Gavin bounded down the keep steps, eager to discover the cause of the cacophony echoing through the tower. The snorting and whinnying of horses competed with the voices of knights calling to each other across the courtyard. He stuffed his green tunic into his black breeches as he ran. In too much of a hurry to comb his hair, Gavin tried to smooth the brown cowlick with his fingers.
As the youngest prince of Pembroke Castle, Gavin dutifully attended his daily lessons. As a page, he was learning to handle a sword in battle and take care of the weapons, equipment, and horses of the knights. Soon to be a squire, he worried about how he would act in battle. Well, not exactly in battle. Squires tended the knights’ horses and guarded the supplies while they fought. The unspoken rule of warfare stated that squires couldn’t be put in danger. However, others in the castle had talked about the times the enemy had sent warriors behind the fighting to attack the supply line. Squires who hadn’t run away had been injured or killed.
Gavin worried about disgracing his family and the crown, worried that he would be scared enough to run or worse, get injured or killed.
The simple truth was, he was afraid.
Burying those thoughts, Gavin burst into the bailey courtyard amassed with horses and knights milling about. Dust swirled, choking the air, causing him to cough and sneeze. He recognized his older brother Robert across the chaotic courtyard and raised his hand in salute.
Robert led his black gelding over and handed Gavin the reins.
“Hi, Gav.” Robert tousled Gavin’s hair.
“What’s happening? Where are you going?”
“Someone broke into the throne room last night and stole the King’s Ransom…” Gavin gasped.
The medallion was made of gold and embedded with emeralds so dark the jewels looked black except in the sunlight. Then the deep green sparkled lighter and reminded him of the first blades of grass pushing up through the dark earth in the spring. The tremendous weight of the medallion required him to use both hands when holding it.
Stories passed down said that a traitor over the channel had used it to force a king to ransom his kingdom. To be in possession of it meant to be in possession of power. Many men wanted that power. Gavin’s grandfather’s grandfather had found it as a young man during the siege of a French castle. Though only seventeen, that prince had recognized its importance and had risked his life to bring it home. To protect his find, he’d spent the night in a storeroom listening to the screams of the defeated forces and the drunken laughter of the victors. He’d presented it to his father, and it had been in the possession of the King of Pembroke Castle ever since.
“…and killed one of our men,” Robert finished, breaking into his thoughts.
An image of the thin, wiry man appeared in Gavin’s mind. It wasn’t pleasant. Aldred had managed the estate and castle’s daily needs and also watched over the treasury. That meant that he frequented the throne room. Invariably he was with the king when Gavin needed to talk to his father. It bothered him that Aldred shared the private conversations he had with his father, always made him feel unimportant. But his father would be upset at his death.
“As soon as Father gets here, we’re going hunting. Man-hunting.”
“Might I go along as your squire?” Gavin asked.
Robert seemed to see the hesitation Gavin knew was etched on his face.
“Not this time, Gav. You’ll get your chance to join us soon enough. And Gavin…” Robert paused. His body stiffened as he spotted the king making his way through the crowd on his black stallion. “You’ll do well.” He mounted his horse and held out a hand. Gavin handed him the reins and watched as Robert joined their father, King Wallace.
“You know your father’s rule,” a soft voice behind Gavin said.
Onnie winced as an apple fell from the gather of her apron, striking root. She stooped, inspecting the small gash and bruise on the pink skin. It had been perfect for market; now it would be tossed in with the cider apples. No great loss, but she hated to see a pretty thing marred. She reached to gather it up again, then froze as a harsh, foreign laugh sounded across the orchard.
Spinning on her heels, she searched for the sound’s source. There—a pair of men, walking through the trees as though they owned them, their rollicking voices nearing with every step. With great hilts bristling at shoulder and hip, with leather and mail gleaming, they could only be mercenaries. They weren’t in any regular army—fearful enough—and they couldn’t be bandits, bold as brass as they strolled, picking the apples off the trees.
Onnie pressed the apron hem to her nose, shrinking against the trunk. Only thing worse than bandits were mercenaries, everyone knew. Only difference between them was that one kept hidden, and the other had your lord’s coin and protection. Was the trunk hiding her? How she wished it were bigger. Were the men coming closer? Maker save her, they were. She muted a whimper.
“No, it gets better. See, what does he do then,” one was saying, “but try to loose a warning bolt, right by the messenger’s head. But it turns out he fancies himself a better bowman than he is, because—hold, what’s this?”
They stopped. Onnie, who’d been edging towards the trunk’s other side as they walked by, tried to spring to her feet to bolt, but her foot tangled in her apron, sending her sprawling at the men’s feet along with two-dozen apples. Likely ruined now, she thought dimly, watching one roll between a large pair of boots.
