Vallarie had read and re-read the letter several times over. Her lips trembled as a tear rolled down her cheek. She could not believe it. Her childhood friend, the princess Azzara, had died? She did not want to accept it, not a word of it.
The letter had been delivered to her half-brother, King Algon, the night before. The sun had begun to rise, and rays of light had shone through the window in her bedchamber. The king had come personally to her chambers while she slept, to deliver the news. It was a rare occurrence for King Algon to meet with her informally. However, the circumstances permitted it this time. He knew how she felt about Azzara. Being a few years older than the princess of Gillia, Vallarie had treated Azzara like a little sister. The little sister she never had but had always wanted.
The letter was from Gillia and had been sealed with King Kellin’s crest, feathered wings with a sword in the middle. The message read:
To His Royal Highness, King Algon I, Ruler of the kingdom of Fiondan.
It is with great regret that I inform you that her highness, the princess Azzara, has sadly passed on.
The kingdom and the princess’s brother, his Royal Highness King Kellin I, suffer a period of mourning for this great loss. After much investigation, we have confirmed the manner of her death and release that information freely to you as our neighbour.
On her way to Lavern, the princess and her imperial retinue had sought to rest at the village of Jesk. It was then that the villagers, who bear a grudge against the crown, had attacked her escort and murdered her.
The villagers were killed by the surviving guards and the heroic actions of General Marcus Valva. The village has been destroyed; however, the king has decreed that it is a fitting punishment for the crime committed.
Royal Steward of Gillia.
Something about this entire story did not make sense. Why would an whole Gillian village attack the princess and kill her? They had families, work lives that they had to live. Why throw it all away because of a grudge toward the royal family? And why was the princess not evacuated at the first sign of violence? She would have been surrounded by guards the entire time. Why had Kellin not asked these questions? What sort of shoddy investigation had taken place!?
Vallarie had never trusted the Empire. When Emperor Neo Gilises had set his sights on their continent, King Algon had shut Fiondan’s border gates and stationed a great military host near the border. Even when Azzara’s father, King Tylon, had requested military aid from her brother; he had refused and instead placed the kingdom in a complete state of isolation. Nobody was allowed to enter or exit the country during the Gillia-Imperial war.
As a knight of the kingdom, Vallarie had pleaded with the king to aid the Gillians in their battle against the empire. However, her brother would not budge on his position. ‘We have to protect ourselves Knight-Commander Vallarie. We are under no obligation to risk ourselves for the sake of Gillia’ He had said to her. There was no further argument as he had silenced her after that and dismissed her from his presence.
For months Vallarie had worried over Azzara and her family. Some time ago, News had reached the royal court that King Tylon had been defeated at The Bullian Plains and that he had lost his life. Vallarie wished to travel to Gillia to be with Azzara during this trying time. However, King Algon had denied her request ‘You are the Knight-Commander. You lead my armies and fight my battles on MY command. I will not allow you to leave.’
Vallarie’s relationship with King Algon was not one of sibling affection and sentiment. It never was. Vallarie and Algon were both born to the former King Halgar but had different mothers. Algon’s mother was the king’s wife, Queen Olera. Vallarie’s mother was a palace maid-servant named Loretta. Algon shared his father’s flaming red hair while Vallarie had inherited her mother’s light yellow hair. So light in fact, that it looked almost white under the sun’s rays. When Queen Olera had found out that Vallarie was the king’s illegitimate child, she had banished Loretta and Vallarie from the palace and ordered never to return.
Years later Loretta had contracted a fatal disease and passed away when Vallarie was only nine years old. Vallarie had travelled alone back to the royal capital of Fiondan and was accepted by her father, the king, who ignored his wife’s protests. Two years after Vallarie’s arrival, a great tragedy had befallen the kingdom. Queen Olera had become ill with an incurable disease and died within seven months. Having similarly lost her own mother, Vallarie had tried to comfort Algon. However, Algon had shut himself away in the royal library for months.
