel grin grew as he saw Edward tense. Braun knocked the sword out of his hands in a complicated maneuver. He dug his thin knife into Edward's left shoulder. But the masked man firmly bit back a scream, not willing to give Braun the satisfaction of hearing his pain. This only served to aggravate Braun further as he twisted the knife around in the wound, enjoying every second of the agony that flashed across the green eyes. Edward managed to push Braun away, and he dug out the small knife, the blood spilling from the wound. He had no idea where this hatred came from.
"I did not know that my mere presence at court could evoke such hatred, Braun," Edward said through gritted teeth as he kept the pain down. But the truth was that his vision started failing him as his head grew light. He had to rest against the wall behind him for support and he sighed. He was a man of his word, always having kept what he promised. Yet, it seemed that this would be the one time he would break his word. It hurt him especially because he would be breaking his word against Isabella.
He felt the steel tip of the sword push against his throat and he waited for the slash of the sword.
"Alistair voiced what many of us feel. A peasant doesn't belong at court, and a deformed one even less. You defile everything we stand for and you disgust me. But that is not the main reason for my hatred," Braun spat as anger rose in his otherwise cold and calculating eyes. It seemed Braun had some accounts to settle before he slashed Edward's throat open.
Around them the fight waged on, men on both sides falling. The circle of the king's guards around Jasper grew smaller and smaller as they fell, one by one. At one point, Edward's eyes met Jasper, and they both knew it to be over. They both accepted their fates as they silently nodded. No words were needed. While Jasper made peace with his situation—accepting where his life was leading him—Edward regretted his. He regretted not being able to spend every last of his breath by Isabella. Her face suddenly flashed before his half closed eyes as he was struck by the overwhelming fatigue and loss of blood. Her smile and eyes enthralled him and all he wanted was to close his eyes. He regretted that he had failed her and his king.
"You took the one thing I cared about from me," Braun was suddenly by Edward's ear, whispering into it. His hiss managed to tear the masked man from his sleepiness and make him alert again. His mind was slower.
"Cadherra?" Edward asked, not wanting to play guessing game. Braun would have laughed if it was not so evident. He pushed his thumb into Edward's wound and the other man almost screamed, but he bit his lip instead and grunted.
"It should have been mine!" Braun spat.
In the distance, Edward heard a commotion and shouts sound. He thought it was his mind playing tricks on him, perhaps more of Braun's men had joined the battle. The lord was too enthralled by his emotions to take note of the surrounding scene.
"Cadherra should never have been given to a filthy peasant like you!" he growled with pure detest in his eyes. The sword was pressed hard against his throat, making it difficult to speak.
"Cadherra belonged to the Swan family long before it belonged to you!" Edward started suspecting everything was not as it seemed. A theory—a horrible presumption—started taking root in his mind. He began to comprehend just to what lengths Braun had gone to claim the land as his own.
"Do not tell me you orchestrated Charles Swan's downfall?" Braun looked at Edward with even more contempt if that were possible.
"I did no such thing. Charles Vega was a traitor," the lord sneered. But there was something amiss in his face, something that sent Edward's stomach turning and revolting. He did not believe Braun.
"You must have a motive for leading this revolt," Edward said as sweat trickled down under the mask. He was about to have his throat cut open, yet, if he could make Braun give a spoken confession—surely to be heard by someone nearby—it would be enough.
Braun inched closer, pressing harder against the wound as his face twisted into a frown.
"Always the detective, eh Cullen?" he whispered in Edward's ears. The words rose a fury within Edward as he pushed against the sword and gritted his teeth.
"You planted evidence showing him to be a traitor, didn't you. And for what!? For a mere piece of land? To what lengths does your greed lead you?" Edward asked in disgust and disbelief. He abhorred the lengths the petty man before him had gone to obtain the lands he desired.
"I will admit to nothing, not even now. But I hope you understand the pleasure I take in being the one to kill you."
Edward did not fear death. When most men sought to avoid it at any cost, he accepted it as part of life. He knew that sooner or later, his time would come. There had been many times when death had breathed down his neck, many times where he had nearly lost his life. He had not been afraid then—perhaps when he was a child, and the thought of dying was too overwhelming for him to understand.
