Wednesday, March 16, 2011
IN PURSUIT OF VENGEANCE Chapter 1
The blunt, heavy blade of the axe swished through the humid air, striking its target with a loud thwack; its wielder smiled as he gazed upon his handiwork, the mangled mess that now lay at his feet.
Dismembering tree stumps in the sweltering heat didn’t qualify as a good time in his book, but Vardin did as his uncle had told him. He still didn’t understand why it couldn’t wait until a hint of fall found its way into the summer heat, but he knew his uncle wouldn’t take well to any complaints.
Grunting, Vardin lifted the collection of wood he had chopped that day. He gazed at the tree trunk where the axe’s dull blade rested and wanted to grab the axe. But it would have proved impossible. He shook his head as he turned to head home.
Vardin wiped the sweat from his brow as he staggered through the forest, trying not to drop the bundle of wood cradled in his arms. He had more than enough strength, but it felt awkward in his arms. One of the logs fell to the ground. He thought about picking it up but realized it wasn’t worth the effort; his uncle would never notice.
Vardin pushed open the door to the cabin, scraping his muscular arms against the doorframe. Glancing quickly at the injury, he saw no blood. He didn’t want to show weakness, not in front of his uncle, who had just noticed his entrance.
“Um, where do you want this, Uncle Theodon?”
His uncle peered up from a book he was reading. “Oh. Just sit it by the fireplace.” He placed the book on a table next to the chair.
“So, why do I have to collect firewood in the middle of summer?” Vardin sighed, a ray of sunlight beaming through the door and reflecting off his deep blue eyes.
Theodon scratched his long, brown-gray beard and picked up his book again. “Well, the old man in town said it’d be an early winter, and you know the old man’s never wrong when he makes a prediction.”
After setting the wood next to the hearth, Vardin started in the direction of the door. A bead of sweat trickled from his dark blonde hair down his cheek, tracing along a thin scar from a few years earlier when he had tripped and fallen into a thorny bush.
Theodon glanced up, startled, as Vardin opened the door. “Where are you going?”
“I left the axe in the clearing. I need to get-”
“Vardin, how many times have I told you not to leave tools sitting around like that?” The light streaming through the door made his short brown hair appear almost as light as Vardin’s.
“I couldn’t carry the axe and the wood,” Vardin protested, pausing for a moment. “I mean, what would a thief want with that rusty axe anyways?”
“Just go and get it.”
He marched out the door and slammed it behind him, pondering, What’s so important about that axe anyways. It’s a piece of junk; it can barely even chop wood. And why does he have to keep treating me like some little kid. I’m going to be thirty-five years old in a few days; I’ll be an adult then. You’d think my uncle would start treating me like one.
Trying to distract himself from his thoughts, Vardin looked above the trees of the forest at the mountains just beyond them. These mountains, he knew, formed the Ring of Darkness in which he lived.
For a place that’s supposed to be evil, he thought, it’s really not that bad. Yeah, I know His Darkness Armoth rules over the region, but you don’t even really notice, except for the occasional darkness guard sighting in Crayden.
He glanced at the mountains again. But I have to admit it would be nice to see what exists beyond the Ring of Darkness. I’ve never heard of anyone making it across the mountains, though. My uncle’s always told me Armoth prevents that from happening. But is he really that powerful?
Vardin turned his attention back to retrieving the axe as he walked beneath the thick canopy of leaves. Sweat still ran down his face, but it felt noticeably cooler in the shade, his shield against the heat. He glanced at the sky where only a few beams of light penetrated the maze of leaves. The aroma of tree bark pervaded the air, greeting his nostrils with its sweet smell. As Vardin made his way toward the clearing where he had left the axe, he reminisced about his youth spent in the forest.
This really is my favorite place, he thought as he pushed aside a low-hanging tree branch to use one of the many shortcuts he had discovered. The way the birds sing in the morning, the smell of the trees. I wonder what’ll happen when I become an adult. Can I really stay here forever?
But Vardin’s thoughts were interrupted as he spotted the axe sticking out of a tree stump. He approached it to pick it up, but the sight of bright red berries suddenly tempted him. Crouching down, Vardin plucked a few of them from the bush, making sure not to take any green berries; he remembered the vomiting spells all too well.
After shoving the handful of berries into his mouth, Vardin stooped over and removed the axe from the tree stump—just as a sudden, shrill noise occurred nearby. He felt a surge of adrenaline as he tried to determine the source.
Vardin treaded cautiously in the direction of the disturbance and heard it again. It sounded like the scream of a woman in grave danger; he was certain of it.
Maybe a bear, or something, Vardin thought as he raced into another clearing. A thorny, purple bush pricked his legs, and he felt the tickle of blood trickling down his ankle.
