Thamred awoke to almost complete darkness, violently gripping the red velvet sheets of his bed, lying in the pool of sweat he had produced as a result of his nightmare. He had been having dreams about his brother for years, and all of them ended in the same way — Thadeon died, regardless of place and time. At times his death was the result of a battle, and at times he fell victim to creatures of all sorts: dragons, boars, and sometimes even black dogs as big as horses. Sometimes there was a certain man who killed him, and at other times he simply died without a reason — but Thamred witnessed it all the same, and felt as if the pain from his brother’s struggles were surging through him with each and every dream. When he was younger, his father and mother casually brushed it aside as childhood fears, fevers, and exposure to the military lifestyle of the people near him — but as he grew older, it became apparent that the nightmares were there to stay, making most people worried and curious at the same time about the exact nature of the phenomenon.

Desperate to get the vivid images out of his head, he looked around his room, and moaned out loud as he sat up in his bed — as soon as he did, a familiar face rushed into the room to open the curtains and prepare Thamred’s morning bath.

“Morning, Mord!”

“Good morning, Sire!” the retainer replied in tones of joy, “And may I say that I am honored to be the first one to wish happy birthday to you!”

“Thank you Mord! That’s very kind of you,” Thamred said, his eyes popping wide open as he realized it was his birthday.

“Any plans for today, Sire?”

“Waking up and forgetting this dream should be the first thing… then breakfast, and then we’ll see.”

“Nightmares again, Sire?” the servant asked as he prepared the bathwater from hot and cold water, mixing it until it finally attained the right temperature.

“Unfortunately,” Thamred answered as he undressed, picking up one of the salts from the bath supplies, and handing it to Mord.

“And your brother?”

“As always, in them. Do we have any news of him?” Thamred asked, sitting up in bed.

“Not that I know of, Sire. I have not been to the pigeons yet. I shall go directly after I have served breakfast, if that is agreeable to you.”

“Thank you Mord; that will be all then,” he said, stepping into his bathtub and sinking into the comfortably hot, flower-scented bathwater. Only half an hour of soaking later, he was up and ready, dressed in his golden, silk clothes. He left his room and went down the ornate, tediously long corridors of the royal palace, down the double set of stairs that guarded the throne room, and turned left, going straight to the dining hall, as he usually did. The enormous wooden doors creaked heavily as the two guards opened them, revealing his mother sitting at the table right in front of him, and turning round as soon as she heard him enter. She smiled and followed Thamred with her eyes as he took a seat right across the table, pulling the gemstone-encrusted chair under himself with yet another creak. The morning light glanced perfectly off her long, golden hair, as she watched him, giving her an angelic look — a trait that Thamred himself retained from the maternal side of his family. He did not share the brown eyes that either the Aldeaaris or the Llewyns had, though: his were of a golden yellow hue, which was — as he had been told many times by his mentor, Hawne — a sign of his greatness, especially when it came to religion.

“Well, good morning, birthday boy! How are you feeling? Did you sleep well?” Leana chirped like a songbird, only hesitating when she saw Thamred pause with unease.

“Mother…” Thamred smiled. “I know I will always be your son, but eighteen is eighteen. I can take care of myself.”

“That bad?” she asked, and her son immediately sighed.

“I could do without it.”

“And Thadeon?”

“Killed by a creature in the Kelleth Mountains, right after he took a cave from some barbarians.”

“What creature?” his mother asked. Her tone was curious, full of worry, and completely devoid of all the insincerities Thamred had gotten used to when telling people about his dreams.

“I don’t know. Nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Similar to a dragon, but strange, batlike, almost.”

“Did you wake on your own?”

“Yes, Mord was just about to come in, though.”

“I see. Don’t worry about it, Thamred. You know these dreams are just dreams; they pass just like everything else. Your brother is fine.”

“How do you know?” Thamred’s eyes locked onto his mother’s as he heard her words.

“Your presents might hold some clues to that.”

“He didn’t…” Thamred jumped up in his childish excitement, making the whole twenty-seater table wobble.

“Ah ah ah! Not before breakfast!”

“Why are you tormenting me?” He sat down with a frown on his face, once again pulling the chair under himself.

“You look awful, son; you should listen to your mother!” Thoran bellowed as he entered the dining hall and signaled for his guards to wait outside. The strongly built man, bearded and with long brown hair, slowly walked over to his family, patted Thamred on the shoulder, and then took his seat at the head of the table, between the two of them.

“Thank you for the honesty, father,” the prince grinned.