Yet, now, he could not accept that his life would end. He was afraid. Afraid that he would not get to see Isabella again. Afraid that he would not feel her body against his, her lips on his own, hear her sigh as he held her.
So Edward fought as hard as his weak body allowed him. He pushed against Braun despite his wounded shoulder, despite the loss of blood. For he very much wished to live. He had something to live for now, a goal in life.
But his feeble attempts only made Braun laugh. The other delighted in seeing Edward fighting for his life, still holding some hope that he would make it out of that palace alive. Indeed, Braun enjoyed it enough to let his guard down.
The shouts they had heard before sounded stronger now, much stronger. One of Braun's men went to the window and was horrified by what he saw.
"M'lord Braun!" he shouted in the commotion. Two of the king's guard were left by Jasper's side. Half of those who had come with Jacob, Fawkes, and Edward were still alive, but deathly fatigued from the fight. Their weapons were up as they were on a standoff against Braun's men while he took care of Edward. The lord seemed irritated by the interruption of his victory.
"What!" he shouted as he turned from Edward. Braun sent daggers to the man who had dared to interrupt that pure moment of joy when he would take the masked man's life at last. He turned to see a very pale man, twitching as if eager to run away.
"A large army is currently storming the palace. There must be hundreds of them!" the man exclaimed as he pointed to the window. The king's men held their breath—could it be their people?
Braun released Edward who fell to the floor, clutching his wounded shoulder, fighting against the fatigue and the pain. The other rushed to the window and looked out, his heart speeding up as he saw a whole regiment of armored soldiers running into the palace. They were not his men.
He looked around the room; thoughts and plans of an immediate escape were flashing across his eyes as he realized he was doomed. He rushed toward Edward but Fawkes and Ben were there, weapons in hand. Soon Jacob and even the king with his guards came to shield the wounded count from Braun.
"It seems it is over," smirked Fawkes, eager to see the bastard in front of him pay. Braun saw Edward smirking knowingly at him as well. It was as if he knew the soldiers would come. Edward had been stalling Braun for time most likely. The realization made the lord furious. He pointed his sword toward Edward.
"I will make you pay for this—for everything—Cullen. My loss today is your fault and you will feel the consequences!" he growled. The urge to kill Edward only grew stronger.
The hatred against Edward Cullen was something Braun had denied and suppressed for very long and now it bubbled until erupting like an angry volcano. Fawkes had a mind to take Braun down then and there. But before the general could reach him, the traitor stormed off.
"Retreat!" Braun yelled and his men swiftly followed him. It seemed like he would attempt an escape. The traitorous men started running away blindly, not knowing where they would meet the newly arrived soldiers.
"Remember my words, Cullen!" Braun said before he left the parlor as well. The group watched him leave with his men in utter disbelief. They could not believe their luck. Edward tried to get up—to follow the traitor and his men—but he found he still had little strength.
"Go after him," the king ordered his guards and some lords who were unhurt from the battle. He saw Edward resting exhausted against the wall and grew worried when he noticed the wound and the blood.
"I have some spirits in my personal bedchamber that will help to awaken Lord Cullen. Robert, go get them." Jasper turned to his chamberlain who did not idle and did as his king bade.
"Whose army has come to aid us in our hour of need?" asked a baffled Fawkes as he stared out the window. He saw an impressive militia of horsemen, pikemen, and several officers that stood waiting for their turn to lead their group of soldiers into battle. But Fawkes could not single out a leader.
"Probably Carlisle Chaeld," came the voice of Edward as he downed another gulp of strong liquor. They all turned to him while Robert bandaged his wound. The bleeding had finally ceased.
"Carlisle?" asked Jasper. "I thought you said he was left back in Cadherra."
"Aye." Edward turned to look the king directly in the eyes as he spoke in a serious tone. "Many months have led up to this point and I have been tracking these traitors, never truly knowing their identity. There is a lot we should speak of, Your Majesty. A lot of information I have will shed some light on this situation. Lord Athar will help with that as well."
"Lord Athar?" asked the chamberlain who could not help himself. Jasper's lips thinned at the mention of the name.
"He is innocent, Your Majesty. A trial with real witnesses and real evidence will prove as much," Edward answered tiredly.
"Innocent," Jasper said, forcing each syllable out of his mouth. Guilt washed over the monarch. He had doubted in Athar when he should have trusted in him blindly.
