The change was abrupt. Merek had never seen such fog. It loomed ahead as if the Gods had poured a thick grey cloud upon the earth. It seemed a living thing the way it twisted slowly and devoured itself. Merek thought of his love Elya and the many times he had watched her sleep, the mist seemed to breathe in in a deep rhythmic pattern. His Father and the high council had spoken of this giant’s breath, as the elders called it, but he, until now, hadn’t believed the tales. He was here on this ranging to see the Crescent Isle which lay before him a short distance across the dark waters below. Before the fog stood thousands of trees, blackened, gnarled and twisting downward. The bark resembled charred parchment, some peeling off and scattering in the light wind like ash. Each tree looked as if it was reaching toward the earth with a hundred scorched arms as it wept in its corruption. The air smelled of decay but with a tinge of sweetness riding the breeze. The look and feel were a vast difference in what he looked upon and where he stood. “So, this is the Weeping Wood?” Merek asked himself. He looked up and closed his eyes enjoying the last glimpse of the sun’s warmth on his face before he left the clearing where he watched at the water’s edge. Small waves crashed against the jagged rocks below. He then returned to a wooded area a few hundred yards where he had passed earlier.

His journey had begun many fortnights’ ago, although he had lost count of the days. If he wanted to return to Vaegomar, the time was now. He was leagues from home but had no boat to get to the isle although it was close to the mainland, he may have to swim. Behind him lay the red waste, a desolate wasteland of sand, ruins, and raiders, once a thriving Kingdom before the last rebellion. Merek climbed off his destrier, which had been his companion for many years. “Meraxes, do you thirst boy? He said as he led him to the small brook snaking through the trees near the clearing where he decided to make camp.  He found a small pool where the water settled. Hundreds of blood red-lotus flowers stabbed at the surface. The horse followed willingly and grunted. He was a large horse with skin as dark as coal. As dusk took hold and the blue moon’s light began to shine on him through the sparse towering pine trees, he almost seemed to have a dark purple hue. His long black mane ruffled in the cool breeze, and although he had taken the eastern most route with sparse wood, it had been some relief from the days prior in the red waste, and its unforgiving sun. Some called it the badlands, Merek could see why. It was cooler here and once the moons rose it was if he was back home during autumn. The last inn he had left four days before had been in the Eastern most Kingdom of Ethorya, along with his last decent meal and feather bed. Meraxes grunted again, and Merek knew what he wanted. “Sorry boy, are you in need of assistance?”, he asked the horse as if he would reply. He glanced a broken sapling laid over on its side broken by the wind perhaps with black sap oozing from the break like a festering wound. That would be a good place to lay the saddle and let the cool breeze air it out. The riding had been long and they both needed a proper bath. As he removed the saddle and readjusted the caparison on the horses back he thought of home and family.

He had scarcely left Vaegomar in his sixteen years, the Kingdom he was born in, the Kingdom that sustained his people. It was certainly not the biggest of the original thirteen kingdoms but had everything his people needed. With prosperous port cities on the Enchanted Sea in the South, fishing villages in the North, the Kingdom had flourished for centuries. More recently things had started to change. His Father, overlord of the high council had told him stories of times past. He had always enjoyed reading in his father’s library of old legends and ancient history. As a boy he had loved the tales from the age of dragons, although he doubted most of it were more than writer’s fable.  As he wandered through the pine wood gathering kindling he thought of his siblings. His twin sister Ashaya and his older half-brother Sirich. Not long ago had been Sirich’s eighteenth name day. They had spent many nights together in the wilds of Vaegomar, camping, hunting and hawking, longing to get out of the confines of their keep. Wolfpine was his home, but they loved spending time in the Smoking Wood near Dragon Point. He had seen a little of Aahsgoth but yearned to see more, which is why he agreed to take this ranging. Sirich would have jested him about building such a large fire, he seemed to enjoy the darkness. This was more to keep the blood thirsty pinflys away and to hopefully cook supper.

Merek stomach growled with hunger and his light was fading. He needed to snare a rabbit, or it would be salt beef again this night further depleting his rations. He had taken stones from the brook where Meraxes had drank to build a fire ring. He added his kindling and pulled his worn piece of flint from his black-stained, leather saddle-pack. With just a few strokes from his dagger a large spark leapt from the blade and budding flames quickly danced to life engulfing the dried pine needles and kindling. He would check his snares shortly but first he reached for his bedroll and laid it out next to the fire to warm. It was old and worn doeskin, but it would have to suffice. As he sat and started to remove his armor he was relieved he had only worn his light boiled leather. His young retainer Mitch, the Son Lord Prothe had not come this far. Merek had sent him back days ago, to inform his family where he was and that he would return after exploring the Crescent Isle and the strange tales that surrounded it. He enjoyed his company but had promised his family he would send word, but he had not stopped at Marshwood, the seat of House Serwin in Ethorya to send a raven as it was too far East.

