+

A Will of Bitter Winter

The bright, white moon shines above in the sky, clear and far, whilst the red moon wanes. Samaia, the goddess of life and rebirth, has dominion this night over her sister Ashyara, the goddess of death, as the white moon shines strong. The snows of the Lochlands are falling softly and silent in the lands of winter. Meredith Lockewood, the only child of Lord Theodore Lockewood, looks up and closes her eyes so that she might once more feel the cold and welcoming embrace of her home on her cheeks. For too many nights she has suffered the sight of black, cramped walls in the dark, with only the occasional flicker of firelight or the desperate wails of another captive for company.

‘The snow and the sky are beautiful tonight; I have missed them so much.’

She struggles to stand upright; her legs are weak and her back is bruised and cut. Her white clothing is stained and torn.

‘This moonlight is not welcome. It shall make our passing through much more difficult.’

A pale man garbed in black leathers, armed with sword and dagger, and with his face concealed by a hood looks down from a high embankment to see the entire road before them lit up clear and far by the light of the moon. He is an intimidating presence but she does not care, for he is the first in weeks that intends her no harm. The city of Wintermere and her home, glistens in the distance like a beacon shining bright surrounded by the darkness of the Winter Woods, only the odd glow of lamplight from the occasional midnight traveller marks out the roads leading into the city, or at least the roads known to many.

‘Is this the fastest way home?’ asks Meredith hopeful of a response from the man who has to this point spoken very few words.

‘No’ he replies sharply.

‘But it is the safest.’

‘Should we not take the White Road through the forest to get back to Wintermere?’

The man stops his scouting of the path he intends for them to take and turns his head to meet her gaze with a cynical scowl.

‘If you wish to spend another night in your prison then please, be my guest’ he utters almost without a care.

‘Walk the path safest and most known to your memory and I doubt even I can protect you. They are looking for you.’

‘Then where are we heading?’

‘This is the path we must follow’ he says pointing to a darkened road that is barely visible to her leading away from those paths she is most familiar with.

‘But that will take us too close to the fallen castle at Greyfort. Marauders have claimed that place for the last several years and they have been responsible for the raids on our farms and vineyards, they show no mercy to travellers.’

‘And that is our path.’

‘But why?’ she asks wondering if her rescuer is so eager to see her put in harm’s way once more.

‘If you had wanted me dead, then you should have just left me to rot in that prison. Why free me just to have me die at the hands of a cutthroat outlaw?’

The dark man moves over to a tall tree and pulls out his dagger. With a quick slice of his blade, he cuts down a low hanging piece of apple fruit and passes it to his companion. She is thin and frail for a woman of the Winterlands after weeks with little to drink and even less to eat. Without hesitance, she grasps the apple from his hand and begins to eat.

‘The trade roads into Wintermere, including the White Road, are constantly being watched by the soldiers of the Winter Court are they not?’

‘Yes, and that’s precisely why I think we should take the White Road’ she says sputtering apple juice from her mouth.

It is unbecoming of a noble daughter to eat in such a manner, but weeks of near starvation have caused her to dismiss her table manners without a thought or care.

‘Well your father is not entirely convinced it was not someone belonging to one of the Houses of the Winter Court that were responsible for your abduction. He may even suspect a traitor in his own House.’

Meredith stops eating and holds her breath suddenly as she contemplates the prospect of treachery in her own family.

‘Why do you think he sent only me, under the cover of night, to come for you? He could not risk sending a detachment of his own House Guard for fear of that very possibility.’

Meredith stares into the apple in her hand and realises she must trust this stranger if she is to have any hope of seeing her family again. What other choice does she have? Weeks with almost no food have left her too frail to hunt for herself, assemble any kind of shelter or fend off any possible threat from wild wolves or bandits that roam the roads in the night looking to prey on the weary and vulnerable.

‘So let’s go then.’

The two climb down the embankment and begin to make their way down the road the dark man has suggested. The trees in the forest are thick enough to blanket them from the snow and there is no wind on this still night, yet a chill grips the bones of Meredith as their pace has slowed since leaving her prison in haste.

‘I am cold’ she exclaims.

Usually a daughter of the Lochlands is quite resistant to the bitter cold weather she and her people have grown accustomed too. But her weakened body and tattered clothing offer little barrier for her tonight.

‘Do you have anything I could wrap around my shoulders? This garment has seen better days.’

Her rescuer offers no response and does not even look at her to acknowledge her discomfort. She tussles with her rags as she attempts to tear off a piece of her gown. After a brief struggle, she wraps a thin piece of cloth coated in stale blood and dirt tightly around her neck and shoulders.

‘Could I at least ask for your name?’

Again she is ignored. His eyes have not averted from their direction as they move deeper into the forest. He is continuously scans their surroundings looking for any sign of possible trouble, or anything out of the ordinary.

‘Would you mind if I sang to myself a little? My mother used to sing to me as a child and her songs always brought me a little comfort. I wish she was here with me now.’

The dark man beside her stops dead in his tracks prompting her to do the same.

‘What’s wrong?’

She gasps a little as he draws his sword from its sheath on his back slowly a few inches. A moment of complete silence passes them by that is interrupted by the rustling of a passing hare as it scarpers off into the night through the foliage. Now that he is certain that there is no immediate danger to either of them he releases the hilt of his sword so that it returns to its sheath. He turns around and moves so that he is standing directly in front of Meredith, almost close enough to feel her own breath on his face. She notices that he breathes in an unnaturally shallow manner, and that his eyes have a strange glow when she is able to glimpse them from underneath his hood, it seems as if he goes to great lengths to cover his face. She dismisses these features as a result of her starved and sleep deprived state and so pays them no further attention.

‘Every time you open your mouth to speak, you give away our position’ he whispers to her.

‘We are walking a road known to few and travelled by fewer still. That does not mean we have the luxury of conversation or aimless prattle, so please keep your questions to yourself and be as silent as the dead.’

‘I am sorry……’

‘I said be quiet. I assume the daughter of Lord Lockewood has never had to hold her tongue very often when you were amongst your kin. But I would have thought your time spent caged like an animal would have taught you some humility. I do not know who or what stalks this road this night, but if we are to have a chance of getting you back home to your father then please keep that tongue still.’

