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Kotin's Early Life 

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            Signaling to the others to prepare, Kotin scanned the area seeking out his quarry.  Soon ... soon they should arrive, he thought.  A giant with brooding amber eyes, unruly deep red hair with lighter streaks running throughout, Kotin was formidable.  He was larger than most giants in his clan, stronger too.  But it was not always like this. 

 

            In his youth, Kotin had been mocked, picked on, attacked and disparaged by the members of his clan.  As is the case with youth, it had nothing to do with anything in his control.  He was belittled on account of his father.  A giant that some say was the fiercest of all giants, but those were much older giants  --  some of whom were considered to be unreliable due to old age, drunkenness, insanity or some such reason.  Mainly, though, they were unreliable because of the lives they had lived -- a life not dissimilar to that of any other giant -- one of combat.  Simply put, those giants in this clan that lived to old age were generally unreliable in memory of events for the simple fact that they were hit too many times in the head over the course of many years of constant combat. 

 

            Kotin fought often with his peers.  Within him, a great rage resided.  But, control was out of his reach.  He didn't really have the discipline to take advantage of his inner power.  Much of his conquest arose as a result of his great size and strength.  Losses, true or perceived sent him into a furious frenzy compelling him to runaway for days at a time. 

 

            Rosie, his mother, fair as giants go and so named on account of her crimson hair, spent most of her time caring for Kotin's father.  Berlance was an invalid for reasons unknown to Kotin until one terrible day.  On this particular day, after losing a particularly nasty fight and after being ridiculed by even the then town elders, Kotin lost control of himself and attacked his father.  It all happened so quickly.  His mother was in the kitchen making the daily meal when Kotin walked right up to his father and started yelling.

 

            "Get up you worthless piece rolton dung!  Get up and fight!  Stand up for yourself so that I don't have to!  Listen to them jeer, feel my scars!"  He slapped his dad in the face building up the courage to hit him harder.  "Get up, will you!  Get up and defend our name.  So me your ferocity!  Teach me your so-called skills!" 

 

            His mother rushed in after hearing the commotion only to find Kotin pulling his father out of his chair and throwing him onto the ground.  "No!" she commanded in horror.  "No!  What are you doing!  No, Kotin, no."  She reached down and cradled her husband in her arms, bent over and kissed him on the forehead. 

 

            Turning to Kotin, she whispered, "What have you done?"

 

            Raging in anger, filled with shame, Kotin had nothing to say.  What had he done?  He began to walk away, to run away again. 

 

            "Not this time you don't! Get back here and speak to me," Rosie implored.  But Kotin kept walking.  Just as he approached the door and motioned to lift the latch, a very loud, dull, thud -- the kind of abrupt and halting sound of a dagger getting buried deep into oak -- discouraged any further movement.  He looked down to find his hand had been nicked and began to slowly bleed.  Turning about, he, for the first time, saw a great warrior spirit in his mother as she sat on the floor cradling Berlance in her arms and fixing a stare on Kotin so powerful that he nearly wet his pants. 

 

            "Not this time, you don't," she repeated, more softly, that warrior spirit fading.  "You will stay.  You will listen.  And, you will understand."

 

            She went on to tell him the tale of Berlance, the true tale.  It was about thirty-five years ago. The clan was weaker than it is today on accounts of all the bandit raids by the infamous Fair Trading Company.  Fair for them meant cruelty as their avarice obliged them to seek ever greater wealth, no matter the cost to others.  As it happened, Berlance ignored their offer for trade which included the conscription of young warriors of their choosing in exchange for a few luxuries he knew we could live without. 

 

            Displeased with Berlance's rebuff, the local Bandit Manager exploded in rage sending out a decree seeking the heads of Berlance and any member of his clan.  When news arrived, the clan was in an uproar.  Even though Berlance was clan chief, some vocally desired to trade with the Fair Trading Company with the, perhaps false, understanding that the gifting of a few warriors as wards was more desirable to open war. 

 

            However, like Kotin, Berlance was a giant of principles.  He concluded that if the freedoms of some are taken in exchange for the freedoms of others then, in the end, none would be free.  It was for this principle that he declined to trade. 

 

            Word spread and fear burned.  Some clan giants decided that rather than everyone die, why not just kill Berlance?  They arranged in secret with the Fair Trading Company to meet and to deliver Berlance to them.  The plan was put into motion on a particularly cold day.  So cold, it seemed, that even the gods froze.  Just outside the entrance of the cave that lead to the pass into the Mountain Clan Valley, the local elders conspired to kill Berlance. 

 

            "Your father suspected something," she continued.  "Some form of treachery, but he never expected it come from within the clan.  That is how powerful the propagation of lies are when they are not squelched by honorable defenders of the truth.  Lies sowed into the hearts of the council the idea that the Fair Trading Company would deal with us fairly because the council was willing to hand over one of their own. 

 

            "They were wrong."  Rosie helped Berlance back into his chair, cleaned him up and fetched him something warm to drink.  Motioning Kotin to sit, she continued to relate the tale of his father. 

 

            The trap was sprung when the Fair Trading Company arrived.  Berlance appraised the situation, but before he could act, a bolt had zipped past him and sunk itself into the chest of a council member.  Astonished, the other council members pled for their lives, arguing that they had delivered Berlance as requested.  But the Bandit Manager was unmoved and the battle began.

 

            Berlance cut down the nearest three bandits as his fellow councilors withdrew or died.  He barked and ordered the survivors to run and prepare the clan for battle.  Berlance remained as the only thing keeping the bandits from advancing on the valley beyond the tunnel. 

 

            A great commotion there was when the survivors returned.  Panic and disorganization among the leadership.  It was the women who tried to organize some kind of stand.  Many of the clansmen fled.  Only a few remained. 

 

            "I was one of them.  I sent your brother away with another family.  I went to fight.  There were only a handful of us."  She combed Berlance's hair and continued, "When we arrived ... no, before we made it to the inner entrance to the cave, we could hear the resounding sound of metal, wood and flesh ... meeting, crashing and crunching beneath each strike.  We ran in through the tunnel but the noise died down.  As we exited the cave, we saw a grotesque scene.  You father ....  Your father ...."

 

            She had to catch her self for a moment, the pain and horror of the memory resurfacing as she related the events.  Berlance was lying, grunting in pain on the ground.  Four bandits holding him down while a fifth hammered out his teeth.  A scream from someone, Rosie wasn't sure whether from herself or someone else, caught the bandits' attention.  For a moment, Rosie was filled with an immense rage and threw herself into battle.  The clansmen following suit.  Swiftly, Rosie dispatched the bandit with the hammer and two others who were holding Berlance down before being knocked down by the other two who had released Kotin's father. 

 

            She paused.  Struggling to speak.  Kotin, unsure of himself, sat in quiet apprehension; his eyes fixed on her.  After some time, she began again. 

 

            The bandits were too numerous.  Too strong.  Rosie and her clan were overwhelmed, cut down or captured.  Being as fair as she was, Rosie was spared the sword.  Berlance lay on the ground, stunned.  A blank glaze in his eye. 

 

            The Bandit Manager approached Rosie, gently rubbed his fingers across her face and down her waist.  "Plump, breast you have there missy," he hissed.  "Pregnant I imagine.  Still, you are quite fair ... for a giant, that is.  I should like to keep you."  At this, Rosie spat in his face.

