Keon ran as fast as he could. Azzara was being carried away by horrifying creatures. He was afraid, but he couldn’t think about that now. He needed to save her! The monsters took Azzara further and further away, and Keon felt as though he was running slower with each step.
The creatures were too far away from him now. He would never catch up. Azzara screamed his name as tears streamed down her cheeks. Keon called after her, his desperation growing. No! He thought. I won’t lose someone else! Not like this!
Suddenly, the ground beneath Keon collapsed, and he went plummeting into the dark abyss. Keon fell face first into a shallow pool. The water felt thick and sticky. He wiped his eyes and took in his surroundings. It didn’t take him long to realise that the pool he fell into was not water. It was blood.
He saw a tiny body floating in the middle of the blood pool. His heart sank. He woke up and walked closer to the floating body, knowing full well who it belonged to. Miranda lifted her head and looked straight at him. The left side of her face was utterly charred, and her skin was melting off her skull.
Keon fell to his knees and cried uncontrollably. It was too much. Miranda floated toward him across the open pool. “Big brother…” she said softly. Keon looked up at her and said in a choked voice “Miranda…I’m so sorry…”
“Big brother…” she said again as she floated closer to him “Why didn’t you protect me, big brother? It hurt so much…”
Keon’s body had begun to shake. Fresh tears streamed down his face as he stared into Miranda’s disfigured face. “You can’t protect anyone,” she said, “a weakling like you doesn’t deserve to live.”
Keon reached out his hand to touch her “I know”. Before his hand could reach her, Miranda’s body burst into flame and Keon screamed.
He woke up with a start.
He stared at the cave wall for several minutes trying to remember where he was and what was going on. He saw the bodies of the dead bandits, and it all came back to him. He was captured by bandits and then a mysterious woman had come to rescue him. She used magic to heal his wounds, and that was the last thing he remembered.
Keon turned his head and saw the woman fast asleep with her back against the wall. She was covered in blood and grime and wore heavy steel armour. She was unlike any woman he had met before. Even in her current state, there was only one word to describe her. Beautiful.
Keon lifted himself off of the bedroll with ease and stretched. He no longer felt pain, and his injuries were completely healed.
He walked over to where the woman was sleeping and reached out a hand to shake her awake.
Suddenly, Keon found his wrist close to cracking as the women’s steel gauntlet tightened around it. With her eyes still closed she said “That is dangerous. Never touch a woman who is asleep.”
She released his wrist and opened her eyes. Keon rubbed on his wrist with his other hand. “Forgive me, my lady,” he said, “I just wished to thank you for saving me”.
The woman stood up and took in her surroundings. “How do you feel?” she asked.
Keon gave her a warm smile “I feel great thanks to you. How is it that you can use magic?”
“Everyone can use magic,” she said, “It’s just a matter of aligning oneself with the power of the Gods.”
“I see,” Keon said, rubbing his chin with his thumb in deep thought. “Oh, who are you anyway?” he suddenly blurted out “I’ve never seen anyone fight with such skill before, let alone a woman!”
The steel-clad maiden narrowed her eyes at him. Keon felt that his words might have offended. “Forgive me I-“ The woman had suddenly cut him off.
“I am Ser Vallarie. Knight-Commander of Fiondan’s Rune Knights”
Keon Stared wide-eyed at Vallarie, and his jaw dropped involuntarily. Here stood, not only a Rune Knight but the Knight-Commander of one of the most prestigious Order of Knights in the northern kingdoms.
Ever since he was little, Keon had heard the stories. Brave knights who called upon the power of the God of Languages to aid them in battle. Knights who carried enchanted swords that could cut through anything and would never dull.
He found it hard to believe that a woman, especially one who seemed so young, would actually be the Knight-Commander of such a famed and prestigious order. However, at the risk of offending her again, he had decided to keep his suspicions to himself.
“I am Keon,” he said after a short pause “I hail from the village of Jesk”.
Vallarie had suddenly rushed at him without warning. Her hands gripped his tunic, and the force had caused him to hit the ground with Vallarie sitting on top of him. Her steel fists still tightly gripping his leather tunic.
“You are a survivor of Jesk!?” She said breathlessly and wide-eyed.
Keon stared up at her in shock. He would have been afraid, except he was never this close to a woman before. And certainly not one as beautiful as she.
The blood rushed up to his face, and he found it difficult to let out any words.
Vallarie released her grip on him and stood up. She seemed to have regained her composure and returned to her usual stoic expression.
“I would hear your story, Keon.” She said.
Keon lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. After taking a few deep breaths and regaining his composure, Keon sat up on the ground and looked up at Vallarie. She was not looking at him. She instead faced a wall and seemed to be in deep thought.
Keon didn’t know why she wanted to hear his story, but he did know that she was desperately seeking information. Information that he alone had, being the only surviving villager.
“If that’s what you need,” he said finally.
Keon started by telling her of the shift he worked at the village inn that morning. All of a sudden the royal entourage had made their way into Jesk. The princess, Azzara, had been taken to the inn to be refreshed.
