The village of Arrom, with its prominent stone hall and ring of wooden houses, rang out with music, laughter, and singing. Torches lit the square and a fire, crackling at its centre, cast shadows that mimicked festival-goers dancing around the flames.
Colour adorned everything and everyone; greens, blues, and reds blurred into a myriad of hues. All the while, the smell of delicious food wafted in the air and excited the senses.
The village hall was a hive of activity and heaved with villagers eager to hear the speeches and taste the delights laid before them. A high table sat at the far end with three highly decorative chairs behind it, reserved for the elders. A fireplace smoked at the centre of the hall and three huge boars roasted on a spit, each turned by a small boy. At either side of the hall, a dozen high-backed chairs carved with family crests sat in long rows, used by the heads of each of the village’s families. Perpendicular to these ran several long benches in front of oak tables, now occupied by the children and visitors.
Elder Rangsan, a tall, thin man dressed in fine furs, rose from his central chair high on the podium and raised a hand for silence. A hush fell inside the hall, and the only sound came from those who enjoyed the carnival outside.
‘Friends and invited guests, I welcome you to Arrom and our celebrations. We have had a difficult few years, but this year has seen our deliverance. I urge you all to enjoy tonight’s feast and thank the gods for providing us a fine bounty. Enjoy, eat, and be merry!’ He raised a cup of wine to a rousing cheer.
It had been a good year, but it hadn’t always been that way. For two years previously, the villagers had barely survived the winter. Food had been scarce, and the few fish that managed to make their way to Lake Arrom failed to spawn.
The village elders had discovered a colony of beavers that had built a dam further up the river that supplied the lake. It was torn down immediately, and a guard was placed near its former location deep in the great forest to ensure that the like would not occur again, but not before the damage had been done.
Lushan, home to the Dwarves, was itself in a state of famine, and Astanoth, land of Elfs, had suffered in battle with the Giants of the Northern Wastes, and so were unable to offer aid. Westeroe, peopled by self-serving humans, outright refused to help, their leader claiming that they sought independence from Rosthagaar and that any assistance would have shown weakness.
The capital Rostha stated on parchment that, as sorry as they were, they would not help.
Dear subjects of Arrom,
Due to an oversight on your part, and due to your failure to return a tax record, the Treasury is not currently taxing you. We thank you for your interest in Rostha; however, we cannot offer assistance at this time.
Rosthagaar High Treasurer.
P.S. Please find enclosed your tax bill for the past twenty years. M.H.
That left Madorine, home to Orcs and Trolls, as the only means of support, and the elders were forced to negotiate trade with the much-feared Madorine warrior chiefs.
Certainly, the warriors of Madorine had a right to be feared. They were bred to kill from childhood, and theirs was a civilisation bent on its own destruction. Civil wars between the clans was rife in this land that lay on the far side of the great forest.
Arrom Forest grew at the entrance of the valley and afforded shelter to the residents of the village within. Through the forest lay a high mountainous pass, accessible only in good weather, unless someone were a fool or desperate enough to venture that way in mid-winter. Beyond lay a waterway that surrounded the island of Rosthagaar, which led to Madorine.
The elders had been desperate enough to send a delegation of emissaries across this pass in search of food. Fortunately, the last such emissary sent returned with enough supplies to last the winter, but unfortunately along with the heads of his companions. These deadly negotiations with the clan chiefs eventually secured food supplies, however, the elders of the village had failed to fulfil their end of the bargain and had not supplied the Madorine with their share of the catch at the end of this year’s fishing season.
As a celebration of the village’s good fortune, the festival had been organised and neighbouring townspeople had been invited to attend, none of them aware of Elder Rangsan’s betrayal.
Coinin and Marrok had fallen asleep early during the feast and slumbered on sheepskins laid behind their father’s chair at the side of the stone hall. They’d spent the morning fishing on Lake Arrom, and after a few hours of lazing by the water’s edge and listening to the waves lap the shore, they’d practiced their swordplay in the forest. It had been a hot day, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, and both brothers were exhausted from the heat.
