Thomas rode lazily upright within his saddle, the powerful strides of his destrier creating a calm, almost meditative rhythm as the knight pondered the thoughts that ran rampant within his mind. He thought on many things, some in idle amusement while others in sincere reflection, yet always did he strive to avoid broaching the subject of his current status, even to himself, the shame that stabbed at his heart was almost too much to bear. So, he simply rode on, pondering whatever thought it was that idly fled his mind.
Thomas was a hedge knight, though he had not always been so, the lord he had once sworn fealty and loyalty to had perished during the great civil war. It was an ugly thing as war often was,but his was not the only lord to have fallen during those awful years.
Many former knights had taken up the mantle of the hedge, most becoming sellsword and mercenaries while others bandits. There are a few, like him, that still dutifully roamed the countryside of their former masters doing what they could to bring peace and order in a land torn by a century of war. The task was monumental and the rewards miniscule but it was a duty, and duty to a Knight such as he, was the very essence of who he was...
His armor was dull and rusted at the joints, while it creaked and moaned in need of a polish and oil it still served its intended, protective purpose. Besides, the cost of proper upkeep had become more and more taxing over the years as the gold reserves from his travels decreased with little return income.
Still, he could not help but smile, no matter how light his coin sack became. Thomas had become contempt with his current lot, while he served no lord, he still served his lord's people. He listened to the woes and rumors of the villages he passed and when the need was dire or required, he offered his services or accepted the random contract to clear out local bandits or a den of fiends that often preyed on the smaller hamlets. The pay was rarely worth the actual effort put into the task, but the sense of duty and the pride of accomplishment he felt after helping those people helped spur him on, gave him hope, and that hope was just as good a currency as any other he'd ever held.
It had been just shy of a month now since Thomas had last had passed through any village, it clearly showed with the thick stubble of his golden brown beard, and light brown hair that remained pulled back in a loose warriors knot behind him. His light green eyes where muddled with wariness and sank deeply into the bruised and darkened bags that hung heavily under his eyes creating a generally disheveled and unkempt appearance.
While lost in his thoughts, his destrier must've brushed too closely to the roadside underbrush, as he felt his stirrup snag and catch in a low catching vine. With a silent curse he pulled gently back on the reigns of his mount, bringing the mare to a still so that he may dismount and untangle the thick, thorn infested vines that were common in this part of the country.
"Easy girl.." Thomas gently spoke to the aging war horse. She was a proud mount of a proud brood, it was not only her demeanor that bespoke of her grandeur, but rather the intelligence that lingered within her large brown eyes as she observed and watched the movements of her rider.
She stamped her hooves and twitched her ears with a small neigh of understanding. She stilled and allowed the knight to detangle the bothersome underbrush that had snaked it's way around the leather straps of the saddles stirrups and cinch.
Thomas went about the task of unweaving the vines, chopping and slicing what he couldn't untangle with the small dagger he kept sheathed at his belt.
The larger sword, a large blade that could be held with one or two hands was sheathed and slung over the mares rigging. Unlike the dagger that's edge had become dull over use and the deteriorating state of his armor, this blade seemed well cared for, almost loved…
A scabbard crafted of mundane materials of wood and cloth remained ornamental in its simplistic design, it sheathed and protected the sharpened edge. This, this was his oath blade. The blade bestowed onto him when he was first granted the title and honor of First Knight. A title and status that no longer bore any real power in the broken lands, that influence had died along with his lord years ago.
Thomas gave an almost saddened pat against the white and black mare's flank as he brushed aside the last of the vines, his voice softly muttering the words in a one way conversation.
"...Ah, Interceptor, how it feels like almost a lifetime ago when we once…" Thomas abruptly trailed off with whatever he had intended to say to the massive distrier. The smell of smoke had caught his attention, with a worried gaze he searched the horizon for the tell-tell sign of a fire he already knew to be.
And there, just at the farthest reaches of his vision in the distance did he spot the charcoal stain in the sky. Thomas felt a knot in his stomach begin to form and twist, there were very few hamlets this far out in the borderlands and of those, none held any standing protection against the violence of malice minded men.
