As quietly as he could, Luther dressed in his tunic and pulled on his boots, before slipping outside into the cold morning air.
It was still that time of the morning when it wasn’t quiet day, yet the darkness of night was still to lift. It was that coldest time just before the dawn, when the sun was yet to rise and the world was bathed in an eerie half-light with the village roosters yet to herald the new day.
Luther had been troubled by what he had seen in the night, the vision of Rae kneeling before Septimus, and so he decided that he needed some time alone to think. Leaving his young companion to sleep, he followed the rocky path down the hill from the cottage and walked the roads and fields of the village Avonleeth, gathering his thoughts as he planned the days he knew would be ahead of them.
He recalled with some sadness the last time he had spoken to his childhood friend, which had been some years ago now. As the knights of the order had scattered after the Great War, each charged with doing his best to survive and regroup, while recruiting for the cause, their lives had taken such different paths. And even now Luther’s heart was filled with regret each time he recalled that the last words they had spoken to each other had been spoken with voices raised. No day had passed since that time when he did not find himself thinking of his old friend and wishing that things were different.
Their parting was something which still bothered Luther deeply, but now he was returning to the lands of his youth. However, he was hopeful that they would soon be able to put such regrets and sadness behind them.
Above all else, that was what he desired. That was the one thing for which he had returned to do . . . at least that was, until last night!
That was when, after just a few nights back in these familiar lands, he had witnessed a most disturbing scene.
At first he thought it merely a dream, yet the more he thought about it as he walked along the roads on this chilly morning, the more convinced he was that it was much more than that. There was a sense of reality about this vision which unnerved him, and if his senses were right he knew what it was that he now must do, and that it must be done quickly.
The only trouble was, he thought, how would he be able to do this? Furthermore, whom could he trust to help him?
After walking several miles outside the village, along the narrow road which led toward the snow-capped mountains that rose from the plains to the west, Luther found himself a log upon which he could sit. From here, he decided, he would watch the sunrise that was still only a promise in the eastern horizon, while he contemplated the task which lay ahead.
To rescue Raemande, second son of Balthazaar, King of Jeebath, from the clutches of Septimus, was something which would take great courage; this much Luther knew. And while courage itself was something that wasn’t lacking within the heart of any knight belonging to the Order of the Dragon, one thing that was lacking at the moment was the army which would no doubt also be required in order to liberate their friend.
The knights could be counted upon, of that much he was certain, yet they had scattered far and wide in recent years. Further complicating this were stories which had come to Luther’s ears of a number of knights now being missing. If these stories were true, then there may be few who would be able to come to the aid of their fellow nobles.
At this moment all that may be counted upon were himself and Jamal . . . and as fine a young knight as he promised to become, Jamal was little more than a boy himself just yet and it would be too much to expect such miracles from the lad.
Troubled by what lay ahead of them, Luther leant back against a branch which jutted from his log and studied the skies to the east, where colour was emerging slowly between fiery banks of clouds and the countryside was gradually coming alive. As he sat there, motionless and silent, yet with turmoil churning away within him, a red-breasted robin came down and landed on a nearby branch, chirping at him as if they were old friends.
Luther studied the bird for a moment, then smiled.
‘Perhaps you can help me, little bird,’ he said.
The bird chirped at him some more.
‘Pray tell, how may I rescue my friend and defeat the Dark Lord with just two knights? Show me the way, little bird. Or better still, perhaps you could summon for me all the knights of the Order of the Dragon, and an army to go with them, for I feel that surely that is what we will need.’
Once more the tiny bird chirped at the knight, its voice sharp and loud in the quiet of the early morning, then with a flap of its wings, it was gone.
* * *
It was some hours later when Luther returned to the stone cottage on the outskirts of Avonleeth, trudging up the hill with a heavy heart because he was still uncertain as to where he should be heading, or what he should be doing next.
The beginnings of a plan had formed in his head, yet it would take quite some time to put that into action, and time was something which he felt Rae may not have a lot of. He knew Septimus, and he knew of his barbaric ways. Time was of the essence.
