Rest Stone Valley was surrounded by several low mountains, barely taller than hills. It was given its name due to the large stone in the center of the valley that vaguely resembled an enormous bed.
The fertile grasslands of the valley had been claimed by farmers over the generations, until it had been transformed into neatly plowed fields for as far as the eye could see. Occasional trees dotted the landscape, as did the tidy homes of those who cultivated the land. Down the center of the valley was a small river from which numerous irrigation canals spread outward.
A soft breeze swept down from the mountains, bringing the scent of pines with it. Idris took a deep breath and enjoyed the smell of it mixed with scent of freshly overturned earth.
“I doubt there is anywhere as beautiful as our valley,” he said happily.
Cadell smiled at his son’s enthusiasm. “Well, I cannot say I have travelled much, but I would be inclined to agree with you.”
“What is Marath like?” inquired Idris.
“Big,” was the unhelpful reply.
Idris laughed. “And?”
“It is big and noisy and crowded,” Cadell expounded. “There are buildings twice as tall as a house, and the palace is as large as one of our mountains. People there wear clothes made from exotic silks and fine linens, and they ride around in carriages pulled by the finest horses.”
Idris rubbed his hands over his coarse shirt, which had been carefully mended by his mother. How would he look to the rich people described by his father?
Cadell noticed the motion and gave a reassuring smile. “We will only be there for a few hours, and then we will be heading home. The people of Marath are accustomed to seeing visitors from all over the kingdom.”
The road that they walked on began winding towards the west, and Cadell waved to neighbors as they passed them working in their fields. Before long, Idris and his father were joined by another pair of travelers bound for Marath.
Idris tried to hide his dislike as he greeted the boy his own age. “Hello, Meic.”
Meic made no attempt to hide his disdain for Idris, but his father nudged him to reply. “Hello.”
Idris had known Meic his entire life, and had disliked him for nearly as long. They were almost exactly the same age—Idris being one day older—and therefore they were always grouped together during local activities.
Meic did not wear a topknot like the other boys their age, but wore his long black hair in a high ponytail. He did this because that was how warriors were described in the stories they had been told as children, and Meic dreamed of being a warrior as well. He scorned those who were happy with life on a farm and declared that only simpletons chose to stay.
Idris was among the so-called simpletons.
The animosity between the two boys went unnoticed by their fathers. Cadell shook hands with Owen heartily and suggested that they travel together.
“You are not waiting until your birthday to set out?” asked Idris, even though the answer was obvious.
“I will be fifteen by the time we reach Marath,” sneered Meic.
“I know,” said Idris, “but I thought you would want to spend your birthday with your family.”
The other boy sniffed haughtily. “I do not care about that. In a few years’ time, I will not see them anymore.”
“Lucky them,” muttered Idris.
If Meic heard, he chose to ignore the remark. “I am going to get a sword from the Treasury, and when I learn to use it I am going to join the king’s army.”
Idris frowned. “Why not join right away? They have training for people our age, even if you have never used a weapon before.”
Meic looked even more disdainful. “Do you think I want to be grouped in with all of the beginners? No, I intend to join the army when I am ready to be placed ahead of everyone else starting out.”
“Who is going to teach you how to use a sword? It is not as if there are any soldiers in Rest Stone Valley,” Idris pointed out.
His companion waved away this concern. “I will teach myself.”
Idris hid a smile as he thought about the fun that could be had witnessing Meic flailing about with a dangerous weapon. Maybe he would lose a finger and be unable to join the army after all.
At this point, Owen glanced over his shoulder and spoke to his son. “I still think you should get a cow or two pigs. I would be happy to make you a partner in the farm if you were willing to bring something to it.”
Meic’s eyes flashed with anger. “I told you, I am not going to be a farmer.”
Owen shrugged and went back to conversing with Cadell, but Idris thought he glimpsed a hurt expression in the man’s eyes.
