(Side story to Dumpling)
The chill in the air was a welcomed feeling across the nape of his neck and the hefty weight of the crossbow in his hands grounded him in the moment. The fog was thick and the previous night’s rain left the ground swollen and muddy. A piss poor time for a hunt. Any tracks would be washed away. However, bringing down a beast was not entirely the reason why he and his man were out in moors. No, he needed to clear his mind. He needed a peaceful place to sort through the chaos of the previous week and to come to terms with the impossible that had come to pass.
He was King now.
He was never meant to be King. Thadeus was suppose to take the thrown after their father. Strong willed, talented at sword and bow, and possessing all the charms and intellect needed to thrive as a ruler. But he was dead now. As was Druden, Baelen, and Mourin. His brothers. His dear, beloved brothers. All dead. Fallen in battle and bringing with their deaths great glory to their house.
Or so people told him.
But where was the glory in a merciless genocide? His brothers had picked up the mantle of war when their father called for every Silvaaran to die. For killing Thadeus. They sold their virtuous and kindhearted natures for blood lust and vengeance against a people who could not truly defend themselves against the Vhasshalan armies. A people who may very well be completely innocent of the accusations of regicide. No one who knew what truly transpired that day was alive to tell the tale. All that was known was that the Vhasshalan crowned Prince was found dead with several Silvaaran soldiers strewn about. Some in pieces. There had been a battle, of that there was no doubt. A battle for which no one seemed to have won.
War was declared. Blood retribution demanded.
One Silvaaran soldier against one Vhasshalan soldier was no fight. It was a slaughter. There were not enough mages or talented magic users left in Silvaara to make much difference against the sheer might and size, both body and number, of Vhasshal. Silvaara never stood a chance. Silvaarans were human after all. Small and frail bodied, a fraction of the size of a Vhasshalan. A full grown human male would only just reach the height of a Vhasshalan’s knee. But they could be courageous and strong with the proper leadership. Of which they had and more in their King, A man named Haeral. During peacetime, the human King had been a highly respected monarch, known for his brilliant tactical prowess and wisdom and descended from the single oldest bloodline of any kingdom. How terrible that it should have been struck down so uselessly.
The War of Blood and Fire had been a terrible one.
It left Silvaara destroyed. Its King dead. His family slaughtered. Most of them had been children, no threat at all. But it was their blood that made them a target. By no fault of their own. By the mere fact of being born Silvaaran royalty. His father, so named The Blood King, had done it himself. Crushed their little bodies one by one. Their blood colored the stone floor of the great hall, bathing everything in horrible red.
“The blood of my sons’ shall be repaid by the flesh of yours,” his father told the mortally wounded human King as he lay on the cold ground, gasping for air and weeping for mercy. For his children and scores of grandchildren. But the Blood King’s rage demanded satisfaction. “You will die drowning in their screams...”
And he did.
It was that single greatest act of cruelty of the war. And that act would doom his father to his fate. The war had been going on for too long. It was turning their people into monsters and not entirely through their own choice. Two years of failed crops. The people were starving and so much of their resources went to aide in the war. So why then would a desperate farmer allow his family to starve when he could go set traps or he and several others go and raid a Silvaaran refugee caravan? They would have fresh meat for weeks and their King’s praise. It use to be normal for Vhasshalans to prey upon human beings, thousands of years ago. His father had resurrected the practice.
But there was something deeply wrong with what was happening. It needed to stop. Thadeus had been avenged ten fold. His other brothers had fallen through their own foolishness. The war had to end or they would all drown in it.
So the last Prince orchestrated his own father’s murder.
There was no sense in hiding behind words. He had his father killed. He was a murderer. He alone was guilty of regicide. For the good of his people, he told himself. Some people cheered the Blood King’s death, the end of the war, and there was a celebration. There were a few who resisted the take over and fought back, but it was for naught. They won in the end. But the Prince who would be King was heavy with grief. His family was now dead. Every last one of them. Even his eldest sister, married off to the Prince of a distant kingdom years ago, has passed away. Not from war, but sickness. Struck with the red reap as she labored to bring into the world a new life. She and the tiny prince passed quickly. And now he was truly alone. Too young to feel so old. World wary before the true work had even begun. He had never been groomed for the role of King. How could he take the wastes of his lands and give his people back a Kingdom?
