Samuel was born in the Duchy of Mordant, under the iron rule of Duke Hope, the most single minded of the Dukes of the Border Lands, a man driven to forge himself and his duchy into a weapon to destroy the orcs, and any other threats to his power.
Samuel’s father was a high-born bureaucrat in the Duke’s vast court; a landed Baron, powerful and feared. His father, Albert de’Marcos, was responsible for the networks of informants necessary to keep the Duke informed on events that occurred within the duchy itself. It was on the strength of his facts and evidence that other citizens were accused of crimes and brought before the Duke for judgment. In many cases, the onus of discovering who was potentially guilty of a crime was also Albert’s responsibility. He therefore had a great deal of personal power in the form of favors owed to him by nobles and influential citizens alike.
Baron de’Marcos looked over his steepled fingers at the supplicant sitting across from his desk. “I see. Your son is responsible for the south Embarkland supply post, and there are signs that supplies from that post are turning up on the black market. Not to worry, my lord. I’m sure that the investigators will find that your sons’ assistant was involved in illicit trading, and tried to pin the blame on your son. Don’t worry about a thing, I’ll take care of the details to make sure the… true facts come to light. And please, have a nice day…. My Lord.”
Accordingly, Samuels’ early years were spent pleasantly in luxury among the rich and powerful, socializing in Mordant Keep among his fathers’ peers, training with the best armsmen and weapon masters available, and shown the fear his father’s power and influence commanded, far above the minor miseries and concerns of the common people.
When Samuel came of age, and was expected to choose the path he would follow, his father expected him to follow into duty to the Duke and his father in a managerial capactiy, but Samuel chose to join the Army. The path of the handsome, dashing cavalry commander, in particular, appealed to him. They seemed such romantic figures in their cloaks of Mordant black and scarlet, the white sunburst of Duke hope upon their breasts.
His fathers’ influence, deftly used behind the scenes, ensured that he had the best training available to a nobles’ son, accelerated beyond what he’d learned from his personal tutors. He swiftly acquired a post as a junior officer, and it was ensured that all doors and possibilities were open to him.
Surprisingly enough, he proved to have a natural ability at coordinating multiple actions at once, of guiding various activities to a single resolution at a set time, and of balancing multiple objectives to reach a single important goal. To Samuel, it was all like a vast game for his amusement, a game he delighted in playing, and he reveled at doing well.
Samuel was also not averse to using any trick to gain advantage over an enemy, having learned at his father’s knee how the game of influence and advantage that seemed so masterful in the conclusion was most often built on months of careful planning and hard work. Perhaps due to his awareness of his fathers’ maneuvers behind the scenes, he frequently showed an extremely sneaky and cunning tactical frame of thought. He also, despite his supercilious attitude and arrogance came to be respected by the men entrusted to him, because his careful plans not only resulted in victory, but also frequently saw his forces with the lowest rates of casualties among all those in their division.
For Samuel, it was all a part of the game, for he had seen that commanders who lost men were looked down upon as sloppy and careless, and he wanted to build his reputation at being the best. To get that reputation, he needed to keep his men alive, and so he planned towards that end most carefully.
His demonstrated abilities led him eventually to be invited to join the SDS, the “Silent Death Squad”, a small unit that served as scouts and occasional assassins for the Army High Command. Trained and experienced in scouting enemy lines, and tasked with performing assassination missions deep in enemy held territory, both that of the orcs and of fellow Duchies, the SDS were the ‘bad boys’ of Duke Hope’s war machine, and served the will of the High Command directly.
Samuels’ career and life both seemed destined to shine as he soared in skill and prestige, the fair-haired golden boy of the SDS. A sterling example of the best and the brightest, word frequently passed along the grapevine that he was on the fast track for a high posting, once he finally tired of playing in the woods with his face blackened, a knife between his teeth.
He had even been fortunate enough to fall in love with a beautiful young woman, Moira, the daughter of General Gavin de’Strom, and she had told him that she shared that love.
Everything was perfect in his life; he had adventure, danger, love and power, just as it should be.
And then, over the course of one searing Autumn, came the end of joy, the end of rank, and the end of his future dreams. With meteoric fury both his career and his life plummeted below the depths, never to return.
Samuels’ father, the Right Honorable Baron Albert de’Marcos, fell victim to the plans of a political rival, Lord Bruya Var in the games of power among the Duke’s High Council. Formally accused of corruption and of using his position for personal gain to the detriment of the duchy, Albert was condemned by his peers in High Court before the Duke, and sentenced to death.
