“Raise your head, traitor”
A knight knelt at the foot of a low platform, his head was drooped low, his hands and legs tied. A crowd of royals, staff and soldiers watched as the trial for the realm’s most esteemed knight unfolded before them.
Two armed soldiers had their spears pointed warily at his back. The one who had just given the order jabbed the pointy end into the soft leather between the knight’s armour plate.
“I said, raise your head. You kneel in the presence of his majesty King Jular, second of his name,” he snarled. His tone was commanding, however the soldier’s eyes betrayed a slight fear as the knight slowly raised his head.
The knight’s face wore the lines of many years spent in combat, fighting in countless numbers of deadly battles against mighty foes. His tanned moustached face was framed by dark lank hair that draped down powerful broad shoulder. He had the look of a seasoned veteran, with pale scars that ran across his cheek and forehead. His dark tan hinted at his life on his farm, a browning from toiling away at the fields with plough and scythe. He had been raised on one as a child growing up and the time came when it was eventually handed over to him to run.
He wore a silvery white armour, dulled by its years of use but cared for so well its condition could be considered pristine except for a dark thick stain of blood that slowly dripped onto the wooden floor. The blood was not his own.
His eyes had a haunted look. A shadow cast on once powerful and focused eyes. They now bore the mark of a crushed and defeated soul. For all his life living a powerful man, built like an ox and standing above your average man, the knight now could not lift even his own hands in his slackened state.
A young man, barely in his teens sat on the throne, smirking disdainfully at the sullen knight. He wore regal robes that glittered and draped off his shoulders. In his left hand dangled a golden sceptre, which symbolised the power that the royalty wielded. This power had been used by his father to foster an era of peace and prosperity to the kingdom. In his right hand, he held a thin steel blade.
“Look at you Magnar. Look at what you’ve done. Betrayed my house, brought death into my palace, to my home, to my father,” the boy shook his head sadly, “Little did my father know he was hiding a murderer under his wing. Did he not take you in when you were a child, when you had nothing and raise you to be the best knight in this Kingdom?”
The knight did not seem to register the boys’ words, silently kneeling in place. The boy stood up.
“And this is how you repay him? Murdering him in cold blood while he slept? Only a monster could do such a wicked thing. This can only be the work of the evils beyond our walls. To come creeping into our precious halls like the plague. Magnar the Magnificent, bah you do not deserve such names,” he spat. “From now on you will be Magnar of Malice – as you hid your murderous intentions until you waited for the perfect moment to strike. To gain power for yourself,” he sauntered over to the kneeling Magnar. The soldiers reacted, startled and seemed to try to pull him away from him.
“Get off me you fools, do you not see the grey shadows on his face? Those evils had possessed him to commit those sins, and now that they have left him he is just a shell of a man,” he slapped the knight with a crack. “Yes, just a shell but this does not pardon his sins. No, it takes a weak, corrupt heart to accept such evil. Tell them, master.”
An old man with wispy white hair, draped in old brown spotted robes stepped forward. The gaps in his teeth showed as his mouth stretched into a placid smile.
“Yes, your majesty, it is as you say,” he grinned a gap-toothed smile. “The evil creeps into your heart as you doubt and deceive the King. Only traitors can accept such sin into their souls,” he nodded as if confirming this for himself.
While the slap did not hurt the knight, the words the old man spoke seemed to stir something within him.
“…Jular...wh…I…” he croaked, his voice trailing.
“Silence! How dare you, a traitor, speak my name so boldly,” the boy cried, slashing at Magnar’s face with the blade. Blood sprayed from his unflinching face onto the golden robes, soaking into the spun thread.
“Gah. Soldiers, take him away. Everyone present, you have seen with your own eyes how little regard this pathetic man has for his kingdom. I sentence him to the death penalty, he cannot be allowed to live.” The boy stumbled from the hall accompanied by the old man and the tutting servants as they fretted over his stained garments.
The soldiers pulled the unresisting knight to his feet and marched him to the dungeons. There, they stripped him of his bloody armour and threw him into a solitary cell, locking the heavy iron door.
It was quiet, almost silent. Water dripped somewhere.
He lay on the dungeon floor like a corpse, immobile on the cold cobbles that lined his cell. He did not shiver, nor move though it was deathly cold.
His eyes were still blank and dull. It seemed almost like he was already dead. However, the wound on his face had long since healed.
