Chris and five of his knights rode hard towards the village of Briar Bend. One of Fowler’s men had been more than happy to tell them where his leader and the rest of the bandits were hiding out once Chris had a few words with him. Having his knights stand behind him looking their most menacing and vicious had helped. Chris knew a few of his men weren’t happy leaving Ezra behind, but they needed to get to Fowler before he had a chance to move camp. He was sure to move out as soon as he realized the marauders he sent to Levinshire weren’t coming back. Fowler wouldn’t take any chances.
Ezra would be fine. Nathan said his fever was down before they left. The village healer was a capable woman who’d make sure Ezra fully recovered. The obnoxious man would have to get well, of course. Chris still had to talk to him.
They rode for two days, pushing their horses to the limit. When they got close to Briar Bend, everyone fell back and let Vin and Josiah go on ahead. The two of them would take care of any lookouts. If Fowler thought Chris only knew how to fight man to man on a field of battle, he was an idiot. The knights of the Round Table were a rough bunch and they knew how to fight dirty. Vin would get himself up a tree and pick off any man he saw before they even knew he was there. Josiah would use a little magic to sneak around unseen. The man had spent most of his life at one court or another, but the Merlin wasn’t noble-born. He’d been a wild young man and had seen his share of brutal fighting and killing.
By the time they got to the village proper, Vin and Josiah had taken care of half a dozen men lurking in the woods. Chris knew they would already be sneaking into the village, quietly taking out as many men as they could. He sent Nathan in around the other way. The healer wasn’t as stealthy as Vin or Josiah, but he could be quiet with those daggers of his. Buck and JD were good in a fight, but they couldn’t sneak up on a deaf man. The two of them spread out away from Chris at the outlying boundaries of the village.
Chris waited, letting his men do as much damage as they could in secret. Shouts suddenly filled the air as angry men yelled after their runaway horses. Someone had cut the reins. Chris called the charge and he, Buck, and JD rode in with whoops and hollers.
In short order, Fowler’s men found themselves in trouble. Nearly half their men had been silently dispatched before the fighting had even begun. Now most of the horses were gone, leaving them disadvantaged against a band of ferocious mounted knights with superior armor and weapons.
Excalibur practically sang as it sliced through the air. Chris didn’t even look at their faces anymore. There was only one man he wanted to see across his blade right now—Fowler. Where was the coward?
Out of the corner of his eye he saw two bandits fighting over a horse. The one man knifed the other and mounted up. He looked back as he spurred the horse on. Fowler. Chris looked around to see that his knights had either dispatched or disabled most of the bandits. “Buck! Going after Fowler!”
He raced through the woods after the man, his horse swerving through the trees and jumping over fallen timber. He was getting closer—so close Fowler could probably hear Chris’s horse breathing. Chris urged his horse up alongside the other man’s. Now he was close enough. He backhanded Fowler with the pommel of his sword, sending the man flying off his horse.
Chris leaped down. Fowler was already on his feet. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
Fowler smirked. “It has been a long time, hasn’t it? Some protector of the realm you are. It took you years to track me down.”
Chris charged him, swinging wildly. Fowler snuck a blow in under his arm. Chris got lucky. His mail protected him from getting cut. He’d be sore and bruised later, though. Chris tried to rein in his temper. Anymore stupid moves like that could get him killed.
By now the others had subdued the rest of the bandits and had come to check on Chris. They just wanted to make sure he was fine. They knew better than to interfere. This was Chris’s battle.
The two of the traded blows for several minutes—neither one really getting the upper hand at first. But Chris knew he had the advantage in the long run. They’d caught Fowler and his men by surprise. His enemy hadn’t had enough time to put on any mail. Only his leather tunic protected him. Chris’s blows against him were doing more damage than the ones he himself was receiving. Chris had several minor cuts and bruises and some broken links, but Fowler had some deep gashes. One on his shoulder was bleeding profusely.
The man also didn’t have a sword like Excalibur. Excalibur was stronger than any normal blade and much lighter. Fowler would tire sooner swinging around that heavy sword of his.
