It has been many years since the first mortals came to this world, brought to Taloran by the Nine, freeing your people from eternal service to a mad, Slaver God (called Asheal by Men, Thaniel by the Dwarves, and Yanarel by the Elves). Since that time, the frantic flight of Nine of the Asheal’s most powerful children through the veil of worlds, led by fallen Sammeal (who the Dwarves call Sariel and the Elves call Azarel), has passed out of memory and into myth and legend for all but a few of the eldest lords of the Tuatha, and for the living scions of the Nine, themselves.
Nevertheless, every child knows, even now, that, having found themselves on a half-formed and inhospitable world filled with evil giants and squamous, demonic monstrosities, the Nine forged the first of your people into weapons. Together, you tamed the world, and for a time, there was peace.
But the Veilrift, which Sammeal had fought so hard to close to Asheal, could not remain unguarded forever. Belial (who Elves call Atenarel), the Sunlord, in his wisdom foresaw that Asheal’s minions would never give up their search for His stolen creations, and so sought champions among his favored worshipers to guard the rift from intrusion. The Elves were chosen, and took on the name Tuatha, “The Chosen” to commemorate Atenarel’s favor. At Atenarel’s urging, the great kingdoms of the Elves cut down huge swaths of the forests that they had once called home, and used the virgin timber to build great arks to carry their people back across the seas to the lands of the Veilrift, deep in the forgotten south. In these once-tamed lands, they prospered, and stood vigil against Asheal’s minions for untold generations.
But then, war came again. From the mysterious West, an unending horde of Ogrun and other giantkin, led by the great cunning Cyclops Gharis One-Eye, attacked the Human kingdoms, ravaging across the abandoned forests of the Tuatha. Fearing for their survival, Men called upon their brothers, but even the ombined might of the allied kingdoms of the Dwarves, Elves, and Men could not resist Gharis, and they were driven deep into their own territories. Gharis’s armies massed across the River Blackraven from the great fortress at Riversheld, where the children of the Nine planned to make their last stand.
But, even as Gharis One-Eye fell to a band of brave adventurers chosen from among the greatest warriors of each race, the allies were betrayed. The Human emperor was killed in his bedchamber in impregnable Riversheld, and a Tuathan princeling was held responsible. Men and the Tuatha turned one, and the Dwarven Clans returned to their secret holds in the Iron Range, rather than choose sides between their allies.
Since then, the War between Men and Elves has raged for ten generations, waged by fanatics, mercenaries, and conscripts on both sides of the Sea of Stars. Even as they fought each other, the empires of the Tuatha and Man have been racked by division and civil war; rebellious lords unwilling to bend the knee to the Emperor’s successors have declared their own counties and fiefdoms to be Kingdoms, while the once-fertile fields of the Tuathan wilderness grow barren as the rains, plentiful in years past, refuse to fall. Meanwhile, a charismatic prophet in the ever-growing wastes of the Tuathan hinterland, calling himself the Rainbringer, whispers that he is the Chosen of the Wave King Tethyrel (who Men call Posedrial, and the Dwarves call Jordriel), declaring to any that will hear him that Atenarel has abandoned his responsibilities to the people who were once his Chosen.
A thin layer of dust covered everything in the tent, clearly visible in the bright sunlight showing through its linen walls. Weapons and armor, well-used and well-oiled, lay strewn across the communal living space. Outside, the camp bustled with activity as thousands of soldiers, a combination of hardened mercenaries, inexperienced conscripts, and knights from dozens of the church’s holy orders, prepared for battle against the Grand Amir of the Tuathan Empire.
Though there was an undeniable undercurrent of excitement running through the crowded military camp, driven on by the promise of violence, the mood was solemn inside the tent, as a tall, gaunt man in a battered breastplate absent-mindedly threw his meager possessions into a battered leather satchel. His name was Douven Staul, and he was leaving.
“I don’t know why this is even an issue,” he said, sliding a dagger into the wide belt cinched tightly around his hips, “The Brotherhood will never miss me, and I already told you that you could leave me on the lists and split the pay I’d normally draw. What difference would it make even if I was there? I’m just one man, and you long ago learned to fight without me shouting orders at you.”
The others in the tent were soldiers, cutthroats and bravos from practically every race on the surface of Taloran, members all of the Brotherhood of Ceridrawn, one of more than a dozen mercenary company hired by King William of Madocwen to support his kingdom’s cause against the Tuatha.
One of their number, one of the few dwarves left in the world south of the Iron Range, snorted in simple derision. “This has nothing to do with us, Lieutenant. It’s a simple matter of practicality. You’re leaving the Brotherhood on a fool’s errand, chasing after dragon gold in the Tuathan hinterland! I can’t believe you’re falling for it!”
