The grey, cold sea of Elowen was a churning cauldron of froth and treacherous riptides around the archipelago of Fenran.
A string of dark, barren islands constanly blustered by shearing salt winds and unrelenting waves and storms.
It was a wonder the islands had yet to crumble apart but that wonder could be attributed to the craggy and solid rock the islands were made of. Nothing could grow on the land save for sparse grasses and a few wind battered shrubs. Further inland, protected by towering peaks were a few scattered groves of brittle, waning trees.
A miserable archipelago, yet at the very center of the archipelago, a small island. Shielded from the brunt of blustering winds, savage storms, and crashing waves by the surrounding islands.
This little piece of paradise had just enough top soil to support meager vegetables and grass.
The island was a puzzle of plateaus, spiny snow capped mountains, and perilous rocky cliffs.
The sea surrounding the little land was dark, deep, dangerous and full of creatures who took refuge in the protected waters.
In the eyes of any rational human it was an awful place in which only the desperate or deranged would seek shelter.
But the people who’d settled the island 10 generations ago were just that.
Deranged with grief and desperate for a safe place to call home.
After the Great War the survivors fled into the ocean on finely made ships.
For months on end they sailed, their food and water supplies dwindling and their bodies riddled with disease.
They’d rather death at sea than the terrors that they’d left behind.
Soon enough their prayers were answered.
For they found this island, and with no further strength to look for something better they set down their roots in what little soil the island had to offer.
They were a sturdy people, all tall and strong.
For although that island was kinder than others it was still cruel.
For only the physically strong or a strong community could survive it’s trials.
But against all odds, they survived.
They built little huts from the brittle trees and dug into the earth making way for pitiful, flavorless vegetables.
They made clothes from spares heather woven using spinning wheels and shoes from the leather of emaciated cattle.
They worked day and night, sacrificing blood, sweat and tears to put their roots deep.
Sure enough all their hard work paid off, for nine generations later.
Their kin still worked the land they’d fought so hard to claim.
The Ambras were a hearty folk who valued courage, bravery, hope, selflessness and hardwork. For that was all their ancestors had when they settled that pitiful island.
Thunder shook the villages shingles and rain beat down on the already soaked earth.
The live stock were huddled under cramped sheds to get away from the pelting rain and flaring lightening.
The teen walked through the storm without a care.
In one hand he gripped the metal handle of a bucket, the other rested lightly on the sword at his hip.
At seventeen years he was nearly his own man, and soon to be the best sword fighter in the village.
Standing a six and a half feet, barrel chested and arms the size of tree trunks, he was already a force to be reckoned with.
Will Merriken of the Merrikens was the proud second son of the chief of the village.
His older brother Reid was being groomed as the next chief and his sister had already chosen a suitable mate of a chief on the next island over.
Allowing Will to pursue his career as captain of the island guard. The guard was an elite group of warriors native only to the island. Many would’ve killed to have the opportunity to join. However their ranks were full with 50 members. Among those 50 individuals were his closets childhood friends.
Sam Ewhald was a beast of a man, taller and stronger than Will, covered in bristling black hair. He let his beard grow long and his hair longer.
A legendary warrior throughout the archipelago.
His steely blue eyes could’ve frozen a man with fear alone.
Then the tall and slender Garrett Moorings, he was only a few inches taller than Will and Sam but he was lean and sinewy.
He ran faster than a moore hare and had eyesight sharper than an eagles and hearing keener than an owl.
Garrett excelled at scouting and information gathering.
Not far behind Garrett was Nelson Mumaw, an average teen with curly bronze locks and striking blue eyes. Nelson was quiet and shy yet no other mind was quicker than his.
Nelson was an unrivaled strategist. Will had lost count how many times his foresight had saved their lives and all of the village.
Together they were a force of nature. Their combined skills had fallen armies and slain archaic beasts birthed from long forgotten depths of fear itself.
Will had survived dozens of battles and a handful of wars. He lived on the battlefield, craved the adrenaline rush and with every kill he proved himself better than his siblings.
Due to Reids fragile constitution though, Will often found himself harassed by many to find a suitable partner.
His father had combed the archipelago in search of a worthy partner for both Will and Reid.
However, it would seem unwed women seasoned in war were hard to find.Will refused to take a partner which couldn’t fight by his side on the field.His father refused to give Reid a partner that was weak.
A earthquaking roar resonated from the docks, jolting Will from his thoughts. A tingle of excitement rippled up his spine, gripping the bucket tighter and checking the contents of fresh fish before setting off at a brisk pace to the source of the roar.
The steep sloping ramps leading down to the docks were slick and perilous. A misstep and one risked bashing their skull or simply falling off the edge into the dark water below.
Soon enough he’d reached the bottom and was greeted with a glorious sight.
