Keon stood very still as Chester fitted on his new armour for him. If he felt strong and confident wearing the clothes of the nobility, it was nothing compared to wearing the polished armour of a knight. He felt like he could take on the whole world. Chester finished off by strapping a long red cape on the steel pauldrons and stepped back to admire his handiwork. Keon felt stiff in the armour and tried to walk. He felt heavy and slow, but also stronger and more confident.
When he was properly fitted, Keon was led to the castle grounds by Chester. He spotted a carriage that was attached to a large cart. Servants, in green uniforms, packed various boxes and sacks onto the cart. Two mounted Rune Knights sat on their horses in front of the carriage and looked alert as usual. Keon assumed that these two would be their Fiondan escort.
Near the carriage stood King Algon, talking to Azzara who sat on her rolling chair. She wore travelling clothes which consisted of a pair of pants, a leather jerkin, leather braces, boots and a travelling cloak. She wore her silky, dark hair in a long ponytail. She looked to be in deep conversation with the king and, like last night, avoided Keon’s gaze.
He spotted Ser Bealon walking toward him, holding the reigns of a dark brown stallion. The warhorse was adorned with plate mail fitted to its chest and head. A sword was sheathed to the saddle.
“That amour looks good on you,” Ser Bealon told him.
“Why are you with a horse? Are you going to come with us?”
“Unfortunately not,” Ser Bealon replied “I still have my duties here. This horse is for you, Keon”.
Keon’s jaw dropped “You can’t be serious!?”
“That armour is a gift from me. This horse is a gift from the king. You should give him a name”
Keon walked closer to the stallion and placed his hand on its cheek slowly. The horse neighed and shook its head but didn’t pull away. Keon smiled at the animal and said “Kip. That will be your name”.
“A good name,” Ser Bealon nodded “I took the liberty of having this long sword procured for you. It isn’t a rune sword, but it’s a fine blade fit for a knight”
Keon smiled to Ser Bealon and wrapped his hand around the hilt. Just then, a commotion came from the carriage. Keon turned to look and saw a male servant with his arms outstretched to Azzara. Her head was turned and refusing to let him anywhere near her.
“The women aren’t strong enough to lift you into the carriage, Princess. Please let him do his job” he heard King Algon say. Azzara still refused to let the servant touch her. Keon walked over to Azzara and stopped right in front of her. For the first time since arriving at the palace, she looked directly at him. Her deep, violet eyes pierced through his soul. Her stare made his legs shake.
She thrust her arms out at him and looked at him expectantly. He lifted her off the chair and held her in his arms. Her long, slender arms wrapped around his neck as she put her lips to his ear.
“You look very handsome,” she whispered.
Keon flushed beet red and placed her gently into the carriage.
“Keon,” King Algon said as he walked up toward him “Azzara holds the fate of the entire world in her hands. You MUST make sure she accomplishes her task”.
Keon bowed before King Algon before mounting Kip. Ser Bealon helped him up and said: “Ride fast and strike true, my friend”.
Keon nodded and rode next to the carriage as the driver took off. The two Rune Knights rode at the front as the party made their way through the palace gates.
The party rode at a considerable pace once they had left the Fiondan capital. They had to be sure to avoid any imperial patrols until they reached the Fiondan/Gillian border. At around noon, the party stopped briefly to water the horses and have a bit of lunch. Keon refrained from joining Azzara in the carriage and instead ate outside with the rest of the men, including the carriage driver.
By late afternoon the party was close to the border. Keon sent one of the knights ahead to scout it out. The knight returned a quarter of an hour later, riding hard toward them.
“How does it look?” Keon asked
“Empty, sir” the knight replied “not a soul around”
Keon thought that was a bit suspicious. The Empire had almost total control of the northern kingdoms. Wouldn’t it be strange if they never reinforced the border gate? But he was just a village boy and knew nothing of such things. He decided that it would be a good idea to discuss the matter with Azzara, she was in charge anyway.
