For generations the Troll
Wars have ravaged the northern Imperial Highlands with no end in sight.
Through it all, the people took solace in their faith that trolls were
unorganized and incapable of doing more than causing a nuisance to those
who lived outside of the cities. But something has changed.
For five thousand years the Race Wars plagued all of the creatures of the Seven Kingdoms. It was a particularly dark time in the history of a nation that had once been a land of peace and prosperity. During this age, the races of the world fought against each other, allowing fear and prejudice to command, rather than intelligently seeking a solution.
A solution had eventually been found, though not the one that many had envisioned. Five races had the foresight and ability to trust and band together—including the humans, elves, dwarves, centaurs, and gnomes—in an attempt to bring an end to the wars. They succeeded in their efforts, decimating the forces aligned against them, only to be betrayed from within by the humans.
Following the Race Wars, the humans claimed the land for themselves, ultimately destined to break into another conflict—the Great Wars—that lasted until a group of idealists, led by a man named Conrad, united the humans and forged the Imperium. For the past twenty years, the Imperium has thrived and the people of the Seven Kingdoms have enjoyed a peace that has not been seen in many millennia.
One Kingdom though, Falestia, has never quite fit in with the trends of time. A Kingdom deeply rooted in heritage and beliefs, Falestia had not been part of the Great Wars seeking additional lands and domination. Instead, they only defended their borders and reacted if attacked by others. They also fought in the Race Wars, but only in their own borders, never leaving Falestia, and never betraying the alliances they had formed together.
The people of Falestia had agreed to become members of the Imperium, under the leadership of a beloved King—Worren—but every citizen of Falestia still considers themselves to be Falestian. The pride and honor that every man, woman, and child felt had been passed down from generation to generation, and very few could ever understand what kept Falestians so true to their nature, even other humans.
Although the Falestians have not wandered from their lands, the northernmost Kingdom of the Imperium, they remain the one Kingdom still in conflict. Not amongst themselves, as many other Kingdoms had been, but with trolls. The trolls of Falestia refused to submit following the conclusion of the Race Wars. Whereas their kin to the southwest in the swamps of Tenalong had migrated into seclusion, the trolls of Falestia formed small tribes and war parties that continued to strike out at any creature that was not like them.
For nearly three centuries, these attacks were infrequent, and largely isolated incidents. Farmers or merchants may have been raided, but typically it had been attacks on small groups of people. Livestock was often claimed, but the people usually managed to flee in most instances. A little over a century ago, that all changed.
The trolls of Falestia banded together, under the leadership of a particularly ruthless and bloodthirsty troll named Kovag. Under her leadership, the trolls became more daring, lashing out at much larger targets, and butchering everyone in sight. The attacks became much more frequent, brutal, and devastating. The Troll Wars soon began, and have raged ever since.
Two primary groups have made it their goal to track down and eliminate the troll threat. The first are the Falestian Guards, comprised of salaried soldiers who have enlisted to serve Falestia, regardless of stature or birthright. They are the armies that fight in the wars, protecting the people of Falestia as much as they can.
The second are the Falestian Knights, men who are legendary in name and stature, and admired by the people. They are the knights of noble birth who have taken up the mantra of safeguarding their homeland. They are the elite and well respected. Even the Falestian Guards consider the Falestian Knights to be their Generals in all skirmishes.
One such knight is Rawthorne, son of Lorrents, and nephew of King Worren. Rawthorne is young for a knight, and some consider his time served as a page and a squire to have been far too short, but his valiant deeds and victories in battle against the trolls have quickly silenced those that spoke against him.
Rawthorne was one of thirty knights sent to track marauding trolls that have been plaguing travelers between Arenberg and Reuland. Following the trolls into the Kreblahn Mountains, the knights felt confident that this particular threat would soon be dealt with appropriately. Nearly a hundred Falestian Guards marched along with the knights, creating a force that most consider to be overkill.
The Falestian Knights were armored nearly from head to toe in steel. Each knight had slight variations either to color, or design, or to the emblem upon their shields, representing their family line. For Rawthorne, he wore a leather belt with a golden emblem of a lion’s head around his waist; the same symbol was upon both his breastplate and shield.
The Falestian Guards were not nearly as well protected as the knights. Very few had steel, and only some were fortunate enough to have leather. Most wore kilts in the color of their families, tunics, and a skullcap. They carried wooden bucklers and short swords, or spears. Those that were better garbed either had served in the Falestian Guard longer, earning more to invest in their wardrobes, or had been fortunate to come from a family with a profitable trade.
Rawthorne glanced up, looking at the ledges and the mountains that they were traveling through. He knew that it was not his place to question Sir Brune, the knight who was leading this expedition, but this area seemed perfect for an ambush. If he were the trolls, he would strike here where forces could easily be divided and potentially decimated. The trolls of old may not have thought of that, but under the leadership of Kovag, Rawthorne thought that an ambush would be quite feasible.
By his side, Rawthorne glanced over at Grizz, a knight who befriended Rawthorne and fought by his side on many occasions. “This path smells bad.”
“Like trolls,” Grizz agreed, lifting his nose and sniffing. “They’re nearby.”
Rawthorne knew to trust his friend. Grizz had a few secrets that he wanted to keep, but Rawthorne had learned enough to trust Grizz’s instincts and senses. “Think Brune will use his head, or lose it?”
“It’s all of our heads I’m worried about,” Grizz replied, shrugging. “He’s up to something.”
Rawthorne glanced up and saw Brune step down from his horse. He knelt down, studying the ground, and then held his arm out, letting his falcon land upon it. Rawthorne could never understand how Brune could communicate with the bird, but if there was some kind of bond, having something that could fly and scout an area was invaluable. Of course, he sincerely doubted that Brune could communicate with the falcon.
