Interlude III: The Betrayed Prince
A dark circus of shadows loomed over Tristan as the mountains tilted, and the ground swayed below. The familiar cadence of an army in movement hummed past the muted rattle of wagon wheels and the pulsing drums of pain that spread along his skull. When he was finally able to pry his dry eyes open, Tristan found himself, not in a tent, but the back of a Red Wolf supply wagon. The hilt of his Commander’s sword glistened against his chest, and he was in full battle armor—as if they had dressed him for a funeral.
The dark thought twisted Tristan’s dry, numb lips into a bitter smile. ‘Still alive—for now.’
Garret sat nearby. The knight’s back jostled against the wagon’s high panel walls, while his arms remained braced against the sword that lay across his lap. Streaks of blood shadowed the knight captain’s face. His unfocused gaze stared across the wagon into the distance, fighting sleep and exhaustion.
Tristan swallowed the cobwebs in his throat as he attempted to move his right arm, his sword arm, but it remained as lifeless and numb as his useless, bandaged left leg. ‘Damn it!’
The wagon bumped over a hole, and Garrett snapped fully awake, his blade half-yanked from its sheath before he spotted Tristan’s open eyes.
“Your Highness!” Relief flooded the knight captain’s face as he sheathed his sword and leaned over to grasped Tristan’s left arm. “How are you feeling?”
“W-water,” Tristan croaked.
“Just a moment!” Garrett fumbled with his sword as he uncorked the canteen beside him. “Slow the wagon a moment. His Highness needs to drink!”
Whispers that sounded like prayers echoed around the supply wagon as Garrett slid his arm behind Tristan’s neck and brought the open canteen closer.
“Don’t drink the water or wine.”
Tristan pushed the canteen away and vomited over the side of the cot.
“Captain Garrett, how is he?” Durante’s voice echoed above them as the Colonel’s red warhorse puffed warm air over the wagon in their direction.
“Puking his royal guts out—as you can see,” Garrett replied with restrained calm.
“Hang in there, your Highness. We’re nearly out of the mountains.”
“H-ow long—” Tristan spat out the lingering putrid taste “—was I out?”
“Not long, your Highness,” Durante answered as he gestured towards the cliffs above them. “It’s about mid-morning now. We’ve been traveling since you were attacked last night.”
Colonel Durante’s countenance was ragged and pale. Even Durante’s armor lacked its usual imposing shine beneath the drying splatter of mud and dust. But one look into his mentor’s dark-hazel eyes told Tristan that the danger was far from over.
The Colonel turned and shouted to a nearby soldier, “Tell General Liam to pick up the pace. I want to be out of these foul mountains before I see the bloody sun come over those mountains.”
“Yes, Colonel,” the soldier snapped a salute and hastened from view.
“This path—” Tristan observed the strange purple moss that crept up the side of the ravine and black shrubs around them “—is this the path we took last night?”
“General Liam’s guide could have us going in circles for all I know,” Garrett growled as he lifted the cloak from Tristan’s injured shoulder. “The bandage is soaked again. It won’t stop bleeding.”
“Physician!” Durante snapped. The army medic quickly hopped off the back of a knight’s horse and then clambered onto the back of the wagon to squeeze in beside Garrett.
“The powder should have worked by now,” the physician explained fretfully. “But his blood isn’t congealing properly at all.”
“We’ve kept him as still as possible, so what’s the problem then?” Garrett snapped.
“Poison?” Tristan muttered as the image of the blue ghoul holding a dagger wet with Tristan’s blood, flashed behind his eyes.
“A blood-thinning agent would explain this,” the physician admitted unhappily. “In which case, my experience is limited. Keep pressure on the wound and a tourniquet on the limb. We need to return to the capital as quickly as possible for a stronger counteragent. The longer we delay, the more likely his Highness could bleed out—or lose a limb.”
“Right, I’ll go see what’s going on with this guide that General Liam is following,” Durante growled and whistled for his hounds. “Your Highness, as uncomfortable as it may be, please try to keep still and rest.”
Tristan grunted and waved his good hand weakly. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
Durante and his baying hounds galloped on ahead while Garrett resumed his uneasy scowl as the medic double-checked the tourniquets and tightened the pressure on Tristan’s shoulder. Then both men sat back upon the barrels of barley grain, which served as the army’s gruel.
