Birth of a Legend

 

I -- From the Ashes

 

(Derkarya, Lopayzom lands bordering Aizkaur, 4 Redleaf, 1000.)

 

Hmm? The rider quickly tugged back on the reins, giving his dapple-gray mount the signal to halt. With an equine snort of mild exacerbation, the animal did as his master commanded while the rider's elegant form straightened, all senses on the alert.

The scent of the dusk air held the subtle hint of an early autumn chill in the hours yet to come, but it was not that which made the rider pause. Something else hung in the air. The acrid scent of burning wood—more than what could be expected from a small village preparing for a mildly cold night ahead—coupled with the inescapable sense of imminent danger caused the traveler's concern. Eyes the hue of deep-green jade narrowed slightly as the rider carefully scanned the way ahead.

Too close to the village . . . What if . . . ? Fear sparked through the handsome man, spurring him to action. A tap of his heels to the dapple-gray horse's flanks and the animal leapt forward into a smooth-gaited gallop. Once before he had been too late, his formidable skills of no use at all to those who, by right of shared blood, had depended upon him for protection.

The deepening twilight stained the surrounding forest with a growing inky darkness. As the rider galloped down the timeworn earthen trail, his long, platinum blond hair flowing behind him like a silken banner, the ancient trees to either side seemed to loom closer in the gloom. Threatening, menacing, they added to the atmosphere of increasing doom. Nor could the silver-maned traveler shake the thought that once again, those he would have protected were somehow beyond his aid.

Onward he rode, closer to the haven he knew existed in this isolated, hidden, narrow mountain glen. The steep-sided valley had long ago been abandoned to the primeval forest. Few had known of the refugees who had made their way up along the winding silver stream to find a place to live in peace from their sworn enemies. The argent-maned rider had been certain the secret settlement had not been revealed to those seeking an end to the refugees, so certain that he had answered his overlord's call. Now he wondered if he would regret carrying out his duty to his suzerain.

As he galloped deeper into the lush, dusk-adorned mountain valley, the scent of smoke became ever thicker, overpowering the normally clean, crisp breezes of twilight. The acrid twinge befouling the evening air stung his jade-green eyes, making them water. Beneath the traveler's slender, well-toned form, the dapple-gray stallion broke stride and came to an abrupt stop. The whites of the horse's eyes showing as he tossed his head in agitation, his iron-shod hooves dancing against the ancient game-track's earthen path, the stallion refused to go any closer to the danger he sensed ahead.

Thin lips tightened into a frown of annoyance. Knowing that it would do him no good to fight with the beast, the silver-maned man gracefully dismounted. After leading his skittish mount to the right side of the overgrown trail and securely lashing the reins to the slender trunk of a young tree, the longhaired traveler continued on his way, the silken material of his loose-fitting, comfortable clothing whispering faintly in the growing darkness. He only advanced a few paces of his long-legged stride before he stopped, his blood turning ice-cold with dread.

It was not the bluish-hued billows of smoke that stung his eyes and left the taste of soot and ashes in his mouth that made the argent-maned traveler halt in his tracks, the expression on his handsome face becoming one of dawning horror. Nor was it the hellish dancing red glow that filtered through the thick underbrush that lined the edges of the refugees' village, nor even was it the unnerving silence that permeated the area—a silence broken only by the crackling and popping of burning timber and the traveler's own coughing—that evoked such dread in the normally impassive, argent-haired man. No, it was something else that filled the tall traveler with fear, that made him draw the deadly steel blade at his side and rush forward.

It was the lingering presence of Kaykolom magic.

"Heaven's Shield!" the warrior's rich, commanding baritone invoked as he called upon the mystical aspects of his sword-art. Spirit energy crackled forth from the silver-maned man's tall form, creating a spherical, magic barrier of solidified oja—spirit energy—that gleamed silver in the darkness. Maintaining the shield around himself, the warrior burst through the underbrush into what should have been a peaceful village green. Branches and leaves skidded harmlessly over the surface of the mystic sphere while flames licked in vain at the swordsman daring to break through the fire's deadly ring.

