Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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VI

The days went by slowly after the arrest of Professor Alavar. When the news of the strange night spread throughout the poor district, the curiosity of the peasants reached a new high. All of the citizens used to think that Alavar was just a kind old man who loved the world of knowledge, but after Ziaxe's recount of the arrest, the citizens were dubious of the man's true intentions. There was—to put it simply—a lot of paranoid thoughts amongst the peasants, a plethora of uncertain perceptions of who Alavar truly was. Everyone knew that Alavar was a famous intellect who had travelled around the world at least once, but the fact that he seemed to have powerful enemies was rather unsettling.

But, despite all the bewilderment and sadness that Ziaxe and his friends felt for the professor and his arrest, life went on, a continuous flow of events like an unhindered stream. Ziaxe's birthday was growing near—along with the responsibility of manhood—and he knew he would have to face it all on his own with only his few friends to help him.

A few days after Alavar’s arrest Ziaxe told Kron about all of the things Alavar had told him before he was arrested, mostly everything except for their discussion of his dream. He also showed Kron his father's bow, and Kron was nice enough to give Ziaxe a beginning lesson in archery since he had had no prior instruction.

"You need to align the arrowhead with your target and slowly pull back on the bowstring," said Kron as he instructed Ziaxe on aiming at a tree by the pond.

Ziaxe took Kron's advice, and, when he let go of the bowstring, his arrow flew true and stuck itself in the tree bark. He grinned broadly at his success. "I did it, Kron!" he yelled enthusiastically.

Kron smiled. "Very good, Ziaxe," he said as he went to retrieve the arrow. "I guess archery is in your blood."

"I wonder if my father was a good archer," said Ziaxe, almost distantly, memories of his talk about his father with Alavar returning momentarily.

"I'm sure he was," said Kron, returning with Ziaxe's arrow. He put the arrow back in the quiver and took a seat on one of the boulders. "Say, Ziaxe, your birthday is growing awfully close. I have been thinking about doing something for it."

Ziaxe shot another arrow, and the arrow flew true once more to the same spot. He grinned at his accuracy. "What do you have in mind, Kron?" he said as he readied another arrow.

"Well, Ziaxe, my family makes a trip to the rich district around this time—to deliver crops and whatnot. How would you like to come along with us?"

Ziaxe thought about the proposition momentarily. "I'm not sure, Kron. The harvest is coming soon, and Alben might need help."

"It'll only be for the day, Ziaxe. Just you, me, and my foster parents."

"I don't know…." Ziaxe frowned and thought about all the good and bad things a trip to the rich district at this time of year could bring.

Before he could get far though, Kron put on a wry face. "We could invite Venna," he said coolly, deliberately.

That easily got Ziaxe's attention. "Well… all right," he conceded.

Kron smirked and stood up. He patted Ziaxe's back in a friendly manner.

Ziaxe, however, nearly doubled over from Kron's absently applied strength.

"Sorry," said Kron sheepishly, withdrawing his arm.

"It's all right," replied Ziaxe drily, slowly recovering.

The day went by quickly after that. He and Kron had decided on the date for which to make the trip to the rich district. He then went home to do household chores while Alben was still gone. He hoped that Alben was really at the crop fields readying for the harvest, but he couldn’t know for sure.

And so time went on, a flowing river that cannot be hindered, and Ziaxe continued to live in the safety and ignorance of the Great Walls of Berania.

The day of the trip to the rich district soon came. It began with a foggy autumn morning. The temperature was slowly decreasing as winter steadily approached, its cold hand seeming to cast a shadow upon the land. The oak trees around the pond had been slowly changing leaf color and were beginning to shed their branches, a clear indication of the changing weather. Ziaxe was dreading the approaching winter since it was always hard for the peasants of the poor district to find adequate warmth to survive.

He left his house in the early morning and met with Kron by the pond. Kron's foster parents were there along with Venna, loading an enclosed wagon with a variety of crops from the crop fields in the murky fog.

When Ziaxe stood behind the wagon looking for some way to help load it, Kron's foster father greeted him, "Hello, Ziaxe. How are you today?"

Kron's foster father was a muscular man with broad shoulders and a clean shaven face. His name was Kalcin, and he was a joyful fellow who enjoyed the honest work of being a farmer.

