“The child is born,” the priest informed, straightening his cloak over his skeletal shoulders. “Clan Darmah now has an heir, my Lord.”
Those gathered in the room stood, their faces reflecting the orange light of the central hearth. One of them stepped closer to the priest, his eyes wide in the face, framed with long wild hair.
“I have a son at last?”
“Indeed, you do, Lord Hurgen,” the priest said. “The child is quite healthy and screams with a loud voice. The gods have smiled.”
“The gods?” Lord Hurgen laughed, raising his hands to the vaulted ceiling of the round stone chamber. He was immeasurably happy at the news. “I know nothing of these sleeping gods you are so fond of praying to.” He put his hands together with a loud clap, a smile spreading on his face. “A son! Do you hear that, Kellish? A son at long last!”
A broad shouldered man stepped forward and clasped Hurgen’s shoulders. “Yes, I have heard and rejoice with you, my Lord. Clan Darmah has an heir. Shall I send messengers to the villages?”
“Immediately,” Hurgen answered. “Spread the word that a son is born to this house.” His elation filled the room.
His men cheered, raising tankards and weapons in salute to Hurgen. He responded with a short bow.
The priest stepped forward into the light, revealing his darkish robes. The vestments were covered with a mosaic of metal shapes and small gems. His face was drawn and bony, looking like a shadow despite the firelight upon it. Hurgen often thought how little blood must flow in the old priest’s veins to look so wan and spent.
“My Lord Hurgen, the sleeping gods still have ears,” the priest said, a hint of rebuke lacing his tone.
Hurgen whirled about to face him. The priest was a statue of resolve, his expressionless face determined to undermine the joy of the moment. Hurgen decided he would not let the old man damper the mood. “Then let them hear this. For generations, these gods of yours have remained silent. Clan Darmah is one of the last clans to closet your order, Eld Drangeth. This son has come from my wife’s loins, not from your ancient bowels. If the gods want it known that they have sent him, then let them speak louder, for their silence has been deafening for centuries.”
Eld Drangeth openly bristled at the words and looked as though he were about to speak, but apparently decided otherwise. Hurgen could see his men were amused by the exchange. “Now, if you please, tend to my son and my wife,” he said, bolstered by their reaction. “Send me word that they are still well. The birthing was a long one for Nadisha.”
Eld Drangeth stood some moments in silence, then bowed, slowly. When he raised himself straight, he turned and departed the room quickly.
Hurgen smiled, sure he had irked the old man. As Lord of Hillfort Darmah, he would not be denied this one long awaited joy. He grabbed a tankard from a near table and took a lengthy draw of its strong brew.
The ring of men around the hearth watched on in silence.
“Perhaps there is some truth in the Eld’s words, my Lord,” Kellish said, hiding his face behind his tankard.
“Perhaps nothing,” Hurgen bellowed. His eyes fixed on the tall empty archway, where Drangeth had stood. He slammed his tankard back onto the table. “This infernal devotion to the Gree is maddening. It serves nothing, but another coffer to worry over.”
“It was the Gree who created all, my Lord.” A man from the circle offered.
“So we have been told by their priests,” Hurgen countered, while seating himself in his large chair by the hearth. The men all followed, taking smaller chairs which ringed the flaming heart of the room. “My Father bade me keep the priests’ council, and I have. But I do not listen to the Gree. They have not spoken in ages. I would not know their voices.”
“Now it is said that they speak through their creation, my Lord,” another man said.
“More dribble and dodge from the Elds. They keep the ever silent Gree alive in memory only. Beyond that, I can not believe them. Tell me, have any of you heard them? What voice of creation carries their words? If it is the wind, then all I hear is its moaning through my stone halls.”
“There was a time when they spoke with voices of thunder,” an unfamiliar voice offered from the archway.
Hurgen rose form his chair, eyes wide with disbelief. All heads in the room turned in unison toward the voice.
“Uncle!” Hurgen said, surprised to his bones that Jorgan Darmah was actually standing there.
The man in the archway came slowly toward the hearth, reaching out his hands to warm them in the bright heat of the flames. He was dressed like an Eld, his great robes high in the shoulder and covered with cut metal shapes and gems. About his waist hung a belt with several pouches and a sword. The weapon was kept in a half sheath, showing its blade to be a black metal that reflected brilliantly. Like the Eld Drangeth, he was thin, but a full head taller. His dark hair was long, but combed with a braid down one side of his face, in the fashion of the clansmen.
