Chapter 1: ThirteenMarkus stood at the peak of the hillock, looking over the stream of people that flowed slowly beneath him. The refugees walked, staggered or limped along the road by the thousands, with only a glint of steel in their midst to show that the soldiers were still among them. It was both awe inspiring and tragic, these people had come to their capital, believing it to be an impenetrable bastion. They had been proven horribly wrong. The Lusignan Empire had continued their relentless march, seizing Herbstberg after four months of continuous siege. The seat of the Erdestreuer Empire had fallen, and refugees from across the kingdom had found themselves homeless once again.
Markus made his way down the hill, grabbing up the bridle of his horse before mounting it. It was a huge beast, more Dray than warhorse, but it was the only thing that could support its rider’s massive bulk. He was known as ‘Der Riese’ by many in the Erdestreuer military, as was fitting any man who stood at seven foot and nine and weighed a strapping five hundred punds. On his back was a Zweihänder, and to his hip a katzbalger. He rode along the refugees, his deep set blue eyes surveying the slow moving mob. They were marching on to Eisenwasser, on the shore of the lake that was its namesake. There, one final defense would be created, and there would be no escape this time.
Markus sat by the large bonfire where horse meat sizzled on long skewers, sending fatty smoke into the sky. They had struck camp in a long valley, a few days’ rest for triage and recuperation, and then the long march would resume. Hundreds of little lights flickered in the valley, a large flame intermittent; it would have been beautiful had it not been so tragic. It was a cool night, the first of the Reaping season; now the red-orange oak leaves drifted in the fire’s updrafts and sailed into the darkness. Just then a young woman came to the fire; she sat on the ground with her arms wrapped around her stomach. She had to be at least in her twentieth week of pregnancy, and she had been weeping. He looked at her with sympathy; no doubt she had lost her husband either in the siege, or on the road.
He pulled two skewers from the fire, handing one to her. She looked at him a moment before taking it, thanking him quietly. They sat silently for the rest of the night, long after the fire had burned down to embers and the twin moons sank beneath the trees and the sun emerged like a victorious seraphim.
Seven weeks on the road and very near the promised safe haven for those ragged refugees. They had taken to calling themselves pilgrims, those poor wretched souls, for what reason they couldn’t say. By that time, food had become scarce and many were dropping dead as they walked from either hunger or exhaustion. Even the soldiers had begun to break down, with many falling victim to cholera or dysentery. They had even taken to dropping their heavier equipment, in order to keep exhaustion at bay. Wherever they walked, a trail of discarded steel, feces and corpses was left behind.
Markus looked at Catrin, the woman he had met by the bonfire weeks earlier. She sat sidesaddle on his massive horse, left hand gently over her belly. They had formed a rapport, and were nigh inseparable. However, their love was that of a brother and sister, or two close friends. Her respect for her husband’s memory made sure of that.
She was a woman of great fortitude, never allowing herself to fall into the dark mire of despair that had claimed so many of the pilgrims. Instead, she turned all her energy and devotion to the child yet unborn. She would talk to him for hours, about the hopes and dreams she felt for the little life incubating within her, a small loving smile on her face. He found her optimism to be infectious, and had begun to see a small ray of hope in the dark.
However, one night, a great and pained crying rose from the tent she shared with a dozen other women. The baby was coming, and coming roughly. The few doctors who were not sick or dead came to her aid as best they could. Markus had been summoned to the tent at Catrin’s request, and looked on as the doctors continued their work. The baby was positioned with its feet first, prompting the physicians to cut into the womb to retrieve the child. It was painful, blood-slick work, but the physician removed from the mother a tiny, wailing infant. They knotted and severed the umbilical root, before handing the still crying child to him while they worked to save her mother.
He marveled at the small, pink life in his hands. He could feel her heartbeat through her moist, soft skin, and felt the spasms of her muscles as they were used for the first time. He stood in the tent, his back arched to keep from hitting the canvas roof, holding the tiny newborn and watched.
