DargonZine 13, Issue 4

A Matter of Honour Part 3



This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series A Matter of Honour

The night of the kidnapping was a bitter one. It seemed fitting to Aleksandr that the eve of such a vile deed be so cold. That Baron Dorja Fennell’s trusted captain of the guard, Sir Jarek Kelbhen, sought the baron’s daughter Zhilinda’s hand in marriage through such means was appalling, but no less true for it. That Aleksandr, but a page in the baron’s household, and his friend Lev were the only ones standing between Sir Jarek and his plot did not bode well for Zhilinda. The baron had not believed the young page when Aleksandr had reported his knowledge of the plot, and thus the boy had been pressed to take things into his own small hands. He could not allow Si r Jarek to take the baron’s daughter, and by the Stevene, he’d do all in his power to stop it.

Aleksandr stole silently down the halls of Fennell Keep towards the stables where he and Lev had planned to meet. He had only pretended to go to sleep that evening, and had waited an eternity, listening for the third bell of night to toll from the monastery bell tower. When it had finally come, he donned a thick black cloak and heavy boots, over the clothes that he had never changed out of. Under his bed he had hidden a shortsword two days previously in preparation for his mission. The thing was clumsy in his hands, as he had only just started to learn the basics of sword use the sennight before. He hid it beneath his cloak, wishing it were a full-sized sword despite the fact such a weapon would be as tall as he was. But no matter. With God on his side, he was confident that he would prevail, despite his small weapon and diminutive size. Careful not to wake an y of the other pages, he had then moved stealthily out of the large room that he lived in, and onto his mission of saving the baron’s daughter. He moved with haste, as in a mere two bells Sir Jarek and his minions would begin their excursion into the night.

 

He took care to avoid the guards as they made their rounds. There still remained two bells until the guard was changed, making this a difficult task. Aleksandr wondered how Lev was doing in his escape from the monastery. The thought was cut off by the sound of heavy boots strolling down the hall. Aleksandr pressed himself into a dark corner where the meagre light of the torch left burning during the night could not find him. He held his breath as two burly guards moved past. They wore tunics in the red and white colours of the baron, and carried torches in their hands, their swords sheathed. They appeared half-asleep and bored, never moving their gaze from the space directly in front of their eyes.

 

Finally the guards were gone, and Aleksandr resumed his journey. He was glad for the cloak and boots, even within the keep’s walls. His breath formed thin, frosty clouds with each exhale. They were barely visible thanks to the bit of warmth cast by the torches, but he knew it would be a much different story once outside. The scabbard holding the shortsword was cool in his hand, but reassuring.

 

When Aleksandr pushed open a door leading out of the inner keep, a wall of bitterly cold air hit him. It was still at least: a saving grace on a night like this. A full moon shone brightly down into the inner courtyard in which Aleksandr now found himself. With it the black sky, unblemished by any clouds, bore a myriad of stars. It was incredibly bright, almost as light as day with the glistening snow below reflecting it. It was a hard white light however, quite different from the warm yellow radiance of the sun. It was nearly impossible to distinguish colours: everything appeared varying shades of blue. To Aleksandr the world barely seemed real. The crisp snow crunched under his booted feet as he moved across the yard, but fortunately there was no one about to hear. The guards in the battlements were too far away, and concentrating on the surrounding city. He made haste across the inner bailey, through the inner gate s and into the outer bailey. Hugging the walls and the shadows he managed to evade the notice of any of the guards in the gatehouse.

