The Gray Guard: Chapter 1
—by Nathan on May 21, 2013—
The following is the first chapter of an elective I did this year. Like the chapter of "Elevators" I posted last year, this is an OYAN story, but for a curriculum based specifically for fantasy and science fiction. My story is fantasy, because I prefer Elves over aliens. It is called The Gray Guard (or "The Grey Guard" for those of you in Europe), and I hope you enjoy:
Veridian Gray drearily watched the procession go by him, a hint of reproach in his eyes.
Five men, all dressed in the same gray cloaks and tunics, walked by, their leather boots crunching the grass, trotting along a well-worn path. Four of them had their hoods up; the fifth man remained uncovered, displaying his dark hair and thick beard. His eyes met Veridian's, his gaze eliciting a similar feeling as the boy's.
The other four carried between them two sticks, two men per stick. Tied to each was the dangling corpse of a green-skinned Goblin, hands and feet bound. The bodies swung as the men marched.
"Going to burn them?" another man, standing next to Veridian, called out.
"Aye!" one of the hooded ones responded. "Got to show Trellius our prize first, though!"
Not that he wants to see it, Veridian thought, turning away and continuing to walk down the grassy path. All around him were men and women, boys and girls, dressed exactly as the five marchers. Gray was their symbol, for Gray was their family name.
Two centuries before, only a handful of men had held the name Gray. It was they who had started the business, the Gray Guard, a group dedicated to the hunting of the barbaric and dangerous creatures that menaced Norloc. Through the years, the Guard had grown, their numbers increasing through marriage and subsequent offspring, every member eventually brought into the family business of tracking down and killing of monsters. Goblins. Giant spiders. Renegade Trolls.
Veridian had been trained under his father, Trellius Gray, the current head of the Gray Guard. He was their leader, their stalwart commander. Though he rarely entered the field himself, he made decisions as to which missions to undertake and which Guards would be best together in Packs. Five Guards to a Pack was the general rule, and they needed to be well-rounded. There needed to be fast members, strong members, members good at magic…Packs had to have men with special skills so they could be prepared in any situation. Veridian's own Pack was strong and fast, but they had another quality that made them special. Nearly every one of them possessed magical abilities.
Everyone except Veridian.
No one could determine why this was the case. Trellius had magic. While she was alive, Veridian's mother, Glandra, had been a Healer, capable of mending wounds with just a touch or a few spoken words. Why Veridian had not been handed down power of his own confused everyone, and, to Veridian's own shame, made him the object of many a joke from other Guards his age. After the death of his mother, Veridian's personal relationship with his father had grown cold. Trellius had trained him well, but Veridian knew that his father's only reason for long hours of practicing swordsmanship had been only for the betterment of the Guard. There had been no love, Veridian asserted, in those sessions. His father wanted him at peak quality, to be the best Guard he could be, even without magic. Trellius had never admitted to have such a reason, but Veridian knew no other logical answer. Without magic, Veridian needed to be strong in other areas.
Such as patience. Where he was headed, Veridian was certain he would need it for the upcoming task Trellius had placed upon his shoulders. He gave a slight groan as he remembered the job that lay before him. He didn't want to do it, but he hadn't argued when Trellius had ordered him. Veridian had desperately wished to be sent on a mission when he had been summoned. Rumors of a rogue Troll rampaging through Morloc, Norloc's middle province, had fluttered through the camp since the day before last. Maybe Trellius was allowing him to go! Veridian had even tempted the thought of being sent alone. It was every young Guard's dream to do a hunt by himself or herself. To hunt and slay a beast on one's own and with one's own skill meant a passage into adulthood. Veridian wanted that chance.
He had been bitterly disappointed. [Instead of being allowed him to hunt on his lonesome, Veridian had been given the all-important duty of watching Murdan]. Murdan, the old man who lay in his tent all day, sleeping or playing cards by himself. Murdan, the nearly blind patriarch of the family, the grandson of one of the Guard's founders. The oldest man in all the camp, Murdan hadn't been on a mission in over thirty years, but stayed at camp and doled out bits of wisdom to whoever requested it. A glorified oracle, Veridian thought. Murdan could recall very few interesting stories of his days when he hunted beasts. He wanted to play cards. That was all. Veridian could not stand being around him.
Still, his father thought the task important enough. "We must not let him think we feel apathetic towards him," he had told Veridian. "He may be old, but he is also family. There is not much that he can do, but we are the organization we are today in part of what he's done. We can never forget that. If there is one trait about you that shines above all else, it is that you do not abandon family, do you, Veridian?"
