In one of DaleGuard’s many packed taverns
“DON’T YOU PEOPLE SEE?” one man was yelling.
He was drunk. Incredibly so. So drunk that he had trouble standing straight. Still, he tried to make his point. Fortunately for him, he was one of those who got only more impassioned and loud rather than slurry and passive when he became inebriated. Not so fortunate for the other patrons, however, who had to hear him.
“This is how they control us. These Yignsi. They slip into our land and take over and now they impose their deity on us. These Steelborns! If we don’t do something now we’ll never be able to stop them. They are strong but if we all fight them together we can…” he was cut off when a tankard slammed into his face.
“OH SHUT UP!” came an accompanying yell. There was laughter and cheering from the majority of the tavern’s occupants. It appeared that they had finally grown tired of the loud drunk. The poor man had been sent backwards from the blow, blood spewing from his broken nose. Luckily, his friends were able to steady him to prevent him from falling as he was certainly seeing stars.
“Outsiders this! Outsiders that! You people never have any proper complaint against the Steelborns. So what if they are outsiders. My grandmother came from the southern hills are you going to hold that against me too. Pathetic!” He spat. Many in the tavern nodded at this, showing that they agreed with him.
“You don’t understand”, spoke one of the bleeding drunk’s companions. He appeared to be far less inebriated than his counterpart. “This is different. They are trying to control us. It doesn’t matter where you turn they are there. They’ve got their grubby fingers in everything and now they want us to worship their deity as well knowing that it would give them more power. How long before they enslave us or worse? We have to cut them off here before the time comes and we can’t anymore.’
At his words, a large mercenary near the back started laughing. The man was at least two and half metres tall and built like a bull. He wore simple leathers and sat on his own at the side of his small band unable to sit at table with them due to his size. Thankfully, he had been given a seat big enough as well as a small table to himself where his drinks and food were. He stared past all the other tavern occupants, his eyes unerringly finding the other man’s.
Keeping his overly large arm around the waist of one of the tavern wenches, he began to speak “That’s your problem? The fact that the Steelborns rule us? I’m not sure what you know about ruling houses but I reckon that’s part of their duties. I don’t reckon the king gave them the land and peerage for them to make nice armour for themselves!”
The other patrons burst into loud laughter as well when it became clear what he was implying. The ruling house was supposed to control all affairs in its territory. Getting angry because they did that was just futile and stupid.
“As for slavery, hah! Have you got cobwebs between your ears boy? They are the ruling House of Cragsveil! All the land is theirs and all of the people theirs to command. Only a more powerful power like a count, duke or the King himself can go against their wishes in their land. Why would they need slaves when they can already command any of us to do whatever they want?
“If your problem is the fact they are the ones ruling us then take the matter up with the King. He appointed them. Or better yet challenge the Viscount. I’d love to see how long it would take for him to behead the lot of you. But if you are just going to stand here and spit out nonsense then take your foolish posse and get out here. Your stupidity is going to make our ale taste sour. Well …at least more sour than Trais’ brew normally is!”
Everyone burst into laughter again. Trais the tavern keep shot the mercenary an obscene gesture but that just made his patrons laugh even more. As for the Steelborn disparaging gentlemen, they merely stood there, realising that they were not being taken seriously. Many had their faces flushed an angry red and nearly all of them had their fists clenched at their sides. This was not the first time this had happened. It didn’t matter where they went. Be it on the streets or in the taverns, nobody was willing to entertain them and their views. Especially at a time when favourable sentiments towards the Steelborns was at such a high due to the events of the Zebre.
In midst of this tide of laughter, another voice was heard. “I for one am glad that the Steelborns are our rulers”. The speaker this time was a well-known trader and people spun to face him and hear what he had to say.
“The Steelborns are the strongest plain and simple”, he stated. “They are the best we’ll get. I’d rather they be in charge than any of the other lords. We should not forget that the last time war touched these lands, they all scurried off like roaches when the lamp is lit. It is only because of the Steelborns that there’s still a Cragsveil. Those damned Wherries still fear us precisely because the Steelborns are our rulers.
“They run a tight shift but it’s a good, fair and efficient one. Whenever I recall my grandfather’s stories of the old days I thank the stars that I live in this time and not in his. I cannot even imagine that Cragsveil was once what they say it was. With constant incursions, bandits and daemon raids not to mention the squabbles between the various lords. I don’t even what to think of this land being that lawless.