Chaos and destruction greeted the warrior's horrified, jade-green gaze. Every single structure within the small, isolated village intended as a haven for those having fled a ruthless enemy was ablaze or already burnt to the ground—houses, pens, barns, grain bins, everything. The scowl on the swordsman's handsome face deepened as the magnitude of the destruction sank into his awareness. Blood soaked the now-burning ground while the fresh corpses of animals and villagers were beginning to roast in the inferno's heat. Sweat glistened on the warrior's brow, the dancing glow of the hungry flames reflecting off the argent-maned man's fair skin, pale locks, silken garb and razor-sharp sword while the warrior scanned outward with all his senses.

They were all dead. Every one of them was slaughtered, their assailants now long gone. Only the lingering traces of Raven magic remained behind, mocking the swordsman with their triumph. The Kaykolom chieftain had kept his promise, to seek out and annihilate all of the clan of the Fox. Now only the silver-maned warrior remained, cruel fate conspiring to force him to suffer the knowledge of his clan's destruction rather than allow him to have either protected this last haven of the Lopayzom or sharing in their fate.

Anger seethed in the Fox swordsman's heart, replacing the horror at finding the destruction. So be it, he grimly thought, dark-jade eyes narrowing dangerously. First he would report the razing of the village to the nearest outpost of the Dragon army. They could be relied upon to see to it that the last of the Fox would receive proper burials. Then he would travel to the heart of the Raven clan's lands, avenging his kin with as much Kaykolom blood as possible before he either joined his clan in death or saw the Raven chieftain dead at his feet.

The verdant-eyed swordsman turned slightly, seeking the safest path through the inferno. Though protected by his solidified shield of silver oja, the heat from the blaze and the acrid smoke were still suffocating. Nothing more could be done here. Steel softly whispered as the gently curved, single-edged sword sunk back into the protection of its metal sheath. Then the tall warrior darted through the flames.

So intent was he on hurrying to inform the local Dragon commander of the butchery in the glen—the sooner his kinsmen were properly sent off to the spirit world, the sooner he could enact his revenge—the Fox-blooded swordsman almost missed sensing the tiny spark buried beneath the rage of emotion, the mocking traces of Raven magic and the malaise of mass slaughter and death.

Eh? Verdant eyes widened in shock, the energy shield shattering, as the warrior became too startled to maintain his concentration. He glanced about, seeking some visual confirmation of what his mystic senses insisted was present. Homing in on the feel—somehow, by some miracle, something else near the village was still alive—the argent-maned warrior pushed his way through the underbrush toward the source of that faint aura that had caught his attention.

Somewhere near here . . . he mused, his narrowed gaze searching the hellishly illuminated forest floor. Stepping forward, his foot nudged against something solid yet pliable. Freezing in place, the warrior crouched down, instinctively pushing down on the hilt of his sword so that the gold-tipped end of the metal sheath would rest gently against the earth rather than dig into the detritus littering the ground. He remained crouching there, silent, his lips twisted into a faint frown of puzzlement. Though he could see only two more bodies lying before him, the tiny glimmer of life he sensed was somehow also right there as well.

He recognized the corpses. Once beautiful women he knew to be mother and grown daughter, both full of joy and laughter, they were now cold and forever still, their bodies ravaged by what looked to be cuts from numerous blades. At least there seemed to be no evidence of even worse degradation done to them; it seemed as if the Kaykolom were content to just butcher the Lopayzom they found living in the formerly hidden haven. For that, at least, the platinum-haired warrior was grateful.

The swordsman straightened, glancing back over toward the smoldering ruins of the village. The women had probably been attacked within the circle of buildings that formed the settlement and had attempted to flee into the forest. However, their wounds had been too great, the blood loss too quick, for them to have gotten far; they had only succeeded in their bodies escaping the hungry maw of the fire while the rest of the Fox apparently had been left for the tender mercies of the roaring inferno. If any of the Raven murderers had been able to sense auras, they may have believed that what the Lopayzom swordsman felt now was merely the final moments of the doomed women's lives.

