The elven woods encircled the country of men. Railways crisis-crossed the land, transporting goods across the Empire. Within the past two decades, the once divided nation merged through the recent increase in steam-powered technology, including printing presses. Secluded cities and obscure towns could now read about politics from a population over a hundred miles from them. With this revolution came a surge in new factory work, education, and voting rights for the dwarven populace. It was a mere half-century since the stocky race was given freedom from slave-work and they were increasingly gaining more rights with the help of the South-Eastern Orcs. Their aggressive approach, however, has stirred conflict among the land of men. Small groups began to sprout up in resistance to the dwarves’ movement. Most resistance groups flickered out once the orcs joined the dwarves’ side, except for one. “Excalibur” was created to target not only the newly freed slaves, but all races who stood by the Queen’s ‘Freed Camelot’ Act, which declared all beings free within the Empire. The reference to the Arthurian Era, a mere three hundred years ago, was to create a contrast between the old race-banning laws that was enacted under the rule of King Arthur and the new Queen Ciciera’s “New Camelot”. King Arthur enthusiasts, however, strongly opposed the new Acts and resisted the Steam Revolution.
Transportation by train, at first booming and prosperous, had dwindled for a small period. Excalibur, a few months ago, targeted a train through the elven woods, hijacking it and kidnapping the conductor along with his assistant. The two humans still hadn’t been found. Luckily, there weren’t any passengers and they had already dropped off their cargo so the hijackers had nothing to take—except the two men on board.
Araric lowered his newspaper and rested it on his knee. The young elf was currently passing through those same woods, in a train. His eyes skimmed over the thin, uneasy crowd of passengers. His work took him all over the Empire, and he assumed they were on board for similar or pressing reasons. Most creatures had decided to stay home for the past few months due to the incident. He would’ve too, but unfortunately, he was called to New Camelot. It was the oldest city in the oldest land, ruled by a family who directly descended King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. Araric sighed and cast his eyes away from the velvet and copper interior of the steam-run train and to the rectangular window to his right. It was a bit past sundown and a few of the passengers had snuffed out their candle-light. Thick, dark, maroon trees flew by him, creating a blurry atmosphere. After a few moments of quiet observation, he slid his round reading glasses off his nose. He carefully folded them, placed them in their little box, and stuffed them in his leather pack. The section of the newspaper he had been reading was written by his new mentor, Percival de Troyes, a famous orc reporter. He was one of the most prominent and intelligent reporters in the Empire. A few of his most well-known articles dove into social reforms, the class systems, child labor, and the authenticity and effectiveness of the Queen’s new Acts. They were daring and bold. He had been targeted by many upper-class men to silence him, one way or another. They only succeeded in motivating him even further. He didn’t even go under a pen name; he was proud of his origin. Percival de Troyes descended from one of King Arthur’s knights, Sir Percival, who at some point mixed genes with a female orc. To Araric, Percival de Troyes was both admirable and reckless. Admirable, nonetheless. He was thrilled to get his hands on issues that truly mattered, no matter the mentor he worked under.
Araric glanced up at the young attendant. She was a human, dressed in her uniform: a maroon vest with gold buttons. Her blonde hair was tied back into a messy bun and her eyes were puffy. He wondered if she ever slept during her shift on the locomotive. He supposed not, not with the open missing-persons case. “Yes, thank you.” He gently took the cup from her and gave her a small smile. She returned it briefly before walking down the aisle with her silver tray.
He sipped on it, contemplating the state of the Empire and his place in it. Araric came from a well off family, the Hawklins. His grandfather made a fortune in the mines of East Orcland Ridges, a strand of stubby mountains on the edge of the Storming Seas. One day while working he found a jackpot of gems. With his first handful, he paid off his loans he took out to own a small section of the mountains. As he kept mining, he only found more: strains of gold, clusters of iron and crystals. He bought more land, bought dwarven slaves, and built the Hawklin’s Estate. Araric’s father grew up in that home. But his father decided to take a different path than mining.
Deccard Hawklin II hated the seclusion of the Orcland Ridges and yearned to journey to the towns which littered the beaches of the Storming Seas. So, he became a sailor. He loved the open water, and he loved adventure. Deccard was an intelligent an creative elf; he taught himself how to design ships. He earned a living by aiding in the making of trading ships. His own treasured lady, “The Serpent’s Saddle,” was created by him. Araric vaguely remembered helping his father clean and repair the sturdy ship. Perhaps the most distinct image he recalled was the figure head; it was a curled sea serpent, its fangs bared, its mouth open, ready to swallow up little boy elves.
Deccard must’ve been fond of this figure head, because he used it as his trademark symbol. He met a man one day in one of the foreign countries he traveled to, who had an extraordinary idea. He wanted to create a carriage that didn’t require horses. Deccard, struck by this notion, dove into it with him. Through their combined geniuses, they created the first design for a locomotive.
