Age of Kings
The War of Tears had raged for three times twenty years before Cambruin even won his crown, and entire volumes could be filled with tales of that war's deeds, both glorious and foul. Some say 'twas the folly of Cambruin himself that brought the final wrath of the Elves upon his High Kingdom, while others whisper that Valdimanthor the Elfking was filled with spite and envy when he beheld the splendor of Cambruin's court. Some say that spellbound Oracles and Genies whispered dire prophecies to the Elfking, who raised the bloody sword of War to destroy Cambruin before he could bring about the Turning. Many believe that the bitter war was the All-Father's final punishment for the Elves, visited on them by His will to repay their great treasons of past Ages. Perhaps all these tales are true, but who can say? Only a handful of those who saw the beginning of that terrible war lived to see the ending of it, and many of those died in the Turning. Many are the legends and chronicles of that dark struggle, and they need not all be recounted here. But hearken, and learn how Cambruin came to bear Shadowbane, the Sword of Kings, King Maker and King Breaker. That tale is wed to the story of Caeric Blackhammer, the First Paladin, noblest of Cambruin's Champions, who alone achieved the Quest for the Sword.
The Tale of Caeric Blackhammer and the Quest for the Sword
Ignobly born yet blessed with a heart and soul as pure as any Archon's, Caeric was born the son of Goerin, a humble blacksmith, and spent his childhood days working in his father's smithy, forging weapons for the endless wars that plagued his people. In the summer of his seventh year the boy's life changed forever when he saw Cambruin and his Champions riding through his village on the way to battle. Thinking the shining warriors were angels, Caeric was overjoyed to learn that they were but men, and vowed to join them when he came of age. Five years later Caeric left home to seek the King, wearing armor forged by his own hand and carrying only his hammer for a weapon. He met the haughty Knight Sir Rovennor upon the road, and the Champion told him, jesting, that fifty victories in battle were required before a squire could be dubbed a Knight. Prompted by Sir Rovennor's jest, Caeric bested a full fifty Knights and Warlords, armed in every battle only with his hammer and his unyielding Virtue. Caeric bound each Knight with an oath, demanding that they go to the court of the King Cambruin and pledge their featly to him. After sending the fifty vanquished foes to Cambruin, Caeric finally came to the King at Caledorn. Cambruin knighted Caeric on the spot, naming him one of his Champions. So knighted, Caeric took up a sword and served his King with much honor and glory. "Blackhammer," the name Rovennor had given Caeric in jest, became a title of great honor, and many of Cambruin's bravest Knights strove to follow the boy's worthy example.
Caeric Blackhammer stood proudly at Cambruin's side when he was crowned High King, and served as his most trusted Champion for nearly twenty winters. Caeric was renowned through all the High Kingdom for his valor and skill at arms, and his name quickly became legend. Never did he lose in battle or joust, no matter how great the foe, for his Virtue gave him the strength and fortitude of an Archon, without limits. But the High King had not reigned long before fortune turned against him. In the tenth year of the High King's reign (which was also the one thousand and seventy-sixth year of the Age of Kings) the War of Tears, which had ebbed in recent times, began anew with redoubled fury. For a score of years Valdimanthor the Elfking had waited, brooding on his cold throne and gathering his strength. His Magi spent months working the mighty spells that restored the ancient bindings the Elves had held over their darkest creations, the bestial Minotaurs of the Utter North. Armed and equipped with the finest creations of Elvish smiths, Valdimanthor's host was nigh invincible. Without warning the Elfking unleashed his hosts upon the High Kingdom, and all the realms of Men shook before that terrible onslaught. Even the strength of Cambruin's Champions was for naught against the fell might of the Elfking, and all of Cambruin's power was blunted by fey trickery. Sorcery and treachery were the weapons of the Elves, and defeat followed fast upon defeat. Cambruin began to fear the worst, and grew rash and quick to anger. Sickened to the soul by the suffering of the people and the land, a great despair fell upon the High King. Even the magic and wisdom of Zeristan the Wise could not turn the evil tide. Many Knights turned grim and spiteful, but Caeric remained ever hopeful. In the fifteenth year of the High King's reign, Cambruin made his winter court at the city of Melissar, his Knights wearied from long months of march and battle. All seemed hopeless, until the Feast of St. Lorne on Midwinter's Day, when a great wonder was visited upon the court.