“What are you going to choose?” Meic asked, his tone still warm from the confrontation with his father.
Idris tried to sound casual. “I do not know. I thought I would wait to decide until I see what is available.”
Meic was incredulous. “You have not decided?”
“There could be things there that we did not imagine,” said Idris defensively.
“How much imagination do you need to get something for a stupid farm?” Meic shot back.
“If you do not wish to work on the farm,” Cadell said over his shoulder to Idris, “you could get a horse. I am certain that Heilin and Collen would be happy to let you join their business.”
Cadell’s two younger brothers bred and trained horses on a ranch on the other side of the valley.
“I… maybe,” Idris said lamely.
The road they were following began sloping upward, over one of the mountains that protected Rest Stone Valley. Idris had never gone beyond the mountains of their little home, and he looked forward with anticipation to the sight he was soon to see.
The climb was not a difficult one, and the road soon reached the summit. Idris quickened his step and hopped on top of a large rock to the side of the road. Calaris stretched out before his eyes, all the way to the coast.
“I can see the ocean from here,” exclaimed Idris in delight.
Even Meic couldn’t hide his excitement. “Is Marath by the water?”
Owen nodded. “Yes, the western edge of the city is a massive port.”
Idris turned around to take in the entire view. Rest Stone Valley looked peaceful and quiet below, and beyond it lay the rest of the kingdom. Cadell began pointing out different landmarks to his son.
“Just beyond our valley the land turns to fen, all the way to the eastern border of Calaris. Then to the north and south there are grasslands, and that is where you will find all of the cities and villages and farms. Calaris is not a very wide nation, but it is quite long. I once saw a map,” he explained.
They continued walking on the dirt road as it wound downward, away from the mountain. Meic began to pepper his father with questions.
“King Nikolas has to fight to keep invaders out of the Calaris, right? Is he not the first warrior king in three generations? Are we at war with the barbarians to the east? What is their country called? Is it true that King Nikolas encourages all young men to become soldiers?”
Idris could practically see the dreams of glory swirling around Meic’s head.
Owen seemed reluctant to answer his son’s questions. “The country to the east is called Roshum, I believe. It is true that we are often at war with them…”
“Then it is our duty to join the king’s army and fight,” Meic said with satisfaction.
Cadell raised a finger. “Ah, but if we all were soldiers, who would grow the food to feed the kingdom? Even King Nikolas the Bold cannot create grain out of thin air.”
Meic was silenced by his words, and Idris grinned at his father. He knew that Cadell took great pride in his farm, and he often spoke of how it was the greatest occupation a man could have. Idris also loved the farm, but he felt strange when he thought about working there for the rest of his life.
The four kept a good pace throughout the day, stopping only briefly for a quick meal at midday. By the time the sun was beginning to set, they had reached an area just off the road that had been cleared of any plants or rocks. A blackened fire pit sat in the center, and it was apparent that the site was often used by travelers.
Idris and Meic began gathering sticks from the ground surrounding a nearby tree, and soon a small fire was burning in the pit. Cadell and Owen combined supplies, and before long they had a pot full of stew to go around and a loaf of bread to sop up the gravy.
The conversation naturally turned back to their destination, and Meic and Owen got into a heated discussion about Meic’s desire to join the army.
Cadell and Idris gave them a bit of privacy and settled down to talk on their own.
“So,” Idris’s father started, “you have not decided what you want from the Treasury?”
Idris had been reluctant to discuss it with others, but it felt natural to confide in his father. “I have been thinking about it a lot, but I can never seem to settle on anything. Every idea that I come up with just does not seem right for me.”
Cadell’s brow furrowed thoughtfully. “Do you want to join the army, like Meic?”
Idris shook his head. “No, I love the farm. But when I think about getting cows or pigs it just feels… wrong.”
“Well, there are lots of options,” his father said encouragingly. “You could get some gold and buy some land, or the blacksmith is looking for an apprentice. When I was your age I decided to get gold because I was not sure what I wanted either.”
