It was still early, the rays from the sunrise reflecting off autumn leaves that left areas shimmering in white and orange light just above the morning mist. An old forest with only a few small saplings just visible behind ancient ancestral trees that towered beyond sight towards the sky, covered in green moss that glistened from the water droplets that coated it. The place was quiet apart from the rustling of small creatures wading their way through the fallen leaves in search for something to eat.
Unable to see the small rats and wood mice that roamed the forest, Rendall strode through the white haze covering the boy’s legs. Rendall’s mother always told him to stay clear of the forest past the towering oak trees whose trunks spanned three meters, the trees that he had passed over an hour ago. The forest lost its name many centuries ago but it was rumoured that it held horrors that would ensure men and women never return to where they came from. One such horror was the wild wolves, growing to six feet tall while on all fours, hides as hard as steel and teeth that would crush a skull like he would bite into an apple.
Descriptions of the beasts were at least exaggerated, Rendall thought. No one had ever seen a wolf and if the stories were true, you would never know that one came near as they were as silent as the night while stalking prey and they were likely the prey themselves.
His mother meant to scare Rendall with the stories. But they only fuelled his curiosity for adventure to one day meet one. Yet of all his favourite stories were the ancient race of men known as the Belldar. They appeared human with only a few subtle differences. Their eyes were often a deep silver or gold that would reflect light giving them sharper vision but also made them discernible in a crowd. They also had a mark on the back of their neck that would represent an animal that they bonded with, though rarely were the young identified as one of the race as the mark would only appear after they had gone through the bonding. Humans hated the Belldars’ ability to live long lives. Lives that would span hundreds of years before even the marks of age could be seen.
With a deep love of nature and fairness the Belldar ruled for centuries with peace and prosperity, but as time passed descent grew amongst fractions of men that lusted for their power. As the stories went, rebels gathered in secret gatherings, with followers and fanatics flocking to their cause. With numbers too many to count on their side the world dissented into war, the last war many call it, as nothing has been seen of its like since. Hundreds of thousands died, cities were destroyed and forests burnt to ash.
After years of conflict, men eventually overwhelmed the Belldar, the number of humans too much for them. Many went into hiding, exile or were just killed on sight. Death would have been better for the ones that survived as their bonded animals were hunted and killed. The loss of their animal companion drove them into madness which was said to birth some of the most feared warlords known in history.
The war against the Belldar was cruel and Rendall wondered if the story fell into legend and not history because his forbearers tried to hide the atrocities they committed.
Rendall stopped and surveyed the woodland, grimacing at the thought of the destruction. Although it was meant to be a story, the boy stared at statues of kings and old towers found in the depths of the ancient forests. He felt a kinship with the lost race, either through the love of the tales of something else that he was never quite sure how to place. What’s more is the young boy hated the celebrations of murder that took place when stories were told, and when they were he was often found staring at his silver eyes in the reflections of water wishing for revenge.
He felt at peace in the woods no matter the stories or warnings, it was untouched by human hands and at this time in the morning, all that could be heard was the songs of the sparrows that would wake up the slumbering animals, the rustling of leaves masking their sneaking around. Rendall had woke early, leaving before the sun rose, off into the woods with his bow, a small bag of rations and a knife in search for some wild mushrooms that would spring up overnight when the conditions were just right. The snow-white caps would circle one another as they spread their fungi in a perfect ring. Elders would often tease the children that fairies would come and lay them so aptly named fairy rings.
Roaming the woods he became entranced with the solitude and tranquillity of nature. As he walked, the mist parted around him and always could not help shaking the feeling that he thought it was strange not seeing the bottom half of his body. Sweeping his hands through he pretended to harness magic when the mist would wrap around his hands for a moment before falling away.
Rendall continued to walk through the woods exploring new places so much so he had lost the sense of time. Hours had passed since he had left this morning and had got a bag brimming with white-capped mushrooms and a few other roots and plants that his mother would use. Rendall smiled to himself and leant up against a tree to take a bite into a red apple that he had swiped from the table before leaving that morning. It was juicy, causing trickles of the sugary water to fall down the side of his mouth that he wiped off with the scruff of his plain dirt white sleeve.
