This is the tale of my life, but in many ways it is the tale of another, and who Dyrania it seems willed them to become. One would never believe that from our meager beginnings we would face the tasks she had given us, to learn to fight, or die. Little did I know that She had intended for our paths to cross, entwine, and eventually become one from the very beginning, and She could not allow that to be altered.
Few men would call my beginning meager, although if one had bothered to take the chance to ask me, I, Bryan Desmond Masters, would have told them how insignificant I found them. Most would argue that I had been given a life of privilege. I had mentors and tutors blessed with the highest amount of qualifications coin could buy, from books to weaponry, and could have any possession I asked of from my mother. Of course, most would call me blessed simply because of the large amount of land and wealth I would some day inherit. It was that land and responsibility I did not want, and yet never dared speak those words.
I had the fortune of being born the eldest son of Darren Masters, Lord Holder and protector of Greensburrow, one of the eight providences belonging to the realm of Rajala. My family had held Greensburrow since before our country had taken its name, and for longer than we had written record. Our people were mostly shepherds and weavers, fate entwined with that of their flocks and the health of our grasses. Darren took great pride in his people and their sheep, even if he did not see directly to their care. He was not, however, a shirker of duties. Like his father, grandsire, and the countless before, his place was at his holding, and although he had overseers and servants, his own tasks numbered enough to keep even the strongest of men busy.
He was titled, yet had always remained an irrevocably simple man. His clothing was only moderately superior to that of his men, and rarely was he seen in anything other than one or another shade of brown. A disciplined man of the sword, he was willing to live and die by the strength of his blade. We were close enough to the borderlands of Jaidan that war could easily reach us, and as with any landholder, there was always the possibility of a band of raiders in search of a weak leader or stronghold. As he constantly reminded me, our forefathers had sacrificed their sweat and blood into our lands, and it had fallen upon us to defend it.
I suppose it was inevitable that the responsibilities he held made Daren a hard man, and I had certainly never seen him with a weakness. He expected, and was consequently given, complete and loyal obedience from all those he came in contact with, from his servants and peasants to his wife and sons. As a child I never questioned his authority, instead struggling to meet the expectations he laid for me. It never occurred to me not to strive to see them met, whatever the cost.
Death would change that.
It was the summer of my sixteenth year, and winter’s loneliness had left me increasingly bitter. The warmth of sun on my face had awoken me that morn, and although I attempted to ignore its unyielding presence, it was a battle I had clearly lost before it had begun. Judging by the amount of light that had infiltrated my chamber it was nearing midmorn and still far too early by my own calculations. Somehow I had developed the habit of sleeping until midday, leaving the outside world to continue without me. It had never been easy for me to rise early without being awoken, leading to the continuing dismay of Darren and so many others after him. Recently I had ceased to answer the summons from whichever page had been dutifully sent to pull me from my coverings, and eventually they had stopped making an appearance at all. Quite possibly, if I had only sought the comfort of my bed earlier in the evenings it would make the mornings easier to bear, but that solution had never appealed to me.
I intended to simply ignore the light, and try to return to slumber, as sleep had avoided me most of the night. Long before the first snowfall had I ceased to keep up pretences, outright defying Darren in almost everyway I had once obediently followed him. He seemed unconcerned with challenging me, but I knew better than to skip weapon’s work. As long as I was in the courtyard that afternoon with a sword in hand I would be left undisturbed in the sanctuary of my room.
Sleep had almost overtaken me again, when a nagging little voice filtered into my subconscious, which sounded suspiciously like Darren, today I had to rise. After muttering a half spoken curse I forced myself to sit up, even if I was still contemplating sleep. I knew if I delayed any further someone would be sent to fetch me, and it would not be a simple page. No doubt, that someone would be my younger brother, and only sibling, Rickon. He would be all too eager to stride in without announcing himself and then return to Darren to explain the state at which he had found me.
Reluctant, and yet resolved, I brought my feet to the stone floor. My head pounded from lack of sleep, and my limbs felt heavy. It was as if I should have been just climbing into bed, and not out of it. No amount of sleep seemed to lift the constant exhaustion, for with each passing day I only craved rest and solitude more, even if my dreams plagued me. In a failed attempt to become more coherent I ran a hand through my short, tousled hair, trying to force the present to overtake the past. As always, the dreams and distant memories were hesitant to fade in the sunlight.
