Rock Hard pt. 1

Sir Gwyn has served as a loyal knight all his life. He swore that he would fight for his country until his last breath, in the name of his beloved, King Rafe, the Golden Wolf of Altenritter. Now, however, his Rafe is dead, and upon the throne sits Rafe’s arrogant son who wages ware on neighboring Collrine as soon as he has the chance.

A catastrophic defeat at the gates of the capital sends Sir Gwyn, exhausted, hungry, and badly wounded, to the edges of the Fellmire wood where a kind stranger happens upon him and helps nurse him back to health. Being the honorable man that he is, he insists that he owes a life debt and that he must pay more than a pittance for it.

Little does Sir Gwyn know that this debt will change his life forever.

Exhaustion weighed down on Sir Gwyn’s limbs. One arm hung limply at his side, blood trickling down it in hot rivulets. His whole body felt heavy, notwithstanding the plate armor that he simply refused to take off. It had been a gift from his late king, the Golden Wolf of Altenritter, and it was more precious to him than his own life.

Every step that Sir Gwyn took was a struggle as he dragged himself down the overgrown dirt path. He was staring Death in its face, yet he felt no fear. All he felt was a cold hollowness inside, almost as if his life had been stripped entirely of its meaning.

Sir Gwyn felt numb. He wanted to be furious. He wanted to be mourning. He felt nothing, instead, and even if a part of him recognized that he was in shock, he couldn’t help but find the emptiness frustrating.

It had all happened so fast that Sir Gwyn had scarce had a moment to process it. No one could have predicted the calamity that awaited the armies of Altenritter behind the walls of Collrine. The kingdom was a small one, with a fraction of Altenritter’s forces.

By all rights, the campaign should have been short and decisive. The army should have washed over Collrine like an unstoppable tide. The soldiers of Altenritter were more numerous, more disciplined, and better-equipped than the largely mercenary forces of Collrine. The siege should have been over in a fortnight at worst, culminating in a victory feast, and yet here Sir Gwyn was, hobbling inexorably closer to his death.

"Don’t you think it’s been a little bit too easy, sir?" said the young man who had Sir Gwyn’s shield perched on his knee while he polished it. "I feel like the Collrinians would have at least put up a little bit of a fight if they didn’t intend to surrender."

Sir Gwyn stared at the boy, trying his best to school his expression so as not to alarm him. He’d had his suspicions. Ultimately, though, he’d dismissed them as paranoia. To hear his squire put words to the thoughts he’d been agonizing over for the better part of a week, however, meant that he could no longer push them aside.

"What do you mean, Bruno?" said Sir Gwyn. He didn’t want to betray his own worries too quickly, lest he color his squire’s perceptions. He wanted an honest answer, and the best way to get that was to give the boy as little information about what he wanted to hear as possible.

"Well, I just think, sir, that we’ve gone through all the trouble of giving Collrine multiple chances to surrender, with terms that I think are pretty reasonable, and yet they’ve refused even though they know that we have a vastly superior force," said Bruno. His lips pursed briefly as his hand stilled on Sir Gwyn’s shield. "So, given that they’ve offered us no resistance so far, one of two things must be true: they’ve given up but don’t want to make a formal surrender, or, more worryingly, they know something that we don’t.

Sir Gwyn sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. He smiled at Bruno to make sure the boy knew he wasn’t angry, or anything of the sort. "I think we’ll make a good strategist out of you yet, Bruno," he said. "Truth be told I very much have the same worry.

"Forgive me for speaking out of turn, then, Sir, but perhaps you should say as much to his majesty?" said Bruno.

A sigh escaped Sir Gwyn. If the king had been younger and keener to listen to him, perhaps. "I’m no general, Bruno. Nor am I a particularly good tactician. I’m certain the others have already informed him, and yet he’s decided to march on. I would never presume to question his majesty."

Maybe Sir Gwyn should have questioned the will of his king. Perhaps, then, Altenritter would have been spared its most humiliating defeat yet. Perhaps, then, he could have saved a great many lives. Ultimately, though, he would never know. It was in the past, now. Events had already transpired in the worst possible way.

Sir Gwyn lost his balance just short of the treeline, armor clanging as he fell to one knee. He looked up at the long and lonely road that lay ahead of him and gave a start. He recognized this place. He never thought he’d find his way back.

