“An angry man – there is my story”
Homer, the Iliad, Book I. Translated by W.H.D.Rouse
Right from his first awful infantile breath of life, it was not possible for Prīnceps Crafræl to mourn his loss of hearth and home. His first faded impressions and later memories were poisoned with pain, dread and betrayal.
At eight years of age, the long, dark, private hell that was Crafræl’s childhood was irrevocably over.
The royal family broke their fast together in the dining hall, with a number of Senatōrs and the Cyr’lean Rēx. The Dux Rectionis of the Düm’tæn quarter stood before Rēx Regum Cor’Emal, trembling as his lord ate.
“Your majesty, it was wrong of you to make the poor carry the burden of the tax. Especially the Düm’tæn, we are the poorest caste, though we are not Kath. Please reconsider the tax increase, Majesty.”
Cor’Emal did not look up from his meal, but instead continued to cut his meat into bite sized portions. “You will increase the tax as I ordered” — Cor’Emal said as he carefully placed a piece of venison on his fork, dipped it in the gravy and ate it. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, considering — “but instead of three percent it will be five. If your people cannot match the difference, then you will pay the difference from your own coffers.”
“No,” Dux Lo’dec objected.
Crafræl cringed visibly. He kept his face down while he looked up. He anticipated the worst. His brother, Nayd, ate with apparent relish, unconcerned as to what was about to happen.
Rēx Regum Cor’Emal was tall even for a Gērenian, broad in the shoulder, heavily muscled and covered in lurid scars. He had sky-coloured eyes and dark hair. His nose was broken. Cor’Emal’s smooth, cultured baritone voice belied the violence of his appearance. Ever-present, or so it seemed, at the Rēx Regum’s elbow, sat the Grand Vizier with his gaudy robes and steely flint-eyed gaze. Crafræl’s mother, Brin, despised the man, so Crafræl despised him as well.
The Dux Rectionis had offended the Rēx Regum, and he knew it.
The Grand Vizier leaned in and whispered into the Rēx Regum’s ear. Cor’Emal paused between bites and lifted his gaze to look the Dux Rectionis square in the eye. “Praetōriānī, restrain him,” he said, never changing his tone or expression.
Before Lo’dec could utter a word, the Praetōriānī surrounded him, and held him in place.
“Cut off his head and limbs,” Cor’Emal said turning back to his meal.
“No, spare me,” the Praefectus pleaded.
Crafræl knew his cold-hearted and calculating father never went back on his word.
Blood sprayed the table, spattering over Cor’Emal’s plate and into his drinking cup. Crafræl looked down at his arm and stared at the crimson droplets on his sleeve and hand. He managed to hold down his breakfast by sheer will and the fear of his father’s reprisal.
“Praetōriānī, place the pieces on display at the entrance to the Düm’tæn quarter. Make an example of the Düm’tæn,” The Rēx Regum said, taking a drink from his cup.
The ceremony of departure took place at the dry-docks, while the airships made final preparations for departure. Cor’Emal spoke at length, smiling with pride at Prīnceps Nayd; he barely acknowledged Crafræl. Nayd ignored his twin and would not make eye contact either. The Grand Vizier whispered to one of the Senatōrs who stood nearest to him, giving Crafræl a look of repugnance.
“We expect great things from you, High Prīnceps. I know you will distinguish yourself and bring honour to the throne. You, my heir, will surely surpass your peers. May they never forget the noble blood that runs through your veins.”
Nayd lapped up the sycophantic attention of fawning courtiers and Senatōrs as they praised him with flowery speeches. He was like a pampered cat with a bowl of fresh cream.
No one said anything to Crafræl.
The Prīncipēs’ mother was also in attendance but she shared few words, even still, her face glowed with the pride she felt for her sons.
“Go forth, sons of Atlåntis,” Brin declared, “be bold and strong! Honour the gods!” She rested her hands on the shoulders of her boys, leaned in ostensibly to offer a chaste kiss on their cheeks, and whispered, “Be sure to write.”
