Fantasy Fiction posted July 27, 2016 Chapters:  ...35 36 -37- 38... 

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Rhuether Shows His Stripes

A chapter in the book THE TRINING Book Three

The End of Days?

by Jay Squires

Chapter Thirty-Seven

          The door opened a crack.
          “Did you hear me?” Rhuether screamed, the veins at the sides of his neck bulging. 
          A head peeked through. “Almighty Master—”
          “Yes! Yes! What? Where are my guards?”
          The door opened wider and three others entered, one holding a crossbow at his side. The two who weren’t armed pushed their way to the front, but still stopped short of approaching Rhuether. 
          “Which one of you has a voice?” Rhuether glanced over his shoulder at me, gave me a pained smile, his head a quick shake, and turned back “Well? Come on men ….”
          One of the two in the front glared at me, his eyes narrowing, and then turned to Rhuether. “Almighty Master, you told us to guard the door and not let anyone in for any reason while you,” he jerked his head toward me, “and the prisoner were talking.”
          “You will answer later for the reason you chose to disobey me.” He laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “Right now someone had better start talking."

                  AND NOW ...
"I understand, Almighty Master, but if you please, these two …” He reached his right arm back, without taking his eyes off Rhuether, and laid it across the back of the one who'd been first to open the door, pulling him forward, “this one and his partner came racing down the hall toward us. He told me it was urgent he speak to the Almighty Master. Isn't that right, Gorzi? Come on … tell him.” He turned to the brawny, prematurely balding man, who did all he could to keep from making eye contact with Rhuether. “Tell him. Tell him what you told me."
Clearly flustered, the man, whose forehead beaded with sweat, stammered, “Oh, A-A-Almighty Master, I—we had gone to relieve the two who guarded Her Empress’ suite. What we found when we got there—well the two guards could … couldn’t talk.” He flattened his hand on his chest and closed his eyes, his head bobbing, as though visualizing it. Then he opened them. “Couldn't talk, and … and they could barely move their bodies. Strangest thing, watching them. Like they were walking under water. Well … well, anyway, one of them used his dagger in the garden dirt to write this one’s”—he raised a trembling hand and pointed at me—"this one's name.”
Rhuether swung his head around to me, the right side of his face twitching, then turned back. “So? There’s more …?”
"Yes … more. You see, Almighty Master, the entire palace guard had drawn lots to see who would be Her Empress’ escorts to the prisoner's room last night. Those two won. They were ordered to stay outside this room," he jabbed his finger toward the floor, "and when the meeting was over to escort her back. So … so what would be your prisoner's reason to go back, later on, to her suite?" He stopped briefly to consider the lean young guard who held the crossbow. "I’m the one telling you this, Almighty Master, because I'm the ranking officer, but with your permission …" He swallowed. "I need to have the lad, Hyl, tell the rest because—well, while I stayed to get more information from the two—whatever you call them—magicked guards, I sent him, Hyl, to check on Her Empress' safety.” He gave his partner, whose crossbow hung awkwardly at his side, an apologetic shrug.
Hyl, who had been slowly shaking his head the whole time Gorzi spoke, continued shaking it now, his unruly thatch of blond hair whisking back and forth as he stared at the floor. I bent to my left over the armrest to see around Rhuether’s back. Twin trails of tears followed the contour of Hyl's nose, gathered there in the creases, and since his head was bowed, spilled, leaving tiny splats on the tile between his boots.
"Hyl," Gorzi said, his glance lighting on his partner, flickering over to Rhuether and then back, "son, you have to tell the Almighty Master."
Hyl's lips moved, but at first he produced no words. Then he said, "I—I can't."
Rhuether took three steps to plant his feet directly in front of Hyl. I didn't see the initial movement of Rhuether's arm, but realizing what was happening, in the time it took to suck in a mouthful of air, an unmistakable smack resounded of flesh-against-flesh. In the same instant, Hyl's head whipped to his right, followed by a blur of Rhuether's open palm coming around into view.
It was high time to get out of my chair. I took a step to my left, the better to keep my eyes on the movements of all the guards. Truth was, I could have made a trip to the utility room and returned without being missed. All eyes were on Rhuether, and I’d experienced one more example of the terror his subjects held for him.
While Hyl stood in a shaky semblance of military attention, Rhuether pulled his hiked sleeve down to his wrist, gave his shoulders a little shake to readjust the fit of his uniform and appeared to hold himself taller than usual. "You are already in a lot of trouble … what is your name?"
"Hyl, Alm-m-mighty Master." His voice cracked. The entire left side of his face radiated, raw and pink. He sniffed and tried to conceal a moan that was as much a whine—the sound a child might make after his father has given him the first whack, and he cowers, anticipating the pain of the second, knowing it's coming, yet not knowing when it will arrive. I found myself grimacing for him. Hyl was not much older than a child; probably one of the village recruits Chiel had anguished over—mere children lured by the promise of adventure and the glory of participating in the Almighty Master's Great March to the Southern Provinces. He was fifteen, perhaps sixteen.
"A lot of trouble, Hyl. Don't make it worse. Speak!"
Hyl's lower jaw trembled as though it were detached from the rest of his face. "Almighty Master, Her—Her …"  He choked on the words and the tears crowding his throat at the same time, and he bent forward into his thighs in a fit of coughing, ending with a retching gag.  Both hands flew up to cover his mouth, and his crossbow clattered to the tile floor. Remarkably, the nocked bolt had survived the fall to the tile without firing. 

