Several years would pass in this way, but the wolves were good to him and never went too far. They moved quick enough to test his fortitude but refused to leave him behind. Over time it became easier and easier for him to learn how to move as they did; their techniques for hunting and travel becoming like second nature. Together they could take down larger and stronger prey and find enough food for the entire pack to thrive. However, these weren’t the only things that Vangrim learned from the wolves.
They also spent a lot of time roaming around to visit the different factions of the land, checking up on them to see what they needed. If the Elves needed specific herbs it was the wolves that guided their healers. If the Human hunters became lost in the forest it was the wolves that brought them home. Rumors of wolf-related miracles became stories and legends told between villages but the truth was much simpler than all of that. The wolves treated everyone that lived in the woods like they were part of the pack as best they could. The reality had been in front of Vangrim the entire time but he hadn’t realized it until experiencing it for himself. When the wolves spoke of community they meant the forest as a whole, not just those that looked like them. They were above the petty squabbles of Man against Elf or Animal-kin against outsiders. The wolves just knew how to instinctually embrace everyone as brother or sister. It explained why they had been so good to him when he first approached them in need.
When the Alpha called the pack to their favorite clearing for a meeting, Vangrim knew that something was wrong. Rarely did they have these formal gatherings unless some kind of important announcement was to be made. He could feel the sense of dread rise up from his stomach and into his throat as he joined with the others.
“I have called you all here today because change is coming to the forest,” the Alpha said sadly. “War is at our doorstep.”
“War? Why? What has happened?” The wolves asked, obviously distressed.
“There was a dispute over land. The Humans seek to settle it and farm it to aid their growing populations, but the Elves have already laid claim to it. They say they have been here longer than the Humans, that the humans have no right to it,” the Alpha answered. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Now they are ready to fight over it and the other Animal-kin are ready to kick them both out for fear that this war will shape the destiny of the forest for ages to come.” His gaze came to fall upon Vangrim with great sorrow. “Brother,” he said, “When the others look upon you they do not see the wolf that you have become. They will see only your Human shell. My heart aches, for I see no way this ends well for any of us. When it comes to greed, desire always overrides reason.”
Vangrim understood all too well the complications of the Alpha’s position. It wasn’t his fault that the others didn’t see the same sense of community that the wolves did. “Alpha, I will go and try to bring peace to these woods. You trusted me enough to make me part of your pack once, trust me again. Give me your blessing and I will fight for all that you have taught me.”
The Alpha bowed his head with a forlorn sigh. “You have my blessing as always, Vangrim. But go with the swiftness of the Stag. The hour draws late and time is no ally of ours.”
Vangrim didn’t hesitate; running deeper into the woods as he left the pack at his back. Behind him his brothers cried, craning their necks towards the sky above so that even the celestial bodies of the evening might hear their sorrow.
Vangrim knew where he was heading even though his heart was full of fear. In the deepest reaches of the woods was an object of legend, something that the wolves and others referred to as a Standing Stone. Believed to be Dryads so old that they had petrified and become stationary, the Standing Stones were no laughing matter. Sacred and powerful, the stories claimed that these Stones retained potent magics of the ancient world such as those the Elves attempted to practice with great reverence. To touch a Standing Stone was to open yourself up to the possibility of having your wishes granted or the alternative of complete and utter devastation. Elf, Man, and Animal-kin alike spread the tales to their children in an attempt to make idle interactions forbidden. Old magic was never to be trifled with in such a casual way. Despite this knowledge, and despite the taboo, Vangrim felt he was left with no choice but to find one. He was resolved that their power would allow him to save the forest and the ideology of his pack.
It was when he finally found what he was looking for that the doubt and worry began to overtake him. Lingering at the edge of the grove, his legs began to feel heavy. What if the stone couldn’t help him? What if this was all for nothing and he failed those that had been there for him after everything he had gone through? He might have stayed there forever, locked in an eternal battle with his own anxiety, had the sounds of his brothers not drifted over the winds and to his ears. Hearing their sorrowful calls he found the strength to take one step forward, and then another.
Finally, close enough, he reached out with a trembling hand and placed his palm gently upon the stone. He didn’t feel differently at first, but soon heard a whispering voice inside his head. Surprised, he looked around half expecting to see someone nearby; but there was no one.
“It has been some time since I have had company, wolf brother. Tell me why you have come,” the voice said. It sounded both otherworldly and feminine like a sweet melody out of time.
Unsure if he should speak aloud or merely think his thoughts, Vangrim whispered towards the stone. “I came for your aid, ancient one. War between the denizens of the forest brews. The harmony and sense of community the wolves strive for will be destroyed if that happens. Their very way of life will disappear and be forgotten. I cannot let that happen. If it is true that you have the power to bring stability to this place then I beg you to make these dreams a reality.”
“What concern is it of yours if Elf or Man or Beast rules this forest? You will adapt and survive one way or another. Tell me the truth of the fear that lingers deep within your heart. Speak it aloud so that I may know you,” the voice replied.