Her feelings are hurt, as is her pride. How dare this strange and dark man who bears no noble lineage speak to her in such a manner? But he is right, and the part of her that so desperately wishes to reunite with her family knows that she must do as he says, for now. She nods her head gently in agreement as she pulls her makeshift wrap around her shoulders tightly.

‘Thank you’ he whispers to her one last time.

The next two hours are quiet and thankfully uneventful as they move closer and closer to the city. Had they journeyed through one of the traditional trade routes, they would have reached their destination by now. But the chance of coming across a treacherous group of soldiers that would wish to capture or harm the daughter of Lord Lockewood is one chance too many. There would be blood, and noise, too much to keep his mission to escort her back home as they pass through the lands of winter unheard and unnoticed. But why would he risk taking her so close to the Greyfort, a once proud bastion of the Winter Court that fell to ruin? A castle that is now inhabited by the worst scum the Lochlands have to offer. Thieves, murderers and brigands dwell there now and she knows that her life is still in peril if she is anywhere close to such a place. And they are so very close to it now. But they will have to pass it by now, there is no other choice unless they wish to turn back. A river that runs so fierce and swift that only the great black bears of this land are able to navigate it for food, will prevent them from going in any other direction. And so as they move closer, their pace quickens once more.

Above the gaps in the treeline, the looming spectre of the Greyfort begins to make itself known to them. Shouting and crude, ill voiced singing can be heard in the distance as the outlaws in the castle care little for any possible intrusion, so sure are they that the soldiers of the Winter Court will make no further attempt to eject them from their home. The road is becoming narrower and the faint reek of burnt meat and sickeningly bad ale can be smelled in the air. Twenty feet from where they stand, the cawing of crows can also be heard as they gather and flutter together in one spot.

‘Aarh’ shrieks Meredith as a crow soars past her ear to join the frenzy on the road.

Her dark companion turns to check on her. She is startled and her eyes are closed for fear of something coming too close to her again. In the days and nights spent caged in her prison, with her captors still unknown to this day, she had to bear the brunt of many uncomfortable intrusions. She was not tortured or raped, but she was assaulted frequently enough when the insolence of a highborn daughter seeped through. The stench of her piss and shit still reeks upon her skin and clothing as she had nowhere to relieve herself as the walls of her prison were only three feet wide. She still bares the bruises and a couple of scars that still cause her pain, reminders that she will tolerate no one and nothing coming too close to her again.

‘It is alright, the crows ahead have found themselves a feast’ whispers her companion to reassure her.

‘As long as we do not interrupt their meal, they will leave us be, come.’

The two continue along the road and move closer to the swathe of black feathers of the frenzied crows as they peck away at their meal. As she walks past, making sure to keep her distance, Meredith gasps and tries to shield her eyes as she catches a glimpse of what they are feasting upon. It is the corpse of a passing merchant who has been killed and relieved of the few valuables that he owned. The crows are many and there is little left of him now but bones, blood and skin and what remains of his simple cotton clothing. The weapon used to kill him is still imbedded in his head. A rusted and splintered axe is stuck in the bone of his skull and refused to relent, forcing his killer to leave it there. She has never seen anything like this before and has only heard tales of the odd merchant or traveller going missing or being found dead on the roads. Her privileged life has shielded her from much over her years. Unfortunately for her dark companion, it is a sight he has become all too familiar with on his endless journey traveling this world, taking jobs and contracts that would make the average man turn ill.

‘Stop’ he demands suddenly.

Meredith looks ahead to see why they have ceased moving, she cannot see a thing. The shroud of the tall tree line has all but blotted out any trace of light from the moons above and so she can only make out faint shadows and outlines in the distance.

‘Why must we stop?’

‘Someone is coming this way.’

Meredith starts to shake slightly; she has become accustomed to an odd sense of comfort as they travelled this lonely road with only her companion for company. This comfort was now threatened by the intrusion of someone she can neither see nor hear.

‘Go over there and hide behind those trees. Make sure to stay out of sight and do not make a sound. Do you understand?’

She nods and hastily makes her way into the treeline in the direction that he is pointing. She squats down behind a dense bush that is placed behind two tall and thick pine trees and steadies her breath. Her ability to see her companion is undiminished though as she parts the branches so that she is able to see what is happening, careful though not to part them too far and reveal her presence. Ten minutes pass in complete silence but for the cawing of the crows they left behind. The dark man is still and as unmoving as a statue whilst he waits. No one has encroached at all and her weakened legs are becoming cramped. Just as she moves to adjust herself, she can hear footsteps. Her eyes widen and her breathing becomes more hurried as she lays eyes upon two men who have stopped just a few feet away from her companion. One is dirty, ragged and fat and armed with an iron hammer but the other is surprisingly well dressed and kempt, but unarmed.

‘Well Maellor be damned into the hollow, is that you Thane?’

Meredith hears the words of the well-dressed man and she finally knows something about the identity of her rescuer.

‘I would say that it is good to see you again Vaal, but I have to ask, is it good to see you?’ asks Thane.

‘I can understand why you would doubt me at this present time. I am not exactly in my usual element as we speak’ Vaal responds.

‘Eh Vaal, who is this guy, you know him or something?’ asks the ragged man.

‘It is alright Yarik, we are acquainted. We have…….somewhat of a history together, in business you might say.’

‘Well what business does he have being here?’

‘You are a long way from the Court Vaal. Has your station in life dropped so low as to need to consort with criminals?’ asks Thane referring to Yarik’s undeniable affiliation with the outlaws stationed at the Greyfort.

‘Please believe me when I say that it is not my ideal working situation but one must adapt to certain…..conditions when doing the bidding of another.’

‘And just who are you doing the bidding of? Is it someone in the Court? Which Lord or Lady is paying you for your contacts and resources?’

‘I can assure you Thane that I am not working for anyone in the Court.’

‘I highly doubt that. Only the Houses of the Court can afford your prices so either you are here by their command or by the direct orders of the King of Wintermere?’

