Eddario de Niccosia, 17th Duke of Solland, speaks.
The seats in the Abbey were filling, from the doors onward. I don’t think there was a single person here who had a seat assigned to them by rights, or had ever been here before at all. Trant had made a clean sweep.
The Guild Masters and their women, resplendent, fat, decked in golden chains and the most exorbitant forms of attire, huddled together on the left side and on the right, the clerics and the high ranking officers fought for space as far away from the central area with the throne and the living dead. They did not move at all and many thought they were just corpses, nailed to the benches, and all that talk of Lord Tremain raising them was nothing more than a deception. Still they were afraid enough and not one dared go and take a closer look.
I know exactly what he did. I saw him do it.
I don’t think I will ever forget this, nor ever sleep again.
I have not slept in a threeday and I am glad of it.
There is too much. This is all too much yet I must not show that it is. I have always had people look up to me for guidance and command, one way or the other, and long before I rose in ranks.
I am standing with three of my fellow dungeon squad survivors on the platform, right at the back where a large pillar shields us in shadow and watch the corpses with their living eyes. The Duke would have sliced them to ribbons. They made him watch as they killed his family, his real family of which I was never even allowed more than a glimpse here and there, hiding behind straw bales, or in gloomy stairwells, from afar. Ironic the way the world works. The creator has an evil sense of humour. They are gone, and I, the least of them, the rejected one, the mistake that should have never been made, I stand here today and I have inherited everything that was ever theirs, including the Duke's last words and charging of me.
There is no-one else arriving and the guards stand quietly in their red and gold and white.
The Abbey looks like a round fruit bowl that was tipped up to the back and everything in it rolled that way – half is stuffed full with people, the other half is entirely empty. I consider if there’s something to be done about that for I am not sure this sight will please the Lord Tremain when he arrives.
We are waiting for him, all of us.
I give my men the nod and we slide out quietly through the side entrance into the garden and walk by the side of the building to be there to greet the Lord Tremain.
The night is very still, very clear indeed and the stars seem extraordinarily close this night.
Behind me, Stayne whispers something and I silence him with a sharp gesture.
We stand and wait.
There are footsteps and I resist the desire to go to the top of the path and take a look, but I can see the guards there stiffening noticeably and assuming the most rigid of postures.
Then they come into view, the Lord Tremain and his woman.
I catch my breath in my throat as they stride towards us for Lord Tremain is wearing a uniform that I have only seen on tapestries and scrolls and heard described in tales of old and yet I recognise it as surely as if I had created it myself or worn it a hundred times.
He is wearing the armour of the legendary Black Wing Knights. These battle studs are real. They are not the poetic exaggeration of great shards or swords, long spikes sticking out, this is the real thing. Made from old iron, they have seen real use on more than a dozen battlefields. The metal helmet and face covering in black, the breastplate with the Raven inlay in silver, the arm shields, they are scarred. The cloak is so black it reflects the lights from the abbey in midnight blue.
There is nothing at all about this knight that is even vaguely reminiscent of the man I talked with the night after the palace fell. This one here is not human nor could have ever been.
The woman, frail and pale right by his side, fragile in her flowing robe and with her neck so white, takes two steps to each one of his and neither of them so much as glance at me and mine as they move past us and into the Abbey.
I have to collect myself to fall in behind them. The oil lamps in the Abbey are blinding after that short stay in the garden, yet not blinding enough to cover the utter dismay Tremain is causing with his entrance.
He ascends the stairs to the throne platform and in perfect synchrony with his woman, pauses and they both turn. The woman is on the left, closest to the 12 who are staring still with their crazy eyes. For a single moment, her eyes flick towards them before she forces herself to look straight ahead once more.
I take my place, as before, to the side and at the back of Tremain’s chosen seat and my men fall in behind me.
Without removing his helmet, Tremain sits and so does the woman, as though they were linked invisibly.
The silence is absolutely deafening.
Then he speaks.
“This judgement will commence according to the rules of Sedir,” he says and his voice fills the entire room.
“Who will speak on behalf of the accused?”
There is an absolute nothing, there is not a single man here who dares so much as breathe lest they should have his attention fall upon them.
Tremain repeats, an undertone in his words that cause me to hide my hands behind my back and clasp them firmly,
“Who will speak on behalf of the accused?”
I sweep the rows of people, and they are looking down on the ground and drawing in their shoulders. Trant’s own generals are petrified, some are red, some are green white and all are sweating profusely. There is not a shuffle, a cough or any sound at all, and Tremain says the words one more time:
“Who will speak on behalf of the accused?”
When his voice that seems to echo has died down into the silence, a second voice, clear and high, fills the Abbey, “I will.”
