from Kingdom's Rise
Gary Baker, January 2013
(part of a longer project)
Hal'Ven dropped his gaze quickly as he strode up to the gathered men at the fire. Lithomir noted that he deferred to their new leader with much due respect.
"...and when she saw me, I-" Kudrov scowled as his audience glanced to Hal'Ven, then turned to face the youth with a mouthful of annoyance.
Lithomir expected Kudrov to demand the reason for an intrusion into the inner circle of affairs, but instead found the several bandits looking to him as though deferring to a lord's opinion and guidance. With a dismissive wave, he nodded to the boy. "Hal'Ven," the youth beamed at the sound of his name as though excited it had been remembered, "what is it?"
His face became a warzone of triumph over dejection.
Ill news, Lithomir guessed.
"The food stores are dwindling, masters." Hal'Ven muttered quickly.
Leeka grinned and stood tall with a patted hand on the rusty blade at his hip. "Then I guess we might be in need of another raid!" He paused and looked thoughtful for a moment before answering a question unasked. "Yes, the northern Duke has many outlying estates within easy picking range--we ride for them!"
Luka, the older, more brutish, of the siblings, shook his head lightly. "Brother, when will you learn that your ideas for raids have never gone far?"
Leeka shot his elder a look of disapproval, "oh? and just why is this one so bad?"
"Because, brother," Luka quipped, "a whole mountain range lies between the nearest one and us! Do you really think we have the ability to scale these arms and have the energy to fight, let alone return with full packs?"
"Okay, then, where do you suggest oh wise leader?"
Luka nodded complacently. "We ride south, for the outer reaches of the Baron's farms as always." He looked across the faces around the fire, "by attacking a farming estate we can gather more food than gold and have less men-at-arms to worry about."
Leeka's blade whipped out before everyone, startling the boy and causing the others of the inner circle to grasp their own. "I say we fight them!" Leeka boasted. "I can take two--no, three--on my own with no problem! If we all fight with my strength then no amount of guards can stop us!"
Kudrov, slipped his dagger out and stood. He brought the gleaming blade over the fire to tilt Leeka's sword up, over, and back down with a speculative gaze. Everyone watched him do this without moving, the only sounds coming from the crackling fire and wind-swept trees. Finally he shrugged with amusement and sat back down. "Leeka with a blade like that you couldn't even cut the man's flesh, let alone tear through the armor that damn-near every soldier wears."
Quietly Lithomir nodded his approval, as he had known as much the moment Leeka's weapon had emerged. The blade was rustic, worn in spots, and looked as though it had been kept in the scabbard without oil. The hilt was patched with bone and dried wood shards, using twine to hold the leather grip from slipping off the pommel. Luka, however, could be seen polishing his axes daily, but even they were far too small to do much damage to a series of determined estate guards.
"What about him?" The question hung in the air for several breaths before Lithomir realized Leeka's hand pointed his way. "Master Lithomir has training! He has armor, special sheilding, and a wicked arm of steel!" Proudly the bandit sheathed his mockery of a blade, and crossed his arms. "If he lead us, then no one could stop us!"
Kudrov glanced over to their foreign leader. "He's right, you know. With you at our lead we could take a whole stable of horses and cart home the spoils without worry for pursuing guardsmen."
"I won't let you bully him into being our sole escort, Kudrov," exclaimed Luka as he stoked the fire with a spearpoint.
"Yeah, but just think of what we could take if he were to do this!"
"...carts, gold, ores, weapons..."
Lithomir leaned back to watch the procession as the circle errupted into a debate about raid parties and spoils gained, and all made possible by the prospect of having Lithomir's heritage backing them up. But none of them realized he had come here fleeing that very heritage. None of them suspected why he had gone into the ruins despite the number of atrocities that should have made him turn tail.
Yet this was what his life had become: observer and voice of reason for a band of outlaws and their families. What he chose for them would similarly choose their ultimate fate; death by starvation and possibly pursuing armsmen, or long lives of hiding and criminalism.
"Well?" Someone proffered.
Lithomir shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I'm sorry?"
Kudrov placed a hand on his own knee and leaned onto it with his head slightly bowed. Seeing this, the others followed suit and, eventually, even the boy knelt to one knee and did the same. "We asked, master knight, what you would have us do?"
Lithomir sat back as it dawned on him that these men thought of him as more than an observer, more than a voice. To the banditsmen and their outlaw clan, Lithomir was no less than a minor lord.
