The Blood of the People: I
The horse’s hooves thundered against the ground as Isaac spurred it on, faster and faster, over the moors. The mouth of the creature frothed, its nostrils flared, and rich mist escaped as the beast snorted in the rain.
On the saddle in front of him hung the cold and lifeless body of his Duke and Lord, William Cornwall, and even though he was indeed dead, Isaac prayed to the Builder and to Edred, and to any other god willing to hear him, that there was still some life left in the Duke. So he rode south, away from the curse, as fast as the animal would carry him.
He was far from alone on the road; five thousand soldiers were on the march, dispersed and disheartened. The nightmarish display they had all witnessed was enough to shake any man’s faith—or consolidate it for those who doubted. Isaac rushed through them in his hurry, over the Three Crossings and towards Westbridge.
As the darkness fell, both the horse and the rider were exhausted and Isaac had to accept the fact that his Duke was dead and that no power in the world could change it. He stopped at an inn along the road where he demanded a shroud for the body, a fresh horse for the morning, and a room for himself. He then sat down in the tavern and drank in the Duke’s memory.
Many soldiers stopped at the inn as well, and many joined Isaac at his table.
“Sir Callahan,” they greeted, and Isaac nodded in respect.
He could not blame the men for leaving. Indeed, had he not had his duties as the Duke’s guard, he would have left just like any other. The men around the table said nothing. They were all shaken by the events that had unfolded, and even though no one said a word, Isaac could see in their eyes that they were all chilled to the bone.
It was true that war demanded casualties, and no one could have foreseen the outcome had there been a real battle, but the imagery that had been seared into their minds that night and that morning was horrible enough. They would all live with that memory to the day they died, and Isaac knew that no one would ever spend another night without seeing the maimed bodies of their brothers in their dreams.
Many cheeks were wet that evening—tears of grief, of fear, and of gratefulness. They were the ones that got away, but they were cursed. Isaac was not a very religious man but even he felt the chilling hand of Darkness upon him, like a shadow hovering over his head.
None of the men around the table slept that night. By sunrise, they said their farewells, wished each other the Builder’s blessing, and parted their ways. Some were on their way back to Illyria while some had decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
Isaac prepared the fresh horse and placed the body onto the back. It had stiffened in a crooked way, as if it had been moulded by the saddle. He cringed at the sight but was relieved that the shrouds encased the frame—that way, he didn’t have to gaze into the pale, soulless eyes.
Isaac rode on. Three days of travelling awaited, if he pushed hard, and he wondered what he would face once he entered the city. Had word already reached its walls? Did they already know of the defeat? Of the Duke’s demise?
He carried with him the evidence—not of the cruelty of the Demons, but the cruelty of Duke Arlington. It was a sin worthy of the deepest depths of the Netherworld to slay another Duke, and Isaac had seen the bow in Arlington’s man’s hand. There was no hesitation, no doubt. He knew what he saw. Richmond Arlington ordered the murder of the Duke of Westbridge, and all because he refused to fight a battle they had already lost.
Another stop for the night, and a new horse by the morning. He paid extra to keep people silent about the body he carried with him, and the next morning, he was on his way again. When he finally made it to the Crossroads, he stopped at the last inn before finally reaching Westbridge.
People gazed strangely at him as he moved through the village outside the city, as if they could sense the curse on him—and the strange wariness lingered as he approached the high walls of the city. The Drawbridge Banner hung on each side of the tall gates, and there was an eerie silence all around. Isaac carefully moved closer and forced his horse to a stop right by the gates.
A minute passed, and then a head ducked out from the watchtower above the barbican. “Who goes there?”
Isaac clenched his jaw. “This is Sir Callahan of Blackmoor and I demand this gate to be opened!”
The guard was still for a moment before calling, “Sir Callahan is dead. Turn back.”
“Listen here, you imbecile!” Isaac roared, making his horse jitter. “Open up these gates, or I’ll knock your teeth out!”
The guard stood a few moments more. “How do I know you’re not a demon in disguise?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Isaac muttered. “Fetch Sir Riley, now!”
