The knights and their friends in the village talked well into the night, gathered around a roaring fire which sent embers flying high into the darkened sky each time another log was thrown upon it. The villagers plied their visitors with all the food and drink they desired, and a merry time was had by all.
After Luther and Garrett and their companions had arrived, some of the older boys took their horses and led them to a stockade, where they were fed and watered and groomed following their long journey. The pinto stallion of Luther’s made quite an impression on those locals who were knowledgeable on such matters, as their own stock were far inferior to the bold black and white stallion. Lighting the stockade using torchlight, many boys and young men hung over the rails to study the animal as he ate, as the likes of him they had never before seen.
Laughter and merriment echoed throughout the night as the gathered knights caught up with their old friends and told tales of their adventures, tall and otherwise, but eventually the laughter died down and a more somber note fell over the gathering.
‘So, tell me,’ Chandar urged of Luther. ‘What news have you of your friend? What have you seen, or heard, or what have you been told?’
‘My dreams have shown me he is in the hands of Septimus,’ Luther replied.
‘That is what I too have seen,’ Chandar gravely replied. Other knights around them nodded in agreement. ‘And the words that have been whispered to me upon the winds have confirmed this.’
‘But for what purpose?’ one of the older knights enquired. ‘Surely he can’t think that the council would let him flaunt the terms of treaty?’
‘To him the treaty isn’t worth the cost of the parchment it was written on,’ Luther responded. ‘He has made no secret of the fact that he wants complete control of the Seven Lands of Candor, and that the Council, who were empowered by the treaty to rule in the place of a true King, is merely an impediment to him achieving that, even if he has been pulling their strings all these years past.’
‘And what of the Crown Prince, and his brother, Raemand?’ asked another.
‘More impediments to his plan. While ever there are true heirs to the throne still living, Septimus can never rule in his own right,’ offered Chandar.
‘So grabbing Prince Raemand . . . it is a design to lure his brother back from exile, and the knights back into action?’ suggested Garrett.
‘Yes,’ Chandar agreed. ‘And one knight in particular, if I am not mistaken.’
There was more nodding amongst them, while all eyes slowly turned toward Luther as they pondered the problem.
‘It is late,’ Chandar abruptly declared after a few minutes silence. With some difficulty he got to his feet, refusing all offers of help, before looking around for the boy, Christos, and finding him standing amongst others at the back of where the knights sat. ‘Is there someplace soft where I can lay down my weary bones, boy?’ he asked.
‘Of course, sire. We have prepared somewhere for you,’ Christos replied.
The gathering of knights rose and parted as Chandar started toward where the boy was standing, before placing an unsteady hand on the lad’s shoulder and allowing himself to be led away.
‘Sleep well, my knights, and ponder our problems as you do so,’ Chandar called back over his shoulders. ‘Perhaps our dreams will provide us with the answers we seek, for tomorrow we must begin to prepare ourselves for what the coming days will bring.’
‘And what shall that be, sire?’ Jamal whispered to Luther from where he stood just behind his knight.
‘That shall be war,’ Luther gravely replied.
‘And a very short one at that,’ added Garrett, which only earned him a look of annoyance from Luther. ‘What?’ Garret asked. ‘We have perhaps twenty knights . . . against the might of seven armies from the Seven Lands of Candor! May the gods be merciful, that’s all I can say.’
Luther and the other knights nearby all looked at Garrett grimly.
They all knew that Garrett was right.
* * *
For the band of knights still gathered around the fire, sleep was hard to come by on this night, as they had continued to talk until well into the deep hours. For quite some time there were villagers still with them, continuing to bring them food and drink, listening to their adventures, or joining in when their opinions were sought out. Yet despite the dangers which loomed large over them all, the gathering was still a happy one.
Eventually, however, sleep became the primary concern for even the most battle-hardened of these warriors, and long before there was any sign of a new day dawning the sounds of snoring men could be heard echoing around the village, as they fell asleep where they lay, warming their bodies by the fire.
In a distant land, where it was also night, although daybreak would soon be upon them, others were not sleeping so soundly.
The castle was cold and dark, and within its bowels a prince sat upon his bed of straw, his eyes closed against the night, yet seeing a vision that was just what he had been waiting all these years to see. He saw a gathering of men, silhouetted against a fire. He saw sparks flying high into a cold night sky. He saw faces lit by the amber glow of firelight; some old and well known to him, weathered by time and hardship, some young and new, eager to learn of adventures, both those past and those that were yet to come.
