This sample is the introduction of one of the main characters – Lexan Vernia. Lexan is an ageing king who has passed the right to rule on to his son. Despite this, he is still very active and misses the days when he would physically defend his kingdom himself. A warrior of some renown, he is trying to come to terms with his ‘retirement’.
Lexan Vernia watched with pride as his two grandsons, Astana and Vesta, carried out Haggar’s instructions to the letter. His Chief Huntsman had been no less demanding of the boys, just because they were the king’s sons, despite the fact that Astana was 16 and Vesta only 13. But he’d be fourteen and a man soon, as he was fond of telling his grandfather. Lexan had decided to take them on their first hunt because he wanted to shape them into the princes they would become. It had been difficult for Lexan to pass the crown over to his own son Bergam, but it was a time of peace and at 61 years old, if Lexan didn’t let Bergam come out from his shadow now, he would never have a chance at being a proper king to his people.
The Greencastle Vernia’s had been one of several royal families to travel from Tanimora to Meridimion in the Great Exodus. Not many common folk these days knew the whys and wherefores of it, but the royal families made sure that their children studied their history and their background closely to uphold their traditional values and way of life. The nine provinces were pretty much ruled these days as they had been back in Tanimora. Only now, of course, they were lead by the Governor and Governess in Meridim City. The monarchs still ruled their own lands, but it was to a set of laws laid down by the Governor and Governess. To be fair though they did try to keep out of people’s affairs and only intervened if there was a serious breach of the law, or if there was unrest. These days though there was very little of that. Lexan had said a child could drive a gold-laden mule from one side of his land to the other without fear of attack these days.
It had been different when Lexan was growing up. They were wilder times. There were more bandits in the hills than you could shake a stick at and there were always forays to be had for experienced fighting men in the Kings Guard. The caves of The Jagged Mountains that he was in right now, tracking a stag with his grandsons, were known for hiding outlaws and bandits. Until he lead almost his entire armed force all over the mountains for about 8 months and finally rid his land of them. But that was over 20 years ago. These days his most formidable opponents had hooves and horns. Only by hunting did he feel his blood come alive these days.
“Sire, we should tether the mounts now, we are close enough to track on foot.” Said Haggar, Chief Huntsman to The King of Greencastle. They had stopped close to a small mountain stream. It was little more than a trickle over rocks and moss, but at this particular point, the loose rocks around had formed a natural pool about 9 feet across which the water filled before continuing it’s trickle down the rocky slopes.
Lexan acknowledged his old friend with a nod and turned to the boys, “Come on now boys, look lively. You know how to look after your mounts. Get it done and get your bows and kit together.” The two boys obeyed immediately and tied their horses on long tethers near enough to the pool for them to take a drink if they wished. Lexan and Haggar did the same then waited at the tracks for the boys to join them.
“See the tracks here boys – this is where our quarry took a drink before continuing into the mountains. What can you tell me about it?” asked Haggar, squatting down.
“It’s a big one.” Said Astana. “Maybe fully grown? Maybe male?”
“That’s right my boy.” Said Lexan. “See how the track is broader and rounder, it probably is a big male. Do you see that, Vesta?” he asked of the younger boy. “A female marking would probably be more narrow. Can you tell me about its behaviour?”
The young lad frowned and bit his lip. A sign that showed Lexan he was thinking hard. Then he looked all around himself, scanning the landscape. Finally he looked up into the mountains and the trees, in the direction the tracks lead.
“Erm… I think he came down to graze on nicer grass. There looks like there’s more grass down here on the slopes than up in the rocks and the trees. But I think it’s quite open here so he probably felt nervous and went back into the cover where he is less likely to be seen.”
“Very good lad” said Haggar, “that’s probably exactly what happened. I see you’ve been paying attention to Old Haggar and not just coming along because of your older brother. I think you’ll be as good as your grandfather within a few seasons. Both of you.” He added with a smile splitting his grizzled grey beard for Astana too. “Ok then boys, follow the tracks carefully and we’ll follow you.”
Lexan and Haggar walked 10 yards behind the boys, watching them discuss markings and looking around to read the trail. Several times young Vesta caught his older brother’s sleeve and pointed out something he had missed or corrected his direction. Lexan thought to himself ‘He’s a smart one, that kid, he’ll do well. It’s a shame he isn’t the eldest.’ Not that Lexan thought Astana wouldn’t make a good King one day, but Lexan hoped that when that day came, he would rule with his brother by his side.
