Here’s a short story I just finished. I think I’ll post half of it this week, then the other half next week, and then – for those inclined to know the background of such things – a little bit on what inspired the idea. (I always find it interesting to learn what sparked a certain song or novel…I assume that there are others with like curiosity out there. Somewhere.) I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear feedback!
The contrast was stark, between the ragged, random line of trees marking the edge of the forest and the regular file of posts standing opposite them. The height and the green and the beautiful disorganization of the one made the blackened stakes look all the more ominous; like gravestones, though certainly monuments to something dark and ruined.
It was Courting Day, the day before The Kiss, and the two moons were drawing near one another in the late-summer sky.
A long sloping hill stretched back from these two lines and down a dirt track came first one horseman and then a line of prisoners flanked by a dozen more.
“Keep up their pace,” the leader called back and swung his horse from the path to stand alongside in the high grass. He glanced up once at the moons, at Naebo and Arele, and then back at the line, fingering his whip. “Quickly now, my children. Quickly!”
Most ignored him and then one, a middle-aged man with only one eye and one ear to match his single nose and mouth glanced up with something like spirit in his remaining blue orb and Captain Malvere dashed down on him with the lash to drive it out. Two, three times the cord cracked and then Malvere’s anger cooled and he added two more just for fun.
There was a shout then from further up the line as a young woman ran, shackled, between two of the horseman as fast as her hobbled legs could go, and Malvere saw in an instant that she was not trying to escape. Could not be. Just inviting death today rather than tomorrow and when one of the soldiers trotted after her, lance raised, he called out, “No, Rauven, you fool! Not the lance!”
So instead of a quick end at the point of a sharp pike she was rounded back by the novice – newly assigned and here for his first Kiss – and thumped solidly on the skull by the blunt end instead. Malvere rode over to Rauven’s side.
“Didn’t I tell you that no one dies?!” he hissed between yellow teeth. “None! These hog piglets will take that easy way out one after the other if you let them. Then what? Eh? Then you take what pleasure there is in this gods-forsaken, gods-forgotten outpost. Fool!” and he raised his whip in mock threat before riding back to the front.
The girl in question. Yes. She was passably pretty and he knew all the pretty ones. A thief and then a poisoner and then a poisoner again, but the last time too boldly and so here she was and he saw the wildness in her eyes that might do anything for a promise made tonight that even she suspected would be broken tomorrow. There were always a few like that and it always took fools like Rauven a Kiss or two to learn that you didn’t kill the entertainment. Tonight. Tomorrow. It was all entertainment.
A few of the rougher ones, the arrogant and spiteful, had already been broken and limped in line now, body and soul: the bigger men, the brutes who had always had their own way by intimidation, or the little runts who had always had to make up for their stature with the size of their mouth. Then there were the quiet ones, men and women both, looking for that last way out; these you tied tighter and watched closer and whispered all the while about how this road had no way out but one and it the hot and biting way which none of them wanted. Then there were the girls who would promise you themselves and the men who would promise you secrets and both would pay handsomely tonight only to face the same fate tomorrow.
The hardest to enjoy were those like this woman here, passing by just now, in the middle of the line. She was not pretty. Hawk-nosed and wide-hipped and hair shorn unevenly all the way round. And she was already dead. You could see it in her eyes and in the glazed looks of a few others here and there, men and women both. Those who were already dead and you could not provoke them or tempt them or hurt them any more than they had already suffered in this wretched life. You just tied them up and left them for the benea.
Malvere spit at the hawk-nosed woman, knowing that there would be no reaction and there wasn’t. They were at the foot of the hill now and he glanced up again at the moons and then at the trees and then at the prisoners who were all sitting down in a line with the soldiers facing them.
“Let’s get this done,” Malvere said and edged away from the forest shadow.
* * *
In truth, there was far less contrast between these two lines of humanity than between the woods and the stakes. Most of these soldiers had contemplated the same crimes the condemned had committed with the difference lying only in their ability – or courage – to carry them through. That’s why they were assigned here, a day’s full ride from Greystone Fortress and five more from the capitol with only a few wooden huts and an underground bunker to make for their comfort in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The deprivation seemed only to distance them further from those refined feelings of goodness and kindness and grace, and they met this one responsibility with a depraved relish that seemed to harden them further still.
And so they smiled as they led the captives to the posts.
Someone cried out as the rope was tightened through the skin and then wrenched against the metal ring. Some of his men, Malvere knew, would try to break wrists if they could; placed bets on it. Others were whispering sweet and meaningless promises, thinly veiled, to the younger women, and others ushering the next and then the next down the line of posts to the next one open. A few of the wooden stumps were in sad shape, nearly burned through, and would have to be replaced in a few days, and the thought made the Captain curse the effort the job would take. Curse the end of the Kiss, too, if he were honest, because it meant another long and thankless year had begun, one in which keeping his captaincy was perhaps the only thing that kept him from sharing these stakes with the condemned next year.
“You look nervous, Captain.” Peesly rode over as the last two prisoners were being herded to the end of the line. “We’ve got time. All kinds of time,” and he smiled, sickly sweet.
Malvere hated Peesly as he hated most of his men. “You’re a maggot, Peesly, or you’ve got the memory of one.” He glanced unintentionally towards the woods. “A few of those things always come up early. Feel free to stay and greet them.” Then he turned to the others, ignoring Peesly and positioning his horses rump as obviously in that direction as he could. “Let’s move out!”
Peesly decided to stay. He’d had his eye on one of the prisoners all the way down, an old man who’d whispered some vague imprecation towards him days ago. At least he fancied that’s what the man had done, and meant to pay it back all the same.
The others were halfway up the hill before he rode down the line to find his fun.
