Blood AND ASHES
Chapter 1: The Boy's Journey
"Dalen! Damn it boy, come here and help your father!" Dalen looked up from the game of Scruff that he and the other village boys were playing, to where his father's voice had come from. A lamb had snared itself in a thorn bush, and his father was struggling to free it. Dalen untangled himself from the dog pile of boys to hurry towards his father. He quickly drew his drob knife, and began cutting the thorns off the lamb's wool coat. "I know this is an adventure for you, but how about helping with the actual work?" his father jokingly scolding him. "Sorry Far, but you and the others have it covered don't you?" a wolfish grin appearing on his face. The lamb cut free, Dalen's father returned it to its mother in the herd. He turned to find Dalen, obediently waiting with his arms crossed, for any other task his father may have. "Oh alright, go on. But once we're in town, I'll expect work from you boy, got it?" Dalen's face once again lit up with the wolfish grin, as he turned and rushed back to join his friends in the hectic scuffle they called a game. "Hands full as usual, eh Bjorn?" one of the other fathers from the village kidded. Bjorn simply shook his head as he watched his son run off. He had watched Dalen grow for some eighteen summers, and now as he headed into his nineteenth winter, he realized how much his son had grown.
Dalen had been born a small child, and tended to keep to himself as a young one. He was ferociously smart however, and sharp as a tack as his mother always said. When he was younger, he would come home and tell of how the other children had bullied him for being shorter than the rest. Bjorn had told him that it was either accept it for the rest of his life, or prove them wrong. The next day, Dalen returned with a black eye and a bloody lip, but a smile on his face, and they never heard of him being bullied again. What Dalen lacked in height, he made up for in mischief, regarded as the town trickster to this day. As he grew into his teens, Bjorn had seen the blood of his father, Lef, come out in young Dalen. With strong back and legs, hazel eyes as sharp as a hawk, and the famous endurance of the Bormak clan. The village elder had called him a "stump of a child" and Dalen took it in stride, for he surely had the stubbornness of a gnarled old tree trunk. Where the other boys would fall exhausted into bed after a long day in the fields, Dalen still had the energy to chop firewood for his mother to use in the morning. Now approaching his nineteenth year, Dalen would soon have to earn his own coin and make a name for himself.
Dalen, his father Bjorn, and most of the other fathers and sons of their village, Wengen, at the mouth of the Dragen Valley, had travelled from there, north to the town of Reigset, for the annual winter market. While Wengen was little more than a border village, Reigset was a major trade point within the Empire. Its ports brought exotic goods from the far north and eastern steppes, while Reigset was renowned for the quality of its wool and clothing. The first snow had fallen only three days prior, and much of the countryside was still covered with a pristine white blanket. As the group approached the city, they were joined by other travelers, merchants and tradesmen, come to make one last sale before the big freeze. The village boys soon ended their rambunctious game to help keep the sheep together and guide them through the town gate. The Imperial guards stood watch at the entrance, stopping and checking each traveler, and recording what they had brought to sell. The guards earned more than their fair share of glares and muttered curses, as the Empire had not been kind to its subjects these past few years. Increased taxes for some phony war against the northern raiders and the increased tribute of food for the Emperor's armies, while bandits continued to run rampant within the empire itself, had led to a rift between the citizens and the military.
Dalen helped his father guide their herd through the market to the livestock pen, among the goats, pigs, chickens and cows that had come from all over the valley. Their merchandise secured, the men and boys from the village gathered together outside a nearby tavern, the Bloated Goat. "Can we be off now, Far?" Dalen inquired his father, for about the fiftieth time since entering the town gate. "Ay, I'm done with you now, you'll only be in me way when I'm trying to sell." Bjorn reached into his coin purse and presented Dalen with three copper coins. "Here something to keep you occupied while I do business." Said Bjorn with a grin on his face. Dalen whooped with joy, and ran off to join the other boys heading towards the merchant stalls. "And stay away from the guards; they tend to make their own trouble!" Bjorn shouted at him as he disappeared into the crowd. Three copper pieces were by no means a fortune, but it would get him some hot food and a trinket for himself.
After walking about with the village boys for an hour, Dalen decided to split from the group and explore the market on his own. He saw all kinds of goods on display in the merchant area. Cloth and boots of fine leather, silver and iron jewelry from as far as the western coast, and all kinds of food, that made his stomach groan with delight. Dalen decided he could forgo a hot meal and save his coin for something special. He eyed a blacksmith's stand, and strolled over to see what would be had. The smith had all kinds of farm equipment, shears, hoes, horseshoes and more, but Dalen was drawn to the small collection of knives off to the side.
