Birth of a Philosopher, Part 1
In the Iskask north, the brevity of childhood was so severe that one could inhale as a youngster, only to exhale as one worthy of the world’s burdens. The space between the rise of lucid consciousness and the death of innocence seemed to pass unsuspectingly in the quiet night, to find boys rising from their beds as agents of suffering, ensigns of a collective nihilism. On the border of the chaotic northlands, boys of the age of strength did not spend their days in the lap of careless leisure, contemplating what it means to be man, and easing lazily into their years of maturity. Men and women alike from this area were known to bear the mark of the sickle, a symbol carved in flesh to glorify in great solemnity the multitude of hardships they endured, that instrument both a tool to fight the fields and a weapon to fight one’s enemies. There was always fighting to be done.
Such strife would have the palpable effect of rearing a nation of weary world warriors, a melting pot of weather-beaten creatures made jaded by their unending struggle against the hostility of the cosmos. In spite of all this, the half-elf boy Shyrrik had been spared a modicum of childish inculpability and did not carry the weight of his fathers’ sins. Though, it wasn’t that the world hadn’t wrung him of his naiveté already – far from it. In addition to have an acuity that lent itself well to a certain natural cynicism, as a child Shyrrik was the unfortunate victim of quite the bit of taunting and menacing from his peers. They were of all manners of creature, from bruising orcs to frail elves, and all invited teasing with their various racial flaws. But he was a favorite target, for he was a half-breed, something that all pure-blooded men and boys could band together in celebration of as an inferior specimen.
He took it in stride, demonstrating an exceptional resilience. It may have been that Shyrrik had come upon a kind of mental maturity in advance of the other children in his village, a wisdom borne not from experience but from mildness that, in any such life marked by tumult and toil, was quite anomalous. He was a good boy, and for all his somber sentiments, he maintained a charity about him, and a twinkle of youthful purity. But it was a flame burning on borrowed time, flickering with the last essences of chastity left to draw upon. Over the years, Shyrrik saw many a familiar pass away to disease, to conflict, to starvation in times of poor harvest. His adoptive father slaved tirelessly in his shop, in which there was no room for him, and so he’d bide his time with odd chores and games to keep his wit sharp. But he could not stave the crushing loneliness, and as the idleness of the the day seemed only to ever break for tragedy, he began to grow mad.
Half-elves lingered long in adulthood, but propelled through their youth as rapidly as any human. By his sixteenth year, Shyrrik had achieved a physical maturity that could bear the stress of travel. But it was not his youth that held him captive in that valley gorge, rather it was with great irony that he was safest there of all. With mountains on either side, desolate orcish wastes to his north, and a treacherous stretch of swamplands below him before any firm ground could be had, no lone man would survive a pilgrimage from that place. Were it not for a few key resources easily accessed from that area, the town would have been left to the wiles of the wild, forgotten by the outside world. As such, only groups of the hardiest traders would navigate the marshes or scale the cliffs to reach the settlement. None took their leave of that place, and merchants passing through would not take on the extra weight. This was Shyrrik’s dilemma.
Upon one cool afternoon of an Iskask autumn, Shyrrik’s breath rose vertically in a mist inside his father’s home. Even aside the fire, it was chilly, and he had wrapped himself in his fur and hooded cloak, which was of yet a bit big for him, dragging on the ground at his feet. Working over a rickety wooden table, he tediously threaded a knife through the body of a carrot. It was a common task for any boy his age to prepare food throughout the day while his father tended to the duties that kept the both of them fed. As the edge of the knife cleaved through the stalk of the long vegetable, it would click against the oaken surface beneath, rapping loudly in an otherwise quiet room. This day, Shyrrik had awoken with a splinter in his heart. Each repetitious chop into the carrot under his hand seemed to pierce all the more loudly in his sensitive elven ears. It caused him tension, his fingers seizing around both objects, which in turn caused him to chop all the more shortly and sharply, and thus irritated him further. His eyes fell out of focus, staring somehow through the table into nothing, and his breathing quickened. His hands spasmed.
It took a spark of searing pain to force him conscious, as he’d not seen the end of the carrot pass under the knife, leading the flesh of his finger underneath the blade. He cut himself square through to the bone, letting out an abrupt yelp that shot through the room, startling his father, who mishandled his leathers and dropped them to the floor. Likewise did Shyrrik drop his instrument to the tune of a metallic clatter, as blood began to stream from the cleaved skin, staining the vegetables under his hand. The half-elf boy’s agonized wail turned then to a furious roar, as he lunged vengefully for the knife, snatching the handle up into his fist. With a loud growl, and an exceedingly rare showing of anger, he pivoted on his foot and hurled the bladed utensil with all the strength in his arm against the nearest wall, doubling over and bouncing on his toe from the force of it. The knife tumbled, impacting the wooden wall violently on its hilt with a sibilant clang, and finally fell limply on the dirty ground below. As Shyrrik huffed out his umbrage, his father abandoned his chores and quickly stepped to the young boy’s side, now wary of his injury.
