The child had to be cut out of his mother’s belly with a seax, so tall was he even in that fluid, malformed darkness of unbirth. One of Frodi’s sell-swords performed the gruesome task while two midwives smothered the nameless Hute whore’s agonised screams with a pillow. Out he came, a bald creature slippery with blood from a womb opened before its time, bawls sounding almost like the roars of a manecat and two tiny nubs of ivory peeking out of the corners of his mouth.
He was cleaned and swaddled in rags, then tossed into a wicker basket next to seven more babes born the same night. The warrior washed his hands, patted the child once on his head and rushed out with his sword drawn. Skorra had been besieged by the Merchant-Prince of Himlar. Frodi needed all the men by his side on the beleaguered walls. The midwives did not even glance twice at him before moving to the next woman, a good-wife this time, thrashing about wildly in labour.
They called him The Bastard. The get of a whore and an orcish warlord with mixed blood in his veins. Such illegitimate children nigh overran the Empire with their superabundance, cursed and loathed by gentlefolk, used as cannon fodder by the armies, slaves by some and political pawns by the rest. But this one was different. He knew he had come in a grim season of war and reaving, and for war and reaving was he destined.
The Bastard bestowed upon himself a name on his sixteenth name-day. Chaghaan. No priest of Skorra would bless him or baptise him, for orcs are considered unclean, malevolent and filthy beasts from the ninth ring of Hell where fester all those who would reject the Prophet’s word. No woman would have him, no master of arms would provide him with a good spear and pay him coin to guard the city. So Chaghaan decided to strike out on his own.
There were great opportunities across the length and breadth of the Empire. In wolf pits where desperate men battled giant, furry predators to earn their keep, alongside caravans that carried silk, spices and starsteel from one end to the other or joining one of the many blood feuds between the Emperor’s numerous jarls. Chaghaan earned his skills on the road. A full-blooded orc mercenary taught him blade swinging just because he was amused by his heritage and pluck. A Derashi Bedouin, a member of that infinitely cunning profiteer race, tutored the newly made swordsman in all the tricks and trades of conducting transactions. From a blind monk who had played adviser to the Karnish king Aelfstan Chaghaan learned how to sniff out impending wars and feuds, what words to say in order to gain admittance to a jarl’s war-band, the bitterness and rivalries in the realm, the lowly secrets of many highborn ladies and so on.
At the age of eighteen, the half-orc slew his first man in a dirty catfight between the Merish sea raider Ebba and the Kingdom of Tarrin. Slathered in an admixture of blood, mud and piss, Chaghaan stood, breathing raggedly over the corpse of the mail clad giant he had cleaved open with a terrible swing of his sword. Overhead, the grey skies erupted in growling thunder and forked lightning, while down below a group of Tarrinese soldiers gaped wide eyed at their monstrous counterpart.
At the end of that war season, a grateful king granted the half-breed in his employ a new name. Chaghaan Ravenfeeder. He was nineteen, branded with the scars of battle, eyes gleaming with the madness of hot rage and the promise of slaughter. The notches on his shield marked him just short of seventy-five men slain.
It was 1045 AD. The Empire and the Free Kingdoms were lunging at each other’s throats like ravenous panthers, each with its own justification for waging war. The taint of the old faiths had been purged from most of the realm. Temples demolished, men and women who secretly worshiped the primal gods impaled upon stakes, or torn open with their innards arranged in grotesque wreaths, eyes gouged out and replaced with iron coins. Pontiffs and priests of this new born religion screamed rhetoric from their bone white towers, rallying the masses to their cause. A great sulphurous stench of paganism and heathenry emits from the vast Empire sprawling just beyond our doors! It is our sacred duty to make them see the error of their ways! Act now or lament in futility when your daughters are ceremoniously raped by satyrs and giants!
They came from afar to carve out their share of the spoils. Housecarls, bondsmen, knights and paladins, raiders and reavers, nomad bands and Northmen. There was a titanic struggle for supremacy, a tangle of powers both old as time and new as the summer grass. The gods watched in disdain, and the ravens in delight, as a wondrous cornucopia of corpses was laid out in lavish display upon the meadows and plains of earth.
Into this chaos and turmoil came Chaghaan Ravenfeeder. Above him unfurled a banner of adventure, at his back romped a band of men as vicious, as wrathful, as hungry for slaughter and coin as himself.
He thought himself a trickster, a wolf who could outsmart the lions of the land, make them dance to his merry tunes and milk them dry of gold. He considered himself an epitome of guile and shrewdness with his equal yet to be birthed, let alone his better.
But the half-orc was young. And the favourite ornament of youth is folly.