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Coming of Age Fantasy Historical Fiction

Rinwald sat beside his father's bed, clutching his hand. The candlelight cast a grim shadow on the sickly king's face, which grew paler by the minute. A chill air swept into the room, and the noises of the outside night grew still.

“The Lady Twilight calls for me,” the king said, feeling his time nigh at hand. “I have more blessings in this moment than I can count, though the hour for you must surely feel cursed. But grieve not; I am made ill by a wound from a worthy opponent. I am in the presence of those whom I served, and who served me. My greatest companions and warriors. My wife and family. Foremost among both, my first and only son, soon to be king, Rinwald.”

The king gave Rinwald’s hand a squeeze. The men and women in the room alike fought tears in their eyes, but the king’s wife began to softly weep.

“The affairs of my realm are all in order. There is only one matter for you, Rinwald.”

Rinwald nodded his head. “I am ready to hear your request, father, and bring it to you in zeal. The tradition of our forebears will continue on with us.”

“Your grandfather, my father, in this bed, bade me to forge a sword to be his Célaen. Many tireless hours I spent in the forge, alone, taming iron and jewel. At last I left with Gudaed, a mighty fine blade fit for the man your grandfather was. And I laid it to rest in his barrow, clutched in his hands, and under that earth it still remains. But its beauty deserved another life, one spent in battle. Alongside it I had forged Freht, Gudaed’s companion sword.”

“A sword you gave much purpose, my liege,” one of the warriors said. The king let out a small laugh.

“When I was struck with this blow, I let Freht slip from my grasp, a foolish move. I am certain our foe claimed it from the field of battle. Rinwald, recover Freht for me, so I may hold it forever in death. That shall be my Célaen.”

The king remained breathing, but spoke no more. Rinwald looked into his father’s eyes one more time, and slowly stood. He had heard his father clearly, and Freht was to be sought after with the greatest of urgency. He was going to get no goodbye until he laid Freht on his father’s chest.

A couple warriors left the room with Rinwald, to help him collect the necessities of his journey and give him what information they had. They met up in the stable, saddling the king’s horse for travel.

“We last fought the Wreg host at the Marewine. We could not avenge our loss but managed to force them across the river. Rumors from the road say that they make towards Quinta territory, to trade the goods away they reaped from their campaign here. They shouldn’t be camped too far yet. Your father’s horse will bear you swiftly and tirelessly; it is a noble beast, as you well know. Make for the Marewine crossing and head north.”

Rinwald nodded, and mounted the stallion. “My only dealings with the Wreg have been by the sword, and in those they proved a brutal foe.” Rinwald searched for his next words, but guessing his worry, the other warrior spoke out.

“The Wreg share some of our heritage and custom. They too hold respect for the wishes of the dying. Though it cannot be certain, I would hope they will grant you a fair challenge for your father’s sword.”

Rinwald nodded, and delaying no more, he issued into the night.

***

It was an arduous journey of three days to the encampment of the Wreg. The coming of autumn brought a biting wind, and the road was lonesome. He could afford to rest little, and could hardly sleep even when he gave himself the time.

Rinwald wrestled with grief and fear, missing dearly his father and doubting the success of his quest. He wondered what he would even do when he reached the Wreg. Would he be possessed by the power of a champion of old, and in a blaze of righteous fury ride down and smite the entire host? Would he plead for it and be given it in a token of good will or mercy? What if it was lost among their baggage trains, forgotten or hidden by the warrior who had claimed it? 

As it were, Wreg scouts discovered him first. Right as he caught view of tents and banners on a hillside in the distance, he found spear points at his neck. The fact he hadn’t been assailed already meant that they recognized him as someone of high standing. The craftsmanship of his wargear, and high breed of his steed, could not be mistaken for some highway bandit or lowly outrider.

His hands were bound, and his horse was led into the Wreg camp rather hesitantly, frequently pulling against the rope it was pulled by. Many warriors looked on with a mixture of amusement and confusion, though a few seemed to recognize Rinwald’s armor, for some of them must have seen him in battle.

He was brought into an open circle, a grand pavilion opposite of him. The Wreg troops motioned him to dismount his steed, and pushed him into the middle of the clearing.

One of them went into the pavilion, and after a moment, emerged with another man. This man was clad in a darkened mail and magnificent red cloak, and every step he took seemed to make the air around him ring. He approached Rinwald slowly, but with an air of confidence.

“A warrior of esteem, a noble I presume, rides to my camp in the full panoply of battle. Yet he rides alone. What have you to say?” 

The man, presumably the king of the Wreg, had a booming voice which shook Rinwald’s skull. 

“I am Rinwald, son of Grin. I am king of the Gynethians. I have come for one purpose.”

The other king nodded and grinned. “A new king… the wound I dealt your father must’ve turned fatal. I knew not that Grin had a son, you must not have been at hand when I rode against him. No matter. Well met, Rinwald. I am Ardred, and king of this host. I presume you are either here to avenge your father, or end our hostilities. Or, perhaps both, if you are as reckless as you are bold.”

“I may find both, but they are not what I seek. My father’s sword is what I have come for.” 

Ardred looked inquisitively at Rinwald for a moment, before his face lit up with a sudden epiphany. Slowly, he turned his left hip towards Rinwald, and withdrew a blade from a scabbard, holding it aloft. It had a gilded pommel and guard, encrusted with many fine gemstones, and a shimmering blade that pierced the sky.

