A scruffy thirteen-year-old boy emerged from the luminous fog and made his way toward the babbling creek. He had no friends, no parents, and no name. But he had a knife, and for this morning, that was going to be enough.
He lived in a quaint village called Ashville. Nothing much ever happened here, and that's just how the townspeople preferred it. They didn't like anything odd, and perhaps that's why they didn't like him. “He shouldn't be alive,” “He must be cursed with dark magic,” he would sometimes hear them say. And although he had no formal name, the townspeople called him the Feral Boy, among other mean things.
He had been making his way to the northern grove to look for food when he noticed something in the creek that was very odd and sparked his curiosity. Its turquoise waters glittered as usual, as dawn's light shimmered across the surface, but there were more intriguing flashes of vibrant silver farther beneath. The fish were all swimming downstream at a frantic pace, away from the nearby waterfall, and away from town. The Feral Boy had never seen anything like this before and stepped in for a closer look. This was not a seasonal thing, and the crystal clear waters did not smell contaminated. So what was causing this? He did know that sound traveled faster through the ground and water than the air, so perhaps they sensed something ominous approaching. But surely this was not the case. Nothing exciting ever happened in Ashville, and nothing daunting ever came this way. He turned and made for the grove.
Farther east, beyond the horizon and the long green plains, a dust cloud rose from a steep, gloomy ravine. Thunder seemed to rise from the earth with it. Never stopping. Just growing louder. And closer.
It was the sound of power and rage. The sound of four hundred men on horseback, galloping at high speed in four columns through the narrow gorge, side by side, with the Four Generals leading the charge. They were the greatest warriors from the four corners of the earth. Celtic, Japanese, African, and Arab. Each wore ornate armor indicative of his region, forming an eclectic mix of kilts, cane-armor, leather, furs, and fine silk. But they all wore the same cloaks of blood-red cloth, anchored over their broad shoulders and fluttering wildly behind them. With this simple piece of attire, they appeared as one. For indeed they were united, serving one very infamous King.
They entered the clearing of grasslands and quickened their pace. The Flag Bearer cut his way to the front and raised his pole high. Its black cloth unraveled to reveal the motif of a fist clenching a wreath of thorns. Beyond a distant hill, they could see the peak of the waterfall that acted as a beacon for the place they were charging toward. Ashville.
At the northern tip of Ashville, the Feral Boy strolled into the heart of a dense grove beneath a majestic waterfall. A coil of thin rope hung in his left hand, with a tarnished bronze grapple hook tied to its end. He flicked back his mop of dark hair and carefully examined the branches overhead, resplendent in the colors of fall. He began spinning his hook, which hummed as he increased the speed, faster and faster. He released it and sent it upward with a whoosh. The hook hit a cluster of hazelnuts high above with a loud smack, and they fell to his feet. A perfect shot.
He pressed his foot onto one of the hazelnuts that had a small crack on its upper shell, then drew a short, bronze-bladed knife from the holster on his left thigh. The holster hung from his belt and was cinched firmly in place by another strap lower down that wrapped around his leg. He pressed the blade through the crack in the hazelnut and tried to gently pry it open, but the bronze tip snapped with a loud crack, and the force of the movement caused him to lose his balance momentarily.
He examined the broken blade with a sense of frustration. Sure, it was old, but he was hoping to get much more use from it. Regardless, even though it no longer had a tip, its jagged edge might still serve a purpose. He sheathed the knife with a sigh.
He spotted movement in the grass, and his eyes quickly fixed on two lines of purple caterpillars, marching side by side, coming together to form a single line. A swarm of bright red ants and yellow ants were launching a vicious attack on one caterpillar that had haplessly drifted off the back. It seemed someone was having a worse day than him, the Feral Boy thought to himself. He stared for a moment, caught in the moroseness of it. Then his hand darted out, grabbed the caterpillar, and brought it close to his mouth. He gently blew the ants away and placed it back in the line. And away it merrily walked with the others. Now, if only his knife problems could be solved so easily.
The Feral Boy marveled again at the coloring of the caterpillar and contemplated taking it home, like a pet, curious to witness its evolution into a butterfly. But he felt a sudden pang of sadness. He had tried keeping a pet once before, when he discovered an injured, young bird. It had died a week later. He always wondered if he should have left it alone. He had no experience caring for an injured animal and should not have tried. Maybe it was just bad luck for the bird. Or maybe what the townspeople sometimes said about him was true: he was so wild that he was evil.