Vangrim’s eyes filled with tears and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. “I have seen the darkness the greed of Men can bring first hand. These wolves, this forest that they love, they were good to me. This is my home. I don’t want to be alone again, I don’t want to lose them like I’ve lost everything else.” Making himself vulnerable before the stone Vangrim thought he would have felt like a fool, but instead, there was something incredibly peaceful about letting the words leave his lips.
“What would you give to protect this forest? To make sure that your beloved family is safe from the ravages of war?”
“Anything,” Vangrim answered quickly. “Anything you ask of me, ancient one.”
“And you would swear it upon me under the eyes of the Gods?” The voice was both curious and stern like it wanted to test Vangrim and caution him all at once.
“I swear it. I swear to all the spirits of the forest and the Gods up above that I will give everything I have to save this place from a pointless conflict,” Vangrim said. He bowed his head reverently. “You have my word.”
So be it,” came the voice. “There is no going back from this point on. All have heard your oath.”
The moonlight flared brightly without warning, causing Vangrim to cover his eyes. When he could finally see again, his pack had appeared in the grove. They paced about nervously and looked from Vangrim to the stone wondering what was happening and why they were called.
When the stone spoke again, this time it spoke to all gathered. “Drink of the water that gathers in the paw print of your Alpha here in this sacred place beneath the light of the full moon. When you do so you will find you have the strength and authority to speak for all,” there was a momentary pause as the wolves heeded the words. “But know this, wolf brother, you will be bound to your pack until the end of your days and they to you.”
At last Vangrim pulled his hand from the Standing Stone and moved to stand before his Alpha. They locked eyes and Vangrim took a deep breath as he asked permission with his glance. The Alpha nodded his head and trotted several paces away to leave his paw prints behind him. He was not one to deny the will of the Standing Stone. Not with so much at stake.
The other wolves began to speak in unison as Vangrim got on his hands and knees, lowering himself to the ground. “Pack is strength. Pack is family,” they firmly repeated the mantra; urging him on lest any last minute doubt return to haunt the poor man.
It was when Vangrim’s lips first touched that water his destiny was upon him and he became the first Werewolf of Voraniss. Both Man and Wolf, bound by the old magic of the forest and Elves. He was a part of all of them now and no faction dared defy the will of the Gods nor what they had made. He wasn’t the only one that changed that night either. When his transformation began, so did that of his pack who changed with him. War was averted by Vangrim’s actions and even into current times his descendants defend the forest that made them as some of the greatest warriors Voraniss has to offer.
Upon his eventual death, the forest honored him by making him the representative of the Wolf Totem. Some even say that during the full moon you can hear him still howling along with the other wolves like he never left at all.
It is not a coincidence that Voraniss has an abundance of werewolves running wild and free throughout her forests. They are more populous now than Elves or Men, but this wasn’t always so. Before Vangrim arrived the Animal-kin were still suspicious of those that walked on two legs, even if they had the best intentions for the land they began to settle after the War of the Giants. How could those who did not speak the language of the forest understand what she needed? The Animal-kin had already defeated one tyrant in King Velindahl, so they found themselves very wary of his smaller counterparts; especially when their victory had come at the cost of Monghora and Sariandi. Further loss was not something they wished to intimately acquaint themselves with.
The Elves tried the hardest to win them over, seeking to learn the language and harmonize their respective ways of life; but sometimes it felt as though they put themselves above nature. There was a sense of superiority about them, an entitlement that the Animal-kin couldn’t grasp. The Men meant well, but they were always building and striving to fill a void within their hearts instead of being content with the bounty all around them. For a while, there was an uneasy peace, with the groups tending to stick with their own flocks for fear of sparking conflict. Most of them were content to live separate lives, but there were also others who were victims of their own dark ambitions.
Vangrim first came to Voraniss during the time of this tenuous peace. A lost soul, Vangrim was a displaced noble from the west who had cast off the titles and glamour of his former life after his Uncle had tried to kill him during a political power struggle. Incensed with rage that Vangrim should inherit what he believed to rightfully be his, the Uncle had framed him for the murder of his own father and depicted him as a greedy heir who couldn’t wait to take up the mantle of the family lands for his own gain. Vangrim had been sent to prison to await execution, but a guard still loyal to his father’s legacy had freed him and helped him escape. That night Vangrim had vowed never to return to that life. If nobility and the desire to lord over other men was something so toxic that it could turn family against family; against their own blood, he wanted no part in it.
It took a little getting used to, but Vangrim found that he felt free without the confines of the luxuries he had once known. Instead of sleeping in a bed where he was pampered with expensive sheets and blankets, he could sleep beneath the stars with a pine bough for his head; committing to memory the many sights of the night sky. It was an education that he never would have been privy to in the civilized world of Man. He learned how to walk like the fox and the stag, careful where he set his feet down upon the earth; and from the birds, he learned how to sense an impending storm or find water when he was thirsty. The most important lesson in his repertoire he learned from the river otters. They taught him about joy and learning to find happiness in even the simplest of things. But Vangrim was still a man, and he was lonely for companionship; desperate for others to talk to and share his new life with.
