As the sun set behind him, the young, battle weary knight made his camp fire, his sword sheathed but ever at his side. Though he struggled with the flint, the small stones eventually gave him the sparks he needed to start the fire that could afford him heat, light, and some much needed protection against wild animals. But in the kingdom of Alaron animals are but a small concern these days compared to the dangers presented by the hungry, the desperate, and the unhinged. It has been twenty years since the civil war began, and there is no end in sight.
The young knight sat on the ground beside his fire, taking his gloves off as he warmed his hands on the fire, his teeth chattering as the cold breeze blew around him. His stomach growled; he reached for his bag, taking out a small piece of jerky. As he raised the jerky towards his mouth he noticed a drop had fallen on him. The sky was covered in rain clouds; in the distance, one could hear thunder. He got up, dusted himself, and surveyed the landscape.
“I see a light in that house,” he said to himself. “I hope I can find someone willing to lend their stable to a lone wanderer for the night.”
As he made his way towards the lone house, the rain began to pour from the heavens. Picking up his pace, he ran towards the house, knocking thrice as he shivered in the cold.
“Please, good folk,” said the knight. “I ask for nothing but a chance to get out of the rain!”
No answer. The thunder crackled as lightning lit up the night sky. The knight became soaked from the rain, his blond hair drenched with filthy water, his red cape soaked and heavy. He began to cough and sneeze.
“Perhaps, good folk, you might grant me permission to use your stable?” The knight asked. “I promise to leave before dawn, come rain or shine.”
At those words, the door opened. A young child, a boy no older than ten, opened the door, looking up at the knight. “Come in.”
“Young man, and your parents?” Asked the knight. The boy merely grabbed the knight’s hand and led him inside. The house was empty, devoid of anything but a fire in the hearth and a pair of sacks in front of it; in one of the sacks was a young girl no older than three. “Do you live here?”
“I do,” said the boy. “We found the house five days ago. It’s sturdy and warm.”
“It seems like it,” said the knight. “And your parents?”
“Ma’s dead,” said the boy in a matter-of-fact tone. “Died when my sister, Dea, was but three weeks old. Me dad went off to fight for the king a few months ago, but he won’t come back.”
“Why not?” Asked the knight.
“Because he hasn’t come back yet,” said the boy as he shrugged his shoulders. “Me dad told me and sis about the rebels, and how they take young men away from villages to kill the king’s soldiers. Me dad used to be a captain before he was a farmer, but the crops didn’t come this year, so dad joined the king’s soldiers again to earn money.”
“I see,” the knight’s face darkened. “I guess nobody told him about the high amount of soldiers who still have not gotten paid for their services.”
“Dad was never a smart man,” said the boy. “Oh, me name’s Mateo.”
“Call me Lum,” said the knight. “A pleasure.”
“You’ve a weird way to talk, Lum,” said Mateo. “Where you from?”
“The north,” said Lum. “You know, I had a brother named Marco? You remind me so much of him.”
“What happened to him?” Asked Mateo.
“Died,” Lum replied, his face dropping, his eyes becoming misty. “I was eight, he was sixteen.”
“Oy, people die, they do,” said the boy. “How long ago was that?”
“I would say about thirteen years ago, give or take,” replied Lum. He looked at Dea, who was covered by the little sack. “Your sister, how old is she?”
“She died this afternoon,” said Mateo, his voice not even cracking. “I’ll bury her tomorrow.”
“My goddess, I am sorry for your loss,” said Lum, rubbing Mateo’s shoulder. “I will help you.”
“Don’t have to,” replied Mateo. “I’ll do it.”
“Please, it is the least I can do,” said Lum, looking over the young girl. “How did she die?”
“Hunger. We hadn’t eaten in three days,” said Mateo. “I had no food to give her.”
“I am sorry,” said Lum, reaching into his bag and taking out the jerky he would have eaten earlier. He offers it to Mateo “I came too late. I know it will not bring her back, but if you are still hungry...”
“It happens,” said Mateo, taking the jerky. He ate it slowly, his eyes looking distant. “Lots me friends died of hunger or the pox. It’s how the world is.”
“It is how this country’s gotten,” said Lum, his voice saddened and defeated. “I will definitely help you tomorrow.”
