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Caleb's Journey

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Chapter 2

The Past

Caleb rowed his boat homeward, the sweat from his effort glistening on his body, he reflected on how he had come to live on the isle. As a young noble he lived in Castle Hart with his mother, Serene, and his sister Mayja. “I still miss my father, slain in the service of the king.
He had served as a member of the Honor Guard, the most celebrated band of knights, perishing in the campaign that brought peace to the elves and tigans. He imagined himself joining their celebrated ranks. Caleb’s days in the family castle seemed so far away, some seven years removed from his present situation.

Lord Islooric, was good to me, like a second father, after mine perished. I tried to model myself after him, noble, bold, strong, but just. He watched over me like my father had watched over him, and saved his life.”

One night as the Hart family entertained that celebrated knight of the Honor Guard, Lord Islooric, they gathered around the fire in their dining hall and heard tale of a future conquest. Lord Islooric shared with them that he had earned the honor to command the Luminarch’s forces on an expedition to the recently discovered Cadre Island. Their king, the Luminarch had recently sent missionaries to the Isle, to tell them about the Way of the Light, and the Goddess, Uua. The natives failed to embrace this religion, instead they clung to their own beliefs. They attacked the missionaries, slaughtering most of the troupe.

Upon their return, the few remaining missionaries told their king of how they had not succeeded in their endeavor, but had some consolatory news for him regardless in that the island had great stores of gold. When he learned of this news, the monarch deemed it necessary to take the Isle by force. He gave a royal decree that the Honor Guard dispatch half its members, thirty knights, and their personal armies, to the island to subjugate the native people and avenge the murder of the peaceful men of religion. Caleb’s family spent the evening enrapt, as the knight wove a story of battle, honor, and riches. “Caleb, I want you to accompany me on this journey as my squire,” he confidently asked. “The king has selected me to lead his noble forces and I need a good lad to serve me well.”

My dreams would have come true, had I followed Islooric’s teachings. I would have become an Honor Knight for sure,” Caleb cursed aloud and stopped rowing for a moment. “I just couldn’t watch him lose.”

He continued his journey and his ruminations. “What excitement echoed throughout the Golden Realm when the king’s shipbuilders finally mastered the art of building craft capable of sailing beyond the shoreline and out into the open water. Every citizen waited for news of what lie beyond the land they knew. At first, smaller ships, captained by seasoned navigators braved the elements in search of new land. After months of searching they finally encountered an island several hundred miles away. That is how the missionaries came to know of the island. I heard they sought, and were granted, an audience with the king. At that audience they asked to be the first people allowed to journey to the island. They had the notion of spreading the word the Goddess, Uua, to the natives. Victor IV monarch assented, for peaceful relations with a new nation constituted his goal and he found it best to curry favor with the church.”

Caleb’s thoughts carried him several months forward, the time required to equip the king’s existing warships to sail out into the open sea. “I remember standing on the shore of the Vyjing Sea, watching the knights’ armies pile into the ships of war. What a fantastic time! The smell and sight of the horses, their shoes clomping on the stone streets, the sound of waves crashing on the shore, the sight of knights polishing their armor, squires loading supplies into ships, foot soldiers, hardened men of battle, entering the boats, one by one, and archers with quivers stocked and slung over their shoulders, marching into the seafaring vessels. While throngs of spectators and well wishers, as well as family of those about to embark on the voyage crowded the docks to see the spectacle of the first voyage of the royal navy embarking on a voyage of conquest. Filled with a sense of national pride some carried banners, others waved their flags, many sung songs, it had the feeling of a festival.”

In the mind of a young man it all foretold of battle and future conquest. “I thought the natives stood no chance, against even a portion of the might of my country, Skitheria, the Golden Realm. After all, hadn’t we conquered the other countries in the Battle of the Five Kingdoms and then put them under their rule? Over the course of several hundred years the other kingdoms and their customs and nobility had become integrated into those of the victor.”