‘Oi, you ask too many questions stranger! I don’t care who you know, I suggest you turn round and sod off back to whatever shithole you climbed out from’ demands Yarik as he grasps the hilt of his hammer.

‘My overtly courteous associate here is right Thane. It might be wise for you to leave here for now. Come and see me again the next time you are in Wintermere, I am sure I can rustle up some work for you. Your talents have long been appreciated by my associates and I wouldn’t want to sour that relationship by any means.’

‘Enough talk, let’s just be rid of him so we can get back to finding the girl. She was sighted heading this way a few hours ago wasn’t she?’

‘You must really learn when to keep your mouth shut Yarik!’

Thane stares at the mismatched pair in front of him and prepares himself for a confrontation. He has rarely heard such a harsh tone come from Vaal’s mouth before but when he speaks like that, someone usually pays the price, with their lives. Vaal reaches into his sleeve and pulls out a small dagger and without a moment’s hesitation, he plunges the blade into Yarik’s neck. A cascade of blood begins spurting from the wound as he was struck in a very precise manner. The outlaw falls to his knees clutching his throat, desperate to scream out in anguish, but unable to do so before he dies.

‘I believe I have lingered here long enough and I have business to attend to. Thane, I suggest you find yourself far from here very soon. Some of my associates are prowling these woods as we speak and I think it would be unwise of you to meet them. They are not as civilised as I’ says Vaal before disappearing back down the path from which he came.

Meredith is panicking and struggling to control her breathing as she watches the horrific events unfolding before her eyes. Not far from where she is hiding, she can hear voices and breaking twigs as the associates Vaal was referring to seem to getting closer to her. With great haste, she moves from her hiding spot and rushes to Thane’s side.

‘I told you to stay where you are….’

‘I know but I can hear someone coming from over there. For Maellor’s mercy, I don’t want to go back.’

Thane stares into the forest, she is right. Several men from the nearby Greyfort are hacking through the branches and stumbling their way through the trees as they appear to be searching for someone.

‘They are looking for me, aren’t they?’

‘That would appear to be the case.’

‘I recognise that man you were talking to, Vaal. He has had dealings with my father recently. Is he the one responsible for my abduction?’

‘I cannot say for certain, though it is likely that he is working for someone else. His resources are vast and many turn to him when they need something done quickly and discreetly.’

‘What should we do now?’

‘We need to leave immediately. This way……AARH!’

Thane winces in pain as he is struck deep with an arrow that pierces his shoulder.

‘Here they are lads, over here’ shouts an outlaw, holding a splintered wooden bow, to his partners searching in the woods.

‘Oh gods, Thane, are you alright?’ asks Meredith stunned by the sudden blow of the arrows strike.

Thane grasps the arrow firmly and pushes it all the way through until it has almost fallen out at the other end. With one hard pull, he yanks the arrow from his shoulder and discards it onto the ground.

‘You weren’t supposed to hear my name’ he exclaims as he pulls his sword and readies it.

They are now surrounded by three outlaws from the Greyfort, each armed with crude blood stained, some of it fresh, weaponry.

‘Now listen here lad, we only want the girl so hand her over and we will be a little quicker in how we go about killing you. Sound fair?’ one of the outlaws asks laughing to himself.

Thane steps forward one pace, he pulls Meredith to his back with his left arm and grasps the hilt of his sword with his right.

‘I have a better deal for you. I want you to look at her carefully so that you understand why you are about to die.’

The three outlaws look at each other confused but not at all amused with this dark man’s presumption.

‘And look into my eyes now so that you will know the one who will claim your life.’

In the blink of an eye, Thane cleaves off the head of the laughing outlaw in one clean swipe. Another is standing very close to his headless victim and so he plunges his blade into his throat almost as quickly. Seeing his partners die so easily, the third turns rapidly to run away as he drops his own sword in fear. Thane will not allow this and so he throws his dagger at the exposed head of the outlaw. He drops to the ground to meet the same deadly fate as the merchant they passed not long ago on the road. Only Thanes blade is clean and sharp, so he is able to easily retrieve it. He wipes the blood from the dagger on his leather wrist brace and then passes it to Meredith who is now in shock.

‘Take this and go.’

Meredith stares down at the dagger and slowly takes it from him as her hand trembles.

‘Listen to me carefully. Into the woods, in that direction, I want you to run as quickly as you can. Follow the sound of the river as you go and stay where the trees are dense. You should run into your family’s House Guard waiting for us on the road into the city. There you will find your father.’

Meredith is trembling and unable to respond.

‘Look at me Meredith!’ Thane demands sharply.

She meets his gaze with wide eyes.

‘Do you understand what I have told you?’

She nods without saying a word.

‘Then go, now!’

Three arrows strike Thane in the back just as he finishes speaking. He does not flinch at all and offers no indication of pain, just the gritting of his teeth and a look of determination on his face.

‘Run!’

Meredith turns and flees as more arrows fly at them from the distance. As she moves into the forest and in the direction Thane commanded her to go, she can hear the rally and the shouting of what sounds like at least twenty men heading toward his position. As she moves further and further away, the sounds become distorted to her ears and her vision becomes blurry as she forces her body to its limits. The sharp bushes and the needle tipped branches of the dense forest are resisting as she pushes past but not far off she can see the moonlight once more. She moves closer to her destination and she can see the glisten of armour as the light of the moon reveals the way to the guards waiting for her. Finally she breaks from the tree line and falls onto the ground. As she gasps for breath she looks up to see a tall figure standing above her. The large man pulls her up by her arms and drops her onto her feet, so light is she from weeks of hardly eating. She cannot make out the one who is holding her but she recognises his scent. The smell of lavender fills her nostrils.

‘Meredith, can you see clearly. It is your father my dear, I’m here.’

Two large and formidable arms wrap themselves around her in a sudden yet comforting embrace. She grew up with the memories of her father tending to his lavenders in the garden when the duties of the Court could spare him some free time. And this very same smell fills her nostrils and her heart as she hugs her father in return when she realises who it is.

‘Father?’

‘Yes Meredith, I am here. I am here to take you home.’