The view of the mountain above Tristan remained the same as the shadows stretched, lightened, and changed course as the wagon wheels jostled and bumped along the pathway that grew narrower before them. The sun threatened to defy Durante’s wrath as it climbed steadily overhead, and Tristan knew without asking that they were lost.
As if to confirm his darkening thoughts, the wagon rolled to a halt as hooves of horses rapidly approached.
“Your Highness!” General Liam’s voice called out.
Tristan gestured to Garrett, who reluctantly helped the prince sit up upon the cot. Liam quickly bowed his head as Durante pulled up beside him.
“Forgive the delay, your Highness. My guide got turned around in the early hours, but we are back on the correct path now,” Liam explained hastily.
“Or so your guide claims,” Durante growled.
Liam shot the Colonel an exasperated look but quickly masked his annoyance. “Unfortunately, the path we were on to return to our original route has been blocked off—”
“Of course, it is!”
“—which leads us to a choice I wished to run past your Highness.”
“Right, now he wants to run decisions past his Commander,” Durante growled.
“Which would be?” Tristan asked impatiently. As much as he shared the Colonel’s anger, his pounding head could not deal with the clamor of their bickering.
Liam shifted in his saddle. “We can turn around and go through the mountains to our original path—”
“Veles breath! And spend another day in Tharyn territory?” Durante roared.
“—or we can take an alternate path up ahead that will bring us to Deadwood Forest,” Liam finished tensely as his face flickered between resignation and anger.
“Deadwood Forest will take us into Ventrayna territory,” Tristan replied with restrained anger. The very thought of entering Ventrayna before his mission to defeat the Tharyn invaders had been completed— “Is that the only path ahead that will take us out of Fogtooth Mountain?”
“Exactly so.” Liam pulled a map from his saddle, dismounted, and spread it over a box of dried meat beside Tristan. “The path we will need to take is here. We enter Deadwood at this junction then take a detour south-east to this ridge, at which point we would be safely inside Lafearian mountains and close to one of our border fortresses.”
“And you expect the Emperor’s border guards to let us waltz through?” Durante snapped.
“Why wouldn’t they?” Liam countered bluntly. “Since Tristan is the Emperor’s son and still engaged to Princess Eleanora.”
Tristan narrowed his eyes as suspicion coiled in his gut. On the surface, it might look like Liam was just trying to lead the army through the safest route back to Lafeara, but to travel half the night and morning just to coincidentally end up lost with only one safe path that would deliver Tristan to Ventrayna?
‘Am I overthinking it? Liam has been with the Red Wolf Army almost as long as I have been its Commander.’
“It is the safest route,” Garrett interjected. “And should we encounter the Emperor’s men, we can request medical aid as well, your Highness.”
“As loath as I am to admit it,” the physician added. “Witches are very proficient in poisons and antidotes. I’ve no doubt they are the prince’s best chance at saving his limbs.”
‘Well, with that enlightening vote of approval.’ Tristan glanced down at his limp sword arm. “How long would it take us to backtrack, find the original path, and returned to Wolfthorn Forest?”
“A day, possibly longer,” Liam answered grimly.
“At which point your Highnesses arm and leg will be lost and require amputation—and your life very well in danger,” the physician commented.
Tristan refrained from glaring at the unhelpful medic. He had expected as much. “And the path to Deadwood Forest?”
“We should reach it within a couple hours, your Highness.”
‘Guess that’s the better option, no matter how little I like it.’ Tristan sighed. “Colonel Durante, thoughts?”
“Given your Highness’s condition—Deadwood Pass is likely the safest path forward,” Durante relented unhappily. “But if that guide gets us lost one more time, I’ll put his head on a pike and watch the eagles pluck his eyes out.”
“I’m sure that will provide him with ample motivation,” Liam replied tersely as he rolled up the map, bowed to Tristan, and returned to his horse. “I’ll get us moving again. The pace might be a bit rough, so let me know if we need to slow down for his Highness.”
Tristan watched the General ride off and glared at the mountains as Garrett helped him settle back down against the bloody blanket of the cot. ‘If I die in these mountains, King Henri and the Dowager will be pleased.’ The helpless rage that welled within his chest barely sparked his magic before it withered out in cold acceptance.
Just as General Liam predicted, the increased pace brought with it heightened discomfort and pain as the prince swayed and bounced in his cot. Tristan bore it all with clenched teeth. His crippled limbs might be useless, but the wounds inflicted by the assassin’s dagger roared to life with each abrupt jostle.
