The Bird and the Beast: XVII
The stench of death always lingered after a battle. The desperate cries of dying men still resonated from the walls, and the fear still permeated the very air.
They fought well, Riverport. They fought like real soldiers. They didn’t cower in the face of their enemy and they didn’t bow down just because they knew they would die otherwise. They fought to the death with honour, and the Vasaath was impressed.
The Kas had remained in Riverport after the battle. The decision to overtake the city before they marched on Eastshore was a wise one, even if the Vasaath rather wanted to travel east as quickly as possible. He wanted to find his beloved, and he cared not for much else—but his officers made good arguments of taking the city by the river first.
The call had been difficult to make because he knew the longer he waited, the further away she would get. Soon, she would be out of his reach, and that was a thought, a possibility, that destroyed him.
In Riverport, they met more resistance than they had anticipated, and even though their forces were hardly injured, the aftermath was always difficult. Bodies had to be moved from the streets and burned, those who submitted needed to be separated from those who didn’t, and those who didn’t… Killing in battle was never easy, but it was part of it. He was conditioned to do it, do not feel during combat. Execution, however, was always difficult.
The Duke of Riverport had seven children. Six of them were still alive after the battle. One of the sons had fallen to the Vasaath’s blade as he was protecting his father, just before the general had slain the Duke himself—this one had even been brave enough to fight him on the battlefield. Now, the wife, the four daughters, and the two remaining sons sat in the great hall of Moat Mull and awaited their fate, two days after the battle.
When the Vasaath entered the great hall and saw the children sitting there, the eldest barely eighteen, he felt sorrow. As he approached them, the mother stood in front of her little ones, frightened and brave.
“Please, my lord,” said she. She was trembling, on the verge of tears. “Do not hurt them! They have never done anything! They’re innocent! Only my eldest partook in the fighting, these did not.”
The Vasaath furrowed his brows and eyed them all. “I believe you.” He sighed and put his arms behind his back. “I know it must be frightening to be where you are now.” Tipping his head to the side, he approached a little girl who hid behind her mother. He crouched down. “What is your age, little one?”
The girl clung to her mother’s skirts and held the fabric safely at her nose. Then she carefully raised a hand and showed four tiny fingers.
“Only four?” The Vasaath nodded. “And already so brave?”
She moved closer to her mother and hid herself completely behind the skirts.
The Vasaath sighed and rose. “The children will be safe. The older ones will have to submit, of course, but the young ones won’t be harmed.”
“Th-they all submit,” the woman breathed and looked around at all her children. “Won’t you, my darlings?”
“But, Mother—” started the eldest boy, but the woman silenced him.
“No, Uriah,” said she, her voice thick. “This is the way. Your father and your brother tried to stop them, but it would not do. We lost the battle. An honest defeat is just as honourable as a victory.” She looked at the general, her face pale, and bowed deeply. “I submit, my lord.” Soon, all the children followed suit—even the littlest.
The Vasaath nodded, thankful he wouldn’t have to behead a child that day. “I’m glad to hear it.” Sighing, he gazed around. “My lady, we need a place for the civilians. Many houses were destroyed in the fray. They are in shock and they will need warmth and food. This seems like a good place. I will task you with being in charge. I’m sure the people will find comfort in that.”
The woman’s eyes widened and she curtsied deeply. “Of course, my lord. Thank you!”
He nodded. “What is your name, my lady?”
“Duchess Emily,” said she as she straightened.
The Vasaath bowed in respect. Then he crouched again to look at the little girl. “And what is your name, little lady?”
Clutching tightly at her mother’s skirts, the tiny voice was muffled as she spoke.
“Go ahead, darling,” said the Duchess and placed a hand on the child’s head.
The girl looked up, dropped the fabric, and gazed at the Vasaath. Her large, brilliant eyes glittered with fear and uncertainty. They were the colour of the moon, and for a brief moment, a vision of a small child with silver eyes and dark, flowing hair appeared in the depth of his mind, like a distant dream—or a future long gone.
He felt bewildered by it, stunted, but he steeled himself. This little girl was no mirage, but real, and there was also the relentless curiosity of a child in her eyes—surely, a man like the Vasaath was a strange sight to behold.
She swallowed. “I am Lady Cornelia, my lord.” An unsteady curtsy and a speech still in development, but the Vasaath couldn’t help but smile, just a little.
He bowed. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Cornelia. Now, I know I must be a terrible creature for you to meet, but I know you are a brave girl. I’m sure you’ll be of great help to your mother.”
“Do you eat children, sir?” the girl suddenly asked.
The Vasaath furrowed his brows and chuckled. “Only on a full moon.”