Keon knocked on the carriage door. Azzara opened the door and looked at him. Her violet eyes took his breath away yet again.
“What is it, Keon?” she sighed.
“The scout returned from the border gate,” Keon said more confidently, “He says it’s empty. I just find it strange”
Azzara twirled her finger around the end of her pony-tail and stared at nothing in particular “Usually, yes that would be strange,” she said “However, their only threat is the Fiondan capital. Instead of wasting resources at the border gate, they could use it for the siege of the city”
Keon nodded to her and was about to say more when she said “Take us straight through the gate, we’ll be fine” and slammed the carriage door in his face.
The party rode through the border gate without incident. They still had to be careful being in Gillian territory that was still under imperial control. The sun had soon set and darkness covered the land as the party rode deeper into Gillia. Keon signalled the party to follow him. He led them to a thicket of trees where the party could rest for the night in relative safety. He remembered this place because it was close to the cliff that stood over the ocean. The same cliff he threw Miranda’s ashes over.
He went to the carriage to carry Azzara onto her chair while the two knights tethered the horses to trees that were near a small pond. The carriage driver and the two knights went about setting up camp while Keon started a fire and began cooking bacon stew in a cast iron pot.
Everyone sat and ate in silence. Keon stole a few glances at Azzara but she never once looked his way. After dinner, the knights had taken up positions around the camp while the carriage driver settled into his sleeping bag. Keon cleaned up the pot and bowls while Azzara rolled her chair near the cliff. The edge of the cliff wasn’t that far away from the camp, but he thought he should follow her just in case.
Azzara stopped at the edge of the cliff and looked out into the ocean. Keon stood a few paces behind her, watching her silently.
“This is where you threw her ashes. This very spot.” She said suddenly without looking back.
“You remembered,” Keon said as he walked up beside her.
“I remember. I remember you said that she had always wanted to see the ocean, but she never had the chance to…”
Keon squatted down next to her and fiddled with the grass between his fingers “Azzara,” he said softly “Why have you been so cold to me lately? Have I done something to upset you?”
“Do you hate the empire? Do you hate them for taking away your sister and your home?”
“Yes. With everything I have. I don’t know how, but I will make them pay”
“I’m the one to blame, Keon. It’s because of me”
“It’s not your fault! You were just another victim!”
Azzara’s body began to shake, tears streamed down her cheeks. Her voice broke as she spoke “You ask why I’m so cold? Because I can’t stand being so close to you! I don’t deserve being this close to you! I don’t deserve your kindness and I certainly don’t deserve your affections!”
Keon stared at her silently, his face expressionless as he waited for her to continue.
Azzara took deep breathes, her voice regaining a measure of composure as she continued “The day before I was to leave the castle and travel to the empire for my wedding to Mario Gilises, I was visited by three ‘Gillian Knights’ survivors of the war; they said. They told me that a small resistance was rising against the empire and that they needed me to lead them” she laughed, tears still streaming down her pale cheeks. “I was a fool! Taken in by the words of a handsome, charming man like a little girl! We were never meant to stop at Jesk! They told me to and I listened! I didn’t care about you or your sister or the other villagers! Don’t you see!? I killed Miranda! I killed the innocent people of Jesk! I burned down your home!”
Azzara’s voice had become shrill and piercing “Don’t you see!? You should be HATING me!”
Azzara stared him in the eyes with a fierce countenance. Keon stood up, his face was still expressionless. He started to unstrap his chest armour and bracers. Azzara closed her eyes as if she were prepared for what was about to happen next.
Keon now stood wearing only his greaves, black pants, and silk undershirt.
“I deserve whatever punishment you see fit,” she said with conviction in her voice “Just know that I-“
Keon threw his arms around her and held her fiercely against him.
“Why did you keep all this to yourself all this time!?” He shouted at her, tears streaming down his cheeks “Why did you have to suffer from this all alone for so long!? I was right here! You could have let me share your burden!”
