The king is unhappy.
But so is everyone. Inside the castle the air is cold and suffocating. All of the shutters have been closed, all of the curtains drawn so that we live in the dark like frightened mice, scampering about in the walls. We cannot light a fire, not even a candle, or the smoke will choke us.
And outside, the Thanes wait for us.
Those folk who are more beast than man. Who have given their bodies wholly to the gods. They have stitched the hides of beasts onto their backs and crown their bodies with thorns and antlers.
And now they wait for us. They beat upon the castle doors with their fists, howling terror into the night. But the castle doors will not hold forever. One day soon, they will fall, and the Thanes will come. Tira will be overrun.
“My lord.” Selene has been standing before the king for some time now, waiting for some acknowledgment. When she finally breaks the silence, he still doesn’t stir. “King Thomas,” she tries again. “We need to start thinking about a plan. We can’t stay here forever.”
The king sits in his uncle’s throne. A thin beam of light has crept through a crack in the shutter, illuminating the silk tapestry across from the throne. The silk is dyed gold and has been stitched in black thread with the Tira mark of the hammer, and below it the motto: HONOR ABOVE ALL. The king stares and says nothing.
“The Thanes have burned down the granaries. All that we have left to eat is what’s in the store rooms,” Selene says. Moldy cheese and hard bread, baked a week ago when we could still use the hearth; casks of grain that are filled with weevils. All the people of court are gathered in the throne room: the treasurer, who was once a baker; the builder, who was once the stable master, and so on. All squatting in the dark, picking the mold off cheese. There are not enough of us left to fill even this one room. Selene looks to them for help, but they look away. “Do you remember our lessons in the geography of the kingdoms, my lord? All you need to do is pick which direction we should go, and Sotiros and I will plan the rest.”
This is a mistake. Selene knows it as soon as she says it, perhaps, for the king’s dull eyes turn sharp. He is five years old and a bright, willful king, may the gods have mercy on us all. The pounding of the Thanes has stopped for the moment, and the quiet that follows is deafening.
“Why?” Thomas asks and at first, I think she doesn’t understand him. “Why do we have to leave? This is my kingdom. It’s mine, not Sotiros’. Not yours.” His eyes search the room, squinting. His little fingers curl around the red cloak he wears, bundled against the cold. “I want to save it.”
“We can’t save it, my lord,” Selene says. “If we stay, we’ll all die.”
“Perhaps we were meant to,” Spiros the once-baker says. There are crumbs of bread in his beard and his eyes are hollow, sad. Once, his face had been handsome, but now it is covered in pock marks from the plague that passed him over. He touches them often–he touches them now. “The gods don’t want us here anymore. Didn’t you see the face in the tree? They’ve come back. Maybe the Thanes are right to worship them the way they do. Maybe we should, too.”
And so continues the argument that has lasted for four days now. Rumor of that day at the beach has spread and turned to myth. Now, they say, one can still hear the tree screaming at night if one is very quiet, and listens.
“Agapios.” Sotiros returns through the stairway at the back of the room, creeping in the shadows so that no one else notices him yet. His leather armor is torn and the old red blood has crusted to brown upon his arms, his cuirass, his face. He crouches upon the floor, the rushes crunching underfoot. “We lost three more today. Mark it in your tally. Sotira, Vlasis, and Aniketos. They died good deaths, fighting.”
The pen scratches on a page too full of names to hold more.
“Has anything changed here?” he asks. He is tired to the bones, so that even his voice sounds tired. His shoulders, back, and knees all crack as he moves. He is not as young as he once was, though there isn’t any silver in his beard yet.
Nothing will change. Honor Above All. The people love the king, even if they love the crown more than the one who wears it. The other soldiers follow in Sotiros’ wake up the dark stairwell, sinking into mats laid out on the floor or else going straight to the cask of stale ale dragged up from the cellars.
“As long as he refuses to order a retreat, no one will go.” Sotiros rubs circles with his palms over his eyes, willing away some budding headache.
“They’re throwing bodies in the well and in the rivers.” Panos is the last one up the stairs. He speaks low, to Sotiros only, as he crouches by him. His face is soot dark and mud caked. He turns his helm over in his hands, again and again, as if looking for something to throw it at. “We can’t drink the water anymore.”
“We’re running out of time,” Sotiros says. He stares at the king.
“Agapios, do you know where the Minotaur is?” Panos asks.
Where druids fear to tread. Where the land comes to an end. At the end of the world.
“If he’s still there–if he’s still alive, and he must be, because not even the gods could take him where he doesn’t have a will to go,” Panos says and spits in the rushes to ward against the evil of his own words, “he will know what we should do next.”
“Panos–” Sotiros begins, questions in his eyes.
“Selene,” Panos calls instead, and beckons her over. She is all too eager to be away from the king and his arguments and hurries over. “Have the Thanes found the hidden passageways yet?”
“Not yet,” she says. “I’ve kept them under guard, like you said. They haven’t heard anything down below, yet.”
“Panos, what are you doing?” Sotiros asks, grabbing for Panos’ wrist to hold him back.
“Peace, friend,” Panos says, and sets his hand on Sotiros’. “Peace.” He grins a mad grin, a grin to set the skin prickling, for Panos is known to delight in chaos. He grasps Sotiros by the sides of his head and kisses him once on the forehead, laughing. “Be fast. Keep your sword close.”
And so Panos slips away into the shadow, and if Sotiros wants to go after him he thinks better of it. He puts his hand upon his sword, all the same, and finds his helm in the rushes by his feet.
There is a pounding on the castle doors like a heartbeat echoing through these cold stone walls. All men grow still, all voices grow quiet in those moments. We wait, as we have waited these past four days, and when at last the pounding stops it isn’t with the sound of splintered wood and pounding fists.
The quiet is of a door being opened.
And then of chaos that swallows the halls.
“The Thanes are in the castle!” Panos’ voice carries down every hall, echoes between every wall.
“The fool…” Sotiros, staring, is quick to his feet all the same and on his face he has that same mad grin. People scream and it is good to hear that they still have enough life to scream, to be truly terrifies, as the sound of naked feet slapping upon the old stone floors fills the chamber, coming closer, ever closer. “King Thomas, we must retreat!”
“No! I won’t let you, we have to fight! Fight them–kill them! Save my kingdom!” the king demands. But in the face of chaos, not even he can argue as panic seizes him at the first sight of one of those Thannish men as one runs in.
And it is Panos who leaps upon that Thane, who tackles him before he can reach the king. It is Panos’ ax that cleaves into the back of the man, splitting spine and spilling blood.
“With respect, my king,” he says, and spits blood into the rushes as he stands. “Tira has fallen.”
“We retreat!” Sotiros cries, and this time the people listen. The king listens.
Tira has fallen. The Thanes consume the castle as the plague once consumed us, filling the halls, tearing stones from the walls. They chase after us, but we are quick and we know these places better.
We run like the mice that we are, scurrying through the walls, and we pray that we can stay one step ahead of the wolf that gives chase.