The Elves didn’t want him because he was a Man. Other Men didn’t want him because he looked like a wild savage running around between the trees with no ambition and no goals; an uncomfortable drifter. All that was left were the Animal-kin. Vangrim decided to get into the deep forest to meet with them and see if they would give him a chance but he didn’t know what to expect. They had mostly kept to themselves out of precaution for being conquered or harassed again; what would they think of a wild man looking for friends? He wasn’t without a sense of humor for the whole situation. He had seen his reflection upon the surface of the river. His hair was unkempt and his beard was bushy. He smelled of earth and campfire smoke and looked nothing like the man he once was. He would have cared long ago about being presentable but that was the wonderful part about living in the forest; the wilderness was the great equalizer. A rich or poor man living out here would have the same chances. Nature was fair and didn’t care what you looked like or what you had in material possessions. Survival focused more on the present than hoarding luxury for a time that would never come.
It was the wolves he met with first. He heard their calls to the moon and followed the sound deeper and deeper into the trees until he found them gathered about a clearing that he hadn’t expected in the throng of this oaken maze. When they sniffed him out they began to circle him and sniff curiously, talking amongst themselves.
“What is this? It looks like a man but it smells like one of us,” one of the Wolves announced to the rest.
“Maybe it’s the Forest Walker,” another Wolf piped up. “He who strides between the trees on two legs. I heard there was one of them about.”
Vangrim humbled himself and lowered himself to his knees. He bowed his head and didn’t make eye contact with the great wolves. “I am called Vangrim,” he said softly towards the ground. “I am without a home and without belonging. I was hoping that the Animal-kin could grant me what other Men or Elves could not. Please, I mean you no harm. I just need a friend out here.”
The wolves chuckled and bared their teeth as they smiled. “You could not harm us even if you wanted to little human. You are but one and we are many. It is the lesson our kind can teach you. Community is mighty. The Pack comes with many responsibilities to others, but it always rewards those who give of themselves and treat such connection with priority.” One of the Wolves nudged Vangrim’s chin with his face in an effort to urge him to look up. “The Bear is strong, but he fights and dies alone. Wolves fight together. Pack is strength. Pack is family.”
Vangrim slowly lifted his head to look into the ocean of golden eyes before him. “I must ask…why are you so willing to give me what my own people have denied? Why not just eat me?” He knew it was a foolish question to ask, one that tempted fate, but he needed to know. What was behind the altruism of the wolves?
The largest of the wolves sat before him, tilting his head. His fur was white and surprisingly clean. The other wolves sat around him out of reverence, listening to what he had to say. “The Elves have many superstitions about our kind,” he said with a chuckle. “They put out talismans and charms depicting our faces, telling stories about what we will do if we are not appeased. Some of them believe we have great secrets of medicinal rituals, while the Men see us as great hunters to be worshiped by that quality and that alone.” He let out a heavy sigh and took a moment to lick at something that had been bothering him on his left leg. “The truth comes down to instinct. I do not smell the stench of evil about you and so I feel it is appropriate to show you mercy.”
Confused, Vangrim leaned forward in curiosity to seek clarification. “You can smell evil?” he asked.
The wolves chuckled amongst themselves and began to rise. “You will just have to come and learn our secrets for yourself,” they teased, before running off into the forest as Vangrim desperately tried to keep up.
After returning from the construction site to the north, Helkias began acting strange. The lightness of the previous weeks remained. Yet he was more standoffish. Which is to say if you didn’t know the man he would have appeared the same. It was clear that something troubled him. Knowing how close we had been to the anniversary of the young princes I worried what it was he was carrying that we could not see. I made sure to join him on patrol one morning. So it was armed and armored alongside the dreaded Blackraven that I truly saw him and understood even more so than I could have thought the truth of why he was who he was now. And the truth that drove him ever onward.
“I miss bandits. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the durned bandits, girl.”
He was talkative that morning.
“A full breakfast,” he said before we left, “And a cool breeze at our backs. Makes me giddy it does.”
The patrol turned out to be somewhat uneventful, sighting the occasional pack of wolves, lycans or not, they bothered us not.
“They’re free,” I said as we took a break on an overlook of Kenkilit. Below us, the masons and the refugees and those Voranians that chose to live among us were hard at work. Repairs continued. But more importantly, new buildings and outlying walls were rising up. “Soon we’ll be a town proper. Hire a sheriff. Maybe a baker?”
“Aye, I’ve heard tell the elf girl makes cakes or something. Still hain’t seen it though. Ancient elf secrets are hard to pull out of her folk.”
“You okay, old man?”
He chuckled leaning against a tree just over my shoulder. He pulled out a well-burnt roll of leaf and lit it, biting off the end. Smoke billowed out around us.
“I lived the role of a legendary figure for a while there in Corbach. The shadowy billowy hellbent Blackraven. I was something out of a campfire tale,” he took a drag and shook his head. “I never killed like I did in the week after I learned what happened to the young princes.”
“You’re a warrior, Helk. Seem to me that comes with the territory.”
“Not like this, girl. Those dark and bloody days, I was lost in it all. The world focused to a pinpoint around me and nothing else mattered. Not life, love, people, nations. It was my spearpoint and their chest or backs or throats. I lived only for that. And I was wrong.”
