Betrayal of Freedom – Chapter One – Fantasy Novel
The first chapter in a new fantasy story featuring the unique world of the Tarkh. I hope you enjoy this story featuring the return of the old masters and humanities efforts to unite in the face of that threat. Also available on Wattpad!
Chapter 1 – Bloodstone
Arvo’s boots dug into the ground of the field, sending up a spray of dirt as he fought for balance. His muscled arm burned as he knocked away another blow with his shield, it’s thick wood resounding from the impact.
With quick, methodical jabs of his spear he forced his opponent back. Exhaustion sapped his limbs as week of hard riding drained his usual vigor. Over the rim of his shield he could see his opponent hunched over and breathing just as deeply, suffering from the same fatigue.
His aching forearms trembled as he struggled to maintain a proper stance, spear gripped low against his side with the point aimed at his foes’ heart. Sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging and making a silhouette of his foe. He barely noticed the dusty grounds and the crowd of spearmen surrounding them. Arvo’s mind wandered for the briefest of moments, consumed by the thought of dunking his head in a barrel of cold water.
A sharp cry focused his attention just in time to spot the blur of a spear point flashing towards his face. A final surge of adrenaline shot through his body and he brought his own spear up. With a battle cry of his own he stepped into the attack. A loud wooden crack signaled his deflection of the attack. Twisting at the hips, he used the momentum of his body to turn his parry into a short, powerful thrust.
Arvo knew the blow was weak even as he desperately hoped it would end the bout. His luck held. Unable to recover his spear and return to a guard, the other man took the blunted tip in his thickly padded stomach. The blow drove what little wind the fighter had left. He expelled a sharp exhalation of air, which became a gurgle of pain as he bent over at the waist.
Another surge of energy shot through Arvo, the kind that came with victory. It eased some of the ache from his muscles. As his sparring partner gasped pain, Arvo brought the base of his spear around and swept the fighter’s legs out from under him. The was not over until your opponent hit the dirt. Thighs straining, he jumped back and crouched low in a ready position.
Arvo instinctively obeyed the command, which cut straight through the fog of exhaustion and the thrill of victory. He stood wearily beside his fallen foe and fellow lancer, who was still sprawled out on the ground.
The master of arms strode into the center of the training field, gesturing broadly to encompass the group of new lancers along the edge of the practice yard. “After five years you lot are barely fit enough for one ranging. And a soft one at that!” The instructor grabbed the trainee that Arvo just felled. Strong hands closed around the straps of his arming jacket and, thick arms bulging, he hauled the man to his feet. He shook the hapless lancer for good measure.
“What do you think waits for you at the end of a march?” The grizzled instructor paused, neck muscles rigid and brow furrowed as he stared down the men. Arvo suppressed a grin at familiar outrage; he’d learned the hard way to keep his amusement to himself. The loud voice barked out once again. “What are here to do, lancers?”
Arvo and the others shouted the old refrain in unison, “We ride! We fight!”
Arms master Ingru said nothing. He walked down the line of men, looking each in their eyes. When Arvo’s time came, he straightened as much as sore muscles would allow, striving to meet Master Ingru’s gaze. Hard, pitiless eyes stared back at him. As the man walked past, Arvo slumped ever so slightly. As always, that gaze left with a feeling of disappointment despite any success in the day’s training.
He admired the arms master, despite the torments of years of training and the grueling ride over the last weeks. It was the most demanding exercise in Arvo’s time in Bloodstone. Twenty days of hard riding through the frost covered hills and forests. Midnight sparring matches and mock battles at all hours. Of fifty aspirants, only twenty of them passed the final series of tests. Others were pulled, several each day, to return to some part of their training or ignominious dismissal. Arvo’s chest swelled with pride at the accomplishment. He’d, a landless lofter, was now a trained lancer, his skill certified by one of the few academies.
Ingru finished his inspection of the men and he walked to center of the yard. He planted himself there looking as solid as the stone walls surrounding the keep. “Tend you mounts and clean your equipment. The day is yours. Tomorrow we shall continue with spear practice.” A slanted, mocking smile graced his lips, “Based on this morning’s performance, you need it.” With his last mockery still echoing from the walls, the weapons master strode from the yard.
The trainees turned soldiers slumped following their superior’s departure. One of the smaller lads, the son of a wealthy farm owner near the city of Tarodor, puffed out his cheeks and blew air through his pursed lips. “Well lads, let me be the first to congratulate you!”