A smile briefly forms on her face for the first time in a long while, but only for a moment.

‘Wait father, we have to go back.’

‘Please my daughter, I have you back. Why would I risk losing you again?’

‘Please father, we have to return to the road. The man you sent for me, who rescued me from my prison, he is still out there. We need to find him and help him; he risked his life getting me here.’

Lord Lockewood holds onto his daughter firmly as he looks away from her and closes his eyes for a moment to think.

‘I am sorry Meredith, but no.’

‘No……but I would not be here were it not for him.’

‘I am aware of that, but he has served his purpose and I will not risk losing you again. Nor will I risk sending my own men onto that accursed road.’

‘Father, please’ she begs.

‘I said no’ he snaps back.

‘He knew what he was getting himself into. Men from his line of work will all ultimately meet the same fate. He is with Maellor now.’

‘As you wish, father.’

And with those words stuck in her head, Lord Lockewood and his daughter return to Wintermere surrounded by his guards as the sun rises dimly above the city. Despite her exhaustion she did not sleep that day as her mind became restless and troubled. She will never see her rescuer ever again but her life is hers once more because of him, no matter his reasons. She swore to herself the same night to become a powerful figure in the Winter Court and follow in her father’s footsteps. She intends to ensure the criminal elements surrounding the city are removed and will endeavour to make life extremely difficult for men like Vaal to continue to operate in this kingdom. She will become Lady Meredith of the House Lockewood and heir to her father’s seat in the Winter Court, with a strong mind and with the will of harsh, bitter winter forged from painful memories to see her visions for the future through to whatever end.

+

The Lost Heir of a Broken Line

Blind Mans Road. It is a name that was given to one of the perilous mountain paths that leads to Amberfall, the golden city of the Summerpeak Mountains famed for its glorious, if a bit rain-ridden weather, magnificent architecture and the infamous Aeon Citadel. Most of the time, travellers are able to navigate this road with ease, often stopping as they do to observe the breath-taking views that accompany such a journey. Every now and then though, a mist descends upon the road that makes navigating its singular pathway treacherous. This was one of those times, only much worse.

‘I can’t see a bloody thing in this fog’ harked a disgruntled man holding the reins of two strong, well-bred grey horses connected to a large carriage built of oak and laced with silver.

‘Keep your voice down’ responds his companion sitting next to him hesitantly.

‘I’ve heard stories of people getting lost on these roads, so keep your eyes focused on the path ahead’.

‘Do you think she knows where she is? Or where she’s going?’ asks the rider.

He is referring to a young girl, a King’s daughter that they are bringing to the city.

‘You would have thought they would have told her something about why she’s being taken from her home, and from her family.’

‘Will you be quiet!’ his companion remarks sharply.

‘Do you want her to hear you?’

His eyes glance behind him to the compartment of the carriage holding the girl.

‘Nobody knows what really happened, but to have most of your family murdered, and then to be torn away from your remaining kin. It’s too much for anyone to deal with, let alone a seven year old girl, do you think she even wants to know what has happened?’

‘I heard her sister was being moved somewhere else, why aren’t they together?’ asks the rider.

‘I don’t know, but it isn’t our place to ask questions. We just have to get her to Amberfall, she should be safe there.’

The companion glances around once more, as curiosity sweeps his thoughts. He looks toward the side of the carriage to reassure himself. They are being accompanied by five heavily armed soldiers clad from head to toe in silver plated steel armour, and carrying the finest silver steel from the forges of Covenraen. They are escorting the young princess Dawn to her new home by the orders of the Silver Legion’s general. This was a journey that, at first was swift and hurried, but has since slowed after entering the Blind Man’s Road. The commander of this contingent is a noted war hero tasked with this immense responsibility. His most notable accomplishments involved spearheading numerous successful operations in the long war with the Dothylfar. His four accompanying guardsmen are from the same company that fought alongside him during the war. Two of them are noted as some of the finest archers known in the kingdom, the third and fourth being particularly skilled with both sword and shield. Princess Dawn couldn’t really ask for safer company.

Commander Damon leers at the guards riding the carriage, beckoning them to hush their voices so as not to attract attention to the group. At that time he also notices that the white curtains that adorn the carriage windows are slightly ajar, he smiles to himself as he realises that the young princess could not contain her curiosity any longer. He moves closer to the carriage window to inspect, at the same time his hammer wielding subordinate instinctively takes position at the head of the group.

‘How is the journey faring you princess?’ he speaks assertively as any commander in his position after years of battle would.

She hurriedly removes herself from the position near the window. At this time she does not fully understand why she has had to leave her home in the capital city, what happened to her family or where her beloved sister is. Her demeanour since leaving the capital has been that of a scared and confused little girl. Upon realising this, the commander speaks again, only softer.

‘It is okay child, you are safe with me. It is my duty to protect you, and protect you I shall.’

‘I want to go home’ speaks the princess with a whimper.

‘As do I child’ responds the commander reluctantly.

‘Maybe one day, when everything is settled, I will have the honour of escorting you back home to Covenraen. Until then, Amberfall will be your home. I hear that the Baroness is looking forward to seeing you, and that the city is particularly splendid this time of year’ he says enthusiastically.

‘If we can get past this bloody fog’ quips the rider.

The commander again notices the demeanour of the child in his care has saddened even more so. For a child who has never left her home, a city that until recently enjoyed a great many prosperous and peaceful days, the sudden exposure to her current environment of dense fog hiding a barely visible pathway that is sheltered with questionable shadows is maybe a bit much for the little princess to bear.

‘Did you ever hear the story of the warrior queen Isabelle and her defeat of the dragon Draegoth?’ asks the commander.

‘My father said that there was no such thing as dragons’ she replies, now at full attention.

‘Really, then how do you explain that peculiar looking rock formation in Harrowtown?’

‘I have been told tales of Harrowtown by my older sister, but I had no idea that the stone monster in there was actually a dragon!’ she responds inquisitively.

‘Most people, like yourself, have no idea how that stone form came to be’, he continues.

