Chapter 2: Introductions
The princess and her armed escort clattered noisily through the courtyard of the royal castle in the capital of Carnelian. The party headed towards the keep after their morning excursion though none seemed happy.
From a second floor window within the complex they were being observed by a young man sitting at a desk in an austere classroom.
“Squire Belac what are you doing?” a gravelly voice called out. “Ah, daydreaming again!” the voice accused with a note of irritation.
Belac, young even for his teenage years, winced with pain as the severe looking elderly man standing over him grasped his ear.
“You would be better served if you spent more time on your studies and less on matters that do not concern you.” The black robed teacher gave the blond haired student’s lob a further twist for emphasis.
Returning to his writing slate the teacher continued the lesson. “Now as I was saying, early in the reign of Lawrac Pherein, father of our current king, the Age of Magic came to an end in the World as it Matters.”
Belac’s hand shot up.
“What is it now Squire Belac?” Hattush, master of the Squire’s Guild of Carnelian, asked with a look of exasperation.
“Why would that happen? Wasn’t magic useful to the land?” the young man declared. “Besides, I thought those who practiced it were powerful. How would they allow that to happen?”
“If you had been paying closer attention to the assigned reading from the archives and my lecture this morning you would have your answer,” the instructor shot back.
Several of the bookish looking squires in the class began to snicker receiving a sharp look from the master.
“Magic,” the man continued, “became of little use as strength of arms took over. Magic was used as an aid, an adjunct if you will, and so became of little lasting value. When that happened the guild the wizards belonged too lost its royal charter and support of the nobility. The inevitable result was it fell into a position of ignominity and its practitioners faded away into oblivion.”
“Is there any magic left in the land?” Belac asked, finally interested in something being taught.
“Oh I’m sure there’s some around since it’s not a skill that goes away easily. But it would be confined to the fringes of society and so be nothing of any lasting value. Therefore it’s nothing to take note of,” the teacher’s eyes narrowed, “or be distracted by.”
The far away look on the face of the young squire once again irritated the man. He looked down at Belac with a hard expression. “Really Squire Belac, you need to pay more attention to your studies,” Master Hattush blurted out in exasperation. “You are not keeping pace with your peers nor are you ready to begin your assignment in the governance of this land.”
The guild master saw the young man gaze out the window at a patrol of passing soldiers instead of paying attention to the lecture. “In addition, I would advise you to give up those silly notions of glorious service under arms. That is not your path,” he added with an edge to his voice.
Satisfied with the severity of his rebuke, the guild master wheeled about, returning to the lesson.
The youth looked down at his writing tablet more in embarrassment than in concentration. “You’re wrong Master Hattush,” he muttered to himself. “I will receive an opportunity some day to serve as do the Royal Guardsmen. I will serve the king and this land with my very life if necessary.”
Belac came from an affluent, well-known family in the shire. It was natural that when the young man turned of age he would be sent to the royal castle in Ammon Ramlah for an education. As others of a similar social standing had always done before, he joined them in being trained as a squire. These were the significant and influential administrators of the land. With the title came wealth and power. The Guild of Squires was envied by those without the means or intellect to rise to such a lofty height.
Not by Belac, future squire of Carnelian.
Though a bright student, Belac’s heart was not in it. Whenever he had the opportunity, the youth would instead go to the soldiers of the Royal Guard to learn their skills with sword, lance and bow. While still young, his squat body grew more muscular daily from the exertions. In fact Belac was stronger than many who were years older.
Possessing fine features, a ruggedness not found in his peers set the teenage apprentice apart. This, and his attitude, contributed to his not really fitting into his Order. He had a tendency to take risks so would often be seen jumping roof-to-roof in the village outside the castle, swinging from banners, leaping between walls of the castle and generally taking any challenge found. Of course when the squire’s instructor saw or heard of this, he was severely punished.
This never stopped Belac. His demonstrative face would light up with a mischievous grin when his quick mind began to work.
The youth’s peers didn’t understand his burning desire for more since the rank of squire led to power, prestige and more importantly, fortune. Belac, though, didn’t covet these things. Instead he wanted to serve the kingdom he loved in a more vigorous way.
When the king’s army had marched out three years before, his heart went with it. Rather than adventure in a strange new world, for him the dreary routine of learning continued. So Belac found his only respite over the years to be time on the soldier’s training pitch.