In the ensuing chaos among the court, old alliances were shattered, and steps were taken by families on all sides to distance themsselves from the de’Marcos and to show that their loyalty and dedication to the Duke were unshakeable.
Part of the collateral damage that resulted, was that the entire acknowledged bloodline of de’Marcos was tarred with the same treasonous brush as the father, and steps were taken to remove them from being a threat to the duchy… and to Bruya Var.
Albert’s political rival, and the man responsible for choreographing the de’Marcos’ fall, Lord Bruya Var, was risen to Baron in Albert’s wake, and he made certain that no scion of the line of de’Marcos would ever return to gain revenge… in any way.
Samuels’ sister Margaret was accused of plotting against the Duke’s policies and against the ever constant preparations for war, in collusion with and as a member of the rumored Society for Appeasement. She was interrogated by Duke Hopes’ questioners, and died under torture while they tried to pry the names of her non-existent ‘co-conspirators’ from her lips
Samuels’ mother Juliana was found guilty of collusion in the crimes of her husband, and suffered the same fate as he… a short walk from her barren cell to the headsman’ block.
And Samuel… for Samuel the pain was only just beginning.
Samuel was unaware of what had befallen his family when he was first brought before a formal court-martial, and accused of being responsible for the deaths of men under his command through gross negligence and dereliction of duty on his behalf.
Samuel had indeed commanded a team in which one of his men had died, but it had certainly not been due to negligence. It had been during action scouting the southern passes that led deeper into the mountains around Torr Baldwin to the east, the steep interlocking rock believed to be impregnable. The accident came when the man in question misjudged the rock he was climbing, and had not been roped properly to the rest of the team.
Regardless of his protestations, Samuel was swiftly condemned and thrown into the bowels of the vast cells beneath Mordant Keep, there to await the time of his sentenced execution. With Lord Bruya Var twisting the truth and applying his now expanded influence, the results of the court-martial were a foregone conclusion, obvious to everyone except the confused and outraged Samuel de’Marcos.
Samuels’ lady love, Moira, added the final straw when she coolly informed him by missive that she could never love a coward and a traitor’s son, and vowed to never look upon his worthless face again.
In prison, Samuels’ arrogance and certainty of his own importance and innocence led him into direct conflict with guards and inmates alike. Tortured systematically by the guards to teach him his new place in life, or lack thereof, and beaten and brutalized by the gang of inmates who had numbers and a fierce rage against the noble classes, it took an excruciatingly long time to counteract a lifetime of privilidge, but eventually he learned the lessons of his new reality… learned them to the bone.
The time for his execution drew ever nearer, with Lord Bruya Var desperate to see a close to the de’Marcos issue, but there was still time for Samuel to learn what had befallen his family, the story spilling from the lips of a sneering guard. Still time for the young man, no longer so arrogant, to realize that help was never going to come from his father, no petition made on his behalf before the court, no last minute rescue. All hope truly was lost. Hurt, confused, broken in body, bereaved for the family and life he had lost, Samuel began to fall into an abyss of despair.
Before the day of his execution came, however, an event elsewhere in the land brought about an unexpected reprieve.
The lands of Duke Hope once more came under attack, no small raid but a massive horde of highland orcs, former lowland clans united as tribes, and led by grey skinned orc highlanders never before seen in the west, who stormed down from the frozen and barren mountains into the rich valleys to take the crops and lands for themselves.
Duke Hope was not caught unawares. He had long expected and prepared for this encounter, or one like it, and for years had watched as events to the south of Mordant brought some kind of confrontation ever neared.
Duke Hope had planned and prepared and scouted the approaches from which danger may come, Duke Freidlaw of Madrigal, the duchy bordering Mordant to the south, had discovered a narrow pass of ancient construction that not only led deep up into the impassable mountains to the east, but broke through to the other side entirely.
Duke Friedlaw, ruler of a small duchy only recently tamed and recognised as more than a scattering of Caers had seen his chance at greater wealth and power.
The land of Felwaithe had always been cut off from the east by the impassable mountains that stretched from the nothernmost edge all the way to the southern seas, splitting the continent in two. All trade and communication between east and west came from long, dangerous sea voyages around the daggers of the south, or through the Straight of Tears to the north.
