Trial by Iron

Tyranny_ShortStory_TrialByIron

Greetings from the Narrative Design team! I’m here to bring you another story from the world of Tyranny. “Trial by Iron” showcases Barik, one of the Fatebinder’s companion characters first introduced in a prior Dev Diary. As the entry describes, Barik is trapped in a rusted-together suit of iron scrap. He’s a mess. The literal and metaphorical chip on his shoulder weighs a ton.

I wanted to spend some time with Barik outside of his armor (which sounds naughty when I write it like that). This is Barik before the events of the game – proud, ambitious, self-defeating and eager to prove his worth. Soon you’ll see how well this troubled boy fares after a few years of war. In the meantime, enjoy “Trial by Iron!”

~Paul Kirsch, Narrative Designer

Trial by Iron

Barik felt a hard shudder as the sword impacted his tower shield. He set his stance the way his brothers had taught him, letting his feet cushion the blow. He wouldn’t be any use to the phalanx if he lowered his defenses, even for a moment. Enemy forces thickened ahead of him, growing in strength, forming into a relentless mob. His armor, his body, his life – he was the shield between the Southern barbarians and the civilized North, and he would give up all three to defend her. Kyros and the Empire depended upon him.

He pulled his thoughts back to the moment. There was no phalanx, and the mountain hamlet of Battle’s Rest was a long march from the front lines of any war. Barik’s shield was oak treated with tar – hardly the elite iron that the Disfavored carried into battle. His opponent wore a glorified bucket of a helm, and they fought to the cheers of their countrymen.

“Come at me already, you motherless swine!” called his opponent. A cold stare peered through the slits of his makeshift gear, but Barik recognized it not. Those eyes belonged to a neighbor, a friend, perhaps. With the bloodlust of the North coursing through him, Barik could hardly be tasked with anything as sensible as recognition.

Barik attempted to press forward, his ill-fitting armor restraining his movement. He didn’t lift his wooden spear to do aught but parry the occasional blow while his opponent attacked – swinging a fine sword with fierce, experimental jabs. If Barik didn’t act soon, he would be carried back to his tent on a stretcher instead of the shoulders of his fellow landsmen.

For a moment his attention shifted to the crowd. Barik had demonstrated nothing of his combat prowess. He was a shambling mound of patchwork leather, trying in vain to outlast a speedier, more determined foe. There would be no victory for him this day.

A resounding impact on Barik’s helm preceded a collective gasp from the crowd. His opponent had slapped him with the flat of his blade, inviting and shaming him back into the melee.

He blocked another hard strike and then answered by letting his spear close the distance. The attacker danced back just in time to avoid it. Barik swore under his breath.

Graven Ashe, Barik thought, Archon of War, guide me this once, if never again.

Barik surprised himself by turning to the side, lowering his shield and presenting his flank. The other fighter moved to steal the advantage, seeing this as one more in a long line of missteps. In the last instant, Barik completed the motion to plant the butt of his weapon in the warm earth. Holding it fast with his weight, he allowed the fighter to drive himself onto the spear’s tip, wetting it with dark blood.

The crowd exploded with cheers.

“A strike from a son of Barikonen Faris!”

“Kyros’ champion waters the soil!”

Cautious of reprisal, Barik stepped back from the collision. The wooden shaft held firm in the dirt, but the end had splintered and snagged on the bottom of his opponent’s chest plate. The injury wouldn’t be lethal as long as he disentangled himself and got the sharpened point out of his gut, neither of which was happening. He was stuck – unable to retreat and unwilling to advance, where only death waited. All of his strength seemed bent on gripping the shaft to keep it from sinking any deeper into his bowels, but his fingers were slick with blood.

“Get up, damn you!” Barik rasped.

Hearing Barik’s voice, the other fighter glanced up. Agony flashed in his eyes, and dim understanding crossed the distance between them.

Then the blood pooling at his feet caused the fighter to slip. He fell down, and the spear welcomed him with a wet sound. As he came to a stop, the red tip presented itself through his back in grim salute. He twitched for a moment, suspended in place like an insect mounted for display.