After another 2 hours tracking the animal further and further up the increasingly difficult terrain of the mountain slopes, the boys came across some droppings and waited for Haggar.
“Ok boys,” began Haggar in hushed tones, “we’re right close up now. No more talking. See how the droppings take the impression of this twig, but don’t break apart?” he asked, pressing a twig into the droppings. “There’s still moisture in this, we should gain sight within the hour – but only if we’re silent. It’s all about stealth now. I’ll lead, but you watch me and watch what I do and most importantly, mind where you put your feet. A loose rock clattering down this mountain will scare anything off within a mile. Ok?” he asked. The boys nodded. “Ok.” Said Haggar and with that, he set off purposefully in the lead, the boys following and Lexan bringing up the rear.
Less than an hour later, as predicted, Haggar crouched down and the others followed suit. He had seen a large stag moving through some trees about 300 yards up the slope to the left. At this stage of the mountain it was very rocky and steep, yet there were still plenty of trees around. It would be another two hundred yards or so further upwards before the mountain broke free of the trees and rose above them. Lexan looked to see where Haggar was taking them. There was a large rock formation and some boulders further up the hill. If they could crawl over to them without being seen and stay upwind, they could get a lot closer to the animal. He motioned for them to crawl around to the right and they did so slowly. After a few minutes of patient slow crawling he beckoned them all over and whispered, “Ok. If we can stay silent and low down and head to those rocks over there, we should be able to peep around them to the stag below. We’ll be above it and maybe only forty or fifty yards away. I know you’re excited now to be this close after so long but you mustn’t lose concentration now. You have to be even quieter than you were before. Do you think you can manage that?” Both boys nodded excitedly and he smiled. “Good, follow me.”
With the cover of the rocks in between them and the stag, they were able to rise to a crouching walk and could see dry branches, loose rocks or anything else which might give away their position.
They snuck up slowly to the rocks, the others matching Haggar’s slow, deliberate tread. When they got there Haggar showed them how to pop their heads over the top of the rocks ever so slowly so that no sudden move gave their position away. The boys followed his example and it was all they could do not to gasp when they saw the stag. It was a beautiful animal. Large and with a proud bearing it seemed totally unafraid and at ease, as if it felt more than a match for anything that might come his way. After a couple of minutes watching the magnificent creature, Haggar gestured to Astana and pointed at his bow. The boys gaze dropped to the ground and blushing he shook his head. Now that he had seen the animal up close he could not bear to harm it. Haggar simply smiled and nodded, making Astana feel he had made the right decision.
Then as they watched the noble stag grazing, he suddenly lifted up his head as if he’d heard something. Almost immediately afterwards, there was a great crashing in the uppermost reaches of the trees as all the birds fled their perches, wings flapping, branches shaking, and the stag turned and bolted.
The hunters all looked to Haggar. “Did we make a noise?” asked Vesta, uncertainly.
“I don’t think so,” began Haggar, “I don’t think… I mean, I’ve never seen…” he faltered as they became aware of a rumbling sound and a trembling in the rocks below their feet at the same time. Small rocks, some the size of apples, bounced down the rocks from above causing them to look up the mountainside. The rumbling grew, as did the shaking beneath their feet and as larger rocks dislodged and started to bounce their way towards them – the ground suddenly jolted them all off their feet and made them tumble several feet down the slope.
“Boys! To me!” shouted Lexan, and pulled the scrambling boys behind him as more rocks came their way.
“The tree Sire!” shouted Haggar, pointing. He’d spotted quite a gnarly tree growing out of the side of the mountain at an angle. Although not particularly tall, it had a thick trunk and was next to a large rock that would offer them some protection from the landslide from above.
Lexan and Haggar dragged a boy each to the lee of the tree, shielding them with their bodies and taking no small amount of hits themselves in the process. Every now and then there would be a larger rock come down the mountain perilously close to where they were sheltering. Although the shaking was now subsiding, one such larger boulder, about the size of a cow, came smashing down towards them. Lexan hesitated as one deflection or bounce could easily send the boulder on a new path and it looked like it might pass them by. Unfortunately, when it was no more than forty feet above them, it took a bounce that sent it straight at the tree. Lexan tried to grab the boys and pull them away, as did Haggar but the rock hit the tree and it came down on top of them just as they were struggling to get away.