Araric’s clearest memories of his childhood mostly revolved around train tracks, smoke, and fire. He learned the ins and outs of the giant machine—how certain ways worked and how others didn’t. After spending a good amount of his inheritance on this horseless carriage idea, Deccard’s partner passed away from heart disease. Elves and men live for exponentially different lengths of time, and Araric’s father had forgotten about that factor. He would’ve lived three of his partner’s lifetimes before the man was born. After the funeral, Deccard was so distraught he wasn’t sure he could continue the project. That was when he met Lady Irene. The dead man was her cousin, and after having a long chat with Deccard that night, she decided to help fund his cause. She was his connection into the noble class. He received many investments, enough to finish the job he started and create a success.
Araric didn’t know his real mother, but he always looked up to Lady Irene like one. He imagined his biological mother was some woman his father ran into during one of his adventures, and Araric was simply dumped on him. Whatever his origin, he was content with his life. His adolescence was surrounded by the nobility and wonderful amounts of knowledge. He ate up historical accounts of the Arthurian Era, the War on Mages and Magical Beings, and famous literature during the time. Reading was his obsession, and writing quickly became one as well. He fell in love with history, literature, and everything in between. Mystery novels caught his eye one day when he was attending Gawain College, an expensive boarding school on the southern outskirts of the elven woods, opposite of New Camelot. While studying criminology and history, he stepped into the world of novelists. It was a relatively new idea at the time—the novel, that is. Beforehand, poetry dominated the realm of fiction. The novel was a completed, lengthy story which was written in a similar fashion as free verse. Throughout Araric’s university years, the printing press was beginning to gain traction. Newspapers quickly became popularized and soon journalism and reporting jobs were created. Araric set himself on those new careers with passion. He had showed much promise, and his father helped him make necessary connections. Those connections led him to Percival de Troyes.
Araric stared down at his empty tea cup. He wanted, more than anything, to make a difference in the world. He wanted as much influence on the land as his father before him. And he was going to do that through investigation and damn good writing.
He blinked dreamily. His vision was blurring. Was he that sleepy? He heard himself grumble something. His limbs felt heavy, and darkness crept along the corners of his eyesight. No, something was wrong. Before he could fight against it, sleep overcame him.
Smoke stung his nostrils. He tasted iron and something burnt. Drowsiness fogged his mind, and he couldn’t remember where he was. He was laying on cool grass, and he could feel the breeze whipping through his garments. The gold necklace he wore under his button down was cutting into his sternum. The wind moaned and distant fire crackled. He tried to move his limbs, but he only succeeded in twitching his fingers. Groaning softly, he forced his eyes half open.
A group of bodies stood with their backs turned to him. They were speaking amongst each other, but Araric couldn’t distinguish what they were saying. Their outlines were black against the red light ahead of them. He felt his eyelids begin to close, but he didn’t let them. Huffing, he pressed his palm into the grass and soil beneath him. He tried to force himself up, but his body felt so heavy. His arm fell roughly against the ground.
One of the bodies turned when they heard him move, and called to the others. A pair of muddied boots approached him. They asked him a question, but all he could hear was the ringing in his ears and the howling of the wind. Hands grabbed the back of his arms and forced him onto his feet. Araric sucked in a breath; his feet wouldn’t stand on their own and he could barely raise his head. A coarse hand grabbed onto his face and forced it up. Araric stared into the face of an elven orc, a slender man with dark gray and blue patterned skin, pointed ears, and snow-white hair. His fire orange eyes glowed in the dark, an orcan trait.
“Vernonthorn. Harmless, until boiled. Knocks anyone on their ass, given the right dosage.” His eyes bore into his captive.
Araric licked his dry lips. He felt himself edging on the brink of panic, but he managed to push it down. With effort, he formed the word “who”.
“I’m whatever I need to be. An executioner, a messenger, a train hijacker. For you, I am the herb which has poisoned you, and I will be your deliverer.” Vernon smiled emptily. “And you, you are freedom.”
He moved so that Araric could see the wreckage that once was a fully functioning locomotive. Burnt skin mixed with the smell of oil and leather. Deccard’s serpent logo was somewhere in the fiery mess, becoming disfigured with the heat. The passengers—
“Dead,” Vernon assured him, “all for you.”
The black outlined bodies turned to look at him, some of their eyes glowing. They stared at Araric with a dark reverence and a solemn understanding. The young Hawklin felt tears fall down his cool face. Feeling had come back to his hands and feet, but he couldn’t carry himself upright. What did they mean? They killed innocent passengers for him? Was this a mistake? Were they Excalibur? What did Araric have to do with them? Why did they call him their ‘freedom’?
He felt the tall, hefty orc that was holding him upright pick him up by the waist and sling him over his broad shoulder. A dizziness overcame Araric at the sudden motion and he had to shut his eyes through it. The orc’s suspender buckle dug into his side as they began their trek into the elven woods, abandoning the fiery scene behind them.
He didn’t remember when, but at some point, Araric passed out. He awoke to the sound of horses neighing and the shuffling of a large group of beings. Sunlight stung his eyes, and he had to blink hard in order to adjust. He was slumped against a tree, his chin on his chest. Everything ached; his muscles cried out in protest when he lifted his head. His neck was stiff and his brain was racked with a migraine. He unclenched his jaw and rubbed the sides of it with his fingers. Then he realized: he could move again.