Keon spoke about how he sat on his rock on top of the hill that night and watched as the village burned. He avoided talking about his family, so instead, he skipped ahead to where he heard a woman scream.
He hesitated for a moment but then decided to tell the female knight that the woman was Princess Azzara. He explained that he found her being ripped apart by a strange and powerful creature. He told her about the battle that ensued, making it sound more glamorous than it actually was in Keon’s mind, and about how he had finally killed the creature.
He told her about Azzara’s wounds and about how they found shelter in an undamaged hut. He told her about his inadequate efforts to heal the princess and about how she only awoke after two days.
Keon saw that the knight’s expression had remained impassive throughout the story, but he did notice her eyes glisten.
“She was paralysed from the waist down because of her wounds,” he said to her “She wanted me to take her to Fiondan, and so I pulled a cart with her on it to Lavern”.
“Then what happened?” She asked sharply “I want to know how you ended up here and what has become of Princess Azzara”.
Keon stood up off the ground and dusted his dirty bloodstained pants. “I bought a horse at Lavern, and we rode west to Fiondan. Until we arrived at the first military checkpoint…”
“Was it Imperials!?”
“No, it was these bandits. They told us we needed to pay if we wanted to cross. They also said that the King was assassinated and that it was a Fiondan Knight…”
Something suddenly clicked in Keon’s brain. The previous battle and having killed another human being had utterly thrown out logic and rational thought from his mind. He now started to put things together. Here was a Fiondan Rune Knight in Gillian territory. She was alone. The bandits had said that King Kellin, Azzara’s brother, had been killed by a Fiondan agent.
Keon gripped the pommel of his new sword that now hung on the side of his hip. Vallarie narrowed her eyes but made no move to attack.
“Keon, I’m not going to hurt you,” She said gently “Whatever you’ve heard is far from the truth. I did not kill King Kellin”.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth!?”
“Well for one, I saved your life,” Vallarie said calmly “The least you can do is listen to what I have to say”
Keon relaxed a little but still kept his hand on the handle of his sword. What he would do if Vallarie attacked him; however, he did not know.
Vallarie took a deep breath before speaking “I came to Gillia to find out what happened to Princess Azzara. We received a letter that stated the village people of Jesk had murdered her.”
Keon’s eyes widened in surprise. If this was true, it meant that the Empire would not be held responsible for the atrocity that they had committed. They would not be brought to justice for burning down his home, slaughtering his neighbours and for killing Miranda.
“I speak only the truth,” Vallarie continued “I want to find Azzara, I must. Right now the Empire marches on Fiondan. They will slaughter countless innocent lives as they march to our capital. I don’t have time to explain everything to you now Keon. So please, I beg of you, tell me what happened to the princess”.
Keon griped his sword hilt tighter but not out of fear of Vallarie. He now held it tightly out of rage. He wanted to make the Empire pay. He knew he didn’t have any power or skill, but he would make them pay. One way or another.
He released the grip on his sword hilt and stared at the beautiful knight. “I made the horse carry the cart passed the checkpoint before the bandits could capture me. At least the princess would be safe. As for what has become of her now I don’t know.”
Vallarie brought her fist up to her mouth and bit on it lightly. She stared intently at the ground in deep thought. Keon took a deep breath and grabbed a pouch of gold coins from one of the slaughtered bandits.
I need to find Azzara too, he thought. If I don’t achieve anything else in my life, I will find Azzara, and I’ll protect her. I swear I will.
Vallarie had suddenly begun picking up her belongs and making her way toward the cave entrance.
“Keon,” she said as she suddenly stopped with her back facing him “I am going back home. I must prepare for war.”
“I wish for nothing more than to go with you. To lend you my blade and magic to find my little sister. But my duty calls me home. I know you will look for her anyway, but I must still ask.”
“Will you swear to me that you will do all in your power to find her? When you find her, will you protect her with all of your strength?”
Keon closed his eyes and nodded slowly “I swear, my lady.”
Vallarie walked out of the cave without looking back or saying another word. Keon picked bits of leather armour off of the dead bandits. He equipped himself in brown leather braces, a faded leather chest piece, and matching brown leather thigh guards.
The armour was quite heavy, but pulling around a fully loaded cart for nearly a month had increased his strength significantly. He did not have the skill to swing a sword, but he certainly had the power to kill with it.
He made his way out of the cave and had to shield his eyes with his arm. It was a bright, and beautiful day. The sky was bright blue and not a cloud could be seen. The forest around the bandit cave was a lovely shade of green. The sound of the forest wildlife gave it a certain endearing ambience.
Keon marched westward, toward the military checkpoint that the bandits had ambushed them.
The only thought in his mind, as he trudged through the bush and trees, was finding the only person he had left to protect. After losing everyone he had ever known, and everyone he had ever loved, Azzara had become more than just a travelling companion. She had become a reason to keep on living. The month they had spent together was not long, but he felt bonded to her. He could not protect his home or his family, but he would protect her, with his life if needs be.
I will find you. I will protect you. And when you are safe, I will kill every last imperial or die trying!