Chapter 73

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My entire life, nothing has ever gone to plan.
My father wasn't supposed to die. That shouldn't have happened.
My marriage was never supposed to work, not the way it did. I wasn't meant to fall in love.
I never wanted to become a mother at seventeen.
And the baby wasn't supposed to die.
So we should have seen it coming that the bandit runs couldn't work forever.
Sometime, something would go wrong.
It's one of those things that, though you try and run from it for as long as possible... it will always catch you.
"Look-" The hooded figure cracks his knuckles in anticipation, and he takes the moment to flash his head around the side of the pillar to count the guards around the king's door. "We've got six guards. I'll take five-"
"Ass," I step on his foot. "Half and half, we split."
He grimaces, and his cheekbones catch the light of the dying torch above, throwing the pale scar into sharp focus. Not exactly a face you would argue with.
"Fine." He snarls after a moment of self-warring.
Then we run from behind the pillar. The guard's heads snap toward us, and then we enter the fray.
My instincts take over immediately, and I plunge forward. I slip under the first blow and bring the butt of my sword down on the center of the guard's neck exactly where Connor showed me. He crumples, and I barely duck in time to avoid the next man's swipe for my neck.
Tuck and roll, I kick out and take his feet out from beneath him, and as he's falling I regain my footing and plant my elbow in the square of his elbow to throw him forward.
I spin, and throw up my sword to fend of my next opponent's blow. Sparks fly from the momentum of the hit, and metal skids across metal. I raise my sword to smack the flat of it against his skull, but he lets out a shout, a cry that rings down the hall and will wake every man and woman sleeping in the castle.
Then he's unconscious, but not before everyone hears.
I turn and watch Connor taking out his opponent, parrying furiously and swiping and dodging and jabbing. He feints, and then his opponent falls with a hole in his shoulder, but as he turns, another man drags himself up from the ground and raises his sword to drive it into the hooded man's back.
"Watch it!" I yelp, darting forward and driving the blade of my sword into his gut. He cries out in pain and falls to the ground, just as Connor turns and looks down with surprise on his half-concealed features.
"Uh... remind me not to get on your bad side."
I wipe my sword on my hood, and sheath it. "Too late."
"Alright, remember the plan-?" He stops suddenly, pushing on the door, which refuses to open. "Damn! Forgot about that!"
I grimace at the locked door, and he sheaths his sword and backs away to the other end of the hall, rolling his shoulders grimly.
"You can't do that all the time- you're going to throw out your shoulder-"
He charges the door at a full run, and smacks it shoulder-first. The cracking of wood shatters the air- but when he staggers back, the door remains intact. He spits, and faces it grimly again.
"Alright, second time's the charm."
Before I can object, he runs at it again, and throws his entire weight into the barrier. Smack. But he stumbles backwards, clutching his shoulder, and looks up at the door in hope... and it remains standing.
Then there's a shout from inside.
"Damn!" He spits, looking about desperately. Suddenly the warning bells go off high above, and he curses again. "Damn it all!"
I stand, tense, on the balls of my feet, as shouts begin to echo through the halls. This is a bad place to be- we need to run.
"We need to go-" I state tersely, but he shakes his head and faces the door again.
"No, there's still time-" And he hurls himself again at the wooden blockage. Crack. The wood groans beneath the force of the impact, but still holds. Footsteps from below.
"Okay, no, we need to get back to the tower." I say shakily, looking around as panic begins to flood my chest. We're going to get cornered, and that will be the end. We need to run while we still can. "Now, right now!"
"No!" Connor roars, throwing himself again and again at the door. Now Thomas is definitely shouting inside, and threats circulate on the air as the bells thrum the dull monotone to everything. "I can do this!"
Footsteps, now, from the stairs on either end of the hall.
"Jesus- we need to go!" I scream at him, but he only hammers on the door in futile. The king won't open the door in his cowardice, not until we're cornered... which won't be long. "NOW!"
"No! I can't-I'm close-" He insists, and he staggers back again, blinking hazily and trying to clear his head. He clutches his shoulder and winces, but then he charges the door again.
"Damn these dead-bolts!" He spits, spinning away.
But it's already too late.
The bellow roars down the hall from one end, as an entire company of armed men emerge through the tower stairs and thunder down the hall. Me and Connor whirl and take off for the other end- but then more charge out from that side.
"Damn!" Connor swears again, and we skid to a halt, looking both ways as dozens of knights hurtle at us from either side, and we find ourselves back in the center of the hall in front of the king's door. We whip out our swords and face the oncoming sea of death.
The roar comes again, and me and Connor exchange a glance. And then we hoist our swords higher and twist around back to back to face them full on.
Then they've circled us, surrounding us, and swords ripple out from every direction, a sea of deadly silver spikes wrapping and encasing us, drowning us in, and suddenly all I have is the hood brought down over my face and Connor's tense back against mine. Wherever I bring my sword, there's another to clatter against it, and we spin hopelessly, running our blades down the knight's, searching for an opening and finding none.
For once, there's no way out.
They inch closer, until the swords are at my throat and his and trapping us in a wall of spikes, in our own deadly casket.
