there’s a bad moon on the rise . . .
~ ~ ~ ~
It was a late morning in spring, and the sea of green grass between the dark forest and the bright sand of the shoreline hadn’t yet lost its winter luster. The blue sky was beginning to bleach at the edges as the mid-morning sun steamed up the day. Soon it would be hot enough for the younger children to sneak out one of the minor gates to the nearby sandy beach and splash in the cool ocean shallows, but for now it was business as usual. The tall main gates to the walled City stood wide open, welcoming the warm breeze that blew gently from the forest to the west, the travelers, the traders, and treachery.
Moments ago there had been the usual bustle of commerce at the main gate, but now travelers and civilians alike stood frozen as though in a schoolgirl’s game of stop-go-stop. Inside the tall gates and the high stone walls, scores of armed men stood before the caravan of covered carts and wagons they had so easily entered the City in.
What are they doing here what are they doing here how did they get in . . . A thousand protests tangled in Justin’s throat, and despite the thick heat his skin goose bumped under his linen shirt. His excitement at carrying his father’s ceremonial messages to the guard towers without a guard escort for the first time withered suddenly beneath a sudden wash of terror. They were strangers, strange looking, strangely dressed. And they had swords.
The City had banned all edged weapons inside the walls over a generation ago. Except for the Yards and the royal guard, Justin had never seen long swords, and he’d never seen them brandished openly in the street. He watched the armed men the way he’d once seen a rabbit watch a snake, fascinated, repelled, terrified. For an agonizing split second nobody moved, time seeming to stretch like a taut rubber band. There was no sound except for the distant screech of the seagulls and the pounding of Justin’s own heart. Why didn’t someone do something?
Paralyzed by his shock, Justin stood rooted in the dust of the main avenue and watched the scene play out. He saw the gate chief, one of his uncles, move slowly toward the armed men, hands out in a gesture of non-aggression. He looked small and alone, framed against the huge, open gates and the group of armed men, who spread out and advanced toward him, slowly. The ceremonial tower guard nearest to Justin whispered a small, breathless prayer and he spared him a quick hopeful glance, but except for his dagger the guard was unarmed too. Nobody had weapons except for the strangely dressed men.
There was no signal that Justin could see, but there was a sudden surge of sound and movement and flashing iron that engulfed and overran the gate chief, heading towards the wide avenue through the lower steppe and into the City proper. When the wave passed the gate chief lay alone in the street, utterly still and bleeding from a dozen deep slashes. Justin stared unblinking at his uncle’s body as the blood seeped and spurted gently. His own pulse was thudding sickly in his ears, deadening the howls of the strangers as they pounded up the wide avenue of the lower steppe. Civilians screamed and scattered, tripping over each other before the pounding boots, their shouts ricocheting against the stone walls and falling back into the din, but the sounds seemed dim and far away, buried beneath his own harsh breaths, the deep pounding of his heart.
There was movement and noise everywhere. Huddled in the shadow of the guard tower where it met the City wall, Justin stared in silent and motionless shock. On the other side of the main gate he saw a young man make a running leap and grab desperately for the edge of the nearest shop roof. His legs swung and he strained, his sandals scrabbling for a foothold on the slippery thatch. He managed to pull his legs over the ledge and began to crawl up the roof’’s slope. A million miles ahead of him lay the tall bulk of the City’’s wall and perhaps safety, but a steel arrow caught him through the back of the neck, throwing him flat on his face. His body shuddered, fingers clenching at the rough thatch surface.
Get up, Justin whispered silently. Get to the wall. Go. Run. But the man’s fingers scrabbled at the slippery tiles once more, shuddered, then relaxed. He didn’t move again.
There seemed to be so many of the armed men, pouring through the gate and swarming up the avenue toward the hill and the palace, toward Justin’s home. His own breath tangled painfully in his throat, choking him, and his terrified shriek came out as a silent gasp. Dust kicked from running feet rose in a blinding swirl, blurring the sight of the bodies in the street.
More armed strangers poured through the open gate, pounding up the avenue and chasing anything that moved. Justin did not move at all. Frozen in the corner where the guard tower met the City’s wall, he still clutched the messenger bag containing the orders his father had trusted him to deliver to the guard tower. The sound of his own beating heart and jagged breaths deafened him, dulling the sounds of metal sinking into soft flesh.
