Wearily, I topped the crest of the hill and gazed down upon a dark plain of desolation. The mountains behind me now, I set my face toward the west, regarding the land before me. The sun was veiled by the same grey clouds that I had witnessed for the past three days. A light breeze spat dirt and ash in my face, the clouds barely seeming to shift. The land stretched flat before me, a dark shadow on the horizon hinting at the existence of trees, or perhaps more mountains. No one knew.
I had been hired at an exorbitant price to make the first map of the area west of the Great River. I had no sources to rely on but legend. All current charts had labeled these lands Unknown in fancy script. Some of the more fanciful (and more interesting) ones had included strange creatures spilling into the margins, but they were hardly a reliable source for my exploration.
Hundreds of runestones stood haphazardly upon the plain, a solitary building standing in the midst of a cluster of the silent monoliths. A thin plume of smoke rose from the cottage’s ramshackle chimney. The building bore the same drab grey color as the rest of the land, an uncertain shadow drifting away to one side of it.
Heaving my pack higher on my back, I trudged down the hill toward the lonesome building, wondering what sort of person would choose to live in such a gloomy place. Loosening my sword in its scabbard, I glanced over my shoulder at the mountains I had just crossed. I had endured many hardships and faced many dangers throughout my journey, but this place was giving me the creeps.
Warily, I walked down a well-trodden path and knocked cautiously at the door. A crash came from within, and I flinched in alarm. The door was flung open, and a bony old man draped in rags stood framed in the doorway, his one eye wide and frightened. “Begone, wraith!” he shouted, then slammed the door in my face. I stood there for a moment, confused and a bit unnerved. My young face was scarred and worn, but I didn’t think it looked ghoulish. I hoped it didn’t, at any rate.
I raised my fist to knock, but the door swung open again before I could. “Be you deaf or be you dead?” the man asked in an annoyed voice, his wispy hair floating in the breeze. “Be you gone!” he ordered again. He went to slam the door again, but I thrust out my boot, propping it open to the detriment of my toes.
“I’ve traveled far, my friend,” I told him, wincing at the pain shooting up my leg. “Could I come in?”
The old man glared up at me, sniffed, then grunted thoughtfully. “You don’t smell like a ghost,” he muttered, then sighed. “Just don’t hack off my head, if you please. I have too much to do.” The man opened the door the rest of the way, and beckoned me into his home.
The building was decrepit, but fairly large. A blackened cauldron hung over a sputtering fire, the smoke giving off an acrid scent before rising in wisps to escape through the chimney. The house was built partly of old blocks of stone and partly of dry, weathered wood. Bunches of herbs hung from the rafters, and candle stubs perched in crannies in the walls, dripping wax down in long stains upon the stone. A steep spiral staircase led to a door high in the wall which opened onto a second level of the building. A lantern swayed overhead, helping to illuminate the cracked stool and worn armchair that sat before the small cooking fire.
The old man hobbled to his cauldron and began ladling broth into a tarnished metal bowl. “Sit yourself down, traveler,” he rasped, turning back to me and grabbing a spoon from a wall ledge. I sat upon the stool and accepted the soup, the smell of the steam foreign to my nostrils.
“Sir, what can you tell me about this land?” I asked the man cautiously.
The old fellow squinted at me sagely. “Much,” he replied. “I know it will take you a two-day journey to pass out of this plain. I know the creatures that you should hunt, and the ones who will hunt you. I know why this land is called the Dead Plains.” The old man grunted, shifting in his seat. “I rarely have visitors,” he said, gesturing toward my bowl. “Eat, and I will tell you a tale.”
I stirred my bowl uneasily. “What’s in it?” I asked.
“Meat from a stratobird, water from my well, some root vegetables, herbs…” the man trailed off. “I can still fend for myself!” he stated, gesturing at a long harpoon that stood in a corner. “I gather stratobird dung and dry it for my fire. I kill them for food. I do what I must to survive.”
I bowed my head respectfully, struck by the juxtaposition between I, a young, well-off man, and he, an old, poor one. “I would like to hear whatever you’re willing to tell me, sir,” I said.
The old man stirred the fire, embers popping and sparks shooting up the chimney. “I’ll tell you the tale of this place then. The story of the Dead Plains.