His armor was black and faded and only adorned with simple silver studs in a repeating diamond pattern. After laying his sword beside his bed roll, He loosened the four straps on either side with matching silver buckles. He was about to pull it over his head when he realized he still had his half cloak hanging over his left shoulder. Frayed and tattered he removed it from the silver clasp on his shoulder pad. He stood and walked over to a young ash tree and hung it over a low hanging limb as if to display it to any passersby. Like his armor, it was dyed black with his house sigil, a blood red ancient glyph of a sun, emblazoned on the lower portion of the cloak almost as wide as the cloth itself. The red glyph was a simple circle surrounded by eight points. Four of them more elongated. It always reminded him of a windrose on one of the many maps he had seen back home in his Fathers study. Legends said that House Blacksun descended from the aspects but his family kept the faith of the Elder. Both legends agreed his house would become the first noble bloodline and kings of Aahsgoth.

Merek finally removed his chest piece and started to untie the matching bracers. His forearms were blistered and raw where the edges of the raw leather had bitten into his skin through his undershirt. He decided to leave it on as the cold started to surround him. It was a simple off-white cotton tunic with tie strings at the chest and wrists. His stomach growled again reminding him to go check the snares he had set. He hadn’t been here long, but he could see the red moon now peeking out from behind the larger blue moon as if it was in hiding. It had been a few hours now, hopefully a rabbit or perhaps a small doe had managed to get itself snagged. As he stood he felt the sting of a pinfly, and grunted as he swatted his neck leaving splotch of blood in its place.

“Gods”, he cursed, “shit for supper!” he mumbled as he checked his last snare. He reset the small hemp noose and hoped for a good meal to break his fast come sunrise. As he headed toward the flickering light of his campfire the shadows danced among the trees and he thought he heard faint whispering through the light breeze. Perhaps it was just the leaves rustling or whistle of the wind. “Who goes there?” as he heard it again, only this time he was sure he wasn’t alone.

“Milord”, said a high-pitched voice that drew closer. “Who are you?” Merek replied. “I am Ivan good Ser, I’m sorry for startling you Milord. I have been traveling North and saw your fire.” As he came into view closer to the fire light Merek could see he was no more than ten or twelve, although it was hard to tell as the shadows tangled with the trees around them. He had no facial hair that he could see with shoulder length dark hair. Merek could see he was a commoner, he was dressed in a sun faded grey linen tunic with tattered sleeves, and coarse wool breeches that looked to be dusty brown, and he had no boots. He had a small linen pack hanging over his right shoulder, a long-carved walking stick in his left hand, and what looked to be a short blade sheathed in leather on his hip with a silver handle. He looked to have a small wool bandage on the side of his neck. “Are you alone boy?” Merek asked. “Yes, milord, as I said…” Merek cut him off, “Please, call me Merek, no need for such formality here”. The boy nodded, “I just saw your banner there milor…eh, Ser Merek.” sounding unsure. “You are from a noble house, is that not your sigil? “It is”, Merek nodded, “what do you know of noble houses of Vaegomar?” “Vaegomar?” the boy questioned. “Is that in the North? “Yes”, he replied, “the Northern most Kingdom of the mainland. Although we have no king. Where are you from boy?” “I am from Highrock village on the Rainy Isles as far South as South goes. My Father sent me to buy wool for new fishing nets.” “A fisherman’s Son, this far North on foot? Do you not have merchants in Highrock? Certainly there are many on the coast of the Stormlands,” Merek asked as he removed the leather band from his long silver-blonde hair that he wore in a ponytail. His scalp ached from the constant pull. He quickly thought of his Sister again as his hair fell over his shoulders. She had the same hair and they shared the same emerald green eyes. He missed her witty japes and thought back to when they were young when he would muddle up her hair and run. He felt a slight smile come to his face. The boy answered, “yes, milor…Ser. We did but he died a while ago, we haven’t seen any traders since.” “You are welcome to share my fire Ivan”, offered Merek, “I only have salt beef for supper though. A bow and well-placed arrow would have saved the day.” “Thank you, Ser, for the offer, but I better keep going. Since I have been in the badlands, I travel by night to avoid the heat.” “Are you sure” Merek asked, “a young boy traveling alone at night with no sword isn’t safe, there are no shortage of wolves and sand-people still raid travelers from here to the Ethorya,” “Yes Ser, I’ll be alright. Have you passed a village or market lately?” he asked. “Water’s Edge, three days north, a small trading village. You will see it if you stay on Marcus’ Pass?” Merek replied. “Who is Marcus?” the boy asked. Merek laughed, as he grabbed his small pouch of salt beef. He handed the boy and a piece and bit a chunk off his own. As he chewed he spoke, “the last King of this region, Marcus II for whom the old road is named, well as much as you can call it a road. More like an overgrown path.” “I see”, the boy seemed puzzled, “Why is Marcus no longer king? “He died decades ago, his Son, Marcus III inherited his crown although my Father was the true King of Aahsgoth, Marcus chose rebellion. The badlands were once a thriving kingdom known as Serphial, named after some ancient queen, or so the singers say. It was one of the original thirteen kingdoms. He was by all accounts an arrogant little shit. My Father led the campaign that ended his tyranny. Eventually all his wealth was lost, and so he ruled over nothing and no one. A few scattered villages, one noble house and ruins are all that remain.”