“You’re welcome, Thamred! I am happy for you, but you do have to eat. You’re no use to the Order if you’re starving,” he laughed, his thick brown eyebrows shaking as his once-slim belly hit the tableside repeatedly.

“Fine, if you insist.”

Thamred clapped, and the doors opened, servants bringing all kinds of food for the royal family: cheeses, hams, breads and rolls, fruits, wines and water, and every other possible food and drink that the Kingdom of Balneor had known was present at the royal table. Even as all three of them commenced eating, the king never stopped the conversation, probing his son between each bite.

“Tell me, son…” he asked, as he bit into an apple. “… how goes the training?”

“Hawne praises me with every move. I think it’s going fine.”

“Fine?” his father grunted. “ Fine doesn’t win wars. Fine doesn’t get us another army.”

“You know very well that the paladins are not for us to take for granted. They’re just people, not an infinite source of power. The army is for the defense of the religion and its traditions,” Thamred said, reprovingly.

“Which falls when we fall, and which has served us for five hundred years now.”

“The idea is what’s important. The morals. Not the power.”

“You sound like your brother.” The King shook his head.

“And you sound like I’m only a tool to you. Which is worse?”

“That’s enough! Of all the days, must you do this now?” the Queen intervened, her voice now more like that of a bird of prey than that of a songbird. “Thamred, do you have anything planned?”

“Except for finishing breakfast and looking for that so-called clue amongst my presents about whether my brother’s alive or not…”

“He is,” his mother said. Thamred sighed with relief, between two bites of cheese.

“Other than that, not much. I thought I could spend the day with Delaine and the others.”

“She seems awfully keen on your presence nowadays,” Leana said, with a little kind slyness in her voice.

“Just friends, mother. You know well who she’s really fond of, even if you aren’t willing to admit it to yourselves.”

“I know, I know. Thadeon seems to like her a lot, too. She’s a very pretty girl, and from what I hear, quite a talented one. I heard Tressana say she’s thinking about joining the Circle, isn’t that right?”

“She’s considering it. She’s not sure whether it’d be the best for her.”

“Balneor is no place for a mage apprentice, and hasn’t been since Olthal the Mage!” Thoran said. “She would do better to go to a place that allows her to truly master her talents.”

“That is quite considerate of you, father,” Thamred said, his words dripping with sarcasm.

“I know. Especially since then you could focus more on your training, and Thadeon could search for a proper future queen, rather than a foreign magic-peddler.”

“Of course. I think I’ve lost my appetite. Mother?” he said as he stood up angrily.

“You are excused, dear. The presents should be in your room by now.”

Thamred ran to his mother as she gave him permission to go, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and quickly left — he could hear his mother scolding his father, and saw him shaking his head as he left the hall, but he paid no attention to it: his mind was already focused on what awaited him in his room. His thoughts raced, trying to figure out what Thadeon’s present was, and whether he had sent a letter with it too. As soon as he reached his room, he barged in, leaving the door open, immediately staring at the pile of presents in the corner, trying to figure out which one was the one he had been told about.

“I think you’re looking for this.”

Thamred looked to his bed, and saw Delaine sitting on it. The girl looked as she always did: shaggy, ragged clothes, long and untamed hair, and a pair of ever-playful blue eyes. She eyed him curiously, tilting her head slightly, waiting for the answer.

“I see privacy still means nothing to you. How did you even get into the palace again? And into my room?” Thamred asked.

“Don’t worry. I doubt that I could find anything here that would embarrass you. Except if you’re like your brother,” she added, playfully.

“What about him?”

“Oh, nothing. He seems to have left you something, though.”

She pointed at a huge wrapped object beside her, lying on the bed.

“What is that!?”

“I don’t know. Want to open it instead of just staring at it anytime soon?” she asked as she moved over to make room for Thamred. The prince walked over to the bed and sat down beside her, opening the box to find something wrapped inside some leather, and a note on it.

“Little brother! It has now been eighteen years since you entered this world. I know that you always say that there is no need to express our appreciation of each other with gifts, but even so, I know you will be glad to receive this one. I know you better than anyone, Thamred; I have watched you grow up, and as much as it pains me that I cannot give you this present myself, I promise you that I will soon return to Balneor to see you wield it. I am writing this letter from Balador — Uncle has seen better days, but his city is the same as always, and his people still welcomed me as they did when I was a boy like you. We set out to inspect the border in a few days — I already hate it. Please tell mother and father that I am well, and that everything is in order, and I will do my best up here to stay in one piece. Love, Thadeon.” Thamred smiled.

“Also, tell the lovely lady beside you to quit bothering you at an emotional moment like this. I will return to both of you, safe and sound.”

