The Sword of Loyalty
By A. M. Sigsworth
Sword and helmet in hand, Royal Guardsman Aylward Cenehard scaled the curtain wall atop the royal castle, his red drapes trailing behind him.
Arriving at the northernmost watchtower, he called-up to the men inside.
“Raise the red flag,” he commanded, “we are under attack!”
Atop the watchtower was a flagpole broadcasting the emperor’s presence to the realm; as Cenehard climbed the ladder to the outlook deck, the royal flag descended and a new flag replaced it. It was like the royal flag, but had a red, more urgent theme.
Receiving that signal, the other watchtowers reciprocated. Cenehard looked-out and saw the process repeated like a wave across the castle. At first, the north-western and north-eastern, then the western and eastern, followed by the south-western and south-eastern, until eventually, the southernmost. The eight watchtowers, positioned like a compass relative to the throne room at the centre, were under the red flag and a red alert.
“What do we do now?” the watchman, Wacuman, asked, illuminated in the darkness by the light of a torch on the wall. Cenehard put his helmet on, his eyes barely visible through the slot at the front, and leaned out of the square gap in the stone wall into the distance. A group – by the looks of it, a very angry group – of civilians was approaching in the distance, riding horses. They carried spears and swords. Not those of a sophistication only granted to people given the utmost respect such as himself, but still capable of inflicting serious damage. Once again, Aylward Cenehard felt the pounding, primal call to battle in his stomach. It had become second nature by this point.
He turned back to Wacuman.
The throne room was situated at the centre of the castle. Each of the watchtowers were linked by a corridor granting direct access, allowing for efficient movement if a revolution were to happen. And a revolution was exactly what was happening.
“Your majesty”, Cenehard said to the Emperor, kneeling on one knee, “the revolutionaries are on their way. The red flags are raised and the watchtowers primed, we have the vertical advantage.”
“We must obtain the horizontal advantage also. The cavalry are ready?”
The Emperor seemed untroubled by the development. He stared into his shoe, which was being polished by a court boy.
“Then lead them out.”
Cenehard raised himself up and departed with haste.
The Emperor remained visibly calm, his legs crossed and his chin planted on his fist, deep in thought. All possibilities were being taken account for. And then… he ushered the court boy away, stood up and did himself depart in a different direction. His courtiers exchanged a glance between themselves.
Cenehard exited the ammunition store with a bow and a quiver strapped across his the combat armour over his front and returned to the curtain wall. The stone beneath him was becoming slippery and the river in the motte was almost overflowing as the slow rain came down over them, dripping from the red flags and running down the bastions.
“Where’s the cavalry?” Wacuman asked.
“Not needed”, was the answer given by Cenehard, who had climbed back up. Observing the revolutionaries, he saw their leader giving an uproarious speech to his fellow campaigners.
Taming his straying horse, the apparent leader, Brant Mellor, addressed the citizens marching with him in the downpour.
“My comrades”, he began, “tonight, we actualise ourselves. The building before you will be a place long remembered as the site of our glorious campaign against the bourgeoisie of this nation. A nation unbalanced by the weighty rule of Amera Faber, the Emperor Without Sanction. We, the citizens of this nation march against him, but he does not march against us. The people you will fight are soldiers, servants whose lives have been devoted to protecting him, not realising that their occupations are an illusion. They are lost, unlike us. But should they fight against you, then make no mistake, they are to die, if only to be free of the imprisonment within these walls ahead of you. Show no mercy.”
In the watchtower, Cenehard squatted onto the wooden plank floor, and peered through the hole to sight his enemy, aiming his crossbow.
“Light the tip”.
Wacuman got straight to it and lifted the torch from the wall and set alight the tip of Cenehard’s arrow.
The revolutionaries began to ride toward the keep, but stopped all of a sudden when Mellor halted.
He lowered himself from his horse and, accompanied by another revolter covering him, ran to the edge of the moat. His suspicions were confirmed: beneath the drawbridge across the motte was a second level stocked with barrels of gunpowder.
“Gunpowder”, said the other revolter, Bellamy Silas. His eyes – and Mellor’s – disagreed with his status as Mellor’s junior. “If we cross this bridge, they’ll blow us up.”
