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Chapter I - The Fury of the Fourth Brother

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Mathon, wearing the standard red robe of an elementalist, lurked in the corner of the room, waiting for King Cyllin’s anger to subside. In all his years of service, he’d never seen this side of the king, usually even-tempered, patient, and full of wisdom.
“An entire village was destroyed?” Cyllin paced back and forth in front of his knights. “Even when I traveled the land as a young sorcerer, I never heard of such carnage. How could this have happened in my kingdom? And why did I learn about the assault only after it was too late to help?”
On his next pass across the room, he exhaled deeply. “It’s too late for the people of Brymor, but I’ll do whatever possible to prevent this from happening anywhere else. Were there survivors?”
“Only one villager escaped,” said Mathon.
“Bring him to me,” said the king. “I want to hear the story from one who lived through it.”
Nithdol, youngest of the knights, trotted out of the room and returned with a haggard teenager. The rags on the boy’s body barely covered his scratched skin, and he leaned heavily on his escort as they approached the old king. The line of knights parted to accept the villager into their midst and closed behind him in a circle. The boy stared blankly ahead.
“This is the villager who escaped the destruction,” said Nithdol. He pushed the boy’s shoulder down. “You’re in the presence of His Majesty, King Cyllin. Bow to him at once or dishonor your family.”
The boy nearly collapsed under the pressure. Trembling, his knees grew weaker, and he swooned briefly.
“This child has been devastated by the slaughter of everyone he held dear,” said the king. “His behavior is brought on by fear, not disrespect. Bring a seat for him at once.”
Nithdol gave a deep bow before retrieving a chair from the side of the room. With a quiet word of thanks, the boy collapsed onto the cushioned seat. As his eyes wandered around the room, his pupils dilated at the unfamiliar faces.
“I mourn the loss of your village,” Cyllin said as he knelt by the chair. “As king and protector of the land, it’s my duty to ensure this never happens again. Tell me what you remember so we can defend ourselves in the future.”
“It was terrible,” said the boy. “Demons from the wastelands…riding demon horses.”
Mathon stepped behind the king, intrigued by the description. This didn’t sound like an ordinary band of thieves.
“A river of blood!” The boy shuddered when he noticed the blades hanging at the side of each knight. “They burnt…everything. My home…gone.”
“No child should ever witness such an atrocity,” said the king.
The boy coughed and wiped his mouth with the last remaining shred of his shirt.
“Bring him new clothes and a good meal.” Cyllin handed the boy a silk cloth from his pocket. “Forgive my lack of manners. I should allow you to rest, but we have to know more about the invasion before it’s too late. Were they truly demons? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“They had horns on their heads. Tall and strong…much more than men.” A look of terror returned to the boy’s eyes, soon replaced by a new set of tears. He wiped them with the silk cloth. “Their skin…hardened like beasts.”
Mathon perked up at the last few words. The thin but sturdy wizard leaned closer to the king. “The creatures he’s describing might actually be the race of Ferfolk.”
“From the legend of the Four Hungry Brothers?” asked Cyllin. “That was always your favorite tale as a child. Your father often complained that you refused to listen to another story.”
Nithdol chuckled before an angry glare from the wizard quieted him. Mathon couldn’t understand why the king allowed the young soldier into his inner circle. One should have had many years of experience to be given such responsibility.
“The brothers represent the races,” he said. “Tessus the Teruns, Argus the Arboreals, Mandros the Humans, and Fenthos can be none other than the Ferfolk. Why would only three of the races from the legend be real?”
Cyllin gave him an incredulous look. “It’s easier to believe demons from the netherworld are plaguing my land than the mythical Ferfolk, but it might be a group of nomadic raiders traveling farther south than usual. Some of them dress in hideous costumes to intimidate their opponents. Has there been news from Tharain of such events?”
“None that I’ve heard,” said Nithdol, “but there can be no other explanation. They must be raiders.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Mathon. “There’s usually some truth behind legends. Besides, there’s no reason for a group of raiders to attack a poor farming village.”
“The same would be true of the Ferfolk, if they even exist,” said Nithdol. “Think what you will, but I trust our king’s good judgment.”
“They’re demons,” shouted the boy. “They had horns and skin as thick as leather. I saw them!”
Nithdol pulled him off the seat. “Have you ever seen a band of nomads from the mountains?”
The boy sank back into the chair when the knight released his arm.
“If fear grips the body,” said the king, “the eyes see what the mind wants to believe. Nithdol, prepare a strike against these raiders.”
“How many attacked your village?” asked the young knight.
The boy stared at the floor.
“Answer me.” Nithdol shook him by the shoulders.
“I…I don’t know.”
