Read The Iron Locket (The Risen King) Online
Authors: Samantha Warren
"Is this..." He ran his hands over the smooth wood, a tingling sensation shooting through his body. He raised his eyes to the queen. She stood before him, a smile on her face. She nodded once and he turned his attention back to the table. It was as familiar to him as his own hand. More than a decade had been spent around it, all the knights conferring as equals, plotting wars, plotting revenge, shedding tears, sharing memories. He traced a finger over one of the battle scenes. They were new, fresh. Leaning in closer, he recognized the knights carved into the wood. Walking along the outer edge, he found the seat he used to call his. Sure enough, there before him was his greatest battle, the one that had claimed his life and left his kingdom to fall into disorder and despair. Beside him to either side, Kay and Lancelot were mimicking his gestures, their eyes and hands reliving their last battles.
"Do you like them?" The voice was not Oonagh's. Arthur tore his gaze from the table and met the onyx black eyes of Queen Mab. Her blood red lips curled into a shallow smile. "It was my idea. A reminder of a past that is long gone but should not be forgotten." She walked slowly around the table, letting her own fingers trace across the wood. As she reached each knight, she met his eyes. They all stepped back, giving her room to pass, entranced by her sensuous stroll. She stopped when she reached Arthur. Her fingers left the table and trailed up to his cheek. Her eyes were on the king, but her words were for all of them. "Do not forget the moments of your downfall. Learn the lessons you could not in your former life. Do not make the same mistakes again."
She turned from the king and faced the rest of the group. Her voice was cold and strict when she spoke. "Use the failures and successes of your past to grow and become the knights you could never be in times before. Learn from each other, rely on each other. Do not let petty squabbles from a previous time interfere with your mission in this one. Make no mistake, you have been brought here for a purpose. If you deviate from that purpose, I have no qualms about removing you from my land."
"Mab, do not be so harsh." Oonagh slid up to the other side of the king and rested her hand gently on his arm. A warm smile spread across her face as she let her gaze wash over the table, meeting each of the knights' in return. "While the Queen of the North is correct in that you have been brought here for a purpose, and that you reside in her land..." She paused a moment to shoot a glare Mab's way. "You have been raised by all four of the queens. We would not have agreed to do so if we did not feel you were up to the task. I have no doubt that you will succeed in your mission and exceed our highest expectations." Her smile beamed and a wave of heat flooded out, soothing each of the knights as it hit them.
Mab's glare was locked on the Queen of the East. The two stared at each other for a very long time. The warmth of Oonagh's aura faded and the knights grew uncomfortable with the long, tension-filled silence. They began shifting noisily, looking to each other and to Arthur for direction. He stood between the powerful women, his breathing shallow and his heart pounding. The anger in each of them pulsed like a heartbeat, pressing against him with each beat. He was trapped between two mountains, both ready to collapse into the other, crushing him like a pebble under their weight.
"What is the meaning of this? Have I been waiting all this time so you two can have a childish squabble?"
The crackle of the breaking tension was nearly audible and the knights inhaled loudly, gasping for breath as if for the first time. The two queens plastered false smiles on their faces and turned to the newcomer. She stood in the doorway to the chamber, and her arms crossed over her chest. She wore a leather cuirass that fit her body like a glove. It was cut in a low square to expose the top flesh of her bosom. The sleeves were short, barely covering her shoulders. She had straps of leather around the upper arms of each arm. All of the material was rich and dark and moved as easily as she did. Her pants were made of the most tender of doeskin, soft and supple. Her boots were knee-length leather that laced all the way up with flat soles.
Her skin was olive-colored and her chocolate hair was pulled back into a strict bun. Her beauty was simple and elegant, but unlike the other women Arthur had seen, she had the strength and poise of a born warrior. She carried herself confidently, sure of herself and her abilities. At her side hung a short dagger in an ivory sheath. The handle of the dagger was silver inlaid with the finest gems. Affixed at the top was a ruby of the clearest red. It shimmered when she moved.
