Escape from Blackthorn
Rogan was nearly close enough to taste his freedom, but that wasn’t making the climb any easier. Sweat dripped down his face, stinging as it fell from his chin to the wound on his left bicep. Progress up the shaft was labored and too slow for his liking. He only hoped he could reach the top before his body yielded to exhaustion or the guards tracked him down. He doubted they would let him merely remain a prisoner after what he had done.
One painstaking move at a time, he tucked his legs as far back as he could, feet pressed flat against the dark, unforgiving stone. His arms were buttressed against opposite sides of the shaft, their strength the only thing preventing him from slipping back to where he started. There was nothing to hold on to. With only four body lengths to go, he wondered whether his struggle would all be for nothing. His arms were on fire, his sweat making the surface ever more slick. Rogan briefly wondered if he could use the length of rope he’d coiled around his body to help his predicament, but quickly realized the tight quarters would not allow him to even get it off his shoulder. No, he would just have to press on.
He slid upward another body length and felt a sharp pain as an uneven piece of masonry cut through his shirt and into the flesh of his back. Suddenly, raised voices echoed up the chute; they must have discovered the guard’s body. He was sure they would track him down any moment. With new vigor, born from panic, Rogan tucked his legs again and pushed. The pain in his arm and back stung anew with the effort, but it did not match his resolve. He would get out of this prison alive. He would complete his bargain with the cloaked man, exact vengeance, and be truly free once more.
Rogan had been presented with this opportunity only an hour ago, after languishing in Blackthorn prison for three years. His sentence for treason came down without even the pretense of a trial, though he didn’t expect otherwise from this regime. He prepared for execution – that had been the price of treason in times past. Then he learned what was more important than the death of traitors, and what was worse. The King-priest needed more labor to mine the precious uril-chent ore from beneath Blackthorn. Only recently discovered alongside known deposits of copper and gold, the veins of this unique mineral radiated dangerous energies. Hundreds of miners afflicted by a strange sickness had died before the threat was discovered. The worked uril-chent alloy it yielded was extraordinary, however; the King-priest horded it, judging it worth the cost in lives.
Although Rogan had been a well-respected baron under the previous ruler, he was targeted for it by the other prisoners. His background prepared him all the same, for he mastered the politics of the prison with the quickness of necessity, only his own hands and wits fending off its brutality. Despite his adeptness, he never once felt safe during the past three years. There were simply too many unpredictable elements down in the pits of hell.
Working the mines was exhausting labor – swinging pick-axes and hammers, loading sacks and carts of ore – and exposure to the uril-chent often left him nauseous and debilitated by headaches. During his time at Blackthorn, Rogan assumed the outside world had forgotten him, and was glad for it. He did not need reminders of what he had lost, and he never received visitors, sympathetic or otherwise, until this afternoon.
The day began as usual – a meager breakfast before being led into the mines beneath the bowels of the prison-fortress. He hauled carts of ore for a few hours before being summoned above. Suspicious, but not unhappy for the reprieve, he was escorted to the surface levels, then down a hallway to a plain, stone-walled room with a thick, iron door. Once the pair of guards unbound his wrists, they took positions flanking the door.
A rough, wooden table and two chairs were the only furniture; he was ordered to sit. Another man sat across the table wearing a dark, crimson cloak bearing the new royal insignia – a charred skull, bleeding from the eye sockets, wearing a wreath of thorns. It was also the emblem of Gholdur the Tyrant, the god from which Ebon Khorel, the new King-priest, supposedly drew power and offered allegiance.
The man at the table did not give his name, only identifying himself as the Royal Inquisitor. Another figure loomed in the corner of the room – a silent, still form, draped in a black, hooded cloak, with shadow hanging heavily upon him.