Of course, the child did not recognise the jest and yelped as she dived behind her mother’s skirts again, and the Vasaath rose. A peculiar feeling itched at the back of his mind, one that made him feel quite uncomfortable.
“You have a fine family, Duchess Emily,” said he. “Make sure you cherish it before the placements.”
Seeing the confusion in the mother’s eyes, he turned to leave. There was a strange ache in his heart he could not understand, but he knew he could not bear to face little Lady Cornelia’s large grey orbs as the family understood that the children would have to be separated from their mother.
The feeling was gone once he entered the streets again. Mourning civilians wailed as they walked amongst their dead and pulled at the bodies as the Kas moved them onto carts. Inconsolable, broken-hearted, their cries filled the air of the dark afternoon. The Vasaath strode past them all and up to Madeth and Kaal as they oversaw the procedure.
“Great Warrior,” they both greeted.
“How is everything going?”
“We have found about two hundred injured ohkas, sir,” said Madeth. “They are being cared for. The rest are presumed dead or defected.”
The Vasaath nodded. “And the people?”
“Most of them have submitted,” said Kaal. “About a hundred did not. We took them outside the city gates and strung them up in the trees.”
The Vasaath snatched his head at the soldier. “You hanged them from trees?”
Kaal shifted as he stood, clearly nervous. “Yes, sir. It was faster.”
Sighing deeply, the Vasaath pinched the bridge of his nose. “I hope you cut them down?”
Kaal glanced at Madeth and cleared his throat. “No, sir, not yet. We—we thought it would be a warning.”
“To whom?” the Vasaath grunted. “The farmers?”
“There might be rebels, sir,” muttered the rasaath. “We are close to Illyria. Should they attempt to claim the city from us, they should see what we do to our enemies.”
The Vasaath glared at the young soldier. “Those people were not the enemy, Kaal. They were civilians. They did not fight us, did they? They denied us, and for that, we granted them death. Stringing them up, displaying their bodies like that—it only makes us look like savages.” He sighed deeply. “Take them down and burn them.”
“But, sir, at the Night of the Demons, you—”
“I did what I had to given the situation!” barked the Vasaath. “You weren’t there, rasaath, so don’t presume you know my intentions.”
“Of course, Great Warrior,” mumbled the soldier and bowed. “Forgive me. We shall take them down at once.”
“Do it quickly,” muttered the general. “There are children here.”
Kaal nodded and scurried away, and the Vasaath glared at Madeth.
“Did you know he would do that?”
“No, sir,” said the officer. “But he’s young, inexperienced. He’ll learn.”
“He’d better.” Grunting, the Vasaath started down towards the river, beckoning the officer to follow. “Riverport got its name from the clever use of the widest part of the Dawning River. Here, they can deploy larger vessels and carry more shipment. They have regular ferry traffic between here and Illyria—the port on the other side is only a few miles from Woodsborough, a trading town, as I understand it.”
He hurried through the city and down to the water, making the officer nearly have to trot to keep up.
“There’s, however, close proximity to the training grounds of the Illyrian army, as well,” said the Vasaath. “In that, Kaal was right. We need to figure out what to do. They could attack us from the river and we need to prevent that.”
“What is your suggestion, sir?”
The Vasaath pondered for a moment, letting his eyes sweep across the dark waters. At it’s widest point, the river was so wide, it was more like a giant lake, or a small sea—nearly sixty miles. To protect the city from an attack, they would need ocean vessels, warships.
“Someone of the survivors must have knowledge about the city’s fortifications,” said the general. “They have trouble with bandits; in a mass of water this size, those bandits are more likely pirates. There should be some kind of trebuchets.” He turned to Madeth. “The Duke must have had advisors and chancellors. Find them, if there’s anyone still alive. If not, ask the smiths, the woodworkers, and the sailors. Someone must know something.”
“Yes, sir,” said Madeth and nodded. “And what about our progress? Should I ready the soldiers for departure any day soon?”
The Vasaath crossed his arms. “Three cities in little less than a month, that’s not bad. But it is exhausting. Let’s camp here for a few days.”
“Yes, sir.” The rasaath shifted a bit, furrowed his brows, and took a deep breath. “My lord, what about the ohkasethen? The last trace says she is in Eastshore. Do you still think she has been taken?”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw rightly. Slowly, he shook his head. “She was never taken.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
Looking at the officer, the Vasaath sighed heavily. “She betrayed us. She warned the cities of our arrival, prepared them for our numbers. Who knows what else she’s told them?”
Madeth seemed utterly shocked. He had been with the general since the very beginning and had known the lady from the start. “Are you certain, my lord?”
