“Have you heard the heartbreaking tale of the Forlorn King?”
The withered elder woman sat in front of the cobblestone fireplace on the back wall of the Inn,
her wizened face smiled at the children sitting around her, taking in the warmth,
and sheltering themselves from the harsh winter with tales of far off places.
Her scratchy wheezing voice rang through the group, eerie and haunting, yet oddly comforting.
” This one may bring some tears to the eyes and sorrow to the heart.”
She adjusted her brightly coloured shawl, pulling it tightly around her chest.
“However his story is not complete, and may yet have a happy ending.”
The children always got lost in grandma’s stories,
with the school day done, and the long work days still having many hours left,
not a child stirred to leave the room.
” Please gramma, don stop da stories.”
One of the small girls in the group sat close by her feet tugging the elderly ladies shawl.
Her big brown eyes stared up, as did all the others, like a crowd of stray dogs all staring , waiting.
“Give grandma a second to catch her breath!” Called out a voice from around the corner of the bar,
The bald headed imp of an innkeeper stuck his gleaming head over the swinging bar door.
“Have a hot drink to warm your insides, old woman. I can hear your bones creaking from here” He barked out before going back to wiping the mugs.
She smiled, laughing at the quips between herself and the barkeep.
“You know if my bones were to stop creaking, you’d be the first to come running.”
Shaking his head and rolling his eyes, he turned away to busy himself with readying for the workers rush when the mines and log camps let out.
“Leetha, can you take the crone her drink? And for the love of god, tell her to stop telling Wulf’s story. He won’t be coming back.”
The doors from the back leading to the kitchen swung open.
Stumbling from within was a young girl carrying what seemed to be far too much food for the tray she was carrying.
“Once I’ve unloaded the food for the kids, I’ll make sure gran gets her drink.”
Turning around with the food she was carrying, her bright blue eyes shone, reflecting the flickering red and orange of the fire.
Her hair, curly and bouncing, a beautiful chestnut brown, matching much of the wood interior of the building.
“As for Wulf’s story, I rather like tale, and as sad as it may make you, you love it as well Eugene. If you don’t want to hear it, ask her to stop yourself.”
She smiled and winked at the Gnome as he grumbled off to the back of the bar, rolling another keg out front for the rush.
As Leetha turned the corner, the gaze of the children finally shifted from the elderly woman.
For now the pack of stray dogs, caught wind of the delicious food she carried.
With a slow turn, each of the children turned their gaze to her,
their eyes wide, mouths salivating, like predators that have just found their next meal.
Leetha’s look was much the same,
a face of unknowing prey walking into a den,
the few seconds of fear, before the predators inevitably pounce on their target.
The children began to surround her.
They quickly ran to her, grabbing the food that’s been teasing their taste buds and noses all afternoon.
Quickly each of the children grabbed a bowl from the tray, each dish different, each child knowing which dish was theirs.
Within moments it was hard to tell whether the group were attempting to gather food or mug someone, or maybe even just create a dog pile.
Within a few seconds, the children started to disperse, running to their seats with their food.
By the time the last child left, the tray that was holding the food began to rise,
with Leetha standing underneath of it for cover of the oncoming children.
At this point, meals such as this have become routine around the Inn.
Taking a deep breath Leetha stood back looking at the room full of children.
The Gnome and old woman chuckled at the scene of the mob of children almost stampeding over the curvy young woman.
She laid the tray up against the wall before crossing to the bar and grabbing the drink that was still steaming, poured for Gran.
Moving towards Gran she gently blew on the hot butterscotch brew before taking a sip, smirking at Gran with a wink and handing her the warm mug.
“Such a sweetheart my granddaughter has turned out to be, and not too far from the tree when it comes to those looks”
Gran winked back at the young girl. Her smile matching the same crooked smirk climbing up the right side of Leetha’s mouth.
The stifled laugh soon broke out from over the bar as the Gnome stuck his head round the corner once more.
“I don’t know what tree you think she got those looks from, but it definitely wasn’t one you’re a part of!”
The bellowing laugh rolled from the little mans body, quickly infecting all the children until the whole room was a well of laughter.
“You’re one to be talking , your head alone is bald enough to blind the sun if it were foolish enough to look down at you.”
The children now laughing at the joke made towards the Gnome slowly started to quiet down as they began eating the meals prepared for them.
For around these parts, short of Grans stories or Eugene’s home cooked meals, very few things make people forget the dark times around them.