“Greetings, my Lord Nephew,” his uncle said, with a slight bow. As he uprighted, Hurgen watched the man’s eyes take in the room, locking for a second on each man there. It had a commanding effect.
Kellish rose from his place and walked the few paces to stand next to Hurgen. His senior warlord a bit taken with the sudden presence of his uncle.
“How come you here, Jorgan?” Kellish asked curtly, resting his hand on his sheathed sword. The warlord was clearly posturing. He stood straight, his plated leather armor gleaming in the fire light. His high brown boots were worn smooth from his days on the battle field and his sheath was battered by the marks of hard use. Hurgen approved of the warlord’s brusque demeanor.
Jorgan smiled with a side glance at Kellish and crossed his arms. He looked back at the fire and spoke. “I’ve come for the child.”
“What?” Hurgen asked, shouting. He was sure he heard correctly, but was stunned at the words.
“I’ve come for the child’s sake,” Jorgan said. “I’ve known for some time that today was the day he would be born.”
“How did you come to know this?” Hurgen asked, suddenly more curious than alarmed.
Jorgan relaxed his grin and looked straight at Hurgen, eyes fixed on his face. “The Gree are not so silent to some.”
“My Lord,” Kellish said through clenched teeth.
Hurgen was sure of his warlord’s intent and also sure this intruder understood. Despite all the bad he had heard about his uncle, Hurgen held a place for him. He had only seen the man on a few occasions, but they were enough to garner good feelings. He was about to speak when Jorgan cut him off.
“Oh come now, Kellish. I’ve not come all this way from the Stoans to cause harm. I have no interest in the matters of this House—I was never an heir to its throne. There is no need to grab your hilt at me. I came because of the child.”
“Is that where you’ve been hiding?” Hurgen asked, genuinely interested, “in the Stoan mountains?”
“Hiding? . . . no, no, no . . . I’ve not been hiding at all.”
“But no one knew where you went,” Hurgen said, “certainly I didn’t, and I’m not sure that Father ever knew either.”
“So, because no one knew where I was, that alone means I’ve been hiding? How does one hide in the Stoan mountains? They are stark and unforgiving crags of rock that grow nothing. Should any have wanted to find me, they could easily have done so. Besides, anyone in Thadd could tell you I go often to the village for my needs.”
Hurgen eyed the circle of men all standing now. They were his advisors and warlords; all loyal friends. Like him, they knew why his uncle no longer lived in the lands of Clan Darmah.
Jorgan was the second son to Hurgen’s grandfather. As the younger son, he needed a place of honor and was marked from birth to the order of the Elds. Early on he did well in the Order, more so than many would have thought possible. Jorgan was a sickly child. In contrast, Hurgen’s father, Jard the first born, was a stalwart man of physical strength, great resolve and some wisdom. The two did well in their positions. But when Jorgan took the final vows admitting him into the Order proper, he pursued studies that they had declared dead. The Elds counseled Lord Mardon, to stop his second son from trifling with the dead arts, particularly those concerning Stormwalkers. Despite his father’s stern reproaches, Jorgan still refused to stop the forbidden studies and was cast from the Order. He was then ousted from HillFort Darmah: ancient home to the ruling Clan of Darmah. Beyond this point of the tale, Hurgen knew little else, except that his uncle was removed from Lord Mardon’s sight, never to be looked upon again by the man.
“How is your new son, Lord Nephew?” Jorgan asked. Hurgen felt the inquiry completely genuine.
“He is well, so I am told,” Hurgen said. “We wait further word from Eld Drangeth. Take ale with me, Uncle. Join in my celebration.”
“Thank you.” Jorgan stepped closer to one of the tables and lifted a full tankard to his lips. The action seemed to have a calming effect on the men, and Hurgen was sure he heard a collective sigh of relief. It amused him how one man could so unnerve his battle hardened men.
Hurgen watched quietly as his uncle finished his drink and returned his tankard to the table for the last time. Jorgan looked around the room declaring: “These old stones will never be undone.”
“Clan Darmah!” someone said.
“Clan Darmah!” another repeated even louder. Hurgen raised his own tankard as every man in the great stone chamber drank to the clan.
