It was morning on Atros. The pale sun had been up over the horizon for almost an hour. The early mist which hovered over the lowlands had gone but the chill in the air was still cold enough to reach through to the bones.
If you weren’t moving it felt even colder.
And if you weren’t moving and you were lying on the ground then it felt so cold that the blood seemed as if it had frozen solid in your veins and you wouldn’t be able to get up without crying out in pain as your joints cracked.
The young man hiding in the long grass by the side of the lake knew that if he didn’t move soon, then getting up was going to be very painful indeed.
He gently flexed his toes inside his leather boots and slowly rotated his shoulders to ease the stiffness and to get some of the feeling back into his muscles. His eyes however did not move. They remained focused on the same point in the distance, like a kestrel hovering in the sky manages to keep its head and eyes perfectly still and fixed on the ground below.
The young man had been staring at that same place for the last two hours. It was the point where a small clump of trees thinned out on a low hill, and where a narrow road wound across the land towards him.
‘If they are coming today,’ he thought to himself, ‘this is the route that they will take.’
And if they came, he would be waiting for them.
His grip tightened on the handle of his long, silver sword.
The man’s name was Tarawen. He was waiting for the rish, the servants of Gretton Tur the Wild Lord. Tarawen had led a band of rebels on Atros now for over five years. Since the defeat of Gretton Tur, and the collapse of his castle two years before, these rebels had continued to pursue the rish whenever they could.
However, for over eighteen months there had been peace and harmony and Tarawen had become almost like a policeman on Atros; a keeper and protector of this long awaited peace. Even so, Tarawen knew that the rebel gangs still had to keep a close watch on the remaining small bands of rish. There were groups of them who still occasionally scoured the hills and woodlands for food or prisoners.
Therefore Tarawen still kept in regular contact with Cleve Harrow and Lord Ungolin, who were his masters on the land of Beltheron. He kept them informed of any strange activity whenever he might notice it.
Tarawen did all this because the rish were his sworn enemy. They had taken from him all that he had ever loved and held dear. He thought every day about those that he had lost. He hoarded his memories of them. He worried in case the passage of time started to rob him of these memories by making them fade. He didn’t want his revenge to be dulled in any way.
As he waited, Tarawen closed his eyes to summon up the images again. Closing his eyes made it easier to remember. Thinking very hard about his mother, father, and his two sisters made them spring more vividly into his imagination. Tarawen’s mind started to drift away to a time several years before…
...It had been a beautiful morning. He had been allowed to go with his father, Goloren, to the market in Atros City for the first time. Usually he was expected to stay at home with his mother and younger sister, Farron, while his older sister, Petron, travelled with his father to help with the purchases that they needed. Petron and his father always came home from these trips with stories of the exciting sights of the city and the people that they had met. They sounded like strange people to young Tarawen’s ears. Many of them were twice as tall as a man, Petron said, some of them with scaly skins, or tiny figures with sharp features and fur on their faces.
She told him tales of the beggars who dwelt outside, under the eaves of the buildings around the market square, and of their ways of pleading with the merchants for a drink of fresh cold water or a few spare copper coins. But there were also men and women of great wealth who frequented Atros City, beautiful people who moved elegantly, dressed in rich, brightly coloured fabrics.
These descriptions had long fascinated Tarawen and he wished that he was allowed to go with his father to see the sights for himself. His other sister, Farron, bored him. She was two years younger than he was and she always wanted him to join in her silly games with her dolls. He was almost ten years old now and he knew that soon, very soon, the day would come when he was given more responsibility. Then he could help Goloren with more important tasks around the home.
Today’s visit to the market was the first step towards that new responsibility, Tarawen thought. His chest filled with pride as he walked alongside his father. Together they drew closer to the bustling market square. The other traders and merchants scurried around, calling greetings to each other or arguing over prices.
The whole morning passed in a blur for the young Tarawen. He followed his father to a number of stalls; listened as he haggled with other men over the sale of grain; laughed along as his father joked over a beer with his friends in a brightly coloured tent; felt pride swelling up again as he saw the obvious respect and liking for his father in the eyes of everyone there.
It had been a successful day of trading for Goloren and they returned home with pockets heavy with silver and brass coins.
They were over half way there, walking along a dusty track that led up the side of a hill, when his father stopped suddenly. He was staring at some markings on the ground about ten paces ahead. Goloren moved forwards swiftly and dropped down on all fours to take a closer look. Tarawen followed his gaze. The markings looked a bit like hoof prints, he thought.
