The Bird and the Beast: XI
The Vasaath was unsure of what he had expected in the first place as the bells of doom chimed over Kingshaven.
The walls of Westbridge could have been a challenge had there been any resistance, but Kingshaven had nothing. Their walls were crumbled almost to dust and there were several openings clearly made by thousands of cattle or sheep going through the rubble for a century or more. He could barely believe this had once been a city of Kings.
It was, however, clear that the people had been warned. As long as he found Juniper, he didn’t care about warning, whether the people ran or fought.
The only fortification they seemed to have was the immense Redstone fortress that towered over the city like a forlorn jewel, and the Vasaath knew that if the Duke of Kingshaven wasn’t as much of a coward as the new Duke of Westbridge, he would remain in his city, either to protect it or to surrender it.
As he and his men made it through the rather quaint city, people either ran from them or kneeled in the snow. The Kas did not engage unless they were attacked, and this seemed to confuse many of the ohkas. Had they expected a merciless slaughter?
Some houses seem to have been empty for at least two days, but most people seemed shocked and horrified to see the mighty warriors marching. He gave his men the same orders—search through every house for people. Nothing would be left unchecked.
Tracks in the snow confirmed the Vasaath’s suspicions, however; hundreds of footprints led them along the pathway up a hill straight to the fortress, and despite the rugged appearance, it did seem sturdy enough to withstand an assault. In fact, it seemed sturdy enough to withstand a full siege.
As they approached the gate, the Vasaath could spy a metal helmet peeking out from the barbican as a soldier slowly rose above the edge. The Vasaath urged Aamos a few steps forwards.
“Surrender this castle and this city, and we won’t kill you,” he called out.
A grumbling voice was heard from the other side as mutterings and curses were spat along the walls. Soon enough, a man with grey, long hair and an unkempt beard leaned out over the walls. “Take your sodding grey asses and get out of my city!”
Glancing upon the apparent Duke of Kingshaven, the Vasaath felt bewildered and unimpressed. He sighed deeply. “We have you surrounded. If you won’t surrender this castle, we will ram the gates and kill you all.”
The old man laughed out loud. “You think you can frighten me? I’ve lived through hundreds of raids and sieges from bandits and the Mountain Folk! Kingshaven have stood for eight hundred years, and it will stand for eight hundred more! We have food to last us an entire year, what have you got?”
The general clenched his jaw as he glared up at the Duke. If Juniper was inside—perhaps a prisoner of the Duke himself—there was little time. They had no siege weapons, no means of effectively breaking a fortress but their numbers and their stubbornness.
Muttering, the Vasaath turned to Kaal. “Take your men and get back to the village below. See if anyone knows a way inside. We don’t have time for a siege. If they defy you, kill them. Spare the children.”
Kaal nodded and ordered his twenty men to turn back.
The Vasaath turned to the Duke. “We will burn this city to the ground. Every house and every farm will be set ablaze unless you yield. Kingshaven might have stood for eight hundred years, but this will be its last day—unless you swallow your pride and submit to the Kasenon, to the Truth.”
But the old man only sneered. “Only a desperate man makes empty threats. There will be no negotiation with you, beast.” And with that, the Duke left the walls.
The Vasaath growled lowly and turned to Madeth. “If he wants to test my resolve, then by all means. Burn the city to the ground, and burn those who resist with it. This land is good farmland, and the city is in the way.”
“Yes, sir!” Madeth nodded and brought the orders further down the ranks.
The Vasaath gazed upon the walls once more before he turned his horse about and headed back to the city below. Kaal and his men had begun the process of interrogating the citizens and it was clear that the rasaath had taken the orders to heart—he left corpses behind, clearly the work of a vengeful spirit.
The Vasaath grunted. He should have known Kaal was still too upset about losing his woman, but it could not be helped. He was a good officer, and he needed people with a thirst for blood.
As he passed a tavern, he witnessed one of his men holding back a woman as she cried at them not to burn the building. The Vasaath pulled the reins and looked at his men.
“Empty this place before you burn it,” he said. “It’s an alehouse. We could drink it tonight.”
The woman only screamed out obscenities and thrashed about, unable to twist herself out of the Kas’s grip. “You heartless, vile, damned monsters! My father is in that building!”
The Vasaath glared at her. Her copper hair was dishevelled, her cheeks and nose were red from the cold and the tears, but her eyes—blue and bright—shone with contempt.
Sighing deeply, he turned his eyes to the soldier and asked in Kasoch, “Did they submit?”
“The girl did,” said the soldier. “But the old man did not.”
The Vasaath nodded, clenched his jaw tightly, and buried his gaze in the girl. “Your father refused to yield. This is the cost of such defiance.”
Her face turned into a scowl. “We have done nothing to you! Nothing!”
The Vasaath frowned softly. “I am sorry. It was your father’s choice, and we will respect it.”
