Just a quick word before we start dear reader.
Thank you for reading my novel-in-progress, I hope you have as much fun reading it as I do writing it.
There will be blood, swearing and sex, if you aren't offended by these then please, by all means, read onward.
Without any further ado, let us begin....
Before the creation of the universe the King of the Gods; Zenardi, battled Aetheron for control of the future. Using underhanded tricks Aetheron was able to sneak within Zenardi’s Palace and kill his son Hughmes. To prevent his wife, Fertilia, from suffering such loss Zenardi created twelve more children from the broken body of Hughmes. He deposited these children within his flagon, carving a land for them to live upon and an ocean to provide a bounty of food. He gave this flagon of life to Sentinel, the eternal dragon and asked him to fly forever with the flagon in his grip, keeping it safe. This would become known as the First Watch of the Sentinel.
The crowd's cheer held nothing in its cadence for me bar the bitter chant of death. I could feel it creeping toward me with its tendrils extended, clawing at my legs and through my skin toward my heart. I took a ragged breath and promised myself I would not die today. I had killed men before, been in many battles and survived them all. This would be no different.
The atmosphere held the horrific chill only certain death can cause. I gripped tight the short sword that sat across my legs and tried not to let it cause me more dread. The stench of vomit and faeces sat upon the air as I looked down the row of men sitting beside me. For each and every one the look was the same, a sweaty mix of hate and fear. Our rebellion had failed; our last chance for freedom and justice gone. The champions of such ideals now sat in silence as they shat themselves hearing the cries of their brothers above calling for blood.
“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” asked Brighten.
His small frame was quivering with fear and his youth seemed ill fitting of the battle hardened company he was with. I thought on the simple question. It felt strange to think that I was included in the statement, surely this could not be the end of my life. I had killed more than I cared to remember, I had been injured from scrapes to deep gushing cuts, but death, that was always something that happened to someone else. A hot flush ran to my cheeks as I tried to find the words to reply. I looked into his pleading eyes, he wanted me to tell him it would be alright, yet we both knew it wouldn't. Not one to lie I did the only thing I could, I swallowed my stomach that once more tried to climb out my mouth and told him the truth.
“Most definitely yes,” I replied, his lip trembled and he glanced away in a panicked dread. I knew in this moment he needed me to be strong, so I added tenderly,“But the fear you are feeling is not for death, but for the unknown.”
“What difference does that make?”
“One needs to know what they fear before they can conquer it. You know I don't believe in the gods, so do not look to them for mercy. When we get up there, stand tall and stand together, make sure these people never forget our names.”
A moment passed before he whispered sadly, “I’m still afraid.”
I thought on it for a moment before I nodded, “So am I, and there is no shame in that,” a thought tugged at my mind and I couldn't help but smile, "At least we'll never have to put up with Moore's cooking again."
I looked at Moore, his face was covered in dried mud and his long hair billowed messily from his head. It took a moment before the same fatalistic humour gripped him and he grinned and nodded, "I never knew beef could taste so bad."
The room was momentarily filled with a somewhat deranged chuckling as those who were about to die sought an emotion beyond despair.
The heavy thudding of armored soldiers silenced our humour, the sound was abruptly followed by the jangle of keys. I looked up at the bars and the somewhat weedy soldier who opened the gate into our cell.
“Time to go boys,” he said with a sneer.
The seated bodies-to-be looked at one another and then to me. I felt a warm trickle of appreciation that despite all they still looked toward me as their leader. I nodded once, gravely, before standing and leaving the cell.
The men followed quickly behind me. We walked down an unadorned corridor of plain sandstone; at convenient lengths burned steady torches upon the wall, lighting our last march. Above us the crowds cheer grew and subsided like the lapping of waves against a shore.
Hopelessness nestled within me as we walked past now empty cells. They had been only temporary holdings for our kin, transported here early in the morning from the prison camp established just outside the Capital.
The panicked energy of fear hung upon the air as we entered a cavernous room. Sand filtered between cracks in the wooden roof as it creaked and shifted with the stomping mass of the crowd, cheering over more blood spilled. Lining the walls were Republican soldiers, clad in the same dark blue armor as our guards. Their helmets and armor shone brilliantly with polish, the blue plumes lifting from the top of their helmets were fresh and well cared for; had they been my squad I would’ve commended them.
