Chapter One

For what felt like the thousandth time that morning, Thæon sent another bitten curse towards the Scorched King and his patrolling soldiers for having set up a blockade along the main road that crosses the Bodeive River; the river that stands as the southern border of Ered Naur.

In all honesty, the soldiers and their fickle orders hadn’t really prevented Thæon from crossing into Nadhras. Instead, all the bastards were able to accomplish was simply delaying his journey, not forcing him to turn tail and trek back through the rotten kingdom to his own clanlands in the North. If he had really wanted to cross the river, then he very well would have done so.

But knowing the other party and knowing that he would’ve been the one to start the fight with some poorly-trained, weak-hearted soldiers that barely understood the basics of their own magic would be certainty to igniting the war that King Ruihyn has been salivating for, long before he claimed Ost’Aura’s throne.

Thæon knew that he could leave Ered Naur without bringing unnecessary attention to himself; that he should leave Ered Naur without bringing unnecessary attention to himself, so as word would not get back to the corrupt king that a clansman from the north had; firstly, entered his kingdom of Ered Naur without invitation or permission; secondly, had travelled the length of the kingdom without an escort and; thirdly, upon trying to leave said kingdom, had wiped out a company of soldiers that were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time, following orders from the wrong king.

Needless to say, it would give King Ruihyn the cause he was searching for the spark the war between their kingdoms.

But Thæon had reasons for his actions. He didn’t want any more eyes on him than necessary.

The near-encounter at the river crossing was days passed now, and still it left a bitter taste in Thæon’s mouth.

There was little he could do to quell his anger beyond intermittently cursing the Scorched King, with the odd insult directed at himself where his own stubbornness saw him pushing through the wildlands of Tvawklaad’s numerous valleys, having turned away from the river crossing and the main road, instead taking the directions of a farmhand to follow the Bodeive river back upstream where he could fair against the untamed mountain slopes and navigate the valleys for a harder trail into Nadhras, but one that wasn’t patrolled by King Ruihyn’s men.

As Thæon’s journey led him deeper into the mountains’ shadows he found the villages grew steadily smaller; the animals outnumbering the people that tended to them, with fewer buildings gathered together to form village squares.

The last village that he passed through could’ve hardly been home to more than four hundred people, most of whom harboured the familiar suspicion of all native Naurn when they were faced with a barbarian stranger; easily spotted in the crowd where he only had the past few months of heavy sun to tan his skin while the locals had been bathed in the southern sun since birth.

And yet for all the expected hostility, Thæon is simply greeted with an air of brittle despondence that fogged the crowed; finding no outright hostility presented to him that allowed the outlander to pay for three full bags of grain to feed for his mount.

Even the blacksmith was willing to make repairs to his saddle before Thæon could present his thinning vise, having thought that he would have to barter a steeper expense from a village not but two moons turn from the capital.

There was still risk venturing into Naurn settlements, and while he took it as a rule to avoid populated areas where possible, in order to sway the current of gossip that would follow his passing, Thæon made the seldom exception when he was closer to the outskirts, knowing that there were very few merchants and travelling caravans that would reach the poorer districts to carry the news of his sighting, and even less that would bring news that may or may not interest him. At least here the risk was manageable.

Thæon got nothing from the vendors in the market, simply wanting the man’s coin as long as it was of value to them, and while they weren’t hostile, they weren’t loose lipped to help ease the vise from between his fingers.

The blacksmith was more forthcoming with gossip, but he spoke nothing about soldiers or rumours of what town the King’s men had ransacked in his name, speaking only the humbling tale of the seamstress’s son, who had been lost to the wolves—and a word of warning when it became clear that Thæon would be taking the same path in his efforts to find a valley pass that would allow him entry into Nadhras without the botheration of soldiers.

Wolves didn’t concern Thæon.

The north was a challenging world to navigate; the snow bitter and cold that stayed long after Thaw had returned the rest of Brærn into soft meadows and fields of budding flowers; a ready trial awaiting the children to challenge themselves before they were old enough to be Tsaü: an initiate ready to undertake five trials that would grant them their adulthood.

From a young age it is expected of the children of the clanlands to hone their skills to better aid them for their trials; Thæon especially having taken training himself in each and every aspect that he thought would better improve his own chances to complete all five of his trials and spend the remainder of his free years learning how to better advance his people and protect them from the war-hungering king.

Thæon himself had more pressure on his shoulders from his lineage as a descendant of the first son of Angrenost and the next in line to be Tæ’adanaï; not simply heir to lead his own clan, but to rule and govern the five clans of Medellin.

The gods have held him in favour so far, no matter the challenge of his future; his first trial having seen him slay an akrren; a large feline hunter that dwelled in the valleys and mountains of the Grey Slopes; Thæon’s victory over the lion having proven his strength and aptitude to his clan, to his mother and the elders. Slaying an akrren was no easy feat, and being one of the youngest few to start the years of trials—to start Miiannila N’namun—at the dawn of his twelfth summer had certainly garnered praise and acknowledgement to his strength and promising future.

Over the years, Thæon’s reputation could only grow.

Even the Naurn should know he was no mere traveller, what with the hunting regalia adorning him in trophies; fangs of his kills strung between carved beads that told tale of his adventures; tattoos inked around his wrists in depictions of battles won, often shared with a scar or two that decorated his skin; unashamed of the stories that showed he had faced battle and conquered.

One trophy that he treasured above all others, was his cloak. His mother had gifted it to him after he returned from the hunt of the lioness; the cloak having been an heirloom passed down from his ancestors, imbued with the same magic that burned in his chest, and in acknowledgement of his feats. It had been adorned with the fur of his first kill; the soft down of fur lining the collar and hood making his treasure all the more precious.

So no.

Wolves did not concern Thæon.

His calf neither, who trailed along behind him; humming and gurgling and entirely unaffected by Thæon’s lingering irritation that has kept them moving at a quickened pace for most of the morning; his brow furrowed and his magic broiling in his palms every time he remembers why he was having to take the long way around.

Bröder, or course, just keeps a steady pace only a few steps behind, somehow still able to swing out his trunk to catch hold of berries growing on low sweeping branches and stuff them into his mouth with gurgles and hums and happy little trumpeting sounds.

All the while the elephantine keeps pace as Thæon leads them further uphill, the sound of the river to their right and the chaos of fleeing animals tracked into the mud.

If there were any wolves around, at least they might think twice about hunting when faced against the kioea calf; a sturdy little shit who was little older than a juvenile, who would be a difficult prey to take down, tough hide or no.

Not that they’d get close, what with the Fireheart that walked beside him.

The further the pair of them climbed, the harder it was to traverse the wilds.

While deer, wolves and all other manner of beasts showed frequent activity along the riverbank, the paths they had carved through the underbrush were thin and winding. Thæon wasn’t so much challenged as was Bröder, who was big and cumbersome, and whined irritably at the underbrush where it was thick and overgrown, tangled at his legs.

Creepers and bramble thorns snagged on Thæon’s cloak, but they only managed to tug at his neck once before the northerner was bunching his cloak in one hand, the other hooking around one of Bröder’s stunted tusks and veering him closer to the river, batting away low hanging branches and keeping his grumbling to the minimum—only deigning to do so when Bröder spied some fruit here, or a clump of berries there, jerking his head sharp enough that Thæon’s shoulder begun to hurt.