Keon woke with a start. He was drenched in sweat and his heart pounded as though he had been running for hours, non-stop. He wiped his brow with his sleeve and drank water from a jug that stood on his bedside table. The rays of the rising sun had penetrated through the cracks in the curtains. It was a strange dream. He had not thought of his father for some time. The last time he saw him was during the slaughter at Jesk. He had killed an imperial soldier and saved his life. Keon did not see him die, but he was sure that he did. Keon had chalked it down to him just having a fatigued fever, and climbed out of bed. He washed his face in the basin and had begun dressing in the clothes that were left for him.
He fitted on a clean pair of woollen trousers, as well as polished black boots. The clothes made him feel confident and strong. He had to meet Ser Bealon at the training field soon. He was nervous about training with the acting knight commander, and so he decided to get there early. Keon rushed out of his chambers and ran down the corridor. He had reached the end of the corridor before he stopped suddenly and realised that he had no idea where the training field was. Just then, Keon spotted one of the maidservants exit one of the rooms in the corridor.
“Excuse me!” Keon said loudly as he jogged up to her. The girl, who looked to be around the same age as him, turned around and stared at him with wide eyes.
“Sorry to trouble you,” he said, “But could you tell me where I can find the training field?”
The girl suddenly burst out into a fit of giggles. Keon was taken aback. He did not expect this reaction as he had not intended for his question to come out as a jest.
“Young Master,” a voice rang out from behind him. An elderly man in a green uniform strolled toward them. He bowed slightly and narrowed his eyes at the girl. The girl immediately ceased her giggling but continued to bat her eyelids at Keon with bright red cheeks.
“Is there something you desire, young master?”
Keon blinked. He didn’t understand why this well dressed, elegant man was calling him ‘Master’.
“I’m to meet Ser Bealon in the training fields soon, but I don’t know where it is. And I’m no-“
“Say no more, young master” the elderly man cut in “Elena, please escort the young master to the training field. And don’t dilly dally!”
The girl, Elena, had lit up. She bowed and said “at once!” she excitedly skipped ahead without Keon. He quickly bowed to the elderly man and jogged behind her.
Keon followed Elena through several more corridors and down several more flights of stairs. It still amazed him how gigantic this castle was. It would have been easy for him to get lost in here for days.
As they reached the main entrance of the palace, Elena stopped suddenly and turned to face him. She had a huge grin on her face and he found it difficult to not notice the sparkle in her eyes.
“You’re all the talk around the castle, you know?”
“Oh, yes! Every girl in the castle is buzzing about with the news of Princess Azzara’s handsome, young guard who slew a thousand and thousand demons! Well, I can see that the ‘handsome and young’ is certainly true” Elena batted her eyes at him again and smiled sweetly.
Keon’s face flushed red as he realised that Elena was showing her interest in him as a man. It was a strange feeling. No one, besides his mother, had ever said a kind word to him. No girl, not Freya or Azzara, had shown any kind of interest in him. Elena was an attractive young girl who told him he was ‘Handsome’. Keon felt flattered but didn’t know how to tell her that he wasn’t interested in her. Not for any specific reason, other than that he couldn’t get his mind off of Azzara. He thought about her constantly and wanted to be near her all the time.
Before he could say anything, Elena had shoved her face close to his. Their noses were inches apart as she said “Go through the door here and you’ll be outside. Go down the steps and turn left. You’ll come to a bridge. Across that bridge is the training field.”
Keon swallowed “Th…Thank you”
“You’re welcome. If you ever feel lonely, come and find me” she said playfully as she winked and skipped away happily.
Keon took a deep breath and sighed. He followed her directions until he came across the bridge. The training field was split into various fields surrounded by white fences. There were archery targets and even training dummies. Keon spotted Ser Bealon in one of the fields and went to join him.
“Took you long enough,” Bealon said as he approached Keon with two wooden long swords. He threw one to Keon, who fumbled and dropped it on the ground. Keon felt the blood rush to his face in embarrassment. Ser Bealon did not laugh or mock him, however. The new knight-commander readied his stance with his wooden sword. Keon picked up the weapon and weighed it. It was heavy but felt perfect in his hands. He mimicked Ser Bealon’s stance and stood at the ready.
“Let’s see what you’ve got, village boy!”
Ser Bealon lunged at Keon with a single swift movement. To his surprise, he had managed to dodge the blow at the last second.
“Don’t get overconfident!” Bealon yelled as he rapped Keon on the shin and kicked him on the backside.
“We have a lot to do then,” Bealon said, smiling.
Keon and Ser Bealon had set about training with two-handed swords throughout the morning. He paid close attention to Ser Bealon’s instructions and watched his moves very carefully. They only took an hour break for breakfast, they ate fruits and nuts, before going back to training. By midday, Keon was drenched in sweat, covered in bruises and cuts, and was unable to hold the wooden sword any longer. He had never been so sorely tested since the night that the empire had attacked Jesk.
After throwing water on themselves and drying down, Ser Bealon and Keon walked to the barracks for a quick lunch.
