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And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!
Part I: Year 134 of the Second Age
The mist hung over the small village, like a gray blanket, covering cottages, hovels, and pastures alike; and making the night sky totally invisible. A man materialized out of the fog, his heavy riding boots bending the dew-soaked grass beneath them. He slowly walked forward, with a long pause in between each step. He arrived at the small cottage near the edge of the village. He entered, the door softly creaking on its old hinges, which badly needed to be oiled. He carefully closed the door behind him, making sure it didn’t creak too loudly and wake the inhabitants of the cottage. His eyes penetrated the darkness easily, and he could see the two children lying in their beds, sleeping peacefully under their rough woolen blankets. There was a second bed in the room, this one occupied by an older man, around fifty. He took off his sword belt and put it on the small round oak table, pulled off his boots and set them by the door, took off his jacket and the chainmail he wore underneath it, lay down on the floor near the far wall, and fell asleep.
His first name was Storm, chosen because of the weather, a violent hailstorm with gale force winds, when he had been found by his adoptive father, and his last name was Caith, inherited from his adoptive father. It seemed that that storm still lived within him; his eyes sometimes flashed a bright white color, like that of lightning. If you looked into his eyes for more than a moment you would see mental thunder clouds roaming his conscious. He was tall, with medium length brown hair, his blue-gray eyes, they often darted about the room, as if he was afraid of something, and sharp features. His face was harsh and intimidating, but when he smiled and revealed his perfect white teeth, though they tapered into razor sharp points, the harshness of his features melted away, and the sun seemed to peak out from behind the stormclouds in his eyes. This, however, was a rare occurrence, partly because Storm was rarely happy enough to smile, and partly because, when he was happy, he did not wish to frighten those around him with his razor sharp teeth.
He’d been found, a newborn infant, by the huntsman he was hurrying back from an unsuccessful hunt to get inside before the gale arrived. Storm was crying in a patch of ferns, an infant, abandoned by his parents. The hunter, as he did not have a child nor a wife with which to have one at the time, picked the child up and carried him home. Three or so months after that the man had remarried, and he and his new wife had immediately started working on a child of their own. About twelve months after Storm had been found, his sister, Alyssa, was born. Storm and his younger sister quickly grew fond of each other and were blame for nearly all things mischievous that happened in and around the village. They were chastised, but only halfheartedly, as no one could really blame two children for having a bit of fun. In Storm’s fifth year a brother, Darran, was born.
The hunter’s wife died during the birth of her third child, and the baby was stillborn. Storm was twelve, Alyssa eleven, and Darran a mere seven years of age. The rest of the village came to support the children and watch over them when their father could not. Storm, and sometimes Alyssa, accompanied the old man on his hunts, though, so it was just the youngest, Darran, that needed to be watched. The boy did not seem to understand the death of his mother, but he was hurt by it nonetheless. He asked of those who watched over him questions like, “Where did my mama go?” and “Why did they put her under the ground?” They answered with, “She went to sleep for a while. You’ll see her again eventually,” and “She’ll rest better that way. If your mama’s in the ground, then all of us moving around and talking and such won’t wake her.”
Even as Darran grew from a child into a man, it became apparent the loss of his mother at such a young age had made an everlasting impact upon him. He had that look that is rare, especially on the face of one as young as he, the haunted kind, the kind you see on a redeemed convict, fleeing his past. Scared, haunted, longing for something to distract him from the reality from which his mother was frighteningly absent. He began to go to her grave, simply to stand there and stare at it as if in a trance. Darran never accompanied his father on the hunt. The boy was horrified at the idea of killing anything, even animals, for any reason at all. When he was a young man, Darran, the hunter’s son, worked in the field, harvesting grain.
When the hunter was too old to continue his work, Storm and Alyssa took his place. They worked well together: Storm was a good shot but Alyssa was better, and Alyssa was a decent tracker but Storm was a great one. Storm was the faster of the two, so once Alyssa brought down an animal with her arrow, he would run or ride over to it and, if it was still alive, slide his hunting knife in between its ribs. Since she would rather not, the grisly task of gutting, draining, and eventually skinning the animal almost always fell to Storm. They were both good hunters, but together they were excellent.
Alyssa awoke the next morning to hear two people arguing outside. The first voice she heard was that of Firiel, the village brute, and somewhat of an idiot. “You’d best mind what you say, Caith, else I’ll cut out your tongue.”
She heard Storm’s voice, calm and cold, in reply, “It matters not, I would still say as much of value as you.” Laughter from outside.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I would explain, but as you have less brains in your skull that I have in my shinbone, my exceedingly advanced vocabulary surely surpasses your pathetic, indescribably small knowledge of words, and so I would be required to explain my explanation to you, which I do not intend to do. In short, I am disinclined to...acquiesce your request, for no reasons other than that I do not wish to be questioned further by you in your great idiocy. Now, I am leaving to get my sword belt, and if you, whether it be due to your lack of brains or dislike of me, chose to follow, I will run you through. I think you are safe though, for I doubt you have the intelligence to open the door.” More laughter from outside. Storm Caith walked in to the small cottage, “Good morning, Alyssa.” She returned the greeting, and asked him what was going on outside. “Apparently Firiel dislikes those with more intelligence than him. I don’t know exactly what I said or did but he challenged me to a duel.” He threw his chainmail on and buckled his sword belt around his waist. “I accepted. We’re meeting in five or so minutes. Come and watch if you like. Now that I think about it...maybe it was my saying the other day that that girl he’s courting, Faye, I think her name is, deserves someone of more intelligence than he. Yes, that’s probably it.” He threw on his jacket and walked out.