“Please!” howled the woman. “He is old and sick! Please, don’t let him die like this! I beg you! Show mercy!”
The Vasaath furrowed his brows and grunted. Looking at the soldier, he muttered, “Give the man a quick death. Burn the body.” Then he turned his gaze back at the woman. “Say farewell to your father, girl, and do it quickly.”
He urged Aamos on, muttering and growling darkly to himself. He wasn’t a monster. These people brought this on themselves. It was a pointless battle—the Kas were superior in every way, and the idea that the ohkas might prevail was a delusion. If they only submitted, they would live good, worthy lives, but rebellion and defiance were in their blood.
The selfishness of their nature seeped into their rational thinking, leaving them unable to see the truth, and he was tired of teaching them to see. He was no nemethan, no kasethen—he was the Vasaath, the Great Warrior, and they would submit to him or they would die.
His army tore through the city like a storm. They followed their orders and separated those who wanted to submit from those who refused—the former were spared and brought to the large longhouse upon the hill while the latter burnt with the rest of the city.
The Vasaath watched bitterly as the old city vanished in smoke and ash. It was a shame seeing it perish without any protection. It was as though these people didn’t even care. He couldn’t understand how the Free Cities of Nornest wasn’t better prepared—he couldn’t possibly be the only invader to land on these shores? Or was the land so unwanted, so lowly thought of, that no one bothered to even try?
While the flames devoured the vale below them, the Vasaath entered the longhouse. It was crowded with those who did not wish to die. Hundreds were gathered inside—men, women, and children. Most of them sobbed in fear and sorrow.
The Vasaath took a deep breath. “People of Kingshaven!”
The crowd silenced as all their eyes were fastened upon the grey giant that towered over them all.
“I know you are mourning your city, your homes, and your dead. I shall not take that away from you. I respect your grief.” Slowly, he started walking around the building. “Although I know many of you blame your sorrow on us, know this—I gave your Duke a choice. Surrender, or watch us destroy the city. He chose the latter.”
The people were shivering, trembling in their boots, while gazing wide-eyed upon him.
Pointing towards the hill on the other side of the vale, he boomed, “Your Duke has fortified himself inside that castle with your fighting men, most of your provisions, and those lucky enough to be let inside. He damned you. He cast you to the wolves—but the wolves welcome you. You shall never again be hungry, never unsafe, and you shall never again have to fear being abandoned by your leaders. All we demand from you is your obedience and your respect.”
“Where are we going to live?” A woman stood bravely, her hands trembling but her eyes direct. “You’ve burnt our homes!”
“You may choose any city in Nornest,” said the Vasaath. “If you wish to remain here, we will help you rebuild your home.”
“Well, isn’t that just unnecessary, then?” The woman put her hands on her hips. “You burn it just to rebuild it? Doesn’t make sense to me.”
The Vasaath sighed in deep frustration. “Madam, it doesn’t have to make sense to you.”
He glared at her so fiercely, she quickly resumed her seat.
Clenching his fists a few times, he said, “Does anyone know a way inside the fortress? The Duke is closed inside it with food to last him a full year, if he is to be believed. It would be in your interest as well to take the castle.”
“There is a tunnel.” A very thin man rose from the back. He did not seem to be very old, but he had the appearance of an elderly man—clearly, famine and neglect had taken a toll on this poor man.
The Vasaath sneered. “Oh, the Dukes and their tunnels.”
Indeed, there was a tunnel, and the thin man was more than keen to show the Vasaath and his men where to find it. Having recently been falsely accused of thievery, he had been expelled from his work as the Duke’s stable boy—and no one wanted to hire a thief. Revenge on the Duke was thus a burning desire, and the Vasaath would not stop him as long as he benefited from it.
The tunnel was deep within the ground, leading all the way up the hill and inside the fortress. The Vasaath knew he shouldn’t be surprised, but it sickened him to see how deeply embedded running from a battle was in their culture. To deploy the soldiers to stand firm as the enemies assaulted the gates, while the Duke and his family were brought to safety through a tunnel in the ground—pathetic. A leader should stand with his med, the Vasaath thought. Such a disgrace it would be to run.
They had been warned that about a thousand fighting men awaited them—but they were no soldiers. They were farmers, smiths, thatchers; men ordered by their Duke to fight for their city and country, a call they could not refuse.
As the Vasaath and his men snuck up through the cellar, they passed the Duke’s food supply. There was produce everywhere, enough to feed the entire city for a full year. Yet, the Duke had stored it all in his fortress, ready to save only himself and his selected. The rot had rooted itself deep within the very heart of Nornest.
When the assault began, led by the general, it was evident that the men did not fight for their Duke, but for their own lives. Some were clever enough to lay down their weapons, but others fought blindly.