Behind him, the fire raged on, illuminating the sight of the slashed females with a distant, hell-like glow. His face remaining devoid of any strong emotion, the argent-maned warrior carefully and respectfully moved the bloody remains of his butchered kinswomen.

A mewling cry greeted the Fox-blooded warrior, a soft sound nearly strangled by fatigue but holding a note of defiance and indignation both. The argent-maned man remained transfixed, staring down at the small, sanguine-streaked body kicking feebly at the smoke-laced air. It was an infant. The orange-hued, downy fuzz covering the baby's head as well as the characteristic aura of the Fox cried out to the crouching warrior, assuring him that he was not yet the sole member of his clan. Somehow, the two fallen women had managed to shelter the infant, even in death. Their bodies must have muffled the child's howls while the dissipating heat of their cooling corpses must have sheltered the infant from the elements.

Offering a short, silent prayer to the spirits, the Fox warrior reverently scooped the crying child up into his embrace. Thoughts of vengeance faded as the swordsman's protective instincts flared to life. He would better honor his ancestors by choosing to live and safeguard this infant rather then throwing his life away while taking as many Kaykolom to hell with him as possible. The silver-haired warrior cuddled the mewling baby close as he stood to his full height once more. The baby wished to live and had a strong spirit, but the child's aura was dangerously faint. Too much energy had been burnt crying for help that could never come and maintaining heat that cooling flesh could no longer provide. The child would need rest, warmth and food quickly if it was to survive.

Already the body heat and comfort of a protective presence had an effect on the infant. The baby huddled closer to the swordsman's broad chest, the plaintive crying giving way to thumb sucking. Walking deeper into the forest with the intent of returning to his dapple-gray mount, the Fox warrior couldn't help but smile down at the baby. The silver-haired man gently prodded the chubby body for any hidden injury; from what he had observed so far, the boy-child—that fact was quite apparent by the infant's lack of clothing—appeared to be in otherwise good health. Nothing felt broken and all the blood and dirt seemed to be from wounds suffered by others. All that he could sense ill with the orange-haired boy was the worrisome level of his aura, which was something easily remedied if addressed quickly.

"Come then, little one. I believe I know someone who may be of assistance," the argent-maned swordsman murmured to the infant in his arms.

 

"Amiyana!"

A rich baritone voice shattered the stillness of the night, followed swiftly by the sharp sound of a cast-bronze bell. Ancient and tarnished green by the ages, it had stood guard at the humble dwelling's gate, the bell's ring resounded in the darkness as well as it had in its earliest days. It swung by its leather strap—a new one since the former one had finally succumbed to its long exposure to the elements—awaiting the next strike by the house's visitor. Though humble, the residence was well maintained, the porch and fence in good repair while the grounds were lovingly kept.

Remaining seated astride his dapple-gray stallion, the silver-haired rider drew in another deep breath in preparation of calling out yet again into the night. He remained silent as the sound of heavy footsteps from within the dwelling caught his attention.

The front door of the house slid open with a bang. The man that emerged was wide-shouldered, muscular—and angry. Short-cropped, curly brown hair framed a plain-looking face full of fury. Despite a limp—being on the losing side of a violent clan squabble had crippled the barrel-chested man in both the arm and leg of his right side—the lumbering homeowner moved across the wooden porch with startling speed. "Just who in the nine hells do you think you aroh!" Dark brown eyes abruptly widened while all the color drained from the muscular man's face the moment he caught sight of his late-night visitor.

Mounted astride a magnificent stallion of white-dappled gray and obviously at ease upon a horse, his tall form elegant and proud, the traveler was well known to the now-mortified homeowner. Long, straight, platinum blond hair—most of the silken mane was pulled back in a topknot—framed a stunningly handsome face that betrayed the horseman's noble blood. At the moment, dark-jade eyes sparkled and a corner of his thin-lipped mouth curved upwards, both signs of the visitor's amusement at the muscular man's double take.

"L—l—lord Arjunayazu!" the barrel-chested man stammered, lurching toward the porch's wooden steps that led to the ground.

"Good eve to you as well, Aizu," the silver-maned rider responded, his resonant baritone holding a note of continued amusement. "However," he added, his tone changing to one of warning, "I wish to talk to your wife."

