It was in the hush of dusk, when freshly shed blood masked itself as grey, that Damarion stood alone as a dozen soldiers approached. They were violent men who believed the darkening sky kept their deeds hidden from the full light of day. Despite being unarmed, he stood his ground as the warriors neared. Their swords and spears were drawn, their eyes glimmered with darkness, and faint smiles came as they anticipated the coming violence. Damarion was no longer a young man. A bit of grey touched his dark hair, and he no longer had the naive confidence of youth. He knew that that good things rarely happened out just because he wanted them to. He had experience with how badly events could turn, and he stood desperately now, determined to block the soldiers’ way just long enough for everyone back at the village to get away. “I want you out of here!” the man leading the soldiers shouted at him. His clothing was rich, greens trimmed with gold, and his eyes were filled with the arrogance that Damarion had learned always afflicted those who fancied themselves a King. “You, your family, and every miserable maggot that follows you.” "We seek no quarrel,” Damarion said, his eyes anxiously darting back and forth, trying to gauge which drawn sword and spear would strike first. “We are not even in your land.” “Who do you think you are?” the king snapped at him. “I’m nobody,” Damarion replied. Damarion cursed silently. He had been in this situation before, and he expected he would probably be in it again. He had tried reasoning with angry lords and kings in the past. He had tried to say nothing and stand his ground. He had even tried running away, but no matter what he did it always seemed to end the same. But still, he kept trying. “Exactly! You are nothing!” the king shouted back. “A penniless farmer who hasn’t even harvested a crop. What gives you the nerve to refuse to bow to your Master?” “If I am nobody and nothing, then what does it matter?” Damarion asked. He knew he should back down and run. His mind and heart pleaded with him to do so… but he was stubborn. And he had decided long ago that he would not back down, no matter the danger and no matter how much he was afraid. “I understand you have a wife,” the king said. Around him, the soldiers grinned and snarled at the words. “And a little girl?” Damarion went cold. His wife, Stacia should be leading the others to safety with little Elizabeth tagging along. That was why Damarion had stood in the way of the soldiers, to let them bark and spew their nastiness at him while everybody else got to safety. But to hear this miserable little king hint threats toward his family was more than even Damarion would bear. “Don’t touch us!” he cried out. “I don’t have time for this,” the king said. He stalked to a pile of hay near the road, yanking a rusted pitchfork out of the crop. Without pause, he thrust it at Damarion where it sank into his leg. He crumpled to the ground in agony, but even then, He was in too much pain to walk—too much to even stand, but he would not cry out in pain. Fierce silence would be all anyone would get from him. “Torch the crops,” the king said. “Get out, you miserable thugs!” A woman stepped between Damarion and the soldiers. She was Damarion’s age, but instead of his stubborn silent protest, she was filled with temper and anger. In her hand was an old, battered sword, and she held it with the fierce rage of a mother wolf protecting her pack. “Andelyn,” Damarion said, calling her back. “Shove it, Damarion,” she snapped back. She didn’t even look back at him, shuffling her feet closer to the soldiers now closing in on her. Stop it before you get yourself killed! Damarion’s thoughts screamed in terrified silence as he watched Andelyn stand before the attackers. Where did she even find that sword? he wondered. Though she didn’t know what she was doing, and though Damarion also knew she had never fought with a sword before, the king and his soldiers did not know this, so they backed off slightly. “You have a choice,” the king said, still backing away. “By sunset, you will leave my lands forever. Or I will send my soldiers and let them do what they like to you, your family, and everyone with you.” “Am I really this much of a threat?” Damarion asked. “That you need a dozen soldiers to cut down an unarmed nobody?” “Your friend is armed,” the king pointed out. “And who knows what other treason you intend.” “We seek no fight. We just want to live in peace.” At that, the king lost his patience. He signaled to his soldiers and in a single motion, they attacked. Andelyn swiped with the sword, trying everything she could to drive them back—but there was only so much an untrained woman could do with a rusted sword against a dozen warriors. There was only so much her temper and anger could do to fight back. They cut at her, broke her arm, and shoved her into the mud