General Fiction posted April 15, 2021 Chapters:  ...14 15 -16- 17... 


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Wolf Flees the Imperial Palace

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Flight

by duaneculbertson



Background
Fantasy novel about Good and Evil and defining the nature of Justice.
Wolf froze. His jaw opened, but no words came. Guilt and remorse filled his heart. Tears welled in his eyes and his chest heaved on its own accord. He forced some deep breaths, as he tried to see clearly. What would be their course of action? What was going to happen? The questions were clouded by the stark realization that another family member had taken his leave right when he needed him most.

In his mind’s eye, Wolf foresaw the potential ramifications. Courtiers of the Royal Court would fret over the dynastic succession and the aristocracy would grow uneasy. And with the threat of a civil war looming, the economy could falter. Officers at the frontiers would idly await orders instead of pushing forward with their war plans. Within the major cities, itinerant merchants would dump their wares at discount prices before fleeing a country of dubious stability.

Strict rules governed the transition of power, so the process ought to be smooth. But Wolf knew history; he knew how simple it was for others to lay a claim to the throne under the pretense of authority, or even stage an outright rebellion. A civil war would be a costly endeavor, and this was the worst possible time for such a catastrophe. One thing was certain – it was the end of an era.

            “We’ll need to call the guards and alert the Imperial Physician,” gasped Alcuin. “But first, take this.” 

With trembling hands, he returned the ring to Wolf who thrust it deep into his pocket. The sage removed the Imperial seal from the monarch’s other hand.

            “What are you doing!” Wolf exclaimed.

            “Don’t argue! Just take it! Now brace up. We must sound the alarm. Guards!” Alcuin cried. “Come quick! The king has fallen.”

Ganymede burst through the doors. The color drained from his face, once he saw the monarch slumped over with lifeless eyes. He bounded to his side and felt for a pulse, confirming what the others knew. Wolf felt he could see the man’s blood start to boil.

            “Treachery!” he sputtered. “How dare you? And in this house!” Trembling with rage, he drew his sword.

            “Don’t jump to conclusions!” Alcuin protested. “We are innocent of this tragedy.”

Wolf backed toward the door as two guards approached. He understood Ganymede’s fury; the man oversaw the Emperor’s safety. People would accuse him of failing to do his duty. He had guarded the old man for decades and probably regarded him like family. And having not witnessed what happened, he would assume the worst. Already a volatile situation, this fiasco could deteriorate rapidly if passions flared. Now was not the best time to explain what happened. A formal inquiry could take hours or days – time he did not have.

            “Seize him!” roared Ganymede.

Wolf ducked to his left and struck to his right, punching the first guard in the groin. The man doubled over, and Wolf pushed him into the other guard. This man tried to draw his sword but was knocked flat by the other’s body.

            “Stop!” bellowed Ganymede.

            “I don’t have time to make this right!” Wolf shouted.

            “I know!” yelled Alcuin. “Get out of here! I’ll plead our case!”

Wolf turned to flee, sensing the guard captain close behind. With surprising deftness, Alcuin pulled the carpet and Ganymede tripped, landing hard, his sword clattering across the floor.

Wolf did not look back. He sprinted through the doors into the adjacent salon and barreled into Janicus, knocking him flat. Winded, his uncle could do little else but curse his nephew and watch Wolf continue his flight. Courtiers scattered in terror as if they were in the presence of a madman. Other petitioners froze, rooted in place by fear or surprise. One servant attempted to stop him, but Wolf sent the man sprawling. He burst through yet another door upsetting two servants and a food cart. Mutton shanks and angry waiters were left in his wake.

Wolf rounded another corridor. He was almost free of the palace. Only two guards remained. They stood at the end of a long hallway.

            "Mad dog!” Wolf yelled, pretending to look back for the dog that was chasing him. The guards drew their weapons but looked for an animal that did not exist. As he passed, he heard shouts from behind.

            “Seize him!” someone yelled.

