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A Prince of Wolves

Adeniyi Adeniji

A Prince of Wolves

The Legend of Eibar Strohm (Revised 2015)


This book is Dedicated to my Mother, Father and especially my big Sis. For always encouraging me to keep writing this stuff.


BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
81669 Munich

Author's note

This Book is Dedicated to my Mom, My Dad and especially my Big Sis.

 

 

This novel is entirely a work of fiction.

The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are

the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to

actual persons, living of dead, events of locals is entirely

coincidental.

www.comicbandit.com

A Prince of Wolves: The Legend of Eibar Strohm

 is the Copyright of Adeniyi Adeniji

 

This book is available for free digital download.

 

Foreword

How does one write a "Foreword" without being too contrived? How many of us have actually read a foreword? I for one don’t. However, I sit here tasked with this great undertaking. My play is to keep it short and take the road less travelled on this one folks. I’m going to share with you my experience about reading “A PRINCE OF WOLVES”. HOPEFULLY- one more time- HOPEFULLY, you’ll go and-- Wait a minute; if you’re reading this, the you've most likely already bought the book or borrowed it, so HOPEFULLY you’ll end up reading it; or at the very least, start to.

The Author- my friend (let’s refer to him as MAX)- wrote a book. Another friend of mine had read it and he said it was good. One day, I’m hanging out with MAX and he says I wrote a book, please read it and tell me what to think. My first reaction was “Crap! Crap! Crap! How the hell do I get out of this?”

We all have friends, who have, at some point, dabbled in the arts; name it, they’ve done it. We know what it's like to sit through and read a crappy book, or listen to the bad music their band plays. You then spend countless hours thinking of the lie you’re going to tell them, or walk the streets cautiously making sure to avoid them.

I politely took a digital copy and promised to give ‘MAX’ feedback ASAP. I spent the next two months or so looking at the book on my desktop PC and dreading reading it. Unlike some other people, I’ve perfected the art of lying to people and keeping the lies plausible. Max asked me once if I had started reading the book and I told him some story about how I had been busy working on a TV production. Fast forward to a few weeks later; I’m bored to death of reading different blogs. I close down my browser and I’m about to power down my laptop, when I see the book. I think to myself: "why not."

They say, that most addicts are always trying to get that feeling of their very first high. I’ve never done drugs, so I wouldn’t know anything about being high. However, I know a little something about the discovery of ‘Masturbation’. How awesome it is and how you count the seconds till you are all alone. You all feel free to go back in time a relive those happy memories.

The prologue blew me away! It is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read. Some of you are like “yeah right!” this guy, who is he? He’s easily impressed. This is where I introduce myself; you may all refer to me as "The Village Idiot," V.I for short. I’m very picky about what I watch (TV OR FILM), listen to music-wise and what I read. The voice of the author is very important to me; I shall elaborate on this more later.

I look at the clock on my pc and I’ve spent the last hour reading this book, I’ve dreaded reading. I had to go to bed; the call time for my job the next day was very early. All I could think about at work was getting home and reading a few more pages. Like a crack addict, I was hooked. The high point of my days, till I finished the book, was sitting down in front of my computer and reading a few pages every night.

I was so hooked on MAX’S book, so much so that I had conjured this fictional tale of me going to the neighborhood book store and purchasing the book. I had completely forgotten that I knew the guy who wrote this book and that I had dreaded the thought of starting it.

You all must be wondering how credible can a person calling himself the Village Idiot be? However, my two cents are as follows. The voice of an author matters. Most authors write words on a page, you read their book to pass the time on the train, take it on a trip or you keep them just in case you are the only person left at the end of the world and you run out of tissue paper. Every once in a while, you pick up a book and as soon as you start reading, the space around you disappears. The characters become your best friends or worst enemy; the line between truth and fiction becomes blurred; and for a few pages you are transported to a place where every time you have to leave, your soul is saddened.

There is nothing new in this book you haven’t come across before. The "Hero" goes on a journey to discover himself and along the way he meets some very cool people; villains included. What makes A Prince of Wolves stand out, is MAX’S voice. He masterfully crafts a universe where the hero is the kid who saved you from bullies at summer camp last year; the heroine is a the girl you’ve dreamed of meeting for the last 29 years and the villain is your uncle, who looks like a possum on crack.

That was my story and the quandary for me now is how do I get that euphoria back when I read the book a second time?

I said I wouldn’t be contrived? I lied; but what I did promise was the road less travelled. Hopefully you are reading this after your third or fourth read of the book and if you are still reading this, please stop reading this and jump straight into the book.

No closing remarks here; Just a very special “THANK YOU!” from me, the Village Idiot and MAX. 

Prologue

There were eight of them left now. Eight men from an army that just days ago, numbered in the thousands. The grounds were littered with the still corpses of his comrades. The bodies of the enemy mingled amongst them. The dim light of the coming dawn cast a foreboding shadow over the battlefield and revealed the reality of what Ulrik and his few remaining comrades already feared to be true. There were far too many of their comrades on the cold earth, far too many laying in ditches, far too many dead and far too little of the enemy lying beside them.

It was unthinkable that they had lost this battle, but the truth was plain for all to see. They had lost, though no one dared voice their fears. There was honor in death, especially the kind of death which came in battle. Ulrik still held hope that he would meet his end with honor. It was their way, the warrior way, the way of the Morg. And so they continued the fight in whatever way they could.

Through the night they pushed forward aided by a thick mist which moved across the battlefield. Skulking in the dark like a pack of wolves; ambushing the unsuspecting enemy. The tactic worked well for them. With it they had managed to take a group of enemy soldiers four times their size, the irony of it did not escape the weary Morg warriors.

The Morg - like most of the great nations of Ederill- were a nation of conquerors. Battle was bred in their bones and there was no greater honor than dying in battle at the hands of a worthy adversary. However, this enemy had proven far more worthy than any of them could have imagined. The Morg conquered entire countries, they brought Kings and Emperors to their knees, yet here in a land already subjugated under their mighty hand they had lost.    

Fang- the leader of the small group of men- signaled over to Ulrik. On his signal Ulrik and Pander- the Morg warrior Ulrik had been paired with- quickly made their way across the field, making sure to keep low and out of sight before ducking into a ditch. They in turn signaled to the next pair of men who repeated the process. The bodies of dead soldiers scattered across the battle ground served them well as camouflage against the possibility of being spotted by enemy scouts. With the night- mist dissipating quickly and dawn approaching fast, it was necessary for them to make it off the open field and find some sort of haven where the already tired and battle-worn soldiers could take a moment to rest themselves and formulate a new plan. Fang –their leader, a warrior of some repute amongst the Morg- was experienced and had fought in many battles. It was he who decided it would serve them best to head east towards the rocky hills which over-looked much of the battlefield and were known to house several small caves. A good enough place for the weary Morg to rest-up and gather their thoughts; provided of course, that they could make it there without being seen.

And so, they went on their way, crawling through ditches and hiding amongst the bodies of the dead. Now and again, they would come across a small patrol of enemy soldiers moving about the battle ground, possibly searching for survivors or any remnants of the Morg army. Once, they came across a group of enemy soldiers, guarding a large group of men and women. They appeared to be natives of this land -common folk- members of a nearby village perhaps? They were digging what appeared -very much to Ulrik- to be graves. Tired and hungry the Morg warriors decided it would be best to avoid the enemy at least for the time being.

Once they reached the eastern hills it was easy enough for the Morg to find a safe enough hideout; one which provided them with a good view of the battlefield below. Ulrik rested his back against a rock, hungry and tired he let himself slide to the stone floor and sighed deeply.    

“It was a good fight,” he thought to himself. Pain in his body- not apparent just seconds earlier- suddenly cut through him like a hot blade. He rubbed his neck intently, sighed again and then looked around at his comrades. He did not know most of them. Ulrik himself was part of a battalion of over five-hundred men and even then he’d known each of those men by name; as he should have. After all, he had been third in the chain of command of those men and was primarily responsible for preparing them for battle. Knowing the names of all your men was necessary to inspire trust and loyalty. Just one of the many lessons he had learned from his father. It all seemed pointless now. From his battalion only two others survived; at least as far as he knew. The enemy proved to be highly effective in separating and scattering their forces. Of his own battalion, only Fang and Sinod remained. Fang had been second in command of Ulrik’s battalion, but took the position of First Commander after their own Commander had been killed by an enemy arrow. The other warrior- Sinod- was a good friend of Ulrik’s and could usually be found at his side at the beginning and end of any battle. Ulrik was glad- at the very least- that Sinod was still with him.

The remaining five men had been picked up along the way. As far as he could tell, their names were Rutgard, Grodwen, Pander, Proxus and a young boy with a bow the Morg warriors had taken to calling ‘Boy’. Under normal circumstances, he would have asked the young warrior his name, but he was too tired to care. The battle had taken its toll on all of them. Rutgard –the veteran warrior amongst them- was missing three digits on his left hand. How he still managed to keep fighting after losing so much blood was a mystery to Ulrik, but sure enough the old warrior fought and fought well. Grodwen and Proxus had been equally brave. Both men seemed to know each other fairly well and complemented each other’s fighting styles and technique, with one wielding a sword and the other a two edged battle-axe. Both had suffered only minor injuries. The ‘Boy’ remained unscathed, as was often the case with warriors who fought with a bow rather than a sword or axe. Yet, he had proven to be more than skilled with his bow. Such skill- Ulrik thought- was obviously the reason why one so young had been allowed to partake in such a crucial battle. And then there was Pander, a strange man, skilled with a blade, quick and agile. The man hardly ever said a word. He seemed to regard their recent tribulations with an almost frightening coolness.  

