How does one become the Hand of Noxus, whose actions would eventually send him to the infamous Institute of War? Nearly two decades before that fateful day he displayed his loyalty to his chosen candidate by beheading Keiran Darkwill- Darius, was just a boy fighting to survive in a place that did not care for his childish dreams.[/CENTER]
[LIKE A ROCK, SINK]
An old Italian was inside to wait on customers.
As I was paying him I saw that he was sad.
"You are sad," I said. "What is troubling you?"
"Yes," he said, "I am sad." Then he added
in the same monotone, not looking at me:
"My son left for the front today and I'll never see him again."
"Don't say that!" I said. "Of course, you will!"
"No," he answered. "I'll never see him again."
[During the Second World War . . .] (Charles Reznikoff)
ONE MONTH AGO...
There was a boy counting rocks on the hill.
He was bent over in thought, his face all scrunched up. The rocks had sharp edges, as was the nature of volcanic rock, and would've cut a careless youth's hands to ribbons. But this boy was different. Still at the lip of adolescence, his hands were already calloused at the palm and at the thumb.
He handled the rocks easily. He would pick them up and run the tip of his finger against the jagged edges, testing the durability of his flesh against the cutting edge. If the stone made a mark against his skin, he would put it into a smaller pile. Failing that, the little thing was thrown over his shoulder, discarded.
He was not a scholar. If he was, the thickened skin would be on the third and first fingers. He was not a musician either, as his fingers were not long and elegant enough. They were about as squat and hardy as he was, which was to say that he lacked the dexterity and finesse required to play anything. He was thickly built for his age, at a time when the rest of his peers were still slowly filling out. He had unruly black hair that tended to stick out, a nose that was too sharp to be considered as a handsome feature at the age of twelve, a square jaw and a mouth seemingly set in a thin-lipped frown.
Compared to the rest of his features, however, his eyes had some light in them; holding in their depths some hint that he was not purely made of muscle and not completely stupid. A woodcutter's son didn't have much by the way of words, but he had the advantage of street-smarts, which in Noxus was about as valuable as intelligence itself- given the right place and the right time.
Certainly, counting rocks was not a very fruitful endeavor, nor was it very smart to do so, but it was to the boy. Once he had gathered a sizable pile of the sharpest rocks he could find, he gathered them all up in his worn-down shirt and went down the hill like a demented apple picker whose fruits lay inside an apron. He did not skip, because that was simply too silly to do so and he felt that there was no point in skipping when one would lose the rocks one had worked so hard to find.
He walked past rows of dead trees whose spindly fingers reached for the heavens, past the barren land where a few unlucky farmers were trying to make do. His sandal-clad feet hit the beaten road with flat thumps. Five hundred seconds brought him over the deadly moat that encircled the city-state and into one of the less prosperous wards. The massive granite skull that was the seat of Noxian High Command loomed over the gates, seemingly watching the boy and his strange burden.
He moved through the crowd easily. His patched-up clothes and drab colors blended in with everyone else's. It wasn't often that anyone with colorful clothing ran through the streets of Noxus, except maybe in the more expensive and prosperous Wards. It was not because everyone in Noxus had to wear dark colors, or had rules on dying cloth a shade of black. It was simply because color, or rather the creation of dye, was expensive in Noxus.
Unlike in Demacia, where coloring plants and their bright dyes were so easily taken from the surrounding areas, the aforementioned plants refused to grow in Noxus. It was as if the very land itself would not allow it. Whatever color the ancestors could manage to coax from the land was what the Noxians of today settled with: red was made from the corpses of insects raised on the trees outside; yellow was boiled from a root; blue, never as bright as Demacian blue, was created from the ground remnants of a shrub; boiled lichens created a deep green, and black was scraped from deep within the earth, and then mixed with pitch.
It was a sign of wealth then, to have so many colors on one's person, but red was always more prestigious for the simple reason that insect corpses were harder to gather and grind up than it was to simply mix ochre with pitch. The deeper the shade of red and the closer it was to the color of blood, the more the cloth and therefore the resulting clothing, was valued. It was for this same reason that redheads, particularly those from the house of Du Couteau, are often thought of as lucky or blessed within Noxus- but that is a story for another time.
The boy's leggy stride, which was quite awkward by his standards due to an incessant spring in his step that no amount of practice was going to remove, brought him up a ramp and through a gate into Emerald Ward, one of the more affluent areas in Noxus. Situated close to the famed Ivory Ward market and a stone's throw from the high-walled, private residences of several Noxian politicians, the Ward was ideal for those who sought to see the wealthy and influential members of High Command, but did not have enough money to know the aforementioned politicians personally. It was an excellent location for namedroppers and people who had links to the darker side of Noxus, but the boy didn't know that. Not yet at least.
Here, his plain clothing earned a couple of stares, but then again this was Emerald Ward. When one is surrounded by guardsmen who worked for particularly influential men, a boy and his odd burden are easily ignored. He squeezed himself past a gate, creeping through alleyway after alleyway until he came to a walled residence. Dried branches covered the cracked wall; the fence atop it was made of cast-iron.
The house itself was manned by scowling gargoyles and gaping faces that expelled water during the rains. The roof was made of deep purple slate, layered on top of each other like a pinecone. Candlelight emanated from the numerous glass windows, the latter also being a luxury in a place where most of the populace lived underground.
The boy stared up at the walls for a moment, perhaps considering that climbing was not an option where the fence could easily impale him. Instead, he skirted around the walls until he found what he was looking for: a postern gate, rusted and overwhelmed by black thorny bushes from years of disuse. With practiced ease, the burly teenager ducked under the branches, never making a sound where the thorns bit into his flesh. Bleeding in some places, he laid a hand on the gate and planted his feet on the ground, pulling at it with all his might.
Contrary to its appearance, the gate swung open easily. He had been here before, oiling the hinges and coaxing movement from metal long inert. So it was clear that he had plannedthis far at least. Still holding his strange burden, he pushed his bulk past the small opening- a marvel, really- and landed in a fertilizer pile. Now, other people would've been bothered by that fact, because aside from the disgusting, gut-wrenching smell, the pile had maggot-ridden fruits and earthworms crawling this way and that. It did not bother the boy. He merely pulled a worm from his hair and set it down back into the soft earth.
He spread the rocks on the pile and took some time packing the sharp rocks in balls of moist earth. Once he had gathered a sizable amount, he looked up at a particular window, lifted his hand and then threw the sharpest rock in his arsenal that wasn't yet incorporated into a fertilizer missile.
Now, under normal circumstances, glass would be able to resist the missile. It was good Noxian glass, made from the black sand near the swamplands. Tempered right, it could resist an arrow or a bullet. However, this family was not that wealthy, and when they had the house built, the windows and its glass were the least of their worries. So when it was faced with a thrown, sharp volcanic rock, the glass was about as durable as paper. Needless to say, it broke, and the shards scattered everywhere.
Shouts emerged from the house. The boy was still in the fertilizer pile, holding onto the first of his disgusting missiles. When a head emerged at the windowsill, the boy squinted up at him. It was not until he saw blonde hair and a blue ribbon that he took aim and let loose. The pressed ball hit the blonde teenager right on the forehead. Decaying matter splattered everywhere, the sharp rock cut deep. The blonde let out a scream, his hand clapped to his bleeding face.
Other people came to the window now, and the boy fired away. If the sharp rocks didn't do their work, the decaying earth did. It wasn't long before he ran out of missiles. By then, the screaming had reached a fever-pitch in the house. The corner of the boy's thin lip quirked upward in a rare smile. He turned his back and would've escaped through the gate again, but at that moment, fate was not with him.
A hand closed on his collar and pulled him out of the heap. Disoriented, the boy's face settled into a snarl the moment he realized who had pulled him out. The blonde boy, his face bloody and his clothes stinking as much as his was, was screaming at him.
"You!" The blonde boy's fist, laden with a large ruby-studded ring, connected with his nose. There was a sharp crack and a river of red. The boy's teeth slipped, and he almost bit into his own tongue from the force. Shaking his head like a dog and raising his hands, he did his best to protect his face and head as the blows rained down.
The boy was used to being hit. It was a thing of life for someone less certain of their position in society. He stiffened his body and endured. The blonde boy was not used to giving punches. Soon enough, he screamed when he broke his own wrist on the black-haired youth's jaw.
The black-haired boy was covered in decaying leaves and dirt. As for war wounds, his nose was broken. He could taste his own blood on his tongue. Slowly, he lowered his hands, surveying his opponent. The blonde boy was still screaming at him, his hand in a disturbing angle. Tears were gathering at the corners of his eyes.
The black-haired boy drew his fist back and smashed the other child's face in.
"Tell me you don't deserve that," He sneered. It would've been an imposing, deciding statement- if only his voice didn't crack. Puberty was a ***** when one was trying to make an example of someone. "Go on."
"**** off. You're a *****'s son, Darius." The blonde boy snapped. "And your ****ing brother's a *****." His voice was also cracking, so it was almost comedic to listen to the both of them. They were two children trying to be adults, in a world where adults and children were about as similar as a bird was to a fish.
Darius spat in the blonde boy's eye, eliciting a scream. "**** you." He snarled out as he kicked the other boy in the groin for good measure. The other boy shrieked at a pitch too high for his voice as Darius jabbed a finger in the kid's direction. "If I ****ing catch you talking **** about my family again, Adrian, I'm going to wipe the floor with your face and send your teeth to your own ****ing father."
"Or else what?" Adrian, the youngest son of Maynard de Croix, managed to squeeze out a smile even though his entire frame shook with the shock of having his jewels kicked. Blood, tears and saliva pooled at the edges of his mouth- he made a disturbing sight. "You don't know who or what the hell you're dealing with. You don't know anything. You're just stupid street trash that can talk big and hit hard- ****ing cannon fodder."
"I know exactly what I'm dealing with," Darius shot back- the very picture of childish bravado with his puffed out chest and bloody knuckles. "I'm dealing with a worthless fifth son who can't bite worth ****. Whatever you've got, I'll take it. Whatever **** you can dream up, I'll ****ing top it, so bring it on."
If Adrian could've turned a darker shade of puce from his rage, he would have. As it was, he let out a ferocious hiss as he launched himself at the heavier boy. In his free hand, he gripped the volcanic rock that Darius had thrown at his face.
