Illustration by Djamila Knopf
At one time, my life was free for the taking. I didn’t care how it was used, so long as I was never forced to suffer. I knew I would be forced to live a long life under the dominion of another. At any point in time, I could have freed myself. But free from what? If not an instrument, I was a servant to alienation.
My memories imply feelings that I no longer recognize. In the present, nothing I do can return the forgotten feelings. But they are forgotten, so how would I know them if they returned?
It’s nice outside. I remember it – the way the sun brightens my skin, the feeble pitch of partridges brushing my ears with harmonious bliss. Everywhere am I environed by emerald blurs I can touch and tell: the grass, the leaves, and sprightly stalks. I look down, see flowers, and I decide to pick one from its roots. Their yellow petals stand distinct, reminiscent of the sun. Except, I can look at these. I cannot look up. They grow in abundance by the sparkling stream. Creeping closer, I stare into the water. It is a mystery what I see. Everything about me appears different. Why do my hair, my eyes… my face appear as snow? Ought it be this way? No one else is. I gently caress my cheek, moving my head closer. Then something glitters in mine eye. Perhaps I can reach it. There it is in my hand! But why does it sting so? Pulling it out, I realize ’tis a sharp thing; a small arrowhead. I’m excited, but my excitement is nearly overshadowed by the pain in my hand.
I run now, back to the place I barely remember, clutching metal in one hand and a flower in the other.
“Dane, there you are!” I hear her voice upon reaching the stone steps! A tall woman in elegant silks, flashes of white and green velvet. Then nothing but flashes of long brown hair and a smile. She grabs hold of my arm and kneels down to hug me. “Were you playing in the sun again?” she questions. I hand her the flower. She sighs. “Dane… Goodness! You’re bleeding!” As I lift my shame, the sunlight fades and my vision blurs.
I remember something else. A night where it rained, she lay close at a man’s bedside, weeping. This was a man close to us, a downtrodden figure invisible in the sheets while few strangers stood over and around his motionless body. Every one of them stood stoic and gaunt, sorrowful in the dim light of candles. I couldn’t understand it, them, what had happened. One man, in particular, arrived at the doorway and stalled before me. Something about his air… disquieted me.
“I’m sorry, young lad,” he lied. “Thy father hath found his path to Eternity.”
The wails grew louder. “Mother?” I call.
“Come, let us outside.” He walks me away and into the darker corridor. Looking down at me, he speaks, “As of the late duke’s death, I shall inherit the title of this castle and the entire duchy. This, perforce, entails my charge for thine upbringing, boy. One last task left by the departed.”
I don’t know what to make of his words. And with effort, I try gazing once more into the room, but he drags me further away. “For the sake of peace and unity, this shall be our new beginning.” Looking up at him, I find a twisting and contorting grin serrating me. “You are no longer the son of a duke, no longer whimsical to the sin. No. In time, you shall be numb to the fear that plagues ordinary men, then become that fear for the enemies that await.”
Fading. It all fades.
My breath, I can hear it now! “It was a dream…”
There’s a knock on the door. Yet whoever stands on the other side does not deign to wait, for I hear it creak open. Steering my gaze, I see a shadow standing just outside. “Lord Valeroșu requests your presence,” utters a man’s voice. I sit upright, catching the muffled sound outside the stone walls. I leave the bed of my gray chambers, then walk towards the gray walls directly outside, continuing after the guard down a stone corridor. Like the others, I can’t remember this man’s name or describe his face; but he wears the usual steel plate beneath crimson I am accustomed to, and the broad-brimmed helmet like the ones I see patrolling the grounds nearly every sun and moon. As we approach a bright light at the end of the corridor, I hear noise – the murmurs of a crowd. It grows louder as the outside light burns my visage.
I lower my head and leave my hat to shield me. I check my shoulders, fasten my pauldrons: layer after shrinking layer of steel plate running down to my elbows, followed by the steel vambraces my forearms, and my riveted gloves. Then I evaluate the rest of my armor – the metal greaves clenching my shins and knees; my encumbering black gambeson of wool and cotton; finally, the girdle always tied around my waist, holding that scabbard which in turn holds the sword restless for my grip. Dressing for such occasions has become so automatic and mechanical to my life that I no longer notice. My body has become numb to battle-readiness. Up my sleeves and along my belt, all instruments rest where I habitually keep them.
