March 7, 2014

A Throne of Bone and Sin

So, here's my Advanced English story. I had just come off of reading George RR Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, and he uses a very distinctive description-layered writing style. Trying to emulate that, I created the first draft of “A Throne of Bone and Sin”, and it was a mess. The first two thirds of it were fine, but like many first drafts, it lacked thematic flow, and the ending was a complete wreck, making no sense and really giving the characters nothing to do but spout exposition at each other until the pages ran out. I really only cooked that up so that I had a completed draft. Had I known that almost all of the other students’ drafts wouldn’t be completed, I’d’ve just left it incomplete. I really struggled with that ending for a long time.

Overall, I quite enjoyed writing the second draft. I certainly enjoyed it more than churning out the first one. The first one was just kind of me putting something down on paper just to have something to turn into you. I really didn’t like it and didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into it. The second time I went through it, I discovered that there were some good nuggets of themes and characters in here, so I expanded on those. A nice little process and story here for me.

A Throne of Bone and Sin

The wind was biting cold.

Snow sprinkled down on them in light puffs, the blue hue of the fortress and iced terraces doing nothing to halt the bitter weather. He shivered. Even in his black cloak and heavyset armor of mail and leather, the cold still prickled his person.

“We seek an audience with High Lord Merek.”

The guards were having none of it, it seemed. Samuel Fentar had been seeking their leave to enter the keep for the past ten minutes; surely the guards would tire eventually. Though probably not before I do, he thought, wearily.

Sam was a big bear of a man, his jaw obscuring his neck so that to some he must have looked like a vague unnaturally ripe grapefruit. Despite his size and abnormal strength, Sam was not one to get into fights if he could help it. He was a Messenger, nothing more. I am not the most royal man, I grant you fools, Sam thought as the guards stared ahead, unblinking. But you will let me see Merek. I can beat my way into this keep if need be, and I have enough strength in numbers to prove it. That was something that he would try to avoid. Battle was not something he relished, and while his host was a small unit of twenty men, to get into a confrontation here would be logistically difficult to conduct. The road was too narrow, and his men were as like to kill each other as they were the enemy.

“Please,” Sam began again. “I seek an audience with High Lord Merek. I was sent to our good Lord by the rightful Second.”

That was not entirely true. When the Second called on any one of his Messengers to deliver a great message or news of the highest level to the Lord, it was considered a great honor. Entrusting that task to Sam had never been done before, and probably would never happen officially, certainly not after this episode. Sam’s duplicitous actions would likely mean his head upon his return should he get caught. Adam, a man of five and twenty who always seemed to stutter about and who had befriended Sam out of sheer loneliness, had paid the prospect of Sam losing his head no mind when he approached Sam about this endeavor.

“I can’t do this,” Adam said. “I can’t go to the Center World. It’s rumored to be so cold you’d freeze before you’d make it up to the castle. And to do so under these circumstances… I cannot lead an army…”

Sam looked confused. “An army. Adam, what are you…”

“The Second was acting strangely when he summoned me,” Adam said. “His hands were shaking as he rolled up the scroll, and he looked… guilty, like he was handing me something dangerous, though I suppose he was. He told me… he said a lot of worrisome things. Things that this letter elaborates on.”

“What did he say?” Sam asked.

And so, Adam had told Sam about how the Second was preparing for war.

“War with whom?” Sam was intrigued now.

“With the Center World. This letter, what I’ve been assigned to take to them, it’s a letter of secession.”

“Secession?” The word was lead in Sam’s mouth. To defy the High Lord… that was sin, and Sam was not about to become engrossed in that activity if he could help it.

“Yes. The Second wants to form his own power. He says the system in place now places us at the behest of a phantom ruler who doesn’t know how to run a government. What the Second wants is a ruler of strength, one who actually talks with his people.”

“Like our Second?” Sam did not like where this was going.

Adam nodded.

“So we’re going to war?”