Gran sat back in her short bar seat in front of the fire. Watching the children eat always warmed her old bones, though, the brew helps this along enough.
For a few golden moments, there was silence at the Inn.
As Gran finished the buttery brew, she licked her lips before setting the mug at the table closest her.
The children all looked up from their meals, knowing that soon her next story would start.
“Children, this tale is a long one,”
Long ago in the Winterlands, North of even the Temple of all, ruled the Varstrom family.
The brave warriors of their clan raised the northern lands to be their own, a kingdom for which their family could live and thrive.
However they were not always the only ruling faction.
During the height of the Dark times that plagued the North, a war broke out.
The Varstrom family fought for the land, to keep the North unified and to ensure the livelihood of their people.
However the Wynchild family amassed an Army to rise against the Varstroms.
Believing the people of the North were entitled to more of the world, they attempted to seize control of the nation,
making further plans to then move from the North and begin a war with the other nations of the world.
The civil war took a great toll on the land.
Live were lost,
villages and cities crumbled to the ground.
It was said that both sides were too evenly matched,
but among the Varstrom family stood the sentry of the north.
The strength of the Winterlands.
Wulf, The son of king Varstrom had left years prior to the war breaking out.
Defending the northernmost parts of the land,
the wildest, harshest, untamed stretch known to our people.
The primal north.
He left under the impression he would find the power to save his homeland there.
Beyond where even the bravest dare to travel.
He said he wouldn’t return until he found it.
However amidst the chaos of the war, Him and his coven of knights returned.
They cut a swathe through the enemy forces, pushing the Wynchild warriors back to their fortress in the mountains.
However this didn’t deter the two armies, for at this point, the war wouldn’t end until only one family remained to rule.
This alone wasn’t the issue, the troubles this war brought were far more than any could understand.
When Wulf and his men walked through the gated walls of Winterwood Keep, the people gathered in the streets, cheering and celebrating.
Despite the snow, despite the wind, they gathered and felt their prayers were answered.
The knights filtered through the gates one by one. Each followed by a lone squire.
Seven knights had left.
Seven knights returned.
None the same as when they left.
First through the gate was the knight of Gold and Silver.
The youngest of the knights, his pale white porcelain face, stoic as a mask,
A gentle kind smile warmed those who gazed upon him.
His armor was a great suit of golden hues, and his hair fell around his face,
a grey silver that’s graced him since he was a small child.
The second knight was the knight of Fire and Brimstone.
A dark man, his armor was a great black stone material, outlined with fiery red cracks,
He laughed and roared of their triumphant victory, his great mace swinging in the air,
whilst the loose trophies of their victories clanged along the armor of his horse.
His vicious smile brought fear, but comfort, knowing he was on the side of the Winterlands.
The third was a small wiry man. Upon his horse he seemed almost not tall enough to be full grown.
It was strange to see a Gnome among a group of Human warriors,
However, housed in the emerald green armor was the Jade Knight.
Known as The Conqueror, he was the one behind all the plans used to take control in previous wars.
His face completely covered by a wrap of green silk, very few have ever seen his face.
However the mystery behind his military knowledge is celebrated none the less.
The fourth knight was the only female of the group.
Her smile alone was enough to bring most men to their knees. Wearing armor adorned with sparkling diamonds,
the knight of hearts marched through the gate.
The men began to swoon, flowers were thrown from different places and people in the crowds.
Blowing a kiss and giving a wink, she turns back towards the route at hand.
The next of the group seemed to be a large man, tall, muscles as large as a normal mans body.
His armor fit tight to his arms and chest, shining a pale blue in the snowy light.
Known as the Patient Monk, he was the wisest of all the Knights.
Barely acknowledging those he passed by, it was clear he was lost within his own thoughts.
Following the Patient one, was the largest of the group. This mans wild mane of hair resembled that of a lion and
his boisterous laugh could be heard throughout the courtyard.
Carrying on the back of his horse was a cart, in which sat the fattest boar anyone in the kingdom had seen for years.
The great knight sat upon his horse, his entire body rolling as he laughed,
yelling to the people, who knew seeing the Chef Knight would surely mean a great feast.
And the last of the group. Was their leader.
Atop his great war steed, sat Wulf Varstrom.
Leader of the Coven of Knights. Son of the King. Savior of the North.
The crowds cheers only grew louder, tears came to the faces of some,
those who remember seeing the prince leave for his journey.
Now seeing him return as the warrior he grew to be.