Smiling to himself he thought it would be the start of a good day, yet as he stood for moments longer something did not feel right. He looked around inspecting each and every direction briefly but intently, yet all he saw was the moss-covered trees and a small herd of deer in the distance bounding over the rotting remains of branches and logs that littered the ground. Scrunching his face up the boy could not shake his gut feeling, a sense of danger. With his keen hearing and the lack of other noises he listened intently. After years of practice, Rendall had a knack of locking onto sounds in the distance and filtering through each noise. Hearing bird songs, a light breeze pulling up clumps of leaves and the sounds of small feet running under and above the group in search for food. Blocking each noise out one at a time there were the faintest screams of a woman in the distance.
Taking a moment to work out what it was Rendall’s heart dropped. While far away from home, his was the closest for miles and the roads or paths nearby were rarely used, even more so this time of day. Hoping he was wrong Rendall remembered hearing about the bandit raids from his parent’s whispers at night when they thought he was asleep. The destruction they left in their wake found people penniless and dead next to their burnt shell of a home. When news had spread his father started to sleep with an old rusted sword by the bed with his bow that looked like it would snap after its next shot by the door in a bundled next to a quiver of arrows. His father had no skill with a blade and prayed he would never have to use it, although it bought him and his mother a sense of safety. The city guard did nothing, rarely they came out of the castle grounds as they felt going into the wilds was beneath them and they hated the idea of an easy posting. It left men and women to provide their own protection, often resulting in their deaths.
The blood drained from Rendall’s face, his rose-red checks as a result of the morning chill turned into white blankets giving him the appearance of a ghost. Nothing else in the world mattered, he dropped his bag of mushrooms and ran.
The mist parted behind him, his footsteps were flawless. A childhood in the woods brought him up to be at one with nature. He knew every tree, bush, moss-covered rock and rabbit hole. Rendall tried to focus on telling himself he was overreacting and there was nothing to worry about, but everything was a blur and it felt impossible for him to arrange coherent thoughts. His brain disconnected from his body and guided him home with one goal, to save his parents.
After fifteen minutes, Rendall had run hard through the woods, barely panting and as he got closer. The adrenaline in his body overwhelming him. Closer the boy got, his mother’s screams of pain rippled through the trees causing a flock of birds to take flight, escaping from danger. As the woman’s scream slowly died noises of pain and anger were heard in its place. A voice that was low and gruff giving out a pained yell, his father, who seemed like he would part of heavens in his agony.
Rendall stopped running for a moment, the trees had begun to come less packed and he wanted to orientate himself to the noises once more, the slight hope that maybe he had gone the wrong way. Standing there for several moments it was completely quiet, neither a women’s nor man’s screams could be heard. With a face that looked void of a soul, his eyes stared in the distance a cold determination grew inside Rendall, putting all his focus in getting to his family and though it seemed impossible, he ran faster. Minutes and meters later and Rendall began to get the faint scent of burnt wood, its stuffy smell was devoid of fresh air making every breath a harder task.
Ignoring the smoke that was rapidly building in his lungs, Rendall’s pace evermore increasing, he briefly recognised that he was not even panting. He felt supernatural. His senses heightened, detecting the movement of wildlife behind him, the sound of a bird’s wings and his speed something else. He was sparing no thought about where these abilities came from, but was using them.
Not long after, the boy stopped at the clearing to his family home. Bandits armed with crossbows, knives and dirt-covered swords wearing rough leather tunics, stained with dried blood, all surrounded Rendall’s family home. They weren’t anything special, just your local sweaty, dirty thugs with weapons and as the boy appraised them Rendall knew he could easily take a few down even if he were half their size and less than half their age at only fourteen. He had no combat experience, yet having dreams of being a warrior, he was an excellent shot with a bow. Having honed his talent from an early age he was able to take down a bird from three hundred paces with relative ease. Also, with his heightened senses that were overwhelming him, he felt that he could easily double that number.