next to Damarion. And while she fel to the ground, they surrounded Damarion, kicked, beat, and bloodied into a mess of bruises. The soldiers left Damarion and Andelyn on the side of the road, caring not whether the two mangled souls crawled back and survived or simply bled out and died. Finally, as the king and the warriors disappeared into the coming night, Damarion pulled himself to his feet, bracing himself with the pitchfork that had ripped into his leg. Limping, he pulled Andelyn up with him. “What were you thinking?” Damarion asked. “That I’m tired of running away without a fight,” Andelyn said. “And before you try to scold me, you should know that your wife agrees with me.” “I’m not sure it did any good,” Damarion said. “Now we have two people limping back in bloodied mess instead of just me.” “You’re alive,” Andelyn said. “That’s something.” “They were never going to kill me,” Damarion said. “Hurt me, yes. But it gives no satisfaction to kill me.” “How can you be sure?” “Because what they really want is to see me give up and bend the knee,” Damarion said. “That’s what they all want.” “But you didn’t,” Andelyn said. “I didn’t,” Damarion agreed. “And I never will.”
Four nights later, Damarion gathered with his closest friends, sitting around a fire. There were six of them there. There was Damarion and his wife, Stacia. Andelyn with her husband, Malcom. Jasper, Andelyn’s younger brother. They all sat on a wooden post next to Wit. Though their small community had grown to nearly two hundred people—families that had joined with them here and there during the past several years—it had all begun with these six. Behind them were two girls, playing in the forest. They were distant enough to feel independent but close enough to feel safe. Elizabeth, Damarion’s daughter, was the oldest of the two. Raya, the daughter of Andelyn and Malcom, was two years younger. “Once upon a time there was a young man who would not bow to any king.” It was Witmer speaking. Elizabeth and Raya had taken to calling him Wit, a nickname he had happily embraced. But to Damarion and his closest friends he would always be simply Witmer. “You clearly want me to ask,” Damarion said, “so I’ll indulge. Why are you making my life sound like a fairy tale?” “But it’s not your life I’m narrating,” Wit said. “Because it’s not your story. It’s our story, Damarion. All of us. It just happens to begin with you.” “So where does it go after your dazzling opening line?” Stacia asked. She held Damarion’s hand, and he couldn’t help but notice her eyes darted back and forth between the conversation at the fire and the girls playing in the forest. A mother’s mind never had rest, Damarion realized. “It goes like this,” Wit said. “That young man wandered all over the lands of Arden and Destrier, searching for a place to live in peace. And everywhere he went, people followed him. It began with just five,” Wit gestured dramatically to those gathered around the fire together, “but it was soon dozens—and even a hundred. All drifting from place to place, searching for a land they they could use to build a village of their own—a village with nobody ruling over them. But no matter where they went, and no matter how hard they tried to fit in, there was always some lousy King or Lord or Duke or Earl or what-have-you. And they all demanded the young man bow. Because it would, of course, be a terrible threat if their serfs and servants and vassals discovered that you could refuse to bow and get away with it. So they were thrown out again and again everywhere they went.” “A lot of big dreams followed by big failures in the story so far,” Andelyn said. “I know you get moody when you have broken limbs,” Malcom said to his wife, “but maybe try to be a little positive.” “What I want to know is whether it’s a good story or not,” Jasper said. He was much younger than the others at barely eighteen years old. “Well, the story depends on the ending,” Wit said. “For example, imagine it ends with Jasper dying. That, my friends, would be a comedy.” Despite everything, Damarion laughed and so did everyone else. Andelyn found particular joy whenever her little brother was mocked. Even Malcom and Stacia, the two who always tried to be kind and patient, couldn’t stop from smirking. Only Jasper, in perpetual protest of being the butt of Wit’s jokes, scowled. “Or, let’s say Jasper marries. We call that a tragedy. But what if we end our story with him frolicking through the tulips, thinking he is a butterfly? That, my friends, is what we call drama and high art. So it seems, boy that everything depends on you.” “Why is it always me that has to endure Witmer’s insults?” Jasper demanded. “Because everybody else ignores me, but you give me the reaction I want,” Wit replied. “Be nice, Witmer,” Stacia said, always trying to be the peacemaker. “I’d like Jasper to want to come back to us someday.” At