Azzara opened her eyes, and a straw ceiling came into focus. She felt herself covered in warm blankets but nothing else. Azzara lifted her blankets and found herself wearing a torn and dirty tunic that covered her upper body down to her waist. Her thighs and legs were wrapped with bloody linens. It was only then that she had realised that she could not feel the lower part of her body. Try as she might, she could not move. Anxiety and fear had begun to set in as she struggled to move her legs.
After some time, Azzara had ceased her effort to move her lower body. Instead, she stared up at the ceiling and had struggled to recollect her last waking moments.
General Marcus tricked her into believing that a Gillian rebel force had come to rescue her and to make her their leader. Yes, her naivety had gotten an entire village burnt to the ground and all of its inhabitants slain mercilessly.
The man she had fallen for, Ser Ryder, was some horrifying creature that had shredded her legs as if they were pieces of mutton under a butcher’s knife. She remembered the fear, the pain, the trauma, and the helplessness. She had hoped and prayed that someone would save her…anyone. Her prayers had been answered in the form of a skinny, raven haired boy with torn, dirty clothes that were too small for him.
She could not remember much after that. The blood loss must have made me drowsy, she thought. All she remembered after that, was the raven haired boy carrying her in his arms and mumbling ‘I have to protect someone’. Did that boy defeat that creature? It seemed impossible.
Azzara turned her head to look at her surroundings. She appeared to be in a one room hut. The windows were shattered, all sorts of furniture had been broken and thrown around, and there was dry blood everywhere. Did he bring her here? The blood rushed to her face as she realised that it was he who had wrapped her legs in the linens and fitted the tunic on her. Feeling both embarrassed and vulnerable, Azzara lifted the blanket to her chin.
Suddenly the door of the hut creaked open. Azzara looked toward it and saw the boy who had saved her, come bustling in. He carried two dead rabbits over his shoulder and a bucket in his hands. The boy set the two rabbits down and poured water from the bucket into a black pot. Azzara watched quietly as he started a fire underneath the pot and had begun to throw in herbs and spices.
“Hello,” Azzara said nervously. The boy turned around startled. “You’re awake,” he said with a sad smile. The boy turned back to his task of cooking without another word. “Who are you?” Azzara asked after a short pause.
“My name’s Keon” he replied as he began to skin the first rabbit. “You’ve been asleep for the past two days. I was worried that you would never wake”
Azzara noticed that each movement caused Keon pain. He seemed to be badly hurt. Yet he had been in and out of this hut for the past two days. “Where are we?” she asked.
Keon pulled the innards out of the rabbit and started to wash the meat “We’re in the herbalist’s hut just outside the village. This was the only building that wasn’t burned down.”
Guilt had washed over Azzara as he said that. Keon Had been taking care of her these past two days even though he was injured. It was her fault that he had lost his village. She did not deserve his compassion, hard work, or his company.
“Don’t worry” he said suddenly “I didn’t touch you. I only cleaned your wounds and bound them. I didn’t look where I need not have”
“Thank you” Azzara smiled at him. On top of everything else his done for her, he wanted her to keep her dignity.
Keon smiled back genuinely this time and turned back to his task of cleaning the second rabbit. Hunger had begun to gnaw at Azzara’s stomach as she had not eaten in two days. “Keon,” she said suddenly “I…I cannot feel my legs.”
Keon continued to clean the rabbit and took his time before answering “I’m not a physician your highness. I will help you travel back to the palace. I’m sure you have many physicians there who could aid you.”
Azzara stared at the ceiling again. I will not go back to the palace, she thought. She would be a lamb waiting for slaughter if she did. Her brother would not be able to protect her from Marcus. No, there was only one place for her to go.
“I do not intend to go back to the Gillian Capital.”
“Why not?” Keon asked puzzled.
“It is not safe for me there. The only place for me to go now is Fiondan.”
“Fiondan? That’s leagues away! You can’t even walk!”
Azzara averted her eyes and said “I must. I do not expect you to help me. You have already done more than enough. I will find a way on my own”
Keon gave a sigh of annoyance as he threw chopped pieces of rabbit into the boiling pot.