How could I think of anything but success? On the world of Mithkre, amongst all of the countries and all of the races, Skitheria stood supreme, exceeding the lands of the dwares, elves, tigans, ogres, and gnolls in terms of size, scope, wealth, and might, combined. It stood as a beacon of enlightenment, progress, culture, and art for the other civilizations. Victor IV, had personally brokered the peace betwixt the elves and tigans by exerting his force of will. After tasting the bite of his armies, both of the warring factions accepted his terms of peace.”

With our main fleet still at sea, Lord Islooric had sent forth a scouting party who encountered a simple fishing village on the beaches of the island. They gave word of a village consisting of a cluster of thatched wooden huts with straw roofs, fire pits strewn about the shore, and five massive storage huts, presumably created for the stockpiling and warehousing of fish to sustain the natives in the event of a poor fishing season. Armed with this information Lord Islooric dispatched three warships and numerous troop transports led by Lord Kilgar. The transports filled with footmen and archers surely had the strength to secure the village and establish a proper base of operations on the beach. Lord Islooric told Lord Kilgar that his suspicion that the fishermen had not slaughtered the missionaries.”

In Lord Kilgar’s considered opinion, a fishing village offered little in the way of resistance to his force. He expected to conquer these indigenous “lesser” beings in no time. As he put it, their awe alone for what they were about to see might be sufficient for them to yield without much of a struggle. The scouts had reported that the village bustled with life and activity, yet when the Skitherian army landed, they saw no signs of any inhabitants. A quick search showed that their supplies remained, but it seemed like the people had vanished. Lord Kilgar ordered his men to begin making camp.

When the Skitherian army began busying themselves with unloading their supplies, the natives fell upon them! Arrows rained from the surrounding jungle and found their mark in many a soldier. Following closely behind that, native warriors, garbed in animal hides, their faces painted with different colors, came pouring out of the brush, some armed with swords, others with clubs. Shouting blood curdling screams, they quickly raced at their foes in an angry ambush! They caught the invaders unawares and in disarray, falling on them and attacking with a savage ferocity frequently found in those defending their homeland. Unbeknownst to the Skitherians, the five tribes that lived on the island tolerated each other at best, and that they frequently engaged in territorial encroachments, vying for supremacy. Yet, when they beheld the advancing fleet, they had sworn a hasty pact of mutual defense led by the leader of the Bear tribe, Turgo the Thunderclub.

The five barbarian armies cut a deep swath into the Skitherian host, reaching deep into the heart of their forces. So great was their onslaught that they nearly pushed the invaders back onto the beach before the Skitherians regrouped and began their counteroffensive. Archers took up positions on the boats and began firing at the barbarians, which helped slow their progress. Meanwhile, commanding officers ordered the footmen to close ranks and form into columns which they did with impressive alacrity and began marching forward in lockstep fashion, shields raised and protecting the man to their left, while thrusting their swords in unison. The barbarians had never witnessed such a tactic and had no idea how to counter attack with any degree of success.

Slowly and methodically, the soldiers began pushing back the advancing horde that had no option left but to reverse their advance in the face of such an organized and effective counteroffensive. Many barbarians succumbed to this precise onslaught and soon the Skitherians had forced their way back onto the beach, near the fishing encampment before the barbarians retreated back into the wilderness which caused the invaders to celebrate in a muted fashion, for they all knew that the real challenge had just begun.

As the Skitherians established their base of operations, the barbarians harried their efforts by launching probing attacks, hoping to find a weakness to exploit and to overrun the invaders. The Council of Five created by the five barbarian tribes and led by their respective chiefs, devoted their energies to coordinating their offensives. Despite their collective efforts, after that first day’s triumph, they failed to make any significant inroads into destroying or deterring the islands new and unwelcome inhabitants. Similarly, Lord Islooric and his advisors devised and attempted multiple military excursions designed to topple their foes, but no matter what attempts they made, and how many battles they lost or won, they lacked the resources and manpower to achieve a clear victory.

