As morning breaks, grey clouds climb over the peaceful Vale of Nourlemn. Shadows made by thick rain clouds fall across the lake in the middle of the mountain-ringed vale. The morning sun, which had been brightly glittering over the smooth water, vanishes under the clouds' advance. On a small island in the middle of the now darkened lake, around an ancient oak tree stands guard a six-sided stone manor, which is home to the lord Sir Fen Nulmen and his family.
The manor is filled with excitement this morning; just moments before the clouds covered the manor, the second son of Fen Nulmen, Patris Nulmen, completed the Trial of Knighthood. Today Patris stands proudly along side his father and older brother, Fendel Nulmen, as both a man and a knight. The ceremony concludes with their family's ancient tradition of carving each knighted son's name into the trunk of the great oak tree, which was planted by the first Nulmen who settled the vale nearly a millennia ago.
As the dark clouds continue to push and struggle over the mountains that surround the rocky vale, Patris and Fendel mount their horses and cross the drawbridge that leads them to the mainland of the vale. Normally, their father's gamekeepers would hunt for the daily meal, but today it is Patris' honor to hunt. "He is, after all," his father Fen had said, "a man today. And as a man, he should hunt! I only wish, but for my age, that I could join him." As Patris and Fendel, riding instead of Fen, pass by their father's vineyards on their way to the forest, a few raindrops begin to shake themselves free from the grey clouds that cast a shadow over this otherwise happy occasion. The vineyards are long, and extend in a ring of fertile soil around the lake. The crisp mountain air and rich soil have long made the blood-red Nourlemn wine a delicacy, and, in turn, the Nulmen family very well off. It is this wealth that affords Patris' and his brother the luxury of today's hunt; the vale is so remote that the deer have to be imported from the lowlands.
"We should hurry, brother," Patris says as turns in his saddle to speak to his brother, "I'm afraid our quarry will go to ground in this weather."
"Don't be afraid," Fendel responds shortly, "I discreetly spoke with the gamekeepers earlier this week. They spoke of a game trail that is always successful when it is raining much like today. It is a little farther up in the mountains, so we should get going." With that, Fendel spurs his horse onward and the brothers ride up into the mountains for almost an hour. Soon the forest presses in on the brothers, and they are forced to ride single file along the rocky trail.
I don't understand, Patris thinks to himself as he brushes aside a wet low-hanging branch, why should Fendel be upset? Today is a happy occasion! Oh, how I wish I could have captured mother's face this morning as I was knighted. She looked so proud and happy. Patris' thoughts pause as the trees part to reveal the manor, darkened by the sky, in the middle of the vale. Perhaps Fendel misses his mother. I cannot imagine what it would have been like not to have a mother growing up. Patris tilts his head confusedly to one side, who else would have provided testament for his Test of Character during his Trial of Knighthood? He must miss his mother terribly; on days like today, I do not envy him.
Although I wonder why Father never speaks of Fendel's mother, Valerie, Patris muses, he always gets so mad and yells whenever I ask him what she was like. Surely he must have loved her...?
Foolishness, Patris chides himself, today is a happy occasion and my thoughts are just darkened by the weather. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen Father as proud as he was today! During my Test of Swordsmanship I thought he would leap right off the bench! For certain, Fendel pushed me harder than ever before, but I turned every one of his blows. My dear sisters, Oria and Lara, nearly fainted during the fight, as if they have never seen swordplay before. Ha! Such silly young girls.
Riding past the opening in the forest, Patris directs his attention back to the hunt. Only one thing is important to him now, and that is to bring back a deer. Patris can hear Fendel's horse trotting close behind him, and he can hear Fendel's heavy breathing over the still of the forest. Fendel was so angry after the ceremony, "Father has a secret to tell you at dinner tonight" he had said. Why would father's secret make Fendel angry? What could it possibly be? He was also upset when mother spoke during my Test of Character, so much so that he excused himself from the remainder of the ceremony, "I need to prepare for today's hunt." He had said, but what preparation was needed? Patris' thoughts are broken as the rain that had been held back all morning by the mountains begins to fall. Patris breathes in the damp earth scented air, today isn't turning out as I had hoped it would.