The Inquisitor interrogated Rogan for almost an hour, remaining vague while probing for information about a plot against the King-priest’s agents. The man seemed sure that Rogan, being a traitor himself, had illicit contacts in the outside realm threatening the interests of the king. Most of the people Rogan once associated with had already been arrested, but he intentionally prolonged the questioning, hoping the Inquisitor would slip into telling him some shred of useful information. In the end the whole exchange proved fruitless, as neither party revealed anything insightful. Finally, with a glance over his shoulder, the Royal Inquisitor and guards left the room, shutting the heavy iron door behind them.
Rogan was confused, though his heart beat rapidly. He was alone in a room, hands unbound, with a frail-looking man; though for all he knew this was Death himself, visiting. Rogan waited, watching the figure as violent scenarios ran through his mind. The hooded form watched him as well, perhaps sizing him up, perhaps staring into his soul. After several silent moments he stepped forward and sat in the chair vacated by the Inquisitor. With a sinister, almost hissing voice, he simply stated, “I have a proposition for you.” Rogan was too unnerved to speak, allowing the figure to continue. “I know you hate thisss place, and I know you don’t belong here.”
Rogan glanced from side to side, eyes narrowed with distrust, looking to see if anyone might be listening. “What do you know of me?” he spat through gritted teeth.
“Do not be upssset, Baron Rogan. I am here to offer you a chance to not only leave thisss place, but to get what it isss you want most of all.”
“No one can give me that.” His voice trailed off as he conjured thoughts of his wife and child.
The cloaked figure seemed to ponder his statement for a moment, before continuing with a more sympathetic tone. “Perhaps that is ssso. I can give you the opportunity to escape, and a chance for you to do something that sserves usss both… killing the King.” He paused to let the request sink in. “Are you interesssted?”
Surely this was a trick. Rogan still roasted with thoughts of vengeance, his time in prison acting like coals added to the fire of his fury. But surely… “It cannot be done, Ebon Khorel is too mighty. He has already weeded out the strongest who would oppose him, and his god grants him powers greater than the Shapers of old.”
“Too mighty for a coup, perhapsss. But thiss will be an assssassination. And you will lead it.”
The eagerness in the figure’s voice sounded genuine to Rogan, but what did this stranger have to gain from the King-priest’s death, and what association with the Inquisitor allowed him access to Blackthorn prisoners in the first place? Though it sounded like an impossible task, what did Rogan have to lose? He was already a convicted traitor who could be executed on a whim, so he could fathom no reason for this to be a trick. And there were a thousand possible reasons to want Ebon Khorel’s reign ended. He was a tyrant, after all, and many had suffered since his ascendancy. Rogan’s life in this place was a waste, and when it came down to it, he did not need to know his prospective patron’s motives – his own vengeance would do.
“So, how do I get out of here?” he gestured to the stone walls around him.
“Firsst, sswear to do this thing; then I will tell you.”
Even though it seemed a goal destined to fail, Rogan knew he couldn’t pass up any good chance to get out of Blackthorn, even if he died in the attempt. “If you help me get out of this place, I swear to do what I can to kill the King.”
“That iss enough,” the figure nodded. “I know you are a man of your word. Lissten carefully. It has been arranged for one of the furnaces to run cold for an hour. Thisss time, unfortunately, has already begun. Down thiss hall to the east, there is a chimney chute with a sssmall door for wassste. It won’t be eassy, but you can use it to climb to the roof. The hallway should be unguarded for now, but there are, of coursse, patrols. The last door on the left isss unlocked. There iss rope and a knife for you, along with a map. Oncce outside the prison, follow the map to a cave. There will be more ssuppliess, along with others to help you ssucceed.”
“Others? Other prisoners?” Rogan didn’t like the thought of trusting people he didn’t know, especially if they had spent time in Blackthorn.
“Yesss. They have their chance to escape, even as you have yourss. Each has ssomething to offer the cause, and you may need them all for their skillss, I think.” The cloaked figure stood and made his way to the door. “Time iss short, Baron Rogan. Give me a few momentss before you go. I will assure no guardss linger about. I will be watching your progresss with interesst. May your godss be with you.”
