I’ll let others debate about “what fans expect vs. the story which the creator wants to tell” but for anyone who is completely bummed out by the ending, let me say this: I feel your pain. Because I too have gotten burned on other series and franchises before.
So, I have a little gift for you folks: a special preview of a story I’m working on, a dark fantasy inspired by Game of Thrones and maybe one or two other dark fantasy sagas. It’s the first third of an intended short story, which I hope to turn into at least one novel.
DISCLAIMER: This story is an excerpt from a work-in-progress of mine, roughly the first third of the intended short story. No profit is being made, and this is a completely free gift to Game of Thrones fans out of the goodness of my heart. So please, ENJOY!
“The Charge of the Bastard Brigade”
by Seth Shirer
The sun’s first rays had barely crossed the horizon when the horn trumpeted reveille.
“Rise and shine, campers!” the leader announced, full of enthusiasm and vigor. “Today’s a new day, and a very special day at that! We have a siege to attend to, gentlemen and ladies!”
He was answered by a cacophony of muffled groans and curses from the cluster of tents around him.
The fierce band of fighters, just shy of a solid five hundred strong, all dragged themselves out of bed — or, more specifically, off their bedrolls — and exited their tents to get to their duties. They might have been grumpy at first and being forced to wake so early, but their sense of pride and duty returned when they got to see their company’s flag and its sigil — a big turtle pointing its head upwards towards the heavens — and they acted quickly on that sense of pride and duty.
But one of the men in this camp took his sweet time getting up, and he had that luxury because he wasn’t one of the fighters himself.
His family and friends called him Skripp, and he loved to write. He loved to scribble things ever since he was a a very young boy, and he loved to read and write in a world where few people did or could do either. It was his skill and talent which got him noticed, and where he worked as a clerk in the capital city.
His tablet, his journal and his writing instruments were his most prized possessions. Skripp dressed simply and plainly, forgoing whatever fancy finery he could have afforded on a particularly good month and settle instead of spun wool tunics, simple leather trousers, and plain hide boots. He could have been forced to wear sackclotch and sandals, but that would have been find with him, as long as he was allowed to write and bring back his writings to his publishers.
And it was a good thing, too, because Skripp wouldn’t any particularly fine clothes ruined in the battle which was set to take place today.
And now he got to listen as the brigade’s leader continued to sound his horn with loud and obnoxious-sounding tunes. And unless Skripp’s imagination was deceiving him, he could have sworn that he saw the brigade’s leader smirking as he used that same mouth to trumpet those sounds.
He stood tall, well over six feet, and his body was every maiden’s fantasy with its muscles and hard edges even showing through his simple yet highly-functional clothes. His scalp was adorned by very short black hair which was shaved to the point it was a thin black fuzz. But perhaps his most distinctive feature was his bright eyes — not just yellow or light brown, but golden eyes.
It was those eyes which betrayed his true parentage and lineage, even if his bloodline was not supposed to be acknowledged or discussed aloud.
As he finished trumpeting and cast the trumpet aside, he turned to Skripp and smiled. “Skripp the scribe. A good morning to you, my friend.”
“And a good morning to you too, Commander Clutch,” Skripp replied dutifully with a small bow.
Erik stood there, appraising him with an eyebrow raised… and then burst out laughing.
Skripp jolted, embarrassed and rooted to the spot.
“Commander Clutch?” he repeated incredulously. “And you give me a bow, even a small one? Don’t I feel powerful and presitigious today?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, Commander Clutch,” came a female voice from behind him, mostly respectful but with a hint of condescension in it too.
There stood a female soldier in with messy black hair, tanned skin, and those same unusual golden eyes. She was clad in boiled leather armor and the hilt of a longsword peeking over her shoulder, and Skripp could tell right away that she was unnaturally taller than most women. She was almost as tall as Erik himself, and he was the tallest soldier in the camp!
“Tytanya,” Erik greeted her. “My half-sister,” he quickly added to Skripp by way of explanation. “Same father, different mother, as is the case with all of my halfsibs.”
“Halfsibs?” Skripp uncertainly repeated the unfamiliar word. It seemed that the half-siblings who comprised the core of the Bastard Brigade had their own special argot as well.