Ulrik looked about at the remnants of the great Morg army and thought back to what it had once been. It had been a glorious campaign under the leadership of the legendary Morg warlord Ander Grod. Theirs was army of sixty-thousand men. The Morg’ had made their way across the continent of ancient Ederill decimating the armies of the great central provinces and then, along the great coast of the Twin seas conquering the port cities of Freemandel and Veadan and then finally east into the lands of Falkaan. The army of Falkaan fought well, but in the end were no match for the highly skilled fighters of the Morg. Eventually, the Falkaan King had no choice but to surrender his lands to the invading army.

Bolstered by their victory over the armies of Falkaan the Morg’ then journeyed to a small fort on the eastern borders of Falkaan, where their great army would come to rest for several months. It was then their intention to make their way a short distance across the border to a small ancient mining city called Dragondown.  

The City of Dragondown considered itself to be a sovereign state, remaining neutral in its affairs from the rest of the world. But over the centuries the City had been ruled over by several nations and conquerors; including a former King of Falkaan. Ulrik was not exactly sure why the City was so important to so many of the Kingdoms of Greater Ederill. However, many great battles had been fought over the rights to rule it and that was enough for the Morg. Many great legends and heroes had been born with each of these wars. Currently, the City of Dragondown was under the protection of one of Falkaan’s neighbors. For the Morg the glory in taking the fabled City would be in breaking the four-thousand year old hold its current rulers had over it. They would be remembered for this, for this one great thing. The warlord Ander Grod had promised them victory, he had promised them glory. Their names would be written into the pages of history becoming the stuff of legends. And so, they marched onwards, ripe with the anticipation of the glorious battle ahead and taking no small pride in all their accomplishments thus far. But news of conquering armies travels fast. On their way to Dragondown they were intercepted by enemy soldiers. An army sent to stop them from taking the fabled city. The army belonged to Falkaan’s neighbors, the current holders of the rights to the City of Dragondown; the Imperial army of Vastigia.

Ulrik’s thoughts were interrupted by the voice of one his comrades. Proxus was speaking to their leader Fang. He and Grodwen had been ordered to scout the area and apparently found something they thought might be of interest to him a short distance to the east. Ulrik looked up to the heavens. The skies were darkening. He could sense a storm was coming.

“Humph!” Fang grunted.

“What is he doing?” someone asked.

“I do not know.” Proxus answered shrugging his shoulders.

“He’s praying.” The normally silent warrior named Pander said with a whisper.

“Praying?”

“Why would anyone come all the way out here, simply to pray?” someone said.

The grim image of the corpse-filled battlefield to the west of the hills flashed morbidly across Ulrik’s mind.

“Is he one of them?” Fang asked more to the point.

“Yes, we believe so.” Though Fang’s question was directed at the warrior Grodwen, Grodwen remained silent and Proxus answered for him.

For the first time Ulrik realized that the Morg warrior- Grodwen- probably couldn’t speak. He may have been born this way, but an old scar across his throat suggested otherwise.

“And he is, alone?” the question was again directed at Grodwen, but was answered by Proxus.

“Yes. Grodwen and I were trying to decide whether he was brave, or simply foolish.”

“And what did you decide on?” Ulrik questioned with amusement. “A little bit of both, but perhaps one more than the other.” They stifled their laughter.

“Do we take him?” the gruff voice of the battle-hardened veteran sounded weak and tired, though he did his best to hide it. Rutgard’s skin had gone pale from the loss of blood caused by his missing fingers, Ulrik managed to stop the bleeding, but without the aid of a healer Rutgard wouldn’t last much longer.

“Yes.” Fang said dryly.

Ulrik turned to his commander with a puzzled frown.  

“You do not intend to kill him?” he said, stating his disapproval.

“If he is an enemy soldier, what does it matter?” someone said.

Ignoring the statement, Ulrik directed his arguments at Fang: “There is no glory in eight Morg warriors slaying one lone enemy soldier.” He told him.

Fang turned and stared at Ulrik intently. Fang knew enough about him to know he was no coward.

“He is the enemy,” he began and then sighed, “Very well, if it pleases you, then he will only have to face one of us.”  

“Is there any need…?”

“Need…?” Fang interjected sharply, “I have no wish to fight one solitary warrior; it serves no purpose. What interests me is what this warrior has with him.”

Ulrik looked down at the single enemy soldier. He was kneeling on the ground facing the stone wall of a cliff face with his hands together in what –according to Pander his fellow comrade- was some form of prayer. He noticed- for the first time- that the soldier had a horse with him and on that horse was a saddle bag- with a large leather-skinned sack hanging from it, which traditionally used for carrying food and other such things. Perhaps even the kind of herbs used for healing injuries. He was so worn out from their efforts over the past few days that he failed to notice it earlier. Instantly realizing he may have spoken out of turn to his leader, he apologized to Fang who said nothing in reply.

They made their way down to the clearing. Sneaking up on the area where the soldier still prayed silently. While Fang, Sinod, Pander and Ulrik came up behind the lone soldier in an arch, Proxus and Grodwen approached him from either side, effectively cutting off any possible escape route the prostrate soldier may have had. The ‘Boy’ took up an elevated position on top of a small boulder, his bow at the ready. Rutgard took the horse by the reins, startling it slightly. The soldier didn’t seem to notice. By this time they were taking no steps to conceal their presence, but the soldier still gave no indication that he had even noticed them. They looked at each other intently.  

Pander stepped cautiously towards the soldier, his short sword already drawn. It had been decided earlier that Pander would be the one to fight the lone soldier. Though in truth, Pander had insisted on this point.

“Were you planning to just steal my horse, or were you planning to stab me in the back first…?” The voice was cool and calm and reverberated off the stone wall of the overhanging cliff face in front of them. The Vastigian himself did not move and for a second Ulrik was not certain the voice had come from the obeisant enemy soldier at first.

There was a brief silence.

“You are from Vastigia, are you not?!” Pander began with a ferocity that startled even his comrades.

“Yes.” The lone soldier replied.

“Then you are my enemy. Stand and face me!”

The lone soldier seemed to sigh, then slowly rose to his feet, but did not turn to face the Morg warrior,

“I said face me dog!” Pander demanded.

Ulrik frowned in disapproval at Pander’s tone.

“I wish you no harm," the soldier began, "If it is my horse you want; then take it. I give it to you freely.” There was something in his tone that sounded sincere.

“Freely…?” Proxus began, “We are eight armed men, warriors of the Morg. Surely you do not imagine yourself free to give us anything we can simply, take?” He gave a stifled laugh and Grodwen shared in his amusement.

“As you say, seeing as I can do nothing to stop you, then take the horse and let us be done with this.”

“You would let us take your horse…just like that? What kind of a warrior are you?” Sinod -Ulrik’s closest friend- said with more than a little disgust.

“He’s no warrior!” Pander exclaimed. “He’s a Vastigian Officer.” “An Officer…?” Ulrik said surprised.

“Yes.” Pander answered. “When the fighting began, I was part of the first attack. On the frontlines of the battle, I watched as these so called ‘Officers”, as they hid behind their men like cowering dog’s while we fought and died.”

“Are you sure?” Fang asked somewhat puzzled, “Are you sure this man is what you say he is?”

“Yes,” Pander replied, with seeping hatred, “They all wore those garments around their shoulders, those red cloaks. See how clean and unspoiled by the touch of battle it is.”

It occurred to Ulrik that there was more to Pander’s distaste for the Vastigian Officer than he was aware of. However, whatever this man was, there was surely no need to kill him. There would be no honor in doing so. He seemed willing enough to give up his horse and supplies without a fight. But the only person who could stop this was Fang. As Commander, Pander would be forced to listen to him or risk incurring the wrath of the whole group.

“If this is so, then what use would there be in killing him, he has already relinquished his rights to his horse and supplies, let us take it and be on our way?” he reasoned.

“What use is there in killing any enemy, save that he is your enemy.” Fang countered.

If Ulrik could not appeal to Fang’s sense of reasoning then perhaps he could appeal to his sense of honor.

“I will have no hand in killing this man. I will not stain my hands with the blood of a coward.”

Fang said nothing. Ulrik could tell by the look in his eyes that he agreed with this argument and so he pushed further: “Let us leave this man be and be on our way. There is still much for us to do.” Ulrik reasoned.

“NO!!” Pander exclaimed angrily, “I fought on the frontlines; I was there when the line broke and my comrades were forced to retreat.”

“I fought on the frontlines too Pander,” Proxus inserted, “It was a good battle and our comrades were honored in their deaths.”

“Aye, we all faced the enemy at some point or other and lost many good friends.” Rutgard added wearily.

“But I lost a brother.” Pander told them.

There was a hushed silence.

“I am sorry for your loss. It is a regrettable thing.” The lone soldier noted solemnly, his back still facing the Morg warriors.

