Forty-two years earlier….
Darkness had settled over the Lone Lands. A lone pine found itself with company when a gangly figure took shelter beneath its low-hanging branches. An evening chill crept along the earth, and Ildric shivered as he pulled his thin cloak around his awkwardly broad shoulders.
The veil of evergreen branches that surrounded him allowed the young man to temporarily relax in what he knew was, at most, an illusion of safety. There was no going back to Bree. By now the Watch would be looking for him, and he would not serve any sentence for a crime he felt no guilt for committing. Where was he going? South was all he knew. He had heard about the men and women who lived in the old forts. Maybe he could beg a look at a map, and find a point on paper to set his feet to.
In spite of the cold, he began to relax. Adrenaline and stress left his limbs feeling weak after two days of running. The only thing now was the problem with closing his eyes. He could see them; his mother weak from months of illness, and his half-uncle dragging her across the room.
He hadn’t waited for an explanation. He didn’t need one. Even now his blood boiled at the memory. He’d been at odds with the man since he and his mother had moved to the little flat in town. She had never said anything, and never complained, but he knew. Even at the end she smiled, if just for his sake.
Letting out a weary sigh, Ildric leaned his head back against the rough bark. Maybe he shouldn’t have ran. But he had no time to think, just anger and urgency driven by the realization of what he’d done. How quickly it had happened. Never would he had imagined that one swift grasp and yank could end a life. Life was too important a thing to be gone so suddenly. But that was where his bias kicked in. The life of the fragile woman who had bore him was far more precious than the life of the brute who had drained hers. He’d wanted the man to suffer. His uncle’s quick death was not justice enough.
The sound of heavy foot-falls brought Ildric out if his thoughts. They approached from the — well, he had no clue what direction they were coming from, aside that they came from his left. Ildric’s breaths slowed. He had just begun to pray that they would not notice him when the branches parted, and a gaunt face peered in.
“Hey, boss! Lookee ‘ere what I found.”
The dozen or so voices stopped. A few moments passed before several more faces appeared, their scarred faces illuminated by a single lantern.
“Jet, you moron, I told you to find supper, not a stray,” grunted the man in the middle. While no taller than the rest, his eyes bore an intellectual glint that the others lacked. “What you doin’ there, boy?”
“Tryin’ to keep out of the cold,” Ildric responded, his words riding on thin wisps of steam.
The leader’s mouth twitched in a smirk. “Lot ‘o good that’ll do ya. You’ll be useless by mornin’.”
“C’mon, boss. Lemme kill ‘im, an’ we can be on our way. No use wastin’ time on the lad,” said Jet. Ildric’s jaw set firmly as he glared at the man, and his arms shifted beneath his cloak as he reached for his knife.
The leader did not look at Jet, but watched Ildric with dry amusement. “I don’ think he likes that idea.” He then motioned for Ildric to stand, and for his men to step back. They did so, and the boy rose to his full height. “Cor, lad, you’re a big one! I’m bettin’ you’ll still grow a few more inches, too. No use killin’ when we can put ya to work.”
Jet snorted. “We don’ need ‘nother mouth teh feed.”
The boss nodded his head towards Jet. “Fine. Kill ‘im, and ye can ‘ave his place,” he said cooly.
Jet took a step back in surprise, and automatically reached for his knife. Ildric, on the other hand, just shook his head. “Not meanin’ any disrespect, sir, but I’ve had my fill of killin’ for a while.”
“You have, eh?” The leader leaned in a little, and his dark eyes flicked between the boy’s face and clenched fists. “I believe ya. What’s you’re name, boy?”
“I like the ‘sir’. It’ll keep ya alive a little longer,” responded the man with an amused sneer. “Fine, Ildric. Pick up our bags, and keep up.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ildric’s sharp eyes locked on the man. “I don’t have time for your lip. You have the reports from the south-east?”
Unphased, Reed nodded. “I do. They are in your saddle bag, on your horse, that’s ready out front. We’ll be fine while you’re away. The repairs on the hall have been completed, and that shipment of grain from the Burns Farm should be here day after tomorrow.”
Nodding curtly, he dismissed the young lad that helped him into stiff leather armour. “Damned things. Where is my old armour?”
Reed tossed Ildric his sword belt, and held the door open for him as the man strode forward. “I disposed of it. It was no good.”
Ildric growled as he fastened the belt around his waist. “Just had a few holes in it,” he muttered bitterly.
Reed just rolled his eyes, and shot his commander a “you’ll get over it” look before following him outside. “Everyone should be — ten, fifteen, twe — thirty-five… looks like your company is assembled, Vrax.”
“Good. We don’t have time to waste.” Throwing a thick cloak over his shoulders, Ildric pulled a piece of parchment out of a pocket, and handed it to a runner. “Any word on Trent’s company?”
“Not yet. He is not due back for a week, though.”
Taking up his horse’s reigns, Ildric swung up into the saddle. “Tell him if he causes any trouble I’ll have the Witch bust out a few more of his teeth. And if any complain about missing us, they can be on kitchen duty for a week.”
Reed smirked, and stepped out of range of Vrax’s impatient steed. “I’ll remember. Ride safe! Kill a few orcs for me.”
“You know I will,” barked Ildric with a grin as he wheeled his horse about. “All right, men, let’s move out!”