“Your brother —”

“— knows us well, that’s for sure. Uncanny. Alright, let’s see the present!” Thamred took the package in his hands. He knew from the moment he saw it that it was a weapon, as it obviously looked like a sword, the outline showing even through the thin leather wrapping. He untied the knots on it before, and then finally pulled the wrapping off. His breath stopped.

“What kind of sword is that?” Delaine asked bluntly.

“It’s a claymore.”

“That’s not what I mean. Look!”

The weapon glowed in the light that shone in through the window: it was huge, clearly made to be used with two hands, and it was made of a metal that seemed to Thamred to be stronger than anything he had ever seen. The hilt, the cross-guard, every little part of it was clearly a work of art, with inlays and etchings in a language he did not understand, depicting things he could hardly recognize. In the center of the cross-guard, however, was something that really intrigued both of them: a gigantic black gem with writing around it, immediately drawing both Thamred’s and Delaine’s gaze to it.

“Can you read it?”

“I don’t even know what language that is,” Delaine answered, huffing.

“It’s perfect. The balance, the weight, the power… Thadeon, you idiot, how much did you pay for this?” Thamred pondered as he got up and swung the sword a couple of times.

“We could find out, you know. I have a blacksmith friend downtown who can help us if you want to have it inspected,” Delaine said as she followed Thamred around the room.

“Fine. But I’m keeping it, even if it’s cursed and stolen! I’ve already fallen in love with it.”

Delaine shook her head, and walked out of the room, only to have Thamred follow her. They left the royal palace through the main entrance, and from the comfort of halls glowing with golden decorations, they arrived at the morning brightness of Balneor: the palace was in the highest and oldest part of the city, mainly inhabited by noblemen and royalty, while the other districts consisted of the rest of the many people dwelling there. Balneor itself — being the capital of both the kingdom named after it, as well as the Alliance of Five — was an immensely large city with an even larger headcount: at that decade’s population count, Balneor had more than fifty thousand people, not including the surrounding regions and small villages that lay close to it. The other major cities within the Alliance — Balador, Balazar, The Circle of Mages, and Syr — were all sizable as well, but none of them even compared to the vast proportions of Balneor. Thamred and Delaine, however, knew it well, having spent their entire lives wandering through its stone-flagged streets. They headed for the lower districts, passing the inner city’s gate — and the huge stone bridge, under which a well-kept river peacefully flowed — then passing from street to street within the maze of the gigantic capital, filled with people, merchants, musicians, and children playing on the streets, before finally reaching their destination, a shop on the side of the street. The crest loosely hanging above the door depicted a sword and a shield next to each other, and had the name Aldral deeply etched into it to create the full image of a sigil. When Thamred stepped inside, the heat and the smell of various kinds of metals and fumes assaulted his senses, making his nose twitch and his eyes water, like flowers in the summer. He saw a traditional smithy in the back of the shop, a young boy working the forge, and a cluttered shop-like setup in the front, with a man behind the counter, reading a book, and wiping his sweaty hairless head with a rag.

“Welcome to Aldral’s, the shop of one of the finest blacksmiths…” The large, muscular man looked up at the two arrivals. “Delaine, my sweet child! Don’t tell me that work of art needs repairing! We’ve worked so hard on it…”

“Don’t worry, we’re not here about that, Aldral,” Delaine said, nodding at Thamred, who was looking around curiously all the while. He walked up to the counter and put the claymore down on it, waiting for a word from the blacksmith.

“I’m sorry, your highness, I didn’t realize it was you. If I’d known the prince was coming… on his birthday!”

“It’s okay. It’s nice to meet you too,” Thamred laughed, embarrassed. “I’d like you to inspect this weapon, if it’s not too much of a problem.”

The blacksmith looked puzzled. He slowly took his eyes off Thamred and looked at the sword, only to turn even more puzzled. He got to work after a brief moment of hesitation, first collecting his tools, then looking at the blade and testing it with methods unknown to the other two, clearly taking his time and doing a thorough job.

“Boy!” he yelled behind himself suddenly, startling the two in front of him. “Bring me the yellow book from the second shelf of the bookshelf in my room!”

The blacksmith’s apprentice ran through the building with so much noise that Thamred and Delaine could hear nearly every step of his way. When he finally appeared, the young — and obviously malnourished — boy handed the requested item to his master and then took a seat in the corner of the room and watched. His master worked restlessly to find something in the book, ultimately just acquiring more and more wrinkles on his shiny forehead — after a couple of minutes, however, Aldral finally put everything down and wiped his brows as he turned to the two waiting.