With a slight nod of his head the figure turned and, with obvious effort, opened the heavy door. Rogan never did see his face, and the wisp of black cloth was soon gone, leaving him wondering if it was all a dream. The rush he felt suggested otherwise. He forced himself to calm down, breathe deeply, and count to a hundred.
Then, after a silent oath to do whatever it took, he cracked the door and peered to either side of the hallway. It seemed deserted. Soft steps, like those he took to sneak around the castle as a child, spying on banquets and balls while he was supposed to be asleep, led him silently down the hall. He could see the chimney chute at its end, where another hallway cut across his. Rogan’s head swiveled, making sure no one was alert to his presence. He reached the door and found it unlocked just as the figure promised. Rogan shut it behind him before taking stock of his new surroundings.
It was a small, dark room, lit by a single candle. Upon a wooden table were the objects he expected: fifty feet of coiled rope, a piece of rolled parchment – which he quickly unrolled to reveal the crucial map – and a sheathed dagger.
As he drew the dagger to inspect it, the room grew dimmer. The candle was still burning, but it was as if the blade was absorbing its light. Black and sharp, it gave way to a handle of cold, dark stone. The weapon was quite unusual. A thought suddenly struck him – perhaps it was made of the same uril-chent he had been mining the past three years. The handle looked like it, and the metal of the blade could have been an uril-chent alloy.
Sure enough, when he sheathed the blade the light returned to normal. Rogan wondered what other properties the alloy might have, but had to shelve such thoughts for later. He loosened his belt and attached the sheath to it, tucked the map underneath, and slung the rope over his head and across his torso. He blew out the candle before sneaking back into the hall.
Another twenty paces brought him to the chimney. Once he forced open the small, iron door he realized how awkward it would be to maneuver inside the chute. As he ducked his head in to look both up and down, the prospects seemed grim. There was nothing to help gain purchase – no ledges, no handholds. It became painfully apparent the length of rope would be no help here. Twisting his body to the correct orientation alone would be a feat. It was a long fifty feet up to the small patch of grey sky beckoning from above. Better get to work, he thought.
“You there, don’t move!”
Rogan had just enough time to get his head out of the shaft before a guard was thrusting a fist to his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and bringing him to his knees. It hurt like hell and Rogan gasped for breath, but fortunately the guard’s attack left him off-balance. With a quick spin of his left leg Rogan swept the guard’s feet, toppling him with a small chink as the metal studs on his leather armor met the cold, stone floor. Rogan crawled away to gain space, and forced himself to stand.
“Now you’ve done it, maggot! You’ve earned yourself a proper lashing.” Rogan heard true disgust in the man’s voice, though he had never met him. The guard also managed to stand, and pulled a wooden rod, with a small-but-heavy iron head, from his belt. He showed no intention of taking Rogan gently.
But Rogan did not intend to be taken at all, not with a real chance to escape this damned hell-pit. He crouched in a defensive posture, arms bent, ready to deflect any blows he could not evade. In his youth Rogan always enjoyed combat lessons, and as an adult continued honing the skills his noble upbringing had bought him. He had practiced against the sons of other nobles: swords, knives, archery, unarmed fighting, and even mounted combat. The aristocracy could always be called into military service at the behest of the king, and his father wanted him well prepared. Working in the mines had kept his muscles active, and he hoped his old lessons would be enough to overcome this prison guard, whose features had taken an astonishing turn toward savagery.
The guard lunged forward, wailing away with his club, unconcerned that his blows might shatter the escaping prisoner’s skull. But his rage destabilized him. Rogan grasped the guard’s wrist with his left hand, and slammed his right elbow violently against his attacker’s chin. With a cracking sound, a few of the guard’s teeth fell to the floor. The hand wielding the club went limp and dropped the weapon as the guard staggered back against the wall.
Rogan steadied himself and stared at his opponent, preparing for another rush. He wasn’t disappointed. This time, though, as the guard started to swing his fist in a right hook, he quickly raised it inside and grasped Rogan’s throat. Rogan grabbed the man’s wrist with both hands and twisted his own body around, forcing the guard’s release.