"We should hurry, brother," Patris speaks without turning around, "these clouds do not look as if they will let us off with only--"
"Hush!" Fendel whispers harshly, pointing, "Look there, ahead. I told you this old game trail would find us successful. Now careful, draw your bow back and aim slightly above the deer." Patris does as his brother instructs; he slowly notches an arrow and draws back the bow. However, Patris is concentrating so much on aiming, that he is not very aware of his surroundings. Not aware of the wooden club Fendel has drawn, nor the speed at which it connects with the back of Patris' own head.
Patris is also certainly not aware of Fendel watching him coldly as his body slumps off the horse and falls with a sickening thud onto the damp moss-covered ground.
* * *
The sky is darker when Patris regains consciousness and the rain is pouring down, so much so that he is soaked to the skin. Patris tries to move, but the ropes tightly binding his hands together prevent him from doing so and he lies back against the rough bark of a tree. He opens his eyes with strain and sees that he is in a small clearing; across from him is what he now recognizes as a deerskin propped up on a barrel fashioned to look like a deer. As lightning streaks across the sky lighting up the clearing, Patris sees the unmistakable outline of his brother and their horses.
"Brother, what is the meaning of this?" Patris gasps, his head pounding as the thunder reaches the clearing, shaking the ground beneath him.
"This?" Fendel sneers, "This is your first lesson as a man."
"I am going to teach you something and you are going to learn it very well."
"What are you speaking of brother, why am I tied up like this?"
"Silence!" Fendel hisses through his rain soaked lips. In another flash of lightning Patris can see Fendel's hand pass into a saddlebag and draw out a coiled whip.
"Brother, what are you--" Patris manages before the wave of thunder hits him and the air pressure spits stars in front of his eyes.
"Do not call me that, whelp. No brother would take from me what you have taken from me."
"What have I taken from you?" Patris pleads, "I have always loved you and admired you!"
"Fool! Father has always loved you and admired you." Flecks of rain spattering off Fendel's beard punctuate his words, "It was always 'Patris this' and 'Patris that' never Fendel!" Fendel loosens the whip in his grip and the length of it slaps onto the wet moss of the clearing. "Now it will be always Fendel."
"Brother, no!" Patris yells as Fendel brings the whip up into the air.
"Yes!" Fendel cries and brings the whip whizzing through the sheets of rain down across Patris' left shoulder and chest, ripping open his shirt and drawing blood out onto the forest floor. In the next flash of lightning Fendel can see very clearly the dark stain upon Patris' chest. Leaning over to Patris' heavily breathing body, Fendel brings his face even with his brother's, the scent of wet moss and blood burning in his nostrils. "Do you want to know what father's secret is?" Fendel gently mocks, "He was going to name you heir today. You were going to permanently replace me." Fendel's voice rises to a roar as the next wave of thunder hits the clearing, "First son's inheritance. To you! It is rightfully mine. You have taken my father's love from me and I will never forgive you for that, but this is a sin that I cannot tolerate. You will not leave me with nothing!" Fendel spits on Patris' face before standing. "I will take back that which is rightfully mine."
"Fendel," Patris moans, "I've done nothing..."
"Done nothing?!" Fendel spits, his face livid with rage, "Nothing?! I will show you nothing!" Fendel's whip speeds towards Patris' inert body on the forest floor and Fendel whips Patris repeatedly until his arm cannot swing the whip any longer. "Get up." Fendel commands the motionless body of his brother. The sound of the rain drowns out all of Patris' struggles to rise, but the lightning illuminates the clearing enough to show Fendel his handiwork. "We're leaving now." He states.
"How will you explain this to father?" Patris responds through clenched teeth. "He will hate you for it."
"I will explain that you got it into your fool head today on the hunt to go out into the world and explore it. That I tried to stop you, but you were too determined."