this, they all silenced. Stacia had dared bring up the topic they were all avoiding. “You’re determined to do this, Andelyn?” Damarion finally asked. “I want to stop running away,” Andelyn said. “And I think that’s only going to happen when we know how to protect ourselves.” “And you’re so certain you can’t stay with us and learn how?” Damarion asked. “We have to be realistic,” Malcom said, ever the practical one. “All of us came from poor homes, and none of us really knows how to defend ourselves. If we are to stand against soldiers and thieves, we need to know what we are doing.” “We need to find someone who can train us,” Andelyn said. “A rusted sword and my temper will only get us so far.” “The way I see it,” Jasper said, “is that I can find someone to teach me sorcery while also avoiding Wit for a few years. That’s two wins for me, I think.” “But we need to be honest,” Damarion said. “None of us know if this is going to work out.” “When have we ever known if our lives would work out?” Stacia asked. “Ten years ago, we all joined with you Damarion—determined to follow our conscience, knowing full well that it may not work out. That hasn’t changed, my husband. So let’s have hope. Let’s have faith that goodness can prevail.” “I’ve been thinking,” Wit broke in, “about some terrific ways to include me as I tell our story.” “Of course you have,” Jasper said, rolling his eyes. “Today is all about everyone else, and so you’ve spent it thinking about how you can best fit in.” “It’s poetic, what I came up with,” Wit ignored Jasper. “Imagine I’m standing before your grandchildren telling them our inspiring tale and then I pull out this line: And so Damarion led his people with Truth, as Wit skipped along at his side. Or how about this one? A bunch of ugly ruffians want to rough us up—they had muscles; they had spears. And yet, they were still Witless.” “Why are you talking nonsense right now?” Damarion asked. “Because Witmer is doing his job,” Stacia replied. “Distracting us from both fear and sorrow.” Then they all sat in silence. These were Damarion’s oldest friends—the five who had joined with him in the beginning, when they were still barely more than kids. They were the ones who had helped him every step along the way, gathering more and more families to their cause. The memories came to life in the waning sun—there, they were sitting around a campfire, listening to Damarion tell his dream of life without a king. There, they were standing on a hillside, talking to a group of farmers, inviting others to join their community. There, they were in another town, welcoming another family who had decided to follow them. And there, they were in a forest, watching their village burn to the ground as they had been thrown out of yet another land. Damarion’s thoughts were broken by laughter. Little Elizabeth and Raya, skipping and running themselves dizzy and collapsed on each other in a pile of giggles and squeals. “The girls have it right,” Malcom said. “Instead of spending their last evening together in melancholy and tears, they spin and laugh.” Damarion wanted to follow his daughter’s lead, but he couldn’t. He was too busy anticipating their approaching farewells, and he hated saying goodbye. “Damarion,” Andelyn finally said. “We’ll be back. As soon as Jasper and I can protect our people, we will return.” “But it won’t be for a long time,” Damarion said. “No matter how much I believe that you’re doing the right thing, and I do believe it, I will still miss you. Andelyn, Malcom. Jasper. We will miss you.” “Don’t think of it as goodbye,” Jasper said. “We’re just off for an adventure.” “Adventure,” Andelyn scoffed. “Only my brother would be clueless enough to call it that.” “He’s the same age we were,” Malcom pointed out, “when we all gathered with Damarion.” “We love you, but don’t come back before you’re ready,” Stacia said. “We need you to be strong. A glorious knight. A powerful sorcerer. That’s what we need. We’ll manage until then. We’ll survive just like we always have.” “How about we stop talking about it,” Wit said with a look in his eye that reminded them all that he understood so much much more than he was saying. “Let’s spend the rest of our last night together enjoying ourselves.” He began humming an old folksong, the same song they had first sung together over a campfire many years ago. One by one the voices joined together, their differences blending together in perfect harmony. There was Jasper’s youthful exuberance, finding its place with Wit’s humor and loyalty. Malcom’s quiet practicality perfectly blended with Andelyn’s protective nurturing and temper. And here, Damarion’s leadership and vision melded with Stacia’s calm and hope. And as they sang, they called in the two girls, bringing little Elizabeth and Raya to join with them, all singing of hope and joy as they spent one last evening together.