“You know, half-siblings,” Erik elaborated. “Halfsibs is just a catch-all word which I invented for the sake of convenience, because constantly spouting out ‘half-brothers’ and ‘half-sisters’ all the time could get cumbersome real quick.”
“And inventing that word is quite possibly our beloved leader’s greatest achievement,” Tytanya added, a little snippy. “That is, beyond the battlefield and all of the victories to which he has led us.”
If Erik was at all bothered by his half-sister’s — pardon, his halfsib’s — snarky remarks, then he didn’t show it.
“Charming as ever, Tya,” he said, calling her by her despised pet name. She growled a little, but said nothing else. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“The rest of the clutch needs to have a word with you, Commander,” she responded tersely, gesturing with a grand wave of her hand to a bunch of other soldiers. So many of them — Skripp counted two dozen of them, at the very least — stood near the large command tent, their ages ranging from ten years at the youngest to being young adults, no older than Erik or Tytanya. Their physical features ranged from very light-skinned to very dark-skinned and all kinds of shades in-between, hairs of all kinds of colors, and other traits ranging from both this continent and the other big continent of the Known World — but the one thing which they all had in common were those unique golden eyes.
“Of course,” he said affably. Turning back to Skripp, he said, “Excuse me a moment,” and then strode off with Tytanya before the scribe could even reply.
Skripp just stood there, watching as they all turned and entered the largest of the tents. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a voice from behind him:
“That’s some family there, eh?”
Skripp spun around to see a middle-aged man — he was guessing around thirty years old — with an eye patch over his right eye and a harp in his hands, observing him intently with his remaining good eye.
“Skripp, is it?” the other man inquired. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Buck.”
“Good morning, Buck.”
“Noticed some of the family love, did ya?” Buck commented. Without waiting for Skripp to continue, Buck continued: “They’ve all banded together, those bastards. His Highness the king himself really slept around back in the day, and here they all are. Living together, fighting together… winning together.”
“Then what’s the story with Erik and that half-sister of his?”
“Oh, Tytanya?” Buck chuckled. “Both Erik and Tytanya are the oldest of the group, born around the same time — remember that Blood Moon which happened twenty-one, almost twenty-two years ago? — but no one can be certain just who was born first. Not like there were any scribes in their villages to write down these details for them, not like for any highborn births.
“But then when Erik sought out his half-siblings — his halfsibs — and banded them all together like this, there was a dispute between Erik and Tytanya over who should get to lead. At first they argued about merit and skill, but then it boiled back down to who was the firstborn between them.”
“It seems a little strange, for them to defy conventions like this as a group of soldiers, and still fall back on order of birth to establish a hierarchy,” Skripp noted. What was the word for that again? he thought to himself. Oh yeah, primogeniture.
“Hierarchy?” Buck furrowed his brow.
“You know, like a pecking order,” Skripp elaborated. Note to self: Try not to use big and fancy words too often.
“Oh, right, that. Well, yes, so then Erik and Tytanya got into this big row and decided to settle it in a contest of skill. They did jousting, they did archery, and they finally had melee combat at the end — and make no mistake, Tytanya is a great soldier on her own, but Erik is even better.”
“So she’s bitter?” Skripp asked, dropping his voice to a whisper because he didn’t know who else around them could have been listening.
“I guess you could say that,” Buck shrugged, scratching his scraggly beard. “Not only did she lose the chance to be the brigade’s leader, but she gets plenty of crap just for being a woman in a man’s world, and in a man’s profession at that. The fact that she’s so tall and not exactly ‘pretty’ hasn’t helped either, I gather. So she’s always had to work twice as hard, and then some.”
“Hmmm,” Skripp murmured thoughtfully, feeling a little sorry for the young woman in question.
“Besides,” Buck went on, “there’s now a whole lotta rumors swirlin’ around about the whole Bastard Brigade themselves.”
“Would it have anything to do with that thing which happened a year ago?” Skripp muttered in low, dark tones.
Now Buck’s face went as dark to match. “Yeah… after the Eclipsed Wedding—” (and here Buck’s eyes darted around, to see if anyone else had overheard these words) “—there are rumors that King Goldeneyes himself just might legitimize Erik and all the rest of them in that big tent there. Because, you know, no one else survived that massacre, not even the rest of the royal family.”
