Anth knew he was dying. The searing pain blossomed like an explosion from his gut, spreading out in waves throughout his entire being. Each movement, no matter how small, sent undulating waves of fresh agony rolling throughout his limbs. He had never experienced pain like this, nor did he ever care to do so again. Death was a distant comfort; a blessed release from the sanity eroding agony he now experienced, and he was beginning to treasure that escape and anticipate it. There was no way he would survive something so terrible.
Beyond the holocaust of pain, he could feel a rough wooden bench beneath him; he was curled upon it, his arm numb from being trapped beneath his bulk. He lay on his side because any other way was impossible; a spear had pierced his stomach and punched out through his back.
He could feel himself gibbering, the pain making him oblivious to the prayers and pleas that spilled from his blood flecked lips. through the haze, he could just about make out the world around him, though in scattered, stolen glimpses in betyween blacking out and diving into a world of fevered pain. Three faces swam into and out of view at regular intervals, dancing through his fractured thoughts. He imagined them important surgeons or battlefield nurses, yet he could not be sure. His vision was wracked and haunted visions often danced into and out of sight. His hearing, however, was clear and accurate.
“The lad is dead; it’s simply a matter of time,” came one voice, filled with irritation.
“I was told to bring him here and see what could be done.” This voice was more controlled, with hints of calm negotiation.
“I don’t intend to wast emy time with a doomed farmboy when I have Monarch sons to sew back together,” anger laced the first voice now. “Get him out of my hospital.”
“With respect, doctor, the Illumunated made the request himself.” A pause, loaded and effortlessly important.
“Fine. Saw the ends of that spear off so we can move around him.”
Each rasping drag of the saw was an eternity of agony, punctuated by a sharp lurch as the heavy wooden weight was removed. Yet, for all the suffering, the end result was better; giving him more movement and allowing him to shift the weight from his arm. For a short while, he regained his faculties, taking a better stock of his situation.
He was in a large canvas tent surrounded by wooden benches and pallets, upon which lay the writhing bodies of others who had been wounded. As he craned his neck, his wild eyes rolling in their sockets to see who else there was, he noticed all the others staring at him and realised that his wound was by far the worst there. With a confusing realisation, Anth also noticed that all the others were of noble stock, either Monarchs or Lordlings of the clans. He could see the dread on their faces as they watched him die.
His respite, the brief moment in which the weaight of the spear through his gut kept him pinned in perpetual agony, did not last long. Sudden, jerking movements of the spear brought him quickly back to the pain.
One nurse held his shoulders, mumbling reassuring words, whilst the other began to wash around his wound with water, focusing, oddly, on the wooden haft of the spear itself. A third eased him back onto his side and began fumbling with the other end that jutted from his lower back.
“This will kill him, I’m sure of it,” said one.
“The Illuminated said to do it. He was very clear on the matter.”
“I have men who might actually survive to consider; what is the life of this nobody?”
Anth’s growled something that he did not recognise; an oath that boiled up from within his soul. A distinct feeling of pointlessness swam over him, threatening to carry him away into the oblivion of death, yet a spark that had burned within rekindled at the surgeon’s words, flaring briefly, just as it had done for years, since his parents had died. A fierce refusal to live a pointless life tore throguh his frayed thoughts.
“The boy disagrees; he’s still got some fight left in him,” joked one of the nurses.
“Not after this,” came the sharp retort. “Hold him tight.”
Anth felt the spear haft slide through him, tugged by the surgeon who stood behind him. He felt the grain of the wood grate past the torn flesh of his stomach, felt it scrape against the bones of his spine; felt it tear through his guts. If the pain before had been agony, Anth lacked the ability or faculty to describe what pain that washed through him as the spear was removed. He realised he was screaming as his throat burned and his lungs were empty, yet he did not stop until the haft slipped free with a jerk that sent him rolling onto his back with a wet slap. Blood and bile gushed from his torso.
“Get me some catgut and needles. Fresh water and bandage. SInce the little bastard didn’t have the manners to die from that, I suppose I’ll have to sew him back together.”
Anth felt the last of his life drain away from the ragged hole in his centre, listening to the curses from a surgeon who didn’t care if he lived or died.
Childhood was a difficult memory. As his life flashed before his eyes, Anth was forced back into the horror of his youth, where his early life with a loving mother and father ended in plague and flames. His earliest vivid memory flooded into him, breaking free from a barrier he had made to keep it away. He was four, hand limp in his grandmothers grasp, watching flames eat at the wooden timbers of his home. As the heat washed over him in an intense wave, burning away the innocence of his childhood, it stoked a fire within his heart.
His mother had been a herbalist and his father a scribe for the mayor. Though both respected members of the village, their positions hadn’t stopped the plague from infecting them and killing them and their favoured roles did not stop the Lordling’s guardsmen from setting fire to their home to burn the sickness away.
For the next two years he lived with his grandmother, though his memory of the time was short. It was difficult; he had to work hard to maintain her small cabin and keep them warm and fed, but it kept him from thinking about his dead parents. Then, when the winter cold claimed his grandmother, he went to live with his distant aunt on their farmstead to the far north of the Corynth Reaches.
Though she was loving and caring, her husband was not. His regimen was strict and harsh, with hard work and ceaseless labour the order of the day. Anth knew that he was a burden; the treatment of his uncle and the pained expression on his aunt’s face whenever his uncle berated him made it very clear. At first, these looks and cutting words kept him awake at night, cursing the cruelties of the world and missing his parents, yet before long, these fruitless pleas became lost in the steadily growing fire that continued to burn within.