Now the apprentice’s body grew solid and strong. He was physically imposing, standing out amongst his peers. If it were not for the silver-gray squire’s cloak he wore, as a symbol of his position, Belac would never have been thought of as one of that bookish lot.
The little free time he had was spent outdoors. Hunting or sparring with a few of the younger guardsmen who had been left behind was preferred to scrolls and books.
Always though Master Hattush, the teacher and leader of the squire apprentices, seemed close at hand to remind Belac of his obligations and ridicule him for his desire to learn such base skills. Academically the teen did well for the amount of effort he put in. This irked the elderly scholar which drove him to push the youth harder. Hattush saw in Belac great potential, if only he would apply himself.
The conflict between the two fit into the overall flow of life for the squires. The apprentices were used as scribes in the Great Hall so they had the opportunity to silently witness the activities of the kingdom.
With the king away, the administration of not only the kingdom but also the shires continued to fall on the shoulders of Alline, High Steward of Carnelian.
Alline has shown himself over the past three years to be wise, fair and just. The man had almost single-handedly kept the lands on an even course. Though physically unimposing, he distinguished himself through capable leadership and attention to details. While not a member of the Royal Council of the Confederation, he stood as the king’s representative and so was looked to by the others for guidance.
Belac always liked to be around the distinguished silver haired man. Alline was attentive to the squires and even appeared interested in the outside pursuits of the young man in particular. The high steward would often go out of his way to commend him for a catch or something else that had caught his eye.
Alline, along with the queen, formed two-thirds of the leadership of Carnelian in the king’s absence. The last component was Ahriman, Royal Advisor.
In contrast to Alline, Ahriman not only possessed dark physical features but also had a dark and brooding spirit. His hawk nose and beady eyes gave him a severe look, which often left people thinking he was perpetually angry. Despite his unimposing physical presence, the advisor displayed a whip-quick mind. Unfortunately the brilliant thinker would often fall to petty jealousy and took offense over perceived slights. Ahriman had served the kingdom since before the current ruler’s father with a steady, quiet hand, an ageless tie to the past.
Into this environment the young Squire Belac spent his days, always hoping for a chance at something different, resigned to what all told him his destiny was.
Stars twinkled in the cool night sky. Frost hung in the air as the first signs of fall came near the mountains of S’Apphire north of the city of Kir Garasa.
In the classiest tavern of the trading town of Nahor a cheery blaze roared in the open fireplace while lively conversation kept the place warm. Those in attendance were well turned out with fine clothing and educated tongues. Exaggerated, animated speech characterized those trying to outdo each other during the evening’s gathering. Merriment and laughter filled the room indicating the coming end of another successful season. Gold coins dropped like rain as was fitting for one of the finer establishments in the county.
The heavy wooden door opened and a few of the patrons turned in anticipation of who would enter. The sound of heavy soled leather boots caused others to take note for this was not the footwear of someone who would usually enter this particular tavern.
The recipient of this curiosity stood erect after having to bend to get through the door. Gloved hands removed the hood of a dark blue homespun cape, revealing the hardened face of a man. Unkempt, sandy colored hair messily framed his ruddy face. A long scar glowed white from the night cold on the expressionless man’s right cheek. It wasn’t the scar that caught the eye of the patrons. Rather the long ewe bow and quiver which hung from his back got their attention.
The intense looking man strode silently to an empty table, stripped off the items then leaned them against another chair. Removing his cape, a two-handed great sword could be seen on his right hip drawing further scrutiny in the tavern. The lean, wiry man stood taller than those in this shire but what added even more to his aura were the sinews of muscle evident in his neck. It seemed as if he were made of thick rope. The man made no overt threat but an air of menace surrounded him, his every movement betraying power.
As the stranger sat down a well dressed, but overweight, man at another table wearing garish purple velvet stood to confront him. The thought that such a man would dare to come into their tavern was offensive to the prominent merchant.
The man’s companion grasped him by the arm. “What are you doing Bardok?” he asked anxiously.
“I’m going to ask this ruffian what business he has here,” the merchant huffed.
“Do you know who you speak of?” his concerned friend asked.
“I know not, nor do I care,” Bardok cavalierly replied.
