For many days now an old man had maintained his lonely vigil, perched upon a ledge high above the Valley of the Ancients that stretched out before him. He was keeping a watchful eye on all roads leading into and out of this hidden land.
This was the place that was the spiritual home to the Knights of the Order of the Dragon. It was the birthplace of Erasmus, the very first knight of the order, and was the place where the most sacred of relics were kept.
It was also the one place that all knights knew of as home, and to where all knights would return in troubled times.
In recent days the old man had sensed that there were turbulent times ahead. His troubled dreams, and the whispers carried to him on the winds told him of this. He knew also that the future of his knights would depend on the outcome of the days ahead, for should the darkness prevail, the knights would surely be no more.
He was unsure as to exactly how many days it had been since he had first sat on the ledge above the entrance to his home in the Caves of Erasmus, and nor did he care how many days it had been. When a man grew to be as old as this man was, each new day seemed to be just like the days that had already been. The one thing he did know, however, was that he would sit here for as long as it took for those he awaited to complete their journey. They were coming, and with them would come a new hope for the future of the order he held so dear.
Day after day he had climbed the narrow path to his favourite vantage point, which gave him a commanding view of the valley and all roads leading in and out. He noted with some interest that the traffic on the roads was heavier now than it had been just a week before, and that the camp fires around the small village in the valley had grown in number. On some days he even ventured down closer to the village, to where he could look down upon the gathering travelers and get a better look at them, yet each time that he looked upon them, most of whom he knew well, he was to be disappointed time and time again, as the faces he sought were not to be found.
‘I know they are coming,’ he said softly to himself, after yet another disappointment. ‘But where are they? They should have been here by this. And I am an old man now . . . I cannot wait forever.’
Looking toward the setting sun, which hovered barely above the western rim of the valley, the old man noted that it was time for him descend once again to his spartan home below, before the chilly fingers of darkness once more began to cover the valley floor in shadow.
‘Perhaps it will be tomorrow?’ he muttered to himself as he struggled to his feet, with his only assistance being an ancient and gnarled wooden staff, before then seeking out the familiar rocky pathway that would lead him down from his ledge.
Overhead the sky still held some of its colour, yet darkness comes quickly in the mountains and before he had gone very far he found himself once again struggling to find his way. Below him he could see lights emerging from the blackness and smell the meals being cooked as the families who lived there, along with those who were now encamped around the village, prepared for the night. The breeze pushed the smoke from their fires along the valley floor and then up toward him, along the steep cliffs at the end of the valley.
He struggled on, as he did always, and by the time he neared the path to the cave that was his own dwelling the skies above him and the valley below him were both black, decorated only by those few stars who were first to venture into the night and those pinpricks of light coming from the homes and campfires of those in the valley.
At the place where the rocky path split, with one trail leading down the mountainside and the other leading off toward his own quarters, Chandar was greeted by a familiar odour that brought a smile to his weathered face. It was here that he would often find a basket containing a home cooked meal and warm bread, left for him by the villagers and once more it seemed that they had been kind to him. Whomever it had been, for he could never be sure of just who it was that that he should thank for such kindness, had also lit his torch, which would help light his way along the path to his home, something for which he was also grateful.
Perhaps it was the wife of one of the villagers, he often thought. Or perhaps it was the boy who he sometimes saw alone on the paths that led up the steep slopes of the valley, the only son of one of the village elders. He could not be sure who he should thank, or even if he should thank them, after all, was he not the Keeper of the Sword of Erasmus and the eldest of the remaining knights of the order, but he was grateful all the same for the care that was given him and the reverence with which he was treated.
It wasn’t often that he actually came into contact with the villagers, they mostly kept to themselves and rarely sought him out, but as he stepped into his quarters on this night he did so having made the decision himself to seek out the elders and ask what news they had received of the world outside the valley they shared. Perhaps then he might be able to make some sense of the troubled dreams that had visited him on so many recent nights; real and violent dreams that had replaced his usual fare of reliving swashbuckling conquests of the past, and new crusades that tomorrow may bring.
It had been during one such fitful sleep of not so long ago that Chandar had witnessed a scene that had both troubled and distressed him, leaving his frail old body trembling and bathed in a cold sweat, with his blood and the echoes of a thousand galloping hooves, pounding through his brain.
He knew what it was that was coming. He knew who, and what, it was that the coming battle would be fought over. Yet he was powerless to stop it. One man alone could not stop such a force. It would take an army to do that, yet there was no army in existence that was capable of confronting such a force.
The only army he knew of that could possibly prevail was now scattered to the four winds, with its numbers seemingly becoming more and more depleted with each passing day.
