Today, on the 25th of November—and fittingly enough, also Thanksgiving—is my tenth year registered as a member of Hollowworld. Doesn't time fly? It's hard not to feel introspective and nostalgic about all those memories, those unique personalities and stories I've got to experience; I remember the ways in which I met my friends here, and the ways in which those friendships grew—I think too about how each one has become like a season now past, or passing.
I am so very thankful for my involvement with Hollowworld, and for all the inspiration I've found from it. It was a wonderfully deep world for me, with such great breadth that it could feel entirely real—it inspired dreams both waking and in slumber. And so, on this nostalgic day, I elect to share the first chapter of an ongoing creative effort of mine so-inspired by the friends and stories of Hollowworld. Working title: Under Boreal Skies. Yes... I still love my music references.
Happy Thanksgiving, Hollowworld!
UNDER BOREAL SKIES
Two leagues from the city of Queensport we waited, for the last shadows of the evening sun to mature into night—behind us, I could just begin to make out the lights in the castle towers, which shortly would join the stars in their grand northern skyline. Warded from the frigid winds, myself and two others had been hunched over a campfire, while the mission commander reviewed his map. The plan was set, but when we had first arrived at this lonely station, the timing had not been right for us to proceed any further. The darkening sky above, slowly freckled with stars obscured by rolling masses of grey. The moon—quickly becoming pronounced as the sun's last reaches disappeared into the sea—shone brightly when exposed, but the clouds were dense from coastal moisture and when they blocked the moon we were all swallowed by a great blanket of darkness.
The quiet meandering pleasantries of idle conversation died as Lothaire stood, rolling up the navigational parchment.
“Ready yourselves, it is time to ride.” His low spoken words rumbled across the open fire, signaling with certainty that our journey was to begin at last. The fire was doused with haste, indeed before I was even to my feet. I wished dearly not to fall behind, nor to be any kind of bother to my compatriots; our mission was reconnaissance which, as I understood it, required the stealthy haste and perception of those cats of prey which this frigid foreign country knew nothing of. I am not a military man by trade, nor am I a hunter; I am an academic and sportsman, neither of which seem particularly suited to my recent exploits as an enlisted man. I was eager to not look a fool to these worthy men.
Hurrying to load my saddle, cramming what few things I had unwisely removed during our sit back into the rough leather pack satchels, I knew I was seeming exactly opposite as I wished before my compatriots. To them, my uniform was a mystery which they viewed with morbid curiosity, their thoughts shown open from their eyes, saying: why does this Southern fop persist among us? It was several occasions before that I had been asked this pointed question openly.
“Penance,” was all I could really muster as an explanation. The morbid curiosity ensued, and the depth of my doubts deepened.
Crunching, the snowy earth compacted under hoof as we made our way to the foot of the mountain through the shifting night lights of the frozen wood. Our pace was worthy, but by all conventional metrics abysmally slow, and the cold gnawed at my flesh through the furs meant to protect me from the elements. Shivering, I ritualistically cursed my geographical handicap owed to my acclimation to the balmy, sun-stricken plains which should be my home.
And I did miss those lands, each day I stood watch with thin leather gloves and each night I suffered under the crude drab wool blankets my dwelling was furnished with; tonight though, I missed even those primitive textiles—I missed the walls and the crackling remains of my hearth. O’ my heart longed for any type of finery, in tortuous vanity. Tortured though I was, I was steeled not to show it to my compatriots. Their blood was warmer than mine and doubtless, they suffered less; still I knew I should be keen to recall that this was their country which was at war with itself and their king who was challenged by a usurper. Foreign dandy from Southerlands though I may be, I am not without wit; if there is one thing which I bring with me, it is my priviness to the contours of politics.
The Kaltics are a harsh land with bloody history—like many places, certainly—the peoples and geographies divided up by claims and names and historical conflicts. The Kingdom of Kalstaat is ruled by Kaiser Asher Varyn, who united several powerful Northern Houses by slaying his cousin and marrying the Duchess Katherine Kane of Queensport, now the union’s seat of power.
Asher is my age, and about as popular with his countrymen as I am with the courts in Sanardu… His supporters are fierce, and his detractors moreso. The young Kaiser’s lineage and religious inclinations are offensive to some of the more staunch Northern Folk, and it is from these proud people that an overlooked gentleman of alleged Anhald nobility has risen and gathered arms—a would-be usurper calling himself Dietrich von Hallon.