There was also the remainder of the plan, which needed much more thought, and with this Luther knew he would also need the help of someone wiser than he.
He knew of only one man who could offer that help. His name was Chandar.
When he reached the dwelling in which they had spent these past nights Luther saw a sight which gladdened his heart: Jamal perched on the steps of the cottage with a group of village children at his feet, listening intently to every word the young man was saying.
Nobody heard Luther approach and so he stopped short of the group, propping himself up against a tree with his arms folded in front of him, listening. He fondly remembered being told this same story himself for the very first time, when he had been but a boy, listening with the same fascination which these children were showing now when learning all about the knights who protected them, and the origins of the Order of the Dragon.
‘Are you really a knight?’ Luther heard one of the children ask Jamal.
‘Not yet,’ Jamal replied. ‘But I soon will be. When I pass my final tests I shall be able to bear the tattoo that marks me as a knight of the Order of the Dragon, just like my master.’
‘Do you have to do tests to become a knight?’
‘Oh, yes,’ Jamal replied. ‘You must prove that you are the bravest of the brave and have a heart that is pure.’
‘Why do they mark you with a tattoo?’
‘It is by choice that we wear the tattoo. It is so that no matter where we go throughout the known lands we are known as knights of the order.’
‘What is the Order of the Dragon then?’ another child asked.
‘It is a group of only the bravest and most honourable of knights. It was founded many years ago by the famed knight, Erasmus, and all are sworn to serve the order and the King,’ Jamal answered. ‘Only those who pass all of the tests are permitted to join. Many knights try, but few succeed.’
‘But we have no King!’
‘There shall be another, child. I promise you that.’
‘Who was Erasmus?’ a small dark haired boy asked Jamal.
‘He was the bravest knight who ever lived,’ Jamal earnestly replied. ‘Many, many years ago, in a distant land, there was a village, much like this one. The villagers were being terrorised by a huge dragon which had strayed from its home in the mountains. Some of them had even tried to scare it away, but they could not scare a beast such as this and were all eaten for their trouble!’
‘Ewwww . . .’ a little girl exclaimed.
‘So, what happened then?’ the dark haired boy asked excitedly.
‘Well, one day, it happened that the knight Erasmus was passing through and the villagers pleaded with him to make their village safe once more. Seeing the fear in their eyes, and being the man of honour that he was, he could not refuse such a request and so he agreed to go forth into the forests to find the dragon and slay it.’
‘Well, at about the same time a mysterious sorcerer passed through the village and heard what was happening. On the day that Erasmus had said he would go out into the wilds to tackle the dragon, the sorcerer summoned Erasmus to him. It is said that the sorcerer cast a powerful spell over the sword of Erasmus, giving it magical powers. When Erasmus went out into the forests and found the beast there was a great battle and he was able to defeat it using only his sword. No other knight before him had ever killed a dragon single handed, and while many have tried since, no one else has ever succeeded.’
‘Do you mean that there are still dragons out there?’ the little girl asked, while nervously looking around from side to side, as if she were frightened one was about to jump out at her, and being startled instead by the sight of Luther leaning against the tree. This caused the other children and Jamal all to look in that direction as well.
‘Yes there are, child. But the only dragons that are left in the world are in a dangerous land far, far away from here,’ Luther said to the girl, as he walked toward the group.
‘Have you ever seen one?’ asked one of the boys, his eyes wide with wonder.
‘Only once,’ Luther replied. ‘When I was but a boy, myself.’
‘Do you have a tattoo, then?’ the little girl who had first spotted Luther asked, while peering inquisitively at his arms.
Luther pulled up the sleeve of his tunic and rolled his arm over, revealing to all the fierce dragon which adorned the inside of his forearm.
There was a collective gasp from the children, while Jamal looked up and smiled at his master. Luther smiled back at him, but there was little joy in the smile today, and Jamal immediately sensed that something was wrong.
‘Come now, children,’ Jamal said. ‘That will have to be enough story telling for today. We still have far to travel and must prepare for our journey.’
‘You will come back, won’t you?’ a red haired boy with bright eyes and ruddy complexioned cheeks asked them.
