The Legend of Mor'du
Some stories are not yet legend. Some legends are not quite true.
Artagan held no hatred in his heart for his younger brothers. Although they roamed around the castle like mischievous bear cubs, committing such crimes as stealing food from castle maids, they adored him, and in return, he helped them with their studies, and did his best to keep them out of trouble.
The castle the four brothers called home rested by the seaside of what would now be called Scotland. The breeze was fresh and wild there. In fact, some said there was magic in the land, and that's why their ancestors chose to settle it.
Seven years ago, Artagan's mother died. She had never been the same after giving birth to the King's first son, and wasted away over a period of five years. Sometimes, her son would wake in a cold sweat, with sheets ensnared around his neck just as her arms had ensnared him the day she tried to strangle him. On those nights, he would look over at the fiery red heads of his sleeping brothers, and curl into bed with them.
"Artagan, we're trying to sleep." Blair would groan as he buried his little head into Artagan's shoulder.
Placing an arm around him, Artagan would smile and reply, "Quiet ye wee devil."
"Did you have a nightmare again?" The green eyes of Beathan would blink up at him, wide with worry.
Artagan took his hand and patted his head fondly, "Aye, I did. But I'm better now, Bea." He looked down at his little brother and sighed. The lad had fallen back to sleep before he'd even finished speaking.
The youngest of the triplets had simply stretched his arms around Artagan and returned to blissful dreams of food and terrified maids.
These rascals were his brothers, and he loved them dearly. And yet, he knew these halcyon days wouldn't last forever.
All three of the triplets had red hair and green eyes, just like their mother. Queen Ceana was a fair princess King Comhan had won from a neighboring kingdom. Their marriage was a political one, of course, but Artagan had an inkling there was a love in it, too. Something about the way his father's eyes softened when he looked at his wife and three sons. If only his eyes softened that way when he looked at Artagan's visage.
King Comhan blamed his eldest son for the death of his first wife. The whole castle knew this. They believed Artagan, with his unnatural raven hair and dark eyes, was a bringer of misfortune. A demon child.
Only his brothers didn't seem to care, but they would, just like the rest. They would when they got older.
The dining hall was at its best when it was empty. It still smelled of wood and warm food, but the atmosphere wasn't tainted by the noise and stink of too many Scotsman.
Unlike his three brothers, the black haired boy didn't consider the words 'study' and 'punishment' to be synonymous. In fact, he enjoyed learning about his ancestors and the neighboring kingdoms. As he was going to be king someday it was only natural that he should want to know more about how and with who he was going to rule.
The parchments he currently had spread out before him the wooden table consisted of maps and legends.
A soft pitter patter of small feet interrupted his studies, and he looked up to see Bea, frozen about ten paces away from him. Artagan sighed and shut his book, before taking in Bea's soiled appearance. A chuckle almost escaped but it died in his throat. Father was going to be furious.
Bea's boots were covered in mud, his clothes ragged, his hair was a rumpled mess, and the muddy footprints, which ran from Bea to the dining room doors, no doubt trailed all the way through the castle.
In a perfect world, his other two brothers were clean. Not wreaking havoc through the rest of the castle.
Artagan jumped out of his seat and ran for the dining room halls with Bea tottering behind him. The outer hall was adorned with the pictures of the great Kings of old, and a crimson rug covered its floor, a rug that was now covered in muddy footprints.
"Which way did they go, Bea?"
The boy looked left, then right, and then finally pointed towards the kitchens. There was already a rather large din coming from them, and the tracks led in that direction. This being the case, Artagan almost smacked himself for being so thick, before picking Bea up like a bag of flour and running in that direction.
The kitchen was a disaster. Portly women ran around shrieking while two mud covered, children sized, embodiments of terror threw flour, food, and pans from the highest shelf of the cabinent. Worse than that, the two had stolen all of the cream filled pies.
Artagan cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "Blair, Bran, what do you two think yer doing?" In response to their brother's obvious displeasure with their actions, they chucked a pie at him.