“The sword is in fine and usable condition, despite its age… however, if I may ask, your highness… where did you get this piece?”

“My brother gave it to me as a birthday gift,” Thamred replied.

“General Thadeon?”

“Yes I suppose he is a general. Why?”

“I’m just wondering where he found such a thing. The material used to make the sword is an alloy called Raladian Steel. Incredibly rare, as no known mines of it exist, or have existed for almost a thousand years.” Aldral took a seat next to his apprentice, and stared back at Thamred.

“Raladia? You mean Old King Valley, in the south-west?” Thamred recalled long-past history lessons from his childhood.

“Yes, that is what they used to call the place before the Aldeaaris. Knowing this, you must also understand the value of this blade. Artifacts from the age when this steel was still produced are rare, rare indeed.”

“So what kind of weapon is it?” Delaine interrupted the two.

“A hundred-and-forty centimeters long claymore, although it could probably be used as a longsword by someone strong enough. Like I said, it’s old: based on the craftsmanship I’d say at least six hundred years, if not more. The gemstone in the center is relatively expensive, a black garnet by the looks of it. The blade is sharp: it’s seen many battles but has been taken care of — but I know nothing of it other than this, I’m afraid. Other than the fact that a weapon like this could be worth the sum of a sizable castle.”

“Is it enchanted?”

“You tell me, you’re the expert!” Aldral huffed at the girl, and shrugged. “I couldn’t find anything magical about it at first glance, but you might be onto something. There is a strange feeling to it. You should probably get it inspected by someone more versed in the arcane. I have a friend at the Circle, if you want to…”

“It’s alright,” Thamred smiled. “Thadeon will tell us all about it once he gets back. Let’s go, Delaine!” Thamred almost left the shop without thanking the blacksmith, but then he turned and flipped a gold coin at him. “Thank you for your trouble!”

“But… my lord, I did not want to spoil your mood, I just said…”

“Sorry Aldral! He doesn’t mean it; it’s just that it’s his birthday. He misses his brother — we both do.” Delaine looked embarrassed as she said her farewells to the blacksmith, and went after Thamred immediately as he ran off into the chaos that was Balneor’s streets. They took the same path as they had when going there, but instead of going to the palace, Thamred decided that they would stop at the training grounds, which was a district lower, but on the same side of the city. Balneor — unlike the other kingdoms in the Alliance — had an able standing army apart from the paladins who resided there, and as the training grounds were right outside the garrison, many of its soldiers could be found there every day, practicing away. Some of them — including his paladin friends — immediately recognized Thamred as they arrived, and congratulated him on his birthday, enviously taking note of his new weapon.

“Does that make you a better fighter, too?” The voice pierced the chatter that was going on, as a middle-aged man with gray hair stepped out of the barracks building and made his way into the crowd. His appearance should have been unremarkable, but the scars on his face and the strange symbols etched into his right arm always gave him a dangerous and unforgiving aura — and even though Thamred knew the gaze of his ice cold eyes well, he immediately felt uneasy, too.

“I’m up for a challenge if you are,” Thamred smiled as his mentor approached him. The prince looked at Delaine, who flinched at the sight of the man, and he nodded to her to make her understand it was okay if she left his side.

“Always with the big mouth. Are you sure you want to do this on your birthday?” Hawne smiled, opening his arms as if to taunt the prince.

“Oh, I’m sure.”

Thamred held up the sword, but Delaine touched his shoulder to get his attention.

“Be careful. I’m still not convinced that thing isn’t enchanted.”

“So what if it is?” Thamred whispered back so that others couldn’t hear. “It’s probably nothing serious, right?”

“There’s something about it. I don’t know whether it’s the steel, or just the way it was forged, but it’s all very strange,” the girl said.

“So what does that mean? I could kill him even if I just grazed him?”

“Don’t be stupid. It might just be for the looks, I have no idea. Just be careful, and don’t overdo it.”

“Alright. Wish me luck!” he said, as he took a step forward.

As soon as Thamred did so, Hawne himself drew his weapon from his back — a two-handed mace, specially made for paladins, with etchings on it just like those on Hawne’s hands, and clearly made by a highly skilled blacksmith. Once Thamred was ready, he charged and swung the weapon with incredible speed and precision — the prince could barely dodge the first stroke, and he held his sword up just in time to block the attack from the second, getting his weapon knocked out of his hands instead. He quickly realized that once again, he had underestimated his teacher, and pulled himself together just in time to see the hammer heading towards his body again. He didn’t hesitate for a second: holding his right hand up, his eyes began to glow with a golden light. Within a second, a shield seemingly made of pure light materialized on his arm, fizzing and stopping the hammer with such force that Hawne almost fell backwards. Hastily picking his new claymore up from the ground, he swung blindly, reaching his mentor’s arm with a satisfied grin on his face.

