Conlan paced around his room in the Guard barracks, running a roughened hand through his curls; a gesture from his childhood. The echo of his mother’s words float to him in his mind.
You are going to lose all of that beautiful hair if you keep doing that, Conlan.
He dropped his hand to his side, and gave a ghost of his usual lopsided grin. It faded as the present situation returned to the forefront of his thoughts.
“What would you have done, mother? Father?” His voice was hushed in the sparse quarters, and no answers came from the bare stones.
A knock sounded at his door, and when he opened it, it took all he had not to curl his lip in disgust. There were some soldiers who followed the King’s cruel orders because it was their duty. Then there were those, like this one, who did so with glee.
“Your brother has requested your presence in the throne hall, Captain.”
A knot of fear and anxiety twisted around his heart, but he kept his visage smooth and unworried. His brother summoned him to the throne hall all the time, he reasoned. No need to jump into trouble before it found him.
“Lead the way,” Conlan said. Despite the rationalization on his part, the cold look of malice in the guard’s expression kept his heartbeat in his throat all the way to the throne hall.
When he entered the short hall through ancient, double oak doors, he stopped dead in his tracks. The guard who brought him shoved him in the rest of the way, and closed and barred the doors.
The Queen knelt on the floor next to the throne, shackled, face bloodied and bruised, and with a guard holding her at swordpoint from behind. Rage danced in the Captain’s eyes and belly as he looked around the room at the other guards. Some lowered their eyes, while others met his gaze brazenly. He noted which ones were which, but in the end none of them had done anything to stop this.
Finally, he looked to his brother. They were mirror images of each other: tall, golden curls, wide-shouldered, strong in body, and with handsome faces. Their features were unique to a kingdom of darker shades in hair and eyes, and it marked them as being descended from the royal line.
“May I ask why you have put your Queen in shackles, my King?”
While they may have shared the same features, most knew the sneer adorning the King’s features would never have found its way to Conlan’s visage.
“My Queen, is she? From what I have been told, she is no more than your whore.”
Conlan had to clench his teeth against the fury and succeeded—barely.
“What has the King heard on such matters, and from whom?”
The King slammed a fist on the arm of his throne, made from the same giant oak as the doors, and spittle flew from his mouth with his next words.
“It does not matter who I have heard this from! A bastard child rests within the Queen’s belly—your bastard!” the King yelled at his brother, and stood. His words echoed through the hall, the accusation seeming to ring against his armor and in his ears.
No one moved or made a sound, and the King sat back down, calm once more. His anger, like lightning, was quick to appear and leave, but left devastation in its wake.
“I know I am not loved by the people of this kingdom, and they would readily rally around your banner and bastard. Your attempt to overthrow me will not work, however,” the King stated, and his eyes gleamed with a malicious light.
Then Conlan heard it, distantly–the sound of screaming.
“What have you done?” the Captain whispered.
“I have ordered the capitol, and its people, destroyed by whatever means amuse the guard.”
No one in the room seemed surprised at the King’s words, and Conlan’s heart sank.
“There was no plot to overthrow you, brother. Your madness has taken you completely, I fear.” His words were sad, but only seemed to enrage his brother further.
“You dare to call me brother while consorting with my wife? Seize him!”
Guards circled around and forced him to kneel. The King descended from the throne, and between the legs of the men Conlan watched as the Queen wept.
Parting like water as the King finally reach him, Gerhard grabbed Conlan by the hair and jerked his head up.
“Make sure she is watching this,” the King said to the guard behind the Queen, who grabbed her hair in a similar manner as the King, and forced her to look to Conlan. The King stepped to the side, so they could both watch what was to come.
Unsheathing the sword at his hip, it passed close enough to the Captain’s face that he saw his own sorrowful reflection. As he let the sword hang at his side, Gerhard looked between the Queen and his Captain.
“Let us play a game, hmm? I am going to run you through with my sword while she watches.”
At his words, the guards grabbed Conlan’s shoulders, undoing the armor and padding, and then forcing them back to give the King the best target. Conlan could not struggle while this was taking place; there were at least twenty guards around, and the one holding the Queen would likely slit her throat before he could get very far.