A sharp pain erupted in Rogan’s left side. From somewhere unnoticed, the guard had drawn a knife and plunged it into his lower back. Something deeper than flesh had been punctured, and as the knife withdrew, he felt his lifeblood following.
Panic shot through after the pain, and then a strange calm took over as he realized and accepted this was a fatal wound. Yet as quickly as this acceptance came, it vanished in a new wash of anger. Rogan slumped forward, but refused to give in to this man, who suddenly represented the three years lost in this prison – and the evil behind his family being taken from him.
His back still to his attacker, Rogan drew his own dagger, blade down, and spun as he raised his arm. The weapon was sharp and struck true. The blade sliced easily through the guard’s throat; a surprised look barely had time to register across his pale face, made paler as blood spilled from the wound.
Rogan was stunned too, as a surge of warmth passed from the weapon through his arm and across his entire body. His side prickled uncomfortably, and when he reached for the hole in his shirt his hand came away red with blood, but could find no wound. It was as if the puncture had instantly closed itself, leaving him free of pain. Remembering where he was, he quickly wiped the blood off his hand onto the guard’s sleeve. Intending to clean his weapon next, he found no trace of blood on it. Perhaps it absorbed more than just light. Sheathing his dagger, Rogan returned to the small shaft door and put his energy toward squeezing his lithely muscular frame into the cramped space.
In a quick succession of controlled movements – tuck, slide, reach – Rogan willed himself up the remaining length of the shaft. Surely the guards below would inform their fellows of his whereabouts within minutes. Finally, his arms reached over the lip of the chimney and he hoisted his exhausted body over the ledge.
The afternoon was quickly fading, though his first taste of fresh air in three years invigorated him. Everything was alive. The wind carried heavy smells of the surrounding jungle, a pungent mix of aromas still preferable to the stale earthiness of the mines. The croaking of hundreds of frogs and insects was likewise a welcome exchange for the constant ringing of metal on stone. He hoped he could cover enough ground for the approaching darkness and thick shadows of the jungle to hide him.
But, getting down was going to be a messy business. Blackthorn had once been a huge fortress, built on a strategic summit overlooking the Chelhos River. Through constant warring over the past decades, the Empire of Chelpa had expanded its territory until Blackthorn was no longer near the frontier, and the citadel had been converted to a prison. To the west, a steep trail led down to the docks where Blackthorn received all its incoming supplies – and free labor. A moat of slimy swamp sludge surrounded the prison, and beyond that, on all sides except the west, where a steep cliff dropped down to the river, a gradual slope of sharp and irregular rock threatened to break the ankles and shred the feet of anyone who did not travel on the solitary, northbound road. Where the rocks finally gave way to softer ground was a field of sparse vegetation, choked by thick layers of dark, thorny briars, for which the place had earned its name. Finally, beyond that, a couple hundred yards from where Rogan now crouched, was the inviting darkness of the dense jungle. Although dangerous in its own right, he wouldn’t start to feel safe until he reached it.
Rogan had to be both quick and careful; there were sentries on the battlements. They hadn’t noticed him yet, but it was only a matter of time until the general alarm was raised. He had to get at least far enough down the wall to jump before they either peppered him with arrows or managed to cut the rope he was preparing for descent.
Staying close to the chimney in order to shield himself from the lookouts, Rogan tossed a length of rope around it and quickly tied a serviceable knot. He was about to tie the other end around his waist when the clamor of bells rang from the inner courtyard. No time now. He moved to the edge of the roof, casting the rope over before rappelling down the side of Blackthorn. He would have given a good night’s sleep for a pair of thick gloves, though as it turned out, he ended with rope burns on his hands and still came up two body-lengths short. He yearned to take the cordage with him but knew that if he didn’t move rapidly, no amount of future usefulness would bear him any fruit.