Behind the entry doors to the keep, the Imperial cavalry waited.
“What are we waiting for?” asked a low-ranked soldier.
“We’re not to move out until we get the order”, said their commanding officer.
Cenehard continued watching. The enemy were restless, and suspicious. Within minutes, the battle of weapons had become a battle of wits.
“What are you waiting for?” Wacuman asked again, becoming paranoid in the enclosed space.
“The right moment.”
“What are we waiting for?” asked Silas.
“I don’t know” said Mellor. “I don’t like this at all. They should be attacking.”
“Not necessarily. They could be waiting for us. Blow us all to Hell in one big bang. No battle, no bloodshed. If they won’t attack until we cross this bridge, let’s not.”
Mellor looked straight at Silas, his collar flapping in the wind. Silas, who’d always been by his side. Silas, who not eighteen months ago had taken an arrow to the shoulder and had recovered just to fight for him. Silas, who’d always been the voice of reason during times of doubt; why, this campaign could not have succeeded had Silas not convinced him that one’s country is worth fighting for.
“You’re probably right.” Mellor turned to the crowd and gave another passionate rally call. “Wait, my brethren. I am going to test our enemy’s sense!” Mellor turned and marched, as if entranced, toward the bridge and stepped onto it. Silas ran forward.
“Mellor, don’t!” – but Mellor put his arm out and Silas found himself stopping out of instinct.
“No! Stay, I command you”. Silas became still but was distressed.
“They will kill you.”
“I am certain they will not”, Mellor said as if stating a fact. “It is not I they desire dead, but us.” He started across the bridge. “Together, we pose a threat, but alone” – he skipped along to the end and onto the stone path before the entry doors – “I am no threat at all”.
Wacuman just heard a “damn” come from the general direction of Cenehard, who passed the flaming arrow to him. “Continue maintaining position. If they come across the bridge, blow them up.”
Wacuman grabbed the flaming arrow.
“Aye, commander.” And with that, Cenehard left.
The horses in the castle were becoming hungry for battle as Cenehard ran inside.
“Now, go! Get ‘em!”
The cavalry commander gave a signal with his arm and lead his men forward.
Silas had now crossed the bridge.
“Shall I bring the others across?”
“I don’t know”, said Mellor.
The castle doors opens and the imperial cavalry came flooding out toward them. Silas ran ahead of Mellor and brandished his sword at the horses.
“Get back to your horse!”.
Mellor pulled him back and took Silas’ place with his own sword.
“Get back to yours!” he cried. There was no time to argue – Silas ran back across the bridge. Mellor rammed his sword into the head of the leading horse, which fell to the ground, only to then be trampled by the others. Silas looked on. All their adventures over all those years had suddenly come to an end.
Silas looked back at another horseman, Exton Woodville.
“You’re the lieutenant now.”
Then they marched at the oncoming enemy and met them on the bridge. Sword against sword, there was much bloodshed. Flesh was pierced and armour was scorched. One man even lost his head. And as the bodies piled-up, bone under foot, it became increasingly harder to maintain a balance.
But Cenehard was elsewhere. The doors of the castle had been closed, and the entry hall was filled with every person in the castle available. The chefs and shoemen and courtiers and servants and butlers and maids and anybody not directly connected to the Emperor had been assembled and given any weapons free.
“Anybody comes through, hit them!” Cenehard shouted to them as he backed away into the palace.
Wacuman was, indeed, maintaining position and had been making calculations. The revolutionaries on the bridge now outnumbered the cavalrymen. He fired the flaming arrow at the explosives beneath the bridge. The bridge didn’t so much explode as break apart while moving upward, sending bodies and bits of horse into the air with it. Of everyone still alive before the destruction, that singular arrow had taken more lives from the offensive than the defensive.
But it was felt throughout the castle. In the hallway, the ground shook, and in a corridor, even Cenehard just managed to regain his footing as he moved to meet the Emperor.
The Emperor, during this time, was in a bunker beneath the motte. He’d felt it the most. On a long, wooden table, he and his council inspected the castle plans along with various defense strategies. Cenehard entered.
“Is it over?” the Emperor asked.
“Not quite. And I’m afraid, your majesty, that we will have to take the First Action.”
The Emperor sighed and Cenehard began to take his armour off.
