At being roused from his sleep by young Christos, Chandar grumbled, but soon quieted when he was told that there was news from Carronne and that he must come.
‘What do you mean by news? What news?’ the old man complained, as he struggled to sit upright.
‘A rider came to us at daybreak,’ Christos replied. ‘After telling us there was news from Carronne he collapsed and fell from his horse, but he is being cared for by the knights. When he wakes again we will know what it is that he was sent to tell us.’
Chandar looked at the boy for what seemed, to Christos at least, like an eternity. ‘Help an old man to his feet, boy,’ he eventually said. ‘And then pass me my robes.’
Without questioning the order Christos reached for the arm which Chandar held out for him and helped him to his feet, before finding the gnarled old staff that Chandar used to help him move about and passing that to the old man. Next he found the tattered old robe which had been folded and set upon a chair in the small room in which Chandar had slept, before shaking it out and holding it up for their guest so that it would be easy for him to slip his arms through the sleeves.
‘Thank you, lad,’ Chandar said to the boy, before reaching into the folds of his robe and retrieving what appeared to be a small bundle of leather pouches, all strung together with leather thongs.
Christos watched as Chandar sorted through them, before selecting one and untying it from the bundle. After opening it and sniffing its contents he closed it and handed it to Christos.
‘Take this to your mother, lad, and ask her to brew about half of the contents of this pouch into a hot drink. Not too hot, mind you, or the goodness of the herb will be lost, then bring it to me. I’ll be out by the fire.’
‘What is it?’
With a sparkle in his eye the old man said, ‘Just an herb that was brought back from another land.’
Christos nodded and smiled, then left the room, hurrying into his family’s humble hut to give his mother the herb, along with Chandar’s instructions.
Once the boy had left Chandar finished dressing, returning his bundle of herbs and other things to their usual place amongst his robes, then fastening the robes with the sash he always used. Once he was ready he shuffled outside into the morning and despite his body protesting at the cold he headed toward the fire, where he could see his knights had already stirred.
‘What is this rabble I see before me?’ he boomed as he crossed the open ground.
A few of the knights chuckled at the barb, most of them at least smiled, while only a few frowned or grumbled about the hour.
‘Sire, we are simply your humble servants awaiting your orders,’ Tucker remarked.
‘My orders? Ha! I may be able to offer advice, for what it’s worth, but I feel my days of giving orders are long gone, my old friend,’ Chandar replied, as the group of knights parted before him. ‘Now, what have we here? Who is it that dares to cause my sleep to be cut short?’
Looking up at him from where he now sat upon a log, was a dark haired boy who, judging by the fluff upon his chin, looked to be of no more than sixteen summers. He was skinny and dirty and ragged, in need of a wash and a feed, Chandar noted, but it was the eyes which the old man found most intriguing as they darted from one face to the next. This boy was no fool. He was taking in everything around him, but much more than that, he was showing no signs of fear at being amongst this gathering of warriors.
He was a fighter, Chandar thought, and that was a good thing.
At the sight of Chandar the boy stood up, before then going down on one knee in front of the old man.
‘I am Drake, son of Drago, from Carronne,’ the boy replied, his voice hoarse and barely above a whisper.
‘Drago? The blacksmith?’ Chandar asked.
‘Yes, my lord,’
‘And how is the old scoundrel?’
‘He is well . . . or as well as he can be in these times we live in, my lord.’
‘Ahhh, yes, they are testing times for us all, my boy.’
Just as he said this Christos came hurrying through the crowd carrying a mug in his hands, which he quickly offered to Chandar.
‘Give it to the boy,’ Chandar ordered, then to Drake he said, ‘Drink all of this. It will do you good, then afterwards we will talk.’
Turning toward the visitor Christos held out the mug for him. As Drake reached for it his hands closed over those of Christos and for a moment their eyes met.
‘Thank you,’ the visitor said, receiving a nod as he took the mug and Christos started backing away, never taking his eyes off Drake, or at least not until he had backed himself into Luther, who gave him a playful slap on the rump and told him to watch where he was going.
‘Looks like we’ll have to watch these two,’ someone joked, bringing a flush to the faces of both boys, but the laughter which followed was quickly silenced by a sharp glance from Chandar.
Embarrassed, Christos turned and started back through the crowd, but not before casting one last glance in the direction of Drake, who he noticed was smiling after him.
‘A boy’s heart will lead him many places while he is young, lad, and never should he feel afraid to follow it,’ Chandar declared, as he looked down upon the visitor. ‘But remember also, that a boy’s heart can be a fragile thing, and so care must be taken, lest you may break it.’
As he said this he glanced across at Luther, who nodded thoughtfully.
