The point of the sword lowered and Luther looked up into the eyes of the intruder standing above him.
‘A little birdie told me I would find you here,’ the deep, though soft voice said.
‘I hope that he has told more than just you, my friend,’ Luther replied in a whisper, as he threw back the blanket which covered him and Jamal and sat upright.
The stranger’s gaze shifted from the knight to the sleeping form of the boy and then back again.
‘I thought you said that you would never bed him?’ he asked with a grin. ‘How long ago did you weaken?’
‘Just these past three nights,’ Luther answered truthfully. ‘He is now of age. It was a promise I made to him long ago, to show him all of the ways of the brotherhood.’
The other man simply nodded, then looked about him at the campsite. Noticing Luther’s tunic, which lay on the ground nearby, he used the point of his sword to pick it up and pass it to him.
‘It is cool and you have no fire. You may need this,’ he remarked.
‘Thanks,’ Luther replied, as he took the tunic and pulled it over his head and covered his nakedness, before then getting to his feet and standing in front of the man, looking him up and down.
There was little that had changed about him since last they met. The strong and handsome features of his face remained the same. The hair was still dark. The muscles were still strong.
‘It has been a long time, Garrett, my friend,’ Luther said, stretching his arm out toward the visitor. Each man clasped the other, their hands wrapping themselves around the forearm, just below the elbow, the dragon tattoo’s melding together in their traditional greeting.
‘It has been far too long. It is good to see you again, Luther.’
‘That it has. What news have you of the others?’
They moved slightly away from the where Jamal still slept, while talking in soft tones.
Garrett simply shook his head and said, ‘You have heard the stories then?’
‘I have heard only whispers and rumours that some of our order are missing. Such rumours are always swiftest to carry to the farthest reaches of the known lands.’
‘Aye, they do. I fear that there are many knights who have not been heard of for some time . . . Benito, Aleksy, Nasam, Adan, to name but a few. We may only guess at their fate and pray that the gods will return them to us.’
Luther nodded solemnly.
‘And what of Prince Raemande?’ Garrett asked. ‘I have heard whispers.’
‘They too, have traveled swiftly it seems. Not this night, but the one previous, I was granted a vision of Rae. I saw him kneeling before the Dark Lord. I fear that he is his prisoner, though for what purpose I am unsure.’
‘I fear that Septimus is finally pushing toward the crown he has always yearned for . . . but surely even he isn’t foolish enough to think that he can achieve that aim through Rae alone. There is still another before Rae who may rightfully lay claim to the Golden Throne of Jeebath!’
‘That is true,’ Luther remarked. ‘And I have no doubt that Septimus has visions of himself, sitting upon the throne, his head adorned with the crown, but I fear that there is something else he is after as well.’
‘You may well be right. But what could that be?’
Just then they heard Jamal stir. Looking down at the lad, in the dim light, they saw him roll over in his sleep and pull the blanket tightly around him.
‘Are you alone, then?’ Luther asked his companion.
‘My boy is with the horses, out amongst the trees,’ Garrett replied.
‘Then call him in. We shall light the fire so we can all be warmed on this morning. Besides, the sun is almost here, it is time for some brew, then afterwards we must ride once more.’
With a nod, Garrett placed his fingers to his lips and let forth with a shrill whistle which echoed through the trees, startling Jamal, who jumped to his feet, naked and wide awake, and with his sword already in hand, ready to attack the intruder.
‘Easy there, lad,’ Luther chuckled, holding an arm out between the boy and Garrett. ‘Save yourself for the real enemy! Do you remember our friend Garrett?’
Jamal relaxed a little, but still eyed the stranger warily, who was now looking him up and down.
‘Surely this isn’t the wretched boy you rescued on the road all those years ago?’
‘That be him,’ Luther replied. ‘And a better companion I could not have asked for! He shall make a fine knight, once he passes his remaining tests.’
‘Just look at him. The boy is all grown up now,’ Garrett remarked, before letting his eyes rest on Jamal’s uncovered manhood. ‘And my, my, just how he has grown! It’s little wonder you bedded him, Luther!’
‘Yes. And you can just keep your hungry eyes off him, Garrett,’ Luther laughed. ‘I may have been absent from these lands for some time, but your reputation is something I remember clearly.’
At that moment they were all distracted by the sound of approaching horses and turned to see a gangly boy of about sixteen emerge from the darkness, riding one horse and leading another.
Using the distraction, Jamal quickly pulled on his own tunic, to cover himself, before going to his master and standing by his side.
‘Garrett, you seem to have done all right for yourself anyway,’ Luther remarked upon seeing the boy.
