This is, I believe, my first ever standalone Nebtho fic. It's pretty long, at nearly 5k words. Even though the ending is left kind of open, I don't intend on writing a sequel.
I hope y'all enjoy!
Nebris woke to the edge of a sword in the darkness.
The blade was illuminated yellow by a single candle, and Nebris’s heart jumped. If he sat up, he would be dead. If he stayed still, he would be dead. The edge only quavered slightly, but it betrayed the human that held it in their firm grip.
“I thought this day would come,” Nebris growled, his voice crackling from early morning disuse. The blade jumped back, the handler evidently startled. Nebris slid a hand under his pillow to retrieve something, then sat up and got out from beneath his silken sheets. A figure stepped back into the dark.
Nebris was not a stupid man. He slept with a dagger beneath his pillow and one eye open. He held the small weapon out, knowing it wasn’t much use against the longsword his would-be assassinator held, but it made him feel in control.
“What is your name?” he asked commandingly, then stepped to the side. He knew his bedchamber’s layout by heart, and his left hand easily found the rope pull that hung against his wall. When he yanked it, a bell tolled faintly somewhere in the palace.
A risk, he knew. If the assassin had some way of getting in they also had a way of getting out, and even the far-off bell was enough of an alarm to scare the criminal to try to escape. Nebris knew he had to act fast. He took several more steps to where he knew there was a candelabra, not before swiping the single candle off his bedside table. Swiftly lighting all the flames in the candelabra, he turned in the newly-kindled light to face his attacker.
“You wouldn’t do this,” Nebris said, his commanding tone faltering. He didn’t really believe the face he saw in front of him was real. Keeping the dagger out, he edged towards the figure.
The assassin kept his eyes narrowed above his cloth mask. Nebris allowed a second of stillness for his heart to calm before advancing again.
He recognised the man.
Nebris was no stranger to betrayal, but this felt chillingly new. He’d been aiming to swipe a broadsword from its display on the far wall, but now he didn’t know if he wanted to. Where were the guards?
“I’m not sorry, General¸” the assassin finally spoke. “I’m not sorry. The rebellion demands it.”
Nebris didn’t mean to chuckle, but the sound escaped his lips of its own accord. “Of all the men I expected to come for my blood,” he said, “you were not one.”
The assassin lowered his weapon a little. “Really?”
Nebris shook his head. “You wouldn’t do this Etho.”
“You’re wrong.” Etho lunged forward, striking out at Nebris. The blade sliced his shoulder and he stumbled back, clutching the wound as pain rendered his left arm useless. The door opened and three guards came in – armoured, and brandishing battle-axes.
“What took you so long?!” Nebris gasped, as the three guards cornered Etho. Normally at least four guards were armoured up and ready, on duty in the case of emergency. Through the heavy metal of one of the helmets, a voice said,
“Sir, all the available guards were at the gate holding off the rebels. I’m sorry it took time. Should we kill this man?”
“Yes kill him,” Nebris said, taking only a split second to change his mind. “Wait, no.”
The guard who had raised his axe lowered it.
“And what the fuck is this about a rebellion?”
“Ah, I’m sorry sir,” the third guard said. “It seems to have sprung up during the night. We don’t know who’s leading it yet, but they’ve been an awful nuisance.”
“Put that man in shackles,” Nebris said. “He tried to kill me in my sleep.”
“That’s punishable by hanging, sir,” the third guard said.
“I know,” Nebris growled. As the guards shacked Etho, Nebris did not look at him. A pain formed behind his eyes. “I need the potioneer, please.”
“Of course, of course.” The guards made to march Etho out the door as they left.
“Wait! Leave him in here,” Nebris said, holding his right hand up weakly. “I’ll tell you when he can be taken to his holding cell.”
The guards looked at each other through the grilles of their helmets but said nothing untoward against Nebris, leaving the room. The last guard shut the heavy wooden door behind her with a clang, and Nebris turned immediately to Etho once again.
“Who’s leading the rebellion?” he asked, going to sit on his bed. He felt a line of blood trickle down his shoulder to stain the white sheets.
“You?” Nebris looked at him. “You wouldn’t lead a rebellion against me!”
“You always underestimated me,” Etho said. “Oh, and not just me. Your people.”
“They are not my people, they are the King’s people.”
“Face it,” Etho said. “You have so much influence over the King that you may as well be him. Is this not a militarist country?”
Nebris grit his teeth, looking into the defiant face of the shackled man before him. “What are you implying?”
Before Etho answered, a screech that rang through the whole court took their attention. Nebris heard the sound of armoured figures running past his room.
