Chapter 01: Down the Road

A few things happened in the following days after the incident at the marketplace. First, Evan stopped being a terrible friend and provided Nathan with more information about the girl that currently held his attention. Her name was Lillian Dacre, and she was visiting the town with her brother because the Royal Guard had sent the young man to meet with a lord who wished to have his oldest son enlisted in the Academy. Of course, the invitation had been extended to the youngest member of the Dacre family, Lillian, who had most likely caught the eye of the lord's youngest son. Nathan wasn't certain of how he felt about that, because he was very glad that Lillian was there(and that he now knew her name), but he was also disappointed to hear about the lord's son and his interest in her.

He really didn't know why he even bothered feeling that way. After all, it was only to be expected that she would have many admirers, and realistically, there was no chance of him ever getting close to her, much less be given the opportunity to court her.

The next thing that happened was something that Nathan had been dreading quite a bit. Lillian and her brother left, and that meant he wouldn't be able to catch a glimpse of her walking about the town any more. Against his better judgment, Nathan allowed himself to be upset about that, and Evan was constantly reminding him of the young girl. Granted, Evan was only trying to help.

"You know, she wasn't that pretty, after all," the taller boy said one day, as they lay by the river.

In response, Nathan turned his gaze towards his friend, giving him an incredulous look.

"Okay, so maybe she was that pretty," Evan admitted. "Still, she isn't the only pretty girl out there. You know, Bess is always looking at you with a real sweet look."

"Bess, the baker's daughter?" Nathan asked with an arched brow, because Bess was pretty, but she couldn't compare to Lillian.

"Yeah, don't tell me you hadn't noticed."

Nathan shrugged.

"I told you, I never pay attention to the way people look at me."

"Well maybe you should," Evan said with a shrug. "Besides, Bess is real nice and all."

"I know," Nathan sighed. "She's just not the right girl for me, I suppose."

"Yeah, well, since when is a nobleman's daughter the right girl for you?" Evan said, brow raised and sarcasm thick in his voice.

For the life of him, Nathan couldn't come up with an answer that wouldn't either make Evan mock him even more or make him look like a fool, so he said nothing at all.

The third big thing that happened was completely unexpected. At least, it was unexpected to everyone but Nathan.

"I'm leaving to enlist in the Royal Academy."

With those words, his aunt fell onto her chair and his uncle gripped the back of it with a hand, knuckles whitening. Nathan had expected it, and he knew their reaction would be the same even if he hadn't been so blunt, so there was no reason to beat around the bush.

The next two hours were dedicated to explaining to his aunt and uncle, the people who had raised him, why he was leaving them so suddenly. They didn't care about the money, they said, they just wanted him home. But Nathan had made up his mind.

"It's not the money," he told his aunt gently, kneeling before her, her thin hands in his own. "It's what I want to do, and I know it doesn't sound like something important, but I want to be someone better, I want to make you proud," and he truly meant that.

"We're already proud of you," his aunt said, her clover colored eyes watery.

"I know that," Nathan said, not giving up. "But I want to feel like I've done something with my life, and the Royal Guard is just what I need."

And now his aunt was crying. He knew it would happen, but it didn't make it any easier.

"Are you sure it's what you want?" and now it was his uncle who spoke. "It will be a hard five years, and only the best make it through to become actual members of the Guard."

Nathan knew that very well, but he also knew that he could do it. He nodded, determined.

"I can do it," he said. "I know I can, no matter how difficult the training is, I'll complete it and I promise when I come back it will be as a man you can be proud to say you've raised."

His uncle didn't say anything for a while, and Nathan was afraid he'd be against it, but then he nodded, and Nathan was very grateful for that simple gesture.

Two days later, Nathan was ready to go to the Royal Academy.

The day was warm and sunny, the breeze soft and fresh, as he bid farewell to his aunt and uncle, promising to take care and work hard and write back as often as he could spare. Nathan didn't wait any longer to leave partly because he didn't want to make any more promises he might not be able to keep, but also because it was already hard enough to leave. He walked down the road waving at his family for a moment, before he turned back and headed off.

