The Bane of Rendsberg Part I
The cold air of mid-December did not reach deep enough into the mines of Rendsberg to affect the resident Kobold family, who awaited their newest member. Jethro was a normal enough Kobold, who stood a hair over the average 3'2" with shaggy unkept brown hair with darker brown streaks in it. His coal black eyes watched over his wife and children asleep on the straw bed. Her face had a healthy glow about it despite the recent pain of the oncoming child. Her dark hands pulled the covers over herself and his son and daughter. His large sharp pointed ears did not twitch at the groan that emanated through the ground. It had done this so often in his life, he didn't pay it any heed. Anja, his wife, quickly grew used to it as well after her arrival here. This place had been built by humans many centuries before and was abandoned. Kobolds had no real building skills, but they did have a knack for mining an item or mineral that they themselves sought. Humans often abandoned such projects, especially when they had gotten what they came after and it was gone. The Kobold smirked. The abandonment of the mines of Rendsberg was most likely due to his ancestor's cheerful intervention. Humans tended to become so frustrated when things went missing or minor disasters occurred. Jethro knew this only from hearsay of his parents, who heard it from their parents. There had been many generations on either side since last a human trod these grounds, and Jethro could say in all honestly that he had never met or seen a human before. He wanted to keep it that way.
Kobolds were completely adverse to the use of magic of one their own. They are not too keen on the practice from those outside of the race either. Yet all Kobolds, at least the mine Kobolds as far as Jethro knew, had the ability to hide their place of residence from unwanted prying eyes, including their own kind. Such an ability was taken as a god given gift to their race. This somewhat made up for their diminutive size and lack of effective fighting skills against much larger and carnivorous creatures that also lurked in the darkness or from beings, who meant them harm. Unfortunately, the spell only existed about the place of residence and not everywhere the Kobold went. Many a Kobold met his or her demise outside their domain or they were captured in the woods by other beings Anyway, Jethro and his family used this talent and they were the only ones, who had any knowledge of this labyrinth domain. Since this was a god given gift, there was no magic involved. He and his family did not go against the Customs, their laws.
Kobolds were not many in numbers, and there was usually was only one family per city. The family would take the city name as their surname, and the name would pass through the sons of the family. Disaster of one kind or another often happened, and usually only one heir survived to produce a family. Jethro's brother had fallen down a mine shaft and was instantly killed when they were very young. Kobolds were ageless, but it was unusual to find a Kobold over a hundred and fifty years. They often fell victim to accidents, predators, or disease. Families usually consisted of two sons and a daughter. The second son, if he survived would only produce daughters. This was not necessarily so. Some families were smaller, and some were larger. Then there was the Customs that often demanded an execution for wrong doings. Jethro did not like to think about that. His family had been fortunate in avoiding having one of the family cursed.
Not all Kobolds lived in mines. There were those who freely associated with the humans and became servants in their plush homes. Jethro knew little of this strand, although he had met his fair share of them. They were a peculiar lot, and they kept to their side of the bridge. He found them a bit too sophisticated for his liking, and he married a nice sensible mine Kobold. Although neither kind of Kobold was fond of travel, there was the Festival of Meetings every five years on the first day of spring. Since incest was greatly frowned upon by the Customs, eligible Kobolds over the age of fifteen were encouraged to attend. Jethro smiled brightly at the thought of the festival. He had met Anja there some twenty-five years ago. She was a good wife and mother to his two beautiful children and soon to be three. He stroked Johann's dusty blonde hair streaked with brown, from his sleeping face. He was considered a gift among Kobolds for his golden yellow hair. He would easily find a mate at the Festival. The blonde hair only occurred once in a thousand babies. Jethro's smile widened as he stood back and looked at his first born. He was a happy and sharp minded child. He was indeed a blessing to the family. He glanced at Hannah, his two year old daughter. She was a strong sturdy girl with the normal brown hair like her mother. She would make a Kobold a fine wife when she came of age. He was sure of it, because of the way she was growing. He drew in a deep satisfied breath. He wondered what kind of blessing his third child would bring. A sudden thought hit him, and he swallowed hard. A distant anxiety ate at him. He knew there had to be a balance for the blessedness that he had experienced with Johann. In many ways he feared what this new child would bring.