But what would a proper lord choose? He lost himself to days spent with his nose to the books of governing, when Trelmir had kept him from the hunts in order to learn the ways of kings of old. Trelmir had placed book after book, tome after tome, upon the gilded desk with threats of more if the young prince did not study.
He had been a great teacher, an Excelsior beyond his stature. After each book, Lithomir had been quizzed, erratic questions ranging from topics of army placement to crop budding seasons and harvest. Ancient leaders voices filled his head with their failures, their triumphs, their near-death experiences with weather patterns as well as stampedes of wild Drake herds. Through it all, Lithomir had gained his sense of awe for his father and what the man had done. Maldaran, High King of the sovereign nations, high ruler of the known world, had brought his kingdom's capital outward as though growing straight out of the ground. HIs capital alone amassed more land than the size of many duke's entire estates.
With a city half a day's hard ride across, their latent knowledge of batte had become as important as food when it came to policing the grounds, protecting the rims, and upholding superior leadership in each sector. Yet a nation that size had also required vigilant crop research. Dwellings had been surmised to allow gardens above the inhabitant's heads, canals had been dug to bring water into equal proportions of the places that needed it most, and whole areas had been raized for wheat and barley harvesting.
Then it hit him. What the bandit's needed most was a worth-while investment in food production. Without the need to claim breads and meats on their raids, the men could focus on metals and tools instead. Sudden excitement coursed through Lithomir as he looked to the high mountains beyond the fire, reaching around in a continuous arc behind the ruins, to the saddle where he had come in at and even still back around to the south again. With all these peaks, coated in ice and blankets of timber, there had to be a water source that fed it year-round.
"I need to see the valley from up high," Lithomir exclaimed. He stood quickly and spun to look for the right place, pausing only when his eyes set upon the high tower of the ruined castle. Perfect.
"Master?" Kudrov stood, too, as a curious frown bloomed across his cheeks. "What does this have to do with...?"
"Simple," Lithomir grabbed a branch and shoved the end into the fire to light it, then strode into the sunlit forest toward the castle. He heard them jump to follow, bidding the boy thanks without worrying about answering his unanswered question. The walk wasn't long, but when Lithomir's boots graced the cobbled steps of the half-fallen castle most of his followers were panting lightly.
Lithomir blew on the makeshift torch head to stoke the flames higher before turning to the men with a broad smile. Most of these men had never known lives like he had, and even fewer had ever known what it meant to lead any size gathering. With a flair of energy, Lithomir nodded to the tower. "Who here knows the way onto that outlook?"
Luka, Leeka, and Kudrov stared with blank faces, and the four others behind them looked more worried than curious. But not one answered.
"Fine," Lithomir shrugged, "we find our way by guestimation, then."
At that he spun on his heels and raced up the steps and into the darkness of the inner foyer. The sight of human remains, long rotted away to mere bone and stains, returned to him as though the beast were still here and he had never slain it. Lithomir lost himself in his pace, using skeletons and armor to guide his way to the next floor, and again to reach the third floor. He had reached the smaller ballroom on the third floor when he finally paused to look around. The next room, the observatory, had been where he faced the beastial shade yet aside from that, he barely even recognized his surroundings.
He hadn't had a torch the first time, and this time the darkness drew back slightly to reveal moth-eaten tapestries, urns along the nearest wall, and few tables of marble holding molded vases where flowers must have once been placed.
"I never knew..." Kudrov breathed in awe beside him.
Lithomir turned to find the siblings and Kudrov had chosen to come along, unlike the others who must have held back.
Luka grunted once, then twice, and finally groaned as a loud clash echoed over to them from his place at the edge of Lithomir's torchlight. He strolled over to the group weilding a table leg with pride. "May I?" He inclined his head while tilting the leg end to the torch. Lithomir smiled and rest the branch against the length of preserved, polished oak until the end lit enough to generate it's own flame from there.
With the two lights to see by, they spread out to gaze upon the decorations that had been holed away and lost through time. Ornate matts of dried leaves furnished the walls, dyed with reds, greens, and blues with lacings of gold thread as well as silver. There wasn't much to the rooms a far as chairs went, nor were there any rugs on the flooring that had not been consumed by mushrooms and lichen, yet the light made the ruins somehow more marvelous than Lithomir had thought possible. He had fought for his dear life in just one room away, almost died twice in that same instance, and had almost stayed the night on the bottom floor... and not once had he thought about what might have lain in wait amongst the dark corners around him.
"Hey, I think I found something!" Lithomir couldn't recall which sibling it was that had called out, but Kudrov and he exchanged glances before darting through the main archway into the observatory where they found Leeka and Luka peering into a side exit. In their light, Lithomir rest his eyes upon a spiral staircase heading up on the left, and down on the right.