‘Yes, I reckon so,’ the knight remarked. ‘Young Han is a good lad . . . in many ways.’
‘I’m sure he is,’ Luther replied, offering Jamal a knowing wink as he did so.
* * *
In the far away city of Carronne, in the depths of the castle which overlooked the bleak city, a blind man was being led through the corridors by his young companion.
Carefully, they had made their way down the tower in which they resided, managing to sneak past guards until they were in the deepest parts of the castle, where light never shone and the rats grew as big as cats.
In one hand the boy held a flaming torch, holding it out in front of him to light their way, while his other hand was wrapped tightly around the robe of his master, who was hobbling along slowly beside him.
‘But I don’t understand, Master,’ the boy said to the older man as they shuffled along the corridor, with rats and other vermin scurrying out of their way and trying to stay hidden in the darkest of corners. ‘Why is it that you need to be near him? Why would you want to touch the new prisoner?’
‘I fear this prisoner is more than just another to be tortured for the pleasure of Septimus,’ the Warlock said quietly. ‘The whispers I have heard tell me that he has been brought here from the prison, Daarkeeth. I sense that this is a man of great importance to our Lord. If I am to be able to tell our Lord anything of what he future may hold for them both, and for all of us, I need to feel his life force, my boy.’
The boy said nothing, but the Warlock could sense the lad’s confusion, and allowed himself an unseen smile as he followed along blindly.
‘One day you shall understand, Carel,’ the Warlock said softly.
‘Indeed, I may, sire,’ he answered. ‘But it shall not be on this day!’
The Warlock started chuckling to himself, quietly at first, but soon it was echoing along the corridor, only to be silenced as quickly as it began, when the old man stopped suddenly in his tracks.
‘What is it, Master?’
‘We must hide. Our Lord is coming. I can sense him.’
‘Hide? But where?’
Frantically the boy looked around them, holding the flaming torch up high, searching for any place that may offer them protection, but there was none. The oak door at the far end of the corridor was still some way away. Could they reach it in time?
‘We must hurry!’ the boy exclaimed. ‘There is a door at the end of the corridor.’
Together the two of them started to run, as best they could. One a spritely lad, the other a blind, near crippled man, in need of assistance.
‘Come on,’ Carel pleaded to his master, with panic rising quickly within him.
Amidst the fear, the Warlock sensed suddenly that refuge was close at hand and grabbed blindly at the boy, hurling him sideways against an unseen door, which stood hidden in the shadows.
‘Q-q-quick. In h-here, Master,’ the boy stammered, as he opened the door for them both, then ushered the Warlock inside and slammed it shut behind them, shutting out also the sound of approaching men.
Holding the lit torch up in front of him, Carel swept it around in an arc, trying to view their surroundings. There was little to see, besides some crates and the movement of some small shadowy figures in the far corners, but at least it would offer them some hope of remaining undetected.
As he swung the light around he stopped when he noticed what he thought was another doorway on the far side of the room, and started toward it.
‘Where are you going, boy?’ the Warlock asked anxiously.
‘There is another door, I think. I will check it.’
‘Just be careful then. If we are discovered here, I fear our fate shall be far worse than that of the prisoner we seek to visit.’
‘Don’t worry, Master. I will,’ Carel replied, with a voice that was raspy, from his throat having gone suddenly very dry.
As he crossed the floor, Carel could feel his stomach churning, while at the same time he felt his nether regions harden. That had happened on many occasions before, although on this occasion he wasn’t sure if the reaction was from fear or excitement, and this was something which confused him.
When he reached the far side of the room he found what he thought was a doorway, but when he edged closer, squeezing between some crates, he found that it was merely bricks and mortar filling the place where there once had been a door.
‘Have you found anything?’ the Warlock asked anxiously from where he sat, just inside the first door. ‘They are getting closer.’
‘There is a doorway here, sire,’ Carel called back, in what was little more than a loud whisper. ‘But it has been sealed with bricks.’
‘Feel around the edges. Look for something out of place . . . a lever, or a stone to be pushed inwards.’
Obediently Carel started feeling around the edge of the doorway, doing as his master ordered.
‘Hurry,’ whispered the Warlock, getting to his feet and starting toward Carel, feeling his way as best he could, hitting up against crates and other mouldy items. ‘I can almost feel the cold breath of the Dark Lord.’
Frantically the peasant boy searched around the edge of the door, running his fingers over the cold stones and bricks, pushing at anything that looked or felt strange.
It was just then, just as the Warlock reached his side, that they heard voices, followed by the distinct sound of boots on the hard flooring of the corridor outside the door through which they had just come. They were still a little way off, most likely having just entered the corridor at the far end, but they were drawing closer.