“Oh, so they’ve discovered,” Etho said, a small smile visible even under his cloth mask. “Good man, that Vechs.”
“What have they discovered?” Nebris asked, rising. His arm was heavy with pain but he continued over to the wall where several arms hung. He surveyed the selection and picked up a longsword. Thank god his right arm was unhurt. He turned back to Etho.
“They’ve discovered,” Etho said, “That the king is dead.”
Nebris kept his voice controlled again, levelling his sword at Etho with a deadly glint in his eye. “So this is an all-out rebellion? You won’t take this peacefully?”
“Friend, this country has never known peace.”
“Yet you thought that killing the king would help your little cause. You and your accomplices, plus all the rebels, are going to be killed. Tortured first, I expect. Is that what you wanted?”
“I wanted to kill you,” Etho said quietly. “I wanted to kill you in your sleep.
Nebris ignored that as much as possible but it was hard. If Etho had been anyone else he would be dead, Nebris knew. He would have beheaded him on the spot. But Etho, his soldier…
“How many rebels are there?”
“Too many to count. With the king and army general dead, they will easily take the palace.”
“I’m not dead!” Nebris said. He thrust the sword ever closer to the man’s throat. “You don’t have any power here.”
“The guards can’t hold them back,” Etho said quietly. “There’s too many. You don’t realise the power of these people. I expect they’ll get into the palace any moment now.”
“And they’ll kill me, I expect.” Nebris had forgotten the pain in his arm, but when his door opened and a young woman strode in holding a basket of potions and ingredients, he turned and dropped the sword to his side.
“Oh, sir are you okay?”
Nebris nodded, sitting down again. “It’s my left arm.” He gestured to the slash and the now-drying blood that stained his shirt. The potioner selected a shining potion from her basket and handed it to the general.
“Drink it,” she said, “It’ll lessen the pain.”
He did as he was told while she cut the bloody cloth away from the would with a small pair of scissors. She then applied a second potion to the wound. It stung for a second before healing the slash, the skin beginning to slowly stitch together. Nebris felt relief as the pain melted away.
“Thank you,” he said tipping his head towards the potioneer.
“I… have you heard…” The potioneer glanced nervously towards the quiet Etho, then continued. “The king’s dead.”
Nebris nodded curtly. “So I hear. I will be out in a second to assess, but for the moment, you can go.”
“Try not to strain your arm for a while.” The potioner spoke fast and left the room swiftly, looking distressed. Nebris turned back to Etho. “I think you will have to be imprisoned.”
“Oh, and the rebels lose a leader? I am the only person they will listen to. If you want this to die down without any further damage, you will need to let me speak to them.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Etho smiled again, the cloth mask stretching. “You don’t have to believe me until the rebels burn this castle to the ground. I’m not telling you what to do.”
Nebris sighed. “You’re not in any position of power here, you know?” He raised his sword and pointed it again at Etho’s throat. “Walk.”
He steered the man with the blade of the sword out of his chamber onto the balcony that jutted from the palace into the morning air. From here, Nebris could see over the palace’s outer wall and to the crowd of people that stood at the gate, armed with torches, staves, farming tools. He could hear their shouts and cries now.
“You should know they’re just a distraction,” Etho said. “You should be more worried about who killed the king. About me. About the rebels that are in the palace already.”
Nebris didn’t betray his fear as he turned to Etho. “Tell me what to do and i will let you live.”
Etho laughed. “I don’t believe you, but nevertheless, i will help. First, i presume the man who killed the king has been caught?”
“Let’s go find out.” Nebris guided the man through his bedchamber with the sword, into the palace.
To describe the situation as ‘panicked’, Nebris thought, would be to heavily understate what was going on in the palace. Nebris stopped a nearby guard as she clanked past towards the front gate.
“Do you know if they caught the man who killed the King?” he asked.
“Yes, he’s in the dungeon now,” the guard said, looking at Etho. “Want me to take him off your hands?”
Nebris shook his head. “Thanks, but no.”
He decided telling anyone that Etho was the rebel leader would be a bad move. He guided the man towards the dungeons, passing gathering guards and panicked courtiers on his way.
“How did you get in?”
“A way that was somewhat… underhanded,” Etho said. “But you’re no stranger to cheating, are you Nebris?”
“Hey,” Nebris said angrily, “I won all my battles fair and square.”
He didn’t care whether or not Etho believed him; it was enough to have the last word on him.
They arrived at the door to the dungeons. beyond which a dark set of stairs stretched down under the palace. Nebris lit a torch from a sconce on the wall and carried it in his left hand, his shoulder aching dully from the weight. He guided Etho down the stairs with the sword until they reached the dimly lit dungeons.
