This is set about 500 years Before Juxta, Magi
Iotha’s dad looked him in the eyes. “I’ve taught you the blade and bow. Everything your grandpa taught me. Tomorrow at dawn, the trials. Sleep.”
The man and boy could have been twins if not for one was grown, both skin dark as night, brown eyes, thin but muscular.
Yeah, Iotha would sleep. The fire still burned in the center of their campsite. The boy sat cross-legged and stared into the twisting and turning flames. Thoughts strangely calm. He curled up on the ground and arranged his blanket above him perfectly. He dreamed of this day a thousand times.
In the end, he slept. Dad shook him awake just before dawn. They ate a feast of fresh apples and jerky.
“Do you need luck, boy?” Dad asked.
Crowds were forming up in a field of short grass. Iotha took his place in line with the other boys. The spectator stands filled to the brim. The king and queen sat at the topmost level. The queen wore a purple dress. The king’s ranger leathers were worn, but fit snug, like all the rangers running around herding boys into lines. A jewel encrusted crown made of gold sat on the king’s head. It looked heavy to Iotha.
Boys chose wooden swords from barrels. Every boy in line gripped it in a tight fist. Iotha looked his opponent in the eyes. He was thin and wiry, with long blond hair and crisp blue eyes.
The horns sounded. Iotha advanced with a bit of caution in his step. He used a one-handed grip on the sword.
Iotha raised his left hand up and made squeezing motions with it. The other boy looked up at the hand. Wham! Iotha threw his right fist wrapped in the sword hilt at the boy’s nose.
The boy fell and stayed down. The men around Iotha cheered. Presumably for him, but who knew?
The ranger sergeant called for the healer. An aged man came running with a blaze of blue fire in a walnut-sized sapphire gem connected to a gnarled wood staff. This new man with gray hair and a white cloak knelt to the downed boy and said some intricate chant.
“He lives,” the old man said.
“Did I win?” Iotha asked.
Some ranger shoved a wooden chip in his hand no more than a half inch long with two lines carved in it. Iotha had his answer. He needed two more like this one, and they would call him ranger. It went in his belt pouch and bet it was tied tight.
The adult rangers once again herded the boys into rows five across. The smallest boys were at the front. Iotha stood in the middle. Once again, the horns bellowed. Iotha pushed against the ground with everything he had.
Boys shoved him, and Iotha did a bit of shoving.
After a mile running, he crossed the line close enough to the front. A second wooden chit was handed to him, and it too was put away.
The horse race lined up next. Iotha climbed onto his mount and something seemed wrong. He knew in his heart, a lazy horse. Still they tried. No chit was put into Iotha’s hand.
Dad howled from the stands. “Finish it!”
Bows and quivers were passed out to every boy. Over one hundred posts lined the field with a hanging wooden disc.
The glorious horns sounded. Every boy let fly their arrow. Every boy hit their mark.
Rangers had them back up ten paces.
A few boys missed, but on their honor, a gust of wind filled the field along with the horns.
They moved another ten paces. Iotha hit the disc. All that mattered to him. It reached a point where less than half the boys were in line. That was it. Yet, they continued. In the end, Iotha stood in a row of only five boys. They all missed. The distance proved too great.
A third piece of wood landed in Iotha’s hand. He had three. Practiced all his life, he was in. A warm glow filled his insides and bled out into every extremity.
The king shouted loud. “Say goodbye to your families. Find your sergeants.”
Iotha embraced his father in a great hug. Both squeezed each other tight. No words were said. No words needed to be said. Only regret was Mom was in the ground instead of there, but according to The One True God she watched from above.
Iotha found his sergeant, a giant of a man called Floyd. He had a deep brown complexion. The first thing he showed Iotha was proper saluting, but definitely not the last thing Floyd would teach. They rode with a troop of almost two hundred on horseback to a walled fort. A place called Raleg, founded over five hundred years ago.
Heck, Lynken was supposedly only around about the same age, even though people lived in these parts since the dawn of it all. Since Iotha was now one of Lynken’s cadets, he desired to know a little history.