With a dependable, land based route available, one that only he would control, one whose trade he could freely tax, the fortune of his land would be made. The only concern would be to take it and hold it against the orcs that had been pushed by the human advances from the lowlands up into the mountains on both sides, the orcs who now held the highlands against all comers, and had nowhere else to go.
Duke Friedlaw had sent his forces up into the eastern pass at a measured pace, to work their way into the mountains, clearing out the orcs that had settled into villages along the way, and building fortified structures to mount a permanent support force along the entire length of the pass, each within support of reinforcing the ones to east and west. They also were under strict orders to never venture off the pass; to make it clear that the humans would go this far, but no further.
For over twenty five years, the forces of Madrigal had held and reinforced the pass, settling it, growing and cultivating the lands in vale and gulley, building their watchtowers and keeps. And during that time, they never ventured off the pass.
Duke Friedllaw knew the Orcs had their own trails and ways of getting around, in the mountains, and nobody knew what strength they yet had to draw on if they weren’t given a place to go when pushed. Duke Friedlaw had no intention of being the one to do the final pushing. As far as he was concerned, the orcs were welcome to the mountains and all within them. He wanted the pass, and the trade it represented, and he cared not for mountains that were of no use to farm and the orcs that lived in them. The orcs would raid in small groups, but the Duke felt that a small price to pay, and a benefit as well, for by rotating his forces in and out of garrison in the Madrigal Pass, he gave them chance to be blooded and learn without extreme risk or hardship, even when his land was not in contention with other duchies.
When Duke Friedlaw finally died, his only son, a young and impetuous boy named Gavely, rose to become the new Duke of Madrigal.
Shortly thereafter, the forces of Madrigal were marshalled to enter the pass.
It seemed that young Duke Gavely was not as prone to live and let live with the orcs as his father was, his stated and proclaimed intention to send the brave forces of Madrigal out into the narrow highland trails to seek out the villages and settlements of the orcs, and ‘cleanse’ them from the mountains, making the Madrigal Pass safe for all time.
Within months of the first highland village being burnt to the ground, the orcs poured forth into the Madrigal Pass, breaking out in coordinated raids all along it’s dozens of miles of winding broken trail, striking swift, killing and burning before vanishing back into the highland trails only they knew.
That was a sign of a new shift in the south. For over two years, the fighting in Madrigal Pass had escalated, and Duke Hope’s informants had reported carefully on all spotted banners and flags. Duke Hope knew that whatever else was happening in the lands of Madrigal, it wasn’t an isolated incident of a few clans seeking revenge, for the banners of at least three full Tribes, the standards of over a hundred different clans had been spotted, representing more forces than even Duke Hope had thought the southern range possessed.
Now orcs of the same clans that Duke Gavely had aroused into war were pouring down from hidden mountain passes into Mordant itself, near enough to Mordant Keep and Torr Baldwin to send the weaker nobles of the High Court scurrying to get their families out to the western farms.
As Duke Hope and his Generals rallied the forces of Mordant to shortstop the orc hordes, and pin them back to the valley mouths through which they streamed, Duke Hope realized that he had a pressing need for bodies to throw in the way of the orcs.
He had spent long years building up a strong, heavily structured and efficient army, supported by the only force of magicians to serve any Duke in open warfare in all the Border Duchies.
And now, rather than careful set piece battles of smart tactics and skillful maneuver, he was facing a wall of orc bodies streaming down a pass, and the lives of his carefully trained soldiers were being bled dry in stupid slaughter, undoing all of his hard planning, wasting his carefully built and previously thought unstoppable overwhelming forces.
What Duke Hope wanted was a wall of his own, a wall of flesh to stand against the orc horde and pin them down long enough to let the skilled, trained, valuable army get in their flanks and rear. He needed a force of no value, mere meat to throw at the orc wall to slow them down in slaughter, so he could stop losing valuable manpower and resources.
Looking for expendable shock troops, the vast prison cells were emptied, the prisoners turned out into the courtyard under armed watch, and all the prisoners were given a choice. Stay and die, or serve in a prisoner-only unit and fight orcs for your country.
The message was plain. They would be placed in the most dangerous battles, at the front of the line and in the face of the charge, and likely all die anyway. But, before they inevitably died, they would have the chance to kill. More than that, the thin thread of hope was dangled before them.
If they fought well and bravely, and they lived, then they might be considered for a pardon for their crimes.
