Cradle Of The Gods
Chapter One - Life's Little Lessons
This time I'm going to die.
Teeth flashed before his eyes. Fur covered muscle pinned him down. He shielded his face and rolled over trying to protect himself. He could feel hot breath. A scream passed his lips. This only seemed to drive the beasts on. He felt the seams in his tunic give, the last strips of dried meat falling as the seams of his pocket tore. He lay there, forgotten. The two hounds fell on their newly-freed prizes.
“If you were a wolf that would have been a fine lesson,” his father called out.
“Ast! Cuz! To me!”
Ghile kept his face hidden in the grass as the two white Valehounds trotted to his father. He hesitated a moment to gather himself. Rising, he wiped his face along a soiled sleeve, trying to remove the dirt and hopefully the tears as well.
“I'm sorry,” he winced, a fresh cut on his mouth. Ast and Cuz reached his father and sat obediently to either side. Ghile glared at them.
There was so much more Ghile wanted to say. Those hounds always did their best to embarrass him. It was as if they were trying to prove he would never be as good as Adon. How he missed his older brother. He knew better than mention Adon. The loss still hung heavy on his father. Ghile could feel the weight of it between them, especially during these lessons.
“Don't just stand there staring at them like it's their fault. Gather those scraps and try again,” Ecrec said.
His father stabbed the tip of his spear into the ground, then reached down and patted the two. Even sitting, their heads rose above his waist. Valehounds were bred to be big. The people of the Cradle used them to protect their flocks and homes. The wolves of the surrounding mountains would make quick work of anything less.
“Ecrec, you taskmaster. The boy was almost devoured by your beasts. I should think such a battle would earn him a rest,” Toren said, giving Ghile a sidelong wink.
His uncle was always quick to smile or find humor in something. Uncle Toren was the light to his father's shadow. Father always seemed so serious, always wore a frown behind that dark beard. Ghile sometimes found it hard to believe the two were brothers. But past the different expressions was the same thin, sharp nose and high cheekbones.
Ghile was thankful that his uncle had come down from the mountains for one of his visits. Uncle Toren's presence helped draw away some of his father's wrath.
“He has to learn, little brother,” Ecrec said. He crossed his arms over his thick chest, leaving little doubt as to whether Ghile would get a rest. “He has seen fourteen years and is of age. He is not a child any longer. He takes the test this season. How will he fare? He cannot even command the respect of the hounds. He needs to be ready,” Ecrec said. He did not look at his brother as he spoke, but stared at Ghile.
Avoiding his father's eyes, Ghile looked past the wall where his uncle relaxed. Their flock grazed stoically on the other side of the low wall, the pink of their skin barely visible from the early spring shearing. The snow white lambs frolicked near the ewes, tails wagging.
As a sheepherder, the hounds should have been obeying his commands, not knocking him to the ground and taking their rewards by force. This was just one of the many tasks he regularly failed at. His brother had always made these lessons seem so easy.
With the ending of spring, his family would soon travel down the valley to Lakeside where he and other boys from the hamlet would take their test of manhood. All the people of the Cradle gathered in Lakeside for the festival and the test.
He had often looked forward to these trips in the past. There was food and games. He remembered as a youth watching from beside his mother as Adon took his test. Adon had returned the next morning as a man.
He might even have been chosen to become a fang, a warrior trained in wood lore and tasked to protect the valley, like Uncle Toren. That is, if Adon had not been culled by the dwarves. Ghile could still see his brother being escorted into the Bastion in Lakeside. That was the last time he ever saw his brother.
He gathered the few remaining strips of meat from the grass. He went to place them in his now-torn pocket. Ghile sighed. His mother had just repaired his tunic the day before last. She would not be happy.
Holding the strips of meat in his hands, Ghile began trudging through the field to put some distance between him and the two hounds. A cool spring wind gusted up the valley, giving him an icy push. Ghile took in the fresh air, thankful for it. When the wind was still, clouds bunched together before the mountains, dumping rain on the valley. Luckily, there were no such clouds today.
There was a clear view of the snow-tipped mountains that stabbed into the sky around Upper Vale. The tallest of them stood like a dark guardian over the rest. It even jutted into the valley as if it were too important to just surround it like the others. It was this one worn and pockmarked mountain, known as the Horn, which separated Upper and Lower Vale.
Ghile looked farther up the valley towards his home, seeking something other than the stark ugliness of the Horn. The browns and yellows of the thatched roofs and timber palisade of Last Hamlet looked like driftwood on a lake of green. The winds set the grass rippling, only adding to the illusion. The winds raced past him and up the valley along the rolling hills and scattered outcroppings of gray rock.
His people called their sheltered home the Cradle of the Gods. How strange a race cursed by the gods should reside in a place named for their birth.
He stopped and turned. He rose to the tips of his toes and peered down the valley past the others. On a good day, he could just make out the glowing blue waters of Crystal Lake.