When she had seen him again, his coldness toward her had deterred her from trying to comfort him further. Valarie had soon become a lady of the court but was not considered royalty as she was an illegitimate child. Vallarie was excited to learn that she had an older brother when she first arrived at the palace. However, her loving sibling fantasy had been shattered by the fact that Algon would barely say two words to her. Algon preferred to spend his time in the royal library and barely acknowledged her. Unlike the mighty warrior kings of Gillia, the kings of Fiondan were scholars and preferred to sharpen their minds rather than their swords.
Vallarie preferred to train her body and her sword skills with the royal master-at-arms, Ser Jerrick. Nobody paid much attention to Vallarie, so not a single eyebrow had lifted when she began training to fight with a two-handed sword. The most time that she had spent with her father was when he would privately tutor her in the use of Rune magic. It was a type of magic that required the caster to call upon the power of the God of Languages to cast spells. These spells would be cast by merely using one’s finger to spell out words, of an ancient language, in the air.
‘For example’ her father had said during their first lesson ‘If I wanted to create a magic shield that protected me from arrows I would spell out “Shield me from all arrows” and every arrow would fail to get past my shield. It is a little more complicated than that, but that’s the general concept.’
Rune magic had been passed down the Fiondan royal family for generations. Besides the royal family, there were the Rune Knights. The Rune Knights were a knight order which served the Fiondan royal family for over two-hundred years. They were knights who wore steel plate armour and carried blades imbued with rune magic. These swords would never break, scratch, or suffer any damage. These were known as ‘Rune Swords’. The Rune Knights could utilise rune magic to a certain extent but were not as proficient at it as the members of the royal family.
For ten years Vallarie had trained to fight with a two-handed sword while carrying the weight of heavy plate armour. She had also continued to master rune magic. As she grew up, Vallarie had tagged along with the royal family on official visits to Gillia. Her father and King Tylon had been good friends ever since they were young boys. When Vallarie had met the princess Azzara for the first time, she had taken an immediate liking to her. Azzara was confident, beautiful, graceful, playful and kind.
Vallarie was five years Azzara’s elder and soon began to view the young princess as a little sister. Perhaps it was because she yearned for the love of an older sibling that she had decided to take on the role for someone who did not have one. Whatever the reason, she had begun to love Azzara as much as Azzara loved her.
When Vallarie was twenty years of age, her father, the king, had passed away from illness. Vallarie mourned her father’s death for months. She was genuinely alone after that. She had no friends, no family that she could turn to, and had not seen Azzara since king Halgar had fallen ill the year before. During Algon’s coronation to be crowned the next king of Fiondan, he had made an announcement that not only shocked her but the entire kingdom.
‘Knight-Commander Regis has informed me that he wishes to step down from his position as Lord General and commander of the rune knights’ Algon had said during his speech. ‘He has grown old and wishes to spend the rest of his days with his family. I have accepted Ser Regis’ resignation and will now appoint a new Lord General and a new Knight-Commander of the Rune Knights’
‘Firstly, I appoint Ser Garren, the Knight captain of the Rune Knights, as Lord General of the Fiondan royal army’ Algon continued. There were cheers and applause for this announcement as Ser Garren had proven himself to be a great warrior and a brilliant military tactician.
Algon raised a hand to quiet the crowd ‘The second appointment is that of the Knight-Commander of the Rune Knights. I have placed great thought into this appointment, and I can think of no one better to take up this important and prestigious position.’ The crowd held their breath in anticipation while others called names of famous Rune Knights from the crowd. ‘I appoint Vallarie as the new Knight-Commander.’
The entire crowd had gasped in unison. Angry and confused murmuring had broken out within the throne room at that moment. Vallarie could hardly believe her ears. Me!?
Algon motioned for Vallarie to approach him. Vallarie began to walk cautiously toward her brother and made no eye contact with the murmuring crowd as they pointed at her. She felt nervous, embarrassed and confused. She finally found herself facing the king. He wore brilliant golden robes and a beautiful golden crown which were adorned with large rubies.
‘Kneel’ Algon said suddenly. The new Lord General, Ser Garren, had passed his rune sword to his king with a deep bow. Vallarie knelt in front of her king, which proved difficult has her lace dress was difficult to manoeuvre in. Algon tapped the flat side of the sword on each of her shoulders and said ‘I, King Algon I, Ruler of Fiondan, and Grand-Master of the rune knights, do now dub thee Ser Vallarie. Now rise Vallarie, as a knight of the realm.’