The next day, the rain had let up, but not gone. Come the sunrise there were still some rain drops falling; snails were eating grass, worms crawled out of the ground, and birds sand. In a small lot behind an abandoned house, Lum and Mateo buried Dea, leaving the shovel as a makeshift tombstone.
“Aye, that’s it, then,” said Mateo. “I’ll be seeing ye.”
“Mateo,” Lum cried out. “Where will you go?”
“Anywhere,” replied Mateo. “You?”
“Anywhere, too,” Lum said, a smile on his face. “Care to come?”
Mateo paused for a second, perhaps considering the offer. “I thank ye, but nay. I can make it on me own. But thank ye again.”
“You’re most welcome,” replied Lum, watching the boy take his leave. Mateo travelled alone for six days, hunting and foraging for his own food. Some nights he’d go hungry, some nights he’d eat. On the seventh day, however, Mateo had encountered a village.
The village had three roads going through it, each made of dirt. The houses, all arranged haphazardly, were made of wood and straw. Chickens and livestock walked through the streets as freely as the townspeople did; the smell of manure filled the air as did the townfolk’s chatter. At the village border there was a man with a sword, flanked by two men in rusted armor. He appeared to be giving a speech; there were at least ten people listening intently to his words.
“..he calls himself our king!” Yelled the man. “He wasted a year’s worth of taxes on balls and excursions! He eats ten meals a day while our children starve!”
“And when his advisors came to him last year, to tell him that his subjects had no bread, do you know what he said?” The man angrily addressed the public, who were hanging onto his every word. “He laughed and said we ought to eat cake!”
The crowd roared with anger. Several of them picked up their pitch forks, their hoes, and their hammers, clammoring for the king’s head. Mateo watched the scene from a distance, sighing.
“Only the rebellion can free you from this tyrant!” Yelled the man. “Will you join us!?”
Mateo shook his head, turning his back on the scene. As he exited the village, he saw some figures headed towards the village. They were soldiers for the king, three of them; Mateo immediately recognized their leader.
“Dad!” Cried out Mateo, waving at his father. The man, however, gave the boy but a quick glance as he walked towards the gathered crowd.
“In the name of the king, you’re ALL under arrest for the crime a’ sedition!” Said the father as he drew his bow gun, shooting a woman right in the abdomen.
“Elias, take it easy,” said the man at the father’s right. “We want the rebels, not the villagers.”
“Take a look around, this whole village be filled with rebels,” replied Elias. “The minute they didn’t run these trouble makers out of town was the minute they joined the rebellion.”
“Monster!” Yelled the man who had been yelling the rebellion’s rhetoric earlier. “This woman has done nothing!”
The villagers raised their tools, ready and willing to kill more members of the king’s army.
“Dad!” Mateo ran towards his father. Elias, seeing an opportunity, grabbed his son and placed him between himself and the villagers.
“Really, Elias?” Asked the man at Elias’ left, with a clear tone of disgust.
“Where you been, dad?” Asked Mateo, turning towards his father. “Dea and me waited for you for months!”
“Boy, not now!” Elias replied as he backed away from the village, who were looking at him with hate in their eyes. “As for the rest of ya, we shall return with reinforcements!”
Elias took his son and crew, beating a hasty retreat. Many villagers began to whisper among each other, fearing that the kingdom would slaughter them all as they had slaughtered other villages that supported the rebellion. A few minutes after Elias and Mateo had left, Lum had arrived at the village. He looked around, sensing the people’s fears. He walked towards the village elder, asking what was wrong.
“What does a knight of the kingdom care for what happens to this village?” Asked the elder, hate reflected in his eyes.
“I am no longer in service of that man,” replied Lum. “My service is for those who need it most and my loyalty is towards the downtrod. If anything troubles you, I am willing to lend my hand or my blade to alleviate it.”
“Your kind is what troubles us!” Yelled out the woman who had been shot. “The king’s soldiers came by and now they threaten to kill us all!”
“You have my blade, then,” replied Lum. “I shall stay in this village and protect all of you.”
“Hah! You’re just one man!” Yelled out a midwife. “What hope have you to face dozens of the king’s soldiers?”
