The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy

Page 20 of 45

Chapter XVII

The building loomed over us through the darkness. Even without any light, the structure looked huge. Wings stretched in all directions. From our perspective, it appeared to be shaped like a cross. A single lamp guttered in a window on the second story of the west wing. Otherwise, the entire chateau was bathed in night.

"What's the plan?" hissed Logan.

I shrugged my shoulders. "There's no easy way about it, is there? If they've sentries, we can't wander around the grounds."

For a time, the only audible sounds were the crickets wandering through the woods about us. At last, Logan said. "But they won't stop us if we come to the door."

I shot him a look. "What?"

"The door," he shot back. "If we knock on the door, they'll answer won't they?" The moon broke through the clouds then, and Logan's wolfish smile became visible. "What're we dressed as?"

I caught on then. "Ah, yes. They wouldn't shoot down messengers from Fuchs."

"That is, if we can get them to believe us. They won't have heard of the coup though; they'll just be dying to hear the news."

"That's terrible," I scolded, but I couldn't help smiling either. A thought hit me though. "What about the telegraph? Would they have received a telegram?"

"I didn't see any lines in Fielburg, did you? Besides, with the mountain pass, there wasn't any way to get lines though. If they're still working on cutting the railroad between the country's two biggest cities, I imagine they won't have lines connecting the two either."

He made a good point, so I let it go. "After they let us in, then what? We can't be bumbling around or it's our lives."

"Of course. They'll let us in, and then it's simple. Before they rouse the house, we'll take the doormen out. Then we'll go from room to room, dispatching the Courtiers. We needn't kill them, just ensure they don't cause any trouble. Then we find Phillip — he'll be in the west wing — and we get the hell out of there."

I broke in. "Phillip's sure to know the land, and we'll figure out what to do after he's safe. We need to get Eva and Jacob out of the city, stop Fuchs, and rescue Mercedes."

"Maybe not in that order; all I can think about is that poor girl among those dogs."

"What do you expect from scoundrels? I'd swear Fuchs isn't right in the head."

"Maybe not, but for now he's king. He can do whatever he wants, and apparently he's a good enough charlatan to prevent others from catching on. I wonder how he did it, the appearance I mean."

"Seems like a good question to ask Phillip. I suggest we do that," I said pointedly. He nodded, and we took off through the darkness.

The manor was set back from the woods by a short distance and would give a brilliant view of any attackers. Besides, with its irregular shape, the place was as defensible as a castle.

Exiting the grove lining the road, we strode through the fields towards the chateau. I found my breath suddenly caught in my throat. Trying to calm myself, I took a long moment to breathe the crisp air around us. Whatever her faults, Riktenburg possessed a natural beauty. The air was so clean and untouched.

The moon escaped her cover again. In the pale light, the manor was even more frightening. Rough-hewn stones crept up the foundations like hands, and gruesome spires reared up from the structure at random points. Gargoyles lined the roof, a feature decidedly un-German, and any secret sect could call it home.

We came upon a gravel lane after a while. Snaking through the grass, we followed the path towards the manor.

Up close, it towered above us and was easily four stories high. For a moment, we simply paused to stare. Then we faced the massive double doors that waited at the base of those captivating walls. Impressively old, they were wider than four men, and would be impossible to batter down without immense effort.

Taking one final cathartic breath, I raised my hand and knocked.

The wood thrummed beneath my fist, the doorframe shaking. We stood still for long moments, but nothing happening. Then I raised my fist and pounded again. Once more the door shook. Once more we waited. I raised my fist again, but before I could knock, a rumbling filled the entryway. Behind the massive doors someone was raising a bar, and at last the door cracked, a sliver of light piercing the darkness.

"Who is it? What do you want?" snapped a voice from behind the door.

"Out of the way, man!" I cried, raising my voice. I figured all Courtiers would be pompous to servants, so it seemed a natural bluff to employ.

"I asked who you were. I'm warning you," the other man replied. "I've a pistol."

Logan jumped in then. "For all the Saints! We've traveled all the way from Teimsfeld. We're muddy and hungry and the two Courtiers carrying the most important news in Riktenburg besides. Now move."

"You're from the capital?"

"No. We're lying scoundrels who simply happen to know of Fuchs' plot and have somehow stumbled upon one of the Faith's manors. Move aside!" I yelled, my voice reaching a new fervor.

