A Question of Loyalties
[04.08.00] » by Victoria "Wallwalker" Hobbs
"But I fear I have nothing to give
I have so much to lose here in this lonely place.."
~Sarah McLachlan, "Fear"
"As soon as you get back to Castle Caelsent, she'll need to have the wound sewn up, and fast. And make sure that Hula is there with the other healers. She's the strongest white magician in the castle now."
I stood in the courtyard of Castle Hadrian, instructing a few burly men leaning against a cart; they stared at me, occasionally nodding and muttering replies. "Yes, Bishop." "Whatever you say, Bishop Ulster." I tried my best to ignore their contempt, continued my instructions.
My voice echoed against the castle walls; no others rose to obscure it. Most of the Leonians had fled the castle during the invasion, for which I was exceedingly thankful; I didn't want to think about what Dryst would do to any survivors he would find. Fervently I wished that Dryst had left me behind at Asten, as I had expected him to do.
Then again, if he had, there would have been no one to help the woman who lay in the back of that cart. Iria, Dryst's most devoted knight, had been the only one of the three of us to fall in the battle. Even when he was almost totally unharmed and she had been wounded to within an inch of her life, she had leapt in front of him to save him from a Griffin's slash. She needed rest, treatment. So, the cart was taking her back home; the men had been rushed here, on pain of . . . God only knew what kinds of punishment from Dryst..
"Be sure to give her this each time she awakens, as soon as possible," I finished, handing a large bluish bottle to one of the men. They nodded dumbly; hopefully they understood, or else she would probably try to escape them, and someone would surely be killed. "Once you get back to Caelsent, Hula will know where to find more. Keep her drugged with the potion until she heals enough to rejoin us. It won't hurt her."
There was a general muttering of agreement. The men turned to leave, jumping aboard the cart and whipping the animals into a trot.
I turned to do the same, to walk back through the gates into the castle proper. My body shuddered, even under the weight of my robes. I've lived near Castle Caelsent all my life, and grew to be accustomed to the warmth of the countryside there. The cold mountain air in Hadrian chilled me to the bone, especially now that the sun was setting. Sudden drafts of icy wind kept lancing into my sore eyes, stinging them, sending a few small tears running down my face. I hoped that Dryst was still busy inspecting the monsters in the stable to re-enter the castle and see my tears. I was drained, on the edge of collapsing with exhaustion from the last battle, and I knew that if he saw me like this, he would find some way to make me feel even worse. It didn't matter that I had a perfectly good explanation for them.
The king's other Rune Knights and courtiers are of two opinions about me. A few of them wonder why I continued to deal with Dryst, even though he regularly ignores everything I say. But many of them - Camden and Bagdemagus in particular - often invert that question. I've heard them both express their wonder that Dryst keeps me as his advisor at all. In fact, one evening as I was walking into the royal court, I have heard Camden ask him why a "repressed, burnt-out man" like me still "enjoys" a place in the court of Iscalio. Dryst had answered in his usual manner; his laughter had echoed throughout the entire castle.
So. We had conquered Hadrian. God only knew what Dryst proposed to do with it. I'd already tried to ask him, and even had ventured to make a few suggestions, which of course had been ignored. And Dryst hadn't even had an answer for me. "Oh, relax, Ulster. It'll take care of itself!" He hadn't even looked at me, had all but brushed me off. No big surprise there, I thought, feeling a momentary pang of bitterness that I could not suppress. He's brushed off every sensible thing I've ever said since he took the throne. He's turned Iscalio into his own personal playground, complete with people that mean nothing to him, playthings that he can twist into whatever suits his whims. . .
I shook my head. No. His Majesty is not an evil man.. he's merely. . . mad. But that is the coldest comfort possible, when I think about what has happened to my country under King Dryst. One looking upon it now would never know that twenty-five years ago, when I was a young boy, it had been the most bountiful country in Forsena. All in Iscalio had lived in peace and abundance, not the hunger and poverty that was too common there today. But Dryst sees his country and his people as his, I'm sure of that. He has given no thought to his duty to the common people, or to the country. Instead he sees them all as a gift to him. . .