He knew his father's patience would be wearing thin, but he sought anything that would delay the rest of this lesson. He spotted two figures making their way up beside a squat stone wall, a pack-laden mule in tow.
The one in front was older and slightly bent. His stark white hair obvious even from this distance. The other young, with a swaggering gait. Ghile pointed and almost leaped with excitement.
“Father! Uncle! Look! It's Sorcerer Almoriz,” he shouted down to them.
Ecrec and Toren both turned and looked down the valley. Ghile waited, his eyes darting from the two approaching figures to his father. He looked to his uncle for help.
“Well, are you going to give the boy his leave or wait ’til he bursts?” Toren said.
“I best go tell Elana and the others. The women will have our ears if we don't give them warning.” Not waiting for an answer, Toren pushed himself up off the wall and grabbed his bow.
Ecrec scratched his beard and glanced down at the hounds still at his side. “To the flock, boys. We must find some old ones. We'll be having mutton tonight.”
He hadn't finished the statement before the hounds darted forward and leaped the stone wall, their shaggy white shapes cutting through the sheared flock. In winter, it would be hard for a predator to see the sheep's guardians before it was too late.
Ghile needed no further urging, already running down the field past his father and uncle. He had wanted something to delay his lessons. He couldn't have hoped for anything as exciting as a visit from the Sorcerer of Whispering Rock.
Chapter Two - Welcomed Guests
“Greetings to you, young Ghile,” the old sorcerer said. He smiled at Ghile's exuberance.
Wrinkles seem to cover every available surface of skin, like vines clinging to the bark of a tree.
“What, may I ask, happened to you?” the sorcerer said.
Ghile realized he was staring. Quickly bowing his head, he spread his arms and displayed open palms to the sky as he had been taught when greeting an elder.
“And to you, Master Almoriz. I was, um, training with the hounds.”
Almoriz nodded and glanced back at his apprentice. “I see. A lesson to be learned here, Riff. Ecrec of Last Hamlet teaches his children well. Even when bruised and battered, he still remembers how to greet an elder. You would do well to learn from his example.” With that and a nod, Almoriz leaned into his walking stick and continued his climb.
Riff adjusted his sack. “I will, Master.” Waiting a few moments before following, he tugged the rope to set the grazing mule in motion. He lowered his voice and whispered, “If I ever want to learn how to woo a sheep.”
Ignoring the jab, Ghile fell into step, still grinning. He glanced sidelong at Riff and marveled at the changes since he saw him last spring. Ghile envied his freedom. Riff accompanied the elderly sorcerer to the villages and hamlets throughout the Cradle. “Sheep would be a step up for you, Riff. Though you will need to wash that dirt off your chin,” Ghile took a couple of steps forward and rounded on Riff, straining to squint down at his face, “Or is that hair?”
Riff was shorter than Ghile by a head, even though he was five years older. Unlike Ghile's tangled brown curls, Riff's hair was straight and long.
Riff smiled and playfully pushed him aside, “So much for respecting your elders. How goes life in exciting Upper Vale?”
Ghile's smile fell. “Same as it was and will forever be.”
“You take your test this season?”
Ghile nodded. “Yes, but father has made it clear his remaining son is to be a sheepherder.”
Riff took a moment to reply. Ghile knew it was the way he had said ‘remaining son’. Riff and his brother Adon had been close friends. Ghile had never spoken to Riff about Adon after his culling, but ever since, they had naturally gravitated towards each other on his visits.
“Even if you're chosen to be a fang like your uncle?” Riff said.
Ghile could only smirk.
“I am sure the druids will be falling over themselves to declare you a fang. I think they will take one look at you and think a fang isn't good enough. They will declare you a shieldwarden of one of the druids.”
Ghile didn't respond. The idea of him being chosen to be a fang by the druids was ridiculous enough, but only the bravest fangs were bonded to one of them and declared a shieldwarden.
The druids were the spiritual leaders of his people and along with their shieldwardens and fangs, like his Uncle Toren – their guardians. The Cradle lay too far on the borders of the dwarves' kingdom to warrant more than a small dwarven outpost and they rarely patrolled beyond the walls of Lakeside; his people needed to protect themselves. He would be lucky to survive the test, let alone be noticed by the druids.
The two followed behind Almoriz for a while in silence. Ghile didn't want to talk about the test or the druids. It was bad enough he was going to have to go through it, knowing it really made no difference to his future. He could see it laid out clearly before him; a long boring life leading to nothing but the passage of time in Upper Vale.
“I see you have added some new pouches to your belt.”
Riff wore the knee length tunic favored by men of the Cradle, but unlike others, the leather belt he wore was covered in numerous pouches and bags. Ghile recalled Riff explaining those pouches held all the components a sorcerer needed to practice his craft.
Riff nodded and absently touched one of them. “I am working with metals now.”
Ghile thought back to what Riff had told him on previous visits. There were few humans with the innate ability to wield magic. Almoriz and Riff were the only sorcerers Ghile had ever met. He only knew of one other in all the Cradle.