"He will never believe you, I will return and--"
"You will not return Patris." Fendel states flatly, "Oh, don't look at me like that. I know your noble character, I heard it from that whore your mother this morning."
"Do not speak of her--"
"You will not return Patris, not because I am threatening you. But because what has transpired here is but a taste of what dear Marie will receive, should you choose to return."
"Mother!? Fendel! What on earth?" Cries a shocked and bewildered Patris.
"What? You don't think I'm capable of it? I just beat my blood brother within inches of his life. To what end do you think I will not go to ensure that what I have taken back from you today, I keep?"
The sound of the heavy rain striking rock, tree, moss, horse, and man is all that is heard from the clearing for several minutes. Lightning strikes and illuminates the outlines of the brothers. The thunder rolls through the clearing as Fendel walks over to where Patris is laying and cuts the rope tying him to the tree.
"What new devilry is this brother?" Patris speaks fervently, rubbing his sore wrists.
"Of the worst sort." Fendel says as he mounts his horse. "Rise and run, Patris. I am personally seeing to it that you leave my land. You are henceforth exiled from the Vale of Nourlemn. I suggest you either lose your identity or keep to the story about running away. I should hate to have anything happen to dear Marie."
"I will never forgive you for this." Patris speaks through clenched teeth.
"Then we are more alike than I thought, brother," Fendel returns coldly, "Father will ask me to search for you tomorrow morning when I tell him you have run away. Should I find any trace of your existence here in the mountains, well, people do have a way of accidentally falling down stairs, out windows, off of boats- I don't really need to paint you a picture, do I?"
"Farewell," Fendel says as he turns towards home, leading both the horses, "although I don't mean it."
* * *
A magical barrier is usually set up to keep something of supernatural origin out. In this particular case, however, the barrier was set to keep something in. There is usually some way of breaking the barrier, nothing is truly invulnerable, so in most cases the creator of the barrier sets some condition which he or she believes to be impossible. Most often they are not, as is it is the case here. "The blood of a relative spilt by his brother in the defense of his homeland," was the particular key for the magical barrier set up around a hidden tomb in the mountains south of the vale of Nourlemn. The mere presence of such a strange thing awoke the spirit within the tomb, and the spirit watched as the trail of blood that was seeping across the stone floor traveled ever so slowly towards the line of silver dust that kept the spirit caged within its tomb. No wind or animal had crossed that line in over several centuries, thanks to other wards that were established at the time of the construction of this tomb.
Soon the oozing trail of hot blood mixed with rainwater touches and then seeps through the line of silver dust. The spirit enters this trail of blood, which is indeed the blood of one of his descendants, and follows it to the still form of a boy. A man in my time, the spirit muses, war found the young to be older and older with each passing year. I went off to war at only 13 winters, barely able to hold the sword I was given. The spirits musing was broken as the young man at his feet began to stir.
"Who is there?" The lad calls out in a voice weakened by betrayal and death.
No one... The spirit responds, rest young one, you must heal yourself. This is a place of... safety. Do not concern yourself with such things as this world has to offer you. Rest and all will become clear in the morning. And with those words of encouragement the young man falls back into his uneasy sleep. I must see to it that he lives, the spirit confides in itself, the blood is indeed the key, but must he have spent so much of it? The spirit then heads out into the forest under the torrential downpour.
* * *
Patris felt something by his feet, a small prickling sensation. The sensation started to spread up his legs through his chest, and into his mind. The sensation grew into pain and then into unbearable pain and as he opened his eyes he let out a scream of pain like he had never screamed before. Patris lay on the rocky floor convulsing for a few moments before the pain of his body subsided.
"Awake I see," said a raspy voice from nearby, and as Patris turned to look at where the sound was coming from and noticed an old man hunched over a small cooking fire. "You took quite a beating Patris Nulmen, son of Fen Nulmen Lord of the Vale of Nourlemn."
"How do you know my name?" Responded Patris, "and how do you-" Patris began but was cutoff as began to become aware of bandages across his chest, shoulder and face. "You... healed me?"
