The Unseen Promise Chapters 1-3
Blame, guilt and a warm fire
The sound of steel on stone shook the narrow laneway where the two brothers lay in hiding. Voices, dark growls threatening death and a most certain bloody end, roared in Roedanth’s ears. The hand clamped over Peetra’s mouth trembled, partly in fear, but mostly in worry. There would be no going anywhere now, not with half the city guard after them.
“Peetra, why did you do it?” It was a shaken whisper into the still ear of his only brother. “We had it all, a roof over our heads, two meals a day, and I was learning a trade. Why, Peetra?”
Blood stained his hands; it had soaked through to his under garments and the sticky feeling of Peetra’s life on his skin made him feel sick. Roedanth shifted, the damp, coarse stone against his back a chafing reminder that they were up to their necks in shit. Peetra groaned, the sound escaping from in between Roedanth’s fingers. Startled, Roedanth wriggled again, pulling his brother in closer and the bolt in Peetra’s breast thrummed.
“By the stars, I’m sorry, Peetra. I didn’t mean it.” More whispering, but this time Roedanth stroked and smoothed out his brother’s sweat-soaked hair. “You’re burning up.”
The voices were closer now; two in particular set his heart racing.
“I told you Sam, the old woman pointed down this-a-ways.” A Tolerian slur marked the man as a mercenary; half the city guards were mercenaries, paid for by the taxes collected by the current King of Crow’s Nest.
“So you’ll take the word of an old woman instead of a warm fire and a mug of beer,” grumbled the other.
Roedanth could almost hear the sulk in the man’s voice. It was cruel, and he once again felt the pang of guilt. The Tolerian grunted, but whether it was in agreement with his companion’s remark or from the veracity of his own duty the boy didn’t know. What he did know was that Mr. Bicky lay dead and Peetra dying. Who would believe him? Those two men with their hard eyes and hungry swords? Not likely. There were no friends in the city guard. The lengthening shadows were a friend though - they created deeper, darker corners to hide in.
The guards were almost upon them now. The sulky one, obviously bored with the chase whistled out to a woman, her large tits strained against the cheap cloth of her garish, far too small dress. She called back, a drunken invitation that promised more than just a passing fondle.
“Now, what I wouldn’t give to spend five minutes with the likes of that,” crooned the sulky one.
Again the Tolerian grunted. “Listen, the quicker we find these murdering bastards, the more time you’ll have in wetting that wick you so fondly talk about all the time.”
Harlots and thieves occupied the lower levels of Crow’s Nest, gracing The Seed with their filthy company. It was a dangerous place to those not guilded. The setting of the sun usually sorted out the fools from the foolhardy. The two guards were almost on top of them. The damp air didn’t disguise the rank smell of unwashed bodies, stale spirits and for the most alarming part, irritation. The Tolerian hawked a large glob of phlegm; it arced over the barrels the lads were hiding behind. Startled, Roedanth moved his hand higher, covering Peetra’s mouth and nose. The terrified young man squeezed tighter. It would be the Seven Hells for them both after what his brother had done; there could be no forgiveness to murder.
“One of them took a bolt. I saw Skinny Nose loose one into the smaller youngling. He never misses.” In after-thought, the Tolerian hawked again. “The bastard.”
More noise, steady footsteps, unhurried and oddly familiar, were coming their way. Both guards turned; the scraping of their heavy steel boots clunked on the stone laneway as they met the new stranger.
“Who’s this then?” Not too friendly, but friendly enough to stop the approaching man. An eerie yellow light crept closer, dispelling some of the surrounding shadows that harboured the pair.
An old voice cracked with age called out. “Just the Bearer. I light the way for the souls who need the light at night. I carry the fire. I am its keeper.”
“Well and good, old man. Maybe a bit of light might help us catch the murdering pair,” spoke the local.
“It might indeed, good sir. Poor Mr. Bicky. I heard he was a good man, mostly that is. There are some around these parts, though, that held the rough side of their tongue for him.” In a low voice, meant only for the two guards, the Bearer leant in. “I heard that he had a fondness, you know - for the little ones.”
“What do you mean, little ones, old man?” Curiosity tinged the question.
The old man looked up the laneway and frowned, then back to the questioning guard. “You ain’t ‘eard it from me, but I knows a woman whose husband drinks at the Brown Jug and he said that he likes the boys. He likes em young you know.”
“Disgusting...” spat the Tolerian.
Roedanth’s’ eyes welled. He’d been such a fool not to have realised. As he leant his head against the stone, closing his eyes to stop the tears, the memory seared fresh wounds into his already bleeding heart. Peetra huddled on his cot, knees drawn up to his chin - his eyes red rimmed as he mutely shook his head, refusing to talk - Mr. Bicky rubbing at his crotch, whenever Peetra found the nerve to visit his brother in the workshop or around the furnaces - Jolein sniggering at the fat man’s leering face.
How could he have not seen it? Perhaps his gratefulness at being given a home for himself and his brother, the high luck on being accepted as a Copper apprentice had blinded the truth. Perhaps it wasn’t his talent for the precious metal that had attracted Mr. Bicky after all. Roedanth unconsciously tightened his grip on his younger brother’s face. Anger and grief rose up, sharp as a knife, as he realised it was Peetra who his master had wanted.
