Knight of Fire
Emilian pushed his way through the churning crowd for a better glimpse of the king’s carriage. Since he was the tallest and largest of the group, Emillian took the lead. Gheorghe walked close behind him and a little to the left to open the way for Sir Costin who walked directly behind them.
The rowdy group they were trying to get through didn’t make it easy for them, but they finally made it to the front of the line at the edge of the road. Emilian and Gheorghe each stepped to the side, allowing Sir Costin to step forward.
Unlike Emillian, Sir Costin was short and slim. But he was the oldest, smartest, and most well-educated of the entire group. Everyone respected his wisdom and looked to him as their leader in spite of his size.
Emillian scanned the crowd. He was the newest of the bunch. The tall, young man had recently joined Gheorghe’s mesnie of knights for hire. It wasn’t as exciting as Emillian had imagined it would be growing up.
He had never fought a dragon or even been in a war. There had been great peace in the land for over twenty-seven years. Ever since King Rares Petru Matei had come to the throne, no one had risen up to challenge his right to rule.
All he and his little entourage had done so far was escort noblemen and women up and down the road from one nobleman’s castle to another. And then take another group back again. Emillian longed for adventure and yearned to do something great that would allow him to make a name for himself.
A woman caught his eye. Taller than most of the others in the crowd. Almost as tall as Emillian himself. Her dark dress matched her hair and eyes which were in stark contrast to her pale skin. She looked pale, as if she didn’t get much sun, but was still fair to look upon.
She noticed his gaze and turned to lock eyes with him. It took his breath away and he couldn’t seem to stop looking at her. The corner of her full lips curled up slightly in a small, brief smile. Not encouragingly as if she liked him, but almost smugly as if she had caught sight of her next victim.
It caught him completely off guard, and Emillian couldn’t stop looking at her until the woman turned back to watch the road. Mesmerizing was the only world Emillian could think of to describe her.
The woman murmured something to the gentleman beside her who glanced over in Emilian’s direction. Emillian immediately shifted his gaze across the crowd as if he were looking for a familiar face. He smiled and waved to no one in particular off in the distance. Then turned back toward his friends.
He could see the king’s carriage coming around the bend in the road. The crowd grew more agitated as the carriage approached. They shouted and screamed and threw flowers into the road.
King Rares was a good and kind king who had brought peace and unity after the War of The Seven Nobles. He strived to rule well and do his best to bring prosperity to all those under his reign. It wasn’t an easy task, and he wasn’t a perfect man. But he connected with the people and they loved him for it.
But more than that, they enjoyed the sense of peace and prosperity that he had brought to the kingdoms all those years ago. Way before Emillian had ever been born. So, even though the had been trained as a page, become a squire, and then finally knighted himself, Emillian had never fought in a real battle before.
Sure, he had faced down a few highway robbers and fought off the occasional forest gang. But Emillian longed for adventure and excitement. Just like the stories of the wars of old that he had grown up listening to as a boy.
The first group of knights rode past Emillian. There must have been at least fifty in the first group. They all rode magnificent black steeds. After them, there was a small break in their parade. He glanced over at the woman again. Her companion had left her and she was alone.
Gheorghe slapped him on the back and leaned close to shout in his ear over the noise of the rambunctious crowd. “Go talk to her man.”
Emilian felt himself blushing at having been so obvious. He grinned at his friend and shook his head. He didn’t bother to reply over the noise of the rambunctious, rowdy rabble. Another fifty knights rode by. Each of them in this group rode a large, white steed. Then several more groups of knights rode by before the king’s royal carriage reached the spot where they were standing.
The knights weren’t wearing full suits of armor as those going out to war, although they did wear their decorative uniforms and carried weapons. These parades were mostly for show. Emillian knew that the king traveled the realm every so often. He heard through the grapevine that the impressive displays were used to keep his would-be enemies in check.
The marching horses up front had paused and forced the carriage to stop just after it passed Emillian and his friends. A murmur rippled through the crowd. Emillian stuck his head out past Sir Costin and strained to get a better look. But he couldn’t see what was going on.
The crowd around him strained to reach out to reach out and touch the king’s carriage as they shouted for his attention. The king smiled and waved jovially. The queen didn’t seem to be as enthused as he was. She sat quietly beside her husband, looking straight ahead as she fanned herself. Queen Elena seemed worried and agitated.
The king murmured something in her ear which caused her to scowl. Emillian couldn’t hear what they were saying, but by the way King Rares gesticulated, it seemed as if he wanted her to smile and wave at the crowds along with him. She shook her head and replied sharply. Then looked nervously over her shoulder.
Someone in the crowd, rushed past Emilian, pushing him Sir Constin. Emillian stumbled and caught himself while yelling loudly at the man, “Watch where you’re going, buddy!”
He patted Sir Costin and turned to see the man that had bumped into him standing in the middle of the road between two carriages. The king and queen were still arguing in the lead carriage and seemed oblivious to him standing there behind them.
A second carriage carrying the mayor and his wife blocked the view of the knights who were behind them in the rest of the parade. The man stood there for a moment with his head bowed and his hand on the hilt of a dagger at his side. He seemed to be talking to himself and struggling with a decision.
Emillian couldn’t hear what he was saying, but took a step into the road toward the man. A knight behind the mayor’s carriage shouted for him to step back out of the road. He started to reply that there was someone acting strangely, but knew it wouldn’t do much good over the roar of the yelling crowd. So, he stood there and pointed at the strange man between the carriages.
The knight simply waved his arm for Emillian to get out of the road. He complied and took a step backward. But as he did so, the man took a deep breath and pulled his dagger out of its sheath. Then leaped onto the back of the carriage.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd as the man plunged his dagger into the side of the king’s neck. The queen’s scream was cut off as he jerked the dagger out the king’s neck and blood squirted into her face. Then the short, stocky man plunged it into the king’s neck a second time before attacking the queen.
Emillian didn’t think twice. He leaped into the road and crossed the distance to the carriage in two long strides. Emillian grabbed the man by the belt and jerked him from the carriage. He kept his grip on the dagger as Emillian pulled him back.
The man landed on the ground on his back with a thud. He rolled to his side, gasping for breath. Emillian leaped on top of him to take his dagger, but he had already rolled over onto his belly with the dagger under him.
Emillian attempted to grab his arms, but the man continued to roll. He slid off to the side, and the man came up with dagger sweeping in Emillian’s direction. Emillian threw himself back and felt the wind from the blade brush past his face. The point nicked and scratched him which stung.
He threw himself off the man and rolled away before coming back up onto his feet with his back against the carriage. The man rushed him and butted his left shoulder into Emillian’s belly. His right arm came in with the dagger for the killing blow. Emillian twisted to the side and it stuck into the side of the carriage.
He grabbed the man’s wrist with his left hand and bashed him across the face with a wicked backhand using his right. The man let go of the dagger still sticking into the side of the carriage and fell to the ground under Emillian’s weight.
The knight came rushing over and threw his knee on the short man’s burly neck and grabbed his arms. He knew it was over and quit struggling. Emillian pushed himself off the man and let the knight take over in arresting him.
It had all happened so fast. Emillian hadn’t even had time to think about what he had done. As the shock wore off, he felt the sting on his face. He brushed his hand where the singing blade had nicked him. A little blood wiped away, but no more than when he nicked himself shaving.
The crowd began to press in around them and the carriage. Emillian looked up and saw the dark-haired woman still standing where he had seen her previously. She hadn’t moved forward with the rest of the crowd. She held his gaze coldly, but seemed to pleased with what had just taken place.
People gathered around the man on the ground and began kicking at him. The knight struggled to keep them away while he finished handcuffing him. The mad crowd seemed more intent on lynching the assassin than they were with helping the king.
Knights from both the the front and back of the carriage tried to press through the rurly throng, but the crowd wasn’t letting them through. It was a surreal moment. Emillian looked for his friends, but they weren’t around. He spun back toward the carriage where the king and queen both gasped for breath.
Emillian looked at the crowd, but no one seemed to be paying them any attention at all. He glanced back where the woman had been standing, but she was no longer there. He yanked open the door to the carriage and leaped inside.
The queens handkerchief lay on the seat where it had fallen. Emillian grabbed it and pressed it against the king’s wounds. Emillian shouted, “Hang on, my lord. We’ll fetch a barber to treat your wounds.”
The king shook his head and tried to speak, but Emillian tried to silence him as he continued to press on the wounds. The king stretched out his arm and struggled to reach for something on the floor.
“Please,” the king whispered hoarsely. “Help me get up.”
Emillian let up the pressure of pushing down against the king’s neck and shoulder. The king leaned forward and brushed his hands against the ground. Something clattered softly when the king pulled his arm back up, but Emillian didn’t see anything there.
