The Faranorth Chronicles

Editor’s Note

You may have noticed this is a particularly long article. That’s because this is the complete text of the Faranorth Chronicles, an award-winning story our very own Fred Rion ’18 worked on through all of last year. Even though I personally edited every word below, looking at the totality of Mr. Rion’s work, even I’m amazed at its scope and development. I can tell you, without exaggeration or prevarication, that while I very much enjoy Mr. Rion’s new series, I miss reading about Merrick and Adeline, and I’m sure some of you do too. (Who knows? If Philip Pullman can do another trilogy, Mr. Rion may yet return to this world he’s created.) Read and enjoy.
– M

Chapter 1

It was late . . . really late. So late that his eyes throbbed in pain just from being open. Yet Merrick continued to cry. The three-year-old boy had not cried like this at night for nearly a year, and his father was worried. The man’s other son, Unwin, had insisted upon caring for Merrick himself, but he’d fallen asleep next to his younger brother. The man smiled. he loved his children as much as any father.

There was a strange rustling noise coming from outside. The father walked slowly to the door, grabbing his sword off its hook as he went. The door swung open, and a man wrapped in furs with a pack swung over his shoulder stepped in.

“Hardwin! What the hell are you doing here at this hour?”

Hardwin Cross was barely twenty. The young man panted, his eyes wide with fear. “Donald,” he said, “You have to come with me, they will be here any moment . . .”

Donald grabbed his friend, looking him in the eye.

“Hardwin, stop, slow down, who will be here?” Hardwin still was panicking.

“Them, Donald,” his voice quivered. “The Blades.”

Now it was Donald’s turn to be afraid.

“Helena!” He cried, “Get the boys up and grab provisions! We need to leave!”

Helena flew into the room and set about packing their bags. Hardwin and Donald jumped in.

Unwin rose groggy and confused, but did not speak.

“You are the only ones who listened to me Donald. Not even Jon believed me!”

Hardwin said as he rushed about gathering foodstuffs and clothing. Donald shook his head.

“They are all complacent fools. Two years without bandits and they refuse to accept they are coming back.”

A shout of pain pierced the near silent night. Merrick stopped crying.

The Hammering Blades had entered the town. Donald swore. Hardwin’s eyes widened. “Jon!” He shouted, sprinting from the room, off to find his brother.

Helena scooped Merrick up and grabbed Unwin by the hand. She led them over to the entrance to the cellar in the corner. Donald readied his blade. Helena opened the hatch in the floor and put both children into the basement. She raised a finger to her lips, then closed the hatch. The visibly distraught mother pulled a rug over the hatch, then joined her husband.

“Helena, you need to run. The boys will be safe in the cellar.”

She huffed indignantly and crossed to the kitchen, drawing a wicked sharp knife from a drawer.

“I can handle myself,” she said, clearly annoyed. The sounds of battle grew louder. Seconds that felt like hours ticked by.

An eternity later, a tall man, wearing random bits of armor, pushed into the room, a smile stretching across his face. A long sword flashed in his hand.

A second bandit made his way in, although he was not grinning like an idiot. The second one held his blade out.

“Hand over your valuables,” he growled.

Donald roared and leapt forward, sword swinging in a deadly arc.

The serious bandit simply flicked his sword into Donald’s path. The smiler laughed. The serious one pushed Donald off his blade. Helena looked upon her husband’s face once more, tears in her eyes.

Then she turned to face the two murderers, armed with only a kitchen knife.

Chapter 2

Fourteen years later . . .

Merrick bolted up with a start. He was sweating and his breathing was labored. He stood up and scratched his head, which was covered in an unruly tangle of thick hair, then stumbled tiredly across the room to the waist-high dresser pushed against the wall.

The young man peered into his dresser, still trying to shake off his sleep. He changed quickly, unwilling to expose his skin to the sharp, cold air that permeated his home.

Merrick padded into the main room of the small cabin. Barely stopping, he grabbed a single loaf of bread off the counter, his dagger, and his overcoat. Slamming the door behind him, Merrick left the empty house and set out for work.

Merrick sloshed along in the melting snow on the path to Mr. Christopher’s, munching on his bread. The old cobbler had been the closest thing Merrick had to a father since he before he could remember. Ever since Unwin had been drafted for the army, Mr. Christopher was the only family he knew he had. A smile lit upon Merrick’s face as he opened the door to the one-story home that Mr. Christopher ran his business out of.

“Hello, sir,” Merrick called as he dried his shoes on the filthy doormat, “what’s on the agenda for today?”

Mr. Christopher walked in, putting his arms through the sleeves of his coat as he went. “Hullo Merrick,” the aging man responded. “There are four orders to fill. I left ’em on the table. Now I must be off, my daughter is expecting me by the day’s end, and Crossmont is a ways on foot.” Mr. Christopher passed Merrick and left the house, Merrick calling farewell behind him.

Merrick stood at the table, a smile on his face. He could see why Mr. Christopher left in such a rush. Three of the four orders were simple jobs. It was the last one that was the problem. One-hundred boots for the legion. It would take him most of the day just to get through twenty. Merrick sighed, knowing it would be a long day.

Hours passed and Merrick worked on. He had finished the other three orders in some two hours. It was noontime when Merrick was finishing his fifth pair and Jon Cross walked into the store. The older man wore an old breastplate, a dented helmet, and a tired expression. Jon Cross was a member of the small town guard. A slight smile tugged at his face as he saw Merrick, bent over the table, totally absorbed in his work. Merrick looked up and tried to rub the annoying crick out of his neck.

“Hi Jon,” Merrick said, happy for the distraction, “Here for your boots?”

“Yes I am. Are they done?” Merrick pulled the boots from the shelf behind them and held them out for Jon, who took the boots and dropped some coins onto the table. “I would love to stay and chat, but I’m beat. We just returned from the patrol of the woods.”

Merrick perked up at this. “The woods?” He asked, “Did ya see anything? Bandits? Wolves? Banshees? Giant spiders? A dragon?”

Jon laughed. “Nothing of the sort kid. Just a couple of birds and some real fat squirrels.” Merrick sighed as Jon stepped toward the door. “I’m gonna go now, Merrick. Have a nice day.” Once again, Merrick was alone.

Somewhere into the tenth pair of boots, Merrick became rather aggravated with his work. “Stupid empire,” he muttered as he worked, “first they leave us to the bandits, then they force us to support their pointless war.” Merrick never much liked the rulers of Faranorth, and he was not alone. The final straw for Merrick had been the disappearance of Unwin. His older brother had been drafted to fight some five years prior, and had never returned or even written to Merrick.

Merrick lay face-down on the table. The twenty-second pair of boots sat unfinished before him. It was past midnight. A heart-stopping scream pierced the near-silent night sky.

Merrick rose.

Then a single voice bellowed to him through the dark night air, giving a message of only one word. “Bandits,” it said. Merrick swore, grabbed his coat, and tore into the frigid night air.

Chapter 3

The world was going to hell.

Merrick’s eyes went wide as he gazed out at the chaos. Fires were erupting at random. Merrick saw a few members of the town guard attempting to mount some form of defense against the crazed bandits, but with little result.

Merrick began to run forward, to help his townsfolk fight the villains. He reached the small knot of combatants, using all his momentum as he thrust his shoulder into the side of a bandit.

He hit the ground hard. He rose to his knees, glancing about for the bandit. He sensed movement to his right and pushed in the opposite direction. A fist scraped his back as he scrambled away. Merrick sprung up, snatching his dagger from its sheath as he went. The bandit rose too.

The vile oaf stepped forward, swinging his hefty battle-ax as he went. Merrick dove forwards, avoiding the sharp, shining blade, and rose quickly, shoving his short dagger at the bandit’s exposed midriff.

Merrick’s cramped lunge never connected. The big man backhanded Merrick, sending him sprawling. The bandit grinned mirthlessly as he advanced. Merrick scrambled backwards desperately but found himself backed against one of the few intact homes. He looked about in vain. All the other combatants were barely holding the bandits back. Merrick was alone.

The bandit’s empty grin slowly changed into an expression of shock. He looked down, surprised, at the spearhead that protruded from his stomach. Jon Cross pulled the weapon out and watched the disgusting man crumple to the ground.

“Jon!” Merrick exclaimed, delighted to see his friend. Jon gazed at him, a mixture of anger and fear on his face.

“You should not be out here, Merrick. These men are dangerous,” he said, the worry clear in his voice.

“Damn it, Jon, I’m trying to help!” Merrick retorted, somewhat stupidly.

“Fine,” Jon said, still obviously distressed, “I don’t have time to get you someplace safe, so you can come with me.” Merrick grinned, happy that he would be fighting to help his town. “However,” Jon said, “You will do exactly as I say, no exceptions. Understand?” Merrick nodded his head vigorously.

