The McPhersons, along with the children, have only recently returned to the ranch home outside Glenfeld. While investigating the town, Amber and Vaush are the first to encounter Malik / Bran. Their meeting is rather eventful; resulting in a confrontation with some local ruffians that leaves one boy seriously injured. Concerned fathers and clansmen arrive later at the ranch house to discuss Bran and Amber’s involvement. Though there is some heated debate as to exactly how the injuries were inflicted, eventually all are forced to agree that the boy was “stepped on” by one of the horses.
Ferris, the lumberjack who adopted Malik, hoping to gain some understanding of who this dark skinned boy is and where he came from, asks Blaise to accept him along on the McPherson’s trip to Castle Locke. There, they hope Brannigan, castle mage, can possibly shed some light on the mystery.
The half-day journey is rather uneventful, with the occasional traveler seen making their way to Glenfeld for the coming games.
What follows are some of Necati’s personal observations over the ensuing days:
With less than two weeks before the start of their annual summer highland games, one cannot be surprised to see a substantial number of crazed, kilt laden barbarians crawling out from under every rock and crevice, brandishing antique arms, and furiously beating great, hairy chests in challenge to all comers. Though this may be an unfair assessment for all, especially their women folk, – which thankfully do not have hairy chests – it is an observation certainly well within the parameters of acceptable generalities concerning most of their male counterparts. Comparatively speaking, during this, their greatest of pissing contests, the typical highlander male exhibits some of the most barbaric tendencies of the human condition it has ever been my privilege to witness. Thus, I am rather looking forward to the next several weeks of reckless abandon and general mayhem to observe the unique cultural dynamics found only within these games.
That being said, I wish to acknowledge a few individuals who clearly do not fit the mold of this archaic beast we recognize as a Highlander.
First and foremost is the battle-hardened and well respected lord of this very castle from a previous age, Lord Spencer Locke. If ever there were a levelheaded man about these people, a true contradiction to the culture, it would most certainly be he. Slow to offend, yet quick to assess and fairly deal with the volatile nature of those he lords over, Locke is an individual perfectly suited to the responsibilities of his position. All the more so, despite his evident youth, a quality usually associated with the hot-headedness and rash behavior so prevalent among the clans. However, to exclusively attribute this stabilizing quality to the man alone would be erroneous on my part. A more accurate observation would be to say that the catalyst for such behavior lies in the softer nature of his spouse, Lady Jennifer.
Ah the Lady Jennifer… what dispersions could ever be cast upon this creature of true grace and endless patience? Only the Gods know how these people of a far less gentle nature ever produced such qualities in one of their own. And then there is the woman’s intellect, which far and exceeds what passes for intelligence in these higher altitudes. That the Lady is denied the dignity to openly hold a position of advisor in court only serves to highlight the stupidity this culture so greatly prizes in the average brute. But I digress.
As I pointed out earlier, not all members of this society are so easily categorized as brainless throwbacks of an earlier time. Case in point, Locke’s cousins. Horse wranglers and people of the land though they may be, Blaise McPherson and his wife Ruby comprise a rather forward thinking pair. Their gender biases tend to be much more liberal, a quality most likely developed by giving more attention to their herds than to the chauvinistic tendencies of their fellow clansmen. In fact, as I now put ink to words, these very same enigmas have secured residence at the stronghold.
I label them enigmas, for the McPhersons are truly a puzzle among their kind. Most certainly, on first appearances, Blaise is everything one would come to expect of a Highlander… loud, gregarious, and possessing a brash sense of humor. And from what I understand, the man harbors the force of a giant’s hammer blow behind each fist. The long blade he carries is also something to respect. Yet, he is never quick to bring either to the fore. Rather, Blaise is a thinking man who prefers taking the long view. He is often willing to forgo pride in the face of practicality, though he is not a man to push far. This disposition of character is made all the more evident in his choice of mate.
