Blast from the Past: Dargonzine "Great Houses War: The Stealthy Guardians"

Sir Zephrym Vladon, captain of the king’s guard, clutched Crown Prince Brad tightly to him as he rode through the Wherwell Forest, ten leagues west of Magnus. A light snow was falling, but did little to obscure vision. Zephrym wished that he had the blossoms of spring filling out the forest rather than the dark skeletons of winter, so that they could be shielded from view. He knew that insurrectionist soldiers — those who sought to uncrown King Caeron and replace him with the Beinisonian Empress Aendasia Blortnikson — would be looking for them and could not be far away.

The boy prince, a mere six years of age, clutched at Zephrym’s surcoat with hands wrapped in warm mittens. Even through the thick wool gambeson and chain mail hauberk, Zephrym could feel the warmth of Brad’s body pressing against him. Thank the All-Creator the child had stopped crying for his father, the king, as it had torn at Zephrym’s heart to hear it.

A frigid breeze swept over him. It carried with it chilling voices that whispered in a strange language. A grey mist moved with the voices, dancing amidst Zephrym’s knights then darting away. Zephrym reined his in horse so that Queen Dara could catch up to him. She was not a skilled rider; she and her ladies-in-waiting had slowed the escape from Magnus considerably.

Zephrym’s chest tightened as he remembered King Caeron ordering him to abandon Magnus and take the royal family with him. Zephrym had been a knight in the Tallirhan household for decades. He had taught Caeron how to ride a horse and wield a sword. The king was his friend. Zephrym had begged to stay with him in Magnus, but Caeron had needed someone he could trust to protect the royal family and get them to safety.

“My lady.” Zephrym’s voice came out as a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “My lady queen, stay close by my side. This is an evil wind that blows. I fear it carries word to the enemy; it is the eyes of Beinisonian sorcerers.”

“Truly, you think so?” The queen’s voice was a mere whisper, almost the timbre of a young child’s.

“I fear so.” Zephrym nodded. He had heard many tales of the power that Beinisonian mages could wield. Seeking out their enemies with magical mists was among the least of their spells. “But do not trouble yourself; we will protect you. With our lives if need be.”

He looked around at the household knights of Caeron Tallirhan. He was sure that they were the best knights in the land, each having been hand-picked and trained by himself. They were all completely loyal to the king, as well.

The crack of a dry twig breaking sounded to Zephrym’s left and his head snapped over to look in that direction. Through the sparse, barren trees, he could make out several horses and riders. He narrowed his eyes, trying to discern their heraldry. Were they friend, or foe? Before Zephrym had left Magnus, the king had received word that a loyal army from Welspeare was moving north to try to lift the siege on Irskin Castle. However, he also knew that the insurrectionist houses had armies in the same region and would undoubtedly have scouts looking for the precious treasure Zephrym escorted.

He carefully reached into a pouch that hung from his belt and pulled out a small acorn that he had carried for years. The mage who had given it to him long ago had claimed that it could be used once to determine if enemy or friend was nearby. If they were friends, it would turn into a robin; if enemies, a crow. There was no better time to use such an object, he decided, for when else would he be charged with protecting the Queen of Baranur? He held the acorn to his lips and whispered, “Friend or foe, who are they?”

He threw the acorn towards the riders ahead but it simply fell to the ground and disappeared in the snow. Zephrym silently chided himself for so foolishly trusting such a bauble. He had his own instincts that he could rely on, and those told him that these were soldiers of the insurrectionist camp.

“To arms!” Zephrym shouted, pulling his sword free of its sheath.

One of the ladies-in-waiting to his rear screamed as more brittle branches cracked. He turned his mount to see another group of knights plunging through the forest towards them. “A clever trap,” he thought.

The high-pitched clang of weapons striking each other rang through the forest as the attackers reached his knights. Holding Prince Brad carefully with his left arm, Zephrym charged to intercept a knight moving towards Queen Dara.

“Mama!” the prince cried. “What’s happening?”

“Brad!” Queen Dara screamed back. Her horse spooked and skittered out of Zephrym’s line of sight.
With a powerful swing of his sword, he caught the knight on the side of his helm and knocked him from his horse. Now Brad was wailing at the top of his lungs. Zephrym’s horse reared up and danced to the side as more enemy knights darted around him. He knew the heraldries of all the house guard well and so could easily identify his enemies.

