This is the legend of Gorlock the Wise, Gorlock the Sensitive, Gorlock the Ruthless—but his tale started long before he earned such titles. It started way back when he was given the nickname Girly Gorly.

Now, Gorlock was a strong name. He was named after his great grandfather, Gorlock the Great, whose greatness was measured in enemies he had cut down underneath the blade of his mighty greatsword, Ronar the Merciful. Sadly, however, this young Gorly was born the runt of the litter: not only the youngest of his seven cousins—for families only gave birth to one child in those days—but also the smallest among his broodmates. When he was first brought to the training grounds at the age of eight, Vanar, the man who was to be his broodcaptain until such time as he matured or died, mistook him for a youngling who had wandered accidentally into his training camp.

"Hello, little lad," Vanar said. "What brings your smallness to Vanar's glorious camp?"

"Please, sir, I am Gorlock, and I am just turned eight. I have been sent here to train with you and the others of my brood."

"Hah!" Vanar laughed at that with one loud bark. "You jest! Tell me. Who is your father?"

"My father is Redrick."

"Nay! Redrick the Unmitigated?"

"The very same, sir."

Vanar crouched down and held a palm above the boy's head to measure him. "Your stature doesn't speak much for you, but your peppered locks confirm the lineage." He ruffled the boy's hair. "Well, all know the law. Your life is forfeit already, so none can blame me for an untimely death. Scoot along, young pup." He set his hand to Gorlock's back and gave him a guiding shove.

Gorlock accepted the direction and marched toward a circle of young boys who were already sparring. His eyes drank in the vast pillars and walls that made up the buildings scattered around. To his left, he saw the great hall where he and the other broodmates would be eating, sleeping, and oftentimes training. A pillar stood on either side of the wide steps that led to the front doors. Each pillar was carved from top to bottom with scenes from legends of old. One particular set of figures caught his eye, those of his favorite story. In delicately etched relief, the evil bear Koti bore his fangs and stretched his claws at the righteous warrior Velnemir. Velnemir in turn piked the bear on his own greatsword.

"Look at the little brat!"

Gorlock was pulled out of his reverie.

It was a tall boy, shirtless and sweating with a training sword resting on his shoulder. "Is this to be our training dummy?" he said to the other boys huddling behind him. He marched up and prodded Gorlock with the tip of the wooden sword. "What's your name, brat?"

Gorlock stammered. "Oh, uh, um…"

"O'oum! Almost sounds like Ayam the Daft, ass of the underworld!" The boys behind him let out muted laughs until he turned around with a glare. Then, they laughed raucously. The first boy turned back to Gorlock with a satisfied grin. "Alright, Ayam the Ass, what is your real name?" He prodded him with the sword again.

Gorlock rubbed the place where he'd been jabbed. "My name is Gorlock."

"What was that? Speak up!" He lifted Gorlock's chin with the tip of the training sword.

"My name is Gorlock!"

"Gorlock? Gorlock." The boy's face looked deep in concentration. "Gorly. Girly! That's it! Girly Gorly." He turned around again to inspire laughter from the other boys.

"That's enough, lads."

All eyes turned to see Vanar leaning against a pillar of the great hall. The tall boy and his compatriots scuttled back to the center of the training area. Gorlock stood to the edge near the great hall.

"What is the matter, Gorlock?"

Gorlock bowed his head. "That boy was mean to me."

"That boy? Do you mean Denvik? What do you think you'll face out there in the world: a bunch of wet nurses waiting to feed and swaddle you? This here is a hard skein, little Gorlock. It's best you learn that lesson while the swords are still dulled. Now, get in there and pick up a weapon. Why don't you teach Denvik a lesson?"

"A lesson? But he's so much bigger than I!"

Vanar set a hand to Gorlock's shoulder and shoved him toward the arena. "That's great, little Gor. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

He stumbled forward and realized too late that Denvik was charging. He went to block his face, but the training sword smacked into his ribs. Nothing was broken, but it stung horribly. "Hey! I don't even have a weapon!"

