Chronicles of the Winterguard
Part 3 – Oleg
I looked around at the landscape of my current . . . posting, and saw only flat and white. The roof of the prison provided a vantage point to view ten miles in every direction. I don’t think I have seen a tree in over a month. A small black dot on the horizon broke the stark whiteness of the desolate landscape. I waited in the bitter cold for the caravan to arrive with new prisoners. New prisoners meant new recruits. I smirked at my job title, Recruiter for the Queen. I reported to Queen Ayn and no one else. She assigned me to different prisons in the Khadoran Empire to find the right men for the right job in the military. And today I thought I would find at least one recruit for an especially difficult position. But it would take time. Good thing I have nothing but time.
I lit a cigarette and waited for the caravan to arrive. It shouldn’t be more than two more hours, and I liked the cold weather. Cold inflames the senses and makes a person feel alive. And I love that feeling, and I love being alone.
Twelve cigarettes and an hour and a half later the caravan stopped to unload the prisoners. I walked to the edge of the roof and watched the line of pathetic men file out of the back of the wagon. Each had chains around his wrists and ankles. They shuffled with heads down, indicating broken spirits. And it’s those broken spirits that allowed me to plant the seeds of patriotism, true patriotism of the highest level, unmatched, or true suicide, depending on how you looked at it. I couldn’t really tell the difference anymore.
At the end of the line I saw my next project. He had a full black beard and long stringy hair. The two-week trip in the back of a wagon didn’t provide many opportunities for personal hygiene. This prison didn’t provide those opportunities, either.
I threw my cigarette off the side of the roof and walked back to the ladder to climb down. At the bottom I met the jailor to find out about my project. He looked me up and down with a disapproving frown.
“Cell number nine, comrade,” he said. “But I don’t think he is what you want, though.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” I said. “I am the Queen’s Recruiter, not you.”
He snorted and turned away. I walked down the hallway past the doors of the cells until I reached the ninth door. The hard oak wood planks held together by wrought iron bars stared back at me. A key hung on a nail next to the door. I used it to unlock the door and I walked into the cell.
The man lay huddled in the corner, his back to me covered in a thin blanket full of holes. The cell stank of human filth and I saw a small pile of straw in the opposite corner from the man. I closed the door behind me. The man didn’t turn around to look at me.
“What is your name, comrade?” I said.
He still didn’t turn around or answer me.
“I am not here to hurt you; I just want to know your name.”
He turned his head slowly and glared at me.
“I am no better than animal, or so I have been told. I am prisoner 1138, court-martialed from the Winterguard for insubordination and striking an officer.”
I laughed out loud.
“Insubordination? Striking an officer? That’s putting it mildly. You murdered your sergeant in cold blood, during a battle, burying your axe in the back of his head. But enough about that for now, what is your name, comrade?”
“You seem to know a lot about me,” he said. “You already know my name.”
“OK, Pyotr,” I said. “You’re right. But I wanted you to tell me your name, because I don’t think you’re an animal. You are a man, and every man has a name, and I want you to say your name.”
“Why should I?” he said.
“To prove to me you are still a man. To prove to yourself you are still a man.”
He turned his head back to the corner and pulled the blanket up to cover himself completely.
“I am your friend, Pyotr,” I said. “You need to trust me.”
I walked out of the cell and locked the door behind me. As I made my way back to where the jailor resided I thought of Pyotr. I knew he would be tough, but I had tougher cases in the past. I should be home in a month.
“Well comrade,” the jailor said. “Was I right?”
“I told you, that is my job to determine. It is also my job to recruit this man. In order to do that I will need your two best torturers. It is in my power to requisition any and all resources needed for that task and it is your duty to obey my commands.”
He glared at me, and I knew he didn’t like me taking over his jail. But I also knew he wouldn’t disobey me, because it meant disobeying the Queen. He bowed his head in mock deference.
“Of course Comrade Oleg,” he said. “They will report to you shortly.”
He turned on his heel and left me alone. I lit another cigarette and waited. A few minutes later the jailor returned with two men standing well over six feet in height and weighing at least 250 pounds each. I gave them their orders.
“Torture the prisoner in cell number nine for half an hour. Do not break any bones or make him bleed. Blunt trauma only. No more than thirty minutes, do you understand?”
They both nodded but didn’t say anything. I left them to their work and walked back to my quarters. I laid down on my cot and shut my eyes. Sleep came easily, and I slept dreamless through the night.