Catrin died two nights later, the shock of birth too much for her malnourished body to bear. Markus kept vigil over her body, ensuring she was buried despite protests of wasted time and energy. They had been so close to Eisenwasser, so Gods damned close, but yet she had not made it. She had joined the rest of the pilgrims who found the long road home to be their grave. All was not lost, however. The infant had stubbornly clung to life, despite her tiny size and premature birth. Refusing to show any sign of illness or morbidity, she lived as an orphan, clinging to the giant who held her first. Markus knew nothing of being a father; the military was the only life he had known. But he had made an oath to the child’s mother, and he would sacrifice all to keep it. And now, in their new home of Eisenwasser, he sat and looked as the child suckled the wet nurse he had procured. He had named her Ashlynn, fitting for she was her mother’s dream, and now it was his duty to keep her alive.
He would not fail.
Far away from the war, Coatl knelt in the light of the bronze brazier, a human heart in his hands. Today, he would become a man. The priest who had overseen his training stood atop the altar, looking down on the boy. He raised up his hands and began the chant. He praised the flayed God of the rain and the burning God of war, he praised he praised lastly the boy’s fortitude, before shouting the order to finish the ceremony.
Coatl raised the bloody organ to his mouth, and bit deeply. It was unpleasantly tough, and still warm from where it had been cut just moments before. He choked down the remains of the leathery thing, before wiping the gore from his mouth and letting out as powerful a cry as he could muster. The priest walked down to him, smiling broadly. He placed two charms, one of jade and one of obsidian around his neck, fashioned to the shape of a winged serpent and a skull, respectively.
He would soon be joining his brothers in arms overseas, as a man of thirteen
---------- Post added at 11:15 PM ---------- Previous post was at 11:12 PM ----------
Six years later, Markus walked with his daughter through the crowded streets of the city, their breath misting before them. She had grown slowly but surely, taking well after her mother in her looks. They walked side by side, her small hand gently enclosed in his massive fist, out of the city and into the first sparse evergreens of the forest that surrounded the lake. They wove through the pines until they came to a small glen, in which flowed a small river that fed into the lake with cold, clear water running smoothly over the round pebbles. They followed the stream, until the valley opened into a field dominated by the red-gold of apple trees in season. This was their special place.
Markus had played here as a child, roughhousing with his friends when they played soldier ,during which they would all gang up on him, and attempt to bring down the bigger boy, or simply running along until his lungs felt as if they would burst. The field was the remains of a long abandoned orchard, and it had been forgotten by anyone who may have known about it prior.
Ashlynn worked her hand free and ran to the closest tree, before deftly scrambling up the closely set branches and pulling free two apples. She climbed her way back down and giving one to him, smiling proudly. He smiled back and hugged her, before allowing her to run off again.
He had never planned to raise a daughter, instead he had always dreamed of many strong sons to carry the family name, but now, in the cold autumn air, he held all his love for the little girl with whom he shared no blood relation. But she was he daughter, nonetheless, and her joy was the greatest victory he could imagine.
The crowd surrounded the gallows, shouting vicious slurs at the condemned man before them. Today’s execution was particularly exciting for them, instead of a patricide of rapist getting their neck popped, it was a foreign mercenary. He had murdered the Lord Baron’s elder brother, for the Lusignan Empire, breaking into his house and beheading him with his strange, obsidian-edged paddle. He now paraded before them, stripped to the waist, revealing deep, puckered scars and scores of smaller scratches and discolored patches of proud flesh. He smiled viciously at them, clearly drawing amusement from their rancor. He was still smiling when the crier and executioner made their way to the gallows.
The crier was a scrawny man with a thin mustache who kept glancing nervously at him, as if he might attempt to strangle him with his bound hands. And he might have, if not for the soldiers who held their swords ready to strike him down if he so much as farted too loudly. He was led up the gallows and stood over the trap door. The executioner hobbled behind him, sending pins and needles up his body. He wanted desperately to strike out at the disgusting creature, but knew it would just end in his death. The Baron apparently wanted to increase the grotesqueness of the execution business, by employing the most deformed reject of a human he could find. The executioner was a cretin dwarf with both a hunchback and harelip, through which his drool cascaded if he neglected to wipe it away. The misshapen man stood on a stool to tie the noose around Coatl’s throat, giving an ugly smile to the crowd. The crier cleared his throat and began to read from his unrolled scroll.
“By the decree of His lordship, Baron Heinrich von Scheissesser of the Kingdom of Winterküste, this man has been sentenced to die for the following crimes: The murder of a noble in the house of Scheissesser, the unlawful entering of a noble’s home, the theft of noble property, collaboration with an enemy state, corruption of a citizen, disregard for the laws of the kingdom of Winterküste, public urination, and general debauchery. He has admitted to these crimes under interrogation overseen by His lordship the Baron. May the Gods’ mercy find this soul in death. Proceed, executioner.” At this the dwarf wheezed laughter through his split lip, and pulled the lever which triggered the trapdoor.