Rhuether raised his right arm, this time with clenched fist.
Hyl straightened his body, his mouth a rictus of horrible expectation. As his arm flew up to protect his face against the blow he knew was coming, the words he couldn't say before now tumbled out, "Her Em-Empress is-is-is dead." With that, his eyes rolled back, and he collapsed in a tangle of limbs.
Slack-mouthed, Rhuether stared straight ahead through the empty space that Hyl had occupied before he fell. Slowly he raised his hands and clamped them over his ears, and he began to shake his head. The remaining guards had back-stepped to the wall, all eyes but Gorzi's fixed on Rhuether. Gorzi regarded his crumpled partner with an expression I could only describe as the remorse a stronger person feels who'd pledged, and failed, to protect the weaker. I'd seen a similar powerlessness on the faces of the Profue brothers after I told them their ward, Zurn, would have to be tried for desertion.
Rhuether brought his arms down, squared his back, and in a voice that commanded the unmistakable tenor of the potentate whose words must be obeyed, simply said, "No."
Gorzi swung his gaze from Hyl to Rhuether, but he said nothing.
"No, there has been a mistake; a mistake for which that one—" he pointed to the unmoving Hyl— "will assuredly pay."
Gorzi turned his eyes to me, then back to Rhuether. His eyelids fluttered, and he brought his hand across the top of his bald head. "Almighty Master … if I may … Hyl—you see, Hyl would never—"
"Axtilla is dead," I said to Rhuether's back, in as gently firm and level a voice as I could muster.  How could I fault Rhuether for his mental state? My mind threatened to close down rather than accept Axtilla's death. As much as I despised Rhuether for what he was, the horror he had propagated; as convinced as I was that I had to destroy him … how could I deny that he could love Axtilla to the fullest depth, as I had?
I watched the small, convulsive movements of his back and the wide-eyed perplexity of the guards who were facing him, and I realized their Almighty Master was quietly, but publicly, sobbing.
"Nooooooo," issued as a jagged fragment of his denial. He whimpered, and his shoulders sagged just an instant, before he pulled them back up straight again and cleared his throat. "No, no, no … This one—I don't know yet why, but—"
"Brother, it is as Hyl said. Axtilla is dead."
In an instant for which no one could prepare, Rhuether's hand dropped to his sword's hilt, and in one movement of a glinted blur his sword whipped out of its scabbard, over his head, then swept down just as Gorzi threw himself across Hyl's body. In the same dizzying instant, I charged forward and dove into Rhuether's side, just above the waist, my momentum interrupting his sword's full follow-through, but not before it left a black, bubbling gash on Gorzi's shoulder, as Rhuether, his sword and I tumbled away from them.
The two remaining, who were Rhuether's personal guards, were on top of us within seconds, pulling me off Rhuether. Gorzi, looking bewildered, stood beside the still unconscious Hyl, his hand pressed against his wound, blood oozing between his fingers. One guard yanked me to my feet and pushed me several feet away from Rhuether, who lay curled in a fetal position; his eyes pressed tightly closed, the sockets wet. A bubbly froth issued from his lips.
While the guard worked his way behind me and wrapped his arms around my chest, the other stood staring a moment at Rhuether before he scrambled over to retrieve Hyl's crossbow. He inspected the bow closely from different angles, then took it with him to kneel by Rhuether.
"Almighty Master, should I get the medic?" he asked in a soothing voice.
Rhuether's eyes snapped open but didn't seem to focus on anything. Tears glistened on his eyelashes.