So it went for several months with neither side gaining a decisive advantage and both armies watching the casualty count climb. During that time, Lord Islooric had dispatched a courier back to the court of the Light King to report what had transpired and to request sufficient reinforcements to take the island. Months later the courier returned with news that Lord Samsuran, the Luminarch’s chief advisor and head of the Honor Guard refused the request to reinforce Lord Islooric, stating that Islooric had sufficient forces to conquer the island. Lord Samsuran, ever conservative and cautious, felt that the expedition had too high a cost in both manpower and money, weakening their defenses against the other races and depleting their coffers. Since Lord Islooric had yet to send any spoils back to the king, Lord Samsuran felt imminently justified in rendering his decision.

Such news had an immediate, negative impact on the morale of the troops under Lord Islooric’s command as they expected an answer in the affirmative and with it, the means to achieve victory. One night Lord Islooric summoned Caleb to his tent. “Caleb, I’m troubled by Lord Samsuran’s response. We’ve lost many lives during this campaign and our efforts to establish and develop a mine have been thwarted by the denizens of this island. Furthermore, our supplies have dwindled and we have no hope for additional help. We severely underestimated the size and strength of the native army as well as their tenacity and it has cost us dearly. Not that I care, but my reputation at court has diminished commensurate with the lack of success I have experienced on this campaign. I’ve spent many a night considering how best to swiftly change our fate here. On some nights I imagine various aggressive, frontal assaults on the tribes, but even when we have destroyed an encampment, it has little effect on them for they live such a simple life, taking what they need from the land. No sooner did we destroy to one of their settlements than a new one sprouts up elsewhere.”

My lord, I am truly sorry for your troubles. I thought we would have made quick work of these people,” Caleb glumly replied.

I thought so as well my squire. Their resiliency impresses me and they have proven themselves as worthy adversaries on the field of battle. Had we more troops or supplies though, I have no doubt that we would overcome them.”

What are we to do?” Caleb asked.

That is why I have summoned you here. I intend to challenge their leader to single combat to determine the outcome of this conflict.”

Single combat? Against a barbarian! Why, only nobles deserve such treatment! It’s an outrage to consider such a thing.”

Caleb, you are correct that such rules apply in Skitheria, but here, things are different. I see no other way to effect a quick and decisive outcome wherein we achieve victory. Moreover, if you only concerned yourself with the rules, you’d remember that squires never raise their voices to their lords.” Lord Islooric gently reminded him.

Caleb lowered his head as he humbly muttered, “I am sorry my lord. It’s just that I look at you as my father and I forget my place. I never want to see you in such a low state as having to engage a savage in single combat. Have you spoken with the other lords about this?”

No, I haven’t and I have no intention of seeking their approval for this. Tomorrow morning I shall dispatch a messenger to their camp to tender my offer and to await a reply which, given their hardy nature, I expect them to accept. They are a proud and hardy lot. My offer seems like just the sort of thing that would appeal to them. When they accept, then I’ll inform the other lords of my actions. I suspect the troops will approve, at which point the lords will have no choice but to follow that lead. Caleb, tomorrow we’ll see an end to this conflict and with a little luck and the help of Uua, a victory for Skitheria. Now, let’s dine together and talk about old times.”

So, they passed the evening speaking of Caleb’s family for whom Lord Islooric had a great affinity. Lord Islooric told Caleb of some of the campaigns upon which he and Caleb’s father had served, with the kind knight regaling Caleb with tales of his father’s heroics. They talked of Caleb’s mother and younger sister and the happy times the four of them spent at Castle Hart. Together, they spoke of Caleb’s future prospects upon their return. Though they talked for hours about a great number of things over an excellent meal of deer, roasted potatoes, and fresh vegetables, there was one subject upon which they did not touch the passing of Caleb’s father.

To both of them, talk of death or loss on an evening such as this seemed heretical. Rather, they chose to savor each other’s company. Eventually, the evening wore on and Lord Islooric bade his young squire a good evening, cautioning him that a good knight did his best to keep his wits about him and that a night of good rest, free of drink, lends itself to preparedness. They closed the evening with kind words and an embrace, father to son. Caleb left the tent of his lord and master, with tears streaming down his cheeks, not knowing what tomorrow might hold.