 

            The Bandit Manager responded with a quick and forceful slap to her face.  "I would not do such things if I were you!" he commanded.  However, it was at this very instant, that your father, that worthless piece of rolton dung as you called him, entered into a rage that none had ever seen.  He leaped to his feet as his berserk broke his stupor, grabbed a solidly-forged veil-iron hammer laying nearby and smashed it into the skull of the Bandit Manager, driving both hammer and skull into the bandit's chest.  He hit with such force that the head of the hammer shattered.  The Bandit Manager fell to the ground, never to move again.  Berlance then threw the haft of the hammer at another bandit and picked up his mighty claihdmore and proceeded to cut down every living bandit in sight. 

 

            "Your father saved us.  He saved this clan.  But, there was a price to pay.  Your father's injuries were such that, after his final rage, he lost consciousness.  He regained some functions after a week of rest and all the powers of the healers.  He's never been the same since.  He just sits and stares, saying not a word.  I can see life in his eyes and know that he is in there, somewhere. 

 

            "I was carrying you that day.  Your father loved you so much that he laid his life down to save you before you even took your first breath," she said with increasing volume.  "That worthless piece of rolton dung is the only reason why you're here today.  I am not ashamed of him," she paused.  "And neither should you be." 

 

            "Why haven't I heard of this before?  Why haven't the others who were with you that day stood up for father?"

 

            "You don't get it ....  The others that were there have spoken up, but you never listened.  No one has.  You and the others count them as deranged, insane.  The ones who caused this, the ones who fled ... when they returned, they spun the tale you have heard.

 

            "But, answer me this, my son, have ever wondered why they call the area outside the gates 'Berlance's Last Stand'?"

 

            "I thought it was some joke; a reference to the trees and how they stand there idle their entire lives."

 

            "Then you understand less than even I had hoped.  It was your father's last stand that saved the clan, me and you."

 

            The snapping of a twig returned Kotin's attention to the present.  The terrain was rugged, covered in rock outcroppings, grass-covered ledges and assorted pine.  The ranger, with his ear to the ground motioned the group to ready themselves.  Kotin could feel a slight vibration rising up from the stone floor.  Heart racing in anticipation, he glanced back at the party once more.  A tree fell, then chaos.  Kotin leaped up and yelled, for Berlance! and rushed into the coming storm. 

 

            Instead of the expected wave of bandits, he was met by a stampede of donkeys.  He heard someone yell stampede, but it was too late.  The party formation had been shattered and the bandits on horseback driving the donkeys rode up outside of arrow range yelled something unintelligible and rode away laughing. 

 

            This was a trick.  "To the village!  Now!"  When they had returned home, the village they loved had been burned to the ground and the bandits were fleeing in the opposite direction.  Concern rushed over the group as they spread out seeking their respective homes. 

 

            Kotin arrived to find his home aflame.  He kicked his way in, breaking the door.  Fire and smoke raged, he was blind, but stumbled in none-the-less.  Tripping over something, he fell to the ground.  A momentary opening in the smoke and flame revealed that he had stumbled over his mother.  Quickly, he crouched up and dragged her outside.  She was dead.  Stabbed multiple times all over her body.  She had been tortured.  There was soot around her nose and mouth indicating that the wounds had not killed her.  She carried severe burns along her legs and back.  She died in the flames. 

 

            Kotin fell onto her, hopelessly crying.  Looking around, everything he knew was gone.  Aflame.  There were giants clamoring about, seeking out loved ones and valuables or what were left of them.  It was about this time when he heard a horn blow.  It was the ranger.  The bandits have returned. 

 

            Falling down upon the village like a plague, the bandits proceeded to cut down anyone in the street; riding them through with horse and spear.  Kotin looked down at his mother, hesitated a moment then barely dodged the spear of a bandit on horseback.  He fell back on his rump into some debris.  As the rider turned around to make another pass, Kotin mustered in him all the strength he could and, for the first time in his life, he was able to momentarily control his rage. 

 

            All fear vanishing, Kotin picked up a burning awning post and swung it at the rider's horse as it approached.  The post broke and the horse fell, knocked out cold, bringing the rider down with it.  The rider managed to stick an acrobatic landing.  The bandit turned on Kotin, thrusting his spear forward connecting with and puncturing Kotin's leg greaves.  Off-balance, Kotin took a step back but was quickly jerked forward when the bandit pulled back on his spear, the spur in the head catching Kotin's calf. 

 

            Chuckling, the bandit, about the size of a dwarf stared up at Kotin with maliciousness in his eyes.  Kotin's rage waned and he stepped back, tripping over some burning debris.  "Any last words, fool?" sneered the bandit.  Just as he was about to end Kotin's shameful agony, the horse whinnied as it came to, rolled over onto the dwarf and jumped up.  Spooked, it started bucking and kicked the dwarf into the burning house behind Kotin before running off. 

 

            Taking this opportunity afforded him by the horse, Kotin ran.  He ran and ran.  Out of the valley, through the mountain tunnel and out into Berlance's Last Stand.  Panting, he paused a moment looking around with a great sadness.  He could not do what his father had done.  He spent most of his life ashamed of his father.  Now, more than ever, he wished he could have that time back.  It was at this very spot that, while in his mother's womb, his father single-handedly fought back hordes of bandits over thirty-five years ago. 

            Hearing commotion ringing from inside the cave, Kotin pressed on, running ever deeper into the high mountain forest.  He ran for days, aware that he was being pursued.  The one advantage he had over the bandits was his unbelievable stamina.  He never lost a contest of endurance and this contest was a matter of life and death. 

 

            Soon, he came upon a part of the forest he was unfamiliar with.  The neighing of the horses can still be heard in the distance, so he had to keep going.  As he fled deeper and deeper into the forest, he found them to be very peculiar.  Some strange force seemed to have stretched its tendrils to everything large and small.  Odd, sometimes menacing, sounds broke the silence. 

 

            The silence.  The silence and the darkness was strange.  Yes, but when did they appear?  Kotin kept going but realized that he was no longer being pursued.  Had the bandits given up chase?  Or was there something in these forests that kept them away?  Either way, it had been days since he had rested and, upon stopping, he fell down into a deep pile of leaf litter and sank into sleep. 

 

            While asleep, he dreamt of his village and his family.  He was back at home, it was intact.  As he passed from room to room, he found no one.  Where is his father, his mother?  That brother....  Where had they all gone?  He yelled out, Mama! But she was no where to be found.  Then, turning around she appeared -- stabbed, mutilated and half burned. 

 

            "You left him, Kotin.  You abandoned your father.  You abandoned your family."

 

            "No, mama.  I had planned the ambush.  I was going to kill them bandits.  I was going to kill them all."

 

            "You made an ass of yourself and we paid the price.  You went out on a fools errand.  Chasing whispers, lies.  You are too weak-minded to understand these things.  Your brother knew.  He knew and he tried to save us."

 

            Weeping, Kotin continued, "No mother, he lied.  He told me of the bandits' plan and I determined to stop them.  He's the liar.  He's the traitor!"

