Vol.3, Ch.4, P.2
The margrave’s manor, the Fiefguard garrison—Arbel’s respective seats of policy and police. Small wonder why the Nafílim horde should hunger for their fall. But the concentration camp? Hardly the heart beating in the fief-burgh’s bosom, as it were.
Yet this was the far march of Ström, straddling right up against Nafílim country from which it has reaped a great many “boons of war”, as its soldiery and slavers were wont to term it. And what better coffer to contain such brimming “riches” than a concentration camp?
A veritable trove, indeed, ever the dirty buttress to Arbel’s weal. But in the eyes of Rolf and his newfound friends, it sparkled with a different light—of vanished friends and family, of lovers lost yet unforgotten, of forlorn souls to be sold to a life of drudgery most unjust. No doubt, then, that the Nafílim enemy should eventually seek their immediate emancipation.
“Of these, I appoint the camp as our final fastness,” so resolved the margrave to his Zaharte guests. “A stronghold must needs be made of it. A quagmire to unmake the enemy!”
His will was well-warranted. A military headquarters though it was, the Fiefguard garrison was, in practice, little more than an array of offices and training grounds; a house of cards could boast of a sturdier defence than it ever can. And of course, naught needs be said of the lord’s manor itself.
That left the concentration camp. Myriad and maze-like were its walls, and with a watchtower to boot, its dreadful and dreary spans shone as the most defensible of the three pillars. Yet that alone ill-allayed the Östbergs’ worries.
Beside his sister stood a serious-faced Theodor, thick in thought, whilst for his part, Sigmund could not have cared any less for the conversation, and so had long left his eyes to wander like those of a witless fish.
“Abandon the manor, muster ourselves at the camp… and there lay our last stand,” Viola wondered aloud. “Theodor. What reckon you of this?”
“I… reckon it rather sound,” her brother answered greyly, “if not for our dwindled numbers, that is…”
“Hold there,” the margrave hastily said. “I have plans enough, if you should lend an ear.”
His portance was dimming with desperation. Needs and desires filled his head. A need to have the Zaharte hellions dig in their heels and defend his fief. A desire to have Viola helm the very effort, to unite both his Fiefguardsmen and her sellswords together in buying him precious time. For above all else, the margrave wished to be whisked away at once to safety, and the scoundrels before him were his only wings.
Yes, desperate, indeed, the margrave, as he verily pleaded for Viola’s heedance. What a damning difference from the lordliness displayed only yesterday.
But undressed of his dread authority, Aaron Ström was not unlike the next man: blind to his own blunders, never minding his meek and mistaken self that his mirrors much warn of. Yet the real rub was in how he might yet project a princely portrait, even as he was but a cornered creature, newly enlightened to the shallowness of his strength.
Such was what Viola now discerned in the margrave. She sighed. Mixed in her mien was pity for the poor lord. But that pity all but pounced past his pate as he continued speaking.
“A herald shall hie hence and to our foes proffer this ultimatum: stand down, or we will cull the captives—each and every one!”
“…Hostages, then, Your Excellency?” asked Viola. The proposed connivery confounded her little. In fact, she was convinced it could well-serve the stout rope out of this hole. Not that it would inspire even the faintest idea of surrender in the Nafílim, no. Mettle and momentum were on their side, no mistake there—but this ploy just might give the push the defenders needed to turn the tables. Say, for instance, an offer to free some prisoners, all in exchange for the exiting of enemy troops from the fief-burgh.
“Hostages, indeed,” the margrave confirmed, before glancing to a side door. “And speak of the devil…”
Into the great hall then came a Fiefguardsman. In tow: a barefoot boy of a Nafíl—not more than six, seven years young.
Viola eyed him, coldly inquisitive. “What’s this?”
“A message,” was the margrave’s curt reply.
A knowing nod. “…Ah.”
The ultimatum was no bluff—such must be made explicitly clear to the enemy. And to prove it, this Nafílim boy would serve as the first scapegoat.
“A warm corpse should make a brilliant banner of our conviction,” proclaimed the margrave. “Might one of yours do the honours of a flag-bearer, Captain?”
“But of course, Your Excellency,” Viola flatly accepted.
Many, many tears, welling up in the boy’s eyes as he then slowly looked down. His ears had heard every word. His heart had swallowed their every meaning. But why him? There was nary a sin upon his head. An urchin of a slave, chosen on a whim. That was all he was. And yet, to place so asudden upon his little shoulders the duty of death…
The weight finally set in. Now knowing his end, the boy began to shiver and snivel, his tears quietly collecting on the floor.
“…Oi. Wot you on ‘bout, aye?”
Piercing the silence: Sigmund’s gruff and grating voice. Thereafter was the moment mired in another lull, till Theodor ventured forth an explanation.