Vallarie could not believe what had transpired then. It was unreal that her brother, who would barely acknowledge her, would not only knight her but make her the Knight-Commander of the Rune Knights!
The very same evening, Vallarie has visited her brother in his study. ‘Thank you for granting me an audience your highness’ she bowed deeply. Algon did not look up from his work when he asked ‘What did you wish to speak with me about Knight-Commander?’
‘I am grateful for the honours that you have bestowed upon me your highness’ she had said respectfully ‘However, if it please you, I wish to ask why you had chosen me over other more capable knights?’
Algon had looked up from his work after a short pause ‘You wish to know if my decision was based on any sibling affection I might have for you?’ he asked. Vallarie swallowed but did not reply. ‘I have never acknowledged you as my sister, but you knew that’ he said to her. Vallarie’s heart sank. Yes, she did know, but this was the first time he had said it. Any hope that she had held in her heart that Algon had even a little feeling toward her as his sister was crushed at that moment.
‘The reasons for my decision were two-fold’ he said as he turned back to his work ‘First, our master at arms has informed me that you have mastered rune magic. It is not surprising as you are my father’s daughter after all, even if you are a bastard. He has also informed me that you have become quite proficient with a blade even under the weight of heavy armour. Secondly, the consensus that women are only good for cooking, raising children, and lying on their backs for their husbands, is outdated. I wish to change this country’s way of thinking. If we continue to disregard the skills and perspectives of women, we essentially rob ourselves of half the nation’s intellectual and physical resources. This Change starts with you Vallarie.’
A scholar indeed thought Vallarie. King Algon was truly a revolutionary leader.
Vallarie bowed deeply ‘Thank you, your highness. My life is yours. I will serve you to the best of my abilities’
‘If there’s nothing else Knight-Commander, I have much to do.’
The next few days after that were the hardest for Vallarie. She had to suffer the stares, pointing, and murmuring of anyone and everyone she had come across. It didn’t help that she walked around in full plate armour now. It was an extravagant suit of metal that was hard to ignore. Full plate armour dyed white with gold engravings all over it. Every piece of the armour was handcrafted to perfection from the torso to the pauldrons, to the greavs and even the gauntlets. Together with her armour, Vallarie wore a long red cape that had the Rune knight’s crest embroidered in the middle, a gold rune sword surrounded by gold stars.
On her hip was strapped the belt which sheathed her very own Rune Sword. Anyone who saw her dressed like this would have been mesmerised by her appearance…if she was a man. However, people often gave her dark looks and insulted her under their breath.
The worst of it was trying to earn the respect of the knights that she was now responsible for. They disobeyed her orders, insulted her to her face, and once had paid thugs to attack and rape her. It did not work; however, the next morning the heads of the thugs had lined the streets of the Fiondan capital.
Vallarie could have had the knights punished for their insubordination. However, that might have started a civil war in which she did not want to be the cause. Instead, Vallarie had decided to take drastic measures to earn the respect of her charges.
One morning, Vallarie had gathered all the knights in the training field and spoke to them ‘I understand your feelings’ she had said ‘I am younger than most of you here, but more importantly I am a woman. For the famed Rune Knights of Fiondan, it seems ridiculous to take orders from a young girl such as I. However; our King has put you under my charge. I know that I am not the leader you chose. And that is why I offer you a wager.’
The Men eyed her suspiciously but allowed her to continue without interruption. ‘Choose ten among you, and I shall battle all ten at once. If I fall, then I will step down as The Knight-Commander’ all the Knights broke out into anxious murmurs. A Knight with light brown hair stepped forward. He looked to be a few years older than Vallarie. ‘Do you mean that? You will step down and allow us to choose our Knight-Commander?’ he inquired with steely eyes. ‘Yes,’ Vallarie replied ‘and if I win you will follow my orders without question and cease this outright insubordination.’
The anxious murmurs had now turned into jeers and laughter. ‘As you wish, “My Lady”’ the brown-haired knight said with a mock bow. The men had chosen ten of their strongest knights, the brown-haired knight, Ser Bealon, being one of them.
