Dalbert Oldheart is your father. You share no blood, but blood is of no consequence in matters of family. He took you in and raised you as his own, and thus he is your father, and you his son, and those who dare question this truth upon which your life is built get a fist in the face.
(your knuckles, perpetually scraped and bruised, serve as testament to how many dare.)
Your childhood is a blur of rite and ritual, tales and tradition. Your father, ever faithful in his ways, took great care to teach you both his heritage and that which would be your own, if you held any reverence for the people who share your shape. In truth, you have little personal love for the old ways, whatever form they take.
But you bear your father’s name, and your love for him surpasses all else. So you learn.
You learn the songs and dances, the hymns, the rote responses, the many forms that a humble spirit takes in approaching others. You don tradition like a mantle as your father does, hoping that it fits your shoulders, praying that you do not drown in its depths.
(he found you as a pup, a mere child; you owe him everything.)
Tradition and pride, for Dalbert Oldheart, are one and the same. Every bow, every song, every story told of Many-Mane himself—these are his great joy, his life’s work. History itself lives in your father. Aged though he may be, he stands as guardian to everything the Commonwealth would leave behind, fiercely loyal to what others would abandon.
Your father wakes you one early morning. As has come to be custom between you, because you have never liked being woken, he presses his cold nose to your neck and snuffles until you screech old cur curses and tumble out of your bedroll laughing.
“Good morning, my son.”
“Good morning to ye, Father.”
You pull your robes over your head, settling them at your hips and shoulders, tying the wide ceremonial sash about your waist.
“Do you know what day today is, Almer?”
“Aye, Father. ‘Tis the twelfth of Seventhmoon, the day we celebrate Fang-Song.”
“Good.” He knocks his head into your hand. You scratch that spot behind his ear that he’s too old to reach comfortably. “And what do we celebrate during Fang-Song?”
“We sing of the curs of old, whose righteous fury and glorious hearts allowed them to vanquish an entire Imperial brigade. Jomuer Many-Mane and his pack, seven in all, did valiant battle with three thousand soldiers, and Many-Mane’s jaws ran red with blood.”
Your father pats your elbow with a paw, pride wrinkling his face in a smile. “An excellent answer, my son.”
“I’d sing the song, but it isn’t time yet,” you tell him, eyeing the pale pink morning. “To honor Many-Mane and his own, we do not begin the celebration true until the sun stands overhead, and we do not end until it has disappeared below the line of the sky once more.”
“So you were listening, last year,” he says, and his tail beats against your legs in amusement. “I feared you had forgotten it in your excitement.”
“Never, Father.” You smile, scratching his ear once more, and set to the task of making breakfast—a respectable spread of fresh bread and crisp-fried fish, devoured after thanks given to the Scribes and their blessings upon your table. There is joy in good food and good company, and through mouthfuls of breakfast, you practice your parts in the songs with your father. You’re certain Many-Mane would understand the need to speak with your mouth full.
It’s only when your father rests his paw on your hand that you realize something is different. There’s an air of seriousness, even more so than is customary for his venerable presence.
“I intend to celebrate Fang-Song in the streets of the city, today. As it was always meant to be celebrated: with others.”
You understand his grave manner, now. The joy bleeds out from your bones.
“Father, those above will see that as blasphemy. You put yourself in danger.”
“Aye, perhaps I do. But what is danger to an Oldheart?”
“If they catch you—“
“—Then I will serve my due penance, as the Commonwealth sees fit.”
This will not be his first time celebrating cur history in defiance of Commonwealth law, but every time he does it, you worry it will be his last.
Still. You are his son, bound by love and honor to follow him, and you would have it no other way.
“Then let me join you, Father.”
He looks you in the eye. “I would be honored if you did, my son, but know that it is your choice; I will not have you place yourself in danger unwillingly. You know what may well come of this. If you choose instead to celebrate in the quiet of our home, like your aunts and uncles, I will love you no less for it.”
