As the next morning began to approach the Sergeant fell back to ride at my side. I ignored him until he spoke.
“So. The great battle lord, General Vincent Frau Hacku. Quite some scars you got there. Makes you look quite formidable. Infact I can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for us when we get back. Will there be any space for us to add to them?” He asked me darkly.
“Haven’t you become quite the talkative one?” I replied dully.
“Sergeant Hitch. Leave the prisoner alone.” Lady Bess called back at us.
“Yes, ma’am.” He called back. “See ya later, friend.” He said quietly to me with a sadistic grin as he rode back to his place infront of me.
“We’ll arrive in about 2 hours if we keep up a good pace.” Lady Bess announced as she pushed her tired horse into a canter. I groaned and set to massaging life into my chafed wrists. They were constantly bleeding now and had left a bloody patch on my poor horse’s withers. Just more shackle scars. Nothing new.
As afternoon approached the first houses and farms began to appear on the horizon, showing that we were near the end of our journey. The horses pressed forwards, eager to get home to a good feed and warm stables. I was just as weary, but not physically. I was mentally exhausted. When track roads began to turn to cobbles, and houses and shops loomed in on either side I began to truly dread what was to come. Faces turned to look up at the sorry prisoner riding by with bloody wrists and a bruised jaw. My ankles were just as painful from the constant weight of the chains. It seemed like a lifetime before we approached the gates of the fort and were admitted by sneering guards. I don’t think they even recognised me as a man they once bowed to.
The courtyard was empty except for a troop of guards waiting to take me away, I assumed. We stopped and stable boys came to take our horses. Hitch dismounted and approached me with a key to my shackles. He undid the ones on my ankles and let them drop to the floor. I was very grateful for my boots that stopped the chains chafing. Then he removed the ones on my wrists. The flesh was swollen and bruised, and I had to hiss out air between my teeth as he prised them from my bloody wrists.
“Get down.” He commanded.
I swung my leg over the saddle, with some difficulty and slid sideways off the horse’s back. As soon as my feet hit the floor they gave out beneath me and I fell to my knees. A chorus of laughter erupted around me. I forced my feet to hold my weight and stood before Hitch. He made me turn around and brutishly shoved another set of shackles around my wrist. I almost jerked away.
“Walk.” Hitch said flatly.
I was directed into the centre of a human wall of guards around me where my weapons were confiscated and I was stripped down to my waist, including my hat, meaning more brutal shackling and unshackling. At the sight of my body I heard gasps all around me. “My God.” Hitch exclaimed softly. I was almost glad that Bess had gone in to rest beforehand. Hitch grabbed me by my wrists bound behind me and took me through a heavy wood door to my left in the wall of the court. Inside it was dark and cold, a long corridor faced us and seemed to go on forever into the blackness. Hitch pushed me down past doors to our left and right until the corridor opened out into a large room illuminated by torches. The light flickered off the damp wall. The room literally had barred walls and I could see into each prison cell. I was taken to one on the left and practically thrown in by Hitch, who chained me to the wall and left. As my eyes adjusted I could see there was no one else in any of the cells around me. I took the opportunity to try and relax for a while. I closed my eyes and just sat, relishing the quiet and solid ground. I don’t know how long I remained like that for, but when I heard the sound of footsteps I was still too exhausted to open my eyes and see who had entered. My cell door clunked open. Voices chattered at the edges of my consciousness.
Freezing water cascaded over my head.
My eyes flew open and I surged forwards, huddling over myself, gasping. I looked up. Hitch was stood over me with a bucket, smiling. Lady Bess, and the four other nobles stood at the door with about seven guards. Bess wasn’t wearing riding leathers today, but neither was she wearing any fancy dresses. She was wearing leather knee boots and a leather tunic with a thick belt to nip it in at the waist. On the breast was a grey and yellow falcon- the Farrow emblem.
Hitch nudged me with his boots. I swung my gaze to him lazily. “Up you get, sunshine.” He said mockingly. I stood slowly. “Turn around and face the wall.” I turned to face the wall and placed my hands behind my back for Hitch to shackle, leaving the other chains still hanging from the wall.
“By the good God’s name, those scars... there’s so many...” Bess said quietly to her companions. “And what is that? There on his left shoulderblade?” I could feel Hitch’s fingers prodding the spot where my slave brand was. “Milady, it appears to be a slave brand. He belongs to Ayanami officially, as far as we know.” Hitch confirmed.
“Which means I don’t get a choice in what I do!” I tried to clarify.
“You shut up.” Hitch told me as he slammed me against the wall.
“You killed my father, Vincent. You didn’t have to, we would have helped you.” Bess said quietly.
“I can’t win, can I?” I muttered to myself.
“Will you shut up?!” Hitch shouted and kneed me in the back. I was shivering with cold and my chains were clinking quietly together as my body trembled. “Ohh are you scared?” Hitch mocked.
I laughed through my chattering teeth. “No. I think you know what it is.”
“We’ll warm you up soon enough.”
With that Hitch pushed me out of my cell and escorted me through a door in the dark corridor. Inside was even darker and the stench of rotting flesh was almost overpowering. I was taken to a completely empty room except for a large chest in the corner and stood in the centre of the room with my hands tied behind my back. The guards lined up against the wall and Bess escorted her noble guests to stand along another wall. She locked the big wooden door and stood to face me, bringing her face close to mine. She regarded me in silence for a while and then lifted a dainty finger and traced the scar down my face that went over my eye. “I remember this scar... you got it fighting in Eden’s War, not long ago at all in your lifespan... I remember the day you came home from battle covered in sword wounds. But this scar... it made you look so terrifying. You were my first love, Vincent. Regardless of our age difference.” She told me wistfully. “Father always told me that I couldn’t marry you, for you were a soldier, built to kill. I wouldn’t believe him. But now, I see he’s more than right.” Her voice had become a low growl. “How did you get these scars, Vincent? When I last saw your bare chest when you did sword training with father’s guards there weren’t this many scars. You had lots, yes, a frightening amount. But not these.” She gestured to the horizontal branding marks and whip lashes from Heighward, the shackle and arrow scars. I suddenly felt very exposed. No-one had paid so much attention to my scars.