With a shrug, the guard disappeared and a few minutes later, the hatch for the wicket opened and a man’s face appeared behind the bars. “Callahan? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s fucking I! I’ve ridden for days and my ass is sore!” Isaac barked, and the hatch was slammed shut. Moments later, the heavy gates swung open, slowly, and Isaac was finally allowed inside. “What the fuck is going on, Riley?”
“Soldiers have been pouring in for about two days now, talking nonsense and being delirious,” said the Head of Guard. “I don’t think they’ve slept at all. They’re rambling on and on about demons in the night, about gutted men, about talking heads. They said you and the Duke were dead.”
Isaac swallowed and sighed deeply. Then he nodded at the wrapped package behind him on the horse, and Riley’s face fell. “He was killed. I couldn’t save him.”
After finding his footing again, Riley called for aid. Guards carefully untied the body from the horse and carried it away.
Riley, however, was incredibly distraught. “Callahan… you know how this looks.”
Isaac sighed and dismounted the animal. Indeed, he knew what it looked like, him riding into the city with a dead Duke on his horse. “I tried to save him, but there was nothing I could do.” He squared his jaw. “Lord Christopher—he didn’t make it, either. I couldn’t retrieve his body.”
“I will have to take you into custody,” Riley said lowly. “The Architects will have to pass judgment.”
Isaac nodded. “I know.”
* * *
The rumours spread quickly, like wildfire. After the soldiers’ return, the whole city had heard of the gruesome attack from the Demons of the North—but Isaac’s arrival let them know it was all true. Tales were being spun, one worse than the other, and the people’s wicked imagination managed to outdo the true horrors of that night.
Isaac was locked behind bars, awaiting his divine judgment for whatever crime the Architects said he had committed. They could blame the Duke’s death on him—he might have been the one to put an arrow in his throat, for all they knew.
More likely, they would blame him for not doing his duty and protect the Duke from any harm. That was indeed on him. He should not have ridden ahead. He should not have spurred his horse on as he did. He should have waited, he should have guarded the Duke against the most potent threat, but he did not. He did not.
Duke Cornwall was buried underneath the floor of the Vault, next to his ancestors, a few days after Isaac had brought him to the city. Lord Christopher’s body was never retrieved since the Architects had forbidden anyone to venture north of the Three Crossings, claiming that Noxborough was cursed. It didn’t matter that Isaac said the Duke’s last wish was to have his boy retrieved and buried.
Shortly after the burial, Cornwall’s youngest son, Arthur, was crowned Duke of Westbridge. He was just a lad, barely fourteen years of age, and a sensitive boy. Isaac had seen him grow up, and he was not suited to mantle the role of a Duke. Indeed, he never expected to have to wear the crown himself, but as circumstances had it, he was now dubbed the sovereign ruler of Westbridge and the black moors surrounding it.
In his cell, Isaac prayed to the Builder to protect the boy.
He knew not how long he had to stay in prison. His beard had grown out, itchy and bothersome; his frame had lessened, even though he had kept his body strong; his mind had enslaved him, playing the scene over and over again when he found the Duke kneeling by his son’s maimed body.
He kept seeing the corpses than hung from the wall while their intestines touched the ground. He kept hearing the roaring caws of the hundreds of crows that feasted on the flesh of the dead. He kept seeing the life fade from the Duke’s eyes, over and over again.
When Sir Riley came to fetch him, he said that the Architects were finally ready for a trial, but Isaac knew they had decided upon a punishment already. He was relieved he was to be freed from confinement but he was anxious. His sentence could be anything from a fine to execution. His crime was unprecedented—no Duke had been killed in battle since the War of the Kings.
He was washed, shaved, and dressed before he was presented to the Architects inside the Vault. Five very old men with long, well-groomed beards sat like a jury on lined up chairs by the chancel. The High Architect sat on a throne-like seat in the middle, and his hat was exceedingly tall this day.
