The Most Faithful Guardsman

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

As the fires of rebellion consume a grand empire, its most loyal soldier mounts a final defense to protect its immortal king. But is the king a man worth saving?

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Sounds of chaos rose up from the streets below, filling the air in the wizard-king’s castle with a cacophony of terror and violence. It was a battle din, sounds all too familiar to Dunmoran. Clashing swords overlapped with a litany of different screams. Screams begging for mercy. Screams begging for Mother. Screams howling for blood.

Dunmoran had seen many horrors fighting in Rennoch’s service. He’d seen men lying slain, their insides steaming on the ground around them. He’d seen innocents cut down for sport and noble warriors dragged down to indignity by the savagery of war. There were no monsters, real or imagined, that could compare to the cruelties of men.

He’d never thought he’d see those cruelties unleashed on the streets of the capital. The gates were broken and the walls had been breached. Carnage flowed through the streets, washing away their lives’ accomplishments in a tempest of slaughter and blood.

Another scream wailed up from the streets below, the piercing shriek of a woman. The sound stopped Dunmoran’s heart in his chest. Was it Milla? Had she come to the castle, scared and looking for him, only to find the edge of a swordsman’s blade?

He wanted to be down there, fighting in the streets with the other desperate defenders. He was older than he’d been once, his hands and body marred by the passage of years, but he was still a furious warrior. He would kill many before death finally found him.

He did his best to push those thoughts aside. The king was still determined. He was still confident he could overcome the onslaught of the rebel wizards’ magic and turn the tide. But Rennoch needed time, and there was no man better than Dunmoran to buy it for him.

He glanced about at the black-armored guards that stood by his side. They were only a handful but the corridor leading to Rennoch’s throne room was narrow. Its stone floors would grow slick once blood began to spill. The rebels would be forced to charge toward them, pressed together and slipping in the gore of their own butchered dead.

It wouldn’t be an easy fight, not for Dunmoran and not for his guards, but it wouldn’t be easy for the enemy either. They would pay dearly before they ever reached King Rennoch. Dunmoran would make sure of it.

Dunmoran heard the echo of ascending footsteps, climbing the spiraling stairs to the top of the tower. The other guards heard it too. One of the younger ones, a woman named Dagna, pushed out a ragged breath. He could feel his own fear too. It tingled at the edges of his mind, probing his discipline, looking for cracks that might break him. It would find none. He was long past the point where fear had any hold on him.

“You know who our king is,” he said, his fingers tightening around the haft of his spear. “You know what he can do, but he needs time. If we can give it to him, the day may yet be ours.” The footsteps were louder now and mingled with the bark of bloodthirsty voices. “No one gets past us,” he said. “If it takes our lives, we stop them!”

The first rebels appeared at the end of the corridor, breathing heavily from their long climb up the tower’s stairs. There was a whoosh as Dunmoran’s crossbowmen loosed their bolts. They all hit their mark.

More rebels entered before the dead could even hit the floor. They charged, running toward Dunmoran’s fighters with a berserker’s abandon. Dunmoran stabbed one through the chest with his spear. The man screamed and fell moaning to the floor. Another hacked at the rim of Dunmoran’s shield with a half-rusted axe. Dunmoran shoved him back and Dagna put her spear in his belly.

More and more rebels flooded in, dressed in the emblems and colors of a dozen different kingdoms. Dunmoran saw the red stallion of Agorna and the golden boar of Crun Danog - lands Rennoch had conquered when Dunmoran was still young.

Their treachery brought Dunmoran’s fury to a boil. Their kings and queens had bent the knee. They’d sworn fealty to Rennoch and enjoyed years of peace and prosperity under the protection of the wizard’s black banner. Dunmoran himself had led armies to defend their borders. Now they were here to put him to the sword.

Dunmoran thrust his spear under the Agornan man’s shield, burying it deep in his guts. The man produced a gurgling cry and fell backward, pulling the spear with him. Dunmoran drew his sword. More bolts whizzed past as the crossbowmen loosed their ammunition into the growing mob. There was no need to aim anymore.

