“This is an option you must consider, Farli.”
The young King of Sargenia scowled as he was lectured by Alavar. The two of them walked the dimly-lit halls of the Rillen Castle among Farli’s guards. They had just finished an uncomfortable meal with King Nari after their introductions. Most of the food remained uneaten as conversations of military plans and strategies overtook them. The knowledge of the loss of Kriton was on everyone’s mind, haunting them all with the news that Virok was getting closer each passing day.
He had kept to his formalities though. He kept stern and solid throughout the discussions, not letting any of his inner emotions show. That was what his father would have done in this situation. The old Great King Broniton had always said that in times of tragedy, the people needed someone to stay strong so they could stay strong with him. That was what the Army of Light did in the Vician War under Broniton. Farli would do it as well.
The same could not be said for their new Nizain. It made him want to scream in anger when he remembered the looks of fear on the faces of Nizain Ziaxe and the trio from Salras, the lumberjacks and duchess. The other Guardians were more experienced and confident in their abilities, but those other fools looked as if they were about to wet themselves during the talks. This peasant Nizain could ruin everything if Farli didn’t take control. The Zarians expect a powerful warrior to lead them into battle, and the gods know this Ziaxe was no warrior.
In the end, it was decided that all they could do was ready their forces for Virok’s attack on Rillen. In Rillen they had a great defense while trying to go to Virok would only put them out in the open. They all knew that Virok’s army was at least a thousand stronger than their army, so they could not risk too much.
But now here they were on their way to the chambers they were assigned while the others went to their own chambers. Farli was already feeling exhausted and ready to end the day when Alavar brought up another topic that infuriated him even more.
“Are you listening to me, Farli?” nagged Alavar. “This is important if we want to unite our kingdoms. Queen Melna would make a fair wife, and your land would expand to two-thirds of Ancient Sarbenia. King Nari has been planning to offer her to you ever since Virok began his march.”
“No, Alavar,” replied Farli as he continued to stomp ahead. “There will be no discussion on this.”
“If you don’t make a move now, there may be no choice in the matter later on.” The professor grabbed Farli’s arm to stop him. “Listen, it may become necessary soon. Nari doesn’t completely trust you to lead this army, so he will not be willing to just give you more men just because you ask. If you promise to marry Melna after this fighting has stopped then he will give you his support. He has just as much to gain from this union as you.”
Farli glared. “I refuse to be a part of a union with someone I don’t love especially someone with a more tainted royal line than mine.” He squeezed out of Alavar’s grip.
“Farli!” Alavar’s voice seemed to shake the air around them, making the torches brightening the hall flicker slightly. The guards around them looked uncomfortable to be here listening to this conversation. “This isn’t about you, boy! I am doing all I can to keep our kingdom alive, so if you wish to be a fool about this then go ahead! You can watch as the Zarians go their own way and let your kingdom burn!” He stormed off. A few of the guards were surprised and went off him while the others stayed with Farli.
Farli was just as surprised, and for once he let the emotion show on his face. He instantly felt guilty, but Alavar just didn’t understand. He knew how his story was going to end. He knew that he was going to rid this world of the Darkness with or without the Zarians.
Salandra filled his mind then. She is what I fight for, he thought. He knew somewhere she was waiting for him to cleanse this land so she may return, so all the Sargens may return. He couldn’t leave her for some Zarian woman. Melna was no Salandra. Salandra was perfection, and Farli would not settle for anything less.
But now as he entered his chamber and settled himself in his bed, loneliness overtook him, and a tear slid down his cheek. He was all alone. There was no more family, and his “friends” could betray him just as soon as support him.
And why should he want to be king of two kingdoms when he hated being king for one?
The next day Nizain Ziaxe went to explore Rillen on his own. After the long journey to get there among the huge army, he was eager to find some time to be alone. The majority of the army was ordered to spend the day setting up barricades and other defenses at the western side of the city, so Alavar allowed him to wander around. He carried his weapons still as he wore a cloak with his face concealed. He would not go too far away from the army, and it was common knowledge that Gurgan was always somewhere keeping an eye on him.
The city was magnificent with its many towering buildings and energy. The streets were crowded with people bustling back and forth with different wares and missions. There was a tension though that everyone felt since the whole city now knew about the approaching enemy. Most of the people were rushing to buy supplies before their lives were threatened while others were trying their best to push their ways out the eastern gate. It was expected that Virok’s army was at least a few days away, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
Seeing all these anxious people just fueled Ziaxe’s worry, but he tried to relax, using this day at least to try to be a normal person again. He saw some people in rags while others wore wealthy silk and wool clothing. It made him miss the simpleness of his peasant life, but there was no point dwelling in the past.
