Chapter one: The Harvest Moon.
Dimwalden Forest, Northern Caraca, Netheron:
A late autumn breeze wafted through the trees, loosing clouds of orange, yellow, and brown leaves from their holds, and leaving them to flutter down between the trunks of the massive oaks, maples, aspen, and birch that made up the forest, and finally come to rest on the silent forest floor.
Tauren Netharu gazed up from the small, rocky, forest stream he knelt by, scanning the dark forest about him with a hunters eye for his prey, a waft of the breeze swept down from the towering treetops, having made it through the dense foliage, ruffled his light brown hair and then wafted away into the forest behind him, his blue eyes, sharp and careful, snapped down to the small print in the soft mud by the creek, the deer he was tracking was close, he knew, for the mud it had stirred up in taking its drink had yet to be swept down the stream.
Slowly, with infinite care not to make any noise, he reached over to his side, and picked up his bow from where he had set it on the rocks, he slowly lifted an arrow from the quiver at his belt, and then slowly lay it’s maple shaft onto the aspen bow, he stood slowly and gazed intently at the spot in the underbrush on the other side of the creek where he was certain he had seen movement, slowly he tensed the bowstring, then, smoothly, without a single moment of hesitation leaped forward, vaulted off a rock and across the stream, landing with complete silence right behind the tree where he knew the deer was hiding.
He took a deep breath, it would not do to alert his prey to his presence and lose his only chance for the day, he needed this meat desperately, today was recruiting day for the Arrel army, and while chances were slim that he would be recruited this year, he had to be ready for any eventuality, and if his grandfather didn’t have enough money to stay alive for the next two years before Tauren got back from the allotted service period, then he would be terribly hard pressed to feed himself.
It wasn’t that Edrin Netharu was a weak old man, quite the contrary, he was fit, strong, and healthy, never having been able to quite loose his warriors touch that he had gained over his years of service in the Arrel army, but the people of the area didn’t trust him, indeed, they feared him, and though that was a good thing in the old man’s eyes, it was a huge hindrance in for him in trying to find some employment, and living off the land as Tauren did was ‘ dishonorable for a warrior ‘.
Tauren shook his head, clearing his mind of all thought, not wanting to argue with himself the fine points of his grandfather’s philosophy at the moment, that would never do, slowly he took a deep breath, and then, in a single movement, spun out from behind the tree, pulling the string back to his ear and loosing in a single movement, it was a shot that bordered on instinctive, he had guessed where the massive buck would be lying and the moment the arrow had begun its deadly flight, he knew that he had guessed correctly.
The huge buck was lying still on the leaves of the forest floor, its head raised, listening intently, its huge brown eyes alert, the instant it saw the blur of movement as Tauren leaped out from behind the tree, it had leaped up with incredible speed, and was in mid bound as Taurens arrow slammed into its heart, stopping it dead cold in the air and throwing it onto its side, its head slamming with a sickening snap against a tree trunk.
Tauren landed perfectly, and standing from his squat, replaced the arrow he had automatically applied to the bow string, in his quiver, and then paced over to the buck, gazing over its gallant head, its sweeping antlers, and at last resting his eyes on its beautiful brown fur, he felt a twinge of sadness at having to kill the majestic creature, there were plenty of them in the area but he still felt bad about the deed, he sighed, reaching inside his leather jerkin and pulling out his long, razor sharp, hunting knife, his grandfather had told him that it would be a bad thing if he felt no remorse at destroying beauty.
Carefully he knelt and cut out the arrow from where it had struck, trying not to make a mess, then, carefully replacing the arrow after having wiped it off on a patch of grass, he waited a moment for the crimson blood to stop flowing, then, with a few deft slices, he cut a piece of rope from the dozen yards of thin yet strong cord that he always carried strapped to his belt, he passed the piece of rope under the antlers of the fallen creature and then tied the ends together, then, replacing his knife, he unstrung his bow and slung it over his shoulder, then he reached down and grasping the thick antlers of the beast at their base, he heaved the whole body over his shoulder, looping the rope around him so as to leave him a free hand.
He sighed, holding the 400 pound creature easily; and headed into the underbrush, heading for the falling sun in the west, pushing the underbrush out of his way, and trying to be careful so as not to catch the antlers on anything.
