The boy stumbles a bit on the rocky path, but his father does not attempt to help him. Help is not permitted on this journey. The boy, Aaryn, is on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. By Banesmen tradition, he is ready to become a man. The two plod forward through the thick forest, making steady progress towards the border town of Twisted Oaks . Once the nation’s capital, the town has become a mixing pot of people between the lands held by the loose band of hunters to the east – the Banesmen, and the more agrarian society which has encroached to the west – the Unum. At Twisted Oaks, the boy will face three challenges in the arena. If he survives, he will have earned the respect of the men of his hometown: Northrup. The boy’s father, Grim, carefully maintains his distance. Aaryn must navigate on his own; he alone can choose how to proceed on this course.
As evening sets in, they emerge from the trees at last and begin to cross the plains on the way to Twisted Oaks. There, in the distance, they see the tower. High in the sky, the great stone cylinder floats – lonely and gray. The boy pauses; he has never seen it before with his own eyes. They make a small camp nearby and settle in for a meal and some rest.
“What is it, really?,” the boy asks of the tower. “Some have told me that it is full of thieves and murderers, and others that it is just a silly children’s story.”
“Some?” The father scoffs. “Some should learn to mind their tongues. I have kept much from you, son, waiting for this journey. I guess the shadow of the tower is a fitting place to tell you the truth about our people.
“The tower has a name – Martyr’s Tower. Many at home have forgotten what it means – or they never really understood in the first place. Stories and ignorance, the blood of loved ones, fear of telling the truth: they’ve muddied this place, a place which should be our greatest shame as a people.
“These lands were long populated by humankind and the elves. They had intermarried and become the loose tribe known as the Banesmen. Simple hunters, the Banesmen were easy prey when The Brood – a small but united force of mountain dwarves, goblins, and a handful of brutal blue dragons – emerged from the Sheerock mountains. The Brood was a smaller group than the Banesmen, but they were well organized and ruthless – and found weakness in the disparate nature of their enemy. As conquerors, they paid little attention to the Banesmen or their ways. The goal was to take more territory and resources to continue pushing onward. This was to be the base of a broader attack as they gained strength and numbers.
“For years the situation changed little. The Brood would exact a tax of harvested resources and weapons needed for their war machines. A new nation called Unum was rising in the distant west, and The Brood felt the pressure of their advancing townships. So, they sent a new governor to hasten the progress. The new governor– a blue dragon fierce and ruthless –was called by the people “The Dread.” At first, the rule of The Dread was harsher than it had been. He increased quotas and used violence more freely than his predecessors. But something strange happened after some months had passed. The Elder of the Banesmen, who reported to The Dread, was a quiet but powerful old elvish wizard. He was well respected in the community, and known for his fairness. He sat in the capital of Twisted Oaks, where The Dread had taken up office.
“The Dread noticed how the wizard ruled, and the respect he got freely from the people. At first he was jealous, and he would go out of his way to raise trouble and set traps for the old elf. But over time, he found that his jealousy turned to respect, and The Dread began to insist on the old elf’s company.”
Aaryn was sitting perfectly still listening to the tale. The fire seemed to leap higher at the name of The Dread. His young mind was swimming in questions, but he knew better than to interrupt father in the midst of his story.
Grim continued, “The two would spend hours together in The Dread’s quarters – talking about history and the Age they were living in. They talked a lot about The Brood, their rule, and their future plans. After a few years of this friendship, it was apparent that The Dread was changing. The humans and elves were very pleased by this, but certain Brood members had also taken notice and their ranks began to quarrel over allegiance.
“Then, on the day we still celebrate as Midspring, something amazing took place. The Dread and the old wizard went together into the foothills of mount Sheerock and, with the magic of the wizard, The Dread was transformed into a silver dragon – the first of his kind. The wizard was known from that day forth as The Alchemist. Several of the younger Brood dragons were also eager for this new form, which brought with it changes to personality and powers. No sooner had they turned, though, than the fighting broke out. The loyal blue dragons set out to alert their high command, and The Dread worked quickly to arm the Banesmen.
“The result was the Brood War, which lasted six years. The Banesmen were united as they had never been behind The Dread, and with the help of their small contingent of silver dragons, they drove The Brood out of their lands and back to the mouth of the Sheerock mountains.” He paused for a moment, studying the night sky – a stiff wind was blowing heavy clouds over the moon.
“That is when what should have been the Banesmen’ finest hour become as dark as the sky overhead. The Brood commander, sensing his approaching defeat, turned to a more terroristic approach. His dragons flew out far and wide, beyond the front, bringing devastation directly to the towns and families previously far from the fighting. Confidence in the cause quickly withered as villages burned, and the people began to rise up against the fighters. Soldiers, hearing news of terror in their home towns, began deserting to return home –weakening the army. The Banesmen quickly splintered back into their old local loyalties. The public was turning on The Dread and the prospect of victory grew dimmer every day.
“The great captain of The Brood sent a courier to The Dread, proposing a truce. What was left of the Brood would withdraw beyond into the Sheerock mountains if The Dread would place his best fighters – the men who would be heroes – in prison forever as a warning against future attacks. The Brood’s guerilla tactics had so turned public opinion against The Dread and the ever-weakening army that The Dread knew he must accept the devastating terms. The dozen bravest heroes of the war, one from each village, were rounded up and placed in the small stone prison. And, as was the agreement, it was placed in the middle of the land, raised up, and held high in the air by the powerful magic of the truce-makers as a warning to the Banesmen never to cross into the Sheerock mountains and violate the treaty. For their part, The Brood agreed to remain in the mountains and leave the Banesmen in peace.
“Because the way the war had become so close to the people, the Brood succeeded in turning what would have been the heroes of the age into enemies of the people. The chaos of the last days of the conflict quickly confused the stories, and it was widely thought that the tower was full of the enemy instead of the Banesmen’s hope. They became a convenient scape goat for the war and the troubles it brought on the people.
“Now, few of us recognize that it is our heroes stuck up there. The people are confused about who they are and what they represent. I believe that they will be the ones to prevent these lands from becoming overrun with the Unum. But most still think that they are war-mongers, or blame them for the death of someone close. You son, you must understand that these men are our best and brightest. They have been up there thirty years now – locked away without cause for hope. This tower is the shame of our people.”
The fire crackled a bit, and Grim folded his hands behind his head. “Enough stories for tonight. Tomorrow you will need your strength about you in the arena.”
High above, inside Martyr’s tower, three former warriors sit silently in separate cells. Part of the awful magic holding them captive is a silence spell. Designed to prevent them conspiring and plotting an escape, it was certainly the most terrible part of their sentence. Of the twelve men once held in their cell block, only the three had survived the thirty year sentence. Some had died of festering wounds from the Brood war – lacking a healer or proper supplies. A few others had found ways to end the sentence by their own hands, amidst the silent cries of their fellow soldiers.
Each man mulled over his fate – what else was there to think about? Some days they would feel the pride of being a sacrifice to save their people. Some days they would imagine bringing a wrath more horrible than the Brood had dared dream upon the Banesmen. At times they would consider what it would be like to return home and clear their names. Some times they felt the pang of unfinished business with the Brood. Each man was as much a prisoner of his own thoughts as we was of the tower, and all waited death’s release.