"Isobel, allow me to introduce King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, our saviors." When Mab spoke, her voice was hard with an edge of bitterness.
Arthur wondered briefly if she truly trusted them to do the job they had been tasked with or if she was secretly in league with their sworn enemy.
Isobel stepped away from the door, striding around the table. She walked with purpose and carried herself like a veteran who had seen many battles. She stopped in front of Arthur and bowed her head briefly. "King Arthur, it is a great pleasure to finally meet you. Though I have never personally had interaction with you in the past, I have heard great tales of your bravery, and that of your knights. I look forward to seeing you in action." She turned her attention to Oonagh and Mab. "Are you finished with them?"
Oonagh's fake smile grew. "Of course, darling. They are all yours."
"Very well. This way, gentlemen." Isobel walked swiftly around the table, straight out the door. The knights scampered to follow, tripping over their chairs and each other in their hurry to leave the room and the dark presence of the other queens.
"Arthur." Oonagh's soft call paused the king in his tracks. He turned to face the two women who still stood near his chair.
He bowed slightly. "Yes, my queen?"
Her smile flickered into something more genuine. "Be careful who you trust here, Arthur. Faery is not as simple as the world you came from. Neither is the human world." Her gaze shot to Mab, who was studying her carefully.
The pale woman nodded. "On that, I agree. Trust only your knights. They are the ones who will remain true to you when all else fails."
Arthur's brow furrowed. Many questions struggled to find their way to his tongue, but he held them back. Trapped between the four most powerful women in any world, he was terrified to speak the wrong words for fear of angering them. Even winning the praise of one in the most innocent way could earn him the ire of another. Vowing to himself that he would trust none but those who sat at the table with him, he bowed before the queens and followed his knights out into the hall.
Isobel led them down the hall away from the front door. When they reached the solid wall at the end, she turned right and headed down a tight spiraled stairwell of stone that descended two stories. The bottom opened into a small landing with two wooden doors. She pointed to the one on the left.
"That one leads to the dungeon. If you value your sanity, I suggest you do not venture down there. Ever." While her tone was not commanding, the statement sent a shiver down Arthur's spine. He looked at the door to the dungeon. It was just a door with nothing special about it, but he could sense the wickedness hiding behind it. When he tore his gaze away, his eyes met Kay's. Kay wiggled his eyebrows. Despite himself, Arthur smiled. His foster brother never was one for following rules or even casual suggestions. If anyone ended up in that dungeon, it would definitely be the dark knight.
Isobel swung the other door open, letting in a thick shaft of sunlight. The knights stepped out into a courtyard surrounded by stone on all four sides. Thick grass covered the area, a clear sign of its decades of disuse. Isobel strode into the center and spun on her heel toward them.
"This is the training yard. This is the only place you will find it safe to spar." She pointed to the wall opposite the castle. Several of the ethereal beings floated on top of it, their attention turned outward as they guarded the castle. "No matter what happens in here, they will not come off that wall and no other servants are allowed in this area. These four walls form a sound barrier that cannot reach the outside world. You are safe to discuss anything here without fear of being overheard. This," she spun in a circle with her arms out. "This is your space and yours alone. This is the last time I or any other faery will come in here."
She walked over to a small stone shed along one wall and swung open the double wooden doors. The inside was lined with suits of armor, mail, shields, and weapons of all shapes and sizes. She plucked a bow off the wall and slipped an arrow out of the quiver sitting on the floor beneath it. She nocked the arrow swiftly as she spun and, just as swiftly, it flew, whistling across the length of the training yard to sink with an echoing thunk into one of the several round targets at the opposite end. Nodding with satisfaction, she hung the bow back on the wall.