And that was that. From the agitated murmurs around him, Arvo could tell they were upset by the expedited graduation. It wasn’t much of a speech. Not even an honored to train you, lads! It didn’t matter though. Ingru said all he needed to, he’d called them lancers.
As he walked out of the yard to the stables, Ferrik, his defeated foe and another son of a landed family, shot him an angry glare. “That’s the last time you land a blow on me lofter!”
Arvo smirked, long past caring about the threats from the other, wealthier students, “I took it easy on you Ferrik. You should move faster next time.”
Ferrik puffed out his chest and snarled back, “Once were out these walls it’s go for real. We’ll see who ends eating dirt!”
The hot and familiar flush of anger filled Arvo. For a moment he wanted to take up the offer. It would feel good to put Ferrick in the infirmary. A part even wanted worse, payback for years of mocking. But even graduated and beyond the harsh discipline of Bloodstone, he couldn’t afford to anger a titled family.
Even if the son was the worst type of shit.
Hours later, Arvo still toiled in the stables. The noon sun come and gone, and now the last rays of daylight filtered through the open doors. He spent most of his time tending to his mount, an old gelding from the local garrison. He’d grown up with horses and knew that you couldn’t skimp on their comfort. They were strong creatures, but without care and feeding they wouldn’t be worth much in battle. More so, the rugged creature had carried him well for an old timer. He’d become less a mount to ride into battle than a good friend.
His boiled leather armor was equally weathered, several straps worn through from long use over the last few weeks. At least that wasn’t his problem. Soon he would trade in his stiff training armor for the mail of a fighting man.
Arvo enjoyed the simple labor and the time to relax his tortured muscles. He breathed in the rich aroma of the oil he rubbed into his saddle. Soon he would leave Bloodstone. The small castle and garrison town that was said to be forever stained with the blood, sweat, and tears of its trainees. From tales, it was built over an ancient arena for the pale master’s slave soldiers. Likely, thousands had died in this place. The name fit.
The others lancers were long gone, having paid younger trainees to tend to their tasks. The sons of nobles and landed families all, they could afford such things. And more. By now they’d be well into their celebrations in the small village outside the fortress.
Arvo was the last lofter in the school, a man without land, title or position. Without his spear, he’d be one amongst many, looking for farm work or labor wherever it could be found. Or breaking new lands out the wilderness and fighting to hold title to it. Life was hard for freeman without land, patron or trade. Spear and sword remained an honored way of earning his place in society.
Arvo stopped, chastising himself for such thoughts. Soon he would settle in one of the garrisons. Graduated as a lancer would surely guarantee a spot on retainer with some household. They would provide a harness of hardened steel links, stout spear and fine blade, and perhaps a charger of his own.
Most importantly, lancers were paid in hard currency. That would be a blessing after his poverty these last few years. There would even be enough to purchase a land title one day, and earn the gaze of a good partner. He had little experience with woman, but he knew from the wealthy lads that a poor lofter didn’t have a chance in securing a mate. Not that they were interested in such things during their carousals at the local tavern.
With a grin, he returned to his labors and pursued that latest line of thinking. A pleasant day dream took form, only to be interrupted when one of the young trainees interrupted him. The lad was much like him a few short years ago, playing the role of messenger and helper. “Hail lancer!”, he shouted with a smart slap of his fist to his chest.
The boy’s rigid stance identified him as brand new to the camp. Most lost that after a few months. The arms masters wanted strong soldiers, not prancing servants too afraid to meet their gaze. Arvo gave him a stern glare, as expected from a graduate. “Speak up recruit.”
The boy avoided his gaze. “I’ve been sent to finish your labors, lancer. You are required in the antechamber of the outer bailey.”
Arvo raised his eyebrows, surprised at the summons. “For?”
“I don’t know more than I’ve said.” The earnest lad gestured to the saddle, “I’ll take good care of that, my word on it.”
Arvo handed over the saddle and thanked him, ordering an extra helping of feed for his horse as he left. As he walked away he became quiet aware of his mud spattered attire and appearance. He had dunked his head into a water barrel and sluiced away the worst of the grime. He was still far from presentable. After a week in the saddle one forget the smell, but now his nose prickled from the odor. He sighed and mumbled to himself, “Required means now.”
