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I am Mai of the House of Chornal and this is my story.
I wonder if Father will let me go to the Harvest Festival.
Not likely, especially when you’ve been late for dinner three nights in a row. These were my thoughts as I trooped toward the Great Hall. As the door creaked open the first thing I saw was the empty table head. At first I considered that maybe dinner finished early.
No, surely I have heard the bell summoning the servants to clear the table?
Then deciding that dinner had been delayed because Father was late from hunting, I walked out into the courtyard. When I opened the door and leaned out into a living hell, there was blood everywhere. As I stared at the massacre before me, I saw my father at the front gate being stabbed in the back by Seren, my half-brother.
No! I screamed silently in my head. I wanted to kill him then and there, but instinct told me instead to hide. There was a secret passage behind a tapestry in my room. I ran like a frightened rabbit looking for the nearest staircase. Out of thin air a man appeared. Adrenalin flooded my veins when he lunged for me. I dove between his legs, once clear of him, somersaulted to my feet and ran. If he gave chase, I lost him in the maze of corridors.
When I got in to my room I flung back the tapestry and ran into the safety of the hidden darkness. As I walked down the passage, I counted the turns.
Right. Left. Left, again. Right. Right, again.
After the last turn was a staircase that spiraled upward. But instead of going up the stairs, which led to a tower where I would have been trapped, I walked through a door secreted in the shadows.
It led to an old war room from the feudal days. At the other end of the room a sword was leaning against the wall. Instead of the pommel being bronze with the Chornal crest on it, like I expected, it was steel, shaped like the head of a howling wolf and etched on the crossbar were the phases of the moon. Then, turning my attention to the blade itself, I saw etched on both sides the image of two beasts locked in eternal combat. One was a wolf, the other had the body of a tiger, the paws of a bear, the head of a fox, the wings of a hawk, and the tails of a serpent, racoon, otter, and wolf.
I picked up the scabbard and sheathed sword.
You’ll have to leave sooner or later. So, you might as well leave armed. I chose sooner. Having buckled the sword onto my back, I headed toward the dumbwaiter on the left wall and got in. As I moved down to the ground floor, plans for the ultimate revenge floated through my head, each one more ludicrous than the last.
When I got out, I could barely move my legs from being in the cramped dumbwaiter. After I was able to feel my legs again, I walked into the courtyard. I stood there looking at the field of murder that surrounded me. First, I piled all the servant’s bodies, then burned them with some flint and tinder I got from the kitchens. With that done, I turned my attention to the last of the dead, my father.
I dragged his body to the family crypt. There lay the remains of all ancestors the of the House of Chornal. As I placed him in one of the stone coffins, I noticed that the family ring was still on his finger. I slipped the ring off and put into my belt pouch. Finding a hammer and chisel, I carved into the lid of his coffin:
Here lies Lord Gareth Chornal,
Hearing shouts coming from the courtyard, I ran. I ran for the rest of the day, all night, and all of the next day. Around sunset I had found a small out cropping of rock near some forgotten creek.
Now, where can I find firewood? Once I gathered enough fallen branches I took the flint and tinder from before and lit a fire. When it was burning brightly, the fire swam before me, finally weariness over came hunger, and I fell into a restless sleep.
The soft padding of feet woke me. I sat up, unbuckled the sword from my back and pulled my legs up to my chest. As whomever approached, I slipped the sword underneath my feet and leaned against the rock behind me. I did this so that if the being proved hostile I could quickly draw the sword.
Then from the bushes to my right came a six foot tall werg. Wergs, though often mistaken for their vicious cousin the werewolf, are gentle at heart but when roused, or threatened, can be fierce warriors. A werg so close to the sea was strange because most of them stay in the Werin mountain range.
This particular werg, probably sensing my mistrust, settled himself on the opposite side of the fire.
“What do you want?” I hissed.
“Peace, little one,” it said. Common sense told me to be wary, but instinct told me to be trusting. He had a sword on his back and by his muscled arms he knew how to use it.