“Lady Bess. I fear we must begin the interrogation.” One of the nobles said.
“You are right.” Bess said, suddenly looking angry and hateful again. She turned to me. “Who sent you here?”
I looked up, my eyes flashing with anger. “How dare you? How dare you ask me such a thing when you know the answer already?” I took two steps towards her and two guards came off the wall to restrain me, pulling me backwards. I tried to pull forwards, and succeeded until Hitch helped restrain me. I carried on trying to get to Bess. “Want to know how I got all these new scars? Torture! Lord Heighward tortured and tortured me. He whipped me, he beat me, he branded me a hundred times! And it hurt! Hell! It was agony. Do to me what you want, you pathetic bitch!” I roared at her. Bess stood in shocked silence, staring at me. Hitch shouted something to the other guards holding me back and suddenly I was slammed against the wall. He surged towards me and held his sword at my throat. I didn’t even look at him. I maintained eye contact with Bess over Hitch’s shoulder. Even as he pinned me against the wall and punched me in the stomach over and over and over again, I looked at her.
Someone knocked on the big wooden door. Everything fell silent. “Sergeant, that’s enough...” Lady Bess said almost inaudibly. Hitch stopped and allowed me to fall to the floor by the wall. I coughed and retched and I could taste blood. I spat a globule to the floor and slumped against the wall. Sweat was streaming down my body regardless of the chilliness of the room. My furious outburst had been completely drowned out by pain, it hurt even to breathe. Bess went and unlocked the door and stepped out to speak to the messenger at the door in red- the Chancellor’s colours. After what seemed like an eternity she emerged again with a shocked look on her face.
“Bess.” I whispered hoarsely. “Please... just kill me....” I was slumped forwards over my stomach now and coughing up blood.
She stuck her nose up at me, though I could see tears in her eyes. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question. We have been invited to dine with the Chancellor, for he would like to meet our Lord Reignold’s assassin.” She announced. “I suppose we’ll have to leave the questioning for now, for I fear further damage will be noticeable even a week’s henceforth. Someone also rode here with a package for you of new clothes. What a coincidence.” She said sarcastically. I wondered who could’ve possibly ridden out to the Chancellor and send me new clothes. What was their motive?
I was dragged back to my cell by Hitch and another man and chained up without a moment’s remorse. The package had been left in my cell during my time in the torture room. I opened the thick brown paper with fingers numb from cold. Inside was pretty much what I’d expected- cloak, jacket, boots, hat, mask, gloves, and breeches- all in black with gold embellishment. What I hadn’t expected was a flask of brandy and a packet of silvershade. I took a swig of the brandy and its warmth spread through me. I knew this type of brandy- a particularly strong type with a high percentage of alcohol. I would save this for the Chancellor’s meal. How would they deal with a drunken prisoner before all of these nobles? Silvershade is supposed to be taken as a tea to reduce its potency- but desperate times called for desperate measures. I took a small pinch of the ground leaves and chewed them between my teeth. The tasted vile, however I could feel its painkilling effects already. I just hoped the side effects wouldn’t be too detrimental- silvershade is notorious for bringing out the user’s suppressed personality. In me, my quick temper, foul mouth, and want for bloodshed. I slipped the rest of the alcohol and silvershade into a pocket in my trousers and settled down to rest.
I was left alone to recover from my ‘torture’ for three days before Hitch came and poured water over me again. I stood with much more ease than usual and was walked- not dragged- to the torture room where I was allowed to wash with luke-warm water and soap. I was then left alone with my clean clothes to change. As I changed I slipped my two little secrets into the pocket of my new breeches. It felt nice to hide my emotions behind a hat and mask again and to be clean. I was escorted outside by Hitch and made to mount up onto a big bay stallion. I wasn’t chained up today, but neither was I armed again or less closely watched. I had an escort of 20 elite guards and Hitch, Lady Bess, and the four mysterious nobles who seemed to accompany Bess everywhere. Unlike our last journey, we had a stash of food and bedding. We weren’t a particularly large group- Bess had forbidden a large train of followers lest we attract bandits and more. Bess rode at the head of the group, then me at Hitch’s side surrounded by the orderly formation of guards, then servants and pack-horses carrying supplies.
The first night was cold and eventless. We stopped at a small patch of shrubs and trees. It was a clear and still night, the stars burning brightly overhead. While servants, guards, and nobles alike settled down into sleeping skins around several small fires, I sat against a tree watching the night stars. Three guards stood on the first watch, Hitch wasn’t amongst them. The night passed by slowly, but restfully. And when morning came I was reluctant to be on the move again. The second day of travel, we passed through a more dangerous part of the plains.
“Raiders’ve claimed this province their own, y’know. It’s said they attack anyone who passes through.” Hitch told me snidely. “I wonder if it’s true.” He grinned.
Steep, sandy hillsides surrounded the road we followed, and the wind blew harder than usual, masking any quiet sounds. It was the perfect condition for an attack. I scanned the hillsides regularly for intruders but saw no one. We’d sent scouts out ahead and to our flanks anyway.
Hitch leaned over close to talk to me, “I’ve heard that Ayanami’s killed a soldier called Jay Rauch. Didn’t know him, did you?” He asked smugly, smiling uncouthly. I sat in silence, trying to control my building anger. The silvershade hadn’t quite worn off yet. I failed. Hitch was left-handed, so his sword with conveniently close to me. I turned in my saddle, and grabbed it from its sheath at lightning speed before holding it to his throat. The guards all around me leapt into action in a chorus of drawn swords. They all pointed their swords to me and waited for me to surrender. Hitch looked slightly alarmed, but was still grinning slightly. I dropped the sword and made a show of holding my hands up in surrender. Hitch dismounted and grabbed his sword from the floor, then decided to pull me down off my horse backwards. I landed on the floor in a cloud of dust and laid on my back with his sword at my throat. “Please allow me to slit his throat for you, my lady.” He said loudly and slowly.
