Chapter 01

It was indeed a lovely day for a tour of the market. Lady Aracely was out for her day of selecting the finest produce she could afford. After her parents’ passing the prior year, she soon grew to find that the life she knew growing up, and that she observed through new eyes, was quite different.

While many of her public stature had their servants to wait on them, those who worked for the young woman were also her friends and dearly cherished. Often looked down upon by others, talk filled the streets of vile rumors that she was poor, herself. Aracely did not spend her fortunes on fine dresses and jewels. She much preferred the comfort of knowing that her people were healthy and well fed.

Prince John had been riding for moons at a time, only stopping for some needed sleep and nourishment – although rabbits were very fast and, at times, he landed face-first in the mud – and he rode to the edges of his country. He had never seen the kingdom this personally before. For the first time in his life, the young prince was completely alone, without his bodyguard at his side for direction. The prince was more than capable of taking care of himself, but, still, it was strange and, yet, liberating.

When he came close to the village of San Franciskus, his horse lost a shoe and John knew he had to get it repaired in order to continue his journey. Not wanting to push the horse to its limits, John walked into the village holding the reigns and set out to look for a blacksmith.

With San Franciskus being so close to the edge of his father’s kingdom, and it being in such a desolate place, Prince John wasn’t surprised that the villagers were looking at him. He was a stranger, of course, and they were wondering what he was doing in their village. One thing he quickly found he enjoyed was the anonymity that came with his journey. No one recognized him, or at least they pretended not to. In either scenario, John was pleased.

Carefully, the prince approached a boy who had been watching him warily, since he entered what clearly was the center of their commerce. He had to be about twelve or thirteen years of age. “Hello there,” John greeted with a kind voice. “Would you be able to help me? I am looking for a blacksmith, someone to help me with my horse. Do you happen to know of one?”

The boy simply pointed towards an old shack. Steam could be seen coming through the rooftop and from the door, which looked as if it was ready to bust open only never to close.

“Thank you.” John smiled as he lead his horse towards the blacksmith. There was a sign on the blacksmith’s door saying something along the lines of ‘Enter at your own risk’ and John opened it, now realizing why the sign was on the door. He had to cough violently because of the smoke, but, once it cleared out, a man with wild hair and a dirty face could be seen standing over the fire, with a hot sword in his hands. “Excuse me, are you the blacksmith, sir?” John asked.

“I am Radell! Blacksmith of San Franciskus! Behold!” the man exclaimed, wielding the sword from its fire and then blinked when he saw the stranger in front of him. “Excuse me,” he chuckled. “The villagers think that I’m a madman.”

John nodded slowly as he took in the man and the environment. “I fail to see where they might get the impression. I am here to seek your services, if you are willing?”

“What’s it going to be, stranger?” Radell put the sword back on the fire and almost danced his way towards John. “A new sword, perhaps? Armor? You look like a peasant. Are you really traveling without armor? Are you a madman?” Radell was standing almost nose-to-nose with John. “Or do you seek death, to travel the roads unprotected?”

He could not help but wonder to what this person spoke of. “I have not encountered any dangers on my travels. I simply request your assistance with repairing the shoes for my horse.” Still, the curiosity could not help but to get to the better of the prince. “Are the lands truly that dangerous?”

“We’re a village on the border, stranger,” Radell said as he lifted the horse’s feet one by one. “Atlantica may be a peaceful country, save from the taxes the King weighs on the working souls, but Chulakka, the country on our other side, is not.” Radell then started to check the horse’s bridle. “The people of Chulakka are savages, all of them,” he spat. “They like to come at night, and plunder everything in their path. Sure, we have gone to the king and asked him for protection, but he would not even send his worst soldiers to aid us.” The strange little man made a face. “But we make do, we have me. And a genius to help us make weapons that frighten the savages.”

John frowned. He had not heard of these people and his father certainly had not mentioned it. “What else do these savages do?”

However, before Radell could answer, the door opened to fill the work space with sunshine from the outdoors. Aracely, who often visited her father’s former friend, also brought him fresh bread and meats that she would acquire or had left over from meals from her own household. “Radell?” she called out his name.

“Oh, Lady Aracely!” Radell clapped and danced his way towards the young woman. “How kind of you to grace me, once again, with your presence.”

“Off that behavior my friend. I have some breads and dairy for you and your small ones,” she grinned as she pulled her satchel flap back for him to see. “I hoped to bring some fruit, but young Jinto was quick to the take.”

Prince John had to squint to see the woman properly. Her voice sounded pleasant enough, and for her to bring this… madman food for him and his family was a gesture of the heart. He couldn’t help but smile as his horse started to become uneasy. “Radell, how about I put my horse outside with the water and hay? Do whatever you have to do, I will pay you, no matter how much. I’m quite hungry, if you could point me into the direction of your tavern, and I’ll be out of your hair.”

“Yes, yes,” Radell said, waving his hand. “Outside is fine and I doubt that you could spare your change any more than we can. I will tend to your horse, I assure you.”