Tarawen stepped up behind his father and looked down at the large prints in the ground. They were like horse’s hooves, but pointed at the front rather than curving round. There was another, smaller hole in the dust just behind each print that looked as though it might have been made by a sharp spike or claw. His father stood up next to him.
‘Holva prints,’ Goloren said in a low voice. ‘Rish steeds.’
Tarawen looked up at his father and saw that his jaw had set into a firm, angry line.
‘Come, my son, we must get home. Quick as you can now!’
Goloren was already running on ahead. Tarawen hoisted his pack into a more comfortable position on his shoulder and hurried after him.
Before they had gone much further he saw black smoke drifting up on the horizon. It swept up over the brow of the rising hill that led to his home. For a moment his father stopped in his tracks and stared. Then he ran on again, reaching for something in his belt as he did so. Tarawen saw something bright flash in Goloren’s hand. Then he was left behind as his father’s urgency carried him away and up to the brow of the hill.
When he got to the top, Goloren stared down the other side for a brief moment, down towards their home. Then he spun around and waved with his hand to Tarawen who was still struggling up the hill behind him, warning him to get down. The look in his father’s eyes was enough to frighten Tarawen into obeying instantly.
He dropped down into a clump of tall grasses at the side of the path and peered out. His father had turned back to look over the hill again, but his left hand was still stretched out behind him, the fingers splayed, gesturing to Tarawen to stay where he was. In his father’s right hand, Tarawen saw the bright flash again, and this time he could tell that it was a dagger.
Then they heard the scream.
With an anguished cry, Tarawen’s father plunged down the other side of the hill and out of sight.
Tarawen squirmed in fear and frustration. It was maddening not to know what was going on just beyond his reach. His father had told him to stay where he was, but surely it wouldn’t hurt just to take one peek? There was so much noise and uproar on the other side of the rise now that nobody would notice if he just stuck his head out a little way, would they?
Moving as slowly and silently as he could manage, young Tarawen edged his way over the grass. He moved flat on his belly, using his elbows to push himself through the tall stems.
At last he reached the brow of the hill. Cautiously he peeped over the edge and down into the valley below.
The sight that met his eyes filled him with horror and outrage. His home was ablaze and dark smoke billowed from the thatched roof of the farmhouse. Flames flickered through most of the shattered windows. He looked around avidly for any sign of his mother or sisters, but they were nowhere to be seen. There were seven or eight rish galloping around on their terrible holva creatures. The rish themselves had four long arms each, and grey, egg-like heads with small slits for eyes. Their holva were like horses, but with dark skulls and blazing fiery eyes. They had grey scaly skin like a lizard all over their bodies instead of horse hair.
The fences of the corral had been broken in several places and his father’s own horses were running wild. They neighed in fright as the holva galloped madly among them, snapping with their jaws. Even at this distance, Tarawen could see the terrified rolling of the horse’s eyes.
Goloren was already in the fray of fighting and Tarawen felt a quick surge of excitement as he saw his father’s dagger flash quickly among the rish, bringing one of them to the ground. It was immediately clear though that his father could not defeat so many. As Tarawen watched helplessly, one of the largest rish pulled back his bow with his strong upper arms and sent a bolt flying towards Goloren’s heart. Tarawen cried out a warning in anguish, but it was too late. The shaft struck his father squarely between the shoulders. He staggered, and Tarawen heard him gasp with a strange, surprised sound.
His father tumbled to the ground. A second rish, on a dark grey holva, cantered casually towards him as he struggled to get to his feet. The rish raised his curved scimitar above his head and began to swing it down in a wide arc towards Goloren’s neck. Tarawen gasped and spun around, covering his face with his hands so that he would not see.
He remained there, sobbing for long minutes until the fearful battle sounds receded and all that reached his ears was the crackling and popping of the fire that still blazed in the farmhouse.
Tarawen wiped his eyes and took his hands away from his face. He took several deep breaths and stood up. His legs trembled for a few moments, but he steadied himself and turned to walk down the hill towards the remains of his home…
...Tarawen blinked a tear from his eye at the memories. He remembered finding his mother and sisters at the back of the house. He remembered covering his father’s body with his own cloak and burying all of them side by side with a simple white stone to mark their graves. He remembered the tears he had shed and the feelings in his heart.
On that day he had sworn eternal revenge on the rish and whoever they worked for. He shifted his position again slightly and rotated his shoulders once more. They were stiffening up again.
The sun was now high in the sky. It could take hours yet, or days even, before the rish came. He knew that, but he didn’t mind the waiting. It was all part of his revenge for what had happened to his family. That revenge would never end until Tarawen himself drew his last breath. He adjusted his position slightly and tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword.
He settled back into the long grass and continued to wait.