 

            Looking over to the chair, Rosie began to weep.  Kotin turned his attention to the chair and slowly walked over.  He could only see the back of his father's head until he reached the side of the chair.  Berlance was covered in soot, charred pieces of flesh falling to the floor.  Gasping, Kotin reeled back. 

 

            "You abandoned him.  He was alive when you arrived.  You abandoned him."

 

            "I didn't see him, mama.  I didn't see him...."

 

            Kotin grasped the arm of the chair and fell down weeping.  As he knelt there in anguish and shame, he felt the gentle and familiar touch of his mother's hand on his shoulder.  "Reclaim your honor, son.  Subdue these bandits.  Take up your inheritance and avenge our deaths."

Kotin was muttering in his sleep, 'take up your inheritance ... take up your inheritance ... avenge our deaths.'  He woke with a start.  It was pitch black.  A moonless night.  Even the starlight was stolen by the high, outstretched branches of the pine which appeared to somehow be leaning inward upon him. 

 

            Hunger pressed in.  Kotin hadn't remembered the last time he'd eaten.  Days now, was it?  He stood up and began to grope around in the darkness.  He could not find the path that brought him here.  The forest was utterly quiet. 

 

            Then, light appeared.  Starlight.  The trees had moved, no longer leaning inward.  A low, slow pounding could be heard in the distance.  Something rustled in the trees.  Kotin stopped, listening to gain his bearings.  Something was coming.  The pounding grew louder.  He could now feel vibrations up the lower parts of his legs. 

 

            A large crackling sound broke the calm in the air as a pine tree came crashing down.  Birds swarmed in the air, leaving the broken refuge of the trees.  Bracing himself, Kotin watched as a shadow moved in the trees, then among the trees.  The trees began to lean outward, as if trying to get away from something fierce.  A moment later, the shadow became clear.  It was a frost giant and, with it, a rampage of snow. 

 

            The temperature around Kotin quickly dropped below freezing, bitterly cold.  He stepped back and a large branch beneath his foot snapped as though it were a twig.  The cold is causing everything around him to become brittle.  Two icy blue orbs, presumed to be eyes, were leveled on Kotin.  Fog began to form as the moisture in the air coalesced.  Breathing became difficult as the air cut into Kotin's lungs and burned his nostrils and throat. 

 

            A deafening roar erupted from the beast.  A frost giant, Kotin thought.  The first of a kind that he has seen.  It was more than twice his height and seemingly formed of snow and ice.  The trees became heavy laden with snow, their branches bowing down under the burden.  The frost giant stared intently at Kotin who did not move in the slightest -- partially out of fear, partially out of wonder. 

 

            Clouds of vapor poured in and out of the giant's mouth and nose.  Then, seemingly after making up its mind, it lifted a mighty tree-like club and swung it at Kotin.  Without a moment to spare, Kotin fell back, dodging the blow.  Weaponless, he had little hope of winning this fight.  He turned and ran.

 

            Fortunately for him, the frost giant, big as it be, was easy to outrun.  Kotin ran and ran, dim starlight guiding him.  The further away he got, the warmer it became but the snow persisted.  Kotin was heading north, no doubt about that.  He would have to find clothes or catch a bear or caribou sometime soon and relieve it of its fur and flesh.  Otherwise, the environment would succeed where no bandit had before -- kill him. 

 

            He leapt over rotted logs, likely dropped by some frost giant in the recent past.  He climbed many rock outcrops and found what appeared to be a game trail.  Good news for once, he thought.  In the distance, he could make out a faint light.  The light of a small fire.  There was someone else out here.  He made his way there, warily on accounts that whoever was out here in such a harsh place with a fire might not be the sort to want company.  But what had he to lose?

 

            Kotin climbed up some rocks and avoided a small waterfall that was mostly ice now.  Prior to reaching the summit, he peered over for a closer inspection.  There was one person sitting by a fire, inspecting a scrap of paper.  Many boulders of sufficient size to conceal his approach lay between Kotin and the fire.  He made the summit and pressed forward, carefully avoiding anything that might make a sound and thus give away his position.  He could not trust this fellow yet. 

 

            As he got closer, he noticed the man was an older fellow about the size of a hobbit.  Then Kotin's heart burned in anger as he noticed the man clad in the common attire of the vagabond and bandits of the Fair Trading Company.  Kotin quickened his pace, passing from the shadow of one boulder to another.  The air was still crisp and the wind biting against his unprotected skin. 

 

            Just as Kotin reached the final boulder, he picked up a large stone of about ten pounds then peered over the boulder.  The old man was gone.  No where to be seen.  Kotin stood there in a semi-crouch scanning the area. 

 

            A quiet voice drifted on the wind, "Who are you?"  Kotin glanced about but could see no one.  "Who are you?" the voice repeated.

 

            "I am Kotin.  I'm here to avenge my father and mother."

 

            "Wrong answer, lad, wrong answer."  And quick as that, the little old man stepped out of a shadow and kicked Kotin in the groin then punched him in the head as he doubled over.  All went dark after that. 

 

            Some time later Kotin roused himself.  He was laying next to a fire with a ragged bear-hide cloak draped over him.  Looking about, he found that hobbit sitting across him perplexed over some scrap of paper.  "Ah, you're awake.  'bout time, I'd say.  Ya know, for someone as big as you are, you sure don't know how to take care of yourself."

 

            Moving to a sitting position, Kotin remarked, "Well, you going to kill me with insults before you takes my life?"

 

            Chuckling, the hobbit noted, "If I wanted to kill you, I could have.  I had every opportunity.  Still do in fact.  However, you'll find yourself free to move about and go fer a walk if you be wanting.  I suspect you still holding some grudge against me for some wrong I may or may not have done to you in the past but, in order to move forward in life, one must learn from the past and harness those experiences.  Holding grudges are useless if you have not real means of executing your plans."

 

            Kotin stared at the hobbit a bit, dumbfounded.  It wouldn't be the last time.  "Why didn't you kill me? Seeing that you had and, apparently still have, every chance to do so."

 

            Smiling, the hobbit continued to peruse the paper in his hand.  When pleased with his understanding of the paper, the hobbit looked up and smiling, said, "I'm not that kind of person."

 

            Unsatisfied with the answer, Kotin pressed on.  The hobbit revealed his name to be Wendell, a lowly fellow unceremoniously taken from his village by some slavers when he was just a youth.  His parents objected and were butchered there on the spot as an example to anyone else who refused to pay tribute.  Later he was sold off to various unscrupulous fellows who made attempts to train him as a jester for their entertainment.  One even taught him the basics of reading. 

 

            However, even those powerful enough to trade in the lives of slaves knelt before the collective power of the bandits.  On one such tribute date, a Bandit Manager took a particular fancy in Wendell and decided to buy him.  When Wendell's prior owner declined the trade but offered many other slaves as substitutes, the Bandit Manager glowered and killed three slaves on the spot.  Vowing to kill more unless the transaction was completed, Wendell's prior owner had no choice but to accept the terms of the trade which now included paying the Bandit Manager for the very three slaves he killed. 

 

            Astonished at this tale, Kotin pressed for more, "No offense, but what did the Bandit Manager want with you?"  Smiling, Wendell considered a moment, then continued to relate his tale. 