It did Prince Raemand’s heart much good knowing that the travelers had finally reached their destination and that help would soon be at hand. But what of the others who had also been waiting on this news? What of the sorcerer? Had he too seen such visions? Would Septimus know that there would be those who would be coming for him? And what if Septimus did know? What plans would he come up with to counter them?
As the prince opened his eyes and let them become accustomed to the dungeon, which was in near darkness with just one feeble torch still glowing faintly, he let his thoughts wander back to that recent meeting with the old blind man and his boy. What was it that the sorcerer had seen when he had touched Raemand and recoiled in horror? And of that, what had he since passed onto Septimus?
All these questions were swirling around in his mind when suddenly he heard a sound coming from the far corner of his dungeon. Who could possibly be coming at this hour . . . whatever the hour might be?
Swiftly he rolled off his bed of straw and found the darkest corner of his steel cage, while listening for the faintest of sounds and watching for any sign of movement.
He was concerned, for the stories of prisoners being dragged off into the night, only to be never heard from again, were all too common. Yet at the same time he was curious to see just what manner of visitor it was that he was about to receive.
For a long time there was nothing to be heard other than his own shallow breaths but then, finally, there was the metallic click of a lock being turned, followed by that of a door being opened just a fraction, creaking on its rusty hinge. In the quiet night it was as if the sound had been magnified a hundred-fold, so Rae wasn’t surprised by the silence that followed, as the intruder, whomever he or she may be, waited to see if there was any reaction. When none came the door was pushed open just a little more, and then some more again, with the hinges this time deciding to act as they should, rather than betray the presence of those who had woken them from their slumber.
Presently, Rae could see two shadows moving around in the darkness as they emerged from behind the door, and while they didn’t speak, it wasn’t difficult for Rae to determine their identities as they shuffled closer to the steel bars of his cage.
‘Is he there?’ Rae heard the Warlock whisper to his younger companion.
‘I cannot see him, sire,’ the boy replied.
‘Look again, Carel. He cannot have gone far,’ the Warlock softly chuckled.
Slowly the boy started making his way along the steel bars, peering into the darkness as he searched for the prisoner. Rae felt like a caged animal; one that was about to be dragged out and killed, and if Carel had been able to see the look in the prisoner’s eyes he would have been able to see for himself just how Rae was feeling.
‘What is it you want with me?’ Rae finally hissed, causing Carel to jump back in alarm, away from the steel bars.
‘Ahhhhh . . .’ the Warlock whispered. ‘He speaks.’
‘What manner of a man comes calling in the deepest hours of the night?’ Rae demanded, as he finally rose to his feet and walked across his cell to face his two visitors. ‘And just what manner of mischief could that man be up to?’
As he spoke he noticed the peasant boy slowly back away from him, until he came to a stop near the main door, which he leaned his ear against, listening for any sounds of movement from the dark corridor outside.
‘Mischief?’ the Warlock whispered. ‘What do you take me for, my Prince?’
‘That I am yet to decide, old man, but you are up to something, that much even I can see.’
‘Then you are indeed perceptive. Have I not told you that before?’
‘I am no more or less perceptive than any other, Warlock.’
‘If you say so. But you are something else that no other can be, are you not?’
‘I am but a humble knight. Sworn to serve my King, and his people.’
‘Oh, no, my Prince! You are much more than that . . . and you are destined to be much more than that again. More than you could ever imagine.’
Rae studied the Warlock closely, looking for any sign, any hint of . . . of anything, that might tell him what the old man could be thinking. But he could see nothing. The Warlock’s face appeared calm, revealing no emotion whatsoever.
‘To where does that doorway lead?’ Rae eventually asked, taking the opportunity to change the subject, although he knew full well that the Warlock would soon enough bring the conversation back around to whatever it was that he wanted to be talking about.
They were talking in quiet tones, being careful not to rouse the guards outside the dungeon from their slumber.
‘It leads to wherever you want it to lead, my Prince,’ the Warlock replied. ‘And when the time is right you shall be able to see that for yourself.’
‘You are talking in riddles again, old man.’
‘Oh, no. What I am talking of is the future, Prince Raemand. Of your future, and that of your people.’
At the mention of his name the prince’s gaze snapped back to the face of the warlock.
‘My people? Oh, now I am sure you are mistaken, Warlock. The people are now the property of the imposter, Septimus, and no other. Surely you know this?’
‘The people are nobody’s property!’ the Warlock vehemently fired back. ‘They despise Septimus and all that he stands for and, given the correct circumstances, they will most certainly prove their loyalty to a rightful heir . . . of which you are one, are you not?’
