Happily Ever After

Happily Ever After, chapter one rewrite

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.

“…Lavie.”

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.

“I…what?”

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.

“I surrender.”

 

 

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Happily Ever After – Extract 2

After defeating the last of the Usurper’s forces, Lavie joins her friend Harry and Prince Brendan for breakfast…

(Please note, this has not been edited)

They’re sitting at the small, round table near the west window. The sun streams in, as if eager to join in the meal. Harry, because manners are not catching, is speaking with his mouth full and Brendan is laughing.

I stop in the main room, just listening. Maybe I’m just tired and worn out, but I suddenly feel strangely peaceful and content. I think I can finally believe the war is over. This is how our lives should be from now onwards.

“Lavie! What are you doing standing around like a serving wench?” Harry calls.

I stalk over to the table, grabbing the chicken leg out of his hand as I do. He tries to protest but I’ve already taken a bite out of it.

“Call me a wench again and I’ll cut off your unmentionables,” I warn him, waggling the drumstick. He makes a grab at it, leaning over the table and almost sending a dish of boiled eggs flying.

“Perhaps it was best that my uncle did not join us,” Brendan comments as he butters a slice of bread.

Harry slinks back into his chair. “Sorry.”

“Oh, don’t let me stop you. This is all very amusing. The Battle of Breakfast.” He picks a rose out of the vase in the centre of the table. “Here, I shall give a favour to the winner.”

I’m definitely tired, I decide, as the giggles bubble up from inside me. It’s been a long, long time since anything seemed this funny. As I am laid helpless by mirth, Harry seizes the opportunity to reclaim the drumstick. With a triumphant cry, he stands, one foot on his chair and eats it as proudly as if it were the heart of his mortal enemy. Brendan gives him a round of applause that only sounds slightly mocking and offers him the flower.

Yes, life doesn’t get better than this.

After that, conversation dies away while we eat in earnest. I haven’t had a full meal in days, just picked at bits and pieces. I’m used to it, snatching a bite when I can, but that means I enjoy the luxury of being able to sit down to a meal all the more.

The Battle of Breakfast is about to break out again over the last of the eggs when there is a knock at the door and Lord Vayne enters. Brendan wipes his mouth delicately and stands up.

“Uncle, I did not expect you so soon. I trust your rooms were to your satisfaction?”

He nods absently. “Yes, yes. Fine. Can we get down to business now?”

Brendan gestures to the main table in the centre of the room, and orders a waiting servant to fetch more wine. He heads over to sit down and I join him. Harry stuffs the last egg in his mouth and follows.

Lord Vayne does not look happy when we sit down, but he does not protest this time. A servant sets wine and goblets on the table and pours one for each of us. It seems strange that only a few days ago this could have been used by the Usurper himself.

“Shall we begin?” Brendan asks, looking at his uncle, who nods at the prince over his goblet. “What would you like to know?”

“Has a date been set for the coronation?”

“Not officially,” Brendan replies, “given that we only took the castle yesterday. But I think we should aim for a week’s time. It will be hard work, but I believe it is in the best interests of the kingdom for my reign to begin officially as soon as possible.”

He nods again, looking satisfied for the first time since he arrived. I see Brendan draw a breath of relief.

“We will need to discuss the details, but I agree that the sooner the better. Have you given consideration to those who stood against you and what you will do about them?”

Brendan fiddles with a ring on his finger nervously. “I have. Those who stood with the Usurper will have their land and titles stripped from them and they will be exiled from the kingdom. With the exception of Lord Wester of Ruscity, who will be given fifty lashes and then exiled.”

Lord Vayne raises an eyebrow.

“It’s a promise I made,” he says simply.

The Usurper had put a price on Brendan’s head as soon as he knew the prince was back in the kingdom. Lord Wester had been one of the most eager to claim it. We’d been hiding out in the forests, supported only by a handful of sell-swords we’d employed with money raised by selling Brendan’s books.

We’d tried to be careful, but Wester’s agents had taken Harry when he’d gone into town for supplies. By the time we’d mounted a rescue, they’d given him twenty-five lashes. Brendan had promised at the time to return the favour twice over when he took the kingdom back. I’m pleased to see he has not forgotten his word.

I think it was that incident that decided things for Brendan. He had come with us when we told him the news, but I don’t think he saw himself as a king at that point. He’d spent the last ten years studying with men whose minds were much harder than their bodies, trapped in a tower and isolated from the world. But seeing Harry’s bravery, having someone believe in him like that, galvanized him.

“What then?” Lord Vayne presses. “What of their families?”