The reasons that the people in the area didn’t trust Tauren and his mysterious grandfather where valid ones he thought, it would take three grown men to life the load he was now carrying, and Tauren knew it. What more, he was only 16, still, technically, a boy, and this was an easy load for him; they were different, there was no hiding from it, and though Tauren at times felt the pangs of being an outcast, overall he was content with his lot, the forest was his home, he had what friends he needed in the soldiers in the town, he told himself he could survive any test the world could pose, and need no friends other than the ones he had, his fellow outcasts in a foreign world.
It took him another half hour of brisk walking before he began to feel the weight of the buck on his shoulders, but he knew he didn’t have long to go, and pressed on through the underbrush, taking in the gentle light the forest allowed to filter down. It was one of the most beautiful sights in the world to him, he always felt so much more alert in the forest, his senses seemed so much more sensitive, time seemed to slow down till he could take in everything, he felt stronger, faster, ready for anything. Ahead he saw a bright light in-between the trees and knew that he had reached his destination, and a moment later he stepped out of the tree line, blinking in the sunlight, his eyes resting on a different sight than what he was used to.
There before him spread a small meadow, covered in thick, green grass; that small rocky stream he had been at only a few minutes before running through the middle of it, to one side he saw the dark form of the small log cabin where he and his grandfather lived, its thick log walls dark from the thick coating of moss that covered them, its thatched roof black from mold. He smiled to himself, it was so little, but it was home: his home,
Behind the cabin he heard a rhythmic pounding and crashing, and knew, before he saw, that his grandfather was chopping firewood, he crossed the clearing briskly, grinning in spite of himself at the thought of his grandfather, he turned around the edge of the house, a path of pebbles crunching under his feet, and came face to face with the old man.
Edrin Netharu was a tall man, much like his only grandson, but the family resemblance stopped there, he had long grey – white hair, in compare with Taurens brown and relatively short hair, he had a thin hawkish face with a long nose, and sharp black eyes, in compare with Taurens strong, muscled, but not thick, face, blue eyes, and more normal nose, he always wore the seemingly same black frayed robes, and was now carrying an axe over his shoulder, behind him, a heap of splintered firewood lying all over their back yard.
He grinned up at Tauren and glanced at the buck in surprise”. Hello boy, seems like you did well enough today.” He said with a nod at the buck.
Tauren pushed past him and lay the buck down on the rough pine boards of back porch of the cabin, the old man followed, stroking the soft fur of the bucks back.
Tauren nodded in agreement with his grandfather’s statement.” Yep, I caught him by surprise; he didn’t even get to run.” He still felt bad about having had to kill it though.
The old man nodded.” Well, why you don’t get this cleaned up here. I’ve got to finish this firewood.” The old man swung the axe to a ready position and paced back to the firewood, while Tauren began the messy work of cleaning the buck.
Some half an hour later Tauren finally looked up from his work, a heap of meat, wrapped in rough brown paper lay to his side on the porch, he saved the antlers and hide; they would sell well too.
The sun was getting quite low on the horizon, and he knew it would soon be time to head for Carmenton with the meat. He and his grandfather had decided the day before that Tauren and he would spend the night in town if Tauren caught anything, he had been hunting for two weeks now, and was glad that he had caught something at last, even if it had to be on the day before Recruiting day.
That night there would be a festival in the town where all the men between the ages fifteen and fifty would be gathered together, the next morning a group of judges would have a quick test for each man, assessing his abilities and attributes, and then one out of every five of them would be chosen, and sent to the army base in Fandrinad Province to be trained for three months before they were sent to Arreland for a 20 month service period.
The Arrels had been in control of Netheron for almost a hundred years, the story of how they had come to power was one that the Arrels did not encourage in spreading, and as a result, nobody spoke of it, and over the years it had slowly faded into legend, and that, even, was fading to myth.
Tauren had talked with his grandfather about it, but he had seemed to agree with the Arrels; the story should be suppressed, Tauren knew that his grandfather knew the truth, but his grandfather had refused to tell him, at the end of these refusals he had simply sighed and dropped the subject, after all, they had little to complain about under the Arrel rule, the taxes where light, the laws where simply enforcements of morality, and the Arrels only requirements where that there be a small force of their soldiers in every town with a population of more than five hundred, and of course, that one out of every five men between the ages of fifteen and fifty, be recruited every year to serve two years in that mysterious war with that mysterious land, Halavarde.
