by J. Wade Harrell
There is an old story told to many a patron of a smoke filled tavern that exists in a desert city of oddly arranged and ill engineered buildings. The one eyed barkeep likes to tell the tale to any newcomers who inquire about how the realm was beset with war and Shadow. Why tensions rose so suddenly and kept the kingdoms ever on alert with mistrust and backstabbing spies sent to monitor one another’s intentions was anyone’s guess. So it was not by accident that when I lumbered into the saucy establishment of music, gambling, wine, and wenches, I heard this most intriguing tale of how our realm became the way it is today. Have a seat and I’ll share it with you . . .
A chill swept over Tagabarr on a mid Autumn morning. Snow continued to fall adding to the heaviest ivory cloak the kingdom had seen in several years. The leaves on the trees had turned to fiery tones preparing to separate and vanish into the earthen floor. The dreary sky was tinged with purples and blues as the realm sighed and prepared for its annual slumber. Atop the steep hill stood castle Quyron that overlooked the city below; it was a city that was bordered on three sides. Ryklin Bay sat to the northwest, the castle hill to the southwest, and the Quyron River to the northeast. Between the castle hill and the river lay the city proper. The castle was adorned with icicles and its roofs were smeared with a blast of windswept snow but its gaunt walls with their narrow arching windows stood stalwartly over the edge of the kingdom. Castle Quyron was the epitome of strength standing with its lofty turrets and bannered towers guarding against foes of old that were hardly a threat these days.
Their blades were ever sharp. Their quivers were always full. The war machines were at the ready, oiled, and had ammunition stacked neatly but none had been used in the memories of most; and it led to the complacent feelings by the dukes and barons that their use would never be called upon. The garrison’s armor was dark and polished and they wore crimson tabards with the golden seal of the kingdom. Their visors were up as they scanned the surrounding lands for threats by land or by sea. What enemies the kingdom still had were far flung and more concerned with holding their borders these days than mounting an attack on a well defended capital city. But not the same could be said for all the cities of Tagabarr.
Across the river stood Castle Kol of the kingdom of Ryklin. It was an equally stunning architectural specimen that stared at Quyron ever prepared for war but the two kingdoms were friendly to one another having some of the same royal blood between them. Castle Kol’s green banner fluttered above its own spires that watched over the bay and rolling hillsides. Thus the two castles designed for war were actually utilized for hosting foreign dignitaries and bitter civil debates. What minor enemies they had were bloated. When barbarians threatened or pirate ships sailed into territorial waters, the governors and dukes of the lands demanded heavy fortification and higher taxation. It seemed times were too good but the leaders refused to acknowledge that fact and sought means to entrench themselves in power under the king.
As the snow piled higher, Lord Falbane donned his crimson cloak over his chain hauberk then strapped on his beloved sword, Roegenheim and sat out on his favorite steed. The barded warhorse carried him across the courtyard leaving a trail of massive hoofprints in the snow as it carried the king out of the main gates. The icy cobbles led horse and rider to another set of gates that accessed the drawbridge spanning a deep chasm. Lord Falbane descended a long ramp beside a chalky cliff to the river bottom steering clear of the city. A paved road led beside the fertile farms guiding Lord Falbane eastward into Siernod’s interior. No one knew where he went that day; he was known to take long rides but on that day he did not return.
His features were stoutly chiseled into his light brown skin. Dark grey eyes stared from deep set sockets like iron beacons. His gray hair fell from the dark helm and across his broad shoulders. He urged his dark steed onward into the interior alongside the wide river. The grass went from belly high to the horse to ankle deep as he got farther from the bay. The snow grew deeper until the grass was buried. A week went by and in the midst of an early blizzard that continually blew snow into high drifts, Lord Falbane realized he was in a rather bleak predicament. Frostbite was beginning to set in and there had been no farms or hamlets seen for days.