It had taken a few times at the Festival of Meetings before he had met Anja. Since Kobolds didn't socialize often, this was the time when all gossip of the land to be passed between them. The Kobolds there often spoke of unnatural births that occurred. These cursed children were demanded by the Customs to be put to death because of the atrocities they represented. Jethro's father had taught the Customs well. Any physical imperfection was considered a sign of some demon or lost soul that had killed the soul of the afflicted Kobold and had taken over the body. The demon could have been sleeping in the Kobold since birth and was awakened when the limb was severed. Sometimes the demon or, as in most cases, the lost soul would study the victim for awhile before taking over the body. In this way, the demon or lost soul could pose as the dead Kobold. Jethro looked to his wife and children. He did not know what he would do if one of his loved ones became marked in such a way. Johann was often reckless for a five year old. He could tell Hannah was much more reserved. He clenched his fists at his sides. The Customs had specific deaths for each mark. He drew in a deep breath and recited them in his head. One, who had lost an eye or an ear, was to be exiled and shunned. One, who had lost a leg or foot, was to be stoned to death. One, who had lost an arm or a hand was to be brutally murdered. If such disaster was to befall his family, he would have to be strong and carry out the punishment prescribed by the Customs. The Customs were made for a reason. He wasn't sure what the purpose was and who exactly made the Customs, but he would follow through with what he was taught. He shook his head. He didn't know why he was thinking of such things. Infants were normally born with all their limbs.
A gasp of a cry came from his wife, and the children stirred. It was time. His third child would soon be born. Within the hour, Jethro had delivered his son and held the blood covered infant in his hands. Unlike his other two children, this child was born with thick black hair plastered to his scalp. Johann had been born without hair, and Hannah's hair had been scarce. He bit his lip. Black hair was a bad omen and was forbidden. He blamed the color on the blood. Once the infant was washed, the hair may well be a very dark brown.
Johann stood before his father with his wide bright black eyes and arms outstretched for his new brother. Sensing that something special was to occur, Hannah perked up and watched intently. Ever since there had been Kobolds in the world, there had been the Bonding Ritual that occurred between the eldest and the younger siblings. Johann was not yet three and hardly understood what was going on when this was done between him and Hannah. This time, he was a little older and stronger and the ties of blood between him and his sister gave him an uncanny understanding of what was to happen for a child of five. He still needed his father's support to hold the newborn. Jethro's gut twisted with uncertainty about this one, as his eldest looked down lovingly upon the youngest. If the new child was to grow out of the black hair and the ritual was not performed, there would be no chance to bond the two later. He didn't want Johann to feel the pain of the loss of a younger sibling if this one was truly cursed. Looking at Johann holding the newborn, he forced his hopes forward. He dabbed the still wet blood from the newborn's body onto his forefinger and middle finger and made the mark for birth on the right cheek of his eldest. He dabbed his fingers again with the blood and made the mark for death on the left cheek. Wetting his thumb with the blood, he made a mark across Johann's forehead for the child's life. The blonde closed his eyes, and the marks disappeared into his flesh. Again, this was not considered magic but an act of god.
"I charge you with the protection of this one, your younger brother. You will protect him with your life's blood if the need arises, and may you meet your end before he does," the father spoke plainly.
There were no malice in these words. It was the way of the Kobold to hope that the young ones would meet their ends in the order of their birth, and the eldest would die before his siblings.
Johann looked up at his father with his bright eyes. The ritual would forever tie the little one's soul to him. If Jethro was to kill the new born now, Johann would still remember him for as long as he lived. This new born would never forget his brother as well. Jethro squinted his eyes closed as he held Johann's shoulders. He hoped that he hadn't done wrong. He really didn't want his son to go through what he went through with his brother's death. He hugged his sons and took the infant away to clean him.
