So I recently came across this writing assignment that I did based on an idea I had for a Blades of Exile scenario way back in, like, over eightyears agon'stuff. With the game file lost to the ether it became one of many stories only rattling around in my head so I used it for school. But I realized I hadn't shared it here and thought it might be a diversion. Converting the "Choose your own adventure" game into a set-in-stone story was not easy but I finally settled on an ending... and then I changed it as I wrote. Ah, well. The characters just didn't want to do what I had planned as they are likely to do. Hope you enjoy.
The King's Favorite
His heart sank in lead bricks to the bottoms of his feet. He could barely turn, barely walk, back to the place that was his death sentence. Fore surely he would die today. Even if he lived, he would die. And how much worse a death it would be… to live.
Beside him, the bricks of another man's feet scraped the dirt on their way, unwilling, to the same death sentence. In his gait, the same realization of the horror he might live instead.
Too soon they were in the center. Roaring crowds celebrated their shared fates all around them, their bloodlust rising to a fevered pitch that had never sounded so cruel. Before, he had reveled in the crowd's cheers – eager to win their favor, eager to entertain – but today the sound was a mockery of his entire life, his loyalty and courage, his very essence. Today it stripped him bare in humiliation. Oh, that the King had ordered a castration instead... the shame of it would have been a sunrise to bear compared to this spirit crucifixion.
Too soon limbs of mechanical cog-works turned them to face each other. The body knew what to do and did it automatically. Feet spread outward in battle stance. Swords sang in release from their leather. Shields clanked in traditional honor among warriors. They had done this before, a million times over, side by side with sword raised and shield aloft, victory or death as the purse, but never like this… never against each other.
No more the playful smile of childhood friends. Gone the carefree joy of being side by side in glorious battle. Castor could see it in Pollux's eyes; they were already glazed over, a corpse on the strings of a marionette. They both were, and had been for these long eight years. Only the tears that were too well trained not to spill still belonged to themselves.
How had it come to this?
Born in the same sweltering summer, birthed in the same sterile room, and tended by the same seasoned midwife; that had been the start. Two new mothers bonded over the shared struggle of learning to raise their firstborn sons in a world of swords and chariots, kingdoms and war. Two new fathers boasted their virility over guard-duty sparring swords pushing each other to become faster, stronger, better. One king took note of their growing teamwork and strategy enlisting them into his personal guard.
Raised in luxury among royalty and afforded privileges no peasant would dream to ask for, Castor and Pollux had grown up together surrounded with the best the country had to offer in fare and dress, training and education, and foremost in opportunity. They'd had everything under the sun and more; still it ends like this?
"I don't want to do this," Castor whispered to Pollux.
"I don't think I can do this," he whispered back.
"They'll feed us both to the lions if we don't."
"Would that be any worse?"
He didn't have to respond. He was sure Pollux could sense exactly how he felt about this entire farce of a Freedom Festival. "Come on, before they start throwing things. Just another day of sparring, let's give them a show." The pair tapped swords and began their intricate and deadly dance.
Living together in the same castle, they had always had a deep friendship, closer than brothers for as long as Castor could remember, just as their fathers before them. They had all been friends. Who else was the prince to play with, but the sons of the royal guard? A simple humble "Can I play with you?" from the esteemed boy had been enough to turn the duo into a trio.
Castor spared a glance for the boy grown man. No longer a prince, he was now the King, the man who had just pronounced physical death and spiritual death on the pair of them. He stood with a sly smile… How could he smile? How could he? Never before this day had Castor suspected the King anything less than a devout friend, never a hint of betrayal between them. So out of place were the words off his lips, he might as well be a stranger. Surely not the man they grew up with. No, the imposter, who was he?
As soon as the boys had been able to wield a dagger, their fathers had brought them into weapons training, much to their mothers' chagrin. Though the prince was one year younger, the King insisted he practice right alongside them, happy to have his son busied with the vigor of learning to defend himself and his future kingdom.
They'd called him Prince John then; Prince John the Just to all of the people. Though he had no authority yet to be a judge in any dispute, the years would prove him worthy of the title. Even while practicing at swordplay, he would always be honest and fair when scored upon. Just and fair in all his ways… until today, who was he? How could he consider this sentence justified? Only Erebus might have thought so. Yes, his broken spirit would think this justice, eight long years to final justice.
