Critique is appreciated. **** Chapter One - Juron of Rhann The great ram swayed and faltered, Juron had pushed it hard. He was a big man, near eighteen stones, without his armor, and six-and-a-half feet tall, yet the ram bared him easily when rested. Juron had seldom stopped to rest him on his trek to Rhann, the city, not the duchy. His brother had sent him a vague letter. He drew out the withered parchment to make sure it wasn’t all just a queer dream. Ride home, ride hard. This better not be all a jolly little game of my brother’s, he’s daft, but hopefully not that daft. Squelching revolts might not be difficult, but it was important, thankfully he could leave it in good hands. He felt he was cheated of his rightful place, born a year behind his brother, but he thought his brother deserved it not. His father knew that, and Juron had learned it too, for more than a decade he had been keeping his brother’s duchy in one piece, and yet his brother never thanked him. Whether he knew it or not, eluded Juron, but he would learn, and he would learn it hard. An elk’s pattering on the snow-covered ground brought him out of his thoughts, Jank, Captain of the house guard, drew up beside him. Jank was a slim man, with deep-set, sullen, pale blue eyes, and charcoal black hair even darker than Juron’s that flapped about his sunken face. His hauberk shone as the early morning sun shone upon it, “We’ve lost three elk on this ride, Lord Torman, we can’t afford to lose anymore. Might we rest them a bit?” “The Tor Keep is less than four leagues from here, they can make it, I should hope.” “Aye, they should, my lord,” Jank said as he clenched his jaw. “’Tis a shame your mother didn’t teach you how to treat a beast.” Juron smirked, and said, “Doubtless she mentioned it once or twice, but I haven’t seen her since I left her teat, and what she said then I didn’t take to heart.” He took a deep breath, “Now, leave me.” Jank bowed his head and dropped back to the front column, muttering all the way. Juron scratched his scraggly beard, and started to doze off from the rhythmical thuds of the hooves pounding the ground. Until he glimpsed the twin ram heads soaring more than one hundred and twenty spans high, ten spans higher than the stone walls built into the mountain that bared them. A portcullis was between them. The Rams’ eyes gleamed in the sunlight, and seemed to stare right at Juron. This was his place, he was meant to rule, not be a lackey of his simpleton brother. The rams were staring him down, peeking at his inner self; they knew this was his place, too. Two large statues flanked either side of the wall, on the left was Ortin, the first Duke of Rhann, and on his right was his son, Krevan. Both statues had their off hands protruding forward, palms held straight up. The nose on Krevan had chipped away, so that only half remained. For two thousand years those statues had protected the city, and stopped all enemy armies, or so it was told, it was actually the mountains that kept enemies at bay. Mumbling, he clicked his heels, jolting the ram forward, racing towards the huge portcullis. Three riders rode out to meet him; their elks would have been a few heads taller than destriers if side by side, Juron figured. The front rider was a heavy-set man, with a black vandyke, and balding grey hair. They each wore bright silver armor and crimson cloaks; he couldn’t see the other men very well, with the light reflecting off their armor. “Lord Juron, Duke Torman awaits you at the Tor Keep,” said the front rider. Juron nodded and followed the three riders into the city. Rhann was carved into the mountain, the slums were at the lowest level, and the richer city was built into the tunnels above, bridges above the lower city connected each part of the city. The Tor Keep was at the very top. They traveled through the slums, hawkers cried out their wares all along the main street, street bards played tunes of all kinds, and people crowded in. They plunged into the throng, and sent the common folk scurrying about. The stable at the back was part of an inn that also housed the rams of House Torman. In all of Altaran, Torman was the only house to have Great Rams as steeds. Trained specifically for the rugged terrain of the Rhann highlands, taller than horses, though, not nearly as fast on open field, but little of Rhann was flat. The three riders led Juron up a spiraling stone staircase that led to the Tor Keep. It was built on a mighty peak, jutting from the center of the carved out town, reaching for the greying sky. A soft breeze swirled the soft snow that had begun to fall around him, Juron welcomed the chill, but it was uncanny for it to be this cold in the summer, even this high up. His breath hazed before him as he