The old, sea-warped gate in the bailey opens with a bitter squeal, dusting me in flakes of rust. I cringe at the sound, hoping the keening seagulls cover it. Sea-salt on the wind mixes with the smell of blood and anticipation in the air. I slip into the narrow space between the inner and outer bailey and signal my team to follow me.
Today, I take back my home. Today, I kill a man and end the reign of a tyrant. The idea of it makes my body tingle. Everything ends today. Either we defeat the Usurper and set the prince on the throne where he belongs, or we fail and nothing matters anymore.
The voice makes me start and I curse under my breath. I’m getting ahead of myself and it will get me killed if I’m not careful. One of the soldiers accompanying me points up ahead and I hear something else. Footsteps.
“Sir,” I correct the man sharply as I draw my sword. “Wait here.”
I slip into the inner bailey and press my back against the wall by the steps. The unseen figure is almost at the bottom and my fingers twitch on my hilt. As he emerges, I step out and drive my sword into his belly.
Our eyes meet in the gloom. He’s not a soldier, just a runner, carrying messages and equipment where they’re needed. He’s also barely more than a boy, fifteen at most. His pale hands clutch at his stomach, trying to push the blood back, and a gurgling cry spills from his lips. I put my sword through his heart. He doesn’t even make a sigh as he falls, eyes now glassy, to the floor.
I choke down nauseous fury. Another life destroyed by the Usurper. There’s no time to mourn or rage though, and all we can do with the body is stuff it out the way by the sea-gate. Our mission is too important to jeopardise for the dignity of a corpse. I add the nameless boy to the list of those I will avenge as I wipe his blood from my sword.
In the shadow of the bailey wall, I split my team. Half make their way to the gatehouse to let in the prince’s army. The rest follow me to the keep. I can hear the battle on the wall raging, steel on steel echoing off the dark stones. Every shout and scream ignites my blood until I’m sure I must be glowing.
The killing ground between the wall and the keep is empty. Maybe the gods favour us, but a wash of dread douses my battle lust. It shouldn’t be this easy.
“Don’t stop until you’re in the keep,” I tell my men. “If anyone falls, even me, keep going. It doesn’t matter who kills the Usurper, as long as someone does.”
I want it to be me. The idea of someone else doing it disturbs me more than any thoughts of swords or arrows. Even still, I run as if every creature from the pits is after me to the heavy oak doors of the keep. They’re not barred, which sends another icy shudder through me.
I remember the way to the throne room with ease. I know that’s where he’ll be. Since our army drew up outside the castle, we haven’t seen the Usurper once. It doesn’t surprise me. He took the castle through cowardice – posing as an envoy of peace and trade, then poisoning King Reynald at a feast in his honour. He’ll be clinging to the throne as long as he can.
The steps to the throne room rise up like a mountain. For a moment, I cannot even contemplate the idea of reaching the top. My legs shake. Sweat soaks the hair under my helmet, spreading through the padding beneath my armour.
“This isn’t right,” one of the soldiers mutters. “Where is everyone?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “It ends, now.” I put one foot on the first step, then the next, and the next until I am standing at the throne room door.
There is a hastily erected barricade across the door that seems to be made mostly of the couriers’ benches. It does nothing to stop us and we tear into it like it was a suckling pig. As enough is dismantled for me to push through, I see him.
As I suspected, he’s sitting on the throne. The Usurper, the man who killed my king and plunged my home into three years of chaos, watches me with a smile. I tighten the grip on my sword and stride towards him.
“In the name of Prince Brendan, prepare to die.” My voice is too high, sharpened by my emotions. His smile grows.
Something gleams in my peripheral vision. I stagger back and catch sight of a bull of a man charging towards me. I duck as an axe grazes the edge of my helmet. Deafened and dazed, I bring up my sword, head ringing too much to think beyond that. He swings the axe round and the impact judders up and down my arm. My grip on the weapon falters and my heart starts to beat faster. I bite my lip, forcing myself to focus.
Kicking out, my boot connects with his knee and I push my sword forward, driving his arm back. My opponent grunts with surprise. He wasn’t expecting my strength. They never do. I thrust, out and up, catching him at the point where his gorget meets the neck of his breast plate. The sword squeals over the steel and grates on his collar bone. It does not penetrate far into his flesh, but it’s enough. As he falls, the blood spilling from his neck in ever more feeble jets, two of my men take down another of the Usurper’s lieutenants. A third man hangs back, injured, but not fatally. I’ve gotten good at telling what’s fatal these last few years.
The Usurper stands up from the throne, King Reynald’s crown perched on his head at a disrespectfully jaunty angle. My hatred seethes like boiling oil. I signal for the others with me to stop. This is my moment. This is what I have been waiting for. His jet-black armour clanks and creaks as he steps down towards me and I examine it carefully, looking for weaknesses.
He sweeps a low bow. He wears no helmet and there are blue veins running under the skin of his hairless scalp. His eyes seem to change colour as I watch.
“I have been waiting for you,” he says in a soft voice that carries through the carnage of the throne room. I can feel the eyes of all my men on me. It makes me feel strangely naked.
“Draw your sword.” My grip tightens on my own weapon. “Or must I cut you down like a toothless dog?”
“My, the young prince did well in finding such a ferocious champion.”
Hah, shows what you know. I found him.
“Your sword,” I say again. My cheeks burn as they flush with anger.
“No need.” His voice is so smooth, like honey on a warm day. There is something equally sickly about it, and my stomach turns in a way that blood and broken bones have not managed. “No need, my dear. I surrender.”
I draw back my sword, ready to swing, ready to take his head from his shoulders. Ready to end it. And then I realise what he has said.
It is not, on reflection, the best reaction. Brendan would have said something noble, and Harry would have made a quip that shattered dignity like a weapon, but I can only trip over my tongue.
The Usurper kneels at my feet, neck bent in supplication as he offers me the hilt of his sword.