There was no cheering from the audience this time. A groan of sorrow built in pressure like a storm, washing over the arena and over Barik, who stood over his dead countryman and felt nothing.

***

“People get killed in tourneys all the time. You can’t judge yourself too harshly,” said Waymar, Barik’s squire. They had retired to the privacy of their tent, letting the organizers clean up the mess outside. “You got some prize money out of it – enough to buy a real shield, I warrant.” He jingled the small belt of rings that Barik ignored. “Here, let me take a look at you.”

They sat across from each other on separate cots. Barik stripped from the waist up and allowed the other to inspect him for wounds.

“When did you get this?” Waymar pointed to a long cut on Barik’s muscled side, which looked fresh and raw. When Barik didn’t respond, the squire set to dabbing it with a wet cloth. “You’re lucky this didn’t go any deeper. The way Lastin swung his father’s sword, I’m surprised he didn’t open you up from groin to gorget.”

The name caught Barik’s attention. “That was Lastin?” he said.

“Didn’t you hear the announcer when they brought him into the ring?”

Barik remembered being so focused on preparation and adjusting his armor that his own name had sounded like it was shouted underwater. He had entirely missed that of his opponent.

“What of the recruiter?” Barik asked. “Did he see the fight?”

Now it was Waymar’s turn to pause in silence. “His travel plans were delayed. He never made it to Battle’s Rest. That’s what everyone’s saying.”

Barik pushed his squire off him. “Leave me.”

Waymar knew better than to argue. Barik waited for the tent flap to close before clutching his brow and taking several long breaths.

With the announcement that the Disfavored army would march on the South, the highest officers in Kyros’ army were visiting every village and hamlet in search of promising new recruits to join the elite legion. They kept their soldiers notoriously limited in number, and tied to only the most noble and storied of bloodlines. Those few invited to march would carry the pride of their homelands to the new frontier.

Battle’s Rest had staged the tourney to coincide with the recruiter’s arrival, but now it was all for naught. Barik had killed a good Northerner, and to what end?

He raked his nails across the cut in his side. The sting he felt was a deserving punishment, and one of many to come. More so than his honor restored, Barik wished to open the cut wide enough to climb inside it. He dug his nails deeper and squeezed his eyes shut.

A time later, the entrance flapped open again.

“Did I not tell you to go?” snapped Barik, quickly moving his hand from the cut.

A hard grunt followed. “I see you left your manners in the arena.”

Barik turned in his seat. A cloaked figure loomed over him, crossing his broad arms. The afternoon sun beamed pale, yellow light through the canvas walls, painting his visitor the color of amber. He was accompanied by a smaller figure, who regarded Barik in silence.

“Who are you?” Barik asked.

“I watched your performance out there,” said the larger of the two. As the tent closed behind him, Barik could better see his visitor – old and balding, with a beard that stretched down to his chest. “What do you make of your accomplishment, boy?”

His attendant said nothing at all, only watched with detached interest.

Barik sighed. This was doubtless some cousin of Lastin’s, here to speak a grievance. His friend had the stoic bearing of an undertaker, here to organize the last rites.

“I killed a friend today, and I did it with trickery,” said Barik. Then he surprised himself by voicing the thought that oppressed him most. “I’ll bow out of the tourney.”

“Why?” asked the old man.

Barik faced this new challenger with a defiant glare. “Because Graven Ashe wants no tricksters in his army. He’s to march with the best of the Northern Empire at his back, bearing Kyros’ standard into the land of unbelievers. I’m no decorated hero to join his vaunted ranks.” He turned away, unwilling to meet that cantankerous stare. “The most I can do is gift these paltry rings to Lastin’s family, and hope that I can look into my mother’s eyes with pride again.”

The figure raised a bushy, white eyebrow. “Is that all?”

Barik readied to spout off a litany of harsh words, but the stranger put up a mollifying hand.