“What brings you here, Jorgan?” Eld Drangeth called out from the archway as he entered.
The priest came toward the hearth, clearly disturbed by what he saw. Hurgen smiled behind his tankard. He was glad Drangeth was displeased with his uncle’s presence. Jorgan did not shy from the approaching Eld, but rather took several steps toward him and stopped.
“To make sure the wishes of the Gree are seen to, of course,” he said, clearly.
“I have already done so,” Eld Drangeth said, his eyes narrowing on the outcast Eld. “You needn’t have come. We know the will of the Gree.”
“Then you have tested the child?” Jorgan asked, smiling as he crossed his arms.
“Tested the child?” Hurgen asked, totally caught off guard by what was being said.
Jorgan quickly turned toward Hurgen. “Yes. According to the Gree, every male child should be tested.” He took several slow steps back to his seat. “Of course, it has been centuries since any were found to possess the gift.”
“And hence, the practice has been abandoned,” Drangeth declared loudly, his fists clenching at his sides. “You know that.”
“Abandoned? I know nothing of the kind, Eld Drangeth. At what point between Lord Hurgen’s birth and now was it abandoned?”
“I was tested?” Hurgen asked, intrigued. “What is this test?”
“It is nothing more than legend, my Lord,” Drangeth answered. “A thing done in the darker times of history. It seasoned into a tradition and nothing more. Much like the making of wishes on the first day of the New Year.”
“Making wishes and doing as the Gree would have us do are two entirely different things, Eld Drangeth,” Jorgan said, leaning back in his chair. “You don’t mean to compare wishes and will, do you?”
“I will not follow you into a conversation already spoken and ended,” Eld Drangeth said. “The testing is an old tradition that serves a long expired purpose. A tradition and nothing more.”
“Then what harm would come if the child were tested?” Jorgan asked.
“It is a dead matter no longer done,” Eld Drangeth countered, his voice rising with anger.
“What is this test?” Hurgen asked again. His own temper rising.
Jorgan stood slowly, folding his hands before him and burying them in the cuffs of his robe. “After the darker time, the testing of a child was something taken very seriously. The Gree are the five gods. Four concern themselves with the elements of fire, water, earth, and wind, and have names spoken by men. The fifth, however, withholds his true name from man. He is the wild power of the world: the rage of the storm. We know him as Hammer of the Gree, Skyfire and even a more ancient title, Lord of the Gree—”
“I know this drivel. What has this to do with my son?” Hurgen demanded, surprised at his own curiosity in the matter.
“The fifth Gree has always been a mystery to the Order and to men. You know these things and you also know that after the darker times, came the Stormwalkers. ”
“Ha!” Lord Hurgen taunted, “I know those stories. Told to children to frighten them into obedience. When I was a child, Drangeth himself told me that to dishonor the Gree was to call the Stormwalkers. So this is nothing more than a way to frighten the child?”
Jorgan smiled and Hurgen wondered why.
“Then you also must surely remember that Stormwalkers were men,” Jorgan said. “Men chosen and changed, given the wild power of the world to call the storms. These men were great warriors and became powerful lords of Kelidon. However, they were all destroyed when the Elds appealed to the Gree. But before they were destroyed, such men had sons who had sons. To kill the line of Stormwalker blood, it was determined by the Order that uponthe birth of any male child, the child was tested. It is a simple thing with his hand placed over water. Should a mist appear above the water, the child is a Stormwalker and killed or sent to the desert. Should no mist appear, the child lives out his life in his place.”
“What foolish men they were to think such stuff.” Hurgen chided, openly amused. “To think of such tests being administered.”
“Foolish or no, it was a practice observed even upon you, Lord Hurgen of Darmah,” Jorgan said.
Hurgen caught the gist of his uncle’s words and now understood he was seriously determined to see to it that this test be carried out.
It was foolish, he was sure, but he also had to consider his men. Despite his own reservations about the Gree, belief in them still ran deep in the clans of Kelidon, Clan Darmah not among the least of them.
“And for this, you left your mountain places, to see my son have such rites done over him?”
“Yes,” Jorgan answered flatly. “That is the very reason I have come.”
