Chapter 8
Punishment Square

Corinth, Gladius

"There are some who believe that humans posses a fundamental and inherent goodness. Then there are those who say humans are evil by nature. I'm of a more moderate mind. I believe humans have an equal capacity for good and evil. I marvel at the heights of human charity and lovingkindness, but at the same time I'm appalled by the depths of cruelty and depravity we humans can reach."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

They were less than a mile from Corinth when Mark regained consciousness. His whole body ached, as it had for the past few days, but the pain was especially acute in his shoulders. His left shoulder hurt more than his right. Glancing over at his left arm, he saw that it did not hang quite right and came to the grim realization that it had been dislocated. He was hardly surprised that his captors had not bothered to set it back in place. If they let it be too long, he might never be able to use the arm again. Then a morbid thought struck him. He might not live long enough for it to be a problem.
Upon entering Corinth, Mark might have been able to appreciate the city's beauty had he arrived under better circumstances. Unlike the other towns he had been to, virtually all the buildings were made of stone and covered in clean white plaster like the city wall. All the streets were paved with well-maintained stones, lined with numerous statues and highlighted by a few delicately sculpted fountains. The conspicuous display of opulence would have had a far greater effect on him if he was strolling through the city as a free man on his own two feet.
"Do we take 'im ta Punishment Square now, sah?" Quid asked.
"No," Harald replied. "We take him to the mayor first. Count Juvenal needs to see that the search for rebels is bearing fruit."
Mark did not expect his captors to be men of any great intellect, but surely they had enough wits to realize Harald was about to steal credit for their prize. Perhaps it was proof of their intellect that they did not challenge the hot-tempered and willful officer.
There was a number of large mansions built in the Imperial style, a testament to the dominance of the old patricians in the city. They stopped at one such mansion. A frieze depicting the Bacchanal was set over the portal and beneath it was an inscription that read 'DOMVS LICINII'. Much as they had done in Eagle, the Guardsmen untied Mark from the horses and lashed his wrists together. With his left shoulder dislocated, the process was infinitely more painful.
Harald rapped on the portal and was answered by a servant.
"Your name and business, sir," the servant asked.
"I'm Lieutenant Harald Svenson of the Gladian Guard and I've come to present this rebel captive to Count Juvenal."
The servant bowed and opened the doors for the Guardsmen.
"Right this way, sir."
The mansion reflected Corinth's affluence. It seemed hard to believe, but all the masonry was of marble construction, from the ornate pillars supporting the weight of the roof to the polished floor tiles. The walls were decorated with mosaics portraying the rites of Dionysian mystery cults along with all manner of revelry and debauchery. Expertly carved statues of Maenads, nymphs, satyrs, and the ancestors of the Licinius family looked like they could spring to life at any moment. The rich furniture was crafted exclusively from imported wood and fixtures of gold, silver and bronze were abundant.
The wealth embodied by the atrium alone was staggering, but it left a bitter taste in Mark's mouth. He had heard the stories from his uncle of the patricians' exploitation of the Gladian people. The Unification under Edward's ancestor Everard had put an end to the worst of their excesses, but they seemed to be enjoying a resurgence under Randwulf's rule. It was sickening.
Guided into a large feast hall, Mark got his first look at Count Publius Juvenal, the mayor of Corinth. Lounging on a padded couch, the Count was a fat man with closely cut black hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. He was clad in a flowing white toga with purple trim, for it was the custom of the patricians to dress as their ancestors within the comfort of their own homes. Several young maidservants knelt around him offering food and drink to their master.
Publius was not disturbed in the slightest at the intrusion. In fact, he did not even seem to acknowledge the existence of the Guardsmen and their captive. Harald saluted the Count.
"Milord, I am Lieutenant Harald Svenson. I was given the special assignment of hunting rebels in the countryside by Captain Terentius. We captured this man in Cruz, a foreign mercenary hired by the Drunkard Prince to train a rebel army. He is a formidable swordsman who bested other squads in Watercress and Rowan before we captured him."