As part of tradition in the southern villages, Every boy is presented with two knives on his twelfth year. First is the drob knife, a small, razor sharp blade about the length of a man's middle finger. This was used as the boy's eating knife, for skinning and cleaning game, and to work with everyday items. The other is the boj knife. This is a serious knife, with a blade the length of a grown man's hand, a cross guard and an iron capped pommel on the handle. This knife is meant for fighting and killing, and is presented to show that the boy is now considered responsible for protection of himself and his family. Dalen was extremely tenacious with his knives, ensuring his drob was always razor sharp, and he practiced using his boj every day. He had even whittled down the handle on his drob and inserted an old silver coin he had dug up one day in the fields, as a pommel. This was for good luck, but also because it balanced the knife, and Dalen had easily proven himself as the best knife thrower in his village.
For years, Dalen had used his drob and boj knives daily, and kept them in top form at all times, but they were still worn from use. The blade of his drob had become dangerously thin from countless sharpening's, and his boj needed a new handle as the old one had been made of bad wood. He now scoured the smith's stall for a replacement. He saw many hunting knives, some of good steel and make, but too big to serve as a drob and too small to be a boj. He then spied a smaller blade, one that was just a bit longer than his middle finger, but had a good temper on strong steel. The blade was doubled edged with a slight curve on the spine to give it strength and shape. Dalen approached the smith with his offer of two copper coins. At first the smith was adamant on five copper pieces, but after Dalen showed his own drob design, and offering to include his old blade, the smith agreed.
Dalen strolled easily through the market, as he removed the handle from this new knife and placed his custom one on. Dalen frowned slightly as he tested the blade in his hand. He noticed that the new knife was made of a stronger, heavier steel, which would make it trickier to throw. "I'll need to balance this when I get home" Dalen said to himself. He then bought a small piece of northern oak off a merchant to shape into a new handle for his boj. Dalen, pleased with his purchases, realized that it was already dusk, what with the days growing shorter. He headed back to the livestock area, only to find that all the sales were done, and every one had retired to the inns and taverns. He decided to continue his stroll through town. He walked down the street, passing taverns full of noise and the intoxicating smell of hot meat. Dalen soon found himself at the end of the street, by the city walls. The only building around was a small inn, no bigger than a regular house. Despite this, Dalen could clearly hear a full crowd inside. He decided he could warm himself by their hearth before heading back to the Bloated Goat.
As soon as he opened the door, a wave of warmth and the smell of food washed over him, instantly making him feel welcome and relaxed. Because the inn was relatively small, a small fire was all that was needed to make it feel so comfortable inside. Dalen surveyed the area, noticing the tradesmen and sellers that were enjoying a hot meal before the trek home in the morning. In the far corner, he noticed a group of men gathered in a circle round one of the corner tables. Dalen, always curious about the people around him, approached to see what it was all about. As he drew up beside the men, he saw that they were all listening to a withered old man, even shorter than Dalen. He wore a stained and tattered cloak, with the clothes of a man who lived on the road. His tall staff with the various symbols and runes carved in it marked him as a storyteller, as he recounted a tale of how mighty heroes slayed invincible beasts.
The old man finished his story as the boy approached the group. While many went to refill their drinks or begin to head to their lodgings, he had made a beeline for the storyteller. The old man spotted Dalen, and saw an eager young man who had a burning question on his mind. The old man lit his pipe, and settled into his chair, as he stopped in front of him. "And what brings you here, boy? A story of knights and bravery perhaps?" the old man jokingly declared. Dalen paused, because that was exactly what he was about to ask. He had heard more than his fair share of fairytale heroes from traveling bards and merchants in the village. He felt his ears go red as the older men chuckled at how Dalen had been seen through so easily. Having straightened himself to his full height, he turned to face the storyteller. "Tell us the tale of our Empire's king, who he has conquered and his deeds." Dalen asked with a stern face.
The old man stared at the boy for a moment, blinking once. "Bahahahahahaa!" The storyteller cackled, startling Dalen and many patrons of the bar, who turned to see where such a noise might come from. The old man leaned in towards Dalen, spirituous fire and excitement in his eyes. "Ah, finally, someone with the gall to ask for that which the empire forbids; and from the youngest soul in the room, no less!" Dalen glanced around the tavern, to find many people had a wary look in their eyes. Checking to make sure no Imperial guards were present, a few placed their hands on their knife belts, an old custom of the valley people to ward off ill omens. "So, will you hear the true tale of our king, boy, or will you scurry off with your tail between your legs, like many of our countrymen?" The old man challenged him. A quick glance confirmed the storyteller's claim, as several people had quickly moved towards the door at hearing the old man's words. Dalen stood firmly and showed he was no coward; that nothing the storyteller could say would shake him. Whatever it was, it had gotten the entire room spooked, he thought to himself.