"That's right, Girly Gorly! Talk your enemies to death!"

A few more smacks rang out, and Gorlock knew he was being hit only due to the pain that welled up in new places. Denvik was fast for an untrained broodling.

"Stop! Stop!" Gorlock cried out. His eyes welled up with tears, and it became impossible even to pretend he could block the hits. Laughter filled his ears, and he stumbled to one knee. A crack ricocheted against the side of his head.

"That's enough!" It was the burly voice of Vanar.

One more strike connected with Gorlock's side. Pounding footsteps shook the ground. Through blurry vision, Gorlock watched as Vanar cleared the distance between where he had been standing—many yards off—and Denvik in a mere instant. He wiped his eyes and saw Denvik held up by his throat.

"You follow every command I give as soon as I give it! Understood?"

Denvik gurgled, his eyes bulging, his legs thrashing.

"I'm glad we are in agreement," Vanar said and dropped the boy.

He strode to Gorlock and grabbed him. Gorlock winced, but Vanar only turned him this way and that, examining his limbs, his head, his back. The touches were gentle, but it still hurt due to all the injuries he had gotten from the training sword. Marching back to Denvik—who was still on the ground, rubbing his throat—Vanar said, "You showed excellent restraint in your attacks. Well done. Alright, lads! Supper time!"

The remaining boys cheered and rushed toward the great hall. Gorlock, his eyes still blurry from tears, looked to Denvik. The other returned a hateful glare. His eyes were welling up with tears too. Denvik stood, pulled his tunic on, and followed after the others. Gorlock stood and followed him.

Gorlock took wincing steps through the doors that had been left open. With some effort since they were so heavy, he shut the doors behind him. Three vast tables and one lesser table stood in the hall. One cut straight down the middle of the hall, and the boys were sitting on either side, holding knives and spoons and clanking them on the table. To the left and right, the floors were raised three steps to hold another long table on either side. Vanar sat at the far end, boots resting on the final table that was smaller by comparison but still spacious. Indeed, a great feast was arranged on this table that could have fed the boys twice and again. Vanar used a thin blade to pick a bit of food from his teeth before belching.

"Hungry, lads?" he said.

"Yeah!" they shouted in unison, holding their knives in the air like swords. Gorlock decided to sit many places away from the others. He picked up the spoon and poked at the knife with it. The boys resumed their rhythmic thumping of the table.

"Here you go," Vanar said. He tore a leg off one pheasant and tossed it such that it splatted on the table between the group. There was a moment's hesitation before a curly-haired boy with two thin braids snatched it up. Before he could sink his teeth into a bite, the lad to his left, a dense-looking child with one thick braid that hung over his shoulder, connected a punch with the other's face. This sent the pheasant leg tumbling to land on the floor. A mad scramble ensued. After shouts and blows, the chaos settled. The first boy, with thin braids, gingerly lifted a mutilated strand of pheasant meat.

"There's nothing left of it," he said. "Vanar, there's nothing left of it!"

"What a shame, young Koll. It seems you weren't that hungry after all."

"You did this!" Koll said to the one who had struck him first.

Before a second punch was thrown, Vanar said, "Enough!"

The two stopped, hands on each other's tunics.

"It's not my fault if you squabble like rats. We are here to become men. If you want to live like rats, you can die like rats: snatched up by the first predator that comes along." He stood up, which sent food bits tumbling down his beard. "Now, I have to attend to some official business. You rats can scuttle wherever you like, but, if I see a single bite of this bounty missing, you will all curse the day your mothers shucked you from their weary wombs. Am I understood?" Vanar's voice churned in Gorlock's stomach worse than any hunger pangs might.

"Yes, sir," said one pitiful voice.

With that, Vanar marched down the hall in great strides. He paused just a second behind Gorlock. Gorlock's heart pounded furiously, but Vanar continued. The doors slammed heavily behind him and echoed up the hall.

