In the city of Carronne, in the Valley of Carramar, where the hot winds blow endlessly from across the barren Plains of Ashmere, until they reach the Sea of Darkness, there stands a gaol.
It is not an ordinary gaol, for in reality there are very few prisoners inhabiting its walls. It is a dark and foreboding place, a place filled with terror, with hidden chambers, dank cells and dim corridors, and a place where only the most vicious, or most important, of prisoners are ever sent.
It is a place referred to by one and all as Daarkeeth, which, in the native tongue of the original inhabitants of this place, simply means death. It has been said that those who enter its gates are doomed to never again feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, and even the dark lord himself, Septimus, who rules this land with an iron fist from his castle right alongside the gaol, is loath to enter its walls, except for the most important of guests.
It is definitely not a place for the faint of heart!
And so it was, that in the third week of summer, in the seventh year of the dark times and the uneasy peace that had existed following the Battle of Jeebath, a new prisoner was brought to Daarkeeth.
He was a young man, dressed in the ragged clothes of a pauper and with unkempt hair, which may, or may not, have once been like gold. And yet he had a presence about him which belied his appearance, and as the wooden cart upon which the shackled man stood made its way along the cobbled roads of Carronne, toward its final destination, a hush fell over the people on the streets.
They knew of this man, and they knew that his presence could only bring trouble to their world. As he passed them, the citizens of Carronne turned away from the sight of him, not wanting to look into his eyes and see the sadness that they knew would be there.
While silently they cursed their ruler.
Only one man chose to look fully upon the prisoner as he was paraded along the length of the street, watching for some time as the procession came toward him, before dropping to one knee and lowering his head as a mark of respect as the cart drew level.
The prisoner noticed the old man kneeling before him and as the cart rumbled along he continued to watch as the citizen slowly raised his head and looked up into his eyes.
These two men, whose stations in life were poles apart and who had never met, nodded grimly to each other. Neither knew quite what it was that would happen here, but each knew they were both powerless to do anything. It would be fate, and fate alone, that would decide both their futures.
A few moments later the procession turned down a narrow lane for the final leg of its journey toward the gates of the prison. The cart rocked from side to side as it crossed a drain, almost throwing the prisoner against its timber railings. He managed to keep his feet however, refusing to be brought to his knees and continuing to stand proud.
He would not give his captors the satisfaction of seeing him brought to his knees, for he was a knight of the Order of the Dragon, and so much more.
He would remain defiant until his last breath was taken. This he had vowed.
* * *
As the great gates of Daarkeeth were slammed shut, the old man hurried from the streets, making his way toward the stables of a merchant he knew. From there a messenger would be sent forth, at great speed across the barren plains. He knew that a prisoner as important as this would be transferred to the castle, sooner rather than later, so there was much to be done and, he suspected, there was little time in which to do it.
Behind the heavy gates, which blocked from view any sight of the prisoner from the people in the streets, the cart was brought to a stop in the main courtyard. Here the prisoner was soon dragged down onto the cobblestones before a guard quickly reached out and kicked at the prisoner’s his leg, buckling it beneath him and forcing him down onto his knees.
It was then that the blonde haired prisoner heard the creaking sound of a door opening, followed by the sharp sound of several pairs of boots hurrying across the courtyard toward him.
Looking in that direction, he saw three men walking toward him. Two armed soldiers flanking another, taller and heavier man, with sallow skin and dark eyes, whose dark cape and long dark hair billowed out behind him as he strode across the cobblestones.
‘What do you want with me Septimus?’ the prisoner demanded. ‘The war has been over for seven years. The Council will not . . .’
‘Enough!’ the dark lord snapped, as he came to a stop in front of the prisoner. ‘The council is an irrelevant gaggle of fools! They know nothing of the real world. They know nothing of this world!’
‘They are still the guardians of the peace. Their word is final.’
‘Their word is worth nothing! And soon, there will be no more words from them at all. The entire world shall bow to me; Lord Septimus, as Ruler of the Seven Lands of Candor!’
‘In your dreams, my lord!’
‘Exactly, my young knight! For it is in the dreams of my Warlock, that this has been forseen!’
‘You had best check again, my lord, for dreams often have a strange habit of being misread, do they not? And the entire known world already knows that your Warlock is, shall we say, just a little odd.’
A sinister smile broke across the lords’ face as he stroked the dark hair, which adorned his chin.
