Chapter 21
Sleeping Beauty

Fiora, Byrn; Anno Regis 1286

"The raging fire is quelled by rain, the mighty oak is felled by iron axe... All powers in this world, natural and unnatural, can be thwarted."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

With the castle fallen and their King dead, the Byrnan forces were on their last legs. While half of the Marauders pushed forward to finish off the retreating Dragon Guard, General Reinard of the Spearman Division commanded a one thousand-man joint detachment to attack the last remaining city in Byrn. Most of the men under his command had spent the campaign holding the line in the long sieges of Dragova and Castle Byrn. Now was their chance to gain a little plunder before the Marauders headed back to Gladius.
During General Drusus' raid of the city of Sagia a month earlier, his detachment was surprised by an unexpected force of Byrnan soldiers attacking from a nearby watchpost. Casualties were light, but it could have easily proven to be a disastrous blunder. Learning from his colleague's lesson, General Reinard made a point to first strike at the watchpost several miles from the city. Much to the general's surprise, the bulk of the contingent had already been killed in an attempt to thwart Drusus' attack on Sagia, leaving less than twoscore defending the watchpost.
Fiora was too large to encircle, the favorite tactic of Reinard's peers, so the spearman opted to use a modified version of the classic hammer and anvil strategy. Given its wealth, the richest Fioran families had a fair number of paid fighters at their disposal. Unlike common townspeople, they would be trained in conventional tactics and opt to fight in the open rather than building to building. It was simply a matter of getting them to mass in the center of town, then split them in two with the bulk of his forces. The two sides would be driven back along the main road and crushed against the elements waiting at each end. The plan took two days to set up, but General Reinard was confident the effort would pay off. All that remained was the execution.

