The horse’s pace had been faltering for some time now. He had pushed it too hard, and it was near death from exhaustion. Fortunately his pursuers had stopped for fresh horses, buying him an hour, or two at the most. But none of that mattered now; he had scant little time to make it back to the keep and warn the Lady McCloud about the betrayal. The knight crested the final hill and neared the castle when his horse stepped into a broken stone on the road, sending him tumbling to the ground. He tried to break his fall with an outstretched arm, but succeeded only in fracturing his wrist. He glanced back at the horse and saw that its leg was clearly broken. Cursing liberally, he pushed himself up and ran the rest of the way on foot, leaving his loyal steed to its unfortunate fate.
One of the lookouts signaled to open the gate as the knight approached. As he hurried inside, the Lady McCloud, tall, statuesque, and stoic, entered the main hall. “Sir Kirk! This is unexpected. What news of the campaign?”
“It fares poorly for us, milady,” he huffed between heavy breaths, moving sweat-matted gray hair out of his eyes. “Though our forces have performed admirably, we have been betrayed. You must order the keep sealed at once. Order all house guards to the battlements immediately. The first wave is an hour, maybe two, away from us.”
“What of my husband?” she asked.
“Milady, please, you must give the orders immediately. We have not a moment to spare!”
“What of my husband?” she demanded, not to be refused.
Taking a deep breath, this time to steel himself for the news he had to deliver, he continued, “Milady, I am afraid your husband has fallen. He fought honorably, but a traitorous volley of our ally’s arrows struck him down.”
For the first time in his many years of service to the clan, he saw rage cross his mistress’s face. Taking a moment to give the orders he recommended, she turned back to him, eyes ablaze. “Who is responsible for this?”
“The McDougalls, milady.”
Momentary disbelief flashed across the Lady’s face. “What? You’re certain? They are our oldest friends.”
“Yes, milady. I saw their archers fire the volley myself. No enemy troops were in the area and our standard was displayed. There is no doubt as to their intent.”
“And Stuart?” she asked, naming her eldest son who had ridden to battle with his father.
“He still lived when I saw him last, Lady. He may yet be leading our forces in a counterattack. But Lady, we were outnumbered greatly. I barely escaped myself, and that only on his orders.”
She nodded, understanding instantly all the implications of what he told her. When Stuart fell, as he would, the McDougalls would march on the keep and kill all of them. Sir Kirk was right to order immediate preparations, but they would not be enough. This keep would not last long in a full assault; it was old, and in less than perfect condition. It seemed that nearly all hope was lost, but that only bolstered her resolve. “Sir Kirk, I am naming you seneschal of this keep and captain of the garrison. Take command of the situation. I must find my children. Make sure we are prepared to last as long as possible. We must keep the enemy’s eyes on us. Understood?”
Sir Kirk knelt, “Yes, milady. As you command.” Moving as fast as he could, he hurried up to the battlements to begin directing the preparations.
Meanwhile, seven-year-old Alistair, second son of the McCloud clan, sat in the keep’s modest library, his head in a copy of one of the world’s ancient strategy texts. He tried to read it diligently, every so often sneaking a glance over at his tutor, who sat nearby. Every time he did, the tutor rapped on the table with a long stick. “Pay attention, Alistair! The arts of strategy can be applied to all areas of life. You must know them as you know your own body!”
“Yes, sir” Alistair whimpered. He didn’t like studying and would have much preferred to be exploring one of the surrounding forests, as this was his first time to this particular area. His parents and tutor, however, were very strict with his study schedule. If he didn’t finish he’d never be able to go outside… but it was just so boring!
While distracted by the thoughts of what cool things he could find out in the forest, his mother entered the library and walked over to the tutor. They spoke in hushed whispers for several seconds before the tutor nodded and hurried out. Lady McCloud knelt next to her son, reaching out and closing the book. “Alistair, I need you to come with me okay? This is very important.”
He hopped off the chair happily, glad to be finished studying earlier than scheduled. “Okay mom! Where are we going?”
“You’re going on a trip, honey, okay?” Taking his hand, she led him out to the stables, where his sister Clare was sitting atop one of their father’s favorite horses. Without a word, his mother grabbed him and lifted him up onto the saddle in front of his sister. “Clare, ride as far as you can. You have money enough to buy more horses when you exhaust this one. Don’t stop to rest until you’re out of the country, understand? I want you to head west and sweep through Baldaccia to Dakar. You’ll be safest there. Whatever happens, protect your brother.”
Alistair squirmed in his sister’s hold and turned to face Lady McCloud. “Are you not coming with us mom?”
“I’m sorry, Alistair, I have to stay here. It’s my duty to your father, okay?”
“Okay… when will I get to see you again?”
“Oh, not for a long time, honey,” she said soothingly. “But one day, when you’re all grown up, you’ll understand why, okay? And when you do, I know you’ll come back here, because you’re going to be strong just like your father and brother, right?”
“Right!” he confirmed confidently.
“Good. I love you Alistair, Clare.” She gave him and his sister a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped back as Clare spurred the horse out onto the road’s western path. Wiping a tear from her eye, she turned and went up to the battlements to speak with Sir Kirk and await the arrival of the McDougall army.
She didn’t have to wait long for the enemy; Sir Kirk’s estimate was spot-on. When the vanguard of the army reached the keep’s wall, an officer stepped forward from the mass of soldiers. “Attention McCloud clan! Your lord and his heir have both fallen to our blades. Surrender, and you may yet be spared their fate!”
Borrowing a bow from a nearby weapon rack, she walked to the edge of the rampart and called down to the officer. “I am the Lady McCloud. I have one request before I render my decision. I would like to know who is responsible for my husband’s and son’s deaths.”
The officer began to speak again. “If it will convince you to surrender, I would tell you that I gave the o—“ his words were cut off as the Lady McCloud put a single arrow into his chest.
With that shot, the battle was joined. The McDougall forces left no survivors.
The years rolled by in Dakar like a large boulder in pitch as Alistair’s head remained buried in a multitude of books and his hands remained adept to the art of swordsmanship, knowledge of his very existence kept hushed. As he grew older, he began to carefully seek out others who would be willing to assist him on his expedition for order and vengeance as best as he could.
For quite some time, his only response was the resounding sound of unanswered messages. Words wasted on those who either had no time to take heed of their meanings or those who took heed but just did not care to reply. Surely this was the world’s way of sending Alistair on a never-ending snipe hunt.
Alistair continued his dogged search, seeking out various individuals with the ability to aid in fulfilling his wish for overthrowing the king that sat on the throne of Glocklund. Then, after a number of silent years, he received a solitary response. It was a message from Octavius Colouth, a noble in Freeport, plainly stating that he would be interested in supporting Alistair on this noble cause.
Alistair made haste and made his trek to Freeport, determined to put the plan that he had molded so carefully into action.
[Introduction by Gun. Continuation and illustration by Satu Mitsumi]
December 23, 2011
- glocklund posted this