“Your regret will not be enough to save your worthless hide

Vastigian dog!” Pander angrily pointed the tip of his sword at the Vastigian's back, “My brother is dead and your regret will do nothing to bring him back.”

“Such is the nature of war.” The lone soldier said with a sigh.

“Your people killed my brother!” Pander exclaimed.

“In a war your people started.” The soldier countered.

“Pander,” Ulrik began solemnly, “this is no way for a warrior to act; if this man is an Officer, then he was not the one who slew your brother. This kind of revenge, it is not honorable.”

“Honor or no, I will satisfy my revenge.” He said with finality.

Ulrik turned to Fang intending to ask him to intercede, but before he could even open his mouth the Morg Commander stopped him.

“There is no point,” Fang said with a sigh, “We have to kill him.”

And as Ulrik opened his mouth to speak again, Fang raised a hand stopping him in mid-speech: “Once we revealed ourselves to him, his death became a certainty. We cannot let him live. He will alert his men to our presence. We do not need them hunting us down. If his death also serves to satisfy Pander’s need for revenge, then let him be the one to do it.”

Ulrik sighed in resignation. He was tired and besides, once again, Fang was right. They had enough problems as it was.

Pander smiled to himself, relishing the idea of gutting the Vastigian Officer. Confident his misguided need for recompense would be satisfied with yet another victim for his blade.

“There is no one left to defend you, dog! Turn and face me!” he said with finality.

The wind was picking up and the skies up above grew darker and more menacing. The storm would be fierce.

The lone soldier turned slowly, his entire being seemed to sigh in reluctance. Finally, Ulrik would get to see the face of this unfortunate fellow. Nothing could disguise their amazement at what they saw. There was nothing extraordinary about his features. His hair was a dark, obsidian black. However, this was not uncommon in these lands. He was a young man with tanned skin like many of the peoples of the southern continent often were. He was not very tall, though Ulrik had noticed this earlier. He had a strange distinguished look to his face or perhaps more, to the look he had on his face, making his appearance somewhat regal in its fashion. What first struck Ulrik was how young he was. The Vastigian could not have been more than fifteen or maybe sixteen years old. This however, was not the cause of the feeling of amazement which gave Ulrik pause. The Morg warrior had seen much in his lifetime and there was very little left that could surprise him. This was different; mostly because none of the Morg had expected to see anything but the ordinary face of an ordinary soldier.

It was his eyes. They seemed to sparkle in brilliant silver. Like all the stars in the sky had shot off in all directions all at once and did so constantly. They twinkled. A darkening sky full of rain-filled clouds gave the soldiers eyes an even more ominous effect as they would sparkle even more brilliantly as the light from the lightning in the distance struck them. Even Pander must have put his anger aside for a brief instance when confronted by those ghostly eyes. For some reason, they reminded Ulrik of the eyes of a wolf. He had seen eyes like these before. He was no stranger to the world. Elves had eyes like these, which sparkled under the light; but never had he seen eyes of quite this color. When he thought about it, he realized the soldier resembled the Elves in more ways than one. He was slim, slender and slightly muscular, not too tall and although he lacked the chiseled perfection of the Elfin races, his facial features were distinguished enough. However, he also lacked the requisite pointed-ears attributed to the Elven races which meant he was no Elf; or at least, not fully Elven.

Pander’s surprise did not last as long as his comrades. He ordered the soldier to draw his sword. The lone soldier drew his sword reluctantly, seemingly resigned to his fate. A fierce wind swirled around them as dark clouds hung ominously overhead.

He stood there, his red cloak fluttering in the wind, his sword hanging loosely in his hand. There was something about him Ulrik couldn’t quite put his finger on. The Morg found himself transfixed by the soldier’s eyes. He watched them closely; wondering. He then found himself curiously tracing the lone soldier’s line of sight. Ulrik could see he was watching Pander’s movements intently. Perhaps more intently, than one who had resigned himself to death probably would. There was more to it though. So he looked closer. Pander gave out a battle cry that would have woken the dead and charged at the soldier. The storm made it difficult for Ulrik to concentrate, so he did what his father had taught him to. It was a technique handed down from his father’s father and his father before him. His family learned to concentrate their thoughts on a sole objective; on their enemy. To tune out the unwanted noise and distractions around them and focus on the necessary elements of battle, until, in a single solitary moment, time itself seemed to stand still. And in this moment, Ulrik saw something he never would have thought possible. He saw that the lone soldier was doing exactly the same thing. The splash of blood was incredible. The force of the blow which hit Pander was one of such ferocity and grace the Morg warrior was dead even before he knew he had been struck. The lone soldier killed him with a mere flick of his wrist. The rest of the Morg were not even aware of what had transpired, until Pander’s lifeless body slumped helplessly to the floor. Immediately, they drew their weapons at the ready.

“So,” Ulrik thought to himself, “He was a warrior after all.”

Grodwen and Proxus were the first to react. Both men charged the lone soldier with almost perfect co-ordination. The Vastigian evaded the first few strikes and then parried Proxus’ attacks. A storm-filled wind swirled faster around them. There was the crack of thunder just up above. Ulrik watched as the two Morg warriors moved in on the soldier in almost perfect unison. Proxus’ attacks were quick and skillful, all the while designed to maneuver the opponent into the range of Grodwen’s battle-worn two-edged axe. Like thunder and lightning, one followed the other. The lone soldier seemed to have enough sense to steer clear of Grodwen’s massive battle-axe and avoid parrying its crippling blows. Ulrik had seen Grodwen cleave a man virtually in half with it and knew any attempt by the soldier to block its strikes would almost certainly cause him to lose his footing, leaving him vulnerable to Proxus’ swift blade.

“These warriors must have fought together on numerous occasions,” Ulrik thought to himself.

He imagined the glorious battles both men had fought in and won, to have honed such skill. The feeling of admiration was overwhelming. There was a tingle of excitement. He wished he had gotten to know both men better.

Proxus began with another flurry of attacks. The lone soldier parried these attacks, but as Proxus moved in for the final strike the lone-soldier countered with a skillful parry, pushing forward- this time- instead of merely dodging or blocking the attack. The movement forced Proxus to shift to his left in order to avoid the soldiers counter-strike, inadvertently putting him into the path of Grodwen’s battle-axe. In his efforts to avoid striking his comrade, Grodwen moved the weapon further to the left and let his axe-blade drop to the ground. Seeing this the soldier pushed forward flicking his wrist in a spiraling motion, in an apparent attempt to hit Proxus with a killing blow. The move surprised Ulrik. By continuing to press forward with a second strike the lone soldier risked opening himself up for a deathblow. The move forced Proxus to shift further back in order to evade this second strike. As Proxus evaded the second strike the lone soldier did in fact open himself up for a final and fatal attack. Proxus saw his opportunity. So taken by the battle in front of him, he failed realize what had transpired behind him. The lone soldier’s second strike had come within mere seconds of his initial counter parry. The second strike was not a strike at all, but a feint designed to force Proxus to move further back and into his onrushing comrade. As Proxus bumped into Grodwen, his movements stalled for a brief second and he suddenly found himself exposed to the blade of his opponent. A brief second was all it took. A flick of the lone soldier’s wrist and the cold air was suddenly filled with the blood of the Morg warrior. Using Proxus’ dying body to shield his movements the soldier spun around swiftly, driving the point of his blade into the side of a bewildered Grodwen. The Morg stared at his assailant in disbelief, unable to speak. He turned and looked at the body of Proxus, his trusted comrade and dearest friend, which now lay on the cold ground beneath him. As the soldier removed the blade from his side, Grodwen felt his knees buckle under him. Moments later, he was dead.

There was silence. Burgeoning rain clouds turned the morning light into the dark of night. The lone soldier’s ethereal eyes flickered against the darkness. He stood, waiting.

Fang- the Morg Commander- gave a curdling battle cry. Sinod and -the injured, but still battle ready veteran- Rutgard responded to their leader’s cry with one of their own, waving their weapons in the air. They charged towards the lone soldier; Brave, unafraid and hopelessly outmatched. Ulrik watched as the battle dance began and he wondered.   At the beginning of their battle against the Vastigian army, the Morg had forty-thousand men; forty-thousand Morg warriors against just over ten-thousand Vastigian soldiers.

“Was it true?” he thought to himself. “Was one Vastigian soldier worth eight of their own?”

As the thunder cracked through the air, the first drops of a threatening storm began trickling down from the sky above. Ulrik watched as the lone soldier dispatched the three brave Morg warriors. Fang was the first to fall. A cut to the neck immobilizing him; a second strike freed his spirit from his body. Sinod -dear Sinod, his loyal friend- was next. The lone soldier disarmed him before striking him down. Ulrik’s heart sank. Old Rutgard lasted a while longer than the others, though in truth, it seemed the lone soldier was loathe to cutting him down. Alas, the old veteran finally fell; an honorable death for one who had witnessed many battles.

The rain was pouring now. Ulrik stood face to face with the Vastigian. Icy raindrops swirled around them in a violent wind as sparks of distant lightning bolts illuminated the 'Lone soldier’s' ghostly eyes. Without warning, the Morg ‘Boy’, who had watched the unfolding events in abject horror, pulled on his bow with a deft quickness, sending an arrow speeding towards the lone soldier. For an instant, Ulrik believed his chance to face this soldier in combat would be taken from him. But with an almost casual wave of his hand, the lone soldier knocked the shaft of the arrow against the flat of his sword and sent it flying harmlessly into the earth. The boy stared at the soldier in disbelief and awe.