"My father told me to come," Erebus had said to three young, impatient boys trying to wait their turn to spar each other, his own sparring sword held limply. Only one year younger still than the prince, the son of the jail house master lacked the confidence that residing within the walls of the castle had given the other three and the strength that castle fare had afforded their young bodies. Quiet and unsure and jumpy from the start, they at last coaxed a warrior out of him. Lacking in muscle and power, Erebus made up for it with his cunning. "Master strategist," they dubbed him, as often he would win a match long before his opponent realized it. Where was he today, the master strategist? At previous fights, he had stood at the King's side, apart but close. He had always stood apart, not quite one of the group. Could they help that he was odd?
While Castor enjoyed the prestige of sparring with the prince and the mental stretch when against Erebus, he enjoyed clashing blades with Pollux the most. They were evenly matched in strength and skill and the added challenge of someone who knew his every move before he even made it forced them to constantly grow and learn. The competitiveness of the two was intense but always jovial... until today. Today neither one of them pressed as hard as they could. Today neither wanted to win.
More often than not, they could each beat the prince or Erebus in single combat, but as a pair in two-against-two they were unbeatable. Prince John could not adjust to working with the trickster style of Erebus who was never able to close the gap to meet the raw physical strength the prince's style required. Castor and Pollux, though, became one fighter with two blades and two shields blocking and slashing in harmony of battle song. "Never give in; never give up!" If only they had not been unbeatable… an enemy blade could have long ago been their end. That which they had counted blessings from fate had actually been a curse bringing them, whole and together, to this treachery.
It was this very quality – to turn back every sword – which led the prince, when he became King, to enlist them as his own personal guards just as their fathers had served the late king. They fought by his side and saved his life on many an occasion; royal missions, ambushed escorts, even the front lines of a skirmish with the kingdom to the north. So many close calls… How had they survived until now? Why had divinity blighted them with continued life? Was it to ensure their deaths would be as agonizing as possible?
As if in answer, tearing pain ripped across Castor's forearm. The dancers had faltered in their step and the crowd screamed their delight at the flowing ribbon of red. Pollux stood frozen in battle stance, his eyes so unsure of what to do next.
"I'm so sorry."
"It's just a scratch. You've done worse to me in practice."
"I wasn't meant to kill you then. I… I can't do this. I can't!" Pollux backed away letting his sword arm fall and the crowd cheered all the more expecting retaliation.
"What are you doing? Get back in your stance."
"I'm sorry, Castor, I'm really sorry but I can't kill you. I won't!" He threw down his sword in punctuation and let his shield just fall. He lifted his head to expose his neck and held out his arms in invitation. "Just do it! Be free and live your life. I want you to, please…"
Indeed the winner of the Freedom Festival games would no longer be a slave. They thought they could win their freedom together. Finally, they would be forgiven their trespass. Eight years ago was supposed to be a celebration. Eight years ago was supposed to be a highlight in their lives, and it had been, for one day.
"Happy 30th Birthday, Castor and Pollux!"
The multitude of spirited well wishes seemed like it would never end. King John practically threw them a ball to celebrate their thirty years. There were women and entertainers, food and wine, each of which was thoroughly indulged in by the revelers. Enough flowers were thrown at them without promise of a ring that they were sure they'd never be in want for a warmer bed again. By the end of the night they were all pretty drunk, Erebus more so than the others for his small body mass. Castor remembered offering to take him home and the three sons of guards bid the king a good evening.
His home was in the northeastern district which passed by their favorite tavern. "Just one more drink, on me!" Erebus insisted they go inside. They did not stop at just one, though neither Castor nor Pollux remembered how much more they indulged. In fact, neither of them remembered much of the rest of that fateful night. Castor almost remembered slinging a barely conscious Erebus over his shoulder and walking up to the door of his house which was answered by his unhappy wife. Pollux remembered only the sound of the woman screaming and the child crying. Erebus remembered only that he woke up in a pool of blood, Castor's dagger through his thigh, next to his dead wife and daughter.