“By the gods, Shyrrik, are you alright?” He said, all fatherly concern in his voice, as he reached out to take his son’s damaged hand. But Shyrrik would not have it, and forcefully jerked his hand back, fuming as he took to pacing aimlessly. His father, bewildered and confused, simply questioned him from where he stood.
“Goodness’ sake, son, what has gotten into you?”
The half-elf, striding about in aimless circles, came to a stop and regarded his father with the full force of his state of innervation, an angry expose manufactured on the tip of his fiery tongue. As he gestured wildly with waving hands, he trudged about, seething like one broken for some great worldly injustice.
“Every day, we split our flesh for these damned sprouts. We break our backs in the field for our crops, we dangle our lives in front of monstrous animals for meat. Our fingers are mangled and our bodies are sore. We cower at the thought that the orcs might ride in force from the mountains while we sleep in our beds. We give everything to the land, and still we dread the mornings after, that some new plague, some new tragedy has befallen us?”
He thrashed about, banging the pad of his fists against the worktable which he neurotically circled, his voice increasing in desperation and force. “Why? Why do we trouble? Is it not just the same to let nature consume us, than to struggle against it? We are made of suffering, we have nothing but our-” A hand was swept across the table, catapulting tools and the like. “_Lives_!”
His ardent tirade broke then, replaced with the softening clamor of metal objects tumbling about on the floor, and the sound of his frenzied breathing. His hand had since become soaked with blood, which dripped audibly to soak into the soil. All of these things made for the most nervous of silences between the two of them, Shyrrik’s father having been stunned wordless. Never had he borne witness to such an explosive outburst by his foster child. So baffled was he, that he forgot his fatherly wiles, having been shouted into a brief moment of timidry. His hands fidgeted before him, fingering idly along the tool he held. Then he gently set it tableside, and let out a long, defeated sigh. He had never been prepared to field such a flood of pessimism. Gathering his words, he made to softly speak.
“Shyrrik, I…what is…?”
No sooner had he begun his rebuke, than the two of them became suddenly aware of a dull, creeping rumble, growing in intensity. It had been there, laying latent beneath Shyrrik’s raucous lamentations, but now made itself plain admidst the silence. Joining its rhythmic pulsing then was the sound of murmurs, hushed gossip and confused voices. With their attention fully diverted, the father would first exit out into the grey light, followed by Shyrrik in all his curiosity. Stepping before the two of them were a host of commoners, all funneling down a grassless path further into town. Shyrrik looked at his father with wonder, and he did stare back with a look vacant of answers. Together, they fell in line with the stream of peons, wandering like cattle into the city center. Shyrrik reasoned within his head that there was no panic among the people, therefore he at least need not fear an orcish assault. But this town of cynics never so much as dined with one another, let alone collected themselves for any festivities, and so their congregation now left the half-elf boy somewhat unsettled for it.
As the modest buildings began to break away, terminating on a line to reveal an open, circular court, Shyrrik spied over the shoulders of his peers a number of men waiting in the center. The townsfolk could always finger a visitor to their homeland, for even a modestly-well dressed traveler would look a fair bit more regal than the humble thatchings and rags that these Iskask villagers wore around their chests. So, too, were these strangers, numbering among a few dozen, clad in freshly tailored leather and clean, shimmering steel. They rode strong, bestial equines of pure stock, and aside from looking the slightest bit haggard under their hooded garb, the many of them were quite well to do. Traveling alongside an open, horse-drawn cart, they appeared to travel heavy. Markedly different from passing merchants, however, was the presence of weaponry sheathed at their backs and wastes – and not simply short blades and hatchets, but tremendous battle axes and colossal broad swords. They were mostly human, a smattering of elves throughout; Shyrrik even thought he spied a half-orc or two in their lines, odd as it were. Among them, one man above any other stood forbearingly before them all, a tall fellow astride a tall horse, bellowing out with a tall voice. He was a young man, with spirit and ideal in his eyes, and addressed the gathering masses with an authority past his years.
“I am Diedrick!” He called out with clarity.
“Diedrick who?” Came an unmoved heckle from somewhere in the crowd, eliciting a few sardonic huffs of laughter blown from the noses of the townspeople.
The man Diedrick knotted his brow, seemingly despondent at being forced into a game of wit. “A bitter wash of souls, here.” He returned. “Then I will not waste your time. We are a party of raiders,” he said with great sternness, “and we need men. We’re here to kill orcs.”
A tumult rose in the crowd at that, swelling with unintelligible murmurs, and the occasional staccato of a more forceful opining.
“The orcs can’t be stopped!” “Come near my son, I’ll break you in two!” “How many men?” “What’s in it for us?” “We are laborers, not soldiers!”
Diedrick held his hands high, palms open to ease the raucous mass. His shawl slipped from around his shoulders, revealing an elaborate chestpiece and broadly armored shoulders for all to see. Again he called out, taking on the soothing tone that leaders did when they wove their webs of charm.
“Rest assured, we are not here to pluck your young sons from their beds! But it is your lives we fight for! You may kill them in the hills, or you may kill them at your doorstep, the choice is yours! We ask only what you can give! But we are heavy with frontline fighters!”
He swept the crowd from beneath a tense brow.