“Boy!” Ulrik shouted, not out of anger, but so the boy could hear him over the noise of the rain and thunder. “I want you to leave this place.”

The ‘Boy’ frowned, “Why?” he thought to himself, “Surely he was a warrior of the Morg just like Ulrik?” He did not fear death and had as much right to die an honorable death as any other warrior of their Tribe.

And as though Ulrik knew what the boy was thinking, he said: “There is no shame in you going. You may be the last of us. Someone has to tell the others we left behind to guard our conquered cities, what has transpired here.”

There was a strange sadness in his voice, like the voice of a man resigned to his fate. Noticing the sadness in his own voice, Ulrik turned and smiled at the young Morg warrior. The boy looked at him solemnly, nodded and attempted to return the smile.

“He will need your horse,” he said, turning back to face the lone soldier, “You offered it before?” he added.

The Vastigian soldier said nothing. Stared at Ulrik quizzically for a moment and then nodded. The boy got on the horse and then rode away from the two warriors.

The rancorous sound of thunder rang once more into the air. The two men stood facing each other in the pouring rain. The soft earth below their feet turned to a dark slush of mud.

“You are a great fighter.” The words were almost involuntary.

“And you stood by and watched me cut down your men.” the Lone soldier said without any real emotion and seconds later added: “Why?”

Ulrik laughed dryly. “I would have thought it obvious.”

In truth it was obvious. The Lone soldier knew the Morg wanted to test his skill against him, but he wondered if there was more to it than that.

“I am a Morg warrior born and bred,” Ulrik began, “My only wish is to die honorably in battle with the bravery and courage of my forbearers. And if I am to die, then let it be at the end of the sword of a worthy adversary, so my spirit may rise to meet my ancestors and find a place of honor amongst their number.”

The words were spoken with conviction; the Lone soldier could not deny that, but he was still reluctant to fight the Morg.

“You may leave, if you wish.” he told the Morg. Ulrik frowned, slightly insulted by the remark. “You offered me as much.” The Lone soldier added.

“Only, because I thought you a coward unworthy of any effort.” The Morg pointed out. “And now…?”

“I can see you are no coward.” Ulrik smiled.

“Because I killed your comrades…?”

“You defeated six brave Morg warriors, all of whom have been honored in battle countless times.”

“I slew six tired and hungry warriors; one an old man with seven fingers. Their deaths served no purpose for me.”

It was the first time the Vastigian had shown any true emotion aside from cold indifference. Ulrik stared at Vastigian curiously for a moment and for some reason he felt sorry for him.

“Then why do you fight?” Ulrik wondered, before adding: “What brought you to this battle?”

“I had no choice.” There was a hint of regret in the Lone soldier’s voice.

“Then we are the same.” Ulrik sighed, gripping the hilt of his bastard sword tightly. Ulrik could see the questionable look of doubt forming on the brow of the Vastigian’s face. It seemed the lone soldier did not agree with him.

“I am Morg,” Ulrik began, “A man like you, but first before the world and in the eyes of the gods, I am a warrior born, like my father and his father before him. A warrior’s purpose is to fight,” he said with unwavering certainty. “And if I cannot fight, then of what use am I to the gods?”

The Lone soldier stared curiously at the brave Morg warrior. His mind seemed to wander. The rain was still heavy, but at least the wind no longer swirled violently around them. The soldier looked up at the sky and closed his eyes; letting drops of rain-water wash down his face and breathed deeply. He turned his silver-gaze back on the Morg warrior and smiled.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“I am Ulrik of Banabas,” the Morg answered proudly, “son of

Jurik.”    

“It is an honor to meet you, Ulrik son of Jurik,” he said, his tone sounding almost friendly, “I am Eibar Strohm.”

Arturo

It was a day like any other day in Vastigia. A golden sun burnt brightly in an almost surreal blue sky. A light wind blew silently over lush green fields full of sweet scented flowers; carrying the fragrance of a false summer for miles around. Nearby, a young deer made its way cautiously out into an open field as songbirds danced on currents of air cooled by a nearby sea.

On the very edge of the sea, lay the port city of Anvil; the Capital of the Imperial nation of Vastigia and home to its Royal Households. The city of Anvil was as immense as it was beautiful, a true marvel of architectural brilliance hundreds and thousands of years in the making. Beautifully crafted stone and marble houses lined equally beautifully set cobble stoned streets. Great fountains and statues portraying the image and deeds of past heroes lay scattered across its landscape. A number of meticulously tended gardens only served to enhance the cities aesthetic beauty. And adding even further to the cities already magnificent visual splendor was the fortuitous fact that much of it had been built on the slope of a very steep hill and at the pinnacle of that hill- against the backdrop of an almost perfect sky- overlooking an array of ships dotting a bustling trading port was the even more resplendent Imperial palace.

Yes, the people of Vastigia had much to be thankful for. Rich and fertile farm lands, great forests, rivers and lakes teeming with wild game and -perhaps most of all – rich mountainous regions laced with huge deposits of precious stones. Wealthy and powerful the Vastigians enjoyed many of the vicissitudes of life, including the protection of what was thought to be -the most powerful army in the known world. Not surprising, considering Vastigia was a nation born out of war.

Several centuries ago, the nation of Ghent was a country ruled by warlords and conquerors. The Great War Kings of Ghent sustained much of their military strength by incorporating the peoples of the lands and nations they conquered into their own armies. Many nations and Tribes fell before the swift hand of what had once been the most powerful Kingdom in all the land and then suddenly found themselves slaves to the ambitions of belligerent masters. Over time, it was discovered that the Barbarian and Nomadic Tribes of the north often made the best fighters. The War King Barbarus the III, looking to do away with the meddlesome and often wasteful act of gathering new recruits for his army came up with the ingenious idea of 'Fighting Camps'. These ‘Fighting Camps’ would be made up mostly of both the Barbarian and Nomadic north Tribes for the sole purpose of breeding new soldiers for his army. Huge numbers of these enslaved Tribes were brought to the fighting camps. Gathered and bred like cattle their offspring would yield a new type of fighter, seemingly without fear, schooled in the art of war from the very moment they could walk. The effectiveness of the Fighting camps was undeniable. The nation of Ghent boasted the fiercest and most skilled warriors in all the land.

Many centuries passed and though in time these slaves came to live free among the mountain ranges of northern Ghent, they were a people without a name, bound together in servitude in a prison which no longer needed walls or chains to bind them.

Until one day, out of the wilderness, a holy man came to them. A prophet named Vastaag, bringing with him the religion of Oa and the worship of EO.

  

In the southern most parts of the Imperial palace, in a room illuminated by the bright glow of an afternoon sun, a man sat wearily in an extravagantly designed oak-wood chair. His head rested against the palm of his hand, supported by his elbow, which was in turn supported by the arm of the dark brown chair in which he sat. His appearance was of a man dignified by the position of power and nobility and the troublesome concerns which often came hand in hand with both. His brow riddled with age worn lines betrayed the countenance of a man often given to excessive frowning and deeply troubled thoughts. Steely blue eyes and silver streaks running through thick dark hair, gave him the appearance of a man approaching the fiftieth year of his life, though in truth he was much older than he appeared.

His name is Arturo, which in the Vastigian tongue means: ‘Free spirit.’ The irony of which was not lost on the highly distinguished noble. It seemed to him his spirit was anything but free. A member of the Royal House of Remon, Arturo held the much coveted title of Lord Protector. An honor bestowed on him by his cousin, the former and now deceased Emperor of the sovereign nation of Vastigia. A man he so openly despised for many years whose body now lay dead in the Royal crypts, his soul rotting away for all eternity in the fiery confines of hell.

Or at least Arturo hoped.

At first, Arturo had not fully understood the motives behind his cousin’s appointment. The position of Lord Protector granted him all the sovereign powers of the deceased Emperor, giving him absolute rule and control over the land and its people. It seemed strange to him -and all the members of the Royal Households- that such power should be placed in the hands of the man who had shown so much animosity towards the Emperor in the past. But in time, his Imperial cousin’s motives became clear.  

The House of Remon was one of seven such Royal Houses, along with the House of Najel, the House of Manticur, the House of Lokum, the House of Antradaes, the House of Paridees and the House of Thane. Arturo was a direct descendant of Remon; the first ruler of Vastigia. His great ancestor Remon came to Vastigia- as many did- led by the prophet Vastaag, who had delivered their people from their former masters in the land known as Ghent. It is said, that Remon possessed great skill with a sword, as most warriors of their Tribe often did, but possessed even greater skill in the art of war. Skills which had earned Remon the somewhat esteemed rank of War Regent in a time when the Vastigian people, still fought under the auspices of the War Kings of Ghent. The rank of War Regent was much like the rank of General, but due to certain reservations the then ruling Warlord had about awarding a member of a slave race of warriors the same rank as his own unwontedly proud Generals, the provision of War Regent was bestowed on those amongst the Tribe who showed exceptional leadership abilities on the field of battle. Remon’s exceptional skills as a leader would eventually play a major role in the emancipation and deliverance of his people from the clutches of their former masters and into the lands in which they now resided. Once delivered to their new home, he would then lead his people to the sea and to the site of what would become a symbol of the sovereignty of a new and proud nation; the Capital City of the nation of Vastigia, the port City of Anvil.

