"Marked" Chapter - 3v

Darting inconsistently between the leaving general and the Emperor, a school of wide eyes awaited a conclusion. Like Harren, the lack of a response from the Emperor caused the nervous audience to sweat. Everything hung on a knife’s edge, only the exact amount of force would keep the balance. Lenience or malice: too much of either could be catastrophic; it was in everyone’s interest that that balance remained. Regardless, an example had to be made: there would never be a rash incident like this again; Trenos would make sure of it, in that department Harren trusted him fully: he never gave up until the task was completed to his satisfaction – and an Emperor has very high standards.

“Then perhaps you are the traitor, General Desa, Making fast your well-planned escape?” This time, no one gasped…

All heads turned to look at Desa as he stood before the whole assembly. Looking around, Harren could see that not every demeanour played host to incredulity as people scattered about the hall began to nod, anger etching onto their concerned faces. In response, the general’s faced screwed up, turning red as his fists clenched into tight white rage, his finger nails digging painfully into his palms. His eyes stole from face to face, men he knew, the disbelief in his eyes meeting stubborn glares.

“How can you believe this man…? He has just threatened one of his own generals!

“I have served this Empire since before you were born; I watched you father cradle you in his arms – it was for futures like your own that I so valiantly risked my life on the battlefield. I have scars by the plenty on my battle-torn body and soul, each earned by me fighting for what I truly believed in. Yet you threaten to show me that my whole life has just been wasted, a lie? Is this how I am to be repaid? I have-”

“What makes you think I can trust you general? After all, you know these parts of Irn better than anyone else; that knowledge would certainly explain Zarian movement of late-”

“How dare y-”

“Surely only someone with such a lack of respect for his Emperor could betray him!”

A deadly silence hovered in the room as the two of the most influential men stood deadlocked in a battle that seemed to wage on endlessly as Harren waited for a resolution. And he knew that a man of Desa’s age and experience was extremely unlikely to back down from something he truly believed: to him, Trenos was too young to understand – being an Emperor definitely did not make you knowledgeable by claiming the title.

“Then you have my resignation, Emperor. My lord, I bid you and this disintegrating Empire well – may it one day be restored to the glory it once had under your father; to the dream he created.” The Emperor, the seriousness of the situation leaping up levels as each figure refused to give in, refused to lose in front of the men, trumping the unheard of act within seconds. Trenos observed smugly as Desa, now only a few feet away from the exit turned, his brow set deeply with frustration. The words still rang around the room; they echoed about Harren’s head: “Then you leave me no choice: arrest him guards and have him detained and questioned about his involvement in this matter of betrayal. Desa, I have been closely observing you for months. Do not think to try and trick these men into feeling sorry for you.”

Maybe Trenos really had lost his mind, maybe the example needed to be made… but the idea that the great General was a traitor was hard for Harren to take in.

As the first guard closed in, club firmly in hand, the aged champion reached down, before Harren could blink, his skilled hands twirled a razor sharp knife that had been stowed secretly in his boot for the duration of the meeting. Harren wasted no time; before the first guard even came into striking range, he started running.

But he was still very far away, and apart from the second guard rushing over from the centre circle, the others were even further away. Decorative sword in hand, Harren simply ran taking the large steps two at a time. He only had one thing on his mind as he sprinted recklessly forward: no one was going to die this day, not here. Desa, on the other hand, had nothing to lose and was certainly not about to outrun the guards at his age. Harren had only taken a few steps when it started.

The closest guard took the first swing, aiming only to incapacitate with a shot to Desa’s well-armoured chestplate, but the young man was no match for the experienced general. Stepping calmly aside, letting the club whistle harmlessly past, he brought his knife slashing down on the over-extended forearm. A spout of blood splashed against the general and the pristine white walls, a scream of pain filled the air as everyone watched on. Yet no one even moved to help, no one except Harren.

But he was still so far away.

Blood soaking through his undershirt, the guard crumpled back onto the stairs. It wasn’t long before the blood formed a growing puddle on the floor, the wound was clearly deep; if Harren didn’t act – and fast – the man could die. The blade could have hit an artery; things were getting out of hand.

The next guard came from behind, but as he raised his club above his head, presumably to strike hard whilst the general was distracted, he received a powerful kick to the sternum. The sole of his boot thrusting hard enough to drive not only the air out of his lungs, but his feet off of the floor as the second guard was sent flailing trough the air before landing hard on his shoulder and sliding across the smooth floor.