"The evidence Cardinal Thorpe provided was false; unknowingly or knowingly I do not know. You have seen yourself who the mastermind behind this whole rebellion was. Alistair himself confirmed it to me while I fought him this morning," Edward continued explaining. He was reminded of Lord Durun, who had stayed back. Edward sent the man a silent prayer, hoping he had won the fight.
"I must speak with Lord Athar immediately." Jasper got a determined expression on his face. "There are many wrongs to be righted here."
They could soon hear the shouts of battle and steel clashing against steel die down. It seemed the fight was over as the last of the traitors no doubt had been taken care of. Edward forced himself to stand—against his better judgment—pushing aside nausea and fatigue that tore at his body.
"Before we go down, someone needs to go into the passageway. We left a wounded Lord Peter with Timothy before coming here. He should see a physician before anyone else does," said Fawkes, pointing at the entrance they had come through. The chamberlain quickly went there, escorted by a few other lords who would show him the way.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group exited the king's royal chambers, leaving the place behind to discover just who their saviors were. Edward felt his step falter every so often. But both Jacob and Simon were by his side, supporting their tired friend as they quickly descended to the lower levels of the palace.
With each step, however, all Edward felt was relief. There was no doubt in his mind that Braun's men had been vanquished. He could not believe that they had come out victorious. A small smile managed to slip on his face.
"What has got you so happy?" asked Simon. "Braun could have killed you."
"But he didn't," answered Edward enigmatically. He didn't even seem to care that he had been bested by another. He didn't care that he wasn't the best swordsman in Angloa. The only thing he cared about was that he would be able to keep his promise to Isabella.
He was alive.
Suddenly a figure ran toward them. It was Lady Victoria, looking disheveled in nothing but her nightgown and a frock she had thrown over it. Her long, red locks were a mess, and she held an expression of fear and confusion. In her hand, she held a heavy candleholder.
"Cousin, what on earth is transpiring here?" she exclaimed as she saw Jasper and his men. Jasper opened his arm to embrace Victoria.
"Oh sweet cousin, thank God nothing happened to you," Jasper murmured against her head.
"I heard the most horrible sounds outside my chambers and when I walked out of them I saw bodies everywhere and an army at our gates. Are we being besieged?" she asked, trying to control the amount of fear that shone in her eyes.
"We were besieged, Your Highness. But we suspect the traitors have all fallen," explained Fawkes. Jasper let go of his cousin and held her at arm's length to make sure she was not hurt. Victoria's gaze wandered to Edward, and a frown touched her delicate features as she realized he was injured.
"We will go and meet the men outside. If they prove to be against us, it is best you stay here, Your Highness," said Edward, not wanting a doting princess by his side. It was clear in her expression that she was worried about his well-being. It seemed Edward was growing more and more in the princess' favor.
She turned to her cousin, to try to argue. But any attempt to speak against him was futile. Two men stayed with her as they took her back to her chambers where she would be safe for the moment.
They then continued to sneak through the corridors, passing bloodied bodies, lying still on the ground. They decided that Jasper should stay back—just in case—as they neared the entrance from the courtyard.
Edward, Jacob, Simon, Fawkes and a handful of others walked out into the sunshine, their jaws dropping at the sight before them.
There had been a massacre that had washed the light stone red with the blood of many. Bodies from both sides lay dead, basking in the rays of a sun they would never feel again on their skin.
Beyond that, more platoons stood, ready to engage in battle. As the group of men walked out from the palace, the soldiers bared their weapons, ready for another fight. Their superiors sat mounted and from the sea of soldiers emerged more riders. Amongst them, came Carlisle with a wide grin on his face, telling the men at the front to stand down.
"My Lords!" he exclaimed, waiving enthusiastically as he got down from the horse and walked up to them, followed by other men.
Carlisle took one look at Edward and rose an eyebrow. "You look horrible," he said. Edward could not help but smile. Those were the very words he had said to Carlisle all those months ago when they had been at Castell.
Behind him came other men; lords that Edward had never met before. They seemed to be men that did not frequent the court.
"Father?" said an astonished Jacob as he laid eyes on a man. Billard Billy Black, Viscount of Bannria stepped up with a stern expression in his steely eyes.
