“You’re a Hero, Sir Leonidas! You’ve saved us all!” Shouts were being thrown around as I held a blonde beautiful princess in my arms. Not only did I defeat the dragon, but I’m also going to marry a beautiful princess! Life can’t get any better than this.
“Leo!” the people started chanting. I lifted my head in pride and raised my hands to appease the people.
“Leo!” they continued to shout even louder.
“Leo!” their cheering was beginning to deafen me.
“Leo!” For some odd reason, their shouts are beginning to sound very familiar to me. Almost like an old man’s voice-
I sat up so quickly you’d think my brain would have flown out if it wasn’t safely secured in my head. I looked over to the culprit who’d dare to throw water at the Great Hero of All Six Lands. It seemed the one who splashed me turned out to be an old wrinkly raisin of a man. Ah, now I remember. I’m not actually a Hero who is marrying a princess and killed a dragon. Turns out I’m actually the adopted grandson of an old farmer who apparently can’t comprehend the idea of sleeping a little past dawn.
“Hurry up Leo! We’re burning daylight! I’ve been trying to wake you up for the past couple of minutes!” exclaimed the old man of average height with short, unkempt gray hair.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m going, I’m going. Let me grab my sandals real quick and I’ll be right behind ya, old man.” I yawned out as I stretched my arms and slowly closed my eyes again.
With a smirk on the old fart’s face that I didn’t see, he responded “Well looks like I’m going to the City all by myself then.”
I swear to you, this time I’m pretty sure a little piece of my brain actually flew out of my ear. I jumped up so fast and hopped out of bed that if I wasn’t self-aware of how slow I actually am, I’d think there were sparks behind my feet as I sprinted out of the room and down the stairs.
“Forgetting something Leo?” The rotten old raisin dangled my sandals in his grimy old geezer hands at the top of the stairs. The smirk on his face of pure victory almost hit me in the face harder than my sandals, but they left a mark so they won this round. Deciding to ignore his snarkiness for now, I slipped on my sandals and headed out the front door.
Trees, bushes, and all sorts of the like were bustling around as it seemed today was gonna be quite a windy day. Regardless of that though, the sun was shining bright so it did little to bring down my spirits.
“If you’re done daydreaming, I’d like to get on the road as soon as possible. The journey to the city will take a little bit.” the old geezer once again reminded me. As he slowly climbed into the already prepared wagon I was already halfway over to him and with a big hop got up right next to him.
“Oi! If you so much as chip a little piece of this wagon you’ll be eating horse feed for the next week!” my grandfather griped out at me. I’d like to tell you I responded back respectively and apologized, but that’d make me a liar and I’m not a liar. All I did was stick out my tongue and turn my head away, but apparently, that was a crime worthy of a slap on the back of the head. If I’d been looking towards the old man I’d have seen the small smile on his face.
With a slight tug of the reins, the horses began to pull us towards the targeted direction. I’d have to say that long wagon rides have to be one of my favorite things in the entire world. The soft but noticeable sound of the trees swaying with the wind, the clomping of the horse’s hooves on the ground, the sound of the birds chirping in the air, even the sound of the soft breathing of the old geezer next to me. It’s enough to even calm a hyper-energetic kid like me right down. With this downtime, my mind began to wander. Wondering what the city will be like, what kind of people will be occupying the streets, what kind of goods will the markets be selling. Will Guards be patrolling the streets? Will I be lucky enough to witness and hope to even meet a Sage Knight? These Sage Knights were some of the most powerful and respectful of figures. Their stories were told throughout all the Lands. Their powerful abilities are unmatchable to People of the Light like us.
“What’s on your mind boy? It’s not like you to be so quiet”
Came the curious voice of the old man next to me. Bringing me out of my thoughts I responded to him with a yawn, “Just wondering what the city will be like. That’s all.”
“Well, what are you hoping for?” he questioned me, not taking his eyes off the road ahead of him.
“Gosh, there’s a whole lot I’m hoping for. I’d like to see the markets, I’d like to see some of the performers. I don’t know what I’d begin to do if I ever got to see one of the Sage Knights, and don’t even get me started on the food! I also wanna see- !” I continued to ramble on and on until I was interrupted by an unceremoniously loud laugh. Glaring at the man next to me rude enough to interrupt me with a laugh, he began to calm down wiping a tear away from his eye.
“I’m not laughing at you bud, your enthusiasm is just rubbing off on me or something. The city’s pretty great, but don’t get your hopes up too high. This isn’t the Capital or anything special like that.”