‘My dear Raemand. Odd he may be, but wrong he rarely is!’ Septimus replied. ‘It is honourable that you still hold the old ways, and that old rabble of a council, in such high esteem, but your days, and the days of your knights of the Order of the Dragon are well and truly numbered. One by one the knights are disappearing and soon there shall be none left at all. Why don’t you accept that there shall never be another of that royal line sitting on the Golden Throne of Jeebath?’
‘I cannot accept that! It is the days of your tyranny that are numbered, my lord. When you are gone and the curse has been lifted, and this land is returned to its past glory, the people of Carronne will rejoice. They will welcome a new and righteous King upon the Golden Throne in Jeebath. You mark my words!’
‘We shall see, my young friend. We shall see.’
For a long while the two stared at each other, as if each were trying to read the other.
‘You still haven’t told me why I am here,’ Rae commented. ‘Are you going to kill me, as you did my father? Surely you know that the Council . . .’
‘Again . . . the Council!’ Septimus roared. ‘Enough of them! And as for your father . . . he was killed in battle, was he not? Surely you cannot hold me responsible for such misfortune? After all . . . all is fair in love and war, is that not what they say?’
‘You won’t get away with this,’ the prisoner spat.
‘Fear not, my young Prince, but I believe I already have. With you here in my safe keeping, I believe those whom I seek will be certain to spring into action.’
The prisoner glared up at his captor.
‘You know of whom I speak, do you not?’
The prisoner nodded.
‘Good. I know they shall come for you. For it has been forseen. After that, we shall see which way the wind blows, and who shall emerge triumphant.’
* * *
In a distant land, in the quiet hours before dawn, a knight of the Order of the Dragon lay awake, listening to the sound of his young page breathing steadily beside him.
Luther of Triellium has had a restless night, having dreamed of an old friend and an old enemy, together in the one dark place. He had seen his friend kneeling before the smiling foe, bent, yet still defiant.
It was when, in his dream, he had seen the cell door being slammed shut that Luther had woken, his eyes snapping open and returning him to the present.
Looking around him he could see only darkness, although as his eyes became accustomed to the light he could make out the shapes of the furniture in the room and the outline of the window, where dim moonlight shone through onto the heavy curtains.
As quietly as he could, he pulled back the bed covers and sat up, swinging his legs of the side of the bed and placing his feet on the cold stone floor, before rising and walking over to the window, where he pulled back the curtain.
The cool touch of the night air on his naked body, now in its prime and hardened by his years of loyal service, sent a sudden shiver through him, yet he did not move. Looking out of the window he could make out the faint glow of the new day appearing in the east, while the streets of the small village below him, in which he and Jamal had spent these past few nights, were still.
Like his fellow knights, theirs had become a wandering kind of life since their defeat at Jeebath, which was something that still haunted him. Ever since that day, with no king to serve, the knights of the Order of the Dragon travelled far and wide, to places where they felt they were needed, or to where tyranny and injustice ruled. They knew that there would come a time when the golden throne of Jeebath would be sat upon once more by its rightful heir, but until that day came they could serve only themselves, or those who were in need of them.
Hearing Jamal stir in the darkness behind him, Luther turned to see if he had woken, but his companion had only rolled over in his sleep, pushing back the bed covers as he did so, to reveal his naked torso.
In this day and age it was not uncommon for a knight to couple with another man, provided of course that each was of age. And in the case of the knights, with the lonely existence that such men lead, few would begrudge them such small pleasures. These were enlightened times, compared at least to those which had passed into recent history, and while in the not too distant past such goings on may have been frowned upon, these days there were few who cared just what two people might do behind the privacy of their bedroom doors.
For Luther and Jamal, theirs was an unusual partnership. The knight and his page. The knight who had steadfastly refused to couple with the boy, even though everyone they both knew believed that they had shared a bed for many years. And the boy, who yearned to belong, who had now come of age himself and been accepted as an equal.
Luther had long promised the boy that he would teach him all there was to learn, and with the boy now of age the time was finally right. It was while fulfilling his promise during these past nights, however, it was Luther who learned so much.
As he sat there gazing at the sleeping form of Jamal, his body uncovered and with shadows falling across him, highlighting the firmness and strength and beauty of the young man, Luther cast his mind back to the day when he had first laid his eyes on the impoverished lad who had been sitting by the side of the road.
