A monk's calling
For as long as he can remember Merecraft was an acolyte in the general clergy of the church of Toran, where he had been placed at an early age by parents who could not afford to raise a child themselves. For years he studied the holy books diligently, and if he harboured any ambitions beyond becoming a good servant of Toran they were not apparent to anyone.
He worked hard, studying the written word, helping to transcribe the illuminated drawings and scriptures of the church, oblivious to what was going on in the greater world and not inquisitive enough to find out. It was a peaceful existence, one that filled his heart with light, and gave meaning to his soul. A normal, quiet life serving a greater cause. That was until the day everything changed for the young acolyte.
He had been summoned by Father Merrick into the old priests private chambers. Father Merrick was the head of the particular temple at which Merecraft was based, and the rumour amongst the acolytes was that he had links to the Order of Undead Hunters, though Merecraft had always paid little heed to such idle gossip. The other acolytes barely noticed as Merecraft carefully packed away his scrolls, and rose from his desk, excusing himself from the chamber before heading out to the cloisters where Merrick's rooms were. None know what caused the events that were to follow, only what ruin the aftermath revealed, and Merecraft has spoken to no other about it since.
Something happened during that meeting however that was to change the path of the young man's life forever. Whatever it was, it ended with Merecraft standing over the bruised and bloodied body of Father Merrick. The old priest was moaning softly from his broken jaw, his eyelids fluttering as he groaned in pain from the bruises. Merecraft stared down at the old man with hatred in his eyes and blood on his knuckles. Coming suddenly back to his senses as the intense rage passed, Merecraft did what any frightened young man in the same position would have done - he fled.
Several days later the cleansing rains of Apreal found Merecraft huddled beneath the sheltering boughs of a large tree on the rain-sodden east road from Fort Llast. Merecraft was cold and hungry, and trying to come to terms with what he had learned in the offices of the priest. He kept staring down at his hands with abhorrent awe, still finding it hard to understand. Yet the rage had not left him, he still shook with it. The words of Father Merrick echoed in his ears still, fanning the flames of his hate. How could he have been so deceived all these years? He now knew the truth.
The holy words of the temple were lies. The acolytes and were priests nothing better than common hucksters, spreading their venomous faith amongst the unsuspecting populace. With a snarl he clenched his fists and closed his eyes, and when he opened them he was a man without faith. What had filled his soul for all his years was gone, leaving behind a bitter anger and animosity for Toran and all his works. He looked up suddenly to see the wizened old fellow in yellow stained robes smiling down at him.
The monk's name was Fearil. As they travelled together towards the markets of Hlint on the monk's cart, Fearil told Merecraft about his life. The stories of a quiet soul, of finding the balance within, and of the way the energy of anger could be channeled into something more useful touched a chord with Merecraft. He knew that unless he found some way of quelling the growing bitterness inside he would end up lost and broken. And so he resolved to learn what he could from Fearil, to begin the training that would help him to control his feelings, and maybe even to one day face the news he had been told by Merrick.
So it was that Merecraft found himself in the town of Hlint, a new life and a new path before him. All he had to do was take that first fateful step. He knew it would not be easy, and that in the darkest moments his anger would resurface again. He knew the times ahead would be testing. He had lost his faith in the Gods, but thanks to the teaching of Fearil had found a new faith - one which centred on his own soul, his own mind, and finding a safe path through the turmoil within. He would train to become a monk.
The Lord of the Rings Online
And so it begins - part 1
"Merecraft?" Myrtle Hodley shouted from the gate at the end of her garden path. "Merecraft!"
She looked up and down the dusty road that ran outside her small home, but there was no sign of her errant son in either direction, not from up the hill that lead to the farmsteads, nor from down the hill towards the center of Combe.
"Typical," she muttered to herself. He was probably off playing with those no-good friends of his round the back of the Comb and Wattle inn. The young man had mentioned something about Tobey visiting from the Shire as he had run off that morning, shirt-tails flapping behind him, and now he was no doubt entertaining them with some ribald story he had made up whilst daydreaming the previous evening.
Myrtle turned around with a sigh and began to wander back up the path towards her door, the dull ache starting in her calves again as she did so. Just then there was a shout from down the hill, "I'm coming Mom, keep yer hair on!".
Myrtle smiled to herself at the sound. She always did when Merecraft called her mom, even though both of them knew that the term of affection was only that and nothing more. She turned back round and stood there, hand on her hip, trying to look stern as Merecraft ran up to her and hugged her tightly a big grin on his face.
Her frown quickly broke into a grin and she ruffled the young man's mousey hair. She could never stay angry at him for long. His green eyes hinted of mischief, his lips were always curling with the promise of a smile, and his wry manner was infectious.
"Look son, I know you're busy with your friends, but there's something we need to discuss. I have something for you."
Merecraft looked up sharply, his eyes lit up with questions. "What Mom? My birthday's not until tomorrow!"
Myrtle nodded. "Aye, I know, and if you don't behave you won't get your coming-of-age party at all!" She looked back over Merecraft's shoulder seeming distracted for a moment.
"You're eighteen years old tomorrow my lad, and it's time you were given what's yours by right." She said, biting her lip.
Merecraft sensed her hesitation. He had always been good at reading other people. "What Mom? What is it? You can tell me anything, you know that," he smiled reassuringly.
Myrtle looked down at her adopted son and forced a smile.
