The sun barely showed above the rocky peaks in the east. The air was rather calm at this early hour, laced with a light breeze. Captain Elias stood a few paces in front of Damien, facing the young man. Behind them, their campsite was not yet broken down. Maya and Naelen were still cooking breakfast around a small campfire, their bodies were tiny in the background.
“The first question is this,” Captain Elias took stance, holding his sword in a basic guard, “do you move with the sword or does it move with you?”
“Uh, both?” Damien answered, hoping he was right.
“Pick one, boy, for it will define you as a warrior.”
“Wait, you want me to choose?”
“Aye.” The Captain nodded. “There are warriors who treat swordplay like a dance, and others who deal mighty blows with power and force of will. While it is useful to get a feel for many styles, you will eventually form a preference, and I recommend keeping an end goal in mind as you train.”
“Oh.” Damien supposed that made sense, but what was his goal? “I just want to be better, I guess,” the young man answered, causing his teacher to shake his head.
“Why do you wish to fight?” Elias asked. “What is your goal?”
“It’s like I said, I want to make swords and use them.”
“So you have an appreciation for the craft,” he nodded. “Any other reasons besides art and survival?”
“Uh…” Damien had to think on it. There was one reason in the back of his mind, a reason that he would barely have the courage to form into words if it wasn’t so secluded out here in the mountains of Lorianthil. “Well…I hope, one day, to…kill someone I hate.”
“An enemy?” Elias grew curious. “What is this enemy like? How would you defeat them if you could?”
“Probably with power and force of will,” Damien answered.
“Ah, in that case, I recommend learning the longsword, or perhaps even the great sword when you are ready. Stronger.”
All the young man could do was nod at his teacher. “So, how would I get this longsword?” he asked.
“In due time,” Elias said, readjusting his stance. “I will demonstrate a few forms for you, I want you to watch and then I will help you copy.”
“Alright.” The old captain was quite agile on his feet, his body flowed through each form in a well-practiced routine. While his movements were sharp and fueled with strength, they gave the impression of being fluid and adaptable. Damien was fascinated by the swordplay, it was not graceful or elegant like that of the elves, but a nice balance between powerful and defensive. When the captain finished his demonstrations, he handed over his steel sword to Damien.
“Hold it up like this,” he instructed, helping Damien begin with a proper stance. The young man copied the first form, which was a basic downward slash, then moved into a side slash as the captain demonstrated beside him. Damien liked how the sword cut through the air while being blocked by nothing. It was quite useful moving through the steps without an opponent to bash against. Upon repeating the routine a few times, Damien was confident he had it all memorized and ready to use.
“Good.” Captain Elias gave his student approval and ordered him to practice it every day. “Tomorrow we will try combat.”
The lesson took a good portion out of their morning, and by the time they came to a close, breakfast was ready to be eaten. Damien liked holding a man’s sword, a real sword. One that matched the brevity of his heart. Upon handing the weapon back to Elias, he felt a sense of change washing over him. The first time Damien had used a sword, he was afraid of the impact it might have on his life, his decisions. But practicing with Elias, flowing through the forms and slashing at the air, was a different sensation altogether. It felt freeing, exhilarating even. Like stepping into a new mindset, a new perspective.
“How did it go?” Maya asked upon their return to the campsite. She sat beside a fire, finishing up a skillet full of eggs and chicken, and sitting near was Naelen eating his portion.
“It was…fun,” Damien said while sitting down, taking his own portion of food. He looked around at the scenic landscape, the dry underbrush. If there was danger in these parts, he certainly couldn’t sense it. “I never thanked you for being so willing to escort us, did I?”
“Bah, don’t be humbled by it,” Maya said. “There is mutual interest, we were going to head back to Careth eventually, await our next mission. But I am curious, human, if you’re not a fighter, then why are you even going to Careth?”
“I ran away from home,” Damien said, gesturing to Naelen. “He was already planning on going there, and I found the opportunity to leave with him.”
“And why did you run away from home? Bad people?”
“Eh, not as bad as your own people I’m sure, but enough to make me question my staying. Actually…it’s really just one person.”
“Our Father,” Naelen explained. “He basically forced Damien to give up his freedom, his chance at happiness.”
“I’m finding it hard to believe you two are related by blood,” she said, scrutinizing them.
“I think the word you’re looking for is adoption,” Naelen said. “Damien is supposed to be my father’s heir, though he doesn’t want it. This is why I’ve been letting him travel with me, but, we ran out of supplies too quickly. Hence why we’re here.”