Hitch looked up and everyone listened in silence. Then we heard it; hoofbeats. “Damn it!” Hitch cried and mounted up. I stood and brushed myself off again before climbing onto my horse’s back.
“Guards, attack. Servants, retreat! The guards galloped off over the hilltop to my left while the servants set off in the other direction. My horse wheeled around and reared in panic. “Bess!” I shouted over the fuss. “Give me a damn sword, woman!” I rode up to Bess and waited.
“Don’t, my lady. You saw what he just did.” A noble said.
“Lord Trent. Give me your sword.” Now there was a name I recognised. I’d have to ask her about that later. Lord Trent reluctantly gave Bess the sword and she in turn gave it to me. I turned my horse and spurred him into a gallop.
“I’m trusting you!” She warned me and fled with the servants.
The fighting was well underway. The raiders were brawly men dressed in heavy furs and leathers and bronze ornaments. They fought with strange scythe-like weapons and rode small, shaggy coated horses. Already, we had taken two losses and the raiders one. I’d change that. I saw a tall warlord astride a big black stallion who was shouting in a foreign tongue. I rode straight for him. I passed by Hitch who shouted something at me but I had no time to stop. By the time the warlord had noticed my approach I had smashed his face with my sword. His horse bolted and he fell with a crash. I turned my horse on the spot and charged back. To my surprise he was up again, staggering around blindly and cutting the air with his scythe. He was roaring something in his foreign language as I rode up and cleanly took off his head. I took out another by stabbing him through the heart as I passed. I was enjoying myself profusely. I was laughing as I slaughtered the men around me. I ended up jumping down from my horse to fight since the majority of the enemy were now on foot. I stabbed one man as he went to kill one of Bess’s guard and another who’d been shot by an archer but still survived. My cloak flurried behind me as I ran through the battlefield killing the raiders off. We reduced the 40ish raiders down to three surrendered men. We made them line up on their knees, and there three guards gave them a quick death with a sword to the back of the neck.
I found my horse stood amongst the dead men and mounted up again. Hitch came riding over with the other guards.
“Drop your weapon!” Hitch shouted furiously.
“I would, but I don’t think Lord Trent will be happy.” I replied coolly.
“Give it to me then.” He ordered, seething. I rode over and gave it to him, then let the other guards formed up around me. There were 15 now. 5 losses, and some injured, but mostly minor. Hitch set off at a trot and the rest of us kept his pace. When we saw the rest of the group on the horizon we pressed into a canter to catch up. Lady Bess looked slightly distressed but everyone was unharmed aside from that.
“My lord,” Hitch said as he approached Lord Trent, “I believe this is yours.” He’d wiped the bloody blade clean on his cloak and handed over to him gently.
“Yes, thankyou. I believe our prisoner caused no problems?” He asked.
“No. He was fine, sir.” Hitch said stiffly.
“From what I saw when we reached the ridge, he killed several of the enemy. Am I correct, Sergeant?” Bess said curtly. I looked back from where we’d come, and yes, you could see the bodies lying on the sand from here.
“Yes, milady.” Hitch muttered.
“Aryan, where are the prisoner’s weapons? He will need them.” Bess ordered a young servant girl. She came back a time later with a small chest of my weapons. I dismounted and silently set to donning my weapons. I felt whole again. I put the pouch of silvershade into a pouch in my belt along with the brandy while no one was looking and mounted back up with a smug smile.
As night approached we found a sheltered area of little trees and rocks. I settled myself against a stone and watched everyone around me set up camp. Four guards sat watch tonight, mainly guarding me. Hitch was on guard too, and made a show of watching my every move. The night wore on in silence, only the gentle sounds of the chilly wind were apparent, until I heard hoofbeats. My hearing was acute, and I could hear them far earlier than anyone else. I sat up suddenly, causing a lightly dosing Hitch to draw his sword on me. I didn’t look at him and batted his blade away with a gloved hand. I stood and stalked to the edge of the firelight where the hoofbeats where coming from. The weak light of dawn barely lit the surrounding area but I saw the silhouettes of five men coming over the horizon and plunging into darkness again, all except for some kind of light source they carried. Hitch stormed over to me and tried to get me in an armlock. I kicked him in the shin and told him to “Shut up and listen.” He looked went quiet for a minute, and then his eyes widened in shock. “I need a crossbow.” I said as I started over to the weapon store. I took ten arrows and then went to my horse. He wasn’t saddled but I vaulted onto his back and grabbed the reins. Hitch began shouting in protest and waking everyone in camp. I urged my horse into a gallop and left the camp behind.
I guided my horse with my legs, while I sat back and aimed at the men with my crossbow. They hadn’t noticed me yet, I’d ridden out into the darkness and flanked them. I rode practically alongside them before I fired. The man went down silently, but his horse whinnied in panic and reared up, falling over backwards. The men scattered in shock, searching for the source of the arrow. I took down two others before they noticed me. There were 4 left now, but they had seen me. They drew their own bows and let fly. I urged my lean horse into a gallop and made him turn a slow and wide circle. The men tried to chase me and cut off corners to they ended up being in the middle of my circle. I picked them off until only their leader remained, carrying a lantern. I let my horse pick the ground, for I couldn’t see, and made him run in a straight line as fast as possible. The battle lord matched my pace and rode parallel to me, taking shots with his bow and arrow. I had two arrows left. I set one into the crossbow and aimed. I could see him easily due to the lantern, and my shot hit him easily. He fell and his horse carried on in a frenzied panic. I wheeled around and finished him off with my final arrow. Then, reluctantly, I rode back to the glow of the campfire.
Everyone was up in camp, and Hitch was shouting orders to his guard angrily. I hadn’t been gone long at all, but he was already shouting that I was escaping with those men riding over to attack them. When I entered camp Hitch fell silent. Everyone turned to look at me. Lady Bess stepped forwards.
