Call to Arms

While good times continued for many on the manor, tragedy struck Lord Snookington. He grew ill and was bed-ridden. With a hacking cough, his lungs grew worse until he took his last breath. A grand funeral was held in the local church. The wealthy and titled crammed into the pews to hear the service. Lord Snookington had always been loyal to the King and a contingent from the royal family attended. Villagers swarmed around the church grounds. As day drew into night and the morning beyond, young Harry became Lord Snookington. Notwithstanding his lack of worldly experience, he was determined to serve the King with honour and govern his manor in an equitable way.

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Order

Ned grew into a quiet young man and kept a low profile in the village. Harry Snookington never spoke to him, but Ned was always met with kind eyes wherever he saw Harry or Lord Snookington. Every now and then, Ned saw Gobba Gronk and his hateful stares. He knew there could be trouble from that direction and decided to keep his distance. But Ned’s mild demeanour disguised the burning vengeance in his heart. He was not the sort of person to let it go when he was wronged. The Malaxians had subjected him to a death march, sold him as a slave, hunted him down and killed his family. Ned honed his swordsmanship alone in the forest, but his desire for vengeance against sworn enemies remained unfulfilled.

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Calm Rage

After the funeral, Ned was told to leave the lodge so he built a small wooden hut at the edge of the village. The orphan lived there with only his dog, Skar, as company. He was given a job as a labourer on a farm and worked hard in the fields during the warm months. During the cold, dark winters, Ned toiled down a chalk mine. It was not an easy life for one so young, but he had known worse. A lot worse. The boy was self-sufficient and had his own place to live. Of his few possessions, the most prized item was the wolf pelt, which was nailed to an inside wall of his hut. It was rickety place and not water-tight, but it was home. He earned his own food and fended for himself. The boy was treated as well as could be expected by the farmer and mine owner.

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Enemy

It was overcast in the morning and Ned’s family were to be buried in the Snook cemetery. Ned was escorted by soldiers and allowed to stand beside Lord Snookington for the proceedings. The crowd parted as military men led the boy to the designated plot, which was set apart from the other graves as a mark of respect. Many people owed their lives to Ned’s father, who had fought so valiantly against robbers and Malaxians alike.

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Ned Nobody

The villagers gossiped about Ned. Some called him wolf boy. Having spent much of his life in the depths of the forest, they guessed there was no need for a family name. Not a single person knew who his family were. When the boy was feeling better, Lord Snookington summoned him to the manor house. Ned left the lodge and walked across some meadows. As the imposing house loomed in the distance, he walked over a moat and stood before a massive oak door. He rang a brass bell and the door creaked open. A butler ushered him inside. The hallway was dark, with an oaken floor and cladding on the walls. He had never before been in such grand surroundings and looked at his own dirty, torn clothing.

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Recovery

In open land, the soldiers relaxed and hurried toward the village. The jolting was almost unbearable for Ned. The solemn parade made it to the Snook and village folk gathered around to witness the amount of dead bodies being brought back. On an open area of grass at the foot of the High Street, the bodies were laid out and funerals hastily arranged. The soldiers would be buried with full military honours. The merchants would organise a ceremony for their men. But, for Ned and his dead family, there was a problem. Funerals were not free of charge. Lord Snookington stepped forward and announced he would pay for the burial of the unknown swordsman’s family. His tales of bravery were legendary. And folk in the Snook owed him a great debt.

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Protect

The four bodies were strapped to horses ready for the off. Ned was put on a makeshift stretcher and tied to a horse. His dog was lifted on and she settled down. The column snaked its way downhill through the forest. The soldiers did not lower their guard, even though it was unlikely the Malaxians were still in the vicinity. It was common knowledge the bandits had a pact with the Malaxians and the unknown swordsman made their lives difficult for a couple of years. He must have been tracked to his home and slaughtered with his family. Only one injured boy had survived the Malaxian onslaught. It was a miracle he was alive.

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Discovery

A soldier ventured into the burned out shell of the cabin and found the charred remains of a woman and two children. It looked like they had been slaughtered inside before the building had been set alight, but it was hard to tell. The four forest dwellers were laid in a line on the grass outside. Soldiers searched the area and an eerie quiet descended. The horses could sense something. Soldiers stood still, wielding their swords at the ready. They waited.

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Aftermath

From a hill, the men hunkered down and observed a pathway below. All was quiet, so they moved off. Rounding a bend to the right, hills rose on both sides. The soldiers noticed three Malaxians had entered the forest to the right, but the rest stayed on the path. They remained as one force and moved along the pathway. Further up, the men came upon three dead Malaxian soldiers in a clearing. Two had been killed by arrows and the other a stab wound. It was clear from their leather uniforms the dead were from a crack troop of the Malaxian infantry, renowned for their ruthlessness. These warriors covered ground quickly and were the fiercest warriors. And three lay lifeless at their feet. The troop commander gave the faintest of nods. Skilled fighters must have been at work during this encounter.

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Tracking

At first light, the soldiers broke camp and tentatively moved deeper into the forest. The leader called a halt when one of his men noticed snapped branches and Malaxian bootprints in the mud. The enemy soldiers had left the track at this point and entered the forest. From their bootprints, it was clear they had moved at speed. Digesting this information, the men continued down the track and approached the ambush site. All was quiet, except for the buzz of flies around bodies. The merchant’s men lay dead, with wares strewn about the forest. It was a botched robbery. Three of their comrades had also met their end. The bodies of the friendly were lined up at the edge of the track. Each were checked for a pulse, but all were cold. The slain bandits were dragged from the pathway and bundled into a pile.

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