Aufora: Icebound Keep, Chapter 1

Lord Halmar sat in his bedchamber in the Carterian Keep, thinking. Thinking about what, even he didn’t know. The lord of a fortress as big as a village, yet nothing to do but be alone with his scattered thoughts. He stood up from his bed, the ropes holding the feather-filled mattress up were stretched from years of use. The black-brick walls of the keep surrounded him in his personal apartment on the fourth floor of the fortress. He walked towards one of the tall windows incorporated in the ornate design of the both defendable and well-crafted structure, peering outside. The multi-tiered city of Carteria sat, bathing in the golden light of dawn. Citizens walked to and fro, some with carts of produce, others laden with goods to bring to the bustling markets in the lively districts that the city was composed of. Lord Halmar turned away from the window suddenly, his fur-lined cloak spinning magnificently as he walked to the door of his bedchamber. He pulled open the door that separated his bedchamber from the common space in his apartment and stepped out with the muted clunk of his door swinging closed behind him. In the living space, a fireplace jutted out from one of the outer walls, and exquisite tapestries covered the walls surrounding him. Comfortable armchairs were set in the middle of the room facing the fireplace, and another smaller door ran off to the side of the room, concealing the bath chamber. For most as wealthy as Lord Halmar, it was a small affair but was easily warmed by the fireplace during the cold months of the year. He noticed the embers in the fire, still glowing slightly from yesterday night, but shrugged off restarting the fire. He wished to be in town most of the day. Lord Halmar walked to the door of his quarters, pushing the wooden bar out of the way so the door could be opened. He flinched slightly as he entered the winding halls of the fortress, a wave of colder air assaulting him as he was removed from the relative warmth of his rooms. He pulled his cloak closer and turned down the hall. The fortress itself was built into the side of a large, forested hill. Below the fortress, the city of Carteria sprawled. Where there once was an oaken forest, housing had been erected throughout the winding streets of the busy market town. The city itself couldn’t be called beautiful. Although there was plenty of interesting architecture throughout the cobbled streets, there was no theme to each of the buildings. The homes seemed to be random in their design like multiple planners had clashed over what the city was to look like during the late nights that it was planned. Some buildings were large and focused on aspects of stone, while others appeared to be made with plaster crudely stuck between complicated wooden frames. Lord Halmar walked through the tapestry-imbued corridors as he made his way through a familiar route. He turned a corner, exiting the small, guarded corridor that housed him and other high ranking men and women within the city. Two guardsmen came to attention as he walked past, and he paid them little notice. He briskly walked down the wooden stairs, his feet pattering each step he descended. When he reached the next level, the presence of people became more common. Guardsmen patrolled in groups, saluting as they passed the castle lord. Servants bustled throughout the halls, bowing their heads as they continued down the corridors. Some appeared to be laden with supplies that were needed in the upkeep of such a momentous construct, while others appeared to simply be walking in an attempt to give the impression that they were working. Lord Halmar turned to another stairwell and continued downstairs. Paintings covered the walls, drawing people’s attention away from the dark, and seemingly foreboding brick. The smoothed, dark brown floorboards squeaked as he reached another set of stairs, the wood some of the strongest that could be found in the Carterian Forest. As he reached a small intersection, he debated whether or not he should go to the kitchens to gather a morning meal for himself. He simply shrugged. He could easily get something to eat in town. Once again, he started through the labyrinth that he called his home. As people became more common the closer he got to the entrance of the keep, He reached a balcony. Below him was the Great Hall of the Carterian Keep. The floor was large and open, with only the occasional pillar holding up the four stories of castle above him. Smaller doors ran off the side of the chamber, holding the offices of city administrators that were accepting visits from the townsfolk. Lord Halmar noticed Jera, the herald of the Carterian Keep conversing with somebody of seemingly gentry class in an angry tone. The bright red of his hat shown brightly against the crowd, the white feather embedded in it proving to complete his look. Jera jerked his thumb towards the office that he occupied and moved through the door, the frazzled gentryman, quickly turning around and pointing at a servant to the man as he attempted to follow them into the office. Lord Halmar let a smile play through his serious features as the door to Jera’s office slammed shut. A large, elegant staircase ran towards the ground floor, a carpet slithering its’ way to the balcony and causing the main room to be even further personified as the abode of a nobleman. Unlike in the Carterian Keep, most castles had spiral staircases that ran up towards the right. This proved to be useful if enemies breached the walls of a fortress and the soldiers were being forced to the top of the castle, level by level. But, the staircases in the Carterian Keep weren’t originally designed for close-quarters fighting. Originally, the Keep had been a discovered by an Aedonian scouting party when the province was new; A nearly unexplored forest kept safe from the sprawl of towns due to one rumor or another. Everything from spirits to unusually large spiders had claim to one legend about the forest or another, and many of the even the most senior soldiers refused to take up such a task. For, what if it were true? Of course, one of the previous Barons’ eventually cracked down on the more superstitious soldiers and sent a party of armed men into the forest. For days, they stayed in the forest. Already rumors had been circulating that the party had been eaten by a giant spider, and the families of the men on the journey had even begun to openly mourn for their losses. But one day, the party showed up at the entrance to Balsan, the largest and oldest city in the province and home to Castle Aedon. Men and women cheered for the return of the scouting party, and some had heard that a couple of them even managed to siphon a few legends of themselves from the populace before they retired from soldiery. In their time, they had brought back information of a towering, crumbling castle that had been abandoned long ago. At this, the Baron seemed surprised. He had heard of tales of some of the more bold fisherman supposedly seeing the structure from the ‘Haunted Bay’ (Now Carterian Harbor) as they dubbed it, and thought nothing of it. Fishermen were some of the most superstitious folks out there, and they created these types of stories all the time either for attention, or simply to see the reactions of those who heard them. The Baron did not take the words of the scouting party lightly and organized a large group of men and women to start a small settlement below the newly discovered castle. Over the years, where there was once a small footpath that led between Balsan and the settlement that had been named Carteria, a road had been established as Carteria grew into a village, then a town. The bay seemed to be shaped perfectly for fishing, and the thick woods was home to many varieties of game. Then, the revitalization of the Keep began. The Baron seemed to have no regrets about spending a large portion of the Aedonian treasury in the revitalization effort, and even the King eyed the fortress with some pride, sending supplies when they were desperately needed. The brick used to create the castle seemed to have some form of unknown property to it. The black stones were hard to tear out by the workers, and they eventually settled for simply carving stone to fit in the smaller gaps, as it took a shorter period of time. The stairways, architects noticed with contempt, were some of the worst parts of the Keep due to the sheer lack of interior defenses. But, they were forced to allow the stairways to remain for fear of having to pry even just one more of those bricks loose. No legends of the Carterian Keep existed that truly explained who built it originally. As Lord Halmar continued into the Great Hall, citizens glanced up at him with awe. Many of the citizens inside the great hall quickly dropped to one knee out of respect for the castle lord, but Lord Halmar waved them up.