"It was necessary." The hunched figure spoke. "You would have bled out on this cavern floor." The fire at the base of the figure's feet sparks at the mention of blood. "Now that you are awake, however, you must eat. Here." The figure passes Patris a shallow bowl filled with some sort of soup. "It isn't much, but it is what I have to offer."
"Thank you," Patris responds as he receives the bowl, "I don't mean to be ungrateful of this help, but who are you and where am I?"
"Heh," the hunched figure rasps, "One question is easier than the other. You are in a tomb in the mountains that are south of your Father's lands. My name, I have forgotten."
"Forgotten?" Asks a bewildered Patris, "how could you-"
"Silence!" the figure commands, "no more questions. Eat, regain your strength. Then there is something that I must give you." Patris does as he is commanded, and within the hour he is able to rise to his feet without getting dizzy. The figure does not aid Patris, but motions for him to follow.
The figure leads Patris to an archway in the rear of the tomb, and beyond the archway Patris can see a sepulcher resting in the center of a room. The figure waggles its hand at the entrance of the tomb, "Enter, young Patris. Claim as heir the armor that resides within the tomb."
"What?" Patris says.
"Are you so dense?" the figure says with a voice tainted with anger and impatience, "This tomb belongs to one of your ancestors, the corpse no longer has use of his armor and you will have much need of it in days to come."
"As you wish..." Patris says as he enters the tomb. The lid to the sepulcher is heavy, and in his weakened state Patris can barely push it aside. "Who was my ancestor? Why wasn't he buried with the rest of my family? How do you know I will need it? And why won't you tell me your name?"
"Bloody Hell," the figure says. As Patris turns to look at the hunched figure, he now sees pile of rags on the floor, and standing amid them is the pale ghastly figure of a skeletal man. "I am your ancestor; I've been haunting this tomb so long I don't remember. Why I wasn't buried with my family I can't remember either. I know, however, that you need that armor because you were beaten severely and not wearing any! So no more questions! Take the armor and see if at least the helm will fit you."
Patris does not respond for a few more moments as he adjusts to the sight of the glowing man before him.
"Put. It. On." The spirit commands, and at last Patris finds the will to reach down into the sepulcher, and take the helm off the body. As he shakes the skull bones out, the spirit mumbles to itself, "Could treat me with a little more respect. Not like I'm sticking my neck out for this kid here."
"The, the helmet fits," says Patris, "and its, comfortably warm..."
"Of course it is, it's comfortable. I slept in it all the time. It fits well? You'll keep it?"
"Yes, spirit, this is a kingly gift."
"Of your own free will?"
"Yes, I accept the armor."
"Done!" The spirit shouts, "Done and FREE!!!" The spirit begins to laugh uncontrollably, and the laughter of joy soon turns into the laughter of madness. The spirit is laughing so hard that its "jaw" falls off. In fact, the spirit laughs itself to pieces and the pieces fall to the floor and are consumed with red flashes of fire. When at last the spirit's body is gone, the laughter fills the halls for a few more moments and then dissolves into an eerie echo. Numbingly Patris reaches down into the sepulcher to remove the rest of the armor. Next to the armor are a designed shield and an ornately flanged mace. The Tabard across the armor is not unlike his family's but has a field of black upon which a great silver oak tree is ringed with a blood red circle. The shield bears the same symbol. No piece of equipment or cloth seems to have been affected by the passing of time.
* * *
Patris would find himself later in the small town of Braddenburgh, a 20 day journey on horseback from his father's vale with no memory of how he traversed such a great distance in so little time. Desiring to keep true to his Father's honor and his mother's safety, Patris moves about the realms under the guise that he is seeking adventure. He soon learns to enjoy this life, and he sets about righting many wrongs and drinking in many taverns. He finds himself championing many a woman's cause, (barmaid, noble's daughter, old widows- it doesn't matter to him) and getting himself into no small amount of trouble because of it.
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