Sethlzaar always thought his life would end within the city walls; old and desolate, not seeing anything beyond it. Or if he was lucky, he'd die young, maybe spoken of in the reaches of the conisoir, like Zaar the blessed, a man said to have single handedly built the foundation on which the cesspool stood. A criminal mastermind who'd used the gifts Truth had given him to scare the Realm before settling down in Dun. It is said that his feats were so great that when the conisoir delved deeper into desolation, the city let it for fear of angering Zaar.
When Sethlzaar joined the orphanage, his thoughts had banked on something akin to fear. A fear that the same life would be his, but where he could have lived it out in the conisoir, it would be in the city, as a nobody. Eventually, he would have been kicked out of the orphanage when he came of age. He would've perhaps tried to live in the conisoir, again. Reacquaint himself with life within it. That's if the conisoir would forget their grudge against him, which was most improbable.
The conisoir never forgets.
When the priest first walked into the orphanage a year ago, Sethlzaar had dared to dream. To dream a dream where he lived beyond the confines of the city wall. And since the seminary was not in Dun, and the city had fewer churches than any other in the realm, dreams of the seminary had no place in it, so his dreams had been crushed when the priest had left. But at least it left his mind quiet.
Sethlzaar liked the quiet. In it he could think; think the things a boy of his years had no reason to think. It was his solace. Growing up, his mates always talked, told tales of their pointless adventures and let up every single knowledge they had, both useful and useless. Groc had slaved away at instilling in them the habit of silence, one of the things Groc had never had to teach him, seeing as he'd proven himself fluent in it time and time again.
But two months with the priest taught him one thing: when it came to the man, silence knew him by name. Whatever his name was.
When they had left the forest sometime within their first week, they had come across a small city. The route the priest had taken at the time had shown they would not go through it, however. So at a slowing pace, and with the sun frowning down on them, the priest had brought Rive to a stop.
His instructions to Sethlzaar had been simple. Go to the guard at the gate, inform him of a dead Vulcan boar in the forest and ask for payment for the information he would require to find it. If the guard failed to believe him, Sethlzaar was to point to where Rive was.
The guards had watched his approach with skepticism. His week old clothes smelling of mud, grime, sweat and something else he could not put a name to, perhaps a special component of the forest, was enough to deter even him from trusting himself. His leather sandals had borne tears in different places and he'd been able to undoubtedly feel the dirt beneath them which was wrong, considering sandals were not designed to be that way; he could say so with a certainty.
He had broken the information down to the guards the best way possible, just as he had learned in the conisoir. It was one of the few things he'd gained form Groc; a skill learned but not taught. Then he'd watched them ponder on his information and knew the moment they chose to take him as a liar. He couldn't blame them; a child his age couldn't bring down a boar, let alone a Vulcan.
As they'd reached for him, no doubt to have him give up whoever had set him up to the task, he'd reached a finger out in the direction of the priest without a display restraint.
"The priest sent me," he'd said.
His words held with them a power, and just the knowledge that he claimed to know a priest who was not very far away brought the men to a halt.
"How much?" the taller of both guards had asked as he withdrew trembling fingers.
Sethlzaar understood the business of trade. He knew to work the buyer until he spewed all he was willing or even able to. He knew the tells that showed a man would give whatever was required. At least, he knew most of them, and the guard had displayed all of them. But when the time had come to work the man, he'd remembered the priest's choice.
He had returned to the horse a while after with a pouch filled with more gold than he had imagined would've been given, and as they'd ridden, the priest informed him that the boar was going to gain the guards at least ten times the amount they had relinquished.
That was the first time Sethlzaar witnessed the power of the position of a priest over humans.
They travelled a long distance over the span of months after the event until they found themselves at a tavern located on the outskirts of Arslagh, the capital city of the Realm.
The priest sat across the table from him, a cup of some alcoholic substance, resting in his hands. The cup foamed at the mouth and the priest sipped it at intervals. it was made of clay, molded in a hurry and tossed to the side for use. Clearly, the creator had no great expectations of it; a cup made with the expectation of being broken.