He wheeled about and charged to Queen Dara’s side just in time to knock aside the hand of a knight reaching for her horse’s reins. The man’s chainmail saved him from losing the hand altogether, but he bellowed in pain all the same. Two more knights charged up and attacked Zephrym from both sides. He deftly knocked their blows aside, but he was beginning to tire.

Out of fatigue, he left an opening in his guard. He watched his opponent’s sword swing slowly towards Brad’s head. Zephrym swung his arm down to protect the child and the blade sliced into his chainmail sleeve. Flames seared where he was hit. His sword dropped silently to the ground, snow softening its fall.

His horse reared up in a defensive posture, allowing Zephrym to wrap Prince Brad with his wounded right arm and reach down to his boot with the other. He pulled a long-bladed dagger from it and, as his horse dropped its front hoofs back to the ground, rammed the blade up into his attacker’s throat. With a gurgling sound the knight dropped his own sword and slumped in his saddle.

Another knight wearing an old-style kettle helm charged in and swung with her flail. Zephrym was barely able to duck the blow. He urged his horse closer and, as his opponent wound up for another attack, he threw his dagger. The blade caught her in the mouth and she toppled backwards off her horse with a gurgled scream.

Zephrym looked around. The skirmish was over, bodies scattered about between trees with pools of brilliant red seeping into the snow around them. A handful of the enemy were fleeing, but most were dead. Only a few of the king’s knights had been laid low. Given a few moments to gather himself, he was able to have a proper look at the heraldry of the felled knights. They all appeared to be Northfielders, given the prevalence of blue. Duke Northfield was Aendasia’s husband, so Zephrym was hardly surprised.

“Please, give me my son,” Queen Dara said.

Zephrym realised that Prince Brad was still bawling in his arms and wriggling to get free. Zephrym moved his horse close to the queen and with his good arm took the boy by the back of his fur cloak and handed him over. Queen Dara looked down at Zephrym’s arm and gasped.

“You are wounded, Sir Zephrym.”

“I am only a little weak,” he replied. “Please, my lady queen, we must continue on. These were but a small scouting party; I’m certain there are more of them nearby.”

“Surely by now my husband has defeated them at Magnus,” she said.

Zephrym nodded silently. He hoped that she was right, but he could hear the lack of conviction in her voice, and felt it within his own heart. By the All-Creator, this was one time he should have disobeyed his liege and stayed at Magnus to fight by his side.

He swallowed hard and dismounted to pick up his sword that still lay in the snow. He wiped it off on the surcoat of one of the dead enemy and sheathed it. He noticed a dark brown horse out of the corner of his eye. He looked up to see Cyruz of Vidin, a Stevenic priest who had insisted on accompanying the queen north.

“Lord Vladon,” the priest said in a deep, rumbling voice like thunder echoing in the mountains. “Perhaps it might be prudent for us to travel only at night now that the enemy knows we are near.”

Zephrym grunted. “I appreciate the advice, but we need to make good speed if we are to find friendly forces before this entire region is covered in Northfield troops. However, what we should do is divide our contingent. The ladies in waiting slow us down too much, and frankly, I hardly see the purpose in having them with us. They will make a good decoy if dispatched in another direction with a few good knights.”

The plan formulated in his mind, Zephrym gathered together two dozen of his company and ordered them to take the ladies in waiting due north. As that group departed, he stalked over to where the queen was now sitting on a log, drying her son’s tears. “My lady queen, we must leave now.”

“Must we, right now?” she whispered. “Couldn’t we rest at least a few menes?”

“No, it must be now; it’s too dangerous to stay.” Zephrym grit his teeth at the weakness of the queen. One more breath of cold wind and she might shatter like a piece of fine pottery. J’mirg’s Bones, why was he stuck out here with this little girl while King Caeron fought at Magnus? He prayed that King Caeron was safe, that the realm would not be saddled with this limpid child.

Read the rest of the story here: http://dargonzine.org/the-great-houses-war-part-3-the-stealthy-guardians/

Links to the rest of the series here:  http://dargonzine.org/series/the-great-houses-war/

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