It was late one evening when he was weary, riding through the blowing snow when he suddenly noticed figures leap up around him. Lord Falbane ripped the massive sword from its scabbard and sat straight up in his saddle. The figures came into view. They wore heavy leather lined with fur. Their long black hair and simple but effective weaponry signified they were clansmen from the interior lands. He held out his sword and sat tall in the saddle so they could see who he was.
One smirking warrior motioned to his companions to stay back. He stepped forward by himself and stared Lord Falbane up and down.
“I am Lord Falbane of Quyron,” the king said with his baritone voice. “Who might you be?”
The clansman put his sword away as he stared at the king. He bowed slightly. “Your majesty, one is not accustomed to meeting his king in these parts, especially all alone. I am Dorin of Durn.”
Lord Falbane nodded to his subject with respect. “Well, Dorin of Durn, do you have a place where a king could warm himself and maybe fill his belly?”
“Aye, my lord. Clan Durn will gladly share a fire and provisions. Our camp is just over the next hill.”
Lord Falbane expressed his appreciation and he followed the dozen clansmen and their dogs up an incline where most landmarks had been covered by the icy blanket. They topped the knoll then descended into a shallow vale surrounded by some large cedars that in turn concealed a circle of tall tents. In the middle of them a fire blazed and there were shadowy figures moving around in the camp.
Dorin put a bull’s horn to his lips and gave two quick bellows announcing their arrival. The camp answered and they descended the incline, entered the stand of cedars, and found themselves in the large encampment of nomadic clansmen. The tents were tall, some larger than others and glowed faintly from lights within. The shadowy outlines of numerous clansmen wandered between the tents past a large fire burning in the camp center.
Lord Falbane directed his horse to a particular cedar and fastened his horse’s reins to a low limb then trailed Dorin toward the largest tent with two of his men. As they passed clansmen, the leather and fur clad warriors gave Lord Falbane a curious glance.
Dorin pulled a flap aside on the large tent and motioned for his royal guest to enter. Lord Falbane peered inside and stepped into the glowing tent. There was a divider separating the space into two parts. A crackling fire burned and popped sending a plume of smoke upward where it exited through a hole. Lord Falbane sat and warmed himself while a pair of women attended to them fetching hot drink and food. They sat around a crude table as they sat upon thick furs where they munched on venison and drank from wooden mugs containing a sweet berry juice.
Dorin belched and guzzled down some juice. He gave a curious gaze at the graciously eating king. In the light of the tent’s flames and without his fur hood, his gruff features stood out. His eyes were dark brown and his hair and beard were thick and dark.
“One would normally wonder why a king would be wandering about alone so far from his castle,” Dorin remarked.
“A fair question,” Lord Falbane replied. “Actually, I ride alone every day. This time I just rode a little farther.”
“I could see that perhaps on a bright spring day but mid Autumn in a cold year?” Dorin said.
Lord Falbane nodded. “The urge overtook me. Perhaps the politics of running a kingdom grow old for one such as I.”
Dorin nodded. “You are truly a most interesting king, mysterious at least.”
Lord Falbane grinned amiably. “One thing I learned in all my years is that even as king I am still Mann.”
“Are you returning to Quyron now?”
Lord Falbane shook his head but did not indicate how much farther he was riding or where he might go. “If I could stay the night here I would be most appreciative. Perhaps the weather will break and it will be more seasonable when I depart in the morning.”
“You are welcome to stay as long as you please,” Dorin said.
“For that I am truly grateful, Dorin of Durn.”
Dorin grinned amidst a pair of his most loyal warriors. “What else is a meager clan leader to do when a king is in the house. But more than that, my lord, you are a good man, not just a king. I can see that power has not corrupted you as it has others. You still thirst for truth and wisdom. For that, you have my deepest respect and homage.”
Lord Falbane gave a grin of appreciation. “When I first saw you in the snow, I felt I was in for quite a fight and perhaps I had taken my last trip.”