“In this land, long ago, there lived two kings that ruled a single kingdom. They were brothers, and they ruled their kingdom wisely and fairly. Their knights were brave and strong, and with their help, these two kings protected their people and pursued justice.
One day, the knights began boasting to each other. Each claimed that he was the bravest, strongest, or best in the land. Chief among these arguers was one of the first king’s sons, Cletus. The other main contender was one of the second king’s sons, Clement. The two of them were, in fact the bravest, the strongest, and the best knights of the land, but neither was content to share that title. They came to blows, and were dragged, protesting to their fathers. The kings, wise men in their prime, knew that neither they nor their councilors could decide this matter without enraging one of the two brothers. Whatever brother lost the argument would maintain that the judges had been biased, and anger and division would be the result. Therefore, the two kings decreed that there would be held, on midsummer’s eve, a tournament, the like of which had never been seen before, and never has since. Every knight was invited to compete, with jousts, melees, and feats of strength being held throughout the day. Common foot soldiers would compete in their own contests, with a knighthood as the reward. Jesters, jugglers, and acrobats would come from miles to entertain the crowds. However, the crowning jewel of the day would be a joust between the two quarreling princes.
When the long-expected day arrived, the knights and soldiers assembled, and the tournament began. Many noble blows were given that day, and many honorable men displayed their skills. I could tell you of the winning of the spurs by Cornelius the Learned, the magnificent duel between Sirs Linus and Cyprian, or of the wooing of Lady Leiana Longtress. However, lest I bore you with unnecessary details, allow me to speak only of the highly anticipated joust.
Prince Cletus was two years his cousin’s elder, tall and strong. His shield was green, with a simple stag painted upon it. The prince rode upon a brown stallion, and wore the scarf of his betrothed, Lady Teresita of Transleton, wrapped around his right arm.
Prince Clement, though younger, was wiry and quick, with a sharp eye and a sharper wit. His shield had been painted white, his crest emblazoned boldly upon it: a black raven bearing a long scroll. His horse was a gelding, black with a silver mane and tail. Though the prince bore no scarf, his eyes often sought out a particular young maiden, Kristina of Kingston Tower.
The two watched as the herald called out their names, colors, and families, then they listened for the trumpet blast that would urge them toward each other. The horses pranced nervously, tossing their manes and twitching their tails. Cletus lowered his helmet’s visor and readied his lance and shield, watching as his cousin did the same. The trumpets rang out over the hushed crowd, and the two princes charged forward, their lances leveled at each other. Clement’s lance sought out Cletus, but it splintered into pieces upon his shield. The older prince’s lance caught his cousin’s shoulder, but Clement managed to keep his seat upon his horse. The two wheeled their horses around, Clement was handed another lance, and they charged toward each other once more.
This time, Cletus’ lance struck home, lifting Clement from the saddle and throwing him to the earth. The crowd cheered, and Cletus removed his helmet, a smile breaking upon his face. Clement climbed to his feet, bruised but alive. Saluting his cousin, the young prince glanced yet again into the crowd, finding Kristina’s sympathetic gaze. Cletus dismounted from his horse, the clear winner.
Suddenly, Clement’s impetuous younger brother, Prince Sixtus, snatched up a stone from the earth. Angry that his brother had been bested and his family, in his view, humiliated, the young prince hurled the rock with all his strength at his brother’s defeater. The stone struck prince Cletus in the back of his head, and he toppled to the ground, never to arise. Pandemonium broke out among nobles and commoners alike, and thus began a long and tragic war.
The kingdom was cleft in twain, each king declaring war on the other. Many battles were fought, and many noble men were killed. The runestones you witnessed earlier are memorials to the fallen. Hundreds lost their lives in this land; men, women, and children. Brave and cowardly, rich and poor, they watered the land with their blood, and the land died with them. The kingdom turned to ash.”
While he talked, the old man had seemed far away, his rasping voice replaced by that of an experienced tale-spinner. The fire had died low, and I glanced over at him as he finished his story. The soup, though not a culinary masterpiece, had satisfied my hunger. “Those people…” I mused. “Did they all die?”
The man frowned, his single rheumy eye blinking thoughtfully. “All but one. He lives by himself, burying dusty bones and erecting monuments to the dead. The fool, who, by his lack of self-control, started a war.”
The man sighed, as if the years weighed heavily upon him. “I, Sixtus.”
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