Initially, it was a simple dissatisfaction with his station in life. Following the death of his parents, he attributed it to his feelings of loss and unfairness, yet over time, as the feeling grew and changed with the years, he began to question it and act upon it. During his time with his aunt, it twisted into a confident conviction that he would achieve something of value; that his uncle would congratulate his efforts, or his aunt might actually side with him during one of the many arguments. As age and experiences burnt away the naivety of youth, he realised that his uncle would never change. The fire within changed again, becoming an ambitious urge to make something of himself; a stubborn refusal to be a farmer for the rest of his life and scratch out a life amongst the wilderness and generosity of the Lordling whose land he worked.
As his childhood fantasies gave way to adolescent contemplation, his relationship with his uncle worsened. Memories of savage arguments and the occasional beating punctuated this troubled time, leading to him regularly working the fields farther and farther from the house. Eventually, he began to stay in the fields, living in the small hay-lofts that dotted the fields or just beneath the stars if the weather was warm. By the time he was a teenager, he was visiting the farm itself only once a month, spending the rest of his time tending the cattle and harvesting the fields. On feastdays and durign the winter he would spend his time silently haunting the house, avoiding his uncle and snatching quick conversations with his aunt.
He had some fond memories. The fresh clothes and sewn repairs his aunt would surprise him with whenever he arrived at the farmstead kept his faith in family, whilst the tenderness his uncle showed his daughter, Anth’s cousin, forced him to realise that his treatment was not simply because his uncle was a cruel man. The springtime blooms and calves always brought the joy of a new year, whilst the rich, golden autumns and crips air of winter gave him a sense of awed respect for the natural world.
Yet that fire within burnt relentlessly. When his aunt began talking of marrying him into another farm, the fire brought bile into his throat. When his uncle gave him lectures on how to run his own farm, he resented the tutelage; he knew he was made for better things. Worse still, when the subject of his future came up in the house, the air would grow colder and an unmistakable discomfort would take hold; as he grew older and bigger, his needs grew more involved and he needed more food. He knew that his time on the farm was causing his aunt and uncle problems. This only made the feeling worse.
His late teens were even more difficult. Year passed, shedding the relentless and desperate need for recognition from his guardians and replacing it with a steady dissatisfaction with the fate he had been dealt.
It was a creeping, ever present feeling. Whenever he milked the cows, staring out at the stretching fields at the dawning sun, he would imagine following it over the fields and hills to see what was there. When riders crested the pass and thundered south towards the Rim, he would curse their luck at having such interesting lives. whenever he met folk who could travel and see distant lands, he would fall into a self-hating malaise, blaming himself and his meagre life.
Folk used to avoid him, lest they get caught in his mood and become ill. The Sadness crept in his shadow, threatening a bleakness that he couldn’t fathom, but when he felt that his life had become pointless, the raging fire would burn through him, swearing vengeance against the mundane and the normal. Deep within, Anth knew, absolutely knew, that his life would be more than mud and fields and shit and meaningless.
It was early spring and the Lordlings were preparing to expand into the northern Weald. Lordling Grimore had succeeded in acquiring a particularly rich mine from the Outlanders in the autumn before; his plan was to occupy the area in the coming spring and erect a Resonance Bell to allow airships from Corynth to begin hauling the resources back to the city. As a result, once the snows had thawed, riders and men from the Lordling’s forces had begun to march through the northern farmlands, crossing through the village almost every day in ever-growing bands and small marching units. Occasionally nobles mounted on glorious steeds would canter along the roads, passing Anth whilst he worked the fields, their pennants fluttering in the springtime breeze.
The winter had been particularly harsh and Anth had been forced to spend nine weeks in the house avoiding his uncle. As the cold had begun to give way to brighter days and greener fields, the atmosphere had become more and more tense. His aunt kept him in the house with promises of new clothes and equipment. Yet his uncle had become more and more surly, grumbling about the food lasting longer without an extra mouth to feed. It didn’t help that his aunt had given birth to another daughter earlier in the year. Anth knew he’d have to find his own life soon or face his uncles ultimatums.
Lordling Grimores vanguard stopped into the town of Havditch, a small market town south of his uncles farmhouse. They waited for Grimore himself, who was due to arrive within days. Anth spent the next four days torturing himself in the fields, questioning his purpose and pondering whether or not he should try to change his future in such a dramatic way. For three days he hardly slept, spending his time staring at the hills and forests to the north and pondering the biggest decision he would make in his life.
On the morning of his decision, he stepped into the farm house, startling his aunt and uncle who were used to him spending weeks in the field. His aunt shadowed a smile and carried on feeding the baby, whilst his uncle gave him a stern look. “What’s the matter?” he grumbled.
Even during this hazy, pained memory, Anth remembered the look on his uncles face when he told him his plan. He had expected indifference or possibly happiness; relief at being rid of him. When his uncle had blinked back soft tears and rounded on him in a fury, asking him if he wanted to throw his life away, it had taken him by surprise. Years of harsh treatment peeled back to reveal the care buried beneath an awkward forced fatherhood. His aunt had simply sobbed. For one, brief moment, he had considered changing his mind.
The fire inside did not let him. He walked to town that afternoon. A bored looking bannerman gave him his six coins and pointed him toward a quartermaster, clapping him on the shoulder and welcoming him to the Lordling’s army. He had smiled when they handed him the spear that would kill him.