The main body of the intruders proceeded rapidly up the street leaving motionless bodies and screaming wounded in their wake, and Justin shook himself from his frozen stupor. They were headed for the palace. It was mid-morning, the time when the yards would be empty of the guard, when the few weapons allowed for practice would be locked up. The palace was even more defenseless than the City itself. He had to find a way to warn them. His eyes darted wildly. The bell at the top of the tower . . .
He gulped hard at the thought of leaving the slim safety of the tower shadow. He could hear noises from outside the gate, see shadows thrown that indicated even more strangers outside, massing for a serious attack. Under his shock and terror his mind began to function sluggishly, tactical lessons learned from the royal tutor suddenly real and immediate for the first time. The initial attack was just to create confusion and terror, and probably to get inside and throw open the other gates. They must know the City had become lax, wasn’t expecting an attack, hadn’t had an attack in more than three generations. The real threat was coming in the gates now.
Justin saw smoke rising from the far ends of the lower steppe, heard the screams of civilians as the strangers advanced toward the castle. He thought of his family, his mother, and edged around the corner into the sunlight and drifting smoke. He didn’t look at the bodies in the street, fixing his eyes on the watchtower, and the bell. Narrowing his eyes to slits, he took a deep breath and ducked his head as he sprinted across the street.
He was fast. In the races with the other boys his own age he almost always won but this time he felt like he was moving in slow motion. The row of shops up the lower steppe was burning and the thick gray smoke drifted across his vision, sliding down his throat and making him gasp for air. The tower’s big wooden door was slightly ajar and partially obscured in the drifting smoke and it was close, so close, close enough to touch with his outstretched hand. His brain was already exulting in his safety when he felt the noose encircle his head, settling almost gently around his neck before jerking tight. Lights exploded in front of his eyes as he was yanked backwards, right off his feet and onto his back.
His fingers went automatically to the rough rope twined brutally around his neck, the lack of oxygen a far greater concern than the fact that he was being dragged away from the tower and down the dusty street while the strangers sliced their swords at him and shouted. A horse’s hooves pounded perilously close to his head and his fingers clawed at his throat and the last thing he saw as his vision grayed and tunneled down to a pinprick was his City’s gray walls and the clear blue sky beyond it. So this is how it ends, he thought dimly, and he had a moment of savage regret as the sky receded and darkness descended.
~ ~ ~ ~
Kevin’s eyebrows raised in polite inquiry. “What is . . . this?”
“It’s that kid, from the guard tower. He’s wearing a messenger uniform, we thought you’d want to talk to him.”
“Isn’t he dead?”
“We thought he was dead, but he’s not. The uniform -- it’s the royal colors.”
“Well, then. Is there water? Throw some on him.”
Kevin barely spared a glance at the limp young man on the floor in front of him before turning back to the crude maps spread out on the table. His ears were sharply tuned to the sounds of battle coming from the direction of the palace; he could smell the smoke from the roof thatch burning in the lower steppe. He shouted “and get Brian in here,” over the sounds of splashing water and the choking and gagging of the boy at his feet, and his voice was immensely cheerful. So far, it had been a very good morning.
He looked down, his narrowed eyes taking in the well made but filthy royal guard uniform, the ceremonial messenger bag now in tatters, the bruised neck and bloody face of a boy no more than fifteen. Tall for his age, Kevin noted absently, but young. Beneath the dirt from the street his face was still soft, unformed. He was wheezing, his hands held protectively around his long slender neck and when Kevin toed him ungently in the ribs he opened huge, bloodshot blue eyes, dazed and terror stricken. Kevin smiled.
“Yes, you’re alive.” He regarded him thoughtfully. “Can you stand up?” The courteous tone was an odd contrast to the distant screaming and the smell of fire, the sounds of battle, and Kevin smiled kindly as the boy blinked in confusion. “Come on now, be a soldier,” he suggested casually, and didn’t laugh when he scrambled awkwardly to his feet. He was too young and too well dressed to be a soldier, but ceremonial guards and messengers always liked to think they were more dangerous and important than they were.