“The finest of swords I have ever laid eyes upon. Freht, it is inscribed, if our runes are similar enough.  A family heirloom, I presume? Perhaps a right to rule?” Ardred said.

Rinwald shook his head. “It was and only will be his sword. Should you yield it to me I will not wield it. It is his Célaen.”

Ardred cocked his eyebrows and lowered the blade, seeming to mull over the word. “It is our tradition, when the king is dying, to ask his firstborn son for a gift to lay with him in his barrow,” Rinwald continued. “A Célaen it is called. The son is to craft, find, or claim whatever his father asks at any cost and only alone, lest he never returns and the family loses the throne.”

Ardred’s face turned grave, and he nodded in understanding. “It is our tradition for the sons of a dying father to build his barrow to his each and every whim, no matter the difficulty.” 

Taking a few steps back, Ardred called for a servant, and whispered into his ear. The servant dashed back towards the pavilion with haste. 

“Very well, Rinwald, son of Grin. I shall not ask you for land nor gold in exchange for this sword. But I will not give it to you freely either, for I won it by combat. What I will do is give you the opportunity to win it likewise. There will be no interference from my warriors,” Ardred gave a stern look to the crowd of men. “We will fight on fair terms.”

As Ardred spoke, the servant came running back, holding a helmet and shield. “Prepare yourself, young king! You will either return to your lands a champion, or your line will end in the dust of this hilltop!”

Rinwald’s mouth went dry and his throat tightened. His heart pounded against his ribcage like a battering ram. He stood motionless as Ardred donned his menacing helm. Slowly, Rinwald made his way over to his horse. His armor already upon him, he needed only to retrieve his spear from his baggage.

The sun beat down on the two warriors. The crowd of Wreg warriors watched eagerly as Rinwald slowly approached Ardred. With a cry, Ardred sprang forward, attempting to get past Rinwald’s spearpoint. The veteran warrior was too fast for Rinwald, and rammed his shield into Rinwald’s body, sending the novice king backpedaling. Rinwald hastily made multiple thrusts against Ardred, each of which was blocked or dodged. 

Things were numb and blurry as the rush of pain and panic disoriented Rinwald, the roaring of the crowd thundering in his ears. Soon Ardred was upon him again, hacking at him with Freht itself. What blows Rinwald’s shaft did not catch for him, his mail did, but every blow rattled him more. With an upwards cut, Ardred drew blood across Rinwald’s cheek and threw his helm off of his head. Rinwald turned away from Ardred, dropping his spear, and fell onto his knees. 

The stinging brought sharp clarity back to Rinwald’s mind, and his fear bloomed into indignance and anger. He felt a surge of energy and focus. Ardred’s footsteps approached rapidly from behind, as the Wreg king aimed to behead him. Glancing back, Rinwald rolled under the blade, and Ardred’s momentum carried his swing wildly. Launching up, Rinwald slid his body into Ardred’s side and grabbed his arm, throwing him face first into the ground. As he did, he caught Freht’s pommel, and removed it from the hapless hand of Ardred.

Ardred was quickly back on his feet, his shield aimed at Rinwald. But he was shaken. He had underestimated his opponent, and suffered a stunning reversal. 

Rinwald gave his foe no time to recover and was quickly hacking away. Freht shone like a star, a gleaming rod of light that moved almost too fast for perception. The crowd had gone silent, and only the grunts of the kings and banging of metal could be heard in the camp. Finally, Rinwald landed a blow across the temple of Ardred, indenting his helm. Ardred tumbled onto his back, dropping his shield. He found Rinwald’s foot upon his chest, Freht ready to be driven down into his neck as he looked up defenselessly.

A few of the Wreg started storming the clearing to the aid of their liege, but Ardred motioned them to stop. “I yield!” He yelled. “I yield.”

Rinwald slowly stepped back from Ardred, his blade still leveled at him. Ardred slowly rose to his feet, and removed his helmet. “I accept your yield, and spare your life, in hopes you and your men will honor the bounds of our agreement.”

Ardred coughed, and smiled. “Honor them I shall. You’ve won your father’s blade by rite of combat, and you will return to your lands unharmed by my men.” There were some murmurs in the crowd.

Ardred unclipped his scabbard and offered it to Rinwald. Soon, the victorious king was mounted on his steed. The horse seemed to be more ecstatic than Rinwald himself was, though Rinwald could barely keep his glee and relief under his stoic composure.

“A skilled and determined foe you proved to be,” Ardred said to Rinwald as they locked eyes once more. “I have hope you will make it to your castle safely, oath fulfilled, now holding the firm respect of your people by way of your deeds here.” Rinwald nodded at Ardred’s words.

“I also hope that our paths are destined to cross again, in the throes of combat. Let it be known, young king: I will return to your lands in arms again. A worry for a later day, though. Enjoy your victory, and cement it in drink and song. Farewell.”

As Rinwald rode out of the camp, he felt strange. He felt older. More sure of himself in even the smallest of movements, from how he wielded the reigns to the way he looked about the countryside. He was happy, and proud. Most of all, though, he felt prepared; he was ready to be king.

November 25, 2022 21:26

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