This is the second half of a short story I recently finished. You can find the first half here. I hope you enjoy it!
They passed the tumbledown barracks, startling a few late sleepers out into the sun and then, off to their left, was a low door and long, low windows set into the hillside. The bunker. Standing above it were soldiers of a very different sort from those descending the hill. Nothing shone about them. Pairs – an archer and a swordsman together – stretched far along the hillside forming yet another parallel line to the trees and the posts. Up and down the frontier it would be the same: just enough on this, a sparse year. The Consummation was still a decade away and there was little danger to the broader countryside today.
But they were nervous still. Doubly so at this surprise visit from their King. Triply so when they considered the litany of transgressions they had amassed in just the last night and day. One, further down the hill and late from returning a prisoner back to her post, stopped and stared in fear. For a moment, Traban hoped the man would stay where he was, frozen till the benea themselves would come and turn his fear to death, but then an image of himself on that open hillside came to him, a similar expression and with a similar guilt impeding his movements, and he shook his head and rode on.
All the way down to the tree line and then left to split the gap between the forest and the posts.
There were thirty-four prisoners this year. Though he had signed each of their final condemnations, he did not know them or their crimes. Lower judges had passed sentence; he had simply confirmed it. This knowledge slowed him now, a gentle walk down the line to look at each of their faces in turn. Looking. Feeling. Waiting….
Gregor rode up behind him and could not keep a rising anxiety from his voice. “Majesty. Majesty! You should not be here. It is too dangerous.”
Traban ignored him and walked on, slowly, head turned from the woods towards this one and then the next.
“Majesty, please! I don’t know what has come over you this morning, but listen to…to reason. Listen, at least, to me! You must get to safety, my King; the moons are….” But Traban was lost to him and Gregor broke off for a moment. He looked back along the line of men who rode behind and saw not a few of them looking intently at the trees – through the trees – and shields and lances were turned decidedly in that direction.
“King Traban,” Gregor tried again, begging for the King’s own sake, for the soldiers behind them. For what little self-interest remained after so many years of service. “Please. At least tell me what it is that you seek. I will help you so that we can be done with this place and find safety.”
Traban rode on.
Several of the prisoners were already dead. Several looked his way, pleading, calling out. Some wrestled desperately with their bonds; some wept silently.
This one did nothing.
A woman. Hawk-nosed. She did not struggle or weep or plead or even stand straight in defiance. She did nothing.
Gregor stifled a rebuke and instead pounded a fist against his own leg. This was getting out of hand. To uncharted territory. He motioned to a few of the guards to dismount as well and then climbed down himself, keeping his horse between himself and the forest.
Traban stepped closer to the woman and took off his high-crested helm. “What is your name?”
There was a beat of time and then two – two beats fuller than anyone ever ignored the king – and then finally she raised her unlovely face towards him.
She sighed and shifted as much as her bonds would allow.
“Keira,” she said without a shred of tone or feeling. Just dead words leaking out. “Leave me alone.”
“What have you done, Keira?” His voice was gentle. “Why are you here?”
Gregor glanced towards a sound in the forest; it would not be a bird today. There would be nothing wholesome moving among the trees on today of all days. Up in the sky the white edges of Naebo and Arele were just touching.
The woman shook her head.
“Leave me alone.”
Traban nodded. Another figure approached from behind the rows of stakes. It was the Captain of this place – or so his ragged red cape seemed to indicate – and he was out of breath.
Malvern’s eyes were wide with more sources of terror than he could parse out, not the least of which was the thought that the King might die at his outpost on his watch. His bow was deep and imprecise and hasty. “Your Majesty! You…you cannot be here! Please, we are…of course, we are honored, but…. Majesty, the Kiss!” He indicated the sky. “The Kiss is upon us. Please, come back to the bunker.”
Traban did not look at him. “What has this woman – Keira – done? Why is she here?”
Malvern stammered and looked to Gregor and the soldiers, hoping for some explanation, some reason for all of this to be happening. “Well, Majesty…ummm…” Then he finally looked at the woman. “I think…there are so many, Majesty. Keira of Grocester. She, ummm… a traitor, Majesty. She is a traitor. Spying for Falas. Killed a man, I think. If you’d like, I can….”
He reached hesitantly for his sword.
Malvern looked at the woman and then the king and then at Gregor and then made the circuit again in confusion. “Majesty?”
The captain scrambled for his dagger instead of his sword and then began sawing at the ropes which bound the woman to her burnt, black post. She looked up now, in confusion and distrust – in irritation – and the feelings were the first signs of life she had experienced for some days.
They were not welcome.
Malvern’s knife was dull and ill prepared for the task to which it was applied. He muttered apologies and explanations all the while until another noise in the forest drew everyone’s attention. Nearly everyone: all heads turned towards the sound but the King and the prisoner, neither of whom seemed to be giving the coming scourge any thought at all.
“Majesty!” ten voices cried out at once and out came one dark, frantic shape directly onto the point of a waiting lance. Then another came, meeting a like ending, and another which ducked beneath a horseman’s thrust to slam into his mount. The horses all reacted, each as if it had been the victim, and two bolted from the line. The ring of dismounted men pulled tighter, linking shields. One of the guards was calling out orders.
Keira’s bonds finally broke and she could not restrain the cry that escaped her lips at the stiff-jointed pain of being suddenly freed. Another sign of life she regretted.
Traban turned and mounted; then held out his hand to the woman. “Come,” he said. “You are free. Let me take you to safety.”
There were more crashes, a cry, a buzz of flimsy wings beating rapidly.
The woman shook her head. “I don’t want….”
“No,” she said and someone – maybe it was Malvern – brought down imprecations on her head that more civilized men kept silent in the presence of royalty.