The voices were further away now, fading off into the coming night as they disappeared down the laneway. The old man had moved on, taking the brighter light with him. The guards, satisfied that their search was at an end, followed the Bearer. Once again they were alone. There was of course the beginning of a rowdy night brewing, taverns and brothels all getting into the swing of business - but for the moment, they were alone. Trade for the pickpocket guild had not yet begun; the city guards still walked the streets and the locals, still finishing off their day’s trade, were indoors. It would be a little while yet before the streets and laneways became a bustling mess. The muggings and murders carried out tonight would be left untouched. After all, who cared about the lower levels anyway?
Mr. Bicky, though, he was another matter. To the everyday world he was a respected man, a wealthy man, loyal to the King and Crown. He paid his taxes, always on time, and even donated a heavy purse each month to the Biscop’s House - as if paying his way would open the gates to a heavenly afterlife. What he did behind closed doors and in the seedy shade of his own home was endured - even tolerated. No one ever spoke ill of Mr. Bicky, at least not where he sure of it.
He let out an exhausted breath and eased the pressure from Peetra’s face. The blood had dried on his skin, on his brother’s clothes, on the weathered flagstones below. So much blood. So much guilt. Peetra slumped to the ground and for the briefest of moments, Roedanth left him to peer over the barrels. Left, then right and left again, the flickering light from the iron standard allowed him to see a little way beyond. It wouldn’t be long before the night trade filled the streets, then it would be safe. He would hide his brother and fetch a healer. The money he had saved was well hidden, tucked up tight behind one of the furnaces. Even Jolein wouldn’t look there. That pox-faced snoop took everything, especially things that weren’t his. It had taken Roedanth a black eye and the loss of his first month’s wages to learn that Jolein was Mr. Bicky’s eyes and ears in the workshop. He was never wrong. Yes, he had learnt the hard way.
Turning back to Peetra, Roedanth bent down to inspect his brother’s wounds. “Peetra, wake up, wake up.” Gently he eased the cooling body back into his arms. He stroked his brother’s hair again. “Your fever’s gone; you’re going to be alright Peetra. Wake up, brother.”
Silence. His stillness was alarming. Laying a slim finger against the side of his brother’s neck, Roedanth felt for a pulse. Even the faintest sign of life would be worth a bucket of hope. A flicker of an eyelid to stop the rising guilt, drool or snot to coax a smile, but there it was. Nothing, no life, no hope for a miracle, for it had died under his hand. In the fear of being caught, Roedanth had suffocated any chance of securing salvation for either of them. Peetra was dead - and the panic, freshly awoken, was brimming with trembling nerves and sweaty palms, and now gave way to tears. Silent drops splashed onto the blue tinged flesh around his brother’s mouth and eyes. Lost was his only family; there was no one left, there was nothing.
Holding his brother’s hand, Roedanth stared numbly as he watched the last of the shadows disappear under the rise of the Pata Batu. Soon the darkness would conceal his dash, the one that would save him. It would be a relief to put it all to rest. Truly, a kindness in a sick guilty way, to end a fat man’s depravity, no matter what the cost. But not all endings come with a happy promise. For Roedanth, this would be the case. From here on, all would pale in comparison to what was to come.
Jolien stood over his employer’s body and with grim satisfaction made a mental note of everything in the room. It would all be his, just as soon as he could arrange a cart from the Biscop’s House to collect the ripening corpse. He would catch the shutters and lock the door. It was a pity that the other one - ah, what was his name? Yes, the other apprentice - Jac. He was still at the Sanctum. They had first thought him ill, the kind you get when you’re feeling more than poorly. But that hadn’t been the case; Mr. Bicky had said just a few weeks ago that Jac had got the Calling. He’d not be coming back and a good thing, too, because now Jolein would never have to share.
“Good riddance to the little prick and I hope the other two burn in the Seven Hells,” Jolien muttered. This was said to no one in particular for he was alone, but it felt better saying the words out loud, over the dead body. Mr. Bicky, a white needle dicked nonce whose taste in small boys had ultimately led him to a cold grave. As sick as the fat man was, Jolien had liked him in his own way. Despite all the leering. The Master had been an exceptional Coppersmith, and now that he was dead, Jolien would have to try and hold the business together himself.
He would not have believed such a thing if he had not heard it from Mr. Bicky’s own lips. The Calling comes to each in its own way. Kind for some but not for others, Jac would most certainly be sent away, to where, he didn’t know but still, good riddance. All the more for his empty pockets, and at the end of the day, the Coppersmith shop would be Jolein’s. He knew that Mr. Bicky had a Will; it was a piece of yellow parchment, finely written and kept with the lawyers, Marches and Bearers. He had been with the Master the longest, so it was only right that he should take on the business and everything it owned.
“Are you done with your goodbyes?” The Biscop’s cleric stood at the door, his saffron robe hanging loosely on his thin body. His bald head caught the last glint of sunlight as it fell away to the darkening sky. It gave the man a holy look, and Jolien stepped away from Mr. Bicky’s dead body as though it was a thing to be feared.
