The wooded path we followed was uneven and littered with disuse and the darkness that continued to creep up only made my anxiety worsen. We travelled at a slow and gentle canter that set my whole body to a constant throb. The black forest finally gave way to torchlight burning in the distance down an even thinner and darker trail than the one we currently followed.
We approached a tiny grey one-story building squatting in the trees. It had no windows, only two torches on the wall on either side of an iron-enforced door. The moonlight filtered weakly through the dense overgrowth as I was led across a small clearing and into the maw of the building. Inside was pitch black, and my eyes took a long time to adjust, but before I could fully adjust to the twilight, I torch was brought inside. The warm glow didn’t seem right in such a horrific place. The room was about five paces across, and the floor was filthy and the stench of rotting flesh was too much to bear. I gagged and received an abrupt elbow to the ribs for that. I remained with the guards, trembling, while some chains were prepared along one wall of the room by Heighward. I hate to admit it but the trembling was not only due to fatigue, but fear of what Heighward and his men would do to me and why it was important enough for an hours’ journey on the night of a ball. I noticed a very haggard man leaning into the corner of the room nearest where I was chained. He was likewise shackled by the wrists by chains about a metre long. By the looks of things he had been here a while. His greying blonde hair was matted with blood and dirt, while his nose looked broken and several deep cuts lined his face. He was dressed in some sort of uniform- green in colour as far as I could tell. He looked at me sympathetically and then flicked his gaze to study the guards suspiciously, before glaring at Heighward. I was shunted against the wall and chained up without ceremony. Heighward left with the promise that, “I’ll be back soon. Don’t fret.” And left a torch burning on the wall for light. I bowed mockingly and he left with a sick grin on his face saying, “Oh, this will be fun.”
“You shouldn’t have done that, my friend.” A hoarse voice said from the corner after footsteps had subsided.
I smiled to myself which progressed into a laugh of being past the point of caring, which then progressed into an unhealthy-sounding coughing fit. “I’ve nothing to lose.” I mumbled, almost to myself after I could breathe again. I sank down to sit on the dirty floor and lolled my head forwards as I swung my gaze to him, not that he could see. “You might think that now, but after the torture has begun? Not likely.” He told me.
“I’ve withstood torture before. I’ll be fine.” I said tiredly. I sat in silence for about another hour and then decided to remove my mask. I threw it as far away from myself as possible before looking at the man and smiling solemnly. I saw his eyes widen slightly at my scars before he said, “Ah, Ayanami’s assassin, are you not, Vincent?” It was my turn to be shocked.
“How do you know this?” I demanded of him. Maybe his shock wasn’t all at my extensive scars.
He spat onto the floor before wryly whispering, “I have my ways.”
“Explain yourself, that’s an order!” I roared into the silence. The echoing seemed to last forever. I stood and launched myself forward a step before my chains stopped me coming to break his jaw. I stood, panting and glaring my fury until my anger subsided and I sat down against the wall again. It was a few moments before I noticed the sound of footsteps coming down some corridor somewhere. Heighward stormed into the room through a door I hadn’t noticed and approached me in three strides with two guards hurrying on his tail. He grabbed me by the collar and shoved me up against the wall and stared straight into my eyes, “Be silent!” He practically screamed into my face. I could smell alcohol strongly on his breath and I feared that his intoxication may lead to rash behaviour. I stayed quiet. The two guards stood behind him shifting uneasily from foot to foot. I flicked a glance to my fellow prisoner who looked incredibly worried for me, he knew something I didn’t. I looked back to Heighward to see he was raising his fist for a punch. I gasped and threw myself back against his grip and dodged sideways as far as my confines would allow, chains clinking. Heighward’s punch hit the stone wall at my back and he roared his fury to the night and turned on me again. I had nowhere to escape this time and I struggled futilely against stone and iron as Heighward’s fist approached. His wrath met my jawbone at full throttle and I heard a horrific cracking noise in my ear. My head snapped left on my neck and I slumped against the wall with my eyes screwed shut against the pure agony that overcame my jaw. He aimed another punch at my stomach and it landed right on target. I doubled over and fell to my knees before Heighward. I stayed there, head knelt to the ground before me and waited for the pain to subside- it didn’t. Running my tongue against the inside of my cheek I could taste blood and feel the sharpness of broken tooth and bone, if I were wearing my mask would the damage be so extensive? I breathed in deeply, my throat rasping before coughing, and finally, retching. I sat back up infront of my captors and looked up at them wearily. “Bring him.” Heighward ordered to his guards. They came forward and took me, one on each side holding a chain and half-dragged, half-walked me up a new corridor behind Heighward. I was too tired to cry out and so stumbled along sedately. We emerged into a smaller room, but this one’s bloodstained walls were lit with torches, causing the complex and terrifying torture equipment to spread long shadows against the wall. Chains lined the damp walls between the different pieces of equipment. As if he’d noticed for the first time, Heighward pointed out, “You’re not wearing your mask....” A sudden smile lit up his face, “I like to see to faces of my prisoners as they beg for mercy and scream and cry.”
I mustered up every bit of strength I could to say, “I doubt that’ll be happening today.”
“Let’s see, shall we?” He retorted.