And now Skripp’s face went even darker. “The Eclipsed Wedding” was what everyone was calling it now: The king and the rest of the royal family had attended the wedding of another highborn lord, and there happened to be an eclipse that day, which even the wisest learned men hadn’t been able to predict. But it was darker than any eclipse in living memory, but that fear and unease which it had caused across the kingdom was nothing compared to the horror which unfolded in that high lord’s hall — a massacre which left everyone dead, save for the king who survived albeit barely thanks to his sheer martial prowess.
And rumors had abounded as to who was the culprit behind this outrageous atrocity. Some claimed that it was another rich and powerful person who had spent an unthinkable fortune to hire the best team of assassins. Others claimed that it was an invasion of demons who wanted something out of the victims. But whatever the reason, the truth was that now the king’s lineage was in peril, and now a new heir had to be produced or found — and fast.
And there were even rumors going around that the king would legitimate Erik and all the rest of his halfsibs, for want of any better alternatives.
And that speculation, in turn, had led to even more rumors flying around, such as the one claiming that the king himself had been “unmanned” in the fight and just couldn’t produce anymore children and proper heirs of his own.
Erik showed no emotion or interest in the matter. Most assumed it was because he didn’t want anyone to think that he was just a greedy bastard who wanted what wasn’t rightfully his, but Skripp also had a feeling that Erik truly didn’t want it. Maybe being a prince or king didn’t interest him, or maybe Erik genuinely disliked and feared being forced to live in the castle? That wouldn’t surprise Skripp; after all, how many times had he himself heard other soldiers say that they prefered the brutality of the battlefield to the palace intrigues of the royal court?
“So yeah,” Buck said, speaking up again and cutting through Skripp’s deep thoughts. “Lots of fun stuff happenin’ now. Interestin’ times, and all that. Just sayin’… be careful.”
“Thanks, Buck, I will,” Skripp replied earnestly.
“Good man,” Buck said in normal conversational tones again, and smiling as he clapped Skripp on the shoulder.
“Skripp! Buck! Good to see you two have meet each other!” Erik’s voice rang out, and they turned to see him exiting the tent with all of the commander’s halfsibs filing out to go off to their different tasks. Erik walked up to them and asked Skripp, “So, my scribal friend, has the old bucket-handler here been treating you well?”
Bucket-handler? Skripp wondered, before responding: “Oh, yes, yes, Buck here is great!”
“Must you keep bringing that up?” Buck demanded with a glare which lacked any real malice.
“Sorry, Buck, I apologize,” Erik said, raising his hands in an apologetic gesture.
Buck had noticed the blank and confused look on Skripp’s face, and then rolled his eyes and explained: “I was a wandering vagrant when Erik and his merry band of bastards here found me and took me in. I didn’t have a name. They started me off handling the buckets, so I got named ‘Bucket’ — or maybe even ‘Sir Bucket’ if one was feeling particularly kind at that moment in time — and so it got shortened to ‘Buck’ from there.”
“And you’ve come a long way and earned your place, Buck,” Erik said, clapping Buck on the shoulder. “From a mere bucket-handler to one of the head cooks!”
“Yes, now I give people what goes into their bodies instead of cleaning up what comes out of them, lucky me,” Buck snarked. Then he caught the gobsmacked look on Skripp’s face and instantly burst out laughing, taking the scribe by surprise.
“Oh, don’t look so shocked, lad!” Buck chortled. “Anyway, I see you have things to discuss with the great and mighty Commander Clutch, so I’ll just leave you both to it! By your leave, Commander!”
Erik waved Buck off, and with a jaunty salute, Buck went on his merry way and whistling a cheery tune as he went.
With all that out of the way, Erik went straight back to talking with Skripp.
“So, Skripp,” Erik said easily. “What brings you here? And I mean really brings you here?”
“What do you mean, Commander Clutch?”
“Well, for one thing, you’re not a bastard, and people joining us for any reason when they aren’t bastards themselves is very rare.”
“Well, for one thing, I haven’t officially joined your company… yet,” Skripp noted. “I’m just acting as a witness to the Royal Crown and the court. But I wanted to be here anyway! I wanted to see the action, be a witness to history in the making!”
