The icy wind howled as it whipped against the cold steel of my helmet while I stared into the whiteness of the peaks from the bow of our airship. To my left was my moot brother Vargas, captain of our vessel. He was a massively built troll, wearing blue crystal plate armor, typical of the sky raiders of the peaks. He also bore a stern look, always serious like his father, Rorik. To my right was a huge wolf ridden by another of my moot brothers, Elgorn. He was smaller than Vargas, wearing furs and finely forged hide for armor. He clutched a long spear with a barbed head named Devastator. A gift from and old ork who was a friend of his grandfather, Tago. The sun was bright and against our backs as we stood on the creaking deck of our air ship as it circled lazily through the sky. I remember the sun reflecting off the spear, and the furs on Elgorn and his mount glittering with the frost that had blown off the mountain. To this day I can still remember the sound of the sails snapping in the wind. We all had our gazes locked onto the mountain ahead.
The ship was named Wind Viper, and in the last few months since my capture, I had learned that she was a fine vessel indeed. She was known to be one of the fastest ships in the sky. I had thought this only a boast at first, but I soon discovered the tales did her justice. Her hull was fashioned out of the huge timbers of iron root trees that dotted the mountains of the Twilight Peaks. The wood was the strongest known in the region, and unlike vessels made of other woods, such as those made by lowland name-givers, she was strong and could withstand a beating in battle. This made no difference to me on that day. We were not in battle and her well worn deck boards were difficult for me to walk on, as I had not earned my sky legs yet.
Vargas, shrugged. " Nothing. No sign." He grunted, still staring out at the mountain in the distance below.
Elgorn, never pulling his eyes off the blinding white snow, smiled as he leaned closer to me, as though about to tell me a secret.
" Do you see them?" He said quietly. He was always soft spoken. “There.” He lifted a finger and pointed into the vastness of the peaks ahead.
Vargas and I both leaned forward as we peered into the mass of white.
“Come now my newot brother, they are there.” The smile in Elgorn’s voice was unmistable.
I looked and saw nothing. I shook my head, frustrated.
Then Vargas laughed.
“Hah! You were right again brother Elgorn! I see them. Well done.”
He slapped Elgorn on the shoulder, and cuffed me on my ice cold helmet, then wheeled around to bark new orders at the crew.
We had our target.
I knew that his swat at my headgear was meant to calm me but it only infuriated me more. I was big for a human, tall and well built. I had been trained for war and leadership at a young age and had lived as the son of an Ealdorman. Now, among the trolls of the Stoneclaw moot I was a runt human, who could sort of fight but who had no other useful skills, and I felt like a bumbling burden to the clan. My inability to spot the quarry that my two brothers had seen made me feel even more useless. My pride was hurting.
I pulled my helmet off and propped it up on my head so I could see better. The cold steel of the rim chilled my scalp through my hair as a wave of cold wind washed over my head and the warmth of the helmet liner left me.
We were looking for a pack of Crest Wolves. I had been invited to hunt with Elgorn and the other beast riders after it was discovered that I could ride. Though ride I could, I was humbled by that group. I could keep myself on a horse, even fight from atop one, but these name-givers could perform amazing acts and feats of acrobatics on their mounts that left me astonished. And there we were, having just discovered a pack of the huge beasts which was right in front of us somewhere and yet, try as I might, I could not see them.
“Do you see them little brother?” Elgorn asked again. He pointed once again to the peaks and extended his arm slowly toward a rock outcropping dotted with a few pines.
“No.” I said flatly. Frustration was welling up in me. I had been looking forward to this hunt since the night before in the great hall when I was told I would be going with the moot’s rangers. I had even dreamed of catching one of my own. But here I stood, feeling like I was failing my first test.
My attitude did not deter Elgorn in the slightest. “They are there. Do you see the mule deer herd below the trees?”
I nodded. A herd of the deer were grazing at the base of a sheer drop of rocky cliff just past the trees and rocks where Elgorn was pointing. Barely appearing as more than dots in the rocky terrain from this distance.
