This wasn’t happening. It had to be a dream. A horrible, cursed dream.
“Your Highness, time is of the essence. They’ve already breached the walls.”
I turned away from the window back to my three Shieldsworn, all bearing the full plate so rarely worn in their line of work, each one bearing a full tower shield. I couldn’t understand how they bore all that weight in addition to the heavy silence in the room, which was as much as I could bear.
“I have no wish to be elsewhere when the Citadel falls,” I muttered, glancing back out to see the sea of invaders crashing against the wall below.
“You will be of no use to your people dead, Highness,” Berun urged. “Commander Arturas has already pledged himself to the safety of this city. He will fall in your place. Do not let his sacrifice be in vain.”
I nodded, scratching my beard as idle thoughts passed through my head. He was right, but he spoke as if he encouraged a peer, not as he begged his king. They all spoke like that. Even Arturas, noble as he was. “Very well, let us be off. If the savages want the Citadel so badly they can have it. I can rule my people elsewhere for the time being, and once our army returns we can take back the city with ease.”
And so we glided down the endless flight of stairs that served as an escape route of the Cloudreach Citadel. It probably hadn’t seen any use in centuries, as the dust in the air was so thick I could taste it. Berun stormed down the stairs ahead, his torch painting the old stones in a dark orange as we passed. Did they have to build these stairs so steep? One misstep could send you tumbling down for an hour.
“These barbarians,” I said, breaking the silence. “Arturas mentioned that they are invading from the west?”
“Yes, Highness. And hardier than most soldiers. They are as fearless as they are innumerable. It as a terrifying combination to face.”
We spent the rest of the flight in the dark halls in silence. Through the stonework I could hear the distant cries of my beloved city falling to pieces. I could hear how close we were to the ground based on how far away the clamor was.
“Stay close to us, Highness,” Berun said once we found the door. “It is unlikely that they will recognize you, but if you hold fast to our sides we can protect you. And, with all due respect, your Highness, you should remove your crown.”
I bit my lip. It would make me a target. I took it off and glared at it as it gleamed in the fire light. No time for disagreements now. My Shieldsworn were in their element here, and it would be foolish not to follow their lead. I stowed it in the pack to my side.
Berun snuffed his torch, leaving it on the ground and shoving the door open. We emerged into a throng of chaos—what few guards were stationed here in the city held off the numerous invaders. Even outnumbered, they held the savages back with ease, cutting down foe after foe. They were endless, however, and well trained as they were, my men were losing ground.
“This way,” Berun gestured. I followed close behind.
The chaos was loud. Steel slammed against steel. Men shouted as they barked orders, or cried as they were cut down. Horns blared, and flaming missiles soared through the sky as they bombarded the already crumbling wall.
“I know not what follows this day,” I muttered. “But I pray my people can endure these dark times.”
“Down with the King!” somebody shouted. “Down with Erharad!”
The sound of glass breaking accompanied these cries. I couldn’t place the origin, but it seemed to be coming from the invading soldiers. I watched as a guard cut down a couple armed only with farming sickles. They didn’t even wear proper armor.
“Your Highness, keep up if you please,” Berun pressed, half turned as he watched both me and the path ahead.
I lingered for a moment, watching as the horde of enemies crashed into the front line. We were losing ground, but it was from the sheer mass, not because the enemy had any training. It was like we were being invaded by…
“Peasants,” I murmured.
“Highness!” one of the other Shieldsworn shouted, shoving me to the ground as she moved herself in between me and something—or someone—I hadn’t noticed. The unexpected toss took more wind out of me than I would have guessed, and it took me a moment to get my bearings once more. As I made to get up, I noticed that my crown had been cast aside, apparently not as safe and secure as I thought. It now bore a dent on the side, but whether it was new or simply unnoticed I couldn’t say. Instinctively, I put it on as I stood to my feet.
And watched in horror as my assailant—a young woman wielding no more than a small dagger, was kicked and beaten by two of my three fully armored Shieldsworn.
“What is the meaning of this?” I scolded, pushing aside my escorts. They stopped with some hesitation. Evidently they deemed her no threat at this point, a broken and bloody mess as she was.
“Whatever could you mean, Highness? She clearly meant you harm. This is a battle,” the Shieldsworn that had thrown me aside said. She scanned the perimeter as she did, not the least bit concerned.
“Speaking of,” Berun chimed in, “We should be going. And, uh, Highness, your crown.”
I ignored him. Instead, I turned to face my attacker, who was lying in pain as she stared up at the burning sky. “Where do you come from?”
After a moment, her eyes focused on me, which seemed a great deal of effort on her part. “Easthaven,” she coughed.
“Easthaven? That’s no more than twenty miles from here.” Arturas had told me they were barbarians from the west. “Why are you here? What is your purpose in coming?”
“Down with… the King…” she spat up at me, but she didn’t have the strength or energy, so a trickle of blood spilled out of her mouth as she lost consciousness.
I turned to Berun. “Why are my own people invading my city?”
“She could just be lying, sir. It could simply be the nearest town they’ve ransacked. Now, please, your crown. You need to put it away and we must flee before—”
“CITIZENS OF CLOUDREACH!” a voice boomed from above. The clamor lessened slightly as the Shieldsworn and I looked up.
To see the form of Commander Arturas standing on the lower balcony of the Cloudreach Citadel.
“OUR CAMPAIGN WAS A SUCCESS. KING ERHARAD HAS FALLEN, AND WE HAVE COMPLETED OUR QUEST OF OVERTHROWING A CORRUPT AND SELF-SERVING KINGDOM. I, ARTURAS, HAVE SEEN TO HIS BITTER END MYSELF. LET THIS BLOODSHED END AS WE BUILD A NEW FUTURE FOR OURSELVES AND OUR FAMILIES.”
I faced back to my Shieldsworn, who turned to me in kind.
“Let’s go, Your Highness,” Berun said, with less urgency but more expectation that I would obey.
Arturas kept shouting as the first signs of the ending strife showed. He spoke of new beginnings and the restoration of virtues.
I removed my crown and thumbed the new dent, following my three Shieldsworn as we made to flee the city. But a question buried itself in my mind.
Wouldn’t killing me have been easier than all this?