"Good morning, sir," replied Ziaxe, smiling. He adjusted his boy that he was carrying across his back and continued to survey the work.

Kron's foster mother, Salia, also greeted Ziaxe. She was a brown haired woman in her middle years—about one hundred or more years old in Sargenian reckoning. She had a slender figure and a kind nature. It always surprised Ziaxe to see such happy people amongst the poor district.

Then Venna greeted Ziaxe. She looked beautiful like always. The fog seemed to slowly fade when she smiled. He still remembered the dream where she was a beautiful angel; that thought always made him chuckle.

When all the crops were loaded in the back of the wagon, Kalcin and Salia took seats up front while Ziaxe and his friends sat among the crops in the enclosed back. Kalcin took the reins of the two horses up front, and the wagon began to move at a slow canter.

Ziaxe sat by a large pumpkin at the front of the wagon, his back to the drivers. He looked out through the space behind him to see the slowly approaching rich district ahead of the wagon.

He had been to the rich district a few times in his life on random occasions, but he had never been too excited about it. He lacked a pride for the glorious city of Berania that most other Sargenians seemed to have. He found the royal buildings in the rich district overly exaggerated. The rich people of Berania seemed to love to display their power by making huge buildings that were ultimately pointless.

He also found that Berania was mainly a terrible city because of its social classes. There were fewer poor people than rich people, but the rich people never cared to assist the poor in any way. Ziaxe was sure that if he could get a simple donation from the rich he could help the peasants to create better lives. He sighed to himself for he knew that would never happen, the greed of the rich too strong to allow any endowment of any kind.

Venna sat on the left side of the wagon by a large sack of potatoes almost equivalent to her small size, and Kron sat on the opposite side by sacks of carrots and various other vegetables.

Ziaxe looked out the front of the wagon and listened to the steady beat of the horseshoes clopping along the road. The fog ahead concealed most of the rich district, but he could dimly see torchlights by the buildings, shining like lighthouses on a foggy shoreline.

As they got closer to the rich district, Ziaxe could see the smaller outer houses that made up the homes for most of the middle class Beranians. The rich class Beranians had bigger buildings near the center of the rich district. In the very center of it all was the Beranian Castle where King Broniton himself lived.

As the enormous Beranian Castle slowly came into view behind the smaller houses, Ziaxe thought about what General Virok said that night of his visit to the poor district that felt so long ago. King Broniton's mysterious son was somewhere outside the city walls—apparently thanks to Professor Alavar's help.

Ziaxe remembered Alavar then, an old ache returning to his heart. The professor was most likely in the dungeons of the Beranian Castle, rotting away with other malicious prisoners. He could hopelessly dream of somehow saving the poor professor from what he thought was an injustice arrest, but dreams rarely come true he knew. He sighed glumly to himself. Alavar was long gone.

The horses continued their trot along the road. When they had officially entered the rich district, Ziaxe could hear their horseshoes' clopping become louder as the road turned into cobblestone. The rich Beranians seemed to have decided not to waste money on making the whole road properly cobblestoned by starting the cobblestone road at the rich district and ending it at the edge of the district.

"We're almost there, everybody," announced Salia with a smile, her head turning back towards the passengers in the wagon, while her husband continued to steer the horses.

Ziaxe and his friends stretched out in their cramped seats and looked out the front of the wagon. Ziaxe saw a horde of merchants working their kiosks and trying to swindle innocent, rich Beranians as they entered the marketplace. There were some merchants with very expensive looking jewels and crystals. If the crystals were truly from the Crystal Mines in Ravilla then they might really be worth the cost the merchants were auctioning them for, but Ziaxe doubted the sincerity of the merchants.

He knew the way the merchants scammed all too well though. There had always been peasants from the poor district who would visit the rich district and return complaining about how they had been conned. Ziaxe smiled distantly as he remembered a day from his childhood when a farmer had gone to the rich district to sell his crops to a merchant. The farmer had showed everyone his colorful language when he returned with fake crystals and jewels.

There were also merchants who sold useful objects like tools and food that the peasants all needed to survive. Ziaxe hoped that he would be able to tell the difference between the good and bad merchants for he didn’t have the money to risk that mistake.

