The Lanvernite Succession
In a truly ambitious attempt to increase the production of his citizens Bartleby Sax converted all state run orphanages into labor camps during the second year of his reign. A new workforce of children flooded filthy sweat shops, manufacturing warehouses, and war supply camps. The casualty rates were atrocious but either more profit or reduced welfare costs were both suitable outcomes for Sax.
Ten year old Max embarked upon his career in the public sector as a slave in these labor camps. Mules required three times the food and maintenance as a poorly tended child, so Max spent seven hard years offloading, hauling, and stacking freight from large river barges which visited the Sandbury docks hourly. Exposure to villainy, depravity, and hopelessness can either break or forge the soul into something tougher, invulnerable; indestructible. Perhaps it were these qualities that caught the eye of the Iron Guard captain when he found that Max had crushed both legs of his lieutenant.
The dispute had arisen when the soldier demanded that Max offload a crate for inspection. These items belonged to a wealthy merchant in town. That could only mean the merchant held favor with Sax in some form. Inspections were a common way to confiscate items freely. Max would be responsible if something turned up missing before the crates were loaded on board. The soldier drew his club and demanded Max open the crates immediately as bystanders pretended they could not see or hear anything over the roar of silence near the dock. Max strained against the pulleys and rocking ropes holding the next 600 pound crate from the ship’s deck – sweat streaming from his biceps in the baking sun. Years of dock labor had built layers of muscle and the ability to endure endless abuse. He concluded that the merchant would consider damaged goods were better than no goods at all and released the ropes allowing the precarious crate to swing free and drop on top of the soldier – crushing his legs underneath and knocking two nearby soldiers into the water. They struggled to remove their chain vests as water lapped over their faces.
Max assumed he would be executed and then tried – in exactly that order – when the Iron Guard captain walked over with an appraising look on his face. The soldier under the box cried in agony as three Iron Guards lifted the crate off his crushed legs.
“We need more like you and less like him,” the Captain growled in a foreign accent nodding to the whimpering lieutenant. “One metal band for another, it’s no difference to me, ” Max replied as his neck chain which tethered him to the working docks shifted in reply.
And so began Max’s second career with the Sax dictatorship. He excelled within the Iron Guard regime. The pay was better, which meant he received some, and quickly established himself as quiet, ruthless, and unwavering. For six years he gradually created the same armored protection on the outside as his mind had created on the inside. Custom fitted and unique, with the Black Eagle Insignia encrusted on his shoulders, Max was easily identified on sight by his armor and was commonly called Ironchest because of it. Indeed, it was the very same armor and mental discipline that allowed him to survive when his entire unit was slain by enraged militia outside the Sawtooth Range village of Goodworth. The Iron Guard had underestimated public opinion in the outlying areas and had found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Max managed to wound and incapacitate a half score of militia before he was dragged down.
He awoke. That in itself was surprising. The villagers had not dumped him in a open grave. A man of later years looked at him grimly as Max lay in a simple bed. Fresh bandages were wrapped around a dozen injuries on his body. Some of the wounds still oozed with blood.
“They tell me nothing, there is no information to be had from me,” Max hoarsely commented.
“Yes, I’m aware you have very little understanding at all, on much of anything,” the older gentlemen replied sadly.
“You are born to Lanverness, yet you plague it like Sax and his foreign army,” the old man continued. The man considered something for a long moment and asked, “have you ever seen a Sambrian Ox?”
“What does it matter?” Max scowled.
“Farmers in Sambria breed these oxen for labor. They are born the size of large dog. The farmers put a yoke around their neck connect it to a peg in the ground. Try as they might these little ones cannot break the chain and eventually give up. Funny thing is these oxen are as a big as siege wagon when they are fully grown – and they never try to break that yoke and chain around their neck. A child can handle one. In reality it could snap its chains like a broom handle and run free, but in its mind it doesn’t think it can because it could not when it was small. They are worked from dawn to dusk.”
“What do you want?” Max demanded half heartedly.
“I am Jason Wright. That information alone is worth a king’s ransom. As to what I want from you: nothing. It’s what I’m giving you that’s worth far more.” He carefully turned a small worn book in his hand. Its binding looked weak but mostly intact.