"You will have no squires to do your bidding this time. You must be self sufficient when it comes to battle. You must carry your own weapons, your own equipment. When the time comes for you to leave and head off to fight, you will be assigned a contingent of servants to care for your material needs. Food, water, wounds, all will be taken care of. But your weapons are your own responsibility. Only you know what will work for you. We are not your trainers. You must choose that equipment which will suit you best and care for it as if it were you own child. When you loose an arrow, no one but yourself will be there to retrieve it. No one will polish your sword or restring your bow. You have only each other."
She turned to go. After walking a few steps, she paused. "Dinner will be provided at nightfall. The dining hall is across the way from the council chamber. Once you have finished eating, proceed to the council chamber. The Four Queens will be there and we will discuss a plan of action from this day forth."
Without another word, she walked back into the castle, the door shutting firmly behind her.
The air hung heavy with a strained silence as all of the knights turned toward their king. It was the first time they had been alone without one of the faery queens watching over them. Arthur stared at the door Isobel had walked through, his mind so full of confusion that it was impossible to focus on just one thought. He let his instincts take over.
"Alright, men. We have been out of practice for far too long. We will have a light training session today, to refamiliarize ourselves with the weapons at hand." He went to the stone shed and picked up a leather training vest. As he fitted it over his clothes, he felt the tension in his shoulders ease. The weight of the sword he pulled from the rack brought a smile to his lips. After picking up a battered shield, he stepped back out into the courtyard, giving his men space to gather their own equipment.
He gave the sword a practice swing, feeling the vibrations in the palm of his hand as it sang through the air. His mind settled, focusing on the task at hand. He stepped forward, thrusting the sword out into open air, then he raised it, blocking a pretend attack. He repeated the process as he stepped across the courtyard. Thrust, dodge, parry, spin, block, parry, thrust. The motions came back to him quickly, going from the jerky movements of a new soldier to the practiced motions of a seasoned veteran by the time he reached the opposite wall. He spun around, bringing the blade down in one final, definitive blow. He grinned as he watched his imaginary opponent fall to the ground, then he looked to his men.
They were all following similar routines to his, spreading out so they had plenty of room to familiarize themselves with the weapons they had chosen. Most off them carried swords of varying lengths, some wielding shields, others two-handed blades. Tristan held the bow Isobel had used, aiming the empty weapon at various targets, learning to judge distance and airspeed once again.
Bors held a short-handled weapon with a spiked ball at the end. It had a chain attached to the end of the handle and he swung it in around, testing its weight. The metal ball was about the size of a grapefruit and hummed loudly as it arced through the air. Bors ducked and turned, movements long forgotten coming back to him. The ball whistled through the air as it picked up speed, spinning around and around, flying high and sinking low. Arthur watched the man, mesmerized by his fluid movements until the ball whizzed perilously close to Bors's leg, slicing the pants he wore. Bors shouted and jumped, letting the spiked ball thud heavily to the ground.
For a moment, the knights all focused on him, staring in disbelief. The reality of their situation hung over them. Soon they would be put in perils far worse than anything they could prepare for, facing yet another life of battle and hardship. Then Gallahad started to giggle, quietly at first, and soon the courtyard was ringing with boisterous laughter. The men paired off and began practicing in earnest.
Lancelot walked up to Arthur, an easy smile on his face for his eternal best friend. He had a sword in his hand and was eyeing it suspiciously. "These cannot be of the same make we are used to," he said.
"What do you mean?" Arthur leaned over, examining the sword. "It looks fine to me."
"Yes, but are faeries not allergic to iron? We used an iron compound in most of our swords, did we not?"
Arthur frowned for a moment, then shrugged. Lancelot grinned and raised his sword, issuing a silent challenge. A smirk grew across Arthur's face. He and Lancelot had dueled more times than he cared to remember, and they had swapped victories just as often. They were an evenly matched pair, knowing each other's weaknesses in and out. They could capitalize on even the smallest drop of a guard, but they were equally as vulnerable to the other's swings.