Nathan had nearly reached the edge of the town when he heard his name being called. He stopped, surprised, and turned back at the sound of someone approaching. There, not far from where he stood, was Evan, grinning widely and seemingly ready for a trip, and Nathan feared that he knew what his friend was planning. Evan stopped right in front of him, bending over to lean on his knees. He was panting and trying to catch his breath, but he still looked up at Nathan and scowled.

"You were leaving without me!" he exclaimed, voice still a bit hoarse.

Nathan only raised an eyebrow.

"That was the plan," he said calmly.

Evan huffed indignantly and stood.

"Well too bad, I'm coming with you."

"No," and the word was spoken so flatly, that there was no room for discussion left.

Unless you were Evan, of course.

"Sure I am," he said, not bothered in the least. "Now come on, we should get going or we'll be out on the road after nightfall."

Evan began walking and Nathan followed with an exasperated sigh, running a hand through his light brown hair.

"Evan, you can't come with me. Do you even know where I'm headed?" and honestly, he wasn't sure his friend knew, because he certainly hadn't told him.

"Yes, I do, and I'm very mad at you for not even bothering to tell me, but I'll tell you off for that later. Now, come on."

And Nathan was a bit irritated that he could be dismissed so easily. He glared at his friend and Evan let out a long sigh, but stopped.

"Look, I know it's not what you had planned, and I know you don't want me to come, but I want to. I mean, there's really nothing else here, and this might be a good thing."

Nathan looked at his friend for a while, and saw that he was serious, at least as far as he could tell.

"And your mother, what did she say?" he asked.

"She didn't really want me to leave, but she knows it's a good opportunity, and she doesn't worry as much knowing you'll be there too. Besides, it's not like I won't come back, I might even come back early if I fail," he added with a playful grin.

The other boy huffed to hide a laugh and shook his head.

"Fine, but don't blame me if you're miserable later," he said to Evan. "You know how hard they say the training is at the Academy."

The two began to walk again, side by side and feeling a bit better, especially Nathan now that he knew he'd have some company. Not that he'd ever admit it.

"Sure I do, but it's not like I haven't thought about it before, you know?" Evan admitted, and yes, many of the boys thought about trying out for the Royal Guard, but with the level of skill required, not many went through with it, knowing how hard the training was.

"Then why hadn't you gone through with it?" Nathan asked, curious.

"My mother," Evan answered easily. "I didn't want to leave her alone, but now she has Lloyd to look after her."

"The carpenter?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah, him, he's been real nice to her for a while now, but mom's never really paid him any mind, not in that way. He cares about her though, so he'll look after her for me."

"And I'm sure you would never even think of threatening the poor man to do so," Nathan said, a grin forming on his face.

"Of course not! You offend me, sir!" Evan responded, with mock indignation.

Both boys broke into loud laughs after that.

"So, why are you suddenly so determined to do this?" Evan asked, once the laughter had died.

Instantly, a light blush appeared on his friend's face.

"Ha! I knew it! It's because of that girl isn't it?" Evan cried, triumphantly. "You really like her, don't you?"

"So I like her, so what? It's not the only reason, I thought it would be good for my aunt and uncle," Nathan said, and it was true.

He'd be able to offer them a bit more security if he achieved such a rank, and Royal Guards were highly respected.

"Sure, but you know, they say the training takes five years. Even the guard from the other day, Dacre, could only cut his training short by one year, and he's a prodigy. I heard he started training when he was real young and he entered the Academy at twelve, by the time he was sixteen he was already serving under one of the top commanders, even though he was just done with training."

And yes, that was impressive, but Nathan had no choice but to try and be even better than that, because that was the man he had to impress to even be able to get near Lillian.

"I'll do it in three years," he said, with such conviction that Evan stopped walking to stare at his friend.

And then he laughed.

"I'm serious! I'll graduate in three years."

After a few minutes, Evan stopped laughing and looked at his friend, wiping away tears of mirth.

"Three years, when Edan Dacre could only do it in four, now that's something I have to see," he said.

"I thought friends were supposed to believe in each other," Nathan grumbled, but they moved on along the road.

