There are many places that one might start the story of Uther Penndraig, but to understand the man he became, it is best to go through his life as he did, one year at a time.
He was born Isiah of Colm, in a farming village so small that last names were not yet in general use. His mother died in childbirth, leaving him to be raised by his father, who remarried when Isiah was two years old. His father was a farmer, and Isiah, along with his six half-brothers and two half-sisters, worked the fields every summer. There is very little written about this time in Uther Penndraig’s life, and he rarely, if ever, spoke of it.
When Isiah of Colm was sixteen years old, the Dark King’s campaign of conquest spilled into Anglecynn. The dark army, composed largely of goblins, orcs, and dwarves, passed through Colm, taking whatever food there was to take from storehouses and killing or conscripting any fighting-age men they came across. Isiah of Colm was in the woods near the family farm when the army came through and returned just in time to see the fresh carnage that had been visited against his father, step-mother, and half-siblings.
In many tellings, this is when Isiah of Colm picked up his sword and began the fight, and while the image is perfectly compelling, with a strong narrative logic to it, historical research does not bear it out. Leaving eyewitness accounts aside, there are exactly two contemporaneous sources by which to trace the arc of Uther’s life. The first are the many grave markers which still stand in Colm, relics of the dark army’s movements, each giving the year of death as 1138 (ed. 9 BE). The second is in 1142 (ed. 5 BE) when Uther Penndraig entered into Greychapel and attempted to pull Avengion from the stone it was lodged in. Aside from those two sources, and a number of eyewitness accounts made years if not decades after the fact, there is no record of Isiah of Colm or Uther Penndraig for that roughly four year period, not within the records left behind by the Dark King, nor in the contemporaneous letters sent to and from the Anglecynn resistance.
This four year gap is something of a mystery. Certainly it would take some time for a sixteen-year-old farmer’s son to properly train with a sword, but proper training would require someone with skill, and the only mentor Uther spoke of having during this time was the flower mage Vervain, who certainly would not have been able to teach him as much as he appeared to know during that first visit to Greychapel, not even with Uther’s relentless quest for excellence, his natural athletic talents, and his inborn skill with a sword.
There is a third contemporaneous record, which I am hesitant to bring up. Several years ago, a number of scripts written by an unknown playwright were unearthed in Anglecynn, all written in the same hand and performed by The Erstwhile Players, a troupe that was active during the time of the Dark King’s conquest and later occupation of Anglecynn. So long after the fact, it is nearly impossible to track the movements of the troupe, and they were hanged, to a member, in 1141 (ed. 6 BE) for subversion of the Dark King’s will, specifically for the performance of a play called The Fellowship of the Ring, of which no written copies exist. The other scripts from this troupe, however, do share a passing resemblance to the other, later works of Uther Penndraig, and the handwriting is a close approximation.
It is impossible to say with certitude whether Uther Penndraig was ever a member of The Erstwhile Players, or whether it was he who authored the scripts that have been uncovered. If he was, this paints a very different picture of his path toward taking up arms against the Dark King. A theater troupe during the era of Anglecynn’s occupation would have not been neutral toward the Dark King, they would have been actively paid by him as part of general morale improving efforts, one of the investments the Dark King made into captured territories. Perhaps Isiah of Colm was simply biding his time, spending his evenings drilling with wooden swords and plotting his revenge upon those that killed his family.
Yet in Uther’s own plays, and the commentaries he has written, he focuses on the Call to Adventure of a young hero, and often on the Refusal of the Call, both phrases always capitalized.
I set the book down to think about this. Arthur, if it was Arthur, had been dropped into the world with a family, a father and some siblings, and then the most stereotypical possible thing had happened: the Dark Lord had shown up and murdered his family. That was where the traditional, so-cliche-no-one-uses-it hero’s journey began, with some horrible thing happening that set the hero down the path to righting wrong.
And Arthur (if it was Arthur) had said “fuck that” and gone to seek his fortune in a theater troupe, using his natural affinity for acting, along with his wide knowledge of pop culture … For three years? Maybe, if he had been smart and avoided encounters, if he’d kept his head down, if, if, if. Or maybe he had been getting stronger in the safest ways he could think of. All I really had to go on was a few lines of guesswork in a biography written long after any of it had happened. But either way, no hero can refuse the call to adventure for long, because at some point they’ll get pushed violently back onto the railroad of destiny.
