(If you are new to the story please check out part one here!)
His hands were stained in crimson. Yakov had washed and washed, but though the blood was long removed from his skin, the colour still remained, if only in his mind. It would remain until his dying day, of that he was sure, and if Sir Khelenys spoke truth, there would be far more blood to follow.
It had taken several more attempts to fully decapitate Mikhail. It had been a gruelling act, a hideous and barbarous thing, that had left stains deep inside him that he could not recognise, and barely even registered, though in spite of this he knew on some level were there. Inside him they would stay forever, like the crimson on his open palms, but far more subtle.
‘You are a man now,’ Sir Khelenys had said. ‘Like a flowered maiden, you are blooded. This is your rebirth, boy. Embrace it, drink deep and then be sobered by it also. No killer worth his steel ever forgets that first taste.’
Yakov did not care for his words. They were to him as a brisk breeze on a frozen day, or a stream of gibberish mouthed by a single man in a silent crowd. He could not focus. He felt sick, and he knew that that sickness was more than skin deep.
One small mercy had been that Mikhail had fallen silent long before the final blow. Whether he had simply bled to death, or lost the ability to voice the sheer intensity of his pain, only the cleric could say, as he alone watched the proceedings with the eye of one entirely detached from mortal horror. Mikhail had once told him that religion was a barrier that separated men like him from the reality of the world. ‘All men sin,’ he had said, ‘all men cheat and steal and fuck and kill. It’s what we do, there’s no avoiding it. Desperate man does it because he has to, and rich man do it because he can. Holy man will kill because his God demands it, and never question why because faith is the armour that protects his soul. Not from corruption or heresy, or sin for that matter. It protects him from realising why really he does these things.’
Yakov remembered that speech in particular as it had been one of Mikhail’s more coherent rants. He had been sober at the time, an oddity in itself, but it had been the first and only time that he had spoken that way without the assistance of alcohol. It was also the first time he called him “brother”, and he had spoken long into the night about his life before the slums had claimed him. How he had served his country as a soldier, trudging for miles through snow and freezing winds to fight the mountain clans, and the southern men, and the glacierborne in the distant north. He recounted these tales with a cynic’s lips, speaking of glory like a fool’s pursuit, and damning those who worshipped it.
‘The priests I understand,’ Mikhail had said. ‘Nobles too. Power and coin are their Gods, and they keep both close to their breasts, but I tell you Yakov, for I have seen, man who kills without reason or purpose, does so at another’s whim, without questioning, without thought… is abomination more hideous than all the hellsmiths in all of Karinska can whisper into existence. That is man in servitude to impersonal gods, and he is to be feared and reviled.’
After that, he had spoken no more on the issue, and never again was it raised. He had returned to drinking, and ordering Yakov around, and in a matter of days it had been as though the conversation had never happened. It was strange then that it would come to him now, after what he had done. The thought of it still made the vomit rise in his throat, but never so much that it would spill forth. He wished it would. It would have proved beyond a doubt that the emptiness he now felt, was only in his head.
He was sitting in the dank hovel that had once been Sir Khelenys’s home. It was dark outside, and the streets seemed impossibly quiet. In front of him the knight was seated with a crude tray atop his knees, writing deftly on a grubby scroll. He would pause every so often as though contemplating something, and every time this happened Yakov would find himself holding his breath, though he knew not why. Each time the knight would merely resume writing, until eventually he reached the end of the scroll, scratched something upon it with a flourish and put his pen away.
‘It is done,’ he announced. Yakov knew that this was directed at him, but did not know what he meant by it. If it had been explained to him its meaning had been lost. ‘You are fortunate, Yakov Dachaski, very fortunate indeed.’
Yakov did not feel even remotely fortunate.
The knight rolled up the scroll and tied a black ribbon around it. Then he handed the scroll to Yakov, who took it and inspected the ribbon more closely. A copper symbol clung to it where the scroll had been securely tied. It was wrought in the shape of a pointed half-star with an etched droplet of some description in its centre.
‘That is a writ of enrolment,’ said Khelenys, pointing at the scroll. ‘Tomorrow when you awake you will take it to the city garrison. I trust you know where that is?’
‘You will hand the scroll to the duty officer, and to no other man.’ Khelenys added emphasis to the last three words. ‘Once that is done you will officially be a recruit in the army of Karinska. That is where my involvement ends, and your new life begins.’
