Summer was a fading memory; the autumn breeze carried a penetrating chill as it swept down from the Okukek mountains and over Tiranith. The fortified city was seated in the far west corner of Janiklowe, the fifth kingdom, often called the shield that held the western wilds at bay.
Its high, black stone walls did nothing to break the chill, the soldiers on watch fastened cloaks as they looked out from the wide parapets, casting their gaze across the cleared fields and the forests that adorned the edge of the mountains.
The citizens of the city hurried around, rushing to get near a brazier, or secure their first cup of tea of the day. A herd of children, running in to a small, long unused, market square within the poorest quarter of the city, wore their thickest clothes to fend off the chill, for today it would be worth braving the cold, today the old market had a guest.
A man in blue and green, perched, hawk like on the back of a bench, surrounded by giggling, fidgeting, children. He also fidgeted, perhaps in imitation of the impatient urchins, smiling wide as the small crowd gathered. An occasional elder sat around the square, a place of reflection and solitude, except for the days when the strange man in blue and green would rouse the children into a frenzy, spinning his tales, taking their little minds and hearts away from the poverty that befell them. And so, the old folks leaned a little closer, some even moved to closer benches, to hear the tales unfold.
“Now then, calm down, or I will find somewhere else to practice my story telling” The man jested as he opened a small bundle on the bench and started passing out pastries, purchased that morning, they still had a bit of heat left in them. The children wolfed them down as fast as they could.
“Hildri, you promised to tell us about Hildri” a young boy shouted, crumbs decorating his already stained and worn clothes, chin stuck out demandingly, like a trader cheated out of coin.
“Ahh, yes, yes I did, but it is not the happiest of tales, are you sure you want to hear about the hero of Tiranith and the fall of the orcanith army?” The man laughed, he could see at the slightest mention of the city’s fabled hero the children’s face’s had lit up. Despite their lowly position within it, they were all proud of their home. It was a good city, with a larger than normal military presence, to protect the kingdoms from the wilds. This gave the entire city a high level of order, but every city had its poor quarter.
“Well then, settle, settle, and I will tell you the tale of Hildri the giantess, and how she came to be the hero of your grand city.”
The children roared in unison, a clamorous noise, painful to the ears, but were soon silenced by a sudden change in the man’s demeanour.
Flinging his threadbare green cloak over his shoulder dramatically, he stared at them, face blank, devoid of all emotion, and from his chest a low roar could be heard building, louder and louder it climbed, until the children nearest him flinched, as he slapped his hands together, making a sound like thunder.”
“Krakow,” he roared, and the children shrieked, some giggled quietly with delight.
“Hildri, born of storm, outcast warrior of the wilds, giantess, fae touched? Hero of Tiranith.”
He paused, drinking in the eager faces of everyone in the square.
“Few know the truth of her time before the battle of Tiranith, of her years as an orphan, her family killed in the very storm that birthed her. Cursed with an uncommon height and branded a fae touched, shunned by most.
I could bore you with the legends, but the truth is, Hildri spent her youth as a beggar and a vagrant. Doing deeds far from heroic, for a crust of bread and the occasional hot pastry.”
He had them, like moths in the torch light. The whole square was still, his voice carrying well in the brisk air, all eyes were on him, staring expectantly.
“She walked through the north gates of Tiranith, snow, wind and whispers nipping at her heels.
Her years in the wilds, skirting the edges of the kingdom had seeded many a tall tale, and rumours that cut deeper than any winters wind.
She had cleared vast goblin nests, felled monstrous dire beasts, and even slew a demon, saving many throughout her travels. Alas, still the guards ignored her warnings, for surely, if the rumours were true, she was fae touched, and never to be trusted.
The king was away, travelling with his spell-casters, there was a moot with the High-King on the plains. The only place to go was the garrison, but even there she was called a liar, fae-touched trickster, ill omen. The commander of the garrisons even spat at her feet before turning his back and sauntering back to his warm office.
Hildri was no stranger to these accusations, wherever she went, whatever good deed she did few repaid her actions with anything but accusations.
Surely, she led the beasts here so she could claim some reward? Maybe she forced the goblins to nest in this old mine? She must use foul magics to summon beasts and demons, she dresses like a wildling, she must be fae-touched, looking to steal our children.”