“I will not harm you,” he said gently.
My hand inched itself closer to the sword hilt.
“Ha! I forget my manners. My name is Jarthen Corre.” His laugh was not harsh. In fact, it seemed genuine.
The image of my father, lying there dead with his face full of shock, crept back into my mind. The world had a tendency to be cruel and I could very well end up being one of the next victims to said cruelty.
Jarthen reached over to my wood pile and rebuilt the fire. Hoping he didn’t notice, I moved my hand closer to the sword. The dying fire flared back into life.
“Stack the wood so,” he explained, “and the fire burns longer, ken?”
I looked at the way the wood had been stacked and noted it.
We sat there for a while in an awkward silence.
“You have been kind enough to share your fire with me, so at the very least, I can share my food with you,” he said while rummaging through his pack. I took this small lapse to examine him. He traveled light, wearing just a cloak, pack, and his sword.
Food. Substance. The very thing I had lacked for almost two days straight. I checked myself before I started drooling. While I was focused on betraying no emotion Jarthen had set, within my reach, some bread and dried meat. I grabbed the food, nodded my thanks, and nibbled some of the dried meat.
Jarthen finished just before me and was drinking from a flask. Noticing that I had eaten, he slid the flask over to me.
“I suggest you drink slowly,” he remarked, grinning. I eyed him warily. Following his advice I took no more than a sip. Liquid fire ran down my throat, eyes tearing, I closed the flask. It was whiskey. Very strong whiskey.
Jarthen was still smiling. I gave him a dirty look and had a few, unspoken, choice words to go with it. With the same neatness, I slid the flask back to him.
“Thank you,” I said finally.
“You’re welcome. Now,” he asked, “ not meaning to pry, but what is a child like you doing out in the woods alone?”
“I’d prefer not answering that,” I said with as much calmness as I could muster.
He shrugged. “Fine. But, I suggest you get some sleep,” he said. And with that Jarthen banked the fire and curled up into a neat ball.
Spirits! I wanted to sleep, but found it almost impossible. But, finally, after a while, I fell into a fevered slumber.
Faces of the dead floated in and out of my dreams.
When I woke the reality of what had happened two days ago hit me hard.
“Morning,” came Jarthen’s voice as he handed me a tin cup of tea.
My sword! I looked for it frantically.
“Here.” Jarthen handed me the sheathed sword. I set it in my lap and ran my fingers over the engraved cross-bar.
“Thank you. I wish there was some way to repay…”
“Your name would be a good start.”
“Mai from the House of Chornal.”
“Chornal? One of the lower noble houses?”asked Jarthen. I nodded. “So, Mai, where would a young noble like yourself be headed?”
More questions. I decided honesty was the best course for the time being. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I just so happen to be headed the same general direction.”
“Neither of us know where we are going. Would it not be wise to travel together?”
“Why? What do you want?” My suspicion had returned.
Jarthen’s golden eyes met my amber. “You have never met a werg.”
“No. But that has…”
“If you had, you would know. My people were first created to protect the weak. A human child lost in the woods with no supplies and no one to trust… well, such one needs protection.” He looked at the way I had my sword nestled in my lap. “A noble girl alone, with no escort, and bearing a sword that she clings to like a drowning person clings to a rope… well, it doesn’t take a scholar to figure it out.”
Unbidden tears rolled down my face. “They’re dead. All of them dead.”
It was obvious that my pain upset him. “Do you have any other family?”
“No, I never met my mother’s family. She died when I was young.”
“What of your father’s kin?”
“A few step-children here and there, not like I’d know them if I met them. Except…” I faltered. The memory of Seren stabbing my father came back.
“Except?” prompted Jarthen.
“Seren. My half-brother. But it was… He…”
“He what,” Jarthen again prompted.
“He killed them. He stabbed my father in the back like a coward. Seren could never accept that I was the heir and not him.”