He took his pack off and sat at the edge of the cliff, his boots dangling over a 500-foot drop. He seemed overly calm. Though calm draws upon a balance of emotion. Telling this tale he seemed devoid of the stuff.
“I killed Cronin’s men. For days. I don’t know how many my rampage took,” He stopped momentarily, “Eighty-five. Durned memory I killed Eighty-five innocent men before I turned my hatred on the ones who did the deed. Even after I confronted Councilor erm Headsman Prel. Even after I defeated the assassins. There was still a revelation to be had.”
He spat over the edge. I sat next to him. Watching for any hint or what was to come. A change in posture. A twitch of an eyebrow. All the signs my mentor had drilled into me. Signs of weakness, of feeling, of emotional attachment. In Helk’s body language I saw only regret.
“I left the refugees alone. It was dumb. But I was still that broken castoff then. It was before Cronin, Matt and I took to the Realms. Before we left Corbach. In those early days, we were lucky if we had watchmen at night. And I left. I returned to the last village we passed through.”
I knew most of this. I tracked his movements during those early days. Hooded and wearing rags I was just another refugee fleeing the Headsman’s wrath. The tale he told then, I already knew it.
“The Corbachian rains drenched us then. Unprotected in the valley it soaked through cloak, armor, and underclothes. I let it wash me. I hadn’t taken the armor off in days. But I was in search of a drink. So I barrelled through, soaked to the core of myself. I made it to the tavern in good time. It was empty save for the innkeep and a hooded someone. We drank quietly for what it was worth, good company I thought.”
A pack of wolves moved behind us. Stopping to listen.
“I drank well. And when I thought ‘last one ole boy’ I had another three. Drinking like that, with no mirth no celebration. Drinking to forget. That was how I lived then. It was my specialty. And so when the hooded man drew on me I was slow. Too slow. She gave me this,” He gestured to a faded scar on his chin.
“Managed to get out the door, but they were already waiting. Council guard. The best and brightest. Most trained by my own hand. Knew some of them since they were babes at breast. And there, wearing a shiny white, soaking wet cape was Ser Quioren. Up jumped bastard. The girl came out behind me. Five total. All wearing that uniform. The blasted star of the council and their new god. And there it was staring at me from the chest of my best friend.”
“Quioren,” I asked, knowing the answer. They grew up together. Were like brothers. It was prerequisite reading before I took Helk’s contract. My mentor had a few personal tales to add. How the two of them had adventured throughout Corbach in their younger days. Were to marry sisters before tragedy struck Helk’s betrothed. Helk didn’t know I knew all of this. So he continued.
“Aye, my brother. Yrolf. Replaced it with a Ser even before he earned his armor. Turns out if you use a title as your informal name it can stick.”
“Maybe I’ll become a Lady of Whosits.”
“Hah. I’ll support yer claim.”
The levity broke whatever spell he’d been under and he was nearly cheery for a moment. After another puff of leaf, the blank face returned.
“So there I knelt drunk, wet, and stinking from days of travel. My spear was standing outside the door, maybe ten feet away may as well have been in my pops’ homestead for all the good it did there. And he stood over me then. This man who had seen me at my best. One of three people who’d ever really known me. And he laughed.”
I could see him struggle then. The emotion breaking through. I saw it as weakness for a brief moment.
“I think that laugh was the final blow. It broke the man I was. Ended him right there. I looked up into his eyes and I think I knew. I saw in him the capability to do it. In that uniform, I knew he had to have given them something. And still laughing he looked down at me. And kicked me. Right here.” He gestured to his chest.
“I fell to the ground too tired to do a damned thing about it. And he kept laughing. It was a strange thing to be reborn out of another’s callous disregard. But that’s where I changed. Where this shining example of manhood really began.”
He gestured to himself with both hands leaving the rolled leaf in between his teeth.
“I didn’t care if I died there, Quioren would tell me what he did. So I did what I could with what I had and broke his durned nose with my face. I can’t say I felt it, drunk as I was but he did. He screamed and wailed and the others came at me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but there is a grace to fighting while completely smammered on bad village ale, so long as ye don’t care about coming out the other side. So that was my rebirth. Killed three of them before they got a hold of me again. ‘Say it.’ I spat blood and a tooth into Quioren’s face. ‘I did it. You know it. Who else would young Eric have trusted enough to ride out alone with? Should’ve seen him weep and wail as we torched the place. Boy managed to kill two o’ mine before we did him in. But I did it. I ended him. But hell, I hated every minute of it. Of all of this.’ Quioren looked like he was about to fall down, blood trailing in the rain on his face, one eye swollen shut. ‘It didn’t have to be like this brother.’ And I looked up at him then. Right in his eye. And I told him ‘It really didn’t’. The arrows flew then. And some of the refugees came out of the dark. Asher, he led them to me. Quioren escaped into the dark with the woman who cut me. And I passed out. Woke up back in a wagon. Asher watching over me while I sobered up.”
He twisted out the remnant of leaf and put it out on his boot.
“My best friend was the one who did in the young prince. And he did it because of me.”
“You can’t possibly take that on yourself,” I told him, sincere as I knew how.
