Aaren of the Sax
Somewhere on the edge of the ancient forest, a portly thief ran along the edge of the trees. He huffed and puffed, sweat dripping down his back. In his hand he carried a sack of jewels, stolen from the magistrate.
Little did he know, a handsome young knight sat quietly atop a tree limb, only a few legs ahead. Between his straight teeth was a stem that he chewed on idly as he awaited the imminent arrival of the thief.
They never learn, he thought to himself, spotting the stumbling man ahead.
It had been 10 years since the young squire mounted the white stallion and rode to the top of the pastures. Since then, the boy had grown into a handsome and fair young knight, one that the King was pleased with.
His knowledge of the ancient forest was so widespread that he worked as a Ranger of sorts, policing the local thieves and criminals of the kingdom. Often they would try to seek refuge between the trees, but Sir Aaren knew these woods better than anyone.
While many feared the Ancient Forest and what ancient mysteries lied between the trees, Aaren did not. He never ventured in too far, but to him the forest was familiar, it was almost like a home to him.
Just as the thief was about to run below the limb at which Sir Aaren sat, the young knight jumped down, knocking over the thief to the forest floor.
“Ah, Ithamar! It has been so long since we’ve been able to chat like this.”
The thief grimaced, clutching onto the bag of jewels, still lying on the forest floor.
“Have you been lusting after the magistrate’s jewels again?” he teased, yielding his sword from its sheath.
Ithamar’s eyes grew large at the sight of the blade.
“Stand up, you old git. Come on,” Aaren ushered.
The thief stood up before Sir Aaren, the sack of jewels still in his hand. Swiftly, he poked the tip of his sword into the strings of the sack, bringing it over to his hand.
“Ah! Thank you, sir. I certainly do appreciate your cooperation.”
Ithamar fidgeted in uneasiness as Sir Aaren slipped the bag of jewels into his pocket.
“Now, please don’t—“
Ithamar took off into the forest, and the young knight rolled his eyes.
“Run,” he finished, sighing in displeasure.
Sir Aaren returned his sword to its sheath and sprinted into the thickets, winding through branches, swinging on tree limbs, jumping over boulders-- until he came to a large tree. Stealthily he hid behind it.
He heard him huffing and puffing again, trudging loudly through the forest. The young knight smiled at Ithamar in amusement before removing the sword and sheath from his belt.
Just as the he was about to pass the tree that Sir Aaren was hiding behind, Aaren extended his sword and sheath outwards, tripping Ithamar and sending him to the ground headfirst.
“Now, that’s more like it!” he said with a smile.
Sir Aaren stepped over the pudgy thief and then tied his hands behind his back with a rope. The knight then whistled to the air, signaling his steed.
“Fabian,” he coaxed as his horse sauntered over to him.
He was a beautiful animal, with a gray and black brindle coat. Sir Aaren patted his head affectionately, the horse sniffing his breast pocket.
“Oh. I know what you want,” he mused, before backing away from him. “You’ll just have to wait until we get back to the stables.”
Sir Aaren then turned around and began to bend down to pick up the thief, but Fabian lowered his head and bumped the young knight from behind, sending him forward to the ground.
“Hey!” He yelled, turning around to face his mischievous horse. The handsome young knight reached into his pouch and pulled out a carrot, shaking his head.
Fabian picked up his front legs and shook his mane, whinnying about. He then took the carrot and ate it in one swift bite.
“You are so ungrateful,” Aaren observed, but smiled at his friend nonetheless.
The young knight then loaded the thief, rendered unconscious, onto Fabian and took off in the direction of the castle.
As they wound between the trees, Sir Aaren was reminded of the strange vision that he had as a boy. Every time he got onto the back of Fabian, he recalled the first time he rode a horse. He remembered the white stallion appearing in the barn doors, the way he rode up to the pastures. It was there that he had been thrown off, a strange vision to follow.
Even to this day, the young knight was unsure about what he saw that morning. All he knew was that in some way, it meant that he was meant for greatness.
Finally Sir Aaren made it back into the kingdom. He rode past the people that lived in the village just outside the castle. Many maidens were out in the square, a few young boys running about, fighting with sticks.
He remembered fondly how he used to be one of them. Once he was just a young squire that could only dream of being a knight. He was now living his dream; attending parties, feasts-- capturing thieves, serving the king. The handsome knight smiled at the boys and to himself, completely grateful for all that he had achieved.
Aaren continued to ride until he spotted the local jail up ahead. He had almost forgotten about old Ithamar, sitting knocked out on the back of Fabian.
He picked up the old fool without halting his horse, and threw him down in front of a few knights who guarded the jail.
