‘What is it, boy?’ the Warlock asked his companion as they came to a halt, unable to proceed any further and breathless from their hurrying along the dark tunnels.
After escaping the approach of the Dark Lord and his men they had travelled the length of the corridor, reaching a junction of several tunnels. Carel advised the Warlock that there was a weak light coming from up ahead of them, but he was reluctant to proceed further down that path, as something told him that this path was fraught with danger.
‘What else do you see?’ the Warlock asked.
‘To either side there are also tunnels,’ Carel answered. The Warlock turned each way and seemed to sniff the fetid air.
‘This way,’ the Warlock said, before holding out his hand and stepping into the abyss.
Their torch had long since given out and they had no light where they were. Around them there was only blackness, and their only means of finding their way was by feeling steadily along the stone walls.
Carel stepped ahead of his master and felt his way along the damp tunnel, before eventually coming to a halt.
‘It is another door, sire,’ Carel whispered. ‘And I hear voices coming from the other side.’
The Warlock shuffled forward in the darkness and placed an ear against the heavy oak door, which was cold and damp and musty smelling, concentrating all his efforts on the muffled sounds coming from the next room.
‘Can you hear what they are saying, sire?’ Carel whispered.
‘Sshhh!’ the Warlock replied, rather tersely.
As the minutes ticked by all Carel could hear was the sound of his own heart beating, accompanied by the shallow breaths of his master. For one terrifying moment he thought he heard the sound of voices in the corridor behind him and looked back in that direction expecting to see a flaming torch and the Dark Lord’s men descend upon them, but it proved to be nothing. So far no one had managed to discover their whereabouts and he prayed that it would remain that way.
‘They are gone,’ the Warlock finally said. ‘Now we must find a way through.’
The boy suddenly felt his guts tighten and his mouth go dry, for surely they were doomed, though he said nothing to his master.
‘My lad, do not worry so,’ the Warlock said softly, almost in a whisper. ‘We shall be back in our tower before you know it.’
‘Of course we will, sire,’ Carel replied, though without any great confidence. The Warlock could only chuckle to himself as he started to feel his way around the edges of the door.
* * *
As the last of his unwelcome visitors left him, passing through the great wooden door to the dungeons and slamming it shut behind them, the blonde haired prisoner sank back onto the filthy straw that was his bedding, listening to the heavy bolt being slid back into place on the far side of the door. It was followed by the sound of his captors’ footsteps growing quieter and quieter, until eventually they could no longer be heard.
He knew not what day or time it was, nor whether it was day or night. Time was something which he no longer knew anything of, as the minutes, the hours and the days had merged into one long nightmare, from which there was seemingly no escape.
With little else to do the prisoner settled himself back against the cold stone wall, with his knees drawn up in front of him and his arms and forehead resting on top of them.
He was not feeling defeated, or even sorry for himself, as most prisoners were apt to do when faced with these same circumstances, meekly accepting whatever fate the gods, or the guards, had in store for them. Instead, he found this to be an opportune time for prayer and quiet reflection, gathering his thoughts and focusing his energies, for there were several things of which he could be certain.
One of these was that he knew his captors would not harm him. The other was that those who cared for him would surely be coming for him, for that was their way.
As the dungeon fell quiet once more, Prince Raemande closed his eyes and leant his head back against the wall, allowing his thoughts to wander to happier times, just as he had done many a time in the days since he had been brought to this place. Once more he was a child, running through fields and along beaches, playing and laughing with his friends. The carefree days of his youth were as fresh in his mind’s eye now as they had ever been.
As the memories swirled randomly around in his mind, fading in and out through the mists of time, he saw once more his first kiss, when he was all of fourteen summers, and found himself forlornly wishing that he had known then all that he knew now.
Before long he found himself riding in a column of horseman, young and proud and victorious, but then the mists rolled in once more and blocked his visions. When they cleared momentarily he found himself standing by a funeral pyre, feeling the despair in his soul and the heat from its flames, knowing full well for whom he was mourning.
