"Marked" Chapter - 3iii

An eager crowd of children had started to gather around the group of rushing officers as they walked though the normally barren streets that snaked around outside of the town. Though many of the older residents frowned upon the large army bringing war to their front door, the younger people simply saw excitement. Little innocent children reached out, asking mundane questions. Harren had, as had all the officers, grown accustomed to their persistent quizzing and merely ignored them as they cried out, stretching their little arms towards the group of murderers – the kids were innocent and misguided. Some asked to play with swords and others tugged on capes whilst the older children asked whether or not the veterans gathered before them had killed an enemy. There were a few strange looks from both residents and officers as a little girl asked if they had seen a wizard. Some people gasped as Harren and the other men continued walking, an embarrassed mother rushing over and scooping up the curious child as she waited for an answer she would not get: the rumours offended many people, many believing that such power should only belong to the gods – not a mere human.

Drawing ever closer to their destination, the parade collected more and more people. The occasion always caused quite a stir and most of the towns folk stopped whatever they were doing to at least look at the rare sight.

Continuing along the widening streets, the rundown houses from the outskirts started to be replaced by newer buildings, some playing host to small vegetable patches. The occupants of the small patches of thin compost struggled endlessly against the lack of light and warmth, as did most of the vegetation in the surrounding area. Harren felt as if the vegetables and he had something in common as he wriggled his tingling nose in a futile attempt to keep some circulation going in his face.

Along with the improved houses, the streets started to provide the odd tavern promising a bed for the night and an ale by the fire for the weary traveller; shops here and there selling all sorts of goods and even the occasional market stool in the street trying to catch your eye with a good bargain. A man cried out the authenticity of his doubtful goods from behind the nearest stool: good luck charms for warding off Zarian soldiers – Harren glared at the man and his rubbish claim. Many of the stools sold nonsense goods and attempted to con the stupid or desperate: herbs that made you stronger; potions that gave bald men a full head of hair; charms that warded against evil… none of them ever worked. However, the fact that they were still in business clearly meant that someone bought the dodgy wares.

Finally, the road opened up into the main square. The splendour of the town hall looked out across a modest, once beautiful garden – its beauty dampened by the current conditions and looking in a bad state. Many of the rare flowers were wilting; their brown and withered petals could probably never be saved as the sad sight was but a cold shadow of its once glorious past.

Standing out from its surroundings, the hall protruded out from the busy life around it, the dirty buzz of the streets causing it to lose none of its splendour. The contrast between it and the dying garden made the building look all the more incredible. Made from the finest marble in the area, the tall outside walls were covered, almost completely, with a thick layer of ivy. However, in spite of the almost quaint façade presented by the outside of the structure, Harren knew the inside was something else - it was luxurious.

Once again, Harren strode through the open doors and into the warmth of the inside. Another meeting was set to begin, lots of elite members of the Karan army – all dressed in an almost identical manner – had already found their way to the meeting place and were already sitting on the marble benches. The people of Karalla had covered the benches with a light blue silk before the army’s arrival to show not only the acceptance of their presence, but their joy: excitement hung constantly in the air.

Otherwise unbearable, the silk provided that extra bit of padding – be it only a tiny amount – that made sitting for a long time in the hall just comfortable enough. The rows of benches sat about eight feet above a centre circle, encasing half of it in a semi-circle. Gradually, each row was a little higher than the one in front, giving everyone a good view of the stage before them, until the officers sitting in the furthest away row almost brushed the flamboyantly decorated ceiling. Only a throne was currently placed in the centre of the floor, positioned in such a way that the Emperor could see everyone from his ornate seat of power.

Harren looked around the half-full hall, watching the men pour in and efficiently fill the benches. It would still be a while before the Emperor arrived: Trenos liked to wait until everyone was present before making his entrance. Gazing around, Harren looked upon the beautiful paintings that covered the walls, hanging from brass poles jutting out of the sturdy walls. There were portraits of valiant warriors and epic battles; picturesque landscapes of flowing rivers, wind stricken forests and rolling green hills and a painting of – what Harren presumed – to be the village, the sun glinting off an inaccurate representation of the fountain passed only moment a go by Harren. He wondered how the people could afford so many glorious works of art: he doubted very much that the people of Karalla themselves had painted the majority of them.

Harren returned his thoughts to the meeting, now much closer to commencing. Though the benches were mostly taken up, people continued to pour through the doors situated on the left at ground level. Harren watched subconsciously as some people used the staircase next to which he sat, and others walked across the centre circle to use the staircase on the other side. Harren liked to sit on the edge should any trouble ever break out. Though there were guards, Harren always wanted to be aware; he didn’t need anyone to protect him – not that he could do much should a fight break out.