* * *
As Chandar shuffled toward the entrance to his cave, with his thoughts on the warm meal that he knew would fill his belly on this night, he passed by the stone column that marked this as his place of residence.
He did so without seeing the shadow that moved behind the column, or the figure that stepped from the depths of the shadows after he had passed, and when Chandar disappeared into his cave the figure followed, with all the stealth and cunning of one of the formidable Long Toothed Lions, dangerous beasts that can be found in the distant mountains and are known to stalk their prey for days on end before pouncing on their unsuspecting meal. The stranger melted into the shadows within the passageway and was quickly swallowed up by the darkness.
Chandar shuffled on, heading deeper into his cave, his thoughts on the contents of the basket he now carried and the enticing scent of the meal which awaited him, while the intruder stealthily followed, step by step, keeping to the shadows and slinking along the edge of the corridor. At the slightest sound he would press himself against the rock walls, or retreat a few steps to a safer hiding place, lest Chandar may learn of his presence there.
When he thought it was safe to proceed once more, after hearing Chandar shuffle further along the passageway ahead of him, the intruder stepped forward and continued in the direction that the old man had taken. He was careful not to make any sound as he followed the old man, and he felt sure that his presence was undetected.
Ahead of him he could make out the passageway, but only thanks to the glow emanating from the torch the old man carried. Shadows danced across the rough stone walls from the flickering light, and more than once he felt that he was not alone, even though he felt certain that Chandar had already reached his quarters.
Easing his way forward a few more steps, before taking refuge once more in the shadows, he stopped and waited, hoping to hear any sound coming from up ahead. His breathing was shallow and he was straining to hear anything, but then it came, the sound of something being dropped, or put down, and he breathed a little easier.
Venturing forth once more he crept along one wall of the passage, with his eyes on the wall at its end, on which light from the old man’s quarters was being reflected. In his own mind he envisioned what lay ahead of him, with the passage coming to an end and then opening up into a vast room, although he could not see that from anywhere within the passageway just yet. He knew he would have to get to its end and then peer around a corner to confirm this.
With each passing step he was drawing closer and closer to his goal. He could see the entrance to Chandar’s quarters and as he made his way forward he could see the opening growing larger. A few moments later he was there, standing close to the entrance, where he could now see a small part of the room, while remaining out of the view of anyone who may be inside.
As his nerves started to overtake him he could feel the palms of his hands growing damp, while his heart was pounding mercilessly inside his chest. He needed to see the old man, yet it was a long while before he felt he could move, such was the terror that he felt.
When finally the moment came and he felt ready to confront Chandar he moved to peer deeper into the room, but just as soon as he did so he felt the cold sharpness of steel at his throat, while an arm swiftly dragged him backwards, until he was held firm against another body.
‘Who is it that dares to enter the home of Chandar?’ the gravelled voice spoke quietly and firmly into his ear.
He could feel the hot breath of his captor on his neck and was suddenly gripped with fear. He wanted to run, but he was held firm and could not escape. He tried to answer, but with the blade at his throat the words never came.
The last thing that flashed through his mind before everything went black was the image of a stone ceiling and the weathered face of an old man standing over him.
* * *
Chandar recognised almost at once the face of his intruder, yet he was unsure as to why he was being paid this visit by the boy, who he had seen often on the rocky trails and steep hills.
It was the boy he suspected of leaving him meals, the son of one of the village elders, yet why such a lad would sneak around behind an old man was a mystery to him. As he sat on the floor, with his legs crossed while eating his meal, Chandar studied the sleeping form of the boy, whom he had laid out upon his own bed.
Chandar thought that he was perhaps sixteen summers old and he had the tall, thin build of one who was growing from a boy into a man, with just the faintest evidence of this change growing upon the boy’s chin. His dark hair was long, down to his shoulders, yet it was clean, as were his clothes. Chandar knew that there would be many amongst his knights who would envy him for having such a lad in his bed and he quietly chuckled to himself at this thought, especially given that he had never himself been that way inclined.
It was some time before the boy began to stir, and the candles were almost done when he finally opened his eyes. Chandar watched as the boy glanced around his surroundings, before finally focusing on himself and becoming startled, jumping back in the bed and hitting his head against the stone wall.
‘What is your name?’ the old man asked.
‘I . . . I am Christos,’ the boy replied. ‘The son of Alexander.’
‘The village elder?’
Chandar studied him for a few moments, before struggling to his feet and shuffling to a rough table in the center of the room, where he poured a warm brown liquid, which he had prepared while the boy slept, into two cups. He then returned to where the boy still lay on his bed, and sat himself down on the edge of it.