“How did you alone escape? How come they did not know your soul was still among the living?”
“You could call it instinct, but I call it cowardice.” I said dryly and told him about the hidden passage and how I found the sword.
“Now, do you want revenge?” Jarthen’s voice was as grave as anyone’s could possibly be if not more.
“Yes,” I said without thinking. I saw Seren’s smug face, the servants’ burning carcasses, my father’s stone coffin.
“I’ll train you, but it may take months, years even. Though you seem to have the makings of a great sword fighter.”
A day later.
“Well, we’ll make it to Trathar before noon if we keep up our present pace. It’s the closest city to your home and it’s a bandit’s haven. So, someone might know something,” remarked Jarthen as we left the forest.
Suddenly, Jarthen stopped. “What is it? Is somebody following us? Jarthen?” I said, eager to continue and get as far away from the ruined manor as possible.
“No. It’s just, I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should go back, take a look at the scene. It could tell us many things,” he said.
“And if they’re still there?”
“If they are, that will tell us one thing. If they aren’t, we’ll learn something else, ken?”
“Sure, I guess.”
Around noon we made camp.
“Now,” said Jarthen, once the fire was crackling merrily, “let us see what you know of swordplay.”
I stared at him dubiously. Seeing he was serious, I drew my sword and took the ready position, I had seen this done tournaments.
“Now,” he said, drawing his own sword, “attack!”
As I advanced, Jarthen brought his sword down, and knowing I would break my arm trying to block him, I dove out of the way. This process continued as I tried to get within his defenses, which was something I did not accomplish.
After about thirty minutes, Jarthen called the lesson to a halt. “You know when an enemy is too strong to fight directly. You also are naturally agile and have quick reflexes, both of which will save your life countless times. Now, let’s see what has become of your home.”
We had been walking for no more than ten minutes, when we came upon a clearing. As Jarthen and I walked into the clearing, four brigands slipped out from behind the trees.
“What do we have here?” sneered one of them.
“Wanderers,” replied Jarthen, his voice growled somewhat, “wanting no trouble and offering none.”
“And you’ll have none,” said a second man with a sinister grin, “if you’ll just hand over the girl and all your valuables.”
“I suggest you rethink your terms,” said my companion, as he drew his sword.
“No,” scoffed a third man, as he approached, “I like ’em the ways they is. Besides, there’s four of us and only one of you, doggy.”
At that, Jarthen flew into action. In a blur of speed, the man’s head was off and Jarthen was already upon the others. As I watched, I saw them form a circle around him. While Jarthen fought one of the bandits, another advanced from behind. I drew my own sword and ran at him. With both hands gripping the sword, I rammed the pommel into the back of his head. Blood flowed from his head like water from a fountain as he crumpled to the ground on impact. Seeing the other trying to pull the same stunt, I charged. Unfortunately, this one saw me. When I turned to block his attack, our swords clanged together and I felt the vibrations run through my arm. Then, suddenly, his eyes rolled back and he fell to the ground. Standing right behind him was Jarthen.
“Come,” he said, “we should head for Trathar.”
About an hour after sunset, we were in Trathar and had gotten two rooms at a respectable inn. For three days, Jarthen and I searched the ale-soaked halls these people called taverns in vain for information on Seren’s movements and the number of his men. Finally, we came to the last tavern. It was in the darkest part of the slums in Trathar. The inside smelled of stale liquor, lying on the floor was a drunk, and at the far end of the bar sat a figure whose cloak hid their face. Jarthen approached them.
He lightly touched his hand to the figure’s shoulder and said, “Rax.”
“About time you got here. I was starting to think I’d have to find you myself,” said Rax as he looked at us. His face was pale and with eyes of steely blue. He got up and lead us to table near the back of the tavern. “I hear you are interested in the doings of a man named Seren.”
“Yes,” Jarthen said, “we are. Do you have any of the information we are looking for?”
“Perhaps,” was the calm reply. By now I was getting annoyed.
