Chapter One

Sharokk took another step, feet falling warily against the loose stones of the road. He wanted to rest, but knew that if he stopped he might not start again. Looking down, he consulted the paper with the hastily scribbled map on it. Clutching it in one hand, he traced the path that was beneath his feet. The line cut off underneath his finger, and the map had reached its end.

Looking up from the page, Sharokk found himself at a forked road. After hours of walking along a path someone had drawn for him, he’d reached a decision. A signpost stood in front of him, arms pointing behind him and to split directions ahead. Over his shoulder, the lettering read “To Crimson Keep”. Not an option. To his left and right, they read “Shaper’s Road” and “Great Merchant Road”.

Body slumped against the signpost, his feet were finally stopped. In the back of his mind, he knew this post was father from home than he’d ever been. Across his face and bare hands, he could feel the wind gust now that he was past the forest’s protective tree line. Light was fading as the sun reached the horizon, and with diminishing sunlight, the cold began to sink in. Still, there was a decision to be made.

Sharokk’s eyes squinted, and he looked between the arms of the signpost. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but the Shaper’s Road led further north, and he couldn’t imagine faring better in the snow if he was already this cold. The Great Merchant’s Road stretched across the entire landmass as far as he knew, and it would lead south from here.

Straightening up against the post, Sharokk looked blankly across the wedge of grass that lied between the two roads. His mind was exhausted, and fighting on multiple fronts. Weighing his options was stopping his progress as he told himself he couldn’t afford to not be moving. At the same time, his instincts were pleading for rest. Just lie in the grass, just stop moving, it doesn’t make sense to keep going.

To keep moving, he couldn’t consider any of that. He took a step away from the post and into the grass between roads.

“One.” More steps. “Two, three.” He let the map drop from his hand. There was nobody to guide him here. Counting steps hadn’t gotten him this far, but he wasn’t sure what could get him farther. He was alone, and even his own thoughts weren’t helping now. As the light continued to fade, fireflies started lighting themselves up in the grass, and they flew across Sharokk’s vision, streaks of orange on the canvas of the sky.

Looking over his shoulder, the last tree that could be recognized as a part of home was vanishing on the horizon. It was unbelievable that just two mornings ago he had woken up in his bed, in his room, in the heart of the Crimson Keep, which was itself at the center of their kingdom. That in the hours following, he’d be running away based on the words of a single man. A trusted friend, but Sharokk still doubted himself. Had he been mistaken? Wrong to leave so suddenly?

His day long journey had been nearly silent so far, and his only reassurance was that someone would have come to find him if they knew he was gone. If they cared. No, Sharokk told himself, his brother would wonder where he’d gone. His father would send someone, wouldn’t he?

The exact words were still in his mind though, and he certainly wasn’t willing to risk it. “You have to leave. You can’t be recognized inside the border of these lands. If you’re found, you’ll be killed, and you can’t return. Ever.” He wished he knew who he should worry about finding him. He had a lot of questions now, but that was the biggest of them. Who was so dangerous that he wouldn’t be safe in his home, that his father couldn’t protect him from?

Sharokk lost count of the steps, and he looked around to realize tree, the signpost, and both roads had stretched far out of sight. The sun was completely hidden now, and the moon was dim, covered in shadow.

This is solitude, he thought, reminded of a man who frequently visited the keep. He was an explorer, and spoke of the peace and enjoyment of being alone with the wild. Sharokk was miserable, and far from at peace, but his legs were so tired he’d reached a point where taking another step hurt less than stopping and letting the pain catch up.

The night stretched on, and Sharokk continued to walk, more than half asleep, now pushing forward on an unconscious will. His dreams were merging with his surroundings, misty figures coming into vision in front of him.

A tall man formed first, broad shoulders and strong arms folded over his chest, faceless head shaking. Sharokk knew the voices that came from the figures, and this man was the one who’s told him to leave.

“You’re safe now boy, you hear me? You’re far enough away, nobody will find you. Just rest, lad. Rest.” Sharokk shook his head and he walked through the misty figure as it dispersed. He picked up the count again, fighting off his brain.

One, two, three.

Another form coalesced, a regal man whose crown shone even in the mist. He was seated in the air, and extended a hand, until it was just inches from brushing against Sharokk’s face. “Sleep, my son, there is much to do tomorrow, and you need your rest. You’re a growing boy.” He hadn’t heard his father say that in years. Sharokk walked through the second figure as well.

One, two, three.

“Where are you going, brother? Just come back. The duels are tomorrow.” Sharokk froze. Turning, he saw the figure of his brother, standing tall above him. The person he most looked up to, who he’d been unwilling to consider he might never see again. All the thoughts and emotions he’d buried in order to keep moving were yanked to the surface. He couldn’t count anymore, and he fell to his knees. Looking for an escape, he saw that in every direction there was just grass now. The fireflies had died down, leaving Sharokk in a dark so thick he couldn’t notice it fading as his eyes closed, carrying him to sleep.