“I have to go far north, to the north woods,” Adam’s father had said, sitting him down in the hall. “An alderman is true to his word. I and the king have sworn oaths to support the Waswagoning, and they have called for our aid. So I must go and lead the king’s army. Listen to your brother; he will be Alderman while I am gone.” With those words, and a loving cuff to the side of the head, his father went north with two dozen good warriors, each mounted on a valuable horse and armored with the best armor the blacksmiths can fashion, following the call of honor. They took with them a priest of Christ, the god of healing, wagons full of provisions, and the castle’s only rifle.
It was early spring, and the farmers were beginning to ready their fields for planting, the fishermen scraped their hulls and mended their nets for the great lake’s summer calm. “Those aren’t rocks, you know,” said Adam’s tutor in an amused tone. They stood on the castle walls and watched the ancient waters crash against the shore. “The Old Ones broke their poured stone roads and lined the shore with them. They’ve been worn down by the waves, and your grandfather added more stones from the ruins. It prevents the waves from washing the shore away, and keeps the castle safe.”
Adam asked, “Why would they break their roads?”
“What would you do when the logs and timbers which make up this wall we’re standing on begin to rot?”
Adam nodded in understanding. He was only thirteen, but was already as well educated as any freeman on his father’s lands.
As the younger son, Adam was being educated to think, manage, and pray. His elder brother, Frederick the Younger, named for their father, was ten years older and already an accomplished warrior. There were once two brothers between Adam and Frederick, but they were taken by the fevers which scoured the land every few years. His mother occasionally spent long periods of time staring at the jars holding their remains in the family crypt below the castle. Adam was her last surviving son, Frederick having been borne by their father’s previous wife. He also had two sisters, both younger. His father had desired more children, but his wife proved to no longer be capable. Rather than divorce her, he accepted what the gods had given him and chose to become content.
Adam looked away from the waves, and turned to the sound of wooden swords clashing. His brother was helping their father’s marshal train new guards to take the place of those who went north. They were a mix of drunkards and extra sons of farmers, sent by the sheriff because they were useless to their community, but in time they could be turned into true warriors. In time, the smiths would make them proper armor—leather and mail—but for now they were dressed in heavy cloth. It would dull the pain from the swing of a wooden training sword, but would be useless against sword or axe, or the bite of a ghoul. Adam had recently decided that their main purpose was to ensure that alderman were better armed than those who might rise against them. His tutor had chided him for being too cynical, but his father had laughed and said he might be right. But they also existed to enforce the law, and to protect the alderman’s people from invaders, and from ghouls.
Once Adam had asked his tutor what the ghouls were. “No one knows,” the tutor said, “they appeared a thousand years ago and destroyed the civilization of the Old Ones. They are dead, for the dead can become ghouls, but they do not rot away like the dead. They seek flesh as their sustenance, and a bite is always fatal. When you are older, we’ll study them more closely.” The tutor evidently told his father, who told Adam that he was too young for it. What Adam did know was that they mostly lived in the Old Ones’ ruins, and often wandered out in ones and twos. But sometimes came out in vast hordes, which overwhelmed communities. It had happened once in Adam’s life.
When he was a small boy, and all his brothers still lived, a vast horde had come from the south, covering the land. He remembered fire and screaming. And moaning, moaning all night and day. All of his father’s people had run to the castle and men and women kept the ghouls from breaking down the walls and gates by stabbing down with long spears. Adam knew that you can only kill a ghoul by destroying its brain. The marshal had once told Adam, late in a winter’s night and fueled by sour ale, that his grandfather, old beyond description and having long since given up power, took the family rifle and slipped away during a lull one night. Gunshots rang out for hours and the horde moved on. Adam’s father had gone out the next day with some picked men and returned with the rifle.
He held the rifle once, Adam had. It was ancient and mysterious. One of the castle blacksmiths, who kept it working and crafted its ammunition, told him that it had been in the family since the Old Ones. That it was carried by Adam’s ancestors in the great wars of the flatlands. And that Adam’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather had been a warlord of the north, and had captured this land using the rifle. How his father was an alderman and not a king was because long ago someone else had more rifles.
