The Fallen Diadem
I couldn’t wield my longsword with an injured arm. The shock had come, the shock wasn’t enough. The cloth sling holding it in place did nothing to immobilize the injury. If Sister Evey had seen me try to walk, I was sure she would have shoved me to the ground and ordered I stay put. She was busy though, and I was finally getting to have my adventure.
“Come on, follow me,” Charlie hissed, grabbing me first by the arm, then by the belt. Xon and Neeka followed right behind as the five of us filed in through the broken gate. Claire glanced over her shoulder to see where we were, but she headed on to the front to speak with the other captains and get the situation.
The inside of the castle was gloomy, lit as though by moonlight off a subterranean lake. I couldn’t see the source of the light yet, but I could hear the men shouting. I could see the piles of corpses that the mage king of Vichtstein had made. The bodies were collected in the corner of the hall like fallen leaves. They had enormous gouges through their bodies. Limbs had been smashed to twisted paste. The edges of their ragged skin was blackened. One still had the killer’s weapon in them; a shard of ice the size of a cannon ball.
“Come on, arm up. Shields,” Charlie said, getting on his knees next to the bodies. Digging his hands through the blood and guts, he pulled off straps and unfastened armor. The Order of the Broken Concordant were well equipped, yet barely any two looked the same. I hadn’t thought much of it walking around camp, but as soon as we tried to find matching gear that wasn’t destroyed, the issue presented itself. Charlie was mumbling to himself about country names and tossing pieces around.
He stood up with a long kite shield, far heavier than his own buckler, then turned to me. “Neeka, help me out here.” The two of them grabbed me and started strapping the shield to my injured arm with belts. It was crude, but it would work. Xon slapped a kettle helm over my head and only then did they think about themselves. I pulled a short, broad bladed sword from the grasp of a dead man and hefted it. Heavy, but balanced in the hand.
“Put it back,” Neeka said, and I saw Charlie was holding the fat purse of a dead man. The strings were still tight; no one knew whether it was a pile of copper, or a pile of gold inside. She put her hand on Charlie’s arm and squeezed. “If they see us robbing their friends, they won’t watch our backs.”
“We already did rob their friends.”
Her lips tightened. “Well, we have to hope they’ll forgive weapons and armor. Don’t push it,” she said, and to my surprise, Charlie’s hand tilted over. The purse dropped back down at his feet.
Claire returned when we stood up with our bloody spoils. “Clear out left,” she ordered, gesturing to a doorway near some of the other soldiers. “We need to get out of the hall before Lord Amaranth gets serious. Charlie, Xon, shoulder to shoulder with me. Neeka, Mark, you’re behind and sides. Stab through if they get close. Just think of it like the barracks. Let’s go.”
I glanced at Neeka and stepped closer to her. We had done a lot of fighting together, but not this kind of fighting. The entire ground trembled, and the stone cracked beneath my feet. Another streak of light hung in the air; Amaranth’s charge attack. He was back in the fight, going against something strong enough to have flung him out to the lake. I didn’t have time to be afraid or in pain. I didn’t have time to regret my decision; I just followed behind as Claire led us out of the main hall.
The other soldiers pushed and parted, making way for us to get to the doorway. It was dark, without the glow of magic to illuminate it. We weren’t the only ones though, other soldiers had lanterns held up or bouncing at their hips, casting wild shadows across the ancient tapestries. There were depictions of forgotten battles, of knights slaying dragons, and more faded away. Busts of forgotten kings stared back from marble eyes as the fallen emerged ahead of us.
In a poetic symmetry, the fallen matched the castle. While out in the city they had seemed like rogues and criminals skulking about with armor as mismatched and rusted as our own; here in the castle they were knights and guards. Their armor covered them head to toe, but centuries of rust locked their joints in place. The fallen tried to match in rows against us, but every third couldn’t lift a shield. Charlie and Claire shifted and met one of those, holding the others back so Neeka’s spear could lance out and rip through the fallen’s throat. With the line broken, the formation fell apart. Even I was able to step in and cut one of them down.
“Bar the door!” Claire shouted.
Xon obliged, grabbing a cushioned bench, the fabric almost disintegrating in his grasp, and slamming it up against a side passage. Fallen on the other side threw their weight against it, pushing the door back open. Charlie dove in with his shoulder, slamming it shut once more as Xon looked for more weight.
