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The Lost Legend.
The great people and events of our past are the things we look up to; we dream of; and they are the things that we immortalize in song, history, and our memories.
But songs are lost . . .
Memories are forgotten . . . BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA
And though history is the thing that brings our people’s greatest points closest to immortality, it too, over the years, fades to legend . . . then legend fades to myth . . . and myth fades to the silence that is found only when something has simply existed for too long – nothing can last forever: nothing.
I abhor the men who would destroy the greatest achievements of others; men who would have all that they have done be forgotten and lost to us of the future . . . yet these men exist.
There was once a kingdom.
Ruled by a wise and powerful king, guarded by the finest army this universe has ever seen, and glorified by the riches that flowed from its borders; Netheron was the jewel of the heavens.
But nothing can last forever.
Wherever there is good, there is always its counterpart: evil.
Lord Madren T’Zayel, Sword of Netheron, First Heir to The Nether Throne, and a warrior who was said to be able to destroy entire legions single handedly; was the pride of the old kings’ heart.
One day Lord Madren rode into the great forest of Dimwalden, and deep within its leafy borders he found something, something that would change our worlds forever . . .
But evil was in that place . . .
Greed seized Madren, and he took the power he had found, claiming it as his own. He was no fool, he knew what it meant, he knew what he held, and he knew what its power could do.
He turned against his father and his brothers and demanded the throne at once; he was denied.
The power in his possession was too much for a man to control; it drove Madren mad. Gathering his followers he desperately attacked the kingdom he had once pled a vow of allegiance to . . .
But his plans were not well laid, and, defeated by his own brother; Madren fled Netheron, to find refuge in the Halavarde Court, the only place where an outcast and traitor can find sanctuary in this universe.
He found kindred spirits in that foul haven he entered . . . men who felt betrayed, yet who were, themselves, the betrayers, men who had been driven mad as he had, men who seethed with resentment as he did, and men who had committed crimes they refused to confess.
Then, one fateful day, the Halavarde king marched to war; never to return . . . suddenly Madren found himself in a powerful position, a great warrior, an experienced politician, and a man who was utterly dedicated in his madness to one cause : revenge.
Seizing his chance, he stepped up, and proclaimed himself King of Halavarde; none could stop him.
Instantly, he began to mobilize the massive Halavarde armies, planning his future war very carefully, making sure he could not lose. And then, without warning, he flung everything he had against the strongholds of his former homeland.
Caught by surprise, the old king and his three remaining sons could do little; they were crushed and forced to fall back into hiding, fighting a losing war against a vastly superior enemy.
And then Madren made his first mistake as king.
He attacked Arreland; at that time only a small, weak state of farmers and herdsmen; he crushed their small army with ease.
Then, attempting to beat the stubborn people who still held out, refusing to submit, into submission, he ordered one out of every five people on Arreland be beheaded at his personal orders.
There arose out of the quick, desperate battle that followed the greatest king that this universe has yet seen, Jaden Clasheron, a man who had had his only child murdered by the Halavarde tyrant.
And he brought the war to an entire new level.
Gathering a small army of vengeful farmers and herders, all that was left of his people; he crushed the Halavarde army so quickly and effectively he made it seem easy. His men were driven, not by lust and greed as their enemies were, but by revenge, deadly, boiling hatred, and a hunger for Halavarde blood.
Under their leader, nothing could stop them.
But Clasheron didn’t stop there, pressing on; he freed Netheron, beating the Halavardes back to their very own borders, and was proclaimed King of Netheron and Arreland by the exultant peoples.
It was found shortly after that the old King of Netheron and all three of his sons had disappeared into the chaos brought on by the short, savage war. The open spaces for kings in both lands intrigued Clasheron and he accepted the offers, planning to return the throne of Netheron to its rightful heirs should they ever return. He then became the most powerful king in the universe, with more lands and resources than Halavarde, though only a slightly superior army.
But, unknown to all; the old king of Netheron had found something on a battlefield only a few days after his kingdom fell to his own son. He was not to know, at the time, that it was the very same power that Madren had found all those years before. . .
He took it with him, claiming it as Madren had.
Madren quickly found that he had lost it, and searched desperately for it, praying it didn’t come into Clasherons hands, he quickly found that his father had it, and sent assassins to kill him. The assassins succeeded in their mission, but their success was short lived, for they found that one of the old kings guards had had a few moments with the king before he had died, and now both the guard and the power where gone . . .
Bitter and angry (And assuming that Clasheron had taken the power he had found), Madren swore to obliterate Clasherons line, take back the throne that was rightfully his, find his power, then use it to return peace to the universe . . .
But it would take more than an oath to take down the Arrel Empire.
Dimwalden Forest, Northern Caraca, Netheron:
A late autumn breeze wafted through the trees, loosing clouds of orange, yellow, and brown leaves from their holds, leaving them to flutter down between the trunks of the massive oaks, maples, aspen, and birch that made up the forest, and finally come to rest on the silent forest floor.
Tauren Netharu gazed up from the small, rocky forest stream he knelt by, scanning the dark forest about him with a hunter’s eye for his prey. A waft of the breeze swept down from the towering treetops, having made it through the dense foliage, ruffled his light brown hair and then wafted away into the forest behind him. His blue eyes, sharp and careful, snapped down to the small print in the soft mud by the creek, the deer he was tracking was close, he knew, for the mud it had stirred up in taking its drink had yet to be swept down the stream.
Slowly, with infinite care not to make any noise, he reached over to the side, and picked up his bow from where he had set it on the rocks. Carefully lifting an arrow from the quiver at his belt, he laid its maple shaft onto the aspen bow. He stood slowly, gazing intently at the spot in the underbrush on the other side of the creek where he was certain he had seen the movement, slowly he tensed the bowstring, then, smoothly, without a single moment of hesitation leaped forward, vaulted off a rock and across the stream, landing with complete silence right behind the tree where he knew the deer was resting.
He took a deep breath, it would not do to alert his prey to his presence and lose his only chance for that day, he needed this meat desperately, today was recruiting day for the Arrel army, and while chances were slim that he would be recruited this year, he had to be ready for any eventuality, and if his grandfather didn’t have enough money to stay alive for the next two years before Tauren got back from the allotted service period, then he would be terribly hard pressed to feed himself.
It wasn’t that Edrin Netharu was a weak old man, quite the contrary, he was fit, strong, and healthy, never having been able to quite loose his warriors touch that he had gained over his years of service in the Arrel army, but the people of the area didn’t trust him, indeed, they feared him, and though that was a good thing in the old man’s eyes, it was a huge hindrance in for him in trying to find some employment, and living off the land as Tauren did was ‘ dishonorable for a warrior ‘ in his opinion. An opinion Tauren was vehemently opposed to.
Tauren shook his head, clearing his mind of all thought, not wanting to argue with himself the fine points of his grandfather’s philosophy at the moment. That would never do. Slowly he took a deep breath, and then, in a single movement, spun out from behind the tree, pulling the string back to his ear and loosing in a single movement.
It was a shot that bordered on instinctive, he had guessed where the massive buck would be lying and the moment the arrow had begun its deadly flight, he knew that he had guessed correctly.
The huge buck was lying still on the leaves of the forest floor, its head raised, listening intently, its huge brown eyes alert. The instant it saw the blur of movement as Tauren leaped out from behind the tree, it had leaped up with incredible speed, and was in mid bound as Taurens arrow slammed into its heart, stopping it dead cold in the air and throwing it onto its side, its head slamming with a sickening snap against a tree trunk.
Tauren landed perfectly, and standing from his squat, replaced the arrow he had automatically applied to the bow string in his quiver, and then paced over to the buck, gazing over its gallant head, its sweeping antlers, and at last resting his eyes on its beautiful brown fur. He felt a twinge of sadness at having to kill the majestic creature, there were plenty of them in the area, and killing one would make no difference to their numbers, but he still felt bad about the deed, he sighed, reaching inside his leather jerkin and pulling out his long, razor sharp, hunting knife. His grandfather always had told him that it would be a bad thing if he felt no remorse at destroying beauty.
Carefully he knelt and cut out the arrow from where it had struck, trying not to make a mess, then, carefully replacing the arrow after having wiped it off on a patch of grass, he waited a moment for the crimson blood to stop flowing. With a few deft slices, he cut a piece of rope from the dozen yards of thin yet strong cord that he always carried strapped to his belt, he passed the piece of rope under the antlers of the fallen creature and then tied the ends together, then, replacing his knife, he unstrung his bow and slung it over his shoulder. Finally he reached down and grasping the thick antlers of the beast at their base, he heaved the whole body over his shoulder, looping the rope around him so as to leave him a free hand.
He sighed, holding the 500 pound creature easily; and headed into the underbrush, heading for the falling sun in the west, pushing the underbrush out of his way, and trying to be careful so as not to catch the antlers on any low branches or underbrush.
The reasons that the people in the area didn’t trust Tauren and his mysterious grandfather where valid ones he thought, it would take three grown men to life the load he was now carrying, and Tauren knew it. What more, he was only 16, still, technically, a boy, and this was an easy load for him; they were different, there was no hiding from it, and though Tauren at times felt the pangs of being an outcast, overall he was content with his lot, the forest was his home, he had what friends he needed in the soldiers in the town. He always told himself he could survive any test the world could pose, and need no friends other than the ones he had, his fellow outcasts in a foreign world.
And Netheron was a foreign world for, a world where the un-ordinary meant “bad”.
It took him another half hour of brisk walking before he began to feel the weight of the buck on his shoulders, but he knew he didn’t have long to go, and pressed on through the underbrush, taking in the gentle light the forest allowed to filter down.
It was one of the most beautiful sights in the world to him, he always felt so much more alert in the forest, his senses seemed so much more sensitive; time seemed to slow down till he could take in everything, he felt stronger, faster, ready for anything. Ahead he saw a bright light in-between the trees and knew that he had reached his destination, and a moment later he stepped out of the tree line, blinking in the sunlight, his eyes resting on a different sight than what he was used to.
There before him spread a small meadow, covered in thick, green grass; that small rocky stream he had been at only a few minutes before was running through the middle of it, to one side he saw the dark form of the small log cabin where he and his grandfather lived, its thick log walls dark from the thick coating of moss that covered them, its thatched roof black from mold, and it’s small windows dirty and falling apart.
He smiled to himself, it was so little, but it was home: his home beneath the trees,
Behind the cabin he heard a rhythmic pounding and crashing, and knew, before he saw, that his grandfather was chopping firewood, he crossed the clearing briskly, grinning in spite of himself at the thought of his grandfather. He turned around the edge of the house, the soft grass replaced by a path of pebbles crunching under his feet, and came face to face with the old man.
Edrin Netharu was a tall man, much like his only grandson, but the family resemblance stopped there, he had long grey – white hair, in compare with Taurens brown and relatively short hair, he had a thin hawkish face with a long nose, and sharp black eyes, in compare with Taurens strong, muscled, but not thick, face, blue eyes, and more normal nose. He always wore the seemingly same black frayed robes, and was now carrying an axe over his shoulder. Behind him a heap of splintered firewood was lying all over their back yard.
He grinned up at Tauren and glanced at the buck in surprise”. Hello boy, seems like you did well enough today.” He said with a nod at the buck.
Tauren pushed past him and lay the buck down on the rough pine boards of back porch of the cabin, the old man followed, stroking the soft fur of the bucks back reverently his eyes half sad as they always were when Tauren brought in his kill.
