Chapter 1

Caleb walked along the dry, rocky trail that had been carved through the dense woods south of the village of Kirakath. His left hand held his yew longbow firmly where black leather had been wrapped around it to form a grip. His right hand was steadied on the wooden shafts of the arrows that stuck out of the brown leather quiver that hung behind him from his waist.

As he walked along the trail, the sun shone through the trees to the west, casting light upon his short golden hair. The youth of seventeen years took his hand from his quiver and used it to block the sunlight from his sapphire eyes.

The subtle sound of footsteps brought his attention to the trail ahead of him. A smile made its way to his face as he saw his best friend, Gabriel. With his short black hair, his ever present set of dark clothes, and a sword at his hip, Caleb would have recognized him anywhere.

Caleb’s sapphire eyes met Gabriel’s gray ones as he walked up to him with a smile on his face.

“Your father told me you were out here practicing again,” Gabriel said, stopping a short ways from him. “Walk with me. I received some news today.”

A curious look appeared on Caleb’s face at that, but he nodded his head without any hesitation. There was no one he trusted more than Gabriel.

They walked alongside each other away from the village quietly. Silence reigned until they reached the clearing where Caleb practiced shooting.

Before long, the silence began to bother Caleb. It was unusual for Gabriel to say that they needed to talk, only for him to stay silent.

The pair came to a stop in the shade of the tingle tree that stood in the center of the clearing. Crude targets were cut into the trees surrounding the clearing, some of which still had arrows protruding from them. Most of the targets did not seem to have seen much wear, though that was to be expected. He was not the type to waste too many arrows, just for the sake of keeping his skills honed.

“It looks like you’ve added more targets,” Gabriel commented as he looked around the clearing at the targets.

Caleb had to suppress a snort as he shook his head. He had not done anything to the clearing in the last six months. Gabriel simply did not care enough about archery to pay attention to where Caleb practiced. “What’s on your mind?” he asked, making eye contact with his friend.

Gabriel shrugged. It was no secret that he found archery boring and had avoided Caleb’s practice range. It was also no secret that he always had a good excuse for avoiding it. After all, he was far from perfect at his craft, so there were better uses of his time. It seemed that Gabriel had no intention of starting the conversation.

Gabriel took a deep breath and looked to the ground before he started to speak. “You’re not going to like my news, but I need to be blunt or I’ll never get around to telling you. I’ve received a letter from Zabryan today. They’ve offered me a position in General Staloc’s army, and I’m going to accept it.”

Caleb’s eyes widened at that statement. He knew that Gabriel wanted to serve in the King’s Army after all that his father had told him about his time in service of the kingdom.

He also knew that Lucas Staloc was King John’s head general, but more than that, he was an old friend of his father’s back when he was still a soldier. They were supposedly best friends before his father’s term of service came to an end.

“Father helped you,” Caleb stated. There was no question or accusation in his words, but Gabriel looked as though he was stung by them.

“He might be your father, but he’s my teacher too,” Gabriel said with a heavy sigh. “Please don’t begrudge him for helping me in this. It’s no different than what your mentor would do for you.”

“You only ask me not to begrudge him,” Caleb said, surprised. “Why don’t you ask the same for yourself?”

“I don’t ask the same for myself because I don’t need it,” Gabriel said with a small smile. “You know you’ll forgive me before I even leave. You’ve always been like that.”

Caleb could not stop the small smile that appeared on his face as he heard his friend’s words. Gabriel had always been like the brother he never had, which made it impossible for him to be angry with the older boy.

“How long are you going to serve for?” Caleb asked with a heavy sigh.

Gabriel smiled and clapped him on the shoulder with his right hand. “It will just be five years. I’ll be back again before you’ve even found yourself a girl to marry.”

Caleb shook his head at that. Disregarding the mention of marriage, his thoughts were focused entirely on the term that Gabriel had chosen. Though it could have been longer, five years was a long time. He did not even know if Gabriel would be the same person that stood before him in five years time. “When do you leave?”

Gabriel’s expression turned somber at that question, which immediately told Caleb two things. The first was that it was a very important question, and the second was that he was not going to like the answer. He was right on both accounts. “I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.”

“You can’t be serious!” Caleb nearly shouted. He knew that his life would be changing soon, but he had not expected it to change so much in such a short amount of time.

With a grim smile, Gabriel nodded his head. “I thought I’d have until the spring before I had to leave, but with the start of autumn only a few weeks passed, they’ve asked that I leave immediately so that I can begin my formal training.”