I suddenly duck below the wall and lunge at a pair of feet, and a soldier stumbles backwards into his comrade, and I move to dart through the opening... but then ten more men step in to take their place.
"SURRENDER YOUR WEAPONS!" The voice roars again, we spin to face... Elwin.
"Never." Connor growls, then he lunges out and snatches a blade from a man's hands, bearing a sword in each hand and spinning to knock several more away. But they only condense and mass around him and drive him back to me.
I clench mine harder, and then there's a sword slicing my arm. I bite my lip until I taste blood to keep from crying out as I feel my skin open out, and the sword clatters from my numb fingers. Connor roars in rage and whirls to take him out, but then there are a dozen deadly slivers inches from his throat... and he throws his sword into the crowd, making a hole in the sea.
"Now... hands behind your heads."
We refuse to budge, and then soldiers dart up and grab us both from behind.
I kick my heel back and make solid contact with a shin, but more just swarm out and snatch my hands, forcing my arms back at an ungodly angle and twisting till I cry out.
"I am bloody surrendering!" I scream... then my gaze falls on Connor.
Who's not surrendering.
A man manages to catch his arm, but he jerks out of his grasp and grabs the man's arm, twisting mercilessly until there's a crack, and the man crumples and trips up his comrades.
His voice has dropped in his anger, and it rolls across the army, and I feel a shiver run up my spine at the sheer power of the fury contained in the sound. The predator has arrived.
Then he strikes, his fist makes contact with a skull, and as they charge to restrain him, he swings out and catches a knee with a vicious kick. There's a snap, and a man falls to the ground, but the bandit is already ducking and weaving between the clumsily flung blows, a shadow amidst a flock of crows.
I take advantage of the knight's distraction, and twist my arms the way Connor taught me, simultaneously throwing out my hips and wrenching my shoulders away. The man's grip loosens on my arms, and then I've spun and kneed him as hard as I can in the groin.
He wasn't wearing a loin-guard.
Connor did have a point.
"Someone, restrain them!" It's Wallace calling out, running fervently between the knights as they swarm and regroup around us.
Me and Connor fight tooth and nail, fang and claw, without a weapon in sight.
We're not going down without a fight.
Then I hear the whistling sound in my ear, and then there's a numbness. Then the pain comes.
I look blankly down at my stomach, at the knife being wrenched from my middle, and blood soaks my cloak. I stagger backwards, and suddenly everything seems to fade away. Sound becomes a dull, lulling beat, drowned out by the booming of my heart in my head, in my gut. The pain throbs, so powerful it drives away every other sense in my mind, and I press my fingers numbly to the hole in my belly.
At least there's no baby in there.
The cry rings out clearly through my mind-numbed state, and I fall to my knees. My hands are soaked in red.
I gulp, and the world seems to falter. Is it darker? Or is that just the night?
I manage to lift my head to stare blankly at the man lifting his bloody knife victoriously, crowing in triumph. Suddenly, everything seems to go still as heads turn to stare at the crumpled figure kneeling on the ground, and the victor standing above.
Then swords are lowered to me, and I can do nothing to fend them off. I look up blearily, and see the hooded man staring down, immobile, until Elwin turns grimly to him and points his sword at his head.
"Surrender. Or she dies."
Connor's fists curl, his body trembles, but he bows his head and allows the men to swarm him and bind his hands behind his back, forcing him to his knees beside me.
We sit, two black-clothed, hooded criminals, in the circle of swords. Without glancing over, I manage to mumble words through the horrid pain beating inside me.
"I'm sorry."
A pause.
"There's nothing to be sorry for." He growls back, but his voice is surprisingly light. Then boots.
"Before us, men, are the two notorious hooded bandits of Clockman. On their knees and injured and bound."
I recognize Elwin's voice. I'm beginning to like him much less.
"After all these years... finally, we're about to find out exactly who they are."
The boots move closer, and I close my eyes and wait for my hood to come down... then-
"Hold on, Elwin." It's Keaton. "I mean... perhaps we should wait a little before this... we could just-"
"Why wait?" It's Wallace, now. "They've caused enough havoc... no, this cannot wait any longer. We've waited long enough."
"Keaton's right," It's Gregory. My heart skips a beat... now we're in dangerous territory. We have been all along. "Perhaps we could... uh... savor, this, um, moment-"
"Why would you want to do that? Save it for what?!"
"Do we need to truly publicly embarrass them, though? Who knows who they are...?"
"Of course we need to publicly embarrass them!" Elwin cries. "They've troubled us for far too long. No more waiting. We do it now-"
"We need to wait." Gregory's voice has venom, and I silently thank him for trying to help us out, even though it's no use. "We need to... to think this through, and... and we shouldn't rush this-"
"Gregory, if I didn't know better, I would say you were defending them." Elwin sneers, and Gregory's chin falls to his chest as he gives in. There's nothing he can do... neither him, nor Keaton. He might have been able to restrain a small troop with his title... but not four dozen trained knights.
"Finally...." Elwin's boots cross to my side. "After years of waiting, of hunting and sweating, fires and footsteps, pain and suffering... finally, we have them in our hands. Now, to unmask these infamous hooded bandits.
"Ladies first."
And before I can blink, the hood is whipped off.

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