Without a word, but a stern look shared between mount and rider, did Thomas remount his steed. The tired wariness of his appearance only moments before having begun to melt in the stern determination of his resolve, his armored heels snapping against Interceptors flanks, spurring the warhorse toward the direction of the fire.
The fire was everywhere. It consumed and destroyed everything. The village itself had been a small thing, a single large building in the center that once served as both the Inn and town hall was likely the first to have gone judging by the level of destruction already apparent. The shops and homes that formed the loose semi circle of the village's open market had all eventually become consumed by deliberate flame.
Thomas rode Interceptor through the village at a slow walk, their vision obscured by the thick billowing smoke as the fires still licked hungrily at the remaining structures. While Thomas had rode hard and fast, it had still taken him a considerable amount of time to traverse the distance, in the end he could only hear the gleeful chuckles and cheers of the culprits as they rode off into the nearby treeline followed occasionally by a stifled shriek of terror.
He could have chased after them, maybe even caught up to them. Perhaps he would have demanded justice from them then and there! Though he was mounted and was no stranger to battle with the odds stacked heavily against him, the likelihood of him actually catching them was unlikely at best. Whoever had done this obviously knew the lay of the land and had a clear purpose or malicious intent at worse!
No, his time was better served searching the wreckage for survivors, they, at least could provide an account of what had truly happened. That was assuming of course that there were any survivors to be found…
Thomas searched for hours, having dismounted Interceptor he left the destrier free, knowing she would never stray far from his side, but held the sense to keep a respectful distance from the flames even as her master occasionally braved the still burning ruins of a few buildings.
While he found the burnt remains of a few near unidentifiable corpses, Thomas had yet to find evidence of any survivors. That rose to mind a few horrifying thoughts, either everyone had been killed or died by the flames that relentlessly tore through the village, though the amount of bodies so far discovered quickly discredited this theory. The other was that whoever had wrought such havoc, had taken those that had survived with them, and with that those few remaining thoughts, well none would be pleasant.
Slavery, it wasn't widely practiced within this part of the realm, it had however recently begun to take root and gain traction amongst the larger villages and few remaining cities that had withstood the rigors of war. Unfortunately that created a niche demand, a demand that small hamlets like this tended to be a perfect supply of "product".
Even now, slavery was perhaps the best of the alternatives. If it was a raid of fiends, creatures of chaos and strife such as Goblins, trolls and Ogres. Well, then the outcome becomes suddenly more bleak as fiends, while known to take hostages as they raided unsuspecting hamlets, did so only as a means of procuring livestock, human livestock.
That, was a fate Thomas wished on no man, while the smaller fiends would kill their victims before they cut up the body into slices of choice meats, it was the Ogres that troubled him the most, they simply ate you live, they took a devilish delight in the struggle and sheer terror as their massive teeth ground and grinded muscle and bone to mush.
These dark and horrid thoughts weighed heavily on Thomas's mind and had all but consumed him and his attention even as he absently sifted through the debris of one of the few remaining homes. It was small and only consisted of two rooms, one of which appeared to be the only bedroom, the fire wrought damage to this home seemed to indicate that the source blaze had either started here or near here.
He had all but given up on finding anyone left alive, there had been the preacher, judging by the still stiff and white if not ashed stained collar, found just outside the large barn like doors of the chapel house, but the man had been so badly charred that even as Thomas found him, he knew the man's life to be in it's final moments and watched in whispered prayer, offering what comfort he could to the priest as his body succumbed to the wracks of pain and his soul fled it's mortal body in a final, heavy sigh.
It was there, in the center of that single room, under the ruin of the collapsed ceiling that Thomas heard the muffled, buried sobs of a frightened child.
With renewed resolve, Thomas felt fresh strength surge through his arms and legs as he set about lifting, pulling and throwing aside the heated pile of charred wood that buried the poor child. The task was hard, almost grueling and more times than not did he cut and burn himself in his efforts to uncover the child, but what were such superficial wounds compared to...to this. So he labored on, for twenty minutes he dug in that hot firewood, the smell of freshly burst flesh from his hands and that of the charred, cooling remains of the devastation around him began to settle in the air,birthing a horrific stench that would take months to clear out.