 

            Wendell was a hobbit, as it is, and hobbits are quite adept at hiding.  He was trained to be an assassin.  His particular skill set of being a jester allowed him to come and go in the presence of many powerful people.  Wendell was trained to entertain, enchant and belie his marks with dance, tricks and tales and song.  Then, when least suspecting, slip some form of a slow setting poison into the mark.  The poison could not act too swiftly as Wendell needed to get out of town without being caught as well as to make it appear as though the mark died of natural causes. 

 

            "They usually died very painfully, ejecting all manner of bodily fluid over the course of a week once the poison set in.  Sometimes it was a single mark, sometimes entire groups.  I had to make it look as though it was a natural sickness that either spread quickly to others or killed the mark in a violent fit.

 

            "Eventually, people solved the riddle and put a price on my head and that of my late Bandit Manager.  I was able to escape with my life by cashing in on the bounty for my Bandit Manager.  My history was understood and I was granted clemency just the once."

            However, he continued, this clemency was not to last.  It had been discovered by the bandits that Wendell cashed in the bounty and was duly whipped with 100 lashings -- which is a lot for a hobbit.  It was that or death.  Wendell figured that if he survived the lashings he could escape one day. 

 

            That day was long in coming, however.  Wendell was compelled to do work he came to detest which included the burning of villages with people still in the structures.  Wendell was never given a weapon of any worth on accounts of his past.  So when involved in raids, he was to remain in the rear until ordered in to kill children with a table knife or burn families alive in their homes. 

 

            Wendell hated himself, but most of all, he hated the Bandits.  The punishment grew more and more severe with every escape attempt.  Knowing his distaste for the work, the Bandit Manager of his last Company rounded up the surviving villagers in town center.  Had the children separated from their parents and ordered Wendell to gut any child who refused to put their own parent to the sword.  One courageous girl turned on Wendell instead of cutting her mother, gifting him a terrible scar across his face. 

 

            Another bandit stepped in to subdue the girl, but the Bandit Manager called him off, saying that he'd like to see if Wendell knew how to properly play with girls.  He gave the girl a shield and told her that if she could slay Wendell, then he wouldn't kill her parents.  She turned on Wendell who, as he related it, parried and stepped back but the other bandits kept throwing him back into the circle and they tightened the circle each time. 

 

            In a moment of desperation, Wendell dropped to his knees and dropped his knife offering himself to the girl.  The girl, not blinking once, lunged at Wendell.  But this was not to be the day that Wendell died.  The Bandit Manager stepped in and kicked the girl, throwing her several feet back.  Laying there, trying to catch her breath, she watched in horror as the Bandit Manager ordered his lieutenant to kill both parents. 

 

            He wasn't going to let Wendell or the girl off that easily.  He punished Wendell by forcing him to kill all the remaining children while the other bandits broke the knees of all the men.  The girl however ... the girl's fiery spirit called to the Bandit Manager.  He took her to be his personal pet. 

 

            The little girl became the deadliest of bandits, however she was never trusted enough with a weapon to be given one.  She learned to fashion all manner of killing tool from anything at hand.  Bandits in the company died regularly from ambushes while on night watch.  The company suspected the girl, but dare not voice too forcibly for fear of enraging the Bandit Manager who adored his little pet.  Wendell was sure the Bandit Manager suspected the killings to be at the girl's hand, but enjoyed playing with her too much in his tent. 

 

            The girl remained nameless.  She never spoke, except in screams, shrieks and wretched howls.  That terrible day changed her, unleashed some sort of beast within her.  She never really appeared ... conscious of her actions.  She simply acted. 

 

            Well, one day, it came that our company was tasked to put down some rebellion in a giantkin village up in the mountain.  At this mention, Kotin listened ever more intently.  There apparently was a certain giant who did not consider an offer from the Fair Trading Company all that fair and refused to deal.  The company was to meet a group of giants that were part of the local council to work out the details of the trade.  Mind you now, the chieftain had a bounty on his head for refusing to deal, a hefty one at that. 

 

            As it happened, the council considered it in their favor to collect this bounty themselves by handing the chieftain over to the company.  Most of us had already taken up positions about the newly constructed gated entrance to the cave leading to the village. 

 

            Realizing that their histories were interwoven, Kotin's blood began to boil.  This hobbit is admitting to killing my father.  Then a sense of helplessness overcame him as he realized that though he was much stronger and larger than the hobbit, he simply lacked the skill to win any fight with him. 

 

            Wendell took a breath, gazed upward to the heavens and took a moment to wonder at the stars, then continued the tale. 

 

            It happened that the Fair Trading Company did not find turning in superiors very agreeable.  The councilor who spoke and offered to trade the chieftain away and to accept a trade deal with the bandits was quickly terminated with no less than three arrows to the chest. 

 

            "The Bandit Manager smirked at such an offer and said that he respectfully declines after the councilor dropped to the ground.  Notwithstanding the treachery of his own council, the chieftain drew his claidhmore and cut down three bandits before anyone had a chance to act.  The other councilors ran, but were quickly killed.  Most of them anyway.  Some must have made it back to town for not long after the chieftain was subdued and was put to the Pain a small band from the village had arrived. 

 

            Wendell stopped a moment, looked over to Kotin and said, "I can stop if you find this story disagreeable."  He looked at Kotin for a long while before continuing, "You probably don't know what it means to be put to the Pain, do you."  Kotin glared at him and clenched his teeth. 

 

            "How could you know?" Wendell explained that to be put to the Pain means to have one's face bashed in from the sides--usually with a hammer, but a rock works too--so as to not kill the person, yet destroy his teeth and jaws.  Then, they are to have their feet and ankles struck no less than seven times each with a hammer.  Then his hands are to be struck once each for each finger they have.  This is really out of courtesy, as the bandits see it, for those who have already lost fingers for one reason or another.  The Pain is not always fatal, though, sometimes, people die from the shock of the injuries sustained. 

 

            Grimacing, Wendell admitted that, though he could not stomach the brutality of the Pain, he considered it at least a chance for the victim to have some form of life after the encounter.  Considering that most people die when confronted with an angry mob of bandits. 

 

            Cruel as it was, this day was the day that Wendell, and the girl, escaped.  "Now recall that I was not permitted a weapon.  They had already planned to kill off half the village.  And, I was to be tasked with the killing of the children.  Something I regret ever doing but had no way out of the experience.

 

            "While the chieftain was being put to the Pain and the fallen councilors, uh, relieved of their valuables, a group from the village arrived.  I watched the entire scene play out as no one else, save maybe the girl, took notice. 

 

            "A giant woman, exceptionally pleasant on the eye with vibrant crimson hair simply crushed the bandit delivering the Pain and dispatched two of the four that were holding the chieftain down.  The other giants joined in the fight, but they were all quickly killed or subdued.  None seemed to be warriors of any merit, however, that woman had some spirit. 

 

            "Spirit, though as you might suspect given our recent history, is not enough.  She was stuck in the back of the head and knocked to the ground.  The Bandit Manager made some, hmm, advances upon her which seemed to rouse the chieftain out of his Pain-induced comatose state.  Heh, well, apparently that woman was his wife... pregnant too as I overheard. 