They continued until the horses stopped in front of a large kiosk full of vegetables. Ziaxe and his friends got out of the back of the wagon, feeling relieved to leave their cramped seats. They were greeted by the shouts and noises that usually filled a marketplace. There were various farmers, merchants, and shoppers all around, doing their different kinds of business. Horses neighed, donkeys brayed, and chickens clucked all around along with bustling carts and jingling coins. Ziaxe found a sense of excitement that floated through the air among this place where multiple people spent tons of gold coins.

A middle aged merchant with a short gray beard and large belly that was barely contained in his clothes came out from behind the kiosk with a broad smile across his face. "Greetings, Kalcin," he said as he walked to the front of the wagon.

Kalcin got down from his seat and embraced the big man. "Greetings, Dolbor," said Kalcin. He released the man and softly patted his back. "How goes business, my old friend?"

The merchant shrugged. "It goes well. It's always getting chaotic right before winter. Farmers are trying to make money to buy supplies and so on. How goes the farming?"

"Excellent, Dolbor," said Kalcin as he led Dolbor to the back of the wagon. He parted the canvas flaps and showed Dolbor the various vegetables he had grown.

Dolbor's eyes glistened. "Wonderful, Kalcin. Now I'd say it's time to work out a price."

"Yes, of course." Kalcin turned to Kron, Ziaxe, and Venna. "Why don't you three go look around? You've been saving up your money. Right, Kron?"

"Yes, Father," replied Kron.

"Good. Now run along."

The three friends left and walked around the marketplace, their eyes exploring every piece of merchandise in sight. "How much have you been saving?" asked Ziaxe, curious of why and what Kron was saving money for.

"I've got a few bronze coins in my purse," replied Kron. "I was thinking of buying you a present if you'd like."

Ziaxe was touched by the gratuitous offer Kron made. "Well, I don't want to be a burden," he said with a slight smile.

"It's no problem." Kron grinned back.

They continued through the marketplace. Venna lingered by the jewelry kiosks, her eyes wide with greed as are the eyes of most young women in the world. Kron had to warn her not to do anything foolish while he and Ziaxe continued to look around, fearful that she might steal or accidently break something valuable.

Ziaxe and Kron found a large kiosk that was selling various metal objects. The owner of the kiosk was a blacksmith with large, muscular arms and broad shoulders. Ziaxe's eyes caught the many swords the blacksmith sold, interest at possessing a real weapon appearing in his eyes.

"Greetings, young ones," said the blacksmith. "Do I have anything that might interest you this fine day?"

Ziaxe looked at the objects laid out on the front table of the kiosk. There were swords, axes, silverware, shields, pots, pans, and almost anything anyone could ever need. He examined a large iron sword that looked wonderful and mighty with a hilt glittering with jewels, a weapon of a true warrior. "How much would this sword be?" he asked hesitantly, gesturing to the sword and fearing the answer.

"That sword?" The blacksmith thought to himself for a moment. "That'd be about twenty gold pieces I'd say."

The words crushed Ziaxe's hope.

Kron seemed to notice Ziaxe's sudden downheartedness. "How about that bronze one?" He pointed to a bronze sword hanging on the opposite wall of the kiosk.

"Oh, that old thing? I’ll sell that for about five bronze coins," answered the blacksmith.

Kron grinned. "We'll take it." He brought out his purse from his pocket and took out five bronze coins.

The blacksmith took the coins and smiled greedily at them, a twinkle in his eye. "Nice doing business with you, gentlemen," he said as he reached for the bronze sword. He put the weapon in a sheath that looked very old and worn and handed it to Kron.

Kron then handed the sword to Ziaxe. "Happy Birthday," he said with a broad grin.

Ziaxe was surprised at Kron's willingness to spend so much money on him. He gratefully took the sword. He unsheathed it and heard the steel ring that it produced. It wasn’t the most attractive sword in the world, but it fit Ziaxe's needs. This was the first real sword he had ever held, and he felt himself fill with a great joy. "Thank you, Kron, so much," he said.

"It's nothing," said Kron with a shrug. "You would've done the same thing for me."