‘Here, drink this,’ he said to Christos, as he passed one cup to the boy. ‘You will feel all the better for it.’
‘What is it? You aren’t trying to poison me are you?’
‘Poison?’ Chander roared with laughter. ‘Did you not see me pour a drink for myself from the same jug?’ he asked, holding up his own cup for the boy to see.
Christos still looked doubtful, so Chandar raised his cup to his lips and downed the warm brown drink in one gulp.
‘There. Now drink up,’ he demanded.
Slowly Christos raised the cup and sniffed its contents, which seemed to his nose to smell of herbs, before cautiously tasting it. The liquid was sweet to taste and seemed rather pleasant, and he soon swallowed the remainder, before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and passing the cup back to Chandar.
‘There. That wasn’t all bad, was it?’ Chandar asked.
‘No, it was all right. What was it?’
‘An herb that was brought back from another land,’ the old man replied. ‘I have grown it for my own use for many a year now.’
‘I think my mother would like that,’ the boy replied. ‘She is always out looking for herbs.’
‘Then you shall take her some . . . but not before you tell me why you were sneaking around in an old man’s home.’
Christos looked away, as he tried to find the right words for the old man, trying to remember what he had heard amongst the camp fires surrounding the village.
Sensing his indecision Chandar stood up and walked back to the table, taking the cups with him and giving the boy a little time. He knew he didn’t have to, but he could sense the fear and trouble within his visitor and thought it best to let the lad gather his thoughts.
‘People are returning to the village,’ Christos finally said. ‘They are saying that there is trouble ahead. That there could be a war . . .’
Chandar spun around and faced him.
‘Is that so?’ And what else are they saying?’
‘That you are the man to lead them to that war,’ he replied, ‘and that you are the man who can restore the power of the true King!’
‘Am I now? And who is it that is saying this?’
‘There are knights amongst the visitors in the village. They say that they have returned to see you. You are a knight, are you not? My mother told me that you were.’
‘That was a long time ago, lad,’ Chandar replied.
‘Are you not the Keeper of the Sword? Are you not the leader of the Knights of the Order of the Dragon?’
‘Yes, that is all true. You make it all sound so regal, so romantic, so important. In reality they are little more than titles. Look at me. I am nothing but a feeble old man now. I could not ride into battle again.’
‘If not you, then who will lead us?’ the boy pleaded.
‘Us, you say?’ Chandar laughed. ‘You are no knight, my boy, and a battle is no place for a lad as yourself. I think that you will have to wait a few years before you will be fighting any wars.’
‘I will fight,’ Christos defiantly spat, while getting to his feet and standing before the old man. ‘Every man will be needed.’
‘If what we believe to be coming is to run its course, then yes, what you say is true. But as I have said, a battle is no place for one of such tender years. You will be needed, of course, but not in battle.’
‘What then? What can I do?’ the boy eagerly asked.
‘When the time is right lad, you will know what it is that you must do,’ Chandar replies, while placing a reassuring hand on the boys shoulder.
‘I hope so,’ Christos replies.
‘Now,’ Chandar asked him. ‘What of the visitors to the valley? You must tell me how many there are, and who they are?’
‘Would you not rather see them for yourself?’ the boy replied. ‘They are eager to see you. I will walk you down the mountain if you wish – I have a lantern just outside. It is a smooth path to the village from here.’
‘It is late, my boy, and I am an old man.’
‘The hour will not worry anyone in the village. You will be welcomed. And you can sleep in the village tonight, rather than climb back up the mountain to here.’
After considering things for a moment Chandar asked; ‘Are you always this persuasive?’
‘Only when I need to be,’ Christos replies. ‘Does that mean you will come?’
‘It appears that I must,’ Chandar answered. ‘Lead the way, my lad. Lead the way.’
* * *
The path was smooth and the walking far easier than Chandar had imagined as the unlikely pair made their way down off the mountain.
From high they could see the camp fires still burning, with shadowy figures sitting around each, huddled in groups and talking amongst themselves, their voices and their laughter carrying far on the still night air.
As Chandar and Christos approached the edge of the village, where the first camp fire was found a large, silver coloured dog, not unlike a wolf, rushed out to greet them, barking wildly and jumping up as it met Christos.
‘This is Deek,’ Christos says. ‘He belongs to my family.’
‘A fearsome looking creature,’ said Chandar. ‘I am sure he guards you well.’
‘Yes, he does,’ Christos replied. ‘But he is mostly playful.’