Mark was surprised how easily Harald could lie right to the Count's face to aggrandize his accomplishments and cover up his failures. The disinterested look on Publius' face intimated that he did not care much one way or another.
"I have come to hand this man over to you," Harald continued. "We will then go hunt down his companions and deliver them here without fail. After that, I recommend punitive action against the populations of Watercress and Rowan for abetting these and other rebels."
The Count took a sip from his cup, not bothering to look in the Guardsmen's direction, and said lazily, "His Majesty left such decisions in the Captain's hands, did he not?"
"Yes, milord," Harald replied. "I only mention it because your connections with the merchant guilds could provide us with valuable intelligence on the rebels and their sympathizers."
"Bold of you to approach me personally with this rather than deferring it to Captain Terentius."
"I am only thinking of the best interests of the kingdom."
"Quite," the Count sniffed, suppressing a laugh. "General Leifson's boy, is it? You impress me. It seems you barbarians have some talent for intrigues after all, but enough of that. What more can you tell me of this prisoner?"
"We haven't yet put him through a proper interrogation, milord, but he calls himself Mark, son of Luther."
Publius stroked his goatee thoughtfully. "Luther, you say? Interesting..."
"What is it, milord?"
Publius took anther sip from his cup.
"Old Flavius Sapphirus married off one of his daughters to Gregor of House Aran. She had two sons: Tiberius and Luther."
Mark's heart skipped a beat. Publius was talking about his grandmother. Perhaps his face was too marred and swollen to betray his reaction, for no one seemed to take notice of it. Although he was tempted to ask the Count for anything he knew about his family, Mark thought better of it. His situation might become far worse if his enemies knew who he really was, not that Harald would let him speak anyway.
"House Aran?" the lieutenant asked curiously.
The Count raised an eyebrow. "Have you not heard of them? They were quite famous in this kingdom, went by the title of 'the Guardian'. Adelar the Guardian was one of the knights in the service of Everard when he overthrew the League of Seven. They claim their descent all the way back to Lord Aran of the Eight Stars." The Count looked at Mark. "Imagine if this man was the heir to such a line."
"I find that hard to believe, milord."
"Indeed," Publius replied. "I do not believe His Majesty would have suffered anyone of House Aran to live. Still, if he is truly the son of Luther the Guardian, I must pay the proper respect to the patrician blood that runs in his veins." He turned to his cupbearer and said, "Give our guest a drink. The least we can do is dull his pain."
The cupbearer approached Mark and offered up a golden cup filled with a fragrant red wine. He refused, turning his head away from the cup. Harald gave him a sharp cuff to the back of the head.
"Impudent wretch!"
Publius lazily raised his hand. "Enough," he said, sparing Mark any more blows. The Count's swollen cheeks twisted as a grin crossed his lips. "Such stubborn pride. It reminds me of another story.
"My father was seeking his second wife and the vice magistrate of the mines offered him a considerable dowry to take the hand of his youngest daughter. Even though the girl was born of mere gentry stock, she refused my father as if he were a common villein. She was disowned for her stubbornness and Luther of House Aran claimed her instead.
"My father never believed there was anything beyond his reach and that girl drove him half-mad for making a fool of him." The Count chuckled to himself. "I laughed at him then and the years make it no less amusing. Of course, that girl's pride was the end of her. If she had accepted my father, she would have been safe here. Eagle got the worst of it when the Marauders went on the march, as I am sure your father can tell you, Lieutenant. Surely she became the fodder of the crows and wild dogs." He licked his fingers. "After the Marauders were done have their sport with her, of course."
It was more than Mark could bear. Hearing that decadent slug speak about his mother that way, something inside him snapped. Without any regard for his own well-being or the consequences, he lunged at Publius, breaking free of the Guardsmen's grip. The maidservants screamed, some fleeing out of instinct while a few others guarded the Count with their bodies. They knew that a servant who does not put his life at risk to protect his master will surely lose it.
