Last time: The leader looked at me curiously before he extended a hand and asked, “Would you like to see our real one?” I hesitated before taking the hand with a nod and letting him lead me away from the building. We walked along a track that took us down into a hidden valley and then I could see a mass of tents sprawled out before me. There stood only one permanent building which appeared to be a stable. The leader released my hand and moved his arm to rest in companionship across my shoulders. As we neared the tents people looked up and started as they saw me their eyes darting curiously to the man at my side.
“Who is he?” they whispered amongst themselves. I resisted the urge to stop and reply instead letting myself be led deeper into the maze of tents. Eventually we stopped and I looked around searching for a reason why. We were in a circular clearing which I had seen from above as we entered the valley. I knew then that we were in the middle of the tents and I stood taller waiting for what was to come.
Around us, people poured into the clearing filling it with a mass of bodies. At my side the leader suddenly spoke, “Two days ago we set out on a raid. As is right we gave the prisoners the chance to fight for their lives. Yesterday I killed one of them in combat and left them to rest before giving them another chance today. This man stood and volunteered himself for the fight and he emerged superior. He didn’t kill me though as was his right instead he spared me and sent his comrades on alone.” I shifted uncomfortable at the praise but he didn’t seem to notice or he simply didn’t care. “He knew who we were so I offered him the chance to come here. Some would call it an honour and now before you all I offer him another honour. I would welcome him amongst us as one of our own. He may still travel but he will always be one of us.”
I bowed to the leader, “You honour me sir. I accept your gift with greatest thanks.” He smiled at me and gestured for me to kneel before him as murmurs ran through the crowd around us. I sank to my feet with my head still held high.
“Do you swear your allegiance, your life and your death to the riders of the mountain?” He asked formally and silence fell around us.
“I do so swear.”
“Do you swear your heart and soul, your every breath to the service of the riders of the mountain?”
“I do so swear,” I repeated even as my mind ran through exactly what I was doing for if I did this then I was bound for life. I couldn’t bring myself to regret it though for these where people who truly knew me.
“Then arise rider of the mountain,” he finished and he lifted me up with fingers under my chin until I stood before him. I knew then what I had to do and I bowed to him letting my head drop in submission for the first time. This was no longer just a leader to me he was my leader and I would follow him anywhere. He threw and arm around my shoulder’s as I straightened and began to lead me away through the crowd, “Let’s get you some equipment and then we will find your friends and escort them to safety.”
He led me into a store room where he started heaping armour onto a table which I obediently put on. He then took me into another room where he placed a fur cloak before me and watched as I put it one. “I saw few people wearing these outside,” I said as I fastened it.
“You wouldn’t. The only ones who wear them are those on who I bestow the honour,” he replied turning his back to select a sword belt. When he turned back and saw my expression he laughed, “You more than earned it. None of those who walk out there have beaten me with a sword in years and you did more than that. Don’t think I didn’t notice that you gave up your disguise to save them; you gave up one of the people you are.”
I glanced away as embarrassment flooded through me, “I didn’t fight until there was nothing else to do though. I should have fought straight away, should have saved him.”
“No,” he said softly as he placed a hand on my shoulder, “you do not need to regret that. You may have known what was coming but they wouldn’t have listened even if you warned them. What you did took bravery whether you believe it or not.” He passed me the sword belt and I put it on with practised movements without looking away from him.
“Come let us get you a weapon it is dangerous to be unarmed,” he said as he stepped back to survey me. In a flash of movement I had one of my hidden knives in my hand. He laughed and clapped me on the back as he led me to the armoury. “A sword then,” he amended.
We entered the armoury to find a man already standing there. With a bow to his leader he gestured me towards the swords, “Take your pick for now. I’ll make you a custom one later.”
I answered as I looked over the swords picking up various ones to test their balance, “I could make it myself if you’ll allow me in the forge.” I found a sword that felt about right and gave it a testing swing smiling at how it felt in my hand.
“You can work metal?” The man asked incredulously and as I studied him closer I realised he had been part of the raiding party. He knew I wasn’t from somewhere that practised swordplay from my companions’ reactions to my skill so no doubt hadn’t thought I could work metal.