Idris had never known this about his father. “Really?”
Cadell nodded. “Really. My brothers already had plans for breeding horses, and so your grandfather said that the farm would be mine. I did not know what I would need to help the farm along, so I just got some gold from the Treasury. I figured I could always decide later.”
“Maybe I should do the same,” said Idris doubtfully. Even that didn’t feel right.
Cadell fixed his solemn gaze on his son. “If you do, just remember that it will have to be paid back someday. It is tempting to take a large amount of gold, but if you cannot earn it back during your lifetime then you leave your family in debt when you die. Remember: we are only farmers, not lords.”
Idris considered his father’s words as he rolled up in his blanket for the night. He could not understand why it was so hard for him to decide, especially since he knew that he wanted to stay in Rest Stone Valley. He did not have dreams of adventures or glory. He just wanted to stay near his family and settle down. Maybe find a girl to marry…
It seemed that he had only just drifted off to sleep when he was being shaken awake again.
“Wake up, my boy. Time for us to get going.”
They had a cold breakfast of bread and dried fruit, packing up their camp as they ate. Owen pulled out a sweet bun for Meic, declaring it to be a birthday treat. Meic ate it with relish, looking at Idris as if expecting him to be jealous.
Idris smiled blandly and said, “Happy birthday, Meic.”
The weather was as fair as the previous day, and Idris had an enjoyable time walking along the dirt road. A slight breeze rustled through the tall grass on the sides, and soon the small road merged with a larger one that was paved with cobblestones.
Traffic on the new road was heavier, since there were many who had business in the capital of Calaris. There were wagon trains with various goods, patrolling soldiers in charge of keeping the peace, petitioners, and several other duos that looked to be parents escorting their fifteen-year-old children to the Treasury.
It took them half a day to reach the gates of Marath, but they could see the city looming in the distance long before they arrived.
Marath looked just like the cities described in the old war stories, with a wall that was made of thick stone and stood three times the height of a man. Each of the city gates were made of giant logs that had been reinforced with bars of steel, and archers were positioned along the top of the wall at regular intervals.
The four travelers joined in the line of other visitors to the city to be questioned by the guards at the gate.
“What are your names?” The guard who asked the question was wearing a green tunic that bore the sigil of the city—a tower guarded by a dragon.
“Cadell and Idris of Rest Stone Valley,” Cadell answered.
“What is your business in Marath?” the soldier questioned, jotting down a note in an enormous ledger.
“My son is now fifteen years of age. We are here to visit the Treasury.”
The soldier nodded, making another note. “How long will you be in the city?”
“When you leave Marath you will be required to pass through this same gate so we can verify your information,” droned the guard, waving them past. “Thank you, move along.”
Idris thought briefly about whispering to Meic that his future as a soldier would probably be the same as the guard’s, but the jibe was driven from his mind as he entered the city.
The noise of a thousand voices talking all at once broke over Idris’s senses. The gate opened up to a square that was filled with all sorts of people. Some were greeting visitors they had been expecting, some were watching a group of street performers, some had small handcarts from which they were selling food or trinkets, some were simply standing around chatting. In the center of the square was a statue of a man holding a broadsword. He had a thick beard and he was portrayed wearing elaborate robes.
“King Nikolas,” said Cadell, gesturing to the statue.
Idris studied the statue with renewed interest. He had never seen the king before, nor a likeness of him. The statue certainly gave the man the look of a warrior, and Idris wondered if the same was true in real life.
At this point they were joined by Owen and Meic. The two of them looked just as unnerved by the chaos of the city as Idris felt.
“Shall we go on?” suggested Owen, his voice rather strained.
He pointed towards the center of the city where, even over the tops of the tall buildings, the spires of the royal palace could be seen. That was where the royal family lived, along with the higher nobility and those that served them.
Cadell gave Idris’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “The Treasury awaits.”
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