I can still smell the smoke. I can still smell burning hair and flesh. I can still feel the heat of the flames against my face. Screams echo within the recesses of my mind, especially during those times I try to find sleep. Two screams, sickeningly familiar, haunt my dreams. Screams I had never heard before. Those of agony. Of fear, and of helplessness. Worse yet, I can still feel that fear and the terror that so gripped me and paralysed me. The shame I feel at my own inaction, at my cowardice. Fire raged in a tempest, hungrily swallowing everything I had known and yet I could do nothing to stop it.
Everything I had known and loved is gone, replaced with the bitter sense of loss and despair. And I did nothing.
After that day, I vowed to myself that, unless laid low by an enemy blade, I shall see my loved ones avenged. I shall right the wrong that has so shamed me. No longer will I be a coward; no more shall I hesitate. My blade shall fall swift and true upon my enemies. They may have taken everything I hold dear, but in that I still hold the advantage.
For I shall take their life.
My mentor had scolded me my course. He said the quest for vengeance would consume me and fill me with hate.
Perhaps he was right, though. But my heart is broken, tore from my very chest the day I lost everything. Do I just sit idly? Let the tragedy slip away without justice having been served? Move on? Impossible. No, only after the blood of those responsible pools at my feet will justice be served.
I hold no illusions that vengeance will not bring them back. No illusions that, once justice is finally done, the screams that still to this day echo so vividly in my mind will abate.
But perhaps I will finally be able to live with myself and the knowledge that I have finally done something.
EFERATH LOOKED UP AT THE SKY AND GRUNTED. The splash of purple and pinks along the horizon peeking through the treetops warned that it was getting late. If he wanted to make it back by nightfall, and dinner, he would need to finish cleaning his kill and head for home. It’s not that he was that far geographically from his home, but the dense forest made for tough travelling even at the best of times. He continued dressing and skinning his kill – a small stag, barely old enough to grow nubs for a rack – then meticulously buried the entrails and cleaned his hands of the blood. The predators would likely still smell it, but at least it wouldn’t be as strong as a fresh scent.
The young man tied a rope around the neck of the creature, then slung it over his back and made for the forest path that would lead him home. He barely made it two steps before he heard a sharp snap of a tree twig not far in front, and to the right of him. He tightened his grip on the rope, his instincts on high alert. He knew well the predatory animals that roamed the forest region.
It wasn’t any wild animal.
“Hoooeeeey!” Cried a hoarse voice Eferath did not recognize. “Whadda we got ‘ere fellers?” Eferath took a cautious step back as a group of three men emerged from the tree line. They were rough looking, each wearing tattered, weather stained clothing that looked patch-work and filthy. Most importantly, each man carried weapons. Nothing extraordinary, but Eferath knew that they could do some serious damage. The man on the far right carried a spiked club, no longer than his forearm. The one on the left carried a long dagger that was pitted with rust, and had a distinctive warp to the blade along the fuller. Eferath had his eyes on the man directly in front of him, though, as the man carried a gleaming longsword that looked as keen as it was sharp.
Eferath instinctively reached down to where his dagger was strapped to his hip.
It wasn’t there.
Not that it would have done him any good, anyway, as it was nothing more than a skinning knife, and its edge had been dulled in the process of skinning his kill. He resisted the urge to look over his shoulder, back at the area where he left his knife stuck into the grass. The man in front of him noticed the movement, a grotesque, crooked smile stretching across his scarred face.
“What ye got there, sonny?” He croaked, tilting his head to the side mockingly. “Now, don’t ye do nothin’ stupid boy. I’d hate fer ye to not get back home to yer momma.”
“What do you want?” Eferath demanded, trying without success to keep the fear out of his voice as he unconsciously took a step back.
The smile evaporated from the man’s face suddenly as he held his sword in a more threatening manner. “Ye see… We want the deer ye got there, ‘n’ if ye don’t put it down, well ye’ll be in fer a world o’ hurt, savvy?”
Eferath’s eyes narrowed, and his gaze flicked from man to man, quickly assessing his chances in getting away from them. The men looked haggard and sickly, but they were full-grown men, and Eferath was barely entering into manhood. His chances were not good – they were non-existent. That being said, he didn’t want to give up his trophy that took him all day to track, and kill. It was his by rights, and he would be damned if he let himself be pushed around by these ruffians.
“No.” Was all that Eferath said, and the monosyllabic response had a perceptible effect. The men stiffened as if slapped, even as Eferath tried to stand straighter and exude an air of confidence he didn’t feel, even as his stomach churned with overwhelming nausea.
All three came on in a rush. The one on the right was the fastest, and Eferath was forced to duck as the whistling club nearly took off his ear. He spun on his heel, and drove his fist into the man’s stomach, doubling him over. If he had had another couple of seconds, he would have been able to drop the first man, but the other two robbed him of that chance. The young man dodged backward, and nearly lost his footing as the added weight from the deer carcass nearly threw him off balance. It was that added weight that saved his life. He stumbled backward just in time to narrowly avoid a sword cut from the pack leader that would have spilled his innards. The man was taken by surprise by the miss, and overbalanced, giving Eferath the opening he needed to land a solid kick to the side of his opponent’s knee. The force of the blow wasn’t enough to break bones, but it was enough to buckle the leg, and hobble him.
