The Bird and the Beast: VII
The high walls of Westbridge towered before the army of ten thousand grey warriors. They had marched for more than a week, over eighty leagues along the King’s Road across the moors, and finally, they had reached their goal.
The small village outside the walls seemed abandoned—cold and covered in snow. The Vasaath was surprised at how run-down the village appeared, as if the walls closed them out from all the riches that may lie therein.
He dismounted his horse and walked the rest of the way, his hand firmly wrapped around the hilt of his sword. Fire smoke hung heavily like a veil over the land, but there didn’t seem to be a direct source. Something wasn’t quite right.
Gazing up towards the barbican, he tried to spy some soldiers, but the walls seemed completely abandoned. As he approached it, he could see mud by the barred gate, tracks of hundreds, if not thousands, of footsteps.
Looking around, he clenched his jaw and gazed over his shoulder at an officer, Madeth. “They’ve fled to the city.”
The day was strangely quiet—there was no sign of a preparing army inside the city, nor any signs of life whatsoever.
“Do you want us to examine the vicinity, sir?” Madeth asked.
“No,” the Vasaath muttered. “Let us take this city and be done with it.”
“Yes, sir!” The rasaath turned and shouted orders to the men, and his words travelled down the ranks. Soon, men came forwards, carrying ladders and swinging ropes.
The Vasaath kept a watchful eye on the top of the wall—at any second, arrows could appear from the sky and ambush them. But the men scaled the walls within minutes, and as the first handful of soldiers stood at the top and gazed out over the city, one of them turned and called down that the city was empty.
The Vasaath set his brows low. He did not like this. Grunting, he called back, “Open the gates!”
A few more men scaled the walls before they moved the ladders to the other side and descended again. The Vasaath waited for the sounds of battle, wondering if he had forced his men in for slaughter, but there was nothing.
Shortly after, the heavy gates swung open as the city of Westbridge appeared to them. The Vasaath took a deep breath, straightened, and led his men inside. He ordered some of his troops to guard the gates in case the Westbridgers were planning on flanking them, but as he walked into the city, he was baffled by the silence. It seemed entirely abandoned.
As Madeth joined him, the general said, “Spread out. Look for any remaining citizens.”
“Yes, sir!” Again, the rasaath’s orders echoed through the ranks and the troops moved through the city.
The Vasaath stalked forwards, cautiously. The streets were narrow; the city was crowded with houses. It was as though they had tried to fit as many as possible inside the safety of the walls, almost to the point where they built them atop of each other. Most were wider at the top than the bottom, reaching out over the streets and creating strange, wooden underpasses.
Moving along the empty and silent streets, the Vasaath scanned the houses. No smoke coming from the chimneys, no candles lit in the windows—on a cold day like this one, it was impossible to believe the people would survive without proper warmth.
All around him, thousands of soldiers passed through every house there was, but they all came out empty-handed. It was peculiar, eerie.
Someone must have warned them days ahead of their arrival. Had there perhaps been scouts on the moors? But no one had seen a thing, and the snow-covered heights were not easy to travel with greater speed than they had done themselves.
When the Vasaath had made it to a large square where a magnificent stone cathedral reached to the skies, he heard a strange humming. Hymns. He quickly motioned his men to surround the Vault and called for the battering ram to be brought.
When the doors burst open, the singing stopped abruptly as about a hundred pair of eyes gazed straight at the Kas. They were shrieking, crying and snivelling, huddled up against each other.
By the chancel stood and old man with a long beard and a tall hat, and he stood as tall as his frame would allow as he called out, “Begone, Demons of the Netherworld! This is a sacred place of Edred and the Builder shall protect us! Begone, I say!”
The Vasaath tipped his head to the side as he slowly stepped over the threshold and entered the holy space. “Well, why have you abandoned your city to us demons, then?”
The old man stammered but no word escaped him.
The general sighed and gazed around. There were people of all ages inside that cathedral, and all of them were commoners. Perhaps, he thought bitterly, these were left behind when all the others fled.
“See,” called the Vasaath. “I have not turned to cinders. You God has not punished me for entering this holy structure.” He couldn’t suppress a sneer, seeing their terrified faces as they realised their God wasn’t what they thought he was. He hummed. “We can avoid bloodshed. Submit to the Kasenon, and you will live. Refuse, and you shall die.”
The cries and the sobs grew louder but most people fell to their knees immediately.
The man with the long beard, presumably an Architect, gasped and ordered, “Get up! Get up, you cowards! Do not yield to Evil!”
Some of the people seemed confused by this and while some kept kneeling, some remained standing.
The Vasaath glared at the ones resisting him. They had made their choice. Barking at his men, he commanded them to kill those still standing but to spare any child.
Drawing his sword, he strode up the aisle. The people screamed, shrieked, and crawled away from him as he strode past them. Some who had stood before, kneeled at once as he approached them, but some remained standing yet—albeit trembling and faint.
The kasaath came after him, welling in from the sides, and dragged the refusing people away from the chancel and out onto the square where they swiftly decapitated them, one after the other.
The Vasaath glared at the Architect who groaned in horror as his people were being killed outside their holy place.