"You did this," Denvik said.

Gorlock looked up to see Denvik pointing at him. "I did nothing! I didn't even touch the food!"

"You angered Vanar the moment you set foot in his camp."

Gorlock's jaw tightened, and fresh tears pressed behind his eyes. "Well, you didn't stop hitting me when he told you to stop!"

"Girly Gorly: afraid of a little sparring," Denvik said. The other boys snickered.

Anger pressed the tears away. "I didn't have a weapon! It wasn't fair!"

"It wasn't fair," Denvik mocked. "You heard Vanar. The world isn't full of wet nurses waiting for you to suckle their tits. Grow up or die!"

Gorlock screamed. He leapt from his chair onto the table and sprinted toward Denvik. Denvik was surprised because he sat there with a dazed look on his face. Gorlock leapt the last few feet, crashed into Denvik, and toppled the chair over with himself on top. Denvik's head smacked the stone floor, but it seemed to have brought him back to his senses. Before he took two hits to his face, Denvik grabbed Gorlock's wrist and twisted him into an armlock.

"Ouch! Ouch!" Gorlock yelled.

"You hear this little pile of shite?" Denvik spat blood that was dripping from his nose. "Ouch, ouch! he says. Come suckle me! he says." He delivered a kick to his stomach and let Gorlock collapse on the hall floor. "You're not even worth my blood. Come on." Denvik started walking toward the doors. He turned around to glare at the others. "I said come on!"

The rest hurried after Denvik, leaving Gorlock panting on the floor. He lay there silently, letting the cold stones soothe his aching limbs. Footsteps stirred him, and he opened his eyes to see the tall form of Vanar marching up the hall. He passed right by Gorlock, who rolled over to see what he was doing.

Vanar paced around the head table, pausing every few steps to inspect the contents. He stroked his beard and said, "Not a single bite. I'm impressed." He returned the way he had come and paused again at Gorlock. He performed a similar inspection, checking limbs and all the rest. "Maybe you're stupid enough to long for death, but you have balls of brass for trying." He let the arm he was examining drop to the floor. "Keep up the good work I suppose," he said and left the hall.

Gorlock sat up, and his stomach rumbled, which drew his eyes to the head table. He saw another full pheasant, plates of fruit, floured bread, great dishes of butter, and even a flagon—probably of mead. His mouth watered, and the pangs in his stomach struck doubly hard.

"No!" He bit his knuckles to distract from the hunger, and tears sprouted at the corners of his eyes. His father was away at war. He had to be strong for him. He had to make him proud. He propped himself up on one arm and winced. That was the first strike Denvik had made—no, the second. He felt the first now in his aching ribs. He realized that it didn't matter. It was a hard skein, and life would only offer more and more pain. It was better to drink that cup now than to choke on it for the rest of his days.

He finally made his way back out of the great hall. At first glance, the other boys were missing, but he heard shouts and cheers sounding in the distance. He ambled in the direction of their voices. This led him through the initial training grounds, around what looked like a warehouse, and along the edge of a small lake.

Gorlock decided to wade into the waters. Autumn was coming to a close, so the cold water shocked him. It took a moment for it to turn soothing. He splashed some on his face and drank handfuls. "Ahh." He took off his shirt and wrung it out, then threw it to the shore. After taking a quick dunk into the water, he checked his hair to make sure it was still in place. He had asked his mother to style it like his father's: shaven on the sides with a tight braid along the top. He thought it looked fierce.

"Girly Gorly going for a dip."

Gorlock spun around to see Denvik with all his cronies lined up behind him.

"Don't forgot to cover your tits, Girly," he said. He picked up Gorlock's tunic, gave it a twirl, and threw it into the lake.

Despite the cold water, heat was crackling up Gorlock's neck. "Choke on your own cock," Gorlock said.

Denvik's self-satisfied grin disappeared. "What?"

"You heard me! I'll cut off your tiny, little prick—if you even have one—and I'll make you choke on it!"