His first act as King had been a goodwill gesture. The few Silvaarans that had been awaiting execution in the dungeon were released and turned out into the wilds to try and find any scrap left of their lives. Only one requested to remain, much to the surprise of many, including the new King. But he allowed it. The human was an old man, but not without worth. He had been captured because of his previous role as the head archivist of Silvaara. It was his knowledge of the inner workings of Silvaara that allowed his father to plan the attack on their castle keep. To kill the human King. His children. And their children. The elderly man had requested he be allowed to record and archive for the new Vhasshal King. To hide away in shame and grief amongst books and ink.
The human reminded the king so much of the magician. The one found chained in the tower. Both were men of knowledge, now worn down and wounded by the horrors of war and the terrible things their knowledge and skill wrought. The king made a mental note to introduce the pair.
“History is worth writing down as it happens,” the old man told the freshly named King. “I have dedicated my life to the art. History is all we leave our children once we’re dust. Best they have a proper grasp of it. Even the secrets we dearly wish to hide. Most importantly those. The ballads and poems that will be written of these times will not tell the truth. And what else is there but the truth?”
What else is there but the truth? The truth was the once great kingdom of Silvaara was gone. Their King was dead as was the deep roots of his bloodline. The famed Fire of Silvaara had been doused, the flower crushed. And it was only through one more murder that Vhasshal was kept from joining them in oblivion. His people were calling him the Gold King. After some words an old invalid spouted in the throws of some madness. Prophecies were worthless and dangerous. Gold King indeed. Perhaps the Tin King would have been more apt.
Vhasshal was penniless and struggling. A mild winter was the only reason the people were not starving. The harvest season lasted longer this year. Paltry stores of grains and the over abundance of freshwater eels was enough to keep the kingdom holding on.
Spring could not come fast enough.
“You look lost in there, Sire,” said his man, a ranger in dressed in a blue coat, as he tapped a finger against his temple. The ranger’s fierce green eyes focused on the young monarch before offering out a small leather pouch to him, pulled forth from an inner pocket of his long coat.
The King raised an eyebrow.
“Won’t the smell alert any game to our presence?” he asked the man who just shrugged in response.
“We both know we ain’t out here to hunt.”
Keral always was overly observant. He was truly wasted in the ranks of the rangers.
“Fair enough, my friend. Fair enough,” the King replied and took the pouch, reaching into his own coat and pulling out his favorite pipe. It had been a gift from Baelen, a few weeks prior to his death. His brother had been a bit of a snob when it came to smoking. It had always annoyed him when he was younger, but now he longed for just one more long conversation of the virtues of Ibronian tobacco.
Pressing a pinch of the shredded material into the bowl, he stuffed it down before striking a match to light it. After a moment, he was puffing at the end of the piece, his mouth around the familiar feel of whale bone. He breathed out a cloud of fragrant smoke and watched it join the vast expanse of fog. “How the fuck am I going to fix this mess, Keral?”
Puffing on his own pipe, the blue clad ranger shrugged, scratching his chin.
“No fixing this shit,” the ranger replied bluntly, slipping the pouch back into his satchel rather than his pocket. “My advice? Don’t even try.”
The ranger received an incredulous glare in response.
“What I mean is this: Don’t waste your time and energy and everyone else’s trying to find what was lost. The old Vhasshal is gone. Move on. Build on the bones of the old. Make somethin’ better than what was before and let the dead be. Be better than your father and the shit he left you and the rest a’ us.”
“And just abandon all that we were? All our history?”
“History doesn’t move, lad. The present does. All that we once were is still there, gatherin’ dust and mold in them old tomes and in our minds. Looks pretty rosey from up here, sure, but it’s not real. Not anymore. It’s not who we are now. Who you are now. Or who you’ll become if, y’know... ya don’t end up drowning in all the shit.”
“That’s why I got you, right?” the King smiled weakly.
“Aye, s’why ya got me,” Keral replied, returning the weak smile with a grim one. “Got to make sure the Gold King lives up to the name, eh?”
The King growled. How he hated the name being forced onto him. “I’m going to murder that old moldy git if I ever find him.”
“What? Don’t care fer having grand prophecies about ya being thrown around?”
“Not when they saddle me with stupid titles.”