It always amazed him how many people could squeeze into the village hall. It was also a shocking reminder of just quite how large the Karan army was. As Harren sat in the top left corner of the building, he glanced out across the bustling sea of officers below – each of these men held considerable power, controlling up to and over one thousand men. Yet, sitting in his corner farthest away from where the Emperor will sit, Harren realised he knew none of these men. They were all either of higher rank and didn’t waste their time on a mere Captain, or were too busy trying to become a general. Amongst officers, the admiration held by regular soldiers for Harren was not shared: many believed him unworthy and only here because of his relation to the Emperor and because he was the next in line to the throne. The admiration was replaced by jealousy; Harren felt it better to stay as out of sight, if possible. However, although he was only a Captain, he was the highest rank in the 2nd Company; no one surpassed him. In a way the Grand General served as a make shift general for Harren and his men but most of the time, the company took their orders not from him, but directly from the Emperor.

Not being as large, the 2nd Company simply didn’t need as many officers. The complex infrastructures of the other companies had been withered away to just a simple group of fifty to a hundred warriors lead by one person. A second in command was simply there to solve the problem of replacing the leader should they suddenly be incapacitated in the line of duty. Whereas the rest of the army spend their days waiting for huge head-on confrontations with the enemy, Harren frequently lead his troops on secretive missions on a far smaller scale. They struck fear into those who got complacent, destroyed those who thought themselves well defended and burned resources send to relieve. They would come and go before anyone could react, a legend in places to haunt even grown men’s dreams. They were the panic in reasoned men’s hearts, the terror in the eyes of the brave and the weakness of the strong. They were undefeated, some say that none have ever died in combat… the reputation served Harren well – he was probably safer with his men than with an army of a thousand ordinary soldiers.

At the end of the day, almost no one out-ranked Harren – though many hated to admit it.

Now the hall almost seemed alive, buzzing the anticipation. Harren took up a spot next to the door, leaning his back against the wall and looking out across the men that would replace him without hesitation – men that could even hate him. There he waited in silence.

He simply waited for his brother to appear.

When the trumpets sounded, they echoed around the room. The design of the building greatly increased the volume, so there was no question as to whether or not the Emperor was heard… or his fairly overdone fanfare. Harren had always thought the precession unnecessary. In fact, the idea annoyed him: no Emperor should need a merry tune to aid his recognition; a good Emperor should be known to his people – most of all his officers. However, Trenos and their father, the former Emperor before his untimely… death, and the Emperors before him had all followed such a tradition. Maybe there was some solace to be gained from normality and routine in an otherwise very busy and stressful job. Comfort in times even as pressing as these was a subtle reminder of just how important this Empire was to humanity. Irn needed to be ruled under an iron fist first for peace to finally reign for eternity. Even though it was just a tune, that tune – a mere collection of melodic, uplifting notes – brought reassurance to a nation. It also brought excitement, a prelude to joy; that was the joy that could be shared by everyone. And it would, soon enough.

Murmuring died out quickly as silence gripped the marble interior. It was not a tense silence, nor one forced upon the men watching the centre circle, but rather a silence given through respect.

Sweeping across the floor to his ornate throne, Trenos looked very regal. He had grown very quickly to fill the role of his father and, in spite of his lack of experience and age; even if he struggled to win the affections of the people due to his young age. He was tougher than his father as a ruler, and therein laid the respect gained from his generals – though some of his methods were… unorthodox.

Both he and the throne were draped in what looked to be – and was undoubtedly – very expensive velvet. Again, upholding tradition, the velvet was an entrancing blue like that of the sky on a clear summer’s day. The blue was then trimmed, threaded very carefully with golden thread giving the whole outfit a look that was fit for any Emperor.

Surrounding their leader as he walked, three other men accompanied the Emperor. The royal precession consisted of the two strategists: Phaidros Yunah and Dral Lynch, both were dressed in identical fashion, their plain white robes not quite touching the floor as they walked, each hand placed in the opposite sleeve which was baggy enough to easily accommodate it. As they shuffled slowly forward, their heads stayed down, eyes fixed firmly on the floor; a large hood cast enough shadow on their faces so that they could not be recognised in the streets. Such an important position would surely be a target to traitors.

Beside the Grand General, their identically timed shuffling stood out in stark contrast as he strode forward. The old man had always been tall and broad, but with his armour he was a sight to behold. He was intimidating to say the least. The veteran wore armour more explicitly designed than anyone else’s in the hall. The finely detailed carving across his chest plate could have taken years to make: a golden eagle soaring ever upwards; its entire body extended out from the original plating in a way that meant that every feather jutted out in its own direction. On the back of his slightly shorter cape, the same eagle of the Karan crest laid against the time-honoured colours of the Empire. The sight of his old friend always stole his breath, the outfit was simply a sign of unmatchable valour – this man had served the Empire in the past, and his success as, at first a soldier, then an officer, was widely renowned.  

But there was one think that he held that no one else had. Under his right arm, he always held an ancient relic; one that had served his well in its time. It was a full-faced helmet. The design was now disallowed due to the lack of vision that it provided. On top of the helmet was a thin strip of firm horsehair that ran from the forehead all the way back to the base of the skull. The strip signified rank – an idea also banned due to its simplistic recognition being easily sussed by enemies. The helmet was an undeniable icon of his boundless experience. The man was a hero to Harren as he was to most of the Karan Empire, especially the army.

The End

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