“I know. Forgive me a bit of melancholy. But today was the day. Quioren and I were going to marry a pair of sisters. They were warriors from the south of Corbach. I wonder what would have come of us if that day had passed as it was meant to.”
He stood and stretched. Groaning.
“Let’s continue on then. Get back to those free folk back there. See if Elowen will give us a damn cake for our wondrous patrolling.”
The pack of wolves continued on their way then. And we gathered our packs and made our way back to the path.
It was only because of my mentor’s training that I didn’t blurt it all out then. Sometimes I wonder if he already knew. It would be a while yet before it was all out in the open. But that day walking back, I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t ever have to scar him again.
I traveled with the caravan and the Corbachian Refugees with them throughout the realms. I made myself useful to the group and indispensable to Helkias. We would ride together when he took to a wagon, but oftentimes we would patrol the edges of the caravan. I learned long ago how to ingratiate myself with people. To get them to open up to me. To tell me everything I wanted to know. With Helkias it was both easier and nearly impossible. Every time I thought I made some headway into the stubborn dwarf-born’s life he threw up a barricade, shoddily constructed, but enough to slow my progress.
And yet I let him in. It had been well over a decade since I last felt myself. But traveling on those roads, fighting off the occasional bandits or pack of wolves alongside them. I felt more in my element than ever before. My mentor went to great lengths to strip me of self. In the grime and work of those days though I felt it scab over. Someone I left behind long ago began to heal.
Upon taking up residence in Kenkilit in the lands of Voraniss I found my first real opening with Helkias. As the stars rose and the moon was lost in its cycle I found him drinking, short legs dangling over the edges of a broken wall. Humming a tune I didn’t recognize.
“Well don’t ye linger there, girl. Move along or grab some stone,” He slung back his drink and I caught a whiff of what I can only describe as torch oil. He handed me a mug and dropped in a hefty swig.
“It won’t kill ye. Not quick anyway.”
The man who sat beside me was so different from the one I met in the tavern. He seemed lighter. As if some weight had been lifted. I heard tales from some of the other Spears about his recent adventures alongside the elf, the barbarian and the Voranians. Helkias always had a couple days of joy after his adventures in the realms, but this was different. I’d never seen him this way. I threw back the offered drink and handed it back to him.
“What happened out there?” I asked. I learned early on that subtly and deceit weren’t the right course with him. Helk appreciated directness.
He drank another.
“Met a god.”
He offered another.
“I’ve heard a bit of who he is..was…is. Hels I don’t know what to say. Vandor. His names Vandor and what he represents in Voraniss. Telym, it’s exactly the sort of cause I’ve been waitin’ for.”
“And standing there, holding a gift from him,” He held something around his neck, but in the moonless dark, I couldn’t see what, “I don’t know. I felt renewed.”
“There’s been talk,” I turned to look at him, again, directness, “Some of the refugees say you’re making this place your home. You and Cronin. Some of the other Spears. Are you done with Corbach and the fight back there?”
I could almost see some of the weight fall back on his shoulders. I didn’t mean to. But it was information I needed. At the time.
“Something else happened. The night before we met the god. The Voranians keep as jubilant a fire as I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. They have rituals. I can’t say I understand ‘em as yet. But there’s a power to it. That community.”
He poured, handing it back to me. All in silence before continuing.
“They asked us to burn wishes. Send them out into the sky as ash and remnant. But to do so we had to purge ourselves of the darker emotions. So as not to corrupt what we asked of their spirits, gods, whoever. I don’t claim to know it all. What it means. But I’ll tell you this girl.”
What I can only describe as peace came over him then.
He looked into the empty mug.
“I wished to find a place then. And doing so I let go of all the hate and pain and terror and disgust that I’ve carried with me from Corbach. The next day we met their god of vengeance and protector of the innocent. This Vandor. I think it might be my place. I made my mark and said oathwords to the Archdruid. I think whoever they are that were listening heard what I asked for and granted it to me.”
“What’s it mean then? Not the big picture. What does it mean for you, Helk?” I was surprised to find I asked out of genuine interest, far beyond information gathering.
He chuckled and shook his head.
“It means that the vengeance I am going to rain down on the heads of the council and that pile of goat excrement Ser Quioren isn’t going to flash and burn. It isn’t going to come quickly. It will be no fiery burning vengeance, not vengeance born of passion and hate. It will be a rising tide of vengeance. It will slowly cover their heads and they will draw their last breaths knowing that it was I, Helkias Gotholias Ryunn, son of Keric and Alis, born of Corbach, Steward of the royal family, Blackraven that opened the floodgates and drowned them.”
The mug was destroyed. Tinder in his hands. He brushed it off and it flew into the darkness. I felt a chill run down my spine that did not correspond to the night, the dark, or a passing wind. Beside me sat a force of nature that would return to Corbach when the time came. And that force of nature laughed then.
“Hels Telym. You’ve got me talkin’ like me pops did preaching hard to the followers of Kantador’s hairy ass.”
I saw then again the lightness from before. He reached into the pack beside him and pulled out another mug.