‘But the libraries in the Citadel in Amberfall hold a great many secrets, long forgotten to many, and this particular legend took place a long time ago, when Ayrlaston was so young she had not even been blessed with her name yet. Apparently at this time, dragons were no mere myth. In fact they were said to be so commonplace; it would be surprising if a month went by without a sighting. The young Queen Isabelle was on her way home with her most trusted companions when word reached her that a nearby town was suddenly beset by a large, black winged creature that seemed to breathe a magickal breath of pure lightning. Since dragon hunters were so few at the time, she took it upon herself as a sense of duty and honour to deal with the beast personally.’

Damon pauses to see young Dawns attention is now completely fixed to his well-rehearsed tale that he had recited to his own son as a bed time story many years ago. She leans in closer, her head almost out of the carriage window so she can absorb every word. The commander has succeeded in his plan to put the young princess at ease, but still with every intention of finishing his story.

‘Isabelle was a mere two days away from Harrowtown and marched forth with her allies in tow. One of her companions was a mage by the name of Aldric. Have you heard of him?’

‘Aldric? Was he the mage who accidentally froze his own foot to the floor when he tried to fend off a mob with ice magicks?’ asks the princess excitedly.

The commander chuckles to himself.

‘No my dear, that was Cecilbor, the infamous oaf mage of Westbrook. Aldric was a mighty sorcerer who commanded powerful magiks and was a close friend of Queen Isabelle. His skills were many, but one in particular would prove very useful. After two days passage through Cairnwood Forest, Isabelle, Aldric and her small contingent of loyal guards began looking for the beast as they moved closer to the town that was overlooked by high steeples of old stone. It wasn’t long before the blackened creature made an appearance. By the time the queen arrived, night had fallen and so they struggled to see the dragon clearly. This made the battle very difficult indeed until the beast resorted to using its deadliest weapon, his dragon breath. Draegoth’s breath was legendary and the lightning that spewed from his mouth was so fierce and so bright that it set the night sky alight. Isabelle took advantage of this opportunity to strike at the creature. She lunged with her sword into the throat of Draegoth as the beast kept his attention firmly fixed on the queen whilst trying to strike her down with his breath, but because she had her blade in his throat, Draegoth could do nothing but thrash around violently.’

Damon pauses again to see the eager princess hanging on his every word; he smiles to himself before continuing with the story.

‘It was then that the queen signalled to Aldric to unleash his mightiest spell, a powerful ability he called molten petrification. He summoned the forces of fire and earth and combined them to envelope Draegoth in a thick layer of liquid flame and rock. Isabelle took this as an opportunity to dive out of harm’s way, but she left her sword embedded in the throat of the beast so he could not strike back. Aldric then immediately cast a powerful frost rune upon the dragon that petrified the rock surrounding Draegoth completely still and solid. Isabelle and Aldric would be the only survivors of that battle, but the town they saved would endure for centuries. This is how Harrowtown acquired its name after such a ‘harrowing’ event and the legend of the dragon slayer queen would live on throughout the ages.’

‘That was a wonderful story’, says the princess with a gleeful smile.

‘I wish I could be a powerful sorceress or a great fighter and use my power to help people and become a legend like Queen Isabelle and Aldric.’

The commander is pleased the young princess’ attentions were now entirely focused on him and not the ever darkening road.

‘It would take years of study in the Citadel to be able to wield magicks powerful enough to take down something as strong as a dragon, and just as many to steel yourself as a warrior capable of striding into combat. I assure you, you do not need to follow these paths to become someone special to the people. And there are actually no dragons left in this world, thankfully.’

He then turns his head towards Dawn and speaks in a confident manner.

‘The day may come when you will be able to forge your own destiny, be it as a scholar, commander, priestess or whatever the stars hold for your future.  But I have no doubt that your role in this kingdoms future will be great.’

Dawn smiles at the commander, grateful that she is guarded by such a fine soldier. Whilst commander Damon was satisfied that he had succeeded in his task to calm the princess, he himself has become uneasy with the predicament he and his men are in. The pass, which at first was fairly easy to navigate, is becoming more troublesome by the minute as an ever darkening, thicker fog continues to forge a strong grip on their journey. He had traversed Blind Man’s Road many times before, but his experience of such a pathway is becoming quickly unfamiliar.

‘What is that over there?’ points Dawn in the distance as she glances over toward the tree line.

Commander Damon’s eyes dart around in the same direction as he is almost desperate to try and see what the princess is referring to.

‘I see nothing, but I must advise caution my dear; your eyes may play tricks upon you in such conditions as this.’

The soldiers, which at first were spaced a distance part from each other, have moved closer to the carriage to remain visible to each other. The pace of the carriage and its accompanying riders has slowed down almost to a crawl.

‘There it is again.’ said Dawn sharply as if to stress her case.

She points to a strange looking shadow hanging from an ancient formation of Dvergan architecture that has fallen into ruin after millennia of neglect that is only visible because of its darkened colouration. The commander has spotted the same stone pillars Dawn had pointed to and carefully considers the area in as much detail as his eyes will allow.

‘I’m sorry my dear, but I don’t see anything.’

His eyes turn back to the princess.

‘Perhaps you should take this chance to rest; we shall be stopping to make camp as soon as nightfall approaches.’

Dawn retreats inside the carriage and closes the draw curtains on her window, still confused about what she thought she saw. After a moment’s contemplation she reluctantly lies down upon the cushioned seats within, a rare extravagance afforded only to royalty and nobility. Her eyes close. The commander and his contingent can afford no such luxury as they press on. Commander Damon looks to the carriage driver and notices that fear has gripped him; the once aggravating and overly talkative man is now silent. The carriage driver’s companion turns to the driver and speaks quietly.

‘Strange shadows in a blinded mist are bad omens.’

He then pauses momentarily to observe his surroundings. The driver says nothing in reply; his eyes are unwavering and fixed on the road ahead.

‘I heard that if you see one on this road, all manner of ill luck will rain down as if the gods themselves have cursed you for daring to tread upon such a path.’

‘And I heard that if you flip a gold coin and it lands directly between the bosoms of a beautiful woman, you will be showered with riches and she will fall in love with you right where you stand!’ jokes one of the soldiers sarcastically as he rides to the left hand side of the carriage almost directly in front of the commander.

