Read The Dark Glory War Online

Authors: Michael A. Stackpole

The Dark Glory War

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Book Information:
Genre: Epic Fantasy

Author: Michael A. Stackpole

Name: The Dark Glory War

Series: DragonCrown Saga 1 (Prelude)

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CHAPTER

The day they gave me my mask was the first day I felt truly alive. Though I received my mask over two decades ago, I remember the events surrounding it clearly. The tinge of winter had not quite left the air that year, so even as we were coming to Mid-Summer’s Eve the days were cooler than normal. Many people were happy with the weather, since the previous year had been a scorcher, and some went so far as to suggest that the mild weather might have betokened the death of Chytrine, the scourge of the Northlands. I didn’t care about the weather or the tyrant of Aurolan because this was my eighteenth summer, which made it special and me anxious.

The mask I got was, not, of course, the first mask I had ever worn, nor would it be the last. It was a simple moonmask, as white as the orb for which it was named. If the gods smiled and I proved worthy, as the moon again became full I would be awarded my first life mask, and this moonmask would be a memento of my transition from childhood frivolity to adult responsibility.

It had been my intention, that morning, to wake early and dress myself, as befit my new station in life. I wanted to be able to greet my father as an adult in all but the mask he would bring. Unfortunately I awoke much too early, spent time in my bed wondering if I should get up or go to sleep again, then fell asleep and remained so rather solidly until, dimly, I heard my father’s heavy tread on the stairs. Before I could rub sleepsand from my eyes, the door opened and he entered my room.

My memory of his coming to me that mid-summer morning, bearing the mask, still endures and is one of my most favorite of him. All over Oriosa other children in their eighteenth summer were also receiving their masks. For many of them the presentation would be a family affair, but among the Hawkinses, fathers presented masks to sons, mothers to daughters, making it a more intimate and solemn occasion. I welcomed this moment of serenity before what I guessed would be a month of controlled insanity.

My father stood there, at the foot of my bed, looking down at me. His life mask, which he seldom wore in our house, had a fearsome visage. White temeryx feathers, with their shifting rainbow highlights, splayed out and back at the mask’s temples. The cut of the mask’s lower edge had been sharpened into a hawk’s beak over his nose. This had been done both as a play on our name and the fact that Lord Norrington and his father before him had often used my father to hunt enemies the way another might loose a hawk on a varmint. Orphan notches had been cut by each eye and the brown leather had two green ribbons stitched into the portion covering his forehead. Those marked awards for bravery, one from Lord Norrington and the other from the hand of the Oriosan queen.

A hank of blond and silver hair hung down over the mask’s forehead and bisected the ribbons. My father refused to wear a cowl, though entitled to do so, preferring to let others see his full head of hair. Through the mask’s narrowed eyeslits I could see his brown eyes, perhaps the hint of a tear glistening in an orphan notch. He never cried from pain, my father, physical pain, anyway. But other hurts, or life’s joys, could tickle a tear from his eyes.

Though he did not stand as tall as I, he was still a big man and broader through the chest and shoulders than I was. Growing up, he’d seemed bigger, and yet even as I grew into my adult size, I always thought of him as bigger than me. Though he was entering the twilight of his life, my father still possessed the strength of his youth and served as Lord Norrington’s Peaceward in Valsina.

He raised his hands slowly, bearing between them the simple strip of white leather I would wear for the next month. “Arise, Tarrant Hawkins. At an end are the carefree days of your youth. Upon this mask, and many like it, will be written the story of your life as a man.”

I threw back my blanket, and with only the crackle of the straw mattress and the groan of old floorboards to break the silence, I stood before my father. I plucked a piece of straw from the sleeve of my nightshirt, then ran fingers back through my black hair and snagged another piece. They fell to the floor as my hands returned to my sides.

I’d waited for this day forever, it seemed. The full moon closest to mid-summer marked the day we’d get our moonmasks. Everyone my age knew the full moon would fall exactly on mid-summer, which meant we would be blessed and special. Great things would be expected from us, and I hoped I would prove worthy of such an auspicious omen. Ever since I’d learned that the full moon would fall on mid-summer in my year, I had worked to prepare for this day and the rest of my life beyond it.

The problem was, however, that preparing for the unknown was not a simple task. I knew, in general, what would happen during my Moon Month. While I’d been barred from the festivities surrounding similar awards to my brothers and sisters, the results of their Moon Months were not hard to see. Noni, my eldest sister, had emerged betrothed from her month, while my older brothers had won positions in the Frontier Lancers and the Oriosan Scouts respectively. It seemed to me to be pretty clear that during their month they had been the subjects of negotiations or recruitment that set them on a path for the rest of their lives.

Reaching up, my father pressed the leather mask against my face, then raised my left hand to hold it in place. I turned in compliance with his pressure on my shoulder and felt him tighten the mask in place. A bit of my hair caught in the knot

and pulled, but I knew that had not been an accident.The hair and the mask are equally now part of me. I am the mask and it is me.

“Turn around, boy. Let me look at you.” I turned back to face him and saw a proud smile broaden the lower half of his face. “You already wear the mask well, Tarrant.”

“Thank you, Father.”

He waved me back toward my bed. “Sit for a moment, I’ve got something to tell you.” He lowered his voice and glanced back at the door, then crouched at my knees. “You’re my last child to get a mask, but none have been so ready for it. In your training you’ve worked hard. You still make mistakes, you’ve still things to learn, but you don’t quit, and your loyalty to friends, especially the Norringtons, well, that fires my heart, it does.