He began a tale from before. From back in Corbach. He spoke at length about the young princes. Prince Eric seemed to be his favorite. The smallest of the boys. But the most tenacious. I would have liked to see the man he grew into, the way Helkias spoke of him. I remembered their bodies. I remembered how Helkias spoke of that day. And it occurred to me. The days had been difficult to track. But it had to be close.
An anniversary of sorts.
We talked at length. Sharing stories of home. Keeping the darkness at bay with laughter.
And we drank.
Inquisitor Third Tier
Corbachian Council member
To the council,
What follows acts as both my resignation and my Confession. For the better part of a year I have followed one, Helkias Gotholias Ryunn, better known to those addressed as “The Black Raven”. Contained within are the stories I have collected both by my own eyes and from those I have travelled with. Since before the fall of Corbach’s royal family I have been attached to Helkias to discern whether or not he would serve us. I made an oath to collect as much information as I could. And that I send you now. I hope that in reading my missives you will come to understand why I end my service to you and why you should never send another to take my place.
My first encounter with the Blackraven was orchestrated by the council, months prior to the coup. My mentor tasked me with becoming close to the man, to ascertain his usefulness to the council’s goals.
Helkias took his position as the Royal family’s Austringer more seriously than the name implied. Though he was chief amongst their hunters he was so much more to the family, especially the young princes. He oversaw their education, both scholarly and in war. He taught them the lost knowledge of Kantador, a god of light known in relatively few circles. The king held the Blackraven’s council higher than most of his advisors and many other men would have used it to sway politics and grasp for position. The Blackraven did none of those things, content with his place in the world and the lives of the princes.
I entered the tavern shortly after dusk. It’s position relative to the King’s Keep made it a popular haunt for those that served within, though it was mostly men-at-arms and low level attendants to the king, Helkias was known to frequent the establishment. I learned quickly that it was simply their choice of brown ale that drew the man there. It wasn’t difficult to find the man I was looking for. He sat alone in the far corner, holding a flagon in one hand and a book in the other. He seemed not at all distracted by the din created by the crowd or the cacophony that was the tavern-keepers choice of musical entertainment. He turned a page as I approached.
“Helkias,” I long ago learned to control the pitch of my voice, but looking at my quarry now I felt it waver, however briefly.”
“Aye, what is it girl?” he turned another page.
“I was told you were looking for an apprentice.”
He set down the book and took a long pull from the flagon. He flicked a scarred hand above his head and it was replaced without an exchange of words or coin.
“It’s true, the boy I trained to keep my arms and armor has become taken with a travelling minstrel and who am I to stand in the way of love,” he laughed at some jest I didn’t seem privy to, “It’s hard work and I can’t say I am kind to my equipment.”
“I learned from me pa how to handle flame and forge,” I lied.
“Ye can’t be more’n what twenty winters?”
“Twenty four,” I lied again.
“Come to the keep at dawn. Ye got papers I assume. Can read and write?”
“Well enough, mum saw to that.” I never knew my parents, but some lies pass easily enough.
“What’s your name, girl?”
“Telym. Telym Poleer,” A truth at last. None but my mentor knew my real name. No one else cared to learn it. It was meant as a protection. But this grain of truth held the web of lies I spun together with a single strand of honesty.
“Well Telym, til the morrow,” He picked up his book where he left off.
I spent three months slowly ingratiating myself with the man. I learned a great deal about his time before his appointment. His family in the hills. His father the priest. The loss of his faith and so the power he was supposed to carry. None of it presented an opening to twist and pull and make him the council’s man. Still I listened and I learned. The way he treated the young princes was unheard of. They were not pampered and princely when they came to his yard. Hours spent being pummeled with wooden sword and shield. Learning when to deflect and when to evade. When to advance or retreat. The lessons learned there may have shone through later in life, if they had the chance. Helkias did not discriminate either, he actively cared about those who came through his yard and be it prince, servant, or blacksmith’s daughter he would train them. So it was that my years of training with the blade was augmented by the man I was betraying on a weekly basis.
My mentor sent no word when the time came. And I only heard about the flight of the Blackraven. The royal family butchered and under Helkias’ care. I knew it would break him. Knew he would lose all purpose.
I was wrong. I was so very wrong.
The council sent me to catch up with the refugees to ensure they chose exile and not open rebellion. So it was that I passed through the broken lot of them. And there he stood, alongside a barbarian from the North. Armor burnt black. Spear and shield sundered. But as the two of them spoke others joined them. And it wasn’t anguish or horror that I saw spread across his face. It was something that I only saw three times in my months of knowing him. Once that first night when I watched from the shadows and he turned a page. Once when young prince Eric defeated three older boys in a particularly nasty bit of combat. And once when I told him the lie of my home, my mother and father how I imagined them. Unevenly he smiled and slapped the barbarian on the back. It seemed they’d decided something of import. He turned and looked over the refugees and locked eyes with me. We exchanged a nod. It wasn’t until later that I’d learned he knew who I was from the moment I entered the tavern.
It wasn’t until later I learned why he accepted my betrayal.
