Keon washed his face with a bucket of water. He was tired, he was hungry, he was dirty, but most of all; he was sore. It was a long and painful journey to get to Lavern. Keon had spent over a month pulling a carriage from Jesk to the port city of Lavern. In truth, the trip should have only taken a week and a half with horses pulling the wagon. Keon moved much slower and spent most of the time resting as the strain on his body was too much to bear for long periods.
The journey might have been a little more bearable if his companion would have spoken more. Keon had tried to start conversations with the princess, but all he received were one-word replies and awkward silences. It seemed as though Azzara had fled inside of herself after they had left Jesk. The only real conversation they had was just over a week ago when they camped off the side of the road for the night. Keon would never forget it as it was the first time he saw Azzara as an equal rather than his better.
“What was she like?” Azzara had blurted as Keon cooked their supper over a fire. Keon looked up at her and frowned “who?”
Keon continued his task of preparing the watery soup as he spoke “I dunno…she was kind, caring, she was funny… she always made fun of me. She was beautiful.”
Keon wiped his eyes with his sleeve and cleared his throat. Azzara had stared into the fire and spoke again “I have a younger brother.”
“Yes, the King”
“He’s more than that to me. He is my life now; he is what I live for…he is my responsibility.”
Keon passed a bowl of hot vegetable soup to Azzara and then sat down opposite her.
“What’s he like? The King I mean” Keon asked as he took a sip from his bowl.
Azzara stared into the fire, ignoring her bowl of soup, as she spoke “Sweet, kind, caring…too soft for his own good.”
“Really? Doesn’t sound very kingly.”
Azzara had laughed for the first time since they had met. Her smile was beautiful, and her laugh sounded like a choir of angels serenading the land. Keon was mesmerised.
Azzara looked directly at Keon, and he felt his insides melt as her beautiful violet eyes pierced into his. “I love my brother with all my heart, but he is no king.”
“Why do you say that?”
“He cannot lead nor does he have the strength to stand up for his people. He is easily intimidated and bullied. It was my job to protect him, but now…”
A single tear rolled down her cheek as her voice broke. Keon stood up and walked to her. He knelt on the ground where she sat and wiped her tear with his thumb. He held her face in his hands and stared longingly into her eyes. Their faces were so close he could feel her warm breath on his lips. An uncontrollable impulse had taken over him. Keon closed his eyes and moved in to kiss her rosy lips. At that moment he felt Azzara pull away and turn her head to the side. She was tense. Keon got the hint and walked away from her. She was not interested and why should she be? He thought.
Since then, Azzara had been even more distant toward him. Keon felt that if she didn’t need him to haul her around, she would have been long gone. Regardless of that awkward moment at the campfire, Keon had realised that Azzara was just as human as he was and that was a comforting thought.
Keon picked up the supplies that he had purchased from the merchants of Lavern and made his way to the stables. He was able to afford a lame, brown horse from the bulky stable master and then left the town and rode toward the coast. Azzara was waiting for him in the cart, which he had parked near a cliff overlooking the sea.
Keon dismounted his lame steed and dropped the supplies into the cart without so much as a word to his travelling companion. He then began to work on tethering the horse to the cart as Azzara stared out at the ocean silently.
Having completed his task, Keon picked up a pot from the cart and walked toward the edge of the cliff. He stared out into the ocean and held the jar close to his chest.
“Well, this is it, Miranda. It’s beautiful isn’t it?” Keon sniffed the air and closed his eyes as he continued to speak softly “I’m sure it’s everything you imagined and more. Your dream was to see the ocean at least once. So I thought you might want to rest here. I think you’ll be happy here…right?”
Keon opened the lid off the pot slowly as warm tears rushed down his face. Keon whispered his final good-bye before he threw Miranda’s ashes to the wind and watched them float toward the sparkling sea.
Keon fell to his knees and began to weep shamelessly. He didn’t care that he was vulnerable; he didn’t care what Azzara must be thinking of him; he didn’t care that he was a grown man crying like an infant. All he cared about was the hard reality. He was alone now. Truly alone.