“We all make mistakes! It’s what’s in our hearts that matters most! Your guilt, your suffering, your pain, shows that your heart is pure. You were a victim, like so many others. I could never hate you, Azzara” Keon said as he held her face in his hands, looking deep into her violet eyes “Because I love you!”
She kissed him hard on the lips, neither of them wanting to break it. Keon carried her in his arms still kissing her passionately. They tumbled to the ground together, undressing each other while still holding a fierce kiss. The ocean waves crashed against the rocks below the cliff as Keon and Azzara made love under the stars.
Keon rubbed the tip of his nose against Azzara’s as he held her naked body in his arms. They were both breathless but held smiles that refused to disappear. A sudden commotion broke them from their reverie. Shouting and the sound of swords being drawn could be heard. Keon quickly got up and helped Azzara dress before putting on his pants, strapping his greaves to his legs, and throwing his silk undershirt over his head.
Keon carried Azzara to her rolling chair and pushed cautiously back to the camp. He first spotted the carriage driver hiding behind a tent. The two Rune Knights stood at the ready with their swords drawn and pointing them at a large figure. The man was tall and bulky with long golden locks that flowed down to his shoulders. He wore thick plate mail and his sword was still sheathed at his hip. The man did not look threatened by the knights and simply stared down at them.
It took a few moments to recognise the man standing in front of him. It was the imperial commander who let them escape the fortress, Keon stood in front of Azzara and narrowed his eyes at the imperial. He felt white, hot anger swell up inside him.
The Imperial General looked in their direction “It is good to see you again, Princess Azzara”.
Azzara rolled her chair forward, ignoring Keon’s protests. “What do you want?” she said coldly.
“As soon as I heard what you had set out to do, I came rushing to join in your task” General Tarius said coolly “I paid a visit to King Algon to call for a temporary truce. The same demons that plague your lands are the same demons that are corrupting my homeland. I only want to lend my sword to help get rid of them for good”
“And why should we trust imperial filth like you!?” she heard Keon shout angrily.
“You don’t have to trust me,” Tarius said “But you do need me. I can help you get to where you need to get to without imperial interference. And any demons we run into, well, I can be a much-needed sword arm”
Azzara eyed the imperial general suspiciously “You turned on Marcus at the fort”
“Is he a demon too?”
“I believe so. They’ve wormed their way into the senate and are using the empire to further their schemes. I couldn’t defeat Marcus at the fortress but I don’t intend to let him escape a second time. When this is all over, you have my word, that I will relinquish control of the northern kingdoms and sail my men home to deal with the corruption that is destroying the empire.”
Azzara closed her eyes and sighed “It seems we have no choice than”
“But-” Keon started to say but Azzara raised her hand to silence him “I grow weary, Keon. Please help me to bed. Goodnight to you, General”.
Tarius bowed to Azzara as the Rune Knights sheathed their blade, yet still watched him closely. Keon picked up Azzara in his arms and carried her to the tent that was set up. He walked in with her and laid her down. He had a grimace on his handsome face.
“Won’t you stay with me tonight?” She asked softly, holding his face in her hands.
Keon put her hand to his lips and smiled at her, it sent shivers through her body.
“I don’t trust him. He’s an imperial, Azzara.”
“We need him,” she said “And I believe he is sincere in everything that he said. He did not say he wanted to help us, but rather that we have a mutual interest”
“I still don’t trust him, but I’ll confer to your judgement. I’ll stand guard outside your tent tonight, so rest easy” Keon said as he kissed her forehead before exiting the tent. Azzara closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Azzara woke up early the next morning. Keon ate breakfast with her in her tent and helped her get ready. By mid-morning, the party was ready to move out again. General Tarius remained silent and seemed to be lost in his thoughts. As they got back on the road, Azzara looked through the curtains in the carriage and watched Keon who rode beside it. He had not made mention about stopping in the ruins of Jesk. She decided that once this was all over, that they would go there together and pay their respects.