The next day I woke and washed and ate a breakfast of cold, bland oatmeal. When I finished I went back to cell number nine, unlocked the door, and entered, shutting the door behind me.
“How are you today, Pyotr?” I said.
He didn’t answer.
“I hope you had a good sleep,” I said.
He turned towards me. I gasped in horror at his condition. His left eye had swollen shut and his nose had been shoved to the side, broken.
“Could you sleep like this?” he said.
I walked over to him and put my hands on his chin, turning his face to the side, examining his wounds.
“No, I could not,” I said. “I am sorry for this. These men are animals, not you.”
He pushed my hands away and sat up with his back against the wall.
“They are only giving me what I deserve,” he said. “I murdered a man, so now I am being punished for it. Or at least that is what they told me.”
I stood up and leaned against the wall, looking down at him.
“You don’t deserve to be beaten,” I said. “Especially like that.”
“Well, I don’t need your pity,” he said.
“I know, but I can give you what you need.”
“And what’s that?” he said.
He laughed hard from his belly.
“And how can you do that, comrade?”
“Well, you just have to trust me first of all,” I said. “I have the power to get you out of here, but you have to agree to the terms.”
“And what are the terms?” he said.
“We’ll get to those in a while. But first, tell me about your sergeant. Why did you kill him?”
He raised his face to the ceiling and shut his eyes. I waited for him to answer. He took long deep breaths while he formulated an answer.
“Because I am a coward,” he said.
“Murder doesn’t sound like the act of coward. It’s not easy to kill a man.”
“It is when he’s not looking at you,” he said. “But he’s not the first man I’ve ever killed.”
“Well then,” I said. “You are definitely not a coward. You can say that killing one man is almost an accident, but killing two is deliberate.”
He pondered that a moment, then spoke.
“The first man was definitely an accident; the second was definitely on purpose.”
“Then why do think you’re a coward?” I said.
He pondered another moment before answering.
“What are the terms that you mentioned about me getting out of here?”
I smiled at him with a warm, friendly smile that exuded trust.
“You must be truthful with me, first of all. I will see you later.”
I exited the cell, locked the door, and walked back to the jailor. When I reached his little table he stood up to greet me. The two torturers stayed seated and looked at me. I slapped the jailor hard on his cheek. He put his hand up to strike me back and bellowed as loud as I could.
He sat in shock and stared at me with his jaw wide open. I looked him directly in the eye and brought my face close to his.
“The next time I give you an order, you will follow it to the letter,” I said through clenched teeth. “These idiots beat him more than I instructed them to.”
He stammered a weak reply.
“That is not my fault, I . . . they . . . “
“Are your responsibility,” I said, finishing his sentence. “If I give them an order, it is your duty to make sure it is carried out properly. Failure on their part is failure on your part. If another one of my orders is not followed exactly all three of you will be my next recruits. Do you understand?”
He lowered his head in true deference.
“Yes comrade, I am sorry.”
“Good,” I said. “Now tonight you will not touch that man at all. You will go to his cell tonight and you will give him a bowl of porridge, bread, and fresh water. Before he can finish eating you will take the food from him and leave the cell. During this time you will not touch him and you will not speak to him. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes comrade,” he said.
“Good. Now do not fail me again.”
I left without waiting for a reply and made my way to my quarters. The excessive beating of Pyotr could turn into a small setback, but I knew I could turn it around to my advantage. I always did.
The next morning I returned to cell number nine and found Pyotr in the same position that I left him, huddled in the corner with the blanket over his head.
“Good morning Pyotr,” I said.
He turned towards me, his bottom lip quivering.
“Could you get me some food?” he said. “I’m so hungry.”
“You mean they didn’t feed you last night?” I said, feigning surprise.
“They did,” he said. “But they took the food away before I could finish eating. They laughed when they did it. A man deserves to eat, doesn’t he?”
“A man does,” I said. “And you are a man. I instructed them to not beat you and make sure you had a decent meal last night. I guess they couldn’t even do that. I will make sure they are properly reprimanded, trust me.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“You are welcome. But let us resume our earlier conversation. Are you ready to tell me the truth? How did it make you feel to kill a man?”
He looked at me with surprise.
“That’s an odd question,” he said.
“Not really,” I said. “Didn’t it give you a sense of power? A sense of freedom? Freedom from shackles that bound you to society?”
He looked at the floor.
