Chapter One - The Arrival
Kasall was little more than a baby when his mother sold him to a nearby inn to work, and remembered little of his mother and less of his father. His mother had been only a girl when she gave birth to him, and after his birth his father left to find work on the ivory shore, which lay on the other end of the kingdom of Olander, the place they called home. Before leaving, Kasall’s father promised that he would return when he had found the gold and courage to raise the boy, but that day had yet to come. When the stresses of raising the boy became too much, his mother sold him to the Honeysuckle Inn in exchange for a small portion of gold, and a promise that the boy would be given care. So far, the exchange had been honoured.
On this day, Kasall found himself scouring the nearby hills and forests for fallen trees. The owners of the inn preferred trees that had been down for a long time for their fires, believing the more dead and decayed wood to burn longer and hotter than the freshly cut. This often meant, however, travelling great distances to find the best wood for the inn.
Kasall walked north until the sun was directly above him and the shadows around him receded and began to bleed in the other direction. Still, he found no wood and began to wonder if this was a futile effort.
Normally Jere, the innkeeper, wouldn’t be this particular in the nature of the wood, but the letter he had received from the Mordis inn to the south warned him of an incoming party.
“A large group has just come,” it warned. “A large group with swords and bows, and the type of men that know how to use them.”
That was all Jere knew of the oncoming group. From this letter, he’d come to expect their arrival in two days, and sent Kasall and a few of the other boys to get the best wood to keep the swords at bay.
He loved the forest and often found himself exploring it when he wasn’t working. There was a peak to the west that he was attached to, often returning to it and staring into the thicker forest that lay beyond it. Once when he was younger Jere’s wife Catherine had taken him to that hill and explained that nothing in the thicker area had been explored. It was a mystery he wished he could solve.
It was a summer day and the sun continued to beat onto Kasall’s neck. He stood at an alcove in the forest. Before him was a deep layer of leaves, a menagerie of red, stretching as far as the eye could see. A cover, he thought, for the decaying masses that lay beneath them.
He walked through the leaves in zig zags, keeping his feet low to the ground in hopes of kicking a stump or a log: something to indicate that his venture wasn’t in vain. He’d begun to give up when his foot made contact with something solid, and brought him tumbling down.
“I’ve found something!” he called out to the small group of men who had come with him.
One, Lor, had been put in charge of pulling the cart. He was the first to respond, wheeling his shambling wagon as near to Kasall’s voice as he could. Lor was a buxom man who had also been sent to the inn. He was quickly taken on as a cook. Having access to the kitchen at all hours had many effects on Lor, causing his body to be rounded and his cheeks perpetually rosy. Jere, however, sacrificed the wine and rolls Lor would take, stating that the quality of his cooking made up for it.
The other man was a boy only slightly older than Kasall. He wielded the axe Jere had given him when assigning him to the job, ready to chop whatever wood Kasall had found. Simon was his name, though he didn’t like to hear people use it. Instead, he asked people to call him Sim, an odd adjustment to the name, but one that pleased him greatly.
As the two approached Kasall, he began to wipe the leaves off his failed footing to see what he’d found. It was a shield. The markings of the king were emblazoned on it, the paint chipped and frayed, but still the king’s mark was clear: a large black paw atop a grey cross with four fields of green behind it. The mark of king family Norsom, a relatively new dynasty ruling Olander. Beneath this shield was the remnants of an arm, unfortunately removed from its owner.
“Another one?” Sim joked. He was five years older than Kasall. “How many bodies do you think are left to find in these woods?”
A battle had happened near the inn a few years after Kasall arrived. Though the battle was devastating for many, Jere managed to profit from it as the members of the king’s army were often found in the inn. Jere would joke with patrons that his wine was so good it helped to win a battle.
Though it was somewhat common to see vague remains of the battle, Kasall wasn’t yet used to it. Sim would joke about it, but Kasall found himself wondering with each hand or boot what the life was like for the person who wore it – if they were noble, or a peasant like him or if the distinction was even a necessary one.