Rogan dropped the remaining distance into the muck of the moat. Slimy vegetation clung to him as he swam to the rocky shore, too focused to think about what horrid things might be living in the cesspit. The alarm bells, now a thick mass of stone away, were muffled enough that he could hear the hounds barking. Weary arms lifted his fatigued body out of the moat, and as he made his way through the field of rough rocks, gave thanks that at least the terrain prevented a pursuit from horseback.
He turned just in time to see a pack of large hunting dogs rounding the corner from the north side of the prison. The animals, hungry for the chase, did not seem pleased with the sharp, broken ground between them and their prey. No sooner had Rogan turned back to picking out his own path than an arrow passed over his shoulder and shattered against a stone. He had to find cover soon. He crossed a couple of gaps where the rocks dropped off with two quick leaps, nearly losing his balance and plummeting into the space between. Combined with the slope of the terrain, he hoped these would give the hounds problems. Another near-miss from a barbed arrow later, he was crouched behind a boulder big enough to give him temporary cover from the archers.
How was he going to make his way across the expanse of briars while under fire and pursuit? Rogan cursed the fact he hadn’t thought of these details during his incarceration. Sweat dripped into his eyes and his pulse beat in his ears. The dogs would navigate the small channels soon enough. Rogan drew his dagger in preparation, and was startled again as the light around him dimmed, leaving a sphere of twilight shadow.
The baying of the closing dogs made him unsure of exactly what it was he heard – a song of some sort – a melody, haunting and alien, but at the same time beautiful. From the direction of the jungle it carried on the wind, sweet and forbidding, holding a power that seemed to take grip from the inside. To his amazement, the thick bed of thorns just paces from him peeled back to form a path, too narrow to notice from a distance, but perhaps just wide enough for him to escape. For all his wonderment, Rogan had time for naught but acceptance, and with a deep breath made a dash for the fortunate gap. The briars continued to part before him, closing again just after he passed. All the while, the haunting tune stayed with him, its source remaining just beyond reach.
Occasional arrows whisked toward him, but the thick thorns caught them in their tangled mass. Within moments Rogan was through the hazardous field, and the enchanted melody broke off to fade on the wind. Looking back he couldn’t even see the dogs – the thorns were so thick – but he heard their angry, yelping complaints about being cheated from their hunt. When he sheathed his dagger it was still dim, the sun gifting its final rays of the day. As he slipped into the shade of the thick trees, Rogan knew the hardest part was behind him. Blackthorn’s isolation and unforgiving terrain were now his boons, for it would take a hunting party some time to go all the way around and approach his position from the north. This part of the rainforest was trackless, and he had no doubt he could stay ahead of guards forced to travel on foot.
As soon as he felt a safe distance from the prison, Rogan took out the map tucked in his belt and unrolled it. There was scarcely light to read by, but he wanted an idea of his heading before looking for a place to spend the night. A cave was marked as his destination, and it appeared to be some miles to the northeast. He rolled the parchment closed and put it away. He would make his way there in the morning, but in a roundabout way. Rogan did not want to head there straight off as it would bring him closer to settled patches of jungle, increasing the chance he would be seen before reaching the cave. He could only wonder what awaited, but found himself willing to trust the dark conspirator. Some sort of magic was in play – this much he realized already. First the uril-chent dagger, then the song clearing the thorns. Rogan didn’t know who or what was behind either, let alone the assassination plot he had agreed to participate in. No, to lead. Whoever it was obviously had influence beyond mere political persuasion. Perhaps even enough to get the deed done.
Rogan walked until near-dark, but couldn’t afford the luxury of a fire. Since he missed supper and had no rations to quell the grumbling of his stomach, the best thing was to find somewhere to sleep and start fresh in the morning. He found a likely spot, settling at the base of a large tree further sheltered by a gentle rise of nearby earth. Weariness overtook him as soon as he was off his feet. The trials of the day left him bone-tired, and even amongst the strange sounds of the jungle, sleep quickly claimed him.