Rawthorne could not hear what Brune was saying, but another knight, Kieldor, pointed at Rawthorne and Grizz, and beckoned them to follow him. Kieldor, Rawthorne remembered, was one of the knights that criticized his quick advancement. Though he no longer criticized Rawthorne—at least to his face—Rawthorne also did not trust the way the man grew quiet whenever he was around.
The three, along with two other knights and half a dozen Falestian Guards made their way up to where Brune was waiting. Brune always appeared imposing, with highly ornate armor, painted mostly blue by someone who clearly was more of an artist than a blacksmith. Upon his chest was the emblem of a griffin. Upon his brow, Brune did not wear a normal knight’s helm, but instead a two-horned helm that easily identified him on a battlefield.
“It is getting dark, but this is no place to stop,” Brune said.
“You can say that again,” Grizz said under his breath.
Rawthorne heard him, a grin creasing his lip. He knew that he should show more respect for Brune. His father and Brune were old friends, but Rawthorne also did not like the way that the seasoned knight rarely allowed Rawthorne to have any authority, even in the most menial assignments.
“There is a clearing up ahead, maybe an hour’s ride from here. The mountain path narrows between here and there, and I need you to scout ahead and make sure there are no trolls waiting for us.”
“Wonderful,” groaned Grizz. “Let us spring the trap and risk our lives, and then he comes in looking like a hero when he saves the day.”
Kieldor brought his horse over and slapped Grizz on the back of the head. “Be silent!”
Grizz’s eyes narrowed into slits, and Rawthorne could swear that his normal brown irises flashed to yellow for the briefest moment before returning to brown.
“If you have something to add, I would be glad to hear it, Sir Grizz,” Brune said.
“Nothing sir, sorry,” Grizz replied.
“We will remain fifty yards behind you at all times,” Brune continued, either ignorant of Grizz’s remarks, or ignoring them. “If there are any problems, we will be right there. Sir Kieldor, command is yours.”
“Thank you, Sir Brune,” Kieldor replied with a nod. He then glared at both Rawthorne and Grizz. Rawthorne did not like the way Kieldor was looking at him. He did not say anything this time, and already he was somehow in trouble. Typical.
The five knights and six guards made their way up the mountain path, alert and watching for any sign of attack. Rawthorne glanced back, watching as Brune nodded encouragingly. This was it: they were about to spring the trap, and only by the grace of the gods would they survive. At least, Rawthorne thought, a banshee had not visited his tent the prior night. If it had, the omen would certainly mean that he would fail to survive this day.
Rawthorne tightened his grip on his sword, a small solace, but his weapon was all that he had. Fastened to his horse was his warhammer. He always began a skirmish with his sword and shield, but if he were to ever lose one, the warhammer was a welcome replacement. At six and a half feet and having muscles that often made him look more like a sarnal than a man, fighting with the bludgeoning weapon was often preferred to a blade of finesse.
A small pebble struck Rawthorne in the face. Instantly alert and focused, he glanced up, and though he did not see anything, he felt as if they had found the trolls. “Ambush!”
Kieldor, who had been in the lead, turned his horse around and glanced at Rawthorne. He saw Rawthorne looking up, and did as well. “What are you shouting about?”
The knights searched for sign of the trolls, but nothing could be seen. Rawthorne was positive, but if they were there, the trolls were doing a good job of concealing themselves. “Trolls, on the ledges,” he explained.
“Does anyone else see anything?” asked Kieldor, an edge of impatience in his voice.
“Nothing,” one of the other knights replied.
“I don’t see anything,” the last said.
Kieldor glared at Rawthorne. “Go ahead; let them know precisely where we are.” Shaking his head in disgust, Rawthorne heard him add, “A son of Lorrents should know better than that.”
The remark stung. Rawthorne did not want to sully his father’s name. Lorrents and Worren had been two of five brothers. The other three had been killed in a raid by trolls. Rawthorne also had an elder brother; he too had been lost in the struggle against Kovag and her trolls. He would honor their memory and take as many of the trolls with him as he could.
“Look out, avalanche!” shouted Grizz.
Rawthorne glanced up, horrified as large boulders began raining down on them. So the trolls had been up there.
“Move it!” Kieldor shouted.
The knights rode forward, moving away from the avalanche. The Falestian Guards did their best to run, but only one managed to make it safely beyond the falling rocks. Rawthorne glanced at the debris, and ground his teeth together: Brune may only be fifty yards away, but they could have been in Reuland for all the good that they would do them.
“Here they come!”
Rawthorne tightened his grip on his sword. He watched as trolls began dropping from the mountains, hanging on to ropes and swiftly descending towards them. From further ahead, several other trolls were coming as well.
The Falestian Guard screamed, and Rawthorne turned in time to see a troll grab him by the head and lift him up off the ground. The guard was swung into the debris, his back breaking and his life leaving his broken body.
He could hear the trolls talking to each other. The words sounded like a human choking and gasping for air. How any creature could understand a dialect like that was beyond Rawthorne.
“Hold the line!” Kieldor shouted.
The thought was almost ludicrous. They were down to five knights, and as Rawthorne looked around, there were at least a dozen trolls that were coming at them from above and only the gods knew how many more charging toward them. The trolls were larger, bulkier, stronger, and more resistant to injury. This fight would be over before it even began.
Rawthorne had heard his father say that the trolls that fought their ancestors had done so only with brute strength and claws. The trolls under Kovag were far more sophisticated and lethal than that. The trolls gathered the weapons of their victims, arming them with swords, spears, and axes that were just as well crafted as any Falestian Knight. Those that had not managed to steal a weapon typically made one, usually some kind of spiked club. Regardless of what they used, this generation of trolls was far deadlier than the last.