My hands were tied to a hook suspended from the roof, so that I dangled with my feet slightly touching the floor. I had been stripped down to my waist beforehand so that my sweating body gleamed in the firelight. The hook was in the very centre of the room so Heighward could get me from all angles. He went over to a large chest in the corner of the room and pulled out what looked like a long leather whip. He unravelled it as he sauntered across the room to me, smiling. I began trembling again and I think he saw it, for he laughed and lashed the wall with one strike of the whip. It made a deafening slapping noise; the sound rang out for a time before falling into silence again. My breathing was loud and gaspy, I was dreading this more than I had originally thought.
“Who do you work for?” Heighward asked flatly.
“You already know that!” I replied, “Where is he?!”
“Who do you work for?” He repeated more slowly.
Smack. The whip hit me across my upper back. Hard. I felt warmth run slowly down my back. I tucked in my chin and bit my lower lip as I winced against the pain. I wasn’t going to make a sound.
“No.” I breathed.
“No!” I cried, my voice breaking.
“Fuck off.” I said flatly as I aimed a kick at Heighward’s shins. I missed.
Smack, smack, smack, smack.
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I cried out as loudly as I could and panted, I no longer had enough strength to stand up and hung by my arms, motionless except for my frantic breathing. I could feel the blood running down my back in a steady trickle.
“You know I work for Ayanami! You already know it!” I shouted at him.
“Thankyou for that information.” He said courteously, “Now, next question. Why are you here?”
“I ask the questions.” He told me with a punch to the stomach. “Why are you here?”
“Because you chained me up and dragged me here.”
“You know.” I hissed.
He backhanded me twice and the coppery tang of blood started in my mouth. I coughed up a little blood from the punch Heighward had thrown at my stomach.
“You invited Ayanami, and I’m just coming as his bodyguard, that’s all I know. Honestly.” I was ashamed of looking so weak but I couldn’t bear the pain for much longer.
“Let’s hope you’re not lying or you might regret it.” He muttered. I noticed that he was swaying where he stood and I wondered how much he had actually drunk as I was taken back to my cell and chained up. I hated the look of pity that my neighbour gave me as I was dragged into the room and flung against the wall. My arrow wounds throbbed where the whip had slashed them, and I assumed the whip-lashing had left many welts across my back. “You shouldn’t have killed those men, you know. I will offer you no favours.” I heard shouted down the corridor after me. “The feeling’s mutual.” I replied as loudly as I could, but I sounded choked as I tried to deal with my pain.
“You talked, didn’t you.” It wasn’t a question coming from my fellow prisoner.
“Shut up.” I snapped.
“There’s no shame. But you haven’t felt the worse yet, please, just be prepared.” He told me quietly. I looked away, ashamed of myself.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He sighed. “I worked for Ayanami. I was his lieutenant, but I rejected his idea of attacking your fortress. I had visited you before on my travels and I knew that we shouldn’t take over such a highly regarded place and force such a highly regarded man such as yourself into slavery. He, of course, disagreed with me. He beat me, chained me up and brought me to Heighward as a ‘gift to do what he wanted with’. Heighward’s trying to break me so I can become his assassin, like yourself, but I refuse.” I looked away again, shamed that this man would not give in to the pain and I would. “Don’t do that, I am well aware of the price you are paying and what conditions you are under.” Well, his story explained why Ayanami was in such good favour with Heighward, but why was Ayanami captured as I was taken away at the ball? “My name is Trent. Kipp Trent. Nice to meet you.” I looked up at him again and he smiled toothily, displaying the terrible condition of his teeth.
I sat in silence for a moment and tried to work out why Ayanami was so suddenly out of Heighward’s favour. Surely there was something more serious than just me killing a few men at a ball.
The sound of footsteps again made me alert and I got ready to protect myself as well as I could. A guard entered carrying a tray with two bowls of some porridge stuff and stale bread with a bucket of water. He ordered us to stay still while he placed the food infront of us. I laughed aggressively, “You expect me to eat that? Got any brandy?” he kicked me in the side and I laughed again as he left the room. I continued to laugh and then stopped after a while. I turned to Kipp, “Want this?” I asked him, gesturing at the gruel and bread.
“It’s yours. You’ll need your strength.” He said in mid mouthful.
“I don’t eat.” I told him.
“Oh... you’re like Ayanami.” He looked shocked.
“Yeah.” I said, breaking eye-contact. I slid the food to him across the floor and rinsed my mouth out with the water, spitting it back on the floor. I pulled my knees up to my body and rested my elbows on them as I rested my head back against the wall gently, thinking things through.
As night progressed into morning a small strip of light found its way into our room, making the darkness more bearable. A shadow suddenly blocked the sliver of light and I heard the clunk of keys in a lock before Heighward strode in, but he carried on straight past us. I heard alot of shuffling and the sounds of struggling at the door before two guards dragged a kicking and fighting Ayanami past us. I stood up, as did Kipp and stared as he went past. We looked at eachother for a moment and then stood, listening.