‘Even if I were, I would be just one in a line. But right at this very moment I may as well be a common peasant, for all the good being locked up in here can do me.’
‘Have no fear, my Prince, for when the time is right your true destiny will be revealed to you. You shan’t rot in this place for the rest of your days, of that you can be sure.’
‘Is that what you have seen? And is that what you have passed on to your benefactor?’
‘I have seen many things . . . but not all things are passed on to those who seek them,’ the Warlock replied, only this time Rae could see what he thought was the beginnings of a smirk come across the old man’s face.
He had finally seen something in the sorcerer’s expression which could only make him think that the old man might be more than just a source of news for Septimus. Could he perhaps prove to be an ally; someone upon whom he may be able to rely for help, Raemande wondered.
‘When last we spoke, you talked of a prophecy,’ Rae ventured. ‘What did you mean by that? What prophecy?’
‘Since ancient times there is a tale that has been handed down through the ages. It speaks of a dark time, a time of famine and tyranny coming to our lands, and of an imposter who rules by the sword.’
‘That sounds familiar,’ Rae remarked. ‘Please, go on.’
‘It also tells of an ending to those dark times . . . but not before the skies and the seas and the land have all run red, boiled by the very fires of hell and the spilled blood of the people . . .’ added the warlock, before cutting himself short.
‘And what else?’ demanded Rae, sensing that there was more to come.
For a long while the warlock remained silent.
‘Tell me!’ Rae commanded.
‘It also tells of two princes,’ the old man continued. ‘Two princes who shall become two Kings, ruling the lands as one, beneath the watchful eyes of the Gods above. Only then will the lands bloom again, with prosperity returning and peace and order being restored to the kingdom. And only then will the people truly be able to rejoice in the freedom of a new order.’
‘That doesn’t make sense. Two princes? Two kings? It can never be,’ Rae whispered. By now he was pacing back and forth and rubbing at the sparse whiskers upon his chin. ‘No sense at all.’
‘When the time is right you will see the true meaning of these words, just as I have done.’
‘I look forward to that moment of enlightenment, Warlock. And what of your master, does he too know of this coming apocalypse?’
‘He knows what it is that he needs to know, and nothing more.’
It was at this moment that the Warlock’s companion left his post by the door, hurrying back to his master.
‘Sire, there are people coming. We must leave,’ the boy urged.
The old man nodded, before turning back toward Raemande. ‘Have you seen the moon tonight, my prince?’
‘How in the name of the gods could I see that?’
‘It is the colour of blood,’ the warlock uttered. ‘And smoke is billowing from the Mountains of Sinaiffe once more. These are ominous signs that the winds of change are blowing.’
‘I have seen smoke coming from the Mountains of Sinaiffe before, and my nostrils have tasted its acrid scent. And I have seen a blood red moon rise from beyond our fiery seas many a time, and yet we all survived the days that followed . . .’
‘That may be so, my prince. But mark my words . . . the end of the dark times shall be shorty upon us. The question is, are you prepared for what that will mean?’
Then, almost like magic, the two of them disappeared, melting away into the shadows, just as the sound of boots on a stone floor came to a stop outside the dungeon door.
Raemande heard the sound of one door close just as the sound of keys jingled beyond the other door.
Quickly he hurried across his cell and laid himself down on the pile of straw that was his bed, and as the heavy oak door swung open he began uttering a jumble of incoherent words; ‘No . . . Help me . . . Run, run for your lives . . .’
‘He’s only been dreamin’ again, that’s all!’ a gruff voice said.
With his back to his visitors they couldn’t see that Rae was awake. He could see the light from their torch, though, with shadows dancing around the depths of the dungeon as they waved it around to check for intruders.
‘See, there’s no one else here,’ the gruff voice added. ‘Next time you wake me for that I’ll have you flogged!’ the man said, before he and his off-sider, whoever they were, finally left the dungeon, slamming the door shut once more and turning the key in the lock.
For a long time Raemande lay on his bed of straw, listening as the sounds of the night gradually took over once more, with his mind still a jumble of the things that the Warlock had told him.
He tried making sense of that which he had been told, but try as he might to conjure up some kind of order, nothing seemed logical.
Two Kings? What sort of nonsense was that?
A blood red moon? Smoking mountains? All these he had seen before, so what makes them so special right now?
And as for what was promised to Raemande himself, whatever greatness or power the Warlock thought he may yield, it was of no use to him now, locked in a cell with only vermin and fleas for company.
‘You’ll have to do better than that, sorcerer,’ Raemande whispered into the darkness, before eventually he managed to drift off into an uneasy sleep, where he was able to finally push the thoughts of prophecies and games to do with the possession of crowns and thrones aside, allowing dreams of joyful, childish laughter and happier times to gradually come drifting back into his mind.