Rawthorne swung his sword down to strike the first troll that got close enough to him on the head. The troll shifted to the side, only being struck on the shoulder. Rawthorne saw the familiar green blood of the trolls, and felt a bit nauseous when some splattered onto his face. Rumor around the encampment was that the blood of trolls could be deadly if refined properly, but Rawthorne was convinced that it could harm him as it was.
The troll did not slow by the strike, and dove for Rawthorne’s horse. He knew it was too late the instant the troll’s hands reached the white neck of his mount. It had been a good horse, but the troll broke its neck, dropping it lifelessly to the ground. Rawthorne braced for the impact, and rolled as he struck the ground. He lost his shield, but took his sword in both hands and drove the blade all the way to the hilt into the chest of the troll.
The troll lifted its head and roared in agony, but Rawthorne knew that the resilient beast was far from dead. That was the problem with trolls: it took much more to kill them than it did for them to kill a human. With all of his might, Rawthorne began lifting the sword up as much as he could. The troll stopped roaring and glared down at Rawthorne. Rawthorne then yanked the sword straight up, pulling it free at the troll’s throat.
The troll stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, but still was glaring at Rawthorne and very much alive. Rawthorne stepped forward, glared down at the troll, and drove his sword into its forehead. There was no creature alive that could survive a sword being thrust into their heads. At least, that was what Rawthorne assumed to be true. Regardless, the troll was finally dead.
The death of one troll was insignificant. Rawthorne turned to face another foe, and saw that only he, Grizz, and Kieldor were still alive. The trolls had numbers, and it took too long to kill them. It was inevitable, but Rawthorne hoped that he could send at least a few more to Tanorus in honor of his family name.
Grizz’s sword was battered away, and Rawthorne saw that his friend was defenseless. “Grizz, change!”
“No!” Grizz shouted. “I must not!”
“Change!” Rawthorne shouted again. “It’s your only chance! Perhaps our only chance!”
Grizz’s eyes flashed yellow again, and then brown hair began growing from his skin. He grew larger and the steel armor snapped apart at the seams as his body became too big for it. Grizz was no longer human, but resembling some kind of humanoid bear.
Rawthorne knew how difficult it was for Grizz to change into this shape. He had discovered what Grizz was years ago, and was one of the few people who knew the knight’s secret. Grizz, though of noble birth, was not entirely human. His father had been a noble, but he married a girl who had amnesia. The girl, it turned out, was not human, but a metamorph. Those traits were passed along to Grizz and he is able to look like a human, become a nine-foot bear, or be a hybrid of the two.
Metamorphs were feared throughout the realm. They were the one race that could pass themselves off as human and fool people into thinking that they were normal. If Grizz was revealed as a metamorph, then his life, as well as that of his mother would be forfeit. Rawthorne could see that this fact was going through Kieldor’s mind as he stared disbelievingly at Grizz.
In his hybrid state, Grizz was immensely strong, and broke the necks of two trolls that had been near him. With a swipe of his clawed hands, a third troll fell to the ground dead. Rawthorne grinned; feeling for the first time since they had been trapped that there might be some chance that they could get out of this.
Kieldor must have been in a state of shock. He was so transfixed by Grizz, that he did not see the troll come up behind him, digging a sword into his back beneath his breastplate. Kieldor screamed in agony as the troll lifted him from the ground, and Rawthorne watched as the troll grabbed Kieldor by the mouth and pulled backwards, ripping his jaw from his face.
Rawthorne cringed and turned away. He may dislike Kieldor, but nobody deserved a fate like that. Seeing his horse, Rawthorne dove for it and grabbed his mallet from his saddle. He dug his sword in the ground, leaving it where it was perched in case he needed it again. His weapon of choice, his warhammer, would be the weapon he would fight to his dying breath with.
A troll grabbed him by the shoulder, spinning him around. Rawthorne allowed the troll to do so, and used the momentum to bring his warhammer swinging up and striking the troll beneath the chin. The trolls head snapped up, breaking his neck, and fell lifeless. The warhammer was much more effective, Rawthorne thought.
With ample enemies to choose from, Rawthorne stepped toward the closet troll and swung his hammer. He slammed it into the troll’s chest, and heard the satisfying sound of ribs cracking. The troll staggered backwards, clutching his chest. Rawthorne went in for the kill, but was knocked to the side by another troll.
He hit the ground hard and Rawthorne could taste blood in his mouth. Raising back up to his feet, he saw the trolls circling around him, closing in for the kill. Further away, Grizz was in the midst of trolls, slashing, clawing, and biting at them as much as possible, but Rawthorne saw that trolls were hanging on to his neck and dragging him down. At least metamorphs usually returned back to their human forms when they died; Grizz’s mother would be in no danger of discovery when they found her son’s body.
“Let’s end this,” Rawthorne growled as he charged into the midst of trolls. It was a foolish attack, but the battle was already lost. The trolls were not as mindless as most people thought. They were just as smart as any man, and under the leadership of Kovag, perhaps even a bit sneakier than people gave them credit for. Until the Falestian Knights realized that, their fates would be the same as those that fell this day.
* * * * *
He heard water trickling. Every inch of his body hurt. If he was dead and in Wolhollm, why was he still in pain? Should he not be in the Hall of Heroes at his prime? Rawthorne opened his eyes, and could not tell whether he truly had his lids open or not. Everything around him was dark. That was, everything except for two glowing bluish-green eyes that were watching him.
“Arise, Sir Rawthorne.”
“What is this?” asked Rawthorne as he tried to get to his feet. “Am I dead?”
“That may yet be your fate, but for now, you still are on Terra, your mortal life spared by the Oracle.”
