Here be Dragons

by Dice

He had his eyes fixed on the wall somewhere over my shoulder, a deep rage locked in behind their feigned detachment. His handsome features were severely marred by a bruised, swollen cheek and a split lip. They were so spirited these young things coming in from the western lakes, so filled with pluck and bluster and ready to take on the world and anyone who'd stand in their way.

But little good it did them. They came here, to the last fortress before The Endless Mountains, expecting to see the battles of legends and find the glory of heroes. What they found was the tedium of endless waiting and the restrictive discipline and routine that made the outpost serve its purpose - we watched. All hours of night or day the sentries watched the mountains and the skies for slightest hint of activity.

As it were the beasts were silent. It was winter and they rested; when spring thawed them out of their caves the sightings would increase, but thankfully these days they kept their distance, fearing our weapons like we had once feared their talons and poisonous fangs.

The young man before me shifted his feet, but kept a steady gaze ahead. Though he was tall and well-built I was hard pressed to bring myself to calling him a man. He made me feel as old as the mountains we guarded.

Yet I had been younger still than him when the beasts roamed freely far into our settlings and the battles waged by night and day. I had seen the blood and pain that came before legends and heard the cries of heroes dying in the throes of agony.

He had at most seen a shadow in the clouds and like the others talked of it for days with glowing eyes, being thrilled at the prospect of a closer encounter. Part of me understood their need to prove themselves and their boredom with the dreary life we led, but another part of me couldn't help but resent it, knowing what it was they longed for.

I thanked the gods above and below for every day that passed without a sighting and prayed with all my heart that I might die in my bed an old man with no glory to my name. This young buck however prayed for quite the opposite and the waiting wore him down, as it did all of them, these long, cold months.

The rage in his eyes was not for me, but it was altogether the reason he was here. I would have sent him on his way with a reprimand and a few days on reduced rations, that was usually enough to cool a hot head and give a youngster time to keep his attention on his hunger rather than on picking fights, but the look in his eyes burned and it told me he would walk out of here and head straight into the next quarrel.

He would ignite the entire fortress with those eyes and we could not breech our ranks, or fail in our duty, we stood alone against the fear, we were the guardians of the realm, the watchmen of the mountains.

I rose slowly and a there was a slight ripple in his composure, his eyes flitting to me and then back to the wall behind me. I rounded my table and stood in front of him. He was close to my own height, but I managed to look down at him all the same, years of practice making even giants shrink before me.

I gravely spoke the words he most dreaded to hear and his face paled even as he bowed his head, accepting his fate. He was not chosen to take on this duty for his cowardice and he would prove it to me; in the set of his jaw and the tension in his body I read easily his mind, he would prove that he was strong enough to brave the lash, should it so flay the skin off his back.

My steps were heavy against the stone floor as I walked the length of the room to take the fearsome weapon from its humble resting place on a narrow shelf on the wall behind the door. Its handle fit firmly in my hand with the familiarity of a tool often used and the five leather tails, so seemingly soft as they fell apart, swayed faintly before I gathered them in my hand. A rare weariness came over me as I turned back to the youngster.

I returned to face him, my gait steady and my face determined, yet my heart was not in it. Nevertheless, the necessity of action was not lost on me. His blood ran hot and there was defiance there that must be dealt with before he found himself in far worse peril than from a whipping.

For a moment I watched him tug at his shirt and then I stopped him, a flicker of hope lighting his eyes, but only briefly before I ordered him to remove his britches rather than his shirt. The implication did not elude him; I would not put him through an ordeal that he might flaunt in the barracks as having surpassed, but instead I would treat him as one would a rebellious boy.

He revealed that boy to me as his eyes searched out mine, wide, mouth opening as if to voice a protest before he caught himself and turned away, teeth gritting as he undid his britches and let them fall down about his boots.

His buttocks clenched and the taut muscles in his legs worked as he stood bent against the edge of the table. He flinched when I moved backwards, knowing what was coming. I raised my arm, turning slightly, the motion having become routine many a year past.

I let the lash fly and flow through. It struck the pale skin of his backside and his knees jerked, yet he remained stubbornly silent, but for a shallow gasp. I struck again and again he winced as the lash found its target. Slowly, flaming red welts rose across his backside and as I purposely persisted with the punishment his resolve began to waver and at the tenth sharp lash he reluctantly gave voice to his agony and his arms trembled with his weight as he pressed his fists harder against the table's surface.

Once I held up and assessed my work his voice was somewhat ragged, a double dozen I'd told him and I'd stood by my word. Sweat ran down his legs and his buttocks were tender and raw, but I'd taken care not to break the skin, an unnecessary cruelty that would only hinder him in his duties.

I allowed him a moment to collect himself before I sent him on his way with a resounding lecture burning in his ears as he went, face flushed red and hands still shaking. I returned the lash to its place and went to stand by the window; before me The Endless Mountains stretched out across the horizon and I watched in silence the unmoving terrain, wishing that it would forever remain thus.

An adamant knock on my door brought me back to the present and I straightened my clothes and drove a hand through my hair before brusquely giving my leave to enter.

~ Dice

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