Tauren nodded in agreement with his grandfather’s statement.” Yep, I caught him by surprise; he didn’t even get to run.” He still felt bad about having had to kill it though, and wondered why his grandfather, who had mercilessly killed any number of men in the wars, was sad at the death of one dumb beast.
The old man nodded.” Well, why you don’t get this cleaned up here. I’ve got to finish this firewood.” The old man swung the axe to a ready position and paced back to the firewood, while Tauren began the messy work of cleaning the buck.
Some half an hour later Tauren finally looked up from his work, a heap of meat, wrapped in rough brown paper lay to his side on the porch, he saved the antlers and hide; they would sell well too.
The sun was getting quite low on the horizon, and he knew it would soon be time to head for Carmenton with the meat. He and his grandfather had decided the day before that Tauren and he would spend the night in town if Tauren caught anything, he had been hunting for two weeks now, and was glad that he had caught something at last, even if it had to be on the day before Recruiting day.
That night there would be a festival in the town where all the men between the ages fifteen and fifty would be gathered together in the village square by the mayor. (Though Tauren wouldn’t be, seeing as he was with the Arrels group) And the next morning a group of judges would have a quick test for each man, assessing his abilities and attributes, and then one out of every five of them would be chosen, and sent to the army base in Fandrinad Province to be trained for three months before they were sent to Arreland for a 20 month service period.
The Arrels had been in control of Netheron for almost a hundred years, the story of how they had come to power was one that the Arrels did not encourage in spreading, and as a result, nobody spoke of it, and over the years it had slowly faded into legend, and that, even, was fading to myth.
Of course it was one of those questions that people required an answer to, and there was a story that was told in the land, about how the people of Netheron had, after the Arrels had saved Netheron from their ancestral enemy Halavarde, almost seventy five years before, all announced the Arrel king their protector and lord.
And so it was that there was always a presence of the mysterious Arrel warriors on Netheron.
But Tauren didn’t believe that story in the least; it was a fake he decided. The people of Netheron definitely regretted their ancestor’s decision now.
Tauren had talked with his grandfather about it, and the old man had not denied that the circulating story was a fraud, but he had seemed to agree with the Arrels; the true story should be suppressed.
Tauren knew that his grandfather knew the truth, but he had still refused to tell him. At the end of these refusals he had simply sighed and dropped the subject, after all, they had little to complain about under the Arrel rule, the taxes where light, the laws where simply enforcements of morality, and the Arrels only requirements where that there be a quite small force of their professional soldiers in every town with a population of more than five hundred, and of course, that one out of every five men between the ages of fifteen and fifty, be recruited every year to serve two years in that mysterious war with that mysterious land of Halavarde.
Even though that last rule was a hard one, and nobody who had left Carmenton for those wars had ever come back, recruitment day came only once every 5 years, and chance had had it, that Tauren had just turned sixteen only a month before recruiting day.
He sighed, wrapping up the meat, antlers, and hide in a bundle and heaving it onto his shoulder, and heading across the clearing to where there was a small pasture and stables where they kept the two horses which they used to do the little traveling they did.
He saw his grandfather coming toward him from the cabin, dressed in a new set of robes. He set his load down on the soft grass, then, unclipping the latch to the pasture gate, he called the two horses over to him, they tossed their heads and trotted over to him; they were small horses, both light bays with white hooves and lower legs, but one had a white spot on his forehead, while the other had a black one.
His grandfather stepped up and took the one with the black spot, grinning and muttering to the horse, that one was his horse, T’hune, and led him over to the stables where he started saddling and bridling him with the hands of an expert.
Tauren heaved his load up with one arm, and led his horse over to the space beside his grandfather, wishing for two things that his grandfather had, that ease and skill with horses, and a better knack for picking names, his poor horse was named White, a name that his grandfather called bland, and Tauren couldn’t help but agree.
It took them only a few minutes of silent work in the small straw strewn stables to get their horses saddled and loaded with whatever they were bringing, Edrin swung easily into his saddle, mockingly holding a hand out to Tauren.” Need some help there?”
Tauren shook his head, a nervous feeling deep down in him, he was a hunter, not a warrior, his grandfather had taught him how to use a sword and spear, and of course he was a decent hand with his bow, but he wasn’t ready to go out to war and fight other men, fight people who were trying to kill him, and who knew that if they didn’t then he would have to kill them.
He sighed and leaped up onto his horse, the meat behind him, wrapped in the hide, while Edrin carried the antlers. He leaned down and picked up his bow from where it lay, leaning against the wall of the stables, he nodded to Edrin, and together they turned their horses and headed by the still, silent cabin, and into the woods.
It was terribly unlikely that he wouldn’t be selected, he was strong, almost as strong as some of the Arrels even, he was healthy, plus, he had some skill with weapons. His grandfather didn’t try to assure him he wouldn’t be picked out and Tauren knew he knew the chances where against him not being selected. It wasn’t that he was afraid, not really, he was a bit, but he was ready, and confident in his own skills, he wasn’t afraid that he wouldn’t come back though.
The leaf strewn trail beneath them crunched dryly as the horses headed through the trees, about them Tauren heard an occasional scuffle of movement as some small creature ran off into the underbrush as they approached. The breeze still blew through the treetops, sending leaves flowing down to rest about them.
They rode in silence for about an hour, drinking in the timelessness of the great forest, the amazing feeling of moving through the swirling leaves, the towering trees about them rustling quietly, the twilight about them enhancing the abundant colors; without paying too much attention to details, one began to feel as though the forest where . . . unearthly, majestic, and picture perfect . . . and almost alive itself.
As far as Tauren was concerned, they reached their destination far too soon, and he almost commented on it as they stepped out onto the banks of the Ivy Flow, the river that ran through the valley in which Carmenton lay, but he held his tongue, for there, before them, was Ivy Falls, and never had he seen them looking so majestic.
The Ivy Flow flew over the cliffs that bordered the northern valley, and then took a thousand foot, color strewn, glistening fall into a wide pool carved out of the earth at its base, before continuing its course down the valley, through the mat of fields, and by the little splotch of buildings that was Carmenton.
On the far side of the valley they could see the mountains rising above them, covered in dense forest. To their right the valley wound away for miles before it flattened out and joined the plains that constituted much of Netheron.
Edrin nodded, smiling.” Let’s go. Can’t enjoy the view till we faint and fall off this blasted cliff.”
Edrin didn’t like heights, but Tauren knew that he was enjoying the evening just as much as he was, he nodded in answer and they turned to their left, away from the rocky bed and flowing current of the Ivy, and began the slow trip down the side of the cliff.
A wide trail had been cut in it some years ago, by a people who had left no legacy for their deed; down this they went, hugging the white cliffs, and guiding their horses the best they could, being careful not to fall, for if they did they would have a straight fall for hundreds of feet, then a hard stop at the bottom.
At last they reached the base of the cliff and began their journey down the rough, grassy trail, through the sparsely wooded valley, and, at last, there came into sight the outer buildings of Carmenton: Carmenton was a small town, only a few hundred people living there, it was built on a hill, a fair sized fort at the very top, towering over everything, watchful, and dangerous, the houses arranged disorderedly about it.
The houses about the edge of the town where dirty, run down affairs, falling apart, leaking, and filled with poor starving families, but as one went further into the town you encountered the houses of better off merchants and shop owners. Houses made of bricks and heavy logs, with gardens and healthy atmospheres, brought about by the great prosperity the owners enjoyed.
On most days the small meadow beside the town was empty, but today wasn’t just any day, it was the day of the Harvest Festival, a yearly gathering of all the farmers and townsfolk from the surrounding land; today they had pitched dozens of tents in the meadow and already the people could be seen pouring in, mostly farmers in rough wagons, their produce with them, planning to sell what they had grown that year tonight.
They came out onto the main road, the thumping of the horses’ hooves on the grass turning to a clacking as they hit the paving stones on the road; their pace quickened and they soon where trotting through the town, buildings towering on either side of them, people running about, laughing, singing, and otherwise merrymaking. Tauren sighed, the townspeople didn’t accept them in any way; they fell silent when the two of them passed, he could smile to them and nod, but they would only return with blank stares.
They had no place here.
But there were a couple houses in the small town where they were welcome; namely, the homes of the soldiers from the fort, Arrels for the most part; men, like them, who didn’t belong in Carmenton, or Netheron either for that matter, they too where outcasts in a foreign land, but they formed their own group of friends, and companions, that was separate from the townsfolk, a group that Tauren was proud to be part of, tight knit, and close as it was.
The Arrels where good men, honest, honorable, loyal, and friendly, but they were different, on the outside they looked like normal men, but there was something about them that just made them feel different, it was rumored among the villagers that they dabbled in black magic, but then again, the same thing was rumored that Tauren and his grandfather did the same.
They were what Edrin called ideal soldiers, specially picked by the Arrel king for their special traits and abilities.
But Tauren trusted them, and he knew Edrin did too.
A few minutes later they stopped in front of the small house surrounded by a well-kept flower garden, right down from the fort, where the Lieutenant of the guard in the town lived, a particular friend of Edrins.
Edrin silently jumped off of T’hune and stepping through the garden gate walked over to the small log house and knocked, Tauren followed suit, jumping off of White, and holding T’hune for Edrin.
A few moments later they heard footsteps in the house, and the door swung open; there stood Lieutenant Marlan Darreck, a tall man; towering over Edrin, long black hair falling about his wide shoulders, and careful brown eyes watching what happened around him with an intensity that seemed to burn the life out of everything, he saw Edrin and smiled widely, embracing the old man. He had been expecting them.
“. Good afternoon, Edrin.” He chuckled. He glanced up at Tauren and nodded to him, Tauren nodded back.” Come on in.” He stepped to the side and held an arm out for them to inter the tiny, two roomed building that was his home.
Edrin nodded to Tauren.” Why don’t you go stable the horses up at the fort?” He suggested, grinning up to him, Tauren nodded silently and turned away, leaving the two men to enter the little house while he led the horses up the stone road that led up to the wooden walls of the fort on the hill.
He had only gone a few dozen yards when he heard Marlans voice call to him, he turned back toward the cottage, Marlan stuck his head out of a window over a bed of flowers.” Would you call the off-duty men down here? We might as well have our own good time while the rest of them are having theirs.” He waved at the meadow from which already could be heard the sound of singing and laughing.
“. Sure.” Tauren called back, turning and continuing toward the fort.
The forts massive log walls towered above him before he knew it and a moment later he knocked at the sally port in the wall; a moment later a piece of steel in the door slid to the side and a pair of hard, grim eyes stared out at him, a kind of eyes that a person would only find on an Arrel in those parts.
Perhaps they recognized him from maybe casually meeting him on the fort grounds or the surrounding town and lands, but it only took his name to give him passage through the thick walls, past the thick, heavily armed and armored guards on either side of the door, across the hard packed grounds of the fort, and into the misty, dark, but clean stables.
Edrin had worked hard to make his name one that any Arrel would hear and see a friend in, and to his great credit, he had broken past the hard shells of the warrior-like people, and could honestly say that many where his close friends.
Tauren decided he was proud to have them as friends as well, as he unsaddled the horses in the stables; no, he was honored to have them as friends, anyone would be.