“There’s no way you would be able to make it there on your own,” he said “We will go to Lavern first and then I will get you to Fiondan.”
“Lavern!? Why? I cannot let myself be captured by imperials! If we need supplies, I am sure we can find some here!”
“We’re not going there for supplies, and we won’t be going into the city itself,” Keon said as he stirred the contents of the pot with a wooden spoon. “There’s something I need to do…by the ocean.”
Azzara stared at Keon as he cooked their meal. She wondered if this scrawny, injured boy would be capable of trekking half way across the continent carrying her immobile body.
“Did you kill that creature? The one that attacked me?” she asked suddenly.
“I don’t know” he replied “And I don’t care. I don’t want to think about it. I still have nightmares about that thing.”
Azzara understood. Before she awoke this morning, she had been trapped in nightmares of the creature and General Marcus. It was why she could not allow herself to be captured again. She would rather end her own life than go through that once more.
Keon walked away from the boiling pot and reached under the bed. He pulled out a worn black leather pants and a black leather jerkin.
“You can wear these,” he said “They’re old and worn, but it’s all I could find”
He passed the clothing to her as she sat up on the bed. Azzara was not dissatisfied or unhappy with the garments. In-fact, she was grateful to put something on as she felt vulnerable and embarrassed.
“I would like to bathe,” she said to Keon.
“There’s a river near here, but I don’t see how-“Keon stopped and then gave her a look of understanding. Blood began to rush to her face again. She had no choice. She did not know Keon very well, but she felt like she could trust him. It was difficult to trust again after everything that had happened…but his eyes were too honest.
Keon lifted her from the bed and averted his eyes from her body. Azzara used her hands to try and cover up as much of her body as she could. She felt incredibly uncomfortable as he carried her out of the door and into the morning. As he walked, Azzara could tell that Keon was struggling. His stick-like arms seemed to be trembling underneath her weight. His struggle did not show on his face, however. Keon continued to look straight ahead as they reached the river and she was grateful for it.
Keon placed her on the shallow end of the river and stepped back. Azzara could see the water rush over her legs, but she could not feel it.
“I’ll be back in a little while,” Keon said to her “I’ll just fetch your clothes.”
Azzara began to remove Keon’s tunic from her body and then unwrapped the linens covering her legs. What she saw made her cover her mouth with her hand. Her thighs and legs were utterly ruined. Huge bloody scars had covered her once smooth and silky legs. Azzara washed the blood from her lower body and hoped it would somehow look better. However, washing away the dry blood only showed her how truly deformed the lower part of her body had become.
“It cannot be helped” she whispered to herself. Azzara did not care to be attractive to any man now. Marriage was the last thing on her mind. Her home had been taken away from her, her brother was being used, an entire village of innocent people and children had been destroyed because of her, and now she couldn’t walk…it was too much to bear.
Azzara began to cry uncontrollably. Up to this point she had held in all of her tears and all of her pain. She had always had hope that something would change. She missed her father and her mother. Growing up, all she ever wanted to do was be independent and to not be so coddled by her parents. She tried to be strong like Vallarie. But now…all she wanted to do was curl up in her mother’s arms as her father made everything right again.
Hot tears streamed down her face as she cried for everything that she had lost and everything that frightened her. She cried at how helpless she felt. “Father…mother…”
Azzara was startled as she felt something dry and warm cover her back and over her shoulders. It was a wash towel. Keon turned his back and said “I’ve brought your clothes. If you need help putting them on just ask.”
Azzara turned to look at him as he walked away and found a dead log to sit on. How long had he been listening to her cry?
Azzara used her arms to pull herself out of the river and began to dress. It was difficult to use only her arms and back to move about. She first slipped on the short linen pants he had brought for her and then, with some difficulty, used her arms to put on the leather pants. Putting on the leather jerkin was easy; however, she found it near impossible to put on her boots.
Just then, Keon came along and fitted on her boots gently. “Thank you,” she said softly.
Keon nodded and picked her up in his arms once more. When they reached the hut, Keon laid Azzara on the bed and winced. He was still hurt. More guilt had washed over Azzara as she spoke: “You are from this village are you not?”