 

At last he reached the stables. He waited until the group of guards patrolling the outer bailey had moved around to the rear of the stables before approaching them. It was deathly still in the large one-and-a-half storey building. The frigid air carried the intermingling of manure, hay, sweat and leather that made the distinct smell that permeated all stables, which was much more potent in warmer weather. It lacked the harsh, acidic odour that chamberpots bore, and to a person used to the stables, the smell of horses was not unpleasant at all. The moonlight filtered in through the door Aleksandr had just opened, illuminating the room with its eerie glow. Many of the horses slept on their feet, large puffs of steam billowing forth from their snouts that protruded from their stalls. Others lay stretched out in the hay, sleeping deeply. Snores permeated the room, some loud, others a bizarre whinny-snort sound. As Aleksandr was no stranger to the stab les, the horses were unperturbed by his entrance, and remained sleeping. Easily spooked, a great commotion could have been raised by the animals had someone unknown to them entered. For this reason, it had been arranged that he would meet Lev outside.

 

Aleksandr moved through the stables towards the stall Sir Jarek’s horse lived in. As he suspected, the animal was already saddled-up, ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as were the horses belonging to Sir Kalayan and Miripur. The animals were dozing restlessly with the uncomfortable gear on their backs. Aleksandr slipped into the stall holding Sir Jarek’s horse first, and brought forth his dagger. Whispering soothingly to the creature, he approached the horse.

 

“Shhh … Easy there boy. I’ve just got a little present to leave for your master.”

 

Ever so carefully, he started sawing at the saddle girth with his dagger. Very slowly he cut, weakening the leather as he did so. He stopped once he had cut about three quarters of the way through the leather belt.

 

“That should do it.” he thought. “A good bell’s ride and the girth should snap like a twig. That should give Sir Jarek a good surprise! And a little more time for me and Lev to complete our work.”

 

Aleksandr repeated the process on Sir Miripur and Sir Kalayan’s horses’ girths, then moved to another part of the stable. He didn’t feel completely at ease with what he had to do next, but he and Lev needed a horse if they were to beat Sir Jarek and his men to the stream in good time. Tpliki’s horse was sleeping soundly, but on its feet, in a stall near the door. It wasn’t anything special — a skinny old warhorse past its prime, flea-bitten and slow — but it would do. Carefully waking the creature, he placed a thick saddle blanket over the horse’s flanks. Aleksandr then took Tpliki’s saddle and placed it on the horse’s back. He then attached his scabbard-encased short sword to it and adjusted the stirrups for a person of his height. Once the horse had been properly saddled-up, he opened its stall and led it towards the rear of the stables where the open door awaited. On the way he grabbed a pitchfork with his free hand.

 

Once at the door, he cautiously peered out to see where the bailey guards were. He caught sight of their pointed helmets and glinting halberds about three hundred paces away, parallel to the stables. Aleksandr only had a couple of menes before they made their right wheel at the chapel and would then see him. Quickly, but as quietly as possible, he exited the stables with Tpliki’s horse in tow, and closed the door behind him. He moved around the stables so the guards wouldn’t spot him at their turn, then towards the gates where Lev would meet him. Pulling his cloak low over his head and much of his face he prayed to Stevene that the next, and most daring, part of their escape could be accomplished.

 

Fortunately the guards hadn’t thought much of a monk wandering about the castle, as they often came to visit the guards with some food, drink and ministry during the night. Aleksandr found Lev unmolested near the main gates. They exchanged a silent greeting, and started the most dangerous leg of their journey. The guards in the outer gatehouse were the most vigilant of them all, but watched for people trying to enter, rather than leave. Thus, reaching the gate was no problem. Getting through it wouldn’t be bad either; the problem lay in making it out of visual range of the keep without being spotted once outside.

 

For the past few nights since the plan had been hatched, Lev had gone in place of the monk from Heart’s Hope Monastery that visited the guards during the night, and they recognised him when he called up to the gatehouse. Aleksandr remained huddled in a shadow nearby, hoping they wouldn’t notice the frosty breaths emerging from his position. Presently one of the guards opened the gatehouse door and allowed Lev to enter. Aleksandr could hear voices drifting down from the gatehouse as the guards talked with Lev, and he gave them the food he had brought. Aleksandr remained in the shadows for the agreed upon amount of time: the duration of five prayers to Cephas hanged.