Wolf heard footsteps. The guards were giving chase, but they were encumbered by armor and no match for Wolf’s speed – he had not been the Aachen County Fair’s sprint champion two years in a row for nothing. As he emerged from the castle, he paused in the courtyard, squinting in the harsh daylight. He saw what he was looking for. He vaulted a low balustrade and jumped into the garden below. He knew the palace gardens from childhood. They were vast, and he had played in them for hours, knowing them like the back of his hand. It would be easy to lose any pursuers now.

Wolf stopped to catch his breath. He took the ring from his pocket, the gold glinting in the midday sun. He shook his head ruefully.

            “What a mess,” he muttered. “Did I just kill my grandfather?” It was not intentional, but this truth did little to mollify his feelings. Remorse and doubt clouded his thoughts. How could he have known? Keels and Alcuin had not suffered lasting effects. Then again, they had not lived nearly a century.

Sweat trickled down Wolf’s face, as he approached the western gate. This did not concern him; everyone in Aachen was sweating. Two guards stood outside, but he did not even draw their attention, as he slipped into the street. Their lack of interest was not unusual: their job was to keep people out of the gardens, not keep them in.

            “Meat pie, sir?” a boy asked. “Curried mutton.” The street urchin wore threadbare rags and offered him his most piteous expression. As he stood imploring his well-dressed customer, he kicked his bare feet in the sunbaked dust of the street.

Wolf had not eaten anything since early morning. He wondered what capricious winds of fate had blown the boy here to this exact moment in time. Was he a foundling? Did he have family? Did he have protection from the Thieves Guild? Was he homeless? And where did he get the meat pie to start with? Was it stolen from a vendor? Wolf didn’t care. He gave the boy a denarius and told him to keep the change. The urchin cast a patchwork smile and took off down the street.

The meat pie tasted terrible, a tangy, salty, sinewy mess. Although outlawed in Aachen, it probably contained a fair amount of rat. Wolf could only manage a few bites. He suspected the overuse of salt was meant to mask the taste of rotten meat. He gifted his purchase to a stray mongrel and made his way to the stables.

Wolf would have preferred an express coach to Malden, but he feared one would not be ready in time. It was imperative he leave the city immediately. Any moment he expected to hear the dreaded bells that would toll the death of his grandfather. Such an action would force the city gates closed, and they would not open again for anyone until an all-clear command was issued by the Imperial Guard. If he did not act fast, he would be trapped. He could not have more than a few minutes.

At the stables, Wolf found Glamdray and settled with the farrier.

            "I noticed her shoes in a poor way,” said the man. “You want me to re-shoe her? Takes only a minute.”

            “No thanks,” said Wolf. He tapped his fingers on a post as he waited for the farrier to hand him the reigns. With a gruff salutation, he mounted and cantered to the western gate. He would have preferred a gallop, but it was against the law to ride at such speeds within city walls, and he did not want to draw unwanted attention.

A logjam blocked the gates, but Wolf managed to grab the eye of the gatekeeper, an old salt who had once served alongside him in the Xanadian Campaign.

            “Rushton,” Wolf called over the din of the crowd. “I’m in great haste. Can you do anything to help?”

Although the man’s face registered pleasant recognition, he simply shrugged. A cart with a broken wheel blocked the gateway. Wolf hopped down from his horse. Loudly declaring his roadwarden status, he pushed and elbowed his way past the throng. Then, he put his shoulder to the cart. Two city guards followed suit and before long it was limping to the side of the road. That was when the tolling of the bells began, the urgent peals reverberating throughout the city.

Everyone knew something terrible had happened. People gasped, exchanging worried glances. Some speculated. A fire or an invasion were the most popular suspects, but there were no shortages to explain the foreboding sounds. Wolf alone understood they marked the death of the Emperor, the one who had shepherded the kingdom for over half a century.

Wolf caught Rushton’s attention and delivered an impassioned plea with his eyes, far more articulate than any he could offer through his words. Nodding gently, the man motioned him through the gate. Wolf led Glamdray through the crowds amidst competing cries of outrage and frustration, knowing he had just made a narrow escape.

 



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