“Stop with the kneeling and scraping. The only thing it’s affecting is your back. You all must know this already!” He said, taking on a slightly joking tone. Some citizens slowly stood, while others took longer to join the masses and stand before him. Lord Halmar looked about the hall, with a look of mock confusion on his face.

“Why is everyone staring at me?” He asked, a small smile touching his lips once more. The citizens mumbled incomprehensibly as Lord Halmar walked towards the open gate. He sighed, shaking his head. Why did everyone also view him with such seriousness?

The temperate air of the Auforian Mountains hit his face, and he sighed happily at its’ touch. He enjoyed the outdoors and most certainly would take a stroll through Carteria to filing away the surprising amount of paperwork that came with being a city nobleman. He placed one of his hands into a pouch at his side and pulling out a crumpled piece of parchment reminding him to buy some basic products he may need in the square. He wore a red fur-lined coat over his comfortable cotton underclothes and had a small dagger hooked to his waist, within easy reach of his right hand. He was on the top tier of the city of Carteria, almost even with the crest of the hill that the fortress was built upon. As he walked, he looked over the cleared, freshly cut lawn that surrounded the Carterian Keep. Alongside causing the keep to look less like an inescapable tower, the clear front lawn was also practical. Any attacker who hoped to seek cover close to the castle would find themselves in an unpleasant situation as archers began to draw back their bows. From his hilltop vantage point, he could see the city of Carteria sprawling down and to the right of the gate, the Carterian Harbor glistening beautifully in the light of morning. Large gallions bobbed up and down on the waves, with smaller fishing craft either moored to a dock or drifting in the center of the bay. To the sea, sails of the craft seemed to paint the picture of paradise. Small oaks swayed near the waterside, the salty sea air picking them up and lifting them to the heavens. A sandy beach led to the start of the water, and he could make out the small figures of children playing contentedly in the sand. Lord Halmar turned to face the other direction. The sun’s rays hit him in the face, temporarily blinding him. He held his hand over his eyes and scanned the other side of the hill. A few small columns of smoke rose from the canopy of the valley below, and Lord Halmar knew that these were the homes of the foresters and hunters of the city, who preferred to live within the forest rather than making the journey to and from the city center each night and day. The trees leaped into the sky, twisting and turning in mid-air, their green leaves trying to pull the unruly branches back towards the leaf-covered forest floor. In the distance, the sun was just beginning to rise, and the heat enveloped him with the warmth of a woolen blanket. He closed his eyes, exhaling deeply at the touch of the sun. Eventually, he turned away from the hillside and began to walk into the city. Despite the sun attempting to warm the earth, the wind blew right through him. Lord Halmar shivered, pulling his already tight cloak even closer. Fall was but a few days away, yet it was already quite cold for the time of year. Lord Halmar continued toward the edge of the green. No leaves had started to fall yet, but soon the ground would be covered in their gold and red figures, seeming to set the treetops and ground ablaze. He rejoined the path at a point farther up than where he veered off and continued walking towards the city. In truth, he could get everything he would ever need inside of the Carterian Keep. There was a large inner courtyard that held home to a well and the small gardens that were maintained by castle staff, a large assortment of foods scattered around the castle in a multitude of different storerooms, and plenty of rooms much like his own apartment that were simply there to prove as a relaxing getaway destination. Although this was the case, Lord Halmar enjoyed walking the streets of his city. He took pride in knowing that he was a popular leader of the town and surrounding countryside and knew that the constant support of a nobleman like Lord Halmar would prove to raise the opinion of the next generations as stories were told about ‘the old days’ by the more elderly citizens. The destination he had in mind was the market at Kingsridge Square. It was one of the larger areas of the city that provided a variety of wares and services from taverns to wheelwrights. Of course, the staff at the castle were practically lining up to serve him, although he preferred to interact with the