Then there was darkness, after which he soon found himself dancing with a beautiful woman. Flashes of memory came to him, then went, even before he could recognise them. He caught glimpses of faces and events that he knew, yet could not name. He saw death, then life re-born. The smile of a woman. The laughter of a child.
He felt he had been shown all that he had seen in his life thus far, and all the while the infernal mists of time kept rolling around in his mind, obscuring his view, teasing him, taunting him.
Then slowly the clouds started spinning, the images in his mind becoming blurred as they became intermingled with each other, accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning, which burned through his brain.
Fearful of what they might next show him, Rae tried to open his eyes but found he could not. What was it that he was to be shown? Of what would this next vision be?
Faster and faster the clouds began to spin, a huge circular storm, the likes of which he had never before witnessed, taking up every square inch of his vision.
And yet, as the storm moved faster and faster, an enormous calm came over him, and as it did so he found a small break in the centre of the clouds, where the sun soon found its way through, illuminating the scene below in a fiery mixture of gold and crimson.
As the break in the clouds widened and the light strengthened, Rae could see clearly the scene below, where four horsemen were galloping across a grassy plain, their long hair and their colours flapping in the wind while making for cover, lest they be caught in the fearsome storm.
It was an eerie sight, with the grassy plain appearing as if it were alight, such was the colour of the storm.
‘They are coming!’ the prisoner whispered, in a tone which spoke of both happiness and relief, before he collapsed back onto his straw bedding once more.
* * *
Beneath a clear sky, the four horsemen had set out at first light, riding northward at a steady pace, dropping down from the green hills and starting across a grassy plain, heading toward a distant range of rocky and barren mountains.
There was some urgency to their travels, yet they were ever conscious of the long road ahead of them and the places that their journey may take them, and so they rode with some caution. They spared their mounts whenever they could, then urging them back into a canter when the going was easy, before bringing them back to a walk when the ground became rough.
Their destination still lay far ahead of them, in the Mountains of Algernon. If they rode hard they could make it by nightfall, but rather than do that they paced themselves and their horses. Tomorrow would be soon enough, then they would seek counsel with Chandar, the oldest and wisest member of their order and it was there where they were certain they would find the knowledge that they sought.
More than that, however, it would also be from there that they would begin their next journey.
As the morning wore on and mile after mile passed beneath the travelers, little was said between them, as their determination to reach their goal strengthened. Such was their focus that none of the riders noticed the change in the mood of the day, as the grassy plain on which they rode gradually took on an eerie persona. The long grasses which had stood calm and upright were now being blown back and forth by a swirling, hot wind, and were now tainted by the colours of the storm, mirroring the dark shadow which had closed in above them.
When a bolt of lightning leapt from the sky and shattered a tree on the edge of the plain, Luther and Garrett finally looked about them at the fury with which they were surrounded, finally becoming aware of the swirling winds and the threatening clouds above them.
‘We must find cover,’ Garrett called out to his companions, who had already spurred their horses into a gallop.
‘Over there!’ Luther called back, pointing toward a ridge which rose steeply from the plain in front of them, leading upwards into the rocky and barren foothills. Off to the right there appeared to be a gully coming down through the centre of it, and with any luck, Luther hoped, they would find shelter beneath some rocky crag where they would be able to wait out the storm. Even as he spoke, the riders could feel the large, though intermittent droplets of rain began to lash them.
The four riders swerved their horses as one, and headed toward the spot Luther had pointed out. With their heels digging into the ribs of their mounts, they urged them on as fast as their legs would carry them, as around them the winds kept on building and the sky grew darker still.
As they galloped onwards, rapidly stringing out in a single line and with daylight between them all, the speed of their mounts became apparent. Luther led the way, followed by Garrett, Jamal and then Han. Each was desperate to reach shelter, before they were hit by the full force of the storm which they could now see sweeping in behind them, coming from the direction of the mountains which they had just left.
