Hurradrum

The Better Mouse Trap

The Battle of Locke’s Hill

Part I

Murdo Droost is eager to begin the slaughter. Even if it means his own grizzly death. For certainly, anything would be better than continuing to slog through this godforsaken realm of watery filth and decay.

MurdoTaking rare sanctuary upon the crest of a rocky outcrop, Murdo casts his steely gaze about in a mixture of open disgust and dogged determination. The warlord of clan Droost surveys the grim, filth covered faces of those nearest. There he finds little doubt about the six hundred or so men who have followed him into this hellhole. Despite the ever-present stench of rotting vegetation and moist earth, the seasoned warrior recognizes the scent of murderous anticipation hanging heavily in the air. Set jaws, furrowed brows, and tense muscles give further evidence to their intent. Today, bloody greed infuses every boot with purpose. Boots that only days before were being wearily tugged at and pried from the fetid muck that constitutes the great northern marshlands.

Dragging his eyes from his men, Murdo spies a weak glow, low on the eastern horizon. The raising sun, slow to burn off the morning’s mist, marks yet another day in a forced march through the world’s largest cesspool. What lies behind it is a full week’s trudging over sucking marshland and unforgiving sinkholes. Land, if it can even be named as such, that has claimed more than one careless victim… all on the promise of glorious battle and riches to be plundered should Murdo’s army make it through and arrive on time. Thankfully, scouts have brought reports of solid footing ahead and the not too distant ground at which he and his men are to find what they’ve come for. With this news his warriors have easily forgotten their misery of days past. They are eager to get to the business of killing. The promise is taking shape. If the timing is correct, an unsuspecting prey should be moving into striking distance.

For with the plan intact, victory is assured. Soon he will be in possession of the key to unlock the power and wealth of this land. It is simply a matter of collecting the heads of those who will fall before his mighty sword. But first things first. He must get himself and his men out of this colossal sewer.

Stepping from his refuge, Murdo Droost growls a few words of encouragement to those who can benefit from his wisdom.

“Well boys, if’n this bitch hasn’t sucked ya dry in seven days, then she ain’t worth the coin you’re payin’! Best ye be humpin’ your limp dicks to more promising ground.”

It’s the kind of remark that gets a few hearty chuckles and more than one or two coarse replies about somebody’s sister. But it serves its purpose and the men trudge steadily onward.

In the passing of the next few hours Murdo eventually sees his army safely out of the marsh’s muddy grip. As the last of his warriors step out and onto dry land, the warlord hocks a brown gob of disdain upon his conquered nemesis. They’ve made it, but with little time to waste. What can be spared is only enough to put some dry cheese and beef down the gullet, while emptying both the contents of boots and bladder.

Scouting the nearby hills, Murdo can’t help but think upon the events that delivered him to this side of the marshlands… to the highlands of Entia… the land of his enemy.

What he wouldn’t give to be warming his aching bones upon the great hearth of den’ifer Clan Droost, with a bowl of wife Morda’s best lamb stew and a tankard of black ale close at hand. For such was his at the moment Fergus O’Chonaill burst into his home, scattering clansmen and dogs alike. Few could be forgiven such transgressions against the peace of his home. But Fergus is just such a man.

FergusIn his mind’s eye, Murdo sees it all happen anew.

Massive strides equal to his towering six and a half feet take Fergus across the not insubstantial hall in less than a dozen steps. Simultaneously he tosses his double headed axe to a startled, but accepting clansman. His immense size and thick limbs belie a cat-like agility, movements that make Fergus one of the more lethal warriors in all of the northern lands. He is a hard man, not to be taken lightly or dismissed easily.

Though technically still summer, there is the hint of the far northern winds in the air. Meaning to warm his meaty hands at the nearby fire, Fergus draws close. Murdo stands and offers his full and untouched tankard to the new arrival. It is the least he should do, considering the giant who just entered his home is the recognized Clanlord and Chieftain of the Twelve Tribes.

Accepting Murdo’s tribute, Fergus gulps more than half its contents down before handing it back with a grunt and a nod.

“We need to talk,” comes Fergus’ gruff words behind a froth-covered mustache and ale soaked beard. “Alone.”

It takes but a single word from Murdo to signal the complete evacuation of those who sought the earlier shelter of the hall. The two men are soon left in conspiracy.

Once alone, Fergus gives a wicked grin behind his full black beard. The only evidence of it existence is in the creases at the corner of each eye. Murdo has known the Clanlord nearly all his days, but as such he almost fails to recognize the tale signs. A smile is a rare thing on Fergus’ stern face.

“I am to be congratulated, my friend,” begins Fergus, slapping Murdo on the back. “Word has it clans McAlesters and McPhersons are at each other’s throat. That they all but went to war at those infernal games they play, and it shouldn’t be long b‘fore they’re more than willin’ to take the field in settlin’ their grievances. When that happens, that bastard of a mouse Locke will have no choice but to poke his head out of that hole he hides in. And doin’ that, the trap will be sprung!”

“So you’ve said before,” offers Murdo after a gulp of what remains in his cup.

“And that’s all fine and good Fergus, but how are ya to know when and where to spring this trap of yours?” Murdo questions. “It’s not as if ya can name the time and place they should decide to start their killin’. Or, for that matter, whether Locke will be there or not.”

Fergus lets a second rare smile reach his eyes. This time it’s a little easier to see.

“Ah, but that is where you, Murdo Droost, are wrong. I’ve already baited the trap with our friends and distant cousins, the Blackmoores. And soon, a third party challenge shall find its way to each clan-head, demanding they settle matters in the old ways. Should the McAlesters and McPhersons react true to form, as I fully expect they will, neither shall think twice before acceptin’ the time and place offered in the challenge. They’ll be too interested in spillin’ the other’s blood to consider any trickery. When that happens, Locke will be right where I want him!”

Reaching over and taking Murdo’s shoulders in each of his giant hands, Fergus squares off on the slightly shorter man, “And that’s where I want you to be. Waiting for Locke and whatever fools of clans McAlester and McPherson should show up.”

“But that could be nearly a thousand strong!” protests the warlord. “You know I’ve never been one to shirk the fight, but I’ll be damned if’n I’ll throw my life away, or those of my men, on a fools errand.” Remembering who the man is that stands before him, Murdo quickly adds, “Or for those of my Chieftain.”

“Nor would I want you to,” assures Fergus. “You are too valued a warrior and friend to throw away. But consider this before ya think me the fool.”

“The challenge will be offered up in the old ways,” states Fergus. “Which means they’ll be leavin’ those bloody bows of theirs at home. And since neither side will want any interference from Locke, they’ll keep quiet about what’s to happen. Only the closest of family will be knowin’. That assures us that most, if not all, of the two clan’s leaders will be present for the killin’. At most, we can expect thirty men to a side. Fifty too sixty between the two.”

Growing ever more excited with the details of his plan, Fergus continues his assessment.

“Then there’s Locke. Certainly the man has a substantial force of arms, but he has a castle to protect and can no leave it entirely undefended. So count on less than half of his numbers takin’ to the field. And don’t forget most of those inside his walls are but miners. Nor can he risk drawin’ on the locals, for they’re just as likely to join either clan in hostilities than help stop it. I estimate Locke will field one hundred fifty men-at-arms, no more. He’ll be there to stop a clan squabble, not fight an unsuspected army.”

Throwing his hands up into the air and walking about the long hall, Fergus delivers what he can only believe to be good news, “That means you’ll be lookin’ at a force of two hundred at most! Certainly not a thousand! And should those idiots, McAlester and McPherson, get to the business of killin’ before Locke arrives, then all the better. He’ll have fewer to come to his aid when you let it be known who the real threat is.”

“All right,” acknowledges Murdo in a challenging, but guarded voice, “let’s say everything you just said holds true. How then is Locke to learn of the ensuing battle? How is he to know when and where to be, if everybody is keeping their mouths shut? Answer me that? And how are we, for that matter, to know that any of this has taken place? Last I checked, neither of us has a magic eye giving witness to what happens across the marshlands.”

“Speak for yourself on that account Warlord Droost!”

Fergus’ earlier excitement has given way to a more menacing presence. His use of Murdo’s formal title reminds the warlord just who is the master in the room.

Dropping the fullness of his dark gaze upon Murdo and taking a step closer, the Chieftain’s words leave no room for a retort. “Leave such matters to me. I assure you, I have such means as to guarantee Locke knowing where to be. As for you, accept what your Clanlord has offered. Prepare your men and be ready to move across the marsh at my orders. I’ll expect you’ll have the necessary force in place within the next three days.”

There was nothing for it. He had to follow his Clanlord’s demands. And though three days was barely enough time to muster men and supplies, it was all the time Fergus gave him. On the morning of the fourth day came word to begin their forced trek across the marshlands. Along with his men, several guides had been secured to keep the large group intact. But even with this precaution, the marsh exacted its toll upon the six hundred and fifty men Murdo deemed essential to his success.

Now, a week later, Murdo and his army have found themselves on the opposite side of the marshlands. And if the mouse has taken the bait, then he should be quickly leading his men into position. It would not serve to be late to the festivities.

As it turns out, the warlord need not have worried. For no sooner are Murdo’s men back to their feet and marching towards their final destination, than one of his advanced scouts comes running back. Though fairly out of breath, the young man has a fresh look of excitement about his face and a desire to convey whatever he has discovered beyond the hills.

Using his official title, the young warrior reports between much needed gasps of air, “Warlord Droost… there has been battle before us… a force in march comes… from the northwest… towards what remains.”

Grinning wickedly, Murdo demands, “Did you view the bodies? Were they highlanders?”

“I believe so,” offers the runner. “I could not get close milord. The force was soon to arrive, and I thought it best to bring you news rather than risk being seen or captured by their outriders.”

“You did well, Shamus. What else?”

“The battle must have been some hours old. Already there are carrion circling the skies. It is what drew me to the ground, and no doubt the others as well. If there are survivors, there is none in evidence. Those that are arriving fly the Locke banner. I estimate no more than what you anticipated.

Murdo can’t help but ask the question, “How many mounted knights?”

“Perhaps a score, not much more. I could not wait to be certain.”

Murdo ponders the number as a manageable risk. He expected as much, even slightly more. Shaking his head, Murdo accepts the man’s assessment, “No, I suppose not. Better to know at least this much, than have you fall into their hands and spoil the surprise.”

Recognizing the runner has little in the way of items to weigh him down, the warlord offers Shamus his own water skin, “Here, drink your fill and then show me the way. We have our own killing to get to.”

Part II

Circling the otherwise clear skies above, Death’s winged messengers proclaim a victory over the once living below. “Just as it should be,” muses Murdo Droost.

Lord spencer lockeBy whatever favor from the gods Clanlord O’Chonaill made this happen, the results surely speak for themselves. All the same, Murdo finds it difficult to believe his own eyes. As predicted, Locke and a force equal to a quarter of Murdo’s own is marching towards the remains of an earlier battle. He could hardly hope for better.

Not wishing to alert the Entians to his presence, Murdo maintains his position, lying flat atop a small rise in the long summer grass. Shamus has led his warlord to the perfect vantage overlooking an open landscape of low rolling hills and the small woodland to the west. Little more than twice the flight of a longbow’s arrow separates the two parties. Certainly, the warlord could signal the attack to begin at anytime, but he wants his opposite to suffer the loss of those already lying dead. For failure has a nasty way of replicating itself, and he wants Locke to have a long, hard look at his lack of success.

An ugly grin plasters itself across the warlord’s thin lips. Turning to the young warrior at his side, Murdo gives voice to his thoughts. “Ya have to appreciate the man’s sense of timing. Locke may be too late to do anything to stop the slaughter between McAlester and McPherson, but he’s right on time to meet his own.”

Shamus looks to his warlord and nods his silent agreement.

Remaining patient and unmoving, Murdo watches the events unfold before him. He awaits the efforts of Locke’s own scouts: their survey of the battle scene, checking for survivors, reporting the lack thereof. The warlord only wishes he were close enough to see the emotions play out across the youngin’s face as he is told the gruesome details. To be able to see Locke begin second-guessing every decision that has led to his all-too-late arrival. The self-doubt seeping in. Asking himself what he should do next. And of course, with every question comes the erosion of certainty, festering and undermining the man’s confidence.

Murdo knows this is the time to gather his own troops and send them forward.

Beginning his low crawl back down the hill, a halting hand is felt upon Murdo’s shoulder. Shamus points towards the open field in front of them. Looking out, the two witness the most unexpected sight.

Riding full tilt towards the remains of the battlefield is what can only be considered a child of seven or eight. A Highland girl if Murdo were to guess by the superior horsemanship and long red braids. Shouts to return follow her, but are ignored. And as if that weren’t enough, it isn’t long before the first child is followed by yet another. By the looks of it, this time it’s a boy of the same general age.