‘Of course we will,’ Luther replied, while stepping between the children as he made for the cottage door, playfully roughing up the boys’ hair as he went. ‘But first there is something of great importance to which we must attend.’
‘Really? Is there going to be a battle?’ another boy asked eagerly, causing Luther to pause at the doorway.
‘No lad, there will be no battle. An old friend is in need of our help, that is all,’ Luther eventually replied, as his eyes scanned the faces of the children, seeing their disappointment, before finally settling on the now earnest face of Jamal, who nodded his understanding and turned back to the children.
It was some minutes later when Jamal entered the darkness of the cottage, where he found Luther staring out the window, gazing toward the distant mountains.
‘What worries thee, sire?’ he asked, while resting a gentle hand on the older man’s shoulder. ‘I sensed your night was a troubled one.’
‘That it was, lad,’ Luther replied, as he placed a hand over that of his companions. ‘We must leave this place.’
‘Is it . . . him?’ the page asked.
‘What has happened?’
‘He is in the hands of Septimus,’ Luther replied.
‘Then we must leave at once.’
‘Yes. But to do what?’ Luther said, as he turned to face the boy, his hands resting on Jamal’s chest, feeling his rapidly beating heart. ‘Do we ride into Carronne . . . two knights against an army? We shall need an army ourselves, just to get close to the city!’
‘Then we shall raise one! We must do something!’
‘We shall, my dear sweet lad. But first, we must seek counsel. Then we shall gather every knight we can muster.’
‘So, you have a plan?’
‘Of sorts,’ the knight replied.
‘Then we must make it happen,’ said Jamal, before embracing his master, then resting his head on Luther’s shoulder.
* * *
It was mid-morning when the knight and his page left the village of Avonleeth, riding through the streets on their beautiful and powerful horses, with the local children running alongside them, laughing and playing.
Curious parents watched from the doorways of their homes. Some were glad to see the last of the pair, thinking that the order to which they belonged was something best condemned to the pages of history, while others were saddened to see them go, for while ever they were present the villagers knew that they would be safe.
‘I shall miss this place,’ Jamal said to Luther when the last of the children waved them farewell and turned back, after having walked alongside them for some distance from the village.
‘As will I,’ Luther replied. ‘But fear not, lad, for we shall return. It has been some time since I last visited this place, but these green fields and those snowy mountains hold a special place in my heart. Now that I have returned once, I shall return here often.’
‘What is the attraction?’ Jamal asked.
Luther did not answer. He simply smiled at the boy and dug his heels into the sides of the black and white pinto stallion he rode, urging the horse forward into a canter, forcing Jamal to do the same to the horse he rode, a stout, reddish-bay coloured gelding which they had traded Jamal’s old pony and some other goods for in some distant land to which they had travelled.
For some time the two horsemen kept up a steady pace, cantering along the well-worn road, with the wind in their hair and the morning sun on their faces. They saw no one on their journey, which provided the two travelers time to take in the lush countryside and beautiful scenery, the thick groves of trees and the meadows dotted with yellow and white daisies, before eventually their road came to the edge of a river, which they then followed for some distance.
‘It is a good day to be alive, lad,’ Luther said as they slowed to a walk.
‘Isn’t every day a good day to be alive?’ Jamal asked, with a grin.
‘Yes, that is true, my boy,’ Luther replied.
‘So, where do we go from here, sire? With whom do you wish to seek counsel?’
‘We must find Chandar, Keeper of the Sword of Erasmus. He will aid us.’
‘We gather our friends and make for Carronne.’
Jamal nodded his understanding, and the two rode on in silence for some time, both deep in thought, while listening to the birds in the trees around them, and the tinkling of water over rocks in the river.
‘We will liberate him,’ Jamal offered after some time.
‘I hope you are right, my boy.’
‘You shall hold him in your arms again, I know it.’
Luther offered a wan smile, then quickly looked away, fearful that should anything more be said, his feelings would overcome him. Jamal knew what must be going through his master’s mind, for he knew much of the history between the two men. Instinctively he reined his horse in slightly, letting Luther get a little ahead. He knew that his master would not want him to see his sadness.