As the Feral Boy pocketed his hazelnuts, he noticed movement beyond the trees, at the town's front gates. A wagon was approaching, drawn by a weary horse.
At the reins was Efscott, a forty-year-old bearded man with a jovial, round face that was punctuated with smile lines around his eyes. Beside him sat his pretty daughter, Prudence. Twelve, blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked, and with a reserved nature that most people would mistake as shyness. Shy indeed. She looked like someone who came across as timid at first but would quickly throw a bucket of water on you if you so much as dropped a frog in her pocket.
The Feral Boy was transfixed by her. Not by her beauty so much, for beauty was actually a rather common thing. But there was something radiant about her that he couldn't define. And seeing as he wasn't the type to waste a good frog, he probably had nothing to worry about. He locked the flap down on his knife sheath by fastening a slim button through its eyelet, grinning when he spotted a large branch on the ground that had a perfect shape for a task he had in mind. He picked it up and made his way out of the grove, keeping a wary eye on the approaching carriage.
Guarding the main entrance were two men in rocking chairs, who were fast asleep. Not exactly the town's best and brightest, at first glance. But upon meeting the rest of the townspeople, you might think again. One was short and rotund, the Tax Collector, who loved to hear his own voice and rarely paid attention to what others had to say. The other, Sir Sadly, was a tall and gangly man with a placid calmness about him. He must have been over seventy years old, and it was he who woke first.
Sir Sadly rose slowly and shuffled over to the gate. It was a fragile old thing that had been tied together in sections with pieces of cloth. Under Sir Sadly's sleepy eyes sat a bulbous nose, flamboyant mustache, and easy-going smile. He wore an old bronze-plated armor vest on his torso and a faded purple scarf around his neck. The bronze-bladed spear he carried was severely chipped and tarnished. It had clearly not seen any action in years. He opened the gate and waved the carriage in.
The Tax Collector begrudgingly heaved himself up to his feet, eyeing the disheveled wagon with contempt as it wobbled in. He tried to step forward, but his chair was still fixed tightly to his overly plump buttocks, causing him to stumble. The Tax Collector quickened his steps frantically in a bid to regain his balance while spinning his hands wildly around in circles. But instead, he tripped and fell flat on his face with a thud, then took a deep breath, grunted, and pushed the chair away. It dislodged with a pop.
Efscott brought the carriage to a halt and nodded a salutation, making sure not to smile too much for fear it might seem he was laughing at the Tax Collector's expense. "Good morning, sirs! We wish to settle here. Long term," said Efscott in a polite tone.
The Tax Collector scowled as he rose to his feet and dusted himself off. "Five silver coins gives you the best views, four silvers gives you …" His voice trailed off when he saw the single bronze nugget in Efscott's hand. The Tax Collector groaned and snatched it up. "One bronze nugget. Head to the back! All the way. Just past the poo-wagons." He pointed to the south end of the village. "Also known as Bottom's End," added the Tax Collector.
Efscott cast an apologetic glance to Prudence, who simply smiled and shrugged. He chuckled, then turned to address the Tax Collector. "And where would I find your Chief?"
The Tax Collector was already waddling away and gave a dismissive gesture toward town. "Edge of the Empty Heart," he grumbled.
Efscott nodded politely and gazed vacantly toward town, then flicked the reins and moved slowly down the gravel road that was flanked on both sides by quaint, single-level cottages. Most were built with log walls and were capped with sod roofs of lush green grass. Some of these had succulents scattered across them in a variety of brilliant colors, making the rows of homes seem like an undulating garden of sorts. Some of the less spectacular cottages used shingles on higher-pitched roofs but still had ornate gardens filled with herbs and colorful flowers. Efscott turned warily over his shoulder and noticed a lithe figure sliding out from behind a straw bale and move toward them.
It was the Feral Boy. He wiped his nose with the back of his left hand and gestured to the cottages. "The Blacksmith's their Chief. That's who you want. Follow the blackest pillar of smoke. That's the town square. They call it the Empty Heart because there's a lot of space." He pointed to a dense plume of chimney smoke coming from a cottage at the edge of the creek. A water-driven paddle wheel churned slowly around beyond the rear wall. This part of town was notably less congested and even prettier.
"Thank you," replied Efscott.