An impressive multi-hull war ship laden with the warriors from the Hallen island. ‘Scouts’ Will acknowledged and approached the head warrior, Geral, with a confident swagger.
Geral was one of Hallens famed dragon riders. A squadron of skilled warriors carried by fire breathing demons. The privilege to ride them was only allowed to the most proficient and seasoned warrior. The only exception was the chiefs family. Consisting of a wife and a single daughter. Known as the Witch.
According to the rumors she’d fought and slain the war god Alhearn, taking his godly powers as a trophy.
She’d sunk fleets of ships by summoning storms unlike any man had seen. Destroyed islands with a mere whisper. Fouled crops and poisoned livestock with only a look from her seething eyes.
Geral stared evenly into Wills eyes.
“The others will be arriving later this evening, we’ll be conducting a preliminary search of the island to ensure there is no immediate threat” Geral stated simply.
Will nodded in affirment, struggling not to let a smile break his stoic expression.
Geral mounted his Grione, a two legged dragon with a broad wingspan and jaws like steel traps.
With a nudge from his knees the beast lifted from the wooden docks, Geral ordered his men to secure the ground while he did a quick surveillance from the sky.
With a single powerful wingstroke the beast became airborne.
Will watched in awe as it flew out of sight.
Will shoved the bucket of fish at one of the servants.
“For the dragon” He said briefly before turning to head back into the village.
His heart thundering with excitement. This evening would be his first time meeting the Hallen clan and the legendary dragon riding warriors. What he was most eager for was meeting the Witch in person, for the past four years he’d heard nothing but tales of her grandeur, bravery and prowess.
His father, chief Stomnall, had made it abundantly clear she was meant for Reid. But it was ultimately her choice, and none could blame Will if she chose him.
The village was just begging to stir and Will could only look around with pride. Each building was crafted and carved by their ancestors. The roads had recently been covered in rock chips to prevent them for turning to mud in the torrential rain.
Will walked through the center square with his head held high and shoulders squared.
Sitting proudly at the top of knoll, staring down at the village like a guardian deity was his home.
The only two leveled, multi-roomed house on the whole island. The doorway was ornately carved and the roof shingled with the finest shale. Even the stone steps leading up to the front door had been carved and decorated.
Pushing the door open with ease Will was welcomed into the home by a blazing hearth and a table full of cooked meats, fresh bread and some vegetables.
Closing the door behind himself Will returned to his room and changed into his formal guard attire before returning to the feast laid out by the families four servants.
It was clear his father had already eaten and left for his chief duties. His mother was still asleep. Will had no doubt Reid was laid up in bed with a chest rattling cough because of the rain.
Eating as much as he desire before leaving the hut and heading for the training grounds.
The training grounds were one of the best maintained and expensive building in the entire village. An area covered with a metal dome structure allowing the onlookers to see in but keeping them safe from any flying objects. Although accidents still happened.
The lower ranking guard members were already present and prepared for the days work. Rain collected on their armor and dripped down, lightening flashed and shone against the mirror surface of their armor.
“Line up!” Will bellowed.
Quickly and practicedly they formed four rows, five wide.
Will smiled, their uniformity and practice would surely impress the powerful Hellan clan.
“This evening we’ll be having some very important guests, the Hellan clan chief, his daughter, and the dragon guard will be paying our little island a visit. There are talks of a potential engagement to either Reid or I. It goes without saying that if or clans join together than we’d be afford dragons of our own. Ensuring our place as one of the most powerful force of the archipelago. Tonight be at the top of your game, we’ve got one chance to make a good impression. Now on to patrols” Will said and went on to assign patrols.
As the lower ranking guards dissipated Will called out to Nelson and Garrett. “I want you two to scour the island, anything suspicious or potential threats. This evening must go perfectly. The Hallen clan are an elite warrior clan, if we were caught off guard while they’re our guests, it would mean the greatest embarrassment. I want everything checked and double checked” Will ordered.
Garrett gave him a lopsided smile, “No worries, we’ll make sure everything’s in order” He assured while Nelson held a serious expression, nodding in agreement.
Once the two had disappeared from the arena did Will let out a sigh. “Worried?” came a deep, gravelly voice. Will turned to look up at Sam who’d lingered behind. “No just excited, these people are legends and if our clans join then we’ll lifted to the same status” Will said with a barest hint of a grin.
Sam nodded, “The witch is part of the Hellan clan isn’t she?” Sam said as both a statement and a question.
“She is, I hope she’s as powerful as the stories say” Will replied.
“Yea, just don’t get your hopes up, those stories have a tendency to be exaggerations” Sam eased.
“Would you care for a wager?” Will said.
“What kind?” Sam asked, his interest piqued.