After a while they came to a crossing, a place where the river was shallow and wide, and where the river flowed less swiftly. The road made its way down to the water’s edge, but Luther reined in his stallion and came to a halt.
‘What is wrong, sire?’ Jamal asked him.
‘This is where we leave the road. From here on our journey will take us through less favourable territory.’
‘You know where Chandar can be found then?’
Luther nodded, then said, ‘We will rest here for a time and let the horses eat and drink, before we continue on. There is a place I know where we can camp for the night. Should the gods be kind, we should reach Chandar by nightfall tomorrow.’
Both travelers dismounted and led their horses to the river’s edge, where each drank his fill. After then leading the horses back up onto a grassy flat, the two men dropped their reins to the ground and turned the horses loose, before then pulling some provisions from their packs and sitting in the shade of some trees, where they too ate their fill.
When they had finished, both of them lay back on the lush grass and stared at the sky, watching light clouds drift past high above them.
‘Sire, when may I complete my tasks?’ Jamal asked after a time.
‘Soon, lad,’ came the reply.
‘And then I will be a knight, just like you, and my father before me?’
‘Only if you pass each of the three tests remaining,’ Luther answered.
‘What are they?’
Luther sat up and looked across at the lad, smiling at him, before then getting to his feet and walking a few steps away.
‘All in good time, my boy,’ Luther remarked, before bringing his fingers to his lips and blowing, letting forth with a shrill whistle which filled the air. Some distance away, where he and his companion were grazing, Luther’s horse picked his head up from the grass, pricking his ears toward his master.
‘Come, Majid!’ Luther said in a firm tone, which carried easily across the field. The horse tossed his head a few times before starting toward Luther at a trot, with Jamal’s gelding following close behind.
‘I have never seen another animal love his master so,’ Jamal remarked quietly, as he stood beside the older man.
‘He is a good horse, this one,’ Luther replied. ‘As good as I will ever have, and well worthy of being named for one of the Gods!’
The two horses came to a stop in front of their owners and nuzzled up to the two men, allowing themselves to be caught easily, then mounted.
‘We still have far to travel,’ Luther said to the lad as he turned his horse toward the river crossing and started down the slope.
‘Will we make it by nightfall?’ asked Jamal.
‘Only if we travel with some haste.’
Moments later they were wading out into the cool waters and crossing the river, letting their horses pick their footing as they went deeper and deeper, first up to their knees, then up to their chests, with their riders’ feet soon dragging through the water as well. When they eventually emerged from the other side, water dripping from them everywhere, Luther turned off the main road, which went straight ahead and took travelers away from the river, and chose instead a path which followed the river for a short while, before heading toward the edge of a thick forest, which rose like a mountain before them.
Luther looked across at Jamal and noticed that he looked in awe of the wall of green which they were approaching, although not appearing to be scared at all.
‘This is the Forest of Graysmark. There is nothing to fear in there except fear itself.’
‘It looks a daunting place, sire.’
‘To the unaware, it can be,’ Luther replied as they drew closer and closer to the forest edge. ‘There are creatures in there which can be as fearful as any that may be imagined by a man. Just remember though lad, that they cannot harm you. No matter how fearful you may be, or how dangerous they may appear, there really is nothing to fear.’
‘I shall pray you are correct, sire,’ Jamal remarked, while giving his master a wan smile.
‘I expect that at some stage you shall doubt me, but should you do so, remember only this . . . never doubt your horse.’
As they passed beneath the foliage of the massive trees at the edge of the forest and were swallowed up by its darkness, Luther glanced at the boy and saw the look of confusion which clouded Jamal’s face. He chuckled quietly to himself, or so he thought, but in the shadows of this mysterious place even the quietest of sounds seemed to echo a thousand-fold.
To Jamal it sounded as if a whole army were laughing at him and at first he felt ashamed, but then he remembered his masters’ words; ‘There is nothing to fear in there except fear itself.’
Like his father before him, he was soon to be a knight of the Order of the Dragon. Fear would not defeat him. This much, he knew.
To be continued . . .