Vignettes of the Varros
F R A U D
The candleflame and the image of it flickered in the mirror where it twisted and straightened when I entered the room and shut the door. I took off my helmet and came slowly forward. The stone floor scraped beneath my armored feet. Along the cold walls before me hung the portrayals of ancestors dimly known to me, all framed up in glass and guttered ornamentation carved and bespackled with gold and fool’s gold. I came to one and pressed my thumb to the waxy veneer. I looked at the face so caved and drawn inward and white, the yellowed hair and the thin pale eyes, eyelids shrill like paper. My father’s cruel visage represented here in a manner of one that was sleeping, though I knew beyond any shadow of my mind that my father did not know sleep; no, he still walked this world, and there would be no sleeping for him, not until he had wrested from me anything and everything I had so desperately tried to protect.
“You never cared to know me,” I said. I could feel him sneering down on me.
I left the room. Inside the hall there was no sound save the flickering of the torches. I went out the main door and let it shut behind. It was dark outside and cold and no wind to know. In the distance a horse bawled. I stood with my helmet in my hand. I walked out to the prairie and saw that thin grey reef beginning along the eastern edges of the world. Light of a new day, nascent and needing.
I came to a fence and stood against it and stared out at the darkened land as some supplicant to the night. As I turned to go I heard the hoofbeats. I stopped and waited for them. I could feel them under my feet. They came thundering out of the east like some army of muscle and steel. They slowed to a trot and raised their torches as they passed me by.
“Hail, my lord.”
I watched them go. I carried on into the camp where the refugees lay shuddered up in their little cots stuffed with cotton and wool and straw, bedded up on stilts or on the ground, or on boxes or inside old crates stuffed with hay. Women and children from a village not long ago raped and plundered by an enemy I did not yet know, but would reckon with soon. I moved about them and they stirred from their makeshift homes and called out to me. They were all of them Colovians, and though I was cold and though it was dark, I saw the light in their eyes, the warmth in their smiles.
I have always felt a fraud at my station, a man playing at a thing he could never do well. I have been known for my passions and obsessions, how they cannot be controlled. It is true that the stronger the passion, the more vulnerable the person. This may seem surprising, for it is the most passionate person who looks the strongest. However, I, like so many others, are simply filling the stage with my own theatricality; distracting my enemies from the true weaknesses I know. Greed, lust, fear—these are emotions that cannot be entirely concealed. Emotions over which we have the least control. If there is one thing I have learned from my father, it is this: what people cannot control, you can control for them.
I carried on into the morning walking the old war path to the south. My thoughts were on my father, and how I was not like him, how he was hated and feared. I tried to reason within my mind that it was not the same with me, but my mind continued backward across my recent memories, and in it a cold stone sank in the depths of my gut. I am hated. I am feared. But I refused to believe I was the same as he. I had decided long ago that it was better to be feared than loved, and perhaps that is why I am still alive—and so many others are not.
K I N S L A Y E R
The horse he rode was black and black was the night and the wind rushed and the road angled and switchbacked down the hill until it plunged into a ravine along the edge of the woodlands where it straightened briefly, then lost itself in the humming field of nighttime crickets. Beyond this stretched a line of blackened treetrunks burned and fire-stormed and branchless like spears stuck into the earth by the gods. He led the horse away from the desolation and away from the road so that he waded through the grass, and here he could feel the horse working over the undulations and the ruts of the ploughed-up dirt, and when the horse stopped to pull fruit from the blackberry brambles, the rider let him, and dismounted.
He inhaled the night.
He could see the longgrass swaying in the wind, pale and cobalt as each blade turned in the light of the moons. He could hear the horse eating, and above it, he listened to the faint liquid of a nearby stream purling unseen beneath the grass. He searched for this, and when he found it, he sank his knees into the cool earth and brought his hands to the water and retrieved a portion. And like an offering he brought this to his face, and drank.
A voice interrupted him and the sound of it pricked his skin to needles
Belisarius Quintus Varro rose and turned. He saw standing there the makings of a man drawn from death and reanimated now in life. An armored man after the Imperial fashion, clad in Colovian steel, imbued with Colovian pride. A strong jaw. Pale skin. And stark, grey eyes. Dirt clung to the armor, and portions of the skin across his face were missing, so that the bones of his cheeks poked through in places like little white mountain peaks. The wind brought his scent, and he smelled of putrid rot.
“Marcus,” Belisarius said.
