“Hmm, these are fresh.” Astrid picked up a fruit from the basket and smell. “Let’s buy few of these.” As she pointed, her attendants approached the fruit seller.
“With the festival of light approaching, the demands are high my lady. But all for you first, no one gets to buy from me until you are finished shopping.” The fruit seller said with a humble tone. “I believe the others believe the same.” He pointed to the other sellers in the market who happened to be overjoyed with Astrid’s arrival and happily affirmative of his claim.
Astrid enjoyed every bit of her nobility and always loved to be pampered when she interacted with the commoners. Every month she would go down to market herself with the attendants to shop and see the sellers dish her out the royal treatment.
It turns out the same way every time. The sellers wait for Astrid to go around every shop and choose her fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and before she is done, they sell it to no one. This had often generated a negative reaction and the commoners had to wait for the pampered noble daughter of the Duke to have her love and attention. Astrid, however, could care less and enjoyed it. By the time she was finished, she started walking towards her van with Fiona and Rhea her attendants.
“Festivals of light, right. The one that includes decorations of shrines and offering fruit and praying and thinking, a lot of devotion.” Astrid smirked.
“Offers are made primarily to the goddess Ilumia and all the gods and goddesses are fondly remembered. In this festival, we remember and honor them for being our guardian and also pray for our families, our kind and the kingdom.” Said Fiona who knew Astrid was not really fond of the religion of light.
“I know that, but I am not into the cult. I haven’t met anyone from the temple”. Astrid looked at the bag containing flowers and something crossed her mind. “Does anyone of you know about Lord Florentino.”
Rhea spoke up “I have heard many rumors, but nothing that you don’t know. He is quite popular with the ladies from the royal families and guests.”
“Popular with the folks too, it is no secret that his events largely help the commoners with supplies.” Said Fiona.
As they conversed walking towards their van, the cavalry of knights galloped passed them escorting a big caravan with hundreds of people inside. Before they could react, Astrid spotted the seal of the Roses on the caravan.
“That’s our caravan, one which is used to transport prisoners, ho are they ?” Astrid asked.
Fiona replied “Pardon me, my lady, I have no information. What little I heard lord Duke was probably going to address a lot of people in a gathering.”
Astrid disappointedly turned to Fiona, “You should have informed before. Let’s follow them and see what is going on here.”
They got up in their van and went right behind the caravan.
In the caravan drove through to the gates of the execution ground where it was halted. The knight commander approached the guards to produce a pass carrying the royal seal. The guards pulled away from the heavy gates and let the caravan in.
Thane looked outside. He saw a vast open ground with a huge gallery with seats for royal families. It looked like an arena for blood sports and death battles for ancient Athanor.
“Execution ground that’s what they said. Looks like this is where the people are publicly executed” Thane processed his thoughts as he was observed the north gallery filled with people. By their attire and Armor, he understood they are from the empire.
The caravan stopped in the center. All the refugees were asked to come out one by one and assemble in a queue.
Astrid arrived at the gates of the execution ground but was intercepted by the royal guard.
“Sorry, my lady, King Rowan and Lord Verbosa have strictly forbidden anyone’s entry here without their consent.”
“You know who I am? The daughter of the Duke himself. Let me in or you may never hold this position again to feed your family”. Threatened Astrid.
The guard sent his fellow companion inside after consulting. He returned moments later.
“Apologies my lady, you can certainly go in”.Astrid asked her attendants to wait in the van as she went inside.
Then she rose up to the North Gallery and heard her father addressing the crowd.
“For years our kingdom has sheltered the poor and the homeless who have been affected by the wars. Our kingdom never refused food, water shelter to even civilians from our enemies.” Duke paused for a moment as he sighted a surprised daughter arriving.
He continued, now more aggressively accusing the crowd. “But now, you refugees have abused our hospitality, you have sheltered spies from our enemies who seek to destroy our kingdom. You shielded their disguised and befriended them. Who knows maybe you are their ally in their conspiracy.”
The speech left the refugees dumbstruck, then began noisy commotion. On the ground, several soldiers surrounded them keeping them in check. Duke Verbosa now took a moment to speak to her daughter.
“Astrid what are you doing here, who informed you.”
“That is not important, but what is going on?” Astrid asked now taking her seat beside him.
“This is something confidential which I cannot tell you now, will you kindly go back to the castle.” Duke Verbosa tried to persuade with her.
“Father, my apologies, but I am now old enough to be a part of the official matter, I am not going anywhere.” Astrid was adamant and stayed sit.
The commotion of the refugees stopped as Duke of Roses Verbosa spoke again.
“There is a security threat and breach in my kingdom and some of you are enemies. Hand them over to us from you or else all of you die here today on this ground by the King’s order. That’s how we will ensure that the spies and traitors within you are eliminated.”
Shockwaves went through the crowd, as the announcement frightened them. People ran frantically in panic only to be overwhelmed by the soldiers and knights who drove them back to the center. The refugees turned against each other with suspicion and were left in chaos when conflicts began internally.