The man looked saddened as he glanced at the gathered children, enrapt before him, one or two showed signs of the touch, a silvery sheen to the skin, a red iris, or even pointy ears. Once they reached puberty the fae-touch would cause them to follow the calling, to wander the world until they found their way to the fae realm.
A curse which randomly manifest in those who lived upon the world of Coridan, all knew the pact.
You may nay not hinder or hurt the fae-touched as they follow the calling, seeking a way to reach another plane, those who break the pact face not only the High-King’s justice, but the retribution of the Fae themselves. Towns had been known to suffer disease, plague or even corruption after a touched had been beaten or killed. And so, the loss of a child or friend over the millennia, had evolved into resentment and bitterness, an undeserved scorn for the fae-touched. Of course they kept the pact, but now those with signs of the touch were treated like plague carriers and leppers.
Breathing in deeply, the storyteller smiled softly and continued his tale.
“Hildri stood atop the western walls, pointing towards the mountains, a head and a half taller than any of the soldiers on duty, adorned in dire-wolf skins, an ancient blade nestled in a crude sheath at her hip.
She proclaimed her warnings, for three days straight, to any and every person she saw. Taking scant time to sleep and eating little, she called out to all who passed by, the Orcanith were coming.
The people of the city heard her, they heard her declare that war was coming, the tribes of the wilds, gathered under one leader, ready to claim the soft lands of the five for their own.”
The children closest to the tale spinner shuffled back slightly, as the slender storyteller leaned forward from his perch, staring each one in the eye, like a hawk examining its prey. When he reached a young girl, at the edge of the crowd, her face pale with concern, he winked, slyly, coughed, and continued.
“On the evening of the third day Hildri fell to her knees, exhausted.
None believed her, even though the lookouts could hear faint noises coming from the forests. The mountains were speaking, and they whispered of battle, of tusked faces, trees felled, swords sharpened, and wolves, so many wolves howling in the night that the soldiers thought it a spell, and said as much, accusing Hildri of foul magics.
And so it was that instead of rousing the garrisons and assembling the army, they threw Hildri out, into a growing storm, ignoring what their own ears were hearing.
Hildri sought shelter in the forests, knowing many ways to hide, both her body and her scent, so the orcanith, and the dire beasts they herded, would not find her.
In a small clearing, as she drank deep from an icy stream, Hildri prayed to the lost gods. The ones who had turned their backs on Coridan thousands of years ago. The nameless ones who cast the world into ruin, punishment for the hubris of the ancients. She knew of nothing else she could do.
Knelt in prayer, the sharp cold sinking into her bones, she looked towards the heavens, searching through the snow dappled canopy to catch a hint of cloud filled sky.
“They know not the danger, they trust so little, and have nought to believe in. Please, do something, anything.”
For what seemed an age she knelt in the snow, when an old woman approached her, flashing a youthful smile, fair haired and wrapped warmly, as she slowly trudged through the snow drifts.
Hildri herself was out of trust, she was out of good will, exhausted and frustrated she turned on the woman’s approach, grabbing a fallen branch as she did.
The man in blue stood upon the bench, brandishing an invisible branch in front of him, much to the entertainment of the children.
“Are you mad, woman? the orcanith plague these forests, the mountains are theirs, they will take the city any day now. Get back behind the walls or better still flee east while you can, do you wish to be a meal for the wolves?”
Waving his imaginary stick, the storyteller was lost in his own tale, and for a moment the children could hear not his voice, but Hildri’s, and some swore they could hear the stick swishing in the air.
“It is madness to be out here, or are you here to call me liar? to mock me for my height? To say you saw the fae touched giantess?”
The man crouched low, a peculiar sight, teetering on the back edge of the bench, hand outstretched with fingers curled, and proceeded with an incredibly bad impression of an old woman.
“I am here to see you, young lady. You are no liar, for mine own eyes have seen the gathered tribes, I have heard the wolves. I feel the fear from the city, and the hunger from the orcanith. No, I have come to see with my own eyes, what makes you care so for these people?”
He shrugged and dropped into a seated position, his feet thrown out in front as he sat a little too hard, the now empty bag, just crumbs and sugar, falling to the floor beneath the bench as he winced at his freshly sore rump, a few of the younger children giggled at his discomfort.