Jon jogged steadily before Merrick as the two made their way through the dying village. They came to the end of the narrow alley that was their current safe haven. Jon peeked around the corner and immediately withdrew his head. He turned to the younger man.

“Bandit,” he hissed, “only one.” Jon then removed the standard-issue sword that hung at his waist and handed it to Merrick. “You stay here,” the guard continued, “and shout if you need me.”

Merrick hooked the sheathed blade onto his left hip and moved his short dagger to the right. Jon nodded approvingly, then leapt into the street to confront the invader.

Merrick listened as Jon fought the bandit in the road. Barely a minute passed before he heard the bandit’s final shout followed by a dull thump. Merrick started forward, but a sudden interjection halted his progress.

“Very good!” It catcalled. “You, my friend, are quite the fighter!”

Merrick pressed himself against the house and inched toward the corner.

“Who the hell are you?” Jon said venomously.

“Ho, ho, easy there!” The voice responded. “I am Vince, the leader of these vicious ne’er-do-wells. You may know us as the Blades.”

Merrick peered around the corner. Vince was a tall man with a close shaved head. His back was turned to Merrick. On his left stood an even taller man who was built like a slab of granite. A sword that seemed too large to be carried hung on the giant’s back. On Vince’s right was a hooded figure, who seemed to be hovering a meter off the ground. Merrick had to stifle his sharp intake of breath at the sight of the ghastly trio.

“So,” Vince drawled, “where do you lovely folk keep your fortunes?” Merrick prepared himself to run forward and attack the men that were staring his friend down.

Merrick began to draw his sword. Jon glanced quickly at the corner, and gave a small, nearly imperceptible shake of his head. Merrick stopped. Jon stared fiercely at the bandits.

“Find it yourselves,” he spat.

Even though Merrick could not see the man’s face, he knew Vince was grinning.

“Have it your way,” he said nonchalantly, “we’ll just interrogate someone else. Perhaps your friend hiding in the alley?” Merrick’s eyes widened. “Kill the guard, and Oisin? Fetch the shy one.”

Merrick watched in horror as a ball of flame burst from the hooded man’s hand straight toward Jon. The giant Oisin turned toward the nearly unnoticeable nook. Merrick sprinted back into the dark confines of the alley.

Chapter 4

Merrick was safely hidden between a stack of firewood and the wall of a house. It had not been hard to escape the wall of flesh that had been sent after him. His fear-laden mind attempted to make sense of recent events.

A damn magic user! They were supposed to be myths!

Merrick shook, both with cold and with the terror that permeated his very core. He was quite possibly the only one left alive in the town, besides the creatures of evil that were burning it to ash. Merrick knew the sane thing to do was run and never look back. Merrick emerged from his hiding spot, and began to run in the direction of where he had last seen Jon.

Merrick crept toward the back window of the house. He peered inside and saw Jon splayed out on the floor. He pushed the window up, then crawled through the narrow opening. He propelled himself on his hands and knees to where his friend had landed. The majority of Jon was burnt, but his chest still rose and fell shakily.

“Jon!” Merrick whispered, barely containing his joy at seeing his friend alive. Jon’s eyes slide open. “Merrick,” he rasped, “you . . . run . . . north woods . . . get . . . help . . .” Jon’s eyes flickered and closed. His chest struggled to rise. Merrick grasped his friend’s blackened hand.

“I’ll go, Jon. Don’t worry about me.” A smile touched the guard’s face. Then his hand went limp, and his chest fell one last time. Jonathan Cross was dead.

Merrick remained as still as he could in the shadows of the alley. He had barely made it a street over before he met bandits. A man and woman dressed in mismatched pieces of armor, armed with semi-dented, rusted swords, emerged from one house. Both carried bulging sacks filled with valuables. The woman tossed her bag onto the ground and walked back into the wooden house. A moment later she walked calmly back out and picked up her loot.

“That should burn nicely,” the man said, the idiocy obvious in his voice. The woman’s face broke into a manic grin. “Yeah, it’ll take the rest of these piles of sap and log with it!”

The two stumbled off with their new-found wealth, chuckling to themselves all the while. Merrick fought the urge to go after the two, and continued on his path to the north woods.

Merrick reached the edge of his town. To him, it was as though he stared at the edge of the earth. The forest opened its dark maw to him. Merrick remembered what he had said to Jon earlier that day. Banshees and dragons seemed more exciting in the daylight. Anger, fear, and sadness churned in Merrick’s heart. He shook violently and leaned against a barely visible tree.

“No,” the young man growled, “Jon didn’t die for me to break down here. He died so I could live. So that I could stop the Blades.”

Merrick steadied his quivering body, then shoved it into the depths of the woods.

Chapter 5

Merrick’s courage was disappearing as fast as the snow in his burning village. It was nearly impossible to see in the dark woods. Branches snagged at his cloak. The thick trunks hemmed him in. Unlike the village, which was covered by intense heat, the woods were extremely cold. The only noise was Merrick’s rapid breathing and the crunch of snow and dead twigs under his feet.

Finally, Merrick fell to his knees. He had been walking for hours. He had heard nothing and seen even less. He tried to stand, but his body refused. He crumpled into a heap on the hard ground. Despite his best efforts, the world began to darken around him. He was unconscious in seconds.

Merrick’s eyes snapped open. He had heard footsteps. His muscles tensed. In one fluid motion, he rolled into a crouch and cast about in the direction of the noise. A hooded figure stood, its hand outstretched.

Fear seized Merrick. His heart was beating out of his chest. He reached for the sword strapped to his hip. Then he remembered how quickly this mage had dealt with Jon, the raw power that exuded from its very being. Merrick turned and sprinted further into the woods.

He heard the sorcerer begin to chase after him. The pair ran noisily through the dense foliage. Both crashed through branches and bushes, both intent on prolonging the chase. Merrick noticed a branch in front of him, one low enough that he could easily reach and swing himself into the tree. He put on another burst of speed and leapt for the branch. The limb caught him in the stomach, and he immediately scrambled for purchase on its smooth surface. He pulled himself onto the wide branch, crouching low. He brought his head up, glad the chase was over. He turned and saw the hooded figure sitting calmly on a branch.

Merrick shouted in surprise and launched himself into the air. His hands closed around another branch. A loud snap resounded in the trees, and Merrick was falling again, the branch still clutched in his hands. Merrick landed heavily in a small clearing, rolling to absorb some of the impact. Despite his best efforts, his left foot still throbbed painfully.

He heard the dull thud as the sorcerer landed behind him. Another form began to emerge from the woods in front of him. Both stood at the edges of the clearing. Merrick rose, drawing his sword and dagger as he went. He backed up to a tree, his blades brandished before him.

“For Jon,” he whispered.

“He seems nice,” the new figure said.

“Yeah, he took me for one hell of a trip,” the sorcerer replied.

Merrick nearly dropped his weapons. The voices were both young, younger than any of the bandits he had seen in the village, and the sorcerer sounded distinctly feminine.

“I’m warning you,” Merrick growled, “take a step closer and I skewer you.” Merrick’s grip tightened as the duo emerged from the shadows.

The hooded figure was, in fact, a woman, and looked nothing like the terrifying sorcerer from the attack. She removed her hood, revealing a rather pretty face. She was young, more a girl than a woman, and stood, arms crossed, eyes locked on Merrick, as though she was looking for weaknesses. She wore a long wooden staff on her back and an expression of annoyed curiosity.

The other figure was a tall man, who looked to be in his early twenties. The man wore two long daggers on his hips and a quiver slung across his back. He held his long bow easily in his hands.

The man spoke, his voice dry with sarcasm. “You seem rather lost.”

Merrick lowered his weapons. “Yeah,” he answered angrily, “my whole world just got burnt up by some bandits and their pet sorcerer. So if – ”

The man stepped forward and seized Merrick’s shoulders.

“Bandits?” the man said, eyes wide in fear. “You said bandits?” Merrick nodded vigorously. The man swore.

The girl stepped forward and grabbed the man’s shoulder. “We need to get back and warn everyone.”

The man turned, “We can’t leave this kid.”

“I would prefer not to be left,” Merrick interjected.

“You can come.” The girl reassured him. She stretched her free hand under the man’s outstretched arm. “Adeline, by the way.”

Merrick shook her hand, “I’m Merrick.”

Adeline jerked her head at the man and said, “This is my brother Vidar.” Vidar finally released Merrick’s shoulders and shook his hand.

“Are you injured, Merrick?” Vidar asked. Merrick moved his left leg tentatively. The shooting pain had dulled to the point where it was nearly unnoticeable.

“Nothing immediate,” Merrick responded.

“Good to hear. Now we should get going, we don’t know if the bandits are following you or not.” Vidar turned. “Come, Merrick, you can tell your story while we walk.” The man vanished into the foliage.

