Anyone who knew Aron Lochelm would tell you that he hated rain. The feel of it splattering on your face, the chill as it ran down your neck, even the pattering noise as it hit the cobblestones, was enough to make Aron hate the force of nature with every bone in his body; and it was just his luck to be accompanying his commanding officer at the palace gate during the biggest thunderstorm of the year, wearing nothing but his squire robes and holding a lantern, which provided the only source of light.
“Sir?” Aron asked. A grunt from the older man beside him indicated that he was allowed to continue. “ Why are we out here in the middle of the night? Are we expecting someone? If so, why am I required to be here?”
“Quiet boy. All will be answered soon. Till then you will remain silent.”
His commanding officer, a man by the name of Varrp. turned to him. His face, which was already plastered with a permanent frown had become red with anger, as he glared at the insubordinate boy beside him. “Lochelm, you are 12 years old, and a squire in the royal guard! You should know that when I, your COMMANDING OFFICER tell you to keep your trap shut, you keep it shut! If I have to repeat myself one more time, I will personally ensure that-”
However, the urgent whining of horses and the sound of carriage wheels in the distance halted the commander's threats (much to the relief of Aron), and he began to make his way to open the palace gates. The giant steel structure creaked and groaned to life as the commander opened the gates just enough for the encroaching carriage to pass through.
As it did, the driver reigned the coach to a stop. Commander Varrp approached the driver who spoke to him in hurried and hushed voices, before pressing a sealed scroll into his waiting hands. After inspecting the scroll carefully, Commander Varrp waved the carriage on closing the gate with a groan behind it.
As it passed, Aron noticed that the coach had the seal of Fretan embossed on its side. “That's funny,” Aron said to himself. “Why is someone from the southern kingdom here?” Aron considered asking Commander Varrp for an explanation but soon thought better of it. He personally didn't want to hear the end of the commander's threat.
After sealing the gate, Commander Varrp led Aron up to the palace steps to the massive entry doors, leaving the carriage and its occupants at the foot of the steps.
“Stay Here”, said the commander, before finally turning his attention towards the carriage.
“I’m sure it's just some duke who wants to be secretive entering the castle” Thought Aron. “The question is, why is a duke visiting so late at night?”
“And why do I need to be here?” As he said this, the door of the coach opened, and he realized that his assumption that a duke was visiting was far off, as the hulking figure of King Oren of Fretan emerged from the coach. Aron stood there flabbergasted. He had only seen the king of the southern kingdom in books about the world's history, and never believed in his wildest dreams that he would meet him; but now here he was, just a few feet away.
“Oren. It's been too long.” said commander Varrp, as the king emerged.
The king let out a heavy sigh.“It truly has been Thaddeus. I just wish we could have met again under better circumstances.”
“We should go in. I want to get you in and out of there as soon as possible. We all know how powerful he can be.”
“Yes, of course.” The king looked back into the carriage. “Come, Henrick, it's time”
Aron strained to catch a glimpse of who was emerging from the carriage. As he did, his foot slipped on the wet stone and he went crashing down the steps, finally landing in a heap next to the king and Commander Varrp.
“ARON YOU IDOT! GET UP!” barked Commander Varrp. Aron quickly picked himself up and stood at attention next to the commander; his head lowered in embarrassment.
“Great!” Thought Aron. “I embarrassed myself in front of a king. Guess I can add that to the list of why I hate rain.”
“Excuse me, but are you alright?”
Aron looked up to see a young boy staring back at him. He wore a look of blank fascination, yet Aron could notice the faintest trace of a smile, almost as if the boy had found Aron’s tumble down the stairs funny. Aron took a second to register the question.
“Oh! Um, Yes I’m fine, thank you.”
“You know, you should really be more careful. You looked pretty stupid when you slipped down those stairs. I thought royal guards were supposed to be dexterous in all terrain.”
Aron felt his temper start to rise. “First of all, who are you calling stupid! Secondly, I'm a squire, not a guard, so I have a ways to go before I am actually guarding someone royal.”
“I hardly think that any royal would hire you. If you can’t even step down wet stairs, then you really have no chance of becoming a guard.”
Aron stared daggers at the boy. The boy stared right back as if challenging him to make another move as if he knew he had some sort of unfair advantage. It was Commander Varrp who ended the standoff between the two boys by clearing his throat, reminding them of their superiors who stood by their respective sides.
“Prince Henrick, of Fretan, may I introduce you to Aron Lochelm. He is to be your future bodyguard.”
“No, unh unh! I am not about to have some child as my bodyguard! He's not even trained!”
“Excuse Me! I'm obviously older than you! What are you like eight?”
“9 and a half, thank you very much! But just because i’m young doesn't mean I need a glorified babysitter!”
“That's why he will be your future bodyguard,” Commander Varrp said. “He is the best in his unit, and is a worthy candidate.”
Aron was flattered by this sudden compliment by the commander. It was true that he was the best in the class, and he had worked hard to be so; but he aspired to be a captain of the guards; not some babysitter to the spoiled brat in front of him. “Sir,” Aron said. “Don't you think that there are more qualified candidates for this job? Like an actual trained soldier?”
“No” Growled Varrp. “You are the most qualified. We needed a boy the same age as the prince so he could have someone to talk to; make the situation easier.”
Aron and Henrick were becoming more and more confused. Both boys were clueless to what was going on, and these vague explanations were not helping.
“Sir, please; would you elaborate?”
“I concur. Commander, I am becoming increasingly befuddled, and I demand to know what is happening!”
“Herick, manners!” King Oren snapped at his son.
“Silence. Remember, you are a prince. You must learn to be kind to your subjects. Since we got here you have not been so. You have not only embarrassed me, but the entire kingdom of Fretan!”
