From the book I'm writing again, hope you enjoy!
Searing pain was the first thing that registered in Joseph’s delirious brain as he dragged himself back in to consciousness. He remembered the assault on the town, him doing his best to hide at the back. He remembered the inn burning, the chase through the streets, then the skirmish that had ended with him writhing on the floor as his hamstrings were slashed by an unseen assailant. Then, all he remembered was darkness. Now he was fervently wishing he was back in that oblivion, instead of in a world of agony and dismay. The ruin that was previously an inn was still wreathed in fire beside where he and one other were bound, the hungry flames devouring anything their tongues could reach, frantic villagers doing their utmost to ensure that the inferno didn’t spread further. It seemed they’d given up their attempts to extinguish the blaze, and had moved now to damage prevention; the young boys dampening down thatch as the adults did their best to tear down the nearby market stalls, much to the chagrin of the merchants who used them.
What caught his eye, though, was two of the men who had fought them toiling alongside the villagers. There was the man with the hideous scar on his face, who did nothing but laugh and flash his crooked smile. But it was the younger man who held Joseph’s attention more. He’d heard the villagers call him lord, though the word boy was more apt – he couldn’t of been more than sixteen. Breaking stalls beside the commoners earned him some glances of respect from many of them, though they were careful the glances were not seen. Coupled with the piercing blue eyes, Joseph used to put two and two together to get four. This must have been Alkor, General Sain’s youngest son, probably left with some kind of authority since his father and brother were out hunting the very men who Joseph had attacked the village with that night. Men who Joseph felt sickened to serve, but had no choice.
So he sat crumpled out the ground, hood askew but face mask firmly in place, watching men try to reverse the damage they’d created, awaiting the judgement of the lord-child. His companion groaned on the ground next to him, just beginning to come around himself from the ordeal. Joseph glared daggers at the man, one of the many who had forced him to commit these atrocities that night, giving him no reason as to why, just giving him orders and expecting them followed. As if knowing the captives were awake, the scar-face man halted the work, keeping some lads on bucket duty to stop spreading, but otherwise allowing the fire to rage. The man turned, flashing the crooked smile that Joseph had seen all night, but this time with a sinister feel to it. He aimed a kick at the groggy man to Joseph’s side, who was just awake enough to flinch slightly before the jolt of pain hit him. To his credit he didn’t cry out.
“So, your lad back there didn’t divulge your purpose... now he’s dead. Your chance at staying alive rests solely on what you tell me in the next few minutes” the man said casually. The contrast between the cruel smile and the casual tone was unnerving, and Joseph went cold inside. His companion mumbled something, but the mask kept most of the sound from escaping.
“It’d help if you’d take those masks off” the man suggested, reaching forward to rip the mask off the tied man’s face, who flinched away. “You can’t be that ugly mate, surely?” Scar-face cackled, which did the trick. The man’s eyes hardened, and he slowly reached up to the mask, peeling it off like a scab. Suddenly, the sinister smile vanished as all decorum fled and Scarface lunged like a viper, punching the man in the teeth hard and snapping his head back.
“How many of you went over Mika, you bastard?!” the man raged. Joseph watched in awe as the second man of the night was revealed to be friends of the village they had attacked. Mika just smiled, blood dripping from his cracked lips.
“Heya Lucius” Mika taunted. “Went over where? To being sick to death of working for a pittance wage to protect people who don’t realise what we do for them? Brother, I’ve always been here, just took me a while to get into the open.”
Joseph’s blood ran cold at the words, knowing the ideology came from a dark rooted core, one that the Annarite kingdom did everything to fight against. He knew finally what reason he’d been forced in to fighting for. Lucius dove forward again, snarling as he wrenched Mika in to the air.
“Kerazar” Lucius growled furiously. Mika laughed, albeit sounding forced as he struggled to keep the pain from contorting his face.
“Kerazar? Brother, we are all Kerazar who have lost our way. Why should we risk everything for people who give nothing back? The kingdom gets taxes, we get paid, but what do we really get?” Mika retorted, flecks of blood spattering on to Lucius’ ridged faced. “Merchants sneer at us in their gaudy robes, richer than we’ll ever be for no risk. Peasants claim equality to the rest when they clamour for scraps of bread to survive. And don’t even get me started on the General, that idiot is so high and mighty he – “, an outburst of breath as Lucius punched him hard in the stomach cut off the rest of the tirade, and he was dropped unceremoniously to the floor. Joseph watched the whole exchange, pain forgotten and a growing sense of nausea in the pit of his stomach as the concept of who he’d been serving sank in. Kerazar. The word used to scare children in to doing as their told, the evil bordering kingdom who’s only language was the language of strength, and who held it. It seemed so obvious, now; who else could raze a village, capturing all young men and using their families to ensure their loyalty, dangling the threat of them over their heads. Dangling the threat of his sister’s life over his head. His sickening revelation was cut short as the young lord approached, rubbing soot off his face with his sweat stained shirt, looking seemingly unconcerned of the scene in front of him.