A sharp pain stabbed through Sir Gwyn’s shoulder as he tried to rest his hobbled arm on his knee. The sensation brought back another unpleasant recollection of the days that had led up to the disaster at the gates of Collrine.

Hanner’s Bend was an important trade city that just so happened to lie directly between the capital of Altenritter and the capital of Collrine. If that hadn’t been bad enough, it had the distinct misfortune of being of strategic importance. Hanner’s Bend was an easy position to defend, and would allow the forces of Altenritter to march without too much worry about their rear.

"Have a drink, Sir Gwyn! I understand you’re often focused on your duty of service to your king, but tonight must surely be an exception for tonight we have struck a fatal blow against those bastards in Collrine!" declared Sir Marke, holding a goblet out toward Sir Gwyn while he extended his other hand sideways away from his body, to the cheers of the nearby soldiers.

Sir Gwyn glanced at Bruno. Their eyes met. He could see his concerns reflected there. He gently pushed the goblet back toward Sir Marke and said, "I should happily partake of tonight’s suckling pig, Sir Marke, but drink unsettles my constitution and I should not like to see tomorrow’s breakfast twice.

A mere taste of battle and a farce of a victory and all the kingdom’s best men seemed to have lost their senses. Sir Gwyn wanted to tell them all that they hadn’t even glimpsed true war. He had the feeling that his words would merely fall on deaf ears. The men lacked respect for him already, and with their wine-muddled wits there was little chance that they would see the wisdom in his restraint.

Taking a breath, Sir Gwyn walked away from the carousing knights to sit next to his squire at the edge of the firelight. "The other squires believe today was a portent that the campaign would be even easier than we imagined, Sir," said Bruno. "I hope they’re right, but I’m afraid they’re wrong."

"I am afraid, as well," said Sir Gwyn, as a wave of boisterous laughter rolled over them. He thanked the page that handed him a plate of food and tried to focus on it. "I fear this may be a trap. Not of the kind that tears men limb from limb, but of the kind that seeps into their hearts and makes their minds soft."

Sir Gwyn staggered back to his feet. He took a single step forward and felt the air cool palpably against his skin. He took a deep, shuddering breath, equal parts relieved and terrified that he knew where he was.

Long ago, when he’d been living in the streets of Ritterheim, Sir Gwyn had promised himself that he would never return here. It was a place he associated with bad memories, and a childhood he would have rather forgotten. All the same, the familiar solace of the unnaturally cold air enveloped him in a strangely-comforting embrace.

Using the last of his strength, Sir Gwyn managed to totter over toward one of the trees at the edge of the treeline. He collapsed against it. The steel plate of his armor had no traction whatsoever on the damp, coarse bark. His legs gave way under him, sending him to the ground. For a second, he lay there, the ever-present waves of low, rolling mist that covered the floor of the Fellmire wood blowing away in his breath before flowing back in, to lap at his body.

Sir Gwyn dusted himself off as best he could with his one good arm and sat up with his back to the tree. He’d been born in a village bordering the Fellmire, to an innkeeper’s daughter and knight on a mission from the crown.

A sigh escaped Sir Gwyn. The memories were unwelcome. The old innkeeper—whose blood he refused to acknowledge flowed in his veins—had made him suffer enough all those years ago. Somehow, it became his fault that his mother had been naïve enough to fall for the advances of a charming knight.

The old bastard tolerated the situation for four years before the rumors going about town became too much and he decided to send his daughter off to a convent for her disgrace. As if that hadn’t been traumatizing enough for a young Sir Gwyn, waking up one day to find his mother gone, that was also when the innkeeper started demanding that he pay for his own room and board.

Even now, the thought of it made Sir Gwyn angry. What the hell was a child of barely four summers to do to pay for room and board? The work had been difficult and demeaning and even his best efforts failed to live up to the impossibly high standard that the old bastard had held him to.

There was a soft thud as Sir Gwyn leaned the back of his head against the tree. He’d lost his helm along the way. Back then, it had been easier to run into the Fellmire wood where no one dared follow him to be alone in his misery. It was why he found the place strangely comforting. It had been more of a home to him than the inn.

It was strange to think that most people thought the Fellmire was a cursed place where brave men went to die. In Sir Gwyn’s mind, that place was the battlefield. To him, it was the place where cowards went to hide from a fundamentally unfair world.