Letting out a sigh, I asked him, “Do you think I’ll ever get to see the Capital?”
With a serious expression on his aged face, he responded back, “With how you’ve been slacking off around the farm recently, I don’t think you’ll ever leave the farm after this again if you don’t pick it up.”
It was like a lightning bolt traveled throughout my entire body. The amount of shock that was probably on my face, I’d think my hair was standing straight up.
“Bahaha! Don’t have such a scared look on your face. I’m only playing with ya boy. I promise I’ll take ya for your 16th birthday.” he chuckled back to my frightened face.
I immediately felt my face slacken with relief over this revelation. Wait! Did he say on my 16th birthday? That’s four years from now! Well, I’ll be in the prime of my life then so I guess I can’t complain too much, but four years? Oh well, at least I’ll get to go.
Noticing our conversation was over and he began to focus back on the journey ahead of us I began to daydream again, not noticing my eyes began to slowly close as I leaned on the side of the wagon.
Having a dreamless nap, I began to come to when I felt a voice begin to say my name.
“Leo! Oi, Leo! We’re close to arriving. It’s time to wake up.” the voice next to me continued to call out to me. Rubbing my eyes and repeatedly blinking them to get the sleepiness out of my eyes, I took in the sight in front of me. Whatever I was expecting the city to be, I wasn’t prepared for the actual thing. Tall walls made of what I think is concrete, a massive wooden gate, multiple other roads leading to this gate with other carriages all heading towards the same destination as us.
I instantly felt the excitement invade my body like a cold glass of water on a hot day after a day of hard work. The sleepiness long has gone out of my body, I literally started bouncing in my seat. I took in the other carriages, noticing like my pops, they were loaded with cargo that I’m assuming they’re going to sell. It’s quite uncommon for us back at home to ever get guests or even see people distantly traveling by. So it’s sort of a surreal experience seeing all these people with different destinations or goals in their minds.
The closer we got to the gate, the more I began to notice a few people walking about clad in armor. From what I can guess, they must be city guards. The carriages and people all began to line up on a single path leading to the city. The line slowly kept moving forward, but I could barely contain my excitement. A few groups left from the guards, I noticed they were inspecting people’s carriages and belongings.
Struck with curiosity, I asked my father, “What’re they checking people’s stuff for? Have they always done this?”
With a slightly bewildered look on his face, He responded back, “I’m not quite sure. They’ve never done this before any other time I’ve come here.”
As we pulled up to the gate finally, the guards approached us. The one at the front of the group walked up to us and asked for us to stop.
“Hello there Sir. Due to recent outbreaks in crime, we’ll have to politely ask to inspect your luggage before you enter the city. We’re doing this for the protection of the city and the safety of its residents.” The head guard asked politely.
“I’ve got no problem with it, I’ve only got goods from my farm back home I planned on selling. Might I ask why the crime rate has gone up? What happened to all of the guards and the Sage Knights?” My father asked back curiously.
As the other two guards walked around back to inspect our carriage, the head guard kept in conversation with my father.
“I’m not all too sure myself, but from what I’ve heard further eastern they’ve been having problems with human trafficking and most sage knights around have been deployed to help prevent that from happening further.” The head guard spoke back to my father.
“Human trafficking in this day and age? It’s sad what this world is coming to just after the last Great War. These are supposed to be times of prosperity and growth, but we’re wasting it on our own selfish needs and wants.”
“I agree wholeheartedly sir, it’s a shame that in a time of peace there’s always those around to abuse it.” Just as the guard finished speaking, the other two guards came around and gave the ok for us to leave.
“Have a wonderful day and stay safe folks! Make sure to not be outside the walls around sundown, it’s been getting dangerous even around here!” the head guard warned us as we slowly pulled away.
“Will do! Take care!” my father responded as we finally started entering through the gates.
Human trafficking? What are they being taken for? Slavery of some form? Labor? Questions began to pop up in my head, but It quickly moved into the back of my mind as we entered the city. Whatever I expected of the city, what I see now was definitely not it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, as this is a Market Town. One of the many populous places around that allows merchants to sell their goods with the simple purchase of a stall pass. As we rode by some of the stalls, I took in what some of them were attempting to sell. I particularly noticed two stalls. One was a stall selling food, while the other seemed to be selling handcrafted goods. The stall selling the food had a very long line, while the other line for the handcraft stall was completely empty. The people walking away from the more popular line all left with not only the food they bought but what it looked like to be a chocolate chip cookie. I’m guessing these were the famous baked treats I’ve read about in stories that mothers bake often. Back home, we weren’t necessarily poor, but we didn’t have the luxury to bake pastries or cakes. I’ve always wondered what chocolate would taste like. Would it be rich and savory? They say it’s so sweet that if you eat too much it’ll rot your teeth. Whenever my Pops would go on trips, he’d bring a gift or snack back from wherever he went, but he never did bring back chocolate due to its more expensive price.