A ripple goes through the assembled and a sound that could be a gasp, or a breath of relief held too long; either way, all eyes are on Tremain’s woman as she rises and walks down the three steps that separate the throne chairs from the level where the 12 are sitting.
She stands before them, turns half way so she faces Tremain, looking up at him with entire poise and calm.
Tremain gives no indication of anything other than statue stillness, and he says, “Who will speak on behalf of the Kingdoms?”
The silence is there again but it is a different kind of silence as glances are exchanged, some are prodding their neighbours, yet it is my own voice that answers this call.
“I will speak on behalf of the kingdoms.”
I make my way down the steps, totally conscious of all those eyes on me and take up position in front of the empty bench on the right, mirroring the woman in position and stance.
Tremain says the requisite words, words that I myself have spoken when presiding over such a court, “The one who speaks for the accused is recognised as Lady Isca Tremain. The one who speaks for the kingdoms is recognised as Eddario de Niccosia, Duke of Solland. The one who holds the decision is recognised as Lord Lucian Tremain. Begin.”
I cannot help but look upon her, hearing her thus declared with title and rank as his wife. I must cut sharply in my mind the remembrance of the woman who lay with the Duke and through him, with us all, and this one here, another woman entirely, the wife of the Lord Tremain. I must be clear and I must be focussed. It is to me to give account of why these men are here and what they are to be judged for.
Where does one start?
I take a deep breath.
“On behalf of the kingdoms, I accuse the Lord Trant and his followers of high treason; of the murder of King Selter and the Duke of Solland, to stand for all other murders by their hands and by their command. I ask that Lord Trant and his followers be found guilty of high treason and regicide, and executed forthwith.”
There is nodding and muttering and some resentment following my short statement; I am well aware that I only named two of hundreds that I could have named and that there are those who seek a more personal form of retribution. In fact, I would have my own list yet I am blessed that I can speak at least the name of the Duke here, on this night.
Lady Isca Tremain waits until the murmurs have died down and then states clearly, “I ask that the accused be judged separately.”
I thought I saw a minute movement then from the Dark Lord as he asks of me, “How do you answer this?”
It might draw out proceedings considerably but I think it’s probably right and fair to judge each man on his own demerits. We need to be seen to do justice here this night. The eyes of the kingdoms are upon us.
“I have no objection.”
I am sure that Tremain’s voice is darker than it was before as he says from behind his helmet, “The accused shall be judged separately.”
Lady Isca nods fractionally and then she says, “I put before you that seven of these men have already been executed. They have thereby served the sentence the Duke of Solland is seeking and should be set free.”
A huge gasp travels around the Abbey space and all eyes are on the Lord Tremain. There is a considerable silence before he answers sternly and tersely, “These men have not been executed. They have taken their own lives and as for Trant, he was beaten to death by his own followers. I reject the proposal.”
I feel an inordinate relief at his decision and look at her most closely to see how the rejection of her proposal has affected her. Her face is a mask of marble and she says, “I put it before you then that at least Lord Trant has already been executed by those who were at that time high court officials and I ask that thereby he is to be set free from the charges.”
This time, the gasp of the audience is a cry of outrage and there is fear there, too, for the Lady Isca is quite right as far as the technicalities are concerned.
I speak up. “I put it before you that it is impossible to decide whether the putting to death of Lord Trant does or does not constitute an execution. I therefore put it before you that his fate should be decided by the Elder Rules.”
The Lady Isca puts her eyes upon me then and I can feel her touch inside my head. It is a disconcerting sensation and I fight hard not to grimace in response. It only lasts for the shortest of times and she says, “I agree that his fate should be decided by the Elder Rules.”
There is a fraction of a movement in the black statue on the throne and Tremain says, “So it is decided. Lord Trant will stand Trial by Combat at dawn tomorrow. Solland, bring your charges to Corranor of Thelein.”
I reply without a second’s thought and my voice is hard and angry, “The charge is high treason, my Lord.”
The pale woman across from me makes the smallest movements of shaking her head. There is nothing she can bring against that, nothing she can say in that mans defence. Selter’s own Lord Chancellor. The man who had been responsible for the slaughter of an entire army, twenty thousand men or more, by refusing to open the gates to allow for their retreat. The man without whom none of this would have ever happened. The Duke had trusted him, as had King Selter. And he had betrayed them – yet for what, I could not fathom. He had already all and everything, every power, every possession, every say.
It was inconceivable.
Lady Isca says with a tired undertone, “I have nothing to say in Corranor of Theleins defence, my Lord. I put before you that he should speak on his own behalf.”
“I accept the proposal.”