“I forbid this nonsense.” Eld Drangeth sputtered, stammering over the words as he wrenched his hands. Hurgen could see the Eld was now openly disturbed at the idea of the test and the presence of his uncle. He was also angered that the Eld should be so bold about what would and would not happen concerning his newborn son.
“You forbid it?” Jorgan asked, sternly.
“Yes. This is nonsense indeed, and I forbid it.”
The force of the words were clear and Hurgen had endured enough of the old priest’s presumption of control over the situation.
“I am Lord of this Hillfort, Eld Drangeth, and it is I who bid what is and is not done. You overstep your bounds in forbidding anything. How dare you decide in my presence what I may deem as good for my own son.”
Eld Drangeth quickly stepped closer. “You do not mean to allow this foolishness, do you?” Hurgen could see the Eld realized his mistake and relished the moment.
“Then you suggest my own father was foolish to allow me to be tested when I was born? Do you tell me that I was not tested?”
“No, my Lord, but Jorgan is a dark hand. Surely, you can see no good can come from his dealings in such things, especially in the matter of your son.”
“My son and your future Lord, Eld Drangeth. If my uncle be dark or no, I shall allow this thing. I do not pretend to believe in the Gree. I have seen or heard nothing to make me believe in your Silent Ones. And what is it that I hear now? That some things are permissible to the Gree and others are not? What has changed between the time of my birth and today?”
“My Lord, perhaps Eld Drangeth is right in this matter,” Kellish suggested.
Hurgen could see his warlord was uneasy at hearing his words. “If he is and the test is no more than a tradition, then there is no harm in performing it. If it truly is a thing not done anymore and of no consequence, then let it be done to my son as it was done to me. When no mist forms, tradition is served and the Gree appeased. That is, they shall be appeased should they so desire to actually exist.”
“My Lord,” Eld Drangeth urged, openly mortified by such blasphemy.
Hurgen stiffened his resolve.
“Speak no more, Eld. We will do this very thing, and you will test this child of mine. Come, friends and believers. We test my son to see if he is a Stormwalker indeed!”
Hurgen made his way straight for the archway, Kellish beside him. The rest followed behind as the Lord of Hillfort Darmah made his way up flights of stairs through the stone edifice. The halls were torchlit and busy with attendants and warriors, all clearing the way for Hurgen’s hurried and purposed steps. Dogs barked from open courts as the assembly made their way through the hillfort. It was some minutes before they arrived at the chambers where mother and newborn were being cared for. As he approached the wooden door, Hurgen could hear the crying voice of his newborn son and thrilled at hearing it. He opened the door and entered without pause.
“Nadisha. A son!” Hurgen declared, as he approached a large bed centered against the far wall of the chamber. The room was spacious, its walls covered in weapons and quilts of grand design and brilliant color. The bed was large, hewn of wood and laid out with heavy quilts and blankets. In it, the Lady Nadisha lay smiling at her approaching husband, the small child in her arms. Hurgen felt suddenly filled with his love for the beautiful woman that was his wife. She was a rare attraction in these northern lands, a fair haired, hazel-eyed woman of light frame and stern constitution. She was an able companion in the warring world about them.
“A son, Hurgen,” Nadisha said, as she gently lifted the child toward him.
He took the newborn into his arms and smiled with a beaming pride that could no longer be contained. “He is healthy and whole?” Hurgen asked.
“I’m told that he is and I think they are right,” Nadisha said.
The child cried out with a shriek, his small hands flailing out from under the swaddling. Hurgen chortled, thinking for a moment on how those arms would one day wield a sword for the Clan as its lord and master.
“He seems to have a voice greater than my own.” Hurgen declared, laughing. “I heard him outside the doors. And he surely has a warrior’s arms.”
Nadisha shared the jest for a moment then stopped short, placing her hand on Hurgen’s arm. “Is something wrong? Are you leaving for war?”
He frowned, unsure why she would say such a thing. Her eyes were fixed beyond him toward the door, toward the men all waiting outside, nervous and talking in low voices. How like worried women they sounded.
“Ah . . . my men at arms. No, Nadisha . . . we have come to test the child and nothing more.”
“Test the child?” She asked, reaching for her son. Hurgen let her take the newborn, then waved for his entourage to enter.
The warlords and advisors filed in slowly, taking positions near the walls. Hurgen smiled as they all tried to avoid looking directly at his wife in the bed. It was not normal to have men such as these in the Lady Nadisha’s private chambers. He looked for the old priest and caught sight of him, still standing outside, with hands clasped in a tight knot before him.