‘Ahhh . . . but a boy’s rod, now that is unbreakable . . .’ Tucker added, with some mirth, breaking the dour silence that had followed. ‘So follow that instead, lad, and you’ll never be without!’
At this, even Chandar had to smile.
‘But without what, sire?’ Drake enquired.
‘Anything your heart desires, my boy!’ Tucker cackled, while quickly being joined by most of the others. ‘Anything your heart desires.’
With a slight frown upon his face as he tried to understand the words of the portly knight, he turned his attention back to the mug he held in his hands, glancing between the knights as he continued to sip the warm and tasty drink he had been given. Almost instantly he could feel the warmth returning to his body and the strength flowing back into his limbs.
Drake studied the ring of knights who were looking down upon him and wondered if he would ever be worthy of joining their ranks, which had been his dream since he was a young boy and had seen his first parade of victorious soldiers returning from battle.
That was why he had been so pleased when his father’s old friend, Lenardy, had sought him out to carry this message to Chandar. There was the adventure, of course, but it was much more than that. The knights, and the prisoner he knew to be trapped in the castle, they represented the glory days of the kingdom; a time when rule was fair and the people flourished under a system which saw all men as equals and no man disadvantaged. Under the rule of Septimus, a rule marked only by death and greed, the glory days of the kingdom had become little more than a distant memory. The once fertile lands were now barren, with the people living in most areas now starved, as every ear of corn, every loaf of bread and every coin was gathered up for the imposter’s own stores.
The only places that seemed to still be thriving were the larger cities like Carronne and Jeebath, while everywhere else the people were really struggling, and living in fear of Septimus and his henchmen.
There was also, of course, the curse that had been cast over all the lands, which had more than just a little to do with what had been happening in recent years. It would take a miracle, the people knew, for Septimus to be overthrown and for the natural order of things to be restored, and even for a young lad such as Drake, he could see that the knights of the Order of the Dragon were the only chance of that ever happening.
It was for that reason, he knew, he would gladly lay down his life if it meant that the true king could return from exile to rule once more, with the knights to again become the force for good that they once were. There would be no greater honour than to be a part of that, and to serve his king.
‘So tell me, Drake, son of Drago, what is this urgent news you bring to us from Carronne, and which has caused you to ride so far and so fast?’ Chandar commanded, now that the boy had rested a while and begun to recover from his perilous journey.
Drake looked up into the kind eyes of the old man, then around him at the curious faces of the knights who were now studying him. He was nervous, but at the same time he was eager to play his part.
‘There is a prisoner . . . in Castle Carronne,’ he began. ‘You know of whom I speak?’
‘We do, lad,’ Chandar replied. ‘This news has been carried to us on the winds.’
‘I have been told to tell you that he can be saved,’ Drake continued. ‘He can be spirited away, as if he were a bird who could simply fly out of there, but we must act swiftly.’
‘Spirited away from within the castle?’ Luther asked. ‘How can that be?’
‘Surely you know that the castle has secrets of its own? The catacombs beneath it hide more than just the bodies of the dead. There are tunnels and caverns that only the townsfolk and the priests know of, and a small force could easily make their way inside . . .’
‘Ahh, yes, but will they be able to make their way back out again without losing their heads?’ Garrett enquired.
‘It can be done,’ Drake promised them. ‘I spent my childhood playing throughout them . . . I know every inch of that dark place.’
‘Tell us more,’ Chandar bade of him.
‘When I was younger I played with my friends amongst the many hiding places the castle offers. There was an entrance close to the shoreline, which for a long time was the only way in. Sadly it was discovered and sealed, but now there are other places where one can find his way inside; entrances which lead into the catacombs and beyond. Once inside it is possible to make your way to where you can be close to the dungeons, and from there it would be a relatively easy task to overpower the few guards stationed within.’
‘Surely the guards would know of the tunnels?’ Garrett asked.
‘Oh, they know some of them are there, but they are of the belief that the entrance was sealed and there is no other way in. As my father often says, if anyone were ever to try and attack the castle, Septimus and his men would never be expecting it to come from beneath them,’ Drake answered.
‘So you say there are other ways to get inside, and that Septimus’ guards do not know of these?’ Luther urged.
‘Yes, sire. There are several hidden entrances. One is not far from where the original entrance was, while another begins beneath a merchant’s shop not far from the castle walls.’
‘Then tell us everything you know about the inside of the castle,’ Chandar ordered. ‘What exactly can we expect to find, and where?’
Upon hearing these words Luther looked sharply at Chandar. ‘What are you thinking, sire?’
‘If you can be in and out without being noticed, it would indeed be as if their prisoner has flown the coop,’ Chandar chuckled.
