Tristram stood on a hill overlooking the small hamlet. His hand clenched around the handle of the long thin blade he wore at his side. Even now he imagined he could feel the movement tug at the edges of the brand on his forearm. Without noticing, he placed his other hand over the boar headed scar on his forearm. It had ruled his whole life, but today that would come to an end. His road started and ended here. Taking a deep breath, he started down the hill to the city of Boarblood.
His thoughts slid back to his childhood. He never felt the brand, not that he remembered. It was done while he was but an infant. He was a lucky one, the masters fed the people so little that most children starved before they could speak. A harsh chuckle escaped his lips, thinking that lucky. For 13 years he toiled there, beaten and scaping at their feet. He was an errand boy, for he was quick and smart. More than that he obeyed unquestioningly, his fear of failure was so great he often didn’t sleep. He was afraid of missing a call and getting himself, or worse his mother, beaten.
He would have stayed that way his whole life if they had not killed his mother. She was employed as a weaver and lived chained to her loom. She slept, ate and lived in the range of 3 feet of chain. Despite that in her mind she was free. She told Tristram the stories of brave knights and evil dragons. She meant them to give hope, but he only saw free men. Still, he loved the stories. The day she died he had been listening to one. In fact, his greatest fear came to pass, he missed a call.
The taskmaster found him and began beating him as he groveled and begged. He felt sure he was about to die when he felt his mother throw herself over him. “Please,” she begged “the error was mine, not his. Take me instead.”
He remembered the cold look, and the callous grin as the man pulled his dagger and thrust it into her gut. The man made sure it took a long time for her to die, as her lifesblood flowed over him. He wept and screamed as another slave held him back from attacking the slavedriver and dying as well. He felt at that moment that everything in his life was gone. There was nothing left to live for.
The man dropped the body and looked at Tristram. “You have 30 minutes to wash off the blood and report to Lord Fenestral. Best say your goodbyes fast, fool,” the overseer said as he walked off laughing. Tristram crawled over as his mother breathed her last. She struggled out the word “flee” as she passed.
He washed and went to Fenestral. He gave him a message for a friend in the next town. He didn’t think anything had changed, and Tristram was still too afraid to act. He was wrong. The boy had nothing left but his life. Even if it meant his death he would be free, even if for a day. It was what his mother had wanted.
He took the message and groveled his way to the door. He then ran out of the village in the direction of Dragonsmaw. Once he was out of sight he hurled the message as far as he could and charged into the forest.
For a week he struggled to survive. He ate berries, drank from rivers and slept in the bitter cold of autumn. Then one day he awoke to the feel of steel on his shoulder. They had found him! He started groveling, only to be met by an amused laugh. He dared a glance up and saw a thin man in leathers. He had a blade in his hand, and his eyes held laughter. “An escaped slave, huh? I’ve been needing someone to polish my armor and blade,” he looked Tristram over “not much to you, huh? Let’s get you some food.”
The man led him to a camp with a deer roasting over a fire. Tristram’s eyes went wide. Even Lord Fenestral didn’t dare poach the King’s deer. The man laughed “The King won’t miss one deer,” he smiled at the boy. Tristram had never met anyone who would glance in his direction and only his mother had ever smiled at him. He didn’t know to react so he took a seat and looked at his feet, so as to not upset his new master.
The man grabbed his chin and lifted his head to look him in the eyes. “A man should never be afraid to look another in the eye. From now on I expect you to meet my gaze. That’s the first rule.” Confused, he struggled to do so. It took a weeks before he could do it naturally. The man then let him eat his fill, another first. “Eat. I don’t need an emaciated helper,” he smiled again. Helper must be another word for slave.
For the next month he polished armor, and blades. At first he called the man master and sir, but that was quickly crushed. “I’m not a sir by any stretch and I’m no man’s master. Call me Baldred.” It took a long time before calling a man by his name became natural to him.
Then came the day Baldred tossed a dagger at his feet. “Pick it up,” he said, “a man living outside the law must know how to defend themselves.” Tristram picked it up, holding it two handed in front of himself. He was quaking and feeling somehow bad about holding a weapon.
“That won’t do. You need to stand sideways, and hold the blade in your dominant hand. Good now relax your knees,” Baldred watched as tried it. When Tristram mimicked the movement “See how that frees your movement? Watch as I demonstrate how to thrust,” this was the beginning of his training. Over the next few years he learned daggerwork and then swordplay.