"It seems court has not grown boring in my absence," he muttered, looking displeased at his son. Jacob looked away from his father and at the ground as he squared his jaw.
"Why are you always the one stealing all the fun, Anthony?" said another man as he stepped up to hug a bewildered Fawkes.
"Because you always stayed locked in your castle, Edgar," responded Fawkes as he went to hug the other man. "But I am glad you came, my friend" he smiled.
Jasper now came up to them after he was made sure that these men were his. The king looked pleased as he saw the army before him. The lords who had come with Carlisle were all older—in their winter years. The king turned to Carlisle Chaeld.
"It seems it is you I have to thank, for having reacted so quickly from the summons of Lord Cullen," the king said, expressing his gratitude. Edgar Raleigh patted Carlisle hard on the shoulder.
"Indeed, Your Majesty. He came out of nowhere, with this crazy story that the royal palace and yourself were in grave danger. It was all most of us needed, really," he smiled, baring his teeth. Edgar Raleigh was a southern lord who scarcely never got involved with matters of politics or the crown. He kept to the south and rarely ventured away from there. How Carlisle had gotten him to join was a mystery. He was slightly younger than Fawkes, but just as handsome and devilish, fewer streaks of white graced his hair.
"Where are you keeping Braun? I wish to speak with him immediately," said Jasper as his countenance turned darker. Most of the others got a subdued look on their face.
"The snake managed to slip through our fingers while his men fought against ours. He fled toward the entrance of the city. But worry not, Your Majesty, we sent out our best men after him. He should be captured before the day is over," Billy said.
"A great many things need to be cleared. This plot runs deep as I understand it. We need to sort through many things and it will take time. I want the bodies taken care of before they start rotting. I also want Athar brought to me and hear from his own lips the part he played in all of this," Jasper said as he started to take charge and controlling the situation.
"I will have the soldiers guard the palace and patrol the streets as a precaution," Billy continued.
"Your Majesty," said Edward as the group dispersed and the king started walking back to the palace.
"Ah, yes, Cullen. I owe you a great deal of gratitude. Know that you shall be rewarded as you see fit!" Jasper seemed to be restored back to his former self. The depression of Athar's treason, the stress of the plot had all but gone away after the battle. Edward shook his head as he moved away from Jacob and Simon who still stood by his side, supporting him.
"All I want is to return to my fiancée and take the first ship to Cadherra," he said bluntly. Jasper frowned at this.
"It is my wish that you stay here, in Wessport, Lord Cullen. I feel you could do much good here."
"Alas, I am determined," answered Edward. Jasper's lips then turned into a thin line.
"If that is your wish. I shall have you escorted back to your townhouse nonetheless, for your own protection," Jasper said after a moment's pause. Edward knew well what it meant. The soldiers that would escort them would also be there to make sure that he and Isabella did not run to get the first ship they could find. It was like when he had returned to Wessport from the war. The king made sure that he stayed in the capital.
"I will go with you," said Jacob.
Simon Rajac wanted to seek up his wife, to make sure that she was safe.
"As will I," came the baritone voice of Carlisle. "I feel I need a change of company, after having spent so many days next to Edgar Raleigh. Lord, that man never ceases to speak," grinned Carlisle. The words brought a smile to Edward's lips.
"But Jacob, are you sure you do not wish to spend time with your father?"
"Yes," came the terse reply. "My father can do well without my company," he said. Edward did not brush the subject, understanding that theirs was a complicated relationship.
"Then have someone fetch us some horses and we shall be off," he said. Carlisle had a soldier get them some horses, and they rode toward the townhouse. The whole road, all Edward could think of was her lips, her smile, and her delicate voice. They had been through a great ordeal, but it seemed that peace was finally upon them.
There was still the matter of the anonymous princess—the daughter of Philip Fell and Leonore Valois. But she had no more lords that would follow her. They had taken them all down.
All those thoughts were brushed aside, together with the pain and fatigue in his body. The horses cantered down the desolate streets of Wessport, Edward enjoyed the warmth of the sun on the little skin he showed.
He would marry Isabella now because she wanted to. Never in a million years did he think returning for Angloa would end so well for him.