Araric looked up at the scene around him. Orcs, elves, and men rushed around a makeshift camp, folding tents and loading up their horses. Red leaves fell from the tree tops, swirling along the breeze. One landed on his coffee brown trousers, bigger than his hand. He lifted it, dumbfounded. Where was he—?
Memories from the night before crashed into his mind, filling it so sharply he gasped. As quickly as his limbs could carry him, he jumped to his feet. His legs weren’t prepared for the sudden motion and nearly gave out on him. He caught himself on the pale trunk of the tree beside him. A few men eyed him, but they didn’t make any moves towards him.
A chill cut through Araric. He only had on a thin button down and wool trousers. His coal black boots were pasted with mud and grass. He fixed one of his fallen suspenders and stepped around the moving camp. Although he caught a few warning looks, like hounds ready to catch their prey when given the order, no one bothered him. He shivered. They were in the middle of the Bloody Elven Woods. No one, not even to camp, spent a night there. Civilization existed to the north and south of the red forest, but not in the midst of it. There was a superstition surrounding the woods; one of the more recent battles during the Arthurian age happened there. It was said that the last hint of magic was snuffed out along with the lives of all who fought there. King Arthur claimed his army won, and that was the end of it. A devastation like that was enough to end the war.
Araric came to a sharp stop. His eyes widened as he stared down the cliff side. The valley below and the mountaintops around them were filled with red birch trees. He lost his entire sense of direction, and felt nausea roll through him. With a shaky breath, he backed away from the edge. When he turned back to the camp, many eyes were on him. They looked satisfied. They knew that he now understood his situation—he relied on them to guide him out of the Bloody Elven Woods.
“I’ve always enjoyed this sight.” Vernon’s voice startled the young elf. He wore darkened spectacles on his crooked nose. A wool coat was slung over his broad shoulders and a rapier was attached to his hip. He was an oddly proportioned creature. He had the thin, tall frame of an elf but the wide shoulders and thick limbs of an orc. The patterns of his skin were more prominent in the sun. The blue pattern was lighter than he thought, and swirled along his ash gray skin. He was a head and a half taller than Araric. “The trees only get denser out there.”
“You killed them,” Araric said dumbly. It was the only thing he could think of to say in his shocked state.
“Yes.” Vernon shrugged. “For you, our dear Liberator.”
“What the hell does that even mean?”
Vernon snorted at that, as he if he found something funny. “Do you know who we are, elf?”
Araric glanced behind them. He licked his lips uneasily before responding, “you’re Excalibur. You hate the Queen and her new laws, so you kill and destroy all who support them.”
“You’re half right.” The elven orc rubbed his pointed chin. It was nearly impossible to see his expression with his dark glasses. “But we’re not Excalibur—you are. You’re King Arthur’s sword come alive, and you’re going to help us dismantle all of New Camelot.”
Araric took a step back, his face twisting in confusion. “I’m not—you’ve got the wrong—”
Vernon reached under the elf’s collar and lifted up the gold chain and pendant that had his family’s name etched into it. “Araric Hawklin, son of Deccard Hawklin II, co-inventor of Serpent Locomotives. You’ve recently graduated at Sir Gawain College, specializing in criminology and history. You’ve just accepted an apprenticeship under the famous journalist Percival de Troyes—congratulations, by the way. You were supposed to meet him today around noon-time. When he discovers that the train you were on hasn’t arrived, he’s going to write a letter to your father. That’s when our mission begins, do you understand?” Vernon’s voice was low and had a matter-of-fact tone. He stared down at Araric, his gray lips twisted upwards at the corners.
“Uh, sir—,” A man interrupted, his face pink and his breathing quick. “We’re ready for departure.”
Vernon nodded and placed a large hand on his captive’s shoulder. “We’re this way.”
Araric allowed himself to be led to their wagon. The gravity of his situation was starting to set in, and the reality of what was to come weighed him down. What did they want with his father? They were going to use Araric as blackmail, that was for certain, but what did they want? Money? As soon as the thought came to him, his gut told him otherwise. No, they could obtain money in a much easier fashion. And the way Vernon spoke to him, like he was the key to their cause. Fear and dread gripped his stomach—they were going to use him to dismantle the crown and destroy New Camelot. He couldn’t let that happen. He stared hatefully at Vernon, who now sat across from him in their wagon, flipping through a newspaper. The half-orc chuckled, held it up, and pointed to a section written by Percival. Araric tore his eyes away from him and stared out their window. A line of men on horseback surrounded their ride, rapiers and crossbows attached to them. Well, he thought bitterly, he was finally going to be able to change the world, one way or another. He buried his face into his hands, hoping the swaying of the carriage and the sound of crunching leaves under horse feet would drown out the building sickness in his stomach.
About the Creator
I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. Every chance I could get I was either writing, drawing, or telling anyone who’d listen my stories. Throughout high school I self published three books on Amazon. Enjoy my short stories!