I heard the sounds of alot of struggling and clinking chains, and as that stopped, the sound of someone heaving for breath and panting. Ayanami. I’ve never heard something more terrible than the man you hate and think is practically invincible being beaten. I heard the muffled sounds of interrogation, and the sharp slaps of the whip, and cries. At one point I remember hearing Ayanami shouting something like, “You honestly think I’ll give in to a thug like you!? Hah!” but the voice was pained, and a considerable time later a frustrated and broken, “Him? Yes, ok. Zelt? No.” The sounds of torture stopped, but then I heard a new sound. Shouting, and clashing of swords. Fighting. Ayanami stumbled out into the corridor opposite me with a sword in his hand. He was bare chested, like myself, and had a horrific amount of gashes from the whip on his back and front. He looked exhausted and quickly fell to a stop, sinking to his knees by the wall and gasping for breath. I shocked me to see Ayanami in such a state and it shocked me further when Heighward came into my view and made him stand at a sword point. I had never seen someone have so much control over him. He dropped the sword and was chained to the wall adjacent to me. Then Heighward left. He sat in silence, panting for a while longer before shifting his position again and wincing.
“Ayanami, sir.” I said flatly. He seemed to notice me for the first time.
“Vincent. Trent. How lovely to see you.” He replied. Obviously hadn’t lost his sarcasm towards me, then.
Kipp nodded in his general direction, but I could see the pure hatred underneath it all. He looked at me and I saw him glowering his anger at me for addressing him formally. I looked away.
I don’t know how long passed. Meals were brought to us, and me and Ayanami didn’t eat, and we mainly sat in silence. None of us were taken for interrogation, until the day that Ayanami called out, “You’re an idiot, you know.” As Heighward passed by. He stopped in his tracks and turned on me. “He’ll kill you anyway.” Ayanami muttered.
“Guards!” He shouted, and two guards hurried over. My hands were tied behind my back as I was taken to the torture chamber, but when we were inside the door was locked and my shackles were removed. I noticed the door was infact barred rather than wooden. A sword was tossed to me and a guard took up his. “If you kill anyone, I torture you until you want to die yourself.” I was warned by Heighward who now stood by a wall, watching. The guard attacked fiercely and I fought back just as fiercely. After about an hour the guard called out for a rest. He left the room and I stood still for a breather. Another guard suddenly ran in and began fighting me until he tired out. This process carried on for hours, until late into the night and then early morning, until the 21st guard kicked me in the stomach and send me sprawling backwards and I couldn’t even stand up again. I had collected a large amount of cuts and bruises and dealt almost none, I didn’t dare. I lay on the bloody floor and waited to see what happened next as I forced my burning lungs to take in air.
Heighward approached me, clapping mockingly and smiling. “Bravo. You really are quite the fighter. Now,” he took another step forwards and reached down to re-shackle me. “Let’s see if you won’t answer a few questions for me.” Two guards hoisted me to hang off the chain suspended from the roof and left me there while Heighward paced around me. He took a long rod out of a fire burning in the corner of the room and laid it across my exposed back. It didn’t hurt for a minute, but excruciating pain quickly overcame me. I didn’t cry out but let out a small, quick sound, like a sob before dropping my head forwards and panting and retching. I think Heighward found that more entertaining. The rod went back in the fire. He let out a satisfied sound and then said “Where is Kaien Zelt?” The question shocked me for a minute and I stared at him, unsure what to say. “Where is he?” He repeated. He went and picked up the white-hot rod again. I shut my mouth and forced myself not to betray my terror. He lay the rod against my back. “I don’t know where Kaien Zelt is.” I said as measuredly as I could, though my voice was shaking. Heighward growled and took the rod in two hands. He drew the iron rod back and clubbed me across my back. I yelped in shock at the violent gesture and then screamed even more as he proceeded to brand me with it again. He repeated the same process over and over, eventually moving around to brand my chest, too. Always avoiding my slave-brand. He made parallel lines all over my upper body and I lost the will to cry out. I just slumped under the constant pain and waited for it to end, not even bothering to tell him I didn’t know Kaien’s whereabouts. When Heighward could add no more lines to my body I was released from the chains. I fell to the ground with a groan and laid there, relishing the feeling of being untouched for a few moments. My arms and shoulders ached from being hung up for so long and I didn’t dare trying to move them until I needed to. Two guards came forwards and picked me up between them, I don’t know what words were exchanged but they seemed to know what they needed to do. I was taken past Kipp and Ayanami and out into the blinding daylight of the courtyard. The guards left me standing in the middle of the courtyard, swaying, and joined other guards forming a human wall around me. I counted twenty-one guards, a bit of an excess, given the state I was in. I don’t think I would’ve been able to fight an angry rabbit at that moment. The cold air bit my burning brands. I held my tongue.
I stood, my legs trembling beneath me as I swayed gently. I tried not to look weak but it was difficult in the occasional times that I ended up staggering towards the wall of guards around me. When the wall of guards finally moved aside to allow Heighward to pass I almost felt relieved. He seated himself on a chair that I hadn’t noticed before and sighed to himself. He lifted a finger lazily and pointed at a waiting guard. “Cayne. You. Don’t kill him.” The guard nodded, smiling sadistically as he stepped forwards and shed his winter jacket. He limbered up infront of me as if preparing to fight another warrior of similar strength and condition before bowing to Heighward. He nodded.