The other man paused, looking around nervously as a few of the patrons in the room became aware of what was transpiring. The stranger, though, still didn’t seem to notice.
Bardok’s companion took a breath to calm his nerves. “That’s Mitt Cela. He’s one of the most feared archers in the territory,” the man reported in a low tone.
. “So?” A look of concern became evident on Bardok’s face. “His bow won’t work in a place like this,” he countered with a voice that didn’t reflect his declaration.
“Not only is he an archer, but he’s also renowned as a deadly swordsman.” The merchant’s friend swallowed hard before continuing. “And he’s a bounty hunter.”
With a look of fright, Bardok quickly sat down and continued the conversation he’d been having with his other companions. As if to save face, the man spoke a bit louder now to balance out the lack of bravado just displayed.
Mitt Cela’s head turned ever so slightly, muscles relaxing. Stealthily he removed his hand from the hilt of a dagger.
The tavern owner, a portly man, waddled over to his new guest to see what he desired.
“Can I help you sir?” he said with an air of respect.
“Yes, thank you,” the voice replied, firm but pleasant. “A mug of ale and a joint of Kintail deer, please.”
Conversation stopped around the table as people now openly stared at one who would order the most expensive dish in the kingdom. His request was met with stunned silence.
“You do have it don’t you?” Mitt Cela asked.
“Well yes, but…” the proprietor stammered. With a grimace, he continued, “but, it’s rather… expensive.”
A wry smile came over the bounty hunter’s face. Deftly reaching into a pocket in his tunic he pulled out a small leather bag dropping it on the table. The purse landed with a dull, heavy thud, a jingling sound coming from within.
“I’m aware of that. It’s of no matter,” he said nonchalantly.
The tavern owner smiled broadly. With a spring in his step he headed to the kitchen, rubbing his thick hands together in anticipation of an excellent night.
As the night wore on within the walls of the establishment the air was filled with continued laughter, the ale flowed and all seemed jolly. When the front door opened once again all this changed. The place became instantly silent as every head turned in that direction. In hobbled an old and withered dwarf-like Mahlite.
There were whispers of: “What is IT doing in here?” and “This is not the place for one such as THAT.”
The small, white-bearded man looked around for a place to sit. The owner, who was standing behind the dark wooden bar, confronted him.
“You! Mahlite. What are you doing here?” he yelled out.
“I am Deuel of Kohath,” the dwarf replied with dignity. “It is a very cold night outside sir. I seek a warm meal and perhaps shelter so I may refresh myself.”
“I don’t care who you are or from where you come. Your kind is not welcome here,” the proprietor responded icily.
“But sir,” the small but sturdy Mahlite pleaded, “I am very worn, and I have plenty of coin to pay whatever price you deem fair.”
“I don’t want your money,” the unconcerned tavern owner callously stated. “You’re not welcome here. Why don’t you just leave?”
With that several of the patrons stood up in a threatening way and moved towards the Mahlite. With a hint of fear in his eyes the defenseless old dwarven man recoiled.
All were on edge until the scraping sound of a chair being pushed out broke the tension in the room.
Mitt Cela had been keenly observing the scene. He finally stood up to his full height with a hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword. All eyes turned to the man.
“Why the difficulty?” Mitt Cela quietly asked. “The man only looks for some food which he is able to pay for.” Then gesturing to Deuel he continued, “Come sir and sit with me.”
“This is none of your concern bounty hunter,” spat out one of the standing men.
“Yes, there is no gold in it for you,” interjected another.
“No,” Mitt Cela replied grimly, “but there is humanity in it for all.”
No one made a move towards the pair but the tavern owner was unwavering. The man looked with pleading eyes towards Mitt Cela. “Sir, don’t concern yourself with one such as this,” he begged. “It’s not worth your attention. Sit, eat, drink. Allow me to serve you.”
The tall man looked stonily across the room, snatched the remnants of his meal of Kintail deer from the china plate it was on and handed it to the small Mahlite. Mitt Cela turned to walk out of the establishment, hand now gripping his sword. “Let’s leave this place Master Deuel,” he said. “It’s not worth our attention. We’ll find a place more…hospitable.”
The tavern owner gasped but no one else moved or said a word as the pair left.
“Thank you sir. I am eternally in your debt,” the tired Mahlite declared with gratitude in his voice.