In the afternoon, the messenger returned. The barbarians had indeed accepted the challenge laid down by Lord Islooric. The messenger announced that Turgo the Thunderclub, the chief of the Bear tribe and commander of the combined host had willingly accepted the challenge. In fact, he had scoffed at the notion of meeting the “soft” commander of the knights in single combat, for he considered them all to be a weak sort of human. He commented to the messenger that he had not expected any such man on the invading side to be brave enough to meet him in single combat, let alone let the outcome of that duel to determine the fate of the entire conflict. “This man, whoever he is, is a brave fool. I’ll send him to his grave and his dog soldiers back across the sea!” Turgo barked to his comrades. All of this the messenger reported to Lord Islooric.

That morning, Lord Islooric summoned the other lords to his tent and informed them of his intentions. Not one of them agreed with what they deemed a rash act, but news of the knight’s challenged had already spread through the camp. As Lord Islooric had predicted, gossip of so great a magnitude weighed too heavily on the tongue of his messenger so that the only means of relieving himself of the load lie in sharing it with the other men, an act he performed willingly. When the various knights assembled before their commander they knew that he had the support of the troops and that despite their personal objections, the lords found themselves hard pressed to go against popular opinion and the duel was set for the middle of the afternoon on the beach where the conflict began.

Caleb thought of how he spent the early part of the afternoon polishing his idol’s armor to a high shine dreaming of the effect Lord Islooric’s mailed splendor would have on the rough Turgo and how a knight, clad in his best armor, holding a bright shield bearing his crest, with a finely-plumed helmet, and a gleaming sword inspired both and awe and fear into the heart of the foe that beheld him. The lad envisioned that the raiment of Lord Islooric so overcame Turgo that it caused him to lose heart in the fight and although the barbarian lord made a fine accounting of himself, the puissant skill at arms and the majesty of the great knight so overwhelmed him that he fell in combat to a greater man than himself. The knights and soldiers spilled onto the field of combat and encircled their valiant leader while the vanquished barbarians wept and pondered their fate. In his mind’s eye, the boy saw the benevolent Lord Islooric granting them all mercy and offering them full citizenship in the Golden Realm with their island becoming a colony and part of the kingdom.

As the white sun began its ascent, representatives from both sides gathered at the appointed meeting spot, in a clearing near a flowing stream, to witness the coming contest between the two combatants. Slowly, the invaders and the defenders of their homeland, man and man, who heretofore had only seen each other as enemies, began to crowd close together, forming a circle, with a mixture of malice and curiosity all the while knowing what was at stake. They eyed each other curiously, some threw hostile glances at their opposition, but all had a mutual respect for the martial tenacity of their adversaries. Men jostled for better vantage points, some shouts were heard, a weapon or two were drawn by both sides, but cooler heads prevailed and restored order. Drums began to beat behind the barbarians who rocked to and fro, chanting, slowly at first, but their tempo increased with the beating of the drums. The Skitherians felt uneasy at this foreign behavior and began looking about, but saw nothing. The banging on the drums grow louder as did the chants and the throng of the barbarians began to cry out as they parted to let their champion pass.

Soon, the Skitherians beheld the source of the natives’ excitement as the form of a large man, standing a full head above most of the men, emerged from the masses and stood at the front of his people. All assembled saw this hulking figure, with curly black hair, a thick beard, wild brown eyes, broad shoulders, a barrel chest, muscular arms, and a somewhat protruding stomach, as if it hung there as a sort of a testament to his well-fed rank, wearing an animal hide and breeches made of brown cloth. Slowly he raised his arms raised over his head, so as to draw attention to his weapon, a thick, heavy club wooden club. Stories of “The Thunderclub” had circulated through the Skitherian ranks, stories that told of how it took two normal men to lift the object, but that Turgo wielded it with both ease and ferocity on the battlefield smashing shields and bodies alike of any who stood before him in combat. He had indeed felled many a brave Skitherian solider and many were loath to engage him on the battlefield. “Bring me their champion so that I can crush him!” shouted the haughty warrior. His comrades in arms roared in approval.