Cayne stepped purposefully towards me and I felt a rush of energy through my body that I didn’t know I possessed. He lunged at me with his fist and I dodged lithely to one side. I had no strength to land any of my own punches and so attempted to dodge the onslaught of a man who did this regularly. I had no way of escaping the physical pain that I was enduring and I doubted it could get any worse so I ignored Cayne for a minute and turned my reserves of energy and hatred on Heighward, seated in the corner of our arena. Of course, I was exhausted and sluggish, and another guard was quickly behind me, restraining me almost effortlessly by holding my upper arms. He was a competent man who seemed to take no joy in his work, unlike the now snarling Cayne in the line of guards. He wasn’t gentle, but not too rough either. I looked at the floor, regarding my dilemma. I lifted my head and looked Heighward in the eye. I ran my tongue over my teeth to free my lips from my teeth and spoke. “Murderer.” The man holding me stiffened, and Heighward froze in his chair. I leaned forward in the guard’s arms so he had to support my weight. I put threat in my voice, “People know who you are, what you’re doing. You’ll be executed.” He stood. “They’ll find you.” I continued. Heighward was coming at me now, and the guard holding me tightened his grip on me and held me still as Heighward backhanded me. The impact split my skin on my upper cheek and almost sent me reeling out of the guard’s arms. Heighward drew his fist back for another punch at my stomach. I set myself to take it. Suddenly the guard behind me threw me sideways towards the line of guards and drew his blade. More guards in the line leapt to his aid while two others supported me. Some of the real guards surrendered and others fought, and were defeated. Heighward ran backwards into the arms of another two of our men and he was forced to his knees. “Keppet!” He screamed, “You traitorous bastard!” Keppet matter-of-factly knocked him to the floor with the flat of his sword and he didn’t sit up again. Cayne had been killed in the fight, I now saw. But he had taken at least two of the traitors with him. The man who had restrained me- Keppet- came over to me and sincerely apologised for his rough handling of me. Before I was aware of it we were moving into the main building and retrieving Ayanami and Kipp. Ayanami found his and my jackets in the torture room and he gave mine back to me as he asked, “Where is your mask?” I silently left and collected it from the floor of our cell and re-donned it. We walked out into the courtyard once again and Ayanami insisted that we leave immediately. I gave my thanks to Keppet and his team and begged that they don’t leak the news of Hacku’s recovery from death at Ayanami’s hands. My body ached terribly and I had to walk slowly for fear of splitting open the wounds I had received. We mounted up onto the horses we had come on alongside Keppet, Kipp and two other men. The evening breeze was warm and humid, promising stormy weather to come. We set off through the wood in darkness, bringing memories of my torturous time with Heighward, I shuddered. Ayanami seemed to press on unhindered by our beatings and torture, but Kipp seemed much like myself. I rode at the back of our train of men, while Ayanami rode at the head beside Keppet with Kipp behind them. I saw Ayanami look back and make a comment to Kipp and then turn away quickly, smiling. Kipp stiffened in the saddle and then suddenly lunged at Ayanami, dragging him off his horse and onto the ground. Kipp pulled a knife from his boot and went to stab him, but Ayanami had his sword and other weapons, like myself. He quickly fended Kipp off and stood again while Kipp remained on the floor panting like an enraged dragon. He stood again, stumbled two steps and fell again. Ayanami had taken a place between two soldiers and Kipp didn’t stand a chance against him. I don’t know how long he had been in the dungeons for, but much longer than Ayanami and I had, he was in no condition to take on Ayanami today.
“Don’t you ever say that. Ever.” Kipp growled in a voice that seemed much unlike his own.
“You need to face the truth some time.” Ayanami replied tartly.
I remained in my place and waited for the argument to end and for everyone to climb back onto their horses. More time passed in silence, and when Ayanami made his fifth snatching comment to Kipp, he reined in harshly. His horse tossed his head in protest. “I can’t deal with you right now, Ayanami. You betrayed me, and people will betray you. I’ll see to that.” And with that threat he turned and rode through the trees to the west, disappearing into the night. We all stood in shocked silence for a minute, then Ayanami set off again without a word.
When we arrived back at Heighward’s fort, we immediately ransacked the stables for our own horses. We had no intention of going back inside. Keppet stayed behind, explaining how he needed to spread the word of Heighward’s dangerous and violent nature.
The trek home seemed to pass in minutes for me and I was soon back in the confines of a normal routine at the fort. I received alot of funny looks, obviously at my battered appearance and limp. Ayanami seemed to walk with his head held high regardless of what he’d been through. He made me follow him into my old quarters, and he took me straight to the room to my right. It was plainly furnished. A bed, armchair and a writing desk. A large metal bath tub had been placed in the centre of the room and filled with steaming hot water. “I thought I might as well give you a taste of luxury after all we’ve suffered. Enjoy.” And with that he left, locking the door behind him. I was confused at Ayanami’s kindness but stripped and climbed into the bath regardless. My cuts stung from being in contact with the water but I ignored it. I wondered what would become of Heighward and what had happened between Ayanami and him. I decided I’d find out. When I climbed out of the now luke-warm water it was a brown-red colour from a mix of blood and dirt. I took a set of bandages and wrapped them around my torso, neck and arms, then I found a new change of clothes on the bed, including a new mask and belt. I put all my weapons in the new belt and then settled myself into the armchair facing the door and waited.
Ayanami walked in about an hour later. I stood up and flourished a bow, but I did keep a hand on my sword hilt in readiness. Ayanami smiled to that. I straightened up and took a step forwards, “What happened between you and Heighward?” I demanded.