“Here you go boys!” he yelled comically behind him with a smirk. Sir Aaren then tossed them the sack of jewels. “The Magistrate will be missing those,” he called before continuing on to the castle to put Fabian back into the stables for the day.
In all respects, Aaren admired the King. He was usually a just man, one that was fair to his people. The King loved to expand the kingdom. He built several smaller forts and castles for different Lords in the kingdom, ones that were grand and architectural wonders.
However, the King’s castle, the one that lied at the most northern part of Alexandrea, was the most lavish and greatest above them all. It was built up countless stories with gray glossy stones. There was a massive gated drawbridge made out of only the finest wood. The flag of their kingdom flew high and proudly always at the top of the highest tower.
The castle guards lowered the gate for Sir Aaren and Fabian as they approached. He waved to them as they rode by, Fabian running swiftly and proudly.
Once in the courtyard, Aaren halted his steed, dismounting onto the cobblestone ground. A few young squires rushed over to take Fabian to the stable.
“All ready for the ball, Sir Aaren?” one of them asked him.
Aaren dismounted his steed and nodded. “Of course, Adam. Just thought I’d get a little work in beforehand.”
“Did you catch any thieves?” the other squire asked.
“You know what, I did actually,” he told them, admiring their excitement.
“Can you tell us about it?” they begged him, eager for every detail of what it meant to be a knight of Alexandrea; protector of the Saxon people.
Before he could answer, another squire came over to him. “Sir Aaren, the Princess gave me this note for you. She said it was a summoning letter from the King.”
Aaren removed his black gloves cooly, taking the note in his hands and reading it hurriedly before stuffing it into his pocket. “Thank you,” he said quickly. “Some other time, boys."
They grumbled softly as the castle doors opened before him.
Aaren sauntered through the grand hall quickly, passing some of the King’s servants, all of which were busy attending to the ball.
Large tapestries hung from the walls and suits of armor lined the carpets and rugs that covered the floors. There were great windows of stained glass that bore the sun’s rays vibrantly. Golden candelabras sat on every table.
Second door on the left.
He folded the note back up with a smile and continued to move about the castle as naturally he could. Some of servants waved to him out of recognition before he slipped back through the north corridor. He could hear the sounds of the ball already being started on the other side of the wall.
Aaren counted one door on the left and spotted the second one just up ahead.
Two kitchen servants passed him but didn’t pay him any mind.
Quickly he knocked on the door three times deliberately.
After a few moments it flew open and Princess Odette stood there, her long blonde hair stretched over her shoulders in illustrious waves, her eyes bright with mischief.
With a coy smile she pulled him into the room hastily. Aaren crushed his lips to hers, wrapping his arms around her waist.
Princess Odette ran her hands up his chest and gripped his hair between her fingers, their bodies pressed up against one another. She put her hands on his face and kissed him again before breaking away.
Aaren ran his hands down her sides and met her eyes. "Hi," he greeted her with a smile.
“Hi,” she said, smiling back at him.
“I didn’t know if I’d get to see you before the ball started,” he confessed, pushing a piece of loose hair away from her face.
“Less talking,” she told him with a smile.
Aaren shook his head and pushed her up against the wall, kissing her again, this time a little more fervently. Odette wrapped her arms around his neck and traced his jawline with her lips, sending his heart into rapid flutters.
Suddenly, Aaren laughed, tilting his head back. “Isn’t someone going to be calling for you to make your grand appearance soon?”
She stopped and unhooked her arms from his neck slowly. “You’re right,” she admitted, beginning to walk away towards the door.
The knight shook his head again and grabbed her by the hand, pulling her back into him. With a laugh, Odette gripped his sides as he kissed her smile.
After a few moments, Aaren put a hand beside her cheek. “Someone will come looking for you soon,” he told her, sighing in obvious disappointment.
Her sigh mimicked his own. “I know that you’re right," she said, taking that same hand and twisting it with hers. "I just wish that I didn’t have to go.”
The young knight laughed. “This is your ball. Second one this month, by the way.”
“I know,” she grumbled, tearing herself away and across the room. “My father is insistent on these balls until I pick a husband, essentially. He says it's because he wants me taken care of and because he loves me, but I think it's so that he can get the council off his back." She paused, locking eyes with Aaren across the dimly lit room. " Little does he know, I’ve already made up my mind.”
“Wait,” Aaren interrupted, walking towards her. The guilt he had been feeling was starting to become overwhelming again. “What are we doing? I don't mean to... I just-- where is this going?”
Odette’s smile faded into a more serious look, one that was just as beautiful and strong. “I think-- you know, we see how it goes and then I’ll talk to my Father and…” She trailed off as Aaren ran his hand up and down her back.