Adrian moved quickly. He was too fast for Darius to anticipate where he had to be to avoid the blow. Suddenly, there was heat over his left eye, and then a rush of warmth over his cheeks. Darius staggered back and clapped a hand over his face, making a disgruntled noise. It was as if a mouse had just prodded a lion with a needle. An annoying blow, one that only delayed the inevitable beating for Adrian, but it was still a blow nonetheless.
Grinning victoriously, the white of his eyes and teeth disturbingly visible under the black dirt and blood that covered his face, Adrian gripped the bloody rock in his fist. "I almost feel sorry for you. I'll make you ****ing regret saying that to me- that ****ing family you're so proud of? That little piece-of-**** hole in the ground you call a home? Hold on to it as long as you can, because I'm going to-"
Deciding that the other boy had talked enough, Darius kicked the other child in the face. By now, there was a great noise outside the walls. The constables were at the gates. Giving the squirming form one last kick in the ribs, Darius turned tail and fled. His hand was still clapped over his bleeding brow as Adrian's howls of pain filled his ears.
Far off into the future, an older Darius would think on Adrian's words and curse his younger self for being too stupid to think, for not considering what he had just done. But that is not now.
Now was this: in a small culvert some distance away from the walled place where he beat Adrian de Croix's face in, Darius washed his face and gingerly probed at his broken nose. The bruises would heal, as they always did, but there was no way to hide the afternoon's latest acquisitions from his parents. At the very least, he didn't want to bother them with mending his nose, so Darius pulled out a wrapped up object from his pocket and set it on a nearby brick. It was a mirror- to be more precise, it was the shard of one.
It had come from a broken mirror he found a few weeks ago from a storm drain near Ivory Ward after a particularly nasty monsoon season. Despite having gone through hell, the mirror's faux gold frame was still beautiful to look at, and so he had given it to his mother so he could see her smile. He still kept the shard with him for two reasons: to look around corners with, and then to stab someone if they got on his bad side. He could've stabbed Adrian with the shard, but then again that would be cheating. The use of rocks was already a bit too cowardly for him, but then again, he had only planned to cause property damage and to stink up the other boy's bedroom with gobs of fertilizer.
Still, it was nice, Darius reflected, that I was able to pummel Adrian to bits. He had planned on delivering his message of 'leave my family alone' by defacing Adrian's front yard through the clever use of dog excrement and some lamp oil, but beating the hell out of the other boy in his own yard was fine too- even if he did get chewed out in the process.
He used the mirror shard now to squint at his reflection, and to take stock of his wounds. He had never been handsome- his father was best described as 'doughty' and his mother, as much as he loved her, was about as plain as the wallpaper on the walls in the noble houses she served in- so he never felt that his facial features was his best asset. Even with that preconception, the face that stared back at him was absolutely mortifying. The yellow and purple bruises on his cheeks and jaw were beginning to make themselves known. His lip had split and his nose was a smashed mess, but it was the great jagged slash over his brow, narrowly missing his eye, which made him reel back from his own reflection.
"Stupid." Darius muttered to himself as he soaked his shirt in some rainwater and dabbed at his face. It was an offense against hygiene, but he was made of sterner stuff. The twelve year old repeated the mantra over and over, wincing each and every time he pressed too hard. He ran his tongue over his teeth and the inside of his mouth and made dissatisfied noises under his breath when he tasted his own blood.
"Stupid," He repeated to himself, though this time the words came out slurred and heavy from his swollen lip. He looked up at the sky, at the rapidly sinking sun, and cursed under his breath. He was late. People were expecting him back home, and he still hadn't gotten the goat's cheese his mother had wanted him to get earlier that day.
Cursing to himself again, he wrapped up the shard in cloth and jammed it into his pocket. He stood up shakily and stumbled off to where he knew the night market would be starting in less than an hour. Regardless of his wounds, he had only one thing in his mind, the object that required his utmost attention as of the moment: goat's cheese.
[NO LIGHT IN THE DARK]
"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim near,
"You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?"
The builder lifted his old gray head;
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!"
The Bridge Builder (Will Allen Dromgoole)
THREE WEEKS LATER...
Compared to the very first boy described in this entire dreary monologue, this next boy probably would have been a musician if the universe had been kinder: his mother loved to listen to music and encouraged it in her offspring, but their family hardly had enough money to send them to school, let alone enroll the artistic child into a conservatory. Perhaps, if he had been born in Demacia or if High Command had placed as much emphasis on the arts as it did to the military, maybe he would've become a wonderful pianist. As it was, the younger boy had to make do with what he had.
And he did not have much. Where his brother was powerfully built, like a compact bear, Draven seemed to be made of limbs. His lankier frame, while infinitely more flexible than his brother's immovable mass, was less inclined to withstand punishment. His father's blood still ran true in his unruly hair, sharp beak nose and square jaw, but the rest of him took after his mother: with her dark brown hair, smaller body and long, elegant limbs. Three years his brother's junior, his mind was still fluttering in the skies- dreaming of a day when he would be going on adventures to slay Demacian dragons or on expeditions to find fool's gold. That is to say, he smiled and laughed more often than his brother, and found joy in the smaller things. Life was that simple for him.
There was a smile on his face now; as he watched his father and older brother go over the niceties of splitting logs in the smallish space that served as their family room. He was seated on one of four chairs next to the dining table. Close by, his mother was preparing dinner in the little alcove she called her kitchen, the smoke of the cooking fire daintily creeping up the wall and into a small ventilation shaft above her head. Really, it was about as wide as she could spread her elbows, but when one made barely enough each day to feed two growing boys and a husband besides, one learned to tolerate cramped kitchens.
There was a room off to the side where the four of them shared two beds and one dresser. The walls were made of bare rock, as their residence was carved from the very earth itself, and bore no decorations except for a single massive battle-axe that was mounted over their parent's bed. It was about as wide as Darius' forearm, as long as Draven's leg and probably weighed more than the two siblings combined. At some point in time, the weapon would have been sharp enough to split hairs, but there was a great break on the axe head from where the boys' father had hacked off a Demacian's armored limbs, and time had whittled away at the rest of the cutting edge until it was not good for anything- except maybe as a reminder of times long gone.
The notched battle-axe belonged to their father Hystaspes, veteran of a Rune War and a distinguished man who fought in numerous engagements, even making the ultimate sacrifice by giving his leg to secure a Noxian victory. In some circles, he could've been considered as handsome when he was younger, but now his face was too scarred to be considered anything but hideous. His black beard, as ragged and unkempt as the hair underneath the cloth skull cap he wore, hid the worst of his disfigurement. He was broad-shouldered, tightly packed with muscle and somewhat hunched over thanks to his previous military service, and walked lopsidedly due to his wooden leg. Despite his infirmity, he gave off a certain air- that of someone who didn't care for how other people perceived him, so long as other people did not directly offend him.
Compared to the aristocratic ladies of Noxus, their mother was not physically attractive, but she was not exceedingly ugly either. Athenais had close-set eyes, a small nose and pert lips. She was not too tall, nor was she too short. Like her youngest, she had long limbs and a lithe frame- even after two children and some twenty years of marriage. There are only a few words to properly define someone like her, with such a plain face and average height and build. If one did not specifically try to find her, one would forget her. The best way to properly describe Athenais, if one asked the boys, simply was 'mother'. She was the very embodiment of the word, if that made any sense at all.
There was the question of their mother's military service, of course. Conscription was the rule in the city-state, and even women were not an exception. There was a time when Darius had worked the courage to ask her what she had done before she had met their father. Unlike Hystaspes, who regaled his firstborn with battle stories and displayed every war wound for the child's benefit, she chose instead to smile down at her eldest, and to silence his question by patting his cheek with one hand and telling him to check on his new baby brother. Even after Draven had grown up a bit- moving from cloth diapers to hand-me-down britches-she had never said much about her service to the state. When the children had gotten too insistent, their father mentioned offhandedly that she had more guts than he ever did.
Needless to say, when one's parents are so keen on keeping something a secret, one should generally obey. The boys never asked again.
The two of them made an odd pair now: the woman who could have been beautiful and the man who would never be physically whole. It was oddly appropriate, considering what sort of people their two children would grow into. After time, a Rune War and two children had their way with them, somehow, Hystaspes and Athenais had managed and endured- and it was a relationship their offspring would envy to the end of their days.
His father and brother's discussion fading into unneeded noise, Draven's eyes wandered over to where the great black bearskin rug would've been on the floor if his parents had never sold it. Darius still wistfully talked about it at times, and the younger sibling had been regaled with many a tale of the times that his brother used to wrap himself in it like an Ionian spring roll. Needless to say, the rug had been his brother's favorite thing, one of many that they had to let go when he had been born.
For all its starkness now, the dwelling had been better decorated once. His father had his medals and commendations hanging on the walls, and his mother even had a painting or two of beautiful imaginary landscapes. When their mother had learned that she was pregnant again, however, she had coaxed her husband to part with his belongings. They had been breaking even with just the two of them, but a second child would put a strain on the family budget. When Draven was born on a wonderful spring morning, therefore, the luscious rug and the paintings were sold off.
One could only do so much before financial troubles began anew. When Draven was three, his father's medals were melted down and sold for scrap. The hard-earned commendations were bartered off to buy dried meat, soup base and lamp oil during a particularly nasty winter when the two siblings had a case of pneumonia. Darius had been working as an insect harvester and ochre miner since Draven's fifth birthday to augment their income, and had only recently moved to logging.
If one asked for his professional opinion, Hystaspes would say that more people in Noxus died from falling trees than from drowning in the moat. Contrary to popular belief, logging was not an easy occupation, as simple as the entire concept of cutting wood seemed. In order to become a successful woodcutter, there were countless things to remember: an escape path had to be planned out and created, lest the tree one wanted to topple fell instead on oneself; the notch that would direct the tree's fall had to be placed correctly, with thought given to the degree that the tree was leaning; bucking the tree, or cutting it up into smaller pieces, required much thought because cutting too much or too little would waste valuable wood.
"Here, you set it up like so," Hystaspes stated. He borrowed a log from where it had been stacked up with the rest of the firewood and had it stand up on the floor. The wood had been split already, and it was only a matter of imagination to pretend that the log was still whole. "If you bucked it right, you should be able to get it up on its' end like so. If it's got a knot in it, you don't split it. Sharpen your axe to make a clean break when you split. You follow?"