By late afternoon, Keon had informed her that they were close to the Vanilik Falls. They arrived at the foot of the falls before sunset. Azzara was glad that they had arrived before nightfall. The fact that she was going into the jaws of the beast had frightened her, and she would rather do it in daylight.
Azzara sat on her rolling chair moments later staring up at the waterfall. It looked beautiful and freighting at the same time. Keon stood close to her, keeping a close eye on Tarius. They were waiting for one of the Rune Knights to return from scouting the area. No one in the party had any idea if there was a cave nearby or not.
Tarius was the first to notice the scout riding hard toward them “He returns,”
Keon pushed Azzara’s rolling chair forward as they went to meet the scout.
“Your highness,” the knight said “I’ve found a small cave opening just to the north of the mountain”
“Thank you, Ser Gembry,” Azzara said
“We should have the two knights stay and guard the carriage,” General Tarius said.
“We don’t take orders from you!” Ser Gembry broke out angrily.
“The General is right,” Azzara said “there are other dangers besides the demons. I would not want to leave our belongings here without protection”
Ser Gembry bowed deeply “As you wish, your highness”
Keon lifted Azzara in his arms and followed Tarius as he led the way to the cave opening. Moments later, Azzara had spotted a small opening in the mountain.
“I will go first, follow after me,” General Tarius said. Azzara watched Tarius light a torch that he got from the cart, and then disappeared into the cave. Keon followed close behind trying to keep up. She knew it was difficult for him to move while carrying her. They followed Tarius to the end of the narrow path and out into a dim-lit, circular room. The light was coming from a well that was filled with some sort of swirling, purple liquid. Azzara felt something sinister from that well. Tarius drew his sword and stepped cautiously toward it. Suddenly, a black pool formed in front of him. White hair began to emerge from the pool and Azzara gasped.
General Marcus rose up from the ground with a sadistic smile on his face.
“So you’ve finally shown yourself, you fiend!” Tarius shouted as he held his sword at the ready.
Marcus chuckled “So you’ve come to close the gate, little lamb?” he looked at Azzara with such intensity that she had to tighten her arms around Keon to not scream in horror.
“I am here to tell you that there is only one way,” he continued “You must jump into the well and enter the dreaded underworld and then…” his laugh was maniacal “You must kill the King!”
“I wouldn’t believe a single word from your demented mouth, you monster!” Tarius shouted
“Believe me or not, you have little choice” a large, dark figure climbed out of the well as Marcus spoke “just as I have no choice but to fulfil my King’s order to dispose of the intruders”
The figure was a giant of a man. He wore thick, red armour and carried a battle axe the size of a man. He had long, pitch-black hair that was caked with dirt and the left side of his face looked burned.
“Father!?” she heard Keon say, his voice trembling.
“Ah, yes,” Marcuse said dramatically “Did I forget to mention? This beastly man had slew five imperial soldiers before he fell. I felt that it would be quite a waste to let a monster this strong die. So I made him a soldier”
Azzara looked up at Keon, tears streamed down his cheeks as his body shook violently with her in his arms. Why did he have to suffer more?
“It does not have to end this way, princess,” Marcus said “sacrifice one of your pawns and follow me into the gate. Do what you came here to do!”
“Go, Azzara!” Tarius shouted, “I will tend to this monster!”
General Marcus laughed as he backflipped into the well. Keon wasted no time walking toward the well. She felt guilty about leaving Tarius to fight that monster alone, but what choice did they have? But to her surprise, Keon stopped next to Tarius and turned to him.
“Take Azzara into the gate,” he said “I will deal with my father”
“Keon?” Azzara said, her heart pounding.
Tarius did not hesitate. He sheathed his sword and took Azzara from Keon. She screamed and flailed but Tarius was strong and unfazed.
“Godspeed!” She heard Tarius say as he ran to the well with her.
“Keon!” she screeched as she tried to punch Tarius, but to no avail. Keon had drawn his sword and faced down the man he called his father. Her last view of the man she loved before disappearing into the well was him having a look of fierce determination on his face.