Now we’ll see how brave you are, fat man.” Caleb thought to himself, for striding past him, arrayed in his finest armor, was Lord Islooric. Confidently, but humbly, he walked past the cheering Skitherians, onto the field of battle. Caleb’s diligent application to the preparation of the knight’s armor proved itself to the onlookers, for the polished metal plates that made up the protective suit gleamed in the rays of the afternoon sun. His large shield sparkled brilliantly and the crest, a sword draped with a blue robe, symbolizing the role of judge and protector, stood proudly engraved in the middle of that protective device. The stones in his jewel encrusted scabbard twinkled. In carriage and appearance, he looked the very image of a knight and if that alone won battles then the outcome of the impending conflict remained but a mere formality.

In the center of the encircled men, the two men met. Lord Islooric’ raised the visor of his helmet to meet the menacing stare of his adversary and when their eyes fixed on each other, the noble knight gave a polite bow to his foe. For his part Turgo made every effort to intimidate the man over whom he towered from flexing his muscles and sneering to angrily kicking the dirt, as if he were a wild beast about to be unleashed. He even snarled. “You are a brave looking dead man!” he barked.

The knight nodded and calmly replied, “Defend yourself.”

Turgo immediately began his attack, swinging his club with vicious intent. Deftly, Lord Islooric sidestepped the blow and with a quick swipe of his sword, drew first blood, cutting the barbarian across the thigh. Blood trickled down his leg from the wound. Skitherians cheered the move. Still, Turgo swung again, an overhand blow, which Islooric blocked with his shield, but the impact staggered him.

As he recovered his bearings, he saw his attacker moving towards him. He managed to thrust his sword forward, piercing Turgo’s side. The large man grimaced and stumbled backwards. Lord Islooric hacked at his adversary, but Turgo blocked the attack with his club and kicked the knight in the stomach. Both sides roared with fury and approval. Caleb had ducked in between the gathered throng to get to the front of the crowd and saw his mentor block another swat from the behemoth. This time, he held his ground and his shield protected him from the blow at the cost of it crumpling in on its left side.

Staggered, he tried to slash at Turgo, who had already swung a backhanded attack that met the knight’s sword midair and shattered that weapon. Fragments of the sword sprayed in multiple directions and the hilt flew from its wielder’s hand and sailed into the crowd. Caleb felt a sense of urgency, but knew that every knight also carried a dagger at his side and was adept in its use as well and his hero quickly unsheathed the aforementioned weapon.

Turgo, whose wounds had slowed him used this time to regroup and now wore a confident smirk on his face as he advanced toward his weakened adversary. He tried to smite him with an overhead blow which Lord Islooric endeavored to sidestep, but caught the brunt of it on his left shoulder. He dropped his shield and fell to the ground shouting in agony, the force of the blow smashing his shoulder and knocking him to the ground. As the barbarians roared their approval and the Skitherians stood in hushed silence, both sides waiting for Turgo to deliver the death blow, Caleb seized a sword from one of the Skitherians and rushed onto the field of battle. He simply couldn’t let his beloved master die. As he rushed the giant man he lowered his sword, intent upon running him through. Midway to his intended target an arrow loosed by an onlooker named Raven caught him in the upper part of his chest and he fell to the ground, before his eyes closed from the pain and loss of blood, he saw Turgo standing over Lord Islooric screaming as he raised his club in the air to deliver the fatal blow to his hero.

When he awakened he found himself bound in chains being carted off by a barbarian, the one who had shot him in the chest for trying to interfere. In humiliation and dishonor the invading host departed, leaving the boy behind as punishment for his affront in so great a matter. When news of the lad’s interference reached Victor IV it so outraged the monarch that he banished Caleb’s family from court, thereby making them social lepers and stripped them of some of their lands, causing them to suffer financially as well, the punishment for having raised such an impudent whelp.

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