Sir Gwyn had been one of the first to emerge from his tent upon hearing the commotion outside. Sleep had evaded him thus far, and he imagined that the sense of foreboding he’d been feeling was about to play out.

Outside, the servants that had been attending to the knights’ pavilion were already up and about in the dim grey of dawn. Their attention, however, was not on their duties but a point in the distance, toward the walls of Collrine. Sir Gwyn followed their gazes and saw the cause of their consternation: glowing runes and sigils arrayed in mind-bogglingly complex arcane circles above the top of the highest tower in the city.

It didn’t take long before the rest of the camp was up and about, abuzz with speculation. Sir Gwyn locked eyes with Bruno and wasted no time seeking out the general’s tent. When he got there, he saw that most of the other knights had already assembled, and shortly thereafter, the king arrived.

It wasn’t his place to speak, so Sir Gwyn remained quiet as the king consulted with his generals. What he heard made his blood run cold. He’d never approved of his king’s choice of generals, thinking them too young, too fresh to have known the horrors of war, but he hadn’t thought them to be so stupid.

Sir Gwyn bit his tongue until the king turned to the knights and asked for their opinion. The others agreed with the generals, that whatever fancy light show Collrine had put on, was likely to be nothing more than a ruse. He didn’t.

"My king," said Sir Gwyn. He stepped forward, but the Knight Captain, sir Marke, placed a hand on his chest. He brushed it off as gently as he could, looking straight at the young man who was his liege. "If I may…" The boy, Wolfram, looked at him and sighed before nodding.

Having received permission, Sir Gwyn took another step toward the war table. "I do not mean to sound alarmist but your majesty, I have reservations about this plan. I am aware, as are most of our men, that our strength far outpaces that of the Collrinians, but I believe that this is what gives us the freedom to be more cautious," he said.

Sir Gwyn placed his fist over his chest. "We do not know the truth of our circumstances, but we have the forces and the supplies to wait until we do. I cannot profess to know sorcery in any meaningful way, and while it may be unlikely, should we not ascertain that the Collrinians are merely bluffing before we decide to call them on it?"

Sir Marke clapped a hand on Sir Gwyn’s shoulder. "Sir Gwyn, cowardice is unbecoming of a gallant knight of Altenritter!" he declared. "Whatever sorcery Collrine might be able to muster, we have vastly superior forces that will conquer it all the same. Why wait and give them a chance to call for aid? The plan is sound. You must not let your fears deter you from the most sensible course of action."

Sir Gwyn turned to his king. "Your majesty, you know I would not say this if I did not truly believe it to be true. I am not counseling cowardice, only caution. I implore you, think of what your father might have done, and seek wisdom in his memory."

The king’s eyes narrowed. He straightened to his full height and looked down his nose at Sir Gwyn. "I sincerely cannot remember why I chose to keep you in the knighthood, Sir Gwyn," he said, his voice cold, and his expression stormy. "I do not need old men who think me too stupid to rule without the guiding hand of my father."

"My king, I meant no offense, I merely—" said Sir Gwyn, heart thumping in his chest as he realized where things were headed.

"I shall not hear it, Sir Gwyn!" said the king. "It is clear to me that you do not think me capable of making wise decisions. How could I trust a man who thinks so little of me to defend me on the field of battle? I am not my father. You should know your place."

Sir Marke chuckled. It should have earned him a reprimand, but no one seemed to much care. It was clear what they all thought of Sir Gwyn, and it was clear they agreed with the king’s words. "I’m disgusted that my father ever thought it appropriate to grant a knighthood to a coward such as you, Sir Gwyn," said the king.

"Since you seem so concerned for safety and caution, you can remain behind with the reserves. The rest of us will fight for the glory and honor of Altenritter," said the king. "When we return victorious to Ritterheim, I shall then see about putting you in your rightful place."

Tears prickled at the corners of Sir Gwyn’s eyes. He’d been stupid enough to believe that his life would lead anywhere but misery, and now here he was, back in the Fellmire. "Damn it…" he whispered, to no one in particular, as the tears fell down his cheeks. "Why? Why?!"

In the end, being consigned to the back lines was what saved Sir Gwyn’s life. Briefly, anyway. He was already feeling light-headed. Sooner or later, he was sure he would succumb to his wounds, dying a coward’s death so far away from the battlefield.