If Mon’ghora was the Queen of the Forest, Sariandi would have been her advisor. The vixen always had the Queen’s confidence, and was found at her side sharing in her secrets even before the start of the War of the Giants; but when Mon’ghora was flung far up into the sky things began to fall apart. The animals of the land found themselves without strong leadership in the face of a new wave of Giant aggression. They were hunted for pelts that the Giants would drape about their shoulders like morbid fashion statements or used for rugs in the cold, stony, and damp caverns that most of the Giants called home.
In a panic, the animals scattered. They had no desire to be the next to fall and their will to fight was decimated when they saw their loved ones being used as trophies. How cruel the world was when fear was so great that the fires of vengeance had been completely smothered by it.
Sariandi knew that if something didn’t change, and soon, the Giants would win this fight and forever change the face of this great land. Unlike the others, her passion for victory had not entirely faded. She kept Mon’ghora’s face in the forefront of her mind, remembering the love the two friends had shared. She clung to those memories and used them to keep herself going. She ran with the others, all the while plotting and scheming her next move.
One day the animals had a terribly close call. A small group of them had stopped by the lake to drink, swim, and refresh their weary bodies when they heard the rumbling of nearby Giant feet. One Giant was enough to tip them off to the danger, but there was definitely more than one. All around them the startled animals could feel the ground shake. Even the trees were trembling, losing their leaves against their will as the Giants intruded upon the quiet paradise.
“Run!” they cried. “The Giants are coming!” And run they did, though many were lost as the Giants seized up the limbs of trees and batted at the slowest animals in the back; clubbing them over the head to stun and grab them up. The whole earth shook as they pursued the fearful creatures. When they laughed, it surfaced as a cruel and odorous wind that the animals thought they could never unhear.
“Get the beasts! Get them! Let their hides be trophies for King Velindahl!” One Giant shrieked above the others.
King Velindahl was the leader of the Giants, and Sariandi was not impressed by him. He boldly claimed to be descended from the earth itself, and was often depicted sitting upon a throne of gold and rare gems that had been expertly handled to make each facet shine as bright as a star. Mon’ghora had always said he was a braggart, thinking that the advanced smithing techniques of the Giants put them far above the other creatures living in this land. It was that same sense of superiority that had started this war, Sariandi believed. King Velindahl had always been jealous of Mon’ghora’s popularity and status and so it only made sense that his Giants lashed out at her because of his ego. If only there was some way to use it against him…
Sariandi continued to run, fleeing for her life as the Giants began to gain on them. It wasn’t looking good. Their long strides gave them an unavoidable advantage, and their advance wasn’t going to be stopped by brute force; not without organized resistance anyway. The vixen grit her teeth, feeling the pounding vibrations of their pursuers beneath her paws when she was struck with an idea. She paused, suddenly, urging the others to continue.
“Go, run! Save yourselves! I have a plan!” she cried.
“No Sariandi! You can’t!” the animals pleaded, “They’ll kill you!”
“Do as you’re told,” she growled back in frustration. “I will be fine knowing that you made it to safety.” This uttered, the vixen turned and started to run back towards the Giants. Everyone stared in shock, surprised by the sudden audacity of this little fox. Sariandi wasn’t a brawler like Mon’ghora had been. Nor was she huge. She may have even been runty by fox standards, with tiny black paws and a crooked fluffy tail, but at least she was quick. She ran as fast as she could, trying to get the attention of her enemies. “Hey! You there! Let my people go and you’ll be rewarded!”
The Giants looked up in surprise upon being addressed. “Are you talking to us? What do you have that could possibly appease us beside the fur upon your skin and the meat upon your bones?” they teased.
Sariandi was careful to not stop running. If the Giants caught her before her bait had been delivered, then this entire maneuver would have been for naught. “I have information for King Velindahl. Information about the location of Mon’ghora’s secret treasure.”
“Secret treasure?” One of the Giant’s scratched his chin, unsure if the fox could be believed. “Why don’t you just tell us? We can bring it back for him.”
“I tell King Velindahl, or I tell no one. Your King wouldn’t like it if he found out that you had lost this information for him…would he? I hear he has quite the temperament,” Sariandi said coyly. She knew she had them now. Velindahl was notorious for his barbarous attitude towards those that had failed him. His own reputation would be his undoing.
“Well, no. Of course he wouldn’t like that,” the biggest of the Giants said. “Fine. We’ll stop chasing your friends for now, but you have to come with us and tell the King your secrets. If you don’t, we’ll crush your skull and use the splinters of your bones for toothpicks. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” said Sariandi, and she cautiously ventured forward into the waiting palm of her enemy. “I am with you.”
The Giants marched back in the direction of the mountains and took Sariandi with them. At their pace they were able to travel distances that might have taken Sariandi days by herself. Despite her anger with the Giants, she was still impressed by this and marveled at the speed with which they traversed the countryside. They were eager to get home and make their King happy, thinking they were bringing him the greatest gift he had ever received.
When they arrived at the entrance to King Velindahl’s cave, Sariandi realized that it was far more than some dark hole. This was a mountain stronghold built directly into the stone and disguised as a natural feature of the land so that its true entrance might not be so easily discerned by outsiders. Their stone craft was so impressive that for a brief instant, Sariandi lamented that the Giants were her adversaries. What they could have learned from each other if only their existence hadn’t been plagued by war and competition.