Nearly all of the prisoners accepted. Samuel was made one of the few officers in command of these scum, a disgraced officer in command of a disgusting band, watched over at all times by the Dukes’ personal overseers.
Scarred, starved, fingers repeatedly broken and poorly healed from the endless abuse he had received in prison, flayed in body and desolate in spirit, Samuel found himself a senior officer in the newly formed Front Line Brigade.
They were quickly named the Ravens by the regular army instructors that put them through a brutal, fast training grinder; a slur on their stink, their filth, and the pathetic idea that honorless jailbird trash could ever fight as a unit. The Ravens were rammed through the most brutal forced combat training ever imagined. Their instructors literally did not give a damn if the former prisoners lived through the training or not, so it wasn’t surprising that barely one in four of the Ravens, mostly political prisoners or those thought to be weak in loyalty to Duke Hope, survived the Meatgrinder.
Those that made it were the hardest, toughest, meanest bastards imaginable, men and women both joined by only one common element; a hatred and need for killing so deep it could never be washed away by any amount of blood. Most of the Ravens were insane by any standard by the time the training was done, a combination of the suffering they had endured, the poor food and hygiene they lived with, and the brutal training that had as it’s point to forge the survivors into a group that would stand and charge anything, and psychology of forces be damned.
All had an absolute refusal to quit, or they could not have survived the training. Of those that did, so many suffered a bloodlust so deep, so all consuming, that they were almost impossible to control when not in the front lines. But Duke Hope got what he wanted. All were hardened survivors, callous and indifferent to their own pain… at least, those few who hadn’t come to like the pain, and the taste of their own blood. And they would certainly race forward and eagerly fight the orc front line.
Samuel remained mostly sane, for a given value of sanity in that time of war. The despair and loss in his heart was joined by a bitter hatred of Bruya Var, and a blazing fury at all that he was made to endure that sometimes spilled forth in a desire for blood and revenge, a fury so strong that he was unable to completely control it. At those times, he had to find a place apart from others, often in the seclusion of his tent, and grip himself until the shaking and madness finally left. It took all the strength he had just to pretend to be in control to the overseers, to avoid being purged for unreliability.
When the time for battle finally came for the Ravens, the regular army moved aside to let them through to the heavily contested war zone at the foothills where the orcs staged and made their advances, and the orcs found themselves facing something they never dreamed to see; human warriors driven insane with bloodlust, alive with the single-minded desire for slaughter, a force gripped in boundless pleasure at finally paying back some of the pain, hatred and fear they had endured for so long.
Ravens were thrown into the front line, joyously, singing as they killed and died, and Ravens died by the dozens, but the orcs were stopped in their tracks, and they died as well. Sometimes, as word spread among the tribes, sometimes the orcs even broke and ran as the Ravens were unleashed into a battle, shivering as the humans screamed their hatred, or laughed in childish delight as they carved their way through the ranks.
Always the orcs tried to drive through the lines of Mordant forces, and the Ravens at their front, to break through to the softer lowlands, and always the Ravens were there, in the forefront of the enemy, leaping forward to set free the fountains of blood and offal.
The war against the orcs that started in southern Madrigal two years before was to drag on for another year in the foothills of Mordant. As Madrigal fell and eventually was consumed, the lines shifted, and the southern border of Mordant had to be held against the orcs that now had all the Madrigal lowlands to roam and manuever.
In that time, the Ravens bled out their lives by the dozens, their ranks refilled with a fresh stream of convicts flowing through the Meatgrinder, most now coming from the politically unreliable, and from black marketers and deserters from the regular forces.
While Duke Hope’s regular army enjoyed the services of the most skilled battle surgeons in the Western Kingdoms, none were made available to the Ravens. They had to make do as best they could, or die. And often, the kindest cut was the one Samuel gave as he ended the misery of one of his men or women, screaming on a cot in the mud, no priest to watch their passing, no family to mourn their loss.
The new Ravens that joined what was still called a Brigade could not come close to replacing losses, and the unit steadily dwindled in size. But always Samuel remained; leader, eventual Commander, refusing to die until revenge was finally his. A secret revenge, a private hope, that someday he would have the man responsible for the fall of his family within the reach of his hands.
Ever growing in strength, in skill, in determination and in uncaring brutality of his own life, he continued to endure, and as all his compatriots died around him, the greater his legend grew from the amongst the normal forces, who knew of him, and of the truth behind his fall, and who passed on news of his living when each battle was done.