“You,” he said, glaring at a half-naked old cur tied to a post. “What’s your name?”
The intended victim had long hair and a long beard and had trouble even raising his head to face the soldier. He seemed to consider a moment whether there was any last pleasure left to this life in refusing the question but then sighed and said, “Haver.”
“What did you do to get here, Haver?”
Haver blinked and let his head droop again. “Killed a man…maybe…. Maybe two or three. I don’t know. I was drunk then and for a long time afterwards. Most of the time. They had it coming.”
Peesly got down off his horse and pulled his own whip – three knotted cords – from his saddlebag and found, to his surprise, that he had nothing clever or spiteful to say to Haver before he beat him. Nothing at all.
He set his feet and looked up and saw the man’s eyes raise and what he thought at first was the fear he’d been expecting, wanting, all the way down the hill, but then realized that Haver wasn’t looking at him at all.
There was a buzzing sound, a thrashing through the brush and Peesly got turned around just in time to see a single benea come fluttering crazily through the underbrush, wide bat-wings beating furiously and the jaws already opening and shutting, chewing at nothing because all the beneas’ skill lay in eating. Then it was on him, the size of a toddler but lighter and hot. So hot! It’s flesh smoldered from some inner heat, and Peesly felt it burning the exposed skin of his hands and face at the slightest touch. He thrashed his whip and fists and elbows at it. Anything to keep the chattering maw away from his neck.
It was alone and so Peesly overcame it without much injury so that it lay there, neck broken, blackening the deep grass and its jaws still moving despite the lack of light in its eyes.
Peesly mounted up and rode hard for camp.
* * *
King for four years and he had never visited this place. Small wonder. Traban guessed that his father had never visited it in all his years on the throne. It was an ugly place; a place of gruesome death and gruesome men. A place where the Kiss became a killer and short of the occasional judgement demanded by the office, no king wished to think of such a place. It was there. It accomplished its purpose. It ate up both soldiers and criminals who were no longer wanted in the civilized parts of Sekaras and beyond that it was better ignored.
Traban, though, had given it plenty of thought.
Sweat-reeked dreams where the splinters from the post felt sharp and real against his back. Eyes-open terrors where he could hear – somehow really hear – the judges at court rising to sentence him to the stakes, and he unable to argue his case against them. Unable to mount a defense.
There was no defense for some things.
He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut against the snatches of memory that came now, like ghosts as regular as the sun and moons.
“Majesty, forgive me. I did not know you were up.”
Gregor, grey haired and lean and exuding wisdom even in the way he crossed the dewy grass to the crest of the hill.
“Councilor,” Traban nodded. “You were not needed for this. Not for any of it.” He smiled but the expression was empty. “You should have stayed in the capitol.”
Gregor studied the young man before him and Traban turned away. Below them stretched the line of the forest – the forest on the day – and just emerging from a low fog were the tips of that other dark line before it.
And just what was this king thinking? It was hard to tell. Increasingly hard. At his knee Traban had grown from boy to man and yet he seemed to wither by the year. Some poison of the mind that could not be driven out. The gods knew that he had tried.
And now…? Traban had a look in his eye that was unfamiliar even to his old guardian. It made Gregor nervous.
Behind them their little camp was stirring quickly, guards striking tents and saddling horses to catch up with their early-risen King.
“Why are we here, Majesty?” Gregor said finally.
Gregor shook his head. “I know…that…. I know your troubled heart and mind. Needlessly troubled. I fear what it brings you here to do.”
“To see my judgements carried out. To see…justice. Done. Is that unreasonable?”
Slowly. Cautiously: “No. Justice is a king’s domain.”
Traban laughed but the sound was as empty as his smile. “Yes. My domain. And more firm and unswerving still.”
“As it should be. If you doubt the rightness of condemning these criminals, I think….”
“No, no.” Traban waved a hand. “It is right, of course. Right and just.”
Finally, “But…so unyielding, Gregor. It is unforgiving. Unforgetting.”
Gregor sighed and scowled. At least they were entering familiar territory again.
“You are the king. At the time, you were a prince. Young and foolish, but still the prince. The law cannot touch you.”
Traban sniffed and grimaced, nearly to tears suddenly, and Gregor knew that this was not the right track to take. Not this morning.
“You have made restitution to the priests. To the temples. All of them. Many times. The Revered and the Honorable all confess that you have more than paid for….”
“I stand here, Gregor, looking down on those people, down there, and by rights I should be next to them. A few burnt oxen and talents of gold would not release them from this day. Nor from whatever comes in the next life to take what payment could not be made in this one. So what is the difference? To justice, I mean.”
“Majesty, I think that you’ve….”
“Gregor, stop.” Traban turned to face him, eyes damp and pained, and reached out a hand to rest on his friend’s shoulder. “I know you mean well, but we’ve been through all this. Dozens of times. I still dream, Gregor. I still see him. His mother. I still hear the chariot clattering over them. I feel the weight of its wheels on my soul. I hear my….” He failed the word. “Laughter, Gregor. Laughter. If I cannot find peace through payment…then perhaps…dear gods I hope…perhaps justice is not as unyielding as I fear.”
“I don’t…” Gregor began but Traban would have no more conversation and was off, across the field and beneath the flags that flew the Raven crest to where his horse was saddled and waiting, and so instead the councilor of many Ravens – fathers and their sons – muttered to himself and followed.
Moments later a line of horsemen traced in splendor the same dirt path the prisoners had walked in despair. Bright armor, shining in the morning sun. Polished lance and fluttering banner and heavy thumping of the warhorses’ hooves, heads high and proud. Traban was at the head, empty handed and with the visor on his golden helmet thrown back.
…to be continued.