“Your injuries are severe I’m afraid, and healing priests are scarce in these parts. That means you will have plenty of time to think about things in this bed.” He nodded to someone outside the room. A girl in her late teens entered with a wash cloth and water. “Nadine will see to your wounds.”
He set the book on the chair and left. Max never saw him again. But Nadine stayed. She changed his bandages, fed him, and each day read from the small weathered book Wright had left behind. It was written by a scholar of the Realm called Suelfred Wymar. It contained passages from history describing a Lanverness that Max had never known. It was prosperous, peaceful, law abiding, and fair. Those were days he almost couldn’t remember. It offered ideas he had never considered—or at least never questioned. His mind attempted to tune out the ideas because he could not reconcile them with his life. They were foreign to him and yet alluring. Nadine paused in her reading on the third week. “Why do you harm your own people for him?” she asked with a flushed face. The first emotion she had ever shown him. Her brown hair was pulled back and her normally peaceful face was twisted with emotion. His wounds were mostly healed but his strength had only partially returned.
“That is what I am told to do.” Max replied as if it was answer so simple a child should understand.
“Why?” She asked. Her face more puzzled than upset.
Max began to reply but though he opened his mouth his brain offered nothing up to say, so he slowly closed his jaw. Long silent seconds passed. The wind rustled leaves outside the window.
Nadine broke his gaze and looked intently at the book as she spoke, “one of the men you injured was my brother.”
Max’s pulse quickened and his face felt hot. She had never mentioned this before. His stomach knotted as he listened. The emotion he felt to her words was new to him. He didn’t care for it.
“Our healers have done the best they can—he will survive, but will walk with a limp” she continued. “He very nearly died so I should be thankful for small miracles.”
“Nadine, I… was doing what…” He started. But she interrupted him.
“I know. What you were told.” With that she dropped the book on the ground and ran from the room. Slight tears swam in her eyes.
For the next week Nadine did not return. An older lady brought food and water. Max’s strength increased daily. He awoke late in the night to sounds of horses and metal outside the cottage. He could hear men yelling. He eased himself from the bed and opened the door to his room. He had always suspected militia guard would be outside his room but saw no one. The cottage was dark except for a few candles in the main room. He carefully made his way over to the window and peered through. Iron Guard soldiers stood in the streets. They had a dozen militia bound and beaten in the middle of the town. It appeared the militia had not gone quietly, numerous iron guard bodies were laid out on the side of the stables.
A prisoner carriage was in place loaded with 15 to 20 women and children. Max knew what would happen. The children would be placed in labor camps, just like he had grown up in. The women would service the troops, and the men would be forced into slavery for Sax or be killed. They would haul the women and children in the transport and drag the row of militia behind back to the nearest Iron Guard keep for processing. Iron Guard Soldiers were moving house to house collecting valuables and people. They were a few houses down from his.
Max considered all of this and began looking throughout the small cottage. He opened a chest in his room to find his plate armor. It had been cleaned. His sword and immense shield were inside a nearby closest. He quickly began strapping on his plate.
The pounding of a fist upon the door could be heard from the main room, “Open the door or we will open it for you. The gods help you when we do,” a solider bellowed from outside.
Before the solider could hammer the door a second time it opened quickly. He found himself staring at another Iron Guard solider in full plate. The dark visor was down as Max’s voice echoed from within.
“This cottage is clear, there are no other exits.”
The soldier took a surprised step back, as did his partner. Iron Guard units were regularly mixed and matched so it not unusual for new faces to appear, but the armor was unique and the solider was certain he had not seen this guard before.
“You’re not with us” he replied. “Does Zaceras know another unit is working this town.” The solider was less suspicious of Max than concerned that they might have to split the loot and slaves with another group. If the soldier thought Max was alone they might kill him right there and be done with it. There would be less loot sharing and fewer troubles.
Max considered his answer carefully. “Zaceras is aware and in command.”
The other soldier smiled, his blackened teeth catching the light oddly from the small nearby fires. He slicked back his greasy hair and seemed satisfied. That meant Zaceras would divide the loot and take care of his men first. Max walked past the two soldiers and headed toward the horses. Survival from this situation seemed most important. Self preservation had been ingrained into him from childhood. It had in fact allowed him to reach manhood. His best choice was to return to central Lanverness, claim he was captured and escaped. He would be assigned to another unit and things would return to normal. If Zaceras found him out here without a unit or clear reason, there was no telling what would transpire.
