Chapter 2
The New Generation

Eagle, Gladius; Gladian Year 588

"I met a boy today. He's a little older than me, but we got along all the same. He said he was Julian of House Leon. Dad and Grandpa always said that House Leon was full of bad people, but Julian didn't seem that way. Have they been wrong the whole time?"
- Excerpt from the journal of Luther, son of Gregor

Luther was having his usual fun in town. He had managed to give the house servants the slip and was free to do as he pleased for a few hours, until either the servants caught up to him or he got bored and returned home on his own. He always hated how they had to follow him everywhere. His brother would probably scold him when he got back, so he would have to make the most of his time.
The miners were on shift and the town was all but empty, but this suited Luther just fine. The fewer adults around, the more he could get away with. He found quite a bit of amusement sparring with the gates of the stables. The racket caused by the blows of his wooden practice sword drove the horses wild. It was great fun.
He may not have been the inheritor of the ancestral powers, but that did not mean he could not train himself to be an expert swordsman. Of course, he knew that live targets made better practice, but this was more play than anything else. He was having fun spooking a particularly skittish mare when a voice interrupted him.
"What do you think you're doing?"
Luther turned to see a blond youth glaring at him. The youth looked only a a few years older than him, but the aspiring young swordsman took note of the real rapier strapped to his belt.
"What's it to you?" Luther asked defiantly.
"Those horses belong to my family," the youth replied, "and we don't need little street urchins like you terrorizing them."
"Street urchin!?" Luther exclaimed. "I'll have you know that I'm Luther, son of Gregor. I'm no street urchin!"
The youth took a step back.
"Gregor?" he asked. "As in Gregor the Guardian?" He then drew his sword, declaring, "As a man of House Leon and the heir to Sebastian the Defender, I must face you in combat according to the rules of vendetta."
Looking at the youth incredulously, Luther tapped his wooden sword on his shoulder.
"Are you serious? What's your name?"
"I am Julian, son of Sebastian," the youth replied, taking on a stuffy, formal tone. "Since you are at a disadvantage, we shall get you a proper weapon before our duel."
Luther laughed.
"A rapier's only good for thrusting and I don't plan on getting poked. Let's go."
"Do not say I did not give you a chance to better equip yourself."
Luther grinned and replied, "Don't worry. I won't."
Luther walked into the street with a nonchalance that belied the deadly seriousness of the situation and the two faced off. Luther made the first move, rushing forward with a diagonal slash. Julian parried, the edge of his rapier nicking the wood but not cutting too deep. Julian then made a thrust to the heart that Luther easily batted away. As Julian tried to sweep the blade upward to cut Luther with the tip, Luther blocked sharply and the two blades rattled against each other. Luther could not hope to break steel with his wooden sword, but the rapier's blade was not thick enough to cut through the wood either. It came down to a matter of strength, and the two were about evenly matched.
Julian was clearly the product of formal training. Luther had scene his every stance and move in books on fencing. Luther, however, spurned the idea of learning swordsmanship from a book and rather than stiff forms, he let the natural flow of the fight guide his blade. According to the books, when you lock blades you either press your advantage by going forward if you are stronger or use the opponent's momentum against him by going backwards if you are weaker. Luther, on the other hand, sidestepped and threw his weight into an upswing. Julian had not anticipated this and his arms swung up with his rapier. The blade of the rapier was stuck in Luther's sword, but the young Aran managed to break free by twisting it loose with a turn of his wrists. He then reversed the momentum and gave Julian a stiff blow to the head.
Julian's eyes rolled back as he collapsed to the ground. Afraid he had gone too far, Luther quickly rolled the body over and put his ear to Julian's chest. Fortunately, he could hear a steady heartbeat. Luther gave a heavy sigh of relief and slumped against a nearby wall. The son of Sebastian had put up a good fight, Luther gave him that. The best match he ever had.