My heart sank as I thought of it.
And now he wants to make the rest of the world his plaything. The thought stuck in my mind as I entered a tower and started to ascend a small staircase. I wanted to find a place to sleep that night; one of those towers was bound to be a bedroom. The battle hadn't been long at all. I had escaped without injury, except for the persistent headache that resulted from pushing my spellcasting ability to its limit. Dryst had barely been harmed at all... althought that was less due of his skill in combat, and more likely because of Iria's sacrifice for him. She had been badly wounded, protecting him; she would not be able to help us defend if Leonia counterattacked, but she was determined to do so. As was always the case when she had to be separated from Dryst, I had been forced to give her a sleeping potion, and to give orders to the men taking her back to Caelsent that she would need to be given another dose of the potion every time she started to awaken. She would have to be kept insensible until she was well enough to join him again. Sometimes I pity her, for her devotion to him... especially because it is so blind.
Pangs of guilt struck out at me as I reached the top of the staircase and entered the small room. I had never actually helped to capture a castle before. . . I wasn't even sure why I had been chosen to help Dryst attack this one. In any case, it seemed wrong to take an enemy's room as my own.. especially an enemy's room which had obviously contained a baby child. An ornately decorated wooden cradle was the proof of that, leaning against one wall, next to a hard bed. And the only pieces of furniture were a hard stool, and a small end table. Apparently the table had been cleared just before we had left; it was free of dust, and held only two small objects. The first was obviously a painting of a man and a child, but the other wasn't as immediately obvious; I walked forward, sat down on the stool to get a closer look.
It was a small dagger, with a handle of mother-of-pearl and gold, resting on a table beside the bed that would be his for now. Apparently one of the generals from Leonia had left it behind in a great hurry; I knew of few who would easily forget such a fine example of craftsmanship. It probably belonged to the young mage in the portrait - a sad-eyed man in his class's robes, holding a baby child dressed in a simple blue tunic. With the child to care for, the dagger was surely his last concern. I picked it up, looked it over with a certain detached interest, not because I had any intentions of keeping the dagger, but simply because I was curious about its quality and craftsmanship.
It was as excellent on close examination as it was from a distance, or at least, it was to the best of my knowledge about such things. The hilt was new and finely crafted, and I could see the stamp on the hilt that marked it as a product of a craftsman from Damas, a castle known for its steel blades. And the blade itself was sharp and clean. I ran it over one finger, feeling it cut into my skin without pain; a drop of blood started to ooze slowly from the cut.
Blood. That's more blood then I shed during the battle for this place. I thought of Iria, lying senseless in a cart, her body scorched by enchanted fire and battered by the strokes of a heavy mace. Less than I deserve. . . Suddenly my hand moved, almost of its own volition, slashing the blade across the heel of my opposite hand. Oh, God. . .
Horror washed over me as I watched the blood begin to pool, faster this time, a dark and sickly red.
It was a familiar horror; I have considered this far too many times, and each time it is the fear and guilt that restrain me. What will happen when I die? I have spent almost twenty years of my life following God, dedicated my life to serving Him, and yet I can not answer that question. Sometimes I still fear that God is a lie, even with all of the magical power that He has granted to me in His service.
But.. I touched the dagger, lifted it up, ran the edge of the blade over the tip of a second finger, pushing it a bit harder. Blood slowly pooled from the wounds, started to ooze down my forearm to the edge of my long robes; I pushed the robes up, so that they wouldn't be soiled. That's all there is to it, I thought blankly, staring at the blood as its course along my arm slowed. It would be so easy to finish the job, here and now. I doubt that anyone in the palace would even care about my death, not now. The entire court is caught up in this . . . bloodlust of our king, they'll just say that there will be someone to replace me soon enough.