The people of Vastigia followed Remon’s leadership without question. Not out of fear as they once followed the War Kings of Ghent, but out of admiration and respect. It was Remon who was responsible for building the foundations of what would eventually become the Capital of their great nation. It was Remon who first established trade and war alliances with the outside world. It was Remon who built an army and naval fleet capable of challenging even the Elven nation. It was Remon who was responsible for all Vastigia would become.

‘Responsible.’ It occurred to Arturo, his ancestor was also responsible for the current situation in which he now so precariously found himself. It was true that the people of Vastigia followed Remon without question. It was also true that they had revered their heroic leader. However, it had also been true that at some point the Ruling Council -with the absolute backing of their people- had offered the title of Regal Lord to Remon, effectively making him the first King of Vastigia and ensuring his descendants as heirs to his throne. A title Remon refused to accept without hesitation.          

Remon was a student of Oa, a religion paying homage to Eo; the one true god. Through his studies of the scriptures of Oa, and his own personal studies on the history of the known world, he had come to understand the dangers of the often necessary need for regal ruler-ship. Confident his people had nothing to fear from his rule, he was however, wise enough to be uncertain about the trends followed by his descendants. In his efforts to ensure no one man would ever be able to attain complete control of the Kingdom, he decreed that not only would his bloodline be empowered with the vestiges of the regal status, but an amendment be made to include the bloodlines of the then Ruling Council as well. Giving rise to what is now known as the seven Royal Houses of Vastigia.

For many centuries, the House of Remon managed to retain its role as the ruling House of Vastigia. But as the centuries rolled by, other Royal Houses assumed the responsibility of rulership and lost it just as easily. Each of the Royal Houses had had its turn. For a hundred thousand years, the title passed from one House to the next. Eventually, it would come to rest with the line of his cousin, the Emperor Caius of the House of Thane.

‘Thane’ the name left a bitter taste in his mouth. How he hated them so, how he wished to do away with the very memory, the very existence of their entire bloodline. He sat, festering with hate and obscene rage, castigating himself for how foolish he had been to fall so carelessly into his cousin’s trap.

By accepting the role of Lord Protector, Arturo also unwittingly accepted the role of guardian to his nephew, the heir apparent to the throne of Vastigia and the last surviving male member of the House of Thane. As long as Caius had an heir, the rights to the title of Emperor would remain with the House of Thane. The son of Caius would one day rule Vastigia, but being a mere infant at the time and not having come of age, the young Prince would have to wait till his was old enough to take his throne. In the meantime, Arturo would rule the Empire in his stead, a mere stand-in on a throne which in his mind was rightfully his. It was not as though he couldn’t simply kill the child, but circumstances now made this an unthinkable solution. In the event of the untimely demise of the young Prince and considering the fortuitous fact that the Prince was the only child and last surviving heir to the line of Caius, the rights of rulership would fall to the Lord Protector and in this particular case, to Arturo and the House of Remon. By awarding Arturo the position of Lord Protector the Emperor had ensured that if there was any mysterious circumstance surrounding the death of his heir, suspicion would undoubtedly fall on the immediate benefactor of such a death. Knowing full well he had more to fear from Arturo and the House of Remon than any other Royal House, he made sure Arturo- and consequentially, the House of Remon- would be the subject of such scrutiny.

The first ruler of Vastigia had been the tribal warrior known as Remon. He had been a stout believer in the Oan faith and had shown great knowledge of its teachings, which he had applied in his everyday dealings with the affairs of the state and his fellow Vastigians. His efforts during his people’s exodus from the lands of Ghent to the lands of Vastigia were legendary. Suffice to say, ‘merit’ had been the influencing factor behind Remon's selection as ruler and ‘merit’ still played a major part in the selection of any future Emperor. There was no doubt –at least in Arturo’s mind- that he more than merited the title of Emperor. After all, his tenor as Lord Protector had met with great success, with the annual revenue of the state increased by more than twice the expected amount in the last ten years.

However, and over time, other factors came into play. There was the Council of Elders to consider. A Council made up of some of the most prominent and well respected men in the Empire. Nobles, priests, holy men, generals and past heroes, these were the type of men who sat on the Council of Elders. Most were men of infallible character, not easily swayed by bribery or corruption, not wantonly susceptible to flattery or intimidation. These were men whose loyalty to the people had been tried and tested; men who earned their place on the Council by the sheer strength of their deeds, men who had played a major role in forging the history of Vastigia.

The Council of Elders exercised a great deal of influence over the Royal Households. As a rule- and for obvious reasons- no member or descendant of a Royal House was permitted to sit on the Council. While the Council had great power over the Royal Houses, it did not have the power to simply elect or depose an Emperor from his throne. Once the initial selection of Emperor was made- and as long as the Emperor had viable heirs- the right to the throne remained with the ruling House. Under certain conditions the Emperor’s right to rule could be contested by the Council or any of the opposing Royal Houses. If in fact the Emperor was found to be unworthy of the right to rule, the accuser- namely one of the members of the Elder Council or Royal Houses- would have to present proof to this effect and present this evidence before the Council members. If the Emperor was proved beyond all doubt to be guilty of the crime put before the Council, he would then be stripped of his Imperial powers with the Council of Elders assuming temporary control of the Empire. However, the Emperor would still retain his title, until such a time as his death. Once dead, the Council would then decide on who should become the next Emperor. All members of the Royal Households would be eligible for selection, with the exception of members of the House of the deposed Emperor. However, the Emperor’s House will once again become eligible for selection the next time there was a need to select a new Emperor.

In the very special case of an Emperor with no heirs, who has appointed a member of one of the opposing Royal Houses as Lord Protector, the Lord Protector would then assume the throne after the Emperor’s death. If the Lord Protector dies before he is able to take the throne, then the title passes to a member of the Lord Protector’s Royal House. However, the title of Lord Protector was usually only bestowed as a temporary title, in cases where the heir was too young to assume the throne. In this case, the Lord Protector assumes the powers of the Emperor until his heir is old enough to take the throne. In the event of the heir’s untimely death, while there was a Lord Protector already in office, then the Lord Protector and his House automatically assume the rights to the throne. And thus, killing the Prince would have appeared to be a rather viable solution to Arturo's problem. However Arturo’s reservations about killing off his Imperial nephew stemmed from an ancient law Arturo himself feared. For in Vastigian law, one's "Guilt" could be established by a simple Act of Suspicion.  

In such a case, any of the members of the Royal Houses or even a member of the Ruling Council may accuse the Imperial candidate of a crime. Mere accusations would not be enough. In most cases the accuser would have to present proof of the Emperor or candidate's guilt. However, there were exceptions to this rule. For instance, if an accuser’s claims of guilt are supported by three of any the Royal Households and the majority of the ruling Council, then the guilt of the accused was presumed to be true, even without proof; and the accused was thereby considered guilty. In the case of an already ruling Emperor falling to this ruling, the majority of his powers would be stripped away. Once again, upon the death of the said Emperor, the Council would then be called upon to choose a new Emperor from the remaining six Houses, with the House of the deceased Emperor excluded from the process of selection.

The deceased Emperor, Caius Thane -and the House of Thane itself- enjoyed great support amongst the members of the Elder Council. In addition to this, at least three of the remaining six Royal Houses had sworn oaths of fealty to the deceased Emperor and the House of Thane. Needless to say, it was no secret that the majority of the late Emperor’s supporters did not fully trust Arturo. As Lord Protector- and in the event of the Prince’s untimely death- Arturo would automatically assume the throne, but if he was accused of the crime of arranging the death of the heir, he realized it would be easy for the Council to declare his guilt, thereby stripping him of the powers of his office as the default Emperor. After his death the House of Remon and its heirs would lose the rights to the throne to one of the six remaining Royal Houses. Murdering the Prince would be considered an even greater offense and would very well likely lead to the exclusion of his descendants from the process of selection for several centuries.

So while the assassination of Caius’ heir would most certainly grant Arturo the title of Emperor, it would not ensure the title for his descendants. Arturo did not care one way or the other, if he assumed the throne, but rather that his descendants be named as the future Emperors of Vastigia.

There was a knock on the door. It echoed through the room. Arturo ignored it. Seconds later, the first knock was followed by another.

“Enter.” Arturo said his voice strangely audible in the emptiness of the stone chamber. Moments later, a tall, skinny man wearing a fine purple tunic and a funny hat entered the room.

“Sire,” he said as he bowed, “Lord Hogham and Lord Bisario, request an audience with you.” Arturo did not answer. “Sire…?” the skinny man in the purple hat said, a little unsure of himself. “Um, should I ask the Lords to return at a more convenient time?”

“No, no.” Arturo sighed as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You may tell the good Lords they may have their audience.”

“Very good mi Lord; will you be receiving them in the audience chamber?” The skinny man in the purple suit asked. Arturo almost burst into laughter and then thought better of it.

“No.” he said, “You may show the honorable Lords into this chamber.”