* * *

Julian's head throbbed terribly as he slowly opened his eyes. The last thing he could remember was being hit by the boy of House Aran. He was not dead, but that alone was not much comfort. He was suddenly gripped by the fear that men from House Aran took him while he was unconscious and were holding him for ransom. He fully woke with a start, frantically looking back and forth.
He found that was still in the same street he had dueled in. Someone had propped up him up against a wall near the place he fell. He touched the sore spot of his head. His hair was damp. Looking down, he saw a wet cloth lying on the ground. It must have fallen off when he woke up.
In his earlier panic, he did not notice the boy of House Aran even though he was sitting against the wall only a couple feet away with the wooden sword resting on his shoulder. He could hardly remember the name. Luther, was it?
"Are you okay?" Luther asked. "I thought I overdid it for a moment."
Julian could not believe what he was hearing.
"You mean to say engaged in a mortal duel and didn't mean to kill me?"
"Well, yeah," Luther said. "It's not like you were really trying to kill me either. I could tell. A sword doesn't lie about its master's will."
Julian was confused. This was not how someone of House Aran was supposed to act, child or not.
Holding up the wet cloth, Julian asked Luther, "Why did you go to all this trouble for my sake? You did not not have to spare me, nor did you have to tend to me as you did. I thought that House Aran was nothing more than a band of greedy cutthroats."
Luther burst into a short fit of laughter.
"I don't know who told you that, but I was told House Leon was nothing more than a pack of conniving dogs." He gave Julian a friendly smile. "But I don't think a conniving dog would've given me the chance to match steel for steel."
Luther had a point. Nothing Julian had been told about House Aran seemed to hold true here, but this was just one person, a mere child at that. It was not possible that his grandfather was lying about the Arans. Still, it was unsettling to Julian, to everything he thought he knew about his family's archenemy. When he looked at the boy of Aran, he saw no sign of malice in him. Was he just an exception to the rule? Was it just because of his age that he did not share the storied wickedness of his house?
Luther started to talk again, disrupting his train of thought.
"I've been thinking. I've heard about this feud all my life and I don't even know what started it in the first place. Do you know why we're fighting?"
It was a good question in all truth. His grandfather had said many things about House Aran, but not once did he ever speak about the origin of the feud. It started back in his grandfather's time, so he had to know. His father never spoke of the feud at all. Why was Julian, the very heir of House Leon, being kept in the dark about something as important as this?
"I don't know the reasons for the feud," Julian said as he rose from the ground, "or why it's continued for so long. However, this day has made one thing clear to me. As the heir of Sebastian the Defender, I have a duty to find out. If there are others in your household who have your sense of honor and goodwill, perhaps we can find a way to reconcile our two houses."
"That's a great idea!" Luther exclaimed eagerly. He sprang to his feet and grinned confidently. "I may not be my dad's heir, but I'm sure my brother will listen to me."
Julian nodded.
"It's settled then. I will get to the bottom of this. If fortune favors us, we will see this feud ended in our lifetime. I will make it my goal in life."
"I'll do whatever I can from my end," Luther added. He looked at the notches in his wooden blade and then to Julian. "You know, you're pretty good with a sword. It'd be nice to spar again sometime. I'd rather not be out for blood, though, if that's all right with you."
"An excellent idea," Julian replied approvingly. "You show remarkable skill, technique that would baffle my swordmaster. It would do us both well to sharpen our abilities against each other. Who knows? Our cooperation may set the example for our households."
"I hope so," Luther said. He looked off into the distance, at the sun touching the horizon. "I'd better get back home. My brother's gonna be pretty mad at me."
He waved as he walked away. Julian returned his wave and watched his newfound companion until he darted out of view. He looked down at the cloth he gripped in his hand. There was a small spot of blood on it. He hoped it would be the last drops shed between the two houses.