He saw his father bound by the hands and feet with a gag in his mouth to muffle any further noise. These thugs seemed to be worried about drawing attention, though from who was questionable this far away from any village or town. Rendall’s father saw him in the clearing stood just behind a tree unmoving, his eyes widened in recognition as Rendall met his gaze. His father shook his head slowly not to draw attention to him or Rendall, the meaning clear enough to him to not do anything and run.
Rendall, ignoring the message from his father, slowly scanned the area seeing his mother lying in the mud outside their cottage, slightly curled up trying to protect her stomach and head from further beatings. Catching glimpses of her features, her golden hair was covered in mud, her eyes swollen together and her left cheek was red raw from the thrashing that the thugs had given her, leaving blood pouring down from a gash on her head. One of the bandits, a rough stocky man with scars down his neck, grabbed her and dragged by her hair in through to the cottage door. She kicked and screamed, fighting with every inch of her strength but it was no use. She had little fight left yet the man showed no remorse as she resisted, pulling her hair with great force and striking her with his knee leaving a new mark or cut every time. Any courage Rendall felt had gone, he looked on at the scene in front of him in horror, his heart broken. Rendall fell to his knees ignoring the pain of the rock that cut open his shin. Eyes going glassy, the young boy could not hold it in any further, he wept.
Tears were flowing uncontrollably down his face through muffled noises and though he wanted to help, to do something, that did not prevent the stocky man dragging his mother into the house where the door was closed behind them. Another muscled bandit with fresh red blood on his knuckles held his father down while another scrawny bandit kicked him with wild abandonment laughing as he did, his eyes crazed in joy. His father’s cry of pain was earth-shattering even with the gag in his mouth. Rendall was surprised that his father could comprehend what was going as his broken bones and his blood ridden face made him no longer look like a man, but a mangled corpse. The sights were overwhelming and, in Rendall’s shame, drew his gaze away and stared into the void of the floor.
Guilt overcame Rendall. He wanted to help his parents, they wouldn’t hesitate to help him, but he couldn’t even raise his head. The screams of pain and the laughs of the bandits where horror enough and he hoped he was still dreaming. Minutes passed yet try all he might Rendall was unable to raise his head, his arms or his legs they were dead weight. His brain had seemed to have disconnected from the nervous system that connects to his muscles, not allowing him to move, but to make him listen to every moment of horror.
Rendall went within himself and blocked out the sounds of pain and agony, he closed his eyes, and on the count of three took in a deep breath. The world went silent as he let the breath out and with it his fear. He repeated it three more times, each time coming back to himself with a sense of purpose as he lifted his head. There was no reprieve from the sights that befell him though as the last part of his father’s unmoving legs being dragged through the doorway, trailed by a line of blood. Rendall wondered if his father was even alive, though he would never know.
As Rendall watched his parents being barred inside the house, he saw two of the bandits light a torch and slowly walk towards the house. A grimace on their face like they were regretting what was to come. They would abuse and steal but would hesitate at carrying out the murder. An older bandit with a greying bread and long greasy hair, wearing a full suit of leather armour and a sword that looks like it had never been used walked up to the front door and locked it. He threw the key into a brush next to the door.
He yelled to his men, “Burn it boys!”
The bandits looked around at one another, each not sure they could kill. Rendall wondered if the men had just thought that they were going to beat some people for a little bit of fun and money. The indecision was evident on their faces as they looked around at one another. The self-proclaimed bearded leader scowled at them, walked up to one of his men and hit him straight to the jaw. The man fell straight to the floor as the other men looked on in shock.
Rendall noticed the bandits’ indecisiveness and couldn’t understand what they had done, what had he or his parents done to deserve this. He screamed inside himself and willed himself to do something.
Rendall screamed, “No!”
The old leader of the band looked Rendall dead into the eyes and smiled. He bellowed to his men, “Time to get paid boys. Kill him!”