Max passed by the prisoner transport, making his way to a large black warhorse tied nearby.
“Max!” a voice screamed from behind him. He turned to find Nadine’s face pressed up against the bars, her hands grasping so tight her knuckles were white. Max stood still regarding her. Her normally pristine hair was in disarray. Her dress was stained. She watched him silently and looked down at the crying children in the cage. The only clean areas on their faces were from the streaming tears. “Max Ironchest?” An accented male voice questioned from beside him. Max moved his eyes inside the helmet without turning his head. Although he had never met him, this had to be Zaceras. Just as Zaceras had deduced who Max was by his armor, Zaceras had his trade mark saber and red trimmed black leather armor.
“I thought your unit was killed some months ago.” Zaceras continued. He walked slowly in Max’s direction. “I guess you can’t keep a tough soldier down.” The moment had come. Max was about to find out if he would be collected into this unit or looted and buried in the woods. He gave himself less than favorable odds given Zaceras’ reputation.
Max turned to face him directly. “I was detained until your arrival. The Will of Sax, the Will of Iron” Max repeated firmly the mantra of the Iron Guard, saluting Zaceras while doing so.
Zaceras must have decided he could use every available Iron Guardsman. The battle in the town must have been hard one. He eased his hand off his saber and said “Welcome to my command Ironchest.” He eyed Nadine keenly; her face was still pressed to the bars watching the back of Max’s head intently. “We will be done here in a few more hours, but it’s time for dinner and perhaps some relaxation. Grab her,” he said pointing to the Nadine, “and bring her to my temporary command post. Then you can report to the lieutenant for further orders.” He turned to go.
Max watched him turn. Watched Nadine’s head sink slowly in despair. He could see the militia chained on the ground, their weapons piled nearby. They were beat but not beaten. Their eyes shown with fierce hate.
Suddenly the oxen tugged against its chain.
“Why?” Max heard his own voice say. His tower shield slid down into place comfortably upon his for arm.
Zaceras stopped in mid stride. Max had spoken the single most dangerous word in the Iron Guard’s limited vocabulary. Insolence, incompetence and laziness were all Iron Guard traits, but never insurrection. It was a disease that was never tolerated to spread. Only a moment passed before Zaceras’ saber was unsheathed and cutting through the air toward Max. The captain was amazingly fast. Too fast, in fact, for Max to raise his tower shield to stop him.
The blade pierced directly between the arm joint and chest plating, a small two inch gap that had to be hit at a precise angle and with enough force to penetrate a slip disk over Max’s heart. It was the weakest area to strike in a suit of plate but near impossible to hit. But Zaceras was both deadly and accurate. He was also surprised when his blade hit steel that reverberated down his arm and caused him to drop his sword.
Max’s plate mail was customized and that design weakness was something he had altered years ago. With a single fluid motion Max drew his great sword from its releasing harness and brought it down on Zaceras in a overhead blow. It cleaved him through the collarbone. The captain toppled downward hunched over his own knees and didn’t move. The sand collected the pooling blood around his body.
Max didn’t slow. He followed with two more strikes. One cut the chain threaded through the manacles holding the row of militia soldiers. The second bent the lock off the prisoner carriage, the door swinging open.
The militia grabbed their nearby weapons silently and determined to finish what they had failed to do earlier. The women quickly guided the crying children out of the carriage and toward a nearby church.
Iron Guard soldiers realized what had happened but they there were too few nearby to handle the enraged militia. They were cut down against the feverish tide.
As Max turned back to the horses, uncertainty clouded his decisions. He was certain however that he needed to leave. He untied the warhorse, saddled the beast, and was turning to it to go when Nadine appeared beside him. She was out of breath and held the tattered book she had been reading in one hand and a tablet in another. She placed them into Max’s saddle bag.
“Those are gifts from my uncle, Jason Wright. The tablet has a message, but I do not know what it is.” She said. “Thank you Max, you saved us all” her voice carried surprise when she said it.
Max removed his helmet and placed it into a sack on the horse, then turned to her, “tell your uncle that that sometimes an ox does run free. “ He spurred the horse into the chilled night.