“You’ll need to meet with Alexi after this” Ser Bealon said with a mouthful of bread and chicken.
Keon mumbled in response as he stuffed his face with the hot food. He was famished after the intense training and paid little attention to the words of the acting Knight-Commander.
“Alexi will make you presentable for when we dine with the king this evening”
“The princess will be joining us as well”
Keon choked on his food and had to gulp down half the jug of water that was on the table.
Ser Bealon chuckled as he watched Keon thump his chest and breathe heavy.
After lunch, Keon made his way to the bathhouses in the palace. He made sure to follow Ser Bealon’s directions exactly, to avoid getting lost. Moments later, he stood in front of a closed wooden door. He knew he was in the right place by the smell of sweet fragrances coming from behind it.
As Keon entered the bathhouse, he bumped into a wall and stumbled back. He looked up and saw that it was not a wall, but a man. A very large, thick man. The man did not react at all. He just stared at Keon with narrow, brown eyes.
“You are the Keon boy?”
“Come! We have much to do!”
Keon gulped as Alexi led him into the men’s bath. He stripped and wrapped a towel around his waist. Alexi pointed to a short stool “Sit!” he said. Keon obeyed and sat on the stool with his back turned to the dramatic man.
Alexi went to work immediately. He pulled, combed, and cut at Keon’s hair. He could only watch as his raven locks floated to the ground. Afterwards, Alexi pulled out a short blade and held it to Keon’s face. Keon gulped, he didn’t like the fact that a strange man held a sharp blade so close to his skin.
“Just relax. If you move too much my hand may slip” Alexi chuckled but Keon did not find it amusing. Keon kept his eyes shut as Alexi scraped against his face with the blade. He even yelped as the blade scraped against his neck, although he was sure to remain perfectly still.
When Alexi was done grooming him, Keon jumped into the bath and scrubbed his body. When he went to look into the mirror he was shocked. He didn’t recognise the man looking back at him. His hair was short and combed to the side just like the wealthy noblemen. He was no longer the skinny boy who worked at the village tavern. He was bulkier and more defined. He rubbed his hand over his smooth face and noticed how hard he looked, like the mercenaries who frequented the tavern in Jesk.
Alexi walked in holding a black pair of pants and a gold embroidered dinner jacket. “Now to finish the masterpiece,” he said.
Keon couldn’t believe it. He would be wearing cloth that would be fit for a king! He wondered what Azzara would think when she saw him tonight.
Azzara sat on her rolling chair and looked out of the window next to her. It was a beautiful day. The sun’s rays illuminated the palace grounds and the sky was crystal blue. Not a single cloud could be seen. The door of Algon’s study opened abruptly and the King of Fiondan walked in quickly. He looked down at some parchment in his hands as he made his way to the chair behind his desk.
Azzara watched him sit down as she smiled to herself. Some things never change, she thought.
She looked out of the window again as she said: “You wished to see me, Lord King?”
King Algon started and turned to face her. He looked at her as if she were something that didn’t quite belong in his little study.
“Yes! Forgive me, Azzara” he said “I was entirely focused on the topic of this meeting”
“And what topic would that be?”
“The location of the demon gate”
There it was, she thought. The subject that had been eating at her ever since Algon had brought it up at the fortress. She, the last Holy Avenger, had the power to stop the demon threat and restore her homeland to its former glory. According to King Algon, only she had the power to close the gate to the underworld.
“I’ve been doing extensive research on the subject ever since we arrived at the palace,” he said.
“And you know where this demon gate is located?”
Algon shook his head “I have a rough idea, but I am not completely sure”
King Algon motioned for Azzara to come closer to the desk. She placed her hands on the wheels of her rolling chair and pushed forward. Her eyes focused on the parchments that lay in front of the king. There were maps of different continents in the world. Lines and scribbling were scratched onto the maps at certain locations on them.
“I’ve ruled out quite a few possibilities of where the gate might be hidden, however”
Algon pointed to a location on the map labelled ‘Northern Kingdoms’.
“There is a cave close to the Vanilik Falls. From what I’ve gathered, Queen Tera had closed the gate from within this cave.”
“Vanilik Falls? Correct me if I am wrong, but that would be close to-“
“Yes. Near the village of Jesk. This is where you will travel tomorrow with young Keon and the guards I’ve assigned to your protection”
“Does he have to go?”
“You don’t trust him?”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It will be dangerous. Keon is no warrior. He could get hurt!”
“And why does that matter to you?”
“Because I love him!”
Azzara put her hand to her mouth and stared wide-eyed at the king. Algon chuckled.
“I do not believe I said anything in jest!”
“Of course not! You just reminded me of someone. A certain someone who said something very similar to me just last night”
Azzara looked at him suspiciously.
“It is nothing. Come, my wife has been waiting patiently to spend some time with you before dinner”
Keon had looked in the mirror several more times as the sun had begun to set. He still couldn’t believe that it was him in the mirror. He looked like a nobleman!
A knock at his chamber door had pulled him away from his newfound vanity.
“May I enter?” Ser Bealon’s voice came from behind the door.