Ruby is definitely, or should that be “defiantly,” not your typical Highlander female. Not only does she prefer the labor of a clansman, working and riding along side her husband in the rolling hills of green and gray to the typical domestic fair, but she also effectively wields the weapons and tongue oft relegated to her male counterpart. Though most men in this region reluctantly acknowledge that there is none to equal her prowess in the short blade or targeting a bow on the fly, to my way of thinking, they would rather consume a freshly dropped patty than openly say so. And those hazarding to challenge Ruby directly, or indirectly through Blaise, have always answered to this woman of surprising talent. To my knowledge, never once has Ruby failed to carve-out a victory.
Thus, taken as a whole, the four of which I write are a formidable group indeed. Like the richest of creams, it should not surprise anyone that they have risen to the top of what I would otherwise consider a vast container of curdled milk.
And while I am on the subject of quartets, a rather interesting set of youths arrived in tandem with our recent guests. Normally children of the local populace are beneath my general concerns, but these four are anything but local or your average adolescents.
The first individual that bears recognition is the McPherson’s daughter, Amber. That she is anyone but her mother’s daughter should not be unexpected. Self assured, competent, and trained in the ways of a horse wrangler, Amber is more than capable of carrying on the family tradition of female strength and self-reliance. She has already claimed much of her mother’s skill in the use of the bow, and is well on her way to receiving the hilt of her mother’s fame with the short sword. There is also no short supply of courage when it comes to standing before her peers or betters. For certain, this is one that will bear watching as the years progress.
I now turn to the second child of note, yet certainly not one of second importance. He is Amber’s distant cousin, nephew to the castle’s lord, and na-baron of Hartwich, Simon Locke.
Having only observed Simon in these past few days, I would be confident in my assessment that the son mimics everything I remember the father to be: well mannered, serious, concerned with what is proper. So much so, that he nearly jumped out of his skin when I addressed him by his given name in an informal setting. Simon is also inquisitive, detail oriented, and a thinker. I can literally hear the young man’s gears grinding in his skull as he pieces together the fine elements of every privileged conversation. Though he does seem to have only recently commenced with his martial training, the boy’s current mentors, Ruby and my Lord Locke, could hardly be improved upon by local standards. Should Simon continue to abide by his inherited nature, of which I possess little doubt, the na-baron stands to become an excellent tactician and military man. Not to mention, future lord of Hartwich. Undeniably, the man I anticipate will be a worthy lord to serve.
As for the remaining pair, I am somewhat torn as to which deserves the greater honor of my final thoughts. The uniqueness of character to be found in either is more than enough to warrant such favor. As such, perhaps I shall take them in order of potential concern, the measure of two evils if you will, with the lesser going first.
How this next child materialized in western Anglandia is undoubtedly a mystery for the sages. Though I understand his true name to be Malik, Bran is the designation he has been honored with by those discovering him in the Harwood forest, a name he wishes to continue to use. I suppose it is fitting considering he is darker of skin than any raven I have ever encountered. If Brannigan is to be believed, and I can arrive at no logical reason to dispute his findings, the boy comes from the east, beyond the Umrass Expanse. Again, how he was found in our local forest is anyone’s guess.
From what intelligence I’ve gained about this unique young man, he is rather rash in behavior and prone to inviting violence as a consequence. His mere appearance and use of foreign speech is enough to cause a disturbance amongst the more base members of this society. Many mistake his outwardly appearance for local superstition, a forest or cave demon if you will. As such, I cannot help but believe his presence might very easily become a destabilizing factor within the region. It does not require much for these people to fracture off and begin hostilities, as recent events in the miner’s tavern here can attest too. For now, I am rather uncertain as to what should be done concerning him, if anything is to be done at all. Perhaps the barbarians will see to this problem in their own time and fashion.
Now let earnest thought be turned to the greater concern, the fourth child of note and the na-baron’s friend, Vaush.
If I have learned anything from my years at court, it is this: first impressions, when taken seriously, are often what save your life. That, and a quicker blade. Therefore, if I were to be honest to my intuition, my first impression of Vaush was that of a viper in tall grass. And such notions must be taken seriously, for one ignores such creatures at their own peril.