“I see you’re finally starting to live up to our expectations in terms of your talents, boy.

I’ll let you off with a warning this time,” Hawne said with a smile as he put his hand on the small, wound and with a flash of holy magic, it disappeared, leaving not even a mark. The soldiers nearby gasped at the sight of holy magic, while the other paladins, unable to do such feats with such ease, watched in envy, as the two made it seem as if they had done nothing out of the ordinary.

“That blade is remarkable. Does it have a name?”

“Hmm…” Thamred stared into the strange hue of the weapon once more, and an ancient paladin legend came to his mind, one Hawne told him many times before. “I thought I’d call it Shadowbane. Seems fitting for a paladin.”

“Indeed it is. I see you still remember everything I taught you, even the silly stories. Would this perhaps be one of your presents for today?”

“From Thadeon,” Thamred said, as he swung the blade around a couple more times.

“I should have known. I hear from your father that he is well up north. Ah, hello there, young sorceress!” he said, finally deciding to acknowledge Delaine, who looked bored, and not amused at all. It was obvious that she didn’t like the man — but then again, the users of different types of magic didn’t usually get along, to Thamred’s knowledge. She and Thamred were another story — but she often overlooked the fact that he was a part of the Order, for his sake. Delaine nodded in acknowledgement of Hawne, and followed the two as they walked away from the training grounds and into the gate towards the central part of the city.

“I hear so too. I hope that the border problems will be dealt with shortly and he will be able to return home.”

“So do we all. How did that shield feel just now?” the older man asked, speaking softly from under his mustache.

“The spell?” Hawne nodded back at him “It was fine. I could do better.”

“You’re well on your way to becoming one of the greatest paladins ever, son. You know I am proud, but you must not stop practicing. Even the great Ethal Garas must walk the path of a student before he saves this world from damnation.”

Nesas bortham Ethal Garas,” he spoke in the words of his ancestors in an attempt to excuse himself from Hawne’s expectations. “But I am practicing — this was living proof of that.” 

“This is where I must away.” Hawne said without acknowledging the words, and pointed at the gate they were standing in front of. “You do know that we have company today? I still have many things to attend to, but I’m certain we’ll see each other again during the day.”

“Company? Who?” Thamred asked curiously.

“Your family. Your uncles and their families have just arrived. Except for the good King of Balador, as he is busy with your brother up in the mountains. He sent an envoy and his son nevertheless,” Hawne quickly followed up as he saw Thamred’s confusion. “It appears we’re also going to have a matter to attend to regarding the west and its foreign problems… but not until tomorrow morning. We’re having a feast in the evening — in honor of your birthday, you know.”

“Right… I didn’t expect any of this — it’s turning out to be a much bigger celebration than last year. Thanks for telling me in advance, though. See you around, and light be with you!” Thamred said goodbye, at which Hawne nodded, turned back and went off towards the palace. Delaine came up to the prince with the same bored look on her face and began talking as soon as the older paladin left — even if it wasn’t about her feelings towards the man. They agreed to go to the Market Gate and look at the new arrivals marching through Main Road, and after about ten minutes, they could already see the long line of horses and carriages swarming into the square, greeted by servants and guided along carefully decorated streets leading up to the upper parts of the city. The two stopped and entered the crowd, observing the newcomers one by one as they passed by without trying to attract too much attention.

“Do you see anything out of the ordinary?” asked Thamred.

“Other than the long line of noblemen parading around? Nothing.”

“What about those people? They don’t seem to be part of the royal crowd!” Thamred pointed at a group of individuals who were following Balazar’s carriages. They were poorly dressed, wearing linen and other cheap fabrics, and they seemed very different from all of the people who accompanied them.

“That’s strange. Do you think they’re the ones Hawne was referring to?”

Thamred looked closer at the strange arrivals they were talking about — they seemed tribal, almost nomadic, yet somehow very civilized, even sophisticated, at the same time. Most of them carried staves and wore various kinds of accessories, from necklaces to bracelets, mainly made of plants, bones and wood. They were led by an old woman, accompanied by an adolescent girl who kept looking all around her, obviously amazed by the city and the people surrounding her. There were only about ten of them in total, yet they completely changed the image of the arrivals, earning questioning and somewhat unfriendly looks from the citizens of the city.

“I’m certain of it. This is probably going to be one interesting birthday feast.”