Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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VII

Ziaxe had been perplexed at all that had happened in the rich district. Virok had once again arrested another person who appeared to be innocent. But Ziaxe remembered what the general had said when he called the old woman a "witch," and he had to admit that the old woman—whom Virok called Bellara—had all the traits that the witches in Professor Alavar's stories had. It was frightening, in a way, to think that there could be witches in the sanctuary of Berania.

Since Virok had arrested the seeming witch, Ziaxe thought that there might be some good intentions in him. Despite that, no matter how many witches Virok could ever arrest, he could never be forgiven for the arrest of Alavar. Alavar was a kind man who never deserved any pain or suffering. But the professor was most likely going to live the rest of his life in the dungeons of the Beranian Castle.

Ziaxe remembered the general's announcement about the draft to the Beranian Army though. That had intrigued him to no end. When he and his friends told the other peasants of the poor district this news, they were all equally excited.

Most of the other young men of the poor district had shown interest immediately. Kycan and Srion—who were both close friends—had decided to join. Ziaxe had dearly hoped that he would not have to spend his long days in the Army on missions with Kycan, since they were natural enemies. Surprisingly, he had nothing against the sandy haired Srion. Srion—unlike Kycan—was a nice and friendly young man. It always confused Ziaxe how the two could be such good friends despite their many differences in attitude.

And so, the young men all began to gather their supplies for the coming draft. They all told their families—save for Ziaxe, who could not find Alben when he came home from the rich district. Ziaxe could not deny that he was worried about his uncle's disappearance. But the draft was a turning point in his life, and he could not risk missing it even if it meant leaving his uncle unannounced.

The days passed, and the date of the draft drew closer. Ziaxe and his friends had found nothing entertaining to do in those days since there were no more of Professor Alavar's classes. The classes had been one of the only things they could do besides work at home.

On one of the last days before the draft, Venna’s family held a small party for all of the young ones going into the army. Her parents worked on a vineyard and made a living off selling their wine to the upper class. On that day Ziaxe and his friends all arrived for an evening of relaxation.

Ziaxe walked into the house with Kron and sat at the large table that sat in the center of the kitchen. The table was covered with various meat and vegetables along with tankards of wine from the vineyard. It seemed that Venna's parents had brought out a lot of food for the special occasion.

Ziaxe sat at the table with Kron, Srion, and another boy from the poor district, eating the food joyfully and reminiscing on the memories they all shared. Standing not too far away, with his back against the wall, was Kycan. The blonde haired boy was drinking a tankard of wine, and he stood with his arms crossed, obviously in deep thought about something. There were also the other young men of the poor district, whom Ziaxe did not know as well as his friends, wandering around conversing with their companions.

The kitchen was drowned in the noise of the various conversations happening, and Ziaxe was enjoying himself immensely, surrounded by the friends he had known all of his life. But when Ziaxe looked around the room, he found Venna standing by the backdoor alone, looking forlorn. She appeared to be just watching the small party, and the small smile on her face defended that alibi. When Ziaxe caught her eyes, though, he understood there was something wrong. Her usual joy filled brown eyes were showing emotions of distress and sadness. He could have confidently said that he had never seen Venna look upset in his whole life until that moment.

The noise and conversation around Ziaxe seemed to fade away as he watched Venna slowly turn away and walk out the backdoor. Ziaxe, almost involuntarily, stood up and walked outside behind her, an impulsive need to comfort her. The others were still focused on their conversations and enjoyments so his exit did not disturb anyone.

He closed the backdoor quietly behind him and walked to where he saw Venna sitting on the ground. She sat with her arms crossed on her raised knees and her head down, her face hidden behind her long blonde hair. When Ziaxe got closer, he heard a sound he had never heard from her before, the sound of crying, of soft and gentle sobs.