The most important thing quickly implanted in Iotha’s mind was the fact that Cadets couldn’t get booze of any kind. None. He cried himself to sleep the entire four years in Raleg.
Floyd lined up the group of cadets from Iotha’s trial. An officer approached, and the cadets in perfect unison saluted. The officer returned the salute but never said his name.
He spoke in a loud voice that carried. “I’m going to teach you the Codex. It’s a secret of the rangers that everyone must master. Do what I do.”
Iotha had acquired a rusty, old, thick sword with no edge at all. All the cadets had one similar. The officer held his sword up high, then made a downward motion with it, while stepping forward.
None of the cadets moved.
“Do it!” Floyd shouted.
The cadets moved. The officer repeated the motion-step. Over and over across a field. Glory be, after lunch they did their left hand. Iotha knew for sure, if they’d continued past nightfall, his arms would fall off.
A boy next to Iotha whispered to him. “Years of this. Years.”
“Dad never mentioned it. Not one word of it. My name is Iotha.”
“Mine neither, I’m Jose.” He had a deeper tan on him than most of the other boys, and straight black hair.
Jose’s squad garrisoned in the same barracks as Iotha. They had seen each other before, but never introduced themselves. Potentially, Iotha’s first friend in the rangers.
Cadet life grew monotonous to say the least. Chopping firewood. Some days helping out in the fields. Planting, weeding, and harvesting. Skills every boy already had. The Codex seemed the key to it all. Special forms and motions for countering multiple opponents. Making the enemy pay in blood and limbs for every ranger that falls.
Jose was a good friend, to a big degree because he had two older brothers in the rangers and every so often, Jose would have a flask of this or that to share. They often spoke of women. Jose acted like he was a great conqueror and could bed almost any unattached woman he chose.
Seasons turned as seasons turn. Iotha was assigned to a full-time squad, with Jose and Floyd in the lead. Both young men now carried a real blade at their side plus a bow and quiver. They rode horses, and were well-versed in taking care of them. Access to booze. A silver piece a month in pay. The good life. How the king could afford the amounts of booze they drank was a puzzle, but maybe it was the chief output of Lynken.
The king assigned them to border patrol on the eastern edge of Lynken. Across that border was Tercia, a land of ogres, peasants, and a necro mausoleum on every street corner. Some questioned if the peasants who farmed were actually animated dead.
Bands of ogres bled sometimes into Lynken to maraud. The patrol had a fifty mile or so of expanse they were responsible for. They spread themselves maybe a little too thin sometimes, looking for trails. Twenty-four in the squad in total, but patrolled in three-man troops.
A few hundred yards ahead, tracks in mud. Iotha sounded it out.
“Be wary,” Floyd said.
Iotha and Jose nocked arrows. Floyd hopped off his horse and drew his blade. He stared deeply into the tracks for a few moments. “At least thirty, but no more than fifty. Two wagons. Tracks heading into Lynken. Iotha head north, gather the men. Jose head south.”
Iotha kicked his horse into a solid gallop. Within an hour, he and nine other men headed south towards where Floyd waited.
They arrived the same time Jose and the others arrived. No sign of Floyd. But a lot of blood on the ground, what the earthen ground of Lynken hadn’t sucked up, and a couple of limbs. A leg and an arm. Not human. Ogre.
The other sergeant, Allen, pointed at the tracks. “Headed back into Tercia.” Allen rubbed his chin. “Either they captured him, or they took his body to feed their necromancer dark arts.”
“We ride!” Iotha shouted. Twenty-three men howled.
They headed into Terica following the trail. The terrain slowly changed and devolved. Where in Lynken, small copses of trees were common, and various ground covers battled it out for territory. In Tercia, it turned rockier and dryer. At best, a short grass or weeds grew, but many times the ground was no better than barren gravel.
Iotha rode in the lead. He saw them first, but the others saw too. Iotha drew his blade in a quick flash, and the other rangers charged barely behind him. The ogres were tall, bulky figures with thick arms and legs. Their skin shone a deep tan, and hair grew in seemingly random, coarse, black patches.