Several long minutes of biding his time paid off for Chris. Fowler’s tired sword arm drooped. Chris lunged at the man, sinking Excalibur into his stomach. As the bandit fell at Chris’s feet, the king felt a heavy weight lift from his chest. Years. He’d waited years for this day. It felt good. It should’ve felt better. Chris looked down at the bleeding man. “Who’s been supplying you?”
Fowler sneered at Chris. “I’m not telling you a thing. I’ll take everything to the grave.”
Chris looked down at the man bleeding at his feet. “Oh, you’re going to die, alright. But I haven’t decided how you’re going to die yet. You ever see a man die from a stomach wound? It takes days. Days and days of excruciating agony. I know a man who died that way. He was one of the toughest old warriors I’ve ever met. After nearly a day of that kind of torture, he was crying like a child, begging us to kill him.”
Fowler’s smile faded. “According to the rules of honorable combat, you have to give me mercy if I ask for it! The code of true knighthood compels you to agree to my request. I demand you give me a swift, merciful death! It’s my right.”
Chris stomped down on the man’s injured shoulder. “You demand?! Your rights? You deserve nothing but whatever pain I can inflict on you.”
“But you’re a knight! The rules of combat…”
He removed his foot from Fowler’s shoulder and bent down next to the gasping man. Chris pulled out his dagger and held it close to Fowler’s face, twisting and turning it so the light glinted off it. “King Uther made sure I knew all about courtly manners and knightly behavior. He didn’t want me to embarrass him at court, after all. But while he was force-feeding me that horse dung during the day, I was getting lessons of a different kind in the taverns and back alleys of the village at night.”
Fowler stared at the knife nervously. “Wh…what are you going to do?”
“I know a hundred ways to hurt a man you won’t see in any knightly battle or tournament. And I bet my men know some I never dreamed of.”
“You can’t do this! The people will…”
“MY people will probably cheer me on. You think I care what people outside of Camelot think of me? They already call me the ‘peasant king’. Maybe now they can think of something new.”
Buck snorted. “They can call you the ‘ungentlemanly king’. That would really hurt your feelings.”
Josiah fingered his own already bloody knife. “Maybe the ‘uncouth king’. I’m sure such harsh criticism will really ruin Chris’s day. Maybe even a whole week.”
Chris ran the edge of his blade down Fowler’s face, leaving a trail of blood. “You think I’m going to give you mercy after what you’ve done?” He smiled, feral and cold. “I’ve got several days to waste with nowhere else to go. What about you, men?”
“I’m not doing anything else.”
“Going to enjoy the entertainment.”
Nathan sharpened his knives, the blades making an ominous shck, shck sound. “Can I have him after you’re done? There’s this thing they do in my homeland where they see how many times you can cut a man before he begs for mercy. I haven’t tried it on anyone here yet. I want to see if the English are as hardy as my people.”
“If there’s anything left. You’re welcome to it.” Chris grabbed Fowler’s wrist and held it down. He raised his arm as if to stab the man in the hand.
These men were insane! Barbarians! “STOP! What do you want to know?”
Chris halted, but did not put down the knife. “Who supplies you? Is it King Lot of the Orcades?”
“I don’t know.”
Chris moved the knife closer.
“I don’t know! I swear! I’ve never met the man. Everything is done through a woman. A noblewoman. Maybe she gets the swords and men from him. I don’t know. She never said. I didn’t ask. I’m pretty sure he knows we hide out in his islands from time to time, but as long as we leave his territory alone, he doesn’t care. He’s probably grateful to us for the trouble we’ve caused here. Anything that works against you makes him happy. Who knows? Maybe he’s the lady’s partner. Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Who is this lady?”
“Never used her name. She gave us a king’s ransom and let us keep whatever we pillaged.”
“She paid you to do whatever you wanted? Do I look stupid to you?”
“She did have us do one job in particular. We were supposed to make sure we burned down this cottage outside Four Corners. We were told to make sure the woman and child were in it. That was a few years back. She was pretty happy about that. Afterwards, she just seemed to enjoy hearing how you were running around the countryside trying to catch us.”
Chris grabbed the man and started shaking him. “That was my home! MY FAMILY! Why? Why my family? What did she get out of it?”
“I don’t know!”
“What does this woman look like? TELL ME!”
“She…she’s dark haired. Strong-looking. She’s a beauty, but her face looks kind of hard, sharp. Always wears red. And she has this big ring—all emeralds and sapphires.”