In the story of Uther Penndraig, that would be the end of the first act, and in the second act he would meet his Merlin.
I looked over at Fenn to see her still deep in a protracted conversation with the dwarf. She was smiling, somewhat ferally, and I hoped that meant that she was getting something good out of him. I went back to my book, still looking for answers, something that would confirm beyond a doubt that it was actually him.
Uther Penndraig arrived in Caledwich, fully formed. Whatever had happened to him in the four years between the death of his family and his first time through the gates of the then-capital, he had become a skilled swordsman and a polished speaker with a stolid determination and a devotion to good. He had met and gained the loyalty of two of his eventual seven companions, those who would later become his Knights of the Square Table. He had Vervain, the flower mage, and Forty-Two, a changeling of ill repute and recent friend. Both of them were, by that point, already sworn to him, heart and soul.
Forty-Two was one of Reimer’s characters, a fairly forgettable shapeshifting assassin loner. His name was part of a boring, tragic, backstory that I won’t get into here. The thing was, this threw a wrench into my “Uther is Arthur” calculus. I really wanted Arthur to have come through a portal five hundred years ago and recreated one of his characters, because that would mean that he was alive. But if there were other characters from our games, then what did that mean? How many of Reimer’s characters had been in Aerb at any point? Had any of them been dream-skewered, or actual people I knew put in the shoes of their characters?
The fact that Forty-Two was a historical figure really made me start to have doubts; that was another biography I was going to have to pick up, if there wasn’t enough information about him in this one. If he was just Forty-Two, not Reimer-as-Forty-Two, then that was weak evidence against Uther being Arthur-as-Uther. It was also the case that Uther Penndraig was, on both counts, a family name predating him, not one that a maybe-Arthur had picked out for himself, which meant that the world was waiting for him with a backstory already set up.
I kept reading. It was interesting stuff, not just because of the story, but because of the small details that weren’t fully spelled out, things I was supposed to pick up from context. I kept trying to find some definitive proof that it was Arthur in there, that I wasn’t just reading about a preternaturally gifted king going on adventures, but the only threads of that were in the form of the stories and plays he had written. What I wanted to come across was a line where Uther spoke about his best friend Juniper Smith, but I never found it.
I got about a quarter of the way through the book before Fenn came over to me, partly because she was taking forever to wrap things up with the dwarf, and partly because I’m a fast reader. I can give you the Cliff Notes version:
The Penndraig line had been wiped out, down to the last child, when the Dark King had taken Caledwich. The last thing that Constantine Penndraig had done, when the invader was knocking on his door, was to have an enormous rock brought into Greychapel, which he embedded his sword in. The unique magic of the sword made both sword and rock completely invincible, for all practical purposes, and the sword could not be removed except for by the hand of someone in the Penndraig line. Constantine had intended this as a big fuck you to the Dark King, who would have had to spend time and effort removing the affront to his rule, but the Dark King turned it around and said, “Hey, the old king is dead, his line is dead, and here’s definitive proof, if anyone wants to pull the sword from the stone, be my guest, but everyone else, this is your reminder that there’s no royal line left”.
So of course Isiah of Colm was actually the son of a secret princess, and he rolled into Caledwich with a plan, which was to take the sword out of the stone, giving him both claim to Anglecynn and a sweet sword in the process, as well as signaling to everyone the start of a proper resistance movement against the Dark King. As I was reading this, I was thinking that it was pretty fricking dumb of the Dark King to not just take the rock out of Greychapel, for exactly that reason … but then I got to the part where Uther tried to pull the sword from the stone, and failed, whereupon he was ambushed and had to fight his way out with his allies in tow.