Pushing back the fragments and images that remained from the night, I crossed the room and pulled on a pair of black leather riding breeches and a thin linen tunic I had gratefully laid across a wooden chair the night before. Still somewhat groggy I found myself fighting for balance as I attempted to put on boots that had been left in the same vicinity. Admitting defeat, I fell into the chair before finally getting them on properly. I laced up the tunic, absentmindedly hoping that it would not be too warm for the summer day. Once I had worn a wide variety of colors that I had known secretly irked Darren, but as they pleased my mother he had never commented on them. Now it was only the shade of death that appealed to me. Even the thought of irritating him with a change of garment did not sway me.
I scanned the room, searching for anything I may have forgotten the night before, having already sent a pack down to the stables previously. My eyes fell on the shortsword that had carelessly been left in a corner. I stood, unwillingly taking it into my hands. The blade had been kept by my family for generations, passed from father to first-born. Someday it would be replaced by the sword kept by Darren, once Greensburrow was mine – another possession I did not want.
The sight of steel brought back the grief, sharp and overpowering. The dreams were resurfacing, and I fought to quench them as I exited the chamber. It was too long ago, far too long to still think about. I had allowed my thoughts to wander too much as I lay in bed the night before, and yet, I had let them wander no more or less than the days or nights that had already passed.
In attempt to quietly leave the holding, I hurriedly made my way towards the stables. With luck I could leave before another meeting with Darren, the presence of Rickon, and a tearful farewell from my mother. Avoiding the main hallways and passages, I exited out the servants’ doorway of the kitchens. I knew every location of my childhood home intimately, where I was likely to come across another, and where I was more likely to pass alone. I had spent the last few seasons doing everything within my power not to let my daily whereabouts come to the attention of Darren. Far less of my time was spent on the holding then anyone realized, and I intended to keep that knowledge with my secrets.
I was able to escape without seeing another soul, save the kitchen servants, who were generally too busy to tell anyone anything save themselves until the day was out. When they gossiped, it was after nightfall. The stables, however, were not unoccupied. I had expected to find someone watching for my arrival, fate and Darren were not going to allow my leaving to go unnoticed. Once I stepped through the doorway I was faced with Rickons’s presence, who was altogether too cheerful.
Rickon and I had never been close, five years lay between us, and we were two entirely different sons. In appearance it was I that almost mirrored our sire, and I often mused that if I had not he would have questioned the loyalty of my mother, if only to rid himself of my presence. We both had the same dark chestnut hair and eyes, while Rickon’s hair was distinctly lighter and his eyes a shade of green that no one in our family seemed to share. While Darren was tall, and I could almost match his height, Rickon seemed to be growing at an alarming rate, and I fully expected him to tower over both of us someday. I had his round nose, which I despised, and our ears were the exact same shape, in fact the only difference between the two of us seemed to be age and the shear size of him. Darren had bulk and muscle, hard and defined from both practice and battle with a great sword I could not possibly hope to lift, where I was slight like my mother, even where I had muscle.
It was Rickon, though, that was Darren’s blessing. There were few things I did not have to struggle to exceed at, while he seemed to conquer almost anything naturally. There had been no need to question his parentage, for he had always seemed to know exactly what Darren would expect of him and fought with all he had to provide it.
Books and figures were a curse for me, and I relished in the tasks that brought me outdoors. I lived for the hours I spent on the back of a horse, and consequently excelled at horsemanship. That, perhaps, had gained me the highest of my father’s approval, even if it was grudgingly given, in his eyes I spent far too much time in the stables. Weaponry was the only other study I did not completely despise, even if I still struggled with it. Anything was better than sitting inside listening to a stuffy old man drone on about politics and wars. Rickon, however, devoured books, figures seemed to just come to him, and above all, he could defeat anyone his age, and in many cases years older, myself included, with a blade.
Oddly, I was content to let him bask in Darren’s praise. I never envied their easy relationship, the Gods, and even Rickon knew I did not want it. No, I had simply spent too many marks wondering why, if there were Gods, Rickon was not the eldest, he wanted it, and I could have spent my life perusing something I could find joy in. I only fought with my studies because I knew someday I would have to take my father’s place as Lord Holder, and even if I did not want it I was not fool enough to shy away from it completely.
I disliked him, simply because he was Rickon. In my opinion he desperately needed someone to knock him down to the same level as the rest of us, and he had not yet met anyone yet that could do so. Things came so easily to him that he was an overconfident, pompous, unbearable prig to everyone other than our parents and his tutors, and he was even worse with me. My mother had once said that he had come into the world taunting me, and I had never been one to ignore the taunts. We often fought, although we were both smart enough to never let it come to blows, or let it fall within Darren’s earshot. A true fight between us would have earned us both a sound beating, and we knew it.
A wide grin was spread across his face, causing me to fight the sudden urge to strike him. He was thoroughly enjoying that Darren was sending me to Havermoore, with the same force that I was dreading it.