The other soldiers and the commander share an all too brief moment of hushed laughter. He speaks to the drivers to try to calm their prattle.

‘When you start to believe such fantasies, every little misconception that your feeble mind cannot perceive suddenly becomes a threat. A rock becomes a vicious creature. A twig becomes a claw grasping at your throat. Pay no attention to what your imagination is telling you. Believe only what your eyes can see.’

‘Sorry sir’ says the driver’s companion to the commander.

‘I’ll try to keep my nerves intact.’

Half an hour passes without incident save for the occasional rustling of the rats in the trees. The group leading Dawn to her new home proceed watchfully down the road. At this point the young princess is fast asleep much to the relief of Commander Damon, who can now focus entirely on the journey ahead even if just briefly. As they continue through the fog, a shadow begins to appear on the road, when the group approaches it became less a shadow and more of a tall figure in the mist.

‘Halt!’ commands Damon to his escort.

At once the soldiers stop in their tracks, still maintaining their strict formation surrounding the carriage. The carriage driver takes a second to respond as he pulls sharply on the reins of the horses, he is startled and a tad confused.

‘You there, what is your business?’ asks Damon sharply to the figure standing before them.

Without a response the figure moves slowly a few steps closer to the group. Commander Damon grasps the hilt of his sword instinctively; he recognises, at least partially, the spectre that stands before them.

‘Answer me?’ demands the commander now very agitated as the memories of recent battles fought mere months ago come flooding back to him.

The presence of the one before them stands at six feet tall and wears a black cloak that covers all but his face. His piercing red eyes glare at the commander revealing a powerful hatred reminiscent of the battlegrounds of the recent Crimson War. The cloaked figure is Dothylfar, a member of a species of beings known for their vicious natures and cannibalistic tendencies. This bloodthirsty and notoriously fearsome race stand at equal height to man, their faces usually scarred or marked with symbols as tribute to their lust for war. Their eyes are the colour of black and blood, their skin possesses an ashen grey hue and their hair is usually as dark as the night. This particular Dothylfar though bears no facial scars or markings, indicating a high standing in the ranks of his species hordes. His appearance on this road at this time means only one thing to Commander Damon. The spectre of ash and blood slowly raises his hand toward the caravan until all of his fingers are outstretched facing the direction of the carriage. He then whispers something quietly to himself. Immediately the commander unsheathes his blade.

‘Take him down men, NOW!’ shouts Damon.

The two soldiers at the front of the formation charge forward, grasping the reigns of their horses tightly in one hand, clutching their swords in the other whilst the two soldiers at the back of the convoy move in formation to join them. The commander keeps his strict vigil at the side of the caravan as he notices the princess begins to wake amidst the commotion. The Dothylfar’s hand moves to face the soldiers charging towards him. The ground trembles and suddenly the legs of the horses are grasped by black-green vines that appear from the ground too quickly to anticipate. These vines are coated in knife sharp thorns that bore deeply into the legs of the horses and after a brief struggle, the soldiers are flung hard onto the ground. The horses are released, upon being freed from their torment; they immediately take flight as they struggle and stumble from their wounds away from the group. The soldiers quickly attempt to regroup to a standing base but as soon as they can get their bearings, they are immediately beset by the same vines that dismounted them. One by one they are enveloped by these thorn laden plants as they tear into their flesh through the gaps between their armour. Their screams echo loudly through the forest as their skin is deeply penetrated, each creeping vine ripping its way through their bodies with little effort, until they are held suspended in the air. This is an amusing sight to the Dothylfar watching from afar. At once and in one fell move, they are all torn asunder. Their flesh is flung across the road, blood drips from the trees whose twisted and corrupted roots unintentionally played their part in the death of these men at the behest of this monstrous creature. The carriage rider and his companion freeze as they are gripped by fear. They stare at their attacker, scared and motionless; they are unable to fathom what is happening.

The commander steps down from his horse with his sword now sheathed once more. He runs his hand over the nose of his horse for what he believes to be one final embrace to his trusted steed before he commands it to flee in the opposite direction. Damon looks into the open door of the caravan to see a trembling girl in the corner of her seat, unaware of what was going on, but terrified by the sounds of screaming and horrified at the smell of viscera that has splattered across her carriage windows.

‘It’s going to be alright my dear’ whispers the commander softly to Dawn, even managing a reassuring smile.

The princess stops shaking and moves toward the commander. She grasps his hand and desperately urges him to stay with her. Her naive blue eyes are barely able to hold back the tears. Damon embraces the frightened girl by grasping her hands with his own and holds them tight before turning his head to see the murderous Dothylfar leering at him from a distance.

‘It is my duty to protect you with my life, and I shall.’

With these words he turns his body and starts walking towards his enemy, still uncertain as to why the one standing before them was here, but sure in the knowledge that he was all that was standing between the princess and him. He doesn’t hesitate to put himself directly between them as he stands now within full sight of his surroundings. The vines are still moving menacingly behind him as if they are searching and thirsting for more blood.

‘When I engage him, take the princess and flee’ demands Damon of the carriage driver.

‘Fail in this task and I will spend all of eternity in the afterlife hunting you down.’

The driver nods reluctantly though he is unable to remove his gaze from the fearsome spectre.

‘How dare you infect my homeland with your presence you vile, disgusting creature. Have we not suffered enough at the hands of your war mongering race?’ says the commander in a scathing tone.

He takes another step closer towards his foe.

‘Have you no honour?’ he says intent on driving his sword into the heart of the Dothylfar, one who took the lives of his closest companions who fought with him on countless occasions throughout many campaigns as they defended their homeland.

‘Withdraw your magicks and fight me as an equal, or do you fear me?’