That evening, Storm sat at the kitchen table with a mug of tea in his right hand, and a blood soaked bandage being wound around his right forearm. He was being scolded, and he did not enjoy it. “Son, you can’t go around accepting every duel that comes your way. You’ll get yourself killed. You’re a hunter, not a fighter.” Storm wasn’t listening. He was watching Alyssa wrap the cut on his forearm in bandages.
He told her that he could dress the wound himself. “You’ll do it wrong,” she replied. He smiled and nodded.
“Storm, pay attention! You’re not a duelist. Don’t pretend you are. You don’t kill people, just animals. Like your old man before you, you’re a hunter, and a damn good one, too. Now, if you want to leave me, your sister, and your brother to go seek your fortune elsewhere, I understand. But I ask that you stay at least a little while longer.”
“As you wish, father.”
He broke the promise two months later.
Part II: Year 141 of the Second Age
The mercenary captain looked at the captives before him. Four men, six women. One of the women, a girl of about seventeen, was quite pretty, wavy sand coloured hair falling just below her shoulders, and bright blue eyes. The other officers in the mercenary company had passed her around, her hands tied behind her back, kissing and groping her. When at last she stood before the captain, he simply looked at her. “And would you, captain,” she spoke contemptuously, “have a kiss as well?”
He paused, then spoke calmly, “I would, if you would permit me.”
“A gentleman-mercenary,” she mused, “how quaint. And what, sir, would you do should I not permit you?”
“Respect your wishes, and hope you change your mind sometime in the future. As you said, I’m a gentleman.”
“Then I do not permit you. Thank you for respecting my wishes. Hope all you like, I’m not changing my mind.”
He smiled, revealing his perfectly straight, white, razor sharp teeth. “We’ll see.” He turned to one of his lieutenants, “Lock them up.” The man asked where they should be locked up, as the company had run into the group on the road, in the middle of a forest. “Tie them to trees, then. It’s late, we might as well make camp for the night.” The lieutenant ordered some soldiers to do so. The mercenaries had run into the group and decided to take them prisoner, probably to ransom them, or maybe the lieutenants would want to keep a few of the women.
The pretty woman was tied to a massive oak tree, standing upright. She didn’t sleep that night. At some late hour, she heard someone singing softly, “And when there were no longer buildings for burning, and when the tide had started its turning, and when we had started to fail at discerning...
reality, I knew that the time had come for my learning, that the deeds we’d done had started returning, without mercy.” She looked up to see the singer. The captain was sitting up, looking up at the night sky.
“You have a beautiful singing voice,” she said to him. He thanked her, then told her that she could get some sleep. “I’d sleep better if I wasn’t tied to a tree,” she told him.
“Well, either sleep tied to a tree or sleep over here --tied up-- at my side, I want to make sure you don’t run off. It’s your choice. That tree or my side.”
“I’ll just stay awake.” He shrugged. “That song--”
“I learned it from an old soldier, the former captain of this company. I’m not quite sure what it’s about.”
“It’s true, you know, that the deeds you do will return.” He grunted. “Do you have a home?”
“Not anymore.” She asked him if he had a family. “They’re dead.” She asked him how he knew. “I saw them killed. They were caught in the middle of a feud between two minor families.” She asked him his name. “Storm Caith. And what is your name?” She told him her name was Itara. “That’s a pretty name. A pretty name for a pretty girl. You have a home, or are you a refugee?” At the moment there was a war being waged between the families of Strysald and Laroor. The conflict displaced thousands, and drew mercenaries from all corners of the world. That was where Storm’s company was headed, to fight for the Strysald family, as they were the richer of the two. The Strysald family was powerful, and had the lords of many of the other families bending their knees to it. Those that did not swear allegiance were crushed.
Part III: Year 141 of the Second age
Two thousand three hundred thirty-four years ago, Stenen Laroor came upon Can Aman, a promontory jutting out into the Sea of Flames. The body of water is called so because at sunset the dying rays of the sun struck the bay so that it looked to be aflame. Stenen Laroor built his lodging upon this promontory, reachable only by a small land bridge, which was submerged at high tide. Laroor’s home began as a walled village, he had maybe eighty relatives who traveled with him, but, due to the good farmland near the bay and trade from the bay, the village soon grew to a prospering town, and then a city, and eventually it grew into the citadel it now is. The original village became the central keep of the castle. The outer walls of the fortress are twenty feet of solid rock, thirty feet high, with a tower every fifty feet. Each tower is fifty feet tall, and topped with a catapult. There are two sets of inner walls, each thicker and taller than the last. The streets were like a labyrinth, only those that knew them well would be able to navigate them without losing their way. The use of siege towers and battering rams is all but impossible, due to the fact that the only way to reach the city was by the narrow causeway or by ship. Scaling ladders were all that any who hoped to take the outer walls.