“It isn’t my intention to mock you,” he said. “I would only point out that Graven Ashe needs good women and men. These days, someone with the fortitude to drive a spear through his neighbor is a qualifying trait.”

“You’re wicked or mad,” whispered Barik. “Likely both.”

The stranger’s tone softened. “You took no wounds in that arena. From where came this?” He gestured down to Barik’s exposed side. The cut had grown wider and more ragged, and blood seeped down to the bed.

Barik said nothing, but gripped himself self-consciously.

The stranger seemed to understand. “Your suffering is harsh enough without doing further harm to yourself. Men by the hundreds will die in Kyros’ war. Thousands. Mourn for them all in our custom, but pick up your sword and fight.”

“I will not,” Barik said in a restrained, clipped tone. “Leave me be, heartless one.”

“Wicked, mad, heartless.” The stranger nodded. “Some have called me that and worse. Others call me father, or husband.”

He unfastened his cloak. For the first time, Barik noticed that it was pinned with an iron clasp in the shape of Kyros’ sigil.

“A precious few call me General,” the stranger continued, “but more people still call me ‘Archon.’ ”

Barik blinked twice before he looked up at the stranger again.

The man who stood before him towered as high as a Spire and wore a suit of polished iron. As his cloak slipped aside, mage runes decorating the fine plates flared up with pale, blue light. Barik could see his bewildered expression reflected in azure gems set under the pauldrons, each the size of a dinner plate. The raiment must have weighed as much as an overfull wagon, and yet Graven Ashe – the Archon of War – stood unbowed.

The recruiter had showed up, after all.

“My Lord…” Barik left the cot and fell to his knees. “Forgive me, Archon!”

Graven Ashe waved with dismissal. “Enough of that. I have questions for you, son of Barikonen.”

Barik squeezed his eyes shut and held his pose. “Anything, Lord.”

“You called for my aid in the melee, did you not?”

“Did I?” Barik was about to apologize, but then remembered the moment when he begged for Graven Ashe’s favor. A moment of weakness, of foolishness, and yet it granted him a measure of courage that he hadn’t possessed before. How did the Archon know?

“I… I was afraid, my Lord.” Barik could think of no falsehood to protect his honor, knowing the Archon would see through it anyway. “Afraid, exhausted. I…”

Graven Ashe spoke up before Barik could continue. “Your opponent was fast, but you hesitated. You waited as he spent himself on the attack. When death presented an opportunity, he ran to it headlong.”

Barik squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t think he could survive a verbal dissection from the Archon of War himself.

“Mercy,” he whispered.

Ashe ignored him. “You may never be the strongest or the fastest, son of Barikonen, but you asked for help when you needed it. No woman or man could learn that if they did not already possess it. No training could instill it.”

Graven Ashe laid his palm on Barik’s shoulder. A hot, itching sensation moved through his body. Barik felt inspected and oddly recognized by the Archon’s mere touch. He knew, without needing to check, that his wound had healed over.

“The strength to seek help,” said Graven Ashe. “That is a quality I value most in the Northmen, and is first among all that I seek in my recruits.”

He brought one of his expansive hands down, and Barik took it – finding himself rising to meet the Archon’s fatherly expression.

“Arise, son of the North. You are welcome to join my Disfavored legion, if you will have us.”

His attendant, who up to this point had seemed in every way unconcerned with the exchange, approached Barik and stretched a length of string across his chest, nodding to himself and whistling as he measured Barik’s dimensions. Barik simply turned to the Archon with a questioning look.

“No soldier of mine goes to battle in a pauper’s leathers,” said Ashe. “We will fit you for a suit of iron, forged with care, as a symbol of our covenant.”

Barik informed his mother and brothers at once, but took no time to celebrate or pack belongings. Everything he needed was waiting for him at the front lines, in the phalanx. He deposited all of the tourney winnings at the doorstep of Lastin’s family. He would have written something by way of apology or gratitude, but Barik, son of Barikonen Faris, was illiterate and crafted for naught but war.

THE END