The High King and all his Champions sat at table on the eve of the Martyrdom of Saint Lorne, and a great gloom hung over all the hall. The feast had barely begun when all the doors and windows of the hall slammed shut of their own accord, and the coals in the great fire pit were quenched, plunging all the company into darkness. The Knights rose to their feet and drew their swords, fearing ambush or treachery. Then legend has it that the sound of a great music came to their ears, like unto the singing of the Archons. A light sprang forth in the darkness, so that the King and all his Champions were bedazzled thereby. As they blinked in wonder, they saw that the light streamed from the image of a great sword, hanging in the air. The mighty blade's hilt was wrought of gold and platinum, and its darkened edge was terrible. The spectral sword appeared above the seat of Cambruin, so that the King was most bathed in its light, and then a voice, high and clear, rang through above the music.
"Mighty King, will of the All-Father on Earth, take heart in this, Man's darkest hour. Yea, a great blight is upon the land, a shadow whose power none can resist. But know this, there is a light within the darkness, and that light shines still. Look upon this blade, and know that you behold the Shadowbane, the Blade of Destiny, lost to the shadows of death and time. If you would preserve all that you have wrought, look to the Sword for your salvation. The return of the sword shall rekindle the hope of the World, and with it you shall conquer any foe. But beware, for the road is long and dark. It winds through the Lands of the Living and the Dead, from which no mortal has ever returned. Only the greatest of Knights may attempt this perilous quest, for if their valor and virtue prove unworthy, death shall be the least of the woes they shall suffer."
After the vision faded, a great wind blew through the hall, the windows flew open again and the fire roared back to life. Cambruin was much roused by the vision, and asked which of his Champions would follow him on this mighty quest. The Champions all spoke as one, but then an ancient voice rang out, ancient and powerful as the North Wind. "Beware, my liege," said Zeristan, aged counselor to the High King, "for all the High Kingdom is locked in deadly war with the legions of the Elves. 'Twould not be meet for you to ride far afield, not now, when the final battle looms before us." Cambruin reluctantly agreed, but allowed that any of his Champions who would do so should have his leave to undertake this quest in his name. Again as one the Knights raised their swords to pledge themselves to the Quest, but again Zeristan interrupted. "Noble Champions, be warned, for Shadowbane has a grim and dire destiny. An age ago a mighty curse was laid upon this blade, and any man or woman who bears it shall die upon its edge. To fail in this quest means certain death, so choose wisely! 'Tis no dishonor to stay and fight at the side of your King, for if Cambruin fall before the sword may be recovered, the quest will be in vain." And with those grim words many of the Knights lowered their swords, renouncing the quest. Of all Cambruin's Champions, three times three stood fast: Sir Gerriant the Brave, Sir Mardiock Wyrmslayer, Sir Rovennor of Alvaetia, and five other Knights of lesser name and glory. The ninth and last to stand was Caeric, who knelt before the King and humbly begged leave to seek the sword. "You shall be sorely missed, you who helped forge my kingdom," Cambruin said, "but I send you gladly, for I deem that if any man living may achieve this quest, it shall be you." "T'will be the All-Father's doing, not mine," Caeric answered, and made ready for a long journey.
And so the Nine, the greatest Knights ever to serve a King, rode forth upon the Quest for the Sword. Many are the tales of that long Quest, both grim and glorious, and the deeds of the Questers are renowned by all, even unto these dark days. But alas, every Knight that rode forth save one was doomed to fail, and while some returned to rejoin the High King, their spirits broken in defeat, the Quest was the doom of brave Sir Giroise, and Sir Rovennor, and others besides, whose loss the High King long repented. Theirs are stories for another day. Only Sir Caeric Blackhammer, the Paladin, would see that grim quest to its end, and achieve Shadowbane after many long and terrible trials.