“Where on earth did you go?” she demanded, sending two guards over to restrain me once I’d dismounted from my ragged horse.
“I think you will find that I subdued the attackers.” I growled angrily, biting off every word. The guard to my right kicked me savagely. “My lady.” I spat. I dropped the crossbow on the floor and kicked it at Bess. “I could’ve run away then if I wanted. And I didn’t. What does that tell you?” She stood and regarded me for a minute and then said, “Let go of him, guards.” They released me and I took two steps towards Bess. The guards stayed at my side suspiciously.
“Those men didn’t like us camping in their territory, and their friends won’t like it when they find out the intruders killed their allies. I suggest we move on, we’ll arrive at the Chancellor’s by nightfall.” I told her savagely.
“Mount up.” She announced grudgingly. I turned on my heel and saddled up my horse. The one that I’d ridden after the battle lords was released into the darkness and another mount was found for the guard. I didn’t like riding for long hours but I didn’t like being in the plainsmen’s territory either. Hitch kept at my side and the guards surrounding me remained vigilant. Morning progressed into afternoon and eventually the Great Fortress appeared in the valley below us. It was still an hour’s ride away but already I could see the well tended fields and farmsteads surrounding it. The dust was more frequently scattered with grass and bushes now and the horses often made cheeky snatches at the grass. I could see the perfectly straight roads going into the main castle town that surrounded the fort. Inside the walls were bustling streets and crowded houses. I began trying to work out how I could drink the brandy in my belt pouch discreetly. Hitch watched my every move and the other guards covered every possible angle. Then I had an idea.
I waited for the tiniest gap to form in the rank of guards around me. It took a while, but then one opened up just infront of me. I drew a tiny throwing knife and slowly lowered it down to knee height. When the gap grew big enough, I jabbed the horse in the side with my dagger. The horse gave a squeal of surprise and plunged into a fully fledged gallop. I turned my horse back the way we’d come and galloped over the ridge until I was out of sight of the others. I stuck the knife in my belt and took out the flask of brandy. I downed it awkwardly, as I wasn’t used to drinking but the heat of the brandy spread through my body instantly and I could feel it working already. The world spun around me and I felt nauseous. I could hear angry shouting coming over the ridge and the sound of hoofbeats. I wasn’t sure how the brandy would work on me but I guessed it would make me foul mouthed, short tempered and giggly. Although I was completely and utterly drunk, I would be able to remember everything that happened to me, unlike normal people. I stopped my horse and waited for the world to stop rocking around me. I swayed dangerously on my horse and forced myself to sit still. Heighward rode up next to me and dived off his horse to push me off too, landing in a heap. I didn’t feel it very much, I just looked at him blankly. Then he punched me in the face a few times- I felt that.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going, you bastard!?” Hitch roared in my face and then punched me again.
I tried to keep my temper under control and my words from slurring. “’s nothin’. Thought I saw somethin’ buh I was wrong.” I failed miserably. Anger bubbled to the surface and I punched him. Hard. I heard the satisfying crunch of a broken nose before he roared angrily. I scrambled to my feet and stumbled away from him, laughing. Three guards had to restrain Hitch to prevent him from killing me with his sword while Lady Bess threw angry threats at the both of us. Another two guards caught hold of me to restrain me, but I was grateful for their support. I made myself stand straight between the two guards and dusted myself off. Lady Bess approached. “Trying to make another wondrous escape, were we?” She asked sarcastically.
“I’m not goin’ nowhere, mi’lady.” I replied, smiling under my mask.
“Then let us move on. Guards, shackle the prisoner.” The guards took some metal shackles and waited until I was back on my horse before putting my hands behind my back and tying them. The alcohol still hadn’t taken full effect and its effects would last for a couple of days, I just hoped I could remain on my horse all the way to the Chancellor.
I succeeded in staying on my horse until we reached the outer wall of the castle town. We had slowed to a walk in order to be welcomed by the Chancellor’s guards and personal attendant. Night was falling and the darkness crept in at the edge of the torchlight near the gate. We stopped at the gate and waited for Lady Bess and the nobles to exchange formalities with the attendant. The guards sat tall and smart on their horses and Hitch did the same while keeping an eye on me. The brandy had been working in me for the past hour and its full effects were beginning to become apparent. I could hear some of the exchange at the head of the train but I was concentrating on trying to stay upright. I swayed drastically, enough that Hitch turned and looked at me confusedly. I looked back at him and suddenly I completely lost my balance. I couldn’t use my hands to stop myself as I toppled off the side of my horse and landed with a thump on the floor. Everyone turned to look. I curled up and groaned as a headache blossomed.
The Chancellor’s attendant- a thin, old and stern looking man hobbled over to where I lay. I recognised him from my common meetings with the Chancellor himself and hoped he would have the sense to leave my mask on. “This is the prisoner?” He asked hoarsely.
“Yes, Grimwerrd.” Bess replied brusquely.
“Tell me, why does he have weapons?”
“The prisoner aided us in an attack from raiders. I saw fit to leave him armed incase of another attack came- which proved to be a wise decision. It was but an hour ago that we were forced to restrain him when he appeared to have a loss of his wits.” The Lady explained, looking at me quizzically.
“I see. Well I think we should unshackle the man now, my lady. Our guards are the best in the realm.”