Adeline gazed sidelong at Merrick. “Don’t worry, he grows on you.” she said happily. Then she too disappeared into the treeline. Merrick stood bewildered for a moment, shook his head, then set out after his new friends.

Chapter 6

As the trio walked through the woods, Merrick told his new friends about the hellish night he had. The group walked in silence for awhile, each absorbed in personal thought.

Vidar broke the silence: “Bandits haven’t come this far north in years. Why would they come now?”

Adeline shrugged. “Could be any number of reasons. They could be trying to avoid competition, or thought that there wouldn’t be much resistance.”

“I don’t know,” Merrick began. “Something about their assault felt personal, like they were exacting vengeance.” The group fell silent once more, and began moving more swiftly towards their destination.

Merrick’s apprehension grew as they continued to Vidar and Adeline’s village.

What if they didn’t believe him? Worse, what if he had led the Blades right to their people? Merrick stopped dead as he realized he may have just doomed another village to destruction. The brother and sister turned to face him.

“Merrick?” Adeline questioned. “What’s wrong?”

Merrick shook with fear.

“I, I, I . . .” He stammered, “What if . . . what if the Blades followed me? I could be dooming your village by coming with you.”

Vidar stepped forward and clamped his hands on Merrick’s shaking shoulders.

“Calm down, Merrick.” Vidar said, looking down at the young man. “You’ve doomed no one. We chose to take you with us. If there is danger in our actions, then we share the blame. Besides that, our people can more than hold their own in a fight.” Merrick began to breath deeply, the repetitive action soothing his frayed nerves.

“Alright,” Merrick breathed, “We should continue.”

Vidar straightened, released Merrick, and turned back towards their destination. Adeline locked eyes with Merrick, and opened her mouth as if to speak. Then the young woman turned and set off after her brother. Merrick turned and scanned the woods behind them. Seeing nothing, he sighed following his friends to their home.

After another hour or so of walking, the group came to a rather thick wall of trees and various foliage.

“Welcome home,” Adeline said softly, grinning at Merrick. Vidar chuckled, and stepped forward. He stopped in front of the wall of greenery. Then the tall man stuck his arms into the brush, and pushed outward, making a small opening. Just as soon as this opening appeared, Vidar was through, and the leaves and branches swung back in around him. Merrick leaned closer and inspected the plant-life. As far as Merrick could tell, the plants were genuine. Thinking back, he realized how long it had taken him to recognize that this patch of woods was any different.

Merrick turned to Adeline. “Is this magic?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, just careful planting and constant nurturing and care.” Merrick craned his neck skyward. The trees seemed to reach up forever.

“It’s amazing,” he whispered.

Adeline turned to him with a grin on her face. “Wait until you see what’s inside.”

Merrick returned the smile, then followed Adeline through the wall of trees.

Chapter 7

As amazing as the wall was, what lay beyond was truly greater. A great clearing stretched before them, with clumps of enormous trees dotting the landscape. In the center of the clearing was a well, but not many other building were on the grass covered earth. Merrick cast his eye up one of small sections of trees. In the trees there were large circular buildings, with at least two on every tree. Bridges and ladders connected both the houses and the different groups of houses. A pulley system connected the homes to the ground, with each cluster of trees having their own lift system. A diverse multitude of people inhabited the village. Merrick could see children racing along the bridges and climbing through the trees. Off to one side seemed to be a training ground, as people of all age and size brandished weapons and sparred.

“Merrick here told us,” Vidar said as he approached Adeline and Merrick. A rather large crowd had gathered close behind the tall young man. With Vidar came a rough looking man with long brown hair, flecked intermittently with gray, and a matching beard on his face. Recognition flickered in Merrick’s mind.

“Jon,” he whispered. The man smiled and held his hand out.

“Hello, Merrick,” he said, an all too familiar smile on his face. “I am Hardwin Cross, welcome to our home.”

“Cross,” Merrick said slowly, digesting these words, “Hardwin Cross.”

The man grinned and cocked his head curiously. “Something the matter?”

Merrick nodded, still moving at an enormously slow pace. “Did you know a Jon Cross?” Hardwin’s face brightened noticeably.

“Jon Cross is my brother, do you know him? How is he doing?”

Merrick sighed, “I’m sorry Hardwin, he died during the bandit attack.”

A look of shock passed across Hardwin’s face, instantly replaced with what looked to be both sadness and regret. Hardwin remained silent for a moment. All around fell silent too. Then Hardwin composed himself and turned back to Merrick and put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Please Merrick, tell us what happened.” Even as Hardwin spoke an elderly woman emerged from the crowd and hobbled toward the small group.

“No no no, Hardwin!” The gray-haired lady croaked, “This boy’s been through hell, he needs proper attention from a doctor!”

Hardwin turned to the diminutive woman, “We don’t have a healer.” He said bluntly.

The woman hooted in delight.“Don’t have a healer!” Then she roared back, “DON’T HAVE A DAMN HEALER! WHY THE HELL DO YOU THINK I STAY HERE!” Hardwin’s expression remained pained. Adeline and Vidar hid grins.

“Pipaluk, last time you tried to dress a wound, you nearly killed someone.” Hardwin explained, the discomfort obvious on his face and in his speech.

“He moved. I told him not to move, that it was a delicate procedure, and he moved, damn fool!” Pipaluk retorted. “Now the boy comes with me, and that’s final, Hardwin!” With this she thrust her pointing hand skyward, although her rather small stature somewhat belittled the threat.

She turned to the bewildered Merrick, “Come now, young man, I am Pipa, the resident medicine woman in this town. And you may come hear his story while I address his injuries.” This last part she shot over her shoulder at Hardwin as she led Merrick away.

Chapter 8

Merrick sat on the bed in Pipa’s hut and recounted his story to Hardwin, who remained silent through the whole affair, even during Jon’s death. When Merrick finished his story, he paused.

“I just can’t help but think, ‘What if I lead them right to these people?’ What happens then, Hardwin?” The older man stopped him with a gesture.

“You did good, Merrick. You needn’t worry about revealing us to the bandits. With your information, my people can prepare for an attack if one is coming. Few people can keep their head during a bandit attack, but from what I heard, you managed to escape unscathed.”

Here Pipa interjected. “Yes he looks fine, probably very tired though. Also what happened to your leg?” she said, pointing at his left ankle.

“Oh,” Merrick grinned, “I jumped out of a tree.”

Pipa regarded him for a moment, then very seriously she asked, “Now what possessed you to go and do a stupid thing like that?”

Merrick began to laugh at the memory. “Adeline scared me, I thought she was the sorcerer from the village, and I jumped to get away from her.”

Pipa nodded, all business. “Yes, yes, that girl can be quite scary.”

“Be glad she didn’t catch you. Normally she kills whatever she catches.” Hardwin said, the same serious tone in his voice.

Merrick looked between the two confused. “Just animals though. She only hunts animals . . . right?”

Hardwin gave an enigmatic smile and turned to leave. At the door he paused and looked over his shoulder. “Merrick, when Pipa lets you leave, come see me. I will make sure you receive training in your weapons. Then you will really be able to fight bandits, eh?”

Merrick grinned at Hardwin. “Yeah, sounds good.” Hardwin returned the grin.

As Hardwin left, Pipa began rambling again. “I thought he’d never leave. Now here, dear, drink this, you need water.”

Merrick drank deeply from the cup. “Aaaaah,” he sighed, “Thank you, I guess I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was.”

Around him the world began spinning. “Pipa,” he said fear creeping into his voice. “Wha – ”

“Oh, just some light sedatives to help you sleep,” she interjected. “Sweet dreams.”

Merrick glowered at the old woman as he begrudgingly fell onto his back. In seconds, Merrick was asleep.

Chapter 9

Merrick strode across the open field. His sword was strapped to his back, and his dagger was fastened to his left leg. He wore a hardened leather jerkin with iron shoulder guards. A group of children bustled past him, laughing and shouting at each other. A man and woman carried a large vat of water towards the forges. A group of trainees were huddled around the base of one of the trees, watching two of their number scramble towards the highest branches. An average day in the Village of the Trees.

Amazing, Merrick thought to himself, that after a few short months of being here, I consider it average.

As he walked, he noticed a few figures on the training field who looked to be in the midst of combat. Drawing closer, he could see his friend and mentor Vidar fighting off two attackers. The combatants all used fake wooden weapons, but the attacked and defended with the ferocity of an actual battle. Vidar looked like a madman, diving and twirling and leaping to avoid his opponents’ dulled blades. When it looked like he was backed into a corner, he flicked his right-handed “dagger” into his opponent’s wooden sword. The weapon swung into the other attacker’s gut. Vidar jumped forward, punching the bewildered man, whose weapon had just hit his friend. The two attackers stumbled back wearing pained expressions. Vidar merely straightened, brushed off his kneecaps, then launched into an explanation of where they had gone wrong.