The road was long and hard, for Shadowbane lay in the dread realm of Ithriana, Lich Queen of the Unholy Legion, lost in the Mists of Death. Unto the ends of the World did Caeric ride, through lands left barren by the War of the Scourge, where mighty beasts born of Chaos lurked, and sorely tried Sir Caeric's strength. Caeric endured three great Tests, a test of his might at Castle Mourvais, a test of Faith at the Perilous Abbey, and a test of Loyalty when he was forced to leave Heloise, his true love, to continue his quest. At last Caeric rode into realms unknown to any of the Sons of Men, dark realms which teemed with hideous beasts. There his lance was shattered, his warhorse slain, his sword broken, and his shield rent asunder. Long he wandered, lost in the wastes, until a dark mist enfolded him, and he came to the land of Shadow. There the Dead awaited him, and fell upon Caeric with a fury unimaginable. But ever the Knight stood his ground, armed only with the hammer that was his namesake, and though chilled unto his soul by the foul wrath of the undead, his virtue never waned, but bore him through the unholy hosts alive.
At every turn, however, the Knight was weakened by another wound, and before long Caeric halted, for he had not the strength to walk the Dark Road any farther. As Caeric reached the limits of his strength, a light shone out even in that uttermost darkness. Teluranel, Archon of Grace, came unto the beleaguered Knight. The radiance of all the stars shone in his face, and the wind from his wings was like a dream of Spring in that dead land. "Good Knight, holiest and most righteous of the Sons of Men, I am come to aid thee." the angel said. "I can bear you from this dire place, back to houses of healing and comfort, where your strength may help Cambruin in his hour of need." "I can not," Caeric answered, "For I should rather die ten thousand times than break mine oath to my King. If thou art a true Archon, and not some glamour sent to deceive me and lure me to ruin, give me the strength to finish this great Quest, that I might so serve my King and kindle hope again in the weary World." "I shall do it, if it be thy will." The Archon said. "Know that you shall finish your great Quest, but know also that if you lift the sword you seek in battle, you must surely die." Caeric smiled, and answered, "I have no life but that which I pledged to Cambruin's service. I will gladly die twice ten thousand times if I might fulfill my duty to the High King, and give to him the sword that shall gain him victory."
"So be it then, noblest of men. The choice is yours." The Archon answered, and Caeric's soul was filled with grace and holiness, so that he shone like a beacon in that darkest of realms. And his strength was redoubled, and all his wounds healed, and thus was Caeric reborn the first Paladin, with the power of the Archons surging in his veins. No soulless servant of the Dark could stand against his righteous fury. Caeric's hammer felled a legion of phantoms, wraiths, and mighty wights, and at last he found Shadowbane, the Sword of Destiny, lying in a shallow grave. He took up the sword and slew the dread Lich Queen herself, breaking her deadly spells forever. And so it came to pass that Caeric Blackhammer rode beyond the bounds of the World into the Lands of the Dead and then returned, and Shadowbane came with him.
Alas, he had been too long on his quest. Caeric raced back to find Heloise and her people, but he was too late: in Caeric's absence dark enemies had slain fair Heloise and all her folk, hanging their bloody bodies from a tree for the crows to feast upon. Weeping, Caeric took down his love from that grisly tree, and donned his lady's scarf, soaked crimson with her innocent blood. And so Caeric had passed the Test of Loyalty, yet failed his heart's true love. For the rest of his days Caeric wore Heloise's crimson sash as the badge of his failure. Even as he mourned his love, Caeric realized that Fate was not yet done with her cruelties: the Paladin had achieved his mighty quest and found Shadowbane, but hundreds of leagues still lay between him and the High King. Alone in the wilds, Caeric prayed to the All-Father and the Archons, beseeching them to send him a steed. For two days Caeric went afoot, and on the third day his prayers were answered.
Dire indeed was Cambruin's need, for Valdimanthor had sent forth all his Minotaurs in great battalions, strengthened and driven into a deadly rage through fey magic. Of the Nine Champions who had ridden on the quest, five had been cruelly slain and three more had returned humbled. Only Caeric's fate remained unknown, and even Cambruin feared the worst. Again and again Cambruin had sallied forth his great army to meet them, but each time the Minotaurs were like tall cliffs matched against the tide â€“ Cambruin's army crashed and raged upon them like waves, but the cliffs remained after the thunder and fury. Cambruin had withdrawn the last of his strength to the city of Rengest, which was built atop a great hill not three miles from the Elvish ruins of Vodiranon. The Elves and their foul servants ringed the great hill, blocking all escape, and rejoiced, for they reckoned that the hour of their victory was at hand. Even against these terrible odds Cambruin stood determined, however, and the strength of his courage lifted up the soul of every man in his command. Every yeoman, soldier, and Champion was ready to die in the coming battle, but all were resolved to make the Elves pay dearly for their victory.