His foe smiles a devious smile. With a whisper, the blood laden vines withdraw back into the earth. The commander once again unsheathes his sword and stands with a stance that represents his experience and technique as one of the finest veterans of the Kings forces. The Dothylfarian pulls out a dull, crescent dagger from beneath his cloak and points it directly at Commander Damon. In response the commander takes one more step forward. But his foe vanishes before his eyes leaving behind a thick black mist that dissipates into the fog. Before he can think about what he has just witnessed, Damon notices blood pouring from his chest. As he looks down he can see the hilt of the dagger sticking out through his armour and into his flesh, with the entire blade having pierced his bones effortlessly. There was never any intention of a fair fight. It is at this point he knows that he has failed in his duty, but it was just as he had expected as he knew from past experience that he was to be no match for a Dothylfar skilled enough to have gone his entire life, through a war torn country and a lust for ceaseless conquest without a single scratch or scar. As the blood pours and his life slips away, he hears the whimpering cries of Princess Dawn. The Dothylfar grasps the pinnacle of his helm and turns Damon’s head to face her and whispers softly into his ear.

‘You have failed and now you will die, and so too will she.’

The Dothylfar then pulls his blade out of the commander’s chest, presses it against his exposed neck and slowly cuts his throat, smiling as blood pours out onto the ground. With the commander’s life extinguished, the Dothylfar turns his attention towards the carriage. He looks upon the princess as a wolf would gaze upon a lamb. His eyes are now frenzied with a sickening blood-lust from the death of his foes and they are fixed on her. At this point the rider of the carriage is still frozen and his companion has long since fled into the mist. He snaps out of his stupor and realises his life was now also in danger. He yanks ferociously upon the reins of the horses attached to the carriage and he flees with as much speed as they can muster, with the carriage holding the princess still in tow whether he would care for it to be or not. As they flee through the dense fog with only the sight of the path at their feet to guide them, he can hear threatening whispers in a language unknown to him, accompanied by an impending sense of dread. The Dothylfar is somehow still with them. The driver then notices a black mist is careering alongside them as it wails with a screeching howl as if the screams of the dead are accompanying it. The carriages wheels are grasped suddenly sending the driver flying through the air and crashing onto the hard, gritty road, breaking his legs as he lands. The carriage itself is then torn apart by thorn encrusted vines now far greater in number than they were before. As the caravan crumbles into wooden shards, the princess is flung almost out of harm’s way into a nearby patch of grass, covered in scratches and cuts suffered at the behest of their attackers dark magicks. As she clamours to her feet, she watches the horrifying sight of the driver dangling in the air, with sharp twisted vines grasping his broken leg as he cries out in agony.

‘RUN!’ he screams.

Their stalker materialises out of the fog near the driver, seeing this she turns and runs in the opposite direction. She doesn’t look back; she is too afraid to witness the fate of the driver. She stumbles and scarpers away as fast as she is able. In the distance she hears the gargled screams of the man being ripped apart into nothing but blood stains and bone shards. Unaware of her surroundings as she goes, she trips and falls down an embankment, hitting her head hard with a crunch to her skull on a large stone. Her eyes waver as her vision fades and her breaths become shallow, she begins to lose consciousness. After a moment she has passed out, unable to see, hear or feel anything.

Several days would pass before reports of a decimated, secret convoy of soldiers would make their way to the people of Amberfall as passing merchants mentioned their accounts of stained blood, uprooted trees and a destroyed wooden carriage that looks to have been almost completely swallowed by the earth. These rumours would become stories that would catch the attention of the young princesses surviving family as they sent search parties far and wide that would cover the entire Westervale of the country to try to find any sign of their lost child. As the years passed, some would tell of a young woman who bore an odd resemblance to their fallen King in a far flung town, from a desolate and sparse corner of the land. These tales would be quickly quashed and swept aside as a new King would rise that would tolerate no competition to his rule.

Decades later, others would speak of a crazed, old woman who would move around from village to village. She was never welcomed and never stepped foot into a major city or port for fear of some ‘deadly reprisal’, and that she would endlessly drone on, within a drink addled state, about her fallen hero and lost lineage. The life of the little girl Dawn may have passed into something meaningful or meaningless, or it may have been snuffed by the edge of a blade. The only certainty was that there would not be another dawn for the forgotten men who gave their lives to protect a royal girl on her journey to a new home.

+

My Own Apocalypse

As gamers, film goers, watchers of television and readers of books, most of us have likely come into contact with a popular and very specifically gruesome sub-genre known as the Zombie Apocalypse. For some reason or another, whether it is the result of a science experiment gone wrong in Resident Evil or as most often is the case they have simply arisen due to a supernatural or viral outbreak like in that of Dawn of the Dead or Dead Island, civilisation inevitably always seems to find itself knee deep in shit and corpses. The roots of the zombie myth are connected to the Haitian culture of old and their rituals involving the consumption of brain flesh. In most stories told today, the living dead rise up and become cannibalistic monstrosities barely resembling their former selves that would like nothing more than to chew your face off and munch on your brain stem. Nummy!

I have occasionally asked myself exactly how I would fair in the zombie apocalypse scenario. Have my years of media content absorption and gaming scenario experiences adequately prepared me to be able to survive in a world where the dead roam? Let’s find out.

 

The Scenario

I am sitting at home playing something ironically thematic like State of Decay or Left 4 Dead on my console when my fiancé looks over toward me. Her face is sullen and shocked and when I ask what’s wrong all she can do is hold her hand to her mouth and show me her Facebook news feed which is riddled with updates of cities falling prey to the rising dead all around the world. Birmingham, Manchester and London have fallen, riots have broken out, the emergency services are overwhelmed and the screams of the massacred masses are ringing throughout the streets. The governments of the world are doing all they can to control the chaos that has gripped the earth but it is evidently obvious that no one will be able to escape the impending doom that has fallen upon us all. The bell has tolled for the last time and the dead now walk the earth.

Dark City Skyline

If the world falls to ruin and the cities go dark, what will you do?

 

The Dead Enemy

The zombies in this scenario are most like the ones you would find in the Walking Dead and George Romero’s movies. Shambling, shifting, dim witted dullards that are so slow and dawdling that they can usually be avoided if you are careful not to get too close. Some however are capable of incredible speed and agility and these bastards only come out at night (Dying Light), so day time travel will become the norm.