Coatl dropped suddenly, the rope cutting into his bare neck. His eyes bulged and the swarthy skin of his face turned an ugly mauve. He kicked uselessly with his bound legs, and spittle flew from his gasping mouth. The crowd roared approval, and it took all of the soldiers' might to keep them back from the condemned. After three hours had passed, the crowd had gone, and ravens perched on the dark shoulders of the hanged youth. A dark spot had formed in his trousers from where he had pissed himself, and a few bruises had formed from where some of the rowdier observers threw stones at him.
Coatl opened one eye and smiled grimly, his ruse had worked, and all he had to do now was to escape before they decided to take down his body for a fresh execution. He twisted his hands, rubbing his wrists raw on the hemp. The blood made his hands slick enough to squeeze through the tight knot, and he raised them to his neck to undo the noose. It took time but he eventually undid the knot and fell hard to the cobbles below. He drew a deep, burning breath which cut like glass down his throat. He rubbed the deep abrasion the rope had left, wondering if it would scar. The knot was shoddy work, but then again it had been the cretin who had tied the damn thing.
He ran through the dark streets and into a small alley, where he sat with his back to the wall to think over his next step. He had indeed murdered the Baron’s brother, on the bastard’s orders. The Baron had hired him to eliminate his elder sibling, knowing full well the skills of the Haranec warriors. By hiring a third party, he had full deniability, quite smart on his part.
Up to the point of betraying me, thought Coatl with a scowl.
The fool decided that his living would be a loose end, and it would be for the best to arrest him and feign grief at his brother’s death rather than pay the young man.
All in all, it had been a rather unpleasant nineteenth birthday.
Ashlynn laughed happily as she threw another wad of snow at her father from the top branches of the tree. He looked up at her, exasperated, and pointed at the ground.
“You come done from there, it’s long past dark and it’s a long walk home.”
“Can we not just stay out here tonight, please?”
“Absolutely not, now get down.”
She pouted, and jumped from the tree, into her father’s arms where he grasped her tightly and spun her around effortlessly. He smiled at her as he set her down, it was impossible for him to stay upset for long. They walked back through the forest, the twin moons shining their pale light through the branches. They had been walking for some time, when three men emerged from the trees and stood in their path.
“Evening, good sir” said the leader amiably “may I query as to why a man and his daughter would be walking these woods so late in the night?”
“Just out for a stroll, we do not want trouble, please stand aside.”
The bandits laughed, and closed in, with two more joining the rear.
Markus cursed himself; he should have seen it coming. Thousands of soldiers had deserted during the war, becoming brigands that now plagued the countryside. He was unarmed, save a small dagger which was entirely decorative and held no edge, and he couldn’t let Ashlynn come to harm.
“Daddy…” she whimpered behind him. He scooped her up and placed her on his back, where she wrapped her arms around his thick neck.
“That’s a beautiful daughter you have there sir, how old is she? Five?”
“Touch her and you’re dead” growled Markus, which caused the brigands to shoot nervous looks to one another.
The leader, however, was unperturbed by the giant’s menace, and idly swung his short sword. “Oh no, we’d never touch her, Gods no. Why spoil her, eh? There’s markets that will pay whole bags of gold for a girl her age, and her intact maidenhead makes her all the more val-“
Markus cut him off with a punch to the head which caved in the brigand’s skull and sent streamers of blood flying from his smashed nose, mouth and eyes. He lay gurgling in his own blood and brains, before finally falling slack.
Ashlynn stared horrified at the body, her wide eyes matching those of the remaining brigand’s.
“He killed Kurt!” cried one; “Kill that bastard!” shouted another. They all charged him, their weapons held high.
He grabbed the first one he could reach by the arms, yanking them down so he shoulder blades erupted from the skin and silenced his agonized screams with a kick that pulverized his guts and sent him sailing into his comrade. The two grabbed his waist and tried to drag him down, but Ashlynn gave a scream and begin to kick hard with her wooden soled shoes, breaking the nose of the first and knocking out a good portion of the second’s teeth. Markus whirled and shook them off, before seizing the one with broken teeth and slamming him into his friend with the broken nose, killing them both. The last brigand freed himself from his dead friend, and stared agape at the massive frame before him. Markus reached out his arms and roared, sending the thief feeing into the woods with a terrified scream.