Then finally, as the sun began to dip over the horizon did Thomas finally push aside the last of the charred debris. There, covered in ash and soot lay, crumpled and curled up onto himself, a young boy, no more than ten seasons stared blankly up at Thomas, his eyes wild with fear and confusion, but oddly enough, there seemed to be no serious injuries on the boy, save what would be expected from being nearly buried alive under a burning house.
"Whoa there boy...easy now, I...want... to you help you." Thomas had spoken as softly as he could to the boy, trying to be as empathic and compassionate in his voice as he could. Still, the child only stared up at the Knight, the boy's body starting to shame and tremor, probably due to the extreme shock and stress he was suddenly forced to deal with.
"... I... want... to... help...you, do you understand? " Thomas asked the boy a second time, trying to establish some type of connection with the child before abruptly touching him, which if Thomas's assumptions proved correct, would only frighten the child further,
"Yes.." The boy muttered the word, softly and weakly, his sharp blue eyes never leaving or blinking from their stare. It was almost unsettling.
"Do you know what happened?" Thomas asked the boy while reaching out with his hands to help the boy up from the smoldering crater.
The boy only nodded, taking the hands of the knight, slowly and painfully finding his feet. He tried to stand on his own, to take a step, but the pain that shot through his body resulted in a painful scream as he went staggering down against the suddenly waiting embrace of the man that had pulled him free from the wreckage.
Thomas seemed to understand, he didn't press the question and figured it was best left alone. No use forcing such a young boy to relive such a horrific episode, especially one so fresh.
"Well, how about a name then, do you have one?" Asked Thomas.
"I...I do.." Stuttered the boy. Then, again, as if finding his voice. "I do."
"And? Or shall I simply refer to you as boy?" Asked Thomas again, his voice attempting to take on a light, chastising tone in attempt to distract the child.
"Telus. Ma' and Pa' used to call me Telus...used to..call me..Tel.." The boy's voice caught in his throat as he spoke, the memories of his parents seeming to catch him by surprise. And then, in those moments as Telus clung weakly to the warm iron of Thomas's armor, his ash covered face buried into the Knight's chest did Telus weep. He wept for his pain, he wept for his family, he wept for everything and everyone he had ever known, cared for or even spoken to. It was all gone. That pain, that sorrow created such a large and hollow hole within him that he could do little more than cry and hope to fill it with the tears that poured freely from soot stained eyes.
So Thomas held that boy named Telus as the sun fell and the darkness of night began to fall over the world. In that darkness, illuminated only by the smoldering embers of the carnage around them he held that boy for hours. in that burnt little hovel without a word more exchanged between the two, time seemed to stop. If only for a moment...
The child had wept himself to sleep in Thomas's strong, ironclad embrace. The boy lost himself in those moments where nothing seemed to exist beyond the pain that consumed him and filled him to the point of bursting with such a deep, raw and profound sorrow. His tears feel freely from swollen eyes and his voice cracked from the hoarseness of his sobbing. Through it all Thomas held the boy in silence, becoming the boys shield against the world. The knights heart bled for the boy, if only he had gotten there faster, perhaps...no, those thoughts would lead only to a pointless despair. Better to be here now for the lad.
Finally the boy's weeping slowly subsided and the toil of the days' horrid excursions began to show as exhaustion set in. Such a young child was ill prepared to face the rigors of such a hard reality of the circumstances Thomas knew he'd have to face all too soon.
Thomas had laid out his own bedroll for the boy, keeping it near enough to the fire for warmth, but not so much that he'd accidentally roll or panic into the embers when he startled awake.
As Telus slept, Thomas sat across the small campfire, watching through flickering flames as ragged, unsteady breaths lifted the boy's' chest in an irregular, heavy rhythm. The boy labored to draw breath, even as he slept. Perhaps it was due to the smoke Telus must have inhaled all those hours stuck under his burning home. Thomas would have to keep an eye on the kid.