“Think nothing of it,” Mitt Cela casually replied. “I’ll escort you to a place more accommodating. Your company is welcome.”
A report had come to the capital of the kingdom of Amethyst that reavers were operating in the border area near the Forest of Gershon. With cattle abundant in the land it wasn’t an unusual occurrence in the early fall. So a squad of the Royal Guard of Amethyst rode out from the castle to deal with the nuisance.
Eager to get out and get some exercise, the most capable leader of the elite guard Captain Hai’asi, son of Hai’asi, decided to lead the group himself.
Though an overcast day, the mood among the troops was easy as they rode out. As with their captain, any activity broke up the boredom of life in the capital for the men.
They expected to find a few poachers, likely from neighboring Jacinth. After catching them they’d box them about the ears and then send the petty thieves away. In this part of the Confederation reaving, or cattle stealing, was almost a game. As such, it was carried out by people on both sides with creativity and light heartedness.
Riding through the rolling emerald green hills the skies cleared and the air became fresh. The fresh day became almost intoxicating. Watching a lone sparrow hawk gliding freely on a thermal high above more than a few thought to themselves the day unusually pleasant. Easy conversation among the armored cavalrymen broke up the ride with most revolving around their latest exploits in the battle circle or the local taverns in the capital rising above the tramp of their horses.
Many who experienced this ride would remember it as a day where much changed.
As the soldiers entered the county holding the village they were journeying to a thick plume of smoke rising from its general direction gave cause for alarm. The leader of the troop urged the men on at a faster pace and they responded immediately.
Reaching the summit of a hill that led into the glen holding the village, they were met by a horrifying sight. Numerous huts were burning and a score of the inhabitants were lying still in the surrounding fields.
Anger burned among the soldiers at the spectacle. Few had experienced anything of this magnitude before so wanted to strike back. The desire was given an outlet as one of the troopers spotted their quarry.
“Over there sir!” he shouted.
All eyes turned to see a column of darkly cloaked figures leading cattle and people towards the forests.
Captain Hai’asi, blood boiling in outrage at this turn of events bellowed the war cry of the Royal Guard.
His men responded with a ferocious shout and spurred their horses to action. The rasp of swords being drawn from metal scabbards was overwhelmed by the sound of thundering hooves as the troops descended upon the raiders.
The marauders were caught in the open. Caught off guard, they didn’t know how to respond to the angry horde descending upon them. Precious seconds were wasted in indecision until they finally decided to flee.
It was too late.
Like an unstoppable wave the Royal Guard crashed into their objective.
Leading the charge, Captain Hai’asi set his sights on an attacker carrying a pike that turned to face him. With an added burst of speed he closed the gap. At the last possible moment the leaf-mail clad warrior reached down to a sheath attached to his saddle, withdrawing a large double-headed axe. With one stroke he deftly knocked the pole arm away then with a fluid backstroke came around severing the head of his opponent.
Totally outmatched, the attackers became the victims of the disciplined soldiers. Villagers took the opportunity to scramble to safety as the sound of metal striking metal then finding flesh filled the air. The Royal Guardsmen stayed in formation and swept the unorganized attackers aside. Their captain co-ordinated the assault, yelling orders and moving his men with precision.
The fight lasted barely a few minutes then all suddenly fell silent other than the heavy breathing of men and horses.
With calm restored a cry of lament came up from the surviving villagers as they surveyed the surroundings. The troops dismounted and began to provide assistance where they could.
“What kind of men would do this?” one of the soldiers yelled with unrestrained emotion in his voice. Others wondered the same thing surveying the carnage around them.
Hai’asi though was impervious to the emotional outbursts around him. Something about their fallen foes didn’t seem right. The powerfully built soldier went over to one of the raiders who lay face down in the dirt. He turned the motionless attacker over with his boot to see who had so heartlessly carried out the incursion.
The surprised exclamation from the dangerous soldier brought others to see what he’d found.
Lying before the gathered soldiers was a hairy, troll-like creature. Quickly the other bodies were examined and all proved to be the same. This was no reaving expedition.
“What are they doing outside the Forest of Gershon?” one of the troopers asked in a confused voice. “We’ve never had any troubles with them before.”
“Yes, why would they do something like this?” another picked up the thought.