* * *
The child was but a few days old when the prince first laid eyes upon his son. Fresh from a victorious battle the prince had ridden hard for home when news of the birth had reached him, racing into the bed chamber of his wife, still covered with the dirt and blood of battle, to see the woman, Cassandra, sitting up in bed and nursing the child.
The shock of fair coloured hair and the huge blue eyes, not unlike those of his father, were the first things the prince noticed.
‘He is beautiful,’ the prince whispered, as he sat upon the edge of the bed, before gazing up into the face of the woman who held the child.
‘He is the image of his father,’ Cassandra said as she glowed in admiration of both her husband and her son.
‘But not also without his mother’s elfin features,’ the prince added. ‘He shall grow into a beautiful child and a handsome man.’
‘And break just as many hearts as his sire . . .’ the child’s mother added, with just the hint of a wistful tone to her voice.
They had been friends since childhood. Cassandra was the daughter of Lord Avidnat, a trusted advisor to the prince’s own father, King Roban. As the two of them had grown they had always been close, but even from an early age both the prince and the girl he knew he would eventually marry were aware that theirs would not be a conventional union, for there was another who they both knew the prince loved deeply. Another that he could never marry, nor produce him the heir that convention demanded.
A choice had to be made, and in the end it was history which won out. The prince and his true love parted ways, with aching hearts after harsh words were exchanged, and while each had long since forgiven the other their infrequent meetings in the intervening years had proven awkward and tense.
It was duty which had finally driven a wedge between Prince Raemande and the one he truly loved, and despite the joy at welcoming a son, there was also a deep sadness and an empty void in the young prince’s heart as he held the child for that first time.
The Princess sensed the conflict within her husband, yet there was little she could do for the man she had loved for so long now. Unconventional or not, their union was one that had been consummated and had now produced a worthy heir. As much as she felt her husband’s pain there truly was no escaping the fact that they were now a family, and it would take a dramatic turn of events to ever break that union.
* * *
In the mountain village where the knights had begun to gather, a young boy stirred the fire around which the knights still slept, sending a chorus of snores into the chilly air. It wasn’t yet dawn, but it was cold, and as the boy threw limbs onto the glowing coals he knew that they would appreciate the warmth the fire would bring to their aching bodies when they awoke.
There was only one knight who wasn’t sleeping at this hour and from where he sat, propped up against a log and still looking as if he were asleep, he watched the boy as he went about his work, continuing to add branches to the low flames until finally a decent fire was burning once more. In the still morning the smoke was reaching skywards in as straight a line as you could imagine, before finally beginning to waver once it reached a dizzying height to then be carried away by a gentle current of breeze.
‘Thank you, lad,’ Luther quietly said to the boy, which caused him to jump in surprise, spinning around to find the smiling face of the knight looking up at him. ‘That was most thoughtful of you.’
‘You are most welcome, sire.’
‘What is your name, boy?’ Luther enquired.
‘I am Necho. My father is Norden, one of the village elders. And I am to become a knight!’ the boy said proudly.
‘Is that so?’
‘Oh, yes, sire,’ Necho enthused. He was still holding a branch and suddenly took hold of it with a double handed grip, then began waving it around in front of him, as if it were a sword. ‘See, I am already practicing.’
‘I am impressed,’ Luther remarked. ‘And how old are you, Necho?’
‘This is my tenth summer, sire. Is that old enough for me to become a knight?’
‘Not quite, I fear. But if you begin your training today it won’t be very long before your muscles will be strong, your heart will be brave, and you will be ready to fight alongside us.’
‘Today? Training? Really?’
‘Yes, why not? I’m sure there will be many boys in the village with dreams of becoming a knight, so spread the word amongst your friends, and after we have taken care of our morning rituals we shall begin. The order could always do with a few more knights.’
‘I will, sire. I shall find every boy in the village!’ Necho replied, before throwing his final stick onto the fire and racing off in the direction of the cluster of cottages.
Luther chuckled to himself for a few moments as he watched the lad, remembering all too well the excitement of his first lesson from a visiting knight when he was much the same age, before turning back to the fire and scanning the sleeping bodies around it.
When his eyes settled on Garrett he found the other knight gazing back at him, his eyes showing some amusement.
‘Are you sure that was wise?’ Garrett asked his friend.
‘I think so,’ Luther replied. ‘Even our own lads need to continue their training . . . and we will need every man we can get in the coming days, so what better way than to have them all involved?’