Groc had a lot of those at The Wood.
Still, it was a perfect representation of the tavern. On the outside, it was riddled with holes in its walls. Scars the length of a man spoke of sword fights where at least one man was more than eager to cut his opponent in half and the dried blood that presented themselves as spatters accompanying most of the marks said a few men had found success in their endeavors. The wooden sign hanging from a metal pole at the entrance had been so weathered and aged that Sethlzaar had been unable to discern what it said. But whatever it was, he believed it to be the name of the tavern.
Inside, the tavern was filled with a crowd that threatened to pull down the already almost crumbling building with their bellows and laughter. The air was wretched with the smell of body odor and vomit, and the presence of so many warm bodies banished the cold of the night.
These were men tired from a day's work come back to waste away their lives and punish their bowels with whatever they could fit inside before lumbering their way back into the world for another piss poor adventure the next day. Sethlzaar knew enough about people who frequented such places. They were no different from the men that visited The Wood. All of them were the same...
Or so he had thought.
The men in the tavern were scarier than any Sethlzaar had ever seen. Each bore scars on one part of their bodies or the other that made the priest's and Ventril's look like needle marks.
Towards one end of the room was a table hosting six men of varying sizes each carried a cup of their own, and on the table between them stood a massive jug which they were having replaced at the moment for the third time since he'd stepped in, heralded by the priest.
The opposite end of the room at a table right beside the door sat two men, and where the room was noisy, these two easily bellowed over everyone else. Even seated Sethlzaar knew them to be the tallest men in the room and perhaps the biggest.
While everyone wore cloths that did a good job of covering them, these men wore scant clothing, baring their chests and arms with the only cloth worn over their torn trousers being a jacket made of what could or could not have been wolf's pelt. And their brown beards, braided at odd angles, outgrew the hair on their head and could have probably swallowed Sethlzaar's fore arm.
The length of the tavern was crowded. Tables filled with customers the kinds of which Sethlzaar had never seen during his time in the conisoir. On each table were at least two customers but most held three and though most harbored only men, there were a noticeable few where women mingled with the men.
Sethlzaar could almost smell the ferocity of each person seeping into the hot putrid air and didn't think the weapons they all carried was the cause of it. In the conisoir, each child had been taught the concept of fear but with the way the young children he could see occasionally coming down the stairs before returning did so, he doubted the lesson of fear was taught here. Either that or it had been perfected so well that the children had learned to conceal it.
The tavern girls—for Groc had taught him calling them whores was impolite—waited at the stairs that led to what could only be believed to be a more conducive part of the tavern, each bearing a look that dictated their urge to do business, as well as their urge to stay alive and in one piece. The burden of the men, they could take. The brunt of the drunk men wielding weapons, however, was a different discussion to be tabled.
Sethlzaar finished his third cup of water, amazed that they had water and had even agreed to serve him. While it was a clearly terrible idea to bring a child his age to such a place, he kept his objections to the priest's actions to himself. Like every other thing the man had done during their journey to wherever the seminary was located, he knew the man expected him to learn something from their stay here. So, learn, he would.
As he watched, he noted the absence of men in the service of the customers. Only ladies carried the trays and the jugs, making their way through the rancor with an ease that proved the place more their home than it was any other's.
The two men he'd noted with the conspicuous dressing and the need for a shave with a butcher knife than a simple razor soon abandoned their table to join one where a woman sat accompanied by two men, taking their jug with them as an offering of good will or perhaps a sign that they had every intention of getting their money's worth. Moving with a swagger induced by the contents of their cups, they shrugged their way onto their new seats and birthed a new burst of merriments with their new friends.
The smaller of both men cracked jokes between drinks and laughs while the bigger one was more interested in the woman he had chosen to sit beside, whispering sweet nonsense into her ears as he took more conserved sips from his cups and refilled hers each time ran dry. Watching them, Sethlzaar failed to ascertain which of them drank more. Them, or their beards.