He calmly pushed his way through the crowds, being polite while others simply pushed and ignored others. He took a seat on a small stone wall that encircled a garden at the center of an intersection. The sun was warm, but the wind was bitter and cold. The snow was nearly gone, and he took the time to smile and wonder how his fellow Beranians weathered this winter.
He knew that Kycan, Kron, and Srion as well as the other men of the Poor District were probably among Virok’s army, and he didn’t look forward to that. It was all he could do to hope that they found a way out of Berania like him or that they would escape this upcoming battle unscathed. He had no idea what happened to Alben, but he found himself also worrying about him despite all the trouble Alben had caused to him. Venna and Nea were still among the women alone if nothing had changed that. He could still picture Venna’s smile in his mind, and it warmed him through the cold wind.
He returned to his walk and explored the many streets. It was on the one narrow back alley street where he experienced something different from the regular activity of the city.
The voice arose from behind Ziaxe, and he instinctively turned to find its source. And then he was instantly struck with a quick force that felt like his stomach was being punched by a small boulder. He doubled over at the pain, unable to react. His mind went to all of his training, and he considered all he should be doing instead of focusing on the pain.
“Sorry about that, sir!”
Ziaxe looked up and saw what had hit him. It was a short boy who appeared to be a few years younger than him, a few years from manhood. He stood up to Ziaxe’s chest and had a mass of wild hair that was a bright color of copper red. His clothes were dirty and torn in several places. The boy was also surprisingly armed with a pair of daggers that were worn at his belt. But as soon as Ziaxe caught a glimpse of him, he was off running past him down the alleyway.
“Stop him! Thief!”
Another voice erupted in anger, and Ziaxe saw the small group of Zarian Knights running towards him. The Knights were garbed in their heavy armor and the alleywall was too narrow for them, so they plodded ahead, pushing through each other as they tried to follow the boy.
Thief? Ziaxe’s hand reached for where the coin purse he had been carrying usually was.
He cursed and turned to run after the boy.
He raced out of the alleyway and spotted the boy’s bright hair through the groups of people spread out among the streets. The Knights had no chance of keeping up with this boy who was running as light as a feather, appearing to know every twist and turn of the city. Ziaxe was lucky to have only his sheathed swords and shirt of mail under his cloak to weigh him down.
Through crowds and markets and some empty streets, he ran after the young thief, sprinting as fast as he could to keep the boy in his line of sight. Finally, he saw the boy climb up a ladder to the roof of one of the many stone buildings that stood side by side. He ran up the ladder and ended up on a flat roof that overlooked a sea of other buildings ahead of him. At the opposite end of the roof stood the thief looking down at the street far below. He had nowhere left to run.
“Give me back my money!” yelled Ziaxe as he bent over to catch his breath.
The boy turned around, and Ziaxe saw a mix of determination and fear in his eyes. This boy must have been used to escaping the people who chased him. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the boy with the soft voice of a child. “I’m just a poor orphan boy. I need some coins to support myself.”
Ziaxe looked at the boy and felt sympathy in that moment. For a moment, he felt as if he was looking in a mirror that showed his younger self. He knew how it felt to be a poor orphan even if he had never resorted to stealing. “I understand how that feels,” he replied.
“You do?” The boy’s eyes went large with surprise and some eagerness. Maybe he thought to manipulate Ziaxe if he could get him to care about him.
But Ziaxe knew he couldn’t just let the boy break the law. “You have to return the money you stole.”
The boy’s reaction was anger as he clenched the couple of purses that he had stolen. “No! I need it!”
Ziaxe came closer to the boy, keeping his hands out to try to show he was no threat. “Just give me the money, or I will have to take you to the Knights, and I don’t want to have to do that.”
When Ziaxe was a few feet from the boy, there was a movement that seemed almost as fast as lightning as the boy’s hand brandished one of his daggers, and the blade came spiraling at Ziaxe’s chest. Ziaxe jumped to the side, but the dagger cut his skin slightly under the cloak and mail as it flew by. If he had no armor and didn’t move at all, he would have been killed.
He unsheathed his swords at his back and held them ready, but how could he find it in himself to fight a child? Even if the child was apparently trained in dagger throwing. “Settle down,” he commanded. “I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me.”
The boy’s face was stern with fury, but his eyes showed his timidness. He sighed again, and the determination left his body. “Ugh, I can’t kill someone who isn’t a Zarian Knight.” He went down on his knees and pouted.
That surprised Ziaxe. The boy went from attempting to murder him to pouting like a child having a tantrum in a matter of seconds. “All right,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “Just put the other dagger down, and I’ll figure out what to do with you.”
The boy did what he was told and crossed his hands in insolence.