They arrived shortly at the townhouse. Its gates and doors still stood open, just like they had left them. Edward got down from the brown mare he had borrowed, gritting his teeth as he bit back the pain. Any time now he half expected Isabella to come running out at the sound of hooves to greet them.
But she never came. He suspected she had taken to her room while awaiting him. He entered the hallway where they had been hours before. The sun had started to lower on the sky now as it had reached past noon.
"Hello?" he said in loud words as he walked in, finding the house to be eerily quiet.
Jacob and Carlisle walked in after him, growing tense at the stillness of the house. It was then that they noticed the blood on the cold floor—splotches of it here and there. They noticed footprints in it as well.
Edward then saw Mrs. Rochester lying by the foot of the stairway, unmoving. Deep within his being he already knew something was very wrong. Yet, he refused to believe it. The three men rushed to her side and turned her to face them. She was still warm, indicating that she had been killed within the hour. Her empty eyes stared lifelessly back at them and Edward rose.
He rushed up the stairways as quickly as he could, ignoring the pain and nausea that built within him. He rushed through every room, finding it all empty. Carlisle was soon behind him.
"Edward," came the quiet voice.
"Have someone search the surroundings of the house, Carlisle." Carlisle had never before seen Edward in such a way. He had always been stoic, calm under pressure and kept his head clear. But now he saw fear.
"We found more servants hidden in the kitchens. They… they have all been…" he found he had not the heart to say that the rest of them had been murdered as well. He found he had not the heart to say how bloody the kitchens were. The look in Edward's eyes turned his whole being cold as he remained silent.
"But we have not found her, so there is still hope," Carlisle slowly said, knowing well that it would not be the case. It was then that they heard it—soft cries coming from Edward's room. They both rushed there, breaking open the door.
The curtains were drawn, leaving the room in complete darkness. Carlisle unsheathed his sword. The cries grew louder from someone sprawled on the bed. Both of them entered and pulled aside the curtains.
Edward's heart beat loudly in his chest. He could feel the blood coursing through his veins and the adrenaline that stemmed from it. He was ready to find Isabella—thinking that she had locked herself there; that she had perhaps managed to remain hidden. But his heart sank in his chest as he saw a maid on the bed, with forming bruises on her face and her gown torn in several parts. She hugged herself as she cried softly.
Both men stared as they realized what had happened to her. She didn't even seem to notice them as previous events of what had been done to her replayed in her mind.
"Miss," said Carlisle slowly, not wanting to startle her. The maid finally seemed out of her trance and stared at them blank eyed, her lip quivering. She had been punched several times in the face. Her otherwise feminine looks and beautiful traits were marred as bruises had discolored her skin. One eye was puffing up, making for a bizarre look. Marks started forming around her neck as someone had no doubt tried to choke her.
"Miss, it will be alright," assured Carlisle as he removed his cape and went to place it around her bared shoulders. She cried harder as she held herself, inching away in fright from them. Edward could not find words. He could only wonder if Isabella had suffered the same fate.
"Who did this to you?" he asked after they had let her calm down, resting her head on her knees. She looked at him and shivered. But it seemed the young woman finally felt safe in their presence as they made no move to touch her.
"T-they killed Mrs. Rochester," she whispered after a while, her voice hoarse. She cried again. "They killed the other older maids too. But not us—not the young ones," she lamented.
"Who did this to you?" Edward's voice was harsher as he stepped closer. The maid's face twisted in pain as she had to remember every moment of being violated.
"Several men. First in the kitchens, then here. They were fast because they were afraid of being followed," she whispered as if the perpetrators could still hear her.
Edward banged a fist into the wall, ignoring the pain as his hand hit the hard surface. He had not the heart to search the rest of the house and find Isabella discarded somewhere in the same manner.
"They t-took Miss Swan as they dragged me from the kitchens," she mumbled. "One of them was angry because he said they were wasting time."
"Do you know who he was?" asked Carlisle while Edward collected his thoughts. Her expressive eyes found his and stared blankly, her face twisting in pain as she shivered once more. But the maid took a deep breath when she saw how unnerved Edward was.
"He had thinning brown hair and a beard. He was dressed nicer than the rest." Her voice was clearer as she recalled the face.
"Braun," growled Edward. He then remembered the words the other had said: "I will make you pay for this—for everything—Cullen. My loss today is your fault and you will feel the consequences!"