“No matter what you say about the Steelborns, they keep everyone in line. The lords know not to do anything foolish. All the old, famous bandit groups are gone. I am forty now and I have never experienced a Wherry invasion. That was something completely unheard off two hundred years ago. The daemons skirt our lands but they never intrude. Those that do…die. More importantly, the Steelborns ensure that everyone does his or her duty. I’ve looked at some of the figures. You wouldn’t believe just how much that contributes to the peace and prosperity we enjoy.
“I bet none of you can even imagine an official not doing his or her job or one that would require a bribe before doing anything. I trade a lot and I can tell you truthfully that it while it might not happen in Cragsveil but it certainly happens nearly everywhere else. The only difference between Cragsveil and those places is that the Steelborns won’t tolerate it and they can enforce those laws so no one dares. That’s why I want them to remain. They can and will continue to do the job. They are strong enough to do so and they are best we can have.”
The occupants of the taverns sat there murmuring as they deliberated on the trader’s words. They had some merit. No other power or faction could control Cragsveil as effectively as the Steelborns and none of them had the power to sit at the top of the region. The confusion alone that would arise if the Steelborns were absent would be disastrous.
Along one of the side streets in one of DaleGuard’s residential districts
A bunch of boys were gathered together. Each was about seven or eight years old. They were gearing up to play one of those games Valerian never got to play at that age. Cultivators! Unfortunately, there was currently an argument ongoing that prevented the game from starting.
“I want to be a Steelborn!” the tallest lad said.
“No, I want to be a Steelborn”, the neatest proclaimed making sure his voice was louder than the one before him.
“Wait, I want to be a Steelborn too”, the third and shortest one mentioned.
“We can’t all be Steelborn”, the first was wise enough to point out.
“Then, I should be the Steelborn. I started this game so I should be the Steelborn”, the second quickly piped in.
“I… well then I’m John Hammerfist”, said the first relenting.
“Why is everyone wanting to be Steelborn?” the fourth and dirtiest asked in a puzzled tone.
“Because, because the Steelborns are the strongest!” The second boy explained.
“Except for maybe Hammerfist”, the first boy stated.
“Ha! Hammerfist can’t beat a Steelborn. No one can beat a Steelborn.
“Yeah, says who?” the first quickly objected.
“Ask anyone. Everyone know it. I heard that at the Zebre that one of them even made a devil cry”, the second said proudly.
“Wow!” “Wicked!” the other two Steelborn enthusiasts exclaimed simultaneously.
“I know”, the second said in response. “When I grow up I’m going to get a job with the Steelborns!” he announced.
“Well, my father says the Steelborn are all rotten. That they aren’t even from Crasgveil and we shoun’t have to listen to ‘em”
“Your father is the rotten one!” the ‘game starter’ yelled angrily.
“You take that back!” the fourth yelled back.
“I won’t!” the other said stubbornly. “Everyone knows the Steelborn are good. They is always the good guys.”
“Yeah! My father says they go and fight daemons all the time” said the first in support of the second. “They got to be the good guys?” he reasoned.
“But my father says…” the fourth tried to say.
“Pooey! Your father is just jealous”, the second accused.
“Is not!” the fourth retorted.
“Is too!” the second shot back.
“Is not” the fourth repeated.
Thankfully, before they could truly get going a timely distraction came.
“Guys! Guys! Stop. Come see! Charles is walking with a girl. They are holding hands!” came the voice of the shortest in the group, the third boy.
“Where?” asked two voices.
“Which girl?” asked the second boy.
“Quick! Come see!” their friend called.
Scrambling in their haste they rushed towards the curb to catch their friend holding hands with a very pleased looking girl. The baker’s daughter from his street. Swiftly, they began planning how they would confront him about the matter and tease him. The quarrel from before was already gone from their minds.
In a secret meeting room
Dorian Veldt stood next to the entrance personally welcoming everyone in. Today’s turnout was the greatest this century. Everyone had come. They even had new members. He just wished this enthusiasm had come sooner. ‘Still’, he thought to himself as he scanned the packed room. ‘This should be enough to crush those dratted Steelborns.’
Taking his place at the head of the table, he began, “My brethren we….