The king slumped back against his seat and sighed. Emillian reached out to apply pressure to the wound, but the king raised his arm to push him away. He could have refused the king’s wish and continued to apply pressure, but the they both knew that the king had lost too much blood.
When he was just a lad training to be a knight, Emillian had seen a fight break out between two older knights over something petty. One challenged the other’s honor and they began to duel. The one who started the fight lost an arm. The winner refused to let anyone come forward to help him. Emillian watched him bleed out quickly. He had been shocked at how quickly the man had passed away.
King Rares was pale and his breathing shallow. He took Emillian’s hand and pushed it down toward his other hand. Emillian was surprised to feel something leathery and hard instead of the softness of the king’s hands. He looked, but couldn’t seen anything in them.
“What is this, my lord?” he asked.
“The source of my power,” the king whispered. “Let no one no you have this. Swear to me that you will take this to the royal blacksmith in Morasi. He will know what to do…”
But before Emillian could answer, the king grimaced and took several quick, shallow breaths as his body trembled before falling silent. He kneeled there in front of the silent king, horrified at his death.
The door to the carriage burst open and a knight climbed in beside him. The knights had finally managed to push there way through the crowd and began to clamber onto it. One of the knights standing outside grabbed his legs and ordered him to get out to make room for the others.
The knight pulled harshly and dragged Emillian out through the door. He managed to hang onto whatever the invisible object was that the king had given him charge over. It got caught between the sides of the door and stopped Emillian short, almost yanking his arm off. The knight lost his grip and fell backward into the milling crowd behind him.
Emillian gathered his feet under him and stood up quickly as he threw the object over his neck and shoulder. It felt like a scabbard looped through a belt of some sort with a sword inside. He didn’t have time to wrap it around his waist in this melee without being able to see the buckle. And he needed his hands free to push his way through the crowd.
But before he could start, the knight was back on his feet with eyes blazing. He drew his sword and ordered Emillian to back up against the carriage and turn around. The knight slammed Emillian’s head against the carriage and handcuffed his arms in irons.
“You have a lot of questions to answer, young fellow,” the knight growled menacingly with his face so close to Emillian’s ears that he could feel the bristles of the man’s beard prickling the side of his face.
“What are you doing?” someone asked.
The man whirled to face him and Emilian twisted his head to see what was going on. There was a loud groan, and the knight slipped to the ground. Then they undid his handcuffs and were gone. Before Emillian could turn around, his liberator had slipped into the crowd.
Emillian looked down at the dead knight in shock. Everyone else seemed to ignore him. The other other knights continued to mill around and simply stepped over him without paying him the slightest heed.
Another knight came walking up with a large steed and handed him the reins. It was absolutely majestic. Emillian had never ridden a horse this large or beautiful before.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
The knight that handed it to him, turned to look at Emilian with a look of surprise and scorn.
“Becuase you asked for it, my lord,” the man said as if Emillian had gone daft. “You said you needed a fresh mount to return to the royal city. Hurry, your companion awaits you.”
Emillian looked in the direction that the knight was pointing to see the assassin mounted on another smiliar large horse and making his way through the crowd away from him. Emillian felt more confused than ever.
Was this some sort of strange dream? Had the king told him to go to the royal city? Was this all part of some plan? And if so, who’s plan? Who was orchestrating all these weird happenings.
“But that man just assassinated the king,” Emillian said incredulously.
The knight snorted as if he found that funny. Then he said, “No, that’s impossible. The king is up at the front of the parade giving a speech.”
Emillian looked at the knights inside the carriage with the people that had been assassinated. The knight’s had straightened the king and queen back up into sitting positions and stood around chatting as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
He pushed himself up on his mount and tried to look over the crowd up to the front of the road. Emillian weaved his horse out through the people still milling about, the circled the throng toward the front of the parade.
There was a man standing there in the road. He shouted and gesticulated as if giving a fiery speech, but he wasn’t the king. He didn’t look anything like the king. There was no resemblance, yet the crowd seemed to be eating this imposter’s words up though.
Emillian felt a mix of confusion, frustration, and anger. He didn’t know what was going on here, but he aimed to get to the bottom of it. He scanned the crowd again and saw the man weaving his way off in the opposite direction.
His horse responded perfectly. Not only was it beautiful, but it was also well trained, doing exactly what Emillian needed it to. It was quick and sturdy, allowing him to catch up with the assassin easily enough.
“Hey! You. Assassin. Slow down. Wait up!” Emillian shouted.
The man reined his horse in and turned to wait for him which Emillian found strange. He half-expected that the man would have taken off on a dead run. But instead, he greeted Emillian like an old friend.
“Hale there, friend. It’s a beautiful day. Isn’t it?” he said with a broad smile.
Emillian approached him cautiously and didn’t get too close in case the man pulled his dagger and attempted to assassinate him.
“Indeed it is,” Emillian replied. “It makes me wonder why you slew the king on such a fine day.”
A look of bewilderment crossed the man’s face and he cocked his head to the side, “The king! What king is that? I take it you aren’t from around these parts lad. That wasn’t the king, but the Duke of Rosiocari. He slaughtered my family. It was an act of fitting revenge. But if you feel the need to challenge me to a duel to avenge his death, I will be happy to oblige. Choose the time and location.”
“No, I have other matters to attend to,” Emillian replied. “I’m just trying to understand what my eyes saw. But for the record, I do know what my eyes saw because I am from these lands. Born and raised here. You did slay the king.”
The man scoffed and shook his head. “You’re daft, lad. And if that is all, I must be on my way. Have a pleasant day.”
“What is your name, sir?” Emillian asked, hoping to engage him in conversation to understand this madness.
But the man didn’t stick around. He slapped his reins and dug his heels into the horse’s sides to take off on a dead run. “Liviu Iacob Albu,” he shouted over his shoulder. “The blacksmith of Rosiocari.”
Emillian shook his head and spun his horse around. He went back to the procession to look for his friends. They were nowhere to be seen. The lifeless king and queen were still seated in the carriage. The knights and soldiers milling around them acted as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
He rode up close to one of the knights and hissed, “What’s wrong with the king?”
The knight looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean? He’s just giving a speech as he always does.”
Emillian pointed to the king in the back of the carriage.
The knight chuckled, “No, that’s the duke. The king is up at the front of the procession.”
“So, then what’s wrong with the duke?” Emillian asked.
The knight turned to him and scowled. “Nothing man. He looks fine to me. Just a little tired.”
Emillian sighed and stepped forward. The knight frowned at him and blocked his path. “Stay back. I have orders to protect these noblemen and women. I will not hesitate to cut you down if you attempt to harm them.”
“It’s a little late for that,” Emillian growled in exasperation.
He turned his horse and circled around the crowd still looking for his friends. The man giving an impassioned speech at the front of the procession finally finished and returned to the crowd. People began to disperse when suddenly someone shouted that the king had been murdered.
Knights converged on the carriage and surrounded it until Emillian could no longer see it for the mass of people. Screams and shouts and wails began to rise up from the people as they realized that their beloved king was dead. He shook his head and wondered how it had taken so long for them to realize what was going on.
It felt like something out of a fairy tale that his mother used to tell him as a child. Some wicked witch throwing a curse over the people and blinding them to the truth. All so she could perform some deceitful act of revenge. But he had never really believed that those stories were true.
The memory of the mesmerizing woman flashed before his eyes. Emillian shook his head. The witches in his mother’s fairy tales were all wizened, old hags. The woman he had seen was young and beautiful. But still, Emillian couldn’t get that haunting look she gave him out of his head.
“Hey, you there!” a knight shouted in his direction. “What are you doing on a royal steed. Get down from there and return it now.”
Emillian looked around to see who else the knight might be referring to, but there was no one else riding on a horse behind him. He pointed to himself with a questioning look. The knight nodded and waved him over.
He slid off the horse and returned the reins to the knight who had demanded them. “Someone handed me the reins and walked off,” he tried to explain.
“Move along before I arrest you for thievery,” the knight growled at him. “Be glad that I have more urgent matters to attend to as we seek the one who assassinated the king.”
“It was a short, stocky man. He rode off on a steed just like that one there in that direction.” Emillian said.
“So, you saw him, did you? And why didn’t you raise the alarm?” the knight asked with evident distrust in his eye. “I think I’d best take you in for questioning.”
Emillian raised his hands in front of him in a placating manner as he backed away. But the knight charged him and tackled Emillian to the ground. He didn’t put up much of a fight since he figured this would all be over soon as the knight handcuffed him for the second time.