Witnesses were few but a stable boy was found who said in a small voice that he'd heard shouting and came running in time to see Pollux holding Erebus while Castor stabbed him in the leg. "Mistress was already dead. I ran for the guard."
Later a young maid came forward and pointed a trembling finger at Pollux. "It was 'im! 'E did it! Run the mistresses clean through because she shouted at 'im and the child wouldn't quiet. Master tried to stop 'im but 'e was too late. I turned and fled, scared for my life."
Erebus mourned for weeks while Castor and Pollux were kept under heavy guard in separate cells, starved on moldy bread. The grief of the event made Erebus bitter and when he was finally able to speak at their trial, he demanded that justice be served.
"They will fight for life at every turn, constantly threatened with death at the end of a sword just as my beloved wife and daughter. Never a day of safety! Never a day of rest! This is the penance I demand in lieu of their lives though execution may have pained them less." And thus changed their lives from wealth to poverty, from highest rank to lowest worm. It was an event the pair of them would always regret, all the more so that they were too drunk to remember it.
No amount of apology had ever healed the rift or even come close. Erebus was a different man than the one they grew up with. Contempt was all he held for them now, but how could they blame him? Yes, he would consider this justice.
A hard eight years in the gladiator ring together. Unbeatable… until today. The offer was there, forgiveness in a life freely given. Castor wavered, torn, it was death either way. Couldn't Pollux see that? There would be no freedom from guilt; there would be no life after this.
Impatient is the crowd that watches a man think for himself when he is supposed to be painting the earth red. "Kill 'em already! Spill 'is guts!"
A flick of the wrist and a jerk of the arm… that was all it would take. Castor took a step forward, his decision made. Death. Today would be his death… their death. He flicked his wrist and jerked his arm, sword tip arcing down. It stabbed the dirt and stayed there swaying when Castor released it to embrace Pollux instead. "Never! Never, brother. Our sentence is death but we will not slay each other!"
The crowd had already started booing though some deigned to laugh instead at the sight. "Somebody send in some real fighters!"
As the taunts and jeers rose in volume, the King was forced to decide. Deny the crowd or avoid a riot. With a look of annoyance towards his previous friends, his regal voice bellowed in a jovial cheer. "RELEASE THE LIONS!"
Metal chains clinked as gates were lifted in the arena hall. Castor placed a sword back into his friend's hand."You and me against the world?"
"I've got your back."
"Never give in!"
"Never give up!"
Eight years had passed and still they were in the prime of their lives, fit as ever and n'er a fight that worried either of them. They were the pair to beat, though many gladiator masters would decline them to fight their best warriors, too afraid that their bread and butter would end as lion bait on the arena floor. Instead of fighting, much of the time their master would enlist them in the training of new recruits. It was a tough job, maybe even tougher than entering a battle because, just as often as not, those they trained did not come back in victory.
The Freedom Festival was only held once every twenty-five years. Castor and Pollux were thirteen at the last event and their fathers had let them attend the first of the bloody battles. It was actually their first taste of death and the consequences of not being better than the enemy. Eye-opening, indeed, as their innocence faded. Castor and Pollux had declined the invitation to watch the rest of the events with the prince, favoring instead to go back to sparring each other. It became more serious after that and less the fanfare of children. They had never thought, at that age, that it might be them in the arena next.
Still here they were. Seven fights in four days with a closing ceremony and freedom promised by the King on the evening of the fourth if they lived through them all. A promise broken as soon as fight number eight was announced.
The starving carnivores were upon them and battle was reentered. No more qualms from beast or man in this kill-or-be-killed game; much to the crowd's glee. Lions were vicious and fast but Castor and Pollux were familiar with their habits. Deadly, but predictable, the lions did not last long. Castor's muscles burned with exertion as heaving lungs raced to replenish the energy he had spent, but the cats had been mere exercise.
The King actually frowned and paced the royal dais, his gait a limping shuffle. "Guards! Restrain them!"
The royal guard had not changed many faces since they had left the King's service. Most had celebrated each and every win this week. Actually… so had the King. With a genuine smile after each fight they won, the King had toasted the pair. So eager he had been, just this afternoon, to grant them their freedom again. The guards seemed unsure as they entered the arena knowing a fight could mean their lives. "We don't want any trouble here. Just following the King's orders."