Ziaxe sheathed his weapons and took the dagger away, staying alert for any other weapons the boy might be carrying. He felt sheepish as he felt the child stare at him like a child would to a parent who took away his toy. “All right,” he said, avoiding the boy’s stare, “what’s your name then?”
The boy lowered his arms and made a wry smile. “The name’s Copper!” he announced. “I’m the greatest thief the world has ever known! Ever since those stupid Zarian Knights killed my parents I’ve been own my own, the mysterious loner of Rillen! Maybe you’ve heard of me.”
Ziaxe stood and stared bewildered. “Honestly I haven’t.”
That comment returned Copper to his original state of defiance with his pouting lips and crossed arms.
“Well, I haven’t been here for too long, so maybe that’s why.”
The boy gave another smile that reminded him of Sastan’s energetic attitude. “Aye, that’s probably it! Everyone here knows my name.”
For some reason, Ziaxe didn’t quite believe him. “My name’s Ziaxe. I’m from Berania.”
At the sound of his name, Copper’s eyes and mouth went wide with shock and his skin went pale. “Ziaxe!?” he squeaked. “Y-y-you’re the Nizain!” He fell to his knees and groveled at Ziaxe’s feet.
Ziaxe almost forgot for a while that he was indeed the Nizain, and he hadn’t even considered the consequences for mentioning his name. “Yes, I am the Nizain, but please get up.” I’m sick of people worshipping me.
Copper’s face peered up among his wild red hair. “Okay, your Holiness.” He scrambled back onto his feet. “I apologize for not recognizing you at first. I know all the stories about the different Nizains, and I wouldn’t want to be on one’s bad side.”
Ziaxe had to smile. “Does this mean you’ll give back the money you stole?”
Copper looked as if he had forgotten about the money completely. “Oh, uh, of course, your Holiness!” He handed the purses to Ziaxe, the coins clinking with the movement.
“Good, but don’t call me that.”
“I apologize again, Nizain Ziaxe. What do you plan to do with me?”
The child was afraid Ziaxe could easily tell. “I will return the money to the Knights,” replied Ziaxe. “I hope though that you will try to not steal again.”
Copper looked out at the city around them. “I don’t really have a choice. I have nowhere to go and no way to live.” He turned back to Ziaxe. “I heard about your arrival here, and it just made me excited. You get to go everywhere and have adventures with the army and fight bad guys and all that fun stuff.”
“It’s not as fun as it may sound.” Ziaxe knew that firsthand.
“But with any adventure there’s always a chance to a new life and other adventures!” He paused and was hesitant to continue. “Is there any way I could possibly join you? When you and the army leave? I’ve always been afraid of going outside the walls alone, but if I’m with all of you then I’ll be able to see what’s out there for myself.”
The young thief was bursting with eagerness by the time he finished speaking. Ziaxe was reminded of himself and the foolish way he thought not too long ago about the world. He used to believe that good kings permanently defeated evil in epic battles, but now he knew it was all a game of chance when someone could live or die.
He could not ignore the boy’s request though. Just looking at him, Ziaxe knew that he had it rough in this city on his own. He wondered if the boy was just deceiving him, but the boy’s feelings towards freedom felt too real to him. There could possibly be a place for Copper in the army. It might even be safer than him staying in this city that was on the verge of being sieged.
“I will consider this,” replied Ziaxe. “Now come along. I will find you a bed for the night and food that you don’t have to steal.”
The two were off then, walking together through the city. Copper was given back his daggers, and they sticked to the side streets just in case Copper could be recognized. Ziaxe went off on his own for a while to return the purses to a Knight who promised to find their rightful owners while he kept his own.
The rest of the day passed uneventful as the Nizain and the thief arrived at the barracks where both Zarian and Sargenian warriors were forced to share space. It was just as busy here as it was in the main streets with weapons ringing as warriors trained and people transported materials around the area.
Ziaxe didn’t have any time to relax when Alavar arrived and walked up to them. The professor raised an eye to the boy at Ziaxe’s side, but he appeared to have other matters on his mind.
“There you are, Ziaxe,” said Alavar in his white robe. “I was growing worried about you. Gurgan lost track of you, because you ran off for whatever reason, but it appears you are all right, so no matter.”
The professor’s face turned from the friendliness of a greeting to a grave mask. “We have received urgent news from our scouts. Virok’s army has been moving more quickly than anticipated. They will be here in a day’s time.”
The news shook Ziaxe, and Copper’s face revealed all that was going on inside Ziaxe. He felt the apprehension and fear of what was approaching. He didn’t truly know what to expect, but he would have to rely on all of his training to guide him through it. His enemies would be there soon. Virok, Gilart….
Only the gods could know if he was ready.