The steely undertone in the other man's voice instantly snapped Aizu out of his momentary panic. Wary, his deep brown eyes narrowing slightly, the broad-shouldered man turned and limped back towards the house's still wide-open, sliding front door. "Wait here, milord. I'll get her."

Arjuna merely nodded, satisfied. While Aizu—a former weaponsmith now turned farmer due to the lingering effects of his crippling injuries—hobbled back into his humble, timber-framed domicile, the argent-haired noble spared a reassuring glance down at the precious bundle safely nestled in the silken embrace of his left arm.

"Lord Arjunayazu?"

The mounted nobleman flicked his dark-jade gaze up to the house's sturdy wooden porch. A young woman stared back at him, large sapphire-hued eyes wide in astonishment. Her long, chestnut-brown locks hung disheveled and she clutched a nightrobe tight against her willowy form, both betraying her interrupted rest. Noting indications that she'd cried herself to sleep, Arjuna frowned. "Forgive my intrusion, especially this late at night and in your time of grief, but I wished to speak with you, Amiyana."

The brunette silently nodded, her pretty but puffy-eyed face still frozen in a dazed expression. She had no idea what in the nine hells would have brought such a famous warrior to her gate in the middle of the night.

Sensing the aura of the wide-shouldered Bear clansman lurking about just inside the gaping entrance of the front door, the jade-eyed noble faintly smirked. "Come on out, Aizu. This will concern you as well."

Muttering under his breath, the former weaponsmith limped out onto the porch, his shuffle-thudding gait breaking the silence of the darkness. Halting next to his petite wife, Aizu wrapped a thick-muscled arm protectively around her while glaring at the mounted swordsman.

"Amiyana," the silver-maned visitor began, his handsome visage subtly shifting to an expression of humility and reverence, "I have no desire to intensify the pain of the loss you must certainly feel, but I have an offer to make. I wish to hire your services."

"What?" the curly-haired farmer shouted, his bass voice strangling on his outburst. Glaring furiously at the silk-clad horseman, Aizu hugged his wife closer to his muscular form. Damned noblemen!

"Oh, please," Arjuna growled in annoyance, easily meeting the other man's furious gaze with his own cold, hard stare.

The young woman quickly gave her affronted husband a reassuring hug, her other hand continuing to secure her linen clothing around her shapely form. "Aizu, don't," she softly warned before releasing the angered, curly-haired farmer and stepping forward. Sapphire eyes darkened in confusion, she shook her head in bewilderment. "I don't understand, milord. All in the same breath you say you wish me no more grief yet you desire to hire me?"

The jade-eyed warrior nodded, silver topknot swaying slightly with the movement. "Nothing can ever replace the child you lost, but perhaps aiding this one can help ease the pain," Arjuna responded, his voice a soft murmur as he addressed the chestnut-brown-haired woman. Expertly lashing his stallion's leather reins to his ornate saddle with his right hand, the regal swordsman then carefully shifted his hold on his precious burden, raising it up so that the two Bear clansmen could see what he held.

Amiyana gasped, eyes wide in shock. An infant!

Sudden exposure to the chilly night and the lack of the reassuring sound of a heartbeat pulled the exhausted, orange-haired boy from his slumber. Indignant, he kicked and flailed his chubby limbs at the air, his strident cry shattering the stillness.

Tears welled up in large, dark blue eyes. Amiyana had so wanted her own baby, but fate had taken him away from her. Born too early, the little one had never been robust; only two days after coming into the world, his sickly body had given up and he'd returned to his ancestors without even a name. The young mother's heart lurched painfully. She had done all she could for her own son, only to be left with a broken heart and empty arms.

"Brat of yours, milord?" Aizu muttered, crossing his powerful arms over his broad chest.

Arjuna chose to ignore the Bear's impolite tone. "No, a kinsman, though to what exact degree we are related, I do not know." Noting the aura of the howling baby was beginning to weaken again, the swordsman turned his attention back to the still-stunned woman. "Quickly, Amiyana. Your answer. If you will not do it, I must find one who will and soon, or risk losing the child."

