By Scott J. Abel
Time stands still when you’re about to die. Though throngs of raucous, jeering people surround me, I’m completely alone with my thoughts. Memories flood my mind during my final minutes. I try to linger on the warmest recollections: fishing as a boy with my grandfather on the still waters of Lake Gallum; the thundering roar of the wind as I gallop my horse through the wilds of the Pydron Valley; catching my first glimpse of Lysandra drying her hair against the backdrop of the setting sun.
But the reality around me dregs up only the most painful reminders. I see my father on his deathbed, wrinkled and gray, staving off eternal sleep for one last admonishment to his oldest son. Our people, he’d said. Whatever happens, I must ensure our people endure and survive.
That parting instruction and the name of a once-great royal lineage were all he left me. Since the Kadmonians had overrun our lands during my grandfather’s reign, we’d been reduced to nothing more than a small province within their brutal empire. Our people subjugated and kept obedient by the scourge of iron and fire.
With my father’s passing, our people’s identity – their very existence – fell to me to safeguard. The idea of rebellion, of throwing off the tyrant’s yoke, was to invite the eradication of our culture. For it was known throughout the empire that nothing short of total and complete annihilation of one’s race was the price for insurrection.
So when the messengers from Lachish and Elion arrived in the dead of night, pleading me to join them in revolt of our master, I thought of my father’s final words.
And my wife’s.
Three years had I marked Lysandra’s passing, yet her last breath still filled my every thought – care for the children. But the vision of our people, our children, enduring under the ever-increasing sadistic rule of the Kadmonians was unbearable.
I remember standing next to my children, watching them sleep. My chest burned with the shame of submission. The Kadmonians had taken everything, what more could they take from us?
The question prompts me to look at my children. The Kadmonians have separated us, as is their custom. My children are tied together, their hands and feet bound. My youngest, Alleeza, whimpers quietly with her head on her sister’s shoulder. Ansira stares back at me with soft, emerald eyes – her mother’s eyes. Her quiet facade in the face of impeding death catches me.
But her eyes seem hollow, devoid of life. Her spirit seems to have given up. Knowing her own father was the author of her death, how could it not? Even the piercing screams of Lachish’s wife as she watches the beheading of her own children have no effect upon her. My failure as a parent is complete and total. The shame consumes me.
All I had to do was refuse the overtures to revolt. Just keep quiet. Submit. Endure.
And now? Nothing of our proud race remains. Everything my forefathers had worked so hard to create and maintain is now gone. And I will witness the death of the last two members of my lineage – my children – before my own execution.
What I wouldn’t give to crawl over to them and hold them one last time. Admit my failure. Ask for their forgiveness. Remind them of my love. Hear Ansira call me, “father,” a name she hasn’t uttered in two years – the price I’ve paid for my neglect.
The dense crowd of onlookers encircling the plaza outside the royal palace recoils with laughter. Now that Lachish and his wife have been executed, it’s Elion’s turn.
Kadmonian custom has the King ridicule the guilty with the most vile, deplorable insults before beheading their children in front of them. With the vulgar words of Lord Draxor ringing in their ears, and the images of their headless children burned into them as their last memory, the guilty finally taste death.
Lord Draxor’s venom rings out. I glance at my children, wishing they could be spared from hearing such abominable, unsavory things. But they both sit quiet, still. What life or spirit that’s in them is slipping away.
Elion is blubbering now, begging and groveling for his life. Not surprising since he was the first to give up. The crowd grows even more raucous with his futile attempts at clemency.
A few more insults, and Elion’s three children are quickly executed. The executioner wipes his blade and soon the cries of my co-conspirator and his wife are silenced.
The Court Magistrate steps in front of Lord Draxor’s marble throne. “Trinian, son of Jotham, come forward for pronouncement of sentence.” A hush of anticipation quiets the crowd, no doubt eager to relish in the death of the conspirator who fought and resisted the longest.
I try to stand, but my body is too weak from torture and malnourishment.
Two guards flank me and drag me to my feet. Pain wracks my body as my shackles jingle with every step.
My children are dragged into the middle of the plaza with me and thrown down several feet away in front of fresh pools of blood.
A guard kicks the back of my legs and I collapse onto the flat, stony surface of the courtyard. A ripple of laughter races through the crowd.
