A mixture of excitement and fear filled Aleksandr as he stood before the family manor, on what was to be one of the proudest days of his life. Today, he began the long journey towards becoming a knight: a defender of the crown and protector of the people. He would bring honour to his family, just as his father, Harbid Heahun, had before him. Aleksandr could already picture in his boy’s mind riding a great stallion into battle, laying King Haralan’s enemies low with a flashing blade, travelling the width and breadth of the land righting wrongs, avenging injustices and perhaps even slaying a flanduil one day. Such was every young noble’s fantasy. But, even as all of these adventurous thoughts filled him, doubt crept into the back of his mind.
A boy of seven, he was just a little over ten hands tall. He had pale white skin beneath a head of bright red hair and ice-blue eyes. A fit little boy, he was known for his athleticism and strength for his age.
As he looked around at the familiar thatched houses, the small stone church and the deeply rutted dirt roads, Aleksandr felt anxiety tighten his chest. He was about to travel to what seemed the end of the world. He was, after all, being sent to Fennell Keep, in the baronial seat of power. Aleksandr realised it was a great honour to serve in the household of Baron Dorja Fennell himself, and that his father had made a great many sacrifices to make it happen, but Aleksandr still wished he could stay at home. The outside world seemed like an incredibly large and frightening place to him. The town was all that he knew.
Though small and relatively insignificant according to his well-travelled brothers, Heahun was to Aleksandr as beautiful a place as any he could imagine. Nestled away comfortably in the forests southwest of Dargon, it fell within the jurisdiction of the Barony of Fennell. It was a somewhat humble barony, subsisting on agriculture for the most part. Just fewer than two hundred families lived in Heahun itself. It wasn’t an especially wealthy town, either. Most of the villagers made a life for themselves tilling the croplands to the north and east of town, or harvesting wood for Aleksandr’s father in the dense forests to the south and west. Like all folk in the Barony of Fennell, they were a hardy lot, enduring the warm summers and frigid winters with a quiet determination that could only be found in the simple, silent forest. The town was ruled by Aleksandr’s family, the Heahuns, and had been for decades. Stalwart knights that served the duke unquestioningly, Aleksandr thought the town suited them.
He heard the familiar footfalls of his father coming up behind him. Aleksandr looked up as the powerful figure stopped beside him, taking in the town as well. Harbid Heahun was an impressive man, even though he was now nearing his fiftieth year. His fiery red hair that Aleksandr shared was streaked with silver, as were his flowing beard and moustaches. He was tall and his powerful frame still carried much muscle. Aleksandr was immensely proud of him.
Harbid placed a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Ah, my son. Today you take the first step in the family tradition. Your brothers have done well, and I expect no less from you.” Indeed, his father had said many a time that Aleksandr was the most promising of his five sons, which was why Harbid had gone to great lengths to have him taken in as a page at Fennell Keep.
“I’m going to become a great knight like Sir Jarek Kelbhen, father!” Aleksandr stood a little taller at speaking the name of his hero.
Aleksandr’s father looked down at him, his grey eyes warning. “He is a robber knight. Not a noble like us!” Aleksandr’s shoulders sagged with the remark, and he could feel the heat of tears welling up in his eyes. He idolised the dashing foreign mercenary. Harbid knelt beside the boy and took hold of his shoulders, looking intently into his face. “He did serve the baron well during the Shadow Wars, but Baron Fennell was not present at the battle on the Coldwell as I was. I was witness when your Sir Jarek took the lives of a group of surrendered Northfield troops. Hardly conduct becoming of a Baranurian knight, even if his prisoners were traitors to the crown. And if he is a true knight why is he fled from his lands all the way to Dargon? Think on that, my son.” Aleksandr continued to look at the ground, refusing to accept his father’s condemnation of Sir Jarek. Finally, Harbid sighed and patted his son on the shoulder. “I am sure you will have his courage, though.”
Aleksandr brightened, and looked up with a smile at his father once again. “Maybe I’ll even be his squire one day! Tschel told me he’s the captain of the guards at Fennell Keep, you know!”
Harbid couldn’t help but let out a soft chuckle at his son’s zeal. He remembered the days long past when he had been the same. He hadn’t been as well informed about the goings-on outside of Heahun, though. Aleksandr *was* an inquisitive one. He ate up everything that his older brother Tschel told him from his travels throughout the duchy. Perhaps the most ambitious of the Heahuns, Tschel had strayed from the family tradition and was the local clerk in the Court of the King’s Bench. As a result of his vocation, Aleksandr saw him at least once a month, which was more often than could be said for others of his siblings that served as squires or knights far away.
“Ah!” Harbid exclaimed. “Speak the names of wicked men and they shall emerge!”
As he spoke, a dapple-grey horse emerged from the stables to the rear of the house. Atop the horse sat Tschel, rather casually, wrapped in his red robes that signified his position. Beneath his white linen cap, curly golden hair protruded, and his bright blue eyes shone with mirth. He was more scholarly than any of Aleksandr’s other brothers, and was a little pudgy, but not too much. To Aleksandr, his face seemed perennially formed into a smile.
“And how’s my little brother?” Tschel approached the boy and his father. “Ready to leave already? Where’s your friend Lev?”
“He’ll be along.” Aleksandr absently turned his gaze to the town, hoping to see his friend. Aleksandr’s father liked to do things early, so it was no surprise that Lev and his father hadn’t arrived yet.
Lev Roise was a peasant boy who had been Aleksandr’s playmate for as long as he could remember. He was a couple of years older, but Aleksandr had the size advantage. Lev’s father, a woodcutter by trade, was taking him with Aleksandr to Fennell to train as a monk in Heart’s Hope Monastery. There, Lev would be a novice among the Stevenic sect of Cyruzhian monks. Aleksandr’s father had only converted to Stevenism thirteen years ago, but it had taken deep root in Heahun under his patronage. He had been zealous in bringing the town into the faith with him. The year before Aleksandr had been born, construction of a stone church had been completed. Aleksandr was the first of his family to be named in that church. In honour of this, his father had not given Aleksandr a familial name, but rather, the name of one of Cephas Stevene’s pupils.
“Regardless of whether Roise and his son are here,” Harbid said, “you won’t be ready to leave until you’ve said goodbye to your mother! Why don’t you go and fetch her, son?”
“Yes, father!” Aleksandr turned and vaulted into the house.
He found his mother in the chapel, kneeling before the shrine that dominated the small room.
She stood, and turned to look at Aleksandr. Her eyes were misty, and her face bore a sadness Aleksandr hadn’t seen since her last child was stillborn. “Hello, Aleksandr. I was just saying a little prayer for you.”
Like most boys his age, Aleksandr thought his mother was the most beautiful creature in the barony. She was tall, but just the right size for a hug as Aleksandr’s arms just fit around her waist. Her chestnut coloured hair was hidden beneath an elaborate hood, but Aleksandr knew it had a little bit of grey in it nowadays. Her eyes were the colour of iron, and smooth skin the colour of milk. She was definitely the most pious of the Heahuns, but also the most strict. She had raised Aleksandr to be a disciplined boy. She went to the Stevenic church almost every day, and Aleksandr had often heard her fight with his father about drinking and swearing. She was attentive to the teachings of Stevene’s Light however, and with her at his side, Harbid and his family were much loved by the people of Heahun. Her name was Madeline, and Aleksandr thought her the perfect example of Baranur gentility.
“When will I see you again, mother?” Some of Madeline’s melancholy was starting to seep into Aleksandr.
“I don’t know, my son.” She wrapped the boy into a tender embrace. “Not for a long time I think.”
“What’s wrong, mother?” He could hear the unsteadiness in her voice.
“Nothing … It’s just that you’re my youngest son, and now you’re leaving.” She sniffled a little, and continued to hold onto her son.
“Don’t worry,” Aleksandr said, feeling tears of his own beginning to form. “I’ll come back.”
“Yes.” Madeline smiled, and held Aleksandr at arm’s length. “Yes, and you will be a great knight just like your father, and your grandfather Harabin.”
Thoughts of the great family patriarch Harabin brightened Aleksandr’s spirits. If Aleksandr saw his father as a hero, his grandfather was a *legend*. Though a pagan (and the last of the Heahuns that was so), he had been a man of great deeds. He had fought side by side with Duke Cabot Dargon in battle, and had ruled Heahun with justice. Aleksandr was sure that he had slain several flanduils on his many quests.
Aleksandr’s thoughts were cut short by the entrance of his father. He picked Aleksandr up and ruffled his son’s red hair. “Well, my boy. Are you ready?”
The three emerged from the house to see Tschel still waiting on his horse. A short distance away from him, Bel Roise and his son, Lev, sat on an oxen-pulled cart. When Aleksandr saw his best friend, he broke away from his parents and rushed to the wagon. The other boy methodically dismounted the vehicle, and waited for Aleksandr to arrive.
“Lev!” Aleksandr enclosed the older boy in a bear hug.
“Straight, straight!” Lev squirmed free of Aleksandr’s grasp, and levelled his gaze on his friend. “It’s good to see you Aleksandr. I’m glad you’ll be with me in Fennell.”
Aleksandr patted his arm. “Me too.”
Of the two boys, Lev was always much quieter and much more serious. Although stoic and sometimes cold even, he was the best friend anyone could ask for. Aleksandr had come to appreciate his intelligence and kindness to others, but especially his honesty. Though he was only nine years old, he often seemed to Aleksandr a miniature adult. The peasant boy was small, at that. He was less than twelve hands tall and very skinny. He had big brown eyes, and a mop of thick brown hair. When the two boys played together, Aleksandr was always the faster and stronger, but Lev’s wit sometimes won the games.
“Well, lads,” Bel Roise said from his perch on the wagon, “Fennell’s not going to come to us.”
“Last one on is a scrud sucker!” Aleksandr shouted, and sprang up onto the cart beside Lev’s father.
“Aleksandr!” Madeline scolded.
“Let the boy be!” Harbid said. “He’s off to be a warrior! He’ll not be quoting Cephas while he lops off heads now will he?”
Harbid’s retort was met by steely silence from Madeline. Lev made it onto the cart a heartbeat after Aleksandr had. Everything they needed for the journey had already been packed.
Bel inclined his head to Harbid, “Good day, Sir Harbid. And thank you again for allowing me to travel to Fennell with your son.”
“Think nothing of it.” Harbid said. “The boy’s horsemanship is not yet good enough to make a whole day’s travel on his own. It is you who is to be thanked.”
“You are too kind, sir.” Bel bowed again.
“But enough of this.” Harbid gestured toward the road leading out of town. “If you are to make Fennell before sundown, you must be off. May God be with you.”
With that, the small party began to make its way out of town. Aleksandr watched his parents as long as they were within view, his mother enveloped by a compassionate arm from his father. It finally began to be real to him that he was leaving home. He could feel tears wanting to well up in him, but he couldn’t allow them to emerge in front of Lev. Remembering what his mother had always told him to do when he was nervous or scared, he said a prayer to Stevene and to his namesake. It made him feel much better.
Quite rapidly, the thatched houses of Heahun gave way to the croplands to the north of town. Several fields lay fallow, while crops of wheat and flax could be seen growing around them. At the edge of the fields, about three leagues beyond, the forests stood, deep and dark. They were at their most dense in the barony of Fennell, and wood was a major product of the town. The numerous fir trees in the Fennell forest were excellent for building, as they were very straight and easy to cut.
The small group travelled northeast for several bells, through the farmlands and into the forest. When the sun was near the midpoint of the sky, they turned due east. The forest was a very pleasant place, Aleksandr thought. Birds could be heard chirping all around him, and the occasional hare could be seen along the edges of the road. He even saw a deer, which he pointed out to Lev. That the beauty of creation surrounded them seemed fitting to him, in that both he and Lev were on a pilgrimage of sorts.
They stopped for lunch a little after midday beside a stream that ran near the road at one spot. After eating, Tschel and Bel Roise seemed content to sit and rest a while. Aleksandr and Lev, restless from many bells sitting on the cart, decided to do a little exploring.
“Alright.” Tschel agreed. “But not too far. We’ll be leaving soon, and we’ll go without you if you’re not back!”
So they set off into the woods at a bound. They chased each other around for a bit, examined some strange looking fungi growing on trees, and were about to head back when Lev came across a group of tall, thin stones, the height of a man, sticking straight up from the ground. There were two of them, standing on either side of a flat, round boulder that to Lev resembled an altar. The rocks were a pure white like snow. He called to Aleksandr, and the other boy hurried over.
“What is it Lev?”
“Look at those rocks, Aleksandr!” He pointed to the grouping of stones.
“What are they, Lev?” Aleksandr asked.