“When we saw you, we were hunting. I always tell my men to hold their arrows until they know what they are shooting. Then when I saw a man on a horse, I told them to not shoot unless you brandished a weapon. My own son was slain some four winters ago by his own kinsmen when a hunter failed to know his target.”
Lord Falbane nodded with approval then stared into the mug he had just emptied. “This juice is very good. it really relaxes one very well. I think I shall sleep well tonight.”
Dorin looked at his men and they shared laughter. “It is fernberry wine, my lord. Only we of Durn know the secret groves. During the last war, My grandfather gave it to all his men to drink the night before a great battle. The next day our efforts were rewarded a massive victory.”
“A clan war?” Lord Falbane asked.
Dorin shook his head and looked at his own men while he spoke to Lord Falbane. “Not that time. Our camp was threatened by an army of warrior priests from Jazmarr when they tried to take the far hinterlands. Clan Durn was camped in the hills when they came down. Clan Durn refused to run and thus met their full force with the full clan assembled. That day, one hundred great clansmen fell but the lions of Jazmarr retreated. Later it was heard that the Jazmarrians agreed to a truce and war was no more. To this day, we drink fernberry wine every evening.”
Dorin looked back at Lord Falbane but he was passed out on a fur.
“Let him sleep,” Dorin said.
Lord Falbane awoke the next morning as soon as the sun thrust its fiery face above the hills. He felt completely refreshed. His rump felt as if it had a weeks worth of rest and the frostbite he had acquired was gone. He looked at his fingers and sat upright. He checked quickly at his side and made certain his sword was still with him. He pushed the heavy blanket that someone had draped across him and found he had been stripped of his armor to make sleeping more comfortable for his things were neatly stacked nearby.
The tent’s main door parted and Dorin walked inside rubbing his hands. “Tis a bit chilly out but the clouds have parted and the snows have stopped. Perhaps winter has not set in early after all.”
Lord Falbane stood and walked to the door and peered outside. There were men roaming about securing the camp and using crude shovels to make paths by which to walk. He noticed his stallion was still tied up but its saddle had been removed.
“Do not worry, my lord. We have taken care of your mount for you. We fed him some wild grass this morning.”
Lord Falbane nodded. “Thank you. Thank you very much for all you have done. I would like to stay longer and learn more of your tribe, howeverI must be leaving promptly.”
Dorin’s silence wreaked of curiosity. “Wherever your journey takes you, I wish you safe travel, my lord.”
Dorin bowed then ordered one of his young warriors to fetch the king’s saddle and barding and bring him his steed as soon as it was ready for riding.
Lord Falbane donned his armor and strapped on his sword.
Dorin’s wife came from the other room in the tent and brought him some hot tea and dried meat. Lord Falbane nodded with appreciation. He drank some of the tea before setting off.
When his steed arrived, it was fully dressed and the packs had been filled with provisions. Lord Falbane reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a gold coin.
“Should you ever have need of coin, this will get you far, my countryman.”
Dorin took the coin reluctantly and bowed once again.
Lord Falbane mounted up and saluted Dorin. “Good fortunes.”
He rode off as the sun cascaded its rays over the crystal hills. The clouds were broken and the air was fresh and crisp. The snow was knee deep on the horse but now he could see the river clearly and the mountains jutted up as if painted masterfully against the southern sky. The virgin blanket of white did very little at helping direct his path but he rode onward to the east.
The sun spread a welcome warmth to the land and the snow that had settled upon the kingdom started to melt. The melt turned to runoff and started to swell the streams. A week passed since he had left the camp of Clan Durin and he had not seen another soul.
He stretched out on a rock that overlooked the Qyuron River. The river glistened peacefully as a vulture circled overhead. For a moment it looked as if the large bird was going to dive down on him but it thought better and glided away detecting that Lord Falbane was indeed a living carcass.