‘You may have a point there . . . but at just ten summers do you don’t honestly think he’ll be ready to fight, do you?’
‘Not even I am that optimistic,’ Luther chuckled. ‘But as I said to him, the order could always do with a few more knights, for there are bound to be other battles ahead.’
‘That is assuming, of course, we make it through the next one!’
‘Yes, of course.’
At the sound of voices some of the other men and their pages also began to stir, yawning and rubbing the sleep from their eyes, while looking around them, as if they were trying to figure out where they actually were. When their eyes would settle on Garrett and Luther, who were now both sitting on the log, they would nod toward their compatriots, before removing themselves from their bedding, then standing up and stretching their aching bodies.
‘I hoped you slept well, Darius?’ Luther asked the first of the knights to join him and Garrett.
‘About as well as can be expected, Luther,’ the knight replied. He was a tall, good looking, dark haired man with a face adorned with a moustache and goatee beard. Like most of the knights he didn’t carry an ounce of fat on him, which was due mainly to the spartan, yet quite active, lifestyle they led. There was little room for indulgences or gluttony in the life of a knight . . . unless of course you were Sir Tucker, whose reputation and waistline always preceded him, just as it was doing now as he approached the small group of men.
‘Tucker, you old scoundrel! You’ve obviously found a rich land in which to take refuge!’ Garrett ribbed his old friend.
‘And you, Garrett, your adulterous ass obviously hasn’t been caught and strung up in a village square as yet . . .’ the knight replied.
‘Oh, there have been some close shaves, let me tell you,’ Garrett boasted.
‘Now that I can easily believe,’ the smiling, rotund knight responded, as he reached his arm out toward Garrett. They clasped each other in their traditional greeting, then slapped each other on the shoulder.
‘Aye, it is good to be back amongst old friends,’ Darius said. ‘There have been dangerous and lonely times for us all these past years.’
‘And there shall be even more dangerous times ahead for us,’ Luther added. ‘But at least together, as a united force once more, we shall stand a chance at survival . . . however slim that may be.’
As the sun finally began to creep above the horizon his companions nodded and looked around them at the gathered group of knights, who had all by now risen from their bedrolls, as had their pages. They were a motley bunch of men and boys. Sadly, most of the knights were now getting on in years and their best days were behind them, while their boys were an equally sorry looking bunch. Yet each and every man here was a proud warrior who had sworn allegiance to the Order, linked together forevermore. Luther knew that no matter how difficult the times ahead might be, he could trust in each of these knights to give his all, right until the bitter end.
When Luther’s eyes settled on Jamal, who was kneeling by the fire, watching and listening to every word that was being said, his heart gave a start. He smiled at his young companion and the smile was returned, and in that moment he saw the future for the Order.
‘What are your thoughts, Luther?’ Tucker asked. ‘We all known why we have returned . . . the whispers on the winds have carried such troubling messages to us all. Do you have the makings of a plan?’
All of the knights were now looking toward him. He could see the uncertainty that was etched in their faces. Were they looking to him for leadership, he wondered.
‘We are all with you, Luther,’ Garrett added. ‘Prince Raemande is our brother and we will all do whatever it takes to return him to our family. I speak for us all when I say that we want you to lead us in this quest . . . no matter the consequences.’
For a moment he contemplated them all, as he glanced from face to face.
‘And I shall lead you,’ Luther eventually replied. ‘As I look around me I see many brave and loyal faces . . . but our numbers have begun to grow thin. There is much to consider before we can move, and we need the wisdom of Chandar to assist us. But first, however, we need to ready ourselves for the fight ahead. We must refresh our skills, and we must find more men, men who are brave and whose hearts match those of us all. Training will resume today, and those younger men found worthy of becoming members of the Order as knights will soon be given their chance to join our brotherhood. While for the younger still, who have visions of joining us, their training will also begin.’
‘Hear! Hear!’ the knights chorused.
Before they had even finished the sounds of barking dogs could be heard, loud and defensive, as if danger was approaching. Almost as one the group turned to see what it was that had set the dogs off, only to find a horseman approaching, his head hanging down and shoulders slumped.
Luther stepped through the crowd and walked to the head of them. He could see the exhaustion of both horse and rider. They had obviously travelled far.
It was Tucker who walked out and took hold of the reins and stopped the tired horse, which caused the rider to pick up his head momentarily. His eyes grew wide and fearful at the sight before him . . . a group of knights at the ready.
‘I have . . . news . . . from Carronne,’ the young rider said, before almost falling, exhausted, into the arms of Tucker.
To be continued . . .