The undead came forward.
“I’ve been looking for you. The one they call the horse-lord leaves a rather easy trail.” Marcus held in his hands two swords. They dripped with something black and viscous.
“It does not need to be this way, Marcus. This can be set right.”
“Oh, it will be set right, brother. It will be. What you did will be answered for. And once you have joined us in death, the proper order will be restored. And House Varro will live on. Honorably. As it should.”
“Father has poisoned your mind.”
“Has he?” Marcus extended his arm to look at it in the moonlight. He flexed his fingers around the swordhilt. “I feel freer than I ever have.” Marcus closed the space between them. Belisarius stepped back, and reached for his swordbelt.
“This is not the way.”
“It is the only way,” said Marcus. He lifted his swords.
Belisarius drew his.
The blades clanged, two against one. Marcus moved like a living man and Belisarius met him like a dying one. It was a quick and desperate fight, noiseless except for the one man's breathing and grunts. The grass swayed around them like a nacre sea. The horse watched helplessly as Belisarius Varro was cut down. A stab to the chest. A severed hamstring. A vicious slice across his face. The black-tipped weapons seemed touched by the tongues of serpents, and the open wounds of the lord burned like fire. He moved more slowly, then dropped to a knee. The last blow came, and his sword was sent clattering into the night.
Marcus climbed over him and placed both blades crosswise to his throat. The pale grey eyes looking down at him.
"Come home, Quintus," Marcus said to him. He removed the blades from his throat and brought his knee down instead.
Belisarius twitched under the pressure, then choked, then gagged. Blood rushed into his head. He felt the capillaries in his eyes breaking, bursting. His lungs burned. His chest heaved. His boots scraped futilely against the grass and the mud. He felt himself sinking into that wet, earthy grave. The sight of his brother staring down at him, emotionless. Dead.
His eyes rolled into the back of his head, where they went still. Then they turned. From grey, to black.
Belisarius closed his eyes for the final time, and when he reopened them, he was standing over Marcus. The man's head was severed, his guts strewn, his body rendered down to a steaming pile of gore. Broken bones and chewed organs. A black liver, a mangled heart, pale skin of feet and hands. With shaking limbs, Belisarius crawled through that mountain of viscera and reached out. His bloodied hands found and lifted the detached head of his brother into the air. He fought the urge to howl.
J U S T I C E
The land was a bleak, frozen mass in the darkness of night. Trees barren with all but icicles and frost clinging to their branches. House soldiers huddled around campfires and braziers for warmth, the air so bitter and cold that each time they exhaled, their breath could be seen in a cloud of vapor. The icy terrain crunched beneath their armored boots any time that they sought to move between outposts as they dutifully stood guard throughout the Varro estate.
Just outside of the stables, beneath the canopy of the crafting hut, a faint light emanated from the forge. It radiated just enough heat to withstand the freezing temperatures. An iron bar was clamped over the burning coals as a shadowy figure worked nearby, iron tools clanking distinctively every so often. Once the bar had heated enough, the figure turned to pull the hot iron from the forge and set to work hammering it against the rounded horn of the anvil, shaping the iron bar into that of a horseshoe. The young apprentice had crafted so many by now that it was second nature. She hardly had to put thought into it. Calloused hands worked instinctively, turning the iron over every so often to hammer it to the desired shape. But that didn’t mean her mind was absent as she did.
She shifted from the horn to the anvil’s edge, hammering the horseshoe relentlessly as she struggled to forget what had occurred earlier that day, but it was proving a far more difficult task than she could have imagined. Each strike of the hammer became more desperate as the scene replayed in her thoughts. Even as her fiery gaze was fixated upon the task at hand, she could see Castro’s face as clear as day. She could hear his hysterical cries for mercy, those agonizing screams that soon followed as each limb was slowly pulled apart from his body. The sound of cartilage popping, ligaments tearing apart, and bone snapping as the ropes were pulled taut by each rider...
Illia had been one of those riders. She shook her head, realizing the horseshoe had cooled too much to be hammered to the proper shape. She thrust it back into the forge and left it there to reheat. She remembered looking to Lord Varro in utter astonishment as he offered her the forth leather binding. “For his remaining leg,” he had instructed. Illia remembered looking to Castro’s already battered corpse as he remained face down in the dirt, bruised and bloody from the journey to the estate. She had hesitated to take the binding from Belisarius, but upon glimpsing to her Lord, she knew what was expected of her. She had no choice but to bind Castro's remaining leg... To choose otherwise meant disappointing not only the Horse Lord himself, but those within the House she had grown to respect. Marcia, Solarion, and others. No. She could not do that. She could not fail them, or fail the two hundred and twenty-three villagers that suffered a worse fate by the hand of Castro himself...