The other fellow swung the door open wider. He was dressed in fine livery and obviously a footman, but I wagered he knew everything about King Martin's murder. "Well, how was I supposed to know? Gentlemen, why didn't you use the right entrance? All Courtiers enter by the stables."

Logan blanched visibly, and my mind raced trying to think of something to say. "We're, uh, we're replacements," I gasped at last. "Oskar was supposed to bring the news, but he fell from his horse just as he was leaving. We're here in his stead. We only knew where the estate was, not the particulars."

"Ah. No wonder I didn't recognize the two of you. It's not as if we get many visitors, but you can't be too careful."

Logan nodded. "Yes. And speaking of which, how's our 'guest'?"

The footman scowled. "I can't wait until Fuchs orders his death. The bastard is probably the only one still awake. The bloody man keeps the staff running to and fro, carrying meals and fetching books. It's as if he rules the place. Fuchs ordered us to make him as comfortable as possible. I don't know why. The devil will get the same treatment as his brother, God willing." The man crossed himself, closing his eyes.

He snapped them open after an instant. "But where are my manners? You've been traveling all day, and you said yourself you're famished. Let's find some soup, and I'll rouse the house. We've all been eager to hear the news." He beckoned us inwards, a smile playing along his eyes if not his mouth. He did indeed have a pistol, which he thrust into his belt.

We walked inside, but I turned to the man. "Don't rouse them just yet. All's well, and there's no rush. Martin's no longer king. We were successful in everything, but the two of us are exhausted. Let's eat first, and then we can alert the others, huh?"

"Fine, fine," he said. "Nothing simpler. What's your fancy? The boys went hunting earlier today, and there's a buck just skinned if you're in the mood for venison?"

The unsuspecting man let us from room to room, each more sumptuous than the last. Like the royal palace, the walls were covered in decorations. Countless paintings of residents long dead loomed overhead, the shadows from the footman's lamp playing across them in the dark. Sculpted goddesses paraded their nudity, coming to life through the artists' skill. The heads of animals of all kinds dotted the walls, and crossed swords and various foreign weaponry added a martial touch to the space.

At one point, our host turned back. "We'll just eat in the kitchens. No need to set up in the great hall is there?" Without waiting for an answer, he trotted ahead.

"And how many of our brothers reside here, friend?" I asked offhandedly as we passed through yet another hallway.

"Oh, not too many. Since Fuchs left with his band, we're down to about ten or so."

"Phillip's well guarded then."

"Of course. Fuchs isn't one to take things lightly. No, we keep men on him day and night. He'll be chained up now, and two guards sleep in the room as well. They're the lightest sleepers you'll ever meet; nothing gets past them. But speaking of Phillip, are we to kill him t

onight? I'm assuming Fuchs sent some orders to that. Like I said, I loathe the man."

Logan answered before I could. "We'll get to that later. For now, it's good to know he's guarded, but let's eat. I may faint from hunger."

"Oh yes, yes! The kitchens are just through the great hall ahead; we're nearly there." As he spoke, we passed under an archway. Although I couldn't see beyond the man's small lamp, my spatial sense told me we were in a large room. We passed near a long table. In the center, I glimpsed a silver diamond etched and painted onto the surface. It gave me pause, and I halted. Starring at it transfixed, I suddenly jumped in agitation.

There was a pair of gold eyes gleaming out of the darkness back at me.

"What the devil!" I exclaimed.

"Oh don't mind him," called the servant. "Fuchs' hound, Feral. He scares everyone, but he knows friend from foe." I didn't contradict the man, but I sure hoped the dog would continue to be deceived. As we spoke of him, the German shepherd wandered into the light. He was massive for his breed, and sleek, powerful legs carried him onwards. I had little doubt he could tear a man to shreds if need be. The dog padded after us for a time, but he stopped and laid down as the footman led our group through the great hall and finally into the kitchens.

As he set about lighting various lamps, the footman looked to us. "And here we are. A bite of soup and venison and you'll be feeling much better. I'll be the first to admit I'm not the best chef in employment here, but I can cook hardy fare when needed," he said cheerfully. Without waiting for us, the man bustled about the kitchen, grabbing a massive soup kettle, setting it to boil, and digging in the spice drawer. As he turned his back, gathering chives, I glanced at Logan.