The sun felt good and when he had enough rest he decided to arise and continue his journey eastward. His intentions were cut short when he noticed something move out of the corner of his eye. He heard a roar and he wheeled to see large man with black hair bearing down on him on the back of a large tiger. The man was holding an ax as he rode down the hill preparing to slay him.
With quick reflexes Lord Falbane ripped his sword from its scabbard. Roegenheim was sharp. Its edge glistened in the sunlight as the king cocked it and met the blow of the axe just in time. The power of the tiger rider sent a dull ache up his arm. He turned to see the cat rider halting and turning around. He prepared himself for another attack.
Lord Falbane planted himself in a wide stance and when the rider made another pass he ducked beneath the ax’s arc and fell into the slushy ice while at the same time thrusting the sword upward and he caught the beast in the belly.
The cat screamed and stumbled sending its rider headlong into a snowbank.
Lord Falbane leaped back up to his feet and ran toward the bank. The cat lay wounded snarling at the gray maned king. For him, the sword felt welcome in his hands. It had been a long time since he had had the opportunity to lay waste to any foul thing. The power he held in Roegenheim was fulfilling and he thirsted for vengeance against the man who had dared attempt to slay him.
The man climbed out of the snow bank and snarled with beastly angst. The man seemed wild and very uncivilized showing only hatred and ill will. He hefted his ax out of the snow and came running toward Lord Falbane. In turn, Lord Falbane cocked his sword waiting for the barbaric man to launch his attack. When he did, Lord Falbane was ready.
He parried the electrifying blow with some pain but quickly returned the attack by sending Roegenheim directly towards the barbarians neck. The blade landing with terrifying results slicing the barbarian into two uneven pieces and painting the snow patch with steaming crimson.
As for the tiger, it was a very impressive animal and a sacrifice he hated to make. It lay there wanting to eat the king but could not move because of a severed leg and a mass of entrails spilling from a gash in its side. Lord Falbane had no choice but to put the cat out of its misery. The big cat screamed briefly then went limp when Roegenheim landed on the back of its skull.
Lord Falbane knew that once the scout was missed, there would be a search for him so he had to move on. Even though the snow was melting, there was still a great deal of it remaining. He dragged a bush behind him to try to hide his tracks in the snow but it didn’t do a very good job. All he could do was try to make good time until hopefully there would be no more snow.
His wish came true that evening as he rode across a slightly undulating steppe not far from the river where short grass grew along with sparse shrubbery and a few cedars that lined some of the small canyons. He rode until dark each day and arose to ride early the next. The river grew narrower and was not nearly as deep nor was its current as swift yet it still commanded a special majesty marking the border between two rival but amiable kingdoms; they were two kingdoms that once fought side by side against the evil forces from the east. Now they rarely fought nor did they even prepare for war for there was hardly a threat to worry about. Troubles more often than not were dealing with rogue barons or mad dukes bent on accomplishing self fulfilling goals while at the same time increasing the burdens on the citizens.
Lord Falbane rode onward across the barren steppes ever keeping the view of the river swerving across the steppes to his north and transforming into a narrower and narrower reflective ribbon; and he usually saw the craggy slopes to the south dusted with winters breath. The steppe was friendly to riding for there were few obstacles save for an occasional canyon to traverse. Eventually the Quyron River narrowed to a trickle and was not much more than a weaving ditch. Dust erupted beneath the hooves of the dark stallion and plumed behind it as horse and rider thundered deeper inland. The river was a distant memory having vanished a few days ago digesting all landmarks except that which hung in the cosmos..
Darkness fell and there was not a bush or a rock to camp by for any kind of shelter at all. It was level ground beneath a starry sky. The points of light were innumerable on the clear night. The moon climbed in the sky and shone its brilliance upon the barren landscape. He knew he was near the eastern border. He shut his eyes for but a moment but all soon went black as exhaustion was taking its toll.
He arose early the next day and felt through his packs but there was nothing to eat. He shared the last of his water with his steed then he prepared to mount. He slung the saddle onto horse and tightened the straps. He put his foot in the stirrup and as he looked over the stallion’s back, he saw a cloud of dust rising up over the steppe. What manner of riders could be coming? Had the cat riders come for vengeance?