Finished with the horses, he stopped by the massive brick barracks on his way out, leaning into the dark doorway, called cheerfully.” Hoy, all off duty men to the Bunker.” Using the nickname for the Lieutenants house that the soldiers where fond of.
He didn’t wait for an answer, knowing the men would come in a moment; and turning, trotted through the sally port, nodding to the guards, and back down the hill, through the empty streets, to the little cabin surrounded by flowers.
He glanced around; taking in the glare of orange and yellow from the sun as it set over the distant mountains; the sound of music from the meadow to his right; the empty, darkening streets about him; and the silent smile on his lips as he considered that he had it pretty good in life. In a way.
He turned and stepped into the large living room of the small cottage; glancing around he quickly saw Edrin and Marlan over at the fireplace in a corner, tossing armfuls of vegetables and spices into a huge kettle boiling over the crackling flames of the hearth.
They didn’t even seem to register his entrance, seeing as their conversation didn’t even pause, so he silently went to a corner opposite them and sat down in a chair, leaning against the rough pine walls, listening to the conversation and musing over his thoughts.
He soon found himself paying a bit more attention to the conversation in the far corner than he intended to though.
“Nc’Dutu’s orders where to pull out three weeks ago”, He heard Marlan say quietly,” A lot of soldiers have already left, but since we’re so remote the townspeople haven’t heard about it yet.”
“That’s insane”, He heard Edrin say angrily,” Completely defying Arlons Treaty, he knows it, Clasheron can’t be supporting his orders though, and I know him well enough to know he’d never go against a dead friends wishes.”
He would’ve betted that Marlan nodded but he wasn’t looking, as he answered.” That’s part of the problem”, He heard him say.” The archdukes, Du’Renskold and his supporters mainly, are beginning to say that Clasheron is taking personal matters over duty these days, they’re challenging his authority, and after TriPrand things aren’t looking to be in his favor. His supporters are turning against him; even Herensword says that protecting Netheron is threatening Arreland. Things aren’t looking good for our present king.”
Edrin sighed in exasperation.” But this isn’t some personal matter for Clasheron; Arlons Treaty was a political agreement-.”
“. Yes.” Cut in Marlan.” But all the events leading up to it where deeply influenced by Arlon and Clasherons friendship.”
“That’s crazy. Du’Renskold was just as much of a friend of Arlon as Clasheron, he - “Edrin began angrily again.
Marlan cut in again.” I know, but Du’Renskold values his men’s lives too much, and of course he doesn’t believe that the living should owe the dead anything.
Edrin nodded thoughtfully.
Marlan tossed a casual glance at Tauren sitting in the corner.” Let’s not talk about it now, shall we.” He suggested.
Edrin followed his glance and nodded, continuing with his work in silence.
There were only a few moments of that still silence, and then Edrin spoke up again.” So you’re not leaving? “He asked, glancing up at his friend.
Marlan smiled.” No, I’m not; my allegiance is to Clasheron, whether he’s king or not, not to any of his enemies, especially Nc’Dutu.” He chuckled.” After all, I can’t let you and Tauren get hurt, can I?”
Just then there was the sound of a dozen feet on the stairs outside, mingled with laughing voices, and the door burst open admitting a dozen Arrel warriors from the fort.
All were still lightly armed and armored under their white cloaks embroidered on the chest with the red Arrel dragon; they all had eerily similar looks, and all where muscular and well balanced of course, as every warrior was.
But each one of them had the same clean shaven, blue eyed, black haired, faces, and all of them where of practically the exact same height (Somewhere above six feet).
Tauren had often wondered about this curious fact, a fact that had given him constant frustration in placing the right names on the right man, something that was practically a skill in itself with them.
He knew it was part of that curious thing about the Arrels that made them so different form ordinary people, but he hadn’t ever had the nerve to ask one of them about it.
The men swarmed into the room, greeting Tauren, Marlan, and Edrin happily, and taking their seats all over the room on chairs, the table, or the rough pine floor boards.
Tauren found himself talking about his past few uneventful weeks with two chuckling Arrels named Durune and Nc’Ayel, two older men whom he had known for longer than he could remember, they in return tossed in interesting little pieces about things they had done that week, things that made Tauren feel like a boring clod. Chasing robbers, and hunting down cut throats was way out of his league.
The night wore on quickly. They ate the thick stew that Edrin and Marlan had made earlier. And then, over mugs of ale, coffee, and tea, they traded stories; afterwards the Arrels and Edrin sung songs, their deep voices chorusing and echoing in a deep guttural language that Tauren didn’t recognize.
After a couple songs he slipped silently out of the cottage, listening to the cheering from the men as the latest song ended.
He sighed contentedly, he never felt any different when he was with the Arrels, and if he was recruited tomorrow he hoped that war would affect him as it seemed to have affected the Arrels . . .
He glanced over at the violent glow of the bonfire off to his right, over in the meadow by the town, and casually listened to the music and voices coming from that direction.
He sighed again, glancing up at the sky above him, glittering with stars. There, forming a perfectly even five sided shape, where five of the moons of Netheron; it was Harvest Moon formation.
That’s when the screaming started.
He was just about to turn back into the cottage when he heard them; screeching, tearing screams coming from the direction of the bonfire.
He froze, uncertain of what he had just heard, but the street continued to echo with the pained cries.
Suddenly the door behind him slammed open and the Arrels rushed out, swords in hand, closely followed by Edrin, who was brandishing a woodcutting axe.
The Arrels acted so quickly it was as though the whole thing was a rehearsed act; without a sound they flipped their swords to a ready position and spreading out into the shadows of the street, and sped toward the sound, heading off into different side streets so as to come in on the sound from different directions.
Edrin nodded to Tauren.” Go. Get up to the fort. Get the garrison down here.”
Tauren stared at him stupidly.
Edrin headed down the side street that Marlan had taken, turning back to Tauren once.” Go!” He yelled, and disappeared into the shadows.
It took the last yell to break through the feeling of . . . empty fear, that had covered Tauren, and he responded to it by instantly sprinting for the fort towering on the hilltop ahead. Something was wrong; this was his chance, his chance to prove himself.
By calling the soldiers from the fort down to the problem?
It sounded lame, but he knew that it had to be done, he quickly had an image flash through his mind; his grandfather slipping a long, straight bladed sword under the seat of the cart, and he instantly knew where his next destination after alerting the soldiers would be. But why did he feel afraid, what was his training for if he felt so fearful. His heart beat rapidly, thumping in his chest, as he ran, trying not to pay attention to the fear welling up inside him.
But there was no alerting to do; even as he approached the fort he saw the gate swing open on oiled hinges, and a dozen heavily armored Arrels pour out, their armor gleaming in the light of the torches they carried, their red and white cloaks flapping behind them as they ran.
They didn’t even pay any attention to Tauren as he ran toward them, and simply went crashing in a dense formation for the side of the town that glowed with the light of the bonfire and still echoed with the screams.
Tauren rushed by them, into the fort, and into the stables, reaching frantically under the seat of the cart for the sword he had seen earlier. He froze, not sure what to do, he could stay here, he would be safe, he could let the others take care of the problem. No, he told himself, he was better than that. He instantly felt the cold handle of the sword, and whipping it out, turned and rushed back out of the gates, running as hard as he could for the glow and screams.
As he got closer; rushing by the buildings and screaming townspeople running frantically away from the meadow; through the dark shadows of the streets, getting closer by the second to the screams and fire, he began to hear the deep battle cries of the Arrels, and the sound of steel on steel: true terror gripped him, terror that made his knees feel as though they were about to buckle, and his mind screamed at him to run away.
If you fail now, you’ll never succeed, he yelled at himself, and pressed on, forcing himself to run faster, closing his eyes and trying to think of anything that might rid him of this mind – numbing fear that coursed through him.
He was in the former meadow almost before he knew it, and what he saw almost made him lose his resolve. He jerked to a stop and stared: the bonfire seemed to have exploded leaving a blackened smoking crater fifty feet across, the white tents that had been erected for the merry festival where now burning husks, and a dozen houses bordering the meadow already had flames flickering among their boards.
But that wasn’t what scared him; scattered around the field where dozens, if not hundreds, of dark shapes that took him a moment to recognize as bodies, bodies of dead townspeople, and there, in the middle of them was the most fearsome creature he had ever seen.
He had run into a bear in the woods once, it had simply passed him by, not bothering him, but he had caught a glimpse of its three inch fangs and huge claws protruding from its massive feet, it was a creature built to kill.
But this creature was different; he had spoken to his grandfather of the mysterious, terrifying creatures that inhabited Arreland and Halavarde, and, he heard, Netheron as well. And unless he was severely mistaken this was one of them: this was a dragon.
A massive tail, at least forty feet long, trailed down the hillside by the meadow, bristling with spikes; four thick, short legs protruded from its massive green scaled body, each tipped with massive the massive curved talons of a bird of prey; but it’s head was even more fearsome, almost majestic.
Adjoining its huge, thick, spiked neck; frilled with a bony crest; and covered in thick scales of such a dark green they seemed black in the dim, flickering, light. But worst of all where it’s eyes, they were sky blue cats’ eyes, eyes with an intelligence that one would expect on nothing other than a human, but eyes so filled with a lust to kill they struck fear into even the bravest hearts.
Then of course was the fact that it was trying to kill everything in sight, that wasn’t encouraging.
The Arrels had spread out and where charging in at lightning fast speeds, slamming their swords practically uselessly against its thick scales whenever they could, but the dragon was faster than was physically possible for something its size.
Even as he watched it almost snapped Marlan in two as he leaped away from it after having slamming it in the shoulder with his sword, he leaped nimbly out of the way, his eyes flickering in the light, making him look mad himself.
Then he leaped forward, faster than sight could follow, and slammed his sword against a foreleg.
Tauren instantly knew that this fight wasn’t going well, he already saw that three of the Arrels where missing from the group that was attacking the dragon, and it only took him a moment to see their bodies lying a few yards away from the it, mauled, lying in widening pools of blood that was staining the grass and soil red.
In the end chances where, that sheer numbers and drawn out hacking would take it down . . . but that would take time, there might be more of the beasts in the area, and they definitely couldn’t take down two of these things.
The Arrels had always loomed large in Taurens life, he looked up to them in awe, they were his role models for life, and any creature that could kill three of them and pose a deadly threat to 25 others . . .
He saw Edrin spin out of the shadows, swinging the old woodcutting axe and a short sword with an experts speed and skill.
Tauren felt he wouldn’t be needed, this wasn’t his time, and he lowered the sword, content to watch the fight from a safe distance, content to let this particular fight pass him by.
But it was not to be, the dragon roared all of a sudden, the sound echoing into the surrounding forest; and rearing backwards spewed a column of writhing green tinged flame straight at a group of the Arrels, a heat waved blasted into him and Tauren thought they were done for, for sure, but fast as the fire moved, the Arrels where faster, and with surprising ease they sidestepped it and moved in to attack again.
Taking his chance, Marlan leaped in and with a cry swung his long sword full force for the base of the creatures’ neck, but he had forgotten one important factor; its forepaw slammed forward, pinning him to the charred grass and sending his sword flying from his grasp.
Two of the Arrels closest to him ran forward to help him, but the creature roared and its tail swept across the field, knocking half a dozen of them over, and out of reach of their commander.
It raised its head, roaring in triumph. It reached forward to snap Marlan in two, but a moment before it sunk its glistening white fangs into his helpless body a dark form sped forward from behind a burning tent a few yards away, and with a cry slammed an old woodcutting into the side of its head.