My friend was one step ahead of me.

He'd already drawn his blade, and light danced on the honed saber as Logan approached our host. He slipped the point of the weapon against the exposed neck of the footman.

Logan leaned forward, and I could barely make out the words he whispered to the other man. "If you value your life, you will be deathly silent, or you will be dead."

The surprised man arched his back as the sword bit into his flesh, and I could see a single drop of blood roll gently down the blade. "What is this?" the valet hissed.

"This," said Logan, "is a sword. It's on your neck, and it could be in your neck in a moment. Now you'll kindly turn around. Slowly." In response, the man spun to face us. As he moved, I stepped forward and withdrew our captive's pistol from his belt. I drew my own sword then and leveled it at the hapless man. For a moment, I felt guilty at our betrayal. Then I remembered Fuchs' pistol shot reverberating through the silent room and the king's limp body falling. All guilt disappeared.

Logan leered at the man. "Your task is simple. You're to lead us to the Archduke. You will be silent. If you agree, your life is your own. If not, I'll gut you without pause, and we'll find the west wing ourselves."

Just then, I heard a rustling behind us. I wheeled about. A short, powerfully-built man stood there. Blinking into the light, his nightshirt hung about him like an extra skin. "What the . . ." he said stupidly as he glimpsed the scene before him.

"Alarm! Treachery!"

I spun at the sound. In our distraction, the footman had grabbed a kitchen knife from a nearby cutting-board and was lunging at Logan, bellowing for help. Things were spiraling out of our control, but Logan didn't hesitate.

Back home in England, he'd always been the best in French fencing, and even as his assailant lunged at him, Logan performed a masterful coup de grâce. He flicked his saber to the side like a rapier, tapping his opponent's knife out of alignment, redirecting and rendering it harmless. Flowing in the same move, he shifted his own blade with a flick of the wrist, which slid it into the other man's neck, cutting off the screaming cries for help.

I had my own problems. I didn't even glimpse the footman fall. That scene was forgotten as I was thrown to the ground, the other Courtier tackling me in a powerful hug. My saber and the footman's pistol dropped from my fists. Rough palms thrust my face into the planks of the floor. My breath grew short. Spots flickered through my vision. My hands started to feel numb. I was suffocating. In desperation, I bit his hands. The other yelped, and it was just enough to heave him off my body. Lying motionless, I recovered my breath. My vision flooded back.

"Nathaniel, move!" screamed Logan, breaking me from my reverie. I didn't hesitate, but simply rolled away. The soup kettle crashed into the spot in which my head had been resting and boiling water sloshed everywhere, hissing like mad.

Having thrown the pot, the remaining Courtier snagged my sword. I looked up to see him fencing Logan. In contrast to the footman, this fellow knew the business of the blade. Logan was being driven backwards, perspiration covering his face. Even as I watched, the Courtier flicked his blade under Logan's guard, slicing my friend's arm like an overhasty surgeon. Logan cried out, blood flowing from the wound.

I rose up and snatched the wide knife from the dead footman's palm. Without thinking, I leapt through the air. I fell on the man's back, burying my knife in his flesh in the process. Without further struggle the Courtier collapsed, his free arm clutching for the knife, dying words on his lips.

I rushed over to Logan, pushing thoughts of death from my mind. He was crumpled on the floor, gripping the bloody gash on his arm. Despite his efforts the wound pulsed blood, staining his black uniform and sloshing to the floor around us.

"How bad is it?" he asked, his teeth clenched.

"I can't tell; there's too much blood to see the actual cut, but that can't be a good sign." I stood and went to the Courtier's corpse. Kneeling, I removed the knife from his back and used it to slice a hunk from his nightshirt. Next, I moved to the fallen soup kettle and dipped the cloth into the hot water, soaking it. Returning to Logan, I wiped away what blood I could and wrapped the cut as tightly as possible. It seemed to help, the blood-flow slowing. "Better," I pronounced.

"We've got to move," Logan responded, his teeth still clasped. "If the house is still asleep, it's a miracle."

"Who knows," I countered. "It's a big estate, but I get your meaning. We need to get Phillip, and we need to get out of here." Logan made to rise, but made the mistake of supporting himself with the wounded arm. He collapsed in a heap, cursing under his breath. He pushed me away as I tried to help and tried again. This time he was able to stand. He straightened himself, collecting his saber once more. I took the footman's pistol with us; my own weapon was nearly out of cartridges.