He stepped off for a moment and walked around the proud animal and stared at the brown cloud. His hand found the grip of Roegenheim and it slid easily out of the oiled scabbard. The cloud grew larger and he stood waiting for whatever was coming. several forms of mounted riders could be seen against the cloud of dust that followed. Thunderous hoofbeats could be heard rumbling across the land as their faces came into view. Lord Falbane realized the riders were not hostile when he recognized the faces of Dorin and a pair of warriors from Clan Durn.
He resheathed his sword and addressed them when they came to a stop in front of him though he was curious at their arrival.
The three dismounted and Dorin walked forward and bowed with respect before speaking.
“We heard news of a dead Ziani clansmen, my lord, and we rode to help.”
“Ziani, eh?” Lord Falbane said. “I have heard of them. A fierce clan they are.”
“Aye, my lord. They are a most fearsome bunch there are two scouts about a three miles behind us I am supposing. They have signaled their camp and just a couple hours behind there are likely many more. I figured it could be no other than you who killed their scout. The Ziani are a relentless bunch and would see you tortured and slain if they could.”
“Then I suppose we should head eastward quickly and take a detour into the Edgewood Forest. Perhaps we can lose them there.”
Dorin nodded. “That would be wise. If we decide to fight them we can gain an advantage in the forest.”
The four rode eastward driving their horses to exhaustion. Dusk was already upon them and they had to take a break. Lord Falbane bid them ride a little farther until before them something could be seen sprouting out of the bare ground up ahead. They rode toward the thin object and as it drew closer it appeared to be a pole planted firmly in the ground with some sort of banner hanging from it.
They stopped when they came to the pole that had a stained banner hanging in the breeze. It had been blown and slightly tattered; the emblem in the center was still very visible and there were the names of men crudely scrawled upon it along with some dark colored smears.
“What is this?” Dorin asked.
“It is the Banner of the Four Kings,” Lord Falbane said. “Long ago when Siernod was at war, the kings finally ran out of money to keep fighting and it seemed pointless at the time. Even Jazmarr to the east seemed eager to negotiate peace. Four kings signed it with their blood on a piece of Jazmarrian silk. Though not the original boundary we all claimed, we all agreed to stop the war and this point is the agreed upon boundary between three kingdoms, Tagabarr, Ryklin, and Jazmarr. This silk is an incredible fabric that stands the test of time.”
“So that is how Jazmarr got control of the Edgewood Forest?” Dorin asked.
“They claim to but no one actually controls the old forest. By all rights, Tagabarrian land should extend all the way to the forest edge at the least. I would not have agreed upon this point but it was in effect when I was passed Roegenheim.”
The four men set up their camp for the evening hoping to have put good distance between themselves and the tigers of the Ziani clan. They sat around a small fire and ate what little food they had and drank a cup of fernberry wine.
“Your journey is a most mysterious one, my lord,” Dorin said.
Lord Falbane reclined and stared deep into the fire. “When I was but a boy, I heard about the wars and I trained hard to make my people proud one day. Then I went and fought on these dusty steppes and even into the forest. Many of my friends died trying to push this line back to the east where we believed it should be. That was at least to the forest and even there many of us wanted to drive them out into their lands. We were fighting hard and we had some momentum. Ryklin was sending more troops and Ironwealth to the north was also committed to endure. Then one day, the king of Tagabarr decided he no longer could afford to fight. We knew that Jazmarr was not committed to extending themselves farther west. Tagabarr’s king offered a truce and Jazmarr took it. They sent their king here and all four kings signed the banner with their blood. They agreed that as long as this banner stood as a mark of boundary, there would be peace between the kingdoms. Ever since, there has been anything but peace in Quyron. Opponents of the war bashed the king and those who sought to keep it going poisoned him. Ever since, the king has been beset with problems.”