“And mine shall aid yours.” She slipped in. I was unshackled and I forced my clamouring body to climb onto my horse again. Everyone else mounted up and I rode in the centre of my ring of guards. I swayed as the horse walked and I felt like I was going to fall off at every minute. Regardless of the hour, people were stood at the door of their houses to watch the small procession pass, looking at me and gasping. The attendant rode a big grey mare, almost the same colour as his hair. When we passed the big gates into the castle courtyard where markets were often held, we dismounted and our horses led off by a small army of stableboys. The guards go into formation around me, this time Hitch stood at the head of the guards, as a Sergeant should. Lady Bess and her noble friends left to change before facing the Chancellor. I settled for brushing the travel dust from my jacket. I was marched down to the Chancellor’s prison cells. The corridor was well lit but the inside of the cells looked dark and damp as far as I could tell through the barred window of each cell. I was taken to a cell roughly central in the long corridor and pushed in roughly. I stumbled in and fell against the wall, that raised a few sniggers from the guards. “Silence!” I roared to the guards in my drunken anger. Hitch came through the door and swaggered across the room. I stood and turned to face him. “Silence yourself.” He said, smiling as he raised a fist. Even during my drunkenness, I had good reactions, though that might change as the alcohol affected me more. I drew my sword and held it up to intercept his fist. He hit it square on. I cocked my head and smiled at his shocked look under my mask. “Lucky it was the flat of the blade.” I told him. He yanked his fist back from my blade and rubbed his knuckles absently as he turned around and ordered two guards to hold me. I sheathed my sword and laughed. “Is it really a good idea to beat up the pris’ner before his p..presentation-on to the Chancellor?” I asked acidly, trying to form the words. The guards took my arms and gripped them painfully. Hitch stepped over, no longer cradling his fist.
“There’s something different about you at the moment, Vince. And I intend to find out why.” He muttered darkly, taking another step forwards as he cracked his knuckles. I leaned back in the guard’s arms and tried to force them back. It didn’t work. He stepped in and punched me in the stomach. I doubled over and coughed up blood. The guards at my sides yanked me back up into an upright position, though I did resist. “Nothin’s diff’rnt.” I panted heavily. He punched me again and leaned right in to my face.
“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” He hissed and lifted his fist again. I swayed back on my feet and forced a guard to lose balance, taking him down with me and avoiding the punch. One of the guards still at the door shouted to Hitch, “Sergeant! It’s the Lieutenant!” Hitch growled under his breath and pulled me onto my feet to push me up against the wall. He looked me in the eye and stared at me angrily until the Lieutenant came up behind him and inquired into what was going on in a deep, husky voice. I’d seen him only twice, but it was hard to miss this tall, dark haired hulk of a man who made Hitch look like a ragdoll. Hitch turned quickly and saluted smartly. “Just keeping an eye on the prisoner, sir.”
“He’s going to see the Lord Chancellor now. Please assist in escorting the man.” He growled down to Hitch.
“Sir.” Hitch replied and saluted again until the Lieutenant had left. Then he turned back to me. “March.” He snapped.
I walked out of the cell and was escorted by the group of about twenty guards to the Chancellor’s court chambers. As I staggered everywhere and kept laughing to myself, I received a lot of glances from the guards around me. With the Lieutenant at the head, we marched through the huge ornate doors and into the chamber that I recognised so well from my time at court. I looked around the lords and ladies seated at the long table, I recognised nobody except for a few nobles that I’d conversed with a little. Still, if my mask was removed I was in trouble. My eyes fell of the Chancellor on the big chair at the head of the long table in the centre of the room. To his left sat Bess, in a new emerald green dress, and further down her nobles. I moved my eyes to see who was to his right and my eyes rested on Ayanami. I staggered sideways sharply in my shock into a guard at my side. “Walk forwards, you idiot!” He hissed, and shoved me sideways. I heard the scraping of chair legs on a stone floor echo around the hall. “What is this, there’s blood?! My lord...” He stopped talking and looked at me suddenly. I was laughing gutturally as I stood from where I fell. I locked onto the guard and drew my sword. He gaped at me for a second and then drew his own. He was only young- about 18, but I didn’t care.
“Restrain him! Sergeant, Lieutenant! Now!” Bess was screeching.
“No blood must be spilt here!” the Chancellor called down the hall serenely. “I order this to stop immediately.”
I leapt at the guard, regardless of the clamour. I was laughing hysterically as I raised my sword. The guard raised his to try and deflect my blow but he was too weak. He was going to die, and he knew it. I brought my sword down in a killing sweep. My sword rang on metal, the sound silencing everyone. But the resistance was too strong, this wasn’t the guard- Ayanami had stepped infront of the young guard and held me back with his sword. He looked angry. He pushed me back so that I staggered away and dropped my sword with a clatter, the world blurring before my eyes. And then he was infront of me again. He raised arm over his head and struck me. I was sent careering sideways and into the long table in the hall. Then Ayanami was on me yet again. This time he grabbed my arm and put me in an armlock. I was panting heavily- a sound that echoed throughout the chamber- as he pushed me forwards and I staggered along. “Nice t’a see you again, sir.” I said hoarsely through the pain as I stumbled along, smiling to myself. He replied with a sharp jerk on my arm which caused me to cry out, and then laugh.
“I can tell you’ve been drinking, don’t think that makes you any less responsible for your actions.” Ayanami muttered darkly into my ear before we reached the Chancellor, tightening his grip painfully on my arm. I just exhaled sharply in a dismissive gesture.
“My lord,” Ayanami said respectfully- the most respectful I have ever seen him act. “I apologise profusely.”
“I don’t.” I slipped in loudly, awarding me a sudden yank on my arm, making the shoulder joint crunch horrifically. I yelped and went down on one knee. I bent my chin into my chest and bit my lip. “My lord.” I said cheekily after the searing pain had dispersed. I’d pushed Ayanami too far, I suddenly knew with jarring horror. I started trying to stutter an apology, but he took my arm with both hands, pushed me to the floor, and twisted my arm unnaturally high up my back. Bones shifted in ways they shouldn’t and each judder of my bones caused my body to scream with agony. He grunted with the effort it took. Never before had he done something as serious as dislocating my arm. I roared and writhed under Ayanami’s weight, but he held my arm in place. Pain coursed through me, it hurt to even breathe. I coughed harshly, causing jolts of agony in my ruined shoulder. “Master… I… AHH! Please… I—I—No… I’m sorry, my lord…. Ah… AH! Sir… I’m sorry…” I gasped from the pain as Ayanami proceeded to stand up and levered himself off my twisted arm. Once he was stood he launched into another apology which I didn’t bother interrupting. I let my arm flop to my side and then stood, clutching my shoulder, staggering tiredly into Ayanami in the process.
