Disclaimer: Knock Knock. Who's there? John Flanagan. John Flanagan who? Not me, I'm afraid.
On with the fic!
Tears pricked behind Evanlyn's eyes, as she held her dying father's hand. Upon finding Duncan looking much worse for wear in the dungeons, they had immediately taken him up to his chambers, and sought medical assistance. A physician sat at the opposite side of the room, speaking to Halt in a low undertone.
"I don't know if there's anything I can do for him," the doctor said. "He has a haemorrhage in his head, and it's bleeding out very quickly. I will do what I can, but… I can't guarantee anything, I'm afraid."
Halt nodded, his brow creased in thought. "A haemorrhage? What do you think must have caused it?"
"I took a blood sample," the doctor replied. "I think… he must have consumed some kind of blood stimulus, which caused an eruption in his veins."
Halt's face fell. "Like the medicine you gave Gilan?"
The doctor nodded. "An overdose of that would have done it. Although, he would need to have consumed nearly a whole bottle to reach this point. How is Ranger Gilan faring, may I ask?"
"I – don't know," replied Halt, his blood running cold. "He disappeared after the battle." He reached into his pocket, drawing out the empty bottle he'd found on the dungeon floor. "Is this the medicine you gave him?"
Comprehension dawned on the doctor's face. "Well… yes. The tasteless variety." He glanced up at Halt. "It would have tasted like – water. Didn't Gilan start with this bottle?"
"No," Halt replied gravely. "He began with the other bottle. Said he wanted to – save – the tasteless medicine."
The doctor blinked. "But… from the look of Duncan… he must have taken the medicine at least two hours before you found him."
"The plan involved Gilan and two others getting to the castle first," Halt said. "As soon as he arrived, Gilan… went to check on the King. Nobody's seen him since."
"Oh." The doctor looked up in disbelief. "And there was – no sign of a struggle?" Halt shook his head. "Is anyone else missing?"
"Three men," replied Halt. "There was Bryn, a friend of Gilan's. Alda and Jerome are also missing, and I don't have to tell you who they are. Bryn has very strong connections with those two men."
"I can't believe it," the doctor whispered. "I really, truly, cannot."
Across the room, the King's daughter stared at them in shock.
Bryn stared fearfully at Gilan's limb form, as it swayed unceremoniously on Alda's shoulder. Several times, he was afraid his friend was going to fall and be further injured, but each time Gilan slipped, Alda pulled him back up, complaining about the weight.
Jerome was wearing Gilan's cloak, and they had forced Gilan into his signature armour, creating the impression that Jerome was injured and being carried out, and that Gilan was also willingly accompanying them. To an onlooker, it looked as though Bryn was willingly walking out of the country, in the company of the most wanted men in Araluen. He was not bound, nor injured, nor being held at knifepoint. But he wasn't going to leave Gilan, especially in the state he was in, with Jerome and Alda, and the men knew it. Just to be sure, they had made it quite clear that should Bryn try to run, they would kill Gilan immediately.
Fervently, Bryn hoped his wife, Elaine, and his adoptive daughter, Rivva, were okay, and that Elaine would forgive him for all the stress this was no doubt causing her. After all, she had no idea where he was, or even if he was alive.
They walked through the night. Bryn struggled to keep up with Alda's gruelling pace, although he didn't seem to be having as much trouble as Jerome. Bryn continued to follow Alda and Jerome, determined to keep Gilan safe. He owed that much to the young Ranger.
At about dawn, Bryn began licking his lips. It had been a long time since they had stopped for a drink and – Oh! He cursed himself. How could he have been so stupid? "Stop!" he called after Alda and Jerome. "I'm serious! Stop! Right now!"
Jerome sighed dramatically, swinging round to face Jerome. "What is it?" He asked in a bored tone.
"Gilan needs water," Bryn insisted. "He hasn't had a drink since yesterday."
"So?" drawled Jerome.