His brown hair stood short to his head and his face stayed clean shaven.
His smile was just a genuine as when he left,
a smile that told all who saw it, that everything would be alright.
While the keep had been this busy on a daily basis, It was never in such high spirits.
The people of the keep rejoiced that their saviors had returned.
Children were at play, families were at work, everyone was in preparation for the celebrations.
However not all souls here were in high spirits. High in the Keep, The Knights have their own hideaway.
Gazing down from the balcony, Wulf could see the hustle and bustle of the city.
Stepping out onto the balcony, the Knight of Hearts slowly walked towards Wulf.
“You know that we’re going to make sure that they’re all safe right?”
She smiled looking into his eyes, he smiled a smirk that, he was all too well known for.
“I know they will be, because we’re the best at what we do. We made the vow to make sure they were safe.”
She ran her hand down his back, now out of their armors each of the Knights looked more like regular people, than the stations they’re held up to.
Wulf was about a heads height taller than she was, his body wasn’t forged of muscle, nor was it weak. However there was a certain strength about him.
His eyes shined a dark brown, almost glowing like a light breaking through the cracks of the earth.
Wearing his normal clothes brought out a caring that couldn’t be seen through the steely resolve of his knightly suit,
However it’easily showed that despite the hardships the north had put him through, he’d lost none of his lordly grace.
“I’m not worried Freya, we’ve never failed before. We won’t start now.”
She smiled up at him, wrapping her arms around his neck she leaned in, kissing him on the lips before pushing away and walking back for the door.
Looking back, she looked at him with a very loving gaze, a playful flutter in her step as she walked back for the door.
Freya wasn’t much older than Wulf, not having seen thirty winters yet, but she’s more than developed into an amazing and experienced woman.
Her dirty blonde hair fell down her back between her shoulders, it had a bounce and curl to it that seemed to require much attention,
but Freya was never one to spend the time to pretty herself, it seems her beauty was a gift granted by the gods.
Wulf slowly began trailing after her, for a brief moment a genuine smile crossing his face.
As she passed the threshold to the Keep, the wind suddenly changed, taking with it the smile and the relief.
“Do not forget our deal…”
Wulf looked around, over his shoulders, over the balcony but he was alone.
He didn’t know if the voice was truly there, but he knew the threat truly was.
Walking inside, Wulf took one last look outside at the mountains, before pulling the doors tightly closed.
The Knights were all within the common room, each attending to their own duties.
Freya hurriedly ran to her room.
Kress, the youngest knight of the group sat at a table in the middle of the room.
His silver hair hung down around his face as he was inspecting something very closely.
With a sigh he lifted his head, a jeweler’s loupe in his hand,
“Not everything we brought back with us is real it seems.”
He took one of the ruby looking gems in his hand,
before gently tapping it with the tip of a tiny jewelry hammer he had.
Malik, the dark warrior knight sat in the corner of the room,
he knelt in front of his great mace, which was laid on a cloth.
He poured an acrid smelling black oil over the spikes and flanges of his weapon.
“You fawn too much over those jewels and gems, but are they going to save your life when you’re in battle?”
He laughed at the young man, a harsh cutting laugh.
It was clear that Malik meant no harm, however his tone was placed to egg on further comments.
As he knelt, the enormous corded muscles and scars on his back bulged underneath his shirt.
His dark skin showed much weather, and his black hair hung messily by his face.
“As long as I’m here, you won’t need to worry about risking your lives in battle.”
The Emerald Knight piped up from his seat in the corner,
he sat back in a high backed chair with a rather large book, and an even larger glass of brandy.
“At least if you can listen to the orders you’re given.”
He smirked out over his book, taking another sip.
His face was angular, he was not quite like the others, looking much more foreign.
His almond shaped eyes shone as green as the armor he wore when on the battlefield.
Sitting in the farthest corner from the outside doors was the quiet one.
“Hopefully soon we will not need to waste energy on fighting over such trivial matters.”
He was deep in a meditation stance, his legs crossed, back on the wall.
His voice thundered, deep, like rocks from the ancient earth scraping against each other.
His head was bald, shaved clean, as was his face.
Markings on his face show that his training came from the Monks in the north,
The monks of the Winter Wyrm.
Standing at the table to the side, was the largest and easily the hardest to miss of the group.
Either through the smell of his food, or the size of his girth, Angus always made his presence known.