“Force them back!” Dunmoran snarled, stepping forward into the surging horde. A Crun Danog shield-maiden tried to swing at him with a blood-crusted falchion. He turned the blow with his shield and cut the woman down. The other guards joined him, pushing against the tide of thrashing bodies with locked shields. Dunmoran’s sword rose and fell again and again, hewing through armor, flesh, sinew and bone.

But the enemy seemed endless. For every rebel killed, two more stepped into their place. Dunmoran’s guards had no such wealth of lives to give. As the rebel horde pressed in on them, their losses began to mount. The man two shields to Dunmoran’s left, an olive-skinned guard named Rolf, died with a hatchet in his skull. One of the rebels broke through Dagna’s shield and planted a dagger in her throat. The crossbowmen, seeing their allies falter, drew their swords and joined the fray, but it was like trying to block a river with pebbles. One by one, all of Dunmoran’s guards fell.

He stood alone. His body was wracked with wounds, but he kept fighting, swinging his sword like a mad man. His fury seemed to give the enemy pause, but the rebels knew what lay behind him and they were determined. Dunmoran was barely on his feet now, his life’s blood slicking the floor beneath him. He knew the end was near.

His thoughts drifted to Milla, his beloved, and hoped she was still safe. And then to Rennoch, his lord and king. The man he owed everything. Dunmoran had done all he could. He hoped it would be enough.

As if in answer, the air around him began to chill. It tingled against his skin, like the frozen touch of death’s walking shadow. Dunmoran knew at once what it was. He could feel it drifting forward, filling the room like a dark fog. The rebels could feel it too and knew instantly what was happening. This war had been a long one, and they hadn’t always had mages of their own to help them. Rennoch’s magic was upon them.

“Fall back!” someone shouted. “Everyone back now!”

It was too late. Dunmoran’s gaze drifted to Dagna’s lifeless body. She was lying facedown, her body soaking in a pool of her own blood. Her lifeless hand twitched and then reached out for the nearest weapon. All the other corpses in the corridor did the same and then pushed themselves to their feet. Their faces were slack and lifeless. Their eyes were blue-hued glass. They wasted no time getting down to the slaughter.

The rebels tried to fight, but there was no hope for them. Dunmoran and his guards had killed scores of their number and the newly risen fighters were mixed in among their ranks. Death came from every direction and, with each new rebel slain, another corpse joined the ranks of the risen. Their victory turned into a rout in seconds. The survivors fled the hallway for their lives.

Dunmoran wanted to smile but couldn’t find the strength. He fell to his knees, embracing the weariness of his failing body. His sword and shield felt too heavy to hold anymore. He let them clatter to the floor. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine Milla and her kind smile but couldn’t find her in the mounting darkness.

He would stand among the dead soon too, still serving his king as best he could. He took some solace from that.

***

“Dunmoran?”

The dying guardsman opened his eyes and saw Rennoch standing over him. The iron doors to the throne room were unbarred and open behind him.

His vision was cloudy, but he could still see that the king looked terrible. Rennoch had never worn the guise of a young man, but he’d also never aged a day in all the decades Dunmoran had known him. Now, however, the king looked haggard. His face was sunken and sallow. His silver hair looked sweaty and thin. His limbs moved with a tremble. Even his ebon robes, rare silks embroidered with silver, looked ragged and weathered.

There were few left among the dwindling ranks of wizards, witches, and mages who had the strength to wield necromancy in any form. Rennoch had used it to build an empire. He was its master and the most powerful wizard of his age. Some said the blood of the gods themselves ran through his veins.

None of that epic lineage was apparent looking on the king now. Rennoch had been waging his own war behind his closed doors and it had clearly drained him. Dunmoran feared that casting another spell might kill him. That didn’t stop Rennoch, when he saw Dunmoran’s state, from rushing forward to heal him.

“No your highness,” Dunmoran protested. “You can’t-”

“Be silent!” Rennoch hissed.

He placed his hands on Dunmoran’s shoulders and, for a moment, nothing happened. Usually, when Rennoch healed him, it was smooth and swift. His wounds closed almost as quickly as they’d been opened. This time, when Dunmoran finally felt the cold touch of Rennoch’s magic flowing through him, it came in fits and starts. The king grunted with discomfort until it was done.