 

He had said the first sentence of six when he began moving towards the gate. His heart thudded in his chest so loud he was sure the guards would hear it. Slowly, one finger’s width at a time, he edged the main gate open. When it was exactly the width of the horse, he moved it no more, and proceeded through the opening. Softly clucking to the horse, he urged it through as well, then pushed the gate shut. Now came the most perilous part. Still moving slowly, and through the snow at the edge of the road leading to the keep, he headed downhill and away. After an eternity he reached the safety of the closest city buildings and ducked into the first alley he saw and awaited Lev.

 

The fourth bell of night was struck before his friend arrived. Avoiding the city watch was easy after escaping the castle, but the boys nevertheless remained silent until outside of the city walls.

 

Aleksandr breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank Stevene we made it through that.”

 

“The night is far from over,” Lev said nervously.

 

They didn’t speak much during the ride. Each was nervous about what had to come next, but neither willing to admit it. Lev especially, was almost sick with nervousness and fear. As an aspiring monk, he was a pacifist, and totally inept in any form of combat. Aleksandr, though only a page, at least had some training and though several years younger he was also bigger and stronger. He calmed himself; faith in Stevene was all he needed. Silently he mouthed prayers over and over to keep his wits about him.

 

It was several bells later when they arrived at the stream, and no telling how far behind the kidnappers were. Amidst the ‘holy rocks’, where the boys had made their pact years before, rested two wooden buckets that Lev had hidden there the day before. Each of the boys took one and headed for the stream. It was almost completely frozen, but its quick current kept some of it liquid. Aleksandr cracked the ice with a rock, and the boys began scooping buckets-full of water and heading for the road. There, they poured the contents across the highway. After several trips a thick glaze of ice covered the road, slippery as anything in Dargon. Next they sprinkled dry snow lightly over the surface of the ice to disguise it.

 

Then they waited. On the edge of the road they hunkered down amidst the trees, hidden behind a mound of snow. As they huddled there, Aleksandr with his shortsword gripped tightly, Lev with the pitchfork, a gentle wind began to pick up, blowing snow all about. It disguised the boys more completely, but reduced the visibility. As a result, Sir Jarek and his men were almost on top of them before they realised they were there.

 

Aleksandr’s sabotage of the saddle girths had not worked as planned. Only Sir Jarek was dismounted, and it appeared he was only so to more easily find the path they sought in the blowing snow. Aleksandr could make out the small form of Zhilinda in front of Sir Kalayan on his horse. They were approaching at a cautious pace. Perhaps the sabotage had worked at least on Sir Jarek’s saddle and they suspected something?

 

It didn’t matter. As soon as Sir Jarek stepped onto the ice, his feet shot out from under him, and he thundered to the ground. A look of bewilderment and rage contorted his face as he struck the hard road surface. Out of instinct Sir Kalayan dismounted immediately, and rushed to Sir Jarek’s side.

 

“Now!” Aleksandr whispered, as he dashed with all of the speed he could muster out towards Sir Jarek, shortsword outstretched.

 

Lev was right behind him, pitchfork thrust forward. With the added reach of the stable implement, Lev reached his target first, digging the points into Sir Kalayan’s massive form. The huge knight bellowed more with anger than with pain, and batted the fork aside, throwing Lev to the ground with it. Aleksandr fared no better. With cat-like reflexes Sir Jarek parried the thrust with his forearm sending Aleksandr skidding across the ice. He regained control, and headed for the horse upon which Zhilinda was perched. Sir Miripur wheeled his horse about, and, making the best of its spiked horseshoes, charged onto the ice, knocking Lev back to the ground as he staggered to his feet.

 

Aleksandr had nearly reached Zhilinda when out of the corner of his eye he saw Sir Jarek swinging. The captain of the guards hadn’t even bothered to draw a weapon, he merely struck at the boy with a clenched fist. Aleksandr tried to dodge, but still caught enough of the blow to send him to the ground and sliding across the ice once more.

