The Blood of the People: XV
It was going to be a dark day, Kasethen thought as the dawn approached on the day of the executions. He knew it in his very core that what they were about to do was wrong.
The Vasaath had returned to camp the previous afternoon and declared that the boy would not submit. Kasethen was devastated. In a way, he felt as though he had failed. He had spoken with the boy only on a few occasions since his own imprisonment, but each time, the boy had softened. He had seen that there was a sensitive soul trapped in generations of expectations, and he had believed, to the very end, that the boy would come to his senses. He had warned him about the Vasaath’s patience, and yet, he had defied him.
To many, the Vasaath seemed like a cold and relentless leader. He seldom showed emotion other than anger or expressed his dislike for what was and had always been. He was a traditionalist, one that would uphold the rules even in the face of moral ambiguity. But Kasethen knew his struggles.
He had witnessed the great Vasaath fall to his knees in despair after taking the life of a woman who stole back her child from the nemethans; he had seen the mighty warrior weep in sorrow after beheading an elderly soldier refusing to fight because of his hurting back; he had heard the excruciating cries of the powerful general after he had struck down a youngling for not knowing better. Executions were never easy for the Vasaath.
During morning tea, the general said not a word, and he spent the remainder of the time until noon sharpening his sword. Kasethen watched him carefully, trying to read his expression, but the Vasaath was closed, distant.
On the way to the castle, he was still silent, and Kasethen found it foreboding. He wondered if the general was truly going to honour his promise and spare the boy if he submitted, or if his desires were too great and his patience spent.
The executions were not to be held publicly. The Triumvirate had, sensibly enough, decided that the populace did not need to witness their former ruler and tyrant be killed—displaying his head afterwards would suffice.
Kasethen accompanied the Vasaath and his men down to the dungeons. The other prisoners, identified as murderers and traitors to the realm, were all ushered out of their cells and taken to the inner courtyard. They were going to be done away with quickly, as with any criminal, before any of the nobles were put on the block.
These men were not even granted a second chance, and even though Kasethen felt as though they should be allowed a proper chance of repenting their crimes, he knew there was nothing he could say to change the rules. There was no place for deviant conscripts in the Kasenon. Such criminals didn’t even deserve to have their lives ended by the Vasaath himself—but they would never understand the honour they were graced with upon their deaths.
As the soldiers led the criminals and the nobles out, Kasethen and the Vasaath approached Sebastian’s cell. He scurried to his feet, and Kasethen could swear he could hear the boy’s heartbeats thud with frightening vigour—or was it his own he heard?
The general raised a torch so that the boy basked in firelight before he said, “Your time is nigh. I hope you’ll make a wise decision.”
The boy’s face was pale, his body was trembling. Kasethen felt a wave of relief wash over him—the Vasaath would honour his promise—but there was foolish determination in the boy’s eyes.
Before the advisor could say anything to sway the boy out of doing anything stupid, the boy spat, “I will never submit to you, beast.”
Kasethen’s heart sank and he could clearly see the muscles in the Vasaath’s jaw twitch and move.
“Very well,” muttered the general after a moment of heavy silence and turned to the soldiers. “Take him away.”
Sebastian fought desperately as the Kas dragged him out of the cell and took him away. Kasethen wanted to say something, to stop this madness, but he found himself strangely unable to speak.
Before he could release himself from this sudden state of apathy, the Vasaath moved on further into the dungeons. Kasethen hurried along, even though he would rather join the accused in the courtyard. He wanted to speak some sense into the boy and do anything he possibly could to spare him from the blade, but the Vasaath had already made his decision.
The Duke had thinned out during the weeks he had been imprisoned, but he still dared to turn his badly healed nose up at the Vasaath as he said, “So, the time has come now, has it?”
“It has,” said the Vasaath darkly.
It was evident that the general held very little sympathy for the Duke, if he held any. His voice was dripping with disdain and his gaze was dark. Despite Kasethen’s innermost wishes for equality and justice, he knew this man would not be graced with the chance of mercy.
The Vasaath didn’t have to tell his soldiers to take the former ruler away, and the man didn’t even fight them as they did.
When Kasethen and the Vasaath walked through the now empty dungeons, back towards the surface, Kasethen muttered, “This will be a dark day.”
The Vasaath only grunted. It was quite clear that he, too, found it wretchedly disturbing.
Kasethen said no more as they walked in the darkness, up the stairs, and into the courtyard. The sun was hidden behind ominous clouds, thunder rumbled in the distance, but there was no rain. The nobles and the criminals had been lined up on their knees, and almost every one of them was crying and trembling.
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon waited by the execution block, shadowed by their own advisors, and they greeted the Vasaath with reverence and respect but said nothing to Kasethen. With a tightened jaw, the advisor took his place next to the Vasaath.