Despite his age, or lack thereof, Vidar was the best warrior in the village. He was responsible for training his peers and elders. Vidar was almost as good a teacher as he was a warrior. He was calm and patient with his students, always taking the extra time with those who were falling behind. It was under his expert tutelage that Merrick had grown from a complete novice in swordplay, to somewhat proficient.

Merrick stopped a few feet away from where Vidar stood speaking with his two students. The two boys both were grimacing and clutching their wounds: Vidar never held back in training. Their suffering did not escape their teacher’s notice, however, as Vidar froze mid-sentence.

He sighed deeply, then said, “Alright, go see Pipa. Make sure nothing’s broken.”

The two boys thanked Vidar and hurried away. Vidar watched them go, then turned toward Merrick. The two grinned at each other. During Merrick’s time at the village he had become close friends with the siblings who had found him in the woods.

“Ah, look who decided to wake up!” Vidar boomed.

“I was up half the night,” Merrick retorted. “Adeline was trying to teach me how to move unseen.”

“She was up five hours ago,” Vidar shot back.

“That damn girl is nocturnal,” Merrick grunted, to which Vidar laughed loudly.

“Did you make any progress in your sneaking around?” Vidar said, his amusement barely restrained.

“I guess Adeline told you.” Merrick said somewhat bitterly.

Vidar hooted, “Nah, mate, you woke me up. Did you really think you fell out of the tree quietly? Or that nobody heard Adeline laughing her head off?”

Merrick could not help but smile. “I guess she did laugh rather loudly. Speaking of which, where is Adeline?”

Vidar opened his mouth to answer but was quickly cut off. Two figures burst from the treeline, they were both scouts who had been sent out as part of a larger party to look for bandits. The two separated, one heading towards the village center, the other running right towards them. As the scout drew closer and began to slow down, Vidar and Merrick realized it was Adeline and began to run towards her.

As she came to a stop, she removed the wooden mask, adorned with a ghost, that covered her face. All members of the tribe who had come of age had one. The designs were based on ancient legends. Adeline’s was based on a woman who snuck into an evil lord’s castle and poisoned him without being detected by his soldiers. She was rather proud of it.

“Hello boys,” Adeline said, not even short of breath. “Merrick, how’s your ass? You fell pretty hard last night.”

Merrick had his mouth open, a clever reply on his tongue, but Vidar cut him to the quick.

“Ade, what happened?” He inquired.

“We found a group of bandits. Twenty kilos southwest. Nasty bunch of characters, as well,” she replied.

“Describe them,” Merrick said. He wanted to know if it was the Blades.

“Your usual bunch of scoundrels and rotten folk,” Adeline said. “Though there was one that was giant. I don’t know much else. The others sent me and Mick back to report.”

Merrick hung his head. “It’s them. The Blades . . . There was a giant man in the group that attacked my village.”

Vidar cleared his throat. “Shouldn’t you be talking with the village heads, Ade?”

Adeline shook her head. “No, Mick is talking to them. I came to tell you to set the warriors on guard, then come with me. I’m rather sure there is to be a council.”

Vidar nodded and turned to the training field. Most of those on it were already watching them.

“Well, don’t just stand there!” he bellowed, “Spread the word, tell people to be on guard, we’ve got a damn army in our woods!”

Those present immediately jumped into action and went off to prepare. The brother and sister began to walk away, but Adeline stopped.

“Merrick,” she called. “You should come too, you are the only one who has faced these bandits.” Merrick nodded and the trio left to find where the village heads were holding their council.

The group walked swiftly. By now, word had spread and the village was a hive of activity. People were rushing about preparing defenses and warriors for war. Merrick cast his eyes at the many people.

“You don’t mess around when it comes to defending your home, do you?” he inquired.

Vidar grunted, “We haven’t had a bandit raid since before I was born . . . People are scared.”

Merrick’s lips drew themselves into a tight line. “I know the feeling. I just wish my village had been this prepared.” Adeline stopped short and craned her neck towards a group of people.

“Hardwin!” she shouted, waving her arms in the air. The man turned and hurried towards them.

“Adeline! What happened out there? Is everyone alright?” Hardwin asked quickly.

“When I left, everyone was fine. They sent Mick and me back to tell all of you.” She answered.

“All right, we need to get to the council. Come, all of you,” Hardwin said as he began to lead them through the crowd.

Chapter 10

The four of them burst into the squat, one-room building where the councils were held. The council was already underway, but everyone stopped talking when they entered the room.

“You’re late, Hardwin,” one of the council members growled.  The rest looked at the group with expressions ranging from relief to annoyance. Mick, a surprisingly young man, stood silently in the corner.

Hardwin brushed off the man and spoke to the group as a whole. “We’ve got a serious issue on our hands.” The council member from before stood and spoke again.

“You don’t say?” He snarled. “Bandits! Been decades since they’ve even come close to our village!”

“Seamus, shut it and sit.” Hardwin said, annoyance and weariness evident in his voice.

“You shut it, Hardwin!” Seamus howled, “We’ve got bandits in the woods! Our woods!”

“Seamus, we’ve been here for a long time. We’ve had close encounters before.” Hardwin said, attempting to end the tension.

Seamus was, however, now ignoring Hardwin. He looked right at Merrick.

“You led ‘em here, didn’t you?” Seamus’s eyes narrowed and he advanced towards Merrick “Yeah. You’re one of them, aren’t you?” Vidar stepped calmly between Seamus and Merrick.

“Call off your watchdog, Hardwin.” Seamus growled. Vidar’s chest rumbled in a rather good approximation of a dog. Merrick, Adeline and Mick all barely restrained their laughter.

“Vidar, heel.” Hardwin instructed. Vidar walked to Hardwin’s side. Hardwin patted his head, crooning, “Good boy, you’ll get a treat later.”

Merrick, Adeline, and Mick now openly laughed and were joined by many of the council members. Seamus, thoroughly abashed, sat down.

“Now that we have all ridiculous accusations out of the way, let’s return to business.” Hardwin said taking his seat.

Chapter 11

The council dragged on for what felt like hours. The arguments ran in circles, always the same people arguing the same points. No agreement could be reached. Some wished to march on the bandits while some thought it best to remain holed up in the village.

Finally, Hardwin raised a hand for silence. “I propose this. We send a small, well-trained unit of troops to perform a raid on the bandit camp. They will attack at night and destroy the camp’s supplies, then slip away unseen. This will cripple the bandits, but will insure that we are not defenseless should they attack us. All in favor say yea.”

All but a few agreed.

“Good. I further propose Adeline and Mick lead this team. All in favor say yea.”

This time everyone agreed.

Adeline now began to speak. “I’ll go, but on the condition that Vidar and Merrick need to come with us.”

Mick stepped forward as well. “I second that. Vidar is our best warrior, and Merrick is the only one who has faced this group in combat.”

The council looked more apprehensive at this suggestion. One member spoke up: “Vidar is pivotal to planning the defense.”

“My place is in combat. Plenty of people here are great tacticians,” Vidar said calmly. He really wanted to go on the mission, especially since Adeline and Merrick would be going, and the young warrior felt responsible for protecting them.

“It’s settled, then,” Hardwin interjected. “Adeline and Mick, accompanied by Merrick and Vidar, shall lead a group of warriors to the bandit camp, raid it, and then flee.” He now turned to the four youths.

“You have two days to find warriors to take with you and decide your attack. Good luck.” Hardwin left the room in a hurry, the other village heads trailing behind him. The council was over. Now came the small matter of waging war.

Chapter 12

Merrick soared forward through the branches and foliage – before he slammed hard into one of the thick branches.

He wore gloves with small spikes in the palm, which bit into the wood, keeping the young man from slipping. Swinging his leg around, Merrick pulled himself onto the branch and sat, catching his breath.

He shifted slightly and groaned. His muscles were already sore. He stared out the eyeholes of his plain wooden mask, seeing nothing but green leaves and brown wood.

He heard a loud noise coming from behind him and turned, his hand leaping for the sword handle over his right shoulder. Vidar burst clumsily from the greenery, snagging onto a young limb that sagged with his weight. Despite the fierce character adorning Vidar’s mask, it was easy to tell the young warrior was feeling anything but courageous this high in the branches.

As Vidar twisted vainly in search of an escape route, Merrick chortled at his friend’s misfortune.

“Oh yes, it’s very funny till I fall and break a limb,” Vidar spouted angrily.

“I think you’re already breaking a limb,” Merrick said, grinning at his own wit. The branch dipped further.

“Well, are you going to help me or watch me die?” Vidar implored, clearly not in the laughing mood.