As it turns out, the Dark King was at least a little bit genre savvy, and he’d taken the impenetrable rock with Avengion out under the cover of darkness, then brought in a new, specially made, identical rock, with a replica sword stuck in it. It wasn’t just that the sword in the stone was proof that there wasn’t any living Penndraig, so long as people accepted that the sword in the stone was authentic, it served as proof against any potential claimant, as well as a honeypot for would-be heroes. So that was Uther Penndraig’s introduction to the world, which took about two chapters to tell, half of it concerning his parentage, which I wasn’t really that interested in — all I really needed to know was that he was a secret heir to the throne.
After that, Uther spent about a year recovering from his fight, gathering more powerful allies, including two more of his Knights of the Square Table (one a skin mage, who was named after a bumbling wizard Tom used to play but didn’t seem to share all that much in common with the character, and the other a cleric, though Aerbian clerics were a lot different than in traditional D&D). After that, he went after Avengion again, which he’d discovered the location of. The Dark King had stuck the giant, invincible rock into a lake, and Uther had needed to enlist the help of a magical mermaid to retrieve it. The biographer didn’t call her the Lady of the Lakes, but I could read between the lines; whoever was writing the story, they were cribbing a bit from Arthurian legend.
At that point, Uther was twenty-one years old. The First Empire was founded in 1147 (0 FE), which was only another four years, and a quick look at the index showed that covered about another quarter of the biography. His two sons were born very shortly after the formation of the First Empire, and then he disappeared from the face of Aerb on a quest at the age of fifty-five. I was trying my best not to skip around in the book, especially because there wasn’t likely to be any answers found at the back of it, but I was already itching with questions I didn’t think would be answered. If it was Arthur, then what kind of person would he be after forty years in this place, most of it spent with him as an ultra-powerful king?
I wished that Amaryllis were sitting with me, not just so that we wouldn’t have to go on this dangerous quest to save her, not just because she was pretty, but because I thought she would indulge me in a conversation. I hadn’t asked her about Uther when we were together, and I regretted that now, but I hadn’t thought that he was Arthur, and it was all ancient history, as far away in time as Martin Luther nailing up his 95 Theses.
Fenn sauntered over while I took another break from the book, dwarf in tow. He was about four feet tall, but with a wide frame and what looked like plenty of muscle beneath his fur cloak. He had an axe by his side, which was decorated with swirls that it took me a moment to recognize as hair. His thick beard had braids that were dyed grey, his nose was crooked, and his eyes were wary, moving around to take in the tavern.
I’ll give you a brief primer on Aerb’s dwarves, but you’re probably fine if you just think of them as bog-standard fantasy dwarves. They were the second most populous species on Aerb, after humans, with there being about a billion of them in total, though you wouldn’t have known it to look at a map or take a walk through most major cities. The dwarves were a combination of farmers and miners, thanks to a doughy fungus they spread on their walls which ate away at the rock and turned it into something that was, at least for the dwarves, enough to sustain them. Being able to convert rock to food meant that they never needed to return to the surface, so many of them didn’t; there were about a thousand dwarven city-states of varying size, some of them without any entrance short of that provided by teleportation, and some warded against even that.
Oh, and one other thing about dwarves; they didn’t have women, just men. Supposedly there was a time when dwarves carved their next of kin out of stone, but a grand racial curse was bestowed upon them that forced them to become a biologically reproducing race, which they could either do with each other, or by themselves. They weren’t actually all men, because that would imply that dwarves had a gender distinction, but they did have male secondary sex characteristics, and I’ll refer to them as ‘he’ and ‘him’ from here on out.
(Incidentally, I remembered making dwarves like that. It had come from a time after Tiff had joined our group, when her own interest in the role of sex and gender in society had led me down some interesting paths in worldbuilding. The dwarves-who-sculpt-their-children and dwarves-who-have-one-gender actually came from two different campaigns, but on Aerb they were just merged together.)
“Juniper, while you have had your nose buried in a book, I have acquired a friend,” said Fenn. I looked at the dwarf, who didn’t seem like a friend. “His name is Grak, and he’s going to help us with our heist.”
The tavern had gotten noisier as it had slipped toward evening, as the tables began filling up, but it still made me wince to hear her use my real name. I also hadn’t been informed that we were even doing a heist, unless this was part of some con on this dwarf. I wasn’t entirely clear on the relationship between dwarves and elves, but didn’t figure that it would matter to Fenn much either way, not unless the dwarves were total dicks to one another.