 

            "That chieftain obliterated the Bandit Manager's skull and half his torso in one blow with the hammer they were using to inflict the Pain on him."  Wendell paused, clearly recalling the memory.  "I never saw so many bandits dumbfounded at once.  They all just stood there, stunned from the shock.  That chieftain unleashed a fury like I've never seen.  He single-handedly took out damn near the entire company.

 

            "The rear guard charged in once the first platoon was destroyed.  That provided me my chance to escape, but I just couldn't will myself to leave.  I had to watch.  I had to see.  Our company had near a-hundred bandits in it.  That chieftain was the most amazing fighter I have ever seen.  I noticed the girl stuck around a while too.  She was deranged by then and resorted to carrying abouts some rag doll with her. 

 

            "When I was certain the chieftain had won, I quietly took my leave.  When I glanced over to the girl, she had already gone.  To this day, I don't know what ever happened to her.  Maybe she's dead, maybe she's out secretly killing.  I believe she ran into the Forbidden Forest here.  Some nights I get the goose bumps and a dreaded sense that I'm being watched.  If I am being watched, I haven't discovered any proof.  However, that don't means that there not be anyone out there watching.  If there is someone, I'm sure it's the girl.  I'm wondering if one night I'll wake up dead."

 

             Wendell paused looked around and sat quietly for a great deal of time.  Finally Kotin spoke up, "That tale you tell, of your escape... you speak of my father.  He survived, some might say.  But, the reality is that he died that day in battle as he spent the rest of his life confined to a chair unable to move, eat or even relieve himself without mother's help."

 

            A spark of curiosity reached Wendell's ear as he furrowed his brow, "So, he lives you say?  I am surprised, though after witnessing his power in battle, I shouldn't be."

 

            Anger rose in Kotin's voice, "No, he does not live.  He was burned alive a week or two ago.  I lost track of time in this forest.  I was to kill the bandits that have been raiding our village.  But they drew me out with false information, sent in a stampede of donkeys upon me and the others in my war party while the main group set to raze my village and kill my kin."

 

            "So, you're telling me they made you out to be an ass while they sacked your village.  They never did think much of the cunning of the giants.  Ya know, for all your brute strength, you're pretty easily beaten."

 

            Kotin leapt to his feet, jumped across the fire and grabbed Wendell by his throat, "What do you think of the cunning of giants now?"

 

            Calmly, Wendell slowly responded, "Well, not much has changed.  If you had any forethought, you would have known that I would have checked you for weapons and made sure that I was ready for battle."  Then he ever so slightly pressed a dagger against Kotin's neck and belly.  "You know, you could strangle me.  However, I'm not certain how long your strength will last should I open your throat and bowels."

 

            Feeling the cold steel against his neck and a warmth as blood began to trickle, Kotin knew he was defeated and released Wendell. 

 

            "You know, we're not that different, you and I."

 

            Incredulous, Kotin retorted, "We ... are ... nothing ... alike."  He returned to the ragged bear-skin coat Wendell had given him. 

 

            "Yes we are very much alike.  We both were taken from our families and forced to do and see things that we should not have by the bandits and their associates.  I believe that I am free from their reach now because they have to assume that I was thrown off the mountain or otherwise killed on that fateful day.  They may not assume as much about the girl, however.  I'm certain they went looking for her.  Not sure how long they'd keep up the search, but I'm certain they are still searching for her."  He paused a moment, wiped his daggers and stowed them in their respective sheaths. 

 
 
 
 

            "I have to remain on the run because they may find me while looking for her.  So, you see, I am still haunted by my experience with the bandits.  And I can honestly tell you this, though you have little cause to believe me, that I wish them all dead.  In fact, depending on what your plans are and how you be treating me in the near future, I might allow you to stay with me a while and learn some things that I have to share."

 

            "I'm fine on my own," Kotin said coldly even though he knew he wasn't. 

 

            "Suit yourself.  I will impart you with this wisdom, it's kind of a rule among bandits: Never underestimate the will of a dead man.  A dead man is willing to do anything.  Your father was a dead man.  Think on that."  And with that, Wendell shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep.  Kotin, believing Wendell's sleep to be some ruse, watched Wendell for as long as he could, then finally overcome with exhaustion from running for days on end without food or rest, Kotin abruptly fell asleep. 

 

            That night, Kotin relived his last day in the village.  Had his mother revisit him, this time unharmed until the very end.  The dream ended with her in the house next to his father resting in the chair, entry barred she stroked Berlance's hair as the house went up in flames from the inside out.  His mother and father stared at him through the window as they were consumed by the fire.  Father as a dead man... a dead man.  A man who had nothing to lose and, in the end, subdued the bandits, for a time.  But, where was his brother?  Why is he not around?

 

            Kotin roused himself muttering something about his brother.  Wendell looked him over, after being satisfied about something, he said, "Well, you talking so much in your sleep, I'm surprised the forest hasn't claimed you yet."

 

            Begrudged, Kotin opened his mouth to speak, but then thought better of it.  He looked around and, following the smell of roasted meat, he eyed the squirrels on the spit with a great lust.  Smiling, Wendell said, "Rabid squirrel.  Not much meat, but better than nothing and as sweet as can be.  You should catch one."

 

            With his stomach aching, Kotin looked about but could find no squirrel scampering about the forest floor or up a tree.  Wendell grinned an pointed up a hill, "There's a thicket up that way.  You'll find plenty.  They seem to gather here for some reason.  Go on now.  They don't catch themselves."

 

            Looking toward the thicket, Kotin, for the first time, took in the immense density of the forest.  Pine, spruce and fir dominated the canopy, however, here and there, some oak, birch or maple could be made out in the forest.  Song birds sang their morning praises to the light and their lovers.  Moss and lichen dominated the rock surfaces not directly illuminated by the sun.  Flowering weeds filled in any space with the smallest hint of light.  A few berry shrubs were also at hand. 

 

            He thought to himself, this place is quite welcoming for a Forbidden Forest.  Well, save that frost giant he met on the way in.  Other than that frost giant, has he noticed any predators or credible threats to his existence.  There is Wendell.  Capable, certainly.  A threat?  At least not for the moment.  In fact, the only threat attracting his attention now was that of his growling stomach.  He determined that he best get on with the hunt. 

 

            Up and up he went.  Just as he began to wonder if Wendell had sent him on a fool's errand, he heard a small chirp that definitely was not caused by a bird.  It came from a raspberry hedge to his left.  Moving toward it, the brambly canes rustled.  Glancing about, he spied a stone of sufficient size, collected it and prepared to hurl it at first sight of the squirrel. 

 

            Closer and closer he moved, with all the stealth he could muster.  The rustling halted abruptly; he was discovered.  As he moved in to peer over the hedge, something jumped down onto his right shoulder and then off again, disappearing into the thorny barrier.  A chirping started up again.  It sounded almost like a kind of laughter.  The chirping grew louder, but it was not from the same creature.  The sounds were distinct.  There were many squirrels here. 

 

            Kotin focused his attention to one such chirp and pushed through the raspberries to make a quick death of the unfortunate rodent.  To his surprise, the hedge became alive.  No, not the hedge, it was scores of squirrels.  Scampering this way and that, they succeeded in distracting him enough that not one could be targeted for a strike. 