As the feast slowly wound down, Godwen and Ædelmær picked up the small boys in their arms and walked the moonlit way home towards a small farm situated on the outskirts of the village. The familiar discs of Er’ath’s sister planets, almost as bright as the moon, reflected their own light onto the scene. The family crossed a rickety wooden bridge spanning a river that supplied the lake, and made their way up the hill. They had just reached the farm enclosure when the village bell pealed a warning.
To arms! it cried. To arms!
A young rabbit that grazed nearby looked up in alarm and scurried to its burrow, whilst Marrok awoke with a start and gazed up at his father with sleepy eyes. Ædelmær put his son down and immediately checked for danger. ‘Fetch my sword, boy,’ he demanded.
It took a moment for the request to sink through Marrok’s tiredness and then he turned on his heels and sprinted to the farmhouse, his wild brown hair billowing in the breeze. He slammed the door aside, retrieved his father’s sword from its setting above the fireplace and returned quickly to his father, to see that a runner from the village had joined him.
‘Ædelmær, it’s a raiding party from Madorine; I don’t know if we can hold them off,’ he panted. ‘It’s not safe. You should get your family to the village hall.’
‘There’s no time,’ Ædelmær replied. ‘They’ll be safe here.’
Marrok pressed the sword into his father’s outstretched hand.
‘All of you, indoors now. I’ll be back soon.’
Godwen grabbed her husband by the hand, pulling him back. ‘Be safe,’ she said.
His piercing blue eyes softened. ‘Godwen,’ he said, tucking a long blonde strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Carve me some bread, and perhaps a little of that fish from supper. I’ll be back soon, I promise.’ He leant towards her and kissed her forehead, then rushed off towards the village.
Coinin and his mother immediately retreated to the rundown, ivy-covered farmhouse, while Marrok watched his father disappear out of sight. When he heard Coinin scream, he raced inside.
‘Where is he? Where is Jip? I can’t find him anywhere.’
‘I don’t know. Now be quiet, we have to be very quiet,’ his mother replied, the sparkle of her green eyes now nothing but a flat, worried stare. She thrust a sheepskin over each of them and anxiously paced the floor.
‘Ma, what do we do?’ Marrok asked.
‘We need a place to hide.’
Coinin stood transfixed at the kitchen window. ‘Ma, it’s burning!’ he gasped.
‘The village, the whole village is burning.’
Godwen pushed her sons aside and pulled back the gauze in the window, peering out and covering her mouth in horror. The village hall was surrounded by dark figures silhouetted against an orangey glow, and she watched as several fiery torches were hurled through the windows. Almost instantly, balls of flames erupted from within, the rush flooring undoubtedly aiding the fire’s intensity. She knew the enemy would block the hall’s entrance and those inside would be met with a most horrific death.
‘We have to hide,’ she urged.
Marrok moved quickly. Although he was just ten years old, his strength and steadfastness was ingrained, and she watched with pride as he dragged sacks of grain across the floor to expose the trapdoor in the corner.
Ædelmær ran as fast as his legs would carry him, and he left the runner behind. He headed straight for the nearest house and crashed through the doorway. Terrified screams had brought him there. By instinct, he plunged his sword deep into the spine of his opponent who had raised an axe to strike a child who cowered in a corner of the room. The steel exited the chest with a crunch and a splatter of blood upon the opposite wall. He withdrew his sword and thrust the body aside.
He did not bat an eyelid in the knowledge that he had just killed a female. She was Madorine, and that was all that mattered. Defend the village at all costs, that was the duty of every man.
He briefly checked the child was okay and wiped the blood from her face.
‘Run and hide,’ he told her.
He scanned the room for more intruders then left the house. He looked to the square and his heart skipped a beat. The village hall was ablaze and screams ripped through the air, but there was nothing he could do to save the poor souls now. Here and there, people fortunate not to have made it into the hall ran screaming, looking for places to hide. Several mounted Madorine cut them down like rag dolls.
A Madorine warrior kicked heels into his horse and charged towards Ædelmær. Swiftly, he swung a long spear horizontally and gripped it in the crook of his arm, then roared and aimed at Ædelmær’s heart as he bore down. Ædelmær aimed and flung his sword. It whistled through the air and struck the astonished orc in the chest, who fell lifeless to the ground.