As we entered the centre of the room we were commanded to halt. Opposed to the corridor this room was not entirely made of the sandstone brick that was so commonly used in the capital. Here the floor was marble, the walls adorned with the shields of fallen gladiators. To my left was a barred steel door; to my right, a heavy wooden gate. It was this which I turned to face; a man staring at his destiny.
The weedy guard stood before the gate and looked down upon us from the ramped walkway toward it.
“There is no glory in rebellion, in thieving the lives of good honest Republicans, so the death you shall certainly face is too good for the likes of you,” The man seemed overly pleased with himself, “Still, I have my orders. Pray to Aetheron or whatever your demon gods are, for the end is nigh upon you.” He made a gesture to one of the guards who promptly banged on the wooden gate.
A short moment later there was a resounding thud, and the gate lifted with a shuddering that echoed throughout my mind.
As a boy I had been told about the Arena in Avalon; the descriptions always went to its size and grandeur. What I found as I walked out of the room and into the centre of the oval stadium, was how claustrophobic it was. I had been told there was a certain comradery in going to watch the criminals spill their blood upon the sand. The faces that screamed and cheered toward me from the three tiers of seats showed nothing but this blood-lusting brotherhood. Wherever I looked there was not a kind face; the very walls seemed to turn on me. I could not tell whether it was the claustrophobia I felt or the sand in the air but it became increasingly difficult to breathe.
The sound of one of my men vomiting beside me brought me from my panic. I looked into his eyes as he stood, embarrassed, and could see my horror reflected within them. I swallowed, which was no easy task, and rallied my spirit. I needed to be strong for me men.
“Form up,” I barked.
Several of them jumped in surprise, but through habit or training they formed a line beside me.
“Do not fear their swords, fear only dying with your blade unbloodied, for I shall have words with you in the next life!” I shouted my words over the roar of the crowd.
A niggling detailed jumped at me from the mass of plebians cheering and I turned to face it. It was a man and woman, screaming and hollering at me while simultaneously engaged in eachother's bodys. Their hands clawed at one another with an admirable passion yet not once did they take their eyes off me. Somewhat disconcerted I pulled my attention from the strange view and returned it to the arena and my immediate situation.
"Fucking animals," I muttered.
From across the arena another wooden gate opened and from it strode several men. My heart sank and I heard a gasp beside me. Our opponents moved with the intensity that is so often born in those who know how to kill and do it well. They stood a head taller than our tallest man and were each as wide as a gate. Their strong, lengthy arms were battering rams; their legs as powerful and muscular as a horse. It was not just their size that made them so imposing, but rather the horrid, motley array of thick black bark that armoured their skin and made them look like demons coming to claim their prey.
“Barbarians,” hissed Moore down the line.
"To have barbarians in the capital is madness," Observed Brighten.
I shared the outraged opinions of my brethren. Barbarians shared a single mind, each one connected to the next. To keep these barbarians in the capital was to allow every barbarian in Arden's Stone to see the arena through their eyes, to hear every word through their ears. It was an incredible risk for security, one idle discussion by careless guards of the rebellion and suddenly every barbarian knows how the Republic has been weakened.
For the most part they did not seem interested in listening to the conversations of those around them, to my dismay they only had eyes on us. They did not carry swords, only axes and clubs, and they each bore a feral smile exposing their teeth which had been sharpened to points. As they grew closer and their shadows begun to creep over our feet, they fanned out.
“Don’t let them get behind us, form a circle!” I commanded, hoping that no one noticed the quavering of my voice.
The barbarians circled us with vicious anticipation. One of them said something to another in a rough dialect I did not understand. The other nodded and then turned to look at a raised wooden platform that jutted forth from the crowd. Above the platform was a elaborate red and yellow canvas that protected its richer inhabitants from the harsh warmth of the sun.