“10 gold peics if she’s greater than the stories, 10 silver peics if shes as the stories say, 10 bronze peics if shes nothing as the stories describe” Will offered.
Sam let out a hearty laugh, “10 gold peics? Thats a hefty sum, but sure, I’ll agree to that” he said and they shook hands, sealing the deal.
“Anyway, I’d like you to supervise the others, I’ve preparations to arrange” Will ordered and left the training arena.
Will decided to meander through the village before going to the Feast Hall to see the decorations.
All his people were bustling about, setting up colorful, woven cloth streamers along the houses and crisscrossing above the main street. Large tubs of imported and fragrant flowers were set out intermittently and vendors worked hurriedly to bake fresh goods, polish their wares, or rushed to attain more. Setting up their stalls and shops to be picturesque and eye catching.
The streets were being cleaned by servants with bristled long handled brushes.
All was going according to plan.
Will turned on his heel and headed to the Feast Hall. A towering building built into the belly of the cliff that hung over the little village. The hundred stone steps leading to massive wooden doors carved with the story of each chief, a symbolism of how each chief had laid the foundations for their people, how their journey shaped the future. The doors were made of the original wood from when his ancestors had first started construction.
From then the thick wood had been carved throughout the years, the story of their people imprinted for the world to see.
On each side of the doors were the patron god and goddess of the village. Isa, the goddess of war, child birth and victory. Then Nalen, her husband, the god of hope, growth and agriculture.
Will recalled when he was a child, staring up at those statues and feeling a deep sense of kinship from the stone guardians. He felt as if they were his own parents, everyones parents. Watching their village like a watchful mother and father might watch their child at play, to assure no harm came their way.
A sense of peace washed over Will as he passed by their carved legs and entered the hall. A great stone cavern, the ceiling crisscrossed with wooden beams to support the rock above them. The center of the room was occupied by rows of long tables occasionally interrupted by a fire pit.
At the very back of that stone cathedral was a raised dias, a single long table and individual padded seats. One for each of his family members. Even Lindsay who no longer lived on the island.
The hall was thrumming with bustling servants and slaves. Standing on towering laadders as they strung colorful streamers and flower garlands. Kneeling on the hard stone floor, scrubbing with bristled brushes in an effort to scrap away dirt and dust. Leaning over tables as they worked furiously to polish the top until it shone like a mirrors surface.
All intent and focused on their task and none noticing Will’s arrival.
Satisfied with their work, Will slipped to the side where hidden dual staircases lead to the kitchens below.
The room was massive, filled with clay stoves and wooden counters. Despite the size of the room it was still sweltering and the 10 cooks were soaked through with sweat.
Mildly worried Will strode to the very back of the room and pushed open the large double doors at the back. It had taken them days to dig through the back of the mountain to assure there was another easily accessible exit, it also helped to circulate the air in the kitchen and prevent fires.
Walking out the back and continuing down the carved stone staircase that wrapped around the cliff and ended at a sandy cove.
It was easier for the fishermen to deliver fish here than haul it through the village. The shipments usual came at dusk, assuring fresh fish.
In the mean time the cove was mostly abandoned, a place which Will often sought for silence and thought.
Excitement and nervousness roiled in his stomach and chest, while his heart felt as if it’d turn inside out.
“You are worried” came a familiar voice.
Annoyance pricked at Will.
“How is it that you always seem to find me?” Will asked with an edge to his voice.
“it’s my job” Sam replied, crossing his arms across his wide chest.
Will quelled his anger, “What is it? Any problems?” Will asked.
“Geral has finished his patrol, he’s taken to watching the preparations, his men are still patrolling the village” Sam informed.
“Alright, I’ll go and speak with him, thank you” Will said and headed up the stone staircase.
Sam following close behind.
They found Geral standing in the doorway to the Feast Hall. The warrior watched the slaves and servants with mild interest.
“Geral, how was your patrol?” Will asked with an easy smile.
“You keep slaves?” Geral asked, his expression neutral.
“Yes, many seek this island as a safe haven but only natives are allowed to be full citizens. If outsiders can pay the passage fee then they are servants with some rights, and their grandchildren can become full citizens. If they cannot then they become slaves with no rights and are not allowed to marry any native but their grandchildren can become servants and the sixth generation can become full citizens. Of course they’re all paid. Servants 5 peics of silver while slaves earn 5 peics of bronze once a moon cycle” Will explained.
Geral averted his gaze from the workers. “You treat them better than most clans do, but the Hellan clan doesn’t tolerate slavery or indentured servants. All our people were originally slaves who’ve escaped captivity, if our clans are to join then these slaves must be freed” Geral said gruffly.
“Geral, do you desire our clans to join?” Will asked, seeing a new side and potential ally in the warrior.
