Tonight I try my hand at fantasy, using settings and ideas I’ve had in my notes for my Dungeons & Dragons game, currently on extended hiatus. Perhaps this will scratch my itch for low fantasy, and maybe my current players will stop by and be reminded the game should continue…
“Don’t stoke the fire too high, children. The night is dark and more than a few things in these mountains can see far better than we, and eat more than small game,” the woman said as she skinned the the faun she had caught just before sunset. As these two knew well, she thought.
The boy, younger than his sister, immediately opened his eyes, sat back, and dropped the stick he’d been poking into the flames. The girl, four or more seasons older than her brother, just stared from under her green wool hood, morose, tired, and dirt-faced.
“Didin’t mean to startle you, Mettio. I’ve been quiet while I worked. Just… perhaps you two need a distraction. It’s been a long day.”
The girl just clutched her legs to herself. “I miss auntie and mama,” she said, her mouth muffled by the way she’d tucked her chin into the neck of her loose shirt.
“Ah, I know, I know, I know, Rila. It’s a… a shame. What happened.” She continued to skin the deer, her motions smooth, the evidence of years of practice showing in the well-made boiled leather armor she wore, her knife flashing orange as it caught the orange light of the campfire. “I have no words that will help you, but it’s a thing that happens in the world. Death comes to us all. Your parents died but they died bravely. I’m lucky to have gotten to you when I did. That bear could have gotten you two, too.” She stopped, still crouching over the carcass that she’d laid out on a canvass, blood and guts everywhere but expertly contained. “Perhaps a story, to ease your minds while I get some of this little deer ready to feed us?”
Rila said, much louder and braver than before, “Where are you taking us?”
“That’s not really a story, girl.” The woman’s eyes were so brown they were nearly black in the firelight but they drew both the children’s attention all the same. “I have been a bit less than loquacious, haven’t I? I mean to get you to Kopno’domas, though we may have a few stops before then.”
“The Jeweled City? Emerald gem of the Valley?” This was the boy, Mettio, his voice low with wonder. “Have you been there?” Rila hissed at him but the boy didn’t pay her any attention. “What’s it like?”
“Oh, it’s a bunch of walled wards straddling a wide muddy river, with its back to the hills. All sorts of folk live there, and they trade and they plot and they bicker and nobody agrees with anyone. But that’s not very interesting, except to the small minds who squabble for this shiny thing or that social advantage. But there are interesting stories to tell about the city’s beginnings.”
“The princess! Tell us about the princess!” Even the girl seemed interested, now, though she was shy to show any sign of it.
“You know that tale? That’s a good one. Very well. Get that kettle over the fire, carefully, you get some water in it, and the both you listen while I tell you what I remember of it.”
As the two siblings worked, she began to speak. “The Empress’s secondborn–” Mettio nearly contradicted her but she silenced him with a point of her finger “As I was saying, the secondborn, known to the Free Folk and Sunsetters like yourself as Babble, but her given name was… alas, it was lost when the Empire fell. But her name was not a mark of her character; she was a singer of bright songs, and a swords woman beyond compare, wielder of a , and when she came of age, knowing her older sister was the heir, she wandered across the face of the world. She wanted to see every part of the Empire her mother had built, and even the parts that still refused to join her, and when she’d seen all of that, she kept going, until she found the lands under the shadow of the sleeping Dragon.
“She saw the land, this land,” the woman waved her hand, still holding her knife, sweeping from the north, through the east, to the south. “The valley, green and lush, extending south, marked by a serpentine river, and filled with tall trees, beautiful glens, and folk both fey and foul. A valley even the Eld, who bent their knee to the Empress, seemed to fear to tread in. The Princess, who was headstrong and wanted to claim some kind of birthright, saw the beautiful valley and wanted it for herself. The Eld, those mysterious elfs to the north, simply ignored her, and the Dwarfs in their mountains were uninterested in it as well, and the Dragon was asleep and would be for centuries more, so Princess Babble set out to conquer it, exactly as she’d been told her mother had done a continent away to the east and centuries before.
“She found some hidden villages, Free Folk who had been long forgotten, and some of them agreed to send their sons and daughters with her to war, inspired by her songs. And she made war on the Cold Ones, the lizard-folk and kobolds, and tribe by tribe, acre by acre, she drove them from the valley or made them submit to her. She was impetuous but she was determined and she knew strategy as if it were her mother’s gift.
“But the larger creatures, the ogres, trolls, and giants, they resisted. And the smarter and stronger of them, three siblings, giants of the storm, ten times ten times the size of an Imperial or a Free Folk or a Sunsetter – though that name hadn’t been applied since you all didn’t exist yet – where was I? Ah, yes, the Giants Three led the resistance against Princess Babble. And the giants and their kin gathered in a camp on the plains east of the hills and east of the river at those hills’ base. And they dug into the ground to make a fortress, because many of them were nearly as skilled at stonework and building as the Dwarfs are, but they did not build up, as we do, but down into the earth. And they called it Turmlina, the Deep Mountain, and they dared the Princess to attack them there.
“And even with the army she had commanded, Princess Babble knew that she could not face the giant-kin in their warrens and dungeons. It would be a slaughter, and she was far too cunning a general for that. She did not throw her soldiers’ lives away. So she came up with a plan.