* * *
It had been some eight years earlier when they had first met, as the triumphant knights had returned to their homeland, following the successful quelling of an uprising against the rulers of Xanthus. The roads were lined with people cheering them on, and laying flowers at their feet, while their banners waved in the breeze and their spirits were high.
Luther himself had been barely more than a boy then, having just reached the eighteenth summer of his life and having just been made a knight of the Order of the Dragon. At first he was unnerved by the dark skinned lad, when he saw him sitting on a boulder by the side of the road. He was as skinny as a broom handle and had a look of hunger in his eyes, as he watched the passing procession, but then Luther started to become curious about the boy.
‘Look at the peasant boy, Rae,’ Luther had said to his friend, who was riding beside him in the column. ‘I’ll wager he wants to be a knight!’
‘I think not, my friend. I believe he wants more than that. Look at the way he is eyeing each of us. There is a hunger in that lad.’
‘He is dreaming of a better life, perhaps?’
‘Perhaps,’ Rae replied. ‘At least he would get himself out of those rags.’
‘Agreed. And he would also get some meat on his bones.’
As the two knights passed the lad, he jumped down off the boulder and started walking alongside them, causing the massive horse that Luther was riding to snort and shy sideways.
‘Careful there, boy,’ Luther called down to him, reining his horse in. ‘Do you not know that we have just saved your people from the evil of Lord Cassillis? What type of gratitude is this, to spook a knight’s horse?’
‘I am sorry, my lord,’ the boy said timidly, while backing away. ‘I did not mean to frighten thee.’
‘It is all right, lad. Don’t be afraid,’ Rae said to the boy. ‘No harm was done. You shouldn’t take too much notice of my friend here – his bark is worse than his bite!’
‘Then I beseech you not to let him bite me!’ the boy replied, staring directly up at the two knights.
A smile came to the lips of both young men as they gazed down upon the unfortunate child, and after a few moments of uncertainty, the child smiled back at them.
‘What is your name, lad?’ Luther enquired.
‘It is Jamal, sire.’
‘And do you always show such disrespect to the knights of the Order of the Dragon, young Jamal?’
‘No sire,’ the boy replied. ‘I beg your forgiveness sire. I meant no disrespect to the order to which my own father belonged.’
Rae and Luther both looked at each other with eyebrows raised.
‘It is true!’ the boy pleaded. ‘I swear it on his grave by the River Hesnap!’
‘Hesnap, you say?’ Rae remarked, knowing that there were very few who were aware of the Battle of Hesnap, when the knights had faced the Sorcerer Scamand and were almost defeated.
‘How would you know of Hesnap?’ asked Luther.
‘How do you think?’ Jamal replied softly. ‘My mother told me of my father before she died.’
‘But there has never been a dark skinned knight in the Order of the Dragon,’ Luther said. ‘How could this be?’
‘My skin is from my mother sire. She was a native of Corronia. My skin is not as dark as hers, nor is it as pale as my father’s.’
It was common knowledge that there were those within the order who often sought the physical company of another, be it from man, woman or child, and while it was rarely spoken of within the order, as in these times there were few who cared what a man did or where his heart may lie, it was something that was always there. Many a knight had come undone by the tales told of their exploits outside the order. And many a knight was introduced to the fruits of his loins long after their brief acquaintances were forgotten.
‘And what was the name of this knight who fathered you?’ Rae asked.
‘Lucius, sire. Lucius of Jeebath. Do you know of him?’
Once more Rae and Luther looked at each other with eyebrows raised. It was well known that Lucius of Jeebath had been one such knight to have come undone.
‘Well sires? Did you know of him?’ Jamal asked once more.
‘We did, lad,’ Rae replied solemnly. ‘He was a brave knight, and an honourable one.’
At these words a smile came over the boy’s face, just as an elder knight barked an order at Luther and Rae to catch up with their companions.
‘We must go now lad,’ Rae commented. ‘We do not wish to suffer the wrath of Chandar!’
‘Surely a knight of the Order of the Dragon would not be scared of another?’ the boy enquired.
‘My companion here and I have only just come of age, and have only just joined the ranks of our fellow knights,’ Luther replied. ‘We may be brave, but we are not stupid. Chandar is old and wise, and we still have much to learn. We shall listen to him and observe him, and if we are lucky, one day we may be half the knight he is.’
‘That day will be soon, my lord,’ the boy commented.