Anja laid back and rested as her husband did what he must for their new young one. Hannah crawled up to her arms and laid her head on her chest. Jethro finally presented her with the now clean babe. There was no smile on his face or light of joy in his eyes like there had been for Johann and Hannah. This made her insides crawl, and the infant was so quiet. She feared that he may have died soon after birth. Jethro laid the newborn in her waiting arms. She looked down at the bundle wrapped in warm blankets. The baby slept peacefully, but the thick hair that cascaded about his face was blacker than the darkest interior of the mines.
Although the laws of the Customs demanded that such an unspeakable horror was to be destroyed upon its coming into this existence, Jethro and Anja could not bring themselves to do it. They still had hope that things would work out, and the newest addition to the family would grow out of this black hair, and it would fade to a dark brown. Yet, they both agreed that they would not name him until he achieved the lighter hair. If such did not occur by his fifth birthday, then Jethro downheartedly agreed to drown him as the Customs prescribed.
Although a good loving father, who did his best to protect and train his children in the ways of their kind, Jethro tried to keep the youngest at a distance. The little black haired child was quite different from the other two in temperament. He did not cry often, even when he was in some discomfort. He seemed most interested in listening and looking about himself. Although Jethro and Anja did their best to push him away, he still hung about and watched them quietly. Jethro discouraged Johann from becoming attached to this one, but it didn't work out. The Rendsberg patriarch cursed himself for doing the Bonding Ritual on his eldest with this one, but all hope was gone from his soul yet. The youngest took to following his brother and trying to imitate him. This made Johann all the more attached to him. Hannah was more a mother's daughter, and she never idolized her brother in this way.
Although Kobolds were well capable of living off the life that dwelled or grew in the mines, they had the tendency of venturing outside in the wilds to gather edible plants and kill small game despite the dangers of leaving their abode. Jethro grew in the tendency of taking the family out more often and especially in the daylight hours. Johann's hair tended to lighten out more with the more sun exposure. Jethro had hoped that the same would hold true for his younger son. With any luck, that midnight black hair would turn to a shade of grey. The Customs said nothing about grey hair. The whole of the Rendsberg family could not say they were pleased with the patriarch's idea. Their eyes were not meant for this kind of light, and soon Jethro came to realize that it was of no use.
The next thing he tried was to dye the little one's hair. He bleached the hair out to white once. The young one didn't particularly like the substance used to cause this effect, and it made his eyes burn and water. The child even looked most peculiar with the white hair and dark complexion, and it often caught the eye of the other family members. He only looked back at them confused. Several hours passed in that night, and the hair began to regain its original color. By dawn, his hair was as black as ever. Jethro swore many words that his family should not hear. He raised a hand to strike the object of his anger, but he couldn't make contact with the bright eyed child staring up at him. The child, not understanding what he had done wrong, slunk off to his corner to sleep, and he eventually ended up in his brother's bed that day.
Although Kobolds were meant to dwell in dark places and were naturally nocturnal, there were exceptionally dark places that even the best night eyes could not see through. When the younger brother grew old enough to understand his older brother's words, Johann would tell him all kinds of stories about creatures that lurked in those places. It did not take long for the younger one to learn to fear those places and the shadow demons that lurked there of. Jethro would come to fetch Johann in the late afternoon for the start of the day and find both of them sound asleep in the straw bed. The younger one was not permitted to sleep in a bed, but Johann would stand between his father and his brother. Jethro would just blow out an exasperated breath and give into his eldest's pleas and not punish the younger one. It was all the same to him. He was not really keen on hitting one so small.
The younger Rendsberg tended to follow in his brother's shadow. He was present when Johann had his lessons, and he learned quite a few of the teachings as well as he sat at his brother's feet and listened. In such a way, he learned the rudiments of reading and writing. His brother also taught him to count.
Johann had a mischievous streak that would impress the most accomplished of his race. There was a time that Hannah pulled back the covers of her bed to find snails slithering about underneath. Her screams were legendary in the Rendsberg family, and Johann laughed for a month afterwards.