The dungeons were hardly used; the sounds of the few prisoners echoed in the moldy space between the cells.
“Has the man who killed the king been imprisoned?” Nebris asked a warden near the door. The warden nodded, getting up from his seat.
“This way.” The guard stood up and led Nebris and Etho to a cell.
“Expect these cells to fill up with rebels soon,” Nebris said. “They’re at the gates.”
“And you’re going to manage them without a king?” the warden said grimly.
“I’m a general. I know what to do.”
“So why aren’t you out there organising defences against the rebels instead of bringing prisoners down to the dungeons?”
“This isn’t a prisoner,” Nebris said. “He has important information about the attackers.”
“I’ll handle him.”
Nebris shook his head and instead looked through the iron bars at the prisoner in the cell in front of him. The man stood up when he saw Nebris, a smile coming onto his lips.
“You killed the king,” Nebris stated.
The prisoner brought his blood-stained hands up in front of his face. “I suppose I did.”
His eyes were hidden behind goggles, strange green ones. “So Etho, you failed.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Etho said, staring the prisoner down. “I…” He stopped.
“I want to talk to you,” Nebris said. “You’re to be executed soon enough, I expect, but i feel you have things to tell me about the rebellion, er… your name?”
“It’s Vechs, but Etho knows everything you need to know,” the prisoner replied. “All i did was kill the king. That wasn’t hard.”
“How did you get in?”
“It’s quite easy when you know a guard that will let you in,” Vechs said. “But I’ve said too much, and there’s not anything you’ll do to make me betray him.”
Nebris tried to remain calm, and not reveal the shock in his heart. Although he was an experienced general, the power of the rebellion still scared him.
“So you two are leading this rebellion?”
Nebris turned to Etho. “I’m going to ask you to call them off. To make a peaceful agreement with me.”
“They won’t do that,” Vechs said before Etho could reply. “It was decided long ago what must be done.”
“Ugh…” Nebris had almost decided just to throw Etho in a cell and be done with it when an idea came to him. He knew it would be painful for him, but it was necessary.
Beckoning to the warden he whispered a request. The man nodded and hurried off, and Nebris turned back to Etho.
“What did you think would happen?”
“It’s already happening,” Vechs interrupted again. Nebris glared at him and held the sword closer to Etho’s neck.
“The people will be in the palace soon, i expect,” Vechs continued. “They will burn it to the ground.”
Nebris said nothing. The warden returned with a heavy chain and as he padlocked it to Etho’s shackles, Nebris saw a silent conversation between the eyes of the two rebels. He wondered with deep intrigue what Etho was thinking.
Nebris took the chain, and ignored the laughs of the imprisoned man as he led his own prisoner, with a heavy heart, back up the dungeon stairs.
“What do you intend to do?” Etho asked.
“Offer you to the rebels,” Nebris said. “They’ll want their leader back.”
Etho laughed. “Do you really think so? Do you think they care about me? I am just a figurehead, decided on long ago. Yes, i chose to attempt to kill you, but they will do it themselves when they see i have failed. Do not underestimate the power of a mob.”
He stopped talking abruptly and Nebris continued walking. The pandemonium in the main court was greater now. Nebris stopped to half heartedly direct a group of archers to man the arrow-slits on the higher levels, and ordered others to the cannons.
His head was not lost in delusions of victory, though. The loss of the king, and the noise of the rebels outside, and Etho - they all shook him, and he already felt defeated. They’re just people, he told himself. The civilians he saw every day, they were unarmed, they were not trained in combat.
But whatever it was that had driven Nebris to so many past victories against his enemies, his sheer command of an army, his skill in battle, his determination, it all seemed to have drained out of him. He didn’t want to fight.
Nebris went back up to his room, still leading Etho. He went out onto the balcony again and looked at the crowd pushing against the outer wall. A thin plume of smoke rose from the gate into the overcast sky, and Nebris realised they were trying to burn it. The flames licked at the old wood, trying to catch.
“They don’t care about me,” Etho repeated. “Or Vechs. Each man for himself, though they act as one.”
Nebris put his hands onto the cold iron railing and continued to look down. Arrows fired from above him, just making it over the walls into the crowd. It looked about as effective as throwing pebbles into an endless ocean, and the waves were unstoppable. He could see a large group of people at the gate preparing a long wooden log, a battering ram.
“They really won’t accept any compromise?”
Etho shook his head. “The terms agreed on long ago were to state that no bribes were to be taken, not even if any of us were taken hostage, until peace was achieved. And that was when it was just a small group.”
“This is the peace they want?!”