“You have got an hour to find a solution and hand them over. Else prepare to die.” The duke retired to his seat from the corridor.
Thane looked lost in the commotion, he tried to spot Brazon within the crowd but could not spot him. Chaos broke out and people started beating each other.
Billy a refugee started punching a man, “ You scum, you are the spy and you will lead us to death Aaron. You left the camp and returned a week later, now and then you disappear and only return during sleep. I knew you were up to something.”
Aaron retaliated and grabbed Billy’s throat “Get off me, you liar. I went far deep into the country to fetch my bread, what you know about me.”
Thane intervened and stopped both, he was a respected man amongst the refugees. People trusted him for his behavior and friendliness. He helped many in the camp and everyone knew him.
“Listen, guys, this won’t help. Nobody knows what is going on, or even there is a spy or traitor hiding here. We got to convince the king that we are not a threat but mere poor people taking shelter.”
They barely listened to him and to his astonishment he was pulled back by Billy as they kept fighting. On the other sides, similar things were happening, strong men pulling the weaker one and pointing at the Duke that their suspect as an act of desperation.
Back in the gallery, Astrid was looking for answers “Father would you explain what is going on here.”
Duke reluctantly answer “To see if they are really worth it.”
“Worth for what.?” Astrid asked astonished.
“Athanor.” Duke Verbosa answered while looking on to the crowd that pushed themselves in a state of Frenzy.
A guard arrived at the scene and declared, “ My lord, King Rowan has arrived with General Arduin.” Before Duke Verbosa and Astrid could respond, a yell from the crowd drew their attention and everyone turned.
“Stop it and listen to me, or everyone dies,” Thane shouted with all his energy that not only burst through the ears of every refugee but reached high in the gallery.
Everyone stopped and looked at Thane who promptly followed up, “This will lead us nowhere, we cannot know whom they are looking for and who is within us. This is a time to be united and stand together. Dying and letting others die, more so an act of desperation is not the first or even last resort. Calm down and listen to me we have got less time.”
Thane’s speech eased off the crowd momentarily as their hostility reduced. He mingled into the crowd explaining as people huddled around him.
“Sensible man but maybe he is afraid of death himself” Arduin exclaimed as he just entered the gallery. Arduin was a general in the ranks of Kind Rowan’s army. A champion who was never defeated in battle and was feared by the enemies, nobody was better than him with an axe. His armor evoked an aura of holiness which shone brightly. He was after all trained by Veda herself.
“It takes guts and influence to control hundreds of people whose life is in line,” Astrid replied to Arduin whom she met for the first time.
Arduin did not look at her but replied, “We’ll see his integrity and bravery in a more challenging situation.”
As the hour mark passed, Thane went near the gallery and requested in a humble tone.
“My lords and ladies of Athanor, by the grace of the good King Rowan. It’s my humble request, kindly allow me to speak on behalf of us all.”
Thane had already caught the attention of all. Duke Verbosa stood up and said,“I can allow you. But know this if you are representing all you are responsible for all for what you speak.”
“My lord, we have been together for over two months in the camp. We have left our home and took refuge under extreme circumstances with everyone having a tragic backstory of our own. Our homes have been destroyed by wars, terrorists and even by the carnage of evil dark forces. We could barely escape with our lives while our family got killed, lost, displaced whom we will never see again. Look at us, we are at the mercy of the kingdom, the people. None of us know whether there will be enough to eat for us the next day. IF we knew there was a spy within us, we would go crazy, how would we dare to give him shelter when we don’t have a home ourselves.”
Thane paused for a moment.
Back in the gallery all of them were intrigued by the amount of courage this man had to even talk to the Duke directly. Duke Verbosa was impressed and he wanted Thane to continue.
“Have you got anything more to say?”
Thane explained “Athanor has been nothing less than our new home, every day we think of ways how we can be loved by all and can be accepted. We have earned our bread here after we had to leave our own. We would not do anything to put our lives in danger. I can assure you no one here is a spy or traitor. However, there was a person in our camp named Brazon. He was the one who gave me food initially and befriended me, now after talking to all of them I inferred it was the same story for all. Everyone knew Brazon and opened to him befriended him and never suspected him. Today when we were interacting, I told him about how my village got destroyed, and he immediately responded with doubts about the security threat. Since then Brazon has disappeared, he evaded when the knights came to take us.
Maybe he is the person you are looking for, and if we have mistakenly allowed him to operate from our camp, we regret and apologize. We plea you for mercy and assure you this will not be the situation again. We will keep vigil in our camp no matter what we have to do.”
Thane folded his hands looking up, “Here I ask you to forgive us and give us a chance to live, to prove us as Athanor’s faithful.”
King Rowan finally appeared, he had arrived during the speech but did not interrupt. He was impressed with what he witnessed in Thane. Everyone in the gallery stood up to receive him as he took his seat.
“What is your name young man, where are you from.” asked the King.
Thane responded, “I am Thane, I hail from the west from the village of Murrayfield, which unfortunately has been destroyed.”