“The name is Grakhuil Leadbraids,” Grak corrected. He sniffed, flaring his wide nostrils as he looked at me. “Your companion has already given the terms.”
“The terms,” I nodded. “Fenn … good work.”
Fenn gave me a short bow. “You are most welcome.” She stretched out. “The hour has grown late and we have other business, but we’ll meet here again early tomorrow morning,” she said to Grak. “There are preparations we’ll need to make in the meantime, over the course of the next few days. We can discuss specifics tomorrow.”
Grak nodded to both of us, then walked away.
“Care to keep me in the loop?” I asked Fenn.
“Turns out that Aumann has some enemies,” she said. “I’ll tell you more while we eat over room service.”
Fenn frowned when I ordered the same pseudo-burger I’d had before. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” she asked. “When we rescue Amaryllis and she reclaims her place on the throne of Anglecynn, she’s going to take you to all sorts of fancy society dinners where you’ll be expected to eat all manner of things. Better to expand your horizons now.”
I frowned at that. “My horizons are plenty expanded,” I said. “But fine, I’ll get the … elk strips. Are there domesticated elk?”
“Why would you need to domesticate them?” asked Fenn.
“Nevermind,” I replied. “So tell me about this dwarf.”
“Just a moment, I need to call the order in,” she said. She hopped off the bed where we were sitting together and made for the phone, which had a rotary dial and hung on the wall. The mixing of technology into Aerb still tripped me up sometimes, because it was hard for my brain to switch from ‘I am talking to an actual dwarf now, dwarves are a thing here’ to thinking about things like power lines, elevators, and radio. I wondered whether it was any different in Uther’s day, whether it would have felt like high fantasy to Arthur back then.
“Alright,” said Fenn once she was off the phone. “Our dwarven friend — is he a companion, by the way?”
I closed my eyes for three seconds and navigated the menus, trying not to pay attention to the words that showed up when I passed by the Afflictions screen. I wasn’t feeling well, but I thought most of that was still just weakness from the blood loss. At any rate, the Companions screen still just showed Fenn and Amaryllis, both with the same descriptions they’d had before.
“Nope,” I said. “Still the same.”
“Well, shit,” said Fenn. “I’d been hoping. Our dwarven friend-but-not-companion Grak is on a mission from his homeland to steal a bunch of gold, and he can’t return until he does.”
I frowned at that. “You said that he was Aumann’s enemy,” I said.
“Do you want the long version or the short version?” asked Fenn. “Because the short version is that he wants to steal some gold.”
“I’ll take the long version then,” I said. “The bartender sent him over to you?”
“Ayup,” said Fenn. “Plus two others, though they were less helpful, mostly looking to drain our coin, I think. But Grak, he was the prize. The long version is that dwarves have a complicated cultural history with gold and gold mages. To hear Grak tell it, the dwarves understood gold as a sacred metal from early in their cultural history, something to be revered and respected. Then one day, hundreds if not thousands of years ago, they found out that the other mortal species on the surface liked gold too, and the dwarves were tempted into parting with their gold for creature comforts in those pits they like to live in. It was only later that the dwarves discovered the curse laid upon the gold, which they felt some responsibility for, and which has impacted them through a series of endless wars.”
“Hrm,” I said. “I was under the impression that dwarves had city-states, not an actual nation? Does it make sense to say ‘the dwarves’?”
“It’s complicated,” said Fenn. “Dwarves feel a racial unity more than other races, I guess. They’re not part of the Empire of Common Cause directly, they’ve got their own loose governing body which in turn deals with the empire, as a kind of buffer.” She shifted. “Really makes me wish that Amaryllis was here, because I feel like I’m going to make a hash of it.”
“So … Grak is here to reclaim some gold to prevent some curse?” I asked. Is this an Aztec gold thing? Are we doing Pirates of the Caribbean?
“Guess what the curse is,” said Fenn, smiling and biting her lip in a way that I found quite pretty on her.
“When you put it like that,” I said, “The answer has to be gold mages.”