Ziaxe grinned at his great friend. He saw that the sheath had a belt connected to it so he strapped the sheath across his back. A great feeling of power filled Ziaxe as he wore his first ever sword, a feeling of being unstoppable, an unexplainable feeling where he felt like he could defeat anything that challenged him.

The two companions walked back to where Venna was still hungrily examining various items of jewelry. She turned and smiled when she saw Ziaxe's present. "Wow, Ziaxe," she said in an awed voice, "a man's weapon." She flashed a little grin, and Ziaxe blushed and looked away.

The three continued their way through the marketplace when suddenly a glorious fanfare of trumpets erupted from behind. Ziaxe looked over his shoulder to see a group of trumpeters formed on the sides of the street. When the fanfare ended, the trumpeters lowered their horns and let a group of regal looking armored horsemen walk down the path between them. Sadly, Ziaxe recognized the lead horseman.

The lead horseman, clad in gold armor with a mighty sword belted across his back, sitting upon a giant warhorse, led the group of horsemen to the center of the marketplace. One of the trumpeters then announced in a loud, deep voice, "Hear ye! Hear ye! Lend me thy ears! The great General Virok has a declaration to proclaim!"

The merchants of the many kiosks around the marketplace ended their businesses abruptly and looked to Virok with utmost attention, some with eyes full of interest and curiosity while many others had expressions of fear and anxiety.

Virok removed his helm, and all could see his handsome face bordered by his dark beard and hair. "Attention, ye of the rich district," he announced. "The great King Broniton has issued a draft. All men ranging from sixteen years to two hundred fifty years of age are asked to join. The Beranian army is in need of all the men it can get."

Ziaxe gasped in surprise. This was just what he wanted: to join the Beranian army with Kron.

But before Ziaxe could think more on that subject, a ragged old woman came forth from the crowd of merchants. She had pale, baggy skin and was clothed in an unkempt, grey cloak with many rips and tears. Her gray hair was long and meshed, and her pointy noise poked out from the shadow of her hood like a rat’s. She walked limply with a staff in her hand, and a grotesque hump replaced her back. The woman's homely appearance shocked everyone in the marketplace. "Oh, dear General Virok!" she yelled in a shaky voice that showed her as a weak, struggling old woman. "So nice to see thee again!"

General Virok sat upon his horse with wide eyes of surprise. He appeared to not deny that he had seen this old woman before, but he seemed to be terrified that she was there, that the innocent looking old woman would dare to come anywhere near him. "How dare thee curse me with thy presence!" screamed Virok.

"Now, Virok, I have something to tell you," said the old woman as she slowly came forward to Virok with one arm stretched out towards him, trying to touch some part of him.

"Get back, you vile witch!" Virok reached for his sword and unsheathed it quickly. Ziaxe thought that pulling a sword out on a defenseless old woman was very discourteous, making the general look no better than a ruffian off the streets. "Thou knowest that thou cannot set foot near me! I told thee that thou hast disrespected our order."

"But I am here to make it all better, Virok," said the woman. She attempted to make a reassuring smile, but her fragile face collapsed as she seemed to lose energy at the simple task. "I have found a child, a child who will help us succeed."

"Cease thy lies, Bellara! We all know thy true intent!" Virok turned to the horsemen behind him. "Guards! Arrest the witch!"

The guards got off their horses at their master’s order with brandished weapons and came forward to apprehend the old woman.

"How dare you, Virok!" yelled the woman, dropping her gentle voice while the guards began to chain her, her voice morphing into a shriek of anger and hatred. "Master trusted us! He waits for us! Only I can save him!"

"Silence!" yelled Virok as he sheathed his mighty sword. "Take her to the dungeons, and let her rot for the rest of her fiendish life." He turned his horse around and let the guards go ahead toward the Beranian Castle in the center of the rich district where they would take the witch to the dungeons. Before he left, he looked over his shoulder and announced, "Let this be a lesson, good people of Berania! Any who go against the crown goes against me! While his Majesty may be kind and generous, I am cruel and vicious! Any fools who dare rebel against my word will be taken to the dungeons where his or her fate will be decided.

“Now, with all that said, take heed of my message of the draft. All who wish to join must come to the Beranian Castle in a week. Berania expects its citizens to defend it."

Then he galloped away to the castle, leaving the citizens of Berania flabbergasted.


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