Lor took the shield off of the severed arm and carried it with him as they turned around and began to trek back to the inn. As he pulled the cart, he used the shield jokingly, swatting back low hanging branches and twigs with it. A squirrel sat on a nearby stump and Lor pretended to be jousting as he pulled the cart past it. Shortly after, they arrived at the inn.
Jere and his wife Catherine were waiting outside for the group to return. As they approached, Kasall noticed that they were holding a basket of pastries and both smiled fondly at the troupe.
“Happy birthday, Kasall!” They cried out to him. Kasall quickly figured this was why Jere hadn’t gone with them – Catherine often tended to the more physical things at the inn as Jere was more fit to cook and eat.
“We brought out a new barrel of wine to celebrate,” Catherine called over to him. She was a bit taller than him, though he wasn’t fully grown. She was shorter than both Sim and Lor, but she was as strong as any of them. She was beautiful, too, more than could be said for any of the men in the inn. Her hair was red and vibrant, and her face was always kind.
Kasall knew it likely wasn’t his true birthday – his mother had never been kind enough to tell him his true birthday, and naturally he had been too young to document it – but every year Jere and Catherine held a dinner for him like this. It was a tradition for Jere to cook the food himself, since he otherwise outsourced his cooking to Lor. This year, however, was the first where a barrel of wine was included.
“I figured you’re old enough to have some of it now,” Jere joked, referring to the wine. They were escorted inside and sat down at the banquet table.
Hiding at the end of the table was Jere and Catherine’s only child, Alida. She was about Kasall’s age, but generally seemed uncomfortable around Lor and Sim. On some nights, though, she would come and visit Kasall on his time off. Others rarely saw her around the inn, but Kasall never had that issue. Alida made up the beds and decorated rooms for Jere and Catherine.
The inn was a modest place, the main room consisted of a long banquet table and a small bar that served mead and wine to the guests of the inn. Off of the main hall was a few small rooms for guests, and a lower floor in which those working at the inn stayed.
Alida took after her mother. She was kind, and acutely wise about the world she’d seen from behind the desk of the inn. She, and everyone at Honeysuckle had seen nearly everything come through their doors, especially during the month when the old battled happened.
Jere and Catherine brought out a large, roasted turkey and some cooked onions and potatoes. They served it to everyone sitting at the table and before sitting down, Jere offered everyone some wine. For the first time it was also offered to Kasall and Alida. When Alida was offered some, she coyly smiled and quickly tried to hide it before anyone else noticed. Kasall noticed and exchanged a similar smile.
“Drink up, Kasall, it’s about time you’re allowed to,” Lor joked. The shield they found was slung across his back, and as he passed him, Jere asked about it.
“Found an actual token this time?”
“I did, actually,” Kasall chimed in. “I tripped over it.”
Jere investigated it closely. Before deciding to run the inn, he’d been a guard within the nearby city of Shalonsbury. Shalonsbury is a half a continent from the ruling city of Dawnsend but the guards there still use shields emblazoned with the king’s crest. Jere was very familiar with the armour.
“Used to have one just like it,” he reminisced. “This shield and some pretty leather armour.” As he talked, Catherine caressed his hand, looking somewhat uncomfortable with the topic. Kasall noticed that Alida was directing her attention to her food instead of her father’s story, which seemed to be gripping Lor and Sim. Surprisingly, this was the first time Kasall had truly heard him reflecting on his days in service.
“This one’s in surprisingly good condition.” Jere noticed. “No wounds on it. The poor bastard that had this mustn’t have known how to use it.” This got a large, chesty laugh out of Lor and Sim. Catherine and Alida continued to look uncomfortable.
“These potatoes are great, Jere,” Catherine said to him, unsuccessfully trying to change the subject.
“I remember the time I had to use my shield. Back before Gerod was king, he was squiring in Shalonsbury. Got to escort him one day down to the mill and back. Some bastard jumped out from the bushes. I drew my sword faster than I ever have, blocked one swipe from him and lunged my sword clean into his skull.” He looked off fondly into the lit fire on the hearth.