“Got it in one,” said Fenn. “Grak, and apparently some of the other dwarves, enough that he was given funding, believe that it was dwarves who caused gold mages to come about by releasing their stockpiles of gold into the world.”
I frowned at that. “I’m not actually sure how that’s a curse, in the conventional sense of the word.”
“I think they mean the call of the gold,” said Fenn. “Gold mages are powerful, but they’re mightily constricted in what they can do with that power, because if they don’t devote themselves to the call of the gold, they’ll fall behind. It’s not just adding a pound of gold to the vault every month, it’s adding a pound the first month, then two pounds the second month, then four pounds the third month, and so on.”
“The curve can’t be that extreme,” I said. “Aumann has been a gold mage for twelve years now, if the requirements were doubling every month that would be … um, more pounds of gold than there are grains of sand in Aerb. Which is probably not the case. The exponent has to be a little more gentle than that.”
“Whatever,” said Fenn, waving her hand. “You get what I’m saying. Anyway, the gold mages start really feeling the pressure after a while, so historically, at least to hear Grak tell it, they had two main options, one of which was to go steal some gold from someone else, and the other of which was to start up or capture a gold mine. And given that dwarves had already been mining gold since time immemorial, an enterprising gold mage could kill two birds with one stone and go after one of the dwarfholds. Steal all the gold, then enslave the dwarves and make them dig up more gold for you.”
“Okay … so the dwarves think that gold magic is their fault,” I said. “They sold the other mortal species gold and were punished by the existence of gold mages.” I had no idea how plausible that actually was, but it didn’t seem, prima facie, to be very plausible.
“Well, it’s not actually all dwarves, anymore than you would say all humans,” said Fenn. “Grak’s clan was hit especially hard by a gold mage a few centuries back, until the gold veins were stripped clean. Anyway, that’s his mission, and why he’s willing to work with us.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. “And what does he bring to the table?”
“You’ll like this,” said Fenn, with a twinkle in her eyes. “He’s a ward breaker.”
“Huh,” I said. “I’d guess because gold mages and warders go together, so if you had a quest to take back the gold, you’d take an interest in breaking wards. That works for me … but you kept telling me that our goal was to get Amaryllis back, not to kill or disable Aumann. That changes, with Grak in play?”
“Er,” said Fenn. “I may have indicated to Grak that I knew where Aumann’s cache of gold was, and I might have said that I had concrete information that it was in the same location where Amaryllis is being held. Which, mind, isn’t a terribly bad guess.”
“We know where Amaryllis is being held?” I asked. My heart started beating a little quicker; Schrödinger’s Princess had been weighing on me, even if it was reasonable to assume that she was imprisoned but mostly fine. “We know that she’s alive?”
“Oh, right,” said Fenn. “Buried the lede there, did I? She’s a floor below the penthouse, behind some heavy wards, unhurt but unhappy, at least as far as the servants know. Aumann and his inner circle are the only ones who know her true identity, but he’s not made a secret of the fact that he’s got a guest.”
“So the plan is to use Grak to get up to the top floors of Trifles Tower, use him to break the wards on Amaryllis, and then bust out?” I asked. “And hope that he’s not really pissed off at us when he realizes that the gold isn’t actually there? Did you tell him about Amaryllis?”
“Not as such,” said Fenn. “But he knows that we’re not just after the gold, and the gold might be there after all, so it’s not like we’re hornswoggling him. Not much, anyway.”
“And if the gold isn’t there?” I asked.
“Are you going to be a moral crusader about this?” asked Fenn. “Because it was, oh, earlier this morning that you were beating up a guy for information and I was stealing his stuff.”
“He deserved it,” I said. “I’d really rather not trick people into becoming our allies.”
“Okay,” said Fenn. “Then tomorrow morning I’ll go to the Impish Inn and say to him, ‘sorry, but you have no actual incentive to help us’, shall I?”
I could feel myself getting angry. As little as a few months ago, I probably would have responded to her with righteous fury, telling her that yes, she should go tell him the truth, even if it cost us. It wasn’t even that I was particularly inclined toward being a staunchly moral person, it would have just been that we were on opposite sides. So I took a step back and tried to think things through.