‘And leaving Septimus clutching at thin air,’ Luther added.
‘Such a victory would be sweet, wouldn’t you think?’
‘That it would, sire,’ replied Luther. ‘But what of that which I fear must surely follow?’
‘I feel the people would pay whatever price necessary to have Septimus gone and a true king returned to the throne, don’t you?’
‘Perhaps. But I fear that without the men to protect them, their safety could be at stake, don’t you think?’
‘I know I am an old man, and taking up arms is beyond me now, but stand up and look around you, Luther, then tell me what you see.’
Doing as Chandar commanded, Luther rose and began to look around him, only to soon be joined by other knights: Garrett, Thadeus, Tucker and Darius, and even Jamal.
On all sides of the gathering they could see the village, with smoke coming from the chimneys of the many homes and filling the morning air. There were corrals made of poles, within which there were horses and cattle and other livestock housed. Dogs roamed the dirt streets. Women saw to their washing. Young children were playing games. Then there were the men . . . groups of men and boys, from young to old, watching the knights and studying their every movement.
Upon closer inspection Luther noted that there were many boys almost of fighting age, fresh faced and eager to do their part. There were also many men who were beyond the age which could be expected to fight – but who would no doubt take up arms to defend their homes in any case – but apart from these men the village appeared to be devoid of any men truly of fighting age.
‘Where are the men who would be relied upon to fight?’ Luther eventually asked, slightly puzzled. ‘Has Septimus forced them all to join his armies?’
‘There are those who have been taken from us for that purpose,’ Chandar replied. ‘But there are also those who are in hiding,’ he added.
‘In hiding?’ asked Garrett. ‘For what purpose?’
Chandar smiled. ‘To stay safe, and out of the clutches of Septimus,’ he replied. ‘And to train. To become warriors themselves, so that when the time was right . . . when the return of the true king was nigh . . . and when there was a knight who was ready to lead them . . . they would be ready. From each village there are willing souls at the ready, just waiting for the word that they are needed. And when that word is given they will gather together. Only then will true worth be known, as they make up a small army.’
‘But Septimus has thousands of men . . . what can one small army with primitive weapons hope to achieve in the face of thousands?’
‘Have faith, my knight. The odds may be against us, but the gods are still on our side.’
‘Can you be sure of that?’ Luther enquired.
‘I have faith in them. And I have faith in my knights . . . and in the fact that good will always prevail, even if it may sometimes seem that all is lost. When I look at the stars of late I see the heavens once again aligning as they have in the past. I believe that the day will soon be upon us when the time of darkness could be nearing an end . . . but that can only happen if we are ready and willing to face whatever it is that is thrown our way. We must be ready for when that day comes, for if we are not . . .’
‘Then Septimus and his forces of darkness win . . . and we are all doomed,’ Thadeus gravely added.
* * *
The sun was high when young Drake had finished explaining the layout of the castle and the catacombs beneath it, drawing his maps in the ashes of the fire as Chandar and his knights peered over his shoulders.
As the knights listened to what he had to say a plan had begun to form in Luther’s mind, and as he glanced across at Garrett on occasion he had noticed that his friend was also deep in thought.
When finally an exhausted Drake had said that he could tell them no more, Chandar clapped his hands twice and called for Christos, who almost instantly appeared.
‘Find the boy some food, and a place where he can rest his head,’ Chandar requested.
‘Of course, sire,’ Christos replied, before leading Drake away, toward the home of his own family. The furtive glances which passed between the boys did not go un-noticed and a few of the knights chuckled to themselves before turning their attention to the matter at hand.
‘What are your thoughts, Garrett, my friend?’ Luther asked.
‘My thoughts are, if what the boy says is true about getting inside the castle walls, that it all sounds well and good . . . but what of getting out again? By the time we rescue our prince we will have surely alerted any other guards within earshot of the dungeon, and subsequently an entire garrison of men, if I am not mistaken. Then, even if we are able to escape the castle, how will we escape the city? Will they not have us rounded up just as soon as we step outside once more?’
‘And how do we even manage to get enough men into the city in the first place, without arousing suspicion?’ added Tucker.
‘Good questions all,’ Luther replied. ‘And on these we must sleep, I feel. But I also feel sure that there will be a way. There must be a way.’
‘Then I, for one, will look forward to hearing what your dreams might say on these matters,’ Garrett offered his friend, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder as he did so.
‘We must act,’ Luther said gravely. ‘We simply cannot let Rae remain in that place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.’
‘Then it is agreed,’ Chandar declared. ‘We shall search for a way in which to rescue our prince . . . and pray to the Gods that they can deliver us safely home once more.’