He didn't really understand everything Riff had tried to explain, but knew sorcerers were born with their abilities and you could not become one simply by being taught. The magical spark, as Riff had put it, had to be there, then be nurtured and strengthened.
A sorcerer could force his will on the environment, making it change to his desires. They could create fire that would burn for months and never blow out. They could hone and sharpen metal and even make it stronger. Ghile especially liked when Riff would entertain his little sister, Tia, by making water dance and take on the shapes of animals.
But Riff had also confided a sorcerer needed to touch a small token of whatever he affected. Riff called it the source. The part which really surprised Ghile was that the source was consumed in the casting. Regardless of whether he was able to understand, he knew that was the way of it.
So, Riff carried various ‘sources’ in all those pouches and bags. Apparently, now including small pieces of metal.
“Where do you get the metal?”
Metal was a rare thing among the people of the Cradle. Only their dwarven overseers knew the secret of coaxing it from the ground; a secret they guarded closely.
Ghile knew some metals were worth more than others, but did not truly understand the differences. He knew the coins the dwarfs traded in and the spear tips and knife blades his father traded for, were different types of metal. But, it would be costly indeed for a sorcerer to work his magic on metals when he would consume some in the process.
Riff smiled and raised his eyebrow with an air of superiority. “We sorcerers have our ways.”
“Now you sound like one of the druids,” Ghile teased, knowing how Riff felt about the druids.
Riff took the bait. “A sorcerer is nothing like a druid. We do not beg the All Mother for her favor through song and dance. A sorcerer makes the changes he wishes, not through pleading to the mother of the gods like a child wanting a biscuit.”
“Riff! That is enough!” They both flinched at the sorcerer's tone. Ghile hadn't realized Almoriz had been listening. Behind them, the mule took advantage of the stop and started grazing again.
“I have warned you before about disrespecting the daughters,” Almoriz said, his visage stern. “The druids deserve the respect they receive. How many times must I remind you it is through their pleading, as you put it, that the dwarfs even suffer us to exist? Have I not taught you the histories?”
Riff lowered his eyes. “Yes, Master Almoriz, you have.”
“Well then, take them to heart as you do your other lessons and mind that tongue of yours.” Almoriz stared at them both for a moment longer before turning and continuing up the path.
They followed in silence.
Chapter Three - An Evening Feast
Uncle Toren had been right. Ghile's mother, Elana, had broken into one of her contagious smiles when she heard the news, and it quickly spread on throughout Last Hamlet.
Lower Vale and the village of Whispering Rock lay down the valley and on the other side of the Horn; a two-day journey. The sorcerer's visit not only allowed the old Tinker to use his magic to mend pots and sharpen steel like no hammer and anvil could, but also brought news from the rest of the Cradle.
The buzz of activity they walked into reminded Ghile of festival days. They passed under the stout wooden gate of Last Hamlet and the sound of the wind was replaced with excited laughter and the shouts of his kinsmen.
Ghile couldn't help but walk taller when he entered Last Hamlet. Not only was he with his uncle, a fang of Upper Vale and his father, the clan leader, but also the Sorcerer of Whispering Rock and his apprentice. He imagined himself as a hero, returning home after a great adventure.
His imaginings were shattered when his mother appeared, kissed him and ruffled his hair. She fussed over his torn tunic, then sent him on the first of the many chores he needed to do to help prepare for the welcoming feast his father would be expected to host.
Ghile's cousin Gar and his ever-present shadow, Bralf, leaned against a nearby sheepfold. Gar was one of those boys who was good at everything and knew it. Bralf, with his piggish eyes, was the type who boys who were good at everything attracted. Ghile couldn't understand how he could be related to the likes of Gar. They watched Ghile approach, their intentions obvious.
Growing up, Adon had protected Ghile from Gar's bullying. Since Adon's culling, Gar had made up for lost time. Ghile decided to change paths and take a longer route to his father's house. In his haste to avoid the two, he tripped over his feet and stumbled. Their laughter chased after him, but luckily they didn't follow.
Uncle Toren delayed returning to his patrols around Upper Vale for another day to enjoy the celebration. He normally only stayed a couple of days. Ecrec tapped a cask as the older men gathered around it, calling for Toren's famous tale about the frost wyrm on the Horn. They had heard this tale so many times, most could tell it themselves. Many of the younger men nearby, who were butchering and preparing the coming meal, stopped their banter to better hear.
The women gathered at Ecrec's roundhouse with armfuls of the things Elana would need to prepare her home. The younger girls brushed the loose dirt off the hard packed floor, while others followed behind sowing fresh straw and giggling amongst each other about how handsome Riff was.
Woolen rugs of every color were spread around the central hearthstone, with enough room separating them to allow the women to move freely between them while serving. They brought along extra bowls and mugs, then gathered around the hearth and baking oven to cook and gossip.