“The High Lord will never agree to our breaking from his rule” Adam explained. “We’re too much of a commodity. We provide the Center World with goods and riches and resources that even the High Lands can’t get to them in bulk. That’s why we’re firing the first cannon. Hopefully not literally for this journey, but still…” Adam bit his lip. “And why did he pick me of all Messengers to deliver this? I have no skills. I’ve never led an army before!” He paused, looking down at the scroll in his hand. “You should do it.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Me?”

“Yes,” Adam said excitedly. “You’re far more imposing than I am.”

That was true enough, though Sam still refused. “Adam, we’re talking about going to war against our own king.”

“A mad king! A king who doesn’t even exist to most people. He’s just up in his tower all the time, it’s said, and he is bleeding us dry, using up all of our taxes and resources for himself and his tower. Redistribution isn’t happening anymore. He’s lost his way.”

“He’s the High Lord. I can’t go to war with someone like that. I certainly can’t be the one to deliver the news of such an act. I’d be betraying the High Lord. I’d be committing treason!”

“All of Palazaan would be committing treason just by being home to the Second,” Adam pointed out. “He is intent on seeing this letter delivered. I’m like to mess this whole thing up. But you…” Adam looked at Sam pleadingly. “This is your right, not mine. This is your chance to prove yourself to the Second. You could be promoted, work more closely with the Second and his personal entourage. Don’t squander this opportunity, Sam. This is what the Second wants.”

“It’s not the right thing to do,” Sam said bitterly. To go up against a system in place for a thousand thousand years was appalling. Sam was surprised that Adam, as meek as he was, was going along with this idea. In the end, Sam had taken the map of the Center World and the scroll from Adam with a heavy sigh, guilt and annoyance running through his mind as he did so.

“You have to keep this a secret,” Adam continued. “The switch, I mean. If the Second finds out that I’ve… laid him off… I’d be made a fool of, and I’d have to face the Second’s wrath. Please, you can’t tell anyone.”

“What about the host I am to lead?”

“You are to rendezvous with them after you have descended Mountain of the Cliffhanded and traversed the White Forest,” Adam said. Sam had heard of that mountain, but he had never been there. He had never been anywhere outside of the High Lands’ borders.

Sam had agreed to it after a time. Telling Lily that he was going off to declare war was not an option, Sam knew. Having to leave her and their two children to go about his business had always been the hardest part of the morning for Sam, but to have her know of his venturing to the Center World in an act of war… no. That would not due. He would have to lie, committing a minor sin though it was.

So, lie he did.

With Lily thinking Sam gone to appease a minor king or some such, the Second thinking that Adam was on Sam’s rout, and Sam himself looking behind him every five minutes to see if he was being followed, the trip had begun with paranoia and duplicity at the forefront of his mind. I’ve done wrong, he chided himself. I should go back. I should never have agreed to this… I’m not a leader. And what am I to do once I reach the High Lord’s keep? What if I never return? What will become of Lily and the children? These questions plagued him, and as he wandered, consulting the map as he did so, Sam began to grow increasingly impatient with his moral compass. It’s just a bloody letter asking for our damned independence. No one is actually wanting this to come to war.

Three days he had wandered the road, and three nights he had camped along the side of it, careful to guard his sword and armor. The cold was creeping up upon his homeland now, he could feel it, and it would get colder as Sam progressed out of the little town he called home and along the road to the rest of the world.

In truth, Sam did not particularly enjoy the road from his home to the outside world, but once he breached the barrier between this cobble and dirt cacophony of travel and entered into the High Lands, that was where his joy came from. When he had first met and married Lily, he had promised her that one day they would move to the High Lands and own a house overlooking the great green ocean and white sand that hugged the territory. Well, it had been seven years since that promise was made, and Sam’s brother, the cruel bastard that he was, never hesitated to remind him of that fact whenever he was around for a visit. Sam was meek compared to his brother, he knew. Lily loves me though, Sam thought, and that was far more of a reward than any glory his brother could find in battle.