It was the way of the world that the strong ruled and the weak toiled, it ensured survival. Adam saw no problem with this, he was of the strong and his toil would be out of duty and not out of necessity. And duty took him from the ramparts that spring day, despite his preference for practicing his sword and shield—he was not a natural swordsman, his brother would tell him, but he was energetic—he went indoors to study with his tutor. “And what is to the west?” asked the tutor.
“The lead hills and the great river,” Adam casually answered.
“And beyond that?”
“Tell me about the flatlands, young Adam.”
He grinned, “they’re flat.” Seeing the tutor was not amused, Adam continued. “There was a trader last summer who claimed to have come from the far west, beyond the flatlands, in the tall mountains. He said that there was a vast empire beyond the great river, of horsemen who hunt buffalo and don’t fear the ghouls. The horsemen had never been conquered, because no one can catch them. Armies advance, and the horsemen retreat and launch spears and arrows until armies break, and then they chase the invaders down and mutilate them.”
“Why do you think the horsemen don’t expand their empire east?”
“The trader said that horses can’t win in the hills and forests, that this is land for infantry.”
The tutor prodded: “What about south of us? Are those not flatlands too?”
Adam thought about that. “Horsemen could only cross the great river on boats. They’d be cut down as they landed.”
The tutor changed the subject, “And what is beyond the tall mountains?”
“Ghouls,” answered Adam.
Weeks passed with no news from Adam’s father, but life moved on. Frederick the Younger held court in the hall, hearing the concerns and petitions of the people, dispensing justice when necessary. Petitioners were lined up waiting, as thunder growled in the distance, and the sheriff stalked in. Adam was sitting on the side of the hall, watching his brother and mother question a man who claimed his neighbor was stealing his land.
The man was ragged and spoke roughly, “That bastard moves the fence at night.”
A shout from the gathered audience replied, “I move it back. This old fool drinks all night and then wakes up and spends his day moving a fence, and neglects his crops. And then he has the gall to blame everyone else for his problems.”
The audience jeered at the two, and Frederick shouted for silence. “Will anyone swear an oath to support either of these men?” An oath was not given lightly; it was a man’s honor.
The sheriff shouted, “My lord, if I may interrupt.”
“Sheriff Harold,” Frederick waved him forward, “why have you worn armor and brought a sword into my hall?”
“Lord, the king sends for you. He waits outside your gates.”
Frederick looked at his mother, and back at the sheriff. “The king? He is surely welcome in this hall.”
The sheriff shifted nervously, “I do not pretend to understand the king’s wishes.”
Frederick nodded. “Very well.” Adam watched his brother stride through the hall toward the door, and the sheriff turn to follow, hand on his sword. Curious, Adam followed.
Outside, through the open gates, he saw the king’s banners and a mass of armed warriors. A king would surely follow with a large entourage. As his brother strode out of the gates, toward the banners, movement to the side caught Adam’s eye. There was a warrior in his family’s armor against the outer wall, slumped over as if napping. But, something wasn’t right. His leather armor looked wet. Looking the other way, Adam saw two warriors sprawled out on the ground, a streak of blood on the wall behind them. Turing toward his brother, he breathed in deeply to shout a warning when hands grabbed him from behind. Struggling, he saw the king’s warriors charge towards his brother. All fists, he pulled free and saw his brother had disarmed one of his attackers and was fighting the rest. Another body plowed into Adam and his assailant, and the whole bunch fell to the ground. Looking back over, Adam barely saw his brother kill an attacker, blood spray into the sky. There were several bodies on the ground around him. Struggling, Adam almost got free when a blow to the back of the head put him on the ground. He heard his mother scream, tried to rise, and then a second blow brought darkness.
Adam slowly opened his eyes. The sun was low on the horizon. Consciousness gradually returned. He was tied: feet together, arms behind his back. He was in a cart: it swayed with a horse’s gait. His mouth was dry, his head pounded. The effort of waking up sent him into a fit of coughing. Adam’s mother was next to him, staring into the setting sun. “You are now Frederick the Younger,” she said to him, “the eldest son must take his father’s name.” Adam began to respond, but his mother’s words prompted threats from the warriors following on either side of the cart. His brother was dead. Maybe his father, too.