"I can get him here right away, Almighty Master."
Rhuether lifted his head from the tile and angled it to the guard. He brought a hand slowly to his lips and made several sweeps across them, then frowned down at his wet palm and fingers. He dragged the back of his forefinger across his nose and looked at the shiny swath on his knuckles. Finally, he worked his way to his hands and knees and then, with exaggerated slowness, to his feet.
The guard's grip around my chest tightened as Rhuether turned and trudged to stand at my feet.  He locked eyes with me. The silver disks of his irises seemed to float above, then dip below, wavering beneath rising tears.
"You did it. You killed her." His inflection fell between a question and a statement.
"She was already dead." It would be pointless to tell him about the bird.
"I was blind. You really did love her, didn't you?"
I sighed and felt my chin slip to my throat socket. I blinked and fought back tears.
He jabbed his palm so hard into my chest that the guard rocked back before he righted himself and gripped me tighter. "It’s so clear now. You thought you could rekindle her …" he chuckled, dryly, "her dead love for you. But when she denied you her … favors, you waited until the guards escorted her back, and then you went there, used your magic on the guards, went inside and killed her. If you couldn't have Axtilla for yourself, you weren’t going to leave her alive to … to make me happy. You robbed me of the one thing that would complete my life." Little nets of froth gathered in the corners of his mouth as he spoke. "You couldn't endure seeing someone conjoined with me as you had been."
Not joined—but conjoined? The image was so bizarre it took all my will not to smile. I could only envision our being locked together at the ribs as an abstraction, as myth. I had no memory of it. And if mythological, neither did he.
"You told me the seer demanded that I learn cooperation. Isn't that right, Pondria?" Two streams poured, unimpeded, over the lower rims of his eyes and dripped off his chin. "Isn't that right, Brother?"
I saw the stretched, white skin of his knuckles an instant before they smashed into my jaw. Gagging on the blood trying to slide down my throat, I struggled to keep from vomiting as I tried to shake some order back into the melting room.
"Right, Brother?"
When I heard, as much as felt, the horrible crunch on the other side, I only remembered—before remembering slipped away—a misguided gratitude for the shackle of arms which made it unnecessary for me to rely on my useless legs. I woke to find someone's fingers—Rhuether's?—lifting my jaw from my chest. I imagined the fingers to be raising up a bag of stones from beneath. I ran my tongue over my teeth. They might have been loosened, more than likely were, but they were still mine. The blood oozed from a tuft of mangled skin on my inner cheek. I swallowed, grimaced. "Why would …" I wiggled my jaw—no bones broken there. "Why would I want to be conjoined with you?" Blood drooled out the corner of my mouth.
"Why? Why? Because you were so privileged, Pondria." His voice raised a tremulous octave while his words raced to leave his mouth before his emotion overtook them. It was the voice of a child suffering an injustice. "The seer gave you the fun kind of magic and—and you made things spin and move and disappear …" a flurry of whirling arms and hands accompanying his tumble of words, "and then come spinning back again … and you made Mama happy with all the things your magic did for her. You thought I didn't notice that, Pondria? You thought that didn't hurt?"
My limited and jostled faculties told me I profited nothing by not playing along. I brought the myth back to mind. "I was your brother. We were children. I didn't think of that."