Beside him, Garrett winced and scowled at every bump, intermittently checking Tristan’s injuries and muttering to himself. As if the agonizing pain alone wasn’t enough, the swaying motion of the wagon soon had Tristan heaving into a bucket Garrett had ready for him this time.
“Oh, nearly forgot, saved this for you,” the knight commented as Tristan rinsed his mouth with water and spit. Garrett fumbled with a leather satchel and pulled out the ominous blue ghoul mask. “Something to hang on your wall in Ventrayna.”
Tristan laughed dryly as he stared at the mask and then held out his hand. Garrett handed over the grim memento and set about dealing with the puke bucket.
The demonic mask had high arched brows, dark fiendish eyes, a sloped flaring nose, and a fanged mouth. Tristan flicked his finger against the painted blue metal. “Witch Steel,” he muttered.
‘The Dowager must have planned pretty far in advance if she got ahold of an assassin from Ventrayna. Perhaps she even found someone to act as a member of the Emperor’s shadow guards to frame me with that dagger and letter?’
Dark conspiracies filled his head as Tristan passed the mask back to Garrett. “I appreciate the thought, Captain,” Tristan said as he reached beneath his chain mail and bloody tunic. “Now, I’d like to ask a favor of you.”
“Oye.” Garrett narrowed his eyes at the scorpion medallion that Tristan pulled free and unclasped from his neck. “I don’t think—”
“If the worst should happen, I want you to return this to Eleanora,” Tristan interrupted firmly. “Tell her what’s happened, all of it. Tell her to stay away from Lafeara at all costs.” He held the necklace between them and glared at the knight captain until his friend relented and accepted the token. “And tell her—that I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise.”
“This goes against every superstition I’ve ever known,” Garrett growled. “Just so you know, if the worst should happen, I’ll be dying before your royal ass.”
Tristan laughed and gripped the side of the cot as he spat blood and bile into the bucket. “Don’t be too sure.”
Garrett clasped the necklace around his neck and held up the golden scorpion with his thumb. “I think it looks good on me.”
“Actually—” Garrett’s eyes narrowed as his gaze rose up the side of the mountain “—what in Veles’ breath is this!”
Tristan followed the knight captain’s frantic gaze. Fog rolled down the mountainside towards them with unnatural speed.
“Light torches!” Garrett shouted as the pace of the army noticeably slowed. “On your guard, men!” The frantic movements of soldiers about the wagon soon produced a line of torches that glowed eerily as the ominous fog descended with silent ferocity and swirled ominously around them.
“This is a new trick,” muttered the wagon driver uneasily.
A horse screamed, and one of Durante’s hounds bellowed savagely. Tristan and Garret recognized the sound and what it signified just as the warning horn boomed through the dense clouds of mist.
“We’re under attack! Get ready!” Garrett roared.
The rumble of an army echoed through the shadows before and behind them. The savage whoops and screams of pagans bounced off the mountain walls as Tristan dragged himself upright and pulled his sword from its sheath.
Garrett took his shoulder gently and shook his head. “Knights, defensive shield formation!” Five knights climbed into the wagon to erect a protective barrier of shields around Tristan, and Garrett, who crammed in close beside him. The sounds of two armies engaging reverberated around them.
“Are they in front or behind us?” Tristan hissed.
Garrett shifted and slid his head and shoulders through the knight’s shields. A few moments later, he returned and shook his head. “We’re surrounded, and the Cavlary is no good in these cramped mountain paths.”
“How close are we to Deadwood Pass?”
Garrett shrugged helplessly, then growled as he seized the knight to his right. “Lieutenant Cantu, I’m leaving his Highness with you. Make sure he stays in the wagon, alive and in one piece, or I’ll feed your entrails to the hounds.”
“Yes, Captain!” Cantu replied promptly.
Garrett turned back to Tristan. “Stay put, your Highness. I’ve got a plan. I’ll be back soon.”
“Be careful!” Tristan shouted after him and clenched his sword’s hilt tightly.
‘Damn that assassin. My crippled bastard hide is going to get us all killed.’
The clanging sounds of metal bleed into the shouts and screams of war that rose into a blood-thirsty crescendo as the battle raged on. Tristan waited patiently in his tiny protective bubble, inwardly torn between guilt and frustration as he counted the minutes to Garrett’s return.