Darius bobbed his head. It had been three weeks since he had come into the dwelling grasping a paper bag filled with goat cheese. Draven had seen him done stranger entrances- the day his brother found a yordle skull and wore it on his fist as he entered was particularly memorable- but that day was etched in his memory, and for all the right reasons.
At the time, the boys' father had described his eldest son's face as 'looking like crow bait'. Draven had to agree- Darius' face had swollen so much that he could hardly eat anything for dinner that day, and then two days later his cuts became infected. Hystaspes ' firstborn then spent the worst part of the last two weeks in bed raving in a fever dream about how he was going to one day grow up to destroy everything and everyone with one stroke of his hand. Draven didn't believe him of course. It was simply the fever talking. After all, no one could be that powerful.
Now for the most part, the small cuts and bruises had healed to faint little lines and splotches on his flesh but there was still a bandage wrapped over Darius' eye for the scar, and there was still a faint pinkish and sweaty sheen to his cheeks- hinting to a fever that still lurked underneath his skin.
That scar, Draven thought, looks really cool now that the rest of Bro's face doesn't look like ground up meat.
"Green wood is harder to cut into, so forget it." Their father rumbled on as Darius gave nondescript nod after nod. "As for splitting- you have to throw a bit of your weight into it. Not from your arms though- you'll hurt yourself. Don't just throw yourself at it either- that's stupid. Stand with your legs apart a bit, raise the axe as far as you could go without missing, aim for the center and keep your arms straight like so. The trick is to have momentum, and if you get it right in one blow to avoid damaging the wood, good for you. If you don't get it right and you hack the poor thing to bits, it'll sell for less. You would've wasted more energy chopping away at it like a madman besides. So. Aim well, and don't hurt yourself. Pretty simple."
Utterly bored with the conversation, Draven idly swung his legs up and down, kicking at the nearest table leg in a fit of boredom. Thump, thump, thump- the noises went relatively unnoticed. He repeated the pattern six more times before Darius leveled a glare at him.
From the amount of annoyance in his good eye, Draven surmised that his older brother was peeved but not too annoyed. That was fine with him. Ever the jester who enjoyed being the center of attention, Draven conspiratorially reached forward and tapped on the thin wood desk that served as their study and dining table, a smile on his lips and a joke ready on his tongue if they wanted to talk to him.
As before, nobody noticed him except for his brother. Darius was giving him the Look now- the glower that usually accompanied a cuff to the head when his older brother was done with whatever it was he was doing. The death glare would've been super effective, if Dar's eye wasn't covered and if his hair had not been sticking in every single direction thanks to the bandage wrapped around his eye. Knocking out a nonsensical beat, it took maybe three minutes before their mother reached over and rapped Draven smartly over the knuckles with a ladle.
Sheepishly, the youngest son flashed his mother a gap-toothed smile and an innocent look. She exhaled softly and watched him with something like exasperation, a finger on her lips as she gestured to Darius and Hystaspes. Draven rolled his shoulders in a juvenile display of defiance, and then almost laughed when his mother stuck her tongue out at him.
The rare scene of idyllic life in Noxus was broken the moment someone rapped on their door. Interrupted from their in-depth logging talk, Hystaspes eyed the door as if his gaze would set it on fire. It was nine in the evening, and who would bother knocking on their door this late- even if they did live in Sub-Level 12? "Who is it?" He boomed.
"Maynard de Croix," a crisp voice said from the other side. Heavily accented, the words carried a threat that only Darius could perceive as of the moment. Not surprisingly, the eldest son stood up in alarm, sending the practice log flying to the side. He shook his head vehemently at his father, pleading with him silently to not answer the door, but Hystaspes was a man who was not easily swayed, and his firstborn's reaction had made him curious.
So the war veteran pushed himself off the floor with effort and walked to the doorway, his wooden leg rapping every odd step on the cold stone floor while Darius shook like a lamb that was being led to the slaughter. He was still staring at his father's back when his mother gave him a calming pat on the head and whispered out a request to move Draven to the bedroom for now.
Still terrified, but now reminded of his duty and unspoken pledge to never appear weak in front of his kid brother, Darius clamped down on his fear, bit his lip and scurried off to do his mother's bidding.
"Come on," Darius said as he pulled the nine year old from the chair. The lie did not pass easily from his tongue, but somehow, he managed. "Dad's got visitors."
"If it's his visitor, why are you acting weird?" Draven remarked flatly, in the typically shameless way of baby brothers to point out the uncomfortably obvious.
"Because, reasons!" Darius snapped back. He didn't want to tell Draven about the entire episode with Adrian de Croix. He much preferred to let the younger one keep the modified lie he had fed him three weeks earlier- that he had found a yordle spy in Emerald Ward and had beaten it up in a fair fight.
Draven remained totally unconvinced, but this was a side of his brother he had never seen before. His brother, if one asked Draven's very expert opinion, was panicking about something. But if this truly was a panicking Darius, something was going to happen that hadn't happened before.
In the future, when all was said and done, Draven would later do something rather drastic because his brother lied to him, but this Draven was still so young, curious and utterly trusting in the one person who loomed bigger in his life than both his parents combined. He let himself be herded in the bedroom, and then obediently sat on the bed with a promise on his mind to not go outside and to stay quiet, like a good little boy.
Darius rushed back into the living room. Maynard de Croix looked much like his son- lanky build, blonde hair, blue eyes, hawksbill nose and wide mouth. He was equally pampered- his nails were clean and polished, his hair was brushed and tied back with a red ribbon. His cravat, held together with a gold-framed ruby pendant, was absolutely flawless. He wore knee-high black boots over white linen trousers and a red waistcoat over a white silk shirt. Over the entire ensemble, he wore a black coat festooned with gold braid and polished brass buttons. In his gloved hands he held a gold-handled cane made of ebony. In comparison, Darius, his father and his mother were all wearing simple homespun clothes in varying shades of brown and grey.
To a casual observer then, Maynard was a god amongst heathens, and he treated them all as such. He was currently locked in an argument with Hystaspes, and Darius caught the last segment of conversation as he reentered the room.
"-My son is dead from an infected cut given to him by your spawn, and you expect me to let him live?" The aristocrat gestured at Darius with his cane. "Why are you so surprised? Are you that stupid of a man to not ask where your tramp of a son spends his time?"
Darius felt mildly offended at the words. It was not his fault that Adrian the weakling couldn't handle the fever that came with the cuts to his face, but- and he realized this very late, it was his fault that the cuts were there in the first place. So, in the three weeks since he had scuffled with the other boy, he had killed Adrian de Croix, even if it was through some bizarre accident of nature. Up until that point, he had never killed anyone before. He hadn't even gotten close to maiming anyone prior to that scuffle with Adrian de Croix. The first stirrings of fear came when he realized that Maynard de Croix was crying for his blood.
Compared to his eldest son, who had stiffened like a corpse inflicted with rigor mortis, Hystaspes was still hale and shaking his head calmly. The man had been a legend on the battlefield in his time for being eerily calm under pressure. Now, faced with evidence that his firstborn had accidentally killed another child, he let no expression escape his features other than that of composed attention.
"I didn't mean to imply that," The woodcutter said. "We cannot pay the wergild. Blood is the only thing we have left, and and I want you to take mine."
Almost Freljordish in its barbarity, blood debts were an archaic option in a city-state that prided itself on having rule of law- but compensation in the form of death had been the Noxian way for centuries. The practice of demanding monetary compensation, or wergild, had only emerged recently.
The aforementioned boy looked wildly at his father, wholesale panic flashing in his eyes. What was happening? Why was he volunteering himself? What about his mother? What about Draven? What about him? And then when he realized what his father was aiming to do, Darius' blood ran cold. He wanted to do something, anything at all to stop his parents from sealing their fate, but if his parents were so set on it, nothing in the world was going to bend to the desires of a remorseful twelve year old boy.
"Would you take me instead?" His father asked again, seemingly oblivious to his son's reactions.
"I volunteer as well," Athenais piped up. Darius' shocked stare transferred to his mother. Like his father, she was nothing but calm. Her face showed no distress, her eyes gave off no fear. Her body was eerily still. She took her place next to her husband, and even had the gall to smile at Maynard de Croix's furious face.
"How dare you, you ground-dwelling peasants? To give me a choice between a cripple and a cheap *****?" Maynard de Croix said with a sneer. "If blood is the only thing you can offer me- very well! Give me both your lives, or I will take one of your sons. I will not settle for less."
"Fine." Hystaspes retorted without hesitation. "When?" The war veteran continued, eyebrow cocked up and his voice still as dominant as it had ever been.
"Wha-" Maynard's mouth snapped open as his eyes widened. Evidently he hadn't expected such a candid response.
The whole conversation had shifted pace now: Hystaspes had taken Maynard on his own ground, daring the cocky bastard across him to say the words that would change Darius for the rest of his life.
An older Darius looked back at this moment as his father's crowning achievement and greatest gift: Hystaspes had sacrificed his leg for Noxus, and now he was sacrificing himself and his wife to see to it that the life he had helped to create would live on. In any universe, in any world, in any plane that obeyed the laws of space and time- there is no greater act a father could ever do for his own son. By that same token, there is also no greater point in his life that Darius vehemently wished things had gone differently.
As for the younger Darius, the Darius of now, there were no words to describe how he felt at the moment. If a picture could have been used instead to depict his mental turmoil, it would've been of black and red in streaks across blank canvas like blood from an arterial cut. He couldn't help but feel disgusted that Maynard had assumed Hystaspes would beg for mercy. He was proud that his father had not bent his head, but now he was deathly afraid for his parents, for his brother and for himself.
Fear paralyzes when left to fester. Darius couldn't speak, let alone move a finger. The fear of being alone in the world, of being left to fend for himself and his brother without the bulwark of safety his parents had forged with their sacrifices, of being swallowed by the world and spat out- all of it was more than his twelve-year old mind could bear. If he had been any more unstable, he would have burst out in hysterical laughter.
Maynard had been caught off guard by the veteran's frank response, but when he realized what he had within his reach, a smile had slid over his hawkish features. He looked quite like the predatory bird with the way he was staring at the three of them. Metaphorically readying his talons to snare his seemingly ignorant prey, the aristocrat's next query was disturbingly mundane, considering that he had just orphaned two boys with one statement: "How long would it take to get your affairs in order?"