The High Lands were as far as Sam had ventured outside his home, but this trip would take him further. To the Center World, Sam thought, excited at the prospect. He was nervous too, as nervous as he was when he first began his rangings. This was a new rout, a new territory. New people. It was the people of the High Lands who made the realm so welcoming. What was going to happen to them if the Second’s plan of secession went awry? Would the High Lands be still available to Sam and the Second? I could travel there. Send a letter to Lily and have her meet me there and we could live there for the rest of our lives. I wouldn’t need to go anywhere. I could forget this whole enterprise. But that was folly. Sam’s loyalties were to his Second, to Adam, and his rangings were his lifestyle.

The journey there was a long one. In fact, looking back, it seemed to Sam that the Center World was a hundred worlds away from where he had begun. The weather of the High Lands and even Sam’s own home of Palazaan was tame and warm and tepid compared to the flurries and snowdrifts of the outskirts of the Center World. His horse had to rest several times, and their path was blocked after a day’s journey by a mountain peaked in white.

The Mountain of the Cliffhanded, Sam realized. I’m to climb that, he thought miserably. His horse seemed saddened too. The beaten path gave way to rock and jagged ground, far too perilous on which to walk or ride his horse. Sam had no rope or other climbing equipment with him, as the map Adam had given him specified only the mountain as a dot. The scale and height of it were ignored completely. Perhaps this is where the Messengers who had not returned had given up, or maybe died. Are there bones within this great rock, he wondered. Climbing this behemoth would be a task in and of itself, Sam knew.

So, he sent his horse away, careful to take what little markings of his identity the horse had before letting him go. He did not want the Second to find out of his misleadings from markings on a horse. Turning back to the mountain, Sam cursed his shape and size. Were I a thin fellow, I’d have the leanness to maneuver about this great hump unimpeded. But he was not a thin fellow. He was strong though, and what he lacked in climbing skill he made up for in stamina. The wind bristled his body as he made his ascent, whipping the cloak about him. His pack of further clothing and rations swung lazily behind him, and his whole body seemed to sway with the wind’s ever-changing direction. Just don’t look down, Sam told himself. Rain began to fall, beating heavily.

As he climbed, the thought of home tugged at him, and the sin of subverting the Second and Lily and the High Lord tugged even more. He tried telling himself that this was all a favor for Adam, but that did nothing to quiet his nerves. Because this wasn’t just a favor. This was Sam’s chance to do something important with his life. Oh yes, he chided himself. Starting a war will surely put you in the history books. All his comings and goings and ranges and duties carried out had all been done without question, and he had returned each time with the hope that the Second might notice that his journeys always ended in success and praise. Perhaps it is approval that I seek, he mused. Perhaps this war is to me a self-serving campaign. He would not have the opportunity to receive praise for long, the way Adam spoke of the Second’s intent. And Lily. Lily was so caring, so understanding of his constant leavings, but he could tell she wanted more from him. He was never home.

His children would sometimes be left without their father for weeks on end, and when Sam did return, it was to a house excited to see him again true, but Sam could sense the feeling of abandonment from the rest of his family. This could change that, he told himself. If he did this thing and returned, and should the Second be willing to hear him out, this could be his last Messengering, or perhaps provide a better life for his family. Was this all out of a sense of duty to Adam, to Lily… or a chance at escalating his career… or a chance to fulfill something meaningful with his life? Perhaps a little of all those things, he thought. And more besides. He had reached the top of the mountain with breath to spare where others might have panted hard, his legs pumping heavily where others’ might have given out.

Reaching the top of the mountain, he consulted the map again to see where the next leg of his journey took him. And back down… and through the White Forest… and then another mountain. Hopefully, this next mountain would be less arduous than this one. The host

The Forest was a quarter-day’s walk. The snow was heavy here; the Center World was close now. The frost and wind swirled about him as he trudged through the dense foliage. His black boots were soon diluted grey, a delicate sheen of ice encasing the tops of them, laces and all. Lily would not be pleased to see these boots ruined for a third time. He came upon a stream and drank sloppily, refilling his water skin before moving on.