“Of course, I’ve made all but my first weapon myself.” I replied slowly, “Where I come from requests for custom swords are rare if not unheard of so part of my house was turned into a forge.” Behind the smith, the leader smiled smugly apparently proved right about something though I couldn’t tell what.
“Then you may use the forge when you have time to make a weapon of your own,” the leader said ignoring the smith’s protests. He placed an arm around my shoulders once I had sheathed my sword and led me from the armour and into the stables. “I know it’s a lot at once but you need to be on horseback if we are going to escort your friends.” He explained as he led me to the other end of the stables. I looked into the stall to see a chestnut horse looking back at me. “He doesn’t have a rider yet if he works for you then you may keep him.”
“Thank you,” I said distractedly as I entered the stall to stroke his flank. He pressed his head to my chest and laughing I patted his back. I turned to find my leader offering me a saddle and I smiled as I tacked the horse up. He smiled at me as he went to ready his own horse before gesturing me to follow him out of the stables. Once outside we mounted up and rode out of the base as he called for riders to join us. They came from all directions falling in behind us until we were riding at the head of a party that was similar in size to the raiding party.
We rode mostly in silence as we tracked those who had been my companions and as expected it was an easy trail to follow. They had no sense of how to stay undetected and on some level I felt responsible for that even though I could have done nothing about it. They were spotted in the distance soon enough and we sped up splitting into two columns and came down on them from either side pinning them in.
They screamed and tried to run as I sighed inwardly and vaulted off my horse’s back as the leader took my reins from me. I strode forward towards my old comrades with my head held high well aware that I now looked like a rider of the mountain. Dressed in armour with a fur cloak and a sword hung in full view it was no wonder they shrank back from me. “Calm down,” I said and I could see the confusion that crossed over their faces as they tried to match my voice with my appearance. “We have come to make sure you leave safely.”
“What do you mean we leave safely? You’re leaving with us,” a teacher said apparently having regained his confidence.
“No I mean you. I’m not coming,” I replied as I readied myself for their reactions. As I predicted my words provoked an uproar of protests that mainly focused on my family and my home. “My family has long known that I was not living the right life. They expected me to do this soon enough and I’m doing it now.”
“With savages?” The teacher said disapprovingly and around me the riders tensed.
I drew my sword and pointed it at his throat and to my surprise my arm didn’t shake even slightly. “With people who understand me, who are like me. Do you have any idea what it is like to grow up where you don’t belong? Where no one understands the real you?” I turned to address the whole group of people who had been my companions, “So I’m staying with people who live how I should have all along and you’re not going to stop me.” With that I sheathed my sword and with one last disgusted look at the teacher who had called my new people savages, had called me a savage, I remounted my horse and rode to the head of the column.
When we started moving it was at a slow crawl and as night fell we made the decision to continue in the dark. Finally the leader spoke up from my side where he’d been suspiciously quiet as he debated just what to say. “Why are you so angry with them?”
I sighed and turned to look at him, “Because this is who I am and I am finally free to be it and yet they want me to cast it aside to do what they think is proper. I’ve spent my entire life pretending to be someone else and now they want me to do it again. I’ll just be glad once I know they’re safely away.”
It was a day later that we finally reached the outsides of the town and said our goodbyes. Well I claim them to be goodbyes but they were strained as my old comrades didn’t think I should stay and hadn’t trusted the riders enough to form bonds with them. Still we bid each other farewell and headed off in our own directions.
So that is how it happened, how I was able to throw off all the layers of deceit. I am now able to live my life as I always should have as a rider of the mountain. I soon became a renowned swordsman amongst the riders and the leader continued to treat me as an equal. I was eventually let into the forge by a very wary smith who after seeing the sword I made tried to keep me there full time.
These days I am the man who rides at the head of the raiding part. I am the man who trains the children when they come of age and makes them their first swords. The trip that brought me here wasn’t such a disaster as a blessing. Do I regret staying? If I’m honest I never have because if there is one thing I’m sure of it is that this is the life I was meant to live no matter which life I was born into.