The guards changed their shift. Food was placed by his door, but he did not move.
The guards wondered if the knight was already dead, shaking their heads at such a sight. The kingdoms greatest hero reduced to such a sorry state.
Slowly, however, he began showing signs of life. A twitch there, a shiver here.
Light began filling his eyes, the blank stare fading as he returned to the earth once more.
The spell was lifted and he immediately started shivering from the cold. Teeth chattering and limbs stiff, he looked up. The light was back in his eyes but his face was a pallid grey from the cold. He forced himself up to pace his cell and warm himself up. He draped a threadbare blanket around his shoulders as he took stock of his situation.
What the hell has happened?
“Guards, what am I doing in this place? I demand you tell me,” he said, grasping at the bars.
One guard, a doleful look in his eyes, replied softly.
“M’lord, you’re sentenced to death for the murder of the King and high treason to the kingdom,” he muttered, earning a hard glance from the other guard. He spoke nothing more after that.
Magnar slumped down against the cold cell wall.
The memories slowly faded into his mind, like frames from another’s life, drifting in and out of his memories. He could feel the weight of the dagger as it slid into his liege’s chest. How cold and empty he felt as he committed the sin. Tears streamed silently, his head buried in his arms.
Undoubtedly, it was the work of a demon. Their magic could ensnare the senses and bewitch a person into doing things by their own whims. He had no control over himself and he cursed himself vehemently for allowing such a blunder to occur. To make matters worse, he couldn’t even remember when the spell was cast on him, nor the demon who did it. Maybe the demon was in disguise as a human? Or even perhaps cast the spell in his sleep?
He shook his head. There was no point in worrying in this now, the trap was sprung, and he had been defeated.
He cursed himself. He cursed his own weakness. He cursed that he was naïve enough to believe that he had built the perfect fortifications within the kingdom to protect the king, only to then murder that king with his own hands.
He had to admit that the plot was a masterstroke. Not only did it bypass all his defences, to perfectly assassinate the king, but it would also now leave a power vacuum in the royal squadron. He had left no one to replace him, believing himself to be enough to defend the king. Now they most likely would be able to place their own people into power. What a blunder…
His specialty lay in straightforward battle, not intrigue and court politics. He should have known that the snake-den of the royal court would breed fangs that could reach the king. To think the fangs would manifest in himself. How foolish he had been.
He knelt, facing the cell window bars. It would be a simple matter to break out, even in his weakened state. Even if he did however, he would have no allies and the whole kingdom was after his head. He had been checkmated and could not even claim revenge. Now all he could do was pray.
“Almighty creator, I pray that my king’s soul finds peace in eternity. Of this, I wish upon my name as Magnar the Magnificent. For I do not deserve this name that his grace bestowed upon me, I cast it aside,” he prayed. “My sovereign Lady Abbath, I hope you find forgiveness for my mistakes.”
[Do not be so quick to cast your name aside.]
A slight voice, almost like the sighing of the wind interrupted his prayer. He jerked his head around, but no one was there.
He sighed. Rays of light signalled the end of the long night.
The morning sky was dark, scudded with low hanging clouds that threatened rain.
He was led in chains to the execution stand, clanking with each sullen step. Mud swirled as the crowd gathered. Commonfolk and palace staff alike gathering in the courtyard, filling it to the brim. The news of the assassination had spread far and wide. The king was famous and his subjects had loved him so, none more than his royal retainer, Magnar the Magnificent.
They gathered to witness history, to see the second-most famous figure in the kingdom die, mere days after the most famous was killed. Hardly anyone believed it and so they came to see for themselves.
An audible gasp rose as he stepped onto the old wooden stage. Criminals and bandits were normally the ones to stand where he was. Now there stood the most powerful man in the kingdom.
As the announcer read out his sentence, he scanned the crowd and found the familiar faces of his garrison. Floki, Godrid, Rikar and Sielet – they made the four captains of the guard, warriors that he had hand-picked himself when putting together his royal guard.
They wore masks of apathy, but Magnar knew that should he attempt to escape, no doubt these four would lay their lives down to aid him. He heard from the guards that they had been combing the palace for any potential killers to put forward instead of him, but loyal as they were, they could find no substitute traitor. No doubt they still believed him innocent.
The announcements done, they made him kneel forward and locked him into the stocks. A massive man in a black hooded mask moved forward. Words were spoken. The axe was raised.
And came down.
And then Darkness.