The warlord can do not but shake his head in disbelief. “Of all the people to take into battle, he brings children!”

Turning to the young man at his side Murdo asks, “When did you first pick up the spear and shield?”

“When I was twelve, Warlord.” Shamus proudly replies.

“And how old are ya now, lad?”

“This is my seventeenth summer, Warlord.”

“Bah… I have fleas older than you. Still, I suppose it’s old enough. Unlike them two. Well, I suppose there ain’t nothin’ for it, but to see if they stay out of the way. Should they not get themselves killed, perhaps they’ll make decent slaves once we deal with the rest of ‘em.”

Looking back, Murdo can now see the pair dismounted amongst the corpses. Obviously they are looking for fallen family.

“Come on lad. I got a war to start and plenty more orphans to make this day.”

Quickly regaining the army’s lead, Murdo has his group leaders assembled for a quick and final word. Despite speaking in a low grumble, he has no difficulty being heard by those in attendance.

“Remember, first and foremost we’ve come here to take down Locke. Who, I’m please to say, has done us the good service of showing up today.” A small round of chuckles is offered up. “So let us not waste this opportunity!” continues Murdo. “I repeat, Locke is in no way to be allowed to retreat from the field of battle. If this means having to kill him, then so be it. However, let me also remind you,” And this is said while looking each individual in the eye, “the Clanlord will bestow great favor upon any man who has a hand in presenting him a still breathing captive. That said, consider your actions and those of your men carefully. Are we clear?”

A restrained chorus of agreement meets Murdo’s ears.

Satisfied, the warlord continues, “Good, now let me offer you this bit of cheerful news. Seems the Entians have already done some of our work for us. Clans McAlester and McPherson finally decided to bury the hatchet on their grievances… only they buried it in each other. And fairly deep I might add. You’ll have a good look at their handy work on your way to where I expect Locke will deploy his troops. Just beyond their rotting corpses you’ll also see a large copse of trees. If Locke tries to make a break for it, he might very well head in that direction. Be prepared to cut him off should it come to it. I do no want to have to go in there after him!”

“Aside from that, they’ll have some archers and a score of knights, but we have them outnumbered four-to-one. Keep the men close… shields up when they let loose with those bloody bows… packed spears on the riders when they charge. If we keep it tight, we should be able to overrun their position with little effort and loss of arms. Questions?”

His query is answered with an assured silence.

Offering a final nod Murdo dismisses those listening in, “Very well, get to your men. And remember… it is Locke we want! Now go!”

Flag5As Warlard Droost expected, Locke has failed to turn tail. For how, in good conscience, could he abandon the bodies of his fallen clansmen to be further savaged by either man or beast? Certainly, common sense and the size of force now confronting Locke’s own would dictate a withdrawal from the field. Yet, honor has commanded otherwise. Thus, Murdo is pleased to see his adversary having staked his banner upon a nearby hill, its field of solid black with a white castle at its center flapping lazily in a weak breeze.

Just below the crest of the hill and its flag, the majority of Locke’s men have formed a crescent shaped defensive line. They are steady and well trained, looking capable in their chosen profession as soldiers. Yet, they will not be equal to the task. Murdo Droost swears he will not be denied his victory.

At the head of a far more considerable force, the warlord has brought his six hundred plus warriors forward. They have steadily closed the gap to less than a hundred yards. There his men stop to raise the traditional war chant against the enemy of the day; a mixture of low grunts joined by the banging of weapons on shields that grows in intensity to a final, resounding howl. The cry is enough to make any foe’s blood freeze in his veins. It is their warrior cry, born of a hard fought existence in the far northern lands of Uster. What follows is sheer silence. How long it lasts is a matter for Warlord Droost to decide.

In the calm before the storm Murdo can’t help but search for what is obviously absent from the chosen battlefield: Locke’s cavalry and archers. No doubt the knights have taken temporary refuge behind the hill, from which they will eventually attack his flanks. His captains have been briefed on this likely tactic and will not be taken by surprise. The bowmen are another matter. They too could be behind the hill or possibly in the nearby woods. Surely he will lose some to their arrows. But no matter, before the day is done they too will be put to the sword.

Drawn by movement to his left, Murdo notices the two children from earlier. They have finally remounted their ponies and are hastily making for the false sanctuary of Locke’s troops. “How unfortunate,” growls Murdo under his breath. “They would have been much better off having stayed amongst the dead. Now they must suffer the fate of the living.”

Raising broadsword high above his head, Warlord Droost circles the heavy blade three times and slowly lowers it to shoulder level, pointing stiff armed at the enemy across the open field. It is the signal to move forward, and all along the line his men do so as one.

As if triggered by this hostile act the Entian’s let loose with the first volley of arrows. They arc out from the blind side of Locke’s hill. Their number is unclear, but Murdo estimates near fifty from the feathered shafts that fall from the sky. The accuracy is potentially deadly. Most catch raised shields, with a dozen finding their mark. It isn’t long before a second and third volley rain down in equal effect. Each is on target and at different points along his line. Murdo can only give grudging respect to their skill and curse the eye of whomever is in charge of making adjustments for the constantly changing distance. Wishing to make it a little more difficult on these would-be killers, Murdo decides to hasten the step of his men, bringing the line to a steady trot.

The left flank is just starting to catch an eye-full as they draw closer to the desecrated bodies already littering the field. Murdo can hear it in their derision of the dead Highlanders. See it in the quickening of their pace. The barely restrained desire to add more death to the day’s tally.

With his attention elsewhere, only the reactions of those nearby cause Murdo to raise his shield in time to avert disaster. An instant later the wicked end of a warhead crashes into his small rounded shield, splintering through just above the brace holding onto his left arm. The metal plating over stout wooden planks is barely enough to arrest the arrow’s killing force. But it is still enough to keep the shaft from burying itself into his helm and skull. No such luck is afforded the warrior to his right.

Murdo’s focus is forcefully brought back to what is in front of him, to those upon the hill and the arrows flying out to greet him and his men. They have covered half the distance to the waiting enemy, while more feathered death falls all around.

Scanning the crest of the hill reveals Locke’s banner continuing to flutter in the slight breeze. Beside it stands a knight in fine armor wearing all the trappings of the lord himself. Murdo can only believe it is Locke.

What the warlord can’t reconcile in his mind is the nature of those having joined Locke upon the hill. If he didn’t know any better, Murdo would swear the man has brought along his court jester and the remainder of the nursery to fight in this battle. For where once there were two children, there is now three of a like age. And along with this brood is the most colorful riot of a man, wearing a long feathered, wide brimmed hat, making the oddest of jestures. But Murdo can only give them fleeting interest. More serious matters draw near.

With all of twenty-five yards before the two forces come in contact, Murdo is about to give the signal releasing an all out sprint towards the Entian line. Only his intent is brought up short as a loud explosion to his left commands everyone’s attention. Trailing black smoke falling over dead Highlanders follows the echo across the hills.

At that moment, Warlord Droost’s entire world turns upside down.

Part III

The dead are no longer still. For what should be nothing more than a field of lifeless meat rotting in the noonday sun has suddenly animated into a most ghastly sight. One phrase passes through Murdo Droost’s lips as he looks on. “Ag’siul bas!” Walking death! What others in the world term, necromancy… a black and malevolent word of which the Highland corpses have chosen to heed.

With the horror of the undead now upon them, the entire left flank of Warlord Droot’s line comes to a panicked stop. It is an image that can’t be ignored. Eviscerated guts hang below one man’s knees, another’s left eye at his cheek, while still others feature bloody wounds of horrific consequence. It is a spectacle that taps into every superstitious belief and fear of his northern warriors.

Murdo curses violently in the name of the dark underworld gods. The dead should stay dead. They have no business walking about. It is why Uster burns their greatest heroes, and those that must be buried are done so without their feet. But before his men can compose themselves, seemingly as one, the newly risen offer up a hideous challenge to the living and attack in shocking mass.

Picts attackingYet, at that moment the undead are not the only ones to assault the line. Locke’s archers, having crested the hill, begin firing directly into the invaders. With such close range and strength of pull, only the heaviest of shields and armor stand any chance of deflecting the death to be found in each arrow. So said, few are denied. In three successive volleys from their longbows the front ranks of the Uster center is quickly thinned. And taking the opportunity to press the attack, advancing from the hill, Entia’s line swiftly follows in the chaos of those struck down. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Warlord Droost finds himself in the true thick of it.

Too busy surviving, Murdo is unable to witness the third prong in Locke’s attack. For not only has the Entian Lord brought forth his archers, but so too his knights. They have taken the right flank at full charge. And though only twenty in number, the effect they have is devastating. Those unfortunate enough to be caught upon their long lances and under steel shod hooves give little resistance. Why exactly Murdo’s men failed to follow his directive concerning the use of their own spears against the cavalry, he’ll never know. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that none where aware of the danger until it was much too late to do anything about it. No warning came before the slaughter. One moment their flank was clear; the next, it hosted a full score of trampling steel and sharpened death. As if masked in the mists of magic itself.

To make matters worse, arriving from the west and beyond the trees is another force of Highlanders. By now, the entire left flank of Murdo’s line has been turned and is in collapse. Little better can be said for the right. While any that break through the front of the Entian line are quickly cut down by a barrage of arrows. With all this, doubt of victory begins to seep into Warlord Droost’s consciousness… but only as a distant possibility.

Murdo Droost has lived through worse, and he’s still here to tell the tales. As his father was fond of quoting, “It ain’t over till the fat lady serves the last ale. And even then, there’s still another cask somewhere in the world that needs drinkin’.” Murdo’s sire was never one for an empty mug, and neither is he. He has always been at his best when things were at their worst. It is why he was made Warlord of the Twelve Tribes. Second only to the Clanlord himself.

But such thoughts are little comfort to those suffering the bite of cold steal this day. For swords, axes, and spears continue to be put to ugly use as all around men contest the other’s right to keep breathing. Desecrated bodies soak the ground, turning the late summer grass a rustic brown. And as a growing number of Entian’s join the battle, more and more of Murdo’s warriors fall. The number of the truly dead is beginning to outnumber the living. Where once Warlord Droost boasted superior numbers, he is lucky if he can claim more than half of those he started with. Despite his earlier thoughts, Murdo recognizes the situation is turning sour.

If there is any hope in surviving this day, perhaps it is to be found in the trees. For what was once viewed as a possible escape for Locke is now looking more like Murdo’s only chance at seeing tomorrow. It’ll mean fighting through that which is already dead, but it can’t be helped. There is nothing more than open field and a mounted enemy to the right and behind. And to press forward is to invite death from piercing arrows. No, the trees are his only hope.

Commanding those nearest, Murdo signals a sudden withdrawal from the center. The collapse will leave the right flank to a grizzly fate, but his intent is for those rushing the gap to serve as a buffer between him and the Entian knights now at his rear as he swings to the left. It is a tactic he’ll mourn for in success or burn for in failure.

Murdo’s gamble quickly brings the warlord face to face with those who cursed his victory from the beginning: the walking death. They are a fairly hideous sight. At first glance it is difficult to determine if the blood and gore they display comes from themselves or that butchered in turn. Certainly it is a mixture of the two. The only reason Murdo fails to be turned aside by his own revulsion is the sure death being offered by those pursuing him from behind.

That these Highlanders are as vicious in death as they were in life is soon apparent. For Death has obviously failed to rob them of their skill in arms. All are equal and ready to the task, steadily increasing their ranks from among the living. This will prove no easy path towards the trees for Murdo and his men.

It isn’t until several such attackers confront the warlord that he begins to notice what was not so obvious from a distance. One man features what can only be counted as a third eye hanging from his helmet. Another’s entrails seem to be neatly tucked in his belt. While others offer gaping wounds flayed open over protective chainmail. All of which brings their deathly condition into sudden suspicion.

Murdo can’t help but feel the victim of a well-conceived hoax.

With that one thought plucked from his consciousness, the damn holding back the remainder collapses. A river of ideas is let loose as he lifts his sword, blocking the three-eyed enemy’s downward slash.

“It’s nothin’ more than a trap! Locke had this planned! He knew we were coming! Curse the Entian bastard and his trickery!”

All this flows through Murdo’s mind as his warrior instincts drop his blade low, redirect it in an upward arc, and bring it between the open legs of his assailant. A quick release of life and the sickening splash of guts are followed by a solid thud as the body falls upon the ground. The Highlander will die a truly agonizing and real death. Murdo’s thoughts continue unabated, but all the more satisfied by his recent efforts.

“Aye, it certainly goes a long way in explaining why he would bring children along. He knew the dangers to be faced and felt no risk in them being here. Locke had everything under control from the start. Damn the man’s foresight!”

It is only then that Warlord Droost stumbles upon a most disturbing thought.