Chris dropped Fowler like he was on fire. He looked up at Buck. They both knew who it was. Ella Gainsborough. They’d met her often enough at court functions when they were younger. And Chris…Chris would never forget her face. The king got up, turned, and walked away from Fowler.
The dying man’s eyes widened. “Where are you going? You promised to give me a merciful death!”
Chris glared back at the man, his eyes cold as death. “I never promised you anything. Take your time dying.” Chris and his men walked away, leaving Fowler hunched in agony.
A heavy silence fell over the knights as they headed back to Levinshire. Chris hadn’t said a word and no one else dared be the first.
The men were relieved to ride into Levinshire. Their hearts felt lighter at the scene before them. The place had been cleaned up some and was bustling with activity.
Ezra sat on the edge of the village well, showing several small children how to produce coins from their ears and cards from the air. One of his tutors had picked up such tricks while in the Holy Land. The Queen didn’t mind that the man taught him a thing or two because it was a quiet activity he could engage in alone in his room, out of everyone’s way. He never performed for Lady Morgan. She told him it was a foolish waste of time because it wasn’t “real” magic. Ezra found comfort in the manipulation of his brightly painted cards. They had often been his only company. They seemed to delight other children, as well.
He had one little boy absolutely mesmerized by his magic cards. “I’ve shown you how coins can appear from the very air itself and how the magic cards move as if alive. Now I will show you another magic of the cards. The ability to see the future. Come, young man. Touch the deck and let it reveal your fortune.”
The boy put his hand on the cards. Ezra helped the boy turn over the top card. “The valet of piques. Most impressive. Do you know what this means?”
The boy shook his head.
“The piques, or spade-shaped lance points, represent the knights. The valet is the king’s right hand man. It’s obvious you are going to be a great knight someday. Perhaps even a knight of the Round Table.”
The boy ran off to tell his friends. Ezra smiled at the boy’s delight.
“Might want to be careful there, Ezra. People will start thinking you’re a sorcerer or something.”
“A harmless bit of nonsense, Sir Vin. Merely sleight of hand.” He rose stiffly to face Sir Vin and the others. He bowed his head to the king. “Your Highness.” They were all there. Why did that make him feel light-hearted? “Were you successful?”
Chris nodded. “We got the rest of them.”
“Splendid. Then this is a day to celebrate.” He noticed the uncomfortable shift in the stance of the others. “Or perhaps another day.”
Nathan came over to look at Ezra’s eyes. “Hm. Fever looks gone. How are you feeling?”
Did the man actually care? “I feel fine. The village healer was quite adept at caring for me in your absence. I thank you for your concern, however.”
JD was grinning like an idiot. “We’re sure glad you’re okay. You really scared us with all that yelling and…ooof!” Buck elbowed him in the gut.
Josiah almost laughed out loud. “Very subtle, Buck.”
Chris broke the light mood with an abrupt declaration. “I thought you ran out.” He was staring at Ezra.
It took a moment for Ezra to realize King Christofer was waiting for him to say something. “Run out? How could I have? I’ve been bedridden most of the time you were gone.”
“No. I mean before. When you went to help that woman.”
“Yes, well. I apologize for…”
“It was not my intention to abandon you during a fight. I was following my instincts rather than duty to my fellow knights.”
“I was wrong. Your instincts were right.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was wrong. I thought you’d run out on us. You didn’t. We’re here to protect the people. You did what you were supposed to.”
“But I should’ve…”
“Should’ve done what? Ignored them to help us? We can take care of ourselves. The villagers can’t.”
“Will you be quiet for just one minute? You did good.”
Ezra just stared at him open-mouthed. Praise?
Chris turned and walked off, leaving a shocked Ezra behind. A couple of the men slapped him on the back as they went by. Ezra was confused. Why would the man apologize to him? Kings didn’t need to apologize to anyone. And praise? Why would..? Why?
Vin looked back to see Ezra still staring in their direction. “I asked you if you were coming with us to get something to eat. Are you coming?”
“Y…yes. Of course.”
Vin whispered to the others. “Man acts like he’d never been given a pat on the back for a job well done before.”
Several of them wondered at that.