“The Oracle?” asked Rawthorne, confused. The last thing he remembered, he was charging trolls, about to be killed by the vast number of foes. Now, the Oracle had spared him? Everyone in Falestia had heard of the mysterious Oracle, and her organization known as the Eye, but to his knowledge, nobody had ever seen the Oracle before.
“This way,” the voice said, definitely a feminine voice.
“Where are my allies?” Rawthorne asked. “Grizz?”
“Your friend still lives, though barely. He is being tended to, as the Oracle commands.”
Rawthorne wished that he could see Grizz and check on him personally, but the eyes turned and he could tell that they were walking away. He could not see at all without the glowing eyes to illuminate things slightly for him, but he did his best to follow, though he walked into several things and cussed out loud.
The female stopped, grabbed Rawthorne by the gauntlet, and pulled him after her. Once she did, he did not walk into anything else. Rawthorne felt a little insulted, but also was grateful for the guidance.
He was brought into a chamber, or at least he thought it was a chamber. Several candles illuminated as if by magic, and Rawthorne could barely make out a figure on the other side of the room. The woman who was leading him let go of his gauntlet and vanished somewhere behind him. He was sure that he was being watched, and felt as if dozens of eyes were upon him, but other than the figure in the room with him, he could not see anyone.
“Sit,” the figure said, also a feminine voice, but clearly an elderly one.
Rawthorne decided not to risk moving too much, even with the dimly lit candles, and sat where he was.
“Welcome, Rawthorne,” the woman said. “I am the Oracle.”
“You know me?” Rawthorne asked.
“I know many things,” the Oracle replied.
“Forgive me,” Rawthorne said, pausing. “The last thing I remember, I was cut off from my allies and was about to be killed by trolls.”
“I had my people save you,” the Oracle said.
“Why would you do that?” skeptically asked Rawthorne.
“You have a role to play in fate,” the Oracle said. “One that could not be fulfilled if you were to perish this day.”
“Fate? A role?” scoffed Rawthorne. “My fate is to serve King Worren and kill as many trolls as I can.”
“Are you so certain?” the Oracle asked.
“I have no doubt,” Rawthorne replied challengingly.
“You may not always feel the same way,” the Oracle cryptically said. “How do you feel about other races?”
“What do you mean?” asked Rawthorne.
“Those that are not human,” the Oracle specified.
“Trolls are meant to be slaughtered,” Rawthorne said, clarifying his position.
“What of dwarves or ja’drall?”
Rawthorne tried to see the Oracle better, but could not make out her features. What was she trying to get at? There were not many dwarves and ja’drall that he had met, but King Worren has both at the capital and counts them amongst their allies.
“I have no problem with them,” Rawthorne said.
“What about orcs?”
“What are you trying to get at?” growled Rawthorne impatiently.
“Orcs were nearly as deadly as the trolls during the Race Wars,” the Oracle clarified. “How do you feel about them?”
“They are an inferior race that should be hunted into extinction,” Rawthorne snapped. “All they do is breed and spread disease.”
“How would you feel if your King opened his arms to orcs? Treated them as equals?”
“It would never happen,” scoffed Rawthorne.
“It shall,” the Oracle said. She waited for Rawthorne to say something, but when he did not, she continued. “There are barbarians that migrate through your lands, is that not so?”
“It is,” Rawthorne said. “They show no respect for other people’s property.”
“What if they too became allies and equals by your King?”
“I grow weary of your games,” Rawthorne said. “I demand you tell me what you want with me!”
“It is not what I want with you, but what fate has in store for you,” the Oracle said.
“Fine, what is that then?”
“Are you sure you are ready to hear it?”
“Just tell me,” sneered Rawthorne.
“The King you love so dear will do all that I have said and more. I mention the above only to show you the signs that what I say is true.”
“We shall see,” Rawthorne said, dubiously.
“We shall,” the Oracle confidently replied. “Once you see that my words are true, then know that this too is truth: you will sit upon the Falestian throne.”
“Impossible,” laughed Rawthorne. “My Uncle is King, and one day the throne will go on to his son.”
“The son that will be born on the day you return to Reuland will hold your fate in his hand. His compassion will redeem you, and his hatred will damn you. Only he will determine if you live or die.”
“Redeem me from what?”
“The deeds you will do,” the Oracle said.
“You will claim the Falestian throne and restore balance and order to the Kingdom,” the Oracle said.
“If Worren is King, and has a male heir, how would I become King?” asked Rawthorne.
“By taking the throne.”
“Taking it?” snorted Rawthorne. “I would never betray my King.”
“If you do not, then all you hold dearly will be lost,” the Oracle said. “It is your blade that will claim the life of King Worren. It is you who will order the death of Prince Braksis. It is you who shall claim the throne of Falestia. As it was written, so it shall be.”
Rawthorne considered the name of Braksis for a moment. Was that supposed to be the name of Worren’s future progeny? How could the Oracle know the name of an unborn child? This was all some kind of elaborate joke, and Rawthorne was not amused.
“If the son is dead, how does he hold my fate in his hand?” asked Rawthorne, poking holes at the prophecy.
“As it was written, so it shall be,” the Oracle repeated.
The candles blew out leaving Rawthorne alone in the dark. He slowly stood up, being careful not to hit anything. This encounter was rather disturbing, and he could not see any way that what the Oracle said would ever come to pass, but it was also something that he would not soon forget. He only hoped and prayed that what she said was a mistake. The future she described was one that he wanted no part of.
“I felt him!”
“Her,” Madaline playfully corrected.
Worren kept his hand on his wife’s belly, waiting for another kick, and when he felt it, grinned joyously from ear to ear. “A good strong kick, definitely a boy.”
“Would a daughter be so bad?”