Acting quickly, Harald tackled Mark to the ground before he could reach Publius. With his left arm still dislocated, to say nothing of the countless other injuries he had sustained, the rough treatment sent spikes of pain through his body, but it was not over yet. Consumed by a berserker rage, the Guardsman lieutenant started to kick him even more viciously than his captors had done when he tried to escape.
It is possible that Harald could have killed him then and there, but Publius intervened. Even caught in a rage, Harald was still lucid enough to notice and obey the Count's raised hand. His interest piqued, Publius sat upright and stared at Mark.
"It seems so impossible," he said, "but I cannot doubt it any longer. This must be the son of Luther the Guardian, the one His Majesty is looking for." Smiling greedily, the Count rubbed his hands in rapt anticipation of the rewards that awaited him. He looked up to Harald. "You, take him to Punishment Square. We shall go through the usual routine, but I have every intention of delivering him to Darkwall. After sunset, you will bring the prisoner to the East Gate. My caravan will be waiting. Hold on to all his personal effects. His Majesty may want them."
"Yes, milord."
"You are dismissed."
Harald saluted the Count and, bringing Mark to his feet, handed him over to the other Guardsmen and made his way out of the Licinius mansion. Rejoining the others, Mark was once again tied to the horses of Gil and Quid and dragged to their next destination, Punishment Square.
Punishment Square was located in the center of the city, an incongruous sight when compared to the expansive plaza decorated with its ornate fountains and statuary. It was a raised wooden platform approximately three fathoms long and two fathoms wide. The entire platform was encircled with pikes, a few of them with skulls or rotting heads impaled on them. Pillories lined the two longer sides and a row of chopping blocks was on the shorter two. Gallows were set on all sides only a few paces from the pillories and three poles were set in the center. Between the pikes encircling the platform and the platform itself was a long weapons rack with all the tools required for the heartless deeds of that place. Staring at the various instruments of cruel barbarism, Mark shuddered at the thought of all the pain and death that had come before him.
A boisterous throng had already begun to form at the prospect of new entertainment. From Corinth's wealthy elites to low-born peasants, all were united by a shared thirst for the gruesome spectacle. In the midst of the rising noise, Mark was first presented to a Guardsman officer seated at a desk near the platform, ostensibly to record the prisoners brought to the Square.
"Name?" the recording officer asked.
"He calls himself Mark, son of Luther," Harald said.
"Personal effects?"
They took a moment to search Mark, stripping him from the waist up and removing his boots. The attention of the Guardsmen was momentarily drawn to the cincture at his waist which was usually concealed by his jerkin. Holding up one of the loose ends, Harald gave Mark a derisive look.
"Don't tell me you're some sort of priest," he scoffed.
Mark said nothing. To be perfectly technical, he was a heirodeacon, but now was not the time to nitpick. Although he had left the order, he had not abandoned all of his vows. Both the cincture and the Cross of Saint Arita served as a link to those vows he had made before God and the life he had led for the past eight years. They were as much a part of his identity as the Dagger of Eolande, the signet ring of House Aran or his uncle's sword.
The Guardsmen who had captured him stirred uncomfortably. The sight of the Cross of Saint Arita made them noticeably ill at ease.
"Sah," Gil said, "maybe this ain' sech a good idea, makin' a public show a' i' an' all. If theyah's Wayfarahs in th' crowd, they migh' riot. They're dang'rous, ye know."
Harald gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "Nonsense. The Wayfarers are all huddled in Cruz. If anything, this lot will like it all the more." Grinning malevolently, he draped the cross around Mark's neck. "You'll see how much they enjoy it."
Harald's assertion did little to assuage them. They still showed signs of reservations, but the lieutenant paid it no further thought. Taking items from the Guardsman holding everything they had gathered, Harald began to place Mark's belongings on the desk.
Listing everything for the recording officer, Harald said, "We've got a jeweled dagger, a scabbard without a sword, a traveler's belt with sundries in the pouches--nothing of any real value, though, except maybe this sealed letter to someone called Ridley--, and then these three things on chains: that Wayfarer's emblem, a ring and this pendant."
It was a foolish risk, but Mark made a grab for the pendant. The attempt was immediately foiled by a quick tug on the ropes. Harald was more amused than surprised.