“Trinian, son of Jotham. You have been found guilty of treason against your lord and master. As such, your life is forfeit.” The gleam in his eyes and the satisfaction in his voice reveals the Court Magistrate’s yearning to see my death.
I raise my head and meet Lord Draxor’s cold, dark eyes. I expected a sneer, a look of utter contempt, but instead he rests his scarred chin in the palm of his hand and studies me.
We stare at one another. A gentle breeze tossles his hair, yet the barbarian’s eyes remain fixated on me. His cold, callous gaze sends a chill through my body. Surely, after a lifetime of bringing death to so many, all trace of humanity has been wiped clean from him.
The Court Magistrate and the crowd shuffle with impatience, then confusion, as the long gulf of silence stretches farther.
Lord Draxor finally sits up and leans back into the purple cloth overlapping his throne. “Trinian…”
The crowd presses in, eager for the ridicule to commence.
“Trinian, what would you do if I spared your life?”
My head jerks at the question. The crowd seems perplexed as well. Lord Draxor has pronounced thousands of death sentences, perhaps he’s experimenting with a new line of questioning and he’s merely setting me up.
Still, I’m weary and in no mood for games. I can only answer honestly, as I had always been taught to do and which I’ve always pressed upon my children. If Lord Draxor was offering absolution, I could do only one thing.
“My Lord,” I reply, “If you were to spare my life, I would go home and live in peace. Never would I lift my hand against you, but would be your faithful servant.”
Lord Draxor shifts in his seat, his gaze drifts away. The crowd remains strangely silent.
“Trinian, what would you do … if I spared the lives of your children?”
I look at my two girls, the last remaining links to my wife and the life I once knew. Alleeza sniffles and traces small fissures in the stone pavement with her tiny fingers. Ansira draws her legs up to her and lays her head on her arms.
What future they had, I’ve deprived them of fulfilling. What father does that to his own children?
I swallow past the lump in my throat, but I cannot suppress the wetness in my eyes. I turn back to Lord Draxor. “My Lord, if you were to spare my children…” A tear trickles down my dusty cheek. The cold wetness a contrast to the heat rushing to my face. “I … I would die for you.”
The tyrant’s head twists in my direction. He probes me with his eyes for what seems like an eternity. The crowd remains hushed. A bird chirps sweetly overhead.
Lord Draxor leans on one arm of the mighty chair and lowers his head. “Go home, Trinian.”
I’m thunderstruck. Surely, I misunderstood. “My Lord?” I barely get the words out.
Lord Draxor picks at something on his royal robe. “You heard me. Take your children and go home.” He raises he head and stares into me again, his face devoid of expression.
I nod and hobble toward my children, buoyed by renewed hope that they will yet live. Why this good fortune has befallen me, I do not know. Perhaps Lord Draxor saw something in me worth saving. Maybe after a lifetime of spilling blood, he felt some need to atone. Regardless, I thank my God for this blessing.
“But, my Lord,” the Court Magistrate stammers as he steps forward, “this is Trinian. He led this conspiracy and revolt. You cannot-”
“Silence, Radok.” Lord Draxor turns with a menacing sneer. “Not another word or I’ll have your head on a stick.”
The color drains from the Court Magistrate’s face, and he bows and withdraws.
The guards remove my shackles and free the children. I lean on Ansira and grab hold of Alleeza’s hand as the disappointed crowd parts for us. We walk in silence to the city’s main gate, pass through it, and proceed down the dusty road without a glance over our shoulders.
We journey south as far as our exhausted bodies can carry us. At dusk, we make camp in a soft pasture and gather close around a small fire while the sun slips behind the distant mountains. Alleeza quickly falls asleep, but Ansira sits on her blanket, watching the embers send tiny sparks dancing into the dark sky.
I prop myself up on my elbow. “Ansira,” I whisper, “did you see the marble steps leading up to the throne? I’ve never seen gold weaved into marble like that.”
Ansira offers a soft, “No.”
“Surely you noticed the exquisite murals on the walls of the plaza. I had no idea such craftsmanship existed.”
Ansira shakes her head.
“Well, then you had to have seen the purple tapestries with all the jewels sewn into it, right?”
She drops her gaze to the ground and says, “No.” She pauses for a moment, then lifts her eyes to mine. “The only thing I saw … was my father.”