"It's a gift from your father Merecraft, your real father. He gave it to me almost eighteen years ago to this very day, and now it's time to pass it on to you."
Merecraft stood before her, mouth agape. He had never seen or heard anything of his father in all his years. His questions about his parents had been skillfully deflected by his adoptive parents until he had given up asking, only being told that they had been killed by bandits years before.
And now finally, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, Merecraft was about to learn the truth.
And so it begins - part 2
Merecraft sat on his low cot, the letter hanging limply in his hand. He glanced down at it once more, but there was no need to read it again, he knew almost word by word now...
if you are reading this then today is your eighteenth birthday and you are a man at last. It is time that you know the truth. You have never known me, but it is now time that you did, for all men should know from where they came, lest their ignorance lead them to make the same mistakes as their fathers. My name is Robin Ward, and though I know you do not bear the name of our family, it is my blood that pumps in your veins. We have not met since you were but a babe, but know that I love you dearly and have watched over you when I have been able to, though you knew it not.
There are many reasons why I have not been able to be a father to you my son, several of them due to my own weaknesses and flaws. There is one however of which I must tell you, for if I am not able to be with you on the day you come of age (and the fact you are reading this means that has come to pass) then I may very well be dead or in great peril.
There is a shadow coming to Middle-Earth my son. A shadow that has been asleep for many years and that has finally awoken. I don't know all the details myself, but I have been summoned away, far to the East past the boughs of Mirkwood, and it is not a summons I can ignore.
I leave you the only two things I can do. The first is in the box alongside this letter. It is the lute Glaerraeda, an ancient and notable instrument that was carved by the elven lute-smith Lendë-tuilë. It has served me well for many years, and though it may seem an ordinary lute to you, know that its strings will never sag and the tunes it begets will entrance any who hears them.
The second is a piece of advice. There are groups of people in the world that will stand against the rising shadows. The blood of Númenor flows still in the veins of some of them, and others still will fight for the safety of all men, though they bear not the strength of that ancient land. If ever you are in need of aid seek out the man named Amdir. He is a member of one such band, known as the Rangers, and he will offer you succour if the need is great. He is someone you can trust and you would do well to follow him when the time comes.
There is so much more that I wish I could tell you my son, but time runs short and I must leave Breeland. Know that I love you still and have ever done so, and should we ever meet I will do my utmost to make recompense for the years I have been a stranger to you.
Take care of Myrtle. She has been more of a parent and guide to you than I have, and she loves you dearly. Do not hold the fact that she kept this from you against her. She has only ever had your best interest at heart.
Farewell my son. May the Valar bless you."
Merecraft swore loudly. His face twisted as the conflicting emotions fought for control of his heart, and his fist closed on the letter, crushing it and letting it drop to the wooden floor. His father was, maybe still alive! Yet Myrtle had know and had said nothing! Where had he gone, and why? Why had he never made himself know to his son? No son deserved that!
Merecraft stood up, his fists clenched in anger, and kicked the wooden cot hard. It was not enough to dissipate the anger he felt, and his gaze fell upon the small window...
A short while later Myrtle knocked at the door. There was no answer and she fearfully turned the handle and opened the door to Merecraft's room, ready to face his anger. Her son was nowhere to be seen however. The window was open and swinging in the nights wind. On the bed lay an open box, a simple wooden lute, and a torn piece of paper.
"Oh my son..." she whispered sadly. "Don't do anything rash, please..."
And so it begins - part 3
It had been several hours since Merecraft had fled the house, and now as he slowly returned down the road he could hear the nightjars calling in the fields behind the hill. Time with his own thoughts had dampened the young man's anger and he could now see things for how they really were. It was time for him to return and apologise to him mother, and to explain to her that he had to leave and try to find his father, wherever he might be.
As Merecraft approached the house he noticed that no light could be seen leaking from behind the shuttered windows, and the gate to the garden path was swinging wildly in the wind. As he got closer a sudden look of panic appeared on his face and the certain knowledge that something was wrong struck at him. He could now see that the front door to the house was also open, swinging on its hinges, and that someone had trampled all over his mothers prize flowerbeds. He broke into a run.
"Mom! Where are you? Are you alright?" he shouted as he raced across the threshold. There was no thought of personal danger in his mind, he was again acting on insticnt without stopping to consider what would happen if there were strangers inside. He looked round the dark entrance hall, moonlight slipping in through the doorway highlighting the broken table and smashed flower vase on the floor. "Mom!" he shouted again.
A groan from beyond the sitting room door took the young man racing through and there on the floor he could just make out in the darkness the form of Myrtle hunched by the fire place. She was sobbing.
"It's alright Mom, it's me. I'm here now," Merecraft said bending down to check that she was alright. He took her chin in one hand and lifted her head. In the silver moonlight he could see her blackened eye and the dark trail of blood that dripped from her lip.
A short while later and they were both sat in front of a roaring fire. Myrtle was cupping a large mug of tea that her son had prepared.
"They just came out of nowhere Merecraft, breaking down the door. The leader... he was a man of ill-aspect, a Southerner I think by his accent."
Merecraft looked at her with sorrow in his eyes. "I'm sorry Mom, I should have been here to protect you. Let me go get Constable Underhill from the Inn, he'll know..."
"No Merecraft!" Myrtle interrupted. "You don't understand. It was your father they were looking for, not me. I'm just thankful that they did not seem to know that you are Robin Ward's son."