“We shall have many daughters,” Worren said, lovingly looking into his wife’s eyes. “But this child is a boy. As sure as I am King, he is the heir.”
“When you talk like that, I almost believe you,” Madaline sighed. “But we’ll only know for sure when he’s born.”
“Hah, you see, now you say ‘he’ too!” Worren cheered, leaning back and taking his hand from her belly. “Seriously though, boy or girl, as long as our baby is healthy, that is all that matters.”
“That’s the husband I love,” Madaline said, beckoning him toward her for a kiss. “It should be any day now. I can feel it.”
“I am glad,” Worren said. “I was afraid that I would be away from the castle during the birth.”
Madaline did not have a response, but her eyes spoke volumes. Her husband had obligations and responsibilities. He was not just for her and their baby, he was King, and all of Falestia depended upon him. Not only that, he was a great king, beloved by the people and feeling as if he needed to personally be involved in nearly every hardship the Falestians went through. She did not mind him helping to build new homes, the lumnia field, or a new stable. It bonded him with his people and let them know that their king did not consider himself above them. What did bother her was when he felt as if he had to personally lead his forces into battle against the trolls. Trolls were vicious, deadly, and far harder to kill than a human.
On the nights he went to war she rarely slept, instead looking out the window of the royal bedchambers or sitting on a balcony or terrace, just listening to the nighttime wind howling. Out there, somewhere, she knew her husband could be fighting for his very life, for the lives of his people, and though she admired his dedication and exalted sense of nobility, she hated the constant waiting and guessing whether this would be the time he failed to return home.
“Has there been any news?” Madaline asked, not really wanting to know the answer for fear that he would be taken away from her.
“Sir Brune returned a short while ago,” Worren replied. “I will hear his report when Lorrents and Warlord Drukman arrive.”
Madaline lowered her eyes, knowing that when he heard whatever Brune had to say, he would feel inclined to go off on an adventure. He could not possibly stay to see the birth of his first child if some of his people were suffering or in danger. The knowledge of that conviction both infuriated her and also made her love him even more. She knew he loved her, and their unborn child, but she also knew that his dream of Falestia and the future were equally as important. Without him, the trolls likely would have conquered the Kingdom by now, and what kind of a future would their child have then?
Worren reached out and gently lifted her chin. “I shall not leave before the baby is born.”
“How can you promise that?”
“I shall not leave before the baby is born,” he repeated. “On my honor, you have my oath.”
Tears began welling in Madaline’s eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Worren embraced his wife, gently patting her back as she cried into his shoulder. There was no place he would rather be than here with her. If he had his way, he would never leave her side, never allow her out of his sight, but he was also King, and that held certain responsibilities.
The door knocked, and Worren eased his wife back down onto the bed, turned around, and said, “Enter.”
The double doors were arched at the top and reached fifteen feet high in the air. The royal bedchambers themselves had twenty-foot arched ceilings with such breathtaking designs from some of the most gifted artists who had ever lived. The furniture was comfortable, but designed with gold and elaborate markings befitting of a king. The room stretched nearly fifty feet, with windows as large as the doors overlooking Lake Senya behind Reuland Castle.
Behind their bed, a portrait of Worren and Madaline had been painted, her sitting on the throne and him standing beside her. He had desired the best for the painting, and sent word throughout the realm. A woman from another continent—from Aezia—answered the summons and painted their portrait with such skill that Worren had been sorry to see her set sail for home. He had offered her land and as many supplies as she would ever need for her craft, but home was where she wished to be.
He could understand that. He could respect that. No matter how far he traveled, it was always the mountains and hills of Falestia that called to him. Some say that Danchul was a perpetual eden, but he could not stand it there. It was too humid most of the time for his liking. He preferred the changing seasons of Falestia, the beauty of the mountains after the first snow, and the smell of nature when life began to flourish once more.
The double doors opened and the familiar face of Dobbins stood in the doorway. Nearly a foot shorter than Worren, Dobbins looked frail by comparison. His hair was showing sign of aging, that was, what hair he had remaining along the sides of his head. He was garbed in an elegant burgundy suit with a white vest and matching ruffled shirt. Every inch of the man looked as if he spent hours fussing over his appearance, including the white gloves on his hands that did not even betray a single hint of dirt.
“My apologies for the intrusion, my King, but they are ready for you,” Dobbins said.
“Thank you, Dobbins,” Worren replied. “I’ll be back soon,” he promised his wife.
As Worren stood up, behind Dobbins, half a dozen female servants, all dressed in simple burgundy gowns made their way into the room to tend to the Queen’s needs. Worren smiled politely to each one, and then made his way from the room. Dobbins closed the double doors behind him.
Standing next to Dobbins, Worren looked almost like he had the physique of a barbarian—a full foot taller, a more muscular and strong physique, and a certainty about him that drew the attention of anyone who ever met the man. He was not as formally dressed as Dobbins, wearing only a tunic, kilt, and sandals. When he was not required to look his station, Worren always preferred comfort to fashion.
Worren had dark brown hair that he always cut short and trim, regardless of the style that most of his knights seemed to follow with long flowing hair. His eyes were green, but more so than the color, his gaze was always warm, caring, and compassionate. When needed, his demeanor was stern and serious, but otherwise, he was always smiling, laughing, and living life to its fullest.
“This way, sir,” Dobbins said.
“Lorrents and Drukman have arrived?”
“They have, sir,” Dobbins replied.
Lorrents was Worren’s youngest brother by eleven years. There had been five sons of the late King Woltor, the other siblings lost in one of the many skirmishes. Lorrents was a proud and passionate man who shared Worren’s ideals and visions for their Kingdom. Rather than residing together in Reuland Castle, Worren appointed Lorrents the lord of Arenberg, the other large Falestian city. Until his son was born and ready to rule, if anything happened to him, Lorrents would claim the leadership of the Kingdom. Worren had no doubt that his brother would make a good king, and was sure that if that ever happened, all Falestians would be in good hands.