He ducked and it hit little Bea in the face.
Laughter bubbled out of him as Bea grumpily tried to rub off the pie, and once he started he couldn't stop. The two devils on the shelf took this as encouragement and pied him in the face.
Artagan turned to Bea, and said, "Bea, find us some pastries! We have ourselves a war!" So, the little boy, who know looked a little like a carrot sundae, searched the room and found bowls after bowls of pudding. The first thrown hit Blair like a missile, and he almost teetered off of his perch. Bran caught him by the cusp of his shirt.
"Come on, then." Artagan crowed at the boys. "Is that all you got?" And so the four sons of King Comhan engaged in an epic food fight, which was only halted by the arrival of King Comhan himself.
Confused as to why Blair and Bran had seemingly frozen mid throw, Artagan turned around to see all six and a half feet of disapproving father. This was how King Comhan usually looked to his eldest son, but that didn't mean Artagan couldn't tell when he was in trouble.
Not only did King Comhan have a towering height that frightened most men, he also had a curly red beard, like flame blown tall and wild by a dry breeze. The muscles on his arm alone were probably the size of watermelons, and his legs the size of tree trunks.
At the moment, eyes as green and cold as winter moss glared down at his eldest.
"Is this your doing, Artagan?" His voice reverberated through the air like the lowest string of a harp. "I should have known."
Bea looked like he wanted to speak up, but the black haired boy shook his head. Nothing they could say would convince their father he had done no wrong. And he had allowed the boys to continue their mischief despite Bea going out of his way to get him, so he did deserve to be punished in a way. Still, if those boys grew up thinking they could do whatever they wanted and never get punished, they wouldn't make very good princes. Artagan made a mental note to talk to them about restraint and responsibility once he got the chance.
The maids were brought back in to clean the boys up, but it was the King's eldest son who washed the long rug until his hands were red and raw, and him who had to skip dinner so he could clean up the kitchen.
The youngest maid, Sileas, offered to help when he first started rubbing the ancient floor warmer, but he'd refused her aid. It wouldn't do anyone any good if she got in trouble for helping him. He liked her, though. She was made of stronger stuff than most women he knew at the castle, and she never whispered about his hair, or his mother behind his back. Often he'd go to the kitchens for a snack and she'd sneak him some bread. While eating, he liked to watch her wash dishes, mop the floor, and make pies. Whether it was for an average day or for a meeting of the clan leaders, she always put more of her heart into her work than anyone else. In his eyes, this made her more beautiful than any noble woman he'd ever met.
She probably didn't see him the same way he saw her, though. Since she was a young woman at sixteen, and he was a scrawny beanpole at age twelve.
After finishing the chores he had been assigned, Artagan was starving. The smell of bread and meat wafted towards him as he walked past the dining hall, and there was nothing he would have liked more than to walk in there and eat the first thing he laid his eyes on, but he had yet to meet his father.
It was probably just his imagination, but he thought the hall seemed colder as he entered the stone halls where his father's room was. The King's room was more spacious than any other bedroom in the castle. On the wall facing the door, a roaring bear forever bore its teeth. Artagan didn't think he'd ever get used to seeing that face every time he entered the room. As for the king's bed, it was large enough for him, Queen Ceana, and all the food they wished to eat before bed, which could have gone to the peasants, but Artagan doubted the word 'generous' was in the king's vocabulary.
Once he had actually entered the room, Artagan saw that the king was standing at his bedside, and he was not alone. At his side stood Sileas. She was still covered in flour from the boy's escapade, giving her a ghostly appearance, her hazel hair was a disheveled mess, and her amber eyes looked unnaturally wide in the semi darkness of the room.
Upon seeing her, everything that had appeared frightening or threatening before grew terrifying. The bear bore its fangs with malice, and the shadows grew to twice their size. Even the whispers in the castle walls sent a chill up Artagan's spine.
He wracked his brain for reasons why she could possibly be in the same room as his father, and came up empty until he noticed the wooden paddle in the king's hand, and the stool about three paces away from the bed.