She pushed up to her knees, staring with mute terror at the pair looming over her. One had an eye patch, and a terribly scarred face. The other had a bristling brown beard, and both had wicked grins.
“Aww, it’s a little apple blossom, all alone,” drawled the bearded one, stepping closer still. “Where’s your minder, girly? Surely you aren’t old enough to be out in the woods on your own.”
Onnie’s lips quivered as she fought to find her voice. “It’s our orchard. You shouldn’t be here.” It came out in a whisper.
The mercenaries laughed. “Well, we weren’t doing any ill, were we? Only taking a little walk. Sure, we might be taking a few bites as we go, but where’s the harm? Now, now. No need to shriek. We’re only having a chat.”
No use in shrieking, there was the truth of it. If she screamed now, her mother and brothers might come out, but her brothers were children, whatever they said to the contrary, and children armed with pitchforks would be quickly cut down by these monsters. She’d have to try to run again.
She’d hardly gathered her legs under her when the bearded one stepped forward again, his boot coming down on her tunic’s hem. For the first time Onnie could think of, she actually wished her tunic would rip, but the contrary thing stayed whole, pinning her to the earth. The apple-sweet air now reeked of sour sweat, and worse.
Let me be. She mouthed the words, but her breath had knotted in her chest so she didn’t think she could even squeak. If there was any point in squeaking, or in saying anything to the brutes.
“Help the poor girl up, Creyl,” the man with the eye patch chuckled, stooping down to wrap a massive, callused hand around her upper arm. It clamped tight as a shackle, yanking her to her feet. The tunic did rip, then, as her arm bruised. Ruined. She stared up into the one-eyed leer, feeling faint. She wished she would faint, hoped she might.
A third figure appeared in the trees, lanky and lean and leading a mule. Oh, two were more than enough to champion for Hell. What had she done to fall so foul of Chance and the Maker?
“What’re you louses doing?”
Onnie blinked, focusing on the newcomer. A woman’s voice? A young woman. Of a height with an average man, she wore a round shield on her back, and some menacing looking ball-and-chain weapon hung at her hip. Her blond hair was short and tousled, her face pale and her eyes bright blue and—flat. Onnie dropped her gaze. She’d hoped for a rescuer, but mercs were as mercs did. This one being a woman, really more of a girl, didn’t change that.
The smell of smoke and rotting flesh bit at Ash’len’s nose as he crouched low in the brush not three paces from the edge of the orc encampment. Blending in with the dark green foliage around him, Ash’len had no fear of being detected. He had been careful to approach the camp from down wind and now held motionless watching it’s morning activities.
Normally Ash’len would have avoided such a camp, but curiosity and, although he refused to admit it to himself, concern had brought him here. During the night he had come across a small village in smoke and ruins. The destruction was complete with no living thing left behind, obviously the work of an orc raiding party. The trail was easy to follow. The orcs had shown no fear of anyone coming after them. Ash’len could tell that several humans had been taken alive. It was common for humans to be taken, both dead and alive, orcs weren’t know for being picky eaters. Orcs were known, however, for being lazy. They used humans to do their work for them and would keep them alive as long as they felt they were useful. Orcs were known for using human women for personal reasons.
Based on the crude structure of the camp, it appeared to be a band of roaming orc warriors. Ash’len estimated there to be fifty male orcs with a few females and no young. Most still slept, or were lazily lying about after last night’s raid. The females, assisted by a few of the younger males, seemed to be putting together some food for when the camp awoke. With the abhorrent smell coming from the small cooking fire, Ash’len refused to guess what was being prepared. Taking in more of the camp, Ash’len observed a wood cage on the east end of the encampment.
Valreth looked out over his throne room. Attendants bustled about, hurrying to fulfill his latest request. He didn’t like to think of himself as commanding. He was, after all, a benevolent god. He simply had to ask, and his subjects fell over themselves trying to complete his request. It was good to be loved. He was enthroned in the capital of his empire, Radiance. He preferred simple names that reminded his subjects of his divinity.
A wine glass drifted up to him, levitated by delicate patterns of Wind. Valreth smiled. A dignified way to serve god, fitting. He felt a faint pang—like hunger—but deeper, vaster. Valreth looked over at his head priest.
“I am feeling a tad peckish, Yalv,” Valreth said. “Would you mind fetching my mid-day meal? I would like something…” Valreth took a sip of his wine, “spicy.”