"... cold?" the smaller man was saying. He took a swig of the contents of his cup, spilling more onto his beard than he did in his mouth and towering over his new companions. "Your winter is like normal night. If your people spend one night of winter in Skarragoth you would... how you say..." he snapped his fingers at his partner who was too busy flexing his muscles to the pleasure of the woman to attend him. "Fancy words you people use," he continued to think, and then his beards split in a concealed smile. "Ah, keel over." Then his attention returned to his companion. "Brother! Listen when I talk to you."
The other man took his eyes off the woman for the first time since they'd sat down. "I'm listening, Vollo." Their voices were deep, deeper even than most men Sethlzaar had heard speak, and each time they spoke, their words seemed like a rumble. It called a respect, or rather, demanded it.
"No you are not," Vollo disagreed. He took another gulp, making sure not to spill the contents this time, then wiped his mouth with his hand. "I tell you, Jorg. Woman is not everything."
"Of course not." Jorg's voice was good humored. He raised his hand and began counting off his fingers. "There's also drinking, fighting, pillaging, eating." He paused, and offered his brother a wide grin. "Have I said pillaging?"
They continued in their conversation a while longer. Vollo told tales of conquests in snowy mountains and how he'd fought of a small army in the dead of winter. His brother continued to evolve his acquaintance with the woman who up till now Sethlzaar couldn't gain a decent view of.
It was while he was struggling for a better view that a scuttle broke out at one of the tables. Two men held a shoving match while a frightened woman seemingly caught in the middle inched herself away from the chaos. Her disheveled hair and the nature of the dress she wore, abridged and gravely revealing, had Sethlzaar convinced her place between both men was less a coincidence and more a product of circumstance. Besides, when he looked closer he easily identified her for being amongst the women previously at the stairs.
"... I saw her first," the man with the patchwork of a beard was saying.
The other man, tired of shoving, and not caring to say much, pulled a knife from his pocket. "Care to die first, then?"
The knife was portable, small and easy to conceal but was certain to leave significant puncture wounds if allowed. This left his opponent without leverage to retrieve the longsword strapped to his hip without finding retribution at the end of a small knife. Still, he seemed unwilling to let whatever they argued over go without a fight. So as time seemed to still between both men, Sethlzaar watched, wondering if the man was beginning to consider the farcicality of actually engaging his opponent unarmed.
The man with the knife grinned, understanding his opponent's predicament. "You can have her after I'm done,"
Men never killed in The Wood. Sethlzaar had always thought it an unspoken rule in all taverns, but the look in the man's eyes told him that he would take his opponent's life as quickly as he had drawn his knife. Yet everyone else went about their business as if a man was not about to be stabbed over a quick shag.
"You know you should sit down, boy." Vollo rose from his seat, voice rumbling over the noise and interrupting whatever decision the unarmed combatant would've made.
Even as the smaller of the brothers, he stood head and shoulders above both men even from a distance.
"Patch-work over there clearly saw her first," he continued. "And frankly, I don't like how you are scaring the woman."
"You best mind your business Northman," the man snarled, "or I'll gut you too."
The Northman sighed, reaching a hand behind him. "You Maeldunians are so petty with your tiny weapons. That is not a knife, boy," his hand returned with a knife of his own from where Sethlzaar could not see, "this is a knife."
The weapon was big, its blade longer than any Sethlzaar had set his eyes on. The Northman brandished it in style. He twirled it deftly in his grip and pinned it to the table where it stayed embedded with a thud that caused the single cup on the table to bounce at the impact, spilling its contents. Where the man's knife was for stabbing, the Northman had produced something that could gut a bull in one blow.
"And this..." Vollo hefted his battle axe from its place on his back, holding it in one hand, and bringing Sethlzaar to a confusion as to how he hadn't noticed it, "...is a weapon. Not that needle you have on your waste. So you best be sitting."
The man frowned, considered his options, and put his knife away. Returning it to its place in his shirt, he took his seat and reached for his cup to drown whatever complaints he had to make.