Telus was, like most young boys at his age, thin and what could only be described as wiry, His body still holding to the babe like innocents of more tender years. His hair was dirty, matted down with a mixture of blood, sweat and filth, but of what was distinguishable was a light auburn brown. His parents must have prefered to keep it cut short, though the child's bangs still seemed to litter his forehead.
Like most of the human populated hamlets so far into the county, the boy's skin was a pale almost snow white, it was often cold here with snow on the ground more months out of the year than not, the people had adopted to the harsh climate over generations, enduring even beyond the civil wars that tore the country apart.
Though for some reason Thomas could not quite put a pin to, Telus's skin seemed to have an almost unhealthy sheen to it. This, Thomas discarded as the result of having endured such an awful strenuous event.
Thomas closed his eyes, he tried to picture what it must have been like. The village minding it's own, the people walking the streets, tending the herds, just going about their daily life, and then...
Chaos, was it human or fiends? Would it matter? Thomas supposed the end result would still be the same. Horror was universal in its experience, and surely that must've been what consumed the small village as the first flames broke out. Maybe it was the preacher that had first fell, having heard the thunderous roar of the invaders and, as their spiritual shepherd, stepped out to defuse the situation.
Holymen, they were the few that took on all the fears, woes and concerns of their people onto themselves, doing so with such a sense of righteous fervor that often had them acting as the village leader. They were often respected, some even revered for their dedication to a dying human faith.
Imagine then, the unrelenting horror that priest must've felt as they mocked and tortured his people, the people he had once taken a solemn and religious oath to shelter and protect against the evil and torments of the world.
How they must've made him watch in gleeful cruelty until the very end. And then, in a mockery of pity, left alone, gutted and dying in the ashes of those he could not save…
Oh, the anger that boiled in Thomas's blood at those dark thoughts, how his recently gloved hands clenched tightly together into fist. The further he followed those thoughts, the more consuming the rage, anguish and demand for redemption became.
Thomas let loose a heavy, shaky breath he had not noticed he was holding. His green eyes opening to set sternly onto the sleeping boy.
"But why..." Asked Thomas, more to himself than any other.
Thomas stood then, purposefully walking over to Interceptor. While he had removed the bulk of his gear earlier that evening, to dress down into the lighter leathers he wore beneath the layers of plate that he now methodically began strapping it back on.
Thomas paused a moment as he fastened the buckles over the breastplates straps, his gloved fingertips tracing over the faded and dulled emblem of his fallen house. It was a simple design placed to rest over the heart of his breastplate,, but it was one that bespoke of strength and intelligence. A long blade with the serpentine body of the mythical Pendragon entwined around it's length.
Looking once more back to the sleeping Telus and then over to the massive warhorse. A soft smile flitted over Thomas's expression as he gave a firm pat over the mare's neck.
"Sorry girl, someone has got to stay protect the boy. And I certainly can't have you trampling through the underbrush if I'm to have any hope of stealth tonight. Just watch him, yeah? I'll be back before he wakes.." Thomas teasingly said to Interceptor.
The Destrier only stamped her front hooves and twitched her ears in response to her master's words, finding a more keen interest her night grazing. They had set up camp a small distance outside of the village, in the direction Thomas had originally ridden in from. Having spotted a place where a small canopy of trees and a large recessed rock provided a small, natural enclave that would serve their camping needs perfectly.
The fire had died down to embers with only a small flame licking up at the small stack of charred kindling. The camp was safe enough, but leaving a young boy alone in the naked night still felt uncomfortable, if not for the proven and trained prowess of Interceptor, Thomas would likely not even have humored the idea of scouting the parties that fled the carnage earlier that day.
Pity, to any that disturbed the camp as Interceptor stood guard. She had a talent for mauling her victims and seemed to take a degree of pleasure whenever she got the opportunity to smash her hooves into weaker creatures, demanding dominance. The destrier would bite, buck, kick and stomp to death any intruder foolish or unlucky enough to trespass their camp.
She was, after all...bred for War.