Perhaps Trellius meant that as a compliment, but Veridian viewed it as yet another reason he should do as his father asked and keep an eye on Murdan. Everything, it seemed, to his father was for the benefit or glory of the Guard. How watching the old man fit into that, Veridian could hardly guess.
As he reached Murdan's tent, a flash of light caught his eye, making him look to his right. Grenul, Veridian's third cousin, sat cross-legged before a tent, his full attention on a ball of flame he cupped in his right hand. He poured it into his left, a flowing stream of fire, before closing his fist around it and extinguishing it in a puff of dark smoke. Veridian stopped and watched for a few seconds, a small knot of envy in his stomach. As Grenul glanced up, Veridian looked away, waiting a few moments outside Murdan's tent.
Petty jealousy for others consumed him at times. His father was the head of the Gray Guard and Veridian couldn't even make fire appear, not even the smallest spark. Uselessness gnawed at him during every mission. The other Guards made nice, but Veridian had realized early on this was only because of who his father was. He could fight better than the other four, but that was all. In a situation where magic was demanded, he could do nothing. He felt crippled. He felt ashamed. His father must have been ashamed too, to send his only son to watch an almost sightless man while making it sound like Veridian was doing a favor for the entire Guard.
"Some favor," the boy grunted before ducking down and entering.
"What have you got?"
"Ha! Four…no, wait. I can't see." The old man squinted at his cards. "One…two…"
Veridian Gray sighed and looked through the front flaps of the tent. How long had he been here, watching Murdan like he was some babe? This was their sixth games of cards, each game longer than the last it seemed. Murdan's eyes were horrible. He'd called Veridian "Aram" when he'd walked in, mistaking the boy for his fifteen year old cousin.
Inside, Veridian lamented. Some other Guard will be given the Troll hunt. He looked outside. Grenul, most likely. Out of all of us, he has shown the most promise in his skills over the past year. Fine. Let him try. I hope he gets crushed out there.
He winced. Thinking bitter thoughts towards others was unbecoming of him. He had borne the brunt of jokes for his lack of magic, but he had never retaliated. He couldn't stand the thought of bringing physical or emotional grief on someone else, especially a family member. Trellius had taught him the importance of family, of forgiving painful verbal thrusts instead of returning them. He had felt jealousy at times, but he had never openly engaged his anger at the expense of another. Never had, he knew. Never would, he hoped.
I really don't think that, Veridian told himself. Spur of the moment…shouldn't act so stupid. Can't think that.
"Haw! I was right! Four bones!" Murdan slapped down his cards. Veridian wanted to tell him he only had three, same as he, but he resisted. He'd beaten Murdan five times in a row, so he let the patriarch have his fun.
The old man yawned and scooted back towards his bed. "You wore me out quickly, Aram," he said. "This ancient body needs a rest."
"Sure," Veridian sighed, once again turning his attention outside as the old man lay down to sleep. He could see the tent across from Murdan's, he could see Grenul continuing to practice. He opened his palm, bringing fire to life. He closed it and extinguished the flame, then repeated the cycle anew.
Veridian glanced at his own hand, as if waiting for a fire to suddenly burn. Nothing happened. Nothing would ever happen, he knew, not if he sat there until cobwebs grew in his hair.
No magic. No mission. Nothing to impress his father with. Just once, Veridian would have loved to see his father smile. Just once, just so he could know Trellius didn't view him as simply another Guard.
Murdan sat up suddenly, blinking. "Did you hear that?" he asked.
Veridian wearily took his eyes off Grenul. "Hear what?"
"The footstep. I heard a footstep." Murdan looked confused, cocking his head to the side. He frowned. "When your sight starts to fail, other senses begin to grow in strength. You may not have heard it, but I did."
"You fell asleep. You were dreaming." Veridian easily discarded the strange noise as a figment of the old man's unconscious mind. "And you're right. I didn't hear anything. Neither did you."
"No, no, I heard," Murdan pressed.
"I've been staring outside the whole five minutes you dozed. Nobody passed by."
"It didn't come from the front of the tent." Murdan's sudden seriousness took Veridian by surprise. "Go out. Check quickly. Please."
With a frown of his own, Veridian stood and left the tent. He walked behind it. Nothing was there but a tall tree in full blossom. He scanned the ground for footprints, but saw none.
Walking back to the front, he saw that Grenul was still concentrating on his fire.
He hasn't heard a thing, Veridian thought. Proof enough.
"You can sleep easy," he assured Murdan upon reentering. "I didn't see anyone or anything. No signs anyone was there."