That was not all. The man taught him that man should never treat another as inferior. He taught him reading and writing. He explained how society’s expectations can crush a man. He taught freedom. Tristram came to realize the man was a bandit of a sort. He didn’t rob others, he only lived outside society and cared little for its rules.
Tristram learned and realized he wasn’t a slave to the man. He knew he could leave whenever he wished. Instead, he learned and began to feel something foreign, a sense that he was worth something. His hunched, crawling stance changed to the tall, confident stance of Baldred. He trained and hunted. He learned how to deal with merchants, and to speak with strength.
Finally one day Tristram was dressing a deer humming a song when Baldred entered the camp. He went to wave to him, but his eyes went wide. The man held a black leather cuirass and a thin long sword. Baldred held them out to Tristram who took them teary eyed and slid on the armor and tied the sword to his waist. He was then handed a bow and some daggers, which he hung on his person.
“As best as I can figure you are a man now. As a man, you have something you must do. You must face your past,” Baldred’s eyes were wet. “I cannot go with you. You may join me after this, you know where to find my camps,” he embraced Tristram and the boy walked into the forest.
Now he stood at the outside of the city. He looked and saw the misery he had once lived. Emaciated people refused to catch his eye. Tall, burly men with whips eyed him with suspicion. He glared at them and said, “I’m here for Lord Fenestral.”
“What do ya want with him?” one of the overseers asked.
“A personal debt he owes me,” he glared into the man’s eyes “now get him for me.”
The man was despite his standing still a slave in his mind. He back down and ran for the lord. Soon the Lord approached, more stooped than Tristram remembered. He wondered if he had always been so fat and soft. The Lord approached and said “You idiot! I don’t know this man.” he swatted him.
“You’re wrong. You know me and you owe me a debt. You owe me my mother,” he squared his shoulders and looked down at the old man, whose eyes widened.
“Tristram, you little worm. How dare you return here? I’ll have your deserting ass over a fire,” he stared as if waiting for something. Tristram knew what, he expected him to cave. Instead, he marched ahead, shoving the overseer aside and grabbed the old man’s throat.
“You think I’ll bow before you, grovel at your feet?” Tristram lifted him off the ground “You are nothing but a worm and coward. I look forward to seeing your corpse dance on the end of my blade,” he tossed the man away and Fenestral fell in a heap. Freeing his blade he turned to the overseers. They pulled out daggers and approached.
The men were far to used to men groveling at their feet. He stood firm and stared them down. He laughed at their feeble slashes as he deflected them. He looked over the men and saw what he was looking for. Then he counterattacked. One fell to a thrown blade while another took his blade to his heart. They tried to attack en masse but Tristram was far too skilled. One by one they fell to his blade. Finally only one remained. Wide eyed he scrabbled away “I’m sorry!” he stuttered.
“You certainly are. You are a beast in human guise. You never believed you would face the results of your actions.” Tristram’s eyes narrowed “you killed my mother.”
The man spun to run and Tristram pinned his foot to the ground with a dagger. The pathetic slaver screamed and begged. Tristram smiled grimly at the pathetic excuse for a man. “You almost broke me, you know. I learned though. I learned strength and now you are nothing. I can face you all and you cannot touch me.” Tristram stormed over and thrust a dagger into the man’s stomach. The slaver’s lifeforce ebbed as he cried and begged. Pulling the dagger free with a grim satisfaction, Tristram watched the man collapse. He then spun on the “lord” who was so in shock he hadn’t run.
“Now for you,” Tristram said.
“You can’t! I’m a Lord! The King will have your neck!” Fenestral whined
“I care little for the King. You made me a bandit, I’m afraid,” Lord Fenestral spun to flee only to have a sword shoved through his back. “You die a coward. How fitting,” Tristram yanked his sword free and the Lord collapsed.
Bending over Tristram took the keys from the man’s belt and tossed them to a surprised slave. “I cannot stay, it would only cause you grief. However, when the next ‘Lord’ arrives tell him of this and of the man who will come should this begin again. I will be watching. I ask only ask one thing of you – never fear to look a man in his eye.” Bowing he left the scene as the keys began to be passed across the village. For at least a time they would know freedom. If another should try this, he would be back.
As he walked back to the camp of his mentor and friend, he thought of the other villages in the same straits. He smiled grimly. As long as he lived they wouldn’t know peace. He knew he could find others willing to stand with him. A group of free men could do much to stop the evil of these subhuman filth.