“Yes, yes, of course I am finished. It was only right that I said my goodbyes, especially after what has happened. He was a good man, a kind man, and to think that those two murdering bastards...” He had the decency to look abashed. “I am sorry, your Holiness. I didn’t mean to blaspheme, but I can’t help but get angry just thinking about what they did.”
As the cleric stepped up to the lanky lad, a sour smell wafted up Jolien’s nose, and again he felt sick, but the rich baritone voice and the well manicured hand which reached out officiously chilled him even further. Beside the holy-man, the pimply faced youth felt as tiny as a dobmouse, and to the church itself, he knew he was beyond recognition. But hell, what was there to lose? If he played his cards right the Biscop’s greedy needs would serve his own.
“Your Holiness, I would ask...What is being done about his killers?” Jolien softened his voice. To any other it would have sounded like a whine, but to the cleric, there was only the voice of a grieving lad.
Dark eyes probed Jolien’s watery ones. The cleric nodded. “Oh, you need not care, they’re being searched for and when they are found, the King will have his way. Do you know these men?” Jolien could feel the man’s heat. “Do you know where they might be now?”
The fuzzy hair on the apprentice’s lip quivered under the cleric’s scrutiny. It was well known that the Biscop’s House welcomed the death of sinners. Everyone knew that, that is everyone who had a mind to keep living.
“No, I don’t know where they are, but I wish I did. It was his apprentice who did this, him and his lusty brother. He was always jealous, wanting Mr. Bicky’s things for himself. He pushed his brother into my employer’s arms; he tried every charm and evil doing he could think of to get what he wanted.” Jolien watched from lowered eyes. The cleric’s face had reddened under the apprentice’s enlightenment, so he continued. “I just never thought he would resort to murdering the poor man. It’s a tragedy, that’s what it is, a terrible tragedy.” He even sniffed for the closing of his little speech.
The cleric bent over the stiffening corpse, the slight beginning of decay slowly wafting into the air around them. Jolien stepped back as far as he could respectfully go, for he was afraid that he would sick up if this discourse were to continue any longer. The Order scared him and rightly so - for the King’s ear and the Order’s purses were one and the same. The holy man straightened up, and Jolien thought he heard the man’s knees crack. Wincing, the apprentice grimanced in revulsion at the sound. The bald-headed cleric thinned his lips into a sour smile.
“Don’t worry, young master; you have nothing to fear from the Order. I am sure we can come to some agreement about securing your rightful place here. I will have the elders look at Mr. Bicky's personals, and if this man was the good soul you proclaim him to be, I am sure we’ll have no problems.” The cleric’s voice was oily, without joy or truth in its telling.
Bowing his head, Jolien smirked into the folds of his smelly tunic. Time for some laundry I think after all I can’t front up to the Biscop wearing this old thing.
Truth or dare
He had watched as the figure struggled to push the cart, had grinned with gleeful eagerness as the shadow man pulled out the rags to scoop up another shadow man. He could almost smell the grief and worry as the figure stood for a time staring up at the workshop. Jolien had left a candle burning in the window, a mock display of respect, for he hoped that someone from the Biscop House would see. He watched the shadow man eye off the flickering light, and he smiled.
Pimply faced and sallow skin weren’t Jolien’s only faults - his lips were too thin, and with arms were too long, he looked like a carnival freak. Envy and greed were pivotal to the former apprentice, and as he watched the figure struggle with his load, he came to a dangerous decision.
Down the back stairs he crept, careful step by careful step, and made his way into the kitchen. It was the only bright room in the entire building. Peetra had seen to that. It had been his duty to care for the cooking, and such a position he had loved, even if he had hated Mr. Bicky. He was a passable cook for someone so young, and quite often Jolien would sneak in to snatch up Peetra’s bread cakes for his own, yielding in those briefest of rare moments to thank the young man for his efforts. Yes, he would miss Peetra’s cooking.
“So the lawbreaker returns.” He sniggered behind his hand.
Roedanth had never felt so clumsy. Usually, the furnaces burned night and day. Mr. Bicky had been strict about that. It meant that late orders could begin at any time and late orders meant more money. Now they sat cold, dull in the cover of the night. Even with the Pata Batu’s coloured shadows, they seemed as dead as his brother. Working as quickly as he was able, Roedanth began a fire in the largest of all the furnaces, banking the coals, praying he had enough time to cremate his brother before the city guard was called.
With one eye on the burning candle, Mr. Bicky’s former best apprentice worked in silence. It was nearly ready. Peetra was stretched out on the ground next to him. In the dark he looked asleep, and the thought of handing him over to the fire chilled the grieving young man. He didn’t take notice of the workshop anymore - that life was something that he had to leave behind. So when the kitchen door creaked open, Roedanth paid it no mind.
“If you move but one more inch, son, I will be forced to spit you like the knave you are.” It was not a request; it was an order as hard as any Roedanth had ever heard.
He turned slowly and with wide, intensely frightened eyes, surveyed the hostile group. He recognized Jolien and knew in that instant that his enemy was his death. Jolein wiped his nose with his sleeve, smearing snot and sweat into an ugly mess across his cheek. Flanking him were three clerics, straight from the Biscop with a score of the city guard. After all, it was only fitting to have such an entourage when dealing with someone as dangerous and deadly as Mr. Bicky’s murderer.