The fellow with the patchwork of a beard grinned his unfought victory and went for the girl, only for her to take a step away from his reach. The man frowned at the rejection, then spared the Northman who was still standing a glance, contemplating his next course of action.
Deciding against whatever bravado the alcohol in his system whispered into his mind, he returned to his seat with a scowl, imitating the actions of his friend. Meanwhile, the girl scurried back to the stairs where she let out an audible sigh of relief.
Vollo who had watched everything play out, retrieved his knife from the table and the owner of the cup swiped it along with one of the jugs while the other man took the jug the Northman had brought. The table left the floor with the knife by at least an inch in defiance before submitting it to the stronger power and dropping back down. Then Vollo replaced both weapons before sitting down. And again, Sethlzaar could not see where.
The Northman poured himself another cup. "You Maeldunians are funny. You fight over things as petty as whores, with weapons best used for sewing and think yourselves men."
Jorg laughed into the neck of the woman at the man's words where he'd been burrowing since the scuttle began. She seemed to be enjoying it, squeezing his biceps as if intent on ripping the skin off while moaning her pleasure. The Northman growled in satisfaction as she arched her back, presenting more of her neck to him, and within the space of a blink, his free hand vanished beneath the table.
"But your god," Vollo continued, ignoring his brother's actions, "he has quite the interesting servants. The ones you call priests belong to him, correct?"
The man beside Jorg nodded.
"Your god has himself good warriors," Vollo went on. "Me and my brother fought one a long time ago. It is why we come here, to Maeldun." When he drank again, it was straight from the jug.
"How did you escape?" the woman mumbled between moans.
Vollo laughed. "Who said we escaped?"
Jorg lifted his head with a groan and turned to his brother. "If we had not escaped, we'd have lost our heads, brother." Scratching his beard, he added: "Tell them about this priest, and his funny clothes."
Vollo wiped foam from his mouth. "He took both our blows head on, that one. First time I ever seen a man take the both of us together. Small fellow... just about your size, Cremmer. Fast and strong. Broke skull crusher in pieces." His voice saddened. "I loved that axe."
Cremmer, the man sharing a side of the table with Jorg and the woman nodded but asked again, "how did you escape?"
For a man beside two frolicking adults, he did a good job of ignoring them.
"Oh." Vollo shook the sadness from his voice. "I held him down while that one there ran." Jorg wasn't the least perturbed by his brother's words as the man continued, "he let me go after that. Said we Northmen were interesting folk."
Cremmer stopped his cup before it came to his mouth. "That reminds me. Did you hear what happened in Dun?"
"Yeah." This from the man beside Vollo who'd barely said a word before now. "They say a priest took a boy. They say 'e was an orphan." He shook his head solemnly. "Not so rare, though. They do it sometimes."
Cremmer shook his head. "Not this one. Heard he took the boy from the orphanage. Adopted him." He abandoned his mug and scratched his neck. "Poor kid. First time I ever heard of such."
"What you looking at?" Jorg growled suddenly, distracted from his endeavor.
It took Sethlzaar a moment to notice the northman had ceased his business with the woman and was now looking at him.
"Your pa never teach you not to stare?!" he snarled, rising from his seat and stalking towards them.
Sethlzaar found himself under a new kind of fear that threatened to release his hold on his bladder, and when he opened his mouth to speak, apologize or at least dissuade the misunderstanding somehow, the words refused to come out.
"Hey, you!" Jorg turned his attention on the priest. "Fathers pay for the crimes of their children where I come from... You hear me?"
Whenever they came upon a town that was conducive enough to spend time by standards secretive to the priest and the silence he invoked, the man always swapped his vestment for something more casual. Something that would help him blend in as nothing but a simple sell-sword.
Right now, he wore a grey shirt of cotton with long sleeves and a slit at the center of the collar held not too far apart by a lattice of threadwork over a trouser of the poorest brown, a combo he wore so well, to Sethlzaar's continued surprise. His swords remained sheathed and strapped behind him, its shape concealed in abounding wraps of fabric so much so that its shape save its length was almost indiscernible. And while he pulled of this look almost too well, he never associated with anyone they came by more than he needed to which told Sethlzaar that such detours were perhaps made for the sake of his comfort.