Vykter Tenach looked at the massive walls. His house had sworn allegiance to that of Strysald long ago, and, when Lord Strysald summoned two thousand men from the Tenach family to aid them in fighting the Laroors, he, the second son of Lord Jyken Tenach, had been chosen to lead the men. Now he had perhaps twelve hundred men left. They had fought for every square inch of Laroor ground they had taken, and now all that was left was this citadel. A man, wearing on his tunic the lion’s head that was the family crest of Strysald, appeared in his tent and told him that Lord Strysald was meeting with his commanders. Vykter nodded, and went to the Lord’s tent.
“Ah, General Tenach, how good of you to join us.” Vykter looked around the room. Goran Lertheran, Ineas Blergar, Therkal Itath, and a man whom Tenach did not know, were gathered around a brazier in the center of Lord Aleim Strysald’s tent. “This,” he indicated the stranger sitting to his left, “Is Storm Caith. He commands a band of mercenaries.” To the mercenary he said, “Your men are archers, correct?” Caith nodded. “Right. His men will be with us for this siege. He also says he has a plot to give us the citadel. Would you explain to my generals?”
“Right,” Caith began, “As my men bear no emblems with them, they will not be recognized as yours. My company moves around to the other side of the bay and boats across to the port. We’ll say we want to work for them. We can open the gates for you and, come dawn, the city will be yours. For a price, of course.” Strysald told him that the city would be worth any price. “A lordship?” Strysald nodded.
“Give us the city and you shall become Lord Storm Caith. Your men will also be handsomely rewarded.”
Tenach spoke up, “I do not trust mercenaries. I would go with Caith, along with some of my men, to ensure that he keeps up his end of the bargain.” Strysald decided Vykter’s caution was wise, and so the general, along with ten handpicked men, would go with the mercenaries into the city.
“And what,” asked Lord Itath, “will happen to you should you fail? Have you considered that? Do you know the tales of Can Anam Fort’s dungeons? So far under the earth, that lava flows like a river under some of the corridors. It is said that those cells hold things half human, half demon. It is said a woman cannot spend five minutes in those dungeons without being raped.” At that comment, Caith asked if Itath was making a statement about the gender of his men. “No, I’m just telling you how vicious the dungeon is. The torturers have spent their entire life at their task, and they know all the ways to cause a human pain. And the stench! People are locked away, simply left to rot away in their cells. They say that the Raven, the god of Death, makes his lair in that labyrinth of pain. Once you set foot in that dungeon, it is impossible to leave by any means for any reasons. If you were caught, not with ten million men could you escape.”
Caith looked at him and said, “If it’s impossible to leave, then I wonder where the stories come from. We won’t fail, anyway.”
That night, two boats of men arrived in Can Anam. They said they were mercenaries wishing to fight for the Laroor family. They were stationed at various points along all three of the walls, and some of them in Can Anam Castle itself. At the first rays of dawn that morning, all hell broke loose.
The city was taken, but at a costly price to the Strysald army. Over a thousand were killed. Of the mercenaries, only one, Storm Caith, survived. Of Tenach’s men only he survived. Caith and General Tenach were found, barely conscious, side by side, surrounded by a three foot high wall of enemy corpses. But the fortress was taken, and every living thing in it slaughtered. Caith got his lordship.
Part I: Year 942 of the Second Age
Tavorech Caith stood on top of the keep of Can Aman Fort. Here it had all begun, here there came to be the first Lord Caith. A man in a black cloak stepped up behind him, “Sir, will here do?”
“Yes, this castle has everything we need.”
“Sir, some of the men, they’re restless being here. The old stories about the castle’s dungeons. Just ghost stories, I say, but some of them are superstitious. They want to find somewhere else.”
“Tell them that I will go down with them into the dungeons with them, if they would like, and show them that there is nothing to fear down there.” The lieutenant left. Tavorech looked out over the Sea of Flames. It would be dark soon, and he did not want to miss the sunset.
He was a small man of thirty two, weighing in at one hundred sixteen pounds and being about five feet five inches tall. He had medium length, fine, dark hair that stayed out of his face. His eyes were a dark blueish-green. Like most Caiths, he had sharp, angular features and pure white, slightly pointed teeth. His face was marred by a scar running from an inch above his left eye down to his cheek. He was pale, as he avoided sunlight when he could. His voice was soft and quiet, wispy, almost. He could be hard to hear at times. There was a thin scar on his neck left by a garrote-wire-toting assassin. Though he was small, he could be intimidating if he wanted to be. He had a generally cheerful personality; he was almost always smiling; he lived off of hope. He saw the world in a better light than all those around him, when others wept because they thought the world was a terrible place, he celebrated because he knew in his heart that it would get better. He was compassionate, the pain of the people was his, he saw someone suffering and he suffered with them. Under a black tunic and cloak, he wore chainmail. At his side was an arming sword. Its blade was thirty six inches long, with a black onyx stone set into the pommel. On his back was a longbow and a quiver of forty arrows. The sun began to set. He heard foot steps behind him. “I didn’t expect to see you up hear, Raim.”