Skripp then realized a little too late that he was raising his voice, so he fought to keep his excitement under control. But Erik was amused all the same. “Thank you for telling me, Skripp; I don’t care so much that you’re here at all, but I wanted to know why you were here. And believe me, I can think of worse people to visit me than spectators and curiosity-seekers! I just had to know that your motives were pure and true, ‘tis all.”
“Afraid I could have been a spy or some such thing?”
“Nah, a spy wouldn’t write everything down and then leave his notes just lying around for anyone to take,” Erik pointed out. “No… I was afraid that my father was trying to send someone to observe us.”
Now Skripp was confused, and they lowered their voices again. “Your father… the king? But if he loves you, despite you and your half-siblings being bastards and all, then why would that be problem?”
“Because decorum dictates that he shouldn’t seek us out any more than we seek him out,” Erik explained. “Oh, please don’t misunderstand me, Skripp — we love him and he loves us back as is appropriate in a situation such as this — but none of us can be caught, that’s all. We’re all just supposed to pretend that we have nothing to do with each other when the entire realm knows the relationship between the king and me along with my halfsibs.”
“Of course,” Skripp muttered to indicate understanding.
“Still… he does help us occasionally,” Erik continued, whispering conspiratorially. “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but… Once a year, every year, he ships us two full chests of good to help us afford whatever supplies we need, and we keep the remainder in a safe place. Not exactly a proper birthday gift for each and every one of us, but it’s better than nothing — and it’s certainly made a difference.”
“And what is the goal of all this?” Skripp asked. “The ‘endgame’ as some people might say?”
“Simple,” Erik shrugged, with his voice rising back up to normal conversational tones, “we do enough good deeds and win enough wars, and we get legitimized and get to form our own House. We might never be able to carry his black bull as our sigil, but then, we’ve already got our own.” And here Erik pointedly tore his gaze away from Skripp’s and gazed at the banners, with their turtle sigil.
“Of course, of course,” Skripp murmured.
“Still… why turtles?” Skripp asked. “Why have a turtle as your sigil?”
“Well, first, let me ask you this, Skripp,” Erik responded, “how much do you know about the culture and traditions of that big empire in Far East?”
“Can’t say I know that much about them,” Skripp replied honestly.
“Well, have you ever personally met any Oyentians?” Erik inquired. “Ever read any books or texts about their culture?” When Skripp shook his head in the negative, the Bastard Brigade leader elaborated, “I met a few merchants this one time, and they told me how, in their culture, calling someone a turtle was a really clever way of calling someone a bastard, since turtles don’t know their parents when they hatch at birth. So, I just took that and ran with it.
“But honestly,” Erik added, “it might just be because no highborn lords or ladies in our fine realm were already using turtles anyway.”
The last bit came out with a smirk and a chuckle.
Skripp went along with it and laughed too.
“Come, Skripp, let’s go see what everyone else is doing,” Erik suggested, and the scribe followed in his wake.
Everyone in the company was glad to see their glorious leader out and about. And, of course, the usual taunt followed Erik everywhere he went:
“And there he is, Erik Clutch — a bastard of a lord and the lord of bastards!”
He knew why: Because despite how he preached equality and how all bastards were deserving of the same respect and power, somehow Erik himself and all of his half-siblings who all shared the same father ended up in all the important positions of the company. They were the planners and strategists, the quartermasters, the paymasters, the recruiters, and so on. But if any of the bastards serving in the Bastard Brigade who were not of King Durron’s seed had any issues with it, then they kept those opinions to themselves.
Besides, it was hard to argue with this way of doing things when the Clutches’ leadership led them to an unbroken string of victories. It was now an official superstition, at least among the members of the Bastard Brigade, to just let the golden-eyed king’s equally golden-eyed bastard children run the group.
In short, there was no indication of any kind of tension or strife between the king’s direct children and any of the other bastards serving in this brigade. At least not as far as Skripp could tell.
After spending an hour or so watching various members of the Bastard Brigade practice against each other in sparring sessions, Skripp found Erik approaching him again.
Erik took a deep breath, and let out a big sigh of relief. “You smell that, lad?”
“No, what is it.”
“The smell of polishing oil, before it gets rubbed on all the metal and leather in stuff. I love the smell of polishing oil in the morning.”
“Because it beats all the hells out of the smell of blood and shit and death after the battle’s done, that’s why!”
