The day of his trial, Rolland was given permission to bath.
The king himself was presiding over the trial. Rolland wished he would have been able to meet the King of Ashrennon under better circumstances. All that he could hope for was that the king would be merciful. There were guards in the room where he bathed and he would have felt uncomfortable if it wasn’t for the impeding sense of dread.
The water was cold.
Every bruise and wound on his body flared up as he lowered himself into the chill water. He didn’t mind. He was dirty with blood and grime. The blood was what he worked on first. Cleaning his hands was painful. He’d hit the pavement hard when he’d tried to run. His palms were already beginning the scab. After he could see his tattoos again, he cleaned his face, which the guards had worked on. When he finished his bath, he still hurt, but he was clean.
He was able to don his purple robes. The ones brought to him were new, not stained with the blood of two dead men. The guards led him down a long hall. One behind him, one in front. They kept him at a healthy distance. Their hands rested lightly on their hilts, as if they considered him a real threat. After the way he’d killed those two men, perhaps he was. He didn’t feel like a threat.
He’d read about the royal court, and as they made their way up the dungeon stairs, he wondered if it would resemble the image he had in his mind. He’d also read about court proceedings. It was common for lighttouched to work amongst the courts. They were supposed to be seekers of truth, after all. At least in this day and age, he reminded himself, thinking of the histories he’d read. Like the lighttouched man who’d killed his employer and rampaged through the city. The author had called that man an animal. Is that how the people would see Rolland?
Master Willem said they would make an example of him. The king might have already decided on a punishment.
The guards led Rolland into the palace proper. It was more beautiful than he’d imagined. Grand tapestries lined the high walls depicting battles he’d read about. One particular tapestry depicted the siege and burning of Rennon. The city that came before this one. After the siege, the Tall Wall had been built. Rennon rose from the ashes of its former self. It became a self sustaining kingdom, cutting off trade to the outside world. It was only in the past few centuries that contact with other countries was re-established, and indeed, only the last century that trade with these lands was coming back. He looked away from the tapestry as the guard led him along. All this knowledge he had found in books, if only it could help him now.
He passed through more doors and walked up more stairs. Much of the palace was underground. A thousand years ago it had been mines, then a fortress. The halls on the lower levels would have looked more like tunnels if it weren’t for the stone walls. Eventually the guards that led him through the palace were joined by a small contingent of the king’s own guards.
The court was larger still than any rooms he’d passed through. Tapestries lined the walls here too, but they were more vibrant, detailed. They were mostly of the city, and less about war. Depicting the common folk, or at least, an idealised version presented for the nobility. Though he had little chance to examine them. His hood was pulled down over his face, and the walls were lined by more people than tapestries. Rolland did not know how many nobles and rich merchants frequented court proceedings on a usual day, but he doubted it was this many.
There were hundreds of people in the room. It looked as if all the nobles of the city were here, and they were all staring at him. In the corner he noticed a huddle of black robes. The masters, and many other advisers Rolland didn’t recognise. At the end of the large hall, the place Rolland had been trying to avoid looking, stood a throne.
On the throne sat the king.
The King of Ashrennon was not so plump as Rolland had imagined him to be, and a great deal younger. At least, he looked younger than he should. The king was fifty-six years old. Rolland had been expecting a greying beard and a receding hairline. What he got was nothing like that at all. The king’s hair was shiny and black. His chin looked as if it had been shaved just moments ago. Rolland wondered at the point of being royalty if it meant you still had to shave everyday, then reminded himself where he was. That not-so-old looking king he approached through the long room held Rolland’s fate in his hands.
There was a solitary chair placed a good fifteen steps in front of the king’s throne, this was where the guards had been leading him, and this was where he finally sat. Eyes downcast, sleeves covering his hands, hood pulled over his eyes. He had been reprimanded many times at the academy. This felt much like that, except a thousand times worse, with the threat of death looming over him like a dark shadow. A shadow as dark as the king’s hair.
What was his family doing right now? Did they know he was here? Sitting in front of the king, awaiting a proclamation on his fate?
Rolland felt the king’s eyes on him.
‘This is the most people I have seen attend court since my coronation. It is such a relief to know how much the people care about what goes on here.’ The king’s voice was loud, echoing off the walls and no doubt reaching those all the way at the back of the hall. ‘Though perhaps this audience is not here for me, but for you. It is a very unusual and concerning event. We have record of such things happening, but nothing like this has happened in living memory. A lighttouched apprentice from the academy not only having his hands on a dagger, but murdering two men…’ The king trailed off, letting his words rest in the air. There were whispers in the crowd until the king spoke again. ‘I am told you killed these men in defence of your life, that they attacked you, and you acted on instinct. Most strange to me is the fact that you survived. Tell me, how did you overpower these men, two men who were far larger than you? I give you permission to remove your hood and speak.’
Rolland removed his hood and continued staring at the ground. He was trying to gather his thoughts, repeating the events in his head for perhaps the thousandth time. He believed the king had already decided a judgement, but if he had not, what Rolland said now might decide his punishment. There was another set of eyes he felt on him then, eyes he’d not noticed before. He inched his gaze up and noticed someone standing behind the king. A woman in dark robes. The king’s lighttouched adviser. She saw him look.
‘I was walking back to the academy from my apprenticeship.’ Rolland stopped for a moment. ‘I apologise, your grace, but that was an inadvertent lie. I was walking back to the academy, but not from my apprenticeship. The adviser I worked with had let me off early, as he often did. On that day, before making my way back to the academy as I should have, I spent some hours at the city library, reading. When I left the library, it must have been mid afternoon. The streets were oddly quiet. When I noticed a man staring at me I knew something was wrong. People do not stare at those who are lighttouched. Their eyes glaze over when they pass me. They make space for me on the streets so they will not have to be close.