“A deal, Sigmund. We guarantee the captives’ lives, and our enemies guarantee their withdrawal. Simple enough.” The vice-captain then half-sighed. “Though, whether they’ll comply is anyone’s guess, but we need only force their hand and—”
“Yea, yea, all that rubbish be right clear an’ cut, coz. But that’s not me point. That there,” Sigmund said, then flicking his chin at the young Nafíl, “that’s a squirt, not some soldier. Why’s ‘e got to be off’d, ah? Makes fuck-all sense, innit? ‘E’s jus’ a li’l boy, for cryin’ out loud!”
Veritable question marks bloomed in all the others’ bosoms. None knew why Sigmund would speak such spittle. Then, as though to give voice to their confusion, Viola addressed her subordinate thusly:
“Sigmund. I scarce see the rub here. Child or no, that’s a Nafíl.”
“The rub ‘ere, Cap’n, is that we’re fighters, ain’t we?” the swordsman spat back, before pointing to the boy. “That there squirt: ‘e look like ‘e’s fightin’ back to ya? Ah?”
Despite his defiance, Sigmund earned only bewildered squints from his superiors, and as well, a spark of impatience from the margrave.
“Enough with this.” The lord looked to the Fiefguardsman. “Have it done.”
The soldier’s sword hissed from its sheath—
—and ran right through the boy’s bosom.
A small cry, almost a whisper. A rivulet of red, spewing from little lips.
The Östbergs shut their eyes, brooking none of the sight. Not out of pity for the child, no, but for the solemn act of execution.
…Such was precisely why the siblings, warriors though they were, could neither foresee nor forestall what struck next.
“You slag!! Come ‘ere──!!”
A long blade glinted bright: erupting with rage, Sigmund sprang forth and felled the Fiefguardsman with a mighty swing of his own sword.
Utter shock flashed across the margrave’s face. “…Hellion, you! What roguery is this!?”
But Sigmund’s indignance was undampened. “Why!? Wot’s with you wankers, ah!?” he screamed, canines gnashing, hair swaying. “‘E’s jus’ a kid!! A nose-pickin’ brat, damn it!!”
It was that very “brat”, now laying limp upon the floor, whom Sigmund then took into his arms. The delicate act drenched his hands in young blood.
Red. Oh so very red.
“Gkh… hhnnggwwoo──hh!!” resounded a roar of roars, ruesome yet wroth. “Blood! Brat’s blood! Aaaegh!! All o’ you!! All o’ you be damn’d!!”
The great hall thundered. Sigmund’s words: vacuous yet vociferous, violently shaking the very air they rode.
“S-Sigmund!? Tame yourself!” shouted Viola, but before she could think to restrain him, someone else ventured the deed.
“Ach! Enough from you!!”
Fury, not fright, fumed from the margrave, as though teased out by Sigmund’s tantrum, for stinging his ears anew were the former maunderings of Rolf Buckmann: that civilians, Nafílim or no, need not be senselessly slain. What folly. Vexation was all he had felt when last he had argued with that ungraced. And now was that very same vexation fully revived and revealed.
An exigency was at hand. Arbel hung on the brink, Ström was strung over the pyre, devils stood at the doorstep—and yet did this fool sellsword fain interfere further.
The margrave had endured much. The failure of his men, consorting with these cutthroats, ceding command over to their captain… Humiliation after humiliation. But this was the last straw. And so in his rage did he reach for the sword at his hip. A sword worn that he might look the part of the proper commander-in-chief in this challenging time.
…A sword wielded to his own woe.
For never could the margrave have proven a match for Sigmund’s mettle.
And never had Sigmund meted mercy to any blade brandished against him.
Too swiftly had it happened. Too astonished were the siblings. There was naught they could have done.
The margrave’s swordtip all but tottered about like a butterfly flitting over foreign fields. In contrast, Sigmund’s was a straight brushstroke, dragging out of the lord’s flesh a flood of many reds. From the margrave’s bosom to the marble tiles beneath spilt a splash of warmth, thick and wet.
Aaron Ström knew not the “how” nor the “what”—nor aught of this thunderswift plight. Letting fall his blade, he bent his gaze down to his gaping breast. Only then did he know at last.
He had been cut.
He had been killed.
But one question lingered.
A margrave of mighty Londosius—laid low by a brute’s blade.
He thought it most absurd. So devout a lamb of Yoná he had been. So devoted a slayer of the Nafílim devils. And this was his due?
In seeking the answer with all speed did his mind then melt away unto naught—along with his life.
There fell his corpse onto the cold marble, afore the flabbergasted Östbergs. A corpse comforted by but one thought before its death: of having fallen to no blade brandished by the ungraced it so despised.
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