Conversely, in a secret room in the Steelborn clan compound
Roland Steelborn sat cross-legged in front of a raised dais. Two strange looking elders at his sides. His eyes were open but unfocused. His thoughts were racing at breakneck speeds as he exchanged information with the being in front of him updating it on the progress they had made. The numbers that had already signed up. The move to send effigies for shrines to some of the remote towns and villages. The movements of their enemies as well as the donations and sacrifices already coming in.
The Zebre had been an even greater success than they had planned it to be. He felt the presence in his mind pause, halting at an image. His great-grandson. Roland felt pride shoot up his chest as well as sorrow. It pained him that he had never been a part of the boy’s life before now and that his relationship with Valan had degraded to the point it was now. Back in the infirmary, he stood there, on the sidelines, painfully aware that he did not fit in. He had no role to play among them. None but the role of the clan patriarch who sought the clan’s wellbeing. So he played that.
He sat there waiting as the presence in his head carefully went through all the information on Valerian as well as the various assessments made of him by the elders who had come into contact with him. Then, the presence withdrew from his mind. It took Roland a few moments to regain his senses and recover from the sudden vacuum in his mind. He and the spirit due their roles shared the greatest connection amongst the Steelborns. It had reached a point where they no longer even spoke in each other’s presence. Rather they performed mind melds so they could simply connect and exchange what they had to. That was why it surprised him when the spirit spoke.
“The Boy! Bring me the boy!”
“Valerian?” he inquired to make sure.
“Yes! Bring him to me!”
“I see. Then I’ll have him brought over as soon as possible. Anything else?”
Roland nodded. Then standing up, he bowed to the dais and then made his way to the entrance saying goodbye to the priests as he did so. The StormHawk had spoken!
The atmosphere in Cragsveil was jubilant. The Zebre had come to a close and this one was perhaps the greatest in recent memory. The battles, the techniques, the fighters, the twists, everything was at an all-new high. The whole city was charged with it. Ordinarily, the conclusion of the tournaments should have led to the decline in the festivities. The finals were the climax of the tournament which was why they were all scheduled to happen at the same time. It should be all downhill from there but that was not the case.
It was like the battles had not ended. Everywhere people were still discussing them and the bazaars and festivities were still going strong. It was a bit muted though. However, that was only because most of the people were gathered at the arena. The place was packed. So packed that many simply stood around the building itself. Everyone was waiting for the champions to be crowned and everyone was waiting to confirm for themselves.
There were a wide variety of events at the DaleGuard Zebre. Thirty of them to be exact. This year, the Steelborns took first place in a shocking twenty-six of that number. What’s more, they had won all of the truly important, popular and anticipated events. It was a record. No faction had ever won that number, ever.
Inside the bowl of the Arena, the fighting platform had been reduced in size. Standing on it were the judges, a few officials, the Viscount and some of the other major personalities in the region. They were there to announce the winners and hand out the prizes. The top five contestants or groups of contestants in the case of the team events stood in front of the stage and waited for their turns to be called up. That was where Valerian stood. Right beside four others in his category. In the end, Aaron had been unable to compete and so scored an automatic loss against Ethan. Also, like he had predicted, Tirenael lost to Ethan as well.
That left Ethan at first place with three points, Valerian at second with one win and a draw, Tirenael third with one win and of course poor Aaron with only a draw. Being that he could not attend on account of his injuries, a representative of the Veldt clan had been sent to receive his award in his place. All she had done thus far though was glare at Valerian whenever his back was turned. With the scores being as they were and the fact that Beatrice won the runner-up battle, the Steelborns had claimed three out of the five top spots.
All in all, Valerian felt very good about himself. He stood there alongside the other winners and could not help but feel he had earned his place. They said he couldn’t do it but he had proved them wrong. Better than that he had proved himself right. Everyone had said that he was inexperienced and he had agreed. But now, with a Zebre appearance under his belt as well as the fact that he had seized second place in the tournament no one could say that again. The best part about it was. It was true, the Zebre had opened his eyes and given him new horizons. He knew what he was capable of now and better understood his standing when compared to his peers.
Thus as Valerian climbed the stairs of the platform amidst the cheers of his numerous fans, he felt happy and secure. He smiled as he received the scroll that held his prize and bowed not just to the assembled dignitaries but also to the crowd as well causing them to go wild. He had attained a better understanding of himself. Now, the only thing on his mind was the question, where to from here?