“He wanted you to...”
“From the beginning.” I cut in.
He sighed and began walking out. “Come to my office.” He called over his shoulder.
“My office.” I muttered to myself as I followed him into the round hallway. He strode into the room and opened the shutters so the watery light was now almost too bright in comparison to the dim room I was housed in. He settled himself at the desk set on a platform in the corner of the room. Two comfortable looking chairs were now placed infront of my old desk where there had once been nothing. I stayed standing. The old bloodstain had been scrubbed at by the looks of things but there was still a brownish pigment to the wall. I shivered. My boots clacked on the wooden floor as I went to inspect all my weapons. An array of swords, axes, knives and more were all still there in their rightful places. I turned back to face Ayanami to see he was watching me a bit too intently to be comfortable. “Tell me.” I demanded.
“Where should I begin...” He said to himself in a sing-song voice. “Well. I intended on taking over your fortress, but your little friend Kipp disagreed. I gave him over to Heighward. We became allies. Then... ah, yes. Heighward demanded compensation for you disgracing him and killing a guest’s man. He wanted you. And Kaien, but I refused, offering financial compensation. He got unbelievably angry and almost set his whole army on me when I tried to set off after as you were taken away.” He laughed. “They surrounded me, and even I can’t fight off that many guards. They beat me and then took me to the dungeons in the dead of night on horseback. Where we met once again. Happy now?”
“And who was the woman in the crowd who came to talk to me after the little fighting contest? I assume she was the one who kept shouting my name. Very indiscreetly.” I said curtly.
“What woman? I don’t know.” He replied.
“Red hair.” I told him.
“I don’t know! One of your old friends, probably!” He shouted suddenly.
“Fine.” I muttered, and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind me. To my right a door opened and Kaien gracefully stepped out. “What’s this all about?” He demanded, looking elegant but dangerous at the same time. I stopped and looked at him. He was still dressed in his major’s uniform and I’m sure was very attractive to young women in his attire. I felt sorry for anyone who felt attracted to him- the guy was deadly. I faced the door again and swiftly hopped down the steps, trying to avoid an encounter with him. “Stand there, Assassin.” I heard commanded behind me. I sighed and turned to face Kaien, who stood tall and straight in the doorway of the barrack. I’d never seen him look so terrifying. He looked down on me with those dark, dark eyes. He had lost that constant smile he always had on his face and had replaced it with a look of pure hatred for me. I remained where I was obediently, I didn’t dare move- Kaien’s abilities far surpassed mine at the moment. I knew Ayanami’s fighting techniques, but not his. He slowly came down the steps towards me and then came round behind me. He drew his dagger and pressed it into the side of my neck, I tipped my head sideways to try and lessen the cold bite of the metal. “Forward march.” He growled quietly, sounding dangerous. I didn’t march exactly, just did a slightly more energetic stride than usual. Kaien directed me back into the office where Ayanami remained at his desk, smiling triumphantly.
We stood in silence for a period, Ayanami staring relentlessly at me while Kaien remained at my back. I laughed, low and guttural, at the silence. I’m not really sure why. My laughter was short lived, however, for Kaien quickly took the chance to punch me square in the jaw. I could taste blood. I stumbled sideways and then straightened, charging straight up to Kaien. I lifted my fist. “Hacku.” I stopped and growled at Ayanami who was now stood at his desk, leaning forwards on his hands. I turned and faced him again but standing a measured distance from Kaien, who then proceeded to stand at my side again. I growled again. I could feel the warmth of blood trickling down my chin before it began to drip onto the floor infront of me. So. More damage than I’d thought. “Why do you want me?” I demanded of him.
“I believe I have another mission for you. Alone.” In response I shrugged out of Kaien’s grip on my shoulder.
“What do you want me to do?” I replied flatly after a few moments of thought.
“You know Lord Reignold of Farrow. An old ally of yours, I believe?” Ayanami said teasingly.
Lord Reignold was one of my closest allies back when I was General of Hacku’s Guard. Our combination of forces pressed enemies back from our threshold and our support of eachother was absolute. We became well known and feared as close friends and allies. I didn’t want to know what Ayanami had planned for me. I remained silent. He laughed at my silence. Kaien shifted restlessly behind me.
“You’re going to assassinate him.” He told me plainly.
“What?!” I hissed, striding up to his desk and planting myself nose-to-nose with him. I was trembling with the temptation to slit his throat but knew I could not. Kaien came up behind me and yanked me back by my shoulder so I almost fell over backwards on the step. I turned my anger on him instead, drawing my sword against him. Kaien brought his sword up to meet mine almost instantly. His wiry frame betrayed none of his strength, but he showed it to me just then, forcing his blade up to my throat and then pushing me into the wall. He made sure that my head cracked firmly against the wall at my back and black spots danced before my eyes. I groaned and tried to batter my way out of his grip but my strength seemed to fail me against Kaien’s drilling stare. Regardless of my attempts to shove him out of way he maintained eye contact until I fell silent, panting while he pinned me up against the wall. “Let me go, Major Zelt.” I breathed. He seemed shocked at my addressing of him for a second but quickly regained his composure. He shoved me harder against the wall. I grunted from the pain and turned my head to one side. “What do you say?” He asked patronisingly. I breathed in carefully against the rising pain in my ribs and then grudgingly muttered, “Please.”