He deserved it... She told herself. It was justice... Illia peered into the forge, brow furrowed with a great intensity, her expression as troubled as ever as thoughts whirled about in her busy mind... Flames thrashed violently within as an icy breeze drifted beneath the canopy, chilling the Colovian to her very core. She rubbed her blackened hands together. Dirt, coal dust, and some other dark residue smudged her complexion and seemed to highlight the small creases of her calloused palms. Her harsh amber gaze stared down, realizing the unusual tremble in her hands... It was more than a shiver brought about by the frigid air. No. This was something else entirely. She squeezed a hand to steady it.
It was difficult not to think of all she had experienced upon her arrival at the Varro estate. She often wondered if she had made the right decision... When Lord Varro had offered her the apprenticeship, she was in disbelief. Even more so when she learned that her father, Solicius Andronicus, had served under him as a renowned blacksmith in the Imperial Legion. However, misfortune seemed to follow her, no matter where she went... Shortly after settling in at the estate, the House's quartermaster was killed in combat. Since then, Illia had done all she could to make the best out of a bad situation. She was grateful for Lord Varro's hospitality, for the tools he afforded her, and the abundance of work that was provided at the estate. But at what cost? She couldn't help but wonder.
There was no doubt that Castro got what was coming to him. He had slaughtered so many... Burned them alive. A slow and painful death. An undeserving death. His death was not undeserved. She only needed to remind herself of that as she breathed in shakily before lowering her head into her rough hands. Would Solicius be proud of his daughter? Would he be proud of her for ensuring that justice was served to one who had wronged so many innocent Imperial lives? She had done the right thing, but the feeling that was left... Why did she feel so torn asunder? She was merely a member of the Domestikos of House Varro... She was no soldier. She lacked any formal training in the way of martial combat. More so, she had never killed a man... Before now.
She thought back to the combat operation that Decurion Solarion had led within the Imperial City's walls along with the Bucellarii Marcia. What had Illia been thinking when she requested Solarion permit her to join? Better yet, what had Solarion been thinking to allow her to join them!? What am I trying to prove? I am not a soldier. I am not... a killer. Her thoughts flashed back to her mother, and the rumors that had surrounded her peculiar death. Some believed that she had killed herself, but many believed that Illia had been the one to grant her an early death. Or perhaps she had ended her suffering? Would that be justification if so? The very rumors had forced Illia from her village, forcing her to carry a dark past with her where ever she traveled. To this day, those rumors were just that - rumors. There is no denying it now. I -am- a killer.
To that realization, tears began to well in her amber eyes, threatening to burst from behind black powdered eyelids. She shook her head, struggling to force her thoughts to be silent. But they were too loud, and they would not be repressed so easily... Illia Andronicus was just a simple farrier... An apprentice blacksmith. What was really becoming of her? She may not have been alone in ending Castro's life, but she was alone in combating her own mental anguish for having played a part in it.
The apprentice's thoughts were finally disrupted when a sharp sizzle hissed from the forge. Her gaze shot forward suddenly to find the hot iron dripping over the burning coals. The horseshoe had lost its shape almost entirely, and instead, had become a liquid mass that drooped and dripped between the crevices of the sediment. Son of a - Illia reached for the tongs frantically and thrust them into the quenching bucket. An even louder and longer hiss sounded when hot steel met icy water. The iron bar, however, was wasted. With a grimace, she cursed under her breath and reached for a rod to forcefully rake any unused coals away from the firepot. She then pulled a lever to cut off airflow to the forge, severing the oxygen needed for the fire to burn, and left it to coke over after prodding the central coals to release the heat from within.
An exasperated sigh fell from her lips as she lifted the tongs from the bucket of water once they had cooled enough. She cast the tongs aside with a loud clank before sinking to the cold ground with her back against the worn, wooden counter. Hugging her knees to her chest, Illia leaned her head back, amber eyes squeezed shut, as if that might prevent the tears from spilling out... Above the canopy of the crafting hut, the full moons shone brightly in the clear sky. The whole estate seemed to bask in the pallid moonlight. Illia remained liked this for some time, waiting for the forge to simmer and simply trying to collect her thoughts. At least, until a long, eerie howl disrupted the silence. She opened her eyes slowly and cast her gaze outside of the crafting hut, body tense as the hairs on her arms stood on end.