Warlord Drukman had no relations to the royal family, but was certainly connected to Lorrents. The two had been a childhood friends before Drukman became a knight in service to Worren’s father. Though young, he had a keen mind and the ability to almost instantly analyze the strategy of the trolls on any battlefield, gaining him his promotion to Warlord—the military leader of the Falestian forces. The only mark against his impeccable service was a rift that developed between him and Lorrents over a girl—one who Lorrents married and had a son with. Drukman certainly had not been pleased with the union, and had been just as crushed as Lorrents when she died during childbirth. Ever since, he has been a little less empathic, a lot colder and professional, but just as skilled as always.
As they were walking, Worren and Dobbins passed other servants along the way—cleaning, organizing, or seeing to assorted chores. The families of the servants all had quarters built on the lower levels of Reuland Castle, something Worren had wanted added shortly after he became king. To call them quarters did not give them justice—it was like each servant lived in a mini-estate, giving their families a home that truly showed just how much Worren valued their services.
Each servant stopped his or her work to look at Worren, smile, say “Hello, my King,” or greet him with a nod, bow, or curtsey. Worren responded to each one, acknowledging the servants by name, something that very few kings would ever take the time to learn. For Worren, it was more than courtesy, these people shared his home, and they were like family to him. To not know their names, or details of things happening in their lives, would be a sin to him.
The two reached one of the dozens of chambers in the castle, this one more of a display room where Worren had hand built nearly thirty swords, axes, halberds, and spears that adorned the walls. He rarely used weapons he constructed in battle, relying more upon the sturdy designs of Zanielle, a Tregador dwarf who moved to Reuland and established a blacksmith’s shop, but enjoyed forging weapons of his own just to see what he could make.
Inside the room, Worren saw his younger brother, Warlord Drukman, and Sir Brune—one of the most respected knights in service to the Kingdom. All three appeared agitated and on edge.
“What happened?” Worren asked, knowing at once that something was wrong.
“Our scouting party was ambushed,” Brune said. “We lost many good men.”
Worren looked at Lorrents, saw him trying to avert his eyes, and in that moment knew. “Rawthorne?”
“He’s gone,” Lorrents whispered.
Lorrents stood over six feet, but was still a couple of inches shorter than his brother. They shared the same dark brown hair, a genetic gift from their father, though Lorrents wore his long and let it flow freely over his shoulder. His eyes were a piercing blue, and at the moment, Worren could see that they demanded vengeance for the loss of his son. He too wore a kilt, a blue and green plaid one, with a formal navy jacket and his sword strapped to his back.
“Tell me what happened,” Worren prompted.
Brune relayed the information of the troll attack in intricate detail, leaving out nothing. Worren listened intently, absorbing every word. When Brune was done, Worren closed his eyes, visualizing the battle.
“We must respond,” Warlord Drukman declared.
“Of that you can be assured,” Worren said, reaching out and comfortingly rubbing his brother’s shoulders. “The trolls will pay for what they have taken from us.”
“Thank you,” Lorrents said.
“Begin assembling the Falestian Knights and Falestian Guards,” Worren instructed. “We march as soon as Madaline gives birth.”
“We’re waiting for your child to be born?” scoffed Drukman. Standing at six feet and five inches, he was an inch taller than Worren, though his musculature and physique would more than put the King to shame. Whenever Drukman was not fighting or leading, he was running, lifting various objects and weights, and pushing himself to become bigger and stronger. His hair was a pale blonde, kept long like Lorrents, but tied back in a ponytail.
“I gave my word,” Worren said. “The baby shall be born any day. Have our forces prepared to depart, and the night my child enters this world, we will march on the trolls.”
“What if they are gone by then?” Drukman asked.
“Then we’ll track them,” Worren said. Glancing at Lorrents. “They will not get away. You have my word on that, too.”
“Thank you, brother,” Lorrents replied. “I know what the word of a son of Woltor is worth. We shall be prepared the moment my nephew or niece is here.”
“Has anyone notified the families of the other knights who were lost?” asked Worren.
“Not yet,” Sir Brune replied. “I shall see to it though.”
“Kieldor just had a son…” Worren said, his words trailing off as if pondering whether someone would need to be telling Madaline that he was never returning. “Murad, I believe. Not even two months ago.”
“I will take care of it,” Brune said. “Kieldor and I were old friends. I owe it to him to tell Edna.”
“I will accompany you,” Worren said. “No words will make up for the loss of a husband and father, but I am the one who sent him to war, it is I who must tell her.”
“What of the others?” Brune asked.
“We best get started,” Worren said. “This may be a long night.”
Worren and Brune made their way from the room, leaving Lorrents and Drukman behind. Five knights were lost. One, his nephew Rawthorne. The other four, he would be meeting their families tonight. He hated to admit that two he had never met. Like Rawthorne, they were young. Sir Grizz and Sir Terranova. Two potential stars snuffed out in a war that never ended. It was a waste; one that Worren prayed daily would soon come to an end.
Sipping his wine, Worren sat in a study adjacent to the royal bedchambers. Madaline had gone to bed hours before, but Worren needed some time to think and reflect. It was never easy telling a wife, a child, or a parent that their loved one was not coming home. He could have left that uncomfortable duty to Sir Brune, but if he did, then he would not be the King that he aspired to be.
When he told the wife of Kieldor, she had not seemed surprised at all. It was almost as if she had been expecting the news that her husband would not return, and now Worren and Brune had merely confirmed her fears. When she finally gave in to her emotions, she professed that during the last fog, she heard the banshee wailing, and knew that someone close to her would die. She was both upset over the loss of her husband, but also relieved that it had not been Murad who fell victim to death.
