“The bandits are coming!”
The cry drove icy pangs of fear into every citizen of the small hamlet of Wyrdfast. Barely two dozen thatched buildings large, with that much again in farmhouses across the breadth of its acreages, Wyrdfast didn’t have a town guard, let alone a wall. The threat of bandits spoke of a cold, hungry winter to come, as every villager planned where to hide any grain they dared keep for themselves.
“Are you certain?” Wyrryt the village Elder asked the lookout. He hoped against hope there was some mistake, but the panic in the eyes of the man panting with exhaustion from his run told him otherwise.
“They hit Fenkleburgh yesterday, and Woldslat five days before that. We’re the next town south of them, it’s only a matter of time!”
“Oh Elder, what do we do?” A mother asked, dusting off her apron. “It’s been a lean harvest this year as is. If bandits loot us, we’ll all stave before the winter’s out. Might as well dig our graves now, aye?
“Calm yourself, goodwife Ortyle.” He thumped his cane soundly against the ground. “Is your youngest son around?”
“Issel?” She asked. “Yes, he’s feeding the chickens o'er yonder.” She gestured with a plump, flour-stained hand.
“He’s a fast rider.” The Elder explained. “While the menfolk prepare to defend the town, he will ride out and bring help.”
“Elder, we’re poor farmers.” The watchman objected. “If we could afford knights, we’d have hired them already. Who’d fight for us?”
“The Gravechasers.” The Elder returned.
Despite the gravity of his quest, Issel was so excited he could barely keep from shouting. He was to bring back the heroes that would defend his town. He, Issel! Not Martis, his oldest brother with shoulders like an ox, who had taken over as blacksmith for the village recently. Not Onwelke, his second oldest brother who managed the farm and always had tales to tell from his trips into town. Not even Hrodar, his father and town legend, who had took to making fishing hooks after getting in a tussle with a bear. He had lost his leg, the bear had lost his head.
None of them had been chosen, but he had! The excitement running straight to his head, Issel kicked his horse into a gallop as he scanned the horizon for the forest the Gravechasers were supposed to be inhabiting.
It didn’t take him long to find it.
If the thick columns of smoke from their cooking fires hadn’t been enough, the dozens of winking skull flags flying from the tallest trees would have informed him. Reigning his horse into a trot, he approached the menacing guard who was observing him through his one good eye, leaning nonchalantly on a heavy maul.
“You’re in a bad neighbourhood, laddie.” The man called, flashing his wooden teeth. “I’d take that horse and ride back the way you came 'afore its too late.”
Issel was undeterred, drawing himself to his full inconsequential height.
“I am Issel of Wyrdfast!” he piped in a slightly cracking voice. “I have come to request the Gravechasers!”
“Well isn’t that nice, he’s come to request us.” The guard grinned crookedly. “Sorry boy, we don’t do requests. You have to earn our support.” He turned back to the camp. “Oy Brakkit!” He bellowed. “We have a challenger! Give him the run-down, will ya?”
“Challenger?” The blood drained from Issel’s face. “I’m just here to recruit you!”
“Don’t talk to me, I’m just the guard.” He shrugged, turning back to survey the empty prairie. “Brakkit’s the one fer you.”
On cue, a greyed man with his hair tied back to closely resemble the tail on an old nag approach Issel.
“So you’re here for our services, are you?” He asked in a surprisingly rich voice.
“Ah, yes m’lord.” Issel nodded, dismounting.
“No lords here, lad.” The man shook his head. “Brakkit will do fine. Are you familiar with the rules for hiring the Gravechasers?”
Issel shook his head, already starting to regret being so accepting of the request.
“Few are these days.” Brakkit shrugged. “Typical that everyone tells their friends we work for free, but nobody passes on our requirements. No matter, I’ll list them;” He stood up straight, citing the requirements one by one in a booming voice, made louder by the fact that he was joined at each item by all Gravechasers present, who continued the list from memory.
“#1: We must make a difference. We won’t die for a lost cause.”
“#2: We must be necessary. We won’t fight so you can keep forces in reserve.”
“#3: The cause must be worthy. If it doesn’t interest us, no dice.”
“#4: We won’t fight alone. If we’re dying for you, we expect you right next to us.”
“Oh, we fit all those.” Issel quickly cut it.
“There’s one more point.” Brakkit scowled at being interrupted.
“#5: Our requestor must fight out leader. We only fight for those we respect.”
Issel’s blood froze.
“Is…is that last one really required?” He squeaked.
“I’m afraid so.” Brakkit shrugged.
“Tell you what.” Issel backed up a step. “I have two older brothers and a father that can fight! If you wait, I’ll bring one of them back…”
“So, you’re saying your village only dignified us with a messenger boy, not even a real fighter?” Brakkit asked, cocking an eyebrow. “You’re welcome to leave and call someone else if you wish, but I wouldn’t advise it. I said we only work for those we respect, and it’ll be hard to respect a town that doesn’t dignify us enough to send a real fighter.”
As Issel opened his mouth to respond, he saw a tent flap open, revealing a giant of a man who looked for all the world like one twisted compound of sinew and scar tissue. Flicking his gaze around the camp, the man quickly locked eyes with Issel, scowling. Then, with the uneven stride of one with numerous past injuries, he approached the pair, addressing Brakkit.
“Oy Brakkit, who’s the tyke?” he asked loudly.
“Morning sir. This is actually our newest challenger for our services, Issel.” Brakkit explained, ignoring Issel’s panicked look.
“Issel, eh?” The man bent down, looking the boy in the eye. “So you’re my next challenger. The name’s Marwynn.” He extended one meaty hand. Let’s have a good fight, eh?” He grinned wide, revealing his gaping, toothless maw.
Issel turned and fled, trying to ignore the laughter and jeers from the Gravechasers as he went.
Night had already fallen, but Issel couldn’t bring himself to return home. What if he went back and fetched his father or brothers, and the Gravechasers were insulted and decided not to fight? It’d be his fault! But how could he hope to fight someone so terrifying?
Issel sulkily poked the fire with a stick, stirring the embers. Maybe he should just go and get himself killed by Marwynn. That’d make everyone sorry for sending him.
A twig cracking behind him made Issel jump in his skin. Turning around, he saw the Gravechaser Brakkit approaching him, a bag in one hand.
“Have you come to take me back?” Issel asked, panic edging his voice.
“Relax kid, they’ve all but forgotten you at the camp.” He assured him, throwing himself on the opposite side of the fire. “You eaten yet?”
Issel shook his head.
“Thought not.” Brakkit tossed him a loaf of bread and a canteen of water from the bag.
Issel gratefully accepted them. “Why are you here, then?” he asked, feeling a little calmer.
“Thought I might tell you a story.” He answered, taking a swig from a flagon on his hip.
Brakkit nodded. “I’m something like the historian of the Gravechasers. I record every battle, all the way back to our founding.”
“What kind of story?” Issel asked, now curious.
“The best one I know.” Brakkit smiled, resealing the flagon. “The story of the first Gravechaser.”ns 188.8.131.52da2