At that moment, Lum took off his red cape, revealing his armor. It was a black vest, heavily padded with a sun symbol at the center, his arms and legs covered in chain mail, black gloves and boots, and a leather belt with two pouches attached. Upon seeing his sigil, all the old people in town gasped in shock, some even needing to sit down.
“A knight from the Special Forces,” the elder said in amazement. “Told to be as good as a hundred men on the battlefield.”
“More like a dozen,” Lum replied in all modesty. “Some of our accomplishments have been exagerated.”
“Still, we are relieved,” the elder said, a smile on his face. “Never before has a knight given me so much hope.”
“It is what we used to do,” Lum sighed, frowning. “But I guess that’s how the world turns these days.”
Meanwhile, in an old windmill located just a few dozen miles away from the village, Elias and Mateo sat on some old crates as Elias’ squad gathered their weapons.
“Where’s your sister?” Asked Elias. When Mateo did not answer, Elias slapped him across the face. “Answer me, boy! Where the blazes is your sister!?”
“Dead,” whispered Mateo.
“Ah see,” Elias replied while nodding his head, his eyes becoming distant and misty. “One less mouth to feed.”
Mateo said nothing, his eyes staring at the ground. Elias got up, retrieved a knife from a crate, and tossed it at Mateo’s feet.
“Boy, if you’re old enough to bury the dead, you’re old enough to fight,” said Elias. “King’s paying us money for every rebel we take, and that whole village’s full of ’em.”
“They done nothing,” said Mateo, his voice sounding a little angry, yet hushed. “Leave ’em alone.”
As Elias prepared to strike his son once more, a soldier burst in, panting heavily, his face pale as if he had seen a ghost.
“We can’t go back to that village!” Yelled the soldier. “I saw him! He’s there!”
“Who the blazes you talking about?” Demanded Elias.
“The traitor, Luminarius Queiros!” The soldier yelled out in tears. “We can’t attack that village!”
“The hell we can’t,” said Elias. “That man be havin’ a bounty worth thousands of gold coins! We catch him, we can all retire from this life and go home!”
“There be no home for us to go back to, dad,” said Mateo. “It’s just you and me.”
Elias said nothing, did nothing, when Mateo gave him that bit of information. He didn’t nod, didn’t sigh, nothing. Just stood there, staring at the ground.
“Why didn’t you come home?” Asked Mateo. “If you came home earlier, Dea would still be alive.”
“Don’t start with me, boy,” Elias said, baring his teeth and glaring at his son. “Ah spent ten years of me life breaking my back on the field, feeding you, your mother, and your sister! Ten years of me life, asking for nothing and in return! Ah gave up me job at the army for you and your ma! Ah only went back so Ah could get enough money for you and Dea! Ah had no choice! Ah had no choice...”
Mateo merely sat on his crate, never looking his father in the eye. The soldiers stood there, eyeing the two nervously. One soldier started coughing, making his way towards the door.
“I want to go home,” said the soldier. “I’m tired.”
“We get this guy,” said Elias with a sigh. “And you’re all relieved of duty.”
“And me, dad?” Asked Mateo. “What about me?”
Elias stood in silence, having no answer for the boy...
The next day, Lum stood in front of the village gate, expecting the king’s soldiers to arrive at any minute. They did so at three hours past dawn. Ten of them, plus one boy. Upon seeing Mateo, Lum’s eyes widened in shock.
“Why do you have a child with you?” Asked Lum.
“He’s old enough,” replied Elias. “Now surrender, and I promise we will spare the village.”
“You will not be touching the village, anyway,” Lum said, holding the hilt of his sword, a smirk on his face. “I suggest you surrender instead and leave this village be.”
“Tch, you think you can beat us?” Elias said, a sneer on his face. “You! Shoot him!”
Elias motioned at a soldier with a bow, who took aim at Lum, and shot him. Lum, however, caught the arrow with his bare hand. He then took the arrow and planted it on the ground.
“You do not even have soldiers with you,” said Lum. “That man’s aim was terribly off.”
“You two, grab him!” Elias motioned to two of his soldiers, a fat man and a short man, who rushed towards Lum, swords at the ready. With a swift punch, Lum took care of the fat one; with a kick, Lum knocked out the short one. “That’s it! Everybody, get him!”