Keon replied with a simple nod as he poured the rabbit stew into two bowls. “And your family…are they…?”
Keon placed the warm stew in her hands and then sat down on a nearby chair.
“I found a cart large enough to fit you and any supplies we can find. I’ll pull the cart until we get to Lavern. I’ll be able to buy a horse there to pull the cart until we reach Fiondan.”
Azzara did not pursue her inquiry any further. She had no right to pry into sensitive matters that she had been the cause of.
“I managed to find some gold scattered around the village. It should be enough for a strong horse. I don’t know why the Imperials destroyed my village, and I don’t know why they’re after you, but I do know that we can’t have them recognise you” Keon pointed to a black travelling cloak hanging on the wall.
“You will have to wear that and keep your face hidden. If we run into anyone; we have to have a back story to keep your true identity a secret.”
Azzara was impressed by his way of thinking as initially, he seemed to be nothing more than a poor village boy. “What sort of story?” she asked.
“If anyone asks, we are siblings on our way to Fiondan to live with our uncle” he replied, “You need a new name as well.”
“What will my name be?”
Keon gave her a quizzical look “Why ask me? Did you never have a name that you desired above all others?”
Azzara looked down at her stew and had begun to think. She remembered a conversation that she had with Vallarie many years ago. Vallarie had told her about a story of an ancient queen that once ruled Gillia over a thousand years ago. The stories of warrior queens that ruled the kingdom were nothing more than myth and legend. They say that the queens were so powerful that they could call upon the power of a divine entity to give them great strength in battle. However, Vallarie had told her about a queen that was said to be the strongest of them all, and her name was Queen…
“Dahlia,” she said finally.
“Dahlia it is” Keon smiled at her and then put down his empty bowl and walked toward the door.
’Where are you going?” Azzara asked.
“To pack supplies into the cart and bring it here. We’ll leave as soon as we’re ready.”
Azzara lay her head on the pillow and stared up at the ceiling. She felt a lot better now than she did before. She was dressed and fed, but more importantly, she was not alone. This scrawny village boy was going to help her get to Fiondan where she would meet with her oldest friend Vallarie. She would finally be safe. Keon does not know what I have done, she thought. Would he still help me if he did? Would he still be so kind?
Azzara did not want to think about it. He did not need to know. She needs him; she could not deny it. It made her sick to use someone as kind and sweet as Keon. He had a right to know. He had a right to choose whether or not he still wanted to help her. However, in her experience, life is never that easy. It was then that she made a promise to herself to tell him everything once they reached Fiondan.
Azzara awoke suddenly as Keon came in through the door of the hut. She had been asleep. She looked out of the window and saw the sun setting; it was already late afternoon.
“Dahlia,” Keon said “I have the cart outside. Are you ready?”
Azzara set up on the bed and nodded. She allowed Keon to lift her in his arms and carry her outside. The cart was spacious and had already been packed with blankets, various tools, a wooden bow and some arrows, different clothing for both her and Keon and a bag of grain as their food supply. There was also a sealed clay pot next to her foot.
Keon set her gently in the cart on top of the blankets and helped her to fasten her travelling cloak. Azzara covered her head with the hood of her cloak as Keon settled himself at the front of the cart and began to pull. Keon groaned as he pulled the wagon. The carriage moved slowly as he took one step at a time. Azzara was not about to complain about the pace. She knew how difficult it must be to haul this cart and all its contents for someone of his physical stature.
Night had fallen as they reached the entrance of the village. Keon stopped to catch his breath, and Azzara turned around to look at the former village of Jesk.
Her heart broke as she looked at the burned down houses, the corpses that littered the ground, and the thought of all that Keon must have lost.
As Keon started to pull the cart again, Azzara spoke: “What do I call you if anyone were to ask us questions?”
Keon had to stop pulling to reply “You will call me Keon. I’m no one. My name doesn’t mean anything to anyone; it never did.”
Without another word, Keon pulled the cart out of the village and on to the main road. Together, the two young travellers set out south to Lavern. Azzara did not know what awaited her on this journey, but she did know that whatever happens; at least she would not be alone and that was the greatest comfort anyone could give her.