A warm tear rolled down the still-grieving mother's cheek. She'd felt so empty . . . and the baby's cries pierced her to her heart. Surely her dead son's spirit would understand. She would never forget him. "I'll do it," the brunette answered, stepping down to the lawn.

"Amiyana!" the muscular farmer protested, startled by his wife's response.

Ignoring her husband, the willowy woman walked toward the gate, quickly lashing her robe closed with the linen tie wrapped around her waist. It wouldn't do to embarrass herself as she reached up for the crying infant.

Inwardly sighing in relief, Arjuna warmly smiled at the approaching Bear clan-member. The brunette had been so excited at the coming birth of her first child that the silver-haired swordsman knew that tragic loss must have been a hard and cruel blow to the soft-hearted, maternal female. Seeking to console the upset baby, the mounted nobleman cuddled the boy close against his chest once more as he awaited Amiyana.

The orange-haired baby's cries had softened to tired-sounding mewlings by the time the young mother passed through her domicile's front gate and halted next to the magnificent dappled gray. Her pretty cheeks streaked with new tears, Amiyana reached upwards, the long, loose sleeves of her aqua-blue linen robe sliding down to her elbows, exposing the fair skin of her slender limbs while her sleep-mussed hair slid from her shoulders to hang against her back.

Shifting his tall, elegant form in the saddle to better keep his balance atop his stallion, Arjuna bent low, the silver strands of his topknot swaying forward. Carefully, tenderly, the swordsman handed the tiny child over to the farmer's wife. "His spirit is like steel, and his will to live is just as strong. This one will not leave you until the day I come to reclaim him," the Lopayzom warrior gently murmured. "I have faith in your ability. He will thrive in your care." From the fleeting expression of gratitude in the Bear woman's sapphire eyes he caught before her full attention shifted to the boy in her arms, Arjuna knew he'd read Amiyana well. She blamed herself and her lack of experience for the death of her firstborn. That the boy had been sickly and born too soon—a common occurrence for a first baby—would never be seen by the young woman as the true cause of her tragedy.

Amiyana stepped back, cradling the baby close and softly cooing at him to calm him out of the last of his crying. Yes, the heartache of her loss remained, but it seemed duller now, not as wrenching even though they had buried their son just that day. Her arms were no longer empty of a baby and a new life once again depended on her.

Arjuna smiled, sensing the sadness within his long-time friend's aura slip away in the face of muted joy and determination to do for this baby what she couldn't do for her own. Straightening, the silver-haired swordsman turned his dark-jade gaze to the scowling Aizu. "It eases her grief," he commented, meeting the angered stare of the former weaponsmith.

"A child of our own was going to strain what income we had," the barrel-chested man growled, "despite how much we wanted a baby. And now we must suffer that for the whelp of a total stranger?"

Dark-jade eyes narrowed slightly, but Arjuna took no true insult from the Bear clansman's words. Ever since Aizu had been crippled, the couple had been forced to adjust to the much poorer life of a farmer. No more could they live comfortably off the earnings of commissions for masterworks of the blade, and it was a matter of hurt pride on the curly-haired man's part that prompted the harsh words. "I do not intend for your wife's work to be permanent. When the boy is old enough, I will take him back into my custody as apprentice." Arjuna slipped a long-fingered, elegant hand into the pocket formed by the silk of his left sleeve. Finding the pouch nestled within, he drew it out and then gracefully flung the leather object over the fence at the other man.

With the softest of sounds, the leather pouch skidded across the timber planks of the porch and halted against a foot of the crippled farmer. Still scowling, Aizu bent over and picked the item up, his curly brown hair momentarily obscuring his rather plain face. The former smith's expression changed from angered to shocked as he straightened up, his gaze staring down at what he found within the container tossed to him by the swordsman: paper money, the bills printed by the Imperial mint on the Empress's authorization—the ultimate bartering item in use in the entire realm. Backed by the very gold hidden away in the treasuries of the Imperial palace, the bills were accepted by all merchants in lieu of physical goods in a trade, but such bills very rarely found their way among the less fortunate members of the land. Aizu was familiar with the currency; as a weaponsmith known for the quality of his work, he had earned such bills by fulfilling commissions for the scions of wealthy, noble families. But it had been so long since he'd done work for which he was paid in anything but kind.