Lor and Sim smiled at the story, surely having heard it a number of times before, while sitting and drinking with the older innkeeper late at night. Catherine clearly knew the story also, ignoring the details and waiting for it to end. Alida didn’t react either. Kasall was impressed by the story, but wasn’t sure whether to believe it.
Jere stood up and took the shield over to the hearth. He moved a large horn off of it, and propped up the shield instead. Pleased with his work, he returned to his turkey.
As they finished their meals, the door to the inn swung open. A man with a greatsword slung across his back marched in. He was clad in strong, leather armour finely laced and fit to his body. He had a light beard and a bold head of greying hair. “We’ll be needing a few rooms tonight, friend,” he announced. “And some room in your stables for our horses”
“Of course. We’ve got three rooms with two beds each,” Jere offered.
“That should suffice. The rest will sleep outside, if that’s okay with you.”
“How many are there?”
“Enough, I hope,” the man promptly replied. He was charismatic and firm in his speech.
“Who are you, then?”
“I am Eirik. Staying inside with me will be my wife and child, as well as my brother. We will need the three rooms.”
Shortly after, the others were inside. There were lengthy introductions, while Eirik introduced his wife Lena to the crew of the inn. She was a tough woman without the sensual appeal of Catherine. She seemed defensive of her child, holding him relatively close to her. Kasall figured that the child was a bit younger than him. He looked as though he wanted to go forth and be friendly with Alida and Kasall, but instead was being clutched by Lena.
“This is Igor, our child.” Lena introduced him. The crew of the inn was professionally standing up to meet everyone. Lor and Sim stood to one side of Catherine and Jere while Alida held herself closer to Kasall.
Beside Eirik and Lena stood another tall man. “This is my brother, Inge. He is a good man.” He looked much like Eirik, but a bit shorter.
Expressing a kindness, Jere offered for the four of them to join their meal, pretending the leftover food was meant to be eaten now.
As the finished meal progressed, Inge sprung up conversation with Jere and Catherine. “We’ll only be here for the night. I’m sorry for the camp set up outside, they all have to sleep too.”
Kasall hadn’t looked outside yet and wondered how many men could possibly be out there waiting. He glanced over at Alida, who had a look of horror on her face as she stared at Inge.
After the group of strangers joined them, much of the talking was done by Sim, asking about the impressive sword that was slung across the man. “Who’d you kill to get that beauty?” He asked, jokingly.
“Nobody. It was my father’s, and his mother’s before that.” Eirik spoke few words, and returned quickly to his potatoes.
Kasall got up to peek out the window at the people outside. There were tents stretching across the forested field. He began to count, but quickly realized it was a hopeless act. When he returned to his chair, he noticed the shield on Inge’s back – it had a helmet on it that would only cover half a face, in front of a border of turquoise and black.
“Whose crest is that on your shield?”
“It is that of our family,” Inge spoke. “The Lindberg’s from Rainhome in the far south.”
Kasall didn’t know this family name, let alone where Rainhome was. No one had taught
him about geography or the ruling houses, he only knew of the Norsom family, of which King
Gerod was the leader.
As dinner wrapped up, Kasall noticed Eirik staring at the shield on the mantelpiece. When Jere and Lor began to clear the table, Kasall noticed Alida quickly slip away from the table and down to the basement. Sim kept discussing his dreams of battle and admiration for Eirik’s sword.
“We’ll be marching north again tomorrow at dawn, we’re always looking for more swords,” he told Sim. “Be ready at dawn and you can come.”
“Hang on,” Jere called out defensively. “You’ve come to my inn to poach my men?”
“No, just this one.”
“You’ll need to pay me something for him, sir.”
“What’s your price for giving one of your workers a life of adventure?” Eirik said patronizingly.
Jere sat down across from the man and stared into his eyes. With his shoulders squared, they were almost the same height while sitting down. “You’re going north to battle, clearly. I’ve seen what comes from battle for the common people, and what is going to happen won’t be helped by money. I ask for a few swords – One for me, one for Lor, hell, and one for Kasall. With these swords I promise that, if this war goes wrong, we will help in the battle.”
Kasall was thrilled at Jere’s consideration of him. He looked forward to dawning a sword for whatever may come to their inn.