The city of Carronne stands at the edge of the Sea of Darkness. The land around it is barren and bleak, as are the lifeless waters of the sea which wash against it. It wasn’t always like this, however, for once the seas were alive with fish and great beasts, and the land was awash with green. But following the war, when the defeat of the King’s armies had transpired and the King himself had lost his head in battle, it was then that a curse had been placed upon the city and its surrounds by the ancient soothsayers; a curse that told of famine and desolation for as long as the dark lord ruled.
And yet despite this curse, the city still thrived, for it stood at the crossroads of the known world, at the centre of the Seven Lands of Candor.
Peoples of all nations and colours came here, mixing their customs and their foods, and their languages and their names, and it was for his reason that Septimus had settled upon Castle Carronne as his home . . . at least until such times as the remnants of the old order, or at least those that weren’t already under his control, could be rounded up and dealt with, just as he had dealt with their fathers and sons and brothers some years earlier. Only then would he be able to march upon Jeebath once more and claim what he saw as rightfully his; the Golden Throne of Jeebath.
All that stood in his way now were a few pesky knights; men who had scattered to the four winds, like cowards, following their defeat, and a rabble of old men. And now, as he looked down upon his golden-haired prisoner he knew that the final pieces of the puzzle he had been working on for so long now, were about to fall into place. Soon the last heirs to the throne would be no more, as would be the last surviving knights from the Order of the Dragon, and what is more, the death of his own son at the hands of one knight in particular would finally be avenged.
* * *
Within one of the towers of the Castle Carronne, which casts its shadow over the bleak city which surrounds it, there resides a man once known as William.
He was born in the land of Shalamar, one of the Seven Lands of Candor. For seven years past this place has been his home, yet he has never seen it, for in the torturous days following the Great War, there was more taken from William than such simple things as his home and his friends and his freedom.
It was during those dim days immediately following the end of the war, that all he could do was listen to the screams of those last few prisoners and plead with the gods to take him instead. That was when his life was plunged into a world of eternal darkness.
But the gods would not listen to him. He was spared, though why he did not know. All he knew was that his pain would be everlasting.
As time passed and his wounds healed, with the dungeons now eerily quiet at times, William began to spend more and more time pondering his fate, for he had little else to do.
He would listen to the cries of the few prisoners left in this cruel place, or the banging of weapons and tools in some distant corner, and at night he would hear the squeaks of the vermin as they scurried about their business, occasionally scurrying right over him as they chased some scrap of food that he may have missed.
His was a miserable existence. But yet he lived. And he knew not why?
At some stage, after he had been there for he knew not how long, he was woken from a fitful sleep by the opening of the cell door.
‘Who is there?’ he asked, not knowing if it were day or night, as he was unable to see a thing from the empty sockets that had once been home to a pair of the bluest eyes known to Shalamar.
All he could hear was the shuffling of some feet, the clank of a tray being put on the floor somewhere in front of him, he thought, followed once more by the shuffling of feet, as whoever it was made their way back out the door.
‘Why do I live?’ William cried out to them. ‘Why have you taken my countrymen, yet you leave me here to rot?’
The guards did not answer. The heavy bars were slammed shut and the key was turned, then the sound of retreating footsteps grew quieter and quieter.
William fell back against the wall, his knees drawn up to his chest and his head in his hands.
‘Why me?’ he whimpered. ‘Why me?’
‘It is because of your dreams,’ a voice suddenly said to him, startling him.
‘What is that? Who’s there? Where are you?’
‘I am Richard,’ the voice replied. ‘Fear not, I am not in your cell, I am in the cell beside you. I too am a prisoner in this terrible place.’
This was the first person to have said anything civil to him in a long, long time. The voice, which belonged to that of a young man, he thought, was calm and soothing to William.
‘Why are you here, then? What did you do?’ William asked.
Richard only fell quiet, the silence stretching on almost unbearably for the blind prisoner, who had spoken to no one in months.
‘What did you mean when you said it was because of my dreams?’ William eventually asked, for it was true that he had had some terrible visions in the nights since he had lost his sight, but how anyone could know of them he was unsure.
‘I . . . I . . . heard the guards talking,’ Richard replied.
‘They say you have seen things,’ the newcomer replied. ‘You have seen things in the night which have come true. They know of them because they have heard your screams and your shouts. They have listened to you and always within a few days they hear the truth in your words.’
‘But . . . how . . .’ William started to say, before thinking better of saying anything more.
‘It is said that you have foretold certain events . . . that you have strange powers, and that you have even come to the attention of Lord Septimus himself! They write down your every word and pass these on to him.’
‘Nonsense!’ William scoffed.
‘Did you not dream that his forces would storm the walls of the Castle of Lyntallum . . . and that the army of Rodarne would bow down before the dark lord? Surely they have told you of this?’