Ædelmær raced after the orc’s terrified horse and reined it in, then hoisted his large frame upon it.
He galloped to the village square and pulled up short as a horde of Madorine warriors gave a roar and charged him. He barely had time to turn the horse and make his escape back to the farmhouse.
Seconds later he was at the village exit when he felt a heavy blow to his side. He fell heavily from the ride and rolled down the incline into the river.
Godwen had almost lowered Coinin into the cellar when a crash from behind made them freeze. She hoisted him back up and whirled to see a silhouette of a man in the doorway. The man stumbled and groaned, and as he fell, the sword he carried skidded across the floor to land at Marrok’s feet. Sounds from the village filled the room: yells of agony interspersed with screams and shouts of distress. Marrok ran forward to catch his father but found he was not strong enough to hold him, and he sank limply to the floor. He heaved at his father’s arm, desperate to turn him over, and after much effort succeeded in doing so, only to find a large wound across his torso. Blood flowed heavily and left a sticky, dark stain on the wooden floor.
‘Da, talk to me. What happened?’ Marrok pleaded.
The only response was a groan, and his father’s eyes screwed up in pain.
Marrok heard movement and looked out of the open doorway. As he did so, a blinding pain seared his left shoulder and he fell back. His mother screamed in terror and darted to her child’s aid. A solitary arrow had pierced the tissue and sinew of the small boy. Coinin screamed and stood transfixed, his eyes wide with fear.
Loud shouts and whoops of joy erupted in the yard outside. Instinctively, Godwen jumped up and slammed the door to the yard, and then fastened the bolt.
Moments later, the whole room shook as something crashed into the door. Dust fell from the ceiling joists as the door cracked and creaked. Again, a heavy object hit it and the hinges began to give way. A pot that had been sat in an alcove to the left of the door crashed to the floor and splintered into a dozen pieces.
In the full knowledge that she was the only adult left to protect her children, Godwen reached out for a weapon she could wield. A statue from the family shrine was the first thing she grasped. Seconds later, splinters of wood flew at the small group in the farmhouse as the door gave way to brute force. A silent scream masked Godwen’s face as three Madorine warriors blocked the doorway. As tall as the tallest of men, dark brown and green, with rippling muscle, they snarled at the occupants of the farmhouse.
‘Ha-ha! You got him good, and the boy too. Nicely done, Meroth.’
‘Yeah, and my reward is the female,’ Meroth snarled.
‘Who says it’s your turn? You had those twins last time.’
‘I say so, that’s why. So be quiet, there’s a good boy, or I’ll cut your tongue out.’
The leader of the group pushed aside his comrades and moved further into the room. He wore tight-fitting, well-worn leather armour, and across his breast and stomach sat six crude iron plates. Strapped to his waist, a curved sword hung with its blade cruel and jagged.
He had a scar across his left cheek and a hunger in his eyes, and the room already began to reek of his foul breath. He looked terrifying, with eyes that were almost black, and long thin fingers that ended in talon-like nails. His sharp canines accentuated a wide, lustful smile.
‘Get out! Leave us alone!’ Godwen cried.
Laughter resounded as the intruders delighted in the woman’s pleas.
‘What do you think, boys? Should we do as the woman asks?’ the leader mocked, his black tongue licking his lips.
‘And miss out on all the fun? I don’t think so,’ a sallow-faced warrior cackled, as he chewed on what appeared to be a leg of lamb from the feast table.
Scarface lunged towards Godwen. She screamed and threw the statue, which bounced harmlessly off his armour with a clang before it crashed to the ground. He laughed harder and grasped her tightly around the wrist, pulling her to him, then grabbed a fistful of her hair. Taking a big sniff, he moaned with pleasure as he drew her face close to his. He flicked his dark, leathery tongue up and down her face and she writhed and turned away in disgust. Scarface laughed louder, his head thrown back in glee.
However, his laughter did not last long as a puzzled expression suddenly spread across his face. A trickle of blood emerged from his mouth and ran down his jaw.