Even though he did not know the cause of her tears, Ziaxe soon felt tears of his own slowly filling his eyes. Venna's soft crying tore at his heart, making an aching feeling tear him apart. It was as if the feeling of him not knowing how to help her was worse than actually feeling her pain, his unappeasable want to comfort her stronger than the actual pain he wanted to comfort. He slowly approached her, hesitantly. "Venna?" he said quietly.

Venna's crying stopped abruptly as she quickly raised her head to see who addressed her. When she saw it was Ziaxe, she quickly ducked back down, but Ziaxe had already seen her tear streaked face. "What is it, Ziaxe?" she said, her voice cracking slightly.

Ziaxe did not know how to respond. He tentatively sat beside her. He was obviously not an expert at comforting others since he was raised by his cruel uncle and never needed to comfort anyone or even had someone to comfort. "What's wrong, Venna?" he asked rather bluntly, simply trying to find a problem that he could try to solve.

"Nothing’s wrong?" replied Venna, her voice muffled in her arms and hair.

"Why are you crying?"

"I'm not crying."

"Venna…" said Ziaxe reproachfully.

She gave in at that point. She raised her head, and Ziaxe could see her tear covered face and sad eyes, a face distraught with private fears and anxieties. "Ziaxe… why are you all leaving?" she said quietly while tears began to roll down her face again.

The question bit at Ziaxe. "We're going to join the Army,” he replied matter-of-factly, trying to hide the emotions the question arose within him. “You know that."

"Yes, I know…. But why?"

"Why? Because we want to help Berania and to see the world."

"Is there really that much to see?"

Ziaxe saw that Venna was on the verge of crying again, but before he could say anything, Venna embraced him rather roughly around his chest. She began to cry again as she pressed her face against his chest making his tunic wet with tears. Ziaxe, of course, did not expect this, so he awkwardly patted her on the back while she clung to him.

"I just don't want you all to leave!" she cried, her voice muffled against Ziaxe's chest. "We have all lived happily here, and Virok just has to go ruin it with this draft! I don't want you, and Kron, and Srion, and all the rest of you to leave!"

Ziaxe saw that he was in a situation. He had to pick his words carefully or Venna would continue to cry. Her crying was extremely painful to him since it seemed to make him feel like crying also, haunting him like a ghostly emotion that could possess and control his own emotions. Despite the risky problem, he found that he was enjoying Venna's embrace, the feeling of her small, slim body in his arms. Her hair smelled of sweet scented wildflowers, and the feeling of her nearness sent shivers down his spine.

"It'll be okay, Venna," was all he could think of for a reply. It was truthfully a weak and pathetic reply, but in the heat of the moment most people tend to say the simplest things that come to their minds while not realizing the consequences.

"No it won't, Ziaxe," said Venna, her crying slowly stopping as she reached a momentary point of calmness. "I may never see any of you ever again."

"Don't think like that, Venna. I promise I'll visit whenever I can."

"But what if you can't or something… terrible happens." The warning signs of Venna's crying were starting up again, Ziaxe could tell.

"It'll be okay," said Ziaxe quickly, hoping to cancel the return of Venna's crying with his small and pointless phrase. "Besides this is Berania. It's a sanctuary. There's never any war here. I'm sure we'll all be safe."

Venna seemed to be slightly reassured by Ziaxe's words. Her crying stopped, but she continued to cling to Ziaxe's chest. "Thank you, Ziaxe," she said, her voice slowly returning to her normal, joyful tone. "I needed that."

Ziaxe felt relieved that the situation seemed to be over. Since Venna was not crying anymore, he decided to enjoy the moment and continued to hold Venna, reveling in the feeling of her soft body in his arms.

They sat together in their warm embrace for the better part of an hour, the rest of the world forgotten. "I think we'd better go back in, Ziaxe," she said. "It sounds like the others have gone somewhere else."

Ziaxe regretfully let go of Venna—knowing that he may never have a moment like this again—and they both stood up. He had ignored whatever had been going on inside the house, but, at the moment, he could not see or hear anyone.