Knowing well how his little brother idolized him, Johann led his brother deep into the mines, where there had been no one of his family for many years. After such a long journey for a four year old, he became terrifically tired. Johann put down the lantern he carried, and the younger brother sat down and rubbed his eyes, it did not take long for the little one to fall asleep. Making sure that his brother was firmly asleep, Johann tiptoed away with the lantern. He hid it and made a strange howling noise that echoed eerily in the cavern. The younger Rendsberg woke and frantically looked about him. He called out for Johann, but there was no answer but the echo of his voice. Soon silence and darkness surrounded him. The child looked around himself, but he could see nothing. He yelped and turned about, but there was no sign of his brother. The normal creaking of the mine chose this time to sound, and the little one cried out again. His breath came in short sudden gasps. He was suddenly thrown to the ground by a heavy weight that growled in his ear. The younger squirmed and broke free of the arms that bound him.
After running for several minutes, the child soon realized that he was lost in the darkness. He stopped and turned about the other way. He tried to remember which way he had come, but there was only confusion. The memory of all the horror stories his brother had told him came back to him. He wrapped his arms about himself and slumped to the ground. He did what any four year old would do in this situation. He fell to the ground and wept.
So caught up in his misery, he didn't notice the bobbing yellow light coming towards him. After the little one fled, Johann laughed himself stupid as he rolled on the ground. When his brother did not return within a half an hour, he became concerned. He fetched his lantern and went in search of him. He soon followed the sounds of the muffle sobs, and the sight of the huddled little dark haired child came into view. With a sigh, he put down the lantern and crouched down beside him. He tapped his nameless brother on the shoulder. The dark haired one jumped and cried out.
Johann stood up and crossed his arms. "What kind of Kobold are you? You're afraid of the dark and have no sense of direction."
The younger brother ran to him and put his arms about his waist. Johann shook his head and ruffled the little one's dark hair. "Come on. Let's go home."
This incident did nothing to ease the smaller Rendsberg's fear of the dark and the things that might lurk within. Still, he looked up to Johann, and in the darkness when the mine made some exceptional creaking noises, the boy found comfort in the brother's bed. Many a time, come the time for waking, he would find his brother gone and a large lump traveling up the course of the covers. He would back his way up to the wall, and Johann would jump out at him from under the blankets. The little one would yelp, then relax and laugh with his brother over the joke.
Sometimes the creaking and the noises were too much even for the elder Rendsberg brother. He would see the flickering shadows become solid and with claws, and his own tales of terror came back to haunt him. He would end up in his parents' bed, where he had to push Hannah over to hide as well. The younger Rendsberg was pushed out by his parents and reprimanded for breaking the rules. He would end up sleeping on the floor as close to the straw mattress as possible.
Finally, time passed, and the little black haired Kobold reached his fifth year. He had seen a celebration for his sister's eighth birthday and one for his brother's tenth. He had hoped that he'd get one for his own birthday. Johann seemed to be excited about the upcoming day. He came out to what passed for a kitchen and dining area. The family was gathered there as usual, but there was no sign of happiness in their face or in their eyes. His father's and mother's eyes glared a determined but sympathetic look at him. Hannah just got up and hid behind their mother's skirt, looking frightened. Johann's face was drawn in a deep frown. The five year old took a step back before his father swooped down upon him.
Jethro had waited the five years. Everyday he prayed for a miracle that the child's hair would have even a reddish tinge to it, but as the boy entered the kitchen, the lantern light bounced off his hair in a black shine. His hair was as dark as it was the day he'd been born. Jethro swallowed hard. He really didn't want to do this. The child did nothing to him or his family to cause him to hate him. Yet, the laws of the Customs had to be upheld. Maybe there was a hidden agenda that made this little one a curse. Maybe he would grow up and destroy the family. Hardening his resolve, he grabbed his youngest son by the back of his collar and dragged him from the kitchen then the mine. Anja made no movement to stop her husband from doing what must be done. She absently stroked Hannah's long brown hair, as the little girl's hands clutched tighter to her skirt. Johann immediately dropped his food to the floor and stared in horror as his father dragged his brother roughly away. After the shock passed, he threw back his chair and followed his father out to the woodland.
There was a thin layer of snow on the ground that didn't quite hide the brown decayed leaves. The ground was cold, but Jethro knew that it was not yet cold enough to freeze over the creek nearby. The Customs called for the black haired infants to be drowned, and he was going to follow through. He should have done it on the day of the thing's birth. The nameless child struggled and cried piteously, but Jethro made his heart turn to stone. He could not allow himself to be swayed. He had to drown the bane of his bloodline.