On the right, on a seat of gold and velvet, sat young Duke Arthur. He seemed tense, anxious, and uncomfortable. The crown upon his head was ill-fitted and lay awkwardly atop his ears. Next to him sat his mother, the widow. Duchess Rosamund was a god-fearing woman—stern and cold. A black veil covered her grim, thin face, but Isaac could still see the resentment in her onyx eyes. The feeling was not one-sided; Isaac had never liked the old bat and he felt truly sorry for the young boy who would be so blindly steered by her and the Architects.
Lord Christopher might not have been the most suitable heir to the throne, but he would at least have kept the old relics at bay. Peeved, Isaac kneeled before them and bowed his head.
“Sir Isaac Callahan,” declared the High Architect solemnly, but then another priest beside him leaned in to whisper something and the High Architect cleared his throat and added, “of Blackmoor.” He took a deep, struggling breath. “You stand before us today, before the Duke and before the Builder, accused of regicide. How do you plead?”
“Your Eminence,” said Isaac, “I plead innocent. It was not I who slew the Duke—”
Isaac nodded. “Indeed. The late Duke. It wasn’t I, but Richmond Arlington.”
“Duke Richmond Arlington.”
Isaac clenched his jaw in annoyance. “Yes, forgive me. Duke Richmond Arlington.”
“We have heard this,” said the High Architect. “But to suggest a Duke killed another Duke is to suggest a deadly sin. Indeed, to lie about something like this is a deadly sin also.”
“I’m not a liar.”
The Architects were silent for a while before the High Architect spoke again. “No. We have inquired after you, Sir Callahan, and you have a reputation for being a good man. An honest man. You have served the late Duke loyally for these past twenty years, been his Sworn Protector.” He took a few ragged breaths. “Is it then true what they say? That the demons attacked the army at night?”
Isaac nodded. Whether or not he believed them to be true demons wasn’t important—they had still attacked them, still frightened them into madness. “I never witnessed them, myself, but soldiers all over the camp claimed to have. They said that their bodies would not move but for their eyes as they saw the demons kill their brothers.” He swallowed hard. “I only laid witness to what they left in their wake, but it is a sight I shall never forget.”
“We have interrogated more than one hundred soldiers passing through,” said the High Architect. “Their stories speak of yellow eyes and sharp teeth. They speak of unimaginable violence and cruelty. One even claimed to have seen a demon tear the head of a man with its bare hands.”
“I never witnessed any of it,” said Isaac, “but I saw what they left behind. That is enough for me.”
“And after this horrific discovery, what did you do? Tell us what you remember.”
Isaac sighed. When he woke up that dreadful morning just before dawn, as planned, he was surprised at the silence. They should all have been up, ready to march, but the camp was quiet.
He remembered his first look outside his tent; nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first, besides the stillness. The morning was crisp, the grass was dewy, and faint mist hovered above the ground. He wandered a few yards, through eerie tranquillity, before he heard the first scream. It was icy, soul-wrenching, and Isaac hurtled towards it.
The camp was a maze—hundreds of tents had been erected outside the city walls—and once he reached the scream, he witnessed a nightmarish scene. There was a head on the ground just outside the tent, its spine still attached. Isaac almost lost his breath. Another scream, and then another. One by one, the soldiers awoke, as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.
Chaos broke loose. Men scurried about frantically, gripping swords and horses from wherever, and escaped the grounds as quickly as possible. No commander stopped them, no orders were yelled out, and Isaac realised that the battle was over before it even began.
He tried to assess the situation, but it was difficult getting anything useful out of the terrified men. Many claimed to have seen demons in the night, that they could see but not move, and that the demons had torn the soldiers apart while the others couldn’t do a thing to stop it. The stories travelled fast through the camp, and that was enough for most men. They all left.
Realising the danger in deserting forces, Isaac rushed to his Duke’s tent, only to find him kneeled by his son’s broken frame. The sight made Isaac’s stomach churn and had there been breakfast in it, it would have poured out onto the ground. He knew the Duke’s deep sorrow all too well, but this was not the time to grieve. He had to get the Duke to safety.
The memory was painful, one he wished to be rid of, but one he knew he’d never forget. He told the Architects what had happened and he didn’t wrap any details in silk or velvet. He glanced at the boy who was looking rather greenish. The widow was tense and shocked.