The Feral Boy eyed Efscott thoughtfully, noting that despite his gentle appearance and a bit of a potbelly, he had strong arms and stalwart hands. Most probably a tradesman of some sort. This disappointed him because it meant they were not carrying anything of significant value. But perhaps they had some expensive tools. Maybe a good knife, he thought to himself. The Feral Boy looked over at Prudence, who was eyeing him with equal wariness. She was brandishing a tiny blade in one hand and held a small wooden bird in the other, carved into shape from many hours of diligent work. She put the knife and wooden bird down by her side with an air of self-consciousness. No surprise. The art of carving small things from wood—whittling—was something girls usually didn't do. It was considered quite a manly interest. But if you were the daughter of a carpenter, for example, that might be less peculiar. Which meant that the carriage probably did contain tools. The Feral Boy grinned.
"And what is your name?" asked Efscott.
The Feral Boy was caught off guard. No one had ever asked him this before. He felt a heat rush through his cheeks as they turned slightly red, and he shrugged.
The Feral Boy noticed Prudence looking at him, studying him. She was paying attention to his right arm, which made him feel uncomfortable. He smiled at her, and Prudence smiled back, but quickly averted her gaze.
"Goodness, does he ever bathe?" she whispered to her father. She brushed a strand of hair away from her face and straightened her posture.
The Feral Boy puffed out his chest and maintained his pace alongside them. There was something about these two he liked. They seemed different. But a seed of doubt immediately crept into his mind: maybe they would quickly become like everyone else he ever met. The world never took long to show its revulsion of him, nor to conclude that he was less than nothing. Why would they be any different? Even the swagger in his stride changed to more of a plodding one. But perhaps his little trick had worked. He was trying to look as normal to them as possible, so he could set a good first impression, which he had heard was important. But his trick was soon to be harshly unveiled.
Their carriage passed a group of several children who were playing a game in which they tapped an acorn to each other on wooden paddles. The children stopped and approached the Feral Boy. Brunt was the largest and oldest of them. He was sixteen and heavyset with rough hands that had been hardened from years of working with metal. He was the Blacksmith's son. And although he told everyone that the small scar on his chin was from a shard of metal hitting him while he was working, it was actually because he fell out of bed one night while having a nightmare about being chased by a giant carnivorous butterfly. Brunt poked the Feral Boy's shoulder with a finger that looked as solid as granite. "Hey! Run back to your trees, monkey-cripple!" He leaned in closer and whispered menacingly into the boy's ear. "Thief!"
The Forest Boy ignored Brunt and kept walking beside Efscott's carriage, but Brunt wasn't giving up so easily. He hooked his paddle inside the Feral Boy's right arm and yanked hard, ripping the entire limb out of the long shirtsleeve, sending it flipping through the air and tumbling to the ground. The Feral Boy's trick had been unveiled.
He wasn't so normal after all. Prudence stiffened in shock, while Brunt and his friends laughed hysterically. It quickly dawned on Prudence that the arm was fake—the Feral Boy had been using a branch as an artificial limb inside his sleeve. He only had one arm. His left one.
The Feral Boy bent over to pick up the branch, and Brunt delivered a swift kick to his butt, sending him sprawling onto the dirt. "Keep an eye on this one," Brunt declared to Efscott, "he's only got one arm. But he steals like someone with four." Brunt winked mischievously at Prudence, then turned and jogged away with the rest of the children and returned to his game.
The Feral Boy felt his face glowing an even warmer tinge of red than before, partly from anger, but mostly from embarrassment, which was relatively new for him. For some inexplicable reason, he had felt a compulsion to impress this girl. Clearly his plan did not work, and the result was a rather new shade of shame.
He pulled himself to his feet and grabbed the branch with his left hand. His only hand. It looked as if he was considering throwing the stick at Brunt, who had scampered away, but his attention was quickly averted by movement in the distance. The surge of indignation that felt like a wave of hot energy rushing through him suddenly gave way to curiosity. To the east beyond the hills, a large flock of birds fluttered skyward from the trees on the horizon. He frowned. Efscott followed his line of sight and also noticed the birds.
Back on the plains—still unbeknownst to the townspeople—the army of four hundred advanced quickly. Two horsemen galloped up beside the Generals. They carried the army's gold standard of the fist and thorns. Four giant wolves, also wearing armor, ran alongside them in tight formation. The three grey wolves were terrifying beasts, but none of them were as menacing as Armageddon. He was the largest of them all, with thick white fur, piercing blue eyes, and huge fangs that became exposed as he growled. It was a loud, guttural rumble that could have been easily mistaken for thunder. He meant business.
The Four Generals drew their swords, and the sound of clanking metal resounded as the army of four hundred men behind them did likewise.