Chapter II awoke to the sounds of cries and the bone chilling sound of a battle horn. Another day at this dreaded war camp, another awakening at the first hints of light in the eastern sky. My body ached once again from sleeping on the robust pallette I was supposed to call bed for the past week. All this was because of my father's decision to send me - a young fifteen year old - to a war camp participating in training activites so I could learn to become a warrior. More like taker of lives, if you ask me. Of course, my father's decision was the result of tradition followed by endless generations, the tradition of the Free Men that the King of Free Men is obliged to send his children to experience a soldier's life the day after they reach the age of fifteen. This tradition, so popular to Free Men's way of life, extended to all Free Men. Although this was not an obligation for the common Free Men, it was looked upon with pity on those who did not follow this tradition.
The tent flap was opened suddenly that I startled and looked wide-eyed at the figure that intruded my tent. My elder sister - Aethela. She preferred being called Aela for some reason that I never got to know, nor did I care much. She had always been a bully to me even now when she was eighteen years old. Never did she bother about her attitude and behavior towards me despite my 'privilege' of being the heir apparent to the King. That annoyed me beyond comparison and I always explained her behavior with me due to jealousy that I was to one day wear the crown.
"Rise and shine, princeling." She did not miss the opportunity the emphasise the last word with a hint of mockery while on her face a sneer shone. "The maids of Wolfhold are not here to pamper you for breakfast...Speaking of which, unless you're planning to ride with an empty stomach you'd better hurry up to the mess. They're serving the little prince's favorite again."
Aethela paused her sneer gradually fading as she came to the realization that I wouldn't bother to get hooked in her game of insultive speech. I knew well I would lose there, thus I ignored her and she disappeared from the tent giving me only a fraction of a moment's time for me to have a glimpse of her angry face.
Shivering from the cold that made its way in my tent from the recently open flap, I quicky donned my battle equipment - typical material for Free Men was leather - and strapped my sword on my hip. I put on my bracers while exiting the tent.
The corridors between the tents were nearly empty, meaning that the soldiers were probably grouping right now. I looked around me finding only a few soldiers and noticing that all were moving towards the same direction. It was already too late for breakfast. I stood hesistant wondering if I should run and fetch something small to eat but recalling my earlier one-sided conversation with my sister, I realized that there would probably only be broth left and I despised broth. I shook my head in disgust just by visualizing broth and felt my head lightweight. The lack of food and sleep were already bothersome, what would happen when I was to ride. All day. In this cold. I took a deep breath and shook away my concerns. Reluctantly I dashed towards where the soldiers were gathering.
Unfortunately it seemed I was the last there with the whole regiment of horsemen in formation, prepared to ride, facing two riders. The captain, an intimidatingly tall man with unhumanly sharp features that to me described the features of a cruel man. Next to him, with a proud and commanding posture, stood Aethela. In Free Men traditions it was forbidden and shameful for kings or leaders to be last to join, unlike the Empire's tradition of where the noble or leader arrived last.
"Attention soldiers! Prince Maromir!" The captain's voice boomed through the ranks and possibly throughout the near woods. In a disciplined single motion the horsemen, along with the captain, struck their hearts with a fist, a gesture of respectful greeting towards one of the King's direct family. My sister's gesture came later and the faint thump echoed disrespect. My facial expression remained composed although I clenched a fist, which judging by her smirk she had noticed. The score was 1-1 for now.
The stablemaster of the regiment came out of nowhere holding the reins of my mount. A well born and bred masculine black horse named Blackwind. I really loved this stallion despite the independency it always seemed to demonstrate towards me. An bad tamed horse was, in Free Men culture, a sign of a weak rider which was embarassing for every Free Man. Free Men believed that horses detected weak warriors and they expressed that by being ill-mannered to such men. I believed that was nonsense and that horses such as men had their own personalities. Just as always Blackwind pulled back the moment I grasped its reins but being its rider for five years I had learned to hold its reins with as much as strength as I could muster. Blackwind obeyed, with a hint of reluctance, and allowed me to mount him with no more troubles. I took my place in the small gap between the captain and my sister. Maneuvering to fit in that gap was a bit of a hassle and I blamed Aethela for purposefully standing closer than usual to the captain. As I took my position, I turned my head and nodded towards the captain that I was ready.
"Onwards, men!" The captain's voice boomed once again. He swiftly turned his horse around, both Aethela and me mimicking him and rode forwards to the west with a speed close to that of a gallop.