exhaled. The snow crunched softly under his boots. The keep was a massive structure, with four towers that dwarfed the keep itself, but looked tiny compared to the peak they were built on. Torches were on either side of the huge gateway. Dusk had settled since they’d entered the city, causing the lights to cast an eerie glow. The archmage Draan greeted him when he entered. A withered old man, Juron had known him all of his life. Today he wore indigo robes, that swished as they walked, and a gnarled staff that looked to be made of Blackwood, a crow with an amethyst in it’s mouth was on the end. He had been blind for nearly two decades now, yet he moved gracefully and seemed to see everything. “How are you old friend?” Juron inquired. “Good, good,” he said in a raspy voice, “but how are you? And I thought you were out in the western mountains.” “I’m fine. I was, actually, but my brother called me home, for what, I do not know.” “Perhaps you should freshen up before you meet your brother.” With that, Draan bowed his head and moved swiftly from Juron's presence. In his chambers, Juron threw off his grimy clothes that he had worn all week, and washed and shaved in his water basin. The manservant had left him a new change of clothes. He dressed in some type of black cloth for his pants and undershirt, a crimson tunic over his hauberk; it had a silver ram’s head embroidered on. He draped an ermine cloak around his shoulders, clamped on with a crimson ram. He placed his axe on the belt that hung tightly around his waist. It was a monstrous thing, chipped in a dozen or more different places, but sharpened nicely, or rather too nicely, because it had cut him on more than one occasion. It had a half-crescent shape on the blade; the shaft cleanly carved of ebony, entwined around it was an interwoven gold design. He let out a long breath and left his chambers. By the time he made his way to the great hall, his brother was holding a feast for all of his commanders, Juron noted Iron Samm, a beefy old man, and he saw Stony Kawn, a man in his middle years. The noble table was located at the back of the hall. His brother, Guran, was seated in the middle. His wife, Felse, sat on his right. Juron didn’t think much of her, Bitch. Beside her was the earl of Danam, her father. An opportunist to the extreme, his daughter took after him, but had her mother’s beauty. Small of waist, big of chest, and a face to make a man kill for. With strawberry blond hair flowing softly over her shoulders. He could feel his manhood stirring, and that made him even angrier. “Little brother! Have a seat, and enjoy the meat and mead! I see you made good time,” Guran said with a beaming smile. His temples were grey; the rest of his hair was at a mix of grey and black. Ten years before, Guran had been gaunt, with hardly any muscle to speak of. He had been so weak that he could barely grab a sword without the fear of his hand breaking. He had always been thin and sickly. The man that stood before Juron today, however, was wider than he, and not nearly as nicely shaped. “Why was I called home so suddenly? Things do not seem... dire,” Juron said, his anger barely contained. Ride home, ride hard? Damn it, Guran. “We’ll get to that after the feast. Come, have a seat by me,” he waved him over, and pulled out the oak chair to his left. Juron reluctantly took the seat. His brother smiled at him, and Juron returned it through a clenched jaw. “Bring on the feast!” Guran bellowed, and servants brought out all kinds of food, and quite a great deal of it. Someone brought Juron a plate, he filled it with some huge poultry’s leg, some kind of soup of vegetables, and a horn of ale topped off his meal. He ate it methodically. Felse wiped off Guran’s mouth periodically. Making him look a fool in front of his men. She was barren, and Guran must have played the role of her child. The horny fool played it eagerly. Guran looked over at his brother, he said, “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you?” “Five years, at least,” replied his wife. “Yes, five years. Why call me back now?” “There’s time enough for that, after the feast. Don’t look so gloomy brother, rejoice to good health!” Hopefully you’ll die soon, fat prick. That’s the kind of health I’ll celebrate. He had once loved his brother, but now he was getting on his bad side. “So, what have you been up to?” “Well, I’ve been keeping your duchy in one piece, brother.” Guran looked offended, after a moment's pause he said, “Oh, I see, and this I cannot do myself?” “From what I’ve seen, you certainly do a poor job at it.” Guran set there, never moving his eyes from Juron’s, he cocked his mouth to one side and said, “Do you know why our father left the duchy to me? Why he named me duke