“Perhaps Locke is not alone in creating this deathtrap. Dare I think it? What if this is exactly what Clanlord O’Chonaill wants? Such a massacre may very well be what Fergus requires to declare open warfare between the two countries. While at the same time, removing one of his strongest rivals for the position of Clanlord.”

It is an ugly thought that will bear some consideration should Murdo be afforded the opportunity. Right know he needs to give his full attention to surviving this day.

Looking to his left, Murdo is gratified to find the young scout, Shamus. With short sword and rounded shield in hand, he is amongst those fighting their way to the tree line. Though lacking the heavy armor of most, the boy is effectively making up for it by moving deftly about his slower opponents, landing mortal blows whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. If he were alive and here to see him in action, Shamus’ father, Murdo’s brother-in-law, would be proud of the warlord’s godson. Murdo gives a rare complement to no one in particular, “The boy’s a natural. I need to make sure he gets home to his mother.”

It is a good thought. It is a worthy thought. It is the last the warlord has upon the battleground.

Turning forward to greet the next attacker, Murdo is suddenly struck at the side of his head by a mind-numbing blow. All too quickly the warmth and wetness of his life flows freely down his face. His vision narrows. Knees buckle. Murdo’s trusted sword slips from his grip. Finally, this mountain of a man crumbles to the ground. Sadly, he will not fulfill his last desire.

Casting a long, thin shadow across his prone body, a single dark feathered shaft protrudes from the side of Warlord Droost’s helm.

To the uninitiated, the shaft looks little different from the hundreds of others littering the field of dead. But upon closer inspection, the feathers are of a unique quality, black and glossy, while the paint scheme is particular to only one archer of the Highlands.

She has been standing watch upon the hill ever since the archers broke cover. She has been watching over kin and clan with a keen eye and deadly accuracy of aim.

It was a shot of no great distance. Fifty… sixty yards at most. With the target the size of a man’s head. For the archer in question, neither represents any great difficulty in and of themselves, or taken as a pair. However, factor in the sporadic movement of battle… the uncertainty of the target’s progress… that, along with the distance and size make it a truly remarkable shot by anyone’s standards.

Ruby McPherson cares not for the difficulty, only that she is successful in stopping those that would do her family harm. She is a mother… a wife… a Highlander. She is no one to be trifled with.

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Dangerous Games
Taken from Robert's Personal Journal

Chess4 Check and mate… I imagine no more appropriate expression sums up Rush’s latest game with the Sirabazi. For what else could it have been to him than a game? Not else explains the effort and expense. And as hindsight is oft the cipher to the present mystery, past wonders now lie obvious in its wake. My assessment surely reads true. Yet, I expect I am unique in possessing the necessary perspective, a singular view developed over these many years by having fallen victim to Rush’s countless attacks across the checkered landscape.

All the same, I should have seen the endgame coming. Seen it unfolding sooner. Not that it would have mattered. Looking back I am now able to appreciate each action for it’s net worth. Every element of play reminiscent of a well-orchestrated chess match, complete with subtle manipulations, feints, and planned sacrifices. And in the end, per Rush’s usual custom of play, the challenger was deposed in a most glorious fashion.

It was a finishing move his adversary never perceived. I am sure of it. The shock plastered upon the trespasser’s face when Rush suddenly materialized in the gardens at his side was proof enough. Whereby milord single-handedly seized the mage by the throat and plucked him from the ground like so much offending weed from a perfect lawn. Surprise quickly yielding to terror as the meddlesome mage recognized his peril.

To see such emotions amongst one of the Sirabazi is rare. Priceless, if you ask me. How reassuring such may still be coaxed forth. It only serves to emphasize the level of conceit and false invulnerability Sir Oliver and his ilk have managed to blanket themselves in. But just how this interloper thought to continue his infringement upon milord’s domain and not suffer his displeasure is beyond me. For all their foibles, I’ve never known one to be truly suicidal or careless to such mortal fault.

What vexes me most though, is not knowing exactly when the first move was made. Or for that matter, by whom. How long has this contest been in play? Who laid down the initial challenge? Had Rush grown bored or the Sirabazi too curious? Is Sir Oliver merely a pawn in what could prove to be a much larger game? All quesitons that need answering.

That the Sirabazi have taken such overt interest in the Rush Estates is enough to give pause. Thankfully their efforts don’t seem directed towards the boy, who recently returned from the highlands, much more his mother or myself. Instead, the object of their attention seems to have fallen upon the girl. But I must admit to little surprise there.

If this Sir Oliver or his cabal possess any real designs upon Sarah, they should have spirited her away in their initial encounter. Of course, their second visitation and eventual attempt was doomed to failure. By that time, the girl had already undergone Rush’s ministrations. As such, I’m certain no amount of crafting could have breached the barrier milord had so carefully constructed. Sarah was truly cut off. Untouchable! If but for only the briefest time.

In truth, I believe the period Sarah spent in magical isolation to be rather short. Given the effort and expense in securing the barrier, I will admit to a bit of disbelief when Rush so casually dismissed it at the child’s request. It had been less than a month since its creation. Surly the girl had yet to reach a point of permanent harm, though clearly suffering from its effects. Initially I thought Rush might be responding to some small measure of pity for Sarah’s misery, for such unnatural conditions cannot be long tolerated by the magically gifted. But now I understand differently. Pity? Rush knows and cares little of the concept. To my knowledge he has ever failed to act upon it. I must be growing old and foolish to have considered the notion plausible. However, being Sirabazi, I’m sure Sir Oliver reasoned it was only a matter of necessity before the shield around Sarah was abandoned. He must have been waiting for the moment she was no longer protected. Just one of his many mistakes… allowing Lord Rush to dictate the time and place of his next attempt at procuring the child.

I could make a rather lengthy list of errors Sir Oliver made in coming to the estates, but one flaw was particularly fatal… that of reappearing in the same general location each time. For in his previous visits he had left an unmistakable calling card, a signature most would be unable to read. But the obvious goes without saying. Rush is unlike most. Undoubtedly, the Sirabazi believed his final appearance would go unrecognized until too late, yet his third visit was being heralded with nothing less than the full pomp and circumstance of royalty holding court.

With a seemingly unprotected Sarah acting as bait, Sir Oliver soon made his move, emerging from the neither in a false sense of security and the misguided belief of his superiority over the situation. But such are the machinations of milord’s deceptions. The trap was sprung.

Striking like a coiled sea serpent, Rush latched firmly onto his prey. No doubt the Sirabazi attempted to flee by similar means of which he had arrived, but milord’s grip is liken to the grandest of anchors meant to hold sure in the strongest of gale winds. There was no release, no escape. And though free to seek safe harbor herself, Sarah’s fear kept her similarly rooted to the nearby bench. None made to move save that of Vaush to the side of the terrified girl.

Now shouts by angry men are nothing to be feared. They are more oft than not, an attempt to mask the speaker’s own doubts or ineffectuality with bravado. By contrast, it is the whispered words of the truly powerful that should make one quake in their stockings. And if ever words were uttered to turn a man’s bowels to water, they must have been those whispered by Lord Rush to Sir Oliver in that moment. For in their passing from lips to ear, the color fairly drained from the captive’s face, to be replaced by such a pale look of total dismay that can only come from the realization of one’s greatest fear come true.

Though I failed to receive the full measure of Rush’s words, whispered as they were, they were clearly couched in threat and irrevocable violence upon the Shirabazi should any others attempt to pilfer what he perceived as rightfully his. And having tampered with Rush’s treasure and patience as he had, I believed death to be the mage’s sole reward. The only questions needing answering were by what means and how long would it take for him to die? As such, an immediate death was not milord’s chosen option. Instead, he opted for a far more elegant course of action.

Crafting the powerful and complex, sidestepping time and subtlety for expediency, the nauseating pressure of a substantial spell quickly made itself known. The physical evidence of Lord Rush’s efforts soon revealed itself as a sucking, black hole at Sir Oliver’s back. But before folding and stuffing the entirety of the mage’s body through what was certainly an impossibly small hole, Rush offered these parting words to the now horrified man, “Should you survive long enough, give my regards to your Yellow Emperor.”

Reflecting upon those words as I do now, I can almost feel sorry for this Sir Oliver. Almost, but not quite.

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Into the Monster's Lair
Taken from Robert's journal concerning Lord Rush's protection of Sarah.

Skull

I’ll say this much for the girl, she’s brave.

In my not inconsiderable years, I can say I’ve known only the exceptional few so willing to enter the monster’s lair. Much more do so blindfolded and weaponless. Granted, there is a certain level of courage derived from the ignorance of the dangers therein, but I do not believe the child so uninformed or lacking in imagination as to believe she was being handed candies and flowers. More like the shovel to dig her own grave. So I repeat, brave indeed!

Even so, I thought it best not to subject her to the truth in its entirety, least she suffer beyond repair. Thus, a small amount of black draught and a blindfold were all that was required to alleviate such concerns.

Of course I couldn’t do so without first extricating the child from her mother. Most assuredly I possess the stealth to enter the apartments and ferret Sarah away at my discretion, but that would only serve to strain the thin fabric of trust I’ve been slowly weaving. Better to travel the more diplomatic path as it concerns the candle maker and her daughter. In this case I found asking permission to take Sarah for the evening and assuring the girl’s safe return in the morning achieved far more success than a snatch and run. But as such, she is now privileged to what few outsiders know for certain; there are more than three levels to the mansion proper.

For in delivering Sarah to his lordship, it became necessary to employ the extended services of the elevator. Certainly there are other means in gaining access to the basement, but at the time it was the most expedient and least sensitive approach. This should, however, not imply that I am willing to simply throw open the gates and allow the invaders free access to the treasure rooms. Quite the contrary! For when it became a true matter of security, Sarah was more than prepared to yield her view of the elevator’s mechanisms when asked, never once turning in curiosity. Though I am sure her acute understanding of sounds made up some of the difference.

I must admit in taking a certain perverse pleasure in watching the girl’s reaction when I failed to open the doors on the main floor and we continued our progress downward. Wide-eyed and a bit nervous she was. How typical of those who have used the moving room, that they always wonder about the darkness to be seen beneath the empty space in the floor when the doors are opened, but cringe at the idea of actually entering the unknown. Well, she was about to find out for herself what was down there.

There is a decided difference in what is presented to the public above and what lies in private below. No doubt it was evident to the girl from the moment we entered the hallway leading off from the elevator.

The “basement” as I call it, rather than being bathed in brilliant lights, bright fabrics and joyous paintings upon the walls, is lined with rich mahogany paneling and darker images of a more masculine taste. The light subdued. As for the floor, it is carpeted with a tight woven rug so as to silence any steps normally heard coming from wood or stone. Even the air below seems carpeted. Almost thick compared with the house above.

And then, there are my private chambers. So much that Vaush, my own protégé, has yet to enter these walls. Strange how this girl should be the first of the two to do so.

Roberts doorThey are of course, nothing like I use above ground. The entrance is itself far less extravagant, consisting of a simple wooden door, banded in heavy iron, and secured by a lock even my long dead grandfather could pick in his eternal sleep. Not that any would recognize its humble origins as once belonging to the free standing Oracle’s Tower of Othea, or to open it with anything other than my personal key would result in a very short lived existence. Ashes to ashes… and all that dust.

BronzestatueinvictoryIf I must say so myself, I’ve fashioned a room on the other side that is fairly warm and well appointed. Vespucci, Frissia, and Sabatinni are prominent upon the walls; a bronze statue of Apex in Victory claims one corner; while selected pieces of furniture from all the greatest houses receives the lion’s share of space. Books and manuscripts line a wall as well. Of which I’m sure Christobal would fairly lose his head over were he to know I was in possession of most. And least we forget a hand woven textile pulled from the buried riches of the Umrass Expanse itself. Again, not that any but I would notice or care about such things. But that I do, I suppose is enough.

Of course, what we came for was already placed upon the table… the black draught and blindfold.

Pouring what I gauged to be the necessary amount, I offered it up to Sarah. She, accepting it with some trepidation, questioned the potential effects. I only informed her that had I wished her life, there would have been little need for such theatrics. That the elixir was merely meant to lessen any discomfort she might experience with the coming procedure. To her credit, she received my words with only a raised eyebrow, then downed the sum of what was offered.

I suppose had Sarah known the full extent of what was to be consumed, she might not have been so accommodating. For the black draught has many uses. Death, most assuredly, being one.

In small quantities the drug results in a minor euphoria and a not unpleasant experience. Hence, the black draught’s fairly wide use by weak-willed individuals lacking the ability to secure their own pleasures and satisfaction from this world. Increasing the amount soon leads to a heightened numbing of the senses – most notably touch and sound – and eventually, graphic hallucinations. This was this level of effect I was hoping to achieve, thus, the eventual need of a blindfold. And of course, the dosage can be augmented further to produce a near coma-like state, ultimately leading to death itself… not what I was seeking. I should also note that the black draught is highly addictive. A condition easily acquired and often leading many into habitual use that results in the aforementioned final stages. All in all, the elixir is not something to be taken lightly or without adequate understanding of its effects.