"Sure, but there's a limit to everything and I've never been that gullible," Evan joked. "But do tell, where is this sudden bout of determination coming from?"

Nathan looked ahead, down the road they walked on and sighed.

"Five years is too long," he said after a while. "If I take too long then Lillian will be gone."

And Evan understood now. Lillian was beautiful, and would only grow more so in the next few years. Already there were young men trying to gain her affection, noble men who had a better chance than his friend and five years was a very long time to hope that Lillian would remain free of compromise. Evan sighed and shook his head.

"I can't believe you're doing this for a girl who doesn't even know your name," he said.

"Shut up," his friend snapped, shoving him aside playfully. "She'll know my name soon enough."

Evan just laughed, and the two continued on down the road.

The capital was as impressive as the two boys had imagined, with the king's castle rising high over the city, imposing and reassuring at the same time. The Royal Academy was very close to it, for both convenience and security. In case any trouble arose, the king would always be safe, with soldiers in training so close by.

It was not an easy task to be admitted into the Academy, but both Nathan and Evan were determined, and they did their best to prove they deserved a chance. They passed the test, but barely, and it just served to show just how high their instructor's expectations were, but Nathan wouldn't let that bother him or keeping him from achieving his goal.

The first week, was brutal, and both Nathan and Evan could barely even manage to drag themselves out of the field they practiced in and back to the quarters they shared with a group of students who had also just begun.

There were three men, older members of the Guard, who taught them.

Silas, was the sword master, a large man with a strong build and dark eyes that were sharper than any blade. Even with such a large frame, he moved swiftly, his step sure, and strove to impart this into his students, driving them to their limits and making them spar on a regular basis. He was harsh in his teachings, but effective as a mentor. Under his tutelage, the young men improved greatly, and those who didn't were sent back home. Both Nathan and Evan had resolved to not be sent home by Silas, or any other of their teachers.

There was also Fletcher, who was the one to teach them to use a bow and arrow properly. The man was tall and lean, with long blond hair tied back and eyes green and cunning. He too was a good teacher, but not without humor, and was sometimes assisted in his teaching of the younger students by his son, Ives, who was a skilled archer, just like his father and greatly resembled the other man as well.

The young man was only a couple of years older than Nathan and Evan, and also enrolled in the Academy, but he had enough time to help his father, since he was already a master of the art of archery, having trained from an early age. Often, he would show up just to chat with the younger men, to encourage them and tell them that he had had a hard time with the training at the start as well. He possessed the same dry humor as his father, so it was no surprise that Evan had taken to him immediately.

Finally, there was Elijah, a smart man who had retired from the guard after suffering a serious injury on his leg. He walked with a cane now, but it made him no less imposing, and he was, by far the strictest of the instructors. Elijah taught both combat without a weapon and strategy, bot important if one wanted to succeed in the Academy, and he knew it. It was only to be expected that he would not tolerate any of his students slacking in their work, but he was not unkind. He was a good man, understanding, but also expecting a lot from the young men he taught.

The students were also all interesting, coming from all over the land and with all sorts of backgrounds. There were boys who were the sons of noblemen, future politicians who needed some military background to make themselves and their family look better. And then, there were boys like Nathan and Evan, who wanted to be better, to show that they could be better. They were boys who wouldn't just graduate and work at the palace for a year before going back home to luxury and peaceful lives. They were committed, to protect their ruler and their country and their families, for however long they were asked to serve.

They were boys like Hunter, a brash young man, the same age as Nathan and Evan, with mischievous eyes of a frigid blue tone and dark hair that refused to be tamed. He always had a grin on his face and sharp words on the tip of his tongue. Nathan liked him, and he was a good partner to spar with. Evan, on the other hand, wasn't so fond of the boy, if only because he was able to respond to pretty much anything that Evan had to say. The two were too alike in that aspect to ever get along too well, but that didn't mean they disliked each other. It was a love-hate relationship, Nathan liked to say to tease them.

In this manner, their time in the Academy began.

Well, I hope you've liked this chapter, I have a couple more done, but will pace myself with the posting so don't expect a new one next week. Anyways, please review if you get the chance, I'd very much appreciate it. Thanks for reading!