He released me. “Good boy.” I stumbled forwards and then tried to stand up properly and sheath my sword in pursuit of my battered pride.
“You’re going to assassinate him. Set off tonight. The journey’s... what..? 3 days. Shan’t be hard. You are dismissed. Please mount up and make haste. Report to me upon return.”
I swept the hat from my head and flourished it in a low and elaborate bow that would befit a king. “Sir,” I confirmed, and then turned on my heel and left, my cloak fluttering behind me.
I rode like I had a plan, and camped where I felt it was necessary. In the dry and desolate plains that were between the majority of the forts and castle towns there is the occasional meadow or sprinkling of trees. This is where I tended to seek refuge, picketing my horse to graze on the sparse grass while I leaned against a substantial tree and would watch for intruders on the dark horizon. I was aware that once assassins were known as assassins, people would send their own silent killer against them in hopes of preventing their own swift death. I just hoped I wasn’t particularly notorious. The journey was a simple and unchallenging one. I saw few other travellers and those who did notice me made an effort to avoid such an unusually attired man. I carried few supplies other than my weapons and poisons and surplus feed for Friesian.
I reached the Reignold fort in the pressing heat of an unusually warm spring afternoon. I rode calmly to the gates of the fort and hitched Friesian at the post outside the gates. He didn’t take kindly to being tethered alongside other horses but put up with it. The trading square out at the front of the gates was pleasantly bustling with traders but not too crowded. People seemed to form a path for me to pass through- I don’t believe people would want to get in the way of such an intimidating figure. I passed through the gates unchallenged aside from a few glances from the guards at my attire and extensive weaponry.
The fort was a maze of outbuildings and barracks as far as the eye could see. Everything was built from some kind of creamy coloured stone that was rough to the touch like sandstone. I worked my way carefully through the winding pathways and trying to avoid the lingering stares I received. I knew that Reignold took daily walks through the streets closer to the main building where he lived with friends or ladies. I was once one of those friends. I was therefore aware of his favourite routes. I strode purposefully through the busy market centre and up to the Ladies’ Gardens, I ascended the three steps in one stride to cast around carefully for my old friend in the open space of the gardens. I searched the gravelled walkways and checked all the benches that sat in secluded alcoves and beneath well tended rose-trellises. When I was certain he wasn’t there I checked the gravelled roads on the outer reaches of the fort. The road is flanked by elaborate villas, used to house honoured guests and exotic plants are placed at regular intervals along the road. As I came onto the richly decorated road through a side street an elaborate coach drawn by a team of white horses passed by, forcing me to stand to the side and wait. As the carriage disappeared around a corner Reignold emerged alongside a young lady and surrounded by six guards. I recognised the young lady as the one I had met at Heighward’s ball. Then I realised. She was Reignold’s daughter- Lady Bess. I’d met her two or three times before where she had shown an unusual amount of interest in me for a lady half who appeared twice my age. Not only would she recognise me from that faithful night at Heighward’s but send an assassin for me if I left her alive, most probably.
I hid down the side street, trying to find the best solution until they came too close for comfort. I tried to back into the shadows but Lady Bess turned and saw me as I was backing away. She stopped and gasped, so that old Reignold was forced to stop with her. The guards immediately came to the opening of the street with their swords drawn. I backed up further into the alley and then drew my sword and hardened my resolution. I ran forwards and cut down the first guard almost instantly. The remaining five moved back to form a protective circle around Reignold and Bess. Reignold had also drawn his own sword and stepped infront of Bess, but she was struggling to get around him still.
“Guards! Stop! I know this man. Halt, I command you to stop!” She screamed over Reignold’s shoulder. Some of the guards paused and looked back at Bess, I stepped forward again and lowered my sword, putting one hand in the air in a harmless gesture. “Stand ready, guards. I, for one, do not know this man.” I felt heartbroken at what I was about to do but I forced myself on. I walked up to the Lord and Lady and bowed to them, Bess looked stricken. “General? It is you, isn’t it?” I had managed to gain a standing infront, and just between the two and noted a gap in the guard’s defences.
“Lady Bess, Reignold, my old friend. I apologise for what my master has forced me into.” I said solemnly, as Bess and Reignold looked at me in shock and confusion. I flicked out my wrist blades and plunged them into Bess and Reignold’s throats, stretching my arms out wide, then I dragged them forwards into a bow I made to nobody in particular, and allowed them to fall to the floor. Bess twitched and gasped a little, while Reignold laid still, his blood running between the cobblestones. “Hey!” One guard cried, and I dashed for the gap between the guards. I ran back the way I came, through side streets and alleyways. I had almost 15 guards after me by the time I approached the gate. I ran left and grabbed Freisian’s reins. I mounted swiftly and spurred him into a frenzied gallop away from the city walls. I received many rebuking shouts from traders who I barged through on the run from the cavalrymen who now pursued me but ploughed through regardless.
