Cycle Breaker

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”

Common Sense

The cycle of life is one of endless opportunity. Trials will be visited upon each of us again and again until someone intervenes, causing a new cycle to begin. The evil man flows with the cycle, and profits by it. The good man does not, and suffers for it.

– attributed to Luran, Priest of Light and Dark,

Chaplain, Dominion 2nd Army

***

Sergeant Illan Tanner sat alone, just before dawn, eating his last army meal and saying his morning prayers to the rhythm of his chewing. That he still lived was something for which he was unfailing in his thanks with each rising in the morning, at each meal, and when he was at last able to lay himself down to nightmare-filled rest. That he was still whole, was a blessing he could not encompass. The life of a professional soldier was not without its benefits, and he tried to be thankful for these as well, but more often than not he had worried that it was taking more from him than it gave. Good sleep was just one of the things he missed. He had his blessings, but there were regrets in great measure to keep them in their place.

If a man is to be truly thankful, action must follow thought. Words have no substance on their own. Even wizards gesture… word to action.

He sighed as he concluded his prayers and in their absence his thoughts sought and found familiar ruts to grind along. He finished the last scraps of his last morning meal and stood. Retiring from the Dominion 2nd Army with the rank of sergeant, and a stipend to help through lean times, he supposed he was a ripe peach for some widow to pluck with strong, work-worn fingers. There were worse fates, he knew, but he was sensitive to how endings usually lead to beginnings of unexpected natures, and how blessings unasked and unearned often came with prices later in life – particularly when they came to those stained with innocent blood. One of those fates would be walking until he found a home.

He had saved enough to set himself up with a nice tavern somewhere, and spend his days polishing the memories of his patrons while drowning his own, until death came for him. When his first steps down the road put Old Kingdom Mountains behind him forever – or so he hoped they would –  he would do his best to achieve this pleasant dream. Here in the familiar damp of the mess tent, however, he doubted such a pleasant retirement awaited him. So far, the only thing in his life which had ever worked according to plan was not dying on the end of someone else’s pike.

It was early in the morning, but early never lasts, and certainly doesn’t wait for tired old men with more scars than sense. Pack on shoulder and head high, he left the encampment without a wave or a look back. Farewells and formal discharge-with-honors for 30 years of loyal service were last night. Today was just another day.

The first few miles rolled by wrapped in a sense of the mundane. He loved the smell of morning mist, and this morning it came tinged with the faintest hint of pine over the normal scents of the river. He freely admitted later that afternoon to being a fool for refusing to wait a week to accompany the next wagon south, or 9 days for the next one to the East, but pride kept him trudging forward alone through territory which even in these peaceful days took scores of lives each year.

***

He had left the road three days ago, the encampment two days before that, and yesterday while chewing cold rations and staring at yet another broken snare, had had to admit to himself that the terrain he was crossing was too much for him. He would have to cut south again to try to reconnect with the road before something ate him, or he just fell down and broke something important.

Exhausted, he had rolled himself up in his blankets in the hollow of a dying tree, and basted himself in bitterness and gall so as to poison whatever nosy beast might find him there and try to snatch him up in his sleep as an easy meal.

It took quite some time before he finally fell asleep, and even longer to realize that he had been awakened. It took him still longer to realize that the sounds he had been hearing were not half-remembered battle cries and screams of agony from his dreams, but from real conflict, further down the brook he had been attempting to follow.

It did not take him long to get to his feet, arm himself, and seek out those sounds to lend aid if it were needed. Old habits die hard.

In the darkness, movement was treacherous, and it took far too long to reach the source of the sounds of violence. Coming out of the trees into a rock strewn clearing near the bend in a self-importantly chuckling stream, he found what had disturbed his sleep, but all was quiet when he arrived.

Two large boots, one upright, and soaked in a dark, glistening fluid he knew all to well – even by starlight –  the other on its side, still mainly full of what is normally in a boot when worn and in motion, were the first things he made out in the silvery light. The next was a huddled form, mauled badly, seemingly curled up into a ball to protect itself…  a ball far bigger than any man.

Trolls…

The thought, oddly disjointed from the rest of his thoughts, tried to attach itself to the enormous, winged  silhouette he could barely make out retreating into the distance against the star-dusted sky, but it would not register for many passing moments: Something large had been hunting for meat, and had found a meal of troll for itself.

He watched the sky raptly for a long time. The desire for sleep had left him, and the ease with which life can end, awed him. The troll had been snatched right out of its boots…. well, most of the troll had been.

A faint sound tugged at his attention, and repeated itself insistently.

“Ryarrll!

….Ryarrlll!

…… Ryarrll!”

He snapped back to reality and took in his surroundings. Circling the tattered corpse of the second troll confirmed his initial half-delirious musings that it had curled itself around something. Whatever it was, was crying out in an infantile but insistent voice, from somewhere underneath the body.

Digging it out was no chore for an old man in the middle of the night, but leaving it under there was not something it was in him to do, either.

Like a second birth, with an ageing soldier for a mid-wife, the infant troll was freed from the protective embrace of its cooling mother, under a cloudless sky. Wiping the blood and filth away from its face, he was struck by the strength of its grip and the fierceness of its gaze as it clung to him and looked about itself… himself.

“Ryarrll!” it cried, and held him more tightly with one chubby hand, not yet clawed, while the other rubbed at its cheek. Not so much an infant, but a… toddler. An orphan.

He’d helped kill his share of trolls in his early days in service, and judging solely by the remains, this one’s parents were on the large and powerful side. They hadn’t given in to death from the sky without doing damage. Most of the blood was not theirs.

He settled down against a moss-covered rock to ease the burden of the child’s weight, and surveyed the scene. It was hard to see in the starlight, but it appeared that they had fought intelligently, and with a great deal of ferocity. This young one would have a lot of fight in him.

He did his best to comfort it.. him.

He already knew what lay ahead of both of them.

***

Morning found him still pretending he had a decision to make. As the sun crept over the tree tops and caused the shadows to recoil and pool in readiness under the trees, he was already calculating costs, travel times, and working to recall every detail of every dirty frontier town he’d ever passed through.

Where can an old man raise a child in peace?

He was no fool. From where he leaned against the coolness of the rock, he could see the cave in which the trolls had laired, and the pile of skulls and other tokens of cruelty which decorated it and proclaimed the prowess of the two who had called it home.

He knew that most people he knew and had served with would tell him it was both a kindness and a duty to put this thing to the sword and out of its misery – sparing both it and its future victims from future suffering.

He also knew this child was not an it, nor a thing. He was a victim. He was the voice of fate. He was the price for blessings unasked.

He was the means for a good man to break a cycle, and start anew.

He nodded his head, sighed, and then hoisted the child on his shoulders. His mouth echoed the words of his former chaplain and old friend as that simple act changed his life, direction, and fate.

“A burden freely chosen is not a burden.”

It was early in the morning, but early never lasts, and certainly doesn’t wait for tired old men with more scars than sense. Pack on shoulder, and head high, toddler clinging tightly around his neck, Illan Tanner left the clearing without a look back.

“I shall call you Ryarrll,” he said, “And we shall see whose legacy you follow.”

____________________________

The preceding work of fiction was written as part of an exploration of character, for the purpose of character development for a game of Palladium Fantasy. It is intended for nothing other than personal enjoyment.

The world, characters, likenesses, rules, titles, names, publications, trademarks and copyrights related to all Palladium Publications are owned and licensed exclusively by Palladium Books Inc.; all rights reserved, worldwide.

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