They're becoming more frequent, she thought. But alas, despite how frightening the howling was at times, she felt safe within the walls of the estate... She felt safe knowing there were soldiers stationed throughout and at all hours of the night. There was no way the Highland wolves would make their way inside the gates, so after a moment of contemplation, Illia allowed her head to slip back against the counter once more, and her eyes to squeeze shut as she welcomed the bitter cold. Nearby, the forge's flame had been reduced to that of a smolder...
Posted Feb 3, 19
· Last edited Feb 3, 19
B L O O D P A T H
Spoiler: (Music theme)Show
He rode alone. Magnus in the east flushed pale streaks of light, and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring hillwise across the highlands, where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation, where the sun rose out of nothing like the head of some great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind him. The shadows of the smallest rocks lay like long lines of deathly penmanship across the graveled ground. He rode with his helmet on, faceless under the plume, and in the visor was the gaze of a lord set upon some inexorable warpath.
“Don’t leave me,” she had said.
He did not know where he was. Wolves had come to follow him, great pale beasts with bright eyes that trotted neat-footed or squatted in the briars along the road to watch him where he made his halt. He dismounted, a cacophony of man and muscle and steel, while in the distance the vulpines loped and slid and ambled with their long noses pressed to the thawing ground which hissed like weeping permafrost.
“Don’t leave me,” she had said. “Ever. I’ll gut you if you do.”
He took the first man he found tilling in the field, and he threw him up against his plough, and with one hand found his throat, and with the other found his sickle, and with this he slashed him and sawed him and gutted him, and he stared into the other man’s eyes, then ripped the harvest free. Hot blood squirted like oil on the ground, and the man fell back clutching his intestines. They fell from him like blackslick eels squirming free between trembling fingers.
“Don’t you ever fucking leave me,” she had moaned.
He stood seething in the field while around him lay thirteen dead or dying, the rest screaming, tripping, running for the stone tower in the distance. A bell rang out, and shouts of alarm echoed it, and the people of the village scattered from their wattle huts and their thatched hovels, some of them gathering children, others bleary-eyed in search for weapons, all of them unprepared for this embodied brutality that now descended. He moved like a senseless automaton of war; the sword in his hand singing nothing but murder. A strange quietness filled the air; muted grunts, hissing blades, slashes and gasps of men and women sent to immediate death. He did not speak and his blade did not miss and his feet did not stop until he had cut down every soul that stood between him and those running from their end.
Three men met him at the pass between the village and the tower, and here they formed a line. Like a steel-clad behemoth, he smashed into them, and with him came their death. The first man, a Redguard, and Varro cut his head off. The second was a Breton. He came with a warhammer, and Belisarius caught the weapon with his left hand, and killed him with his right. The last was an Orc, who parried two strikes, missed the third, and lost his arm on the fourth. He fell and vainly crawled a backward path upon the stairs and it was here that Varro stopped him with his boot. Frightened eyes were met with hate, and Belisarius bent and smashed his face with his fist, then he did it again, and again, and again, until the Orc’s skull went wet with the fragments of teeth and of bone and of blood. He left him there, an oozing vomit of gore and bones, before he kicked down the tower door. In the threshold he stood with his sword dripping blood.
Huddled in the darkness were the scared and teary faces of men old and women young, of frightened boys and crying girls. They held their hands up to him like an offering, and pleaded in the common tongue, but on this day the only language this man knew was death, and the making of it.
“Don’t ever fucking leave me,” she had moaned. “I’ll fucking kill you if you try!”
He could still feel her nails in his back.
By the time night had come, there were none left moaning in that place. Lifeless he entered and lifeless he left it and now he stepped out of that tower as a reaper bathed in crimson. Goredrenched and hollow, he descended the stairs. A crack of thunder came, and he walked out, and stopped, and looked up at the sky.
A sudden descent of rain.
He removed his helmet and smeared blood on his face. The hot mingled with the cold. The dark with the light. He felt the wash of the water, the mix of the sweat, and the taste of the blood. It was only then that he decided he would breathe. In the next, he sheathed his sword.
"Don't leave me," she had said.
He donned his helmet and went to his horse.
"Don't leave me."
Posted Feb 4, 19
· Last edited Feb 4, 19