Fear gripped Tauren, his grandfather had trained in the use of weapons for half of his life, why wasn’t he doing something; this was his chance to prove himself to the Arrels . . . and Edrin, the people in his life to whom proving himself was most important.
But his legs where frozen to the ground, and as he struggled with himself he was forced to watch the hopeless fight before him unfold.
Edrin stood before the dragon, his axe in one hand, his sword in the other, slamming them both into the gigantic creature as fast and hard as he could, his long grey hair flying about his face, his old eyes sparkling with a light that Tauren had never seen before, but nothing seemed to happen, the weapons simply deflected off of its thick scales. . .
Then something went wrong, a glitch in Edrins dodging, a change in the dragons rhythm; but all of a sudden, before anyone had time to react, the dragons tail whistled out of the darkness and slammed into the old man, sending him flying fifty feet before he slammed into the side of a burning house.
“.NOOOOOOOOOOO!” Tauren cried, finally jerking himself out of his trance and charging forward; the sword readied, his eyes blazing with anger.
The dragon seemed to lose interest in Marlan when he saw Tauren charging for him, and flicking the lieutenant to one side, turned to face him, its intelligent face now wary, its eyes hungry.
Now Tauren saw something he hadn’t noticed earlier, rising behind the dragon, huge and black, blotting out the stars above, where two gigantic wings; it could fly.
With a single bound, aided by its wings, the huge beast leapt over the ground between them, batting any Arrels who got in the way, out of the way.
The instant it landed in front of him; its tail came whistling in from the side, whooshing over the grass, bristling with spikes, and flattening anything in the way as though it weren’t there.
Tauren did the only thing he could; without a thought he leaped straight up, as high as he could, releasing the sword for a downward swing underneath him, hoping to catch the dragons’ tail with the two weapons combined speed and power.
The sword caught flesh and the dragon wailed in pain for the first time now. Tauren landed easily, wind buffeting him from the dragons wings, his previous anger overtaken by a bit of care, the years of training he had now kicking in.
Fire flew now, lighting the night for miles, twisting toward him. But time seemed to slow down for Tauren, and he simply jumped forward under the dragons head slamming the sword into its foreleg with every ounce of force he had as he did so.
The blade sunk in only a few inches, but the flames stopped abruptly, replaced by another wail of pain.
Just them he heard a resounding series of metallic crashes, and war cries, and knew that the Arrels where lending their hand from behind, he yelped and leaped to the side, almost flattened by a forepaw. You can’t let anything distract you in a fight, his grandfather had told him, if you do, you die.
Tauren didn’t waste a second, gripping the wire wrapped hilt of the sword, he slammed upwards as hard as he could, forcing himself upward with his legs, and sinking the sword a foot and a half into the dragons chest, right at the base of its ribs.
That should do it, he thought to himself grimly.
The creature wailed, the sound echoing into the night, but this time it was a weak wail. It tried to take off, but it didn’t have the start it needed, and it tottered on its short legs, its wings flapping feebly.
Tauren turned and ran now, knowing that he had finally given a killing stroke, just in time too; for, with a slow crash, the dragon fell on its side, shaking the earth.
He stopped, turning to look back, the dragons massive eye blinked slowly, the anger in them slowly dying and being replaced by a look he didn’t understand . . . fear? Sorrow? Pity? He didn’t know.
And then, with a final shuddering breath, it closed its eyes for the last time, and there was silence once again in the meadow; but for the crackling of the flames.
Tauren turned and ran for the dark shape by the side of the house. He dropped to his knees, tossing the sword onto the charred grass, and looked down at his grandfather.
It took him only a glance to know that the old man didn’t have much time; fear gripped him, true fear; fear of living in a world without the guiding hand of the most eminent personage of his short life.
His chest was crushed from the side, his legs where bent at angles that made him sure they were both broken, he took a deep breath, taking in the knowledge, quelling his fear, and choking down a sob.
“. Tauren,” A weak voice sighed, and he glanced down at Edrin, and saw, to his amazement that the old man’s brown eyes where open, fixed intently on his face.
“. Grandpa” He cried.” You’re alive.” He felt hope surge back into him, maybe all wasn’t lost yet.
But the old man’s next words cut the thought off.” I don’t have much time left.” He held out a weak hand, a hand that grasped a small leather bag, a simple thing that Tauren had seen hanging at his belt for . . . for as long as he could remember.” I’ve carried this for 70 years.” He sighed weakly. “And now, at my death, I pass it on, to you; Tauren Netharu.”
Tauren shook his head, tears forming in his eyes now.” You’re not going to die.”
Edrins eyes searched weakly for Taurens.” Tauren, you’ve been my best friend, my companion, and my grandson, for all of your life. Now do me a favor.” His eyes softened.” Let me go.”
Tauren was speechless, and the old man continued.” In this is to be the answer to all of our problems.” He glanced over Taurens shoulder, and Tauren noticed that the Arrels where standing around them, watching respectfully, the old man’s eyes caught Marlans, and he nodded solemnly to him.” Take it to Lord Jaden Clasheron of Arreland; he’ll know what to do.”
Suddenly, with a surge of strength, the dying man dropped the leather bag and grasping Tauren by his shirt pulled himself forward, and whispered, in one last final effort.” Don’t, trust, anyone!”
And then Edrin Netharu fell back, and closed his eyes for the last time.
Tears fell shamelessly from Taurens cheeks as he stood; he looked around the former meadow, now burning, scarred, and disfigured by the body of the huge, dead dragon. Slowly he reached down and picked up the leather bag, it was light, and felt empty; slowly he opened it and looked inside. There was nothing in it.
Angrily he stuffed it into his pocket and turned to the Arrels.
Marlan nodded to him slowly and sadly, his own clothing covered in blood, mostly his own, and his sword hanging limply by his side, covered in blood as well. The others looked no better. Then slowly he grasped his sword, and drew it, raising it over his head and cried into the night.” All hail, Edrin Netharu.”
The other Arrels raised their swords in salute as well, echoing the cry, Tauren reached down and picked up the sword he had dropped and did too.
Tauren turned back to the body one more time, and just as he was about to turn away, he froze. It was glowing with a blue aura, seeming to sparkle and shine, he turned to Marlan, who was looking at it grimly, and was about to ask what was going on when there was a flash of blinding blue light behind him and when he turned back to the body, there was nothing there, not even a shred of clothing.
Almost as one the Arrels bowed solemnly, and Tauren followed their example, though not knowing why.
“.What was that?” He asked, turning to Marlan in amazement as he stood his voice choking.
Marlan nodded to his men, and they dispersed into the clearing, beginning to clean up the mess and tend to their wounds.” That was the Protector honoring your grandfather with us.”
“. The Protector?” Tauren asked, not understanding.
Marlan didn’t answer; he stepped forward and clasped Taurens hands, looking him intently in the eyes, his own searching in Taurens.” Tauren, I don’t know what your grandfather just gave you, but I suspect something. You need to leave Carmenton, now. Do whatever he told you too. But never return to this spot.” He looked almost nervously into the starless, smoky night sky, his black eyes glinting.
“. What?.” Tauren asked incredulous, tears in his eyes.” I have questions, I can’t leave now. What are you going to do? What just happened?” He gestured to the spot where his grandfather had lain only a minute before.” What was that?” He gestured to the hulking dead body of the dragon.
Marlan was silent for a moment, looking solemn, but respectful.” That was a Durwing, a Halavarde war dragon. I’ve fought them before on Arreland. I killed one with my bare hands when I was hardly any older than you. As to me; I’m staying here with my men, the people must be protected, if one Durwing can make it by, then worse things can too. I’ll do what I can to help you, but it won’t be much I’m afraid.”
Tauren felt confused by the speed of events, his grandfather had given him an empty leather bag and told him to go to a whole other land and give it to their king, one of the people he trusted most in the world was telling him to leave immediately and that he wouldn’t be able to do much to help him on a journey that would take months . . . if not years to make. . .
Then something popped into his mind.” You killed one of these with your bare hands?” He asked, incredulous, certain he had heard wrong.
But Marlan simply nodded.
Tauren shook his head.” Please, explain things to me.” He cried into the night, tears streaming down his face, grief and hopelessness gripping him.” My grandfather disappears in a flash of light. You talk about a Protector that I’ve never even heard of. We, me and you, are so different from everyone else, stronger, faster . . . You say you killed something with your bare hands that you almost lost twenty – five men trying to take down a moment ago. . .” He gestured futilely into the darkness.
Marlan listened silently, and then he reached forward and grasped Taurens shoulders and shook him softly, his eyes glinting with a soft burning anger.” I’m sorry Tauren. I’d tell you, I would! But this is your quest, you have to find out anything you want to know on your own. Anything about your parents, your grandfather, your quest, or about you. You must write your own fate; this is one spot where I’m not allowed to interfere. Let it suffice for me to say . . . the world isn’t what it seems.” He reached down and took Taurens hand, his voice softening.” I’m sorry. Go to the fort, get a horse, and leave. Don’t look back.”
The man that Tauren had known for most his life turned his back to him, leaving in his clenched hand a small pouch of gold. Tauren stared after him as he walked away, confused, with no idea what to do. The grief was gone, replaced by emptiness and a bit of anger.
Something his grandfather had told him years before flashed across his mind, if you feel unsure of what to do, simply act, simply do something and then let it flow.
With a gulp he turned, picked up the sword he had dropped, and then began running for the fort, not looking back, and glad he didn't; he didn't want Marlan or any of his former friends to see the tears in his eyes.
Tauren leaned down and carefully felt the hoof print.
He rubbed his fingers around the edge, taking in the damp feeling, and carefully checked how much the soil had dried since the horses hoof had been there.
His expert knowledge on stalking and hunting made it so that when he saw a simple print made my some passing animal he could find a wealth of information about it.
He knew that this horse had weighed over 1000 pounds, and he knew it carried a load; he suspected that its right forelegs knee was somehow damaged, causing it to have a slight limp; he could guess that the horse carried a heavy load, but it had only a small rider, seeing as to the way that its prints differed when someone’s footprints where next to its hoof prints and when they weren’t.
He also knew that whoever was riding it was armed and knew how to use their weapons; he knew this due to the way they had cut their firewood at their previous campsite he’d passed, the strokes where sword strokes, perfectly executed, and with a stunning amount of power.
Much of what he could guess from the various signs the rider and horse left him was very uncertain, and he wasn’t planning on risking his life on any of that information.
He stood slowly, wiping his hands off on his grey cloak he had acquired a few days before at a small town, and turning, leaped up onto T’hunes back.
The bay didn’t need any directions and started instantly down the small forest road, under the spreading trees; over the beautiful carpet of colorful autumn leaves, leaves that where stopping to fall from the barren branches overhead.
It had been five days since he had rushed up to the hilltop in Carmenton, grabbed his bow, jumped on T’hune, and rode off into the forest . . . without looking back.
He still didn’t look back.
He had had a hard first day, feeling empty and betrayed, after which he had simply turned T’hunes head down the forest road and started riding, without aim, without anything in mind.
He had bought some supplies at a town three days before, and had been riding ever since through the vast expanse of forest trails, wandering without cause, not even running into a single other traveler . . . until now.