“I know it,” muttered he. “I can feel in my heart.”
Madeth cleared his throat and dropped his gaze. “It is regrettable. I know that you had a special bond with the girl. Most of us do.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes, surprised, and then he grunted. “I suppose I wasn’t as good at hiding it as I thought I was.”
Gently, the officer shook his head.
“So, tell me,” the Vasaath muttered. “What do the men say of it? Am I a deviant? Do you all laugh at me behind my back? Am I less of a Vasaath because of it?”
Madeth carefully looked up. “My lord, you are the greatest Vasaath we’ve had in generations. None within the Saathenaan judges you, sir. You travelled here without a vas-maasa, and the girl is—” He bit his tongue and looked away.
The general huffed. “She is beautiful, yes. Alluring. There is no shame in admitting it. That may have been what enticed me, but it’s not what made me break the rules.” He shook his head. “There’s something in her spirit, something beyond reason. I cannot explain it, but it has captured me, and I can’t let go.” Grunting again, he started back towards the castle. “It doesn’t matter. A traitor is a traitor. My feelings cannot get in the way of that.”
“But, my lord,” said Madeth as he hastily followed, “do you truly believe treason was her intention?”
“Not at all. She knows very well the people of Nornest can’t defeat us in combat—she probably just wants as many as possible to flee or to lay down their weapons. But even if her intentions are good-hearted in nature, there is no guarantee that those who receive the information won’t act on it in ways that would jeopardise our conquest, and she is intelligent enough to understand that.”
“So we should go to Eastshore, then?” asked Madeth. “We should find ohkasethen Juniper before she speaks to the wrong people?”
“She has already spoken to the wrong people, Madeth,” said the Vasaath. “And if she’s wise, she has kept moving.” He tried to ignore the pressure he felt on his heart, the tearing pain that ripped him apart from the inside, as he marched through the streets. “Eastshore has a sea harbour, leading into Edred’s Deep. Across it, there’s Varsaii and Tallis. If I were her, I would have boarded a ship and left all this behind—she knows the price of treason.”
“But, my lord,” Madeth said carefully, “your ambition is to find her, is it not?”
The Vasaath was silent for a moment, trying to still his emotions. He would tear through every city in the entire world to find her; he would burn every house, kill every man and woman, if it would lead him to her. Yes, indeed, his ambition was to find her, even if he had to die and be reborn as a true Demon to do it—but he knew he could not.
“Yes,” he then said, “but we have more important things to think about at this very moment. I will find her, sooner or later.”
During the next few days, the Vasaath fell into a deep sadness, one he neither understood nor knew how to be rid of. He made sure not to reveal his inner turmoil to his men and went about his business as usual—but it felt as though he was dying on the inside, as though he was standing on the precipice of abyssal darkness. One step, and he would fall.
He kept seeing his Juniper on a ship to Varsaii, and kept fearing that she would be relieved. Moreover, he kept seeing the little child in his dreams, the child that had her eyes, the child that looked upon him with complete love and trust.
At times, he saw his Juniper in the arms of another man, carrying and happy, and it was a thought that made him so devastated, he was overwhelmed by tears. It was beyond his understanding and it made him question his own sanity and his capabilities as the leader, the symbol of strength, his people needed and deserved.
He saw his men excel in their duties—devoid of complex feelings, but not without compassion. They acted as he should, but he could only pretend.
About a week after their triumph, however, Madeth brought a message to the Vasaath. It bore the sigil with the Two Mountains, the Gate of Black and White. Without much expectations, he broke the seal and read the scroll.
At first, he couldn’t quite understand the message. He could read the letter well enough, read the words, but the meaning; The Duke of Ravensgate was inviting him. The soldiers would not take up arms against him, and the Duke was going to surrender the city. As a token of his goodwill, he even had a gift for him. Without any demands of a monetary reward, the Duke was going to hand over Lady Juniper Arlington, the traitor.
He read it several times, and each time, it was as though the sadness was steadily chipped away. His heart awoke with a shudder, he stepped away from the precipice, and he was filled with determination.
Raising his gaze at Madeth, he said, “Ready the Saathenaan and our fastest horses. We leave for Ravensgate tomorrow at dawn.”
“Yes, sir,” said Madeth. “But sir, why only the Saathenaan?”
The corner of the general’s mouth twitched as he said, “We are going to retrieve a lovely gift from the Duke.”
Ohkas – (oh ma-kas); stranger; “not of Kas”; “not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Rasaath – officer; dutiful soldier; true soldier
Saathenaan – elite warriors; “deepest strength”
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”