E X C O R P O R I B U S : I V
Completed January 26, 2020 (♒)
Content Warning: 💀This chapter contains graphic depictions of injury and rape aftermath.💀
Author's notes at the end.
Dycedarg had fallen into a calm that allowed him to be angry: angry at not knowing if he would need to find some new general; angry that Bestrald kept demanding details as to what had happened; angry that Zalbag had done whatever it was to let himself end up as he had.
Prior to this, when he had been dragged through the lawn by a panicked and drunken cleric and made to see what he had discovered… when he had been shown his brother, it had been different.
He had been afraid.
It had been one of those moments suspended--one of those instants of time where every detail is preserved in perpetuity. He remembered the trilling of the cicadas outside, the sputter of candles burnt down to their sockets, that scent of so much clotted blood underlying the frankincense. The only thing he did not recall was whatever it was the keeper had been saying--some blubbered excuse or another about why he had abandoned the sanctuary.
Kneeling to where his brother lay wrapped in a stained and torn altar cloth, he had thought it strange that Zalbag should seem so small.
He had not seemed so small to him for a very long time.
Beyond that, he had not thought about anything really. He had not thought yet of the particulars of planning a funeral or stifling rumors or arranging for some stop gap while he figured out how he was supposed to take Bethla with only fucking Bestrald to lead the troops. He had just looked at the body: at the cuts like so many claw marks, at the blood and spend that congealed on his thigh, at the patch of his face washed clean by what must have been his tears. When Zalbag had finally moved, Dycedarg had reached over to him and realized that his own hands had been shaking.
After that it had been easy. He’d shouted for a healer, pressed Zalbag into place so he couldn’t misalign anything by his thrashing about, and ran through how best to invent some Nanten agent stalking about the capital and how best to procure that agent that he might be hanged. He had thought to his runesword, etched with the sigils and circles about which Zalbag had always been frustratingly superstitious, and realized he had left it in the palace. He'd made do with a few simple cantrips instead--something to dull the pain and keep him still. Trying to use better magic to set bone or mend flesh this belatedly would be too much of a risk anyway, and having Zalbag crippled was not much more useful than having him dead.
Once sure that Zalbag would not move, he’d tried to clean him up as best he could. He’d decided firmly that this crime could not be taken for a rape--that he wouldn’t countenance that thought even in the privacy of his own brain. No doubt committing some petty blasphemy or another, he'd torn the edge of the altar cloth, soaked it in the baptismal font, and thereafter done his best to wash his brother of any immediate evidence that somebody had fucked him before they’d tried to kill him.
He’d explained to the healers later that they were not to come to any mistaken conclusions.
Before they arrived, though, there passed time enough for his thoughts to wander. Washing the body of a man so injured had a ritual to it. He’d imagined it to be like washing the dead. As he had cleaned the gore from off him, revealing all those deep gaping mouths that should seal themselves into scars, he had wondered if Zalbag might tell him someday if any corresponded to the stigmata of the saints he so worshiped.
It was a very foolish thought.
He eventually came to notice the thin gold chain dangling from Zalbag’s left hand and, following it, found the ornate icon he was desperately clutching. The filigree that ran along its left arm had been ruined where it had seemingly cut a deep gash into his palm.
He’d picked it up, turning it back and forth within his hand. It was Lionelese make. Old. He knew the piece very well.
Dycedarg still had it in his possession as he sat fuming outside the sick room, waiting for word from the chiurgeons and priests as to whether or not Zalbag was to ever awaken. Looking to the window, he watched as the red globe of the sun tipped just under the spire of the cathedral.
He weighed the ornament in his hand and considered that it should by all rights have been his.
It had been his for all of four days. It had been their mother’s before. She had apparently requested it be given him should she not survive her confinement. With their father not in any position to countermand her dying wishes from the field, Dycedarg had ended up at the tender age of eight with a relic worth more than five years of a sergeant's pay. He had thereafter given it to his brother when he was christened, thinking very prudently that he would receive it back with praise for his charity once Zalbag followed all their other siblings to an infantine grave.
He smiled a little, recalling that he had been credited for the charity even if it had chafed him at the time that his brother should refuse to obligingly die. It would be strange for it to fall back to him now, thirty years after it had been promised.
A young chemist clapped open the door, and Dycedarg stood and walked briskly to where Zalbag had been laid out, not waiting for a report or an invitation. The boy who ran after him did his best to convey that the general was expected to live but that they could not yet tell how badly the injuries may have affected him. Some men weathered a bad blow to the skull fine; some were given to falling sickness; some forgot themselves and went mad.