The king drew away his hands and slipped back a step, nearly falling to the floor. His skin was as pale as the dead.

“You shouldn’t have done that, your grace,”  Dunmoran said, pushing himself to his feet.

Rennoch shook his head and smiled softly.  “You risked your life to protect me,” he said shakily. “Why should I not do the same to save you?”

There were so many reasons why, but Dunmoran shared none of them. He knew they’d fall on deaf ears. Besides, there were more pressing concerns.

“Is it over?”

For the briefest moment, the king didn’t answer. A foreign expression overtook Rennoch’s hawkish features, as though he didn’t know what to say. His silence spoke volumes. He hadn’t overcome the rebel wizards. The city was doomed.

“I tried, Dunmoran,” Rennoch said, his voice filled with sorrow. “I fought harder than I ever have in all the rest of my life. I broke five of the seven wizards they brought to subdue my powers. But there were too many of them, and my strength failed.” He shook his head. “I failed.”

Dunmoran didn’t know what to say. In his mind, Rennoch was unbeatable. It had taken the rebels years to gather mages and witches to challenge him. The idea that this motley had actually overcome the wizard-king was unthinkable. And yet, the unthinkable had happened, given form in a reality that grew more terrible by the moment.

Rennoch had failed. Their army was broken. Their city would burn. All was lost.

Dunmoran felt dazed. His eyes drifted to the crowd of risen corpses, tracing the shambling shapes of the guards who’d died to hold off the rebel horde. Rennoch followed his gaze.

“Raising these was all I could manage,” he said. “And even that was a struggle. The effort nearly killed me, but there was no other choice.”

Dunmoran nodded, still unspeaking. The undead had stopped the rebel attack here, but Rennoch’s magic would do nothing to save the city and its people. He thought of Milla, trapped in the chaos below. She’d begged him not to go. To stay with her and protect her as a husband was meant to.

“You know I can’t stay,” he’d said. “My duty is with the king. Only his power can save us.”

But it hadn’t. The city would fall and Milla would die, her demise made all the worse by the knowledge that her husband had abandoned her.

He wanted to go to her now, even though the effort would be folly. Rennoch may have stopped the rebels in this one corridor, but the rest of the castle was doubtless swarming with them. Even if he managed to fight his way out onto the streets, there'd be thousands more standing between him and any hope of seeing Milla again. He still wanted to try.

“Dunmoran,” Rennoch said, as though he could read Dunmoran’s thoughts. “I still need you.”

All notions of leaving vanished at once, replaced by the firm resolve of duty.

He’d barely been more than a child when he’d sworn himself to Rennoch’s service. A half-starved boy bleary-eyed from months toiling in the mines of some northern hellhole. Rennoch had saved Dunmoran’s life and, in the years to come, would give him something even more precious: a purpose.

Because of Rennoch, Dunmoran had stood at the center of countless glories. Dunmoran had helped to build the greatest empire the world had ever known, bringing order to a continent that had once known only strife. He’d been given the chance to live in the capital: a utopia where the dead toiled so the living could live in leisure. He’d risen from a lowly slave to the captain of the guard in the greatest court in the world.

He’d sworn an oath. If the king needed him there was no question as to what he’d do.

“I’m yours to command, your highness,” Dunmoran said.

Rennoch smiled and gestured for Dunmoran to follow him.

The throne room looked largely untouched by the battle raging outside. The rebels had breached the walls with their siege engines, but none of their weapons had the range to reach the higher peaks of Rennoch’s fortress. The black tapestries, embroidered with the king’s grim sigil, still hung from the walls. The trophies of Rennoch’s conquests still rested on their pedestals. Rennoch’s throne, a great chair of ornate carved stone, sat at the end of the room, undisturbed by the war outside.

The only thing that was different were the bodies. There were a dozen of them strewn about the room, crumpled on the floor, their flesh shriveled like grapes left in the sun.

Ten of them were prisoners that Dunmoran himself had escorted up here earlier in the day. The other two were guards that he’d left to keep watch on them. Even with their magic-mangled bodies, he could still recognize their faces. They stared up at him from the floor, faces twisted into silent screams.

