Chapter 5: A Castle Besieged

So hesitation to this life I give,
You think you might cross over.

--

The leather was cold against my skin when I tightened the armor around me. The cold matched the chill that had started to settle into my body, with my mind repeating the question: Why Highever? My fingers felt large and clumsy as I attempted to tie sturdy knots and hook the loops with the correct ties. I had done this many times before, but in my nervousness and haste what was familiar became a daunting task. I slid my blades into the sheathes and quickly pulled my hair back, out of my face. The chill inside of me had turned to something else, and I felt my stomach roll as I stepped outside into the hallway after Mother. I had to steady myself with a grip on Eirik's fur. It felt like the only solid and dependable thing in the world.

And who? An arrow whistled its brief course before it found its target, and a man fell face forward, down at my feet. I had seen blood before, nicked a hand on a sharp edge or even stepping into the path of an axe in training. My eyes had observed dead men, those wasted by disease or simply by the course of age, their mouths opened and their gaze unseeing. But those deaths were nothing like this.

A man spun around, almost drunkenly, and I realized as he turned to his almost graceful fall that he was missing an arm. A woman was sobbing, half mad, with an arrow protruding from her stomach as she clutched at her wound. There was no laughter or joking about this, no familiar match of swords in the ring. If I stepped out of this hallway, there was no guarantee I would not be run through -

Eirik snarled and lunged forward, the sight of his bared teeth as he punctured a man's arm. The blade that was headed straight for my face missed my nose by a mere distance, and I stumbled backwards. Vomit rose towards my throat. Eirik shook his head and the man screamed, his arm hung in tatters. A mabari's jaws could crush the head of a deer, Master Hastings' lessons, from a distant, unfamiliar time.

Another soldier replaced this one, and advanced towards me, face hidden by his helm. My daggers were somehow in my hands. I had pulled them without thinking. The memory of Ser Peter spoke softly in my ear, my body well-accustomed to the training of reaching up, the reverberation of steel meeting steel ringing through my arm. He had swung his longsword forward in a downward slice, hoping to split my head in half, but I met him with two weapons against one, caught the sword's edge, hooked and pulled it out of his hand. His eyes were wide as he raised his shield, attempted to bear down on me, but I met him with my body low, even as my legs shook a little at the strain.

Eirik was at my side then, and he lunged for the soft part behind the knee. The soldier crumpled, one of his legs gone, and his helm rolled away as he struck the floor. I saw his face then. Just an ordinary face, like any other knight at Highever. There was no horrible marking that labelled him traitor, murderer, turncoat. His eyes had gone white with panic, as Eirik jumped on his body, teeth snapping at his throat.

"Mercy!" He screeched, voice higher than normal. "Please, I beg you, mercy..." I hesitated, before striking him under the chin with the dagger hilt, and his entire body softened, the resistance gone. I signalled for Eirik to follow, as I watched Mother disappear into another door.

--

I didn't recognize them at first. It was only colors on the floor, not so uncommon. I thought it a pile of underclothes, discarded. My eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room, the only illumination from the torchlight in the hallway. There were still sounds coming from a distance, wails and cries that rang in my ears, out of place in the walls of my childhood home. The strangeness of it was what made my mind slow, lacking comprehension, until I recalled the slope of nose, the curve of the mouth.

Oriana, I gasped, and I wasn't sure if I had spoken it aloud or not. Behind her, hidden from sight by her body, as if she had fallen in an attempt to protect him. Oren. My mouth tasted sour, the contents of my stomach once again threatened to rise as my face turned prickling hot and my vision swam. Oriana. Oren. No.

"This cannot be." Even Mother had her hand to her mouth, disbelief on her face, and she looked lost for a moment. My mother with her regal features, the usual stern expression with no room for disobedience, all lost, as we both regarded the bodies in front of us.

"Why..." I choked on even one word.

"This was no simple raid," she concluded. "They are taking no prisoners."

"We must...we must find Bryce." She closed her eyes, seemed to pull strength from within as she straightened, attempted to swallow the grief that had overtaken her face. I followed the lead of my Mother, for I could not comprehend this. How these men could slaughter innocents, leave their blood to stain the stones. Oren, with only six years to his name...

"Thank the Maker Fergus left," Mother whispered as we left the room, closing the door behind us, as if we could shield them from whatever was coming, even though they were already welcomed by the Fade. There were small mercies to be found in this, that my brother did not have to witness the death of his wife and son.

These were hallways I had travelled many times, tumbling as a young child, Roddy behind me. Shrieking and playing a game of templars and mages, stepping out of Terrell's reach. We advanced together, mother and daughter and dog. We cut down whoever passed our way, strangers that we did not recognize, who had taken over our home. They wore emblems and colors that were not familiar to any estate. Mercenaries, and Mother agreed.

"You must not hesitate," she told me as we swept through the other chambers of this castle wing, where our family resided. These chambers were empty. "They will kill you, do you hear me, Elika?" I nodded.

The first man I fell looked half wild, like a chasind warrior in a burning wilderness, as he swung his buckler in a wide arc, to knock me aside. It was easy to slip in close and turn, just so...to slip the sharp point into the weakness connecting pieces of armor. I gave it a twist, made sure the wound would not close, and I felt wetness spill over into my hands. The man collapsed with a groan and my first kill smelled of emptied bowels, his surprise and his fear as I left him to die.

I looked for unprotected openings, the hollow of the throat or a slit that was a weakness. There was no victory in this hollow battle. It was only a bid for survival. Mother was right, they moved with intent, to strike a killing blow. I greeted another faceless knight as I ducked down and with a quick sweep, severed the muscles of his legs. His shield clattered to the floor and my eyes saw a familiar image, a coat of arms that showed this man as a soldier of Amaranthine.