"Don't you think the King is acting a bit oddly though?" The guards exchanged glances, none willing to admit it or brave enough to confront the King.
"Orders are orders. You of all people should know that."
Castor nodded at Pollux as both suffered the manhandling deemed necessary for restraint. They were relieved of their swords and shields and made to kneel as King John the Just descended into the arena himself. His voice was quiet enough that the crowd couldn't hear him. "I'm not sure what to do with you two. For eight years I watch you win fight after fight, always skirting the justice you deserve. I give you an order to carry out this justice yourselves and still you refuse! Any slave's life would be forfeit if they disobeyed their master but I… I am the King!!" There was a feralness behind his eyes, as wild as the lions had been. "I should have you both killed; right here, right now for defying me, but instead I give you a chance." He turned to Castor and handed him a jewel encrusted dagger. "You… you are my favorite. You always have been. You will live today. But you will kill Pollux, now, in front of us all so that the crowd and the gods of justice may be appeased."
Castor blinked at the glittering weapon in his hand. He recognized it. It had been a Birthday gift from the King eight years ago. It was the dagger he had stabbed Erebus with. The King smiled at his realization, a wicked, mocking smile. He rose as the guards hands released him still staring at the dagger. "You kept this?"
"Um-hmm, as a souvenir. To always remind me of why I made the decisions I made all those years ago. Do you understand now, why Pollux must die?"
Castor glanced at his kneeling friend. The man convicted of murder. A life for a life was the law. If he had remembered the act, Castor was sure he would have thrown himself on an enemy pike in their first gladiator match. But Pollux did not remember and neither friend could conceive that he would. Even drunk, Pollux had ever been gentle with the lasses… except for that one day. It seemed eerily familiar, how a person could be so different for just one day.
A flick of the wrist and a jerk of the arm… that was all it would take. Castor took a step forward, his decision made. Death. Today would be his death. He flicked his wrist and jerked his arm, dagger tip arcing down. It found its mark in a beating heart throwing the crowd into a frenzy.
Time slowed down as the spell was broken. Castor whispered a farewell to his childhood friend. "You are not the King!" Rough hands grabbed his arms and pulled him away from the King's failing body. He let them. They needed to see his new face for themselves. Hadn't they noticed his changed demeanor? Hadn't they seen his limping gait? The King was not the King at all. It was Erebus in his place.
"Imposter!! Sorcery!!" The guards voices rang out, "He is not the King!" The entire arena erupted in chaos as peasants fled and wailed and guards searched for the real King.
Castor found himself on the ground next to Pollux who looked on in shock. "How did you know?"
"Honestly? I didn't. I couldn't know for sure."
"But you suspected. You must have. How did you know?"
Castor clapped his hand on Pollux's shoulder, "The same way that I knew you didn't kill Erebus' wife or daughter, my friend. I had faith."
Pollux smiled and threw an arm around Castor's neck. Tears, in freedom, fell from them both. Whether they were both free men tonight or still slaves, they were both alive and free from the death sentence to live apart.
Later Castor would expand how the dagger was his real clue. The false King had claimed to keep it as a souvenir of the "decisions" he had made that night. But in truth, the King had made no decisions that day. Erebus had passed sentence on the pair. The young maid who had been a witness also confessed to lying about it. Erebus was her master so she had obeyed his command. Another of his servants admitted to drugging the ale at the tavern. They could not remember for a reason. Memoirs surfaced and it was all proven true; he had slain his own wife and child that night intent on framing the royal guard. The master strategist had done it all, planned it all, hoping to – for once in his life – defeat the unbeatable team.
Eight years… eight long years he had waited for his plan to see fruition, always being denied at every fight. Eight years Castor and Pollux had lived by the sword as slaves. Eight years would the King spend making it up to them. They wanted for nothing settling down and trading the metal collars of slavery for rings of promised forever. Restless, they eventually reclaimed their positions as personal guards and their sons grew up in the castle with every prestige and opportunity made available to them. Who else was the new prince to play with?