Dunmoran couldn’t deny his shock. He’d seen Rennoch drain men before; restoring his own strength with the life force of others. Always in the past, however, it had been someone expendable. Rapists and murderers. Wicked folk who were already sentenced to die. He’d never thought he’d see his own men lumped in with such scum.

“It had to be done,” Rennoch said, again guessing the contents of his mind. “The stakes were too high and I needed more strength. I would never have done it otherwise.”

Dunmoran nodded. The king wouldn’t lie to him. 

“Come help me, Dunmoran,” Rennoch said, making his way to the throne.

“What do you need of me, your highness?”

“There’s an opening hidden beneath my throne,” Rennoch explained. “A secret way to escape this place. But it’s been years since I used it and I need help finding the switch.”

Dunmoran joined Rennoch near the throne, pushing on the bricks and stones that had made up the wall behind it. Outside he could hear the battle pressing on in the streets below. Was it even a battle anymore? There was a moment in every fight, big and small alike, when the nature of it shifted. When the will of one side collapsed and it all turned to butchery. Surely the battle must have passed that point by now. His thoughts drifted again to poor Milla.

They were interrupted by the sudden sound of grinding stone. One of the bricks he’d rested his hand on had shifted backwards into the wall. The throne, so heavy that ten men couldn’t lift it, began sliding sideways across the floor.

“Come, Dunmoran!” Rennoch said. “Quickly!”

Dunmoran followed Rennoch back to the throne. An opening had appeared where it had rested previously. It led to a staircase, spiraling downward into darkness.

“Where does this lead, highness?”

“To vengeance,” Rennoch said, with mounting urgency. “We may have lost today, but there’s still a way for us to punish the rabble that brought us here. A chance for us to retake and rebuild all that’s been stolen from us.” Rennoch put a hand on Dunmoran’s shoulder, his expression turning somber. “I’m sorry about your wife.”

Dunmoran could feel his sorrow churn, threatening to boil over. Rennoch was kind, in his own way, but it was rare for him to mention such personal things. Dunmoran swallowed his grief and nodded.

“We’ll take back what they’ve stolen from us,” he said, echoing the king.

“All of it,” Rennoch said, his grip on Dunmoran’s shoulder growing tighter. “They’ll pay for all of this, and more.”

They heard a sudden clatter in the hallway. Fresh invaders had arrived to finish what the first wave had started. The undead shuffled forward to clog the corridor with violence.

“We must hurry!” Rennoch exclaimed. “They’re upon us again and this won’t stay open for long.”

The two men started down the stairs, enveloped at once by shadow. A few seconds later Dunmoran heard the grinding stone again. The throne slid back into its place, sealing the opening behind them. Dunmoran couldn’t see anything.

“Follow me closely, old friend,” said the king.

Rennoch started descending and Dunmoran followed behind, doing his best to keep pace. There was no light around them, but the king moved with sureness. The stairs twisted around and around, leading them so far down that Dunmoran wondered if they would end up below the base of the tower itself.

The stairs ended and they entered a narrow corridor, barely wide enough for a single man to slip through. Rennoch continued on wordlessly and Dunmoran followed. After a few moments more the corridor exited into a wider chamber. Dunmoran’s eyes had now adjusted to the pitch black around them. It was round in shape. It was also completely empty, save for a large stone disc resting on the floor at its center. His eyes could distinguish the faint lines of runes carved into stone in swirling patterns.

“Put your hand on my shoulder, Dunmoran,” Rennoch said. “This will only work once.”

Gingerly at first, Dunmoran reached forward and put his hand on the wizard-king’s shoulder. Rennoch stepped forward onto the stone disc and Dunmoran stepped forward with him. There was the briefest flash of light and then they were standing someplace else.

It was another room, larger than the one they’d been in but just as dark. As if sensing the wizard-king’s presence, a pair of braziers at the room’s center suddenly lit with fire. The sudden light stung Dunmoran’s eyes. He squinted to get a look at their surroundings.

Two pillars rested next to the braziers at the room’s center, holding its low roof aloft. The braziers themselves were empty save for their flames. They held no fuel to feed the fires burning in their iron. Shelves lined the walls, filled with books, scrolls, and trophies of conquest. Dunmoran didn't recognize them from any of the campaigns he’d fought in.