‘It is true,’ William replied, almost in a whisper.
‘And did you not forsee the great fires Pysanteum?’
William fell silent. The night on which he had dreamt of that horrific event had been his worst. The vision of people running down the streets of the beautiful city of Pysanteum, their clothes and hair alight, their flesh bubbling, is one that would live with him for all his days. For days afterwards he had tried not to sleep. Forcing himself to stay awake, in fear of seeing more tragedy and heartache. As try as he might, however, he could not do it, and eventually he succumbed to the overwhelming need to sleep, bringing with it yet more visions of destruction.
‘I . . . I am but a blind man . . . yet I see much, much more than I want to,’ William said, slumping back against the wall.
‘You have a gift,’ Richard whispered. ‘Septimus knows of this and he will use it . . . for he will use you. But in spite of this, your gift shall be your salvation. You can do nothing for your countrymen any more, but you can save yourself. You must remember that! And then, perhaps through this gift, you may find a way to help those who cannot help themselves.’
William said nothing, yet in his mind he was screaming. He was screaming louder and longer than he had ever screamed before. Screaming for his countrymen. Screaming for his lost loved ones. Screaming for himself.
As Richard watched from through the steel bars that separated them, William toppled over onto his side, drawing his knees up under his chin and, unable to shed any tears, started to sob quietly.
* * *
In the days that would follow the two men spoke often, with only the bars of their cells separating them. They always spoke in hushed tones and only when there were no guards within earshot. Richard became the eyes of William, alerting him to the presence of those who were watching them.
It was during these few days that things started to find their way back into the memory of the man from Shalamar.
At first it was the little things that started to come back to him, such as the childhood tricks he once played on his friends and family, remembering fondly how he would amuse them for hours, even if he was still unsure exactly of how he managed to do it.
It had been a long time since he had thought about his childhood, but he found that doing so now helped ease his pain and so he tried to stay in that world for as long as he could, as often as he could, imagining that he was running once more along the pebbled beaches of Shalamar, with Jeddan and Helenus, his two best friends from those carefree days, by his side.
As he sat there in his cell one day, thinking that he was back on that beach, Richard asked him, ‘What are you smiling at, my friend?’
‘Was I smiling?’ William replied.
‘Yes, you were. They must have been happy memories!’
‘Yes,’ William remarked. ‘They were of a time long ago.’
‘Don’t ever forget them.’
‘I don’t think I could, even if I tried.’
Just then the two men heard the clank of the keys turning in the heavy door at the end of the corridor and then the creaking sound of it being opened. They were coming once more, and both men scurried to the back of their cells, sitting beside each other in their corners, each hoping that it wouldn’t be he that would be dragged from the cell once more.
Such goings on were common in places such as this, yet as often as it had happened, they still feared being beaten or tortured, or even worse – sometimes being held across a table by a number of guards while their pants were lowered and another guard would pleasure himself using the prisoner’s body, while laughter would ring in the prisoner’s ears.
As has been said before, this was not a place for the faint of heart, and very few survived.
‘Where is he, then?’ William heard a deep voice say in an impatient tone, while at the same time he thought that he heard Richard gasp.
‘Who is it?’ William whispered.
‘The dark lord himself,’ his friend replied in a whisper. ‘It is Septimus.’
All of a sudden William felt his throat go dry.
‘Well? What are you waiting for?’ the deep voice said. ‘Bring him to me!’
‘Yes, my lord! At once, my lord!’
William held his breath as he waited to hear which door it was to be opened. In the time he had been here, without his sight, he had become familiar with every peculiar sound of this wretched place. He knew the individual sounds of each and every door, the different sounds that the prison guards made as they shuffled along the corridors, and he could tell if the cart upon which his food was carried was full or empty by the way in which its wheels squeaked.
When the guard slid the key into the right lock, he knew in an instant just who it was that was about to be presented to the dark lord, with this knowledge being confirmed when the rough hands of the guards grabbed him about the arms and he was unceremoniously dragged to his feet.
‘Up ya gets!’ one of the guards said to him. ‘You got a visitor!’
The hearty laughter coming from outside his cell door sent a shiver through him.
‘He doesn’t look much, does he?’ Septimus said as William was thrust forward and released by the guards.
‘Are you sure this is the man that will forsee my future? Surely this isn’t the man who will tell me that I shall sit on the golden throne of Jeebath?’
‘Yes, sire,’ someone replied. ‘This is the man who has seen many things that have come to pass.’
‘But he has no eyes! How can a blind man see anything at all?’
‘It’s in his head sire. It’s all in his head,’ the voice said, while someone tapped vigourously on William’s skull with their knuckles.
‘Hmmmmm . . . curious!’ Septimus remarked.
Suddenly someone grabbed William by his chin and wrenched his head from one side to the other, before finally letting him go.