Even though that last rule was a hard one, and most every man who left to those wars didn’t come back, recruitment day came only once every 5 years, and chance had had it, that Tauren had just turned fifteen only a month before recruiting day.
He sighed, heaving the meat, antlers, and hide to his shoulder, and heading across the clearing to where there was a small pasture and stables, where they kept the two horses which they used to do the little traveling they did.
He saw his grandfather coming toward him from the cabin, he set his load down on the soft grass, then, unclipping the latch to the pasture gate, he called the two horses over to him, they tossed their heads and trotted over to him; they were small horses, both dark brown with white hooves and lower legs, but one had a white spot on his forehead, while the other had a black one.
His grandfather stepped up and took the one with the black spot, that one was his horse, T’hune, and led him over to the stables where he started saddling and bridling him with the hands of an expert. Tauren heaved his load up with one arm, and led his horse over to the space beside his grandfather, wishing for two things that his grandfather had, that ease and skill with horses, and a better knack for picking names, his poor horse was named White, a name that his grandfather called bland, and Tauren couldn’t help but agree.
It took them only a few minutes of silent work in the small straw strewn stables to get their horses saddled, and loaded with whatever they were bringing, Edrin swung easily into his saddle, mockingly holding a hand out to Tauren.” Need some help there?”
Tauren shook his head, a nervous feeling deep down in him, he was a hunter, not a warrior, his grandfather had taught him a bit about using a sword and spear, and of course he was a decent hand with his bow, but he wasn’t ready to go out to war and fight other men, fight people who were trying to kill him, and who knew that if they didn’t then he would have to kill them.
He sighed and leaped up onto his horse, the meat behind him, wrapped in the hide, while Edrin carried the antlers, he reached down and picked up his bow from where it lay, leaning against the wall of the stables, he nodded to Edrin, and together they turned their horses and headed by the still, silent cabin, and into the woods.
It was terribly unlikely that he wouldn’t be selected, he was strong, unnaturally so, he was healthy, he had some skill with weapons, his grandfather didn’t try to assure him he wouldn’t be and Tauren knew he knew the chances where against him not being selected. It wasn’t that he was afraid, not really, he was a bit, but he was ready, and confident in his own skills, he wasn’t afraid that he wouldn’t come back though.
The leaf strewn trail beneath them crunched as the horses headed through the trees, about them Tauren heard an occasional scuffle of movement as some small creature ran off into the underbrush, the breeze still blew through the treetops, sending leaves flowing down to rest about them.
They rode in silence for about an hour, drinking in the timelessness of the great forest, the amazing feeling of moving through the swirling leaves, the towering trees about them rustling quietly, the twilight about them enhancing the abundant colors; without paying too much attention to details, one began to feel as though the forest where . . . unearthly, majestic, and picture perfect.
As far as Tauren was concerned, they reached their destination far too soon, and he almost commented on it as they stepped out onto the banks of the Ivy Flow, the river that ran through the valley in which Carmenton lay, but he held his tongue, for there, before them, was Ivy Falls, and never had he seen it looking so majestic.
The Ivy Flow flew over the cliffs that bordered the northern valley, and then took a thousand foot, glistening, fall into a wide pool carved out of the earth at its base, before continuing its course down the valley, through the mat of fields, and by the little splotch of buildings that was Carmenton.
On the far side of the valley they could see the mountains rising above them, covered in forest. To their right the valley wound away for miles before it flattened out and joined the plains that constituted much of Netheron.
Edrin nodded, smiling.” Let’s go. Can’t enjoy the view till we faint and fall off this blasted cliff.”
Edrin didn’t like heights, but Tauren knew that he was enjoying the evening just as much as he was, he nodded in answer and they turned to their left, away from the rocky bed and flowing current of the Ivy, and began the slow trip down the side of the cliff.
A wide trail had been cut in it some years ago, by a people who had left no legacy for their deed; down this they went, hugging the white cliffs, and guiding their horses the best they could, being careful not to fall, for if they did they would have a straight fall for hundreds of feet, then a hard stop at the bottom.