"A month." Again, there was no hesitation in his father's words. In fact, if Darius had been paying more attention, if he had not been mentally screaming and holding back a tide of panic and guilt, it was almost as if his father was enjoying his mortifying tirade with the younger noble. There was a cocky light in his eyes and a little tone in his voice that hinted he relished what he was doing as of the moment. "There isn't a lot."
"Agreed. I will have the papers sent tomorrow morning, and I will see you at the block in a month." Maynard said with a smirk. For him, he had achieved victory. In a month's time, his youngest son's ghost would see justice done, and then all would be right in the world.
For Darius, he had just watched his father sacrifice himself and their mother for his sake. In a month's time, the state of Noxus, and by extension, that of Runeterra would be decided.
Something else was going to happen in a month as well, but it was taking its time to hit him fully. Darius had been deadened by fear. His thoughts plodded as slowly as a glacier crawled down the side of a mountain. The eventual realization of what was going to happen in a month hit him in the same way: a grinding, inexorable wave that washed over his body and left him frighteningly cold.
I'm going to be an orphan on my birth day, Darius thought distantly.
He became vaguely aware of the fact that Maynard had left, and that his father had somehow been replaced by a man whose craggy features could've borrowed from a statue in the past second. Gone was the cocky confidence, the bulwark of tranquility he had adopted in the face of an outsider. His mother was eyeing him with concern, her brow furrowed with worry. The edge of his vision were too faint for him to properly focus on his brother- who was sneaking a look at the rest of the room and was wondering why everyone was so pale and wretched.
Haggard sobs emerged from his chest. His jaw locked tight, his teeth ground against each other. He screwed his eyes shut in a last-ditch attempt to stop himself, and commanded his body not to shake, because men did not cry.
But then again, he wasn't a man. Not yet.
He was just twelve, and he had just watched his father and mother volunteer to kill themselves in order to ensure his survival. It was all because of something that he had done in a fit of childish spite. His parents only had a month to live, to impart what knowledge and property there was left to give. There was no other person to blame in this entire incident except for himself. Everything could've been avoided if he had simply turned his head. His mother and father would still be alive. The scar would not be on his face. His brother would still be happy. If only he had not lashed out at the other boy. If only he had not been so impulsive, if only-
His thoughts overwhelmed him. As much as he tried, twin trails of heat spilled from the corners of his eyes, rolled over his cheeks and coalesced down his neck.
[ANGELS DESERVE TO DIE (Part One)]
Pain and suffering. Give me the strength
to bear it, to enter those places where the
great animals are caged. And we can live
at peace by their side. A bride to the burden
that no god imposes but knows we have the means
to sustain its force unto the end of our days.
For that is what we are made for; for that
we are created. Until the dark hours are done.
The Acts of Youth (John Weiners)
[Warning! Descriptions of a violent nature!]
THREE DAYS BEFORE...
There are some philosophers who theorize that time is a dimension intrinsic to the universe, where events occur in sequence independent of other dimensions: there was the past, here is the present and that is the future. Others perceive time not as a dimension, but as a process of thought through which humans sequence events: there was a past because there is a present; there will be a future because there is a present. Time, therefore, is not measurable in a concrete sense. It is constantly moving, constantly changing. What now is will be then, in the same way that what now is will be.
If one's head is hurting, it would be easier to think of time as it is, and not as what white-haired men have defined it as, because those men have higher thought processes than an average human being. What is time to the average man then? The layman perceives time as something that is lost, as something that should be saved. Men rush through life because they fear to waste time, thoroughly unaware of the singular truth that, that no matter how much they try, time will always be wasted.
What is a month? On average, it is 4 weeks, 30 days, 730 hours, 43,829 minutes or 2,592,000 seconds. Out of those numbers, 210 minutes per week would be spent in the bathroom, resulting in 840 minutes lost on an unavoidable biological process. Therefore, there is no real way to save time, unless one is a sorcerer named Zilean, in which case one exists outside of time and therefore there is no real point in debating on what time is or why it is called time- simply because one can see what will be, what should be and what can be.
But- the entire point of the aforementioned paragraphs is not to ramble about time or about the practicality of men being strapped to giant clocks. The point is to explain that no matter how much men try to save time, to treasure it and to make the most of it, it will always be lost. Darius and Draven's parents only had one month left to live. No matter how many hours the two boys spent with them, in the end, the day of the execution drew near… and then there was no more time.
Executions in Noxus were not grand public events yet, because the person who would become the Glorious Executioner was still a little boy who didn't want his mother to die, but it was prominent in society enough to be considered as something to watch if one was interested, and if one knew who was going to be axed for the day. The House of de Croix was well-known within Noxus, as one of their ancestors had been a famed General who had come very close to bringing Demacia to its knees. In contrast, Darius and Draven's family was about as important as a fly within one's porridge. Many years later, the brothers' names would be on everyone's mind, but in this day and age, they were nothing. They did not even have a House name to call their own, although the brothers would be granted one in the future.
What were House names? It was a system that Imperiosus, the first Grand General of Noxus, created and encouraged; he had been of the opinion that Noxus should remember those who contributed to her prestige and forget those that did nothing but bring her down with their indolence. If one bore a House name, then, it meant that one's ancestor had done something worthy of remembrance in the annals of Noxian history.
To clarify: when a person is born in Demacia, one is given a name and then one is identified with the family one was born into. Garen was born into the Crownguard family, and so his name straightaway was Garen Crownguard. In Noxus, where fatality rates were significantly much higher and where accomplishments, influence and intelligence reached farther than the circumstances behind one's birth, to be given the Demacian equivalent of a surname and to be identified with a family, or a House, was a reward, and not a right. When they were children, Darius and Draven belonged to no House, and thus were not important to anyone except their own parents.
The headsman's platform had been set up in the middle of Emerald Ward. It was a massive, wooden thing made of newly cut pine; the old one had been covered with so many bloodstains that it would've been imprudent to execute people on it in a place like Emerald Ward. It could have been mistaken for a theatre stage, if it was not for the fact that there was a bloodstained wooden block and a wicker basket set up in the center.
As stated before, public executions were a cultural mainstay in Noxus. For a nation so fixated on death and prestige, there were certain customs and traditions involving a death that would be seen by all. For one, it was considered as dishonorable to be decapitated by guillotine, and therefore only prisoners were killed by it. A worse punishment, reserved for traitors and conspirators, was to be drawn and quartered while one was alive or burnt at the stake. Therefore, the gift of having a swift death was only granted to those with privilege, such as noblemen or individuals of some repute. When the time for their death came, they were given leeway to be executed by a sword, or by their own weapon.
Darius' crime had been to kill a man's youngest son. The approximate punishment, if the wergild had not been paid, was to torture him on a rack and then, after a long ceremonial monologue by Maynard on why Darius was a homicidal cur, to run him under the guillotine. However, there was no guillotine for today's execution, as much as Maynard had tried to have one set up. Hystaspes and Athenais still had some influence left, and they managed to secure for themselves a good death: the executioner of the day was none other than Urgot, the Headsman's Pride himself, and the weapon of choice was Hystaspes' own battle-axe, which had been taken off the wall and sharpened to a gleam especially for the occasion.
Hystaspes and his wife would die for his firstborn, but the war veteran had been of the opinion that there was no way in any existing hell he would be publically shamed by being executed with a guillotine. Only his treasured battle-axe would do, and only his oldest friend would be the one to perform the deed. The entire affair, which should have been somber and shameful if Maynard had gotten his way, gave off an oddly personal feel. Many in Runeterra would be mortified by the domesticity of it, but Noxus was a nation of warriors who considered it an honor to be beheaded by their friends.
Of course, it was easy to romanticize the entire affair by adding some element of dignity to it, but the fact of the matter remained that Darius and Draven were to be orphaned today. They had prepared as much as they could. Darius had taken to it more readily than his brother had, although it had taken some time, and coaxing from his father.
It had happened one afternoon, when there had only been two weeks left to their month of life. The old warrior had been sitting near the dining table, polishing his ancient battered armor. Having previously thought that his father had sold it off, Darius had been surprised to see the full set.
It was a fearsome ensemble and appeared to have been custom-made. The enormous spiked pauldrons, battered from years of service and subsequent neglect, were padded with cracked black leather inside. The breastplate had been a work of art in its day, with its sharp but elegant lines making the impression of coarse wolf fur. The vambraces, couters and rerebraces, large and thick enough to fully protect his father's brawny arms, bore the embossed lines in the same style, ending in what had been razor sharp spikes. Strangely enough, his father did not have any mailed gauntlets- perhaps he had preferred to use leather gloves instead to have a better grip on his axe. The spiked wolf motif continued throughout the rest of the pieces: from the tasset, which would have protected his father's hips, to the cuisse, poleyns, greaves and sabatons that would have encased his father's legs and feet in steel. It was rather awe-inspiring for Darius, but the closed helmet was what had burnt itself into his memory: it was the warped, demonic face of a snarling wolf.
"Dar, Could you get my axe from the wall?" Hystaspes had asked.
"Would you need it?" Still awed by the ancient armor, the question had run out of Darius' mouth before he even realized it. Of course his father wouldn't need his prized battle-axe where he was going. The executioner would probably just wrench it out of his father's twitching hands to sell for scrap once the grizzled man's head had rolled some distance away. When he imagined the entire scene, complete with the sound of the axe hitting flesh and the wet thump of a head rolling away, the imagery had made him want to vomit. Already green and sick to his stomach with what was to come; his pallid skin glistened with cold sweat.
Shamefaced, he had lowered his head as the guilt collapsed on top of his shoulders and made his lungs constrict. He wouldn't be weak. He wouldn't cry. It didn't help matters if he did. He had to think more, had to act less. The world was going to be colder and more difficult without his father to guide him through, without his mother to remind him to wait. It was just him and Draven now, and he had to be an example through the coming storm for someone who had never suffered in their entire life.
"Listen closely, boy." His father's voice then interrupted his musings. Darius had raised his head hesitantly.
What Hystaspes would say in the following hours would stay with Darius for the rest of his life.
"I didn't have long on this earth to teach you everything there was to living," The older man left his armor on the table and pulled his own axe from the wall mounting, drumming his fingers on the haft as he went on. "I would've liked to stay longer to see you go into the military like me, maybe marry a nice girl, have children of your own…"
His father made a strange noise- something between a sigh and a choke. Dark thoughts went through Darius' head again- maybe his father thought his own life was being wasted as well- but he forced himself to listen to the older man, to tune out the demented whispers that lurked at the edges of his mind.