“Ah.” Maya gave them both an understanding nod. “Then I hope you find every happiness here in the north,” she said to Damien. “May no one ever try to force you again.”
“Thank you, Maya.” Damien smiled at her, then took a bite. He realized her words of sympathy meant much more to him than on the surface. Perhaps Maya knew what it was like to be forced, to be expected to do one thing while desiring something else. “So, what about you?” he asked. “When did you abandon your home?”
“Abandon?” she teased, “such a strong word that is. I technically never left my home,” she gestured to the wilderness surrounding them, “but I did leave my clan some five years ago, after the war settled and my family…took over.”
“You’re a Katol then?”
“Aye,” she nodded. “Though, I prefer to leave that name behind me.”
Damien looked at her, scanned her over. He tried to see if he could guess Maya’s age, though, it was a difficult thing to decipher in a female elf. They typically matured around the age of twenty and pretty much stayed that way for seventy years before starting to gray.
“What are you doing?” Maya asked, breaking into a laugh.
“I can’t tell how old you are,” Damien said after a while. “You must be older than me by several years, but I can’t guess a number.”
“Thirty-four,” she answered. “And you?”
“Fifteen! Not even a man by elf standards.”
“Or sixteen,” he stammered, “I have a made up birthday because I don’t know my real one.”
“And when is this birthday of your choosing?”
“Just…all of November.”
Maya laughed again. “You entertain me, human. Based on all the evidence, you must be an orphan. Adopted by elves, a made up birthday. Ran away from home.”
“Eh, more or less.”
The next morning, Damien practiced basic combat by sparring with Elias. Damien used his half-sword to attack and defend, all while keeping his feet sturdy, yet flexible. It was a lot to think about at once, moving not only his blade but his body, striving to position both in the right place at the right time. Still, the practice was quite helpful, and when their spar came to a close, Damien ended up facing his opponent with a perfect cross blade stance.
“Good,” Elias smirked while putting away his sword. “It would serve you well to apply real combat, but all in due time. The real fighting world is quite messy, Damien, and it’s easy to lose focus.”
“Oh, I know,” Damien agreed. “I learned that the first time I killed someone.”
The captain peered down at him, lifting a brow. “You managed to kill someone?”
“Yes. It was…scary.”
“A recent kill or…?”
“Uh, it happened a couple years ago. There was this man with a crude dagger, he hurt my family. I went a little mad that night.”
“I see it now,” Elias paused. “Perhaps that’s why I believed you were a mercenary when you first approached me. You give off this air, boy, a very serious and killer-like air. Once you learn the sword, enemies would be wise to fear you.”
It so happened that during their travel in the day, the four of them passed by a small settlement. It was miniscule compared to Endynwater, it sat in the middle of nowhere surrounded by barren rock and dry valleys. The land was plain save for the occasional large boulder that stuck out from the ground and the hillsides. The buildings seemed as though they had been scraped together by piles of logs and cemented with a mixture of clay and crushed stone.
As Damien looked upon the settlement, he noticed all the bones scattered about the place, picked clean and left behind. Even some of the buildings were damaged, smashed in by some blunt tool. It was quite a macabre sight, the emptiness, the eeriness. Torn up flags waving in the breeze.
Damien tried to put it out of his thoughts once he passed it, but he was too curious, so he turned to Maya. “Katol clan?” he wondered.
“That?” Maya looked back at the dead settlement. “That looks like trolls if you asked me.”
“Trolls?” Damien glared over at Naelen. “You said they weren’t a big problem out here. Look at that!”
Naelen did look, for only a moment, then back at Damien with a snarky expression. “Seriously, Damien, what do I know about trolls? I said what I did to keep you from going out of your mind with fear. I also didn’t think we’d be spending so much time in troll country.”
“Damn you!” Damien pointed at the Lor elf. “You lied about the trolls, you’re going to pay for that, Naelen.”
“Ooh, I’m so frightened.”
Maya looked at them both. “Boys, this isn’t the best time to be talking. There is real danger out here, Elias and I are doing our best to keep you safe from it. Just keep moving and we should make it through unscathed.”
“Trolls.” Damien cursed, shaking his head.
They continued on their path into territory that was even more sparse. The ground was empty and uneventful save for a few high slopes to the west. The air smelled sour, and something drifted on the horizon, a streak that glared as the sunlight hit it. When they came to it, Damien realized the streak was a narrow river carved into the rocky ground. Clear, discolored water stretched from east to west as far the eye could see. Some paces to the right, Damien noticed a footbridge that had been smashed to bits. Piles of disfigured, weakened logs stuck out from the water.