“He looks familiar, another turncoat Lucius?” he said, not showing an ounce of care that one of his father’s men had betrayed him, as he ruffled his hair to dislodge the rogue pieces of ash that had settled there. Only his eyes betrayed the fury that lurked inside. If there was any doubt that boy is a lord, those eyes would dispel it Joseph thought uneasily, and he could see that same unease reflected in the eyes of Mika, even in the scar faced man, Lucius Mika began to rise again, beginning to spit an insult. A flicker of movement was all that announced the savage kick that the young lord delivered to render Mika unconscious, eyes rolled back in to his head as he crumpled back to the dirt. Without pause, he began to stalk towards Joseph, who’s heart began to hammer uncontrollably as the lord crouched to look him directly in the eyes, the piercing blue cutting deep through any tough facade he hoped to exude.
“Now...” the lord Joseph was now sure was Alkor Sain said calmly. “Whilst your mate there has a nap, you can answer our questions.”
Knowing now was his only chance to make his stand, to get out from under what he now knew to be the Kerazar boot, he ripped off his mask and began to babble, seeing a fleeting look of surprise cross Alkor’s face as he realised this wasn’t another of his father’s men.
“You don’t understand how it is! They move from village to village, killing and burning, apparently leaving none alive. But the records forget about us, the ones that go missing. The ones they leave alive. The ones that are the perfect age, for trade or for fighting. If we don’t comply, we die, or our family dies. There’s only so many weeks you can spend in a cell without water, watching your sister waste away as they feed her rotten food. For Ezimat’s sake, they have my sister!” Joseph screamed shrilly, the high pitched voice finally cutting through the calmness of the young Sain.
“Let me get this straight... you’re not here willingly?” Alkor said, unable to keep the disbelief and contempt from his voice at the insinuation. A flash of anger welled up in Joseph’s breast, and he carried on.
“Look at what’s in front of you! Men have died tonight on both sides. The difference between us is that your men think they’re fighting for justice. Half of ours fight for ideals they don’t understand, forced in to servitude by threatened slavery of their family; the other half are so radical that they think the Prince is a god, sent by Ezimat to right the world and place the chosen ones in power” he said, anger boiling up, spitting and wrenching despite the pain in his lacerated legs. The young lord seemed to take in the words, staring intently at Joseph as he mulled them over, before he blanched as he was dragged back to reality.
“Hang on, the Prince? Prince Krinar?” Alkor exclaimed. Joseph’s outrage immediately subsided and confusion filled it’s gap, realising too late that he’d let slip information that would end with either him or his sister in a grave. Or both. He had nothing to lose anymore.
“Who else but royalty would have the means to plan something this big? Half of his troops have his same twisted mind, the other half are bribed to turn a blind eye. Then most of us are blackmailed, forced in to serving his ideals, following in his uncle’s footsteps of the Kerazar. Strength. Will. Rule.” He said, resignation lining his voice. Alkor sighed, the hardness abruptly leaving his eyes as the Sain ferocity finally winked out, leaving just the tired, young boy in front of him.
“Start at the beginning, and leave nothing out” the young lord said, his tone not even considering that Joseph would argue. So he told him everything. Joseph told him how they held his sister in Torizo, in service to a noble family but working basically as a slave, that they’d kill her as soon as they knew he’d talked, or betrayed them. Of the attack on his village, the threats that had been made to ensure his loyalty, that they’d already killed his mother for his first attempt at escape. The young lord drank it all in, a hint of pity entering his face as he heard the story, but Joseph only felt relief that it was finally out, dropping a lead weight off that he hadn’t known he’d been carrying.
“The problem with all this, Joseph, is that if you die tonight, they’ll kill your sister to avoid a mouth to feed anyway. Did that thought never cross your mind? Without your loyalty to ensure, she’d become a burden.” Alkor said. What happened after his death hadn’t even crossed Joseph’s mind, and he felt a deep rooted dismay as he realised what the young lord said was so obvious. He was left to stew on this fact as Alkor rose up from his crouched position, the arrival of a huge muscled man and a stooped, hooded figure prompted him to move over to them, speaking in hushed tones. The huge man tensed as he recognised Mika on the floor, hissing something in his direction. Right on cue, Mika’s eyes snapped open. He instantly tried to rise at seeing the colossal man, plastering a sneer to his face as he did, but was knocked down by the young lord again.