Crows cowed in the distance and sobs escaped the kneeling men. Other than that, the day was strangely silent save for the soft thunder that occasionally rolled over the heavens far, far away.
The Vasmenaan took a step forwards and gazed upon the doomed. “You have all been charged with crimes against the Kasenon, and your punishment shall be death.”
As the woman stepped back, the Vasaath stepped forth and unsheathed his large sword. He motioned the soldiers to bring forth the first criminal. The man they brought was thin—only skin and bones—and his hollow cheeks were wet from tears.
He pleaded, but was forced on his knees as his head was placed on the block. Desperately, the man mumbled words, asking for forgiveness. He was praying, Kasethen realised; he was making peace with his god.
The Vasaath’s strike was swift and true, his blade sharp. The head fell to the cobbled ground with a thud, and the silence that followed was thick. The body was removed as the next criminal was brought up.
The blood that stained the stones that day flowed like a creek. The thin bodies were piled, and the nobles witnessing the gruesome deed had all shrunk to shells of what they used to be; their greatness had peeled at every cut of the Vasaath’s sword, at every head that had fallen to the ground, and they were all shivering messes, pale and soiled.
Kasethen had kept his eye on the young Arlington boy, seeing his fearful face, but had to look away when the boy gazed back. He could not stomach the pain in the boy’s eyes, or the terror.
When the last criminal had been beheaded, and while the Vasaath carefully wiped his blade from their blood, the Vasmenaan stepped forth.
“These men were all waiting for their deaths, and you would have witnessed them either way,” said she. “The only difference is that you would have watched them die from the comfort of your positions. You were all born into what you call noble families, and you have served the majority of your days as the ruling heads of said families.”
Sobs, snivells, whimpers—never before had any of the kneeling men been this close to Death.
“You have never gone hungry, never been scorned, and never feared for your future—until our arrival, and our challenge of your savage ways.” The woman sighed. “We gave you a choice—a fair one, one that would have saved your lives and granted you a place amongst our people. Instead, you chose to refuse us, to deny us, and to fight us.”
She paused, letting her eyes sweep over the row of trembling men.
“We are not the monsters you would have us be,” she then said, softly. “We are a proud and strong people, bound by codes of conduct. You submit to us, or you die. Those are the rules. You have already refused us, and so you must die. We shall begin with the ruling patriarchs you have pledged your loyalty to, Richmond and Sebastian Arlington. The eldest will be dealt with first.”
Duke Arlington still held his head up high as he was taken to the block. His face was pale—ashy almost—and his eyes were dim, but he still had the bearings of a ruler. He was forcefully pushed onto his knees and his head was slammed against the block.
Despite being a few feet away, Kasethen could clearly hear the Vasaath growl lowly to the man, “You do not deserve this mercy, Arlington. I should break you in half, skin you alive, and hang you as a feast for the bird on your sigil.”
The man’s voice was rough and thin as he croaked back, “You keep saying you’re not savages, but you cannot hide from me.”
Grunting, the Vasaath straightened and glared down at the man with a menacing look. “Any last words, Arlington?”
“You might think you have won, but the people of the North are stubborn and resilient,” croaked the Duke. “They will tear you apart.” Then, raspy laughter, cold and bitter, rose from the man’s throat.
The Vasaath barely blinked as he impatiently swung the sword. His mighty thrust cut through the Duke’s neck with ease, the sound of it dulled and quick.
The onlookers gasped, wailed, and groaned as the head of their ruler slowly bounced and rolled away from the block, his dim, dead eyes peering up against the dark sky. A moment of silence and stillness followed, shifting the worlds and tipping the scales. The last Duke of Noxborough was no more.
And then, the heavens suddenly opened, and rain burst down over them all. Thunder clapped straight above them, cleaving the sky, just as they were blinded by white lightning, and the blood quickly washed away with the sudden gush of rain.
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon both scowled and pulled their hoods up to shield themselves from the downpour, but the weather was relentless. The water hitting the stone in masses roared so loudly, it was barely possible to hear one’s own thoughts—soon enough, it was impossible to tell whether the rain was falling downwards or upwards.
The Vasaath seemed unbothered by the rain, but was eventually forced to order his soldiers to take the prisoners inside.
Kasethen noticed the strain in the general’s face as they hurried out of the rain and into the halls of the castle. The nobles had been forced to kneel again, and the sudden change of weather had also changed the mood of the three stoic leaders. None of them was patient anymore.
The Vasmenaan turned to the Vasaath and his advisor and muttered, “We shall commence as soon as the rain stops.”
“I could be hours,” said Kasethen carefully. “Days, even.”