He gave my face a slap, but it was a child's slap. "You thought I didn't see how you enjoyed giving Mama everything I couldn't give her?" He was breathing heavily, now, and choking on the tears that clogged his throat.
I glanced past Rhuether. Gorzi took Rhuether's inattention to look after Hyl. He brushed the hair off his forehead and tapped him on his cheeks until he opened his eyes. Then he took him by the armpits, grimacing from the pain, and dragged him to the wall. The other guard didn't bother to help, just pulled his attention away from the drama that was unfolding thirty feet away to give them a desultory glance.
Rhuether wiped his nose with his shirt sleeve and took two hiccupping breaths. "You don't think that h-hurt knowing I could never compete with you?"
"I didn't think of it as competition, Glnot."
"Shut up! It's Almighty Master."
He slapped me again, but it was another child slap. The guard must have realized Rhuether's ineffectiveness because he balled his fist on the arm whose grip was against my flesh and ground his knuckles just under my rib-cage.
"You ignored the hurt I was feeling. But I found a way to make you hurt, didn't I, Pondria?" His breath was so heavy now I considered that whatever his plans, they might be interrupted by a heart attack or stroke. "I killed you once, Brother, and I'll kill you again." He turned his head to look behind him at his other personal guard. The child in his voice was gone. "You … come here with your bow." He turned back to me, his eyes slits.
The guard considered Hyl, who was recuperating but still groggy. He gave a questioning glance at Gorzi. After all, it was Hyl's crossbow.
"Don't do this to him, please," Gorzi muttered, keeping his voice from carrying. "He called you."
The guard shrugged and approached Rhuether. "Almighty Master ..."
Rhuether slid his gaze past me to the one tethering me. "Take him to the wall." He raised his eyebrows to me, and his lips curled to a smirk.
The guard gave my rib cage a final grind of his knuckles before pushing me to the wall, about ten feet from the door. On the other side of the doorway, Gorzi and Hyl leaned, watching. The guard whipped me around and slammed my shoulders into the wall. "You'll stay here," he said through his teeth. He moved several feet away and looked at Rhuether for instructions.
Rhuether settled in the chair, his back to me.
I grinned, though my lips trembled. "I thought you'd be manning the bow yourself, brother. Instead, I see you don't even want to watch."
Rhuether dragged his chair around to face me. "You're right, Pondria. It was out of misguided sensitivity. I thought you wouldn't want me to witness any last-second begging … or the release of your bladder or bowels."
"Do you really expect that to happen?" I think I pulled off a smile.
Rhuether raised his arm and turned to the guard who held the crossbow in readiness. "When I drop my arm, shoot."
"Yes, Almighty Master." He raised the bow.
From thirty feet away, the bolt tip, black and shiny, and the polished shank, held a steady bead on my chest. The crossbow didn't waiver as the guard faced me, though his eyes turned to the left to watch Rhuether, whose right hand was held high.
“Goodbye, Pondria,” he said, in weary disdain.
Only Kyre knows how the play … I took a breath.
Rhuether's arm dropped.
                  TO BE CONTINUED ...

Book of the Month contest entry


I'm fully aware of this chapter's length. There was no place I could find to cut it off sooner. I see it's only seventy-nine paragraphs long, though, and some paragraphs are only one sentence long. Now ... does that makes it seem shorter?

THANK YOU, Lindatribuli, from FanArtReview, for your dynamic "Behind The Mask."
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