As the knight and his page rode deeper and deeper into the Forest of Graysmark, both grew quiet while they watched and listened to the things around them.
On several occasions both were startled by high pitched screams, which seemed to be coming from some place quite close, and on other occasions Jamal was certain he saw movement in the dark depths of the thick bushes which grew right up to the edge of the road they were following, or heard the sound of what he thought were heavy feet running through the woods.
And yet, besides the sounds and the feeling that someone, or something, was there, shadowing them, there was something else about this place which unnerved him. He wasn’t quite certain what it was, but there was something about it that wasn’t . . . natural.
‘Are you sure that there is nothing here that we should fear?’ Jamal asked quietly, as they passed beneath a rocky outcrop and heard the low, gutteral growls of some beast, coming from somewhere high above them.
‘This is a treacherous place,’ Luther answered. ‘It has cost many a lesser man his sanity, or perhaps more. It has been said that men have run off into the forest screaming after being confronted by some of the beasts within, only never to be heard from or seen again.’
Jamal swallowed hard.
‘Yet, at the same time,’ Luther continued, ‘remember this! The Forest of Graysmark may be one mans’ downfall, yet at the same time it can be another man’s saviour.’
‘I don’t understand, sire.’
‘You will, lad. You will.’
Jamal simply shook his head and the pair rode onward into the forest, following a road that was used rarely it seemed, judging by the weeds that were threatening to overtake it.
Trying to take his mind off things, Jamal said to Luther, ‘You said there is a place where we may make camp! Is there far to go?’
‘It is through the forest. On the far edge,’ Luther replied. ‘It is a most pleasant place. There will be feed for the horses and we can bathe in the river.’
‘Is it far?’ Jamal repeated.
‘Far enough, lad!’ Luther replied, allowing himself a smile as he noticed the concern on his young companions face.
‘Perhaps we should hurry then?’
Luther chuckled at the lad, remembering the very same advice being given to him many years ago and his reacting in the very same way.
‘Come on then,’ Luther said, before clicking his horse up into a steady trot.
Presently they came to a slight bend in the road and without any touch from his rider, Jamal’s horse broke into a steady canter as they rounded the bend and was soon out in front, although Jamal did nothing to rein him back in. Luther pushed Majid up into a canter as well, staying slightly back, yet keeping in touch with Jamal and not letting him get too far ahead.
The lad looked back over his shoulder several times and could see his master following, and so he pressed on at the same steady pace, not wanting to appear to be hurrying, but not wanting to spend any more time in this place than was necessary either.
It was reassuring to the lad that he could hear the steady drum of Majid’s hooves on the road quite close behind him, and each time Jamal glanced back he saw his master still following.
‘How far is it now, sire?’ Jamal called out a few moments later, after they had rounded another bend in the road. But to this there was no answer.
With some trepidation he turned and looked back over his shoulder once more, not quite sure of what he should expect. There was no one there. Luther and Majid had vanished, and in that split second of his realising this, Jamal felt fear clutch at his heart and give a firm squeeze, leaving him short of breath.
Quickly he pulled on the reins and brought his horse to a skidding halt, then spun around and stared at the empty road from whence he had just come.
‘Luther! Are you there, sire?’ he anxiously called out, with fear now starting to build inside him. But there was no answer.
Tentatively he rode back to the bend in the road, hoping that Luther would be somewhere close by, but once more there was nothing. All he could see for quite some distance was the empty road.
And that was when he heard it.
A noise so chilling and coming from quite close behind him, sounding as if it were being made by a beast the size of a castle.
It was coming from the place where he had stopped his horse just moments before.
Jamal didn’t want to turn around. He wanted to kick his horse and run. Run back to the village from which they had come. But he knew he could not do that. Whatever it was that was making this noise, it needed to be faced. Whatever it was that was putting this fear into his heart, had to be confronted, for if he could not do that, then surely he would never become the knight that he yearned to be.
As he sat there on his horse, not wanting to look, he knew that that was exactly what he must do.
Pulling on the reins, Jamal turned his horse and faced his fears, not quite knowing what it was that he would find, and finding himself being confronted by a beast the likes of which he had only ever heard stories about.