Thus composed, we retraced our steps into the great hall, extinguishing all the lamps in the kitchen. Necessity demanded we take a lamp to find our way, but I resented this. It'd make us an easier target if the rest of the house had indeed been roused. We didn't have another option, though, so the lamp went with us. Our heels clicked along the floorboards, the wood creaking in our path.

As we passed through the massive area, I saw Feral's eyes gleaming through the darkness. I was starting to doubt his intellect. We were certainly foes, and he made no attempt to slow our progress. Watching him, we took off down the nearest hall, this one leading west. Having a terrible sense of direction, I was thankful for Logan's presence. He knew where to go and led us through the unfamiliar spaces.

This darkness was somehow different from the gloom outside. Our lamp emitted a low, wavering flame. It lit the area immediately about us, but the light was powerless after a few feet. The whole manor felt eerie, as if the stones themselves were hostile to our presence. What untold horrors had the Faith committed within these walls? The air pressed downwards like a burden, and I couldn't help but look over my shoulder every few moments. Perhaps I expected Fuchs' dog to come scurrying down the hall and sink his teeth into us. Perhaps another Courtier would raise the alarm and avenge his companions' deaths. Most likely it was only pent up nerves.

Coming around a corner in the hallway, I banished these thoughts. We'd walked into a perplexing room. The walls rose up and eventually angled into

a spire, the roof of which was invisible to our lowly lamp. The room was small and aside from the door in which we'd just entered, three other doors waited in the room. In the center stood a tall wooden cross, its base buried in the floor. The Messiah, a holy look and dying breath upon his lips, stared down at us from its wooden beams. Unwelcome imagines of Di Luca's corpse, his blood soaking the Italian grass, threw themselves into my mind. I shook myself, returning to the moment.

Like the table in the great hall, a silver diamond was etched along the ground around this simple symbol. Aside from these, there was nothing.

"A chapel?" asked Logan.

"That and the center of the manor. Look." I pointed towards the four doors. Each had a large letter painted in silver above the frame. We'd just exited one that had a large "E," the eastern wing.

"What's at the center of the Faith?" I asked, nodding towards the crucifix.

"Aside from disregarding the Prince of Peace?" responded Logan.

"You know what I mean. It's a nice gesture though." Without further comment, we tried the door leading into the west wing. I was surprised to find that it opened. Eva had mentioned she'd been unable to enter the forbidden west wing. Given her absence though, perhaps it wasn't so surprising. I assumed everyone still at the manor now knew of the coup.

Striding through the frame, we continued our journey, wandering blindly through the unfamiliar halls. In contrast to the east wing, the west wing was bland. The walls were bare. Even the carpet along the corridor was faded and musty. The wing had been abandoned.

I tapped Logan on the shoulder as we passed a staircase. "Wasn't that light on the second floor?" As we'd approached the manor, only one window had been lit.

"It was, wasn't it? And the footman mentioned Phillip was the only resident still awake."

He turned to ascend the stairs, but I stopped him once more. "The lamp. Blow it out. We don't want to announce our coming."

He extinguished the light, and we climbed the aged staircase. At the top of the steps we paused. We were bathed in complete shade, and I could barely make out the hallway.

Even as I turned to walk further into the gloom, I felt warm breath on my neck. "Look there," whispered Logan, very close to me.

"Where?" I whispered back. Of course I couldn't see where he'd indicated.

"To your right, down the passage." I swiveled my gaze, and sure enough, there it was. Perhaps a hundred feet down the hallway was a door. Underneath, a single line of light shone through. While the light was dim, it was enough to illuminate the veiled blackness of the corridor. After our scuffle in the kitchen, we'd kept our swords out for obvious reasons; the firearms we kept in our belts. If the house hadn't wakened, as it appeared it hadn't, it wouldn't do to shoot off a gun. Blades forward, we crept down the corridor.

As we reached the last few feet before the door, the hall suddenly began reverberating with the clanging of a bell. Somewhere within the dark recesses of the manor, someone was ringing a massive alarm, shaking the walls with its noise.

"Damn!" cursed Logan.