The blade was in my right hand. I could see the veins in my left wrist without looking, like blue cords under thin parchment. I wouldn't suffer for long, only for an instant. . .
No, some dim, outraged part of me whispered. You can't let yourself think this, Ulster. You're not worthless, you're the last of a proud family! Your ancestors have served the royal family of Iscalio since its beginning! If you don't live, how else will the country heal?
Along with my own fear, it was a compelling argument. I glanced again at the sharp blade, felt the cut on my finger throb in pain. I can't heal the country, I thought. How can I heal anything if the king won't listen to me? He's caught up in this madness. Maybe back when it began it could have been cured, but not now. Not now. And I have nowhere else to go. It's better this way.
Suicide is a sin, the outraged voice replied. God will help you! There's always another way!
Suddenly I felt the tears dripping onto my bare arms, felt the trembling of my body as the anguish I'd been able to repress for years came to the surface. "No, there's a greater sin. . ." I whispered to myself. "If Dryst conquers. . . if he takes Forsena. . . what will he do with it..?" I feared that I knew the answer to that. He'd take, and never give. The entire continent would be his playground, an extension of what Iscalio had become - a country of unbridled sins and darkened souls, a wasteland governed by a king who took all he could for himself.
Would it be a greater sin to die here and now, or to help Dryst bring that about? The beautiful countryside of Leonia was spread out before the window I was seated at, not as lush as Iscalio, but still a stately and abundant land. I couldn't force myself to think of how Dryst - or most of his other courtiers, whom are just as irresponsible with their power as he is - would treat that beauty. I had heard from travelers about the peace and prosperity that everyone enjoyed here under Lyonesse's rule. Wouldn't they suffer under my lord?
My breath caught in my throat as I lightly traced the outline of a vein with the dagger, moving it back and forth over my skin, watching the tiny red scratches rise along my arms. I imagined what would happen if I pushed a bit harder, how the blood would flow. Such a proud, proud family, to come to this. What would our ancestors say. . . I don't even know what I'm fighting for now!
And of course the outrage answered. You're fighting for Iscalio; you've always been fighting for Iscalio, and you always will.. And no matter what Dryst says, he isn't Iscalio. He's only the king. If you die here, you'll only be giving up on your homeland and your ancestors!
I pulled the dagger back for a few seconds, feeling the scratches sting as my tears fell off of my face. But there's nothing I can do. . .
Not now, not in his madness. But it isn't going to last forever.. It was the same argument that I had always had with myself, when this happened. I was becoming increasingly convinced that it was wrong, that Dryst was going to be the Mad Monarch for the rest of my life, and that my life here had no meaning. . .
Suddenly something inside of me snapped; a wave of disgust and revulsion at my behavior washed over me, and even in my depressed state, I suddenly hated myself for the torture that I was putting myself through. I felt a hoarse moan of pain escape my lips as I suddenly rose and tossed the cursed dagger out of the window, watched it fall out of sight. How could I do this? How could I even consider leaving Iscalio, by suicide or by any other means? If I don't stay. . . The thought trailed off; I couldn't find a way to finish it. What would happen if I left? Would Iscalio go on without me? Of course it would...
Would I be able to go on without it? No. No, of course not.
And what would God say to me in the world Beyond, well knowing that I had died because I was too exhausted and afraid to fulfill my duties to Iscalio?
I couldn't answer that. But I knew that He would not praise me for my choice...
God help me... I sat again, and let my head sink onto the table. Again I was aware of how bitterly cold it was in that castle, as the chill of a sudden wind stung the new scratches on my arms.. somehow I had managed to force it to the back of my mind before. There must be something I can do... But I didn't know what that could be. And most likely I will never know until the day that I die, the day I see all of the mistakes I've ever made recreated again, and the right decision shown to me, so simple that I should have realized it long before...
I shouldn't think about this any more today. . . I don't need to torture myself. There's enough of that waiting for me in the morning. With that discomforting thought, I closed my eyes, hoping that sleep would soon come, to block out the realities of this world....