When the war finally drew to a shuddering pause, the borders watched but stable to east and south, the orcs solidly in control of Madrigal, Duke Hope chose to consolidate his forces and fix his lines. He also decided to end the disturbing rumors of a Raven hero among the worthless convicts, and clean that mess up for good. The Ravens had served their purpose, but having a dark romantic figure rise to inspire thoughts of revenge or remind the commoners of occasional injustice had no part in his plans.
Those few Ravens left alive were returned to prison, to once again await their justly sentenced executions.
All the Ravens were returned to prison, that is, except the four Raven officers that yet lived, chief among them Samuel de’Marcos.
Duke Hope knew better than to kill a hero and create a martyr that would long be remembered. Much better, in his experience, to have pension them off and leave them to their own devices, recognised and then forgotten, to eventually die in a drunken stupor in some back country brawl when fame ran it’s course.
It was announced that the four officers had redeemed themselves in service to the duchy, and had earned pardons for their crimes before the Duke’s High Court.
This served to get Duke Hope and the High Court off the hook for anything that wuold follow.
Now that the civil authority found them innocent, however, all four were remanded into the care of the Military for dismissal… and each had also been found guilty of a formal court-martial, their sentences still to serve.
Still officially sentenced to death, the four officers were given a final choice by the High Command, that wanted nothing to do with any of these monsters amongst the regular forces; to die by the headsmans axe, or to fight each other in the Mordant arena, to the death, winner taking his life and his freedom.
All four had fought together, and bled together. But they were also the ultimate realists. They knew that they had a choice of fighting and killing each other, and maybe one would go free, or refusing to fight and being butchered and dying together. The four were allowed to meet together to decide, and they came up with a plan. They would all do their best to fight for victory, each for their own reasons, but before they did, they shared with each other their secret plans and dreams for revenge for the wrongs done to each. Whoever was to win, they each pledged to the others that the survivor would work to bring all their dreams of revenge to fruition.
During the war, Baron Bruya Var had solidified and consolidated his power in the courts, eliminating other possible rivals to his position, but now he found himself impossibly blocked in his attempts to deny Samuel his chance for freedom. Too many Generals, now favored war-heroes, some even in the High Command, remembered how Samuels’ court-martial was fabricated at Var’s direction. It was one thing to deny Samuel a place in the army’s regular forces, but they were nevertheless strong enough to ensure that Samuel had an honest chance at freedom in the arena.
Indeed, when the battle in the small arena of the Keep was over, no more than a brief side to the end of the war, no one present was surprised to see Samuel de’Marcos, the Undying, Raven One and Commander of the Front Line Brigade, walk out the gates of Mordant Keep alive… and free.
Indeed, Samuels’ incredible bravery and deeds on the field of battle had caused so many well known victories that he had become something of a darkly romantic hero to many people from afar, and that had been twisted by the rumormongers Duke Hope employed into a symbol of how, no matter the depths to which a man might have fallen, a loyal soldier of Mordant is still willing to commit himself to the defense of the people.
When Samuel finally had his freedom, he found that while his story and that of the Ravens was well known, when faced with the reality of his scars and haggard appearance, the first thing people were reminded of was not his heroism or bravery, but of the stigma of his court-martial, and his apparent willingness to kill his three fellow officers to earn his freedom.
Samuel is free, and for now he travels on his own, moving from place to place, always staying within the borders of the duchy of Mordant, doing whatever small services he can to secure lodging and food.
Samuel knows, no matter what others might think, that the current lull in fighting, this brief pause in the war will end, all too soon. Few among the Western Kingdoms or the other Border Lords to the north and west knew the full scope of what Duke Friedlaw had begun in Madrigal, but Samuel knew full well the number of banners he had seen, and had learned the hard way what they meant. Whatever the reason the three united tribes had retreated back into the great mountains, they weren’t yet done. They would be back, and when they did, Samuel would be ready.
Ready to do whatever it took to reach close enough to Bruya Var to wrap his fingers around the old mans’ throat, and drink deep of the revenge he had dared to dream of.
Until that time, he has the tasks set to him by his three brothers to attend to. Brothers of blood and terror and pain, if not of birth. The only kind of brotherhood that still has any meaning for him.
And seeing those tasks to completion will keep him busy until his time has come.