The battle was fierce. Vallarie stood no chance against all of them at the same time. She had managed to beat four of the knights into submission before she fell. The men did not laugh or jeer. They all had serious looks on their faces, and a new found respect for her. She was stronger than any of them were individually. ‘You fought well Vallarie’ said Ser Bealon ‘but a promise is a promise. You will step down and allow us to choose our own Knight-Commander.’
Vallarie lay face down on the ground. She was battered and bruised. Blood seeped from wounds all over her body. She could barely move. Vallarie forced herself up to the astonishment of the men around her. Algon trusted me with this role, she thought. I will not fail him. I have to keep fighting!
Vallarie stood up and took up her sword yet again. She stood facing the remaining six knights and readied herself for another round. Ser Bealon threw his sword on the ground and said ‘Enough.’
He turned his back to her and began to walk away. ‘Where are you going!? This isn’t over!’ Vallarie yelled after him. ‘I’m going home. I expect you’ll have duties for all of us later on Lord-Commander. I’d best get all the rest I can.’
Since that day the Rune Knights had become like her family. Her brothers-in-arms who respected her admired her and loved her. Even her newly appointed Knight-Captain, Ser Bealon, would defend her openly if he heard anyone speaking ill of her.
Vallarie now found herself before the king in the throne room. It was mid-morning, only a few hours after she had read the letter from Gillia. “I will not deny your request this time, Knight-Commander,” King Algon said to her “However, what do you hope to accomplish by undergoing this investigation? I would not be surprised if the empire DID have a hand in the princess’s murder. But what of it?”
“I simply wish to find out the truth for myself, your highness” Vallarie said.
King Algon tapped his fingers on the armrest of his throne and stared down at Vallarie who knelt before him. “Very well. I permit you to take a leave of absence from your duties for one month, no more than that.”
“Thank you, your highness, I am grateful.”
“You will go unaccompanied and in an unofficial capacity. You must leave your Rune Knight Armour and cape behind. However, I will allow you to carry your rune sword.”
Vallarie bowed to King Algon and to his wife, Queen Nora, who sat beside him.
Hours later, Vallarie had packed the last of her belongings into a large knapsack which included a change of clothes, food rations, and a bedroll. As promised, Vallarie did not pack any of her Rune Knight Armour. Instead, she wore brown leather pants, iron greaves, a brown leather jerkin with a long linen shirt underneath, and iron gauntlets.
Vallarie had wanted to travel light as she would be spending most of her time on the road. Just as she tied the knot on her knapsack, there was a knock on her chamber door. “Enter,” she said.
A handsome knight with light brown hair; entered her chambers. “I know His Majesty ordered you to go alone, but I’ve come to escort you Lord-Commander.”
Ser Bealon stood at the entrance of her bedchamber wearing a thick black travelling cloak. “You cannot,” she said simply “I do this for myself, and so I must do it alone.”
“It will be dangerous!” he protested “You’re dealing with the Empire! Any number of things could befall you!”
Vallarie smiled as she shouldered her knapsack “Exactly. That is why I will not drag you into this”
Ser Bealon shook his head “I would follow you into the jaws of death Lord-Commander! All the knights would!”
Vallarie walked toward Ser Bealon and placed her iron-clad hand on his shoulder “Listen to me” she said with a grave expression “The Empire might set their sights on Fiondan soon. If I don’t make it back when that happens, I will be counting on you to act as Knight-Commander.”
Ser Bealon cast his eyes downward “Yes Lord-Commander, you can count on me.”
Vallarie nodded and walked passed him, exiting the chamber. “But you had better not be away longer than a month” Ser Bealon called after her “, or I will have to cut through the entire imperial legion to come to look for you!”
Vallarie smiled but did not reply and continued to walk away. As she made her way through the great hall of the palace, she began to think of Azzara. To even picture her face would fill her eyes with tears. She took a deep breath and steeled herself. She had lied to her brother, The King. This investigation was not only a matter of closure for her. She would find those responsible for murdering Azzara and make them suffer dearly…even if it costed her very life.
Those were her last thoughts as the Knight-Commander of Fiondan’s Rune Knights stepped through the Palace doors and into the bright summer afternoon.