“...I believe...” Ayanami continued, turning to me and grasping my shoulder in one hand and my upper arm in the other, “that our prisoner...” He suddenly jerked my arm up into my shoulder and it popped into place. I screamed. “...is under the influence of alcohol.” He announced as he turned back to the Chancellor. I’d fallen to my knee, again, and was now trying to make my legs work underneath me. I managed to stand but I swayed dangerously where I stood. “I’m sorry…” I repeated quietly under my breath, for Ayanami’s ears only.
“It seems so, General Ayanami.” Chancellor responded. “I would like to see the prisoners face, if you will.” He said gesturing to me. I decided now was the time to be courteous.
“My lord--”, Ayanami and I both began at the same time.
“Is that really necessary, sir?” Ayanami asked.
“Oh, yes. It most certainly is. I’d like to see the face of this vile monster. Guards, hold him.” He ordered. Three guards came up- two held my still throbbing arms while Hitch stood behind me.
“Do the honours, General.” The Chancellor said.
Ayanami came to stand before me, blocking the Chancellor’s view of me. Ayanami looked grave as he removed the mask. “Are you sure you want to do this, sir?” Ayanami asked a last time.
“Yes, yes, get on with it.” He snapped.
Ayanami took two steps backwards and then moved to the side.
I realised I was trembling. With fear? Anticipation? Pain? I couldn’t tell. All the emotions were clamouring inside my head.
The Chancellor’s eyes widened with shock. Despite the influence of the alcohol, I smiled sadly. The first real heartfelt smile for a long time. This man was my friend. My old self’s friend. I was a new person now. “Hello, old friend.” I said softly, still holding my arm.
“What is this!?” He roared. I didn’t flinch. He got up and strode over to me, bringing his face close to mine. I let him. I couldn’t focus my eyes on him but I tried, regardless of the alcohol, I lolled my head back and looked at him down my nose. He looked over to Ayanami, “What is this!??” He spat again.
“With all due respect, sir. This is Vincent Frau Hacku.” Ayanami replied coolly.
“My God...” He said quietly. “Everyone. Dismissed! Now!” Everyone turned to leave, muttering amongst themselves. Ayanami and the guards holding me didn’t move. “Leave. Now” The Chancellor growled at them. The guards apologised and left.
“Is it a good idea to--”
“GET OUT!” The Chancellor bellowed at Ayanami. He turned and strode away without another word, closing the huge doors behind him with a slam. The Chancellor looked back to me. “Is it really you?” He asked softly.
I looked at him for a minute, smiling sadly, but then pain ripped throughout my body- like all my injuries up to now were coming to haunt me. I grimaced and forced myself not to cry out as I went down on both knees and curled over my stomach, forgetting my arm.
“Are you ok, Vincent?” The Chancellor asked worriedly as he came down beside me and began helping me to my feet. He helped me heave myself into a chair and took a seat beside me. I leaned forwards and shuddered as another wave of pain passed through me. “Durzo. Sir, you know you can’t take me out of Ayanami’s service. I think he has me under magic- the source of...” Another wave of agony washed over me. I tensed up and huddled over myself, then forced my lips to move, “...this pain.” I whispered hoarsely.
“Vincent... I can’t leave you to that monster. What has he done to you? And all those people know your identity now.” He said.
“Ayanami’ll deal with ‘em. At least he can control his magic. If I could I’d have wiped out Ayanami by now. He knows I have dormant power- he’s afraid.” I told him with a wry smile.
“I look forward to the return of your powers.... they’ve been dormant for.... how long now?”
“Fifty years.” I clarified.
“Hell. You’ve controlled that army for at least three centuries then. To have that right taken from you like that... It’s infuriating.”
“I know. I know.” The world rocked around me again and I tried to make myself stay upright. I groaned. “Why did I drink that goddamn brandy?” I asked myself fiercely.
“I thought you’d stopped drinking, Vince. Why now?” He asked.
“I just wanted to be a little uncontrollable. I think I should have taken some silvershade too, though. This is agony.” I muttered tiredly.
“Show me what Ayanami and his little friends have done to you since I last saw you.”
“I’d rather not, my lord.” I’d become quite self conscious about my scars after so many people had seen them and added to them.
“Don’t be silly. I want to help and will help. Show me.” He said with the cold voice of a command. I sighed and stood up, I went and walked up the hall with my back to the Chancellor as I unbuttoned my jacket and dropped my cloak. I took a deep breath and let it slide off my bare shoulders and to the floor. I heard him gasp behind me and his footsteps as he came towards me. I didn’t turn around. I felt his fingers on my slave brand. “You can’t be his slave? We haven’t had any papers through! You’re still a free man, Vincent!!.” He said, joyful.
I almost laughed at his enthusiasm. “I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation- I’m stuck with him, Durzo. He has my entire army as a hostage. I cannot leave his service.”
“But--” he started.
“Don’t.” I cut him off. “Don’t- just.... please don’t try to give me false hope. I’m.... I.... I’m a lost cause.” Then, true to form, the tears came in full flow. I smothered my face and tried to muffle the keens of yearning and pain and anger and loss and hate that escaped me. Like when we were younger, Durzo embraced me as a true friend and held me until I stopped my horrendous sobbing. All the pent up emotions flooded out of me. Awkwardly, Durzo tried to change the subject, “and what are these?” running his finger along the horizontal brand marks from my torture, I shuddered at the memory. “These are burn marks... was this Ayanami?”
“Heighward.” I said stiffly.
“That bastard. I knew he was up to no good when he warned me not to visit.”
“He what?” I asked, shocked.
“When he was holding that ball? I was invited, but suddenly he changed his mind and requested that I didn’t visit.”
“Intriguing.” I muttered sarcastically.
“You must explain the origin of all these new scars. You almost look older than 18 with so many.” He said.