“As you wish,” The skinny man in the purple suit bowed lower than the first time, took a step backwards, turned and then exited the room, being very careful to close the door gently behind him.

Moments later he returned, announcing the arrival of the two Lords as they entered the chamber. Both men took several steps towards the Lord Protector and then bowed. Arturo looked both men over. Antorio Bisario was a tall, well-built man with thick dark hair and equally dark brown eyes. He was a very handsome young man with a rather notorious reputation as a philanderer. He also happened to be rather good with a sword, which Arturo thought to be a stroke of good luck on Antorio’s part, considering of course the number of husbands and spurned lovers who wished him dead. The Bisarios were a very old and wealthy noble family in Vastigia, though they were not originally from the country. The Bisario’s were from an island on the very edge the southern continent called Tiria.

A very long time ago, at the height of Vastigia’s power, Papilan Bisario- the great ancestor of the Bisario family- sailed across the Twin seas from Tiria to Vastigia in an attempt to establish trade relations with the new country. The venture proved to be very profitable for the enterprising young Tirian who returned to Vastigia many times after, eventually establishing one of Vastigia’s first trading routes across the Twin seas. In his later years, Papilan Bisario found that he rather liked the mildly temperate and beautiful landscapes of the southern Capital and decided to retire in the foreign country. Not long before his death- at a very ripe old age- Papilan Bisario, his twenty-two wives and sixtythree children, made the long journey from Tiria to Vastigia, where the Bisario’s were duly granted Vastigian citizenship. The Bisario’s were long standing friends of the Remon’s –Arturo’s own Royal House- and over the centuries their alliance proved to be a very profitable one. Consequently, the Bisario’s were one of the few foreigners allowed to take up residency within the borders of the sovereign nation. Antorio’s father, Kapa Bisario was an old and dear friend of Arturo’s and Arturo himself was rather fond of the young Tirian and regarded him as a son. Antorio also proved to be as loyal to the Remons’ as his father was and was one of the few people Arturo truly trusted.

Lord Pinca Hogham on the other hand, Arturo had nothing but contempt for. The Hogham’s were one of the oldest families in Vastigia. Pinca’s great ancestor, Altus Hogham, was one of Remon’s most loyal and trusted followers.

In a time when their people first made the exodus from Ghent to the Virgin lands, Altus Hogham had served as Remon’s second in command. Hogham’s great ancestor was one of several legendary warriors whose marble likeness now rested in places of honor along the streets of the Capital City as a monument to Vastigia’s proud history. Over the centuries, the Hoghams’ became very wealthy and were one of the richest noble families in the Empire. In fact, the Hogham’s were so rich it was often said that their family possessed even more money than some of the families of the Royal Households. The history of the Hoghams’ was one of betrayal and dark murder. It was generally believed, that Pinca Hogham had several members of his own Household murdered in order to attain the family fortune for himself. Most people did not like the Hogham’s, but they liked Pinca Hogham even less.

“My Liege,” Lord Hogham said in a highhanded tone of voice.

Bisario bowed cordially, but said nothing.

“Pinca Hogham looked very much like his name suggested.”

Arturo thought. “Like a pig.”

He was a fat slob of a man, his skin pink and reddish from lack of any real form of exercise. The fool could hardly walk ten feet before needing to rest. He had beady little eyes, which always seemed to be looking everywhere at once. There was something slimy about his manner, the way he spoke and constantly wriggled about. Those with the unfortunate experience of making his acquaintance often left his presence feeling like they’d just had a bath with a ten foot Gorgolorian slug.  

Arturo knew the only reason the Hogham’s remained loyal to the House of Remon was because of the great influence they held in affairs of the state and with Arturo’s appointment as Lord Protector to the throne, the House of Remon’s influence had grown considerably. Arturo could not deny Hogham’s brilliance though, mostly when it came to matters of commerce. His role as an adviser in matters of trade over the last few years was largely responsible for the financial success Arturo enjoyed as the stand-in ruler. Of course, Hogham’s advice came with a price. Several trade reforms also served to increase Pinca Hogham’s own personal holdings. In addition to this, several indiscretions on his part had been overlooked. The man was a greedy fat pig, whose only ambition in life was to increase the size of his fortune. The richer the noble became, the fatter his grotesque belly seemed to grow. Yet, Hogham had his uses.

Lord Hogham and Lord Bisario took seats opposite Arturo. Bisario sat in an oak wood chair identical to one the Lord Protector was seated in. Hogham sat on one the larger chairs; on soft velvet cushions. He immediately began wriggling about in the same irritating manner with which he always did. Arturo sighed. He knew why both men had come. Though, both Lords had very different motives for being there. There was a knock on the door of the chamber. Arturo beckoned whoever it was to enter. The tall, skinny man in the fine purple tunic entered the chamber and bowed, two maids followed him carrying refreshments. Hogham’s ears immediately perked up, his nose twitched at the prospect of a free meal. The two maids bowed lowly to the Lord Protector and then to the two noble Lords accordingly, before serving the refreshments. Hogham immediately began gorging himself on food and drink. Lord Bisario -like Arturo- took a cup of warm Tirian wine.

Seconds later, they were alone again.

“The streets are busy.” the fat Lord noted as he ripped a chunk of meat from the lamb leg he held with both hands. “The city seems to be preparing for some sort of festivities?” He said coyly.

Arturo knew the question was rhetorical at best. Hogham had spies everywhere and he had only received the news two days prior. Hogham would have had to leave his estate -in the mid-west of Vastigia- several days earlier in order to arrive at the Capital in time. Yet, the fat Lord delighted in proving to others how well informed, his spies kept him about the affairs of others.

“I take it you’ve heard?” Arturo took a sip of the Tirian wine from the finely ornamented silver cup in his hand. Hogham attempted to feign ignorance, casting a sheepish stare towards the Lord Protector.

“Yes mi Lord,” Bisario grunted, having no time for Hogham’s games, “I was in Riverbed when I heard of our army’s victory over the

Morg.”

“Oh, is that what all the fuss is about…?” Hogham’s surprise was unconvincing, “I would have thought our people would be used to the Vastigian army emerging victorious in battle.” He added dryly as he threw back some of the fine Tirian wine.

“Your plan failed.” The tone was harsh and cold. Hogham gulped his wine. The Lord Protector stared at him, his eyes burning with anger. Hogham had decided to play down his apparent failure with a show of indifference, but he knew better than to test Arturo’s patience when he was angered. Arturo still held the power of life and death over the Empire, and even if he decided not to dispose of the fat noble, there were plenty of ways Arturo could ruin him and his ancient noble House.

“My failure…?” there was a hint of fear in his voice. “My liege, I was under the impression we proceeded on this course together?” a bead of sweat ran down the side of his face.

“I sincerely hope you’re not suggesting Lord Hogham, that I am responsible for--”

“No…no, no my Lord, I…I would never--” he attempted to explain.

“You were the one who suggested we assign him this undertaking, were you not?” Arturo glared at the fat noble, his voice getting louder as he went on.

“Yes, I know my Lord, but--”

“It was you who said he would never survive such a battle!”

“Yes mi Lord, but I--” Hogham was sitting upright now, on the very edge of the large oak-wood chair with the soft velvet cushions. He rubbed his hands together nervously, his skin turned red, his face flustered.

“‘The answer to all our problems’ you said!”

“Yes I did say that, but--”

“Then tell me my Lord Hogham,” there was sarcasm in his voice “How is it, that your ‘answer’ to our problems has only succeeded in increasing the staggering support he has amongst the people already?” He shouted finally, his voice full of contempt.

“Sire…I…Lord Bisario,” Hogham said stuttering, turning to Lord Bisario for support, before turning to face the Lord Protector’s fiery gaze. “Lord Arturo I…how could I have known?” Hogham nervously attempted to laugh it off. He was sweating profusely now, desperate for a way out. “I mean…” he said as he wiped the sweat off his cheek with his hand, “the enemy was four times their size…there was, there was no conceivable way he could…I mean, EO only knows how this could have happened. It’s not, it’s not normal is it? It can’t be?” Hogham looked desperately into the faces of the two nobles for some sign of understanding.

Finally, Arturo sighed and leaned back into his chair, resting his chin against the palm of his hand. He had, had his fun with Hogham. That’s all it really was; fun. He had no interest in doing away with the fat noble; at least not while he still served his purposes. But Arturo delighted in the knowledge that the noble feared him.

Once again, Arturo found his mind wandering in misery. He watched Hogham wipe the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his expensive silk robes. There was a knock of the chamber door. The man in the purple tunic entered the room and bowed lowly.

“What is it now?” Arturo demanded.

“Sire, the Prince approaches the city with his army. They will arrive at the gates within the hour.”

As the man in the purple tunic finished the sentence, the Lord Protector sighed solemnly.

House of Thane

It was the site of a great celebration. The streets of Anvil were decorated with multi-colored strips of fine cloth stretching from roof top to roof top. Pink and white roses ornamented the cities houses and roads. Hundreds of Vastigian citizens lined the streets. The people cheered, danced and sang joyfully throughout the city as bards recited poems composed in honor of their brave new heroes. A proprietor of a nearby inn offered free drinks to his customers. Rich nobles and commoners alike squandered fortunes on men and women they didn’t even know. Children sat up on the shoulders of their fathers and friends, some hung from rooftops or sat on walls hoping to get a glimpse of the victorious Vastigian soldiers as they marched down the street. Young maiden’s leaned out of windows and waved, while others danced in the streets with complete strangers.