Merrick shrugged. “What am I supposed to do? Catch you heroically in midair?”

Vidar stretched his leg toward Merrick. “Grab this,” he instructed. Merrick was baffled.

“We are fifty measures above the ground, far enough that we would definitely break a limb or two, possibly even die, and your plan is for me to grab your ankle and hold on?”

“I don’t see anything wrong with that plan.”

“I think that’s the problem!”

The sound of rustling leaves stopped the pair mid-argument. Both turned in the direction of the suspicious noise that arose from a curtain like clump of leaves. The young men held their respective breaths. A multitude of creatures lived in these woods – the kind of creatures you do not want to meet when suspended fifty measures above the ground.

Time dragged on, and neither Merrick nor Vidar moved their eyes, despite the ongoing protest from Vidar’s branch. Just as the tension grew unbearable, Adeline’s masked face emerged from the dense green cluster.

“Stuck again, big brother?” she said, with no hint of humor.

Vidar twisted his body to face her. “Yes . . . Please help me . . .”

Adeline leapt from her perch and landed lightly next to Merrick. She whipped around again and pounced at Vidar’s branch. Her climbing gloves bit into wood, dragging the branch with her towards the trunk of the tree. The siblings both reached out and grabbed the trunk, letting go and sending the branch snapping back into place.

“Impressive.” Merrick called from above them. “How many times have you gotten Vidar out of that exact situation?”

“Thirty-seven, give or take,” Adeline responded, already slithering up the trunk of the tree. Vidar followed, albeit less skillfully.

When she drew level with Merrick’s branch Adeline brought her legs up to her chest and kicked off from the trunk. She flipped midair and landed delicately on Merrick’s branch. With a quick turn, she walked a few quick steps towards Merrick before plopping down onto the branch.

“I would have clapped but the gloves make that difficult,” Merrick joked. Both grinned under their masks.

“You’ll be able to do that one day, with the right training. You’re already leagues ahead of Vidar,” she said, glancing down at her brother.

“I can hear you!” the warrior puffed, half from indignation, half from exhaustion.

“How far till we reach the camp?” Merrick inquired. He was anxious to strike a blow upon the Blades.

“Not far.” Adeline replied, “We’re over halfway.”

“You nervous?” Merrick asked.

“Are you nervous?”

“I’m shaking so much I might fall off this branch.”

“Good. In my experience, the only ones who aren’t afraid are fools who end up dead.”

“For the record,” Vidar shouted, “I am very afraid, but mostly because I hate heights. Why did I let you drag me along on this attack?”

“People who get stuck don’t get to complain.” Adeline shot back over her shoulder. For a moment, the two sat peacefully, with no thoughts of the coming battle.

In a soft voice, Adeline said, “We should get moving, otherwise we won’t get there before dark.”

“Right,” Merrick replied, reluctant that the moment of peace had to end.

“Call for me if Vidar gets stuck again,” she teased, her smirk distinct in her voice.

Then, in a single motion, Adeline swung her torso under the branch, released her legs and began to fall. She shot out her arms, catching a branch by her fingertips, using her momentum to launch herself farther into the foliage. Merrick stared at the spot where she disappeared.

“She’s gone, isn’t she?” Vidar grumbled. He was lying facedown on a particularly wide branch.

“Yeah.” Merrick replied.

“Damn.” Vidar groaned. “You know what this means?”

“Our break is over,” Merrick said, not even looking.

“At least you got a break. I’m never going to hear the end of this . . .” Vidar complained. dragging himself upright.

“You getting stuck was your own fault.”

“If you had followed my plan, she would never have known I’d gotten stuck again!”

“She may have figured it out when she found our bodies on the ground.”

Vidar made a dismissive gesture. “C’mon, we don’t want Adeline to mock us for taking too long.”

“She can be rather mean,” Merrick agreed before thrusting himself into space. In an instant gravity took hold and Merrick plunged through the greenery.

Chapter 13

Merrick’s legs shrieked in protest as he leapt from branch to branch. He had been moving like this for hours and it was nearly nightfall.

Ahead of him, Vidar stopped and turned around. Merrick, taking his friend’s lead, stopped as well. Vidar pointed with one gloved hand at a particularly dense clump of greenery before moving towards it. Merrick followed, confused as to the importance this ordinary looking foliage. Vidar reached the clump first and dove in without hesitation. Merrick was taken aback.

It’s just like the village wall, he thought, amazed with his new friend’s ingenuity.

Dragging himself from thought, Merrick followed in Vidar’s footsteps, leaping through the surprising thin cover of leaves and branches into a rather large room. Inside the room were Adeline, Mick, Vidar, and eleven other armed men and women who were sent to strike at the Blades.

Seeing that everyone had taken off their masks, Merrick followed suit, putting the strap in a specially designed loop on the part of his belt that rested over his right hip.

“Now that we are all here,” Adeline began, her voice dripping with quiet sarcasm, “we can discuss the plan of attack.”

The room growled in agreement. Merrick was not the only one anxious to strike against the Blades. Adeline squatted, unfurling a parchment on the room’s wooden board floor. On the parchment was a hasting scribbling of the bandit camp.

“Our plan is simple: cause so much chaos that the Blades either leave or are incapacitated long enough for us to prepare,” Adeline instructed, her eyes making a path across the room.

“We are going to break into five teams of three,” Mick said, picking up where Adeline had left off. “Each team will attack a different point in the camp, causing widespread damage and confusion.” Most people present smiled.

“That’s not the hard part.” Adeline said seriously, “We need to get in, cause damage, and get out without alerting the camp, preferably without being seen. If you are seen, kill any witnesses. If we are discovered, we risk leading them back to the village.” The room grew still. These warriors did not relish murder, as some did. Adeline stood up and nodded to Mick, who began to read off names.

“Vidar, James, and Holly, start a fire in their tents.” The young man said, pointing to the rows of crude rectangles on the map. Mick rattled off the other names and assignments, placing himself in charge of destroying the treasury. Merrick was on the last team.

“Adeline, Merrick, and Larson, destroy their provisions,” Mick finished, finally straightening.

“Alright,” Merrick said, fastening his mask in place, “let’s dent these Blades.” The joke, despite its lameness (or perhaps because of it) sent everyone guffawing into their hands in an attempt to keep silent. Composing themselves, the warriors leapt into the deepening black of the night. The black air was dry and quiet with anticipation, Tonight the true hunters roamed, eager to strike down the usurping cowards who dared even reach for the title.

Chapter 14

Merrick followed Adeline as they crept beside the row of boxes. They stopped at the end of the row, and slid quietly to the ground. They propelled themselves on their bellies across the open space, nearly undetectable in the dull light of the nearby fires.

Once they reached another large box, the two sat with their backs to it. Adeline untied a small pouch from her belt. She handed it to Merrick.

“Sprinkle some of this in the provisions,” she hissed. “It’s non-lethal poison. It’ll make ‘em ill for days.”

Merrick took the pouch and crabbed away. He lightly lifted the lid off one box and tossed some poison in. He worked down the row, placing a little poison in each. On his seventh box, he heard a jangle of equipment. He pressed himself into the deep shadow that the boxes provided.

Merrick stood stock-still, barely breathing, with his left hand resting on his dagger. A man’s shadow peeked past his left foot. He heard a cough, a low grumble, and then the shadow slid away.

Merrick relaxed. Damn, that was close, he thought. I’ll need to be more careful.

Suddenly Merrick’s mind jumped to Adeline. She would have her back turned to the guard. Merrick tried to quell his fears. She’ll be fine, he soothed himself unconvincingly. She’s ten times better and more experienced at this then you. But the fear wouldn’t leave.

Merrick clambered onto one of the boxes, sliding himself across. Immediately he saw her, crouched low over a box, surreptitiously pouring poison in. Next he saw the bandit, raising his wooden cudgel to slam it into her head. Merrick sprinted forward, drawing his dagger as he went. He crashed into the rough-looking man, clamping his gloved hand over his face, and stabbing at his chest with the dagger.

Merrick’s dagger slid easily past the man’s patchwork armor, and stuck into his gut. The man flailed violently, swinging his empty fists at Merrick’s face. Adeline dove forward and pinned the man’s arms. She drew her own dagger, sliding it across the frenzied beast’s neck. The two young people sat there, catching their breath.

“Thanks,” Adeline said quietly. Merrick only nodded. The fear from earlier had not entirely left him.

Adeline opened another box. Empty.

Together they stuffed the corpse into the box. They put the cudgel, which would not fit, in a dark recess between two of the boxes.

“How many did you get?” Merrick inquired, his voice barely audible.

“Ten or twelve.” Adeline answered with the same secrecy, “You?”

“About seven.”

“Slacker.”

“I was a bit busy saving your life.”