“You must have seen their numbers. Didn’t you just come from the destroyed village? Tell me now and I’ll ensure a swift victory. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I left her to die.” His head dropped into his hands as he wept uncontrollably. “I’m a coward.”
Cyllin inserted himself between Nithdol and the boy. “We don’t blame you for running. You’re not a warrior, although you’ve shown great courage to survive the slaughter. If you can think of anything else to help us defeat these monsters, our kingdom will be in your debt.”
“If these were raiders from the mountains,” said Mathon, “wouldn’t they have attacked a few caravans or farmers for supplies during the long journey to Brymor? It’s not easy to move a group of warriors over a large distance.”
Two servants entered the room with food and clothing. The young villager took a bite of warm bread and washed it down with a gulp of mead. As the food on his plate vanished, his body became more relaxed.
“Now that you’re calm,” said Mathon, “please tell me what you remember.”
“We were celebrating the Feast of the Equinox with food, music, and dancing.” The boy attacked a dark red apple down to the core. “Father wanted to get an early start on our winter crop of rye. We were the only ones plowing and seeding. He always forced me to work instead of going to the ceremonies.”
The servants refilled his plate after he’d eaten everything, including the crumbs.
“I worried about losing her to another suitor. When we finished a few rows, Father released me from service. Then we saw it above the desert. A huge cloud of dust. I thought it was a storm or stampede, but the sky was blue. Father said no creatures lived in the wastelands. He said it had to be bandits and sent me to warn the village.”
The boy returned the empty plate to the servants and wiped his mouth on the king’s cloth.
“I ran to the village and tripped on a furrow. When I turned over, the demons came. Horses and riders with horns. They sent demon dogs ahead of them. We had no chance.”
He started to cry again, unable to hold back the tears. The king patted him on the back and motioned for the guards to give them room.
“I should have saved her.”
“How many horses went by?” asked Nithdol.
“Two or three—but there were more in the desert. The dust cloud was huge.”
“I promise to end this invasion,” said Cyllin, taking Nithdol aside. “Take two dozen of your best men and deal with those barbarians.”
The young knight bowed and glided out of the room.
“Shouldn’t a wizard go with them?” asked Mathon. “You can’t be certain of whom we face or their true numbers.”
“Do what you must to ensure our people’s safety.”
“As you command, Sire,” said Mathon.
The invaders should never have broken the long-lasting peace his kingdom had enjoyed, whether they were demons, nomadic raiders, or Ferfolk. Unfortunately, the people of Brymor no longer needed protection, but Mathon would at least offer them revenge.
 
Within the hour, Mathon was following Nithdol and a contingent of lightly armored cavalry through the forest toward the remains of Brymor. There was a slight chill in the air beneath an overcast sky, but the group rode with confidence. Mathon traveled on foot, his head of thinning hair covered by the hood of his red robe.
Nithdol turned to his men as he rode. “We’ll receive a heroes’ feast when we return with news of our victory. Whoever slays the most raiders will be rewarded with a new Terun blade.”
The knights hooted in support, but Mathon kept silent. Although he believed victory was inevitable, he was concerned about the incomplete theory. He wondered why a group of nomads would attack a village so far from the mountains, and how they traveled so stealthily.
“I’m surprised you grace us with your presence,” said Nithdol, interrupting the wizard’s thoughts. “A mission as simple as this hardly seems important enough for one of your standing.”
“Normally, I would have agreed with you,” said Mathon, “but I was curious to see these adventurous nomads for myself. Besides, I haven’t been out of the castle for some time.”
“Didn’t you just attend one of your secret gatherings?”
“The Wizard Council doesn’t operate in secrecy. We meet during the summer solstice each year.”
Nithdol stopped his horse and stared at the far side of a small clearing. A dozen Ferfolk warriors, one of them mounted, returned his gaze. Six held longbows, while the others wielded curved broadswords with serrations along the outer edge.
“Those are neither raiders nor demons,” said Nithdol.
“The fourth brother has returned,” Mathon whispered with a satisfied smirk.
The Ferfolk leader sat tall and proud on a shaggy horse. Thick, wrinkled skin on his arms and neck blended with the jerkin he wore beneath his armor of heavy scales, making it appear as if he were wearing a full-body suit of leather. A bone helmet, complete with two eight-inch horns jutting from either side, covered his closely cropped gray hair. A similar headpiece adorned his horse, but a long tan mane flowed from beneath its helmet.
“Throw your weapons aside, and I’ll spare your lives,” said the mounted Ferfolk in a battle-weary voice.
“The same as you spared the lives of those defenseless villagers?” asked Mathon.
“That was the work of another lieutenant. Your little group poses no threat, but I’d just as soon avoid bloodshed.”