"Hell, there are a lot of things that I still wanted to share with you. I've got a lot of anecdotes about making bad decisions- never go out drinking with Sion and Urgot for example- but I'm rambling again. Essentially, what's done has been done. There's just no way around it."
Somehow, Darius managed to mumble out an affirmative. He agreed, but his heart wasn't into anything at the moment. All he wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been before, but as his father had said, what had been done had been done. He could mope all he wanted, but there wouldn't be any point to it. He couldn't afford to feel sorry for himself or for his brother anymore.
"Don't disrespect me, Dar." His father's voice rumbled off to his side. "Look at me."
Unsure of what to do, and wondering half-heartedly if his father was going to start beating him for indulging in his self-pity, Darius mustered what mental and emotional strength he had left. He lifted his head from where he had been staring morosely at the floor and looked straight into his father's eyes.
His father's eyes were bright and full of life underneath his marred flesh and bushy beard. It was almost as if the older man was just going to work for the day, but that was an idle fantasy. The reality was that his parents were going to their deaths in order to repay the blood debt he had accidentally created. The only other alternative was to present himself as wergild, but that was not an option for Hystaspes and Athenais.
"You think it's tough now," His father put the axe on the table, his gaze still locked onto his son's. "But maybe it'll get easier. Maybe it'll get even harder. We just don't know. Life is strange that way. Just remember, Dar, as you get older everything starts to pile up. You've got all those things you did when you were younger, all the mistakes you never should've done if you only did so and so- we all have things like that, but I don't want you to dwell on them. You could lose a lot of time, just thinking about what could have been, and not focus on what is. Do you understand?"
"No sir." Darius replied wretchedly. Even though he did understand somewhat, he didn't want their conversation to end. It was true that he had spent the last month of his parents' lives running his mind over his long-term plans as they readied for their execution, and it was true that his thoughts had turned more than once to how in the world he was going to fend for himself and his baby brother. Where was he going to get more money? How was he going to keep Draven in school? Was there a way to avoid destroying his baby brother's dreams? Should Draven work nights too? Was the military really the best option? If only he hadn't been stupid enough to-
"When a man makes a decision, he must learn to live with what he has done." Hystaspes tapped his finger on his firstborn's forehead once for each and every word he had said, as if sensing that his son was about to start thinking about alternate possibilities again. "That's the only thing that matters. Keep it in your heart and never forget it. You have to understand that what you did to the de Croix boy demanded an appropriate response from the law- and it's written in stone, son. It doesn't consider how old you are or how much you know of it. Breaking the law is breaking the law, and we must learn to live with our failures in the same way that we parade our successes."
Darius didn't reply. He didn't know what he could've said. Unable to return the man's fearless gaze, the twelve year old's eyes went back to the stone floor. His father crossed his arms over his chest, standing with his feet apart and towering over him.
"You're afraid." Hystaspes stated flatly.
Darius nodded. There was no point in lying, His father read him perfectly.
His father reached down and pulled his head up. "Of what?"
Darius's eyes swept over to the bedroom, where he knew Draven was sleeping. His dear baby brother, his mother's favorite- who did his hardest to make everyone laugh, who made himself the jester, who didn't know how the world worked, who trusted everyone-
"The future?" Hystaspes guessed. "Being alone with your brother?"
The twelve year old nodded. He was expecting his father to tell him that he was right, because it was a big deal, but he blinked in surprise when Hystaspes gave a disgruntled snort.
"There is nothing to be afraid about," He said candidly. "It's the future. It will happen, even if you don't want it to happen, even if you're afraid of something that's going to happen."
Darius swallowed nervously.
There was only one way for his lesson to stick. Fed up with his son's attitude, Hystaspes slapped him on the cheek. It was strong enough to sting and to wake him up, but never enough to leave a massive handprint on his firstborn's face. "You can't feel sorry for yourself all the time, and you can't run from things that frighten you. That is cowardice. Never forget that cowardice cripples." The veteran growled out. "Time, and the rest of the world, won't wait for you to get over your fear. If you show that you're afraid, if you're unsure or if you're torn in indecision, the world will punish you for it. After all, life is not kind. It does not care. It will do everything it can to kill you, and Noxus is at the center of all of that. Take my words to heart, Dar: what you do not kill will slaughter you; what you do not bare your teeth at will rise against you; what you do not take it by the throat will trample you under its heel."
Rubbing his cheek ruefully, Darius realized what his father was trying to do. Hystaspes had never been particularly eloquent, even at home. For him to be talking so much, it meant that his father was in the mood to do so, and the older man would probably never speak to him in this manner again. Now then was the time to find answers.
"How you can just sit there and… polish your armor and act as if it's nothing?" Darius ventured slowly, bravely trying to ask what had always been on his mind for the past few weeks. "And the day before that, you were talking with Mother on how you were going to get your friend to act as executioner. How do you… deal with something like that?"
His father gave a full-bellied laugh, hinting at the gaming mood he had and at the gravity of the situation for him to be so candid and talkative. "Dar, everyone is going to die at some point. You've seen it happen in the streets. You've been watching the bodies float in the moat since you were about as high as my knee. You can't expect your parents to be invincible."
Darius bit his lip. He didn't, but then again children had their dreams.
"We're all going to die in the end; it's how you die that ultimately matters." Hystaspes drummed his fingers on the tabletop in thought. Darius was about to ask what he was considering, when the older man decided to continue talking. "But what is a good death? How will you know if your death was worthwhile? Is it better to die from illness or to die from old age?" The old warrior made a disgusted noise as he waved his cleaning cloth back and forth. "Neither will do. To die from illness is to admit weakness, and to die from old age is to settle into sloth… but dying from the sword, wielded by your oldest friend?"
His father's eyes gleamed in the firelight, the beginnings of a cocky smile tugging at his lip. "Aye. That is a good death."
It is normally difficult for well-adjusted children to imagine a world that hates them with every fiber of its being, but that is what Hystaspes had said. As if sensing that he was becoming too dark for his son, he changed his tone.
"But the world is not entirely empty." Hystaspes mused out loud. "There are those like my comrades-in-arms, who took blows for me in the heat of battle more than once. The men who served in my unit still acknowledge me as their commander. There are others still who never doubted me. So there is brotherhood, loyalty and trust left in the world, but those examples are too common, too necessary in the military to go without…" He tapped his fingers on the table again before he found what he was looking for.
"Ah, love is a strong word, and it might be confusing for you because you're so young, but I would say that there is still some love in the world. Your mother and I did our best to teach you of it. What love we did not give to each other, we did our best to give you- but make no mistake, Dar. We gave you what was left. Time, and what we did with it, took the rest away."
It had not been as easy to temper the youngest child. Draven had never known hardship. Everything the family had done had been to ensure that his life would remain relatively untouched by grief. But now, there was no real way to tell the youngest child that it was time for him to grow up. The little lie Darius had given his brother had been debunked in front of him, but they hadn't seen fit to tell him the entire truth. Draven only knew this: that their family had attracted the ire of House de Croix, and that his parents now had to pay the blood price. One can say that 'one should not lie'. After all, lying to a loved one is not easy. It takes a certain thickness of face to do so, and a level of believability in one's words.
At the same time, however, telling Draven the truth would have shattered him. His entire family had done their utmost best to ensure that his lot in life was almost always better than theirs, and for him to lose his parents to the simple fact that Darius could not control his own temper would have destroyed his relationship with his older brother completely. Eventually of course, the truth would out, but that is for later.
Willingly destroying his relationship with his younger brother was far from Darius' mind at the moment. Dressed in his best clothes, the eldest son was standing on the platform and watching the gathering crowd with a stony face. His father, clad in his old battle armor, stood to his right. Cradling his fearsome demon-faced helm under his arm, Hystaspes spoke with Urgot and Sion, his old military commander, in easy tones. The spike-laden metal had been through a rough time while it had been in storage, and still had the bangs and dents from the last time it had seen service. The cape he wore was full of holes and was no longer as red as it had been. Despite it all, the armor shone bright as if it was brand new.
Darius had felt his stomach turn when he first saw the two men who were his father's friends. Urgot was hobbling sedately on wooden legs and sporting scythe-blades for hands. He seemed to be made out of other people's body parts, as he had more stitches and staples on his discolored and sickly skin than anything Darius had ever seen. Sion was similarly disfigured, but he had not suffered any loss of limbs yet.
His mother, who had chosen to wear a simple white dress for the occasion, was standing off to the side. Draven was desperately clutching at her skirts, tears welling up in his eyes and threatening to fall down his cheeks. Darius would have been there as well, if Hystaspes had not talked to him all those weeks ago, but he wouldn't have been crying. He didn't have any more tears to give.
Still, he was not entirely emotionless, and it was with a heart that was steadily breaking underneath a forced mask that Darius listened in to their conversation.
"I don't want you to go," Draven mumbled through his tears. "Why do you have to go?"
"Not all decisions are ours to make, dear one," Athenais said soothingly as she lifted her son's face to meet hers. Ignoring the trail of runny mucus and tears, she rubbed noses with him fondly and pressed her lips to his forehead. "But what one can do towards an irrevocable fate is to face it with a smile."
[ANGELS DESERVE TO DIE (Part Two)][/CENTER]
[Warning! Descriptions of a violent nature!]
Hystaspes, perhaps noticing that Draven was showing weakness in front of a gathering crowd, gestured to Darius to keep the crying boy away from prying eyes. Darius nodded his head and wordlessly picked his brother up.
Draven, it seemed, was catching on. His sobs gradually stopped as Darius carried him down the stairs and behind the headsman's platform, but the hiccups that followed still wracked his smaller frame and made it seem like he was still crying.
"Are you going to put me away again?" Draven asked his brother sadly.
"I'm just waiting for you to stop crying." Darius replied as he set his brother down on the wooden steps.
"I'm not crying." Draven reached forward and pulled on Darius' best shirt, using that to wipe his face and blow his nose. "You're mean."
Resigned to the fact that he probably was not going to be able to salvage his shirt, Darius patted his brother's back and retorted. "The world is mean."
Draven shook his head adamantly. "Mama said the world tries to be fair."
Darius thought about what his brother had said long and hard. He loved his mother, with all of his heart, and he knew that she did as well. She would not be dying for him if she didn't. Still, Draven was her favorite, and love might have clouded her words. But, Darius realized, mother is right. For now.