“I thought it was rather regal soundin’.”
“Oh come now, what better way to start a dynasty on the right foot than with a good ol’ prophecy? Gives people hope and all that bullshit.”
“There are plenty of prophecies that never come true. Words are cheap, anyone can spout that nonsense,” he replied bitterly. After a moment, he sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Gods...I was never meant to be here, Keral...”
“Hm. I’m sure that’s what Thadeus thought right before those little bastards gutted ‘im,” Keral replied, taking a deep draw of his own pipe. “Words are cheap for a reason, Warren. But cheap’s what I got.”
Keral was the only person to ever actually call him by his name anymore. The ranger was the closest thing to a true friend the new King had and one he sorely needed. He was more blunt and direct and real than any royal advisers. Those same advisers who had promoted and paraded his father’s path to genocide. Keral had been in the running for Captain of the Guard. But at the outset of the war, he declined. Instead, taking a minor and almost insulting role as a ranger, effectively undoing years of ladder climbing and work.
“Good, because Gods know I haven’t the coin to afford anything else. War is expensive,” Warren quipped, the ghost of a smile on his lips. After a long pause, he said, “I’m gonna dismiss the war council.”
“Aye. No need for a council with no war,” Keral replied. “They might be expecting some sort of promotion, though. Fer their years of good service and the like.”
“They’ll be stripped of their titles,” Warren replied, anger seeping in. “And sent away. If they want to keep their heads, that is. They’ll poison any reforms I attempt. They’re already angry with me for allowing Barnaby to live, let alone stay in the castle. I’ve already posted guards around the poor man, just to make sure they don’t try anything foolish.”
His proclamation would have met with disbelief by anyone else. They would have tried to tell him he was being cruel. The advisers were only doing their job, after all. Advising. They were high born men of great titles and strong bloodlines. Dependable men of the great Vhasshalan court. But not Keral. The ranger’s face broke out into a grim smile, his brow narrowed.
“Let the fuckers burn,” he sneered. “I lost a lot of good friends to their fucked up ideas. Noticed non of ‘em sent their sons or friends to war.”
“Their focus should have been to reign in my Father’s anger when the war turned to slaughter,” the King said. “They could have stopped so much death. My brothers might be alive. The northern campaign was their idea. They designed the whole thing. Even having the gall to call it a campaign instead of the genocide it was.”
“No use wishing fer things that never were,” Keral added, stepping ahead into the damp grass. “They had their own selfish reasons and they used the blood of our kin, mine and yours, to do it. I don’t see them being missed by anyone worth keeping around.”
Together, the two old friends walked further into to depths of the moors, letting the fog curl around them, not longer under the guise of a hunt. They just walked. Reveling in a single pleasure that only a few days ago would have been impossible. For a few hours, they could pretend that all was well. But it was a facade that would not last.
It was close to an hour of walking when they came across the first body.
It was a human, a young woman. She’d been dead for a few hours at least. Her eyes were open wide, her last moments of terror forever frozen.
“Curious,” Keral remarked, crouched over the small being, sweeping her hair back from her eyes carefully with one finger. Her eyes were a dull blue and her hair dark brown, almost black. Silvaaran, but not a noblewoman. A peasant. “No blood. No wounds. Don’t look like she was crushed or nothin’.”
“Let’s move on,” Warren replied quietly as though afraid to disturb the dead woman’s forever sleep. “I have a feeling she’s not the only one out here.”
Sure enough, there were more. Many more.
Gathered around a small pond was a group of humans, all of them dead. Their ragged clothes decried their lot in life. Peasants, poor villagers. All of their eyes were a dull blue, their hair almost black. Fleeing the ruins of the Silvaaran countryside in all likelihood. Their worldly possessions were strewn about them. Men were curled up with their wives, small children pressed to their mother’s breasts. It was a sad sight. A grim reminder of the reach of a powerful man’s rage even after death.
“Poisoned,” Warren said, gesturing to the small pool. Several of the small bodies were still clutching their small wooden cups.
“Aye,” Keral agreed. He looked around his feet and snarled. “Damn shame. Had I had know they were here I could have had my boys take ‘em to the border with the others weeks ago. They must’ve been hiding out in the hills.”