Having had her fill of the potion, I secured Sarah’s sight behind the blindfold. Again, she was more than willing to accept my restrictions. No doubt a testament as to how much she feared the uncertainties of the outside world over those being offered by my hand.

I could quickly tell the drug was taking effect. Her slurred speech and lack of appropriate responses to my own commands made it evident. Finally, when she failed to react to the prick of a penknife, it solidified my suspicions that the drink had reached its desired effect.

It was time for Sarah to go before Lord Rush.

There is little doubt my written words will long outlive my physical self. But should they fall into less than friendly hands before such a time, I would not wish them to be read at the detriment of those they concern or myself. Therefore, the rather sensitive nature of certain facts must dictate discretion. The exact details of Lord Rush and Sarah’s encounter I will not fully divulge here.

Suffice it to say, without my earlier precautions Sarah’s sanity at the end of Lord Rush’s ministrations would have certainly been in question. He was leaving little to chance. Several arcane artifacts were in evidence. Not all of them savory or meant for innocent eyes. As such, I’m positive the blindfold rescued Sarah from countless horrific concoctions of the mind… be they drug induced or not. In truth, rarely have I seen such mystical preparations and expenditure of power used to produce a singular effect. A veritable fortune was put to use. And taken as a whole, it now provides a far deeper understanding of the value Lord Rush places upon this girl.

What else I will say concerning my lord’s efforts is this; Sarah had undergone the ultimate in arcane detoxification… she had been unplugged from everything mystical… effectively disconnected from the world. She was now beyond anything and everything magical, placed into a bubble of nullification. Only the mundane could touch her following Rush’s labors.

MysticenergyThe effort in making her so was quite spectacular. By my own eyes it looked as if thousands of tiny illuminated threads had been sheared from Sarah’s body, green lines of silken light left to fray and disappear into the ether. But there was more than one of significant thickness that captured Rush’s eye. Of those he took careful note, gathering a few in his right hand. In his left he quickly secured a single strand much thicker and darker in color than all the others. This one seemingly coming from the girl’s afflicted right shoulder. It was the only thread to offer his lordship any true struggle. But in the end, it was his.

Now that Sarah had been successfully stripped of all connections, it became necessary to keep her free from having them reestablished. Thus, the usage of a nullification field surrounding her essence.

I have heard of such extreme measures employed by various sects of assassins. The field affords a level of non-detection and invincibility for the one inside. This is particularly valuable when confronting certain arcane targets. Granted, it prevents one’s own usage of such imbued items, but any true practitioner of the deadly arts should never need to rely on such crutches. I suppose the same can be said for the field itself. What’s more, to utilize such tactics over an extended period of time often leads to undesired side effects. Depression and insanity just to name a few. Thus, Rush’s use of the field upon Sarah is far from a permanent solution to her difficulties.

I must say I have never witnessed a human become so twisted in an effort to secure such a small space. I’ve known a few expert contortionists in my time, all capable of amazing feats of flexibility, yet never anything such as what I saw that night. It was as if Sarah’s bones had become insubstantial, her skin nothing more than a sack of liquid. Perhaps it was merely the distortion of energies causing an optical illusion, but I believe there was far more to it than that. I can only assume the use of the black draught saved her from experiencing the excruciating pain that must have accompanied such change.

Yet, when all was said and done, there was little in Sarah’s appearance to say she had suffered any discomfort or alteration. Rush, on the other hand, seemed quite drained from his efforts. Though tired, there was also satisfaction. He had gained a prize and was loath to release it. Exactly what he did with those few threads he had managed to collect, I cannot say. He departed the chamber with nary a word, only waving his right hand in dismissal, while a thin smile pressed his lips. His left hand seeming to clutch his invisible prey around its neck.

All that was left to me was to collect the unconscious Sarah and return her to her mother. Time would have to tell if Rush had been successful.

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Unwelcomed Visitors
Following Sarah's Nightmare

RobertAwakening in terror and pain, Sarah’s screams are enough to bring a panicked mother and several worried servants running to her bedside. They are quickly followed by a steadier Sir Robert. Though late in the evening, he is the only one showing little signs of having had his sleep disrupted.

Joining the others, Robert finds Sarah sitting upright in bed, sweat beading her brow and the girl’s panic-wide eyes staring unfocused into the physical world. Her breath comes in quick gasps, while her right arm hangs ravaged and useless, blood soaking through the shoulder fabric of her sleeping clothes. In Sarah’s left hand she clutches her precious flute. It is a death grip none can force open.

Were she aware enough of her surroundings, Sarah would know Neriah’s gift of a talisman around her neck is radiating white-hot with protective magic. As such, in those initial moments of wakefulness she only feels warmth pulsing across her chest and towards her back, while the rest of her body spasms from its proximity to Death.

The cause of her painful screams and so much bloody mess is quickly discovered to be three long lacerations across her shoulder. Exactly how the cuts were inflicted is anybody’s guess. In time, Sarah is calmed, her stained nightgown stripped, and the shoulder bandaged. Only afterwards is she able to offer a quick synopsis of her dream to Robert who begins to question the true severity of her wounds. That there may be more here than meets the eye is evident. His final words on the matter being that Lord Rush must be notified.

The details of Sarah’s nightmarish tale must wait for the morning as a liberal amount of medicinal tea forces her into unconsciousness. Thankfully, this sleep proves to be far more restful than her earlier attempt.

With the arrival of morning Sarah’s wounds are carefully checked for possible infection by the house physician. What is found instead is almost as worrisome. The three slashes are completely healed, already showing scars that could pass for a much older wound. How or why any of this has come about is a mystery. It certainly smacks of magic and only heaps on more unanswered questions. Luckily, the shoulder seems to have healed well. Only a slight stiffness and the scars serve as a physical reminder of the night’s trauma. It is far less a hindrance than anyone ever expected.

At some point, Robert stops by the apartments to look in on Sarah and her recovery. As predicted, his young charge is still visibly shaken by the previous night’s experience, not to mention the day’s earlier visitor in one, Sir Oliver Thompson. For if the nightmare was not enough to cause Sarah to question her security within the Rush Estates, the misrepresented arrival of the enigmatic stranger had her already on edge.

Oliver thompsonSir Oliver Thompson… a kind and caring face with manners to match… a well dressed, manicured gentleman who offered to help a young girl in need… a man who turned out to be nothing more than another worry piled upon what is already a mountain of suspicion and fear.

Sir Oliver Thompson… He had come and gone from the estates without so much as a “by your leave” to those Sarah believes all-powerful and knowing within its confines. And worse yet, she had spilled her life story to the man. Divulging every aspect of her involvement in the destruction of the dockside demon, seeking out Quail with her “travels,” encountering and escaping not one, but two ancient beings of power, helping to defeat the Tymorian priests, and finally her own concerns about feeling continuously hunted by some otherworld entity. She told him everything. Everything in the belief that Oliver was sent by Robert to help Sarah make sense of the things that were happening to her. But it was not to be.

Only when Sarah went to speak of Oliver and their meeting did she learn from Robert the truth of her mistaken trust. Oliver was an unknown, his name and visage unrecognizable. And worst of all, the usually unflappable servant to Lord Rush seemed quite disturbed by this stranger’s appearance at the estates. That this “Sir Oliver Thompson” character was seemingly aware of the contents of a private conversation – where Robert had promised to bring someone forth to help Sarah deal with her personal demons – only made him appear more troubled. So much so as to make Robert react in an almost paranoid fashion, soliciting a most uncharacteristic response.

Such was Robert’s concern over what he had been told that it caused an involuntarily draw of a bladed weapon and an impromptu investigation of Sarah’s room for any possible unseen intruders. In turn, Sarah couldn’t help being effected. Seeing Robert seemingly upset only heightened her alarm for her own safety, such that she crafted a ball of force in anticipation of the need to protect herself.

Thankfully, neither of them found reason to use their chosen weapon. Excepting the two of them, Sarah’s room was empty. But not wanting to waste what energy she had already drawn forth, Sarah took the opportunity to understand more of her immediate surroundings. What she found was every wall, floor, and ceiling covered in magical runes, visible only now by her crafted efforts. Be they protection or cage, the distinction was difficult to make.

Now, only a day and night following the strange and traumatic visitations, Sarah sits with Robert once more, pleading for him to do something, anything, to protect her. Recognizing Sarah’s struggle to keep it together, Robert assures the girl he will bring her request to Lord Rush. Something will be done soon. Sarah only hopes that what ever is planned, it happens before Oliver makes good on his promise to return, or before her next nightmare kills her.

Though stressed as Sarah is, there is only one thing for it: music. Music has always been her sanctuary. Today should be no different. If she is to have any peace of mind, it will be found with an instrument in hand.

Feeling well enough to take a day of piano with Lady Veronica, Sarah finds herself in the music room at her appointed time. But recent events have left the girl in a less than cheerful mood. Sensing a change in her usually affable student, Veronica offers to instruct Sarah in tunes of a more melancholy nature.

It isn’t long before the two are wallowing in a rather dark and gloomy composition that perfectly fits Sarah’s joyless disposition. Even so, it’s conclusion brings both performer and audience a certain level of satisfaction. But there is more than Sarah as listener. The audience also happens to include an undiscovered Lord Rush.

Barthalamue rushTypical of a Rush entrance, neither Sarah nor Veronica is aware of his arrival until the man makes himself known. And as usual, it is startling. Even though the time is an hour shy of noon, his immaculate attire implies otherwise. It is as if Lord Rush just stepped away from the most fashionable dinner party and into the music parlor for an after-meal cognac and an evening of entertainment. Neither of the ladies can fathom how he came to be there.

Gliding forth from a corner of the room where there is no door, Rush offers Veronica a rare complement of sincerity. His tone one of self-assurance and complete control, as if he were the master of all that surrounds him. Which is the exact truth of the matter.

“My dear Lady Veronica, how I do enjoy your interpretation of that particular piece. As always, it is a pleasure to hear you perform. May I offer my sincerest compliments?”

Lady Veronica, overcoming the surprise of Rush’s sudden appearance, quickly rises from the piano bench and offers the perfect picturesque curtsy. It is the only possible response she would dare to offer on such sudden notice. As always, Veronica is dressed in the finest fashions and flawlessly coifed to match, the ideal compliment to Rush’s extravagant nature.

“Thank you milord. As always, you are far too generous.” Veronica’s tone is equally self-assured, but understanding of its place. There is no mistaking who is in power here.

The lord’s gaze then falls upon Sarah, her head bowed, eyes upon the floor. And in that same self-important tone Rush addresses Veronica’s student, “And you, if I am to understand correctly, suffered a bit of unpleasantry last night. You so do seem to be having more than your fair share of unwelcome visitors. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, milord,” is all Sarah can muster in a response to the man who holds sway over her very existence.

Rush continues his rather one-sided conversation. “Perhaps we should do something about that. But first, if you would allow me to take a look at your offended shoulder, I would like very much to see with my own eyes what I am to be dealing with.”

Sarah, having the foresight not to wear one of the more restrictive dresses in her wardrobe, reveals her shoulder. What Rush sees there appears to be three very old scars. It is all Sarah can do not to cringe away in fear as he runs a cold and disquieting finger down the center white line. There is too much in his contact that echoes the one who recently placed these scars upon her skin. But no matter Sarah’s displeasure, she remains motionless, head bowed in inspection.

“Interesting. How unfortunate such pretty skin should be marred in such a fashion. And to be so young at that.” It is an assessment that does little to ease Sarah’s fears of this man.

Walking around and facing the slightly trembling girl, Rush continues, “Yes, I shall have to deal with that if you wish. But you must understand, there will be a price to pay. For there is always a price to pay in such matters. Are you willing little one? Are you brave enough to face the consequences of my aid?”

For the first time in their verbal exchange and since Rush was found to be in the room, Sarah lifts her head to face the lord of the manor. There are the beginnings of tears in her eyes and the slight quiver of a trembling jaw line. And though her voice is meek to the point of almost being unspoken, her decision is made.

Looking him in the eyes for the first time, she offers her timid reply, “Yes milord.”

A small smile works its way across Rush’s painted lips, a smile that fails to meet his eyes with any real compassion. “Very well, I shall have Robert fetch you when I have made the necessary preparations.”

“Yes milord.” Again, it is all Sarah can offer in her ever-disappearing voice. Her eyes once again cast down to the wooden floor.

With her gaze averted Sarah is unsure as to what transpires between Lord Rush and Lady Veronica as he leaves. But in that briefest of moments it is enough to cause the normally unshakable demeanor of the former to lie in shambles. For as Sarah finally looks up after the lord’s departure, she discovers Veronica to be flush and at a loss for coherent speech. Her carefully cultivated bearing is nowhere in evidence. If the child had any reference to base her findings upon, she would have to say the woman was fairly sacked for her feminine treasures. Veronica truly seems a mess. Physically and emotionally.