“Just be glad we can eat now boys! No more of the snow soup made with maple sap! No more scrawny rabbits grilled on the side of a blade!”
He slammed his knife down into the block, cutting of a chop of the meat he was working with, and dropping it in the pot that was boiling.
“Now we eat like men!”
The Knights all let out a little grunt of acknowledgement,
except for the one female knight who reminded them from the other room that not all among them were men by a boot flying from the room for the cook.
As the boot hit his backside the men all laughed more.
“Don’t worry lass, I didn’t forget yer rabbit food!”
He laughed more as he went back to preparing the stew for the nights meal.
“Although to avoid any more flying boots, maybe you should go and eat like a man before supper.”
The Chef looked over to Wulf, making his dirty comments as the men all laughed, trying to keep Freya from hearing.
Wulf walked over to the room where Freya disappeared to , knowing that whatever she was doing, it would be dangerous to just open the door.
Knocking, he heard her grunts of frustration coming from inside.
Risking life and limb, he decided to open the door, quickly sliding inside.
Freya sat on the floor, a small chest sitting between her legs that she had just drug out from underneath the bed.
She smiled up at him, giving the same sly smirk that she knew he was so used to giving.
Peering into the chest, he could see numerous knick-knacks and trinkets. A few little jewel baubles,
a journal and what may have been a ring?
“What are you doing all alone in here?” He asked trying not to stare too much at the box she has from her past.
“I had something I wanted to show you.” She smiled as she held her hands up to him, hiding what she held,
“Put your hands out.”
As he put his hands out, she gently placed her hands into his palm, letting out the little corded gem from her hands.
In his palm he held a bright little gem. Inside the gem, it seemed to hold swirls of all the colors imaginable.
It was wound tightly with a black cord, made into a makeshift necklace.
Gazing down at it he began to laugh.
“We were twelve when we found these.”
Wulf reached into his shirt and pulled a silver cord from his neck, with a similar gem,
“Gems blessed by the gods of the morning.”
She took her necklace back, quickly tying it around her neck.
“It was said that as long as we both had these and we were together, we’d always live to see the morning come.”
When the two were just small children they used to adventure outside of the Keep, far into the moors where their parents didn’t allow them.
One morning, on Freya’s twelfth birthday, Wulf gathered her before the sun rose, said they were going on an adventure.
They hiked for hours it seemed, the sun not rising any further than the slight glow over tops of the mountains.
After the journey, they reached an old ruin.
“Father told me about this place, this is where they used to come to worship the gods of the morning, the gods who brought sun after the night.”
They hiked to the top of the temple, which rose above the mountain top.
When they finally reached the top of the temple, the sun finally peaked itself out over the tops of the other mountains.
The top room of the temple was surprisingly still intact, it was a room made of crystals and colored glass.
But when the mornings came, inside this room, the light became something else. As the light slowly filtered into the room,
the colors began to dance, the reflections, the prisms, the thought and care these people put into their morning prayer.
It was a beautiful sight.
When they went to leave, Freya’s older brother was waiting in one of the seats of the temples main hall.
He woke up and followed them when they left, just to make sure that nothing had happened,
but seeing his sisters face so happy on her birthday, he couldn’t ruin it for them.
He took them back to the altar and showed them the real reason for the prism room.
At the back of the altar, there was a little sliding stone door. As he slid it down it showed four obelisk shaped crystals.
Each of them glowed and danced within it’s crystalline prison like the scene they had just witnessed.
Freya’s older brother told the friends to take them. Said that they were called Crystals of the Morning Haven,
There was a myth behind these crystals.
When the warriors of the temple of light left on their pilgrimages, they went in pairs.
A pilgrim, Traveling to pray to the god of light at each of his major temples,
and a guardian, a protector to make sure that the pilgrim would complete the journeys.
When a new couple set out on their quest, The elders of the temple gifted each of them one of these crystals.
Each crystal represented the life force of the connected person, and it was said it could even protect the holders.
“Even the years when I wasn’t around you, I never forgot.”
She looked up at him, her eyes slowly growing teary,
“I thought we were going to lose you in the north, I realized that this wasn’t with me, and it was here.”
She lifted her head to look at him, tears streamed down her face as she put her hand onto his chest.
“I didn’t think you were going to last until morning.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist.
He slowly accepted her embrace, holding her tight, running his hand through the back of her hair.
“It’ll take more than the primal forces of the North to put me under.” He smirked and laughed,
although to be honest, he could still feel where the frigid blades entered his chest.