The lieutenant opened his mouth, then closed it again, then finally said, “How did you know it was me?” Tavorech explained how he recognized the younger man from the limp in his step. “You always were uncannily perceptive. Anyway, I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I heard this sunset was something to see before you die.” Raim Sintton was twenty seven, tall and strong. He was in almost all ways the opposite of Tavorech. Raim was heavy, two hundred thirty-five pounds of muscle and bone. He was six feet tall, with short, blond hair and piercing, light blue eyes. His voice was loud and harsh, it was difficult to tell whether he was talking or shouting, sometimes. There was a small scar on his cheek. His eyes were cold, almost dead. He walked with a limp, he’d been shot in the knee with a crossbow when he was younger. His smile was lifeless, cynical, and sarcastic. He was a pessimist, when others celebrated because times were good, he cried out in despair because he knew they’d get worse. He was sadistic, there were unsubstantiated allegations that he had tortured, raped, and murdered a woman in his home village, and he enjoyed watching others in pain. He was dressed similarly to Caith, but instead of an arming sword at his side there was a claymore on his back.
It is strange that Raim liked Tavorech as much as he did. The human soul wants for what it does not have, so, Raim had no kindness, no compassion, could not show mercy, he wanted to, yes, but he could not. Tavorech could, and so Raim was content to be submissive to the older man and let him be superior. Tavorech, on the other hand, disliked Raim. The younger man’s sadistic impulses, his violent tendencies, horrified the older man. Yet he found a kind of morbid fascination in watching the young man torture. He was good at it, always getting screams and usually any information sought. Tavorech often wondered why Raim was so cruel. That this man would care for seeing things because they were good and beautiful confounded the him.
The last rays of the sun struck the water. It lit and glowed like nothing either of the men had ever seen before. It was so mesmerizing; neither of them heard the messenger come up behind them. “Sorry to disturb you, sirs,” the man said, “but this can’t wait.” The men slowly left. The sun settled below the horizon, plunging the ruined castle and the sea beyond it into perfect darkness. On the way down to the courtyard of the castle, the messenger explained what it was about. “A village, about five miles from here, has rebelled against the king. He wants us to take it back and execute the leader of the uprising.”
“Why are we involved? We’re highly skilled scouts, assassins, and spies, not soldiers and executioners.”
“He’s worried that this uprising may be part of a larger-scale attack from beyond the Stone Hedge. He wants you to make sure his fears are unnecessary.” The Stone Hedge was a massive mountain range that marked the northern border of all the southern kingdoms. Beyond it there were only raging barbarian tribes. Only the oldest scholars knew what was beyond the land of the barbarians, but even they feared to speak of it aloud. The barbarians often raided the northern towns and villages, but it puzzled Tavorech that the king would consider a barbarian invasion as a possibility. The commander nodded, and ordered twenty men to get ready for battle. He brought along two lieutenants, Raim Sintton and an older man named Jeston Rision.
Part II: Year 942 of the Second Age
Seven days later Tavorech Caith stood in the throne room of King Daros of Lenaldyn. The old system of families had long since been abolished in a bloody war and had been replaced by countries. The once-powerful families themselves still existed, and the patriarchs of those families called themselves lords, but they held no power. In Lenaldyn, a system of governorships controlled smaller regions of the country, and those governors were appointed by and reported to the king. Tavorech was the commander of the king’s Sword, an elite group of warriors sent on missions to scout, assassinate, and spy on enemies of the kingdom. He bowed to the king. “Your majesty, the uprising is crushed. As ordered we executed its leader. There is no evidence of forces from above the Stone Hedge playing any part, however, the leader’s sword was of Suldyn make. There was also Suldyn gold under a floorboard of his house. It may be that they incited the revolution.”
The old king nodded then spoke in his raspy, labored voice, “You have done well, Caith. Thank you, you know how much I hate uprisings.” He turned to a man sitting at the foot of his throne, “Send a letter to the Minister of Suldyn inquiring as to why his gold was discovered in the possession of a rebel in my country. No need to mention the sword.” He turned back to Caith, “Did your men take any casualties?” The man shook his head. “Good,” the king continued, “I suppose if Suldyn pays me enough I’ll just forget about this, then.” The Commonwealth of Suldyn was a rich trade country, but it had little of an army. It would lose a war against Lenaldyn, and so would avoid one at all costs. Inciting small uprisings Daros would forgive, for a price. The deaths of his soldiers and citizens, he would not.
“If the Commonwealth was involved,” started Tavorech, “Minister Rynten will certainly not admit it. Would you like me to slip a few men inside so they can spy on him?”
At the nod of the king, Caith bowed and made to leave. “Ah, not yet, Commander. Go up to your room, spend the night here, spend some time with your wife. The poor woman has been pestering me about giving you leave to stay home for a while now. Don’t send your men in to spy until I get a reply to the letter.” Caith opened his mouth to protest but the king cut him off, “To your room. Go.”
Tavorech Caith eased open the wooden door to his bedchamber. It creaked softly. Before it was open, he heard a female voice say, “I thought I told you, I’m fine and I’m not receiving any visitors before my husband gets here!” He chuckled softly and opened the door the rest of the way. “What are you laughing--” she turned around and saw him, “Oh! Tavorech! When...when did you get here?” He told her he had just arrived. “Did you ride all the way here from wherever you were without resting?” He told her he’d rested once on the seven day ride. “My goodness, get some rest, come, sit down. Let me make you something to eat. What do you want to eat? Anything to drink?”