At the close of the ceremony, the Rēx Regum assigned bodyguards for his sons. For the favored Nayd, a former decorated Gērenian Tribune. For Crafræl, because his father deemed him unworthy of a peer, a Bomat-caste named Rohd. The tribune was retired, and Rohd had just graduated the Akadamy the year before. Crafræl was relieved when the speech was over and the Rēx Regum sent them on their way.
The brothers dropped their things in their shared cabin and quickly went up on deck, watching the capital shrink away from them. They stood solemnly at the rail of the airship as it sailed out of the dry docks.
The only thing Prīnceps Crafræl took with him the day he left home was fury. He held it soothingly to his breast, gently stoking its bright embers. He was a child with a child’s strength, and could not fight the horror and injustices he’d witnessed. Any fondness or patriotic affinity Crafræl may have had of his home would be forever stained, as stained as his eyes. He could not erase the memory of greasy black pillars of smoke reaching to the heavens as homes were torched; or the smell of the bodies that burned inside those homes. The Rēx Regum’s example was to have his most fanatic legio, made up entirely of utterly loyal Revian assassins, the infamous legio Persōnātus, systematically rape and butcher the Düm’tæn men, women and children, before sealing the quarter and putting it to the torch.
As the flames rose, Crafræl stood next to his brother, seething, his fists clenching and unclenching.
Crafræl enrolled in the Akadamy with his brother, Nayd, and their three cousins, Olàn and the brothers Het and H’Tor. Even at age eight, Het towered over his brother; he was nearly as tall as a grown man. H’Tor was thin and lean. Silent Olàn was short and reedy.
N’rel was also enrolled with the cousins as an Auxilia. N’rel was a half-caste, and no single descriptor labelled him. His father was Gērenian and his mother Düm’tæn — a forbidden union. But N’rel’s father was a man highly regarded and influential; he arranged a certificate of legitimate birth for his son, despite the law. Crafræl took a liking to the comically minded N’rel, who quickly attached himself to the prīnceps in hopes of proving himself worthy.
On their arrival at the Akadamy, the cousins whispered to each other as they walked through the great wrought iron gates.
A male officer stepped away from his compatriots and marched toward them, interposing himself before the group.
“Who gave you permission to talk?” the man asked.
The Prīnceps knew he wasn’t expecting an answer.
Crafræl and his cousins, along with the rest of the rest of the children enrolling in the Akadamy, turned silently and headed toward the barracks.
“Where do you think you’re going? Drop your bags.” The same man spoke, this time to the whole body of boys.
“Drop them now!” he ordered.
The children hastily complied.
“Jump,” he instructed.
Nobody moved; the children looked at each other uncertainly.
The man pointed at himself. “I am Optiō Minor Vedec, when I tell you to jump, you jump. If you don’t jump high enough, I’ll break one of your arms. If you refuse to jump, I’ll do more than break an arm. Jump!” he instructed again.
The children jumped. Crafræl and his cousins jumped as high as they could. A Dum’tæn girl barely managed a hop. One of the other Optiōnēs minors who were standing on the outskirts of the crowd immediately descended on the hapless child and shattered her arm with a cudgel.
The girl cried out in pain and began to cry. The Optiō Minor, in the act of walking away, spun back around and bludgeoned the whimpering child into insensibility.
“There is no pain for a Tīrō! You are warriors, not babies!” she said before walking away.
Vedec clasped his hands behind his back and walked in front of the tīrōnēs, speaking to them, but he did not look up.
“You are tīrōnēs, new trainees. But you are turd nuggets, and giving you that title is more than you deserve. Over there is the Gauntlet. Every day you will run the Gauntlet. Don’t test us and refuse. Now run!” Vedec bellowed.
“I refuse,” said one of the boys. “My father is Senatōr Bailůn, and you can’t order me to do anything.”