* * *

As soon as Luther walked in through the front door of the Aran manor, he saw his elder brother Tiberius waiting for him as expected. With arms crossed and a mighty frown on his face, he did not look happy in the slightest.
"I see you slipped past your escorts again."
Though he was only nineteen, Tiberius sounded like a man grown when he was scolding his younger brother. It was not exactly a quality Luther appreciated about him.
"Their job is to protect you," Tiberius continued. "I'd punish them if I didn't already know how impossible it is to keep track of you. One of them saw you fighting with a boy who matches the description of the Defender's heir. Is it true? Were you out dueling with that stick?"
"Well, yeah, but Julian--"
Tiberius interrupted him, "The responsibility of fighting this feud is mine alone. I won't have you risking your life when it isn't your place."
"That's what I want to talk to you about," Luther said. "We just had a misunderstanding is all. Julian's a good person. It got me thinking, you see." He paused, uncertain of how to continue in the face of his brother's harsh glare. "Why do we have this feud anyway?"
It was not the response his brother was expecting. He did take the question seriously, however, and did not hesitate to give Luther a straight answer.
"House Leon is responsible for the death of our grandmother. The coward Percival drove her mad lusting after her and then had the gall to blame Grandfather for it declare vendetta. They started this feud every step of the way. We protect our own but never go looking for a fight. That's been our house's policy and that's why your actions today have been so damaging."
Luther ignored the reprimand and instead was greatly encouraged by the rest of it. If their house was not actively pursuing the feud, it would be that much easier to end it.
"That's great!" the younger Aran said eagerly. "Julian, he wants the feud. He's the heir. That means we can end it! All you gotta do is talk to House Leon, right?"
Tiberius did not seem too impressed by this claim and practically dismissed it out of hand.
"The boy may have good intentions," Tiberius said, "but he is not the head of House Leon yet and it could all be nothing more than a plot to deceive us so we lower our guard. If he's sincere about his desire to end the feud, he can speak to his father and convince him. House Leon must make the first move."
"But why don't we take the first step?" Luther asked.
Anger started to seep into Tiberius' voice as he replied, "With Father gone, I am the head of this household and I decide what's best for it. I'll not jeopardize our family out of a naive faith in our enemy's good intentions."
"Enough!" Tiberius shouted. "You're ten years too young to be handling our affairs. It's my responsibility and I will handle it my way."
Tiberius turned and walked away. Though he was already gone, Luther made a retort anyway.
"But you're only seven years older than me!"
Angry about the unreceptiveness of his brother, Luther barely noticed a voice speak up behind him.
"Now, now, young master, you mustn't judge Lord Tiberius too harshly. Taking care of this household is a heavy burden for a young man his age."
It was Agatha, one of the maidservants. Though she was an adult, she was shorter than he was, and Luther was not particularly tall for his age. She had been in the household well before either of the sons of Gregor were born. Perhaps she would know more about the origins of the feud.
"What do you know about the feud with House Leon?" he asked.
"Oh, I was five years old when Lord Hiram bought me from the slavers on the border," she said. "Even then, the feud had been going on for quite a few years.
"I was trained by the personal attendant of Lady Bronwen and she said that Lord Hiram and Lord Percival were rivals for Lady Bronwen's affection in their younger days. It was Lord Hiram who won her heart in the end, but Lord Percival did not take defeat well. They say he was at the door every day screaming her name. She endured this for years and years until the torment drove her half-mad and she took her own life.
"To make things worse, the Lady Lassair, Lord Percival's wife and a friend of Lady Bronwen, was so distraught by her husband's neglect and the loss of her friend that she took her own life as well. Lord Percival blamed it all on Lord Hiram and has sought revenge ever since.
"The burden of keeping House Aran in one piece put poor Lord Hiram and Lord Gregor both in an early grave and I fear it will do the same to Lord Tiberius. I really would love for this accursed feud to end before another tragedy strikes." She paused for a moment, as if she was going over the words in her head, then realized Luther was still there. "If you'll excuse me, young master, I must get back to my duties."
Agatha shuffled off and stopped halfway across the room. She turned back to Luther.
"Try looking at Lord Hiram's journal, young master. Maybe his words will tell you what you want to know."
Luther would be sure to do that. He had to understand the problem before he could hope to solve it.

* * *

Upon returning home, Julian was met by his grandfather. Age had not been kind to Percival. He had grown fat from indolence, causing wrinkles to bunch up in the rare places that his skin was not stretched to its limits. One hand rested on the golden lion's head that capped his thick walking cane while the other held a snifter of brandy. His dull green eyes set deeply in the sockets slowly worked their way up the length of Julian's body.
"Been in a fight, have you?" he asked in his raspy voice. "You better have won or the honor of House Leon is lost."
"I need to speak to Father," Julian said. "Do you know where he is?"
"He's dead," Percival replied bluntly. "Died while you were out scrapping."
Julian felt like the breath had been stolen from his lungs and fell to his knees. He could not believe what he had just heard. His father... dead? How could it be? As if he could read minds, Percival answered the unspoken question.
"It was those dogs of House Aran," he grunted. "I'm sure of it. Probably poisoned his food. A good thing I missed dinner." He took a swig from the snifter. "I'll have to take up the role of Defender again until you're old enough to succeed your father. Your training will be intensified, of course. We need you to be more than a match for those dogs of Aran. I'll see House Aran fall yet..."
"I don't think you should be so quick to accuse the Arans, Grandfather," Julian said. "I'm not so sure they're responsible. Tell me, what started this feud anyway? So much blood has been spilt over it. It has to end."
"Of course it has to end!" Percival barked after taking another drink from the snifter. "House Aran needs to be destroyed for what they've done!"
"What have they done?" Julian asked. "In all these years, you've never told me. What on earth could drive you so far as to destroy one of the Eight Orders?"
"Don't you know anything?" Percival sneered. He took yet another drink from the snifter. "House Aran has been run by swindlers and fiends ever since the Old War. They took the best fief from King Everard for helping with the Unification: the mines. All we got are the pathetic farms and herds outside of town. House Leon has always done the most work and gotten the least rewards. Unlike House Aran. We cannot stand for this injustice. Soon, my boy, the time will come when our ancestors will finally be avenged!"
Julian rose slowly. Even if half of the allegations were true, he knew Luther was a good person and good people are not often raised among the bad. There was something about his grandfather that he did not trust. The best thing he could do was put it aside for the time being. His father was dead and the time for mourning had come. He slowly walked past Percival into the depths of the manor. He could hear Percival's voice calling down the hall.
"There's no hope for House Leon if you don't show some resolve!"
Julian had every intention of showing some resolve, the resolve to end the feud once and for all, but not by House Aran's destruction. He would get to the bottom of things one way or another. and when he learned the truth, he would find a way to bury the feud. That would be how he honored the memory of his late father.