Without unsheathing it Lum raised his sword, striking every last soldier Elias sent at him, knocking them all down with one blow each. He looked over at Elias, a smirk on his face.
“You will need to bring actual soldiers to beat me,” said Lum. “Preferably ones with years of training and experience!”
“Ah got yer years of training and experience right here!” Elias roared out as he drew his own sword, rushing towards Lum. Lum unsheathed his sword, and with one mighty strike, cut Elias’ blade in two, right in the middle. Elias looked at his cut blade in terror as the other half slowly fell to the ground.
“That sword had not seen a whetstone in at least three months,” said Lum. “But it is not too late to turn it in to a smith and turn it into a plowshare.”
“Ah already did that, ten years ago,” said Elias, tears in his eyes, gnashing his teeth. “Boy! Get him!”
Mateo stepped forward, brandishing his knife, looking down on the ground. Lum knelt down in front of the boy, lookin at him. Mateo, never looking up, gripped his blade, gulping as his heart raced. Lum extended his hand, beckoning the boy to hand him the knife.
“You’re too young to be here,” said Lum, taking the knife away from Mateo. “This knife is actually pretty good. Very sharp, top condition, even has a bit of a shine on it. It does not belong in the hands of a child.”
Lum tossed the knife at Elias’ feet. At that moment, the villagers came out of their houses, shocked and amazed at the knight’s total victory over the king’s men. Elias picked up his knife with tears streaming down his face. He marched towards his son, grabbed him by the shoulder, and placed the blade on the boy’s neck.
“Give up now!” Elias shouted. “Give up or the boy gets it!”
“Coward!” Yelled a man from the village.
“Sir, put the blade down,” said Lum as he raised his hands. “Let us do nothing we shall regret come the morrow.”
“Give up now, and Ah’ll spare me boy,” said Elias as the tears ran down his face. “Give up!”
“No Lum, don’t,” Mateo yelled out. “Cut me dad now! Forget ’bout me!”
“No Mateo, I will not,” said Lum. “Sir, I surrender.”
“Get that bastard!” Yelled out the town midwife. “Shank him and gut him!”
“No! You are to leave him be!” Said Lum. He turned to Elias, dropping his blade at the man’s feet. “There’s my sword, proof of my sincerity.”
Elias let go of Mateo and grabbed Lum’s sword, unsheathing it, marveling at the blade’s craftsmanship. “Ah can sell this for a pretty coin and feed mah family”
“What family?” Yelled Mateo, his voice full of bitterness and hate. “Ya lost it all, fool! Dea’s dead, Ma’s dead, ya got nothing and nobody!”
And at that moment Elias gripped the sword as hard as he could, looking at his reflection on the blade. He breathed in, with tears in his eyes, as he held the sword, turning the blade onto himself and driving it through his stomach. Mateo screamed at the sight, rushing towards his father, pounding at his chest as the boy screamed for the man to get up, pulling the sword out as his father’s blood gushed out.
Mateo let out a quiet sob, allowing his tears to fall for the first time in a long while. Lum walked towards his blade, picking it up, cleaning it with his cape, and then sheathing the blade. He walked towards the boy, standing by his side as Mateo cried and cried over his dead family. Over the mother who left this world before he could become a man, over the sister who died too young and under his care, and even for the father who lost himself in his quest to provide for his family.
Lum knelt beside the boy, pulling him into a hug. “I was just a bit younger than you when a caravan of brigands attacked my village. My mother and father died fighting them off, and my brother died trying to get them away from me. I survived because Marco hid me underneath our house.”
Marco dried his eyes as he listened to Lum’s story. Lum continued, “I was found three days later, wandering the ruins of my village, dazed and confused. A knight of the king found me and took me in, giving me a position in the army. I was given extensive training, and have been on the battlefield ever since.”
“I understand your pain, Mateo,” said Lum, giving the boy a warm smile. “You are not alone in this world.”
“Aye, I thank ye,” said Mateo, hugging Lum. After burying Elias, Lum offered Mateo to go with him. Mateo accepted the offer, and the two began travelling together.