Aldrich Lambert the Seventh, the aged King of Wesrin, sat upon his throne holding his head in despair. His city was under siege by all manner of green-skinned orc. Come down from the mountains and the faraway places to tear Patrician Rock apart - stone by stone - in the name of their dark master.
It was not uncommon for orc raiding parties to attack the settlements of men, but this invasion was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. That and the cunning beast had sent his forces at the heart of a killing year. To strike when the weather was harsh and food short. Patrician Rock had enough stores to last, for a time, but the relentless assault upon their walls would wear them down eventually.
Aldrich wanted to strike out. To dash the invaders, but such a thing would be the height of foolishness. No, all he could do now was sit and wait for his brother to rally at Newcastle and march an army to break the siege. The heavy doors of the throne room swung open and Lord Nigel Blackburn stormed in – a proverbial thundercloud of anxiety.
He was an old man at a young age, with greying hair and a perpetual downward turn to his mouth. His steely-eyed gaze belied by a touch of desperation as he crossed the distance from the door to the throne.
“Bad news, I take it?” Aldrich raised an eyebrow. Lord Blackburn rarely came calling with anything else.
“The enemy is retreating,” the man’s voice was tight. “They have abandoned the assault and are fleeing across the plain.”
The old king let out a long and haggard sigh. This was not a fortuitous turn of events - it could only mean one thing.
“The dragon is coming.”
“We can only imagine that that is the case, your Majesty.” Was that a twinge of fear on the grizzled Lord Blackburn’s face?
“Then there is only one thing left to do,” Aldrich stood, for the first time feeling his age.
“See that the city is evacuated with all haste. Our only hope for our people now is a safe passage through Kaldwin’s pass. Send for Reinhardt, I wish to speak with him in my chambers,” he paused. “It has been an honour to serve as your king, Lord Blackburn.”
“And it has been an honour to serve you in turn, your Majesty,” the other man clenched his jaw. “Shall I bring the warhorn?”
Aldrich nodded, giving the man his leave before turning on his heel and beating a hasty path to his chambers. To think that this day would actually come… the guilt was crushing.
In his youth, Aldrich had been the leader of a small band of adventurers (much to his father’s continued worry and embarrassment). They had done some mad things in their time - Aldrich and his companions. The maddest being stealing from an ancient black dragon.
He should have known better than to think that Doomscale would turn a blind eye to their thievery. He should have known better than to think that the dragon’s wrath could be safely left behind in faraway Ah’har. Now the dragon was coming. All one hundred feet of him.
He hesitated for but a moment before pushing the heavy doors of his chambers open. Frighteningly aware that this may be the last time he would do so. He would need his blade and armour now, neither of which had seen use in over twenty years.
He worked his jaw. How could he have let this happen? How could he have looked that foul beast in the eyes and allowed himself to become so lax?
“Father!” Reinhardt erupted into the room, his broad frame making the chamber feel smaller for having him in it.
“My boy,” the old king tried to smile as his servants struggled to squeeze him into his armour. “I’m afraid the time has come.”
“For what?” Reinhardt narrowed his eyes, almost as if to suggest that his father was fooling himself if he thought that taking up arms was going to do any good.
As if he was reminding Aldrich that the most fearsome thing the old king had battled in the last twenty years was a particularly ferocious bout of indigestion.
“The dragon is coming, Reinhardt,” Aldrich shook his head. “There is nothing we can do now.”
“Nothing?” Reinhardt laughed. “I believe killing it is always an option.”
“One day, perhaps,” the old king smiled sadly, “but not today. You must leave before the dragon comes.”
“Are you mad?!” the prince spat. “I am not leaving my father to fight such a beast on his own!”
“No,” Aldrich placed his hand on Reinhardt’s shoulder. “You are leaving your father to die by it.”
“Listen! Reinhardt, you are my only heir,” the king silenced him. “Without you, the Purple Lambert line dies, and I will not see that happen in my lifetime.”
“And I will not see Patrician Rock handed so freely to a monstrosity,” the boy argued with more fire than Aldrich had ever had in him. He smiled. His son was going to make a good king.
“These old stones are not what give Patrician Rock value. It is the people that live within them. Always remember that.”
He pushed past his son. The dragon would soon be seen on the horizon - of that, he had no doubt.
“The journey through Kaldwin’s Pass is treacherous at the best of times,” he continued, “and now we are at the heart of a killing year. Take up the Stonehammer. Guide our people to safety.”
“And then what?” Reinhardt followed him as he made for the throne room. “What am I supposed to do once that creature has taken Wesrin’s capital? What, as their king, am I supposed to say to the people of Wesrin?”
“That you will fell the beast and take it back,” they came to a stop beside the throne. “And then do it.”