At last they reached the base of the cliff and began their journey down the rough, grassy trail, through the sparsely wooded valley, and, at last, there came into sight the outer buildings of Carmenton: Carmenton was a small town, only a few hundred people living there, it was built on a hill, a small fort at the very top, the houses arranged disorderedly about it.
On most days the small meadow beside the town was empty, but today wasn’t just any day, it was the day of the Harvest Festival, a yearly gathering of all the farmers and townsfolk from the surrounding land; today, they had pitched dozens of tents in the meadow and already the people could be seen pouring in, mostly farmers in rough wagons, their produce with them, planning to sell what they had grown that year tonight.
They came out onto the main road, the thumping of the horses’ hooves on the grass turning to a clacking as they hit the stones on the road; their pace quickened and they soon where trotting through the town, buildings towering on either side of them, people running about, laughing, singing, and otherwise merrymaking. Tauren sighed, the townspeople didn’t accept them in any way; they fell silent when the two of them passed, he could smile to them and nod, but they would only return with blank stares. They had no place here.
But there were a couple houses in the small town where they were welcome; namely, the homes of the soldiers from the fort, Arrels for the most part; men, like them, who didn’t belong in Carmenton, they too where outcast, but they formed their own group of friends, and companions, that was separate from the townsfolk, a group that Tauren was proud to be part of.
The Arrels where good men, honest, honorable, and friendly, but they were different, on the outside they looked like normal men, but there was something about them that just made them feel different, it was rumored among the villagers that they dabbled in black magic, but then again, the same thing was rumored that Tauren and his grandfather did the same.
Tauren trusted them, and he knew Edrin did too.
A few minutes later they stopped in front of the small house right down from the fort where the Lieutenant of the guard in the town lived, a particular friend of Edrins. Edrin silently jumped off of T’hune and stepping through the gate walked over to the small white house and knocked, Tauren followed suit, jumping off of White, and holding T’hune for Edrin.
A few moments later they heard footsteps in the house, and the door swung open; there stood Lieutenant Marlan Darreck, a tall man; towering over Edrin, long black hair falling about his wide shoulders, and brown eyes watching what happened around him with an intensity that seemed to burn the life out of everything, he saw Edrin and smiled widely, embracing the old man.
“. Good afternoon, Edrin.” He chuckled. He glanced up at Tauren and nodded to him, Tauren nodded back.” Come on in.” He stepped to the side and held an arm out for them to inter the tiny, two roomed building that was his home.
Edrin nodded to Tauren.” Why don’t you go stable the horses up at the fort?” He suggested, grinning up to him, Tauren nodded silently and turned away, leaving the two men to enter the little house, while he led the horses up the stone road that led up to the wooden walls of the fort on the hill.
He had only gone a few dozen yards when he heard Marlans voice call to him, he turned back toward the cottage, Marlan stuck his head out of a window over a bed of flowers.” Would you call the off-duty men down here? We might as well have our own good time while the rest of them are having theirs.” He waved at the meadow from which already could be heard the sound of singing.
“. Sure.” Tauren called back, turning and continuing toward the fort.
The fort towered above him before he noticed it and a moment later he knocked at the sally port in the wall; a moment later a piece of steel in the door slid to the side and a pair of hard, grim eyes stared out at him, a kind of eyes that a person would only find on an Arrel in those parts.
Perhaps they recognized him from maybe casually meeting him on the fort grounds or the surrounding town and lands, but it only took his name to give him passage through the thick walls, past the thick, heavily armed and armored guards on either side of the door, and into the misty, but clean stables.
Edrin had worked hard to make his name one that any Arrel would hear and see a friend in, and to his great credit, he had broken past the hard shells of the warrior-like people, and could honestly say that many where his close friends.
Tauren decided he was proud to have them as friends, as he unsaddled the horses in the stables; no, he was honored to have them as friends.
Finished with the horses, he stopped by the barracks on his way out, leaning into the dark interior, called cheerfully.” Hoy, all off duty men to the Bunker.” Using the nickname for the Lieutenants house that the soldiers where fond of. He didn’t wait for an answer, knowing the men would come in a moment; and turning, trotted through the sally port, nodding to the guards, and back down the hill, through the empty streets, to the little cabin surrounded by flowers.
A strange mismatch: considering who lived inside.