He and Venna walked into the house and saw that it was deserted save for the messes of food and tankards on the table and ground. They continued through the house searching for their companions until they saw that everyone had gone out front to train with their training swords and enjoy the nice day outside. Perhaps they hadn’t noticed that Ziaxe and Venna were out back, or maybe they purposely left them alone. Ziaxe smiled at that thought.

"Well, Ziaxe," said Venna as she stood next to him as they both stood at the front window of the house, looking out at their friends, "it looks like it will be a while until I see you and the others again. Don't do anything stupid all right?" she added with a small grin that Ziaxe knew hid her secret feelings of sadness.

Ziaxe smiled back. "I won't," he replied wryly.

Then Venna embraced him again. She rested her head against Ziaxe's chest. Ziaxe smiled as his heart beat faster and the feelings inside of him went wild.

But when Ziaxe let go of her as he felt the embrace ending, she looked up at him and their eyes met. Ziaxe felt tension rise up between them and he knew what was happening before he could think about it.

They kissed. The surprising and unexpected feeling of her soft lips on his shocked him, and he didn’t know how to respond as he felt his cheeks get red and his heart pound inside him. It was his first ever kiss, and time seemed to slow as their lips stayed pressed against each other’s.

Then she backed away slowly, letting her lips slowly part from Ziaxe’s. The expression on her face was full of speechless amazement and anguish as she stared at Ziaxe. Ziaxe knew what she was thinking though. She was thinking just as Ziaxe was that that would be the last kiss they could ever share. The bitter irony of it all tore at him. "Good-bye, Ziaxe," she said in a soft whisper as her eyes search Ziaxe’s face for some way to make him stay.

She turned away and left out the front door of the house, leaving Ziaxe in silence, leaving him to his own thoughts and feelings. He knew then, just by the feeling of her kiss, by the strange emotions it created within him, that everything had changed at that moment, that nothing would ever be the same.

And so came the day of the draft, whether the people of Berania both poor and rich wanted it to or not. Ziaxe and his friends all gathered in Kron's parent's wagon. They had decided to ride up together to the Beranian Castle where the army barracks were located just outside of the castle. It was late afternoon, and they hoped to be settled at the barracks by dusk. The sun was nearing the west horizon behind the west wall of Berania, and it cast a bright red along the autumn sky.

Kron's parents, Kalcin and Salia, took their seats in front to drive the wagon. Ziaxe, Kron, Srion, and Kycan took seats with their peers in the back. Luckily, there was plenty of room since the usual produce that was delivered had been removed after their earlier trip to the rich district.

Ziaxe had packed his essentials in a small sack: clothing and his new bronze sword mostly. He had not seen Alben at all the past couple days so he did not have to warn his uncle about the draft. Despite his uncle's cruelness, he still felt a little guilt about not pursuing the search of his uncle, but it was not enough guilt to catch his attention and make him start a search. He brushed off the guilt as he took a seat in the wagon between Kron and Srion.

"Excited?" said Kron when everyone was getting seated.

"Of course," replied Ziaxe, trying not to show his true anxiety and fear. He put his sack of essentials on his lap and got comfortable for the long trip to the rich district.

When everyone was seated, Ziaxe saw a group of people gather outside through the back of the wagon. He recognized the faces of the young females of the poor district. They started cheering for the men as the wagon began to move.

Ziaxe spontaneously searched for Venna, but he couldn’t find her anywhere. She couldn't bear to come, he thought gloomily.

But he found the familiar face of Nea, the shy girl with the big hazel eyes, in the crowd. She had a solemn expression as she stood among the girls silently, watching the young men leave as the wagon began to move. She seemed to notice that Ziaxe saw her, and she raised her hand and slowly waved with an expressionless face, hiding whatever emotions she had.

Ziaxe slowly waved back. He realized that Nea must have been just as depressed as Venna was. Her big hazel eyes were gloomy and lonely as the wagon took Ziaxe farther and farther away.