Worren never had much faith in the legends of the banshees, but there were legends of them throughout the centuries warning of impending deaths. Some were so worried that they were about to die that they wound up causing it themselves. Worren believed that it was little more than the wind whistling during the fog and people growing scared over the legends. But, Worren also was wise enough not to discount something just because he did not believe or understand it.
Worren took another sip of his wine, remembering the faces of each person he had told of the loss of their loved ones. It was a duty he knew neither his father nor grandfather would have done. They would have left it up to someone else to relay the bad news. Worren loved his people too much to needlessly risk their lives, and even more to turn his back on the families of those who had lost their lives serving him.
Falestia had not always been as fortunate as it is now. His grandfather, King Wilmont had been little more than a tyrant. He ruled with an iron fist, leaving his people in such despair that those who were fortunate abandoned their homeland for the open road and the hope of a better life. His anger and brutality impacted his sons as well—it was widely rumored that he drowned every daughter born—giving them an existence of fear and paranoia.
In the midst of the war with the trolls, Wilmont explained that his actions were to preserve the life of all Falestians. More was lost in his reign than in any time prior to that. When his eldest son, Woltor claimed the throne after Wilmont had been poisoned in his sleep—the identity of the assassin never ascertained—he led not with fury, but with kindness. His actions were met with much skepticism, but Woltor was determined to do the exact opposite of everything his father had ever done, ending the monstrous legacy.
Worren and his brothers grew up in a home full of love, and with people who cherished them. It was only natural that when he became king, he led with his heart and hope for an even better tomorrow. Deep down though, he knew that the monstrosity that was King Wilmont flowed in his veins. Attitudes can change, but the taint of blood was far more everlasting. Worren maintained a constant vigil to make certain he never slipped into the hatred and fury of his grandfather.
Since becoming king, Worren had surpassed even the deeds of his father. The troll wars still raged, but he had become known as the tolerant king, the one who pushed aside generations of prejudice and rose above the hatred. Under his command, envoys had visited the non-human races of Falestia. Some wished to have nothing to do with him, like the sabrenoh, sarnals, and wraith of the mountains. Others, like the dwarves of Tregador were willing to open negotiations for trade with Falestia. Dwarves—even if not many—now lived in Reuland and called it home.
He had also forged an alliance with a race known as the ja’drall. Very little is known about them other than their physical appearance. They are shorter than even dwarves, at only three feet, have violet skin with yellow eyes, ridged foreheads, flat noses, chins with horns jutting downward, and ears that begin just after the horns on the chin and extend up to form pointed tips that trail behind their heads.
They are as different from humans as can be, but Worren came across a group in danger. The ja’drall had attempted to avoid a battle between the Falestians and trolls and wound up being caught in an avalanche. Worren helped the ja’drall, and though the initial group left without showing signs of appreciation, other ja’drall ventured to Reuland to determine the King’s intentions and ultimately forged an alliance with the humans.
To this day, one of Worren’s most faithful and skilled advisors was a ja’drall by the name of Vo. Beyond his service and looks, Worren knew next to nothing. Did Vo have a family? Was he going to remain indefinitely or leave in the near future? Worren didn’t even know what Vo liked to eat, since the ja’drall refused to eat with anyone but their own kind.
Regardless, the ja’drall were a symbol. A symbol of tolerance and progress. They were no longer living in a Kingdom where human supremacy was all that mattered, like so many other Kingdoms in the Imperium. In Falestia, any race would be welcome as long as they came in peace. Worren hoped to expand upon that in time. For now, he would take his ja’drall and dwarven allies, and hope for new friends in the future.
Startled, Worren glanced at the door to the bedchambers as he heard a shriek. Grabbing the closest weapon he could find, a dagger, Worren leapt for the door, barreling it open and jumping into the room, ready for action. On the bed, Madaline lay there, clutching her stomach.
“What’s wrong?” Worren asked, rushing to her side.
“It’s time,” Madaline said through clenched teeth.
“Time?” Worren asked, then his eyes widened. “You mean it’s time?”
“Yes!” Madaline shouted.
“I’ll get Doctor Cohlmer right away!” Worren said, rushing to the double doors and pulling them open. “We’re having a baby!”
Worren rushed through the corridors. It was late. Very late. Even the candles and torches that normally lit the castle through most of the night had long since flickered and faded. The servants were all asleep, but a baby didn’t wait for more appropriate hours.
“We’re having a baby!” Worren shouted again as he ran down a spiral staircase, half whooping in excitement and half in worry for his wife.
Worren saw a candle approaching, and Dobbins, looking every bit as tidy and organized as always walking toward him. Didn’t he ever sleep?
“The Queen is in labor, my King?” Dobbins asked.
“Yes, yes, we’re having a baby!” shouted Worren. “Go summon Doctor Cohlmer.”
“I’m sorry sir, Doctor Cohlmer is in the lower provinces,” Dobbins said, wincing.
“He isn’t back yet?” Worren gasped, the first signs of true fear creeping over his features. Doctor Cohlmer had been the royal family physician since before he had been born. He trusted the man implicitly. But, nearly a dozen ranchers had fallen ill in the past few weeks and he had gone to investigate on Worren’s orders.
“I’m sorry, sir, he is still away.”
“What about his apprentice?” Worren asked. “Sir Veevers son.”
“Podeis?” Dobbins asked.
“That’s him,” Worren nodded enthusiastically. “He’s a bright lad. Go summon him.”
“His training is not complete yet,” Dobbins cautioned.
“He’s good enough to patch up our boys in battle, he’s good enough to deliver the royal heir,” Worren said authoritatively.