“Aye! Good catch there, Sir Ieronim!” another knight said as he walked past. “I saw this man in the king’s carriage. Sir Virgiliu was pulling him out before he was killed, poor fellow.”
“Wait! No. I didn’t kill Sir Virgiliu. I didn’t kill anyone. It was someone named Liviu Iacob Albu.” Emillian shouted. “He’s the blacksmith in Rosiocari.”
The two knights looked at each other as if Emillian were crazy and then burst out laughing. Emillian demanded to know what was so funny.
“Liviu the blacksmith has been dead for months. He died last winter of the scourage. You should have picked a better alibi for your story there, brother.” the knight said as he shoved Emillian toward the carriage.
Emillian shook his head in frustration and tried to argue as the knight handed him over to have him carted off to the dungeon. “You’re making a mistake,” Emillian shouted.
“Tell that to the judge,” the knight replied. “And if you are telling the truth, try coming up with a better storyline. The kingdom won’t waste any time looking for a scapegoat for the murder of their beloved king. And right now, you’re the closest thing we’ve got.”
Emillian felt a cold chill squeeze at his heart. They tossed him in the back of a covered wagon used to transport prisoners. Emillian began to panic. His breath coming and shallow gasps as he realized how much danger he was in. His vision began to grow dark and he instinctively threw his head down between his legs.
“What had he gotten himself into?” Emillian wondered. “Had he gone mad? Had he imagined seeing Liviu the blacksmith? Could he have possibly killed the king himself and imagined everything else? Or worse yet, could he somehow have fallen under the spell of that mesmerizing woman and done something terrible under her control.”
His mind whirled at the sickening thought that he had been the one to kill the king. Emillian’s thoughts became more and more frightening. He began to moan and wail in his small cage.
“Shut up down there,” the driver shouted and slapped his sword against the bars of the window.
The loud noise shook Emillian out of his thoughts. He took several deep breaths and focused on looking at his surroundings. As reality set back in, Emillian realized that it couldn’t have all been in his head. Otherwise, how would he have known the blacksmith’s name? Or even that the man had been a blacksmith.
And even more than that, if this were all part of his imagination, then why did he still feel the invisible scabbard and sword looped over his shoulder. He could feel it and knew it was real. He wasn’t imagining things.
Whoever that man was that had killed the king and ridden off on the royal steed, Emillian intended to find him and bring him to justice.
Emillian began to shout and rock the sides of the carriage that they had put him in. There wasn’t much danger of him doing anything to escape, but he could tell that the noise irritated the driver who shouted for him to shut up.
He continued carrying on. Making as big of a ruckus as he could. Shouting for help as they made their way toward the city through throngs of people who were returning home. The driver pulled off the road a bit and stopped. Then climbed down and shouted for him to be quiet.
“I’ll come in there myself and slap you silly,” the driver roared at him.
Emillian continued to yell and taunt him. The driver pulled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. He stepped inside and buffeted Emillian across the face with a stunning blow.
“Keep quiet. You’re driving me bonkers, man!” he shouted.
But instead of doing what he said, Emillian continued shouting and yelling. Not saying anything in particular, but simply making as much noise as he could to irritate the guard. He had an idea. A way to test if his invisible object was really real.
Emillian rose up to face the man and slid the loop of the scabbard over his shoulder while he continued yelling. The driver came rushing at him with his arm raised. Emillian swung the invisible scabbard across the man’s head.
He couldn’t see anything, but he did hear a loud thump as the hilt of the sword connected with the side of the man’s face. The driver fell back against the wall of the carriage in shock.
“What magic is this, you fool?” The driver roared in anger and fear, as he tried to stand back up and charge Emillian again.
Emilian pushed himself to the side and swung the invisible sword again. This time it connected with the back of the driver’s head, and he slid to the ground with a groan. The sword came loose from the scabbard though and clattered to the ground.
He heard the loud clatter of the metal against the wooden flooring. Using the keys to uncuff himself wasn’t difficult. Then Emillian got down on his hands and knees as he felt around for the sword. He managed to find it and slid it back into the scabbard before looping it over his neck.
But then he stopped and slipped it off. If he were going to do what the king ordered, it would be a long trip and it would be uncomfortable to carry it all the way back like that. He ran his fingers around the belt as he felt for the buckle.
Emiilian found it and tried fitting int around his waist. It felt awkward, as if it hadn’t been made to fit around his waist the way he was used to wearing his unusual sword. The one that the knights had taken from him when they threw him in this carriage.
He slipped the belt back over his shoulder. Strangely enough, it seemed to have been made to fit that way. Emillian had seen knights wear their swords that way even though he never had. It was the customary way that knights in Hubinti tended to wear their swords.
But without being able to see it with his eyes, he needed time to play around with it. And that wasn’t something he had a whole lot of right now. Emillian knew that he needed to to get out of here and fast before others of the royal guard came along and decided to see if the driver of the carriage needed help.
Emillian slipped the handcuffs on the driver, and then tore a strip of cloth from the bottom of his guard’s shirt to gag him with for when he woke up. Then he locked the door and hopped up to take the reigns. Emillian followed the crowd into the city.
Once he arrived, Emillian began looking for a man who described the assassin. He left the horse and carriage near the market and began his search for the assassin.
“Hey! Excuse me. I’m looking for this blacksmith. I was here a few months ago. He’s short, about this high, stocky, and going bald on top. Wears a dagger with a blue handle on his right side.”
Nobody seemed to know who he was talking about as he weaved his way through the market. Finally, he came across someone selling pots and pans and other metal objects created by a blacksmith. When he described the assassin, the sales man seemed to know who he was talking about it.
“Yes, I used to buy wares from a blacksmith that sounds like the person your describing,” the man muttered as he rubbed his beard. “Where was it?”
Emillian pulled a few coins from his pocket and set them on the table. The salesmen smiled.
“I’ll be happy to take your money, but I’m not being coy just to get you to job my memory with a bribe. I really don’t remember. It was several months back. I needed some specialty work done. Someone recommended him. I believe his name was Liviu. He lived down near the bull run. The name of the street may have been Copper Lion or Copper Leopard. One of those two. Like I said, it was a long time ago.” The man mused.
Emillian thanked him and made his way down toward the bull run. When he got close, Emillian asked around for direction to Copper Lion or Copper Leopard.
“Copper Lion is right over there. Just two blocks down, friend. Copper Leopard on the other hand is way over on the other side of town.”
“No, it’s close to the Bull Run,” Emillian said.
“Well, than it’ll be right over there.”
Emillian found it and started down the street, asking where the blacksmith lived. He came across an elderly woman sitting on a rocker on her front porch.
“There used to be a blacksmith down at that corner. But he died several months back,” an old lady said.
A door with the word blacksmith still painted across the top soon came into view. It looked old and run down as if no one had been in or out in a very long time. Emillian knocked, but no on answered. He pushed on the door and tried the knob. To his surprise, it opened easily with a slight push.
“Hello,” Emillian called out into the empty room that greeted him. “Is anybody here.”
No one answered, so he stepped through into the first room. The building was warm from the heat of the sun beating down on it. The thud of his footsteps on the wooden flooring echoed around him as he crossed the room.
A white sheet draped down over the door blocked his view of what was in the next room. Emillian knocked on the door frame and called out before stepping through. It was dark and quiet. Three doors led off in different directions. Two to his left and one straight ahead out the back. Each one covered with a white sheet like the previous.
Emillian checked the first of the two side doors. The only thing inside was a single bed against the far wall. The second room also had a bed. Emillian saw a brown wooden dresser on one side, along with a small table and chair on the other.
The bed looked as if it had been slept in recently. He ran his fingers across the dresser and noticed that there was no dust across the top of it. And there were also no clothes or anything else stored in the drawers.
After checking the two side room, Emillian went through the sheet that covered the final door in the back of the building. It looked as if it had once been a kitchen.
There was a single plate, spoon, and pan on the sink underneath a window. A few bare shelves to the right. And a small wood stove in the corner. Although Emillian was excited to notice that the ashes inside were still warm.
“Could this be where the assassin hid?” Emillian wondered. “Should he stay here and wait for Liviu to return? The man might not come back though, at least not any time soon.”
Emillian decided that patience was a virtue though. He might as well wait for a bit. He didn’t know where else he could go. So, Emillian wanted to sit down, so he went to the bedroom where he flopped himself down on the bed.
It felt good to sit down and rest his weary bones. No, exhausted was a better word for the way he felt after all his running around.
He leaned back against the wall and thought he heard the sound of fire in the distance. A deep heaviness fell over his body so that he felt like he could barely hold his head up. Emillian realized that it was more than just being tired. It felt as if all his energy were being sapped from his body.