The distraction was just enough.

As Harren reached the groaning first guard at the bottom of the steps, he leapt, soaring through the air completely extended. Having jumped from a good five steps up, Harren had enough height to make the huge jump. Desa, who had turned to start towards the Emperor, the blade in his hand, arched round to meet the threat, the knifepoint heading straight towards the Captain. But Harren deflected the backhanded swipe as their forearms collided in mid-air.

The impact created a resounding noise as metal hit metal, the full weight of Harren crashing into Desa’s exposed side. Initially he cried out, the look of shock at seeing Harren flying towards him turning to pain as his body bent awkwardly before being driven into the unrelenting floor. Landing on top of the general as they hit the floor only further increased the force, causing Harren to be flipped over onto his back before the two of them rolled along until they slid to a stop.

Aching all over, Harren gazed about. Hiss head felt ready to explode; his shoulder felt torn and his knees broken from rolling on the stone floor. As his vision slowly focused, Harren squinted hard at the man wavering unevenly before him.

It was Desa.

The man simply refused to go down easily. Somehow already back on his feet, the veteran limped over: his bloodied hand still clenched the knife, its blade soaked in thick red blood; that same blood was spattered across his chest and his now torn cape, mixing with some of his own as it poured from a nasty wound on his left cheek from where his head had struck the floor as he was tackled.

His feet stopped only inches away from Harren’s hands as they tried to support his body. But he couldn’t get up; his arms shook furiously from the sudden shock of excruciating pain rendering his shoulder useless. Struggling to comprehend the situation, Harren winced as the general twirled the blade above his face.

Harren brought himself to one knee. He could hear shouting. Trenos was running over with the Grand General and the three other guards right next to him. They would be too late. Harren braced for the impact. Suddenly, a blurry club cut through Harren’s distorted vision as the second guard gave his all for one last act of desperation. They fought, the off-balance general as he had to defend the wild blows. But the guard left himself open one too many times, Desa’s elbow slamming into his chest, followed immediately by a cruel punch. The guard’s nose took the brunt of the blow, blood spraying through the air as it cracked horribly – no doubt badly broken.

The unconscious body dropped to the floor in a heap, General Desa turning slowly with the blade in full view in his right hand. Though the pause was infinitely small, it gave Harren that chance – his only chance. He brought the tip up a foot then, like a coiled snake, all the stored power was unleashed. The blade stopped, shaking with its tip nicking the skin on Harren’s neck. The struggle for dominance began as Harren gripped firmly the old man’s muscular forearm. The Captain’s reactions had saved his life, but if he slipped just a bit, the knife would impale his throat.

Everything seemed so fast, but the other guards were still over ten metres away and Harren doubted his strength. Left hand in a death grip, he grabbed the unconscious guard’s club with his right and swung as hard as he could into the general’s hand. With an involuntary cry, Desa could only watch through the sudden pain as the blade clattered across the floor, tiny droplets of blood leaving their mark on the floor. The two men held each other’s gaze for a while, they studied each other; Harren looked weary, his focus going as his eyes struggled to pinpoint anything exactly, whereas Desa’s filled with tears, the glistening sparkle in a kindly old man’s eyes shone through. Harren could not think of him as a traitor, but he was certainly strong-willed… perhaps, too much so. How could this man have been giving data to the enemy without even being noticed? No… Trenos had noticed. Harren had given his older brother less respect than he deserved.

Three guards crashed into the general as his eye contact with Harren was broken. It had been a strange moment, as if the old man had just begged for forgiveness. Harren hoped the man would be forgiven, if he wasn’t, then he may live the rest of his life thinking that he had destroyed all that he had worked towards. Harren would have forgiven him, if only he knew for sure that he was either innocent, or truly repentant.

Barely a moment had passed before Harren was being hauled to his feet, not that his shaking legs could handle it: he swayed slightly as a result of hitting his head in the scrap.  A small crowd had gathered around the guard with the slash wound as two more officers helped the second guard, rubbing his chest, to his feet. Quickly overpowered, the fallen general was being dragged to the Emperor who was standing not too far away. He didn’t put up a fight but nor did he walk; as he was being dragged, his head hung in shame. Now, he looked pathetic, his normally neat hair sticking out in disarray, the blood and tears desecrated his uniform… he had lost it all in but a few minutes. The immaculate Karan dress stood for nothing, if the heart was colder than the metal in which it was encased.

No one challenged an Emperor and won, yet there were always those who tried.

The End

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