"If this is fairness, then we must have done something very wrong." He said softly.
Because he did do something wrong.
And the world was simply being fair.
By the time the execution was scheduled to commence, there was a mob gathering at the platform. Darius had done his best to clean his brother's face and sent him off to Hystaspes. It was his turn to be with his mother now, but it seemed that he didn't have her full attention.
She was staring off at a distant house. It looked like all the other houses next to it- high walls, scowling gargoyle faces, purple slate roof and candlelit windows. There was a balcony on that particular house, and there was a red-haired man clad in a simple white shirt and black trousers standing in it, a child with the same fiery locks not older than the age of two cradled in his hands.
When he looked at his mother, Darius was shocked to find that there was a strange happiness in her eyes. He stared at her in askance, wondering if her sanity finally gave way in the face of her imminent demise. She saw her child gaping at her out of the corner of her eye and laughed, cocking her head slightly towards the red-haired man at his balcony.
"It is Commander du Couteau." His mother said to him.
Darius blinked. He glanced back at the man, even as his mother was speaking under her breath.
"You do me a great honor, my lord. It is more than a lowly agent could ever ask for." Though Darius was quite certain his mother's voice was too soft to even be heard beyond the headsman's platform, he could have sworn he saw the red-haired man smile- if it could have been called a smile. An almost imperceptible light ran through his eyes when she had spoken, though his facial expression never changed.
It took maybe three minutes for him to fully realize what had happened, and by then Darius had stiffened in shock at the acknowledgement. She had never said anything of her military service, but her words had made him realize what exactly it was. Commander du Couteau, she had said. But he had not come down to the platform to see her personally. He had stayed his distance, and they had communicated in their own secret way. He hadn't expected his mother to be a spy, but then again- this was Noxus, and the more he thought of it, the more it had made sense. She was not beautiful enough to be of note, nor was she ugly enough to be remembered. A person like her, whose plainness made her easy to forget, had made her into the very best infiltrator a man in the Intelligence Corps could ever ask for.
And the man, du Couteau, had been her superior.
In the future, Darius would find himself face to face with the man's daughter, and he would remember just who it was he saw in the balcony that day. He would keep the laughter bubbling silently in his chest, his eyes alight with a private joke.
The teenager's thoughts of his mother's secretive past were interrupted when Urgot shambled over to them. He had swapped out the blade implements on his hands for clamps- how else was he going to hold on to his father's battle-axe? "Maynard de Croix is here. It is time," Urgot growled out. With an awkward little twist of his waist that made it seem as if his stitches were going to burst due to his movements, he gestured towards the blood-stained block waiting for her.
His mother bent her head and enveloped him in a final embrace. Darius buried himself in her arms and tried to burn every inch of her into his memory.
"My darling boy, my light," She kissed him on the forehead as well. "I will tell what gods there are to smile down on you and your brother."
If he had been Draven, he would've clutched at her until the very end, but he was not.
The storm was still coming, and he needed to weather it for himself and for his brother.
So he let her go.
There was a very long speech by Maynard de Croix on how Darius had assaulted his son, but it mattered very little to Draven. Standing off to the side with his older brother, he looked quite small. His eyes were red and puffy from crying compared to Darius' calm gaze, and his sides shook with unwanted hiccups every now and then. As for his brother, Darius looked as if he had aged ninety years since the day he had come back with a paper bag full of goat cheese. The scar on his brow had only recently healed, so it was still visible and oddly awe-inspiring. There was also a small white hair on the top of his brother's head, and Draven made a mental note to tease him about it later.
Draven liked the fact there were so many people who were staring at him, drinking in his every move even if all he did was shift his weight from one foot to the other- even a black crow perched on top of a tree that seemed to take an unusual interest in the proceedings! But then again, this was his parents' execution, and he knew he had to feel sad.
But he wasn't- not as much as he should have. Not as much as he did before, when he first learned of the terrible price they had to pay. Maybe it was because he had spent a long month listening to his parents telling him what was going to happen. Maybe it was because his brother was replaced by some otherworldly being from the Void because the older boy wasn't even flinching or anything when Urgot sharpened their father's battle-axe on a stone wheel.
Draven had flinched. It had been a nasty noise and it hurt his ears.
His mother was on the chopping block, and her head was angled towards him. She was smiling and then mouthed the word 'now'. Draven knew what to do. He had practiced so many times. He closed his eyes, as mother had instructed all those weeks ago, and counted to three. That was what his mother had said- she had said beheadings didn't last long.
There was a sound- like a butcher's knife severing pork limbs- and then a thumping noise like watermelons rolling into a wicker basket, and then an eerie silence.
Draven opened his eyes again as his brother stepped forward. He felt a stab of envy as the crowd shifted their eyes, and he didn't quite understand why.
"For the life of Adrian de Croix, Athenais paid," Darius said ceremonially to the crowd. He still managed to sound rather confident, given that his voice was still cracking. Slowly, almost reverently, Darius took the basket containing their mother's head.
Draven couldn't resist peeking. Briefly he stared down at the thing in his brother's hands, drinking in his mother's face. She was still wearing a serene smile, but there were faint tears at the edges of her eyes.
Something broke in him then, he wasn't sure what. Finally noticing what his brother was doing, Darius cocked his head and quickly covered her with a purple cloth as he transferred her to a nearby casket- to be burned on a funeral pyre.
"For the other half, I offer Hystaspes." Darius bellowed as he turned back to the crowd, putting the bloody wicker basket back where it had been. Their mother's body was nowhere to be seen.
His father was on the block now, his full battle regalia clanking on the wooden platform. Urgot raised his axe, and Draven closed his eyes again.
He didn't see the blade when it got stuck halfway through his father's neck, but he did feel hot fluid splatter onto his face. Flinching away as the smell of blood filled his nose, Draven felt his brother lay a hand on his shoulder- the older boy's grip was tight enough that it hurt.
There was a gurgling noise somewhere in front of him, and then a groan. Thinking that the executioner was done and wanting to see his father no matter what state he was in, Draven mustered what strength there was left in him to open his eyes, but Darius' hand quickly clapped over his face and enveloped him in darkness again. There was blood on his brother's hand and it was hotter than his skin.
"Not yet," He heard his older brother say.
"What's happening, Bro?" Draven complained despite himself. "Why is it taking so long?"
"Dad was a warrior," Darius replied. "And warriors don't go down easily, even if they let their enemy walk all over them. You're just going to have to wait."
Draven made a frustrated noise under his breath- when did Dar start to be so stuffy anyway- and shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. Deprived of seeing the execution once again, he chose instead to listen hungrily to the sounds of the execution around him.
The noises that followed were familiar now. The hand over his eyes was pulled away, bringing the heat of his mother's lifeblood with it.
He snapped his eyes open, blinking furiously against the stickiness of his mother's drying blood. His eyes adjusted rapidly, but the blurry shapes didn't coalesce into anything solid until after Darius had already begun the ceremonial motions of receiving his father's head.
His father had been a hairy man with a great big beard- so all Draven could see was a tangle of black and bright red before Darius placed the head inside the casket as well.
"The price for my son's life has been paid," Maynard de Croix took the platform now. He gazed imperiously into the crowd. "Let it be a lesson to all- that blood will be answered with blood."
The onlookers watched as the solemn thirteen year old give a ceremonial bow towards the noble, regardless of the slippery blood that coated his palms. Unlike his younger brother, who had cried earlier and flinched at the grinding axe, the older boy had held his parents' heads in his hands, and he had never wavered.
He had blood like ice, an observer would later write in his journal, and a face of steel. Whoever that teenager was, he would become truly great.
[ALL THAT YOU'VE DONE]
We stand now in the place and limit of time
Where hardest knowledge is turning into dream,
And nightmares still contained in sleeping dark
Seem on the point of bringing into day
The sweating panic that starts the sleeper up.
One or another nightmare may come true,
And what to do then? What in the world to do?
Magnitude (Howard Nemerov)
ONE YEAR LATER...
A man was addressing his workers in a forest.
It would be generous to describe the area they were in as a ‘forest’- a fire had raged through two days earlier. What had been a bustling insect farm had turned into an eerie, charred hell. Burnt tree limbs jutted vertically from the grey earth, buried in ash a foot deep, the metallic taste of the incoming spring rains heavy in the air. Once, there had been a billion insects alive on the trees, their bodies bulbous with the valuable pigment that would have made a very rich red. Now their bodies intermingled with the earth, too numerous to be properly distinguished from dirt and ash.
The man’s workers were equally battered. Mostly teenagers whose faces and hands were streaked with dust and sweat that mixed into an unhealthy paste on their skin, their developing frames were plagued with constant hunger and exhaustion. Most of them had not slept in two days as their masters had wanted the fire quelled as soon as possible. The effort to save what remained of the farm showed in the dull light in the youths’ eyes, in the grumbling of their stomachs and in the slack mouths hanging open, dry and airy with hunger and thirst.
“The fire took a quarter of the farm, resulting in a net loss of oh, fifty something gold. It’s quite tragic-” The man was saying. With a rapidly receding hairline, he had evidently worked hard to save what few wisps of hair he had left. He looked to be more at home counting gold coins than addressing a drained workforce- his clothes were relatively new and neatly pressed, and his hands were more used to the toil of holding a quill pen and a ledger than they were picking through detritus and sharp wood for the rotund bodies of squirming insects. “You could’ve worked a bit harder to save that unlucky quarter… But ah, that’s getting into places we don’t need to be."
That none of them asked if they were going to be paid more for two days of dangerous work that had sapped at their energy and robbed them of sleep did not seem to bother them. Obviously, with the lack of sleep and food taking its toll, most of them were too drained to even consider what the other man had just said. The few that did understand what had just occurred made a hollow groan of complaint that seemed more appropriate for a reanimated corpse.
A grubby hand darted into the air. The man peered at the bearer and then glanced down at the little ledger in his hand. There was a hand-drawn portrait there, showing a strong-jawed young man with black hair that contained a single streak of grey, a sharp nose, prominent cheekbones and a jagged scar that crossed over his brow near his left eye. “Yes… Darius, was it?”