His eyes started to close. Emillian struggled to keep them open. The sound of the burning fire roared around him, getting louder until it sounded like the entire house was burning down around him. He could hear the crackling of flames, the hissing of burning wood, and even the popping of the coals.
Emillian wanted to stand up and leave the house, but he no longer had the strength. Worry and fear gripped his heart. His breathing became came in heavy, labored heaves.
And then, Emillian could see the flames enveloping the walls around him. Swiftly consuming the building around him as if it were only paper.
Then a dark figure strode toward him through the smoke and flames. A dark knight unsheathed his sword as he came closer. His cape billowing behind him as the hot drafts wafting up from the blaze around him.
Emillian’s body trembled in terror. He wanted to flee but was paralyzed from the neck down. He couldn’t move a muscle. Emillian tried to speak, but no sound came out of his mouth. His breath came in labored gasps.
The ground turned black from the soot and ashes raining down from the fiery drafts. Each step the knight took caused the ground to tremble and crack before him, exposing fire under the ground.
The flames had consumed the entire building around Emillian and the knight. The only thing that hadn’t been touched was the bed he had been sitting on. Even the wall behind him that he had been leaning upon had been consumed. He leaned over the edge, but a blast of heat coming up from the ground pushed him back onto the bed. It was his only safe haven in this fiery inferno.
The knight stopped several paces away. He kneeled and rammed the tip of his sword into the ground. The jar of the sword striking the ground caused the fiery cracks to open even wider and longer, stretching out toward the bed that Emillian was sitting upon.
It also seemed to activate the sword as a series of sigils began to light up along the center of the blade. Emillian didn’t understand explicitly what they spelled out, but they seemed to awaken something deep within. They felt familiar somehow as if he had seen them before.
The awakening of an urge began to grow in his heart. A longing for the sword seemed to fill his bones. Implicitly, he sensed that the sigils somehow meant that the sword belonged to him. He wanted the sword and struggled to stand up. But his body still failed to obey him. His limbs sluggish and weak.
“Who are you?” Emillian moaned as he finally managed to force his mouth to cooperate.
The knight remained motionless, still kneeling in position until all of the sigils had been activated. Then stood to his feet. The roar of the fire intensified. Flames continued to rise even though there wasn’t much left of the building to consume. Vapor rose from cracks in the ground and a deep mist began to fill the air around them.
The fear that the knight would leave with the sword overcame Emillain. The thought terrified him. He struggled to roll off the bed. Fire or fire. Heat or no heat. The desire to possess the sword consumed him. And yet he still couldn’t seem to force his muscles to cooperate. Tears of desperation streamed down his face.
The knight took a step in his direction and Emillian breathed a sigh of relief that the sword wasn’t leaving yet. He no longer feared the knight’s presence as it strode toward him.
His heart yearned to reach out and touch the sword in the knight’s hand. Emillian strained to reach out and wrest it from his grasp. As the knight came closer, Emillian felt strength returning to his body so that he was able to move again.
“Rise, Sir Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. Arise before me and hear what I have to say.” a deep command resonated from the dark knight standing before him.
Emillian felt no fear. Only a strange sense of curiosity to know what they knight would say, mixed with the desire to wrest the sword away for himself. Although he sensed deep within his heart that he would never be strong enough to take the sword by force.
As he swunt his feet over the edge of the bed, Emillian realized that the heat from the flames around him no longer bothered him. In fact, they felt good. Almost as if they massaged his aching muscles and soothed his soul.
The knight stopped and cocked his head to the side. Looking at Emillian as if he could see straight through him and into his heart. There was a long pause before the knight finally raised his visor. The face of the king.
Emillian gasped. “Are you a ghost?” his voice quavered.
“Emilian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. You are a strange choice. Fate and coincidence have merged this day with your path. Your destiny has intertwined with that of the Firebrand, Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti. Through no fault of your own, it fallen into your possession and you now have a choice to make. Will you keep it and fulfill its duty as the Hope of Hubinti, or would you prefer to pass on the task to another more worthy?”
His head reeled with the information. He had heard of such a sword as Firebrand. Legends of old and many of the old wive’s fables spoke of this sword of power that had been forged centuries ago to drive away the forces of darkness that had once enslaved all the lands of Darmadauti.
Old King Nicu had gained victory over the dark forces with that magical sword, and then divided the seven kingdoms of the continent among his children. Six sons and a daughter he found fit to rule among her brothers. His daughter Ruxandra became the queen and ruler of Hubinti, the mightiest of the seven kingdoms of Darmadauti.
But that had been long ago, and Emillian never truly believed the stories his mother told him were real. He was extremely pragmatic and had never believed in magic. Not even as a child. He shook his head and realized that this must all be some silly dream. But if it were a dream, it was an interesting one, so he might as well play along.
“What are the duties of this Hope of Hubinti?” Emillian asked. “And what shall be required of me?”
“As you know, the sword was forged to defeat the Vinoid and drive them from the land.”
“From time to time, the Vinoid, as well as other threats appear. The seek to kill the bearer of the sword. You must be alert and vigilant. You must use your wits and your strength and your skills to protect the land and its people from those who would devour them. It is a great task, but Firebrand is willing to allow you to wield it. It will aid you in this great endeavor.”
The desire to possess the sword continued to grow. It was all Emillian could do to refrain himself from reaching out to grab it with both hands.
“Yes,” Emillian responded without hesitation and reached out his hand for the sword.
The king knight twisted his body to the side and pulled the sword back to his shoulder out of reach.
“Kneel and swear fealty to Firebrand, the Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti,” the knight’s ordered.
Emillian knelt and clasped his hands in front of him as he had years before when he was first knighted by his first master. Lord Horatiu had treated Emillian well while he was alive, but had died several of an illness shortly thereafter. Emillian struggled as a blacksmith’s assistant for almost a year before being invited to join Sir Costin’s band.
They were mercenaries for hire and swore fealty to no one. Anyone who needed a task completed and was willing to pay the highest price. It really didn’t matter to Sir Constin whether they were good or bad. The color of their money was all the same to him.
But Emilian swore with all of his heart that he would serve the sword and fulfill its duty. He didn’t care what was required, Emillian felt the desire to carry it wherever it led. The words flowed out of his throat from the depths of his heart. No, it felt even deeper as if the words were coming from his very bowels.
“I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the sword Firebrand. Always to deflect the darkness and protect the land. Never cause it harm and will observe my homage to it completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.”
When he completed his vows, Emillian felt tears streaming down his cheeks. It surprised even himself. His heart burned within him. It was a strange feeling of tenderness and care. Almost how he imagined he would feel for his parents, his siblings, or even his children when they were born.
The king knight took a step forward and towered over Emillian. He continued to hold the sword against his right shoulder with is left arm crossed in front of him to hold it in place. With his right hand, the knight struck Emillian a backhanded blow across the right cheek and then struck him against the left.
“I hereby dub thee, Sir Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani, Knight of Fires and Wielder of Firebrand, Deflector of Darkness and Protector of Darmadauti.”
A wave of fire flowed through this body. Emillian could hear the cackle of flames roaring in his ears. He felt heat wafting from his heart and across his body. The blood in his veins thrummed with the vibration of each heartbeat.
Emillian felt unlimited energy, as if he could do anything. Nothing seemed to be impossible to him. Difficult maybe, but not impossible. He felt as if he could fly if he wanted to. His heart sang with joy as the knight placed Firebrand in his hands and bid him rise to his feet.
And then everything began to glow around him and turned orange. He opened his eyes and found himself lying in the bed once again as he gasped to regain his breath from the beautiful dream.
The invisible sword that the king had given him was gripped in his hands before him in the same position as the knight had given it to him. He closed his eyes and struggled to make sense of everything he had experienced. It had felt so real. Had it all been just a dream?
The knight’s final warning continued to echo in his ears, “Only you can see the sword. When others know you have it, they will attempt to take it from you by force or by trickery. Guard it well and it will protect you.”
Suddenly, Emillian realized that the house had caught fire and was burning down around him. He jolted upright in the bed and looked for a way to escape, but there was none. Flames consumed the wall around the door. The roof was caving in to his left.
He leaped out of bed still holding the sword in front of him. The sigils glowing brightly before him as they seemed to reflect the light from the flames. Then he realized he could see the sword. It was no longer invisible to his eyes. It was even more exquisite than he remembered from his dream.
Another, larger chunk of the roof caved in and landed at his feet. A shower of flames poured down across the left half of his body, but he felt no pain. Emillian held out his hands over the flame and it felt good. He reached down lower, but the heat still didn’t bother him.