Staul’s face fell, all traces of jocularity disappearing as his face hardened to rough-hewn stone. “This is no fool’s errand,” he whispered, reaching into his tunic to draw forth a battered piece of colored vellum. “This map is real, and when I find that tomb, I’ll find the dragon’s horde with it.” He stiffened, then, his tone laced with derision. “I don’t expect you to understand. You ain’t got any family. I’ve not seen my wife for more than a year, and I expect my son won’t recognize me when I get back to him. I’m tired of this life, and that dragon is the only way out.”
Relaxing, he sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have to do this. It ain’t my fault you didn’t want to come with me. If you change your minds, I’ll be in Haven, down the old king’s road, for a few days. Then it’s on to the tomb. I won’t wait for you there, but I’d be glad to see any of you, if you can find me, if you change your minds.”
He offered his hand to each of the gathered mercenaries in turn. Then, with a simple wave, he left the tent, walking out of the camp and into the dusty and sun-scorched Wastes of Fezar.
But, even as he disappeared over the horizon, the business of the camp pressed onward.
His gleaming white tabard practically glowed in the fading daylight, the crimson sword emblazoned across it looking almost black as Belial’s shining palace sank beneath the peaks of the mountains in the distance.
Despite the dust kicked up by the pounding hooves of his horse, and, indeed, of the hundreds of mounted knights riding behind him, John of Victordal was spotless. Unblemished. He knew that his men would whisper that mere dirt could not summon the courage to assault the leader of the most powerful military order in the known world. He also knew with cold certainty that maintaining that impression was worth the effort of the dozens of Tuathan slaves and Karan servants who traveled with him everywhere he went.
The force crested a small rise, and, with a raise of John’s hand, trotted to a halt on a hill overlooking the camp.
He quirked a smile as a man, carrying what John guessed were most of his worldly possessions slung onto a wide leather belt, strolled past them, showing remarkable bravado by failing to salute the gathered host of the Swordsworn Brotherhood of Aryal as he passed them. He was going to the abandoned King’s Road, John was certain of it. Though he considered killing the man for his unwitting insolence, he thought it best to ignore him. Mercenary deserters were not his concern. Not when he was so close.
He turned to the woman at his side, “Have someone signal the camp’s commander. We seek permission to enter, and to share news and supplies.”
She was beautiful, in the otherworldly way of her people. Pale and raven-haired, with pointed ears hidden by the hood of her forest-green cloak, her only blemish was a puckered scar, running from the left corner of her mouth to her jaw. John knew it was a sword wound. He had given it to her. “Of course, my lord,” she said, her voice curt, and rough. It was jarring, though he had long ago grown used to it. “But should we not just pass by? We may be drawn into the battle against the Fezarian Shahzada if we tarry here.”
“We have…overriding concerns,” he intoned, looking past the camp, into the hinterlands beyond. “And besides, William’s men cannot be expecting us to reinforce them. He can’t even know that we’re here.”
“But if they do…” she began.
“They don’t,” he finished. “I’m certain of it. This has all been precisely arranged.”
He was wrong. Before he could finish, a single horseman pounded out of the camp, hurtling toward the gathered Swordsworn at a dead run. The horseman was young, probably not older than sixteen. He seemed suitably nervous as he approached, but his uncertainty disappeared as he began to speak. “Thank the Nine that you’re here! King William sent couriers on his fastest ships to reassure us that we’d be receiving reinforcements from the Swordsworn, but the Marshall was worried that you would not arrive before the battle had been joined. Please, come with me. The Marshall prefers to deliver his orders personally.
The Tuathan woman raised a hand to her mouth, stifling a laugh. John silenced it with a glance, and a low growl. “By all means, then, young man, lead us to him.”
Exahusted from the long march across the Wastes, the Brotherhood of Ceridrawn had nevertheless arrayed itself across the center of the battle lines in neat columns, wedged between two companies of the King’s conscripts, men who at least ostensibly weren’t in this battle for the money. Still, with so many of Madocwen’s military might tied up in the war to recapture Celusar, William had proven savvy enough to take what he could get; the Brotherhood was among the best that money could buy.
Across the field, thousands of Tuatha gathered, ready to charge the invading force at a moment’s notice, no doubt praying their heretic Posedrine prayers as they prepared for battle. William’s armies were drastically outnumbered, though the Swordsworn reinforcements had gone a long way toward evening the score. Regardless, the Brotherhood had a job to do, and they would do it. Even as the conscripts blubbered prayers to the Nine, the hardened mercenaries stood in stoic silence, ready at a word’s notice leap into battle.
The word came, and the charge began.
The armies clashed, bodies pressing against blood-stained steel. The Swordsworn were supposed to charge in from the left flank as soon as the battle was joined. Even as the battle raged, the members of the Brotherhood of Ceridrawn could see the gathered host of the Swordsworn galloping over the ridge overlooking the field.
But they came no further. A figure in a dark cloak sat on a white horse at their head, gazing down upon the battle. She watched as the Grand Amir’s forces crashed through the front lines of William’s forces, and then motioned to her companions. They turned away from the battle, and disappeared. This was not the Swordsworn’s battle. The Brotherhood had been betrayed.
Some escaped the Amir’s armies. Most did not.