"What? You want something?" Harald laughed. "Don't worry. Count Juvenal told me to hand over your effects to His Majesty and that's what I'll do. You can try begging him for it."
While he continued to laugh mockingly at Mark, the officer finished scrawling his notes in the record book and tucked it away.
"Your work here is done, Lieutenant," the recording officer said. "Leave the rest to us."
"I'm not going anywhere," Harald said, smiling in cruel satisfaction. "I mean to watch this."
Mark was then handed over to a large man wearing a black executioner's hood and a studded leather harness, the brutal torturer known as the Black Angel of Punishment Square. The swordsman was guided up onto the platform and tied to one of the poles in the center. The wood was discolored from the blood and other body fluids of those who had gone before him. Apparently they did not bother to clean the platform after their work was done. The smell was nauseating.
A Guardsman standing by the weapons rack tossed a knotted whip to the torturer. Before setting to work, the Black Angel raised the whip high in the air to the approving cheers of the crowd and gave it a loud crack that was met with a fresh roar from the eager spectators.
Mark's whole body shuddered at the first blow. He could feel the skin split open and blood trickle down his back. It was an experience he would not wish on his worst enemy. After the first few blows, however, Mark's back went numb and he felt nothing in spite of the damage being inflicted on him.
He had a difficult time trying to stay standing up. Not only were the harsh blows enough to bring a man to his knees, but his blood was forming a slippery pool at his feet.
After about twenty lashes, the torturer could see his blows were losing their effect and knew the crowd would become restless if Mark went unconscious.
The Black Angel dragged his victim over to one of the pillories, twisting Mark's dislocated left arm in unnatural ways to lock it in place. Although he thought he could no longer feel the pain, Mark could not help crying out as the Black Angel callously wrenched his arm into the stocks. Once Mark was secure, the torturer stepped off the platform to give the general population its turn.
No charges had been declared. The people did not know who he was or what crimes he had supposedly committed. None of them seemed to care. The crowd jeered at Mark and pelted him with rotten vegetables, eggs, and stones. Their aim was poor, but the few stones that hit cracked the bones of his hands and opened fresh wounds on his head and face. Mark's vision became ever blurrier with blood clouding what little sight he had left.
He could barely make out the parting of the crowd by a dozen men in gold and silver ceremonial armor. They were clearing the way for a corpulent man clad in frilly purple clothes. It was Publius. Upon his head was a large puffy hat the same purple as his clothes with a couple peacock feathers streaming out the side. The Count raised his thick arms to quell their cheering and turned to face them.
"People of Corinth," he addressed them in a loud voice, "the man before you is the ringleader of a band of cruel villains who have killed and wounded the brave men of the Gladian Guard, your protectors and the defenders of our kingdom's peace. Worse yet, he has tried to incite our guileless countrymen to rebellion against our most noble sovereign.
"Two fates lay open for him: he can be sent to the dungeons of Darkwall to reap the bitter fruits of his foul deeds along with some of the vilest offenders this kingdom has ever known... or he can be dealt with here and now at the hands of our avenging Black Angel." The Count drew three small golden dirks from his belt. "We will leave him to Fate with your benevolent mayor as its agent. Should one of these blades pierce him, you will witness the fiend's death this very day."
A roar erupted from the crowd and Mark was amazed. Unlike the sluggish hedonist he had seen earlier, Publius was remarkably animated before the public. More than anything else, he was a showman and he held onto power by virtue of his theatrics. So enamored of their mayor was the eager crowd that they pressed against the men of his personal bodyguard just to touch him. This act in particular, throwing knives to mete out the fate of prisoners, stoked the fires of their excitement more than any other.
Accompanied by raucous cheers, the first dirk landed by Mark's right hand. The din rose to a crescendo as Publius prepared to throw the second, which struck close to Mark's left cheek. Fate seemed to be less of a factor than the Count let on, for his ability to throw knives was better than Mark ever would have expected.
