One of the camp priests was walking out of Faucione’s tent when the King approached. The Earl’s men stood around, anxious to be with their leader in his last moments. Arken didn’t ask how Braeden was doing, it was apparent from the solemn faces on the group of knights. Without asking permission Arken pushed aside the flaps and walked inside with Faxon and Neelam following closely behind.
Death was impatient and stood waiting beside Braeden. The proof was in the undeniable odor that lingered in the makeshift room. Arken was used to bad smells but this was tough to bear. He swallowed the urge to vomit. The second sign was the foul pus oozing from Braeden’s abdomen, despite bandages covering the wound. Braeden himself was flushed red from the wound fever, his eyes glazed red from the combination of poppy juice and vorane he’d been drinking. Sir Bowen moved to stand by the squires to let King Arken have access to Braeden. All of the Faucione men stood watching expecting Arken to make a speech honoring their leader. After the King was finished it was understood that Kevin would give Braeden the merciful stroke and send him to Zabe’s kingdom.
Arken fingered his dagger while he waited for the young knight Bowen to rise. His brother Faxon stood to Arken’s side while Sir Neelam hovered behind him. I want to kill this whoreson myself for the pain he has caused my love, but it is better I do not stain my hands with her husband’s blood. Arken took the two steps to Braeden as he announced “Earl Braeden, I am impressed with your courage. I will tell all of your bravery in battle and how you protected your King. Your family name will be remembered with honor in the pipe rolls.” He kneeled, clasping Braeden’s hand to kiss it. “On this 3rd day of Kywedyn’s Moon in the year 1185, may you journey to Zabe in peace.”
That was the pre-arranged signal for Sir Neelam of Wesnes to approach the fallen man.
Neelam kneeled to look straight in to Braeden’s eyes. The Captain of the King’s Guard whispered quietly to Braeden, “Arken always gets what he wants. Had you been a better husband, you would not be waiting for the final thrust of a knife. Make your pleas to Zabe for mercy.” With one quick motion, he stabbed the Earl in his heart with a dagger.
Braeden uttered a quick groan before taking his final breath.
Neelam rose to his feet, wiping blood from his belt knife. "Earl Braeden du Faucione is no longer in pain."
Braeden couldn’t help but cry out: his breath hiked with the shock of the dagger’s intrusion. The muscles of his heart spasmed and gave one final push. His vision blurry, Braeden did his best to glare to the King’s man in a show of bravery as he took his last breath.
Braeden was confused when he opened his eyes. Instead a cramped tent at the battlefield in Seimerki, he stood in a hall. No candles or hearth fire gave light to the darkness or warmth to the cold. No men hailed Braeden’s presence nor offered him comfort. Instead of horses calling for food or sounds of men going about camp duties, there was silence.
His feet were frozen where he stood. He tried in vain to move his feet. Braeden finally gave up. He was able to turn and gaze about the room. He reached for a sword that wasn’t there.That in itself was odd. Once he left his chamber or tent, his weapons were a part of him. “Zabe’s Blood, what is going on? Who has me held in thrall?” He struggled against the invisible bonds but was unable to break free. Frustrated at not being able to move, Braeden yelled out “Who holds me against my will? Come show yourself. Only a coward hides in the dark!”
A deep laughter answered Braeden’s challenge.
The knight turned his head towards the sound but could see no one. “At least tell me why I’m here or light a candle. Have I wronged you?”
A fireplace with a glowing fire appeared without a single noise followed by a series of candles lighting on their own. Still, no one joined Braeden.
“Where am I?” He thought back. The last clear memory he could recall was Bowen’s knighting ceremony. “Wait a moment...didn’t I die? I felt Neelam’s knife pierce my heart. That bastard mocked me as I lay dying but I don’t feel dead. In fact, my body feels remarkably healthy. My belly doesn’t hurt and the infection is gone.” He looked around. The walls of the room weren’t bare as he first believed.
Runes, geometric designs, and animals were carved into the walls of bedrock. Imbedded within the beasts were gems and the runes and designs were gilded with precious metals. The floor was a mosaic of black and white tiles, not quite a checkerboard but a graduated pattern rotating inward and Braeden was on the center piece. A large black, shiny throne waited at one end of the room covered in cushions and furs. A massive sword and a companion axe were propped on metal hooks behind the throne.
Braeden suddenly realized where he was.
“It took you long enough, Earl Braeden.” The voice quipped. “I haven’t all eternity to wait. The number of those requiring My judgment is endless.”