The King brought his sword back with both hands, their father’s sword. Conlan kept his eyes on his Queen, willing her with them to look nowhere else. She gave a small nod as his Gerhard shoved at least twenty inches of sharp steel through Conlan’s stomach.
The searing pain took his breath away, and it hissed through his teeth, but he never took his gaze from hers. Even then, a small sob escaped her lips, and tears mixed with blood as they ran down her damaged face.
Kneeling down, the King whispered his next words in his brother’s ear.
“Nice and painful? Good. Now you can watch as the same thing happens to her.”
Conlan’s head snapped around to meet his brother’s gaze, and in it the void that was his brother’s insanity. The men who held his shoulders had let go after the King ran him through.
There was one last action he could do, and he prayed to all the Gods that would listen, that it was the correct choice. He fell backward on his heels, chin to his chest, feigning defeat. His brother’s joyous laughter was harsh in his ears.
As quickly as he dared, he pushed his mind past the pain and slid the dagger in his boot out. It would have been too noticeable to go for his sword at his side, and he needed all the time he could get. The fools had not disarmed him when he entered the room, and he thanked the Gods for that small bit of luck.
Fast as lightning, Conlan threw his right shoulder into the King, knocking him off balance and to the floor. Before anyone could react, Conlan jumped on his brother, plunged the knife upward into his brother’s chest, beneath the ribs, and sought his heart if one still beat there.
As the world darkened around the edges of his vision, his brother coughed blood. He had hit more than the heart, and he hoped it was enough.
The silence broke around them as everyone began yelling.
“I knew you wanted me dead,” the King choked out.
“You brought this on yourself, brother. I did not want this end—for any of us,” Conlan whispered back, and fell down again, this time next to his brother.
“Liar,” his brother said softly, and with that final word he was no more.
Conlan’s eyes dropped closed for what felt like an eternity, but they jarred open once more when delicate fingers brushed the curls from his forehead. With a groan, he rolled as much as the sword on his hip, and the sharp pains taking his breath away, would allow.
The Queen was crying softly. Instead of screaming or sounds of battle, there was a profound quiet in the room. Then, the soft patter of rain on the windows found his ears. The drought finally broke.
He tried to lift his hand to wipe her tears as he had earlier, but there was no strength left in him. She caught his hand in both of hers before it hit the ground, and placed it against her cheek for the final time.
“How did you…?”
“The guards began to fight each other after you stabbed the King. The one who held my chains tried to kill me, but was struck down by another guard, who then released me.”
“Ah, I see. Then you are safe?”
Nodding, because the words could not find their way past her throat, Conlan sighed in relief and smiled.
“Thank the Gods for that.”
“No. Thank you, my love.”
“One brother left the world full of hate, while the other left it with a smile. He knew the ones he loved most were safe.”
Amazingly, her inquisitive child had remained silent through the entire story. It did not last long.
“What happened to the city? What about the Queen and her child?”
“The guards who had fought and won in the throne room sent out messengers to detain any guards that prevented the citizens from saving their city. Much of it was razed because of the summer drought, as some guards had chosen fire to destroy the city. The sudden rainfall helped, and people used the water they had been saving to put out the larger fires the rain could not douse.”
She paused, but her daughter pressed her further.
“I know the Queen did not stay. The throne is currently held by a Seneschal.”
The mother nodded.
“Correct. The Queen fled the capital and has not been seen since. The Seneschal holds the throne until she can be found, and the royal line reinstated with the Captain’s–Conlan’s–heir.”
Her daughter gave her a considering look well beyond her years, but said nothing. As her daughter turned her face upward to the stars, the mother knew she was seeking the brightest one.
“I think the brightest star is Conlan.”
The mother could only smile.
“Me, too. Now it is time to sleep.”
Lilliana lay back on her bed, yawning.
“Good night, mother.”
“Good night, child.”
Her daughter closed soft blue eyes, the color of spring. The mother kissed the golden curls on the crown of her daughter’s head, and left the room.
The mother walked out the front door, and leaned against the stone of the cottage. As she found the brightest star in the sky, her smile held less sadness than it had on other nights like this. Though tears still streamed down her face, they were happy, and she knew he was watching.
“Thank you, my love.”