populace of the town as much as a city lord could, including trips to the market. He took a few steps down from the front lawn on to Decent Street. The road was practically a large ramp that led from the Keep down to the docks. Smaller roads jutted off of it to either side of Descent Street, leading to the small alleys and roads that were familiar to most citizens. The rule of thumb in Carteria was that the closer to the keep that you owned land, the higher status you achieved. Not only was proximity to the castle a determining factor in the value of land, but tier of the city. Carteria is a city that is broken up into five different districts, each of them with the simple name of Tier One to Tier Five. Of course, there was Tier Zero, a place that was barely more of a shantytown built in the cleared space at the base of the slope. Although Lord Halmar had never enacted any rules against settling a home down there, even guards didn’t dare venture through that part of the city when they could avoid it. Tier Five was mainly made up of large manors that were practically miniature castles themselves and home to the gentry class of the city, while homes on Tiers Two and Three tended to be the more modest homes that your average worker could afford. Lord Halmar peered towards the harbor again as he entered the street. At the bottom of Descent Street, Cateria Harbor continued to glisten. The water rippled, and the effect was one much like that of someone waving a blue silk cloth. A small vessel, possibly a trading ship was slowly being rowed out of the harbor. The gentry class and some of the richer craftsman padded up and down the street, taking no notice of Lord Halmar and never using their own hands for anything. Anything that appeared to take even an ounce of thought was being done by a servant. Lord Halmar shook his head, mystified. What was the point of walking if your servants were practically moving your legs for you? In Lord Halmar’s eyes, servants are workers who should help manage everyday life, not manage it for somebody. As he thought back to his own actions, he realized how easy a job as a servant in the Carterian Keep really was, considering the amount that residents did for themselves. To his back, a slow breeze made the trees around him sway as if a large being had flicked the leaves. The cool air hit Lord Halmar once more. As he continued down the street, he muttered something about wishing he had another fur coat before turning onto another large street that led to Kingsridge Square. On this road, there was fewer servent covered gentrymen and more traders and craftsmen that typically varied from middle to upper class. Citizens leaned out of second-floor windows, beating rugs and stringing clothing on lines that ran between buildings, giving the road an almost festive feel each day. The colorful clothing ripped in an unfelt breeze as he passed beneath multiple homes. Typically, homes on this street had businesses on the first floor selling any goods that merchants could enjoy a surplus on, while the second floor was usually living space. In the distance, hundreds of voices could be heard faintly in the general direction of the market. Craftsman and merchants greeted him in a friendly manner, not bidding for attention but respecting him for the rank he had achieved. Lord Halmar tried to nod politely to all who greeted him, but the string of ‘good mornings’ and simple even a simple ‘hello’ seemed never-ending. He walked down a small decline, and the sound of voices began to become more obvious. Slowly, the banners of clothing turned to those of crest, and colorful banners hung from windows and were strung up to the sides of homes. Checkerboards of red and yellow with a black griffin were borne proudly– The official flag of the Kingdom of Aufora. At many points alongside the official flag, red and black checkered banners were also present– The crest of the Province of Aedon. Lord Halmar passed under another display of these banners, and the homes and businesses soon opened up around him as he faced Kingsridge Square. As soon as he set eyes on the square, the shouts of vendors attempting to push their goods on passerbys, and yells of pleasure and laughter became louder. In any space that remained from the sales pitches and laughter, mixed chatter filled in. More banners swung from shops, and a metal flagpole was positioned in the center of a fountain that was hardly more than a pool. On the pole, the Auforian Flag fluttered produced just feet above the Aedonian Flag. As his mind was on flagpoles, Lord Halmar had quickly jumped out of the way when a group of small boys came charging past, playing one game or another. A younger woman ran behind them, shouting at the boys.

