Chapter 1 – At the Gates

It was such a wonderful tree; proud and tall, standing ever so graciously amongst thousands upon thousands of its own kind. Crafted directly from the gods, it was planted so many years before, its seeds sowed by the hands of Faedrian, Goddess of the Wood, with such tender loving care.

Those days of idle prosperity were at its end, however, as it splintered and cracked making a now most unfortunate descent toward the hearty soils, also quite prosperous and rich. It lay still, and had it bore eyes that could see, it would look upon in horror as a leathered boot began its assault on another of its kin, two hops from its now prone position.

Crack!

"Deikon, would it be possible if you could do that," A small cherubic fellow paused in his complaint, plucked a few out of key strings on his lute, and stammered to continue, "Ah, would it be possible if you could do that elsewhere?"

A tall, slender man with finely honed muscles straightened himself from a well positioned crouch, just out of the way from the fallen trees that now littered the ground.

"Perhaps," He wiped the sweat from his brow, thumbing it away from his left eye – his one good eye – as an eye-patch rested over his other. A scar, long healed, peaked out from the ends of the patch, its unspoken expression of a hard fought battle distinctly evident.

Deikon looked about the area, seeming to conjure an idea that would satisfy both himself and his pint-sized friend – who only managed a height up to his waist while standing. He rubbed his bristly cheeks, tugged at his leather vest, and combed his fingers through his short auburn hair to entertain his absent thoughts.

He finally turned to his friend, a sincere grin on his face.

"My good Elbrem, my friend, my companion," He drew a smile from the little halfling as he rested an arm on the trunk of a tree, "Perhaps it would be most beneficial to us both if you were to doing your strumming elsewhere."

The statement only drew a confused look from the bowl-cut haired boy.

"For you see," Deikon extended his arm toward the outer walls of a city that stood a few paces from their reach, "My training does this place a favour as I clear these paths, making for a more larger and more welcoming trade route, while your out of tune blustering simply drives away the customers!"

His own words brought forth a small chuckle, as well as a certainty that his allegation rang true. Surely enough, with the new treaties being proposed by King Oringard, and the increased amount of trade that it would bring about the kingdom, a larger trading arrangement would need to be put in order, especially for Oringard's robust lumber industry.

The certainty of Deikon's allegation was not shared by his companion, though, as eyes peered up at him under a crinkled brow.

"What?" Deikon shrugged.

"There is no need to make fun," Elbrem said, pointing a stubby, furry finger upwards, "Just because you're bigger, and just because my father favours you, and just because you have those strange abilities, doesn't mean you can look down on me like you have been!"

Deikon's mouth opened slightly, but he held himself from making a sarcastic remark.

"Look," Deikon's voice became more apologetic after a drawn out pause, "Your father does not favour me, and my abilities that your father sees as being this huge thing of the new world has nothing to do with it."

His gaze drifted from the sitting boy out into nothingness, passed the trees that surrounded them, into a world that he wished to never look upon. Without allowing his conscious self to be aware, he lowered himself to the earthen floor and leaned on the tall oak beside Elbrem.

"Ever since my life had turned for the worst, I've tried to mask myself; I've tried to hide my real self from this world. I've tried to live this life as a new me, as a person that not even I can recognize. I try to live without any care in the world, because I feel as though if I were to begin to care, to begin to care for someone or something, it would happen again. I would lose it, and this despair that has plagued me in my recent years shall return."

Deikon looked down to a small pendant that hung around his neck. It was a small and slim sapphire, easily fitting between his fingers as he rolled it from side to side. It was a beautiful and majestic gem that he treasured, but the light that passed through it carried a dread that he dare not accept.

It was once his father's pendant, before he left for the Mounts of Koth so many years ago. His father passed it to his son, to Deikon, before he left that brisk afternoon. He promised that he would return, and when he would, he would take back the pendant. It was his father's good luck charm, his relic of fortune, and he had passed it to Deikon. That day would not come, though. The day when the sapphire pendant would be returned to his father just did not come.

Why did he pass it to him? Why did he not take it on the greatest battle the northern plains have ever witnessed? The one time that he should have kept it, the one time that he let it drift from his grasp, his luck seemed to have faded.

Deikon played the scenario through his mind so many times since his father's final departure. Would he have lived, had he kept the pendant? He did not know, and it only made it worse. Yet, instead of casting it into the seas to be rid of it, to be rid of so many painful memories, he kept it dangling around his neck, hoping that one day the light that would pass through it would be as bright as his father's glories.

As well as his brother's…

A soft hand clasped onto his shoulder, breaking him from his weary trance.

"I'm sorry." Elbrem's quiet voice seemed to calm Deikon, bringing about a sense of relaxation. It was that moment when he remembered that, even though he had lost so much in the recent years, he was not alone.

No words could slip though Deikon's lips, but Elbrem nodded when he noticed a small smile beam from his face.

"Come, let us walk." Deikon leaped to his feet and extended an arm to his friend, "Let us escape the cracking of the trees and the twangs of the…"

"Lute," Elbrem pointed out, "It's called a lute."

"Lute," Deikon echoed with a smile.

Elbrem dusted off his tanned tunic – with a greyed and worn cape to match – and flicked off the chips of wood that spotted his dark green pants.

"You know, Deikon, it wouldn't hurt to knock down the trees a bit further away next time. It only makes the grounds more dirty than they need to be," Picking up his lute, Elbrem raced over to Deikon's side, who was already several strides deeper into the forest path, heading away from the gates of Oringard.

"Deikon Astalidan," A husky voice came from behind.

"Esiros Silverfang," Deikon called back, not needing to turn around. He had the voice memorized. Surely, most people would as well, but Deikon was the most frequent visitor to his office. Anyone who was a prized possession of a mercenary leader would be.