As they draw closer to the camp fire Christos and Chandar are confronted by two men, each of which are carrying weapons, with both of them having been attracted to the sound of the barking dog, the approaching lantern and the voices coming from outside the circle of light cast by their fire.
‘Who goes there?’ one of the men called out.
‘It is I, Christos. And I bring an old friend,’ the boy called out.
‘Where have you been, boy? Your mother has been worried sick,’ one of the men asked, as Chandar and Christos stepped forward into the light to greet them.
‘I have been on the mountain, father. And I have brought Chandar with me, to meet the knights.’
‘Did I not tell you to leave the old man alone?’ while at the same time dropping to one knee before the revered knight.
‘Please, there is no need for such greetings. I am only a man.’
‘We are honoured to have you in our village.’
‘As I am honoured to be here,’ Chandar gravely replied, while winking at Christos as he did so. ‘Now, please take me to your visitors.’
‘As you wish, my Lord.’
Word spread quickly as the small group made their way toward the main camp of the knights, with men and women and children coming from their homes or shelters to see Chandar. Many of them dropped to their knees as the old man passed them by, though there are those who simply stared at the passing parade, as they were visitors themselves and unaware of the old man’s identity.
Just as they reached the encampment the small group were met by a wall of more than twenty men, each of whom quickly dropped down onto one knee, with their heads bowed.
‘What is this?’ Chandar asks.
‘It is your knights, my Lord. We come to greet you,’ one of the men answered.
‘Ha!’ Chandar replies, looking down at the battle scarred knight and grinning. ‘I know you too well Thadeus. You have come only because you smell a fight in the air.’
The old man reached out his arm and clasped the upraised arm of his knight, assisting Thadeus to his feet.
‘Perhaps this is so, my Lord. But as you know, it is always good luck to greet you before riding into battle.’
‘You still believe in that old wive’s tail, Thadeus?’
‘We must believe in something, my Lord.’
After a moment of thought Chandar replied, ‘Yes. I suppose we must.’
As the two men started to move toward the fire, the row of knights, many of whom looked as if they were fresh from battle themselves, parted to allow them through.
‘The men are looking ragged,’ Chandar remarked as they walked toward the fire.
‘It is a hard life, my Lord. And things are not as they once were.’
‘That is true.’
‘So, what of Luther and Rae. Is there any word?’
‘Do you have any word of them?’
‘Sadly, my Lord, no.’
‘I am worried for them both. There have been so many that have become lost to us in these dark times.’
‘Then it is time for us to confront our enemies. It is time for the knights to return to our former glory.’
Chandar smiled at his companion, then waved his arm around him at the remaining knights. ‘Take a look around you Thadeus. This is not an army that could take on the power of the Dark Lord. We must be patient, and only when the time is right can any such move be made.’
‘As you wish, my Lord.’
Just then there was a commotion amongst the group of knights and villagers, as a young boy in tattered clothes pushed his way through the crowd toward Chandar and Thadeus. He is almost breathless, after having run far, collapsing on the ground almost at the feet of the two men.
‘There are riders approaching,’ he managed to say. As one the knights instinctively reached for their swords and formed a guard in front of Thadeus and Chandar. They could hear the steady sound of horses’ hooves on the hard road and the village dogs rushed out into the darkness, barking madly at whomever it was that was approaching.
‘Who goes there?’ one of the knights called out to the intruders. ‘Show yourself.’
Slowly the shapes of four horses and their riders begin to emerge from the darkness. It can be seen that one of the horses is a distinctively marked pinto, and his rider a tall and powerful man. The other riders appeared to be another man and two boys, or possibly two young men, but it was difficult to tell in the darkness.
Stopping at the edge of the light, the four horsemen dismounted and as they did so Chandar pushed through the band of knights before him. He walked across the open ground between the visitors and his knights, with Thadeus at his side, before stopping about half way between them.
‘Who is it that seeks to enter the realm of the Ancients?’ the old man demanded.
The two older men drop to one knee, with their younger companions dutifully following.
‘It is I, Luther,’ the first knight says, bowing his head to his elder.
‘And what is your business here?’
‘We have travelled far and we seek counsel with the very wise,’ the knight replied. ‘Is there such a man in this place?’
‘I know only of an old fool,’ the old man answered. ‘Perhaps he may be of assistance?’
‘We should hope so,’ the knight replied, smiling. Getting to his feet he walked forward and embraced the old man.
‘We thought you would never come,’ Chandar said him.
‘There is much to do, and much trouble ahead, my Lord. The time has come to take back what is ours.’
‘Patience, my knight. First you must eat, and drink, and then we will talk.’
To be continued . . .