“She had an advisor that had traveled with her from her mother’s courts, a man of good cheer who was also a stout fighter, and his name was–”
“Rhoban!” the children shouted, nearly in unison. They startled at the sound of their own voices as it broke the cold night air, and, their chores finished, sat down as the woman continued the story.
“Yes, Rhoban, the Brewer, of whom other stories are told to this day. She called on him to make his most potent drink, and in enormous quantities, so that she could bring it to the Giants Three as a peace offering. Rhoban labored, and before that summer became fall, he had done it. He had brewed beer fit for the gods. The Princess delivered three enormous casks of it, each the size of houses, to the gates of the Deep Mountain. And I don’t mean the little farmhouse you two, uh, never mind, children, never mind that. She ordered her army to march away towards the sea, and intended to wait for the giant-kin to come out and either kill her or talk to her. She hoped for the latter, of course, but she wasn’t afraid of a fight. Rhoban, of course, insisted he stay with her, though whether out of love, or duty, or simply a desire to taste the drink he’d made, the tales are quiet. Ha!
“She knocked on the gates that morning, that evening, and the following morning, and finally, the Giants Three deigned to notice her. They did her a dishonor by sending out the youngest, and weakest, Deigam. But even being the weakest, he towered over her as he rose up from the dungeons of Turmlina, throwing back the gates of carved stone that even a hundred men could not move. ‘What does the beetle want of us? Here to surrender?’ Deigam said. ‘I think I am hungry though you and your fat friend are barely enough to fill my belly.’
“The Princess did not waver, she simply said ‘Before you try to eat me, perhaps you need to wet your lips first. I brought you and your brothers a drink my people love. I wager that you’ve never tasted it’s like before. We believe that it alone is proof that the gods love us. Try some.’ And she stood there, her sword within reach but not in hand.
“The giant rightfully suspected a trick, of course, and he demanded proof that it was not poison. This insulted Rhoban, and the brewer, filled with indignation and offense, climbed up to the top of one of the barrels and invited the giant to pull the cork. When Deigam did that, Rhoban stripped out of his robe, and dived into the barrel, swimming around and drinking deeply of the beer that filled it, and finally climbed out. When Deigam asked about the second barrel, Rhoban demanded that the giant put the man over on that one, and he repeated the scene, doing backstrokes and washing himself all over before finally, reluctantly, climbing out. A third time, for the third barrel, although by this time, even Rhoban the brewer was feeling a bit tipsy.
“And now Deigam was disgusted and claimed that all the beer was contaminated by human stench, to which the Princess replied, ‘Weren’t you just saying you planned on eating us? Which is it, are we foul or are we delicious?” Deigam could actually smell the hops and caramel in the beer, and he had been growing thirsty, and so he finally gave in to his temptation and lifted one of the barrels and tasted it, and on so doing, his thirst overcame his suspicion and he drained the barrel completely empty.
“‘I guess that was your barrel, then,’ the Princess told him. ‘I brought three, one for you and your brother and your sister. A gift for a worthy trio of adversaries.'”
“‘Oh, let’s not be hasty,’ Deigam said. ‘They thought so little of you and of me that they sent me out here. Did you know they were actually afraid of you? You’ve been fighting us for seasons and seasons and I think you’ve put the fear of death in their hearts. But I see that you are not so scary. I think I like you. But,’ he said with a smile, ‘I intend to keep all this beer for myself.’ And he scooped the two remaining barrels up, one under each arm, and he sauntered back past the huge gates and down into the ground. But he left the gates open. Quietly, softly, the Princess and Rhoban slipped down the stairs behind the youngest giant, following him, staying in the shadows as well as they could, until they reached the Giants Three in their court hall.
“And when Deigam showed up with the two barrels of beer, his brother and his sister were just as suspicious as he had been before. But they could also see that their younger brother was sloshed, so they knew he had been partaking. And they demanded a taste of the brew, which angered Deigam, who put down the barrels and, drunk, raised his fists to Tergos and Vugara, and soon enough they were brawling, smashing the giant tables and chairs, taking makeshift clubs to each other, shaking the entire valley as they clashed, over a taste of beer. Deigam may have been the youngest and smallest, but he was the most motivated, since he’d tasted Rhoban’s brew, and in the end he stood, victorious, over his unconscious brother and sister.
“Which is when the Princess rushed in, Rhoban beside her, and took advantage of the injured and tipsy giant, and in three great slashes of her sword, killed him and chopped off his head. She managed a coup de gras on the remaining two, as well, and then she and Rhoban rolled all three heads out of the dungeon and set them atop stone towers on each of the three hills nearby, where legend says they remain to this day, facing east towards the Empire and serving as a warning to any foul creatures that would stand against the Secondborn.
The two children were yawning and their bellies were full by now, as dinner had been cooked and served during the telling. But they had stayed up for the end of the story, and now the woman firmly directed them towards their bedrolls, and she let the fire burn down, and then she leaned back against a tree and finished her own meal.
She stayed up all night, keeping watch, and once or twice, idly, she reached over to her pack, opening the flap, to make sure that the heart was still there. The heart of the children’s mother, her sister, that she had had to cut out, before the children had found her.
They think their mother was killed by a bear, she thought. I guess a she-bear is close enough.
At dawn, they broke camp and began moving west, toward Kopno’domas.