“Have you any archers?”
Shyrrik’s hand twitched.
There came a confused rabble from the circle of townsfolk, who stared amongst each other. There was movement; some dispersed, trudging disinterestedly back to their homes, while another number of bodies wrestled their way to the front of the crowd, standing separate to indicate their willingness. As Diederick cast a glance over the lot of them, he couldn’t help but put a laugh through his nostrils. The great majority were boys, barely on the cusp of maturity, if that. There were even girls of similar ages, exuding a confidence that betrayed their gender. Diedrick chortled, and spoke his disbelief accordingly with a condescending crack of the lips.
“The art of the arrow is a child’s errand in Iskask, is it? What am I to make of this?”
This first invited a raucous objection, which may have been cleverly designed. “Our sons are tougher than your finest men!” “Life in Iskask is war!” “Who does he think he is?” “We have lives to live!” Then, as the boys made themselves many, there came a volley of boasts from overeager fathers pridefully peddling their sons.
“My son can strike an apple at a hundred paces!” “Mine can split a hair at fifty!” “This boy can drive a nail from horseback!”
Through the commotion, Shyrrik stole a hesitant look back at his father. He received the same tentative eyes in return. His father knew what turned in the young half-elf’s mind, and that entire exchange was conveyed without words between them, emotions and all, Shyrrik’s face full of needing and his father’s stern with solemnity. And somewhere in that simple moment, eyes on a line between two individuals with heavy hearts, there was the turning of a cog that set entire futures into being.
“Be calm, everyone!” Shouted Diedrick above the ruckus, quelling the square with his hands beating back the noise. Once he’d achieved quiet, he continued, forceful but collected. “We are a light unit, and we will take only your best archers. Three will suffice. Seeing as this village teems with rangers, however, I offer a proposition. On the morrow, we shall hold a contest.” He immediately followed upon this, as if to silence yet another inevitable uproar. “The greatest of you shall join with us, and to your families each shall be paid one hundred gold pieces! May the gods guide your arrows!”
He barked in finality, and turned his horse about. Guiding his company in sync, they rode out a ways, presumably to make camp. This left a muttering mass to mull on his offer, with some straying away disenchantedly, while others hurriedly bolted through the throngs of people to go and ready their bows for the morning after.
Shyrrik was one of the frenzied many.
Some hours later, the overhead moon hung in somber silence cast a generous light down over the town. It was not noticeably busier than any other night on the Iskask border, and the unpaved streets were as absent of activity as ever. But inside certain homes, there waited nervously a good many studious bowmen and women, performing needless preenings on their weapons and bolts. Shyrrik would not forgo these timorous rituals, and sat with his bow between his legs, obsessively applying buffing strokes to the wood with a rough cloth. Its surface shined pristinely, as though it had been freshly lacquered, and every few minutes the half-elf boy would eye it closely, checking for imperfections that did not exist. All the while, he kept polishing. His father, who had been made slightly unnerved by his son’s meticulous attentions, commented idly from the side, distracted from his own work.
“Take too much away, and the draw will be weak.” He tentatively offered, speaking softly – wanting to speak at all, feeling as thought there was some fatherly responsibility that he was neglecting by simply observing his adopted child, watching him worriedly ensure his own vacation of that place.
“I know.” Shyrrik idly returned, mostly unacknowledging. Father tapped his fingers tableside, staring between patches of dirt on the floor.
“That’s a fine instrument you have, there. That sort of wood does not grow in this place.”
“I remember.” Said the boy, failing in his fervor to pick upon the not-so-subtle offering.
An exasperated sigh was blown from his father’s raspberrying lips.
“I’ve put new string on,” Shyrrik interjected, swinging the bow up from its grounded position, “it’s hemp and it doesn’t stretch very easily, and I’ve treated it with wax, so even if the morning is cold and moist, it won’t slack.” He ran on with his solicitous ramblings. Since he’d retreated inside, the half-elf had not let a still second pass, and though his father did empathetically suffer somewhat, he was charmed by his son’s engineering prowess. He moved, and slid beside his sitting son, slipping an arm about his shoulders and coaxing his increasing erratic child to at least to a few brief moments of calmness.
“Shyrrik, this frigid land is not yours. I know you’re suffocating in this place. I am an old man, and they’ll bury me here. But you,” he said, pushing a hand out to the horizon, “you are young, and strong, and brimming with the gods’ vitae. You have adventures waiting on the farthest Mindosian shores, and beyond. Be it this opportunity, or the next, the day will come when the earliest sunlight wakes you like Ehlonna’s warm breath.” He said, full of confidence, referencing the mid-morning appearance of the sun from over top of the cresting mountains.
All the while, the boy had a look to him. It was the kind of image taken on by a person so strongly captivated by an emotion, that it failed to manifest in any outer way. Thus he hung with a certain deadness through his father’s grandstanding, gripped by a certain desperation that permitted him no distraction, no loss of focus. His father pulled him into a cheery hug, and kissed him upon his head.
“Sleep, son. Nod off at the range, and you might not have any fingers left by the time you get another chance.”
But Shyrrik did not sleep. He could only wait.