His heart sped up. The traitor had probably come by the townhouse and kidnapped Isabella before fleeing Wessport. This was his way to wound Edward, and it worked.
"Did he say where they were bound for?"
"I cannot know. I only saw a glimpse before another man took me up here and continued to…" The maid turned silent and shivered involuntarily as the memories flashed through her mind.
"Before he managed to drag me up the stairs, Miss Swan was defending Mrs. Rochester from that man. When Mrs. Rochester refused to back away from her ladyship, he shot her!" she exclaimed, remembering how much blood the flintlock had caused. The maid had never seen a pistol being used before and she never knew of its capabilities. It was the weapon of the devil to be sure.
Edward pushed Carlisle aside, feeling that all was lost, falling into a dark hole of helplessness. Saxton was right, the traitors of Wessport had found his weak spot and they had charged as hard as they could. He grabbed the girl by the shoulders and gripped her hard, staring right into her frightened face. The sudden action caused the maid to cry out in fear as the dark, masked man neared her. She tried to shy away but his hard hands on her arms allowed for little movement.
"Please, I beg you, if there is anything else you can remember, anything that will help us find Isabella, tell me now," he asked. The maid kept her eyes away from the masked face and the low, husky growl that came from its mouth. She shivered in his hard grip as the tears still flowed. Both Carlisle and Edward could see the thoughts processing in her mind as she tried to think of something.
"I think that well-dressed man—the one you call Braun—mentioned someone. He spoke of visiting Cardinal Thorpe as quickly as possible, and then to continue east," she said. Edward released the grip he had on her and stepped back.
"Cardinal Thorpe is mixed up in this as well?" Carlisle asked, bewildered. "Good God," he said quietly to himself when no answer came.
Suddenly Jacob appeared in the doorway, staring at the broken maid and widening his eyes when he realized what had happened to her.
"I could find no trace of Isabella," Jacob said, finally having found them in Edward's room. He and the other soldiers had searched the whole townhouse, only finding maids and older footmen who had not followed them when they had first gone to the palace. Jacob had watched in shock as some of the younger maids had clearly been violated before being killed.
"We know where she's bound for and who took her," growled Edward as he walked into his closet. He changed into more comfortable clothes and fetched all the money he could find at the present in his room.
"Rome, for there is where Cardinal Thorpe went right after Lord Athar was imprisoned," Edward growled even harsher. "And that is where I am going."
"To Rome?" answered Carlisle in disbelief. "You can barely walk straight from the blood you have lost. And what will you do once you discover them, fight Braun?"
"Against who you lost," Jacob added quietly.
"Always the voices of reason," Edward growled to himself.
"And did not the king order you back to the palace as soon as we were done here—"
"I will find her and no one—be he king or otherwise—will make me stay another second here. I already did what I could to save him and his crown. I made a promise to Isabella—that I would see her again, alive. I tend to keep that promise," Edward growled harshly at them.
Carlisle gave an audible sigh as he got up from the bed. The maid pulled the cape tighter around herself as she sniveled silently.
"I will come with you, Edward. Someone has to guard your back while you storm off and get the rest of us in trouble," Carlisle smirked.
"We will come with you," Jacob corrected. Carlisle and Edward stared at him silently. The younger man shrugged. "Did you really think I'd let you go after Braun and his men without me? Isabella is my friend, and I want to have the pleasure of seeing Braun suffer as much as the rest of you," he defended. The words coaxed a small smile in them.
"I hope you kill them all," came the quiet voice of the maid as she looked at them timidly. Carlisle nodded, placing a light hand on her shoulder.
"Come, we shall have the soldiers escort you to the palace and have them care for you. We will indeed make Braun and his men pay for his crimes. I think all of us can promise as much," Carlisle said. The maid nodded, collecting herself as she got out of the bed. It hurt, for every step and movement made her aware of her broken body.
Edward watched her in silence as Carlisle escorted her down to the soldiers. He prayed silently that Isabella had not suffered the same treatment.
"Did you see the marks around her neck?" Jacob asked when she was out of the room.
"Whoever had his way with her, meant to kill her after he was done—to silence her," Edward said, aware of what that meant. "They wanted to erase any trace of where they were going."