He glanced around; taking in the glare of orange and yellow from the sun as it set over the distant mountains; the sound of music from the meadow to his right; the empty, darkening streets about him; and the silent smile on his lips as he considered that he had it pretty good in life. In a way.
He turned and stepped into the large living room of the small cottage; glancing around he quickly saw Edrin and Marlan over at the fireplace in a corner, tossing armfuls of vegetables and spices into a huge kettle boiling over the crackling flames.
They didn’t even seem to register his entrance seeing as their conversation didn’t even pause, so he silently went to a corner opposite them and sat down in a chair, listening to the conversation and musing over his thoughts.
He soon found himself paying a bit more attention to the conversation in the far corner than he intended to though.
“. Nc’Dutu’s orders where to pull out three weeks ago.” He heard Marlan say.” A lot of soldiers have already pulled out, but since we’re so remote the townspeople haven’t heard about it yet.”
“. That’s mad.” He heard Edrin say angrily.” Completely defying Arlons Treaty, he knows it, Clasheron can’t be supporting his orders though, and I know him well enough to know he’d never go against his dead friends wishes.”
He would’ve betted that Marlan nodded but he wasn’t looking, as he answered.” That’s part of the problem”. He heard him say.” The archdukes, Du’Renskold and his supporters mainly, are beginning to say that Clasheron is taking personal matters over duty these days, they’re challenging his authority, and after TriPrand things aren’t looking to be in his favor. His supporters are turning against him; even Herensword says that protecting Netheron is threatening Arreland.”
Edrin sighed in exasperation.” But this isn’t some personal matter for Clasheron, Arlons Treaty was a political event.-.”
“. Yes.” Cut in Marlan.” But all the events leading up to it where deeply influenced by Arlon and Clasherons friendship.”
“.That’s crazy, they, - “Edrin began angrily again.
Marlan tossed a casual glance at Tauren sitting in the corner.” Let’s not talk about it now, shall we.” He suggested.
Edrin followed his glance and nodded, continuing with his work in silence.
There were only a few moments of that still silence, and then Edrin spoke up again.” So you’re not leaving? “He asked, glancing up at his friend.
Marlan smiled.” No, I’m not; my allegiance is to Clasheron, not to any of his enemies, especially Nc’Dutu.” He chuckled.” After all, I can’t let you and Tauren get hurt, can I.”
Just then there was the sound of a dozen feet on the stairs outside, mingled with laughing voices, and the door burst open admitting a dozen Arrel warriors from the fort.
All were still lightly armed and armored under their white cloaks embroidered on the chest with the red Arrel dragon; they all had eerily similar looks, muscular and well balanced of course, as every warrior was.
But each one of them had the same clean shaven, blue eyed, black haired, faces, and all of them where of practically the exact same height (Somewhere above six feet).
Tauren had often wondered about this curious fact, a fact that had given him constant frustration in placing the right names on the right man, something that was practically a skill in itself. He knew it was part of that curious thing about the Arrels that made them so different form ordinary people, but he hadn’t ever had the nerve to ask one of them about it.
The men swarmed into the room, greeting Tauren, Marlan, and Edrin happily, and taking their seats all over the room on whatever surface was available.
Tauren found himself talking about his past few uneventful weeks with two chuckling Arrels named Durune and Nc’Ayel, two older men whom he had known for longer than he could remember, they in return tossed in interesting little pieces about things they had done that week, things that made Tauren feel like a boring clod. Chasing robbers, and hunting down cut throats was way out of his league.
The night wore on quickly. They ate the thick stew that Edrin and Marlan had made earlier. Then, over mugs of ale, coffee, and tea, they traded stories; afterwards the Arrels and Edrin sung songs, their deep voices chorusing and echoing in a deep guttural language that Tauren didn’t recognize.
After a couple songs he slipped silently out of the cottage, listening to the cheering from the men as the latest song ended.
He sighed contentedly, he never felt any different when he was with the Arrels, and if he was recruited tomorrow he hoped that war would affect him as it seemed to have affected the Arrels...
He glanced over at the violent glow of the bonfire off to his right, over in the meadow by the town, and casually listened to the music and voices coming from that direction.
He sighed again, glancing up at the sky above him, glittering with stars. There, forming a perfectly even five sided shape, where five of the moons of Netheron; a Harvest Moon.
That’s when the screaming started.