‘He’s not a Witch, is he?’ Septimus said. ‘Oh, they don’t call them that, do they? Perhaps he is a Warlock? Yes, that is what he must be!’
Unable to control himself any longer, William said, ‘I am just a man, sire,’ which earned him a swift rebuke from the guards, with the end of a staff finding its way into William’s stomach.
‘He dares to speak?’ Septimus remarked, clearly surprised. ‘This one has spirit, I believe!’
‘We shall cut out his tongue for that, my lord!’
‘Are you all fools? How then, will he be able to tell of his visions? Bring him! I want this Warlock brought to the castle!’
William felt a chill breeze pass him by as Septimus swept past him, and heard the sharp sound of his boots on the stone floor. Once more William felt the rough hands of the gaolers as they grabbed him and started after their lord, half dragging, half pushing the hapless prisoner in the wake of their leader.
From somewhere behind him William heard Richard call, ‘Be strong now, lad!’
He tried to answer him, but any sound he may have been able to make was cut short by the slamming of the oak door after they had passed through it, the noise ringing in his ears and separating the two men forever.
* * *
And so it was that for the first time in many months, or was that perhaps years, for he could not have been certain, William felt the warmth of the sun on his face as he was taken from the terrible place called Daarkeeth.
He rode in a cart for the short journey from the prison to the castle, listening to the steady clip-clop of the hooves of the horse on the cobbled streets, and breathing in great lungfulls of fresh air, which was heaven sent after having lived in the stench and squalor of the prison for so long.
He was unable to see anything around him, yet he was fully aware that every eye was turned toward him, the prisoner who was being taken from the infamous gaol. He could feel their eyes burning into him . . . some curious, some surprised, some sympathetic and some uncaring, and for the first time since he was a boy, he could feel something stirring within him.
How could he know that people were staring at him? How could he know what these people were thinking, or how they were feeling?
Were the gods teasing him? Was this a sign from them?
How could a man who was blind possibly be able to see not only into the future, but also into the minds of other men?
That question was one that had been gnawing away at him ever since he had first heard of his nightmares’ becoming truths. For many nights he would try to remain awake, scared of falling asleep and seeing those terrible things again and again, but try as he might, he could not. Sleep always came to him eventually, and with it came vision upon vision of death and destruction, of barren landscapes and rotting corpses.
He had seen the march of the armies of Septimus across all the lands, sweeping all before them. He had seen lands laid to ruin by fire and battle. If only he could witness the end of these tumultuous times . . . that was all he wanted to dream of.
As the cart passed through the gates of the great castle, the battlements casting their shadows over him as he passed beneath them, a strange coldness came over William. This was an evil place, that much he knew, but what fate awaited him he feared greatly. For now, however, he would live, and for that small mercy, a part of him could only be grateful.
‘Whoa, there,’ he heard someone up ahead of him say and the cart suddenly slowed, then stopped.
‘What’s wrong?’ someone else asked.
‘This prisoner isn’t to be taken to the dungeons,’ the first man said. ‘His lordship wants him to be taken to the tower!’
‘Wha . . .’ someone started to say, before thinking better of it.
‘Just do it!’ the first man said. ‘Or it will be you who gets taken to the dungeon!’
The next thing William realised was that he was being grabbed roughly and dragged down from the cart, stumbling several times and being yanked back up to his feet as he was taken inside the castle.
‘Pick yer feet up!’ one of the guards said to him. He was trying, but it wasn’t easy.
There were two men who had hold of him; that much, he could tell. They came to some stairs and once more William tripped over them, before being dragged upright again, then they started climbing the stairs, which seemed to go on and on forever as they went in a continuous circular motion. It was obvious to William that they were inside the castle tower.
They came to several landings, but each time they continued onward and upward, the breathing of the three men growing heavier and heavier as they laboured up the stairs.
Eventually they came to a stop, however, and William listened to the two men beside him trying to catch their breath.
‘Is this it, then?’ one of them asked.
‘Yes,’ came the reply.
William listened as a door was opened, the loud creaking sound echoing throughout the tower, before a rough hand was then placed on his shoulder, forcing him forward into the great unknown.
The next thing he heard was the sound of their laughter and the slamming of the oak door, followed only by silence, and the squeaks made by the vermin to which this place was already home as they scurried away from this new stranger.
Unable to see anything at all, William became fearful of what else may be resident in this dank smelling place, for he had heard all sorts of stories of fearful beasts that had been kept as pets by people such as Septimus. Try as he might, however, he could not hear any low growls or heavy breathing coming from anywhere nearby, and so, gradually, his jagged nerves reluctantly settled.
‘Is anybody there?’ William asked.
Apart from the squeaks from the resident rats, there was no reply.
For all intents and purposes, William was alone.