“Oww,” he grunted, looking down at the injury.
When he lifted his gaze, he saw a man standing in front of him—tall, muscular, and imposing—wearing a thick chain mail and carrying a sword. Vardin scrutinized his uniform, noticing a red and black circular badge—the symbol of the darkness guard—adorned it.
The darkness guard brandished his sword. “What are you doing?”
Vardin glanced around anxiously before raising his axe in response. “I-I could ask you the same.”
His heart raced. Uncle Theodon had always told him to steer clear of darkness guards, but for some reason, this encounter was different; his instincts told him he must challenge this man. He noted the man’s spotless sword.
“I-it’s none of your business,” the darkness guard growled, stuttering slightly, a flustered look on his face. “Go back to your home.”
“Well, I think it is my business. I heard a woman screaming.”
“Leave now,” the darkness guard snarled through his yellow teeth as he raised his sword to Vardin’s chin. “Or I’ll kill you.”
The blade of the sword against his skin, Vardin decided to stop arguing. His blunt axe stood little chance against the darkness guard’s sword and armor. Just chopping wood with it proved hard enough.
“Okay,” Vardin acquiesced, barely moving his jaw. “I-I’ll go.”
He staggered back a few steps and pivoted cautiously, glancing sideways over his shoulder to be certain the darkness guard wouldn’t attack him from behind. The man’s eyes tracked Vardin, but he made no more threatening moves.
Before he turned his head, Vardin felt his foot catch on something. He tried to stop the fall but failed. His head struck a rock on the forest floor with a tremendous thud. The last thing Vardin saw before losing consciousness was the darkness guard’s laughing face.
Vardin was traversing a rocky mountain, behind his father and in front of his mother. He didn’t remember his parents, but for some reason, he knew these people were his mother and father.
Both moons shone brightly in the sky, allowing Vardin to make out their appearances. His mother looked short and pretty with his dark blonde hair and deep blue eyes while his father stood tall and muscular, his broad shoulders level with his wife’s head. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes, though Vardin could hardly tell from only the moonlight.
Vardin fell and scraped his knee on a jagged rock, but his mother quickly picked him up and carried him.
“We have to keep going,” she stammered, a shaky panic in her voice.
“Why?” Vardin heard his young voice answer, sounding as if its owner were on the verge of tears.
“You have to be quiet,” his mother whispered again. “The darkness guards will hear us . . .”
But at that moment, the mountain around Vardin became blurry and dark. He felt a momentary surge of panic before his surroundings rematerialized a few seconds later.
“Janen,” his mother wheezed. “Can you carry Vardin for a while? I’m too exhausted.”
“I don’t see how it will help. The stuff I’m carrying’s heavier than he is.”
“Why are we doing this, Janen? Was our life inside the Ring of Darkness really that bad?”
Vardin’s father pointed at the rocky peak. “Andia, freedom exists out there, just on the other side of these mountains. Yes, we could have lived out the rest of our lives in that horrible prison. But is such a life really worth living?”
“I know. It’s just, now there’s no turning back. The darkness guards are chasing us, and we’re running blindly across the mountains. It all just seems so desperate.”
“I know it seems that way, but it just felt like it was what I had to do. I can’t really explain it, but something told me I must do this.”
“I trust you, Janen, but you’re still crazy.” A tear trickled down her cheek.
“I’m fine. I’m just thinking about everything we left behind. And what was it all for? So that we could die alone on a cold, deserted mountain?
“Darling, we’re not going to die,” Janen asserted, but then his confidence faltered. “Or at least I hope we’re not going to die. I don’t know. I just think we can do it. It feels like our destiny is to be on this mountain right now. Whether or not we make it, something will come of this. I can feel it . . .”
The forms of Vardin’s parents became fuzzy and indistinct as everything turned dark again. He even felt a brief moment of consciousness before the darkness disappeared and his parents came back into focus.
“I can’t do this much longer, Janen. I’m so tired.”
“It’s just a little longer. Soon, we’ll be on the other slope of the mountain. We’ll be going downhill. It’ll be much easier.”
Vardin heard the clamor of voices in the distance. “Is that them over there?” The far-off shouts echoed eerily off nearby walls of rock. “Let’s go in that direction . . . direction . . . direction.”
Vardin’s parents picked up the pace. The darkness guards’ boots clanked behind them. Andia wanted to slow down because she carried Vardin, but they had no time. Every second, the clanking grew closer. They slid into a tight area between two walls of rock, the only way they stood any chance of losing the darkness guards.
The clanking of the boots echoed everywhere as Vardin’s elbow scraped against the rock wall, but they had no time to stop.
“Owwwww,” Vardin cried, the high-pitched voice of him as a child startling the semi-aware, older version of himself . . .