“It’s not what it seems, truly.” He could hear the stammer in his voice, the roiling of his stomach as his bowels turned to water. It was just like Jolien to hold on to his jealously like a child spoiling for a fit. Roedanth wasn’t at all surprised that he’d gone to the Biscop’s House to report a murder.
Each cleric wore the saffron robe; each head was cleanly shaved, reflecting the Pata Batu’s pastel light. They looked liked the living dead, except that one of them spoke. His voice was high and thin, and with every word, Roedanth knew that this man was no friend.
“Then tell us, all of us,” and he swept a perfect, blue veined hand at the gathered crowd. “What does it look like?”
Roedanth swallowed. His throat felt like it was full of rusty nails. “It’s all a mistake. I was only trying to help my brother. He made a mistake you see, he’s the real victim.”
Jolien laughed, but it sounded more like a girly squeak and everyone looked at him. He turned a dark shade of red and because of that, the lanky man rounded on Roedanth. “He was no victim. The only victim here is Mr. Bicky, a poor man slain by the very hand that reached out to it in kindness. He took you and your brother in, more out of pity than anything else, and through your envy and jealously, you repay this kindness with death. You’re a coward and a bloody liar, that’s what you are. Make no mistake that when they put a rope around your neck, I'll be there to watch you swing all the way down to the Seven Hells.”
The city guards had spread out during Jolien’s little speech, fanning around the furnace just in case Roedanth decided that running was a better option. The three clerics stepped a little closer, peering at the young man as if he were infectious.
“I didn’t do anything of the kind. I didn’t kill Mr. Bicky. Why would I? He gave me a home and a trade. It was more than anyone else would have done for me.” Roedanth looked to Peetra. “For us. I would never hurt the Master, nor would Peetra unless, that is.... he felt that his life was in danger.”
Again, Jolien laughed, but this time he took a step back, distancing himself from Roedanth and the rest of the group. “Like I said, you’re a liar. I saw you....”
Six eyes fixed themselves onto Jolien, probing, searching for something other than a young man’s brag, but Jolien couldn’t stop now. “I saw you in the common room arguing with Mr. Bicky. You had him riled, yelling at the man like a horny whore, and when it seemed you couldn’t get your way, you did him in. I saw it all, I did.”
Jolien crossed his long arms over his pathetic chest and refused to give ground. Six eyes sinuously turned back to Roedanth. Certainly no friends there.
“I have to give my brother to the fire, can’t you see that? His soul must transcend, surely the clerics of our Biscop’s House can understand this. I follow the laws and rites of the Holy House; it would be sinful to deny Peetra this.” Roedanth’s desperation was paramount.
Silence was his answer, grim mouths and staring eyes judging him and his dead brother as much as his dead brother did. Jolien stood behind them all, grinning like the idiot he was. As for the city guards, they were just doing their job with their weapons drawn. Blades of glittering cold steel, ready to skewer him if he so much as moved a hair.
“Good sirs, if Peetra did indeed strike the Master down, then I am sure he was only defending himself,” Roedanth explained. “He was but a boy and Mr. Bicky a vile, lusty man only after one thing - the pleasure from a defenceless orphan. Who would know and more to the like, who would care? Please let me do what is right for my brother. After that I will gladly throw myself at the Biscop’s feet for judgment.”
Roedanth hung his head. Grief and fear had wrung him out, exhausted him and yet, the worst was still to come.
“No.” It was a single word, without empathy. The cleric had made his decision.
Roedanth’s next move surprised them all; he threw back his head and howled. His cry was raw emotion. It filled the yard with so much woe, even the guards doubted their part in this young man’s arrest. He opened his heart and tore at his aching soul while the words shouted out to the glittering stars, begging to be heard. “Help me! For I love my brother so. I love him still, even in shadow’s death - and yet these vile priests of the good Holy House presume to sit and judge me for something I have not done. It is they who should stand accused, for aren’t the followers of our Biscop disbelievers of all things truthful? I denouce the Holy House and the Biscop’s lies. I rebuke all laws unto man, and will, if I see the rise of tomorrow’s day, wreak the promise of vengence upon this land and its failing keepers.”
Where there had once been no wind, not even a breeze, the dusky evening abruptly turned into a gusty squall. The hair on Roedanth’s head lifted and whipped about his face. The sign of a miracle, an omen of his death, who could say, for each stood frozen. Laughter filled Roedanth’s ears, a cackling, like dried leaves underfoot. His words demanded an answer, fealty offered in return for help. The sliver of hate, the one who wished Tarkeenia to become well and truly undone, assented.
Six hands covered six ears. The shock on the cleric’s faces was nothing compared to the slack-jawed, skinny young man behind them. Jolien pointed a finger at Roedanth, his top lip curling in anger, mixed with a little fear. Crow’s Nest lived and breathed superstition. The Biscop and the King used it to keep their coffers and bellies full.
“You take that back. You’ll go to the Seven Hells for saying something like that. You’re a murderer and a liar.”