“Of course, sir,” Dobbins said. “I’ll send for him at once.”
“We’re having a baby!” Worren shouted as he ran back up the stairs, cheering once more.
Madaline was waiting for him. The pain she had been in the first time he went into the room seemed to have subsided slightly. “Is Doctor Cohlmer coming?”
“He’s away,” Worren said, sitting down on the bed next to her, one hand holding her belly and the other gently rubbing through her hair. “His apprentice, Podeis is coming.”
“He’s just a boy,” Madaline said, paling.
“He’s twenty-three years old. Hardly a boy.”
“Not a doctor though,” Madaline pointed out.
“He has been a trained field surgeon for several years now, and is the apprentice of Doctor Cohlmer. He is more than capable,” Worren added reassuringly.
“Let’s hope he’s quick,” Madaline said as another contraction hit. Worren took her hand and let her squeeze. He tried to soothe her, to calm her down as they waited. It seemed like an eternity. Like a surreal moment when time was frozen and their entire existence was spent waiting for the doctor to arrive. Then, he was there.
Podeis ran into the room, Dobbins calmly walking behind him along with a pair of the Queen’s servants. “Leave us,” Podeis ordered.
Worren glared at him, a little shocked that he felt confident enough to order a king around, but also angry that he was being told to leave when he wanted nothing more than to stay. “This is my wife and my child. I’m staying.”
“Then at least go to the other side of the room,” Podeis demanded, not a flicker of worry in his voice. “I can’t have you loitering over me.”
“Perhaps we should go, sir,” Dobbins prompted, extending his hand toward the double doors.
“Go,” she said. “Our baby will see you soon.”
Worren leaned over and kissed her gently on the forehead. Pulling back, he shot another look at Podeis. “I want to be summoned the instant you are done.”
“You will hear your child crying,” Podeis said as he was unpacking his bag with tools, disinfectant, and objects that Worren shuttered to even think about how they were about to be used on his wife. “Now go.”
Worren stepped into the hall with Dobbins and immediately began pacing. Patience had never been his strong suit. As he walked back and forth, he thought of all of the good times he and Madaline had had together. Their strolls through the gardens, their trip to Trespias, their horseback rides through the hills and valleys, their adventure rafting down river together. She was not just his wife, but like a kindred spirit. They were both of the same heart and desires, and without her, he knew he was just a hollow shell.
The thought of losing her was one he did not want to even consider, but his brother lost his wife giving birth to their son. It was far too common of an occurrence for Worren’s liking. That was one of the reasons that doctors now delivered babies instead of nursemaids. The hope was to protect both the mother and child and provide a better opportunity for both to survive. Podeis wasn’t a doctor yet though. He prayed his aggressive demeanor and confidence in Podeis’s ability would not come back to haunt him.
The halls quickly filled up as servants came to see the King and wait along with him. The castle had been abuzz with thoughts of the new baby, and even at such a late hour he couldn’t keep them away. The company was appreciated, but at that moment, all Worren wanted was to hug his wife, to kiss her, to tell her that everything was going to be all right.
Then, the doors opened. There was silence. The hall was full, but everyone held their breath at once, waiting, hoping to hear good news. One of the servants stepped out, smiling. Smiles were always a good sign, Worren thought. She sought Worren, who made his way straight for her.
“Are they both healthy?”
“They are,” she said.
“Can I see them?”
“Go right on in,” she said.
Worren slowly stepped into the room, trying to tip toe so as not to disturb anyone. Madaline was lying in bed, holding a small blanket. Could the baby be in the blanket?
Podeis walked over to Worren, holding his hand out to shake it. “Congratulations Dad, it’s a boy.”
“A boy?” Worren whispered. “Why isn’t he crying? You said I would hear his crying.”
“He’s as stubborn as you are,” Podeis shrugged. “But he’s fine. He did cry a little, but stopped as soon as he was with his mother.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Worren said.
“I’m not a doctor yet,” Podeis replied.
“Yes, you are.”
Worren made his way to the bed, kneeling onto it and looking at his wife, and then at the baby she was holding. Beside her, the other servant was standing, smiling. “Look at his lashes. He has such beautiful lashes.”
Madaline adjusted the blanket so Worren could see. “Would you like to meet you son?”
“My son,” Worren whispered. “My son!”
“Why don’t we give you some privacy,” Podeis said, beckoning the servant girl to come with him.
“If you need me, m’lady, just call.”
“Thank you,” Madaline said. “Thank you all for everything.”
Once the doors were closed, and the family was alone, Worren leaned over, kissed Madaline on the forehead, then did the same to his son. “You did wonderfully.”
“Would you like to hold him?”
Worren awkwardly looked at his son, but only hesitated for an instant. “I would be honored.”
“Make sure you support his head,” Madaline cautioned as Worren took the baby. “That’s it.”
Worren looked into his son’s face. He had green eyes like his father, though the child had a yellow starburst around his iris. He was so tiny that Worren could have held him with one hand. Tiny, but perfect.
“What do I call him?” Worren asked.
“Three generations of W’s in your name, do you want to continue it?”
Remembering his grandfather and the monstrous legacy, Worren shook his head back and forth. “I want a fresh start for him.”
“How about Braksis?”
“Braksis,” Worren repeated, watching his son’s face. “Are you a Braksis?” As his son smiled at him for the first time, Worren knew that the name was right. “He likes it. Braksis.”
Madaline just smiled. She did not want to mention that it was probably just gas. The name Braksis was perfect. Just like their son.
“Braksis, first son of King Worren, and heir to the Falestian throne.”
Review by: Namta Gupta, Bookpleasures
Company Information Order Options Booksellers Careers Charity Programs
Copyright © 2003 - 2016 Silver Leaf Books, LLC. All rights reserved.