As the Imperial trumpets sounded, there was such a roar through the city of Anvil the likes of which had not been heard in over a hundred years. The trumpets heralded the arrival of the victorious Vastigian army as they passed through the city gates. The air was suddenly filled with thousands of white and pink rose petals floating down from the sky like frozen flakes of snow until, they canvassed the floor in front of the marching soldiers. The young maidens hanging out of windows and dancing in the streets threw favors at the soldiers and kissed them as they marched by. But the greatest cheers and chants of adoration had been reserved for the young noble riding at the head of the entourage.

The young Prince seemed to be enjoying himself. He waved at the people as he rode bye and smiled in appreciation as they cheered his name and the name of his Royal House. Riding by the Prince’s side in positions of honor and sharing in the festivities, were his two most trusted lieutenants, General Valgarh, a hardened military soldier with a rough beard and dark patch over his left eye- and Goma Brakhammer, Commander of the Prince’s Honor Guard and one of the most feared warriors in the Empire. The Prince’s Honor Guard consisted of fifty of the finest soldiers in the Vastigian army. Many of them were once members of the late Emperor’s own Imperial Guard. Out of the fifty Honor Guards who fought in the battle against the Morg, all fifty survived. The Honor Guard formed five lines of ten soldiers each and rode just behind the Prince and his lieutenants on almost identical black coated stallions. They wore the emblem of the House of Thane proudly on their shields and on the breastplates of finely crafted full-plate armor.

Riding, a little behind the Prince and his two lieutenants- also in positions of honor- were two other soldiers. One wore the hooded red cloak often worn as part of the uniform of the Prince’s Honor Guard over his shoulders and concealed his face under the hood. The other was a soldier named Leemos. Leemos was not one of the Prince’s lieutenants, nor was he a member of the Honor Guard. Leemos was a soldier of no real rank from the regular army. He and the Prince became fast friends several years ago during the Prince’s first military campaign. Leemos was a good fighter and soldier- not exceptional in any real way by Vastigian standards- who spent most of his military career making advances at the daughters of farmers and wealthy land owners. A lot of people often wondered why the Prince kept company with such an unruly, sex crazed heathen. Some often speculated that the loud-mouthed, poor excuse for a Vastigian soldier was the Prince’s substitute for a lack of a decent court jester. The truth of the matter was simply that the Prince liked Leemos’ for his blatant and often uncontrollable need to speak his mind. Leemos- if nothing else- was an honest man.

  

“You are as popular as ever my liege.” Lord Brakhammer said with a smile as they rode towards the Imperial palace.

“Perhaps far more popular than your dear uncle would like?” Leemos retorted smiling cheekily from ear to ear.

“Leemos, this is not the place for that kind of talk. Arturo has spies everywhere.” Brakhammer said reprimanding the soldier, who didn’t seem to care one way or the other.

“Then perhaps this is exactly the place for that ‘kind of talk’. Perhaps we should stop the procession and explain to the good people of Vastigia exactly what really happened on the borders of Falkaan.”

“Leemos!” Brakhammer began vehemently, but was interrupted by General Valgarh.

“For the first time I’d have to agree with the wretch.” The General’s voice was hard and rough.

“Why thank you general.” Leemos added, as the General continued.

“It was a despicable act, unworthy of a member of the Royal

Households. If it were up to me, I’d report the incident to the Council.”

“And how would you prove the Lord Protector’s involvement I wonder?” Brakhammer queried, knowing full well that the General could not.

“An act of suspicion is all it would take. My liege…” the General leaned towards the Prince in his saddle, who was merely listening silently to the conversation, “you have the support, the Council; the

Royal Houses; they will back you if you choose to--”

“It would still accomplish nothing.” Brakhammer interjected adamantly.

“Blasted Shi’ah, do you truly want what that 'Trow' to go unpunished?!” The General retorted angrily.

“Enough.” the Prince commanded, “Lord Brakhammer is right. Even if we could prove it, an act of suspicion would only serve to strip my uncle of a part of his Imperial powers. He would still remain Lord Protector and my guardian.” The three soldiers rode silently for a short time. The Prince waved at the crowd and smiled.

“Sometimes, I don’t understand you Celerius,” Leemos as always, was the first to break the silence, “Does it not anger you at all?”

The Prince glanced over his shoulders at the four men riding behind him. They were loyal men. He knew each of them would gladly give their life for his.

“I know it is difficult,” he said, “but there are only a few months left now. Once I am Emperor, then and only then, will we deal with my uncle. But until then, we will do nothing. Understood?” He looked over at Brakhammer and Valgarh, not even bothering to look in the direction of the hooded Honor Guard at their side. Both men nodded.

“Leemos…are we understood?” he said looking directly at the soldier.

“Aye, we are understood.” They rode a short distance and then

Leemos added thoughtfully: “What would I have done anyway?” The three men laughed under their breaths.

“Besides,” the Prince thought to himself, “so far, his uncle’s clandestine efforts to arrange his untimely demise had only succeeded in increasing his own personal standing amongst their people.”

As they rode up the steep hill road leading to the palace, the Prince gazed up at his Imperial home. Its magnificence never ceased to inspire a feeling of pride and wonder.

“It was good to be home.” The young Prince thought to himself. It was his home after all, even though it also served as a home to all the Royal Houses.

Each of the seven Houses had wings of the palace reserved for their use. Each wing was the size of a very large estate, with a various number of rooms and intricately designed gardens. Each House was identified by its very own Royal insignia, an emblem which rested above the archway leading into each individual estate’s front gardens. The Royal Houses were protected by their own personal Royal Guard or Honor Guards, who were forsworn to protect their given Houses and its members. And each Royal Guard was provided with its own barracks within the palace walls and wore the insignia and colors of the House they served on their shields and armor. However, the central palace was always exclusively reserved for use by the current ruler and Emperor of Vastigia. Being the heir apparent to the throne of Vastigia, the Prince and the members of his House retained the rights to the central palace as they had for several centuries. The central palace was the envy of all Vastigian Royals. It was more than ten times the size of the wings occupied by the other six Royal Houses, and that was just the living quarters. It also retained large and lavish banquet halls, audience chambers, dining rooms, games rooms, servant's quarters, multiple spas and bathing rooms, intricately ornamented gardens with fine marble fountains, stables, the Imperial barracks, the Imperial library- which contained books and scrolls collected over centuries- detailing the works of artists and scholars, philosophers and historians, science and magic. There was also the magnificent Imperial throne room and of course, most importantly, the Royal treasury. In addition to this, the ruling Emperor also retained the use of the wing reserved for his Royal House, as the compartments were considered to be the sovereign property of the Royal Houses they were given to. Many of the Royal Houses also retained properties outside the confines of the Imperial palace. The Royal ancestors owned various estates at various locations all over Vastigia.

There were several reasons for this. One being that, the members of the Royal Houses did not wish to have all the members of their individual Houses under the same roof as the ruling Emperor. The reason for this was supposedly to ensure the safety of their members in the unfortunate circumstance that some ill-fated disaster should befall the Capital City and therefore, the Imperial palace. The truth was simply that the Royal ancestors had reasons in the past to distrust the ruling Emperors. This did not apply to any specific Imperial ruler, or to the Emperor alone. The Royals were quite aware of the corrupting nature of imperial power, the influence it had over those who wielded it; as well as those who wished to seize it for themselves.

 

Celerius’ thoughts were interrupted by the sound of bells coming from the Temple of EO. A gesture from the temple priests in his honor. Ordinarily, the temple bells would only ring at the three pinnacles of the day. The first pinnacle was at noon; the bells were rung twelve times, signifying the end of the morning and glorifying the divine light at the height of its power. The second pinnacle took place at the point where the day met the night, six rings, signifying the passing of the sun and the emergence of the twin moons. The third and final pinnacle occurred at night, barely three hours from the second and signified the end of the day; twelve rings to honor the sun, six to glorify the emergence of the two sisters and a further ten to honor the passing of day. At the end of this ritual the priests would pray, giving thanks to the Divinity for granting the people of Vastigia the benevolence of his good graces and the gift of yet another day.

The Prince stared up at the Imperial palace as they approached the gates. He could see figures moving about on the northern balcony up above, watching the festivities below.        

 

Arturo, Lord Bisario and Lord Hogham walked onto the northern balcony. The other Royals and nobles had gathered on the open terrace to watch the parade below and join in the festivities with drink and idle chatter. There was a sudden silence as the three nobles arrived on the scene. Seconds later- as though the nobles had only just realized who Arturo was- they bowed. Some of them bowed low in obeisance to Arturo; others, only half-bowed to the Lord Protector. Those who bowed lowly were Vastigian nobles, made noble either by wealth or title. The ones who only half-bowed were members and descendants of the Royal Households. If Arturo was Emperor, then Royals or not, they would be obligated to pay him the same respect as the other nobles did. But they were Royals and seeing as Arturo had no greater claim to the title of Emperor than they did, it was considered improper for one who might one day become Emperor to bow so lowly in obeisance to anyone, save the Emperor himself. And so, the nobles and Royals bowed and greeted him accordingly.