I am keen to clarify that this gentleman Dietrich merely calls himself von Hallon, for it is the opinion of several learned scholars—including this one—that Dietrich is not of legitimate Hallon blood. It may well be that he is a bastard of this great and ancient Northern House, but more likely that he is really from an obscure mercantile family which has afforded him riches and a path to claim heir to the throne. He is, however, totally illegitimate in this regard, though this pointed fact has been impossible to circulate to any meaningful impact on the man’s power. War has already begun, and his supporters are staunch to see him seated on Asher’s throne.
Dietrich definitely has the mind of a great general, and this prowess has permitted him to harass the legitimate Kingdom of Kalstaat with concerning success. He is likely independently wealthy, but after displaying Asher’s weakness to the greater Kaltic area, will have most probably attracted secret benefactors. This is especially true from those northern lords who, with great zeal, worship the divine presence of Ignis; Dietrich is professedly a devout Ignite, and has used Asher’s mixed stance on the subject as further grounds to challenge him. And challenge him he has—Dietrich has penned biting letters to grind salt into wounds after each successful operation, sewing uncertainty in Asher’s court. There is also evidence that Dietrich has successfully employed spies within Queensport, indeed within the castle itself, though these suspicions are kept close to the inner circle; only my personal proximity to Asher allowed me to learn this troubling news. Actually, it seemed to me that my talents would be better put to use solving this issue of spies, but it was my fate to remain as a simple levy through the duration of this troubling conflict.
This frustration with my misuse was only outweighed by the strong guilt which demanded the expiation of an aristocrat becoming a soldier. Pulling my coat collar closer around my neck, I felt the cold dark winds rip through my clothes, chilling the skeleton beneath my freezing blood and flesh; however loathly I may feel, I refused to abandon my punishment ‘lest I lose my very soul.
Civil war is always an ugly thing for a country to go through; this I learned as a child when my own country was briefly plunged into violent and fierce unrest. And I tried hard to return this perspective to my periphery as I cursed the inhospitable glacial air blown in from the coast; my sympathies should lie with the compatriots which I had agreed to fight for; at least my home was safe, far away as it may be. It would do no one any good afterall, to brood too heavily.
The dense thicket of snow-shrouded wood remained eerily silent as we traversed, the sound of our beasts making worthy pace sounding all the louder therefore. My wandering thoughts returned to this darkly gleaming land, which had begun to slope upward sharply. The snow beneath our beasts deepened, and became treacherous; trees jumped up from what looked like whirlpools of snow, which I had been warned could swallow a man and suffocate him as easily as the ebbing ocean might. These trees though, seemed to thin in number, being replaced during our ascent by great hulking stone extrusions that littered the rugged mountainscape. Presently—and owing to this change of terrain—our brave and worthy mission commander, Lothaire, held a signaling fist in the air, bringing our small frozen party to a halt.
“Tie the horses, we shall climb the mountain on foot and descend back down this way when our mission is complete.” The simple words filled me with dread. Climbing was not something I could stomach easily; sail me on the oceans-wide through storm, or set me on march through the bug-infested disease ridden jungles east of Sanardu, but it seemed to me that man was simply not meant to climb. Alas, there was no sound of protest from my lips, which remained clamped shut and chapped. I disembarked from my beast, and tied him next to Reyne and Aryn’s; Lothaire tied his to its own tree.
Aryn was a foreigner like myself, but he was far better travelled and certainly more rugged—I watched him, lapsing in my own efforts, as he prepared himself for the climb. His lengthy lumbering form looked not at all ideal for alpine scrambling, nor did his elvish skin seem accustomed to the frigid conditions, but frustratingly he seemed far and away more at home here than I felt myself. I suppose he had spent a great deal more time becoming accustomed to the harshness of nature. Ironic, I thought, I consider myself a ‘naturalist’ but nature conquers me with ease. It is a common failing of academia, I reflected, that we spent too much time studying and not enough time living; no amount of reading would teach me the skills this palen elf had accumulated from traversing wildernesses innumerable.
At last, I had myself situated, though I was last to be in this condition. No further words having been necessary since Lothaire’s signal, we silently began our trek up the spirling snow-laden staircase of this modest mountain.
“What is the name of this summit which we climb?” I asked, betraying a chatter to my voice. I instantly regretted my question, knowing my ignorance and insistence upon knowing trivial details would feed into the already emasculating perception my cohort had of me.
“Mount Hangfelsen,” came the attentive reply of the dark haired Reyne. Dark haired and grey eyed, with sharp features, pale complexion and a glowering disposition, Sir Reyne might have been mistaken for myself if not for his voice and indomitable demeanor. He was a secretive, cold-toned gentleman who was, of course, a stalwart member of the mysterious Ashen Truth. The Ashen Truth, or The Truth as its members hushedly referred to it as, was a coven of heretical zealots which existed within Kaiser Asher’s court; his tolerance for them may have well started the very war which gave me cause to be in my present situation. I knew of several members of The Truth, but very little of their purpose or method of operation, only that they did not believe in the sanctity of the Pantheon and that their counsel was influential to the young Kaiser und Kaiserin.