“So, we keep sneaking around?”
The mischievous grin that he knew so well spread across her face again. “It is kind of exciting, isn’t it?”
Aaren rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh, sure. Maybe for you. I could be charged with treason for this, you know.”
Odette laughed, shaking her head at him. “Don’t be so dramatic.”
“I’m serious, Odette. What if someone were to find out about us?" He bit his lip, worrying again. "I don’t think that I could say goodbye to you," he murmured, furrowing his eyebrows and taking in the sight of her.
Odette's smile faded again, a look of concern slowly becoming evident on her face. She seemed to shake it away right as Aaren opened his mouth to say something else. “Well maybe if you were a First Knight or the son of a Lord then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
“Well maybe if you weren’t the only heir to the throne, then--”
She put her finger over his lips, stopping him mid-sentence. “I’d love to continue this doomed conversation," she said, holding her finger against his mouth still. "But I have to go.”
Aaren sighed and put both of his hands on her face, kissing her gently. “I’ll be asking for a dance later.”
“I might refuse you,” she answered, walking towards the door that led to the ballroom.
“I’ll see you in a few moments, your highness.”
Princess Odette smiled at him one more time before she opened the doors and stepped into the ballroom.
He heard her arrival announced and the applause that erupted from all of the knights, lords and ladies.
On his way to the front entrance of the ballroom it occurred to Aaren that this whole thing might never work out. Never in his whole life had he heard of a throne that was ascended by a lowly knight. Then there was the idea of actually becoming King.
The very thought of it made his stomach sink. He didn’t even know if he wanted that. He didn’t even know if he’d be good at it. Leading the people?
He was taken in by Sir Garrick as a boy to become a squire and since then serving the kingdom was his life. It would be strange to rule it. His parents had died when he was very young and Aaren had little to no memory of them.
He grew up in the stables, tending to the horses and helping the knights. It was there that he learned how to fight and how to ride. It was also there that he first met Princess Odette.
Aaren smiled again at the thought of her. He thought of her often, and had for as long as he could remember. He never could have imagined that things would have turned out this way when it came to the two of them. She was unequivocally the most beautiful woman in the entire kingdom. The influence she had on him seemed almost unfair.
He knew that he loved her, even if he hadn’t told her yet.
The doors to the ballroom opened and Aaren nodded at the squire. “Thank you, Adam.”
Aaren had dressed himself in another one of his black vests. He was very fond of the color. Also on the vest was the Alexandrean seal; two golden stallions.
The ball was brightly lit with many of his fellow knights walking about with their wives or the women they were courting. All of the Lords in Alexandrea were seated below the King’s throne with their sons, some of them twice as young as Odette, others twice as old. The First Knights were seated beside King Leopold, Sir Garrick being one of them.
Upon his arrival Sir Garrick had seen him come in and waved in his direction.
“Sir Aaren!” came a voice from behind him.
Sir Hughbert, whom Aaren normally referred to as just Hugh, clapped him on the back. He and Aaren were the same age and had been close friends since they were squires. A few months back he had been sent down to Lord Gregor Ashland’s fort to serve.
“Hugh!” Aaren said, taking him by the hand. “How are you?”
“I’m great, I’m great,” he said, running a hand over his curly brown hair. In the time he’d been gone he had grown a beard as well and looked a lot older, though his familiar dimpled cheeks were still there. “How are things here in the capital?”
Aaren shrugged. “You know, relatively boring.”
“Any of the thieves giving you trouble?”
“Not that I can’t handle,” Aaren said with a smile, folding his arms behind his back. “What about you? How are things down at Gregor’s keep?”
Hugh shook his head, his expression growing a little more grave. “Aaren you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on down at the south-eastern border. Down at the Verge, I mean.”
“South-eastern border? I thought you were at Gregor Ashland’s keep? At Ashland Fort?”
Hugh nodded. “I am, I am. But the Knights of the Verge are having a bit of trouble with the Atolians.”
“Atolians?” Aaren whispered, his voice anxious. “You mean the Black Knights?”
Hugh nodded. “They come from the Ancient Forest. The Knights of the Verge are doing everything they can but some of them slip through. We lost four men last week because of two Black Knights that made it through to us.”
“So-- so you saw them?” Aaren asked, his heart racing, eyes wide.
Hugh just nodded.
“Well? What did they look like?”
His friend shook his head, recalling a memory. “Like no one I’ve ever seen before in my life. But they do dress in all black, like people say, with thick leather armor that you can barely pierce through. They don’t even wear helmets. The one that we killed was carrying a sword, but the other was wielding a flail.”