‘But this man was staring at me, standing in my path with no intention to move. So I turned around, intending to flee, only to find two more men. That’s when I fell over my robes. One of the men told me to stand, and I did. He tried to stab me in the gut… then things went blurry. I only vaguely recall what happened next, stabbing the man, slashing his friends throat. I feared for my life, your grace.’
The king quietly conversed with his adviser. Rolland heard snippets of conversation throughout the hall. He wished he had someone at his side. He wished his parents were there, even though he didn’t want them to see him like this. A murderer. Disgraced in front of not only the king, but the entire city. It was a good thing they had to legally disown him. Whatever he’d done would not reflect upon them, for he was not their son. Not anymore.
Some minutes passed before the king cleared his throat. ‘Your story matches the one we know, and my adviser assures me what you have said is the truth. I do believe that you were defending yourself. Your life was at risk, it would be a lie to say anyone in this room would do differently.’
Rolland lifted his head, just a fraction. The king’s words sounded almost hopeful. Master Willem said there would be a punishment, but this was the first time Rolland believed the king might be lenient.
‘However,’ the king said. The word dealt Rolland a heavy blow. He sunk as far as he could in his chair and awaited the king’s verdict. ‘You are not anyone else. You are lighttouched. Since the erection of the Tall Wall, lighttouched have been forbidden from holding a blade. Some of the reasons for this law, admittedly, are lost to us. But the law was written into the very soul of this city. Not even a king could change the consequences.’ He paused. ‘Even if he wanted to. I am willing to drop any charges of murder, and concede that your part in the incident was purely self defence. Many have advised me against this. In the streets they talk of retribution. Indeed, I have even heard it in this court. Even those who understand it was self defence think you should be executed on principle, to show this kind of behaviour among lighttouched will not be tolerated.
‘I am not one of those people. But I do believe there must be consequences. I will not charge you with murder, but the punishment for someone who is lighttouched holding a blade is set in stone. Which of your hands held the blade?’
When Rolland was at the library, before he was attacked, the book he was reading had mentioned the punishment for lighttouched holding a blade was cutting off their hands. He had been worried of imprisonment, execution… how had he forgotten this? The hand he’d held the blade with was the hand he wrote with, the hand he used for anything intricate. Without it, how would he be able to do his duties? He considered, for a moment, lying. If he did not say which hand he used, and instead simply held it up...
Rolland raised his right hand, pulling down his sleeve as he did so, revealing the scabs on his palm and the filled in tattoos.
‘This is the hand you held the dagger in, the hand you stabbed those men with?’ the king asked. ‘Consider your answer, if you lie, you will lose both.’
Rolland froze. He put his hand down, slowly, and raised his other. His left hand did not have as many tattoos as his right, but the palm was in even worse condition from his fall. He was shaking. He had just tried to lie to the king.
‘I apologise, your grace,’ said Rolland, trying to keep his voice from cracking. ‘I appear to have been mistaken. It was this hand, my left hand, that I held the dagger in.’
The king’s adviser let her gaze drift from his as she whispered something into the king’s ear. The king nodded.
‘This is my least favourite part about being a king, but perhaps I shouldn’t complain. I’m not the one about to lose a hand.’ He waved to some servants. ‘Bring in the cutting block.’
They were back in only a moment. Rolland’s suspicions had been right. The king was just going through the motions with this trial, he always knew what the outcome would be. Three servants carried in the heavy block, which was no more than a large tree stump. It had cut marks in it already, and dark red stains. Rolland felt the blood leave his face as he stared at it. His wrist stung, anticipating the pain. He tried to tell himself that at least it wasn’t his head, at least he had his life...
The king nodded to one of his guards. A man whose armour was only out-shined by the sword he drew at the king’s command. Most of the king’s guard carried short swords. They were picked from the very best of the inner guards. Their telans, almost like a dance, used the short sword, and so that was what they trained with. This man, however, had a longsword. It was peculiar. There was something else strange about the man, but Rolland was not in the right frame of mind figure out what.
A strong hand grabbed his shoulder, yanked him by his robes to stand. He was barely on his feet when he received a gentle push forward. Rolland walked toward the block. It wasn’t until he was a step away that he realised he was gripping hard onto his left wrist. Every bone, every nerve, every thought, was telling him to run. His mind screamed it at him. Run, fight. Get out! But there was another voice, a smaller one, telling him to hold his head high. Don’t run or you will die. Don’t cry, don’t scream, don’t show them your pain. He didn’t know where the voice had come from. But he tried to pull it out and focus on it amidst the chaos in his mind.
He stepped forward, and knelt. He let the hand gripping his wrist go. There were red marks on his skin from his fingers. His body no longer shook. He placed his left hand on the block, and turned his head away.
He would not scream and run and cry. He would hold strong, but he wouldn’t watch as his hand got cut away.
The guard’s heavy boots were almost silent on the marble floor of the palace, but Rolland could hear them. Even in the lull of the court, it was the only thing he heard. The steps stopped. The shouting in Rolland’s head stopped.
‘Any hand owned by those that are touched by the light, if that hand should contact a blade, a knife, a dagger, a sword, an axe, a spear, even the tip of an arrow...’ The lull in the court ceased, and another type of silence entered Rolland’s mind before the king spoke again. ‘Is to be removed. Tirnous, you are tasked with acting out the will of the king. Do you acknowledge this task?’
‘I do.’ Tirnous, the king’s guard, stood just a pace away from Rolland. ‘I acknowledge this task.’
A grunt of affirmation came from the king. ‘My will be done.’
The sword was swung.
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.