Emillian even went so far as to stick his hand down into the center of the flames. No pain. He grabbed a handful of coal and brought them up close to his face. He inhaled the flames and even went so far as to take a bite out of the coal. It didn’t taste very good, so he spit it back out.
Then he walked out into the center of the flaming mass that had fallen from the roof. Not even his clothes caught fire. Emillian grinned and jumped around the in the flames giddily. He laughed out loud and walked toward the wall.
The fire had weakened it enough that he could push right through it. It didn’t give way immediately, but as he pushed against the wood, Emillian could sense the flames intensifying around him. Almost as if he were willing the fire to burn and consume the wooden walls even more furiously.
Now that he could see the sword and scabbard, it was an easy task to adjust the belt into the proper position across his chest. It was a baldric. Not a piece customarily used by the knights in Hubiti, but he had seen them before when his mercenary missions had taken him to other countries.
After adjusting the baldric and scabbard properly, Emillian slid the sword into its protective sheath. Then he pulled it out again just to feel its weight in his hands and admire the sigils. They felt so comforting and familiar.
There wasn’t much sense staying in the burning building. The roof had burned off and most of the walls had been consumed as well. Only the outer edges of the building still stood. He walked to the front door and opened it to let himself out.
A collective gasp went up from the crowd standing around watching the fires consume the building. Lines had formed in front of the surrounding buildings as people handed buckets from wells to the rooves of their homes so that the fire wouldn’t spread.
Someone ran forward with a bucket of water and splashed it over Emillian as he stood framed in the door as the building burned down around him. He sputtered and walked away muttering a thanks. Not that he was very happy to be soaked, but he understood that the person was only trying to help. It would have been rude not to show some appreciation. The silent crowd backed away in each line as he walked toward them.
“Good sir,” a woman called out as he approached. “Did you see what started the fires?”
Emillian shook his head. “I was sleeping,” he replied.
It was growing dark. He had slept right though the afternoon. There was no sense waiting around for Liviu. He most likely wasn’t going to return. Emillian decided to find a good horse and ride for the royal city. There he would look for the royal blacksmith and maybe get some answers to the questions burning in his mind. It would be a long ride, but if he left soon on a good horse, Emillian knew he could make it there before sunrise.
It was just as well. Riding under the cover of darkness would offer protection against being seen by the city guards who were probably still on the look out for him. Give them a few days and they would probably forget what he looked like. Once he got to Morasi, Emillian could lay low till for a few days.
A large, sprawling city with plenty of places to rest and relax after a long night’s ride. He even had a few friends there, maybe he could even find a place to stay for free and save some coin. Who knew how long it would take to meet up with Sir Constin and crew to start working again. Best to conserve money for the time.
Another good reason to be on the road at night because then he wouldn’t have to pay for an inn. Especially since he didn’t know anyone this far west. He was a long way from Morasi and even farther from his home in Sulisani.
Maybe after talking with the royal blacksmith, he would head back home. It had been almost two years since he had been back there. The thought of seeing his brothers again warmed his heart. He was the oldest and knew they would be happy to see him return in safety. Emillian couldn’t wait to tell them stories of his adventures across the lands. He made a mental note to pick up some souveniers for his sisters from the royal city as he approached the city stables.
“Here to pick up a horse, sir?” the stableboy asked him as Emillian approached.
“Actually, I left my horse with a friend. I just want to see if he arrived with it yet.”
The boy nodded and returned to grooming a large, dappled silver horse. Large and muscular. One that looked like it had been bred for battle.
Emillian moved quickly through the stables as he looked for Freckles, his white horse with scattered brown splotches. It wasn’t anything magnificent to look at, but it was sturdy enough to get him around. Still.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to continue riding the poor, old thing. It was well along in years and probably wouldn’t survive another winter. Emillian didn’t spot the horse in any of the stables though.
Sir Constin had most likely decided to camp under the stars for the night and hobbled the horses somewhere outside the city. Emillian knew he didn’t stand much chance of finding them at night. So, he made his way back to the lad and asked if the stable had any horses to rent for a week.
The stableboy shook his head and said, “All our available horses were taken for the events of the day. Most aren’t due back till tomorrow morning at the earliest. And others will be gone for the entire week.”
“Do you know of anyone who wants to sell a horse for a cheap price?” Emillian asked hopefully.
The stableboy shook his head instantly and without hesitation, “Not one worth riding.”
Emillian walked up the road toward the entrance of the inn. He might have to stay here tonight anyway, but when he inquired of the innkeeper, Emillian told that there were no available rooms. That would explain why Sir Costin’s horses weren’t in the stable.
“We’ve been booked out for the entire week, as have all the other inns in town,” the innkeeper said with a grin. “And now it looks like we’ll be booked out even longer as people wait around to find out who killed the king.”
Emillian started to spit out a snarky reply but decided to keep his mouth shut. No sense in irritating the innkeeper or drawing unnecessary attention to himself. He ordered a plate of pumpes with a side of compost.
His mouth watered at the smell of the food. When his bowls arrived, Emillian dove right in. The sauce of almond milk and spices over his meatballs weren’t the best Emillian had ever tasted. However, the mix of vegetables he ordered on the side were perfectly seasoned.
After Emillian had paid and bid the maid farewell, he set off to the stable. He had been hatching an idea for getting a horse yet tonight. But if that didn’t work and all else failed, he would start walking to Rosiocari. Emillian felt refreshed after his nap and meal. Then he would wake up in the morning and hitch a ride on a wagon the rest of the way to the royal city.
Just as he left the in though, Emillian heard the familiar voice of Sir Costin calling for him.
“There you are, lad. We’ve been looking all over for you. You had us worried sick. Where have you been?” the leader of their little band asked.
Emillian smiled broadly as he turned to approach the short, balding man.
“Right here, my lord!” Emillian replied. “It’s good to see your face again. Have you found an inn to stay the night?”
Sir Costin snorted in irritation, “No, we had to camp down by the bend in the river. There’s not an inn to be had for all the gold in Darmadauti, lad. We came up here to see if we could get a warm meal.”
Gheorghe came around the corner of the building across the square with a band of five soldiers in his wake. A sly smile crossed Sir Costin’s face when he notice them too. Emillian saw Gheorghe pointing in his direction and the soldiers picked up speed as the came toward him.
“What is the meaning of this, my lord?” Emilian asked.
“We’re getting you a room for the night down in the dungeons, my boy. You’re worth a bag of gold coins to the mayor of Rosiocari.” Sir Costin said with a greedy glitter in his eye. “I never thought you were worth much, but I guess the mayor thinks otherwise.”
Sir Costin snicked at his own joke. He always laughed at his own dumb jokes even when no one else did.
Emillian breathed in deeply and analyzed his options. He had never considered himself overly intelligent. And tended to let others make important decisions. For the last several months, Emillian had pretty much let Sir Costin do the thinking for him, obeying pretty much everything the man had told him to do. To be betrayed like this was infuriating.
Now, it was time to cut ties and do his own thinking. Even as the knights ran toward him and ordered him to get down on his knees, Emillian felt a strange peace come over him. His focus seemed to clear and he knew exactly what to do. He could sense the flame burning within his heart guide him.
The sound of the flames crackling provided intense focus. The sense of warmth flowing through the veins blodded him with calm. The heat from his belly radiated into his bones and muscles as he exploded from where he was standing.
Emillian leaped backward up onto the ledge of the fountain. He kicked water with his foot into the face of the lead soldier. The man jerked back thinking he was going to get kicked in the face and slipped on the wet stone. Emillian flipped over the man’s head and landed in front of the other. Emillian ducked as the man swung at him. He spun and kicked the man’s feet out from under him. Then he came up with a wicked uppercut that knocked the third man out instantly.
Gheorghe raised his hands and backed up with fear in his eyes. He had always been a coward and let others do his fighting for him. Sir Costin’s mouth moved as he stood there flabbergasted. Neither of them had ever seen Emillian do anything close to this.
“You’ll regret this. Both of you.” Emillian growled before racing for the stable.
“Halt! I command you to yield on order of the sheriff of Rosiocari!” A the guard sputtered furiously after composing himself.
Emillian thrilled as he raced into the stable. He had never felt so alive. He vibrated with a sense of energy and excitement that made him laugh as he leaped onto the back of the silver dapple horse. He had always been obedient and complied when told what to do. The sense of rebelling against the sherrif’s soldiers was amazing.
The silver horse responded instantly to his touch and command even though it had no bit or bridle. He felt as if the horse had been waiting for him and knew exactly what he wanted it to do as it raced out of the stable almost bowling over Gheorghe and the soldiers who had come after him.