The thought instantly reminded him of the only reason that he was still there.
Looking down at the back of his hand, he gazed at the dark blue mark that he knew only he could view.
The symbol of the Cackling Skull was burned to the back of his hand,
The sign of the deal that he’s made with the Grinning Reaper.
“And we’re going to be able to save our home!” He yelled out grabbing her by the shoulders.
“We’re going to be able to stop the war, and then, we can stop the fighting, we can stop the killing, we can raise families, or explore the world!”
The glint in his eyes when he talked about the future was unlike anything she had ever seen,
and somehow it always made her bad feelings vanish, like suddenly, with him, everything would be okay.
Within an instant, she was suddenly swept off her feet and standing on the bed, Wulf’s hands around her waist lifting her up.
“Haven’t you ever wanted to search the world? Eat foods of far off places? Meet people you could only dream of meeting?”
He gazed into her eyes as he spun her around the room, Her giggle filled the room, it was intoxicating, and once Wulf could stop this war,
he hoped to hear it every day.
Before long, there was a heavy banging on the door.
“Kids! Quit yer canoodlin and get out here and get some grub!”
The hearty laugh that followed afterwords confirmed most definitely that Angus had already been into the wine barrels.
With another smile Wulf stood and walked for the door, opening it first he bowed and ushered Freya to the door.
“Milady.”He said with a general knightly courtesy
Freya walked by with the smirk crossing her face.
“You only wish I’d call you lord!” She stuck her tongue out at her before turning and leaving for the table.
Entering the common room there was what seemed to be an entire feast sitting on the table.
Meat, vegetables, fruits, wine, water, everything a meal could desire.
“The Keep shall be having it’s own banquet in a few nights.” Said the Emerald Knight.
Looking over to the table, down at the food, then back up to the knight, then back to the food. Angus’ face turned bright red.
“Well I never in my life have had someone who knows good food and even considers myself a friend complain about a banquet that I’ve put on! You need to learn to appreci…”
Angus began his rant towards the quiet strategist who now looks scared of being eaten himself.
“Mathiu just apologize for hurting his feelings and eat the meal!” Wulf called over the table to him as he picked up a piece of grilled home made bread from one of the local bakeries.
The group each had their favourite dishes prepared for them by their chef, they all sat down and drank and made merry for the time being.
As the night drew longer, all the Knights slowly retired to their rooms.
Until only Wulf sat alone in the stone room, sitting on a sofa, watching the embers in the fire slowly burning down.
The room grew cold, colder than the fire should allow.
Wulf noticed his breath pouring out of his mouth as a white mist.
Then the voice clawed at the back of his mind, like nails to a chalkboard.
“You haven’t told them of our deal yet, have you?” The voice grated at his sanity.
“They do not need to know of my dealings with you.” Wulf spat back at him.
The ghostly being shifted forward from the door. A white tattered cloak spun about his shoulders, covering his face and his body,
“ If you fail, they are mine too. Did you forget this?” He calmly spoke back.
“I’ve forgot nothing of our deal.” Wulf stood to turn and face the entity with which he spoke.
The Wraith looked him up and down, slowly peeling the hood back revealing a white skull. Whiter than the snow that fell on the mountain tops.
“Deals with the Cackling Skull must be completed. Or penance will be taken.”He stated once more, very clearly for Wulf.
” I know what deals with your kind entail demon. Worry not. We will win, and the souls fallen from the enemy lines shall be yours.”
Wulf had made a deal with the Devil.
In order to achieve the power that he needed, the power to save his family and the lands of his people,
he gave far more than he had bargained for.
“That was not our deal young warrior prince.” The voice called back, he turned, staring at the wraith.
“We will take all souls claimed in this war. The innocent as well as the guilty, the blood of the enemy, as well as the blood of the Family.”
The blood in Wulf’s veins went cold. Barely able to keep himself standing.
“You take what you must, but if the power I’ve gotten doesn’t save my family, be aware I’ll come for you.” The words were spit from his mouth like a bad taste.
” Do not believe that your threats mean anything to us young mortal prince. For we are eternal. We are the Cackling Skull!”
The wights jaw fell open and began chattering back and forth, letting forth a horrifying high pitched laugh, shaking Wulf to the bone.
Sitting bolt up right, Wulf looked down to his palms.
He had fallen asleep on the couch after the nights merriment, waking now,
he was drenched in a cold sweat, almost as frozen as he felt in his dream.