 

Day One

We shut the blinds, turn off the lights and lock the windows. Until I can know for sure whether this is truly the end of the world or just something that will blow over (Shaun of the Dead), for all intents and purposes we are locked in and dead to the outside world. I will keep an eye out for the neighbours if they are desperate for help but I will advise them to do the same. We obviously try to contact our family and friends to see if they are okay but our phones are unable to connect to a network that has since gone down. We will resist the urge to go looking for them until we know more about what is happening. I will also take inventory of our food supplies and begin preparations for a lengthy stay indoors.

 

Weapons

This is England, so guns are out of the question. Hell even the average gun owner will likely run out of ammunition fairly quickly so firearms are not the most logical choice and are best saved for emergencies if you have one. Instead I look to the kitchen to find out strongest knives and a large rolling pin. There are some shears in the shed as well as a shovel and fork and there is also a hammer and screwdrivers at our disposal. Oh and I mustn’t forget one of our most effective weapons in the fight against the dead, our frying and saucepans. Thwack indeed!

I would also look to fashion myself a makeshift small shield of some sort to be able to push and repel my attackers with my left hand so that I might be able to dispatch them with the weapon in my right. I would probably start with the largest saucepan lid I own until I could find or craft something more appropriate. Anything is better than nothing right?

My Pistol Image

This is my own replica of a Flintlock Pistol. In my ideal fantasy scenario, this thing would have unlimited, self loading ammunition so that I could dispatch my dead enemies with some serious style and ease.

 

My Daily Load-out

Like in any role playing game, an effective and well stocked load-out of useful equipment can mean the difference between life and death. I have a backpack that I would use to carry some of the more useful items and weapons so this is primary item number one, because if you have nothing to carry your goods other than your pockets then what is the point. This backpack will be with me at all times in preparation of any possible scenario. It will contain the following items that I already have at home right now.

  • Matches
  • Twine
  • Cello tape
  • My Smartphone
  • Phone Charger
  • Small Knife
  • Tin Opener
  • Pen & Notebook
  • Scissors

 

My Attire

Staying warm and concealed is the key to traversal in a zombie apocalypse in England. I have boots so they are an obvious choice for footwear. I would also wear my combat trousers, comfortable and practical, as well as a short sleeve T-shirt underneath one of my hooded tops. The hood will allow me to conceal my head and face if necessary and I will use a scarf to cover my mouth and nose. There is no room for extravagant clothing or pretty jewellery when it comes to survival.

Middle England is a fairly cool and temperate location and so for the most part we do not have to worry about sweating a great deal unless it is summer. If the zombies use smell to locate their next meal, then this would be a useful tactic to keep in mind.

 

Short Term Plans

To begin with we would live off the supplies we have in our home. In this scenario there will continue to be a long term supply of electricity and the internet will remain functional on a basic level. I will check regularly for updates on the outbreak and its aftermath and use this information to plan and act accordingly. We would keep our phones charged as often as possible so that we might use it to browse applications such as maps and listen to the radio. We would also try to make contact with friends and family but not at the expense of our own safety.

The prospect of being invaded by looters or the dead is not something I would particularly relish so we would set up a makeshift camp area in our cellar behind a barred door. It is a little damp but it would allow us to remain unseen and relatively unheard during the night. Keeping our dog quiet is key so he would have to stay down here most of the time (all squeaky toys are now banned!) and I could not bear the thought of anything happening to my fiancé so I would kindly request that she stay at home whenever possible to take care of him and our home. It isn’t that I wish to be all ‘me man, me hunt, you woman, stay home’ but she can hurt herself by walking into doors/walls and banging her head almost anywhere. She is adorably clumsy. Not great for stealth and manoeuvrability is it? Sorry dear, I’ll look out for some Ferrero Roche for you.

I’ll need better equipment too so I will keep an eye out for some sort of hand axe, machete or large knife to be able to defend myself more appropriately. I will keep an eye out for a sporting goods store for a decent bow so that archery will become a realistic proposition. I will likely have to whittle my own arrows from hardwood though.

Bloody Axe Image

Melee weapons are a far more viable and long term proposition than any firearm. A small chopping axe would be my first choice.

 

Supplies to Scavenge

If my time in Fallout 4 has taught me anything is that there are uses for most objects in our world that we tend to take for granted in this wasteful consumer ridden society. Eventually I will need to leave the nest and go looking for additional supplies so this is what I feel we will need at the very least.

  • Binoculars
  • Communication radios (Walky Talkies)
  • Tinned & Sealed Food
  • Bottled Water
  • Torches (Flashlight)
  • Batteries
  • Candles
  • Pocket Tools
  • Pain Killers
  • Anti-biotics
  • Toilet Paper (duh!)
  • Dog Food
  • Black Paint (to conceal all windows)
  • Leather Gloves
  • Thick Clothing

 

Long Term Plans

Eventually we would look to move to a more suitable base and try to meet up with other like minded folks who harbour no desire to steal our goods or eat our flesh. Towns and cities are densely populated and will likely remain the source out countless hordes of the undead. This means that we would look to move to the countryside where there is lots of open space to grow crops and build fortifications, local wildlife to hunt and relatively few ‘zombastards’ to get in our way. I would hope that by this time we have become proficient in the art of survival and are part of a group that works well together and prioritises our safety and wellbeing over selfish desires and personal needs.

Rocky Stream Image

I believe that we would need to return to nature in the event of our society’s fall. To have to hunt in the woods, fish in the streams and become self sufficient.

So this is just a general overview of how I think I would do if the world truly came crashing down around us in a zombie filled chasm of death and horror. I may survive or I may end up as a zombie chew toy within a few hours, the biggest problem with this fictional setting is that you cannot truly prepare for something so wildly unpredictable.

I would be interested to know how you guys would do if this scenario or any other Walking Dead related situation ever came to pass. What would you do? How would you attempt to survive? Would you do anything differently? Would you become a hunter? Scavenger? Hoarder? All or none of the above? For now though, I will return to studying these shows and games and watch how all of the unrealistically interesting scenarios unfold. You know, for research purposes and whatnot……just in case.

So watch out for those zombie gits, take care of yourselves folks and I recommend you watch Zombieland, because it’s brilliant!

Forged From Reverie.

%d bloggers like this: