CHAPTER 1

 

“Oh, come on, you stupid cow!”

 

She’d knocked over the bucket.  Again.

 

Sighing in exasperation, I stood up from the stool I had placed next to the cow, so that I could milk her.  She had a tendency to do this every once in a while—get irritated that I was pulling on her udders (now that I say it like that, I would be irritated too) and knock over the bucket with her rear legs, sending its contents spilling all over the hay-covered ground.  It was beyond frustrating—I balled my hands into fists and leaned against one of the nearby wooden poles that supported the barn. 

 

Still, it wasn’t in me to be mean for no real reason, especially to an animal.  Especially these animals, since they were the only company I had. 

 

“I’m sorry, girl,” I said, walking up to her and rubbing the side of her head.  “I’m just not having a good day, I guess.”

 

The cow continued to chomp on some hay, giving no indication that she had understood or cared.

 

Not that I had any real understanding of what a “good” day was.  I mean, life wasn’t so bad—the daily life of a farmer is always the same, though it tends to change by season.  Still, it was very hard work, especially for someone like me—a sixteen-year-old running the family farm by himself. 

 

But I was pretty used to it by now—I’d been doing it for the last two years.

 

Before then, it had been just me and my father, Uaine.  I loved my dad … he took care of me, taught me the ways of life, and at least tried to make sure I stayed on the right path.  I say “tried” because I certainly didn’t make it easy for him.  My thoughts drifted to simpler times, both happy and difficult …

 

My stomach rumbled, bringing me back to reality.

 

“Oh, hush,” I growled back.  “You should be used to this by now.”  After all, I’d been barely eating for the past year, due to my lack of ability to grow food as well as lack of coin to buy any.

 

I was still standing next to the cow.  “I don’t suppose you’d want to cooperate this time, huh?  Please?”

 

Still, the cow gave no evidence that she even knew I was there.

 

I set the bucket back up underneath the cow and sat back down on the stool.  I tried to grab hold of one of the teats, but as soon as I did, the cow moved away from me.  She was tied to a nearby pole, but she had just enough rope to make things difficult.

 

“Fine,” I muttered, now utterly (no pun intended) discouraged.  “Have it your way.”

 

I stood up (knocking over the stool as I did so) and stormed out the large double doors of the barn. 

 

Just as I reached for the doors to push them open, my gaze fell to the far corner of the barn.  Everything was back there, beckoning me.

 

No, no, no … you have work to do.

 

Too true.  I willed myself out of the barn and crossed in front of my small cottage home, which my father had built for my mother, and headed out to the fields to the right.  I was almost to the well next to the house when I realized I had left the cow tied to the post.  

 

 “Oh, well … serves her right.”  She could live without hay and water for a couple hours … stupid cow.

 

I drank some water from the well, then headed out to the fields to continue harrowing them.  The weather had been perfect for the season—a few rain showers here and there, but no downpours that flooded the fields.  A stark contrast to the previous year; the harvest hadn’t gone very well, and I had to struggle to get through the winter.  It had taken all the food that I had in the stores, the nuts I had collected, and animals I had slaughtered to survive.  I always hated slaughtering animals that I raised from calf and chick, but in the farming world, it was a necessary evil. 

 

I could only hope for some luck from the harvest this year—being hungry had become an ever-constant annoyance.

 

Two donkeys waited patiently in the field, strapped to what appeared to be a giant garden rake used to harrow the fields.  I made sure the wooden spikes were firmly entrenched in the soil, then grabbed the soft leather straps so that I could urge the donkeys forward. 

 

“Ya!”  I called, snapping the leather straps against their backs.  “Go!”

 

Two donkeys strapped to the harrow … and neither one of them even twitched.

 

I heaved a heavy sigh.  “Really, guys?  C’mon … it’s a beautiful day, you’ve been well fed.  What else do you guys really need?”  I accompanied this pep talk with a light stroking to the ears of each animal, which both responded to favorably.

 

“Alright,” I said, grabbing the strap again and feeling more confident.  “Let’s go!”  I yelled, cracking the strap once again.

 

Nothing.

 

Now I was completely frustrated.  “Ah, what the heck, guys?  Eating’s not very important, is it?”

 

Finally, one of the donkeys responded.  He tossed his head back happily and sighed in content.

 

I’d had enough … and that dark corner of the barn was now beckoning with even more persistence.  Apparently, the gods had different plans for me that didn’t involve farming … or eating.

 

Before I knew it, I was back in the barn.  The cow was less than thrilled at being left tied to the post, so I untied her and led her back out to the fields behind the barn.  Once I was back inside, however, it was time for me to indulge those feelings that were insistently dragging me toward what I truly loved.

 

Father said I was crazy.  Perhaps he was right, but when I was younger, I believed that my destiny did not lay on a farm—it lay on a battlefield.  It happened innocently enough—my uncle, Hagan, owned a bookstore in the nearby city of Kiver, which lay in the north and was where my father and I traded our goods.  Just like my father, I loved to read, and one day while we were visiting, Father asked me to grab a book and go upstairs, and the book I grabbed off-handedly was titled Hero Knights of the Second Age.

 

My life would never be the same. 

 

From that point on, I was forever drawn to the military lifestyle and to the glory of being a knight.  Father lectured me sternly, especially as I started to stray from my duties on the farm.  He told me that farmers didn’t become knights, and that I should accept what fate had dealt me.  He wasn’t trying to put me down or hurt me, simply trying to be realistic.  Over time, I slowly came to realize that he was right, especially as I entered my adolescent years.

Reality came crashing down hard on me at the age of fourteen.  My father died suddenly that winter from a fever, despite my attempts to save him.  But with my rudimentary healing skills and the journey to town far too treacherous on the icy roads, my efforts were in vain.  Within a day of showing the first symptoms, my father was dead the next day, while holding me in his arms.

 

Uncle Hagan would die the following month.

 

Suddenly alone in the world, my entire focus fell to my work on the farm.  But more so than the fact that I needed to focus solely on my farming in order to survive, it became even more important as a way to deal with my losses, and with the cold, harsh feeling of loneliness.  And after two years, my work ethic, instilled by my father, was now firmly ingrained. 

 

But my fascination with knighthood still lingered.

 

Although I loved my father and missed him dearly, I took advantage of his absence to build a couple of dummies out of wood and straw, something he would never have allowed me to do.  The dummies were quite crude, and probably a little dangerous, to be honest.  I followed that horrible and laughable attempt at blacksmithing with another one, building a very crude wooden sword that gave me splinters in my hands every time I used it.  But every morning and every night (or during times like this, when I was extremely irritated), I would venture to my practice area, and I would continue my exhibition in “swordplay.”

 

I wasn’t taking my dreams of knighthood very seriously anymore, but sometimes fate has a way of changing your future in one moment …

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

The next four months went by without further incident.  There were a few days like that difficult one that happened here and there, but for the most part, my experience at running the farm alone had been a very tough, but rewarding one.  Animals had their off-days, just like humans, but they generally did their jobs and made all of our lives easier. 

 

As I was working in the fields one mid-summer day, I could have sworn that I heard my mother’s voice calling me in for supper.  It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened—when I was younger, I was plagued with dreams about her, though I had never even met her.  They were very simple dreams, from her calling me into eat to doting over me in all other ways a mother could.  Sounds pleasant, right?  Well, as far as I was concerned, they were nightmares, because when I woke up and realized the dreams weren’t real, I screamed my pain to the heavens.  It would take my father the rest of the night to comfort me.

 

I’d always appreciated my father, but now that he was gone, I did so even more.  I’d read many books from my uncle’s bookstore, including several stories where children were often blamed for the deaths of their mothers during childbirth.  But to my father, I was his most valuable possession, and the last piece of my mother that remained.  I could only hope that he realized just how important he was to me as well.

 

I was trying to fix a broken part of the fence one day when the iron head of the hammer fell from the wooden handle.  It hit the ground with a small thud.

I sighed.  “Well, perhaps I should let the chickens have a crack at fixing this thing—they might do a better job than me anyway.”  I had gotten particularly good at taking my lack of blacksmithing skills in stride. 

 

I had a gardening hoe with me, and was just getting ready to turn my attention back to the fields when I could hear horses trotting down the road in the distance.  That sound was accompanied by the sound of merry men who had likely had a bit too much ale.  I backed away from the fence, wanting to get away from the dust that the horses would kick up, which would make me cough and gag violently.

 

As the men drew nearer, I could see that they were not merely men—they were knights, three of them.  I immediately became enchanted, and I found myself wondering how many battles they had seen, how many foes they had slain.  I suddenly imagined that I was riding alongside them, sharing my tales of conquest and boasting of my acts of valor on the battlefield.

 

I was so lost in my daydreaming that I hadn’t noticed that the knights had spotted me, and that one of them was pointing in my direction. 

 

A cold chill paralyzed me.  What does this knight want with me?

 

Excitement warred with fear in my body.  I had only had one other experience with a soldier—a few years ago, the house down the road had burned down.  It had belonged to a very nice older lady, Agatha, who had been a close friend to my parents.  Unfortunately, due to the emotional trauma surrounding my mother, I hadn’t treated Agatha very well.  But when her house caught fire, Father and I tried to save her life, to no avail.  The next day, the king had sent a young soldier, Derrick, to investigate Agatha’s death.  It turned out that she was one of the best tailors in the kingdom, and she was making clothing for many of the king’s servants, and even a few for the king himself.  Derrick had been a jolly, happy-go-lucky fellow.

 

But for some reason, I didn’t get the same vibe from this knight, who was swaggering toward me (crookedly, being intoxicated).

 

The knight stood in front of me and pointed mockingly.  “What do we have hhhere?”  His voice was slurred and had a whining quality to it.

 

My earlier suspicions were now confirmed—the stench of alcohol washed over me like a tide from the Oh-Gods-Above-That’s-Nasty Ocean.  It was so bad, I couldn’t believe that my curly brown hair didn’t turn white—or fall out completely.

 

So many things were happening at once, I was too confused to respond.  The knight frowned in displeasure—then he hiccupped.  “When I ashk you a queshton, you answer, boy.”  Apparently, completing this sentence was almost too much for him, for he staggered unsteadily on his feet before regaining some semblance of balance.

 

Still, I didn’t answer, and I was getting more and more nervous as this conversation continued.  The knight was getting more and more agitated.  My heart thumped loudly against my chest.

 

“Lower your eyesh to your superiorsh,” the knight ordered.

 

At that moment, anger began to swell inside me.  This man, knight or not, had no right to bully and humiliate me, just because I was the first peasant he had seen on the road that day. 

 

And what exactly are you going to do about it, Aidan?  Drunk or not, he’s an experienced swordsman, and you’re not.

 

Well played, Conscience.  So, after some hesitation, I did as the knight commanded.

 

But the knight seemed to sense my unspoken feelings, and his eyes widened in fury.  “You dare heshitate when I give you an order, peasant scum?” 

 

Now my heart was trying to bash its way out of my ribcage.  Shaking uncontrollably, I stared at the knight, in his heavy steel armor and brandishing a gleaming, battle-worn sword, which I had no doubt he knew how to use.  My mind frantically searched for a way out of this sticky situation.

 

Just do what he wants, Aidan. 

 

I could see the knight’s face getting redder with his fury, and I was really beginning to feel afraid that he was going to hurt me.  So I did the only thing I could do—

 

“Please, Mr. Knight,” I begged, “please don’t hurt me.”

 

The knight roared with laughter.  “That’s right, boy,” he said gleefully—or slurred, rather, “beg like the peasant you are!  Put your facesh on the ground and beg!” 

 

My face burned with embarrassment, but at least it seemed like he was going to leave me alone if I did what he wanted.  Slowly, I got down on my knees and lowered myself to the ground, my head hovering just a couple of inches above it.

 

The knight put his heavy steel boot on my head and pushed it into the dirt.  “I said to put your facesh on the ground.”  He chuckled, clearly enjoying this show of power.  I heard the other knights laughing from their horses.

 

I grunted in anger and frustration as the knight ground his boot into the side of my head, shoving the side of my face further into the dirt.  Truthfully, it didn’t hurt all that much—but the helplessness and humiliation hurt me all the way to my soul.

 

Finally, the knight removed his boot from my head.  “Now shtay there until I leave, you filthy peasant.”

 

As the knight arrogantly (and drunkenly) swaggered away, the anger returned, and this time, it threatened to reach the boiling point.  I couldn’t fully comprehend what had just happened to me, other than the fact that I had just been made an example out of by a bully of a knight for the amusement of his friends.  That thought pierced me like a pitchfork through the chest.  But I knew that open defiance would only bring more pain and humiliation, so I did exactly as I was told.

 

It felt like forever, but the knight finally got back on his horse (almost falling off the other side).  Feeling that I had done what was ordered, I slowly stood back up and brushed myself off.

 

Big mistake.  One of the other knights saw me, and pointed in my direction.  The bully knight turned around, saw me, and dismounted his horse again, heading in my direction.

 

Oh, Gods.  What did I do?

 

Worse, he was walking much straighter than he was the previous time, and with more purpose. 

 

As he stood in front of me this time, he drew his sword (for some reason, I took a mental note that he was right-handed), which was almost enough to make me squeal in terror.  But, as I stared at the tip that hovered just inches from my nose, I kept my lips tightly sealed, though I couldn’t stop trembling. 

 

“Do you not value your life, boy?”  The knight asked, and the fact that he didn’t slur his words this time wasn’t lost on me.  It seemed that he was sobering up in a hurry, which wasn’t good news for me. 

 

Again, I remained silent, and he got even angrier.  “I suggest you get back down on the ground, plant your nose in the dirt, and remain there until I have departed.  If you do not, then I will smile as your body lies limp, impaled, at the end of my sword.”

 

I shuddered as the image firmly entrenched itself in my mind—but even as I did, my blood burned even hotter in anger.  Suddenly, I found myself in an internal struggle—my brain (which was screaming at me to just obey already, and get on with my life) against my heart (which was tired of the pain and humiliation, and was actually, to my chagrin, contemplating fighting back).  It felt like I battled with this decision forever, though it was only a few seconds.

 

Unfortunately, the knight took those few seconds as another act of defiance.  “So be it,” he muttered, before he hit me in the face with the steel-plated glove of his left hand.  I staggered before I fell on my back, clutching my face from the sharp pain which was suddenly piercing my skull.  The blow opened a cut on my forehead, and I could immediately feel the blood trickling down my face.  My vision became fuzzy and I was having trouble focusing on anything.  The blinding sun suddenly made my head pound harder.

 

Roughly, the knight reached down and grabbed me by my dirty cotton shirt, hauling me to my feet.  He set me down so aggressively that I almost fell back down to the ground.  “Now …” he growled in my face, and the overwhelming smell of alcohol made my eyes water severely, “you will do exactly as I tell you this time, or I will gut you right here.  Do you understand me?”  Once again, his sword was pointed at me.

 

This time, blind rage completely overruled my fear.  True, I hadn’t had much experience with soldiers and knights, but I believed in the stories that I had read, the tales that had been engraved into my heart.

 

This man is a disgrace to his own title.

 

The knight had finally had enough of my insolence.  Without warning, he tried to strike me with the hilt of his sword, and instinctively, I dodged the blow.  I had no idea where the idea came to dodge the attack—perhaps from dodging the donkey’s hooves as they tried to kick me, or from dodging chickens as they attacked me when I entered their pens. 

 

At any rate, the fact that I was no longer where I was an instant ago when the knight tried to strike me (apparently coupled with the still-present effects of the alcohol) caused the knight to stumble harshly—if he had fallen, he would have landed where I had been laying only moments earlier.  But he caught himself and spun around.  My thoughts a blur, I snatched up the nearby gardening hoe and held it in front of me defensively.

 

I could hear the knight’s friends, on their horses, exchanging murmurs of surprise.

 

Seeing me with a weapon (such as it was) and ready to fight back, the knight’s expression was surprised at first, then turned mocking.  “Are you in your right mind, boy?”  He asked, arrogantly sauntering toward me.  “Fighting a knight?  Do you even know what you are about to get yourself into?”

 

Clearly, I didn’t, but I stood steadfast anyway.  “Judging by the amount of ale you’ve apparently consumed, I’m more in my right mind than you.”

 

One of the knights behind me chuckled, then was stifled into silence.

 

After a quick glance at the offending comrade, the knight turned his attention back to me.  “Well, scum, obviously you don’t know your true place in the world, so it becomes my job to teach you.”  With that, he took a couple of threatening steps forward.

 

Thanks to my uncle, I had read many books, so (in my estimation) I considered myself to be smarter than the average peasant.  I had read many stories of knights in battle, so I know to observe my opponent. 

 

Obviously, he knows how to use that sword, but he seems to be a better talker than he is a fighter.  Also, he’s still drunk, so his senses and his reflexes are likely to be off …

 

Still, it wouldn’t pay for me to underestimate him.  Even if he had ascended to his position through lies and deceit, he had to have some ability to fight, or he wouldn’t have been a soldier at all.

 

The first thing I knew right away was that my meager “weapon” would not be able to block his sword—one swing of his sword would likely split the hoe in half.  And due to my blacksmithing skills (or lack thereof), the hoe would basically be rendered useless, no matter what I did.

 

The second thing I knew was that I was a complete imbecile for even trying to fight an experience warrior.

 

I ducked as the first blow came at me horizontally from my left.  The knight swung again immediately, almost using the sword like a club.  I ducked again, and swung the hoe with every last bit of strength I had.

 

It bounced harmlessly off of his heavily-armored right shoulder.

 

Both of us stood there in shock—I suspect he was in shock because I had actually attacked him, and I know I was in shock was it was so monumentally stupid for me to swing the hoe like a flailing child, without putting any actual thought as to where it might prudent to strike him, with all of his armor. 

 

He glanced at his shoulder, then at my “weapon,” and laughed mockingly.

 

But his overconfidence cost him—I knew from reading books on combat tactics to take advantage of any chance that came my way. 

 

And he had just given me a big chance.

 

I once again swung the hoe as hard as I could, this time aiming for his legs.  Having worked on a farm my whole life, I had a great deal of strength, and my desperate tactic succeeded—the hoe swept his legs out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground.

 

Behind me, the knights’ murmurs grew louder.

 

The knight floundered on the ground for a moment (like a turtle on its back) before he was finally able to regain his feet—I had to imagine that navigating in that armor could be difficult sometimes.  Finally, he jumped to his feet (and subsequently, staggered a bit from inebriation) and glared at me, fuming.

 

My resolve cracked, just a little.

 

“How dare you, boy,” the knight growled, and it suddenly seemed that he sobered up even more.  “Clearly, you don’t know your place in this world.  Now, I’m going to show you where scum like you reside.”  He then began to stride toward me, obviously ready to finish this altercation—whatever “finishing it” meant.

 

Any anger I would have felt at his insult was instantly smothered by overwhelming fear.  My mind froze, and I tried to scurry away backward.  But in my panic, I tripped over my own feet, and crashed to the ground.  The knight continued his pursuit, and I scrambled to my feet.  Now desperate, I did the only thing I could think of, though it probably wasn’t the best choice—I swung the hoe again, aiming for the knight’s head. 

 

But the knight, having already underestimated me already, was now prepared for battle, which only served to frighten me further.  Almost nonchalantly, he brought up his sword and blocked my blow, shattering the hoe and sending the head of it sailing away.  That turn of events froze me in my tracks, and the knight took advantage of the opportunity to close the gap between us.  He grabbed me by my hair and drove his knee into my midsection. 

 

I’d been kicked by horses and other animals many times, but never in my life had I felt pain like that—the blow from the armored leg drove all the air out of my body, and hurt terribly.  Now completely at the knight’s mercy, I was helpless as the knight, still with a handful of my hair, forced me to turn so that my back was to him and give me a violent kick to the back of my leg, instantly forcing me to my knees.

 

Now my anger had reached the boiling point, but by then it was far too late—I was completely at the mercy of the knight, who probably outweighed me even without his armor.  He shoved me into the ground face-first, and then laid on top of me while he grinded my face in the dirt.  Coughing and sputtering, I growled as I tried to fight back, but it was pointless—pinned to the ground, there was nothing I could do.

 

“Time for your daily meal, peasant,” the knight whispered in my ear, a taunting note in his voice.  “Now eat your dirt like the pig you are.”

 

The position he had me in, it took very little effort for him to continue this humiliation.  His forearm on the back of my neck, he leaned into me more heavily.  He buried my face in the dirt, and I suddenly realized that he was trying to suffocate me.  Gasping, I desperately summoned all of my strength and shoved, but I don’t think he even felt it.

 

I was going to die …

 

I could hear the other knights yelling something, but I couldn’t tell what …

 

Suddenly, the weight of the knight was gone, and I realized that I could move—I could breathe again.  Turning to my side, I coughed and retched as I gulped deep breaths of air.  I saw a dagger nearby, and after a few moments, I began to wonder what had happened …

 

I could hear a commotion behind me …

 

The beating sun was blocked out as a shadow fell over me.  A very large man in armor was standing defensively over me, separating me from the bully knight.

 

“Before you go any further, Norvin,” a deep voice rumbled, “let me remind you that while you have that sword pointed at me, you are breaking Delmar law.”

 

There was a pause, and then the sound of a sword being sheathed.  “I’m sorry, sir!”  The bully knight sputtered.  “I didn’t know it was you!  That … that peasant attacked me!”

 

“Indeed?”  The deep voice answered.  He turned and looked back at me, revealing ice-blue eyes that peeked out from under his large helmet, which was emblazoned with a red eagle (the symbol on Delmar’s flag) and had a plume of white hair sticking out from the top.  He had a medium-length gray beard.

 

Before I could defend myself, the oddest thing happened.

 

The knight winked at me.

 

Bewildered, I watched as the knight turned back to this “Norvin.”  “Interesting … it certainly didn’t seem that way from my vantage point.”  He glanced back toward the barn, and I swore I thought I could hear a smile in his voice.

 

So he had been watching, this entire time … why hadn’t he interjected himself sooner?

 

Norvin sputtered indignantly.  “There’s no way you could have possibly seen the whole ordeal, General—”

 

General?

 

“Oh, but I did, Sir Norvin,” my savior responded.  “I was on my way to meet you when I found that you had taken a bit of a detour, to this young man’s farm.  Imagine my surprise when I saw what came next.”

 

Sir Norvin’s eyes widened in surprise; he hadn’t been expecting that.  The eyes quickly narrowed again in contempt.  “Just showing him the way of the land, that’s all.”

 

Garridan bent down and picked up the dagger.  As he spoke, he strolled toward Norvin slowly, holding it by the tip.  “There is no law that says you can attack a farmer, baker, carpenter, butcher, blacksmith, or any—” all of us jumped at the sudden rise in Sir Garridan’s voice— “citizen for that matter, for your own personal amusement.”  He stopped in his stride, holding the dagger up, still by the tip.  Norvin took a step backward, eyes wide, looking as though he were getting ready to dodge an incoming blow.

 

Sir Garridan stood like a majestic stone statue in the middle of my field.  “Thanks to my intervention, a tragedy has been avoided.  Today, you will walk away, Norvin … but if I catch you doing any such thing again, I will report you to the king, you will be stripped of your knighthood, and you will spend the rest of your life in a dungeon cell.  Do you understand?”  Sir Garridan made this statement with a deadly calm.

 

Norvin’s response was a shaky nod that was defiant in its nature, and he turned and jumped on his horse, preparing to ride away.  Garridan stopped him, though.

 

“Norvin!”  Sir Garridan called.  “Your dagger.”  He then tossed it underhand, high in the air.  It landed stuck in the ground, not too far from Norvin, who still had to get off of his horse again to retrieve it.

 

As soon as Sir Norvin and his party had left, disappearing down the dirt road in a cloud of dust, Sir Garridan turned and walked back toward me.  Despite the fact that he had saved me, I was still very apprehensive; I didn’t know this man at all, and had already had one bad encounter with a knight that day.

 

“Did he harm you?”  Sir Garridan asked me, his voice seeming to be genuinely concerned.

 

Not at all.  We were just messing around.  I think I’ll invite him over for tea later.

 

I bit back my sarcastic retort, and started to answer, but I was so nervous that I couldn’t find the right words.

 

The general put up his hand, stopping me.  “Forgive me … that was a foolish question.  All things considered, however, things could have turned out much worse.”

 

I conceded in my mind that he was right, but I was still angry and embarrassed.  And then, for some stupid reason, I felt like he was going to arrest me, and the thought terrified me.  “I didn’t start anything with that knight, sir—” I was also scared because I had never heard of a knight having any kind of sympathy or respect for the common people.  To hear people talk in nearby towns, knights were as bad as any noble, and I had certainly gotten an example of that already.

 

I was still stuttering my way through an explanation, but Sir Garridan gently put his hand up, silencing me.  “Worry not, my lad,” he said, his voice tinged with humor at my apparently noticeable fear.  “As I implied to Norvin, I witnessed the entire ordeal.  Norvin has a gift for finding trouble, or creating it.”

 

“T—thank you for saving me, sir,” I stuttered.  “If you hadn’t, I shudder to think what might have happened.”

 

The general’s eyes rose in approval.  “Good manners, and to hear you speak, well educated.  You impress me more and more every minute.”

 

He was impressed, by me?  Why, because I hadn’t cried when Norvin drove my face in the dirt?  Because believe me, I wanted to.

 

Then, another thought occurred to me.  “If you saw everything, why—” I hesitated, as I was about to ask the general a very bold question.

 

The general nodded toward me, encouraging me.  “Out with it, lad … do not be afraid to say what is on your mind.”

 

I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but I took a deep breath to summon courage I didn’t feel and continued anyway.  “Why didn’t you stop him sooner?”

 

The general face fell, just a bit.  “Please forgive me, son.  I must admit, my reasons are selfish, but here it is—I saw Sir Norvin staggering toward you, and I was about to intercede.  But when I saw you pick up the gardening hoe, I became very intrigued.  And then, I saw your ability to dodge and fight back, and I couldn’t help but be absorbed by what I was watching.  Your skills in combat were quite impressive.  I have never seen a farmer display such natural talent before.”

 

I was too young to realize it at the time, but his statement was also an implication, one that I didn’t respond to since I was oblivious to it.  Instead, I looked back at my shattered weapon, then down at the ground, tremendously happy at his praise, yet utterly embarrassed that a gardening hoe was my weapon.

 

Sir Garridan must have sensed what I was thinking.  “Do not be ashamed, young one.  On the battlefield, even the most unlikely of weapons can save your life.  Do not expect mercy if you do not wield a weapon.  Anything you can hold in your hands will suffice.”  Garridan looked me up and down.  “How many years have you seen, young man?”

 

“Sixteen,” I answered, and Garridan nodded approvingly.

 

“You’re a good size lad for your age,” he said, smiling a little.  “What is your name?”

 

“Aidan,” I answered, lowering my eyes in a slight bow.  But my fumbling attempts to be respectful in the presence of a knight finally wavered and crumbled under the weight of what I had just endured, mentally and physically, and I could feel my emotions beginning to pour out of my soul, not unlike water out of a cup that has just been knocked over.  I closed my eyes, my head sinking with sudden exhaustion and anxiety over what I had just endured … I could feel myself shaking, and for a split second, I wasn’t sure who I was, or where I was.  Looking back on it, I can see that my young mind had suffered too much emotional trauma at once, and I couldn’t handle it.

 

Sir Garridan, of course, could see this immediately—he took a step forward and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder, and even though this man was a stranger, this unnecessary, yet considerate act had an instant calming effect on me … and unexpectedly, I was reminded of my father.

 

Garridan bent low to look me in the eyes.  “You handled yourself better than most soldiers I have ever seen.  You should be proud of yourself.  Always remember—when you can walk away from a battle, be grateful, because there is always someone who won’t enjoy the same luck.” 

 

I nodded, knowing that he was right, but finding his philosophy hard to grasp as that particular moment.  I just stood there silently, so the knight continued.  “Again, forgive me … I praise you for your manners, yet I find mine lacking.  I am Sir Garridan Winslow, general of the White Army of Delmar.”

 

What?  This man was the general of the White Army … and he was named after a famous warrior from the Second Age? 

 

My mind reeling from all of this new information, I didn’t know how to respond.  Unfortunately, when I meet new people, I always end up reacting to them like a fool.  So, since I was in the presence of such greatness, I did the only thing my frozen mind could think of to do—I dropped to a knee and bowed my head.  “It is an honor to meet you, sir.”

 

Garridan erupted in laughter, a deep, hearty belly laugh at my fumbling attempt at respect.  “Well,” he said in between chuckles, “I can say—with all honesty—that has never happened to me before.”  He looked down at me, his head tilted to the side a bit, and said, “I am a general, not a king, lad.  Please rise.”

 

I stood back up, ashamed at my lack of composure.  But my indignity was immediately eradicated in the next moment; Garridan’s tone was serious as he said, “You have courage, little one, the kind of fortitude that is difficult to find in most soldiers.  Having never even seen a battle, let alone have experience in one, you battled a knight, knowing he could have killed you at any moment, or that any of the other three knights could have interfered at any time.  That’s a rare quality to find in any human being … always hang on to it, son.”  He put his armored hand on my shoulder again, gave it a light squeeze, then turned and walked away.

 

As Sir Garridan climbed over the fence at the end of my land, I found myself staring down at my hands, bewildered that I had just survived an encounter with a knight (one that involved weapons, no less).  I didn’t forget, of course, that if Sir Norvin had not been drunk, the meeting would have been very different.  But in Sir Garridan’s eyes, that didn’t matter … what did matter was that I, as a very young farmer, had performed bravely in the face of adversity.  Coming from someone of such high standing, that meant more than anyone could possibly know.

 

But I had also been scared out of my wits; for the first time, my life had been put in jeopardy at the hands of another, and the thought of that had frightened me, as it would anyone.  The fear of being a sword swipe away from death brought the reality of my dream to the forefront, and for the first time, I questioned whether I wanted to be a knight or not.

 

But by the time the sun had set, and I was in bed, staring at the ceiling, the light of my dream had returned … and it burned brighter than ever before.

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Much to my surprise, Sir Garridan returned to my home two days later, bearing a couple of gifts for me. First and foremost — Food! Two whole baskets of it!

 

My mouth began to water immediately. I couldn’t remember when the last time was that I had a decent meal. I almost lunged for them, but managed to keep myself in check.

 

Sir Garridan handed them to me. ‘A good soldier needs to be strong. Mind you, food will very rarely be available like this, but for the purposes of training, I’d rather have you strong and healthy.’

 

I was so grateful, I almost cried — and I had totally missed the ‘soldier’ reference.

 

‘Thank you, Sir Garridan.’ I plucked a grape off of its vine and ate it.

 

Sir Garridan was staring at me with a slight smirk. ‘I know you’re hungry, Aidan. No reason to stand on ceremony.’

 

That was all the encouragement I needed — I practically dove into the baskets and started shoving food into my mouth. A variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and nuts — I’d never seen such a selection before.

 

I’d like to be more specific, but the truth is that I wasn’t bothering to look at the food before I ate it.

 

The second gift was a sword. It was old and rusted, but by the gods, it was a real sword! When he handed it to me (I still had a piece of bread hanging from my mouth), I nearly dropped it on the floor — I couldn’t believe how heavy it was!

 

‘Did you have to get me the one melted from an anvil?’ I asked incredulously.

 

Sir Garridan chuckled — luckily, he knew I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, just making humor out of a difficult situation, as I always did in order to deal with life.

 

‘I am afraid you won’t find any much lighter, son — unless it was made by the elves.’

 

Sir Garridan told me to practice with it (outside, he stressed — before he’d finished talking to me, I’d succeeded in knocking a clay vase off of my dining room table), and get used to its weight.

 

‘I will return in a week to check on your progress, and if you are used to the sword by then, I will teach you a few things.’

 

I was still in awe as I stared at Sir Garridan’s gift. I didn’t say much to him, as I was not used to interaction with other people, much less a man of such honor as Sir Garridan. But when I heard him say that he would be my mentor of sorts, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

 

‘Why?’ I asked.

 

When Sir Garridan spoke, it seemed to me that his eyes reflected many years of experience and memories, of past setbacks and accomplishments. He smiled proudly at me.

 

‘I have trained many soldiers in my day, Aidan my lad. I have seen recruits that truly desired the life of war, of stale food and hard campaigning. Those recruits often have natural skill, and grasp the art of battle quickly. Others have no aspiration to become a soldier, forced into that life by one reason or another. Those soldiers are often the first to die. I watched you when you battled Sir Norvin, Aidan — nobody at your age fights like that without truly wanting it. You practice battling wooden dummies in the barn, am I correct?’

 

I was flabbergasted — and embarrassed.

 

Sir Garridan smiled in understanding. ‘There is nothing to be ashamed about, Aidan. You would be surprised how many soldiers begin that way - far more than you could possibly imagine. Another thing I noticed about your confrontation, the way you stood up to Sir Norvin, I find it highly unlikely that I would be able to talk you out of becoming a soldier. Am I correct again?’

 

I smiled lightly and nodded in response.

 

Sir Garridan nodded in return. ‘If you were younger, I would attempt to discourage you from this difficult life. But you are about to enter your adult years, and if you are going to learn, I would have you learn the right way.’

 

There was my father again, in the words of this knight. I was momentarily distant as I pondered my father’s death and Sir Garridan’s sudden appearance.

‘Of all the soldiers I have trained and fought,’ Sir Garridan continued, ‘I have seen few with the courage, confidence and potential skill that you possess at such a young age.’

 

If I was in awe when I saw the sword, I was completely astonished at those words. Courage? Perhaps. Confidence? I was so scared I felt like I was going to throw up. Skill? Sure... I swung that gardening hoe like a master.

 

In the months that went by, I began to understand the true meaning of Sir Garridan’s words. I realised that courage and fear are often hand-in-hand. True courage is the ability to master that fear, and accomplish the task at hand anyway, no matter what the cost to your own well-being. The skill and confidence I displayed was more mental than it was physical; the fact that I even dared to challenge Sir Norvin was a testament to that confidence, and my mental skill was shown by anticipating Norvin’s moves and countering with my own. Sir Garridan taught me that all of those qualities were important, and that the loss of any one of them could mean death on the battlefield.

 

Sir Garridan came by often, teaching me basic sword techniques and proper stances in those early months. I remember, at one point, I had found a stance that I favored, where I stood with my knees bent low, and my sword held behind me, almost over my head. But Sir Garridan taught me a new stance anyway.

 

When I respectfully asked him why, he answered, ‘By the time we have completed our training, you will have found a style you are comfortable using in battle. But we are yet in our beginning stages, and as such, I will commence in teaching you every style that I know of, and their strengths and weaknesses in combat.’

 

In the end, I was very grateful for Sir Garridan’s thorough approach to my training.

 

I was training constantly, and getting not nearly as much work done on the farm as I had been in the past. Concerned about any consequences (I’m not sure why — I hadn’t been having much luck producing food anyhow), I spoke to Sir Garridan, who told me not to worry; he had already spoken to the lord who was responsible for my land.

 

Sir Garridan assured me that as long as I kept producing crops, I would not be bothered. ‘Keep working, and keep training.’

 

In between lessons, Sir Garridan often told stories, tales of battles never forgotten, and some about world history in general. He was surprised to find that I knew a little bit about what he was talking about, and I explained about my uncle’s bookstore, as well as my love of reading. Sir Garridan had smiled in approval, saying that that had explained my above-average intelligence for a farmer.

 

He asked about my life, but unfortunately, even though I was beginning to think of Sir Garridan as a father figure, I wasn’t ready to reveal too much about my past. However, I did talk to him about some of it.

 

He took a particular interest in Agatha, the neighbour who helped out my father and I. I don’t know why, but I never got along with her — I’ve always thought it was because I didn’t have my mother, and thought that she was trying to take over her place. After she died, I spent a great deal of time analyzing the relationship, and I realised that she was just a nice old lady who helped out the people she cared about. Afterward, I was always ashamed of how I acted and now, although I am very awkward around women (having not had much experience with them), I treat them with the utmost respect, in honor of my mother and Agatha.

 

Sir Garridan admired that, and told me how important it was to respect women. He then also made a point that hadn’t occurred to me.

‘All you’ve ever known in your life is death,’ he said. ‘Your mother, father, uncle, and Agatha — from the moment I met you, I’ve seen a shadow over you, Aidan. You must be careful not to let it overtake you.’

 

I had never realised that, and took a mental note for future reference.

 

But anything I had experienced or read in any book could not compare to Sir Garridan’s real life experiences. I learned a great deal from Sir Garridan — about mages, also called wizards or sorcerers, those that use the power of magic. I also learned much about the elves, the oldest and fairest race in our world, and the dwarves, short in stature and temper (especially when they’ve had ale, which is usually a given), but a race proud of its heritage.

But the race I took a particular interest in learning about was dragons. When Sir Garridan spoke of them, his fascination was clear on his weathered features — his eyes glowed, and his expressions became much more animated. Dragons were great beings, Sir Garridan said, the only race on the planet older than the elves. They were a race of great size and power, both physical and magical.

 

‘I have never fought a dragon,’ Sir Garridan stated, ‘but I am told that it is never an easy feat, for their scales are harder than any armor the dwarves could forge.’

 

They were extremely intelligent (despite the popular opinion that they were just big, lumbering beasts) and could speak, both in the Common language as well as their own tongue. Most, however, never bothered to speak to any kind other than their own.

 

Dragons have had a great influence, positive and negative, over the ages. As such, many countries declared themselves either ‘pro-dragon’ or ‘anti-dragon.’ Anti-dragon countries are typically better equipped to fight them off, and will kill any that crosses their borders.

 

Delmar was anti-dragon territory — and at the time, that didn’t mean much to me, but little did I know what a huge role that would play in my future.

 

King Baladir IV, it should be noted, was a great king. His family had ruled Delmar for generations, and his particular generation was considered to be the ‘golden age’ of Delmar’s long and illustrious history. He was a king who ruled with mercy, yet was very strong-willed and believed heavily in discipline. He took care of his country, and the people adored him; he was handsome, charming, and not at all conceited. Everything he believed in and achieved was in the interests of the country he served.

 

Long ago, Baladir’s family was indifferent to the existence of dragons. His great, great grandfather, Haroldor, ruled Delmar during this time. It was also during this time that Delmar was unexpectedly attacked by a trio of dragons, one black, and two red. Unprepared for this ambush, the kingdom of Delmar was crippled by the relentless assault of the dragons, and Haroldor himself met his untimely demise in the jaws of the black dragon. Delmar wasn’t educated in the ways of dragons, and was therefore unable to identify them, much less establish a reason for the attack. Haroldor’s son, Baladir I, began teaching his subjects that dragons were dimwitted, ruthless monsters out to destroy mankind (in the wake of the attack, this was not a difficult idea to teach the devastated survivors). After that, any dragons that crossed the borders were killed swiftly and harshly.

 

Sir Garridan knew much about dragons because he had read many books about them in other countries, and found their teachings to be very different from ours - the books we had in Delmar concerning dragons were usually written by people who lived in our own country, and were therefore biased. It was in the country of Dalanthia, in the city of Min Lenoras, far to the east of our country, where Sir Garridan learned the ‘other side’ of the dragons, and that they were often befriended by the kings of countries that favored them.

 

Sir Garridan shared his love and passion of dragons with me, but was quick to point out that dragons were hated in Delmar and that I would be imprisoned if I so much as referred to them in a favorable manner.

 

After the first day of my new training, I was so sore — I couldn’t help but feel like I had never done a day of work in my life, though I knew this was far from the case. It felt like my muscle’s muscles were sore.

 

But Sir Garridan was merciless, and he pushed me forward. As my training progressed, Sir Garridan began to bring soldiers with him for me to train with once a week. We used wooden training swords, and soldiers were instructed to hold nothing back. In the early weeks, I met some quick defeats, which was very frustrating at first — after all of the initial training, I had felt like I was ready for anything, only to find that I still knew nothing about swordplay. Sir Garridan would personally instruct and analyse each and every one of his training sessions, and critique me afterward, openly and honestly. He would then teach me things based on what I had done, right or wrong, during that session, and the next week (giving me time for all of that information to sink in), we would train again. Before long, I was the one handing out defeats.

 

Then one day, the opportunity to prove myself came... without warning.