Vedec’s expression shone with malice, and without changing expression, he yanked his cudgel free and beat the boy to death. After he had wiped the gore off on the dead boy’s clothing, he stepped over the body and looked into the eyes of the startled children.
“The Akadamy doesn’t care which caste you come from, or which house you belong too, or who your daddy is. The rest of you self-entitled Cyr’læns will learn your place. You will run the Gauntlet twice today.”
As if to demonstrate the seriousness of Vedec’s declaration, the other Optiō hands suddenly bristled with an assortment of cudgels, whips, and goads.
Of the new Cyr’lean Tīrōnēs, eight died from exhaustion and another was beaten to death by the instructors for failing to complete the second run of the obstacle course.
The next morning Crafræl and his cousins were confronted by the local truant officers. This self-appointed welcome committee consisted of the biggest—and dumbest—of the sixth year Tīrōnēs.
Crafræl stood before the latrine pit voiding his bladder; without warning, he was grabbed from behind.
“Hey guys, look who’s in the latrine,” their leader said, “it’s the Prīnceps.” She had the ugliest face Crafræl had ever seen.
With malicious glee, the truant officers singled out Crafræl and his family, pinning them against the walls. The other Tīrōnēs vanished with the alacrity of gazelles.
The leader poked and pinched Crafræl’s exposed sex. “This isn’t a pecker,” she declared, squeezing his genitals mercilessly, “it’s a peanut.” Crafræl bit down on his lips to stop himself from crying out.
Crafræl and his squad were pulled to the ground—even giant Het—and thoroughly trounced. With split lips and blackened eyes, as well as numerous abrasions, contusions, and bloody noses, they were initiated into the pecking order, as Akadamy freshmen.
This gang of thugs would continue to be a thorn in their collective sides for the next ten years. Out of necessity, H’Tor, Het, Olàn, N’rel and Crafræl formed their own five-man squad. They were simply referred to as “The Squad” because the Truant Officers decided they did not deserve a name. The other groups made it clear The Squad were not welcome to join them. Being associated with the Rēx Regum’s disfavoured second son marked the cousins as outcasts. Nayd was separated from them the second day. He was the heir, and was placed with the Cyr’læns for officer training. Though Crafræl did manage to make a number of friends and allies among the other Gērenian Tīrōnēs, it was too dangerous for them to include Crafræl in their ranks.
Crafræl lay in the dirt after his initiation, blood pooling beneath him. His mind drifted to the day he left for the Akadamy, and not for the last time he seriously considered desertion.
In a few short weeks, the Squad quickly earned a reputation under Crafræl’s leadership. They learned their lessons the hard way. But when they learned lessons, they never forgot them.
The first lesson they learned was that their instructors, Optiō Minors, were to be feared, not respected. They dispensed discipline and reprisal with total impunity. Crafræl took immediate note of the first Tīrōnes who was made an example of.
“Do I look like I want your respect, vermin!?” the instructor bellowed at one fawning Tīrōnes. The Optiō Minor yanked his cudgel free and bludgeoned the recruit to death before the platoon.
“Fear, not respect, will keep you alive, maggots. Now get back to your drills!”
The overseers of the new Tīrōnēs were tenth-year Optiō Minors, who were in their final year, preparing to become full ranked Optiōnēs and join the legiōnēs. They ruled the younger Tīrōnēs like drill sergeants and they were a force not to be taken lightly. These Optiō Minors had the authority to kill outright, and to punish any and all offences, even imagined ones, though they were mindful not to push the Tīrōnēs too far—not until they were broken and brainwashed into their roles.
These gods were not above reprisal. In their fifth month of training, one Optiō Minor did not report for duty. The entire body of Tīrōnēs was standing at attention in the mass humidity.
Crafræl’s maniple stood silently, but their Optiō Minor was conspicuously absent.
All activities stopped.
The corps of officers huddled together and held a whispered conference. Crafræl strained to hear what they were saying.
“Where the hells is Galen?” one asked.
“The rest of you, search the camp,” the senior officer ordered, “I’ll question the Tīrōs.”