Afront the castle, the few revolters to cross the bridge successfully ran toward the entry doors, dodging cannonballs and flaming rocks from the watchtowers.
“We must find another way in” Silas said to Woodville.
Meanwhile, the Emperor’s servants were beginning to speculate as to what would be done to them if the enemy penetrated the doors.
“I say we surrender”, said one servant.
“So do I”, said another.
“If we let them through, they might spare us.”
An argument developed, but with no deputised official here to regulate, it was anyone for themselves. Eventually, two parties broke out; the loyalists, who believed in staying true to the Emperor no matter the costs, and the survivalists, who were prepared to betray their superiors if it meant being spared those superiors’ fates.
Naturally, the desire to remain alive beat the desire for an absent ruler to remain alive, and the revolution had now penetrated the castle itself.
“Right”, said the servant to have taken a position of leadership, Bradwyr, “let them in and surrender”.
Unfortunately, Cenehard returned without his armour and saw half the servants against the wall, murdered by their own. They saw him, too. Cenehard backed-away. He knew what was good for him.
He returned to the Imperial War Room beneath the Motte (now a haven of disembowelment and severed limbs). The Emperor was dressed in Cenehard’s red armour.
“Are we ready to go?”
“There is one small thing…”
Cenehard cleared his throat.
“Some of them made it across the bridge but the cavalry’s been defeated. The servants behind the doors have turned against each other and want to surrender.”
The Emperor, shaking, removed his helmet and rested it on the table. He took a few moments, and then… exploded.
“But I ordered them to stay! They were sworn to protect me! Who are they to strategize? They’ve done it! They were disloyal! Even the cavalry have dishonoured me!” He grabbed some pencils and started waving his arms at anyone present. “They’re cowards!”
“They did their best!”
“These are the cards we’ve been dealt!” Cenehard protested to the Emperor, who gritted his teeth with disgust.
“There’s more scum in those servants than the men they’ve surrendered to!” Cenehard ducked as the Emperor threw the pencils, which ricocheted off the wall. “It’s over now! They’re not my men anymore! Not when they need a hand just to cross a bridge! They want to undermine this Empire! They’ve been against me from the start! I should have disestablished any public services and militarised everything!” He started breathing heavily, and didn’t stop for several minutes. And when he did, he sat back down, tired of himself, of the Empire, of being Emperor. “I built this Empire with no military experience. For idiots. Nobody supports you, not in the end. This is blasphemous. They’ll see what happens next. I can only hope the bloody rebels don’t spare them. I’ll kill them myself! Nobody understands the importance of this building. I am Emperor No More… I’m finished. The Empire is fallen. But I will not abandon its remains. Not until I am dead. But I’ll do it myself before they can.”
“You are not the Emperor”. Silas addressed the man who sat in his throne. “Your eyes lack experience. Where is he? The Emperor?”
“I won’t betray him as his servants have.”
“Then you will die”.
The Emperor’s double, Leal, stared down Silas, who flashed his sword. “You are not the Emperor, but if I pretend you are, killing you will give me the same satisfaction of killing the man you claim to be.”
“You should leave here”, said Cenehard to the Emperor. “Protect yourself.”
“No. I will not betray my empire, even if I’m the only loyal one. I will stay here, protected behind this uniform. And you will face the enemy without that advantage. That is your punishment for failing it.”
Cenehard felt the weight of guilt and responsibility pressing down on him. The fight-or-flight mechanism had suddenly betrayed him too, and had traded itself in for a feeling of immense fear.
Then he left.
A sword had been run through Leal’s heart and through the back of the throne. Silas pulled-it out of him, and he slumped forwards, dead. The crowd turned to see Cenehard, wearing chainmail and shivering one the cold stone floor.
“Give me the sword… give me the sword!” The crowd chuckled and Silas grinned.
“What are you going to do?” He gave the sword to Cenehard “Kill every one of us?”
“No”, said Cenehard. The sword was heavy in his afraid state. “But I know the fate that awaits me if I let you take me alive.”
Cenehard Seppuku’d himself in front of the watching court. He fell onto the cold stones, his blood pouring out of him and filling-in the letters of the sword’s engraving, which read
Fide viribus vires Fortius quo fidelius