“Come back here! You nearly knocked over this man!” She shouted at them angrily, and she put up her hands in defeat before she turned and looked at Lord Halmar. Her mouth was open to apologizing, but her eyes grew wide as she saw him.

“M… My Lord…” She stammered, visibly afraid of Lord Halmar’s presence, “I… I’m so sorry, My Lord… I…” Lord Halmar held up his hand to stop the woman from further speaking. She shut her mouth, her frightened eyes looking for what type of reaction Lord Halmar would have to her kids.

“No need to apologize… They’re simply playing,” He said in the most friendly tone he could muster, and the woman nodded feebly but didn’t seem fully convinced that she had been forgiven. Lord Halmar picked up on this instantly, and spoke once more, “We all played when we were younger– Don’t fret over such a thing.” At that, the women seemed to believe that she was being forgiven and spoke again, her voice still shaky, albeit less.

“Th… Thank you, Sir. I’ll be sure it doesn’t happen again.” She said, quickly curtsying before running in the general direction that her children had gone, her voice raised doubly as loud after her confrontation. Lord Halmar shook his head with a small chuckle at the boys. He turned away from the direction he had been looking and looked towards the stalls of the market again. Sound still surrounded Lord Halmar as he walked towards the center, where the flagpole sat guardian above the fountain. Citizens caught notice of him and a path seemed to form by some sort of magic as citizens moved to the side, letting him pass through the market square. The conversation had gone from a disorganized rabble to polite tones calling out good wishes for Lord Halmar. Lord Halmar walked past two members of the Carterian Guard, and he gave a friendly wave to them. They smiled, waving back. As Lord Halmar continued farther into the market, the crowd closed behind him. His feet made small noises on the cobbled square as people talked quietly. He heard a hoot of sound from the back of the crowd and saw the same woman from before trying to quiet down her children. When she saw that she had drawn attention towards herself, her face turned worried again. He sighed, turning away.

Lord Halmar quickly scanned the market stalls, and saw nothing of interest, even with the ridiculous discounts that the merchants were offering on their products to him. He shrugged to himself and continued walking towards the opposite entrance to the square, a small group of curious townsfolk following him, and two guardsmen attempting to push the crowd back and give the city lord some space. The crowd soon grew uninterested of his walking and turned back to their bartering. He exited the square to more good-natured greetings and was about to continue down the main thoroughfare when he paused outside of an entrance of a smaller alley. He glanced at it quickly. There was a darkened corner, but light could be seen pouring from around the wall. He stood another moment, establishing the fact that the alley must lead to another one of the larger boulevards. He shrugged, turning down it. The sun was quickly blotted out by the buildings, the small warmth it provided replaced with the damp alleyway. He approached the corner, the shadows giving his face a haunted appearance. A small lamp burned at the turn, casting an uneasy light across the alley. As soon as he stepped into the light of the oil lamp, he heard a sound that he had only heard on battlefields. The sharp noise of metal being pulled from a scabbard.

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