Denvik rushed into the water. Gorlock retreated. The depth increased quickly, and it was already up to his shoulders. Denvik, on the other hand, was as tall as ever. The water only rose to his middle. Gorlock almost stumbled over a large stone that rested on the lakebed.

"I'm going to kill you," Denvik said with too calm a voice. His hands found Gorlock's throat.

In a rush of anger and panic, Gorlock took hold of the hem of Denvik's shirt. He stepped back, using the stone as a platform to heft the shirt up over Denvik's head. Then, he lunged backwards, towing Denvik with him. Gorlock himself sunk below the surface. He knew it was only a matter of seconds before Denvik got hold of him and truly killed him. Drowning seemed the worst way to die. Though he struggled to swim, no angry hands pulled him down. Still, he felt motion in the water. Bobbing to the surface, he saw bubbles writhing where Denvik should be. Gorlock angled around him, giving him a wide berth as he paddled toward the shore.

He stood on the edge, knee deep, and the other boys stared in horror as Denvik continued to struggle. Soon, the thrashing stilled.

"Quick!" Gorlock shouted. "We have to help him!" He rushed back into the water, reaching for the floating form. It was too deep for him to stand, but he lunged for Denvik and took hold of his shirt. His first attempt to tug him toward shore ended with the shirt slipping out of his hand.

"Somebody help me!" he tried to shout, but water spilled into his mouth, causing him to cough. After an excruciating battle, nearly drowning himself, Gorlock managed to heave Denvik into the shallows. "Help me, you bastards!"

The boy named Koll rushed forward, taking an arm, and they dragged the motionless boy out of the water. Once Denvik was out, though, Koll retreated to stand with the others.

Gorlock had seen it done maybe twice in his life. He didn't know how to resuscitate anyone. Kneeling beside Denvik, he grabbed his mouth and leaned forward.

"Are you going to kiss him?" one boy asked.

"What?" Gorlock said. "No! I'm trying to give him air! I don't know what I'm doing." He cursed himself for thinking of it so late, but he said, "Quick! Go get Vanar! Go!"

The boys looked back and forth at each other.

He pointed to the one who spoke last. "You, you idiot!"

Thankfully, he ran off without hesitating.

"What do we do?" another boy asked. He looked to be about the same size as Gorlock.

"Pray to the gods."

Gorlock wanted to try. He didn't know if it would help Denvik or hurt him more, so he started crying.

Heavy footsteps lifted his spirits.

"Get back!" Vanar shouted. "Step back!"

The huddled boys widened their circle.

"You too!" Vanar said to Gorlock, pushing him back from kneeling over Denvik. Then, he took a deep breath and began trying to resuscitate the boy. It was nearly a minute of deep breaths, deep exhales, and pressing against his chest before he coughed out water. Vanar set an ear near his mouth. In one swift motion, he stood up and draped Denvik over his shoulder like a rag doll. "Get out of the way," he said and rushed back toward camp.

The boys were left in horrible silence with the soft lapping of waves against the shore as their only solace. The boys huddled closer together, still saying nothing. Gorlock shivered. He saw his tunic floating near the shore farther around the lake's edge, so he wandered toward it. By that time, it had collected mud and other bits of grime, but he wrung it out anyway. The boys were still awkwardly huddled when he returned.

"You killed him," Koll said.

"No! I didn't mean to. He attacked me. I was just trying to defend myself!"

Koll was shaking his head. "I'm saying he earned it."

Gorlock looked into his eyes. They were dark and earnest. It made his stomach turn over. "No. I didn't mean to. He didn't deserve anything like that. None of us do."

"He did. You can't deny it," Koll said.

Heat rose in Gorlock's neck again. "Curse you!" He spat and marched back toward the camp. The huddle of boys split apart to make way for him.

