The Hollow Living (sample)
Copyright Sarah Carraway
The guard had fallen behind. Encarz noticed this but said nothing to Cyrano, whose own guard had fallen behind as well. Encarz was angry at this, considering he had spent three straight days lecturing the captain of the guard on how to do his job. Encarz had expressly warned the man – saying that if he didn’t do his job and arrange a competent guard, then it was his head on a gatepost. Apparently, he hadn’t done an adequate job. He reminded himself that next time he would just start by slicing off fingers.
If Cyrano noticed the guard’s absence, he didn’t say anything. He simply busied himself with talking about affairs back home, how the crops of his province were doing, how the peasants and merchants were thriving in the hard economical time – but mostly he spoke of his family, particularly of his sister. Encarz knew he should be listening, but he couldn’t bring himself to be distracted. He was simply too aware of the sudden silence of the bowl-shaped valley. His eyes scanned the dark pine trees that lined the edge of the bowl suspiciously. With each unnatural rustle, every twig that snapped, he became more and more edgy.
“What is it?” Cyrano asked at last, when Encarz stopped altogether and was leaning forward in his saddle, hands gripping the horn. Encarz ignored him, keeping his head tilted at an angle, the chill winter wind stirring his snowy white hair and dragging it across his pale face.
“We’re being followed,” Encarz said finally, in a breath.
“The guard…?” Cyrano asked slowly. Encarz shook his head.
“No, not the guard. We lost the guard a while back.” Encarz righted himself in the saddle, and his hand went to the sword hanging by his side. It was less than comfortable, but he refused to travel anywhere unarmed.
“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Cyrano demanded, drawing his own twin daggers from his boots. Unfortunately, this move cost him his reins, as he had to release them to get a good hold on the hilts of his daggers.
“I didn’t think you were listening,” Encarz answered innocently, glancing around the space of glistening white earth.
Then they came. Five or six of them from all directions, pouring in from the surrounding pine trees and sliding down the shallow sides of the valley with uncanny speed. They came silently. Encarz swore and sheathed his sword immediately, grabbing up the reins of his horse. He had faced such odds more than once in battle, but that was when he had to. This time, he didn’t have to.
Hoping Cyrano made it, Encarz dug his heels into the side of his mount and took off down the length of valley. Snow flew beneath his horse’s hooves, scattering left and right in a cloud of white. The midnight black Friesian was like a spot of ink against the white. Encarz licked his chapped lips and leaned in closer against his horse’s neck. He couldn’t see whether or not he was being pursued, but common sense told him that he was. Then finally, another horse – a dappled gray – appeared beside his. He couldn’t make out more than the rider’s silhouette. Another pulled up beside him mounted on a bay, and both began to close on him as if they meant to squeeze him off his mount. Encarz ground his teeth together and pulled on the reins, bringing his mount to a very abrupt halt. Before his attackers could copy the motion, Encarz slipped down from the saddle and grabbed his sword, turning to face them. There was a bloodlust in his eyes that hadn’t been there since his days of war, when they blazed with a hungry all-consuming fire.
The assassins dismounted quickly, and in the darkness they drew their own swords. Encarz grabbed the leather-wrapped hilt of his sword and crouched down into a fighting stance. He lashed out almost immediately, and the first one fell to the ground, screaming and writhing. Blood and entrails spilled out onto the ground, the blood spreading in a syrupy dark pool in the icy snow. The other attacker paused at the sound of his fallen companion’s screams, and lost himself in the darkness. Stumbling about, he brought his sword down hard in Encarz’s direction. Encarz deflected the blow easily with his sword. The impact of colliding metal rattled his hand, but he managed to bring it down to slice off the man’s shoulder. Crimson blood sprayed from the stump and the man fell to the ground. Placing the tip of his sword to the man’s chest, Encarz shoved, and finished him on the spot.
Backing away from the two corpses, Encarz observed them in disgust. He was more curious as to what had happened to his guard, and exactly who had sent these men. He had a feeling he was going to know both very soon.
Cyrano came riding up behind him. His riding tunic and the front of his pants were soaked in blood. He dismounted from his horse with a wet slide and made his way painfully over to Encarz. “Your majesty-?”
Encarz turned slowly and regarded Cyrano with a calm, cool expression. “I am a live, Cyrano.”
“I had three of them,” Cyrano said, obviously relieved. He touched Encarz’s shoulder just to be sure he was really there.
“Two,” Encarz said, looking down once more at the corpses, and then back up at Cyrano. “Not very clever of you, baron, to send assassins dressed in your livery, so that they might be identified immediately.”
Shock spread across Cyrano’s face, and his eyes narrowed dangerously. “Are you accusing me of … attempting to … murder you?”
“Why not?” Encarz asked. “You were the one who suggested a ride. You chose the path. The corpses bear your symbol.”
“Can you honestly believe that?” Cyrano snapped, drawing back from his majesty.
“Can I honestly afford not to?” Encarz asked, his voice nearly a whisper. Cyrano stared at him. The king was standing in the middle of blood and snow. The skirmish hadn’t even caused him to break a sweat. His white hair stirred in the wind, his hands clenched the pommel of his sword, the tip of which was resting against the ground. His sharp, cruel face was completely devoid of all expression.
Cyrano considered his options. He could run, of course, but he wouldn’t get very far. They would find him, and they would arrest him. He could kill Encarz, but there was no point in that. Besides, that would be something of counter-productive. He hadn’t driven three would-be assassins into the snow because he had felt like it.
“Very well,” Cyrano said at last, resigned. “I am under arrest?”
Encarz nodded, and sheathed his sword, lifting himself up into his saddle with ease. Cyrano pressed his lips together and followed suit, gathering the rein up in his hands and looking at his friend, as if he couldn’t believe what was happening.
Without saying a word, without even looking at the baron, Encarz spurred his horse towards Castle Dragoloth.