At this scolding, the prince pursed his lips in annoyance, but did not speak further, as to not invoke any more wrath from his father. The small party stood there for a moment, the tension binding them to the steps. It was King Oren who broke the silence.
“Well Thaddeus, we've wasted enough time as it is with these introductions; let's just get it over with.”
“Yes your majesty” With that, Commander Varrp turned on his heels and began to walk up the steps. King oren followed, and the two boys trailed behind, hesitantly climbing the steps as opposed to the determined gates of the elders ahead.
Commander Varrp led the group into the halls of the royal palace of Morena. Aron gazed around in fascination. He had never seen the halls-usually filled with light-so dark. Up ahead the boys heard King Oren clear his throat.
“So Thaddeus, I take it from her absence that your queen will not be joining our merry little band?”
“Sadly Queen Evalane felt like she wouldn't be able to attend. She was so strong after that night, but i'm afraid she can only take so much heartbreak. We moved her to a nobles house till the ordeal was over, just for safety.”
The group continued quickly and silently through the castle halls, with the boys becoming more and more confused as the elders continued their conversation ahead. “So… Any idea of what's going on?” Aron asked.
“I think I've already made it clear that I don't. Besides, even if I did know, why would I be telling you?”
“Oh, I don’t know YOUR MAJESTY; maybe because I’m here too?” The two boys resumed their staring contest of power, daring the other to make a move. After a tense moment of silence, it was Henrick, surprisingly who ended their standoff with an exasperated sigh.
“Listen. I can tell that we don't see eye to eye, but from what we've been told, it looks like we’re going to be spending some of our time together-”
“More like all of it”
“In any case! We should learn to at least tolerate each other, agreed?”
“Good. Well, now that we’re on the same page, let me properly introduce myself. I am Prince Henrick of Fretan. Now you.”
“Oh! Um, ok. I am Private Aron Lochelm of Morena, I look forward to working with you, your highness.”
“Likewise” Both boys continued to converse amongst themselves. They were so engrossed in their conversation that they failed to notice the older men had stopped. As they joined their elders Commander Varrp spoke up.
“Boy’s quiet down, we’re here.” Commander Varrp had stopped at a large tapestry bearing the kingdom's symbol, an eagle soaring over a mountain range. He lifted the tapestry to reveal a small wooden door, with several complicated-looking locks on them. Prince Henrick began to approach the door, but the commander stuck out his arm, stopping the prince in his tracks.
“Careful your highness, these were enchanted in Ensay. Pick the wrong keyhole and you'll regret it. I saw a dwarf turn to dust when they were constructed.”
“So how do you open the door then sir?” Aron asked.
“Very carefully boy” replied the commander. He tugged on a silver chain around his neck revealing a small silver key. He inserted it into a keyhole in the center of the door, and with one quick turn to the left the door slowly creaked open revealing a winding staircase. A wave of cold air rushed through the threshold causing the group to shiver.
By now, both boys were becoming increasingly agitated; and when Commander Varrt went to lead the group up the stairs, Henrick began to voice his disdain.
“Father, with all due respect, I have had enough of being kept in the dark! You have dragged me from my bed and brought me to Morena in the dead of night, spoken in nothing but vague riddles since we've arrived, and now, we are going to climb a staircase to gods know where guarded by a door that apparently kills people!? Nope, no way. I am not moving another inch until you explain to me what is going on!”
“I would actually like to know as well” Aron chimed in. King Oren turned and faced the two boys. Focusing in on his son, he adopted a softer tone.
“Son. I know this is confusing, but you have to trust me. The reason I brought you here is because we are going to have a talk with the person at the top of these stairs, and you are the key to ensuring that it goes well.”
“Father, who is at the top of the stairs?”
“You will know soon enough. Come Thaddeus, let's make haste.”
“Yes, your majesty.” Commander Varrp once again took the lead guiding the group up the long winding steps. A few moments later they reached the top of the tower. The tower was nothing to be admired. It was merely a circular room illuminated by a single lantern. From its faint glow, Henrick and Aron could make out bars that stretched across the room, separating them from a black figure concealed by shadows and bound by chains. Commander Varrp approached the cell and banged on the bars with his fist.
“You wanted the prince and the king well here they are! Get up you monster!” At these harsh words, the black figure began to shift. It stood with its back facing the group and spoke.
“Now commander, is that any way to treat someone who is to be executed? You really must work on your bedside manner.” The voice belonging to the figure was deep, but held no anger or fear over what it had just said; rather, the voice was calm, and sickeningly sweet. King Oren stepped forward, a look of pure hate and disgust etched into his brow.
“Hello Mordal, it's been a while.” At the mention of his name, the figure turned around, revealing a face that struck chills into the king and the commander. Mordal was tall and slender in build, with sharp facial features and a slightly ridiculous goatee. To the boys, he seemed like a normal person, and they were confused about why their caretakers had suddenly become silent; that is, until they looked at his eyes. They were pure back, and in them, the boys saw only madness. These were the eyes of a lunatic. A sociopath. The eyes of a man who had killed and felt nothing, if not enjoyed it. As they gazed deep into the eyes of this unknown man, they realized why the adults were silent. Modal shifted his attention towards them, his eyes widening in fascination as he focused on Prince Henrick.
“Well well well, if it isn't my greatest failure. I must say that you look different from when we last met… then again you were a baby-”
“Enough Mordal!” King Oren shouted. “If you only asked us here to taunt us then we’ll leave!”
“Oh dear, someone can’t keep their temper. Well if you're so intent on knowing why I summoned you here, then I'll tell you. After all, what's the point of a dead man keeping secrets.” Mordal began to check his nails as if he didn't care, but no one overlooked the smirk playing on his lips. “I may or may not know the possible location of a certain lost princess.”