‘We pray that you are correct,’ Rae replied, turning his horse and digging his heels into the steed.
As the two knights started to ride away, Jamal stood there and watched them for a few moments, looking from them to the other knights in the long column and back again, before then hurrying after Luther and Rae. He caught up to them quickly and started to walk alongside them, dwarfed by the massive horses they were riding.
‘Are you going to walk with us all the way back to Jeebath?’ Luther asked.
‘Do you not have a page of your own, sire?’ the boy asked, having to look up at the knight’s face.
‘Not as yet, lad,’ Luther replied. ‘My friend and I shall both find suitable lads to serve our needs in good time.’
They walked on for a little while longer, with the two knights being slightly bemused now, by the scruffy lad.
‘Could I not be your page, sire?’ the boy asked after a lengthy silence, during which they had covered the best part of one hundred steps.
The two knights chuckled at the thought, which only earned them a reproachful glare from the boy.
‘Why do you laugh so?’ the lad demanded.
‘I doubt you would have the strength, boy,’ Luther replied.
‘I am strong, sire. And I can speak three tongues. And I can ride.’
‘How old are you, Jamal?’ Rae asked him.
‘This is my tenth summer,’ he replied.
‘And why would you want to service a knight? Surely there are better things in this world you could do?’
‘Sire, I have no one. I have no home. And as my father was a knight, I seek to honour him.’
This last comment served only to silence the two young knights.
‘Please sire, let me come with you. Let me serve you. I have nowhere else to go.’
‘I think not, lad,’ Luther answered. ‘There is no place in my life for another, just yet. And this is no life for a boy such as yourself.’
‘But I can clean for you. And cook for you. I can service your every need.’
The knight ignored the boy and kept riding, not even looking back when he heard the boy’s first sobs.
‘I . . . I . . . can warm your bed for you, sire,’ the boy then said, just loud enough for Luther and Rae to hear him.
Luther immediately reined in his horse and turned in the saddle to face the boy.
‘What did you say?’ he demanded.
‘I . . . I . . . said I can warm your bed for you.’
‘What sort of foolish talk is that, boy? How could you know of such things at your tender age?’
‘I . . . I have no home sire, other than the streets of Xanthus, upon which I live. I hear of such things.’
The knight sat and thought for a moment, before then turning his horse and riding back to where the boy stood and looking down upon him, still uncertain of what he should do.
Eventually he leant over and stretched out his gloved hand to the boy and said, ‘Take my hand, lad. You may ride with me.’
Tentatively, Jamal stretched upwards and placed his bony hand in that of the knight, soon finding himself being hoisted into the air, before landing behind Luther on the back of his horse.
Luther looked across at Rae, who was sitting upon his own horse and watching the goings on with interest. The two knights winked at each other before rejoining their column.
‘What have you there?’ asked several of the other knights.
‘Just a stray,’ Luther replied. ‘If he turns out to be of no use, we’ll feed him to the lions.’
‘They won’t get much of a meal from him,’ someone replied.
Luther felt the boy’s hands tighten on his tunic.
‘Relax, lad,’ he said. ‘We shan’t be feeding you to any lions. The others are just making fun of you.’
‘I know, sire. But still I am nervous about the thought of meeting your lions.’
‘If it makes you feel any better, lad, we have no lions.’
‘I am much relieved, sire.’
They rode on in silence for quite a while before the boy finally spoke again.
‘You won’t hurt me, will you, sire?’ he asked.
‘Hurt you? How do you mean? Why would I hurt you?’
‘When . . . when I warm your bed, sire. I have heard stories . . .’
‘Hush, boy,’ Luther said sternly. ‘I shall not hurt you, because you shall not be servicing me in that manner.’
‘I don’t understand, sire. Then why did you reach out your hand to me?’
Luther remained silent for a few moments, before speaking.
‘To protect you, lad. That is all,’ he said. ‘If it hadn’t have been me who stopped for you, it would have been someone else. And that someone else may not have had the honour of a knight of the Order of the Dragon.’
‘Then you will not couple with me then?’ Jamal asked.
‘No lad. I will not,’ Luther replied. ‘If you are to be my page, you should know that while I am not adverse to the pleasure another man may give thee, for it is true that only a man can truly pleasure another, my likings are not for those as young as thee. I will not couple with anyone who is not of age.’
‘I see, my lord.’
‘And besides, lad, my heart already belongs to another.’
To be continued . . .