Dorin continued listening intently.
“So, since Tagabarr gave up rule by inheritance long ago and the one who possesses Roegenheim is king, the sword eventually ended up with me. I have done many great things but the one thing I have not been able to do is to unite the entire kingdom once again like it was united during the wars.”
“Sad,” Dorin said. “Kindred men cannot get along when things are going well. Clan Durn never makes peace agreements with any other clan. When men make peace agreements, the threat of war declines, and the people get soft and begin bickering amongst themselves. Then the only people with a tactical advantage are the ones who break the peace agreement. If a clan wants peace with my folk, they will just choose to leave us alone and we do likewise..”
“There is much wisdom in your words, Dorin. Perhaps you would make a great leader for Tagabarr some day.”
Dorin laughed. “Me, a duke or a baron?”
Lord Falbane grinned. “You would actually be much better than the fools who occupy those thrones today. Tagabarr could use men like yourself, if your clan could spare you.”
“I could never forsake my clan for a meager province, my lord.”
Lord Falbane nodded. “I understand.”
“Tomorrow we head east if my Lord desires,” Dorin said. “We will find the old forest Edgewood and if the tigers keep on chase, we will ambush them there.”
When it came time to sleep they divided the night into four watches then went to sleep under the stars. Lord Falbane volunteered to take the last watch and one of the guards awoke him when it was his turn. The gray king looked down upon the three Durn clansmen who slumbered well. There was a cup that still held a little fernberry wine sitting near the smoldering sticks. He picked up the cup and drank down the remainder of the contents then stared at the banner’s dark silhouette.
The banner represented peace at the cost of sovereignty. It spoke of tranquility on the borderlands and chaos at home. To Lord Falbane, he saw it as a disservice to all who had died to advance the cause and gain back the lands that were taken from them though dusty and desolate lands they were. He had travelled all this way and now they were trailed by a bloodthirsty band of barbarians riding savage tigers trying to slay them for simply existing. Now that he was here, what else was there to do? Jazmarr was not a threat, at least at this moment. As king, he had access to all the lavishness he desired, control over the entire kingdom except for the behavior of the dukes and barons who secretly plotted to condemn and kill one another or give lofty speeches to horrify the masses into thinking that without them they were all going to melt from the wrath of the old gods. Oh Peace where is thy solace, accord what is your purpose? Perhaps peace is the opposite of what many men value; maybe inner peace is more important than peace at large. Perhaps there are times when tension builds harmony; man must be driven to his snapping point before he can think rationally and behave as he ought.
* * * * *
There was a soft glow rising up in the east and against that pale horizon there was something moving just before it vanished in the distance. An animal? Perhaps. Maybe a horse and rider; it would be difficult to say.
On the ground slept the three dark haired clansmen who finally awoke when the sun peeked over the realm’s edge and teased their slumbering eyes. They sat up rubbing their faces and soon realized that Lord Falbane was gone. One of the warriors appeared miffed and declared that they had been left defenseless if the tigers of Ziani would have arrived. Dorin corrected him swiftly by pointing at the fresh pile of horse feces on the ground where the dark stallion had been tied.
“If you stick your fingers in it you will see it is still warm. He didn’t leave us to die, he left us to live.”
The other warrior pointed at the stake noticing the banner of the four kings was gone. Dorin glanced and pondered the situation but did not offer any excuses for the king’s sudden vanishing.
The warriors were perplexed at the words of their clan leader. Dorin picked up his hide wrapped sword and pulled on his boots. “If our lord desires to ride alone, then alone he shall ride. Nevertheless, we shall continue east watching for tiger riders.”
The two warriors nodded in obedience and packed up the camp, loaded their horses, then the three rode away.