The men and women who were seated in this segregated area were of a calmer disposition than their poorer comrades who cheered and hollered. The colours of their dresses and tunics were the richest and most intricate one could afford, and from more than one person did the sunlight glint from extravagant jewels. Standing on the edge of the platform, in brilliant white robes were several men of the Senate.
From the way they angled their heads and laughed when he spoke there was but one who commanded the group’s respect. He stood in the middle of the men, his black hair cut short like a soldiers, and his entire bearing reflected a similar military upbringing. It was this man who nodded his head to my opponent, in silent command to begin my execution. The barbarian spun his attention back to me.
A quiet moment passed where nothing but the thumping of my heartbeat held my attention, then with a shrill howl they set upon us. My tired and defeated limbs suddenly sprang forth with energy as he closed the distance toward me. Thoughts clawed at me for attention, springing various options of defense toward me, however without a shield I found my choices limited. I made my peace with death before raising my sword to parry the incoming attack.
His club smashed into my sword with such force that it traveled up my arm and jarred my shoulder. The strength with which he hit was terrifying. I ducked his other arm as it came around, attempting to seize me by the neck. Behind me I heard a cry and felt a warm liquid splash against the back of my head yet I could pay it little attention. Realizing I could not hold my position against his strength, I waited for him to swing his club once more before I dived forward in a clumsy roll past his legs. In the tiny moment it took him to turn and face me I hacked at his hamstring.
He gave a resulting roar of pain and fell on one knee. Trying to ignore the cowardice I felt in my stomach, I grabbed his head and prepared to slice his throat. I had underestimated him, and with a grip like a hunting dog’s jaw he grabbed my arm and threw me over his shoulder. I landed on my back, the wind suddenly taken from my lungs. I stared up at the sky and marveled at its blueness; there was not a single cloud to mar its view.
I thought of the many afternoons I used to steal for myself as a child, sitting in the grassy fields by the forest and staring up at the sky, wondering as only a child could at life’s certainties.
My vision was suddenly filled with angry barbarian as he crawled over me and made to gouge my eyes out. My hand groped vacantly in the sand looking for the hilt of my sword. The pressure behind my eyes was just reaching breaking point and the cry emanating from my lips, when my hand felt the familiar leather grip. It took only a moment for me to plunge what I knew to be the tip of my sword under my assailants jaw and into his brain.
I crawled out from under the wreckage of his body that sagged atop me. Wiping at my eyes everything seemed bright and blurred; I could only make out dark shadows fighting one another. My eyes haltingly began to clear themselves just in time to see an axe flung in my direction. I dropped to the ground with the grace of a stone and once more found it difficult to breathe. Pushing myself to my feet I found that it was only Moore and I left. He fought three of the barbarians as another two closed in on me. I stole a moment to look at the slain bodies of my men. Anger and regret welled within me, taunting each other like circling mountain cats. It took but a moment before the emotions flung themselves together, biting and scratching, and in a brief solid movement anger seized regret’s throat, and I was filled with rage over my fallen men.
I bellowed with what little air was in my lungs and lifted the axe that lay in the sand near me. This time I brought the battle to them. I heaved the heavy weight of the axe, allowing its inertia to carry my body where it may. With my lighter sword I protected any opening the swinging axe caused. I was able to cut a hefty slice in the side of the weapon-less barbarian, and the other became so busy avoiding my attacks that he had no time to counter.
I kept up my dizzying display of twirling weapons until my sword struck one of the thick bark pads of the barbarian and lodged itself there. Unable to pull it free, I had to release it or lose my arm to the now swinging club that closed upon me. With nothing but the heavy axe to defend myself I was too slow, too weak to hold both barbarians at bay. They advanced on me until my back was against the wall. The thundering crowd above me peered over the sides to watch them wring the life from me.
“Alarik!” I looked over at Moore just in time to see his chest burst open with an axe that went straight through him. The other two barbarians likewise plunged their weapons into what was left of his body, decimating any remnants of the man I had shared many a drink and tale with.
I swung my axe in anger but my strength began to desert me and the barbarian grabbed my arm, flinging me away from the wall towards the centre of the arena. I fell to the ground, the axe now in the hands of he who had flung me.