I couldn’t lift anything, but I didn’t let the reprieve be wasted. The hall had sconces, long withered tufts of wax and wool. Fetching a torch from one of the other men, I ran down the passage, lighting up the ancient braziers to cast light back into the castle hall. We were in a servant passage. I saw connections to places like kitchens, larders and other halls dotted with the fallen. The door that Xon was barring had looked like bare granite stone, a path to the dungeon perhaps.
But those were all doorways out, away from the main hall. My sconce-lighting journey had brought me to the end, back to a door into the main hall. I saw the fight Amaranth was engaged with. I saw the king of Vichtstein.
It had on a robe, a thick, furred robe whose color had long since faded. Beneath that, and beneath the tattered remains of his beard, was gold enameled armor; articulated plate that glistened with a coating of ice. In one hand he held a slender blade that twirled and spun, fending off the thrusts of Ascalon as the king danced away. It was the other that glowed with power. When he leapt away from Amaranth, he slammed his offhand to the ground, and light surged out across the ground. My breath fogged instantly, and I saw ice crackle into existence like a shell over the stone and rugs.
Amaranth reacted by leaping before it could cover his feet, and smashing the blade of Ascalon into the ground. The stone cratered like a giant had struck it. The ice shattered before he landed, and he redoubled the attack, driving the king towards the wall opposite me. He thrusted and jabbed, working the spear hard against the fallen’s defense, and yet could only scratch the creature’s armor.
I had never seen something like that fight before, it was beyond human. I could see the diadem atop the king’s head. It was a band of silver with a small blue gem atop his brow. It glowed in the light, or perhaps glowed of its own accord. I could see the elegant twisting and sculpting, the braid of precious metal that sat upon the king’s head and held up the gem that gave him such power. Men were dying to get that diadem. More would die in the wars that came because of it.
I watched, transfixed by their melee as lightning began to arc from Amaranth’s spear. When it clashed against the king’s sword, bolts of electricity shot out. I saw the flashes sear tapestries and scorch rugs. Errant blasts struck fallen soldiers dead. Fire bloomed up around them as Amaranth’s attack ignited the ancient artworks. The orange glow grew in parallel with his advantage. Bit by bit, the edge of Ascalon chipped through the king’s armor. Plates were cleaved off. The robe cut free. The king was losing.
There was something wrong though. “Why does the king have the diadem?” I asked myself. But it was undeniable that he was using the power of the diadem. I could watch him right in front of me sling lances of ice out of thin air. I could barely take my eyes off the spectacle, but there was something wrong. I licked my lips, furrowed my brow, and tried to get the thought to emerge from the recesses of mind.
It felt like it was there, the same feeling I got when I tried to remember where I came from. Anything before the day Charlie found me felt tied down, restrained in my mind. I knew the answer was there though.
My gaze moved from the fight, from the growing blazes of fire that scorched the walls and blackened the windows overhead. I looked at the thrones. Two of them, one beside the other and both ornate. Neither was centered, neither better than the other. One had been the king’s. I could see the depression, the change in color, from where the fallen had sat for three centuries and distorted the fabric that cushioned the throne. The other had no such damage. The other had something sitting on it. It looked like a thin loop of iron that sat in the center of the seat, and yet the fabric buckled beneath its weight.
It was the queen’s crown. It was the queen of Vichtstein that had held the diadem, not the king. The city fell when she died, not when the king died.
“The king doesn’t have the diadem,” I said under my breath.
I found myself walking forward, putting one foot in front of the other and unable to look away from the thing in front of me. I stepped out into the main hall. To one side was a melee of knights and soldiers, a clash of bodies and of fallen. To my other, Amaranth Arnstein did battle with the king. No one noticed me. I was entirely overlooked as I reached out and picked up the diadem.
It was cold. The ring of iron stuck to my hand, freezing against my skin. The king’s magic had sucked all the water from the air and touching the ring of metal froze it to my skin instantly. Pain. My hand started to ache and I fell to my knees. I gritted my teeth and tried to force my hand open but it had frozen in place. Worse than the axe wound to my elbow, my entire arm throbbed in agony from how cold the diadem was.
Forcing my injured arm to move I put my hands together and tried to pry my fingers open. Even if it meant ripping all the skin from my hand, I had to let go of it. Even if it meant ripping my stitches back open, I had to drop it.
First, I pried my thumb free, feeling the gush of blood that came. My flesh tore free to cling to the frigid steel. Then I grabbed hold of my index finger and pried.
The diadem broke. My shaking hand had struck it against the floor, and the ring of metal shattered into a dozen pieces. They clattered and bounced away, sliding in every direction from me as the pain faded.
The queen’s diadem was broken.