The bandits dropped the torches and began to make their way towards Rendall, seemingly now okay at the prospect of murder. Looking at Rendall and with a smile, the leader picked up a torch, looked back at the boy and threw it onto the dry thatched roof.
The roof immediately caught alight, the soaring flames piercing the sky. The weather was dry, there had been no rain in over a week and the sun had been relentless since. It swarmed over the roof in seconds. There was nothing that could be done that would save his home, but perhaps his parents could still get out with his help.
With a scream of defiance, Rendall sprinted directly towards the house. The men making their way towards him were shocked momentarily, the boy with a promise of death would run towards them rather than bolt in the other direction. Not pausing long the bandits charged towards the boy. The moment’s confusion worked to the boy’s advantage as the bandits staggered allowing Rendall to weave in and out of the bandits that sprinted towards him with ease. They were slow and clumsy, able to push them off balance, even managing to stab one in the leg with the rusty old knife that Rendall had holstered around his thigh that he’d usually use to skin animals. The bandit who received the wound fell onto the floor in pain, but Rendall did not let up. He continued forward and made it to the door with only seconds to help his parents.
The crackle of flames roared, peeking through the crack in the door a shower of fire began to litter the floor from the roof. Rendall had little time to act as the bandits were getting closer every second. Ramming into the door like a bull expecting it to fall off its hinges as his father hadn’t fixed the weakening springs that had occurred over the months. Despite the loud crash that echoed from the door when the boy hit the oak door it did not break, and before the boy could try again, the pillar holding up the roof collapsed. Rendall would not forget the screams of his mother and the vacant gaze of his father that he saw before any hope of saving them was snuffed out. Not wanting to give up, he was given little choice as a crossbow bolt landed with a thud just inches from his head.
The boy fought at the idea of leaving them, but having no other choice in the sight of imminent death he ran. Having no plan but thought if he could lose the bandits quickly or just take them far enough away he could come back to get his parents. He sprinted back into the woods, not the way he came. Only one route was open to him, a route leading towards the cliffs. Through the small wooded area, the cliff edges overlooked the rapids that claimed many men and animals in its time that had a sharp fall immediately after exiting a row of trees. Not wanting to end up that far, Rendall hoped he would lose them well before arriving at the cliff edge or else it was all over.
Tears continued to pour down his face but that was not why his eyes were sore, no, the thick black smoke burnt into him, blinding him. Trying to get a bearing on the direction to run, arrows and bolts continued to land only a few paces from his feet. The bandits seemed to have not bothered to get close to him but instead tried ending the boy from afar. Luckily the men were poor shots which gave Rendall the moment he needed to launch into a sprint.
Still unable to see, he made it back to the clearing of the woods in what only seemed moments. With the bandits in pursuit he weaved in and out of the trees to hinder their aim, but this slowed Rendall, and some bandits had dropped their crossbows now to catch up to him with swords raised. Knowing every second was precious, Rendall ran on hoping that he was able to evade them quickly so that he could get back to save his parents before they were burnt alive.
Rubbing his eyes, he tripped over a hidden tree root causing him to fall onto his face. Crying out in pain, Rendall hit the floor and looked up to see an arrow protruding from the tree above him, seemingly falling had saved his life. Distressed, the heightened senses he possessed early on his way to his home had left him now, he was a child, terrified and running for his life.
Every step he took the bandits closed in on him, he wasn’t losing them, and time was running out. With one final push, Rendall surged on, the pain of seeing his parents beaten and being burnt alive was enough to block out the pain in his leg that was now covered in blood and dirt.
Despite his best efforts Rendall approached the cliff edge with the river eighty feet at the bottom. Protruding from the water were large boulders in all shapes, some even coned which would result in immediate death. If lucky enough to land in the water the fast-moving river would allow little chance that anyone could hold onto anything and would certainly result in drowning. The waters were deep, but Rendall mused that it would be better and a quicker death if it was shallow.
While mulling over the best way to die, Rendall turned to see the bandits pull up only a few steps away, all laughing as they surrounded him.