Nithdol leaned close to Mathon. “Are they Ferfolk?”
“The legends say they’re a race of warriors with the skin of beasts. These riders match perfectly.”
“Ferfolk or not, this isn’t a huge army,” said the young knight. “They’ll get no leniency.”
“Those ruffians should have remained in the desert where they belong,” said Mathon. “A Flame Wind will defeat most of them. Have your men ready to finish off any survivors.”
“Archers,” called out Nithdol, thrusting his sword into the air.
The knights drew back their arrows. In response, the mounted Ferfolk raised his hand and signaled his own archers to ready their bows. The Ferfolk warriors aimed their arrows at the humans, awaiting their next command.
Mathon pulled a small tinderbox from one of the many pockets in his robe, threw his arms toward the Ferfolk, and chanted, “Lyft lig, lyft brond.”
Flames soared from his fingertips, fanned out, and engulfed the Ferfolk. The inferno spread everywhere, incinerating the dry grass and igniting the leafless branches at the back of the clearing.
The humans let out a triumphant cry, already congratulating themselves, but when the flames died down, their shouts of joy turned to gasps of horror.
The Ferfolk were unharmed, although their arrows and bowstrings had caught fire along with their clothing. They threw their smoldering bows to the ground and patted out the flames on their shirts. The only casualty was the leader’s horse, which collapsed in a fit of agony, bringing its rider to the ground.
“Fire sprang from his hands,” said the Ferfolk leader as he crumbled the ashes of his sleeve.
The other Ferfolk echoed his confusion with blank stares.
“We face an army of demons,” said Nithdol in disbelief. “Attack those vile creatures. Avenge the people of Brymor!”
Shaking off their amazement, the humans released a single round of arrows, drew their swords, and charged forward. The Ferfolk met them midway, well prepared for battle. Mathon remained motionless, wondering how they could have withstood such a powerful spell. Unless there was another wizard in the area protecting the Ferfolk, his Flame Wind should have been more effective.
The closest Ferfolk warrior, an arrow buried in his side, jumped up and pulled a knight from his horse. One quick jab of his sword killed the human. Most of the other knights suffered a similar fate against the sturdier Ferfolk.
Nithdol swung his sword at the Ferfolk leader, but the blade bounced off his opponent’s shoulder plate. With a single tug, the Ferfolk yanked him off the horse. The young warrior flew through the air and fell headfirst onto the ground, losing his grip on his sword when he rolled to his feet.
Mathon faded to the back of the clearing as the battle deteriorated. He chanted another spell, moving his arms in a precise pattern.
The Ferfolk leader must have noticed. He removed a dagger from his belt and sent it spinning forward.
“Beware of the blade,” shouted Nithdol, but it was too late.
The dagger planted itself in Mathon’s shoulder, disrupting his spell and sending him to the ground.
Nithdol tackled the Ferfolk leader using the weight of his body and armor to pin him to the ground. The young knight reached over to retrieve his weapon. His hand had almost reached the hilt of his sword when the Ferfolk lifted him off the ground, armor and all, and threw him aside as easily as one would a small child. The Ferfolk hopped to his feet, plunged his sword into Nithdol’s chest, and shifted his gaze to Mathon, the only human still alive.
The wizard sat among the dead bodies of two dozen knights with a dagger protruding from his shoulder. He had no choice but to retreat. With the magic words, “Lyft maest laedan min bodig,” he summoned a wind strong enough to lift him off the ground.
The Ferfolk warriors tossed a few daggers into the air, but the tiny blades fell short. Luckily, the blast of fire had rendered their bows useless.
Ignoring the pain, Mathon strained to keep the gale blowing beneath him. Had he been weaker with the element of air, he wouldn’t have survived. Within seconds, he was high enough to see the entire Ferfolk army in the distance.
Countless warriors streamed in from the wastelands. They were tall and muscular with skin as tough as leather beneath their scaly armor. Not many wore horned helmets, but all were equipped with fearsome weapons: serrated swords, ornate longbows, and hefty battle-axes.
Behind the foot soldiers, four colossal cages rolled over the rough ground. Built entirely of metal with wheels the size of a grown man, they were large enough to hold a juvenile dragon.
Finally, a mass of women and children followed at a slower pace, each one loaded with several packs of supplies. A civilization was on the move, migrating out of the desert and into the fertile land of the humans.
Considering the ease with which a small group of Ferfolk had overcome the knights, the army seemed invincible. Mathon winced as he guided himself toward Castle Cyllin, praying he wouldn’t lose consciousness. He had to warn the king about the invaders. The people of Cyllin would need help to defeat the Ferfolk.
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