Keon rushed to the door and opened it. He gave Ser Bealon a wide toothy smile “You clean up well” he said.
Ser Bealon was dressed in a similar dinner jacket to the one that he wore.
“You’re one to talk,” Ser Bealon said with a slight smile “One could easily mistake you for being a prince!”
The men laughed as they clasped each other’s forearms.
“Is it time for dinner already?” Keon asked.
“Soon. I wanted you to walk with me before we dine with the king in his private dining room. There’s something I want to show you.”
Keon followed Ser Bealon through the castle but never paid much attention to his surroundings. The two men discussed the subject of sword-play and fighting with vigour and passion. Keon berated Ser Bealon with questions about their earlier training and how he could improve.
Keon soon found himself in a large dining hall. Swords, shields, banners, and various artworks lined the walls.
“This is the headquarters of Fiondan’s Rune Knights,” Ser Bealon said “In times of peace you could hear the laughter of friends and comrades-in-arms in this hall. Now we are at war, and most of our knights perished when Vallarie…”
“I’ve never been in a knight chapter house before,” Keon said quickly “I’ve always dreamed of being a knight. I know it will never happen, but to set foot in here feels like such a privilege!”
Bealon smiled “I’m glad you feel that way. Come, follow me”
Ser Bealon led him through an archway. They made their way into a spacious room filled with rows upon rows of Rune Knight Armour. The polished steel shone brightly in the candlelight, and the gold engravings were masterfully hand-crafted onto the steel. Keon stared around in wonderment.
A boy, no younger than Keon, came rushing up to Ser Bealon. He bowed slightly holding a measuring tape in his hands.
“Chester,” Ser Bealon said “Please take Keon’s measurements and be quick. We don’t want to keep the king waiting”
Chester immediately lifted Keon’s arms and began taking measurements.
“What’s going on Ser Bealon?” Keon asked.
“Keon, you are no knight. Not officially. But I’ve been around knights all my life, and I can tell that you have the heart of one. I cannot make you a knight, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make you look the part”
Keon stared wide-eyed at Ser Bealon “Surely you don’t mean to give me a set of Rune Knight Armour!?”
“I do indeed” Ser Bealon replied “His-majesty has agreed to it as well. You have a hard road ahead of you Keon. You have been appointed as the princess’s personal guard. Not only should you look the part, but this armour should prove more than useful in the battles to come”
Koen nodded as Chester took his final measurements. Several moments later, Keon had followed Ser Bealon into a large room with a roaring fireplace and a long table. There were three people seated at it when they walked in. King Algon sat at the head of the table. Next to him, was a beautiful young woman with curled, golden locks that fell over her chest. She wore a diamond-encrusted tiara on her head and donned an extravagant red dress. Keon Assumed that this must be Fiondan’s Queen.
Next to her, and in no way paled in comparison, sat Azzara. Her silky, dark hair was standing up in a strange style that he had only seen once before. It was the night he first laid eyes on her. He remembered thinking that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. That opinion still hadn’t changed.
Ser Bealon walked forward and said in a loud voice “May I introduce to you, the Queen of Fiondan, Queen Nora”
Keon bowed deeply. Queen Nora thrust her arm toward Keon. He stared at her hand and wondered what she was doing. Ser Bealon cleared his throat and tilted his neck toward the queen. Keon blinked.
Ser Bealon whispered into Keon’s ear “Kiss her hand”
Keon gulped and lowered his head to Queen Nora’s hand. His waist knocked against the table and caused the wine glasses on it to shake. He heard Azzara giggle briefly and his face flushed red. When he looked at her she did not make eye contact with him. She stared at the table with a small smile on her face.
Ser Bealon cleared his throat again and walked toward the Queen. He took her fingers in his and placed his lips on her knuckles. Keon followed his example and took a deep breath after having finally finished this strange formality.
“So you are the young man I’ve heard so much about,” Queen Nora said to him “Quite a handsome young man at that. Don’t you agree, Princess Azzara?”
Keon looked at Azzara and hoped that she would say something about his significant change in appearance.
“Quite,” Azzara said, still staring at the table. Keon felt like she had just slapped him.
“Come, sit.” King Algon said as he clapped his hands together. Servants came out of the corners of the room with trays of food and wine. Everyone at the table waited for King Algon to take the first bite before starting on their own food. Keon watched Azzara closely throughout the evening.
She had not touched her food nor did she speak to him or make any kind of eye contact. She gave short replies to Queen Nora’s conversation but said little else. King Algon and Ser Bealon discussed military strategy for the defence of the capital.
Keon wondered if Azzara was upset with him for some reason. Perhaps she was ashamed of her clingy behaviour toward him during their escape from the fort. He wanted to tell her that it was fine. That he would do anything for her. He wanted to pledge his life to her there and then. But not a word came out.
Dinner ended and King Algon announced that everyone should retire and get enough sleep for their journey in the morning. A maid-servant took hold of Azzara’s rolling chair. Keon wanted to bid her goodnight but she avoided his gaze.
All he could do was watch her be strolled out and be left feeling hurt and confused.