A noise drew their focus and they turned towards an upturned wagon just in time to see a pair of small feet disappear underneath. Keral gestured for Warren to stay still. He reached into a boot and pulled out a dagger and with careful and silent steps, slowly made his way closer, easily stepping over and around the dead, and crouching beside the overturned cart and the dead beast still shackled to it. He placed a hand on the wagon’s side and pushed it up. The wood groaned and cracked, but the only thing underneath was a few bundles of clothes and a few baskets. One of which was upside down. A perfect hiding spot for a scared little human.
Keral tipped the basket over with the push of a single finger. A small boy, dressed in clothes far too big for him, sat in the mud, looking up into Keral’s face with the same look of utter terror forever plastered on the faces of his dead fellows. However, unlike his fellows, this boy was very much alive. Before Keral could say anything, the boy was on his feet and running.
“Oi now! Just where do ya think yer goin’ my lil’lad?” Keral laughed, almost in relief, with his country accent leaking through. He dropped the wagon with a crash and reached out for the fleeing youth. Keral caught the boy easily enough, just as the little thing darted between his boots. He snagged him awkwardly in one hand with the boy’s lower half dangling over the edge of his palm. As the ranger stood back to full height, he slipped his dagger back into his boot and brought his now free hand up to support the boy’s flailing feet, cupping both hands together. The young human had curled in on himself, wrapping his arms over his head. A high pitched whimper escaped the child and Keral could feel the little body in his grip tremble. He chortled and bounced the boy lightly in his hands as a devious grin spread across his face.
“Now, what are we gonna do this one, eh?” Keral asked, bringing the boy closer to his face. “Little scrawny to be a proper snack. Might have to fatten ‘im up some first...”
“No!” cried the boy, pushing back against the ranger’s fingers and swinging one of his feet out. Keral reared his head back with just as the small muddy shoe missed his nose.
“Keral,” Warren said with a slight warning to he voice as he stepped up to his friend, but an amused smile was tugging at the corner of his mouth and he rolled his eyes. Keral never could resist a good teasing. “Don’t. The poor lad’s scared enough without worrying about your notorious appetite.”
“Ah, wasn’t gonna do nothin’,” Keral replied, still grinning, and eyeing the human with amusement. “Oi, pup. Yer not hurt, so stop yer sobbin’. What would yer Father say to see ya weeping like a wee babe?”
The human looked up with wet blue eyes, sharp, accusing, and hurt. “HE’D TELL YOU TO FUCK OFF!”
Both Vhasshalans were silent, struck dumb by the loud and, frankly, absurd reply from the human. The boy could not have been much older than seven or so. Keral broke from his stupor first, laughing loudly and the sound bounced and echoed through the quiet moors. Warren felt his face crack into a smile and then a grin wide enough to make his face hurt. The first genuine smile he had experienced in ages. Gods it felt amazing...
“Now that’s an honest answer if I ever heard one!” Keral bellowed, shifting his hands so he held the human in one hand around his chest and middle, allowing the rest of him to dangle from the gloved hand. When Keral spoke next, the amusement was gone from his tone and replaced with a more serious curiosity. “So then. Why don’t ya tell us what happened here, laddy?”
“I don’t know,” replied the boy, a pained and anguished lilt to his voice. He looked down from the giant’s grip and seeing everyone laying so deathly still, brought a fresh wave of tears. “I was asleep and when I woke up everyone was dead...”
The human’s eyes darted all around, picking out the faces of the dead, and with each one he seemed to recognize and see the people he had known. People he had loved. All dead.
“You didn’t drink from the pond?” Warren asked gently.
“No...” The human was shivering, appearing confused and desperate. His little hands clenched against Keral’s hand.
“Well, that’s good,” Keral said offhandedly. “Otherwise we’d have one more useless corpse.”
“How is any of this good?!” the boy cried, angry flaring far above the fear. He began to flail and kick with renewed vigor, tinged with desperation. “I’d rather die with my family than be eaten by a giant!”
“Hm? And who said anything about eatin’ ya?” Keral asked, frowning and poking at the boy’s dangling feet.
The boy, despite the very obvious fear, somehow managed to find enough inside himself to snark back, “You did!”
“Ah, s’pose I did say that. Didn’t mean it in actuality,” Keral shrugged and then patting his belly. “Not gonna gobble ya up, pup. Yer safe with us.”