"Very well young man!" The old man roared to the inn, as the people still present started to crowd around. "I will tell you a tale of our empire's past, one that few remember, and fewer dare tell." He said nodding, as he leaned back and began to unravel his tale. "The tale you ask of is not of any one man, but of a whole civilization of what many called the heroes of the land. For centuries, our lands of the Meda Empire had to fight day and night to keep our borders safe; nordic raiders from the Icy Seas to the north, nomadic fighter tribes from the desert steppes of the west, and the hordes of the Zlo kingdom to the east." The old man had a glazed look in his eyes, as he seemed to remember it like it was yesterday, the carnage and hate built over years of bloody conflict. "After so much loss and bloodshed, our kingdom teetered on the brink of collapse, with the savages knocking at our door. Our king at the time, Lord Vello, had grown old, and had fought a lifetime of battles to keep his people safe. In this time of desperation, He turned to the only ally the people of Meda have had, the tribes of Wilkor, to the south, in the borderlands of Ode."
At the mention of the Wilkor, some of the older patrons stiffened, realizing what the old man was about to reveal. They checked again for no signs of the guards, and moved closer to hear his story, that was the true account of their land. "The Wilkor where a mysterious and secretive people. Many believed them to be demons; pagan barbarians of the steppes, most believe it still. Lord Vello however, knew that they were a proud and devout race, of warriors and leaders who had defended their lands from the same invaders for decades. Lord Vello knew of their prowess in battle, as he had fought beside them on numerous occasions, to protect their shared borders. Now in his time of need, Lord Vello sought a permanent and final alliance with the Wilkor".
"He sent his eldest son, Prince Odnic, to the Wilkor to negotiate the treaty. Prince Odnic was a vain and conniving man, who sought his father's throne for himself. As part of the negotiations, Odnic presented the Wilkor with his newborn brother, the King's second son, Orzel. Orzel would be raised among the Wilkor, learn their way of fighting and strategy, and become the symbol of friendship and trust between the two nations, should he one day rule. Odnic saw this as a threat, and planned to deal with his father, his brother, and the Wilkor in one fell swoop. Odnic met with the leaders of the Zlo Kingdom in secret, and convinced them to form a group front. Odnic then warned his father and the Wilkor of a Zlo attack where their three borders met. Odnic marched with his own private army, to meet with the Wilkor to repel the Zlo invasion. In a treacherous turn, Odnic's army drew behind the Wilkor warriors, and drove them towards the Zlo horde. As mighty as the Wilkor were, with lives devoted to the way of the bow and blade, even they could not fight off such odds".
"His traitorous hands still fresh with the blood of allies, Odnic lead his personal army and the Zlo hordes into Ode, slaughtering all in his path women and children alike. Only a handful of Wilkor survived, and they were doomed to a life of slavery in the gladiator pits. Odnic then marched on his own capital city, Niebogrod, to deal with his father. Odnic slew his father in cold blood, and ascended the throne a blood traitor." Dalen felt a shiver cold as ice run down his back, as he realized the king that he and his friends had always seen as their protector and hero, was a Bluttrat, a blood traitor. "However" the old man continued "as he settled into his role as ruler, Odnic and the people of Meda realized that he was nothing more than a pawn, a puppet king to the Zlo kingdom. By uniting the Zlo people, Odnic had sealed his own doom. For almost two decades, our empire has existed as a mere shadow of its self, ruled by a tyrant who is himself oppressed, by that which he created."
The tavern had grown deathly silent as the onlookers drank the old man's every word. Dalen stood by the old man, looking at him with a look of disappointment and puzzlement. "But what of the heroes you mentioned?" he asked. The old man looked down at him with a twinkle in his eye as he cleared his throat and continued. "The Wilkor may be gone, but their legacy lives on. Though he scoured the land, Odnic failed to find his brother Orzel, who was hidden by the Wilkor. Stories have been spread by those who were there, of how the Wilkor sent Orzel away, escorted and protected by the Council of Twelve. These where the Wilkor's mightiest warriors, greatest generals, and their wisest elders. Legend says that the Twelve have taken Ozrel away, to the Dragen Mountains, where they raise him, in oath to the late Lord Vello. It is said Ozrel will return as King of the Wilkor, the Wilkkro`l, and reclaim the lands of both his father and his foster-fathers."