And so I explained my story from the point of Ayanami’s attack and the reason for each scar. The Chancellor explained to me- yet again- that anyone was allowed to challenge a General for his position if they wish, and upon killing the late General the position became theirs. However, this only counted in one-on-one battle and the Chancellor hadn’t apparently been told that I was infact taken down by an entire army, completely unprepared. He was furious, but I made him take an oath that he wouldn’t force Ayanami out of his position, for my men were at stake. After I had explained my wounds I picked up my cloak and jacket and sheathed my sword from where I’d dropped it.
“Vincent. Why did you kill Lord Reignold? I thought he was your friend.” The Chancellor asked.
I felt my alcohol-fuel anger build up inside me. I tried to hold it in. “Ayanami is using my army as payback for anything I refuse to do, although it was hard, one life for many is the better choice. Ayanami’s changed me- I can kill in cold blood- even when the victim is looking me in the eye and pleading for mercy.” I told him through gritted teeth. “I laugh at pain- even my own. I don’t know why. I’m sorry, I’m not the same man you once knew.” I muttered. “What are you going to do about Bess?”
“I’ll call her in privately- tell her the truth. I can’t let anything happen to you at my hands after all you’ve been through. Go and find Ayanami. Tell him you’ve been released, and you need to ride out with haste or Bess’s guards’ll be after you. Go.”
“Thankyou, my good friend, my lord.” I bowed deeply, sweeping off my hat and then straightening up again to put it back on. I set my cloak about my shoulders and spun to leave, pushing the double doors open. “And Vincent.” I turned to look at the Chancellor a last time, sat on his high seat. “You’re not alone.” I turned and left with a nod.
Ayanami was sat on a bench in the courtyard outside the Chancellor’s court chambers. I went over to him and snatched the mask he held in his hands. “We need to go. Now.”
“Kaien.” Ayanami said to himself, and suddenly there he was, leading three horses.
“What did you just do?” I asked, staggering a little from the alcohol.
“Magic,” He said wryly. “Oh, and the loads and ladies who saw you today won’t remember a thing.”
“For the best.” I muttered, striding to a horse and getting on, ignoring the pain in my shoulder. Ayanami and Kaien mounted up also.
“Let’s get going then. Two days fast riding. We’ll have to gallop through the main town to avoid Lady Bess’ guards.”
We set off towards the main gates, our horse’s hooves clattering on the cobbles. The guards cried out in shock as we galloped through the gates unexpectedly. Behind us I heard the clatter of one other horses’ hooves. “Stop, wait!” The man riding cried. I recognised his voice. Lord Trent? We continued galloping until we were out of the city centre and carried on for a time longer with Trent on our heels. Then I wheeled my horse round suddenly to face him. Ayanami stopped too. The man was old and frail looking and for a minute I felt a pang of regret for making him ride so far from the city. I pushed it aside.
“What is your problem, sir?” I growled curtly.
He was out of breath as he slowed to a stop facing me and Ayanami. “We’re leaving, Hacku. Now.” Ayanami turned and rode off.
“What is your problem?” I asked more slowly, feeling pleasantly intimidating.
“Where is my son?” He gasped. “Where is Kipp? I know what Ayanami did to him!”
“Kipp Trent’s whereabouts are unknown. However I may confirm that is no longer in Heighward’s hands.”
Pain suddenly seared through my body. I leaned forwards on my horse and groaned as quietly as I could. When I had recovered I turned to see Ayanami and Kaien silhouetted against the horizon, Ayanami was smiling that smile of his. Then they turned and rode away. “Farewell, Lord Trent.” I turned and set after Ayanami.
The two days passed quickly. There was no sign of pursuit, but I wasn’t particularly sure as to whether it was a good thing. We rode through the gates at noon and through the city. People watched us pass on their doorsteps with wary eyes. When we arrived at the fort we were greeted by Ayanami’s (and mine) army and his Second Major Taker. I had met Taker only a couple of times in passing or when I had been forced to endure one of Ayanami’s pathetic meetings, and he was quite new to working with Ayanami, though he had an experienced military background. He was a competent man who didn’t particularly enjoy his work, and yet was always slightly rough when handling prisoners.
“General.” He greeted Ayanami sincerely, flashing him a salute. “Sir.” He said in the same courteous voice to Kaien. Then he took me aback by silently tipping his hat in my direction. I returned the favour.
“Major Taker. What’s our status?” Ayanami asked. Taker had been left in charge of the whole fort during Ayanami’s absence.
“We’re good, sir.”
“Fantastic, well we’re not.” He said curtly. “Major Taker, if you will.” Taker looked confused for a moment, but then made a move to restrain me. I took a step towards to Ayanami in a show of defiance. “What are you doing, Ayanami?” I hissed.
“Oh come on, Vincent. I’m not stupid, people don’t just get released from trial as easily as you did! You’re working against me with the Chancellor, no?” He smiled at me maliciously.
“What?” I asked as Taker took my arms in an iron grip and forced my hands behind my back and began dragging me back to that god forsaken hellhole of a prison. I strained against Taker but his slim figure betrayed none of his strength, and I was still weak from the dislocation of my shoulder and beatings from Bess’ guards. “You think I’m working against you? Hell what a tempting thought!” I spat at him infront of all the guards. I’d become very talkative recently. Several of the men looked confused, trying to recall something that they recognised. Taker holding me hadn’t said a word throughout the exchange, just continued dragging me away. I was surprised he hadn’t punched me yet to shut me up, although I was sure that if I pushed him far enough he’d do it. I’d seen him with other prisoners. Let’s test that theory. I kicked him in the shin with the heel of my boot. I heard him make a strange growling groan noise and his grip loosened for a second. I launched myself forward and out of Taker’s arms. I drew my sword and slammed full-thrust into Ayanami. “I am not a traitor.” I growled under my breath, and pointed my sword at his throat. He shifted his weight under me and laughed, then I felt something jabbing my side. “I wouldn’t move if I were you. Poison.” I tensed. If it was Ayanami’s special poison, then I was in trouble- even a touch to the skin was almost certain death. I started to get off him. “Don’t.” He said quickly. “Sword down, all weapons down.” He commanded. Grudgingly, I removed my weapons belt and threw it on the floor. “Good.” He said, smiling.