“Liars,” mumbled the boy acidly, fat droplets falling from his cheeks. “You have no honor...you’re murderers. All of you...”
Keral frown deepened and there was a hard edge to his eyes. “Careful now, pup. Yer throwin’ around some big rocks there...”
“Murderers,” the boy spat back, a little louder, eyes defiant.
“If ya miss ya folks that much m’lad,” Keral sneered, voice low and threatening. “I might be able to oblige ya there.”
The boy blanched at the non-too-veiled threat and shrank further into the giant’s grip. The boy’s momentary bout of bravery seemed to have fled him.
“Keral, enough,” Warren said, stepping up to place a hand on the ranger’s shoulder and gestured with his other. “Hand me the boy.”
Keral surrendered the human and took a step back. Warren watched his old friend’s face, seeing with some surprise at how the small human’s words had struck something in the ranger. Keral was a man who had sacrificed so much to distance himself from the real murderers and to be called as such by one of the very people he had been, up until a week ago, essentially committing treason to help...well. It was down right insulting for the man. From the mouth of babes, as it were.
But the boy did not know Keral’s history.
He had probably fled his home like so many others in search of someplace safe. Dragging what remained of their lives with them in bundles and baskets. Meager possessions. Only to find death as they stop for a rest and something to drink. The small human’s world lay in pieces at his feet. He was alone, scared, hurt, and confused.
Warren knew those emotions all too well.
Raising the boy so he could get a proper look at him, Warren watched him squirm under the close study. The hard and defiant eyes wavered, the fear came back, and the boy struggled to meet the King’s calm and steady stare. His breath became uneven and short. He was panicking.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the boy sobbed.
“What is your name?” Warren asked calmly.
“J-Jae...” replied the boy with a voice so heavy with grief and fear that it was barely a whisper.
Keral barked a laugh. “That’s a letter, boy. Not a name.”
“That IS my name...”
“My name is Warren,” he said, ignoring Keral. When he had Jae’s full attention, he continued. “I am the new King of Vhasshal.”
Warren had expected the look of panic and the tears and the barely audible plea for mercy. The boy appeared so fragile, it seemed as though he could shatter at any moment.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Jae,” he said gently, bringing his other hand to softly pet the boy on the head. He meant it as a reassuring gesture, but Jae jerked and yelped as though he were about to be crushed. The poor thing seemed utterly perplexed by the gentle touch atop his head. “You truly have nothing to fear from us. The war is over now. Your people are free.”
“All gone. Never free,” Jae mumbled, scrubbing at his eyes. “Too much pain...”
There was a world of truth to those broken words. Far beyond the years the little human could have seen. Warren found himself smiling sadly, thinking again of his beloved brothers and of happier times.
“Aye,” he agreed. “There’s a lot of pain. Much to atone for. So much anger. Too much to say and too little of it with any real meaning.”
A notion struck him then. A curious one, a selfish one, and one that he could not shake. He remembered the old human archivists, Barnaby, who had made his home in the library. A man who had no longer had a place in the world, but had found a place in Vhasshal. A very unexpected place. Warren looked down at the little boy and felt a sickening tug at his heart.
He could see his inner self made real, materialized in the form of a lost little boy.
After a moment of heavy thought, Warren sighed deeply and brought Jae to his coat pocket. He slipped the small boy inside, ignoring the startled cry. The large breast pocket was just big enough for the boy to curl up comfortably with his head poking out the top. With one hand to his pocket to steady the human, Warren bent down to retrieve his crossbow that leaned against his boot. Straightening, he looked to Keral who was watching him with an intense gaze, puffing at his pipe.
“Let’s go home,” Warren told his friend, voice tired. “There’s a lot to do. And I need a strong drink or two.. or three. We’ll need a good plan on how to deal with the council’s dismissal tomorrow. Have some guards at the ready in case things becomes rough.”
Keral nodded and gestured towards his pocket. “And the pup?”
Warren looked down at Jae, who was peeking up from the pocket with a bewildered expression. Warren ran a finger across the boy’s head. Jae didn’t jerk back this time, only regarding Warren with a confused and pleading look. Warren smiled warmly, patting the small body in his pocket. “He’s coming too.”
The King of Vhasshal pulled his long coat around him to further help shield himself and his small charge from the lingering chill and the three made their way back.