The cold air of the still breaking dawn washed over Commander Zander FoeHammer like an unbound tide. Despite his size and strength Zander could barely keep up with his princess sister, Kai. She was fast and sure when she was on the trail of varmints. The Black Death and The Shining Light of the Realm thundered across the land like an unforgiving storm as the pale light of the sun's rays shattered the deep woods.
Zander caught himself before he bayed his joy for this glorious hunt. But they were of the order of Silent Hunters and he would not break tradition....even if the thrill of closing in on these scoundrels nearly made him lose his composure.
They had been on the trail of the renegade rats for two days. The battle was about to be joined. He could smell their fear. Zander's blood was hot and he was eager to unleash his liege’s vengeance on these hated foes.
He glimpsed a flash of Kai just ahead of him, heard the momentary pause in her footfalls indicating she had thrown herself toward her prey in one astounding leap...and then a scuffle. Shrill screams cut short.
Not half a breath later and the young captain was in the fray, lunging, and gnashing, one final shake of his great head and it was over. Breathing hard the Princess Kai and Zander looked at each other and laughed as they surveyed the scene. Their enemy was slain. There was no one left to kill.
Kai gave a wolfish smile, threw her head back, and gave a full throated howl of victory. Zander did the same and their voice mingled and melded and shook the dawn away as the silvery light flooded the great woods. Its coming light shone down on the horrific scene of death and destruction and many bodies that lay about them. Somewhere a mourning dove sang it's sad song but not for these vile villains now utterly dead at our heroes feet.
This story started two days before...
OFG burst thru the outer door of the Great Hall. Her personal guard formed up behind her and struggled to keep up as she quickly marched thru the passage ways. She shrugged off her cloak – the hides of many coyotes – and threw her leather gauntlets at her personal valet while she was yet hurrying along. Her captains were talking over themselves to give her an assessment of the situation. OFG was nodding and curtly issuing orders.
Runners had found her camp along the border the night before. There was news. She and the fastest of her party had rode hard thru the night to get back to the Great Hall. Col Ti was yet coming and was gathering the rangers along the way. She had only sketchy details and did not know what awaited her return.
At last the guards threw open the Great Doors to the Inner Chamber and OFG strode into the room. She was stopped dead in her tracks at the pitiful sight before her. Even the courtiers, usually so catty and unkind, were subdued. Some wept and all stood back from a lone figure cast down upon the steps of OFG's dias. A young duck hen was crying so hard her whole body shook. She wailed and sobbed uncontrollably.
The troubadour, Little Mo, stood near the young duck hen looking worried and a little surprised. He caught the eye of his liege and subtly motioned to her that she was still wearing her battle helmet. Snapped out of her shock, OFG carefully removed the great war helm. It had recently been commissioned and was unparalleled in the lands.
The helmet was fearsome to behold. It was made from a slain giant hog's head – Commander Zander's most recent victory. The giant skull, tusks and all, was enameled with a deep black and the eyes, so lifelike, were crafted from diamonds and emeralds. The striking black horsetail plume, a gift from Bourbon of the Red, hung nearly to the ground. OFG handed the great helm to a waiting page who's knees nearly buckled under its weight.
OFG gingerly approached the still sobbing young duck hen and, and taking her by the shoulders, raised the young duck up. “Speak, Child.” She encouraged.
The story spilled out between short, ragged breaths. When the young duck had finished with her dread tale OFG folded the little one in her arms. Her anger was ice cold but OFG would not unleash her rage in front of this newly undone mother.
“Rats.” OFG hissed to Princess Kai and Commander Zander who had just come into the Inner Chamber. Kai set her jaw and Zander raised his hackles and great black mane.
Rats had taken the just hatched babes right out from under the young duck mother. Caught between guarding the yet unhatched clutch and the live ducklings the duck hen was in an impossible situation. Who could she choose to save? She could not fight off the rats. There were too many and she was overcome. It was the second time she had been attacked. The first attack, before any of the dear ones hatched, was several days before. The young mother was able to fight off the rats the that first time... but now her babes were lost and her nest in ruins.
OFG gently rocked the poor soul and murmured soft sounds of comfort. But her eyes were hard and an icy rage ran in her blood. With a flash of her eyes she gave an unspoken signal to Princess Kai and Commander Zander to go and bring vengeance down on the accursed rats. Silently Kai and Zander bowed their leave and slipped away, their men at arms each following close behind.