We stand amidst torrential reign within the square keep of solid stone. One step out of the hollow exit, and from atop the battlements, I witness the commotion: Villagers rioting, the anger seemingly leveled against the steel-clad figure in crimson, Lord Valeroșu. Behind him stands a wooden palisade barring the red doors of a towering stone keep. Before him stand the gathered rabble of concerned commoners. And he… He stands between them and the gallows, facing the wooden gate segregating inner fortress from town. Those gallows are as a stage, the surrounding guards like plate-armored stage hands tilting their halberds at the crowd. And Valeroșu, lord of the castle, stands among the criminals. Though he stands amongst men, he is a god to the row of men who found their necks fondled by rope. They shall tighten once the floorboards give way.
I hear the anger and sadness bellowed by the masses. Who are those few being executed? I wonder.
“Presented before you are the unworthy vermin of Red Valley,” the lord of the castle commences his address. “Standing accused of Burglary, thievery, and murder, the fate of the few rests our hands. Hitherto, my leniency hath fostered treacherous depravity. For as thou knoweth, forsaken law left unrequited shall breed a brigand and enemy to Voracia!”
I could hear the criminals. Specifically, the one who pleaded in a final effort for salvation. But one does not plead before the deaf, I would say.
“I only killed the cutthroat after he stole into my home. My daughter hardly speaks for his contemptible act!”
I see a little thing running past the guards. “Papa!” she screams as she makes for what I presume to be her father’s arms. That is a helpless act.
“Marian!” he cries.
“Grab her!” my lord orders, before turning to the despairing father on the stand. He stands as a husk of metal and crimson, eyes both lifeless and deriding. “A child as unruly as her father, one foreseeable problem on top of another.”
I could see a woman approach my lord, kneeling before him, pleading, “Please! I beg you to spare my husband. It was our hunger spurring his fool actions, milord. Almost all of our water is gone, and we are without food!” I can assume she alludes to a different soul in the gallows. Another criminal whose execution lay inevitable.
“Then thou art the madness behind his crime!” my lord decries, turning her words like a reflex.
‘NO! Desperate is all we are! Mercy our only plea!”
“Please!” Now another man has boldly stepped forward. A terribly severe boldness. “My brother, there, he has his family! Take my own life and spare his!”
What is this willingness to die? Why would he sacrifice himself for another? Is he a madman? My Lord appears settled in his contemplation. Unusual of him. Such pauses are but feigned consideration for the meek, as I have come to learn.
“I have a thought!” my lord declares. “Dane…”
‘Tis as if he senses my approach. “Yes?” I answer, suspecting his needs.
“Deal with these!”
‘Twas a simple command. Therefore, I step before the prostrating man and woman, and they flinch at my approach–the woman utterly frightened uncertain, the man stepping back with a tight fist and eyes aghast. Because of their fear and hesitation, I catch them the moment they attempt to flee. Their backs turned, spines exposed, I strike bare-handed and deliberately.
As they are no longer conscious, I drag their beaten bodies before the gallows, underneath my lord’s imperious gaze. “There is no protest in the breath of men that may sway my lord.”
“Hour of reckoning!”
Tears, I see them stream down visages as his word mars the ears of mob and accused.
“Let the worms who deem themselves above the law take heed this day! To the parasites, brigands, heathens, and apostates who desecrate this Dukedom and beyond! Thieves! Vagrants! Share this fate, for an affront against my house is an affront unto country; an affront unto the land is an affront against us. “
Lord Valeroșu stepped closer, bent his head, and whispered his quiet admonitions. Not to me, to the commoners at my feet. It was then I felt something. I felt that their doom resulted from a desire stronger than instinct. My senses are numb to this. My mind nearly strains itself attempting to fathom. Despite instinct, many in this world act short of self-preservation. I bear Valeroșu’s whims. I survey the crowd. I suspect we would all be executed for acting on our desires.
“Why?” The man below me spoke.
“Why?” A curious question.
“Why is this happening? Why must we suffer? Why do you serve this man?” Then the echoing. I hear a deafening noise from the crowd – horror and amusement. It’s disharmonious. I turn and see the stiff bodies hanging by the ropes, rocking below the wooden steps back and forth, back and forth. Rocking.
They’re dead… All of the soul’s on the lord’s list, dead in front of me. Of all the moments fate would deem action, there is naught to be done. Yet I feel emptiness on the precipice of a peculiar sensation. I can sense the despair in the air, the sorrow of selfless folk starving, and how senseless these deaths have been… When ’tis senseless, is it not murder? A howling wind dampens the noise around me, but can neither confirm nor deny my question. There are tremors in my veins pulsing into my trembling hands. The sensation takes me back to a cold day when the sky was grey, and mist shrouded myself and many men along a rough, death-ridden pocket of mud.