When the rumbling died away, Lexan still had hold of Vesta’s hand and so was able to pull him out of the branches of the fallen tree behind him as he clambered out. “Astana! Haggar! Are you ok? Where are you?” he called.
“Over here, Sire!” came Haggar’s reply, “The boy’s with me!” Lexan looked around and near the centre of the tree he could see movement. “Are you ok Vesta?” he asked his youngest Grandchild.
“I’m fine gramps, let’s get Astana.” Was the shaken but determined answer.
They made their way through the upside-down branches, which seemed unnatural as they pushed their way through – somehow alien, growing in the wrong direction – but it was nothing more than disorientation at going through the tree in a strange direction. When they got close to the trunk where Haggar was, they could see that he was crouched down by Astana, who was pinned to the ground by the bulk of the tree.
“Astana! Are you hurt?” asked Lexan.
“No Grandpa.” He replied. “But this tree is squashing me, I can’t move. I’m not hurt, but I can’t take a deep breath because it’s tight on top of me.”
“Ok my little Asti,” said Lexan, using a pet name for Astana that the boy had begged his family to stop using years ago “we’ll get you out, don’t worry. Haggar – do you have a saw with you? A sword, a staff, anything we might use?”
“Sorry sire, just me hunting knife and crossbow. I could maybe get some strong branches and we could lever the tree up, bit by bit, putting rocks under to take the strain off the lad?” Haggar suggested hopefully.
“No, we wouldn’t be able to roll it over without first taking off some branches on the other side and they’re too thick for hunting knives – we’d be there a week.” Said Lexan. “There must be another way.”
“Grandpa,” said Vesta, “If the tree is too heavy to lift and too stable to move, why don’t we dig out the earth from underneath him and pull him out?”
Lexan beamed an enormously proud grin as he took Vesta’s face in his hands and kissed his forehead. “My little Vesta, I swear to all the gods you’d find a way to outshine the sun itself if you wanted to!” he looked at Haggar, “Come on then old friend, help me to dig him out, we can use our daggers. Watch where you’re digging though, that’s the next in line to the throne under that tree and one day he’ll be your King. It’d be a hell of a time for him to remember that you stuck him with a hunting blade while he was helpless!”
Haggar just grinned. He knew that Lexan trusted him with these boys more than anyone outside of their family and he could always rely on Haggar. He’d taught the boys to ride almost as soon as they could walk and he loved them both dearly.
The two men set to work on either side of the trunk, digging away at the earth and rocks with their blades and bare hands, trying to clear room enough to pull the boy free. Vesta was on lookout as there were still the occasional stones falling down the mountainside after the quake, so he was stood on the tree trunk ready to shout a warning. They had only been digging a couple of minutes when Vesta shouted a warning. But it was not from fear of falling rocks, but an entirely unanticipated danger.
At almost the same time as Vesta shouted “Grandpa!” all four of them heard a deep and angry roar. A large and furious Black Bear was shuffling down the slope towards them with a big gash on the side of its head from the quake.
In one swift movement belying his age, Lexan leapt onto the trunk and passed Vesta down to Haggar. Then he turned to face the bear with only his soil-caked hunting knife. Lexan was regretting leaving his sword on his saddle, but he had not wanted the clank of metal to ruin the boys’ first hunting trip.
The bear was obviously in pain and angry and looking for vengeance, Lexan could practically feel the murderous intentions emanating outwards from the beast as it looked up at him and snarled. In his day Lexan had been a legend, ridding his kingdom of bandits and bringing safety and peace to all. The Warrior King they called him, after competing in The Fighting Games and never being beaten by another man. He’d fought with a mask at first to ensure that no quarter was given and he’d eventually retired undefeated. Sometimes he’d faced stronger men or faster men, but none had his strength of will. The will to never give up. The will to endure anything they could throw at him in the knowledge he would still overcome. But that had been men.
He watched the bear as it rose up onto its hind legs and roared at him. How tall was it? Eight feet? Nine feet? No matter. Lexan was all that stood between this animal and his beloved grandsons. Not while there was breath in his body would he fail to stand between them and harm. Sixty feet away, the bear roared again and dropped to all fours in a shambling run towards the companions. Lexan leapt down from the trunk and stood before the fallen tree, arms outstretched, dagger in hand and roared back at the bear fiercely. He set his feet as the bear charged and dropped himself into a fighting crouch as he prepared to do whatever was necessary to defend his bloodline…