Cold now, the sudden wind was gone, and the laughter with it. There was nothing left, for it had all been taken away. Roedanth stared back at Jolien. “I’m not the liar, Jolien. You are. You know damned well you are, and it will be you who will be holding the door for all the other sinners as they march on through to the Seven Hells when you die. You will suffer a death so cold that piece-by-piece your body will fall away, clinking to the ground in frozen submission. That’s what awaits you, Jolien. For your greed and envy, you will pay as a true sinner does.”
“Take him away, take him away,” screeched Jolien and then, with a slippery start, took off back to the kitchen and the safety of Mr. Bicky’s house.
Roedanth, in his cold grief, yelled at the back of Jolein's retreating head. “You’d best wipe that snotty cheek of yours before you go prancing to the Biscop’s House, you bloody fool.”
The guards moved in and as a group they rushed on, knocking him down into the mud as they did. Peetra’s body was left as a stiffening reminder of the Biscop’s long reach. The bolt thrummed in his chest as the guards beat a lesson into Roedanth. The three holy men turned away. In disgust or with a blind eye, who could say? They left the yard chanting as all honourable, holy men do, to the sick and dying - to the ignorant poor. Their work was done, the murderer would be taken to the King’s cells and there, once locked under chain and key, he would sit - and may the Biscop have mercy on his soul.
An ardent plea and a fervid pledge in exchange for an unseen promise, how tasty. Tentacles, long, thin and beaded with hate snatched the boy's words from the breeze and hungrily consumed them. He had waited eons for words such as these, devotions that would enable him to act. A twisting smile broke open his maw, and Drakite’s brittle fingers cracked as he wrung his contorted hands together.
"Yes, yes. I knew that it would be this way, snivelling grub eaters, those sisters and brothers of mine. Thought this trinket a safe thing - a thing of value in Father's eyes." Spittle ran down his chin as he wheezed out the words, his eyes ever shifting as he sat on his throne in the Halls of Abeleaque.
There was another who had heard the boy's words. Atheria, hidden in the folds of pitch, loathing its suffocating filaments of fear and hate, hung her head and wept. A daughter of light, this young god had found the decision of birthing Tarkeenia a painful one. She knew of the capricious nature of her siblings and held grave reserve for this world's survival. Now, she would have to choose, and this time, she vowed that she would hold fast. Love and light would prevail. In this she silently declared.
And you ask yourself could it get any worse?
After they clamped a pair of iron manacles on Roedanth’s wrists and chained his left leg cruelly to the flagstone floor, he emptied his stomach. Not once, but thrice, he heaved everything his belly possessed onto the black stones. He felt empty and achy as a thin line of dribble escaped his trembling lips. Everywhere around him the sounds of people languishing in the King’s cells sang to his sore ears like a chorus of dying cats. The voices of the criminal and the righteous called to be heard.
They’d left him a copper bucket for his daily ablutions. He laughed at that, sounding as mad as any other in this hopeless place. A copper bucket indeed. If he had the light, he wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find that it had his stamp on the bottom of it. And in their supreme thoughtfulness, a blanket of sorts had been left for him to use, tattered and as filthy as the cell he was chained up in.
The day’s meal - if you could call it that - was served on the breaking of each dawn. A bowl of swill. Floating chunks of what they called meat bobbed about the surface, congealing in globules of fat. It had no smell that he could recognise, and in a place such as this, it was just another worry. Perhaps he would die from whatever it was that they called food. Hopefully, it would take him before the Biscop could pronounce sentence.
The clinking of keys alerted every conscious inmate that breakfast was about to be served. It was the only contact Roedanth had - this dumping of swill by a unshaven yob in an itchy uniform. Five long days that seemed like five years had worn the young man down. It seemed as though the filth of each day found a means to inch its way up his body, covering him in grime and sweaty fear. There was hardly a clean spot on him. Scrubbing only made it worse - his nails were full of black grime so every scratch, every rub, drove the crap ever deeper into his already sore skin.
“You in there, move your arse into the light. I need to look at you. I’m not going to give a warm bowl of stew to a dead man, now am I?” The guard’s voice sounded bored, so bored that Roedanth wondered if he, for kicks, fouled the food in some way before serving it to his suffering clientel.
Shuffling was hard, but he edged his way into the only shaft of light the cell had to offer. He didn’t say anything, for what was there to say? Hi, I didn’t do it, can you let me out now? No, he did what he did every day when the guard presented himself; he did what he was told. The key turned in the lock, and the heavy iron door pushed open. The guard, as he did every day, stood with the bowl in his hand. But today, there was a difference; another stood a pace behind. A saffron robed man jostled his way in.
“By his Holiness the Biscop of Crow’s Nest, you are hereby summoned to attend the King on the third bell, for trial and sentence.” Here was another that didn’t care that he was innocent, probably just doing his job like the guard.
“Sentence, what sentence? I haven’t done anything wrong. I was only helping my brother because he was scared and hurt. He made a mistake, and it’s not right that I pay for his mistake.” Roedanth’s voice was a little scratchy. He had been nothing but thirsty since his capture. Water was as scarce as the food in this place.
“Don’t answer back to the Holy Man you little...” roared the guard and took a step forward.