Why can’t they get on with it? To make my lack of patinence clear I said quietly, “And are you going to tell us what you know or will I have to listen to this all day.” Not only did I want to hear he had to say, I also wanted to leave there as soon as possible because of the overpowering odor.
“Now,” he said as if noticing me for the first time, “who are you?”
“Mai,” I said in the same quiet tone, while looking him right in the eye.
“I suppose this information is of great consequence to you,” he said. I nodded. He didn’t ask why and for that I was glad.
He went on. “So you’re looking for Seren? Well, young master Seren came through here three weeks ago looking for men, special men, the kind whose loyalty lasts only as long as your gold. He left here with fifteen of the roughest scum that this rat hole has to offer. Then a week ago, several of Seren’s scum came back with bags of valuables to sell. Unfortunately, the bags were somewhat small and Seren’s friends seemed to dissatisfied with the prices they were offered. They were last seen heading northwest on the main road, fuming as they rode out.”
Northwest, back to the Manor? I thought. I knew where Seren was headed, but I kept it to myself.
Rax finished his story and turned his attention back to me. “And you, young maiden, what brings you into this serpent’s den.?” he asked.
I was about to blurt out my answer when Jarthen cut me short “She has business with Seren,” he said.
“I see,” said Rax, “and are you prepared to complete that business?”
“With the right training she will be,” said Jarthen.
“It will not take as much training as you think,” said Rax.
“Oh,” said Jarthen.
By this time, I was ready to explode. How dare they talk around me as if I were a sack of grain. However, Rax explained. “The child carries an ancient and magical weapon that has been in the House of Chornal for centuries. When the sword is wielded by the true heir of the House, it fights for the bearer. No skill is required. Training is completely unnecessary,” said Rax. “So the only question is whether this young woman is the true heir.”
Then with a movement so swift that I hardly saw it coming, Rax drew his blade and swung it at me. Before I know what was happening , the sword was in my hand and I had parried his blow.
Well then,“ said Rax. I see that I am in the presence of the Lady Mai.” “Forgive me, My Lady,” he said with a bow.
I said nothing. I merely stared at the sword. Here at last was the means of my revenge. No long months of training awaited me, only quick retribution. All I had to do was to find Seren.
“Well then,” said Jarthen, “I suggest that we get going.”
“We had better hurry,” said Rax, “Seren’s men have a week’s head start.”
“There is no need to rush,” I said. “I know exactly where Seren is. He’s at the Manor. The Manor is what he has coveted more than anything. He will not leave it behind.”
“But what is this to you Rax?” I said. “Why are you coming along?”
“Let’s just say that a month ago several of Seren’s companions accosted a friend of mine. We never found any pieces of him larger than his hand. I simply wish to return the favor.”
On that note, we left the tavern and began the long walk back to the Manor. That was three days ago, and now I am back at the beginning, sitting in a tree, spying on my own house. The hour is late. Seren and his men have been carousing all night. The sounds of their revelry filled the air until the wee hours of the morning. But now, one hour before dawn, the manor house is quiet and soon we will attach while the effects of the party still hinder our prey. Soon my father will be avenged.
Jarthen gives the signal. We creep to the walls of the manor house. All is quiet. There are no sentries. We slip through the front door, but the house is filled with an unnatural calm. Something is wrong. When I kick open the doors to the great hall I find out why.
Corpses and broken furniture are strewn about the room. Seren’s body lies crumpled in a corner with a knife in his back. A small, solitary bag of gold coins lies strewn across the table where a now immovable bloody hand reaches for it. What happened is obvious. When the ale casks ran dry and food platters were emptied, Seren’s men fought over the remaining gold. And my treacherous but weak half-brother was unable to control them. Instead, he became their first victim. The irony that Seren the betrayer has himself been betrayed is, at first, delicious. But the taste turns bittersweet for they rob me of my revenge. My family is gone. Our fortune is in ruins, and I have no choice but to clean up the Great Hall and begin again.