“You almost got caught, didn’t you?”

“Did I now?”

“Yeah, especially considering how you knew I was going to be in trouble.”

“That was just intuition.”

“I’m not hearing a definite ‘no.’”

A great plume of fire erupted to their north. The duo froze.

From the treeline, they heard Larson cooing furiously. He was signaling a retreat, and there was only one reason for retreat. Someone was dead, injured, or captured. The two locked eyes, then turned to run for the tree line. They saw another fire begin to rage among the tents. That meant that Vidar’s team had successfully withdrawn, and used an arrow to light the fire.

“Hey,” a voice bellowed, “Stop those two!”

Projectiles whizzed past Merrick and Adeline as they ran. Somehow they reached the treeline unscathed. They leapt and pulled themselves into the relative safety of the branches.

Behind them was a string of bandits, all shouting and brandishing their weapons. Larson stood on another branch, bow drawn, sending arrow after arrow into the crowd.

A spear caught him in the shoulder, and he plummeted to the forest floor. The bandits surged around him, covering his broken body. Adeline and Merrick sat on the branch, stunned. The mob left, dragging the bloodied corpse behind them like some kind of trophy. In the center of the camp, a small group of figures had gathered. Even from this distance, it was easy to spot the massive bulk of Oison and the fact that one of the gathered floated in the air. The third figure, who could only be Vince, stood over a kneeling man.

Merrick heard a sharp intake of breath from Adeline. The prisoner was Mick.

“Listen, and listen good!” Vince boomed. “I know there are more of you out there. I want you to watch while I kill your friend!”

The bandit leader drew his sword and held it above his head. Merrick and Adeline watched as Mick’s head thudded to the ground.

Chapter 15

They stood silently in a circle. Of the fifteen who had assaulted the bandit camp, only eight had returned. None of Mick’s team had made it, Larson’s corpse had been taken, and another three had gone missing from the other two groups. The only one not to lose a man was Vidar.

Even for those who had returned, it had been a near thing. Roving hordes of bandits had been sent out, armed with iron blades and golden fire, perusing the shadows for those who escaped. After an hour of running, the eight who remained had met back at the small clump of greenery, tired and shocked.

Finally Vidar shifted and spoke.

“We should report back,” he said, his heart crawling into his chest. “The others must know what happened.”

Everyone nodded their agreement, but no one moved. A few minutes dragged by.

Vidar voiced the need to leave once more. Still no one moved. Time slipped by again.

Vidar asked once more. This time one stood up and motioned for him to lead the way.

They jumped into the dead night air. The rest followed in their own pairs.

Soon, it was just Merrick and Adeline and silence. Eons passed in that room of leaves and wood, with neither wanting to make the first move.

Finally, Merrick broke the stalemate.

“We should go,” he whispered, without any real conviction.

Adeline nodded but didn’t move. Hesitantly, Merrick put his hand on her shoulder and led her towards the leafy wall. They put their masks on then stared at the green veneer. Adeline let out a sigh, which seemed to shudder up and down her spine. Then she, too, abandoned Merrick for the sour night air.

“Never again, damn it,” Merrick whispered. “Never again.”

Then the living bunker was empty.

Chapter 16

The eight survivors of the attack sat silently in the council hut. They had immediately met with the council upon their return. The majority of the leaders had been shocked and distraught over the failure, while some had been thrown into a rage. Seamus especially targeted Adeline for the failure, growling: “She was probably too busy looking after the outsider to make sure the mission was a success!”

He was silenced when Adeline leapt at his throat with a dagger. The young woman’s sadness in the woods had morphed into rage, a fact which had Merrick deeply troubled. Hardwin had quickly dismissed the rest of the council and called for food and water for the survivors, although the provisions were yet to be touched. He was sitting talking quietly with Adeline. Vidar had left to oversee the defense of the town. None of the other survivors looked like they wanted to talk.

Once again, Merrick was alone with his thoughts. In his mind he continued to replay the raid, wondering what he could have done differently. He watched Larson fall from his perch a thousand times, heard the wet crunch of his body snapping, then the howl of the bandits as they dragged his bloody corpse away. The young man shuttered. Suddenly Hardwin stood and turned to the group.

“I want to all remind you of something,” He boomed, “What happened in those woods is not your fault. No one was forced into the mission. All of you were willing to give your lives for this town –your town. Remember that. Not a single person died without purpose. They died for their neighbors, their friends, their family. They died for us. I understand that right now you want to blame yourself for what happened. I beg you to end this torture. Blame the bandits. They are the ones who killed our friends. The ones who slaughtered their captives.”

Hardwin froze, mouth open. Words seemed to escape him. He straightened and said, “I ask that you keep this in mind in the coming days.”

Hardwin fled the room. Slowly, the others followed. Soon it was only Merrick and Adeline. He crossed the room and sat down next to her. Minutes slogged past.

“He’s dead. They’re all dead…” She whispered.

“When I first got here, I was plagued with the fact that so many of my townsfolk had died while I lived,” Merrick began quietly.

“What changed?” Adeline asked.

“I realized I wasn’t an army,” Merrick replied. “For weeks I went over the battle, wondering what I could have done. Hell, I’ve been doing it for this one too. I stopped when I realized that in the end, anything I could have done would’ve gotten me killed. Then I wouldn’t have ended up here, with you. I wouldn’t have been able to warn you all of the bandits and you all could have ended up dead. Do I wish that the attack never happened? Of course, but being able to help you all has been the best thing I have ever done.”

Adeline didn’t respond. Merrick stood up and began to move to the door.

“Merrick,” she called, “I . . . I’m . . . uh, thanks.” Merrick gave a small smile. Then Adeline was alone.

Chapter 17

Merrick jumped into the work with a zeal. He helped carry parts of giant crossbows called ballistae to special stands in the trees. He moved rusted weapons to the forges and sharpened them until his hands hurt. He helped erect wooden palisades between the clumps of trees to protect the houses on the ground. At some point in the day Adeline joined him wordlessly and they continued the work, dragging sacks of grains and foodstuffs from the farms to the inner walls in case of a prolonged attack.

Two days after the raid party had returned, the preparations were in full swing. People bustled about despite the lack of apparent threat. Many began to wonder if the bandits were even coming. A few people complained that they were preparing for nothing, that the Blades would never even find the village. Merrick and Adeline almost never saw Vidar, as he was either sequestered with other warriors in battle planning or overseeing other operations.

Scouts had been sent back to report on the bandits. Days passed with no change, until one scout burst into the clearing. An arrow protruded from his shoulder, and blood soaked his chest.

“They’re coming,” he howled. “They know we’re here, and they’re coming.”

The scout slumped to the ground, dead, his mission complete. Everyone stood shocked. The wait was over. Soon the war would begin.

Chapter 18

The town had been a frenzied hive of activity for a quarter-hour; now they were all behind the wooden barricades they had erected. A chosen few were above them in the trees, some with bows, some posted around the large ballista. Those who were too young, old or ill to fight were in underground bunkers with enough supplies to last them days.

Silence sat on the village. Fear wove itself among the inhabitants. Merrick knelt behind the low wall. Like his comrades, his mask was fastened to his face. He was in the center of the line, next to Adeline, Vidar, Hardwin, and some other leaders. Merrick’s palms were sticky with sweat and his stomach curled in on itself. The plain wooden mask concealed the fear on his face. He wanted to talk to Adeline, or Vidar, or Hardwin, but feared he would be silenced. So in silence the inner turmoil continued.

Last time I didn’t get this, Merrick thought. I could have never imagined something worse than the shock, the feeling of pushing down the fear until you choke on it, all so you can act. This is a new kind of fear.

The knot in his stomach tightened. His heart was beating fast and hard. The anxiety seemed to creep up his throat, drying it out so it felt thick. His whole body felt heavy and awkward. His mind continued to race. Images bombarded him of the bandits streaming between the houses of his village, of Jon being blasted through a window by the Sorcerer, of Larson’s body slipping from the branch, of Mick’s head rolling.

Merrick did not know how long they were sitting there silently; how long he had been trapped in his inner hell. Eventually Adeline turned to him. The low buzz of conversation had begun to fill the air.

“You okay?” Her voice sounded practically hoarse.

“Not great,” he replied, finding a similar rasp in his own throat, “You?”

“Felt better.”

“What about worse?”

“Was that supposed to be a joke?”

“That good, eh?”

“No . . . Gods, no . . . That was honestly the poorest attempt at humor I’ve ever seen.”

And so their conversation went, arguing back and forth about trivial nonsense. It was a distraction from the gnawing anxiety, and it worked for a time. Until a single voice bellowed to them through the quiet morning air, its message only one word.

“Bandits!” it said.

Adeline swore. Then the defenders stood at attention, ready to fight until the last.