Merecraft nodded glumly. "I'll find them Mom, I'll stop them, don't you worry," the young man said, a plan already forming in his mind. "I just need to find an man named Amdir first..."
Age of Conan
A thick, dank mist hung over the scrub of Conall’s Valley like a smothering blanket, loathe to release its grip in the dawn sunlight. Though still early the heath was full of life, and Udrath’s trained hunters eye saw the evidence in the recent trails of the rabbits.
Udrath Mac Ceallach crouched low and watched as a wolf slowly padded along the trial, it’s nose low to the ground sniffing for prey. His tanned, calloused hands gripped the wooden haft of his axe Fuilais, more out of habit than any chance it would be needed. Still, it’s weight gave him confidence. He had heard that the Vanir were becoming bolder in their raids on the Clans and it was always wise to keep a weapon to hand in the wilds.
He was looking forwards to returning; he had been away in the southlands for too long. If the lands south of the Karpash Mountains were examples of the vaunted “civilised” world he had heard so much about then he would much rather be back in the “uncivilised” north. Back home.
Udrath stared down the glen, deep in thought. He had been considered a deep thinker back home, his quiet reticence often mistaken for a slowness of mind. This was not the case however; he had simply become accustomed to his own company. His work as a hunter and then a cattle herder had given him plenty of time away from the village and plenty of time to think as he stalked the winter wolves across the hills of Conall’s Valley or tended the herds of longhorn. That quiet, determined nature had caused him trouble on more than one occasion. Things had changed now though; Udrath had changed. No-one could pass through the mephitic streets of Messantia or Khemi without being changed by the experience, and Udrath had changed more than most.
He had never been a particularly violent man. Oh, in his youth he had been a barbarian full of passion and vigour, but that had been a long time ago. He had married into Clan Koragg, but after the clan had been decimated he had taken his wife Flòraidh to his ancestral steading for a quieter life. Recently his time and training during his travels had renewed his old skills however, and the axe on his back rested there as comfortably as it would have done thirty years before. His large, muscular body had been honed by the time spent on the road, the instincts required to survive in Shem had refined those of Udrath the hunter, and he could now creep as quietly as a viper and strike as swiftly and as deadly as one of the large striped jungle cats that haunted the undergrowth of the Barachan Isles. He had rediscovered a deep sense of right and wrong, and a savage will to act, along with a temper, that the hunter in him had never known. Yes, it was a very different Cimmerian that was returning to Conarch Village.
It would be good to see the mountains again, good to feel the bite of the chill north wind as it blew down from the frozen north, good to hear the crunch of ice beneath his feet, to taste the burn of uisge beatha on his throat. It would not, could not last however. Udrath’s stay in Cimmeria would not last long.
The sounds of the valley heightened with the sun, larks singing their welcome to the warmth. A fresh wind caught Udrath’s greying hair, at least what was left of it. He was still an imposing figure despite his age. He had seen over 50 winters now, and most of those had been spent working the family steading or out hunting for wolf pelts, giving him a strong constitution. His strength had served him well since he had left the Mac Ceallach Steading two years ago. He had left for the same reason he would shortly leave once again - to find his son Collum.
He had wandered for over a year following Collum’s path south into Aquilonia then beyond the Karpash, finally reaching the desert lands beyond. After so long he had doubted that he would ever find Collum’s trail again, but that had changed only a few weeks before with the words that the witch-woman had whispered to him. The crone had spoken to Udrath in Kehmi, her prophecy given in return for saving her from a savage beating by the local guards.
“Beyond the isles of Vilayet,
Seek that which had fled and gone,
Look beyond the realm of Set,
for that you would stumble upon.
Far along the Eastern path,
Towards the rising sun,
In the land of the Scarlet Circle
You will find your son.
Yet before you leave to seek your goal
you must return back home.
There you must complete another task
before you are free to roam.”
At last Udrath had a new lead. He would return home and seek out his clan. He would complete whatever task they put in front of him, then put his small estate in order before heading East. The new found talents and the skills he had learned in the lessons of his travels, along with the long years of defending his home from Vanir raiders would stand him in good stead. He felt a renewed hope. He would finally find his son.
And then he would kill him.
Udrath sat in the doorway of the comrades hut, slowly drawing a sharpening stone down the edges of his double-bladed axe Fuilais, and pondering the recent events that had lead him to Koragg Village.
He had finally arrived back at his old steading to the north of Conarch Village a few days ago. As he approached his hunters senses told him that something was awry, and when he topped the bank that lead to his old hut he could see the reason. It was no longer there.
A few lone, blackened wooden spars still stuck out from the icy foundations, but the rest of the property had been burned to the ground. He strode across the remains, stopping occasionally to inspect the ground. It had happened just a few weeks ago judging by the lack of tracks and amount of snow that had fallen. It appeared to be the handiwork of Vanir raiders.
A loud cawing drew his attention to a burned corpse near what remained of the perimter fence, a crow pecking at the remaining skin. The body had almost been stripped clean of flesh, but Udrath recognised it as his old friend Greum from the wooden bangle around the wrist. Yes, definately the work of the Vanir judging by the axe marks in the skull.
The old Cimmerian sighed and looked round at what remained of his past. So, the Vanir had finally finished what they had started some fifteen years before. What was he to do now? His first thought was to head north-east towards the Eiglophiant Mountains and take bloody retribution on the Vanir clans that made their camps in the foothills. Something held him back however.