Aethela's horse speed began taking over both mine and the captain's to become the sole leader of all the riders. This usually was the position the King took when riding forth into battle. The captain was not bothered as he was supposed to be behind those of the King's direct family unless ordered to be besides them. I, on the other hand, was not going to be shamed again by my sister who was ruthlessly, as always, trying to shame me and act as the heir she was not. I urged Blackwind forward and surprisingly for me the horse was obedient to that command, perhaps also not feeling right breathing the dust of the white mare infront of him. Well, whatever the reason was, Blackwind caugh up to my sister's white mare and I looked at her when we shared an equal pace.
"Fall back!" I commanded furiously but was only given back a sneer.
"Make me." She replied sharply, her sneer still painted on her face. "Rhaemir."
Fire burned with me at the insult she had thrown at me by calling me Rhaemir, an Emperor a few generations ago, whose reluctance to war had cost him his head and miles of Imperial territories at the hand of my great-great-great grandfather.
Her insult was also thrown at my name. I was the only child of our family named with an Imperial name, due to my mother the Queen being of Imperial blood insisted on naming me with an Imperial name, and while I privately did not think Rhaemir to have been an uncapable Emperor but quite the opposite, the Free Men used his name to insult someone who is a coward and an incapable warrior. Her insult had struck bullseye as I withdrew my sword and slashed angrily at her.
My sister's reflexes were faster by far and her combat readiness had her deflect my slash with her own sword effortlessly, her sneer still there angering me even more as I hacked once again. Her deflection followed with no effort and even in the midst of combat I was almost sure I had heard someone's laugh in the ranks behind. Imagination or not, it tossed oil in my anger's fire.
I waited a bit before my next offence while my sister rode graciously unbothered by being mounted and mockingly awaited my next attack. With surprising agility and uncompared recklessness, I jumped straight from Blackwind at my sister. She did not expect this as my body hurled her off her mount and with a thump we landed rolling on the cold hard ground. The grass was scarce and the impact of falling shook my whole existence. It was only my self-preserving instict that made me roll further away from her and stand back on my feet.
The regiment of horsemen had abruptly stopped a dozen feet away and watched the showdown. I couldn't even bother to look at their faces or focus on listening their small talk, I felt blood in my mouth. Pain echoed throughout my whole body and blood dripped from a few places where I had torn my skin. This was all accompanied with the feeling of blackout everytime I blinked.
Damn be the necessity of food, I screamed within my mind cursing that I was prevented from having a bit of food, at least the feeling of blackout would've been gone.
My sister stood, she had a few wounds but her posture said that either I took the heavier damage from the fall or her will for combat and skills allowed her to endure much more. Compared to me, she looked fresh as if she had just taken a long nap in the afternoon. I panted and took the most pitiful combat stance one could manage. Seeing that, Aethela laughed at me.
"Come here, princeling. Show me why we should call you King!" Her voice exploded making sure all the horsemen and if possible those that remained at the camp to hear. She never,ever missed a chance to shame me.
That mocking taunt worked more for my benefit, the anger that burned with me was reignited and the pain from the whole encounter seemed to disappear. My senses were all focused sharply on my sister, I could only see her, hear her and even smell her sweet scent of perfume combining with the recent sweat she had acquired. I sneered, the sneer of a wolf, as I cautiously approached as a wolf approaches its pray through the thick grass and the camouphlage of the rest of the flora.
My stance changed, I dipped my knees a bit and hunched my shoulders. My sister realized the stance I was taking and mimicked me but with visually much more expertise. It was our family's signature stance - The Hunting Wolf also called stance of the Wolf, Wolven battle and all other naming variations including the word wolf. In the end that was also our symbol, well embroiderred on both mine and my sister's cloaks. Both cloaks were currently on the ground as we approached each other carefully.
Impatiently, I lunged at her prematurely and my blade's slash just caught the air, her retaliation was to strike at my sword while it was on the ground and disarm me. I was able to pull my blade back and barely put it forward to deflect my sister's attack. Her combat skills were way beyond mine, but through my anger I could not see that. She took the opportunity of my sudden stagger and lack of control to lunge into a series of aggressive slashes which at first I began deflecting but then I simply evaded, her relentless assault kept pushing me into retreat as I just managed to barely evade her attacks. A moment that saved me or brought my downfall, I did not know, was when I took a glimpse of the horsemen. Their smirks and grins all looked like those my sister had when she was teasing me, they were certainly enjoying the battering my sister was giving me.
These men had no respect for me.
And that infuriated me.
I exhaled, my breath visible in the wintery conditions, and angrily deflected my sister's slash and lunged forward with a thrust. Her readiness, despite being on a succesfull assault the last few minutes, was still there and my opportunity to surprise her was nonexistent as she graciously evaded my desperate thrust and used my moment momentum against me as she struck my hands. I dropped my sword and was falling down to the cold ground when on the way to kiss the ground a knee took me on a date to the land of darkness.
My world was engulfed in black.