“Theoretically it is mutually beneficial to both our peoples, you’ve strong warriors, stable economy and lucrative trade routes, and the island is easily defended. However, the final decision, whether practical or illogical falls to Maria” Geral said firmly.
“If I may, are the legends true? Is she really a witch?” Will probed.
Geral stared at Will coldly, “Surely you realize you are not Maria’s only suitors, there are many other more suitable mates so I suggest that if you wish to succeed than stop being a child that easily believes fairy tales” Geral warned before setting off down the stone steps.
Will watched as the warrior left, his Grione had stood not far away.
Swinging up into it’s saddle and urging it to the sky.
“What an ass” came Garretts voice from behind Will.
Will sighed and turned to the other, seeing Garrett standing a few feet away with Nelson standing next to him.
“What’s your report?” Will asked with growing impatience.
“All is well, and the trading ship from the southern gem market has arrived at the docks, they’re waiting for you before letting anyone else purchase” Nelson said.
“Ah, the silk trader, and glass trader will be arriving soon enough, we spotted their ships on the horizon from Eagles Crest” Garrett added, referring to the highest peak on the island. Tall enough that one could see for miles. A hike to the top would’ve taken them a few hours.
Will quickly glance at the sky and to sudden realization that the sun would be setting soon. The Hellan clan was expected at moon rise.
Setting off at a brisk pace for the docks Will found a sizable crowd gathered around the boarding plank of the gem traders ship.
The crowd parted for Will and he boarded the ship.
“Will! What a pleasure and I think you’ll be pleased to see the selection I have!” Talor the owner of the ship greeted.
Will allowed himself to be guided below deck where tables of gems were laid out for viewing.
They came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some tumbled smooth while others maintained their natural form.
Some had been crafted into fine jewelry or ground into a fine powder.
Will examined each gem carefully.
Then his gaze feel to a tumbled light pink stone the size of his thumb.
Picking up the gem he held it carefully.
“Ahh, Rose Quartz, a very rare gem, it’s known as the love stone and is often exchanged between lovers, it’s very expensive because it’s magical properties assure the receiver would fall in love with the giver” Talor cooed.
“How much?” Will asked.
“50 gold peics” Talor said without hesitation.
“30 gold peics” Will haggled.
“This is a very fine piece, it cost me an arm and a leg, I’m giving you a discount since your family has always been such good customers” Talor said.
Will thought for a moment, “40 gold peics” he relented.
Talor sighed, “very well” he acquiesced.
Will smiled and handed Talor the agreed upon amount.
“will that be all your purchasing today?” Talor asked.
“yes, that will be all, have a nice day” Will said and left the ship. No sooner had he stepped off the boat when people swarmed upon the vessel.
Casting a quick glance skyward he saw the sun just barely resting on the horizon. Only a few more hours before the Hellans arrived.
Will wandered through the village and saw all decorations had been hung and everything was ready for their guests.
Holding the rose quartz stone loosely in his hand, running his fingers over the smooth surface.
He ended up at the tanner and paid 10 piecs of bronze for a three foot long strip of fine brown leather.
With both purchases in his pocket Will headed toward the cove.
Luckily low tide was in, making his purpose easier. Walking along the beach he scanned the ground for unbroken seashells.
Once he was satisfied with what he’d gathered then Will settled on a large flat rock and begun tying the leather strip around the shells and using the smooth rose quartz as a center piece.
Once Will had finished dusk had settled over the island, it was only a few more hours until the Hellan clan arrived.
Will pocketed the necklace and returned to his home. Having a quick bath and giving his armor a quick polish before setting off for the Feast Hall.
There he met his father, Reid and his mother. Will fell into line beside his mother. “You’ve been busy today” she said lightly.
“We’ve important guests arriving soon” Will replied, trying to hide his excitement.
The festivities wouldn’t start till their guests had arrived. A simple courtesy afforded to very few.
Geral and his guard were seated just below the dais. Every so often Will would cast a glance in their direction.
Hours passed yet no messenger came.
Finally, when the moon was at it’s peak in the sky did Will lose his patience. Standing abruptly from the table he called out to his friends. “Sam, Garrett, Nelson, we’re going to the Eagles Crest to keep watch” his voice bellowed commandingly throughout the hall.
Throwing open the wooden doors and marching down the stairs, Will snatched an unlit torch from one of the supply sheds, using one of the burning braziers seated near the stone walk way he lit the torch then set off on the worn path that lead to Eagles Crest.
The journey to Eagles Crest was dangerous enough during the day, the path was steep and rocky, in some places the traveler even had to climb vertical slopes.
Yet Will was determined. His companions have long since known that once Will sets his mind to a task there is no deterring him.
Only once the moon had set and with that single dark hour in which neither the sun nor the moon hung in the sky did they reach Eagles Crest.