He had come back north and broken off his search for Collum for a reason. It wasn’t just the prophecy that the witch had whispered; he naturally distrusted all practitioners of the magic arts at the best of times. No, it was something else, something he did have trust in - his own instincts. He’d been away too long and there were things that needed doing in Cimmeria before he resumed the search for his son.
It was a dour and sullen barbarian that sat near the hearth fire of the Conarch Village inn that night, deep in thought whilst he warmed the chill out of his old bones. He was staring into the flames, lost in memories, when one word muttered by a nearby patron broke through his reveries.
Clan Koragg had been his wife Flòraidh’s clan. He had lived happily with them for several years, but as far as he knew they had disbanded some twenty years prior.
A short while later Udrath had shouldered his packs and was heading out of the village. He had taken the road south once more, and may have savoured the irony if he understood the concept. A few jars of porter, the black ale of the mountains, had loosened the tongue of the inn’s patron well enough. It seemed that Clan Koragg had regrouped in the last two years and indeed were starting to prosper once again. A few more ales and Udrath had learned that the clan was currently meeting allies in the town of Tesso in the wild lands of Aquilonia’s eastern frontier, a weeks hike away.
Udrath had decided there and then to go and seek them out. After all, the wolfskins should be easy to find in the small Aquilonian town. Revenge on the Vanir could wait, though it would surely be dispensed eventually. The search for Collum could be delayed, though he would eventually resume it. Now was the time for family again. Now was the time to find Clan Koragg.
Udrath finished sharpening Fuilais and inspected the blade with a satisfied grunt. He got to his feet with a slight wince at the pain in his joints and strode across the village to find Doran and see if he could be of any help.
Udrath squatted down behind the thick bushes of gorse, axe in hand, and waited for his quarry to pass along the scrub trail below. He slowly tensed and relaxed the muscles in his legs to stop cramp setting in; he could be waiting for some time and though his hunter’s patience had never left him his old joints were not as forgiving these days.
He smiled to himself as he remembered the recent celebrations he had seen in Tesso, as he passed through on his way to this ambush. A young couple had been getting wedded, and whilst obviously happy they both looked slightly stunned at the same time. Thinking back now he remembered that he had felt much the same way on his own wedding day. His thoughts strayed to memories of his wife Floraidh, as they often did, and his smile faded.
It had been months before he’d been able to close his eyes without picturing all the blood; months before his dreams had stopped being haunted by the ghosts of her scream. Even now, two years on, he only had to concentrate for but a brief moment to bring the memory back with a horrible clarity.
He had been returning home that day after a successful hunt, the newly skinned pelts of two large winter wolves slung over one shoulder. Once they had been dried, scrubbed and cured they would make a fine new cloak. As Udrath approached the small crofters’ hut that he and his family called home the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He could see the wooden door of the hut was swinging wildly on one hinge. There was no sign of anyone and apart from the banging of the door all was silent. Udrath crouched and slowly lowered his pack and the wolf pelts to the ground, never taking his eyes from the hut. He unslung Fuilais from his back, and axe in hand crept slowly towards the door.
The first thing he had noticed was the broken pottery by the doorway, a crudely decorated pot that Collum had made for his mother the previous summer. It had been standing by the door but now lay shattered across the threshold. He reached out with one hand and pushed the door fully open before his axe fell from his fingers to the ground.
On the other side of the room he could see Flora lying in a slowly expanding pool of deep red blood. She had been opened from throat to belly, her guts snaking across the wooden floor like unravelling threads of rope. Blood was spattered across one wall in a great arc, and at her feet was a discarded incarnadine longknife. Worse of all Udrath could see the still and bloodied form of his unborn child still lying where it had been ripped from the belly of his wife. Suddenly one of Flora’s legs spasmed and she gurgled a mute scream. Gods, she was still alive!
Udrath immediately snapped out of his dumbstruck thoughts and raced to his wife’s side, his fur boots slipping in the thick wet blood.
“Crom,” he thought, “I’ve never bothered you before, but I pray to you now. Let her live! Don’t let this be happening!”.
As he reached her he held one of her hands, already cold. Her eyes fluttered weakly.
“I am here my love,” Udrath choked, looking at her face, her eyes, her mouth... anywhere but at the bloodied carnage below. She did not seem to hear him. Her lips parted, caked in blood and spittle.
“Collum,” she whispered. “It was Collum.”
With that she sighed and her body shuddered one last time.
“No... NO!” Udrath roared. He collapsed on the floor and hugged Floraidh’s dead body to him tightly, sobbing. After a short while his sobs stopped and he realised he was not alone.
In his panic and bewilderment Udrath had failed to hear the sobbing that was coming from the back room. He quietly reached out and grasped the bloodied murder knife then strode to the entry to the back room, flinging the door open with a crash.
Crouched in the corner, sobbing was his fifteen year old son Collum, the pride and joy of Udrath’s life. The boy’s arms and torso were covered in blood. Collum looked up at his father, tears streaked down his cheeks.
“That bitch... father, the bitch... she deserved everything she got” he muttered through his sobs.
Udrath bellowed a scream and lunged out at his son, the knife flashing out. His grip was made slippy by the congealing blood on the hilt and the killing blow went awry, ripping into Collum’s cheek and tearing a deep, ragged furrow.
“Father, no!” Collum shouted and scrambled backwards across the floor, trying to stay out of Udrath’s reach. His hand covered the bloodied wound on his face as he did so.