I tried to get to my feet but found myself unable as a barbarian stood above me, pushing me down with the head of his axe. His comrades closed in on me and I felt panic grip my stomach.
This is it, I thought to myself, wondering how I could be killed in such an unceremonious fashion.
I looked up at his face and surprisingly found him not even looking at me. His eyes stared up at the box of nobles, the Senators still standing at the forefront. I also looked up at them from my vantage point on the ground. The lead Senator looked down upon me, his hand resting atop his wine goblet. I could tell he looked at my face. The crowd hushed to see what his decision would be. Would his thumb point toward the heavens in mercy, or toward the underworld in punishment?
I watched as his arm lifted into the air, his hand seemed to hover for an eternity, deciding whether death should claim me.
I could feel the blood rushing through my veins; the sound filled my ears and continued to grow in volume until it blotted out any sense of fear I held. The sky seemed to grow dark and bleary and my last thought was the bitter disappointment that I would miss my own execution, and then I passed out.
The beginning of the Ninth Watch of the Sentinel saw an ever growing void between the plebeian classes and those of Noble birth. The increase in taxes on the lower classes bought about more civil unrest. However things did not get violent until Pro-Venit Theodorus killed the heir to his title, without a Pro-Venit many, especially the more superstitious lower classes felt themselves cursed. The Border States were quick to secede from the Republic, recalling all their soldiers from current campaigns. The Senate refused to recognise the Independent States and instead began a bloody campaign to bring them to heel. The Rebels fought valiantly and for the first two years held the upper hand in terms of victories. However with fewer soldiers to defend the Outer States from Barbarian attack many villages began to be plundered and shortages of supplies became a large issue for the Rebels. Lead by Arlem Thalnaire the Rebel army seized Bronze Gate and marched upon Avalon; the Capital of the Republic. Through a miscommunication the Rebel forces were marched directly into a Republican ambush. The ensuing battle was a slaughter seeing most of the Rebels dead or captured. Without Arlem to lead them the Rebel states were quick to fall back under the rule of the Republic.
My consciousness was dragged from darkness and back into reality by the iced bucket of water that had now drenched my blood soaked clothes. I groaned and sat up slowly, my head throbbed and I felt the stinging pain of several cuts on my body. To my surprise my head was still attached to my shoulders. Blinking several times I tried to clear my head but was unable to, within a moment I felt the familiar pang in my stomach before I lurched its contents on the floor beside me.
As I wretched I could hear a door close and then footsteps fade, slowly I pulled myself from clearing my stomach and I soaked in my surroundings finding them to be that of a cell. I could still hear the roar of the crowd above me and I closed my eyes to steady my dizziness. Behind my eyes in the dark reprieve bought me nothing but flashes of angry faces all desiring my blood.
I opened my eyes to stare at the flexing wooden boards above me.
They’re all dead, I thought to myself bitterly, I swore I would protect them and now they’re all gone, why am I still alive?
A wave of guilt ran through my body as if my very insides were disgusted with me. I thought of Garrick, Blight and Moore, each one had saved my life a dozen times in the heat of battle, each one had been like a brother to me. I thought of Moore’s children, Fennick’s Wife and little Brighten’s mother, I could almost see the betrayal on their faces when I returned and they did not.
The bond forged in battle with the men beside you goes deeper than blood. I felt like a coward sitting there in the luxury of my cell. I clenched my eyes closed and steadied my throbbing head with a strong hand, revelling in my woes was not going to help me in my current situation, I needed something to distract myself.
I stood slowly, wondering how long I had been unconscious as my stiff muscles flexed. I walked to the barred door and peeked out, there was no one nearby, no indication of what was to be done with me. I spent several moments rattling the iron door testing its weak points. I sighed in exasperation when none were to be found.