He suspected they wouldn't be there, but he checked the great hall first. A glance at the head table made his stomach rumble, but he didn't linger. He scanned the buildings, looking for a place they would take an injured boy, and chose the one that prickled his intuition. Whether by chance or the stars, the first building he entered looked like an infirmary. Indeed, he saw Denvik on a cot in the back of the building, Vanar standing over him next to a physician. Vanar turned and locked eyes with him. Gorlock turned to rush out the building, but Vanar called out.

"Come here, boy!"

He hesitated a moment but obeyed. Each step was slow and miserable, and Vanar's gaze never left him. He didn't know what punishment was in store for him. Whatever it was, he deserved it, but that didn't make it pleasanter.

"He's alive." Vanar's voice made him shiver. "But barely. His breathing is shallow, and his heart is not steady. What happened?"

Gorlock's mind blurred, and he thought that he told the story rightly.

Vanar was silent a long time as the physician mixed herbs in a mortar. After the mixture was ground, mixed with oil, and rubbed underneath Denvik's chin, Vanar said, "That's exactly as Wiesk told it. I imagine you're scared right now. There is no punishment for defending yourself. Killing a broodmate is punishment enough anyway. Taking a man's life takes a piece of your soul, but taking a friend's, even accidentally…" He looked down at Gorlock. "He may have been an ass, but he was your friend. You know that, right?"

Gorlock nodded silently.

"Well, let's get out of Marromer's way."

The physician extended a hand. As they shook, he pulled Vanar aside. "I'll do my best," he said in a hushed voice. "It's not looking promising."

Vanar grasped his hand more firmly. "May the ravens guide you." He turned to Gorlock. "Come along, then."

The sky was burning bright pink as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Vanar led the way to the great hall. He shoved the doors open, and all the boys were sitting on the near end of the center table, away from the feast.

"Hungry, lads?"

They all looked up with miserable expressions.

"Eat your fill, boys."

They remained silent and sullen.

"No games this time. We'll have plenty of misery for you later. Eat up."

It took a moment, but they jumped up and rushed toward the head table, stuffing their faces with abandon.

"Aren't you hungry, Gorlock?" Vanar looked down and set a hand to his shoulder.

He shook his head.

"I won't force feed you, but there's no use in sulking. Best to keep your strength and worry about tomorrow when it comes."

Gorlock walked toward the head table. It had become a complete mess with most food knocked off or out of the dishes. He picked up an empty plate and started setting a variety of morsels on it.

"Good job, Gorlock!" It was the boy named Wiesk.

"I didn't do this," Gorlock said, but Wiesk was already at the other end, picking at the remains of the pheasant.

After the boys had stuffed their faces awhile, they settled with choosing plates and taking third helpings back to the large central table. Animated conversations replaced the silence. Gorlock chose a spot a number of places away and started picking at his food. A few boys paused to glance his way, but they went back to talk of the day: swords, fighting, the lake, and pheasant. No one mentioned Denvik.

Vanar strode up the hall to the head table. Gorlock watched him as he sat down in his original chair and stood up immediately. Vanar looked down, then twisted to see his own rump that had a soggy clump of food sticking to it. After brushing it off, he picked a different chair. He put his feet back up on the table and watched the boys with keen eyes. They paid him no mind, but Vanar and Gorlock stared at one another until the latter felt embarrassed and look down at his plate.

Gorlock's broodmates looked gorged. Their animated chatter was replaced with satisfied grunts.

A slamming sound startled Gorlock and the rest. They looked up to see Vanar standing with his hands resting on the table, excitement on his face. "Time to make your beds!"

The broodmates exchanged glances.

"It is exactly how it sounds. You are going to collect the straw that will make your bed for tonight."

A round of groans rang in the hall, but all the boys stood up.

By the time they had all arranged their beds, it wasn't as terrible as expected. The stones were smooth, and the straw was clean and soft. Two hearths, one on each side of the hall, contained roaring fires, which held back the cool of the night. Though they all huddled close for additional warmth, Gorlock kept his silence as the others talked late into the night. Eventually, the chatter drifted into snoring, and Gorlock fell into dreamless sleep.

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