Looking forward, Adam…Frederick…saw they were approaching the king’s fortress deep within ruins of the old ones. He had been here once before. The king chose to show his power by retaking an ancient city from the ghouls, and fortified a portion where once great stone buildings stood. The stone had been used to build walls, which were strong enough to keep ghouls out. The gates stood across two ancient bridges made of poured stone, and shored up and patched over time with timber and more stone. The bridges spanned an ancient sunken highway which once was a great avenue of commerce for the old ones, but now was a ghastly pit, a place of execution. A moat filled with the living dead. An unmistakable display of power, it said that this king made the gods tremble. It was, of course, not reflective of the king. Adam…Frederick…remembered the king as kind old man.
The cart carrying the young man and his mother traversed one of the bridges. Moans arose from the dark pit below. Across the way, on the other bridge, guards were pushing condemned men into the darkness. Adam…Frederick…could not hear their screams over the moans, and considered himself lucky for it. Once inside the fortress, Adam…Frederick…and his mother were roughly pulled from the cart and dragged across a courtyard. They were then separated, as Adam…Frederick…was thrown into a dark room.
Sprawled out in darkness, unable to right himself, Adam came to terms with his new identity. He was Frederick for now on. His family and people needed it. The head of his family had been named Frederick since they became aldermen. And now he was to be alderman. Or he might shortly be dead, he didn’t know.
He also didn’t know how long he lay there in the darkness, but eventually he heard footsteps and the click of a lock and then he was blinded by brightness. His eyes squeezed shut, he felt himself picked up and carried. After a minute or two, he felt himself carefully set down. This room was much dimmer and he gingerly opened his eyes. His mother was prostrate on the ground before a dais. On the dais was a young man seated. Frederick didn’t know who this was; he wasn’t the king he had met as a child. His mother cried, “Great king, your father looked upon my husband with favor, please show us mercy.”
The king raised an eyebrow, “My father is dead, killed by treachery.” So, this was the old king’s son. “Treachery spawned by your husband and elder son.”
“It is a lie!” Frederick’s mother wailed. “My husband is a loyal servant to your father!”
A voice behind Frederick responded, “Your husband is a traitor, and he will soon be a dead traitor.” It was the voice of Sheriff Harold. “I discovered the treason myself and warned our good king about it. Unfortunately, I was too late.”
“And a good service you have done, indeed, dear Harold.” The king waved him forward.
He strode past Frederick, approached the dais, and dropped to one knee. “Sheriff Harold, we must reward you for your service. Alderman Frederick of Windplace is hereby stricken of his rights and titles. And you, Harold, are now Alderman of Windplace, and are owner of all of the rights that implies. Frederick of Windplace is a traitor and is now an enemy of the crown; he will be hunted down and killed. Lady Windplace,” the king looked at Frederick’s mother, “you have been accused of being an accomplice in treason. What do you have to say?”
Frederick’s mother was weeping on the floor, “I swear it is false!”
Harold rose to his feet, “Your grace, I make an oath that this woman was complicit in her husband’s treason.”
The king nodded, “Do any here dispute the charges?”
Frederick shouted, “They are lies!”
Harold quickly replied, “The whelp of a traitor cannot give oaths.”
The king nodded his assent to the judgment, “Since none will swear to the lady’s innocence, I must find her guilty. She is to be fed to the ghouls.”
Guards came forward and pulled Frederick’s mother away by her feet. She clawed at the floor and screamed for mercy. As she passed Frederick, their eyes met. He had never seen such determination. She yelled to him, as she passed, “You must seek revenge! Blood feud! Avenge your family!” And then she was gone from the hall.
Frederick turned toward the king. The sheriff appeared to be gloating, “This one should share the same fate.”
The king looked at Frederick and cocked his head. “No, this boy is too young, the law won’t allow it. Instead, we shall be merciful. Adam of Windplace, come forward.”
Hands grabbed Adam and pulled him toward the dais. “My name is Frederick,” Adam spat.
The king smiled. “Adam of Windplace, you are not complicit in the crimes of your family, we am sure of it. You are also merely thirteen. So, you will not be killed. But we can’t allow you to remain in our presence. Instead, you will be taken south to the flatlands. There, you will be given to the Brothers of Prometheus. You will become a monk. You are banished from these lands. If you return, you will be executed.”
Hands grabbed Frederick from behind, and dragged him into the night.