“No king, no general, no palace,” Etho listed. “As I said, one man down like me will not affect their campaign.”
Nebris watched the great battering ram back up, lifted on the shoulders of his people and come forward - fast enough to shatter the front gate.
The mob surged through the narrow gateway, trampling the broken wood into the ground as they streamed up towards the palace. The boom of cannons sounded like thunder and Nebris saw the shots take out several people. Pebbles into a mighty river.
“They’ll be at the palace soon,” he commented, as if he were observing a passing flock of birds.
“Since you don’t seem to be going through with your plan of offering me in return for peace,” Etho said, “I don’t think you’d mind unshackling me?”
Nebris considered. if he’d thought there was still a chance of sedating the mob, he’d missed it long ago. Going into his bedchamber again, he selected a heavy axe from the wall.
With his left shoulder screaming out in pain, Nebris brought the axe down onto the chain between the cuffs.
“I don’t have the key for the cuffs, so you’ll have to keep them unless you don’t mind losing your hands.”
Etho sighed. “Good enough i guess.”
Nebris returned to the balcony, but didn’t need to see much as the sounds of the crowds entered the palace.
“I think you should try to escape now,” Etho said. “Once they find you’re not dead, they will kill you.”
“What about you?”
“Oh they’ll kill me too I expect. For not doing my job.”
“It’s just like the army again, huh?” Nebris noted. “We were stuck together in deadly situations far too often.”
“I was on your side back then.”
“I wish you still were,” Nebris said quietly. “It’s not the best practice to favour one soldier over another, but what can I say?”
Nebris wanted to go out and save the palace, but he felt oddly paralysed. He though some part of him might have just accepted this as the end. Maybe he would die by Etho’s side.
“It looks like we’ve been forced onto the same side now,” Etho said. “May as well stick together.”
Nebris felt stronger somehow. Despite the inevitability of his defeat, he wasn’t as fazed by the strength of the rebellion.
When he opened the door to the main court of the palace however, his resolve faded. The rebels had come in and, while courtesans did their best to fight off the attackers, the bloodshed was already well underway. Nebris felt a heavy sense of sorrow as he looked upon the conflict before shutting his door.
“I can’t go out there.”
Etho turned to him. “Oh, I know. You’ll just let them all die.”
Nebris was startled by the sudden note of anger in his voice, a sharp turn from his previous compliance.
“And? What are you implying?” Nebris said angrily. “I’d help if i could without getting killed! Anyways, you said they were going to find me soon. And we’re in the same boat.”
“You wouldn’t sacrifice yourself for them? What kind of a general are you?”
Nebris hardened his gaze on Etho. “One who doesn’t want to die. Call me selfish, but that’s me.”
“Save yourself then,” Etho said. “I’m not going to stop you now.”
Nebris paced. “I can just wait in here. If they think I’m dead, they won’t come looking. Although, I can’t be sure that you won’t turn on me.” He stroked his chin, thumb catching on his lip as he watched the assassin. Etho didn’t seem inclined to kill him now; that fire had gone out somewhere along the line. Nebris considered that Etho might even pity him now.
“I won’t kill you, Nebris,” Etho said. He laughed in a way that made Nebris shiver. “Look.” He held out a hand. “Let’s promise not to kill each other.”
Nebris looked at the outstretched hand, shackled, trembling with honesty. He extended his own and took the hand of his former soldier, shaking it once. “Okay. That’s a promise. I won’t kill you, you won’t kill me.”
As Etho nodded, Nebris listened. The battle noises outside his door seemed to be dying down already. Nebris didn’t want to think that the rebellion had succeeded, so he occupied his mind with the assassin instead.
“So how did you get to be leading all these people against me, anyway?”
“After I left the army, I travelled with a small group of soldiers who were unhappy with the way the country is run. Many ex-soldiers in particular agreed, and in doing so, we stumbled on the idea of rebelling. In our search for others of like mind, we found a larger group of people that wanted to plan an attack on the castle, in particular to kill the king and general. I was chosen at random to be the leader, and I offered to kill the general because well… I wanted to. And here we are.”
“And you failed.” Nebris’ voice crackled as he smiled.
“I wouldn’t call it failure,” Etho said. “You’re going to lose everything you had.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh come on, Nebris. They have plans to burn the palace - after killing everyone and looting the place, of course.”
“Huh,” Nebris said, clenching his fists and releasing them. He felt as if he was in a foggy dream, although he knew he should have always prepared for this.
“Let’s go,” Etho said. Nebris stared at him.
“Let’s escape, I mean. If you aren’t going to help fight off the rebellion, one I don’t seem to be a part of anymore, we may as well go. We aren’t on anybody’s side anymore.”
