Thursday, September 12, 2013

A King: Caged

More of my current work-in-progress:

The courtyard rang with steel upon steel. Under his mail and helm, sweat trickled down James’s face and his back as Gruffudd pressed his attack. Their blades met in a harsh clash and slid down until the guards locked. He looked up into Gruffudd’s narrowed eyes. James heaved as hard as he could, throwing his opponent back.

His sword up, ready for the next swing, the tip of James’s sword hovered a hand’s breadth from Gruffudd’s. Stronger and older, if James didn’t defeat him quickly, he wouldn’t, so in a sudden fury of movement he slammed an overhand blow that would have rung Gruffydd’s helm like a bell—if it had landed. But it didn’t. Gruffudd slipped to the left, out of danger, and brought his own sword across and into James’s face. James yelped as jumped back, spun to the side and slashed up and around to hack at his opponent. But supple as a snake, Gruffudd dodged. Another hack almost slashed across James’s stomach but he made a fierce downward blow to knock it away.

Their blades locked again. James’s breath was coming in great heaves. He gulped desperately for air.  Leaning with all the strength he had left into the blades, his muscles strained. Gruffudd smiled and threw him back. James circled him, panting but sword low and ready. Looking into Gruffudd’s eyes he saw a flicker of amusement. James brought his sword up. Gruffudd moved in, twisted behind him, and brought a wide cut from behind to slap his blade on James’s neck hard. A bead of sweat dripped from his chin onto the sword.

“Yield you?”

“Aye.” Gruffudd pushed him away with a slap to the shoulder, and James rubbed a stinging welt across his neck. “That hurt.”

Gruffudd ripped his helm from his head and tossed his head to get his dripping hair from his face. “Better, Lord James. You lack strength yet, but for your years,”—Gruffudd nodded—“you do not fight badly. You might stay alive against me when you are fully a man.”

James took off his helm and leaned his head back. The May breeze felt good on his sweaty face. He leaned on his sword, caught his breath with a shudder, and took a moment to enjoy even faint praise from Gruffudd. Cheerful companion he was but a skilled fighter, and the challenge was exciting.

“Let me see your neck,” Will said, glaring at Gruffudd. “You shouldn’t hit him so hard.”

“Princes die in battle like any man.” Gruffudd looked with an unfocused stare toward the top of the castle gate where his uncle’s head rotted and then jerked his gaze back. “He’ll only learn if he knows what hurt truly means.”

The earl of Orkney, his face flushed red, came out the Tower door and hurried across the yard. “Lord James!” he called. A gray-haired priest in a soiled black robe and a gaoler in livery trailed after him.

James tried to sheath his blunted blade but his hands were bruised and clumsy. He got it in the battered sheath on the second try. “My lord?”  

Orkney paused a few steps away to tug at his doublet. He shook his head, not quite looking at James.  James had never seen Orkney look so—odd. James’s guard nearby shifted, his armor creaking, and a raven croaked whilst Orkney looked everywhere except at James. He finally sank onto one knee and looked into James’s face. “Your Grace…” he said in a voice that shook and James froze at the title. “Your Grace, I am…” James could hear him swallow. “Dire news, sire. I must tell you… Your father--the king is dead.”

He opened his mouth. Nothing came out.  William dropped to a knee.

“Your Grace,” Orkney said. “You understand…”

James nodded wordlessly as the priest stepped forward. The man bowed deeply and said, “At Bute Castle, sire. When—when word was brought to him of your capture, he turned his face to the wall. Would nae speak nor eat nor drink. And he died the third day.”

“Dead…” Cold rushed through James and there was a sound in his ears like a rushing tide. “He… He did not even try then. To save me.” James’s voice was a whisper. He swallowed down a burn behind his eyes and looked up at the sky where a muddy coin of the sun shone through the drifting layer of smoke.

His father. The king. Who had been no true king--not in his deeds. His chest caught and he could not breathe. He struggled—jerked in a gulp of air. The world spun. Closing his eyes, he just breathed until his head cleared. Then he opened them and looked at the men around him who watched him, waiting.

He was the king now. He must act as a king should. That is what they were waiting for, but he didn’t know how. Again his mouth worked. “My lords…,” he choked out. He unbuckled his sword belt and shoved it into William’s hands. Slowly he walked toward the White Tower. “Let me be. I—I must think.”

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