“I see you eyeing those cookies Leo.” My father interrupted my inspection of the small baked treat. Feeling a wave of embarrassment overcome me I responded back quickly back.
“I didn’t mean to. Curiosity just got the better of me.”
I felt bad for longing for those cookies knowing how hard my father works day in and day out to provide food and shelter for us. There are people out there willing to steal and murder just to provide for their families. I’m already blessed enough to have a full belly and a roof above my head every night.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a little curious boy. What you don’t want to happen is to let curiosity take over your sense of reasoning and put you in a bad situation.” He responded back wisely towards me.
Feeling kinda down for coming off as selfish my mood began to diminish. My father noticed this, began to feel around in his pocket as if he was looking for something. A light shine shone into my eye causing me to look up. In front of my face was a single silver coin that shone magnificently. Looking to the single-hand holding it, my father brought our carriage to a halt at the side of the road.
“Go ahead and take it, boy. This is a special occasion and I won’t offer it again.” He spoke with a stoic expression on his face. Feeling my mood skyrocket again, I grabbed the coin quickly and began to run towards the stall that was giving the cookies.
“Be careful Leo! I expect you to be back before sundown do you understand me?” He shouted as I was running away.
Waving my hand back quickly I sped off weaving through the small crowd of people. After running for roughly a few minutes, I wound up back at the stall from before. Noticing the crowd at the stall selling the cookies, I looked over towards the other stall. It was an older lady looking to be around in her thirties sitting and reading a book.
“Hey kid, don’t bother going over to that stall. From what I’ve heard, the lady over there sells her goods for outrageous prices and is extremely rude to her customers. Plus, all the stuff on her table is junk and useless garbage. Hand-crafted goods my ass. More like hand-crafted trash.” said a man behind me noticing I was eyeing the stall.
Even though the man told me all this, I for some reason still felt drawn to this stall. It almost felt as if I’m meant to go to that stall. A sixth sense as some would say. Looking at the sky I noticed I still had plenty of time left before sundown. Should the stall really have junk, I could always get back in this line and have time to get my cookie and make it back before sundown. Making my decision, I stepped out of line and began to walk over to the other stall. As I got closer to the stall, I noticed the lady lookup. She was a very beautiful lady with long black hair tied back in a regal yet casual bun. The thing that caught my eyes though was her very sharp bright yellow eyes. They shone as if they were made of the finest gold. Looking down real quick she closed her book and set it on the table and looked back up. When she looked back up though, her eyes were no longer the golden color, but a striking brown. Thinking it was a figment of my imagination, I stopped at the stall to browse what she was selling.
Feeling the lady’s eyes on me as I browsed, I began to feel a blush crawl up my neck. This lady had to be one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen before. As I was looking over the goods on the table, a necklace caught my eye. It was a simple leather band with a small copper pendant and a small yellow gemstone in the center of it.
Noticing what I was looking at, the lady at the table asked me, “Why did that necklace catch your interest?”
With such a strange question out of the blue, I almost didn’t know how to respond.
“For some reason, I almost feel drawn to it. As if I was meant to buy this necklace.” I answered back sheepishly.
After saying this to the lady, I noticed it looked as if she had a look of pride wash over her face. As quick as it appeared though, It was gone.
“The gem in the center is a Citrine. These gems are said to be the remainder of the once-powerful Storm Goddess’s body. The necklace was once worn by a man of great power said to worship this Goddess. Try it on if you would like” The lady spoke to me.
Feeling rude if I turned down the offer, I gently took the necklace and wrapped it around my neck. The second the necklace landed on my chest, I felt as though a bolt of electricity traveled up my body. Almost as if the Storm Goddess herself was electrocuting me. Although the bolt was noticeable, It was not painful. Looking up to the lady, I noticed she had a slight grin on her face.
“It looks great on you. I think it’ll be perfect for you.” She told me warmly.
Feeling embarrassed by the compliment, I began to once again blush up a storm. As much as I like this necklace, I knew with how expensive gems go for, I’d never been able to afford this. Noticing I began to take the necklace off, the lady held up her hand.
“Free of charge,” she told me.