* * *

Fiorans knew Gladian treachery all too well. Sixty years ago, the family of their beloved Lord Anton was devastated by the Gladian King Edmond. Before that, the city suffered through the long and brutal Forty Years' War. When it was learned that the Gladians had returned for a new rampage, all their deep-set fears and hatred came to the fore.
Nearly four months had passed since the light of the beacons spread across the kingdom. When it became known that the Gladians were looting and burning everything in their path, many boyars fled from their country estates to take shelter in the city. Given their wealth, the Fiorans braced for the imminent attack, but the Gladians did not come. At first, they feared the Gladians had made a pact with the Ardovans as they had done two hundred years ago, but the threat from the North never materialized. The Fiorans had been strangely fortunate, but the rest of Byrn was not so lucky.
The total destruction of Arita made it clear that occupation was not the Gladians' goal. All Fiorans, from lofty boyars to lowly peasants, rallied together to support the war effort. The boyars used their wealth to import massive amounts of food and supplies while brave volunteers smuggled it past the siege lines into Dragova. The effort certainly helped the Dragon Guard hold out as long as it did, but it could not turn back the tide.
Things had only gotten worse. In an attempt to coordinate with other parts of the kingdom, messengers were dispatched to keep the lines of communication open. Those who were not caught by the enemy did not bring any good news with them. Falko, Sagia, even the Gypsy village in the southern forest. All were destroyed by the Gladians. Now there were rumors that the castle had fallen and the King was dead. It was their darkest hour, and that was when the Gladians came.
When the enemy was seen taking up positions around the city, not only the professional fighters of the boyars but every able-bodied male was called out to defend the city. Although the task before them was daunting, morale was high. Their spirits were roused by the rallying cry: 'One man defending his home is worth ten foreign soldiers.' They believed in this and pinned all their hopes on it. It allowed them to hold out against the Gladians for a time, but in the end, it was not enough.
Within a few hours, the back of the resistance was broken and the Gladians were free to burn, kill, and pillage to their heart's content. Even though the situation seemed hopeless, there were some who still believed Fiora had chance. In a large mansion in the heart of the city, one such person, a man clad in strange foreign garb, knelt before a woman in white.
"My lady," he said, "the Gladians have overwhelmed the city's defenders. Use your powers. I know you can defeat them. This is the city of your forefathers. It is your city. These people need you."
The woman said nothing. She did not move. She was emotionless, ethereal. Some would even say inhuman.
"The Gladians know nothing of mercy," the man said. "They will kill everyone. Man, woman and child."
The woman was unmoved. Unable to get through to her, the man hung his head and sighed deeply. Clenching his fists, he stood up and turned to walk away.
"I'm going now," he said, the propriety slipping from his speech. "I swore to protect you and that's what I plan on doing. I'll take down as many as I can. Maybe it'll make a difference, maybe it won't, but at least I'm doing something."
The bodyguard left his lady in her chamber and still she remained as cold as granite. He did not doubt she had a reason for her inaction, but now was not the time to wait and find out. He reached the vestibule just as the Gladians were breaking in. Everyone else capable of defending the mansion was already on the outside, dead or on the run. He was the last line of defense.
The invaders did not know what to make of him. His clothes were unlike anything they had ever seen and save a quarterstaff thrust in the sash at his waist, he was unarmed. With no help in sight, he boldly met them. Speaking neither greeting nor challenge, he simply held up a hand and beckoned them to come.
A swordsman among them took the bait, bidding all his comrades stay back and let him handle things himself. Normally, the advantage would clearly belong to the swordsman, but the Gladians did not realize who they were dealing with. The swordsman swung his blade to finish the job in a single stroke, only to have the bodyguard rush at him with lightning speed, snake his arm around the swordsman's own to trap it, and deliver a savage blow to the face with the heel of his palm, smashing the Gladian's nose. Blood and tears streamed down the swordsman's face as the bodyguard pulled him forward, twisting his arm until it made a sick wrenching pop. Howling in pain, the swordsman was thrown to the ground where the bodyguard put an end to his suffering by snapping his neck with a decisive stomp.
The bodyguard turned back to face the stunned Gladians. He tilted his head to the left and the right, popping his neck each time as a wordless taunt to his enemies. One hot-blooded axeman was thrown into a rage and charged forward to avenge his comrade. The bodyguard sidestepped the chop of the axe, took hold of the Gladian's helmet and yanked back. Because the helmet was fastly secured by a chinstrap, the head followed along, going back farther than the neck would allow. With a dull crunch, another Gladian fell dead of a broken neck.
With two of their number dead, the Gladians no longer underestimated their opponent. They charged at him as one, and the bodyguard met their charge with his own. He dodged a spear thrust, snapping the shaft in two, seizing one half and jabbing the spearman's throat. He quickly used the shaft to block a swordsman's swing, and while the blade did not cut him, it sliced through the shaft. The cut left two sharp ends that the bodyguard quickly used to good effect. He stabbed the swordsman in the stomach with one piece and left the other in the neck of a nearby comrade.
The bodyguard was clearly prevailing over his enemies. He pressed his advantage against the nearest Gladian when a sharp pain shot through his leg. After knocking his current opponent back, he saw an arrow sticking out of his calf. The Gladians immediately exploited the change in momentum. The bodyguard leaned backwards to dodge a swipe of sword, twisted to avoid the chop of an axe, and, losing his balance, fell to the ground. Four of the Gladians descended on him at once. Sword, spear and axe were poised to exact bloody revenge. Despite the bodyguard's considerable skill and his valiant performance, it was over.
In a last feeble gesture, he raised his arm to block the axe aimed at his head. Before the blow could land, the axe stopped abruptly in midair. The axeman visibly strained against the unseen force before being suddenly thrown into the air. A swordsman watched his blade bent around his hands. An archer's bow splintered. Soon all the Gladians were being thrown about chamber, slammed against the walls, ceiling and floor.
She's finally done it, the bodyguard thought. She's finally using her powers.
It was during that all too brief moment of levity that he appeared. Even though he was wrapped in brown robes decorated with incongruous brocade and gemstones, the bodyguard could tell who he was. The old grudge came rushing back.
"You!" the bodyguard hissed. "What the hell are you doing here!?"
The robed man grinned broadly. "It's been a while, hasn't it?" Taking note of the bodyguard's clothes, he said, "I see you've been out the world. Polishing your skills for a day like this?" He gave the bodyguard a look of false pity. "It doesn't look like it did much good."
"Shut up!" the bodyguard snapped. "Answer the question!"
"I've got reason enough to get back at you two for what you did all those years ago, but it's not all personal. I have a new master now and to serve him, I help the Gladians. They would've had a much harder time of it without a little inside knowledge."