The day before, he had taken a new fork in the trail and found that this was a more used path. He had followed it now for three days, and knew that he was catching up on whoever it was that was ahead of him . . . but something was bothering him, perhaps it was the almost indecipherable signs he saw every now and again in the forest . . . perhaps it was the rotting carcasses of two wolves had found that morning, ripped apart and stinking, but fresh, and riddled in teeth marks.
He wasn’t worried about himself, he wasn’t worried at all, but he felt something was wrong with this part of the world, he could feel it deep inside, gnawing at him.
He knew that something was seriously wrong in the woods; birds had stopped singing and he saw far fewer of them than there should have been; wolves had stopped howling, and everything subdued, the skies where cloudy and a haze seemed to cover the sun during the brief periods of time when it did come out from behind its covers.
He couldn’t place it.
He rode in silence for some time, his senses on edge, listening for any sign of movement from the woods, the sun was getting lower and he would have to make camp soon, T’hune needed rest even if he didn’t.
He continued on, careful, but still enjoying the woods, the silence, and the peace that always seemed to come with them, but it was peace with a sharp edge.
He heard a wolf howl in the distance and started, usually that was a good sound to him, and he loved wolves and the part they played in nature; but something was wrong with the howl, it was too short, too much like a hounds cry, and far too bloodthirsty.
He shuddered uncomfortably and nudged T’hune into a clearing in the forest a few dozen yards from the trail, he took very little time, using his sword and hands, to get a good fire burning and get T’hune comfortably padded down for the night.
Then he took his bow and carefully walked into the darkening woods, hoping to catch something for his dinner before complete darkness fell.
The nights where getting colder, and Tauren was glad for his heavy coat that night, the frigid air bit his hands and face, only made colder by a soft breeze.
He walked through the silent, dark, trees, not making a sound, and not hearing a sound; he didn’t like that, the night was supposed to be alive with sounds, bats, owls, nocturnal animals . . . all kinds of things, yet it was silent as a tomb.
He hadn’t gone for fifty yards from the camp when he heard his first sound, and it wasn’t one he had wanted to hear; it was the sound of footsteps, heavy armored footsteps; the sound of at least ten armored men crashing through the brush only fifty yards from him.
Without a pause he spun behind a tree, listening carefully, they were coming straight for him, and he had a feeling that if they were out on this night; they weren’t friendly.
Whoever they were where moved fast and the next thing he knew he heard the sound of rough voices right behind his tree.” It can’t be far”, Muttered one of them,” It’s had to have camped down somewhere close by.”
“. Who knows? Those things can keep going all night and all day for a week without rest I hear.” Another voice muttered.
“.They can”, Whispered a third,” But their horses can’t. Now shut it you two; the last thing I want to do is start this night with a fight.” This voice had a considerable amount of authority Tauren noticed, and the other two fell silent. He guessed from the sound that there must have been at least 12 of them standing there.
“.Why don’t we just let the hounds on it?” Whined a new voice, there were some grunts of approval.
There was the sound of a thick growl and the third voice spoke again.” Shut up I said! Because we’re not cowards for one thing, and for another, the hounds wouldn’t stand a chance. Now draw swords and come on.”
There was the sound of steel on steel and the whole group poured past the tree Tauren stood behind, not even noticing the dark cloaked figure standing there. They were soldiers; that much was obvious from their armor and swords gleaming in the light cast by the crescent moon.
Tauren started, they weren’t just any soldiers, they were Halavardes, easily distinguished by their flowing black cloaks and kite shaped shields emblazoned with the Halavarde’s dragon. Halavardes where men who were well known for their complete lack of fear in battle; men who had earned a ruthless reputation for bloodthirstiness, a reputation that wasn’t ill founded either.
He remembered his last night in Carmenton; he remembered the whispered conversation between his grandfather and Marlan, they had said that the Arrels had been ordered to pull out of Netheron. That meant that Halavardes now had easy access to a virtually undefended world, and there they were now.
But who where they hunting?
He had to find out.
He sighed, laid an arrow on string, readied his sword; then, shaking his head, turned and trotted after them.
Why was he risking his neck for someone he didn’t even know? Because he could help them, and when someone was threatened and he could help, yet didn’t . . . well, it was his responsibility to help if he could, he said to himself.
The last Halavarde in the line of running men wasn’t even noticed as an arrow slammed through his heart from behind, and he fell silently to the ground, dead without a word.
The second one gave a startled cry just before he crumpled to the earth, an arrow sticking out of his back, blood pouring onto the ground.
Tauren couldn’t help but be impressed with the speed with which the others reacted; leaping into the forest in all directions at an order shouted from their commander, and then converging on the general area from where they figured the arrows where coming, from at a speed that was simply incredible.
He wasn’t impressed about it for long; they were coming in fast, from every direction, and though they didn’t know exactly where he was they had guessed fairly well and would be on top of him in a moment if he didn’t do something.
He snapped off two more shots, then dropping his bow, drew his sword, and ran full force right into the surprised leader of the group, knocking him onto his back with a startled cry.
Tauren didn’t hesitate; he stabbed down hard, straight through the armor, and into the man’s heart. Keep your pressure until you see the life leave his eyes, he heard his grandfather’s stern voice whisper in his ear.
The man stared into his eyes, the surprise dying from them quickly and being replaced by pain, and then they finally rolled back and he died. But he had misjudged his opponents, they didn’t hesitate or slow down, they simply leaped at him from all directions, swinging their swords in deadly arcs, screaming for his blood.
He barely blocked the first few swings they aimed at him, but his moment of hesitation had been his doom. They surrounded him quickly, prodding him carefully, their dark eyes filled with anger and hatred.
He felt like he always imagined a deer felt when caught in a trap, helpless.
Fast and strong as he was they easily equaled him. He knew he was outmatched; this might be the night he died, trying to defend someone he didn’t even know . . .
But fate had other plans apparently.
A tall, dark figure suddenly appeared behind the Halavardes, a massive battle axe gleaming in the soft light. There was a whoosh, a scream, and one of the men in front of him crashed to the earth, the axe buried in his back.
Tauren took the quick glitch in their concentration, slamming his sword into one man’s helmet with full force, the man crumpled to the ground as Tauren spun back around and stuck his sword under one man’s shoulder guard, and deep into him.
He screamed and fell to the ground as well.
But the remaining five men where onto them now, two went after Taurens unknown benefactor, and the other three went after Tauren. But chance was against the Halavardes, one of them tripped on a root as he approached Tauren and was stabbed in the neck, and the other was too slow to get out of the way of the battle axe wielded by the dark cloaked man and crumpled silently to the earth.
The remaining three men saw their dead companions littered about the forest floor and saw the two deadly warriors facing them, and decided, wisely, that it was time to embrace the less honorable decision. Then, turning, they raced off into the darkness, Tauren didn’t want to follow them, and his companion didn’t seem to want to either.
Slowly he sheathed his sword and turned to face the man.
Tauren was surprised to see it wasn’t a man at all, it was a boy, hardly any older than he was, tall and well built, long black hair, and piercing black eyes, the massive battle axe leaning over his shoulder. He nodded solemnly to Tauren.
Tauren nodded back.” Thanks . . . “He trailed off, not sure what to say.
“. No problem.” The other answered, lowering his axe and studying Tauren.
Tauren stepped over to where he had dropped his bow and picking it up slung it over his shoulder.” I’m Tauren.” He held out his hand for the other boy.
The other hesitated for a moment.” I’m Detrick.” He answered, grasping his hand firmly.” Detrick Averone.”
Tauren nodded, Carmenton had been an out-of-the-way town and few travelers had ever passed through it, but there were other towns in the forest and around it that had a great number of people passing between them, he simply assumed this was a traveler passing through.
He had never been one to pry into other people’s business, and made no exception now; only planning on thanking the other for his help and then continuing on with his original purpose as though nothing had ever happened. But Detrick wasn’t like that.
Tauren was about to walk back into the woods again when he stopped him.” How about some supper?” He proposed, grinning widely, transforming his face so that he looked more like a boy and less like a serious warrior.
Tauren wasn’t used to people trying to be nice to him, and to say the truth, was at quite a loss of words, unsure of what to say.” I don’t have anything.” He said simply, trying to shrug the others friendly advance off.
Detrick chuckled.” Then I’ll provide, I’ve got plenty, don’t worry.”
Tauren hesitated, not sure what to do. He had been trained to fight but he was not good at doing much with people other than just that.
“.Come on, I haven’t seen anyone for three days.” He continued”. And I did just save your life.” He added.
Tauren rolled his eyes now.” So what are you going to do, kidnap me for supper?” But he had stopped preparing to go into the woods, and had decided that he might as well, there could be no harm in it . . . he hoped. He gestured for the other to lead the way.
Detrick grinned.” I might.” Then he asked”. Would you happen to have a campsite somewhere around here . . . I haven’t had time to set up camp, I just heard some yelling over here and came . . . so.”
Tauren nodded.” Yeah, just over here.” He paced through the trees, followed by Detrick, and into the little clearing with the fire still burning in the middle of it, and the small bay horse tethered over to one side, cropping the sparse grass.
Detrick rubbed his hands together, and smiled appreciatively at the fire.” Let me just go get something.” He trotted into the darkness and came back a moment later leading a tall black horse, amazingly built, and obviously capable of a lot of speed.
He pulled off a saddlebag and tossed it over to Tauren.” Here, why don’t you put something together while I get Whinnick settled down?” He suggested nonchalantly.
Tauren caught the bag.” Sure.” He answered simply, and began to prepare a quick meal, smiling appreciatively at the sight of salted pork, peaches, and other things that he, as a poor famer, had always considered a delicacy.
A moment later he had served out the food on slabs of bark off of a tree next to the fire, his usual on-the-go plates, and Detrick stepped over.
They ate quickly and silently, enjoying the meal, Tauren especially so, seeing as it had a couple of things in it he had only had once or twice in his life due to their rarity around Carmenton.
Then Detrick took off his cloak and laying it beneath him, leaned back against a log by the fire and sighed appreciatively, Tauren followed his example and a moment later they were silently sitting there, staring up at the stars, slightly dimmed by the light smoke that the fire gave off.
Tauren glanced at his new companion, and was surprised to see that under the cloak Detrick wore chain mail, a pair of daggers, a belt of throwing knives, and a sword, on top of which was his massive battle axe.” Are you a soldier?” He asked before he could stop himself.
Detrick shrugged.” Not really, I joined Earl Veranen’s army only a couple months ago. My father wanted me to . . . I wanted too as well to tell you the truth, just the whole idea of serving my country, and protecting my people felt really attractive.” He waved a hand vaguely”. Anyway, what about you? You have to be a soldier to have the kind of skill with weapons you have.”
Tauren didn’t really want to explain his life to a stranger and answered simply.” I’m not a soldier.” Hoping the other would let it stay at that.
But Detrick gave a snort.” You sure could have fooled me. How’d you learn to use weapons like that?”
“.My grandfather used to be a soldier, he taught me.” Tauren explained.
Detrick nodded.” I really don’t know much about weapons, the Earl Veranen’s men are all equipped just like I am, I really don’t know too much about weapons. I just use the axe because I’m strong and because it’s the only thing that can bring you relatively close to those Halavardes speed and strength.”
Tauren nodded.” You sure need strength to use that thing; it’s got to be an eight pound head.”
“. Ten actually”.