“Hey! That horse belongs to Sherrif Ovidiu. He’ll throw you in the dungeon for stealing his horse.”
“He already wants to throw me in the dungeon!” Emillian shouted over his shoulder with a gleeful laugh.
Even his own reaction was surprising to him. Emillian had never thought it could be this much fun to be in trouble with the law. Did this mean that he was now an outlaw? Emillian the Outlaw. He grinned with satisfaction at the name.
It didn’t sound that exciting though. He would have to come up with something a little more catchy. He thought of other names as the silver dapple horse galloped through the forests and over the hills toward the royal city of Morasi.
This horse was nothing like any he had ever ridden. It rode fast and hard almost the entire night. They stopped only to drink and let the horse catch its breath at a few strategic spots. As the sun rose over the mountains ahead, Emillian could see the city sprawled out before them.
The massive spires of the castle jutted high into the sky. There was not another structure like it in all the land of Darmadauti. Emillian loved the city and had wandered its streets often. However, he had never been inside the fortified section that housed the castle.
But today, that would change. He needed to find his way inside to speak with royal blacksmith of Morasi. Then, it struck Emillian that he didn’t even know the blacksmith’s name. He wracked his brain, but for the life of him could not recall the king mentioning the man’s name as he gave Emillian his final instructions.
Previously, Emillian would have worried and through about how to proceed. But today, he felt like a new man. Deep within him, he felt the unshakeable confidence that everything would work out. Not just because he wanted it to, but because Emillian felt confident that he could face whatever obstacle came his way and overcome it using his wits, skills, and strength.
Emillian rode through the city streets toward the gate of the fortress that loomed before him. He wondered if anyone would recognize himself of the sheriff’s horse that he had stolen. He doubted it, but Emillian had heard of people using pigeons to carry messages from one city to another.
The drawbridge over the moat was down, but before he could cross it, two guards stepped out and challenged him.
“Halt and state your business, man,” one of the royal guards called out.
“Good morning, fine sirs! My name is Emillian Petre Solomon of Sulisani. I come to seek the royal blacksmith.”
“Sir Valerian? The king’s blacksmith? What do you want with him?” the guard asked, glancing over at his companion.
“I have a message and token for him,” Emillian declared boldly.
He was pleased to have learned the name of the man the king wanted him to see.
“What is it?” the guard demanded to know.
“It’s for his ears only. It was whispered to me by King Rares as he lay dying yesterday. I rode through the night without sleep to get here as quickly as possible.”
The knights conferred amongst themselves for a few moments before the guard ordered Emillian to dismount and walk forward slowly with his arms to the side. When he got close, they ordered him to turn around so they could see if he had a weapon.
“You were there when the king was killed?” the knight inquired.
Emillian nodded curtly and pursed his lips.
“And you saw who killed the king?” the other guard beside him interrogated.
“Aye. And sadly, the queen as well,” Emillian sighed.
“So, you could identify their killer?” the first guard asked again. “Who was it?”
Emillian nodded again at his first question. To the second, he told the guard that his information was for Sir Valerian’s ears at the king’s command. The guard narrowed his eyes suspiciously.
“You rode through the night from Rosiocari without a sword?” the guard demanded incredulously.
Emillian had forgotten that he hadn’t been able to see the sword either when the king gave it to him. He did have the invisible sword with him, but he couldn’t tell them that. And he had to come up with something believable otherwise they wouldn’t let him through.
“My friend Sandu, a carpenter lives down the street. I’m staying with him and leaving my belongings there. I didn’t know if I would be allowed to enter the king’s fortress with weapons.”
Which was mostly true. He did plan on staying with Sandu, and he didn’t know if weapons were allowed in the castle.
“Well, stand aside and let the miller behind you cross over with his bags of flour. Meantime, we’ll relay this information to Sir Valerian. If he agrees to see you, we’ll let you through. Due to the king’s assassination and other strange events, you have to understand that we aren’t just letting anyone inside the castle today.”
Emillian nodded and pulled his horse to the side. After the miller passed, he returned to the edge of the drawbridge to wait for Sir Valerian’s invitation.
He didn’t have to wait long. The messenger came back and spoke to the knights with his hands on his knees. The knights waved him back over.
“Sir Valerian says that he will see you if you can answer a question correctly.”
Emillian smiled encouragingly and nodded. The knights turned to look at the messenger who was still breathing hard from his run up the castle steps. Emillian raised his eyebrows expectantly as he waited for the messenger to catch his breath.
“This token,” the messenger said as he stood back up and put his hands on his hips still breathing hard. “What letter does it begin with?”
“The sigils of the…” Emillian started to say when the messenger held up his hand with a frightened look.
“Sir Valerian’s clear instructions were that you not say what the token is. Only that you tell me what is the first letter that it starts with.” the messenger said before clarifying apologetically. “He did not tell me what it was either. I only know the letter that he told me would be acceptable.”
“Oh, I understand now,” Emillian said with a smile. “The letter S.”
The messenger bowed his head in acknowledgment and nodded for the guards to let him through. He also beckoned for Emillian to follow him. The guards looked from the messenger to Emillian and then to each other in confusion. The one who seemed to be the leader and asked the most question shrugged and stepped back first. The other followed suit.
Emillian nodded and thanked each of them as he led his horse through the gate. The messenger showed him where to tie his horse, and then led him up the wide steps through the entrance of the castle. Four guards fell into step behind Emillian and the messenger as they passed through the entrance.
The messenger must have caught his breath by then because he was walking briskly down the halls and through the corridors that even Emillian’s long legs had trouble keeping up with him. It felt as if they had walked the entire length of the castle and back at least three times.
Emillian was completely lost and knew that if the messenger and guards disappeared, he would be lost in here for days. The castle looked enormous from the outside, but it felt even larger now that they were inside.
They finally came to a large set of double doors with two guards standing before it with solemn faces. They stepped aside and opened the doors. The messenger held up his hand for Emillian to wait at the door. The guards closed the door behind him.
After a brief pause, the doors opened again and the messenger beckoned for Emillian to come inside. The four knights followed him.
The room was long and narrow. There was a forge with a fire blazing down at the end. Shelves and tables filled the room with many blacksmith tools that were familiar to him. They reminded him of his days working as a blacksmith’s apprentice after his first lord had died.
The blacksmith smiled and motioned for them to wait. He pulled a glowing yellow block of metal from the forge and swirled around in a pail of water. The water boiled a bit and vapor rose from the pail. When he was satisfied, the blacksmith pulled the hunk of metal out of the pail and set it on his anvil.
Then he pulled off his gloves and approached Emillian with a sad smile through a thick, snow-white beard and mustache. He kept it short and trimmed which made him look wise and elegant.
“So, they tell me that you were with King Rares when he was assassinated,” Sir Valerian spoke with a rich, resonating voice.
Emillian nodded and tried to match his somber mood with the appropriate mourning look in his own eyes. He had been so focused on trying to understand the mysterious events and escape Rosiocari on his journey here, that he had forgotten that people who had just learned of these events would still be grieving themselves.
“Yes, I’m sorry, my lord. I was in the crowd when a man jumped out and stabbed the king twice with his dagger before striking the queen.”
“Were no guards there to stop him?” Sir Valerian asked with a suspicious edge to his voice.
“There were guards, knights, and soldiers before them and behind them. But some sort of confusion at the front of the processional drew their attention.”
Emillian briefly explained what he had seen and the events that had transpired around him. When he started to relay the king’s message, Sir Valerian held up his hand for Emillian to pause. The white-haired old man ordered all of the guards to leave the room.
There was a silent, collective sigh of disappointment as they turned to leave. Emillian had noticed that they were anxiously leaning toward him, listening to every word. Grasping for morsels of gossip to spread as soon as they left the room.
After they were gone, Sir Valerian offered Emillian a chair and told him to continue, “There are words that are best not spread around the castle at this time,” he said in a hushed voice. Pray, tell me all.”
Emillian looked around the room and scanned the walls for slits or peepholes. He had heard that most castles had secret tunnels that allowed the palace spies to eavesdrop on kings and noblemen as they discussed their plans.
The blacksmith chuckled when he noticed what Emillian was looking for. “It’s okay, lad. There are no tunnels here. When this castle was built, no one expected the blacksmith to hold secrets like this to the kingdom. That’s why I had you brought here. It will chafe the palace spies so. Just keep your voice down.”
With a satisfied nod, Emillian continued his story and telling the blacksmith what the king had said. The old man seemed disappointed that there wasn’t more.
“So, you do have the sword with you?” he asked huskily almost nervously.
Emilian nodded and started to reach for it, but the old man held out his hand to stop him. He stood up and walked over toward his forge, motioning for Emillian to follow him.