Kudrov paused just outside, looking to the masonry and stonework. "Do you think it safe, master?"
Lithomir dropped his right hand on the man's shoulder and smiled. "If the winter winds haven't knocked it down yet, I doubt a few men can." The man shrugged as their leader stepped passed and began his ascent with the torch held firmly in front.
Lithomir began scaling the stone steps with the haste of a man needing nothing less than raw sunlight, and left the siblings behind shortly after they'd begun. Despite their vigor, twice they had to slow their climb as Lithomir found dubious cracks in certain steps, and continued only when they were sure their weight wouldn't affect it further. In no time they reached the top, where Lithomir glanced around to find a well-built terrace covered with moss, grass patches and even a small wind-blown tree.
What took his breath away, however, was the view of everything else.
To to north the spine of mountains formed a titanic overlay of peak after peak, all coated in white and grey-blue fog above the treeline. To the west the mountains slowly declined in their peak hieghts, until the range ended in a small bluff to the far southwest. To the east the mountains also broke away and declined peak after peak, though with less apparent eagerness as they continued on even further at the southern end and into the horizon. Back in the niche of the valley's start hung wisps of a long waterfall that plunged deep into the green woodlands, trailing a long series of streams that fell away from a small lake at the waterfall's bottom. The streams became brooks and creeks, connecting with other glacial melt to form a growing river that wove through the valley and out the southern end.
It was like nothing Lithomir had ever seen. All his life he had been constricted to the plains of the land, never once believing such a sight could exist, never believing hills could become mountains, much less fingers of a god that seemed to touch the heavens with each and every last spine-like peak. The woodlands appeared more like moss from this distance, interspersed with crags and a few stout clearings just south of the castle where the Bandit homes stood.
Yet it was exactly was Lithomir wanted: a living map.
"Gentlemen," he beckoned them to the south ballustrade where he could see the others still waiting outside the entrance, "you wanted an answer to what I suggest must be done?"
Kudrov stepped close to the ledge and leaned over slightly to peer along the walls beneath them. "Did you expect us to see the Baron's estates from here?" He mocked while knocking his knuckles against a chunk of stone along the wall.
"No," Lithomir shook his head, feeling the intense excitement of being the most educated once again, "I wanted a view of the valley so I could point out the most likely places to find good soil and easy access to water." He turned and pointed along the river to the south east where the trees thinned and grasses could be seen through the canopy. "Like over there, where grass has outgrown the trees. Surely crops can be grown along those banks?"
Leeka let out a sudden laugh, and shook his head. "You think we should start farming?"
The one-time prince tilted his head, curiously and looked to Kudrov.
"He does have a point, Leeka," Kudrov admitted. "With food coming from our own hands we will have less reason to lose lives for bites of stale bread."
"Yeah, but we're outlaws," Leeka scoffed, "not humble farmers!"
With a scowl, Luka rest his hands on the axe heads at his hips. "Alright, master, where do you plan on getting seeds if we were to actually do this?"
Lithomir smiled. This was where all voices would be heard, and he coulld hope to keep them all intruigued. "That's why we still need to go on a raid. With my expertise in battle, I will distract any resistance while you guys gather as much as possible."
Kudrov startled, catching on quickly by the look of awe in his calculating eyes. "And with harvest season almost upon us, and winter just after that..."
Lithomir clapped the man's back triumphantly, "if we plan well enough, we can have our own crops planted by the final frost and start harvesting this time next year." He paused to let this sink in, then turned to the slopes where the farms would go and went on, "we'll need any able bodied man to begin removing trees in the designated spots which we can use for warm fires this winter. From there we will need the women to start working on baskets for collection as well as gloves for the men who will till the land."
"Speaking of which," Kudrov piped in, "on the next raid we will need to obtain tools for all this to use as examples for making our own."
"Excellent. Kudrov make a list of spoils," Lithomir commented, then turned to the other two. "Luka I need you to gather men we can trust to hold their own on the raid. You choose how many we will need, as you have a better idea of their skills. Leeka, I want you and Lika to scout the land we've chosen and prod the land for moisture and natural fruit groves; whatever we can get without the raid means more to use in the planting season, and that means less hunger next year."
"And what will you be doing until the raid?"
Lithomir laughed. "I'm going to seek out a dry place in these walls to keep the harvest from freezing next year. Once I have that I plan on overseeing each task to be sure it works out well the first time."
Kudrov nodded with a grin. "It would honor us to have you do this."