I liked Reyne, despite his regular disposition, because I had seen it thawed. We drank heavily one evening in the Port bar, and exchanged stories of our island upbringings and tyrant fathers. He was not at all the trusting type, but I understood why. Trust, afterall, begets treachery; this is the lesson any who study the science of politics must learn.
Huffing, trying to gain back my breath, I felt myself sweat; I did not think it possible that I could sweat in this icy, miserable, horrible cold weather, but alas! I was sweating quite plainly on my brow. The science of politics… I thought to myself, The science of politics does not account well enough for the acute actuality of human misery! All those sitting in their gold high back chairs before their great tables, scrawling in ornate and most learned diction upon rich white scrolls, dictating the fate of nations from their seats of power; they know not of the world which their sciences is meant to model.
Trying not to think on my anguish, and to keep quiet the complaining which I so desperately would like to pronounce, I pondered my own errors in the noble profession of government. It was these errors, afterall, that demanded the ‘penance’ I claimed as my reason for being enlisted in this cursed conflict in the first place. It was these errors which haunted me with a fixation on the macabre necessity of my own suffering.
Actually, the whole thing had been Asher’s idea. He was a friend in childhood, when I first came to Queensport to study under then Duchess Elizabeth Kane, Katherine’s mother. I tried to advise him on his pursuit of Katherine’s hand, and how to handle his brutish cousin James Varyn, who threatened his political ambitions. I thought I was very wise then, and most well learned indeed; I believed with earnestness that I was more intelligent than my siblings, than my cousins in Sanardu, and indeed many of those who had thought to inform me otherwise. My arrogance led me to rot, and finding myself on the precipice of absolute moral ruin in this foriegn land, I asked my estranged friend for advice. He told me I should not leave for home, but rather, accept that I am not yet fit to rule anywhere or anyone; first and before I may be ready, I must learn to be ruled in a place not ever to be my own. Distraught, I was unable to find wit enough to defend myself or argue against these ideas, so now I am here, under boreal skies—which hung above me this very evening, a great abyss.
Lothaire led our march with prodigious power, to the beat of our heaving dragon’s breath. The stars above began to shine brighter, as we left some of the clouds below us. Strangely enough, I found that my vertigo was not nearly in full effect, the dark glimmering of the snow behind us failing to create a proper sense of distance. It seemed to absorb light in a manner which, perplexingly, did not convey the depth which I knew it must have; and, this I was most thankful for.
Lothaire asked Aryn to estimate our pace, to which The Ranger replied that we were making a most timely pace indeed. I was suspicious, but failed to comment, relenting within that my active mind had distracted me from the torment of the journey at hand.
Incredibly, it seemed quickly after this exchange that the alpine terrain pitched forward and leveled out into a kind of basin-like valley, which we all entered and crossed, before it began to dip down again slowly into a scramble of exposed rock. Carefully, we slid and climbed down the great and regal debris, taking every precaution to accommodate our packs and the difficulty they presented in descending over these rocks.
I knew the plan well enough to know that we would descend like this for some time, until we had eyes on the enemy encampment. I was not enjoying the idea of returning upwards over this scramble, but satisfied myself with the temporary relief of our downhill spell. After travelling downward this way some thousand paces, we reached an alcove where we could see into the valley below.
The lights from the war camp were clearly visible, and I suddenly realized that we were not nearly so high above the ground as my imagination had feared; if we were, there would be no hope of being able to make out the individual details of the enemy’s encampment, but through spyglass, they were visible for estimation.
I have stressed earlier that I am not a military man of any kind, having received nothing more than the most introductory education in war-time strategies and having no experience in the logistical nightmare that is managing such a conflict. However, I am an observant person and my aforementioned handicap did not inhibit me from making comparison between the forces I had seen garrisoned in Queensport, Oren, et al and the mighty encampment below our perch; their numbers were frighteningly numerous with—by my estimations—over five-hundred tent lights. I scanned the faces of my compatriots, expecting likewise signs of worry or dismay. Our worthy commander did not grimace or dismay, coolly directing Sir Reyne to make entry of what was being observed. Looking through spyglass, Aryn and I both assisted in reporting the materiel in full. We counted their infantry, archers, cavalry, and siege machines, all of which were numerous beyond expectation. Previously, as I alluded to with my brief on Dietrich’s use of spies, the false-Hallon had conducted his military in a most underhanded way, keeping his forces always in small camps hidden in the forest tundra. This fact too, had done some to keep his approval lower on the home front, many finding these tactics disdainful and cowardly. It seemed that this convention was soon not to be maintained as chief strategy, seeing the worthy army menacing below us. Dietrich was plainly outfitted now for proper, gentlemanly warfare.