The antechamber was a small stone room built along the outer wall. It was often used as a place to meet with newly arrived guests, though not the most important guests. The night guard also used it and Arvo smiled at the memory of a boring duty livened up with a bottle of cheap barley wine.
He reached the room first and peered through the open window in the stone wall. No one else was inside. Normally when summoned he would wait outside until his superior summoned him inside. Late in the afternoon, exhaustion numbed his mind and limbs. Without a conscious decision he entered the spare room and took a seat. Four worn wood chairs surrounded a sturdy, rough-hewn table. Hooks for cloaks and spear rests were the only other decoration aside from an empty fireplace. Hard or not, the chair was luxurious after weeks in the saddle. Within moments his head started to nod and a doze soon followed.
A cough jolted him awake. Fatigue clouded Arvo’s mind and he sat there for long drawn out moment while trying to focus on the man in front of him. He sat across from Arvo with his feet propped up onto table. He was an older man, balding and with a noticeable paunch. No one of interest at first glance, except for a strong, steady gaze at odds with innumerable laugh lines on his face.
Belatedly jumping to his feet, Arvo stammared, “Good day… uh, Master.” It was a neutral greeting, a common honorific that covered for his uncertainty of the man’s status. He could not place the older man. He didn’t wear the sigil or thick arming jacket of a soldier, nor did he flaunt the vibrant colors so popular with the nobility. A merchant, perhaps, dressed as he was in warm woolen tunic, vest and trousers suite to the road.
The man dropped his feet from the table with a thump and stood. He carried a short, fat blade sheathed in his belt. The garrison did not let just anyone enter the grounds while armed, another sign that the man held some positiion of status. Arvo extended his hand and they clasped arms in the greeting preferred by fighting men.
“Well met young man, you may call me Vendmere. You’re Arvo I take it?”
Arvo nodded and took a moment to take the measure of the Vindmere. He was taller than him and while standing his paunch was far less noticeable. His rough, callused hands indicated that he was no stranger to sword or reins. Up close, Arvo noticed a simple black pendant with four arrows facing outward, pinned to the vest.
“Don’t worry about the nap, I won’t mention it to Ingru. Better to rest when you can than collapse from exhaustion, eh?”
Arvo’s cheeks flushed, reminded of his carelessness. “My apologies Master Vindmere, it was improper.”
“Nonsense, and it’s just Vindmere!” He thumped the table with his fist to drive the point home and then sat back done with a thump. He waved for Arvo to join him. “So, you’re a lancer I hear. Well done! Tell me now, what’s next for you?”
Arvo’s brows furrowed. “Next I await selection for position. As a retainer my debt to Bloodstone will be paid in return for service.”
Vindmere flashed bright teeth as he grinned. “Ah yes, garrison life. Months of training and patrols, lots of standing around too. Perhaps a short and bloody campaign over one border or another?”
“A hard life, but it beats begging for field work.” He chuckled, a short choppy sounds like a creaking hinge. “I’m guessing you want to fight, eh? Young men are always looking to prove themselves.”
Arvo answered, “No. Well, yes. I am a soldier, of course I will fight.” The strange statement caught him off guard and it sounded far too close to mockery for his taste.
“Yep, old Ingru said you were a firebrand. A real killer that one. Always ready put another man down, or so I hear.”
Now he knew it for mockery, and Arvo’s face flushed. He’d taken his fill from the other recruits, but not now as a graduate. He shot back, “I am not some thoughtless thug, or simple killer. And before you ask, I certainly have no interest signing on as mercenary guard for a caravan.”
Vindmere’s brows rose and he spread his hands. His face was open with an expression of innocence. “I don’t see any merchants here, lad.” The older man leaned forward in his seat and stared directly into Arvo’s eyes. “But still, no interest in life on the road then?”
Arvo was more puzzled than ever. “I thought you were a merchant trying to hire me away…”
“Perhaps, but answer the question,” Vindmere demanded with an undeniable voice of authority, exactly like the same as one of his weapon masters.
Arvo instinctual barked his response, answering automatically in the same way one would respond to any of the instructors. “A retainer is a position of respect, of honor. A mercenary is one step away from…” He paused, not wanting to give voice to the slur commonly thrown at him.
“From being a lofter?
Vindmere flashed a sad smile, but otherwise showed no concern over his slur. “I have bad tidings for you then, my lad.”
“You will not be offered a position. Not with one of the counts or a position in the county militias.”