If it had been another City, Kevin would have been more interested in the contents of the boy’s messenger bag. Such orders and messages could give crucial information, but the Timberlakes had so obviously been taken by surprise, and he expected the orders in the messenger bag would be nothing more than routine. Kevin grabbed for the bag anyway, easily fending off the messenger’s clumsy attempt to stop him with a casual elbow to the solar plexus. The boy collapsed back to the ground, gasping harshly as Kevin unfolded the orders and skimmed them, his mouth curling in contempt. Routine, unnecessary orders to the chief gatekeeper, the Timberlake’s elegant royal crest, nothing of use. His eyes scanned the royal seal and turned back to the boy, and was surprised when he suddenly lunged at him, an uncoordinated flurry of untutored fists and kicks. He subdued him easily and this time he did laugh at the boy’s expression.
“Well, that answers that. You are certainly no soldier,” he jeered softly, and laughed again as the boy struggled fiercely.
Oh, this could be fun, but the battle called and this time there was no time for smiles and pretending of courtesies. He grabbed the boy hard by the front of his guard uniform and threw him roughly against a crude table, which had been pulled from the back office of what had once been some sort of shop. The maps curled and rustled, and one fell to the floor.
“So, you know the palace, messenger boy,” Kevin stated, enjoying the way his blue eyes fogged with panic. “I know you do.”
The boy’s childish mouth curved in an odd combination of terror and determination, and he shook his head frantically, no, no. Kevin sighed, tilted his head as he regarded him, dirty blond curls, huge blue eyes. He should call for AJ, perhaps, but there really wasn’t time for more elegant forms of persuasion.
He abruptly twisted his hands, tightening the material beneath the boy’s already bruised and swollen throat, threatening to cut off his air supply and the boy’s hands scrabbled frantically. One latched around Kevin’s left hand and clutched and scratched, drawing blood, and from his position it was easy to knee him brutally between the legs, smiling as the body stiffened and went slack. He loosened his grip, letting the boy drag in an anguished breath as his body curled in agony.
“Now,” he said pleasantly, “perhaps we can discuss this like the civilized men we are. You are wearing a royal uniform, you carry a royal messenger bag, and in it you have a message bearing the royal seal.” He leaned his thigh hard against the boy’s groin, enjoying the choked whimper. “So, I think we can strike a deal, here. I need to know where the underground passage to the Timberlake palace is.” He leaned in, feeling the body beneath him tremble in agony, and twisted the material tightly around the messenger’s throat. “And you, my pretty boy, need air.”
He waited, aware that his brother had entered the dim room and was standing silently behind him. He stared into the boy’s blue eyes, reading pain, terror, physical agony, but underneath that was a stubborn sort of defiance, even outrage, and when the boy grit his teeth and shook his head again, no, Kevin’s patience snapped.
He heard Brian draw his sword as he grabbed the boy by the front of his uniform and pulled him upright, then spun him around and threw him face down on the table. He didn’t even have to look at his brother, Brian knew exactly what to do when it came to getting information. AJ was more talented, but he took too long, Kevin thought, absently watching as Brian took a handful of curly hair and yanked the messenger hard across the table, his long sword resting right below the throat so he had to strain against gravity and Brian’s hand to keep it from slicing him open. Kevin twisted the boy’s left arm hard behind his back, forcing his upper body to twist grotesquely and his feet to scrabble for purchase against the slippery stone floor. He leaned hard against the boy’s ass, feeling the muscles shake as they strained away from Brian’s sword.
“The underground passage,” he snarled. “Now.”
“You should tell him,” Brian advised the boy gently. “Once my brother loses his temper there’s really no going back.”
He was wheezing now, making that interesting whooping noise that every victim of slow strangulation made. His neck muscles popped and his entire body trembled, straining away from the sharp sword and back against Kevin’s body. Kevin nudged forward, his groin pressing intimately against the boy’s round, firm ass. He felt him freeze, and then struggle harder, panicky, felt rather than saw Brian’s grin. Kevin pulled his dagger from his left boot, gave the boy’s arm another hard twist and heard him choke back a scream as he started to slice his trousers from his body. Unlike AJ’s elaborate and subtle tortures, this wouldn’t take long at all.
~ ~ ~ ~
Twenty minutes later Kevin led his own royal guard up the lower steppe to the overgrown path beyond the smoldering royal guard Yards, around the edge of the cliff beneath the castle. The sounds of the battle at the front palace gates were dim and muffled, but his own path was deserted and he smiled, feeling his spirits rise.
~ ~ ~ ~