Bryn glared, anger rising within him. For a moment, he forgot the events of the last few months, and Jerome became nothing more than the cruel Battleschool bully Bryn had somehow befriended. "You can see him! It could mean the difference between life and death."
Jerome studied Bryn, considering his words. Eventually, he called out to Alda "Set him down, we'll let Bryn play nursemaid." He handed Bryn the smallest of the water flasks. "Feel free to do what you can."
Alda heaved Gilan unceremoniously to the ground at Bryn's feet. "We're only an hour's walk from where we need to get to," he grumbled.
Bryn glared back up at him. "Gilan might not have an hour. He needs water." Gently, he poured the cool liquid into Gilan's lips. That was all it took. Gilan's eyes began to flicker open.
Immediately, the young Ranger surged upwards into a sitting position. "Bryn," he slurred, "what's happening?"
"Nothing good, I'm afraid," Bryn replied grimly. "But we'll get out of this somehow. I promise."
Alda kicked Gilan's foot. "Now you're awake, you can walk."
Bryn glared up at him. "He's hardly strong enough to walk."
Alda shrugged. "You can carry him if you want, but you'll be expected to keep up the pace, which is only going to get faster."
"I can walk," Gilan croaked. "At least, partially."
Sighing, Bryn pulled Gilan's arm over his shoulders, and they continued on their way.
The 'place they had to stop' turned out to be a small, poor inn that would be devastated by Alda's stealing four horses from the stables. Jerome intended to be in Gallica the next day, and to do that, they needed horses.
Halt blinked back the tears that threatened to ruin his icy composure. If the evidence wasn't there to incriminate his former apprentice before, it certainly was now. Not an hour ago, Alda and Bryn had been sighted leaving the town together, a young man, presumed to be Jerome judging from his clothing, slung over Alda's shoulder. They were also in the company of a tall Ranger, who seemed to match Gilan's description. And it wasn't as if Gilan's recent record looked favourably upon him, either. For all intents and purposes, he was a Ranger suspended for ill-conduct who may easily be desperate enough to perform the deed.
Halt couldn't believe Gilan would do this. But nor could he ignore the evidence.
There was a faint knock on the door. "Come in," Halt called gruffly. After a second, Cassandra entered, her eyes red-rimmed with tears and exhaustion. As soon as it became clear that Duncan may never again be fit to rule, she'd been crowned acting Queen. The responsibility weighed upon her heavily, and she'd had little time to grieve. "Your Highness," Halt grunted.
"Halt," she spoke, her voice faltering. "About Gilan… do you believe it?"
Halt studied her. "Do you?"
The acting Queen laughed shakily. "Will certainly doesn't. Horace and Rodney are also pretty adamant Gilan's innocent."
Halt's brow narrowed. "That's not what I asked."
Cassandra frowned. "I – don't know," she replied. "I don't want to believe it, but… well, I can hardly ignore the evidence, can I?"
Halt nodded. "Okay."
Cassandra glared at him. "Well?"
"Well, what?" asked Halt. "How is Battlemaster David faring?"
Cassandra blinked. "David? He says the only thing that'll convince him is a confession from Gilan himself. But, Halt, can you please just help me? What should I do?"
"You're the Queen," Halt replied. "You tell me."
Clearly, Gilan was not in a good enough condition to ride a horse. This was why Bryn had secured him into the saddle using straps and taken control of his reins. They arrived in Gallica early the next morning. Jerome and Alda found lodging in a small inn, leaving Bryn and Gilan to fend for themselves. Jerome had also taken back his armour, flinging Gilan's Ranger cloak back at him. "You can have your filthy cloak back, Ranger," he'd said.
Although desperate to stop and tend to Gilan, Bryn prevailed to his better judgement and took the opportunity to escape. He left two of the horses, and brought Gilan to a physician… on the other side of Gallica. The doctor had jumped in alarm at the sight of the young Ranger, and had instantly set to work, administering medicines and examining his head. Bryn stayed at his side, and they worked tirelessly throughout the day. By evening, Gilan was fully conscious, able to sit up for an extended period of time and even able to read. When a group of Gallican officials came to arrest Gilan and Bryn late that night, the doctor's protests were the loudest.