Aracely had immediately quieted, having not been used to seeing others in her friend’s shop. And those whom she did were often those sent by the King to collect what precious money he managed to earn. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the stranger, once she was able to see him clearly. While he dressed like a commoner, he was well-kept and groomed to that of higher nobility. If she knew any better, he could even pass for the Prince, himself, having met him briefly during her family’s first and last visit to one of the King’s galas.

John put his horse outside, at the hay and water, and secured the reigns. “Radell? Tavern?” John peeked his head back into the shop.

“That way.” Radell’s hands flew in the air and pointed in no direction at all.

“I thank you,” John replied happily.

Outside, after having said her goodbyes and reminding the man of being cautious, Aracely, searched in her bag for some coinage. She did not carry much with her, for fear if she were attacked by thieves. She did still wish to purchase some extra dairy to leave on Radell’s stoop, before ending her day, as nightfall was approaching quickly.

John decided to ask someone else for the tavern. Surely they must have a tavern in this village? He was hungry and thirsty and hoped that Radell would be able to make horseshoes for him before he’d close shop, although John feared that this was not the case. He then hoped that the tavern had beds.

Seeing the young woman from Radell’s shop again, he carefully approached her. “Uhm… excuse me, miss?”

Jumping, she turned to face the voice, recognizing him from the darkness inside the shop. “If you are looking for my money, I should tell you that I only have two pence, that you can have, if you will simply let me be on my way,” she replied. It would not be the first time that she was accosted for her funds, or her gender. Aracely did manage to get away those times, by freely offering all her possessions she carried, and only once did she have to defend herself – as much as she despised it.

“I am merely looking for the tavern, miss.” John smiled widely as he fumbled a few gold coins out of his own satchel. “I am willing to pay you for your directions.” He held up a gold coin.

Aracely looked at the money before shifting her gaze up to the man. “You should not display your wealth like that,” she replied, lowering her voice. “There are men twice your size who come through who will not hesitate to take your head for that one coin.”

“I can defend myself, thank you for your advice, miss.” John chuckled. “If they want this coin, I can give them even more, without a fight. Currency means nothing to me.” He took the time to fully look at her; she was gorgeous. And she wasn’t afraid of him or to tell him what he should and shouldn’t do.

“Yet your arrogance will be your misfortune. The tavern is that way, just past the dairy house,” Aracely said, quickly finding a dislike for the man. Before he could ask for more, or she was willing to hear more, she started walking onwards, back to her home. Radell’s extra dairy would have to wait.

John rolled his eyes at her. “Thank you!” he called after her and headed towards the tavern. Now that he thought of it, she looked a little familiar, but, then again, he had met a lot of people at his father’s balls, and he went only because he had to, so he wasn’t sure. He really should have paid more attention when he was younger.

“Danyel! We need more spirits!” Vala called to her husband, who was tending the bar. “These men…oohhh… need more!” She smiled widely. “We have a new face,” she said as she eyed John entering the hall.

“Vala, watch yourself,” the man warned his woman. He watched the stranger, making sure that their leverage from hording thieves was close by.

“Hello,” John said. “My name is Johan. I’m a traveller and my horse is getting new shoes from your blacksmith. I was wondering if I could have something to eat and drink, and maybe a place to sleep?”

Vala guided Johan to a small table, away from a rowdy group that was watching him. “Well, food and drink we can certainly offer. However, accommodations is not up to me, unfortunately,” she sighed, looking him over and wishing she wasn’t married for a brief moment. “You would have ask the bedkeeper over there. I’ll be right back with some good eating for you, dear.”

Danyel narrowed his eyes as his wife went back to the kitchen to find something for the man. “We have no beds,” he said, getting right to the point. No beds, at least for a first-time stranger. The couple never rented out their rooms to those they did not see more than once, and there were certainly not many places in the village that would offer up shelter, voluntarily, so close to the season.

“All right,” John replied. “Then, after some food and drink, I’ll see if your blacksmith has finished with my horse, which I doubt. If not, I will take my bedding and sleep outside the village.”John didn’t realize that it was so bad out here. Had he known of this, or at least his father, he would certainly have come with his knight, Ronon, and their army, to defend these people.

Returning with a plate of hot chicken, Vala recognized the look on her lover’s face. She said nothing as she set the plate on the table, before joining him behind the bar. “Honestly, Danyel, he doesn’t look too bad,” she whispered. “Surely we can do something?”

“Even savages can smarten up,” her husband replied as he poured a mug of ale for his wife to hand over to the stranger. He then sighed. “I suppose, if it makes you happy, he could sleep in the stables with his horse.”

“Thank you, love,” she grinned, leaving a kiss on his cheek. Coming back to the table, she sat beside the stranger. “We may not have beds to offer, but we can offer a roof in the stable. It is not much, but, for a night, it’s safer than sleeping in the forest around here.”

John smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.” He took a bite of the chicken and immediately loved it. It was so much better than the animals he had eaten in the days away from home.

After paying for his meal, Danyel was the one to show their guest to his accommodations for the night. It was mostly because of his concern for his wife’s safety, as she had such a great heart for people. “The old man usually opens his shop not long after sunrise,” he said carefully, watching for any sort of threat.

“Thank you.” John nodded and then looked at Danyel. “I understand why you and the rest of your villagers are wary of strangers like myself, but surely it can’t be that bad. Your village looks almost pristine.”

The barkeeper narrowed his eyes. “The people here work hard for what they have. When taxes come due, only then does the rich know who and where we are. As far as our streets, did you not notice a single soul out?”

“You’ll have to forgive my ignorance,” John chuckled. “I have lead a very sheltered life.”

“Clearly. If you truly must know, a woman does not walk the streets without a man to protect her, if she leaves her home at all, after the sun sets. It is nearly the season. The warriors from Chulakka come and take our wives, our daughters, for their own. That is our life here.”

John was shocked. Surely, had his father heard of this, he would have sent someone to help these people out, as they were a part of his kingdom? “Have you petitioned the King? Or at least the council?”

Danyel shook his head, irritated. “Of course we have. However, it seems we do not provide enough riches or produce to be worthy of his services. Rarely we ever see one of the court’s horsemen come through and, even then, it is rare.”

John hoped he wasn’t intrusive, but he was curious. “What defenses do you have? And I know that it may sound out of place, but have you considered moving your village closer inland, with more fertile lands?”

“Why? Apart from the savages, this is our home. For generations, we have lived here. Times haven’t always been this bare. We used to be able to provide for many towns. The land has grown tired now, but, in a couple of years, we will be able to do just that.” Danyel cocked his head. “We have a alchemist living in our midst. She’s the almighty Samanthia, and she usually has devices at hand that saved several women and children during the season. Also, most of our women and children are in a village not far from here, to keep them safe. What’s it to you, stranger?”

“I want to help. I have friends with weapons and resources to fight,” he replied, with deep worry for these people he only just met.

Danyel couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I am sorry, Sir, but you don’t look like you’re even able to lift a sword.”

John shrugged. Not now, no… “At least let me help you make the preparations to defend this village. I can help you build things, such as traps.”

The man did not answer. “I will speak about your offer with our council, tonight. However, I cannot guarantee our presider will be comfortable with your presence. Have a good night, Johan.”

“Good night, Danyel.” As the man left, the prince looked around at his home for the night and began to slowly dislike what he learned of his ill father more and more. When he would become King, one day – probably sooner than later – he’d do things differently. Maybe divide the country in certain parts, with their own person who’d directly answer to the King. Smiling up to the wooden ceiling as he laid down, John thought that would be a great place to begin his reign.

Meanwhile, across the village, concerned locals were quick to gather at their presider’s home. After being let in from the darkness, each person spoke, expressing their concerns and fear of the new stranger.

Aracely did not say a word as she listened, still trying to make an unbiased opinion for herself. “What has he done to cause worry?” she asked, not wishing to yet share that she, too, had come across him, nor her suspicions.

“Well, nothing,” Danyel spoke after informing the congregation that the visitor was in his stable. “Apart from the reaction my lovely wife had on him, I swear, she would have devoured him whole if she wasn’t married to me. He showed real interest in the village and its inhabitants. He also offered to help out to prepare us for this season.”

That stirred up a lot of murmuring, but Aracely was still silent as she listened. After a moment, she looked out the window that oversaw the main road. “Hear his suggestions, but continue to tread lightly. He may have some ideas that can certainly help us in some way, even if he may not.”

“What if he has come for one of our daughters, Aracely?” one man cried out. “What if he is one of them? I lost one child to the Chulakkans already. I do not want to lose another.”

She smiled at the man. “I have met this stranger this afternoon and I truly do not believe that he is here for our children. I do suspect he has reasons for his presence, but, so far, I do not foresee him to be a threat, as long as we are cautious.”

“His name is Johan,” Danyel said. “He doesn’t look like he can wield a sword, but maybe his strength is in his head instead of hands. Radell is taking care of the shoes of his horse, and I must say that the horse looks strong, and healthy. Perhaps this Johan is of nobility, as yourself, Lady Aracely, although, if he was, he probably should have dressed himself better.”

Aracely believed that as well, except that he was actually of higher blood than she. “It is possible. Still, use caution in your dealings with this man until we learn more of his intentions.”

“I shall take him to Samanthia tomorrow, then,” Danyel offered. “And maybe offer him a room,” he added, almost inaudible.

She raised an eyebrow in amusement. Her friend was certainly a jealous mate for Vala, but was still a good man with a warm soul. “We will see if he decides to stay another night. I will be at the market tomorrow and, maybe, observe his movements. If he visits your stands, do not refuse his business. He does have some fortune that he carries and we all could use what we can get, regardless.”

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