“You little bastard!” Udrath whispered, and charged at his son. His blood-sodden boots had betrayed him and he lost his footing, falling heavily to the floor. Collum seized his chance and had fled, still sobbing, out past Udrath’s reach and out of the hut.
Udrath lay on the floor, panting and sobbing and cursing.
“Crom,” he whispered before finally passing out, “never again.”
The sound of hooves coming down the track startled Udrath from his thoughts. He tensed, then relaxed as he saw the rider approaching was not the person he sought. He sighed and settled down to continue his vigil. What was he doing thinking back on such black memories of Flora? That was no way to prepare for the coming encounter. If he was going to spend his time maudlin then better to spend it in happy memories.
He thought back to the first time he had met Floriadh Koragg.
As he waited, hidden in the gorse, Udrath’s thoughts began to slip back to some forty years before...
The boy slipped past the guard at the entry post and raced on into the clan longhall. At sixteen years of age this was the first time that Udrath was allowed to attend the Guildmeet, and he was excited to see what was going on inside. On previous occasions he had had to sit outside in the snow with his friends Bran and Sioman, eagerly listening to the speeches, songs and roars of the assembled clan members echoing from within the long wooden building. This time things were different; he had officially come of age and would even have the chance to speak during the meeting. He knew that his father, Chief Bronner Mac Cealleach would be proud when Udrath took his place in the hall.
The longhall was already packed with Cimmerians, the noise already growing as the various members of Clan Mac Cealleach and Clan Koragg assembled. It would not be long before the annual Guildmeet commenced and his father would soon be calling the hall to order. The meet had first been set up almost fifteen years before as a way of solving the constant disputes between the two clans without bloodshed. The Koragg and Mac Cealleach shared neighbouring borders across the valley, and neither clan could afford to lose any more young men in fruitless arguments when both faced the growing threat of Vanir raiders. Not everyone was happy with the more cordial arrangements of course, but the regular meets had succeeded in reducing the loss of life and improving relations between the clans. In recent years the meet had become an good excuse for a celebration as well as somewhere to work out grudges, and Udrath was more interested in the games, dancing and drinking that would follow the formal speeches and politicking.
He scanned the room and saw Sioman talking to Collin the pie-maker. Sioman looked just as excited as Udrath felt. he raced over to his friend.
“You want a pie Uddy?” Sioman asked with a grin as Udrath approached, thick brown gravy dripping down his chin.
“I’d love one, but I have to go sit with father during the meet. How would it look to the fearless Koragg if the son of the Mac Cealleach chief stood up to speak for the first time with meat juice on his chin and tunic?”
Collin grinned down at the two boys. “They’d say there goes a man with fine taste of course!” he chuckled.
Sioman punched Udrath’s arm. “You’d best go Uddy, looks like we’re about to begin,” he said, nodding towards the long benches where the clan leaders were starting to congregate. “Let’s meet up after the speeches and we’ll find a good spot to sit and watch the dancing.”
“You’re on,” Udrath agreed.
Sioman suddenly jerked forwards into Udrath, the crumbling remains of the pie squashing into Udrath’s new woolen tunic, spilling juice and meat chunks down his front. A short barking laugh sounded behind Sioman’s shoulder.
“Watch where yer standing shortarse.” Draffyd Mac Cealleach stood behind Sioman, grinning mischievously. Draffyd, Udrath’s cousin, was a few years older than the two boys and was known to them as their main tormentor in the village. The tall young Cimmerian seemed to seek out opportunities to cause trouble and was especially adept at ensuring Udrath, Sioman or Bran often took the blame.
“Come on little cousin,” he said to Udrath. “Quit wasting time with the common folk. We have to take our seats at the leaders’ benches”.
Udrath glared at Draffyd furiously. He clenched his fists, about to launch himself at the taller clansman, but then the Calling Drum sounded.
“Leave it Uddy,” Sioman said. “He’s not worth the trouble”.
Draffyd had already moved on, laughing with his friends as they headed to the benches. Udrath nodded glumly and followed them, trying to brush the worst of the pie remains from his tunic. As he took his seat next to his father he sensed rather than saw the baleful glare that the Chief directed down at him. The drum stopped and Chief Bronner Mac Cealleach, Udrath’s father, strode out from the bench, his axe Fuilais in his hand.
Along each side of the hall were arranged the long benches, facing inwards. Between the two sides ran a long firepit of glowing coals, and in the centre the blackened stump of a huge ancient fir tree.
Chief Bronner swung his axe over his shoulder and left it quivering in the stump. A moment later Calder, chief of the Koragg approached from the opposing benches and landed his axe into the stump alongside Bronner’s.
“Let the Guildmeet begin,” shouted Bronner as the two mean embraced warmly.
As the speeches commenced and the various tribal issues were discussed Udrath started to drift off into his own thoughts. Curse that Draffyd, making him look a fool on such an occasion! How dare he! Udrath was a little unusual amongst the clanfolk, given to long periods of deep, often melancholic thought. This characteristic, along with the heat of the hall made it all too easy for him to lose his concentration. He started to make plans as to how he would get back at Draffyd. Perhaps he would challenge him during the wrestling tourney that was scheduled for later that night. He looked up across the embers and gledes of the firepit and was dumbstruck.
Sitting right across from him on the Koragg benches was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. her long hair was as red as the coals beneath, redder even than that of the Vanir. Her eyes were the blue of the Cimmerian folk, but deeper, brighter, like the clearest of the mountain lakes that bordered the village. Her skin was as pale as doeskin, and her mouth...