Sir Gwyn could scarcely understand how he’d arrived at the outskirts of the Fellmire, to begin with. He was certain magic had something to do with it, but he didn’t know how. Everything had gone so wrong he struggled to comprehend what little he remembered.

Collrine was a small nation. It was wealthy for its size, but its coffers paled in comparison to the treasury of Altenritter. It should not have had the resources to contract a sorcerer of the kind that could work magic on the scale that Sir Gwyn had experienced, unless—. Gods above, Sir Gwyn thought to himself. The realization shook him to his core.

The world had changed so much in the few short years since the immortal Chosen had first made themselves known. They were souls from a world beyond Eiras. They came to escape their lives in that other world and often left to return to them.

Most of the Chosen lived lives indistinguishable from most, but some of them had the potential to attain power far beyond any mere mortal’s imagination. Sir Gwyn was sure of it now. The Chosen were a mercurial lot, capricious in the extreme, and often accepted requests from the people of Eiras just to see what would happen.

The only logical explanation Sir Gwyn could conceive of was that Collrine had managed to enlist the services of one such Chosen. One of a powerful class of sorcerers known as Realmcleavers, whose magic could level entire cities in a single breath. It was, at the very least, consistent with what he’d seen.

For all the knights’ courage, they didn’t last very long when the heavens bled fire onto the front lines. Even from far back, in the reserves, Sir Gwyn could feel the rippling heat wash over him. He felt the urge to rush forward, to find his king and save him from the roaring inferno, but in his gut, he knew that nothing could have survived the torrent of hailfire that had consumed the vanguard.

The blood-curdling screams of men being cooked alive in their armor made Sir Gwyn’s heart pound in his chest. He had fought wars before but never had he known such terror. Shock gripped the bulk of the army, rooting everyone in place as the screams faded and the world was wreathed in an uneasy silence.

One man turning tail started the rout. The lines that hadn’t been touched by the fire broke in an instant. The orderly, disciplined ranks of Altenritter’s soldiers devolved into a milling, chaotic mass of people. Sir Gwyn’s horse nickered nervously. Then, the true carnage began.

The skies opened up once again. A rolling curtain of fire swept backward from the front lines like rain, and the searing wind that followed in its wake whipped up twisting columns of fire that seemed to move with minds of their own. Beneath the feet of the fleeing men, the earth itself exploded, sending chunks of dirt flying straight up into the air.

Sir Gwyn had lived most of his life thinking he was ready to lay down his life for king and country, but as the rain of fire approached, there was naught he could do but fled. Honor bade him stay, to die with his countrymen, but an instinct to survive cultivated by his youth in the streets, made him do otherwise.

To Sir Gwyn’s credit, he managed to stand his ground until the rest of the reserves had already turned and fled. Bruno, bravely, stayed by his side despite the clear terror in the boy’s eyes. Together, they turned their horses around and spurred the animals into a gallop.

For a moment, Sir Gwyn truly thought that he and Bruno would be able to outrun the sorcery on their tails. His heart sank when he heard the panicked braying of Bruno’s steed. He looked over his shoulder just in time to watch as the earth exploded under Bruno’s horse, knocking the boy off the saddle.

Soon after, Sir Gwyn himself was thrown from the back of his horse. He closed his eyes, feeling strangely at peace when he heard the roar of the inferno approaching.

Sir Gwyn laughed. The sound was hollow, devoid of any mirth. Even in dying, he’d been a failure. Somehow, he’d awoken here, at the edge of the Fellmire, a few hundred miles away from the site of the massacre, mortally wounded. He could only imagine that it was some sort of cruel punishment from the gods.

As he coughed, weakly, Sir Gwyn saw a figure in the periphery of his vision. He turned toward the figure and watched as it approached. It seemed to glide over the rolling layer of mist that covered the forest floor, leaving the gentle clouds undisturbed.

The figure was shrouded in an old, dirty, and tattered cloak. As it got closer, Sir Gwyn’s eyes widened. Despite the wear on the cloak, he could tell that it was of fine make. The white of the cloth still showed through despite the grime, and despite the loss of its luster, the gold embroidery was still discernible.

Despite the effort involved, Sir Gwyn craned his neck upward to look under the figure’s cowl. His heart skipped a beat when he saw the stranger’s face. The figure was no stranger at all. It the only true friend Sir Gwyn had ever made in his life. Beneath the cloak was the face of King Rafe, the Golden Lion of Altenritter.