Telus dreamt, it was a dark and cold place that he found himself aimlessly adrift. Lost within a dreamless dream that his subconscious sought sanctuary within. The nothingness of his own mind soothed him. Nothing...there was nothing, nothing. How that simple harmless, little word reflected so much of his small life, how such a word could wreak such devastation.
There truly was power in words…
There was still comfort in that thought though, even for such a young boy as himself. Here in the cold dark he felt safe within that nothingness. There was nothing here to fear, no fire, no blood and screams that turned into shrieks of absolute terror as chaos inconspicuously erupted everywhere.
It was just an empty space of existence, withdrawn and safe.
But the mind of youth is a curious thing, with attention spans short and seemingly inept in complexity would often drift in a muddled order between thoughts.
It wasn't long until the boredom of that shocked nothingness caused such a young, inquisitive mind to roam. But the fear and pain of what had happened was still too fresh, even within the shelter of his own subconscious Telus had unknowingly erected a mental block around those fresh memories.
Instead he thought about the days before. Remembering when the skies were clear and blue with only the tiniest wisp of clouds littering it's beautiful expanse. The chill of the early morning air was still crisp, but it felt good against the bare arms of his skin.
Telus was walking down the narrow market streets. It was quite this early in the morning, most the men had already left before the sun had risen to begin their work at the nearby forest line. They had been a small lumbering village, of course they still had a family or two with a small herd or livestock that kept the people fed and happy, but it was the rare lumber that they produced that was their main source of currency. It was a rare tree that grew only in this region of the world and was naturally resilient to rot, famine and pest that would ruin a lesser wood.
So, the men of the village braved the wild wilderness of the borderlands. Most the work was done within the forest, Telus's own father had taken him once, to show him what it was to do a man's work.
Telus, like most young boys at that age was impressed by the display of strength as men worked and boasted cheerfully in what could only be described as a rambunctious environment. They labored with practiced ease that came with the efficiency of long and hard earned experience.
He watched as the men fell the trees the younger men had marked the day before. With massive blades and chains of metal,hand held motors wound up and roared to life as razor sharpened teeth shredded wood.
These logs would be dragged by man and horse down to the nearby river's edge, where they'd float into the lumberyard where they'd be processed and loaded on the large river barge.
The barge itself didn't belong to any family at the village, it was owned by a private investor that his parents had once told him lived within the old capital, a place they called a city where some of the old world still existed.
Telus couldn't imagine such a place as the one his parents described. All he had ever known as their small little hamlet, and of that he wasn't even sure what they called it. It was always referred to as "home".
Looking at the river barge, Telus's imagination began to roam. He tried to imagine the type of place that could make such a massive boat. There was iron rails and gates and the bow seemed to be made of a hard metal his father explained to be steel and how it was almost indestructible.
The old world must've been an amazing place. Telus liked the stories that the families told the young as oral history, and he listened intently to the sermons preacher Scott gave on every rest day. How he preached about the lessons learned and lost during the Great Civil Wars.
It was sad, Telus knew this by the forlorn expressions the oldest of the eldest seemed to hold when the subject of history came up.
Before the great civil wars, the world had been a place of prosperity and peace, entire nations had existed were the races of all the world mingling and living amongst each other in relative harmony.
Then when human innovation mixed with the infamous Gnomish ingenuity that would then be ultimately refined by Dwarven craftsmanship, a new science would be born into the world.
Steamtech, a technology that for the first time, allowed the mundane races of the world to match the mystical strength of the magical Elves and Fae.
For a time, Preacher Scott taught that the world lived in a period of collabtive equality. Great places of learning had been erected all over the world and people of all races came freely to learn and grow.
But then discontent began to take root, what was once equality had slowly begun to turn into resentment and jealousy. And so, Preacher Scott said the first seeds of discord had been sown into what would eventually become the Great Civil Wars, a series wars that divided the world and tore it apart.
According to Preacher Scott, after the warring nations of the world had unleashed their most devastating weapons on one another and stood in the aftermath, shocked and awed at the devastation they had wrought.
The world was broken. Entire continents had literally been sunken to the depths of wild and turbulent oceans. Or like others had simply been destroyed, great swaths of land shattered into unrecognizable formations. Left poisoned and uninhabitable by the forgotten science that created such devastating, inhumane weapons.