They sat in a friendly silence for a few minutes, a silence again broken by Tauren.” So why are you out here?” He asked, gesturing to the dark forest surrounding them, flickering in the light of the small fire.
“. I’m carrying a message from Earl Veranen to Duke Cazerone.” Detrick answered, not looking at him.” They say that the Duke is getting his own army together . . . my job is to find out of the rumor is true, and to deliver the Earls message if it is.”
“. Forgive my ignorance.” Tauren said after a slight pause.” But I really haven’t lived anywhere near any major cities or anything and have absolutely no idea who Duke Cazerone and Earl Veranen are, or why they should be gathering armies . . . I’m a bit behind the news I’m afraid.”
Detrick turned to him, looking surprised.” You don’t know about the Arrels moving out of Netheron last month?”
Tauren shook his head.” I’ve heard some hints, like the attack tonight, but I have no real details.”
Detrick nodded.” Well, since I’m going to be sharing your campsite I think I owe you a story at least.” He leaned back and gathered his thoughts. Then with a sigh, he began.” It all started about three years ago. From what I know there was some kind of serious battle between the Arrels and Halavardes, it was fought on Arreland mind you, and apparently the Arrels where badly outnumbered and where beaten badly. So next thing you know a new political faction starts popping up on Arreland, a faction that thinks that Arreland shouldn’t be protecting Netheron, I mean, Nethers aren’t Arrels, and they don’t think it’s right that Arrels should have to die for Nethers. But the king of Arreland isn’t part of this faction, and since he has a lot of power, and only four or five of the fifteen Arrel archdukes are part of it, it doesn’t go anywhere, not yet anyway. Then early last year there was another battle and the Arrels simply didn’t have the numbers they needed and where beaten. Apparently though, TriPrand, the more recent battle, was a lot bitterer loss for some of the Archdukes than the previous one. And next thing you know the balance is tipped and the king finds his authority being overridden and a new king is being demanded, he’d been king for a really long time, and so he fights against them to the last. And last month a new king was chosen, some Archduke Du’Renskold, and he gave out orders for all the soldiers to pull out of Netheron and return to Arreland. Only a few of them stayed: obstinate supporters of Clasheron apparently. But due to the ancient treaty from back when Arreland began to protect Netheron hundreds of years ago, the Nethers are not allowed to have a standing army, and now that the Arrels are gone Netheron is practically helpless, so a few Nether Earls and Dukes are trying to get armies together and defend Netheron. My father was a merchant in Kunderang Port, Emerarion Province, and when the Earl that ruled the area, Veranen, started recruiting an army, I joined. We heard that Duke Cazerone, of southern Caraca, was doing the same thing, so a couple of messengers were sent, proposing that the two armies join forces. But the messengers where killed by Halavardes on the journey, so me and forty nine others were sent in the hopes that at least one of us would make it through. I took a bit northerly route, planning on going north then coming south again, but it’s taken a long time, and someone else has probably already made it through. But I’m going to continue on, and get to Vaetrion as soon as I can . . . who knows, maybe nobody else made it through and I’ll be a hero for a change.” He grinned at Tauren.” There, you’re updated on the news . . . vaguely enough. Would you mind telling me something about yourself now?” He added the last bit on after a short pause.
Tauren sighed, and gave the other boy his history, only cutting out a few little pieces, such as what his grandfather had given him as he died, the flash of light . . . all things of that type, things he didn’t quite understand himself, and things he thought it would be wise to keep to himself.
Detrick asked only a few simple questions before falling silent and laying there on his log, staring up at the stars.
Slowly an idea began to build up in Tauren, it began to become a plan and before he knew it he had turned to Detrick and asked in a subdued voice.” Do you think the Earl could use a soldier to guard one of his messengers on his way to Vaetrion Fortress?”
Tia’DiLeorna Fortress, Kinsingskeld city, Arreland.
Fortresses always looked the best at sunset, decided Jaden Clasheron, the late king of Arreland.
He stood, the wind whipping his long black hair about his scarred face, on the northern tower adjoining the keep’ outer wall.
It was his favorite place to spend his time; a place where he could stop thinking about all the things, he, as king, was required to consider, if only for a few minutes every evening.
He leaned over the massive crenulations on the battlements, looking over the edge of the limestone tower down at the moat almost a hundred and fifty feet below.
He smiled, remembering the day he had climbed over the burning ruin of this very tower, his faithful soldiers behind him, cheering him on, his sister, friends, and brother on either side . . . what he would not give now to go back and relive those days.
He sighed, his detecting spells already alerting him to the identity of the man standing behind him.
He answered without turning.” Jacob.”
On any other day he would have been happy to see his brother-in-law but today wasn’t a day that would be remembered happily . . . not for him anyway.
A heavy, calloused hand fell on his shoulder.” I’m sorry.” The other said simply.
Jaden turned, looking his friend over; he was the same as ever, short brown hair, a heavy chain mail suit covered by a vest depicting the raven that was his people’s symbol, and his eyes, deep, wise, and sad as ever.
He shrugged in response.” It’s not important.”
Jacob laughed now, deep and hearty.” Not important? You may be able to fool everyone else, but you can’t fool me, this has hit you hard, as it should. You’ve dedicated your life to the Arrel people, and now they’ve spurned you.”
Jaden dropped his carefree stance, the true sadness and anger in his heart surfacing.” If only it had been a bit better ratio.” He said in a despairing tone”. But nine to one . . .! “
“.I warned you.” Jacob answered simply.
Jaden nodded, remembering what Jake had told him long ago. Life isn’t fair, what life produces is even less so. You trust a person, and they will betray you. You serve someone, and they will refuse to pay you. You love someone, and they will hate you. You give a people your life, and in the end they’ll spit you out and grind you into the dirt.
Granted that was a rather pessimistic view of life, not all of it was true all the time . . . but it was wise to expect little of people, and chances were you wouldn’t be disappointed.
“. What are you going to do now?” Jacob asked grimly.” You always have a home in Isarua, should you need one.”
“. I have a plan . . .” Jaden said vaguely, trailing off, not sure if his friend would approve of what he had in mind now that he wasn’t King of Arreland anymore.
Jacob grunted, waiting.
“. It’s crazy . . . “
Jacob chuckled.” I recall some pretty crazy plans that you’ve come up with. What’s this one?”
Jaden sighed; he might as well tell Jacob.” If my own people don’t want me, then I think I should go and find another people who do.” He gazed up at the hazy orange sun falling behind the mountains in the distance.
Jacob frowned.” Isarua could use you . . . but I have a feeling that wasn’t what you had in mind.”
“. I was actually thinking Netheron.” Jaden said clenching his teeth, knowing what was about to happen.
“. What?! ”
“. Netheron needs help, they’re about to be invaded. I hear some of the nobles there are trying to make a stand, but they don’t stand a chance. I can give them the experience and power that they’ll need.” His argument was well thought over, and he was planning on going whether his brother-in-law wanted him too or not.
Jacob looked worried; he knew that Jaden would as well.” Jaden, seriously? They’re farmers; they won’t even slow the Halavardes down. You’re practically suggesting taking on the entire Halavarde Empire on by yourself?!”
Jaden chuckled.” Sure would be a nice climax to my career wouldn’t it? Taking on the entire Halavarde Empire by myself! Sounds rather epic, doesn’t it?”
“. It’d be the end to your ‘career’.” Jacob answered angrily.
There was an uncomfortable silence between them.
“. I was actually planning on trying to get a bit of help.” Jaden said after a few moments.
Jacob frowned.” Who? You’re not king here anymore, you don’t control the army now. Well, not officially anyway. I’d help you, but Netheron isn’t Isarua, and I can’t ask Isaruan soldiers to defend land that isn’t theirs.”
“.I was planning on checking with Jerry and Danerack.” Jaden answered.
Jacob looked thoughtful.” Danerack will help you; he’s always itching to try out one of his combat thingy’s. He’ll give you a hard fighting core and good surveillance, but not the kind of numbers or power you’ll need. So Jerry . . . “Jacob looked thoughtful, he wasn’t as into war and fighting as his brother-in-law, but he knew enough to know that it was a good plan.
“. There’s only one problem.” Jaden said firmly.
“. Oh?” Jacob asked, unable to find a flaw in the plan.
“. I haven’t heard from Jerry in six years, and I’m not sure I really want to go to Azquelden itself to talk to him.” Jaden kept staring at the colors of the falling sun.” He may not be able to help anyway; he’s got his own problems after all.”
Jacob shook his head.” Just get Danerack to send a probe to Azquelden if all else fails. And after all, he is your brother; I think he’d help you.”
Jaden glanced over at his friend.” Oh he’ll help, but not because we’re brothers. He was just as much a friend of Arlon as I was, and he’d do a lot for what Arlon upheld and cared for.”
There was silence for a few minutes, finally broken by Jacob.” Jaden, I don’t like it. The Halavardes are very powerful, and even with Danerack and Jerry, you may not be able to beat them.” He shook his head.” When are you leaving?”
Jaden shrugged.” There’s not need to waste time, actually, every second counts. I’m leaving in five minutes.”
“. What about your things? Aren’t you saying goodbye to all your friends?” Jacob asked in surprise.
Jaden gave him a bitter side glance.” What friends? What things?”
Jacob looked away, ashamed, he had it all, a good home, a wife, children, power, money, and he was content, happy even. Jaden had none of that now . . .
Jaden turned away.” I’m going to leave now.” He said finally.” Goodbye Jacob, give my best to Maria and the kids.” He stood in-between two of the crenulations in the wall, his arms outstretched, inhaling the cold wind, ready to make the leap that would bring him out of this world.
He was just about to jump when Jacob stopped him.” Jaden, before you go, there’s something you should know.” He sounded uncertain, afraid almost.
Jaden frowned.” What?”
Jacob looked down at his armored boots.” Edrin was killed.”
Jacob felt bad telling him now, especially now, and looked away from Jaden’s stricken expression quickly.” How? ” Jaden asked, his eyes confused and filled with sorrow.
“. A Durwing killed him.”
“. Pah.” Jaden spat”. Edrin could have killed one of those with a flick of his little finger.”
“. You must remember.” Jacob said slowly.” Magic isn’t allowed on Netheron without special permissions, Edrin wasn’t the man he used to be, he’d grown old.” Jacob was sad himself; he had liked Edrin, though he hadn’t been as close to him as Jaden had.
Jaden nodded, and they bowed their heads in respectful silence for a few moments, then Jaden looked up, an angry fire in his eyes.” And the Box?”
Jacob smiled slowly.” Apparently he had a grandson whom he gave it to; he gave him orders to bring it to you actually. At the moment however I think he’s not sure what to do . . .”
Jaden looked surprised at this piece of news.” Well I’d better go get it then.”
Jacobs’s eyes hardened and he shook his head firmly.” No Jaden, you have to leave this boy to his own path. You will get the Box in time. He’s not just any kid, he has a fate.”
Jaden frowned and was about to say something but Jacob cut him off.” Forget I ever told you about him, Jaden. Leave him alone. There’s something very . . . fishy about this whole business.”
Jaden frowned harder.” Does this have something to do with your mystery employer?”
Jacob nodded turning to look at the grassy courtyard inside the wall.” Goodbye Jaden.” He said, his voice pronouncing the finality of the statement.
Jaden grinned, shaking off the uncomfortable moment.” Fishy? Was that the best you could do?”
Jacob grinned to himself and turned to give some sarcastic answer but the words died in his throat, the limestone ramparts before him were empty, Jaden had disappeared into thin air.
He shook his head and turned around, starting with surprise when he saw another man standing there, as though he had been listening to them the entire time.” Dracon Du’Renskold.” He growled, recognizing him instantly.” Have you been eavesdropping?”
Du’Renskold was a tall man, extremely heavily built, and always in his armor, he had long black hair, and blue eyes that, for the first time Jacob had ever seen, looked sad.” I didn’t want this.” He stated simply.
“. What?” Jacob asked, not understanding, he knew Du’Renskold was a hard, practical man, formed by the cruelty of life, but he wasn’t evil.
“. I thought he’d stick around. I thought our friendship meant more to him than the throne.” Du’Renskold looked seriously regretful.
Jacob sighed, he was glad to hear some regret in the other man’s voice.” It’s hard to face it when people make choices like that, but you pushed him, you pushed him hard.”
Du’Renskold nodded slowly, his eyes almost watering; he remembered the day that he had marched into the massive throne rooms, only three days after the disaster of TriPrand.
It had been a cold morning, and he was tired after three days of hard fighting, and angry after having gotten beaten, and he was in a terrible mood.
Jaden had sat as ever, on his massive golden throne, surrounded by his courtiers and servants, and when he had seen Du’Renskold he had stood and called him a welcome back.
“. I need to speak to you.” Du’Renskold had said, taking the kings arm and pulling him into the small room behind the throne.” TriPrand was lost.” He had stated simply, once they were alone.
Jaden hadn’t seemed too shattered by the news, troubled, but not overly so.
In a flash of anger Du’Renskold had reached forward and grabbed the massive, brocaded cloak, pulling the king so they were face to face, hissing angrily.” Jaden, you have to pull our men out of Netheron, if I had had all of my men today I wouldn’t come back in shame.”
Jaden had shaken his head, twisting out of his grip.” No, I told you, I am king of Netheron as well as Arreland, we must protect Netheron. I won’t argue with you about it, you can’t convince me.”
“.This is about that damned king of theirs, Arlon.” Du’Renskold had muttered.” Your old friend, you want to respect his memory? Well respect it without –“
Jaden had cut him off, angry himself now.” He was your friend as well, if you remember. Don’t make me have order you to leave; we’ve been friends for too long for that.”
Du’Renskold had stood, trying to take himself under control, slightly ashamed of himself. There had been a long pause.
“. But Jaden,” Du’Renskold had pleaded,” Arrels should never have to protect land that isn’t theirs, you are Arrel. Let the Nethers protect their own lands, please. You’re not even of the Nether line, you’re not a true king of Netheron and you know it. No man should have to die for something that he doesn’t believe in as right. No man!”
Jaden held up a placating hand.” Dracon, those men chose me as their king, in doing so they put themselves under my authority, under my decisions. They trusted me to make the right decisions, they believe in me to do what’s right, they made that choice. And we have to protect Netheron, for Arlons sake, and for Netherons sake, there are people there, families, children, we must protect them.”
“.BUT MY MEN ARE DYING!” Du’Renskold had roared furiously.” My men are out there, dying, dying, dying, if we don’t get our men all in one spot and face the Halavardes, soon there won’t be an Arreland to protect Netheron. Let Nethers protect Nethers!”
Jaden had pushed his angry friend back.” NO!” He had roared with finality.
Du’Renskold had stood, his anger gone, and replaced by pure bitterness.” Then I’ll make you!”
He had turned away and stormed out of the king’s presence.
It had taken him a couple of days to reason himself out of his anger, but he had, and had proposed that the people make a vote on which of the two of them they wanted as king.
The suggestion effectively ended their friendship, but Jaden believe the king served the people and not the other way around, and had little way to refuse . . . Jaden had been rejected by his own people nine to one. . .
But now that he looked back, Du’Renskold didn’t want Jaden to leave . . . he was still his friend . . .
Jacob shrugged.” Sorry, he won’t be coming back I think. The Halavardes are being very serious about this invasion, and he’ll soon see that there isn’t much he can do to stop it on his own.” He sighed sadly.” And Jaden Clasheron lives by one rule.”
Du’Renskold looked sidelong at Jacob.” What’s that?”
“. Never let yourself defeated, no matter what you have to do to make sure you aren’t. If you can’t win, then die trying.”
The frigid morning air bit into Tauren as he saddled T’hune.
The night before, Detrick had shown Tauren the route he planned to take to get to Duke Cazerones fortress far to the south, deep in the massive plains that covered much of Caraca. It was, for sure, a roundabout way, one that Detrick was hoping the Halavardes hunting him wouldn’t suspect him to take.
They would have to get out of the forest first, and then they would head down the mountains bordering the ocean, staying to the inland slopes, after some seventy-five miles they would reach a canyon by the side of which ran an ancient road, long since abandoned. They would follow it for another 40 miles or so before they finally reached the Dukes fortress capital; Vaetrion.
From the map that Detrick carried, Tauren guessed it would take them another four or five hours to get out of the forest and another three days at least to get to the massive canyon, going hard. Then, at the same pace, it should take another day or two to reach the Dukes fortress.
That added up to six to seven days, if all went well.
And chances where against everything going well, it appeared.
After getting out of the forest, which, in that area, was filled with all kinds of mysterious beasts, that, it was rumored, fed on innocent travelers passing through; they would have to leave the relatively easy forest trail and make off into the Great Eastern Plain of Caraca.
And the plains where hilly, rocky, and would give them a hard a time as their enemies could wish for.
After the plains they would have to find an ancient road that was practically a legend, and follow it, should it actually exist.
Needless to add, thought Tauren to himself, the entire journey would be constantly harried by the Halavardes hunting them, trying to keep them from getting their message through.
But Detrick seemed confident that they could do it, no matter how bad the odds seemed, and Tauren had reluctantly agreed to the plan after a few minutes of debate.
But they couldn’t stay in one place long, or a squad of roaming Halavardes might catch them un-aware, a squad much like the one that had attacked them the previous night. . .
That morning they had quickly packed up the few necessities that they had taken out, and then had gone and searched the dead, stinking bodies of the Halavardes, two of who must have survived, because there were two less than there were the night before, taking all that was worth taking.
He sighed, thinking of the corpses; he didn’t like the thought of having killed them, the thought that they probably had families that would now wait for husbands, fathers, and sons that would never return. . .
It shocked him that, hardly a week ago, he had been afraid of how he would react to having to kill other living, thinking beings, but that the previous night he had killed those men so easily. He had done what was right in his eyes, and he didn’t regret it, a fact that disturbed him.
T’hune nudged him, snapping him out of his reverie. Rubbing the horse’s velvety black nose, he leaped up onto the saddle, grabbing the reigns and steering them through the thin underbrush and onto the road where Detrick sat astride his massive black racehorse.
Detrick nodded to him, grinning as he always seemed to be, and they turned down the trail without a word and set out on their days journey.
By previous agreement Tauren rode as far ahead of Detrick as he could without losing sight of him, that way they could have as much warning against an ambush as they could, and hopefully, should they be ambushed, only one of them would be surprised, leaving the other to help his companion.
Detrick told him it was standard procedure, and Tauren had agreed, the arrangement making sense to him.
Any person other than Tauren would have begun to drift off in the saddle that day, it was warm and drowsy, and the bare trees seemed to give off a fog of dust in the light breeze that seemed to have an uncanny ability to make one want to sleep.
But not Tauren, he had hunted and roamed Dimwalden forest for his entire life, and he knew that the worst thing you could do was fall asleep in the forest, if you did, chances where against you living through your first night.
Should you would wake up, you would be lost, and it would only be a matter of time before you became weak enough for the other hunters of the forest to take you down.
But chances were that you would be dead and eaten long before you awoke.
On top of it all was the silence in the forest that he had noticed the day before, the lack of life, and the feeling of foreboding, as though something where looming above them, awaiting to descend and destroy them. It gave him an uncomfortable edge.
It was an edge that saved his life.
They had only been riding for a couple of hours.
Looking behind him, Tauren saw Detrick dozing off in the saddle, trusting his horse to carry him where he needed to go; he sighed and returned to scanning the surrounding forest, littered with mossy fallen trees and thick underbrush.
His senses where all doing their fair share in the work, all in tune as he had trained them, his ears listening for even the smallest out of place sound, his eyes constantly searching for anything that he felt shouldn’t be there, and even smelling for anything wrong.
He saw something out of place the instant it came into sight, it was the shine of bright sun on burnished steel plates, and it didn’t take him long to guess that it was a man lying behind the huge mossy log, waiting to surprise them.
He almost stopped T’hune, but quickly decided that if he did the ambushers would notice that he had noticed them, and then they would attack them, however should he keep going as he was then he could ambush them. . .
His heart beat faster as he casually straightened his sword, getting the handle out from under a flap of the saddle, and tightened his grip on his bow in his lap.
He noticed the mistake in his plan when he was only twenty yards from the huge mossy pine lying beside the trail, Detrick didn’t know –
His thoughts where cut short as flicker of movement in his peripheral vision on both side caught his eye, and two arrows whistled by his head, missing only because he had stopped T’hune for an instant.
His heart missed a beat, but he recovered quickly.
He cursed violently under his breath then, turning, he yelled with all his might.” DETRICK!”
Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he spun back around, whipping an arrow onto the string of his bow and loosing it at the men who had just shot at him.
There was a strangled cry and the man on his right fell backward with an arrow through his neck.
In a fight with professional soldiers, the best thing a non-professional warrior could do was to act with all possible speed. Tauren knew that a single moment’s hesitation would be the end of him, and his opponents would break through his guard and kill him with as much impunity as he killed them; less.
He let himself fall into the ‘feel’ for fighting, that he got into when in a fight, a bloodlust, a want to kill, and a feeling of peace that seemed to make time slow down, that seemed to sharpen his senses and make it so his muscles responded with ten times their normal speed.
The man on his left was good, he admitted to himself, but Tauren had been practicing with a bow for almost every one of his waking hours, priming his skill to perfect pitch.
Any brigand or robber would have dropped their bow and run when they saw their companion shot dead so easily by a cloaked figure, even though he appeared to be no more than a boy, and a young one at that.
But not this man, he was a tall grizzled warrior, lightly armored, and quick on his feet, obviously picked for the job of taking down well guarded messengers.
The instant Tauren released his first response to their ambush, he snapped off one last shot, and then swung a shield off of his back to stop any more arrows, and drew his thick short sword.
Tauren cursed violently as he saw three more warriors come running out from deeper in the woods to support their companions, he tossed his bow to the side, knowing it was practically useless against their armor and shields, and drew his sword.
He knew that if he got into a fight with any one of these men that could only end in the death of the least experienced swordsman, he would lose. He was no stronger or faster than these men, and he was certainly less experienced and skilled.
He used his biggest advantage, surprise.
Turning T’hune he charged the man who had just dropped his bow and as he rode by him released a heavy downward stroke, hoping to use the force of the trotting horse and all of his strength to crush the other man’s guard.
The man sidestepped and Tauren went flying past him.
Vaguely he saw Detrick charge for the three men approaching him from behind, and he mentally thanked his new friend for being there for him, but he concentrated on his fight for now.
He spun around in the saddle and jumped off of T’hune, the horse may have been an advantage but he was confident that he could take down this man without getting T’hune in danger.
The man waited for him easily, his hard grey eyes never leaving his opponent.
Don’t ever do what they expect; surprise is your best advantage against an experienced warrior. He heard Edrin say to him in his head.
He sighed mentally, and followed the orders without thinking, flipping his sword to his left hand he reached out and twisting a branch off of a fallen pine threw it, end over end, straight for the other man’s chest.
It wasn’t really supposed to do anything, but it surprised him, none the less.
He took his quick gate of surprise and slammed his sword into the other man’s own weapon with every ounce of his force. But it didn’t go as expected though, his fingers went numb and he felt the sword fall from his fingers from the force of the blow, but the other man’s sword was smashed from his grasp as well, and they stood facing each other for a moment before one of them reacted.
The man gave a grunt and dropped his shield whipping out a dagger, and, faster than sight, slashing for Taurens throat, but Tauren, just as fast, pulled out his thick, heavy hunting knife and blocked the strike.
Tauren felt his heart beat faster, this wasn’t going well, it was going the exact opposite of what he had planned actually.
He parried a couple more strikes but knew he wasn’t going to win if he kept up as he was; the other man was just too skilled.
Just as the thought went through his mind the other man slammed his armored fist into Taurens chest, and Tauren fell back, the knife falling from his grasp; stunned.
He looked up through his hazy vision, and saw the man, dagger raised over his chest, ready to end his life, fear washed through him, and anger. He didn’t want to disappoint Edrin like this. . .
But fate had other plans for Tauren, for the man standing over him gave one surprised cry, glanced up, and was separated from his head by the massive battle axe an instant later.
Detrick held out a hand, looking a bit worried, and helped Tauren to his feet. ”You okay?” He asked.
He looked around, a few yards away lay the three warriors Detrick had fought, dead, and beside them lay the man whom he had shot at first, right at his feet was the truncated body of his would be killer, lying there in a spreading pool of blood, soaking into the brown leaves. Nausea rushed up in him, but he held himself.” I’m fine” He answered shortly.
He had almost died.
This isn’t enough, he said to himself, if I’m going to survive in this world I have to know more, fight harder, and be better . . . otherwise I’ll end up like them.
It’s like that in every world, he growled bitterly to himself, and turned away.
Detrick laid a hand on his shoulder and nodded solemnly too him.” It’s okay, you’ll be fine.”
Tauren nodded in answer, feeling strangely grateful to his companion.
“We should get going here; this is only half of a Squad.” Detrick stated, after a few moments.” The rest of them can’t be far.”
Tauren sighed, an idea forming in his mind, and leaped up onto T’hune who had stood patiently by during the whole fight.” Let’s go then.”
They seemed to both agree not to loot their kills for now, and instead of doing so, Detrick simply went over to his horse and mounted, and they continued as they had before, Detrick was awake now though, and Taurens mind was very busy, considering the idea he had come up with.
It was midday before he knew it, and looking up Tauren knew they must be close to the edge of the forest. He felt slightly uncomfortable at the idea of the plains, and at the idea of leaving his forest.
The trees had slowly changed over their morning’s ride, and where now all tall, thin pines, the trail become wider too, though it was still oddly empty of travelers. He wasn’t used to pines, and didn’t like the way they seemed to make the forest more open, but he enjoyed the needles that they strew on the ground, they were softer and less crunchy than the leaves he was used to.
He also enjoyed the strange lack of impeding underbrush, smothered by the carpet of needles. A part of the forest he had grown used to, but the lack of which was a novelty to him.
Ahead of them he saw bright light between the trees and sighed.
They had reached their destination.
They had reached the Great Plains of Netheron.
Tauren had seen the ocean once, long before, hunting down Carmenton valley.
What he saw as he emerged from under the pine forest’s last trees reminded him of the ocean. Only instead of water, there was grass, instead of waves, there were hills, and instead of rocky shore, there was forest.
He sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, it was an amazing sight.
I’m a long way from home, he thought to himself.
Detrick rode forward next to him and gazed out at the rolling plains going off into the distant mountains to the east and into the horizon to the west and south.
“I never seem to tire of looking at this.” He said slowly.
Tauren nodded silently.
“I don’t know why, but the plains always seemed . . . so safe, so peaceful, and so perfect.” He seemed in a trance.” I remember living by the Great Plains when I was little, before we moved to the city and ocean and mountains. They weren’t like this; they were flat, so perfectly flat, filled with this short, soft grass. I never got tired of them . . .”
Tauren nodded, he felt as if he knew what he was talking about. Already he felt like there were no enemies out here. That they had nothing to fear now. . .
”We should keep moving.” He said finally, after a short silence, glancing back at the forest, for the first time feeling that . . . feeling that he wanted to leave it behind.
Detrick glanced back with him and his peaceful expression disappeared.” Yeah, we should.”
Together they headed out into the plains, trying to go around the hills instead of over them, so as to avoid cliffs and rock heaps that would be difficult if not impossible to navigate with the horses.
They were only a hundred yards away from the forest when Detrick gave a surprised cry behind Tauren and yelled.” RUN! Halavardes, right behind us”
Tauren didn’t glance back or even hesitate; he spurred T’hune forward, and leaned low over the saddle tore forward between the hills, only glancing back once.
What he saw chilled his blood, a couple yards behind him was Detrick. Stretched low over his heavy black charger, riding just as hard as he was. But behind Detrick, streaming out of the forest was an entire squad of Halavardes, if not more.
At least fifteen men in gleaming coats, riding massive battle horses, black cloaks streaming out behind them, screaming indecipherable war cries. Three or four of them carried crossbows, two had lances, and the rest had drawn swords.
And it only took them a few minutes of frantic riding between the boulders strewn about the hills to find that they were better mounted as well, for they started to gain.
Slowly at first, then with increasing speed as the rocks became thicker, slowing Tauren and Detrick down.
The instant Tauren had seen them he had pulled his bow off of his saddle, hooked one end in a stirrup, strung it, and loaded it in a matter of seconds, but on T’hunes jolting back there was no way that he would be able to get a decent shot.
This wasn’t good, thought Tauren to himself as the Halavardes continued to get closer, their hard, savage faces now visible under hawk-like helmets.
Suddenly they hit a stretch of smooth ground running along the side of a stream between two rocky hillsides, and instantly T’hune and Detricks horse seemed to double their speed, flying forward faster and faster, while, once the Halavardes hit the same strip of ground, they barely seemed to change speed at all.
Quickly the intervening space between the two groups began to widen dramatically, and Tauren smiled, yes!
He managed to twist around and loose a few shots before they hit rocky ground again, and had the satisfaction of seeing his enemies slow down even more at the sight of arrows appearing literally under their horse’s legs.
Again their pursuers began to catch up, only for Tauren and Detrick to hit another space of clearer ground and make up the space.
Apparently both of their different types of horses had advantages.
Tauren began to become frustrated after about twenty minutes of this, not unconscious of the fact that their speed was slowing down and that T’hune was sweating freely and frothing at the mouth.
“Detrick, we have to get off of our general path.” He called forward to his companion.” This isn’t going to end in anything good for us. We need to head for the more open plains, away from the mountains, we can outrun then then.”
Detrick apparently had noticed the same thing as Tauren had in the horses.” All right, at the end of this valley we turn left, remember. We have to stay together.”
Tauren didn’t answer; instead he stretched lower in the saddle, and urged his poor sweating horse to even greater efforts, though he knew that if he kept this up T’hune would die before he gave up.
He was distinctly aware of the smell of horse sweat and dirty leather under him, so strong he could almost taste it. His ears were twitching to ever little creak and occasional war cry he heard. His eyes stung and he felt dizzy looking at the short dead, seed topped grass and hard dry, yellow dirt rushing underneath of them as they sped across the ground.
A minute later they turned violently left and leaping over the trickling stream sped to the west, towering rocky, grass covered hills on either side of them. For a moment, and hardly a second more, their pursuers were out of sight, but then they came round the bend, riding as hard as ever.
It only took a few minutes for Tauren to feel and see the dramatic change in the landscape, the lower, less rocky hills, the longer open spaces, and their increased speed.
Looking back though, he saw to his dismay that the Halavardes hadn’t dropped behind any, instead, they appeared to be gaining.
All of a sudden the rhythmic thumping of the horse’s hooves on dead grass and hard ground stopped, and instead Tauren heard the sound change to a sharp clattering, as though they were back on the stone road that ran through Carmenton.
But he had no time to think about it, for there was a whistle and a crossbow bolt flew by his ear, clattering off of a rock ahead of him, closely followed by another, and another, all narrowly missing him. He answered instantaneously by turning in the saddle and loosing two shafts in quick succession, knocking one man out of his saddle with the first and narrowly missing another’s horse with the second.
He cursed, they were catching up too fast, and his horse could do nothing more.
The only options left to them were to run from their pursuers until one of the crossbow bolts took them in the back, fight back, or try to hide.
And none of those would end up with them being alive at the end of the day though.
Glancing ahead of them he saw that they were riding straight between two massive hills, literally covered in massive rocks, they appeared to be on an even, straight flat space that ran for a few hundred more yards before it disappeared under heaps of gigantic rocks.
His eye caught something.
“Detrick that nook in the rocks! There!” He called, hoping his companion saw the nook in the heaps of rocks ahead of them were there seemed to be some sort of tunnel that went under the hillside, but Detrick was already ahead of him, and already on his way for the spot.
He was only thirty yards from the dark tunnel in the massive limestone blocks, his enemies were a hundred yards behind him, seeming to be slowing down now that they saw their quarry was cornered, when Tauren felt a massive jerk, a jolt, a pained whinny and next thing he knew he was flying through the air.
He landed hard, his breath was knocked straight out of him, his bow went flying from his grasp, and he lay there for a few minutes, trying to figure out what had happened.
Slowly he rose from the ground, heaving in a deep breath, and wincing painfully at his bruised body. Then it hit him.
He spun around and ran over to T’hune, lying there in a widening pool of blood, a short cruel crossbow bolt stuck straight through his neck. The first thing he felt was sadness, his grandfather had owned this horse longer than Tauren knew, the second thing he felt was anger, a flash of violent anger that seared through his mind.
He reacted to the second.
Reaching forward he jerked his sword, no, his grandfather’s sword, from its sheath, and turning he prepared to face his enemies, ready to fight to the last.
But what he saw when he turned surprised him even more than this sudden change of events in his life.
The Halavardes were still charging, but when they were only thirty yards from him, and he was ready to face the first man, their horses went wild.
All of a sudden they seemed to jerk to the side, or upwards, or any direction, some continued forward, but stopped with a sickening jerk, as though some invisible wall were between then and Tauren . . . or the heaps of rocks behind him.
There was a moment of confusion but the men got over it quickly and getting out of the tangle of bodies advanced on foot, but when they were only twenty yards from Tauren a look came onto their faces, uncertainty, fear, and pain.
Tauren stood there, perplexed, as man after man that approached him fell face-forward, blood pouring silently out of his ears, nose, and mouth. It only took the remaining men a few moments to figure out that something went terribly wrong with anyone who approached the direction they had seen their prey going.
Slowly, they turned; got on what horses they had left, and rode silently away, the same puzzled, pained, and confused look on each of their faces.
Fate appeared to have selected the two companions for survival, and selected the Halavardes for death.
Slowly Tauren turned around and stared up at the massive heaps of rock behind him, and all of a sudden recognition dawned on him.