Rogan woke gradually, his first morning in three years not started with the clanging of metal on metal. A snake, green and brown as the leaves and the earth, crept its way down his shoulder, curiously sniffing the air with its frenetic tongue. He watched, motionless, as it continued a slow path down his leg and onto the ground.
Once his heartbeat returned to normal, the acute realization that he was absolutely famished set in. With a deep sigh he rose and checked his map in the new light of morning. If everything went well, Rogan guessed he might make the cave by that afternoon. Hopefully a meal of some sort would be waiting for him there, or he would have to go hunting.
Hunting – he had enjoyed the sport immensely in his old life. Chasing wild boar, and then later in the season, vibrant, long-antlered deer, used to occupy much of his leisure time. The smell of the woods, the galloping of his horse, and stories of his fellow huntsmen were all things he took for granted, yet lost in one hellish night three years ago that still haunted his dreams.
He was returning one evening on horseback from a ride in the hills, full of his own thoughts. Several of his friends who dared to defy the King-priest set a plan in motion to overthrow their cruel Lord, and tonight was the night. Although he sympathized with them, Rogan could not take part. He just had too much to lose. His young wife, Riah – the center of his world – had recently given birth to their first son. They were the air he breathed, and he would not put them at risk for the sake of dangerous politics, however just.
He didn’t realize danger might find them anyway, until he heard Riah’s screams. Shrill and piercing, they were punctuated by dreadful sobbing, before picking up again. Rogan seemed to be moving through quicksand as he dismounted and ran through the open door of his house. As soon as he entered, black-clothed men hiding on either side of the doorway seized him, and with alarming proficiency, bound his arms to his side. He struggled, but his legs were kicked out from under him and he fell painfully to his knees. His captors deftly tied his wrists and ankles, then raised his head by a handful of hair to watch what was happening to his wife.
His curses were cut off by shock and rage so overwhelming it baffled his senses. She was bent over the low table where she kept her pottery collection, face pressed by a heavy hand against its polished surface. The pottery was spread across the room in shards. Riah’s screams had stopped, but tears streamed down her face as her eyes met his. Her body lunged harshly against the table, in time with the thrusts of the man behind her. Her lips mouthed the words “I’m sorry,” though no sound escaped.
Finally, Rogan’s rage found expression. He howled so loudly that, to his own ears, it seemed to come from someone else. He smashed his head against the man to his right, but was struck by a skull-jarring blow, and everything went black.
The smell of smoke brought him back for a moment. He was being carried like a sack of meal into the courtyard. His house was on fire, and he could not see his wife. He was deposited into the back of a wagon, and noticed a black dagger tattooed on the back of the neck of the man who put him there. He had just enough time to worry for his son’s safety before passing back into a thick darkness.
Rogan shuddered as he shook off his thoughts. The time for justice would come soon enough. First, he had to make sure he made it to the cave without getting caught. He made for a stream marked on his map, thinking to relieve his thirst before cutting north. The rest of the day became a wash of navigating the thick jungle growth, finding ways around obstacles with no visible paths. At last, exhausted as the light softened with the sun’s decline, Rogan burrowed into the leaf litter of the jungle floor and fell into an uneasy sleep.
Within an hour after starting off the next morning, Rogan was sure he must be close. He checked his map again when a voice from up ahead nearly made him jump out of his boots.
“That’ll be far enough,” it informed Rogan. A man dressed in black, with a dark cloth covering his mouth and nose, stood atop a capsized tree trunk, aiming a crossbow at him. “What are you doing in these parts, stranger?”
The Lure of Battle
His father’s firm hand gently jostled Jaiden’s head from side to side, rousing him from sleep. “Come, son. Get some breakfast, then it’s time to see your Papa off.”
Opening his eyes, the room was nearly as dim as with them shut. It couldn’t be much past dawn. Jaiden grudgingly climbed down from the stiff bunk above his father’s with sloth-like deliberateness. It always took a few moments in the morning before he was ready to move at regular speed.