“We’ve got him now lads, shame we had to end those worthless peasants so fast. We could have had some more fun,” the bearded leader of the group said as he fixed his smile on Rendall who was now quivering in fear and had tears streaking down his face.
The bandits formed a semicircle around Rendall and began to close in on him. He had nowhere else to go. A few of the bandits sheath their mauls and knives having finally caught him.
A bandit wearing a torn shirt, no doubt ripped by his parents, glared at the Rendall and shouted, “Jump boy, save us the trouble.”
Rendall had failed his parents. Berating himself for not fighting back when the chance presented itself, both he and his parents would die, all for nothing. Dying did not bother him, it was the fact that no one could ever avenge his family’s death. These men would do as they wish while no one challenged their authority, and yet to make matters worse it seemed someone was paying them to remove him and his parents.
Rendall only spared a moment to wonder who would send out a group to commit such evil though with no names to mind and little time to dwell on it he moved his gaze over towards the cliff edge. The river full of sharp rocks, shallow areas and fast currents looked ready to swallow him. It would be unlikely he’ll survive the fall let alone make it out of the river alive.
Not sparing another second on the thought Rendall lunged into the air over the side of the cliff. He fell into the pit of death.
The bandits looked at one another in shock, none of them thought the boy would have jumped, but all seemed happy with the result as none of them would have the blood of a child on their conscience. None of them, no matter what they had done, really wanted to do it. A middle-aged bandit with scratches down his arm from the woman looked over the edge as Rendall’s body hit the water.
With a loud crack, the body hit the surface and was not seen again.
The bandits walked away, not making any contact with one another till they set up camp for the evening while heading back to the city.
“Robbing and beating I can do, though this just feels wrong. We killed a boy and his family.” Said one of the bandits while poking at the fire they had made with a stick he had found by his feet.
“Shut it Grim, we’re getting paid well and it’s done now like it or not.” The bandit leader replied sneering at the man as he replied.
The men had always followed the leader, he had not steered them wrong with plenty of coins and work coming their ways over the years. That statement was enough to quell any more dissent amongst the men falling into idle small talk for the rest of the evening.
Another day past before the men reached the city of Tocking Vale. A small city residence of the King who ruled with a iron grip. Surrounded by a grey stone outer wall, that within held houses that looked like they had seen better days, though improved towards the King’s Keep which towered over the city with an inner wall around its stables, military training area and the keep itself. Clearly a sight of war.
As the group approached, the leader branched off. The sun was dipping in the sky and they had just made it in time to meet their employer that evening. He headed off the road towards the training area outside the walls to the east of the city. No one usually came out here, especially at night. The guards would arrest anyone on site for trespassing yet beyond that were the reported bandit sightings in the wood would make anyone question their intentions.
Being one of those bandits that caused the distress the man was not worried, standing tall as he walked and saw the black-cloaked figure in front of him.
He could discern no features of the man other than he was of an average height of around five feet nine inches which was much taller than himself, being considered quite short he was a head shorter than the man in front of him.
Being put off by not being able to see the man the bandit leader stood there for a second before getting the courage to speak to the man in a masked confidence voice.
“It’s done. the boy and his family are dead.”
Speaking with malice in his voice the cloaked figure replied, “Were there any witnesses?”
“And the proof?”
Puzzled at what proof the man was to provide as evidence to the murder he replied, “The boy saw his death at the bottom of a cliff, the body was not recoverable. The parents burnt alive in their home, but I brought the family ring I took from the mother’s corpse.”
He went to dig out the ring from his pocket. He had hoped to keep it as it would certainly sell for a pretty penny. The gold of the ring looked like roots twisting together in a circle, while on the top stood two rubies and a small diamond.
He had wondered how the dead pair were able to afford such an item but didn’t dwell on the question for long before prying it off their charred remains.
Before the bandit pulled the ring out the man in front of him cut in.
“No need to show me the ring. Take your money and go, speak of this to no one and if they aren’t dead you’ll be next.”
The cloaked figure turned on his heels after his words, exiting the confined space of the woodland. The bandit just stood there, watching as the mysterious figure walked away.