"I see you've done well for yourself," The man spoke sternly, eyeing over the wreckage that surrounded the town walls.

Deikon turned to eye the man, noticing that he was suited in the armour of the Silverwolves, the mercenary band that worked out of Oringard. It was finely crafted silver steel with blue painted plate across the chest, adorned with a white headed howling wolf. The battle suit was topped off with a flowing dark blue cape, the symbol of the Silverwolves also on its back. He was a warrior, and the shining steel accentuated his stern facial features: a full greying beard with flowing shoulder length hair and thick brows hiding eyes that could pierce any man's soul, accentuated with a sharp nose and a mouth that always seemed thinner than it really was. It was all fitting for the leader of the Silverwolves.

Deikon was permitted to wear such armour, he had been with the Silverwolves for nearly three years now. It was too bulky for him, though. And it interfered with his fighting style – complete unarmed combat, sometimes accentuated with a Switch-Staff he carried at his side – which would be protested at great lengths by Fumpus, Elbrem's father, were he to find out.

"What's the occasion?" Deikon questioned. He had every right for such concerns. It wasn't every day that one from the Silverwolves suited up. There was always an occasion.

"You know, the lumber industry is the ones responsible for taking care of these. Not you." Esiros said matter-of-factly, ignoring the question that had been presented to him.

"The suit," Deikon pressed, "What's it for?"

Esiros grinned in a way Deikon had not seen him grin in quite some time. His eyes seemed to squint slightly, his lip curled, and the large man's chest stuck out as he took a deep breath.

"I have not seen combat in some time," Deikon breathed, "You are sure of it?"

"Oringard requested me to send scouts out along the trade routes to investigate. They are there." Esiros assured the doubtful man.

"Who?" A nervous Elbrem queried, nearly huddled against Deikon's thigh.

"Bandits," Esiros reiterated, to which Deikon mouthed the same under his breath.

Bandits, just what Elbrem needed. He hated combat, and he was enjoying the past couple months where combat had been at a relative low. He would undoubtedly go on this expedition, to which he would follow Deikon. As ordered by his father, he could not leave Deikon's side, regardless of the situation.

"The roads have been calm as of late. What has spiked their interest for them to be returning?" Deikon's confused look was quick to switch to one of understanding, long before he received a reply.

"The Mainland Treaty, of course. You should have known that." The burly leader poked a finger at Deikon, "Now with this whole alliance, the trading business is going to grow tenfold. And that means more traffic on the roads, and more traffic means more loot for the bandits."

"And you want us to police the routes," Deikon responded, clearly seeing the proposition to which Esiros was leading.

"Precisely," Esiros moved his gaze down the main road of Oringard's trade route, then brought it back, stopping at the eyes of Elbrem for a moment, before meeting them with Deikon's single eye (although he certainly found it difficult not to make sudden glances to the concealed scar).

"It's already been decided what the plans will be," The leader went on, "Kiran and I will take the northern route, while Niro and Sarziel will take the southern route. You are Elbrem shall take the eastern route."

He's mad! Deikon thought. The eastern route was the main route, the largest route, the route will the highest contingency of bandits, and his only accomplice would be little Elbrem, who wasn't even armed!

"Sir," Deikon stammered, "I understand that you have faith in my abilities—"

"As I do," Esiros nodded.

"—but to send me down the most treacherous of routes with but a simple bard who has little experience in combat is certain death."

Elbrem agreed, and made no move to argue the remark. He knew Deikon wasn't trying to belittle him, and what he spoke was the truth.

The leader's mouth thinned, that stern look bearing into Deikon, but the nod that accompanied certainly eased the tensions. It seemed as though it was a difficult decision to make, if any decision had been made at all. It had been done before, where Deikon was sent into dangerous situations without backup or reinforcements to help ease the burdens of combat. It was a test – or more like a game – to see the limitations of his abilities. He was being played, probably even gambled on. But, would they care if he never returned? Perhaps it would happen someday. It was a thought, among many thoughts, that passed through Deikon's mind. He was a prize to them, he was their best weapon, and they were blindly throwing him into combat expecting things to be fine. One of these days, he believed, they will underestimate his abilities. It will be their error, but perhaps it would also ease the burden that Deikon had to bear; perhaps it would release him from the torments of his past.

Yet, the money was still good, Deikon brought to mind, trying to stray his thoughts to a more pleasing one.

"All right then," Esiros tapped his foot and scratched his bearded chin, trying to grasp his next thought, "Hegford. I shall send Hegford with you. It will take time for him to get ready, so you go on ahead. He will catch up, I assure you."

Assure. Deikon laughed at Esiros final words, not audibly of course, for he would not risk the thick steel mitt of his leader to meet his tanned cheek. Nor would he resist in such an event, or risk banishment from the Silverwolves, his only source of income.

Hegford would not come, but Deikon nodded to Esiros' offer. He would still be going alone. A simple bard would be at his side, but he would still be alone.

"Then it is settled." Esiros said with a tone of finality.

"We shall meet in the plains?" Deikon asked, recalling that all three trade routes led to the plains in the east. The paths that went north and south of Oringard's gates continued their respective directions for a few miles before curving to the east. They all ended in the same area, equally distanced apart by a few miles. It would still take a decent amount of time for the three groups to make their way down the colossal forested hill that housed Oringard.

"Most certainly. I shall see you two there," The knight began to walk off, his steel plates shifting and squeaking about, only to quickly come to a halt, "With Hegford."

"Without Hegford," Elbrem muttered under his breath.

Deikon smiled. His friend knew what was to transpire.