over you?” Juron could see he had worn out his brother’s good spirits. “You were my elder.” “Well, that was one thing, but my maturity certainly helped. You see brother, you were a headstrong lad, and I was more prudent,” I’ve doubtlessly gotten better at that, after wiping your ass for a decade... Brother. “Our father left the duchy in good hands, to be sure, if you had been the Duke, the realm would have surely seen war and...” “Don’t try to lecture me, you ****ing twat. Make no mistake about it; our father left the realm to you because Lord Rives would have thought it a slight if his grandson weren’t the heir. Get off your high horse, brother, and quit condescending me, you know naught of which you speak, fool.” “You offend me in my own hall, in front of my own men?” “What did you expect from me? ‘Behold! The wisdom of an idiot!’ Brother, do you take me for a fool?” The room was bellowing with laughter, if his brother was red-faced before, now he was crimson. “Come, let’s take this... chat... to a more private place,” he sneered. They came through a large corridor that led to huge room. Tapestries were draped all around, portraying the heraldry of most the houses of Rhann. “What the **** was that back there?” Guran asked, just a tad bit angrily. “What ever do you mean, sweet brother?” “You know damn well what I mean. That was uncalled for.” “Oh, but trying to talk to me like a ****ing ten-year-old was appropriate. Especially in front of men I command? What about your bullshit letter? Ride hard? Why? I wasn’t standing around with my thumb up my ass smiling for a bunch of sneaking bastards. I was caring for the people you’re suppose to take care of.” “The letter wasn’t bullshit. You’re to be wed a fortnight from now...” “Wed! To whom, if you might be so kind to fill me in.” “To Felse’s sister, Wila. She’s lovely, very kind, and...” “Nearly as round as you, with half your looks. I know who she is. Fat Wila, and every desperate shepherd in the realm has had a taste of her.” “The bond with House Stondrem needs another coil.” “Oh piss off, isn’t that ****ing worm satisfied that he passed off one of his sluts to his liege lord? Barren, needless to say. Now he’s got to pass off the one he can’t marry to any sensible man in all of Altaran, he thinks he can give his fat piece of shit he calls a daughter to me? You’ve obviously lost your ****ing mind.” “I need his swords.” “Then take them. You are the Duke; he is an Earl in your lands. He either obeys, or he finds a knife in his back. Or have you forgotten?” “I’ve not forgotten. Is it such a foreign concept to you that I like to please my wife?” “Please the rogue you call a wife all you want, but keep me out of it.” Lady Felse came into the room, and doubtless heard the last. “Rogue, am I?” She wrapped her arms around Guran’s waist, and he placed his arm around her shoulder, giving it a curt tug as he gripped her shoulder tightly. “You see? She interrupts our conversation when she’s blatantly unwanted. Get out, bitch.” “Shut up! Don’t you ever call my wife a bitch in my presence.” “**** your wife, and **** you.” “Will both of you settle down?” “No,” they both replied at the same time. “Brother, you’ll marry her sister, or I’ll banish you from Rhann.” Tears were starting to form in Juron’s eyes, his throat started to restrict, “For more than ten years I have kept your lands still. For a decade, I have served you faithfully. This however, I will not, I cannot do.” “You always thought high of yourself, sweet brother. Today you shall learn discipline, today, you shall learn your place.” “Where is that, brother? The rightful Duke of Rhann?” “No, Sir Juron.” Sir? He has the gall, the audacity, to lower me to a common knight. Juron was brought back from his musing by his brother’s frantic struggle to free himself from Juron’s grip around his throat. Juron had done it unawares, but he didn’t regret it. “Cough, Please, cough, let go, I, cough, didn’t mean it, cough, cough, cough.” “You’re killing him!” screamed Felse, her futile beating at his arms dying down, “Please, stop, stop!” Die, ****er, learn your place. Finally his brother’s eyes closed, and his heart’s pumping stopped. Juron stopped a moment, bewildered of what do next. His brother lie dead, he was finally the Duke of Rhann, but why did it feel so hollow? His eyes met Felse’s, her face flooded with tears, and paling at each passing second. She held his brother tight. So, she did love him. Or she’s afraid of what’s to happen next. “Come bitch.” Juron grabbed Felse and carried her into the common room, paying no heed to her struggle. All eyes met them instantly. Lord Stondrem rose up from his feet in a mixture of horror and anger. “What is the meaning of this?” Juron gave him a level stare, and