“Oh, no.” Maya must have noticed the destroyed bridge just as Damien had. She went over to get a better look. “That was our only way across,” she said, pointing to the debris.
Captain Elias came up, facing the ugly river. “Perhaps we could find a few logs of our own? It’s not too far across, we could form a supportive strip.”
“Aye,” Maya agreed. “Seems like our best option.”
Glancing around, Damien noticed a severe lack of trees and vegetation. How were they were supposed to find displaced wood out here? The river didn’t seem all that treacherous, it was probably narrow enough to leap across– if he were eyeing it correctly. “Or, we could just cross without a bridge,” Damien shrugged, but this made Maya and Elias look at him seriously.
“No,” Elias disagreed, “the water is far too acidic to be wading through, even for a short amount of time. Looks like a troll might have destroyed the bridge, a way to keep travelers from passing quickly.”
“Trolls are that clever?” Damien asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Elias said. “They have no common speech but they’re fairly intelligent creatures. We are quite literally stepping through their territory now.”
“Do they live in groups?” Naelen asked, curiosity written on his face.
“Sometimes. What I know about trolls is little, but they are worth evading at all costs.”
Damien and Naelen nodded as if they both pictured the same idea of getting bludgeoned and eaten by a troll.
“I suggest splitting up?” Maya turned away from the bridge and faced her captain. “You and Naelen can scour the east side while Damien and I search around the slopes?”
“Sounds most reasonable,” Elias nodded. “We should all meet back here in an hour. If we can’t get across we’ll have to make camp, and I’m not fond of that idea.”
“Me neither,” she said. “We’ll see what we can find.”
“Good.” Elias gripped Maya’s shoulder. “Stay vigilant.”
Damien watched Naelen and Elias set off toward the east, following the river downstream until their figures disappeared from view. Maya led Damien in the opposite direction, but not quite as far as their companions had gone. The next several minutes were spent walking and searching for any fallen logs or sturdy objects. Maya made a point of not speaking as they moved, probably to maximize their stealth.
After nearly half an hour, Damien was convinced this little quest of theirs was useless. There were absolutely no trees around, only a few large boulders that dotted the territory. There was also what seemed like a cave, but a tight one at that. It almost seemed as though it had been manually carved into the side of a rocky hill. As Damien got closer, he made out the shape of a campfire– though it was currently unlit– and a few devoured carcasses.
“Oh.” Damien almost shouted in surprise but he stopped himself, and when he looked over to Maya, a finger was pressed to her mouth while shaking her head. She pulled Damien by the arm, caused his feet to slide as they moved behind a hefty boulder and crouched.
The narrow cave was a troll’s dwelling, Damien was certain of it, but there was still no sighting of a troll. If anything, he felt lucky in that moment. “How long are we supposed to hide here?” he asked, looking at Maya. “It looks clear to me.”
Maya peeked her head above the boulder just to make sure. “Alright, it’s probably best to make our way back while we can. There’s nothing over here.”
But that wasn’t entirely true. Looking at the troll’s camp, Damien saw a battering club fashioned from wood, bone, and some other material he couldn’t identify. Even though it was far away, the club did seem sturdy and wide enough to bear the weight of a person. If he were gauging it correctly, the tool just might be long enough to act as a small bridge. “We could use that,” he pointed, and let Maya follow his finger to the object that sat unguarded.
“And how are we supposed to carry it?” Her eyebrows folded.
“Hmm.” Damien considered for a long moment. “I think I can manage,” he said, causing Maya to laugh.
“You?” She questioned him, his lean frame. “You can move that, let alone carry it?”
Damien let out a breath. “I’m stronger than I look. I don’t really know how to explain it, all I can say is…I’m not normal.”
“Then let’s hope you don’t return to normal anytime soon.” Maya scanned the cave once more then met his gaze. “You’re sure?”
“It’s the only idea I have,” Damien shrugged. “Unless we go back empty-handed.”
Maya looked down and exhaled a deep sigh. “Then I’m right behind you,” she said, and moved out from behind the boulder.
Damien went in front of her, crouching as low as he could toward the cave. Once inside it, he placed his hands under the battering club and lifted it onto its nose. It stood there between the two of them for a moment before Damien lowered his stance, hoisted the club up, and let it balance over his shoulders. It took him a while to find his stride while bearing the club’s weight, but soon he was moving out of the cave and back the way they had come. It slowed down his speed by a lot, but by the time he and Maya made it past the boulder they had hid behind, he saw the impressed look on her face.
“I shouldn’t have doubted you,” she said, moving close beside him. “You want me to help?”
“Sure,” Damien grunted. “Any help would be nice.”