They were flung into the same cell, much to Bryn's relief, but his relief died at the sight of Alda and Jerome looming over them. Somehow, however, Bryn wasn't surprised.
The news of the newly reinstated Ranger Gilan being under suspicion for the murder of King Duncan spread like wildfire. Many people, such as Will, Horace and Rodney, refused to believe it. More people, such as Crowley and Queen Cassandra, were undecided – they didn't want to believe it, but they couldn't ignore the evidence. Others, such as Halt and Gilan's father, David, simply refused to comment, or draw any conclusions.
Lady Alyss of Redmont chose a more practical approach. She and her mentor, Lady Pauline, used their various connections to keep tabs on the group. Finding that Gilan, Alda, Bryn and Jerome were bound for Gallica, she immediately contacted a friend in the Gallican Diplomatic Service.
The reply she received two days later shook her to the core. She immediately requested council with Queen Cassandra. An hour later, Alyss, Cassandra, Lady Pauline, Sir David, Sir Horace, Sir Rodney, Crowley, Halt and Will were gathered in the Royal adviser's room.
Alyss blinked in concern at Cassandra's state. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her features were contorted with stress and grief. It was clear she had not slept. "Your Highness," she found herself saying, "You need to rest!"
Cassandra gave her a weak smile, before going to sit down beside her. "Yes, well, maybe sometime I'll get some time." She took the message from Alyss and skimmed over it, before hurling it to the ground in a very unladylike manner. "Of all the times for this to happen," she cursed. "Damn it, we CAN'T go to war with Gallica!"
Horace studied the acting Queen. "You have a very large and effective army gathered in Araluen at the moment," he interjected. "Our losses in the last battle were minimal, and…"
"And they need to rest, and recover their strength," replied Cassandra, distressed. "And anyway, it's not the army I'm worried about." She picked up the message from the floor, then handed it to Alyss. "Read that out, will you, Lady Alyss?"
Alyss nodded, unfolding the parchment. "Dear Lady Alyss," she began. "I was surprised to hear from you due to the current state of political turmoil between our two countries. I will answer your questions as best as I can, but I have my loyalties, as I'm sure you have yours.
"I will tell you no more than you surely must already know. No doubt your country has begun preparing for the impending war, in which our two nations will battle. Our forces are marching to Araluen as I write this.
"We are familiar with the Araluens Jerome and Alda. The other two men, Bryn and Ranger Gilan, are strangers to us. Alda and Jerome, however, have committed great crimes against our people, and I must tell you that they and any companions will be arrested on sight, should we find them. You must understand that they are guilty of kidnapping a Gallican noblewoman, Lady Merkhliné.
"Perhaps it is possible that Jerome has deceived you as he had deceived us. Nonetheless, Lady Merkhliné was executed by Jerome in your country, and this is an act of war. If some error has been made, I urge you to send diplomats to negotiate with our leaders. However, I fear it is already too late. Our generals are under orders to lay siege to your kingdom.
"Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I must insist this letter marks the end of my correspondence with you, good Lady Alyss. Sincerely, Jean Depardieu." She broke off. "Why didn't we hear that Gallica has declared war on us?"
"Same reason we thought Merkhliné was the new Gallican Ambassador," Halt replied gravely. "Somebody has been intercepting our messages."
Horace frowned. "That sound likely, but… why did Alyss's message get through?"
Alyss gave a wry smile. "I don't use the standard delivery service."
Cassandra chewed her lip. "There's nothing for it, really," she said. "David, Rodney, please prepare the army for battle. We'll go to meet the Gallican forces – the further we keep this from the civilians, the better. Adopt a strictly defensive formation – you just need to hold out against Gallica for the time being, while we sort this out." She turned to Halt. "Could you go with the army, and request a ceasefire? There will probably be someone on the battlefield authorized to negotiate. I'll go and meet them in person." She turned to Pauline. "Please, will you… stay here, and help me keep everything under control? Also when I am able to negotiate… I'd appreciate your guidance."