then addressed the room, “My brother lies dead.” The hall erupted full of gasps and whispers, he turned back to Felse, “Lady Felse of Danam, I sentence you to death for the poisoning of Duke Guran. What say you, Murderer?” “No! I didn’t! I.. I..” Felse was reduced to incoherent rambling. The hall boomed with insults and sneers directed at her. “Seize her,” six guards took her out of the hall and down to the cells. A smile crept up on Juron’s face, “Lord Stondrem, I strip you from your titles and your lands. Tomorrow, you will battle me in single combat, let your God battle my Gods, and let the gods decide her innocence. I draw this feast to an end!” The knights and lords left the room as fast as they could; apparently they thought they were guilty of something if they were the last out. Back in his chambers, he threw off his clothes and left them for the servants, and curled up into his deer hide blanket. Duke Juron Torman of Rhann, he pondered, as it was meant to be. The hollow halls rang softly as he and his escort made their progression down them. They walked in complete silence, only a cough breaking it. The morning was dreary, a heavy snow fell, and the sky was a myriad of reds, the gods mourning Guran the commoners said. As if the Gods gave two shits for him, but at least he treated some of his people well. Torches blazed all around the tourney grounds. The nobles were seated on a tower to the right of the grounds; all the commoners that could fit squirmed to the left, top, and bottom. Juron drew out his axe, and tossed his heavy cloak off his shoulders. Today he wore light armor; a leather jerkin over his chain mail hauberk, a leather gorget, and gauntlets. Most of last night he had sharpened his axe, unable to sleep. He grabbed his helm by one hand, and placed it on his head. Dyed red, it had ram horns on the sides that swirled in a mix of crimson and silver highlights. In the center of the forehead was the ram emblem of House Torman bulging outward. Stepping onto the large dais, he bellowed, “Today, Hanwar of the ruined House Stondrem, will battle me, Duke Juron of House Torman. Lord Hanwar’s daughter is charged with the poisoning of my brother, Guran of Torman, former Duke of Rhann. The Gods will judge her innocence, by Gods and Men, I swear to sentence fairly, I swear, under my house of Torman, that all those who are guilty shall suffer!” He turned to Hanwar, “Lord Hanwar, how do you and your daughter plea?” Hanwar stopped his praying to the God of Light, blasphemy if you asked Juron, and said, “I did not do anything, nor did my daughter. May the God of Light protect us.” Hanwar wasn’t a big man, not compared to Juron, but he wasn’t small. Twelve or so stones, and six feet or more, with an arm of mostly sinew. Hanwar was a great warrior; no one could deny that, but scoundrel he was all the same. His night in the cells had made him haggard; by the looks of his eyes he didn’t receive much sleep. Juron met his beady eyes with a searching stair; he raised his axe above his head and screamed, “For Arwrin! God of War!” Hanwar drew his longsword, and went into a defensive stance. Die fast, old man. Hanwar wasn’t truly old, no more than ten years older than Juron, but Juron wasn’t exactly young. Juron couldn’t believe how fast the old man moved. Juron went for the left. Blocked. Feinted the left, went for the right. Blocked. Tried to bring his axe down on him. Blocked, swatted away. Hanwar stabbed at his middle. Blocked. Juron started to back up. Blocking Hanwar’s strikes all the way. Juron cursed as he rammed into Hanwar, driving him against the Noble Tower. He slammed the butt of his axe into his ribs. Hanwar grabbed for his arm, trying to pull him off, instead he kicked him in the groin and shoved him away. Juron stumbled for a few steps, nearly falling before he could regain himself. Both men were puffing from exhaustion after an hour or close to it of constant fighting. Some links in Juron’s gauntlets had started to break. The old man was bleeding in at least five or more places, but he never faltered and never slowed, just kept circirling Juron, probing for weaknesses. “You murdered my wife, and you tried to kill my newborn son, did you not?” Juron asked him. Hanwar said between ragged breaths, “Aye, I did.” He paused to catch his breath, “If you want your vengeance, take it!” Juron’s eyes became cold fury. He grunted as he swung his axe as hard as he could, cutting Hanwar’s head clean off, he didn’t even notice the three-and-a-half foot sword that stuck through his eye. He stood still for a minute’s time, his vision blurring and turning red, his breath came ragged and reluctant. Juron fell forward, driving the sword through his skull, and hundreds of gasps came out as one.