Ziaxe sighed to himself and closed his eyes as he leaned back against the side of the wagon.

"Depressing, isn't it?"

The voice was Kycan's. Ziaxe opened his eyes to see the blonde haired boy across from him. "What do you mean?" asked Ziaxe.

"You know what I mean, Ziaxe." Kycan sat with a look of deep concentration on his face as if he was thinking about something that needed all of his focus. "We're getting one step closer to the real world. Are we ready for it?"

"No one is ever sure, Kycan," replied Ziaxe, confused at the question.

"Enough of that talk," interrupted Kron. "We should be celebrating. We are all men now!"

All of the other young men cheered except for Ziaxe and Kycan, who both sat with serious expressions on their faces, both seeming to feel apart from the others, their perspectives different from the others.

"You should be excited, Kycan," continued Kron. "This has been your dream as well as everyone else's. Today we become soldiers who serve the Crown with pride and honor! And you, Ziaxe! I am sure you have known how it feels to be a man for quite some time." Kron raised his eyebrow and gave Ziaxe a shrewd look.

"What do you mean?" asked Ziaxe dubiously.

"Don't act like you don't know," said Kron with a big grin. "We all saw you with Venna. You thought you could hide your little secret 'meeting' in her backyard with her?"

Ziaxe instantly went red.

The others burst into friendly laughter as Kron kept his sly grin on and patted Ziaxe fondly on the back. Even Kycan let out a small grin.

The wagon continued on its journey with Kalcin at the reins. It took almost half an hour for the horses to carry the weight of the wagon to the outskirts of the rich district. Ziaxe looked out the front of the wagon to see the horses step onto the cobblestone road which was the indicator of the border of the rich district.

"Wake up, everybody!" yelled back Kron's father. "We're almost there."

Some of Ziaxe's peers had been taking a small nap when Kalcin announced the news, but most of them were too anxious to even close their eyes. Ziaxe was one of the anxious ones, and he soon noticed that the horses were taking a different route than the way they had gone to get to the marketplace. He had never gone very far into the rich district for it was a dangerous place for a peasant so the new sights and buildings surprised him.

As they went deeper into the rich district, Ziaxe saw even bigger and grander houses and buildings than the ones that bordered the district. He assumed that the richer noblemen lived in these buildings since the buildings were obvious representations of the noblemen power. Each building was different in its own way, but to Ziaxe each was disgustingly gaudy and extravagant. Some of the buildings had beautiful statues or gardens out front while others would have towers that reached to the sky. These attachments seemed pointless, but they did give the rich men something to do with their money.

After passing a few streets of ostentatious buildings and bustling citizens, Ziaxe and his companions came to a large, glorious building that seemed to compete against the Beranian Castle for the tallest building in the world. It had spires that reached to the sky and a portico out front that had wide stairs that lead to the entrance. There were no doors at the entrance, and inside there could be seen big hordes of people praying and singing joyful songs and hymns. Regardless of the glorious architecture and singing, Ziaxe had the feeling that this building had a grave importance.

"Look ahead," said Kalcin in an announcing tone to the young men in the back, "and you all will see the glorious Temple of Sarben!"

Everyone sat gaping at the building as if it was the god Sarben himself. Ziaxe had a vague understanding of the gods, but he was not a very religious man. As a peasant of the poor district, he had never gone to a single temple in his life. All that he knew about Sarben came from what Professor Alavar had taught him when the professor would teach the children of the poor district the "Tale of Creation” and tell various other tales of the gods.

That thought reminded him of his dreams where Alavar said the gods were apparently calling to him. He wondered if going to the temple would assist him in understanding what Sarben wanted. It could be worth a try, he thought, if, of course, he had the time.

When the wagon started to pass the temple, a man in a shining white robe came out on the portico. The man was visibly old with a long white beard. He looked weak and crippled as he leaned against a long staff. "May Sarben, the Great God of Light, watch over thy path, young ones!" he called in a weak voice damaged by old age yet strong with religious exhilaration.