The youth in front of him gave a nod of assent. There was still a trace of the young man in the portrait, if one had cared to give him a good scrubbing down. A year since his parents’ execution, his voice was starting to settle into the gravelly tone that everyone in Runeterra would know and fear. The growth spurt that resulted in the creation of massive giants from stunted saplings was already making him a full head taller than his peers- and he still had a good six years left to grow. He was still as stocky as ever, but when one is poor, one could not always eat what was best.
The clerk made a thoughtful noise. He had never seen the youth personally before the fire. Now, seeing Darius had cemented the stories he had already heard about him. It was a tale that defied convention, and it would grow more unbelievable as the years went by.
The story went as such; that the moment the fire had broken out, the foremen had decided to pull out all the workers and to leave the farm to the flames, relying on the aqueducts to provide a barrier and to prevent the fire from spreading to other parts of Noxus. It was a solid plan. The clerk had seen the request, had watched the glowing yellow-orange aura in the horizon spread like a second sun and had approved it without a second thought. Barely ten minutes later, a runner had come to him screaming about mutiny in the grounds: one of the workers had knocked out the foreman for his team, and had organized his ragtag band of youths into teams of four. It was a perfect time to rebel- after all; everyone’s attention was on the fire.
The clerk had wondered then if he had to call in the city guard, and he had asked the messenger if he should, but then he was interrupted when another boy came into the room. This boy was covered in soot and sweat. He was plainly exhausted and winded from having run such a long way, but there was a light in his eyes that wouldn’t be stamped out.
“It’s not a mutiny sir!” The newest messenger had exclaimed immediately. “Darius wanted to build firebreaks sir, and the foreman didn’t think he was being clever.”
“Firebreaks?” The clerk had repeated, mystified.
“His father had been a woodcutter sir; he said he knew how to deal with forest fires.” The boy had replied. “The foreman was being stubborn so there wasn’t much he could do- he does send his regards sir.”
“Firebreaks.” The balding man had shaken his head. “Well, I don’t know what in the world he’s doing- and if he dies, it’ll be his own fault… but if it would help the farm… tell him the House of de Montpelier rewards initiative, and to continue what he intended. We can’t let it take the rest of the grounds.”
With his blessing, the boys had skittered back to the distant farm, straight to the growing blaze.
The fire had raged for two days. In that span of time, the story of Darius punching the foreman in the face had been replaced with more concrete reports. Soon after sending the foreman to the hospice, he had organized the kids into teams for the fire: the youngsters he sent off for buckets of water, the oldest ones battled the blaze alongside him with shovels. After the fifth hour, he had somehow managed to rope in the rest of the working parties and had the remaining foremen taking orders from him. By nightfall, there had been a rotation- those who had worked a number of hours were cycled out to rest, while the fresher boys were sent to maintain the breaks.
In the future, when Darius was already a man with the General’s mark on his shoulders, he would still hear tales of the boy who bathed in fire. It was hilarious, really, what would happen to words when they pass through too many ears.
As of now, however, the boy who would be General was currently ignoring the gnawing of his stomach and the heaviness of his eyes. Resisting the urge to simply keel over and go to sleep, he licked his cracked lips and spoke above the half-dead crowd. “Would we be getting an additional gold coin, sir? For stopping the fire?”
The clerk checked his ledger. Darius could tell from the face he made that something had gone wrong somewhere. Maybe they weren’t getting paid. Maybe the House of de Montpelier had gone back on their word. He had been given assurances only a day before that their efforts wouldn’t be in vain. He had chosen to work for this family purely because he had heard they acknowledged ingenuity.
“One gold piece,” The clerk stated finally as he pushed his spectacles up the small bridge of his nose. “For all of you. But ah, Darius, was it? I must talk with you alone.”
Ah. I’m the problem then, Darius thought to himself darkly.
As the boys shambled off to their homes after two days of firefighting, the clerk took him to one side- far away from prying eyes and straining ears. Darius respectfully allowed him a few minutes to compose his words. There was no point in telling the old man to hurry up and just tell him what had gone wrong with his salary.
Like a hunted man, the clerk looked around him. Darius followed his glance. There was nothing alive in the burned wood except for the two of them. Not even animals had decided to come back yet. There was an inquisitive crow on a jagged branch to his right, but that was probably just an animal looking for scraps or baubles to take away.
After five minutes, the clerk finally began to speak. “You’ve worked very well,” The old man looked at him regretfully. “And I would reward you. The de Montpeliers are grateful. The gold was already set aside. You were to obtain three pieces, because of your quick thinking but ah, there was word from the House of de Croix only hours earlier…”
Darius resisted the urge to box the man on the ears. The clerk had done nothing wrong towards him- he was simply being the messenger. The trouble lay on someone else- someone who would not let the grudge rest. “… And a certain someone told the de Montpeliers that I wasn’t anything but trouble?”
“Regrettably so.” The clerk said.
“Thank you for telling me.” Darius said, even if he didn’t feel like thanking the clerk at all.
“The House of de Montpelier thanks you for your service.” The clerk returned his thanks with the same hollow platitude.
Darius left the burnt farm with a heavy cloud lurking over his shoulder. The monsoon season was coming in; he needed more food and lamp oil and Draven was growing too big for his clothes, even with his older brother sewing new ones every three months. One might think it silly that Darius, the bear-like man that he was, would be adept with a sewing kit, but sometimes it was a lot cheaper to simply alter, patch up or make one’s own clothing rather than to buy new garments.
Still, there was only so much he could do with a needle and thread, especially since Draven seemed hell-bent on either growing out of or ruining his clothes entirely in street scuffles that were increasingly becoming the norm. Sewing wasn’t the only skill Darius had to pick up in the year since their parents’ death. He knew more or less how to put together a meal now from almost anything, and picked up a few medical skills from patching his brother up.
Draven was becoming more difficult to handle. The younger brother was entering his teenage years and their parents’ execution had been the event that broke his previous concept of ‘safety’. It seemed that House de Croix was everywhere in Noxus- Darius was constantly moving from job to job, and Draven was constantly being singled out by his richer age mates and bullied into oblivion. In retrospect, the abuse was inevitable- Darius had killed the youngest son of an influential family. They had his parents executed, and now they were trying to stomp him and his brother off the face of the earth by making life itself intolerable.
Darius had enough of his wits left in him to tolerate the nigh universal abuse with as much grace as a patient and murderous tiger carefully plotting the eventual demise of his abusive handlers, but Draven was turning into a rabid dog. One of these days, someone was going to put him down and there was nothing Darius would be able to do to save him from the guillotine if the time came.
Darius’ weary feet took him to Sapphire Ward- one of the few middle-income areas within Noxus. There was plenty of opportunity here, if one had cared to look hard enough. The ward was primarily a center that mirrored the inhabitants’ economic bracket: butchers’ stalls interspersed with jeweler’s stands, a shoe shiner called for customers from his humble box next to a luxury rug merchant. Darius pushed past the churning mob of people and into a side street.
If there was a god, he or she was watching him- there was a loudly snoring man clutching a bottle passed out inside the ditch to his right. After looking over his shoulder to check if anyone else had seen him, Darius searched his pockets and relieved him of his purse: two gold coins. He stared down at it and stuffed it into his pocket- it was barely enough, but he wasn’t one to curse his own luck.
After toeing past an open sewer grate where a couple of flushers were working on removing a blockage and ducking underneath vibrant colored fabrics hanging outside the dyers, the fourteen year old finally arrived at a house squeezed into a narrow corridor. Kids of all ages darted in and out of the open door. Most of them looked like they needed a bath and some new clothes. Darius craned his head to scan the sea of ruddy faces and gap-toothed smiles, frowning when he didn’t see the person he had left behind in the crèche hours earlier.
There were, and still are, many accusations about Noxus: on how only the strong would prevail and where the weak perished without anyone ever looking for them. The aforementioned adage is true, but in a nation of soldiers who could be called into active duty at any minute of any given day, the demand for crèches- or places where one could leave one’s children to be looked after- were second only to that of the demand for living space. In true human form, there were the crèches for the privileged and wealthy, which were properly termed as ‘boarding schools’ or ‘institutes of learning’, that cost between one and five gold a day for food, clothing, board and education. At three copper a day, a crèche like the one Darius had left Draven in provided food, if the child was on good terms with the matron, and a roof over the kids’ heads.
Darius pushed past the wave of children and entered the house. It needed repair badly. The stone floor was loosely covered with threadbare rags. What part of the walls that were not covered water stained and peeling wallpaper was made of cracked stones and poorly mixed concrete. There were plenty of toys and children lying on the cold ground- rope ponies for the girls and clacking wooden dogs for the boys- that Darius had to step over before he arrived at the kitchen where the matron was mixing some thin watery gruel in a large pot.
She was the quintessential hag: there was a fat wart on her beaked nose. Her skin was pallid and covered in fine hairs. Her stringy white hair covered a rapidly balding head. Her teeth, what teeth she had left anyway, were yellow and rotten. No one knew what her name was- everyone just called her ‘Matron’. Darius had found the crèche she ran after he and Draven had been caught out in a storm six months ago- they had just lost their home to Maynard de Croix’s manipulations.
Finding that he couldn’t manage Draven and work at the same time, he had managed to secure an agreement. The brothers lived with her now, sharing one rickety room and one cobwebbed dresser between them. Compared to their old dwelling, they had a roof over their heads, a changing sky outside and glass windows- even if Darius had to give her six copper twice a month, repair the house and make toys for the kids. Woodworking wasn’t that far from logging after all.
“Matron,” Darius greeted. “Have you seen my brother?”
She gave a grunt of acknowledgement and scratched at a sore on her arm. “Haven’t seen the brat since you left this morning.”
Darius chewed at his lip. “Ah. Alright then.”
“You’re three days behind on your fees.” She reminded him not-too-gently. “The roof still has that hole in it and Gerard broke his toy pony.”
“Money’s hard. I’m sorry,” Darius said in a contrite tone as he turned his back on her. Darius had never been one to apologize- in fact, he was more prone to smashing someone’s face in for insulting his dead mother- but since it was only him and his brother now, he found that it was easier to say sorry and take an insult to the face than it was to stand his ground and get beaten up for it. He was not being submissive in any way- it simply was more practical. It was unfortunate that Draven was still too stubborn and headstrong to realize that his older brother’s docility was only temporary.
“I’ll work on the roof and the ah- toy before the rains.” He added as he left.
“Keeping your brother around is hard too,” Matron said nastily at his retreating back. “You probably should get him in line before someone decides to chop his head off.”