“They are low the ground because they are watching their prey. They cast no shadow.” He continued. “See their form in color, but do not look for their outline.”
Then I saw them. I grinned but said nothing.
Seeing my grin, Elgorn chuckled. “We shall go and get you wolf this day.”
It was then that Vargas and Zartan slid up next to us on the bow.
Zartan nodded to me respectfully. I nodded back. Zartan had shown me respect since the day I arrived and had always been friendly toward me, and as a result I liked him. He was short for a mountain troll, about my height, which is to say he was taller than most humans. He had a powerful, blocky build and carried a two handed war hammer that he used like a walking stick. He could have been a good warrior, but instead had chosen the path of a wizard. He looked at Elgorn and his deep voice asked; “So we have our quarry then?”
Elgorn I noticed immediately lost his friendly demeanor. His words became flat, and without emotion.
“Yes Zartan, there is a pack down there by those trees. We’ll need to circle around behind those trees and make our way to them on foot. It will take some time, but we are fortunate. Unless they attack the deer in broad daylight we should get to them by mid afternoon.”
Vargas then asked; “Should we go up above beyond those trees and set you down there?”
Elgorn pondered this, and replied; “No, we’ll need to circle around. We might spook them there.”
Vargas nodded. "Good hunting then.
He and Zartan then left us on the bow. We stood there for a few minutes, staring at the barely perceptible wolves on the white peak. Eventually I broke the silence.
“Do you dislike Zartan, brother?”
Elgorn looked at me, pondered my question for a moment, then shook his head. “No, I do not dislike Zartan. Vargas likes him and trusts him, and he is the sorcerer of this ship. He deserves my respect.”
I thought about that for a moment. I was unsatisfied with that answer. “Do you distrust him?”
Elgorn frowned at that. "Zartan has never done anything to earn the distrust of anyone in the moot. He has always been a loyal clansman. "
I frowned. “You did not answer my question brother.”
Elgorn sighed then, as though he were reluctant to speak. Then he did, muttering words I have not forgotten.
“Zartan is ambitious, he always has been, ever since we were children. He craves power. It is his desire for power that I do not trust. I always have been wary of ambitious name-givers, as I worry their lust for power could cause them to do things that I would not.”
He then spit over the rail. "The way I act toward Zartan is a flaw of who I am, it has nothing to do with him. "
I nodded, understanding, or thinking I did. I looked back to the mountain as the ship began to take a slow turn to the West.
That was two years before the day I stood once again beside Zartan on the cold planks that made up the deck of Wind Viper. Elgorn and Vargas were both dead, victims of Zartan’s treachery. His arms were bound, with two troll guards, both his former shipmates, standing beside him. I had spoken to them both at length, each were tormented by the loss of Vargas, their captain. I made sure each of them were willing to execute Rorik’s orders, taking Zartans eyes, but I made sure that vengeance was not part of their motives. No, each troll only wished to see Zartan do no more harm, and now that Rorik made it clear that Zartan would live, taking his vision would be critical to that.
Knut, a crystal raider and first mate of the Wind Viper, would do the duty. He was to remove both of Zartan’s eyes completely. A healer would then patch him up before he was left at the Kava Moot.
I glanced at Zartan, who stood stoically between his two guards. I had allowed him to have his blindfold removed for a short time so he could see the sky one last time. He stared into the blue without emotion. I wondered if he felt regret for what he did.
As if sensing my thoughts, he muttered. “You should know I did not want anyone hurt.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “How did you think allying yourself with a horror would result in anything else?”
I kept the anger from welling up inside of me. I would be the rock that the rest of the crew would look to, and I knew any anger I showed would amplify what they already felt. We would deal with this traitor with logic and without petty revenge in our hearts. Such is the way of my forefathers and of Rashomon.
Zartan never took his eyes off the sky. As if each moment of sight was too previous to lose looking at me. His voice was the sane deep baritone I remembered but somehow strained and more distant now.