"Thank you, Reverend!" called Kalcin from the reins. "May Sarben continue to bless us all!" He smiled and turned his attention back to the horses.

"Who was that?" asked Ziaxe as they left the old man behind.

"That's the high priest, of course," replied Kalcin.

Ziaxe looked out the back of the wagon to see the priest waving to them as they continued on the road. It could have been his imagination, but Ziaxe could have sworn that he saw a ray of light shine down from the Land of the Gods above to surround the holy man.

Ziaxe grew more and more nervous as they grew closer and closer to the Beranian Castle. He watched as the many towers of the castle became bigger and higher as they approached. Neither he nor any of his friends had ever been this close to the enormous building that housed the Great King Broniton Isonil. The thought that he would actually be able to see its glory in person was almost enough to cause his heart to stop.

The horses rounded a corner, and there before Ziaxe without anything to block his view was the Beranian Castle. He was instantly overwhelmed to the point where he was drowning in awe. The castle was even bigger in person than he could have ever imagined. He could barely see the top of the towers that reached to the sky or see the corners of the walls. There was a large oval shaped door that reached a few feet higher than a normal sized man on the front wall.

In front of the castle was a small courtyard with colorful flowers and a decorative water fountain in the center. The horses went on the path that circled the fountain until they finally stopped in front of the castle. Ziaxe and his companions all exited the wagon with all of their possessions, and he stood staring with his mouth agape at the giant castle before him even as his muscles ached from the long ride in the cramped space.

Kron came to Ziaxe's side and patted his friend's back fondly. "We're here," he said with a smile, showing his pride at their accomplishment of finally getting to the castle.

Ziaxe, however, was speechless.

The barracks stood off to the right a short distance away outside of the castle walls, a group of small buildings surrounded by a wooden wall and full of bustling soldiers. As they all stared off at their new home in the barracks, two glorious and shining men appeared at the oval doors to the castle. Ziaxe quickly recognized one of the two men and had to clench his teeth to hide his anger.

Kalcin went ahead and bowed down to the two men. "Hail, General Virok," he said, down on one knee.

The one man, who wore his traditional golden armor and stood with a stature of someone full of righteousness and confidence, inclined his head to show his acknowledgement of the peasant. Ziaxe looked with distaste at his powerful enemy who had stolen away Professor Alavar.

Kalcin turned his attention to the other man, an older fellow with a long white beard and a certain atmosphere about him that showed that he was an honorable leader, a kind of glow that shined off of his pale skin. The man was obviously in his late two hundred years of age since he walked with a staff and limped noticeably as he walked to the young men from the poor district. Despite the man's age, he wore heavy, silver colored armor and a bright yellow and red cape that reached down to his feet. "And hail thee, Great King Broniton Isonil," said Kalcin with another deep bow. "Sarben has blessed me to be in thy presence."

The elder man smiled a kind smile and said, "Rise, kind Beranian, for thou hast done a great duty for Berania by delivering these young soldiers in her time of need. Thou art a true Beranian, and thou shall be remembered as one. State thy name."

"My name, your majesty?" said Kalcin tentatively as he was surprised by Broniton's interest in him. "I am Kalcin of the Poor District. My wife, Salia, and I farm in the fields with our adopted son Kron."

"Then thou, Kalcin of the Poor District, shall be remembered for this deed." The king reached into a purse that was tied around his waist and pulled out a handful of gold coins. "Take these coins and prosper, for thou art a true Beranian." He weakly bent down and placed the gold coins in Kalcin’s hands.

"Your Majesty… I couldn't… I—" protested Kalcin.

"—Nay, Kalcin," interrupted King Broniton. "Take these coins and prosper."

Kalcin was stunned by the king's kindness. To the peasants of Berania gold coins were extremely rare and hard to come by. "I thank thee, your Majesty." He slowly backed away muttering different phrases of gratitude.