Skripp just rolled his eyes. But he supposed it made sense. He even laughed along with everyone else at that quip.
Finally, it got closer to midday, when the sun would be at its highest, and everyone got ready for battle.
And from a lone hilltop, Skripp was watching the enemy camp with all those soldiers coming together. But what truly caught the young scribe’s attention was their own banner: a filthy mongrel, eyes glowing like fiery coals and a rabid maw spitting out saliva like throwing knives. It seemed to delight in being shocking and repulsive, as opposed to the more elegant sigils which most people were wont to openly display and carry.
By the Unholy Kingdom of Hell, Skripp thought to himself, they even behaved something like dogs — howling like that and tackling each other!
“And there they are… the Dirty Dogs.”
Skripp’s head whipped around and he saw Erik calmly standing there next to him. How did he move so silently? he wondered. Or has he been standing there this whole time?
“And there they are, fighting for the sake of the Black Widow Lady,” Erik continued, unaware of Skripp’s inner musings. But Erik nodded his head as he said it, and Skripp’s gaze continued across the way. There, on the opposite hill across the battlefield, sat the tall dark tower where the belligerent highborn lady in question was currently holed up. On a bright, sunny day such as this, that black tower stuck out like a sore thumb, and it even seemed that it stood up with its lady against the authority of the Crown in upright defiance like some rude vulgar gesture. To say nothing of the black magic and dark arts which she allegedly dabbled in and practiced…
“She really is mad, you know,” Erik idly commented. “She’s mad with rage, mad with grief, mad with greed, mad with the world… but mostly just mad.”
Skripp snorted in spite of himself. Then sobering up, he commented, “I heard she wasn’t happy being married to her lord, especially after all these years, and now that he’s dead and gone, she deserves more for all her troubles.”
“And then there’s her hired sellswords down there, standing between you and her,” Skripp noted.
“Then I guess it’s time to finally put them down.”
And finally, it was time to fight in battle.
To go to war.
“SOLDIERS!” Erik roared at the top of his lungs. They all fell silent and stopped whatever they were doing to see and listen to him.
“Here we are, at yet another great battle!” Erik declared. “There was trouble, so they called us!” Here he allowed them a brief chuckle before continuing: “This will be a tough battle, perhaps tougher than anything we’ve fought before — but I know we will do it!”
His soldiers cheered. “They think they’re better than us just because we’re bastards—” (and here Erik said it in a mocking tone, as if the stigma of being a bastard in this world was a mere jape) “—and so they think they’ll win just because of that! But we’re going to prove them wrong, aren’t we, my brothers and sisters in arms!”
“YES!” his soldiers shouted in unison.
“This may be a radical notion in our world, but it’s been said that people should not be judged by what they are, but what they do,” Erik said. “But let me do that one better: I say that it matters not where we come from, but where we go in life!”
This crowd may have been soldiers and not philosophers, but they still consumed his thoughts and notions with eagerness. They demonstrated this with their fresh roar of approval.
“And with that in mind, I will lead the way, and together, we will all go along the path which leads to respect, to prestige, to victory — THROUGH THEIR BLOODY AND SHAMEFUL DEFEAT!”
They roared again.
“You all know how this works by now,” Erik continued, not slowing down and not stopping. “See where you want to be, fight for it, and it will be so!
“SOLDIERS!” Erik shouted. “Are you not the greatest in all of Grandlandia?”
“And have you not sacrificed and fought hard to get where you are now?”
“And will you stop now just because a new enemy stands in your way?”
“Will you let them stop you?”
“Will you triumph over them?”
“THEN WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR, BOYS AND GIRLS!?” Erik roared, at the top of his lungs again. “GET YOUR GEAR, GET READY, AND GO FIGHT!”
And they roared louder than ever.
Skripp stood there, transfixed and amazed. He stayed rooted to the spot even as Erik approached him, taking a quick swig of cider to soothe his frayed throat after all the shouting.
“That was quite some speech,” Skripp complimented him in earnest.
“Thanks,” Erik replied, his voice sounding normal again after all that. “I am a good speech-maker, ‘tis true… but I let my greatsword do most of my talking for me.”
“Oh yes,” Skripp thought. That monstrosity, he silently added in his mind.