 

“Kalayan!” Sir Jarek shouted. “The girl!”

 

Somewhat dazed, Aleksandr looked up to see that Zhilinda was attempting to escape on her own. Unfortunately, Sir Kalayan’s horse was less than cooperative, otherwise she might have gotten away before the lumbering knight could grab the beast’s reins. Stevene’s love was with her however, as Aleksandr saw an opening. There was enough room and enough time that he could shoot himself across the ice and have the knight hamstrung before he knew what was happening. Assuming, of course, that he could cut with enough force.

 

“Stevene, guide my blade,” he whispered.

 

He was just about to launch himself into the attack when he heard the loud whinny of Sir Miripur’s horse. He chanced a look to see the mounted knight toying with Lev. Every time the boy rose to his feet the knight knocked him to the ground again. No, he was done playing now; he was circling for the kill, his mace raised, about to strike. Aleksandr froze. He was only paces away from gaining Zhilinda a distraction that would allow her to escape. His friend was moments away from dying. Save his lord and master’s daughter? Or his friend’s life? He had to choose and act now; Sir Miripur had finished his backswing.

 

“Lev!” Aleksandr made his choice, and dove towards his friend.

 

The swinging mace knocked the shortsword from Aleksandr’s hands as he tried to parry Sir Miripur’s attack. The blow was slightly deflected however, and rather than shattering Lev’s skull, it just clipped him with a sickening crack. Aleksandr dropped to catch Lev, as the other boy fell lifelessly to the ground. Aleksandr was unable to catch him, but gathered him into his arms immediately. Lev’s eyes rolled into the back of his head and his muscles suddenly became very tense. His body started shaking violently in Aleksandr’s arms. Aleksandr could only watch in horror and pray. What had Sir Miripur done to him?

 

“Cephas, please!” Aleksandr cried. “Help him! Help Lev.”

 

Presently the trembling stopped, and Lev’s body went limp. Blood trickled from his head where the mace had left a depression. His chest didn’t seem to be moving, and no mist emerged from his mouth or nose. Aleksandr was sure he was dead.

 

“And now you die!” he heard Sir Miripur say from behind him, accompanied by the swish of a mace travelling through the air. Aleksandr didn’t care.

 

“No!” The mace stopped abruptly three hands above Aleksandr’s head as it was blocked by Sir Jarek’s sword. “These boys have shown courage unprecedented for their young years. They will live.”

 

“But they know!” Sir Miripur objected.

 

“Such is our task that that is of no matter.” Sir Jarek pushed the mace away. “In fact, the more who know the better. Once it is done, Zhilinda is mine and no one can do anything about it. But these children … impress me greatly. I doubt I would have had the audacity to try such a rescue were I in their position.”

 

“But one of them is dead! What about murder?”

 

Sir Jarek knelt beside Lev and touched two fingers to the boy’s neck. “No. He lives. Bring them.”

 

With that Sir Jarek turned and strode back to his horse, which had obediently stayed where it was during the brief skirmish. The wind had died down again sometime in the past couple of menes. Having had good visibility returned, Sir Jarek mounted the horse, and started once again towards the merchant Billik’s house.

 

Sir Miripur noticed the horse that the boys had brought with them standing in the forest, and commanded Aleksandr. “Take your horse, and follow me.”

 

He lifted the lifeless Lev onto his own horse, and waited. Having no spirit left in him, Aleksandr obediently mounted his horse and went to the knight. Sir Kalayan fell in behind Sir Jarek, with Zhilinda securely in hand, and Sir Miripur followed.

 

Tears welled up in Aleksandr’s eyes as they rode. “Stevene, why have you forsaken us? Why Lev? He’s one of your closest followers. Why not me?”

 

Aleksandr cried softly much of the way to Billik’s house. Tpliki’s horse followed the others all of the way there. Aleksandr lifted his head as they neared it. It was a handsome home, built of darkly stained logs. All appeared quiet in the home. It was completely dark.