Pauline nodded. "Of course. Halt and I will be glad to help any way we can." She shot a glare at Halt, who immediately mumbled his own consent.
Cassandra smiled. "Thanks. I'm also going to need a group to go to Gallica, and negotiate – see if we can get the King to withdraw his army. I'd go myself, but I don't want to leave Araluen in a time like this." She turned to Alyss. "Lady Alyss, the only reason we know about this is because of you. I'd be most gratified if you were to go."
Alyss nodded. "Of course," she replied. "Who will you send with me?"
"Crowley," Cassandra replied after a moment. "The two of you can carry out the negotiations. Also, I'll send Horace. And… Will, if Halt will allow it."
Halt glanced at his apprentice. Nobody wanted a repeat of what happened last time Will had been on a special mission without him. Nonetheless, it was a good idea for Will to go, as he worked well with both Horace and Alyss. He also knew he'd be far more useful on a special mission than in a war.
"If he's happy to go, he can go," Halt consented gruffly.
The preparations were hastily made, and Will, Crowley, Alyss and Horace rode for Gallica the next morning.
If looks could kill, Alda and Jerome would be dead at least five hundred times in the cell that night from the glares Bryn was shooting them. Thanks to the doctor, Gilan was able to stay conscious, and was now talking incessantly, purely to annoy Jerome. Dimly, he remembered Halt telling him time and time again that, in case of capture, do not, for the love of Gorlog, annoy your captors. However, Gilan never could resist – it was a way to get back at them, after all.
"So, I'm told we're to be executed. Why would that be I wonder, Jerome?" Gilan prattled.
Jerome rolled his eyes. "Why do you think?" he muttered. "Apparently, they're under the impression that I kidnapped Merkhliné. The girl's been more trouble than she was worth."
Gilan feigned sympathy. "Oh, what an inconvenience she was for you!" he replied sarcastically, earning himself another kick in the stomach from Alda. Anger flashed in Bryn's eyes as he stood up to retaliate, but Gilan pulled him down. The last thing they needed was to get into a fight. "Why don't we get a trial?"
"Because," Jerome drawled, "we've already been tried."
Gilan shook his head. "You have." He indicated himself and Bryn. "We haven't."
"Actually, we have," Bryn muttered darkly, glaring at Jerome. "We just weren't present for the trial. These two were, and they've paid some people to give evidence against us."
"Great," Gilan huffed. "When's the execution? We've got to work out a way out." Everyone stared at him. "I'm not anxious to be hanged, are you?"
Jerome laughed. "Of course not. But would you be willing to let Alda and I escape?"
"Yes," Gilan replied shrewdly. "And then you will come back to Araluen, to be tried. I have contacts too, you know, and I can bring you back."
"I don't believe this!" Jerome grinned. "Don't you know? Oh, of course you don't. If you go to Araluen, you too will be arrested on sight, and tried for the murder of King Duncan."
Gilan's blood ran cold, his eyes widening in shock. "No," he whispered hoarsely. "What? They can't possibly think…"
"Oh, they do," Jerome drawled. "Well, it's been nice catching up with you both, but Alda and I best be on our way. Now I know of your plans to attempt to escape, I'll ask my contact to concentrate the guards on your cell. I'll even request twenty-four hour supervision for you. Oh, and in answer to your earlier question, your execution is at dawn, the day after tomorrow."
The cell door clicked open, and Jerome and Alda walked out.
Thank you, lovely reviewers!
MoniqueBowman: Yeah, I know the feeling! It takes so much effort to log in, and it's so easy just to post a guest review :D That line wasn't supposed to be exactly funny, but it wasn't supposed to be serious either. Glad you had a good laugh! Thanks for reviewing, and I'm glad you're enjoying the fic!