Then he stabbed me.
I didn’t even cry out, just looked at him, shocked. He pushed me off him and I laid on the floor, trying not to move- trying not to let the poison travel around my body. I stood up shakily. Ayanami was already up and brushing himself off. I pulled the dagger from my side and looked at it carefully. “You wouldn’t kill me. It isn’t poison.” I gasped, then went down on one knee due to a sudden rush of pain. Ayanami laughed.
“You’re right, it isn’t poison, but I’m still going to find out who you truly work for. Taker.” And then Taker pushed me away. I didn’t resist this time. Just limped through the ranks of guards watching me.
The prison was as dank as I remembered it. I was taken to my original cell and chained up without a word. “How long’ve you been working with us now? Six months? ...Like it?” I asked with a cheeky grin under my mask. He held his tongue and left. Damn him. I checked the spot where Ayanami had stabbed me. It wasn’t too deep- about three inches, though I still didn’t know whether he had poisoned that blade. There was no particular pain or reddening, so I decided he had not.
I sat waiting for my fate for about another two nights, I think, before Ayanami came to see me with Kaien and Taker. I stood and bowed to them but they made no response. Before Ayanami even came within two steps of the barred door pain seared throughout my body. I staggered backwards into the wall with a groan. “How do you do that?” I hissed at him when the world stopped spinning.
“Oh, you know. Just a little trick I’ve picked up.” He smiled that smile again. Then pain struck me again. I went down on the floor and sat against the wall, letting Ayanami come into the cell with his Majors. When he was inside I forced myself to my feet, although I staggered forwards a couple of steps much to Ayanami’s amusement. “General. Kaien, Taker.” I murmured gruffly, breaking eye contact and looking at my feet. I’d removed my mask like I always did in confinement. “Looking a little worse for wear, Vincent.” Ayanami greeted me sarcastically, looking me up and down. I brought my eyes up to his in a sign of defiance and held his gaze. Ayanami took a step towards me and I almost went and tried to draw my wrist blades- but they weren’t there of course, I took a step back instead. With my back against the wall I was defenceless. I looked to Kaien who was watching me with a dangerous iciness. “Is there a problem?” He asked darkly, not even a hint of the jokey tone in his voice. I averted my eyes and focused on Ayanami again. He was smiling strangely. “What?” I snapped, then wished I hadn’t. Ayanami stepped in suddenly and threw a punch at my stomach. I slammed back against the wall and crumpled onto the floor over my stomach with a groan. “I think I prefer doing things physically.” He said to the Majors with mock thoughtfulness.
“Sadistic bastard.” I muttered angrily.
“Say that again.” Ayanami dared me.
I stood up carefully and planted myself square infront of him. “Sadistic. Bastard.” I pronounced slowly. I felt a rush of power through me, a rush I only knew too well. Ayanami went to punch me, but I dodged it lithely and grabbed his fist, however I simply forced it into the wall with more momentum. He cried out involuntarily before I threw a punch of my own at his nose. It crunched under my fist. “Get him! Hold him! Damn it!” He roared, cradling his broken and bleeding nose with a bloody fist. Taker and Kaien launched themselves at me. The magic I felt coursing through my veins had dissipated as quickly as it had appeared, but I tried to fight off the two men as well as I could. They quickly overcame me and threw me up against the wall, holding me there while I seethed and tried to get at Ayanami. Taker and Kaien both drew their swords and held them at my throat in a cross shape so I couldn’t move forwards without cutting my own throat. Ayanami came towards me, just wiping the last of the blood from his already healed nose. He took it between his thumbs and twisted his nose suddenly with a crunch so it wasn’t crooked anymore. He was panting with fury. “Take him to the Chamber. Tie him up. Make sure he can’t escape. Then wait for me.” He growled fiercely at Kaien.
“Sir.” He replied.
Ayanami strode off while Kaien produced a set of shackles and tied my hands behind my back. They both marched me down the long dark corridor and out into the main foyer of the prison. Then I was taken up another of the main corridors. In my time it had been a holding area for interrogation, now it had deteriorated into yet another hellish place. The corridor was no longer brightly lit and pristine. The white-washed walls were cracked and blood-spattered. The floor was slick with blood, water and god knows what else. From the holding cells positioned along the wall I could hear noises- coughing, retching, weeping. I was glad I didn’t have to look inside the cells. Te stench was another matter altogether.
At the end of the dank corridor was a chair fixed to the stone floor. It hadn’t been there before. Currently, a thin, whimpering man was seated in the chair with his hands bound behind the chair back. He wore a cadet’s uniform, a bloodied one, but it was still a uniform. He could’ve been, what, 17 years old? Two higher ranking guards were talking in low voices to him. Question, punch, question, punch, and so on. He was crying, I saw, and trembling too. He had swollen eyes and a broken nose and cheekbone as far as I could tell. I felt exposed without my hat and mask when the two guards turned and eyed me suspiciously. “Ladies. We require the Chair. Thankyou.” Kaien said cooly.
“Yes sir.” The guards said smartly and saluted. They began dragging the sobbing prisoner away before he looked up at me. “Sir?” He asked in astonishment, his voice a lisp from broken teeth. Then it dawned on me.
“Jay....” I said joylessly. Oh, my God. He really had been found out. “Jay, I will help you!” I shouted even as he was dragged and finally slammed against the wall while the cell door was opened. Even when he had been thrown into his cell and the sounds of continued questioning started leaking from the cell, I shouted to him. I was finally silenced with a kick to the ribs.
I was forced to sit in the bloody chair and offered no resistance. I was in shock. My hands were bound as Jay’s had been and my legs bound to the legs of the big chair. “You’re going to regret hitting the General.” Kaien muttered darkly, his eyes flashing.