This wouldn't be the first time Artagan had been paddled by his king and father. In fact, he sometimes wondered if the days he suffered from bruises and welts outnumbered the days when he could sit without wincing, but making a girl witness his punishment was crossing a line.
At least, that's what he thought before the king, his face stern and never turning from his son, pressed the paddle into the girl's hands.
She tried to refuse it, but the king sent her a glower and she quailed. Holding the paddle like it scorched her skin, Sileas sent a pleading look at Artagan, but he could only stand frozen in the doorway. The king could not kill his son without causing an uproar, but he could do whatever he wanted to a servant girl from the village. The best thing he could do to protect her from harm was nothing at all, and it burned him inside.
"Artagan," The king rumbled. "Stand by the stool."
Artagan tried to flash Sileas a reassuring smile as he approached the stool, before he was forced to turn his back on her. It was impossible for him not to notice how much she resembled the rabbit he had captured as a lad, seconds before he'd been forced to slit its throat.
The king growled. "Drop your pants, boy."
Mechanically, Artagan felt himself undo the straps. The pants fell and collected around his ankles. Next he stripped off the stained and dirty leggings he used to warm his bum on winter days, and then he was bare.
The air felt cold and raw on his bare flesh as he bent down upon the stool, and he felt his muscles clench. Suppressing a small grimace, he noted that tightening his muscles would only increase the damage he'd take.
'Come on, then' he thought. 'Get it over with.' Sounds of a whispered struggle from behind him gave him cause to suspect Sileas was actually trying to defy the king. But she couldn't! That wasn't done, and no one would risk themselves for him. However, if it turned out she was…
"King Comhan" Artagan called out, "isn't forcing a servant to discipline your child an unnecessary action? The girl has nothing to do with me, my king, please let her go and discipline me with your own hands, as is right and just."
The sound of dragging feet halted for a moment."Are you questioning my judgment, child?"
"No, my king, I simply-"
"Slience!" Barely one pace away, Artagan heard the harsh sound of rough, calloused hands hitting the soft face of young girl. He didn't know for sure it was this, but Sileas's pained gasp alone would have been enough for him to grit his teeth and wish the king dead.
If he had power, if he weren't so weak, this wouldn't be happening.
The king continued, "This girl came to my chambers today to tell me that you weren't at fault for the boy's mischief. Do you think she is correct, boy?"
Hard wood slammed against his backside for the first time that day. He bit back a yelp, and then a curse. Quiet, shaking sobs wracked the girl as she heaved the unnaturally heavy paddle up for another blow.
"No, sire. I am solely to blame for their actions." Unless you count Queen Ceana, their actual mother and supposed caretaker. Or their teachers, who apparently didn't teach their students much because it was he Blair, Bran, and Bea went to when they needed help with their history or their symbols.
"Of course you are, but this girl seems to think it is also the maid's responsibility to keep the boys out of the kitchen. What say you?"
What should he say? It wasn't as though he hadn't been thinking this himself as he cleaned the kitchen and the blasted rug. Another blow and his thoughts were temporarily scattered across the snowy mountains.
He grunted. "There is no need to split the fault, King Comhan. The boys are my responsibility, and- " The pain was starting to make him feel dizzy. "and I accept any punishment you feel it necessary to dole out."
The beating went on in silence for a few minutes longer, not for the eternity that it may have seemed to the beaten. Finally, Artagan stood up, and suppressed a grimace as the welts on his backside came into contact with his undergarments and pants. He'd have to wash well if he wanted to lessen his chances of infection.
The maid Sileas still had her hand gripped around the paddle as though her fingers were locked in a death vise. Her frame was shaking badly. Artagan chanced a glare at the man who did not deserve his title, or his sons.
"Alright, girl, it's your turn now." King Comhan said.
Artagan whirled on the king while standing protectively in front of the girl.