Isaac sighed and dropped his gaze. “I failed.”
“And how did you fail?”
“I did not protect him.”
There was silence in the Vault for a few moments before the High Architect said, “No. You did not protect him.”
The accusation was heavy with guilt and shame, and Isaac lowered his head in the wait for a sentence.
The High Architect took a deep breath. “To perform your duty as the late Duke’s personal guard, you should have protected him from every threat. While focusing on one, you neglected another.” The man had to take another few breaths. “Duke Arlington has broken the King’s Accords and committed a crime against the Free Cities of Nornest. He shall, therefore, in accordance with the laws, be considered as lawless. He is no longer the Duke of his city, nor is he protected by the Regent’s Act. He is to be brought here, to Westbridge, where he is to receive his punishment.”
Another pause and Isaac was getting restless.
“Sir Isaac Callahan… of Blackmoor. You have confessed to the crime of negligence, and thus shall be sentenced as the collector of Arlington. You will leave this city immediately and head for Noxborough. There, you shall arrest Arlington and bring him here. If you return empty-handed, we must regard your action as a breach of agreement and you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
Isaac clenched his jaw tightly. The last thing he wanted was to return to that wretched place. But he gracefully accepted the judgment and asked, “If Arlington is already dead, your Eminence, what then?”
“He has two children,” said the High Architect. “As long as an Arlington answers for the crimes of his family, the Builder will be satisfied.”
Isaac nodded, but he wished the answer would be different. He had met both Lord Sebastian and Lady Juniper and they were timid and gentle souls. They had nothing to do with their father’s crimes, but such were the laws. Isaac knew this.
He was escorted out of the Vault by the guards and greeted by Sir Riley outside its gates. The two men nodded to one another and Riley smiled half-heartedly.
“You’re still alive,” he jested.
Isaac huffed. “Aye.”
“That must be good news.”
“Not really.” Isaac sighed loudly. “I’ve been exiled until I capture Arlington.”
Riley sighed, too. “Fuck.” The two men stood silent for a while before Riley said, “Well, is there anything you wish to do before you leave?”
Isaac grunted. “Give me ale and a woman, and then I’ll be on my way.”
Riley boomed out a laugh and slapped Isaac on the shoulder. “Indeed!”
That evening, the two men drank together in earnest. They reminisced about old times, when they were young lads and had the world at their feet. Now, when they were both over forty years of age, their dreams had slowly faded. Once, they were the masters of the world, and now, the only blessing they could wish for was to live to a ripe old age.
A beautiful woman accompanied Isaac to bed that night, comforting him before his departure. At dawn, he thanked the woman and paid her handsomely, packed the essentials, put new armour on, saddled a horse, and left Westbridge. As he gazed upon the gates as they closed behind him, he realised it might be the last time he ever laid his eyes upon the walls of Westbridge.
He was in no hurry. The rain forced him to seek shelter at every farm or inn he passed from Westbridge to Three Crossings. The events that had unfolded only a few weeks prior were already the stuff of legends. The Night of the Demons, they called it.
Isaac was tired of hearing about it, tired of hearing the tall tales that had formed. No, the demons did not eat the soldiers; no, they did not form into smoke; no, they did not force the soldiers to dance naked in the moonlight. The stories were absurd, and it seemed as though people couldn’t get enough of them.
As soon as the rain had lessened, he was on his way again. The closer he came to Noxborough, the greyer the world seemed to be; farmhouses were abandoned, or someone peeked out with an axe in hand. There was indeed Death in the air still.
He felt a thick knot forming in his belly as he approached the camp. It was still standing, like a monument, silent as the grave. The road was nothing but a puddle of water and soil. Isaac brought his horse to a slow walk as it waded through the mud.
Crows were still circling the space, but the bodies were gone. Not even Lord Christopher’s body was where it had been left. Traces in the ground revealed wheel tracks leading into a grove and Isaac followed them to a large pile of burnt remains. Skulls lay in heaps, blackened by soot, and some hadn’t even burned all the way. The rain must have prevented them from bursting into flames, but the heat must have cooked them, so much so that the skin had tightened and ruptured. Isaac felt his breakfast turn in his stomach, and he scowled. This was a disgrace.