“Now your mother, she is fair to bursting with pride in you, but she’s also fit to weep at losing you. You’ll be remembering that, Tarrant, and you’ll put up with her fussing about. When you’re finally a man, she’ll learn to retreat a bit—and likely you’ll have an appreciation of her that you’ve not had before. For now, though, know your growing up is as difficult on her as it will be on you.”

I nodded solemnly and felt the mask’s tails gently slapping my neck. “I’d not do anything to hurt heror you.”

“I know, you’re a good lad.” He patted my knee with a calloused hand. Liverspots and scars were woven together in his flesh. “You’re also going to have to remember that you wear the mask everywhere, at all times, save here in your home, with your family. Yes, I know there are those who think shedding the mask amid friends is acceptable, but we’re an old family. We’ve taken the mask since the days when one had to, and we’re not surrendering a tradition for which our ancestors shed blood. Promise me, boy, that you’ll always wear your mask.”

I laid my hand on top of his. “You have my promise.”

“Good.” He glanced down at the floor for a moment, then nodded. “Your brothers, they’re good men, but not quite as bright as you. When I gave them their masks, I gave them some advice about what will be going on in the next month. For you I’ve not got anything to say that you don’t already know. For some people the Moon Month is a chance to start over. For others it’s a chance to start. For you, though, it is a chance to continue learning and growing into the man you want to be.“

He straightened, then looked down at me. “You know, Tarrant, I’ve no favorites among my children. I love you all, but I will say this: if I were out in the forests and lost, with frostclaws coursing me, there’s one of you I know would find me and help me. That’s you, lad. The others would try, don’t get me wrong, but you’d manage it. By luck or pluck, you’d do it. For that reason among many I am very proud of you.”

The pride welling up in my chest robbed me of words. I smiled at my father and he nodded in return.

“Come on, lad, I’ll be introducing you to your family now.” He opened the door to my room, then ushered me onto the walkway that provided access to the house’s upper rooms. My mother and my two brothers had gathered in the entryway, at the base of the stairs—just this side of the entryway’s mask-curtain—but I did nothing more than glance at them. In keeping with custom, they did not even acknowledge my existence.

I preceded my father down the stairs, then let him pass me. He cleared his throat and my unmasked kin smiled at him. “This being the fifteenth day of the month of Gold, I would like to present to you a new Hawkins. He is Tarrant.”

I bowed my head to them. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

My oldest brother, Doke, wearing a semiserious expression on his face, offered me his hand. “Captain Doke Hawkins of the Frontier Lancers, at your service.”

“And I am Sallitt Hawkins, Lieutenant in the Oriosan Scouts.” Sallitt swept a hank of red hair out of his eyes and shook my hand. “Tarrant, you say? I once knew a Tarrant Hawkins. Bit of a bother.”

My mother hissed at him. “Hush now, Sal. Pleased to be meeting you, Tarrant.”

“The pleasure is all mine.” I took my mother’s heart hand in mine and kissed it gently.

She turned away quickly so I couldn’t see her face. Dawn light pouring in through the front windows caught the long veins of grey running through her brown hair. I’d noticed them before and had even kidded her about them. But now, seeing them through the slits in a moonmask, I felt the first cold jolt of mortality. My mother and father had been part of my life forever—or, rather, until this day I had been part of their lives. Now I had my own life to live, one that would take me away from them. I was a seed fallen away from the tree, to sprout and thrive on my own, or to fail to do so on the same terms.

As if my mother could read my thoughts and wanted to counter them, she pointed to the rough-hewn table over by the kitchen hearth. “We would welcome you into our home, Tarrant. Please, join us.”

I crossed the open room and sat at the guest end of the table. Placed there was a loaf of bread, a green apple, a tiny bowl of salt, a small wheel of cheese, and a pitcher of ale. Cups and plates had been set at four more places, but no food had been laid out at them. I sat, then the others, each watching me with a mixture of amusement and pride shining in their eyes.

First I took up the apple and carved a small wedge from it. It being a little early in the season for apples, the fruit tasted quite tart, but it had been the first solid food I had eaten after birth, so here I consumed it first after my rebirth. I chewed and swallowed, then quartered the remaining apple and passed it out among my kin.

Likewise I took the first piece of bread and cheese, then divided the remainder. I also poured the ale into each cup and added a dash of salt to each. I raised the cup of ale and offered the traditional moonmask toast. “To the nest become a stronghold, and the blood ties that bind this family together.”

We all drank and solemnly set our cups down. The crackling of the kitchen fire filled the silence for a second, then my brothers chuckled and Doke reached for the ale pitcher. “Are you prepared for your Moon Month, little brother? Fretting the adventures you’ll have?”

“Fretting? No.” I smiled and could feel the flesh of my cheeks press against the mask. “What do I have to be afraid of?”

My brothers laughed again, and even my father joined in. My mother gave him a stern glance and laid a hand on his arm, then nodded toward my brothers. My father’s laughter tumbled into a rumble, then died in a cough. He advanced his cup toward Sallitt.

“You’ll be wanting to tease Tarrant, but you’re old enough to know better, the both of you. You could have him thinking all manner of horrible things.” My father drew back the full cup and sipped the foam off the top. “I think you’ll recall he was quite respectful of you two during your Moon Months.”

I remembered my father having pulled me aside during Doke’s Moon Month. I was just a boy, a good ten years younger than Doke, and my father told me I was not to pester him about anything. “He’s your brother, and that’s just it. You’ll be leaving him alone and not be asking about this and that. Understand?”

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