For the latest “Authors Aerobics“, fellow writer T. S. Bazelli challenged us to pen a scene written in the present tense. It’s a tough challenge, because past-tense is rather the default-mode for storytelling. In writing this little piece, I found myself slipping on occasion, mistakenly, back into past tense.
Somehow, present tense just seems to go with the first person voice, which is what happened here. Bazelli also suggested a theme of “desire”, which I interpretted very loosely. For this story, I wanted to get into the mind of a villain. At first, I tried to think of a classic fairy-tale villain from whose perspective I could write. But none that I thought of excited me, so I created my own villain. And so, clocking in at 1,049 words, I present to you:
The Defender of the Realm
By: Stephen Watkins
Every man is the hero of his own story. I’m no different than they. I’ve done things other men would not, or could not. But my motives are just, and the results speak for themselves. That’s why I won’t make excuses for who I am, or what I’ve become.
“My Lord Arctus?”
I look up from my work, where I am recording my memoirs, the truth of my doings, so that all the world may know. Page Laban is there in the doorway, his head bowed. Laban will not lift his head to meet my eyes. None of my servants will. I suppress a flutter of annoyance. “Speak, Laban.”
“Page Turban has returned from the Lady Eliza with her response. And the prisoner is ready.”
My heart begins thumping in my chest. If Turban has returned, then Eliza had my gift, and the poem I had written her. “Tell me, Laban, what word is from Lady Eliza?”
Page Laban bows his head even lower. Obsequious to a fault. “My Lord, Lady Eliza will not see you.”
My heart stutters, and I close my fist tightly, crumpling the latest page in my book. It is no matter. There is little, yet, on that page worthy of note. I force myself not to frown. It is of no value for one of the pages to see the pain in my heart. “Very well,” I reply, and turn my face away for a moment. I rise from my desk and gaze out the dusky windows of my study into the iron-gray courtyard below. As soon as I regain my composure, I turn back to Laban. “Then let us see about the prisoner.”
I lead the way down the hall, my black cloak trailing in a flourish. Torches flicker, casting a strange glow in the otherwise gloam-filled corridors. I stalk down the stairs, deep into the heart of my hilltop fortress. Below the castle lies a network of caverns and warrens, left there by the ancestors of the goblin tribes. In the deepest of these lie my dungeons, where all my most difficult work is completed. Laban trails behind me, his head bobbing. From the warren ahead I see the angry red glow of the furnace. I duck through the low opening into the cramped chamber, pulling my cloak around me to ward off the stench and heat.
And there is Hurl, standing over some vagrant or peasant stretched out on the rack. Hurl is excellent at what he does. But I am the master. I gaze down on the pitiful wretch who is staring, wild-eyed at the glowing ember held by Hurl’s blackened tongs. I hold up my hand, urging Hurl to lower the coal back into the furnace. Hurl bows his head, avoiding my eyes, as all my servants do.
“My Lord Arctus,” he murmurs. “The prisoner is… resistant. He welcomes your ministrations.”
“Thank you, Hurl,” my voice is calm but firm. It is a delicate matter, how to let the prisoners view you before extracting the information they contain. I turn my attention to the vagrant.
“Welcome to Castle Tarak, young man.” I flex my right fist. A black leather glove conceals the burn scars on my hand. The prisoner’s breathing eases, slightly. There are burns on his body as well: fresh burns. I grab a flask of cool water stored nearby, and pour them over the man’s throbbing wounds. “You will forgive Hurl, of course. He is enthusiastic, sometimes, about what he does.”
“M- m- m- milord…” the prisoner stutters. I smile toothily at him.
“Now, what was your name?”
“N- n- n- Natters, milord.” He can barely say his own name.
“Now, then, Natters. To the business at hand. I am informed that you possess certain knowledge or dealings concerning the goblin cell operating in the Palavar Hills to the east of the capital. You will reveal to me what you know of this goblin cell.”
Natters shakes his head madly, his eyes wide with fear. “M- m- milord, I know nothing.”
“Nonsense, Natters. Of course you do. There are witnesses who will testify that they saw you trading with a couple goblin travelers at the East Gate. You’re in collusion with the Kaidog Rimfangs in Palavar. You cannot hide this truth from Lord Arctus, the Defender of the Realm. I see all truth. Now, tell me what you know, and save yourself further suffering.”
From the opening of the chamber, I see Laban wince at my words. The vagrant, Natters, just shakes his head and mumbles. I sigh. It is heavy work, what I do. But the Realm is under siege from goblin revolutionaries and reactionary elements, within our own borders. The Kaidog Rimfangs operate in a wide-spread network, with cells of ten of fifteen goblins scattered across all the land, operating near each of the major cities. I have yet to learn how they communicate with one another. But their coordinated attacks have started to wear my forces thin.
Since I launched my armies to consolidate the nine kingdoms into the Realm, bringing peace and stability, the Kaidog Rimfangs, and other like-minded elements, have been a thorn in my side. Yet goblins are still allowed to roam freely across the land, trading goods and providing essential manual labor. Unfortunately, it is one part of the Old Law of the Realm that I have not been able to change. This gives the Rimfangs ample cover to operate, and to send their goblin brigadiers against the people of my cities. But I cannot allow this insurgency to continue.
I think longingly of Lady Eliza, for a moment. Such a beautiful, delicate flower. Her family once ruled over these parts of the Realms, long ago, and allowed the goblins to colonize in Palavar. It was a mistake of the past. I do not blame her for the indiscretions of her fathers.
I gaze sadly down at the poor vagrant. “I’m sorry you have chosen not to be more cooperative.” I reach into the pockets of my cloak, and start pulling out several long, supple-bladed instruments and hooks, and laying them out in a perfectly straight line on the table next to Natters. I pause before laying each one down, allowing Natters to see them. “Let’s begin again, shall we?”
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