Dycedarg nodded as he sat down by the low palette upon which his brother lay. Zalbag looked a fair sight better than he had in the afternoon, but he suspected the coming twilight was helping on that count. He bade the boy bring them a taper or something and leave them be in the meantime.
Zalbag, mottled with bruises and crossed with bandages, blinked up at him. He smelt of the comfrey with which he’d doubtlessly been slathered.
“They haven’t found the assassin yet,” Dycedarg said firmly. “They will though.”
Zalbag eyes seemed darker than they ought, even in the dim light. He shook a bit as if trying to remember something.
“It wasn’t an assassin, Dycedarg…”
“You were struck in the head. Your memory may be wanting.” He tried to sound insistent without sounding cruel. “I assure you, there was an assassin.”
Zalbag sat up haltingly as the boy ran back with a taper and was promptly dismissed again. In the added light of the candle, Dycedarg could better see the patterns that had been beaten into his brothers skin, making out the muddled outlines of hand prints.
Zalbag looked away, fidgeting with the edge of one of his dressings. “It was my own doing, Dycedarg…” He breathed deep, voice cracking ever so slightly as he continued. “I did not meet with an assassin… I...”
Dycedarg abruptly gripped his brother’s wrist. Zalbag winced.
“You did not do this to yourself, and I am uninterested in hearing some sanctimonious chop logic as to how this is actually your fault. It was an assassin, and an assassin will be executed.”
Zalbag looked at him and looked towards the ground. He remained silent for a time, clearly putting some effort into better composing himself. Dycedarg appreciated it.
“How long is Larg willing to wait until we push into Bethla without further intelligence?” he finally said.
“It depends on what I tell him. I suspect he’s happy to dawdle about the capital through the year’s end if it comes to it.
“I don’t think it will come to that.”
Dycedarg relaxed his hold on his brother’s wrist while turning his palm upward. Fishing about, he produced their mother’s icon and dropped it into Zalbag’s hand.
“You were found with this.” His voice softened a little. “You’ll need to find a good jeweler to put it to rights, but I still imagine you want it back.”
Zalbag turned unexpectedly pale, eyes widening as if Dycedarg had just handed him a live adder. He moved to hold the ornament in both hands, and he shook as he looked at it.
“I was found… with this?”
“Why should that be surprising? It’s your icon.”
Dycedarg furrowed his brow as Zalbag’s expression became increasingly hard to parse. At first he thought he was in some way afraid of the artifact, but it became rapidly apparent that there was more to it than that. Some strange admixture of terror, elation, and despair played out in his features, and Dycedarg thought apprehensively to the chemist’s mention of men falling to madness.
“I thought…” He began to sob. “I thought it had been lost.”
Normally, Dycedarg felt a reflexive disgust at the weeping of others, angry to be caught up second hand in the vulnerability they betrayed. In this instant though, as his brother began to cry at the sight of an icon he’d owned his entire life, he was strangely willing to follow with the current of his emotions. He laid a hand on his shoulder.
It was a few long, awkward minutes of watching his brother break down, saying something senseless about dreams and confessions. He was much relieved that Zalbag managed to quiet the outburst quickly. He watched as he set the icon down on the bed next to him.
“Dycedarg?” he asked, calm again but clearly touched by some melancholy.
“Would you have prayed for me if I had died?”
It was a frustratingly self-indulgent question, but Dycedarg was willing to indulge him.
“I would have.”
He wasn’t certain if he’d sounded believable, but Zalbag smiled briefly in response.
“Will you pray for me now?”
It was later in the night, once Zalbag had collapsed again into the respite of sleep, that Dycedarg uttered out a few lines and verses not recited since childhood--trying to remember whatever words they were that men said pleased the Saint. Even if so many decades of war had left him atheistic and privately contemptuous of the faith, he felt he owed it to his brother to keep to a promise requiring so little on his part. It was a scant and petty sort of betrayal to do otherwise.
Betrayals, Dycedarg thought, needed to carry a weight and hold to a purpose. To betray somebody without palpable cause or evident gain was a wretched and frankly distasteful habit for any man to acquire.
Besides that, given to sentimentality as he seemed to be that evening, betrayal was one of the sins he could never imagine Zalbag committing.
Author's Notes: Comfrey is, in fact, an anti-inflammatory herb used in poultices.