“The next in line will be offered the chance to bend the knee and swear allegiance to me. If they do, I will permit them to inherit those lands and titles.”

“Is that wise?” I ask before I can stop myself. Brendan is too trusting at times. Bonds of blood run strong. Who is to say that these people won’t retain loyalty to their family over their new king?

“What other choice do I have, Lavinia? Chop off the heads of anyone who shares a drop of blood with them?” He shakes his head firmly. “Some of them are just children and some of those who did not support me were simply afraid of the consequences. Should I punish children for frightened adults?”

He looks round the table, daring us to contradict him. Unfortunately for Brendan, his uncle does not look impressed.

“I agree with the Lady Lavinia,” he says. I give Harry a kick under the table when he grins at me. “It would be best to make a fresh start of things, ensure your allies are in important positions.”

“There are plenty of men who have served you loyally,” I point out. “It would better to reward them, rather than appoint someone just because of their blood.”

“And what do you say, Harry?” the prince asks.

Harry, who is fiddling with the rose Brendan gave him earlier, looks up suddenly. He seems surprised to have been actually included in the discussion.

“I…I think you should follow your instincts, Your Highness,” he says softly. “I think if the king can’t trust his judgement then we are in a sorry position.”

“Thank you,” Brendan says, as if this decides the matter. “Was there anything else, Uncle?”

“Yes. What consideration have you given to the matter of marriage?”

I get up and hurry round the table to help Harry, who is choking on a mouthful of wine. Brendan looks furious, his brows drawn together in a frown.

“It may surprise you, Uncle, but that has not been foremost on my mind recently,” he snaps. “I have been more concerned about restoring my kingdom and fighting for my life than considering eligible women.”

“Then perhaps it is time. The kingdom needs an heir.”

“The kingdom does not have a king yet!” Brendan retorts.

“I see. Well, I can tell your mind is made up. Perhaps we should continue this when you are more willing to listen to advice.” He gets up and strides away from the table before the prince can say anything else.

Brendan sighs and turns to Harry.

“Are you all right?”

“I…I’m f-fine,” he gasps. His face is as red as the wine and there are tears running down his face. I give his back an extra hard slap, which earns me a glare from both of them.

“He’ll live,” I say.

“Do you think I am being unreasonable?” the prince asks, reaching for his wine. “Should I just bow down to my uncle’s judgement? That’s clearly what he wants.”

“Maybe he’s testing you?” I suggest. “Maybe he wants to know that you can stand up for yourself and your decisions. You spent more time with him at Whitecastle. Was he like this then?”

We’d suffered badly at the hands of the Usurper’s men at that time. Both Harry and I were injured and spent much of the time in the castle’s infirmary. By the time we had recovered enough most of the plans had been formulated.

“Not quite this bad,” Brendan admits. “I think we agreed on more back then.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence between us. Harry is still toying with the petals on the rose and Brendan appears to be focused on his goblet. All the earlier frivolity has faded. I stand up.

“If you’ve no further need of me, Your Highness?”

He waves his hand dismissively. “No, please go on. I’m sure you have things to do, Lavinia.”

I don’t, but I feel like I’m getting in the way if I stay here. I head down the tower steps, wondering what to do with myself. For the first time in a long while I am clean, well-fed, and unhurt. I feel no need to go and train. I should probably be resting my body after the battle this morning, but I don’t want to go back and have Squeak start pumping me for information about my former glories.

There is one thing I am curious about.

The steps down to dungeon don’t look much better in daylight. They’re steep, damp and dotted with green moss. At the bottom is a dark, yawning maw that seems to repel all light. I shiver, but press on downwards.

The pool of torchlight reveals Linton is on duty again.

“Sir,” he greets me.

“Pulled the short straw again?” I ask with a grin and he nods.

“Still, it’s not so bad. At least he’s quiet and undemanding.”

“He doesn’t cause any problems?” Somehow this makes me more nervous than if he was rattling on the bars and cursing constantly.

“No. He barely seems like the tyrant who murdered the royal family, does he?”

“Never forget who he is, Linton,” I warn him. “I know he won’t.”

I make my way down the damp passage to the last cell. Unpleasant puddles dot the ground and I do my best to avoid them.

“Lady Knight, you’ve come to visit me again.”

It’s a step up from Lady Lavinia, but not much of one. “I wanted to tell you that the last of your forces have been defeated.”

He raises one pale eyebrow. “Really? I wasn’t even aware there were any left.”

“A small unit camped out at Oker’s Pass. Their commander slit his own throat rather than kneel to his rightful king.”