The answer came in form of a small object flying towards his face. Valerian snatched it out of the air. It was a hard object wrapped in some kind of paper. Quickly, his eyes shot to where the thing came from hoping to catch a glimpse of who sent it. What he found was one of the judges looking at him with a pleased smile on his face.
Valerian turned his eyes back to the object in his hands. He quickly unwrapped it. The wrapping had a note scrawled on the inside.
I think this will suit that style you are working on.
‘Style? What style?’ Valerian questioned before looking at the object. It was a piece of jade with symbols inscribed on it. Valerian recognized it – a technique talisman. Excited, he scanned it looking for the name of the technique.
“I can’t believe you actually gave him that technique”, Kanlu complained. “I remember begging for two weeks for you to let one of the students in my sect practice it and you still refused. Yet, you simply hand it out to people who have no idea who you are or its true worth.”
“Relax. I only gave him a copy. That technique is one that I planned to leave to my sect remember? There’s no way I’ll hand the original copy out”, Kusko’o explained.
“I see…” Kanlu said. His disbelief clear in his tone.
“How complete is the copy you gave the boy then?” Attaburrun asked.
“I don’t see how that is any of your concern”, Kusko’o defended.
“You might as well have given the original to the boy then”, Kanlu quickly pointed out.
Having nothing to say to defend himself, Kusko’o turned to his friend and said, “Shut up!”
“Why?” came Attaburrun’s voice.
“Why what?” questioned Kusko’o.
The man didn’t even have to think before answering. “His talent for the illusionary arts are incredible. His skill and instinct for battle is the same as well. He can use that technique the way it was meant to be used. The moment I saw the way he used the mirage spell, I knew.”
“So you merely don’t want his talent to go to waste?” Kanlu asked curiously.
“Of course not!” his friend replied. “He is a promising junior from our own viscounty it is our duty to help him grow.”
“You’ve changed”, Kanlu stated. Attaburrun nodded in agreement.
“Please”, he protested. “All I’ve done is grow old.”
The three turned to see Valerian bowing deeply in the direction of their friend. Kusko’o waved his hand making sure the illusion they kept around themselves nodded in response.
“I suppose in a way the boy can now even be called a spiritual successor of yours now that he carries one of your famous techniques”, Attaburrun pointed out.
“You know, you’re right”, Kusko’o assented. “You know what this means. I’ve got the most promising youth in the last six centuries as my spiritual successor. What do you two have?” he ended snidely.
Deep in the heart of Menhir Mountain
The great Menhirion sat on his bottom facing the vault door. His once great form looked emaciated and weak. Cracks and rents marred his once perfect body. He was bored, tired and weak all at the same time. No one had made an attempt on the door in nearly two decades. Shortly before the clan completely fell he had been able to seal himself in the Steel Heart. At the time, he thought it fitting for him to die in the very same chamber he had been born in. Then a great fear gripped his heart.
‘What if he was the last still alive?’
If so, then when he died the vault would automatically reset itself allowing their enemies to open and enter their most sacred abode. So he forced himself to live on. Not for himself but for his family especial those who had died that night. The first century after his self-entrapment was the hardest. He would sit in the chamber with his senses stretched completely outward, monitoring what few surviving descendants he could reach. He was able to do so due to not only being ancestor but also guardian spirit of the Menhirionn. However, it meant that was also able to sense it when a member of his family was murdered. There were times when he felt like bursting out of this vault and fight to the end but he did not.
Rather, he remained in the vault. Hoping without hope that some of his blood made it. Eventually, there came a time when he could sense no one no matter how hard he tried. He had nearly ended it right there. However, in the end, he settled for rigging the vault such that every single item within it and even him was tied to the wards and protections. That meant the only way for their enemies to break open the vault with force was to first destroy everything in it. Only, they didn’t know that. He could help but imagine what their faces would look like when they opened the vault and discovered nothing but an old corpse and scraps.
Then, one day more than four hundred years after he sealed himself in the vault he felt it. A pull on his essence. One he hadn’t in a long time but still, one he was very familiar with. One of his descendants had awoken a phantasm. That day, for the first time in over two hundred years, the son of the mountain cried.
HIS CHILDREN WERE STILL ALIVE!
And thus we come to the end of Book One of Heavenward on Golden Wings: Hatchling.
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