The Optiō Minor walked up to the maniple and looked from face to face. Most of the boys stood stone-faced.
“Which of you knows where your Optiō is?” he demanded.
No one uttered so much as a peep.
The body was found floating in a latrine pit. Crafræl’s entire maniple was crucified. Only Crafræl’s royal blood kept him and his squad alive. All the first and second year Tīrōnēs were mercilessly flogged and received neither food nor water for the remainder of the week.
Crafræl was considered a strange child, often heard having a one-sided conversation with someone who was not there, giving rise to more reasons for his being shunned by his peers.
In fact, he was not speaking to himself. But as a child he did not understand the seriousness of the person who visited him, and that only he could see. He knew who she was, who she claimed to be. He had been raised to venerate the gods, and to fear them. Why Mytheras, goddess of war, chose to reveal herself to him, he never understood.
While the Prīnceps kneeled in the chapel, Mytheras stood at his side.
“Can’t you make them stop? Can you punish them for hurting me?” he asked.
“No. What they believe makes them stronger. When they hurt you and try to break you, this will make you strong. In the end it will be you who breaks them.”
“Why me,” Crafræl asked, not for the first time.
“Because I have chosen you, mortal Prīnceps of Atlåntis.”
“Why me and not my brother? He will rule one day, and I will always be a Munīfex.”
Mytheras was tall for a woman. She had a broad forehead, full, wide check bones, and piercing blue eyes. Her dirty-blonde hair was caught in two braids that hung down across her shoulders. She carried a spear in one hand and a buckler in the other. She bound her chest with a corset of many belts, and wore a studded leather skirt. Her feet were shod in hobnail boots.
“Fear no man Crafræl, you are mine, and I have destined you to my purpose.”
That night, Crafræl and his cousins confronted the members of Titan squad.
“You’re going down, Prīnceps!” Jarïuk said.
“You are the Titan’s leader, Jarïuk. You and your squad are not going to say anything,” Crafræl said. “They won’t kill us because of my father, but you will be dealt with if you turn us in.”
“Idle threats,” their leader declared. “We know it was you who killed the Optiō. If we expose you, the officers will lock you in the hot boxes.”
“Idle threats?” Crafræl smiled.
The Titan squad was a week in the infirmary; Crafræl was correct that the officers would not kill him, but the Prīnceps and his cousins limped away from the Optiō Minors’ intervention, reminding Crafræl that there was no pain for Munīfex.
The Squad became a daily name; given in complaint of excessive fighting and disturbing the established order. Disturbing or disrupting the order was what they did best. With regularity, they were brought up on charges from unprovoked attacks on individuals or on full maniples, to disturbing the peace and cheating at scrimmage ball. They had become goons themselves. The Prīnceps would not be bullied, trodden on, or pushed around; if he were hit, he hit back harder.
Within one year he no longer resembled his twin. Where Nayd was fair of face and body, Crafræl accumulated scars the way his brother received praise.
Ten years and three months later The Squad graduated, an incident happened that almost held them back an additional year.
The five of them lined up as usual at the mess. Not waiting their turn to get at the chow, they instead elbowed their way to the front of the line.
“Back of the line Het,” N’rel quipped, “the rest of us want to actually eat today!”
“You keep talking like that little man, and I’m gonna punch you in your big mouth,” was Het’s rejoinder. He emphasised his reply with a smack to the back of N’rel’s head.
“Ow! Hey, seriously lay off with the heavy hand, ya big lummox!” N’rel said, dodging the next blow.
Gr’San, a rival member in Javelin Squad, elbowed quite accidentally into H’Tor, who then stepped into Olàn, who then jounced into Crafræl’s back. As one, the five friends stopped and turned their heads in unison to see Gr’San staring at them in horror.
He was alone.
“Oh shit!” Gr’San began to say, and his face turned an unhealthy shade of white. He took a step back, shoving a stand of cutlery to the ground, before thrusting a hastily retreating Tīrō out of his way.
