Burden of Honor
A blood red sun beat upon the ebon steed’s lustrous mane as it stamped its hoof upon the chapped earth and flared its nostrils. War was brewing in the airs of Bellorussi and the agitated beast could sense its ominous approach. The rider soothingly ran his leathered hand over his steed’s neck to pacify him. The horse lowered his head, yet still casting a baleful glare upon the regal cavalry that had rode out to this isolated hilltop to meet the black suited rider.
The rider of the ebon steed faced the brigade of four soldiers that had accompanied the ornately decorated Commander. His brown eyes fixed a solemn scowl upon the gold and white armored leader. They had agreed to a private meeting. Yet this change of heart was no great surprise, honour was a virtue the Commander had long forgotten.
“Glad that you could join us Marcus,” the commander spoke cordially as he steadied his white steed with the reigns.
“Victor,” replied the black clad rider curtly.
“That’s King Victor traitor!” roared an archer beside the Commander.
“At ease Captain Stone,” Victor replied mildly bemused. “I am sure we can excuse Marcus’s lack of decorum given the current situation we find ourselves in.”
Marcus scoffed at Victor’s claims.
“You wear that title so proudly yet this current situation is an indictment upon how poorly you enact it.”
“The peasants chose this fate for themselves. I have been a fair and just ruler in my time yet they choose to rebel and you collude with them. I should order my archers to slay you right now.”
“The people are dying under your rule yet you turn a blind eye to their plight. Your court has taxed them to the brink of survival. They are taxed for the pittance of gold they slave each day in your fields to earn. You tax them on the substandard grain you fling upon them while hoarding the best of their harvests. There is a tax for their use of your roads, their visits to the capital to earn a meager wage and even a tax for the children that they bear and struggle to raise beneath your iron fist. All the while you sit in your ever growing palace, basking in the sheen of your hoarded gold and reveling with the nobles who helped you oust King James. So tell me Victor, where in any of that have you ruled fair or justly?”
Victor’s blue eyes glared at Marcus as a snarl crossed his flawless face.
“How dare you stand there and preach to me about righteousness you sanctimonious bastard! Not too long ago you enjoyed the hospitality of my court as a Knight in my service. Yet you became smitten by a common whore that pilfered from my treasury and turned against me after her execution. For all your virtue, where is your loyalty?”
“My loyalty was misguided in trusting your command Victor. Kirana was a simple lady who only sought enough gold to feed her children, yet you mercilessly slayed her in the town square. Where then was your loyalty to the promise you made? We swore a solemn vow to the realm when we took arms with the Knighthood. We were to protect the innocent and uphold justice.”
“I do not need you to remind me of what a Knight’s sworn promise is. I carried forth my duty with valor and exemplary performance. Why do you think I became the youngest commander of the Royal Army?”
“Yet you corrupted your purpose, your very core even, when you murdered the King.”
The other soldiers tightly drew on their reigns at the mention of this.
Although it was well known that Victor’s rise to power had been a path painted in blood and cunning deviousness, it was an inconvenient truth that few dared utter. Partly due to Victor’s tendency to publicly execute any who mentioned this history.
“King James was a weak old fool. When our lands were besieged by the invading Haldans, he chose to retreat into the capital and fight them from the confines of the castle. The only chance at victory was to meet them in open combat and drive them from our shores. Yet despite my constant advisement, he refused to commit to an offensive plan. What was I to do? My duty was to serve and protect the realm. The realm needed a strong leader, one versed in the art of war.”
Marcus looked at his former Commander with a raised eyebrow.
“Is that how you justify your cold murder?”
“It was a necessary measure. No fault was found when through my usurpation we proceeded to subjugate the Haldans. I do not expect you to understand the full scale of my plans; you were always a good soldier. You could follow orders but never had a vision of the bigger game that was afoot. Your love of cheap ales clouded your ambition and has perhaps addled your mind, blinding it to reason.”
“There is no reason or greater purpose that can be achieved by allowing the pestilence and famine to ravage the populace while you line your pockets.”
“I care little for the peasants. They are filthy and simple minded. It is the nobles who offer Bellorussi a future beyond the shores of this land. Through their patronage we have grown the Royal Army and will soon lay siege to the Haldans just as they did many years ago. Our kingdom grows stronger each day through no help of the peasants. They are lazy and do nothing for this country.”
“That is because your rule is leaving them by the wayside. Educate them, unite them and lead them onward. What point is there in expanding the kingdom when within our own shores we are so unsettled?”