“My Lord Zabe, I humbly beg you your pardon for my shortsightedness. I would prostrate myself before your magnificent seat if I had freedom of my body.”
Zabe flashed into view. The God of the Underworld was dark haired and pale: no surprise for a deity who spent most of his time in the Otherworld or deep below. Zabe filled the room with his dominance. He walked to the knight and stared into his soul.
Braeden shook with fear. Zabe held him steady without a word when he tried to turn his head. The God’s eye was as black as night with a pupil of red. Braeden wanted to scream with the pain of Zabe’s invasion. He fought the intrusion.
Zabe’s chuckle was worse than a hot blade running down his spine. “Don’t bother. You can’t avoid the inquest or leave here without my say. Tell me why you are standing before me, Braeden of Faucione.”
“I...I don’t know.”
“LIAR! You know why you are here. Must I get angry?”
Braeden closed his eyes. Zabe was right. No one faced the God for fun. “I am here to review, My Lord, the life I have led.”
Zabe nodded with satisfaction “Exactly. Let us begin. I shall skip over your younger years. I found nothing that interested me. My concern is the time beginning when you met your wife. I shall show you what bothers me.”
Braeden found himself watching scenes from his life. He flinched when he watched his self beat Gaelynn for daring to admit she’d slept with King Arken in her attempt to save the Faucione family. What he didn’t expect was to be watching the event from his wife’s point of view. He felt every slap, punch, and the rape as if it were happening to him. Tears slipped down his cheeks.
“Arken wasn’t bluffing. He would have destroyed your family had Gaelynn refused his advances.” Zabe said with disapproval as Braeden left her weeping after his vicious punishment.
“I thought he was lying to her.” He said quietly. “She did goad me into disciplining her.”
“There is a line between punishment and abuse.” The God replied with a cold voice that left Braeden shaking.
The next scene was a montage of Braeden’s treatment of Gaelynn at their home. Again, the knight felt ill. He knew he was wrong without being told. The next scene was of a child being born. Braeden watched his younger persona pick up and hold Amelia. He heard himself promise to protect the girl. Just as quickly he found himself watching from another person’s perspective. He saw himself again – only this time, he seemed to be a target for sneers and ill-tempered behavior. It didn’t take Braeden long to understand he was observing his actions from Amelia’s point of view. He flinched when he heard Amelia tell Kyrold she wasn’t wanted or loved.
“Was a girl child that much a threat to you to treat her so ill? And when Gaelynn tried to stand up for her daughter, she was punished.”
“I was jealous, I admit it. Amelia should have been my daughter, not Arken’s. It took us too long afterwards to have our own child and my sire pushing me to get Gaelynn with a grandson didn’t help...I should have stood up for them both.”
The last scenes were of Braeden’s infidelities and subsequent treatment of his wife, including the night he ‘sold’ her to Arken for a title. Braeden bit back the urge to vomit as he was placed ‘inside’ Gaelynn that night. “She really was sick? I thought she was making it up to avoid entertaining Arken.”
“You were too caught up in your own scheming to pay attention. Even your own brother saw how sickly Gaelynn was. Now, do you understand why she fled to Ranulf’s arms? Convince me why I shouldn’t condemn you to hard labor in the fire pits for a thousand years.”
Braeden sobbed. “I can’t. I am foresworn. I deserve any punishment you seem fit. I was wrong. Whatever you do, don’t hold Gaelynn, Bowen, or Ranulf to blame. Please, it’s on me.”
Zabe stared at him.
Braeden could feel the God’s eyes tearing through his skin, deep into his inner thoughts, until his soul was turned inside out. The bindings loosened sending Braeden to the floor in surprise.
“No, I shan’t send you below but you can’t find peace just yet, either. Your penance shall be spent as a guide until I decide otherwise. There are many who hover between life and death needing council. You can’t tell them what choice to make but you may give advice. I will send one to help you with your new position.”
A figure walked through the door, shrouded in the dark until he stepped in to the light.
Braeden smiled when he saw the knight. “Bruce!”
Bruce grinned back “Hello Braeden, it’s been a long time. I hope you are prepared to be busy. So many people need our help.”
The two knights approached and gave one another a warm hug.
“I shall leave our newest guide in your hands, Bruce. I’ll be watching both of you. Stay out of trouble.” Zabe winked at Bruce.
Bruce and Braeden bowed to Zabe.
“Thank you My Lord.” Bruce laughed “Come my friend, I have horses waiting for us. I think you’ll love the destriers here. They can fly.”