“Gods no, not me!” he squeaked.
The Squad pounced.
In a moment, H’Tor and Olàn had Gr’San by the arms and wrestled him to the floor while N’rel and Het grabbed his kicking feet. Crafræl reached over the commissary counter, grabbed a dish rag and stuffed it into Gr’San’s mouth, silencing his screams of protest.
The other Tīrōnēs within the commissary hall looked over, but did not utter a peep. Some watched, looking as though they wanted to do something but didn’t, some avoided eye contact, while others simply tried to pretend nothing was happening at all.
The cousins hefted their struggling captive bodily from the ground and carried him into the alley behind the commissary hall. Between the five of them, they had Gr’San beaten senseless in short order.
The Squad made their way to the end of the field before stepping out into the open, far from the site of their nefarious deed. They walked across the grass fully intending to enjoy what remained of the meal time when H’aldr and the rest of Javelin Squad rushed them from across the open field.
N’rel got one of them in a headlock and was attempting to turn his face inside out with his fist. Another leaped on Crafræl’s back and bore him to the ground.
The Prīnceps rolled his attacker over and planted a knee into the man’s groin. He was rewarded with a squawk of protest. Crafræl finished him with an elbow to the temple.
The Prīnceps stood, only to be confronted by a fist on his cheek. Crafræl spun widely but aimed himself to collide with the back of H’aldr.
H’aldr shrugged trying to dislodge Crafræl, but the Prīnceps held onto the other’s back to steady himself. H’Tor took the distraction and planted a haymaker on H’aldr’s right ear, spinning him off to the left. Crafræl turned to get back at the boy who had punched him but Het already had a meaty hand wrapped around the boy’s face and was pummelling him with his free hand.
In the eye of this storm, Crafræl turned full circle to see what other mayhem he could unleash.
H’aldr reeled backwards, and Crafræl spun the other around, grabbing his shoulders as he head-butted H’aldr on the bridge of the nose. A spray of blood arced from H’aldr as he flew backwards to sprawl loosely in the dirt. His eyes rolled up into his head and his limbs twitched. Javelin Squad was devastated. The last moving member of Javelin Squad was on his hands and knees trying without success to stand. As the Prīnceps moved past him, he punted the boy in the face, throwing him onto his back.
A few moments more and The Squad stood victorious, bleeding and blackened, yes, but they were the last men standing. Optiō Minors surrounded Crafræl and his cousins, and marched The Squad away to their punishment.
At their graduation, the officers of the high command addressed the graduates.
“Atlånteans! Graduates of the Akadamy,” The Maximus Imperātor began. “The Atlåntean people do not work and fight only for themselves, but for the generations not yet born. As graduates, you have now been entrusted to defend our way of life and the preservation of our culture. You are now obliged to carry out this solemn duty as defenders of Atlåntis. It is the humans who brought about the wrath of the gods! It is the humans who destroyed the bright and noble future that Atlåntis offered them! Offered freely, with honor. Not as lords over them, but with an outstretched hand of friendship and benevolence. But they spurned us! They killed the gods who made them, nurtured them and guided them.
“I am reminding you of these truths because this struggle to survive and to return to the light of peace and enlightenment is the burden of us all. Atlåntis does not fight just for itself, but for our entire world…”
Disgusted by the platitudes and glowing speeches given by officers with a chest full of ribbons, Crafræl felt loathing for the body of graduates who lapped up this mindless drivel. He wondered why he was not clouded in his thinking as the others were, clouded by indoctrination.
Prīnceps Nayd spoke glowingly of the bright and glorious future of Atlåntis. When it was Crafræl’s turn, he gave the briefest message, and quickly excused himself.
Later, in seclusion, he spoke to his Squad.
“I will not be the puppet of these evil men. I will not kill, unless I must kill. No more innocents will die at my hands.” He was resolved and determined not to give into the blackness he felt inside. A blackness he longed to embrace. His cousins and his friends joined him in his vow.