“The confusion that you noticed was caused by the use of powerful magic. Illusions confound the minds of the crowd and blind them to the king’s assassination. I suspected as much when we received so many different variations of when the king was found dead.”
The memory of the woman in black that had mesmerized him flashed through his mind.
“This sounds like the Vinoid. They return every decade or so with a new plot or attempt to destroy the sword. Through the ages, we have managed to withstand their wiles. But this is the first time they have been so bold as to actually assassinate a king.”
Sir Valerian held up a strap of leather before Emillian’s chest as if measuring him as he felt for the invisible baldric and scabbard. He pretended to be measuring Emillian’s size as he deftly unbuckled the sword. Emillian felt a strange sensation as Sir Valerian tried to take the sword from him. A sense of anger and jealousy for the sword. As if the sword belonged to him, and he felt possessive of it.
Just then the door burst open and a large man in black burst through, followed by two others. Emillian recognized him.
“That’s the man who was with the mesmerizing woman yesterday,” Emillian hissed to Sir Valerian.
The two guards who had been standing at the door were lying across the threshold where they had been slain. Blood from their slit throats pooled around them.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Sir Valerian called out cheerily as if they were regular customers. “I’m just finishing up some measurements here and then I will attend to you.”
He gave up trying to unbuckle the invisible baldric and came back around to lay the piece of leather on the table. He cut it with a smile and great relish as if this were his favorite task in the world.
“And what can I do for you today?” Sir Valerian asked without a trace of nervousness.
Sir Valerian stepped in front of Emillian protectively. The man in black grunted and turned to the door as if waiting for someone. After a brief pause, a fourth man dressed in black arrived dragging a short, stocky figure.
“Liviu Iacob Albu? The blacksmith of Rosicario that everyone says is dead? Huh?” Emillian glowered at him.
Liviu shrugged and said, “It’s easier to plot revenge when everyone thinks you are dead. I told you that the duke killed my family. It was a blood debt that needed to be repaid.”
Emillian stepped forward and pointed an accusing finger. “But you didn’t kill a duke. You killed the king,” Emillian said in exasperation.
Liviu looked confused and shook his head. He looked at the large man in black and said, ” You told me that was the Duke of Tanlan who killed my family.”
“I also told you to fetch his sword and bring it to me,” the man in black growled. “Is this the man that pulled you off of the carriage?”
“Yes. I didn’t have a chance to find the duke’s sword because this man pulled me away from the carriage,” Liviu replied with a snort. “If he has the sword, will you still pay me what you promised?”
“I will pay you right now,” the man in black said with a wicked grin.
Liviu grinned and said, “Paid great wealth to exact revenge I already wanted. It doesn’t get much better than…”
The man in black’s sword sliced across his throat just as it had the guards at the door. Liviu slumped to the floor beside them.
“Give us the sword and we will let you live, lad,” the man in black said reaching out a gloved hand.
“What makes you think I have a sword? Do you see one around? Sir Valerian, do you have a sword around we can give this man? Or I’m sure Sir Valerian can forge you a beautiful sword to your exact specifications.”
The man in black growled and said, “So, you think you are a funny boy. Huh? We know Liviu didn’t get it. And you pulled him away. That means you must have it.”
“Uh, there were lots of knights and soldiers and guards around. Any one of them could have taken it.”
“No, because our men were on the scene almost immediately and the sword wasn’t there. Either you or Liviu took it.”
“Well, maybe Liviu took it and hid it. He just didn’t tell you.”
The man in black roared in frustration for Emillian to be quiet. “Silence. We’ll soon find out if you have or not. This is an easy matter to resolve.”
Emillian tried to change tactics and distract the man from his questions about the sword.
“Oh! Do you have six fingers? And you fight with your left hand?” Emillian asked. “Are you a Vinoid? My grandmother and mother use to tell me tales of those who had six fingers and were left-handed. And they usually had red hair.”
The man in black grinned wickedly and splayed his six fingers proudly as he reached up to pull off his wig. Tufts of coppery red hair stuck out in a wild mess. “Vinoid as they come, and proud of it,” he said with an arrogant boast.
Emillian smiled and gave Sir Valerian a knowing look. His mother and grandmother had never called the Vinoid by name. That he had learned from the old blacksmith. But now he knew where many of the old fairy tales had come from. At least he had confirmed Sir Valerian’s information.
“Well then, I guess that makes me the handsome prince. Here to free the beautiful princess from your evil grasp.” Emillian joked nervously.
Just then the woman in black that he had seen at the assassination breezed into the room. She stepped over the bodies lying on the floor as if seeing them there didn’t bother her in the least. The woman’s eyes swept over everyone in the room and came to rest on Emillian.
“Told you he had the sword, Xander,” the woman said.
She gave the man in black a mocking, I-told-you-so smile.
Xander gave a sigh of relief and said, “Good. Does he have it with him?”
“Of course, he does,” she replied. “I can sense it wrapped around his body.”
The man in black growled and motioned for the other three men behind him to grab Emillian. Sir Valerian leaped to the side of the room and drew a long sword hanging on the wall. He yelled Emillian’s name and tossed him the sword.
Emillian grabbed it from the air just as the men were upon him. He didn’t have much room to swing but took a step back so that he managed to thrust the sword up into one of the men’s belly. The man went down with a loud scream, pulling the sword with him, almost yanking it from Emillian’s arms.
The other two men grabbed Emillian by the arms and slammed him back against the wall. They were as large as Emillian and extremely strong. They each held him up against the wall with one arm, as they felt his body for the invisible sword.
One of them felt it and gave it a hard tug to pull it from his body. But by them, Sir Valerian was upon them with another sword that he had grabbed. They let Emillian go and he slid to the ground.
The man closest to Sir Valerian engaged with his sword and they had a go. Sir Valerian was old, but still very spry and nimble on his feet. He struck and parried blows as well as any sword fighter Emillian knew.
But the other man was still tugging at his invisible scabbard as if by pulling hard enough, he could get it off, even if he had to yank Emillian’s shoulder off. He was too close for Emillian to swing it or do much damage. So, he raised the sword up over his head with his free arm and brought the pommel down hard on the top of the man’s head. The man yelped and leaped back drawing his own sword.
“You little punk. You’ll pay for that. I’ll get that sword from you even if I have to chop you into little pieces.”
He came in swinging furiously. It was all Emillian could do to block and parry his blows. He was surprised at the intensity and ferocity of the man’s attack. Emillian blocked a blow. Then another. Finally, he found an opening and struck out with one of his own.
Emillian wasn’t used to fighting a sword this long and heavy. The sword he normally used was much thinner and lighter. It was mostly just for show. He practiced with it often and even sparred with other men from his band. But he never really had to use a sword much in real fights due to peace in the land his entire life.
He soon began to tire. Emillian struck out a couple of times. But mostly he was simply trying to defend himself. After his opponent came in close, Emillian managed to parry with his sword before kicking with his leg and driving the other man backward.
It gave him time to glance over at Sir Valerian who seemed to be having a great time sparring with his opponent. Unlike Emillian, he didn’t seem to be tired, and he was getting almost as many strikes in as he parried.
By then, Emillian’s opponent had recovered and came rushing back in hard. He struck several solid blows, and it was all Emillian could do to hold parry fast enough to keep from losing ground.
Sir Valerian battled his opponent and moved around so that he was close to Emillian. He struck hard at his opponent to throw him off and then struck out at Emillian’s opponent which the man had to defend. It gave Emillian a brief moment to catch himself and regain his footing.
“Give me the king’s sword,” Sir Valerian ordered. “It’s the only thing that will drive these Vinoid back to where they came from.”
Emillian didn’t want to give it up, but he knew that there wasn’t time to argue. Sir Valerian was the only one who seemed to be effective at fighting these men. And at the rate Emillian was going, he would soon lose the sword to them anyway.
He grudgingly pulled the sword from its scabbard and held it out toward Sir Valerian while he simultaneously tried to defend against his opponent’s attack. Once again, Sir Valerian managed to drive his opponent back and struck out at Emillian’s assailant.
This gave him enough time to grab the hilt of the sword from Emillian’s hand. But just as he took it, Xander rushed in together with his minion. The two of them drove Sir Valerian back with the fury of their blows. And once again, it was all Emillian could do to defend against the attack of the one man he was fighting against.
Emillian heard Sir Valerian cry out to his side and then a loud thud as he hit the ground. There was a clatter as the swords fell from his hands. Emillian glanced to the side to see Sir Valerian sprawled on the ground with blood streaming from cuts on his arms and across the front of his chest and stomach.