There was no way I could take this expensive jewelry free of charge. This necklace would most likely go no lower than five gold coins and those are worth one hundred silver each.
“Ma’am, there’s no way I could take such a fine piece of jewelry for free. I thank you for the offer, but there’s no way I could take this free of charge.” I responded back in a somewhat state of shock.
“I insist. I don’t think I could find a customer more suitable for that necklace than you are. I’m not worried about the money. I just want my crafts to find a perfect owner.” The lady insisted.
“Let me at least give you the money I have. I know it isn’t much, but I simply can’t take this for free.” I practically begged the woman.
Noticing a pleased look on her face, the woman accepted the single silver coin I had and wished me a good day. As I began to walk away, I heard a very quiet whisper.
“May the storm light up your night and protect you from the darkness yet to come. Stay strong, hero.”
Turning around to see if she was talking to me, I noticed she was back to reading her book. As I began my walk back to where my father’s carriage was, I didn’t even notice that the cookie was no longer at the front of my mind. With my necklace around my neck tucked under my shirt for safekeeping, I looked up at the sky to check around what time it was. Noticing I still had plenty of time before sundown, I took my time walking and taking in the scenery around me. Seeing a pair of young children run around a nearby pond, an older man sitting in a chair watching as people went by, a teenage couple kissing... A teenage couple kissing?! Why would someone do something so obscene and inappropriate in a public area?! Feeling embarrassed for watching, I began to pick up my pace with my head down. Not looking where I was walking, I bumped into a large sturdy figure. Falling to my butt, I looked up at the figure I bumped in to. It seemed to be a tall muscular man with a cap on. With the sun behind the man, it gave him almost a dark and ominous look. For a few seconds, I stared at the man as the man stared back down at me. After this brief moment, the man reached out his hand to me to help me up. To not come off as rude, I accepted the man’s offer. As he helped me up, I noticed the man’s hand was hard. Not hard as in bony so to speak, but rough. I looked down and noticed his hand was very calloused and scarred. Almost as if he was a man who fought all his life. The man noticing where I was looking, had a dark look come across his face that I missed. Apologizing to the man for the accident, I began on my journey back towards my father once again. Feeling eyes on me as I walked away I started to walk a bit faster.
After a few minutes, I finally made it back to my father’s carriage. Noticing he was talking to an older man and pointing back towards the carriage, I assumed he was selling his cargo. When he looked back again at the carriage, he then noticed me and waved me over. Hopping off the carriage, I began to walk over to my father.
“Leo my boy! It’s time I introduce you to an old friend of mine! Leo, meet Jecks. Jecks meet Leo. He’s the son I’ve told you about the last few times I’ve come here.” The father told the man now known as Jecks informatively.
Reaching out his hand for a handshake, I took it and shook it. Noticing the stark difference in feeling between Jeck’s hand and the man from before. Jecks was calloused, but not unnaturally so like the guy before I bumped into.
“Howdy there boy, My name is Jecks and I run this Lil ol stall here. I’ve been a long friend of your Pa’s for quite some time now. How long has it been that we’ve been doing business together Derby?” Jecks asked my father.
“Well, it’s had to have been at least twenty years. We’ve known each other since back during the Great War and that ended roughly fifteen years ago.” my father responded back.
Tuning in and out of my father’s conversation with the other man, I noticed the sun was beginning its descent.
“Well look at the time, It’s about time for us to head out. Let’s unload our luggage and we’ll be on our way.” My father said to no one in particular.
After we finished unloading all the supplies we brought, my father began to tend to our horses to make sure they were good to go to.
“I highly recommend y’all stay in town for the night. It’s been getting pretty scary outside these walls when the sun goes down. Not many Sage Knights are around anymore so it’s quite dangerous out there.” Jecks warned my father.
“Oh, we’ll be alright. If anyone decides to come at me they’ll regret it and you know they will. You remember the last time you got drunk and decided you wanted to tussle with me?” My father joked back.
“Alright, Alright. Yeah, Yeah. Get going.” Jecks replied with a look of embarrassment on his face.
“Next time I’m around and my boy’s old enough, we’ll have to go out for a couple of drinks.” my father laughed back.
“For sure! Take care, Derby!” Jecks waved us off.
As we began our trek back home, I took in the town. No longer was it crowded with tons of people. The only people really left were the ones still closing up their stalls and packing up for the night. Seems everyone takes the whole crisis going on very seriously. Almost makes me worried that we’re heading home this late at night.
“Pops, are you sure we shouldn’t just stay here for the night? It’ll give the horses a good rest too.” I asked.