The first ogre fell to Iotha’s blade across his throat. Blood jetted at least three feet. The second, his blade pierced through the eyeball and Iotha flipped the weapon upward through the top of the creature’s skull sending brains splattering.
In this time, half the ogres readied slings, and fist sized rocks started flying like messengers from god. Iotha cut down a third ogre with a stab to its heart. Truth is they were all males, but to a human they were an it.
Three fist sized projectiles hit Iotha in the same instant. One to his throat, another on his chin, and the third just above his left eye. Darkness engulfed him, and the ground knocked the breath out of him like a cruel stepbrother.
He rose above himself and watched the battle below. The ogres fled. A tall man, taller than a tree stood in the distance. He wore bloodstained plate armor with a blade strapped to his back, and a second hung from a belt on his waist. His arms and legs were thick.
An image flashed in Iotha’s mind of the three chits in his belt pouch. Two cuts on it. One of the chits disappeared, and Iotha jumped awake.
He rode in the back of a wagon, in between two other men. One was Floyd, dead as nails. The other had a torn undershirt wrapped around his head.
Jose drove the wagon. He shouted. “Iotha is awake! He lives!”
Iotha let out a throaty roar of a laugh. “I don’t die that easy!”
Jose leaned back and quietly whispered. “We couldn’t even find a pulse on you, my friend.”
“I live and breathe.”
Iotha had a crazy urge to check on the chits in his pouch. Two left, either a trick of his friends, or a trick of gods. If they planned to bury him, they’d bury him with the chits, so not his squad.
Iotha hopped out of the wagon and back on his horse. They made tracks to a nearby temple of The One True God in a small town. The priest said prayers over Floyd. The ranger squad gave the wagons and loot collected off the ogre party to the temple.
Men took turns digging the grave. Dug it deep.
The town sported a small pub, and most everybody had a few drinks. They quickly made Iotha tired and sleepy. He limited himself and slept in a barn.
The next day he felt himself again. Allen, the sergeant, tasked him with returning to Raleg and reporting on the fight. Allen gave him a sealed letter to carry.
The trip to Raleg passed quickly as traveling alone was akin to traveling like the wind. A lieutenant read the letter and went on a massive rant about planting seeds to start a new war.
“They crossed into Lynken, and they had our man,” Iotha whispered under his breath.
The lieutenant turned beet red. “Pick up your squad’s pay, and you can take a gallon wineskin for the road.”
Iotha acquired both, but he made sure they filled the wineskin with a potent liquor and not wine. He saved the whole thing until he made it back to his squad, and they grinned like idiots and passed it around.
Patrolling the border was a task to dull the mind and senses. The same stretch of miles every day. Iotha counted months as the seasons moved. How Jose kept finding kegs seemed a mystery to all.
A rogue scout approached their main camp one day. They knew him as Malik. He bore a parchment for Allen.
He read it and cleared his throat. “They need us more on the southern border. For some reason we’ve seen giant spiders outside the Wastes.”
“Giant spiders, oh my!” Iotha said.
“The small ones are six feet tall.”
They acquired wagons and covered a wider area when they hit the right spot on the border. One could see a distinct line between Lynken and the Southern Waste. The ground itself turned to nothing but sand along the edge.
They rode in pairs, Jose and Iotha together, camped under the stars right next to the Waste. The spiders were not known to be nocturnal. Their eight eyes needed light to hunt.
Weeks passed. Up ahead, one of the spiders, a big one, stepped on Lynken soil, directly in front of them. Jose and Iotha drew blades and charged. The beast appeared hairy as hell and looked as if it carried offspring on its back belly.
It stood eight feet tall at least with pincers on the front of its face. Each leg had three joints to it if you counted the shoulder joint where they attached to the upper body. The plan? Charge it, pierce it through the brain. Done deal.
“Arrroooo!” Iotha howled.
The spider had other ideas. The damn hellspawn. She leaned back on her hind legs and used her front four legs as spears to meet their charge, stabbing through both horses.