"Da, you can't force me to hit a girl. It's not the warrior's way!" For a second, Artagan thought a club had hit him. Blood ran down his right cheek as the king examined the red liquid dripping from his many rings, including the family crest. How fitting that the two axes be covered in blood.
"Do not speak to me, whelp. How dare you try to tell what I can and cannot do? This girl wishes to share your punishment, and so she shall. Another word, and I will force her to beat you until your blood dyes the wood of my floor red. Nod, boy." The eldest son refused to nod, so the king gripped his chin and yanked it down.
And so, Artagan was forced to beat and bruise the only friend he'd made at the castle since the day he was born. She tried her best to smile reassuringly, as he had done for her, but eventually, she broke down into unintelligible sobs, and Artagan knew he wasn't going to be looking for food at the kitchens anytime soon.
They didn't say good-bye as they left the king's chambers, but Artagan watched her limp back to kitchens until she was no longer in sight.
Today, the king had taken something precious from him, and he could only hope a day would come when the favor could be returned.
At fifteen years old, Artagan still sported a messy mop of black hair, sharp features, and limbs that were slighting too long for his slender body. His brothers didn't sleep in the same room as him anymore, and they hardly needed help with their studies, so for the most part, he either spent his afternoon studying or practicing with his two axes.
As a prince, it was expected that he be able to wield the twin axes like extensions of his own limbs, but when he held them he felt like a mountain troll. No matter how much he managed to eat at dinnertime, or how much he managed to steal before dawn, he still didn't seem to be bulking up any.
In the middle of reading a particularly interesting legend about a witch who granted wishes, and bemoaning his lack of muscles, Blair came into the dining hall. Unlike when the three were kids, the young warrior didn't prompt his younger brother to speak. He just allowed him to slide on the bench beside him and watch him study.
"Watcha' readin' about?" Blair asked. His red hair fell limply over one over one of his green eyes, just as it always did these days. Bran had offered one night to cut the bangs off with Artagan's ax, but Blair had insisted it was a haircut he needed, not a decapitation. Neither Bea nor Artagan was sure which had been funnier, Blair's statement or the disappointed pout Bran had sported on his angelic face.
Artagan sighed and said, "I'm reading about a witch who grants wishes and lives in the forest."
"Is she mean?" Blair started tentatively. "Or is she like you?"
A small rip appeared on the page Artagan had been holding, and he cursed under his breath. The book was probably a century old.
"Have it out, Blair. What do you want?"
The boy's words came out in a rush, "Tearlach says you bring misfortune to everyone who gets close to you. He says his father told him so and his father never lies, so…"
"So I must be a bringer of misfortune, right?"
Blair nodded. His expression was almost apologetic, but it wasn't enough to make it hurt any less.
Artagan let out a long, low breath. For some reason, he'd thought he'd have more time to hang out with the triplets as their brother, and not as the family's shame. "Your friend's right, Blair."
"But you don't bring misfortune to us." Blair quickly countered.
"Maybe that's because you're the king's sons."
"But you are too."
"That may be, Blair. But me mum didn't think so," he began, and his words tasted like bile. "Didn't even want to hold me as a child. She said a demon'd possessed her baby. Not a lot people gave credence to that, but after she died, people started thinking, 'How could he not be the child of a demon if his mother swore to her dying breath that he was?' And now, I bring misfortune to anyone who gets close to me.
Well, Blair, do you feel like sitting with me now?"
His little brother shuffled closer to him, wrapped his slender arms around his elbow, and laid his head on his sleeve. This wasn't what Artagan had been expecting all those years. He'd been expecting rejection, and isolation, but this action spoke of acceptance. It was enough to give him hope. Something he hadn't felt in a long time.
"I'm not afraid of misfortune, Artie."
Two years later, Bea walked into Artagan's room and proudly proclaimed he had knocked the sox off all of the boys who had badmouthed him. The thought of his younger brother defending his twin ax wielding self brought Artagan to his knees with laughter. He looked up once to see Bea's uncomprehending face, and doubled over again.