There before him, blocking the road ahead was the biggest dragon imaginable, breathing fire and with eyes of yellow, flashing like those of the devil himself.
Instinctively he pulled back on the reins and started to back his horse away from the beast, but as he did so the dragon raised up on its hind legs and took a few steps forward. It towered high above the lad and his horse, its neck snaking back and forth and its tail swishing violently around through the undergrowth on both sides of the road, sending loose dirt and gravel flying as it crossed from one side of the road to the other.
Jamal could feel the warmth of the animals’ breath and could see the scales which seemed to cover its rough greenish-brown skin, and from somewhere behind its shoulders there sprouted wings, which initially seemed ridiculously small for a beast of this size, but were soon to be seen growing outward, becoming large enough to darken the world below them.
Every instinct within Jamal told him to turn and run. To run as fast and as far as he could. But he could not do that.
Instead, as the beast advanced upon him, rising high above Jamal and his horse, he started backing away from it, taking one step and then another, with the beast also taking the same number of steps forward, keeping him in its sights as it swung its head around, sending plumes of fire and smoke into the air.
It was then, as he trembled form head to toe, that he heard the words of his master once more.
‘There is nothing to fear in there except fear itself.’
Jamal shook his head. His master was nowhere to be seen. He knew that.
And still the beast kept advancing.
‘I expect that at some stage you shall doubt me, but should you do so, remember only this . . . never doubt your horse.’
The air was filled with the fury of the beast, yet the voice was plain, and near.
Taking his eyes off the dragon for the briefest of moments, Jamal glanced quickly around him, expecting his master to be close at hand as he faced this battle.
Luther was nowhere to be seen.
‘What trickery is this?’ Jamal demanded, as he refocused his attention on the advancing beast. ‘There is no one here.’
‘. . . never doubt your horse,’ the voice said once more.
In his fearful state, Jamal didn’t understand this message, even though he had heard Luther himself say those very words. What sort of a puzzle was this?
‘. . . your horse . . .’ the voice repeated.
‘What about my . . . ,’ he started to say, but then closed his mouth when he finally realised something.
The horse was taking no notice of the dragon. It was as if . . . it was as if it wasn’t there at all.
Suddenly Jamal knew. That was what Luther had meant when he said, ‘There are creatures in there which can be as fearful as any that may be imagined by a man.’
Just then the dragon spewed flame toward Jamal. He could feel the rush of hot air. He could feel the heat. It seemed so real, yet how could it be?
That was it. They were imagined. Men had gone crazy, or worse, simply because of the beasts which they feared. Beasts that were not real anyway.
Pulling his sword from its scabbard, and with a fresh wave of bravado sweeping over him, Jamal looked up at the dragon and waved it at the beast, then shouted, ‘You shall fool me no longer, demon!’
He kicked his horse, urging it forward and the horse moved, unperturbed by the heat and the noise and the fire.
The dragon stopped and took a step backwards, then another, all the while snorting at them.
‘Be gone!’ Jamal yelled, as he swung his sword above his head. ‘I have no fear of you.’
The dragon swung its head down low to the ground, eyeballing Jamal as he approached the beast and shooting forth one more breath of fire, which enveloped both Jamal and his horse, yet did not burn them.
And still, Jamal moved forward.
Seeing this the dragon turned and started to trot away, and so Jamal shouted once more and kicked his horse again, trotting straight after the animal.
Raising his sword high into the air and giving a cry of victory, Jamal urged his horse into a canter, chasing after the dreaded beast as it loped along the road ahead of him, looking back over its shoulder and with its tail swinging back and forth.
Laughing now, Jamal urged his horse to go faster, chasing the monster away from him and enjoying every minute of it. He loved these feelings of power and freedom, and as he galloped along the road, with the wind in his hair and his heart racing, he closed his eyes for a moment and smelt the sweet scent of victory.
When he opened them again, he and his horse were alone. The dragon was gone.
Jamal had conquered his fears. He had chased the animal from the forest. He had chased the fears from his mind.
