A March of Kings (Page 14)

Steffen cowered beneath the whip of his master, bending over and bracing himself as he was lashed across the back yet again. He braced his hands over the back of his head, trying to shield the worst of the blow.

“I ordered you to remove the chamber when it was full! Now look at the mess you've made!” his master screamed.

Steffen hated to be yelled at. Born deformed, his back twisted in a permanent hunch, looking prematurely old, he had been yelled at from the time he was a child. He had never fit in with his siblings, with his friends, or with anyone. His parents had tried to pretend he didn't exist, and when he was just old enough, they found a reason to kick him out of the house. They had been embarrassed by him.

Since then, it had been a hard, lonely life for Steffen, left to fend for himself. After years of working odd jobs, of begging in the streets when he needed to, he had finally found a job in the bowels of the king's castle, toiling with the other servants in the room of the chamber pots. His task, for years, was to wait until the huge, iron chamber pot was filled with sewage from the floors above, then carry it out while it was overflowing, with the help of another servant. They took it out the back door of the castle, across the fields, to the river's edge, and dumped it in.

It was a job he had over the years learned to do well, and as his posture was ruined before he arrived, the lugging of the pot could not have affected it anymore. Of course, the stench of the waste was unbearable, though, over time, he had learned to block it out. He had taught his mind go to other places, to escape in fantasy, to imagine vivid alternate worlds and to convince himself that he was anywhere but here. Steffen's one gift in life had been a great imagination, and it didn't take much to send him off to another realm. His other great gift was observation. Everyone underestimated him, but he heard and saw everything, and he took it all in like a sponge. He was much more sensitive and perceptive than people realized.

Which was why, the other day, when that dagger had come tumbling down the stone chute, into the chamber pot, Steffen had been the only one to take notice. He heard the slightest difference in the splash, something landing in the water that sounded not human, but metal. He'd heard the tiniest bit of a clang as it settled to the bottom – and he had known immediately that something was wrong. Something was different. Somebody had dropped something down the chute, something he wasn't supposed to. Either it was an accident, or, more likely, it was on purpose.

Steffen waited for a moment when the others weren't looking and stealthily approached the pot, held his nose, rolled up one sleeve, and reached in up to his shoulder. He fished around until he had found it. He had been right: there was something there. It was long and metal, and he grasped it and pulled it up. He could feel, before it even reached the surface, that it was a dagger. He extracted it quickly, glanced it over, made sure no one was looking, and bundled it in a rag and hid it behind a loose brick.

Now that things had quieted down, he looked around, made sure no one was looking, and when he felt sure the coast was clear, he hurried over to the brick, loosened it, unwrapped the weapon and studied it. It was a dagger unlike any he had ever seen, certainly not one for the lower classes. It was an aristocratic thing, a piece of art. Very valuable, and expensive.

As he held it up to the torchlight, turning it every which way, he noticed stains on it, stains which would not come out. He realized, with a shock, that they were blood stains. He remembered back to when the blade had fallen down and realized that it had come down on the same night of the assassination of the King. His hands shook as he realized he might be holding the murder weapon.

“How stupid are you?” shrieked his master, as he whipped him again.

Steffen hunched over and quickly wrapped up the blade, keeping his back to his boss, hoping and praying he had not seen it. He had left the chamber pot untended while examining the blade, and it had overflowed. He had not expected his master to be so close.

Steffen took the beating, as he did every day, whether he did a good job or not. He clenched his jaw, hoping it would end soon.

“If that pot overflows again, I will have you kicked out of here! No, worse, I will have you chained and thrown in the dungeon. You stupid deformed hunchback! I don't know why I put up with you!”

His master, a fat, pockmarked man with a lazy eye, reached up and beat him again and again. Usually, the blows ended; but tonight he seemed to be in a particularly belligerent mood and the blows just kept getting worse. They never seemed to end.

Finally, something inside Steffen snapped. He could stand it no longer.

Without thinking, Steffen reacted: he grasped the hilt of the dagger, spun around and plunged it into his master's rib cage.

His master let out a horrified gasp as his eyes bulged in his head. He stood there, frozen, looking down in wonder.

Finally, the blows stopped.

Now Steffen was furious. All the pent up anger he'd felt over the years came pouring out.

Steffen grimaced, grabbed his master by the throat, and squeezed it with one hand. With the other, he pushed the blade in deeper and slowly dragged it higher, cutting him up through the sternum, all the way to his heart. Hot blood poured out over his hand and wrist.

Steffen was shocked at what he had summoned the courage to do – and he reveled in every second of it. For years he had been abused by this man, this horrible creature, who had beaten him like his play thing. Now, finally, he had vengeance. After all those years, all those abuses.

“This is what you get for beating me,” Steffen said. “Do you think you're the only one with power here? How do you like it now?”

His master hissed and gasped, and finally collapsed into a heap on the floor.

Dead.

Steffen looked at him, lying there, just the two of them down here this late in the night, the dagger protruding from his heart. Steffen looked both ways, satisfied the room was empty, then extracted the dagger and wrapped it back in its rag, and stashed it back in its hiding place, behind the brick. There was something about that blade, some evil energy to it, that had goaded him to use it.

As Steffen stood there, looking at the corpse of his master, he was suddenly overwhelmed with panic. What had he done? He had never done anything like that in his life. He did not know what had overcome him.

He bent over, hoisted his master's corpse, heaved it over his shoulder, then leaned forward and dropped it into the chamber pot. The body landed with a splash, as the filthy water spilled over its sides. Luckily the pot was deep, and his corpse sank beneath the rim.

On the next shift, Steffen would carry the pot out with his friend, a man so down and drunk, he never had any idea what was in the pot, a man who always turned away from it, holding his nose from the stench. He wouldn't even realize that the pot was heavier than usual as the two of them carried it to the river and dumped it. He wouldn't even notice the mass in the night, the body floating away, down the current.

Down, Steffen hoped, towards hell.