 

            Then the counter-attack began.  Squirrels leapt at him from above and below, nipping, scratching and scurrying back into the protection of the shoal.  Try as he might, he could not land a blow on any of them.  He was forced to retreat.  "What manner of beast are you!" he complained as he stumbled away. 

 

            Wendell eyed him coolly upon returning to camp empty handed.  "So, I see you can't even catch a squirrel.  How do you suppose to survive out here if you can't even feed yourself?"  Wendell nodded to the last squirrel on the spit, "Take that one, it's not much, and you'll owe me, mind you, but it will bring some relief to your stomach.  Maybe you'll be more successful when you're not making so much noise growling from yer stomach."

 

            "The trick to catching rabid squirrel is to outsmarts them."  The he quipped, "And we both know that be a bit hard for a fella of your, uh, ability."  Wendell showed Kotin how to make what he called a squirrel pole.  It was a relatively simple device.  Using thin pieces of wire, attach multiple slip loops about a branch of sufficient size then lean it against a tree where squirrels are known to frequent and they'll to the rest. 

 

            In fact, when Wendell and Kotin returned to the squirrel thicket, Wendell pointed out the pole he had already placed complete with three squirrel already hanging about it limp.  There was another still struggling.  "How could I have missed that?"

 

            "You didn't know what to look for, heh.  You came in defeated already as you set out to attack without knowing the enemy.  There is a saying with some truth that I learned from a former master.  He was a learned man, always studying but never actually putting his studies to practice.  He taught me that victorious warriors win first, then go to war while defeated warriors go to war and then seek to win."

 

            "What does that even mean?  How can you win before you go to war?"

 

            Wendell snapped the neck of the struggling squirrel and gathered the four on the pole, setting the pole back into position.  He then set the new pole against another tree.  Turning to Kotin, he said, "You win because you already know the lay of the land, your enemy's resources and your own resources.  You also know how to use all these things to your advantage.  To know your enemy, you must spend time among them either personally or through spies. 

 

            "Seeing how it's only me here, I can't send anyone to spy the squirrels for me so I did it myself.  I knew the land to be densely wooded and I observed the squirrels to be territorial and jittery.  They don't really show empathy for each other, so if one is trapped, none of the others will come to its aid nor will they even bother to inspect the cause of the trouble. 

 

            "So, you see, I won before I even came to fight.  The squirrels never really had a chance.  All I must do is irritate them, anger them to cause them to swarm.  They will give chase as a group some ways out of their home if their home is threatened.  But, that is all they will do.  I agitate them and leave, some will eventually find their way on the poles where I can collect them at my leisure after the swarm has retreated.  

 

            "In fact, as you tell your tale, that's exactly what that bandit company did to you.  They drew you out into a trap and then sacked your village.  You're not much brighter than these squirrels that we be eating.  Think on that a while."

 

            Wendell threw a couple large stones into the squirrel nest to rouse them to anger and returned to camp as the swarm gave chase.  Kotin followed closely behind, defeated. 

 

            "Well now, since it appears that you plan on staying, there be some things I mean to teach and you need to learn."  Caught off guard, Kotin didn't know what to say.  He never decided to stay.  Or had he?  He hadn't left either.  How can he trust this bandit?  Thinking quickly, he realized that he should stay.  Stay long enough to learn whatever he might, then take his revenge.  Yes, that would do. 

 

            "Um, what?" Kotin responded stupidly.  Instantly he received a quick strike on the knuckles with a hardened length of wood.  Where had this bandit kept all these tools and how could he react so quickly?

 

            "First lesson is in respect.  Respect for me.  Respect for the world around you.  And, most importantly, respect for yourself.  We are going to need some more wood.  You are on collection duty," he paused a moment, waiting for Kotin to react.  When Kotin failed to move, Wendell struck him again, "Go on now, git!  I'm not going to feeds you for free.  You has to earn it."  Wendell tossed him a hatchet and pointed off toward the woods. 

 

            With that, Kotin went off, scouting for branches and sticks.  Utterly ashamed of himself, he had become a slave to a bandit.  A hobbit bandit at that!  What would the others think?  He thought a moment and realized that there were no others.  His clan; his village was gone.  This was his life now.  He must take this chance to learn what he can, maybe life will be better when he's able to outwit a squirrel. 

 

            And so time had passed in this way.  Kotin taking on a training regimen which included sword play, hunting, tracking, wilderness survival, first aid and even the basics of reading and writing.  To a hobbit, a long dagger can be considered a sword.  But this was all that was available to Kotin.  He determined to learn and, when he had the chance to get a larger weapon--a real weapon--he would attempt to adapt the skills he was learning to a claidhmore, like his father had.  Maybe he would return, one day, to his village and seek out his father's weapon.  Unlikely it will be that anything of worth, especially that claidhmore, would remain after the raids. 

 

            There came a particularly sleepless night.  Kotin had been dreaming about his mother and father again.  It was the same, recurring dream.  However, each time the dream returned to him, he felt the presence of his brother.  He made attempts in his dream to seek his brother out, but he never could find him. 

 

            Tonight was different.  Among the burning homes, Kotin could see his brother being dragged behind a horse on the way out of town.  Kotin ran and ran, trying to catch up, but he could never seem to get any closer.  "Brother, brother, brother...."

 

            Wendell, curiosity getting the best of him, kicked Kotin in the leg.  "What's this about a brother?  You only ever seem to talk about him in your sleep.  You out for some revenge or he die in the raid with the rest of the village?"

 

            Groggy as he was, Kotin sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked over at the bandit who seemed much older than he had been before.  "Brother?  I had a brother.  An older brother, but he was useless to our family.  Never joining us in battle to defend against the bandits; never helping me when I was attacked by the others.  He was, for all intents, raised in one of the houses of the councilors.  The same house that took him in when my mother stood up against your kind alongside my father ... "

 

            Interrupting, Wendell spoke firmly, "They are not my kind.  You should appreciate that by now, unless I have presumed more about your understanding than I shoulds have."

 

            Kotin thought a moment, nodded his head.  "You are right.  I am sorry.  My brother; he was useless to the family.  Spending his time reading books and scraps of paper rather than fighting by my side.  He was the eldest, he should have taken up the mantle of protector of the family.  Instead, I was forced to do so.  I would have fought to protect my family even if he had chosen to stand up and fight, but at least, then, we would have been fighting together, side by side.

 

            "In my dream, I sees him being dragged off by a horseman.  I can't tell if this be my own mind working against me or I had truly seen it.  I've had these dreams so many times that they are fixed in my mind as though true memories.  I know that there is some truth to them, mayhaps they are completely true.  Though, I suspect that some of it is my mind playing tricks on me."

 

            "Books and scraps of paper you say?"  Thinking a moment.  "You ever see any of these scraps of paper?  Did they have any writing resembling this?"  Wendell handed Kotin the scrap of paper he had when Kotin first spied him. 

 

            Looking at it, Kotin saw strange, arcane symbols written in an odd writing style.  Shapes and images were superimposed on the paper, giving an almost three-dimensional air to the writing.  "Yes, it looked like this." 

 

            Wendell nodded and indicated that he wanted it back.  Kotin returned the scrap.  Wendell looked it over, and uttered some strange sounds.  Then the paper became illuminated and the symbols on it began to stand out, above and below the scrap in a light blue hue. 