She was brought before King Velindahl and set upon a stone pedestal so that she was higher off the floor than she would have liked to be. The King wasn’t keen on bending over to listen, the Giants explained when she looked confused. Sariandi tilted her head as she regarded King Velindahl up close for the first time. The throne of gold hadn’t been a myth after all, but it was Velindahl himself that really caught her undivided attention. His skin was like marble; stone painted with darkened veins that curled around his arms and down his body. His long hair sparkled like a waterfall of crystallized quartz, and his beard was equally extravagant. He must have been a sight to behold in the daylight, casting small rainbows all about him.
He sat tall upon his throne for the moment, refusing to bend down and make eye contact. “What is this?” he asked, motioning to Sariandi on the pedestal before him. “You bring me a live one? What use have I for such? Kill it and be done with the deed.”
“My King, please. This one claims that it has information for you regarding the whereabouts of Mon’ghora’s treasures. It wouldn’t tell any but you,” one of the Giants explained.
“Mon’ghora’s treasures?” King Velindahl lifted one of his brows, trying not to give away just how excited he was by the prospect. He inched forward and finally looked at Sariandi as though seeing her for the first time. “Is this true, beast? Do you have this information?”
“I do, great King. May I just say what a pleasure it is to finally make your acquaintance? I had heard stories of your majesty, but I am humbled seeing it in person for the first time,” Sariandi said with a smile. The best lies always came with a kernel of truth.
“Is that so?” The Giant King bristled with a bit of pride at the flattery. “Well now, most of your kind don’t share your keen senses.” He chuckled to himself, slowly blinking his large eyes. “How do you know Mon’ghora? What was your relationship?”
“I was one of her servants, your majesty. I helped take care of her family, and often aided her with family matters,” Sariandi replied. This too was not entirely a lie. As a friend and confidant, Sariandi had seen more of Mon’ghora’s personal life than most were privy to.
“Mmm-hmm,” the Giant mused, pinching his chin between his thumb and pointer finger. It was a boring relationship, so he had no reason to question its validity. “What do you want in exchange for this information? I assume you want something. Most do.”
Sariandi looked up at the Giant and tilted her head in the other direction. “I am not sure how much I can trust that my wishes will be granted. How am I to know that you or your kin will not just kill me when I have divulged my valuable secrets?”
Velindahl slammed a fist against his chest before pushing a hand back through his hair. “A good King always keeps his word.”
“Would you swear upon a standing stone?” Sariandi pressed. She knew that most folk were highly superstitious about the mysterious rocks, none more so than the Giants.
“I would,” Velindahl said sternly.
Sariandi nodded and bowed her head. “I should have known that the King of the Giants would be so generous and virtuous,” she said in praise, “not to mention strong.”
“It is often the strong that are in the position to offer mercy,” he bragged. “Come now. Tell me what you seek in exchange for Mon’ghora’s treasure.”
Sariandi paused a few moments to make it seem like she was deep in thought and carefully considering her desires. When at length she spoke again, she had one simple request. “I wish to see a demonstration of your strength, mighty King. How deep a hole could you punch into the ground in one go? I’m guessing at least a mile by the size of your arms. You’re probably even a better digger than me.”
“Child’s play,” the King scoffed, “But my word is my word and I will keep it.” He rose from his throne and plucked up Sariandi in his hand as he strode outside, placing her down when he came to a wide, flat place that he found suitable to her challenge. “Steady yourself, little beast,” he cautioned. He pulled his arm back and bent his elbow so that it stood above his head. With a powerful yell, he drove his fist forward into the ground and shattered the rock beneath him. The earth moaned in pain as the wounds ran deep, but King Velindahl was laughing too hard to hear it. “See? The stories of my greatness rival the might of the Primals themselves!”
“Is that so? Wow! I’ve never met anyone as great as you,” Sariandi kept goading him on. “I bet you could beat one of those in a fight too, huh?”
“Of course I could!” Velindahl kept laughing, snorting air in through his nose. “No Primal could withstand the might of my fist! I can break mountains and shatter diamonds with my fingers!”
But Sariandi wasn’t the only one that heard the claim. Deep beneath the ground there stirred a force so ancient that it was there when the world was made. An Earth Primal had awoken, and it was not pleased with the wound it had already sustained from this Giant, nor the ensuing taunts and challenges.
All around Sariandi and the Giants the mountains began to groan and crack, shifting into earthen appendages. The world shook as it came alive, and those angry hands lashed out as a man might lash out at a bug. The mitts of stone pushed together and squished everything into their palms, destroying King Velindahl, his palace, his minions, and Sariandi all in one fell swoop. Where there was once a vibrant civilization of Giants and their skilled craftsmen, now there was only a stone tomb; and a mountain carved from their corpses.
The few Giants that did manage to survive that day surrendered to the Animal-kin and retreated into the mountains never to be seen again; humbled by the true power of nature. Sariandi’s people began to worship her as a hero after her death, learning of her deeds from the Giants that loathed her for this trickery and manipulation. All that was left of Giant-kind after that were bits and traces of their peoples; lost artifacts and swirling runes that can be found all over Voraniss to this day.