The cleric held up a hand. “There will be none of that, good sir. It is enough that he meets the King tomorrow. After that, we will see. It might be the noose or even the flame for this young man. Can’t you see that his soul is in torment? Leave the lad alone or you'll have something real to whinge about, mark my words.”
Roedanth didn’t think anything else could surprise him. He’d been beaten and chained, falsely accused of a crime he had not committed and made to sit in his own filth for these many days. But this took the cake; he was now being made out to not only be a murderer, but a delusional one, as well.
“Please, your holiness, I didn’t do what they are accusing me of. I would never hurt Mr. Bicky. Why would I do such a thing?” Roedanth was pleading now, time was well past being short, and setting aside his grief, the nagging constant fear of death refused to wane.
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. You see, killing Mr. Bicky is exactly the thing you would do if you were to inherit his business and all that goes with it now, isn’t it?” A slight rising of an eyebrow - the man’s only facial hair.
Roedanth exploded; he pulled at his chains. Whether it was a sudden move to escape or to kill the cleric for even suggesting such a thing, even he couldn’t say. “Me...” the word came out strangled, just like the hold of iron on his leg. “I want no such thing, and anyway, Mr. Bicky’s got family to leave that sort of stuff to.”
“Young sir, he has a Will. As solid as the King’s cells. And what we have come to learn, as if you didn’t already know, is that you are in this Will. In fact, you’re the only name on this legal document. Surely you can see that your being kept in the King’s cells makes most perfect sense.”
“Go away, I feel sick.” Roedanth inched his way back into the dark and still there was worse to come.
Like the cleric from Mr. Bicky’s yard, this one also waved a well-manicured, blue veined hand towards Roedanth. “Just put his food over there, if you please. This one is going to need all of his strength for tomorrow.”
The slamming of the door signaled to Roedanth that he was once again alone. The chorus of the other voices calling out their innocence was his only company.
They came for him just before the third bell. It was late afternoon, and the people in the streets, busy as they were, still found time to stop and gawk. Some good citizens threw things, hard potatoes or squishy, rotten vegetables as they pulled the cart along. Higher and higher they climbed, from the poorer quarters through the well-kept fortified houses of the merchant’s quarter. Onwards, they heaved and pulled until at last, they reached the first circle. There were no walls here, why should there be? A dirty great big wall at the very start kept out anyone that wasn’t supposed to be there. The private guards, the King’s guards, made sure of it.
People had parks to walk in here, large groves of trees, well manicured and rows upon rows of flower beds. The smell tickled his dirty nose. Through an intricately fancy gate, a wrought iron sculpture with a squawking crow told him they had reached the King’s palace. It was painted a bright yellow, like the insignia on the guards’ uniforms. The guards were panting now - climbing to the King’s Palace was hard work. Complaining was a natural part of guarding and these four men were no exception.
“Why can’t they just come down to our end, and do the sentencing there?” This one had several teeth missing.
“Yer. It would certainly save my legs, but you can’t be a King unless you’re higher than everyone else.” This one swore under his breath as he put his back into a hefty shove.
“They don’t call it the bloody Crow’s Nest for nothing, you know. It's so high up that if the King's not careful, he might think that he’s one of those bloody crows he loves so well - and thinking so - takes himself a running jump off one of those fancy balconies.” He laughed and looked to their prisoner. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll throw this one off a balcony just to see if he can fly.”
Roedanth’s face turned ashen. Now the guards were making fun, and he hoped for pity's sake that it was only a laugh. Would it never end? He shifted in the stringy hay, his chains clanking, chafing his already bleeding wrists.
“Watch it you, your squirming’s giving me the shits,” spat the largest guard. Up to now he had been the silent one. “You make us take one step backwards, boy, and I will make you rue the day your mother ever gave birth.”
“Now that’s a bit harsh, Eb. The boy might have done murder, but you ought not speak ill of his mother like that. It’s not her fault he’s gone bad.” This one had stringy hair like the hay Roedanth was sitting in. Even the colour matched.
“Shut your mouth and push, goddamn it,” grunted the largest guard.
At last, they crested the final terrace. From all sides, Roedanth could see the countryside. Colours of rich yellows and greens stretched out before him. He felt that if he had the chance to stand on top of the cage, he would be able to touch the clouds. The Twin Souled River looked as thin as a snake, disappearing into the distance as it twisted and turned through the forest, which was so dark that its trees looked more black than green. No one went into the forest. Everyone, especially the clerics, said it was haunted. Madness held the woods in its grip - an angry and frightening Mage hunted the shadows, and whether you believed it or not, those who went in never came out.
Where the Biscop’s House was hard straight lines of pure chalky white, the King’s Palace was many shades of silver and grey - fluted and edged with gold. They both spoke of opulence and power. The Holy House, as it was called, was a small village and the Biscop’s personal quarters a small palace. Doors opened from many of the smaller buildings, and clerics poured out of them into the yard - a swarm of saffron ants rushing towards the cage. In their silence, they crowded around and stared. It was unsettling. Roedanth was sure that their display of stillness was meant to unnerve.
“You’d better put on your best shirt, boy. They’ve come to take you dancing.” The guard with his back to Roedanth chuckled.
