This story is by Bryn Shutt and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Iliard stood looking down over Iarla. All of it, from the shale mountains of the North to the Southlander fens, every inch, every heart’s homage was his. He was lord and liege – and yet he was nothing at all. Nothing. Cinders slipped out from his cloak and armor and wafted into the air. Once there, they joined the dance of the wind that brooded and snapped around their master. But he paid them no notice.
Drawing his great, dark eyes from all that was his, he turned his gaze upon that which was not. Souls. Some he had, but not all. Those he had loved Darkness as much as he did, but none served it quite so well.
He was the Ashen Knight. Keeper of the City of Souls – well, half of it, at least. At the Rising again of the Light, the eternal City had split between Light and Dark, good and evil, redemption and damnation. Throughout the ages and centuries that followed that event, the City had always had two Keepers, one for each side. He remembered well when he had chosen the side of hell and been made its earthly steward. He remembered the ‘why’ too.
It was because he was nothing.
Born into everything, Iliard Rhym had been given Iarla upon his sixth birthday. It hadn’t been a gift really. His father, the former Duke had perished in battle against the Athlanders, leaving his tiny son to become lord of the greatest, most powerful duchy in all of Albidon. In that day, Iliard had vowed to rain down the wrath of the Almighty upon Atherland for taking his father from him. He was too young then to understand just what he said, but he meant it. On the eve of his nineteenth birthday, he and all of the mustered host of Iarla had marched into Atherland to fulfill his vow. But the dragonborn are not kind and care little for promises and threats.
When the battle was finished, so was Iarla’s young duke. Twisted and mangled under the body of his fallen horse, Iliard wished only for death. But death never came. Only words and nothing. He would live he was told, but he would never again have use of his limbs. He would be lord and master, but nothing else. A legacy for the chroniclers to pen but nothing real would be ever again be added. A name to stamp upon decrees but no life to go with it. A body to draw breath, but – nothing more. No glory, no honor, no power.
Locking himself alone in his chambers, Iliard had wrapped his arms around his ruined self and cursed the God who had not fulfilled his wish, the One who had not heard his pledge; the One who had forgotten. He had once been mighty and sovereign; he had once believed God to be the same. But now he was broken. Now he was the other side of life’s coin. God must have flipped around as well, become nothing too. But Iliard did not seek him then; instead his eyes fell to the true, the real other side of Eternity’s coin.
He had begged for death that day as his blood soaked into Athlander soil. And now Death came.
In flames and lies, it made him promises. Assurances of a service, of a glory, of a praise – of a body – that would transcend his ruin and make him something yet again.
Iliard took the proffered agreement and with passion and devotion, he rose to greatness once more.
Cinders flickered now in the black pools of his eyes and hell surged its fury and will through his veins. But Iarla did not know. They mourned the boy who as a man could have been everything, anything, but was nothing. They loved their crippled Duke with all their hearts – and perhaps somewhere in the shadows of his lonely bedchamber, the man who was lord, loved them. But the Knight, he did not. He served Darkness alone and cared nothing for hearts.
But time and time and time … it was not enough. Hell was not satisfied; it was not full. And the power and freedom Iliard felt that night as he stood looking down over Iarla, it was not enough.
It was time for another time.
With people for pawns and rulers for rooks, it was time to play.
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