The great battle horn's cries echoed off the battlements of Tyron's Keep, but William could only hear his own blood in his ears and Derrick's careful footsteps ahead of him, the splash of water beneath their boots. It was dusk, soon to be night, and the bitterness of the air was a bad omen. There was no telling how snow might throw the course of battle one way or the other.
"The dagger," Derrick murmured from ahead of him. William dug into his belt and pulled forth the dagger from its small scabbard, passing it forward hilt first in the darkness. The king took it from him, and William could barely make out his silhouette in the darkness as he picked the large lock with the dagger's fine tip.
It was more than half a year since he had been imprisoned in Tyron's Keep, and now he was going back to its dungeons.
He heard the door give way and Derrick's sigh of relief, and found the dagger's hilt thrust back in his hand. "Conceal it, I'll need you to keep watch behind us."
"We'll never get out in time if you keep giving me orders I already know," William spat back. He had little patience, and was anxious at returning to the dungeons. Derrick did not respond, but after all their years of friendship William was sure he understood, or at least tried to.
They stole inside the castle from the stream running beneath it which took away its waste, and the stream led to the old exit from the dungeons. One of Derrick's guardsmen had bedded down with the jailer's own wife for the secrets of the dungeons, the passage through which the two now crept. It was an old exit, only opened from the outside and hidden well in the castle underground, through the muddy stream full of waste.
Inside it was just as dank as William remembered, now even colder as winter had set in. Derrick had his hand on the hilt of his longsword, and William kept the dagger close, easily drawn. They moved silently through the passages and did not meet with the jailer. "Must have been as short on swords as we heard," Derrick mused proudly as they began the steady climb up and out of the dungeons.
Short on swords or not, William was sure the battle had begun when they neared the top of the passage. There were hurried shouts of orders, the stinging sound of metal in the air, heavy footsteps in all directions.
They flattened against the inside wall of the passage. "We need to find them both," Derrick whispered hurriedly, repeating their plan in simplest terms. "If you find him..." Derrick trailed off when the sounds seemed to grow closer. He waited until they faded away. "I don't want him alive. That is an order." William nodded.
Derrick swallowed thickly. "And if you find my sister, get her out. Don't wait for me, I won't wait for you."
"Some friend you are, Your Grace," William countered knowingly as he drew his longsword, dagger tucked in his belt. Derrick's hand landed squarely at the back of William's head, almost reminiscent of how they had been as boys disciplining one another during their lessons at swordplay.
The king drew his own sword, and they crossed into the heart of the enemy.
The Great Hall of Tyron's Keep was chaos. Derrick and William stayed close to the walls and at first went unnoticed by Renfry guards dodging this way and that to get out to the battlements to defend the castle. Their plain armor made them seem just another part of the scene, and they made it across to the other side of the hall without interference.
There was a staircase leading up, and they both ran up it without consulting the other. "Renfry is a coward," Derrick said hurriedly, "he'll be up here as surely as my sister..."
A woman's scream cut through his words, faint and from a distance but unmistakable. It stopped them both in their tracks as they neared the landing. A significant look passed between them; neither had to say that they both thought it was Aliana. Derrick swallowed hard, then took William's shoulder. "Gods be with you, my friend," the king said, before barreling up the rest of the stairs and off in one direction. William took the other.
He had not been up this high in the castle the last time – Renfry had seen to it that he was sent straight to the dungeons. It was shadowy, only a spare few torches lighting the way, a few windows allowing moonlight in. There were tapestries hanging from the walls in some places, as if to hide the ruggedness and chill of the halls, but William found they made no difference; the place felt starkly cold, and sent a shiver down his spine.
As he came upon the end of the corridor he had chosen, he stepped out into the next, and found two soldiers bearing down on him. Fully aware that he did not know where to run to and they did, he faced them, longsword at the ready. It had been a very long time since he had faced two men at once, but his blood was hot, eager to find Renfry and kill him for his betrayal.