In a way, the boy reminds me of myself. If that is meant to be a condemnation, I cannot say as to whom it should be attributed. What I can say is, he watches. He analyzes. And he does it all rather anonymously, surreptitiously from the fringe, never at the center of things. For Vaush, the less attention garnered the better. What is rare in one so young is that he doesn’t even need to try hiding, and should he be caught in the act, he fails to react, drawing even less attention. Not that any other than a trained professional would spot him actually doing so. I suppose it was this very same void of general child-like behavior that caused me to focus upon Vaush in the first place. As my mentor was fond of saying, “What is obviously missing, is still obvious.” So focus upon the boy I did, and rightfully so.
My suspicions were proven correct when the following day Ruby took her young brood out to the open grounds for weapons practice.
Again, the words of my mentor come to mind, “One should always take advantage of such opportunities to observe another’s technique. There are always tales to learn. For you will never know when it might become necessary to face them directly. Even friends may one day become foes.” How unfortunate that I am able to recognize the truth of those words. But again, I digress.
Tales? Certainly Ruby has them, but I would be loath to try and put any to test personally. In any case, it would be a close thing and I would hate to wager upon the difference. She incorporates a rather fluid style, more appropriate to her smaller frame and choice of weapon. Undoubtedly the reason for her many victories against the behemoth blades used by most clansmen. The woman just never stands still long enough for their swords to come to target.
It was in this particular style that Ruby was providing instruction to her students, the four now having been joined by Brannigan’s son, Stratum (of which I will save words for another time).
At first I saw exactly what I expected to see, children in the throws of studying swordplay and the use of the bow. There was little of any significance to learn from this, excepting to recognize a level of skill commensurate to each child’s time spent with weapon in hand and access to a quality instructor. Clearly, Bran had spent some measurable time under a competent sword master. His gesture to Ruby’s blade and eventual acceptance thereof, led to a prompt illustration of practiced technique comprised of a solid stance (useful in sand), long sweeps, and quick thrusts. He seemed genuinely pleased with Ruby’s weapon, and rather reluctant to replace it with a less than satisfactory practice sword. Though having proven his competency, Ruby then had Vaush and Bran confront each other. It was here that I was treated to a true spectacle worthy of my earlier concerns.
Using blunted practice swords, the duo’s initial foray into clashing steal made it plain that this was not the first time either boy had hefted the weight of a blade in mock combat. However, I was rather surprised to witness a stilted display of footwork given their current instructors fluid tendencies. For all their effort, the two just stood toe-too-toe, as if rooted to the ground. In this manner, it was becoming rather apparent that Bran possessed the advantage and would soon become the eventual victor against his smaller adversary. But just as I was anticipating the simulation’s end, Vaush showed his true nature.
The boy moved. The boy flowed and swirled. He literally danced around the static form of Bran, presenting little in the manner of a target for the foreign fighter. For Bran, it was like trying to stab running water; something this desert child’s rock-solid stance was ill prepared to contend with. Yet, Vaush’s movements were not in the style in which I had seen performed by Ruby. Hers being more direct and deliberate, Vaush’s efforts were more along the parameters of Bran’s guard; like crashing water around a boulder in the middle of a raging river. That’s when it came home to me. Vaush had been trained in the style of the Aranaad. And not just any Aranaad technique, but that of the Four Elements.
The snake in the grass was a student of the Flood. He was using a single element of the Water technique, designed to encompass an opponent’s guard from all dircetions, seeking out multiple points of entry. Bran’s desert style was little match for the onslaught that came from every point on the compass. It was not long before the larger boy relented before the onrush, the shear torrent of attacks that were pounding against and through his defenses.
Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would hardly believe it possible. It has been over a decade since last I witnessed another perform that technique, and here it was in the guise of a quite, unassuming child. But most certainly, my suspicions were confirmed. What remains to be discovered is how Vaush came about such skills, what more does he know, and why exactly is he here at Castle Locke?
Having witnessed the truth of my first impressions, I must now admit to a certain level of paranoia. For it has me wondering. Have the unseen servants of treachery finally tracked me down? I can’t help but question if this boy is a new and elaborate attempt by foes better left behind. But should Vaush prove to be nothing more than what he professes to be, the friend of the na-baron, I wonder if he may not represent a golden opportunity to validate and expand my own efforts.
I believe a meeting is in order.