The northman reached for the priest. "I said..."
What followed was almost as unexpected and sudden as the Northman's change of attention.
The priest slid his cup to Sethlzaar. It glided across the table as he rose to the northman, his movements fluid.
He grabbed Jorg's arm, propelling himself forward. He rose to his feet, quick as a snapdragon. He pulled Jorg forward and swept his forward foot out from under him.
Jorg staggered, and came crashing down on the table. The priest put a hand to the back of his head as he fell. Aiding his descent, he drove it into the wood. Jorg's head came down with a weighty thud. He slid of the table, and wilted to the floor.
He laid there, unmoving.
He won't be going upstairs, Sethlzaar observed. At least not tonight.
Ignoring the Northman, the priest took his cup from Sethlzaar and returned to his seat, placing it on the table with a delicacy contrary to the fatality he'd just displayed. Jorg's unconscious body remained as the priest turned his attention to his companions. Sethlzaar found them watching with wide eyes. But while the others displayed shock, the woman's mixed with something he didn't recognize, Vollo seemed more impressed than anything else.
"I say we let him sleep this one off," the priest suggested.
"I say so too," Vollo agreed. "My little brother has already had too much to drink for one night."
Vollo burst into a fit of laughter a moment later, and the entire room Sethlzaar had just noticed had fallen silent, resumed its conversations. The tension dissipated from the atmosphere as the whole tavern burst back to life.
"What did you learn?" the priest asked.
"Size is not everything," Sethlzaar answered after a moment's thought, well acquainted to the man's inquiries after any event.
"True," the priest agreed. He took a sip. "But what you should've learned was never to pick a fight when drunk."
The rest of the night went on without event on their side. The Northman and his companions continued their conversation, talking on various topics from the proper way to kill a man to the proper way to fuck a woman which inspired a few disagreements from the woman and everything else in between. The rest of the tavern did the same, stepping over Jorg's body as if it was naught but a floor ornament. Whether the older brother didn't care or took too much pleasure in it, Sethlzaar couldn't decipher.
As the night aged, the animals called it a night. The birds returned to their trees of nesting, and the drunks began their nightly rituals of passing out in their own vomits, or perhaps that of their colleagues. The priest rose, and they left.Vollo climbed up the tavern stairs with the woman his little brother had been so buried in and the tavern girl he had saved from watching two men fight over her attached to both arms upon their departure. It left Sethlzaar confused.
Rive stepped as the line dictated, waiting at the city gate, forcing Sethlzaar to the torment of the heat of the sun.Sethlzaar couldn't help but feel that somehow he'd relegated the strain of walking for the crime of the heat. It was preposterous, considering he'd have suffered the heat regardless.Or was it?The priest, in his hooded cassock taken from within one of the sacks dangling from Rive's saddle, made walking look too easy. Then again, his hood did protect him from the sun.Sethlzaar caught himself in a pout, and frowned. Not only was the priest oblivious to his problems, but now he was beginning to act like a child. It wasn't the priest's fault he had no hooded clothes.The priest paid no entrance fee when he approached the guards at the gate. After a brief search, they were within the city walls.The guards had only stopped him for the briefest mo
The hours seemed to drag on forever as they rode on. Soon the mist grew, engulfing the dirt completely, then Rives legs, from hooves to thigh, caressing even their own with an existence so lacking of sensation Sethlzaar's mind conjured up a sensation for it, perhaps to keep the fear of the unknown at bay.The horse slowed. It gave Sethlzaar a moment to tremble in the glory of what laid before them. The path was closed off to them. Where one should have been was naught but a body of mist standing as far as his eyes could see. The peerless source from which all the forest's mist seeped out.Rive let out a low snort, one of those it gave before doing something it was not comfortable with. Then it plunged into the fog.Sethlzaar's eyes snapped shut. They took solace in the touch of rushing wind as the horse soared in its tracks only for it to be visibly tainted with fear when the animal slowed to a canter and, finally, came