Chapter 19

The bandits crept in from the tree line. Not one rushed forward, as the villagers had expected. The invaders were at the outer edge of the clearing, weapons drawn, gaze fixed on their targets. In front of Merrick and the others, the line of bandits parted, and Vince, with his usual retinue of the giant Oisin and the hooded Sorcerer, came forward. Merrick’s blood boiled at the sight. The disgusting trio came closer. Then Vince cleared his throat.

“Good people of the trees,” he called, a sarcastic twang already in his voice, “I am Vince, the leader of this here posse of scamps and rogues. We like to call ourselves the Hammering Blades!”

The bandit leader paced back and forth while he walked, giving him the appearance of an orator lecturing a group of his disciples.

“Now normally, given that you look so keen on fighting, we would give you another chance to lay down your arms and surrender your valuables quietly.” He stopped and swung to face the defenders.

“However,” Vince said in an exaggeratedly slow voice, “since you tried to attack us, I’m just gonna sic my whole motley crew on you. Now do you have anything you’d like to say?”

Merrick jumped to his feet, tearing off his mask. The rage and fear had overcome him, driven him to this final act of insane rebellion.

“It won’t be like last time, Vince. This time you die!” he shouted.

“We met, kid?” Vince inquired.

“Yeah. Cobblesden. You burned the whole damn village down, slaughtered the people, then made off with any trinkets that took your fancy,” Merrick blustered back.

“Hmm. Cobblesden.” Vince was quiet for a moment, then raised his hand triumphantly.

“I got it!” he cried. “You’re that kid who watched us incinerate the guard! Ha! I knew Oisin didn’t catch you, but I figured you ended up slaughtered or starving in the woods.” Again Vince fell silent.

“I tell you what, we’ve been looking for some new recruits, and you my friend, are just the kind of guy we need! Young, tough, and headstrong, you’d make a perfect Blade. So whaddaya say, kid? Wanna join up?” Vince was grinning ear to ear.

Merrick put his mask back on, drew his weapons, and crouched behind the wall.

“Is that a no?” Vince called.

Silence stretched between the two sides.

“I guess so. Blades, cut these bastards down to size!” Vince instructed.

With an animalistic howl the Hammering Blades began to charge.

It had begun.

Chapter 20

The bandits crashed against the defending line. Many tried to scramble over the low barrier but were quickly met with the blades of the warriors crouched behind it. Arrows shot from the trees, and large ballista shells crashed into groups of bandits.

Two bandits burst over the wall right next to Merrick. One brandished a rusted sword at the young man. The bandit brought the sword around in a deadly arc, but Merrick’s own sword flashed to meet it. The bandit staggered backwards.

Merrick swung. The man threw up a quick block but his sword was knocked toward the ground. Merrick lunged, plunging his dagger into the man’s stomach. Merrick searched for the other bandit, but found him already dealt with.

Merrick looked down the line. Adeline had taken down a great deal of the attackers with her staff. Hardwin beat back swaths with his shield and spear. Vidar stood calmly, picking off what seemed to be dozens with his bow. Merrick turned to the enemy line.

The problem is, there are too many, he thought. For every bandit we kill another ten emerge to continue fighting.

The defenders, who had before seemed insurmountable, now seemed hopelessly outnumbered.

The fighting continued at the villagers’ wall for a half-hour. Many bandits lay dead on the other side of the wall, but many of the defenders had died as well. They were slumped over the barrier, clutching broken weapons or bloody gashes.

Then Hardwin’s voice bellowed above the cacophony of war. “Forward!” he urged, “Break the line!”

Merrick and Adeline exchanged a glance, then burst forward. Two bandits stepped forward to stop them. One swung an axe, but Merrick merely flicked his sword into the man’s gut. Adeline ripped her staff into the other’s head, sending him sprawling. The duo continued. Soon Hardwin and Vidar joined them, slicing down bandit after bandit on the way. Their goal was unanimous and unspoken: the clustered leaders of the Blades who had yet to take part in the fighting.

The group was about forty measures from Vince and his inner circle. The majority of the villager-warriors had begun pushing back the bandits, cutting them down. A particularly ornery group of bandits had stepped in between them and Vince. One leapt at Hardwin, but Adeline stepped between them, blocking the man’s axe with her staff. The blade bit into the wood. The bandit yanked on his weapon, pulling Adeline toward him. More moved in to attack.

Merrick charged forward. He sank his dagger into the first man’s chest, then turned to face the rest. One stepped swung a sword at Merrick. He parried, then kicked the man in the kneecap and stabbed him in the stomach. Another bandit charged at him and leapt, holding an axe high above her head. An arrow thumped into her side. Then two more arrows shot out, burying themselves into two more bandits. Vidar jogged up to Merrick. Hardwin was engaged with another group. Adeline rose, clutching the two pieces of her now-broken staff.

“Damn,” she swore. “I just made this one.”

“You ever think maybe you shouldn’t fight with a glorified stick?” Merrick inquired.

“Are we seriously doing this now?” Vidar shot over his shoulder. He was scanning the melee, arrow notched, waiting for someone to attack.

“I just feel like nobody else is as concerned with the fact that she fights with a tree branch,” Merrick retorted.

“Tree branch.” Adeline snorted, “Tell that to the twenty bandits lying on the ground out cold, if not dead.”

“You count?” Merrick joked.

“Twenty? Slacker, I’m at thirty-five.” Vidar replied, ignoring Merrick.

“Well, the rest of us don’t have the leisure of picking people off from twenty measures away,” she said, also ignoring Merrick.

“Well, I can see that got us way off track.” Merrick cut in. “We should really get back to protecting the village.” Hardwin slid up behind Merrick, clapping his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and nearly got himself stabbed.

“Quite right,” he boomed. Despite the blood on his spear and the dents in his shield, the older man seemed strangely at peace. So the four turned, and continued their march.

Chapter 21

They stopped in front of Vince.

“Hey guys,” the bandit chief drawled, “are you it? The only ones who have decided to challenge me?”

“Underwhelmed?” Vidar growled, his twin daggers were in hand. Adeline was brandishing the pieces of her staff like short swords. Hardwin had his shield drawn before him, his head peeking from the top and spear jutting out from the side. Merrick had his sword and dagger drawn.

Vince laughed. “Underwhelmed would imply that I expected anything substantial to being with.”

He’s stalling, Merrick thought. But why?

The young man’s eyes searched from behind the wooden mask.

The sorcerer! he realized with surprise. He’s disappeared!

Merrick looked around frantically and saw the magic user floating into the woods. Merrick sprinted in his direction.

“Merrick!” Adeline shouted, moving to follow him, but the giant Oisin stepped in her path. Vidar ran to her side and together they stared down the enormous creature. He bellowed and swung his giant sword. The two leapt forward to fight him.

Vince and Hardwin circled, each crouched to attack.

“No words? I thought you were always talking,” Hardwin taunted.

“Nothing to say.” Vince replied, a cruel smile playing on his lips. “Besides, there’s no point talking to a dead man.”

With a roar they both attacked.

Chapter 22

Merrick was walking through the dark woods. The sound of the battle had grown dim behind him. He reached a clearing and halted, looking for some sign of the sorcerer. He heard a crackling above him and to the right. He dove away, rolling and regaining his feet. A fireball crashed into where he once stood, blackening the ground.

“Good reflexes,” the sorcerer called. His voice was stone, thick and coarse and cold. There was no hint of humor or sarcasm in his words, only biting fact.

“Let’s see how you handle this.”

At the sorcerer’s words columns of earth began shooting up from the ground. They crashed into place, hemming Merrick in. The earth had formed a maze, with walls stretching ten measures into the air. Merrick crept along in the corridors searching, perhaps in vain, for an exit.

He heard more crackling and dove down the earthen hallway. A fireball had crashed into the ground behind him. A human shadow passed over Merrick as he stood back up. With a guttural rumble, Merrick continued.

“Poor little Merrick, all alone.” The sorcerer was practically singing. “No more kind strangers to rely on. No darkness to slip away into. Just you, all alone, with me.”

Another fireball, another shadow passing overhead.

“Of course you must be used to being alone by now, with all your family long dead,” the sorcerer goaded.

“How do you know about them?” Merrick roared.

“You should really watch that temper.” The sorcerer said. “One day it will get you killed.”

Merrick sensed, more than saw, the danger behind him. He jumped down another corridor then spun to face his attacker. A duo of earthen forms shambled towards him. One raised a crude, thick arm but Merrick hacked it off. He underhanded his dagger into the golem’s gut, sending it reeling. He sprinted forward, planting his left foot on the first golem’s chest, then his right on the second’s shoulder. He launched himself at the top of the wall, grabbing hold and pulling himself up. The sorcerer turned, in what seemed to be shock. Merrick flung his body at the floating man, wrapping his arms around the mage and dragging him into the dirt complex.

