Read the rest of Arden’s story here.
Arden awoke to a searing pain in his back and a healthy dose of humility. Even the slightest movement brought a fresh wave of agony and a reminder of his failure. Arden wasn’t sure which hurt more.
He tried to rise to his knees, but the pain brought him crashing down again, face-first in the mud of the riverbank. His brother’s sword had cut him deep; his back was afire from shoulder to hip. I never should have let my guard down. The pain was made worse by the knowledge that it was his own fault.
Moving his head slightly, so as to avoid agitating is back, he looked around. Night had fallen, so the Mask’s camp was illuminated by flickering torches. He was in a makeshift prison, surrounded by inward pointing stakes and tied to a boulder set deep into the mud.
Rough hands grabbed him gently. Then another smaller set of hands began to smear something on his wound. It was cool and soothing, but the pressure on his cut still brought him pain. He squirmed under the care, letting a groan out from between clenched teeth.
“Try not to move, Arden.”
“Jaron?” Arden had thought the old fisherman to be dead.
“Yes, and Taro.”
“Where’s Hus?” Arden asked, not wanting to know the answer.
“Dead. The Mask’s men shot him as we were climbing out of the river.” That was Taro’s voice, obviously younger. There was anger in it, and Arden couldn’t blame him.
“I’m sorry,” Arden said, “and not just about Hus. I never should have put us in this situation. I was a fool to think that we could hunt down the Mask without the garrison from Kingston.”
“What’s done is done,” Jaron said. “Now we must hope that they can find us.”
Taro stayed silent, likely because he didn’t agree with his father’s forgiveness.
“We shouldn’t try to escape,” Jaron continued. “Jon has no doubt told the militiamen where we went. Assuming the Mask doesn’t move camp in the morning, they should be able to find us easily.”
“Why did you think this was all a good idea?” Taro hissed, no longer trying to disguise his rage. “You told us that you knew the Mask. You said that you could anticipate him. Except you got led by your nose into a trap, and Hus is dead!” His voice rose as he spoke, the last word said with such vehemence that one of the Mask’s men came over to see what the problem was.
“Our friend is rather badly wounded,” Jaron told the pirate, and it seemed to work, as the guard returned to fire, where the Mask’s crew was eating.
“Why?” Taro repeated, hissing the word.
“The Mask is my brother,” Arden said. And I never stopped to think that maybe he knows me as well as I know him. He hadn’t thought of that, and he had paid the price. “I thought I knew what he would do.”
“Well, he baited you. It seems he isn’t as proud you thought he was,” Taro said.
“His pride is the only reason we’re alive right now,” Arden said. “If we die out here, we don’t bolster his reputation. And if there is one thing my brother cares about, it’s his reputation.”
“So the reason we’re alive is so that he can kill us later, in public?”
Arden nodded, moving his head as much as his wound would allow. “Which is why we must hope that the militia finds us soon.”
Arden woke to the bustle of the Mask’s men breaking camp. The makeshift prison had been removed, and all of the pirate’s tents were down. Jaron and Taro were still tied to the boulder with him, but were wide awake when he rose.
“Feeling better, Princess?” Jaron asked.
He was. Jaron had taken Arden’s shirt and ripped it into makeshift bandages, which Arden now wore. The pain was still there, but it was no longer debilitating, and Arden was able to stand.
“Much better,” he said. “I see that we’re moving.”
Taro nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. “I’ve tried to leave behind as much of a trail as I can,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee that the militia will be able to find us.”
“They may not have to,” Arden said. “If I know my brother, we’ll be going to them. He doesn’t know that we sent for the garrison. He likely thinks that Crickhall is ripe for the taking.”
“The entire town?” Jaron was incredulous, “with only these men?”
“Crickhall may have a larger population but few of them can truly fight. Besides, my family isn’t known for our small egos.”
The three prisoners were forced to march in the middle of all the pirates, dragging the boulder with them. They walked a short ways through the forest until they came to the spot on the river where the Mask kept his boats.
“You can sail with me, Arden,” he said, cutting Arden free from the boulder and tossing him into the bottom of his boat. “It will be so lovely to catch up.”
There was nothing Arden would have liked less.
“Where are we going, Tymon?” Arden asked from the bottom of the boat.
The Mask stiffened. “Don’t call me that. I am the River’s Mask.” He certainly looked the part, standing at the prow of the boat, in black leather and his hideous iron mask carved in a demon’s visage.
“Your name is Tymon,” Arden said. “Stop with this ridiculous persona.”
“Tymon died years ago. I am what is left. I am the king of this river.”
“And do you mean to take Crickhall as your keep?”
Tymon drew his sword and thrust it quivering into the timbers of the boat. “When I take Crickhall, I will truly rule this river,” he said. “We were born to be kings, Arden. How can you forget where we come from?”
Arden shook his head. “We were never meant to rule, Tymon. We were the fourth and fifth sons.”
“And we survived,” Tymon said, ripping the mask from his face as he turned to face Arden. “When our lands were burned and our brothers were killed, we survived.” Arden could see a crazed light in his eyes. “We were born to be kings, and I will carve out a kingdom along this river.”
Arden saw motion in the trees to either side of the river, and his heart soared. “Do you truly believe that you can just take this land, and no one will stop you?” he asked.
“No one can stop me. Through my veins runs the blood of–”
He was cut off as the militiamen of Kingston stepped from the trees and unleashed a storm of arrows. One carved a bloody furrow along his cheek, and another struck his shoulder, tossing him into the river. The current bore him swiftly downstream and out of sight.
Arden was left clutching the demonshead mask as the men of Kingston, swept the pirates into the river. He tried not to think about his past, about his lost birthright, but his brother had thought of nothing else. Tymon had always thought himself a king, but kings drowned the same as all other men.
Read the rest of Arden’s story here.