“Eb, you’ve got the nastiest tongue. Isn’t it bad enough that he’s going to die, without you putting the fear of the Seven Hells into him?” This guard at least had a nugget for a heart, and Roedanth attempted a small smile at his kindness.
As the crowd parted, Roedanth couldn’t help but goggle at the stairs, which led up to the pinnacle of Crow’s Nest. The King’s Palace shone in the sun, soaring towers and fluted spires reached for the stars, coloured glass filled every window and Roedanth nearly cried at the sight of it.
Another key in another lock, and this cage door opened.
“Come on, putting it off won’t make it any easier.” The kinder guard reached out a hand, and Roedanth in return took it.
He was stiff and sore, the heavy chains around his ankles and his wrists slung rudely about his neck and shoulders made walking almost impossible. He did his best to shuffle along but when the butt of a spear found its way to his arse, Roednth cried out and the world around him looked on in virulent conceit. He gathered what little dignity he had left and held his head up high, eyes on the stairs. Gold stairs. Were they solid gold? Roedanth didn’t know, but they sure looked expensive.
On the first step, the clerics began to fade away, melting back into the buildings they had come from. If Roedanth had noticed their departure he neglected to show it. He had eyes only for the wonders before him. With a guard on each side and two guards behind, Roedanth crowned the top stair and was faced with two of the largest doors he had ever seen: grand wooden panels inlaid with a bloody yellow crow.
This man’s obsessed with these bloody birds. Hasn’t anyone told him that they’re black for star’s sake, not a sunny yellow? Roedanth stopped his thoughts from becoming vocal. Who knew what the guards would do if they caught him muttering about those damned birds?
Creak... It was as though a monster had opened its giant mouth, and Roedanth was being asked to walk right up and offer himself as its meal, which he did, for what other choice did he have? Into the dark he walked, the clanking of his chains echoing and ringing ahead of them. From the corners of his eyes, he caught snippets of fabric and colour. Jostling courtiers trying to get a view. He could hear the rustling of whispers as the gossip flew from lips to ears.
Sweat pooled in every crevice of his grimy body. It was everywhere. They had taken his shoes days ago. Blisters and bruises covered his feet, and he swore he could feel the tiny pads of insect feet as they frolicked about in his dirty hair. He wanted to fall down and cry like a baby. The loss he felt for his sibling was second only to the thought of having a warm bath. How he missed his little brother. Then the tears started. Fear set in. It was so deep - so raw - that Roedanth faltered.
“If you stop again, you bastard, I swear I’ll spit you clean.” It was the largest guard again, not at all friendly.
Past marble columns that stretched up out of sight into a vaulted ceiling, the sound of water tinkled cleanly in the near distance, reminding Roedanth that he needed to pee. To the right, windows reached from floor to ceiling, crisp white curtains billowing into the long foyer. Were the clouds trying to push their way in to see the King also? As he shuffled his way along, the twittering began again. Soft voices behind hands and fans rose to the occasion, condemning him, no doubt, as everyone else had. Men with moustaches, some long and braided, others oiled. The men here were heavily perfumed. They curled their thin lips and shook their closely cropped heads to show their displeasure. Women, so many of them with their bosoms swelling up and out of dresses, all as bright as parrots, brandished feathers and fans. Their faces carried way too much face-paint and the over-powering smell of perfume did little to hide the smell of unwashed bodies. So this was the court of the King of Crows Nest.
Horns blew and the gathering crowd dissipated. Actually, they fled. Left and right, into the shadows like cowering cockroaches. Roedanth indulged a small smile, hiding it away in the grimy sleeve of what used to be one of his better tunics.
“Stand up straight.” The guard with the missing teeth had breath like pickled onions; it brought fresh tears to Roedanth’s eyes.
Another set of doors opened, this time outwards. Like the others, these too had an inlay of a yellow crow stamped into them. It was comical. A hand placed itself squarely onto Roedanth’s back and shoved him forward. Caught up in the heavy chains around his ankles, he fell forward. Crashing down to his knees, the young man skidded a short way. Stand up straight. Fall down quick. Why couldn’t these people make up their damned minds?
He raised his head and was confronted with the King’s throne. A massive gold thing, hard, an uncomfortable perch to sit your arse on, but a King has to make an impression and with a chair like that, who would argue. Upon it sat a giant of a man. His black eyes stared coldly at Roedanth. Wildly, the young man looked about and saw that the only other man, apart from the guards, was one of the fattest men he had ever seen. Dressed all in white, this roly poly had a face like boiled meat, swollen and heartless. Roedanth gulped. He had no spit left; it had fled along with his courage upon entering the chamber.
“Your name, boy?” The King had a voice to match his eyes.
Nothing but a squeak escaped his dry lips. Roedanth remained on his knees fighting pain and fear. The fat man, who was actually the Biscop, sat on the King’s left. Where the throne looked cold and hard, the holy man’s chair was stuffed full of cushions. There was no colour where this man was concerned. His cushions, his robe and his painted fingers were all white.
“There’s no room for fear if you are innocent.” The Biscop’s voice held no emotion; it was not cruel or sympathetic, it just was. “You are accused of murder, of not one but two. Is this correct?”