Aaren continued to listen to Hugh talk about the Black Knights, completely distracted.
“It’s true what they say, though. These men were tall, and sizable, but not slow. Their eyes were a pale blue, and their heads were shaved with tattoos all over their bodies in markings I’ve never seen before; with their symbol of the black dragon.”
Aaren shook his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“I know. But I even heard from one of Lord Walden’s knights that they had one get through to them too.”
“All the way at Walden Fort?” Aaren whispered, his eyes wide.
“But that’s less than a three days ride from here,” he said.
“I know,” Hugh said. “But I always wonder why they don’t come from the North up here. The Capitol is right beside the Ancient Forest.”
Aaren shrugged. “They must not know the ways of the forest up North.”
Hugh nodded. “I’d like to know where Atolia is.”
“I don’t know,” Aaren said, shaking his head. “I wonder what the King thinks about all of this.”
He and Hugh began to talk about more monetary things until Aaren noticed that Odette had left the dancefloor to sit beside the King.
“Hugh, I’ll see you in a bit. There’s some business I have to discuss with the King.”
Hugh nodded. “I’ll see you before I leave.”
Aaren shook his hand and weaved through the groups of people that were scattered all over the floor.
“Sir Aaren,” King Leopold said. “So nice of you to join us this evening.”
Aaren bowed to the King. “The pleasure is all mine, of course.”
King Leopold smiled kindly at him, placing a hand beneath his chin. “I heard you took care of the magistrate’s jewels earlier this afternoon.”
Aaren nodded slightly, still willing himself not to look over at Odette. “Ah, yes. I’m afraid old Ithimar just can’t get enough of the magistrates jewels.”
The King laughed and stroked his black beard that had started to become flecked liked pepper. “At least he’s consistent.”
Aaren smiled again. “Very true, your highness.”
When the King said nothing more, Aaren spoke up again. “Your Grace, I wondered if I could have your permission to dance with her royal highness, Princess Odette?”
The King nodded, gesturing over to his daughter. “Of course. Odette?”
Odette walked down to him, offering her hand. “Of course.”
Aaren took the princess’s hand and lead the both of them to the middle of the dance floor. Once in position, he smiled, recalling a memory of their first dance together.
“What are you smiling at?” she asked, her face seeming neutral.
Aaren pulled her a little closer. “You. Do you remember our first dance?”
Her eyes widened, looking around frantically. “What are you doing?”
“I know,” he said, relaxing. “I just wish it was just us, you know?”
She squeezed his hand a little tighter. “I know. This night is just so dreadfully boring, and you being here doesn’t really help any.”
“Why do you hate it when I come to these things?”
“Because,” she mumbled, smiling at one of the ladies in the crowd. “I’d rather just be with you the whole time, but I can’t without it drawing too much attention.”
Aaren took in a deep breath, letting his hand drop a little lower on her back; an action that, surprisingly, she did not resist.
They continued to dance together, talking through their teeth, whispering to one another until the song stopped and Aaren led her back to the throne.
He bowed to the King and kissed her hand, his eyes lingering for as long as they were able.
King Leopold shifted in his seat a little, still eyeing Sir Aaren with a pleased look. “Sir Aaren, you have and continue to serve this kingdom well.”
“Thank you, your Grace.”
He looked down at the ring on his finger as he began to talk again and Aaren’s eyes found Odette. One of the corners of her mouth lifted upwards and she winked at him ever-so-slightly.
He turned back to the King, suppressing his smile as best as he could.
“... and I’ve watched you grow into the knight that you have become today and know for certain that you are nothing but the best.”
“Your Grace,” he said. “I am humbled by your words.”
“You possess the high ideals of the Alexandrean reign & the Saxon people; skill, bravery, honor, truth.”
Aaren felt his stomach drop a little, the guilt creeping in again.
“Which is why I have selected you as a new member of the Knights of the Verge.”
Aaren snapped his head up, his mouth dropping open. “Knights of the Verge? You mean, I--”
“Yes, you will become one of the utmost protectors of the Alexandrean Kingdom and the Saxon people.”
Aaren was shaking his head, still unable to believe that he was receiving this great honor.
“You will leave tomorrow evening at dusk with the fifty other members that will be on rotation for the next year. You will train for two months at the Verge and then will continue out your rotation for the next year. Upon your return you will be granted the rank of First Knight, as does every Knight that serves successfully as a Knight of the Verge.”
“Your Majesty, I-- I’m speechless. Thank you. I-- I vow to serve you, the kingdom, and the Saxon people to the best of my abilities.”