Valerik's request did nothing to quell the urge to escape.Sethlzaar stood a while. In time his feet shuffled along the ground, picking up dirt and staining an already dirty footwear he could only assume was unpleasing to the eyes. He never prided himself in his patience, but the strength that came with silence had always borne patience behind it. In the mist, however, that patience proved to elude him.He stood for what seemed hours. Eventually, his legs shook from fatigue. Valerik had asked him not to leave where he stood, but the man never demanded he remain standing. So, shuffling his feet and clearing the floor beneath him, he sat on the dirt.The mist continued its swirl around him. He soon began finding a companionship with it. It cascaded over him, leaving no sign of its existence on his skin. But he felt it like a motherly touch even if it was one he conjured up for the sake of his sanity, that he may not lose i
Antuas led Sethlzaar into an entrance beneath the keep. They walked an arched hallway, each arch in a way marking a distance travelled with wooden torches rested against the walls. They cast a golden light to expel the darkness. This left Sethlzaar marveled at how ancient the place seemed.The hallways were fashioned from stones so old he could smell it. On different parts of its walls cracks crawled like failed spider webs. They passed hallways leading to unknown parts shrouded in darkness. Each one claimed a part of his childish curiosity. The darkness of those unlit beckoned to him and he stared with a wanderlust.His mind demanded he explore it. He reached out his hand, curiosity outweighing caution and..."Vi Sorlan."He turned.Antuas stood ahead of him with a gaze strong enough to dissuade him of his compulsion.When had he stopped walking? he wondered
Minutes felt like hours and, as it stretched into hours, it seemed to go on forever. They labored under the bright sun in their repetitive strikes under Ordan's command.Ordan had them line up after an unending length of time spent on arm jarring strikes and Sethlzaar studied his wooden sword as they waited for their next command.He knew very little about swords, and he knew even less about the various designs. The only weapons to ever appeal to him lived in his memory of his journey and the scabbard of the darkness. He had snuck into Groc's study at one point in time and had seen the different swords hung on the wall, most of them had been longer than he had been tall.They'd all presented themselves in various sizes, sharpened on both sides. It gave them a double-edged ferocity. But what had caught Sethlzaar's eye was neither them nor the elegantly curved swords with the inscription sword of Tarr crossed over each oth
Sethlzaar and his peers learned of the existence of tests from the older boys as the days stretched into months, and finally into a year. They were trained in techniques required in fights."We teach yer not for the defense of a man, but the defense of a realm," Ordan told them one morning before training began. "We do not teach yer how to defend yerselves. No. We teach yer how to kill a man."Arrsahel was the day of the sword, first of the week. They woke before the break of dawn and took to the courtyard where they trained.Father Ordan remained brutal with the sword, giving Sethlzaar reason to believe he indulged them more for the opportunity of brutality than teaching them how to kill a man.Narvi proved adept with the sword, parrying strikes from the priest and occasionally finishing a spar with only so much as aching hands. It always left Ordan's mood fouler than usual. The children dreaded going after him, as
Sethlzaar made to rejoin what was left of the group, but his pride served to keep him in place where he fell to his knees.He rose to his feet. They trembled in fear. Cautiously, he waded through the mist, finding only more of it with each step. As he wandered, he considered the possibility of Narvi and Cenam being the last a conscious choice of the priests. He decided that if he was to place a wager on who would be the last out of the group it would be on Cenam.The sound of a twig snapping pushed panic into his mind. It sent him on a panicked sprint through the mist. Slowly, the mist thinned into nothingness.He sidestepped a tree as his vision cleared, narrowly avoiding it. A stray branch hit him in the face immediately after. He crashed to the ground, like a discarded log.Sprawled on the floor, he opened his eyes. The sun was at its peak. The direction with which the light bore through the shades of the trees w