“I don’t know.” The stones were covered in moss, and the area looked well deserted. Nevertheless, the clearing had a strange and ancient feel to it. Everything was so quiet, the air so still, that he could hear his own heart beating. For no particular reason that he could think of, he felt very content and happy. Though the air was cool, he felt very warm, as if a stone heated in a fire had been placed in his chest. There was also a feel that he and Aleksandr were not alone. As when someone is watching you and the hairs on your neck begin to stand up. A feeling that, though unexplainable, wasn’t frightening at all. It was akin to the way Lev felt when he worshiped at the church in Heahun. “I think this is a holy place.”
“Then this is a good place.”
“Good place for what?” Lev asked.
“To become brothers.” Aleksandr turned away from the rocks to look at Lev. “My brother Pter told me that knights give each other solemn oaths and become brothers. It is a sacred pledge of friendship that only the best knights can keep. We are best friends, Lev. I think we should be brothers, too.”
“How is it done?” Lev’s immediate reaction was one of scepticism. Warfare was something he was far removed from, and happily so. However, he did know that knightly virtues were good and pure.
“Hold out your hand.” Aleksandr pulled his dagger out of his belt and grasped the hilt tightly. “Now, put your hand over mine, so that you are holding the sword, too.”
Lev obeyed. He was not so ignorant as to think a dagger a sword, but he also knew swords to be significant to knights. With their diminutive size, the dagger almost was a sword. He also was beginning to understand the pledge they were about to take. “We must pray to God that our hearts and our souls may be cleansed, that they are pure to take this sacred pledge.”
“Let it be so.” Aleksandr said in the tradition of the Cyruzhians, but faltered. “I don’t remember all of the words Pter told me …”
“What you remember will be enough.” Lev assured him. God would know the words that he missed.
“In the eyes of God and his most holy prophet Cephas Stevene, we make this sacred pledge to be true to one another. Brothers, not through blood, but through Stevene’s Light. Eternal comrades, never to betray. Let these be the final blows between us.” Aleksandr smacked Lev in the face.
“What was that?” Lev drew back a little.
“Hit me.” Aleksandr said. “Let these be the final blows between us.”
Lev complied. “Let there never again be conflict between us.”
“Brothers. It is done.” Lev agreed.
When the boys returned to the road, Lev’s father and Aleksandr’s brother were ready to go. “Did you get lost?” Tschel asked. “I was wondering if you were coming back.”
“Of course we were coming back, Tschel,” Aleksandr said. “I wouldn’t be late for Lord Fennell!”
They set out once again, and made good time the rest of the way to Fennell. The sun was starting to hang low in the sky, casting a reddish light, when the party came into view of the city. It was an impressive place indeed.
“It’s nothing compared to Magnus,” Tschel noted, “but it has its own unique power, I suppose.”
Aleksandr and Lev were in thrall. Rising up from the forest like some mythical giant, the city perched atop a steep hill. In the centre, at the highest point of the hill, rested Fennell Keep, its stone ramparts glowing like garnets in the late evening sun. Atop the towers the baronial banners fluttered in the breeze, only the red and white background of Baron Dorja Fennell visible from this distance. Beneath it, they could see well-beaten dirt roads winding between a mixture of wood and stone buildings. They were quite different from the simple thatched huts in Heahun. Roofs made of wood shingles covered many of them. Some were more than one storey high, while others were made of several interlocking sections. And the sheer number of them — Lev had never seen so many buildings crowded together. The most prominent buildings were churches and temples dedicated to various deities that dotted the city. The simple, square buildings of grey rock were easy to distinguish from the others, given their pointed spires at each corner and in the centre. Another temple Lev recognised as one belonging to the Olean pantheon, as it was very similar to the one in Heahun, its domed copper roof shining brightly in the diminishing light. There were a couple of other large buildings of styles he didn’t recognise, among them a white-washed arch supported by eight pillars and a cube made of red brick. Heart’s Hope Monastery sprouted from amidst the smaller buildings not far from the keep. It was the second largest building besides the keep, and its belltower was the tallest thing in view. It was of similar construction to the other Stevenic houses of worship, but was much larger and had several wings jutting out from the main structure. At the base of the hill, croplands spread outwards until they met with the forest.
As they emerged from the forest and neared the entrance to Fennell, Aleksandr knew that the first step towards knighthood had been taken, as had Lev’s first step toward spiritual completeness.