Arvo snorted in reply. “That’s ridiculous! I earned my position as lancer. This is the most prestigious academy in… well anywhere!”
“All true. But the pitiable truth is that times are changing. Bloodstone no longer caters to all classes of society. And those people do not want to elevate as a retainer someone without a family name.”
Arvo’s throat restricted in anger. Somehow it didn’t surprise him, but the injustice burned like a firebrand. He bitterly spat out a single work, “Raag.”
“My family is named Raag.”
“A good name. I’m told they died, I’m sorry to say. Your farm lost in the wars between Duke Tarod and the Hill Counts. But tell me, Arvo, who razed your home? Many villages burned in those years”
Arvo gave an angry shrug. He’d been fourteen turnings at that point and in his memory he only saw the shapes of mounted men in the darkness. His father sent him away to hide in the hills with the elderly and the other children. When they returned, there were only ashes and remnants of the men left to defend their homes.
Even years later he couldn’t keep the hurt and anger from his voice. He said, “I don’t know who killed my father, but Count Opa started the war. The Duke’s men took me in after. They were the ones that brought me here.”
Vindmere nodded grimly. “Villages burned at the hands of both sides Hard to say who started what, or why.” He spread his hands out and shrugged, as if to say that’s just how the world worked. “Have you considered that one day some lord will order you to do the same?”
Arvo avoided the question, preferring an intense study of his own hands instead. This strange man, this Vindmere, proclaimed his most suppressed fears in a blunt, matter of fact way. He felt oddly violated, with such words hanging in the air he could no longer hide from his worries.
When he didn’t answer, Vindmere stood and walked to the lone unbarred window to the antechamber. The long silence stretched out, becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Arvo struggled to control is apprehension with this interview, and failed to do so as he fidgeting like a child. When his words came, there were hot and angry, and tinged with desperation. “What other choice is there? The masters of Bloodstone took me in, fed me, trained me. I haven’t a trade or any other way to pay my debt. What choice is their other than service to the Duke, or some lesser noble? Or a merchant?”
Vindmere turned towards Arvo and fixed him with a steely, probing gaze. It lasted but a second, and then the old man’s face abruptly stretched into a broad, craggy smile. He walked up to Arvo and clasped him briefly on the shoulder. “There is always another choice, lad. Some have a higher cost than others. Now sit.” Vindmere relaxed back into his chair and asked, “Do you know what this pendant means?” He flicked the dark metal device attached to his tunic to emphasize the question.
Arvo glanced at is again and searched his memory. It seemed familiar, like something he’d learned when studying the sigils of the local counts. He almost answered that it still looked like a merchant brand, except that Vindmere carried himself more like a warrior. As he pondered the question, a dim memory surfaced of his father sheltering several men during a bad ice storm. They’d kept to themselves mostly, but they had worn something similar. He’d been to young to remember everything else, except for a name.
“You’re a ranger”, he said finally.
Vindmere nodded. “Well done. Not so many remember us these days! We go by the name free rider, though free ranger is more accurate. Do you know what that means though?”
Arvo shook his head. “I cannot say so, no. Something to do with the freedom to travel.” He smirked and said “Like a merchant.”
The weathered man ignored his joke. “Not far off actually. In fact that is the heart of the matter. The Accords describe the rights of free men and the nobles, and they set aside precedent for the travel of merchant caravans. It also established a separate order, those few with the right to range across county lines without toll or restriction.” Vindmere must have recognized the look of confusion on Karl’s face, so he continued. “The common version of the Accords ends with the preamble, which leaves out quite a bit.”
Arvo asked, “Why such an order? What do the Accords say?”
Vindmere leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Ah, well now. The short version is that we help keep the peace. Even the nobles cannot cross boundaries without permission. What do you do when bandits attack one fief and then run off to hide in another?”
Arvo knew to the answer to that one, every child knew it. He explained the obvious, that it was the local county’s responsibility to weed out banditry in their lands and to work with their noble brethren. Vindmere’s revealed his opinion of Arvo’s recounting of the proper manner of handling disputes.
“Lad, more often than not, the local count is in on the crime. It takes someone from the outside, without connection, to put an end to the problem, preferable before it starts a war.” He raised a finger to emphasize his next point. “Our main purpose in life, though, is to watch the frontiers. There are as many danger from outside as there are within… beasts of myth and magic flourish on the edge of civilization. And the old masters too. Their content now to war amongst themselves, but don’t dare you think that they’ve forgotten us.”