By then, the cold was almost palpable. A hailstorm was coming upon Sam as the White Forest thinned. As nightfall settled on the world again, Sam was beginning to regret leaving his horse behind. His legs ached, and his back and chest were heaving. Even with his strength, no sane man would walk this distance given these conditions. And then he saw them. The host of twenty men, Sam realized happily!

The group of twenty were all in blacks, their armor a dark grey frosted over with cold. Meeting with their leader, Sam could tell these were mercenary men. If I did not know better, I would venture that we were heading out for assassination. The leader was named Rek, and he was as thin a man as Sam had ever seen, though not meek like Adam. This was a calculating fellow, dangerous and cold. Among the encampment the men had made, a great tent had been erected so that Sam had a place to sleep, as he was the acting commander of this crew. I am in the company of sinful men, it would seem. At least I now have proper lodging, though come morning there is still another mountain.

Rek introduced his host to Sam in gruff tones, his booming voice a startling contrast to his thin frame, as though his and Sam’s bodies had been switched accidentally by the whims of fate. The men among them included Brock the Blacksmith, a large man like Sam who displayed a thick mustache under his bulbous nose and droopy eyes, Arcanus, known as The Leacher to some due to his nasty killing technique, Bravine the Bowman, Sallaban the Spearman, and Jackyl the Jack’O Lantern, as he was rumored to have a brain as quick and as dangerous as fire within his head and a mastery of flames besides. Sam doubted very much any and all of these stories about these figures, but to be among them nevertheless gave him feelings of fear.

“What are all these men doing with us?” asked Sam of Rek. Rek grinned, showing wrinkled creases on his face and two sets of yellow cracked teeth. He smiles often at sinister things, Sam noted.

“We’re going to escort you to the High Lord, as our Second has instructed us. You are Adam, are you not?”

Adam? Ah! The guise of a man too noble such a task as this. Yes, I must be him. I must be shown to not be wreathed in hanus and sinful acts.

“Yes,” Sam replied in as meak a manner as possible, which wasn’t hard as his voice was squeaky enough in this weather.

“I thought you’d be taller,” said Rek, his eyes eyeing Sam’s bulbous body judgingly. “And… less fat.”

“I assure you, I am Adam. As much Adam as I am fat. I am a fat Adam.” Sam put on his best determined face. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. “So, you’re escorting me. Why all the weapons?”

This got a laugh out of several of the people around him. Rek expectorated and resumed his grin of wrinkles. “We’re going to kill him, boy. Should you fail, of course!” That last part was in mockery, Sam had no doubt.

“You’re not killing anybody unless I order you to.” Sam felt his voice grow stronger as he said the words. “You’re going to allow me to handle negotiations. If all goes well, we’ll be out of there, and none of your weapons will need cleaning.”

Rek stared at Sam wide-eyed. “Oh, so the boy has some bone in him, does he? A bit of bite to back his size? Well, alright. We’ll do it your way, won’t we boys?” At this, the men drew their swords and axes and raised a cheer. Rek looked around, pleased with himself. “Right. We’ll do it your way, Adam. But if you fail, don’t expect us to watch out for you in all the chaos. We have two jobs to do here: escort you to the castle, and then pick off the king… should you fail.”

This had ended Sam’s introduction to his entourage. He did not like them. I am in command of a bunch of ruthless killers and cutthroats. This surely must not be the army that Adam had referred to. It couldn’t be, could it? The Second wouldn’t resort to these types of people for a job like this… or any job for that matter. We’re a peaceful people. Even our armies are cloaked in colors of warmth and light. We wouldn’t be doing this, would we? But Sam couldn’t live in that mindset anymore. He told himself that if he was to have any hope of this mission succeeding without bloodshed, he’d need every support in making sure that if it did come to bloodshed that he would come out the victor. Because with that assurance, Sam was certain that he could find the courage within him to get the job done without the need to rid innocent men of their lives.

The second mountain was thankfully less of an episode than the first, flatter and shorter, and with more men and actual climbing material, they made the climb by nightfall. Sam made camp atop the icy flat bluff, asking his men politely to prepare food for all. The air was thinner up here as it had been with the first hump of the Earth, and the cold and ice and wind were ceaseless.

Rek eyed Sam suspiciously. “What are you planning to do once we reach the keep?” the skeletal face asked.

“I don’t know. Personally, I’m hoping to avoid a war.”

“Ha!” Rek spat. “You think the High Lord is just going to let us walk away from his vast empire? You’re a fool, Adam.”

I’m an optimist, Sam thought incredulously. He had retired to his tent after this, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

When Sam woke, the first rays of light punched over the horizon. His blankets were frosted stiff despite his tent walls. Exiting his tent, Sam found some of the men were already preparing a breakfast of eggs and cooked apples. As he feasted, Sam took the opportunity to peer over the ridge to see where he was headed. His eyes widened.

Seeing the Lord’s Keep and the city that it birthed below at last made Sam’s heart flutter as fast as ever. The keep itself was beautiful, a tall, lithe structure of blue, ice-like crystals gleaming from its surface even from this distance. The castle was rumored to be made of ice, though Sam had his doubts. How impractical would it be to build an ice castle? Fragility and sun would plague it daily. The blue sparkled and refracted in the morning light, and Sam had to turn his head to keep from being blinded by the shimmering glare off of the surface.

The city below the castle was sprawling and bustling, the people looking like black dots within the white of the snow. Sam noticed on first discovery that he would have a hard time maneuvering the labyrinth on his own. His men seemed to realize this too, because Rek gave the command to stick together and hold in tight formation. The city itself was a poor looking shamble of buildings and brothels and dirty people all crammed together in one of the worst looking dwellings Sam had ever seen. He remembered what Adam had said, about how the High Lord is spending everything for himself alone, and from the looks of the city, Adam had been right. This was not the city of a generous king. Sam looked up at the glittering castle with its blue hues and stark silhouette, the shimmer of the sun bouncing off the refractive surfaces. Such beauty, he marveled. The city, by contrast, was brown and stingy, the people musty and grey.

“A fine place,” Rek said dryly.

This is a circle of Hell to be sure, thought Sam. These people are rats in human form. They live in squalor and in death. A commotion caught his eye and he and the rest of Rek’s men turned to see what was the trouble.

A shout rang out as Sam looked on at a great pile-up of people scrambling around in the dirt, their faces a wash of grey. One of them had a half-nose, and another was clawing at his eye, blood pouring from the wound. A gap opened up in the herd of people, and Sam saw in the center a man, his hair white and thin, his leathery skin smeared with dirt.

“Get your fucking hands off me,” the man shouted “It’s mine!”

The man with the bloody eye elbowed his way into the center of the mob and punched the old man in the stomach, sending him keeling to the ground. “It’s all of ours,” he shouted.

“You think that belongs to you?” shouted the half-nosed man.

“There’s more than enough there for everyone of us two times over!” cried another. “Give it here.”

Sam managed a few steps closer before Rek raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t go any further, boy,” he muttered. “We don’t want you getting caught up in this mess.”

Sam saw now what the old man had been holding. Bread. A loaf of bread. They commit murder just to live a little longer. How awful. The bloody-eyed man picked up the fallen bread and ripped himself a piece. Hands flew at the loaf, the old man with white hair recovering and joining in. There was shouting, and then Sam saw a flash of silver and then red pool from the half-nosed man. As the knife was wrenched back, the mob grew in intensity. Another scream and shout, and another one fell to the ground, dead.

Sam heard the trample of horses then, and he looked to his left to see blue-cloaked guards coming hard at the mob, swords drawn.

“What’s going on here?” one of the guards asked, his horse reining up to meet the chaos. “Stop what you’re doing, all of you.” His voice sounded lazy and it didn’t cary over the clamor of the mob’s fighting. The other guard raised his sword and slashed down at the mob. There was a scream, a flash of steel, and more red. The shouting continued, but in protest of the guards this time. The two blue cloaks shouted back orders of “stay calm!” and “stop it now!” and other such things, but the mob would not subside.

Sam shot a glance at Rek, who stared ahead, his face grim.

One of the guards waved his sword about again and came down on the old man, the red trailing and sending him to the ground. The mob registered this kill more astutely than before, and the mob looked around, the cloud of hate surrounding them now lifting. The four dead men lay sprawled about them, their clothes in heaps about their bodies. The remaining people began to look around frantically. The piece of bread lay on the ground beside one of the dead men, and Sam saw one of the people pick it up and pocket it.

Sam turned to look at Rek.

“My God,” Sam breathed.

“And that,” said Rek, grimacing, “is why we’re going to kill the High Lord.”

Perhaps that is not a bad idea. Sam looked at the mob, which had begun to disperse, and he eyed the guards closely.  The sun does not play here, he observed. Nor does the High Lord seem to respect this city much. It took him a good half a day to find the long road that led up to the gates, and another three hours to traverse it on foot to where he was now. And here I might as well stay, for all the good the guards are doing for me, Sam thought bitterly.

The castle, as it turned out, was not made of ice, not entirely anyway. Sam could see metal and stone making up the framework of the keep, which the ice then covered. A trim of gold ran down along the seams, holding the castle together, and the balconies and bridges were made of shimmering chrome dyed blue. A rickety contraption befitting a rickety Lord, Sam mused. He was trying to see that rickety Lord now, and he was still getting very little for his troubles.

“You cannot expect us to host your ragtag group unannounced?” asked one of the guards. “We can’t simply open up the gates to let all of you in.”

“Then allow me to pass unaccompanied. I will leave my men out here.” Sam turned to Rek to see if he agreed to this plan. Rek nodded.

The two guards exchanged a look. The left one said, “fine,” and led Sam inside.

Sam took a step forward. The entrance to the keep was tall and imposing, a prelude in theme to the keep’s battlements and terraces of thin sharp lazuli. I am about to step into the definition of cold, Sam thought, staring up at the great arch that framed him overhead. I’m doing this… for Lily. For the Second. For Adam. I enter a man of death… so that I might live a little longer. As he crossed the threshold from civilization to pure ice, his step made a crunch as snow was trampled underfoot.

Now surrounded by the fortress’ walls, Sam felt a dizziness wash over him. He gazed up at the main tower, a huge chunk of blue wreathed in gold and chrome. He felt so small here, so helpless. I have only a piece of paper to keep me alive, and even then that paper could betray me at any moment. He gripped his silver dagger at his side tightly. To his left were white gardens, the various plant life bereft of green, instead resembling outstretched skeletal fingers. Icicles hung about the various towers too, Sam could see, and the entire fortress gave the impression of a giant hand ready to grab him in its cold grip. I am far from welcome here, Sam decided, stepping gingerly through the open field up to the gated entrance to the inside of the keep.

Upon entering, the guard turned to Sam abruptly. He asked for Sam’s letter, and Sam fished it out from his cloak and handed it to him. “His Lordship will be ready for you shortly.” Sam mumbled his thanks and stood waiting.

When the Lord comes, what will I say? What will I do? Sam looked around at his surroundings. If the outside of the keep was an unwelcome icicle of death, the inside was a mishmash of homeyness and royalty. The court itself was overflowing with opulence, that was clear enough, but it was a… respectful display of such wealth, Sam decided. So, here he was. This was it. This was his big moment. His thoughts drifted back to the city, to the mob with the bread. They had been fighting, Sam remembered. They had been fighting, and four people died. All that death, all that blood… for bread. And here he was, in a castle gleaming blue. It’s not right… to build yourself up on a throne of bones and sin.

He heard footsteps approaching. Sam turned and saw High Lord Merek descend the great blue-white steps. Six guards stood sentinel about them as Merek entered. Sam bowed, going to one knee, and felt the coldness of the ground seep into his leg. He tried not to shiver, but it was very cold beneath him. As cold as the Lord’s generosity.

“Rise,” said the High Lord. Upon lifting his head, Sam got a better understanding of how the High Lord looked. He was a tall man, draped in blues and whites and his face was a gaunt pale shade. He did not look at all well.

“My Lord,” Sam managed, his voice catching in his throat before he could get more out of it.

“I have reviewed your Second’s letter. A formal letter of secession. Might I ask why?”

It would be so easy now, to cut him down. To drive his small dagger into the frail man’s belly, to end the reign of the bone king. Is this what Adam would have done? No, probably not. But then, Adam was not a man of sin. Sam looked at Merek, stared into the blue eyes, noticed the wrinkles of his face, the white eyebrows, the sullen cheeks. This was a man who was not wanting to carry on with his rule. A dead man, he realized. And if I kill him now, he’ll be dead all the quicker. Sam thought of the city below them, the mob desperate for something as simple as a loaf of bread. He thought of the Second, of Adam, of Lily, of the people whom Merek had let down. All people clean of sin. I cannot permit this to continue. To do this is to perform sin, only so that I may preserve a world free of it.

It was a blur, the rest of it. Sam remembered the blue of the cloaks and the white of Merek’s face and hair, and the silver of his knife, and the red… that crimson color that pooled out onto the cool ground. The blue of Merek’s eyes began to lose its shimmer; they were turning grey as the life ebbed out of him. And that was it.

He was dead. I killed the High Lord, Sam thought stupidly as the weight of the man’s body grew heavier. Sam heard the scraping of steel on sheath, and he looked up to see the blue cloaked guards advancing, slowly it seemed, for Sam had ample time to get up and run.

Sam’s legs took him about the hall, bolting for the exit, and he had made it out into the courtyard without a scratch. The blue cloaks whisked after him, but Sam was running pell-mell toward the exit to freedom. He saw Rek then, his sword a blur as he took out the two guards still standing at the gates. More red, Sam noted. And then the rest of the mercenary men were there as well. Arcanus was there among them, his spear swinging ‘round and ‘round as he passed Sam and engaged the blue cloaks. The snow continued its barrages, but none seemed to notice; everyone was engaged in fighting, in seeing red.

Sallaban the Spearman was next to Sam then, his spear dancing with the sword of a blue cloak. Sam did not bother to track their movements; they were took quick for his eyes. Sam saw Rek again, the sword in his hand a wash of red and black. He had a cut under his left eye now, and his right shoulder seemed to be more puffy than it had been.

A sword appeared in Sam’s line of sight then, and then the blue cloak after. Sam backed away, holding his knife at arm’s length. The blue cloak swung his sword lazily in front of Sam, taunting him. Sam jabbed with his knife, but the sword parried the blows. I am a tougher man than he is. Sam was able to get inside the blue cloak’s reach and run him down, punching and punching at the frosted helmet atop the man’s head. Sam heard a crack beneath his fingers, and then soft flesh give.

Sam was on top of the body then, his fists still pounding at the head. He felt hot tears run down his cheeks. I’ve killed the High Lord, and this man, and I’ve seen four others die besides. Too much death. Lily! Lily, where are you? What would you say to me now? What would our children say? I did it for the city, for Palazaan, for you, Lily. I did this for you, and Adam, and the Second, and maybe for me…

The battle around him had ceased. A gruff hand pulled him by the shoulder to his feet. Rek stood beside him, smiling.

“Well, I suppose this means we’ve started a war, yes? Haha! And you developed stones enough to kill the man in charge of our opposition! Good on you, mate.”

Sam did not feel good on himself. He felt cold, and death, and red on himself. Guilt too, lots of that. Sam looked about him at the dead blue men, their bodies turned in inhuman ways upon the ground. He looked at Rek, at Sallaban the Spearman, at Arcanus, at Brock the Blacksmith, and they all stared back at him. Their stares punched into his head and dispersed guilt and shame into his brain, for he had collaborated with these men. For all the good and moral standards, for all the inner doubts about this mission and about sin and death… in the end, if Sam had to do it all over again, he realized he would. Because he could live with inner doubts and sin and death. He could live with it. I can live with it.

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