by Martin Bolton
Corleb gazed into the fire and chewed a mouthful of boar. The meat was carved fresh from the spit and the boy wiped hot grease from his chin with his sleeve. His fingers throbbed as the heat from the fire seeped into them.
His father regarded him across the flames with stern eyes, black beard absorbing the light of the fire, making the man’s eyes shine all the more brightly.
“What have you been doing today, boy?”
“Playing swords in the forest.”
“Chukka and Breem.”
“The twins,” said his father, raising one scarred eyebrow, “they are two winters older than you, twice your size, and already students of Feurn. Do you not wish to play with children your own age?”
“The children my age are weak, they say I play too rough.”
“But you are small, even for your age.”
“Yes, but I am quick. They try to take advantage and it makes me angry,” said Corleb.
“If you wish to be a warrior, you must learn to control your anger. You must not show emotion, you must be a closed door.”
“But it is anger that gives me strength.”
“I did not say you don’t need your anger, just that you must control it. Sooner or later you will meet an opponent who will use it against you.”
Corleb was silent for a moment. “When can I be taught by Feurn?”
“You know you must see twelve winters before the swords-master will consider you.”
“I have seen nine, and I am strong.”
“It is tradition, Corleb, you must wait. Patience is a warrior’s virtue.”
“So is timing, and I am ready.”
“Only one warrior was ever schooled by the swords-master before his twelfth winter,” his father smiled, “and that man has passed into legend.”
“You know the story well, boy.”
“Tell me the story again,” demanded Corleb.
“Long ago,” his father began, “so long that the memory has all but faded in the mists of time, our people, the Rowaceni, lived to the east, across the mountains. The summers were warm, and the winters mild. The land was a sprawl of forests and valleys, verdant dales and clear rivers filled with fish.
“There we prospered throughout the ages. Until the tyrant, Khalic, formed his empire. Your ancestors were given a choice: bow to Khalic or die. The Rowaceni cannot be ruled. Khalic sent an emissary to the Rowaceni chief, Seldat, offering to spare the lives of his people if he would bend the knee. Seldat sent the emissary back to Khalic with a message of his own – that Khalic would have to come and fight.
“Khalic sent a force to subdue the Rowaceni, but he underestimated our skill in battle and the ferocity of our berserker warriors. Khalic’s force was shattered. The slaughter was terrible, but Seldat allowed one man to escape alive, minus an eye, an arm, and his manhood. He sent the soldier back to Khalic so the tyrant would hear and see first hand what it meant to threaten the Rowaceni.
“One man became a legend in that battle. He was the greatest swordsman who ever lived, and he slew countless men. Without him, the Rowaceni would be slaves.”
“What was his name?” asked Corleb.
“You know very well. His name was Usher.”
Corleb whispered the name into the fire, his eyes wide, as though Usher’s spirit would appear before him in smoke.
“Khalic was furious,” continued Corleb’s father. “He immediately made plans to lead a vast army west and exterminate the Rowaceni. He vowed never to rest until every last one of us was destroyed. Seldat, knowing his people could not stand against Khalic’s entire army, made plans to lead the women and children, together with a few men, through the mountains. As the story goes, there was just one safe pass through the peaks, known only to Seldat.
“But the risk of Khalic catching up and following the Rowaceni through the pass was too great. Khalic would have to be held up. Usher volunteered to stay behind with a horde of Seldat’s finest warriors.
“As Khalic’s army marched into our lands, he found them deserted. He burned and laid waste the land as he went. Usher, knowing he could not prevail in the battle that followed, needed only to hold out long enough for his people to escape to freedom. And so the courageous Usher gave his life so that we might live. Legend has it that one day he will rise again, pass on his martial knowledge, and show us the way back through the ancient high pass in the mountains, to reclaim the fertile land of our origins.”
Corleb finished his boar in silence and walked back into the twilight. The sun still peered over the horizon, the sky was a deep purple, and the forest was darkening. His father would expect him back before nightfall.
As he wandered into the deepening gloom, the pungent scent of pine trees in his nostrils and snow crunching under foot, a voice greeted him warmly.
“Did you eat all your supper, Corleb?”
“Yes, just as you bade me.”
“Good, you must grow strong,” said the voice, “you have many more lessons to learn, many more trials to pass.”
“I know who you are.”
“Of course you do,” laughed the voice.
“How old are you?”
“Older than you can possibly imagine, boy.”