Monstersbane, everyone called it. That sword looked like someone made a minimal attempt to fashion a true sword from a heap or raw iron, but Skripp had already seen it in action. Just the day before, Erik had demonstrated his greatsword’s effectiveness by testing it after a fresh cleaning, and sliced through the bodies of more than a few dead pigs. Even if it didn’t manage to actually cut its targets, it could still hit hard and do serious damage from the impact alone.
And there it was, securely fasted to the special holder on Erik’s back. Even from this distance and this angle, Skripp could just see and imagine how deadly and destructive it truly was.
Erik cut an impressive figure, especially in his armor. But what Skripp found most unique and fascinating about his armor was its design, with a hexagonal pattern laid all over it. But it was not some kind of unique armor comprised of six-sided tiles, oh no, those lines were painted onto it.
According to Erik, he and his fellow soldiers painted these unique designs onto their armor as a cheap, low-cost way of differentiating themselves from their enemies, to make it easier to tell apart friend from foe in the heat of battle. And whatever paint came off during the battle could always be replaced later.
And once Erik was done with all the preparations for battle, he sought out Skripp one last time.
“Anyway, we’re off to go fight now,” Erik said, as casually as a farmer might tell his family he was going to go plant some seeds out in the field, “but you just go back up to that hilltop and you should be safe. Just follow the fleeting shadows of those three archers, who no one’s supposed to know about, over there running ahead of you.” Skripp turned his head just in time to see three figures in dark clothing and bows and quivers full of arrows running into the forest and disappearing behind the trees.
Turning back to face the Bastard Brigade’s glorious leader, the scribe said, “Well, good luck to you and all your brothers and sisters in arms, Erik; I’m sure you’ll win!”
They shook hands on it, and Erik smiled as he replied, “Oh, don’t worry about it, Skripp, I’m sure we will. And besides, I just know that our prize today will be the greatest thing yet!”
“And what would that be?”
Erik leaned in close and excitedly whispered to Skripp: “Our father the king will finally legitimize us!”
Skripp’s eyes widened in shock. “Do you know this to be true?” he whispered back, getting excited himself.
“No, but I just know it! I can feel it in my bones! He even hinted at it in his last missive to us!”
Skripp could feel an uncontrollable smile conquering his own face now, and he said, “I’m happy for you, Erik — and I’m rooting for you, too!”
“Good!” Erik responded, his voice now back at normal tones. Giving Skripp one last mighty clap on the shoulder, one which left the scribe amazed that he wasn’t driven into the ground like a wooden stake, Erik saluted him and departed to the front of the company — to his rightful place at the head of the army.
And Skripp watched Erik go, looking every bit the great commander which he had proven himself to be.
Skripp took his place high on a hill overlooking the battle, and got his quill, ink and parchment ready.
…Although he also had his bow and quiver of arrows ready to use too. He wasn’t stupid, after all.
But once he was all settled, he turned his attention back to the battle below and eagerly watched.
“BASTARD BRIGADE,” Erik Clutch roared, “CHARGE!”
And the earth shook under the combined weight of their charging horses with their best warriors on horseback.
This ought to be good, Skripp thought as he watched with anticipation.
And then the opposing armies clashed.
The scribe may have only been a witness to the battle, but his own senses were assaulted during the fight: He could see countless weapons swinging, hear many bodies falling to the ground with death-cries, and before long he could even smell those horrible smells which Erik had just described earlier before the battle. But as much as he wanted to look away at times and shield his senses from the battle and the rest of the world around them, he remained adamantly attentive.
Skripp feverishly wrote down what he saw and observed. His hand and his stylus worked frantically to keep up with his eyes as he noted everything which he saw. He knew better than to worry about details or accuracy — he would go back over it later and rewrite it all in more presentable writing to make it presentable for the scholars’ books and the bards’ tales.
But he was still so amazed that part of him was tempted to just abandon his writing and note-taking altogether and just watch the battle.
And what amazed Skripp the most was how cohesive the Bastards were as they fought side by side in battle. They may have been a mercenary band whose primary motivation was money, but even from this distance, the young scribe could see how they watched each others’ backs even as they fought the enemy before them.
Blood may have been thicker than water, but it also seemed to be stronger than gold, or so Skripp mused.
It took more than a few hours, but once again, the “Bastard Brigade” had taken a chance, led the charge… and won.