The hosts assembled, facing each other across the fields of Rennelind, even at the dawning of the day. And as the cock crowed the dawn, it seemed that a star appeared, low in the sky, that glimmered more brightly than the first glimmer of the Sun. And the Elves rejoiced, for the Morningstar was dear to them, and a tiding of good fortune, and all Valdimanthor's host raised their voices in a mighty song, which Cambruin's Men trembled to hear. And the host of soldiers began to quail in fear, but Cambruin knelt and prayed to the All-Father. And all his men prayed with him, each hoping to die well in the great king's service. A hush fell upon the field, and it seemed that Cambruin's doom was at hand. But just then Zeristan stepped forward, with eyes keen as any owl's, and pointed to the sky. "Soldiers of the High King, rejoice!" he cried, "Rejoice and ride to victory! The hour of your deliverance is at hand! Shadowbane is coming! Shadowbane is coming!" And all looked, and saw that the star was no star at all, but a mighty horse, pale as silver, soaring upon great white wings, racing toward the field faster than the wind. And astride that blessed steed sat Caeric Blackhammer, Caeric the Blessed, First among Paladins, and Shadowbane was in his hand, its glimmering hilt outshining all the stars of morning. The Elvish ranks paused, uncertain what fate lay before them, and Cambruin signaled the charge. Thus the Battle of Rennelind was joined, and the course of the War of Tears altered forever.
The High King stood at the center of the fray, where he was beset by the Elfking himself, surrounded by the mighty Blade Weavers of his Royal Guard and a throng of Minotaurs. Cambruin's sword was taken from him, stripped away by the wicked, curved longblade of King Valdimanthor, and a savage Minotaur broke it in his mighty hands. Caeric sped to the High King's aid, but the arrows of the Elvish Archers flew swift as lightning, and smote his winged steed, killing it beneath him. As the winged horse and mighty rider plummeted toward the field, Caeric threw Shadowbane, and it spun through the sky end over end like a bolt of fire, a Comet of Doom. And for a moment all the fighting stopped as the soldiers of both armies stood transfixed, staring in wonder at the blade's flight. Cambruin reached skyward, and called the name of the All-Father, and the sword fell into his grasp. Shadowbane's hilt shone with the light of a thousand suns, and its dark blade swallowed every shadow, leaving only radiance and light. In that moment all the spells of the Elvish wizards were undone. The Minotaurs were driven unto madness, for Elf magic that had bound their wills frayed like withered silk and fell to nothing. Cambruin swung, and Valdimathor wept, for he knew his doom was at hand. The King moved to block Cambruin's stroke, but Shadowbane shattered Imdralar, the Elf-King's mighty blade, and swept on unimpeded, cleaving Valdimanthor's head from his body in one stroke. And all the Elves wept and fled the field while the Minotaurs ran wild, fleeing in terror or falling upon their former masters with all their fury.
So was Cambruin victorious upon the field of Rennelind, and the strength of the Elvish Kingdom was broken forever. And though Caeric was sorely wounded by his fall to earth, he soon recovered and stood again at the side of the High King. All Men rejoiced at Shadowbane's return, and named it King Maker, Morningstar, the Paladinsword, and the Beacon Blade. And all the Elves held it in terror, and fled before Sillestor's Blade, Ithriana's Bane, the Sword of Vengeance. Never again would the Elves gain victory against Cambruin upon the field of battle, though the War of Tears was still far from over. Listen then, to the final parts of the Legend of Shadowbane, a tale both dark and dolorous.
The Day of Woe, the Fall of the High King, and the Wounding of the World
Twice, the ancient legends say, Shadowbane had vanished into darkness, and twice had it returned, borne in the hands of a Hero, to turn the tide of a great war. Once Shadowbane was in his hand, the High King Cambruin rode to victory after victory, and even greater glory and worship were heaped upon his name. Great praise was also given to Caeric Blackhammer, the First Paladin, who fame and glory were second only to the King's. Dozens of Knights lived by Caeric's example, all of them wearing red sashes in the likeness of their leader. So the Paladin's badge of shame became a symbol of high honor, one the Knights of the Sash wear to this day. Strive as they might, none of these Knights, however virtuous, could ever match Caeric in grace, and the Blackhammer remained the only true Paladin.