 

“And now,” Aleksandr thought, “This atrocity will be allowed to happen. Out here in the middle of nowhere. Where her father can’t protect her. Why Stevene? Do you not love her?”

 

Everyone dismounted, except Aleksandr, who was hauled from his mount by Sir Miripur and made to drag his friend along. They dug fresh tracks into the snow as they approached, decimating the single set of tracks that must have belonged to the merchant. Aleksandr looked over miserably to Zhilinda who was now only an arm’s length away. It was the first time he’d seen her close up. Though her eyes were red from tears, he found her to be quite beautiful. She had long, black hair and pale, almost white skin. He couldn’t tell what colour her eyes were in the ethereal moonlight, but they were captivating nonetheless. Aleksandr could only look at her, a silent apology in his eyes.

 

“Do not fear for me,” she whispered.

 

Aleksandr hung his head in shame. Such courage.

 

Sir Jarek pounded loudly on the door. “Open the door, in the name of Baron Dorja!”

 

He continued pounding for several menes before the sound of a board being lifted could be heard. A short, portly man answered the door. He had dishevelled grey hair, and a reddish complexion. He held a lamp in his hand and squinted out at the visitors.

 

“Yes?”

 

Sir Jarek shoved the man backwards into his home, and entered. “Be silent, you greedy old dog!”

 

The man obeyed, and cringed in a corner as the rest of the party entered, and closed the door behind them. As soon as the bar slid into place, a door near the rear of the house opened and guards bearing lanterns appeared. Tramping feet could be heard rushing around the sides of the house to cut off any chance for escape. In the centre of the room stood Baron Dorja himself, sword drawn. To his right stood Sir Igrim, similarly ready for combat. Other knights stood ready behind them. Rage burned in the baron’s eyes.

 

“You use my name quite freely Sir Jarek,” he said between clenched teeth. “You dare to take my daughter for yourself? How dare you steal her from her bed! How dare you betray the trust of all of Fennell!”

 

Sir Jarek knew what was coming, and he stepped forward to face it as a man and a knight. He drew his sword in readiness for what was about to occur.

 

“As is my right as a father, and as baron, I will now deliver justice for this most foul deed!”

 

Aleksandr was swept along with everyone else as they piled outside to witness the final combat that was to take place. Outside, the baron’s soldiers formed a large circle about the clearing directly in front of the cabin, bearing torches to light the deadly arena. Baron Dorja removed his heavy cloak and handed it to one of the guards. He wore no armour but a scarlet shirt and breeches, a gold medallion bearing his family’s coat of arms hanging from his neck.

 

Infuriated though he was, the baron attacked with skill and precision. Aleksandr had never seen the baron in combat, but it was an impressive sight. It was almost as if he and his sword were one. Sir Jarek, however, was a better swordsman still, and younger and more agile. Each blow Baron Dorja delivered was expertly deflected, as Sir Jarek danced about the older lord. Soon it was the baron who was on the defensive, trying to put space between himself and Sir Jarek. The knight was quick however, and closed in on Baron Dorja every time he tried to draw away.

 

Without warning, Sir Miripur brought forth his mace and struck at the baron. Sir Igrim’s blade was waiting for it, though, as if the elder knight knew exactly when and where Sir Miripur would strike. Sir Kalayan then struck at Sir Igrim, but his attack, too, was turned aside. The clearing degenerated into one terrible melee. Only the clash of swords and screams of the wounded could be heard. Aleksandr dragged Lev behind a tree where Zhilinda had already sought refuge.

 

The battle was terrible to watch. Aleksandr’s heart jumped every time he caught a glimpse of the baron and Sir Jarek. His lord fought bravely though Sir Jarek was clearly his superior in armed combat. Aleksandr winced as Sir Jarek’s blade met flesh, and the baron’s blood splattered the once pristine snow. Baron Dorja fought on still, intent on avenging the wrong attempted against his daughter.