Their home was near the base of the Fifth Hill of the metropolis of Selamus – a modest home incomparable to the splendorous mansions further up the hill. Composed of two small rooms, Jaiden only had to share the abode with his father, who was off fighting half the time, so it would be unfair to call it cramped. A professional mercenary, Wendell Luminere often commented on the foolishness of extravagance when Jaiden complained about what they didn’t have.
“There’s food in your belly, no?” That was always his closing argument, and one Jaiden had yet to penetrate. Though far from being a wealthy man, Jaiden loved and looked up to his father. He did the best he could with the skills he had to provide for his son – and could certainly wield a sword.
As long as Jaiden could remember, he had been fascinated by his father’s adeptness with a blade. He spent countless childhood hours watching quietly while his father sparred with other soldiers or honed his craft. When Jaiden turned ten he was taught how to care for the weapon, oiling the steel to keep it free from rust, and sharpening the blade to keep it lethal.
Once he had earned the trust that came with practiced responsibility, his father gave him weekly lessons, and allowed Jaiden to practice on his own on the rare occasions the sword was free. Over the last three years of strict training, Jaiden had come to respect that sword nearly as much as his father.
Jaiden slogged over to the table in what served as both the kitchen and common room, pulling out one of the cracked, wooden chairs that always seemed to find a way to give him splinters. A bowl of porridge waited for him, though his father had not. He was scooping the remnants of his portion into his mouth just as Jaiden dipped his wooden spoon into the lumpy concoction. At least it was still warm.
“I may be gone for a while this time, Jaid, so I left what silver I could spare in the chest. You remember where the key is?”
Jaiden nodded, his mouth full.
“Good. If you run out, Pendarin said he could use help bringing in his mid-season harvest, so see him if you need work. Probably ought to anyway to keep yourself occupied and out of trouble. I don’t want you spending too much time with those boys from the Nest, huh?” He paused a moment until Jaiden made eye contact. “Most of them are on their way to picking pockets if they’re not there already. You’re better than that, right?”
Jaiden nodded again.
“That’s right. You keep up with your swordplay, and maybe you’ll end up in the Prince’s Guard one day.”
“But how am I going to practice when you’re gone, Papa? I need a sword of my own.” Jaiden raised his eyebrows, hoping this was the time his father relented to his repeated plea. A tight-lipped “Hmmm,” was all he got, however.
Jaiden finished his porridge while his father left the table and gathered the supplies for his journey. Jaiden was used to being alone. His mother died shortly after he was born, leaving him without siblings, and his father was off fighting in skirmishes for weeks or months at a time. When he was younger, that meant being dropped off to stay with friends of his father. More recently, depending on the campaign and the associated danger, he would sometimes get to tag along to the initial encampments. Jaiden loved that.
Nothing quite compared to the smell of a hundred campfires and the songs of courage men sang to convince themselves they too would be brave when the moment of truth arrived. There were always opportunities to get some sparring in with the younger soldiers as well, or their sons with similar circumstances. Story-telling, horses, men in fancy armor, the silent shroud of impending danger lingering over everything – all of it a real-life fairy tale.
This new excursion didn’t offer such opportunity. “Who are you fighting this time, Papa?” Jaiden asked as he stood and cleared their bowls from the table. He remembered, of course, but liked hearing about his father’s enemies as much as possible, each detail feeding his imagination when he’d pretend to battle them later. His father didn’t know, but almost every day he was gone to battle Jaiden defeated the same opponent over and over – it helped him feel connected.
“I’m going south, past the boundaries of the Cradle, too far for you to join me. The self-proclaimed ‘Empire’ of Chelpa is trying to spread beyond the jungles again. This time is different, though. Their new king is supposedly some fanatical zealot who worships one of the old gods.” Jaiden’s father stopped talking to heft his bulging pack over his shoulders and across his back.
“You’ve fought against Chelpians before, haven’t you?” Formerly vanquished foes made for more reassuring opponents in Jaiden’s eyes.