Vindmere talked more of his order and its trials. There were numerous mentions of bloody fights against some monstrous creature or raiders in the hinterlands, enough to whet any warriors appetite. But there was more as well, a lifetime spent ending conflicts before they started. Of negotiations held between counts, village councils, and landed gentry.
The light from outside dimmed as evening came on and Vindmere spoke of his last adventure in the north, and raising a posse to capture a bandit. Arvo’s ears perked up as he recognized a name.
“Ingru, you mean the arms master? How do you know him?”
Vindermere said, “Who do you think let me into the fortress, lad? We go back many years, ever since he helped me with that business with the Kree.”
“The Kree. You mean the lizards? Here?”
Vindmere gave a wistful smile and chuckled. “Funny thing that, we call them lizards as an insult, but they find the comparison charming. There were once several freeholds in these hills. A tale for another time though. The day grows short and I need an answer.”
With a jolt Arvo, realized that he was being recruited. “Wait! You are asking me to join you?”
Vindmere snorted. “Well of course, lad. I’m not just some old man that likes to bore strangers with his life’s story! Well, that’s not entirely true, but I do have better things to do right now.”
Arvo tried again to interject, but Vindmere cut off his next question. “I’m told they won’t take you as a retainer, not with the Duke or one of his counts. I’m afraid that your options are limited, but you do have a choice.”
“But how, their is my debt for the training…”
“Again lad, would I be here if I could ot pay? I am not without resources.”
Arvo’s thoughts raced as a dozen questions circled in his mind. One jumped to the forefront. “Why me?”
“Now that’s a good question.” Vindmere took the pendant off his tunic and placed it on the table. Four black arrows faced away from each other, looking much like an X. “The arrows represent our freedom to go in any direction. There’s a deeper meaning as well. Can you guess it?”
Arvo frowned and shook his head, knowing that any answer of his would be lacking. Vindmere’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “Not to worry, I wouldn’t expect you to know. The arrows represent the divide in our race following the collapse. Once we were cruelly united, savage slaves to even more savage masters. Today we are free, and with it we are divided. Hundreds of counties with their own customs and allegiances.”
Vindmere reached forward and plucked up the pendant. With surprisingly nimble fingers he reattached it to his tunic. “Our ranging is a type of penance, to knit the lands together. Our deeds remind everyone that we are the same people, because to remain free we must be able to fight together.”
Karl focused on the broach, reflecting on the many paths it represented. “I’ve never traveled far. Not from here or… from home.” Even the hard training in recent months never took him more than a few days away from Bloodstone.
“Aye, but I believe your spirit roams farther afield. You’re meant for more than riding in the service of some lord.” Arvo felt pride and fear with those words. They tugged at his heart with a promise of something better than just fighting. It was also a radical departure from his expected path.
“What would joining you entail?”
Vindmere’s teeth peeked through his broad grin. “Tempted, eh? I thought I had you pegged for one with the wanderlust!”
“I am just curious!”
A gentle chuckle met his protestations. “It’s simple enough. You follow me for a time, while I teach you our traditions. In the spring we journey east to one of our halls where I’ll introduce you. There a few in the lands, places to gather and train. Now normally I’d winter there, but I had business in the mountains.”
“Introduce me… and how many are there?”
“At the equinox meeting? Perhaps thirty will gather in our hall at Pitcairn. You’ll be named, and you’ll get your first taste of ranger politics!” Vindmere scrunched his face as if he’d bitten into a bitter fruit. “After that, we’ll do the good work through the summer and fall.”
Arvo asked more questions about Pitcairn and their journey, but Vindmere remained frustratingly short on details. Without answers, Arvo grew silent, struggling to make a decision. Excitement and worry warred in Karl’s heart.
Vindmere must have seen his indecision. The ranger abruptly stood and said, “Take the night lad. Consider your future. Maybe they will offer your a position with a noble retainer. Or, you can make another choice…”. Vindmere walked towards the door and Arvo belatedly stood to follow him. “I see a strong spirit in you, lad, and that’s a rare thing. You have the fighting arm, but need stout and honest heart as well. And we can offer you a place, a purpose. I’ll be at the inn, send word when you decide.”
With that final comment he left. Arvo, fatigue forgotten, sat down by the dimming flames. He thought for a long time as the coals in the hearth went dark.