 

Then Aleksandr’s view of the baron was blocked as the lumbering form of Sir Kalayan moved in his path, laying about him with two morningstars. The guardsmen that tried to take him were felled by the flailing ball and chain like strands of dry grass. Aleksandr then caught sight of Sir Miripur and Sir Igrim trading blows. Sir Miripur lashed out at his adversary with reckless disregard for defence. As his mace rained blow upon blow on Sir Igrim’s sword, Aleksandr feared his teacher would not be able to recover. Aleksandr took solace in the composure with which Sir Igrim faced his enemy, so did not squeeze his eyes shut when it looked as if the elder knight had left an opening for Sir Miripur’s mace. With practised grace, Sir Igrim redirected what appeared to be the final blow and used the force of it to send Sir Miripur sprawling face-first into the snow. He wasted no time in quickly dispatching the fiend.

 

Sir Kalayan was not far behind his comrade, as one of the guardmen’s halberds neatly cut his head off as he was smashing a wounded soldier lying prone before him.

 

Baron Dorja courageously fought on with Sir Jarek, despite more wounds that leaked his life onto the ground. It was clear that he was weakening from the loss, as he dropped to one knee and weakly parried another attack from Sir Jarek. Aleksandr was filled with fear for his lord, but also with anxiety. How he wished he had the skill to take up a sword and come to the baron’s aid! For everything that had transpired here tonight to end this way would be too much for Aleksandr to bear.

 

“It cannot end this way,” he thought.

 

Blood covered half of Baron Dorja’s face and stained his greying beard, and more blood seeped from several cuts over his body. Still, he was not defeated, and with a look of steely determination in his eyes, he rose to land one last attack against Sir Jarek with all that he had left. With a mighty swing, the baron broke Sir Jarek’s blade in two and cleaved him nearly in half with the follow-through. Jarek toppled the ground, thrashing and screaming before growing suddenly silent, a puddle of dark blood seeping quickly into the snow beneath him. Baron Dorja drove his blade into the ground beside the body and dropped to his face exhausted and bloodied.

 

Zhilinda ran to him, arms outstretched. “Father!”

 

“My sweet child.” Baron Dorja forced himself back up onto his knees and enclosed her into a great hug. Tears ran down both of their faces.

 

Sir Igrim knelt beside Aleksandr and Lev. “I must apologise to you, Aleksandr. I told you that the baron did not believe you, only so that we could catch Sir Jarek in the act, and totally unexpecting. I never thought that you might do this. You are uncommonly courageous and gallant for a boy of your age. And I am sorry for underestimating you.”

 

“I was not only I, Sir Igrim.” Aleksandr held his friend tightly. “Lev, my best friend … I couldn’t have done it without him.”

 

***

 

Two sennights later, Lev stood before the baron and Sir Igrim once again, though he did not remember meeting them the first time. In fact, Lev remembered nothing of he and his friend Aleksandr’s ardent attempt to save the baron’s daughter, Zhilinda, nor of several days before and after. He leaned heavily on a wooden staff. According to Fennell Keep’s resident healer who had saved Lev, it had been several days before he had awakened from his wounds, though he knew not what had caused them. Aleksandr’s version of how he had received them was suitably valiant. Supposedly Lev had faced Sir Jarek’s minion, Sir Miripur in single combat to protect the girl. Aleksandr was a good boy, and no doubt had embellished the story somewhat to cheer Lev, as his wounds had proved grave indeed. Despite the efforts of the keep’s healer, Lev was not yet fully healed, and perhaps never would. He now dragged his left foot, and had trouble using his left hand. In fact, much of the left half of his body was now permanently numb, even his face, which lead to great difficulty in speech.

 

It bothered Lev far less than it might have others. He was to be a spiritual man, and that his young body was now wrecked would not hinder that. Nor would God look on him any less lovingly for it. Stevene’s love remained with him he knew, as his mind was unaffected by the injuries he had suffered and his ability to serve God unimpeded. Lev was content, though he knew physical people like Aleksandr could never understand how. Theirs was a world of mundane lances and swords, and they were welcome to it.