As Arturo made his way towards the edge of the balcony he gave particular notice to one of the young nobles. Arturo eyed the young noble from head to toe as he placed his hands on the stone railings of the massive balcony and peered down at the city streets below. They were littered with hundreds, or more thousands of people. Even from all the way up on the palace balcony he could hear them cheering and chanting the name.  

‘Thane!’

He felt his blood begin to boil.

 

“I’m surprised to find you here Remon?” he queried the young noble without even turning to look at him.

“Why father? The festivities have only just begun,” the noble replied raising a cup of ale up as he did, “And you know how much I adore the trappings of a good festival.”

Arturo’s eyes rolled back into his head. Remon was his first born son, named for their great ancestor Remon who was the first King of Vastigia. It wasn’t until several centuries after Remon’s death that the title of Emperor was bequeathed to the rulers of their nation. As Vastigia’s wealth and power grew, so too did its Empire. Eventually, the title of Emperor was thought to be more appropriate than that of King. It was Arturo’s wish that his son Remon would one day take the throne as Emperor. Although sometimes- like now for instance- he wondered why he even bothered.

Arturo looked the boy over. Remon was as dark haired as Arturo had been in his earlier years. His facial features were defined enough to give the boy a striking resemblance to the Lord Protector. Remon’s stature and body posture also bore a striking similarity to Arturo’s, though he was much shorter than his father. If it wasn’t for all the obvious physical similarities between the two Royals and the affection Arturo had for the boy’s mother, he would have sworn the boy was not of his seed. He could see Remon was already drunk. Under normal circumstances Remon’s insobriety would be considered appropriate. It was a celebration after all. But even on the most mundane of occasions, the Lord Protector’s son could be found intoxicated with a cup of some alcoholic beverage or other firmly fixed in the grip of his hand. Arturo sighed as he watched the Vastigian soldiers in the line below approach the palace gates. He looked Remon over again. His shoulders suddenly became heavy with anxiety. While the son of Thane was conquering their enemies and garnering great renown as a hero of the land, his son, was squandering a large part of the Lord Protector’s fortune in taverns and brothels, on drink and harlots.

“Lord Remon,” Bisario finally greeted with a bow.

“Ah, Bisario!” Remon answered, his drunkenness becoming more apparent as his voice grew louder, “It is good to see you,” he said and then squeezed his face awkwardly, pointing an accusing finger at Tirian before saying: “You were not at my party. I invited you and you didn’t come, hic.” He laughed at his own insobriety.

“Forgive me mi Lord, I was otherwise detained,” he explained before adding: “An urgent matter required my attention.”

“Hmmm,” Remon groaned as he threw back the last of the ale and stared solemnly into the empty cup, “whose angry husband did you kill this time?”

Bisario said nothing in reply. The drunk young noble turned and looked around as though he was searching for something. He saw a servant carrying a tray of refreshments on the other side of the balcony and walked off towards the servant wobbling as he did. Arturo held his face in his hands and shook his head. He looked down at the Prince’s entourage from the terrace and watched as they entered the palace.

“So,” he thought darkly, “the 'Light of Vastigia' has returned home.”

 

 

The Prince slumped down into a soft cushioned armchair and sighed in relief. General Valgarh took a seat opposite the Prince and also sighed, though it sounded more like a grunt. Leemos immediately walked over to a small table and poured himself a drink, throwing it back into his head and then moaning in approval of its quality. Lord Brakhammer did not take a seat, but stood at ease at the Prince’s side.  

“It is good to be home.” The Prince said with a smile.

“Aye!” the others agreed heartily.

The Prince looked about the room. His eyes settled on a rather large unlit fireplace. Hanging above it was the stuffed head of a rather large animal, which looked very much like a horned Elk. The Prince smiled as he thought back to the stories his father had told him as a child. The renowned tale of how his great ancestor, “Kuba QuickFinger’, slew the giant Elkhart.

   

The history of the House of Thane was one of legends and fable. The people of Vastigia regarded the Royal bloodline with wonder and superstition. They believed the Thanes were blessed by EO, the High Father. And even though, for the first six-hundred centuries after the institution of the Vastigian Royal Households, the Royal House of Thane had failed to produce an Imperial candidate for the throne, one name amongst all the Royal names always held sway over Vastigia’s history; ‘Thane’.

The House of Thane had produced the last seven generations of Emperors, including the previous Emperor, Caius Thane and –if EO willed it- the future Emperor of Vastigia, the crown Prince Celerius Thane; the Light of Vastigia.

    The growing legend of Celerius Thane began long before the young Prince was even born. But it was the events which took place on the night of his birth that stood out in the minds of his people.

On the night of the Prince’s birth, a full moon hovered ominously in a bright night sky. It is said, that not a creature stirred through the night. There was only silence and the dim lights of an expectant city awaiting the arrival of its new Prince. As the sound of the bells of the Imperial palace rang through the air -announcing the birth of the future ruler of Vastigia- a cry filled the silence. It was not the cry of a new born child or the joyous chants of a people welcoming the birth of their future ruler which filled the night air; but rather the frightful baying of wolves.

 

The Prince sat contemplating the events of the last few months. The sweet taste of fine Tirian wine washed down his throat.

"It had been a long campaign." He thought to himself.

He was thankful for the chance to return to his home and offered a silent prayer to the gods. The Vastigians worshipped the god ‘EO’, the Divinity; the one true god. A god they also reverently called the High Father. EO was considered to be first amongst all the gods; the entity which gave life to all things. However, they also recognized many of the gods worshipped by other peoples of Ederill, but more as guardians rather than actual gods. He offered thanks to Cala, ‘the Lady’, the patron goddess of the House of Thane. He looked about the room at his fellow comrades and friends and was glad they too had survived the war. His mind drifted. He thought back to all the things he promised himself he would do once he returned to the Capital. His thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of a man wearing a fine gray and gold colored robe.

 

“Sire,” the man began, “There is someone here who wishes to see you.”

“Vonnegut, I thought I told you not to admit anyone?” The Prince sounded displeased.

“Not even an old friend?”

The voice was familiar. He would know it anywhere. He rose quickly to his feet and turned with a smile.

“Lord Reiken!” Celerius exclaimed joyously as he walked towards the familiar voice.

“Sire!” the man returned the Prince’s greeting with a smile and bow. He was a man of about forty or so years. His hair was a bright coat of silver, and he sported a full beard and mustache which matched the whiteness of his head. His eyes were a cool blue and greeted the Prince as warmly as his smile did. They took each other by the wrist in the customary way men- as close as both these men were- often did.  

 

“I am glad the Divinity has returned you safely to us your highness.” The gray-haired man said.

“As, am I.” the Prince replied with a smile.

General Valgarh rose quickly, standing at attention. Leemos and Lord Brakhammer also stood at attention, paying due respect to one as honored as Lord Reiken was.

“General Valgarh, Lord Brakhammer, Leemos.” Reiken greeted each man respectively.

They bowed in reply to his greeting. Lord Reiken was a General in the Vastigian army. He also held the highly distinguished office of Supreme Commander of the Vastigian army. Lord Reiken was a hero of the people. He had fought in countless battles against Vastigia’s enemies and won many great victories for his country. In his time as Commander of the nation’s army he had never failed his people or his

Emperor. A loyal servant of the House of Thane, Reiken was the late Emperor -Caius Thane’s- most trusted advisor and closest friend. Many respected General Reiken, not so much for his skill with a blade, but more so for his brilliance and ingenuity as a tactician and military strategist. Everything the young Prince knew about the art of war had been learned under the tutelage of the silver-haired General. After his father’s death, General Reiken took the young Prince under his wing. In time, Celerius came to regard the General as a father.

“I am sorry,” the General began sullenly.

“Sorry, for what?” the Prince asked incredulously.

“I failed you my Prince,” he said.

Celerius immediately understood Generals’ meaning. The battle against the Morg’s had been a resounding victory for the Prince, as well as the Vastigian army. But things could easily have been very different. On their way back to Vastigia from a previous campaign, Celerius and his men heard news of the marauding Morg army as it made its way across the great central provinces and into the lands of Falkaan. Several days later, the Prince’s army was intercepted by a messenger who brought them the news of the Falkaan army’s defeat and the Falkaan King’s eventual surrender. It had apparently been discovered that the Morg army and their tyrannical leader -the war Lord ‘Ander Grod’, next intended to take the City of Dragondown; A city under the protection of the Vastigian Empire. The Vastigian War Council had apparently decided, that this could not be allowed to happen. The Prince’s army received orders to make its way to the Falkaan border where he and his soldiers would join up with a number of battalions from the Vastigian army. Battalions which- the letter claimed- had already been dispatched to engage the invading Morg. So the Prince’s army made its way to the Falkaan border. The Prince’s scouts confirmed the Morg army had begun its march on Dragondown. The only problem was; Prince Celerius and his men were the only ones who had arrived to defend the City. For some reason no one else had arrived to intercept the Morg army as the messenger claimed they would. The Prince suddenly found himself facing the invading enemy forces alone. Forty, maybe fiftythousand Morg warriors stood against the Prince’s own regiment of just over ten-thousand Imperial soldiers.

&

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