Udrath gasped and could not tear his gaze away. She was unlike anyone he had ever seen before. His blood pounded, his heart beating so loudly that it seemed to drown out the noise of the hall. Then suddenly she was staring right at him, her eyes piercing him like a Vanir spear. Her lips curled into a smile, then she laughed. Then Udrath realised everyone else was laughing too.
“Udrath!” His father was shouting at him.
The spell was broken and he looked round. Everyone was looking at him, laughing, smiling, giggling. To his right he could hear Draffyd talking to his friends. “Stupid boy must have pie in his ears as well as on his shirt.”
Udrath looked up again at the girl, but she was talking now to one of her clansmen. A shadow fell across him and he looked up at his father.
“Udrath boy!” he glowered, fury on his face. “You have been asked to address the meet, as is traditional at your age.” Beyond his father Udrath could see Chief Calder talking angrily to his clan elders.
“Now stand up and say your piece you insolent pup before you make an even bigger fool of yourself.”
Udrath stood, his legs shaking and he felt himself redden under the glare of the assembled Guildmeet.
“I...uh, I...” he stammered before stumbling down from the bench and fleeing out of the hall in shame.
As he passed Draffyd his cousin leaned forwards and grabbed his arm.
“Idiot,” Draffyd whispered, “making goat’s eyes at a daughter of Koragg, before her chief, wearing pastry to an elders’ meet. Get out of here you little bastard!”
As Udrath raced out of the warm hall into the cold, swirling snow he kept telling himself to be strong. He was Cimmerian.
When Sioman and Bran found him a little while later the tears were still flowing.
Hidden in the gorse Udrath continued to reminisce about his past and how he had met Floraidh, his wife.
Udrath walked slowly back down the mountain, still deep in thought, not really seeing the dark bushes that lined the path. He shivered slightly in the cool air, his shirt still wet from where he had washed out the remains of Sioman's meat pie in the mountain stream. A quarter moon shone weakly through the wispy clouds, casting a pale glow that did little to illuminate the path much beyond the sparse trees and undergrowth that covered the hillside. The sounds of laughter and merriment could still be heard echoing down the valley from the hall and the Guildmeet above, seeming to follow the young Cimmerian like mocking taunts of the tribesfolk.
He stumbled slightly on the uneven ground then,. steadying himself, continued. He had drunk more uisge than was wise and the skin of firewater had not contained any answers anyway. He had appreciated the company of Sioman and Bran as they had tried to console him after the embarrasing events in the longhall, but despite their best efforts to persuade him, he could not bring himself to return to the Guildmeet.
Noticing their eager glances towards the longhall Udrath had told them to go back and enjoy themselves; he would be alright with the night and the skin of uisge for company.
When they had gone he had wept quietly for a while, then continued to drink, lost in his own thoughts. How could he have been so stupid? He'd never be able to look the beautiful Koragg girl in the eye again and his father would be sure to have stern and disapproving words for him. After a while he dozed in the cool night air, warmed by the uisge. when he had awoken the moon had passed its zenith and was on its way back down behind the mountains. Dawn would arrive in a few hours, so he had staggered to his feet and begun the long, lonely walk home alone.
He was halfway back, still nearly a league from his father's house when the shrill scream cut the night air like a sharp knife. Instinctively Udrath checked for his weapons then remembered he had left them back at the longhall. Drawing a few deep breaths he shook his head to try and clear it, then bent to pick up a jagged stone the size of his fist.
The scream sounded again, louder and more panicked this time. Udrath stepped off the path to his left and slowly crept forwards in the direction of the sound, senses alert for danger. Straining to hear above the crisp breeze he thought he could make out voices ahead. They seemed to be coming from behind a group of large rocks that lay shadowed in the lee. He moved slowly towards the rocks, walking poised on the balls of his feet, all thought of his earlier embarrassments forgotten, the dullness of the alcohol banished.
As he approached the voices started to take a form, and he recognised the speaker.
"Scream again Koragh whore and I'll break the rest of your teeth as well".
"My... father... will have your scalp for this..." came the response, muffled and quavering. Udrath didn't recognise the voice. He shook his head and his grip on the stone tightened in anger regardless. He resumed his stealthy approach and reached the largest of the rocks. Slowly he inched his way round to the right until he could see beyond, his eyes now adjusted to the darker shadows of the rocks.
He took a sharp breath. The beautiful Koragg girl he had been staring at during the Guildmeet lay on the ground, her face a mess of blood and cuts. Her shawl was ripped open to the waist and her red hair smeared across her face, mingling with the red of the blood. Draffyd knelt before her, his breeches around his ankles and his fist raised in the air.
Udrath strode forwards with sudden purpose.
"Get up you worm," he growled. "Crom's beard, you'll pay for this."
Draffyd looked round in surprise then started to laugh.
"Oh, this is priceless. Uddy the Gallant has come to your rescue!". He stood, kicked off his breeches and revealed a long sharp blade from behind his back. "You stay there," he said to the girl, never taking his eyes off Udrath. "I'll be back to finish our business in a moment".
All Udrath heard was the girl's soft sobbing. He stood as still as a statue, waiting to see what Draffyd would do, saying nothing his grey eyes staring coldly.