The sorcerer attempted to force Merrick off, but the young man managed to drag the other man to ground and pin him, with his sword squarely pointed at the sorcerer’s throat.

“Good job, Merrick,” the voice continued to taunt.

“Who are you? How did you know about my family? Why are you targeting me?” Merrick questioned.

“You mean you still don’t get it? I drop hint after hint and you still don’t know?” The sorcerer pulled his hood from his face, thrusting it from shadow. “I thought you’d remember your big brother.”

Merrick was rocked. Anger, joy, and confusion raced through his body.

“Unwin was – ” Merrick began.

“What? A great man? A soldier? Yeah, well, war changes people.” Unwin retorted. “I got sick of fighting the king’s pointless war without any recompense. So I joined up with these thieves. Maybe not the brightest bunch, but they sure do pay better.”

Merrick was sickened. “These people are murderers, Unwin. They’ve slaughtered hundreds of innocents. Including our town.”

“Who do you think led them there?” Unwin spat. “I was looking for you, actually. Thought it was time my little brother joined the new family business. I know you said no before, but I was hoping it be different now that your brother is asking.”

Merrick shook his head. “You are no brother of mine – not anymore.” He raised his sword.

Unwin frowned. “Too bad…” He said softly.

With a flash of light and a deafening crash, Merrick was sent flying. His sword spun from his hand as he sailed through the air. He slammed back into the ground. When he opened his eyes, the clearing was empty. The entire earth maze had disappeared. His dagger was stuck in a pile of clay, and his sword was lying on the ground. Unwin had vanished as well. Merrick removed his mask and knelt like he was before a grave.

Merrick remained in silence for a minute. Then, he sprang to his feet and pulled on his mask. He marched over to his weapons and wiped the mud off. He turned back to the direction of the village.

His family needed him.

Chapter 23

Merrick strode back into the clearing. He had no time to orient himself, as a group of bandits immediately charged him. His blades whirled into action, cutting down one, then another. The rest bolted past him, straight into the tree line. Merrick looked about in confusion. All around, bandits were fleeing from the village. Some ran, some hobbled, and some even crawled, but none looked anxious to continue the fight. Merrick removed his mask and grinned. They had done it. They had won. His mirth began to dissipate when he remembered the situation he had left his friends in. He ran off to find them.

He found Vidar and Adeline first. Adeline’s arm was being bandaged by one of the younger healers. Merrick jogged over to them.

“What happened?” he asked, “Are you ok? Where’s Hardwin?”

Vidar held up his hand to silence him. “We won, we’re fine, and we don’t know.” He replied. The healer finished bandaging Adeline’s arm and hurried off. The young woman stood and inspected the wound.

“Damn giant,” she said, “gave me this cut then ran.” She turned back to Merrick. “How went your fight with the sorcerer?”

“What, surprised I’m not dead?” he retorted with a grin.

“I’m surprised you don’t have any burns,” she said flatly.

“What did happen, Merrick?” Vidar intrigued.

So Merrick explained it to them. Explained how he thought he cornered the sorcerer, how he got trapped in, and then escaped the maze, and how the sorcerer revealed himself to be Merrick’s brother. By the end of his story, the brother and sister both looked amazed.

“And I thought our fight with the giant went poorly.” Vidar muttered. Merrick suddenly leapt to attention.

“Hardwin?” he inquired, “Where’s Hardwin?” The siblings’ eyes widened. They two had forgotten about him as well. With nary a shared glance, the trio ran off to find their friend.

Chapter 24

They found Hardwin lying on the ground, Pipa attending to a nasty wound on his right arm. A bandage was wrapped around his left leg as well. Despite the obvious pain he was in, Hardwin smiled at them.

“Glad to see you all made it through okay,” he said. With a gasp of pain, he pulled himself into a sitting position.

“Don’t strain yourself, Hardwin,” Pipa scolded him.

“Hardwin, what happened?” Vidar asked.

“Heh. That bandit chief turned out to be a bit more trouble than I thought,” he replied, jerking his thumb at a body a few feet away. The body was indeed Vince’s, although it was hard to recognize the bandit with the fear permanently painted on his face and the broken spear shoved into his gut.

“Looks like you had better luck than the rest of us,” Adeline muttered.

“What do you mean? You all look fine,” Hardwin asked.

“Unfortunately, so are our opponents,” Merrick explained. A look of understanding dawned on Hardwin’s face.

“Bah, get over it,” Pipa instructed. “Better you escape unharmed then kill yourself trying to win,” She directed this last part at Hardwin, who avoided her gaze.

“Pipa’s right,” he told them. “Today was a success. The village was saved, we decimated the bandits, and we removed their leader. You three should get some rest and stop worrying about who got away.”

“Yes, go away. I’ve got patients to tend to,” Pipa growled.

“Go,” Hardwin said. “I’ll see you all at tonight’s celebrations,” The three ran off, fearing further annoyance from Pipa.

“Good kids,” Hardwin said as he layed back on the ground.

“They are,” Pipa replied as she inspected his left arm.

“This arm is out of the socket. I need to put it back in,” she said calmly.

“What?” Hardwin asked. But before he could resist, Pipa popped the arm back into place. Hardwin gasped in pain. Who knew that treatment could hurt more than the injury?

Chapter 25

That night’s celebration was the happiest Merrick ever saw. There was dancing and music and food. Every man, woman, and child wore a smile. The whole mood was that of victory. Merrick had at first found it odd that there was a celebration, as so many had perished in the fight. Adeline, however offered an explanation.

“We don’t celebrate despite the loss,” she told him. “We celebrate those that gave themselves wholeheartedly for us.”

With his doubts cleared, Merrick joined the celebration in earnest, dancing and singing happily with his new friends.

Sometime late into the night a silence was called. Hardwin rose to address the entire village.

“It has come time,” he bellowed, “to initiate the trainees who fought so bravely to defend our home.”

A roar went up from the crowd.

With a smile, Hardwin continued. “I would first like to initiate Will Jonason . . .”

Each initiate received a special wooden mask with a detailed drawing on it. Each drawing related to a story that had been passed from generation to generation. Merrick watched the entire time, eagerly drinking in the tales. After about two hours, Hardwin called a special name.

“Merrick Donaldson,” he boomed. Merrick was the only one who seemed surprised. He walked over and kneeled before Hardwin as all the other initiates had.

“Merrick if not for your actions, we would have been caught completely off guard when the bandits got here,” Hardwin spoke with a smile. “Not only that but you personally challenged their sorcerer in combat. For that, you have been awarded the Mask of Anriko.”

A cheer rose from the crowd.

“The story of Anriko is one of courage,” Hardwin began. “He was an ordinary man, a farmer, a husband, and a father. One day, while working in the fields, a huge dragon swept down from the sky. All the others fled, but not Anriko. Armed with only a scythe made for cutting grains Anriko fought the beast to a standstill. He hacked and chopped at the great creature while the fields burned around him. Then in one final effort of strength, Anriko plunged his weapon into the dragon’s eye. The monster flew away and never returned. That is the story of Anriko.”

“That is the story of Anriko,” the others chanted.

“That is your story,” Hardwin said, looking Merrick in the eyes.

“That is your story,” the others cried.

Hardwin handed Merrick a new wooden mask. It depicted the face of a black dragon. Merrick looked Hardwin in the face.

“Thank you,” the young man whispered. Hardwin put his arm on Merrick’s shoulder.

“You deserve it,” he said. Another roar went up from the crowd and the celebration continued.

Chapter 26

The next morning, Merrick was walking through the woods around the forests edge. He was alone and deep in thought. His brother was still out there, along with a good number of the Blades. Not to mention the countless other bandit groups that roamed the lands of Faranorth.

“I need to find them,” he whispered to himself.

“Find who?” Adeline asked. She and Vidar had crept up behind him.

“Damn, don’t do that!” Merrick shouted.

“Find who?” Vidar repeated.

“The Hammering Blades. Or what’s left of them. They can cause a lot of trouble, especially with Unwin being their new leader,” Merrick replied.

“How do you know Unwin is leading them?” Adeline asked.

“I don’t see him as the type to share power with just anyone,” Merrick responded bitterly.

“And it’s not just the Blades,” Merrick continued. “There are other groups, more dangerous ones. I want to stop them too. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else.”

“Alright,” Vidar said easily. “I’m coming with you.”

“I’m coming too,” Adeline interjected.

“What?” Merrick was taken aback, “I can’t ask you, I would never ask you, to leave your home to come with me.”

“You don’t need to,” Vidar told him, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Wherever you go, Merrick, Vidar and I will be right there with you,” Adeline said.

“Well then,” Merrick replied, “We’ve got work to do.”

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