“Morelle, I’m fine. Really. I’m not tired, nor hungry.” She asked him if there was anything he did want. “To be with you.”
She sat down on the bed and said to him, “Alright, let’s talk. But you’ll let me cook something for you later?”
“Yes, yes, and I’ll rest at some point. I just need someone to talk to right now.” He sat down on the bed next to her. “We were supposed to break this small uprising in a border village. The soldiers surrendered pretty quickly, but we were ordered to execute their leader. He ran and hid. One of my lieutenants, Raim Sintton, found his wife. I was with the other prisoners when I heard the screams. He was torturing her, raping her. She begged for him to stop. When I got there, he was finished with her. Her face was cut up, her dress was cut off of her, there were slashes on her chest, neck, and arms. There were bruises and cuts on the inside of her thighs. She was sobbing. Her fingers, arms, and legs were broken. An ear and one eye had been removed. Sintton simply said, “She has a strong mind. I was unable to bring from her the location of her husband.” It turns out she didn’t need to tell us. Her husband had heard her screams and came to try and save her. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees when Sintton told him what he did to her. We killed him quickly. Sliced off his head.”
“Well, you did your duty, carried out your orders.”
“Should an innocent woman suffer more than a criminal? Torture is morally wrong.”
“So is treason. You carried out your orders, that’s the end of it.”
“No, it’s not. When I went in to check on the woman, she’d slit her throat with a kitchen knife.”
Miles away, at Can Aman Fort, Jeston Rision stood on guard. As he stood there in the night he looked at the stars. They were glistening in the night sky, like little silver fish glisten in a midnight blue lake. He was blessed by a blood red moon. As he stood there, a dagger slid across his throat. He crumbled noiselessly to the ground.
Legend says that a blood red moon seen by a soldier just before he dies means a war is about to start.
Part III: Year 942 of the Second Age
After the war of the gods, only one deity was left alive. The Raven, the God of Death. They say that he can transform in a raven when he wishes, and often walks among the mortals. It is his task to escort the dead souls to the afterlife. If someone dies before their time, it is said that he can restore the person to life, but they must serve him for eternity. They will be immortal, but forever separated from the world by dark forces some fear and few understand. These restored souls sometimes have strange powers over life and death, and are feared for them.
The bird flew towards the castle. He was needed there. He saw the guard crumple to the ground at the gate. He landed on a tree nearby and transformed into his true body.
Jeston Rision opened his eyes. Everything appeared to be of green mist, blown by a soft wind. A figure was walking towards him. A large black bird flew to him and landed on his shoulder. Jeston could not see the figure’s face. “Where am I?” The man did not answer. “Who are you?” he asked.
“I,” the figure spoke in a gravelly voice, “am the Raven.” Jeston asked if he was dead. “Not yet, but you might be, soon,” answered the god. “You were there when your comrade tortured and indirectly killed that woman. You stood by and did nothing. For that I should let you die and burn. But your time has not come. You shall be useful to me yet.” The Raven’s face materialized out of the green mist. Jeston recoiled. One eye socket was empty, and his right cheek was rotted out. His skin was patchy, parts flesh, parts muscle, and parts skull. A spider crawled out of the eye socket and into his mouth. He crushed it with his teeth and swallowed it. “Do not be afraid. While my visage is frightening, I am quite gentle...to my allies.” He reached a skeletal hand towards the human and laid it on his chest. The god vaporized into green mist and disappeared.
Hours later, Jeston Rision woke up. His neck hurt, and when he felt it the gash had not healed. He did not remember what had happened. A searing pain across his neck and then...nothing. He had no memory of the Raven’s visit. He felt cold. He checked himself over for other marks. He only found one. A small black bird, a raven or crow, was tattooed on the inside of his left wrist. The sun was in the sky and shone like a daffodil someone had let afloat in a pool of liquid sapphire. A few winter clouds hung suspended in the sky. Rision stood and brushed the snow off himself. He reeled and nearly fell as a vision of the Raven flashed into his mind, then disappeared just as quickly. What’s happening to me? he wondered.
He walked inside the ruined fortress. The long burnt out buildings stood like giants, towering over him. In the doorways greenish figures, men, women, and children, old and young, stood silently, watching him walk slowly. He could feel the essence of death in that place. Even if he had not already known it, he would be able to say with absolute certainty that many innocent people had met their bloody end inside these walls. He could also tell that a more recent slaughter had occurred. He could feel a soul flickering out of existence as he walked. He followed that feeling and came to a dying man, no, a boy, as he was barely seventeen. He had seen the boy around camp, and knew his face. “Lieutenant,” the child began, “they took us by surprise, they were wearing Suldyn uniforms. Killed...everyone. I...” he coughed up some blood, “think they’re gone now.” The boy broke into a coughing fit. He was mortally wounded, and in pain. Jeston slipped a dagger in between his ribs. As he died, the boy whispered, “Thank you.”
As he visited the other corpses and made sure they weren’t in pain. No one was alive. Two officers were missing: Raim Sintton and Tavorech Caith. He left the citadel, heading towards Lenaldyn’s capitol, a city called Tirasis.