The battle wasn’t a fair one, but neither was it child’s play—Kingshaven’s fighting men had more courage in them than all of the Illyrian soldiers who ran in terror. These men had dedication and conviction, and the Vasaath almost found it regrettable to see so many of them perish. It could, however, not be helped. If they were foolish enough to rush at him with their swords drawn, they would taste his blade and he would have their blood.
The last man fell within the hour. A handful of Kas soldiers had been wounded in the fray, but all in all, it had been a quick affair.
About a thousand nobles and gentry were closed inside the fortress, and when the Vasaath broke down the door to the enormous hall where they were all hiding, a cacophony of chattering suddenly silenced. Seeing the bloodied Kas, they all kneeled in fright—all except for the Duke and his family, and the brave men sworn to protect them with their lives.
The Vasaath cared not of safety or reason as he, fuelled by anger at the injustice, strode up the aisle towards the throne at the farthest end of the massive hall—and the Duke on it. He had his two swords wielded and as the guards attacked him, he let his sharp blades cut them to pieces. Their bodies were so fragile underneath their metal armours.
One by one, the soldiers kept attacking, and one by one, he cut them down. They lacked refined movements, trained reflexes, and strength and stamina. He, on the other hand, was bred for it. He’d had it from the teat, and he was tired of these puny ohkas thinking they could best him.
His rampage, however, came to an abrupt end as the wife of the Duke stood in front of her husband, a sword in her hand. The Vasaath stared at her, at the sword, and was astonished by how steady it was. There was no trembling, no uncertainty.
“One more step, demon, and I will plunge my blade into your heart.” She had the voice of a warrior, as well as the resolve of one.
He gazed at her blade, at her face, and then back at the weapon in her hand. He was impressed and surprised. He had not expected this, not from an Edredian woman, but he would not let her stand in his way. He could tell her to step aside, but he saw in her glare that she would not. It was a warrior’s glare, and he had seen it many times before.
A moment passed when everyone held their breath, waiting for their next move. He was quicker than her, stronger, and with a swift tug, he had disarmed her and flung her to the side. She landed on the stone floor with a loud thud, and a girl quickly joined her—presumably a daughter, or a servant.
Now, nothing was standing between him and the Duke. The old man sat on his throne, his crown resting safely on his head and his hands clutching the armrests.
The Vasaath gritted his teeth. “Your city has been taken, as has your castle. Your men are dead. You have lost.”
“There is no honour amongst demons,” the old man scoffed. “Instead of fighting us head-on, you snuck inside to stab us in the back.”
The Vasaath sneered. “And it was one of your own who showed us the way. You have no loyalty here. You’re like any other Lord of Nornest, greedy and neglectful. I am here to put an end to that.”
Slowly, the Duke finally rose from his chair. Heavy, luxurious robes fell from his shoulders and warm wolf pelts made him look wide and regal, but the Vasaath could perceive a rather broken and frail frame underneath. This man might have been a warrior once, but for whatever reason, his wilting body had surpassed even his age.
He straightened, filled his lungs with the breath of entitlement, and said, “As long as there is life in me, I shall not yield to fiends of the Netherworld such as yourselves.”
“Oh, but you see,” the Vasaath grinned, “that isn’t a problem. I never intended to spare your life. Your people are free to choose whether to submit or die, but you—you have already made your choice.”
“Then give me a sword and face me in combat, beast!” the old man cried.
The Vasaath was quite stunned. More than a thousand eyes watched them in the colossal room, all in breathless silence.
“Father, no!” The girl crouched next to the Duke’s wife gazed upon the man with large, glittering eyes.
The Vasaath glanced at her for a short moment before returning his gaze to the Duke. “Think about your daughter, old man. How do you want her to remember you?”
“If I am to die,” said he, “I will die with honour and earn my place in the White Void.”
The general contemplated this. In truth, he was rather touched. The Duke of Noxborough had boarded himself inside his study, guarded by his elite soldiers, and the Duke of Westbridge had fled the city entirely. He almost expected all the others to be just as cowardly, but this man—however suspicious and negligent he might be—impressed him.
So he nodded. “Very well. Give him a sword.”
A Kas soldier picked up a blade from one of the fallen guards and handed it to the Duke. The man grabbed it, observed it, and took a firmer grip of the handle. It was a familiar grip, an experienced one. Indeed, this man had been a warrior once.
He straightened further, and the frailness seemed nearly gone. With a surprisingly quick and fluent movement, he set his blade to the floor and fell to one knee. Bowing his head, he prayed loudly to the Builder, asking him for strength and courage, before he rose and removed his robes.
He was a meagre man—the expensive tunic hung rather unfittingly from him, as if he had recently lost a bit of girth. When he started moving about, setting his eyes on the Vasaath, the general did the same. To even the odds, he dropped one of his swords. He wasn’t sure he even needed one, but it would be foolish of him to underestimate his opponent.