Lord Blackburn was waiting, the Archangel Estalia’s Warhorn in hand. He nodded to his king as Aldrich took the relic from him. The bone was cool beneath his fingers as he examined – for what was likely the last time – the inscription upon it.
Legend had it that the horn had belonged to the Archangel herself before she had lost it to a wily rapscallion named Lucky-Jack in a game of cards. Aldrich wasn’t sure if he believed such a thing. But, one way or the other, he would welcome it if the horn was blessed – or lucky – today. There was only one thing left to do.
He took the crown from his head, turned to Reinhardt, and extended it towards him, “This is yours now.”
Reinhardt stood still for a long time, his eyes searching the old king’s face. Finally, he took the crown and placed it upon his head.
“I’ll make you proud,” his voice was filled with steely determination.
“I already am,” Aldrich smiled for the last time as he clapped his boy on the shoulder and turned to make for the stables. The walk had never been longer nor more solemn.
His plan was simple… and foolish. He meant to ride out to meet the dragon in Arianne’s Plains. His hope a simple one – that Doomscale would choose to fight him rather than attack the city outright. That the dragon’s spiteful wrath would give him pause when he spied Aldrich’s last - and hopeless - stand. He clenched the Warhorn as he stepped into the stables. With any luck, he might have allies when he made that desperate stand. Though, in truth, that was perhaps a vain hope indeed.
He walked over to his charger, running a hand along the beast’s white flank as the stable boy readied the animal and once his horse was ready, rode for the Skybridge. It seemed unfair to doom such a beautiful beast to die, but what could he do?
The wind whipped through his hair as he urged the horse to cross. The Skybridge spanned the gap between the Patrician Rock itself and the hill on which the rest of the city had been built in a downward spiral towards the plains below.
He stopped at the centre of the bridge, flanked on either side by statues of Estalia’s angelic generals. He took a deep breath and blew on the Warhorn. The eerie but rousing note cut through the air. Announcing to all Patrician Rock what their king meant to do. He spurred his horse, encouraging it into a full gallop as he made for the city gates.
The sound of the horn would tell his people that their king meant to take the field. That the man who had once been a hero to them had again taken up arms in their defence. And to those who had once stood beside him as comrades, it would serve as a call to arms. With any luck, they would answer.
He passed through the many districts of the Phoenix Quarter. The nobility white-faced and frightened as they abandoned their belongings and made to evacuate alongside the poor they so easily loathed. Aldrich doubted that most would survive the trek through Kaldwin’s pass. They had grown far too soft in their decadence.
He rode and rode. Through Winthrop Plaza and past King’s Square as he beat a steady path to the main gates. The sound of the orcish horde had subsided now as they fled in the face of their master’s assault upon the city - Doomscale would fell with his acid breath an orc as easily as a man. Aldrich slowed his horse as he reached the gates, three figures awaiting him like beacons of hope.
“We didn’t need your call,” Arlen the Fleetfoot snarled. “We were going to face the dragon with or without you.”
“But we are glad you came,” Sheona the Warmaiden hushed her companion. “It has been a long time, Aldrich, I’m glad you’ve decided to be the Lionheart once more.”
“Well,” the king wilted a touch beneath the accusatory stare of Allan the Mute, “it is my last chance to redeem the name. I was wrong to let it go when I took the crown. I was wrong to abandon you all.”
“And you were wrong to bed Émeric Artois’ sister and piss off the only dragonslayer we knew on the eve of our quest to finish what we started,” Arlen had lost none of his venom. “If it wasn’t for you, Doomscale would have been dead long ago and we would have made right our mistake.”
“We got those people in that city killed thirty years ago,” Arlen’s eyes burned with guilt and anger. “How could you be happy to risk that level of destruction coming here? How could a man who had once called himself the ‘Lionheart’ be so grossly pathetic?”
“I’m sorry,” Aldrich didn’t know what else he could say.
“Only because the worst has come to pass,” Arlen growled.
“What more can you ask of me, Fleetfoot?” the king gritted his teeth, half imagining he could hear gargantuan wings beating in the distance. “I cannot undo the past, but I am here to fight now.”
“That is all that can be asked,” Sheona silenced Arlen with a single weighted look. “Doomscale will not be defeated this day,” she looked at the fleeing people of Patrician Rock, “but he will be thwarted. And on this day, that will be enough.”
“Into the breach then," Aldrich Lambert the Seventh, the aged King of Wesrin, resigned himself to his fate, "One last time."
If you enjoyed this story please consider following me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/katgauton . I post daily snippets from my current works in progress as well as updates on my upcoming books and short stories.Feb. 8, 2018, 7:17 a.m. 0 Report Embed 1
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