Yet as they rode, the strangest of things happened, as the storm clouds parted momentarily and the sun shone through onto the plain, illuminating it with such brilliance that it was as if the riders and their mounts were consumed in a sea of fire.
Briefly Luther glanced up at the strange sky, at the swirling clouds which now appeared, quite incredibly, to be circling the small area of clear blue and the brilliant circle of gold, and for just a moment he thought he saw something which sent a shiver through him.
Was that a face, he wondered? In that instant when he had seen it, he could have sworn it was that of someone he held dear.
He blinked and looked again, but the clouds had quickly closed in again and the last rays of the sun were blacked out by the storm cloud. Just as this happened the four riders were swamped by the rain which blew in at a sharp angle, driven into them by the ferocious winds.
There was something unnatural about this day, and both Luther and Garrett sensed this as they continued their gallop for cover. They also sensed that there would be many more such days ahead of them.
Moments later, drenched from the storm, the four riders steered their mounts into the mouth of the gully, galloping along the smooth floor and with Luther looking about him for a place where they could shelter.
‘Up there!’ he heard Jamal call out from behind him and quickly glanced back at his young companion, who was pointing toward what appeared to be an opening part of the way up the wall. Above there sat a mountainous boulder, hanging part way out over the opening and providing ample shelter for all of them.
It was just what Luther had hoped he would find, and without any hesitation he pointed his mount in that direction, giving the animal his head. The great stallion surged forward, leaping up a narrow path which led toward the boulder, with such agility that one might think him to be part mountain goat.
The other riders quickly followed, though their horses were not quite as nimble as that of Luther, but before long all beasts and men were safely standing in the entrance of what appeared to be a large cavern, breathing great plumes of steam into the cold air. They were cold and wet, though all were grateful that they were no longer being lashed by the ferocious rains.
* * *
Within the depths of the dark dungeon, where the only light came from a lone torch burning by the main door, the prisoner gradually awoke from an uneasy sleep.
As his senses slowly returned he became aware of his surroundings once more, and as he lay there he also became aware, slowly, of something else that seemed to be foreign to this world.
At first he wasn’t sure what it was that seemed out of place, but then he heard it; someone, or something, was scratching away at the door he knew stood in the shadows at the far corner of the dungeon. He knew not where the door led; however in the days since he had been moved to this terrible place he had seen numerous people come and go through the dark recess.
Not knowing just who it may be who was visiting this time, Rae slunk back into a darkened corner of his cell and waited, with more than just a little trepidation, but at the same time filled with curiosity.
After only a few minutes of waiting he finally heard the click of the lock being turned, a sound which echoed throughout the quiet dungeon, which was then followed closely by the sound of the door creaking on its rusty hinges as it opened.
Rae held his breath as he waited for whoever it was to come into view.
‘Is this the place, sire?’ he heard someone ask. It sounded as if it were only a boy, his voice deep, though slightly uneven after the lads’ passage through puberty, which could not have been that long ago.
‘What can you see, Carel?’ another voice asked. This voice belonged to someone considerably older.
‘Let me light our torch from the other on the wall,’ the younger voice replied.
Neither person had come into view as yet, but Rae already had an inkling as to their identities.
It was common knowledge that the Warlock of Septimus was a blind man, as a result of injuries he received whilst being tortured after his capture. Also, if the talk of the prison guards were to be given any credence, he apparently shared his rooms and his bed with his catamite, a peasant boy who tended to his every need.
Just then he heard the sound of footsteps on the cold stone floor as one of the intruders started for the door.
For a few seconds he could see nothing, but then a boy emerged from the shadows, walking quickly across the centre of the room toward the main door.
He was a plain looking boy, not totally unpleasant to the eye, Rae thought, then found himself having to stifle a chuckle when he realised that that would matter not to a blind man.