“It was Elgorn who led me to the caves. He had found the crystals and felt the dark presence there. He wanted to know what I thought. We we got to the caves, he became marked and when I tried to help him, the horror crushed his mind, as you saw in the caves yourself. The horror then attacked me and by the time my will was broken, Elgorn was already dead.”
I knew what he had meant about having the mind crushed. I had felt that awful power in spades in the ruins of Paralinth.
He continued, still without a trace of emotion. “I saw how easily the horror had bested Elgorn, and I believed there no hope of the Stoneclaws destroying such a creature. There were too many crystals, and though I was wrong, I did not think they could be so easily destroyed by crude weapons like swords, axes and spears.”
It was then he gave me the quickest of glances, knowing his words about the tools of our trade were insulting to warriors and raiders like myself and most of the crew who took pride in the mastery of such weapons. I did not react, he was partially right, the weapons were crude, but they were still just as effective as any spells or sorcery he could muster. Zartan underestimated their effectiveness, and I remember tucking away that but of knowledge into the back my mind then.
He continued after turning has gaze back to the distant horizon. “The horror then spoke to me in my mind, promising me great power and an honored places at its side if I would help it. Either than or I could become like Elgorn, whose body the creature was molding before my eyes into some sort of twisted construct. I loved the Reach, but it seemed doomed, and I thought perhaps by helping the horror I could spare parts of the clan the worst that the horror would bring. I knew many would die, the leaders and the righteous first of course. Tago, Rorik… Vargas, but I did not think that could be helped. If only I had realized how easily the horror could be dispatched!”
A slight amount of emotion slipped out of his voice then. He meant what he said, I could tell.
He continued. “The horror asked me to get Vargas to come to the caves. I knew what it planned, but I did it because I thought the only choice would be to work with the horror, for the sake of all at The Reach. So I did, and when Vargas saw the trap he fought us both and it was then that the horror gave me the first taste of the power it promised me!”
He tore his eyes from the sky, and the look on his face was passionate, almost pleading with desire for me to understand.
“The power was more than even I could have ever imagined! My karma was unstoppable. Your brother, the great crystal raider that he was, died almost instantly! You would not believe the power, it was extraordinary.”
There was a hint of pride in his voice at that.
“After Vargas and Elgorn were dead, the horror began fusing their bodies together to make a construct unlike any I had ever heard of. So powerful. It tasked me with collecting the leaders and untenable members of the clan. I did so, one at a time. But I insisted that the children, women and elderly were to be spared. The horror agreed. So you see, I did only what I thought I had to do.”
He was unapologetic in his demeanor, only seeking for me to understand. And I did, only all too well.
I did not yell but spoke with such calm authority that it caused Zartan to recoil. The guards behind him
“You did what you thought would benefit you, what would spare you. Your concern was not for the moot, your race or your clan, or even your family. Do not pretend that you would risk willingly letting them come under the influence of a horror for their own good. You are too smart to believe that. You displayed a complete lack of honor, and that is why you are now kava. The others of the moot would have chosen death over your actions. You deserve worse than this fate. If I were Rorik, I would have killed you at The Reach. But Rorik in his wisdom has given you a second chance, one which I do not think you deserve. Now you must choose how to use it. Will you still seek blind power or vengeance? Or will you choose to do something good with the remainder of your days? Only you can decide. I truly hope that you choose to atone and make amends for your failings, but know that among the Stoneclaws your name will forever be associated with treachery. Should you choose the wrong path, and should I see you again after this day, I will kill you… with my crude sword.”
Zartan, looked at me expressionlessly.
“Do you understand me?” I asked, my voice calm but icy.
He nodded, and spoke quietly. “I do.”
“Good.” I spoke without anger, with only calm, cool authority. “We are but a few minutes from the edge of the kava moot. When we arrive, per Rorik’s command Knut here will remove your eyes. After that, you will be turned over the kava moot, and may the sane passions guide the remainder of your life.”
I turned on him then, and left him on the rail. We spoke not again. We dropped him off at the kava moot, without his eyes. Knut put him on the path, and handed him a walking stick. As we left I watched him making his way down the trail toward the hovels of the kava moot.