I’m too tired to deal with you and your threats today, Darius thought darkly to himself as he left the crèche. He had to find his idiot little brother before the kid did something he was going to regret.
[UNTIL I COLLAPSE (Part One)]
Shall we not shudder?—
Shall we not flee
Into the shelter, the dear thick shelter
Of the familiar
Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.
The dark hangs heavily
Over the eyes.
Truth (Gwendolyn Brooks)
TWO HOURS LATER...
When Darius had been helping the other boys fight the fire, he had tried to lead by example. He had been at the breaks for most of the two days, and never let himself have more than a few moments of snatched rest in the form of quick ten minute naps and a couple of sips of water and a piece of bread or two.
Now his actions were betraying him. There was no other way to properly describe the bone-weary yet hallucinatory feeling that lack of sleep was giving him- his eyelids had been so heavy he nearly upset a crystal merchant's delicately balanced display when he almost walked into it. His stomach had stopped groaning an hour ago- now it was eerily silent and he strangely felt full. He probably would've salivated when he passed by a restaurant and saw a boar being roasted on a spit, but then again he hadn't been drinking much and his mouth remained as dry as the dirt underneath his feet as he trundled on.
He could have gone back to the crèche and waited for Draven there. It would've been the best option considering that he was too tired to even remember where he was going, but then his brother was the kind of idiot whose actions either made people love his antics or filled them with an intense desire to kill him- it was highly unfortunate that the latter happened more often than the former, especially with Draven spitting venom at everyone who tried to ground him under their heels. Needless to say, Darius was worried to death, even if he was so utterly fed-up with tolerating his younger brother's stupid habit of picking fights with everyone and everything.
In the distant future he would become such an imposing and frightening figure within Noxus that people would question his humanity, but a fourteen year old Darius was not totally heartless. As much as he wanted to throttle the brat sometimes, Draven was still his little brother and the only family he had left that was still relatively untouched by his faults. Leaving him alone would be to practically let Draven go off and get his head chopped off because the stupid kid thought it was a good idea to flip a finger at a politician's third cousin twice removed or some other nonsense. Darius was never going to just sit and wait at home- even if he was tired of walking around like some shambling nightmare horror and of working day in and day out in coal ditches and sewage tunnels and insect farms and dank ochre pits only to be booted out or deprived of pay by Maynard's eventual influence.
"Darius!" A voice pierced through his thoughts. The youth blinked and then looked around. A younger boy from his crew back at the insect farm was waving at him from behind a butcher's stall. Thomas was his name, and he had been picked on vigorously by the other kids because he was too big until Darius had put the other boys in their place. Evidently, he had found time to clean up, and was now wearing a bloodstained apron over his clothes.
To wit, in the world of insect farming, the best insects were the ones with bulbous abdomens filled with pigment. The only way for insects to become that grossly overweight was when the bugs managed to burrow close to the cores of trees. But of course, with size came vulnerability- with their exoskeletons stretched to the brim, the protection afforded by their chitin plates lessened. A bad blow on the trunk of a tree or a wrongly gauged pinch was going to make the expensive insects explode. If one was to have a successful insect farm then, one had to retrieve the insects without ruining them.
Most of the workers at Noxian insect farms, therefore, were small scrappers who would have become great Demacian violinists or Ionian artists because their long and flexible hands were perfect for playing complicated wooden instruments or holding calligraphy pens- even if the children themselves sometimes were not skilled enough to comprehend written orders. That lack of education was primarily why older boys like Darius were taken in, even if they were not good for insect farming at all- younger children naturally look up to older children. The more likeable or respectable the older child was, the easier it was to instruct the younger child to stop crying when they cut their hands on sharp bark.
Of course, the issue of having older children in insect farms would be over if the younger kids knew how to read and write, but education was a privilege in Noxus, not a right. Their father only knew how to read but had never felt the need to learn how to write, so it was fortunate that Darius and Draven had a mother that knew her letters. When the boys had figured it out, Athenais had pushed them into a 'school'- a rather generous word for a single room filled to the brim with children and one schoolmaster who prattled about Noxian military history. Since his parents' death, Darius had not been in a schoolroom- they did not have money for it. In the future, his unlearned status would put him at a significant disadvantage against his peers in the officer corps- but that would be much later. For now, his primary problem was finding his wayward sibling.
"Thomas," Darius managed a greeting halfway through an incoming yawn. "I thought you'd be home by now."
"Mama's been sick for a while." The other boy said sadly. "So I thought I'd work for Rurik. He's a good master- like you said."
Darius made a satisfied noise in his throat. Rurik had been one of his father's acquaintances, and Darius had worked for him in the first two months since the execution. In addition to his stall in Sapphire Ward, the man owned a pig farm as well, and that was where Darius had worked when he wasn't at the market hanging the meat or delivering freshly butchered joints to the homes of wealthy patrons. The smell of blood and the feel of a squealing pig underneath his hand as he slit its' throat had taken some getting used to- the white heat of the pig's lifeblood hadn't been any different from his parents'- but he had managed in the end. He would still be working for the man, if only-
"Does Rurik still take orders from the House of Liechtenstein?" Darius probed.
"Yes. Hans von Liechtenstein was even here earlier," Thomas replied slowly. "He picked up a suckling pig for House de Croix. I overheard him talking about the de Croix family having a celebration of sorts- I didn't catch what it was for."
The fourteen year old suppressed the murderous feelings that rose in his gut, but even the strength of his will couldn't hide the way his face twisted into a sharp frown at the news. Maynard was celebrating, and there was no doubt in the young man's mind as to what the celebrations were for- if not the fact that he had successfully deprived him of another job, perhaps he had done something to Draven-
"Are you alright?" Thomas asked, staring at him in concern.
"Just fine," Darius gritted out. He tried to push his thoughts back to his priorities and not in the man who was making life impossible to live. "Have you seen Draven?"
"Your younger brother? I haven't seen him," The butcher's apprentice said with a shrug.
Maybe the idiot is dying somewhere. His mind pitched in sardonically.
"If he comes by, will you tell him that I'm looking for him?" He said instead. As an afterthought, Darius gave the apprentice a look and then frowned at him. "And clean up your apron, you're going to scare Rurik's customers away."
"Certainly," Thomas said as he removed the offending article of clothing. "Don't worry about Draven. I'm sure your brother will turn up one of these days."
Oh, he'll turn up- dead in the moat, Darius' thoughts finished for him.
"Yeah." Darius said woodenly. "Maybe when he's hungry."
"Maybe!" Thomas retorted cheerfully.
Or maybe he's just eating suckling pig from Maynard's party.
His mind, the young man decided then, was being difficult. It was the lack of sleep talking, making him imagine things.
"I'll leave you to your work then." Darius told him.
"Alright," Blissfully oblivious of the older boy's thoughts and predicament, Thomas flashed him a smile as he pulled a new apron on as he placed the old one inside a nearby wash bucket. "I'll see you back at the farm?"
"Sure." Darius lied, and left the younger boy to his work.
As he walked he thought of what he had just done. He had good rapport with those boys, and with the House of de Montpelier. Still, the House of de Croix stood higher within Noxian social hierarchy- even if the Montpeliers wanted to keep him; there wasn't much they could do about it. He never would be able to work at the farm again in the same way he would never be able to work for Rurik again. Maynard de Croix was everywhere. It was almost a constant in his life: he would find work, he would be good at that work, and then Maynard would find him- and then the man would do everything in his power to ruin him-
His half-asleep wanderings nearly had him plowing into an apple cart. As it was, his considerable size- he didn't look like a fourteen year old, much less feel like one- had sent a whole bushel of apples tumbling down on the ground. Some of them were still safe on the dry cobbled stones, but the rest had rolled into a nearby ditch filled with murky rainwater.
"Hey!" The merchant snapped irritably. "You're paying for that!"
Darius glanced at the apples, bobbing merrily in the brown sea that was the ditch, and then glanced back at the merchant. Exhausted as he was, Darius knew that to outright curse at the man for being a fussy ***** was going to have things escalating quickly, so instead of saying what he actually wanted to say, which was 'are you ****ing kidding me, go boil your head in a pot', he simply opted to reply in a dismissive tone: "Just wipe them down."
"I can't sell those now!" The merchant said as he pointed at the ditch. "No one in their right mind at Sapphire Ward is going to pay for those ruined apples. You're giving me one gold piece right now or else I'll call the guard."
Darius only had two gold pieces on him- the coins that he stole from the drunken sleeper earlier that day. To give one of his hard-earned coins to a man upset at a bushel of dirty apples was like paying five hundred gold coins for a piece of coal, but he didn't have much of a choice- if the man called the guard, he would be thrown into jail and he wouldn't be able to find Draven. As much as he didn't want to part with his money, he grudgingly dug out one coin and held it out to the merchant for inspection.
After chewing vigorously on the coin to determine if it was actual gold, the merchant left him to fish the fruits up by himself. As he was sitting on the cobbled stones drying the apples with his shirt, his drained mind vaguely reminded him that Draven's stomach was fussier than a cat's- he wouldn't be able to afford the medicine if his younger brother got sick from eating the apples.
What am I going to do with a bushel of questionable apples that no one is probably going to eat? He wondered. Images of pummeling Draven to death with them looking better by the second, he slapped at his cheeks a few times to clear his head of fratricidal thoughts, sighed and then willed himself to look at what he had, and at what he knew.
Obviously, wandering around and hoping that he tripped into Draven was not helping in any way. In fact, if he kept it up he probably would smash his head into the crystal merchant's display and then he would have to spend the rest of his life in a jail cell because he didn't have enough gold on him to pay for anything. He had a bushel of apples that had recently fallen into a dirty ditch. Draven was still missing. He was tired, hungry and he wanted nothing more than to collapse in his creaky wooden bed and pull his straw pillow over his face with the hope that being deprived of oxygen was going to give him a sleep deep enough to ignore Matron's snores.
He needed help, and an idea came to him as he finished drying the last apple. He wasn't sure the person would even help him, but it wouldn't hurt to try. Pushing himself up from the ground, he gathered the apples into his shirt and walked on. He left the Ward quickly, nigh running through alleyways and squeezing past fences and gated corridors to one of the many entrances to the Underground.
© 2013 Riot Games, Inc. All rights reserved. Riot Games, League of Legends and PvP.net are trademarks, services marks, or registered trademarks of Riot Games, Inc.