Something inside Sir Gwyn broke when he saw those painfully-familiar eyes. They seemed freer now, unburdened by the golden crown that used to sit just above them. "I’m sorry…" Sir Gwyn whispered, as the figure, the apparition, stopped before him.

"I’m so s-sorry…" Sir Gwyn said again, his voice breaking. "I… I tried my best. I really did… I tried to help him become the better man you wanted me to help him become but he just wouldn’t listen…"

Pain wracked Sir Gwyn’s weakened form as he took a deep and ragged breath. The tears fell, uncontrollable, from his eyes. The pinged softly against his chest plate as they dripped from his chin. "I failed him," he said, shaking as he raised a hand to his face. "I failed you…"

A touch on the back of the hand covering his face stilled Sir Gwyn’s trembling. He lowered his hand and looked up to see that the figure had lowered itself to its haunches. Rafe, his king, his only friend, reached out to touch the side of his face and mouthed, "No."

"Gwyn, you haven’t failed me. If anything, I think I’m the one that failed you. I know I said the test was important, but it’s not the end of the world that you didn’t pass," said Rafe, slinging an arm over Gwyn’s shoulders. He was only a year older at 11 and yet somehow he seemed infinitely wiser than Gwyn.

"But… I failed," said Gwyn, staring at his hands. His palms were still red from where the rough wood of the dummy sword’s hilt had bit into his flesh. "How could I ever become a knight?"

Rafe patted Gwyn on the back. "Just because you failed this time doesn’t mean you’ll fail again the next time you try," he said. "I mean, if anything, we learned something today. It’s not that you don’t have talent. You did really well for someone who just started learning swordsmanship. We just need to practice more."

"What?!" said Gwyn, jumping up from the overturned wooden box he and the prince had been sitting on for the last hour while he cried his heart out. "Practice more?! I’ll die!"

Rafe threw his head back and laughed. He patted the box beside him. "Sit down, Gwyn. You need to rest after getting beat up as badly as you did," he said. "You don’t even know what kind of training knights go through. I mean, I make you do exercises every day, but you only really get to train every few days when I manage to sneak away."

Gwyn sighed. "But it’s not like you can sneak out of the palace every day, Rafe," he said. "I don’t want you to get in trouble. I know you have your lessons and your duties, too."

Rafe made a face. "Those lessons are boring anyway! And it’s not like I’ll ever be king. My older brother can have the crown since he likes it so much. Don’t worry about it. I’ll find a way to get out of the palace more. And then we’ll make a proper knight out of you. Got it?"

Before Gwyn could say anything else, the bells rang thrice. Rafe shot to his feet. "Crap!" said Rafe. "Sorry, Gwyn, but I have to get back to the palace. I’ll see you tomorrow, for sure. Meet me at the usual place, okay?"

"O-Okay," said Gwyn, only managing a small wave before Rafe dashed out of the alley and back to his real life as the second prince of Altenritter.

The memory only brought more tears to Sir Gwyn’s face. He shook and gasped. He hadn’t cried so freely in so long. "But I did. I did fail you. I failed you…" he mumbled.

"I’m sorry, but, ah—I don’t think I’m the person you think I am," said a soft voice from nearby, startling Sir Gwyn. He tried to scramble to his feet, but his body failed to follow his commands. He slumped against the tree, drained, and looked up.

The figure that Sir Gwyn had thought was Rafe was someone else entirely. The shape of the man’s face was similar, but his hair was the wrong color, more of an auburn than the jet black of Rafe’s hair. The eyes were the most different. These were bright emerald green with a strange, unfathomable depth. Rafe’s eyes had been bright blue, sparkling with life, and mischief. "I-I wouldn’t try to stand up… Um… Y-You’re pretty badly injured…"

"S-Sorry," Sir Gwyn stammered. He pushed against the ground with his one good hand. The attempt was little better than the first. "I-I didn’t mean to trespass on your l-land…" he mumbled. His head was spinning. The edges of his vision were starting to go fuzzy. "I-I’ll get… get… going…"

"No, no, please… Let—Let me take care of you," said the stranger.

Sir Gwyn shook his head. He felt light, strangely enough. It was funny. He’d always thought that death was a heavy thing. It was surprisingly comfortable. "I…" he muttered. "I wouldn’t want to impose…"

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