Dark brown eyes still wide in amazement, Aizu lifted his head and stared at the waiting Fox warrior. There was enough money in the pouch to feed an entire village for nearly a year, let alone take care of what humble needs the farmer and his wife had. Speechless, he could only continue to stare at the argent-maned visitor.

"I wish the boy to be taken care of as well as possible," Arjuna stated. "Each year the payment will increase if I am satisfied with his care and how he progresses. So long as he gets all he needs, you may spend the remainder as you wish. However, I don't think I need to admonish you to be discreet in your spending. A crippled smith turned farmer spreading around many bills suddenly will cause suspicion."

Something in the Fox warrior's baritone voice worried the brunette. Still gently rocking the now-quiet baby, Amiyana glanced up at the mounted man. "There is danger, milord?"

"More for the infant than for you, though perhaps you should be careful for your own safety as well," Arjuna admitted, frowning. "It would do him and you ill for anyone to know that he's my kinsman and that I am paying for his support."

Sapphire eyes lingered upon the swordsman's stunningly handsome face for a long moment. In his own way, the silver-haired man seemed as grieved as Amiyana had been. "What's happened, Arjuna?" she gently asked, for once slipping into the more familiar address they'd shared as children.

The jade-green eyes that stared back at her were momentarily haunted before becoming unreadable once more. "The Raven have won. The Clan of the Fox has been reduced to this pitiful state, all in vengeance for something we did not do. I would sue for peace for the boy's sake if I thought it would do more than deliver us to the Kaykolom’s sword, but I dare not take that chance."

"But what of the village?"

"Dead and gone, turning to ashes even as I watched," Arjuna snarled. "Every last one of them, save the boy. Kamia and Isuna shielded him from the slaughter even as they lay dying."

The swordsman's grim words made both Bear clan-members pale with the image evoked. How it must pain him . . . Amiyana thought, her heart instantly going out to her long-time friend in sympathy. Glancing down at the dozing infant, she further resolved to see to it that the Fox boy would thrive. The Raven would not know the baby had survived.

Aizu nodded, big hand clenched around the pouch full of money. "You have my word, Lord Arjunayazu, that I will do all that's in my power to keep the boy safe from the Kaykolom. Even if your clan truly had murdered the Raven chieftain's little sister, the Lopayzom didn't deserve this in the name of justice. Especially not the truly innocent ones."

His expression cold, distant, the silver-haired Fox formally bowed as best he could while remaining seated upon the saddle. Straightening his back, he gave the married couple a faint smile of relief. "I thank you both. You have lifted an enormous weight from my soul. I must take my leave of you now." Tugging the leather reins free, Arjuna wheeled the stallion to the right. As the dapple-gray stamped a foot against the ground in impatience, the warrior glanced back over to the couple at the domicile. "I have yet to inform the Dragon of what happened." Tiny tassels of metallic-gold thread swung silently, dangling from the bottom edge of the leather reins, as the Fox swordsman prepared to spur his stallion forward.

"Arjuna?"

"Hmm?" The man fixed Amiyana with his dark-jade gaze.

"What's the boy's name?"

Arjuna inwardly frowned. The baby was certainly not the offspring of either woman that had shielded him—in fact, the swordsman truly could bring to mind no adult in the now destroyed village to whom the child would have belonged. More than likely a young couple of the Fox had arrived to the haven since the silver-haired warrior's last visit. There had been rumors of a scattered few still on their way to the mountain glen; Ishunu had been confident that all the remaining Fox clan-members would be at that village by the time Arjuna's annual service to his overlord was concluded. But there would be no way now for the verdant-eyed man to ever know for sure the name the boy had been given by his true mother.

He sat there in silence, tall and elegant astride his well-bred stallion, for a moment longer. A name came to him, one that he sensed would fit perfectly the man the boy would one day become. "He's called Karavasu."

The Soul of the Sword . . .

 

 

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