The Duke took the first swing, taking an impressively long stride. There was strength behind his movements and his form was excellent, albeit a little rusty. The Vasaath recognised his movements from most of the Nornish fighters. They relied too much on the safety of their armour and the weight of their swings and not enough on resourcefulness and agility.
A Kas was nimble and flexible despite his size; since childhood, that had been taught as the difference between life and death. Combined with deadly precision and immense force, a man like the Duke of Kingshaven, no matter his age, would be no match for a Kas warrior.
The Vasaath, however, let the man earn his honour. He let him prove to be a warrior, worthy of respect in the great beyond, and let him die a hero in his daughter’s eyes. When the charade had lasted long enough, the general ended it swiftly by impaling the man’s heart with his blade.
“Walter!” shrieked the man’s wife as a thousand gasps echoed between the walls.
Hanging stiffly on the sword, he coughed, wheezed, and slipped away from this world. The body fell from the blade into a heap on the floor, and the little girl cried out as she ran to his side. Her mother, the wife, tried to stop her but wasn’t quick enough. The girl bawled with her head bowed over her father’s body, her small frame trembling violently.
The Vasaath looked down on her as she hugged her father’s head. With a sigh, he crouched. “Your father was a brave man. It was an honour fighting him.”
The girl looked up at him, her green eyes flooded with tears. She was just a child, frightened and grieving, and the Vasaath frowned. The horrors of war must surely be difficult for a child to comprehend, he thought.
“I know why you’re here,” the girl then whispered, her voice weak.
He frowned. “Do you, now?”
She nodded. “You’re looking for Lady Arlington.”
His body tensed and he stared at the girl.
“If I tell you where she is, will you spare my people?” Wisdom, far greater than her age, flashed before her teary eyes.
“You have my word,” he said and nodded.
She snivelled, gazed down on her father’s face, and gently caressed his bearded cheek. “She’s in Eastshore—or, at least, that’s where she said she was going. She warned us of your arrival, told us that you had thirty thousand men, but no one believed her. Now, we had to pay the price. We should have left when she told us to.” She looked up at him and snivelled again. “The Town Crier received a message of your march three days ago. If you haven’t found her, it’s likely she left then.”
The Vasaath observed her through furrowed brows. He could scarcely believe her words—did Juniper warn them? No, he thought, that could not be true. His Juniper would never betray him like that. And yet…
His heart stilled, hardened—blackened. He hadn’t imagined her gaze through that door, she had been there. She had heard him speak to Kaal that evening, and that was why she left.
Of course. Everything became clear to him—everything. She saw him as a monster, the Demon of the North, who was there to pillage and burn her home. Indeed, he hadn’t truly shown her anything else. Pain, sadness, anger, regret; it all spilt from his heart like a raging storm, but he could not let his emotions out.
“And you think she’s escaped through the mountains?” he asked through gritted teeth.
The girl nodded. “It’s the fastest way to Eastshore. She said—she said she needed to warn them as well.”
“How long is the journey?”
“Ella, be silent! Stop speaking with that beast!” her mother yelled as she rushed towards them—a quick gesture from the general, and his men held her back.
“No, please!” the girl, Ella, cried out. “Don’t hurt her!”
“Your mother is safe,” said the Vasaath. “Tell me, how long does it take to travel over the mountains?”
The girl’s eyes widened as she shook her head. “A week, perhaps more, but m-my lord, you can’t cross it with an army! It-it’s too steep, too tight!”
Narrowing his eyes, he tilted his head. “You’re too wise to lie, so don’t. If it’s the quickest way to Eastshore, why wouldn’t I take it?”
“I’m not lying!” She reached to touch his arm, but stopped herself. “Please, my lord!”
He eyed her carefully—no, there was no lie there. “And what way would you recommend, my lady?”
Her cheeks flushed at his addresses, but she remained gathered. “Go down the marshes, past Riverport, and through the White Hills. It’s twice as long, yes, but it would take you just as long to go through the mountains with your numbers and the road isn’t as perilous.”
He narrowed his eyes again. “Are you sending me the long way around just to spite me?”
“No, my lord!” The girl shook her head.
The Vasaath frowned and nodded. The girl was too young to gamble with her life. “Thank you, Lady Ella. I shan’t forget your wisdom or courage.”
She nodded, her eyes still watery. As the general rose, the girl asked, “Are you going to hurt her? Lady Arlington? Are you going to hurt her once you find her?”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw tightly. If she had willingly left to share their military secrets with their enemies, no matter how noble her intentions might have been, she was a traitor by definition—and a traitor, he could not save. There was only one fate for such a crime, it was known.
He looked down on the girl and sighed. “No. I would never hurt her.”
Kasethen – advisor; seer; “wisdom of the people”
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Rasaath – officer; dutiful soldier; true soldier