 

But of course Baron Dorja’s daughter, Zhilinda had been saved, which was of further consolation. As it had been told to him later, the baron had in fact believed Aleksandr’s tale of the kidnapping but pretended not to in fear that Sir Jarek would realise that his plan would fail. Instead of going to sleep than night, the baron and a few select soldiers went to the merchant Billik’s house and laid in wait there for the mercenary and his henchmen. Thinking of the baron and his daughter brought Lev back to the present, where he stood in the great hall of Fennell Keep. It was far from empty. Shy of crowds, Lev was comforted to see Aleksandr standing next to him. His friend was as big and healthy as ever, thanks be to God. Stevene always held the just in God’s favour, and He had not overlooked Aleksandr.

 

At the front of the room stood the baron before his throne, Sir Igrim to one side, Zhilinda to the other. All were decked out in beautiful dress clothing for the occasion, a stark contrast to Lev in the plain Cyruzhian habit of a white tunic beneath a black hooded cloak. Several knights and lesser gentry from the Barony filled the hall. Aleksandr’s father held a place of to the left of the baron, as did Lev’s own father. A commoner, Bel Roise had nothing spectacular to wear, though he seemed not to notice. Both he and Sir Harbid were bursting with pride.

 

Baron Dorja cleared his throat. “Gentles, please!” Once the crowd had quieted he continued. “It is my great honour to present to you this day, two brave young boys. Aleksandr Heahun, son of Sir Harbid Heahun, and Lev Roise, son of Bel Roise of Heahun. Their great courage saved my daughter from what could only have been called an abomination, and they must be recognised for it.”

 

He recounted the tale to those assembled. Though a cleaned-up and shortened version, it did justice to what had transpired.

 

“Such … valour … is uncommon to say the least. Why, to face grown men and hardened mercenaries on their own showed courage unparalleled since the knight’s charge at Balkura. I cannot imagine having had the audacity to do such a thing without the support of my knights.”

 

The crowd cheered loudly, but silenced when the baron raised a hand. “The entire barony owes you its gratitude. Friend Lev, as a novice of the Holy Order of Cyruzhian monks, I can offer you no personal reward though I shall make a contribution to your monastery.”

 

Lev bowed as deeply as he could while still clutching the staff, and with great concentration spoke, “Your grace, I have already been rewarded a thousandfold by seeing your daughter returned to you safely. Your generosity to my order is unnecessary, but greatly appreciated. May Stevene’s light shine on you.”

 

“And on you.” The baron seemed not to have noticed any slurring of Lev’s speech, for which he was further grateful. “As for you, Aleksandr …”

 

“Your lordship?” Lev could hear his friend’s voice tremble with excitement and nervousness, as it had they day they had left for Fennell.

 

“I respect nothing more than a man of gallantry who upholds Stevene’s laws. You have proved yourself to have the makings of such a man. That you and your friend did not meet death at the hands of those evil-doers impresses me also. Thus, I promote you to the rank of squire in spite of your young years. Not only this, but you shall be my personal squire from this day forth.”

 

Aleksandr bowed low, but Lev was still able to see the grin on his face, which warmed him to the core to see. “Your lordship is too kind!”

 

Lev cooly observed the faces of their fathers. Sir Harbid’s seemed about to fall from his skull, he was so bewildered and joyous. Lev’s father was more subdued, though Lev saw tears welling up in his eyes. Zhilinda descended the dias and thanked both Lev and Aleksandr with a few words and a kiss on the cheek. As Aleksandr said repeatedly in later years, he would always look back on that day as one of the greatest in his life, and the true beginning of his life as a knight. Lev knew he, too, would look fondly upon this day for the happiness it bore his friend, and the strong presence of God he felt in the hall. For him, too, it was a beginning.

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