A man dressed in brown velvet rises from the bench and walks stiff legged past the Lady Isca and stands right in front of Tremain. There is a moment and he crumbles to the floor, making weak and helpless movements with his arms and legs, moistening his lips. I stare at him, just two paces away from me. I have not known this man before, the one who held the fates of the kingdoms in his hands. He is dark haired, intense, tall and now struggles to get some kind of control over his shaking limbs. Eventually, he raises himself on trembling arms enough to look up at Tremain and says in a whisper, “Did you enjoy yourself in your cage there, Tremain? I enjoyed you. Enormously.”
I look around to see how far his comments can be heard and there’s the muttering as it is passed along around the benches of the Abbey. Lady Isca has turned white as a sheet and she is clearly trembling as she stares down at Corranor, her fingertips flex and I swear I can see something coming from her hands, a trail of blood red vapour that dissipates swiftly.
Tremain speaks and snaps us both to look at him instead.
“Do you have anything to say in your defence?” he asks, not just neutral in tone but nearly bored.
“Yes,” says the black haired man on the floor, “It was worth it just to hear you squeal like a woman.”
There is a swift movement from the Lady Isca and simultaneously, two lightning bolts intersect just above Corranor’s head, fusing into each other with a resounding thunderclap and showering the man in tiny drops of light.
I step back automatically and look from Tremain to the woman who stands rigid, with her hands still partially extended. The muscles in her jaw move and very slowly, she straightens herself and closes her eyes. When she re-opens them, there is an icy calm about her.
As though drawn by strings, Corranor of Thelein rises from the floor and assumes a standing position once more.
Tremain says, “Execute him at dawn. So it is decided.”
Some amongst those in the Abbey start to shout in joy, some in anger, and soon, everyone is on their feet, shouting abuse and hatred at the former Lord Chancellor.
Tremain allows it to continue until the man has returned to his place on the bench.
We go through them, one by one. Some plead, some hold that they were under orders and could do no other than they did. The Lady Isca goes through the motions of pleading their particular case and I go through the motions of demanding their heads, and Tremain goes through the motions of sentencing them to be executed. Each time, the crowd roars and screams their approval.
The last one to come forward is one I do not know, yet before he is called, Tremain removes his helmet and places it by his legs on the ground. It stills everyone in the place and when the name Thelein is called for a second time, I note that Lady Isca has returned to that icy calm. There was something about that family that was obviously personal to both the Tremains.
They both stare at him for the longest time and he is not allowed to speak. I wonder why they are making an exception. When Lady Isca asks for clemency on this mans behalf, her voice is so disembodied, it does not seem to come from her at all.
Lord Tremain has eyes for that man alone, thin and dark haired like his more illustrious relative and with a metal claw for a left hand. Eventually, he says, “Execute him at dawn. So it is decided.”, the crowd roars and the judgement is over.
The second Thelein is returned to his place and Lady Isca takes her seat by the side of her husband. I cannot help but wonder if Tremain knows about her and the Duke, or what he would do if he did and thus I nearly miss my cue to present the new court officials.
They come forward, one at a time, and swear their allegiance to the crown itself, which is produced on a cushion and does not contain a head as yet. It takes a long time, throughout which both Lord and Lady Tremain sit motionless as statues, totally contained and disturbingly, seem to breathe and blink at the same time. Standing to one side and not needed whilst the ceremony is progressing, I take my time to study her features and bearing more closely; she does not have a single scar to show for the injuries she had received. I would have expected at least her neck to show some signs of the deep and suppurating grooves that caught your eye, or the deep and wide cut across her cheek. Lord Tremain as well has no scars of any kind. I heard some rumours of what Trant had done to him during the time his wife was in our dungeon and shared the Dukes bed of straw. It occurred to me that if they can raise the dead, perhaps they can raise themselves in a similar fashion and that indeed, Tremain was not alive at all.
It took me to wondering how he was planning to dispatch Trant.
He could have a one legged dwarf fight a regular soldier for the trial by combat as proxies but I don’t think he would do that. I wondered if he would take on Trant himself. If his woman’s aptitude with a sword was anything to go by, and the reputation of the Black Wing Knights was worth half of what it was supposed to be, he could dispatch Trant with ease, although Trant too had a reputation as being a fearsome swordsman and courageous to the brink of insanity.
I stood and mused over those things and others and finally, the last of the men I had chosen and Tremain had approved, was sworn in. Directly into my mind, Tremain’s voice exploded.
Have them each carried into a solid cell for the night. See that it is done.
I nearly answered out loud but curtailed myself and thought the words as strongly as I could indeed, Yes my Lord, I will see to it in person.
Tremain and his woman rose immediately. As they did, all the assembled clambered to their feet as well. Without a single further word of address, they walked from the building and out into the night, and I did not have to follow them out to know full well that just beyond the entrance, they would both simply disappear.