Yes, it was a decent guess that Aumann would keep all his valuables, people and gold alike, in one location, because there was a limit to the number of secure locations you could realistically hold at any given time, especially if you constantly needed money to pour into your ultimate source of power. The personal repercussions for us were unlikely to be all that bad, since warding magic had very little in the way of offense and it wasn’t like we would suffer from a reputation hit. The biggest issue was that it was a crappy thing to do.
“You’re right,” I said with a sigh. “I’d rather we not do it this way, but if a resource is going to fall into our lap like this, then our actual objective is important enough that I’ll bend a little bit.” It’s what Amaryllis would do.
Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 9!
“Oh,” said Fenn.
“I mean, we can fight about it if you want to,” I said. “It certainly seemed like you wanted to fight. But I’ve been trying my best not to get into arguments with people just because I found a solidly fortified position to fight from.”
“Huh,” said Fenn. “Is that a human thing, wanting a fight with someone but not because there was anything all that important on the line?”
“Yup,” I said. “And you’re half human, so you tell me. Any particular reason that you’d be spoiling for a fight?”
Fenn frowned. “Nope, I said light and airy, so light and airy is what we’re going to do.”
“There’s part of you that’s worried about what happens if we actually get her back,” I said.
“And what makes you think that, little hooman?” asked Fenn.
“First off, I’m bigger than you,” I said. “Second, when we were ordering food you were snotty about it, talking about how ‘I’ not ‘we’ would have to go to society dinners. You told me before that you were worried about Amaryllis edging you out, it’s reasonable that you would still be worried about it now, maybe even moreso given that she’s got leverage over both of us with her heirlooms. You don’t want to be left behind.” And you were basically cast out by both sides of your family, which is why you always had more acquaintances than friends. Now that you consider me an actual friend to you, you’re worried about losing me, because you aren’t going to be able to just brush me off by pretending that you never actually cared. But those were guesses on my part, and I didn’t know how to say them so that they would come out positive and empathic rather than cuttingly clinical.
Fenn winced. “Okay, a little bit I’m worried, I guess. But pretend that I didn’t just say that.”
I looked her in the eyes. “Fenn, you’re my companion. It’s written on my character sheet. If there are fancy society dinners that either circumstance or Amaryllis forces me to go to, you’ll be coming with, dressed to the nines.”
“To the nines?” asked Fenn.
“It’s … actually I don’t know,” I replied. “And anyway, you still owe me a favor, remember?” I smiled at her. “Couldn’t let you off the hook without getting my value from that one, could I?”
Fenn opened her mouth to say something, but there was a knock on the door, and by the time she’d brought the tray of food back in, she had either gotten distracted or decided against continuing that line of conversation.
“So,” she said as she began eating some kind of noodle dish with a wide variety of colored vegetables, “Any interesting books?”
“Kind of,” I said. “Books on magic should be useful. I’m hoping that the clonal kit and The Commoner’s Guide to Gem Magic together will be enough to let me figure that stuff out. I’m about a quarter of the way through a biography of Uther, which … is less helpful than I had thought it would be, at least as far as forming a hypothesis. The others are mostly books that I can use for reference, or that I hope will let me get a better picture of the world.”
Fenn picked up The Prince and the Handmaid from the pile. “And this one?” she asked.
“A gift, for being a good customer,” I said. “You can read it if you’d like, I doubt I’ll have the time for leisure, and I’m pretty sure that you’ll be sitting around waiting for me to finish up with things.”
“Speaking of which,” said Fenn, as she slipped Sable out from her pocket and stuck it on her hand. “The time will soon come for you to learn how to make a tattoo.” She began dumping things onto the bed, first the gun, then the box of inks, then the book of illustrations. “If you ask me, we should have robbed the guy blind from the get-go.”
“Easy to say in hindsight,” I replied. “Also, not something that you put forth when it was an option.”
“Bah,” said Fenn. “Let me have my retrospective victories.”
I ate a few pieces of the elk, which was similar enough to venison, cooked rare and seasoned heavily, but I didn’t have much in the way of appetite. Instead, I set my plate aside and picked up the tattoo gun. It was time to learn some spells.