“Come, Eld Drangeth. Test my son and appease your silent gods.”
“Hurgen, what test is this? What do you mean to do?” Nadisha pleaded.
“I mean to test this child as I was tested on the day I was born. It is nothing more than a folk tale, Nadisha. I am told it is an old tradition of no purpose, but one in which my son will take his first steps in following me. As it was for me, so shall it be for him. The child’s hand will be placed over water and nothing will happen.”
“How absurd, Hurgen,” Nadisha said. “He is being tested to see if he is a Stormwalker? That is not done anymore. You’ve been drinking too much with your men.” Her lilting laugh was laced with nervousness.
“Not a drop,” Hurgen said, smiling, “ though I would have if this matter had not come up.”
“Then go and drink and let us rest,” Nadisha suggested, coldly, covering the child and reclining back on her pillows.
“We shall, Nadisha, as soon as tradition is served. He will be tested as I was.” Hurgen turned toward Eld Drangeth and waved him forward. “Come. Take my son and test him.”
“My Lord, this is not needed,” Eld Drangeth said, pleadingly, as he stepped closer to the foot of the bed.
Hurgen stiffened, narrowing his eyes, ensuring that his anger be noticed. He looked at his wife. “Give me the boy, Nadisha.”
Nadisha complied, her face drawn with worry. Hurgen looked at the child and removed some of the swaddling as he walked to the foot of the bed. He paused only a moment and thrust the newborn out with both arms to the Eld.
Eld Drangeth looked as though he were going to protest again.
Before the old priest could muster words, Hurgen stepped closer to him.
“Test him, now,” He commanded.
Eld Drangeth took the child. He gazed a moment at the small face. The baby’s arms flailed, again roused from his warm repose.
The Eld took him to a table where food had been laid out for those attending the Lady. Hurgen and all those in the room watched as the Eld, with one arm, cleared away a portion of the table, sending plates and cups clattering to the floor. He rested the child on its back, while he took up a nearby gold pitcher. With a deep breath he began.
“As has been since the darker times and the times of the Stormwalkers, so shall it be here with this male child; that in seeking to honor the Gree, we seek out their blood in the veins of men.”
The Eld poured water into a shallow bowl as Hurgen and his men slowly approached him. They circled him as he raised the bowl above his head.
“Acoor is thanked for the water of the world, that with it, we may find the blood of the Gree among men.”
He placed the bowl next to the child and turned to Hurgen and then to the others.
“Come and serve as witness. Hear me well as I instruct you. Should a mist appear above the water in the bowl, the child is Stormwalker and must be destroyed or sent to the desert to be taken by the Gree in their own manner. Should no mist appear, then the child is without the blood of the Gree and may live as he will and may. Do you agree to this, Lord Hurgen of Darmah?”
The Eld looked to those standing around Hurgen.
“Do you hear and understand as well, you who serve as witnesses?”
All of Hurgen’s men nodded and voiced their affirmation.
“Then you have heard and will follow the will of the Gree.”
Eld Drangeth’s face sank as he turned to face the child. He then gripped the child’s small right hand and drew it over the bowl. In the next instant, the bowl exploded into hissing steam, and Eld Drangeth flew wildly backward into the waiting men.
Hurgen backed away for a second and then lunged forward through the mist fearing for his child. His son was still there, completely untouched by the heated water. Hurgen turned to the Eld and his men. The Eld was being lifted to his unsteady feet, his eyes half closed from the sudden shock. His men’s eyes were wide with disbelief and fear.
“How can this be?” Hurgen cried out, his voice desperate. He heard his wife scream and saw that his men had backed away to the door. Kellish had drawn his sword and stood ready at the foot of the bed. Eld Drangeth began moaning as the men tried to keep him on his feet. Jorgan was standing in the doorway.
“What madness is this, Uncle?” Hurgen bellowed.
“You can see for yourself what this means, my Lord Nephew.” Jorgan pointed back to the table. The mist was clearing upward. The bowl rested on the table glowing red with heat.
Nadisha screamed again and Hurgen staggered back from the child.
The child lay quietly on its soft wraps unaware of the commotion.
Hurgen slowly turned to the doorway where his uncle waited.