"Someone may be there," Murdan responded hoarsely. "He may be there soon."
"You were dreaming," Veridian repeated.
"Dreams…are powerful." Murdan hugged his knees, staring into space. "I knew of a man who dreamed about his own death once. Three days later, it came true. Perhaps I dreamed, perhaps I did, but there will be footsteps soon, and they will not be friendly."
"Are you saying we will be attacked?" Veridian leaned closer. The old man was crazy, that much Veridian knew for certain. This must be a trick, he thought. Just wait. He'll start rattling off his old hunting stories in no time.
But Murdan shook his head. "Not ‘we,'" he said. "Just one. Just one…"
Veridian lay down, putting his hands behind his head. "Keep dreaming, Murdan. You can go back to sleep again."
"Maybe the footsteps will go away."
He heard Murdan chuckle. "I like your thinking, Aram, I really do."
Veridian found his own eyes getting heavy. They soon closed of their own accord.
"Veridian! Wake up!"
His eyes opening, the boy sat up, searching for the speaker. Between the front flaps of the tent stood another boy. With a body of more bone that muscle, the boy had dark hair, like Veridian, and a grayish pigment. His eyes glowed brown. A smile stretched across his lips, looking as if it had been sewn on, since the smile rarely left.
"Fredwen? That you?"
"Nope. I'm a Dwarf court jester. Yes, it's me. Come on, you have to get up. Trellius is fighting Gulvin again."
"Again?" Veridian knew his father's relationship with Gulvin Gray was a rocky one. Veridian's uncle had been power hungry ever since the day Trellius took control of the Guard. Though younger, Gulvin felt cheated of the leadership, having been one of the greatest Hunters the Guard had ever seen. He argued he deserved the leadership over Trellius, that skill, not age, should have been the determining factor in appointing a leader. For twenty years he had contended that point, fighting with Trellius over control every chance he got.
"I have to watch. Gulvin will lose for sure." Veridian stood up, all ready to follow Fredwen. A snore made him pause and look back at Murdan's sleeping form.
"Oh." Fredwen saw the patriarch too. "I forgot. You're busy. No matter, then. I'll tell you how it ends. Sorry to bother you."
"No, wait. I can go. It won't take long, Fredwen. He's sleeping. What could go wrong?"
"You're sure? I don't want to pressure you…"
"Your concern is moving me to tears. Father will beat Gulvin in minutes. I can be back before Murdan wakes."
Fredwen steps back. "I'm not going to be a part of this. Your choice, brother."
"Right. Which means I should have no say at all." Fredwen started to leave. The son of a human mother and a Dark Elf father, Fredwen was considered a rarity among the Guard as the only member who wasn't fully human. The fact that his father had been a Dark Elf only made him stand out more. His mother had fled with him from her Elven husband after five years of bitter marriage, fleeing from Gorloc up to Forloc, finally falling in love with and marrying Trellius, whose own wife had recently died after giving birth to Veridian. The two boys had grown up together, inseparable except for when they went on missions with their respective Packs or whenever Trellius demanded it. Both were outcasts, which only made their bond stronger.
Veridian cast another glance at Murdan. He's asleep. He'll still be asleep by time I get back. Nothing will happen while I'm gone. I can go.
He lingered a bit, biting his lower lip. Then he shook his head and followed after Fredwen.
Trellius stood a head shorter than Gulvin, but the fire in his eyes burned just as greatly. Whereas Gulvin was clean-shaven and bald, Trellius was bearded with flowing locks twisted into braids. Both men circled each other, like vultures ready to swoop down upon a corpse. Both sweated; both grasped their swords tightly.
A crowd of gray-robed Guards had gathered, forming a wide circle around the combatants. Veridian and Fredwen couldn't push their way through, so they took their positions upon a stack of crates, staring down at the fighters.
"They go until one disarms the other?" Veridian whispered to Fredwen.
"Gulvin doesn't have a chance."
"You said that before."
Veridian watched eagerly. Gulvin could never beat Trellius. A debilitating injury had left him blind in one eye. With only half a normal man's vision at his disposal, Veridian's uncle was at a sore disadvantage. The injury had come from an ambush Gulvin and his Pack had been in a year previous. All the others had been slaughtered by Goblins; Gulvin had been lucky enough to escape with only the loss of his eye.
The two men's fighting skills were distinctly different. Gulvin was an animal, pressing the attack, always on the offensive. Trellius, on the other hand, defended himself well, waiting for an opening before he struck at his brother. While they each perspired, Gulvin's method left him more tired.