‘You bitch!’ he mouthed, and promptly flopped to his knees before his eyes glazed over. Green blood pumped from a slit in his neck, and he fell to his face, dead. A pool of blood formed around him as the only sign of his swift demise.
Godwen stood there and shook, with a small knife in her hand that dripped with blood. She had snatched the weapon from the belt of Scarface and had struck him in a heartbeat.
Sallowface took a few moments to work out what had happened, then he wasted no time. He drew his sword and struck Godwen with a roar of anger.
She stood there a moment, her mouth gaped and her eyes widened. The light left her eyes, and she too slumped to the floor.
Marrok’s scream was bloodcurdling, and he stretched to pick up his father’s sword. With no thought for his own safety, he thrust it into the midriff of his mother’s assailant who had turned at the sound of the boy’s cry. The warrior fell without a word.
A growl more animal than human broke the silence, and then a howl which could be heard clear into Madorine ripped through the valley. Ædelmær, ferocious and full of death, with eyes like that of a wolf, leapt at the third intruder and bowled him over backwards into the compound. Terrified screams filled the air and then there was silence.
Coinin padded softly over to Godwen’s corpse and gently prodded her. ‘Mummy, wake up, Mummy,’ he said tearfully. ‘Why won’t you wake up?’
Marrok painfully lifted himself to his feet and wrapped an arm around his brother. ‘She’s dead, Coinin. She’s with the gods now,’ he said, as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Coinin burst into fresh wails. The sobs shook his body.
Marrok picked up his smaller brother, and wanting to spare him the pain of his mother’s death, carried him out of the farmhouse and into the night, dragging his father’s bloodied sword behind him.
Clutching his painful shoulder, he gently dropped Coinin onto the grass outside. Thankfully, the tip of the arrow had exited the other side cleanly, and Marrok knew it had a good chance of healing well.
The air was filled with smoke from the burning village. Their father was shirtless, and on all fours, panting with his head bowed low. A mutilated body of a Madorine warrior lay dead several feet away and a young black wolfhound sat with Ædelmær and licked blood from his face.
‘Jip!’ Coinin called, and rushed to the animal. He wrapped his arms around it and the wolfhound responded with a whimper of delight.
‘I thought I’d lost you,’ he wailed, and buried his head deep into its fur.
Marrok knelt by his father’s side and took a blood-soaked hand in his.
‘Da, they killed her,’ Marrok cried.
‘I know. I know. But Marrok, be certain, you will see her again someday.’ Ædelmær tried to comfort him, yet in doing so, his eyes filled with tears.
‘I promise.’ Ædelmær choked. ‘Marrok, I have something very important for you to do. I need you to take care of Coinin for me. Now I must send you away.’
‘No, you can’t! I won’t let you. You can’t leave me too.’
‘I am mortally wounded, Marrok, and you know what that means. I must send you away for your safety. You will go to your Uncle Draken and he will show you many wonders and teach you many things. Promise me you will do all that he asks without question.’ Ædelmær suppressed a coughing fit but failed to hide the blood that spluttered from his mouth.
The tearstained boy wiped away the blood from his father’s lips. ‘I promise,’ he said, and gripped the hilt of Ædelmær’s sword.
Ædelmær forced a smile. ‘May the gods protect you, my son. I will love you always.’ He raised his head and stretched to kiss Marrok on the forehead, a single tear cutting a path down his bloodstained cheek. ‘Now go. Run as fast as you can to your uncle’s house and don’t look back.’
Marrok gritted his teeth and choked back tears as Ædelmær’s eyes closed in pain. He lay there in the dark for a little while, cradling his father and tracing a finger over the familiar scars on his father’s back, shining silver in the moonlight. He studied them closely for the very first time. What he’d thought had been battle wounds appeared to be claw marks, interspersed with soft indented paw prints. He’d never seen the like of them before, and wished his father had divulged their secret during the many times he had asked.
‘Go, now!’ Ædelmær ordered sharply. ‘Please, before it’s too late,’ he finished softly.
With a heavy heart, Marrok did as his father asked. He took his seven year-old brother by the hand, and ignoring the small boy’s protestations, silently led him away.
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