 

            "Black magic!"  Kotin hissed. 

 

            "No, it's a simple light spell.  Magic can't be black or white.  Magic is magic.  It is the in the heart of the wielder that determines whether the magic is used for good or ill."

 

            "How do you know this?"

 

            "That should be fairly obvious by now, I can read."  Wendell chuckled and continued, "Anyone who can read can learn magic.  In fact, some say that reading is magic.  Reading grants experience and knowledge gifted by the writer to the reader.  This gift can be given many times over and throughout the ages.  You can learn about the past and to those unfamiliar with reading or knowledge outside tradition consider what are properly called historians as seers.  Events in the past have a correlation to events in the future. 

 

            "Energy lies all about us.  Life is energy.  Rocks, earth, the moon and stars are energy.  Anything that matters, is energy.  Learning how to harness that energy can grant great power.  Most never learn because the effort is seen by most as, how'd you say, worthless?

 

            "I wager that your brother, far from being a worthless lout, was seeking power through magic--a way to defeat the bandits.  In fact, you have all the requisite skills now to engage in magic training.  But, are you ready?"

 

            So much to consider.  Had his brother really been working to defeat the bandits?  Can magic be something that Kotin can control?  The air grew increasingly silent.  Something was wrong.  Looking up, Kotin noticed that Wendell made the same observation.  It was already winter time, all the leaves had fallen save the conifers.  Snow covered the landscape in an otherworldly glow as the light of the moon reflected softly from the snow. 

 

            The snapping of several twigs removed all doubt as an arrow narrowly missed Kotin and was lost to the darkness.  "It's an ambush," Wendell yelled as he threw something into the fire.  At this time, Kotin felt a cold metal wire wrap around his throat.  Just as the bandit leaned back to tighten the garrote about his neck, Kotin turned to the left and lunged sideways into the bandit. 

 

            Whatever Wendell threw into the flames caused it to explode and grow to over 30 feet high.  The area was drenched in light and all but Wendell were dazzled by the light.  In the confusion, Kotin was able to free himself and crush the bandit on his back against a tree.  Yelling, screaming, snarling mingled with the clash of steel on steel as Wendell and Kotin countered the attack. 

 

            Wendell quickly killed the fellow before him.  Then leaping from the fellow's back as he fell limp, Wendell slashed at and connected with a giant bandit's throat.  Wendell rode this bandit to the ground and fled into the darkness.  Kotin was pressed to keep two humans at bay when an elf acrobatically leapt on and then off the trunk of a nearby tree to change direction in air with a razor precision toward the base of Kotin's skull with a hammer. 

 

            Before the elf could land a blow, he was buffeted by some force and thrown to the ground, crush as though by a boulder yet there was no boulder.  The bandits engaged with Kotin paused a moment at the sight, which gave Kotin the chance to stab the one in the chest while hamstringing the other. 

 

            Kotin looked back and saw Wendell, holding a scroll and a look of concentration upon his face.  A spark of power rapidly extended from the scroll to Wendell's hand and was instantaneously flung toward Kotin.  Alarmed, Kotin threw himself back as the ball of fire passed through the space he had previously occupied and onward toward something in the shadows.  Impact ensued, flames spread and multiple cries of pain were released.  Bodies could be seen running through the forest, aflame. 

 

            "Run you fool!" commanded Wendell with surprising strength.  Just as Kotin moved toward the forest behind Wendell and into the darkness, he witnessed a plethora of arrows and bolts cut through the air, many landing in trees about him, some cutting his cloak and grazing his body in multiple places. 

 

            "No!"  Kotin cried as he saw Wendell drop to the ground.  In the firelight, Wendell looked like a rag doll stuffed with pins.  Kotin felt many hands grip him and push him toward the light. 

 

            A Bandit Manager appeared from the other side of the fire.  "You look terrible, Wendell.  Any last words before I kill you and your giant friend?"

 

            "Yes ..., " he coughed.  "Never make a fire in the Forbidden Forest.  At least one large enough to be seen," he finished, blood oozing from his wounds. 

 

            The ground shook and the temperature dropped precipitously.  Kotin's breath began to condense and his nose burned.  A tree snapped and fell.  Then another and another.  Trees were dropping all around.  The bandits took pause and reformed to meet what ever it was that was approaching.  Screams and shouts could be heard beyond the light, "Frost Giants!"

 

            Crashing through the canopy a corpse landed with a thud onto the ground next to Kotin.  Wendell started laughing maniacally.   "You forgot the Bandits' First Rule: Never underestimate the will of a dead man!  Haha-haha.  Haha-haha."  The enormous fire had attracted the frost giants.  Wendell lay there and laughed wildly throughout the battle with the frost giants. 

 

            Swift, they were, throwing frozen shards of ice, impaling all in the way.  Some bandits fought back.  Some heaped on fire upon the giants, but there were too many giants and not enough fire.  The bandits were crushed, though a few likely had the good sense to run when the frost giants first arrived.  Bandits were slammed into trees, crushed under foot and frozen in place, shattering into a thousand pieces when struck by another object. 

 

            Oddly enough, Kotin and Wendell were unnoticed or ignored. When the battle was over, the frost giants took note of Kotin and Wendell.  A grizzled, ancient looking frost giant knelt down and inspected the pair.  He then bent down as if to bow.  Kotin could not understand what was happening until he saw a little girl slip off the shoulders of the ancient frost giant. 

 

            The little girl walked toward them, her figure shrouded in a formless white cloak with a rag doll in hand.  Wendell's eyes grew concerned, but he displayed approval on his face.  "You've done well fer ya self I see." 

 

            She looked Wendell up and down, took in a breath then replied in a soft spoken, but shrill, raspy voice, "Better than you have of yourself."  Then she turned her attention to Kotin who immediately understood who she was.  But, what was she?  Commander of frost giants.  How does someone so small wield such control?  She should look older--at least as old as Wendell, but she appeared as a child.  In her soft, shrill voice, to Kotin she said, "Why are you in my forest?"

 

            Wendell broke into a coughing fit.  "He's my student, he's from .... "

 

            She cut him off, "I know where he's from.  He was there, that day.  Yet, unaware.  Yes....  Unaware, he was."  She appraised him more closely.  "Likely still unaware," she released with a low hiss.  She walked among the bodies, knelt down next to Wendell and drew her knife. 

 

            Kotin stood there frozen.  Wendell looked up at her and whispered something to her.  She turned to Kotin, then back to Wendell and nodded.  "Grab his pack, you.  That is his final gift, says heeeee." 

 

            Kotin cautiously walked over to retrieve the pack, making sure to keep his distance from the frost giants. 

 

            Wendell let out a long, ghostly sigh then smiled at the girl.  Imperceptibly, she cut him along the throat and uttered some arcane words, the likes of which Kotin has never heard.  A greenish glow seeped out of Wendell's wound.  The girl bent closer, placed her doll on the wound and inhaled this, essence and Wendell stopped breathing. 

 

            The girl stared at Wendell for a long time.  Unsure of what to do, Kotin stood there, pack in hand.  At length, the girl turned toward Kotin.  "These forests are forbidden.  They are miiine.  You must leave."