Reining his horse to a stop, Jamal spun the animal in a circle, looking all around him for any sign of the beast, or, more importantly, any sign of Luther. He wanted to tell his master of his bravery, and that he figured out what he had meant when he told him earlier about trusting his horse.
Jamal found no sign of the beast. And no sign of Luther either.
Somehow though, he felt that Luther would already know.
Just as he was about to turn his horse and continue on down the road however, Jamal spotted something else . . . a man, standing atop a small cliff, which towered above the road some way away, back in the direction from which he had come.
Jamal studied him for a moment, though he was too far away to make out any detail, but he could have sworn that he was wearing the garments of a knight, mostly black in colour, and possibly adorned on the front with a red coloured cross. He had no idea who it was, but he knew it wasn’t Luther. To that he could swear.
As he placed his sword back in its scabbard, Jamal looked away from the distant figure for a moment, but when he looked back up in that direction, the man was gone.
He wondered if he shouldn’t ride back and investigate, but quickly dismissed it as just another imagining. If Luther had known of any other knights being around these parts, surely he would have mentioned it to him.
Pushing the sighting into the back of his mind, Jamal turned his horse once more and headed down the winding road at a canter, in search of the place which Luther had told him of where they would be able to rest for the night, hoping that it would be close by. And hoping that Luther would be there, waiting for him.
As he rode on Jamal heard and sensed many things in the forest on either side of him, yet this time he did not flinch. He no longer feared anything that lived in this strange place, and when he eventually rode out into the clearing by the stream some time later, it was as a man and not the timid boy he had been earlier that same day.
* * *
From where he stood, naked and waist deep in the middle of the stream, Luther could sense, even from a distance that there was something different about his young apprentice as he rode into the clearing.
He smiled at the sight of Jamal riding toward him, a smile which was returned to him, confirming what Luther had sensed. There was no fear left in the lad. He had passed yet another of his tests.
‘Did you get lost, lad?’ Luther chided the lad as he pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted.
‘Had a little trouble, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle,’ Jamal replied.
‘I am pleased to hear that!’
Dropping the reins to the ground and turning away from Luther, Jamal quickly undid the girth of his saddle and pulled it from his horse, before then pulling the bridle from the animal’s head. He turned him loose, then slapped the horse across the rump and watched with some satisfaction as it trotted across to where Majid, Luther’s own stallion, grazed.
Around them the day was nearing its end and the sky was changing to a deeper shade of blue, with crimson streaks starting to appear in the west. Jamal looked around and saw that Luther had already gathered some wood for a fire, and so he decided to join his master in the stream and wash away the dust and the sweat of the days travelling. After which he knew they would set their fire and then eat, before making camp for the night.
Stripping off his garments and dropping them on the ground beside his saddle, Jamal turned and started toward the water’s edge, his naked, dark skinned body almost glowing in the late afternoon light, and sending a tingling sensation through Luther’s loins as the lad approached.
Luther did not love Jamal in the same way that he loved the other, but there was something about the lad which had always captivated and intrigued the knight.
He had made a promise to him many years ago that when Jamal came of age he would show him the ways in which a man could please another, and for Luther at least, it had not been a chore. He was a man of his word, and for the past few nights he had been keeping his word by showing the lad just that, but now as Jamal approached, his body glistening and his manhood swinging freely between his legs, Luther wanted to please his companion as much for himself as for the lads’ education.
‘What are you smiling at?’ Jamal asked as he took the first tentative steps into the cool waters of the stream.
‘I was just thinking how much you have changed in recent times,’ Luther answered honestly. ‘You are no longer that scruffy boy I picked up all those years ago on the road from Xanthus.’
‘No. I am not,’ Jamal replied, still edging closer.
‘You are a man now. And a man I am proud to have riding by my side. You proved that today, by conquering all of your fears.’
Jamal felt his face flush and a stirring in his loins, which did not go unnoticed.
‘You told me what I needed to know,’ Jamal said. ‘You told me to trust my horse. The horse didn’t spook. The beast couldn’t have been real.’
‘What was it you saw?’