I knew I couldn’t escape across flat terrain, chances were that they would bombard me with arrows until I was down. I double backed and came around the back of the town surrounding the fort and wound through the tiny alleyways until the sound of pursuit quietened. I slowed to a walk and stopped in an alley. I dismounted and leant up against the wall. Heat radiated from the red bricks- must be a bakery oven. I savoured the heat for a while and waited for afternoon to lapse into evening before I finally ventured out. It would be hard to go unnoticed through the streets, even though the coming night promised rain and people had sought shelter for the night. Feral children still ran wild in the streets and goggled unchecked at me as I passed. I kicked Friesian up into a trot and exited the city through a wooded grove that faced onto a man-made lake. Rubbish littered the edge and the water was an unhealthy brown. The stench was another matter. I passed on by until I arrived on the familiar desert terrain.
I stuck to the shadows of the sparse trees. My dark clothing and Friesian’s black hair was good cover in the dark evening on its own. I pushed him into a gallop and removed myself from the sights of the city’s edge. After travelling at a considerable pace into the early hours of morning I slowed to a walk to allow Friesian to rest. The promised rain began to fall heavily and came down in lashes that would’ve stung my face. We ended up stopping in the shelter of an abandoned barn until the rain ceased at about noon.
I rode through the gates of Ayanami’s Guard Fort three days later in the heat of a summer afternoon. The guards allowed me to pass without hesitation and a stable boy quickly ran to take my weary horse. I went straight to Ayanami’s office to report but found him watching the cadets training with Kaien as he so often did. I went to stand by his side and watched the cadets until he acknowledged me with a nod.
“I was seen.” Was the first thing I dared to say.
He punched me in the jaw, just below my mask so he connected with my jaw with a satisfying crack. I staggered sideways and just as I straightened again he punched me again in the same place. I couldn’t help but cry out as his fist struck the already tender tissue. Some cadets turned and watched, looking shocked. Some, who had visited me on that first faithful night that I was locked in the dungeons, had to be restrained by friends to stop them coming to my aid. For the best, I thought. They’d bring suffering down on themselves. It dawned on me that more of my old soldiers knew my secret than I first thought, for I saw several guards and soldiers drilling in the yard struggle with their self-restraint.
I straightened up again and waited for another blow. Ayanami looked flustered and stood glaring at me in silence. “Are you insane?!” He roared at me. Everything went quiet. I didn’t respond. He strode up to me, raised his fist, put it down again and then roared again. He leaned up to me and whispered savagely, “If Reignold’s army comes searching for you here, you’re going to have to pay them blood gold! And I won’t stop it. Do you understand?”
“Sir.” I said flatly, simply confirming his words. I was shocked at Ayanami’s outburst. I had never seen him so angry and show it infront of everyone. Ayanami looked a bit embarrassed but continued to supervise the ranks of soldiers drilling, calling out commands now and again. I wandered through the ranks of cadets doing drills until I found who I seemed to remember as Jay. I stopped at his side.
“Meet me around the back of the stables after drills.” I told him, and then moved on. I massaged my throbbing jaw as I made my way behind the stables and waited. He arrived about an hour later. He flashed me a quick salute and then asked what I wanted.
“Look. Do you know where you can get hold of silvershade and brandy? I need to numb the pain.” I begged.
“General... That’s potent stuff. You shouldn’t ta—“
“I know full well the effects. Please. I need it.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll see what I can do.” He saluted again.
“Thankyou, Jay. Please, you’re not my subordinate. I’m yours.” I laughed nervously at the concept of being ordered around by a 16 year old and former student and then asked, “May I be dismissed, sir?”
Jay stood and looked shocked for a minute. “You’ll always be my general and superior, sir. I am leaving now.”
I waited until he was out of sight and then removed my mask to inspect the damage on my jaw. I realised how bloodstained the inside of my mask was and wondered why I tolerated being treated so inhumanely. For the others, this wasn’t about me. My jaw was broken in two places, but I could already tell my body was healing it. The advantages of being me I suppose. The magic coursing through my veins still failed me when I needed it most- battling against Ayanami and under torture where I would’ve liked to pass out. I went up to my quarters and sat heavily in the armchair. Night was creeping in and I needed to let my jaw heal so I settled into a kind of stupor until morning.
I was forced to come back to reality when Ayanami tapped me on the head with his sword. I leapt into the air and drew my sword against him. When had I become so lax against intruders?
He smiled at me casually. “Jaw better?” He asked with false concern. As a matter of fact it was. I could grind my teeth without any pain. I didn’t reply. “Hmm. Someone’s here to see you.” I followed him out into the early morning chill. It was still dark, and the soldiers were just beginning to rise. A mounted troop of guards and more noble looking men waited near the gate. I approached warily, with my hand on the hilt of my sword. I looked around the faces of the nobles- no one that I recognised, and one had their hood up so I couldn’t identify them. But I did recognise the guard colours. Grey and yellow. Farrow colours. Great.
I came closer and stood before the group of nobles. I was aware of the gathering crowd behind me and could feel the eyes on my back. A man in a fluttering silk cloak dismounted from his big white horse and came forwards with two guards at his side. They came to stand just behind me. I put my hand on the hilt of sword but one guard behind me warned me away from it with a dagger pressed firmly to the nape of my neck. I put my hands back down by my side.
“Is this the one?” The elderly man asked to no-one in particular. His hair was a shocking white and his face bore several scars, one leaving his left eye a milky white colour.
“Yes.” Replied a female’s voice. The hooded figure rode forwards and pushed back their hood. The woman’s skin was sunken around her cheekbones and her eyes set back in her skull. Lady Bess looked about 10 years older than then I had last seen her but 5 days ago. She leaned heavily to one side and looked awkward when she slid gingerly from the saddle. Two guards stepped in to assist her. I almost went to help myself but the tiniest movements I made were answered by a jab from the guard with the dagger.