“I don’t know,” Hai’asi replied in a low voice shaking his head slowly in confusion, “but this has to be reported to the king immediately.”
Leaving the troopers to restore order in the village he left with two men and rode swiftly back to the capital.
Upon arrival the three were ushered into the throne room of the king’s castle. Despite the urgency of their message the ruler of the land didn’t immediately come. Sadly, this was not unusual in the Kingdom of Amethyst.
Finally, after an interminable period of time, one of the soldiers could contain his frustration no longer.
“This is ridiculous Hai’asi!” the close friend of the captain fumed. “Here we wait with vital news for the kingdom. Yet he delays, doing what I can only imagine!”
“Yes Pagiel, it is frustrating,” the sturdy warrior agreed, rubbing his solid chin with a thick hand, “but he is the king and we have little choice.”
Hai’asi once more began to reflect, as he often had done the past three years unhappy with the inconclusive answer.
Why did I stay? he thought to himself.
Immediately though he knew why. He and his company would not have been allowed to join the army of the Confederation under the king of Carnelian. No, his king would never have allowed it. So what they sent to fulfill their obligation were inferior conscripted troops. The elite Company of Royal Guards was left behind. This had burned Hai’asi, a member of the warrior class of the Amethystian people.
The leader of the Royal Guard had a lightly tanned, expressive face. What often surprised many, considering his position of importance, was how boyish he looked. But this betrayed no weakness. Though of average height, Hai’asi possessed a broad-shouldered, athletic frame. Visibly powerful, that and his close-cropped, light brown hair, which spiked at the front and clear blue eyes, identified him immediately with this revered group. His eyes twinkled when he smiled though he did it rarely these past few years.
Yet he was no carbon copy.
Rather than the blade, favored by his people, he had chosen the axe, becoming quite proficient and well known with it. Hai’asi had excelled at the martial arts as expected for one of his lineage. But rather than hire himself out as others of his clan had done for gold to the top bidder he joined the Royal Guard in an unselfish act of service. His loyalty, dedication and bravery had quickly allowed him to be elevated to the position of Captain of the Guard, the youngest ever to hold that position. It did him little good when the finest army in the land had been brought together, made up of the choicest warriors of the other kingdoms. He had to silently suffer the humiliation of not being part of it. Only his company now shone out against the dregs that were left.
The soldier’s thoughts were interrupted when finally the king strolled in along with his two ever-present advisors. The contrast between the king, pale and slight, and the soldiers before him, vigorously full of life, would have been laughable had this not been their sovereign.
“I understand captain that there were some difficulties in the shire today?” the king questioned in a weak voice.
“It was more than a difficulty Your Majesty,” Hai’asi responded in a firm, even tone, “it was slaughter.”
The captain of the Royal Guard paused to calm his rising temper. “This was no mere attempt to steal cattle. These were Gershonites, outside the forest, which attacked this village. If we hadn’t arrived when we did it would have been far worse.” His voice trailed, “It would have been a disaster.”
“What would you propose we do?” the thin man in oversized robes asked timidly.
“I would dispatch troops to the border areas immediately to protect them,” Hai’asi responded immediately. “Then we could figure out what the intent of these creatures is. Garrisons throughout would send a message that we’re prepared to meet any threat. Plus they would be in the position to respond in case of any further incursions.”
Rather than the king speaking the reedy voice of Bebai, the shorter of his two advisors, filled the chamber. “That is unnecessary,” he clucked in disapproval. “In fact it could be seen as a provocation. There is no proof that this was nothing more than a raid. My liege, I would strongly urge rejection of this reckless path.”
“Reckless?” exploded Hai’asi. “Reckless to ensure the protection of our people? You weren’t there. You didn’t see what happened! It would be prudent at the very least.”
“The overreactions of a soldier,” Bebai’s pockmarked faced puckered. His long, greasy black hair waved as he shook his head. “Well intentioned to be sure, but not balanced,” he added in a patronizing tone.
The king had a confused look on his face, uncertain how to proceed. His pleading expression pained the strong warrior who stood before him as sworn defender of the kingdom.
“I…I will retire and consider these matters,” the king finally declared without conviction.
In truth everyone in the room knew that nothing would be decided and nothing would be done.
Once more indecision reigned in the Kingdom of Amethyst.