Yalv bowed deeply. “I live and die by your will, my god.” He turned and gestured sullenly to one of his sub-priests. The man scurried out of the room, exiting through one of the oversized doors. Valreth’s throne room was a grand thing. Enormous, it was floored by perfectly polished marble. Row upon row of marble pillars ran up and down the room, perfectly aligned, all reflecting Valreth’s glory. Spread throughout the room were enormous fountains fashioned from crystal. Polished five times daily, they glistened with absolute perfection. Four burning braziers were positioned around his throne, a flawless masterwork of diamond. A bit uncomfortable, but Valreth preferred visual perfection to petty comfort.
He glanced at Yalv. Has there been a time when he has not been sullen? Valreth searched his memory. It was a struggle; he had accumulated countless memories in his thousand-year lifetime. After some effort he recalled two times when Yalv had been visibly happy: shortly after Valreth had risen to power, and just after the extermination of the Sprites. Is there some connection between those two events? The rest of the time he has been dour. Why is he so unenthusiastic now?
Valreth put off trying to discern the reason; his meal had arrived. A young woman floated into the room, suspended by patterns of Wind, like the wine glass to Valreth’s right. He judged her to be in her twenty-fifth year. She had shoulder-length red hair, a sign that she might be strong in Fire. Most striking were her brilliant blue eyes. They were bloodshot, but even marred, they seemed to illuminate the room. She looked healthy.
Valreth was pleased. She would serve him well. She finished floating towards him and stopped a short distance away, still suspended above the ground. Her body was limp with apparent resignation.
“Tell, me, sweet one,” Valreth said, “what is your name?”
“Seya’toreth, my god.” A single tear rolled down her cheek.
She must be overwhelmed with joy at meeting me. Valreth rose and gently wiped the tear from her face. Valreth smiled. Valreth stood tall, easily six or seven handspans taller than the average Alnasae man. He had a pale, flawless complexion and pitch-black hair and eyes. His hair reached down to the small of his back. His posture and build radiated power. He was the perfect being.
Chapter 1 Strangers
It was peaceful and silent in Fairwood Forest that day, with the occasional sound of a bird singing and the breeze playing gently at the tips of the branches, as the sun tried its best to shine down between the leaves onto the thick covering of the forest floor. Egny stood still and listened to the sounds of the forest. She was tracking a deer she had spotted earlier that morning. She took a deep breath of the pleasant forest’s air. Her aura was suddenly shattered when she heard the rapid pounding footsteps traveling in her direction. On the forest path below her, she saw a man running by, and close on his heels followed two armed men, one with a sword in his hand, the other carried a double-faced battle-axe. The refugee suddenly bent off the path and down to a nearby creek. He tried to jump over the stream, but lost his balance and struck the ground on the opposite bank. He turned his head and saw the men jumping towards him, he tried to run down the stream, but it was too late.
One of the men struck his sword at him, but he managed to move away from the impact, falling on his back. He saw the other one raising his axe at him. He could not move, yet the blow never came. The man froze, and a tip of a sword stood out of his breast. He looked down to his chest and saw his life’s blood trickling from the tip of a shining steel blade. Then he fell face down to the ground. The refugee tried to stand up, terrified as he saw where the other attacker was, but he was diverted, fighting someone else. The attacker struck his sword against his rescuer, but he defended himself with a swift move. The rescuer then stabbed the attacker in the chest with a knife that he grasped in his left hand, and the attacker fell dead to the ground. The person that came to his aid stood still for a moment and then turned to him.
“Are you wounded?” he was shocked, it was a female’s voice he heard.
“No, I do not think so, only bruises and some cuts,” he muttered as he pulled himself up brushing the pieces of forest floor from his clothing, aching after the fall and weak after the exertion and strain of his flight. He discovered that he was trembling from shock and fear.
The Age of Strife is an important historic time in the world, it is when the entirety of the known world was consumed in conflict. Through the recorded histories and the deeds of individuals and nations there is much to learn. The men of the Reiken Empire and the Ramahg Kingdom have always been under attack and in a state of conflict with Beast Men, Green Skins, and Hill Tribes who often dwell in the vast forests that cover their continent. Many of these forests have legends and stories with almost all of them being dark and foreboding.
While the men in the deserts and dry lands to the south have taken the religion of these men after the last Crusade over a hundred years ago after losing severely. The desert men are the Sultanate of Karadcus and they are also under constant threat from beast men although the tribes nearest to them are far more agreeable and often serve the Sultanate there is still the occasional battle against tribes that feel used by the Sultanate.
Between these two continents are the Border Princes, small nations that know only of the danger of men, nestled and surrounded by vast mountain ranges they have found a haven from the Beastmen and the Green skins. Three nations formed in the Border Princes and although they are not mighty their proximity to the mountains have enabled them to pull large amounts of valuable ore from the earth. With this wealth and the peace from constant attacks they flourish and are widely considered some of the safest and most sought after places to live by the common folk of other nations.