At the head of the room was a stone seat. It was smaller than the throne from Rennoch’s tower, but almost identical in design. A black banner hung behind it. At first, Dunmoran thought it was one of the banners that had hung throughout Rennoch’s capital and castle. As the bleariness faded from his vision, however, he realized it bore an emblem he’d never seen before. It was the sigil of a different kingdom. A different empire. Cobwebs stretched across the length of its moldering form, as though it had been hanging there for ages untended.

“What is this place?” Dunmoran asked.

“My last haven,” Rennoch replied. “A place to go if fortune ever turned against me. A place to bide my time and try again.” The king shook his head. “Though I never thought I’d have to this time.”

“I-I don’t understand,” Dunmoran stammered. Rennoch smiled and gestured to the throne.

“When I sit in this chair I’ll fall into a deep sleep. A slumber that will last for ages, eons even!” The firelight danced about the stone walls. “When I awaken, my body will be preserved as it is now, but memory of my dominion will have fallen into legend. The foes who defeated us today? They’ll be long dead. There will be no one to oppose me as I rebuild our empire and smite the descendants of those who robbed us of our glory!”

“What about me?” Dunmoran said. “Will I still have a place at your side?”

Rennoch’s expression slipped into sadness. He shook his head.

“The magic in the throne was drained long ago and my own strength has been sapped by the day’s battle.” Rennoch drew in a breath. “I’ll need your help if I’m to survive this. Our vengeance can only take form if you give yourself to our cause.”

Dunmoran understood what Rennoch meant at once. For the king to live on, Dunmoran would have to die. He thought of the withered guards lying prostrate on the floor of the throne room in the tower, their life force drained by Rennoch’s hands. Unexpectedly, he felt the unbidden tingle of fear clawing again at the edges of his mind.

Why are you scared, you fool? What do you have to lose? Why be afraid now when you would have thrown yourself on the blades of your foes only moments ago?

He had no answers to those questions, and in the end he knew it didn’t matter. He had sworn himself to Rennoch. His life hadn’t been his own for decades. If the wizard-king needed it, he only had to ask.

“If you need my life,” he said. “You know it’s yours.”

“You’re the best of all men, Dunmoran,” Rennoch said, smiling softly. He reached forward and took Dunmoran's hand. “All I do in the days to come will owe to your sacrifice.”

***

After it was done, Rennoch took his seat on the throne and thought for a time. He could still feel the whispers of the old spells waiting in its stone. They were inert now but would spring to life anew when he called on them. He wanted time first though, to mull over the day’s defeats and think on what was next to come.

He’d been too benevolent, he now realized. When he’d started this time, he’d truly believed he could win the world over by being a kind and good ruler. That he could build a lasting peace on the foundation of paradise and wait for the conquered to realize the good fortune of living in his shadow.

It might have worked if all men were like Dunmoran, but they weren’t. Men were petty, self-centered, and always hungry for their own taste of power. There could be no peace so long as there were warlords, kings and rebels willing to reject his greater good.

He would do things differently when next he woke. He would raise undead armies unlike the world had ever seen and grind away at humanity until the will to resist was no more. He wouldn’t shy from the darkest depths of cruelty in his next quest for subjugation.

There might be a day where he could be kind again as he preferred, but only when mankind had proven itself deserving. Only when humanity had learned to obey. It might take a long time, but Rennoch was nothing if not patient.

He placed his hands on the arms of his throne, preparing himself to reignite the magic that would sustain him. How long should he sleep this time? A hundred years? Five hundred? A thousand? Long enough, at least, for the bloodlines of the wizards who had beaten him to dwindle and fade, so there would be no one left to oppose him. He let his gaze fall on Dunmoran’s corpse, shriveled and prone on the floor across the room.

“Don’t worry, old friend,” Rennoch said aloud, his voice echoing in the loneliness of the chamber. “I’ll rebuild everything. I won’t fail again. As they say, the third time’s the charm.” 

 


Submitted: October 19, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Stew Shearer. All rights reserved.

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