Resigning myself to a lengthy wait I returned to the wooden bench, the only comfort of the cell, and proceeded to lay down in the hopes my muscles would stop hurting. Feeling the wood beneath me made me more homesick than I can remember. The smell of freshly cut oak, the feeling of the axe in my hands and the yell of my step-father as the tree lost its footing and crashed to the forest floor. The soft whinnies of Crema as we harnessed the log to her and led her back home. It was a more simple life for a more simple time. Before the war had begun I had hoped to make enough from our logging business to build my own house in the woods. Tranquility was something I always sought, I did not mind the company of people but given a choice I preferred to sit alone with my thoughts. When loneliness did set in I could always wander down from home into the humble township of Spurn. The fire in the tavern burnt year round to stave off the cold of the north and there were always interesting folk passing through. How I missed that tavern now, missed the years when I was but a boy and all seemed so fun and light.
My thoughts were interrupted by boots stomping toward the cell. I sat up somewhat annoyed that my rest had been interrupted. As they drew nearer I heard voices speaking, “…A bad idea sir. He’s nothing more than a lowly rebel, he’d sooner slice your throat.”
The man chuckled, “My throat is no stranger to danger, you forget who I sleep next to all night.”
“Must you make light of everything Magnus?” asked a third voice.
“Only things that are funny, which cell is he in?” asked Magnus.
“This one up here sir,” replied the first voice, who I took to be the weedy guard who had spoken to us before our fight.
There was a moment of silence and then, “Prisoner, step away from the door.”
I obeyed the instruction, a moment later the door swung inward and the guard stepped in, a short sword in his hand. After it became clear I wasn’t going to attack him he stepped to the side and two more men walked in. The first was a tall man in resplendent golden armour; he held his helmet in one hand while the other was tightly gripped around a dagger sheathed at his waist. He bore the sturdy face of a battle hardened soldier and from the golden armour I deduced him to be a guard to the Remnar House.
The next man who entered was the same I had seen standing at the platform in the arena. He held an air of command and power about him and I felt likewise pacified by his commanding gaze. He wore a white senate robe fastened with a golden sash. Hanging at his neck was a silver pendant displaying an eagle in mid dive.
When he spoke his pace was deliberate and calm, his voice strong and deep and each word commanded my attention, “That was a very good fight, you handled yourself remarkably well, although it was a futile effort.”
“I’m still alive, I must’ve done something right,” I retorted jutting out my chin.
The guard’s eyes boggled at my disrespect and quick as a flash he darted in and smacked me across the face with the flat of his blade. I stood slumped for a moment and winced at the small slice on my cheek. Slowly I summoned my courage and stood tall once more, each muscle screamed in protest but I ignored them all, I would not cower.
When I looked at Magnus I was surprised to see a small smile playing upon his lips, “You have much spirit Alarik, I can respect that in a man however I need to know, do you want to live?”
I looked at the three men then and gauged the question, I knew the honourable thing to do would be to reply no, that I should join my men but within me my heart kept beating and my mind kept thinking. There was a soft breeze that moved through the cell and it made the hairs on my arm stand, despite all I had been through, to feel such a pleasant sensation it seemed a waste to follow them to the grave.
“I do, yes,” I replied somewhat sullenly.
Magnus smiled, “Good, you’re not so much a coward as to hide behind your honour. Tell me, do you know who I am?”
I nodded, “You’re Magnus Remnar, Senator and General, you lead the campaign against the Rebellion.”
“You know much for a foot soldier.”
“I was a sergeant, the men who died today were my brothers, my men.”
“From one military man to another let me advise you, a good commander loves his men, a great commander loves them enough to let them go.”
“I’ve never wished to be great sir,” I replied with a shrug.
“Well be it fortune or fate, you have been chosen. I have shown you mercy in the arena, I could’ve taken your life with a twitch of my thumb, instead however I find myself in need of a man such as yourself,” he sat with an exhalation, “The Republic is damaged, you and your Rebellion saw to that as much as the late Pro-Venit Theodorus.”
“Theodorus is dead?” I asked surprised.
Magnus smiled, “Rumour has it Rebel sympathizers assassinated him. Tell me, if the Rebellion had succeeded how were you going to govern the Republic?”
“I’m not certain, I was a sergeant not privy to the war councils of our leaders.”
He chuckled and the sound echoed in the small room, “A sergeant who doesn’t know what he was fighting for.”
“I was fighting for freedom.”