Part 1: Year 942 of the Second Age
Jeston Rision was cold. Winter was coming on early this year, and so he huddled around his small campfire and tried to keep warm. He had maybe two more days of walking until he reached Daros’ court in Tirasis. He looked at the bird tattooed on the inside of his wrist. He heard voices coming towards him. Not wanting to be noticed, he doused his fire and quietly hid in the woods by the trail. In the darkness, he strung his bow.
The commander walked through the darkness, the footsteps of marching men and the creak of rolling wagon wheels behind him. His shield and tunic bore the emblem of Suldyn, three eight pointed stars set in a triangle around a crown. The muffled whispers of men and prisoners filled the otherwise perfect silence with an obscenely bothersome noise. “Shut up back there!” he hissed to the columns of men and prisoners behind him. The legendary Sword of Lenaldyn was no match for his warriors. That had killed the guards with ease, then slaughtered the rest of the warriors in the night. The man to his immediate right was holding a torch and the man to his left a Suldeen flag. There was the twang of a bowstring and an arrow thudded into the commander’s chest. He dropped to the ground like a stone, making only a small muffled gasp as he die. An arrow pierced the torch-bearer’s throat.
The flag-bearer turned to run, and an arrow buried itself in his back. Most of the soldiers turned to run. The servant of the Raven stepped into the moonlit road and drew his sword. “Let any man that wishes to die step forth and face me. The rest of you flee.” The soldiers, as if terrified by some unnatural force, gripped by some fear so terrible that it surely could not be of mortal making, fled. There were a few supply wagons, which Rision briefly looked through before moving on.
As he walked away he heard a child’s voice, “Sir, wait.” He turned, and saw a a boy of twelve, sitting in a wagon, hands tied, with three or four others. “Sir, aren’t you going to release us?” He cut the prisoner’s bonds and, before they had a chance to follow, walked briskly into the woods.
The lone soldier rolled over in his sleep. He was dreaming. He was walking...
...walking through a forest. The trees grew tall around him. He heard the clash of metal, not far off. He heard a man scream as he saw a clawed hand come crashing down into his skull. Rision followed the noise.
He came to the edge of the wood. Beyond was a vast plain. It stretched on for miles, going far beyond his vision. On the plain was a battle. He proceeded forward. He realized that this was no mortal battlefield. He was dreaming of a war long ago. A war of the gods. Deities were struck down only to rise back up again. A thing of monstrous size, perhaps thirty feet tall, with slimy, greenish brown skin, was sending warriors flying with single swipes of its huge clawed hands. Two people appeared next to him, one a man and one a woman. They both held bows. She raised hers and fired. A bolt of green light soared from the weapon. It struck the greenish thing in the chest, causing it to fall back into a mass of packed together soldiers.
The two warriors dashed off towards the conflict. Rision followed. Two warriors, one clad in black and the other in golden yellow, were trading blows near the edge of the battlefield. The golden warrior swung high with his sword and missed. The black clad god took the
opportunity to bury a dagger in the golden soldier’s stomach. Rision walked, curiously watching deities shed their blood on this field. Gods and goddesses died, the blood pooled in the center of the field, creating a river of liquid rubies. He walked on.
He saw the two people that he was following were fighting side by side near the center of the field. A figure far away, clad in red, reached up towards the sky. The sun seemed to grow larger for a moment, then shrink, then plummet towards the ground. It grew hotter and hotter, then the sun touched the earth. Everything burned. Figures stumbled past him, faces melting off, on fire. He was unscathed. The scene changed.
He stood on the edge of the same field, in the same forest. The trees were charred stubs and the earth was covered in gray ash. Blacked skeletons littered the ground. Only two figures were fighting now. They stood near center of the killing field. Rision approached. One was the red-clad figure, the other he recognized from two places: the handsome figure he had been following earlier in the dream and the terrifying figure that had visited him day prior to the dream. The Raven struck down the red-clad figure. He turned his grotesque visage towards Jeston Rision. The god slowly walked over to him and hissed, “You are mine!”
Jeston tore himself from the dream. Cold sweat had plastered his head to his forehead. Without realizing it, he had grabbed his dagger and was holding it close to his chest. His eyes darted around in the night, making sure he was alone in the darkness. He was overcome by a sense of dread. He felt like an animal might feel as the hunter drew his bow. A lance of pain suddenly pierced through his head. He did not sleep the rest of the night.
Part II: Year 942 of the Second Age
Tavorech Caith woke with a start. He’d felt something...a presence...in his room. The shadows dancing in the corners resembled ghosts. His wife raised her head from his chest and asked him what was wrong. “Nothing...just a dream. Go back to sleep.” He kissed her. She told him she loved him. “I love you too, Elle.” She fell asleep, her head again on his chest. He was still overcome by a paranoia of sorts, so he took the dagger on the table next to him and put it under his pillow. Then he fell asleep.
Miles away, beyond the Stone Hedge, the wizard smiled. His plan was falling into place. The mercenaries he had dressed as Suldyn troops were routed, yes, but the servant of the Raven would surely bring news of the colors they carried to King Daros, who would attack Suldyn with all his might. While the troops of Lenaldyn were at war in Suldyn, the barbarian tribes would attack from the North, sweeping across the landscape like a hurricane, destroying everything in their path. He’d loose some of his creations, creatures neither man nor beast, creatures capable of any savagery imaginable. They would ensure that anything the barbarians could not handle died. Only a few things might stand in his way: the three surviving members of Daros’ Sword and a girl, she was beyond his sight.
He could dispatch with them easily. He didn’t even need to kill some of them to remove them from the equation. Take the Commander of Daros’ Sword. He would be broken by his wife’s death. The wizard already had someone on the way to eliminate her. No one would stand in his way. He would not have it any other way. He looked into the orb of obsidian on the table before him. His assassin approached the bed of the Caith man. The soldier awoke, and the assassin melted into shadow. The Commander went back to sleep. The wizard smiled. Upon hearing a knock on the door, he turned and asked the knocker to enter. “Master,” began the creature, “there is a man here. He wishes to speak with you. Chief Orlev of the Bear Clan.”
“That brute? I didn’t know he could talk. Send him in.”
The barbarian chief was waiting outside the gate of the tower. Upon looking up he saw a hulking mass of dark stone, with iron barred windows and a crenellated roof. The snow was falling heavily, and Orlev had been standing out for so long that he was practically buried in it. If looked at from a distance, the man would have looked like a mass of snow someone had dumped there. The gate opened. A small, wiry man stood before him. “Lord Darran will see you now.”
The hulking giant of a man entered. He barely fit through the narrow halls. He ascended the spiral staircase. Candles placed in upside-down human skulls lit the tower. The barbarian, followed by the small, wiry man, entered the wizard’s chamber. “Orlev. How good of you to come here. Will your clan be joining us when we march South?”
A deep rumbling came out of the barbarian’s mouth, “That is why I am here, my lord. I have talked with some of the other clan chiefs...we agree that if our people go South, for any length of time, we will surely die.”
“Which clans did you speak with?”
“Fox and Hare.”
“Here is what you will do. You will bring your clan South with the rest of us. You will also go to the leaders of Fox and Hare clans, and you will tell them that you have reconsidered, and you suggest they do the same. If you do not want your skull to be a candlestick in my tower, you will oblige.” The huge man bowed and left. He turned to his aide, “Arrange for someone more loyal to me to lead Bear Clan. It displeases me to hear these barely literate hulks of muscle question my orders.”
“As you wish, my lord. Of course, Orlev may be a hulking mass of muscle, but he’s a decent military thinker. It is true, the barbarians will be annihilated.”
Part III: Year 942 of the Second Age
Tavorech Caith woke. His wife was not in view. He grabbed the dagger out from under his pillow. The window was open. He walked over to it. A bloody smear ran along the windowsill. A pane of glass was broken, and a rope tied through the empty space. A few feet below hung his wife’s corpse. “No,” he muttered, “no, no, it can’t be.” He started to cry. He hurled the dagger out the window angrily. He fell to his knees. “By the Raven...death to those who have wronged me,” he shouted.
He heard a voice, soft, hissing, “You, Tavorech Caith, will have your revenge. You will kill the murderer of your wife if you try but I warn you, if you confront him, you will both die.”
“Then I shall join my wife under your keeping,” he muttered back, sadness dripping from his words like poison from spiders’ jaws. He stormed out of his room, forgetting his wife’s body, revenge clouding his mind. His black riding boots clacked on the gray flagstones as he stormed through the hallways. He mounted his horse and rode off. He did not know where. He assumed he would find out who his wife’s murderer was eventually.
“My lord, I have rather unpleasant news,” spoke the small, wiry vampire, “The commander of Daros’ sword...he was not broken by the death of his wife. He has sworn to kill you. He is riding north.”
“Does he know me?”
“Then he is no trouble. He’ll ride his horse to death before he finds us. More pressing in Raim Sintton. He may be a bad man, but he does have a spark of good in him. He’s dangerous. Unpredictable. And we don’t know where he is.”
Raim Sintton watched his commander leave the castle. He was in a hurry. The impressive black riding horse matched the man’s cloak. The horse trotted along. Raim followed.
Trees, huge and old in their growth, towered above them. These great plants were well over a thousand years old. Some were as thick as ten feet in diameter. The older man did not notice Raim following him.
Part IV: Year 942 of the Second Age
Tavorech Caith entered the roadside inn. To his surprise, Jeston Rision was sitting at a table in the corner. The commander joined his lieutenant and greeted him. “Captain,” replied the sitting man, “it’s good to see you’re alive.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” asked Tavorech. The younger man explained to his elder what had happened at Can Aman Fort. A serving girl came over to their table and stood there. Her bright green eyes stared into Jeston’s grayish blue ones.
“Hello,” he said. She replied in suit. They simply stared at each other, maybe they were studying each others’ faces, or maybe they were peering through the each other’s eyes, into their souls.
“We’ll have a jug of ale, and something good to eat,” said Tavorech as he interrupted their stare. The girl left, her hand briefly brushing against Jeston’s knee as she turned to leave. His head turned as he watched the woman leave. “You two seemed to like each other.” Jeston glared. The older man chuckled, “You always were a flirt. You know why I’m here?” The lieutenant answered in the negative. “Morelle’s dead. I’m off to avenge her death.”