The king simply smiled and then turned to the other young men. "Come, young soldiers, for sunset approaches!" he announced.

And with that the young men said their goodbyes to Kalcin and Salia and were led to the barracks. This was the first time Ziaxe had ever seen the King of Sargenia, and so far he was not disappointed. He was reminded of Professor Alavar's stories of the great king and his kindness to all Sargenians. The stories seemed to be honest as far as Ziaxe could tell.

But then Ziaxe was reminded of the story of King Broniton's battle against Vician, the accursed King of Vidala back in the Vician War. Broniton did not seem like a mighty warrior, but then again over half a century had passed since the Battle of Berania. The thought that this elder king may have the ability to summon the ancient weapon, the Sword of Light, troubled Ziaxe more than a little. He realized that he was in the presence of a man who could be considered one of the most powerful men in the world; He could be in the presence of… the Nizain.

A few moments of walking brought them all to the gates of the barracks where they were accepted through by two soldiers on guard duty. When they entered they were attacked by the various cacophonous sounds of soldiers training and running around with weapons and materiel, appearing to be on missions of grave importance. There were several rows of tents set up for the thousands of soldiers that occupied the barracks, and there were buildings and cabins for the higher ranked officers of the army to live in.

King Broniton and General Virok led the group through the crowds of soldiers, but Ziaxe noticed that no matter how important the missions of the soldiers were, they all stopped and bowed deeply for their king when he passed. Many of the guards, strangely, treated Virok as if he was also a king, bowing and saluting him with phrases of worship. That did not surprise Ziaxe too much though since Virok seemed to be Broniton's right-hand man.

After a long trek through the maze of tents and buildings, they finally stopped at one long tent that appeared to be empty. "This, my good soldiers," said King Broniton to the young men, "is the tent that all of ye and the young men of the rich district will be staying. This is where all of ye shall sleep and train for days to come. I will now leave all of ye in the care of General Virok. Farewell!" The King of Sargenia then limped away and was joined by a few guards who were waiting for him to transport him safely back to the castle.

When the king was taken away, Virok parted the flaps of the tent entrance and led the others inside. "As the Great King Broniton has said, this is where you all will stay," he announced, losing his formal archaic language and holding the flaps for the others to walk in.

Ziaxe walked inside along with his peers and saw a long corridor-like room inside the tent filled with several bunk beds that bordered the lengthy sides. The tent was high enough that it didn’t cause any problems with the heights of the young men. "As you can see we have many bunk beds for your sleeping arrangements," continued Virok. He led them on the rather thin path in between the lines of beds that led to an exit flap on the opposite side of the room.

Outside of the tent through the exit flap was an outdoor training area full of weapons for training and other veteran soldiers who were there to train the younger soldiers. The whole area was a large circle outlined by the tents and buildings. "And out here is where you will train to become soldiers when you're not marching." Virok grinned evilly as if he had sinister plans for what to do with the young men during training. "Any questions?"

No one raised any questions, mostly because it was nearing sunset and most of the new soldiers wanted rest.

"Very well then." Virok turned to walk back through to the other side of the tent and stood by the entrance flap.

Ziaxe found a bunk bed to share with Kron and laid his essentials on the bottom bunk. He saw that Virok was standing still at the entrance flap, facing the new soldiers. The general’s eyes met with Ziaxe's. There was something about Virok's eyes that made Ziaxe angry, something in the way the general stared at all of the new soldiers as if they were a part of some experiment.

But in that instant, Ziaxe felt something very unsettling as if he knew something terrible would happen soon, as if he could sense a tragic event occurring in the not so distance future. He did not know when or where, but he knew something would happen that would change his life forever. And he knew that it would involve this powerful general who stared at him with an expressionless face.

And then Virok left, leaving Ziaxe staring distantly at the tent wall. He decided to ignore his troubling feeling and took his bed on the bottom bunk, letting Kron take the top. And so my old life ends, thought Ziaxe, and a new one begins.


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