The third came in with his dagger leading, and Eferath had to throw his hips back to dodge far enough to avoid being skewered. The young man followed up by landing a solid chop on the man’s exposed forearm, stunning it into dropping the dagger. Eferath grabbed the man by the shoulder, yanked him forward, while simultaneously bringing his knee up to slam savagely into the man’s gut. The man dropped to the ground coughing and retching, and Eferath was just about to take off into the forest when a brilliant, dazzling array of colours exploded in his vision before his world went black.
Colours. Flashes. Noise. Shouting. Jostling. Eferath opened his eyes briefly. It was dark, but he could make out the outline of several people all around him. It took several minutes for him to notice the odd angle in which he saw the nearby trees whisking by.
He was being carried.
He wanted to call out, to ask that he not be jostled so hard, but found the darkness rapidly closing around his vision.
The next time Eferath opened his eyes, the sunlight streaming in through the window felt as if daggers were being thrust into his skull. With blurry, sensitive eyes that seemed not to track what he was looking at quickly enough. There seemed to be a lag from the time he moved his eyes around to the room, to when his vision slid along the track to catch up. Sitting in the corner of the room, which he finally realized was his own, sat his father Eralon, chin resting on his chest asleep.
“Da?” Eferath called weakly. His voice sounded thick to his own ears, with a distinctive lisp, and his jaw ached something awful. That, and his left eye seemed not to cooperate when he tried to open it completely.
Eralon stirred, then erupted from his chair as if he sat upon a spring-loaded trap.
“Eferath my boy!” His father roared, and Eferath winced at the new wave of intense pain that ripped into his brain. “What the hell happened?”
As soon as Eferath had finished telling him what happened, he waited for the inevitable tongue-lashing that he knew to expect, and deserved. It didn’t come. Eralon simply looked over at his mother, and the two shared a barely perceptible nod before explaining to him the details of his rescue.
Apparently, night had fallen completely before his father had formed a search party, but it wasn’t until after midnight before he was found, battered and beaten, and barely breathing. Three days had passed since they had carried him home and put him to bed. While they had explained the extent of his injuries, Eferath subconsciously fingered the tender areas that had been bruised and fractured. His bruises were numerous, and thankfully there had been no breaks or fractures. It still felt like he had been hit by an avalanche, though.
When they had finished speaking, they bade him farewell, and left him to his thoughts. An hour later, Eferath struggled to get to his feet, swaying unsteadily as his head throbbed in protest. He made it to the stairwell, where he heard his mother and father speaking in low tones. He crept closer to hear what they were talking about.
“…he thinking taking on three armed men for a little bit of meat?” Lillyan hissed angrily. His mother, Lillyan, was deceptively delicate, but could be fearsome when angry. She was tall, lithe, and fragile-looking. But she was tough in mind and in body, with an inner fire that could douse the bluster in her sometimes-egotistical husband. Eferath’s father was tough, but he certainly came running whenever his mother called! She was the former ambassador for the Escoran hierarchy, and she was possessed of a hidden intensity that often gave her the upper hand in many political debates. Many thought her beauty was her only talent, and since she was seldom taken seriously, the advantage was clearly hers when talks went underway.
She was the subject of gossip, though, many women; young and old were jealous of the beauty she maintained though she was in her late forties. Many suspected she was either an elf, or was a half-elf. She was highly respected, however, regardless of the gossip.
“I do not know, my dear.” His father, Eralon, replied, and Eferath could hear the shrug in his tone. “I thought I had taught him better than that. What I am more concerned with, however, is who the three men are, where they came from, and where they headed after they did that to our son.”
“Aye, they could prove a nuisance to the merchants travelling the area.” His mother agreed, far from mollified. “It is nearly trading season, so we could expect the merchants any time now. But what are we going to do about Eferath?”
Eralon sighed. “I do not know, Lillyan. Two things could have happened, and I think what did happen was the better of the two. First, they could have killed him and taken what they had wanted, and no one would have been the wiser. It doesn’t take an apothecary to make a death look like an animal attack. But if what Eferath said is true, and I have no reason to doubt his word, then he very nearly emerged victorious against three armed men, when he himself, was unarmed. I have only taught him the basics, but it appears as though the time has come for more formal training.”
Eferath could hear his mother’s distaste at the suggestion. “I do not want our son to become a fighter.” She told him, and the heat in her voice would have cowed a lesser man. But Eralon was a general in Escoran’s elite Crystal Guard. He knew his way around his wife’s verbal trap maze.
“How about we let the boy decide, shall we? I do not want my son to be some lowly farmer or farm hand for the rest of his days if that is not what is in his heart to do.” Eferath heard his mother sigh resignedly.
“Very well.” She relented. “But do not push, dear husband. You could charm the scales off a snake, and I want to give him every opportunity to choose for himself.”
Eferath shuffled back to his room and lay on his bed. His mind whirled with the thoughts of what he had overheard. Him, a fighter? How could that even be possible when the very memory of the encounter with the three men filled him with glacial fear, and paralyzing dread? He had acted on impulse, and pure instinct guided his movements that night. There was no way, he thought, could he repeat the performance, nor would he want to. Does that make me a coward, then? He asked himself, and immediately the thought sent a rush of angry denial through him.
He had felt anger, shame, and most importantly, fear when he had been attacked by those men. It was not a feeling he was eager to experience again. But maybe, had he been better trained, the outcome would have been different.