Howe. One of Father's loyal friends, who attempted just the other day to invite me to his estate and schemed for my marriage to his son. I realized with a chill that these were his delayed men, striking when Highever was crippled by following the king's call.

"I thought him ambitious, but not capable of this sort of deception," Mother said softly, showing she recognized the implications of this revelation. It was the softness that alarmed me, for Mother was only soft around Father or in a rage.

All I saw was Oriana's face, her lips parted. I kept on recalling the blood that pooled underneath her, spilled from her slashed throat. Oren's small hands, palm up, warding away the bad men. I swung my arms and my weapons followed. My blades were an extension of my body; I felt the force of it ripple down my arm, my shoulder. I cut them open, because they killed a child, no matter how these grown men begged and pleaded, a part of me inside screamed. Why should I show them mercy? What mercy did they deserve, a coward's ambush, slaughtering sleeping children and their mothers in their beds?

--

We entered the Great Hall, and recognized our men. I could not help the low cry that left my mouth when I saw one man in particular, and they all turned towards us at the sound. I saw the shoulders of some men droop in relief and lowered their heads and murmured teyrna. But that one man approached us, bowed.

"My lady," Roddy spoke to me first, even though Mother was beside me. "We feared for the worst."

I wanted to reach for him. To just have him pull me close and bury my face against his neck, to sob, to tell him of all that I had seen tonight, even as I was covered in the blood and gore of many men.

"What has happened, Ser Gilmore?" Mother enquired.

"It was during second watch, lady!" One of the men spoke first. "They slipped in through the back, unnoticed. They must have amassed in the back courtyard while the young lord left for Ostagar."

"We closed the gate when we were informed of the attack," Roddy said gravely. "But what remains of the tower watch told us of the numbers that await us outside."

"How many?"

"Two or three hundred men surround the castle." The news were bleak for the all of our fates, for the forces left here only numbered a hundred men, most of them inexperienced stable boys or kennel hands, not seasoned knights or ruthless mercenaries.

"They will subdue you here and open the gates to let the outside men through," Mother concluded while the knights nodded, resigned to this knowledge.

"What of my father?" I asked.

"He passed through here not long ago," Roddy frowned. "He said he would head to the larder, in the hopes that the teyrna and you had attempted to leave the castle." There was a secret entrance from the larder to the outside, a hidden tunnel only known to the members of the household closest to the family.

"Was he injured?" Mother said anxiously.

"I do not believe so, teyrna."

"We will attempt to find the teyrn, but what of you, Roderick? And your men?" Mother's eyes swept over the ragged group of ten.

"We will hold them back as best as we can. Time is of the essence." He caught my gaze, and then looked away.

"You have to come with us," I blurted out, not understanding why he was avoiding meeting my eyes. "All of you." But the men shook their heads grimly.

"We have no hopes of getting this many men past them without detection. If we were here to provide a distraction while they enter the castle…"

"No." I grabbed his arm. "This is a death wish." He stared at the hand on his arm like he did not recognize it, and pulled away roughly. I stared at him, stunned.

"Thank you, Roderick," Mother said. "You and your men will not be forgotten."

"You cannot possible agree to this," I turned on her. "We are leaving these men to die!"

"All of you," Mother addressed them, looked to each of them in turn as she named them. "You are free to leave. You are all loyal servants of Highever, and your service ends here."

"Yes, lady," all of them murmured, but none of them moved towards the door.

"Roddy, come with me," I pleaded. "Please."

"Lady, I cannot." He closed his eyes as if he could not bear to even look at me for a brief instance.

"If you love me-" I began, but he finally looked at me then. His eyes were bright and shining and his face twisted in fury.

"Do not ask me to choose between you and my duty to Highever. Do not, Elika." My heart fell, a heavy stone that weighed my body, in the ways that the betrayal and the fresh blood of men on my hands did not. Because I knew what would win.

There was a sound at the door, and a man staggered in, footsteps weaving. There were arrows pointed out from his back, and when he looked up, I saw who it was: Ser Peter, the knight who trained me, who was left behind at the castle for the watch, my teacher and my mentor. As he fell, I rushed forward, attempted to catch him as he went on his knees.

"There is no time," he gasped. "You must leave." One of the soldiers joined me to help, lowered him to the ground. There were sounds approaching in the distance, shouting and the joining of weapons.

"May the Maker's bright blessing shine on you all," Mother curtseyed deeply, made it look graceful even in armor. "We are in your debt."

There were arrows that entered the air all of a sudden, fell short of our men, but others approached from the alcove, and rough hands grabbed me. I was pushed towards the door as the soldiers readied for another battle. I felt the brush of lips against my cheek.

"My lady…" His breathing was ragged. He pushed me, as I stumbled towards the open exit, looked back over my shoulder.

"I have loved only you," he told me, a confession that has never escaped our mouths, for we knew what consequences they brought. Those consequences seemed insignificant now, time slipping out of our careless hands. He looked as if he could be made into a portrait: the grim knight, the men behind him, dying. He pulled out his sword, and then he turned to join the battle, even as I screamed. Mother was pulling me and Eirik was butting his head against my leg, growling.

We fled for the larder, and I could not understand it. What Maker would allow men to turn on each other, even as they swore allegiance to the same king? Blood on my hands. Ser Peter's blood, mercenaries' blood, Howe's men. My legs were moving, but I saw nothing. Lurching forward in the darkness, all I heard was his voice.

I have loved only you, Elika. I have loved only you.