“I am here to see why you would care at all. These people cast you out, time and time again. Hildri storm child, you were marked, perhaps not fae touched but a trace of the fae is in your blood.”
The old lady dashed up to Hildri with surprising speed, placing her hands on the giantess’s dirt-stained face, staring into her eyes. Hildri, too startled to move, dropped the branch.
“You would save these people, this city, this kingdom that has dealt you such a foul hand? You would do good, despite their ignorance?”
Now the man stared out to the old folk, listening in at the edges of the square, and they nodded, for they knew the truth of his words.
“Hildri cried, Yes, yes. I am just one, a misdeed to me is easy to wash away. They, they are many, too many to count. A foul deed to them could be the ruin of the five.
I would not have that on my conscience, not if it were within my power to stop it.”
The old woman looked deep into Hildri’s eyes, this way and that, examining them like she was checking for cracks in a new pot. Then the old woman laughed, a delightful sound that warmed the heart like the first sun of spring.
“Then, Hildri Storm child, I shall gift you something, although it is yours already. I will unlock that which you have inside you. For that is my talent, and my burden.
Go deep into the forest, find a lightning struck tree, and harvest as many spears as you can carry, bring them into the city, none will doubt you now, for the orcanith are massing before the western wall.
Think back to the hardships throughout your life, release your sorrow, your anger. Then you shall deliver upon your foes a ruin all your own. It is not a joyful gift I bequeath you, but it is yours none the less.”
The man looked around the square, the children were holding their breath, the old folk were smiling, knowingly.
“Hildri wasted no time doing as the old lady bid. True enough she soon found a tree blackened and torn asunder by lightning. It was easy for her to cut long crude spears, even though the timber was tough, the points hardened by the fire.
Tearing a piece of her cloak to wrap the bundle she made her way past a stream of fleeing citizens and through the eastern gate, up on to the walls of Tiranith.
She stood next to the commander of the garrison, sheepish as he was, he said no word of apology as Hildri stacked her spears against the wall. Archers spread out alongside her, some even acknowledged her with a nod.
Staring out at the gathered horde of orcaniths and dire beasts, a swarming mass of fur clad bodies and sharpened tusks. Hildri, casting her eyes over the gathering clouds above, felt the storm forming, deep in her chest, even as her stomach churned.”
The storyteller stopped to take a drink from a skin, and looked at the children, their eager faces watching his every move, waiting to hear of the battle that followed. He smiled and took a deep breath, as if to shout, but instead spoke softly, so softly the children all leaned in, and the older folk cupped their ears, straining to hear.
“Now, I tell you this secret.” He beckoned for the children to lean in closer.
“There were two heroes on the field of battle that day.”
He looked deep into the eyes of the children and raised his voice so all in the square could hear.
“It matters not if your human, gnome, giant, even an orcanith can be a hero. Glinth had been born to a small tribe in the wilds. He fought tooth and claw every day, and soon he was hunt leader, killing and taming the biggest of the prey that stalked his kin.
Dissatisfied with merely surviving, he wanted more for his people, he wanted more than wooden huts and fighting every day. Glinth looked at the five kingdoms with envious eyes, but the eyes of a hero non the less.
The first of his kind to unite the tribes, give them a goal, to push them across the mountains and to the very door of the five kingdoms. Steadfast in his conviction that they could take this kingdom for their own. Letting the mountains keep the beasts at bay, giving his children peace and his people hope, hope to grow past spear and sword, towards home and hearth.
He marched an army over the mountains, and stood on the western field before Tiranith, crude curved sword held high, as rain began to fall, thunder echoed all around, he called to his people.
“We will be safe, or we will be dead. The hunt continues with or without us.”
The gathered tribes of the orcanith knew they risked their lives but sought to gain so much more. A different life, a safer life for generations. So, they marched, a horde of thousands, some riding dire wolves and bears, towards the soft creatures in their stone city.
Arrows rained down on them, catapults hurled boulders amongst them, hundreds fell before they got halfway towards the wall, and still they marched forward, thunder roaring in the heavens above as sheet lightning illuminated the gathered army.
Hildri, spear held back, tip pointed towards the gathered storm above the horde. Thought of her family, her parents, faces she could only imagine, dead, hours after her birth, her home devastated by a storm just like this.