“I am the King. I can order you.” Traban smiled, admitting the irony.
“You’ve no command over the dead. Leave me where I am.”
“Majesty!” it was Gregor now, remounted and hunched low in the saddle. “We will all perish if you do not leave this place now!”
Traban had not lowered his outstretched hand. Did not now, but said, “If you will not come because I ask, then come to save me. I tell you the truth: I will not leave this place without you. So we both die.”
Now it was her turn to curse and the air grew hot with the heat of sweating mounts and benea bodies and someone was screaming now, constant and shrill. Maybe it was Gregor. More likely Malvern and soon the captain had turned and fled, away from the knot of fighting and back up the hill. Down the long line of blackened posts other screams rose, sharp and gargled and brief.
“Please,” Traban said again. “Come and I’ll explain everything.”
There was life in her eyes again, anger which added to the heat which grew in the air around them, and then she muttered something incoherent and took his hand and was pulled up behind him.
“I could kill you,” she said then, louder so that he could hear. “I’ve done it before.”
This time – even here – they both laughed bitterly
* * *
The ride back up the hill was faster and far less organized. Several of the guards kept circling back to cut off any benea that chanced to follow onto their scent, but by the time the bunker was reached there were black and steaming swarms around each post where the food was less deadly.
Then the arrows began flying overhead, a steady stream, and though some of these were archers in only the loosest sense of the word they could hardly miss bringing down creature after creature from the swarms.
Then the bunker was reached for the King and his councilor and his unwilling companion and the barracks further on received the horses so the guards could turn and join the defense. The archers continued firing all the while and on the occasion when one of the fluttering benea reached this far up the hill the swordsmen cut it down.
Malvern lay halfway down the slope with one of his own men’s arrows in his chest – an opportunity that had been too good to pass up – and two, now three, now a dozen benea scrapping and tearing for his steaming body.
“Please, sit,” Traban said and the woman sat at a rickety table. There was nothing else in the room and all the soldiers were outside fighting the benea.
Traban looked out the window but did not seem to see anything at all. A casual glance while his mind was elsewhere.
He turned back to the woman and said, “You are free now. The crimes you committed forgotten.”
Gregor watched, panting and sweating from the climb up the hill and more so now at the look in his King’s eye. For the first time – despite all that had come before – for the very first time he thought that perhaps his king was mad.
“I don’t want to be free,” Kiera said. She glared across the room at Traban and then equally at Gregor with a glance towards the door in between. “I deserve what I had coming and I just want to….”
“We all deserve what you had coming,” Traban said. “But I am the king. And I say ‘mercy’ so you can be free.”
“You can’t do that,” she said fiercely.
“I’m the king.”
“I don’t care if you’re the Honored himself, you can’t just…erase….”
“But I am the king, don’t you see?” Traban walked over to her and knelt down to the level of her eyes. “I signed your condemnation and I can tear it up just as easily.”
She looked at him for a moment – a long moment – and then spit in his face.
“I don’t care who you are. You don’t know me or what I’ve done or what’s left for me if I leave this hillside today. I don’t want your mercy. Let me go back down the hill.”
Traban stood and laughed, unbelieving. “But…? Don’t you understand? I’ll give you whatever you need. A fresh start. Whatever you want.”
“You think you can fix things just by tearing up a piece of paper?”
“Then maybe you’re just as wicked as I am.”
His face went cold and suddenly frightened and Gregor, looking on, made a sudden decision. A dangerous one. Perhaps it was time to stop trying so hard to save this man. Perhaps he had been too soft. Too gentle. If a king could not stare hard truths in the face then maybe he was not fit to be king.
“She’s right, your Majesty.” Gregor stepped forward, eyeing his charge warily, waiting to see what would come of the wildness that grew by the minute in Traban’s eyes. “You can tear up her condemnation, but what does that make you?”
“No. It makes you unjust. It makes you a curse to the families of those she has killed. A curse to the victims. A curse to the corpses whose bones are being cleaned at the stake right now.”
“But I set her free,” Traban said, and his eyes were glistening suddenly.
“She doesn’t deserve to be. Blood cries out for blood.”
“But can’t they…? Someone has to be able to clear her name. Somehow.”
“Then you cause a dozen evils in your attempt to erase one.”
“But then there is no hope for her.”
“For her, majesty?”
Traban looked at him squarely now. Desperately.
There was a cry outside and scratching – mad scratching and thumping at the door.
“Is there no hope then?” Traban asked. “Does justice win?”
“Justice must win. Even for a king. Or everything beneath him crumbles.”
There was a sudden smell of smoke in the room. Of burning, oily wood and the noise outside was growing. The windows suddenly shaded and there was a fluttering against the bars, thin, clawed arms reaching in towards them. Jaws opening and shutting against the iron and then more calls outside from men swarming down towards the bunker to drive them off.
But not in time. The door cracked and splintered and there was the slightest opening for one and then two and four and six and a steady stream of benea to squeeze through, snapping and snarling and Gregor realized suddenly that he didn’t have a weapon and neither did the woman. Only Traban, but he had grown still, and then Gregor flung himself on the king and wondered what it was like to be eaten.
* * *
Many of the posts were gone, smoldered now to stumps and giving off far less smoke than the scorched woods which towered over them. Far less than the bunker from which smoldering bodies were being dragged. Benea after benea after benea, some killed by arrows shot inward through the window bars, some by swords and lances from behind and some still gnawing – dead – to quench the only appetite they knew.
Then what little was left of the woman. And of Gregor, long-time councilor to the Raven Kings.
Only the king himself – burnt and bruised and bleeding – somehow emerged free.