When he was ready he walked on his own accord down the stairs and found the two soldiers there. The maid had been placed on a horse and was waiting outside, still clutching the cape around her small form. When Edward and his friends made a move toward the horses, the soldiers stopped them.
"We could not help but overhear a little of the conversation, my lord," one of them said. He looked at the floor to avoid Edward's intense gaze. The soldier had fought for him at Castell and he found it hard to go against him now.
"We cannot let you leave Wessport," the other continued. Edward stared him down and a low growl could be heard.
"I will give you one chance to step aside now. I still have enough fight in me to take both of you down," he snapped, reaching for a spare rapier he'd found in his closet. The soldiers stepped back and bared their swords, but none dared attack their old general.
"It's the king's order we follow. Please, Lord Cullen, we do not wish to fight you," the first soldier pleaded. Edward ignored his pleas and pushed past him.
"Inform His Majesty that I have left the country and that I will deal with whatever consequences he sees fit upon my return," he answered haughtily as he walked past the soldiers, grunting involuntarily at the pain in his shoulder. They never made a move to stop him. Carlisle and Jacob were close behind.
They walked past the maid and nodded as they passed her. She handed Carlisle his cape, despite herself.
The three of them were silent as they galloped to the harbor, with not a second to spare. The soldiers had a duty to report what Edward had said to the king. There was no doubt in Edward's mind that Jasper would send out a whole platoon to get him back to the palace. Every moment was precious. If he did not leave Angloa now, he was certain he would lose Isabella forever.
They arrived at the harbor, filled to the brim with merchant ships.
"We are really leaving then," Carlisle said.
"You may stay back, if that is your wish," Edward responded. "I will not think less of you for it." He only received a raised eyebrow and a shrug on Carlisle's part.
"I am with you, Edward. We shall find her," he retorted.
They got down from their horses. None had packed anything, and they had little with them; only the clothes on their back and each a purse of coins.
They ventured amongst the masses, the odor of sea and fish wafted through the air. Seagulls played in the sky, searching for food that had been thrown out or amongst the stalls that lined the docks. They found several merchant ships sailing east, but no one would leave for Rome within the day. They finally found a merchant ship and its captain, sailing for Málaga, for Spain. There they would no doubt find more ships directly bound for the Italian peninsula.
"We sail for Málaga, aye. But not until tomorrow morning," said the captain as he eyed the curious trio of men, not too keen on having them on his ship. Edward sighed and took out a few gold coins from his purse, pushing them into the hand of the robust man before him.
"We sail now and there will be more where that came from if you heed my word," he said darkly. The captain was too afraid to say anything against him and offered them to mount the ship immediately.
Edward went to the front of the deck, staring at the horizon, wondering where Isabella was—if she was alright, if she was frightened.
The sailors started running around the deck as the sun had reached its highest point in the sky. It now started its slow descent, soon leaving the lands of Angloa shrouded in darkness.
The sailors worked effortlessly as they settled into their routine. The songs of the seagulls, shouts of the merchants and quips of the sailors expanded throughout the harbor.
Minutes passed until the crew members undocked the mighty vessel and left Wessport. Edward felt the ship move in unison with the wind as the white sails caught hold of them, leaving the corrupt and greedy city behind. They were sailing for new, exotic lands in the south.
When the ship was far enough from the harbor, the people on deck saw a small army of soldiers rushing to the harbor. The soldiers were searching fervently for the masked man and his friends.
They were too late.
As the dark waters of the Atlantic swayed and the soft clouds in the sky floated slowly, he vowed to himself that he would keep true to his word—that he would do all it took to rescue her. Edward would move mountains and oceans to find Isabella and have her by his side.
The harbor shrunk in size the further they got from it and the trio sailed toward the European mainland and toward whatever awaited them beyond their island.
Note: The fic is ended! First time I actually completed a fic, so I am proud of that feat alone :) I wish to thank all of my amazing readers and reviewers. I wish to thank those who've constantly supported this fic and been with it the whole way. Thanks so much! Obviously, this is only the first part in a trilogy. I am currently overseeing grammatical errors in the writing as well as other minor details in writing style. I am also writing the next fic. As soon as it is completed I will post it here. So stay tuned for that! Please leave a review if you liked it. Cheers!