 

            "I cannot go back ... "

 

            "Nooo.  Not back.  Forwarrrrd.  You go forward now.  Follow the traaail."  Then a trail appeared in the darkness as trees bent outward.  Kotin looked toward the trail.  "Now, GO!" she said in a boom. 

 

            With that, Kotin ran.  The tress opened ahead of him and closed in behind him, prodding him along his way.  He slowed once, but the trees did not.  The trees in the rear sprang forth, thrusting him onward.  He was being ejected from the Forbidden Forest by some witchcraft.  On and on he went.  Hours lapsed and the sun rose.  Still, the forest pushed him.  Riverbeds rose up to meet his feet as he passed over.  Trees fell themselves to form bridges across ravines.  The forest was alive in a way Kotin could not comprehend. 

 

            Noon came and went.  Then sunset, an eerie sunset, gave way to the myriad of stars that blanketed the night sky.  The forest pushed onward.  Weary as he was, he knew he could not stop.  On and on he went.  Bramble gave way to his path.  Sometimes a bird or two would fly along side him, watching him.  Sometimes it was a squirrel or a fox.  Always watching.  Who was that girl that can command frost giants or the forest itself?  What had she become?  If she were the same girl Wendell spoke of, how did she gain such power?

 

            None of those questions could be answered now, the forest was pressing in.  He was compelled to keep going.  On and on.  Northward, then east.  In the end, as far as he could tell, he was pushed far to the northeast.  He must have traveled five or six days before the forest lost interest in him.  He found an empty hovel and fell fast to sleep, keeping Wendell's pack close to him. 

 

            Several hours had elapsed when he was awoken by the sound of a battle.  He got to his feet and scanned the surroundings in the vicinity of the hovel.  He was still in a forest, though not as densely treed as the Forbidden Forest where Wendell had died and the girl-witch commander of frost giants and trees expelled him. 

 

            He moved as stealthily as he could, which was much better than before considering Wendell's training, toward the sound of battle.  Ahead he observed some trenches in what looked like a battlefield.  As he tried to make his way around, he spied what looked to be a town wall off in the distance.  There were trenches between him and that town wall and the sounds of battle were definitely coming from the trenches. 

 

            From time to time, he could see the head of a frost giant or ice troll.  He made sure to keep his distance from these creatures.  He came to a point where he had to cross over a trench.  But, there was nothing around that he could use as a bridge.  He looked down both ends of the trench and found them to be clear.  Figuring that he could make his way down this side and up the other in short order, Kotin began the descent.  He slipped about halfway down, landing on his rump. 

 

            He checked both ends of the trench, got up and tried climbing the other side.  It proved to be more difficult than he had thought.  Kotin stood up and tried climbing again.  Getting up a third of the way, he was grabbed by something and pulled down.  When he landed, he leapt to his feet, ready to fight, but saw no one.  He looked down both ends of the trench and they remained clear. 

 

            Kotin, nervous now as the chill in the air began to bite, made another attempt to climb the trench wall.  This time he made it halfway up before being forcibly thrown down.  Again, he looked around but saw nothing.  Frantic, Kotin turned to scale the wall but was pushed back by some unseen force.  Was it the wind?

 

            Then, uncannily, three large ice trolls materialized into existence.  They wore heavy armor, wielded frozen battle axes and were ghostly transparent.  He could see bits of bone where flesh should have been.  Scraps of the trolls' flesh, cloth and armor billowed gently in the frozen air.  They seemed to confer among themselves and when finding some agreement, one raised his frozen axe over Kotin and began to bring it down. 

 

            At this moment, a dwarf, near the size of a human, jumped down from the battle field above knocking the troll down.  After a quick appraisal of Kotin, the dwarf exclaimed, "What are you doing in the trenches with skeletal ice trolls?" 

 

            "Just passing through, trying to get to town." 

 

            The dwarf turned to face the trolls who had regrouped and called for help.  A pure white glow developed in the dwarf's hand, then, unleashing a powerful belch, the searing light of divine wrath poured from the dwarf toward the trolls who were immediately and unceremoniously vaporized.  "You have a weapon?  To fight these foes, you will need the blessing of a cleric."

 

            "Um, no sir, I don't think I have any weapons."  Kotin felt embarrassed for his lack of preparation.  "I'm just trying to get to town."  Suddenly a group a four skeletal ice trolls appeared, "Brokkrsten!" they yelled. 

 

            "Well it's just past this last trench and down a path.  You'll see it.  Now, go on and get.  These trolls and I have business to attend to."  The immediate area was covered in a slush of mud and snow.  Kotin tried climbing again, but couldn't make it. 

 

            The trolls advanced and Brokkrsten unleashed another powerful belch followed by a divine light, eliminating three of the trolls.  The fourth made his way toward Kotin, grabbed him and turned toward Brokkrsten.  Another five trolls appeared.

 

            In an ancient accent, the troll said to Brokkrsten, "You've lost this time.  Give up already."

 

            Looking about, Brokkrsten assessed the situation.  "Alright," he said with a grin.  "Just let me have one last brownie before I depart from here."  He snuck a brownie out of his pouch, tossed it in the air then summoned all his power calling down a furious wrath upon the trolls.  Instantly, they were vaporized.  Kotin fell back some as the troll dematerialized from behind him.

 

            Brokkrsten caught the brownie and popped it in his mouth.  And barked, "Get out of here now!"  Kotin looked down, found some axe shafts and used them to scale the trench wall.  He looked back to see that Brokkrsten had moved down the trench destroying one skeletal ice troll after another. 

 

            Kotin soon found the path leading to town and followed it to the gate whereupon he found two guards.  The guards noticed Kotin coming from up the path.  One smiled,  nudged the other in the shoulder and stopped Kotin in his tracks.  "That'll be five silvers if you wants to come in."

 

            Realizing he did not have the silver, Kotin stood motionless.  Trying find some refuge, he began to offer his service in exchange for entry.  But, the other guard stopped him, "He's just fooling with ya. I'm Rex and this here is Dex.  You new to the area?"

 

            "Yes."

 

            "Looking for work are we now?

 

            "Yes."

 

            "Then you'd do well speaking with the town clerk for work in the walls or Halline over in the Guild Hall if you thinks you can handle work outside the walls.  But, by the looks of you, I'd wager you'd wanna stay in a while.  You look terrible."  With that, the guards allowed Kotin to pass.

 

            Just as Kotin passed through the gates, he overheard Dex say, "And to think that we used to charge for letting folk use the gates."  Kotin stopped, and taking in the scene realized that this is his second chance.  Will he make good on it as Wendell had on his?  Will he be able to reclaim the honor he had lost? 

 

            Reaching into the pack for the first time since leaving the Forbidden Forest, Kotin found a dagger, illuminated parchment and an old, worn book that read: Symbols in Translation: a Guide to the Enunciation and Pronunciation of Ancient Symbols.  It was the book Wendell was using to learn to read magic.  What a gift.  What a gift.  Kotin made a pact with himself to consume writings of all manner as voraciously as he consumes food. 

 

            Speaking of which, he needed to find some work in order to pay for a roof over his head and a meal in his stomach.  After asking for some directions, he made his way off to the town clerk. 

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