The thought of his talented friend undergoing formal training confused Caleb. After all, Gabriel had to be better than most new recruits. “They do know that you’re my father’s student, don’t they?” Caleb asked.

“They do indeed,” Gabriel confirmed. “From what your father told me, it is commonplace for every recruit to go through formal training under their supervision, regardless of origin. I don’t know what to make of it, but it’s probably just a tradition or something.”

He nodded his head. He agreed with Gabriel’s assumption that it was just a tradition. It made sense to him. After all, his father had often told him that the King’s Army was rooted in tradition.

“So this is the last time I’ll see you for five years,” Caleb said quietly. The prospect of not seeing his best friend again for such a long time truly worried him. Kirakath had always been a small village, and Gabriel was the only person within five years of his own age.

“Don’t worry, my young friend,” Gabriel said as he draped an arm across Caleb’s shoulders. “You will get along without me. When I return, I expect to hear that you’ve become the greatest archer in all of Arcadia.”

Caleb smiled weakly at that. The knowledge that Gabriel did not really view archery very highly at all lessened the impact of his words.

“So how did your father take the news?” Caleb asked after a few moments of contemplation.

“I actually haven’t told him yet,” Gabriel said nervously.

Caleb nodded sympathetically as he heard that. He knew that Andrew Silver would not take that news very well. After all, he had lived in the village his entire life and was actually the village leader.

“I wish you the best of luck, my friend,” Caleb said with a light smile.

Gabriel groaned. “Okay, let’s head back to the village. I wish we could spend a little more time together before I leave, but I need to tell Father about this. Knowing him, he’ll insist that we spend the rest of my time here together.”

Caleb inwardly smiled at his friend’s attempt to make it sound as though he would rather do anything other than what was going to happen. For as long as he had known Gabriel, he had been very close to his father and had enjoyed spending time with him.

With that, Caleb picked up his longbow and they began their trek back towards Kirakath.

* * * * *

It took a little more than ten minutes to make the trip back to Kirakath, but it was much shorter than either of the two young men would have liked. Knowing that Gabriel would be leaving the village for five years made him wish it had taken much longer.

As he saw Kirakath before him, Caleb could not help but smile. He was not sure why it was, but something about the village always brought a smile to his face.

Despite the fact that Kirakath had been a village for close to five hundred years, it was more or less a collection of fifty houses that were all made of wood. The houses lacked paint of any kind, and there was no protective wall of any form around the village. Even so, Caleb could not see it in anything but a positive light.

“Well, this is where we part ways for now,” Gabriel said as he gave his friend a small smile.

Caleb nodded. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

He stood there as Gabriel walked towards his house to deliver the news that would surely shock his father.

Caleb exhaled a deep breath as he began to walk towards the other side of the village.

Before too long, he arrived at the simple wooden house that he had lived in all his life.

Entering the house, he saw his mother sitting at the table near the fireplace. The smell of soup cooking filled his nose.

“I didn’t think you would be home already,” she said with a kind smile as she rose to her feet. “Your father thought you’d be with Gabriel until we forced you to come home.” A mixture of amusement and sadness could be seen in her sapphire eyes.

“I thought about it,” he said with a smile of his own. “He needed to tell his father about his plans though.”

She walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder. “You’re a good friend, always putting Gabriel before you without complaint.”

“What do you expect? I am your son,” Caleb replied with a smile.

“That you are,” Sophie said with a radiant smile. She turned her attention back to the fireplace and went to stir the soup. “Your father decided to visit Andrew so that he could be there when Gabriel told him about it. Your father likes to help out however he can, after all.”

Caleb nodded his head in agreement with that assessment. “Mother, can I ask you something?”

“You can ask me anything,” Sophie reassured him.

“Do you think Father would have been proud of me if I had chosen to follow in his footsteps?” Caleb asked as he looked away, slightly ashamed to ask such a question aloud.

“Your father has always been proud of you,” Sophie said with the ever present smile on her face in full force. “He has every reason to be proud of you. You’re a great person, and you did not complain at all when your father insisted that you at least undergo some basic combat training back when you started your apprenticeship as a hunter.”

“He just seems so proud of Gabriel,” Caleb said with a sigh.

“Your father’s a complicated man,” Sophie admitted. “You only see him when he praises Gabriel, but he has repeatedly told me how proud he is of you when you aren’t around.”

“Really?” Caleb asked. He had never been given that impression before.

“Of course,” she said with a sharp nod. “Now, why don’t you get washed up. Dinner’s getting close.”

Nodding eagerly, Caleb left the kitchen to do just that. It seemed that it had always been easier to talk to his mother than his father.