Markus’ rage cooled quickly, and he turned his attention to his daughter. He hated himself for what he had showed her. A battlefield’s worth of gore, at such a young age, must have been a horror to see. Made worse by the fact the perpetrator was none other than the gentle behemoth who had cared for her with the utmost love for these six years.
By the time he returned home, Ashlynn had passed out. He carried her limp body in his arms and set her down in her cot. He smiled sadly at her, gently stroking her hair with his fingertips. He stayed with her until dawn, before heading back to his massive bed. He settled into the cool softness of cotton and goose down, falling into a short, fitful sleep.
The gateman at the Scheissesser manor looked tiredly off into the night. It was almost dawn and he desperately wanted to sleep. Just as he begun to dose, the hoof beats of a horse sounded down the dirt road, accompanied by the squeak of un-oiled wagon wheels.
“Halt!” cried the guardsman to the incoming rider. He grabbed up his sword and candle lantern, and approached the cart.
“What is your business?”
The rider drew a raspy breath and spat, before looking at the guardsman.
It was Felix Schneider, a drunk and petty thief whom the Baron hired as a teamster occasionally, especially when the loads in question were of dubious origin.
“Baron wants me to cart away a chest o’ his” he rasped under the hood of his cloak “says its best that it’s done quietly.”
The guard nodded, and pulled back his lantern.
“Go up ahead, man, but be quick about it.”
Felix simply spit again and reined the horses forward.
Up in his chamber, the Baron shooed out the servant girl he had chosen for the night. She was a young thing of sixteen, and had been in his service for six years prior. He could hear her sobbing in the hall, and considered going out and beating the bitch some more. She had initially refused him, but a couple of strikes with a brass candlestick and threats against her elderly parents had changed her mind. The Baron smiled, and scratched his double-chin. He always got what he wanted, whether people wanted to give it to him or not.
He was surprised when the door opened, and was about to yell the servant away, when he saw the stooped form of that drunken wretch of a man, Felix.
“What the hell are you doing here? Get out you miserable worm!”
Felix chuckled under his cloak, and began to rise.
The Baron’s indignation turned to fear as the tall man locked the door with an easy click of the bolt, and gave that same snarling chuckle.
“Who the hell are you!? What do you want!?”
“You know very well who I am, you traitorous bastard.”
The Baron felt a warm stream of urine trickle down his leg, and the man peeled away Felix’s face and pulled back his hood. He dropped the grisly flesh mask, and gave a terrifying smile.
“Indeed” hissed Coatl.
He pulled his long kukri from its sheath, one of the personal effects he had managed to retrieve from the prison armory, and turned it so the flat of the blade reflected the Baron’s scared face.
“Oh Gods, please, you don’t have to do this! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry! Please, I’ll pay you twice what I owe, take my strongbox, the key is under it!”
“You try to have me killed and you then you cower when I come to collect. Pathetic, you’re absolutely pathetic.”
He laughed curtly and sheathed the kukri, before pointing at the large trunk in the center of the room.
“Get your bloated ass in that trunk. If you make any noise, I’ll castrate you.”
The Baron’s face brightened at the perceived mercy, and he began to cry. He squeezed himself into the trunk, and closed the lid on himself.
Coatl spared no time locking the trunk, before grabbing the strongbox and key and hiding them in the folds of Felix’s cloak. He then dragged the heavy thing out the Baron’s chamber, and down the long flight of stairs to the main hall.
It was morning when he arrived at the lake, and unloaded the trunk. He popped the lock and the Baron burst forth like a spring loaded devil-in-the-box. He took deep breaths, and looked around.
“Because you need to disappear. Killing you isn’t enough.”
“I thought you weren’t...”
“Going to kill you? You’re right. I’m not. At least, not right now, I’m just going to stab you, low in the guts. Your stomach will fill with shit and you’ll be dead from blood poisoning or blood loss in three days, at most.”
“Oh Gods, not like this! Please not like…”
“Shut up. You made it personal, all that earns you in the end is a bit more pain than most.”
He punctuated the sentence with a deep stab from his kukri, before turning away and left the Baron screaming, with his guts falling out the hole in his protruding belly.