“Morelle’s dead? I’m...so sorry. I think I may be able to help you on your path of revenge. I saw some troops with Suldyn uniforms and colors. I think they’re the ones that slaughtered our men. I...told Daros this, then resigned my post. I don’t want to be a part of another war. I’m on my way north to my home town, a little border village called Dyke. I was thinking of just settling down, starting a family...maybe I’ll bring that serving girl with me, maybe have a farm or something. I could help the village militia deal with the occasional barbarian raid. I’m afraid Daros will probably kill your wife’s murderer before you do. He’s moving three fourths Tirasis’ garrison to Suldyn as we speak. He’s sent messengers to the governors, telling them to muster their forces and march south. They’ll burn Suldyn to the ground. No field will be unscathed. Every warrior will be killed. Go south and search for vengeance if you like, but you will only get revenge upon a corpse. Why don’t you come with me to the north, try and forget the pain of this life. You know, start over. You won’t get satisfactory revenge.”
The older man nodded. “Tempting. You’re right, revenge won’t make me happier. Besides, I don’t really even know who killed her. She could have done herself in, for all I know.”
The young female server returned to the server with two bowls of soup and a gallon pitcher of ale. “Say, I don’t have any money,” began Jeston.
The waitress cut him off, “It’s alright. Your friend’s the one who ordered. And...er...I have a room of my own here--you can share that for a night...if you want.” She smiled.
“I can pay for his room,” said Tavorech.
“No, no, it’s fine. He can spend the night with me. I...ah...I get off work in ten minutes...can I...um...come join you boys and chat for a bit?” The younger man consented before the older could decline.
Fifteen minutes later, the girl returned with a bowl of soup and mug of ale and sat down next to Jeston. She said her name was Selara. “Where are you headed?”
“I’m going up north, back to my home town.”
“Could I...ah...possibly...come with you? I don’t...uh...actually have any...eh...family or anything here...my parents died when I was young...I’m an...er...only child...this innkeeper...ah...took me in.”
“Sure, that’s fine. I’d love to have you come with me up north, start a new life.”
“Thank you...you...uh...you don’t know how grateful I am. You said that you were from the north? What’s it like there?”
Part I: Year 942 of the Second Age
Jeston Rision was glad to be going home. He looked at the vast rolling hills of his homeland. Grain waved and glinted gold in the late summer sunlight. The trio walked over a bridge above a little babbling brook. “Is this your home?” asked Selara. Jeston answered in the affirmative. “It’s beautiful here.”
They passed an apple tree by the side of the road. The young man picked one of the ripe, red fruits and tossed it to her.“The apples here,” he began, “are the best you’ve ever tasted. And we’re in luck—they’re in season now. No one grows apples like us Northerners.”
“Jeston,” started Tavorech, “you’ve often boasted to me that no one does anything as good as you Northerners. I’m starting to think you’re just making this all up.”
“Well, maybe I was exaggerating about some of those other things, but I swear, I’m telling the truth about these apples.”
Selara bit into her apple. After she swallowed she said, “He’s right. These are…ah…these are damn good apples.”
“I’m glad you think so. I planted this tree when I was…fifteen, I think. Come on, Dyke’s not far ahead. Maybe twenty, thirty minutes more walk.”
Fifteen minutes later they came to the massive stone dyke for which the town was unimaginatively named. It diverted the River Talse and turned it south, towards Tirasis. The river gave the city trade, so that it prospered as it did. The Talse was small at this point, but it widened and deepened farther south. They saw the city of Dyke. It was a small city, some would describe it as a large town. The walls were five feet thick, solid stone and about ten feet high. “It was smaller when I left,” muttered Jeston.
They came to the gate. It rumbled open, the two wood doors creaking as they parted. The three travelers entered. A bearded man in chainmail and a red tunic left the guardhouse and stepped in front of the party. He was tall and in his mid fifties. “Who are you and what business have you in Dyke?”
Tavorech Caith spoke up, “The two of us were soldiers,” he motioned to himself and Jeston, “we’re seeking to settle down and start a life. She,” he motioned to Selara, “is tagging along.”
The man stepped closer to them. He looked at Jeston. “You...you look familiar. No...no, it can’t be. Did I...name you...twenty four years ago? Jeston? Son?”
Jeston stumbled forward, “Father? How long has it been? Ten years?”
“Yes...” his eyes fell on Selara, “your wife?”
“Not...yet,” he paused, “Father, this is Selara. She decided to come up here with me...start a family.”
“Not yet!” the man strode up to the girl, “Why, what’s been taking my good son so long? Pleased to meet you, my name’s Caleth Rision.”
“Selara....no last name.”
“Not yet,” muttered Tavorech, just loud enough for her to hear. She turned and shushed him. “Just speaking the truth,” he said teasingly. Turning to Jeston he said, “I’m sure there’s a jeweler somewhere in town if you’re looking for a ring.” The man blushed.
“How’s mom?” asked the son, reunited with his father.
The guard looked away and was silent. After a few moments, he spoke, “Your mother...she died. Some four years ago. I’m sorry.”
The young soldier nodded slowly, a tear glistening in his eye. Selara put a comforting arm around him.
“If it’s any consolation,” the captain of the guard continued, “she died peacefully, in her sleep.” The man trailed off into silence. A moment later, he looked up again and said, “Well, we’d best get you inside the walls. Even out here it’s not safe.”