"When will you learn, brother?" Trellius called out. "Exert yourself too much and you lose your strength."
"Only those who attack win out in the end," Gulvin retorted. "There may be setbacks, but men of action always destroy men of thought. Sit around and think too much, you gain knowledge, but lose prowess. Aches and pains are only obstacles one must overcome in order to reach the goal."
"He's crazy," Fredwen grumbled.
"What makes you say that?"
"You hear him? He'll do anything to beat Trellius. He'll push himself and push himself until he wins."
"And you're saying one day he'll push himself too far."
"Exactly. He'll get hurt, or worse."
"Think he'll ever beat Father?"
"Is that a bet?"
Veridian smirked. "How many bets have you ever won?"
"It depends on which side you're taking."
A cry silenced Veridian's answer. The two boys glanced into the circle. Gulvin clutched his fighting arm. Blood flowed down his fingers.
"Only a scratch," he growled, grabbing his blade in both hands and swinging it at Trellius' head. The Guard's leader ducked, blocking another strike.
"Let's encourage him," Veridian suggested. He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Father! Do it, Father! Show him the-!"
He stopped. Trellius had heard and stared right at him. He raised a hand at Gulvin, who prepared to strike.
Fredwen grimaced. "You shouldn't have done that, Veridian."
"Why not? It's not like I…" His face paled. "Oh. Murdan."
Wordlessly, Trellius sheathed his sword and began walking towards the crates. Behind him, Gulvin hurled abuse. "Coward! Come back, or you forfeit the battle and I win!"
Trellius whirled on him. "Brother, this is not the time for your power-mongering. The battle is not forfeit, merely postponed. There are other, more important matters I must attend to now."
Veridian leapt off the crates, landing in a crouch. Trellius approached, a scowl on his face.
"What are you doing?" he demanded. "You are supposed to be watching Murdan!"
"I'm sorry, Trellius," Fredwen broke in. "It's my fault. I told Veridian about the fight, and…"
"…and he accepted foolishly," Trellius finished, folding his arms. "Veridian, you should have prioritized. What was more critical? Watching Murdan, as I ordered you to, or watching Gulvin fight me, which you have seen dozens of times before?"
"I wanted to encourage you!" Veridian protested.
"You can encourage me by obeying my instructions," Trellius said. "I don't want to hear anything more. We'll talk about this later. Right now, you need to go back and watch Murdan, like I told you to. Okay?"
Veridian wanted to argue, but he didn't. Instead, he slowly nodded and walked off.
His head buzzed angrily. What was really so special or necessary about watching Murdan? He understood the whole "not forgetting family" aspect, but why did it have to be his job? He didn't see any reason why he needed to be the one. And he felt slightly embarrassed. His father had ended a fight with Gulvin because of him. Word would spread through the camp. Gulvin himself would complain bitterly.
It's bad enough I don't have magic, Veridian thought. Now, I'm going to be humiliated too!
He kicked a rock, watching it bounce across the ground to Grenul's tent.
Except Grenul wasn't there.
Veridian wouldn't have thought that odd in any other circumstance. Maybe he'd gone somewhere else. Maybe he was inside his tent. But Veridian remembered what Murdan had said before. About the footsteps. What if he had heard something?
Running over to Murdan's tent, he stopped short when he saw the body. It lay face down, but Veridian knew it was Grenul. He turned the man over, cringing at the sight of his throat. It had been slit.
Throwing aside the front flaps of Murdan's tent, Veridian charged in, sword out. His eyes scanned everywhere, a sickness growing in his stomach as the revelation hit him.
Empty. The tent was empty.
Murdan was gone.
Veridian sat down, clutching at his hair, his mind racing. Gone. He's gone. By Aris, he's gone. I wasn't here. I should've been here. What happened? Where is he? Father…Father will be so upset.
He couldn't calm down. He had failed his father, he had failed the Guard.
Breathing deeply, he tried to piece together what could have occurred. No way the old man had suddenly gone crazy, killing Grenul and running away. There was no way…
A glint of steel caught Veridian's eye. In the grass lay a knife, one edge stained with blood. Veridian picked it up.
Runes on the handle. Elven made. Only the Elves use runes. The blade is black. Dark Elves. They kidnapped Murdan? Why?
He glanced back at Grenul. Murdan had claimed to have heard footsteps. He had been right, hadn't he? Veridian hadn't listened. Veridian had left. And now Grenul was dead and Murdan was gone. It was all his fault.
Father will be very, very upset.