“No, no you weren’t,” Said Magnus knowingly, he placed a hand on the bench indicating I should sit, I did not refuse, “If the Rebellion had succeeded they would’ve been crushed beneath the same pressures that crush the Senate currently. A change of government does not change the problems you are faced with. The Republic is vast, the exterior threat of the Barbarians and the Free Cities forever pushing at our borders, to push back requires soldiers, and soldiers require food and coin. Which are taken through taxes, the more soldiers the more taxes, yet those living in the heartland cannot see why they should pay taxes for cities that are leagues away. The Outer Cities cannot see why their food is pillaged when soldiers from the inland are stationed there. The burden is too great and every one suffers. You think the Rebellion could’ve solved any of these issues? This is just border protection let me remind you, there are also other Political threats, there’s the growing costs of education and there’s the ever constant and ever useless demands of the Religious sect. Cannot you see that even under the Rebellion you would’ve stilled paid taxes, still been required to enlist when we needed more troops and still have had to offer food up for the garrisoned troops? Nothing would’ve changed.”
I sighed and shook my head, “I’m sure they must’ve had a plan.”
“You mustn’t think of politics and command like a soldier, use your head, you know it wouldn’t have helped.”
“I didn’t fight because of taxes I fought for freedom from a corrupt and uncaring government.”
“Ah, a noble sentiment, but a foolish one, corruption is simply just another avenue involved in governing. There are rules to corruption and through it many things can be achieved faster than without its existence. It’s an ugly truth but a truth nonetheless. I suspect it would’ve only been a few months before the Rebel leaders gave in to corrupt desires of personal gain,” he silenced my protest with his hand, “It’s simply human nature to reach above our station. You cannot say that you agreed wholeheartedly with everything the Rebellion did, surely there must’ve been doubts. What of the sacking of Verillion Castle and the butcher that occurred there? Or the mass rape in Bluesea Bay? These were not moral acts.”
“I had no part in either of those.”
“No, but you cannot deny that the power the Rebellion amassed wasn’t used entirely for the good of the common people.”
With a stubborn defiance I tried to see the flaws of his argument. My frustration increased as none were readily available, “Then my men died for nothing, the men I have killed died for nothing, what was the point in any of it then?” I asked defeated.
“Not for nothing no, when a Senate was deaf to your pleas you took matters into your own hands and joined a cause you believed in. Don’t be fooled however, the Rebellion was never about freedom, it was always one man’s war against a Senate who had snubbed him. Do you know why Arlem Thalnaire hated the Republic so?”
I shook my head.
“He hated the Republic as he hated the Senate. Not for any philanthropic desires but because they had refused to legitimise his bastard son. His wife was barren and he had sought the comforts of another, when she had given birth to a son, he was consumed by the desire to see his legacy continued on the shoulders of that son.”
“The Rebellion started in Ander’s Pass, not Arlem’s castle of Veniteon, a council of elders was gathered to discuss the new taxation policies and the death of the Pro-Venit heir, they sought to overthrow a corrupt system of government, Arlem joined two months after when the Rebellion had won its first victory at the Oak Water Crossing.”
“Aye he did, but his single minded hatred of the Republic, his keen sense of strategy and his standing among many of the Twelve Families lead him to become the leader of the Rebellion. He saw his opportunity and he seized it. That is when a small time coup became the Rebellion we now speak of, and that is when its desires changed from liberation to destruction. You have been taken for a fool Alarik, what I now present to you however is an offer at redemption. Would you like it?”
My eyes narrowed as I thought over the ramifications, a no would likely bring a swift death, a yes would propel me into an unknown future. I didn't entirely believe what Magnus was saying, two years fighting against the Republic could not so easily be forgotten. Yet the niggling doubts that had assailed me through the darkest days of the Rebellion where I saw heinous acts committed once more came to the forefront of my mind. To my discomfort I found I was no longer certain whether I had been on the right side or not. I suppressed the inner turmoil with the realisation that this was my opportunity to join the winning side and that perhaps debating right and wrong was better left to one with more time than myself. The choice was simple, “Yes.”
Magnus smiled and clapped me on the back, “I knew today had the feeling of history upon it,” He said jokingly to his guard as he stood, “Follow me then.”