He turned to leave the pile of bones and limbs behind, but the guilt tore him apart as he did. With a groan, he dismounted his horse and fastened the reins to a tree before he strode back to the pile. The Duke’s son had to be there somewhere.
It took him until sundown before he finally found Christopher’s head. It was half burnt, and the skin had formed into a leathery mask; the lips were so tightened, they had receded from the teeth; his nose was missing and one eye was burnt—but the other one was pale and dim, and definitely that of Christopher Cornwall. Golden locks were still intact and Isaac carefully placed the head aside while digging a grave.
The boy had been a little shit, that was a fact well known—a cruel, pitiful little shit—but he was still a Cornwall, and he deserved a proper burial. So Isaac thought to bury his head. At least, he could give the boy that.
He dug through mud and soil with his hands and a stick, and just as he was done digging, lightning cleaved the heavens and rain started to pour. He quickly buried the head and said a short prayer before he returned to the campsite. He was tired and soaked and he decided to rest for a few hours before he ventured beyond the city walls.
The tents were just as they had left them, with bedrolls and blankets inside. Isaac found one that was dry enough and tried to get some sleep, but it was difficult. The memories still plagued him, cruelly so, and even though he never witnessed anything or even faced the beasts himself, he still feared falling asleep at all.
Instead, he lay listening to the thunder as it rolled over the moors. He tried to devise a plan in his head of how he was going to arrest the Duke. Thus far, he had only thought about returning to this place—he hadn’t thought further than that. In a way, he could barely imagine where he would go for here.
One thing was for sure: firstly, he needed to fill his belly. He had a few pieces of bread and some dried meat in his satchel. Secondly, he needed to retrieve his armour. He never had the time to put it on last he was there. Hopefully, it was still in his tent. The new one was better fitted for his current form, but he would rather have his old armour. Thirdly, he had to figure out how to get into the city in the first place. The gates were closed, and he doubted anyone would let him inside.
He spent a few hours thinking about his plan of action and decided that climbing would be the only way. The Noxborough walls weren’t as high as the ones in Westbridge, and he had climbed those several times during his training years. He was stronger now than when he was a boy, but he was not as nimble.
As the hour had passed midnight, Isaac scoured the camp for some rope and it wasn’t hard to find. He fashioned a fasting hook with some metal scrap that had been left behind—mainly horseshoes and small daggers—and proceeded to toss it over the wall. It was risky, he was well aware. At any time, a guard could come across him and ring the bell. But he had no other option.
He threw the hook a few times before it was finally wedged between the stones in the wall, and Isaac wrapped the rope around his body and arm and began climbing. He had left most of his armour behind, trying to keep the weight down as much as possible, but it was still a gruelling ascent and the stones were wet and slippery.
He was spent once he reached the top of the wall, and he collapsed. His arms and legs hurt and the rain was whipping his face, but he had to move on. No guard seemed to be patrolling the gates and when he stood up and gazed out over the city, he knew why.
It was total and utter chaos. Buildings were burning despite the rain and he heard the distinct sound of fighting and screaming. He was shocked in place, gawking over the scene in disbelief. It was hard for him to see it all, but he could spy the army of large shields with red backs marching towards the hill where the castle rested—but they were not attacking. How many of them were there?
Curious, but cautious, he continued along the wall to get a better look at the situation. There were no guards anywhere atop the wall, and the closer he came to where the fighting seemed to be centred, the clearer it became. It was civilians fighting the guards and each other.
Isaac stood a moment, swaying in the wind, mortified. Such savagery… such madness… there was no doubt in his mind that Noxborough was cursed.
He cast an eye towards the hill and saw a volley of fire shoot down from the fortifications, and he knew there was no chance those gates were going to hold whatever was coming for them.
This was a doomed place, and Isaac had no desire to stay. To the Netherworld with it all, he thought as he made his way back to his rope. He was not going to risk life and limb and an afterlife he barely believed in for a bastard like Arlington, honour be damned.