Although Publius had stated his intent to deliver Mark to Darkwall, there was always the chance he could make a mistake. Mark's fate did not look promising however the situation turned out. He braced himself for the finale. The Count's arm was drawn back for the throw when his eyes bulged and a spasm of his hand left the dirk clattering to the ground. He fell backward into the arms of his confused bodyguards with an arrow through his heart.
Mark saw members of the crowd pointing in his direction. Apparently the arrow came from behind him, possibly from the platform itself. Mark tried to crane his head around to see who it was, but the pillory made it almost impossible to move. Had his vision been intact, he would have been able to recognize the arrow that struck Publius. It was a Rowanite arrow.
A couple of the Count's bodyguards tried to pull their master to safety, an exercise in futility at that point, while the Black Angel took hold of a heavy executioner's axe and clambered up on the platform. Mark decided that whoever killed Publius was more likely friend than foe and stuck out his leg to trip the torturer. The Black Angel fell hard on the platform, but quickly recovered. The impudence of the Black Angel's victim incensed him and his attention was turned away from the Count's assailant. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
He swung mightily with his axe, fully intending to cleave Mark clean through, but his swing stopped short and a shudder ran through his whole body. The stunned torturer looked down to see a shiny metal point poking out past his ribs. Standing behind him, Sonia channeled energy into her rapier. The gems glowed as the blade was wrapped in flames, igniting the body of the Black Angel as well. She coolly slid the blade out of the torturer's body as his blood-curdling howls and the stench of burning flesh filled the air. The crowd, already stricken by the felling of Publius, stared in aghast shock as the flaming body of the dreaded Black Angel tumbled off the platform, screaming like a banshee until death finally silenced him.
During this distraction, Jasper bounded onto the platform from the freshly slain corpse of the recording officer. Landing right next to Mark, he took his reddened dagger and began to hastily work on the locks of the pillory.
"Oi sehd Oi'd retahn th' feyvah, di'n' Oi?" the wily thief said with a grin.
When the initial shock had worn off, the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Their courage buttressed by the Count's bodyguards and the Guardsmen among them, they threatened to storm the Square and overtake Mark and his rescuers. From her perch atop one of the poles, Jill momentarily stalled their momentum by shooting down two of the bodyguards in quick succession. Before they could recover their wits, there was a great ferocious roar as Edward swept through the back of the crowd with his oversized blade. Like a creature possessed, the Prince cut wide bloody swaths into the mass of people. None who found themselves in the path of his blade could hope to survive.
Edward did not assault the crowd on his own, for Jill had never stopped loosing her arrows and had already taken out another of Publius' bodyguards and a Guardsman who had tried to attack Jasper with his halberd. Meanwhile, Sonia channeled more energy than she had ever dared before. Her body was enveloped in a blazing red aura; all the gems of the Defender's gear shone brightly as she summoned a dozen fireballs that crashed all around the Square.
The flames, arrows and the merciless sweeps of Edward's blade evaporated the crowd's courage and panic seized them. In a mad stampede they fled from the scene, trampling anyone unfortunate enough to fall underfoot. Trapped in the frantic rush of the crowd was Harald Svenson. Although he was spoiling for a fight, he was like a pebble caught in the ocean waves, howling curses as he was driven away from the field of battle.
The chaos engulfing the city provided the perfect opportunity to escape. Jasper had just finished picking the last of the locks on the pillory and swung it open to free Mark. Although they were in a hurry, Sonia paused a moment as she took in Mark's condition: his dislocated shoulder, the bruises all over his body and the bloody stripes on his back. It almost overwhelmed her, but she was quick to regain her focus.
"Jasper," she ordered, "take Mark and go on ahead. Me, Jill and Edward will cover our retreat. Go!"
Displaying greater strength than anyone would have imagined by looking at him, Jasper lifted Mark onto his shoulders and ran for the gate. The other three followed behind, watching closely for any pursuers, but their escape went unopposed. Since the fencer had already cleared the gatehouse, there was nothing to slow them down. Once they were past the city walls, Sonia breathed a sigh of relief and sheathed her weapons. She did not stop running, though. They may have saved Mark, but they were not free yet.