From his place in the shadows he watched as the boy held his torch to the other that was burning, until it sputtered to life then started back toward his master, who still stood in the shadows.
Gradually a figure started to emerge from the darkness, and by the time the boy reached his master Rae could see the man standing there, dressed in old robes, with long grey hair and beard, and dark holes where there had once been eyes. He was not an imposing sort of man, nor did he appear threatening, but there was a presence about him, which Rae found difficult to fathom and at the same time somewhat unnerving.
‘What do you see, lad?’ the old man asked his companion.
‘It is a dungeon sire. Yet there is but one cage.’
‘And is there anyone inside that cage, Carel?’
The boy moved toward the cell, holding the flaming torch out in front of him. Rae held his breath as he neared, afraid to move even. It was to no avail however, as the torchlight eventually gave away his presence and the boy stopped, staring into the cell.
‘There is a man!’ Carel exclaimed.
‘Of course there is!’ The Warlock quipped, as he started to shuffle forward to where his young companion stood.
‘Do you know who he is?’ the boy asked his master.
‘Perhaps we can find out?’ the old man replied, then motioning toward where Rae still lay added, ‘You there. Come to me!’
Rae remained where he was on his bed of straw. He would not be commanded to do anything by a senile old man such as this.
‘Come now. You are not some petulant child. I need you to come to me.’
Once again Rae chose to stay where he was.
‘Who are you?’ Rae demanded, already knowing full well who it was that now faced him, but wanting to hear it for his own peace of mind.
‘That is of no consequence,’ the Warlock answered. ‘One might ask the same of you. You must be someone of great importance for the Dark Lord to go to this much trouble.’
‘I am nobody.’
‘We are all somebody my boy. Who are you?’
Rae did not answer.
‘Come to me. Give me your hand, lad. If I am to help you, or help the Dark Lord, I need to see what it is that we all must face.’
‘You are the Warlock!’
‘Very perceptive of you.’
‘As long as there is breath in my body, I shall not help Septimus. I should rather piss on his grave.’
‘The desire of you and many others, I am afraid,’ the old man replied with a soft chuckle.
A faint smile slowly came to the face of the prisoner and after a few moments he got to his feet and crossed to where the two intruders stood, with just the cold prison bars to separate them.
‘What is it you want of me?’ Rae asked once he stood directly in front of the old man, wary, yet at the same time quite curious. Would the Warlock really see what they would all face?
‘Fear not,’ the Warlock said quietly as he reached through the bars and held his hand upright, his palm facing the prisoner. Slowly Rae stretched out his hand and placed his palm against that of the Warlock, and almost immediately Rae could feel a strange tingling sensation in his hand, as if something were passing between them.
Looking into the old man’s face, he could see his expression start to change, his demeanor moving from one of relative calmness to one of anxiousness, before finally the Warlock recoiled in horror and immediately dropped to his knees before Rae. Reaching through the bars for the younger man’s feet he clasped them, all the while muttering and wailing some incomprehensible chant which left Rae and the boy looking at each other in amazement.
‘What was it? What did you see, old man?’ Rae asked, but just as he did so they heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor outside and the jingle of keys.
Instinctively the boy grabbed at his master, trying to drag him away.
‘What was it? You must tell me!’ Rae demanded, dropping to the stone floor in front of the old man.
‘It is the prophecy!’ the Warlock replied, and then he was gone, being half dragged, half carried toward the far door by his young companion.
Just as they disappeared from view and the door creaked shut, the main door opened and two guards burst inside.
‘Who were you talking to?’ one of them demanded, while the other looked around the room, carrying a torch and peering into every dark corner.
‘It was nobody,’ Rae replied. ‘I was sleeping. It was a bad dream. I cried out.’
Then turning his back on his guards he returned to his bed of straw and lay down once more, with a million thoughts racing through his mind.
To be continued . . .