‘A dragon. It was as big as a castle.’
‘You worked it out,’ Luther said. ‘Well done. That’s another test you’ve passed.’
‘Of course. All knights must be strong. All knights must be fearless. And all knights must be pure of heart.’
‘I cannot present you to the Council just yet. But it will be soon. Of that you may be sure.’
By now, Jamal was standing directly in front of Luther, with each feeling the breath of the other on his skin. The younger man reached into the stream and brought up a handful of water, holding his hands close to his master and letting the water trickle down over his chest, before then using the palms of his hands and wiping them over the older man’s body. This procedure he repeated several times, moving around his master as he did so and bathing him all over, letting his hands linger for longer than he ordinarily would have, before allowing Luther to do the same for him, massaging his body with all the tenderness of a long-time lover.
When Luther had finished he was standing once more in front of Jamal and he placed his hands on the younger man’s chest, before allowing them to slide down his body, caressing and admiring its firmness. Placing a hand on either side of Jamal’s hips he pulled him forward, allowing their erections to rub together, before also allowing their flat stomachs and chests to come together.
Jamal placed his arms around the strong shoulders of his master and hugged the older man, before Luther placed a hand beneath the lads’ chin and tilted his head upwards, to the point where the pair were gazing into each other’s eyes.
‘I am proud of you,’ Luther whispered. ‘You shall bring honour to your father’s name.’
‘I have had a good teacher, sire,’ Jamal replied, before placing his lips over those of the older man, the pair soon working their mouths in unison, each probing the other’s mouths, each sucking in the hot breath from the other.
When they finally parted and he was able to speak, Luther said, ‘You have learned well, but your lessons are far from over yet, lad.’
‘Then teach me,’ Jamal replied, with a glint in his eye.
Needing no second invitation, Luther kissed Jamal once more, then led him from the stream, their hands clasped firmly together.
Spreading out their blankets on the soft ground, they lay down upon them and embraced, their lips once again seeking each other out, before Luther slid down the body of his companion. As he progressed he kissed Jamal softly as he went, first on his neck, then his chest, sucking on each of the lad’s erect nipples, then going further and further down on him, until finally he was teasing the tip of Jamal’s penis with the roughness of his tongue, sending shudders through the lad which Luther could feel.
‘Don’t tease me so,’ Jamal whimpered in the rapidly fading light.
‘I shall tease you as I like,’ Luther replied, while sliding a hand between Jamal’s legs, seeking out the most tender of parts.
Some time later, when both were spent, the two lay beneath a blanket, with Luther’s arms wrapped firmly around Jamal, and Jamal’s back snuggled into Luther’s front. He lay there listening to Luther’s quiet breathing in his ear and could feel the still erect penis of his master sticking into his buttocks.
‘There is something else which you should know,’ Jamal ventured.
‘What is that?’
‘I saw a man today. It was a knight. I am certain of it.’
‘Where? In the forest?’
‘What did this knight look like? What were his colours?’
‘He was far off, I could not see him clearly. But his colours were black. Of that I am sure. And I believe there was a red coloured cross adorning his tunic.’
‘Interesting,’ Luther replied.
‘Do you know of him?’
‘I think not,’ Luther answered. ‘They are not colours I have seen in recent times.’
Luther knew of such colours of course, but it had been many years since they had been worn. He smiled to himself at the thought that they would soon be worn again, then shortly after that both of them drifted off to a welcome sleep.
* * *
It was well before dawn when Luther awoke, startled by some sound.
He was still wrapped snugly around Jamal, and as quietly as he could he propped himself up and looked around him, seeing the pale pre-dawn sky everywhere between the many trees, but seeing no other movement except that of two horses grazing some distance away.
Thinking that it must have been they which had made the sound, he went to snuggle back into the warm body of Jamal.
It was then that Luther heard a noise coming from somewhere close behind him, and suddenly felt something cold and sharp stick into his back.
When the sharp point was taken away, Luther half rolled over, coming face to face with the dull sheen of a finely crafted sword, and a pair of eyes he not seen in many a year.
To be continued . . .