‘Sire! We are done for!’ the boy exclaimed.
‘Not yet, lad,’ the Warlock snapped, as he reached his bony hands toward the edge of the doorway.
Carel watched as his fingers caressed the stone wall, running along the edge of the bricks, searching this way and that. Eventually the older man stopped, and Carel thought he saw him smile in the shadowy light.
Out in the corridor, the sound of voices was growing louder and louder.
‘What is it, Master?’ Carel asked.
Without saying a word, the Warlock slid his bony fingers into the crack between two stones and seemed to push downward.
Carel thought that he heard a click type of sound, but he couldn’t be sure. At just that moment the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside seemed to stop and he thought he heard a deep voice say, ‘Open it.’
In that same instant he looked at the Warlock and saw not concern on his face, but triumph, for his master had pushed on a part of the wall and it was sliding easily open.
‘Quickly, lad. In here,’ the Warlock said, as he himself disappeared into the dark void.
As he heard the latch turn in the heavy timber door behind him, Carel stepped into what appeared to be a narrow tunnel, then, as he heard the creak of the wooden door as it opened, the Warlock quietly slid the stone wall back into place until they both heard the soft click of the locking mechanism falling into place.
‘Where are we, sire?’ Carel asked, with his nose turning up at the dank smell of this place.
‘What can you see, boy?’
‘It is another passageway, sire. It is narrow. And I think I can see some light at the other end.’
‘Then that is the direction in which we should go, my boy. Lead on!’
* * *
‘So, what course of action do you plan from here?’ Garrett asked Luther from where he sat on the opposite side of a small though warming fire that was now building in strength.
‘We shall seek counsel, then gather what forces we can.’
‘Chandar?’ Garrett asked.
Luther simply nodded, then took another sip from his mug.
‘A wise decision, my friend.’
‘Aye, I believe it is,’ Luther replied.
‘Pray tell then, Jamal, what manner of beast did you come across in the forest yesterday?’ Garrett then asked, turning his attention away from Luther.
With some uncertainty the lad looked across at his master, who gave only the slightest nod, perceptible only to those who would be familiar with his mannerisms, before sipping from his mug once more.
‘It was a dragon, my Lord. A dragon as big as a castle!’ Jamal replied.
‘Ahhhhh . . .’ came the reply.
Jamal looked at the knight, as if he were expecting him to say something more, but nothing was said for the moment. Feeling slightly disappointed, Jamal put his lips back to his own mug while glancing across the fire toward Luther, only to find that he was unable to read his expression.
‘And did this dragon singe those fine downy hairs on your arse?’ Garrett eventually asked, in a flat tone.
Jamal glanced quickly at Luther again for some guidance, but all he saw was the older man’s eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth draw up into the beginnings of a smile. He knew he would be alone to fight this battle.
Jamal thought for a moment before answering, then said, ‘That he did, my Lord! Would you like to see the scorch marks?’
‘Maybe later, boy, when your master is elsewhere!’ Garrett replied with a wink. ‘He may think it is something else I am after!’
‘Sorry, my Lord, but that shall only happen in your dreams!’ Jamal remarked dryly.
‘Ahhh . . . but such sweet dreams they would be, don’t you think?’ the knight replied, which caused a ripple of laughter to pass around the small band.
After a few moments, when the laughter had died away, Jamal looked across at Garrett and asked, ‘Sire, did you and your companion come through the forest as well?’
‘No. Not this time, lad. Why do you ask?’
‘I was certain I saw another knight as I passed through its fearful depths. I had hoped you may have come across him also.’
The older knight simply shook his head and said, ‘Sorry, lad, Han and I saw not another soul, until we happened upon this very campsite.’
With a nod, Jamal turned his attention back to the mug of steaming liquid he was holding, while inwardly he felt disappointment rising inside him that there was no other to witness his sighting of the mysterious knight, whose presence in the forest yesterday was now starting to play on the young man’s mind.
He wondered what Luther had meant when he said that the black colours with the red cross were colours he had not seen in some time? Obviously they were colours he knew. But to whom did they belong?
He was soon startled from his reverie however, when moments later Luther stood up and threw the remaining contents of his mug into the fire.
Looking down at his three companions he said, ‘We should get moving again. We still have far to travel if we are to reach Chandar by nightfall.’
‘Agreed,’ Garrett replied, getting to his feet and throwing the dregs of his drink into the small fire also. ‘We should travel in the cool of the morning, then rest in the heat of the day.’
‘Aye,’ Luther replied. ‘Let us make some tracks.’
To be continued . . .