“Your Highness!” Durante’s commanding voice preceded the snarl of hounds. Tristan propped himself up unsteadily, using his sword as a cane, and pushed against the shield before him.
“Please, your Highness, stay put,” Cantu pleaded as he held his shield firm. “I’d rather not be eaten by dogs.”
Tristan cursed, but his quivering leg forced him to return to the cot. A few tense moments later and Cantu, who kept watch between the barrier’s tight space, suddenly lowered his shield.
“Highness,” Durante panted as he gripped the side of the wagon. “We need to get you out of here.”
“What’s going on?” Tristan demanded. “How many pagans are there?”
“Three of Tharyn’s princes are here, earth witches all of them and nearly five thousand pagans between them,” the Colonel answered grimly.
Tristan’s breath caught in his throat as he quickly calculated their rapidly depleting odds of survival.
“But we’re close enough to Deadwood Path that a small squadron should be able to push through with our cavalry. If we delay any further, we’ll lose this chance.” Durante turned to the knights around him. “Get his Highness onto his horse!”
“Where is Garrett?” Tristan demanded as Cantu hopped down from the carriage. The other knights lowered their shields and lifted Tristan to where Cantu pulled the prince’s black warhorse beside the wagon. Tristan grit his teeth as they eased him into the back of the horse. The moment his weight settled into the saddle, he felt the wound along his inner thigh reopen again.
“Garrett is waiting with the cavalry. I’ll take you there, your Highness,” Durante explained as he eased Tristan’s left foot into the stirrup and tied a lead to the black stallion’s harness. “Hold onto the reins, and don’t let go. If you can’t stay in the saddle, Garrett can carry you behind him, but don’t stop for any other reason.”
“Why does it sound like you’re not coming with us, Colonel?”
Durante did not answer as he hoisted himself atop the red warhorses and pulled Tristan along beside him.
The chaos Tristan had heard from inside the wagon was even closer than he realized. Only three-hundred paces away, the pagans were battering their way mercilessly through the Red Wolf Army’s front ranks.
The overwhelming number of enemies was not the only danger his men faced. A suspicious rumble from the mountain above proceeded a rockslide of small boulders and stone that struck the sides of the Red Wolf Army with little warning.
‘The work of the pagan princes.’ Tristan squinted his eyes over the clouds of dust and men to see two banners ahead of him. ‘The third prince must be behind us, but how did they find us? How did they know to intercept us here? Was the guide leading us into an ambush this whole time?’
A jumble of thirty men on horses skittered away from another rockslide. Garrett was amongst them, shouting out encouragement as he kept the men together.
Durante eased back his warhorse and grabbed Tristan’s left hand. “We’ll meet again, your Highness, after I’ve smashed enough pagan skulls to block the path behind you,” the Colonel said as he wrapped the reins tightly around Tristan’s wrist. Garrett joined them and took the lead from his father. “You keep him alive now,” Durante ordered as he narrowed his gaze on his son.
“Keep yourself alive, old man,” Garrett grumbled. “I’ll send back help as quickly as I can.”
“His Highness’s wellbeing comes first,” Durante barked as he turned his red warhorse back towards the chaos. “And these pagans will regret underestimating the Red Wolf Army.” The Colonel lifted the ram horn slung about his shoulder and blew out a signal to advance.
A reserve of Red Wolf Soldiers lowered their spears and braced their shields as they rushed steadily through the ranks that opened ahead. The pagans swept through, still screaming in their foreign tongues even as the Red Wolf Spears pierced through them as their shield swept together like a tide of merging bulls and rammed back against the unbalanced stream of pagans.
The battle continued with renewed desperation as the Red Wolf spear unit pushed the pagans back. The retreating Red Wolf soldiers reformed behind the spears with swords raised high while the archers at their back launched a series of volleys into the fray before them. Colonel Durante led the remaining hundred and seventy cavalrymen, still blowing the notes of war as the pagans lost their momentum and fumbled to regroup.
Garrett whistled sharply, and the cavalry unit selected to protect Tristan lunged into the break, towards the suddenly visible narrow pass that led to Deadwood forest.
It was only then that Tristan realized General Liam and his regiment were nowhere in sight. His spine went rigid as his limbs went cold, and blood rushed to his ears. Only Colonel Durante’s regiment of six hundred men remained to face the pagan’s five thousand. Tristan exhaled sharply and clenched his teeth together so hard that his mouth filled with the taste of blood and betrayal.