As one the group of knights voiced their agreement, while Chandar nodded and smiled, before turning and starting to make his way out of the gathering, heading in the direction which Christos had earlier taken Drake; the direction of the modest hut which Christos’ family called home.
Luther watched as the old man began to shuffle away, noting with some sadness just how much his mentor had aged in the years since he had last seen him. There was still much that they needed to discuss, Luther knew, but he could see that Chandar was tired and so he promised himself he would seek him out later for a private audience. In the meantime, however, Chandar looked as though he would be lucky if he even made it to the home of Christos and his family, so Luther glanced at Jamal, who he found studying him intently. With just a slight flick of the head he signaled for Jamal to follow Chandar and see to it that he made it safely to where he was going. The nod he received in reply told him that his message was understood, and in an instant Jamal set off in the wake of the old man.
‘Let me help you, sire,’ Jamal said.
‘Thank you, Jamal. You know, I’m not as young as I once was,’ Chandar replied.
‘It will happen to us all sire,’ they all heard Jamal respond, before adding, ‘Though I am sure that you could still best more than half of these men in battle if the need arose.’
Suddenly Chandar stopped and looked back at the group of knights, as if he were sizing them up.
‘Maybe not half,’ he replied, as he slapped Jamal on the shoulder, while a wry smile touched his lips. ‘But there are a few who I am sure would be worried,’ Chandar chuckled, before continuing on, leaving his men laughing behind them.
Jamal glanced back at Luther, who he could see was smiling.
‘So tell me, Jamal, how goes your training?’ Chandar asked, his hand still resting on the young man’s shoulder. ‘I trust that Luther is showing you all the ways of our order?’
‘That he is, sire.’
‘I am pleased. Now, come, you must tell me of your adventures,’ Chandar commanded, before leading Jamal away.
As he watched them leave Luther noticed the village boys standing at the ready with their wooden swords and he remembered his promise to the boy, Necho, from that very morning.
‘Knights, at the ready,’ Luther ordered, as he drew his sword and walked a few steps toward the group of boys, before pointing it at Necho. ‘Draw your swords and chose an opponent, men. It is time these young upstarts were given a thorough lesson in swordsmanship.’
For a few moments there seemed to be some confusion amongst the knights, as they wondered what was happening, but when they noticed Luther and the boy smiling at each other, with each waving their swords around, they quickly realised what was afoot.
To a man the two groups drew their weapons and faced each other. The smiles of the young challengers were nervous as they stared up into the weathered faces of the knights, but the kind expressions on the men’s faces soon eased any fears these boys may have had.
This was to be the day on which they began their journey into adulthood, a journey each boy dreamed would take them far.
* * *
Jamal followed Chandar across the village green, the old knight leading the young one, where they soon found a seat in the shade of a tree, not far from the home of Christos, where Chandar had rested overnight.
They could hear laughter coming from the gathering of knights and young swordsmen as they practiced their craft, and as they looked over they could see Garrett toying with a young, fair-haired boy, before slapping him across the buttocks with his sword and sending him sprawling into the dirt.
As his friends all laughed the boy got to his feet and dusted himself off, before picking up his wooden sword and facing Garrett once more.
‘Again!’ they heard the boy say, and once more he and Garrett squared off against each other. Once more the boy landed face down in the dirt, but when he rose to his feet this time they could see a new determination in his expression. He was not going to be beaten a third time, and as their audience watched the two faced off yet again.
‘There is a weakness to Garrett’s stance,’ Chandar casually remarked. ‘And I fear that the child has just realised this.’
Just as he said this they saw the boy duck under Garrett’s swinging blade and then roll to one side. As Garrett swung around to follow the boy he found a wooden sword thrust between his ankles and as he began to move his feet, and all too slowly at that, he floundered and stumbled, and was soon sent sprawling into the dust himself, much to the delight of not only the other boys, but the other knights as well.
The cheers and jeers from all the onlookers soon filled the morning air, even managing to bring villagers out of their homes to see what was happening.
‘It does an old man’s heart much good to hear the laughter of children, and to see the young ones so keen to learn the ways of the knights,’ Chandar remarked.
‘There will always be younger ones who wish to follow in the footsteps of the brave ones who have gone before us all,’ Jamal replied.
“Yes, and I hope that shall be the case for many years to come,’ Chandar sighed, while gazing across at the knights and their young charges.
Jamal followed his gaze and felt sure that he was studying Luther.
‘I am an old man now, but at least when I am gone and long forgotten the Order will still be in good hands, my boy. With Luther and Garrett, and the younger ones like you even, the Order will be sure to have a future.’
‘You can count on that, sire. While ever there is breath in our bodies the Order will last.’
To be continued . . .