“How do you propose we escape, then?” Nebris said. “The rebels are all through the palace! I’m dead if I set foot outside of this room.”
“They’ll leave when they torch the place. All we have to do is wait, and hope that we can get out before the fire gets too bad.” Etho sat down on Nebris’ bed, hands folded.
“That’s really fucking risky. That’s like waiting for them to find me, or for the fire to reach this room. Either way, I don’t want to die like that. Are you sure you can’t go out there and call it off?”
“I’ve done everything I can, Nebris!” Etho’s voice rose. “I’m still here, for some reason, not killing you. I’ve told you what the rebellion is for. I’ve told you what to expect. You’re a general. Figure out the rest yourself, you should be smart enough to.”
That’s assuming you are telling the truth, Nebris thought, biting his lip. He looked around the small room. If he was to make a run for it, he supposed he should grab weapons, money and clothes. He couldn’t hear anything now. The palace was too silent.
“Fuck.” Nebris went to the door and peeked out again. The main court was empty of life, only containing dozens of bodies scattered in a sea of red across the floor. Nebris inhaled sharply. The rebels seemed to have left the palace, which meant-
Flames were licking the opposite wall of the courtyard, plumes of smoke drifting across towards Nebris.
He left the door open, turning to the assassin. “This is it,” he said.
He acted quickly in grabbing a sword and shoving a dagger, some food, gold and clothes into a bag.
He thought he should disguise himself, too. Turning a tunic into a makeshift hood, he draped it over his head to at least partly conceal his face. It could all be for nothing, of course, but here was his last chance. Etho stayed calm and patient, to the point of nearly infuriating Nebris. He didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, even when smoke began to fill the room and flames were heard crackling.
“Okay,” Nebris said. “Fuck this. Let’s go.”
And finally Etho stood up. Nebris opened the door fully, coughing as smoke billowed in, making his eyes sting. As far as he could see, the entire opposite side of the palace was on fire, and the main area filled with smoke. He tied the cloth of his hood over his mouth and nose.
He took a heavy breath. “We’ll go out the back door. There’s a secret entrance that will let us out into the countryside,” he said.
Etho nodded, and then took the hand Nebris had dropped to his side. “Let’s run.”
Nebris concealed his surprise beneath his smoke mask, not commenting on the hand or how it gave him confidence. With his other hand, he indicated the back of the palace, to their left.
He stepped down into the sea of blood. Picking their way through the bodies, Nebris and Etho made their way as fast as they could to the back of the palace while flames licked overhead, catching at the walls and ceiling. It was spreading fast, catching at the old wood of the palace and racing along beams, almost liquid as it flowed. Smoke poisoned the castle from the inside, spewing out of windows and doors.
Nebris gripped Etho’s hand tighter and began to run, not looking down even as his feet slipped in the gore below. They were almost at the back door, but Nebris was coughing smoke and his throat burned.
Nebris saw the fire slice across the wall before him, catching the wooden door and curling around it. “Fuck,” he muttered through the smoke. This was their only exit now - there was no way they could go back. His skin shone with sweat as he reached out a hand towards the doorhandle.
“Wait!” Etho said. “I’ll do it.”
“Oh come on.” Nebris grabbed the doorhandle. The metal was already hot and he felt his skin searing but he twisted it, pulling until the door opened. As outside air rushed in, the flames gorged on the new oxygen and flared up, nearly singeing Nebris’ beard.
He yanked Etho through the ring of heat that was the doorway, almost stumbling as he ran down the slope of the outside lawn towards the outer wall. There was a small exit there, hidden behind some bushes. Nebris had grabbed the key from his room and nearly dropped it now, his blistered skin shaking as he turned it in the lock. He ducked through the door, and as he waited for Etho to come through, turned one last time towards the palace.
Drowning in thick grey smoke, the old structure was glowing at all entrances where the flames danced. Nebris blinked, his stinging eyes watering.
Then, he felt Etho’s hand in his again, pulling him along down the grassy hill towards the countryside. Nebris pushed down his hood now; he didn’t think he’d need disguise unless they passed through any villages.
For now they were fugitives, heading towards an unknown future somewhere in the trees or fields of the country and perhaps beyond, somewhere beyond the borders of this land. They stopped running after some time, Nebris occasionally glancing back at the tremendous column of smoke that marked the end of his old home, and perhaps the old regime.
Eventually he stopped looking. Nebris thought that he could even be happy like this. No longer leading armies, or any semblance of a life in leadership, but hiding, running and surviving, with the most unlikely of companions.
In a funny way, Nebris was glad it was him.