The distraction gave Emillian’s opponent to strike with his sword and knock Emillian backward as well. A second follow-up attack while he was off-balance with a well-placed kick to the belly, and Emillian found himself sprawled on the ground too. His sword had fallen from his hand and slid up against the wall.
His opponent stepped between Emillian and his sword. The man paused to grin down at Emillian as he wiped sweat from his forehead and eyes. He glanced over at Xander for approval as well as instructions on how to proceed.
“Just finish him,” Xander growled. “Then help us find the sword.”
Xander and his partner were already on their hands and knees as they felt around for the invisible sword. Emillian could see where it lay under one of the tables. It had partially fallen under a pile of firewood near the forge. It was too far for him to reach though.
Emillian’s opponent stepped forward and swung his foot into Emillian’s side with a wicked kick. He felt ribs crack. The pain was sickening and he howled with pain. He gasped for air and his vision began to darken as the man raised his sword for the final blow.
But for some reason, he seemed to freeze there with his sword over his head. Emillian heard the sound of flames crackling. He felt a rush of heat flood through his veins. And then he saw the same black knight walking toward him.
The knight crouched down beside Emillian and cocked his head to the side as he lifted his visor. The king’s face looked down at him with a look of pity mixed with anger. He didn’t open his mouth, but Emillian could hear his voice.
“Why did you hand the sword to another? The Firebrand was given to you. Only you can wield its power. You took the vow. I knighted you as the deflector of darkness. This is the darkness. You are the protector of Darmadauti.”
“It’s too late,” Emillian grunted. “The sword is too far away. I can’t fight as well as that old man.”
The king shook his head and said, “You have no idea what that sword is capable of doing through you. Call Firebrand and let it show you.”
Emillian glanced up at his nemesis still frozen over him. Then over at the sword still under the pile of wood. He reached out his hand and screamed for the sword as loud as he could.
The sword twisted around and shot into his hand. The pile of firewood around it exploded into a mass of missiles that flew around the room. One hit Xander. Another hit Emillian’s opponent standing over him. The third man threw himself to the ground at the sound and just barely missed taking a chunk of firewood to the head.
As soon as his fingers wrapped around Firebrand’s hilt, the king disappeared and a burst of power and energy sizzled through every cell in his body. Energizing and empowering him in a way that shocked even Emillian.
He leaped to his feet in a single bound. Everything happened so fast, that he was on his feet before the firewood struck his opponent. The surprise of Emilian standing in front of him while his arms were still over his head seemed to shock him just as much as the piece of wood whacking him upside the head.
Emillian drew back his sword and swung Firebrand as hard as he could. Adjusting his angle with precision and agility as his opponent fell from the knock to his head that surprised even Emillian himself. It was almost as if the sword had taken over him and were using him, adjusting him, and even empowering him.
The blade sliced through the man’s head and knocked it clean off his body. It hit the ground and rolled till it stopped at the woman’s feet. Blood splattered up across the front of her dress. She didn’t seem happy. That mesmerizing smile had been wiped from her face when she realized Emillian had just used the invisible sword.
The other man leaped to his feet and charged Emillian, but he seemed to be moving so slow. Emillian turned and waited for him to take the five steps needed to reach him. He didn’t even move until the man was on his fourth step before pulling back his sword and sidestepping the rush.
Once again, the sword seemed to be directing and guiding Emillian’s hands. It simply held itself out as the man moved past him, sliding its blade across the side of his bicep just deep enough to hit an artery.
The man didn’t seem to notice it. He turned and came in for another attack. This time Emillian felt as if the blade were once again doing all of the work. It was so effortless. Firebrand seemed so light and easy to use. Nothing like the clunky piece of iron that he had been struggling to fight with earlier.
The blade once again found its way along the man’s other arm, slicing through the side of his opposite bicep just deep enough to cut the main artery. The man stopped with a confused look on his face as he watched the blood draining from his body. He looked at Emillian’s hands.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
Emillian kept forgetting that they couldn’t see Firebrand. They couldn’t even see that he was holding a sword, much less how he was wielding it.
The man in black had risen to his feet. He moved toward Emillian. He wasn’t as slow as the other two men were. His attacks were smooth and sure. But he still wasn’t fast enough to land a blow on Emillian with Firebrand directing him.
Firebrand parried every attack perfectly. Emillian didn’t even feel the jar of the other blade hitting his. He wondered what he must look like to Sir Valerian and the woman watching. Him blocking direct sword strikes with his empty fists. It made him smile.
The smile caused Xander to pause his attack and take a moment to catch his breath.
“What’s so funny?” he growled in frustration.
“I’m just imagining what I must look like fighting with my pretend sword,” he said with a chuckle.
Xander’s eyes narrowed in irritation, but then his face softened. “You actually fight pretty good for a human. I’ve never seen someone move as fast you. Not even a Vinoid.”
The compliment made Emillian’s heart swell with joy and his face flush with pride.
“Don’t let it go to your head because I’m still going to kill you,” Xander growled before attacking again.
Emillian parried several more times but then realized that he hadn’t yet even tried striking back. His strong point was that Xander couldn’t even see how his blade would be angled to block it.
After blocking one of Xander’s attacks, Emillian took a step forward and swung his sword at his opponent’s head as a test. But since the Vinoid couldn’t see the blade coming at him, he began pulling his sword back for another attack.
Emillian’s blade sliced right through the top half of his head, slicing it off like warm butter, surprising even Emillian himself. He took a step back in shock.
The man in black turned toward the mesmerizing woman and gasped, “Aradia, flee and take word back to our lord…”
He toppled to the floor as he spoke. The woman screamed in grief and fury before turning to escape. Emillian felt the sword pulling his arm back over his head. He tried to resist it mentally, but the sword’s will was stronger.
It flew from his hand directly towards here head. A puff exploded at her feet and her body began to transform into a mist from her toes all the way up to her neck. But before her head could dissipate, the sword had sliced through her head and come out the front of her face.
The force of the throw carried the sword forward until it hit the wall. The blade vibrated from the blow until the weight of her body reforming pulled her feet to the ground. Emillian quickly stepped forward to pull the sword from the wall.
Aradia’s body slid to the floor, her blood mixing with the pool that had already formed around the palace guards they had killed earlier.
“Guess they got what they deserved,” Sir Valerian said quietly.
Emilliand jumped at the sound of his voice.
“You spooked me. How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good, now that those Vinoid are dead. We’ll drive stakes through their hearts and heads. They burn their bodies just to be sure they don’t come back to life. I’ve helped King Rares kill a few over the last several decades. We just have to make sure that they are really dead.” Sir Valerian said as he sat down with a loud groan.
“I feel bad for the woman,” Emillian said still in shock.
“Don’t be. If you had let her go, she would have attempted some trickery. Or worse, returned with more of those things.”
Emillian shuddered and sat down beside him. He watched as Sir Valerian took off his shirt.
“Not too deep,” the old man said with a sigh. “I should be good to go in another decade when they return.”
Emillian wiped Firebrand on a towel before sliding it back into his scabbard.
“You know what this means?” Sir Valerian asked in a grave tone. “The fact that the sword chose you. I tried to wield it, but it was unresponsive. I had hoped that for once it might choose me.”
Emillian shook his head. “I had a vision that the king gave it to me. He made me take an oath. Then he dubbed me and placed it in my hands.”
Sir Valerian nodded and smiled. “It means that you will be the next king.”
“What about his heirs?” Emillian asked with shock.
“The people will crown his son as king for now. You can serve him for a time if you like. But the sword is powerful. It will guide events. The people will notice. Eventually, they will crown you as their king.”
“But I don’t want to be king,” Emillian stammered. “I never even thought about it.”
“Evil and cruel men will attempt to seize and usurp the throne,” Sir Valerian replied. “Even if you don’t lay claim to it. They will fight among themselves. There will only be peace if you as the wielder of the sword fulfill your duty. That is what it was forged for all those years ago.”
“You forged it?” Emillian asked.
A twinkle in the old man’s eye was all the answer he needed.
The messenger came rushing in and gasped at the mess. He tore back down the hall to call more guards.
“Aye, that I did lad. You’re the first to ever realize that. I’ve been doing my part to keep the land free of the Vinoid. They are an ancient enemy. I do my part to make sure each person who receives the sword understands what it is capable of.”
“Sharp enough to help a dunce like me see through the illusions of the Vinoid and capable enough to defeat them once again all these centuries later,” Emillian said with a pleased sigh as he flipped Firebrand around in the lighting of the flickering fire as the guards and servants burned the hearts and heads of the Vinoid in the forge.
“I guess that means you are the King Maker,” he said with a satisfied sigh and tried to imagine what life might be like in the future with his newfound allies and powers.