With an effort, he lifted the child up and plunged him head first into the icy water. The struggles intensified. Small hands grabbed hold of the bigger one that held his head under. Jethro bit his lip. He'd give anything if the fading sunlight would cast even an orange glow on the black hair. For a fleeting moment, he hoped that maybe the icy water would wash away the blackness, but he knew better. This was the right thing to do. This is what he was taught by his father, and his father taught him before him. This is what he taught Johann. The blonde elder son pulled desperately at his sleeve. His hold on his victim slackened. The black haired one was able to pull his head above water and cough desperately.
"Father, don't do this!" Johann cried out in his desperate attempt to change fate.
Drawing on his reserve strength, he took and threw the younger Rendsberg on the shore of the creek and turned his full attention on his eldest. The five year old laid listless, too weak to move. Johann looked up at his father with pleading black eyes. Briefly, Jethro remembered his brother's death, but he had made his resolve. He was not going to back down from his decision. He firmly grabbed Johann's arms and looked him straight on. There was no hint of cheerfulness or the loving father the blonde had known all his life. He was looking into cold black lifeless eyes.
"He is no longer your responsibility. He is not your brother, and he never was. There is no failure in you because of his death. He has no blood ties to us. I was a fool! I am sorry I put you through the Bonding Ritual. I had hoped that things would be different. I was wrong, and now I have delayed too long."
"But father, he is still himself, and I love him as my little brother . . ." the blonde complained.
"Shut up, Johann!" Jethro demanded in an effort to preserve his resolve.
He pulled up the discarded, gasping cursed child and moved to continue his duty. The child, knowing what was coming again, cried out and tried weakly to himself free. Johann would not bear it. He pulled with all his strength at his father. Without thinking and gearing up the violence for the task, Jethro back handed his older son. Johann fell back from the blow and hit the ground hard.
Forcing away his concern for Johann, Jethro forced the unwanted child's head back under the water. The younger Rendsberg struggled at first, but such movements became weaker. Jethro could taste the salty tears on his cheeks rolling into his mouth. He pulled the coughing child out of the water. His resolve broke, but he knew he could not keep this one. He looked at Johann, who lay unconscious on the cold ground. No one knew of his indiscretion. No one could trace this child back to him.
The black haired one sat on the ground coughing, tears flowing down his red face. Jethro couldn't do it. No matter what the Customs said, this child was his and Anja's flesh and blood. He had done nothing to deserve this death. No matter what the Customs said, this one would go free.
Jethro moved to his unconscious real son. Forcing all the anger he could muster into his eyes and face and voice, he turned to the gasping child. "Leave this place and never return. I should not have allowed you to live, but I am not strong enough to do my duty."
Finally, catching his breath and breathing normally again, the child looked up at him as he wiped away the tears from his eyes. A cold wind made him shiver uncontrollably. He blinked at the Kobold who was his father, not understanding. Noticing the little one's movements, Jethro took off his cloak and threw it at him. The child look curiously at the offering and picked it up. Looking lost, he only gripped the cloak in his unsteady hands. Jethro cradled his elder son in his arms for awhile, then he noticed that the child had not moved. He only stood there with the oversized cloak thrown over his shaking shoulders. The Rendsberg patriarch picked up a stone and threw it at him. It missed badly and splashed in the water behind the child. The dark haired one jumped at the sound. He was afraid to be put under the water again, but he didn't know what life would be without these Kobolds. Not understanding why his father wanted to kill him, and not knowing where to go from here, the young Rendsberg somehow knew he had no choice but to leave. He looked to his older brother. He had not intended for him to be hurt. Was this his fault? Trembling from the cold and fear, he swallowed hard.
"Goodbye, sir," he spoke softly.
The black haired Kobold turned away from the scene and started walking away. Some part of him told him to run, but what was there left to run from? He had to leave before he caused more bad things to happen to Johann or his father changed his mind, and he would have to face the icy water again.