As Merek had finished his history lesson the boy looked disinterested and stood. “Thank you, Ser, I’ll be on my way.” Merek picked up his waterskin took a drink and offered it to the boy, “No thank you, I don’t drink wine Ser.” Merek smiled, “Its only water” as he insisted. “Take it, I have another and plenty of water here to refill it”. The boy hesitantly took the skin and a drink. “Thank you for your kindness, have a blessed night milord”, as he bowed and turned toward the darkness. “Be well” Merek replied as he walked over to a tree to relieve himself.

He pulled his second waterskin from the saddle bag and went over to fill it in the stream. The crickets had grown louder, and their song filled the night around them. Meraxes stirred uneasily. He could hear another song through the blanket of chirping. “Wolves, but they are not near us boy and they wouldn’t approach a fire” as he patted him on the back. “Get some shut eye boy, we have to ride at dawn to see this mystery ahead”. He walked back and sat down on his bedroll, now warm to the touch. He took off his boots laid them near the fire then added a few more logs to the fire for a few more hours of warmth. He pulled the saddle bag over and slid it under his head as he lay back. He looked once more and saw the peaks of the pine trees against a sea of stars as embers from his fire raced toward them. The moons now high in the sky stared back at him as he closed his eyes.

As Merek tried to relax, he thought more of home and his journey so far. Every few years the council sent out ranging parties across Aahsgoth to document and report back the general state of things and any specifics worth noting that may affect the noble houses and those they represented. He had volunteered to come here. Tales of the Crescent Isle were abundant, and he was curious to see for himself. Not much was known about this area. The known world had been charted for centuries, but this area people seemed to ignore. Likely from tales of demons, haunted ruins, wraiths, witches and warlocks. They were all fairy tales, from the imaginations of singers and story tellers but it did intrigue him.

Wolves still howled in the distance. He heard Meraxes grunt but ignored it. The crackling of the fire had put him at ease like it always had on his trips in the wild with Sirich and Ashaya. He missed Elya. He longed for her warmth tonight. He thought her soft lips, her long black hair caressing the small of her back. The curve of her hips and buttocks, her soft skin, long legs and her firm breasts. He could feel himself aroused as his thoughts morphed into a dream.  He faded into sleep with a slight grin as she straddled him. He held her hips in his hands as she rode him in slow motion looking into his eyes moaning in pleasure. He felt her warmth. Then he felt the pain. It struck like lightning. He opened his eyes. He clutched at his chest. He looked down to see his own hands sticky with blood grasping at a silver handle buried in his chest. His life blood dyed his tunic black around the blade and quickly expanded outward in all directions. He rolled over to try and stand and saw the fire light as a hazy darkness started to surround his field of vision. He was on his right elbow trying to reach forward as his other hand found only dirt. He could not push himself up, his strength was leaving him. He lifted his chin to glimpse bare feet as he tried to speak, tried to breathe. He managed a gurgled “Wha… Why?” but it was no use, blood filled his throat as he spat and tried to breathe once more. As he fell to his back the stars all seemed to merge into one, then darkness. “I told you my Lord, he heard a muffled voice say, “I told you I found him”. The wolves continued to howl and then all he felt was the cold.