Recognizing that neither of them is in any way capable of continuing the day’s lesson, both student and teacher agree to retire early to Veronica’s apartments and then lunch, where the remainder of the afternoon is spent contemplating and recovering from their time with Lord Rush. It is a quite and unfulfilling lunch.

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Sarah's Nightmare

DreamdemonThe corruption that is his most malevolent self tastes fear on the wind. It is the sweetest nectar. What remains is to seek out the flower of his desire and remove it from its delicate stem. Surely the bloom will wither and die for the pleasure of his touch, but not before he has had his fill, drawing every last drop of delicious essence from her being. Just follow the scent and he shall feast.

And once fed, he will be free to roam the gardens of the world, taking in all that life has to offer. For there is much he needs to consume, his hunger being the bottomless pit of writhing vipers. Too long it has been since he last suckled upon the bosom of this world, since she last felt his fangs sink into her flesh and had his venom course through her veins. Soon, very soon they shall be joined anew and this world will tremble at his embrace. But first the flower must be plucked.

Growing ever stronger, the scent of fear becomes almost intoxicating, urging him on, calling for his attention. His path is evident, laid before him as a wisp of green smoke upon the eternal sea of darkness. Darkness that has been his realm these many millennium. And with every intake of her precious scent the hunger intensifies, the serpents within wrestle over the recognition of sustenance and the hunt. Life is nearby! It must be found! Devoured!

Too long it has been… too eager are the snakes. He anticipates a quick and silent approach, striking swiftly from the dark. But in their rush, they have spooked his quarry. Now she is aware of the danger. Perhaps not fully, yet certainly enough to add to her already tangible fear. The fine fragrance of panic and a need to escape the unknown have been added to her bouquet. She is attempting to flee.

No more is it a hunt, but a pursuit of prey. Her running only serves to increase his desire and the famine within. It matters not that she tries to escape. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. The darkness may be endless, but he has long discovered all its secrets. Fleeing will only prolong the inevitable, and not for very long at that. And though he has waited time beyond measure for this opportunity to come, he is willing to stay his satisfaction a bit longer. The panic will so enhance the flavor of her death.

But what is this? What has allowed this bitter taste to seep into the delectable mixture of fear and desperation that has become his prey? The sweetness now seeming tainted with something foreign, something that has never been a part of his existence these many years. So alien is the concept that he must search the furthest reaches of his memory for its name. But there, tucked away like a useless thought from an ancient past, it sits. And its name is hope.

Hope? Where in all this emptiness can such an idea exist? Certainly nowhere that he has ever been… and he has been everywhere during the eternity in which this void has claimed him for its own. So where did this aberration come from? How is it here now?

It matters not! Her destruction is imminent, as is the disgusting hope this flower seeks to take hold of. His freedom is assured.

Green smoke1Despite his prey’s best efforts, he draws nearer. Close enough that her scent is no longer the only aspect to lure him on. For he has found her. Sees her, or that which passes for her essence within this place. And she is beautiful! If only in the feast she represents and the anticipated release that will come with her capture. In nearly every way she is perfect, excepting the spark of hopefulness that lies at her core. But soon, each will be extinguished!

There is no outrunning his hunger. Though he now has a better understanding of where she hastens to, where her hope derives from. For on the horizon – if ever such a thing could be in this place – there is a difference to the darkness. It is no longer empty save the two of them. There is something else, emitting such radiance as to provide another sensation long forgotten: anguish.

It is anguish beyond pain. For he knows pain all too well. He has known it in all its degrees and long enough to have dismissed its constant presence. So the torture he now feels is more than just pain. It is agony beyond anything ever suffered. But not so much that he would slow his pursuit. His desire to feed, to be free of this eternal prison, exceeds any torment that could be inflicted by this thin beam of light. So he continues his chase, quickly closing the gap between himself and his fleeing freedom.

But for the intrusion of a shadow, she would already be his.

As mysterious as the manifestation of hope was, so too is the recent intervention of a ghostly shade. Just how it came to exist in this darkened landscape he can only speculate. Perhaps the advent of this loathsome light has given rise to its opposite in silhouette. Whatever the reason, his hunger will only be deterred so long.

But what should be a small effort is proving to be far more of a struggle. The shade, transforming into a whirlwind force of energy, has begun striking with a thousand pinpricks of agitation and confusion. The attacks, though futile in their attempts to inflict serious injury, are relentless. And as such, he can not help but retaliate in anger and frustration, losing his true intent. But not so completely! The snakes are still ravenous, seeking to feed upon the life that runs before them. Thus, they compel his attention to refocus upon their escaping meal.

The shade has delayed him far too long. Now a much closer thing, the hope his prey runs to is almost at hand. And drawing closer to its light only intensifies the agony it inflicts. There is also the swirling shadow that continues to make effort at hindering his progress. But she is still at a distance from the light and he is yet to be defeated.

ShadowdemonIn a final effort, both hunter and prey reach for their escape. Her hand wraps around the promise of salvation. So too does his outstretched claw settle upon her shoulder. It is the briefest of contact before his want is spirited away.

She is gone! As is the light and its companion shadow. What remains is he and his hunger, joined by a deathly shriek issued in resignation of his failure. All three are easily swallowed by the endless void.

Gone… and he is not. But still… the briefest of contact was made. She will bear his mark. And that just may be enough.

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What Dreams May Come

The Night Before…

Scottish highlands landscapeEver so slowly evening creeps over the landscape, bringing with it the end of a long day’s work for the returning wranglers. Fortunately, their well-earned weariness leaves little energy for focusing on the peculiar nature of the children in camp. Their only real interest is in having a good hot meal and bedding down for some undisturbed rest. For tomorrow promises more of the same.

Though some might declare the meal a bit short on meat, nobody voices a complaint. The rabbit stew has been well prepared and there are plenty of vegetables, cheese, and bread to go around. Their spirits are high. Overall, the horses faired well during the winter. Light conversation revolves mostly around the considerable number of new foals being added to the herds. And as such, Blaise and his brother-in-laws can only be happy for the coin each addition will eventually bring to their purses. It will be a profitable year.

Unlike the adults, the children are rather silent through the evening’s meal. Amber, Simon, and Vaush have their own thoughts to contend with. Their exploration of the Highland Stones has only led to a general feeling of uncertainty for the immediate future. Vaush can’t help shake the sensation of being watched by something in the growing darkness. Scouting his surroundings for an unseen assailant has almost become an unconscious habit. Simon is fairing only slightly better, having developed the need to massage his mysteriously offended forearm. While Amber keeps worrying about the possible portents to be found in the three dead rabbits that everybody is now enjoying.

In time, the meal is finished, conversations die away, and everyone makes for their tents and bedrolls. Random clouds and mild temperatures bode well for a pleasant night under the stars. It is only one in a long string of such pleasant nights to be had in the summer highlands.

But it is the night, and dreams care not for what the weather has to offer.

Vaush’s Dream…

Vaush laterDusk folds the highland hills in its silent embrace. Looking down, the lone eye of Hazrad offers the only source of light from an otherwise empty sky. And what was once the long green grass of day has turned to a sea of metallic-blue blades under the brightness of his glare.

Vaush no longer sleeps soundly in his tent. Nor is he a boy of seven years taking a summer in the highlands. Instead, he is a man in his late teens standing among ancient stones. The Giant’s Crown. The twin blades Robert bestowed upon him in his youth rest in hand, glinting dangerously in the moonlight. He is prepared to carve flesh from bone. But first Vaush must find that which cannot be seen.

Just as imperceptible as before, the hidden danger from a far more younger day’s journey is near. He can feel its presence. Only this time it threatens to devour all that Vaush considers vital to his humanity. It is hungry for flesh. Not just his, but any flesh. He can’t help but be driven into a flurry of flashing steel and spinning death in the hopes of hindering its desire to consume all he has come to care for.

Though Vaush’s ravenous partner is beyond his perception, the dance is joined in earnest. Soon rapid steps are no longer anchored to the ground, but flowing across the crest of the crown’s outer circle. Like a mountain stream in reverse, as the intensity of his struggle increases against the hidden assailant, so too does Vaush work his way up towards the center of the crown. Until finally, his progress finds him leaping back and forth between the highest reaches of the three great monoliths.

Here his efforts elevate to such frenzy that Vaush is a whirlpool of untraceable slashes, thrusts, and parries. In his attempt to vanquish the mystery, Vaush spends nearly as much time swimming across open space as touching solid stone. But if ever an edge falls upon his intended target, there is no evidence to be found on his blades or in the steady flow of his dance. It is as if he fights a rushing river. His efforts washed away like so much wasted silt.

Yet, as futile as the struggle may seem, in time Vaush comes to realize his enemy has departed. Or perhaps it was he himself who left. For no longer does Vaush stand upon the Giant’s Crown, but atop the tower crenellations of Castle Locke. From the battlements he can see the nearby trees. And they are beginning to change. No longer do they stand as the dark and forbidding forest of before. Now they are a massive army of hate and violence, spewing forth the return of the Tusk.

But the Tusk are not the only army to take to the field.

Simon’s Dream…

Battle of bannockburnLord Simon Locke… Baron of Hartwich, Savior of Glenfeld, Leader of Men! And these men will follow their lord and liege into the very jaws of death itself should he command it so. Not because he carries the Shield of Glenfeld and the Sword of Briarfrost at his side, but because he has proven his mettle time and again against the enemies of his countrymen. He is trusted and loved by those who have joined him. He is their sovereign lord, and this hill is his to conquer!

The army he commands is vast. Thousands of seasoned pikemen are aligned at Simon’s back. Every one a tested veteran from the northern wars. And all are supported by an equal number of the finest archers ever assembled in Anglandia; each prepared to rain down an endless barrage of barbed death upon the enemy. While stationed at both flanks rides rank upon rank of hardened steel. Knights encased in polished armor, waiting to capture the rising sun upon their backs and the blood of an adversary on the point of a lance. Their banners, fluttering in the early morning breeze, represent all the established houses of Entia.

Then there is Simon’s pride of the army, a thousand or so Highlanders at the center of it all. They are a fierce and menacing horde of kilted warriors, each carrying his weapon of choice. While some hoist the dreaded claymore made infamous through its many years of bloody and deadly use, others brandish a crushing war hammer or brutal double bladed axe. Still, others favor a spiked shield and short blade for the dangers of close in fighting. Clansmen one and all, they have willingly gathered here to take life. And if necessary, give up their own in the service of king and country.

However, what they face is nothing the eyes of modern men have seen, certainly not since the days of Briarfrost himself. For the Tusk have returned… come to topple the crown of the highlands and force open the lock which keeps it safe.

Though Simon has amassed an army nearly ten thousand strong, the enemy is almost ten times that in number. It seems nigh impossible to gain victory by such odds. Even so, these brave warriors have come to this field to give battle and hopefully strike such a blow as to turn aside the destructive tide that is the Tusk. So with the rising sun comes the horn of challenge and the ensuing battle.

It begins with the release of some four thousand bowstrings, sending a volley of arrow sufficient to darken the morning sky. It is only the first of many such offerings as time and again the archers deliver their deadly intent into the seething mass of corrupted flesh, causing whole sections of the enemy to crumple and die. But these diminished ranks only swell anew with the thousands behind the dead seeking to close the distance and begin their own slaughter of the hated humans.

All too quickly there is a great clash of steel on steel as both armies meet. But not before the Highlanders spearhead their own raging charge down the hill. For awaiting the enemy to close is not in their blood. Better to meet the beast at a dead run, working into its ranks, and thus earn more room to maneuver and swing about their massive weapons. And with more of the monster at hand comes a greater opportunity to rend flesh and kill. This is the highland way!

Warriors on horseNot to be outdone in the slaying of the beast, Entia’s mounted might falls upon the flanks of the Tusk. It is a glorious spectacle, the envy of every young boy’s fantasy of war. Eight hundred knights urging their thunderous chargers forward with lances brought to brace, shields held high, and fanning out to create the perfect wedge formation. Like immense arrowheads, each man therein is a champion of men and the sharpened edge meant to inflict pain and suffering upon the enemy. The death they bring is deep and substantial, slicing into the sides of the monster. Wounds to be surely felt and not ignored.

Simon can only watch his beloved knights kill and be killed for the briefest of instances. For soon, he himself is confronted by the violence of the day.

It comes bearing tooth and claw… muscle and steel… the promise of certain death should Simon and his army fail to be equal to the task. But the soldiers of Entia did not march here to just lay down and die. They came to fight. And so, with nearly every cut and slash another part of the beast is carved away. In little time, tens, hundreds, and eventually thousands die all around Simon. Only the endless thrusts, parries, jabs and blocks of the practice field keep arms and legs in motion long after adrenaline and fear have run their course. And still, the battle rages on.