Azzara watched her travelling companion weep shamelessly on the ground. She held back her own tears and took a deep breath. She still blamed herself for the destruction of Jesk. She could not judge Keon’s behaviour as she could only imagine the pain and suffering she would endure if anything had to happen to her little brother. She could understand Keon’s feelings, even if it was only a little. As the older sibling, you feel responsible for the younger ones. You feel as though you have to protect them and stand up for them when they are unable to do it themselves.
Keon walked toward the carriage and settled himself in the driver’s seat. He did not look at Azzara nor did he say a single word as he pulled on the reigns and rode the carriage onto the brick road. Seeing him this way, made Azzara feel bad about rejecting his romantic advances so coldly. The truth was that she felt no attraction toward her country-bred companion. She could have entertained him for fun, as she felt the need to be close to a man. However, she could not find herself doing such a thing to Keon. She blamed herself for Keon’s suffering and she would not further hurt him just because she was bored. The boy had been through enough because of her.
Azzara looked up at the bright blue sky and noticed the sun had reached its highest apex. It was noon already. She could see Folegia Bridge in the distance. Folegia Bridge was the last military checkpoint before entering the Fiondan border. It would take three more days to reach the border now that they had finally procured a horse to pull the carriage. It still amazed her how a skinny boy like Keon could pull a wagon, with her in it, for over a month and not collapse. Ever since he killed the demon in Jesk however, she had learned not to underestimate him.
“We will be reaching the last checkpoint soon” she called out.
Keon nodded silently and continued to drive the carriage.
“This checkpoint should be unmanned as well.”
The last three military checkpoints had been deserted. It appeared that General Marcus did not see the need to replace the Gillian military checkpoints with his men after the war ended. In fact, they met with little imperial activity within the Gillian borders since they began their journey. Azzara was not one to complain about their good fortune, but it still seemed strange.
“Whoa!” Keon suddenly exclaimed.
The horse had stopped and shown signs of fear and stress. Moments later, two men walked out from behind the trees and stood in front of the carriage. They were armed with short swords and wore dirty leather armour.
“Ho there travellers!” a man with black curly hair called out.
“Who are you? What do you want?’ Keon called back.
“You’re about to cross our bridge lad. We require payment. A tax of twenty gold coins should suffice.”
“We are headed to Fiondan to live with our uncle. Please, sir, we do not have any gold to pay you.”
The curly haired man suddenly looked into the back of the carriage and noticed Azzara. She had covered her head with a blanket and closed it tight. She did not want to be recognised.
“Yes, sir, my sister and I.”
The curly haired man burst out laughing “You hear that lads!? We have a LADY in our presence!”
Suddenly several more men revealed themselves from behind the trees all armed with longbows and a quiver of arrows. Azzara’s heart beat faster. She was afraid. Men like these would take her as payment if they did not get the gold they demanded. They would see her face and know who she was. Even if they did not, she would be a slave to satisfy their desires for the rest of her life. Even if Keon tried to fight them off, he would be dead instantly. Keon was no warrior, and these men looked battle hardened. She had to do something, but what?
“Sorry to have to tell you this laddie but there’s no way you’re getting into Fiondan. Didn’t you hear? King Kellen is dead! Assassinated by an agent of Fiondan. The empire declared war on the buggers. NOBODY is passing through the border!”
Azzara’s heart dropped. She could not believe the words she had just heard. These men must be misinformed. Fiondan would never order the assassination of Gillia’s king. It was a lie!
“It’s not true” she heard Keon say softly.
“What’s that boy!? You say something!?’
“It’s not true! You’re lying!” Keon yelled. He jumped off the cart and slapped the horse’s rear. The horse bolted forward with the cart. The two men had to dive out of the way to avoid being trampled. Azzara could hear the whizzing of arrows as she looked back at Keon. He gave her a smile and nod before he fell to the ground with an arrow protruding from his back.
“KEON!!!” she screamed, but she was so far away now. Keon’s limp body seemed smaller and smaller as the horse raced onward. She could only see Keon’s body being surrounded by men before the scene disappeared from sight.