The shock of being accused of his own brother’s death as well as Mr. Bicky’s was the final straw. They were all liars, and he did not wish to be a part of the game any longer. The Crow’s Nest was a place of evil, and they could do with him as they wished. A stupid thought, but none else would come to him.
“You know crows aren’t yellow, don’t you? They’re black, every last one of them.” He didn’t know why that had come out of his mouth, but it was said and now there was no going back. Surely, it couldn’t get any worse.
The largest guard clipped him on the right side of his skull; Roedanth fell sideways, hitting his head on the floor. Woozy and disorientated, he pushed himself back up.
“I’ll ask you again,” said the Biscop. A sugared something went into his mouth. “Are you responsible for the death of Mr. Bicky, and, I believe the other one is your brother? I will know if you’re lying, boy. I can smell a liar at a hundred paces, even if he’s had the pleasure of spending some time in the King’s cells.”
Blood trickled down Roedanth’s face and filled one eye. What was there but living? That spark was a fearsome thing and he grabbed at it like a drowning man would a piece of floating timber. These men scared him; this place with all its over the top beauty terrified him. “I did no such thing, your Holiness; I swear on my brother’s body that I did not kill him, or Mr. Bicky, for that matter.”
Piggy eyes regarded him as though his body was already noosed and swinging. “Now why would you lie to me, especially since I warned you that to do so would not go well? We have a copy of the man’s Will, and you are in it. In fact, you’re the only one in it. You killed him to take everything for yourself, that is until your brother saw you. Then you had no choice but to kill him to keep him from talking.”
Slack-jawed, Roedanth couldn’t believe his ears. The cleric had said the same thing, but he had thought that it was just another jest to break him.
“I’ll ask you once more, boy. What is your name?” That voice again, as hard as the throne it sat on.
“Roedanth, your Highness, my name is Roedanth, and I did not kill anyone. I am innocent.” He almost sighed. He felt as though he was drained to the point of failing. “I killed no one; I only wanted to help my brother.”
“Wanted to help him die, more like it,” sneered the Biscop.
The King insolently waved a heavy jewelled hand, motioning the Biscop to hold his peace. “There was a witness, boy. Someone saw you. What do you say to that?”
Paler than the Biscop’s white robe, Roedanth slumped. He was doomed; surely, it couldn’t get any worse.
“Bring in the witness.” The King had no need to raise his voice, the room carried the command up to the ceiling - and beyond, it seemed. Within moments Jolien came walking in.
“Tell me. Did you see this prisoner commit murder?” Before the pimply, long armed apprentice could open his mouth, the King waved his hand again. He pointed a finger, layered in yellow, at Jolien. “You had better tell me the truth, for a life hangs in the balance on your testimony. Caught lying and you'll take his place for the sentencing.”
Jolien looked at Roedanth, the boy he had shared a bed and board with for nearly a year, and with as much conviction as a pious monk, the litle shit greasily lied. "I saw them, your Highness, I saw him and his thieving brother. The knife he used was one of the steels from the kitchen, that’s where the mite worked. I can only guess how that poor boy died. I loved him as if he were mine.”
He should have gone to the stage with that performance, but it’s going to be the death of me. Bowing his head, Roedanth gingerly rested it on the floor. He felt as though it had been caught in one of his copper buckets and hammered with a wooden mallet. He was so dizzy and very, very thirsty.
“Can I get some water, please? I am so very thirsty.”
His plea was of course ignored. The guards clicked their shoes together; a sign that the proceedings were at an end. Still Roedanth didn’t look up. He couldn’t and if he had the means to make himself deaf, he would have, for what followed on the back of Jolien’s lies sent him spinning.
“What say you, Biscop? You hold in your hand the dead man’s Will and have heard the testimony of the witness. We have spoken with the prisoner, and listened to what he had to say. So tell me, what is your judgment on this matter?” This man in his rich clothes, all jewelled and painted like a gilded whore, was passing his life over to a fat man.
Another sweet something was popped in the holy man’s mouth. It must have been good, for those piggy eyes glazed over as his tongue licked his fleshy lips. It was obscene.
“The flame, sire. Just as he would have done to his poor brother, let it so be done to him.”
Even Jolien’s eyes widened at such a sentence. It was a slow and painful death to burn at the stake.
“Take him back to the cells. Give him his last meal, and have him ready before the tenth morning bell.” The King rose from his throne, casually dismissive in his arrogance. A nod to the Biscop, and he swept out of the room. The fat man, nearly asleep in the chair, lifted his many chins in a wobbling reply. He was in no hurry, after all, he had all the time in the world to gloat. Sucking down another sweet, it was the Church, not the State, that smiled at a dead man in chains.
I hope he gets piles. Roedanth bit back a sob; surely, it couldn’t get any worse.
Rough hands grabbed his aching arms. Nails and calloused skin scraped away strips of filth as he was dragged, moaning, to his feet. The kindest of the four bent his lips to a bruised ear. “Come on, there is nothing more for you here, son.”
Roedanth left Jolien and the Biscop to do whatever it was that liars did together after getting their way. He could only imagine the dealings between the two, now that he was all but dead. Without him, the short-lived scenario of being rich was less than a dream. Jolien would inherit everything, and the Biscop wouldn’t go empty-handed. After all, when did the Holy House ever go empty-handed.