“. . . What are we going to do, Janen?”
“I don’t know. I don’t see anywhere to hide.”
“Well, we have to do something!”
“I don’t see any caves. Do you?”
“No, they’re going to see us!”
Young Vardin grabbed his mother’s hand. “It’s okay, Mommy.”
“Well, aren’t you the brave one,” she told him, trying to repress her fear.
The sun rose, but Vardin’s parents hadn’t discovered a hiding place. Stumbling over rocks, they raced down the mountain.
Janen glanced back anxiously at his wife and child. “We have to keep running!”
“I’m so exhausted,” Andia panted, as she twisted her ankle. “Oww!”
“You okay, honey?”
“I’m fine,” she answered as she got back to her feet. “Just twisted my ankle.”
“Can you still run?” Vardin’s father turned around to look at her while running backwards.
“Watch out!” Andia shouted, pointing at a rock.
But the warning came too late. Janen tripped over the rock and lost his footing. He tumbled down the slope, which had become a great deal steeper.
He continued tumbling, his body flipping end over end. Vardin heard the grunts every time his father crashed against the rocks, finally coming to rest about twenty feet down the slope. His mother scrambled down the mountain after him, a look of panic on her young, beautiful face.
He lay crumpled in a heap when they arrived, and a bone in his leg stuck out through his skin as a river of blood poured from the wound. Vardin noticed his father’s obvious agony; the man would never be able to climb down the mountain.
Vardin’s mother knelt next to his father as Vardin stood a few feet away, looking in on the situation like a bystander, his emotions ranging from shock to fear to helplessness.
“Go on without me,” Janen moaned, his words barely audible. He hardly resembled the man who had been standing twenty feet above only seconds earlier.
“I can’t just leave you here, Janen,” Andia cried, tears racing down her cheeks.
His father grimaced in pain. “Just take Vardin and go. Forget about me. I can’t continue on like this. I’m a dead man.” Vardin’s mother put her head on Janen’s shoulder and cried silently. “You don’t have time. Take Vardin and go.”
Shaking, Andia rose to her feet, but it seemed too late. The darkness guards closed in on them, hunters approaching their hapless prey. Vardin could only stand and watch them grow nearer while listening to the unnerving sound of his mother’s tears.
“Mommy,” his voice cried. “I think we have to go now.”
Vardin’s mother looked up to see the darkness guards less than twenty feet away, standing in the same spot from which the fatal fall had begun. Hoping none of them held bows, Andia grabbed Vardin and barreled down the mountain. She stumbled numerous times down the rocky slope, scraping and bruising her legs on the rocks.
Vardin heard the clanks of the darkness guards’ footsteps growing closer and closer. The low sound of their voices carried ominously down the mountain. “Stop right there!”
But Vardin’s mother didn’t stop, instead hastening her pace and scurrying dangerously fast along the precipitous slope. She continued until she arrived at the edge of a deep ravine, a ravine she may have been able to jump across had she not been carrying Vardin.
At that point, she collapsed to the ground, terrified, waiting to be overtaken by the darkness guards. Trying to protect her son, Andia held Vardin tight to her chest as she shuddered uncontrollably, her breathing faint and shaky.
When the darkness guards finally reached the edge of the ravine, they brandished their swords with malice, the moonlight glinting off the parts of the blades not covered by congealed blood.
“Stand up,” one of them commanded, but Vardin’s mother refused to comply. “If you stand up now, we’ll spare your child’s life.”
“How can I take your word for it!” she shrieked. “You of all people!”
“Just stand up and give us the child.” He paused for a second, hesitance in his next phrase. “Then . . . uh we will proceed.” He didn’t make eye contact with her.
A tear rolled down Andia’s cheek as she stood and handed Vardin to the darkness guard. She looked at the man and opened her mouth, but she didn’t say anything.
Another darkness guard stepped up to Vardin’s mother. Andia stood silently, making no sound apart from her faint breathing, and looked at Vardin, her deep blue eyes gleaming with love—a gleam Vardin knew only he could see.
The darkness guard raised his sword and sliced off her head in one swift, calculated movement. He looked to the man holding Vardin and nodded, but Vardin’s captor didn’t return the gesture, staring instead at the decapitated body of Vardin’s mother.
Vardin watched from this man’s arms as the sea of blood drained from his mother’s body. Young Vardin looked on in bewilderment, but his consciousness began to resurface, and the older version of him raged with anger. He wanted to kill those darkness guards.
Vardin examined his captor—a tall young man with short, brown hair and a short, brown, neatly-groomed beard. Then, he looked at the lifeless body of his mother. Her blood sparkled almost magically on the ground as if it tried to tell him something, but he couldn’t comprehend its message.