Draffyd paused, unsure of what to do next. "Well, lost your tongue have you?" he sneered, then suddenly struck, lunging forwards with his blade aimed straight at Udrath's chest. The strike was quick, but the young barbarian was quicker.
At the last moment Udrath swayed to one side and his fist, still clutching the stone connected with the side of Draffyd's head with a sickening crunch. Draffyd fell to the floor and did not move.
Udrath dropped the stone and without a second glance at his fallen cousin strode over to the girl who was sobbing loudly. He said nothing but gathered her up in his arms like she was but a babe, turned round and slowly walked back down the path.
The hunters found them a few hours later. They were both in the hut of Chief Bronner Mac Cealleach, resting on rugs before a raging fire. The girl was asleep in Udrath's arms.
After the initial fury of the Koragg Chief had subsided, the girl, whose name was Floraidh explained the turn of events. Chief Bronner and Chief Calder had returned to the spot of Floraidh's attempted rape, but Draffyd was nowhere to be found and was not seen in the valley from that day forth.
A year later Udrath and Floraidh were married.
Udrath smiled to himself at the thought of his marriage. It wasn't so odd that he was thinking back on these times, so many years ago. yet still so fresh in the memory. No, not so odd considering the reasons why he was waiting here. He checked his axe again, but the blade was still sharp. It wouldn't be too long now until his quarry rode past.
It had been a strange life that had brought him to this point, but a good one. He had hunted, adventured, loved and fathered a powerful young son. Ahh yes, his son. Udrath sighed. That was a memory not so pleasant.
It had taken a long time to find him, but at last his search had proven successful.
Udrath had spent the last four months in Khitai, and despite the friendship he had forged with his guide he was starting to hate the place. His heart yearned for the cool air of the mountains, to see the snow laden peaks of the Eiglophian Mountains again, and to taste the bite of Cimmerian brewed uisge again. Yet he couldn't turn back now, not when he was finally closing in on his quarry.
At the last village he had passed through he had finally heard of the Imperial Circus and their new attraction, Khrom the Hunter. With his halting Khitan Udrath had discovered that this new act was a skilled young Cimmerian who performed great feats of bravery every night for the baying crowds. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Even if it turned out not to be Collum it would be good to talk to another Cimmerian again, and there was a chance this Khrom may have news of Udrath's son.
So it was that two days later Udrath found himself seated in amongst a crowded arena, waiting for the start of the Imperial Circus. The arena was made of the light wooden frames favoured by the Khitans, with paper and canvas sheeting fixed between. It looked strong but would be light enough to pack away and carry with the circus on its travels.
A large square patch of ground, some fifty feet across had been brushed clear and a layer of sand raked across it. A canvas tunnel lead into the arena from some tents behind the seating area and it was from this tunnel that a small procession now marched, tapping small hand-held drums. They were lead by a Khitan maiden, heavily robed, her face painted white and her eyes heavy with kohl.
She stopped in the centre of the arena and began to sing in a lilting voice. Udrath didn't really understand the words but he was not really paying attention anyway. He was rather carefully scanning the crowd. He noted the slightly raised area of seating to his right, where minor nobles sat, and he noted that the only people carrying weapons were the two guards who stood by the entrance to the canvas tunnel.
The song finished and the circus proper began. The first few acts passed by unheeded by the Cimmerian. If his mind had not been so focused on other matters he would have appreciated the skill, balance and bravery of the Khitan acrobats as they leaped and swung from the tall bamboo poles that had been hammered upright into the ground. All Udrath could think of was the chance he might finally have found his son. Then, finally it was time for Khrom the Hunter to perform.
A horn blew and the crowd hushed. A tall and powerfully built young Cimmerian strode out of the canvas tunnel. He was wearing wolf furs in the traditional Cimmerian way, and a traditional double-headed axe was slung across his shoulders. Udrath stared, mouth agape. Tears welled in his eyes. After three years of searching he had finally found his son. The young Cimmerian was Collum.
As Collum began to perform for the crowd, unslinging his axe and spinning it around his head and shoulders with breathtaking speed Udrath felt numb. He had expected to feel the old rage again, the righteous fury he had felt after Flora's murder, but all he felt was empty. He had travelled all these miles to find and kill his only son in cold justice, but now he wanted more than anything to just go home and forget. Instead Udrath stood up and strode forwards past the assembled audience, and stepped into the arena.
"Collum," he shouted and the crowd fell silent. As if awoken from a trance the two tunnel guards looked surprised, then drew their swords and started towards Udrath warily. Collum dropped his axe to the ground in shock.
"Father?" he whispered.
Udrath stared at his son, clenching and unclenching his fists. He had grown so much, a man now, not the boy he had last seen. Had Collum changed so much as a person too? Did he regret what he had done? Did he even care?
As Udrath's confusion grew and he continued to stare at his son the two guards reached him, and with a final look at each other leaped forwards and wrestled Udrath to the ground and the crowd began to shout. The barbarian didn't resist.
Udrath awoke with the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He lifted his head slowly and found that his hands and feet were bound with tight leather strips. He shuffled back slightly so that he was able to rest against a canvas wall. It was dark, with just a sliver of what seemed to be moonlight shining down from an opening in the canvas. he shook his head to clear it then noticed the other person in the tent. Collum was sat on a small stool, hands on his knees.
"Father," he said quietly. "It's been a long time".
Udrath said nothing but took in his surroundings. The small tent was bare of any furnishings other than the stool on which his son was seated. He looked up at Collum.