When the Great Doors were closed and they were well out of hearing, both Princess Kai and Commander Zander started barking orders to their men.
“Battle Tiara!” Kai snapped. A page went running, his feet pounding the stone floor towards the armory.
Kai never wore a battle helmet - she always fought with her bare head unguarded. But her battle tiara was enough to cut at the courage of any foe. A grotesque combination of horror and beauty it dazzled and awed. A black burnished masterpiece of spikes and stars, when it caught the light it appeared to be aflame.
Together with her war paint, the sight of Princess Kai arrayed for battle caused the most study adversary to question his dedication to the coming fight. She had taken to painting the number of her war kills on her white coat, down her leg – in blood. Seeing her unadorned, save her tiara and decorated in blood, some foes just fell to their knees and begged for mercy. There would be none. Kai was fearsome and wonderful and she would not be defeated. Mercy was for holy men, not for a warrior Princess who was My Fighting Uruk-Hai.
Little Mo, along with the page from the Inner Chamber, hurried toward the Princess and the young captain. “Zander! Sir! Your liege bades you wear this helm. She wants to you carry it as her token as you ride out and defeat the scurrilous vandals.”
“My mother's war helmet? No...she couldn't mean...” Zander was genuinely shocked.
“Take it, Brother! You know how she is... and besides, I think she had it made for you.” Kai's eyes twinkled and Zander knew he couldn't resist them both. But this honor was almost to much for him.
Zander took the great helm from the much relieved page and carefully pulled it on his great head. It fit perfectly. Kai's eyes went wide when he turned and faced her.
“Now you look like The Black Death.” She said, her heart beating faster. He seemed transformed. A sudden chill ran up Kai's spine. This magnificent warrior before her was no longer her younger brother...this is who Zander was to become. For the first time she believed the telling. The sages were correct. His path had been foretold and now he walked it. From now on he would live his name, Commander Zander FoeHammer Hannibal Bonecrusher. She was so proud.
Zander drew himself up to his full height, his broad shoulders carried the huge war helm perfectly. The eyes of the great skull danced in the light of the torches and it seemed to come alive. The horsetail plume covered his shoulders and his back like a cape. He snorted a great breath and growled low. “To war.”
The hunt. The battle. The death. It all seemed to happen quickly but it was four days later when the heralds announced their coming home.
Together Kai and Zander entered the Great Door and victoriously crossed the Inner Chamber, side by side. OFG was seated with her council, Lucky and Col Ti at their places on her left and right. She rose and proudly smiled as they approached. Zander threw down the ruined body of his enemy at his liege’s feet. Then the young captain carefully removed the great war helm, and reverently bowed low before OFG.
“Your vengeance has been utterly fulfilled. Long live this Good Land and may grace and peace abide.” Zander rose.
Suddenly the solemn moment was broken when Princess Kai pushed passed Zander and flung herself at her mother. “I got the rats first, Momma!” She said laughing.
“I bet you did, Sweetheart, how many did you get?” Said OFG her eyes shining and rearranging herself in her chair to accommodate a wiggling princess.
“I don't know – there were too many to count!” Kai had started shaking her bonbon and had broken out in her hip swinging dance. She was chattering and telling OFG all of the details of their hunt.
To the side of the dias and out of the way of the bouncing Princess, Col Ti stood grinning at Zander. He clasp Zander on the shoulder. “Well done, Young Captain. That was very well done.”
Zander smiled quietly and nodded his thanks. He looked around the Inner Chamber which had just come alive with activity. Lucky had ordered feast foods to be brought in and had signaled the musicians to strike up a victory song. The courtiers were already gossiping behind their hands at the unruly Princess and her handsome brother. Some of them batted at the limp body of the dead rat while other twitched their tails in disgust.
It was good to be home, he thought. This was who he was and what he was to become. He was The Black Death, The FoeHammer. He carried the spirit of ancient generals and he was The Bonecrusher. He did not know how long this peace would last nor when the next battle would begin. But for now he tried to relax and enjoy it....yet something vexed him and he could not shake it. No matter, he thought and took a joint of freshly roasted meat from a nearby platter and smiled at his sister retelling the story of their hunt.
Meanwhile afar off in the Dark Woods a fresh evil was biding its time. It lingered in the shadows. Restless. But waiting......
Editor's note: New readers may begin this part of the story here and then here for the second part. And also the third part. The backstory begins here, then Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.