She thought of the villagers, marking her as fae-touched, not celebrating the miracle of her survival, but superstitiously wiping their hands, turning their back on her as soon as they could.
She looked out at the orcanith, strong fighters, vicious and cunning, and thought of what they would do to the people of this city.
All the feelings inside her, a maelstrom of emotions, boiling her insides with anger and frustration. Furious at the way the world had shaped her, she took all that rage and threw her first spear, it flew in a long, slow arc towards the front of the advancing army.
The hiss of arrows was lost in the rain, orcanith fell as ballista fired from atop the towers, but still they kept coming. There numbers would see them over the walls soon enough, but then the battle froze in time as Hildri’s spear soared, cleaving the rain, leaving a void in its wake, filled only with glistening rainbow light. Hildri watched, tears unbidden in her eyes, as the spear arched majestically, then plummeted towards the ground.
Time caught up as the spear tip touched down. Glinth, leading his army, knew instinctively to throw himself to the side, the reek of static granting him just enough warning before the lightning fell, like a hammer from the heavens, sending beast and orcanith flying.
One by one Hildri threw her spears, and one by one she called down the lightning that decimated the horde. The stench of burned flesh filled the air alongside the groans of the dying orcanith. With each throw Hildri cried, thunder echoing her anguish, until finally she reached out for another spear, and none remained.
Most of the beasts retreated to the forests, the orcanith horde was fractured, individual tribes fled from the wrath bought down upon them.
Only Glinth stood upright on the field, amid the broken and burned bodies of his tribe, blood spattered and scarred he pointed his sword towards the battlements of Tiranith.
Howling in frustration, he sliced his arms in the rite of blood, he called for the mightiest warrior to come and end his life, such was his disgrace at the ruin of his army.
Hildri, seeing fear in the eyes of the soldiers along the wall, knew it was not directed at the orcanith before them, but at her, she had seen this fear and distrust all her life, today she had earned it. Unsheathing her sword, she climbed down from the wall and walked towards the wailing orcanith.
When she approached, Glinth threw his sword down at her feet, assuming a kneeling position, ready to have his head removed, proudly facing his fate with honour, this hunt was over, he would accept the consequences.
Hildri hesitated, the sounds of the dying all around her, then picked up the Orcanith’s sword, handing it back, hilt first. Glinth stared up at this giant human woman, confusion in his eyes as she also cut her arms in the rite of blood.
Looking at all the death she had bought down from the heavens, Glinth saw the same shame in her eyes, a victor’s shame, and he knew what she wanted.
He rose slowly, holding his blade out before him, and this time, when he raised his head to the heavens, it was with joy, one last fight, a worthy foe, an honourable foe.
They fought for an hour, lightning falling around them, the few remaining dire beasts, stalking the edges of the battlefield, snarled at the display of energy whilst they fed on the fallen.
The soldiers on the walls watched with heads hung in shame, their commander was so afraid to take his eyes off the fight, it is said he went blind from watching the lightning strikes.
The air was ripe with the smell of death, at some point the rain had turned back to snow and still the fighters carried on, parrying and thrusting with such ferocity that each blow threw shards of metal from their swords.
In the end, with a respect for each other that neither had known before, worn and weary, they swung at each other’s necks at the same time, falling to the bloodied earth in unison, one last thunderclap marking the end of the combat.”
The children were quiet, the old folk nodding their heads, tears on their cheeks. The man stood, and turned to his enrapt audience, sombre and composed, despite his cheeks being red from the passion with which he relayed the tale.
“Tiranith learned several valuable lessons that day. They look after their orphans, they keep a watchful eye on the orcanith and respect the tribes, and there is more tolerance of the fae-touched in Janiklowe than any other kingdom of the five.
Most importantly they heed a warning, no matter who carries it, and they do not tolerate liars.”
Hand outstretched, the storyteller made a slow performance of making a fist, placing it against his chest.
“Truth begets honour, conquers all fear and bests the fiercest of foes.”
The children nodded their heads, an imitation of wisdom they were yet to learn, for they had heard the oath of Tiranith numerous times.
The old folk, most likely ex-soldiers themselves, placed clenched fists over their hearts at the oath, a sadness and pride shining through the remnants of the cold morning.
The man in blue and green walked quietly away, to spin another tale, in another square, perhaps maybe somewhere with a brazier, but first he had to buy more pastries.