And so the three trotted their horses across the hard ground of the steppe as skies grayed. A cold drizzle fell as they watched ahead and behind. Dorin led his two warriors farther east. They came upon a gully where it was believed to be the farthest inland tributary of the Meridun River. The gulley carved a steep canyon into the earth but it was dry. As they continued eastward the gulley ran with a small stream then it began to turn slightly northward.
“My lord, there are trees ahead,” one of the warriors spoke.
“Indeed, ahead and to the north of the river are some of the first signs of the Edgewood Forest.”
The other warrior cut them short. “My lord, behind us rides four.”
Dorin wheeled his horse around to see that there were four riders on the backs of large feline beasts and they were bounding toward them. Their paws were virtually silent making them hard to hear and their charge was swift.
“Only four? I am insulted. Ride close together,” Dorin shouted. “Defend valiantly against their axes for they are heavy and sharp.”
The horses charged forward toward the cats and their riders clashed with loud battle yells. Dorin pulled ahead and he dealt a swift blow that sank deep into the ribs of one tiger rider and out of the gaping wound gushed the warm crimson liquid of life. The two Durn warriors parried blows of the axes with resounding clangs or hardened steel.
Both sides wheeled around having passed but now it was an even fight, in numbers of men. They charged toward one another again. Dorin yelled out loudly with a voluminous growl. He spun his sword and caught another in the neck, creating a deep thud, and separating the mans head from his torso spraying the ground with his blood. In the meeting one of the Durn warriors was struck by an ax and was sent screaming to the ground.
Two and two they turned and charged each other once again. Dorin pulled in front of his fellow warrior and accompanied by a loud battle shout that rolled across the plains, he swung his sword in a broad arc such that few had ever witnessed. The blade sliced through both of the remaining tiger riders. The two barbarians screamed when struck by the sharp blade and fell to the ground quivering with an ounce of life left.
The four cats poised to pounce. The downed Durn warrior threw his sword and caught one cat in the throat then he strung up his bow while blood streamed down his arms. Dorin and the other mounted warrior engaged in a bloody fray with the big cats. The wounded Durn warrior let an arrow fly and delivered the missile into the heart of one. With two remaining, the wounded Durn warrior had bled too much and he fell limp to the ground in his own blood.
Dorin let out a series of yells as the flesh on his arms had a pair of nasty gashes. He jabbed his sword into one of the remaining cats while the other mounted warrior fended of another. Dorin wheeled his head around and chopped at the neck of the last tiger and it fell with a loud groan to the hard ground.
Dorin ran to his warrior and his heart was lifeless. He closed the dead warrior’s eyes while the other warrior dismounted and finished off the barbarians who clung to life. They tended to their oozing wounds and sat for a while recuperating from the vicious battle that scarred them with deep gashes.
The warrior addressed his leader. “My lord, that sword is not yours. That looks more like the king’s sword.”
“Rorik, my warrior, you are correct.” He lifted the sword and turned it allowing the sun to glance off its polished surface. “It is the sword called Roegenheim. Why he switched it out on me before he left, I cannot say. I must admit it is one fine blade to do battle with.”
Warrior Rorik nodded. “Does this mean–”
Dorin cut hims short, “Silence. There will be no talk of nonsense. We will keep moving eastward and get to the bottom of this mystery.”
They bound their wounds up well and put some ointment on their horses where the tiger claws had gashed them then they rode onward. Dorin was puzzled at the strange behavior of the king. But with the Ziani barbarians dealt with, at least one wave, they could focus on moving ahead. In spite of their painful wounds they rode hard and looked for every sign of their gray king but at the same time remaining wary of any more Ziani riders. At times they found hoof prints which kept them moving eastward. The sun was falling fast toward the level plain where they could see miles in all directions. To the north, there was the head of the Meridun, shallow and wild; and beyond were the grand growth of thick trunked trees that formed the boundary of the Edgewood Forest. To the south there was a loopback of the river even wider running the opposite direction. Beyond it too were giant gnarly trees standing on rolling hills with thick trunks of gray shaggy bark.