"So, are you going to gut me too, like you did your mother?"
Collum sighed heavily. "I know you have spent the last few years thinking that father, hating me for what you think I did". He paused and stared at the ground intently as though he was gazing back through the years.
"I didn't kill her father."
Udrath snorted. "She told me herself. 'It was Collum' she said as she died in my arms! I found you in the house covered in her blood! You fled!".
The old rage was returning.
"You murdered her!"
Collum shook his head. "No father. It wasn't me. I was covered in her blood because I tried to save her. I fled because... because I knew if I told you the truth it would hurt you even more. Better you think I did it than know what really happened".
Udrath stared at his son in shock.
"Tell me," he growled.
Collum hummed happily to himself. It had been a good start to the day. The snows in the valley had started to melt and the fishing had been good in the risen waters of the river. He'd seen Niamh again as well and she'd looked even more beautiful in the chill dawn air; the damp fog had formed crystals like diamonds in her hair. Tomorrow he would ask her to accompany him to the market. Yes, it had been a very good start to the day.
He entered the small outhouse and placed his fishing pole back on the hooks with care, then suddenly stopped his humming. There were raised voices in the house. It was true that his mother and father had been arguing a lot recently, ever since she'd announced her pregnancy, but this sounded different to those all-too-familiar sounds.
Sighing to himself Collum started to walk up to the house. He decided that he would sneak in and grab his bow and go out hunting. Let them argue; he'd come back once things had settled down. As he approached he began to make out the words and then the voices. Collum stopped. He could hear his mother's voice clearly, but the other voice wasn't know to him; it certainly wasn't Udrath. He shook his head slightly and carried on, pushing the door open before him.
"Oh, this is just wonderful..." said a very large Cimmerian standing near the hearth. Collum did not recognise the man, but took him in at a glance. He was massive, and looked as strong as an auroch despite his age. He wore furs in the Cimmerian manner, but around his neck and arms hung the sigils of the Vanir. At his belt hung two long knives, and his face was formed into a permanent sneer by the large jagged scar that ran down his left temple and cheek.
"Get out whelp," he growled at Collum. "Your mother and I have things to discuss".
Collum ignored the man and ran to his mother's side. She was seated on a stool, her head in her hands and was crying loudly.
"Leave him alone Draffyd," she sobbed.
Collum paused. Draffyd? Could it be? he'd heard the tale many times of course, but that Draffyd hadn't been seen for years. There had been rumours the Cimmerian had fled the village after the attack on Collum's mother and joined with the Vanir, but there had been nothing more substantial than rumour. Was it him?
"Mother..." he began, but was interrupted as he was grabbed from behind and thrown backwards.
"I said GET OUT!"
"Draffyd, leave him alone!" his mother screamed, getting to her feet. "He's nothing to do with this".
Draffyd ignored her. He drew one of his knives and advanced towards Collum who was cowering in the corner, rubbing his head where it had hit the wall.
"No!" Floraidh shouted as she swung the stool with all the force she could muster. It broke over the back of Draffyd's head, but he hardly seemed to notice. Instead he spun round and plunged the knife into her belly.
Everything seemed to go silent for a moment before the screaming and shouting began.
"Its' my child you're carrying whore!" Draffyd snarled. "If I can't have it then nobody can, least of all that worm of a husband of yours."
Collum looked up and tried to focus, his head still swimming. All he could make out through the screams and the clouds of blood was the hunched form of Draffyd, his arm slicing and hacking and working. Then it was over, and his mother slumped heavily to the floor, her body a bloodied mess of entrails.
Draffyd stared down at her for a moment, panting. He dropped his knife then turned and left the building without a glance back.
Collum broke through the shock by force of will and crawled to his mother, who was still alive and sobbing softly.
"Tell Uddy... I'm... sorry..." she gasped between bloody breaths.
As if waking from a nightmarish dream Collum shook his head. There were tears in his eyes as he looked at his father, who was still bound hand and foot. Udrath stared back at him, eyes wide.
"You're telling me it was Draffyd? That the baby was his..?"
Collum nodded slowly.
"Why father? Why would she lay with him again so many years after what he did to her?"
"I... I don't know... I suspected she was seeing someone else, but Draffyd? The Gods have a cruel sense of humour".
He groaned and flexed his arms, looking round as if searching for answers.
"I don't have any answers son. All I know is that life is far too complicated for simple men to understand. People do strange things for the oddest of reasons... Flora, how could you?"
With that he began to shake and sob, and he cried like he had not done since that day at the Guildmeet so many years ago.
In the distance Udrath could hear the sound of hooves quite clearly. A band of riders was making its way down the valley. They would be passing by his hiding spot soon. it was almost time.
He had parted from Collum several weeks ago now, on friendly if still slightly awkward terms. The boy, no the man now, had promised to return home the following winter once the Imperial Circus had finished its tour of the provinces. They both knew however that they would not meet again.
The riders were getting close now. Udrath flexed his muscles to ensure they had not stiffened during his wait. He smiled to himself. He had lived a good life. He had known the love of a good woman and had a strong and brave son. Yes, it had all been worth it.
The riders rounded the bend and started to pass below. Twenty-five Vanir warriors with a Cimmerian at their head... Draffyd.
It had been a good life.
This would be a good death.
With an ear-piercing shriek Udrath leaped down into the pack of riders and the axe Fuilais started to sing.
Retro Sample Week: Duke Nukem 2
3 hours ago