Even as his armies surged on to the inevitable triumph, King Cambruin was troubled by the shadows of the past. Three times Zeristan bid the High King cast Shadowbane into the sea, and thus escape the sword's deadly curse. Three times Cambruin refused. "This blade was wrought at the beginning of Ages to destroy evil, not good," he told the Wizard, "and as for the curse, I am neither man nor woman. I am the King." Zeristan pressed no further, but a great dread lay heavy on his heart. Alas, the Wizard's fears would bear fruit all too soon.
Other shadows grew, and even on the brink of triumph, Cambruin's court was wracked by new tensions. Proud Knights who had been warlords before they bent their knees to the High King resented the glory that clung to Caeric, a baseborn boy. They chafed under the pious teachings of the Paladin, and feared that the Knights of the Sash would be given the lion's share of the glory when the war was finally done. Knights that Caeric had bested in jousts and battles began to whisper that the Paladin was a cheat and a fraud, and began to question the worth of the Code. The High King managed to quell the strife, but the discord that had been born of the Quest for Shadowbane took deep root. And so it came to pass that one of Cambruin's own, a villain so black his name shall never again be uttered by any child of the All-Father, turned from the path of goodness. This darkest of Knights became The Traitor, whose pride would break the World.
Long did The Traitor conspire with the Elves, even as Cambruin prepared for his final victory. Far to the windswept North, Kierhaven, the last great fortress of the Elves was besieged and overwhelmed by the armies of the High King. The battle was terrible, and there the legends say Caeric himself was slain. Some say that mere chance brought the mighty Knight down, while others whisper that a gang of envious Knights abandoned Caeric in the thick of combat, betraying him to ruin. Zeristan feared the curse of Shadowbane had finally done its work. Though the Paladin had fallen, the battle was won, and the last stronghold of the Elves was broken.
After the battle, Cambruin raced through the forest, chasing the fleeing remnants of the Elvish host. Sir Gerriant the Old was also with them, as was that Other whose deeds have blotted out his name. Gerriant had come to doubt The Traitor's intentions, though the High King had never feared one of his own might betray him. Thus the Traitor led the two down forest paths pre-arranged, to a glade before an ancient oak tree. There an Elvish assassin lay in wait, armed with arrows enchanted for death and ruin. But Gerriant saw the archer even as he took aim, and threw himself at the High King, shoving him aside. Thus did Sir Gerriant take the arrow meant for his liege, and the chill of Death grasped his heart. Cambruin, knocked off balance by his loyal servant, dropped Shadowbane to the ground, and the Traitor saw his opportunity. He took up Shadowbane, the Sword of Destiny, and stabbed Cambruin through the heart. So mighty was his traitorous stroke that blade pierced backplate, man, and breastplate besides. The High King was driven back and pinned to the mighty tree, and his heart's blood ran out upon it and seeped into the ground. So Cambruin died, betrayed, and Shadowbane's curse was fulfilled once again.
And as it was writ in the Book of Swords, that Woeful Stroke did sunder the World and bring about The Turning. For that oak upon which Cambruin died and which Shadowbane pierced to its heartwood was the First Tree, the World Tree, where the All-Father himself had awakened Braialla at the beginning of the World. The King's blood soaked into the wood, and as it drank the blood of the All-Father's divine Champion, the Tree turned unto stone. The skies darkened, the World trembled, and all was sundered. The doors of Heaven and Hell closed fast, the Sun turned a sickly crimson, and even Shadowbane's hilt shone no longer. Bitter tears flowed from the eyes of Gerriant the Old, and so he died, the last man to meet true death from that dark day to this. So ended the Age of Kings, and began this Age of Strife.
And so ends the legend of Shadowbane. But this portion of the tale still begs many questions. How did Shadowbane, most perfect of swords, come to be cursed? Why did the Elves so fear it? How came the shining blade of light come to rest in the dark hands of Ithriana the Lich Queen?
The answers to these questions form another tale, a story as long as the one just finished. To learn the truth, one must go back to the Age of Days, and hear the tale of Beregund Bladeseeker, the first Son of Man to find and wield Shadowbaneâ€¦