“Do you yield, old man?” sneered he, but as the bearded man shook his head, the Vasaath gazed around at all the kneeling people and added, “Your sheep seem to be cleverer than their shepherd.”
With that, he grabbed hold of the man’s neck from behind, knocking the hat from his head, and forced him out into the cold sunlight. Blood stained the ground as his men piled the bodies of the freshly deceased and their severed heads.
The Architect groaned, fell to his knees, and vomited. The sun glimmered on the bald centre of the man’s head and his feeble frame shivered violently in the cold.
“You monster!” he sobbed.
The Vasaath tightened his jaw. “Where is Juniper Arlington?”
Surprised, the Architect glanced over his shoulder. Then, he spluttered out a laugh. “The Dukeslayer’s daughter? Yes—I heard about her escape. You should put a leash on those Arlingtons!”
With a growl, the Vasaath slammed his foot into the man’s back, sending him reeling to the ground. “Where is she?”
The Architect groaned, coughed, and whimpered. “I don’t know! I swear by the Builder!”
“So she hasn’t been brought here to pay for her father’s crimes?”
“No!” The man whimpered again and attempted to crawl away as soon as the Vasaath had lifted his foot. “The late Duke still hasn’t been brought justice!”
The Vasaath grunted as he glared down at the man on the ground. “Where is everyone else, then?”
The Architect managed to get on his knees as he crawled further away, but there was nowhere for him to run. Sitting on his knees, he looked up to the heavens and bellowed, “Lord of Lords, forgive me! Forgive my sins! I shall be thy most humble servant if thou let me pass beyond the Void! My time has come, my Lord. I shall see thee in paradise.” The old man stretched out his arms and took a deep, trembling breath.
Biting down hard, the Vasaath swung his sword. The strong, sharp Kasarathi blade cut through the man’s neck as though it was nothing—a tender grass on a vast field—and the body fell limp to the ground. The air steamed around the open wound as hot blood poured into the cold snow.
He wiped the edges on the Architects apparel and sheathed the sword. The day was once again still and quiet.
He gazed around at his men as they dragged the bodies away from the square. About twenty had defined them, but there were many people left alive inside the Vault. He sighed deeply and headed back.
They were all terrified as they sat on the floor. A mother held her two children close, and a man was gripping and old man tightly in his arms—everywhere, people were shuddering and crying. Soldiers stood around them, their shields steadily placed on the stone floor.
Clenching his jaw, the Vasaath said, “You have all submitted, and you will remain unharmed. I am a man of my words.” Walking further in, he glanced about. “Who here can tell me where the others are? Who warned you of our arrival?”
Silence at first, until one of the soldiers noted a man that was cautiously raising his arm.
“You there,” the Vasaath said, “what do you know?”
The man stood on trembling legs, his frame crouched and defenceless. “There—there was a messenger here only a few days ago. Someone knew you lot were coming. The young Duke ordered the city to evacuate.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “And why were you left behind?”
The man swallowed and tears filled his eyes. “We—we didn’t make it. Most of us come from the outskirts of Westbridge. The Duke, he—he ordered the bridge to be burnt. Once we had reached the southern gate, the bridge was already ablaze.”
Grunting, the general began pacing. That drawbridge was their passage to Illyria. Without it, he would have to find another way to cross the wide Dawning River. “Where did that messenger come from? Noxborough?”
“No, milord,” said the man. “It was from Duke Edding, he said. Kingshaven.”
The Vasaath scowled. “Kingshaven? How could they—” But he stopped in the middle of his sentence, feeling a grim fright grab hold of his guts.
His heart raced as he realised that they must have captured Juniper. Knowing she was valuable to him, they must have thought to extort her. But how would she have known of his plans? Of course, she knew a great deal of their military and strategy, but as far as he knew, she was unaware of their plans of expansion.
Garret must have told her, he thought, that weasel. The rage erupted inside of him and he quickly turned to his nearest officer—Kaal.
“We rest here tonight,” he said in Kasoch. “We leave a thousand men to hold the city and to repair that damned bridge. Tomorrow, the rest of us push on to Kingshaven.”
“What about these people, sir?” asked Kaal. “The children?”
“The journey north is long and the weather is bothersome for the little ones,” muttered the Vasaath. “We will move them when the conditions are more favourable.” Kaal bowed and hurried away to spread the word, and the Vasaath turned to the human. “What is your name?”
Sighing deeply, the Vasaath placed a heavy hand atop the man’s shoulder, causing him to gasp and whimper. “You and your family will eat well tonight, Edward Miller. The city is liberated from the greed of your nobles. Sleep in the castle, if you wish. Dress in your Duke’s clothes, I don’t care. Just remember who showed kindness and mercy to you.”
Drilling his gaze into the man’s green one, the man nodded.
The Vasaath gave a short nod before he withdrew to his soldiers. Nightfall couldn’t come quickly enough—if it was only him, he would ride as fast as he could to Kingshaven.
The mere thought of his beloved Juniper imprisoned somewhere, forced to spill their secrets, made his blood boil. He would burn the whole world if he had to just to save her, to have her with him again.
Rasaath – officer; dutiful soldier; true soldier