|AD 96, Somewhere in the forests of Dacia|
Clouds of frozen breaths momentarily fogged the air around him, but he couldn't afford to stop.
“Keep going!” he screamed silently as he slid on his bum down another snow-blanketed slope. When he reached the shallow but swift stream at the bottom, he ran across the rocks jutting above the icy water to hide his tracks. He nearly slipped off twice. After traveling upstream for fifty-seven rocks—he'd counted each stone, as he always did—he arrived at the large boulder shaped like a sleeping dog. With a confident leap, he abandoned the stream’s refuge and landed in a soft juniper bush. Shaking the blue-green needles from his mop of hair, he pushed up to his feet. On the other side of this next hill was the fort he’d built out of snow and tree branches.
His secret hideaway.
A hidden sanctuary deep in the woods where he could read books he’d borrowed from Istros’ cupboards without his teacher’s permission. Where he could at least dream about adventures he’d never have. He'd only been here a year, but as far as he could tell, the second son of a king was doomed to lead a dull life filled with repetitive schoolwork and meaningless ceremonies.
And the occasional attack by his older brother when the ugly prat was angry or bored.
Curling his wool-wrapped hands into tight fists, he dashed up the incline. A little farther, and he’d be safe.
But the higher he climbed, the harder it became to walk. Trudging through the heavy snow hidden beneath the frosty crust was worse than slogging through a peak-bog. Each step sunk deeper into the white drifts blocking his path to safety. Tears ran down his frozen cheeks; bubbles of snot dripped from both nostrils, soaking his upper lip. He tried to wipe his nose with his cloak without slowing his already plodding pace, but bumped himself in the eye instead. The muscles in his legs burned, threatening to buckle under the strain.
“Don’t cry,” he swore at himself between gasps of air.
His half-brother’s maniacal voice echoed through the snow-laden evergreens, “We’re going to find you, Allerix!”
Over the wheezing of Alle’s labored breaths, a second lad’s more faint holler drifted through the forest, “You can’t hide from us, little prince!”
They cackled like a pack of feral dogs.
But Tarbus and his thick friends weren't as close as they had been, and the idiots were headed in the wrong direction. With a deep exhale, Alle smiled; he’d dodged his pursuers.
At the top of the hill, Allerix leaned against a sturdy tree to catch his breath. He didn’t understand why Tarbus despised him. Tarbus was the favorite son and heir to the throne, after all. He would always be older, more skilled with the sword, more… Dacian.
Eleven-year-old Allerix the Half-Dacian had moved here from his mother's idyllic sanctum shortly before his tenth birthday, but all that time and the changes of seasons hadn’t softened his half-brother’s hatred. Alle still watched his back every day, waiting for Tarbus to jump out from behind a corner or sneak up on him from behind.
While his pulse gradually slowed to normal, Alle glanced down the other side of the hill and spotted his fort through the gaps between stands of slender pine trees. A dark, four-legged animal paced back and forth in front of the entrance. Scrambling down the slope, Alle ran to the beast and dropped to his knees to stroke her head. Somehow, she’d arrived first, even though Alle had left her by the back portal of the royal residence. She must have found a quicker path to the fort.
“You’re too fast for me, Silva. You win the race! And that louse, Tarbus, lost again. Let’s celebrate.”
The young, black canine—part hunting dog, but more wolf—followed Alle into the snow and stick-framed hollow. Months earlier, before the heavy snows had fallen, he’d snuck off at dawn one morning to stash supplies in his fort for the upcoming winter. He moved the large rock hiding the hole in the floor by the back wall and retrieved his leather bag filled with food, water, a lamp with a pouch of oil, a scrap of an old horse blanket, a piece of flint rock, twine, and fire steel.
After Alle started a small fire to light the lamp wick, he broke off pieces of smoked meat to share with Silva. Munching happily, she plopped down beside him with a sweet grunt and curled up into her napping ball while he pulled a little book of bound parchment pages from the purse on his belt. He’d wanted to take Istros’ copy of a manual on warfare, but the scroll was too large to hide it easily under his cloak. He had no idea what words were written in the unfamiliar book he’d nicked instead.
An unknown adventure of untold possibilities.
Alle cracked open the pages, and whiffs of Istros’ study cramped with all sorts of magical stories brought a warm smile to his frozen face. He flipped through a few pages, scanning the neatly penned words.
This little book was about Dacia, with lists of the distances from one large peak of the Carpathians to the next. There were parts with descriptions and drawings of grassy meadows and valleys, and far-off seas home to fish with huge teeth, fish as large and hungry as bears. During one of their family banquets, Allerix’s father and uncles had mentioned a large sea to the east. An ocean deeper and wider than the Great Danube that brought luck to Dacian farmers and kept all Dacians safe from the deadly Romans.
If he were ever brave enough to leave his father’s home and head east, how many days would pass before he reached this massive sea? He’d need to steal one of Father’s horses for the long journey. Which one of the royal steeds should he take?
Opening his eyes, Alle emerged from his daydream to find a light snow had started to fall.
Did it snow at the ocean? Should he bring a heavy cloak and his new boots for the trip? How many weapons should he stash in his travel bag? When he reached the sea, would he find the Romans had already arrived before him? So many questions, so many details to consider...
Another man shouted, “This way!”
Alle gently pet Silva's head and whispered, "They must have tracked your paw prints in the snow."
After extinguishing the lamp and reburying his bag of supplies, Alle shoved the geography book back into his purse and gestured for Silva to leave with him. He couldn’t risk anyone finding his secret fort; it was the only thing in all of Dacia that belonged to him. His fort and his wolf pup, although Silva came and went as she pleased most days.
After Alle and Silva walked side by side for a good distance through the snow covering the valley floor, Allerix spied his father and three of his guards on horses in a field just beyond the line of trees. He waved, secretly hoping no one would notice him.
At least his father's voice sounded more relieved than angry.
Thiamarkos raced his horse over and dismounted with a thud. Without saying a word, he crouched down and pulled Alle into a brief but fierce hug before finally releasing him. “Where have you been?”
“Exploring the woods, sir.”
“You had me worried, Alle.”
“No need to worry, Father.” Allerix pointed down to his feet. “I have the boots you gave me for my birthday to keep me warm, and Silva's here to chase away the wild forest creatures.”
Thiamarkos’ look of shock melted into a hearty chuckle. He patted Alle on the shoulder and explained, “I’ve been searching for you all morning, my courageous explorer. Splendid news has arrived from our cousins south of the Danube.”
“Really? What’s happened?”
Thiamarkos stood and exclaimed, “The Roman king is dead! Assassinated by his own guards a few months past.”
With hesitation, Allerix asked, “Is there a new king, then?”
“We don’t know, but the murdered despot had no heirs. Chances are those bloodthirsty Roman savages will fight amongst themselves for years. Let's hope the gods have cursed our enemy with civil war, and granted us a long peace at last.”
Thiamarkos led Alle over to his brown steed and hoisted him up onto the saddle before adding, “To celebrate this wonderful news, there’s to be a grand feast in the Great King’s hall tonight. Now that I’ve finally found you, there’s time enough for us to return home for a quick change into proper royal garb. Are you excited to go to a party, Allerix?”
With a sigh, Alle glanced in the direction of his snow fort. Fantasies of riding stolen horses to far away oceans would have to wait until another day.