“Well this is rich; I am standing on the hillside listening to leadership advice from a drunk. To educate the lower class is to empower them to overthrow your rule. Every empire needs to be built upon a foundation and that is all the purpose they need serve. They are the dirt upon which we build our growing kingdom; their toils provide the produce we need to keep our economy growing so that we may expand our military might.”
“To what end? Your war tactics suit us for a time at war Victor, but the only war that is brewing is the one you have wrought through your callous rule. Yes the peasants may form the foundation but that is all the reason they must be cared for, your empire will fall without them. Who will build your monuments? Who will plough your fields or harvest your grains? The nobles may determine the progress of our realm but they need the peasants as much as the peasants need them.”
“The peasants believe they deserve equal status in our realm yet they lack any merit or pedigree to contribute to our future. You planted such ideas in their heads and that has made them dangerous. My army has been executing those that dare rise against us yet your rebellion persists. How many more lives would you allow on your newly forged conscience before you cease this futile effort?”
“Their blood is on your hands Victor, not mine. I know your battle hunger has grown overpowering since the Haldan invasion, but a war within our land is not the answer.”
“A war is the only outcome that they deserve.”
“We agreed to meet here today so that we could avert this. The people are angry because they are desperate; they just need an act of compassion from their king not martial law. This land is full of good people who want to see the kingdom grow through a peaceful, simple life and there is no wrong in such a wish. We have fought our shares of war Victor but perhaps the time has come to leave our struggle in the past and look to the growth of our people. Bellorussi can grow peacefully and we can avert this needless war. The people are loyal to you Victor. You are their war hero, their savior from the Haldans. Yet that history cannot excuse what you do to them now and that is why they grow frustrated.”
“Then I shall sate their angst when my steel smites them.”
“Victor we were granted the greatest power in the lands as members of the Knighthood. We had the opportunity to build Bellorussi using our influence with the nobles and allied thrones. Yet you have twisted that purpose and seek only to enrich yourself at the expense of the realm. Do you not remember the Code of Baharem? ‘To be bestowed this honour, is truly to shoulder the burden of curator of the realm.’ Yes we received newer armor and a named blade but we were meant for more than better dressed soldiers. We were to oversee the protection of Bellorussi and work with the court to grow the kingdom. Yet here you stand ready to scour the land in flame and ruin so that you may emerge glorious once more.”
“I do not wish to do this alone. I would offer you a place at my side gladly Marcus. Let us end this festering rebellion and together we shall lead Bellorussi in a conquest of the Haldans. It will be just like old times.”
A wry smile crossed Marcus’s face.
“Perhaps in an earlier time when I was more naïve, I would have accepted your offer. However, I have seen much of what happens beyond your palace Victor and I cannot turn my eye on such injustices. You may have forgotten your pledge to Bellorussi but I have not and I endeavor to serve with what life I have left.”
“You and a rabble of peasants intend to stand for the realm?” Victor smirked. “I have an army of soldiers trained by the principles that made me Bellorussi’s greatest warrior.”
“No Victor, all you have is obedient swordsmen and the delusion that you shall prevail. Our cause may seem laughable to you for my forces wield only pitchforks and spades but they have a fire in their heart that you cannot put into a man who lives in privilege. They fight for something greater than their lives; they fight for their children’s freedom from your tyranny. That is something you would not understand. I came here today to dissuade a wise King from a crisis but instead was spurned by a warmonger. So allow me to speak in a manner that you would understand.”
Marcus drew his sword and raised it to the royal soldiers.
The brigade drew their weapons, anticipating an attack on their King. However, Victor remained unflinching and instead fixed a solemn gaze upon his former comrade.
“Think carefully about your next action rebel scum. There can be no return from the course you choose.”
“I have had enough time to consider this course Victor. Too long have I lived in blind obedience of your shadow but now I choose my own path. I make this vow solemnly beneath the gaze of men and Gods alike that I, Marcus Veloris third of my name, shall pledge my life and soul to the liberation of Bellorussi and her people. I will uphold the sworn duties of the Knighthood Victor, even if you have forgotten them.”
Victor’s solemn face remained set as he watched the rebel commander sheath his weapon.
“You ride to a war, but not to victory. If you side with the rebels expect no mercy when we meet.”
“I shall expect nor show none Victor. You underestimate the people of Bellorussi and that shall be your downfall.”
Marcus turned to leave upon his steed when Captain Stone raised his bow, taking aim upon him.
Victor used his sword to lower the zealous archer’s weapon as he watched Marcus depart.
“I wish you had chosen more wisely my brother.”