The name Murrayfield drew the attention of King Rowan. He asked Duke Verbosa “Murrayfield, isn’t it where the dwarf set up his armory workshop.”
“Yes, that’s the place. What we heard last it was destroyed by the undead raised by the abyss.” Duke replied.
King Rowan asked Thane “ I may consider what you said about yourselves. But a worthy man must accept a challenge to prove his mettle. Are you up to it, your actions will bear consequence for what happens to the people.”
Thane replied, “ If this is what it takes I will accept any challenge that comes. Back there in Murrayfield I couldn’t protect my own people. If there is a chance for redemption to save all of us. I will not let them go.”
Arduin was not really impressed with Thane. “Fancy speeches do not impress me. There should be some action. My King allows one of our knights to fight him on the ground and let us see how brave and tough he really is.”
Astrid was shocked at Arduin’s proposal, “So you want an unarmed refugee with no proper food, shelter or any kind of training, to fight our knight. That’s should really make us proud general, isn’t it?”. She frowned at the idea of it.
“ A man’s inner strength and courage are revealed when he faces situations that are turned against him. How he reacts how he behaves is what defines him.” Arduin replied.
King Rowan was sold to the idea but did not want his man armed.
“Thane as you call yourself. In order for me to consider mercy to your people, you will have to fight one of my Knight, unarmed and beat him in the brawl. If you are successful. All of you will be spared.”
“ If that’s what you want.” Thane agreed.
Arduin signaled one of his knights to disarm and get down to fight Thane. As the fight began King Rowan and Duke Verbosa discussed something.
“This guy has something in him. It’s not easy to get hold of hundreds of desperate people and make them listen. He did suspect Brazon and told us about his thoughts. On top of it, he is good at coercion.” Duke told the King. “Maybe he is one guy that could help us in our war.”
“Moreover, he is from Murrayfield. A village rich in technical knowledge and workshop.” King added while pondering upon Thane’s speech.
Back on the ground the fight started, Thane could not keep up with the knight and was getting beaten repeatedly. However, he did not give up or surrender, he kept coming back trying to fight Arduin’s Knight. Once or twice he landed a successful blow to him, but overall he was totally getting overwhelmed.
Astrid observed this and told the Duke. “On top of all that, he does not yield. Look how is he struggling to even keep his feet but giving out his best against our knight.”
Thane was beaten, bruised and grounded yet every time he stood up. The refugees behind started rallying for him, his names echoed among them. He lunged at the knight one more time trying to tackle him to the ground, but after struggling a lot he could not succeed. The knight countered him and threw him back at the ground.
King Rowan ordered to stop, but the people kept chanting his name to create a deafening noise around. With each moment the chants grew louder. Finally, they stopped at the King raised his hand and asked them to stop. He directed his attention to Thane and spoke.
“Thane, you have made your point. I saw a courageous man not backing out and a leader amongst the refugee. Come up to here and we will talk.”
As soon as the announcement broke, the crowd burst into cheers. The understood, for now, they were saved.
Arduin did not enjoy the sudden rising attention to Thane. He prepared to leave but Duke Verbosa noticed and asked.
“Where are you going?”
“With due respect. There are matters which require more attention than our new heroes. Moreover, I am not required here.” “With your due permission King Rowan I will take my leave.”
Arduin left as Thane walked up to the gallery. He was exhausted with blood a sweat dripping over his face.
King Rowan directly talked to him, “You have made your point, I see a brave courageous man willing to take responsibilities and lead. Do not let me down.”
“I will certainly not my King.” An elated Thane replied.
“Find me more amongst you, who are worthy. Worthy for our kingdom, our cause and stand up to face the dark forces. The ones who will call Athanor their real home and ready to die for it. I choose you to recruit them.”
As King handed Thane the new task, he found a purpose within himself. Renewed determination filled him as he complied.
“ I will do it, my king, it will be my honor. So we are all safe!” Thane exclaimed.
“ No one was going to be killed in the first place.” King Rowan revealed, “My purpose is served.”
While all this happened in the execution ground with refugees, back in the country the dwarf technocrat laid drunk on his bed in his house when his son arrived in his room.
“Father, someone has come to meet you.”
A rabbit entered his room, carrying a big backpack on his shoulders. He greeted him with a smile.
“Moren, it is wonderful to meet you.”
Moren got annoyed as he never liked anyone disturb him while drinking. He was the most famous technocrat and blacksmith in the kingdom, with a whimsical attitude and a ridiculous short temper.
“Who are you, rabbit, and what do you want here?” an angry Moren reacted.
“I am Slimz, and I bring you business”. Slimz removed his backpack and opened it.
“I am drinking, no business time now. Get out of here.” Moren scolded him taking another gulp.
Slimz reached inside his backpack and took out a schematic. He showed it to Moren.
“ I operate between Castle of Inception and the Forest of the shadows. Look at the schematic now, I know your workshops in Murrayfield are destroyed. Let me bring up an offer which you will regret refusing.” Slimz uttered with a cunning smile on his face.