The Vasmenaan snapped her head at the advisor and glared furiously at him. “Then we shall wait,” she sang before she marched off through the halls, closely followed by the Vasenon and their shadows.
The Vasaath sighed deeply and looked at Kasethen. The advisor could see the agony in his gaze, but the general said not a word before he turned to his soldiers and ordered them to take the prisoners back to the dungeons for the time being. Kasethen tried to speak with the man, but he just turned on his heels and strode off through the halls.
He had a bad feeling in his body, as though something was amiss, and he could not shake it. Troubled, he headed for the dungeons as well. The nobles were closed back inside their cells, crying and shivering. Sebastian had also been brought back to his cell, and when Kasethen reached him, he was broken and devastated.
“Sebastian,” Kasethen called softly as he carefully gripped the bars. “Sebastian, are you—”
“Please, Kasethen!” the boy cried as he rushed to the door. He was in tears, his face was pale, and his whole frame was trembling. “Please, don’t let him kill me! I’ll do anything! I’ll yield!”
The boy’s cold fingers touched Kasethen’s as he gripped the bars with his pale hands, and a sudden pain shot through the advisor, one he had never felt before.
He clenched his jaw and took a step back. “You had your chance of submitting this morning! The Vasaath is not a man to be trifled with, Sebastian. He won’t give you such a chance again. Why didn’t you take it?”
The boy burst out in loud, uncontrollable sobs. “I don’t know! I don’t know! I—” His voice failed him as he slid down on the floor in a snivelling heap. “Please! I submit.”
Kasethen could barely breathe. His heart dropped like a stone. He took a slow, trembling step backwards. “I can’t save you now… I—I can’t save you.”
He was shocked, shivering, as he backed away into the darkness. The boy kept calling out for him, kept screaming that he didn’t want to die and that he would yield, that he would submit, and Kasethen kept repeating, “I can’t save you.”
He had to escape, he had to find some air to breathe. He stumbled up the stairs and once he found fresh air, above the depth of the dungeons, he clutched his hand over his heart and cried. The fear and desperation seen in that young boy’s face were heart-wrenching, devastating. He didn’t know why this child affected him so, but he felt a sorrow more profound than he had felt in a long time when thinking of how that poor child’s head would soon be lying on the ground, detached from its body, with cold, dead eyes peering into the dark sky.
He knew not what drove him out on the courtyard again, in the pouring rain, but he found that he was not alone. From a distance, he watched as a man, dressed in a black velvet robe, stood with the Duke’s head in his hands.
He had walked quite a few yards from the pile of bodies, as if he sought privacy and integrity. Slowly, the man placed the head on the ground, upright, and as he straightened, he moved his hand over his chest and shoulders in the shape of a hammer.
Kasethen observed the strangely intimate scene, and he couldn’t help but stare. The clearly religious ritual was foreign for the Kas to behold, but intriguing nonetheless. Before he had time to withdraw, however, the man looked up and saw Kasethen’s observing gaze. With a sigh, the man walked towards him.
Kasethen recognised him as the Duke’s advisor, the now named ohkasethen. He remembered his name to be Garret, but he could not remember ever speaking with the man, not truly.
“My lord,” said the man and bowed. He had handsome features; high cheekbones, a straight nose, pale blue eyes, greying hair—but his countenance was tired and defeated. “May I require for—Lord Sebastian’s head?” He had clearly been crying, but in the rain, tears were hard to distinguish. “I would like to give him a proper prayer for the Builder, and a burial.”
Kasethen bit his tongue, not knowing what to tell the man.
The ohkasethen suddenly lowered his gaze, as if to hide fresh tears. “I thought I could save him.” Then he sighed. “I am sorry, sir. I’m afraid I am a bit sentiment. I have been with the Arlington family for many years now.”
Kasethen could barely breathe. “Lord Sebastian is still alive.”
Garret’s snapped his eyes back up, widened. “What?”
“The rain.” Kasethen looked up at the sky, caught a downpour of water in his hand, and sighed. “He has been taken back to the dungeons, but the execution will commence as soon as the weather changes.”
“And the boy will die?”
Kasethen set his brows low and nodded solemnly.
The ohkasethen’s countenance changed. The defeat was overtaken by determination, but Garret was a good diplomat. He nodded gracefully, deeply, and thanked for the information.
At that moment, Kasethen saw the solution. He took a deep breath, feeling the rain soak him to the bone, before he said, “The rain can stop at any moment. But if we’re lucky, we have a few hours.”
Garret’s face was unchanged as he said, “For what?”
Kasethen looked at him, wishing he didn’t have to voice his forbidden thoughts—but Garret seemed to understand either way. Right then, right there, the two men had a perfect understanding of what had to be done, and that it might come at a heavy price.
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher