Authors: Tony Roberts
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Family Saga, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sagas
Prince of Wrath
Copyright © 2014 Tony Roberts
Cover artwork by Lisa Ravenscroft
Table of Contents
The screams of the townsfolk filled the air as Zofela was put to the sword. Bodies were littered about the muddy spaces that lay between the wooden walls of the town and the square where the garrison had made its last stand. The victorious army that had been encamped around it these past three years were now taking their revenge on the helpless civilians. Men were run through, women were being chased and caught, and when that happened, more often than not, raped. The children were for now being ignored and they cowered crying in fear or in horror of what they were seeing before their young eyes. And they were also very hungry.
Zofela had run out of food. This is what had finally persuaded the garrison to embark on their ill-fated sortie against overwhelming odds. Their so-called king, Elmar, lay by the gates, his mouth filled with his own blood, his head separated from the rest of his body. The smell of blood in fact was everywhere, spilled from the two sides that had fought for the town that morning.
Standing on the wooden ramparts overlooking the scene of the bloody sacking was Astiras Koros, Emperor of Kastania. It was he who had led the besiegers all these years, and now he was feeling the grim satisfaction of finally putting an end to the vicious war that had raged these past eight years. Zofela had been the last outpost of the rebellion by the native Bragal population against the Kastanian Empire, and now it had been crushed.
Astiras, a stocky, grey-haired man with piercing blue eyes and a stern face, watched as two of his men, spear militiamen, judging by their attire, grabbed a fleeing woman and pinned her to the ground in front of her own home. One straddled her, pinning her arms to the mud and with his free hand, slapped her repeatedly across the face while his comrade took hold of her legs and began ripping her leggings off.
The woman’s screams clearly carried to Astiras and he looked away. He’d seen too many such scenes during the war and didn’t wish to look upon yet another. There were two bodyguards with him, making sure no harm befell their master, and they remained impassive despite the scenes of rapine and pillage that was taking place below them. The emperor had given his army the contents, including the Bragalese population, but not the buildings. Zofela would be his once the plundering ceased.
As he made his way slowly down the wooden steps to the ground, a blood-streaked figure made his way across the corpse-strewn churned-up mud, occasionally stopping to examine a particular body. The man was well armoured, tall and grey-haired, like Astiras. This was the senior bodyguard, Teduskis. Teduskis slapped the bloodied blade across his chest as he came up to Astiras. “Sire, permission to stop the slaughtering of the townsfolk.”
“Why so?” Astiras demanded. He wanted the native Bragal populace wiped out. Eight years of bloody merciless war had made him determined that it would never happen again. His pitiless method of destruction had earned him the nickname ‘Landwaster’, a name he’d eagerly adopted. It served to spread terror amongst his enemies.
“We’ll need slaves to clear this mess up afterwards, sire. Our own people should not have to do this.”
Astiras pursed his lips. He studied the scattered bodies, all carelessly left in contorted shapes by battle. Teduskis’ suggestion made sense. “Arrange it. Build a pen outside the walls. Use the stockade from our camp – we won’t need that now. Erect huts within the new camp. The prisoners can build them.”
“Sire,” Teduskis slapped his blade on his stained armour once more and turned away. Astiras puffed out his cheeks. Time to go to his old quarters in the rudimentary castle. Before the rebellion it had been his, where he’d administered the province of Bragal as governor. Then he’d been called away to help the struggling army fight against the Tybar tribes in the west, and it had been then that the uprising had come. Collusion? Design? Or merely happenstance? Astiras didn’t know, and it was unlikely he’d ever find out. Most of those who’d been in positions of power back then were now dead.
The town square had been where the garrison had made its last stand. The last few survivors were under guard by the few soldiers who were not looting, and they cheered Astiras as he passed by. Astiras smiled and acknowledged them. To the right the ground rose up in the form of a grassy bank, and on top of this sat the wooden castle. It was neglected and suffering from rot. Nobody had bothered to maintain the structure since the siege had begun, and maybe that was due to there not being the raw materials available. Zofela had been cut off for over two years.
The main entrance was gaping open, the double doors wide apart. The two bodyguards marched in, swords drawn, watchful for any threat to their lord and master, but nobody and nothing stirred within. Astiras followed slowly, his eyes adjusting to the darker interior. The smell of rot and damp met his nostrils. He sighed in disappointment. He allowed his eyes to rove over the once familiar dimensions of the chamber. Here he had dined and greeted many visitors. Now it was merely an empty shell, a ghost of what had once been a colourful, vibrant place.
The single wooden staircase off to the left led up, turning right along the wall and up to the balcony that ran round two sides of the chamber. Beyond that were the doors to the sleeping chambers. He wondered what his old bedroom was like.
“Up there,” he said, his voice tinged with anger. The two guards tramped noisily up the stained staircase. Mud was ingrained in the wood. Isbel had been so proud of the cleanliness of the place; she would weep at the state of it now. Maybe his wife ought not to come until he’d made sure it was once more in order.
The guards split up. One went to the left, the other to the right. Astiras followed the man to the right. The first door had been his children’s’ quarters and he ignored that. His room was the next. The guard stood by the door, waiting for the command. Astiras nodded and the guard depressed the handle, kicked the door open and stepped across the thresh hold, sword held out in front of him.
That single word, laden with surprise, had Astiras striding forward in an instant. The guard stepped to one side, nodding ahead to guide the emperor’s attention. The room had that same old rug he’d known all those years ago, but much more threadbare and worn now. The desk had been moved to one side of the room, and the small table used to eat from was on the opposite side. The bed was where it had been, and in fact it was his same bed, with four posters and the hanging brocades. Huddled in the centre of the bed was a solitary figure, a slim, dark haired woman.
She was clutching her knees to her chin, her arms wrapped around her legs. She was wearing very little. Just a short leather skirt and a brief half blouse of animal skin that only barely covered her modesty. A Bragalese whore. “Who are you?” he barked.
The girl, for she can’t have been any older than fifteen or perhaps sixteen, remained silent. Her watchful eyes darted between Astiras and the guard. Astiras strode forward, took her by the hair and pulled her roughly off the bed. He slapped her hard across the face. “I asked you a question!” he shouted. “Answer it!”
The girl gasped and flailed at him, striking him across his armoured chest. The girl hissed and clutched her hurt fist. Astiras threw her to the floor. “Stupid whore,” he said, “that’ll teach you to hit a man wearing armour. Now talk, or I’ll have you burned as a witch.”
The girl still said nothing. Astiras looked at his guard. “Do you speak Bragal?”
“Humph!” Astiras hated speaking the language, but he’d learned it during his time as governor of the province. “Peshash,” he addressed her. “Te culah me’tellec!”
The girl looked up at him and spat a torrent of hate. It was curtailed with another blow from the emperor. Astiras turned away from her. “Take this creature downstairs. There’s a cellar which still should be lockable. It’s the old dungeon. Throw her in there.”
“Sire?” the guard looked uncomfortable about throwing such a young woman into a prison.
“She’d slit your throat without a moment’s hesitation, Fendek. You should know that by now! Take her away; the sight of her offends me.”
The girl was dragged, protesting, from the chamber. Astiras looked around once more. This had been Elmar’s chamber, obviously. That girl had been his play-thing. The window shutters were closed so he went over to them, thrusting aside the desk that had been left underneath the window. It should not be there! He idly noted the papers, parchments and his old governor’s seal that Elmar had used in his official notifications falling to the floor as he knocked the desk aside. It didn’t matter – they couldn’t fall any further and someone else could come in and pick it all up.
The shutters were stiff. Nobody had oiled the hinges. Cursing the sloppy, lazy Bragalese, he eased them open with a creak and gazed out over Zofela. The town was echoing to the sounds of the sack, and he looked for a moment across the rooftops, remembering how the steeply pitched roofs ran in rows away from the town square. They were steeply made in order to allow the snow to slide off. Rather that, than having heavy loads lying on the houses for an entire season. Sometimes the snowfall got so heavy in winter that it could easily crush the wooden roofs.
The town was depressingly dark. He remembered it so vibrant and colourful. Something would have to be done about that. The wind was still chilly, and he looked up above the walls into the distance and the mountains that lay to the south. Bragal was full of mountains, but it also had farmland and fertile valleys, which is what made it a desirable possession. It wasn’t comprised of one type of terrain, such as a desert, or forest. No, it was diverse. Damn the fools who said it was fine to let it go! While he was emperor Bragal would never be allowed to slip from Kastania’s hands.
Teduskis appeared in the doorway behind him. “Sire, I think you should come down and see what we’ve discovered in the dungeons.”
The tone of Teduskis’ voice filled Astiras with dread. “Oh, no – not the people who were taken captive when Zofela fell to the rebels?”
Teduskis nodded wordlessly, his lips tight. He turned and vanished from sight. Astiras cursed and followed. He’d left a garrison to run things whilst he had been called away to fight for the Empire elsewhere, and had always wondered what had happened to them. He went down to the feasting hall, then through to the back and down again, passing through a lockable door and into a chilly stone-walled chamber.
Ahead lay the dungeons. Three doors in the opposite wall, all barred and shuttered. The doors were open and what could be seen beyond filled Astiras with fury and frustration. The three Kastanians there were looking pale, holding their mouths or shaking their heads mutely. Crammed in the prison cells, packed from floor to ceiling, were skeletons of people. They had been forced into the small spaces and left to die, whether by suffocation or hunger it mattered not. They had all been dead for many years. Nobody had bothered to come down and clear them out. Some still had the remnants of clothes on them, and hair could still be seen.
One of the guards, overcome, turned away and vomited over one of the walls. Fendek held the Bragalese girl firmly, his face drained of blood. Astiras slowly turned to the girl. “You people disgust me. This is the real tragedy of this entire war. You people are so heartless and dreadful, and capable of such atrocities that nobody in Kastania could comprehend the depth of your wickedness. Our tales of what you Bragalese did were dismissed as exaggerations. Yet here they are, witnessed by my own eyes.”
He allowed his arm to drop to his side in despair. Teduskis knelt by the middle door and touched the jacket of the first skeleton. “Sire, I know this item of clothing. This was Kandalar.”
“Kandalar!” Astiras was at Teduskis’ side in an instant, crouching down, ignoring the pain in his thighs, which were protesting at the exercise. “So that’s what happened to him.” Kandalar had been the garrison commander in Astiras’ absence.
The emperor slowly got to his feet, groaning at the effort. He was getting too old for this. The girl was on her knees, having been forced there by Fendek. He looked at her without pity. “This is something that will never be forgotten. I will ensure that. You will assist in taking every single body out of here and laying them down outside the town walls for burial. What happens to you and your fellow Bragalese townsfolk afterwards I have yet to decide.” He gestured to Fendek. “Bind her, fetch the other prisoners and start bringing them up to the town square.”
He returned to the surface, seething. He was angry at himself. He should have expected something like this, having fought for so long in the war, knowing just how ruthless and vicious the rebels had been. Massacres had been commonplace, and it was only when he had begun to use those very same tactics on the Bragalese that the war had turned in his favour. When it came down to it, the Kastanians were always going to win because they had bigger forces, better arms, better trained soldiers. It had taken a long time to suppress, but he’d finally achieved it.
Now was the time to clear up the mess. He was determined never to allow any Bragalese to live in Zofela again so that there could never be a repeat of the uprising. If Zofela remained in imperial hands, any revolt would be restricted to the countryside and without a town to focus the rebellion; it would lose much of its strength.
The surviving soldiers who had surrendered to the imperial forces were being roped together and organised into work gangs already. From the various streets women and children were being dragged towards the square, roughly brought there by the victorious soldiers. Captain Sepan, one of the militia officers, formally provided the casualty list. “Sire, our dead number a hundred and forty.”