Unanimously, what was left of the nations of the world withdraw to their historical lands. Over time trade and contact between them faded until it eventually ceased. It was during those long years of isolation and recovery that the world began to rebuild itself.
The Humans had renegotiated an alliance between the Gnomes and Dwarves. They lived amongst one another in a tentative alliance with only one major city between them, a place Telus's parents called Rhydin. It was there that most their lumber was shipped too, with a few small hamlets and villages along the route. It was there, in Rhydin that the barge's owner conducted his business.
The Elves and Fae creatures Telus knew nothing about. Telus thought them more than the fairytales and fables he was raised on. The Preacher Scott and his own parents had little more to offer on the subject.
After the Great Civil Wars they had returned back over the great oceans, to the wild jungles and amazons of their native nations.
Staring at the river barge and how impressively large it was, Telus could only wonder in child like amazement of what it must be like to create things with magic. To live in a land full of life. He imagined great forest of green and colorful canopies, he imagined wild tribes of fairies and mighty houses that were made not on the ground, but up in the trees!
Later that day, as Telus finished his evening chores, he'd tell his best friend Sol, about how he went to see the river barge with his father and how he watched as the men fell trees with ease!
It was all young boys could dream, and the two shared a gleeful chuckle as their innocent yet mischievous minds explored their imaginations. To the two, that world within the trees with it's majestic barge was a life all about adventure.
They often dreamt together of the days when they would swagger into Reign's Inn, the only place in the village that had anything of a bar.
The village didn't receive many visitors, usually only traveling merchants and they often held religiously to their trade calendars. For the most part of the year Reign's Inn rented it's rooms out to the single men or those too drunk to trust their own feet home. It was a simple life, but to a child born and raised into it, it was enough.
Sadly, Telus faintly remembered what had happened, like an echo of a ghost that feeling of anguish gripped at his heart. He'd never see Sol again, they'd never share their adventure as they chopped and sawed down trees and fiends alike, to be the village heros the two secretly pretended and like many young boys, eagerly wanted to be.
That was gone, it was all gone now. All because of that...Telus thought about it, tried to remember what had happened that caused his world to end.
A rock, that's right! He remembered having stumbled over a rock on his way home from playing over at Sols' the night before. It wasn't the first time Telus had taken a spill while running about the yard and streets, it was common for young boys to grind and bruise their knees and elbows as they grew into men.
But that night, as Telus pulled himself up off the ground, he angrily glared at that rock, as if blaming it for being in the way and purposely having tripped him! That rock, wasn't like any other he'd ever seen in the yard before. He watched it as boyish anger melted into child like curiosity. Gently pulsing a near indistinguishable blue glow, Telus held that stone cupped in his hands. It was small enough that when he clenched his fingers into a fist, he could effectively conceal the soft glow.
Something whispered to him, he didn't know what it was, he couldn't even really understand what it was saying. It was just an insistent whisper, it wanted something, by the way it seemed to demand Telus's attention, it must be important.
But there was no one there to whisper to him! Confusingly Telus pulled his eyes free from the glowing stone, looking around and seeing no one, only the beckoning door that his mother had left ajar to let the light spill out onto the porch, so that Telus, would not as he had just moments ago, trip over the small steps.
Just like that, it was gone. The whispering was gone and the rock that he held in his hand now only felt slightly warm to the touch, the faint glow was gone. In the light of night, it looked like any other smooth river stone.
Telus had absently tucked it away into his patchwork trouser pockets to be added to his collection of oddities later, maybe he'd even show Sol after their morning chores. They'd marvel at the ideas they came up with as they made it the centerpiece of their next wild and imaginative adventure!
An adventure he had no idea, was already formulating its own plot within the darkness of the treeline that night while unseen, sinister eyes scouted an unsuspecting, unprepared village, lured by an inconsistent whispering...
And so, Telus's dreamed...finding shelter in the darkness of that nothingness as he watched again, and again his world burn around him in the nightmarish blue glow of a pulsating stone…