True, Simon and his men have inflicted a tremendous amount of carnage upon the beast, but so too have they suffered. Eventually, Simon cannot but begin to fear for what remains of his army. Without relief or a better defensive position, they will soon be swallowed whole by the seemingly endless crush of the Tusk.

Casting about for any possible means of saving himself and his dwindling forces, he spies the only possible source of refuge. What Simon finds is unexpected: The Giant’s Crown!

Seizing what little opportunity it presents and drawing upon his last reserves, Simon rallies those around him and begins to carve his way to the stones. It is a hard fought struggle, made all the more difficult with every loss of precious life. For what was once a tremendous force of arms, now stands less than two thousand strong. Of those, only a fraction of the knights have managed to return to their lord’s banner. While pockets of Highlanders and pikemen strive to support each other’s efforts in moving towards this new goal. As for the remaining archers, they have long exhausted their empty quivers and abandoned useless bows for whatever weapon is at hand. Now, for the men of Entia, their only hope lies in reaching the Crown.

To that end, with each crushing blow and fallen foe, Simon’s army fights towards their chosen destination. But the fog of war is fickle and what was once promised is now an uncertain aim. Simon can only steal the occasional glance as he continues to fight for his life and of those around him. Not until he is afforded a small moment of respite is he able to give renewed attention his purpose. And what he sees before him is no longer the Giant’s Crown, but something far more defensible. His namesake in stone. Castle Locke!

The realization of his find, the salvation it represents, only spurs Simon’s desire to reach the ancient structure. To bring his war weary and tattered army into the sanctuary of the castle’s impenetrable walls is now his only concern. But it is a close thing for all that are still outside its protection. Certainly not everyone will gain its shelter. For with every step towards the mammoth structure men continue to fall before the Tusk. Good men die. Irreplaceable men die. But they do so at a price. Killing much more than their equal before succumbing to the massive throng of hate and steel that is the Tusk.

Simon in battleFinally, with what men remain to him, Simon has reached the castle’s causeway. Taking command himself, he fashions a rear guard action allowing what is less than a thousand men to scramble into the ancient fortification. He can’t help but notice their diminished numbers. An all too sad testament to what has been left upon the field of battle.

For now, those who have made it to the castle are safe. Simon has done what he can for his men. But he has left no opportunity for his own safety to be gained. To turn and run for the gates is to be cut down from behind. To stay and fight is to invite the same end. Death seems the only option.

If it is to be, then so be it! He and those who struggle at his side are surely doomed. But Simon shall sell his life dearly to those who would purchase his soul this day. Man and monster shall both remember. All shall recall in pride and fear those few and their leader who stood against a sea of Tusk.

But by whatever design of fate, today is not the day to mourn the passing of Lord Simon Locke. Before the final blow can be delivered a band of remounted knights gallop into the fray, crushing and slaying the startled Tusk beneath steel shod hoofs and threshing swords. Like so much grain to be harvested, the Tusk fall to the brave and noble men who have come to rescue their lord in peril. It is all Simon and those few beleaguered warriors require to retreat from the fighting into the waiting fortress.

While running towards the open gates, he casts a glance to the heavens in gratitude for his deliverance from death. And as Simon looks skyward, sending a prayer for those left behind, his eyes fall upon something else unexpected. Upon the battlements stands a lone figure. Someone he cannot be certain of, but for the distance Simon swears is an old and trusted friend. Vaush!

Amber’s Dream…

Amber rides. It is what she does. It is what she’s always done.

As a lass born of Highland horse wranglers, a life in the saddle is to be expected. For even before Amber laid blurry eyes upon the world she was already accustomed to a steady gallop in her mother’s womb. Thus, the running gate of the mare now beneath her is the most natural feeling she can imagine. So Amber trusts in it. She rides!

From where she hails is of little concern. Only where she is headed has any worth. And where exactly that is, Amber does not know. Just that she is compelled to continue her quest. Why? Amber cannot say to just anyone. There are those that must be found first. But who? This is also unknown. She’ll know them when she finds them. Until then, she only understands the importance of riding forward. For if Amber were to stop, there would be the direst of consequences for everyone, everywhere.

Tusk1Recognizing this, Amber risks a look behind. What she sees causes her to urge more effort from her trusted steed. They’re coming! They’ve returned to the highlands! The Tusk are here!

So forward Amber rides, away from the gathering monsters of ancient hatred and wanton destruction. But it is not enough to simply outrun what is behind her. She must do so in time for others to act upon the knowledge she carries. To reach her destination too late will be just as worthless as having not arrived at all. But to who or where? These are the questions that plague her mind just as much as the fear of what follows.

Galloping towards the open horizon and away from the Tusk, Amber spots a lone, hooded figure in the distance. Exactly who it is, she cannot identify. There is only a hopeful expectation that it is one of those she seeks.

Though drawing closer to the figure quickly dashes any feelings of optimism Amber might have. For clothed entirely of black robes, accented by a blood-red sash and carrying an equally dark staff, Amber can’t help but be repulsed by what she sees and feels. This is not who she needs to find! This is what she must warn the others about!

Quickly reining her ride aside, Amber is now forced to run parallel to the ever-encroaching line of dreaded beasts that are the Tusk. And though she pushes her horse to its limits, it seems impossible to gain any distance from the ominous figure blocking her earlier path. For no matter how far or how fast she travels, the creature effortlessly matches her progress. Amber truly feels trapped between what her father termed, “the bloody rock and hard place.”

Not wanting to confront what is now to either side, Amber continues to push forward at parallels. Hoping beyond hope that something will materialize to lift her from this press. That something or someone will save her from this crush of evil. Unfortunately, what materializes is anything but helpful to her cause. For with the arrival of the Tusk comes war!

What was once open, peaceful territory, now is before her a sea of turmoil. The forces of man have come to do battle. And Amber’s heart can only ache at the sight. For in the face of such a massive beast as the Tusk, those that have gathered in defense of her beloved homeland seem pitifully inadequate and desperate. They are so few in numbers, so small in comparison. They stand defiant! Proud! Strong! Just not enough.

Caledonian warriorAnd if there is one thing Amber certainly knows, it is that within this gathering of brave souls there are those she loves… family and friends; her father and uncles; cousins one and all. The clans have joined together and they are here to give of their lives. And seeing the monster they must attempt to slay, Amber cannot help but cry at the loss that shall befall them all this day.

If it would matter, she would rush to their aid. But there is little Amber can do to assist her kin. That is, except to keep riding and discover those who must be told of the true danger they all face. Maybe they can stop this from happening. Yet, given what has beset her on all sides, Amber is quickly running out of options to pursue. The darkness of the world is closing in.

Sounds of battle now join her frantic pace. Furious screams and cries of anguish pierce the din of deadly steel upon steel. She can sense the horse barely containing its own panic at the sights and sounds of battle. Its eyes cast wide and fearful. A near match for Amber’s own as she searches for release from all this carnage. No longer certain that some of the screams aren’t her own.

Because it is all she can do, Amber continues to ride forward. For turning around is to falter into the unknown. To veer right or left is to face the monstrous army of the Tusk or the much more terrifying stranger. While at the head is such a struggle as to destroy all hope of victory over the encroaching doom she has come to warn others about. But it is into this fray she must ride. There is no alternative.

Entering the mêlée presents new dangers all around. Slashing swords, crushing hammers, and wicked claws dispense death at every step as Amber tries to navigate the battlefield. Her only hope is to move quickly, evading those who would target her horse and its rider. All along she sees men and animals die. She also sees the Tusk fall, just not enough of the latter to make up for the loss of so many good men. Blood becomes the color of the ground. As it does for those still able to fight, covered in the lives of comrades and foes alike. And with each death, she can’t help but see the human line faltering. For when that happens, then she too will succumb to the hunger of the beast.

Only when all seems lost does a glimmer of hope arise from the surrounding chaos.

At first it takes on the appearance of the Highland Stones, a possible means of defense that the remaining men have chosen to rally around. But heading in that direction, Amber quickly finds herself in error. It is not the stones she finds, rather the outer tower of Castle Locke! And for the first time since beginning her horrific journey, Amber feels certain that this is her true destination. The castle! It is where she must go! It is there she will find those that must hear her story. Now all she needs to do is make it there alive.

It is a race like none other. To win is to live another day, to give the other survivors of this nightmare a fighting chance at defeating the true threat. But to come in any other standing, is to lose everything. As such, Amber cannot afford to offer anything less than her best.

Spurring her horse into a final sprint, Amber barely joins the tattered remains of the Entian army struggling to enter the protection of the ancient castle. But in her passing of the causeway, Amber notices her cousin, Lord Simon Locke, as the one leading the rear guard action allowing many men to gain the safety of its towering walls. And by doing so, it is evident he has left himself no means to join them. Simon is nobly sacrificing himself.

But what good is their survival if the man who must hear her words is no longer alive to listen? He must be rescued! No matter the cost!

Grabbing a shield from a nearly unconscious soldier and demanding a spear be given over as well, Amber begins to force her exhausted horse back through the castle’s gate. Her contrary act quickly draws the attention of several heavily battered and injured knights. They can’t believe this lone girl would willingly return to the field of battle. Not until Amber tells them of their Lord’s imminent peril do they fully understand her reasons and are shamed into action.

Amber laterQuickly mustering horses and weapons, a dozen brave souls take the opposite tack of the retreating army. Only their unyielding refusal and Amber’s eventual detainment by those too injured to follow keep her from joining the knights in their rescue attempt. As such, she is forced to linger behind in the hopes that they are enough to be successful. It is an agonizing wait.

Her reward finally arrives when Simon and some of his faithful supporters come rushing through. Afterwhich, the gates are quickly closed. Sadly, none of the twelve knights are among the survivors. But at least Simon is alive.

There is still a chance.

The Morning After…

Morning has come to the highlands with the promise of a beautiful day. Already there are the smells of cooked eggs and ham steaks being made ready for the wranglers who will put in another long day’s labor. While several men walk off to relieve heavy bladders, others work out the kinks left over from sleeping on loose rocks too long.

Of those still in their tents, Amber, Simon and Vaush are each recovering from a hard night of dreaming. Simon can’t help but continue to replay the events that occurred in his sleep. He is wide-awake trying to decide what importance, if any, his dream might have on his waking and future self. Meanwhile, Amber and Vaush have both decided to catch just a few more winks of shuteye. Falling back to sleep is a decision one shall give little afterthought to. While the other will be sorely affected for the rest of her days.

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Dead Rabbits

Horse2The highland green has grown as long as the summer days, offering sheep, cattle, and horses plenty to graze and grow fat upon. The spring’s bounty is in need of counting and branding. It is a good time for the Highlanders to tend to their animals.

To that end, clans Fraiser and McPherson have taken to the open fields, collecting their herds of horse. It is hard, honest work that keeps the men busy in the weeks following the annual games. Riding with Blaise is his wife Ruby and daughter Amber, plus the na-Baron, Simon Locke, and his friend Vaush. Several other men of clan Fraiser have joined them.

Roaming herds have forced the party several days southeast of Glenfeld, near a stand of ancient rock known as Fathach Mullach, the Giant’s Crown. A common fixture for those born of the highlands, this lone hill of stone monoliths is often a point of interest for anyone from the lowlands. Taking less than an hour’s ride to reach, Amber offers to guide Simon and Vaush there while on one of their daily hunting excursions.

The arrival of the three is full of peaked curiosity as they come over a grassy ridge for their first view of the Crown. Though never without her parents, Amber has been here before and knows what to expect. For the boys, it is Simon and Vaush’s first time to the Highland Stones. Neither has ever known its like. It is an awe-inspiring sight.

Below and before them rests a natural bowl of green. Cupped by steep hills for three-quarters of the rim, the last portion is anchored by an ancient stand of forested trees. At the center of the bowl sits a single elevated hill, unnaturally rounded and flat. Combined with the contours of the surrounding landscape, the mound forms a perfectly moated structure save one land bridge leading towards the thick woods.

Atop the lone hill lines three concentric circles of stone, each progressively taller as they work towards the center. The tallest measures at least three times the height of an average man. Only a solitary hawk perched upon one of the standing giants commands a greater height.

Wanting to get a closer look, it is no real work to cross the makeshift moat filled with open land and grass. The only real hindrance the trio encounters is the immediate steepness climbing the Crown, but that is quickly overcome. Reaching the outer ring the children dismount, leaving their rides behind. Disturbed by their arrival, the hawk takes flight for the nearby forest.

Serpent stoneFalling a foot or two short of these outer guardians, Amber, Simon, and Vaush work their way between the ancient stones. The years have aged all the hard edges away, leaving some cracked and pitted. Carved, but faded images are still evident upon most of their surfaces. The majority of symbols are cryptic in meaning, with only a few resembling modern ideals. Giving them little interest, the three visitors move inward.