“Chippen.” The old man said, looking at one of the guards behind me. The guard took me by the arm, twisted it around painfully and held it in that awkward position. I winced from the pain and was forced to bend over to lessen it. The guard yanked me up into a more upright position and removed my mask, tossing it to the floor. I was grateful that my ex-soldiers and cadets could not see who I was and the way my face was contorted in pain. I looked up at the man through my eyelashes. “Do what you will.” I hissed hoarsely before yelping as the guard holding me pushed upwards on my arm suddenly, sending a jolt of pain through my shoulder. I gritted my teeth and looked down at the floor. “Hold your tongue.” The guard spat maliciously into my ear. The old noble came up close to my face and whispered, “We’re going to make you regret this little show of yours. Get him on the horse and make sure he can’t escape.” The guard released me from my armlock and I fell to my knees, my arm flopping uselessly at my side. Before I could recover myself, I was ordered to get into the saddle of a tired looking mare with a dun coat. No chance of escape on her when the men around me all rode astride Thoroughbreds and the likes. I forced my arm to pull me into the saddle before it stopped working. The saddle pommel, I noticed, was oddly shaped into a ring. The reason for this soon became apparent when my hands were shackled to this ring. My feet were also shackled and the chain linking under my horse’s belly. Obviously i wasn’t their first prisoner. The horse wouldn’t respond to any pressure I put on with my leg and I had no reins to control her. The guards formed up around me and prepared to leave. The four nobles rode on ahead with Lady Bess while I remained at the heart of the score of guards and sat arrow-straight, trying to retain some of my shattered pride. I didn’t turn around, I didn’t want more people to know my identity- Ayanami would surely start killing them off. I jerked my head forwards in an effort to get my hat to tip over my eyes. Even the general public living in the town surrounding the fort knew who I was and I was dearly missed by many.
We set off into an immediate canter through the streets, forcing civilians to hurry out of the way. The moment we left the outer edges of the town we pushed into a gallop and carried on at that pace for the rest of the day. As evening approached the day became more and more overcast until finally the heavens opened and rain lashed down like whips.
“My lords and lady, this weather doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. Would you like to set up camp?” The leading guard asked.
“No. We will not stop. The journey is only 2 more nights. We will not stop.” Bess commanded. “Ayanami will be after us in no time, I know what he is like.”
“No need to worry about him, he has no more need of his precious assassin anymore. He’d have killed all of you where you stood if he wanted me, all he wants is for me to suffer for being seen.” I muttered darkly. No need to remain silent when your identity is known.
“You’re more important than you know to Ayanami. And trust me. You’ll suffer aplenty for what you’ve done, Vincent.” Bess retorted, biting off the end of every word. “Lord Reignold was your friend and you murdered him in cold blood!”
“Lord Reignold was General Hacku’s friend. I am not General Hacku, not anymore. I am nobody!” I shouted angrily, rattling my chains in my fury. I wanted to kill her, so badly.
“You always had such a temper.” Bess said tiredly.
“And you were always an irritating bitch!” I spat at her relentlessly. The guard riding infront of me stopped abruptly, forcing me to stop also. He wheeled his horse around, rode up to my side and punched me in the jaw, hard. He was a burly man- well muscled. My head snapped sideways on my neck and my hat fell forwards over my eyes, obscuring my view. I could taste blood. I lolled my head backwards so I could just see again under my hat’s rim and began to laugh, low and guttural as I stared at Lady Bess ahead of me. I bared my teeth and let the blood on my teeth show as I laughed to the world. The rain fell hard around us, making everything around us a dull grey haze. I laughed even more- Ayanami was probably systematically killing all my men right now. Hilarious.
“The man’s gone insane.” A guard exclaimed worriedly at my side.
“Let’s go.” Lady Bess said to the four nobles, casting me a worried glance. “and Sergeant?”
“Yes ma’am?” The guard who had just punched me replied.
“Tidy our prisoner up will you?”
“Yes, milady.” The guard turned to me, set my hat straight and pretended to brush dust off my jacket as he smiled sweetly at me.
“Pleased, good Lord Hacku?”
“Quite.” I replied just as sweetly, grinning widely. I realised I was trembling from the cold and tried to shoulder into my sodden winter cloak to no avail. All the others were wearing thick animal skins and furs. I envied them.
With that we galloped on through the howling wind and rain until the horses tired. We kept a walk up throughout the rest of the night and all the next morning before settling into a steady canter for the rest of the day, only stopping twice for the others to eat, all while I remained sat atop my horse. My back ached abominably, and I thanked the driving rain for the noise it made, concealing the grunts of pain I let loose at almost every step of my horse. By the late afternoon of the second day of straight riding I was tempted to begin complaining. But I held it all in to retain my dignity. As before, we rode through the night, and the rain finally stopped. Autumn was onto us, and it was very cold. It was a clear night and the moon shone brightly in the sky, lighting our way. We still traversed the desert-like terrain of the Unknown Plains, but more shrubs grew and the sand had turned yellow-grey in comparison to the deep red sand of my home.
I was a long way from where I wanted to be.