“I suppose,” he said.
“You said you killed twice,” I said. “Obviously you enjoy killing, to do it twice.”
He whipped his head up to look at me. Tears filled his eyes, and I knew he would plead his case.
“The first one was an accident,” he said.
“I doubt that, comrade. Murder is never an accident. An accident is an accident, murder is on purpose.”
“But it wasn’t murder,” he said.
The tears streamed down his dirty cheeks, making clean white lines on his skin.
“Please, comrade, I am your friend, and you should never lie to your friends. Even if you were retreating in the face of certain danger, you disobeyed a direct order, and as such your sergeant lost his life instead of you. It was a concious effort to make sure you lived and somebody else took your place. It didn’t matter who it was, but you were going to make sure you lived that day.”
I let my logic sink in, the words hung in the air like a dark cloud. He dropped his head to his chest again and I knew believed me.
“Yes,” he said.
Even though he whispered his words seemed to boom out. He spoke again, louder.
“Yes. I didn’t want to die that day and I wasn’t going to die that day. In reality, I didn’t want Alexei to die; I wanted Miloslav to die. But I wanted to live.”
“Oh you lived,” I said. “And you got your wish with Miloslav later.”
He snapped at me.
“He deserved it. He treated me like a dog, so he deserved to die.”
“And that feeling of living during the battle with Cygnar was exhilarating, and the feeling of killing Miloslav was liberating.”
He looked at me, with more strength and determination in his eyes.
“Yes,” he said. “And I would do it again.”
“Would you kill me?” I said.
He didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“If I could, then yes.”
I turned towards the door and opened it. Before I left I turned back to him and spoke.
“Tomorrow I will tell you the terms to which you can gain your freedom from this place. If you accept them you will also have that freedom you felt when you killed Miloslav. . . forever.”
I closed the door behind me and locked it. I walked back to the jailor and gave him orders without slowing my stride.
“Stale bread and dirty water for dinner tonight.”
I went back to my quarters and opened the coffin sized chest that I brought with me on the month long journey to this forsaken land. Inside I studied the black velvet that lined it, inlaid with red embroidered runes. A feeling of dread washed over me and I closed the lid abruptly. It would be good to finish this job and get that abomination out of my room, my sight, and my life.
The next day I packed up my belongings for my journey home. When I finished I walked to where the jailor sat. He stood up at my approach, eager to assist me in any way.
“Today is my last day here, comrade,” I said. “Have your men take the large chest in my quarters to the prison wagon and put it in the cell furthest from the carriage. They are not to open it, do you understand?”
“Yes comrade,” he said and he scurried off to get the men.
I walked to cell number nine, for the last time, I knew, and entered. Pyotr paced the floor near the back wall. When I entered he stopped and took a step towards me.
“Can you really get me out of here?” he said. “I don’t think I can stay another day in this hellhole.”
“I can,” I said, “if you are ready to accept my terms.”
He walked to me and put his hands on my shoulders.
“I am,” he said. “I’ll do anything, just get me out here.”
I pushed his hands away and took a step back.
“All you have to do is want to be free like you were when you killed Alexei and Miloslav. If you can do that, then I will take you out of here.”
“Please,” he said. “I’ll do anything.”
He dropped to his knees and started to cry, begging me to let him go through his sobs. I pulled him to his feet and led him out of the cell, down the hall, and out into the bitter cold air. He didn’t fight me, or even raise his head to see where we walked. I eased him into the last cell of the prison wagon. He looked at the wooden chest, confused.
“Open it,” I said.
“What’s in it?” he said.
“Everything I have promised you, your freedom.”
He lifted the lid with caution. He reached in, pulled the velvet cloth out and let it drop to the floor. Then he brought out the sword that measured half as tall as a man. He hefted it with both hands and waved it back and forth in a slow, methodical fashion, testing the weight and the balance. He examined the blade, inlaid with designs of human heads that had various expressions of anguish on them. He rubbed the blade with one hand in a loving fashion. He put the tip of the blade on the floor, rested his hands on the top of the hilt, and looked at me, with no expression on his face. I entered the cell, approached him slowly, and shackled the manacle to his wrist that had its chain fastened to the hilt of the sword. He didn’t resist in any way, in fact he seemed relieved when the manacle snapped shut around his arm. I backed out of the cell, still looking at him, and shut the door, locking it, my duties accomplished to the Queen to find another recruit.