“Good morrow, Brother,” he called out as I approached.
“Rickon,” I acknowledged, fighting the urge and slipping past him into the stables. The faster I could saddle my horse and ride out, the smaller chance I had of facing a far worse encounter. I made my way to Lightning’s stall, a black stallion that had been a gift from my mother to mark my fourteenth year. He was near perfect, and one of the few things that could bring me pure joy. His head appeared at the sound of my footsteps, and as I approached him he snorted, eagerly straining his nose toward my hand. I reached out and gave him a quick scratch behind the ear before unlatching the door to step beside him. Gently he nudged his nose into my chest, but instead I turned away from him to pull down his bridle. Normally I would have been more affectionate, but my mind was already screaming a warning that I had not been followed into the stables. I busied myself with saddle and tack, at a speed that only came from constant, daily routine. In moments he was ready, and after tossing my pack on his back I led him from his enclosure and out into the sunlight. There, as if waiting to bid me a proper farewell, stood Darren, Rickon, and my mother.
I had expected it. Where else would Rickon have gone, but to fetch Darren? Expecting it had not prepared me for the reality, and I inhaled sharply, willing myself not to let this turn into a full confrontation. As one would assume Rickon was still grinning, Darren stood beside him, his face a hard mask, while my mother sobbed softly on his shoulder. She looked as if I had been sentenced to exile.
My mother, Kathryn Ditrystan Masters, was a loyal wife, but she had always held me very close to her heart. I could see by her stricken, tear streak face that this had been one of the rare occasions when she had fought with her husband, and lost. She tended to think a little too highly of me, if the truth is told, and expected far less of her oldest son then his sire. Where he ruled with hard discipline, she preferred the power of coin and affection. Her sobs could easily smoother you once they started, but she never gave me reason to doubt her love. Admittedly, I hated to see her cry.
My hands drew into fists, and as my eyes moved from my mother to Darren the rage only grew. The events from the day before came rushing back, Darren’s words, mine, and those that had been left unsaid between us.
I had known the moment I was summoned from weapon’s practice to Darren’s study that something was terribly wrong. He had always told me that the art of the sword was more important than any other lesson, person, or task. To shirk that duty would only find you wounded or killed when you drew a blade. I always found his words on the subject a bit extreme, but I would never have admitted to the fact. I had been waiting for him to finally acknowledge my defiance, expecting it since my complete withdrawal from my lessons, but I knew he would not call me from the courtyard for a simple reprimand. I was not expecting to be told he was sending me into the hands of a Mage.
He knew I despised them, and yet he lay out his intentions to send me to Havermoore as if he were discussing the harvest. For the first time in my life I openly challenged him, cold, hard, betrayal was still fresh, clawing to the surface. I had no desire to seek the Mages, the handful of memories I had of them were enough to last a lifetime. My defiance was met with a white hot rage of his own, and ended with an ultimatum. I could either take up the task he had laid before me, or leave his lands and protection. It was time, he had roared, for me to accept the responsibilities as his heir and leave the follies of my past to rest. I had never expected to be faced with disownment, and knew I could not simply walk away.
Even his threat could not prohibit me from speaking out once again as I stood there, clutching the reigns and listening to my mother’s sobs. Words tumbled from my lips, and I knew almost instantly that I should have held my tongue.
“This is a fool’s errand, and I am loathe to play the part of a fool.”
Darren’s jaw clenched, “A fool you are, for questioning me again. A fool and a coward.”
“I do not wish to spend two days riding to see a murderer,” the grief tore at my gut once more, “That does not make me a coward.”
Genuine confusion seemed to fill his features, and for the briefest of moments the harshness was gone from him, “Murderer? Only the Gods know where you have filled your head with these –” he paused, trying to find words, “accusations. This is the Gods decree as much as law.”
It was law, and if legend was to be believed also the declaration of the Gods for every child in Rajala to seek the Mages in their sixteenth year. However, I doubted the Gods or crown backed Darren’s reasons for my departure.
“The Gods have no part in this,” I snarled, and my mother let out chocked sob, burying her head deeper into his shoulder, and in essence, sealing my fate.
Darren roughly shook her off and stepped forward, his face so red I thought he meant to strike me. Instead he brought a single finger up to my chest.
“I am done with words, boy, either take up the task, or leave.”
I backed away from him slowly. Wanted or no, Greensburrow was my home, and without skill or trade, it was likely the only one I would ever know. Silently, I turned from him and mounted. Once in the saddle my eyes locked with those of my mother.
Brusquely, I nodded, “Until I return.” With effort I spun Lightning and then dug in my heels, causing him to bolt. As always, he was eager to run, and I made no move to hinder him.