“I know.” You know, you do, but you are your father’s son. “It would be my greatest honor to celebrate Fang-Song with you. May we remind those who hear us of his glory, for there is power in the tales we tell.”
When the sun strikes its peak, you and your father take to the square, carrying the props you’ve painstakingly designed for this day. A good story can be told without them, of course, but it is far more enthralling when the song is performed, not merely sung.
Your father, true descendant of Jomuer Many-Mane, dresses in red. You lay out a blanket in the noonday sun, and you set your box of props aside, wishing it was shadier. It gets hot celebrating Fang-Song when it’s just the two of you; there’s no one to relieve you as performers, or to respond when you call out, as is tradition.
But you manage. You’ve always managed. Your father, aged though he may be, draws from some untapped wellspring of youth during these celebrations, and you have youth enough to spare when he flags.
(perhaps it may yet be enough to see you both safely through this.)
He checks his vest once more, adjusting the clasps, and then bows to you. You bow back, donning your mask—a great heavy thing carved to look like a multitude of faces, representing the Imperial Army—and then you and he break into song.
Brave Many-Mane! Of him we sing,
His glories bloody-wrought;
Upon this day, so long ago
An army came to naught.
Bold Many-Mane! He fearless fought
‘Gainst red Imperial tide;
He and his pack, mere seven-count,
Alone, stood unified.
Three-thousand strong the foe did stand,
Against the Alpha-Chief;
But on he fought, beside his pack
Long hours without relief.
And Jomuer’s jaws, and Jomuer’s manes
Ran crimson-red ere night;
His battle won, in glory crowned,
He basked in moon-glow bright.
Brave Many-Mane! Our Alpha-Chief!
In song, we shall recount
Your mighty deeds and honored name,
And glory paramount!
… And so on and so forth, for a while. Traditionally, this particular song is performed with one cur representing the pack and seven others representing the army. You’ve seen it done, your aunts and uncles obliging your father as long as he celebrates in the relative safety of your own home, but here it’s just the two of you and the crowd you gather, entertained and alarmed in equal measure.
Your father jumps and leaps and snarls. You whirl and spin and slash, a one-man exaggeration of an immense army. You tumble, felled by the mighty Many-Mane, and then you both get up and bow to your audience.
They don’t respond, of course. Doing so would mean sharing in your blasphemy.
But Oldhearts are never so easily discouraged, and you keep on.
At about the third hour, amid another mighty and entirely staged battle, your audience disperses rapidly and without warning. You don’t even have time to register why before the sight of silver armor floods your view.
Your father sweeps your feet out from under you as if to hide you from sight, knocking you off your makeshift blanket-stage, and steps forward with a low bow.
“Good Captain, you honor me with your presence.”
“Oldheart,” says the woman at the head of the group, your name a curse in the twist of her mouth. “I should have known.”
“You have come on a most exceptional day, dear Captain, for today, I celebrate the holiday of Fang-Song.” Your father offers her another bow, and indicates the stage, the props, the masks. “For on this day, many ages ago, the mighty Jomuer Many-Mane did vanquish an army—“
“Silence, cur. You know as well as I that this cannot stand.”
Her tone is sharp, official.
“Dalbert Oldheart, under the grand authority of Archjustice Androbeles IX, I hereby place you under arrest; your crime, at least today, is blasphemy.”
Anger blooms hot and bright in your breast.
You fight like one born for it, like a blood-descendant of Many-Mane himself. You snarl a prayer in his name, guttural and soul-felt, begging the Alpha-Chief for the courage and might to slay an army as he did on this day so long ago.
Granted, you are but one man, your blunted teeth and dull nails no match for the fangs and claws of a cur of legend. Fighting a company of armed and armored guards with nothing more than your bare hands and your fury is entirely out of the question, legends be damned.
Still, you try. You cannot imagine a world without your father in it.
And when they subdue you, still spitting curses even as your father begs them to let you go, you feel a certain calm set in.
Whatever his sentence, whatever his fate—you share it now.