Yakov remained silent. If he was meant to feel gratitude he did not. He felt nothing.
Khelenys stood up and turned his back on Yakov to stare at the ruined portrait, still laying against the far wall. ‘The army needs men like you. Men who are willing to follow orders, even when they despise them.’
For a moment Yakov fought the urge to speak, but it was fight he was destined to lose. ‘Why did you make me kill?’
The knight turned his head and frowned. The shadowy half-light of the room seemed to hide his hideous features, and for the briefest of moments he looked to Yakov nothing more than a weary man who had seen and done too much. He looked like Mikhail had looked, the day that he had been sober.
‘I didn’t want to,’ muttered Yakov. A single tear forming at the corner of his eye. ‘Did he have to die?’
‘Yes,’ said Khelenys.
‘Did I have to kill him?’ asked Yakov. His voice was wavering, though he fought to control it.
‘Yes,’ repeated Khelenys, and then he added, ‘it could only ever have been you.’
The knight turned around fully, and in one quick motion drew his sword. Yakov gasped and instinctively jumped from his seat.
‘Sit,’ ordered Khelenys, and reluctantly Yakov obeyed. The knight drew closer, and as he did so, held the sword’s blades upon his gloved palms. He lowered himself so that the sword was clearly visible, and watched as Yakov gazed upon it with a mixture of fear and fascination. ‘This sword was forged especially for me. It was a gift, from an old friend, given to me upon the day that I was granted the title of Knight of the Realm of Ice and Steel. Note the length and the perfect symmetry of the blade. Note also the intricacy of the handle. See you also the vein of red metal that runs halfway through the blade from the hilt? That is bloodlight, a rare and precious substance indeed.’
Yakov inspected the blade closely. The hilt was indeed covered in intricate patterns. Curls and shapes of a description that he could not put to word weaved across one another. The grip was largely clear of these, seeming almost naked by comparison, and sure enough where the knight indicated it to be, a line of red metal stemmed from the hilt as though it were bleeding. It was unlike anything he had ever seen before. It seemed almost liquid in appearance and there was a faint glow to it, though Yakov attributed that to a reflection from one of the many torches.
‘It is beautiful,’ said Khelenys, ‘but it is only a weapon.’ He stood up, breaking the spell on Yakov and quickly replaced the sword in its scabbard. ‘Such things are meant to kill, not to be gawped at.Were it a featureless blade it would serve just as well. That is its nature, and it doesn’t matter how elaborate its appearance may be, that nature remains unchanged. You and I are the same.’
After that an uncomfortable silence descended on the two of them for over an hour. Yakov sat staring into the growing darkness, all the while feeling his energy sapping from him. He was exhausted.
He felt like he could sleep for days, but he dared not close his eyes while the knight was close. For a time he stared defiantly, but that just tired him out more. Without ever realising he was doing it he closed his eyes, and within a few seconds, the waking world fell away from him.
When Yakov awoke he was alone. Daylight was streaming through cracks in the building’s frame that he had not even noticed before. The candles had burnt out, and to his surprise the portrait was missing. Left in its place was a dark patch where it had been. He felt something dry against his fingers, and as he looked down he caught sight of the scroll, gripped tightly in his hands. By the looks of it he had held onto it all through the night.
Gingerly he pulled himself up and found that his wounds had healed. For the briefest of moments he considered simply running away. It would be easy now that the knight was gone, and he doubted that even someone as single-minded as Sir Khelenys could track him if he hid deep enough in the poor district. Then he felt the emptiness inside, and spied the crimson on his hands. It did not matter where he ran. He would never be free of it.
He looked down at the scroll, and for the first time noticed words carved into the copper seal. To his surprise he found that the words were scrawled in the street dialect, and that he could easily understand them. He read the words slowly, and his chest tightened as he realised what they meant:
WORK NOT FOR YOURSELF;
WORK FOR THE TSAR.
LIVE NOT FOR YOURSELF;
DIE FOR KARINSKA.
There was no escaping it now. For better or worse, Yakov Dachaski had found himself in the service of impersonal gods.
NOTE: This is the final part of the story. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, and if you have any thoughts on it that you’d like to share, or if you’d simply like to know more about Karinska and the setting of this story, please leave a comment. I’d also welcome any feedback or positive criticism you may have. Thanks for reading, and sorry that this one has been posted so late. I will have a new story to share with you all next FRIDAY.