* * *
As the years passed, the name William of Shalamar became lost into history. The man once known by that name became known simply as the Warlock of Septimus the Great. Nobody knew his real name any longer. He was just The Warlock, and he lived in the eastern tower of the Castle of Carronne, the same place to where he had been taken all those years ago.
He was still a prisoner of the dark lord; however things were a little different now, for not only did he now know every square inch of his home, but gradually the old skills and powers for which he had become known as a boy had returned. He was once more able to perform his magic, but more than that, he was able to sense, more than see, everything around him. His world might still be a world of darkness, but in his world he had no need for light. He had need only for the sustenance that was brought to him each day, and for the company of the peasant boy, Carel, who tended to his needs and warmed his bed at night and who held him and calmed him when his visions became too terrible to bear.
And so it was that on a bleak morning, as rain lashed the castle and fires burned in dark and chilly halls, the Warlock woke to find himself alone, his den dampened by the bleakness of the day and the emptiness of his bed.
‘Are you there, Carel?’ he asked.
There was only silence.
Throwing back his bed covers to reveal his nakedness, the Warlock sat up in his bed, listening intently for any sound, trying to sense any presence.
Despite the heavy cloth hanging over them, a chilly wind blew through the narrow slits in the stone walls which served as windows. It was to be a strange day ahead, he sensed, especially following a new prisoner being brought to the castle on the previous day. What misfortune the man’s presence would bestow on them all he could not be sure, but he already knew that change was about to come to castle of Septimus the Great.
All at once a gust of ice-filled air blew in through the open doorway across the room and immediately the Warlock knew where his companion had gone. He knew also that he would return presently with something warm to eat and drink, being the considerate and loving boy that he was.
Swinging his legs over the side of his bed and placing his feet on the cold stone floor, the Warlock stood up and reached out for his robes, which hung loosely across a chair beside the bed, then after wrapping them around himself he walked over to the window and pulled aside the curtain.
For anyone who may have walked into the room who may not have known the Warlock it would have appeared that he was looking out across the valley below, gazing upon the city and the barren fields beyond. For those who knew him, however, they would know that he was in another world, viewing some long ago scene that was forever trapped in his mind, remembering some place to which he had ventured when he was a younger man.
Just then he heard a noise coming from the tower, the sound of someone running up the many stairs. It was a sound which brought a smile to his face, yet he did not move from this spot.
A few moments later the boy rushed into the room, breathless.
‘You’ve been to the kitchen again?’ the Warlock asked, still facing the open window.
‘Yes, sire,’ the boy answered, rather timidly.
‘And did you find the young kitchen-hand agreeable?’
‘Yes, sire. He was most accommodating.’
The Warlock nodded, saying, ‘It is good that you see more than just I. You are almost of age yourself now, lad and it won’t be long before they will find a greater use for you than that as the minder of a senile blind man such as myself.’
‘But sire, this is my home. I shan’t leave you!’ the boy protested.
‘We shall see,’ the Warlock replied. ‘You must tell me all about your young kitchen-hand some day. Or better still, bring him to me. I am curious to know this young man who has so captivated my companion.’
The boy wasn’t quite sure what to make of this last remark, and so remained silent for a time, while his master still gazed out of the window.
‘Where were you visiting this morning, sire? When I returned?’ Carel eventually asked, as he placed the warm bread and pan of soup on a table. ‘The streets of Shalamar perhaps? Or the Valley of Pardonne’
‘No lad. I was strolling along the pebbled beach of Shalamar again. It is such a beautiful place to remember.’
‘I would like, one day, to go to that place,’ Carel said to his master as he walked over to him and sat beside him, while at the same time pulling a blanket up and placing it around the Warlock’s shoulders.
‘And I would like for you to one day see it, lad,’ the Warlock replied, almost wistfully, while reaching out and gently running his fingers through the boys’ brown hair. ‘You could tell me what has become of the places I roamed as a child!’
‘Come, you should eat. I have brought you soup and bread!’
‘In a moment lad, for I am expecting a visitor quite soon.’
‘A visitor? And who might that be?’
‘That would be me!’ a deep voice roared from the doorway behind them, causing the boy to jump.
The Warlock and the boy turned to face their master, while at the same time the Warlock gently pushed the boy aside, using one arm to sweep the lad around behind him.
‘I know why you are here, lord,’ the Warlock said, his voice steady and calm. ‘You seek an answer to a question, do you not?’
‘I would have been disappointed if you did not know why I was here!’ Septimus replied, while eyeing off the timid lad standing behind his master. ‘Well then? Where is he?’
‘Fear not, my lord,’ the Warlock replied. ‘For his journey has begun. He shall come to you. You shall have the opportunity for revenge which you seek.’
‘Just as well!’ Septimus answered, before turning on his heels and marching out of the room.
To be continued . . .