Dragon's Tears (1497 WC) [Some Violence]
by James Williams
Through the white of his breath on autumn air, Oswyn watched a crimson tendril bleed across the night sky like an opening wound. Comets, the scholars called them. The priests of the Holy Circle said they were fallen heroes, soaring across the heavens on wings of fire gifted by the gods for brave deeds. He wondered if he might earn himself a pair of wings tonight instead of a trip through one of the nine hells.
"Lord Oswyn," a voice spoke.
He turned to meet Sir Holden, who he scarcely recognized. He wore a servant's garb, and had shaved his thick beard.
"You've kept me waiting in the cold, Sir," Oswyn said. "Was there difficulty on the way?"
"Nothing too taxing, My Lord." He reached into the folds of his roughspun garment and produced a small vial of liquid. "The Brothers thank you once more. They shall sing songs of this day."
Oswyn slipped the vial into his sleeve. "Do tell them to sheath their quills until the deed is done. If I'm to survive this, it will take quite a bit more preparation. I would hate for His Grace to hear songs of his death while he yet lives."
"Do not tarry long," Holden said. "We prefer a bloodless death, but other means shall be pursued if it's not done within the fortnight."
"You've made that clear, Sir. Though I wonder what those means could be; the Brothers have no army. The harvest tourney is in a fortnight. Do you intend to lure His Grace into the melee and slay him yourself?"
"Your japes are uncalled for, My Lord. We are capable, rest assured."
Oswyn sighed, birthing another cloud of mist about his head. He looked back to the red blade in the sky and gestured. "Ever see a winged hero, Sir Holden? Chance is upon you."
The knight followed his gaze and smiled. "We Southrons don't follow the Circle. Our heroes stay in the dirt where we bury them."
"Then what do you call that?"
"The old ones call them dragon's tears. It is said the Great Dragon who forged the world through clenched teeth rests in the heavens, watching. When the realm bleeds, the Dragon weeps."
Oswyn sat in his bedchamber, turning the vial over in his hand as he'd done every morning for a week. Had it really come to this? He'd known King Caelen when they were but scruffy boys with skinned knees. When the war came, Oswyn pledged every sword at his command to Caelen's cause. He was given a seat on the royal assembly for his part in winning the throne. Now here he sat, plotting his friend's death.
Caelen had changed in recent years. Screams were often heard from the dungeons, where men were tortured for reasons unknown. The lords he'd surrounded himself with began to die, burned alive at his own command. The highborn whispered of madness, while the smallfolk had taken to calling him Caelen the Cruel.
Oswyn concealed the vial as a knock came. The royal squire entered with a summons from the king himself. He felt a wisp of fear lash at his neck. Lately Caelen spent most of his time locked away in his tower, while the assembly did their best to govern the realm without him.
When he entered the royal chambers, Oswyn was met with a surprising embrace. "Well met," Caelen said. "We must speak of traitors in our midst."
The lump in Oswyn's sleeve seemed to grow heavy. "By all means, Your Grace."
Caelen brought a hand up to his silvering beard. "I mean to name you viceroy."
Oswyn's brows came together as bewilderment replaced fear. "Viceroy? After Robert burned, it was said you no longer saw need for one."
"Rash words. I need a friend at my side, now more than ever. I've filled my court with fools and wolves, and you're the last among them I can trust. A shadow looms from the East. I need your help if I'm to drive it back."
"There is nothing east; the realm is yours from shore to shore. The old kingdoms are long scattered to the winds."
"Aye, but the shadow I speak of lies beyond the shore," Caelen said. "A black hand is reaching across the sea and grasping for my throne. Their agents are at my back and under my bed, plotting my demise as we speak. I've burned as many as I can."
"Why have you not spoken of this before?"
"I must be careful how I speak these days, Os. There are cracks in this castle, and words are slippery things. This is why I need you. Will you help me in this?"
Oswyn fell to one knee. "I'll do whatever I can, Your Grace."
The king smiled. "You always have. Rise, Viceroy."
After the announcement of his new title, Oswyn knew the Brothers would strike. But to accuse Holden would mean implicating himself, and he feared Caelen's fire. So he waited like a fool, until his guilt grew too heavy to bear.
When he finally entered the king's chambers with truth upon his lips, Caelen was not alone. Sir Holden leaned against the hearth with a half- empty glass of wine. "Speak of the storm and clouds approach," he said. "Come to finish what you started, Lord Viceroy?"
Before he could reply, the heavy wooden doors behind him slammed shut. The guards had followed him in.
"My wine taster is dead," Caelen said.
Oswyn's fists clenched. "Your Grace, whatever he's told you is a lie."
"What of my cellar guards, who say the viceroy ordered them aside? What of the men who searched your rooms?" He threw a glass vial at Oswyn's feet.
Oswyn stared at the shattered pieces, as the guards took his arms. "Caelen, you've known me all your life."
"Aye, your betrayal is all the more wounding. Plead your innocence to the dungeon walls."
"For what crime?"
It was Sir Holden who answered. "Regicide," he said, as the point of his sword pierced the king's unarmored back.
He was unsure how long he'd been kept in the darkness, as time lost all meaning. It was long enough for the glare of the sun to blind him when they dragged him out.
They carried him up stairs and down hallways, ignoring his moans until finally coming to a stop and letting him fall to his knees. When sight returned, he saw the throne. On it sat a man with olive skin, wearing ornate silk robes. He spoke in a language Oswyn had never heard before. As fair a woman as he'd ever seen stood at his right hand, speaking in the common tongue. "Silas the Exalted wishes to know your name, and why you stabbed your king."
His voice cracked and faltered from disuse. "Oswyn, born of Edwyn, lord of the second house of Versa, and I did no such thing."
"A poor lie." An odd kindling of fear and rage stirred inside Oswyn as Sir Holden spoke. "I was there when Caelen died at his hands, Your Exultance. The king was a madman, true. The realm cried out for a just ruler to take his place. But treason is treason, and this man is an oath breaker. He should be put to death."
"Holden flavors his falsehood with truth," Oswyn said. "Caelen's blood is on my hands, but I never brought steel against him. It was through fear and inaction that I killed my king. I watched as the castle crumbled around him, even tore down a few bricks myself, and failed to reach out. It was this false knight's sword which slew Caelen, but I let it happen."
Silas smiled and spoke again. "Silas the Exalted is pleased you have spoken truly, Lord Oswyn. He knew of your plot with Sir Holden and of your reluctance to act in the end. He wished to see if you'd claim the king's death to gain favor."
Sir Holden took a step closer to the throne, nostrils flaring. "His Exultance has been given false counsel if he believes I had anything to do with Caelen's death. I serve the throne, now and always."
When Silas spoke again, there was no translation. The guards fell upon Sir Holden. He made the mistake of drawing his sword, and was cut down where he stood. As they dragged his carcass away, the irons about Oswyn's wrists were released.
"Rise, Lord Viceroy," the king spoke through his translator. "Silas the Exalted has use for you. If his subjects are to love and obey, he must have a familiar face to show them. He must have a voice free of eastern intonation to carry his will. Most of all, he must have the service of someone who has seen the harsh penalty of reluctance, indecision, and disloyalty."
Oswyn rose and met his new king's gaze. "That much I gladly swear, Your Exultance. One thing I shall never do again is hesitate."