“We have what we have come for, let us make back at once.” Lothaire leveled the words at his cohort, his tone soured by his intense dislike for the enemy which we studied.
“Wait,” replied Reyne, still watching the encampment below, “there is a patrol leaving from their north entrance, heading due east towards the foot of the mountain. Commander, I bet you anything that’s a raid party headed towards the roads between Oren and Queensport. They’re going hunting.”
Aryn replied: “If that is true, they will need to go around the base of Hangfelsen. We could cut them off with an ambush.” I looked to Lothaire, remaining quiet.
“We will take them, the bastards will not be ready for us. Come, let us make haste.” The words spoken by our worthy commander horrified me, as I had clearly seen the size of the party which we apparently planned to attack—they were at least twice our number! I knew that Lothaire was a famed combatant whose ability was not to be doubted, and certainly The Ranger was a gifted and crafty hunter, but between them, Sir Reyne, and myself—I was far from certain that the battle would go in our favor. Despite these most acute reservations, I steeled myself again for the journey first back up, then down the alpine slopes to where our horses were tied.
I felt this incredible sense of lightning-like anticipation, not at all dulled by the waxing sensation of dread, as we made our return down Mount Hangfelsen toward our horses and toward battle. Wordlessly I traveled in single file rank with my compatriots, not finding the stomach to concentrate on the discussion they held between themselves; all I could muster was visions of my own doom, of my lifeless corpse punctured and spewing blood into the smattered white snow which would be our grave. I had seen combat on several occasions already, indeed not being a virgin to the taking of lives with Messer or crossbow—it frightened me always, to be in a situation that demanded this brutality, but fright did not describe the desolation growing within. I was certain we all were to die.
My compatriots did not seem to share this certainty, indeed they seemed almost eager for the opportunity. I tried to imagine that this zeal was warranted, and that it would somehow protect us; afterall, it was surely right that I should trust in these worthy men and I did have to admit that my own cowardice was no metric to gauge the chances of our success. I watched Lothaire as we continued our descent, admiringly. I would be considering desertion had it been any other commander, but Lothaire had a special aura around him that made it impossible to believe that anything bad could befall him. I felt that maybe, if I stayed close to his side, that aura could protect me from the doom which I so vividly imagined.
Continue downward we did, the downward grade incline being easier on my muscles but somehow more treacherous; my vertigo too, seemed heightened from this perspective of travel. I actually felt myself grow dizzy, as I slowed to choose my steps and the scale of the descent before me seemed to swallow me. Mesmerized, I was about to pitch forward and fall off my unsure footing, but the firm hand of Lothaire gripped my shoulder to steady me. I had very nearly tumbled, my face flushing with embarrassment and with the appreciation for the dangerous error I so nearly made.
"Careful, Atrus. We wouldn't want to lose you." I nodded feebly, grateful the commander was as watchful as he was strong. His leadership and judgment, I decided, would protect us all through the daring ambush on the imposter Hallon dogs.
Without further incident, the four of us reached the bottom of Hangfelsen, and with the help of The Ranger, found the spot where we had hidden our beasts. I adjusted my scarf and rubbed at my chapped face, but no longer did I fixate upon and curse the frigid temperature—I was far too excited by the fearsome prospect of battle to care for mild discomforts such as climate.
Our plan was simple, and more reasonable in its aim than the complete destruction of our target. We would position ourselves on the road from Queensport to Oren, situating ourselves north from Oren, and conceal ourselves in the shadow of the road. Lying in wait, the raid party was certain to pass us by, heading northbound towards the outskirts of the trade encampments which serviced those crucial caravans between the two cities. Certainly, they hoped to ride that road up into our lines and harass unsuspecting targets; if we could sustain them some serious loss, they would most likely abandon their hunting mission. Our goal was to slay their officer and as many of his men in a quick, disorienting attack, before ourselves falling back into the woods and making our escape. Without a commanding officer, and frustrated by the sunrise attack, we figured they would be in poor shape to make a real nuisance of themselves to the caravans. I was still terribly nervous, but this hit-and-run style attack plan gave me real hope of not just survival, but of glorious victory over a dastardly enemy.
END, CHAPTER 1
END, CHAPTER 1