Before either of us could move, the door opened. A burst of light from the room filled the darkness, and a tall, slight man rushed out. He gripped a saber tightly in one palm, and even in the reflected lamplight his eyes gleamed with attentiveness.

"Now, Logan!" I hissed, lunging forward. In tandem, we advanced the last few steps, and stabbed the fellow before his eyes could adjust to the shadows of the hallway. Without a cry, the man dropped to the floor. Although his lips emitted no noise, his body fell backwards, collapsing into the door with a hollow thud. All the while the bell continued to clang. No doubt someone had stumbled into the kitchen only to discover the grisly scene that awaited.

My thoughts were ripped back to the present as a howl of surprise and pain filled the dark corridor. It came from Phillip's room ahead. In the darkness, we hesitated mere feet from the room.

I touched my friend's shoulder. "The footman mentioned two men slept in the room. There's another left."

"Obviously. And chances are that scream wasn't him. We need to move. Now."

He made to rush forward, but I grabbed his arm, spinning him around. "I'd bet your life and mine that the Courtier has a pistol pointed straight at the door. Unless we distract him somehow, you enter death, not that door."

He nodded, hesitation filling his frame. I didn't wait. I tore furiously at the buttons on my jacket. Speed was of the essence. Men were sure to be on their way. Slipping my arms from the garment, I hung it on my saber. It seemed comical, but I hoped that it would work.

Logan, watching it all, began smiling, a grim display of teeth in the gloom. He moved behind me. His body became taut, his legs poised for a sprint. I crept forward the last few feet and let out a battle cry of excitement. My yell was accompanied by the strange apparatus I held in my hand. I thrust it forward into the middle of the doorframe. Given the darkness, and our waiting opponent's anxiety, I trusted human nature to get the better of reason or observation.

I was right.

Shot after shot filled the night, and I could feel the hanging jacket vibrating and jerking with the percussions. As the last pistol cracks ceased, Logan swept around me, dodging into the room with another yell. I dropped the limp coat and surged in behind him.

Like the fallen Courtier at our feet, our eyes needed a moment to adjust to the changed lighting. An open, ornate apartment spread out before us. It was a large space, divided by furniture arrangements into three distinct parts. A library with towering shelves of books filled a corner, while a group of settees were circled around a fireplace in another. Finally, a four-poster bed rested near a lone window. Of course, it had been Phillip's light that we saw from the grounds earlier.

After surveying the rooms about us, our eyes were drawn to the back wall. Two men in nightshirts huddled there. A long chain trailed from the foot of one to the bed. Glancing up to his face, I stopped. Even knowing that the late king and his brother were twins, it still gave me pause to actually glimpse Phillip. To his credit, he appeared absolutely identical to his brother. The black hair was mussed from sleep, and his goatee hung at an odd angle, but Phillip was his brother's twin — that much was certain. Which also meant that he looked the same as Fuchs in disguise.

After the shock of Phillip's countenance, the archduke's captor seemed nondescript. He stood behind the prisoner, one hand grasping the Archduke by the neck. Like his dead companion in the hall, this Courtier was tall and thin. The most notable thing about him though was the short knife he held in the other hand. It was dipping into Phillip's throat, drawing blood at the pressure. Our rushing feet halted at the scene.

"If you take another step, I'll slit his throat. I swear it!" The Courtier's eyes bulged in their sockets, and his face was twitching in agitation. From his erratic movements, I had little doubt that he would indeed kill Phillip.

"Listen, friend," I said. "His life for yours. You've a knife and an empty revolver. Kill the Archduke and your life is forfeit. We don't want to kill you."

"The hell you don't. There's Roger's body in the hall that says differently."

"What other options do you have?" insisted Logan.

"I can wait. We can hear just fine." He lifted the knife to point at the ceiling. From above somewhere, the bell continued to clang. "All I have to do is wait and the others will show up."

"You know that we won't let that happen. You've about three seconds to decide. Let him go or you die." As I spoke, I withdrew the footman's pistol from my belt.

In all of this, Phillip moved not a muscle. I could see large beads of sweet trickling down his throat, mixing with his blood from the Courtier's knife. Suddenly though, the archduke threw his head to the side, colliding with the Courtier's own skull. As the enemy dropped his grip on Phillip in surprise, the archduke dropped to the floor, rolling away from his enemy's reach.

Logan raised his revolver and shot the man as he lunged to recapture his hostage. Th

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