The robed man rolled his eyes. "Please, it's nothing new." He tapped on his chest. "I'm loyal to just one person: me. It's always been that way and it's always going to be that way. You don't get anything for being loyal to other people. They're just stepping stones on the path to greater power."
The bodyguard glared at the traitor as he plucked the arrow out of his leg and threw it to the ground. He rose to his feet and drew the quarterstaff from his sash.
"Try stepping on me," the bodyguard challenged.
The robed man wagged his finger. "No, no, I'm not here to fight with you. My business here is with your mistress. Now if you'll excuse me..."
The traitor took to the air and flew toward the inner chambers. With no way to stop him, the bodyguard ran to his lady's chamber, ignoring the pain of the arrow wound. By the time he got there, the traitor was already talking with her, hovering near the ceiling beyond easy reach.
"You're a cold woman, you know," the traitor said. "I never hear the end of the whining about me being a traitor, but if anyone should bear the responsibility for Byrn's fate, it's you. Letting Old Randwulf have his way with your homeland just to buy time for him. I guess that's just how women are."
"My lady, what's he talking about?" the bodyguard asked.
She said nothing as usual, but the traitor was all too happy to answer in her stead.
"Don't tell me you don't know. Surely you didn't think her powers have stayed the same after all these years." The traitor nodded to the vestibule. "That bit with the Marauders back there. You think she could've done a trick like that ten years ago? Ha!
"If she had a mind to, she probably could've killed a thousand Marauders before Old Randwulf would dispatch me to take care of her. I would've let her do it, too. Gladian, Byrnan, their lives are all the same to me. But she didn't do it. She could've stopped the killing, at least slowed it down, but she didn't. And do you know why, old friend? For him. She's let all these people die for him."
"You know who I'm talking about. The one person who should be here now, by your side defending this kingdom, defending her. But he's not here. He left and she's making sure the Gladians stay busy until he fulfills the future she wants." The traitor looked back to the lady. "Yes, I know all about it. The technique is a little different, but I can see into the future now, too, and you know what I've learned? I've learned that seeing the future is just a shortcut to making it happen. Your pet is going to be mine, and you're going to help me."
"I don't understand what's going on," the bodyguard said, confused and angry. "What future?"
The traitor gave a sly smile. "You never did have much of an imagination. Why, the future where your dear lady and him--"
The traitor was cut off by a chair flying at him. He dodged as it shattered against the wall. It was a close call, but it only seemed to egg him on.
"Hit a nerve, did I?" he taunted. "You don't want your faithful little dog to know what you really--"
This time he dodged a small table and a candelabra. In spite of the danger to his person, the traitor laughed in delight.
"Well, that's certainly a clever way to get around my immunity to your powers." He drew a rod from his sleeve and twirled it around. "I guess it's time to put you in your place."
Pointing the rod at the lady, the man began to chant. As more furniture flew at him, he began to circle the room, constantly changing direction to dodge a collision but never stopping his incantation. The runic inscriptions on the rod glowed as the chant continued and markings appeared on the floor around the lady.
The bodyguard did not understand what was happening, but he knew it was nothing good. His concentration split between his incantation and dodging the flying furniture, the traitor was paying no attention to him. Taking his quarterstaff in hand, he hurled it like javelin the moment the traitor stopped. The quarterstaff struck its target square in the stomach, causing him to hit the wall and drop out of the air. He landed hard, but the bodyguard knew better than to think the stubborn traitor had died so easily. He ran forward to finish the job when the traitor summoned the strength to point his rod at the lady once more.
"It's too late!" he shouted. "I've got her!"
The bodyguard turned to see the lady lying crumpled on the floor. He was instantly gripped by a surge of rage.
"I'll kill you!" he howled.
"She's not dead!" the traitor yelled back. "But if you lay a hand on me, she will be!" Still keeping the rod pointed at the lady, he rose to his feet. "She's just sleeping now and she'll be sleeping for a long time. If you behave, she might wake up again."
"I'll kill you and break the spell!"
"Not so fast," the traitor snarled. "The spell's ready. All I have to do is release it. I know you're fast, but even if you kill me before I cancel this spell, it'll cast anyway."
Whether he was bluffing or not, the bodyguard did not know. He did not know enough about magic to be sure, but he dared not risk it. He back down and a wicked smile returned to the traitor's face.
"Good dog," he sneered. "Besides, you'd be wrong to get mad at me. I'm not the reason this happened."
"Do you think I'm blind?" the bodyguard growled. "I saw you do it just now."
"Oh, no, my friend," the traitor countered. "You're confusing the deed with the reason. I'm but a pawn in this game. The one you should be blaming is him. You left her side to become stronger for her sake and you came back as soon as you could. He left for himself without any thought of coming back to his friends and the land that fostered him. You should be mad at him. You should hate him."
The traitor had touched a sore spot and enjoyed watching the anger boil in the bodyguard's mind.
"Yes," the traitor hissed seductively, "you already hate him, don't you? All these years, you've done everything for her. You've devoted yourself wholly to her, but she doesn't appreciate it, doesn't appreciate you. She knows how you feel, but she ignores you. All because of him."
The bodyguard clenched his fists so tightly that his nails drew blood. The traitor's eyes seemed to glow in excitement.
"If he wasn't around, she'd have no choice but to acknowledge you. If only you could get your hands on him. I can make it happen. You avenge these long years of suffering in silence, all the people who've had to die here for one wretched man."
Unable to contain his anger any longer, the bodyguard assailed the wall, striking it with all his might and howling like a beast. The rock was actually cracked by the force of his blows, but the hide was torn off his knuckles in the exchange. He didn't pay it the slightest heed, hitting the wall over and over again, leaving bloody stains by the time he finally exhausted himself.
With a chiding cluck, the traitor said, "All that energy gone to waste." He rested a hand on the bodyguard's slumped shoulders. "But you're strong. You'll soon have the strength you need to right the wrongs in your life. Go to her. I have to make some preparations before the next stage of my plan."
The traitor vanished, leaving the bodyguard alone with his lady. With the heat of passion leaving him, he could acutely feel the pain in his leg and hands. He picked up his quarterstaff and went to the lady's side. The traitor had not lied. She was still alive, but would not respond to him shaking her or calling her name.
It was a cursed sleep, and though the fables claimed true love's kiss would wake a sleeping beauty, he had not the courage to make so bold a move. And though he lacked the courage to kiss her, he did embrace her for the first time and held her limp form close to his muscular chest. Even if she did not acknowledge his feelings, she was still his lady and whether he face Heaven or Hell, he would protect her.