“You’re a big man eh, little Sain? Hitting a bound man whilst he’s down” Mika laughed, a cough breaking through his words.
“You’re lucky I don’t make sure you never rise again. As it is, this man’s told us everything we need to know, so right now... you’re disposable” Alkor spat. Nobody there missed furious look Mika threw towards Joseph at the comment, and Joseph cringed in fear as it rested on him for a moment.
“What did you promise, his sister could go free? Ha, I can tell that’s what he hopes. Unless one of us reaches the senior officers to report, she dies. If you try to rescue here, she dies. If he dies or betrays us, SHE DIES!” he bellowed, attempting to terrify Joseph in to keeping his mouth shut. What he did though, was ignite something in Joseph’s body, as Mika confirmed the young lord’s hunch that his sister was dead regardless. Defiance suddenly rose inside him, he finally knew the route his life would have to take.
“Enough” Joseph muttered angrily.
“What’s that, pup?” Mika said, a sneer forming on his face, arrogance oozing from his pores.
“I said, ENOUGH!” Joseph roared, kneeling up and completely ignoring the agony that lanced through his legs as he squared directly up to Mika, who flinched back an inch before regaining his posture, slightly ashamed with himself. “If whatever happens, my sister dies, I’ll spend my last days ensuring you and your band of traitors follow her in to the mud, whatever the cost.”
Mika cackled. “You couldn’t plant a seed in the mud you maggot, let alone a warrior.”
But Joseph was finished with him, finished with the chains that bound him. He turned the best he could towards the young lord, his fury radiating from him in waves and giving him strength.
“Lord if you can give me your word you will fight this tyranny and try to free my sister from her chains, my sword is yours. Such as it is” he said quietly but firmly. He could hear his own voice through the pounding in his ears, and the menace in it was off putting. Alkor paused, shocked at the complete turn this conversation had taken.
“How can I know this isn’t a ruse? An attempt to gain my trust to survive the night, then killing me later?” Alkor replied. Joseph felt the comment like a whip, hurt to have his word doubted. He sagged back to the floor, deflated as his chance to break free was dashed away. But, a thought darted through his brain, an oath he’d once heard in a story of lords and kings, the words trickling from his unconscious in his mother’s voice. He rose up again, his eyes feverish.
“Alkor Sain, I pledge my loyalty completely to you and your line. I vow to protect, obey and die for you, until Ezimat’s hall burns and the Underworld consumes all. My life, my soul and my blade is yours” Joseph said, eyes so serene and sure that even Mika’s face registered shock. A broken oath on Ezimat’s hall was as good as condemning yourself to the Underworld without committing any other sin – nobody broke an oath like that. Alkor stood open mouthed, gaping at the others around him with similar dumbfounded expressions. Then, the stooped figure stepped forward and it took all Joseph had to not flinch.
A Seeress, he thought in fear.
“Boy, that oath you just gave binds you tighter than anything you could ever know” the old voice rasped, but Joseph had known this before the words had left his mouth. He kept his gaze steadfast, conveying that he would never break his word. The Seeress nodded in satisfaction, and the tension left Joseph’s body.
“My lord, all my life I’ve been searching for purpose. First with my parents, then when they were killed, with the traitors that killed them. Until this day, I have never found it. But I see a goodness in you, and I give myself entirely to that goodness in a hope that it will lead to my salvation” he said earnestly, causing the young lord to clamp his surprised mouth together again. The weight of the moment was clearly not lost on him, and he stepped delicately so to as not upset the atmosphere that had sprung from it. Even Mika was silent.
“I accept your oath. I vow to give life, food and silver to your family, until Ezimat’s hall burns and the Underworld consumes all. Your life, your soul and your blade is mine, I will not waste it” Alkor said, completing the oath ritual and binding the two men together. Alkor gestured to the Seeress, who stepped forward and placed her hands on Joseph’s head. This time nothing stopped the flinch that broke through Joseph, which changed to total panic as he felt an ice cold beam of power from the bony hands rush through his body, sealing up the wounds inflicted earlier. Joseph squirmed and screamed, the flesh in his legs knitting back together in a torrent of pain that was worse than anything he had ever felt. His scream faded away as the last of his skin sealed, replaced by amazement as he rose with legs he never thought he’d use again.
“My lord... I... It’s” Joseph stuttered, struggling to find words to show his gratitude. Alkor said nothing, clapping a hand on his shoulder and bowing slightly to the Seeress, who nodded wearily. For the first time in years, Joseph felt something that this oath, this leap of faith had given him: Hope. For the first time in years, he smiled.