The second set of stones is taller still. If Amber were to guess, she would say they’re twice the height of her father with a width equal to his outstretched arms and possessing the thickness of a horse’s midsection. Standing in pairs that hardly let a man pass between them, each is capped with a granite lintel. It is beyond the children’s collective imagination as to how such massive blocks were made to stand. Or for that matter, how the builders were able to place such crushing objects across the top of each pair. This wonderment is only eclipsed by what they soon discover at the center.

Here stands a triangle of monolithic proportions. Each side is comprised of an enormous, blue-veined, granite slab, unique from the other two rings, and standing near on twenty feet tall. Though seemingly as old as the rest of the structure, these three exhibit very little weathering. Intricate carvings of swirling shapes and geometric patterns coat the entire inner-facing wall of each stone. From what they can tell, the etchings remain smooth and precise throughout.

Walking amongst these giants the three witness a single stone slab laying flat upon the ground. It has all the signs of a sacrificial altar, complete with old and ominous stains at one end and three smooth holes tunneling from side to side. Speculation about their use is kept to a quiet minimum. But unlike the surrounding monoliths, the altar stone shows significant wear from time and the elements. Whatever unsavory carvings once adorned its surfaces, they have long since vanished into history.

Vaush, finding nothing in the symbols that he can make sense of, starts following the path leading to the land bridge and the opposing forest. It’s at this moment Chester gives a plaintive whine to his master. The sound is as unfamiliar as it is disturbing to Simon. He can’t help but feel as if something is wrong… that there is imminent danger. Amber has also contracted a feeling of unease that has her hand now resting upon the pommel of her short sword.

Having just stepped forth from the outer ring and onto the land bridge, Vaush hears the concern in Simon’s voice as his name is called out in warning. It’s enough to stop him in his tracks. But standing there only gives Vaush the sense of being exposed to an unseen presence. So where is it?

Scanning the trees ahead does not make Vaush feel any safer. The dark and forbidding veil of old growth offers only more suspicion to a gut instinct screaming danger. Nor does it help that after a bit more examination Vaush spies a section where the leaves fail to rustle in the gentle breeze. Not wanting to turn his back to whatever is hidden, he slowly steps backwards into the relative safety of the stones.

Meanwhile, still standing among the giants at the center of the hill, Simon’s anxiety has elevated to a more hands-on experience. Not content to remain unarmed in the face of mysterious danger, he has readied his bow, notching an arrow home. However, before being able to pull the string back, an unseen hand firmly grasps Simon’s forearm. It is not enough to cause damage or pain, but the pressure is sufficient to stay his attempt at fulfilling the action. Not that the shock of being grabbed by some ghostly force wasn’t enough to accomplish the same results.

By now all three young explorers are spooked to the point of wanting to depart the Giant’s Crown. Regrouping, they make a rapid retreat for their horses. It is only in the effort of remounting their steeds that any take notice of the day’s most alarming occurrence: three dead rabbits.

How the rabbits came to be lying at this precise point is beyond any of the children to say. Other than their own tracks coming and going, Amber is unable to find any evidence of another’s passing. Nor can she identify the cause of death for their unexpected bounty. Each hare is unmarked, perfect as the day it was born. Health personified, excepting they are dead. To her eye, it is as if each animal simply hopped to the spot in the grass, lay down, and died for the pleasure of being the evening’s meal.

But what should they do with their discovery? Are they a gift? A warning? None of them can say for certain. Three dead rabbits might have easily been three dead children.

Not wanting to offend their potential benefactor, the children decide to take the rabbits with them. At least they won’t be returning to camp empty handed. They also decide to stave off any questions about their mystery catch by wounding each with an arrow. Better to show that they had a successful hunting trip than try to convince others of the truth.

The ride back to camp is quiet; each lost in their own thoughts about what was or what could have been. Thankfully, the camp is deserted upon their return. The other members of the party have yet to make their way back from the day’s work, giving Amber time to skin their trophies and prepare dinner.

But it is not the men who ride into camp first; rather it is two of Amber’s older male cousins, Collin and Craig. Both seem out of sorts and tight lipped. Even scared by Vaush’s opinion. Unlike Amber and the boys, the pair has nothing to add to the night’s meal. It is unlike either to return so early from the hunt empty handed. Vaush can’t resist questioning the less nervous of the two, especially in light of his own recent experience.

Only by offering up Vaush’s own odd story does Collin eventually share one of equal strangeness. It starts off well enough with the two chasing some large game into the nearby forest. But before either Collin or Craig can bring a spear to bear upon their prey, the two boys are confronted by what can only be described as a “large, two-legged pig.” Being too scared by the strange beast to continue the hunt, the pair turned tail and made haste for their rides. They didn’t stop riding until making it safely back to camp.

With their stories completed, it is quickly agreed that neither group will inform the adults of their fantastic tales. As Collin put it, “I won’t talk about your non-moving trees, if you don’t talk about my two-legged pig.” In either case, nobody is looking to have their sanity questioned.

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In Which Stratum Learns a Few Things

WagonsontheroadWith the games concluded, the gathered clans begin breaking up their various camps, dispersing to the four-corners of the highlands. Lord Locke and his entourage are soon on the road to Castle Locke. Aside from Brannigan and his son Stratum, Bran and O’Sullivan have also joined the party, leaving Simon and Vaush with the McPhersons.

Stratum, ever inquisitive, spends a fair amount of time talking to this year’s King of the Hill. The good natured O’Sullivan is more than willing to engage the odd lad in conversation, speaking of his time in Uster, of losing his home and land to a thieving warlord, and eventually finding acceptance here in Entia. Stratum also learns that O’Sullivan has a wife and twin sons, just a year or two younger than himself. They live several hours walk west of the castle, along the tarn and neighboring forest.

Eventually, their roads diverge and Stratum is left to his thoughts. Yet, there’s much to keep him busy. It is only with the passing of resent events that Stratum has come to recognize the wealth of magical potential hidden away in the man that is his father. Questions such as… If being able to manipulate the magical world is his father’s calling, then why hasn’t he passed it on to his son? Can I even learn these skills? Why am I just now finding out about this?

Questions he shall put to his father once they have returned home.

From Stuart Brannigan’s personal journal…

My Dearest Nimue,Sir stuart brannigan

And so it begins.

Our son has started to question that which I cannot, or should not give answers to. At least, not yet. But how can I, in good conscience, continue to delay his quest for certain knowledge? Is it not equally disastrous to deliver him into the world without some adequate measure of understanding? Certainly, your predictions upon his future give some credit to my reluctance. And yet, if he is to have any chance of successfully countering our worst fears, then he must be educated.

How I miss your council at such times as these.

The games were undeniably a positive step forward. Expanding Stratum’s worldview in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’m sure, as his mother, you would agree to the sentiment that no boy should find their formative years relegated to the walls of a castle, even one so vast and ancient as the Locke. Better he moves beyond the protective curtain and experiences the world from the common man’s perspective.

Then there are our son’s chosen companions. What more eclectic group of individuals – dare I say, friends? – could we hope to find than these for Stratum’s introduction to the human spectrum. At the forefront is the na-Baron himself, Simon Locke, a young, cultured aristocrat in search of his own identity. Appropriate that. Then there is Simon’s genteel, but far more dangerous watchdog, Vaush. That one bears scrutiny in the same manner he practices upon everyone else. Next is the dark and exotic foreigner, Malik / Bran, a treasure-trove of distant knowledge just waiting to be plundered. And finally, let us not forget the provincial, yet adventurous, good-natured and high-spirited lass, Amber. All, relationships to be fostered for the collective good.

But what of our own relationship, that of father and son? How much can I offer without polluting the purity you and I created together? For you made it most definite, you did not wish me to infect him with my own brand of corruption. And thus far, to that dying wish I have held true. But for how long my love? How long?

Today I felt compelled to finally open some of the doors I’ve kept closed since your passing. Why, I cannot honestly say. Perhaps I am growing old or nostalgic for the time I was once a boy seeking out my own father’s interests. Then, maybe it is the weight of this finely crafted mug that now hangs from my belt loop. Like so much loving guilt. But I ask your forgiveness, as that is an unfair comparison. It is a gift unworthy of such disparagement. Whatever the cause, today I invited Stratum to explore my workroom.

My dearest, I must admit, I could not help but show off my prized mechanical spider and cat. YouMechanical spider a should have seen his eyes light up as I presented each in turn. Of course, Persius was his typical non-committal self, never caring much for false idols. But you would have been proud of how intuitive the boy has become. That Stratum should be concerned with their ability to function as free willed creatures speaks much for his advancing intellect. Though, as you knew and I confirmed, neither is so sophisticated in their crafting.

I had no real intention of taking matters further, however the boy is perceptive. Or is that just another lie? For how could one miss it? The metal assassin standing prominent in its corner of the room, claiming territory through size and muted intimidation. Like so much scarred and ancient armor, but ever ready to awaken and carry on with its deadly intent should I fail to consider its needs.

I told Stratum the truth, in as much as I could. That the armored suit is one of the “warforged.” Explaining it was a relic of a long ago and distant war. That it had come to destroy both my work and self, but I’d managed to bring it under submission first. He wanted to know that if it were a machine, why I hadn’t had it dismantled. The excuse I gave was I couldn’t do so without taking the risk of waking the creature. I suppose it isn’t a complete lie. For I nearly believe it myself.

Of course, I was not being false when I said the creature and others like him were the reason I could not impart my knowledge of the arcane arts to him. Like any boy his age, he is full of excitement for the possibilities such power represents. But I could tell he was crushed when I told him it would not be possible or in his best interest to follow in his father’s footsteps. He did, however, seem a bit mollified by the offer of learning the skills of woodcarving and metal-smithing. You could almost see the cogs turning as he considered how such skills might lead to his own creations. I also promised to start his education on various languages. If Startum’s efforts to learn Malik’s native tongue are any indication of the boy’s talent with words, he should be a quick study. It only makes sense given your own affinity for languages.

Undoubtedly, Stratum’s fate, as all of ours, will occur with or without my consent. But I will not allow him to go to it without the tools to manufacture some outcome of his own making. Rest assured my sweet, I should not break my promise to you. But he is also my son. And to that end I shall do what any good father is expected to do. I shall prepare him the best I can.

You are forever in my thoughts,

Stuart

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Natalia Speaks Out

In a private correspondence between father and daughter, Natalia offers up her perspective to Necati on the Highland Games and three of our story’s main characters.

QuillandpaperIf anybody were to ask me – not that any but you have – I would label this past week’s affair as a colossal waste of time and energy.

Certainly, for all its pretence, the gathering of the clans was little more than an excuse for a horde of sweaty, smelly, hairy men to come together and try proving to one another who has the bigger piece of meat between their legs. And just how did they go about establishing their superiority in said nether regions? Mostly by hefting heavy objects and throwing them about. As if such worthless endeavors ever proved much! No doubt, they could have saved time and trouble by simply lifting their kilts and placing their so-called manhood on a table for the measuring stick to decide matters. The whole thing was very much like that anyway. For as much as those cherished skirts of theirs are worth maintaining any modesty, they might as well go about their games stripped naked.

Thankfully, all that is beyond us now as we have returned to Castle Locke. Would, however, that I could thoroughly cleanse such offending images from my mind. Yet, definitely there are elements I am wanting to preserve, as I have learned much concerning those who very well might play a part in future events. Thus, upon your request, these words I place here for reference.

You always stress the importance of watching and learning. Therefore, I took the opportunity to do just that. I especially made effort to keep eyes on the na-Baron, Simon Locke, as well as his shadow of a friend, Vaush. I also thought it wise to learn more about this so-called son of Brannigan. I only question his authenticity because I am surprised at how little I truly know concerning this boy who has supposedly lived in the same castle as I these past seven years.

But before I offer up my thoughts on this trio, please make allowances for a slight digression. I do so only as a matter of perspective.

How rare is it in this world that the seeds of men yield their intended harvest. As you well know, I am not the promised fruit of my mother’s garden. In deed, I am more akin to the country thistle that so hides its dangerous spurs beneath the beauty of its bloom. Not that I find fault with this outcome in the least.

My parents, contrary to the truth, had hopes for their lovely daughter growing into a respectable woman. Even going so far as to prearrange a marriage to a wealthy merchant’s son by the time I was seven. The only memory I have of my once future husband was he would pull my hair when the adults weren’t looking. That and he never brushed his teeth. To this day believe I could still identify the offending odor of his breath.

But instead of growing older and marrying the foul-mouthed, hair-puller upon the agreed date, in the harsh winter of said same year I was forged into a weapon made blunt by tragedy and the need to survive. The cruel streets to which I was fostered after my parents’ sudden deaths hardened me. For a full turn of the seasons I was nothing more than a club, beating those into submission that would not succumb to my needs or fending off any who sought to use me for their wants. That is, until you plucked me from the castaways and honed my skills upon the grinding stone of your intent. Since then, never once have I wished to return to the dull and diminished shell of my former self. For once where I was void of content and purpose, now there stands an individual sharp and functional.