“Ah, Moisas,” he says with a smile. “He was indeed a loyal man. But truly loyal men, the sort who will do anything for you, do not tend to be intelligent men. Have you noticed that? You can have undying loyalty, or you can have intelligence.”

I think of Harry, his back ripped raw by the lash, asking me through bloody lips if the prince was safe. I wonder if I could have done it. If they caught me, would I have been able to hold my tongue as the leather bit through my skin and into my flesh?

“You agree with me, I see,” the Usurper says softly. “The question, good knight, is which one are you?”

Happily Ever After – Extract 1

Lavie is sent to investigate an enemy camp, without being noticed…

(Please note this has not been edited.)

Leaving the horses hobbled and a man with them in case we need to leave in a hurry, we move closer. The pass is a narrow gash between two high hills. It extends about a mile and a half before opening out, and is only wide enough for three horses abreast at the narrowest point. The hills rise above, steeply at first then level out for a bit, giving a good space to place archers. It’s the ideal spot for an ambush.

I send the two remaining men to get as close to the camp at the pass entrance as they can, but decide to climb up to the ridge myself. There are fires starting to appear both on the ground and either side so I know need to be careful. I suspect we have the larger army, but without surprise we will lose much of that advantage.

Sometimes I wonder about myself. About how easily all of this comes to me. I might have shunned needle work for beating on Harry as a child, and my courtly manners consisted mostly of remembering to say good night to my husband before going to bed, but I was still raised a noblewoman. There are times when I wake up at night and wonder where this person has come from. It’s not that I hate what I have become, quite the opposite.

I think that’s what scares me most.

I shake my head and push the thoughts aside. Now is not the time to be dealing with them. I concentrate instead on scrambling up the rocky hillside. It’s not difficult, as long as I pay attention, but there’s the risk of breaking an ankle if I don’t watch my footing.

I can see the glow of a fire on the ridge, above and to my right. I can’t get much closer without risking myself, but I want to be able to bring back something useful to Brendan. Keeping close to the ground, I push on a bit higher, until I can crawl out to the edge on my belly.

The camp lies sprawled below me. Judging from the fires, I can tell their numbers are small, probably less than half ours. But that’s all it would take to hold this place for a while. Trenches have been dug at the far end and filled with sharpened logs to stop charges, and in the growing gloom I can see large boulders on the ground that must have been pushed from above. I suspect that, come daybreak, a greater number will be up on the walls, ready to harass with arrows.

I have to admit, I am impressed. I can’t think of a single thing I would have done differently of it were me in charge down there. I take another look, committing the camp, its layout and defences to memory. Fortunately all their traps lie facing the pass. There is nothing that will prevent us riding straight into their backs come dawn.

Satisfied, I crawl away and start to make my way down the hill, just as the man is making his way up. We both stop, face to face, too shocked to respond. I notice one hand is still fumbling on the laces of his britches and I almost laugh. This man is going to die tonight because he chose the wrong moment to piss.

I react first. I have no armour, no weapon beyond my dagger in order to move as quickly and quietly as possible. Stepping forwards, I shove one hand across his mouth. Before he can react, my dagger is in the other hand and at his throat.

“Not a sound,” I murmur. His eyes go wide, and then he nods, very slowly.

Cautiously, I take my hand from his mouth. When he doesn’t do anything stupid, I move behind him, keeping my blade on his throat. I push him gently with my free hand down the slope. It’s an awkward, clumsy manoeuvre, but I need him as far away from his companions as possible.

We are almost at the bottom when he stumbles over a rock. I fall forwards and he rolls away. Cursing under my breath, I launch myself at him as he opens his mouth to yell. If he gets a single sound out we are lost. My heart beats rapidly in my chest, and I’m afraid that the army will hear it, even if I do manage to silence the man.

I can feel him drawing in for a yell as I land by his chest. My elbow strikes out and I catch him just below the jaw. Instead of a roar, what comes out of his mouth is a wet choking sound. I slam my hand over his mouth again.

“That was the last mistake you will ever make,” I hiss.

His eyes beg me for mercy, but there is too much at stake for me to spare his life. My hand goes for my dagger and I curse again as I find the belt empty. It must have fallen from my grip in the struggle. No matter. There are plenty of weapons.

It only takes a moment of fumbling on the grass before my hand closes over a suitable rock. I bring it down three times, hard on his temple and watch the light go out of his eyes. I drop the rock and sit back, breathing heavily. And then it hits me. I’ve made a stupid mistake. Even if I have silenced this man, he has comrades.

And sooner or later they are going to come looking for him.