King Leopold nodded. “I know that you will.”
When the King said nothing more, Aaren stood from his kneeled position.
Father,” Odette interrupted. “I’m starting to not feel very well and I think that I will retire for the evening. Goodnight, Sir Aaren.”
Aaren studied her carefully, reading in between the lines of her remarks. “Of course, your highness. I ought to head down to the stables to ready my horse for the journey tomorrow. But, I have had a lovely evening.”
Odette smiled warmly at him, her eyes carrying that familiar look that he’d recognize anywhere. She then kissed her father and exited through a door behind her.
After Aaren bade the King a goodbye, he made his way to the stables quickly. He passed a few of the squires again on his way out, his heart beating a mile a minute.
The young knight entered the empty stables and could still hear the noise from the ball coming from the castle. But the stables were completely deserted, just as he preferred.
Standing there alone, it finally struck him what had just occurred. He walked over to Fabian and stroked the side of his cheek. “You won’t believe what just happened, boy,” Aaren said.
“Some things never change.”
Aaren turned around to find Princess Odette standing there behind him.
There was no denying that the Princess was beautiful. Aaren, and not to mention the entire kingdom, had always thought so. She was a masterpiece of slender curves and edges, and often had her hair pulled back into a loose golden braid. Her eyes were a striking blue; ones that seemed to pull you deeper the longer you looked into them. Her mouth was almost always pulled into playful smile; a smile that, again, Aaren thought of a lot, much to his dismay.
He finally stepped closer to her and she put her hands on his cheeks, pulling his mouth to hers. Aaren wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her closer to him, unable to contain his smile.
“Odette,” he said, their eyes meeting.
The princess smiled up at him and wrapped her arms around his neck, kissing him again.
“I don’t know what to say,” pressing his forehead to her hers.
She lifted her chin up towards him. “I know.”
Aaren took in a breath. “I’ll spend a year at the Verge and then when I come back I’ll be a First Knight.”
He gazed down at her, the strongest and most independent person he knew, as she waited for him to say something else.
When he didn’t, she ran a hand through his hair. “I’m scared that now that this is real, that it’s not what you really want.”
His fears of becoming King, of leading the people, of being a disappointment crept back into his mind for only a moment. “I want you,” he said, his eyes never wavering from hers. “I always thought that I was meant for something else in my life. Something greater. This… Being King, I…” He trailed off for a moment and kissed the palm of her hand, locking his eyes back on her. “I can’t lie and say that it doesn’t scare me. But, with you by my side, we can do anything. We can do this.”
“But, I mean, are you ready for all of this? The pressures, the duties, the responsibilities, the--”
Aaren took her face in his hands. “I have wanted to serve this Kingdom for as long as I can remember,” he paused, taking in the sight of her. “I can't do it without you.”
She nodded, the look on her face so strong and sure.
“Odette,” he said, pulling her closer, gathering his words carefully. “I--”
Suddenly a sound emitted just outside of the stables and Aaren pulled her quickly into one of the stalls. After a few quiet moments, Odette looked back up at Aaren and kissed him gently. “I'd better go before someone comes looking for me.”
“Will you wait for me before you leave? Here?”
Aaren nodded again, taking both of her hands in his. “I will.”
Odette turned to leave but then looked back at him. “Aaren,” she whispered, her eyes convicted.
They moved back to one another and embraced, Aaren burying his face into the nape of her neck. She kissed him slowly and pushed against his chest.
Her mouth spread into a smile as their hands slipped away. “Bye.”
“Bye,” he said as she disappeared out of sight.
The young knight put his hands behind his head and thought about everything that had just happened. He couldn’t believe it.
Abruptly, his thoughts were broken by a strange feeling that overcame him.
It was so familiar, that Aaren stood up, almost transfixed by it.
When he stepped outside of the stall, a white stallion stood before him. The same one from when he was a boy, with the same golden eyes, the pure white coat.
The knight’s eyes were fixed upon it as he laid a hand on its neck. It felt the same as it did 10 years before. All his life he thought it was a dream. But now, as it stood there before him he knew it was real.
The stallion didn’t flinch at his touch. It remained standing there, its breathing rhythmic and steady. Aaren climbed upon the stallion in one swift movement, taking its mane in his hands.
It reared back and then turned around, thundering towards the top of the pasture. The sky was growing darker it seemed, with each step they took. Aaren felt his heart beating faster and faster, the cool winds whipping at his face.
When they reached the top the Stallion stopped and reared up again, but too fast and too quickly. Aaren fell backwards, hitting the ground hard on his back.
His eyesight was quickly overcome by a bright white light, growing in immensity until it was everything he could see.