I mention these things only as it serves to remind how easily destiny and speculation of those I write about can drastically change. Nothing remains static. What is evident by the brightness of the noonday sun is destined to fade as time erodes day to night. As you are so fond of saying, “Darkness holds the many unseen truths.”

So what does this say about my latest concerns. Only that my conclusions have value for the here and now. Should they hold true for a distant future is a matter of the Gods and all things remaining equal. Neither of which I would take odds from.

The na-Baron, Simon Locke, is everything he seems to be. He is young and inexperienced in the realities beyond his castle walls, though this is changing with every day he lives among these highlanders. Already Simon’s true nature as a potential leader of men has shown through. This was never more evident than when the boys chose to host a late night King of the Hill.

At first I didn’t expect him to become involved in something so ignoble. But obviously, his time with the McPhersons has helped Simon access some of his more base instincts. As the night proved, it is hard for a man to fight his heritage. Especially when he is only seven.

What I found most intriguing was the willingness of others to follow this relative newcomer. Unquestionably, there is value in his title, but that should have held little sway with the youth of these parts. For what care do the uncultured have in the young son of a distant baron? That at the age of seven he was able to command both peers and those boasting several years his senior to a marked victory is noteworthy. Clearly, the na-Baron has inherited more than just his title and dark features from his father.

Then there is Simon’s quiet and unassuming friend, Vaush

Vaush… proof there is a match for you somewhere in this world, my dearest father. I would have almost thought it impossible, but then I would have to deny the wellspring of my own existence. Weapons like Vaush and I don’t just materialize out of thin air. We are manifestations of a greater purpose. What that purpose is, I would not dare to speculate. I only know Vaush and I are the blades of choice for our respective avatars. We are honed to a perfect edge. Then sent forth to do your bidding. And so, I like to hope that our demands shall never come to cross-purposes. In time it might be far too close a thing to risk the difference.

But if the games served at least one worthy purpose, it was setting the stage for Vaush to face a legitimate foe. Though this adversary was skilled in the use of a knife, like most in this region, the young highlander’s expertise was limited. And having faced Vaush myself, there was no doubt in my mind as to the eventual outcome. It was merely a matter of time and how much injury this unsuspecting boy was going to suffer that was in question.

When the end came, I must honestly admit to having missed the signs of its approach. How quickly it was over. Sure there was plenty of pain and suffering offered, perhaps even a bit of mercy in that the thrust wasn’t mortal, but what I never witnessed come across Vaush’s face was the telling signs of emotion.

Always there is something. Whether it is satisfaction or regret, victory or loss, vengeance, hate, or fear, there is always one of a multitude of emotions to be found on the edge of a blade. No matter what, there is always some shadow of sentiment that comes away with the taste of blood. But not with Vaush. What I saw there was as empty as my own voice. Vaush simply stood there after the deed was done. Expressionless. Dead as the knife he held and the flesh it carved. While all around, a thunderstorm of emotions rained down upon him from concerned parents and clan.

As such, I don’t know what has me more disturbed: Vaush’s complete detachment from his own act of violence, or that I envy such cool and passionless efficiency in one so young. To be absolutely unmoved by something so visceral is practically inhuman. I can only imagine what went into creating such suppression, for I worry to think one could be born this way. Dare I say… the perfect killer?

My last person of interest, is by no means my least. But Stratum, to use your own word, is somewhat of an enigma. And therein lies the trouble that plagues my mind.

For if ever a word of praise under your tutelage was spoken, I would say it mostly arose as a result of my attention to the details… my ability to ferret out every facet of a problem. To quote your own words, “The seemingly insignificant is often the distance between success and failure.” Thus, my firm conviction in that the proof is in the details. That one must uncover what is hidden to be victorious. Yet, I seem to have encountered an impenetrable veil as it relates to Brannigan’s son, Stratum.

If memory and those about me are to be trusted, Stratum was born to the castle by a mother who did not survive the effort of bringing him into the world. But if this is true, then where is the grave? Where are the mementos of a shared past? Who can speak clearly of this woman’s passing or a time in which she walked within these stone walls while alive? Such is a time before my arrival, so I cannot relate to it. But I do not feel her ghost walking within this castle and it raises doubt that she ever did in life.

As for Stratum himself, certainly his infancy and my own peculiar education would warrant little interaction between us in his early years. But even so, prior to these recent months, I am unable to pinpoint any specific time or place in which a shared meal or a passing moment was spent in each other’s company. To my mind, there is only the vaguest notion of having lived in his presence. And to those I have made inquiry, only the same can be said for their involvement with the child. Though, I will admit, the Lady Jennifer is most adamant in her belief that Stratum has been a fixture in her family’s lives these many years past.

Then there is the fact that Stratum is the son of a rather accomplished mage. Yet, he shares none of the latter’s skills. If he did, clearly we would have known of it by now. For what seven-year-old boy who is able to craft would not put it to some mischievous use? And for all of my talents and time spent in observation of the boy, not once did I witness any magical aptitude during the games.

In truth, I cannot speak for any talent Stratum might possess. Other than the odd use of a bow, it is as if the Gods bestowed upon him an empty tablet to which nothing is prescribed. Yet, his character is quite inquisitive and he is seemingly determined to fill his slate as quick as possible. But as of this writing, I have failed to see Stratum stand out in any one particular field – save that in which he managed to spy you and your mystical visitor on the last night of the games – or excel in any singular given talent. So as to what he will become or what he represents, it is beyond any current speculation.

As I have already stated, he is an enigma to me. But be assured, that too shall come to pass.

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The Highland Games (Part 3)... King of the Hill

The final day of the highland games is one of mixed emotions. For the men, they are keen to earn victory in any of the several individual competitions that conclude this day. The women, on the other hand, are eager to close the books on this year’s games as many grow weary of having to address the multitude of aches and pains their husbands have acquired. Yet, for both there is still one final trial to overcome before the games are called to a halt – King of the Hill.

Though warnings have been whispered into Lord Locke’s ear that it might be best to cancel this year’s event, especially in light of what occurred at the start of the games, King of the Hill is a tradition not easily put aside for the sake of caution. The contest is allowed.

Finally, with all other events finished, the men are soon gathered to the center of the main field. Here a small hill, no more than three of four feet in elevation, stands. Currently, it is the only plot of land not occupied by the assemblage of hopeful contenders.

With a few words of warning concerning the forbidden use of weapons and a caution to forgo any attempts at lasting injuries, Locke signals the starting horn to be blown. Its lone cry is soon drowned out by the combined shouts of the gathered throng. Most charge for the top of the vacant hill.

What isn’t immediately apparent is the combined force of men making their way not to the hill, but towards another equally matched group. The McPherson and McAlester clans, along with their respective allies, are on a collision course that has little to do with the contest at hand. Converging upon one another, it doesn’t take long for hostilities to pick up where they left off only days before.

Seeing this and not wanting matters to slip out of hand again, Locke quickly calls for the signal to end the contest. The solitary blast is so unexpected, that nearly everyone immediately ceases to struggle. What is also unexpected is victory being bestowed upon the one man currently standing at the top of the hill, O’Sullivan!

If any other man had been standing upon the small mound at the time of Lord Locke’s proclamation, surely there would have been a challenging outcry from the masses. But this is the beloved O’Sullivan. The foster son from Uster who few can find fault with. He is the perfect compromise. Most all can accept this choice of victors, and those that can’t generally keep it to themselves. Besides, the fact that O’Sullivan is a clan of one, snatching victory from so many others, is an irony not lost upon these highlanders. In recognition of this astonishing feat, a unified cry of O’Sullivan is raised to echo throughout the hills of Glenfeld.

As a result of this surprising turn of events, the immediate conflict between McPherson and McAlester is forgotten… but only for the immediate. It also makes it easy for Locke to decide to call off the youth equivalent of the event. No sense in tempting fate a second time.

Later that evening, Lord Locke and Lady Jennifer preside over the closing ceremonies. They are very gracious in offering parting words of solidarity for all the clans of the highlands – despite any differences they may have with each other. It is fairly evident as to whom these words are directed towards.

Flame warriorFollowing his Lordship’s speech, the celebrated O’Sullivan provides a crowd-pleasing story of his own… the tale of Briarfrost and the ousting of the Tusk. It is a story the children have already witnessed, but this time it is far less slurred. There are also some added special effects to enjoy. At his back rages a massive bonfire. While O’Sullivan’s booming voice rings out clear and strong – no doubt, magically enhanced for all to hear – Brannigan assists in the telling, using the bonfire to create a fiery panorama to match the words. It is a rare spectacle that even the youngest shall recall fondly unto their deathbeds.

Burialmound4With the story brought to its exciting conclusion and in defiance of Lord Locke’s earlier ban, most of the boys sneak off to join up at an ancient hill (a burial mound) outside of the formal grounds. Here an unofficial King of the Hill takes place under torchlight and a full moon.

Initially, Simon claims the inability to participate, that he is forbidden from doing so in his official capacity as na-Baron. It is only after Amber makes her desire known to take part in the fracas that Simon feels shamed into climbing the hill as well. Yet, not wanting to endanger the other children, he commands the ever faithful Chester to remain with Vaush. Bran, who has been eager to play a part in this event ever since learning about it, also joins in, claiming his adopted father’s clan. His choice initially puts him at odds with Amber and Simon. For their own part, both Vaush and Stratum decide to sit this one out. As Vaush would put it, “I don’t play games.”

The clandestine event begins with several clusters of boys running for the crest of the hill, where the steep, grassy sides all around culminate in a relatively long, flat surface. As a whole, it is just large enough for two separate knots of boys to establish themselves. Each is mostly comprised of similar aged individuals. While the older boys square off on the fatter west side of the hill, the younger challengers converge on the east side.

It is also evident that clan affiliations have come into effect, drawing a clear line between those pro Glenfeld / McPherson and the McAlester with their supporters. Meanwhile, Bran has joined a small, but determined force of boys fighting for the honor of the lumberjack clans.

Initially, Amber finds it difficult to climb the hill as another boy throws her aside, but she eventually works her way to the top. Bran, on the other hand, having easily attained the crest, is already teamed up with a few others to confront a similar sized group of McAlesters. It’s a close struggle, but he’s successful in casting several challengers off the hill. Nearby, Simon rallies a handful of lads to the Glenfeld banner and is directing coordinated attacks against all that won’t join his band.

Eventually, Simon’s efforts have him facing off against Bran, who now seems intent on personally throwing everybody off the hill, no matter their size or numbers. Only after being taken down by superior numbers does the “demon child” calm down enough to listen to Simon’s plan.

The na-Baron knows his smaller warriors are inadequate to claim victory over the older boys, but if he were to rally enough troops and go after the older ones as a united force…. Well then, there just might be a chance. Bran, recognizing the wisdom in Simon’s words, agrees to the plan and joins the na-Baron.

Across the way, Amber and several younger boys are in a desperate situation against two of the older McAlesters. It’s a close contest that finds nearly all of them eventually being thrown off the hill. Only Amber and one other ally manage to survive. Seeing the advantage in numbers, the two quickly add themselves to Simon and his growing horde.

Now boasting significant numbers and consisting entirely of pro Glenfeld fighters, Simon’s patch-quilt band begins to hunt down their larger foes. Their first victims are a pair of teenagers in the process of overpowering a third. Bran, with a bit of dirty fighting, seriously injures an older boy’s knee with a vicious sidekick. The child, clutching his leg, goes down in screams of pain. This causes the once potential ally to turn on Bran rather unexpectedly. The surprised Bran, taking a heavy fist to the jaw, is then picked up from the ground and summarily thrown from the mound. Everybody recognizes Bran’s excessive assault and feels this newest attack a justifiable response on the part of the older boy. Thus, Bran is left to his fate at the bottom of the hill.

Just the same, there is little time to consider the lose of Bran. Simon, quickly directing his forces, issues a rallying call to the Glenfeld banner and charges into the remaining enemy. In swift order and with the help of some older cousins, all the non-Glenfeld supporters are eventually flung from the hill. But having been a hard fought battle that nobody wants to prolong to a solitary victor, the contest is mercifully called to an end. Among those still standing include Simon and Amber, as well as their two older cousins. Each comes away with a new level of respect for the pair of younger family members. Now with the contest over, a hearty cry of triumph is given up in the name of Glenfeld.

Leaving the hill victorious, Simon returns to Vaush and Chester, flushed in the pride and glory of his success. Along the way those he led and whom those have told of his leadership hail Simon as a hero. The name Locke is soon shouted about. He returns it with his own cry of Glenfeld, which is vigorously taken up in reply. What future leader of men could ask for more?

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