William met the two soldiers in close quarters, parrying quickly between them, seeing an early opening and quickly dispensing with one of them with a deep slash across the neck. The second was harder to fell, seemed more experienced, and very nearly had William when he saw the silhouette of another man disappearing down the hall behind where they fought. Rage boiling up inside him, William practically screamed as he drove his sword through the soldier's chest.
Panting, he practically roared, "Renfry! You coward, face me like a man!" The man did not stop running, and disappeared around a far corner. William pursued him.
William ran like he hadn't ever run in his life, following Renfry's silhouette, barely catching the man's shadow as he moved out of sight around corridors. Finally, William found himself at the end of a hall, unsure how he had missed the man. He tried to catch his breath, a cold feeling creeping into his limbs even though they burned from exertion and adrenaline.
Carefully, William started to walk forward, out of the dead end corridor. "Renfry," he said again, loudly but coldly. "Wherever you are, you will face me, you old fool."
A disembodied echo came from somewhere ahead of him, though he could not tell which room or corridor. "You stupid boy, did you think I didn't know who you were?" Renfry's voice was as deeply cold as ever, more so than William had remembered. "I know how much you mean to your king," he said snidely, before adding, "and to my duchess."
William wanted to counter him, tell him that Aliana wasn't his or anybody's. But that was certainly the man's aim, to rile him up by calling the princess by her married title.
"I knew you would come back in some ill-begotten attempt to save her," Renfry continued, his voice bouncing off the walls, not focusing on any space in particular. "You would have lived had you stayed away, but instead you and your friend get to die for her. What a pity."
"Come and kill me then," William said, teeth gritted, angry. "See if you can."
William fell to the floor with the strike to his shoulder, the sword clattering out of his hand.
Stumbling down the corridor, cradling his injured arm close to his body, protecting it with his sword, William tried to hear a voice, any voice, any sound besides the faint echoes of the melee below and outside over the blood pounding in his ears. Faintly, he thought he could hear a few voices, one distinctly a woman's, from up ahead around a corner. When he turned it, there was an open door, light coming from inside.
Careless to what lay beyond, William staggered across the threshold.
The sight of Derrick, disheveled but apparently unhurt, was the first massive relief. But then William saw a woman before him, covered in a heavy cloak, unmistakably shaking in Derrick's arms.
"Can you walk?" the king asked her, his voice gentler than William had ever heard it.
The woman looked up, enough that William could see it was Aliana. Derrick had noticed him by then, turning away from his sister. "William, you're..."
"I'm fine," William insisted, quickly, taking a few steps towards them. Aliana still had not looked over at him, shaking under her brother's grip on her arms.
"Derrick, I can't," she stammered, her voice quiet and hoarse, and she practically melted into his body, clinging to her brother's chest as he wrapped his arms around her back, holding her close and cradling the back of her head with one hand, almost paternally.
It was then that William noticed there was another person in the room, an older woman – her hands and front were smeared with blood.
"You must go, Your Grace," she said firmly to Derrick. "If Renfry finds..."
"Renfry is dead." Derrick and the old woman both turned to look at William, a look of mixed shock and relief on their faces.
The woman touched Derrick's arm where it rested across Aliana's back. "Go, now," she said, a bit more gently but still with authority.
Derrick gently moved his sister away enough so he could meet her eyes. "Do you trust me?" Aliana nodded weakly, and Derrick sighed almost with relief, before saying to her, "You have to tell me if I hurt you."
She had not replied before he had put an arm behind her legs and lifted her up into his arms; William heard her let out a pained sort of sigh as she wrapped her arms around her brother's neck, clinging close to him.
Looking at William, his eyes falling on his friend's battered, bloody shoulder, Derrick asked, "You can get us out of here?" William merely nodded, and Derrick answered with the same gesture. He looked back at the other woman. "Thank you," he said to her, though it sounded almost painful for him to say.
"Gods be with you both," she said, gesturing to Aliana, curled up and panting in pain in her brother's arms.
William had not asked what was wrong with her – the fire in his blood was too fierce, his own pain distracting him from anything now but getting them out of the castle safely. Gritting his teeth against the agony, he said to Derrick, "Come," raising his sword in front of him and leading them out of the room.