“Don’t worry Leo, I’ve been in and out of the city numerous times, and not once have I had a scuffle with anyone. These are just rumors going around to scare the children and get them to behave. We’ll be fine, I promise.” he responded back assuringly.
Feeling a little more at ease, I still felt that slight lingering feeling of dread in my stomach. As we left the city and entered the forest back towards our home I noticed something. The forest seemed very quiet. Almost a little too quiet. As if something in the forest was waiting for the right moment. My father seemed to notice this too and was looking into the forest on his left. Doing this means he took his eyes off the road ahead of him. As I looked back ahead I noticed something on the ground up right in front of us.
“Father! Ahead of us!” I quickly shouted.
Looking over very fast my father wasn’t ready and pulled the reins to try and avoid the said thing in front of us, but this just caused the horses to veer. The carriage we were in came flipping over, throwing both of us out of it. Hitting the ground and rolling a few times, I laid there for a few moments writhing in pain over my body hurting all over. Fighting through the pain I crawled to my knees to look around me. The carriage was on its side with all of our belongings strung everywhere. The horses were nowhere to be seen, probably let loose to the reins being released or something. Staggering to my feet, I began to try and find my father. That’s when I heard a loud yell coming behind the carriage. Walking around to see what it was, I saw my father covered in wounds fighting with a man clad in a black cloak.
Noticing I was standing behind him, my father looked at me and yelled. “Run Leo! Run!”
Taking his eyes off of the man in front of him, the man took his chance and reached into his cloak and pulled out a dagger. Not noticing until it was too late, the cloaked man thrust the dagger into my father’s chest. His body immediately froze up. Nothing will ever scare me more than seeing the literal life leave my fathers eyes. His body hit the ground and blood began to pool around him. Crimson. Crimson is all my eyes could focus on. The crimson leaving my father’s body was ingrained in my mind. The crimson remaining on the assailant’s blade. As the cloaked man began to approach me, I finally snapped out of my shock. I began to run as fast as I could into the forest. Tears poured out of my eyes as memories flashed of my father. The promises he made me that could never be completed. The mornings where he’d wake me with a plate full of breakfast that I know he woke up early before he’d go to work to make me. The jokes he’d make that’d embarrass me and when I’d be walking away a relaxed warm smile of pride would wind upon his face. None of it. I’d never see any of it again.
I continued running as fast as I could. As I ventured further into the forest, I noticed a light a little further up ahead. As I approached the light, I noticed it was a campsite. I saw a few figures standing around. I saw the armor they were wearing and noticed it was the few guards from before at the front gate. I was saved! For whatever reason they’re this far into the forest, I don’t care. I’ll just thank the gods for having them here at this moment. As I ran into the campsite, I tripped over something and was sent sprawling to the ground. The guards all looked at me with an expression of surprise and shock.
“Please! You have to help me! A man attacked me and my father! He’s injured and needs immediate help!” I cried out as quickly as I could.
“Calm down kid, I can’t understand you when you’re rambling like this.” The head guard from before asked me.
Taking a few seconds to calm my breathing, I began to formulate my words again when I noticed someone walk out of the forest. It was the cloaked man from before. Feeling fear paralyze me, I couldn’t get the words out. The guard looked over to where I was looking and noticed the man.
“Hello, Sir. How may we help you.” The guard asked suspiciously.
The cloaked man stood there making no effort to make any sort of response. The other two guards slowly unsheathed their swords and took up a defensive stance. The head guard pulled out his sword and pulled me behind him.
“Don’t worry kid, you’ll be safe with us. We won’t let anything happen to you.” He reassured me.
For a brief moment, all was quiet, but peace never lasts that long. In the blink of an eye, the cloaked man was on top of one of the guards and was swinging down on his neck decapitating him. Before the guard’s corpse could even hit the ground, the assailant was already on top of the other one slicing upward into the guard’s jugular ending him as quickly as the fight started. As I started to cry again, I got up and began to run again. The last guard stared on in disbelief as his two comrades were struck down brutally.
“What are you...?” the guard asked fearfully.
As I was running again I heard a loud scream. Already knowing what the outcome was, I began to cry and hyperventilate even more. Not being able to get enough oxygen into my lungs, I began to slow down and fell to the ground hitting my head on the trunk of a tree. Feeling something warm pour down my face, I started to feel dizzy and felt my consciousness slowly begin to fade away. I noticed a pair of feet walking towards me. Looking up, I recognized it was the same cloaked man. Right before I passed out, I saw a blood-soaked dagger in his unnaturally scarred hand.