The rangers leaped off to the side and landed on their feet. They advanced. They mostly hacked away at those front four limbs, while the limbs tried to pierce them.
Jose cut clean through a leg on his side, and gross black ichor spurted out on his hand. He screamed as if it burned.
Iotha closed in for the kill, but as his blade sliced a great hole in the creature’s skull, the spider’s leg punched a wound clean through Iotha on his upper right chest. A blow one would expect to be mortal.
He fell backwards and lay there twitching. He drifted above the scene. Jose was below trying to stomp out as many baby spiders as he could. Iotha’s life blood pooled on the ground.
A man stood in the distance wearing bloodstained plate armor. He held a double-sided axe in his hands, and a sword across his back. His hair and beard were blood red, but whether natural or bloodstained, Iotha didn’t know.
The two chits in Iotha’s pocket appeared in his vision. One disappeared, and he drifted down to his body.
The sound of a shovel digging made him stir awake. “Hoy!” Iotha said.
Jose turned to look and turned white as a ghost. “I’m digging your grave man, and you’re alive? You could have stopped me sooner!”
Iotha chuckled a bit but he still had pain in his chest. “I need a healer.”
Jose moved like lightning. Iotha lay there staring up at the sky focusing on the fluffy clouds and breathing. Yes, quite nice to breathe.
Jose returned later with a young man carrying a bent staff from some hardwood tree. This new man, clearly a druid, wore a simple light green robe and sandals. A rune marked wineskin was slung over one shoulder. He examined the front and back of the wound on Iotha. He spoke a low chant.
“You should be dead. The flesh has sealed itself up well, but your ribs are still broken,” the druid said. “I’ll address those.”
A second chant soon followed, and the druid groaned either from exhaustion or pleasure, Iotha never knew. What Iotha did know is his breathing became easier and more effective.
The druid frowned. “No alcohol for at least ten years.”
“What?” Iotha asked.
Jose laughed bright and happy.
“None for you too,” the druid said. “It’s all mine!”
Iotha growled like a starving wolf.
“Seriously,” the druid said, “The wineskin is druid’s wine, heavily diluted, you need it.”
“Clearly I need it, all that grave digging,” Jose said.
The druid took a drink and handed it to Iotha. He drank too and a blessed taste of apples and honey. They passed the skin around.
The druid stumbled home. Jose hunted up a rabbit for their dinner and started a fire.
Iotha looked in his belt pouch, other than a few coins, only one trial chit remained. “I’m retiring after this. I feel my time is up.”
“Twice I’ve said prayers to the One True God over your corpse,” Jose said. “I understand, my friend.”
A handful of acres was part of Iotha’s retirement, but he had to take it along the frontier with Tercia or the Southern Waste with the mean giant spiders.
He chose the southern frontier. His neighbors helped him build a house with everything he needed. He found a woman to marry who loved his scars and wanted at least three wagonfuls of children. The boys among them Iotha trained as his father trained him. The way of things in Lynken. Men training their sons.
The sons joined the rangers everyone. The daughters married. Iotha grew to the ripe age of 53. His wife perished from some plague.
News came of an invader from the south, threatening Lynken’s longest standing ally, Weslan, to the west. A ranger rode into town looking for volunteers. Iotha stepped forward.
The ranger sergeant said, “No man over 50.”
“On my honor, I’m 49,” Iotha said.
A thousand-man army of rangers rode like hell itself danced on their heels.
Weslan was a land of Magi, but the horde from the southern wastes was over ten thousand strong. Hold the line while the Magi rained fire and lightning was the order of the day.
Men drew lots for which ones would be in the frontmost line, for every man wanted a place, and the line would be too thin.
Iotha considered himself lucky to draw that lot. More damn giant spiders, but these had riders on top of them, and metal covered their legs. The horde of enemies approached on foot, each carrying a sword. Iotha cut down their ranks at least a half dozen times, while magi rained lightning all around and threw balls of fire.
A curved blade cut into Iotha’s gut in the end.
He drifted up above the battle.
The familiar man with blades and a bloodstained plate armor stood in the distance and waved, come hither.