The plain widened in the river loop then night fell upon them and they could ride no farther. They stopped and slept again on the hard ground praying that the sun would rise promptly with clear skies so they could continue onward making haste.
Dorin had a hard time falling asleep wondering what was happening. He knew the Edgewood Forest would eventually prevent them from travelling any farther for it was against their better judgement to enter the ancient forest for no good reason. It was a forest said to exist before the race of Mann and contained bizarre creatures and plants.
He had not even realized that he was asleep when the blazing ball of day reached above the steppes and chased away the chill of night. Dorin and Rorik drank down the last of their fernberry wine and their wounds felt better already. They mounted up and drove their Tagabarrian ponies farther once more.
Hours passed and they drove their sweating horses hard. Finally the land broke, like a massive staircase it lowered in tiers to the river below that bordered the old forest. But something else they saw let them know their chase had not been in vain. They saw an old castle standing beside the river that guarded an arcing bridge. The castle had one lookout tower and four turrets.
“Castle Woodfiord,” Dorin said. “It used to belong to Tagabarr but these days it is corrupted by the Jazmarrians as they guard their western front.
The purple and black banners of the Jazmarrian kingdom fluttered atop the tower and turrets. Riding down into the valley was a dark horse and a rider with dark armor and a crimson cloak.
“And Lord Falbane rides toward it, my lord. I can only wonder what plan he has.”
“He carries the banner of the four kings with him,” Dorin said pondering the events unfolding before them.
Dorin began riding his horse down into the valley then they stopped for a moment on a ledge where they had good view of the castle and the lands immediately around it. Rorik was ready to charge ahead about Dorin stopped him.
“But the king rides into danger. We must help him.”
Dorin shook his head.
Rorik did not understand but he accepted his lord’s command and they dismounted and watched what transpired. Lord Falbane charged across the level fields of green turf kicking up chunks of grass and mud in his wake. He held a spear up high with the banner of the four kings displayed plainly. The gates of the castle opened. They were massive gates and out rode a score of purple clad warriors whose horses had similar barding. Lord Falbane was not deterred but he finally came to a halt about a bowshot from the mounted Jazmarrian warriors in a two deep line.
Lord Falbane let out a loud shout then thrust the spear into the ground and the banner of the four kings was again planted. The duke of the castle could be seen as he stepped forward onto the tower’s balcony to witness the blasphemous actions of the gray Tagabarrian.
Lord Falbane drew a sword from his side.
“My lord, that is your sword,” Rorik said.
The Jazmarrian duke gave a signal to a man standing beside him and that man put a curled horn to his lips and let out a deep tone that echoed off the valley walls.
The warriors began to march their horses toward Lord Falbane. The gray king yelled and charged ahead. An archer fired from one of the turrets whizzing an arrow by his head. Another archer let a missile fly and Lord Falbane was struck in the thigh. He winced but kept charging. More arrows came and one struck him in the shoulder finding a small chink in his armor but it did not deter him. The sneering king galloped ahead on his stallion wounded and bleeding. His horse dove into the ranks and they collapsed on him as he swatted at them with his sword. Perhaps two or three Jazmarrians fell but the king was rapidly bloodied and dismembered by the vicious warriors. It could be said that the king fought to the bitter death ignoring fear and pain. Some may say it was his own bravery and determination. Others say it was the fernberry wine. Most tend to believe the former.
The warriors rode back into the castle less three whom were slain by Lord Falbane. With the bloody work done, the duke and a few of his knights rode out onto the turf and inspected the body of the Tagabarrian. The duke then rode to the banner of the four kings and ripped it from the ground. He looked up as if looking straight at the two Durn clansmen and gave forth and evil grin.
He looked back down at the corpse of Lord Falbane where a vulture swooped down and landed on his body. “Oh foolish Tagabarrian. You don’t know what manner of Shadow you just unleashed upon Siernod.”
His cackle could be heard plainly as it flooded the valley.
– by J.Wade Harrell,
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